Thursday, December 27, 2007

Musings...

Yes, I know it's been ages since I blogged on anything meaningful. A death in the family creates circumstances that are not exactly conducive to serious blogging. But this article caught my attention on Christmas day. Coupled with another article stating that a man had been mauled to death trying to photograph a tiger in the Guwahati Zoo, it brought home the role of fate and destiny in a man's life. One came to the zoo to see tigers and other assorted animals. By a bizarre twist of fate, and by deliberately ignoring the guards' warnings, he lost his life. I wonder if he knew, when he left home that he would never return. The other came with the intention of dying, not for the first time, but the third. His equally bizarre fate ensured that he did not die. Instead he survived, albeit with a heavily-scarred face.

Much as we vigorously debate that Man is the maker of his own destiny, the fact remains that there are things that are beyond our control. Like life. And death. It is a humbling thought, when we realise that life is transient...as transient as a bubble...

Monday, December 17, 2007

Some philosophy, some questions...but no answers...

I am back, after a rather long hiatus. The problem is that my grandfather was sick for a week, and passed away on Thursday last. A death in the family normally means a lot of guests, a lot of confusion and a lot of work. So, that was it. It was the first time in 25 years that I visited a crematorium. And quite frankly, the place is not as scary as I was led to believe. It is clean, with paved roads and a cemented place to sit. That brings me to all the philosophical musings of the past week. A visit to a graveyard is quite humbling. For one, you realise how lucky you are to still be alive. And then, you wonder why we chase money when all we are left with ultimately is a pot of ash (or six feet of land as the case may be.) Dad says it's normal for first-time visitors to get philosophical. This week was my turn.

Once the funeral was over, there began a series of negotiations over the post-death ceremonies (or whatever you call it). First, the shaastrigal claimed that the soul of the deceased had to travel a billion miles, during the course of a year to attain Vaikuntham. In order to facilitate the travel, we, as relatives of the deceased, are expected to provide the soul with slippers, bed, food, clothing, gold (I wonder why!), silver, a piece of land, a cow and some other assorted worldly items. How can the poor soul carry so much? Since we are not millionaires, but simple middle class people, the shaastrigal allowed us to pay a mere 15,000 rupees, instead of a portion of land, and a couple of kilogrammes of gold for the above-mentioned daanam. Very generous, I must admit!

Then comes this business about the soul suffering from sun-burns, hunger, thirst, calloused feet, tired legs and the like as justification for all the donations we are supposed to make. How the soul can suffer so much is beyond me. After all, the Bhagavad Gita, the most widely accepted Hindu religious text describes the soul thus:
"Nainam chhindanti shastraani, nainam dahati paavakaha, na chainam kledha yantyapo, ne shoshayathi maaruthaha." (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 23)
Translated, it means,
"Weapons cannot harm the soul, fire cannot burn the soul, water cannot wet and air cannot dry the soul."
If that is true, then how can the soul suffer hunger, thirst, sunburns or injury. The learned men have no response. Is this then, just a way of guilting people into paying for wholly unnecessary rituals. I only have questions for the moment. Nobody is forthcoming with answers. And asking too many questions makes me a heretic. What has the world come to?

The other drama is one that is related more to social practice than religion and philosophy. Mum tells me that the Brahmins won't eat food prepared by Tamil Iyer women. Whether it is because the women are Iyer or because they are simply women is beyond me. Apparently, we, as Kannada Maadhwa Brahmins practise a philosophy incompatible with Iyer philosophy and any meeting of the two will have potentially disastrous consequences. So, the choice of caterers is rather limited. To men, who belong to the appropriate Kannada Brahmin subsect. I then asked if we can get someone we know to cook that day. There, we face yet another problem. Apparently widowhood is highly contagious and the said Brahmins will not touch food prepared by a widowed woman.

Makes me wonder if women should not boycott food prepared by, served by, or eaten by any widowed man, just to give them a taste of their own medicine. Refusing to cook for widowed men would do the job equally well. After all, men who believe that seeing a widow is inauspicious belong to a generation that did not know how to cook. That way the problem would be solved. In the absence of anyone to cook for them, they all would die an early death and the world would be relieved of a great burden. But seriously, will this attitude ever change? The one person who is most affected by a death is the spouse of the deceased. How is it fair to treat widowed women as a scourge? How is it fair to blame them for something they have no control over? Why are we still living in the Middle Ages? Can we ever drag ourselves into the 21st Century?

