Books: ‘Benjamin Franklin: An American Life’

Benjamin Franklin was no ordinary human being. Our society has had its heroes in science, writing, politics, and business. Franklin achieved world-class excellence in each, while staying true to his middle-class roots and the emphasis on a virtuous life. There is much to learn from his story, and Walter Isaacson as done a terrific job in writing about the various facets of his celebrated life in his book

Ben Franklin began his life as an apprentice to his brother, ran off to Philadelphia to start on his own, conducted successful experiments that helped the society understand lightning and build better chimneys, wrote about morals and religion and business, conducted historical diplomacy with France, helped edit the Declaration of Independence, all the while maintaining a down-to-earth persona. He is often credited with defining and exemplifying what we now know as the middle-class values of industry (hard work), pragmatism, and honestly. Franklin hated pretense and show-off. In reading about his life, it is not hard to guess that Franklin would have had an off-the-charts IQ, but one comes out realizing that what made Franklin so special and revered was his ability to connect with people and communicate effectively. 

Franklin embodied a sense of practical utility in his conduct. He was tolerant to different religious views, and proclaimed “the most acceptable service of God was doing good to man“. Similarly, he emphasized the importance of compromise in diplomacy and politics. And what made him particularly relate-able was his way of communicating arguments with homespun similes, stories and metaphors. Consider, for example, the quote below which he used to highlight the importance of compromise:

When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner, here, both sides must part from some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition.

Another fascinating aspect of Franklin was his lifelong love of learning and exploration. Franklin loved to travel, and during his voyages, amused himself by scientific studies on topics such as winds, currents, and behavior of oil on water. When he was young, Franklin compiled a list of 13 virtues, that in his opinion would lead to a successful life. Borrowing from Wikipedia:

His autobiography lists his 13 virtues as:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
  4. “Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
  6. “Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
  11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Franklin then made a plan to master each virtue per week, using a slate to mark crosses for days when he would miss. This is where the phrase “having a clean slate” traces its origins from.

There is a lot more to learn from Franklin, beyond what I can quickly summarize here. Above all, I came away from Walter Isaacson’s book with an impression of a full-of-life, practical, rational, and fun-to-be-with person. 


are in control,
while consequences
often aren’t.

Have our heroes in history
been more chance than else?

In living though,
Doesn’t ‘why’ matter
a little more than ‘what’?

To be stable amidst
the confounding effects
of chance and effort…
Far from effortless.

But what if one focuses
on ‘bhavana’ in life,
Doesn’t karma follow
like plant from a seed?

Of course, you may say,
easier said than done.
But isn’t it, in some ways,
Easier done than said ?


Bhāvanā (PaliSanskrit, also bhāvana) literally means “development” or “cultivating” or “producing” in the sense of “calling into existence.” It is an important concept in Buddhist praxis (Patipatti). The word bhavana normally appears in conjunction with another word forming a compound phrase such as citta-bhavana (the development or cultivation of the heart/mind) or metta-bhavana (the development/cultivation of lovingkindness). When used on its own bhavana signifies ‘spiritual cultivation’ generally. (source: Wikipedia)

A New Wave of Hope


Arvind Kejriwal has come to symbolize rebellion against the VIP culture, corruption, and politics-as-usual.

I liked the plainspoken and straightforward tone of his speech in Delhi assembly. There is much to admire in what the AAP has done. Regardless of how long this government lasts, they have proven that it is feasible for the common man to fight and win elections in a democracy. We should celebrate that, and wish them our best!

Hindi Couplets

किस दौड़ में आगे निकलोगे
किस जीव का पीछा करना है
जन्म पद से म्रत्यु-दर तक का
सभी को सफ़र तय करना है

किस पत्थर को चुन्वाओगे
कहां नाम अपना तुम्हें करना है
जिस मिट्टी से बनी इमारत
उसी मिट्टी में उसे धसना है

ਲੋਹੜੀ ਤੋਂ ਪਹਲੇ ਦੀ ਰਾਤ

ਮੈਂ ਸੋਚੇਯਾ ਭੁਲ ਗਈਆਂ ਨੇ
ਪਰ ਗੱਲ ਬਾਤ ਯਾਦ ਆਉਂਦੀ ਏ ।
ਅੱਜ ਲੋਹੜੀ ਤੋਂ ਪਹਲੇ ਦੀ
ਇੱਕ ਰਾਤ ਯਾਦ ਆਉੰਦੀ ਏ ।।

ਰਜਾਈਆ ਵਿਚ ਵੜ ਕੇ
ਪਤੰਗਾਂ ਬਾਰੇ ਸੋਚਣਾ ।
ਓਹ ਰੰਗ-ਬਿਰੰਗੇ ਖਯਾਲਆਂ ਦੀ
ਇੱਕ ਉੜਾਨ ਯਾਦ ਆਉੰਦੀ ਏ ।।

