An anti-science lawsuit (The Hindu, December 24, 2020)

Instead of pursuing their case against Sci-Hub, publishers should work with the government to make research accessible

Rahul Siddharthan

This article appeared in The Hindu, December 24, 2020. Since it is paywalled, I am republishing the text here. (But the paywall is modest, not at all comparable to the ones below; if you find The Hindu, or whatever newspaper you regularly read, useful, do subscribe.)

A brief hearing was held on December 24. The next hearing is on January 6, 2021.

Three scientific publishers — Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society (ACS) — filed a suit against Alexandra Elbakyan of Kazakhstan and others in the Delhi High Court on December 21, 2020. The case will reportedly be heard this week. Most major Indian Internet service providers are named as parties in the case. The publishers want Indians blocked from accessing a site called Sci-Hub, started by Ms. Elbakyan in 2011. Who is Ms. Elbakyan, what is Sci-Hub, and why are publishers chasing her in an Indian court? To answer this, it is necessary to explain how scientific publishing works.

This sounds like a cost-efficient system. Yet, publishers charge libraries exorbitant amounts for journal subscriptions (up to lakhs of rupees annually per journal, often bundled forcibly). Indian institutions each spend crores on subscriptions. It is estimated that about ₹1,500 crore is paid for India as a whole annually. Without subscriptions, a single article typically costs $30-$50 (₹2,200-₹3,500) or more. Academic publishing is thus among the most profitable industries in the world: Elsevier’s parent company RELX had profits of over 30% on revenue of nearly $10 billion in 2019. This overwhelmingly comes from taxpayers across the world who have already paid to fund the same research. Adding insult to injury, most journals require authors to transfer copyright to them.

Resentment about this situation has built over decades. Alternatives have been explored, including an (equally problematic) open access, author pays model. Many top universities, and entire countries, have cancelled subscriptions to Elsevier en masse.

In 2011, Ms. Elbakyan stepped into this mess with Sci-Hub, enabling scientists to search for academic papers from any publisher and freely download them. It is an efficient and easy-to-use site and extensively archives published scientific literature. Sci-Hub violates many copyrights owned by journals. But it is also a vast repository of open access, out-of-copyright, and public domain material, which a blanket injunction would disable. For scientists stuck at home in 2020, Sci-Hub has made literature accessible without navigating institutional VPNs. For journalists and the public, given the obscene per article charges levied by journals, Sci-Hub is the easiest and often only option.

Sci-Hub does not operate in India. Indian Internet service providers named as parties are providing a non-discriminatory common carrier service. The content on Sci-Hub does not harm India’s interests and is beneficial to the scientific development of the country. In 2020, leading publishers made COVID-19-related articles free to read. This has resulted in a boom in research and development of dozens of vaccine candidates in a very short time period: a testament to the value of open science. Sci-Hub’s “piracy” benefits the very people who create that content. This is the opposite of the situation in the creative arts where “pirating” music or films deprives creators of royalties; scientific authors get no royalties, and they and their funders want their work to be shared freely. But the keys to this largely taxpayer-funded work are held by private corporations overseas which have chosen to pursue a defendant from Kazakhstan in an Indian court.

Is there an alternative to Sci-Hub? Yes. Publishers should voluntarily reform their policies to obviate the need for Sci-Hub.

The Indian government has been discussing a ‘one nation, one subscription’ system whereby, in exchange for a fixed and reasonable cost paid directly by the government, scientific publishers would make their entire content available to all readers in India. Some publishers (not the plaintiffs) have expressed interest. Elsevier, Wiley and ACS should drop this misguided case, and join the Indian government in working out an equitable system of access to scientific literature that serves both their commercial interests and the Indian public.

High-value insanity

I wrote the rant below that I’m leaving as it is, but now think the real reasons are not black money, at least not as normally described. It could be

1. Fake money (see bottom). This is indeed an effective way to flush that out, provided the new notes are significantly more secure. But that is not being advertised here.

2. Cash flow to the underworld and to insurgent groups. Just as with black money, the impact will be temporary since cash will still be around. But maybe a temporary effect is all they’re looking for.

I certainly hope I’m wrong in what I wrote below and also hope the impact on ordinary people is minimised via efficient exchanging at banks and post offices, but am not optimistic. (Eg, at the post office you will need PAN / Aadhaar cards as proof. What about the millions who don’t have those cards, or bank accounts, and for whom even Rs 5000 in cash at home is a huge amount of money?) We will know in the coming days, though.