Monday, December 10, 2007

In defence of IT

Before anyone wonders, yes, this title is inspired by the book, "In Defence of Globalisation" by Jagdish Bhagwati. And no, this is not a book review. I remembered the book because it defends a phenomenon that has widely been criticised and maligned for all the ills that plague the world today. From International Organisations to NGOs to individuals, everyone blames globalisation for global warming, income disparities, conflict, human rights abuse and the like. The December 17 issue of Outlook Magazine carries much the same tirade against the IT industry and blames it for polluting Bangalore (known as India's answer to Silicon Valley). Not just that, IT is also held responsible for the escalating land prices, changing moral values, and entry of "western decadence" into a city that was once a pensioner's paradise. Of the many articles, two deserve comment, not so much because they represent two ends of the spectrum, but because they manifest an almost irrational resentment towards the IT industry.

The first article is by Dr. C.N.R. Rao, currently Scientific Advisor to the Government of India. Dr. Rao is a respected and learned man. But, that does not give him the right to pass a moral judgement on what people in the IT industry do. And that, is precisely what he does in this article when he laments that,
"Bright people at a very young age, before they are even 20, think of IT as an option because they can make quick money. Lots of intelligent people are doing jobs that are much below their intellectual capabilities. They are like coolies who are working for wages and not producing great intellectual material."
Does this mean that all IT professionals are idiots? Or is he trying to say they don't use the brains they have? Both claims are false and imply that the work Dr. Rao is doing is intellectually superior to that of the IT professionals. Most importantly, can we do without IT? Secondly, in the introductory lines of this article, he calls himself a real Bangalorean. And goes on to say he was born in Basavangudi. Does that mean that all others are outsiders who have invaded what is rightfully his? If that is truly what he thinks, then he is being extremely intolerant and territorial. As Confused says on her blog, Indians have a problem against outsiders in general. And this problem seems to be particularly pronounced in Bangalore. Dr. Rao also seems to be upset that IT professionals are making a lot of money. What else could prompt him to say that "people have lost respect for scholarship. Money and commerce has taken over?" That claim is far from true. If he, or anyone else thinks that IT is a field where one does not need to use brains, they are gravely mistaken.

Moving on, the second article by Subroto Bagchi, COO of MindTree Consulting, is equally critical of the IT industry. This, despite the fact that Mr. Bagchi is very much a part of the industry he criticises. Before I start about why I disagree with Mr. Bagchi, I must observe that he uses many words to convey absolutely nothing. His sentences seem grammatically correct, but make no sense to the reader. There are many things wrong with his article. First, he claims that the IT industry was built by a few anonymous people. I assume he means, unknown or lesser known individuals. He then goes on to examine the antecedents of our IT czars, like Narayanamurthy of Infosys and Azim Premji of Wipro. He comes to the conclusion that "all of them went on to build global organisations for India, without having to work the system. A few forward-looking bureaucrats and politicians helped from behind the curtains." I wonder how much truth there is to that claim. My dad says they all had to go through the same hassles that all other budding industrialists do when they start a company. And he has been in the IT industry for over 30 years now. We must not forget that the first tax sops given to the IT industry are less than 10 years old. In fact, the government started taking IT seriously only in the late 90s. And the industry existed for at least 10 years before that.

Why is IT suddenly the bad boy of Indian industry? Is it because, as Bagchi says, "the IT industry started choking cities, upsetting local culture, creating wage disparities. And in the process of wowing the world, it was creating social isolation?" Is it even fair to blame IT and IT alone for all that is wrong with the world today? Is the IT professional's job not fundamentally different from that of the car mechanic, the doctor, the actor, the politician or the civil engineer? When that is the case, how can we compare salaries in IT with salaries in other industries? Is it not like comparing apples and oranges? Secondly, does a higher salary level for the IT professional mean that his job is qualitatively different from mine, or yours? Can we please stop this IT-bashing and respect them for what they are? Like every other industry, IT has its share of positives and negatives. It is time we stopped treating the industry like an outsider who has taken away jobs from the locals. If anything, IT has contributed to employment generation in a way that not many other industries have. We must remember that IT is here to stay, whether we like it or not.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The United States, women and the right to choose

I have been meaning to blog for the past three days at least. Somehow, the end of the month seems to be a bad time for blogging. So, all I did was to bookmark several links for further reference. All the three things I was planning to address have something to do with the United States. One, is simply political; the second is social; and the third, a mix of the social, the personal and the political.

