Monday, March 6, 2017

One Year with My Maruti 800

This month my car – a Maruti 800 – completes one year with me and nine years since it rolled out of a showroom. Yes, when I purchased it last March, it was eight years old. And as is expected of a car that old, it did give me some troubles and caused me minor expenses for the first eight months or so. But after the first burst of repairs, it seems to have stabilized and functions smoothly without being an irritant.

This one year with the car has been a series of discoveries.

One of the reasons for buying the car was learning how to drive, which I had tried many, many years ago with a cousin’s second hand Premier Padmini and had not been able to get the clutch and brake coordination correct resulting in the car starting and then stopping without moving an inch.
I was booed at.  Frustrated, I left trying. After that unsuccessful attempt, I never tried my hand at driving again until I joined a training school last year.

The first thing I learnt was - driving is not easy. It is an applied art - where how good you are at it is determined not by how well you know the theories but how deftly you apply them when behind the wheels. You are told a few things at the school and many more you discover on your own.

It requires a mix of many skills. You have to take quick decisions, you have to have quick impulses to react to situations, you need what I would call space-ial intelligence, and as you are doing all this, you have to remain calm and relaxed. 

That I am able to successfully drive came to my mother as a surprise. A year ago, when I started learning, I would be surprised to know that a year later I would be able to drive. My personality traits run contrary to the prerequisites of driving.

I am slow to react to situations. I am a slow thinker. I am confusion-prone. And generally I place a chair or  table right the second or third time.

It took me two months of training (10 hours) and six months of practice to overcome my natural deficiencies. Probably it would be a little longer had it not been for the fact that I had a Maruti 800 to learn with.

These six to eight months were not without pain. Once, while trying to complete a 60 degree turn, I hit the bumper of an SUV and had to pay heavily to get it repaired.  The driver of the SUV informed me, while we were returning from the service center, that there was a new driver who had hit the car bumper against a pole while backing it. “Sale ko chalana nehi ata.” I would be thankful to him if he had not told me.

The other mishaps were minor but enough to dent my confidence for a while. Along the way, I also learnt a few life lessons.

One of my friends, who learnt driving about four years ago, told me the guy who shouts first in an accident and shouts the other guy out generally gets mob support and prevails: “Yaar, a second later no one knows whose the fault was.”

Seeing me appreciating his point, he shared a deeper human insight: Following a crisis, we pretend to look for the actual culprit, but actually we look for a fall guy - enough to quell our anger!

I learnt another thing: driving doesn’t get the credit it deserves because it’s a poor man’s job.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Silence - a Movie That Will Stand the Test of Time

When a new arrival – a book or a movie - is based on a piece of history you are familiar with, it does not leave you with too many options – you have to devour it. So when in promo pics of Silence, the latest movie by Martin Scorsese, I saw two guys with scrubby beard looking like coming from another time in an exotic mountainous locale, it piqued my curiosity. (I was not familiar with Scorsese‘s reputation and repertoire.) Upon digging deeper, I came to know Silence deals with a piece of Japan’s past I had read about many years ago.

The time is 16th century and Japan is going through a period of extreme religious persecution aimed at those who have embraced Christianity and Jesuits operating in the country. Amidst this, two Portuguese Jesuits visit Japan to find out about their mentor Jesuit – father Ferrero - who is said to have abandoned his faith publicly, and also to help Christians facing persecution in the country.

This is the period which has a parallel with post Nagasaki Hiroshima Japan: when the nuclear attack forced the country into a shell – to rebuild a nation maimed by a war and nuke. Many say these two incidents and their aftermath left Japan with a permanent paranoia for the foreigner (much like what the Opium War did for China) which still informs its public policies.  However, people familiar with the bit of Japan’s history Silence deals with will trace the source of that paranoia a little further back in time.

An edge-of-the seat suspense takes you through the first half an hour or so of the film and then it slowly dissipates and the film gradually settles into an easier pace but a certain tension continues to characterize the narrative throughout, thanks to the subject, but also how the director has brought that element to bear upon the narrative.

