Saturday, December 31, 2011

It's a wrap folks... all the very best for 2012

Here's wishing you all a very happy new year ahead. 2011 was a tough year, a year of hope as well as of unfulfilled promises. Here's hoping things start to look up in 2012 (and hopefully the world doesn't come to an end and all...).

Seasons greetings!

I leave you with a couple of pictures from our recent Australian holiday. Enjoy!


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cutting the fat #2011

And another year has come and almost gone. Last year I wrote about how we were trying to look at our monthly budget to cut out some unnecessary costs, so that we could save the money that currently gets spent on stuff that we derive no value from. This exercise is really simple... in theory. Its easy to identify expenses that are wasteful, but its the consistent practice of avoiding impulse buys that's hard. We had our ups and downs this year, but we tried hard. Here are some of the major wins we had this year.

The mortgage. Sometimes all you have to do is ask. We thought the interest rate we were paying on our home loan was a tad high, so we negotiated with the bank and they were happy to reduce the coupon. This brought our monthly installment payment down by $70 each month. Easy peasy.
Annual savings: $850

Using the library. I have a bad habit of splurging on books and DVDs/CDs, and this year the very well stocked National Library helped save me a pile of cash. While I did lose the book shop battle for a bit in Kolkata earlier this year, thankfully the damages weren't that great. The library is a wonderful place to explore and spend time in. I don't really need to own the books I read, so using the library helps save storage space at home as well as a fair bit of money. What about music and films you ask? No problemo, the library has a fantastic audio/video collection as well.
Annual savings: $550

Restructuring the insurance plan. I realized we were paying too much on insurance for too little coverage. So we went to another provider and got a much cheaper plan. And we cancelled existing endowment plans and went only for term plans, thereby increasing our coverage at a much lower cost.
Annual savings: $600

Theres plenty more we can do and the efforts are always on. So here's to another frugal year ahead in 2012. Before I end, a word on our giving this year. Fortunately we were able to give more to charity this year as compared to the year before. Over and above the monthly charity deductions from salary, we hopefully made a bit of a difference to the lives of the many street kids in Kolkata as well as to those of some financially needy students in Singapore. Hope we can keep helping more and more with each passing year.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Last Sin

English: Photographs of Occupy Wall Street fro...Image via Wikipedia
One wonders what Gordon Gekko would have thought about the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. A minor distraction perhaps, as it is indeed true that despite many a boom and bust, the great wheels of capitalism have continued turning with ever increasing urgency. And as self interest is at very heart of capitalism, should the world end in 2012, it can be surmised that greed has been mankind’s overarching sin of the last century. Our most serious spiritual issue today is reckless and untamed greed. It is greed that has caused our 2Gs and Adarshes, and their Enrons and Worldcoms. It is greed that is responsible for outlandish CEO salaries and disenfranchised daily wage earners. It is greed that is responsible for endless stress and tensions in our urban jungles. It is greed that is pushing us into becoming a race of clamorous “haves and have mores”. Don’t believe those who say that lust is the deadliest of the seven sins.

Much of the socio-political and economic discontent we see around us today is a result of the demands of today’s corporate machinery for higher growth rates, higher consumption and higher profits at all costs. Corporate culture of the last century has created an environment that persistently compels business captains to earn more and more for themselves and their companies. Like teenagers unwittingly passing a future alcoholic his first beer, lenders and shareholders have enabled this pervasive corporate greed beyond redemption. There was a time that was indeed simpler and life did not revolve around double digit growth rates and credit spreads. But today, we pay with our livelihoods if corporates fail. The 2001 dot com bust, the Asian Financial Crisis and the subprime bust-up are all examples of our companies and banks gone so glass-eyed with greed that they could not see the cliff behind the garden. And millions lost their livelihood as a result even as the suits survived and sometimes even prospered, thanks to the big bailout. So we respond by occupying Wall Street, rioting and generally pressuring our governments into letting the big guys fail. This is capitalism after all isn’t it? But this is not what capitalism set out to achieve. It was supposed to be a meritocracy within limits.

Our quest for more and even more has made it like a free for all shoot out. And we the little guys are equally to blame. The seven billion of us are burning through the planet's resources at a dangerous rate. Consider this - the consumption of goods and services in 2010 was at $30.5 trillion, up almost 30% over the previous year. And this consumerist culture is no longer mostly a western (read American) habit but is clearly spreading across the globe. Material excess has been anointed the new symbol of success in developing countries from Brazil to India to China. China is already the biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. And plenty more folks want to be rich, and quickly. In this quest all balance is being dispensed with. Until we recognize that our environmental problems, from climate change to deforestation to species loss, are driven by unsustainable habits, we will not be able to solve the ecological crises that threaten our civilization. Almost 33 million acres of tropical forests are destroyed each year and most of this is as a result of corporate needs. Our rivers are increasingly unable to sustain any form of life in them and swathes of fertile farmland are acquired from unwilling farmers, thereby rendering them fallow in time. And we haven’t yet talked of the Deepwater Horizons and the Bhopals of the world, where, thanks to corporate carelessness, both environmental and human damage were of gargantuan proportions.

We are clearly leaving behind a world much more dangerous than the one we inherited. Obviously, in our single minded approach to have and consume more, we’ve abandoned virtues of balance, frugality and compassion. We are leaving behind massive debt, loss of freedom and liberty and more worryingly, a next generation that that has an insatiable appetite for consumption. If the world does indeed come to an end in 2012, prepare for hell. The Gekkos of the world have had too long a run with “dollars pumped with steroids”, as he so succinctly put it in his return to the big screen last year. If you haven’t caught on, the human race is the biggest bubble right now. And the pinprick is coming.


P.S: This article first appeared in the December 2011 issue of 'KINDLE'
Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Noon by Aatish Taseer: Book review

For those familiar with Aatish Taseer’s previous works (Stranger to History and The Templegoers), the material that the undoubtedly talented young author deals with in the mysteriously titled ‘Noon’ will seem all too recognizable. Being the original midnight’s child, so to speak (what with being the son of slain Pakistani politician Salman Taseer and Indian journo Tavleen Singh and all), he is perhaps well equipped to deal with a novel about the elite of both countries. And to do this he once again mines his own life for experiences which come across as all too real. The book’s protagonist, Rehan Tabassum, the authors all too real alterego, deals with a theft in his rich Indian step-dad’s farmhouse in Delhi and then as he moves to Pakistan to meet his real father, meets his many relatives and gets drawn into the morally murky and politically unstable world of his biological father’s family. The book peeks almost voyeuristically into these households in an episodic fashion, rather than in a sweeping continuous narrative, and it is with this tool that he manages to create evocative and poignant imagery.

The episode at the Delhi farmhouse clearly takes a dig at the great ‘India Shining’ story and examines the uneasy class issues that Indian society still grapples with. It also looks at the way the domestic help in the country are treated, and how the rich would prefer that they were almost invisible. Taseer puts Rehan smack bang in the middle of a domestic robbery and then gives the reader a ring side view of investigation. The cops have their class and regional prejudices, and Rehan has his. It is also here that Rehan grudgingly claims to look upon the suspected servants as humans for the first time, with aspirations and dreams of their own. He finds the whole affair, replete with corruption, complicity and violence, hard to deal with and looks for early closure. Clearly, as Rehan thinks, “I had not considered it important to think hard about India”.

The story then cuts to Rehan’s time spent with his half brother in Pakistan. The men grow close to each other as Rehan gets a crash course in family politics, courtesy the great big Tabassum household. The elite in Pakistan have also failed their country, much like their Indian counterparts, and prefer to live cocooned and conspiracy theory ridden lives, ensconcing themselves from the increasing fundamentalism that is slowly and surely taking hold. Rehan’s half brother spends most of his time trying to prove his worth to their father while trying to avoid being blackmailed with a stolen sex tape. This somehow results in a kidnapping and a hushed up release and is eerily similar to the real life kidnapping of Shahbaz Taseer, the author’s own half brother. The book explores the complete breakdown in the social contract between the privileged and the others and how the elite in India and Pakistan remain largely alike in their uncaring aloofness, despite the two countries themselves taking seemingly different paths. Casual brutalities are still commonplace, and the rich are the prime perpetrators.

