Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - IV

Environmental degradation and climate change have caused societies to collapse earlier also. Mesopotamians gradually brought ruin on themselves through the salinisation caused by their massive irrigation system.  The Maya, too, were brought down not just by drought but by overexploitation of their land. The Harappan civilisation is believed to have collapsed after a loss of the monsoon rains. Many believe that modern civilisation, with its scientific and technological capacity should be able to survive whatever crises ancient and simpler societies found insurmountable. 

Some point out that civilisational collapse is caused not just by environmental pressures alone but by how the society responds to these problems. One anthropologist, Joseph Tainter says, “If a society cannot deal with resource depletion, then the truly interesting questions revolve around the society, not the resource. What structural, political, ideological, or economic factors in a society prevented an appropriate response?” Tainter extensively studied different civilisations in history and published his conclusions in a work called The Collapse of Complex Societies

He describes a generic life cycle that applies, in his view, to every complex society including our own. He says that at their core, societies can be understood in terms of energy flows. If a society is fortunate to discover a new source of energy, it will naturally grow in size and complexity as it exploits that energy. This energy can be from a new technology or be the collective energy of conquered nations. As a civilisation gets more complex, it needs ever more energy to maintain its growth and will generally keep doing what it's done successfully in the past.

Tainter describes this as a society's investment in complexity. However, after the first easy pickings, the next steps in the society's growth become more difficult and costly, offering more miserly returns. At a certain point, the society's return on investment in complexity peaks, and it finds itself spending increasing amounts of resources for ever more meagre returns. In effect, as the society gets more complex, it finds itself having to run harder and harder just to stay in the same place.

This requires even more energy than before, causing a new round of problems that become ever more insurmountable. It becomes increasingly difficult for regular citizens to maintain the lifestyle they are used to, frequently leading to social unrest. With continuation of this trend,” Tainter concludes, “collapse becomes a matter of mathematical probability, as over time an insurmountable stress surge becomes increasingly likely”.

Leaders will keep kicking their problems down the road for later generations to deal with. In a complex system, cause and effect may be more distant in time and space than we realise. “The inflation that would inevitably follow,” writes Tainter, “would tax the future to pay for the present, but the future could not protest”. It would be difficult for someone living in the middle of it to predict how bad things were going to get. 

A modern version of this process has occurred in the overexploitation of fisheries, where stocks decline as a result of being overfished from one generation to the next, but people forget how things used to be and consider the situation to be normal, until the next decline. The term “shifting baseline syndrome” has been coined to describe how people get used to each new level. 

When Tainter turns his attention to our civilisation, he sees nothing to suggest that we can somehow escape the inexorable logic of his grand theory. The primary energy source of our civilisation is fossil fuels. We want to maintain our standard of living so we will keep choosing short-term solutions even though we know it will lead in the future to runaway climate change.  The only thing that can save us, he believes, is a new source of energy to fuel our continued rise in complexity.

When we look at how our society is currently deriving its energy, the facts seem to support Tainter's viewpoint. We are receiving diminishing returns as the oil companies mine the furthest reaches of the globe for fossil fuels. The oil industry's recent desperate rush into tar sands and “fracking” seems to confirm Tainter's thesis, as our global economy invests billions of dollars into technological solutions to extract ever more fossil fuels, even while their carbon emissions are threatening the future of our civilisation.

Can technology save us? Tainter thinks not. He points to what is known as the “Jevons paradox,” which shows that whenever technology makes the use of a resource more efficient, this only increases its use, as consumption goes up to exploit the new efficiencies. As Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Our rampant use of fossil fuels is at the very heart of the issue.

Friday, April 26, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - III

It’s easy to think of the Internet as a purely virtual world but the reality is very different: The advocates of the digital companies  say that their industry is environmentally friendly but their true costs are never revealed. The tech sector uses much more than databases and algorithms. It relies  on manufacturing, transportation, physical work, data centres and the undersea cables, personal devices and their raw components. These all come at a cost. It is only by factoring in these hidden costs that we can understand what the shift toward increasing automation will mean.

