Thursday, May 21, 2015

We've gone bonkers

This post is being written out of anger and frustration. If you don't like what's being said, feel free to stop reading and close the window. Don't come back with your two cents please.

A few days ago, a chap called Zeeshan applied in a diamond trading company, and he got rejected because the company did not want a 'Muslim Candidate'. The guy shared screenshots of the rejection mail and as I'm sure he expected it to, it went viral. Our media, which is eternally starved for newspieces that espouse the victim card went with their OB vans to the guy and took endless interviews, making the issue a headline event which hasn't yet completed its 15 minutes of fame.

So here is point 1 - The candidate hasn't been rejected because he is a Muslim, like our idiots have made it appear like. They simply said they hire only Non-Muslim candidates, and therein lies a world of difference. 

The firm the chap applied in is a private organization, and they aren't defined by our sick reservation protocols (yet). Yes, the grounds for rejection is quite sad in today's world. But by the term 'private' they reserve the right to do whatever they want! It isn't against the law to say that they will employ only people of a certain religion in their firm. Its their wish! We don't like it, nothing we can do about it. If we don't like the philosophy, the best we can do is to stop buying their products - like certain 'intellectuals' do when they come across Tirupur garments, Sivakasi fireworks, Bangladeshi hoisery, and Chinese electronics. Whether it makes a difference to that firm or not is none of our business.

The Hindu (which is the most misnamed publication on planet Earth), carried an article here - This publication, and the dozens of nonsense news channels we have been cursed with, have gone flying to take the 'opinion' of the fresher who got this unlucky letter, and made him an instant celebrity. The guy is now telling companies how to recruit and how to reject candidates based on his 'experience'. To a company which was in the news for giving hundreds of their employees flats and cars as bonuses, and has unheard-of employee loyalty. Ok, we don't like a policy they have. So apply somewhere else! There are millions of companies in the world. And while they may not give flats and foreign trips as annual bonuses, they have equal recruitment policies! 

This article isn't just to outrage about a company who couldn't hire a more diplomatic HR recruiter, or about a kid freshly out of college, who's enjoying his time in the media glare. It is about the way we encourage folks in our society to play the victim card.

Being a victim is very much in vogue. Being a Woman, Being a Man, Being Rich, Being Poor, Being Educated, Being Uneducated, Being from Urban India, Being from Rural India, Being Strong, Being Weak, Being Young, Being Old, there are a thousand combinations that, depending on the circumstances, allow us to flash our cards and play victim. And our society loves them all! Cinema reveres them, NGOs live off them, Politicians feed off them, and TV thrives on them. Subtly, we've all been trained to directly jump to the victim card - irrespective of whether we are helpless or not. Even superstars with the best lawyers money can buy had to play victim - in spite of having committed a crime that the whole world has known for decades. Shame on us.

Push people into a corner, and they rebel. Women used Section 498A so liberally, that they've taken the teeth off the act now. Caste card has been played so often, that we've made the next generation either caste-fanatics, or as atheists. No middle ground. A generation is watching us. They are observant. They notice everything - well beyond their age. And what they're seeing is that playing victim will get them what they want. So that is what they'll do! Ordinary folks have learnt to communicate in a language that makes strengths out of irrelevant qualities. They've learnt to wear a mask of being a David and the whole world comes to their rescue to slay the Goliath.

All, while this projected Goliath was just going about his life like he as always been. It is these folks that are made to be Goliaths that are actually paying our taxes and taking care of the world. Those who have fallen prey to the victim image are parasites and they just leech off the goodness of the world. There is already precious little of it left. Suck that away and we are doomed. An abyss of misery awaits us.

Zeeshan will get a job, no doubt. The poor HR who wrote that reply has probably already been fired. The jewelry firm will get booed for a while, and then be cheered when they announce even larger Diwali bonuses this year. They will all still go on with their lives. But we have given in to low tendencies yet again - from both sides of this issue, and have made our world slightly worse for ourselves.

Friday, February 06, 2015

A (not so) Simple Solution for AccheDin

A government always has the best interest of its people at heart - deep down inside. I said 'Government', not the people in it. By the time these interests come up for transformation into action by the people, various emotions creep in - greed, fear, ego, hate, prejudice - and the result is almost always a failed state. Whether it is the mighty United States of World-Lecturing, or the Islamic State of self goals, the journey from an idea to the result is what we have a problem with.

For this article, allow me to pick one angle to it - implementation transparency, and see why we can't do better with it. This article is just me running amok with my idealism.

India, being a promise-driven voting society, has always been kind to whoever makes the most ludicrous promises. Our beloved Krantikari has already promised enough to cost the exchequer the entire budget of a few small countries, if he's elected. While I pray the people of Delhi are smarter than that, its just that - a prayer. As a welfare state, we have millions of projects running simultaneously across the country, with trillions of rupees being spent each year. Money that you and I have paid as taxes - directly and indirectly. From the whim of a Chief Minister who wants to change the entire state secretariat because he feels the Vastu isn't right, to MNREGA wherein the government pays ₹174 per day and only half of that is actually paid to the peasant who does the actual labouring (the rest is openly fleeced by the middlemen), its all funded by us.

Right to Information has been around for a while now, and has lost its sheen in spite of some real warriors who've made it their life's purpose and are really making a difference. One such 'warrior' has become Krantikari, but that's just my hate of that man talking. Armed with a ₹10 application, people can choose to wait for months just to find out the status of a project that they have indirectly funded, and based on the promise of which they have voted a government to power. Funny, no?

Lets digress a bit. 
Like most of India, I love shopping online. The convenience and the choice, coupled with the fact that there is free delivery and I don't need to search for parking spots at Spencers, makes me a fan. I can't cease to be amazed at the economics which allow a giant like Amazon to deliver a product priced at under ₹100 for free - that too via BlueDart - and still manage to eke out a profit! And what's even more fascinating is the fact that we can track the status of the shipment on the mobile app, and see exactly where the product is. It is quite like that program on National Geographic on the Mumbai local trains, where the controller's room has an entire wall of LEDs showing the exact position of every train in transit at any given point of time. It is tremendously empowering! I feel like I'm powering the global economy and participating in something awesome - all through my ₹100 Cash on Delivery order :)
Here's a screenshot of an order that came home a couple of days ago.

Amazon delivery

Continuing my amazement is the fact that they often deliver in under 48 hours. Sometimes even under 24 hours. This particular screenshot is for a mobile phone holder for a car wind shield, and cost ₹140. Since this was sold by a third party, I don't think Amazon made more than ₹10-20 on it, and I'm quite sure the seller himself wouldn't have made much more than that either. Since BlueDart was delivering it at something like ₹20-30 in that kind of a turnaround, I don't see them making too much money of it either. It is all a game of volume, and that is a topic for another article.

Now, tracking like this has two purposes. While it serves the customer to know where his shipment is, and aids in customer delight, there is also the company's benefit of being able to keep track of all those millions of packages in transit, and use the same platform to solve customer queries. True genius is in creating a platform that works with both the front end and back end user, with different interfaces. Our e-commerce sites have got that down quite successfully.

According to Wikipedia, the total E-Commerce business in India in 2013 was $2.3 Billion. (Read Here). That's about ₹13800 crores. Since the running costs are incredibly high for an e-commerce business in India, lets take a profit margin of 10% for now. That's a cumulative profit of ₹1380 crores for all those sites. Out of this, probably ₹1000 crores would go to the big 4 or 5, and the rest divided among all the small ones. So each site - even the biggest ones - made only a few hundred crores at best. I'm not an economist, and this number could be incredibly skewed, but it'll serve the purpose of what i'm leading to in the next part of this post.


Lets now apply this learning to our government.
The Hyderabad Metro has a plan outlay of about ₹14000 crores.  The outlay for NREGA for this year is ₹34000 crores. And there are millions of projects running, and millions more - from Panchayat level to Central government level, that are in the approval pipeline. The total Budget Spend for 2014-15 was forecast at ₹17,94,892 crores. Yup. That's more zeroes that we can visualize! For every department that is involved in this spend (and there are thousands of departments), there is a capital spend outlay in order to spend this money efficiently. Afterall, that is the whole purpose of an elected democracy - to spend our money as best as they can, ideally for the good of the country. 

