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Posts from the ‘India’ Category

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,600 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 60 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Contrarian views on the leadership challenge that is affecting India’s anti-corruption debate

As I was following news updates on India’s 64th Independence day, it was nearly impossible to miss that anger against the omnipresent corruption, was the dominant theme across the country. Well at least, that was the case for middle class Indians and NRIs, and we tend to believe that our India is the only India

To make an objective assessment of the state of the nation on the eve of its 65th birthday is a complicated exercise. For more intelligent people and institutions than I am, have attempted that exercise with mixed results, and I won’t go there.

But I am going to write about a specific theme that I refer to as nation builders, in the context of the anti-corruption movement, and argue that we are below the pass mark in this regards

The structure of this article would be to assess our quality of nation builders, and the context of the anti-corruption movement separately, and then conclude on how the lack of quality amongst our national builders, has skewed the anti-corruption debate in the wrong direction

To start with, I lay down, 5 broad categories of people (in no particular order), who are behind successful institutions of all sorts (be it a sports team, or a country, or a business). The emphasis would be on countries though:

  1. Do-ers  / Activists
  2. Thinkers / Intellectuals
  3. Pragmatists
  4. Change agents / Innovators
  5. Artists / Entertainers / Evangelists

In my opinion, most successful countries have good systems & processes, governance mechanisms, advantages of nature, and many other contributing factors. But where the human capital / leadership, does not have a healthy balance of the above, it is difficult to see the long term success and stability of that country

Each and every one of us combines a few of the traits above, and it is difficult for one to be only a do-er or a thinker. But some primary traits dominate the other traits, and hence the categories. Also, some extraordinary figures in history have combined multiple traits in a rare way: for example Rabindranath Tagore was a thinker, artist, change agent, all rolled into one person

The do-ers / activists

These are the people, who do not necessarily think much, but have the passion, energy and time to jump to contribute to any cause. These are excellent foot soldiers, who under proper guidance and command from a superior of higher intellectual capacity, do an extraordinary job for a cause. Think of the soldiers that brave all odds for their countries, the people who take to streets for various revolutions that have shaped modern history, the millions that believed in Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King’s methods, or millions of others who heeded Subhash Chandra Bose’s call.

The ideas or causes may not exactly be their original views, but once they sense some cause worth fighting for, they are out on the streets, literally.

They would typically do well when the leadership that drives them has an intellectual and a moral authority. They would create havoc where there is no high standard of leadership, such as the Al Qaeda terrorists, or the looters of the recent UK riots.

Thus, these set of people can be a the source of enormous power or enormous tragedy to a country, depending on how they are utilized

The thinkers / intellectuals

These are the philosophers, writers, speakers, gurus, scientists who shape our thinking. These people dedicate their life to widening their knowledge and sharing that with us.

When combined with the right circumstance and a receptive society, they leave a significant impact on us, which lasts beyond their lives. Think of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, and many others.

Some of the thinkers can also be guilty of being idealists, or dreamers, or way ahead of their time. But, while we may not necessarily agree with their views, we cannot deny their massive influence and legacy.

The pragmatists

The very survival of a nation, without the pragmatists, is impossible. These people are the engines on which nations run, and while it is possible to somehow get through without the other categories of nation builders, without pragmatic leaders, we simply cannot survive

Think of all sorts of kings and leaders staring from Emperor Ashoka, to Nelson Mandela, and that ability to balance between thought and action shines through.

Quite often, pragmatists are well read, intelligent, and capable of thought as well as action. But by ceding ground to the intellectuals and the do-ers in their respective areas of strength, they play a crucial role of running the show.

While it is possible for the do-ers / thinkers to be away from the mainstream politics, a pragmatist is one who would get his hands dirty in the mud of politics, to lead, govern, think, and shape the society.

In my opinions, some of the best pragmatic leaders of civilization would have made fine do-ers or thinkers, if they chose to prioritize one aspect over other.

India was at once stage blessed with a plethora of pragmatists such as B.R Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, but sadly there is absolutely nobody of that stature and class today. The only two people who have come close are Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh (at least circa 1990s, and UPA1)

It is ironic that we have a shortage of pragmatic leaders. I genuinely believe, many Indians are very pragmatic in their approach to daily life (career, family life, community activities etc), but cut to the political class – even at a local MLA level, we are found wanting here

The change agents

These are people with a burning flame to achieve something extraordinary, in a focus area of their choice, and leave a lasting impact on their small scope

Think of all sorts of innovators, entrepreneurs / business men, and social activists working for a specific cause.

Many of them are virtually unknown outside of their sphere of work, but within that domain they have played exceedingly well

Think of those who shaped India’s position of dominance in IT service, the guy who created a program to feed hungry people in South India, the guy who decided to build a casino in the middle of nowhere and make Las Vegas virtually out of dessert sand, think of Ramesh Ramanathan who decided to quit a successful corporate career and start Janaagraha in Bangalore (An organization whose philosophy I admire tremendously, and have volunteered for. It is possible that the movie Swades was loosely based on his life).

There are many more such innovators in all sorts of fields, in different parts of the country, and I am always excited to learn more about such “real life heroes”, as I call them. One such website I have started following recently is: http://www.thebetterindia.com/

These people are quite often out of the mainstream politics / governance of a nation and each has their niches. But successful societies have many such home grown heroes in many small towns across the nation.

In fact, one of the foundations for America’s success was its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation.

The Artists / entertainers / evangelists

This is a broad category comprising people in the performing arts, literature, who do a dual job of entertaining, as well as spreading a message.

To me, this layer is the icing on the cake, where a nation has a good base on the other layers. It is the crucial, final step in a country’s progress, and interestingly many nations get there even when there is not much governance / development.

The power of a good musician, or a brilliant writer, or an actor, is too strong to be impacted by other aspects of the country. India is by itself a wonderful example of how you can have a thriving arts and expression scene, without having to necessarily build infrastructure, or be an economic power.

And our arts scene, has also been blessed with many tall figures who have lent their hands for socio political causes ranging from women’s empowerment to the present day anti – corruption movement.

This also includes the opinion makers in the media, who shape our public perceptions. I use the word evangelists for them, and I hope you understand that it’s not in the context of a Christian preacher!

Lack of quality leadership in the context of the anti – corruption movement:

Now, I am going to jump into the topic of the anti-corruption movement, and look at how a cross section of the people who have strong opinions here, have got it so wrong.

Firstly, for some context into the root causes of the massive demonstrations, protests, and fasts:

  1. Un-precedented corruption across levels of public service. The mess, should never have been so bad, and its time all of us acknowledge the extent of the loot. There is enough written about the various scams in the public domain, so I would not elaborate
  2. Stalled / half-baked economic reforms, implying that babus still have enormous political and economic clout in the system. This was best seen in the auction of the 2G licenses, where the telecom ministry enjoyed massive discretionary powers, that should never have existed in the first place
  3. Addition of unnecessary political layers such as the NAC, instead of reducing the layers of governance / policy making. Today, the Congress party has no legitimate grounds to term the civil society movement as extra constitutional, as it started the trend by creating the NAC.  The NAC was the Gandhi family’s brain child to enjoy enormous political power, with zero accountability

The context above set the ball rolling for various actors to get involved in various capacities in the anti – corruption movement such as the “Civil society” members of Anna Hazare’s team, the Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev, the 24*7 news media, the layman Indian activists online and on the streets, and even members of the arts world

Faced with media grilling, protest marches all over, and opposition baying for blood, and a leadership in hibernation, the ruling congress dug itself into an even deeper hole with its dictatorial tone against protestors.  By cracking down on protestors, by creating a diluted and idiotic Lokpal Bill version, and by fostering false accusations against those leading protest, the Congress has taken our politics to its lowest and ugliest level.

Together with our media, they have made a Gandhi out of a well-intentioned, but not so pragmatic man and his movement, and they have made a Bose out of a maverick yoga guru. Most sadly, the Gandhi family (no relation to the Mahatma Gandhi) does not want to acknowledge the role of unfinished reforms kick started by its own party leaders (Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh). Instead, it just wants to indulge in populist measures, targeted for votes in upcoming elections, as if money grows on trees. I don’t expect much from the Gandhi family, but what the hell are intelligent people such as Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, and P. Chidambaram smoking?

But has the rest of the country that’s not in the ruling country, shown their leadership traits? Absolutely not, and here is what they are guilty of:

The Civil society members believe their solution to the problems (aka Jan Lokpal Bill, with some decent, and many outrageous provisions) is the sole one, and are un-willing to follow democratic processes.  For example I found the idea that Ramon Magsasay award winners should be on the Jan Lokpal bill team, plainly laughable. Why not film fare award winners, or Arjuna award winners?

(By the way, if you have not read either of the bills, you have no business commenting on the issue)

I at least have some respect for Anna (for his age and his work in rural Maharasthra), Kiran Bedi, the Bhushans, and Arvind Kejriwal. But Baba Ramdev takes the lunacy a few notches further. Notwithstanding his scientifically shallow statements on AIDS and other diseases, his proposals for making India free of corruption are pipe dreams at best

The Opposition BJP is trying to ride bandwagon without having a clear strategy. No neutral person could miss the BJP’s hypocrisy in being cheer leaders for the civil society team in Delhi, while attacking civil society member Justice Santosh Hegde of Karanatka Lok Ayukta, who exposed its corrupt CM Yediyurappa. Also, BJP is shooting a lot of self-goals, as it won’t take Congress any time to create a dozen Hazare’s and Ramdev’s if BJP were to come to power. Any opposition party in the world, with half a brain, would not have ceded so much political ground to hitherto unkown actors, when the ruling party is in such a deep mess. The BJP’s tactics of late, have been suicidal to put it mildly

The media, especially the TV media makes heroes out of Anna and Ramdev one day, only to take them down the next day. Neither of the extreme caricatures are true, and it is a reflection of the confusion, power collusion, idiocy, and hypocrisy in our media, The Indian Express has been consistently critical of the movement, and while I personally would take the criticism a couple of notches down, I am impressed with their consistency on the issue. The TV channels are guilty of creating a spectacle for their TRPs, and changing tunes to suit their political chums

The intellectuals are taking criticism of the people’s movement to an extreme level, and not spending sufficient energy on articulating their solutions, some of them actually very good. I’ve personally enjoyed reading the views of the Pragati national interest group: http://pragati.nationalinterest.in/ There are more such blogs, but you may not have seen them, because most of them are too busy making Anna Hazare jokes up on Twitter / Facebook / SMS. And you may also not have read them because you don’t care enough. All of us need instant 2 minute solutions to fix the country’s problems, and the moment somebody has something that provokes a thought, but is more than one sentence long, we have lost interest

The angry middle class people, are jumping at an opportunity to “do something” without reading or understanding anything, leave alone having an intellectual approach to the debate. Where the intelligence fails, so does the standard of debating, as I‘ve seen a thousand people mushroom overnight on the internet claiming to be the sole saviours of India. I find this growth of internet experts deeply disturbing, as they do not believe in a civilized debate, do not want to learn, and are adamant in taking the my way or highway route to every topic

The polarization amongst the various categories above , leading to silly generalizations such as “If you don’t support Anna Hazare, you are a traitor”, or “Anna Hazare fan boys have no brains and no say in political discourse”, or worse still “All Anna Hazare supporters are RSS members”. First of all, it’s not a crime to be affiliated to RSS, although I hold absolutely no brief for them; and secondly it does not reach some people’s brain that you can have a view on a given topic that is similar to RSS’s views, without having any affiliation with them

The absolute lack of application of brains to think, read, understand, and come up with solutions to this problem is shocking. I don’t have any magic bullets to solve corruption, as it involves multiple things to happen over a period of time (more reforms – especially opening up sectors such as retail, less government, strengthening democratic institutions instead of creating more extra constitutional layers such as NAC or Lokpal, more awareness campaigns on different forms of corruption etc )

I am deliberately not elaborating on this although I have some views to fill a blog post, as I am humble enough to say I am not an expert. Also, the few good experts I know have done a far better job articulating them in their words. I would urge you to read a plethora of blogs, publications and magazines to open yourself to different and innovative ideas on tackling this problem in sustainable way, without having to take to the streets. I hope to read, share, and be educated on well thought out solutions, to a complicated problem

So, how has our modern society shown leadership, especially in the context of the anti-corruption movement (using a scale that reads: Poor – Average – Good)

Doing / Activism: Good

I would say that the only good thing that has come out, and would be proved right in the long run, is a middle class waking up from a slumber. The bulging middle class is not indifferent any more, and is taking socio political involvement beyond their coffee table discussions. They are hopelessly wrong in the present episode with their logic and approach, but in the long run, you would rather take a stupid public, than a dead one. I hope I am proved right on this

Thinking / Intellect: Average

We have some experts, and lots of good ideas, but most of the country does not read blogs or listens to 1 hour lectures on tackling corruption (On an average, I would say only 1 out of every 10 visitors to this blog would have read so far, without leaving out of boredom, or because I said something about someone they are a fan of). And they do tend to have a class bias in that mocking / condescending tone used for Anna or Baba. Further, they ought to be doing a far better job of evangelizing their few good thoughts.

Pragmatic leadership:  Poor

Here is a question to those who don’t vote: why they hell don’t you vote? Here is a question to those who do vote: why do you still vote for a caste / community / family name, and then crib you don’t have good leaders.

The consequence of the apathy above, is reflected in the quality of our political leadership, and no major party or leader has shown good leadership in this episode.

Change / Innovation: Poor 

In this context, a few success stories would have made an overall impact on the national mood. But our economic growth has stalled, inflation is high, worries of recession impact is high, and economic success stories are far and few in between. A few success stories may not get rid of corruption, but do help to keep our spirits and brains on a high.

Artistic expression: Good 

Bollywood, TV and radio shows, artistes of all hues have donned the hats of activists, and the same assessment that applies for the activists, holds for them as well. On a slightly different topic, the convergence of mainstream commercial movies and what we used to call earlier as Art films, means that we are exposed to some good ideas and messages in films such as (to name a few on top of my head):  Rang De Basanti, 3 Idiots, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Swades. The quality of books coming out on Indian issues, is also good, so not many complaints here.

Verdict:

Juxtaposing the two strains of thought, I would conclude that in the most vital areas of political leadership / pragmatism, intellectual capacity and innovation, we fare very poorly, while we are doing okay with activism and expression. It’s almost like running a car equipped with excellent tyres, mirrors, and seats, without a good engine.

That engine of pragmatic, strong, and responsible political leadership, is at the heart of any good democracy. And the heart of a democracy is its diverse people. While some of our ignored people cried their hearts out, we Indians of middle class India slept. We were blind to the pains of the underprivileged, the tribals, and the poorest of the poor in our hinterlands. Today, we wake up with tremendous energy and are firing on all cylinders, albeit in the wrong direction. How different are we from the tribals up in arms against the corrupt leaders in their regions? The voting class is more awake than ever before, and the best way to use the energy is at the time of elections, by voting for, demanding for, endorsing for, and evangelizing for the few good leaders we have , cutting across our party, caste, community, class, and language biases.

The process of the change in politics would be slow, painful, and bumpy, but there is no better way, as every other alternate form to democracy, is fraught with far more dangers.