The tech sector heavily publicises its environmental policies, sustainability initiatives, and plans to address climate-related problems using AI as a problem-solving tool. But, Kate Crawford writes in Atlas of AI, '. . .  Microsoft, Google, and Amazon all license their AI platforms, engineering workforces, and infrastructures to fossil fuel companies to help them locate and extract fuel from the ground, which further drives the industry most responsible for anthropogenic climate change.'

Each object in the extended network of an AI system, from network routers to batteries to data centres, is built using elements that required billions of years to form inside the earth. These minerals then go through a rapid period of excavation, processing, mixing, smelting, and transport before being made into devices that are used and discarded. Electronic devices are often designed to last for only a few years. This obsolescence cycle fuels the purchase of more devices, and increases incentives for the use of unsustainable extraction practices. 

While most climate change activists are focused on limiting emissions from the automotive, aviation and energy sectors, it’s the communications industry that is on track to generate more carbon emissions than all of the aforementioned sectors.. Very few people realise this problem even exists. A BBC report says  that the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions.  Some researchers estimate that the tech sector will contribute 14 percent of global greenhouse emissions by 2040,

Every time we perform simple daily actions like browsing a website, sending and receiving email, using an app on our phones, saving a file to our cloud drives or searching Google, data gets transferred between our devices and the servers that the websites or software are hosted on. The more data that is sent and stored, the more electricity and energy is needed. Even though this is relatively small at the individual level, when this is multiplied by the billions of people globally that are now connected to the Internet, it adds up to a substantial amount (according to some estimates, a single email can produce up to 4 grams of CO2 emission). 

Cloud storage requires a significant amount of energy to power and cool servers.  Cloud data is stored in buildings — massive structures filled with thousands of hard drives - using a mind-boggling amount of energy. There are many data centres around the world, some taking up nearly 200 acres of land apiece. There are miles of fibre optic cables, studded with other fixtures of internet infrastructure that all require power. At the centre, your data is stored multiple times on hard disks, and the constant activity of all those disks creates a lot of heat, which necessitates energy-intensive air conditioners to protect the equipment from overheating.

A Carnegie Mellon University study concluded that the energy cost of data transfer and storage is about 7 kWh per gigabyte. Compared with your personal hard disk, which requires about 0.000005 kWh per gigabyte to save your data, this is a huge amount of energy. Saving and storing 100 gigabytes of data in the cloud per year would result in a carbon footprint of about 0.2 tons of CO2, A single data centre can consume the equivalent electricity of 50,000 homes. At 200 terawatt hours (TWh) annually, data centres collectively devour more energy than some nation-states. 

The polluting qualities of data centres are far less visible than the billowing smokestacks of coal-fired power stations so they escape attention. Current statistics show that only half of the world’s population is connected to the internet and therefore contributing to this data deluge. Despite this, IDC noted that the number of data centres worldwide has grown from 500,000 in 2012 to more than 8 million today. The amount of energy used by data centres continues to double every four years, meaning they have the fastest-growing carbon footprint of any area within the IT sector.

The most common method for producing crypto-assets requires enormous amounts of electricity and generates large CO2 emissions. It is estimated that the two largest crypto-assets, Bitcoin and Ethereum, together use around twice as much electricity in one year as the whole of Sweden. Crypto-production's high energy consumption is due to its mining process, which is called proof of work. Anyone who wants to mine assets competes to solve an encryption puzzle, and the winner receives new crypto-assets as a reward. The only way to solve the puzzle is by repeatedly running computer programs that guess the right answer. When a large number of crypto-producers' computers work simultaneously, the demand for electricity soars.

