Google’s Caste-Bias Problem – A talk about bigotry was cancelled amid accusations of reverse discrimination. Whom was the company trying to protect? Expect Becky to be lecturing you on your caste privilege soon!
“We travel not for trafficking alone.
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.”
Eighteenth century India and its neighboring regions were an exotic place for outsiders and not much was known about the geography and people of this large swath of land. An odd traveler or explorer published the details of his perilous journey among strange and alien land and people for the home audience. Arrival of East India Company (EIC) for trade and later territorial expansion brought modern scientific methods of exploration and mapping that filled up the empty spaces on maps.
During military operations, officers collected localized information about terrain, availability of supplies to support troops and animals and information about local population. However, this information was localized and limited to military operation at hand. Knowledge about land and people ruled by EIC rapidly expanded. Over the years, a small group of extraordinary British and native explorers contributed to sciences of geography and anthropology. This was an area where political, administrative, military and spying arts freely intermingled.
In eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, India’s frontiers were changing with territorial expansion of EIC. In these decades, frontier moved from Oudh, Gangetic plains, Sindh and Punjab to Northwestern and Northeastern frontiers. In the context of defense of India, area of British influence also expanded to Tibet, Chinese and Russian Turkistan and Afghanistan. The Royal Geographic Society (RGS) became the patron of the advancement of the field of geography on scientific grounds and published works of explorers of India and its neighborhood.
In 1800, three separate surveys were started in India: Revenue, Topographical and Trigonometrical (later named Great Trigonometrical Survey – GTS). In 1878, all three were amalgamated into a single Survey of India. James Rannell (1742-1830), William Lambton (1756-1823), George Everest (1790-1866), Thomas George Montgomerie (1830-1878), Henry Trotter, William Johnson, James Walker, Colonel Frederick Bailey (1882-1967), Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich, Godwin-Austin, Captain Francis Younghusband and others were exceptional individuals. They were driven by a sense of adventure, exploration and duty. They were highly committed individuals willing to suffer extreme hardships in strange and unknown lands. They instilled same spirit among their native assistants. Surveying in frontier areas was a dangerous task as locals correctly concluded that surveying was the steppingstone towards loss of their freedom. There was an Afghan saying that “First comes one Englishman for shikar (hunting), then come two to draw a map, and then comes an army to take your land. So, it is best to kill the first Englishman”.
A surveying school was established in Madras in 1794 for training of natives in surveying techniques. A number of Anglo-Indians were also recruited as sub-assistants. In the first quarter of nineteenth century, some natives who received English language education at Delhi College became qualified assistants to British military, civil and survey officials. The status of this new generation was higher than the ‘munshi’ who traditionally acted as clerk, scribe, translator and tutor of British superiors. The new title of ‘Persian Secretary’ elevated the social and financial status of the new generation and proficiency in English language was the single most important factor of this advancement. Two members of the first class of Delhi College became well known travelers and wrote their memoirs in English based on daily journals that they kept. Mohan Lal served with Alexander Burns and Shahamat Ali served with Resident of Ludhiana Agency Lieutenant Colonel Claude Wade and later Resident of Malwa.
Father of Indian Geography James Rennell mapped EIC holdings of Bengal and Bihar in later part of eighteenth century. Rennell acknowledged the contributions of his native surveyors. In 1770s, Gholam Mohammad surveyed the roads between Bengal and Deccan, Mirza Mughal Beg explored northwestern India and Sadanand surveyed Gujrat. This is the earliest written record of work of native surveyors.
McCartney mentioned his two native assistants Zaman Shah and Mahmood Shah who assisted him in mapping Afghanistan. Alexander Burns relied heavily on his secretary Mohan Lal and surveyor Muhammad Ali. Mirza Izzatullah Beg was from an influential family that had served Mughals. He became an authority on his own due to his unique background, intelligence, education, hard work and travels. He used rigorous methods of accuracy and left written record of his adventures. In 1812-13, he travelled from India to Tibet, Chinese Turkistan (Yarkand) and Central Asia. He served under Thomas Metcalf (helping collecting intelligence in Multan and surrounding areas), Mountstuart Elphinstone (travelled with him to Kabul) and William Moorecraft (reconnaissance mission to Tibet, Chinese Turkistan & Bukhara). He rose to become key secretary of the Delhi Residency.