I have been sort of inactive on the blog recently, having little to say that couldn’t be shared quickly via facebook. But now I wonder whether Modi is snooping on my posts and respecting me a bit too much. Because recently I argued one someone’s wall for outlawing high-value currency notes (and more specifically high-value cash transactions), and now the government has done it — except not quite.

What I had in mind (though, that being facebook, I did not spell it out) was:

  • Increase penetration of bank accounts among common Indians
  • Increase prevalence of debit cards, credit cards, netbanking and mobile banking
  • Increase acceptability and security of cheques, rapid validation of cheques, and enforceability of penalising bad cheques.
  • Ensure cybersecurity for all of the above
  • Then, and only then, crack down on high-value cash transactions, possibly by removing high-value currency notes!

What Modi has done is, not lifted a finger about any of the necessary infrastructure, and instead taken his typical kneejerk reaction to fulfil some ill-defined election promise. And has been reading some international chatter about abolishing high-value notes, by which the international media meant, for example, the €200 and €500 notes. So he has targeted notes whose value is equivalent to less than €10 and €20 respectively!

This will affect huge numbers of Indians who never used the banking system very much. It will affect dailywagers who will get paid with bundles of Rs 100 notes (assuming their employers have them handy) and will have to move around with pockets stuffed with cash. It will not affect the vast majority of black money, which is in the form of gold, real estate, and other assets, or stashed abroad (remember Modi’s promises about that?)

And even that is temporary. The RBI is introducing new notes, Rs 500 and 2000, to replace the old ones. Not a word about cashless infrastructure or cash transactions. So after major temporary inconvenience to literally a billion law-abiding people, it will be business as usual

Achchhe din, indeed.

PS: I strongly suspect that the currency thing is not about black money at all. It is only about weeding out counterfeit money (apparently a significant problem for many years now) and I also suspect the idea was pushed by the RBI. And from that point of view it makes some sense, provided the new notes are significantly harder to counterfeit. But of course Modi has to make it about something else, because of election promises about black money and all…

I’m calling a Bernie Sanders win, based on Scott Adams

For some reason the US presidential race, even 10+ months before the election, fascinates all of us. Well, me, anyway.

For some months I’ve been reading Scott Adams’ blog with a mixture of interest and horror. His proposition is that Donald Trump will win, not only the Republican nomination, but the general election afterwards, in a landslide. Adams has repeated this many times. For a general flavour of his arguments, see here, but basically, since Adams says he is a trained hypnotist, he claims to see industrial-strength persuasion techniques being employed by Trump against his opponents, to devastating effect. Eg, Jeb Bush being low-energy. Ben Carson being too nice. Carly Fiorina having “that face”. (To understand why these are supposedly persuasive, you need to read the source.) In short, Trump is a “master wizard”, or in Adams’ more recent wording, a “master persuader”. So, he says, was Obama.

So it was striking to see Adams hedge his bets in a new blog post: “My top-performing tweet of late predicts (indirectly) a Trump landslide if he runs agains Clinton.” (My emphasis.)

Why hedge his bets? Because of Bernie Sanders, obviously. This self-described “democratic socialist”. trailing Clinton by 20-30 points not long ago (and, some say, even today), is now being seen as competitive with Clinton in at least the first two primary states, and perhaps nationwide.

What does Adams think of a potential Trump-Sanders matchup? He doesn’t say. Previously he has dismissed Sanders as “too dandruffy” (can’t find the link now, but a variant is here.) But more recently he seems to be doubtful of Clinton’s nomination.

Adams may say more soon, but here’s my call (made in the safe knowledge that I don’t have a millionth the internet following of Scott Adams). Sanders will win the Democratic nomination and the general election. And my basis for the prediction is the persuader hypothesis: if Adams is right that persuasiveness is what matters, Sanders is empirically good at this. And if Adams needs to hedge his bets now after loudly trumpeting Trump for months, he too see something in Sanders, which, he (Adams) being a trained hypnotist, we need to respect.

[update Jan 22] Well, that didn’t take long.