Another environmental impact of cloud computing is the electronic waste produced by the industry. In 2018, 50 million metric tons of e-waste was generated globally as equipment is often replaced as soon as more efficient technology becomes available. Other environmental impacts of data storage include the coolant chemicals used in the server rooms, which are often hazardous, and the battery back-ups of the data centres. The components of these batteries are often mined unsustainably, and the disposal of both toxic batteries and the chemical coolants could have a devastating impact on the local environment if not properly managed.  Cloud storage facilities require a significant amount of water for cooling purposes. This water usage can put a strain on local water resources, especially in areas that are already experiencing water scarcity.

Going to a physical store rather than making purchases online is a more eco-friendly way of shopping. The main reason is because of how people shop online: Many buy items online frequently – but they only buy a few items per purchase. When they shop in a store, they aggregate these purchases in a single bulk purchase. Frequent online purchases produce more packaging waste, and online items tend to come from different distribution centres. Both factors result in higher greenhouse gas emissions per item.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - II

Climate change is passed off as a matter of individual responsibility and consumer choice. The notion of the per capita carbon footprint is a good example. It is calculated by dividing a nation’s total carbon emissions by the sum of its population. This measure is used to attribute climate change to the usage of gas-guzzling cars, wasteful usage of domestic energy, meat-heavy diets, and so on. Such a framing excludes institutional emissions, like those related to the US military and to the projection of American power. 

In The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh writes that the literature on climate change mysteriously ignores numbers regarding emission of  greenhouse gases by the military. This is because a decision was taken, at the behest of the US, that emissions related to military activities would be excluded from the negotiations for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Ever since then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has continued “to treat national military emissions, specifically international aircraft and naval bunker fuels, differently than other emission types.”

In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rate of consumption of fossil fuels was sixteen gallons per soldier per day. Amitav Ghosh says that today the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States — and probably in the world. The US military maintains vast fleets of vehicles, ships, and aircraft, and many of these consume huge amounts of fossil fuels. A non-nuclear aircraft carrier consumes 5,621 gallons of fuel per hour; in other words, these vessels burn up as much fuel in one day as a small town might use in a year. 

A single F-16 aircraft consumes 1700 gallons of fuel in one hour of ordinary operations. The US Air Force has around a thousand F-16s, and they are but a small part of the air fleet. Add to this battle tanks, armoured cars, Humvees, and so on which also require large amounts of fuel. Nor are these machines idle in peacetime; many of them are in constant use, not just for training and maintenance, but also because the US’s nine hundred domestic military installations need to be connected to its network of around a thousand bases in other countries.

In the 1990s the three branches of the US military consumed approximately 25 billion tons of fuel per year. This was more than a fifth of the country’s total consumption, and “more than the total commercial energy consumption of nearly two thirds of the world’s countries.” In 2017, the Pentagon’s total greenhouse gas emissions was greater than all CO2 emissions from US production of iron and steel. During the years of the Iraq War, the US military was consuming around 1.3 billion gallons of oil annually for its Middle Eastern operations alone. That was more than the annual consumption of Bangladesh, a country of 180 million people.

The operation of military equipment requires the use of many kinds of toxic chemicals like thinners, solvents, pesticides, and so on. As a result, the Department of Defence “generates 500,000 tons of toxic waste annually, more than the top five US chemical companies combined", and it is estimated that the armed forces of the major world powers produce the greatest amount of hazardous waste in the world. This does not include the emissions and waste products that are generated in the process of constructing weapons, warships, and warplanes. 

The armed forces of China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, and India are expanding very rapidly, and they are all spending huge amounts of money on energy-intensive systems. “Militarization,” it has been said, “is the single most ecologically destructive human endeavor.” Yet the subject is so little studied that, according to three leading scholars in the field, “research on the environmental impacts of militarism [is] non-existent in the social sciences.”