The book reads well, avoids being laborious and Taseer shows a maturity of hand that is beyond his years. However, one wishes he had set his novel outside the sphere of his personal life, which has been an open book, literally, since he laid it all out in his memoirs. Even his first novel ‘The Temple-goers’ also seemed drawn from his private life. His own life clearly seems to be his comfort zone and it is about time he stepped out of it. Another book with a similar setting could easily run the risk of alienating hitherto impressed readers who perhaps will no longer be interested in a fourth biography.


This article first appeared in the November 2011 issue of KINDLE.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Stirring the melting pot

How well do you know your neighbour? There was a time when our neighbours were almost like extended family. We trusted them with our homes, our children and sometimes even with our money. Over the last decade, however, we seem to have lost touch somewhat, especially in the urban set up. Issues like privacy and choice of disclosure are important today and additionally, the hectic pace of urban life does not allow us the space to take the time out to even walk across to say hello. Nonetheless, the need for us to interact with those who live around us has never been more acute, especially in today's globalized, multicultural and multiracial world. Much of what we think of other people is in reality largely an unreliable notion, picked up from internal prejudices or social conditioning. This is precisely why it is important to get to know each other and each other’s cultures better. Tolerance breeds where knowledge and mutual respect are present in good measure. And this was what some Singaporean citizens were trying to achieve recently through the ‘Cook a Pot of Curry Day’.

A local newspaper had recently reported that one Chinese family, recently arrived from the mainland, took serious offence at their Indian neighbours' cooking habits. The family apparently resorted to mediation because they could not stand the smell of curry. The Indian family, who were mindful of their neighbours' aversion to the smell of their favourite dish, had already started closing their doors and windows whenever they cooked the dish, but this did not seem to work as well. Instead, the Chinese family took their neighbours to Singapore's Community Mediation Centre to seek a ruling on the matter. The mediator eventually ruled that the Indian family could only cook curry when the Chinese family was not at home. In return, the Chinese family promised to try the dish. The judgment infuriated most Singaporeans, many of whom have eyed the recent flood of mainland Chinese immigrants with some exasperation. The positive outcome from all of this was an idea for all Singaporeans to host a ‘Cook a Pot of Curry Day’ for their neighbours and friends, as a protest to the insensitive and almost xenophobic tendencies the Chinese family had displayed. The idea went viral, with almost 60,000 locals pledging support on Facebook in a matter of days. The day itself was a huge success, with Singaporeans standing up for an inclusive and compassionate society. I myself was invited to a barbeque meal by my neighbour and was heartened to see the healthy turnout – there were Indians, Malays, Chinese and Caucasians as well. For the first time in many years, I actually spent some quality time with the people I live in close proximity to, but hardly know. The curry, (a local blend of the less spicy variety) was great, but in the end, just an excuse for a wonderful cross cultural exchange. The evening was cordial and genuinely warm, and made even more informal and lively by our gracious host, who by the way, we learnt later, has scaled Mt. Everest… twice. There is now talk amongst citizens, of making this an annual event, and one can’t help but be in complete support.

On one level this event was about getting to know and appreciate each other’s cultures and backgrounds and promote tolerance, and on the other it was actually about just getting out of your house, knocking on your neighbor’s door and saying hello. I can’t help but feel that we in India’s large and increasingly impersonal cities can learn a thing or two from this. When was the last time you introduced yourself to your new neighbour or invited him over for a meal? Our parents did this often enough, but currently we don’t have the time, apparently. Either we’re working too hard or we’re relying entirely on home based entertainment to amuse our selves which takes us away from communicating with one-another on a human level. This means that we as individuals are slowly losing basic communication skills, which will cause us to withdraw into ourselves, and also, more dangerously perhaps, cause festering feelings of separation and loneliness to manifest themselves into something more debilitating. And one can already see the growing physical distances. Yesterday’s ‘adda’ is today’s Blackberry IM and the 140 character tweet. How does this prepare kids and teenagers for tough years that lie ahead? Not very well. More seriously, we clearly still harbor inherent prejudices about our fellow citizens - north Indians are bhaiyas, those from south are Madrasees, those from the north-east are often called ‘Chinese’ and far worse…and so on. The pluralist society our founding fathers envisioned will remain a distant dream if we refuse to interact and understand each other. Living in culturally homogenous ghettos will do us no good. We should be aspiring to a community where everyone, regardless of origin, knows one another well – like the good old days. We can easily make that happen - one hello, one handshake and one footstep at a time. And perhaps, we should be cooking loads more curry.


This article first appeared in the October 2011 issue of KINDLE.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

SuperHeavy (Mick Jagger / Dave Stewart / AR Rahman / Damien Marley / Joss Stone) – Music Review

Empirically speaking, supergroups have never been particularly successful, either critically or commercially (The Travelling Wilburys and Velvet Revolver notwithstanding). So when Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart put together a band of successful and diverse musicians (Joss Stone, Damien Marley and our very own AR Rahman) and called the band SuperHeavy, one hoped that the band would not collapse under the weight of expectation. This band does manage to do alright, putting together an eclectic bunch of tunes, which as a genre can only be termed as 'indo-reggae-rock'. That said, their debut record never truly manages to soar, seemingly tied down by commercial interests, with the superstar band members getting too self-conscious about their respective musical heritages.

The band apparently recorded 29 hours of music and then whittled the album down to 12 songs. Not all of them are album worthy though, with 'Energy' sounding like something U2 got bored with and passed on to Jagger and Co to play around with (and Jagger makes it worse by rapping on it, believe it or not), and 'Unbelievable' being anything but. Jagger however redeems himself as he leads the vocal efforts with the rasping 'I can't take it anymore' (a track the Stones would have been proud of) and 'I don't mind', an atmospheric duet with Joss Stone. Reggae scion, Damien Marley shows his pedigree in most of the tracks he lends his voice to, with the languid 'Rock me gently' and pulsating album opener 'Superheavy', being standouts. And how does us our Mozart of Madras do, you ask? He largely mumbles through his vocal duties on the album, and comes across as a bit awkward, but it’s his desi string arrangements which, when backed by Stewart's synth sounds and Marley's Jamaican beats and vocals, produce some of the album's best moments. This is abundantly clear on the peppy 'Satyameva Jayate', if you can forgive Jagger's singing in Sanskrit as an act of excessive cross-cultural exuberance.

The band should get ample radio time with the airwave friendly raggae-pop 'Miracle Worker', but otherwise they could have done better than to try too hard. At times the sound comes across as too orchestrated, with the producer going, "hmm, ok, we've had some rap, here's some soul, and now we'll have some of that Bollywood stuff". The lineup is as culturally varied as you can get, the talent is grade A, (barring Joss Stone's sometimes one dimensional crooning), but the result in the end is at best middling. The record does hold some novelty value, but I fear that will quickly wear off on the second and third hearings. And this is why this band should definitely come up with another album. To spend more time together, to get more comfortable with each other's styles and to express themselves more freely. Now that would be super heavy.



Monday, October 10, 2011

Are jobs obsolete?

Douglas Rushkoff asks if 'jobs' in the traditional sense should be becoming obsolete. This is interesting because the western world is throwing whatever its got at the big 'jobs' problem. If you think like Doug here though, it is apparently time we re-imagined what productive work was all about and stopped making a huge fuss. Interesting. Read on.

The U.S. Postal Service appears to be the latest casualty in digital technology's slow but steady replacement of working humans. Unless an external source of funding comes in, the post office will have to scale back its operations drastically, or simply shut down altogether. That's 600,000 people who would be out of work, and another 480,000 pensioners facing an adjustment in terms.

We can blame a right wing attempting to undermine labor, or a left wing trying to preserve unions in the face of government and corporate cutbacks. But the real culprit - at least in this case - is e-mail. People are sending 22% fewer pieces of mail than they did four years ago, opting for electronic bill payment and other net-enabled means of communication over envelopes and stamps.

