The God Who Loved Motorbikes (2019)

Cover of The God Who Loved Motorbikes

I picked up the book written by Murali K Menon after seeing that the book was launched by John Abraham on September 25. The book is a Juggernaut publication and I saw that the book was available at a low cost on the day of the launch. Hence, I picked it up without giving a second thought.

The book takes on a usual motorcycle enthusiast story and stretches it into the realm beyond time and space. The enthusiast in this case is one of the small shrine gods that dot the landscape of Kollengode in Kerala. The story revolves around how the god, KK Swamy, follows his dreams of riding several motorcycles. The premise makes sense at some level. However, things get a little hazy here while considering the plot.

The story then hops several steps and we enter another story. The storyline begins quite naturally but then gets stranger and weirder as time passes. Then, things get so weird that I paused reading to think that the story has gone from a motorcycle story to a sci-fi genre. There are a few plot twists but none that surprise you too much. There is a lot going on, action wise but they are mostly just moving things forward.

When the story ends, there are many things left hanging. The plot fails to tie things up at the end. There are many loose ends. The story takes off in so many directions that I wonder what the author was thinking about while developing the plot of the story.

You could consider picking up the book to give it a read if you love this genre of motorcycle storytelling and sci-fi. It was a good way to while away time but at the end you are left asking if reading through it was a worthy investment of your time or not.

Bank Merger

The Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman has announced the merger of public sector undertaking (PSU) banks. This move will bring down the number of public sector banks from 27 in 2017 to 12 after merger.

Six Mega PSU banks created as a result of the merger announced on August 31. Image: Bloomberg Quint

As a former banker, I support this move. Existence of multiple public sector banks has been an enigma for me. These banks existed once as private sector banks. They competed then and played a role in the Indian economy. Their nationalisation in 1979 made them all public sector undertakings. Having banks in every nook and corner of the country was one of the reasons cited behind bank nationalisation. The idea was to make banking accessible to the poor and financial inclusion. As it was said then, to change from class banking to mass banking.

However, this still does not seem to have been achieved. Payments bank have been started up to achieve the same goals. However, these end up serving the same urban populace as private banks in India where the money is. All this achieved was make competition in urban areas, where the money is, more stiff.

Private banks and payment banks are able to provide better service and better loan recovery because of the targeted nature of their banking. They work in areas where they have competence and knowledge.

Success in universal banking cannot be measured with the yardsticks used for class banking of the private banks. Universal banking is by its nature very intensive, involves high wastage and is highly inefficient.

The merger of these public sector banks makes more staff available to them. These can be deployed in rural centres to meet the shortfall of staff branches face whilst in urban centres to meet the shortfall of loan processing and servicing staff.

It would take at least a generation before enough private banks spring up to target various parts of universal banking. Some will still not be viable. As various government policies push towards formalising the economy, many of these private banks will merge to form larger banks.

As for public sector banks, ultimately, I hope that there is only one public sector bank. Perhaps, two. State Bank of India will definitely be one of them. Union Bank has a nice ring to the name if there needs to be another bank which is a union of all other banks other than State Bank. Eventually, I hope everything is merged into the State Bank. In the meanwhile, processes need to be streamlined, documentation needs to be standardised and loans need to be recovered.

Will there ever be a time when India will not have a need to have any public sector bank?

Chandrayaan 2 in lunar orbit

The Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft entered into an orbit around the Moon on August 20, 2019 at 09:02 AM (IST).

This was a result of a lunar orbit insertion (LOI) manoeuvre the spacecraft performed that lasted about 1738 seconds. The spacecraft was in Earth orbit and used it’s gravity to be propelled towards the Moon. As the spacecraft reached close to the Moon it used its on-board motor to perform a breaking to decrease its speed (this was demonstrated in Mission Mangal) and allowed itself to be captured by the Moon’s gravitational force.

The spacecraft entered into a 114 km x 18,072 km orbit around the Moon. This means that the spacecraft’s closest distance from the Moon (caller perilune) is 114 km and it’s farthest distance (called the apolune) is 18,072 km. The next day it performed another similar manoeuvre to reduce its speed and moved into an 118 km x 4,412 km orbit. This is the opposite of what it did in Earth orbit and will continue till it achieves a circular orbit of 100 km.

Image from the ISRO Launch Kit for Chandrayaan 2 which shows the mission sequence.
The Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft is now in its Lunar Bound Phase. Image: ISRO Launch Kit
Moon as viewed by Chandrayaan-2 LI4 Camera on 21 August 2019 19:03 UT
Moon as viewed by Chandrayaan-2 LI4 Camera on 21 August 2019 19:03 UT

Today, ISRO released pictures taken by the LI4 camera on board the Vikram lander of the Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft. LI4 probably stands for Landing Imager 4. It should be one of the cameras on the lander that would be used to guide the lander to the surface of the Moon.

The next manoeuvre is slated for August 28, early in the morning. You can follow the updates of Chandrayaan 2 directly from the ISRO website page.

Political Ideology in India

I have been listening to IVM Podcast’s The Seen and the Unseen podcast hosted by Amit Varma since about the last year or so. The important I learnt in lesson in this episode that the usual tags of left and right politics do not apply to Indian politics. Indian politics can be better understood based on the ideologies of identity and statism.

