Sepia Mutiny says goodbye…

Every year it continued to run, it was too good to be true. So when Sepia Mutiny finally announced that it was shutting down for good, I wasn’t surprised, but it did make me feel sad. I’ve been a keen follower of the blog since it started up in 2004 – it represented my only dose of brown goodness in my newsreader. That they managed to round up enough people to keep it going continously for close to eight years was amazing (given that brownie attention spans aren’t particulary long). Hopefully another bunch of enthu cutlets will (some day soon) pick up where the old ones left off.


So long for now Sepia Mutiny, and thanks for all the delicious brownies!

Alive and kicking Down Under!

I’m not dead. Not just yet!

Kia Ora from what’s becoming a terribly cold Wellington, New Zealand! Wellington has been home since October last year when I accepted an assignment with the New Zealand Treasury. It’s been a really interesting learning experience so far, and I have to say that some of the creature comforts of living in a developed country are spoiling me silly. Since I’m almost sure that my next move will see me in some part of the world where dial-up internet will be all that’s available, I’m basking in the high-definition broadband lifestyle while I can! Watching dirt fall from the seam of a cricket ball is pretty damn amazing after spending two years with a 21 inch tube in Lusaka. I have to admit though – I’d give up my television for a reliable supply of Zambian beans and rice!

Hopefully over the next few weeks I will write more about my experiences so far. There is much to write, but barely enough time to breathe!

In the meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a view from the war memorial that’s 3 minutes away from my house.



Preserving our slang

Do you remember all your childhood slang?

Local slang, particularly when devoid of an effective dispersion system, tends to change much more dynamically across generations.

That’s why preserving it is both important, and can be quite fun when you’re in the mood to reminisce.

Kudos to Samosapedia for keeping the fire burning, and putting together what I think will become one of the most important testaments to India’s changing cultural dynamic.
If you feel like a trip down memory lane, or feel like contributing (I strongly suggest that you do), visit Samosapedia and do your bit!

Argentinian Anti-inflationary Policies: Mc Donalds (Translated from Nada es Gratis)

Last week I read a very interesting piece by Antonio Cabrales (who in turn was recounting a story told to him by Loris Rubini) on the anti-inflationary “policies” that the Argentinian Government is adopting in the face of what now seems to be a very “hot” issue (clue: look at #1 on the list).


I thought it would be a good article to translate and share in English for three reasons: a) it’s hilarious; b) it’s revealing; c) it’s good practice for me!

Argentinian Anti-Inflationary Policies (via Loris Rubini)
(featured on Nada es Gratis)






Anti-inflationary policies in Argentina have always had one factor in common: originality. It seems like it matters less that the fundamental theories are solid – what they’re really looking for is to surprise the world with something new or audacious.

Lately, this has been going on in the construction of price indices. The prices of goods that are part of the (CPI) basket tend to increase less than the average (of all) prices. As a counter factual, it is very difficult in reality to buy those goods. For example, “semi-skimmed milk with iron and calcium” is part of the basket. However, if one goes to the supermarket, she finds semi-skimmed milk, milk with iron, milk with calcium, as well as semi-skimmed milk with iron or semi-skimmed milk with calcium, but she will not find semi-skimmed milk with iron AND calcium.

But this strategy has a problem. Even though Argentinians can “manage” our internal indices, surely we cannot manage the Big Mac index. Or can we?

Based on the latest edition of the Big Mac Index (28th Jan 2011), The Economist compared official inflation with increases in prices of Big Macs in a group of countries. The conclusion is that the majority of countries “massage” their price indices, which rise less than the rise in the price of the Big Mac. But the difference tends to be small. For example, in Europe, the price of a Big Mac rose around one percentage point more than the CPI. In Argentina, the price of the Big Mac rose almost double that of the CPI. While the official CPI rose by 10% in 2010, the price of the Big Mac rose by 19%.

To remain faithful to our history, our minister of interior commerce, Guillermo Moreno had an idea (an original for sure), to once again combat this “inflation a la burgernomics”. Moreno managed to persuade the McDonalds chain to fix the price of a Big Mac relatively lower, approximately $16 (US$ 4), while other comparable sandwiches cost around $21 and $23 (US$ 5.25 to US$ 5.75). The Double Whopper in Burger King costs $23 (US$ 5.75).