William Moorecraft in his trips to Nepal, Tibet and Central Asia had company of some exceptional natives including Ghulam Haider Khan and Pundit Harbalam. He also had assistance of two brothers; Bir Singh and Deb Singh. They were Bhotias: Indians of Tibetan descent. Another native Harkh Dev was assigned the task of survey and recorded distance by a measured pace. This technique was later to be refined and used by ‘pundits’ during survey of Tibet and Chinese Turkistan. Sarat Chandra Das was one of the famous pundits’ who was a Bengali scholar of Tibetan language and culture. In the last quarter of eighteenth century, Nain Singh, Kalyan Singh and Kishen Singh surveyed Chinese Turkistan.
Arthur Conolly (6th Bengal Light Cavalry) in his travels to Tsarist Russia, Caucasus, Afghanistan and Baluchistan was accompanied by Syed Karamat Ali. Mirza Shuja served with Eldred Pottinger in Heart in 1837 and later conducted military survey around Peshawar, Baluchistan, large swaths of Afghanistan and Chinese Turkistan. He also performed sensitive intelligence gathering while teaching English to Amir Dost Mohammad Khan’s sons in Kabul.
Hayder Shah was from Peshawar and served as Havildar in Bengal Sappers and Miners. He along with another native explorer Ata Mohamad explored Dir, Swat, Chitral and Badakhshan. Later, he undertook another survey from Kabul to Bokhara. Naik Ghafoor Shah also of sappers accompanied Hayder Shah on one of the journeys. In 1860, Mullah Abdul Majid was sent on a mission from Peshawar, crossing Pamir Mountain range to khanate of Khokand. In 1863, Abdul Hamid was sent on surveying mission of Chinese and Russian Turkistan.
A jeweler’s assistant Mohsin Hussain proved to be such an expert in calibrating and repairing complex and expensive survey equipment that when his cantankerous British superior Henry Barrow was discharged, Mohsin took over the task. Surveys generated huge amount of data that needed complex calculations. A team of ‘eight human computers’ processed this data. This team of Bengalis that included an exceptional gentleman Radhanath Sikdar earned the respect of British. It was freely admitted that their mathematical genius would be ranked very high in Europe.
There was a saying that “in the east, nothing is ever forgotten, but little remembered with accuracy”. Native surveyors changed that tradition and added European new methods of keeping daily journals, written knowledge based on facts thus incorporating text-based knowledge to the art of oral tradition and memory. Later generations of educated natives of Survey of India continued the traditions of devotion to duty and work ethics and setting high standards of proficiency and hard life in extreme climatic conditions. They also put a high premium on the value of education and made education of their children a first priority. Children of ‘servants of the map’ proudly served in the armed forces and civil services of the successor states the Raj.
“Frontiers are the razor’s edge on which suspended the issue of war or peace and the life of the nations.” Lord Curzon
Edney, Matthew, Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997)
Meyer, Karl & Shareen Brysac. Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999)
Dean, Riaz. Mapping The Great Game: Explorers, Spies & maps in Nineteenth century Asia (Oxford: Caseate Publishers, 2019)
Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (New York: Kodansha America Inc, 1994)
Ward, Michael. The Survey of India and the Pundits. The Alpine Journal, (Vol 103, 1998), pp.59-79
Mathur, Tapsi. How Professional Became Natives: Geography and Trans-Frontier Exploration in Colonial India. Ph. D Thesis. University of Michigan, 2018
Defence Journal, June 2022
Following the tragic situation in Sri Lanka, thousands of demonstrators flocked to the streets in many Bangladeshi cities when the Sheikh Hasina administration raised fuel prices to their highest level since the neighbouring nation’s independence by about 52%.
