Trivia with some context

One way of looking at 2021 is to overlook what 2020 was all about. If you remember correctly, people were screaming left, right and center that last year was the worst ever in recorded history. This was before 2021 started revealing itself. We are in the fifth month of this year and it’s pretty obvious that 2020 was far better. Perhaps that’s how perspective works. Now means more than then. There is a mad rush to be the one that suffers, not the one that heals oneself or others. It’s all about me, isn’t it?

Now that that is established, let’s move our focus to some of the finer points. Full disclosure: my memory is getting rusty with time but still, it’s better than yours. A tiny consolation of living in the past and, more pertinently, making notes all the time. I write down stuff and thanks to muscle memory—which is ironic because human fingers don’t have muscles; they have tendons—I end up remembering more and more of the useless trivia I keep collecting for my own amusement. 

On the useless-trivia-of-the-day series that I post on Instagram or the useless-trivia series I record for YouTube, I don’t share the backstory. I say it and leave the scene. Take it and go principle at play. So, I thought why not share a blog post on an extended version of a trivia, laced with backdrop and quotes (if possible) to assert the information?

Here we go...

There are some countries that haven’t had the wherewithal to conduct a census. Afghanistan, because of its constant strife, wasn’t able to, just like Pakistan couldn’t for a major part of the last 70 years. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Madagascar couldn’t conduct its census properly either. Before we draw broad conclusions, we must accept that a census is not the most definite of data but it provides an average understanding of various statistics. That said, I find the case of North Macedonia very amusing. It was created during the wee end of the Cold War and to this day, nobody really knows how many people are residing in that tiny nation. One official count puts it at 2.08 million but the head of the national unit has an addendum: “I am afraid there are no more than 1.5 million, but I cannot prove it.”


Although I don’t follow chess events as vigorously as I used to do not very long ago, I still hold chess geniuses in high regard. They are rare species and must be studied. One such hero of mine is Capablanca and unlike world champions before him, he didn’t come across as a ‘crazy’ person. As a result, he enjoyed a shimmering social life and was in the news routinely. When somebody asked him why he doesn’t pay more attention to chess, he had the sharpest possible riposte: “Because if I did, there would be nothing left for the others.”


I was reading this Guardian piece on the rainiest cities in Europe and how some cities are finally resorting to design—pure engineering clearly failed to solve the problem—to help such places accept rain as an inevitable reality. In other words, design the town/city in such a way that rain is celebrated and not looked down upon (no pun intended). In this article, closing eyes to a non-existent problem is beautifully highlighted, by taking the example of Bergen—Europe’s rainiest city, it’s in Norway—for its deliberate blindness. One designer working on solving this problem shared this striking quote: “When you go to their tourist website, 99% of the pictures are of sunny, beautiful days, but it rains there 256 days a year. They try to close their eyes to the fact that it’s a rainy city, because they see it as something bad.”


Speaking of rains, did you know that it rains 9 months a year in Seattle? But that’s not what this paragraph is focusing on. Seattle has a minimum wage of $15 in the United States, the highest in the country. Huge progress given the capitalistic tendencies to keep wages low and the number of jobs high. It’s 2021 and millions of Americans continue to wonder what it would feel like to have a more decent minimum wage. During the Great Depression, FDR (who was to become the president later) raised his voice against the exploitative factories. He even called them ‘parasitic’ in 1933 but relatively little progress occurred later: “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” Big words, small change.


 

The price of fame is fame. At least that’s how it appears when a celebrity goes through an ugly divorce. Comedian John Cleese quickly comes to mind. He married his third wife in 1992 and divorced her in 2008. The divorce settlement left him poorer by £12 million and apart from the one-time payment, he also had to pay half a million pounds annually for seven years straight. He was clealry bitter about it but didn’t lose his humour while describing their marital dynamics: “I got off lightly. Think what I'd have had to pay Alyce if she had contributed anything to the relationship such as children or a conversation.”


Field Medals is the highest honour in mathematics and unlike Nobel, it’s awarded once in four years and to a person who has made stupendous progress in the field without crossing the age of 40. Yes, age limit is in place. Which feels like a cute nod to what GH Hardy (Ramanujan’s mentor, fan and friend) had to say about the link between age and math: “No mathematician should ever allow himself to forget that mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man's game.” 


Three creatures run this planet: bees, ants and termites. There are apparently a million billion ants (their numbers are going up), about two trillion bees (their numbers are going down) and a 450 kg of termites for every human being (nobody cares). You get a rough idea. In this equation, wasps neither hold dread nor respect. They are similar to bees and help a lot in pollination and even kill menacing flies but their PR machinery has always been weak. As a result, they are actively decimated despite their services to farm-based occupations. While reading a piece on the subject, I came across this insightful quote from 19th century England, that underlines their thankless work: “The practical result of destroying all the wasps on Sir T Brisbane’s estate was, that in two years’ time the place was infested, like Egypt, with a plague of flies.”