At the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, it was agreed that wealthy countries would channel $100 billion a year to poorer nations, to help them cope with the impacts of climate change. But the Green Climate Fund set up by the UN succeeded in raising only $10.43 billion and is now running out of money: it never came close to being funded at the level envisaged at the summit. In that same period the world’s annual military expenditure has risen from slightly above $1.5 trillion to almost $2 trillion.

What is ironical is that the US military knows the reality of climate change. Yet, the Pentagon does not acknowledge that its own fuel use is a major contributor to climate change.  The military’s climate-related plans are mainly oriented toward dealing with the conflicts that global warming will create or exacerbate: for instance, struggles over water; regional wars; terrorism; and mass movements of people caused by hurricanes and desertification, droughts and flooding. They assume that the effects of climate change as a “threat multiplier” will only continue to grow more severe, requiring more and more military interventions.

Every year governments around the world justify $1.7 trillion in military expenditure for protecting citizens against entirely uncertain and ill-defined threats. This is supported by many people who, in other regards, would strongly oppose government spending. They argue against climate change on the basis of uncertainty but use uncertainty as a justification for militarypreparedness. 

Mitt Romney, the first presidential candidate to openly deny climate change, justified increasing spending for the military because “we don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty.” Former vice president Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that “even if there is only a one percent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.” 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - I

Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities begins with the observation: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.'

The description fits the period we are living in very well. There are a class of problems called 'wicked problems' which are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad because there are ideological, cultural, political and economic constraints which keep changing over time.  These problems have a lot of ambiguity and the consequences are difficult to imagine. Most wicked problems are connected to other problems. Trying to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. 

Climate change is such an issue and it is caused by our great need for energy. Society runs on energy and materials, but most people think it runs on money. As GDP increases globally, energy needs to increase in lockstep, i.e. for additional economic activity, we need more energy. Study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year. We face increasing effort and cost to extract minerals from lower grade ores. This will have a corresponding effect on benefits to societies while increasing carbon emissions. 

As Timothy Mitchell says in Carbon Democracy, modern mass politics was made possible by the development of ways of living that used energy on a new scale. Without the energy derived from oil, the current forms of political and economic life would not exist. People have developed ways of eating, travelling, housing themselves and consuming goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels. More than half the total fossil fuel consumed in the 150 years or so between the 1860s, when the modern petroleum industry began, and 2020 was burned in the four decades after 1980. 

In the early period of human civilization, human activity was limited by the muscular power of animals and the speed of regeneration of woodlands. When freed from these limits, the supply of energy began to grow at an exponential rather than a linear rate. You can think of fossil fuels as forms of energy in which great quantities of space and time have been compressed into a concentrated form. This means that organic matter equivalent to all of the plant and animal life produced over the entire earth for four hundred years was required to produce the fossil fuels we burn today in less than a year. 

A human labourer can perform about 0.6 kWh in one workday while one barrel of crude oil can perform about 1700 kWh of work. This means that a barrel of oil has the same work potential as a human working for over 9 years (taking 300 working days a year). This energy/labor relationship was the foundation of the industrial revolution. Most technological processes require hundreds to thousands of calories of fossil energy to replace each human calorie previously used to do the same tasks manually. And fossil energy is much cheaper than human energy. These fossil ‘armies’ are the foundation of the modern global economy. We didn’t pay for the creation of these armies of workers, only their liberation. 

According to modern economic theory if the price of one input gets too high, the market will develop an alternative. However, energy does not cooperate with this theory because different sources of energy exhibit critical differences in quality, density, storability, surplus, transportability, environmental impact, and other factors. For instance, there are many medium and high heat industrial processes (for textiles, chemicals, cement, steel etc.) using fossil fuels that have no current (or even under development) alternative using low-carbon technology.

One factor that would prevent any meaningful action on climate change is that it would result in changing the power relations between countries. The world’s most powerful countries are also oil states, Timothy Mitchell notes, that “without the energy they derive from oil their current forms of political and economic life would not exist.” Nor would they continue to occupy their present positions in the global ranking of power. The increase in the consumption of fossil fuels in China and India has already brought about an enormous change in their international influence.