[Sanders’] new ad, set to a Simon and Garfunkel tune, is pure identity (America!) and pure gold. That should put him over the top in Iowa, according to the Master Persuader filter… I don’t think Sanders can beat Trump in the general election… But Sanders does have a puncher’s chance if he stays in the top layer of persuasion like this.

Goodbye, repeated “landslide for Trump” predictions. I think I will keep this post updated until the general election. In fact, here’s my next prediction: if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination, Adams will find another reason to back off from the Trump landslide prediction.

New Zealand’s “acceptable standards of health”

V S Sunder is my colleague at IMSc.  He is a world-renowned mathematician.  He travels and lectures widely.  He has had multple sclerosis for many years, which means he is confined to a wheelchair (he can walk with a stick and with difficulty for short distances), and therefore suffers various personal inconveniences, but does not inconvenience anyone else (except organizations in India who ignore our accessibility laws, after whom he goes indefatigably!) We hope to have him around for many years longer.

But some others disagree. New Zealand, where his daughter studies,  has decided that he doesn’t have an “acceptable standard of health” for a TWO WEEK visa.

Madhav Chari

I don’t know what to say here. This is going to be rambling, but short, if that makes sense.

I met Madhav Chari in 2004, shortly after moving to Chennai from New York. For some reason, he took a strong liking to me and stayed in touch. He attended our wedding, the first birthday do of our son, and played a couple of times at my workplace, and visited a few times. I did not make the same effort, despite, or maybe because of, my awe of him.

I have written about him before: here and here (2006) and here (2010). Each of those was in response to a performance or recording of his. At some point, I stopped blogging, but I didn’t stop going to his concerts. He unfailingly informed me of upcoming events. Typically these were free; sometimes passes were required, and he said, if there was any issue with entering, just call him, his phone would be on. That is, before the show started. He had zero tolerance for mobile phones ringing during the show.

Actually, he had zero tolerance for many things. He was a purist, but in a good sense. It is strange to think of someone sitting in Chennai trying to perfect an idealization of New York jazz, but that’s who he was. He was extremely interested in and knowledgeable about Indian music, and included a mridangam player in one of his lec-dems (Palghat Raghu if I remember right), but the music came first.

My blogging activity decreased greatly a couple of years ago, otherwise there would have been more posts about him. Such as his trio concert this May, with Naveen Kumar (bass) and Jeoraj George (drums) — the same trio I blogged about in 2010, but while at that time he regarded them as promising apprentices, this time he loudly proclaimed that nobody else in India could hold a candle to them. He was right. He said that that day’s concert would give us the finest, most sophisticated, most uncompromising New-York-style jazz. It did.

Chatting with him around that time, he mentioned some health issues relating to some autoimmune condition; I had no idea that it would recur, require hospitalisation, and be fatal. He had not visited our current home (he had been to the previous one a few times), and said he would come over soon. I said sure, but never concretised the invitation: I figured we’d be around. Now he isn’t.

He played at my workplace in 2005. I have kept that recording zealously; today, after some thought, I’ve decided to upload it. A solo piano performance, on a digital piano (mine), that he proclaimed himself happy with: and knowing his fastidious and blunt nature, I knew I had made a good purchase. Enjoy.

[Please excuse the weird tagging that suggests that I am the artist. I couldn’t figure out how to convince soundcloud to do otherwise, except by creating a fake account in his name, which obviously wasn’t on the cards.]

The principal problem with St Stephen’s

My undergraduate college, St Stephen’s, Delhi University, has increasingly been in the news for the wrong reasons. The latest, as far as I can make out, is because a few students published a newsletter containing an interview with the principal, Valson Thampu (the most controversial principal in the history of the college). As far as one can tell from public utterances, the problem is that he had demanded that they seek his approval of the interview before publishing, and they did send it to him, but when he did not reply in time, they published anyway. This was apparently an online publication, and was promptly taken offline, but a parody has since appeared. As of today, one of the students involved has reportedly been suspended.

Interestingly, Mr Thampu has been posting frequently on an alumni forum on Facebook that I am a member of, and perhaps elsewhere, justifying his actions. His latest, today (April 15), says

The eagerness to forgive must be met by the willingness to acknowledge mistake and to mend one’s ways. Else, we cheapen forgiveness and make it a cover up for chronic misdeeds. Valson

To which I felt impelled to reply as follows.