To begin with the political. I just came across this article in the Times, stating that the United States has the legal right to kidnap foreign citizens if they are wanted for a crime in the United States. That's right. The legal right to kidnap someone. When I first read the headline on the India Uncut blog, I thought it was a spoof of some kind. Even when I read the whole article on the Times site, I had trouble believing it was actually true. What if another country claimed the same right? What if Afghanistan were to kidnap Mr. Bush Jr. for war crimes? (Hmm...not a bad idea!) Would the US not be screaming bloody murder? Anyway, food for thought, that.

Now, the social. Ms. Clinton, as we all know, is running for President. But, the way her opponents are criticising her role as First Lady, some implying she was too nosy, others insisting that bedtime talk with husband Bill was hardly a qualification, makes me wonder if the US will ever get out of the 17th Century and into the 21st. I don't claim to be the most liberated of women. I do have my restrictions. I come from a country where the sex ratio is a pathetic 927 for 1000 men, where women must struggle to be properly fed and fight to be educated. But, I also come from a country that elected a woman to the highest office of the land a couple of months ago, and to the post of Prime Minister almost four decades ago. Last year's local body elections in Tamil Nadu witnessed an unprecedented number of women filing nomination papers. Three Indian states are ruled by women and a number of women hold or have held prominent positions at the centre. Whatever is the US doing? Why is it still acceptable to slander Ms. Clinton because she was First Lady, and belittle her achievements because she is a woman? I do not contend that Ms. Clinton is the best possible candidate for president, but all this criticism about husband Bill telling her about White House business annoys me to no end. Does anyone ever criticise a man and tell him that all that he knows is thanks to his wife's bedtime discussions with him? This just proves that, economic progress notwithstanding, we are still living in a man's world.

Finally, the long-standing US debate on abortion got my attention, once again thanks to this India Uncut blogpost. Those who campaign passionately for foetal rights are forgetting something very basic. The foetus cannot survive outside of the mother's body. And as Amit Varma points out, a woman's body is her own. She has the right to decide whether she wants the baby or not. Anti-abortion campaigners make it sound as though the woman gets rid of the baby for her convenience with no qualms. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Abortion is an extremely sensitive issue. A woman is confronted with a hard choice when she discovers an unwanted, and unexpected pregnancy. She does not enjoy abortion. Nobody does. But we must remember that she is an individual in her own right. Carrying the baby (or aborting) is her choice. The state has no business interfering. By refusing to legalise abortion, the government (both American and others) puts the woman's life in immeasurable danger. If the option was accessible to all, there would be no reason to go to fake doctors, undergo dangerous procedures for termination of pregnancy and suffer irreversible harm. Human rights (of full-grown individuals) is, in this case more important than foetal rights. At least, that is what I think.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The obsession with "fair and lovely"

Of late, I have come across at least half a dozen fairness cream ads that have offended my sensibilities in some way. Not to mention that "fair and lovely" men suddenly seems to be all the rage in India. What's this with fair men anyway? I would rather marry an intelligent, loving and dark man than an arrogant, fair one. Uhm...actually, the man I love is...well, not fair. The fairness cream ads of the recent past have been more offensive than encouraging. One ad for the Unilever product "Fair and Lovely" portrays a young danseuse using fair and lovely every day and going on to win the dance finals. What the %#&$@??? Does that mean she was not a good dancer when she had darker skin? It implies that only fair people are talented and successful. Why are we, as a nation so obsessed with fairness? One cursory look at matrimonial sites like shaadi.com reveal the national preference for fair skin. The famous air hostess ad for the same Unilever product was withdrawn from air after widespread protests about its content. The ad features a father lamenting the fact that he has no son: just a dark-skinned daughter who cannot get a job because of her complexion. "Kaash mera ek beta hota," (I wish I had a son) he says in a fit of depression. Such ads only reinforce the stereotype that fair equals beautiful. I know plenty of dark-skinned women who can easily be qualified as stunningly beautiful.