If in the meanwhile, you really want to do something useful there are many different ways to do so. You could do so be a change agent, show your skills as an entrepreneur and provide employment to a few people. You could contribute money, or volunteer for a cause. If you can sing, dance or write, you could use that skill to support various causes. Or just by merely trying to read more, understand deeper, and sharing your knowledge with others, you could do your two cents to the society. You don’t have to sit and fast on the streets, or force people to do so, to be a useful contributor to the society.

I personally aspire to be a Pragmatist / change agent, based on my introspcection of my qualities, and personal situation.

After all the evolution in the leadership quality, starts with each and every one of us, so before we expect a sea change from our ruling class, we have to be prepared to take a few baby steps in our lives.

Footnotes:

Since, I first published this blog, L’affaire Lokpal has become a soap opera that our 24*7 media has lapped up. Irrespective of who comes out on the winning side between team Anna & the government, the media houses are clearly smiling at their triumph.

But I am happy that finally some intelligent views have started emerging. First up, I was really impressed with Arun Jaitley’s speech in the parliament questioning the government’s handling of Anna. The gist of his brilliant oratory was: 1. You copied up to Anna first, 2. Then you dealt him with an iron hand, and created a mess, 3. BJP may not agree with many of Anna’s demands, but supports his right to protest, 4. The government should have handled this subject with much more political tact.

As an unexpected by-product, our parliamentarians have woken up, taken cognizance of the world looking at them, and are starting to show their responsible face.

Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsVVIoTaDCE

Then, Nandan Nilekani defended the existing parliamentary institutions of our democracy, in a far better way than most veteran politicians can manage. He is of course focussed on his UID project and how it can change retail corruption, and he is showing a lot more respect to our parliamentarians, than many of us would. But his views are worth hearing nevertheless. And, I wish congress leaders who are in silent mode, listened to his speech and took down some notes:

http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/news/anna-s-way-not-the-only-way-nandan-nilekani/208285

In the meanwhile, Team Anna is hell-bent on riding the emotional wave of last few weeks, and ramming down its version of the Lokpal bill down our throats. I was wondering how Anna and co have become so stubborn, and dictatorial, but as more articles and interviews emerged on their backgrounds, it all makes sense now.

Here is a brilliant profile of Arvind Kejriwal, by the Caravan magazine:

http://www.caravanmagazine.in/Story.aspx?Storyid=1050&StoryStyle=FullStory

And here are some stories you may not have heard, about the Anna whose name is on your T Shirt or cap:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DD7fCRY7J94&feature=player_embedded

http://kafila.org/2011/04/12/the-making-of-anna-hazare/

I still remain firm in my views, that the so-called intelligent class has to hard sell its solutions (Nandan style), and not attack the personalities in Anna’s camp. But it is revealing to read about how Anna runs Ralegaon Siddhi (beating up drunk people, insisting on his solutions, moral policing), and I shudder to think of the wider negative impact when such people gain more political power.

Cheers!

Vasu

Basler Fasnacht 2011

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Basler Fasnacht 2011, a set on Flickr.

A colourful stream of images from the Basler Fasnacht Carnical 2011 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnival_of_Basel). Three days of non stop music, colours, and craze that the people of Basel look forward to. A photograhper’s delight as well 🙂

Cheers!
Vasu

1983 reasons why we should watch the cricket world cup finals, just for the sheer joy of sports

Very few moments in sports, capture the pure joy of any spectator event, as this goal by Diego Maradona in the 1986 world cup does. Voted the goal of the century, this is one sporting moment that anybody who has never played football, or never watched the game, or has no clue about Argentina, England, or the Falklands war, or can’t understand a word of the Spanish commentary, would appreciate. I was 5 when this happened, so can hardly claim to have watched it live, but I do remember watching it before the 1990 Italia world cup, as part of the preview show and being blown away.

Just as you don’t need to be Russian to admire Tchaikovsky, or Colombian to tap your feet to a Shakira beat, you don’t need to have known about the Falklands war, the Latin American pride on display as Argentina beat England, the controversial hand of god goal scored by Maradona just a few minutes back, the well justified criticism of the poor sporting gesture by the international press, or about Maradona subsequent decline into drug abuse and later redemption as a national coach, to admire that one singular moment where he dazzled the 11 English players and millions of us with a few minutes of football magic. You need not have ever kicked a football in your life to appreciate the genius at work, but if you have actually played football, you’d probably appreciate the nuances even further

Sporting moments, without context, have the capacity to stir neutral observers, young and old alike, and un – prejudiced minds.

Sporting contests, with the spice of the socio- political context, or historic rivalry thrown in as context, are definitely spicier. And when you happens to be one of the camps, supporting team A or team B, player A, or player B, completely change the playing field altogether

As the cricket world cup 2011, draws to its grand finale, and a billion Indian fans, and millions of Sri Lankan fans gear up for a fitting title contest, I thought it pertinent to write about sports at a much more basic and primal level, and liberate it from some of the clichéd, stale and frankly annoying prisms through which most Indians see the game. This is not to say, that other countries are not guilty of silly behavior when it comes to sport, but I can only speak for my country.

Here are my thoughts on the most un- healthy trends in India when it comes to following cricket, and how it manifests itself through crowd behavior, poor quality of commentary, and outpouring of idiotic arguments online through social media:

  1. Intense jingoism and connecting a sports win / loss to all sorts of thing unrelated to the game itself
  2. The demographics of the audience and commentators is skewed, and there are too many people who make too much noise, without the right facts, or without having ever played the game

 I would want to briefly discuss these negative trends, leave you with some  very well articulated points of view on the above by other authors, and focus more attention on what really we ought to be looking forward to and appreciating with more fervor

First, some context into the recent matches involving India. Starting off from the quarter finals game against Australia, and building up a crescendo to the semi finals against Pakistan, India has ridden a wave of jingoism and national fervor. I am a super proud Indian, but I do believe there are some lines you don’t cross, and a lot of Indians are guilty of crossing many of these lines.

The first shock to me, even half anticipating the typical Indian fan mentality, was the abuse and boos to Ricky Ponting, during the quarter finals. Now, I am no Ponting fan, and neither do I believe Australian cricketers make great ambassadors for sporting fair play, but in the context of that game, Ponting played a master class that should have been applauded whole heartedly for what it was. Instead, he walked off the ground to boos upon scoring an epic century, and I held my head down in shame by the behavior. I know Australian crowds are partisan, I quite often find their behavior boorish, and if Ponting claimed a bump catch or shouted at an Indian player that day, he would have asked for those boos. But any great player walking off after a brilliant hundred in a high stakes game, would have expected a fair bit of appreciation for his game. For the record, the Australians have always applauded Sachin whole heartedly, and he is constantly compared to their national cricket icon – Don Bradman. The only crowd that has ever booed Sachin was in Mumbai!

Here is an excellent article, which explains how many of us felt about Ponting and his final ODI innings:

http://chroniclesofdementia.blogspot.com/2011/03/dear-ricky.html

A lot of bridge has flown under the water when it comes to Indo – Australian relationships, and sporting rivalries.

On the cricketing field, India challenged the Australian dominance more than any other team, and had much more success against them than the others. This of course did not go down well with Aussies, and while the result was a good decade of high-octane cricketing contests, there were also bitter incidents like the Monkey gate / Sydney test fiasco. Purely as an Indian cricket fan, I felt cheated when it came to the Sydney test, marred by horrendous umpiring against us, and poor sportsmanship by Ponting & co, but Bhajji’s racial abuse of Symonds was equally shameful.

The non cricketing development was the growing racial attacks against Indians in Australia, and the detailed media coverage of it. While I am horrified by these incidents, I strongly believein  the following: A. Our media is not really credible, so this means they paint a distorted picture of everything. So 2 attacks in 2 months translates to a dozen Indians attacked everyday in their world, B. These issues are far more complex, and need a more intelligent understand of the root causes and the solutions. I am not going to solve it, but neither is some Indian abusing all Aussies online going to solve it, C. We do not hold the truly responsible people accountable enough – how many critical reviews of S.M Krishna’s performance as foreign minister have happened in this country, where we have asked him how he has worked with the Australian government on this issue? Instead we chose to pick the wrong battles, and believe that beating the Aussies in cricket somehow heals the trauma of the Indians mugged in the alleys of Melbourne and Sydney.

Thankfully the game of cricket itself was of a very high quality, and Indian sealed a thrilling contest in style. And that meant, we were up for an even more high volatile political game – India Vs. Pakistan

Needless to say, as a proud and intelligent Indian, I find Pakistan’s political leadership as a threat to India’s security and stability. It is an open secret that Pakistan has always been an unstable country, dominated by religious identity, obsession with Kashmir, military influence on social life, the omnipresent hand of ISI in war mongering cross the sub continent, and of late, a strong Al Qaeda and Taliban safe haven

The terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, by Pakistanis, should not ever be forgiven or forgotten, but that does not make every Pakistani an enemy, leave alone 11 cricketers. No victory in a cricket match, will recover the lives of those people murdered by the Pakistani terrorists. India and Pakistan have been perennially at war with each other, but that should be left to diplomatic and political battlefields

From politicians across parties, journalists, film starts, and all sorts of wannabe celebs wasted no time in exploiting the India – Pakistan to grab attention their way and scoring silly brownie points.

The cricket itself was of pretty high quality, though I have seen better contests. But how many people noticed the finer cricketing points. The cricket itself was lost in the din of the politics played out for the match.

Manmohan Singh did not make any progress on bilateral relations; Rahul Gandhi being featured on NDTV’s webpage as they celebrated the Indian win was a crass insult to the 11 cricketers who won the match and a horrible example of how sold out the main stream media is; Gilani can smile all he wants, but frankly he is far safer in Mohali than in his Taliban controlled Pakistan and should rather have tried to fix that problem; No India – Pakistan problem was solved, and neither will ever be, by watching a cricket match, or by abusing Afridi, who has been a fantastic cricketer, leader, and ambassador for his country.

An excellent article, written by Akash Chopra, captures these sentiments well, and gives us fascinating insights into how cricketers themselves approach such matches: http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/current/story/508967.html

The other problem that plagues the Indian cricket following is the mushrooming of highly non sensical commentators and self-made experts. This includes people nominated by T.V and print media, and those of use who extend our cricket chatter to online social media. With advent of IPL all sorts of people who never played the game or had anything to with it before are experts on who should be or not be in the team, who would win, what should the captain do etc

I cannot claim to have played cricket at a higher level than school / university, and till today regret certain physical disorders that blew always my pipe dreams of being a cricketer. I do not believe that you must have played the game to speak freely or comment on it, and by nor does having played the game gives one a divine right to be an expert who gets it right

But the sheer extent to which the profile is skewed, and the significant number of people, talking, and talking loudly about the game without having ever picked up a bat or a ball, is crazy.

I am all for freedom of speech, but I guess I have to exercise my freedom of speech someday to say “If you think that’s an easy catch, why don’t you try to catch this ball I am going to throw at your face now!”

I can’t think of what is more annoying: Examples like the entire country clamoring to pick Sreesanth, based on his good test match bowling in S.A (and no one bothered to check Cricinfo  for his horrendous ODI stats), and having SMS polls on who should be in the team, or noises of match fixing  now and then

As a seasoned cricket observer, and one time cricket player at a small level, I can say that there is absolutely no use obsessing over match fixing in every match. Yes fixing exists, and yes it has been rampant in the past, and yes it still does happen now, but not even Albert Einstein can say exactly which match was fixed, how and by whom. And even if a specific match was fixed, it need not necessarily influence the outcome. You could buy half the team, but if Viru decides to smash a century nevertheless, or if Zaheer finds reverse swing, the team would still end up winning. So, it is quite futile getting into nitty gritty of the murky world of betting. So, why bother at all? Can’t you just leave that angle alone and enjoy the match?

While enough sensible voices in the media, and cricket writers have written about topics I have alluded to, I do believe the only way to make the country mature in its following of the game, is to actually give positive examples of what a thing of beauty cricket, or any sport is, even when stripped from all the context, sub plots, and analysis

I would love all Indians to watch the game with passion and support the men in blue. But along with all the nationalistic fervor, I would also urge you to look out for beauty in so many finer details of the game.

Watch the game for the bubbly enthusiasm of Sachin Tendulkar. Not Sachin the national hero, or god, or the man with 99 international hundreds, or anything else you may want to call him, but for the Sachin who loved the hit ball as a little kid. Here is the man, nay boy, in one of his early interviews as a 16 year old in love with the game:

This man is still in love with the game, and still loves to fight hard for that elusive Indian world cup win. I think the biggest way to insult this man is talking non stop about his greatness, and his 100th century, and how we should win the world cup for him. I am pretty sure if he scored his 100th century and India lost he would be gutted, just as I am sure he would take a duck happily if India still wins

Let’s wind our clock back to just one game, to that semi final against Pakistan, when Viru started off like a bullet train. How many of us observed Sachin playing carefully at first and giving the strike to Sehwag. How many of us know what a difficult thing that is to do?

I played a lot of cricket in my school days as an opener, along with brilliant left-handed partner and friend called Gaurav. Gaurav was all flash, dazzling stroke play, and attacking batting – stuff that I was capable of matching now and then, but was humble enough to accept that he was far better, and the smart thing to do was to give him strike.  But quite often, I would be on strike after Gaurav has crashed a flurry of boundaries, I would be tempted to play that flashy shot. Just to say, you know I can hit a cover drive too?

Now put yourself in the shoes of one of the greatest ever players in the game, a destroyer of bowling attacks in his younger days. How easy do you think it is for Sachin to take a single and get to the other end, when the crowd is egging him on for a boundary? Watch the finals for how the same Sachin would impose himself and take charge, if he observes Viru to be struggling to get his customary flurry of boundaries in the first few overs.

Watch the game for the fine science that is the game of cricket: Look at a dozen batsmen playing the cover drive, or the back foot punch in the match, and compare how each angle is differ, and each follow through is different. Watch it for how well-balanced Sachin always looks, as opposed to let’s say Dhoni. Watch it for how Dhoni hits the ball harder than most people.

A beautiful passage of play during the India –Pakistan game, was completely lost on most people who saw every moment of the match. Wahab Riaz, the Pakistani left arm seamer had to make a strong statement to justify his place in the team, ahead of the much fancied Shoaib Akhtar, and he did that with style picking up 5 wickets, with high quality swing bowling. Having done all that, he had to try to win the match out of nowhere with the bat. Ashish Nehra, much maligned in the Indian public ha d a similar point to prove, and had the ball in had. Ashish bowled a couple of lovely left arm deliveries, and Wahaz could not get bat on ball. There was a moment when Ashish completely fooled him with a beautiful swinging delivery, Wahab realized he was beaten in his own game by a more experienced practitioner, looked up to Ashish and both exchanged smiles. Forget India Pakistan wars, Sachin, Mohali, Prime ministers, semi finals, and all that jazz; it was just one young left arm swinger admiring the skills of another, and appreciating how the older man went about his trade.

Watch the game for the man with the big eyes, big smile, and an ability to spin the ball from Arabian sea to Bay of Bengal:  Muthiah Muralitharan.

Watch how he goes about his game at the age of 37, half – fit, and playing his last ever game. Watch how he turns the ball at different angles, directions, varies his flight and sets his field. Buy a cricket ball, run in a few steps, and try spinning it. Try all day and see if you can actually spin it both ways, and control how much you spin. Observe how much your shoulder pains if at all you managed to be it for more than 20 minutes.