New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures - from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs.

We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.

And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs - as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there's something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.

I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks -- or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We're living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That's because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that's even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high. Meanwhile, American banks overloaded with foreclosed properties are demolishing vacant dwellings to get the empty houses off their books.

Our problem is not that we don't have enough stuff -- it's that we don't have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

Jobs, as such, are a relatively new concept. People may have always worked, but until the advent of the corporation in the early Renaissance, most people just worked for themselves. They made shoes, plucked chickens, or created value in some way for other people, who then traded or paid for those goods and services. By the late Middle Ages, most of Europe was thriving under this arrangement.

The only ones losing wealth were the aristocracy, who depended on their titles to extract money from those who worked. And so they invented the chartered monopoly. By law, small businesses in most major industries were shut down and people had to work for officially sanctioned corporations instead. From then on, for most of us, working came to mean getting a "job."

The Industrial Age was largely about making those jobs as menial and unskilled as possible. Technologies such as the assembly line were less important for making production faster than for making it cheaper, and laborers more replaceable. Now that we're in the digital age, we're using technology the same way: to increase efficiency, lay off more people, and increase corporate profits.

While this is certainly bad for workers (an artificial construction, in my opinion, such as "slaves" "peasants" "aristocracy" "serfs" - that can be transcended as our relationship to work and consumption changes, and we no longer consider ourselves "consumers" or "workers" or "management", which are all artifacts of the Industrial Age. You are not a worker; you are a person.) and unions, I have to wonder just how truly bad is it for people. Isn't this what all this technology was for in the first place? The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with "career" be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?

Instead, we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

The communist answer to this question was just to distribute everything evenly. But that sapped motivation and never quite worked as advertised. The opposite, libertarian answer (and the way we seem to be going right now) would be to let those who can't capitalize on the bounty simply suffer. Cut social services along with their jobs, and hope they fade into the distance.

But there might still be another possibility -- something we couldn't really imagine for ourselves until the digital era. As a pioneer of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, recently pointed out, we no longer need to make stuff in order to make money. We can instead exchange information-based products.

We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do - the value we create - is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful.

This sort of work isn't so much employment as it is creative activity. Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations. We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another - all through bits instead of stuff. And we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff.

For the time being, as we contend with what appears to be a global economic slowdown by destroying food and demolishing homes, we might want to stop thinking about jobs as the main aspect of our lives that we want to save. They may be a means, but they are not the ends.



Friday, September 02, 2011

For... my son

A careful man I ought to be,
A little fellow follows me.
I dare not go astray,
For fear he'll go the self-same way.

I cannot once escape his eyes,
Whatever he see me do, he tries.
Like me, he says, he's going to be,
The little chap who follows me.

He thinks that I am good and fine,
Believes in every word of mine.
The base in me he must not see,
That little fellow who follows me.

I must remember as I go,
Thru summers' sun and winters' snow.
I am building for the years to be,
In the little chap who follows me.


Monday, August 22, 2011

On happiness - Khushwant Singh via Wikipedia
India's grand old man of letters has lived a long, eventful and fulfilling life. So when he talks about what happiness means to him, it's worth listening to. This is taken from a chapter from his book, 'Absolute Khushwant'. In the hustle-bustle of daily life, we can sometimes forget how little we really need to be content.

First and foremost is good health. If you do not enjoy good health, you can never be happy. Any ailment, however trivial, will deduct something from your happiness.

Second, a healthy bank balance. It need not run into crores, but it should be enough to provide for comforts, and there should be something to spare for recreation—eating out, going to the movies, travel and holidays in the hills or by the sea. Shortage of money can be demoralising. Living on credit or borrowing is demeaning and lowers one in one’s own eyes.

Third, your own home. Rented places can never give you the comfort or security of a home that is yours for keeps. If it has garden space, all the better. Plant your own trees and flowers, see them grow and blossom, and cultivate a sense of kinship with them.

Fourth, an understanding companion, be it your spouse or a friend. If you have too many misunderstandings, it robs you of your peace of mind. It is better to be divorced than to be quarrelling all the time.

Fifth, stop envying those who have done better than you in life—risen higher, made more money, or earned more fame. Envy can be corroding; avoid comparing yourself with others.

Sixth, do not allow people to descend on you for gup-shup. By the time you get rid of them, you will feel exhausted and poisoned by their gossip-mongering.

Seventh, cultivate a hobby or two that will fulfil you—gardening, reading, writing, painting, playing or listening to music. Going to clubs or parties to get free drinks, or to meet celebrities, is a criminal waste of time. It’s important to concentrate on something that keeps you occupied meaningfully. I have family members and friends who spend their entire day caring for stray dogs, giving them food and medicines. There are others who run mobile clinics, treating sick people and animals free of charge.

Eighth, every morning and evening devote 15 minutes to introspection. In the mornings, 10 minutes should be spent in keeping the mind absolutely still, and five listing the things you have to do that day. In the evenings, five minutes should be set aside to keep the mind still and 10 to go over the tasks you had intended to do.

Ninth, don’t lose your temper. Try not to be short-tempered, or vengeful. Even when a friend has been rude, just move on.

Above all, when the time comes to go, one should go like a man without any regret or grievance against anyone. Iqbal said it beautifully in a couplet in Persian: “You ask me about the signs of a man of faith? When death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips.”


Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Graft craft

UBS offices at 1285 Avenue of the Americas (Si...Image via Wikipedia
To say that India's black money problem is a gargantuan one is stating but the obvious, but when some estimates peg the quantum of the parallel economy at USD1.4 trillion, it forces you to sit back and take notice. Remember Jim Carey in 'The Mask'? It’s almost as eyepopping, and then some. It’s a figure larger than the GDP of the country. Much of this wealth sits happily ensconced in tax havens and private banks, safe from prying Governments. While the Indian establishment tries its hardest to get its hands on some of this ill-gotten wealth (even recovering some part of it might significantly ease the country's fiscal imbalance), and even persecutes millionaire studfarm owner, Hasan Ali, not much headway has actually been made. And it’s unreasonable to expect any immediate results - some suggest another Voluntary Disclosure Scheme as a quick fix remedy, but that runs the risk of legitimizing the very scourge from which we need such an urgent cure. And the remedy must necessarily come from directly within the principal players in this sordid drama.

First, the government. It’s not particularly difficult to see why we have such a massive problem on hand. Clean business and clean money both need a clean financial and political ecosystem to flourish and circulate in, respectively. India clearly does not provide that ecosystem. The culture of corruption and gratification runs deep, so much so, that someone doing an honest day's work is looked upon with incredulity. So whereas in developed countries, while corruption exists, it seldom affects day to day life, in India it is all pervading and omnipresent, right from the traffic signal to the parliament. Successive governments have failed to show any degree of political will in tackling the problem and have never been close to showing zero tolerance for corruption. The current lot doesn’t even have disruptive coalition constraints to contend with, yet they have presided over the most damning series of scandals in memory. Clearly no one at the heart of government has been interested in reading out the riot act. And meanwhile...Rome burns. Some shrug and blame offshore havens, but it is important to note that we do have financial treaties with many of these jurisdictions, and the need of the hour is for us to work in more teeth into these treaties so that we can wield more than the current degree of power we possess to go after misappropriated funds hidden there.

An oft forgotten contributor to this problem is the private sector. It is easy to miss part that banks, tax evading corporations and greedy businessmen/professionals play in this monetary circus. Rich and unwilling to pay those worthless taxes with your hard earned rupee? You are almost certain to find an eager private banker willing to provide comprehensive 'solutions' to help you meet your needs. It is still not uncommon to overhear private bankers discussing customers walking in with suitcases full of cash. The profit motive in the private sector allows money, both legitimate and tainted, to escape the system, with willing customers ready to fork out hefty management fees to maintain the tax free status of their cash, which remains safe in complicated financial structures in off shore tax havens. In this regard, stricter Anti - Money Laundering legislation needs to be enforced and sometimes tenacious measures need to be taken against the big financial institutions, as seen in the case of the United States going after UBS AG. While most such institutions tend to remain on guard when it comes to links with drug money or possible terrorist funding, there remains a tendency to go soft when it comes to the rather vanilla issue of tax evasion. There are clear examples of willful collusion and examples need to be made of some of these 'reputable' names. Our rapacious capitalism, regardless of its nature, still needs to have morals, and just as the financial system seems to have learned from the 2008 financial meltdown (or has it?), we need to draw lessons from the constant use of the financial system both as a conduit for money laundering as well as a feeder of bureaucratic greed and tighten the gaps, fast.