Well, the Big Mac isn’t the same as semi-skimmed milk with iron and calcium. If one goes to McDonalds, by internal franchise rules, one is always able to buy a Big Mac. While this is true, when one enters a McDonalds in Argentina, she sees supremely tempting hamburgers in promotions in all sorts of colors. They have luminous advertisements for quarter-pounders with cheese, the chicken sandwich, and even a Triple Mac®! But the Big Mac is well hidden…

Una oda a los argentinos

Para los que sirven ají
Les ofrezco mis saludos
Para los que no comen picante
Que son muy grandes boludos.

Rocoto o locoto
No importa como lo llames
La virilidad de solo un ají
Te costaría muchos dirhames.

El sabor de los chiles
Es más que solo picante
Con tiempo se puede ver
Que el ají es elegante.

Estoy muy cansado,
En veinte horas no dormí
Lo único que necesito
Es un olorcillo de ají.

Desapareció la linda Jujeña
Que traía mi stock de los verdes
No sé que voy a hacer
Hasta que yo pueda verte…

Learning, and now Celebrating Argentinian Spanish

When I landed in November, I knew very little Spanish (the alphabet (which isn’t that hard!) some present tense verbs, and a smattering of vocabulary I picked up on my numerous trips to Spain). I was very excited to try it on someone, but it took me a good forty-five minutes from when I landed until I had my first conversation in Spanish. Sadly, the immigration and customs officers chose to English me on my way out of the terminal, so it was left to the delightful Taxi driver to help me on my Hispanic way:

Taxista: “¿A donde vás?”

Me: “¡Hola! ¡Que tal! Yo soy Vinny. ¡Soy de la India! ¡Mucho gusto!”

Taxista: “Sí sí, me encanta conocerte. ¿Pero, a donde vás capo?”

Me: “¡Muy bien! Por favor, yo quiero ir a Calle Olleros, esquina Libertador” (In my best gallego)

Taxista: “¿Qué? ¿Caie Oieros? No conozco ese lugar. Repitíme el nobre del lugar”

Me: “¡Calle Olleros! ¡En Las Cañitas, en la Capital Federal!”

Taxista: “Escucháme señor, no te entiendo. No hay ese lugar en Las Cañitas, ni en Belgrano, ni en Palermo. Podés escribir la dirección, y yo la voy a poner en mi navegadora (GPS)”

Me: “¡Vale! Yo escribo la ‘direction’ ”

I quickly write down the address and give it to the Taxista. He puts on his reading glasses, clears his throat and nose, and unfurls the piece of paper.

Taxista: “¡Cashe Osheros! ¡Cashe Olleros! Ahora sho entiendo. Disculpáme… sho te shevo. ¡Bienvenido a Argentina, tierra de los boludos! ¿Sos de la India? ¡Bienvenido capo, bienvenido! ¡Que lindo país, la India, y que loco también!”

The rest of the conversation was pretty much one-sided. I understood about 1% of it, mostly because I didn’t even get a chance to identify the few words I knew. The Taxista was bombarding me at a rate of a few hundred words per minute, and I had no clue what he was saying. I just politely nodded my head, and said a quick prayer that I wasn’t signing on for a guided city tour, or an excellent hotel option.

Six months down the line, and a lot has changed. It seems like it has been a billion hours of classes and countless conversations with taxistas, colectiveros, garbage men, waiters, old ladies waiting at the bus stop, shop keepers, hotel owners, automated prompt systems on the telephone both voluntary (“Para español, oprima 5″) and involuntary (“Bienvendios a Premium Taxi, servicio de alta calidad!”), and verdulería owners. In addition, traveling across different parts of the country and Chile has helped me understand different accents and variations.

