The Thinkery

Philosophy, teaching, etc.

Category: Uncategorized (Page 4 of 7)

Tooth Fairy in India

For those who might be wondering, the Tooth Fairy does, in fact, make the trip to India.  Though she (he?) must’ve stopped at an ATM before entering Indian airspace or she never would’ve made it on time.  And the rupee-to-quarter exchange rate was a little off, I think.

zaktooth1 zaktooth2 zaktooth3

Now, of course, the big question is about Santa Claus.  But surely if the Tooth Fairy can make the trip, then Santa can too, right?  And if he can make the trip, he must be able to determine who’s being naughty and who’s being nice – even all the way in India – right?


The Year Without a Thanksgiving

There are apparently no turkeys in India.  Though not necessarily for lack of trying:

Turkey Farming in India

Well, we weren’t able to find one, anyway.  Our original plan was to have some sort of chicken dinner instead, but since there was no holiday from school, and I’m in the middle of giving final exams, we ended up skipping Thanksgiving altogether this year.  The kids were somewhat upset, but more about the fact that they had to go to school than the part about missing the turkey (I think).


The kids are also sad at the realization that we’re at about the halfway point in our stay here in India – we’ve been here for just about five months now, with five more to go.  They like most everything about India, except their school.  Though they all got mostly positive reviews from teachers at today’s Open House:


I’ve probably talked about this before, but I think the kids mostly dislike the passive nature of being a student at an Indian school.  They’re expected to sit at a desk, mostly quietly, and listen to the teacher lecture.   The learning style is pretty much rote, and grades mostly depend upon – yep – standardized tests.  But instead of doing it once a year, as in the US (in NY state at least), they have two, week-long exam periods here, one in each term.

Anyway, at least we didn’t have to worry about angry, political fights at Thanksgiving dinner.  Everyone here (myself included) is still focused on getting some cash out of an ATM machine.  A number of people here have asked me about the election, and I usually just turn the question back on them:  “what do you think of our new president (-elect)?”.  I get both positive and negative reactions, of course.  The biggest negative I hear about from Indians is about Trump’s lack of political experience.  And most of the positive comments involve references to his business experience.  I’m not sure if people are telling me what they really think or not – perhaps they’re worried that their comments might offend an American.  There are some Trump Towers here in Pune, though, and everyone already knew who he was (he doesn’t have any ownership, though – just sold his name, I think):


Today, at our apartment complex, I just noticed the wording on some of the signs near the entranceways:

rightwingentrance leftwingentrance

Maybe this sort of thing will start to catch on in the US.




Some Campus Pics

Now that classes are over for the semester, I’ve had some time to walk around campus and see some parts of the university that I haven’t seen before.  It’s a huge place, and it’s very green.  More forest than college.  It’s got some beautiful buildings and some huge statues.  Below are some recent pics.

Here’s a campus map and some building signs.

campussign campussign2

Some shots of the Main Building (which is being renovated) and its famous tower.

mainbuilding1 mainbuilding2 mainbuildingpalm

A fountain (also being repaired) which is on the “quad” next to the Main Building.

fountain1 fountainfar

One of the buildings has a beautiful mosaic.  The picture on the left is up close, to show some of the 3D elements of the mural.

mosaic1 mosaic2

Big statues and busts are common on campus.  The two on the left are Maharashtran kings of old, I think (Maharashtra is the state that Pune – and Mumbai – is in).  On the right is B.R. Ambedkar, who rose from Dalit (untouchable) status to leader of the Independence movement, and drafted the Indian constitution.  The building where I teach is named for him.  Earlier in the semester, there was a conference at the university on Ambedkar and Buddhism – he converted to Buddhism late in life due to issues with the Hindu caste system.

statue1 statue2 statue3ambedkar

From Wikipedia:

“Ambedkar organised a formal public ceremony for himself and his supporters in Nagpur on 14 October 1956. Accepting the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk in the traditional manner, Ambedkar completed his own conversion, along with his wife. He then proceeded to convert some 500,000 of his supporters who were gathered around him…”

Interesting man.  There are other statues of Ambedkar throughout the city.  I drive by this one on my way to and from school:


Speaking of Independence, there’s this monument on campus:

stele1 stele2

And the trees!  Banyans are amazing – I wish we had these in the US.

treewalk treewalk1

And here’s a fallen tree, that sort of looks like a sleeping triceratops, and whose trunk is no doubt home to lots of interesting wildlife.