Here's the question then. Why do I have to file a ₹10 RTI in order to know how my money is being spent, and how efficiently the works based on my money are being done? During the budget, there were several ₹100 crore trials that were announced towards new spends. Wouldn't I want to know how well they are being spent - if at all? For that, why should I have to go through another process from another department and an information commissioner? When I order a product from Amazon or Flipkart, I don't have to pay them extra money and file an application to check the status of product / service delivery, no? Even if the company is losing money on the order, they still give me realtime access to the delivery mechanism. Why should it be different for a government which is Of the People, By the People, and For the People?

When a builder wants to construct an apartment, it is a rule that he should display up front a board with all the salient details about the construction. The number of dwellings, the nature of the construction, the application number, money paid to the government towards utilities, name and contact of the builder, and the approving authority. That board is supposed to be in place through the duration of the project so that anyone can see what's being done. We don't file an application with the builder and pay him ₹10, then wait for a few months to get this information. What's funny is that when the government assigns a project to a private vendor, they expect all this information to be prominently and accurately displayed for their benefit. When a private vendor (or a citizen) pays the government for a project, we need to keep running behind them to check the progress. Why this Kolaveri Di?

This article isn't just to outrage. There's a solution, and that's why the e-commerce reference. When a company that is barely breaking even can invest in technology that truly empowers both the front end and the back end user, why can't the government that has an entire department in the form of NIC, have technology in place that will make this entire process streamlined? Yes, as soon as they are asked about it, they'll say it won't work in rural areas where bulk of the work is being done. But then, that's not right! SKS Micro and several other Micro financing organizations are doing a stellar job of rural financing using Bio metric and mobile devices. ITC is changing the way farmers go about their business through their E-Choupal kiosks in the most rural places in India! And then there are independent innovators who have been using technology in the most amazing ways possible. Don't keep them relegated to a column in the Science page of newspapers and to an award once in a while. Bring them to the mainstream. They're located rurally and can help in getting the root level processes set. 

Much like the screenshot above, if there is a software in place wherein every update is automatically converted into a visually appealing interface, no need of an RTI system, no need of files to move back and forth between government departments, no need of millions of hours wasted in transit, complete transparency, and true empowerment of the taxpayer. If the government is serious about weeding out corruption, can there be a better way than this? Technology is already playing an awesome role in simplifying and streamlining processes even at the government level. Our guys are no longer befuddled when it comes to using computers. Broadband proliferation, even at rural level, has reached a decent level to kickstart something like this. Anyway NREGA and DBT are being done online. Every one of those can be integrated into a master platform. We have the world's computer programming being done in Bangalore and at Hyderabad. Technocrats like Nandan Nilekani have already been roped in by the earlier government. Yup, we're still confused about Aadhaar, but a start has been made! Give them the challenge, they will rise up to it for sure! Proud Indians like Anand Mahindra and Sunil Mittal will more than gladly put their organization's resources in the job and get the challenge solved.

Here's an example. The central government has promised an IIM at Visakhapatnam. The promise was done a few months ago, land was identified by the state, acquired, and the foundation stone was laid by our central HRD minister last month. So the roadmap already has four checkpoints done. The next step is to finalize the contract and begin construction. If we had an interface where that were visible, every citizen is empowered to check and make sure work goes along like it should. Yes, there will be trouble for the government, as they aren't used to a time-bound style of work. But with Modi Sarkaar, that is the change that citizens expect! That's why they voted them to power. And when they have access to information at a glance - on their computers and mobile devices, every citizen is a policeman! Feedback will pour in by itself - which is anyway needed by the government since there are too many factors at play. There will be problems in implementation, but that can be handled. Anything that needs change will have problems :) I can write a ton of material about this, but I'm sure anyone thinking on something like this will come up with their own interpretation anyway.

Is our government capable of ushering in change at such a massive level? If yes, it genuinely is AccheDin!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Better Grey than Garishness

This article will be best understood by those who have an interest in trading and follow the markets. It isn't entirely a financial article, but the examples used are all from the stock markets.
And be warned - this is a long, rambling post. But there's a benefit - by reading this and quoting what you've read, you can appear mighty 'insightful' among your friends ;)

We inhabit a strange world. A world where we talk about absolutes and extremities, but in reality, a world which is firmly grey. In fact, we don't want to leave the grey. If we come close to the extremes, we worry. The world goes jittery, and all kinds of 'breakthrough ideas' will be contrived!

Lets start this article from a financial standpoint and then go abstract as we often do on this blog :)

The economies of the world are firmly in the grip of intense volatility, driven by the incredible fall of Crude oil prices. For the uninitiated, no, it isn't only Mr Modi's government that's bringing down our Petrol prices. He's being aided by OPEC and something called Shale Oil, and Crude oil prices have fallen from $105 to under $50 in the span of months, throwing the world's markets into a situation they've never been in. The last time oil was this cheap was way back in 2009, and that was a whole different set of circumstances.

When Oil prices were at their zenith last year (over $110), we cribbed about the price of Petrol hitting ₹80 and of the cascading effect crude prices were having on everything we consumed - vegetables, milk, transport services. Inflation was through the roof. Lets consider that as one extreme, for the sake of this article..

Now, its at the other end. No one would have expected these oil prices to fall this drastically. All the experts who come on TV and write for newspapers have been busy revising their targets downward and finding reasons to justify the fall. They've all done it a dozen times already, and the end isn't yet in sight. Since this post isn't by an 'expert' and since it isn't to talk about the reasons behind this fall, lets not delve into that. But rather, the $50 level was last breached in 2009, and many may remember that that was the year of the stock market bloodbath the world over. 2008 and 2009 were horrible years for investors. Companies fell like dominoes, and had to be propped up by government with money they did not have! We're still suffering the after effects of that virtuoso!

Grey areas are what we're interested in here, and to drive home the point, here are two screenshots -

The first one is the chart of BPCL over the last six months. The price was at a steady ₹550-570, and suddenly it started moving up after August when the oil slide became significant. In November, you'll notice the price at its all time high of ₹760. That was when oil came to under $70.
Now, if you read your news, you'll know that oil is nowhere close to $70. Its under $50, and that is what makes this chart mighty interesting. As crude dipped below $70, strangely, the price of BPCL started falling again. This is the same with all oil marketing companies. If you're wondering about why I'm mentioning oil marketing companies here, they are the biggest beneficiaries of cheap oil. India's subsidy burden this year is expected to come down by over ₹70000 Crores because of this rout in global oil prices. Much of that will be routed through oil marketing companies like BPCL and HPCL, and that is why the price of their shares shouldv'e gone through the roof.

This second chart is the price of Crude Oil during the same period. The $70 mark, if you observe, was breached around the same time BPCL hit its lifetime high of ₹760+. And as oil kept falling, the share prices fell too.

Now on to the explanation part. And this is mighty interesting :)

As a net oil importer, the price of crude, by far, is the largest component of of our subsidy burden. And since we're a welfare state (truly), our GDP is wholly influenced by the amount of subsidy that's being paid from money that the government doesn't have! Petrol, Diesel, Fertilizer, LPG, all are linked to the price of incoming crude oil, and that is why we're about to save over ₹70000 crore this year. Theoretically, since we're a net importer, the lower oil prices fall, the better it should be for our economy as we'll save that much money - which can be used elsewhere, or atleast can fill in a bit of our fiscal deficit. Its a dream come true for economists. But only on paper.
In reality, as an integral part of a global economy, we can't afford to have oil prices falling too low either - in this example, under $70. Here's why.