There are a lot of people who argue that the Rioplatense region (broadly, Buenos Aires + Rosario + Uruguay) isn’t the ideal destination for someone looking to learn Spanish. The main basis is that Rioplatense Spanish is voseo and yeismo based, and that the simple future tense and perfect past tense are more or less non-existent in daily spoken use (though both continue to live happily in the written form). Yes, here in Argentina, I live on Cashe Olleros, not Caye Oyeros… and you ask someone whether they tenés spare change, not tienes. I the movie, though as an English speaker would prefer to say I he visto the movie. And Doris Day, singing Que Será Será would find a tough crowd here, because they want to hear her sing Que va a ser, va a ser. But hey, isn’t that what part of learning a language is about – appreciating the differences and beauty in its variations? Even though my first lessons in Spanish were from a Madridleño, they were too few and too long ago for it to have had any influence on my Spanish now, which is 100% Rioplatense (well, more like 30%, because 70% of the time I construct sentences the way a native English speaker would). However, sometimes I ask my Spanish teacher if we can spend the day practicing Gallego so that I won’t feel too embarrassed should I ever have to change dialects in a professional situation. To me, the switch is not very difficult, particularly if you want to speak with a reasonably neutral Latin American accent and register. The only really tough part about learning Spanish in Argentina, is equally difficult anywhere else in Latin America to pick up: ceceo. That is, my shoes are “sapatos”, and not “thapatos”. If you want to learn Spanish with ceceo, then there’s pretty much only one place you can do that: Spain.

On the contrary, Buenos Aires, and Argentina in general offers a student of Spanish one big advantage that may be hard to beat: A complete and utter devotion to extraversion. If you can keep a reasonably content Argentinian quiet for more than 1 minute, you can bet your underwear that they’re faking their nationality. The more and more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the only way I was able to pick up as much of the language as I have over the last six months, is because, well, Argentina wanted to talk to me. It really did. Now, I’m an extrovert too, but my exteroversion pales in comparison to that of this country as a whole. People aren’t afraid to stop on the street and ask me who I am, where I come from, and break into a detailed conversation about crossing the Ganges.

To me, this is a very compelling technical reason to choose BA to learn Spanish, and honestly, I think it trumps having to adjust to voseo and yeismo. A true extrovert can find anyone to talk to anywhere in the world. What’s nice about BA is that you don’t have to be one — BA will make the first move and try to talk to you. Maybe I’m making a big deal of this, but to me the warmth and willingness of Porteños to help me better my Spanish has transformed me from an illiterate to a (more or less) fluent Spanish speaker in six months. That, and some fantastic Spanish teachers (which I will save for another post). I started classes in November, and by January, I could more or get by in most daily life situations. By March, I was able to engage in discussions, and now, I am able to initiate and discuss most topics, although my vocabulary (both technical and quite often basic words that I should know at this level of grammar use) is still a very, very large construction site. I plan to write a bit more about my experiences learning a foreign language, starting from choice of school to learning techniques and ways to speed things up, in a series of future posts.

As my time here in Buenos Aires slowly comes to an end, I decided that the time has come to celebrate Argentinian Spanish with full gusto. Today, in class, I started working on Argentine journalist and poet José Hernandez’s epic works about the trials, travails and triumphs of the fictional Gaucho, Martin Fierro. First, the  2,316 line poem, “El Gaucho Martín Fierro” and then its 2,578 line follow-up, “La Vuelta de Martín Fierro”. I don’t think Estefí, my Spanish teacher (and good friend), had planned to do too much of this poem in class, but after reading the first few pages (and falling in love with them), I’ve decided to make a project of reading them in full (in my spare time) and writing about my progress. Hopefully, the next time I go to an estancia, I can contribute usefully at the bonfire without looking like a vegetarian city brat!

My second, and on a personal level, more exciting celebration of Argentine Spanish, will be to watch the Hispanoamerican equivalent of Monty Python, the Argentinian group Les Luthiers live in Buenos Aires at the Teatro Gran Rex. I first discovered them thanks to a class Estefí, when we listened to El Rey Enamorado, a parody about a King and his Jester trying to woo a beautiful commoner. Ever since that time, I’ve been hooked, especially because this great site from José María Gonzáles, which has all the lyrics and transcriptions, which lets me understand what’s going on a lot better! I’m absolutely obsessed with Les Luthiers, and the incredible sense of wit and humor that every one of their performances has. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at something! Watching them live is going to be a great treat, even if I don’t understand everything right away (I’ll make sure to take my handy unabridged dictionary with me)!

Un padre que da consejos
Más que padre es un amigo,
Ansí como tal les digo
Que vivan con precaución-
Naides sabe en qué rincón
Se oculta el que es su enemigo.

¡Viva Argentina!

Tambram Essentials: Perungaya Podi

Perungaya Podi, or asafoetida, is an important ingredient that every respectable tam-bram would choose to take with them in lieu of the desert island discs.

Asafoetida is the dried gum of a root of a plant, and is widely used as a spice / cooking ingredient in Indian (and some Persian) cooking.