There are lots of little paths like this, and stone walls and steps that look like they’re out of a Tolkien book.

steps1 steps2

One more thing about campus I like (though this is inside my building rather than outside) – the Philosophy Department has two big wall  hangings with all the names of students who have earned their PhDs there, along with their advisors (called “guides”  here).  It’s right next to the office, and a nice motivator for today’s graduate students.

phdspune1 phdspune2


Winter in Pune

It’s getting a bit chilly in the mornings here in Pune.  Low 50s.  And today was a bit cloudier than it has been lately:


So I’m sympathetic to friends and colleagues in Syracuse who I hear are also having a bit of cold weather.


Pretty similar.  Except I’ll bet the ATMs are still working in Syracuse.

Unintended Consequences

In theory, at least, it must’ve seemed pretty simple:  take a bunch of money out of circulation, render it worthless (to those who had lots of it illegally), replace it with new, harder-to-counterfeit bills, and everyone wins.   Sure there will be a couple of weeks of discomfort, but people are willing to put up with a little discomfort if they can be convinced it’s for the greater good.  And, to give Prime Minister Modi due credit, many people are, in fact, bearing the discomfort with good will in the name of reducing corruption and ending “black” money.


Take a look at this NY Times story, in which people standing in bank lines for hours nevertheless express support for the policy (I wonder if we Americans would have such patience!).

But there’s definitely a sense of the patience wearing a bit thin as predictions about a “return to normalcy” get pushed back from weeks, to a month, to two months, etc.  And the Times of India, which I read every day in the campus canteen with my morning chai, is starting to run stories about people who are literally dying while waiting in line to get money.  Or committing suicide because they can’t get money to pay bills, or pay for  medical treatment.  Even supporters of the policy are admitting it hasn’t been rolled out very well.   And some prominent politicians are starting to demand that it be rolled back.

In Pune, things are pretty bad.  Most ATMs are closed and most banks have long lines snaking out around the block during business hours.  We’ve been transferring money from our American account to my brother-in-law, Zeeshan’s, Citibank account, so my morning commute now consists of stopping at about five or six Citibank ATMs – which are either closed or empty every day.  Here are some highlights:


So we’ve got very little cash.  Luckily, much of what we need (including gas/petrol) is available with a credit card, though it’s a bit more expensive that way.  In fact, places that don’t take credit are reportedly dropping their prices – some (like fruit/vegetable stands) by as much as half.

The government keeps announcing moves that are supposed to provide some relief – for example, gas stations were going to start giving cash back with debit cards, like many businesses in the US do.  But none of the petrol stations around here even know what you’re talking about when asked about this possibility.

We were making some plans to travel during the semester break, but it may not be possible now.  It would risky, given how much of India depends on cash.  And even if it could all be done on credit cards, it would likely be prohibitively expensive.  So unless things start to normalize soon, we’ll probably be hanging out at home for Christmas.



Semester’s End

This week marked the end of classes for the semester/term here at Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU).  From next week until December 5, the semester-ending exams will be held.  These final exams count for 50% of the overall course grade and must necessarily cover all the material that was covered throughout the entire semester.


For the last day of my Moral Philosophy course, there were student presentations (called “seminars” here).  These are required, and count for 10% of the overall course grade, so lots of faces that I didn’t see much of throughout the semester showed up.

There were some good presentations on interesting topics.  One student talked about the demonetization policy going on now and whether it could be justified on Utilitarian grounds (did it bring about the greatest good for the greatest number compared to possible alternatives?).  He thought “yes”, but one week into this brave, new world I’m not so sure.  Lines are still crazy long at all the banks, and most ATMs are still closed.  Nobody’s sure when things might get back to a semblance of normal, but I’m starting to hear people talk about the end of the year – or even February/March of next year! I was hoping for something closer to the end of the week.

