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.
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