Everybody talks of climate justice. This would require a fair apportioning of the world’s remaining “climate budget.” But if the emissions of some countries were to be curbed while the emissions of others were allowed to rise, then this would lead inevitably to a redistribution of global power. From the point of view of the American security establishment that wants maintenance of global dominance, this is precisely the scenario that is most greatly to be feared; from this perspective the continuance of the status quo is the most desirable of outcomes. This was clearly stated by George Kennan, one of the architects of the postwar strategic order (quoted in The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh):

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relations which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh

Picture a man named Lal Bihari, born in 1955, a farmer from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. He was told by a government officer in 1976 that he was dead. The land record said that the previous year, after the death of Lal Bihari, his one bigha (one-fifth of an acre) of land had devolved to his cousins. He was officially dead. The fact that he was a familiar figure standing before them made no difference: government records showed that  he was dead so he was dead. He had no proof that he was alive. Now how to get such a proof.

Lal Bihari renamed himself Lal Bihari Mritak (dead man), and went about proving himself alive. This would take him 17 years. One method was to organise his own funeral which would give him a receipt proving that he was alive.  Others were to apply for compensation for his ‘widow’, throw stones at a police station so that he is arrested and his existence recorded, kidnap his cousin, and finally, stand for election. He took on VP Singh from Allahabad in 1988 and Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi in 1989, but didn’t win.

By this time, he found that there were many others in the same plight as him, and founded the Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh, an association of legally dead people. At last count, they had 20,000 members, of whom four had managed to come back to life. One of them was Lal Bihari. From 1994 he was no longer Mritak. This tactic of declaring a person dead and grabbing his land seems to be a common practice. One person from  Azamgarh says, “My own son had killed me off. If it had not been for Lal Bihari, I would still be dead.”

Another person had left his village for some years and found that his brother had declared him dead. Following a dharna by the Mritak Sangh he was declared alive. He then lost on appeal, won on further appeal, but another officer pronounced him dead again. “I have died thrice. At present, I am dead but have a stay on it by the court,” he says. Another person and his four brothers were all shown dead in one village but alive in three other villages where they own land. 

You cannot make this up. Kafka was born in the wrong country and the wrong century. In present day India, he would have been a reporter writing about truth stranger than his fiction. There is a brief mention of the walking dead in the film Jolly LLB 2. Two movies that show the strange ways of the bureaucratic and legal systems in India are Chaitanya Tamhane's Court and Shyam Benegal's Well Done, Abba

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Acting like Segrid

In my younger days, I was an avid reader of comics. Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, Tintin, Asterix, Archie, Richie Rich, Superman and other super-heroes . . . I would be excited about all sorts of facts in them - the 3rd Phantom was Juliet in Shakespeare's production of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre; Mandrake's arch enemy, The Cobra was actually Luciphor, Theron's oldest son and, thus, Mandrake's half-brother; Tintin's perennial antagonist. Roberto Rastapopoulos. . . .

My cousin had several comics bound into two thick volumes. Every summer and winter vacations (whenever I had not gone to Kerala), I would go to his house, bring the two volumes and read them frequently. I would repeat this practice during the next vacation and the next. . . I would have read them more often than any other book. 

Speaking of comics, I am reminded of a character in Mandrake comics. Mandrake had a girlfriend called Narda who is Princess of the European nation Cockaigne, ruled by her brother Segrid. Whenever Segrid felt ill, he would do his exercises more vigorously and show himself to be very active. He said that the reason he did this was because he had many enemies around who were constantly monitoring him for any sign of weakness and use it as an excuse to depose him. This made him act as if he had more physical vigour than what he actually felt so that they would be deterred from taking such an action.