Global supply shocks due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The US and other developed nations will do fine, but small developing nations, not so much.
A casual comment…most Indo-European societies seem to have originally had some sort of occupational caste system. I’m talking here of Dumezil’s trifunctional hypothesis, warrior, priest and commoner. But only the Indian subcontinent has jati.
I was thinking about it when reflecting on work to come out soon from David Reich’s lab on ancient Pontic steppe ancestry in Bronze Age Greece. There is no stratification by class when it comes to steppe ancestry. From the talk:
In the Balkans, we reveal a patchwork of Bronze Age populations with diverse proportions of steppe ancestry in the aftermath of the ~3000 BCE Yamnaya migrations, paralleling the linguistic diversity of Paleo-Balkan speakers. We provide insights into the Mycenaean period of the Aegean by documenting variation in the proportion of steppe ancestry (including some individuals who lack it altogether), and finding no evidence for systematic differences in steppe ancestry among social strata, such as those of the elite buried at the Palace of Nestor in Pylos.
So why is India so different? One hypothesis that some make is that the Indo-Aryans were racially so different from the indigenous people. But I do not that that is the issue. Instead of bringing strict endogamy to the subcontinent, the Indo-Aryans adopted indigenous forms. There’s genetic differences indicating strong endogamy across South India among non-Brahmin groups. There is also a ‘mystery’ in terms of how the IVC was organized sociopolitically. I think I have a possibility: jati obviated the need for central political authority.
We defined two other cohorts based on ancestry: African (XAF; n = 9,633; Extended Data Fig. 4) and South Asian (XSA; n = 9,252; Extended Data Fig. 5) (Fig. 3a–c). The 37,598 UKB individuals who do not belong to XBI, XAF or XSA were assigned to the cohort OTH (others). The WGS data of the XAF cohort represent one of the most comprehensive surveys of African sequence variation to date, with reported birthplaces of its members covering 31 of the 44 countries on mainland of sub-Saharan Africa (Extended Data Fig. 4). Owing to the considerable genetic diversity of African populations, and resultant differences in patterns of linkage disequilibrium, the XAF cohort may prove valuable for fine-mapping association signals due to multiple strongly correlated variants identified in XBI or other non-African populations.
Nearly 10,000 South Asians at high-quality whole-genome sequence scale is nice to see. Obviously, this is oversampling some groups (Mirpuris, Syhletis, and East African Indians who are mostly Guju), but it’s better than nothing. It’s really sad that the British are pushing forward with this. The Chinese have started to move into sequencing their whole nation (they have millions at low coverage). This isn’t that expensive; less than $100 per person at scale. Why is India tarrying on this? I don’t have inside info but I think the Permit Raj strikes again.
Maneesh has a freewheeling conversation with Roshan Cariappa, founder and host of the Start-up operator podcast, on the start-up ecosystem in India.
The conversation encapsulates ‘ Dummies guide to Indian start-ups’, covers the industries and the geographies that make up for this space and ends with opportunities and challenges that abound.
@maneesht and @roshancarippa on twitter.
Podcasts on the Indian start-up ecosystem:
The Startup Operator Podcast: https://www.startupoperator.in/
Indian Silicon Valley Podcast: https://airtable.com/shrTOFf1z5UT0q9p8
The Indian Dream: https://www.theindiandream.in/
Posting after a while, as this topic is very BP and I managed to write a rather long Twitter thread on it. So just compiling it all here in a neater format. May revisit and clean it up further later.
A short piece on why the Islamo-Turkic colonialism in India is not the same as the experience of the English who were colonized at roughly the same time by the Francophone Normans. Note Mahmud Ghaznavi died in 1030 / William Duc de Normandie was born in 1028.
