Monday, December 19, 2011

Last Man In Tower - Aravind Adiga

Underneath every old building that’s brought down and replaced by a new one, there remain dissenting voices that are either coerced into submission or forced into silence. Aravind Adiga’s new book Last Man In Tower deals with this theme and shows how, in matters of real estate, when big money is offered to you to part with your property, either you accept it or be forced into accepting it. You don’t have the choice to say no.

The theme of Adiga’s book is not new. There have been films made on it and probably books written (although I haven’t read one). But you can’t question the relevance of the topic in big towns of today’s India where often foreign or illegal money is pumped into big real estate projects, and obstructing laws and people subverted and silenced with the help of palms in positions of power (from police to politicians) that are forever willing to be greased.

In fact, big real estate projects are mostly made possible by the nexus of police, politicians and mercenaries. Without the collective might of whom, it’s not possible for a big project to fructify given that there is no limit to how many people’s lives and livelihoods (slum dwellers, middle class residents etc) a project affects, bringing sudden prosperity for some and forcible displacement for others depending on which side of the divide you are on.

Aravind Adiga’s Last Man In Tower covers the entire gamut of lives that are affected in various ways by these projects. Dharmen Shah, a big builder, makes a generous offer to the inhabitants of Visharm, an old building in Mumbai’s middle class neighbourhood, to leave the building so that it can be demolished to make way for a new glitzy tower, Shah’s dream project. Most accept the offer and some refuse. But as time goes by, the dissenters drop their opposition. One person, however, refuses to change his mind: Masterji, a retired school teacher who has fond memories of his wife and daughter in the building who passed away in not so distant a past.

Masterji’s refusal is not only a roadblock for Dharmen Shah to realize his dream project but also something that separates the other residents of Vishram from a cheque – that will toss them into the lap of prosperity, helping them out of their current-middle-class problems. Being well-meaning and somebody who gives the children of the building free tuitions, Masterji is the most respected person in Vishram , but because of his opposition to the offer, he slowly falls out of favour with all his neighbours, one after another. How the neighbours start conspiring against Masterji shows the middle class in poor light, exposing how they can sacrifice everything on the altar of ambition.

Before the book was released, Adiga had told in an interview that he would not like his reader to think Masterji is the hero and Dharmen Shah, villain. If there is any hero in the book, he had told, it’s Bombay. After reading the book I agree with him. He has shown how crushing poverty resides side by side with wealth. You only have to turn a street corner or move your sight slightly to go from a wealthy neighborhood to a slum. Bombay, Agida says in the book, puts a price on everyone. He who doesn’t put a price on himself in Bombay finds it difficult to survive.

While reading the book many questions sprang to my mind. Why doesn’t Masterji accept the offer? Does he not see if the offer is accepted by him, it will change the lives of his neighbours forever? What’s wrong with saying yes if it helps you get a better life? Shah is making a generous offer, after all. If every person in Masterji’s position says yes, in India, will not the discord between development and its opponents get over for good?

At the end of the story, a character tells another character, “I have learnt something about life, Mrs. Rego. Then he points his finger in the distance. And “Behind these overlapping wires, she saw (Mrs. Rego) banyan trees; all of which were hemmed in by fencing; except for one graying ancient, whose aerial roots, squirming through barbed wire and broken glass, dripped down the wall like primordial ooze until their growing tips, nearly touching the pavement, brushed against a homeless family cooking rice in the shade; and with each root-tip that had beaten the barbed wire the old banyan tree said: “Nothing can stop a living thing that wants to be free.”

Last Man In Tower is so close to reality that it sometimes reads like a work of nonfiction and leaves you in a grim mood and the mood grows on you. I think it’s because the world Adiga creates is very small for most part – just a building and the lives of people in and around it – with very occasional detours. The book also leaves you with a poignant aftertaste being built around only one idea: The irrelevance of ideals in today’s consumerist world. But later I felt the fact that Masterji refused to accept the offer to the last is a triumph of ideals; that he paid a price for it is another matter.

Like his White Tiger, Adiga again tells a gripping story and leaves you with many questions.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Vacation in Calcutta: Changing Landscape

I returned from Calcutta to Bangalore this week. Each time I visit Calcutta I feel the old Calcutta I grew up in has moved a few more inches back to make way for a new Calcutta. Most old buildings have made way for new apartments. The ones that have not received the interest of promoters are begging for repair to resist the effect of time. Their owners don’t repair them - either because they are not financially sound enough or because the buildings are let out, in parts, to multiple tenants who have not revised their rents for decades.

These buildings are generally sprawling with large verandas. They present risk to pedestrians walking under them. Some buildings have cautionary boards on them and the rest leave the pedestrians to their fate.

A little away from my area a ruin drew my attention. It is a heap of debris, remnants of an old structure under demolition now. At the middle of the ruin stands a grocery shop which has somehow escaped the demolition drive.

I asked how. The building belonged to a widow whose children are settled in the US. The widow owned several buildings which she willed away to charity organizations some time back. One of them she donated to the healthcare wing of an organization which is supposed to take care of her in return until she is alive.

The building with the shop within was also her property. It will be replaced by an ashram. The building, like other old buildings, had lot of tanents. While the other tenants accepted the financial compensation the promoter offered them to leave the building, the grocery shop owners (four brothers) refused to accept the payment and demanded a shop in the same position of the  ashram instead. The promoter refused and the grocer brothers went to court, halting the demolition drive. This is the story of any changing landscape.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

FDI in Retail: As I see it

No sooner than the noise over foreign direct investment (FDI) in airlines sank, India is talking about FDI again.  This time it’s in retail. This time, however, the political noise is of higher decibel than that of FDI in airlines. And it’s not surprising because FDI in retail affects a larger base of people than FDI in airlines.

The issue has already united opposition parties cutting across political beliefs.   

And in this ideologically untenable coalition of opposition parties, there is enough to laugh over for someone looking for it. The Left parties are congratulating the Right for putting up a stout opposition to the government introducing FDI.However, the FDI decision has found endorsement from various business leaders and some major English dailies. 

But what the opponents of FDI in retail really have to say?  They say it will bring in foreign giants who will wipe out the middle man engaged in taking goods and food from the producer to the consumer. (The middle man can be a neighborhood grocer or somebody (or a group) who takes produce from the farmer to the shopkeeper.)

The anti-FDI guys also allege that the multinationals will lower their prices so much that small shopkeepers, unable to meet the price onslaught due to poor cost and infrastructure capabilities, will be eventually driven out from the retail ecosystem. 

Telegraph cited a case study to address various concerns regarding FDI in retail. The study said that a sizable group of farmers in Bengal is producing potatoes for Pepsi (Pepsi Lays) potato chips. The potatoes they grow reach Pepsi via a network of middle men. Pepsi also uses these middle men as a conduit to pay the farmers. 

And it’s working. Some farmers interviewed by the paper said the rates paid to them are much more than the usual market rates and the payments are also made in a timely manner.  

So this addresses two concerns (a) the middle man, instead of getting wiped out, is a well-established part of the business cycle; (b) the farmers are not only getting better rates than they would through the conventional supply-chain model, but they are also getting their payments in a timely manner.   

Now comes the shopkeeper. I will share my personal experience in this regard. I am currently holidaying in Calcutta. And yesterday my mother handed me a list of goods to be bought from the market. I went to a shop and did my purchase. 

But just when I was walking out, it struck me that on the other side of the road lay big departmental stores where I could have gone. But I didn’t. Not because I owe anything to the shopkeeper but because it’s a habit to visit neighborhood shops to make such purchases. And this common habit has survived the entry of big players like Reliance and Mahindra into the Indian retail space.  

And anyone who is familiar with these shopkeepers knows that they are not particularly having a great time in the current scenario: in the absence of global retail giants. 

These shopkeepers cater to two kinds of customers; those who just walk in once in a while and those who make bulk purchases from them on a weekly or monthly basis. While their business can’t subsist on the casual walk-ins, the shopkeepers retain the bulk-buying customer base by employing soft-old-world customer-retention measures like social courtesies instead of better service or pricing. Because even among small shopkeepers there is enough competition and the quality of their goods hardly varies leaving the customer almost nothing to choose from.