Be ready to stand up and applaud him if he beats Sachin or Sehwag and gets their wicket, in the last match of a glorious career. It takes a lot of skill to do that, and you do not have to be a Sri Lankan to applaud the magic at work. Neither does applauding Murali make you anti national. For those who understand Tamil, here is a priceless interview of Murali in Tamil, speaking about with child like enthusiasm about the game. You cannot help, but admire the man who has survived near death situations with the Tsunami, and terrorist attacks, talk about how it was back to cricket the next day for him:

Watch the finals, for the sheer audacity of a bloke called Virender Sehwag; observe how days of media build up, hype, minute analysis, the noise of a packed audience, and the knowledge that his house could get lynched if he fails and India loses, matters not one bit to him when he face the very first ball; watch how he hits most first balls for a boundary, whether they are good or bad. Watch how he would tease Murali by dancing out to him and how Murali would give one more of those big smiles, walk back and beat him the very next ball. Try and hear their friendly banter after that, and observe great minds at work.

Watch the finals, for the incredible sight of a freak called Lasith Malinga. Be ready to cheer every Indian boundary scored of him, but also be ready to let yourself be amazed at the sight of those toe crushing yorkers, very few cricketers who have ever played that game, can match that skill and impact.

Watch how Dhoni and Sangakkara go about marshalling their teams in a cool collected way. Whatever be your identity, or your opinion of either one of them, tell yourself that this finals features the two best modern captains in the game.

Look out for Dhoni the keeper, standing up to the stumps when Munaf is being attacked, and think of how hard it is going to be if he misses and get a 120 kmph ball in the eye or hand.

Look out for Zaheer Khan’s slower, knuckle ball. You have seen that against Mike Hussey, would he try that against Sangakkara?

You have heard the name carrom ball, a million times before, and you know Mendis bowls it, and so does our Ashwin; Can you watch closely and observe if they both do the same thing, or have a different way to bowl the carrom ball?

Watch out for how all these actors come together in a fascinating cricketing drama. Look out for some less heralded names, doing their best to steal the thunder from the super stars. Look out for Suresh Raina trying to contribute in every way possible – every attempt at a risky single and dive, just to add1 more run to the total, or every dive to save 2 runs. Look out for Dilshan, trying to carve his identity as a great opener and trying to over shadow Sachin, Sehwag, Jayasuriya

If you have gotten this far, you would observe suddenly how winning or losing has a different perspective altogether. Clichéd as it may sound, this has been a great cricket world cup, and the cricket will be the real winner. If the crowd does take part and cheer sportively, there is no doubt in my mind this would be a very good world cup final, between two closely matched teams.

If you have come so far, perhaps you may start following some more sports for the sheer quality of skills on display. A brilliant goal by Lionel Messi is as difficult to execute as a Lasith Malinga yorker, or a Roger Federer forehand winner.

If you have gotten this far, perhaps you may stop for a minutes when little kids play cricket or football, at the neighborhood park or beach, and watch the fun. Perhaps one day this may inspire you to join a local sports club, or team, or just play back yard cricket with your kids, instead of pouring vitriol on how non athletic Munaf Patel is

India should win, and am basing that on a strong gut feeling built on watching cricket for years. If not, I am pretty sure they would fight hard and show enough skills. And we can be sure that they have done a great job making it to the finals against strong oppositions, and the weight of expectations playing at home.

So, come Saturday, may the best team win, and may sports continue to spread more of joy and less of sorrow to millions around the world!

Footnote: Even if India win on Sunday, which I really hope they do, it would not be as big a deal as the 1983 triumph, which remains the seminal event in Indian sports history, as well as world cricket history, for its sheer impact on the game.

Lessons for “V d Tweeple” & “We the people” on forging India ahead

“Kuch Kar Guzarne ko khoon chala, koon chala” (The blood stirred to do something), is an immensely inspirational song from the Hindi film “Rang De Basanti”. Over the last few weeks, my blood has boiled, rather than stir, at an immense sense of shame over being a mute spectator to India’s cancerous growth of corruption. Corruption across public institutions and political parties in India is no news, its something we have lived with throughout our history. But the last few months have seen scandals of shocking magnitude been exposed with wide-reaching ramifications. Throughout our history, we have relied on a combination of multiple bodies to make sure that the corruption is kept relatively at check, exposed when out of control, and the guilty are brought to justice even if it is late in the day. These include, but are not limited to: the Central Bureau of investigation (CBI), the judiciary, the Comptroller Audit general (CAG), the Lok Ayukta, and principally the mainstream media (MSM) whom we relied on to give us a relatively accurate picture of what is going on. One by one, the integrity of these bodies itself, has been questioned, but today we face a very dark day when the integrity of the MSM is under immense scrutiny, and thus leaving the average Indians gaping at a cloudy prism of information, without knowing what to believe, and what not to believe. It all started with the leak of tapped conversations between Niira Radia, an influential corporate lobbyist, in the public domain, a few months back, and later by Open & Outlook magazines in mid November, 2010. These magazines exposed her conversations with politician, her corporate clients, and significantly, respected Indian journalists who mould public opinion, and throw a light into the intense behind the scenes activity and lobbying to place the right man in the lucrative telecom ministry of India in 2009, to tap financial benefit from having their man. That man itself, is Mr. A. Raja, who had to quit his post as telecom minister in November 2010, when it was established that the auction of 2G Telecom spectrum to operators, has been rigged by him, and has cost India at least 39 Billion USD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._Raja). He is from the DMK party, which is a Tamil regional party, which is an ally of the ruling congress party.

It is indeed a tragic irony, that India which has been a strong driver of the “Information age” that we live in, is in danger of being blinded and misled by the MSM, and collectively failed to deal with the truth on time, in what is known as the “Radia tapes” controversy. The controversy itself would not have been known to a majority of Indians, if the social media / twitterati / netizens did not find the courage, drive and intelligence to fight the organized mass media blackout, that was orchestrated to protect a few influential journalists from public scrutiny.

Today, there are many un answered and worrying questions that I attempt to structure and address them in one essay This would be a detailed, candid, deeply introspective, yet solution seeking blog. I would touch upon multiple aspects of the functioning of our media, corporate, political system and civil society, but cannot claim insider knowledge on many topics, and hence would leave you with probably more questions than answers.

First up, since this is going to be a very political and controversial subject, I need to add a disclaimer here. I write this, and all my blogs as a private citizen, and a common Indian. I do not represent any company, group, party, ideology or internet activism group on my blogs. There are multiple vested stakeholders and average citizens engaging in shrill discussions online with the mass media, and I do not support or oppose any particular view point. Rather, I believe each person is more than capable of speaking for himself, as I am doing now. For a further understanding of my identity to those who do know me, kindly read the section “About me” before you proceed further.

The big questions in our minds:

1. What are undisputed the facts of the matter, as established news publications, and as acknowledged by the public figures involved? What exactly are the accusations? Has any financial undoing been established, directly or indirectly? If, not why are some of us making such a big deal out of it?

2. Who are the broad constituents of MSM; those are relevant to this discussion? Is the state of affairs in regional / vernacular / not so big media houses, the same as MSM, better, or worse? How has the MSM reaction, coverage, and analysis evolved over the course of last few weeks? Are we saying that the entire MSM is rotten, or are there still very respectable voices we listen to? Now that the MSM has finally discussed the journalists’ names on print and T.V, is it necessary to air these tapes to the general public?

3. What are hashtags like #barkhagate and who created these terms? Are they by any means affiliated to any religious, political group, or informal entity such as #internethindus? If not, why is this categorization by the MSM dangerous to the civil society?

4. Why is internet community so shrill in seeking the sacking of specific journalists, and are they behaving like a “lynch mob”? What is the historical context towards the immense hostility shown by thousands of netizens towards the MSM? Why is one particular journalist, Barkha Dutt the face of the debate, when so many more people are involved? Don’t we know that everywhere in the world, journalists are bound to be ideologically biased, and seeking to further interests of corporate that have stake in their media houses? Are we netizens naive, or is there a reason in asking for a utopian level of ethics from our MSM?

5. What lays beyond the tapes, in terms of corporate – political – public institution corrupt practices? Isn’t the corruption and nexus cutting across the political parties Is a smoke screen being created by some to divert public attention to the Radia tapes, and ignore the massive government scandals?

6. Is the 4th estate completely compromised, or is there hope for it to emerge stronger? How can the MSM co-exist with the ever growing clout of the informal internet based social media activists (5th estate) , and is it possible to look at this as mutually beneficial and healthy relationship? What is the tremendous positive opportunity that this historic moment in our country presenting to the average citizen as well as the mainstream media? Should, and how should the so called or informal internet based social media co-exist with the organized media? In the age of wiki leaks, is it possible for traditional and informal media to live in isolation?

What are undisputed the facts of the matter, as established news publications, and as acknowledged by the public figures involved? What exactly are the accusations? Has any financial undoing been established, directly or indirectly? If, not why are some of us making such a big deal out of it?

Here, is a brief summary of what started off as a small story of leaked Radia tapes a few months back, and what spiraled into a fire known as #Barkhagate. The wikipedia page on the Radia tapes controversy captures the summary quite accurately “The Radia tapes controversy relates to the telephonic conversations between Nira Radia, a professional lobbyist and an acquaintance of the (then) Indian telecom minister A. Raja, with senior journalists, politicians, and corporate houses, taped by the Indian Income Tax Department in 2008-09. The tapes led to accusations of misconduct by many of these people. Nira Radia runs a public relations firm named Vaishnavi Communications, whose clients include Ratan Tata’s Tata Group and Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries”.

The people whom Radia interacted with in the course of her work, and whose voices have featured on the tapes available in the public domain so far, read like a “Who is who” of Indian public life:

Politicians: Raja, former Telecommunication and IT Minister; Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha MP; N.K. Singh, Rajya Sabha MP

Journalists: Barkha Dutt, Group editor, English news, NDTV; M.K. Venu, senior business journalist ; Prabhu Chawla, editor of India Today magazine; Rajdeep Sardesai; Shankar Aiyar, then with India Today Group; Vir Sanghvi, HT advisory editorial director

Industry Heads: Ratan Tata, Tata Group; Tarun Das, former CII head; (Mention of) Mukesh Ambani, Reliance Industries; Manoj Modi, Reliance Industries

Others: Ranjan Bhattacharya (foster son-in-law of former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee); Suhel Seth, management guru and columnist

It has to be said here, that from what has been leaked to the public domain of the 5,000 odd conversations that are available with the IT department, most conversations are not of journalistic, public value. These are everyday conversations X or Y could have. Some of the conversations show a strong degree of lobbying, while in some it is very mild innuendo, and cannot be taken as any gesture of wrong doing.

These tapes were first published in the Open Magazine, and then the Outlook magazine, in Mid November: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/nation/some-telephone-conversations

http://outlookindia.com/article.aspx?268069

Outlook and the Wall Street Journal are the few publications of repute that have covered these conversations, view points, in great detail, and have sections of their online portals dedicated to this topic. There is a treasure trove of information on these sites, that I request you to read, and there is no way I can repeat them here. I salute the editors of these publications along with my social media friends, for contributing facts and views to this debate.

None of the people named in the tapes, originally disputed the conversations were authentic, or the voice was not theirs. As the public outrage grew, some of the journalists maintained that though the voices were indeed theirs, selective parts of the conversations were strong together to present a not so faithful account.

Here are examples of some of the late clarifications, after intense to very valuable critical view points for more than a week, a sufficient time to prepare a strong defense:

http://www.ndtv.com/page/?type=barkha-statement

http://www.virsanghvi.com/CounterPoint-ArticleDetail.aspx?ID=582

http://outlookindia.com/article.aspx?268162

The Congress party initially claimed these tapes cannot be verified, in a shocking statement of denial, and hasn’t followed that up with a more updated version of the truth, the last time I checked. The BJP made mild noises in the parliament on the tapes, but the fact that it hasn’t made as much noise as you would expect from the leading opposition parties, is probably a function of its house not being in order on corruption scandals and the anxiety that the other tapes, may feature potentially embarrassing conversations for its parties. More worryingly, it may not want to antagonize its already poor relations with the MSM. The BJP did however make a demand that the JPC probe into the 2G scam should feature the Radia tapes. We may probably never know the truth on why the BJP is so quiet on this and failing tactically and morally as an opposition.

Ratan Tata, has moved the courts to block the tapes from being accessible to the public, and gave an interview to Shekhar Gupta of Indian expressing discussing how potentially this was a ploy to divert attention from the bigger 2G scam: http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/news/walk-the-talk-with-ratan-tata/178312by

NONE of the conversations I have heard so far prove any direct financial mal practice or a quid pro quo, material wise. But most of the conversations reveal a broad agenda of Ms Radia to ensure that her clients benefited by having the right ministers in the right places, by having the journalists echo her clients’ view point in their columns or stories, and by using the journalists as go-betweeners or conduits between her corporate interests and the political party in power, the congress.

The broad issues that the critics of the journalists and MSM have pointed out, can be summarized as follows:

A. The journalists, have long been suspected of a strong left-liberal, pro congress bias, which by itself is perfectly fine, but something they have denied all along. These conversations indicate how close the journalists are to the ruling congress. Or at least, how close they claim to be.

B. As a journalist who was privy to an in depth understanding of how corporate were trying to lobby for ministries, favoring terms, this should have been the biggest journalistic story of their lives. Yet, none of them have published these stories, or hinted to the general public of the behind the scenes affairs. Thus even if they did absolutely nothing wrong, they failed massively in their duties as journalists of repute.

C. They promised acts that went way beyond their bounds as journalists. Thus, they misused the power of access that their employer gave them, for their personal agenda.

D. Once the tapes were leaked, by refusing to discuss them in their news channels, by refusing to air them on their channels or publish the transcripts on their papers, and by denying the critical public a credible explanation, until absolutely forced to by the social media activism, they have made what was a fleeting suspicion of wrongdoing, look like an attempt to bury the truth. There is absolutely no way to explain this attempted full black out, which is presently an attempt to massage the discussion in their favor

Who are the broad constituents of MSM relevant to this discussion? Is the state of affairs in regional / vernacular / not so big media houses, the same as MSM, better, or worse? How has the MSM reaction, coverage, and analysis evolved over the course of last few weeks? Are we saying that the entire MSM is rotten, or are there still very respectable voices we listen to? Now that the MSM has finally discussed the journalists’ names on print and T.V, is it necessary to air these tapes to the general public?

For the sake of discussion, I would refer to the large English newspapers, T.V channels, and their regional affiliates as the MSM. It is not possible for me to discuss the role of every regional news channel or newspaper, and hence the discussion would focus purely on the response, reactions of the MSM.

At the same time, I have to convey my inference from the few public debates I have heard on this debate, which the mess in regional and small news channels / papers is far worse, and there is a worrying lack of strong media guidelines being created, let alone enforced. The mess in Indian media, was captured wonderfully in the movie that satirized Indian media “Peepli Live”, and is India’s official entry to this years Oscars as the foreign film.

Outlook was one of the few credible MSM groups that ran the story with detailed follow-ups. Subsequently the only coverage it received (in rough chronological order) was from Washington post, Wall Street Journal, Deccan Herald, Express Buzz, The Hindu, Times Now, and CNN-IBN.