The World's economy is ruled by oil. Inflation is directly linked to the price of crude. As oil moves upwards and downwards, it plays with the global economies. So when the countries which make up OPEC aren't making even their production cost (yup - they're losing money on every single barrel of oil produced at these prices), they have a very real possibility of going bust. Now who has investments in these oil production facilities? Right. The biggies. The very same companies who're controlling the world oil market - and through it, the world economy. Next question. Who's making investments in India and other emerging markets via FIIs and FDIs? Bingo. The very same biggies who have to park their wealth some place and grow it further. This isn't some conspiracy like my earlier post on Thrive. This is real, and since our economy is interlinked with the world's economies, we can't afford to let that happen!

So what do we do? As soon as there is a feeling that we're coming close to an extremity, there is an immediate corrective action. In this case, as soon as oil fell to those levels, the world's economy teetered. Markets which were flying along suddenly crashed, and currencies tumbled. Euro has gone down to its lowest ever value against the dollar. And the result? For the last 3 days, global markets have gone up again, and oil has stabilized at around the $50 mark - up by a few dollars. 'Experts' have come out in full force predicting the rise of oil again, and there is a very real possibility that OPEC will announce a cut in their production levels at their next meeting. That should result in the oil prices going up further, and all's well with the world!

I'm not a master at the markets. There may be errors in my analysis above, but that's just opinion, and not to be published in a text book!

This is but one example. The funny thing about our economies, is that we can't let it grow too much or fall too much. Look at inflation, for example. If inflation reaches to crazy levels, we predict Armageddon. If it falls too much, there are new terms thrown into the mix - called 'deflation', and that's dangerous for the world markets too! Interest rates reaching 12 and 13% isn't good for the markets, and neither should they reach 1 and 2%. There are world markets which have almost zero % savings interests, and we're at the other end of the spectrum. India has credit card interests of upto 48% and the USA has the same credit card interest from the same banks at crazy prices like 1.8%!! Since these banks hedge - meaning they balance out the high interest rates we have with the low ones in those countries, they manage to profit. The world is all one big revolving door, and we can neither let it spin too fast or too slow. Both will throw the markets out of their carefully maintained balance.

In simple terms, we can't grow at someone else's expense any longer. That is precisely what happened in our world till the industrial revolution started two centuries ago. Since then, it has been in the interest of the manufacturer to ensure that the buyer has enough money to buy from him. And if he doesn't have the money, the manufacturer himself finds ways to fund that buyer indirectly, and then get back that money by selling to him. Visualize that? That's a simple, one dimensional example. Our economy of today is enmeshed with everyone else's, and the greyer we are, the more comfortable we are with each other! A tilt either way, and we lose sleep! We just want the markets to move a bit here and a bit there so that the traders can make a profit, and then come back to its balance. That, strangely, is the truth of our markets. Currencies, Commodities, we want them all to be cyclical. The shallower the cycle, the happier we are.

Now, this post isn't just about financial markets. The same example can be used on any field to similar results. Since this oil rout and its after effects happened this week, I've used it as an analogy. The same principle is true in our lives too. We are firmly entrenched in the greys of the world and each time there is a sight of either black or white from the extremes, we get worried. We can't allow ourselves to get either too left wing or too right wing. The checks and balances in the world instantly rise up or calm down depending on which was the axis tilts. And we shun the ones who are deep on either side as 'extremists'. When our kids play games continuously on the phone, we tell them to go read a book. If they start reading a book at all times, we give them a game and say play it for a while. We have reasons and justifications that we use to substantiate our decisions, but the truth is that we don't want to be too much of anything. As Humans, we've been trained to straddle the line, be somewhere in the middle. In one of the shades of grey. That's where we all are, some in a deeper grey than the rest, some lighter.

No wonder finding true freedom while living as a part of society is quite out of the question!

Friday, January 02, 2015

The Kettle calls the Tandoor Black!

If the superstition that whatever we do on the first day of the New Year will continue through the rest of the 365 days is true, then I guess I'm in for a whole year of dissension and outrage :(
There's an article I found on Forbes, by a 'noted' economist Tim Worstall, and you can take a couple of minutes to read it first.

To sum up that article, the writer's point of view is that even if India grows on to become the world's Third Largest economy as studies predict - over the next decade, it should be considered a failure, as the standard of life in India will be much lower than that of several countries which are way behind  us on that list.

Pray tell me, Mr Worstall (and everyone else who agree with him), what do you mean by 'Standard of Life'?

If having three cars in a remote controlled internally accessible garage, kids studying in prep schools, Golf club memberships, and a well-stocked wine cellar are what you mean by a great standard of life, then I just pity you!

Lets leave Mr Worstall for a while. There is a deluge of material from the West (and sadly, from our own inbred 'intellectuals'), about how India can't really be a world power unless they are this or that. But the fact is that we've always been a key power in the world. We just don't stand on the rooftops and scream out our lungs. Neither do we ever run branding campaigns or plant carefully orchestrated newspieces to keep ourselves in the right light for the world to perceive. We've always been an inwardly focussed people, and I mean it in the most divine way possible. The true magic of India has been our people and our comfort level with being ourselves. Not man-made objects, not false pretences, and not a cultivated image. It is what has attracted the leading civilisations of each time to come and set up shop here in India. And it is a fact that they've all gone back enriched.

When a critic talks about a Standard of Life, they usually mean it externally. What we've lost vision of, over years of studying 'Advanced Economics' and plotting 'Demand-Supply' graphs for everything, is that my life is firmly mine! I don't need to showcase it to the world, and while it is easier said than done, comparison is not a fundamental duty! Our scriptures teach us only that one thing - that it is the 'I' that matters, and not the 'me' I showcase to the world. Everything is unlocked if I realize that one thing, no?

Coming back to Mr Worstall and his league of over-qualified gentlemen, how will the world learn that the stat that matters isn't that of the biggest ecomony? When will it learn that when people have absolute freedom (that's a deep term, think about it - and there's a blogpost coming up on that shortly), that is when a nation or the society can truly reach its potential. Being the largest economy doesn't count for nuts if its people can't walk on the street without worrying about their safety. If a parent goes paranoid if his child doesn't check in every hour, we're not an advanced society. We're in deep shit!

Sadly, we're halfway there too. Dysfunctional Utopia is what they call it, and we're picking it up big time! Yes, every society has to struggle with it themselves and find their own balance, but if someone who's farther removed from reality comes out and points fingers at us, we shouldn't take it lying idle! How much ever 'development' comes our way, I have great hope that deep inside, people still have that grain of happiness. The deeper down we push it, the more generations it'll take to discover it back again. Its gone deep enough already, and I believe this generation will catch it on its way up. So Mr Worstall, whether we are the world's Third largest, The largest, or the most inconsequential economy, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that we, as a people, are renowned to have a really high quality of life (and no - don't get into objects possessed again). As long as we are able to retain and build upon that, we're incredibly successful. It could be on a scale that's different from yours, but its my scale, and its what counts!

May this New Year bring about a renewed sense of pride in ourselves. When we find ourselves interesting, we'll delve in and try to become friends with that guy inside. That is the first step to a truly awesome standard of life - its the only thing that matters.

PS - Mr Worstall was magnanimous enough to respond to my criticism on Twitter, and though we didn't agree with each other, it was still great of him to have that conversation. Next time, I'll write a post about why his country Portugal's economy is absolutely of no consequence to Indians ;)

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Surely you must be joking, Mr Thapar!

The Hindu newspaper of this morning carried an opinion piece from Karan Thapar, titled 'The Two Faces of Mr Modi', and it appears that the piece is much more than just the author picking a bone against our Prime Minister. It is the angst he carries against the Indian ethos in general, and it a wonderful explanation of the reason why the term 'Lutyens' is so hated by most sane people.

I have picked up the post from The Hindu and pasted it below, and for clarity's sake, I've broken up the post after each paragraph with my comments. In this Op-Ed, Karan chooses to critique a speech that Modi made recently at the inauguration of the Sir H N Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Center, at Mumbai. You can watch the speech here if you'd like, before reading the Blogpost.

Read on. The Italicized part is from Karan Thapar, and the regular font is mine.