The cover art of the Episode 131 of the Seen and the Unseen
The cover art of the Episode 131 of The Seen and The Unseen

Amit’s earlies episodes espouses the classical liberal ideologies and are based on the idea of individual freedom. While the explanation made theoretical sense, it didn’t quite apply when I analysed many macroeconomic issues to try and understand why the government acted in the way it did. Hence, Amit’s episodes were critical of any government that was at the Center.

This particular episode presented a better political lens to understand the Indian political landscape. The episode is based on the book Ideology and Identity by Pradeep K Chhibber and Rahul Verma. Rahul Verma explains the terms ideology, identity and statism. He then takes us through Indian history post-independence as seen through the lens of identity and statism and explains how this bifurcation of Indian history makes more sense than the western right-wing and left-wing narrative.

The episode held several insights for me. That India had a rich “conservative” tradition but this was hidden from English readers like me. These traditions existed in the vernacular press in Hindi, Marathi etc. An earlier episode began digging at some of the features of the conservative tradition in India which seems to have been so different from the conservative traditions in other countries. It has been a fascinating listen for me.

I haven’t read the book but would definitely suggest listening to this episode if you want to decide either way about getting their book.

Review: Mission Mangal (2019)

I went to PVR Cinemas at Pune’s Phoenix Marketcity Mall to watch Mission Mangal on Friday, August 15, 2019. Being a self-professed space geek, I expected the movie to be a cringe-show. It was.

Poster of Mission Mangal
Poster of Mission Mangal

Mission Mangal (2019) is a Bollywood movie inspired by the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). The mission involved the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) flying a mission to Mars. The mission, a technology demonstrator, succeeded on it’s first attempt. The movie carries a disclaimer at the start of the movie which says that it is a fictionalised account.

The on-film depiction of ISRO is no where near it’s original. I don’t think a scientist in ISRO are insecure in their knowledge that they would feel threatened by a person who got his experience working in NASA and who returns to serve his country. This is the description of the villain of the movie. I think MOM borrowed and learnt a lot from NASA for the actual mission. MOM’s first signal acquisition was in fact from NASA’s Deep Space Network in Australia. I don’t think the movie really needed a villain.

The other issue that bothered me a lot is the need for a hero. Akshay Kumar is no where near the scientist that ISRO has. His imitation of talking to former President Abdul Kalam in Tamil was the lowest point of the film, in my opinion.

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) was made much more muscular and eye-candy than it actually is. There were a lot of holds on that American launch pad. Bollywood also made it into a two stage launch vehicle rather than the four stage rocket it is. I loved the sound and capture of the lift-off which reminded me so much of the Shuttle launches. India countsdown in minutes and seconds and not from 100 seconds.

There are struggles of the women scientist in ISRO. Tackling pressure at home, managing family, managing expectations of mother-in-laws, difficulty in getting a flat because of belonging to a certain religion and live-in-relationships. I would have been happier if these stereotypes would not all be pushed throughout the film. Also, I didn’t miss the stereotype of a woman who could not drive on road handling navigation for an interplanetary mission.

So, with all those things that I didn’t like in the movie, it still pulled through because it manages something that I think ISRO fails at communicating. How difficult it is to get funding for a mission. What parameters are considered and how difficult it is to plan a mission. It also attempted to explain orbital mechanics. The movie takes a dig at superstitious practices that ISRO itself follows. Akshay Kumar’s only positive show in the movie seems to be standing up as a rational person to some superstitious practices in the Mission Control Room.

I still think that the movie is a good starting point for a movie based on a scientific mission. For that, it is worth seeing. As I said at the beginning, I cringed a lot while watching the movie.

It took me a long time to write this review. Two other reviews are worth your time – Vasudevan Mukunth’s and Raja Sen for the Hindustan Times.

The movie ends crediting ISRO on it’s 50th anniversary and the women on whom the film is loosely based.

Chandrayaan 2 on the way to the Moon

Chandrayaan 2, India’s second mission to the Moon lifted off from Sriharikota on July 22, 2019. The spacecraft was launched on board India’s GSLV Mk-3 rocket on it’s maiden non-development flight.

Photograph of the launch of the GSLV Mk-3 with the Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft by ISRO.
GSLV Mk 3 lifts-off with Chandrayaan 2. Image Courtesy: ISRO

It came after a launch scrub surrounding which there was lack of information and a lot of speculation. I watched the launch with my grandmother in Mumbai.

Since the launch, the spacecraft which currently has an orbiter and lander attached to each other performed 5 orbit raising manoeuvres on the way to the Moon.

India adopted this gradual orbit raising manoeuvre in order to balance the limitation of the spacecraft and the launch vehicle. A lower mass of the spacecraft would enable the launch vehicle to place the spacecraft into lunar orbiter but it would then not be able to carry any meaningful payload. The launch vehicle had only enough power to place Chandrayaan 2 in a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Image of the Earth taken by LI4 camera on board the lander on Chandrayaan 2.
Image of Earth taken by the LI 4 camera on board Chandrayaan 2. Image Courtesy: ISRO

After the 5th orbit raising manoeuvre, the spacecraft will push off towards the Moon called Trans Lunar Insertion on August 14. Afterwards, the spacecraft will perform one more burn called the Lunar Orbit Insertion on August 20 that will let the spacecraft be captured by Moon’s gravity.