The oracle of truth herself, Wikipedia, says:

This spice is used as a digestive aid, in food as a condiment and in pickles. When uncooked its odour is so strong it the aroma will contaminate other spices stored nearby if it is not stored in airtight an container. However, its odour and flavor become much milder and more pleasant upon heating in oil or ghee, acquiring a taste and aroma reminiscent of sautéedonion and garlic.

(If you don’t know what ghee is, sorry, I can’t help you.)

The reason every respectable card-carrying TB (yes, we are a highly infectious disease – once you catch us, you can’t get rid of us) carries a tub of good old LG Perungaya Podi, is because it helps them abstain from their most important daily pasttime, a pasttime that society does not approve of because it literally “blows” them away in a manner of speaking. That’s right, Asafoetida is an anti-flatulent. This magical ingredient allows the typical Tambram to consume lentils at a quantity and intensity that can be compared to the consumption of Coca Cola by the average American, or beer by the average British teenage girl.

Magically, it also helps you fight the flu, cures asthma, chronic bronchitis, the whooping cough, works as birth control, repel evil voodoo spirits, bait wolves, catfish and pike, arouses your sense of humour, and many other things that I just can’t be arsed to look up.

What I’m trying to say, is that it is the equivalent of Iron Man’s fuel cell.

This article on asafoetida, written by some chaps who like a good smile, for the Saudi Aramco Magazine (photos at the end, not to be missed) sums up its sweet, sweet fragrance:

Mostly, though, it was remarkable for its terrible, aggressive smell—sulfurous blend of manure and overcooked cabbage, all with the nose-wrinkling pungency of a summer dumpster.

I couldn’t have said it better. The stuff smells like s**t, and  contaminates almost every object around it. A thousand daughters to the guy who discovered the root, braved the smell, and actually heated the damn thing over a fire to find out that it actually has some use. Once again, I defer to the smiley Joes from Aramco:

When heated, the asafoetida disintegrated in the hot oil and gave off a rich, savory scent, reminiscent of sautéed onions. It bestowed a delicate base flavoring to the dishes I made.

Proof that it has superhero powers. So the next time you get caught pulling one of those classic silent but deadlies, try cooking with some LG Perungaya Podi. I guarantee you that you’ll emerge from the experience with fart that smells better than Saudi Arabian rosewater.

Perfect fuel for the Wandering V’s goal of feeding the 80.64 percent of the world that wasn’t born with a dal recipe in the house.

I love this smelly resin so much, that I sat down and wrote not one, but two haikus in honor of my faithful LG tub:

Bland food can kill young
But thankfully there is hope
Perungayam mmm!

Delicious when cooked
smell it raw and suffer

Ok, you got me. The second one isn’t a haiku. But it almost is.

Tambram Reflections – M.S. sings the Hanuman Chalisa

If I had to pick out the one tune I heard most often growing up, it was the Hanuman Chalisa (sang often to tune, and not unusually mirror-breaking when my parents sang it together). I never really made much of an effort to learn it as a kid, but did pick it up later on in life. Over the last twenty something years, I’ve heard it sung and chanted in various forms and versions, but nothing beats the version I heard growing up, or rather, the version I was supposed to hear growing up, (loosely, very loosely) based on MS Subbalakshmi’s rendition (click for a 30 second preview from Last FM).

M.S. Subbalakshmi, the renowned singer (and actor), is probably best known for her famous early morning alarm clock number that abruptly signals the end of the adolescent Tam-Bram wet-dream each morning: the Venkateswara Suprabatham. If you come from a slightly more religious family, you’d easily win the $400 Jeopardy round with “Bhaja Govindam”, which at some point most Tam Brams have encountered. Her rendition of Vishnu Sahasranamam has helped many a pot-smoking Mylapore-dwelling Tam Bram hit the sweet spot, and for the super advanced exponent of MS, Aigiri Nandini is a cult classic.

What is particularly noteworthy about MS is that she represents the rare white flag in the long-standing Iyer-Iyengar blowout. Irrespective of whether a Tam Bram eats puliyanchadham or wears their ashes horizontally (or wears ashes for that matter), chances are that they spent the majority of their childhood on the verge of making out with the supermodel. On the verge, but never actually managing to seal the deal, for just as it’s about to happen, the movie reel in their head is rudely interrupted with, “uttishtothishta govinda, uttishtagarudadhvaja“.