Given the nature of the subject Scorsese has chosen for Silence, a plaintiveness running across the film is understandable. But the scenes depicting the dehumanizing treatment meted out by Japanese officers to those who have moved to Christianity, mostly poor villagers, leave you with a sour mood. And this I feel helps the evangelist  side get sympathy with the viewer and win the argument obscuring the viewer to the fact that  the colonial powers often hid sinister intent behind the guise of faith (many advocates of the Opium War on China had used faith as their justification), a point that Scorsese’s movie overlooks. 

In fact, many would say Silence is a passionate argument for Christianity - one of the travelling Portuguese padres dies but the other lives and goes through a forced public denial of his faith in Catholicism following which he becomes a Buddhist and never acknowledges his faith in Christianity in his lifetime only to be shown with a cross in his rolled palm when he is being cremated as per Japanese customs - in an apparent show of trump of his Christian beliefs. 

Be that as it may, I wholeheartedly rooted for the characters undergoing persecution and the torture scenes left me downcast for a long time.

Silence is easily a classic, something which will stand the test of time and be remembered respectfully many years later for several things – great cinematography (some of the scenes are simply breathtaking), authentic recreation of a period in history (the monasteries, the wooden structures, everything looks so much like they have leapt out of the period) and above everything else a film which powerfully tells a story showing the two sides of religion – devotion and intolerance.

It’s a must watch.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Where Are We with Demonitization

It’s been sometime since I wrote the earlier blog on demonetization – and the situation has changed since then. We have got used to the new normal – that ATMs will not be the same again, that some visits to ATMs will be disappointing, some fruitful, that 2000 rupee notes will be in greater use than 1000 rupee denomination ever was and therefore getting it changed will always be a concern, that although a complete cashlessness may still be some years away, more and more number of small shops, the most formidable bastions of cashbased transactions, will offer digital options for payment. In sum, liquid cash will become less and less part of our day to day lives.

Well, all this is good news, but is it the whole picture or just an urban snapshot? From the reports that are emerging, rural India is still smarting under the effects of demo. A few days ago a news portal solely reporting on the effects of demonetization on rural India reported that in Maharashtra prices of some vegetables have dropped substantially due to over supply resulting from the inability of middle men to buy them due to lack of cash availability  (these transactions are almost always cashbased). Some rural regions are not receiving enough cash supply in their banks – and it’s a bigger concern in rural areas than in urban ones.  

And even in urban areas, even by the standard of the new normal, order has not completely returned. Most ATMs are still out of cash. Most of those that are working are mostly dispensing Rs 2000 notes.  Many have concluded that visits to banks to draw cash via cheques is a better option than depending on ATMs; but then if that is so, then does it not defeat the whole purpose of demonetization?

By now it is undeniable that the implementation has been a disaster. How the government and various financial institutions have reacted to situations suggests they were not foreseen and planned for earlier. Surprisingly though, as it appears, demo hasn’t hurt the government politically, although many would suspend their judgement about it until UP delivers its verdict.

Apart from Modi’s thunderous speeches, what has helped the government is that the opposition continues to be hopeless. To start with, there is hardly any opposition unity. Some parties are ambiguous about their stand on demo, some are half-heartedly supporting it by maintaining silence, some are mindlessly hurling accusations none of which is sticking. 

Amidst this chaos, though, one thing is becoming clear: emergence of a new order of payment methods, networks etc. The problem is how fast people can get used to the emerging order. The lightning speed with which demo was brought by the government will keep people on their toes, causing them to rush to the new transaction practices, in terms of learning them and making them an integral part of their day-to-day financial transactions.

Good or bad, this attitude towards government-brought changes is another bequest of demonetization. In the past, whenever it came to matters relating the government, people felt things would largely remain the same and they would be able to bypass the minor changes and survive the effects. Such comforting assurances have become a thing of the past. 

In the meantime, stories will keep emerging, some funny, some tragic. Let us look at this one from Karnataka. To raise funds, to help a depleted exchequer, the government is invoking an old law where pubs will have to achieve a minimum target of liquor sale set by the government, falling short of the target will attract penalties.
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