The third and final corrective measure that needs to be put in place is one that needs to be directed towards ourselves. We cannot live as a nation of hypocrites. On one hand we pay lip service to Anna Hazare's or Baba Ramdev’s anti-corruption fasts, and on the other, we don't think twice before bribing the neighborhood policeman to escape a misdemeanor, a government clerk to move our file or the tax inspector scrutinizing our returns. We must remember that for every hand that takes, there is a hand that gives. And it is here that the bacterium of black money germinates, everything else is just a matter of scale and detail. We need to stop giving and we need to show patience. Only sustained action can lead to any sort of seismic shift in our embedded graft culture. While this might not bring back the billions already lost, it will at least help reduce this malaise in the ambit of our daily life. And that will be a significant battle won.

This article first appeared in the July 2011 edition of KINDLE

Enhanced by Zemanta

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Looking for inspiration

There are numerous little things all around us that can help our state of mind when we feel stressed, depressed or just plain fed-up with our daily 9 to 5. While feeling grumpy is easy enough, inspiration to dust yourself off and seize the moment is omnipresent. I list but five things that have inspired me recently.

1. Mamata Banerjee. She fought the CPI(M) for over 20 years. She had her skull cracked open, legs broken and teeth smashed. Regardless, she carried on as the lead political opposition to one of the most entrenched electoral machineries anywhere in the world. Armed only with raw courage, immense patience and the fight of a pitbull, she finally overcame after a two-decade struggle. And won. Love her or hate her, she inspires. True grit, if you ever saw it.

2. My son. It's interesting to watch a toddler learn and grow. My naughty little boy goes hard at the simple things - like trying to count from one to ten, or climbing up onto the bed, or eating his lunch himself. If a little fella can put in so much effort into small little things, I'm sure so can we.

3. 2nd April 2011. Where were you? I was right in front of a giant TV screen biting my nails. And then Mahendra Singh Dhoni sized one up from Nuwan Kulasekara and clouted it over long on for six. And then watched is sail into the stands, with a nonchalant twirl of his bat. And a nation erupted in joy and tears. An image for a generation.

4. Rocky Balboa (2006). The man's still got it. Sample this - "Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!". A heck of a 'punch'-line.

5. The Ajmer beggar. A beggar in Ajmer died with a bounty of a few lakhs of rupees in currency notes on his person. He died rich, in my view. A lifetime in poverty had ended in prosperity. While it's a pity he did not live longer to enjoy his wealth, it's a testament to the power of saving, frugality and discipline. It's hard not to get distracted with the latest gazillion-inch HDD 3D panel and the newest I-whatever. But keep at it and in the end, you'll be better off.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Last Nizam : Book review

John Zubrzycki, an Australian journalist, has good knowledge of India, her history and the myriad ways in which she works. It is therefore no surprise that he comes up with a convincing, gripping and insightful account of a man and a dynasty that's not written about very much.

The book charts the saga of the fabulously wealthy Nizams of Hyderabad, and initially outlines Indian history from the end of the Mughal period. These sections could appear a bit dry to some, and they delve into the dynamics of the relationship of the British administration of the time with the many princely states. Nonetheless, these pages succeed in involving the reader and in providing a sound base for what is to follow. Things get particularly interesting when the book begins to detail the life and times of the seventh and penultimate Nizam (also the richest man in the world at the time, whose collection of jewels alone could fill a couple of Olympic sized swimming pools), a somewhat eccentric and endearing creature, whose tales of thrift were legendary. He nominated Mukkaram Jah, his grandson as the next (and as it turned out, last) Nizam, bypassing his extravagant and distracted sons. Mukkaram Jah himself is a bit of a recluse, who now lives in anonymity in Turkey, and is the ultimate tragi-comic hero. Jawaharlal Nehru wanted the genteel, well heeled Oxbridge product in government, but he refused. He spent his initial years attempting to unravel his inheritance, which was perhaps at the time the largest going around, worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. It proved too much of a task for him and he succumbed to the hundreds of court cases from numerous relatives who wanted shares in his grandfather's property. Mukkaram then moved to Australia for many years, attempting to remodel himself into a gentleman farmer, purchasing a massive ranch. But a good manager and businessman he was not and the ranch proved financially unviable, running up huge losses and ultimately shutting down in the 90s.

The book, littered with many fascinating and curious characters, serves as reminder that great wealth can sometimes serve up great pain. Much of the Nizam's massive fortune has been squandered by his grandson, lost or sold by corrupt and opportunistic relatives or smuggled out of the country by covetous family retainers. The last Nizam, for all his education, remained an elitist who couldn't be bothered to get his hands dirty himself, and always relied on the advise of others, a sure recipe for disaster. "I know I am the Nizam of Hyderabad", he once told The West Australian, "and that's all that matters". He still has great pride in his roots and in this ancestry. Now alone and reclusive, that's all he seems to have left. The book is also a peek into the grandiose, graceful and glorious world of the once powerful Nizams, and its a world that's escaped mainstream historical attention. 'The Last Nizam' goes some distance in attempting to correct this injustice.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ganguly and the art of taking a risk

Mohammed Ali said that the test of a true champion was always finding that extra something in the tank regardless of how beat up you were, to rise for one last time to deliver the knockout punch. Sourav Ganguly had fulfilled Ali's condition of greatness since his return to the test arena in the post Chappell era. He had been dropped from a team he had helped shape, returned on the sheer weight of domestic runs, and delivered the sucker punch by being one of its most consistent batsmen since his return. His saga had therefore seen a fulfilling end. Or so we thought. But with Ganguly there are always epilogues. When fans and opinion makers insisted he hang up his boots, he tossed his (rather expensive) hat into the IPL ring. Strangely he didn't get picked. Among the reasons bandied about regarding his exclusion was the one about him being viewed as a 'difficult' one to deal with in the dressing-room. But one suspects an inability or unwillingness on the part of the franchises to risk harnessing his multiple utilities as leader, destroyer of spin bowlers and useful dibbly-dobbly bowler. Somewhere, one reckons, the snub rankled and the need arose to rise up again to KO the naysayers.

Being a Ganguly fan is like being on a roller coaster ride of raw emotion. He ensures he takes you through every high and low and perhaps through everything in between. Just as you wipe the sweat off your brow and say phew, having reached a level of emotional equilibrium, he's back to disturb the pulse meter. One hoped for a couple of vintage 'dada' performances, destined to shame SRK and KKR into regret. But there was no last hurrah to Ganguly's IPL return. Drafted into a beleaguered and already eliminated Pune outfit, those contributions never came. A scratchy unbeaten 30-odd in a winning cause and a naught in the next game are nothing to write home about. There were no dance-downs to the spinners and no trademark off-side drives. Only a string of match winning turns could have redeemed him. And now he risks never being picked again on the basis of performance. The gamble had been taken and it hadn't paid off.