(Op-Ed originally published at

What do we expect of our prime ministers? This is not a rhetorical question and you’ll soon see why. We expect integrity, commitment, dedication, administrative expertise and, hopefully, a fair modicum of intelligence. But is that all? 
As important as all the other qualities, we also expect rationality. We may not always agree with what our prime ministers say or are committed to do but we assume that their thoughts and actions are rational, well-considered and credible. In other words, even if their decisions turn out to be wrong — and that often happens — they won’t offend against common sense. 
Upto here is sheer baloney. Under the guise of an introduction, Karan just lays it thick. And for the record, when you say 'Integrity, Commitment, Dedication, Administrative expertise, Intelligence, and Rationality', you are describing Modi! These qualities are the primary reasons the nation chose him with such a resounding verdict - in spite of all your efforts. And Common Sense is precisely what got Modi to where he is today. You fail at the first paragraph itself, sir.
It is here that I have a bone to pick with Narendra Modi. Speaking at the inauguration of the Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre last Saturday, he said: “Mahabharat ka kehna hai ki Karn maa ki godh se paida nahi hua tha. Iska matlab yeh hai ki us samaye genetic science mojud tha … Hum Ganeshji ki puja kiya karte hain, koi to plastic surgeon hoga us zamane main, jisne manushye ke sharir par haathi ka sar rakh kar ke plastic surgery ka prarambh kiya hoga.” [It is said in the Mahabharata that Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means in the times in which the epic was written genetic science was very much present. We all worship Lord Ganesha; for sure there must have been some plastic surgeon at that time, to fit an elephant’s head on the body of a human being.] 
There has been a lot of picking from the Media about Modi going to inaugurate the hospital, about the PMO handle live-tweeting the Ambanis' speeches, etc. Honestly, I couldn't care less. I'm proud of the fact that the man has atleast gone to open one of India's most advanced centers of health, rather than yet another memorial to a dynasty that has done more harm than good. Ok. Lets get on with it. Has your 'education' spoilt your Indianness so much? I'm not talking about blind belief or about superstition. Even the most rational scientist cannot but accept the facts that the Rig Veda is older than any other science treatise written in the world, and there have been enough theses about it already from people much more qualified in science than you are and I am. Religion aside, most stories in our mythology serve to reinforce a deeper concept. So yes, if Modi chooses to pick Ganesha as a successful example of plastic surgery, he certainly has a right to do so! The same goes for the Karna story also. But examples aside, do you genuinely not believe that India has successful scientists (rishis) who have proven pretty much the same stuff thousands of years ago? So Akshar Dham at Delhi, which is one of our country's top tourist destinations, is what? You think they spent crores to showcase all our ancient achievements in that beautiful boat ride just to tell us the kids a bedtime story? Pity on you, sir.
No doubt many Hindus share Mr. Modi’s assumption that in prehistoric mythological times India had mastered genetic science and plastic surgery. As individuals they are free to believe what they want. But for the Prime Minister of India to proclaim this belief as fact — and that too at the inauguration of a hospital — is something else. 
Only 'many Hindus' share that assumption? Do you want me to give you examples of non-Hindus who openly credited our ancient texts for their discoveries and said that they just re-discovered something which was actually discovered centuries ago? A certain Mr Edison, if you please? Or you think Mueller was Hindu? But again, like your 'Mr Modi' said a few months ago, Hinduism is nothing but a way of life. So these people were actually Hindus if you'd like to call them that so they fit into your rhetoric.
Why? This is because it’s not rational to use mythology as the basis for claiming scientific achievements. First, there’s no proof other than the assumption the myth is true and that’s an unwarranted assumption. Second, how do you account for the fact the scientific knowledge and achievements you are boasting of have been lost, if not also long forgotten, and there is no trace of any records to substantiate they ever occurred? 
Get a life, man! Mythology is the basis for most things in our culture - if you have the patience and the wherewithal to research with an open mind. Most things in our universe don't have a proof. No absolute proof exists for the creation of our universe itself! Just because you've been given 20 inches in a newspaper that has been misnamed, you don't go around saying whatever you want. 'No trace of any records'? Really?? Ever heard of a certain Dr Subramaniam Swamy? Or Francois Gautier? Dr N Gopalakrishnan? I can name a hundred people who have been fighting this fight - for your and my sakes, and for our children. But you'll probably just call me a Right winger if I refer to them, and I don't mind! Clear proof that parts of our history were erased and replaced is available, and you choose to ignore it, and then call it a lie? Do you have any idea of the number of people you're influencing with your nonsense? No wonder it'll take a hundred more years for a thought change to come about. 
Even worse, Mr. Modi’s views echo those of Dinanath Batra. His books are now part of the curriculum in 42,000 schools across Gujarat and carry messages from Mr. Modi when he was Chief Minister. They claim stem cell research was known in the days of Kunti and the Kauravas, television was invented at the time of the Mahabharata and the motor car existed in the Vedic period. Few would deny this is nonsense. Why wouldn’t you say the same for the claim India mastered genetic science and plastic surgery in prehistoric times?
You really think stem cell was discovered a few decades ago, Karan? No one else had the intellectual capacity to figure out what humans were made of before this? Really? The world accepts that Airplane models were successfully deployed during the Rig Veda period. Is a Car really that difficult to accept? Ok. Lets not accept it. But what gives you the right to refute it? Would you rather we study twenty chapters of Mughal History as 'Indian History'? I have nothing against 'Akbar defeated Hemu in the first battle of Panipat 1526', but we have a history much before that. Sadly, you choose to call it 'mythology'. The Greeks and Romans are immensely proud of their 'mythology' and their culture even today treasures that. We pose at the Pyramid of Giza, celebrating Egyptian mythology. But back on our shores, we act snobby. Seriously, I pity you, sir.
I have two further points. First, Mr. Modi wants to build smart cities, stresses the need for education and is proud of the successful mission to Mars. He believes in digital India, wants to import bullet trains and ‘Make in India’ state-of-the-art defence weaponry. These are 21st century ambitions. How does all of that sit alongside this belief in unverified mythology? Are they not contradictory? 
Second, Greek mythology has centaurs and minotaurs; the Persians have the griffin; the British the unicorn; and fairy tales have mermaids and werewolves. Mr. Modi’s position would also lead us to believe these creatures actually existed. But does anyone believe they did? Surely only in our dreams? Or only whilst we were children? 
The beauty of India is that we have always been co-existing. Our culture, in a single word, can be called as 'accommodative'. We adapt, accommodate, and co-exist with all the changes around us, and that is why Indians are so respected the world over. You certainly have taken advantage of that respect several times in the past, haven't you? When you travel abroad as a 'celebrated journalist from India'? When the chairman of ISRO, who is certainly more 'educated', 'intelligent', and 'scientific' than you, can go to Tirupati before the launch of a Rocket to pray for its success, does it undermine his achievements? Make him lesser of an intellectual, in your opinion? Dr Kalam, probably our most loved president ever, plays the Veena and hears Carnatic classical. Does hearing Bach or Beethoven make someone more cultured than him?
Mr Modi doesn't have a 'position' about Minotaurs and Werewolves. His biggest problem and 'position' is about wolves in the society who use anything they can find to further their own carefully cultivated image in the so called 'intelligentsia'. He mentions Ganesha and Karna, and you go and dig up Minotaurs, Centaurs, Griffins, Unicorns! Is this what journalism is about in today's world? 
Ultimately, my problem with the Prime Minister’s comment goes a step further, but it could be the most critical of all. Under Article 51 A (h) of the Constitution it’s the fundamental duty of every citizen to develop a scientific temper. I can’t see how the Prime Minister is doing that by blatantly claiming medical advances on the basis of unverified myths. His views clearly and undeniably contradict this constitutional requirement. In fact, if he thinks about it I feel confident Mr. Modi would not disagree! 
These are troubling doubts and for the Prime Minister to be the cause of them is even more worrying. Finally, I’m dismayed this issue has not got greater attention in the media. Nor, to my astonishment, has any Indian scientist refuted the Prime Minister’s claims. Their silence is perplexing. The silence of the media is deeply disturbing. It feels as though it’s been deliberately blanked out by everyone.
Look at the words you choose to use - troubling, worrying, dismayed, astonishment, perplexing, disturbing, deliberate. All of these in the span of four sentences. Do I need to say more on the level of frustration you have built up within yourself about a man the nation has chosen as its leader with pride? So many adjectives to describe a private speech? I am immensely proud of the fact that my Prime Minister chooses to refer to our epics and mythology to pick up examples relating to the topic he speaks about. I am so glad we haven't elected a perpetual kid who doesn't know the state in which he's speaking, can't answer two straight questions, runs away abroad every other week, treats elders with utter disregard, and has an immensely false sense of entitlement. If Modi says Ganesha's elephant head is an example of Plastic Surgery, I have the intellect to smile about it and clap wholeheartedly for Modi's wit. You, sir, choose to fill a tome with nonsense, while the real issue is not about Plastic Surgery or Stem Cell treatment in the ancient ages, but the fear that you will be rendered inconsequential if you don't keep spouting up like a geyser of liberalism once every other week. You and your tribe have set the nation back by decades, with all your doctored 'news' over the years. Shame on you for it.
In closing, just one question, Mr Thapar. Why don't you dare ask questions about a certain practice of veiling women and packing them in black like they're a sack of  unspeakable? Why don't you have the guts to ask organizations that openly proclaim that humans can be saved only if they subscribe to a certain God? Have you never watched those videos before? Why don't you question it when a certain sub-sect announces that there are virgins waiting in a certain 'heaven' if one goes and KILLS innocent children? Nah - that'll set you up as a right winger and you can't afford that. In your neglect, if a few hundred more people convert into that path and end up killing thousands more, so be it. Your image is safe. Correct?
Like you chose Mr Modi's simple speech to vent your insecurity of being forgotten, I choose your article as an example of what's wrong with our Media. People like @mediacrooks have been fighting this battle for long. But is isn't enough! They get drowned in the noise you manage to generate.
If I choose to believe that Karna was indeed born out of Genetics, it is my choice. And that doesn't make me any less intelligent than I already am. Atleast I have a belief that I'm comfortable with! Unlike you, I don't fret about the past. My interest lies in the future, and more importantly, in the present. I will teach my kids how to choose between right and wrong, and to sift through the nonsense, and Ganesha willing, they will develop their own intellect and form their own opinions once they grow up. That is the real  Scientific Temper, mentioned in your Article 51 A (h), which our constitution wants its citizens to develop. Not the 'temper' you're advocating.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Balle Balle FIFA!