Another student talked about vegetarianism.  The terminology of that debate is a bit different here than in the US.  Here the two options are generally labeled “vegetarian” (“veg” for short) and non-vegetarian (or “non-veg”).  Non-vegetarians are those who eat meat.  So, in other words, vegetarianism is presented as the “default” mode, whereas in the US, meat-eating is definitely much more common.  It’s typical for restaurants here in India to prominently display which kind of food they serve (e.g. “pure veg”, “veg & non-veg”, etc.) – often on their sign out front.


And it’s also the case that eating beef from a cow is illegal in India – a ban that’s pretty strictly enforced.  Thus “non-veg” typically means chicken, mutton or ox (the meat of which is misleadingly called “beef”).   So at an Indian McDonald’s, instead of a Big Mac, you can get a Maharajah Mac – veg or non-veg.  The non-veg has chicken patties, and the veg has (I think) patties made of corn and cheese (reminds me of a scene from Pulp Fiction).  And by the way, prices at McDonald’s restaurants, and other fast food Western franchises like Burger King, Subway, Pizza Hut, etc. – are pretty comparable to prices in the US.  Which makes them quite expensive by Indian standards.  Once you get used to thinking in terms of rupees instead of dollars, they seem prohibitively so.  Such places do, however, tend to take credit cards, which is probably helping them in these cash-starved times.


Anyway, diet and religion are pretty closely connected in India.  Many strict Hindus, Jains and Buddhists are typically vegetarian, while Sikhs, Muslims and the more secular minded tend to be non-vegetarians (though Muslims can only eat meat that’s prepared in a specific way – called “halal”).  The discussion in class during this presentation got a bit raucous – since many of these groups are represented to some extent – but stayed friendly.

Another presentation talked about how strict the university (and other institutions) are about “couples”.  Apparently, if a young, unmarried couple is seen together – even if it’s just a male and female sitting and studying and making no physical contact – security guards will approach them and ask them to leave.  This is obviously very different from how things are in the US.  Some argued that such policies are intended to prevent sexual assault (as evidenced by the fact that they are enforced only at “isolated” parts of the campus, and not in places like the library).  Others argued that they are a general reflection of the conservative culture in India.   These students mentioned that on Valentine’s Day…well, take a look at this newspaper article regarding Valentine’s Day in India:

Another interesting aspect of these presentations – a number of them weren’t in English.  Pune is in the state of Maharashtra, and so many students who’ve grown up here speak the state language of Marathi.  It has some similarities to Hindi (same alphabet), but there are enough difference for it to be considered a separate language.   I should have got some more information about Marathi from my language guru at SU, Lakhan Gusain, before I left.  I’m pretty sure he wrote a book on it (and most other languages spoken in India!).


Anyway, how can I grade a presentation I don’t understand?  Well, a colleague of mine named Ashish attends the Marathi presentations and translates them for me.  Some of these same students submit papers in Marathi, too – and again Ashish comes to my rescue.  And he’s a busy fellow in general, so I really appreciate his help.

Since the Marathi word for “Kant” is “Kant” and for “Utilitarianism” is “Utilitarianism”, etc. I can sometimes get the gist of these presentations.  I make notes about what I think they’re saying and then laugh a bit when Ashish translates them and I see how wrong I usually got it (“No, he didn’t say that Kant lived in a big house”).

So, student presentations are done – and thus my first semester teaching at an Indian university is in the books (already!).  I’ll post about the similarities and differences soon, but at this point in the semester, one big similarity jumps out at me:  the smell of fear, panic and desperation coming from (some) students who are suddenly realizing what point of the semester it is.