This stereotype apart, these ads generally suggest that women should be fair for one of two reasons. One, to be able to find a high-profile job as an air hostess or a TV anchor; and two, to find the perfect, handsome knight-in-shining-armour who will sweep her off her feet. Never mind that the said knight-in-shining-armour ignored her just a couple of weeks ago when she was a few shades darker and treated her as if she were transparent. Whatever happened to self-esteem? An ad portrays a woman as winning her man over with some magic potion that makes her skin lighter, and the woman's only ambition in life is to be fairer than the girl-next-door. Such ads not only perpetrate the popular myth that fair is beautiful, but are also seriously damaging to the self-esteem of those women (and now men too) who happen to have dark skin.

While we are on the subject of fair skin, I must talk about a rather interesting talk show on the Star Vijay channel that featured a debate on Tamilians as compared to people of other states. The anchor, presumably hoping to create some controversy, asked the discussants who they considered more beautiful: people of Tamil Nadu or those from other states. And voilà, the answer was on predictable lines. A large majority of people contended that North Indians were the more beautiful species. When asked why they thought so, most of them said it was because the North Indians had fairer skin. How long are we going to stick to the colonial mindset of fair=beautiful? When are we, as a nation, going to realise that skin colour does not matter as much as character and talent? When are we going to stop obsessing with Fair&Lovely, Fairever, Fair and Ageless, Fair and Handsome etc. and start accepting people for what they are, warts and all? My guess is: not for another millenium. We protest when we are accused of racism (I am guilty of that act myself), but we remain fairness obsessed in our personal lives. Will this ever change?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Saudi Arabia and the Rule of Law

The recent decision of a Saudi Arabian court to award a rape victim a sentence of 200 lashes and six months is prison is indeed condemnable. The court not only punished the victim, called the "Qatif Girl" for allegedly violating Islamic law by being present in a car with an unrelated man, but also banned her lawyer from practising and stripped him of his license. This cannot be justified on the grounds of religion and tradition by any stretch of imagination. This is not the first time that a rape victim is treated as a criminal. Nor is Saudi Arabia the only country to criminalise a rape victim. It is easy for us, as Indians, to blame the entire episode on a faulty interpretation of the Sharia, but what happens in India is no better. While the courts in Saudi Arabia have sentenced the girl on the grounds of violation of some ridiculous law, courts, prosecution lawyers and law-enforcement officials in India shame the victim into withdrawing her case and disappearing from public view.

If in Saudi Arabia, the problem lies with the absence of proper laws, in India the problem lies with interpretation of existing laws. The social stigma surrounding a rape victim is such that many incidents go unreported. If ever a woman finds the courage to report what has happened to her, she finds herself under the scanner and is made to answer humiliating and insulting questions about her behaviour. "The Qatif Girl" is just one among millions of women around the world to be suffering persecution because they dared to speak out. Remember the case of Mukhtaran Mai of Pakistan who was raped because her brother was caught talking to a girl from another community? Every culture, every country and every religion has treated women like objects. This sentence by Saudi Arabian courts is just an extension of the attitude. While the rest of the world obsesses with the US elections, bomb blasts, political gimmicks and global warming, millions of such women across the world will continue to suffer in silence.

What are the democratic and liberal countries of the world doing? Where is the self-righteous indignation of the US and the UK? Does Saudi Arabia's loyal and blind support of the US "War on Terror" push such blatant human rights violations under the carpet? If the same thing were to happen in Iran, would Bush and Co. not have called for boycott, protest or sanction? What is it that makes Saudi Arabia immune to such international pressure? Or is it stupid on my part to expect that the violation of the rights of women be taken up with as much seriousness as the development of a nuclear programme by Iran? I suppose human rights do not really apply to the allies of the US. Noises about human rights records are made at appropriate intervals, while negotiating deals with China and other undemocratic countries. But, Saudi Arabia is obviously not on the human rights radar of the US. The less said about India's reaction (or lack of it) to the Saudi rape case the better. After all, it is politically incorrect to criticise Islam (or Islamic countries) in this country. I had better shut up now, lest I be accused of hurting minority sentiments (which seems to be increasingly fragile nowadays).

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Education, business, Kolkata burning and Ms. Nasreen again!