Even though I don’t have any enemies around, I sometimes resort to the Segrid manoeuvre. Sometimes, I will feel a bit under the weather and will feel like lying down quietly without the TV being switched on. This will make everyone think that I have some major health issue. Jaya will check my temperature and B.P. I may be asked whether a doctor should be called. In order to avoid all this hullabaloo, I will keep quiet about bodily discomforts that I think are minor. I would switch on the TV or sit in front of the computer as usual but I would actually not be doing anything so nobody will suspect anything out of the ordinary. 

Even other apes seem to indulge in this kind of play act. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, Edward Sloan Wilson writes about a large, male bonobo that had recently died. He was a leader with a pleasant disposition, never overly aggressive yet supremely self-confident during his heyday. His  postmortem showed that he had several cancerous growths in addition to a hugely enlarged liver. Even though his condition must have been building for years, he had acted normally until his end. He must have felt miserable for months, but any sign of vulnerability would have meant loss of status. Chimps seem to realize this. 

Wilson also mentions a limping male chimp in the wild who was seen to isolate himself for weeks to nurse his injuries. But he would show up now and then in the midst of his community to give a charging display full of vigour and strength, after which he’d withdraw again. That way his status would be safe and no one would get any ideas of challenging him.

This brings to mind a 'Segrid manoeuvre' that I had to do in my teens. I was hit in my private parts while battling and was moving with a pronounced limp because of pain. (We usually played cricket with a hard ball so the blow was quite painful.) After play, I limped back home. As soon as I came near my house, I tried my best to walk normally. I was afraid that if my parents saw me limping, they would not allow me to play the next day. I knew that the pain would disappear by the next day and playing would not be a problem. 

When I reached my house, my mother told me to go to a market around a kilometre away and buy some vegetables. I was in a fix - I usually agreed to such a request so if I showed any reluctance this time, she might ask some uncomfortable questions; on the other hand, walking that distance was not going to be fun. I decided to go to the market and began limping down the stairs - my house was on the third floor and there was no lift. 

When I emerged out of the apartment, I started walking normally. When I was out of sight of my house, I began limping again. I limped to the market, bought the vegetables, and limped back. When I was within sight of my house, I started walking normally. I reached my house, gave the vegetables to my mother, grabbed my books and sat on a chair from which I did not move for a couple of hours. By that time, my pain had reduced so the rest of the evening passed off uneventfully. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Two 'Fulfillment Stories'

“Time” is  one of the main themes in Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time. The narrator thinks all memories of his youth  have been permanently lost. And then one day, while dipping a piece of madeleine cake into a cup of tea his mother had made him, the memory of his happy childhood days in Combray came unexpectedly flooding back to him. He realized that they had been released by the taste and smell of the tea and madeleine crumbs which had reminded him of the cakes his aunt LĂ©onie used to make for him as a child.

I breathe through a tracheostomy and I rarely have anything through my mouth so taste and smell do not stimulate any memories for me. (It is not that I have lost my sense of smell. I breathe through a tracheotomy so very little air and hence very few odour molecules pass through my nose. An odour has to be particularly strong for it to register.) My Proustian moments come when I read a book. A passage in a book will remind me of some incident in the distant past which might lead to another memory and yet another . . . And as Macbeth said,  “My dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten.” 

In Wanting, Luis Burgis writes about  hearing what he calls 'Fulfilment Stories' - stories about times in your life when you took an action that ended up being deeply fulfilling. According to him, a Fulfilment story has three essential elements: 1. You took some concrete action and you were the main protagonist, 2. You believe you did well for an achievement that matters to you.  3.  Your action brought you a deep sense of fulfilment, maybe even joy and just thinking about it brings some of it back. 

The first incident happened when I was in high school when a cousin had come to Jamshedpur to stay for a while. Once, we were practicing our catching skills with a tennis ball in a room inside the house. The play was proceeding sedately along expected lines when suddenly . . . (Chekov writes in Death of a Government Clerk that 'very often in stories you come upon this word “suddenly,” and this is all very proper, since authors must always concern themselves with the unexpectedness of life.)