Money, Money, Money (and Trump)

Imagine that tomorrow, all of your $5, $10 and $20 bills were no longer considered legal tender.  Also, imagine that very few businesses would accept credit cards.  You’re told that you can exchange all of your no-longer-legal-tender bills for new, usable bills – but only after standing in line for hours.  And then, after those hours, getting to the front of the line only to be told to come back tomorrow and do the same thing because all the money has run out.

This scenario is pretty similar to what’s going on in India right now.  Earlier this week, Prime Minister Modi announced that 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender (a US dollar is worth about 65 rupees).  This constituted 85% of the cash in India!


You could exchange these no-longer-legal notes for legal tender (after a day or two of all banks being closed), but lines are long at the banks and other places where this can occur (generally government offices).  And because so much money was suddenly taken out of the system, everyone tried to withdraw more, leading to shortages.  So most ATMs were closed up (including, ironically, the ones that had a “24-hour ATM” sign hanging out front – which reminded me of a Steven Wright joke).


“Why do all this?”, you ask.  The target is “black money”.  Presumably, the new bills will be harder to counterfeit, and getting fake bills out of circulation will be one benefit.  There are also aspects of the exchange policy that will supposedly  make it difficult for illegally-acquired money to be exchanged.  I’m not exactly clear about this part of the plan, and it hasn’t been explained very well in the newspapers.  But the general idea is that those who made lots of money illegally will now either lose that money, or get caught and punished if they try to exchange it.


The government is introducing new 500 and 1000 rupee notes, as well as a new 2000 rupee note.  But these are going to take a while to get into circulation.  They couldn’t prepare them all beforehand since the effectiveness of the policy depended on it coming as a surprise.  So it was a closely-guarded secret (though, conspiracy theories abound regarding who knew ahead of time and how they cashed in on this knowledge).


While the policy has some support, it has understandably caused a lot of grumbling.  In my admittedly unscientific public poll (i.e. asking my students and in-laws), there’s pretty wide agreement that the poor are being disproportionately affected (in a negative way).  India, as the newspapers are pointing out, is a cash society.  Very few places take credit cards here – including all the neighborhood grocery shops, bakeries, tailors, barbers, etc.  There are bigger supermarkets that do take cards, but these aren’t generally conveniently located and often have higher prices.  Similarly with restaurants and other places you might buy prepared food.  The big ones might take cards, but the vast majority will not.   Additionally, a large number of Indians lack bank accounts and (thus) debit cards.  They get paid in cash and keep savings at home.

Indeed, in recent newspaper stories, the “common man” has been getting lots of attention as the biggest loser in this whole deal.  In Hindi, common man translates as “Aam Aadmi”.  But “aam” also means mango.  So, due to my limited Hindi, I was asking my wife about these “mango men” and why they seem to be at the center of the demonetization policy.  Even after having it explained to me, I thought the phrase might be like “Joe Sixpack” in English – and that, perhaps, common people in India eat lots of mangoes or something.  But, no.  They’re just different words with the same pronunciations (like “to”, “two” and “too”).   Apparently, though, I wasn’t the only one who had this thought:


So anyway, in this mad scramble for cash, the US Presidential election didn’t get as much attention as it otherwise would’ve.  I must confess, I was quite glad to be so far away during much of the campaign.  I subscribed to the “both candidates are pretty awful/is this the best America can do?” school of thought and so didn’t really feel like I had a dog in the fight.  Even the Libertarian candidate, who I normally would’ve supported, didn’t inspire me to jump through the hoops I would’ve had to jump through to acquire, fill out, and send in an absentee ballot.  I’ve seen the Indian postal system first hand, and it simply wasn’t worth the hours of time I would’ve had to invest, given that my home state is NY which was indubitably going to go for Hillary.


The rhetoric and commentary since the election has been pretty terrible as well.  I even deactivated my Facebook account – too many smart people saying too many dumb things (IMHO).  Part of the exhaustion is from the sense of having lived through this all before, multiple times.  There’s only so many times you can hear the “Utopia/Armageddon is coming” stories after an election before getting cynical about the whole thing, I suppose.  Of course, maybe someone’s right this time – after all, the wolf actually does eventually show up in the Boy Who Cried Wolf story.  But color me skeptical.  If I had to wager, I’d bet that Trump’s presidency will go along a similar path as Schwarzenegger’s governorship of California.  Nobody was too thrilled about the whole thing, but nothing too dramatic happened.