Once every Four years, there is a strange phenomenon that happens in our wonderful country.

Cobblers on the streetside stitch more torn and old footballs than they do shoes.

Sports stores replace all their Cricket paraphernalia with football stuff, and the colors of the storefront change the the Indian Blue to International Greens, Oranges, and Whites.

There is an insane number of requests that Wikipedia and ESPN receive from India with strange queries like 'who are popular players in Italy' and 'how many goals did Messi score'. Some honest folks even ask 'what is the difference between soccer and football' and 'why are Arsenal and Liverpool not playing the world cup'.
Profiles on Twitter sport new display pics, with weird 3 letter shields - like  GER, ARG, ITA, and USA. Yes, USA too - poor folks who probably recognize the acronym and take the known devil's route.

FIFA Time!

Considering that we live in a world where the image we project is much more important than the real personality we possess, this shouldn't come as a surprise! But usually sane folks also falling prey to the overload of tamasha is truly funny. Never have people studied so much on their phones and tabs. In an effort to appear knowledgeable, middle aged men all over the country have been reading up tomes on 'The Beautiful Game', and chanting the names in order to get them by heart. Folks have even been listening to commentary of old games, and learning how to pronounce the foreign names of popular players accurately. Yes, Villa is not read with an 'L', but is pronounced as 'Viyya'. Gyaan!

Red Eyed employees have been found walking into offices and crowding the coffee machines several times a day. The body demands sleep at 3 am, but in order to talk cool about the passes that Costa Rica sent, or the dismal refereeing, they keep themselves awake. Man, this world is tough on us.

Not just men! Women with changed DPs have been found talking football. And their social stature changes instantly! From boring, they become ultra-cool, hip, and suave, just like that! Worth all that preparation, surely. Those who were termed as geeks and nerds have suddenly become the center of conversations all over the country, and those sleepless nights are worth it. Afterall, its only another week or two that the Tamasha will be remembered, before we move on to something better!

There has been a manifold increase in the number of Twitter users in the country in this period. Never have people been so proficient at expressing themselves in under 140 characters! Photoshop artists have become demi-celebrities, by morphing images of RVP and Ochoa onto Indian situations, and have been receiving truckloads of followers and shares. Newspapers began the worldcup with half a page dedicated to it, and thanks to the unreal following that the game has been receiving, they've moved to two or even three full pages dedicated to the game! Folks that did not know that a channel called Sony Six existed, have added it to their favourites. Large screens across the country have been booked up, and hotels and pubs have bought an unprecedented number of giant TV screens to cater to the craziness.

All this for another two days. Tomorrow night the finals is done, and for a couple of more days, the topic will remain among the trends. Cricket, and our team's insult at the hands of Root and Andersen in the first test has already risen to the top of the trends, and we will hopefully go back to abusing our cricket heroes soon. Atleast we can speak knowledgeably about the sport and quote comparisons between aggressive Ganguly (remember the shirt waving?) and strange Dhoni (for not having bowled Binny). Then we can stop pretending and return to something we've lent our lives to long ago. Till the next worldcup, Cricket will rule! And Sunil Chhetri (look him up if you don't know about him, O Shameless Person!)'s stint in the commentator's box will be done :)

And Rediff can go back to finding some other Bollywood-centric Soft-Porn to peddle, since the semi-nude images of the 'Fan of the Day' will have to cease on Monday. But I'm certain they'll run a 'Best of FIFA Fans' slideshow on Tuesday before moving on!!

PS - I started this post over two weeks ago. But owing to staying up late to watch the football matches, I couldn't complete it before now ;)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Thrive - A tangential train of thought

Thrive is one of the most important documentaries to come out in this generation. While there are aspects to it that I don't entirely subscribe to, it is indeed thought altering; make no mistake about it. In case you haven't watched it yet, it'll take 132 mins, and here is the link -

While the video primarily concertrates on giving life to various conspiracy theories, what struck my intellect isn't those. Again, make no mistake - the expounded theories are all totally justified and accurate if you look at it from the producers point of view and take into consideration all the proofs that they share with us. The beauty of Thrive is that it is all immensely logical, and appeals to the section of our mind which loves logical thought flow. And it isn't helmed by a non-entity either! Foster Gamble is a direct heir of the Procter and Gamble empire, and when a man born into spectacular riches leaves his family's calling and spends 35 years on solving some of the world's primary questions, you can't but sit up and take notice.

But like the title of this post says, this is not directly about Thrive and its impact on our thinking. It is a tangential train of thought that stems from one core idea expressed in Thrive. As a part of the video's primary conspiracy - that of Global Dominance by a select few families, the video says one of the channels they use to achieve that is by training us to be dominated right from our birth. By putting similar seeds in all of our minds, and by controlling the education system all over the world, they try to prove that the system is creating robots out of us - those destined to be dominated and pose no threat to the power of the select few.

I don't totally endorse conspiracy theories, since I believe they're counter-productive, and are by default, detrimental to normal thought flow. But what cannot help but strike you is that the result of what we're doing to our people is exactly what they say in the video! Which is why this post is titled 'A Tangential train of thought'.

Lets replace the conspiracy theory of a few families trying to dominate the world, to a system which makes clones of ourselves. We created that system for convenience's sake, so that we wouldn't need to trouble our intellect in trying to understand a new set of thoughts and living with them as a part of our environment. In the movie The Stepford Wives, the men of the community decide they've had enough with free-thinking women, and create robots disguised as lovely wives, and all's well with their lives till Nicole Kidman comes and discovers their secret. In our world, we're so deeply entrenched in the system that we're doing exactly the same thing - albeit at a more dangerous level since we're not creating robots but making humans behave so. From the time a child is born, the society (or the system - they're the same!) starts thinking for it. By the time the child is old enough to think for itself, it is already groomed to think precisely like its predecessors. Like the latest Seagrams Ad puts it, before we realize it, 'we become our parents'. Or rather, we become the society, as our real parents are not just those two people who conceived us, but the society at large. Every thought that has been put in our minds, we pick up from the stream that is the society, and add our own attributes to it, thereby modifying the stream, and whipping up speed of the thought flow. The next person that comes along picks up that modified thought and does precisely the same. We are the system. We created it. We feed it. We are trapped in it.