Lahore is a lot of things but there is one thing that it isn’t: boring. Named after Lord Rama’s elder son, it has not only witnessed history but also the repetition of history. There are very few cities in the world that have managed to do this and survive till the 21st century. During my visit to the Wagah-Attari border in 2012, I saw a road sign that said Lahore was 13 km away and I was filled with this strange joy of being that close to a city I’ve only heard or read about. After all, aren’t all cities in the Indian subcontinent quite similar to each other? The greenery is the same, the crowd is the same and so are the suffocating lanes. Songs are written for all of them and stories too. On that note, someone dear to me shared this striking line by Mushtaq Yusufi: “Androoni Lahore ki chand galiyan itni tang hain ke ek taraf se mard aa raha ho aur dusri taraf se aurat tou darmiyan mein sirf nikah ki gunjaish reh jaati hai.” [Some streets are so narrow in Lahore that if a man is walking from one side and a woman is walking from another, the space between leaves them with no choice but to get married.]


American Jews are considered white today but this wasn’t always the case. Until 50 years ago, Jews were routinely discriminated against by the most elite of organizations and institutions. Forget Jews, even Italians immigrants were looked down upon for their brunette-ness and lack of absolute whiteness. And if you push the clock back to the second half of the 19th century, even Irish immigrants were considered inferior. Ralph Waldo Emerson vividly insisted that Irish (just like the Chinese or the Native Americans) were not at all Caucasians. And if you push the clock back further to the middle of the 18th century, you’ll hear the much celebrated Benjamin Franklin claim the most ridiculous of theories: “only the English and Saxons make the principal body of White people on the face of the Earth.” Rest are outsiders. 


Pandavas thought they were fighting for dharma and ended up victorious in the battle of Mahabharata. Kauravas thought they were fighting for dharma too but they ended up on the defeated side. Interestingly, all the Kauravas—except Yuyutsu who fought alongside Pandavas—went to heaven while all the Pandavas—except Yudhistar who led a righteous life throughout—went sent to hell. The Kauravas died on the ranbhoomi (battlefield), meaning they died for what they believed in, prompting their ascension to heaven. Whereas the Pandavas survived the war and went back to worldly politics, which didn’t guarantee them a place in heaven. The answer to this mystery is in Jaya (the original title of Mahabharata): dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ (dharma protects those who protect dharma). 


Politics is as natural for humans as oxygen—quite an irony that people have died in India because of its dearth—but chances are you will find a lot amongst us who are allergic to discussing politics. They inadvertently practise it but find it too debasing to talk about. Maybe that’s the reason why I find Galbraith’s description very apt (“choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable”) and Groucho’s description very subtle (“the art of looking for trouble”). 


If you like walking as much as I do, then you must walk (because I don’t). Walking is a natural phenomenon, at least the way humans walk, because no other creature can do it. No, not even our closest cousins like chimps and gorillas. They walk differently from us. We perform what is often described as ‘interrupted fall’: it feels like we are going to fall if we are to stop mid-way of walking but we never do. Anyhow, walking brings out the creative part of you. Whenever you feel out of your depth, best to go for a long walk. The pandemic situation may not favour this idea but try to walk as much as possible. All the greats did, even when they weren’t facing huge problems. They walked for sheer joy of it. French philosopher JeanJacques Rousseau once wrote, “There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going.” Can’t disagree with this racist prick. 


My readers have often told me that brevity is my strong point. And I mostly agree with them, not because they are right but because I am damn lazy to argue otherwise. I don’t know how I’ve managed to cross the 10-paragraph-limit today in this blog post. But this reminds me of the 14th century historian Al-Nuwayri. He composed an encyclopedia boastingly titled ‘The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition’. It was 9000 pages long and in the introduction, he actually wrote: “I have sought to be succinct but not overly so.” Same page, sir. 


The travelers travel but Anthony Bourdain absorbed. And that is what set him apart from his peers. Zero pretense, complete osmosis. When he visited Jerusalem, he described it as “...pretty. It’s awesome. It’s urban, sophisticated, hip, like Southern California, only nicer. Then you see the young draftees on the streets and you start to get the idea.” Which brings us to the centuries-old Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s that time of the year when our hearts bleed for Gaza. This will continue for a few days before we’ll forget their suffering until 2022 beckons. On this contentious topic, an ex-collegue-turned-good friend shared a quote from Reddit: “If you read up on this issue for an hour, you'll be convinced the Israelis are right. If you read for 10 hours, you'll be convinced the Palestinians are right. And if you read any more, you won't be sure about who is right.”


After dropping out of college, I started working in September of 2007 and so far, I’ve worked the longest (about 6 years) at Zomato. There, I was fortunate enough to have a boss like DG who would guide you towards your better version. It was tough but worth the challenge. If something didn’t work, he wouldn’t just say no; he would explain why it doesn’t work. For example, I loved using the word ‘foodie’ for Zomato users in the company blog but he wasn’t convinced. According to him, it was a restrictive term for such a large base. I reluctantly agreed but later understood his point was not moot. The word ‘foodie’ took birth in the post-Woodstock cool days of New York but in all essence, it’s a fake word. As Fran Lebowitz once disparagingly wrote: “I despise the term ‘foodie.’ I mean, how is this a personality? ‘I like food’—how original. Do you also like air? Water? Shelter?”


Lastly, there are so many words that are actually misnomers. Caspian Sea is a lake. Killer whales are dolphins. Strawberries are not berries. There is no governance in our government just like there are no progressive states in India. And so on. But the word ‘umpire’ takes the cake for misunderstanding. It was originally pronounced ‘noumpere’ (meaning ‘without equal in the field) but eventually got misheard as ‘an oumpere’ and speakers finally settled for ‘an umpire’ when it transitioned from French vocabulary to English. Small merci.