On the other hand, there are a lot of issues we’ve been sidestepping as a country for a long time that didn’t even come up in the campaign – especially being massively overextended regarding entitlement programs and public pensions.  No easy solutions there (which is no doubt why they don’t come up in the campaign).  Maybe Trump will find that those particular cans will no longer be kicked down the road.  And the world is a bit more frightening than it was even a few years ago.  Who knows what Russia, China and North Korea – not to mention ISIS & Friends – might get up to in the near future?

As the saying goes, may you live in interesting times.


Flora and Fauna

Last week we went to the zoo.  But I’ve also been taking pictures of the animals and plants I see on a day-to-day basis.  Here are some of them:

Dog + rooster


There are a ton of wild dogs running around the city, though it can be hard to tell the exact status of dogs here.  There are dogs kept as pets and it’s somewhat common to see people walking dogs on a leash in some neighborhoods, including ours (though there’s no expectation that one should clean up one’s dog’s messes).  Other dogs don’t officially belong to anyone, but people or businesses keep them around outside their place, as watch/guard dogs – by throwing them scraps and generally being nice to them.   Other dogs are just on their own.

I was very leery of the dogs on the street at first, mostly because of fears about rabies.  But they’re generally very docile, and I haven’t ever really seen aggressive behavior from street dogs.  At nights we hear quite a bit of barking and howling, and we’ve been warned that dogs form packs after dark, and behave much more aggressively. But I haven’t seen or heard of anyone getting bitten or attacked.


My students have told me that the city catches dogs on the streets and castrates them without any anesthetic.  Others have confirmed this and said that they cut a notch in one of their ears after doing this to keep track of which dogs have been fixed.  I do see a lot of dogs with notched ears, but I’m still not sure whether or not to believe this.  A lot of the street dogs are limping, scratching, and have very obvious fur/skin problems.  There are laws in India against animal cruelty, but it has to be pretty egregious to be noticed  (at least from what I can tell from reading the newspaper).

Chickens and roosters are common, too, though they generally belong to someone – for meat and eggs.  But still they often walk around loose on the streets in front of the business.  I’ve seen some very beautiful birds, like this rooster that was walking around outside of the tailor shop I went to.


I don’t often see dogs and chickens together, though, which is why I was inspired to snap the above photo.

Cats have the same status as dogs – some are pets, some are wild, some are in-between.  Cats are definitely less visible in the city than dogs, though.  This one hangs around the grocery store near my in-laws house.


Here’s a cat that  hangs out at our building and always sleeps on the tin roof in the mornings.  He’s gray, so he blends in, as does this other cat that hangs out in the computer lounge on campus:


And a friend recently got a couple kittens:


There are a lot of cool-looking, and cool-sounding, birds around.  Recently a big parrot, like you see in pet stores in the US, was right outside our window.  It was green, so again, it blended right in with the leaves of the tree it was in.  But you can see it in this picture if you look hard:


There’s a hawk (a kite, I think)  that lives in the area with his mate.  He kills pigeons and other smaller birds and eats them on the building right near ours – we can watch him breakfasting through our kitchen window.  And he and his mate seem to live on the roof of another nearby building, making lots of noise when they’re amorous.


There are also plenty of regular old pigeons and crows around, though the crows are much less shy here.  I often see them on the backs of other animals, like pigs and cows (though I haven’t got a picture of that yet).

crow2 crowbike1

Unlike the US, house lizards are very common here.  I like them — they eat the mosquitoes.  But some here are deathly afraid of them — including my sister-in-law Rizwana, who’s generally pretty fearless.


And of course there are cows.  Cows are sacred to Hindus and selling beef is illegal in most places in India.  It’s been illegal for awhile, but recently, enforcement of the beef ban has increased and has even led to vigilante violence.  This BBC story gives some background.