The so-called radical thinkers of our world too, have a place in the stream, and they act as a counter-balance once in a while. But largely, they know what they're doing is a sham too. And no, we can't beat the system. It is too large, and just by wanting to beat it, we add to the confusion which is already prevalent, thereby strengthening the system itself. 

The only thing we can control is our own involvement in it. The way the system, or our society works, is through involvement. By either joining or rebelling, we add fuel to it. And once that thought gets into our brain, it won't let us stay in peace. We will want to change the system. And that is a myth! By wanting to change the system, we're making it more powerful - Yin and Yan. We pull, the system pulls back stronger. We try to change the system, the system puts more pressure on us to change. The way of the world. And that system is us.

But when we step back and just observe, there's nothing the society can do! It feeds off involvement. When we think about it, we give it energy. When we step back, we're aloof. There's no energy you pass to that system, and while that doesn't change the system, it changes it for us! We're at peace.

And that, precisely, is my take-off from Thrive. Yes, it is an important documentary. But for me, rather than the solutions expressed by The Thrive Movement, this is a much better option. By asserting our independence, we create a little island of sanity in an insane world, and while it may or may not impact the rest of the creation, it certainly is a balm for our troubled minds. There's a lot more to write on the topic, but the more I lecture on it, the more I will be trying to influence the thought flow. So I abstain :)

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Seven Kashis

Varanasi, better known in India as Kashi, is the world's oldest city, and has been the oldest continually habituated place.

Kashi has several other sobriquets - the world's most congested city, the holiest city, the most densely populated city, the city with the worst traffic, and more - depending on the view of the visitor. And each visitor that lands in this amazing city has a different experience. There is something magical about the city that keeps pulling people back again and again - in spite of the ignominy that expects only death-related visits to be associated with this wonderful city.

For me, Kashi isn't one city, but Seven.

The 7 Kashis -

- The Kashi of the Ganges
- The Kashi of the mystic
- The Kashi of the damned
- The Kashi of the foodie
- The Kashi of the citizen
- The Kashi of the artist
- The Kashi of Shiva

The Kashi of the Ganges - Ganges, the holiest of the rivers in India, takes on a whole new persona as soon as it crosses Sangam at Allahabad. At Kashi, The Ganges is not just a river. It is the epitome of the city itself. Ganga is the first thing we look forward to on reaching the city, and the joy one experiences while gazing at the mother is inexpressible. Lifetimes can be spent on the ghats, and the Ganga's majesty is one of Kashi's greatest assets. Or rather, according to mythology, the reason Kashi is where it is, is because of the river! They're intertwined. The pitch of the boat, the swish of the oar, the plonk of the fish, the drift of the diyas, there is nothing like Kashi's Ganga anywhere in the world! Words don't do its majesty justice. From a new born's first bath, to the body's last rites, Ma Ganga is the heartbeat of Kashi, and of millions of its children from all over.

The Kashi of the Mystic - Mysticism is an integral part of Hinduism, and the home of the mystics is at Kashi. For all those people who're taken over by an urge to explore Hinduism, Kashi is their school. The same people who would gawk at a Naga Sadhu elsewhere wouldn't think twice if he is seen in Kashi, and that is quite amazing! From Aghoras to Nagas to Tantrics, Kashi is home for all. Annapurna feeds them all, at any time of the day or night. The banks of the Ganges, the sand bars in the middle of the river, the Temple itself, the forests surrounding the city, there is no dearth of places for the Mystics to practice his Sadhana; and they joyfully do so!

The Kashi of the Damned - From time immemorial, Kashi has always been the place to go and die. Hindu mythology is replete with sayings attributed to various gods and gurus, that when one leaves the body at Kashi, he attains Moksha and is freed of the endless circle of births and deaths. While the number of people taking that sentence at face value has reduced, there still are thousands of people waiting in Kashi for the call to come. While most people who wait are invalid, aged, and homeless, there are people who are still have strength in their limbs and spirit in their hearts, but yet choose to stay on at Kashi - lest the call come when they take a break to some other place! Rajas of erstwhile kingdoms have bestowed buildings on these damned, and since no one goes hungry in Kashi, food for their survival comes by each day without fail. Some of these buildings look right out onto the Manikarnika ghat, and the residents know they will adorn the palanquin shortly.

The Kashi of the Foodie - While Kashi is a Moksha-Sthaana, and most people go there searching for solace and peace, it is also a place for amazing tastes. There are various kinds of solaces people look for, and those seeking solace in food will love Kashi as well :) From the bread smeared with an entire packet of Amul butter in the mornings, to Chats, Marwari Thalis, various cuisines for lunch and dinner, and Rabri, Jalebi, Lassi for dessert, Kashi is a foodie's delight! There are restaurants of operated by people from all parts of the country, and some by foreigners as well! Whether you're a Tamilian, or a Gujarati, a Bengali, or an Italian, you will find food from your region for sure at Kashi. And for those who would rather focus on the spiritual aspect of the city, Annapurna will feed you satvik food every day at her abode - for free. Stay there for a week, and you will only scratch the surface of the number of great food places in this city.

The Kashi of the Citizen - Residents in cities which have a heavy influx of pilgrims and travelers are quite different from those in other places. Their levels of patience and business acumen are of a whole different standard, and Kashi-vaasis are right at the pinnacle! For thousands of years in known history, Kashi has been full of people streaming into the city without a break, and making it their own. And the citizens understand this. Bearing with the eccentricities of the travelers, they go on with their regular work, and that is no mean feat! The number of police on the streets, the rush of the traffic in the lanes, the complete lack of privacy in the city, and the never ending flow of people, can't be easy to bear for a person who lives and works in Kashi. But they bear all this with a smile! You have to experience this firsthand and you will agree!

The Kashi of the Artist - Photographers, Painters, Dancers, Musicians, Actors, Filmmakers, Artisans, everyone has a connect with Kashi. Irrespective of their religion and their belief, they find inspiration in Kashi, and it is no wonder that they keep going back again and again to rejuvenate themselves. The banks of the Ganga, the temple of Vishwanath, the bylanes of this amazing city, and a boat ride at night, make up the absolute antidote for any ill. Artists who especially are influenced by India, stay on at Kashi and work with tremendous passion. It is quite common to see painters and photographers at work, covering every aspect of Kashi's day and night. The hotels right on the banks of the Ganga make for phenomenal stays as well.

The Kashi of Shiva - The different facets of Kashi keep changing through the ages. But what is consistent is the Kashi of Shiva. The oldest city in the world is Shiva's Kashi, and he always keeps his promise of not letting Kashi die away. The other layers of Kashi will engage with a pilgrim's senses for one visit or two, but what keeps calling back again and again to this wondrous city is the presence of Shiva. Every heartbeat of Kashi, every moment, is full of his presence. There is a tingling one experiences when he thinks of Kashi, and that keeps calling him to come back. It is this presence of the lord that brought together some of Hinduism's greatest saints and Gurus at Kashi. Shiva at Kashi is Regal. The Lord. Viswanath.

There are other Kashis one could experience depending on what appeals to their intellect. These are my Seven. And I have to go back soon :)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Shantaram - My Review

For me, books are broadly divided into two simple classifications. One, those which span generations and have a canvas wider than the reader's imagination. Two, those books which only deal with one narrow chunk of the protagonists' lives. The latter are often just mindless reads, and make up most of the books published.