Dear Mr Valson Thampu : though I was not intending to respond to your outpourings on facebook any further, today’s news about suspending the student compels me to speak again. This student published an interview with you after giving you time to respond. In your universe, his failure to wait for you to respond was a “chronic misdeed”. In journalism, it is not acceptable practice to give the interviewee veto power in the first place. A journalist must be careful not to misquote but must not subjugate himself/herself to a powerful person. If you were uncomfortable you should not have agreed to be interviewed. But you need to remember that most of your students are legal adults, and you should be training them to function in the real world, not to lick the boots of their principals.

Meanwhile, thanks to this idiotic controversy that has dragged the name of a once-great college through mud, I came across your earlier writings:

From there I learn that wives should submit to their husbands because they are already “strong” and “empowered”, which makes me wonder which country you live in. I also learn that “parental deficit also contributes, in part, to homosexuality and lesbianism” — perhaps you would like to tell Vikram Seth to his face that his homosexuality is partly his mother’s (Leila Seth’s) fault. In the real world he, and she, and hundreds of homosexuals of both genders, have achieved vastly more than you will ever do and have made the world a much better place than you clearly care to.

A person capable of writing the above is not deserving of being a teacher in the most modest primary school, let alone principal of one of India’s oldest and best-known colleges.

I should say I don’t know Mr Thampu personally: he was a teacher of English and the chaplain when I was in college. The principal was Dr Anil Wilson, who sadly passed away a few years ago; I remember him as a man with a fair mind, a modern outlook, and above all, a sense of humour. I exchanged a few mails with him before he passed away, which confirmed these impressions.

Review: Pink Floyd, “The Endless River”

Pink Floyd’s last album, “The Endless River” was released yesterday (November 10) on iTunes in India and other countries. And I more or less had to buy it, being a fan since my schooldays. I have been an iTunes holdout (we do have a Mac at home but only the kid uses it these days), but I figured this was a good opportunity to give it a try in music purchases (I also picked up a couple more 2014 albums by 1960s-origin legends). Thank you, Steve Jobs, for making DRM-free music available at a reasonable price, storing it in a sensible hierarchy in the iTunes folder, making it easy to copy to other devices. No thank you for restricting it to Mac and Windows users. Since Google Play Music, Amazon Prime etc are not around in India and Flipkart’s emusic service closed down a year ago, Apple has an unhealthy monopoly of this space.

Now for the review itself. The Endless River is a brave effort — an almost entirely instrumental outing, mostly performed by the members themselves (David Gilmour, Nick Mason and the late Richard Wright), arranged in four “sides” of three to seven pieces each. Wright’s contributions were extracted mostly from the sessions for the Floyd’s previous album, “The Division Bell” (1994), but one track (Autumn ’68) dates back to the 1960s and features him playing on the organ at the Royal Albert Hall.

Musical references to their earlier work are many — in fact, to my ears, the second track (“It’s what we do”) sounds so extremely similar to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond parts 2-3” that I expect to hear Roger Waters’ voice at any moment saying “Remember when you were young…” On several other tracks, too, vocals seems just a few moments away. Nick Mason gets his first songwriting credits since “The Dark Side of the Moon”. All of it is worth listening to, if you like instrumental Floyd. It is new music that provides a retrospective of — mostly — “old” Floyd, 1975 and earlier. It has noticeably fewer guest musicians than “The Division Bell” or 1987’s “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”, and in contrast to those albums, only two tracks have credits for external songwriters — Anthony Moore and Polly Samson, co-credited on one track each. The most striking, to me, are “Autumn ’68” (the organ solo) and “Skins” (a Nick solo on drums). To my mind, though, all of it is in the Floyd tradition, and very well thought out and arranged. I have heard it about three times so far. If you are a Floyd fan who doesn’t think “The Wall” is the absolute pinnacle of their career, I highly recommend it.

The one vocal song, “Louder than words”, is musically excellent but the lyrics, by Gilmour’s wife Polly Samson, are a letdown. I thought her earlier lyrics (on Floyd’s “Division Bell” and Gilmour’s solo effort “On an island” were fine, and Roger Waters’ lyrics are overrated, not least by Waters himself. But in this case, from the shock-value opening slang to the cloying sentiment throughout, I am not impressed. Especially as the sentiment (about “bitching and fighting” and “dissing each other” but nevertheless producing stuff that speaks “louder than words”) would have been more meaningful if Roger Waters had been aboard.