To me, however, it’s her rendition of the Hanuman Chalisa that comes out top. It is (in my humble opinion), even accounting for the wrath of any (or every) half-decent Hindi speaker in the world, her best work. She may not pronounce those hard Hindi consonants very well, and Tulasi Das may well turn over in his grave every time someone plays back her matadero style butchery of his lyrical masterpiece, but no one can argue that her sense of melody and rhythym transforms a poem that reads rather awkwardly into a beautiful song about the legend of Hanuman.

Incidentally, rumour (or Wikipedia for us modern folk) has it that old TD wrote the verses in prison, while serving as victim #2382913 of Aurangzeb, that famous Mughal Emperor and world class exponent of fratricide and patricide. More here.

Click here for an English translation of Tulsi Das’s poem.

Do you think like an economist? DSK’s arrest…

Tyler Cowen must be wondering what the fuss is all about. I doubt that, as he wrote his post discussing the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, he expected it to receive the kind of publicity that it has (See here, and here for example). Cowen poses a set of interesting questions:

“Should the “real economist” conclude that DSK is less likely to be guilty than others will think?  If you are following the social consensus estimate of p, does that make you less of an economist?  A lesser economist?  Is everyone else an economist anyway and thus you can agree with them?  How many economists seriously use the concept of incentives — more than non-economists do — to understand everyday events?  Is the notion that incentives predict individual behavior actually so central to economics?  Should it be?”

What was your first reaction to the news of his arrest? In my case, my first reaction was human: surprise and shock. My second, almost simultaneous reaction was that of an economist: An assessment of his incentive structure —  All the things that he has going for him (MD of the IMF, presidential candidate with a good shot, his former 2008 scandal and the aftermath as an incentive to not repeat).

Qué pasó con Wren y Martin?

Cuando estaba en escuela en la India, odiaba mis clases de gramática de Inglés. Todavía tengo pesadillas con un libro en particular, que se llama, “High School English Grammar and Composition.” El libro fue escrito por dos autores (que en paz descansen, porque no descansan en paz las victimas), Wren y Martin, y ha estado aterrorizando a los estudiantes por generaciones en la India. Aún en mi generación, en los noventas, el libro estaba muy fuera de moda, pero incluso entonces, era el estándar de oro de los profesores de inglés. “¿Quién carajo escribe telegramas en el mundo de hoy?” es la oración que mejor captura ese tiempo de mi vida. No solo telegramas, sino cartas (que habrían sido apto en el siglo XIX), actas (que habrían anotado los empleados del “East India Company”), y otras cosas raras y inútiles. Recuerdo haber hecho un montón de ejercicios, y era la peor parte de mi existencia.









Quince años en el futuro, y estoy sufriendo de cosas como conectores y concesivas en registros formales del español, y no puedo evitar pensar en la utilidad de Wren y Martin en la cementación de mi aprendizaje de Inglés. Ahora estoy leyendo un libro que se llama, A Reference Grammar of Spanish, que fue escrito por Batchelor y San José, y en muchas maneras es muy similar a Wren y Martin. El estilo es muy brusco, y no hay espacio o tiempo para burlarse o contar chistes. Hay una explicación, que necesitan memorizar, y después hay que hacer 1000 ejercicios para cementar el aprendizaje. Exactamente igual que Wren y Martin. Encontré el libro en un momento de pura obsesión, cuando estaba buscando un libro que tuviera una descripción de un verbo (que ahora no me acuerdo) y desde entonces, lo he estado usando para mejorar mi español. Autores como Batchelor, Wren, Martin vienen de la escuela de memorización, donde aunque reconocen la creatividad y el ingenio que necesitas tener como parte del aprendizaje de una lengua, hay una parte de la lengua que es muy fija en forma y la única manera en la que podés aprender esa parte es mediante la memorización y la práctica repetida.

Para mí, estos libros dan un poco de formalidad, porque en el resto de mi tiempo estoy explorando la otra parte del lenguaje (por ejemplo escuchando a Calle 13 o mirando Les Luthiers). Y por muy aburridos que sean, me sirven en mi aventura española!


Some boring but very useful books of Spanish Grammar:

A Reference Grammar of Spanish (Batchelor and San José)

A New Student Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish (Butt and Benjamin)

Webster’s New World Spanish Grammar Handbook


The Wandering V