ਕਿਵੇਂ ਲੋਹੜੀ ਨੂ ਉਡੀਕਣਾ
ਡੋਰ ਦੇ ਪਿੰਨੇ ਨੂ ਸਮੇਟਣਾ ।
ਇੱਕ ਮੂੰਗਫਲੀ ਦੇ ਛਿੱਲਡ ਦੀ
ਮਿਹਕ ਯਾਦ ਆਉੰਦੀ  ਏ ।।

ਲਾਲ ਰਜਾਈ ਦੇ ਨਿੱਗ ਵਿਚ੍ਚ
ਨੀਂਦ ਨਾ ਆਉਣੀ …
ਇੱਕ ਤੜਕੇ-ਤੜਕੇ ਦਿਨ ਦੀ
ਮਿੱਠੀ ਧੁੰਦ ਯਾਦ ਆਉੰਦੀ ਏ ।।

ਮੈਂ ਸੋਚੇਯਾ ਭੁਲ ਗਈਆਂ ਨੇ
ਪਰ ਗੱਲ ਬਾਤ ਯਾਦ ਆਉਂਦੀ ਏ ।
ਅੱਜ ਲੋਹੜੀ ਤੋਂ ਪਹਲੇ ਦੀ
ਇੱਕ ਰਾਤ ਯਾਦ ਆਉੰਦੀ ਏ ।।

I have a dream…


Yesterday’s class was about questions, opinions, and dreams. There were several things that came up. For example: is it better to be fair-skinned or dark-skinned? Is it better to be poor or rich?…

अमीर लोग घमंडी होते हैं। गरीब को देख कर बोलते हैं ‘अबे  चल हट, निकल यहाँ से।’

Rich people are arrogant. When they see a poor person, they rudely push him/her aside.

As we discussed further, there were counter-points. Even the poor could be bad… Students mentioned examples of situations where poor men and women exploited young kids by forcing them to beg on the streets. Eventually, we by-and-large concluded that it’s not the color, not the wealth, it is the character that a person good or bad.

The Kids Feel Cut-off

However, lurking beneath the answers of the kids is a sense of being distanced or alienated from the society, especially from those who are better off. This alienation is not unfounded in a society that is becoming too busy to pause even for the desperately needy. Such a sense of being cut-off can quickly grow in to helplessness or frustration, if unaddressed.

Hopes and Dreams 

This is where hopes and dreams come to our rescue in life. In the busy lives of the kids, hopes and dreams are the prime route to constructive engagement in society.

We shared the story of Martin Luther King in our class. I found a Hindi translation of his speech, and narrated it to the students. We went over the speech, and I gave them some background of the context and situation at the time. The young students quickly empathized with discrimination faced by fellow human beings in a different time at a different place.  They also found the courage of Rosa Parks inspiring and exemplary.

As we concluded, I asked them “आपका क्या सपना है? (what is your dream?)”. Pinky stood up and said she wanted to become a police officer and do her family proud. Soni said she’d like to see her self become a Hindi teacher. Our class polled 2 doctors, several aspiring teachers, and 1 police officer. (In contrast, there were at least 3 aspiring engineers when I discussed the same topic with a class of ~9 boys).

One common theme when I asked the kids about their dream was their desire to end prejudice in the society, whether it’s based on caste, religion, or economic status. I am optimistic.

Prema Jayakumar’s story, an inspiration

We ended by watching the interview of Prema Jayakumar. A daughter of an auto-rickshaw driver, she beat all odds to secure first rank in India’s CA (Chartered accountancy) examination.

The girls connect, and smile. “Hum bhi Prema didi ki tarah banna chahte hain. Yeh humaara sapna hai” (We also want to become like Prema didi; this is our dream).

Math, Money and My Students

How do you make maths interesting? There are many ways, but one metaphor that has been fairly effective with my students is money. They come from backgrounds where resources are limited, so something related to increasing wealth (or protecting oneself from losing it to a thug) piques their curiosity.

They want to know if they should borrow — if so, from who? They want to understand the difference between saving a hundred rupees under their pillow vs depositing it in a bank. They want to know whether they are even eligible (or qualified) to open an account in the bank… Some of my students wonder whether it makes a difference for someone to save if he/she has so little?

Fortunately, compounding comes to rescue. When you help them work out how 10,000 rupees grow in to 41,770 in 15 years at 10% interest (roughly the rate offered in Indian banks currently), they look at the black board with interest. Their eyes light up much more, when asked, how would it feel if the tables were turned.. that is, if someone had lent them or their parents money, and was compounding at a high rate? How a loan of 10,000 rupees can become a loan of over 20,000 rupees in a matter of just a few years? My students probably know of a friend or family member, who was duped in to borrowing money at a high rate of interest, and later found themselves unable even to make the interest payment.

The kids now know that a small regular saving can grow to a large one through compounding over time. They want to start saving early, even if it’s just a few rupees every week. They even encourage their parents to register for bank accounts. Yaseen, one of our young students, helped his illiterate father fill out the bank application and complete all formalities that were required to get their accounts registered.

P.S. — As bonus, I learned that simple interest is called सामान्य ब्याज in Hindi. And compound interest? You guessed it right (;)) : चक्रवृद्धि ब्याज.