Where was Waters? After the Live8 reunion in 2005, and shared stage appearances by Gilmour and Waters in 2010 and 2011, that seems a valid question. Especially as the 2010 get-together (for the Hoping Foundation, a charity for Palestinian children) was entirely Gilmour’s idea, and the 2011 event (Gilmour guesting on a Waters’ “The Wall” show) was a quid-pro-quo for that. But Waters made it clear via his Facebook page that he does not see himself as a part of Pink Floyd, and the other Floyds made it clear that he was never asked. According to Mason, this is because the music stems from the Division Bell sessions, was intended as a tribute to Wright who may not have been comfortable working with Waters, and was mostly in a finished state — it would have seemed “insulting” to ask Waters to come on merely to play bass. Gilmour goes further, saying that Waters would have needed to be the “sole power” behind whatever he did. All fair enough, but one gets the feeling that at least they could have asked, and given him the choice of saying no. “Louder than words” would have been a much more honest statement if Waters had been a part of it. Gilmour has said that during the 1994-95 “Pulse” tour, he asked Waters whether he would like to join for a show, “with the safety cushion of knowing that he wouldn’t do it.” Perhaps that “safety cushion” was missing this time.

So “The Endless River” is David Gilmour’s creative vision of how Rick Wright should be best remembered. As such, and as an epitaph to the band, the album works very well. I suspect, though, that Gilmour equally intends it to be a statement of what he says Pink Floyd “really” is, and that was the main reason to exclude Waters.

Now, on the evidence of the post-split years, I find Gilmour’s case more compelling. Since “The Final Cut”, officially Pink Floyd’s last album with Roger Waters but really Waters’ first solo album with Gilmour and Mason guesting, Gilmour has produced two solo albums — “About Face” (1984), which he seems to find forgettable but I quite like (check this concert video from that tour for a flavour); and “On an island” (2006), which was the most successful solo effort from an ex-Floyd member to-date. From the tour for the latter album came two live DVDs and a live CD (“Live from Gdansk”, which features Richard Wright on keyboards and the best-ever recorded version of Floyd’s “Echoes”.) He also produced three Pink Floyd studio albums, including the most recent, and two live albums. The first two studio albums met with critical disdain but tremendous commercial success. Personally, I think “A momentary lapse of reason” had too many guests and too little Mason/Wright, but it did contain at least three memorable songs; and “The Division Bell” lacked punch but, musically, was closer to pure Floyd than anything since “Wish you were here”. In that time frame, Waters has produced three solo albums (the most recent, “Amused to death” from 1992, being the least forgettable, but that’s not saying much), one opera (“Ca ira”), a live album or two, and an endless tour of “The Wall”.

Waters certainly provided a “creative vision”, but that wasn’t enough: his solo career shows that he needed the others to make an impact. Gilmour has had far better success in reaching the public with new, original material. Waters accused the Watersless Floyd of “marching around the world singing my songs”, but that was untrue: the concert repertoire of the Gilmour-led band comprised 50% post-Waters songs, and 50% Floyd songs where the remaining members had significant songwriting credit.

Still and all, there is no doubt that Pink Floyd’s best work had critical conceptual, lyrical, and, yes, musical contributions from Roger Waters. Given the thawing of relations and the shared interest that Waters, Gilmour and Mason have in the Palestinian cause, I can’t help feel regretful that they couldn’t have found a way to include Waters in this last Floyd album. Or, at least, approach him and leave it to him to decline.

Prefixes in the 21st century

Dear Economist,

I came across a page on your style guide today via a Washington Post columnist who called you out on it.  It carries the following text:

The overriding principle is to treat people with respect. That usually means giving them the title they themselves adopt. But some titles are ugly (Ms), some misleading (all Italian graduates are Dr), and some tiresomely long (Mr Dr Dr Federal Sanitary-Inspector Schmidt). Do not therefore indulge people’s self-importance unless it would seem insulting not to.

So, your style guide in 2014 says “Ms” is ugly; and as for the preceding “but” and the last sentence, it is not clear what the intended message is, but it strongly suggests that women who use “Ms” are seeking indulgence of their self-importance and need not be thus indulged.