Does this take anything away from the man's aura? Does it reduce him to league of desperate sportsmen, hanging on to the arc-lights ignorant that both skill and drive have long since been missing? No. While this is certainly not the finale neither he nor his fans were hoping for, there were some valuable reinforcements of all that has made him a man who commanded admiration and respect even from his worst detractors. Foremost of these were his inherent ability to take risks and his enormous self belief, both essential leadership traits. In his playing days, he regularly gambled with fresh talent instead of investing in the tried and tested. Just ask Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh or Zaheer Khan. He then entered the glitzy world of the fickle arclight with a successful Bengali TV game show. He believed he could still make a difference on the field and that prodded him on to stand by his decision to play even after his auction snub. He believed he belonged in the arena and in the first innings he played in the IPL, he showed he did, carrying his side home to victory. Taking a risk and believing in oneself can sometimes be the same thing, any difference being only an issue of perspective. The franchises seemed to shy away, but Ganguly had gumption to forget about the consequences. His one failure in the tournament will not take anything away from his legend. While Ganguly's return may seem to many as ill-advised, there is no other way that he knows to conduct himself. And that needs to be respected and admired. There is no doubt that risk taking is scary. Success in the IPL would have enhanced Ganguly's standing as the ultimate comeback man, a true champion and a fighter who could never be put down. Failure, he knew, would lead to heaps of 'I said he wasn't good enoughs' and a diminished reputation. It is important to note how he seemed to effortlessly move through it all, energized by the challenge, glaring at self-doubt, risking it all, once again. And there lies the true worth of a champion. We can quibble with the end result, but sometimes there is so much in the journey that we can all learn from.



Monday, April 25, 2011

Dum Maaro Dum : Movie review

'Dum Maro Dum' is satisfactory cops and robbers fare, held together largely by Goa's visual charm and Junior Bachchan's smoldering cop act. But its difficult to be completely susegaad watching a possible cracker of a thriller degenerate into a predictable chor police tamasha. There are multiple story-lines here, one of a gullible teenager being sucked into the drug trade, one of a musician seeking redemption and one of an ambitious career girl choosing the easy way out to success. And then there is the bad ass cop out to bust Goa's big bad drug mafia, in a final attempt at honor.

The film relies on snazzy editing, edgy music and fast paced set pieces and it starts having the desired effect in only the second half of the film, but the climax drags on for longer than necessary (Sippy should have learned from his previous outing 'Bluffmaster'). Also, the fact that the film is denied a strong antagonist is a constant niggle. Aditya Pancholi's drug baron turn is just not effective enough (did Nana Patekar say no?) to make the bad versus badder battle engaging. The enterprise gets most other things right though, in terms of music (the 'potty' lyrics notwithstanding), casting (with the possible exception of Telugu star Rana Daggubati) and setting.

Prateik Babbar displays his acting chops yet again in the limited scope he gets, though his role is certainly no special appearance as it is credited. Bipasha Basu is passable and Rana Daggubati brings presence but little else. The support cast does a fine job as does Abhishek Bachchan, who should clearly be playing more cops to resurrect his flagging career. Vidya Balan's fleeting cameo as Abhishek's wife is unnecessary, but they do make a fine couple. As mentioned, the bad guy is the biggest let down. Aditya Pancholi tries hard (screams, laughs evil, spits and even catches a rat) but fails to pass muster as our very own desi Alejandro Sosa.

The film is high on style and attitude, and low on depth. But I suppose it didn't intend to be the gold standard in cinematic layering in the first place. So if you're stone dead bored with the constant drone of the IPL on the telly, give this a go and I'm certain it will make a worthy distraction.



Friday, April 22, 2011

And we're back...

Uploaded to wiki by <span class=Image via Wikipedia
...after a longish break from Calcutta. A near perfect trip, complete with consumption of a few quintals of river fish, lazy afternoons, light shopping, usual family brouhahas and India's World Cup win. The cherry on the cake would have been my very own Amit Trivedi soundtrack to go with it. But then, we never can have it all.

A few observations -

- Calcutta is getting increasingly expensive. I often imagine what life would be should we relocate, and amidst that process tend to over-romanticise the place. But just walk into a shopping mall, or any smaller bazaar for that matter, and the reality of a much higher cost of living hits you fresh in the face. Food, home furnishings, property, domestic help, fuel, utilities, schooling etc. Calculating a monthly expenditure list is, err... scary. Nonetheless, you're better off than folks in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi, if that's any comfort.

- India won the World Cup 2011. I was too young to remember the 1983 win, and will savor the image of Dhoni clouting that six over long-on for a long time. The celebrations went on long and hard. In some cases too hard. For a sport that is played seriously in only a dozen countries, the tamasha sometimes seemed way over the top. Some TV pundits compared it with Brazil winning the Soccer World Cup, but really... it isn't the same thing! We need to celebrate, but the tendency of making cricket a metaphor for national pride is dangerous and unnecessary.

- I lost the 'book-shop battle', as I call it, yet again. This basically involves entering and exiting a bookshop without making a purchase. I did end up buying a few items, which is a now a constant source of mild guilt. But one purchase I am entirely 'buh-lah-zay' about, is a 21 DVD limited edition set of the complete adventures of TinTin. My one year old enjoys watching them along with us as well.

- Bengal goes to the hustings soon, in what could be a watershed election. Three decades of red rule could finally be coming to an end. Most people have already written the incumbents off for good. While Mamata Banerjee couldn't do much worse than the current lot, I am generally not entirely convinced Bengal will fly with her at the helm (she is currently not much more than a well meaning rabble rouser... governance will test her capabilities to the hilt). Again, the people of Bengal are faced with a serious paucity of political alternatives, but this time it looks like they just might go with the next best thing.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Balraj Sahni's India

Balraj SahniImage via WikipediaConvocation Address delivered by Balraj Sahni at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1972. Much of what he talks about is perhaps still relevant to India circa 2011, hence I reproduce this here from the JNUTA website.

About 20 years ago, the Calcutta Film Journalists' Association decided to honour the late Bimal Roy, the maker of Do Bigha Zameen, and us, his colleagues. It was a simple but tasteful ceremony. Many good speeches were made, but the listeners were waiting anxiously to hear Bimal Roy. We were all sitting on the floor, and I was next to Bimal Da. I could see that as his turn approached he became increasingly nervous and restless. And when his turn came he got up, folded his hands and said, “Whatever I have to say, I say it in my films. I have nothing more to say,” and sat down.

There is a lot in what Bimal Da did, and at this moment my greatest temptation is to follow his example. The fact that I am not doing so is due solely to the profound regard I have for the name which this august institution bears; and the regard I have for yet another person, Shri P.C. Joshi, who is associated with your university. I owe to him some of the greatest moments of my life, a debt which I can never repay. That is why when I received an invitation to speak on this occasion, I found it impossible to refuse. If you had invited me to sweep your doorstep I would have felt equally happy and honoured. Perhaps that service would have been more equal to my merit.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not trying to be modest. Whatever I said was from my heart and whatever I shall say further on will also be from my heart, whether you find it agreeable and in accordance with the tradition and spirit of such occasions or otherwise. As you may know, I have been out of touch with the academic world for more than a quarter of a century. I have never addressed a University Convocation before.

It would not be out of place to mention that the severance of my contact with your world has not been voluntary. It has been due to the special conditions of film making in our country. Our little film world either offers the actor too little work, forcing him to eat his heart out in idleness; or gives him too much —so much that he gets cut off from all other currents of life. Not only does he sacrifice the pleasures of normal family life, but he also has to ignore his intellectual and spiritual needs. In the last 25 years I have worked in more than one 125 films. In the same period a contemporary European or American actor would have done 30 or 35. From this you can imagine what a large part of my life lies buried in strips of celluloid. A vast number of books which I should have read, I have not been able to read. So many events I should have taken part in, have passed me by. Sometimes I feel terribly left behind. And the frustration increases when I ask myself: How many of these 125 films had anything significant in them? How many have any claim to be remembered? Perhaps a few. They could be counted on the fingers of one hand. And even they have either been forgotten already or will be, quite soon.

That is why I said I was not being modest. I was only giving a warning, so that in the event of my disappointing you, you should be able to forgive me. Bimal Roy was right. The artist's domain is his work. So, since I must speak, I must confine myself to my own experience to what I have observed and felt, and wish to communicate. To go outside that would be pompous and foolish.

I'd like to tell you about an incident which took place in my college days and which I have never been able to forget. It has left a permanent impression on my mind.