This is not to say that all of the Indian media is dumb and un ethical. Across the political spectrum of viewpoints, we still have active journalists like P. Sainath of the Hindu just to take an example, who remain loyal to their profession’s soul and write about topics we tend to ignore in a lucid, intelligent way. But, to the vast majority of the public, the NDTVs, CNN IBNS, Times Nows, Indian Expresses, Times of India, and Hindustan Times represent the English MSM

Last Friday, CNN-IBN had a panel show conducted by Karan Thapar, that was the first time that any news channel I follow, referred to Barkha, Vir, Venu, and Chawla’s names on air.

Sagarika Ghose of IBN, acknowledged the social media pressure that made her news channel take this up more seriously that it initially did on twitter, when she tweeted “OK twitterati please can you stop bombarding me with barkhagate. YES it’s a wake up call, YES we are all looking inward, YES we will all act!”

So, if by the time you read this blog, you have already heard a debate on this topic in public, and wonder why the hell I am making such a noise, please remember that if not for people like us, you wouldn’t have heard this story. I personally tweeted for weeks till my fingers ached, heard stories of people who tweeted and blogged taking leaves form work, and one impressive story of someone who was injured and immobile, and decided this was the most productive and useful thing he could do!

Some of the twitter conversations war filled with hate and rage, and some of the conversations revealed the simple minds of many Indians, but I stood along side all these people in pushing the media to the brink. The voices were shrill and perhaps the battle cries lost a lot of objectivity, but this had to be done, to ensure the media opens up and speaks about their holy cow. I have no sense of pride or shame about my actions. I felt I did what I had to do.

What are hashtags like #barkhagate and who created these terms?  Are they by any means affiliated to any religious, political group, or informal entity such as #internethindus? If not, why is this categorization by the MSM dangerous to the civil society?

#Barkhagate was the first hashtag created on Twitter to open up a social media debate on this topic. A Facebook group, and a blog with the same name was created, that went viral with thousands of people signing up, posting links / discussion, commenting on the same. I cannot say exactly who created #barkhagate (though I have a guess, but don’t want to reveal the person’s name as the MSM has in the past went after normal people to strike fear in the public). But as one of the thousands of people who tweeted day in and day out on the #barkhagate tag, I can only say we are all in it together.

Many of the people who were very critical of Barkha Dutt for multiple reasons (some I would elaborate on in the next section), felt that this was a catchy tag, and it spread rapidly. I am not for or against using that tag, and the strong suggestion that Barkha Dutt was the single person involved in a scandal.

Last week, after the #barkhagte tag trended on top for over a week, the twitter algorithm removed it from the top trending topics. Of the few active tweeters at that particular time there was a debate on whether to continue tagging #barkhagate, or create a replacement. I was of the opinion that a replacement tag would be a good idea and suggested #mediamafia for the following reasons: 1. It removes the suggestion of individual slander, and helps us remember that a larger section of the media is involved in the controversy either by featuring on the tapes, or by colluding with those on the tapes in the black out, 2. From a historical understanding of how I perceive the Indian media, I have no doubts that at times it behaves like a mafia, and is selective on the right to free speech, 3. In case of a proactive move by Barkha Dutt / NDTV to remove the tags associated with her name from Twitter, a generic tag name would not suffer, and the public debate would continue.

Since I floated the idea, the tag has been trending in top 5 for almost another week now, making the discussion of Radia tapes with multiple pseudonyms, the biggest story of the Indian Twitterati. And yet, this was blacked out by the MSM that runs 1 hour stories on 2 minute celebrity tweets, for far too long.

On all of these topics, the greatest positive for me was the coming together of a diverse set of Indians, who shared no common religious, political, ethnic, linguistic common ground. All of us were united in the media scrutiny, but as in a true democratic medium like twitter, deeply divided on our ideologies. I am emphasizing on this, as I was pained to discover the counter strategy by the MSM, and vested interests to paint all of us as a lynch mob of bigoted, right wing Hindus, funded by the Sangh Parivar. That is about the stupidest, most idiotic, and the most irresponsible statement I have ever heard on this subject.

The same applies to the thousands of Christians, Muslim, brothers and sisters who participated in these debates with me. Using divisive tools such as religion has been the way the British colonialists, and political parties have exploited us all along. Now the MSM has joined this deeply polarized, brazen escape route to deflect valid criticism. In the cloud of politically / ideologically / religiously motivated and abusive tweets by some, many of our sensible moderate voices, and highly relevant questions to the media, were almost lost.

Whatever action you may or may not take on the Radia Tapes, I request the MSM not to characterize everyone who questions you as a vested interest or a fringe elements / nuisance in the society. By doing so, you are not achieving any credibility for yourself in the long run, you are deepening the polarization in our society that many of us fight so hard to reduce, and you also reduce any potential chances of mutual trust between the average Indian and your fraternity. I cannot speak for all netizens, as the internet is a true democracy in action in terms of its sensible and ugly voices mingling together. I cannot speak for all, but anyone who searches these hashtags would know that amongst the many right wing Hindus (or #internerthindus as Sagarika Ghose of IBN categorized them) un-necesarily critisicising Barkha’s pro Kashmiri Muslim bias in this debate, there were so many thousands sensible voices of Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike asking very profound intelligent questions to the media

Why is internet community so shrill in seeking the sacking of specific journalists, and are they behaving like a “lynch mob”? What is the historical context towards the immense hostility shown by thousands of netizens towards the MSM?  Why is one particular journalist, Barkha Dutt the face of the debate, when so many more people are involved? Don’t we know that everywhere in the world, journalists are bound to be ideologically biased, and seeking to further interests of corporate that have stake in their media houses? Are we netizens naive, or is there a reason in asking for a utopian level of ethics from our MSM?

Most Indians hate or love Barkha Dutt, and there are very few people I know who were neutral to her. I had a lot of respect for her during the Kargil war coverage, where she made her name and earned her celebrity status. But I do remember thinking, as a naive college kid, if it is a security risk having live T.V coverage when the war was actually happening. I didn’t think much about it at that time, but subsequently understand that her war coverage has been critically analyzed by many public figures including those in the armed forces. I am not taking ay sides here, but would leave her Kargil war coverage as one of the many inflection points when people started getting really upset with her.

Subsequently her championing of many causes such as empathy to Kashmiri separatism, celebrity murder cases such as Jessica Lal (while not spending much air time on not so famous people who were murdered or raped brutally), the Tsunami coverage, and the coverage of the Godhra riots in 2002, left most people polarized. To some, she represented a journalist who told the human suffering angle in every story and that endeared them. To others, who had strong views on these subjects, they saw her as shrill, loud, and in constant belief that her view point was the only opinion that mattered (I personally think her viewpoint on quite a many things are valid, but that doesn’t matter when you don’t let the panel or audience talk when they disagree with you)

But to most, the most shocking incident came during the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Hers was not the only coverage that was shameful, but her T.V channel cannot deny that by revealing sensitive information, and live coverage of a counter terror strategy, they could have POTENTIALLY, UNWITTINGLY helped the terrorists in their mission.

While I was shell shocked, the biggest blow was to come later. A blogger called Chaitanya Kunte wrote a very critical blog after the Mumbai attacks against the T.V coverage of NDTV / Barkha Dutt. Mr. Kunte is a common man like you and me, and was obviously shell shocked and that reflected in the choice of his words, and some bias in his arguments. He is no journalist, and wrote a piece that most bloggers would consider good enough to publish. NDTV acted in a brazen manner, swooped down on him, forced him to remove the blog and issue an apology instead. Kindly Google his name, and check if you can see the original blog. Chances are you won’t, but nevertheless every Indian ought to know his name.

He is the face of the common man, who dares to question a bid media house, and a celebrity journalist, and got punished in the end. This was the symbol of the MSM’s bullying ugly face, and any one who challenges me why we use names like media mafia, would be urged to study this example. A mafia don would have been proud of such an attack on an individual who chooses to question his intelligence or authority. In my mind, he is the icon of our fight for a media soul searching drive.

Barkha has constantly questioned why people have attacked her more than anyone else. Well if she read this blog, she would know, but perhaps so sue me as well? I don’t know and I don’t care if she does. Its about time we stopped making heroes of these average journalists who sensationalize everything for TRPs, violate un-written yet well understood journalistic code of conduct, lose the plot from being a person who covers the story to being the story, wear their political biases so blatantly on their sleeves without ever acknowledging them and mislead the public, bully anyone who dares question them, and most importantly, do not have an ability to “JUST SAY SORRY”.

To me she is has fallen as a public figure, political commentator, and TV celebrity anchor even if no quid pro quo can be established in this episode. It’s for NDTV to decide what to do with her, and they can take the moral high ground, or believe that people can always “watch another channel if they don’t like her”, or that people will forget this fuss in a few months time. Trust me, we will stop watching your news channel, but not forget this episode for a long time to come!

As for Vir Sanghvi, you just need to listen to the tapes, and match it with everything you have read or heard from him. The tapes reveal the extent to which Vir is politically close to power centers, and the extent to which he can distort the truth so as to present his friend’s viewpoints. There is enough evidence to suggest that one his popular counterpoint columns., matches very closely what Radia dictated him to write. It is difficult for me to write any more on his actions without losing my cool, so would stop here. But, please do listen to the tapes featuring him.

As far as media ethics itself is concerned, none of us are living in a fairy tale land where all news is true. We do acknowledge that media houses are run by cooperates, and media interacts on a daily basis with the good and bad people, and there is no utopian world.

But here is why, in spite of working in a corporate myself and acknowledging the pressure the media houses may face, I still seek a soul searching amongst the fraternity:

A. The Indian media, probably has the most preachy, “holier than thou”, and wise tone when attacking political, or advising the public, or jumping to conclusions about political / public leaders in a jiffy. The choice I am asking you to make is to tone down the preachiness, or be subject to the debate yourself. You can’t have the cake and eat it too!

B. Most Americans or Europeans are smart enough to understand the political and corporate connection between each media house. Most Indians do not understand these subtleties. Most Republican voters would watch Fox News, and Democratic left-liberals would watch MSNBC, and it’s accepted as part of the game. Apart from Pioneer, and Outlook, none of the media houses I know of accept their political ideology and are categorical about it. In, short you can quote honestly that you are pro congress before you play 200 propaganda stories of Rahul Gandhi in a poor man’s house, or taking a train, or you maintain you are neutral and keep the news un biased. You are well within your right to be pro party, as long as you can explain your stance in a well informed and intelligent manner. I am not a left winger, but I admire Vinod Mehta of Outlook for always being categorical about his ideological bias. If you for example, love Rahul Gandhi so much or hate Narendra Modi , you owe the country a credible explanation in terms of books, documentary shows, etc that describe why. Today I may not vote for Rahul, but if I watch a T.V show that presents a critical study of his achievements, I may be inclined to. (I am just kidding, I know he has done nothing worthwhile so far, but still if he is the media darling., I’d like to know why)

C. You cannot have different rules for different people. In your TRP wars you play tapes of sex scandals involving god men, exposes of corrupt politicians, hate speeches, and seditious speeches again and again, but you have collectively blacked out airing the Radia Tapes. You can collectively brainstorm on how to be more responsible as a MSM in airing sensitive tapes, or you can say we will air all tapes immediately without verification. You need to have one consistent rule book in your game

What lays beyond the tapes, in terms of corporate – political – public institution corrupt practices? Isn’t the corruption and nexus cutting across the political parties? Is a smoke screen being created by some to divert public attention to the Radia tapes, and ignore the massive government scandals?

Most tweeters, bloggers would probably just seek Barkha or Vir’s resignation, and forget the rest of the people involved. That doesn’t apply to people like me, for in spite of whatever strong views I may have on these journalists, I know that they are very small fish in a large ocean of sharks and killer whales.

Every public institution in the country is under the scanner, and as Ratan Tata mentioned, it is quite possible that the tapes were leaked by vested interests in power to deflect the attention from the corruption scandals. I have tremendous respect for Ratan Tata to understand that he was seeking a level playing field in the political decisions of the telecom spectrum allocation, but by not allowing the common man to hear all the tapes and make up their minds, he is not helping us clear the air. Rather, the air has started becoming murkier.

There is long way to go before, India can achieve social an economic development that is good enough for it to be classified as a developed nation, leave alone superpower status. As discussed in my previous blogs on challenges facing India, having an ethical, intelligent, modern, and pro active media that gets its house in order is the critical first step in our long and painful journey to progress.

The media is the prism through which we view the society, nation, and the world, and today the prism is extremely distorted. Fixing the prism may not fix all the problems, and neither would breaking it altogether. But we need to collaborate in ensuring the media comes out of this dark episode in a healthier shape.

Is the 4th estate completely compromised, or is there hope for it to emerge stronger? How can the MSM co-exist with the ever growing clout of the informal internet based social media activists (5th estate) , and is it possible to look at this as mutually beneficial and healthy relationship? What is the tremendous positive opportunity that this historic moment in our country presenting to the average citizen as well as the mainstream media? Should, and how should the so called or informal internet based social media co-exist with the organized media? In the age of wiki leaks, is it possible for traditional and informal media to live in isolation?

Ayushmedh, a friend of mine, wrote a blog a while back wondering of the traditional MSM as we know would and shouuld be replaced by a 5th estate of informal netizens discussing news: http://jindagi-ek-pathshala.blogspot.com/2009/03/fifth-estate.html

He is not the first one with the idea, and neither would he be the last. We live in the age of Twitter, Facebook, Wiki leaks, Google, Blogs, YouTube etc, where it is possible to make news reach people in no time. It’s called “going viral” and more often than not it happens to bad news or ugly sensationalistic trash. But every now and then, such as the Mumbai Terror attacks, the IPL scandal, and now the Radia Tapes controversy, the 5th estate has shown its tremendous positive value to the society

But I live in no illusions of self grandeur, dreaming that I would run an internet based news agency one day that makes NDTV feel like an extinct dinosaur. I know that when the dust settles on this all of us would get back to our busy careers and personal live.  On the contrary, I strongly believe its time for both sides to acknowledge how they can compliment each other and make sure that in the Information era, credible, intelligent, ethical, and quick dissemination of information prevails.