Suddenly, my cousin threw the ball somewhat off target and to our misfortune, it hit a clock behind me. The glass on the face of the clock shattered into million pieces with an unseemly noise accentuating our horrified silence. My cousin was very worried about how to break the news to his uncle (my father) when he returned from the office. This was surprising for me because my father was a mild mannered person who was not likely to fly into a rage and shout at us. 

Looking at the worried expression on my cousin's face and listening to his fears, I told him that I will tell my father that I had thrown the ball that had inadvertently hit the clock. 'Really?', he asked with a look of disbelief. I assured him that I would.  When my father came home in the evening, I took the blame for the broken clock as I had promised. As I had expected, nothing much happened, with my father expressing some disapproval and telling me to be more careful in future. My cousin was relieved and I soon forgot about the incident. 

Years later, about a year after my stroke, the cousin visited me. During the visit, he mentioed the incident which was the first time I recalled the incident after the day it had occurred and I felt happy about it. It was an insignificant incident for me but it must have meant something for him if he still remembered it after almost two decades. 

The second incident occurred when I was in Bajaj Auto Ltd. which was my first job. When I got my first salary, I sent some money separately to both my grandparents. (I will be writing only about my maternal grandparents since my father was an orphan and I don't know anything about the authors of his existence.) I don't know why I did it because both lived in the same house, my grandfather had always looked after financial matters and my grandmother was perfectly happy with this arrangement. It must have been a spontaneous action and I promptly forgot all about it. 

After a few months, I got admission in IIMA, resigned from my job and served the mandatory one-month notice period. After this,  there were two weeks to go before joining IIMA and I decided to go to Palakkad, Kerala where my mother and sister were staying along with my grandparents. I had to travel by bus for an hour from Palakkad Junction to reach my village. I reached the bus stop near my house at my usual time of around eight in the morning. 

There was a short walk from the bus stop to my house. On the way a relative called out to me, 'Grandmother died.' Huh? 

- 'Whose grandmother?'

- 'Your grandmother.'

This came as a shock.  For a moment I did not know what to say. I had had no knowledge of any ailment or accident. Then what had happened? I hurried home. My mother and an aunt came out to receive me and from the looks on their faces I knew that what I had heard was true. (Anyway this was not a matter about which somebody will make jokes. Perhaps I was hoping unconsciously that it would be one.) Soon after, when we (my mother, sister, grandfather, an aunt and myself) were settled in a room, I was told what had happened. 

My grandmother had complained of stomach pain and was taken to a hospital in Coimbatore. After examination, the doctors said that they had to perform an operation. During the procedure, they found that she had stomach cancer which had spread to many organs. She had never complained of any pain so nobody had known anything about this. The doctors tried desperately to retrieve the situation but their struggles were in vain and she died on the operating table. Everybody was stunned by what had happened. I had not been informed because everybody knew that I had given notice and couldn't take leave and anyway I will be home in a week. 

Then my mother told me about the money order that I had sent to my grandmother some months ago, something I had forgotten about. (Those days, one way to send  money was by using a money order which was sent through the postal system.) It seemed that nobody had ever sent any money to her. My grandfather looked after financial matters and my grandmother was content to look after the kitchen. When my grandmother heard her name called out by the postman, she was surprised. 

When the postman told her that one Suresh had sent her money, she swelled with pride. She had to sign in order to get the money which was the first time in her life that she had been asked to sign anywhere. She practised her signature gravely for some time and then put her signature at the required place feeling very important. She then took the money and kept it carefully among some clothes in her cupboard. She never spent any of the money but periodically, she would look at it with great joy.  

The story overwhelmed me. What had been an insignificant act that I had forgotten about soon had now become the best act of my life. Both the above acts were ones I had initially thought were minor but later assumed significance. They often remind me of the last stanza of Wordsworth's poem Daffodils

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.