I was going by bus from Rawalpindi to Kashmir with my family to enjoy the summer vacation. Half-way through, we were halted because a big chunk of the road had been swept away by a landslide caused by rain the previous night. We joined the long queues of buses and cars on either side of the landslide. Impatiently, we waited for the road to clear. It was a difficult job for the PWD and it took some days before they could cut a passage through. During all this time, the passengers and the drivers of vehicles made a difficult situation even more difficult by their impatience and constant demonstration. Even the villagers nearby got fed up with the high-handed behavior of the city-walas.One morning, the overseer declared the road open. The green- flag was waved to the drivers. But we saw a strange sight. No driver was willing to be the first to cross. They just stood and stared at each other from either side. No doubt the road was a make-shift one and even dangerous. A mountain on one side, and a deep gorge and the river below. Both were forbidding. The overseer had made a careful inspection and had opened the road with a full sense of responsibility. But nobody was prepared to trust his judgment, although these very people had, till the day before, accused him and his department of laziness and incompetence. Half an hour passed by in dumb silence. Nobody moved. Suddenly, we saw a small green sports car approaching. An Englishman was driving it; sitting all by himself. He was a bit surprised to see so many parked vehicles and the crowd there. I was rather conspicuous, wearing my smart jacket and trousers. "What's happened?" he asked me.

I told him the whole story. He laughed loudly, blew the horn and went straight ahead, crossing the dangerous portion without the least hesitation. And now the pendulum swung the other way. Every body was so eager to cross that they got into each other's way and created a new confusion for some time. The noise of hundreds of engines and hundreds of horns was unbearable.

That day I saw with my own eyes the difference in attitudes between a man brought up in a free country and a man brought up in an enslaved one. A free man has the power to think, decide, and act for himself. But the slave loses that power. He always borrows his thinking from others, wavers in his decisions, and more often than not only takes the trodden path. I learnt a lesson from this incident, which has been valuable to me. I made it a test for my own life. In the course of my life, whenever I have been able to make my own crucial decisions, I have been happy. I have felt the breath of freedom on my face. I have called myself a free man. My spirit has soared high and I have enjoyed life because I have felt there is meaning to life. But, to be frank, such occasions have been too few. More often than not I had lost courage at the crucial moment, and taken shelter under the wisdom of other people. I had taken the safer path. I made decisions which were expected of me by my family, by the bourgeois class to which I belonged, and the set of values upheld by them. I thought one way but acted in another. For this reason, afterwards I have felt rotten. Some decisions have proved ruinous in terms of human happiness. Whenever I lost courage, my life became a meaningless burden. I told you about an Englishman. I think that in itself is symptomatic of the sense of inferiority that I felt at that time. I could have given you the example of Sardar Bhagat Singh who went to the gallows the same year. I could have given you the example of Mahatma Gandhi who always had the courage to decide for himself. I remember how my college professors and the wise respectable people of my home town shook their heads over the folly of Mahatma Gandhi, who thought he could defeat the most powerful empire on earth with his utopian principles of truth and non-violence. I think less than one per cent of the people of my city dreamt that they would see India free in their lifetime. But Mahatma Gandhi had faith in himself, in his country, and his people. Some of you may have seen a painting of Gandhiji done by Nandlal Bose. It is the picture of a man who has the courage to think and act for himself.

During my college days I was not influenced by Bhagat Singh or Mahatma Gandhi. I was doing my MA in English literature from the most magnificent educational institution in the Punjab— the Government College in Lahore. Only the very best students were admitted to that college. After independence my fellow students have achieved the highest positions in India and Pakistan, both in the government and society. But, to gain admission to this college we had to give a written undertaking that we would take no interest in any political movement—which at that time meant the freedom movement.

This year we are celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of our independence. But can we honestly say that we have got rid of our slavish mentality—our inferiority complex?

Can we claim that at the personal, social, or institutional level, our thinking, our decisions, or even our actions are our own and not borrowed? Are we really free in the spiritual sense? Can we dare to think and act for ourselves, or do we merely pretend to do so—merely make a superficial show of independence?

I should like to draw your attention to the film industry to which I belong. I know a great many of our films are such that the very mention of them would raise a laugh among you. In the eyes of educated intelligent people, Hindi films are nothing but a tamasha. Their stories are childish, unreal, and illogical. But their worst fault, you will agree with me, is that their plots, their technique, their songs and dances, betray blind, unimaginative, and unabashed copying of films from the west. There have been Hindi films which have been copied in every detail from some foreign film. No wonder that you young people laugh at us, even though some of you may dream of becoming stars yourselves. It is not easy for me to laugh at Hindi films. I earn my bread from them. They have brought me plenty of fame and wealth. To some extent at least, I owe to Hindi films the high honour which you have given me today.When I was a student like you, our teachers, both English and Non-English, tried to convince us in diverse ways that the fine arts were a prerogative of white people. Great films, great drama, great acting, great painting, etc., were only possible in Europe and America. The Indian people, their language and culture, were as yet too crude and backward for real artistic expression. We used to feel bitter about this and we resented it outwardly: but inwardly we could not help accepting this judgment.

The picture has changed vastly since then. After independence India has made a tremendous recovery in every branch of the arts. In the field of film making, names like Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy stand out as international personalities. Many of our artistes, cameramen and technicians compare with the best anywhere in the world. Before independence we hardly made ten or fifteen films worth the name. Today we are the biggest film producing country in the world. Not only are our films immensely popular with the masses in our own country, but also in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the Eastern Republics of the Soviet Union; Egypt, and other Arab countries in the Far East and many African countries. We have broken the monopoly of Hollywood in this field. Even from the aspect of social responsibility, our Indian films have not yet degenerated to the low level to which some of the western countries have descended. The film producer in India has not yet exploited sex and crime for the sake of profit to the extent that his American counterpart has been doing for years and years-thus creating a serious social problem for that country.

But all these assets are negated by our one overwhelming fault—that we are imitators and copyists. This one fault makes us the laughing stock of intelligent people everywhere. We make films according to borrowed, outdated formulas. We do not have the courage to strike out on our own, to get to grips with the reality of our own country, to present it convincingly and according to our own genius. I say this not only in relation to the usual Hindi or Tamil box office films. I make this complaint against our so-called progressive and experimental films also, whether they be in Bengali, Hindi, or Malayalam. I do not lag behind anyone else in admiring the work of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Sukhdev, Basu Bhattacharjee, or Rajinder Singh Bedi. I know they are highly and deservingly respected; but even then I cannot help saying that the winds of fashion in Italy, France, Sweden, Poland, or Czechoslovakia have an immediate effect on their work. They do break new ground, but only after someone else has broken it. In the literary world, in which I have considerable interest, I see the same picture. Our novelists, story writers, and poets are carried away with the greatest of ease by the currents of fashion in Europe, although Europe, with the exception of the Soviet Union perhaps, is not yet even aware of Indian writing. For example, in my own province of the Punjab there is a wave of protest among young poets against the existing social order. Their poetry exhorts the people to rebel against it, to shatter it and build a better world free from corruption, injustice, and exploitation. One cannot but endorse that spirit wholeheartedly, because, without question, the present social order needs changing.

The content of this poetry is most admirable, but the form is not indigenous. It is borrowed from the west. The west has discarded meter and rhyme, so our Punjabi poet must also discard it. He must also use involved and ultra-radical imagery. The result is that the sound and fury remains only on paper, confined to small, mutually admiring literary circles. The people, the workers and the peasants who are being exhorted to revolution, cannot make head or tail of this kind of poetry. It just leaves them cold and per The content of this poetry is most admirable, but the form is not indigenous. It is borrowed from the west. The west has discarded meter and rhyme, so our Punjabi poet must also discard it. He must also use involved and ultra-radical imagery. The result is that the sound and fury remains only on paper, confined to small, mutually admiring literary circles. The people, the workers and the peasants who are being exhorted to revolution, cannot make head or tail of this kind of poetry. It just leaves them cold and perplexed. I don't think I am wrong if I say that other Indian languages too are in the grip of "new wave" poetry.