Indian cultural influence is remarkable in present-day Mainland Southeast Asia (MSEA), and it may have stimulated early state formation in the region. Various present-day populations in MSEA harbor a low level of South Asian ancestry, but previous studies failed to detect such ancestry in any ancient individual from MSEA. In this study, we discovered a substantial level of South Asian admixture (ca. 40% – 50%) in a Protohistoric individual from the Vat Komnou cemetery at the Angkor Borei site in Cambodia. The location and direct radiocarbon dating result on the human bone (95% confidence interval is 78 – 234 calCE) indicate that this individual lived during the early period of Funan, one of the earliest states in MSEA, which shows that the South Asian gene flow to Cambodia started about a millennium earlier than indicated by previous published results of genetic dating relying on present-day populations. Plausible proxies for the South Asian ancestry source in this individual are present-day populations in Southern India, and the individual shares more genetic drift with present-day Cambodians than with most present-day East and Southeast Asian populations.
No surprise to readers of this weblog. South Asians obsess about possible admixture/contact with West Asia and Europe for obvious reasons, but it’s been pretty clear for a while that the “Indian cultural influence” on Southeast Asia was also demographic. Mainland Southeast Asia and the western part of Maritime Southeast Asia have minor but consistent levels of Indian ancestry. It showed up decades ago in Cambodian males who carried R1a Y haplogroup. And it showed up in a 2012 methods paper that detected gene flow from Pakistanis to Cambodians (no Indian samples in the dataset):
Genetics is basically done now. You can observe, for example, that lowland Thai populations have Indian ancestry, while highland tribes don’t have it.
We now know that the influence of Indian culture of a southern flavor to Southeast Asia was mediated by large numbers of humans. Indian genetic imprint on Burma can be chalked up to being Bengal’s neighbor, but you can’t say the same about Cambodia or Bali. Who were these people? Well, in a way, you could say that they were the “Brown Rajahs” for ancient Sarawak…
I arrived in Houston because of an email. I had just gotten done with my USMLE step one in July 2016 and was furiously emailing people in the U.S. for possible observer-ship opportunities. I did not get a lot of replies. Almost a week after I had started this process, I got an email from a famous pathologist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center (MDA) in Houston. It was brief and to the point. He wrote that he can accommodate me next year in April. I was over the moon. Prior to this episode, I had never been to Houston or known anyone from the city, except a professor of history at Rice University.
I arrived in Houston in April 2017 after spending some time doing observer-ships and studying for USMLE step two, in West Virginia and Miami. It wasn’t as hot as I had expected it to be and in my initial encounters, I found people to be generally friendly and warm. Houston wasn’t culturally impenetrable as Miami or as distant as West Virginia. It was a city teeming with people who looked like me, with huge hospitals and endless roadways. I had booked an Airbnb for my first two weeks of stay and then moved to a private room I had rented from a very interesting character named Gustavo (Gus). I met Gus through a random mutual friend on Facebook, a Pakistan-American girl who had added me as a friend after some of my work on environmental issues in Pakistan. She was renting from Gus at a different location and got me in contact with him. I spent two months at MDA, left for three weeks to visit Pakistan, and returned to the Houston area. While I was at MDA, I met a resident from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who got me intrigued about the program and I met the Chair of the program who was welcoming. Afterward, I was in Galveston for the next three years, firstly to do research or get observer-ship at the medical school there (didn’t get either) and later, for residency training at the same medical school. Two years into my residency (total of four years), we moved to the clear lake/NASA suburb of Houston, and another two years afterward, out of Houston for good, for my fellowship.
It was a tough decision to leave but after a lot of brainstorming and weighing options, I felt it best to leave the area. There were many things that I like in Houston and a lot more that I disliked. Following is a brief discussion of both.
Things I will miss about Houston/Texas
Houston has been ranked as the fourth most diverse city in the United States. According to some data that I’ve seen, there are more Pakistanis living in Houston metro area than anywhere else in the US. A lot of Vietnamese refugees during the 1970s settled there and the Hispanic community has always had a foothold in the city. I remember once interacting with people from nine nationalities in a single day while I was at MD Anderson. As with other diverse places, I didn’t find many regional/national ghettos in the metro area. However, there are places with more people of one ethnicity than another; with an abundance of Desis in Sugarland, same in the Chinatown area but you can find different ethnicities almost everywhere in the city.