Here are some rough thoughts, on how this should pan out in the long run:

A. Educate everyone you know to use traditional and social media pro actively. When a simpleton drinking tea and reading news in rural Tamilnadu, develops the intelligence to verify what he read in his Dina Thanthi news paper, by checking it on the latest internet connection he got at his home, you have forced the traditional media to improve its standards

B. The internet empowered generation can serve as a powerful conscience keeper, by constantly forcing the media to develop better standards and accuracy

C. The social media guys who do not get to interact with the news makers, can benefit from hearing what journalists who have that power access, say on social media forums

D. The fact that we literally FORCED CNN-IBN to have a panel discussion on this topic, is a positive sign for me that while the MSM can be very selective in its hearing, it is not fully deaf. Every intelligent person with international exposure, or curiosity to look beyond traditional media, that I know of, would vouch for you that the quality of shows, documentaries, panel discussions, and topics on channels like BBC, Discovery, National Geographic / History channel, even Al Jazeera, is far better than most Indian channels. I would personally blog about topics I would love to see discussed on Indian T.V, and when this sort of feedback is slowly but surely addressed, you have a winning formula

E. Public figures, especially politicians should be aware that if they were living in the west, they cannot get away from being silent on so many topics of national interest. I would love to see a panel show debate on topics like the NREGA, the Gujarat / Bihar development story (are these true, or are these illusions?), check back on previous corruption scams, India’s defense strategy, India’s approach to counter Maoism threat and ensure development in the tribal areas. Imagine if you could get Arundhati Roy and Chidambaram to spar at each other on the Maoism topic. Too many of our leaders and ministers get away from not airing publicly what their approach to any topic is, and I think that’s because they do not have any approach at all in the first place. The modern 4th / 5th estate can help us separate the wheat from the chaff and tell us who the credible leaders are across party lines. In fact one of the tweets, I shared, ran something like this” I dream 4 D day, when I can watch a pre election T.V debate b/w Mayawati, Sonia, Modi, Nitish moderated by Karan Thapar”

F. How many books have you read by our MSM celebrities? How many of them are capable of writing one on the topics they love to shout loudly about? How many of them have the ability to present a policy paper on engaging with China? How many people can tell you what REALLY happened during J.P Narayan’s socialistic movement, without living in the 1970s themselves? The answer is quite a few, but none that you and I may have heard of. There are like I said, many credible journalists, and perhaps it is time the MSM brought them to the fore, and the average social media geek read them first before jumping into a lets bomb China first discussion on Twitter

Like I mentioned earlier, this blog would perhaps have more questions than answers. But the very fact that many common men like me have these questions, and would eventually find an answer, leaves me with hope. In fact, I can state without doubt this rather dark blot in our history as a free speaking democracy, has actually given us a tremendous opportunity; It has given us a historic chance to blend the voice of the different India, and evolve a society that can discuss freely, critically yet non abusively about topics we had no clue about earlier; It has also given us the opportunity to wake up the middle class from its long slumber of indifference to the society, and placed in their hands, a chance to make up for days when we slept; It has given a chance for Hindus and Muslims to walk side by side in asking for more from its public figures; It ha s given a chance for the credible journalists to emerge even stronger in public view, while the tainted ones can either acknowledge their mistakes and improve, or live in denial and fade away; It has given a chance for the day when a villager in U.P or Rajasthan, would vote for a particular party or leader based on a well informed decision, and not because party X paid channel Y to make a hero out of leader Z.

This is not a dream, but a statement of hope. I pledge to make this hope come true for my future generation, would you care to join me?

Cheers!

Vasu

What are India’s biggest challenges in our quest to become a vibrant, rich, progressive, and powerful nation?

There have been multiple inspirations to study in detail, where India stands in the world, and which direction it should head in. At some level you could say, it is an enduring fascination throughout my life. Self –assessment, benchmarking with peers, and identification of improvement areas is something I am obsessed with doing for myself. I extend that to other things I am passionate about, from the silly to the critical. As a natural extension to my relentless quest for personal and social improvement and change for the better, India’s growth and challenges is a perennial topic of interest to me

In fact, even on this blog, I have made multiple straw man lists, of issues that we face, and must improve on, individually, and collectively as a society. But like indicated in my previous blog, I have decided to structure, consolidate, and synthesize in a far more detailed way, and hence this attempt.

But perhaps the biggest inspiration, as well as catalyst to structure these thoughts, was Ramachandra Guha, an author whom I tremendously admire, though not always accepting his views (For that matter, I very rarely agree with anyone without a hard debate, so I guess for most parts, Guha convinces me as well as any one can). In addition to having reading most of his columns, and his book “India after Gandhi”, I stumbled upon his lecture in Canada, here on

YouTube:

The topic is “10 reasons why India cannot, and must not become a superpower”
If you are left-wing, or anyone looking for an excuse to bash India, here is a clarification: This is not India bashing, but a pragmatic analysis of India’s significant challenges, some well-known, and some not so well-known
If you are ultra patriotic / jingoistic / right-wing, here is another clarification: The authors of this blog, as well as Guha, are declared patriots, and love our country. But sometimes, it makes sense to be realistic in assessment of our flaws, so we can truly succeed. I love India tremendously, but like Guha, I am not blind to our gaping weaknesses.

So, I urge anyone reading this blog without vested interests, and anyone who is understanding India well, to spend good time listening to, and studying this speech. It’s an hour well spent, and would definitely lead you a bit more cognizant of understanding India.

Here is the list of 10 topics, which Guha broadly categorizes as significant challenges India faces:
1. Left wing extremism / Maoism violence in tribal belt
2. Right wing religious fundamentalism, that is presently under control, but may raise its head any time
3. Dynastic politics
4. Failure / corruption of public institutions
5. Growing gap between the rich and the poor
6. Degradation of natural / environment / resources
7. Media apathy
8. Political fragmentation and the consequent incoherence in policy
9. Un reconciled borderlands
10. Unstable neighborhoods

But why does he say “India should not” aspire to be a super power. I leave it to his articulation of the same, and it’s a brilliant analogy. It’s not something I agree 100% with, because as an individual, I am full of audacity, hope, and optimism. But I do, agree to a large extent that in the minds people in the world, “super power” has multiple negative connotations. I am personally of the view, that the world should NOT HAVE any super powers at all, rather a broad mix of strong countries with common values that manage the world and I would definitely like to see Indian in that club.

I broadly agree with Guha’s list, though my attempt is to structure it differently, and add a few points of my own. For example, I think we have all found it easy to use phrases like “India & Bharat”, or Rahul Gandhi’s naive, lame attempt of “There are two Indias,…”. It is too simplistic to use left-wing extremism / Maoism in tribal areas, and classify it as a rich India / vs. poor India debate. We are an extremely fragmented and diverse country, and that’s the beauty of the Indian experiment, which to me is still a dream. Hence, my list and future blogs would refer to the multitudes of India’s that live within one geographical mass that is the Indian sub-continent.

Before I go into my list, I would urge you to read about me, in order to make a valid comment. In most societies, it is possible to dissociate the identity of the author from his / her view, because my understanding of India and experience with social media and blogging suggests that it is better to have an upfront disclaimer of who I am

Here is how I would classify, India’s biggest challenges from becoming a superpower. Kindly note: 1. The list is not in any specific order of importance, 2. For each of the topics in the list, I would like to dedicate my time to develop my understanding significantly, so as to assess what potential solutions are the most pragmatic. As and when I have the level of knowledge of the topic I am confident about, I would dedicate a detailed blog to that and link it here, and 3. I have not included multiple challenges, where I have felt that the society, and polity is well aware and has made progress on addressing them:

1. The mess with our main stream media, and the far-reaching consequences :

Let me state this in categorical terms here: India’s main stream media is collectively un ethical, too light on substance, does not have the ability to look at itself critically and improve, is full of shallow journalists who sensationalize news in their attempt to become celebrities, panders easily to those with power and money and is far short of world standards when it comes to credibility and substance. All this and more I would be covering in very great detail, in my next blog, and this topic has risen to #1 in my priority list, based on the ongoing revelations of the 2G Telecom scam, Radia tapes leak, and the issue referred to as “Barkhagate”. The mess goes far beyond 1 or 2 people under great scrutiny now, yet there is a need to be empathetic to our mainstream media on the unique challenges their profession faces in India. As a society, we need to take this problem fare more seriously than we do, as we are completely unaware of how it affects decisions in life , that range from the trivial to the strategic: Be it investing in the market, or deciding which food to eat, or which party / leader to elect, our media has collectively clouded our judgment, and this has to be rectified soon.

2. Socio political challenges, mapped with our ethnic identities:

a. Why are we such suckers for a monarchy / dictatorship?
Our very deeply ingrained respect for authority, stemming from our idol worship / Bhakti culture, has had many positive effects in shaping modern India, but is it good in the long run? In present context, we have become a country of hero-worship, making and destroying celebrity heroes out of undeserving people. To me, we are perennially a few weeks away from becoming a fully functional dictatorship, which Indira Gandhi came very close to achieving, and which Guha only mildly refers to as Dynastic politics. While the Gandhi family, lives in a perennial dream of ruling the country forever as kings & queens, the last few decades have seen the cancerous spread of hero-worship to other political parties, corporate, god men / swamis, and even media personalities

b. Sustainability of our “confused democracy”:
For any political analyst, India is a rich country to study with its diverse range of political ideologies and parties. Yet, I am of the strong opinion that each of the political spectrums in our country has a sham of a party representing it
Left-liberal / Centrist: I am clubbing the Congress, the multiple Communist / Socialistic parties in this. Collectively they are a massive failure on the ground in the last 60 years, yet have the right media, muscle, and money power to portray otherwise. Nehruvian policies of international neutrality, socialism, were valid at that time, and while some in the Congress have moved on (driven by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is the best congress leader post Nehru), the left is still stuck in the 19th century. The biggest areas of Maoist / Naxalite problems are regions dominated by left-wing politics for 6 decades; Congress has won votes in the name of the poor, without doing any up liftment for the poor masses; and the Congress likes to play a good cop / bad cop game with us: If any populist scheme / governance mechanism is implemented successful it is due to the benevolence of the Gandhi family, if there is any failure, it is indirectly passed onto the Prime Minister, and the royal family is protected at any cost. The Congress also practices a Centrism of no – action: we will wait, wait, and wait forever and not take a stance lest it may affect our votes from a particular group, and finally we will make a small wound into a cancerous growth.
Right-wing: BJP is a party which has some ideological view points I agree with (national security, uniform civil law, a certain amount of pride and patriotism for the country, free market based economy, and meritocracy). And the last time I voted, I voted for Vajpayee, who was right-of center, and able to control the far right voices in the Sangh Parivar. Like it or not, the RSS is a non constitutional authority just like the Gandhi dynasty when not holding power, or Russians / Chinese dictating Communist in India (Ironically I have always light-heartedly maintained to my RSS friends, that if you split from BJP and have your extreme right-wing party, I would not mind that compared to sitting in Nagpur and bullying the BJP leadership in Delhi). BJP’s biggest emerging leader is Modi, and post Godhra he has constantly referred only to Gujarat’s development and infrastructure in his speeches. Has he shed the hard-line Hindutva agenda, or is this an illusion? If Modi never raises the communal issues, and Muslims vote Modi and BJP in Gujarat, Bihar, why does the media keep raising it – who is right, and who is wrong, or is there a grey area? What are the ideological views and governance experiences of the others in the BJP? There are many un answered questions to me, and the sooner these are addressed, and the sooner the internal leadership tussle in the right wingers is settled one way or another, the better it is for India., The next few years in Indian politics are absolutely crucial to our democracy, as we wait and watch if the right BJP would turn up. An extreme right-wing / tea party kind of party would be extremely divisive and polarizing, while a right of center, pro development party would be strongly welcomed to most in the public, yet under constant scrutiny of the media that is by and large strongly biased to the left liberals. If the right BJP does emerge, will they engage pro actively with the masses, minorities, and media to remove their present political untouchables / pariah status?

The parties that focus on specific ethnic / caste / linguistics identity, at best serve a short-term purpose of achieving social parity, but in the long run, unless they can reach out beyond their specific identity, they would not do any good for India. Without an exception, ALL political parties in India have a confused understanding of secularism, and purely use the word for getting votes.

Thus, a few parties that represent each valid aspect of the spectrum, is important for any democracy to thrive. Whether in power, or in the opposition, the BJP and Congress have a lot of internal cleansing to do, and do it quickly while the country loses its patience with its major parties.

The other key to making our present confused democracy into a thriving democracy, rather than a banana republic, lies with the citizens. Why is the urban middle class that is so quick to blog, tweet, and gossip about national politics, reluctant to take part actively in public protests, democratic, movements, or vote? When was the last time you discussed any political issue when hanging out with friends, and did not get a gentle suggestion to change the topic? How many more “Rang De Basanti” or “Swades”, do you need to watch before you stop criticizing the system, and did your bit to improve any one small part of the system?

3. Lack of concrete state, and efforts to reduce the polarization in our cultural / religious / ethnic identities
Here, I seek to rebut the simplistic, “two India’s” theory. Actually, we are a motley crew of extreme diversity. While “Unity in diversity” is a fantastic theme, it is a glorified dream, which we have somehow remarkably managed to sustain for 6 decades. The sharp differences go beyond Rich Vs. Poor: Marathis Vs Non Marathis in Mumbai, Tamil Vs. Hindi in Chennai, Economically progressive Southern & Western states vs. poor BIMARU states, Aryan Vs. Dravidian in the south, upper caste vs. lower caste vs. dalits vs tribals, the India that builds 50 storey buildings in Mumbai Vs. the India that is shockingly exploited in Chattisgarh, Kashmiri Pandits Vs. Kashmiri separatists, conservative and ultra religious vs. liberal and agnostic, urban vs. rural, patricidal men vs. increasingly empowered women, urban women who run companies vs. rural women married at 5 and serve as slaves to their families, and most critically Hindu Vs Muslim across India.

At any given points of time, there are massive separatist discussions and activism that happens, and we shy away from engaging with those on the other side of the fence. There are some issues we are aware of, and have solved in the past, but many of us live in total bliss, un aware that it could all fall apart quite quickly. While I am proud of this diversity, of late I am surprised that in this information age, our differences are becoming highly polarized, rather than blurring out and co-existing peacefully.

There are no easy answers, or short-term solutions, and I am yet to hear 1 Indian leader that can articulate a vision to bridge the multiple Indias. But at the personal level, a lot of us can open out and reach out to those people who have Indian passports, but look, talk, eat, and behave very differently from us. Since this is a complicated theme, I would need a dedicated blog that focuses on specific topics

4. Development & economy
Here are the broad problems that I see with the long-term sustainability of our economic progress:
A. Highly service and export oriented, without having enough focus on investing in bleeding edge technology
B. If the big global economies weren’t in recession, and the time right for exports, would Indian have seen such growth in the last few years? I am no economist, so i would take an expert who would challenge me, but if the answer is no, what happens to us when the other countries pick up steam
C. What is the next big economic idea to come out of India, that has not been adopted elsewhere already?
D. Is the “Fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” being exploited by the rich to become richer, or used judiciously to foster inclusive growth?
E. Whether you buy a cell phone, pizza, or SUV, is the service quality or sales skills anywhere on par with international standards? (On a lighter but related note, my dad bought a Volkswagen recently in India, and was shocked at the service. He felt a roadside hawker selling Bhel Puri, would have done a better customer relations job, and that if not for the big brand and the actual car being good, none of these people would be in business!)
F. What are our Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of progress: To many people, it is the number of Indians that feature in Forbes lists, and that’s total BS. Do we pro actively measure ourselves on measures that range from rural development, success of our schemes such as NREGA, infant mortality rates, health and hygiene numbers, number of graduates in India, etc? A lot of people could find this bit a little harshly critical, because in reality there are millions of intelligent people in the country that work at the grass-roots, but I still state it here, because when you sit in your 3 room central Mumbai house, and open your news paper, or switch on your T.V, or invite your business partner for lunch, I bet these topics don’t feature.
G. How many average Indians understand basics of money management, cash flow, investment & returns?

5. Our volatile neighborhood
On this topic, I am 100% in sync with Guha, so there is no need to repeat. Except to add that, in spite of having the misfortune of having Pakistan as our neighbors, we have to pro actively engage with our neighbors, while at the same time strengthening our security and military capabilities. If India shines spectacularly, while the rest of the sub continent is in shambles, it is not a recipe for long-term good.

Cheers!
Vasu

The winter writing season begins…

A big hello to regular readers and those who stumbled on this blog by chance!
Many thanks to all of you who have read, commented, and shared your views on my blog all these days. And some old faithful who checked in from time to time, noticed I haven’t written anything at all for a long time, and dropped a kind note to check if I am doing fine. I have had a challenging, yet fruitful year and doing rather fine!

Here is why I haven’t written as often as before, and why I woke up from the slumber to start blogging again now:

To start with, it was a very demanding and significant phase of my career and life in Switzerland, and I was fully occupied on excelling at that! Also, I had this strange feeling mid 2010, that in 6 months or so I am going to hit 30. That’s right, I am hanging on to my last days as a 20 something, and I was mentally making too much of a fuss of this 20s to 30s jump. I did an informal audit on the targets I set myself when I moved from 19 to 20, and figured out I did pretty well, but there were some very important personal things to finish. There was very mind space for serious writing

Perhaps the more important reason was the success of my last blog entry on my life in Switzerland. So, many of you had written such appreciative comments, that it got me thinking very hard about my communication style. I figured out that I have the ability to look at every topic / subject in great detail, and in many layers, but I was capable of making a mess while trying to explain that. And I also have this strong desire somewhere to be understood in the correct way, even if you don’t agree with what I say.

So, for most of this year, I have conducted an experimentation on all forms of communication. Instead of rushing out to talk, write, or blog, I have held back my thoughts but making a note some where. I have listened more, and studying each an every topic I have a view on in greater depth. So, I have enforced this discipline of silent observation for a long time and its been quite rewarding.
I’ve also used mechanisms such as Face book / Twitter to vent out my instant 2 minute solution to all world problems, and far more aware of the responses than before. It has been a very interesting experiment, and perhaps this is why the concept of “Mouna Vrath” or a vow of silence has been so popular in India. Well, I haven’t been totally silent, but listening much more than speaking has made me see the world in a very different way. You should all try it some day!

Having done all that, and earning myself a mini vacation during the winter, I would get back to active blogging shortly. The fact that I have scribbled random things on paper, or bookmarked interesting links on the net, leaves me with a wealth of material to write about. So many wonderful changes have happened in my life, and while I do not go into details of my personal life on my blogs as a rule, it does influence my way of thinking as a person.

Here are the things outside of my personal life, which I have thought actively about this year. This is just a brief synopsis of what I am going to write about:

God & Religion: I read and watched a fair bit of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking this year, and have been fascincated at the tremendous progress science has made in explaining our world’s mysteries. Yet there is a feeling that the more you discover, the more there is to discover! At the same time I ahve experienced a fascinating phase of personal life, bordering on magical. Thus, after close to 3 decades of wondering now and then, if there is a god up there, or if he / she made the rules of the world as we know it, and studying all the far right and far left view points, I have one simple, profound conclusion that has mad eme feel very light and relieved: it doesn’t matter, at all, one damn bit. It could sound like a bizarre theory to some, it could sound like a simplistic definition of agnosticism to some, but I have to write in detail about why it doesn’t matter.

“Multi culturalism” is dead, says Angela Merkel, and that simple statement violates everything I have believed in all my life. In spite of all the tensions & challenges the world faces as globalization and movement of people grows at a rapid face, the only way forward for the human race is multi culturalism, movement of people across the world, and blurring of all the artificial borders we have erected around us. Most large countries have failed to adapt to a multi cultural population, but the failure to carry out the idea correctly should not lead to killing the idea in the first place. I have always believed, and live every day of my life with the view that the entire world is my home, and I am capable of building a bond with any damn person, anywhere, irrespective of color, faith, sex, age, or even language. It is not so easy for every one to reach where I have in life, but once you are there and see the truth, you’d like to stay in this beautiful place where I am.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.” Charles Dickens. These wonderful words of Dickens’s are so relevant today. I have no doubt, that we live in one of the most exciting times in human history, and we have a golden chance to correct many wrongs.

Can / should / Would India be a super power, or the leading nation in the world?. My one line answer is no, at least for the next few decades, but I need to lay it out with more specifics. I don’t think any form of super power is good for the world, i have no doubts India would make tremendous progress on multiple fronts, and I also think the dynamics of the world as we have historically known it would be tremendously altered in the next few years. But how should India handle its massive problems, and what place should it have in the world. My views, though not unique, are not quite mainstream, and it’s a collection of thoughts on my mind all my life.

An underlying theme to all the topics above is that of balance. The word is far more relevant today in our age of instant communication, than ever before. If somebody says something that’s blasphemous to my faith, I shoot him down immediately, or write some blog attacking the person. If somebody has a problem with the way the government handles a situation, you get a mike and call for a revolution, and attract a few thousand people on the streets and the T.V cameras. You don’t like a mosque being built somewhere, and over night you spread a story of how Obama is a Muslim, and does not have his heart in the right place.
We live in the information age, where there is one simple truth: A good view spreads fast, but a ridiculous and dangerous view travels faster. Everybody starts to think and communicate in extremes, knowing that your online views are quite different from what you would say in real person. In many ways, the internet age has highlighted to us, the extremist side in each and every one of us. And this leads me to lay out the need for being balanced, well researched, and sensible in our view-point.

As a way of cheering myself from the weight of all these topics I have taken up, I would also write some light-hearted notes about what I look forward to in my 30s. Laughing about it is probably the only way I’ll escape this feeling of growing old!

So, that’s broadly the agenda, so to say.
Cheers!
Vasu

A good year spent in the land of cheese and chocolates!

Last week, I completed a year’s stay in the land of Alps, cheese and chocolates – Switzerland!          

It’s been the longest I have stayed away from India, even though I have done crazy relocations to different parts of the world earlier. I have no clue where life will take me next, if I do move again, but I do know that this last year has been a very significant one in my life.          

Not everything about my life in Basel, Switzerland is rosy, but the experience has been overwhelmingly positive.  I truly believe that our lives in any place are a function of our attitude to embracing the change, and the people around us. I have moved cities, countries and continents, and have always found wonderful people where I went.  With some of the friends I value, I could live in some godforsaken desert and still be happy 🙂    

I was also very lucky to be born in such a wonderful country like India. I think Indians are inherently capable of appreciating any new place, making a social circle there and adapt to their new environment.          

That said, it is a good time to look back at all the things I like, nay love about Switzerland and Basel (some may apply to most European countries as well).   

I would move from general observations to personal experiences. I would also draw a comparison to India from time to time, and this is not meant to suggest that life in India sucks. Switzerland is hardly the size of Goa, and it is not possible to replicate anything and everything that is good in a European country with far less complexities than India. I could write a book on what I love about India, but it would feel so much better to hear an outsider’s appreciation.          

This is just to have a light-hearted banter,  and to appreciate the good things a foreign county has offered me so far.          

A study in tourism       

The first thing that struck me upon arrival in Zurich, and once I got into a shuttle train that connects the airport to the station, is a sound. It is a sound that I found weird for a nano second, and then broke into a laugh; thankfully it was pretty much the same reaction for other first time Swiss visitors in the train.          

It is the loud moooooooooo sound of a cow, with the sounds of bells to boot! The Swiss let you know without wasting any time, that they are going to play up to the image of the land of cows, cheese, and chocolate 🙂 . It happens only in Switzerland!          

To state that the Swiss are among the most tourist friendly in the world, would be an understatement. This is a country that knows how to market its splendid natural beauty and culture well, but also knows how to expect, plan for, and meet every potential need of every kind of traveler. And do that in a friendly way.          

It is possible to take a train to some random town, land up at the tourist office without a clue on what to do and where to stay, and put your trust in the friendly and well-informed staff at the tourist office.          

It is possible to land up on some trekking trail somewhere, lose your map, and still find your way in  a short while without any fuss.          

If you have more time to plan, you could use a plethora of resource, my favorite being Myswitzerland.com, an excellent portal to plan your Swiss travels . We have these very good “Incredible India” ads, but how good is our tourist infrastructure? It is worth pondering.         

Convenient transportation          

It was’nt that long ago, when daily commutes to office meant a good 1.5 to 2 hours jostling for space in a bus, soaked in sweat and dirt and bearing the noise of honking vehicles. This could apply to most Indians, but to Bangaloreans I can only say Hosur Road, and you know what I mean!          

These days I have a 10 minutes’ walk to work, and a few tram stops covered in 10 minutes to get to the city center. It is a luxury beyond my wildest imagination! Most Swiss cities are fairly small by Indian standards and are incredibly well-connected by train, tram and bus. They almost always run on time, and you could plan your journey online using the SBB website, and be assured of a convenient and comfortable ride to your destination.The trams themselves are fairly old and rickety, but that only adds to the sense of the charm.        

The Number 11 tram at Marktplatz

 

The trains are excellently maintained, spacious, and the wide windows ensure a lovely view of the scenery.          

Train entering Locarno station

 

They have a range of passes and offer cards (called Abonements, or simply abo), that make sure that you don’t spend a fortune. The day I landed in Switzerland, I took my friend Vineet’s advice and got a half fare card, which ensures that all public travel in Switzerland is half price for me. Almost everybody here has it, in addition to other Abos, depending on your frequency of travel.   This public transportation is the backbone of their tourism industry, and as somebody who has always relied on public transportation, Swiss life is a dream come true. (For the record I rate the Delhi Metro, and the BMTC Volvo services in Bangalore as close to international standards among cities I have visited, and the Tokyo metro as the best metropolitan transport system I have ever seen, but Switzerland is the most incredibly well-connected country I have been to!)       

Appreciation of the nature and environment          

I wake up every morning to watch a series of programs on HD Suisse, which I would never get bored of watching.   They have a program called “Swiss View”, which is a view from a camera on a plane or helicopter that just moves slowly across the Swiss mountains, lakes, rivers and villages.  There is another program called “Sunrise Earth” which takes you to a farm or a pasture, in the wee early morning hours. There is no music, but the chirping of birds, or mooing of the cows, as you watch the crimson sun rise.          

As I get ready for a big day at work, I listen to a mild and soothing music, or the chirping of birds, and watch breathtaking images of places that are hardly an hour away. It reminds me every day that I am incredibly lucky to live in one of the better looking corners of our incredible planet.  It also brings back very fond memories, of watching the short “Vande Mataram”, or the slightly longer “Mile Sur Mera Tumhara” clips on Doordarshan, way back in the 80s.   

We seem to have very few such clippings on our T.V now that show case our natural beauty. There are few places on earth that can compare to the barren landscape of Ladakh, backwaters of Kerala, colorful desert life of Rajasthan, or the un spoilt beaches on the Konkan Coast.   

How many of us watch the visuals and images on a daily basis, let alone go there?      

This is just one of the many examples to show the appreciation the Swiss have for the land they are blessed with.  

There is very little pollution, garbage littering, cutting down on trees for the sake of industrial expansion.  The lakes and rivers are squeaky clean and the water so sweet to taste.   There is a lot of socializing and partying that happens on the river fronts, or the shores of the lakes. In Basel, we are lucky to have a large and winding Rhine that divides the city into two, interspersed with quaint old bridges. Sitting by the many parks and establishments on the Rhine is a big part of life here, at least in the spring / summer. People take a swim, or wade the waters, but nobody throws junk into the river, or abuses it in any other way.    

They live with a sense of pride for their land, and admiration for its natural resources.        

HD Suisse Swiss view, Wallis:          

Sporty and outdoorsy life         

The Swiss come in various sizes and shapes, but almost all of them get involved with some sort of sports / work out. Most expats here are also bound to do something outdoors / sports oriented, just to fit it, even if you are a lazy bum like me!    

Spring / Summer is usually  a time some for water sports such as swimming / diving, and mountain sports such as trekking / Nordic walking. I am not into water sports, but love the mountains. I did quite a few treks last year, and have started this trekking season last week.          

But the most enjoyable time of my life here was at my tennis club last year (Casino tennis club). Most courts here are clay courts and shut down during the winter, add   most clubs re  – open   around May. It is quite difficult to get into a club, find partners and get slots to play. But once I put in the time, effort and money, and showed some level of skill, I found that people were willing to play with me quite regularly.  

My doubles partner Alex and I , bonded well, and did pretty well at a fun tournament we had at the season end. We even had a poker tournament  and a party to close the season, and by then I knew most members of the club and it was fun. I learnt the rules of Poker that night, and by the time we finished playing the next morning, I won the entire lot of plastic coins. If only that was real money, I would be a millionaire now 🙂  

 I also plan to stay on one of the many mountain huts that are run by the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC).          

Winter life is pretty harsh, and I ended up slouching and putting on a lot of weight. Winter is dominated by skiing and snowboarding. I learnt skiing for the first time, during the New Year holidays, by spending a week at Wengen, Interlaken. It was a bloody thrilling experience, and I did far better than I expected. But it is an expensive sport, and requires tremendous patience and perseverance. The rants of winter life, I would leave for another blog  🙂     

There is so much socializing and fun activities that are usually attached to these sports, such as the Apre skis, that ensure that you have to burn out some calories before you can have some fun. The drinks taste so much better after you have done a ski run, or a set of tennis.           

Trekking trails near Mount Tamara, Ticino

 

 The friendly and respectful Swiss people        

 Now, quite a few expats who might read this, would probably raise their eye brows. Most expats forums here have a section filled with cribs about how difficult it is to make local friends here.          

I would juxtapose that with experiences in other countries where people are more open to talk to you, but equally fast in being intrusive or abusive, or sometimes openly racial.   The Swiss, on the hand, do not come running to talk to you. If you do manage to strike up a conversation, they answer you politely. But it takes a lot of time, effort and perseverance to call a Swiss person a friend. And that is something I actually do not mind, because it’s my nature as well. I am quite open to conversations and interactions, but it takes me a long time to accept some one as a friend. And when I do, they are friends for life. I have made a few Swiss people like that who have been very friendly, helpful, and nice. These are people I would consider friends for life.    

By and large, they are very respectful to outsiders, whatever their private views on immigrations may be. I haven’t come across a single rude, or abusive Swiss person, and given my knack of getting into provocative conversations, that is an incredible record!         

Blending of urban and rural spaces         

Like I mentioned earlier, most Swiss cities are the size and population of small towns in India. So you can imagine how big the villages are! But there is a definitive sense of “Small is beautiful”. A person from a small Swiss village, would typically says he is from that village, and upon prodding mention it is near Zurich. Most Indians, would mention the name of the nearest big city as their place of origin.  Most of these villages have all the facilities you would expect in a big town anywhere: Kiosks or convenient stores, a bus / train / tram station, a few hotels and restaurants etc.          

The cities, towns, and villages blend rather seamlessly as you taken a train out of Basel or Zurich and cross a few stations. A big city is not necessarily an imposing entity, or a crowded and frenetic place. A village is not necessarily a poor place that is in accessible. In many ways, they are proud of their rural and agricultural connections, and it is quite fashionable to live in the country side.         

I would love to live in a Swiss country side, with  a farm, small brook, and some animals. But I can’t even afford that in my dreams now, and console myself with occasional weekend walks to such idyllic places!           

Lively street and public space culture       

There is a place in Basel called MessePlatz. It literally translates to a place for fairs / exhibitions.          

Across  every little town or city in the country, there is always something happening in such places. You have fairs, exhibitions, and shows for all kind of occasions such as celebrating Christmas, children’s day, day for some ethnic groups such as the Turks, or even a sports day. The Christmas and autumn markets and fairs are especially important. That is when the outdoor life drops, and these events that run for weeks together, keep the people on the streets. There is music, food, drinks (Gluhwein – a hot and spicy wine is a must try, if you want to survive the winter!), and people selling their produce.          

Each city / town has its show piece / landmark event. In Basel, it’s the Fasnacht in February. People plan for it for weeks, get up early in the morning with their outlandish costumes, and basically have a colorful street parade for days together. It’s also the time, when the Swiss shed all their reserved nature and go crazy! It has to be seen to believed!     

In addition to these big events, most city squares have some thing or the other going on  every other weekend. That keeps the people to the streets, and when you find yourself bored in spite of all that, it is possible to land up in some small pebble stoned quiet alley, and hear a young musician play his instrument. These are small pleasures in my Swiss life that I am so thankful for!        

Street music on some random carnical day in Neuchatel

 

  Basler Fasnacht:         

I hope I get to stay here a little longer, and I hope life also takes me to other wonderful places around the world. And I hope that till such time I am here, I always appreciate what a foreign country has to offer me, rather than get bogged down by a few minor rants.  

To me, one true test of globalization is when people can move freely from one country to another, and not just find a new house, but make a new home there. I think I have done that here, and Basel is my third home after Chennai & Bangalore.  

I would also encourage my Swiss friends to visit India and enjoy our sense of hospitality 🙂         

Cheers!        

Vasu        

Some further glimpses of my swiss life…         

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P.S: If you liked this post, you may also reading my other posts on life in Switzerland:       

1.  https://vasusworld.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/friends-jazz-rain-bombay/      

2. https://vasusworld.wordpress.com/2010/03/31/light-up-your-cigars-but-not-on-my-face/      

3. https://vasusworld.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/the-singing-sensation-the-ultimate-bathroom-singing-list-the-band/

From Chennai to Chelsea, Anaivarukkum iniya puthaandu vazhthukkal!

“I wish Chennai a very Happy Tamil New Year” M.S  Dhoni signed off, after Chennai Superkings (CSK) thrashed Kolkata Knight Riders at Chepauk, in the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament.

It brought a rare smile on my face on what has been a day of lousy, but not to unexpected news alerts, on the ugly affairs behind the scenes of IPL. For those who are bothered in reading further, I would recommend an excellent blog and discussion on this topic, which I’ve been tracking all day: http://prempanicker.wordpress.com/2010/04/13/actions-reactions/

It made smile because CSK jumped from 7th place to 2nd place, in a league so tightly contested that there are enough voices guessing that all this is all fixed to ensure a successful IPL 2010. While I am not jumping the bandwagon with the conspiracy theorists, given the people involved in running the show & our cricket history, I won’t be too surprised. And Chennai’s 7 to 2, and may be back to 7 in a few days show, just makes you wonder and indulge the conspiracy theorists for a while.

 That was a curiously funny smile 🙂

It made me smile, because CSK is one of the teams I support, and though ultimately I don’t really care who wins, sometimes native loyalties can break all cynicism and indifference you may have for a sports tournament. To me, the real buffet as a cricket lover is India touring South Africa this year, and Australia next year; that what would be the last time I get to see pillars of the Indian game like Sachin and Dravid, before they fade away into the sunset. It’s probably our best chance ever for those two missing series victories to justify our #1 test team tag.

The IPL is a good evening snack to have before the sumptuous buffet later this year, but a CSK win brings out a chuckling smile nevertheless 🙂

For the record, my loyalties for the IPL are divided between Chennai (where I was born and grew up), Bangalore (lived most of my adult life, and is a second home), and Delhi (I’ll back any team Sehwag plays for in any format)

It made me smile, for one of the few positives amongst the hordes of stupidity that the IPL brings. That Dhoni, a man from Jharkand, is seen as their own by the Chennai fans is beyond doubt. He was obliviously playing to the gallery, and expects the Chennai crowd to be even more vociferous in support in the coming matches. I am hoping the IPL does not divide us even more, and make us add to our four walls of religion, community, language and social strata. The bonding that happens between a Dhoni and Tamils; a Yusuf Pathan and Rajasthanis; a Bhajji with Mumbaikars (how did Raj Thackeray allow him to play in the first place?); and a Sachin Tendulkar with all Indians is a special feeling that only sports can provide. Witness the Argentine Messi playing at Barca, for sheer magic!

That was a genuine smile 🙂

It also made me smile, as officially I do not think it is the Tamil New Year in the first place! There was an utterly unwanted, and stupid political move thrust upon by the DMK government a few years back to make January 14 the Tamil New Year, changing the traditional date of April 14. All their petty agendas aside, the people still celebrate April 14 as the New Year, and January 14 as Pongal. I do not know what the official stance is now and I do not care. Even Wikipedia is inconclusive.

 Just as Madras will always be Madras to me, (and so it goes for Bombay, Calcutta etc), April 14 is always the New Year, and it usually means good food. And oh yeah, I would celebrate January 1 and any other new years that are there as well; the more festivals there are the merrier, I say!

That Dhoni was oblivious to the controversy, and wished folks of his temporary adopted home well, and in the process give a middle finger to divisive politicians who have no other work, brought out the biggest smile of the day for me  🙂

So here I am wishing any person reading this now, “Iniya puthaandu vazhthukkal”, or a happy new year in Tamil. We have a short life, so any occasion to celebrate and be festive is precious, and meant to be lapped up.

 I’ll leave you with a song from one of the few Tamil films I loved in the recent past, called Subhramaniapuram. This  is a period film set in early 80s, and this song is a modern fusion of traditional Tamil folk sounds. Sort of represents the good, silly, and funny things about our culture in an interesting way. The dances and village road shows (Thiruvizha) are truly representative of life in the Tamil hinterland.

Have a ball everybody 🙂

Cheers!

Vasu 

Footnote: If you are inclined to comment, please wish me a happy new year in your language, in addition to whatever you had to say. That would be nice and interesting 🙂

Update on April 25: Thanks for those who voted on the poll earlier. For the record, Chennai won the IPL in a classic final beating Mumbai Indians. In spite of all the controversies around, the game was the winner, and Dhoni is on track to become Tamilnadu’s chief minister in the future, given our love for embracing an outsider who shines in our territory 🙂

Light up your cigars, but not on my face!

I have been following the news of smoking bans across different parts of Switzerland, with a mix of curiosity and hope.

I am curious, because I do no know the specifics of the implementation, how the restaurant / bar owners and the public would respond, and if they decide to revoke the ban in the future. In a ways, the Swiss democracy is truly more for the people and by the people, than in most parts of the world. It’s quite possible they have a vote some time in the future on the same topic and more people vote against the ban, than for it.

But I am also hopeful the Swiss people give it a genuine try, and I think they will. After all, if India, with its massive complexities and diversity of people & interests, can pretty effectively implement a smoke ban, any country can. In fact, it hasn’t affected bossiness in India that much, and people across the cities still flock to their favorite restaurants / pubs and have their fun. The health minister who imposed the rule was vilified and was a punching bag for many, but people have gotten used to the new life now, and all seems well.

It’s important to articulate here, why I would advocate smoke bans across the world, and in what format, while also taking a look at the other view of the smokers.

I am a non smoker, and have always been one. For various reasons, including health, a smoker in my vicinity has always irritated my system.  But curiously, most of my friends and colleagues have always been smokers. I would gladly be in their company any time, any day, in spite of their smoking. It’s a choice I make. I have been consistent in my attitude to smoking and smokers, to borrow from Voltaire, “I may not smoke, and find it dirty, but will fight to the death to protect your right to smoke”

This is a debate that typically splits any demographic group across the world roughly 50:50. What I have observed, is that people take very strong positions without seeing the other side, and when it comes to this topic, there are not too many moderates. Either you hate smoking, detest smokers, and want it taken off planet earth, or you would attack any body that snatches your right to smoke, and consider them puritan pricks and eco / health fanatics. Or pure pricks!

So, here is my view on what would constitute an ideal city / town, balancing the needs of both:

1. Restricted smoke zones in closed places such as restaurants / bars / cafes / pubs / lounges / offices / hospitals etc. The moderation / implementation is left to the owners of the establishment

I would not advocate a complete ban, especially in places of nightlife and work, but a designated smoke zone / section. I know some of my colleagues who smoke pretty well to understand that it affects their concentration and productivity tremendously if they can’t have a fag once in a while. I think most companies across the world have adopted that pretty well on that front already.

I can also understand the high feeling you miss on when you are grooving to some tunes at a lounge, and a puff of smoke would make your ecstasy that much more. I think a middle ground is definitely achievable on this front and both sides need some getting used to. If a non smoker like me decides to be at a lounge with some friends, I should be ready to bear the smoke. If I am not ready, I always have the choice not to go. As an advanced step, it is possible for some enterprising owner to build an establishment and categorize it as for smokers only, or for non smokers only.

In a society such as Switzerland, I would leave the enforcement to the establishment, and not the authorities. India is not yet there, so I still see a need for cops (crooked as they are) to enforce the bans / restrictions. I am not sure of the specifics of the ban in Switzerland, but looks like they have a complete smoke ban now, and they could evolve into a moderated ban like the above in some time.

2. Restricted smoke zones in semi open public places, but with strict enforcement by the authorities.

This is primarily for major train / bus stations, airports etc. you have a lot of people allergic to smoke, or sick, or old, or infants, or pregnant women ion these places, and quite often they do not have a choice not to be there. This is where the attitude of smokers really riles the affected non smokers. On hundreds of occasions, I have had to fight my way through a cloud of smoke puffed arrogantly onto my face. The most irritating scenarios being crowded bus / train / tram stops, where you just can’t escape. I have also been pissed off by the attitude of some smokers when entering a place where they can’t smoke. The other day, I was steeping off a bank, and here is this guy entering the bank from the street. Smoke in hand, he enters, and we are both at the small glass door at the same time. He takes a big puff and blows it onto my face, then takes the cigar from his hand and drops it on the ground, inside the bank, which is obliviously a non smoking place. Before I can say WTF, he is away leaving me a violent cough and a huge stink. I don’t deserve that, and this is where one man’s freedom becomes another man’s pain.

I would also advocate a strong and complete ban in all places of public transport. This is more applicable to a country like India, where you get “smoked into” on most seats you would pick in a bus or a train.

I do not think achieving the above is utopian. It is possible to get there or thereabouts in small steps, and one fine day we all get used to the new way of life.

It’s important to restate here that moralities and Puritanism does not matter to a lot of common people like me, and lawmakers, when it comes to decisions on smoke bans. I have heard enough of the cries of taking away a man’s freedom, and claims of the state dictating your lives. All that is BS to me, because you seem to bother only about your freedom and not the other man’s. I guess a non smoker is as eligible for clean, smoke free air, as a smoker is entitled to his smoky air.  To all my smoking friends & strangers who smoke into my face, across the world I have to say “Please light up your cigars, and have your fun, but not on my face”

At the same time, I have also heard very touchy and “holier than thou” non smokers complaint about how it affects the health and environment and blah blah blah. I think every non smoker has a choice not to go to a place where he knows there is bound to be smoke. And I genuinely don’t believe a few million men & women  puffing into the atmosphere, is more dangerous to the world than all our industries, oil slicks, nuclear waste etc. in fact, when non smokers take a very strong view on this topic, they provide the moral justification for equally ridiculous justification for the smokers.

So, its about time we stopped looking at it in black and white, and understand & accept the eventualities of changes to our lifestyle across the world, irrespective of whether we smoke or not.

Switzerland would be an interesting place to observe these changes. It is an absolutely beautiful and clean country, but also a country full of heavy smokers everywhere. It’s a study in contrast, and I am actually surprised so many people voted for smoke bans, across so many cantons. I think Basel is having a ban from April 2010, and some smart cookies have organized “Non Smoking” bar / restaurant tours to show the owners their business would still be good. These are interesting times ahead!

Cheers!

Vasu

Russian Mathematician May Not Accept Million-Dollar Prize – ABC News

Incredible story…geniuses mostly have a mind of their own, but this guy is in a league of his own!

Read:

Russian Mathematician May Not Accept Million-Dollar Prize – ABC News.

Cheers!

Vasu

In a life time spent watching, loving and living cinema, which one do I like the most?

Movies have been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s the case with most of us, and we all have our own tastes and preferences.

If I like a film, I watch it again and again. And if I don’t like a film in the first 20 minutes or so, I would never watch it in spite of what the reviewers say.

And of late, I have started a pretty decent collection of DVDs of films that are my favorites.

I truly believe that variety is the spice of life, so I pretty much love films across most genres, languages, and ages. Depending on my mood, I could be watching a slap stick Crazy Mohan film, or a profound Guru Dutt one, or a Tarantino blood gore. Sometimes I get involved and study the message, but mostly I just like to have a good laugh.

So, I thought I’ll share my list of most favorite films ever. It would be difficult to pick out a top 5/10 as such, but what was not difficult was picking what dessert I love the most in a table full of goodies. I would write about THAT one film, I would place above all as to my definition of the film that impacts me the most.

To start with, here is the list of my all time favorite films (my top 33, why 33? Because I like that number!), in alphabetical order:

  • 3 Idiots (Hindi)
  • 3.10 to Yuma (English)
  • Anand (Hindi)
  • Anbe Sivam (Thamizh)
  • Ardh Satya (Hindi)
  • Casablanca (English)
  • Chupke Chupke  (Hindi)
  • Crash (English)
  • Dark Knight (English)
  • Das Leben Der Anderen / Lives of others (German / English)
  • Edhir Neechal (Thamizh)
  • Gladiator (English)
  • Good Will Hunting (English)
  • Inglorious Basterds (English)
  • Kadhalikka Neramillai (Thamizh)
  • Kill Bill – Part II (English)
  • Lage Raho Munnabhai (Hindi)
  • Lakshya (Hindi)
  • Michael Madana Kama Rajan (Thamizh)
  • Mouna Ragam (Thamizh)
  • My cousin Vinny (Englsih)
  • Nayagan (Thamizh)
  • Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Italian)
  • Psycho (Englsih)
  • Pyaasa (Hindi)
  • Scent of a woman (English)
  • Shichinin no samurai (Japanese)
  • Shiva (Telugu)
  • Shrek (English)
  • The good, the bad, the ugly (Italian / English)
  • The Shawshank Redemption (English)
  • Thillu Mullu (Thamizh)
  • Vita E Bella / Life is beautiful (Italian / English)

 Now the one I love the most, is a left field pick, and a film that moves me personally like no work of fiction has. It’s Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. 

There are stories, movies, epics and box office hits. But to me Pyaasa is all that and more – it’s a masterpiece from a man who gave us many gems, died tragically young like most geniuses, and would have no idea a film he made 6 decades back could still strike a chord with so many people young and old. 

Pyaasa is the story of Vijay, a penniless, support less poet who struggles to make the world realize the beauty of his work. It’s the story of his relationships with the world,  and two women in particular, and his eventual reorganization and fame.

 If you haven’t seen it yet, get a DVD and watch it soon. (There is a Moser Baer DVD available in all stores across India). Its dark, sad, poignant, profound, subtle, leaves you worried if you get involved, but climaxes into something beautiful, hopeful and cheerful. In fact, Johnny Walker’s “Sar jo Tera Takrayey”, and the beauty in the climax are the only moments of genuine joy in a depressing story.

 Now, why do I love it so much? Here are some random reasons:

  1. It’s the story of an idealistic, honest, straightforward, talented man, fighting against the world, and coming out on top, but not spilt by the success. That’s the kind of man I would want to be
  2. It’s an Indian movie, and from one of the finest movie makers we have produced. Guru Dutt’s life and his tragic story, make the character so real
  3. A beautiful end that suggests that amidst all the dark and gloom, there is always a bright shining light. To an eternal optimist like me, it appeals tremendously, much as Shawshank Redemption did.
  4. The brilliant songs and their profound lyrics. They complement the film so bloody well.
  5. The usage of light and shade, close-ups that portray the deep thoughts of the characters…it’s almost as if I feel the characters alive. Destiny ensured that it was a black and white film, and I just can’t imagine it being as vivid with a modern color print.
  6. A Bollywood movie sans item numbers, rape scenes, masala dialogues, fights, lavish sets loud actors or lengthy dialogues, and full of subtlety. That’s the kind of movies we were capable of making 60 years ago.
  7. It tells me life is a zero sum game; for every jerk we meet in life, we have a true friend, and for every man / woman who betrays us, we manage to find a soul who loves us purely. There is a nice balance to it
  8. It’s a timeless movie. Would make sense and appeal eternally.
  9. The fact the Guru Dutt insisted on the climax as it is now, and ensured that Vijay does not compromise with the world for material reward, and chooses to be his own man.
  10. The message that true talent, self belief, and passion, ultimately wins over all other factors, no matter what the struggles are. To put in modern jargon – content is king! 
  11. It breaks all stereotypes for that period; some of these stereotypes still persist. For example, the character of Gulabo the hooker, is unlike any other portrayals of such people.

Ironically, it’s a film I would find to difficult to watch many times, because of the intensity. I would rather stick to a comedy for that, but then that’s the beauty of cinema – there’s always a story for every occasion and mood! But most people who review the film stereotype it as dark. It is for most parts yes, but I don’t think most of them get the raw and pure beauty of Vijay and Gulabo.

A very well written tribute to the film is from the TIME magazine, which included it among a handful of Indian films, as one of the top 100 films of all time.  

Read it at: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1953094_1953146_1953989,00.html

 Cheers!

Vasu

P.S: I sort of like 33 as a number. It’s got two threes, and 0.33 is 1/3rd  or 33.33%. 0.22 is not ½ or 22.22 % 🙂

Pitch battles ahead…

So, India managed to beat South Africa in a terrific nail biter to draw the series and retain their tag as the # 1 test cricket team in the world. If Morne Morkel survived a few more balls that wouldn’t have happened and SA would have been #1 instead. That is to take nothing away from India, but just to highlight how thinly separated the top 3 teams are.

There are broadly two kinds of people in the cricket world now, as far as this topic goes:

  • The over the top desis, fuelled by an even more over the top media, who believe that our cricketers are the best ever to have descended on the planet, and we are the undisputable kings of the cricket world.
  • The media in the “white” cricketing countries that still hasn’t come to terms with the new pecking order, and a lot of Indians grown up to believing that any cricketing observation is true only when Geoffrey Boycott or Tony Greig thinks so.

The reality, as always, is somewhere in the middle. India are truly the #1 team in the world today, but not by much, and if they don’t maintain / improve further, not for too long.

So here are some points to consider to the two different camps:

To the “we are the best” and our cricketers are gods brigade:

  • Away record: We still haven’t beaten Australia in Australia, or South Africa in South Africa. Not yet!
  • Batting: We rely heavily on the top 4 batsmen, specifically on Sehwag performing a super human feat to win matches in a few hours for us. On bad days like we have had in Nagpur / Sydney / Ahmedabad / Cape Town, we have been thoroughly exposed.
  • Key personnel: Dravid is 37, Sachin 36, Laxman 35. In the next 2-3 years all of them would bow out some time or the other. What we have seen so far of Yuvraj, Vijay, Badri, in tests, and Kohli, Raina, Rohit in ODIs does not seem to suggest they can fill in those massive boots in terms of batting class, temperament, stature, grit, and slip catching.
  • Bowling: Frontline bowlers: Our bowling is highly reliant on Zaheer Khan. Ishant is on a learning curve, Sreesanth is inconsistent, Bhajji blows hot (when he is about to dropped or when the batsmen have piled on a huge score, or the pace men have softened the top order), and blows cold (all other occasions). He is our number one spinner because no spinner in the country is bowling any better.
  •  Bowling: Back-up bowlers. Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie Gilliespie, are some names that had served as back-up men and change bowlers for years before they became the strike bowlers in their respective all conquering teams. Think R.P Singh, Munaf Patel, Dhaval Kulkarni, Irfan Pathan, and compare them to the class above. No further arguments

To those who loathe India’s new growth across all walks of life, can’t accept a new cricketing world order anymore, and to those Indians who still have a colonial hangover:

  • England:  The sun has actually set on your empire. Actually long time back, please wake up! You are not a good enough cricket team for me to include you in this discussion, and that’s because all your sporting performances since my birth have been average, spun as “extra ordinary” by your media. I mean Michael Atherton averages 30 something in test cricket, and he played over a 100 test matches as you couldn’t find any one better, and is a so called legendary player / cricket expert now. Its about time somebody in your media noted that:  A. India is officially the #1 cricket team in the world B. England are 4/5 or thereabouts. C.  Andy Murray has 0 grand slams D. England haven’t won a football world cup for 50 years, or  reached the semis in the last 20 years
  • Australia:  Australia is doing pretty well considering how terrible you could have become after losing a golden generation. But you lost the Ashes, lost to South Africa at home, and got thrashed by India in India. And, I still maintain that without Steve Bucknor & the luck associated with winning teams, India should have won 2 series against you, some other teams would have won more matches in Australia, and Shane “Umpire charmer” Warne would have ended up with 100 less test wickets. Johnson, Bollinger, Siddle, Hiffenhaus, Hauritz, are all decent blokes, but not quite Warne and McGrath.
  • South Africa:  No, I will not use that C word, but you know what I mean. You can’t win any 100m sprint if you run the first 95 faster than anyone and stop at the 96th meter. Even today, you needed to bat out 8 more balls against India, but you failed at the very last gasp. I know it hurts, but unless you can overcome that, and unless you can find a spinner who actually spins the ball, you would never be the #1 team
  • To all my desi friends who are still not convinced:Exhibit  A: Vikram Rathore, Deep Das Gupta, Rajesh Chauhan, Venkatapathy Raju, Salil Ankola, W.V Raman, Abey Kuruvilla, Venkatesh Prasad, etc etc. Exhibit B: The present Indian cricket team. Grow up guys, we are actually the best we have ever had, and as of today, the best in the world!

 So, where all this does leaves us? 

 I’ll use the game of Monopoly as an analogy. You start with may be a half-dozen players, and after a few rounds of buying and selling, the weak players are out. You have 3 players left now (India, Australia, and South Africa; in the sequence of whom I rate as the present 1, 2, 3) and India is marginally ahead. The next few rounds will determine who wins and losses, and while India has a slight advantage, it can’t rest on its laurels, and anything’s possible from here! 

Let the pitch battles commence!

One of the many moral dilemmas we face everyday…

How do you handle beggars in India? What is the  ideal way to handle a problem like that? 

Its something that I have been grappling with for years without having a clear idea what is the best approach. 

You see them everywhere – footpaths, traffic signals, entrance to malls, and they almost always leave me with a lump in my throat. And most of them happen to be children, women, disabled, or elders. 

It’s a reminder for us day in and day out, that whatever economic progress we have made in last few decades has not reached everybody. Or rather, it has not reached most people. 

On one hand, your brain says its wrong for you to indulge somebody who could work and earn his money. It tells you that by giving him free money, you are pampering him  and making him lazy. On the other hand, your heart says that whatever money you make in life is to be shared with the needy.

 I will be candid to admit that all my life I haven’t figured out a consistent solution to this problem

There are days when I have walked past old, weak women because they shoved a plate at my face. In hindsight, I should have given them something. 

On some other days, I have taken any random note from my wallet, given it to the beggar, and walked past. 

On one occasion, I paid a decent amount to a person who appeared reasonably healthy but had 3 hungry children around him. I got food for all of them, listened to their stories, and satisfied my ego that I am a noble man. They were probably never his children and probably never got all the money. I might have helped pander to their laziness. (In the great tradition of Hinduism and all other religions, I should never mention this, but when you moral dilemmas of such magnitude its best to be candid about the good and bad that you have done) 

Another fine day, I came across a man on a wheel chair who begged me to help him with whatever money I can, so he could have his next meal. He promised me to note my address, and pay me back the earliest he could. I made up my mind to give him whichever note was the first I drew from my wallet. I drew a 500 rupee note, and it was his lucky day. He refused to accept such a large amount. I insisted, and felt that ego gloat again. But when the realization dawned that I cant give a 500 to every beggar I see, and I am not going to help his cause in the long run (damn that brain again) I felt terrible. I would have probably been wiser to give a 10 rupee to 50 beggars. And there are thousands of beggars I haven’t given a single rupee to and walked past rudely before they trap me and play on my emotions. 

And sometimes I feel terrible when I donate huge amounts in temples. Would I have been better off not bribing god for my happiness, and feeding another hungry man. Or, would I rather leave it to god? 

One beggar I saw at Times Square, New York, held up a banner that read” I need $s;  for beer, for drugs, for cigarettes, for sex”. I was shocked beyond comprehension. Even in the lives of the have nots, some are luckier, some are crazier, some more deserving, some less. 

The brain says that the world is unfair, and unjust. A very convenient word for that is Karma. The heart refuses to accept. And this conflict can sometimes leave me crazy. There are no easy answers, but I would like to hear from those reading this, as to how you deal with individually. 

Cheers!

Vasu

Bucket list entry # 6561: Indian man, German shepherd dog!

Have you seen the movie “The Bucket list”?

It’s not a great movie, or a classic; it’s pretty much candy floss Hollywood, but just happened to feature two stalwarts in Jack Nicholson & Morgan Freeman, who made a very simple story line look good on-screen.

In fact, on a guys evening out at Prithvi’s place in Bangalore, when there wasn’t anything exciting to do, we hired the DVD almost as an afterthought. The only other notable event of the day was Akash’s ridiculous claim that “The Dark knight” wasn’t such a great movie, and all of us pouncing on him like a pack of wolves!

Back to the bucket list; without getting into a movie review, or storytelling, I would explain the central theme in brief: two old men, who know the end is near, exchange notes about a “bucket list”, or things to do in life, before you “kick the bucket”; and they set about doing just that in the last few days of their lives.

The list itself is a combination of some very simple personal desires that they yearned for, to the extravagant, such as skydiving, tattoos, climbing the pyramids, the French Riviera, the Great Wall of China, a lion safari in Africa etc.

Many random things to do, and places to visit, capture my imagination every once in a while. I think that’s the case for most of us. The only cue I took from the movie was to actually write it down and make a list. However silly the list may sound!

This particular item in my bucket list is a very old fascination: of owning a pet, a dog in particular, and a German shepherd to be precise. Of all dog breeds, I dig the German shepherd the most, the Labrador comes next. To me that’s the best choice for a man, and though many other dogs look much cuter, in terms of intelligence, utility, versatility, and ease of training, the GSD / Alsatian is the king of the canine world! I don’t have too many friends who own a GSD. My cousin Vaish has a terribly cute Pug, but I haven’t played with him 😦

It may not sound like a big deal, and a relatively easy item to tick of the list, but trust me, it’s been a bloody difficult wish to fulfill all these years, and will possibly stay that way for a few more.

To start with, I have to grapple with this huge contradiction that I love animals, but I am scared of being very close to them. Dogs in particular! I am the guy that ticks “Like animals, but at a distance” box in any questionnaire. My pet theory (pun intended) is that if I happen to have my dog starting from the days when it’s a small puppy, I would eventually overcome my fear.

It all started with my neighborhood in Chennai. As little kids, my sister (Poorni) and I were taking a walk around the streets when a friend of mine, who used to have this Alsatian, lost control of the leash and the dog. The dog ran wild and bit my sister, and I was helpless nearby. Poor girl is still petrified of dogs, and I am just 1% less afraid than her! She would hold my hands when there was a dog anywhere in the near vicinity, and I used to act brave. There was no way I could tell her I am equally scared, as having me around was her only source of comfort against any dog!

The problem of stray, street dogs is massive in many Indian cities, most notably Bangalore.  There were these incidents last few years when street dogs attacked people in packs (children in particular) and remains a source of huge debate between animal lovers and the regular people on the roads. Despite being a massive animal lover, in this context, I would place the interests of people above dogs. It may be sad, but that’s the pecking order.

Even if Bangalore evolves an effective mechanism for tackling the stray dog menace, it still doesn’t address the problem of irresponsible owners. Like my friend whose dog bit my sister.

Trust me; this is a massive problem in our country. And it felt even more massive to me when I have traveled abroad. Pets are so well-behaved, and owners are so mature here. I have never heard a dog bark and scare a stranger, or appear intimidating in any way. I have seen that in US, Japan and in Switzerland. I figured out the laws for keeping are very stringent, and well-regulated. Along with pet insurance, regular medical checkups, there are mandatory classes for pets, and owners.  The system pretty much ensures that if at all you have to keep a pet, you have to be extremely sensitive to the animal and fellow human beings.

So that comes to another reason I haven’t had a pet so far. The challenge of keeping a pet to the standard I would like to maintain is difficult in India. There are millions of pet owners in India, but from what I know, not too many of them are sensitive to the pet’s psyche, and its behavior in a public place. What would be easier in India though is to take care of my dog when I am working late, or travelling for e few days. I would find it relatively easier to find a neighbor or friend who takes care in my absence. There are dog walkers in Switzerland, but they come at a price and have their own schedules! Bottom line is, I would like to be a very responsible pet owner, or not have one at all.

On a lighter note, one of the most enjoyable sights from my apartment in Tokyo was a regular “owner – pet – pet – owner” routine I would see from my balcony every evening. The dogs are so well-behaved, (and bloody cute as with anything Japanese) that on the rare occasion when a dog barks at another on the street, the masters stop, apologize profusely  in the long tradition of Japanese manners, exchange pleasantries and become friends. God knows how many business alliances, and love stories have come about that way!

But, by far my biggest challenge has been living in one city long enough to keep a pet. I wouldn’t want to put my dog through relocating cities / countries, and flight journeys! There is no way any dog can live off a suitcase like I do! I remember pleading with Amma to keep a lab, when I wasn’t working yet and didn’t have a place of my own.  Her decisive statement was “If you insist on getting a dog, fine. I can only feed so many people in this house, so it’s either you or the dog. Your choice!”  Appa, and Poorni were eagerly waiting for my response. ..in one of the most decisive moments in my life, I chose myself over the lab instinctively 🙂

 I can thankfully laugh about it today, but on that day I was an angry young man!

So perhaps one day when I know I am going to stay in one city for years together, I would finally knock this long pending item off my bucket list.

Till such day when you visit my house and play with my dog, enjoy the amazing videos here!

Cheers!

Vasu

P.S: Since I have made, chopped, and changed such lists  for so long, that it doesn’t make sense to start this series with #1. Those who know me know my fascination with numbers and patterns in numbers. So I would number this series with my favorite numbers rather than 1, 2, 3…6561 is one such number. I was born on a terrific day for a number lover: 8th January, 1981, or 8-1-8-1. 81 * 81 =6561. Also, 8+1=9, and 9*9*9*9 =6561. There you go!

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