I know next to nothing about painting. I can't judge a good one from a bad one. But I have noticed that in this sphere also our painters conform to current fashions abroad. Very few have the courage to swim against the tide.And what about the academic world? I invite you to I look into the mirror. If you laugh at Hindi films, maybe you are tempted to laugh at yourselves. This year my own province honoured me by nominating me to the senate of Guru Nanak university. When the invitation to attend the first meeting came, I happened to be in the Punjab, wandering around in some villages near Preet Nagar—the cultural centre founded by our great writer S. Gurbakhsh Singh. During the evening's gossip I told my villager friends that I was to go to Amritsar to attend this meeting and if anyone wanted a lift in my car he was welcome. At this one of the company said, "Here among us you go about dressed in tehmat-kurta, peasant fashion; but tomorrow you will put on your suit and become Sahib Bahadur again." "Why," I said laughingly, "if you want I will go dressed just like this." "You will never dare," another one said. "Our sarpanch Sahib here removes his tehmat and puts on a pyjama whenever he has to go to the city on official work. He has to do it, otherwise, he says, he is not respected. How can yon go peasant-fashion to such a big university?" A jawan who had come home on leave for the rice sowing added, "Our sarpanch is a coward. In cities even girls go about wearing lungis these days. Why should he not be respected?"

The gossip went on, and, as if to accept their challenge, I did make my appearance in the Senate meeting in tehmat-kurta. The sensation I created was beyond my expectation. The officer—perhaps, professor—who was handing out the gowns in the vestibule could not recognize me at first. When he did he could not hide his amusement, "Mr Sahni, with the tehmat you should have worn khosas—not shoes," he said, while putting the gown over my shoulders. "I shall be careful next time," I said apologetically and moved on. But a moment later I asked myself, was it not bad manners for the professor to notice or comment on my dress? Why did I not point this out to him? I felt peeved over my slow-wittedness.

After the meeting we went over to meet the students. Their amusement was even greater and more eloquent. Many of them could not help laughing at the fact that I was wearing shoes with a tehmat. That they were wearing chappals with trousers seemed nothing extraordinary to them.

You must wonder why I am wasting your time narrating such trivial incidents. But look at it from the point of view of the Punjabi peasant. We are all full of admiration for his contribution to the green revolution. He is the backbone of our armed forces. How must he feel when his dress or his way of life is treated as a matter of amusement?

It is well-known in the Punjab that as soon as a village lad receives college education, he becomes indifferent to the village. He begins to consider himself superior and different, as if belonging to a separate world altogether. His one ambition is to somehow leave the village and run to a city. Is this not a slur on the academic world?

I agree that all places are not alike. I know perfectly well that no complex against the native dress exists in Tamil Nadu or Bengal. Anyone from a peasant to a professor can go about in a dhoti on any occasion. But I submit that the habit of borrowed and idealized thinking is present over there too. It is present everywhere, in some form or degree. Even 25 years after independence we are blissfully carrying on with the same system of education which was designed by Macaulay and Co. to breed clerks and mental slaves. Slaves who would be incapable of thinking independently of their British masters; slaves who would admire everything about the masters, even while hating them; slaves who would consider it an honour to be standing by the side, of the masters, to speak the language of the masters, to dress like the masters, to sing and dance like the masters; slaves, who would hate their own people and would be available to preach the gospel of hatred among their own people. Can we then be surprised if the large majority of students in universities are losing faith in this system of education?

Let me go back to trivialities again. Ten years ago, if you asked a fashionable student in Delhi to wear a kurta with trousers he would have laughed at you. Today, by the grace of the hippies and the Hare Rama Hare Krishna cult, not only has the kurta-trousers combination become legitimate, but even the word kurta has changed to guru-shirt. The sitar became a star instrument with us only after the Americans gave a big welcome to Ravi Shankar, just as 50 years ago Tagore became Gurudev all over India only after he received the Nobel Prize from Sweden. Can you dare to ask a college student to shave his head, moustache, and beard when the fashion is to put the barbers out of business? But if tomorrow under the influence of Yoga the students of Europe begin to shave their heads arid faces, I can assure you that you will begin to see a crop of shaven skulls all over Connaught Circus the next day. Yoga has to get a certificate from Europe before it can influence the home of its birth. Let me give another example—a less trivial one.

I work in Hindi films, but it is an open secret that the songs and dialogues of these Hindi films are mostly written in Urdu. Eminent Urdu writers and poets-Krishan Chandar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, K. A. Abbas, Gulshan Nanda, Sahir Ludhianwi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, and Kaifi Azmi are associated with this work.Now, if a film written in Urdu can be called a Hindi film, it is logical to conclude that Hindi and Urdu are one and, the same language. But no, our British masters declared them two separate languages in their time. Therefore, even 25 years after independence, our government, our universities, and our intellectuals insist on treating them as two separate and independent languages. Pakistan radio goes on ruining the beauty of this language by thrusting into it as many Persian and Arabic words as possible; and All India Radio knocks it out of all shape by pouring the entire Sanskrit dictionary into it. In this way they carry out the wish of the Master, to separate the inseparable. Can anything be more absurd than that? If the British told us that white was black, would we go on calling white black for ever and ever? My film colleague Johnny Walker remarked the other day, "They should not announce 'Ab Hindi mein samachar suniye' [Now listen to the news in Hindi] they should say, 'Ab Samachar mein Hindi suniye' [Now listen to Hindi in the News]

I have discussed this funny situation with many Hindi and Urdu writers—the so-called progressive as well as non progressive; I have tried to convince them of the urgency to do some fresh thinking on the subject. But so far it has been like striking one's head against a stone wall. We film people call it the "ignorance of the learned". Are we wrong?

Lastly, I would like to tell you about a hunch I have, even at the risk of boring you. A hunch is something you can't help having. It just comes. Ultimately it may prove right or wrong. May be mine is wrong. But there it is. It may even prove right—who knows?

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has admitted in his autobiography that our freedom movement, led by the Indian National Congress, was always dominated by the propertied classes—the capitalists and landlords. It was logical, therefore, that these very classes should hold the reigns of power even after independence. Today it is obvious to everyone that in the last 25 years the rich have been growing 'richer' and the poor have been growing poorer. Pandit Nehru wanted to change this state of affairs, but he couldn't. I don't blame him, because he had to face very heavy odds all along. Today our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, pledges herself to take the country towards the goal of socialism. How far she will be successful, I can't say. Politics is not my line. For our present purposes it is enough if you agree with me that in today's India the propertied classes dominate the government as well as society.

I think you will also agree that the British used the English language with remarkable success for strengthening their imperial hold on our country.

Now, which language in your opinion would their successors, the present rulers of India, choose to strengthen their own domination? Rashtrabhasha Hindi? By heavens, no. My hunch is that their interests too are served by English and English alone. But since they have to keep up a show of patriotism they make a lot of noise about Rashtrabhasha Hindi so that the mind of the public remains diverted.

Men of property may believe in a thousand different gods, but they worship only one—the God of profit. From the point of view of profit the advantages of retaining English to the capitalist class in this period of rapid industrialization and technological revolution are obvious. But the social advantages are even greater. From that point of view English is a God-sent gift to our ruling classes.

Why? For the simple reason that the English language is beyond the reach of the toiling millions of our country. In olden times Sanskrit and Persian were beyond the reach of the toiling masses. That is why the rulers of those times had given them the status of state language. Through Sanskrit and Persian the masses were made to feel ignorant, inferior, uncivilized, and unfit to rule themselves. Sanskrit and Persian helped to enslave their minds, and when the mind is enslaved bondage is eternal.It suits our present ruling classes to preserve and maintain the social order that they have inherited from the British. They have a privileged position; but they cannot admit it openly. That is why a lot of hoo-haw is made about Hindi as the Rashtrabhasha. They know very well that this Sanskrit-laden, artificial language, deprived of all modern scientific and technical terms, is too weak and insipid to challenge the supremacy of English. It will always remain a show piece, and what is more, a convenient tool to keep the masses fighting among themselves. We film people get a regular flow of fan mail from young people studying in schools and colleges. I get my share of it and these letters reveal quite clearly what a storehouse of torture the English language is to the vast majority of Indian students. How abysmally low the levels of teaching and learning have reached! That is why, I am told preferential treatment is being given to boys and girls who come from public schools i.e. schools to which only the children of privileged classes can go.

