Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Communication Journey

When Mark Zuckerberg created an application called Facebook, it was another application that changed the way people communicated with each other. Friends were “connections” and simply clicking on a ‘Like’ button said so much more than what realms of words could say. As a budding 30 year old who has learned to accept Facebook as yet another necessary evil, I feel sometimes so overwhelmed by the changes that have taken place in our interactions. We were part of the transitionary generation that saw how modern communication changed so drastically.

The 80s kid was not so different from his earlier generations when it came to communication. The poor inland letter and post card still swayed heavily in our lives; there was practically no other way that people communicated with each other and so secretaries were still relevant at that time. The ubiquitous red shining post box and the messenger – the genial postmen – were revered objects in any household. You were careful to tip him lest he decided not to give us our letters (I remember a serial in Doordarshan which was about a postman who dies one day and his son realizes that there are hundreds of unposted letters that his father had left; he decides to be a nice man and posts the backlog of years, resulting in difficult situations..can’t remember the name of the serial).

Letter writing was an important part of all language classes – 20 marks in the Class X exam – and I remember students were always unsure whether the From Address needed to be written to the right of left and where the subject of the letter had to be written. Inland letters at 1 Re each were widely used but post cards were dirt cheap and typically the poor man's favoured choice. They became hugely popular thanks to Siddharth Kak's 'Surabhi'. The huge popularity of the programme lead to the Government introducing competition post cards and increasing their price.

While letters and post cards were friendly stuff, telegrams were the spooky ones. Normally telegrams were associated only with deaths and bad news; I guess bad news always travelled much faster. Since the pricing of a telegram was based on the number of words used, we would often argue on what to be put in a telegram. I have a slightly happier memory of the telegram; my class X exam result was sent to me by Achchan by telegram while we were enjoying our summer vacations in Palakkad.

We never had a telephone in those days and the STD booths which dotted the surface of India were the only way to call up people. Since people rarely had telephones then, the STD booth only served to make phone calls to offices and schools. The phone booth was a brain wave of Sam Pitroda and played in important role in connecting rural India to the rest of the world.

When I joined my engineering college in Coimbatore, we realized that the phone had become a necessity. During initial days of the college, I would call up our neighbour’s house in Hyderabad at night and they would call my parents who would promptly wait there till I made a phone call again. The logistical difficulty and embarrassment of this situation was overcome then by finally applying for and getting a landline phone. This was in 1996-97 and by then many houses had land line phones but then we were a bit slowly to catch the consumerism wagon.

Despite the land lines catching up a lot, I continued my romance with writing letters. If I had to write less, I would use an inland letter but I preferred writing in normal A-4 pages and sending them to home through postal cover, duly stamped based on the weight of the cover. We were a strongly democratic family and I enjoyed pouring my words on those A-4 sheets and Achchan/brother and I would discuss everything under the sun in all seriousness. Every time we returned to the Boys Hostel from college, we would search for our names on the Notice board to see if we had any letters. The hostel warden would then hand over the letters to us; of course, there was a suspicion that the wardens opened letters that they suspected were from girls and then closed them back (I have no idea how they would figure the gender of the writer of the letter)!!!

Making phone calls from college was also a tedious job; there was a public booth and boys and girls would crowd the place by 8.30 pm (the night rates were probably half the day ones) and it would be almost an hour by the time the entire exercise of making the phone call was completed. The bills would always be high in the absence of an electronic meter and a couple of rupees here and then still pinched. Of course, the phone booth had also become a meeting point for throbbing hearts and so the college started separate booths for boys and girls!!! The telephone book was an important piece of stationary those days where everyone’s names would be arranged alphabetically and we always remembered the numbers of the names that were frequently used.

The first time I saw a mobile was during the days of TECHWAVES – a symposium conducted by our department Production Engineering in college. I think it was in Sreeprabhu’s hands that I saw a mobile. The rates were close to 16 Rs/minute and that too for incoming; you would be a fool to even think of buying a mobile then. The pager had come and gone and it was a device that was consigned to the footnotes of technology pretty fast.

It was in my first or second year that I created my first email ID. Vivek helped me in creating a Rediff email ID and taught me how to use it except ofcourse I did not have anyone to mail to. Browsing the internet was still a premium activity and not so easy; we were told that using Internet we could search for a lot of stuff but I am not sure it meant anything much. Our antennas were more receptive to the use of Internet when we were told by net savvy guys that the net was the best place to search for porn and the only website that we knew was Google – the world that showed everything that you ever wanted to see and know (even what you didn’t want to know, actually).

During MBA days, most students had a mobile but not me as I was a day scholar. My brother had a bulky Nokia mobile but it was still out of bounds then. My first mobile came through my first salary and even then it came of a necessity of being in touch with family since I was in Mumbai and they were in Hyderabad. A bright, shining Nokia handset with a decent prepaid charge of about Rs 500 which was used primarily for receiving calls and making missed calls (It is interesting to note that 25-30% of all calls in India are missed calls according to a telecom survey done 2-3 years ago).

The phone rates have fallen drastically since then and the mobile is a device that is practically found with everyone even if the primary function may vary from people to people. I am still happy with a mobile that helps me in making and receiving calls and sending messages but with the advent of new phones, basic telephony is probably out of the way. Land line phones in urban Indian homes primarily serve the purpose of acting as Address proof documents but it is still present in most homes and for old people, mobiles are still difficult to handle.

Communication is much easier now and so while the ability to communicate is there, the intent to do so still has to be there but social networks help in masking the lack of intent. Orkut introduced the power of social networking and so suddenly long lost friends came back to our lives. Private lives were much more into the open and interacting was through ‘scrapping’ but looks like Orkut is going the pager way – decimated by the power of Facebook. The whole world’s is one big networking place and everyone who can connect to the network now has a profile.

Simply clicking on a button and messaging people on Facebook has made interaction so easy. People simply put down their private thoughts online and want everyone, including strangers to read them and even respond but honestly, other than your near and dear, why should it matter to anyone else what you to do day in and day out?

Friendships are not formed by connecting or networking with people; the web simply creates a mirage where people sitting on laptops talk to each other and the world because of our craving to be recognized, liked and wanted by more and more people. When we update our status, it is a message to everyone else that you want to be heard. Imagine what would happen if you keep updating your status and not a soul responds—don’t worry, that would not happen..the Facebook edifice may not ever be written..

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Twilight Dream

Every few months, we make a trip make to Kerala and the joy of going back to one’s home town has never been diminished despite so many years. After marriage, there are two of us now who keep making plans about the trip and despite the difficulty of getting our tickets, we manage to do it every time, even if it sometimes requires a 32 hour journey (like the trip we made this month).

In the midst of all the bonhomie of going back to one’s roots, there is a strong disconcerting thought that always plagues me. In every trip, we meet people, primarily of the elder generation, who wait for someone to communicate with them once a while. Every household or tharavadu has aging members, who have their medical problems but would still be interested to meet you. They would remember the family to which each of us belongs and go on a tangent about the family history; courtesy prevents us from stopping their flights of fantasy.

Many houses that I visit have grandparents who wait for their near ones to make their annual visit while they spend their time wallowing in front of boring television melodramas or reading the plethora of magazines that dot the Kerala paingili magazine circuit. Usually on the TV stand or the drawing room shelf, I see family smiling photos of their offspring beaming from distant lands – Gulf, US and Bangalore are the hot favourites I encounter regularly.

While the drawing room is in sync with the current generation, the rest of the rooms are more or less a reflection of the older times. The old grandfather clock still ticks in a few houses while the store room has a stock of all those things that I had seen in my childhood but have now made way for modern equipment. There are a few albums with those rare black and white photos that are slowly withering away after years of neglect; but they still hold a value unlike the snaps that adorn my laptop now.

The golden oldies have a similar set of complaints whenever I visit them – failing health, safety concerns, loneliness and very prominently the unavailability of maids to take care of household work. I see sprawling houses and a lonely car parked in front of many of the houses I visit but these are silent houses which break into joy only when kids come in during their school vacations. The outside money has brought in wealth and spending but not reduced the insecurity brought about by living alone.

The inhabitants battle a sense of boredom and live every day waiting for a call; so every marriage, child birth and pooja is a source of entertainment for the people. Regular stories floating around of old people being attacked and robbed when alone has also led to the growth of flats even in a place like Palakkad – something which was unthinkable even a few years back. Many of them have found refuge in God and karma and left things to fate – once upon a time staunch communists cannot seek Marx in times of depression.

The maid problem seems to be a Kerala-specific problem, a developed nation issue where menial labour has few takers. Most houses fund it difficult to hire and subsequently retain maids because it is much more lucrative to do small time Government jobs that pay more. The MGNREGS, with all its issues, is helping in giving better paid employment opportunities in the State but the unlikely fallout seems to be the maid availability issue.

This may sound like a trivial problem when you keep the lofty ideas of socialism in your mind but for many, this is a serious concern. It is compounded by the fact that lack of jobs at a more educated strata have led to a massive migration of people to other places. So, what you have is eventually a set of oldies who have to fend it out all alone, without sufficient support to run the house.

As things stand, the rapid spread of modernization, growing urbanization and crumbling of joint family system have led to an increase in the insecurity and loneliness among the population. We all have faced bouts of loneliness but there was always a future to look forward too but what happens when we touch the autumn of our lives? Will our children be somewhere in the vicinity to be available at our beck and call? This is a truth that will come to haunt all of us one day and I shudder to think of how we will manage this scenario.

Economically, we find ourselves as part of a generation that receives no pension; so what you earn and invest now is our only source of income in the twilight years. With spiraling medical costs and an increasing life span, we are committing ourselves to a substantial medical assistance as time progresses. Remember Aparna Sen’s touching 36 Chowringee Lane where the teacher Violet Stoneham is finally back to her loneliness as the young couple which dotes on her suddenly disappear from her midst. Eventually there will be just the two of us sorting out our old age trivialities and maybe waiting for the final call….

It is such a bitter truth to accept that once we age, we may not be so important at all – there would be the next generation who starts believing that we are impediments in the growth of this country. As I touch 30, I have already started feeling slightly cut-off from the current lot of teenagers who are born and live in a much more connected and consumerist world. Probably aging would start much earlier now and as you touch 40, you may be part of a population that is already past its prime. When companies hire and promote employees practically every year or two, there would come a time when you realize that Nature has caught up with you and maybe it is time to re-utilize your talent in better ways.

Just wonder whether begetting children is something that people do as an investment for their future. We have children thinking that one day when we grow old, there will be someone to take care of us when the legs tire and the body is no longer one's friend. But when the same children do not have time to be at your side, will there be a tinge of regret? I guess its a generation to a generation thing - after a few years, we are more attached to our children than our parents and we realize this when we grow up.

Sometime back, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, while referring to the ageing population had observed: Trees grow stronger over the years, river wider and like with the age, human beings gain immeasurable depth and breadth of experience and wisdom. That is why older persons should not only be respected and revered but they should be utilized as the rich resource to society that they are.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pranchiyettan & The Saint

The last time Malayalees fell in love with the musical Thrissur accent in cinema was when Mohan Lal’s Jayakrishnan drenched us in the rains of Thoovanathumbikal. Now, more than 20 years later, Mammootty, unassumingly brings to life a rich businessman in Thrissur who wants to create a name for himself but always fails ('oru vedanikkunna kodeeshwaran'). Director Renjith, who is emerging as something of a dark horse for ailing Malayalam cinema, creates a language and cinema that is innovative, funny and at its satirical best.

Chirammal Enashu Francis (Aripranchi or Pranchiyetta as he is known by all) ails from a rich family that is traditionally into the business of selling rice. But he has an inferiority complex about the fact that he is not that educated. And so Pranchiyettan hankers for social acceptance. He expands into jewellery, construction, finance and other businesses but is unable to shake of his name as a rice merchant.

With the help of Vasu Menon (Innocent), he makes multiple attempts to buy easy fame but all come to nought till he eventually accepts the futility of it. His interactions with Padmashree, an interior decorator who paints the walls of his house as well as his heart and Pauli, a wayward kid who is in danger of failing his Class X exams, finally give him a destination in life.

The movie deals with Pranchiyettan’s identity crisis and his need to find meaning in life –he believes that people’s respect is what will satisfy him and he is willing to resort to unscrupulous ways to buy that respect. He competes in a local club election but is defeated; he arranges a felicitation for the Oscar award-winner Gafoor Chekutty, but his presence is relegated to the backstage. He is not someone who helps others for the sake of respect but wants to get noticed for the good work that he has done in the society (he even keeps receipts of all these donations as an evidence of the help done!!!).

In a mockery of the Indian system of doling out awards to willing buyers, he tries to buy his way to a Padma Shri by bribing a few middlemen. His name eventually features in the recommendation of the State list of Chhattisgarh (!!!) but despite the promises, he is cheated out of the award. The scene where Pranchi and team try to create a profile for him to justify the award is brilliant – it starts with the various attempts to eulogize his character and ends with the profile writer stating that the difference between winning and buying an award is akin to the satisfaction of earning money vis-à-vis the fear of losing one’s money.

Pranchiyetta is a shrewd businessman but not exactly worldly wise; he is smart enough to win land deals but he has blind faith in people and is taken for ride by many – the politicians who swindle him of the money he spends to get a Padma Shri, the auto driver who uses his friend’s son as a bait to make some fast money and many others who come to him regularly to borrow money on some pretext or the other.

He has his own complexes owing to his lack of education and smartness. He loses his girlfriend, Omana (played by Renjith regular Khushboo) in school to a classmate Jose (Siddique) and they get married later on, adding to his agony. His relationship with the these two characters is interesting –Dr Jose reminds him of his failings in love and education but it is still a love-hate relationship which does not create any stress in their lives. Even when Pranchi’s driver tries to provoke Jose by telling him that Omana has come to see Pranchi in mysterious circumstances, he waves away any suggestions of suspicion.

There is an openness in the relationship between his ex-girlfriend Omana and Pranchi. Pranchi is still troubled by seeing his Omana with her husband but they are still close enough to confide in each other, without any hesitation. Recall Omana talking about her husband willing to do anything to win and how Pranchi says he still finds it uneasy when he sees the couple. Omana remains a good friend and introduces Padmashree to Pranchi, recognizing his naive and honest heart.

Padmashree’s relationship with Pranchi is clear to the viewer but their background romance is highly understated and it would have helped if Renjith has built in more meat into their relationship. Does she love him or is she grateful to him? We do not know because the story is seen from Pranchi’s eyes only. Her feelings for him are not shown to us till the end and even then, it looked an attempt to tie the loose ends and not a convincing finale.

Renjith loses a bit of his focus in the second half especially during the time Jagathy makes his appearance as a Gandhian school teacher, who tries to teach the young Pauli. The transition from the first half to second half is slightly off-track here and you have two different tales being told – Padmashree and Pauli – in the movie but these two characters are like two chapters in a book, being read at different points of time, without a fluidity of context.

Though Padmashree is his leading lady, Renjith puts in more effort to weave Pauli’s plot into the narration. Pauli’s inability to pass the exam is understandable and Pranchi’s affection towards him builds up gradually. His initial obsession to make him clear his X exams is replaced later on with an understanding of the ground realities. Pauli’s troubled life at home brings him closer to the kid and helps him in taking his final decision on the boy’s future.

Renjith brings in the Divine Touch here again as in Nandanam through the character of St. Francis - a delightful cameo by an Australian theatre actor Jesse Fox Allen (with voice over by Renjith himself), who slips into the Thrissur accent to allay fears of his devotee. However, unlike Guruvayurappan in Nandanam, the saint has no active role in the proceedings; he is a listener and a device that Renjith uses to move across chapters in Pranchi’s life. But the saint gets to mouth the dialogue that had the audience in splits - he mocks at the Malayalis’ propensity to grab anything and stand in any queue as long it is free. He asks anyone who goes to Velankanni or Guruvayoor to pray on his behalf so that he can receive the Lord’s blessings without making an effort (My translation sucks big time, I agree).     

Now, we do not know for sure whether the three visions of Pranchi at the end are true or if he's actually seen the saint but these are his visions which help him to understand his destiny. They help him forget his past misgivings and build a new future, in the company of Pauli and hopefully Padmashree. There is no great transformation that happens as the movie closes; Pranchi still seeks fame (he tells Pauli that only if he had seen the saint, he would have had a witness) but there is an acceptance of life’s uncertainties now and that is the real victory.

The Thrissur accent helps in adding humour in the dialogues but thankfully, the accent is not overbearing as in Chattambi Nadu or Rajamanikyam. With the exception of Jagathy’s forced humour, most of the characters are restrained and the director does not give into the temptation of using caricatures as in many comedies – the satire crackles under his pen and the characters simply deliver as per the script. So, even minor players like the driver, the cook and the politicians leave a mark. Mammootty as Pranchiyettan delivers a performance that is at once warm and naive – you love the simplicity of the man and even when he tries to be unscrupulous, you cannot loathe him.

A movie like Pranchiyettan &The Saint gives us a reason for celebration because it takes us back to a time when writing was an integral part of the film. Renjith serves us a fun-filled satire with his potshots on religion, politics and moral values in the society but takes care not to be preachy – a trap a lesser director could have fallen when dealing with saints and simpletons. The humour is in the writing and there is not even a slightest hint of slapstick fun here – many of Pranchi’s dialogues are funny but they are not contrived even the slightest bit (notice how effortless it is when he asks Padmashree whether the painting she brought as a gift is a left over from the art gallery sales or why the painting is drawn with the person’s back facing the image).

After Kaiyoppu, Thirakatha, Paleri Manikyam and now Pranchiteyyan & The Saint, it is time we sit up and wait for every Renjith movie that emerges out of his pen now. Hopefully, the slam-bang movies and fiery dialogues made famous by him are now a thing of the past….

***When we watched the movie in PVR-Goregaon on Saturday evening, the movie was met with applause. Now, that is something that should gladden the hearts of Renjith and all fans of good cinema.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Being Realistic About Kashmir

More than 100 civilians have been killed in the last 3 months as Kashmir boils in a fury that we have not seen in recent times. There is a clear revolt in the streets of the Valley and we must face it – it is not a Pakistani plot but led by enraged young men and women. No party has any idea on how to quell the violence and the state bleeds as violent protests and demonstrations paralyze it. The National Conference demands autonomy, the Congress prefers status quo (something that Narasimha Rao had elevated to an art) while BJP wants to crush the revolt.

Omar Abdullah has not gained any brownie points for his governmental incompetence – but seriously, would changing the Chief Minister make any difference? When the State is besieged by rebellions throughout the year and the administration is left to the army, can the CM change things? You could argue that only a man in touch with the Kashmiri common man can make a difference; but then this is just as true for any political leader in this country. Those who think that Farooq Abdullah would have done a better job, better think twice – are we talking about one of the men who was responsible for the 1987 poll rigging in Kashmir, a turning point in its politics?

Everyone knows the history of Kashmir – the fact that state which may have become independent or part of Pakistan is now in India primarily because Maharaja Hari Singh agreed to cede to India in order to protect his kingdom from Pakistani tribal warlords. But that was 63 years back and we still have not been able to resolve the Kashmir issue that rocks every conference where India and Pakistan try to sit and talk to each other. No one has a magic wand to resolve it and all the smart alecs who talk about giving solutions are living in a fool’s paradise.

The Government’s announcement of 50,000 jobs and the creation of a panel to study the creation of more jobs are small efforts that are taken with a pinch of salt in the Valley. The economic package will only work with a proper political one but then India has never won any fans for its dismal and insensitive handling of provincial challenges. The strategy never changes – whether it is Kashmir, North-East or Punjab; the Centre props up a few leaders, buys or bullies its way through other factions and finds itself in a position where it is stuck in a Catch-22 situation.

The 2002 elections were a starting point of a change in the ground realities in Kashmir. Elections were held and there was wide participation by the people; the extremist groups slowly started losing their hold on the masses and there was a hope that moderate groups like the Hurriyat can be brought into the administration. Negotiations with moderates like Sajjad Lone, Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Farooq were attempted but all this has come to nought in the past couple of years. New Delhi must take most of the blame for dilly-dallying and not doing enough to rope in moderates and allowing hardliners like Geelani to call the shots once again.

Currently, the biggest stumbling block is the controversial AFSPA – the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which was passed on September 11, 1958. It conferred special powers upon armed forces in "disturbed areas" in the states of North-East and was later extended to Jammu and Kashmir in July 1990. The Defence establishment is not very keen on repealing this abused act and though most political parties (except the BJP) are keen to repeal it or at least dilute it in Kashmir, no decision has been taken on it.

AFSPA was meant to be used under special conditions but unfortunately, a draconian act like the Act can never serve its purpose for long. There is no doubt that the AFSPA is the biggest obstacle in trying to bring immediate peace – we must do away with it in totality or at least gradually – and release important political prisoners. Today’s Kashmir is not what it was in the 90s – foreign influence is on the wane and the state election turnout has been very positive. Kashmir needs a proper civilian government and the government has to be run through proper political administration and not by the military.

The State police force needs to handle the ground job and get the army only to protect its borders. The Armed Forces are not equipped to handle law and order problems and you cannot justify using them against your own people. As the death toll rises in clashes between the armed forces and the protesters, witness the reaction to other protests like the Jats going berserk in Haryana. They did much more damage than the stone pelters in Kashmir but no army was brought in; it was left to the police to settle things and there were no deaths reported due to police firing.

In the last one year, India has lost ground majorly and allowed separatists to make a comeback. Knee-jerk reactions like banning SMSs, pre-paid mobile connections, media and cable channels will only increase the burning rage; the State must learn to respect the civil society and safeguard its rights. Today, there are powerful forces demanding a trifurcation of the main regions of the state – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh – into separate administrative units but this is dangerous.

While the onus is primarily on the State and Central Government to understand the Kashmir psyche, it is also high time for Kashmiris to be realistic about their options. Are choices like independence, autonomy or alignment with Pakistan workable?

Azaadi is a utopian dream; there is no way any self-respecting country can relinquish land mindful of the geographical and political complexities of the place. Kashmiris would be foolish to believe that they can survive independently surrounded by India, China and Pakistan. Independence will only encourage the likes of Taliban to try to wrestle their way through to occupy the Valley, with tacit support of Pakistan and China, thus creating another Afghanistan like situation. Kashmir is not about the majority Muslims alone; ask the minority Kashmiri Pandits (who have been victims of ethnic cleansing making them homeless) and Sikhs and they would be happier to be aligned with India.

Bad governance is a malaise that is present everywhere in the country. Police excesses, administrative apathy and corruption have corroded India everywhere and this is not a Kashmir specific problem. The Indian bureaucracy has treated Kashmiris no better and no worse than they’ve treated the rest of India. Will throwing out the Indian element of the administration cure that? I doubt that.

Autonomous Kashmir can be a way out but then isn’t the Indian Government answerable to the rest of the nation too? If Kashmir can be autonomous, why not Tamil Nadu or Manipur or Gujarat? Historical and cultural differences are hardly significant to treat Kashmir separately – those reasons are applicable to just about any other state in India. Doesn’t Article 370 give Kashmir a special significance which we don’t have? Kashmiris need to be convinced that they are governed by somebody from among them and not a candidate whose strings are being pulled by the Centre. What we need is greater decentralization and that is the need in every state and not just Kashmir but again this is not specific to Kashmir alone; local level empowerment and devolution of power can help in making a more federal India.

Aligning with Pakistan is not a very popular option now even for Kashmir. PoK is miles away from any autonomy while Mohajirs are second class people in Pakistan. Hardliners like Alam Bhat and Asiya Andrabi may want to be a part of Pakistan but they are perceived by most Kashmiris as fundamentalists who do not understand Kashmir and its soul. But the political environment is changing; the pan-Islamic identity of the Kashmir struggle is slowly gaining ground. In the last 2 years, the moderates find themselves more and more sidelines and separatist leaders like Geelani have started calling the shots again.

Historical prejudices are hard to resolve but then if we start trying to correct every perceived historical wrong, there is no end to it. LoC is a reality that we better accept; there is no scope for ambiguity – Kashmir is an integral part of India and this is the only way forward. Improving on the existing reality is critical but ignoring the very ground reality is foolishness...

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Seeking A Religious Identity

We just completed 63 years of Self Rule and despite the odds of managing a small conglomerate of billion odd noisy plebeians, we have survived. We have a healthy mix of people who believe India is truly on the path to achieving world leadership as well as cynics who believe ‘Shining India’ is a mere marketing gimmick popularized by the Government’s brand managers. Of course, we all know that the Truth is somewhere in between – just like everything else in life but when you are pressurized to take a stance, you are forced to take cudgels against one group or the other.

The need to identify oneself with any particular group is important to avoid being an outcaste. If I were merely Pradeep, I would not represent anything at all – it would just be a small irrelevant name lost in the thousands of Pradeeps that you get when you do a Google search. But if I were to identify myself as a forward caste, middle class Hindu Keralite Indian, I suddenly give myself rights to speak on behalf of many of “my” people. It may not matter how meaningless these identity groups may be to me but my being a part of them casts certain requirements on me.

The most prominent of these identities that I argue with myself on a regular basis is my religious faith or sometimes the lack of it. Whenever I am critical of anything that is part of Hinduism, I am accused by my family and friends of being pseudo-secular (being called secular is no longer in fashion) and not a good Hindu. When my religious identity is questioned, I asked myself- Am I a bad Hindu? What does it mean to be a good Hindu? Does being an idol worshipper or a temple goer entitle a person to a greater degree of Hinduness than someone who does not subscribe to such views?

I was born an atheist (kids have these bouts of atheism which peter out to faith for many) but have moved to a more centrist approach on religion where I have accepted that religion is a vital ingredient in our lives but its role is more of a cultural one. Cloaking spiritual practices in religion helps in their sustenance; I see many of my colleagues fasting regularly but this practice is more an identification of their culture and has very little to do with spirituality.

Studying in a college which had its foundation in Faith did not help necessarily in converting me but it did give an exposure to an alternate faith (‘alternate” from my perspective) and forced me to question my atheism. Our Director was a Swamiji (a saffron-clad IITian who we called ABC in jest) and we met many people who had given up their dreams to follow AMMA; but at the same time, there were swamis who demanded respect and seemed incapable of humility. Spiritual power is exhilarating and it can lead to a situation where men in saffron demand commitments from commoners without themselves surrendering to the requirements of leading such a life.

My attempts at understanding religion took me on many paths - Reiki during MBA days, Raja Yoga through BrahmakumarisTranscendental Meditation taught by an enterprising firang when in ICICI and recently Vipassana but it has always been difficult to tread on one path for long. Nevertheless, these experiments have largely made me sceptical of religion - it creates a Dvaita polarised view of the world when we start associating ourselves with our religion instead of being a mere human.

It’s funny how life forces you to accept things or look at things which you want to avoid. I have always distanced myself from organized religion, especially a temple but I am now married to someone who is firmly rooted in temple worship. My wife’s family has a temple in their precincts and they are quite grounded in the idea of religious rituals; the temple is their most prized symbol of identity which they relate now in this era, when they no longer own the farmlands in the pre-EMS days.

I am now expected to be a part of important temple functions which I personally find redundant but even though my mind rebelled initially, I am learning to accept it as a compromise that I need to make after marriage.  Being a liberal would mean adjusting to situations as long as it hurts no one I guess - winning brownie points in a debate is not the only thing that matters!!! If there are people who find peace in temple rituals and idols, so be it. I have no right to impose my opinions on people who find bliss in this form of devotion. After all, if our common goal is to find happiness and even if our paths do not converge, how does it matter?

Religion has a cultural essence and one starts becoming aware of it, especially when there is a perceived threat to one's identity. With the looming threat of terrorism and minority appeasement, there is a revival in the demand to identify and unite in the name of Hinduism. How many times have we heard that we Hindus are not united and so we suffer, learn from the Muslims? We may not practice our religion the way we were taught (I don't think we are ever taught this, of course) but when it comes to debates and any form of public stances, our enlightened souls start to identify with our religion.

We are all born to a certain religion and there is no choice involved there, even though one may choose to covert later on. When we see something in our family that we believe is not right, should we not raise our voice against it? Or do we stay quiet silenced by the fact that another family has the same issue but there is no one who is complaining against them. Religion is a tool which creates some procedures and processes for us to follow so that we can go along the right path but the tool cannot replace the actual path of spirituality. The path of spirituality does not mandate religion; religion is just a beginning, after a certain growth in our spiritual levels, we can discard it. When the path becomes an obsession, the destination slowly starts moving out of the horizon.

I have been critical about Sabarimala and Guruvayoor for their policies of not allowing women and non-Hindus respectively into their shrines. People have defended it saying that these are age-old practices and should not be disturbed but thoughts change over a period of time and what was right at any time in history may not be so relevant now. There are many institutions that we accept the way they are because it has always been that way but an institution needs to change with times to continue being relevant.

At the end of the day, religion is a personal matter but the pursuit of privacy in India is a selfish one. Sometimes, you may need to exhibit a certain amount of faith to get people to believe that you believe in HIM but then even better, why bother to even show. Isn't it so much easier to leave people to exercise their own judgments without you bothering to explain?

It is not easy for Governments to disassociate themselves from religion but it is precisely their role that has complicated what is essentially a matter of faith. The Government panders to symbols of militant groups from various religions and neglects areas where reform is essential. So, the Uniform Civil Code becomes a symbol of minority persecution instead of women empowerment and banning books becomes a law and order issue instead of a question of freedom of expression. Big Brother is adept at using religion to play vote politics and many of us play along with it, ignoring the implications that this means.

While it is easy to be critical of the rest of the populace and act like the perfect liberal, it is so easy to gloss over one’s own prejudices.Nisha Susan in a nice little article in Tehelka tries to look at her and her family’s jaundiced approach towards religion – an article which has inspired me to question my own prejudices and understand whether my actions have any disconnect with the philosophy I believe in and keep harping about.

I realize that while being a liberal is fine, I have my own faith systems like everyone else sometimes making it difficult to see my own inner assumptions about life. It is a bit like Paul Haggis’ Crash where the people who believe in being fair and honest in their assessment of others suddenly make a slip and their prejudices surface leading to a problem.

Image Courtesy -

Monday, August 02, 2010

Development Notes From Kerala

Mouthing platitudes like “India lives in its villages” comes easy but understanding rural development is an altogether different ball game. The Kerala Government, through its channel DD Kerala decided to market rural development stories at prime time and thus was born Green Kerala Express. GKE, in a span of 100+ episodes, took us through an expedition through several villages in Kerala to understand the work being carried out in rural/semi-urban Kerala and appreciate the work done by local bodies. Palakkad, Thrissur, Alappuzha and Trivandrum came out well on top among the various villages while Kottayam, Idukki and Kasargod were probably the least impressive.

A few thoughts that I had as a viewer of this experience:

Agriculture needs support to survive – Governmental apathy and bad governance is pushing the farming community to ruin. Corporate takeovers of prime agricultural land at subsidized rates (helped by ready-to-bend governments) is being marketed to people as life savers for people but see what Vedanta has done in Orissa and Coca-Cola in Palakkad and you understand who benefits from such tacit support. Obviously, waiting for the rains and doling out subsidies is not the solution – there has to be a larger concerted end-to-end solution to promoting agriculture. Villages like Palamel, Puthussery and Perambra have linked NREGS and Kudumbasee to reclaim land and make them fit for paddy cultivation. Aryanadu Grama Panchayat launched an innovative programme called Vitthu Mudal Vipani Vere (from seeds to sales) which ensured that the farmer receives seeds, financial aid, inputs on agriculture from experts and finally has a means to sell his produce at a fair price. Small farmlands are not sustainable because of the high cost of labour – one way as demonstrated in Trivandrum is group farming where a set of farmers come together and till all their lands together and make an earning, in proportion to their area.

Women Empowerment in development – The way a society treats its women indicates its level of progress. For all the impressive social indicators clocked by the state, the conspicuous absence of women in the public domain remains as a paradox of the Kerala model of development. Kudumbasree is a woman oriented, community based poverty eradication project launched by the Government of Kerala with the active support of the Centre and NABARD. The programme has 37 lakh members and covers more than 50% of the households in Kerala. Built around three critical components, micro credit, entrepreneurship and empowerment, the Kudumbashree initiative has today succeeded in addressing the basic needs of the less privileged women, thus providing them a more dignified life and a better future. The mission aims at the empowerment of women, through forming self help groups and encouraging their entrepreneurial or other wide range of activities. Kudumbashree, when combined with NREGS is working wonders for its women folk - for the first time equal wages are really paid and this has boosted the earnings of women and their status in the family.

Illusion of Rural development = Agriculture – While agriculture is the backbone of the rural economy, it is not the only sustainable activity. Many villages in Kerala, with the help of Kudumbashree, have created entrepreneurs who focus on dairy farms, fisheries and small scale units. Most of the activities have mostly acted as supplementary sources of income but there is recognition that such jobs generate money and people with no agricultural land can actually be helped by Kudumbashree and other Governmental agencies to run their own units. In Elappully, dairy farmers are now supplying milk to households, hotels and various other establishments in the panchayat and have branded it “Elappully Farm Fresh Milk.” Despite selling only the remaining milk to Milma, they have been able to earn a turnover of Rs.7.5 crore. They have also launched various value-added products under their own brand name. The presence of a large number of water bodies has brought marine farming (fish, shrimps) in several areas, with an active support of the panchayats.

Organic farming is Viable – Some time back, I had a talk with an uncle of mine who is a farmer; he grows the produce required for his own consumption and the rest is sold in the market. While he uses organic means to take care of the crop that he consumes, he sprays fertilizers on the rest. He says that no farms can survive only on bio-fertilizers and that the produce is affected adversely, without chemical usage. This is a rather common mindset and many farmers follow this style, however, GKE has shown that this is could be a misconception. Adat grama panchayat home to about 3,000 acres of kole paddy fields, has successfully launched itself on the organic path to farming and set a model for panchayats elsewhere in the State. The panchayat commandeered Kudumbasree units to process its organic only paddy and began marketing the rice under the brand name Adat and followed it up with Kerasree organic coconut oil. Mararikulam, Kudappanakkunu and Sreekryam have started their own selling outlets for organic vegetables.

Efficient Labour Utilization –NREGS has played a critical role in ensuring a minimum wages programme for workers who register with it. But it may not be always possible to provide employment on demand through works of productive nature at all times of the year. Also, to ensure requirement of labour for crops in agriculture season, it may be better to follow a system of running rural works only during the slack season, as demonstrated by Elappully Panchayat which has drawn its own NREGS calendar. A few villages like Kannadi and Sooranadu North have implemented the concept of labour banks to tide over the shortage of skilled labour. Kozhikode Municipal Corporation has a Swabhimaan Multi-Purpose scheme to provide service for works like plumbing, wiring, plucking coconuts, etc. for which there is a scarcity of labour now. It boasts that to call for help, one has to log on to their website and place his/her request and a person would be dispatched within an hour to resolve the problem.

Greater Decentralization – Most organizations in the country work like the Congress Party where workers have no say and everything is decided by the Central High Command. While this approach works fine for specific areas like defence and foreign affairs, day-to-day governance requires a more federal approach from Centre to State to Village to Gram Sabhas. Panchayats are better placed to understand local needs and will be more accountable than an outside person/entity. Bringing governance down to the local level would also help in better management of local resources. A few experiences in Kerala and Karnataka prove that a performing panchayat can not only improve the delivery of services to the locals, but also help in improving administration by improving revenue collections. Aryanad (in Trivandrum) now uses a concept called participatory budgeting where all the social minded individuals of the village come together in November and for a period of 4 months, they discuss, debate, budget and prioritize all projects for the forthcoming year. This has ensured a 100% completion of their projects and being in sync with the State’s budgetary plans.

Universal Education – Kerala’s biggest success story has been its success in primary education. But is 100% literacy a true figure or is it mere 100% enrolment; studies need to be carried out to estimate the student retention percentages in every school. Student attendance is a big challenge and with the RTE in place, more effort will be needed. The mid-day meal remains the main strategy of the panchayats but this has been streamlined with focus on nutrition (inclusion of vegetables and nuts, along with kanji), special classes for weaker students and starting tuition centres in SC/ST centres to encourage them to join schools. It is heartening to note that Malayalam medium schools have begun to devote attention to English, with special focus on speaking and reading skills (A government school in Elappully revealed that parents insisted that English be taught only as a language and not the medium!!!). Many panchayats have started initiating special neighbourhood classes, night classes and extra tuitions with greater focus on students from weaker sections to encourage them to integrate with the mainstream.

Environment-oriented growth –Environmental clearances are mere formalities that are provided in under- the- table meetings, rendering their certifications irrelevant. Since Kerala has limited public land, it has been decided to take up eco-restoration works in degraded forest lands. Palamel panchayat in Alappuzha, in its interactions with GKE, mentioned how the panchayat had to fight illegal occupations and mining in their village to stop the farms lands from going bare. Over a period of time, they have managed to reclaim private wastelands and converting them into fertile beds. Eloor (Ernakulam) has an energy sena of children who educate the neighborhood houses about energy planning by which they could lower the total electricity consumption by about 20% in each house. Akathethara in Palakkad launched an initiative of planting trees over roadsides by linking with NREGS to retain its sustainability. Over 1 lakh trees of different species have been planted so far and approximately 90,000 trees have been sustained in the effort. Bio-gas plants have been started in several villages to utilize the wastes generated in the villages. To make the environment movement more sustainable, people involvement is needed and they must be convinced of the utility of listening to Nature. Villages are now being encouraged growing fish in a large way because of its role in cleaning up water bodies, in addition to generating supplementary income to its people.

Infotainment is Marketable – When DD Thiruvanthapuram Kendra launched GKE, there were sceptics who dismissed it as another education programme, out of sync with audience tastes. But today when the programme has ended its successful run, it has gone into television history as a show that attempted to make a difference. The concept was innovative and so was the actual implementation – you had young, peppy anchors (who could actually speak Malayalam well), an intelligent and qualified jury, SMS campaigns to encourage viewers (SMS has a small weightage only unlike many other shows) and a prize money worth fighting for. As part of the branding, the sets were green and well-lit, the music was ethereal and the anchors travelled to villages only in cycles. The State Government spent close to 4 crore as prize money for the show and has been advertising heavily to promote sanitation as part of its Clean Kerala campaign (remember the days of family planning and immunization ads on TV, do you see any TV channels doing this now?).

Monday, July 12, 2010

FIFA World Cup 2010 - A Perspective

After 116 minutes of struggle, the underachievers, Spain, finally got the better of the other perpetual underachiever, Netherlands, to be crowned World Champions. The match was not a top draw one and until the latter part of the second half, no team seemed competent to break through the other’s defence. In a foul marred scrappy match (did the Dutch create a world record for the most carded team in a game?), Spain just managed to pip the Dutch to the post and win glory.

It was a commendable Dutch performance in terms of strategy, especially the strong defence (specifically Van Bommel and Mathijsen) but it wasn’t a pretty sight to see them ambush the Spaniards and reducing the game to a slugfest (can De Jong’s kungfu kick into Xabi qualify as anything else other than thuggish?). Their plan was to get up close and personal and they held out till the very end till the weight of the all those cards finally stopped them. The Oranjes would reckon that Arjen Robben should have put across the two simple chances and taken them to the trophy in normal time but the Spaniards too missed out on many opportunities until Iniesta finally managed to breach the Dutch goal. Spain was the better team but it was a pretty close fight (literally).

We deserved a better final after the wonderful Group Stage matches and even more entertaining 3rd place play-off but I am glad Spain won. If the Dutch had triumphed, it would have been bad for the game because there is no place for the way they approached the match.

Mahesh: I disagree this time around with the phrase that the best team won. On paper Spain (and Argentina) was one of the better teams, but per world cup showing, the best team was Germany, Nederland, and Uruguay.

A look at the top teams:


Pradeep: The La Furia Roja stepped into South Africa as the hot favourite and went all the way to the podium, in a spirited display of educated technical football. They started on a wrong footing stumbling to Switzerland and were patchy at times (as in the Paraguay match) but did well to grind most of their opponents and win through their superior ball possession skills. For all practical purposes, La Roja is the Barcelona team, sans Messi and their success in the last couple of years mirrors the success that Barcelona has been enjoying. The Spaniards, with their pressing strategy, played with immense patience ensuring that in all the games their ball possession was superior to their opponent. The semi-final with Germany was a lesson in clinical football where the Germans were outclassed by a classy team. The team is well balanced with the most creative midfield (Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi) in modern football and a strong defence (Puyol, Piquet and Sergio Ramas). They did not score too many goals but their phenomenal ball possession meant that the opposition was always defending, with very few chances to gain control of the match as Germany realised. Of course, it is unusual for a World Cup winner to score to just 7 goals (despite high levels of ball possession); for all the creativity displayed in the midfield, they just do not seem to have a great finisher (which Messi does for Barcelona). They may have been a tad lucky at times but then surely, Dame Luck needed to smile a bit to crown the best team in the World Cup.

Mahesh: They were lucky. Out of the 10 players starting the game 9 are from Real Madrid or Barcelona ( Torres plays for Liverpool and CapDe Villa plays for some Spanish team:Valencia or Sevilla. not too sure). Even better was the semi-finals and finals where Torres was benched and Pedro brought in (another Barcelona product). Swiss actually played in a very efficient and organised way, thus beating Spain. It became such an embarrassment that Spain was just playing possession game for the rest of the tournament. I would have loved to see them play some attacking football. Again just my views, but Spain did not deserve to win the cup this time ard..

Outstanding Players: Xavi, Villa and Iniesta.


Pradeep: They came, they saw, they conquered but sadly only the hearts of the people and not the Cup. The German team, under Joachim Low, played eye-catching entertaining football (in continuation with Klinsmann’s attacking style started in FIFA 2006) and taught Latin America a lesson or two in Joga Bonito. In almost all the games, they managed to score early and hold on to their lead till the mid of second half and then slaughtered the tired opposition by their relentless attacking. The young, multi-ethnic team won many fans for their open and counter attacking football (Socrates called them the true successors to the legendary 1970 Brazilian team) but were stopped by the tactical efficiency of the Spaniards. The free flow of the Germans was literally choked by the spectacular Spanish midfield and lost the battle comprehensively (even though the score line of 1-0 may suggest otherwise). Give the ball to the Germans and they are all over the place and so the Spaniards just cut off their oxygen (did the Germans actually have 51% possession of the ball!!!) and got them to play in closed tactical manoeuvres which starved them. The young brigade of Muller, Oezil, Khedira were finds while the old warhorses- Schweinsteiger (not exactly old at 26!!!), Klose and Podolski- gave excellent support. The young team has raised high hopes and FIFA 2014 could see the team at their peak.

Mahesh: German teams have always been bull ones and they just push and shove around the park and I hate them. Surprisingly this time around they played some scintillating football. May be the new generation. but it was fun to watch them play, although I still hate them as they defeated England and Argentina ( the two teams that I cheer for). More than Mueller's absence,Joachim Low let them down in the semis with poor strategy. He very well knew how the Spanish are going to play and instead of starting with Trochowski (who is more defensive), he should have started with another striker Gomez, to really supplement Klose.. Reverting back to the 4-4-2 variation rather than having a 4-3-2-1 variation. This would have strengthened their midfield and cut the Spanish passing. Else they should have done a 4-5-1 variation which Swiss did effectively to nullify Spain.. Low actually put them in a no man's land.


Pradeep: Right from the beginning, the football was only about Maradona and Messi and remained the same way till the end. They attacked well in the league stage against smaller opponents and though Messi did not score, he was the main playmaker. Their initial games raised a few hopes of Latino magic but it was always going to be a tall order for an Argentinian team that struggled in the qualifiers and just about sneaked through in the play-offs. In the Q/F, they were however whipped by the Germans and played the price for a defence that never existed. Messi received practically no support with the exception of Tavez who was running across all over the pitch; they seemed such a rusty outfit against the well-oiled German machine and were simply dismantled by their opponents. Maradona is no great strategist and he simply relied on the players to just go out and deliver (being a genius makes it difficult to understand trivialities like team strategies) but the team were nowhere near the class of the previous WC team which had the likes of Crespo, Messi, Saviola, Veron and most importantly, Riquelme (who refused to play under Maradona and retired). There was over dependence on Messi to deliver but the Argentinan midfield was no Barcelona and simply gave way to Schwenstiger and his boys who controlled the area with absolutely no difficulty whatsoever. The defence was always the pain area and while it was ok to play that way in the league games this way, better opponents would have hit them in this area.

Mahesh: My team is Argentina.. Simple logic and everyone has been pointing this out to the Diego Maradona (greatest ever player) that he cannot play Central Defenders on the Full back positions.. One of the teams were going to rip them apart and it turned out to be Germany... Lesson learnt for Diego as he has an extended four year term now..


The current Brazilian team may not possess the same elan of their illustrious predecessors but Jogo Bonito has been conspicuously missing since the late 80s anyway. Dunga’s boys were joint favourites with Spain; they played pragmatically and had a similar approach as the Spanish in controlling the ball (strategy not implementation, mind you) but were outwitted by the Dutch in a game that were theirs to win (atleast till the Dutch struck their first goal). The dominating game in the first half was suddenly lost and they seemed to suddenly mentally disintegrate and hand the match over to Netherlands. A slight defence lapse with some bad luck thrown in (Sneijder’s goal) and suddenly, the team looked lost for ideas. Kaka struggled throughout and Robinho seemed the only player capable of pulling off a goal; though the defence was strong, the midfield did not create much of an impression. Surprisingly, one of the most talented teams in the world did not seem to have enough bench strength in the WC to make things happen and they were waiting for the opponents to make mistakes than create chances.


Pradeep: Holland has always been the delicate underperformer whose style endured them to the public but victory always eluded them. Successive teams always faced comparison with the ‘Total Football’ of Cryuff and Neeskens but this Oranje team was not the most brilliant team from Holland or even in the World Cup. And yet the Dutch produced some of the positive football that has brought them this far in South Africa. They played as a team brushing aside the constant rumours of inner team conflicts relying on a hard, straight; physical game. In most games, the Dutch sparkled in the second half with the likes of Arjen Robben, Sneijder and Kuyt emerging as the key men, along with Van Bommel as a key defensive cog. Their play in the final may not have earned them too many admirers but it was effective and they managed to control the Spanish Armada and almost took the game away from them. In the semis, they stunned Brazil with a strong counter attack and forced them to lose their cool and the match, unlike the Spaniards. Robben would rue his missed chances in the final but with eight yellow cards, 14 shots to Spain's 21, 28 fouls to their 19 and 37% possession, Spain was the better team.

Mahesh: My teams of the tournament. They were brilliant in all the games and had the energy, willingness and patience to win the finals. Wonderfully, controlled Spain during the game. People would say that getting an Yellow card is bad, but depends on the foul. Except for Robben, I would say all the cards that they received were good ones. Unfortunately, they tried one too many and Heitinga got sent off... Remember Spain only scored after he was sent off.. Robben should have won the game, but somehow he missed it.. they were brave.. Lets see in Euro 2012...

Well it is a pity that Rooney did not play well.. I was surprised to see that Rooney was playing in a non-committed fashion. He never went for the 50-50 balls, rather than playing he was okay to make the defender clear the ball and the most surprising thing was he was not effective with one on one marking. I have literally watched all his games for United last season and this is very unlike him..Without him England was no where near to their best.

Cheaters, deceivers, etc.. whatever u want to call them,  they played some good team football.. Spain was the only other team who played as a team... Unlucky to progress but Nederland's were too much for them..

A few observations:

1. The Golden Boot should be given to Paul, the Octopus. By the time we had come to the semis, it looked like the punters had more faith in the German octopus than the actual performers. Rumours abound that Paul would be adopted by Spain and rechristened-Pablo.

2. The Vuvuzela was supposed to be the African equivalent of the Mexican wave but all it was to drown the voices of everything around. It was irritating that you could not get to hear the commentators on TV and everytime you increased the volume, the buzzing just increased.

3. The Jabulani (the Zulu word means ‘to celebrate’) ball manufactured by Adidas was criticized by everyone with Fabiano calling it “supernatural” but the Germans who have already adopted the ball for their domestic league had no complaints and kept slamming the ball into the nets. Incidentally, it seems the ball has an Indian connection - the bladder at the core of the Jabulani is made by Enkay Rubber in a factory in Gurgaon, using latex sourced from Kerala (this is not Manorama news!!)

4. The referees played spoil sport and allowed players to dive with impunity (Arjen Robben needs a special mention for his skills) and whipped up cards for no specific reasons other than itchy hands. FIFA’s reluctance may have costed England and Mexico dear (personally, I think England was anyway 2nd best to Germans on the day but why give the cry babies a chance to complain), especially with the whole world watching live on TV. They can learn a techno trick or two from cricket and tennis.

5. The stars were non-starters and were prominent on the papers than the field. Superstars like Ronaldo, Rooney, Kaka and Torres were sadly in another Time Zone and only served as liabilities for the team. Messi may not have scored but he played a role in almost all Argentina’s attempts.

6. The free kick was a non-starter. No one other than Forlan was able to pull off a free kick with any conviction (Jabulani????) and it made sense to indulge in passing than clearing the goal with fancy attempts but it still did not deter teams from attempting it.

7. The gap between the bigger and the smaller teams in increasingly reducing. The Asian Bloc gave a credible performance while Slovakia, Ghana, Uruguay and Chile provided unexpected excitement. France and Italy were knocked out remorselessly without even the pretense of a fight while England limped to the pre-quarters where Germany showed them their place (albeit with FIFA’s help).

My Tournament Favourites

Team: Germany
Player(s): Iniesta, Xavi (Spain) and Diego Forlan (Uruguay)
Future Prospect: Thomas Muller (Germany)
Game: Germany 4-1 England (Pre-Quarter-finals)
Goal: David Villa (Spain v Honduras), Diego Forlan (Uruguay v Netherlands/Semi final)

Sunday, June 20, 2010


After all the hype (so typical of a Mani Ratnam flick), Mani’s ambitious re-telling of the Ramayana is finally here. Fortunately Mumbai, despite the presence of the rabid first Sena family, has a simultaneous release of Raavan in Tamil and Hindi. Mani and Priyan are rooted in their own languages and despite their attempts to be pan-India directors, cultural milieus do not translate easily. So, we decided to grab tickets to the Tamil version (additionally regional movies are cheaper in PVR!!!).

Mani’s Ramayana is set in Ambasamudram, a taluk in Tirunalveli. A ruthless Superintendent of Police Prithviraj (Dev Prakash/Rama) heads an operation to find a tribal leader and lawbreaker Vikram (Veeraiya/Ravana), a supposedly Robin Hood-like figure to the tribals, who kidnaps his wife Aishwarya Rai (Raagini/Sita). The story initially presents Veera as a brutal murderer but it is later on revealed the kidnap has been led on by the death of his sister, as a result of police custodial torture and brutal rape. Similarly, the smart and educated cop emerges slowly as a black character and Raagini slowly realizes that her husband is no saint while her demonic captor has a soft side after all.

The parallels with Ramayana are clear – the repeated references to 14 days/hours/years , Veera’s two brothers, a Hanuman-like character in Gnana Prakasam (Karthik as a talkative forest guard), a Surpanakha character in Vennila (Priya Mani) who acts as the trigger point for the conflict, the rather ridiculous idea of a polygraph test as an Agnipariksha to name a few. The analogies are forced and Mani is faithful to the epic in terms of its characters’ existence but not in terms of the story and so the characters exist since they exist in the original epic and nothing more.

The very premise of retelling Ramayana is exciting-the idea that there is a Ravan as well as a Ram in everyone and each situation brings out the Ram/Ravan in each of us is worth exploring and helps in understanding the epic in more ways than the existing tradition. But Mani has no such interest in bringing out any such moral ambiguity; he takes the easy way out in dangling such an idea initially but chickens out midway to simply do a role reversal of Ramayana, which by itself would not be a bad thing, if not for how one dimensional it becomes.

Dev has hardly any redeemable qualities- he is a hard- nosed cop who simply wants to finish Veera and he will go to any extent to do that. There are scenes written explicitly to make him a villain and you know that the director wants us to root for the anti-hero, except of course that Veera is no anti-hero. Veera has stellar qualities and there is nothing which even makes you question his actions- a trigger happy moral activist, fighting the ruthless government, incidentally using guns and bombs.

Mani has always been a supporter of the rebel though ofcourse, he never takes pains to go the full way and make the character ask whether his actions are justified in any way. We do not know what Veera represents and what is his fight against? We assume that he is probably a Robin Hood and that’s the most that Mani is willing to do to explain the political stance of his protagonist. Instead, Vikram and his men appear like grown up men who just want to enjoy life in the beautiful locations selected by Mani, rather than represent any movement. While the movie keeps harping about Ravana’s ten heads and his multi-layered character, but for God's sake, where is this enigma; he may have existed on paper but is conspicuously absent on screen. He is a rustic nobleman and belongs to a low caste which ambiguously sets up a caste conflict with his upper caste, suave and sophisticated bête noir but this thread is not explored.

The closest that a class/caste conflict arises in an interesting interaction between Veera and Raagini, in the backdrop of a splendid reclining Vishnu in the sea (reminds you of Kannathil Muthamittal) where he wants to know whether her God is flawless and handsome. This sets up the imagery of a clean and handsome upper caste God as celebrated in most visuals vis-a-vis an unkempt, pastoral low caste God who drinks and smokes; was this also an attempt to conjure the idea of a contrast between a Vishnu bhakta and a Shiva bhakta? (except of course, Mani's Raavanan is not a learned brahmin but a low caste hero)

Dev’s character begins to emerge with a sense of moral conflict but quickly descends into an amoral bloodthirsty cop, without much of an explanation- hardly a comparison with Rama. He tortures an armless man to extract information about his abducted wife’s whereabouts, shoots a messenger of peace (the Vibhishana character Sakkarai) in the back after guaranteeing non-violent negotiations and even distrusts his wife. It is almost as if the director goes an extra mile to paint Dev black and there are hints that his marital life may not necessarily be a bed of roses. The climax clearly underscores this point but it looks contrived and only succeeds in alienating his character further from the audience’s sympathies. (***Spoiler Alert--When we are told that Deva used his wife to entrap Veera, the first thing that strikes me is what kind of husband decides to trick his wife and send her into the jungle again to capture a bloody brigand-either he has so much confidence in her abilities or he just does not care- the upholder of Dharma is only interested in capturing Veera.)

Raagini has the best perspective on the two protagonists because of her proximity with them but this is not clearly spelt out. As the movie progresses, she realizes that her husband is not perfect and this view helps her in grasping the moral ambiguity of the situation better. But when the camera is so besotted with her and the equally captivating surroundings, it is difficult to understand her feelings. As she jumps across waterfalls and rocks, she suffers bruises but through Santosh Sivan’s lens, they adorn her face, making us forget her pain. She is desperate to flee herself from Veera’s clutches but slowly, she begins to see him in new light – something that can be explained more from a Stockhlom’s Syndrome perspective than anything else. A couple of scenes and a song establish her love for Dev but the climax hints that all is not well in God’s paradise but is that good enough to warrant falling for Veera?  

Raagini is shocked when she learns that Veera was shot at during his sister’s wedding; come on, was she expecting the cops to wait for the marriage to be completed before they attacked ? Of course, you’d wonder how the most wanted man in the place decides to make his presence so evident in the marriage that even the cops find him easily. When Gnana Prakasam gets Dev’s approval to approach Raagini, he immediately locates Veera’s hideout, while our poor cops have no idea where he is!!! Similarly, when Dev suspects her, she lands straight at the villains's den, without any difficulty (stop the train midway, catch a bus and lo behold, we are in Raavanan territory). The final fight happens on a Ramar Sethu bridge and as the battle finishes, it becomes increasingly clear that while Dev is fighting a battle for the establishment, Veera is simply seeking revenge. Veera strikes only when his own people are attacked but Dev, even after reclaiming his wife, wants to put to sword the legend of Veera (possibly the only moral spin).

Vikram definitely steals the show with his powerful performance (quite a contrast to Abhishek in Ravan, I guess) and though there are scenes where he goes overboard , that's more of Mani's doing. Prithviraj is subtle but has limited work to do which he does convincingly with ease. Aishwarya manages to stay afloat but the camera’s fascination with her makes it difficult for us to dwell more into the character. Prabhu as Vikram’s brother is delightful while Priya Mani and Karthik make a mark despite limited screen space.

The movie works in spurts and these are times, you’d expect the movie to take-off but the MBA takes over the auteur and we are left wondering if the story in more capable hands could have been more appealing. I have never been a fan of Mani Ratnam School of Cinema and find it extremely shallow but then, every movie of his generates enough hype to force you to watch it. Enjoy it for the visual spectacle that it is and it becomes easy to digest but a different perspective on Ramayana, it is definitely not.

Director Mani Ratnam is inherently an armchair liberal who likes to take up political issues after sugar coating the script with protagonists who are generally caught up in the midst of an upheaval or who become sympathetic negative characters. Raavanan is no different in the sense that Ramayana merely serves as a backdrop for Mani Ratnam to show his love for breathtaking camera work. Like most of his movies, these masquerade as arty cinema but are eventually technical props – Raavanan, even by his standards, serves as a great ad for the National Geographic Channel and Valmiki is merely a tool in the story telling. 

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Second Bhopal Tragedy

Karl Marx had once said - History repeats itself, occurring first as tragedy, the second time as farce. The quotation cannot have been more aptly applied than to the Bhopal Gas Disaster where the farce in question is the so-called conviction of the perpetuators of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which makes a mockery of the Indian sense of justice. More than 25 years after a deadly gas leak from a Union Carbide plant caused the world’s worst industrial disaster, which killed more than 15,000 and affected more than 5 lakh people (and many more unreported), a local court yesterday convicted all the accused to a 2 year imprisonment!!! The accused were fined a lakh each and immediately granted bail.

The sentence is not just distressing – it is absolutely shocking to see a crime on humanity escaping such a mild rebuke, under the Indian law. After years of suffering under an arrogant MNC and being ignored by that albatross called Government of India, the people of Bhopal have been delivered the final blow. The victims of the Bhopal disaster gain practically nothing from the judgment; even a moral satisfaction of seeing the big guys behind bars is missing.

The Indian judicial system does not seem to be capable of giving justice to its own people- the main accused has not even been brought to trial and seven others have been given punishments, which equates the crime to a road negligence act, instead of the actual heinous act that it is. If justice has eluded the victims, this is because the governments of the US and India have colluded to protect the guilty. Successive governments have been eager to please US business corporations in order to attract more investment rather than pursue justice.

Even by the standards of the Indian judicial system, a 25 year wait is an incredibly long wait and imagine this is the largest industrial disaster in the world. Will it be wrong to expect a speedy, detailed investigation into an even of such enormity but then we are bound by our law. The only fatalistic expectation that we can have is of Divine justice and karmic punishment for the accused!!!

Various investigations and studies show that a series of negligent decisions taken by the management lead to the explosion of the gas tank, leading to 40,000 kg of methyl isocyanide spilling over to the city. Investigations over the years have shown that the Bhopal plant design was faulty and that there was next to no emergency preparedness — issues that the parent company in the U.S. apparently knew about, according to the groups that conducted the studies. Union Carbide not apply the same safety standards at its plant in India as it operated at a sister plant in West Virginia, US but then you can do that in India and get away with it.

Initially, Union carbide offered $ 5 million as a relief fund but the Indian government rejected the claim and demanded $3.3 billion instead. The original criminal case was settled out of court in 1989, when both Union Carbide and the Government sought to terminate all court proceedings by agreeing for a $470 million settlement. Consequently, Union Carbide paid 713 crore to the government as compensation – 113 crore was paid to those with property and cattle damage while the remaining 600 crore was to be distributed to the kin of the death and injured. But some victims are still waiting to receive even this share of the money.

No scientific survey was done and an arbitrary casualty figure was estimated. As time progressed, the numbers reported started increasing but since the amount was already agreed upon, the fixed amount had to be distributed among the people leading to on an average, each victim just receiving 12,410 Rs!!! As part of this settlement, all the criminal charges filed against Union Carbide were dropped but the uproar caused due to this led to the reopening of cases in 1991.

However, in 1996, the Supreme Court directed that charges against the accused be converted from culpable homicide (which carries a maximum of 10 years) to death due to negligence (maximum sentence of 2 years). So, the trail court cannot be accused of going soft on the accused; the real slackness was demonstrated by the SC Bench (including the then CJI A M Ahmedi) for allowing prosecution only under nominal ground. By reducing the Bhopal disaster to the equivalent of a traffic accident, the prison term for the crimes of Bhopal was brought down from 10 years to 2 years.

The main accused Warren Anderson, who was the Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the incident was not even in the list of those convicted. He was arrested and released on bail by the police in 1984 and since then he has turned his back to India. The Indian Government made a plea for his extradition in 2004, but it was rejected by the US Government on the grounds that under US laws, only someone personally culpable for a crime can be extradited. The American and Indian Governments claimed they had no whereabouts about Warren Anderson but Greenpeace traced him to a nine hundred thousand dollar luxury home in New York, where he still lives in ‘anonymity’.

The Indian government seemed to go out of its way to cushion the experience for Union Carbide. The various Union governments in the meantime have not taken on Union Carbide, which is now owned by Dow Chemical. Meanwhile, Keshub Mahindra, Chairman of Union Carbide India Ltd at the time of the Bhopal disaster and now chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra was even nominated for a civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan, in 2002!!! He had to decline in the face of widespread protests.

In 1999, Raj Sharma, a lawyer based out of US, filed a lawsuit in the US against Union Carbide and Anderson, and has been litigating since. And this is what he has to say about the Indian Government - "The Indian government refused to put in even a single line or letter for us. They did not want to be embarrassed in front of Union Carbide, embarrassed to be supporting their own people. I had heard of the government's collusion with the company before I left for Bhopal. I said to myself, 'Don't be naive, this cannot be true,' until I saw it happening with my own eyes," says Sharma.

In a separate US litigation in 2002, Dow Chemical set aside $2.2bn to compensate American workers who were exposed to asbestos at Union Carbide operations but the cost of an Indian life is really not worth anything – for all gung-go talks about being at par with the West, an Indian life is not worth even a mini-percentage of the various bailouts that the US Government does for its greedy financial institutions.

This is in contrast to the way the U.S. government is now confronting BP — holding it squarely responsible for the oil spill and accountable for all cleanup costs. Eleven people were killed when British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in Gulf of Mexico, compared to 20,000+ deaths in Bhopal. The oil spill has caused extensive damage to marine life, birds and the US coastline in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. In Bhopal, 26 years after the gas leak, the soil and the water are still contaminated,   with dangerously high levels of toxic chemicals, and thousands still suffering the aftereffects.

British Petroleum has already paid 69 million dollars, just as first installment for the damages caused. That figure could multiply several times, with the company's liability still being decided. In contrast, Union Carbide paid just $ 470 million in compensation for the deaths it caused.

There are disturbing echoes of this history in the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, which the Manmohan Singh Government introduced in Parliament and is eager to push to please the Obama administration. The Bill not merely limits the civil liability of any company running a nuclear power plant to Rs 500 crore per accident (less than a quarter of the dollar equivalent of the Bhopal settlement two decades ago), with an overall cap of roughly Rs 2,100 crore; it also exonerates international companies that supplied the equipment and technology. No equipment supplier in any other industry has such exemption from liability, and no other industry functions with such a cap on the operator's liability. Doesn’t the Bhopal Conviction clearly expose how shallow such a Bill is and the risk that we are going to take to please the Americans?

Shobhan Saxena puts it appropriately when he says in a blog in The Times of India - Today, India proved once again that it doesn't care for its poor… Today, India proved that it doesn't really care for its people, particularly if they have been slaughtered by powerful people from the most powerful nation in the world. Instead of taking on America and fighting for justice for its poor, India is more than happy to sell its dead cheap. Today – on the day of Bhopal disaster judgment -- if there is a failed state in the world, it’s India. It’s not Iraq. It’s not Somalia. It’s not Sudan. It’s India.