Mahatma Gandhi district/Hillcroft Avenue offers some of the best Indian/Pakistani restaurants in the country. I will certainly miss the Halwa puri, chaat options, and Indian vegetarian food available in the area. A year or so ago, I found out about a food service where you can order home-cooked food from local chefs, called “Shef”. I availed myself of that service every week and had some delicious food without having to cook it myself. Shef is available only in a few cities in the U.S. (NYC, San Francisco, L.A, Houston, and D.C. as far as I’ve checked) and I will sorely miss the time it saved me and the variety of Indian food that I could taste at a great cost.
There were also many “fusion” foods that chefs created because of diverse cultures. Halal southern hot chicken sandwiches and Texan-Vietnamese tacos were just two examples.
Another example of diversity was a halal grocery store in the same shopping plaza as “battle rifle company”.
One of my friends in Miami told me before I arrive in Houston that Texas is a great place for doctors to live and work. I did not know what she meant and didn’t press her to explain why. Many years later, I understand what she meant. It was not just about average salaries or jobs, both of which are plentiful in Texas. It has to do with tort reform in the state that was enacted in the early 2000s after long-term advocacy by Texas physicians. I had the unique opportunity to interact and work with some of the people who worked behind the scenes at the time advocating for tort reform.
I got my first taste of organized medicine through the Texas Society of Pathologists (TSP). I started off as a liaison from TSP to my program and eventually ended up being Chair of a committee and being on other committees. TSP is the oldest pathology society in the US (established 1921) and is also the most active state society in the field. TSP works under the umbrella of the Texas Medical Association (TMA). TMA has more than 55000 members including medical students, trainees, and licensed physicians. TMA was responsible for getting tort reform enacted in the state because residents were leaving the state after training in droves because of high liability insurance rates in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
TMA is a behemoth with millions of dollars in assets, lobbyists in Austin, a liability insurance trust, and a foundation that gives away millions of dollars to deserving medical students across the state. TMA also gives out educational loans to medical students and residents at very low-interest rates. I was part of the Resident-Fellow section and served on the board of the TMA foundation for a year, followed by a year of the TMA board of trustees. During my time on the board of trustees, physicians in Texas faced unprecedented challenges such as Texas laws S.B. 6 and S.B.8 and a national dispute over the “No Surprises Act” for which TMA sued the HHS.
The house of medicine is under assault from many sides. Right-wing assault on reproductive care, private equity eating up hospitals, encroachment from extender services like physician assistants and nurse practitioners (called “scope of practice”), and Medicare cuts are some of the highlights. TMA is involved in fighting all of these, on a state and national level.
Things I will NOT miss about Houston/Texas
Before I arrived in Galveston, my professor friend from Rice had warned me about hurricanes. Galveston Island was decimated by “The Great Storm” of 1900 and the whole city had to be rebuilt. Since then, other hurricanes have affected Galveston, the most recent being “Ike” whose storm surge flooded the island, at some points reaching six feet in height. My friend’s prophecy almost came true in August 2017 with Hurricane Harvey, but instead of Galveston, it caused massive flooding in Houston. Since then, I became an amateur meteorologist between June 1st and late October (hurricane season) every year, trying to discern which tropical disturbance could affect us when. We had some near misses in the last few years until there was a snow storm in February 2021, which caused blackouts, reminding me of Pakistan.
Even besides the hurricane season, Houston’s weather was frustrating at best. On January 1st, 2022, it was 80 degrees in the afternoon, dropping to 35 degrees at midnight. Houston weather resembled Lahore weather quite a lot, with humidity as the cherry on top. It could be 80 degrees with a real feel of 103 because of humidity. Even A.Cs don’t work above a certain temperature. Last year, between July and September, our central A.C. couldn’t cool off during the last few hours of the day and we were stuck between 73 and 78 degrees until late at night. The temperature started soaring in late May and days would be hot and humid till December. And it is only getting worse with climate change. A friend recently posted on Facebook that “Texas is that feeling when you open the oven to check on your cookies and you burn your face. Only there are no cookies and you can’t shut the oven door”. Just as I was writing this, saw this headline: “Extreme heat pushes highs over 110 in Texas as power grid nears brink”.