But once in a while, there is a book that is utterly grand in its thought and execution, and engages all the faculties of the readers intellect.Such books usually happen only once in a writer's lifetime. Midnight's Children happened to Salman Rushdie. A Thousand Splendid Suns happened to Khaled Hosseini. One Hundred Years of Solitude happened to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And Shantaram happened to Gregory David Roberts.

The book isn't new; and if you're fond of reading, you probably have already completed this. Or atleast have heard about this. The plot line is quite fantastic. Narrated in first person, Gregory David Roberts tells us his story of escaping from an Australian prison, ending up in India on a fake passport, of making a home in Bombay slums, joining the underworld, rising to a position of prominence, finding love, becoming Indian, ending up in the Afghanistan guerilla war, and through it all, finding himself and the meaning of life.

Every book is a canvas in the hands of its creator. And as an undercurrent, every piece of writing is about finding the meaning of life. Some writers approach it as a subtle lesson, some do through a series of events, and others enthuse their own persona on one of the characters in the story and speak to the reader. Roberts does all three. There are experiences he goes through, people he befriends, through which the fundamental questions (Why, What, and How) are answered for him, even as more complex questions keep cropping up.

But the greatest character in the book is Bombay. There are several books in which cities are central to the theme. Cities which have permeated the thoughts of the writers so deeply that they take on an identity of their own. Bombay is probably unique in the fact that it has inspired the maximum number of books when counted against other Indian cities. But Roberts, or Lin Baba as he is called in the book, is not just inspired by this great city. He is in love with it, in awe of it, and Bombay is the first city he can truly call home. Often, writers, while writing about India, get carried away by the poverty and the graphic representations of it. Lin lives in a slum beside the Bombay Trade Center, and nowhere does his love of the city get affected by its masses and the poverty. His love for Bombay is unconditional, and that, for me, is one of the most endearing aspects of Shantaram.

All the great books of the world have one thing in common - Words flow effortlessly. In Shantaram, words have that ease. Every page paints a picture for the reader - which only happens when a writer is truly at the top of his game. Or when a greater spirit is guiding him. Whatever be the case, Roberts has that gift of words in Shantaram, and his choice of words is truly outstanding. Look at these gems. Yes, I actually annotated them on my Nook while reading!

'Poverty and Pride are devoted Blood brothers until one, always and inevitably, kills the other'

'I don't know what frightens me more, the power that crushes us or our endless ability to endure it'

'We live on because we can Love. And we love because we can forgive'

'It is impossible to despise someone you honestly pity, and to shun someone you truly love'

'Pity is the one part of love that asks for nothing in return and, because of that, every act of pity is a kind of prayer'

Profound, right? Imagine them interwoven with the story. Each chapter has something profound coming up, and 'profound' is a word that will often jump up from your consciousness while reading Shantaram. Suddenly, from the most innocuous narrative will spring up a sentence that will cause you to re-read it and pause for a little while before going on. This is not a novel you will steam through; and such books are truly rare. Precisely what I meant in my two-bit classification theory :)

Another amazing feat Roberts achieved with Shantaram is that of a satisfying ending. When the canvas is huge, the climax becomes insanely difficult. For all those characters to culminate in an ending that the reader is satiated with, is no mean task. Many books that have taken the 'many years' route suffer from this phenomenon, where the ending isn't really conclusive. Shantaram, however, has a beautiful ending, and one doesn't feel left in the lurch. For a genuine reader, after living with the characters for 950 pages, a botched up ending is a terrible frustration! But that is not the case with Shantaram. Well done, Writer :) Yes, it is obvious that you have fictionalized a part of the story - as it should've been. No, your descriptions of India are not entirely accurate But you're forgiven!

A story is truly successful when the characters remain with you long after the book is complete. Lin Baba, Prabaker, Khaderbhai, Abdullah, Didier, Khaled, Karla, Nazeer, Johnny Cigar, they all stay on with the reader long after the book is put away, and that is no mean achievement!

The book was originally published in 2004. And I got around to reading it only ten years later. But I'm glad I did. Thank you, Sonia, for the recommendation :) After reading a hundred novels which each took two or three days to complete, it was immensely satisfying to read one which took close to three weeks.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Three Sure-Shot ways of writing a Blockbuster Novel!!

Over the last one year, I've read over Eighty novels according to GoodReads (The Widget you see on your right here on this blog); and that sort of qualifies me to become a writer critic! And more importantly, it cracks open the formula to writing *blockbusters*. These books may be good or not, but they're sure to become successful - like many of our formula films which make their producers insanely rich!

There may be a Part II to this post, but for now, here are 3 formulae which make up probably 70-80% of all novels that get written!

1. A single fact

Michael Crichton wrote a novel called 'State of Fear', which I remember reading several years ago. I also remember writing a review of it, but can't seem to find it on my blog now, but anyway, the theme is that Global Warming is a myth, and that we are actually on our way into an ice age!! This single assumed 'fact' has thousands of publications in its support, and that led Crichton to craft a story around the concept.
The problem with writing a novel based on a single fact is that the writer will naturally want to lead his readers to agree with him, and for that to happen, there's quite a bit of lecturing and proof-showing that needs to be done. Through the protagonist, the author takes us deep into the world of climate research, and actually has printed several research findings as parts of the book!
The Da Vinci Code takes pretty much that route. The simple fact of having found a code embedded within Da Vinci's work was the crux of writing the book, and to his credit, the writer manages to craft a story with well-developed characters. While writing Inferno - again with a single-line plot - the writer hasn't been as lucky!
Several authors take that route quite regularly, and because they're based on some semblance of truth, they manage to become talking points - leading to almost-certain commercial success.

2. Make it dark

Contrary to public opinion, books that are all goody and happy don't sell all that much. They get relegated to afternoon reading sessions in rural regions. The real money is in the books which are dark. Psychological problems, Crime driven by poverty, Lunacy, Death of loved ones, Drug-addled violence, it is all in the open in our novels. And they sell. Authors like James Patterson have made a regular factory of these novels - I think he writes one every week or something! And each of them goes on to become a bestseller and reaps profits for the publishers. 
As if dark wasn't enough, there are now 50 Shades of Grey as well! 
In the guise of 'reality', authors can push in as much muck as they want into their pages. One would imagine the world is already at an advanced stage of cancer if all that is written in these novels were true :) Characters get killed suddenly, so that there is a continuation of the series. Children get to be kidnapped, tortured, ah! what not. The darker it is, the better it sells.
No wonder it is an awesome time to be the Bad Guy in our stories. They get to do things which normal people can't even talk about, bowing to societal pressure! Loads of creative evilness in the offings! The same continues in our movies, and that takes us on to Formula 3

3. Write a Movie

Here's a tweet first - 
There are tons of Chetan Bhagat trolls on Twitter, but to give credit where it is due, it doesn't take more than falling down the stairs and its experiences afterward that are needed to craft a Bhagat novel ;)
And since it is based on events, visualizing it into a movie becomes easy, which nowadays runs in the mind of our writers right from the day they begin writing their book. 
Why only Bhagat? There are dozens of writers who write with a movie in mind. Cinema fans can accurately predict what's going to come next in the book (if they read it, that is), because its a potboiler on paper! No wonder many of these books indeed get chosen to be made into films, and surprise - the writers get onto the set as screenplay consultants or get co-credited as writers along with the dialogue folks. The best of two worlds, really. 

Like I mentioned in the beginning of this article, there could be a part II of this book - but that'll probably take time, as most of the novels I lay my hands on have been falling into these three formulae alone :) Or could just be that my book selection is quite rotten! So if you're a wannabe writer, work hard just for your first book, because it won't otherwise be accepted by the good publishing houses. After you have a decent book on your hands, you can just choose a formula from above, and be on your way onto the Jaipur Lit Fest stage :)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Middle of Middle!

About 360 Million years ago, the tadpole-shaped being had to make a decision. Whether it wanted to continue being in water, or if it wanted to move to land. For a while, it dawdled on the cusp, becoming an Amphibian. But a few years later, it took to the land, and evolution has never been the same ever again. Modern Humans appeared on the scene about 200000 years ago, and what has fuelled their evolution to the smart being typing this article today is the ability to take a side and make it work, each time they were faced with two or more options.