Cows are ubiquitous on the roads in Pune and add to the challenge of driving the streets.  Sometimes alone, sometimes in herds.  Some like the cows you see in the US, others of the hump and dewlap variety.  Once, in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, a passenger on the bike ahead of me looked back at me and stared with open mouth.  I thought he was surprised to see a foreigner, but then felt a bump on my back.  Turning around, there was a huge, big-horned ox-like cow trying to get through!  I couldn’t move anywhere, but thankfully, a woman on a cycle behind me put down some food for the cow to eat.  It didn’t last long, though, and soon he was bumping up against me again.  I wasn’t too worried, but the passenger who’d been staring panicked and jumped off the bike and ran.  That freaked me out a bit, but thankfully traffic started moving and I managed to get out of his way.  This isn’t that cow, but it’s the same type:


Here’s a less threatening cow who I did get a picture of, who also liked bikes:


I’ll post some flora in a future post.


Pune Zoo

The Pune Zoo (full name:  Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park) was on the agenda today.  Rajiv Gandhi was Indiri Gandhi‘s son, and he took over as prime minister after his mother was assassinated (in 1984).  He himself was assassinated seven years later.  I think the zoo was named in his memory (rather than because he had anything specific to do with it).

zoosign1 zoobustgandhi1zoosign2

On the upside, it was a beautiful day – not a cloud in the sky, low humidity, and about 80 – 85 degrees.  On the downside, that meant everyone else had the idea of going to the zoo today – so when we got there, the line for tickets was a few blocks long.  Luckily though things moved quickly, and after about 30 minutes we were in the park.

The zoo had lots of shade, and beautiful walking paths.  There were lots of snakes and other reptiles.

cobra1 turtles1 crocodile1

Also, mammals:

deer1 leopard1 buffalo1

And some primates:

elizoo1 zakzoo1 sophiazoo1 faizankidszoo1 farhanazeeshanfaizanzoo1 kidsfarzana1

Overall, it was a very good zoo, and included a white tiger that I couldn’t really get a good picture of.  It was crowded but we still got a good look at most of the animals.  Also, it was a lot of walking, so the kids got exhausted.  All part of the plan, because sleeping habits have gotten a bit lax over the Diwali break.  Time to get back into the “early-to-rise” habits on Monday.



This week, India is celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali.  It is a festival of lights, and many houses and apartments are decorated in a Christmas-y fashion.  It’s also a festival of firecrackers.  Fireworks merchants have set up shops all over the city and they sell stuff that would be incredibly illegal in the US (especially in NY state, where I think sparklers are about all that’s legal these days).  Evenings have been incredibly loud, with explosions like gunshots going off at regular intervals.  A few nights ago I was sitting in a barber’s chair getting my hair cut while firecrackers kept bursting right outside in the street.  I felt like Mark Wahlberg in the “Sister Christian/Jessie’s Girl” scene from Boogie Nights.

Driving in the dark can be difficult in some parts of the city as there is a ton of smoke in the air from the firecrackers.


There’s also a lot of rangoli – which is an art form where pictures are drawn on floors using grains or flour.  Here are some examples from neighbors in our apartment building:

rangoli4 rangoli3 rangoli1 rangoli2

The kids have about a week off of school for Diwali, and the university is closed for a few days as well.  Before the holiday, there were exams at the kids’ school for about two weeks.  Actually, the exams were given at most schools across India.  Each day was devoted to a different subject.  They said the exams went well, but we’ll see how the scores are when they go back to school next week after the break.

Halloween is not unheard of in India, and is gaining a bit in popularity.  People dress up in costumes here and there (I’m told), but there’s no trick-or-treating, so the kids were a little upset about missing out on all the free candy.  We did get to celebrate some birthdays, though (Amina and Ahmad) and so we at least got to eat some cake and ice cream.


And I had an excuse to wear some of my new, tailored clothes.




Page 4 of 7

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén