Friday, September 29, 2006

Singapore Diary - Part 1

(The view from my hotel room)

I am taking a brief hiatus from my general blogging to venture into personal terrain, during my brief stay in Singapore. To be honest, I am not very keen on spending money and travelling abroad but if your employer wants to show you the world, can you say no? And so here I am jotting down my thoughts in the tiny island of Singapore- lost and confused as usual.

I reach the shores of Singapore, after a few weeks of visa related delays, at about 6:30 (4 AM IST) in the morning, with about 4 hours of sleep in Singapore Airlines. The Airlines is quite comfortable and I am escorted across without too many security checks, unlike how I had imagined it would be. I step out hesitatingly out of the plane(my confidence is always at a premium in a new environment)and bump into an old acquaintance who clearly knows the place and guides me across to the foreign exchange counter and subsequently to the taxi stand.

The taxi driver is a jolly man and gives me his visiting card, in case I wish to go for city darshan (I did not have a visiting card myself, how offending!!!). Anyway, he drops me off at New Park Hotel which is at a place called Little India. After a few hours of rest, I am summoned to office to meet my boss for the first time. And in the evening, I’m back to the hotel in the local train (they it call it MRT here). I stay next to a mall kind of place called Mustafa which has everything under the sun available.

I am glad to find that the place is inundated with Indians, especially from the south. My food is happily taken care of and I hear Tamil words wafting across the place. The Mallu in me, however, searches for a Kerala connection but I do not find any. Is the stereotyped Nair chai kada (tea stall) or thattu kada (roadside stall) just a figment of someone’s fertile imagination?

Singapore is full of streets and alleys. Every road/ street I see carries a name -something very important for us to learn; I often why India does not have proper signboards and notices everywhere rather than leaving us to the mercy of the public. Nevertheless, I lose track of my hotel briefly before relocating it after some local help (speaks volumes about my sense of direction, I guess).

The transportation scene is good with trains being the main system in this small country. The local train travel is pretty comfortable and I am at ease on the first day itself. It is similar to Mumbai with three different tracks operating through the city but there ends the similarity. The train has automatic doors; is well lit and is an indoor travel for most of the journey. The arrival of the stations is announced and displayed both in English and Tamil. If only Mumbai tried to emulate a few of these things…..But Delhites have told me that the MRT there is equally good.I assume it is but I cannot vouch for it...

Taxis are prevalent but difficult to get after about 8 pm, except of course if you call their service and book a taxi. The taxis are fairly hi-tech in the sense that they accept cards, provide bills and are connected to the local network through an interactive device always. A couple of nights back, I am given a small treatise on the call girls industry in Singapore by a friendly cab driver who wonders why India does not legalize this profession as in Singapore or Thailand.

I also learn that call girls here carry yellow employment passes and that this industry contributes about 2% of the GDP in Thailand. Wow, maybe they should think about starting a few SEZs- Special Entertainment Zones- then ? That's the in thing; ask Kamal Nath.I do not endorse the cabbie’s views but decide not to argue in an alien country and smile approvingly.

I am surprised that the office has no canteen here but looks like that’s the norm here. Everyone eats outside and I wonder if the concept of a cooking housewife is a misnomer here. With lots of hotels and joints spread across, we are spared of this chore as bachelors. I do not come across any animals here except in hotels. Maybe, no one’s ever told them that there are even other creatures on this planet. Thank God, the Holy Cow is still safe in India…

Of course, the work is no great shakes except that we are in a foreign country but then are we not living our dream of working outside India?(The quintessential Andhraite’s perennial dream). I refuse to divulge further details on innocuous things like job profile and work but if someone were to ask me about my job, I would say check the ad – Caught in the wrong job???

But where’s the poverty of Singapore? Are there no poor people here? I do not know but then this world is so different from the world I know and have seen sometimes. Once a while as I enjoy this luxurious life, I ask myself is the world between the haves and the have-notes unbridgeable? Being the pseudo-socialist that I am, whose exposure to poverty is limited to Sainath’s articles, I soon forget this troubled question and become a part of the conformist elite that lives on, ignoring how the other half lives…

Anyway, it’s a week down and three more to go before I’m back in MY COUNTRY

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Lalu in Wonderland

Railway to Jersey gai ke tarah hai, jitna dhyan doge, utna hee doodh milega

- Lalu Prasad Yadav, in IIM-A

Not maybe the most memorable quote you want to store in your diary. But then being no expert in the field of Bovines, I guess I should reserve my comments on the Jersey cow and stick to the Railways and Lalu, arguably India’s most colourfully articulate politician (Down the Vindhyas, former Kerala CM , Late E K Nayanar is a close competitor for his memorable one-liners like where are there women, there will be rape). His visit to the IIM-A has generated enough media noise on how a rustic shepherd politician from the hinterland is giving lectures in management to India’s creamy layer of MBAs.

It’s been a classic Bollywood story for a small time man who entered politics, at the same time as Nitish Kumar and others, enthused by Jayaprakash Narayan’s call to fight Indira Gandhi’s political hegemony. He later on became the self-proclaimed “Poor Man’s Messiah” before getting mired in a flurry of scandals (Thanks to him, fodder is no longer a rural item).

He cocked a snook at democracy by getting his wife to take over his reins as he cooled his heels in jail. His popularity has still held him in good stead, though not the same way as earlier. His latest avatar as “Management Guru” is of course, undoubtedly his most successful one as critics have suddenly woken up wondering what is it that Lalu has done to put the Railways on track.

The Railways turnaround is a big story and Lalu’s become a management guru, teaching how to revive ailing companies (How about Bihar now?). There are, of course, divided opinions on whether this has anything to do with Lalu’s management skills or due to other reasons? Some have suggested that the economic boom has fostered greater train utility and that it was a case of being at the right place at the right time but there are also pro-Lalu versions.

It’s quite possible but then if it’s the minister in charge who receives brickbats in case things goes wrong, should we hide the bouquets if things go on the right track. To be honest, I am not very sure whether he has changed things (considering his track record of democraticising Bihar) but maybe I should not pass a judgment without actually finding out the truth. But then where are the media stories on what Lalu has actually done?

There’s a certain class hypocrisy when the only reporting that is done about him is his “starched kurta pyjama”, “outlandish language” and other not so proud mannerisms. Every time he appears on screen, the media is hell bent upon playing up his “buffoon” image. Be critical about him and I’m sure that there are any enough points to score doing that.

But reducing a man to mere caricature and making fun of him at a personal level does no credit to the NDTVs and CNN-IBNs. This is not a Lalu-specific mentality but a kind of reporting which measures people on their “so-called” civilizational attributes and blissfully ignores the actual work done by the person. Maybe the English speaking media just does not enjoy the other class doing something that the elite struggle to achieve.

Indian democracy, unlike the American one, is a very grass roots democracy. The people who vote are those who are on the sidelines but find no voice in the non-vernacular media. Wasn’t “Shining India” a triumph of our democracy when the entire press, out of touch with rural India and their aspirations, wrote off the Congress and unilaterally anointed the BJP as the victor?

There’s a certain arrogance in the media which fails to understand the pulse of the nation and paints itself in the colours of the rich and the famous. Slum displacement in the name of development is in “everyone’s interest” but try shifting the people of Cuff Parade and the same story becomes a story of human oppression (and ofcourse, an interview with the ever dependable Mahesh Bhatt).

CNN-IBN interviewed a few IIM-A students (in their early 20s) who were part of Prof. Lalu’s sessions and asked them if they were interested to join Indian Railways. One of them quipped that he would not be interested to join as a bureaucrat but was willing to join if he were invited to be a part of the top management!!! Yes, ofcourse how modest can you get with a tag like IIM-A (is it Arrogance) plaguing you? No stories have come till now of what they think of Lalu’s speech and whether his sound bytes are a value addition to jargons like “core competency” and “SWOT”.

Has the “poster boy” of political entertainment actually grown up or is it just another media entertainment story??? Whatever it is, it is a demonstration of the power of democracy where English savvy media is reduced to pour in tributes to a rustic pastoral leader, albeit reluctantly.

Hopefully, Lalu’s management gyan will give all of us fodder, sorry, food for thought….

Thursday, September 14, 2006

9/11: The Wounded Fraction

Sanjay Dutt is facing trial for the Mumbai blasts case and he may or may not be convicted but he’s done more than anyone else in recent times in making the Mahatma India’s star icon. For a simple man, ironically manifested in all our currency notes, it has been a glorious non-violent comeback (A lesson for our Saurav Dada). “Gandhigiri” is also becoming the most popular political phrase slowly, thanks to Munnabhai. What better occasion to highlight this than while talking about the fraction that has changed the world – 9/11 (It has overtaken 22/7 – the humble pi in the popularity charts). 9/11 is America’s baby out and out but until I watched NDTV/CNN-IBN a few days back, I did not realize that 9/11 was also the centenary of the Satyagraha movement.

The 1st 9/11 in 1906 was used by the apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, to launch the Satyagraha movement and it had wide sweeping repercussions not just here but across the globe too. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela endorsed it later on making it a very powerful metaphor for non-violent retribution. It presented a powerful case for morally legitimate ways to fight for justice.

The last 9/11 also had sweeping global effects but on a greater negative scale. The world has not changed for the better but is more polarized now, echoing Bush’s infamous statement – “Either you are with us or against us”. That does not leave us with much of a choice then but to be against him.

I don’t even think we need to ask ourselves whether the world has been enriched by American follies – Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest are all landscapes which are testimony to the bleeding that has happened in the glorious name of “democracy” and “peace”. 9/11 was unfortunate but what about these countries and many other African republics which are rotting because of liberal America. Incidentally, 9/11 is also the day (in the 70s) when the democratically elected President of Chile was overthrown and General Pinochet took over the country in a bloody coup killing thousands of people, ably supported by US. Anyone ready to shed tears for them?

Most news channels commemorating the fifth anniversary of the WTC bombing have been repeatedly driving home the claim “The world was never the same”. Quite true, since Americans decide how the world should be. We tried coining dates like 13/12 (Parliament attack) and 12/3 (‘93 Mumbai blasts) but who remembers these poor fractions (I had to search through Google to find these dates).The life of an average Indian is probably not worth that of an American and so terrorist attacks in India do not change the face of the world and in some ways, even the country too; after all, Mumbai’s “resilience” hogged more headlines than the actual blasts.

But then, this is not an entirely an international phenomenon. A blast in Delhi which kills two is given more coverage than the death of 30-40 odd in Tripura. Only when something happens close to our home, we come to realize the potential problem in store, but till that time, token coverage and lip service is all that we can afford.

Has the world changed?

General Musharraf is the US poster boy leading the battle in the Global War on Terror. Whoever thought the perpetrator of the Kargil War would be US’s main weapon against terrorism. Even a suave IIM graduate could not have been able to reposition a losing brand like Pakistan with such elan.

After years of Blairism, UK is finally throwing Blair out after acting as Bush’s stooge for long. The law of averages has finally caught up with him and he is leaving the stage just like Ms.Thatcher did.

The Taliban is regrouping (thanks to a bountiful opium harvest also) and President Hamid Karzai’s power does not extend beyond the boundary walls of his castle.

Iran and North Korea are twitching to test their nuclear arsenals.

Iraq is wallowing in the midst of extreme lawlessness and chaos and the US Govt. has admitted that Saddam has nothing to do with AL-Qaeda or Taliban.

Osama makes guest appearances in videos keeping his halo intact and his foes guessing.

The West makes polite noises about development and democracy and continues its own way while the Rest of the World ambles along.

Who has benefited from all this?

Most of the European companies have bagged contracts (rather snatched) for Iraq rehabilitation – telecom, innovative Food for Oil schemes and of course oil.

India’s former Deputy National Security Adviser, Satish Chandra, was heard on TV the other day saying that “US is probably its own worst enemy by pandering to the likes of President Musharraf”. Once the poster boy’s role is completed, US will try to bring democracy back to Pakistan and then it would be curtains for Musharraf but till that time, its happy honeymoon for him.

Global terror has a wonderful economic side to it and who better to utilize all this than multinational companies dealing with arms (one of the most powerful industrial lobbies in US). More terror means more customers for their weapons and how can a Government who cares for its domestic industry ignore this concern?

The day is not far of when George Bush will win the Noble Prize for Peace due to his untiring efforts in bringing “democracy to the world”. And what about us? We’ll probably continue our journey with a blast here and there occasionally testing our democracy and reminding us that “An eye for an eye makes the entire world blind”. Maybe we should revive Gandhigiri then....

A fraction is mathematical representation of representing a quantity based on splitting it into a number of parts – something that 9/11 can make a rightful claim of having done.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Asian Travellers' Mid-Air Blues

A brown skin and a beard are not a felicitous (suitable) combination

– Rohinton Mistry, commenting on racial profiling

In about a month’s time, I would be travelling to Singapore on my first international trip. It’s an exciting prospect to see the world outside India but international travel worries me - I’m an Indian and these are troubled times for South Asians travelling in international flights. There have been quite a few incidents in recent times that have brought to focus racial profiling that Asians are being subjected to, in the name of national security and counter terrorism. The recent experiences of the 12 Mumbaikars who were returning via Netherlands, a Hyderabadi lad holed out in London on his way to US and two British Asians detained in an airport in Spain,after they were overheard conversing in Urdu, is unnerving.

The 12 Mumbaikars were innocuous businessmen who travelled frequently and had never got into any kind of trouble earlier. The Dutch side claims that these people exhibited suspicious behaviour on the flight – using mobiles on the plane, moving around frequently and talking in hushed tones. The Indian Government has asked for a full scale investigation into the incident and has just stopped short of asking for an apology. Maybe we were trying to be diplomatically nice with the Dutch authorities by not asking for an apology.

The public response has, of course, been much more vocal, accusing the Dutch officials of selectively targeting on the basis of race. Why would trained terrorists try to make their presence so evident in the flight? From when has fidgeting with mobiles become an international crime?Agreed that they did not exactly behave in the most gentlemanly fashion, but does that make them suspects who have to be handcuffed?

The West is pretty paranoid about this entire business of terrorists. I’m sure that it is a serious problem and we need to be very careful but when they get overboard as they have been doing in recent times, it gets to one’s nerves. It’s no one’s case that national security is to be treated with soft hands but when in the name of security, Asians who carry the stereotyped perceptions of terrorists, get grounded and often humiliated, it calls for serious concern.

Of course, not many remember that the most of the WTC accused were clean shaven, educated Islamic youth who would not have cleared the International Terrorism Exam, set by the Bush-Blair combine. How dumb would it be if terrorists were to stick to stereotypes and turn up at airports in the most conspicuous of manners? We are dealing with an intelligent group of terrorists who can outsmart the Pentagon and bring down WTC. A strategy which panders to such an ill-conceived notion and breeds on extreme Islamophobia is ridiculous. But then with the IQ of George Bush, should we even be surprised?

This situation is not going to change in the near future. To be fair to the airport authorities, we probably need to accept the fact that no one wants to take any chance and every possible danger is being addressed head on. Even for every 10 such incidents, if the authorities are successful in stopping at least one attempted sabotage, it is worth carrying out this effort.

But the flip side is that obviously, there would be a few people who would be rubbed the wrong way because of this. It has to be handled carefully and sensitively so that no one feels offended or atleast the offending factor is kept to minimum-something the Dutch did not do too well. Gallup poll surveys conducted post 9/11 have found that most people were uncomfortable with this blatant profiling of Middle Eastern or South Asian airline passengers; some sobering consolation for us, I guess.

Indians across have raised a hue and cry over this racial profiling, especially after the Mumbai incident, and quite rightly too. However, let’s step back for a moment and question our “holier than thou” attitude towards “cultural profiling”. We have our own set of prejudices that run deep down. We are a preachy nation who likes to tell others what’s wrong with their culture, while we wallow in a curious mix of self-pride and self-pity.

We also indulge in straitjacketing people here, probably not so much in terms of race but caste and religion (Of course there have been racial incidents here too like bars in Mumbai not allowing blacks on grounds of being suspected drug peddlers). There are so many people I have met who believe that reservations are bad for the simple reason that the backward castes are not good enough for studying and that any such idea will spell doom for us. So, while fretting and fuming is fine, it's also time for some self-introspection.

Maybe I should not be worrying too much. I do not fit the caricature of the terrorist designed by the West. I do not sport a beard (except for an occasional stubble) or wear a skull cap - supposedly, the latest fashion statement of all wannabe terrorists. I do not have a name with any religious connotations and do not speak Arabic/Urdu. Brown skin is the only dangerous sign I carry of being a terrorist.

P.S. I just came across a news item in BBC featuring the latest airport screener which shows passengers naked!!! This is really scary, wonder if this will enter the voyeuristic world of MMS someday. Time to bid goodbye to Right to Privacy???