But as I make my case for FDI in retail, I hear the government has put the decision to introduce FDI in retail in suspension due to political opposition.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Of Films, Literature, Social Media and Cancer

Tahelka recently conducted Think, an initiative to get together prominent personalities from various fields – literature, films, science etc - and across the globe to discuss and exchange ideas on topics as varied as their professions - literature, films, social media, etc. The venue was Goa.

I had read about Think in newspaper when it had run into a controversy over Tarun Tejpal’ s (the founding editor of Tahelka and the man behind Think) comment:“Eat, drink and sleep with whoever you want tonight but come tomorrow as it’s full house.”

They covered the program in the Tahelka magazine and I flipped through its pages to get a feel of things. I decided to Youtube, but as the list of guests was both impressive and long, the choice of whose views I would like to hear was difficult to make. But I finally chalked out a small list for me. Shashi Tharoor, VS Naipaul, Sidharth Mukherjee (biography of cancer fame) etc, were there. Later I made an addition to my list - Ammir Khan.

All of them were interesting. Sashi Tharoor spoke on the role of new media in the modern world, sharing the stage with Hari Kuzru. Shashi said how new media are not just helping connect people but also making meaningful contribution to disaster management and handling humanitarian issues. “But what about its downside – the fact that the direct access Twitter and Facebook give to public figures (like Tharoor himself) can be misused by abusive fans?” the host asked. Over time you develop a thick skin Shashi responded. Hari said that’s why you have the blocking button.

Tarun started his conversation with Naipaul after a long introduction of the author about his prominence in the world of literature. Naipaul is great and controversial in equal measure. So Tarun finished his introduction by saying, “Try to know Naipaul through his books, that’s where he lies, not through Google posts and media reports.”

Some years ago Naipaul had rued the ‘death of the novel’ and he substantiated his prophesy. He said any art form has its own life cycle. The novel was born hundred or so years ago with Charles Dickens and hundred years on it has changed so much that Dickensian novels are not written any more. He said probably cinema will replace the long form of writing.

Tahelka runs a ‘how to write’ course and Tarun mainly asked questions keeping in mind the benefit of his students, I felt. Talking about his writing process , Naipaul said he used to go to a place and put up in a hotel and spend the hotel life for sometime. Before going he would make sure he knew some people in the place who would put him in touch with more people.

Naipaul would casually talk to them while wining and dining. But the casual setting of wining and dining didn’t mean Naipaul was relaxed; instead he was constantly on the prowl for ‘anything interesting or profound’. Naipaul said every writer has his own methods and you will find out your own as well. On certain things, however, you have to depend on your instinct or whatever.

Tarun Tejpal and Naipaul go back fifteen years (Naipaul blurbs for Tarun’s books) and their intimacy was quite evident during the discussion.

I was particularly curious about Siddartha Mukherjee. Siddartha probably has been a prominent figure in the world of oncology for a long time, but he entered general consciousness this year by winning the Pulitzer Prize for his Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

With some-days old stubble and an untrimmed French beard, Siddartha has a grubby and intense look. The unkempt appearance helps him look his part: a cancer scientist. He is based in the US.

He was interviewed by Barkha Dutt. To give the discussion a dose of immediacy Barkha framed some of her questions based on the theme - that by failing to save Jobs from being claimed by cancer, science or technology has failed to return Jobs the favour he did to the humankind by giving us so many powerful technologies. (Never mind the exagerration; that has become our habit when it comes to Steve Jobs.) Siddartha said it’s a failure of imagination for the medical world.

He informed that women who eat fatty foods are more prone to breast cancer and this fact, a survey revealed, led some breast-cancer afflicted women to conclude that the bag of potato chips they ate in remote past was responsible for their affliction. A bag of potato chips can’t lead to cancer. It’s plain guilty consciousness.

He revealed many more important facts about the disease.

For all our medical advancements, our attitude towards cancer hasn’t changed since the time Cleopatra, in ancient Egypt, had discovered that she had cancer.

The discussion was certainly grim, but I heard it very intently. This is a disease we all want to know about for curiosity as well as dread.

What impresses me the most about Ammir is the sincerity he brings to everything he does. When he spoke about his films, that sincerity was evident. He talked about the shock that the first cut of Lagan, which was seven-hour long, induced on them. They felt the movie that took one year and a lot of money to be made would probably be a dud given its length. Aamir edited the film for six months. And it wasn’t easy because he couldn’t indiscriminately chop scenes as that would make the film too fast; and a too-fast narrative would go against the basic nature of the film which was classic.

Aamir said he believes in making ‘good’ films without ignoring their commercial interests as film-making is a team work and many people, starting from the producer to the distributor, remain dependent on a film and are affected to various extents by its success or failure. Being from a film family, he understands this.

He said he doesn’t take fat advances; instead he waits for the film to play out and then takes his fee depending on its performance. He follows the philosophy of madaris (roughly translates into minstrels) who are surrounded by viewers when they perform on streets and when the show is over one of them takes off his hat and goes to the viewers for their fee. Those who liked the show drop a fee in the hollow of the hat; those who didn’t are free to go without a payment.

The list of guests I Youtubed on excluded many. Probably I would catch up with them later.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Indian Low Cost Airlines and FDI

Not too many years ago air travel was a luxury of the rich. But for last five years or so, low cost air carriers (LCCs) have changed the way the middle class India travels. However, if you look at how few of them are there and how they struggle to survive due to the volatility of the airlines industry and high infrastructure and maintenance costs, you will think whether this luxury will be short-lived.

There are only two to three operators in LCC sector and among them only one - IndiGO - is profit-making. And the current crisis the Indian airlines industry is going through where even the high cost players are struggling to survive due to ever burgeoning maintenance costs makes the situation of the LCCs more precarious.

Even from a customer’s standpoint, the LCCs are hard up. There is not much to choose between their fares and the quality of their services is uniformly mediocre. But that mediocrity is justified as perils of being ‘no frills’ service. It means you have to pay for everything onboard, starting from meal to water. (They sometimes serve toffees free.) Some LCCs even refuse to refund your ticket fare when you insist on cancellation and instead ask you to keep the money with them to use it for any future travel by the same carrier.

Alas, this ‘pay for a service if you want’ is not unique to Indian LCCs. In the US, on LCC flights, you are expected to pay additional spot costs for additional leg space and similar things.

If you fly low-cost, you have invariably faced these or any one of these situations. But surprisingly, after sulking for a while, you moved on. And when you flew next time, you flew low-cost again.

Because LCCs solve certain fundamental travel problems for you: They phenomenally shorten your travel time if compared with trains (and they say their target customers are those who travel by train) and they ensure general comfort of air travel, again not if compared with their high-cost variants but train. And they, of course, charge you almost half as much as costlier service providers.

But will this breed with their existential problems doubled by the aviation crisis survive or will they die a quick, natural and uncontested death?

I did some net research to find out how the lone profiting-making LCC carrier IndiGO is managing to remain profitable amidst general gloom. These facts will explain.

IndiGo has a record on-time arrival. An article says, “The average Indian mayn’t be punctual in his day-to-day life, but he values being taken to his destination on time by a service which he is paying for.” (I can identify with it.)

The LCC carrier also acts quickly on customer complaints. While onboard, a flier wanted to change his seat for a front row seat and he had been asked for extra money and denied a receipt for the same by the staff. Next time, while travelling by IndiGo, the same flier saw the air attendants give receipts to those asking for a change of seat.

IndiGo uses lighter aircrafts that guzzle less fuel and it buys more aircrafts than it requires and earns money later by leasing or selling out the additional aircrafts.

If anlyzed by a technical expert, these methods will reveal their weak points. For example, do light aircrafts undermine safety in inclement weather? Keeping a fleet bigger than your needs so that you can sell or lease out the additional fleet is speculative in nature and if there is a hike in fuel prices leading to an increase in airfares and thereby a fall in demand, the additional fleet mayn’t find buyers or leasees.

But, given that IndiGo has been posting profits following these methods, they can be considered safe practices to follow.

Talking about LCCs and not talking about the airlines industry and its ailments is limiting the discussion. And even for LCCs to function properly and profitably, there needs to be a healthy airlines industry, and that will require policies that can maintain and improve the health. The Indian government is
considering FDI (foreign direct investment) in airlines. There are views both against and in favour of it.

I again did some net research to understand the vox populi on FDIs.

Let me share the general concerns against FDI. The foreign players with deeper pockets will maul the domestic operators. They will offer artificially low fares and make the domestic players uncompetitive. They will pose security problems. And some countries like the US and Canada have been denying foreign players entry into their aviation space.

While these views can’t be outrightly dismissed, if you see these views carefully, you will notice that any competitive market poses these problems. If you also put these views together, they will reveal two patterns that are generally found in a competitive market: supremacy of deeper pockets and presence of ulterior motives in very few cases (security in this case).

The first can be combated by creating a level playing field through regulations and the second, by creating transparency. Of course, both are difficult to achieve, but a beginning can be made or at least a direction taken. And that would lead to something much better than what is present today where, some allege, the foreign players are at greater advantage than the domestic ones.

FDI will ensure influx of funds which is required for an ailing industry and competition will mean the consumer will have greater choice. Additionally, it will also create jobs and ensure lesser danger of job losses.

If you look at the IT industry, the admission of foreign investment, instead of killing the domestic players, has helped them carve out their distinct position in the market space. So you have tier ones, tier twos as also small startups.

And in a healthier industry, LCCs will be at greater advantage than the high-cost carriers because they can
attract a greater consumer base.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Literary Magazines and their Survival

I have been reading literary magazines for some years now. The first literary magazine I read was Asia Literary Review. I stuck to it until I stopped finding it one day at the bookstore I visit. I searched for it at other bookstores, but without any luck. Probably it met with the same fate many literary magazines meet eventually; either the store stops stocking them due to lack of sale or the magazine shuts down. This is the tragedy of literary magazines (LMs).

LMs are vastly different from the glossy newsstand magazines. LMs generally carry short fiction works by known and unknown authors, book reviews, photo essays and articles on current affairs and culture; they are literary in nature. Not for them the snazzy film reviews, one-page idiosyncratically written biased pieces etc.

I have nothing against newsstand magazines and I enjoy reading them, but LMs distinguish themselves by content and approach.

If a popular magazine informs you of an issue in a short and quick manner, a literary magazine gives you the complete perspective. Only when you read a topic in a literary magazine, you understand how many sides can exist to a subject. (If read over a period of time, you develop an analytical and all-sided approach to dealing with a subject.)

LMs showcase culture, give a platform to new writers and photo enthusiasts by giving them an opportunity to publish their work, alas not many are lucky enough to publish their works with them as you have to meet their criteria and they greatly vary from magazine to magazine and are mostly not clearly explained in their submission guidelines. Also, unlike in popular magazines, articles in literary magazines are tilt-free, if a little leftist, which is understandable given their arty nature.

Then why literary magazines struggle to survive while their newsstand siblings do well? I have worked out some theories. The strength of LMs – their content - is also their weakness. People want to be informed but in an entertaining and quick way. They may want to know an issue but only enough to talk about it in office and not necessarily to get a student’s perspective.

Another problem is lack of exposure. While ordinary magazines enjoy a round-the-clock exposure to customers at pun shops and newspaper stands, LMs stay tucked in a solitary corner of serious bookstores. So unless you visit these bookstores – and there are light readers who don’t – and are curious enough to visit the neglected corners of the stores, you are unlikely to get a view of these magazines.

Unlike books, magazines are generally identified with quick reading, and the fact that LMs generally have a solemn look and feel about them (covers are generally very serious) doesn’t help.

But these problems are not without solutions. I think LMs’ content approach (length, nature etc) should not be tinkered with to get a wider audience. LMs would never have the following of their newsstand counterparts, but they would always have their dedicated readership. What can be worked on is their publicity. They have to enjoy more visibility through proper placements at bookstores and newspaper stands.

Probably this sort of network is difficult to build by small groups that mostly run LMs; but here is where big newspapers and publishing houses have a role to play. An increased reader base with a polished reading taste will only help them in turn.

If nothing is done, this species will meet with extinction.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sadistic Part of Diwali

Today I reacted to a Deccan Herald (an English daily) news item such that you react to a needless tragedy brought by a futile pursuit. The article reported that on Wednesday some people injured their eyes by Diwali fireworks. What was worse is that some of them were not even using fireworks themselves but just passing by others using them. The piece was accompanied by a photo of the poor chaps with their eyes bandaged. The article said passersby are most likely to be hurt by Diwali fireworks because they are least prepared.

It further informed that this despite ‘how to celebrate Dewali safely’ educational campaigns the government has been running. I thought how many of the children playing with fireworks even know about those campaigns and even if their parents know and have cautioned them, how many of them are likely to dampen their Diwali spirit by being mindful of boring government cautions. In fact, why blame kids; even their parents put fire to bomb wicks with the innocence and unconcern that will put their children to shame.

I have nothing against fireworks in general. Some of them form extraordinary spectacle and almost all of them add to the festivity of the occasion. Except one: crackers. There is nothing beautiful or festive about them, only eardrum-shattering noise. And sadly, in the squib community, they are the most used ones. For each rocket that whistles up and bursts forming patterns against the dark sky, there are at least ten crackers that go off giving the festival evening the sound and feel of a warzone.

There is a cryptic mentality behind bursting noisy crackers. Unlike rockets and their ilk which are about delicacy and beauty, noisy crackers are aggressive and assertive. They help you announce your arrival and let others know that you couldn’t care less that the noise was bothering them. In fact, the fact that the noise could bother others makes crackers more preferable to their silent beauty-oriented cousins. There is something sadistic and macho about bursting them. As a kid, when I used to burst them together with my cousins, holding them in your hand, instead of keeping them at a safe distance, to light their wick and then throwing them with an air of nonchalance, as if unconcerned about the risk of the act, was a mark of bravery.

The older you were in the group, the closer to you and the longer you would like to keep the combustible. One of my cousins even used to go to his school and stealthily throw a bomb in a solitary corner and then see it go off from a distance and then brag about it to his friends the next day. It was his protestation against a bullying system. Can you tell me what fun the new-money types derive from bursting long rolls of slender red reed-like patakas sinking an entire neighborhood into nerve-wrecking sound?

But let me not blame crackers alone. All forms of squibs are bad in varying degrees. And their use, however warranted by the occasion of Diwali, puts others at risk. After taking off, if a rocket assumes a crooked trajectory instead of a straight one, it’s anyone’s guess what can happen. Similarly, a rangmashal or phuljhari or fire whirl can be equally dangerous to the user as also a person walking by (as the article suggested). And all this or at least a substantial bit of the risk posed to others can be avoided if only one can avoid using fireworks in neighborhoods and go to an open maidan.

But then the anonymous nature of a vast maidan would hardly help you make a point. If the government is really serious about reducing hysteria-induced injuries, it should consign its educational modules on safe Diwali to flames and simply ban the use of fireworks in public place. My celebration shouldn’t become your agony.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Musings on Russia

Lately, I have been having an affair with Russia. I am reading Anton Chekhov (I have written a bit about it below) and accidentally the other day I heard a program on radio: From Russia with love. I can’t remember the channel I heard it on, but I found it quite interesting. It was a long program where the host interminably read out tit bits on Russia in Hindi, in news-reading style, with very occasional interruptions coming in form of Hindi songs. I couldn’t follow whether it was an Indian-government-backed initiative to promote our relations with Russia. Since then I have heard the program a few more times.

The program covers a wide range of topics – science and technology, literature, healthcare etc -and paints Russia with a very lofty brush. I found some of the stuff amusing. Let me share some of them. Somewhere in Russia, child psychiatrists are conducting an experiment where they are having friendly dogs play with mentally retarded children and after weeks of play and mingling with the canines, the children are showing the signs of improvement in their social behavior.

Now potatoes are an inseparable part of Russian diet, but they were not always so. Many centuries back, when a Russian czar went to Europe, he was introduced to the vegetable and he sent a sack of a particular variety of potatoes to a feudal lord back in Russia and asked him to grow the variety of potatoes in his field. After some years although the consumption of potatoes slightly spread in Russia, it remained restricted to elite circles, being served only at parties where boiled potatoes were served with sugar sprinkled on them.

Then, when famine came to Russia and the country slid into an excessive scarcity of food, the Russian monarchy forced peasants to grow potatoes. Forced to grow a vegetable they were not used to, the peasants revolted. The host couldn’t say what happened to the revolt, but the rise in potato consumption in Russia can be, the host informed, traced back to a few years after the breakout of the revolt.

What surprised me most about the bits of information the host shared is that everything sounded surprisingly novel despite the fact that Russia has been a long-standing foreign-policy buddy of India and the Indian-government has sponsored many TV and radio programs (especially on Doordarsan) as part of its relationship-building measures with the Soviet Russia. (The radio program, in fact, sounded like one of those initiatives which have outlasted their purpose and time.)

Had it been America or say Germany, would things still feel so unheard of? Many of the things would still sound novel but as a whole they wouldn’t sound as foreign and unfamiliar as Russia’s. And remember, the US, Germany nor any other country has been India’s friend for as long as Russia.

Our hobnobbing with Russia started in the post-independent Nehru era, although it was informal due to Nehru’s non-alignment policy. The relationship was formalized under subsequent governments as the cold war intensified with the passage of time and it became difficult to stay neutral. And it got an impetus when Russia sided with India against Pakistan during the Bangladesh war. In the early 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Russia and the start of market liberalization in India, we started getting close to the US and moving away from Russia.

But strangely, this long friendship never led to people to people relationship. Russia remained an obscure place where few people, not good enough to get admission in Indian colleges, went to study medical, engineering and other technical courses. We didn’t know enough about its people and society nor were we really interested in them. For us, Russia was a country behind a veil. Sadly, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, not much has changed about Russia. (Last week I read an article which said Russia is still not well understood by Europe.)

I think to us what glamorized American culture deglamorized Russia: Hollywood. If you see Hollywood movies of the cold war era, Russia was their favorite punching bag. Either it was Rambo outfighting the Russians in Afghanistan or James Bond (who is actually a British character but Bond movies and Hollywood are inseparable) outwitting a Russian spy.

In the cold war days, America fought Russia not just through the CIA but also through popular culture, demonizing everything Russian and lionizing anything American. And it worked, because the Soviet Russia didn’t have an equivalent of Hollywood which could combat US popular attack and sell its point to the world. Or being a communist country, did Russia prefer secrecy to transparency, never creating a Hollywood deliberately?

Perhaps that’s the reason why we still know so less about Russia.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Anton Chekhov's Short Stories

I have been reading a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov, one of the Russian literary greats, regarded as master of modern short stories. What triggered my interest in Chekov is that many short story authors I have read are said to model their style after Chekhov’s.

The most famous of them all are Hemingway and Faulkner; I have reader neither of them. But I have read RK Narayan’s and recently Daniyal Mueenuddin’s and many more well and little known writers’ short works (in books and magazines) who, knowingly or unknowingly, follow the Chekhov style, which bases itself not on an airtight plot but a slow narrative without too many excitements and mostly ends on a sad note. It’s very close to how real life is.

Chekhov lived until 1904 and so the stories show the pre-revolution Russia. The stories are about Russian elite and peasant life (and its miserability). But they don’t make any political comment on the human conditions prevalent before the coming of the revolution.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: Journey through Pakistan

In the last five years or so, the number of books published in India has increased dramatically but their quality has hardly been good. Apart from some exceptions, the books being published are mostly shallow with very little or no literary value. I’m not particularly being critical of Chetan Bhagat. While he is not spectacular, his plots are good and, of course, he gets people to read who wouldn’t otherwise read helping expand the English reader base in India. But my point is his success has spawned many ‘trying to be Bhagat’ types and the market is milling with them. Their themes are limited – mostly college romance and such nonsense – and mostly they have nothing new to say.

On the other hand, Pakistan may not be producing as many writers but their outputs are of international standards. This has, of course, reasons other than literary. The west has traditionally been ignorant of the subcontinental countries, but even within India Pakistan has mostly been seen through the mist of current affairs issues that may reveal something about the politics of a country but hardly tell about anything else.

9/11 led to curiosity about Pakistan, its society and people. And that curiosity has been very well fed by writers like Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie etc. (Granta, a British literary magazine, published an edition on Pakistan last year where it published their work.)

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Danyal Muidduin comes from the same school. But where it’s different is it has completely steered clear of political issues and dealt with people and society.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders takes you through various layers of Pakistani society and power structure and tells about their cross connections and interdependencies. It ushers you into the drawing rooms of the rich as well as gives you the glimpses of how the poor live their lives.

The book is a collection of eight short stories with some interconnections such as recurrence of characters from same families in different stories that are otherwise disconnected. These families mostly form the elite stratosphere of Daniyal’s rich Pakistan – as if to suggest that wealth is so concentrated in the country as to be a preserve of only a few families while poverty is omnipresent. By bringing in a character or social setup something around which you read in another story, this inorganic interconnection gives you the feeling of being not very far from the world you exited some stories back.

While the plots of urban-centric stories are more intricate, the stories set in rural Pakistan bring about Daniyal’s flair for scenic description.

But of all things, the Indian reader would be surprised by the city life lived by the youth coming from wealthy families. Drugs, booze, night clubs, you have everything. So does the murder of Salman Taseer signify that this particular Pakistan is under attack from religious extremists and it's shrinking? While reading the book I had many such questions forming in my mind. And so will you.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Do you have cold?

I tend to catch cold very easily. Sometimes it doesn’t help that I am an ice cream lover, sometimes just an auto ride with strong wind buffeting me is enough.

I suffered from a bout of cold roughly a month back and am nursing another one currently. And each time the problem returns, it leads to congestion in the chest leaving me coughing and spitting thick and quavering bob of sputum.

It takes me a complete cycle of antibiotic to find relief and then a month or two later, the demon is back again. Last time, when I was suffering, my mother told me taking antibiotic so often would make me immune to it and that’s a troublesome thing to happen. Last week, after hawking for a day or two and bringing up sputum, I decided it was time to visit a doctor. After the doctor had finished talking about his customary stuff, I brought up the antibiotic topic.

He informed I have already developed some amount of immunity to antibiotics; otherwise, I wouldn’t catch cold so soon after going through an antibiotic course. Generally, once you complete an antibiotic course, you should be all right for next six months or so. So could I go for other stream of medication to cure cold? “No,” he said and continued: “if I want to cure fast.

“Nowadays the problem is people want quick exit from ailments. There are mild dosages of antibiotics but they don’t ensure quick cure and you might think the doctor is not good enough and go to another physician who will give you stronger dosages only to improve his clientele. No one wants to risk loss of clients by giving mild dosages, even if it’s ethically advisable to give milder dosages first and in case of poor response move to higher ones.”

It reminded me that health is a big business. It works through a nexus between doctors, medical institutions and pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceutical companies pay doctors to promote their medicines and they work with hired PR houses helping them with their promotional activities by giving favorable quotes to media and delivering talks at health conferences.

Medicines that are taken up for promotion aren’t just those that become available in the market after meeting established ethical and medical standards but also those that have government ban on them forbidding their use either completely or for certain diseases. The outcome is biased health stories and programs in newspapers, magazines and on TV.

The doctor said a long term solution to my tendency to catch cold lies in improving immunity through physical exercise of the kind that taxes your lung causing heavy breathing; which causes inhalation and exhalation of air improving the health of your lung. He recommended yoga. Then he gave the ‘done to death’ advice. “Leave smoking.”

I am not a heavy smoker nor do I live a sedentary life (I do freehand exercise everyday), but whether the exercise helps in this matter or the fact that I smoke, however moderately, adds to the problem, I am not sure.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Where will Anti Corruption Movement go from here

The huge success that the UPA government has conceded the Anna team may be euphoric for theoretical reasons like trump of people, assertion of democracy etc. But it’s also equally worrying. Emboldened by success, Anna has announced his mission number two, a nationwide campaign to ask people to punish corruption-tainted MPs by not voting for them. I thought the bill they have proposed was enough to address corruption by MPs.

Anna has also said that our educational system requires correcting, so another campaign will be launched to address the concern. Is there anyone to tell him that education is handled by HRD and they can make their recommendations to the ministry?

This disregard for the system is ominous. Even the staunchest of Anna supporters would not like the country to lose whatever little it has in the way of system. It’s one thing to picket at Ramila Maidan but quite another to have Ramila Maidan replace parliament. Moreover, no popular movement remains apolitical forever. Anna’s movement has been alleged to have mild BJP leaning but there has been nothing found to conclusively prove the allegation. However, it’s anyone’s guess which party will gain the most from the movement and which will take the hit.

You can say the political fallout is a natural corollary of the movement and something the Anna team can’t be blamed for but can’t argue that in the highly competitive environment of Indian politics a politically virgin movement (considering that it doesn’t have any political association already) which is supremely popular will not be snapped up by a political outfit.

I don’t doubt Anna’s integrity but the movement’s course of action is not decided by Anna alone.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Is Anti-Corruption Movement Degenerating?

When a popular movement develops a huge following, it runs the risk of becoming jingoistic basing itself not on reason or concern for common good but the collective might of a community/group religious or otherwise. Anna’s movement has currently acquired this muscular characteristic.

Anna Hazare enthusiasts have become a common sight on the streets, going by bikes or walking in processions waving the national flag and sloganeering aggressively. This aggressive enthusiasm leaves me thinking whether they are open to any kind of reasoning. I shudder to think what would happen of me if I approached them and told them that, while I want a corruption-free India and don’t doubt the intentions of Anna, I would like to see the other versions of the bill discussed in parliament. Or Anna is great, but, like everyone else, he is also fallible.

But you can’t blame them for that. They are behaving that way because they have internalized the message of the movement. The movement has become an outlet to ventilate their pent up feelings. Anna has become a stick for them to hit the high and mighty with. The success of the movement for them no more lies in combating corruption and improving the society but to have their way if not by the power of reason then by power of the lung.

However, funnily, it’s not the fringe supporters alone who are behaving this way; even the core team of Anna, which advises him and comprises of highly professionally-accomplished people, is behaving likewise. How else can you explain their insistence on flouting the standard parliamentary procedures to pass their bill? Why would they say they were not happy with the government agreeing to 70 per cent of their bill and would want 90 per cent of it accepted? Why would they not understand that before a fair government, which UPA is certainly not, their bill is one among many bills proposed by various parities? If this is not gundagiri (hooliganism), then what is?

I think this intransigence of the Anna team has swelled the ranks of its detractors in last four to five day. To be fair to the Anna team, the government has done little to inspire their trust and it has done everything it can to undermine the credibility of the movement. But, even if all that is true, the government can’t forgo certain procedures. And if it does, it wouldn’t be good for our system. The Anna team has to understand this.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Uniqueness of Anna Hazare Movement

On Friday, a friend of mine called me for general chit-chat and asked about my views on the Anna Hazare movement. In last two or three months, I, like many of you, have read so many streams of views on it that I found myself in a bind to consolidate my own. Later I decided to step out of the present bubble, to insulate myself from the high decibel the movement has acquired, and think how some years from now I would remember the movement. I would remember the A movement for the very reason that I would remember the year 2011. (Now that we have lived through the larger part of the year, it’s not premature to take a panoramic view of it.)

Let alone a year or two back, even a month or two before the onset of this year, many of us would not have thought that 2011 would bring a chain of popular revolutions (or proletariat uprising as some left-minded chaps would like to say) reestablishing our faith in people power.

First, the streets of the Arab world erupted in protest, and then we heard China putting down sporadic popular uprisings in the country. Meanwhile, various countries in Europe saw people hitting the streets questioning government policies. And finally, England, a part of the continent that’s supposedly home to most discipline-loving people (no pun intended), caught cold with London going up in flames.

Though the reasons that triggered these protests were as diversified as their geographies – in Arab and China political and civil rights and in Europe economy (and as for London, some would say plain looting) – a common thread ran through them: Outpouring of popular anger expressed not through any regulated outlet – like conventional media – but by people themselves taking to the streets. The Anna Hazare movement shares this commonality.

However, there is a significant difference between Anna’s movement and the other ones. The difference is while the other movements are more of leaderless-faceless-sporadic- spontaneous uprisings, the Anna movement has always had a particular man at its centre – Anna - around whom the movement started and then slowly built up. (Some political observers have likened it to the JP and Mandal movements of the past, but even there Anna’s movement is different as it’s allegedly apolitical and, being so, it has been able to attract support from all sections of society.)

The A movement has another vital difference. Unlike its foreign counterparts, this movement is (and always has been) around a single cause: corruption. And I think this singularity and universality of the cause (corruption being a problem that touches everyone’s life, rich and poor) is behind its success.

But I also believe its cause- corruption - is its biggest undoing. I don’t have enough familiarity with the bill proposed by the Anna Team to understand whether it would be effective in eradicating corruption or not, nor am I qualified to do so. But I think having a society completely free of corruption is a utopian idea - simply because corruption doesn’t just reside in any one layer of the system, but it’s available everywhere. How much will you stem, how far will you go?

But that’s no excuse to not try to cleanse the system. Every society is corrupt, but some are more corrupt than others. We may or mayn’t become a fully corruption-free country, but we can certainly avoid topping international charts on corruption.

The A movement has scored several successes so far: It has developed a pan-India appeal, it has forced a reluctant government (!) into acting on corruption, it has assured us that the Indian middle class, for all its indifference, can rally around a public cause etc. But the biggest achievement is it has brought corruption at the centre stage - which will occupy the place of prominence on political manifestos for sometime to come.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Passage to India by EM Forster

After reading the reviews of A Passage to India by EM Forster in blogosphere and finding it deferentially talked about in interviews of noted writers writing on India, I had been looking forward to reading the book.

A Passage to India is set in a small town, Chandrapore, which is home to all that characterized the relationship between the natives and their rulers, social divisions, cynicism about the other, etc . Mrs. Moore visits Chandrapore with Miss Adela Quested to get her married to her son Ronnie. Adela is curious to know the ‘real’ India which she believes only a native can help her with. In comes Aziz, an anglicized doctor and a perfect bridge between the British and the native. They meet through a social acquaintance and Aziz proposes to take Mrs. Moore and Adela to the Marabar Caves. While returning from Marabar Caves by train, Aziz is arrested on the charge of making sexual advances on Adela in the Caves.

The book was published in 1924, a time when, thanks to the national movements taking place in India, a political awareness had developed among the masses about the present and future of India and its place in the commity of nations. And the book presents glimpes of that. 

But political awareness had hardly narrowed the gap between the two races. You have to read the book to know how deep the divide between the two societies ran. Of course, there were occasional intersections of paths but without any integration. This divide was consciously maintained by British officials as a matter of policy because distance, they thought, would help establish their superiority over the subject race. After Aziz has been arrested, an English character says each time there is an attempt to break the divide, a crisis of this nature will ensue.

What makes the reading more enjoyable helping you understand the flavor of the time is a very informative foreward, slightly long, by Pankaj Mishra. (The one I read is Penguin Classics.) It informs that Forster visited India around the time of the First World War and after returning to England, he had written Maurice, not A Passage to India. It had taken him 10 years to start writing Passage. It means by the time Forster had started writing the book India’s political atmosphere had considerably changed since he had visited India. Probably this lack first-hand experience explains why Forster says nothing about what was happening during this time in the larger India. Although telling so would be slightly outside the immediate scope of the plot, the reader would have enjoyed a little sprinkling of the general political climate as those were exciting times.

The book, however, often refers to Mughal rulers to indicate how Mughal greats like Akbar and Babar have remained a part of popular imagination and discourse.

Foster often uses farfetched analogies to explain his points. The analogies read well but at times they can be too long and break the reading flow. The story is generally slow-moving with some occasional fizzes, like when Adela accuses Aziz of misconduct, the pace of the story suddenly peaks only to slow down again.

India has changed beyond wildest of imaginations since Foster wrote the book, although our social attitudes have remained the same in many ways. So while Passage is a passage to the past, it also throws up what is current and relevant to the India of today. Perhaps A Passage to India was not an irrelevant book to read on the 64th year of India’s independence.

A Passage to India is a must for those interested in British India.

Friday, August 5, 2011

River of Smoke - A Delightful Read

Some weeks ago, with rave reviews River of Smoke made an arrival similar to its prequel Sea of Poppies a year or two back. The book was much awaited by the ones who had read the first installment as Ghosh had left many an end untied: Neel, Ah Fatt, Deeti, Kalua etc, and the fate of the schooner Ibis. In River of Smoke, Ghosh deals with majority of those characters briefly, with the exception of Neel, giving them temporal conclusion; maybe to revive them again in the last and final part of the trilogy.

River of Smoke moves the location of the Ibis trilogy from India and the Ibis to noisy, chaotic Canton, bringing in a host of new characters and a whole new world.

Bharam Modi the central character is an opium trader who, like many others, brings his opium cargo aboard his ship, Anihita, with an entourage of retinues, from Bombay to Canton, dropping anchor in Hong Kong as the Chinese authorities have banned the import of the murky substance into mainland China, albeit, despite this ban, foreign merchants continue to bring opium into China aided by Chinese mandarins and commoners, enslaving swathes of its population (rich and poor, old and young) to the deadly substance, ruining their lives for good.

Bahram has made his fortune from opium and is content to overlook the immoral aspect of his business, like his co-merchants, most of whom are English, who justify their occupation by employing the principles of free trade.

The story moves along through a mosaic of plots, sub-plots and details creating the world of Canton and its various characters and their involvement in the main plot in varied capacities. It absorbingly details how the trade goes on under the blanket of ban through an efficient network of people and methods making its pursuers wealthier and greedier all the while. Similarly, Ghosh has described life in Canton with such detailing and skill that it feels like a city and world you know.

Another narrative runs parallel to the opium plot: the search of the golden camila, an elusive flower believed to be available in China and to have great aphrodisiac powers. This part of the story again displays Ghosh’s flair for description and skills with minutiae and shows the amount of research that has gone into writing the book. Belonging to this narrative strand is a character called Robin Chinnery, a young aspiring painter.

Robin often writes letters to another character in the book detailing the general goings-on in the town, bringing to the reader the perspective of a detached observer. As the plot tightens towards the later part, Ghosh effectively uses Robin’s letters to take the reader away from the middle of the action and give a panoramic view of matters. The letters are full of details and are very interesting to read. (Robin, by the way, is my favorite character apart from Bahram Modi.)

The book is a parable on free trade. A huge share of the British empire’s revenue came from opium trade, although the substance was banned in England and in other parts of Europe. When the Chinese authorities clamp down on the trade, the English merchants defend their right to trade opium employing the tenets of free trade and assert that, if required, Britain would not hesitate to declare war on China to defend that right.

But for all their free-trade bluster, the merchants would be forced out of Canton by the Chinese authorities, although the success of the Chinese authorities would be short-lived, attracting the wrath of British and French naval forces to force opium back on the country (the British and French retribution, however, has been briefly talked about by a character in the end and will hopefully be covered in the third book).

This is a book you don’t want to miss and even if you haven’t read the first part – Sea of Poppies – you can start with River of Smoke as it is like a standalone book for most part with very occasional references to the earlier book which hardly break the narrative flow.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Just Books Membership

Last week I took membership of Just Books library. It’s a chain of libraries with operations in two cities, Pune and Bangalore. If I am not wrong, they started their operations in Bangalore about a year and a half or two back and within a short time, they have grown into a big library chain with outlets in strategic places covering most of Bangalore. I don’t know whether their Pune network is as wide.

They distribute a free magazine laid on the concierge’s table for visitors to pick up. It carries book reviews and pieces on various literary activities they take up. I asked the counter person who helped me with membership formalities how the outlet is doing. He said they have a good base of members.

There are a few aspects, I think, Just Books can work on. There is no consistent decorative theme that runs through the outlets. Each is different from other. Probably having the same decorative pattern across outlets would give them stronger brand identity. Their collection is not very deep but contains some books of almost all genres. Probably they will improve it overtime.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Learning from River of Smoke

While in India, few weeks back, to promote River of Smoke the sequel of Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh said the questions youngsters were asking him at his book promotions suggested that they see him as a role model – and he felt privileged. I am reading his River of Smoke and the book offers many things to learn from to the budding writer. Ghosh has used varied techniques to lend authenticity to characters and locations and the period in which the novel is set. I am half way through the book and these are the things I have noticed.

The story starts from where its prequel Sea of Poppies had ended. Though the book has a mix of old (from its prequel) and new characters, the new introductions have occupied most of the space so far. I am already well acquainted with the new characters, and their actions and dialogs further the familiarity. Through how the characters react to situations, Ghosh brings out various facets of their personalities. Although Bharam Modi, the central character of the book, doesn’t want to reveal his filial relationship with Ah Fatt, Modi’s illegitimate son, to Neel, every now and then he ends up putting his hand around Ah Fatt with filial warmth - displaying that he is naturally a warm person.

Ghosh uses variations in language to convey the social background and circumstances of his characters. That he has used pidgin (a mix of Hindustani, English and Chinese which was used then by foreign traders coming to Canton) as the language in which his characters communicate to inject authenticity into dialogs is well known. But at a more nuanced level, he has also used change of accent to convey the change of circumstances in his characters’ lives. When Paulette hears Robin, now staying with his illegitimate English painter father for some years, for the first time in many years, she notices his accent has become rounded and English.

Similarly Ghosh describes locations with the help of historical, demographic and architectural details. He also uses food habits – and traces the origin of some foods, like Samsa being the ancestor of the Indian Samosha – to lend life and immediacy to the locations. You have to read the description of Fanqui town, a harbor town where foreign traders stay in community ghettos, to see the extent of detailing. And it’s very absorbing.

To give his reader an occasional breather from the narrative, Ghosh brings in historical figures and has his characters meet them through chance encounters. So far I have met two: Rothchild, a 19th century Jew financier in Britain, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Letters have also been used to further the narrative. The letters are informative and fun to read and apart from presenting the details of locations and circumstances of the characters, they also show the intimacy between the addressee and the letter writer.

The key to detailing of course lies in Ghosh’s meticulous research. Ghosh’s background as an anthropologist and former professor would have certainly helped in his research and understanding of the times and forces – political and commercial – at work.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Walking with Comrades by Arundhati Roy

Imagine buying a book, bringing it home and, after reading a few pages, discovering that its nothing but an essay published in a magazine (Outlook) last year now available in book form. I had the same experience with Arundhati Roy’s Walking with Comrades. Comrades is an essay on the day-to-day lives and struggle of tribals living in Maoism-affected areas and Maoists, who as per Roy, are their benefactors. Roy has detailed the typical life in a jungle under the fear of security forces and with the constant trepidation of receiving death news of fellow comrades shot by security forces.

In her usual caustic way, Roy launches scathing attack on courts, governments and corporations, holding them and their nexus responsible for the misery of tribals and shows Maoists as fighting a just fight on their behalf.

Though Roy’s propensity to justify violence by Maoists calling it revenge and the last resort against an uncaring State is sometimes off-putting, her effective documenting of their lives and voice will leave you with a heavy heart, thinking how a part of the country’s population is being denied normal lives. Through simple occurrences, like a group joke or humor, Roy conveys their sense of isolation and anger. On one occasion, while watching Mother India ( a famous Hindi film) on video with a group of Maoists, Roy asks a female Maoist if she likes films and she replies, “No, only ambush videos (Maoist attacks on Indian security forces)“.

There are sardonic moments as well. While Roy is on her way to meet Maoists to live with them and document their lives, a police constable tells her there is no apparent solution to this tribal problem except if you put a TV set in each of their homes, suggesting how TV, largely an urban middle class thing, has blinded the middle class to the larger world making ‘zombies’ out of them, one among many allegations Roy has leveled at the middle class in her various writings.