I know that you use Ms. very often in your own publication, as does everyone else.  These days Mrs. is getting rarer and Miss is almost unheard of; in the case of Angela Merkel, for instance, you sometimes seem to use “Ms” and sometimes “Mrs”, which, at the very least, is inconsistent.

There is also the basic question of accuracy: originally “Mrs” meant “wife of” and was generally followed by the husband’s full name (“Mrs Dennis Thatcher”); these days “Mrs Margaret Thatcher” is acceptable, but what about women who have chosen not to take their husbands’ names?  “Mrs Steffi Graf” sounds simply wrong and, yes, ugly (as does “Mrs Merkel” for that matter, since her current husband is not Mr Merkel), and “Miss Steffi Graf” is both wrong and condescending.   Indeed, this is the factor that caused the late New York Times columnist, William Safire, to change his mind and endorse “Ms” back in 1984, though it broke his heart to do so.

It is 30 years since Safire was converted, and about 40 years since the “Ms” abbreviation became widespread; perhaps it is now time to update your style guide?


Several people have told me that they read my blog but I don’t seem to post anymore. You can thank two unrelated threads on facebook, both dealing with language, for this one. They relate to two news items: a Manipuri being beaten up in Bangalore for not knowing Kannada, and the Tamil Nadu Government mandating Tamil as a subject in schools.

But before I start, here is a link to an old (2009) post by my late colleague Rahul Basu on the hue and cry on Marathi name-boards in Mumbai, and the lack of uproar thereof on the equivalent in Chennai — because Tamil boards are in place already without being mandated.

Now, here are quotes from the original poster of the FB thread discussing the Bangalore case: “Well I have lived all my life in Karnataka and I can’t still speak the language fluently. Come beat me!!!” and “I find this stress that I should learn a language because I live here ridiculous.”

And here is my theory: A few people like that poster don’t matter. There are people in Delhi who don’t know Hindi, people in London and New York who don’t know English, people in Paris who don’t know French. Some of them have spent their lives there.

But when it becomes the majority of the population — worse, when it becomes an aggressive ideology that you don’t NEED to learn the local language (as is the case in Mumbai), it is offensive to the local people (you are telling them that their language is inferior); and you are encouraging the linguistic chauvinists, including the violent fringe.

Mumbai and Maharashtra have lived with the Shiv Sena for decades. Similar right-wing “state-pride” parties have not come to power in Karnataka, but the more Kannada gets disrespected by people who move in from elsewhere, the more such parties will get empowered. The Shiv Sena, too, started with the same sort of vigilantism meted to the Manipuri in Bangalore, long before they actually came to power in the state government or formed alliances with national parties.

I am embarrassed that I lived in Bangalore for 6 years and did not learn the language. I will not make that mistake again.

On the flip side, I can see how much more enjoyable it is to be able to speak a little French when living in France. And, more recently, I learned a smattering of Italian for a week-long visit there, and though my able to communicate would largely have been a failure if it hadn’t been for Google Translate (and for the fact that many of them speak some French and English). the mere fact of my trying clearly influenced their reactions.

Now to the second item, about mandating Tamil as a subject in schools in Chennai. I found the news article ambiguous, but

  • If it were restricted to state board schools and it could be either first or second language, I wouldn’t have a problem and would in fact be totally in favour.
  • If (as the article suggests) it includes central board schools (CBSE and ICSE) then it depends on what is required. Having it as a third language, with very basic skills taught, would be fine. But there is no third language in class 10, and imposing one beyond the other subjects would be an unnecessary load.
  • I am definitely against imposing Tamil as a second or first language at that level in non-state-board schools: it is a challenging language and people moving here from other states should not have to make their children suffer (and, indeed, it will discourage such movement and, eventually, affect the economy).

But this move, again, seems to be a reaction to recent moves (by the Modi government in particular, but also by its predecessor) pushing Hindi on all parts of India. And this is again an example of what I said above in the context of Bangalore and Mumbai: disrespecting the local language will cause a reaction. This is not to justify the reaction, only to point out that the original cause was unjustifiable.

It is disgraceful that a student was beaten up in Bangalore for not knowing Kannada. It is alarming that Tamil Nadu is possibly playing with the education of students from other states in this way. But this does not mean that the people who refuse to learn Kannada, or the people who sit in Delhi and impose Hindi on others, are correct to do so. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say; but equally, a wrong doesn’t make a previous wrong right.