It is not necessary for me to comment on the efforts being made to strengthen English in every sphere of life, despite assurances to the contrary. They are all too obvious. It is admitted that English is too alien and hence too difficult to learn for the average Indian. And yet, it helps the capitalists and industrialists to consolidate their position on an all-India scale. That one consideration is more important than any other. According to them whatever serves their interest automatically serves national interest too. They are hopeful that in the not too distant future the people themselves will endorse their stand—that English should retain its present status for ever.

This was my hunch and I confided it one day to a friend of mine who is a labour leader. I told him that if we are serious about doing away with capitalism and bringing in socialism, we have to help the working class to consolidate itself on an all-India scale with the same energy as the capitalist class is doing. We have to help the working class achieve a leading role in society. And that can only be done by breaking the domination of English and replacing it with a people's language.

My friend listened to me carefully and largely agreed with me.

"You have analyzed the situation very well," he said, "but what is the remedy?"

"The remedy is to retain the English script and kick out the English language," I replied.

"But how?"

"A rough and ready type of Hindustani is used by the working masses all over India. They make practical use of it by discarding all academic and grammatical flourishes. In this type of Hindustani, "Larka bhi jata hei" and "Larki bhi jata hei". There is an atmosphere of rare freedom in this patois and even the intellectuals indulge in it when they want to relax. And actually this is in the best tradition of Hindustani. This is how it was born, made progress, and acquired currency all over India. In the old days it was contemptuously called Urdu—or the language of the camps or bazaars.

Today in this bazaari Hindustani the word 'university' becomes univrasti—a much better word than vishwa vidyalaya, 'lantern' becomes laltain, the 'chasis' of a car becomes chesi, 'spanner' becomes pana, i.e. anything and everything is possible. The string with which the soldier cleans his rifle is called 'pullthrough' in English. In Roman Hindustani it becomes fultroo—a beautiful word. 'Barn-door' is the term the Hollywood lights man uses for a particular type of two blade cover. The Bombay film worker has changed it to bandar, an excellent transformation. This Hindustani has untold and unlimited possibilities. It can absorb the international scientific and technological vocabulary with the greatest of ease. It can take words from every source and enrich itself. One has no need to run only to the Sanskrit dictionary."

"But why the Roman script?" my friend asked.

"Because no one has any prejudice against it," I said. "It is the only script which has already gained all-India currency. In north, south, east and west, you can see shop signs and film poster in this script. We use this script for writing addresses on envelopes and post cards. The army has been using it for the last thirty years at least."

My friend, the labour leader, kept silent for some time. Then he smiled indulgently and said, "Comrade, Europe also experimented with Esperanto. A great intellectual like Bernard Shaw tried his best to popularize the Basic English. But all these schemes failed miserably, for the simple reason that languages cannot be evolved mechanically; they grow spontaneously."

I was deeply shocked. I said, "Comrade, Esperanto is just that Rashtrabhasha which the Hindi Pandits are manufacturing in their studies, from the pages of some Sanskrit dictionary. I am talking of the language which is growing all round you, through the action of the people."

But I couldn't convince him. I gave more arguments, including the one that Netaji Subhash Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru were both strong advocates of Roman Hindustani, but that too failed to convince him. The question is not whether the comrade or I was right. Perhaps, I was wrong. Perhaps, my thinking was utopian, or "mechanical" —as he called it. As I said before, you can never say whether a hunch is going to be right or wrong. But the fun lies in having it, because to have a hunch is a sign of independent thinking. The comrade should have been able to appreciate that, but he couldn't, because it was difficult for him to get out of the grooves of orthodox thinking.

No country can progress unless it becomes conscious of its being—its mind and body. It has to learn to exercise its own muscles. It has to learn to find out and solve its own problems in its own way. But whichever way I turn I find that even after twenty-five years of independence, we are like a bird which has been let out of its cage after a prolonged imprisonment-unable to know what to do with its freedom. It has wings, but is afraid to fly into the open air. It longs to remain within defined limits, as in the cage.

Individually and collectively, we resemble Walter Mitty. Our inner lives are different from our outer lives. Our thoughts and actions are poles apart. We want to change this state of affairs, but we lack the courage to do anything different from what we have been doing all along, or different from what others expect us to do.I am sure there must be some police officers in this country who in their hearts want to be regarded as friends rather than enemies of the public. They must be aware that in England the behaviour of the police towards the public is polite and helpful. But the tradition in which they have been trained is not the one which the British set for their own country but the one which they set for their colonies. So, the policeman is helpless. According to this colonial tradition, it is his duty to strike terror into anyone who enters his office, to be as obstructive and unhelpful as possible. This is the tradition which pervades every government office, from the chaparasi to the minister.

One of our young and enterprising producers made an experimental film and approached the government for tax exemption. The minister concerned was being sworn into office the next day. He invited the producer to attend the ceremony, after which he would meet him and discuss the matter. The producer went, impressed by the informality with which the minister had treated him. As the minister was being sworn in, promising to serve the people truly, faithfully, and honestly, his secretary started explaining to the young producer how much he would have to pay in black money to the minister and how much to the others if he wanted the tax exemption. The producer got so shocked and angry that he wanted to put this scene in his next film. But his financiers had already suffered a loss with the first one. They told him categorically not to make an ass of himself. In any case, if he had insisted in making an ass of himself the censors would never have passed the film, because it is an unwritten law that no policeman or minister is corrupt in our country.

But there is something which strikes me as being even funnier. Those same people who scream against ministers every day cannot themselves hold a single function without some minister inaugurating it, or presiding over it, or being the chief guest. Sometimes the minister is the chief guest and a film star is the president, or else the film star is the chief guest and the minister is the president. Some big personality has to be there, because it is the age old colonial tradition.

During the last war, I spent four years in England as a Hindustani announcer at the BBC. During those four years of extreme crisis I never even once set my eyes on a member of the British cabinet, including Prime Minister Churchill. But since independence I have seen nothing else but ministers in India, all over the place.When Gandhiji went to the Round Table Conference in 1930, he remarked to British journalists that the Indian people regarded the guns and bullets of their empire in the same way as their children regarded the crackers andphataakaas on Diwali day. He could make that claim because he had driven the fear of the British out of Indian minds. He had taught them to ignore and boycott the British officers instead of kowtowing to them. Similarly, if we want socialism in our country, we have firstly to drive out the fear of money, position, and power from the minds of our people. Are we doing anything in that direction? In our society today, who is respected most — the man with talent or the man with money? Who is admired most—the man with talent or the man with power? Can we ever hope to usher in socialism under such conditions? Before socialism can come, we have to create an atmosphere in which possession of wealth and riches should invite disrespect rather than respect. We have to create an atmosphere in which the highest respect is given to labour whether it be physical or mental; to talent, to skill, to art, and to inventiveness. This requires new thinking, and the courage to discard old ways of thinking. Are we anywhere near this revolution of the mind?

Perhaps, today we need a messiah to give us the courage to abandon our slavishness and to create values befitting the human beings of a free and independent country so that we may have the courage to link our destinies to the ones being ruled, and not the rulers — to the exploited and not to the exploiters.

A great saint of the Punjab, Guru Arjun Dev, said,

jan ki tehl sanbhakhan jan sio uuthan baithan jan kai sanga
jan char raj mukh mathai laagi aasa puuran anant tharanga

[I serve His humble servants, and speak with them, and abide with them.
I apply the dust of the feet of His humble servants to my face and forehead;
my hopes, and the many waves of desire, are fulfilled]

It is my earnest hope and prayer that you, graduates of Jawaharlal Nehru University, may succeed where I and so many others of my generation have failed.



Enhanced by Zemanta