There is very little doubt that Roy’s views are lopsided but if you are familiar with her activist writing you hardly look for balance; what you look for is to hear the voice of a people who, if not for the likes of Roy, would probably go completely unheard.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Vekees and Thomas - a Food Chain with Novelty

Sometime back I had written about my fondness for continental food and how it leads me to try out new Euro food joints. Some three months ago, a new Euro restaurant came up in my office area, Veekes and Thomas. The restaurant has a very bare-bone setup occupying a small space with two tables and some cane-chairs around them. It is fronted by strips of white curtains made of cane. There are only two to three people on the staff, two manning the kitchen and one doubling up as cashier and waiter.

But funnily, instead of putting you off, the austere setting actually lends the place the look and feel of an authentic low-cost European food shop. My first visit was a disappointment. I had ordered for a veg sandwich and received one with the stuffing of an egg (!) and finely chopped deep fried onions. The stuffing kept drooping out on the plate as I bit my way through the poor thing. I wanted to scream but held back.

Last week I visited them for French Onion soup priced at Rs. 30 and was happy with what I got. It wasn’t anything to drool over, just a concoction of a thick sauce, some finely sliced onions and black pepper. But the taste was good. And guess how they served it: In a road-side tea glass. I asked for a bowl, and the cashier, now acting as waiter, returned from the kitchen with a mini bowl, but by then I had made peace with the glass.

You may get a little irritated by all this ordinarily, but at Veekes and Thomas, you have to read their mission statement - here two wooden frames adorning the wall next to me framed it - to put it all in perspective. Veekes and Thomas is a chain of food joints built around the idea of village economy and inclusive growth. Their mission statement suggests that they source their vegetables from village cooperatives to keep profiteering middlemen out and increase the profit margin of farmers.

They recruit their staff from NGOs. In the long run, they plan to open street side food counters and over time transfer their ownership to the workers. They also additionally incentivize their workers based on their work (which I don’t think other restaurants do; workers may earn additional revenue through tips but nothing comes from the management). They are allergic to using plastic (this found couple of mentions in the statement). Even when it doesn’t concern packing food for customers, they follow “green” methods: “If you find an exotic dish served on a leaf plate, don’t be surprised,” warned the statement.

I don’t know how many of the lofty ideas translate into actions, but the idea of helping the society and village economy through a food-business model sounded impressive and the methods felt practicable.

Nowadays in India the middle class, especially the IT types, are coming under heavy attack by left-style intellectuals who claim that the middle class, high on its new-found prosperity, has become insensitive to the suffering of the poor. Most don’t pay attention to the allegation. But allegation or otherwise, if you are someone with a social conscience (or similar pretension), you will feel nice by patronizing Veekes and Thomas.

As for the food, I also tried out the Cream of Mushroom soup, served in a glass. I liked it. And paid only Rs. 35.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Modern Science Writing by Richard Dawkins

I never took interest in science during my school years but as a result of promiscuous reading for many years now, I have developed interest in many subjects and science is one of them. This explains why I bought Modern Science Writing by Richard Dawkins, an anthology of articles, written by prominent scientists, on various aspects of science and scientists.

Despite being a science book (a subject many dread), it doesn’t put you off with pedagogies of school science textbooks. The book mayn’t be to science what William Dalrymple’s books are to history – converting pedagogy into page turner. But the articles are surely absorbing (expect some that are too data-oriented) and introduce you to scientific subjects in a manner that makes you want to read the next article, bursting the old belief that writing is not for scientists.

Each article starts with an introduction of the author scientist of the article. And, as Dawkins is a scientist himself, he knows (or knew) many of the author scientists personally, having interacted with them during student life and later, and writes about various facets of their personalities in his introductions bringing to life the men behind the articles. However, sometimes the introductions become too admiring of author scientists and Dawkins starts appearing like a child in their awe rather than a writer giving his observations.

The articles are of varied types: some full of dry details (a little off putting); some academic discussions with conflicting scientific thoughts and some human emotions. Here is an excerpt. The author, Oliver Sacks, discusses his uncle, Uncle Tungsten, and his obsession with tungsten wire, used as filaments of lightbulbs.

“We had called him Uncle Tungsten for as long as I remember, because he manufactured lightbulbs with filament of fine tungsten wire. His firm was called Tungstalite, and I often visited him in his old factory in Farringdon. During my visits to the factory, Uncle Dave would teach me about metals with little experiments. I knew that mercury, that strange liquid metal, was incredibly heavy and dense. Even lead floated on it, as my uncle showed me by floating a lead metal in a bowl of quicksilver. But then he pulled out a small grey bar from his pocket, and to my amazement, this sank immediately to the bottom.”

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tale of Mangoes

This is mango session and I indulge myself with the fruit every now and then. I don’t know all their varieties and can’t tell one variety from another but like most of them once their colour turns from green to bright yellow. The green ones taste mischievous with sprinkling of salt but they leave your teeth numb.

I buy mangoes from the hawker who parks his cart near my house with ripe mangoes heaped on it. I had long wondered what happens to the mangoes that don’t sell. Mangoes tend to perish faster than other fruits and the ones that are yellow today develop black stains tomorrow.

Are they returned to the wholesale vendor from whom they were bought? Are they resold to some other vendor looking for cheaper deal? Do small fruit juice shops buy them at throwaway prices? Two days back, when I was there buying my mango, curiosity got the better of me. And I asked the hawker what happens to the hapless mangoes that don’t find patrons.

He dropped his voice to convey his self-pity and avoiding eye contact, said: “There is nothing in this business.” Then he explained why.

In Bangalore mangoes mainly come from Andra Pradesh. (Few varieties also come from Kerala, but they aren’t popular.)There are a few places in Bangalore where mangoes are sold on a large scale but the one in Hebbal, which is very far from most parts of the city, is the largest depot which attracts hawkers from across the city to buy mangoes.

Wooden boxes containing mangoes are auctioned. You have to indicate the box you will buy by placing a fistful of grass on it. Once you place the bunch of grass, the box is yours with its defects (underweight of mangoes with newspapers at the bottom of the crate, spoilt mangoes, etc.) or otherwise becoming your responsibility.

If you buy multiple boxes, you have to make sure they don’t go missing in the mundi; stolen boxes will not be indemnified by the seller. As Hebbal is very far, you need to buy good number of boxes to economize the transportation cost.

“But what happens to the unsold mangoes?” I asked.

“In old days you could return the unsold mangoes to the one you bought them from, but now they are your loss,” the hawker answered. The same goes for other fruits.

“Fruit business me pehle jaisa maza nehi raha,” he concluded twitching the corner of mouth, indicating resignation. (There is no meaning in fruit business any more.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Science of Optimism by Tali Sharot, Time Magazine

Despite no dearth of disappointments in and around our lives, we keep our sanity and face the future. How? Because we are programmed to be hopeful.

The Time magazine has carried an interesting piece on our tendency to be optimistic as its cover story this time – The Science of Optimism. The article analyzes how optimism or hope shapes our relationships, professional lives, outlook, etc. It says optimism has helped us evolve into what we are today, an advanced race.

But what makes us optimistic? A memory that tends to recollect inaccurately.

Our memory, Tali Sharot, the author suggests, quoting scientists, tends to recall inaccurately partly because the neural system responsible for memory might have not evolved for memory alone. Its evolution, in fact, could have been for the opposite reason: to help us imagine a positive future.

The author interviewed some witnesses of the 9/11 attack asking them to recollect their experience and found that only a little above 60 per cent could recall details accurately.

But, as part of a study, when the author asked people to imagine their future, they imagined such that “Even the most banal life events seemed to take a dramatic turn for the better.”

By citing studies conducted by her and her peers, the author shows how our mind predicts the future with a glow of optimism subtracting adverse possibilities that can lead to an alternate future. However, when it foresees adversities in the future, it helps us to prepare for it by saving money, storing food, carrying an umbrella while leaving home, etc.