Harris County, with Houston as its main city, has a larger population than more than 30 states in the U.S. Houston is second only to Dallas in terms of cars per household in the U.S. as well. Combine these two facts with the never-ending expressways and you have a city in which you have to drive at least 30 minutes to go anywhere. I remember carpooling with a guy once who drove from his house in the Northern part of Houston to Galveston (almost a two-hour journey) starting at 4:30 am. He would leave Galveston in the late afternoon to get home by 6:30 pm. This is not a typical drive in the area but many people I knew (including myself) had long commutes every day. Texas is mostly flat so all you get along your drive are strip malls and gas stations. As a result, greenhouse gases generated on Texas roads account for 0.5 percent of total worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, even as the state accounts for 0.38 percent of the world’s population. The only good thing about roads in Houston are the feeder roads, so if you miss an exit, you can take the next one and turn around.
For anyone more interested in reading about Houston’s infrastructure issues and history, Stephen Klineberg’s book “Prophetic City: Houston on the cusp of change in America” is an excellent read.
An imaginative take on Texas roadways in the Texas Observer: https://www.texasobserver.org/the-road-home/
Texas is second only to California in terms of residents. As the saying goes, everything is big in Texas. That includes the disregard that politicians have for their constituents. The late great Molly Ivins, one of my favorite Texans of all time, once wrote this about the Texas legislature: “As they say around the Texas Legislature, “If you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in office”. A friend of mine from Lahore once called and asked how Texas treated people. He was intrigued because he had read in the news that a lot of businesses were moving their HQs to Texas. I told him that if you are not a straight, white, Christian man with a small business in the state of Texas, the state government doesn’t care if you live or die.
Texas lags behind on all key indicators of education, healthcare (despite it being so good for doctors), nutrition, and income inequality compared to other big states in the union. There are more uninsured people in the state than anywhere else because Texas politicians refuse to expand Medicaid and impose work requirements on the poorest people. Maternal mortality rates are even lower than the national average. Texas’s power grid is not connected to the national grid, which makes a great advertisement for “doing it all alone” but is a terrible idea in a state so prone to natural disasters. The level of corruption in Texas has been phenomenal over the years, regardless of which party was in power (another one of my all-time favorites, LBJ was an emblem of that). Because of constant gerrymandering, one party has been permanently in power for the last two decades and will be, for the foreseeable future. Even Beto (who has his faults) couldn’t defeat one of the most hated men in the country in Texas. While moving away from a place that has different politics than yours is not always possible or beneficial, I found the political climate to be smothering.
I could live with the monster trucks with “Infowars” stickers at our local grocery stores or people I played pickleball with wearing NRA shirts or our one-time neigAbdulhbors who stopped interacting with us as soon as they saw the color of my skin but I couldn’t live with S.B. 8 (the vigilante law) or the Billboards along highways congratulating Texas with a picture of multiple babies as soon as Roe was repealed or when a bigwig in TMA boasted about hosting Greg Abbot at their house for a fundraiser.
For a good review of Texas’s political history and impending future, Lawrence Wright’s “God Save Texas: A journey into the soul of the lone star state” is highly recommended.
Will I ever go back to Texas?
I have been asked this question by friends and acquaintances many times since I decided to leave. As of now, my answer is a firm “No”. I may visit occasionally for a conference or to visit my residency program but I don’t see why I would want to live in Texas if I have the choice. My life was changed completely while I was there and I am thankful for many things that happened when I was there, friends that I made and spent time with, meals that I cherished but also, heartbreak and forgettable memories.
P.S: The astronauts originally said: Houston we have had a problem.