Gluten and me

A small fraction of the population suffers from something called coeliac disease — a severe allergy to gluten, a key protein in wheat (the thing that gives bread its springiness and dough its stretchiness). A larger number of people may, it would seem, suffer from gluten intolerance — they don’t suffer an instant allergic reaction on eating wheat, but effects show up on a slower time scale. Exactly what constitutes gluten intolerance, how many people suffer from it, and even whether the problem is gluten or something else (eg, a carbohydrate in wheat) remain controversial questions. Nevertheless, the number of people opting to eat gluten-free, especially in developed countries, has skyrocketed in the past few years. More recently, there seems to be a bit of a backlash against gluten-free diets — see here and here for example.

What follows is strictly anecdotal, not a scientific study: make of it what you will.

A little over a year ago, in April 2013, the three of us went gluten-free. There were several reasons, the primary one being that the kid seemed to have undiagnosed food allergies (he had problems with dairy when young; that seems to be over, but there were still issues). But also on my mind were several symptoms that I had been having — lethargy (caused by hypothyroidism), joint pain, and other things, and several articles on gluten that I had been reading such as this one about a young boy with excruciating joint pain who seemed to have been miraculously cured by going gluten-free. Why not give it a try?

This is not a small project — it means avoiding anything made of wheat (atta or maida), rye, barley, reading ingredients carefully on all packaged food, limiting one’s menu when eating out, and learning new ways to make chapatis or bread at home. More on that later. On the plus side, here in South India gluten-free food — both healthy and junk — is plentiful (wheat is not used in most traditional preparations).

A year down the line, the joint pains seem greatly reduced. The energy levels are higher, but the blood tests show no great improvement in thyroid function. These could well be placebo effects, but what is real was something I did not expect at all. My psoriasis cleared up.

I have written of my psoriasis before. It started developing in 2001, as a small patch on my right ankle. Within a year it was a large patch on my right foot. Over the next several years it spread to my left foot and my left hand. It was always raw and itchy, usually cracked and bleeding. There were days that I couldn’t walk without a limp, couldn’t type with my left hand. The area around the gear stick in my car was covered with flakes of dead skin. I wore socks all the time, partly for comfort, partly because otherwise I left a trail of dead skin wherever I went. I sought treatment three times, from three different doctors. Each time the prescription was a corticosteroid ointment (various betamethasone preparations); the first couple of times, it “cleared up” the psoriasis, but left the skin feeling thick and leathery, and after I stopped it rebounded worse than before. The third time — well, I describe that in my earlier post, but I did try the ointment and it had little effect, while the rebound was even worse.

So, as I say, after April 2013 the psoriasis just started clearing up. I didn’t even make the connection at first, but in May 2013 on a trip to Bangalore I had wheat products a couple of times, and my foot itched furiously. After cutting out wheat again, the improvement was steady — the psoriasis disappeared from the fingers and toes, and the patches that remained retained a dryish appearance but stopped itching, cracking or bleeding.

In December 2013, on a flight to Delhi, I had a bun since there was no gluten-free breakfast available. A couple of days later, the itching and flaking resumed and took 2 weeks to subside.

Since then I have been careful to avoid gluten in any form (even on a trip to Europe — Italy in particular was surprisingly gluten-free-friendly). In February 2014, I gave the corticosteroid another try (for three weeks) to clear the stubborn areas. The psoriasis disappeared entirely from my hand and has not returned. It has also disappeared from the ankle where it originally appeared. There was no rebound. There continued to be improvement in the five months after ceasing to use the ointment. As of today, only two dryish-looking patches remain on my upper feet, unnoticeable unless one is looking for them.

Looking at the literature, I found that there is some evidence of gluten being implicated in quite a few auto-immune conditions, including psoriasis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In my case, this is not all. In the mid-1990s I developed a seasonal cough that remained undiagnosed for years (even by highly-recommended chest specialists) until a modest general practitioner at an academic institute in Bangalore told me it was asthma. I had no shortness of breath, only a cough. A salbutamol inhaler fixed it. In the past year, it seems to me that this, too, has greatly improved: I hardly used the inhaler even during the peak of the usual “season”.