The hopeful tilt of mind recalls disappointing experiences, like professional failures, romantic heartbreaks, etc., as things that helped us evolve and become more experienced human beings, instead of wasteful experiences that only hurt.

A neural mechanism, located in the frontal part of our brain, is responsible for this optimistic bent of mind which helps us imagine an optimistic future or promotes slightly irrational thinking. People in whom this neural system is not active suffer from depression. And so when a depressed person predicts the future, he does it without the additional glow of optimism (or irrationalism) – and predicts more accurately than a normal person.
The article has much more than this.

The mind is complex, intriguing and scary.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Neighbour Uncle

Sometimes you come to know a person when you are parting ways with him/her. I had never known Uncle quite as well as I came to know when I found him outside my door one day. He was standing in our common passage and cleaning something. He said he had bought a new flat and would shift there in a few days’ time. Uncle and his family were my next-door neighbors since my first day in the building close to three years back. I used to share basic pleasantries with Uncle but our interactions never went beyond them.

That day he seemed in a mood to talk and he started asking about me. After I was done with my part, he started talking about himself. He grew up in Bangalore staying around Koramangla all his life. He liked old Bangalore as it was calm and peaceful. With the advent of IT industry and migrants from various parts of India, Bangalore lost its quiet charm, he said. He did his engineering in Bangalore.

He worked with Otis, which makes elevators, for 45 years, and the company sent him to Madras (now Chennai) for training. He stayed there for sometime and liked the place but never thought of settling down there as Bangalore was the place for him.

He had two daughters and both of them were engineers. Although an engineer, the elder daughter started working as an HR consultant with a small company and did well there. Her employer knew a person working at Accenture in HR who used to often drop in on him. The Accenture person was quite impressed with how Uncle’s daughter handled everything herself, as the firm was only a few people strong.

He offered her a trainee’s role at Accenture and said the company would sponsor an HR MBA course for her. She joined Accenture HR and it’s been a few years she has been working there.

I had noticed Uncle used to return home late night some days but didn’t know where he came from. One day I spotted him at the club I sometimes visit with my friend who is a member. It was cricket world cup final and the club was full house that day as it had made arrangements for live telecast of the match on giant screens.

I was surprised to see Uncle collecting drinks from the bar. "Being a Muslim how could he do that - drinking is not what a 'good' Muslim is supposed to do, after all?" I thought. Later I concluded that Uncle's drinking squared up well with the fact that his daughters and wife never wore traditional Muslim attire (the daughters were mostly in jeans or normal salwar kamiz and the wife in saree). They were a liberal Muslim family.

I told Uncle I would miss a good neighbour and he said so would he. On a philosophical note, he said, “You will meet people and part with them. Detachment will help to get on in life; attachment will only cause pain.”

It reminded me of Kenny Roger’s Gambler song, which says the key to everything is to know when to walk off.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Voyages of Christopher Columbus: In Pursuit of Gold and Global Supremacy

Picture taken from Google
Colonizing foreign lands under grand pretexts, like democracy and civilization, but actually to exploit them economically was always in practice and will never go out of it. In fact, powerful countries colonizing lands in pursuit of wealth is so recent that the biggest story of this month – Osama’s killing – can be traced back to it: Osama’s main battle cry against the US has always been essentially one, “Free the Muslim lands you occupy.”

And it’s so old that every invasion in history, no matter how long back in time, can be traced back to this motive upon careful examination. This week I finished a book on Christopher Columbus’s four voyages to the Indies, in the 14th century, in pursuit of gold, to take Christianity to new shores and civilize native ‘savages’.

At the age of 20, Columbus planned to sail to the Indies. Columbus went to many royal courts to find funding for his voyages and finally the king of Spain, a country keen on establishing its global supremacy in Europe, accepted his plan and funded his voyages.

The book details the voyages through daily notes taken by people who were part of Columbus’s entourage and also uses biographical accounts written by Columbus’s son on his father. Columbus comes across as a good leader concerned as much about the goal of the voyages as about the wellbeing of its crew.

The voyages were tough affairs. They could put patience, endurance and courage to severe tests - as you could look for a land for days and not sight any, run out of food and add to that the vagaries of the seas. Despite these challenges, Columbus kept the morale of his team up. His good leadership notwithstanding, however, there were many who defected, took up independent voyages and turned against Columbus.

The flora and fauna and the strange practices and customs of the natives of the lands Columbus visited (some of whom were cannibals) are interesting to read. The lands had an untouched beauty and innocence about them and the details bring them out vividly.

Columbus’s voyages met with moderate success. He failed to find gold in most places and people he left behind in the places he discovered either started feuding among themselves or were attacked by natives, bringing very less value to the royal coffers of Spain.

Towards the end of his life, Columbus fell prey to conspiracies, betrayals and broken promises. He also lost his official authority in Spain and died a heart-broken man.

It is perhaps wrong to call Columbus a colonialist because although the basic purpose of his voyages was same as later-day colonialists – discovery of wealth in foreign land and bringing it home – he was mainly a seaman.  However, his voyages are historically important because they took place not long before the big colonialists of later day - France, Portugal and England - would set out towards the East and take the concept of colonies nearer to how it’s today.

By the way, read my blog on Mind Blog


Monday, May 2, 2011

What People of Bengal Think as Bengal Goes through Elections

On my way home from Calcutta airport by taxi, I asked the driver who, he thought, would form the next government in Bengal. “Didi,” he replied. “Does the Left not have any chance of returning this time?” I pursued, trying to provoke him.

“In their 35 years they have not done much. People are leaving the state for economic opportunities. People are fed up with them.” “But will Didi be able to maintain peace?” I continued. “Leftists are also guilty of destroying peace.”

After a while the taxi made a rattling sound and the driver drew it up at the corner of the road. I boarded another taxi and asked the driver who would win the elections this time. He got a little startled by my asking and hesitantly said, “Didi."

West Bengal is going through a historic election where Left, a coalition of left parties which came to power in 1977, might see its 35 years of unbroken stint in power brought to an end by TMC (whose leader is popularly known as Didi), which together with the Congress is the Left’s opposition in Bengal. The election has a global significance as Bengal is among the very few places where you still have a Left government.

Neither of the sides (govt and opposition) is leaving anything to chance. The TMC claims the Left hasn’t done anything expect oppressing people and pushing the State back. So there is a yearning for paribartan (change) among the people.

On the other hand, the Left is going to the people on a note of apology admitting that it has made some mistakes and if given a chance would like to rectify them. The Left alleges that, if brought to power, the TMC would create chaos and confusion in the state.

Verbal exchanges taking place between the government and opposition are adding to the atmosphere. There is nothing new to verbal exhanges between two contesting parties, but here every attack and counter attack flying back and forth seems to be springing from a deep well of loathing for each other.

The fight also has a cultural aspect. The Left in Bengal represents a high-brow cultural space long monopolised by culture snobs who see TMC as challenging it and trying to gatecrash into it, diluting its exclusivity. Budhadeb (Bengal CM) and the leftists in general belong to this hallowed zone and Mamta (TMC chief also known as Didi), being from a lower-middle class background, doesn't.

The Left’s barbs are mostly aimed at the TMC’s low-browism. To counter the Left’s culture attacks, the TMC is claiming to have support of culture-elites (writers, directors, etc) whose views often shape public opinion in Bengal.

But what do ordinary voters think?

There are two kinds of Left enthusiasts: one is the card-holding members and another is the culture-loving snobs. Both types claim the Left will come back again but their self-righteous anger also give away their doubt about their prophesy.  Among them are mainly state government employees.

People with less cultural pretentions, however, display little doubt that the TMC would form the government but they also admit that no one knows what would follow once the TMC comes to power.  They say at least Left for all its flaws is a party of educated ideologues while the TMC is a party patched together with street rag tags. These are mainly ones working in private companies.

There is another stream of thought being given by people with leftist leanings but a rational bent of mind. They suggest if you really want to destroy the TMC, you should give them an exposure to power for sometime. And at the same time, it will not harm the Left to be in opposition so that after being in power for 35 long years, they get an opportunity to introspect and probably come back stronger.

For the uninitiated, it can all become very confusing.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...