We have always celebrated people who've taken a firm path and have made a difference. We have been taught in personality development sessions that those who don't stand for something fall for anything. Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammed Jinnah took firm stands, and they're fathers of their respective nations. 

But after independence, something changed. Through the generations, we've been taught that the skills we must possess are those of taking the middle path and of being diplomatic. We have lost our ability to listen to a forceful opinion - however well it could be presented. Taking the middle path became fashionable. The way we treat thought leaders (unless the rest of the society agrees with them already) is quite rotten!

And as we often do, we created a new set of words to make ourselves sound cool, and we created an Urban Dictionary to change the usages of other words. Leadership and Diplomatic became synonyms. Liberal meant being accepted, and Taking strong sides meant being shunned. Talking about problems in our area became cynical, and promoting causes in faraway continents made you sociable.

I'm not sure if this is a global epidemic, but in India atleast, no one could possibly have missed this. 

Being Left wing or Right wing is not acceptable to the population at large. You have to be a liberal, and there are stages of liberalism now. 50 Shades of Grey is real, and it is living in India. Neo-Liberal, Ultra-Liberal, Liberal-Classical, no end to our creativity in coining new terms!

From the days of Poorna Swaraj (when nothing else would do), we've stooped down to considering fourth fronts as a viable alternative? What made us so terrified of taking a side?

I think the answer lies in our ability to discern. We are so afraid of our society and its tremendous ability to shun people for the least of faults, that we have trained our intellect to not delve deep. Mediocrity has become the order of the day, and for a whole generation, its become a lifestyle.

To take sides, we have to ask ourselves questions.  To take sides, we need to know their driving philosophies. To know about their philosophies, we need to spend time to read and to understand. That ability is lost in most people. So there is problem number one.

We are so terrified of taking a stand, that we have grown accustomed to bearing with mediocrity. Honestly, there are anyway no staunch Left and Right that exist today. Even in what we have taken to calling Left and Right, we've created a middle path, and the middle is always mediocre. Always. But that's ok with us. Our jobs, our education, our movies, our achievements. Mediocre is the new 'It', and all hail It!

Not just politically; Bureaucracy and Babudom have become so ingrained in our upbringing, we banter words like Diplomacy, Balance, Negotiation, Sensitivity, Win-Win as soft skills in colleges and the corporate. The words are all fine, but what isn't is the intention with which we want our people to learn these. We don't want strong opinions. Right from kindergarten, we keep hammering the edges, and the youngster comes into the market dull edged. Then we tell him that he isn't sharp!

Even editorials, those shining beacons of journalistic excellence, have mostly lost their edges. When titles like 'India Crosses the moral line of no return if Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister' come up as editorials, we know we're in a bad shape. What is wrong with crossing lines? Evolution evolved only because we crossed lines. Why do we want our people to stay within a set of lines? And who drew those lines? 

Amphibians - Turtles, Crocodiles, Snakes - have remained as they were millions of years ago. We humans kept burning lines as we evolved. There are no Neanderthal men anymore. We crossed a line, and became Homo Sapiens. India and Pakistan split; and they grew in their ways. The area in dispute - POK - has been like that for decades.

There is nothing wrong with taking a side. Being in the middle of the middle is where the rot happens.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Subsidy Tamasha

There was once a king. He was known to be very kind, and since he had no dearth of money in his kingdom's coffers, he put up a new policy. For all those who registered themselves as 'Lazy', he opened a free choultry, where the basic needs of Food, Clothing, and Shelter would be taken care of at the King's cost. 
In time, there were too many people who registered for the service, and the capacities were full. The scheme was eating into the kingdom's coffers big time, and the ministers took an SOS to the king one day. They said at this pace, most of the kingdom would call themselves lazy and that the kingdom would run bankrupt in a few months taking care of all those masses. The Chief Minister was a smart man, and he argued with the king that though all those people were enjoying free lunch, not all of them were actually lazy. He pointed out several who left their professions in order to lead a life of laziness; and that caught the king's attention. With the council, he hatched a test to check whether all those people were really lazy.
The next afternoon, after a heavy lunch, while the lazies were all lazing, the King ordered for the Choultry to be set on fire. As soon as shouts of 'Fire!' rang out, most of the people ran away and waited in the fields nearby. Some even ran back to their homes. As the flames got closer, the other stragglers who expected that the fires would be put out also slowly made their way out, and finally only three people were still lying in, preferring death to physical activity!
The king then arranged for soldiers to bodily carry these three people out, and announced that these were the only 'real' lazy people in his kingdom, and made arrangements for them to live on a subsidy. The others were rebuked, and sent back homes to get back on with his lives. And the king learnt a lesson that day.

The Food Security Bill is now almost through, and there's an estimated 81 Crore people who stand to benefit from this bill, being termed as 'Antyodaya'. Probably since I'm among the remaining 30 Crore people, I may I may be seeing this differently, but either way, with my layman economics, I see this breaking the back of our already horrible economy! 
Estimates from last July, when the bill was in talks of being tabled, show that this new subsidy alone could cost the exchequer a whopping ₹1,30,000 Crores!! Here's the Article from Money Control

This article is not just to talk about the Food Security Bill. I've been simmering about the populist measures our politicians have been doling out for decades now - from the Mandal Commission regularizing the infamous reservations policy, to the failed (but masked) PDS, to the sham that is Minimum Guarantee Price for farmers, to the joke that is MNREGA. Yes, there was no social media active when this cascading effect started back then, but why did mainstream media remain silent? Why did the intellectuals allow this house of cards to be built, and built higher each year? Was it because the people who mattered all had a hand in the ever-growing pie? Or did they really think this was going to be beneficial to the country?
The King in our story started out subsidy as a policy because he had an abundance of wealth in his treasury. But in India, we've never had an abundance of anything except for shallow thinking, selfishness, and idiocy! Why did this crime not get nipped at the bud? Or atleast as a flower? Wikipedia has had this article up for long, and the damage is visible as the stats are updated each year. Already, it shows that there's a 3% of GDP for center and 6%+ for states, running into lakhs of crores of rupees! The article says 'leaving the merit subsidies aside, the remaining subsidies amount to 10.7% of GDP'!! And the merit subsidies have a recovery rate of barely 10%, which again is a written-off expense of the remaining 90%!

Now, I'm not an economist. I'm just a common man paying my tax each year, and I don't really enjoy crunching big data. But even with my limited understanding, there is a simple question that pops up constantly - Whose father's money is it??

Will no one bell the cat? Won't anyone dare even speak up about the issue? Ok - if the problem is too big to handle, here's a simple suggestion. Since the political parties are all primarily bothered with their voter base, and they will swap the country's economy for a bunch of votes in a blink of an eyelid, why not get together and talk it out? Yes - if one party suggests reduction in subsidies and a reduction in the doling out of non-worthy grants, the others will tear into it and make the party history! But then, the truth is that even if a party wins on the merit promising an increased subsidy, they can't afford to give a successful budget come March. And the next 5 years are going to be hell to the new parliament! Instead, how about if all parties get together and commit that they won't promise an increase in subsidies. The maths will show that it is not possible anyway. Instead, let them talk about something else! Win on something other than increasing the intake into the free choultry that the government has forced itself into running. Like the jewelry stores, when they all decide that they won't sell at less than 6% or 8% making charge, what option do the people have? They either have to buy at that price, or quit buying gold altogether. With cooking gas and fuel and food, quitting isn't an option really. So have a common agenda of rolling it back over the next 10 or 15 years, and plow those gains back into development. People will be able to afford it themselves once they have confidence and a way to legally earn decent money! And have a really good system of identifying those that are really 'poor' and don't make it a stunt for that one extra vote every five years. This'll do well for the others in the long run, as well as help the incumbent governments funnel better facilities to the people that genuinely deserve them.

The King atleast had a wise council of ministers. We neither have a king, nor a council who can be termed wise. All our wisemen are either dead or pretending to be. Who'll set the fire now?
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