What of the others? My wife sees clear improvements in some other conditions (specifically, migraines — once very frequent, now very rare — and hyperacidity). With the kid it is less clear. But then I had no symptoms until I was in my twenties. I definitely increased gluten consumption — both during meals (I preferred chapatis to rice) and in terms of junk food like biscuits — after I moved from my parents’ home to a hostel. And as a postdoc in Paris, which is where the psoriasis first developed, I was eating gluten three meals a day (what to do, the bread was so awesome, and if it wasn’t bread it was pizza or pasta). It could be that in some people, gluten intolerance manifests itself only with an excess of gluten. Indeed, this seems to be the reason for the awareness in Italy: their traditional diet consisted almost wholly of gluten, and this gluten overdose could be responsible for increased occurrence of gluten-intolerance. The kid, therefore, sometimes eats gluten outside, though we are gluten-free at home.

How can a traditional food item like wheat be so bad for so many people, and is it the wheat or something else that is responsible? These are good questions. Out on the internet, there are several claims that the problem is not the wheat, but the modern industrial process of bread-making; or the high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat; or merely the fact that most junk food contains wheat, so by cutting out gluten, you eat healthier; or the carbohydrate hypothesis. The trouble with these explanations is that, in Paris where I first developed these symptoms, I ate high-quality traditional boulangerie bread, not the mass-produced sandwich stuff; it is impossible to ascertain what variety of wheat has been used in the batch of flour you buy or the restaurant you eat in; and, sad to say, we have not actually cut out junk food at all, merely replaced biscuits with “thattais” and “murukkus”. As for the carbohydrate hypothesis, even if it is true, the only solution is to cut out wheat, until they develop a variety without that carbohydrate. In any case, though not long ago I would have shuddered at the thought of cutting out bread, tandoori naan, croissants, and so on, my experience over the last year has destroyed any craving I have for these things, and the idea of doing a controlled experiment — consuming certain types of wheat, prepared in a certain way, and observing the effects — has no appeal either. I’d much rather cut the whole lot out.

Much of the above may strike the reader as speculation and unsourced, and it is — I have put in very few links, and while there is some academic literature, it is far from conclusive, while there is a huge amount of speculative stuff on the internet that I don’t want to endorse. This is my experience — it may or may not apply to anyone else. But here is the thing. If you suspect gluten is the problem for you and want to try going gluten free, it has to be all or nothing — reducing consumption may prevent effects down the line, but it will not cure any autoimmune (or other) condition that is already underway. You need to keep gluten out of your system entirely, for several weeks, to know whether it is the cause or not. And what I learned is it is not as hard as it looks, especially if you mostly eat home-made food. If you eat South Indian food, you can easily get by with rice, idli/dosa, and millet “upmas”. But even if you crave pancakes/chapatis/bread/pizza, it is not too hard.

Here is the current gluten-free mix I use:

  • 500 grams white urad dal (skinned black lentil) flour
  • 500 grams white rice flour
  • 1000 grams jowar (sorghum) flour
  • 500 grams corn starch

(The urad flour betrays my locale — an idli is surely the perfect example of a springy, spongy dumpling made with just two ingredients, rice and urad dal, without even added raising agents: it ferments naturally, at least if you live in south India. Urad dal is mucilaginous and thus contributes to binding and to trapping the bubbles from fermentation — the main problem with gluten-free flour being that the bubbles can escape, resulting in a flat product, and the result is generally crumbly).

For making pancakes with egg and milk, this works as a direct substitute for all-purpose wheat flour. For chapatis or pizza, mix in a teaspoon of guar gum or xanthan gum (necessary for binding, even with the urad flour included — unless you’re trying a traditional “akki-roti” style method), use milk or yogurt or warm water for kneading, don’t make the dough too dry, and let it sit a while before use (it’s even better after sitting overnight in a fridge, wrapped in clingfilm). For bread, use the gum, and either ferment with yeast and water or just mix with baking soda and yogurt (the latter is more reliable), add an egg (egg substitutes may work too), and mix well to make a wet, sticky batter. There are many gluten-free bread recipes on the internet, mostly with scary-looking instructions on using exact mixes of ingredients, exact oven temperatures, and so on; in reality it is not as bad as all that, and the flour mix I use varies a fair bit (eg, replace some of the jowar or rice with some millet flour, reduce the corn starch, etc). I may post my own recipes at some later point.