Yesterday, I read a satirical take on the state of education in today's world. Humorous though it was, it deserves serious thought and discussion. This Rediff satire on the recent decision of the principal of a well-known Mumbai college to enforce a dress code in the middle of examinations is something worth talking about. Moral policing apart, the satire exposes one simple fact: that some colleges exist solely to make money. As the principal in Vadukut's story puts it so succinctly,
"Must I tell you every day? What do you think we are? A shady outfit merely run to siphon off funds? A platform for political manipulation? Some sort of ragtag institute run by the principal like his personal property?"

"Sir. Why do you even ask such questions and insult me? Of course we are."
Well...can one make it any more obvious why such private colleges exist? The truth is that very few colleges today fulfil their duties as educational institutions. They are simply run to siphon off funds, or to whiten the black money made by their owners and patrons in other, equally shady business deals. Some of the private colleges assume the role of the moral police, when those who run the institutions are themselves totally immoral. Will this ever change? Will private colleges and deemed universities and the like actually be held responsible for their actions before a competent tribunal? It's up to the UGC to take the responsibility. Whether they will actually do it is anyone's guess.

Moving on, CNN-IBN tells me, on television, that Kolkata is burning. When I first heard the news this afternoon, I assumed that the Nandigram issue had finally reached boiling point. But no, I was apparently mistaken. A rather shady outfit by name of the All India Minority Forum (AIMF) called for a roadblock this morning. Soon, the protest turned violent and the army was called in to maintain law and order. Now, in India, when the army is called in to restore peace, it means something is seriously wrong. Otherwise, the army just stays out of internal affairs. The policy will normally suffice. Only later in the afternoon did I realise that the protests were not just against the Nandigram issue. Apparently, the AIMF, which called for the protests, want eminent Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen to be shipped out of India at the earliest possible instance. Her sin? That she said something, allegedly blasphemous, in her most recent book Shodh.

This kind of behaviour goes against pretty much everything I was taught as a kid. Or am I being naive in wanting to actually practise what I was taught in school? I grew up in a liberal, rest-not-until-you-get-answers background. I was taught that it is Man's (and woman's) fundamental right to speak their mind. I was taught that, in a democracy, freedom of expression is paramount. I was also taught that even if you did not have anything to eat, you must have the freedom to say you are starving. What has happened to the India I know? What has happened to that sacrosanct freedom of expression? This censorship of personal opinion began with the banning of Satanic Verses way back in 1988, barely 10 days after its release. It has not stopped until today. The right to free speech is shamelessly curtailed and the press censored in the name of protecting minority sentiments. I do acknowledge that religious minorities in India must be given adequate protection. But, is this not going too far? If the AIMF can bring an entire city to a standstill today, forcing the army to step in to maintain law and order, is there not something seriously wrong with the way things are going?

What irks me even more that the protests, is the fact that nobody seems to be talking about Ms. Nasreen's right to say what she thinks is right. Nobody is arguing she is right. But even dissent must be within the acceptable framework of democracy. Burning public vehicles and causing infinite inconvenience to common people in the name of a protest march is simply unacceptable. Will someone please talk about it? Will the state government, and the Centre forget their pseudo-secularism for a moment and defend Ms. Nasreen's right to live where she wants to and say what she wants to?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Disappearing languages

The November 19 edition of Outlook Magazine carries this article on disappearing languages, which I found extremely interesting. The opening statement that a language dies somewhere in the world every 14 days, is indeed incredible. That is why the endangered language list of the world comprises languages spoken in practically every country in the world. A good example would be Siletz Dee-ni spoken somewhere in the United States, that had just one speaker in 2007. There are many other such languages that are spoken by not more than a handful of people.

Statistics apart, this piece of information set me thinking. Why exactly do languages die? How can someone, whose mother tongue is language X, totally forget the language and neglect to teach it to the next generation? What motivates a person to abandon his/her mother tongue completely in favour of another, alien tongue? Of course, the mother tongue is not compatible with the economic activity of the individual. My mother tongue, Kannada, is certainly not compatible with either security studies or French language teaching. But, that does not mean I forget the language, or not bother to teach my kids the language. My cousins speak both Tamil, the language of their father, and Kannada, the language of their mother. I do acknowledge the problem of expatriates and others, far away from their families. But, why do families as a whole decide to adopt another language, as is the case with Siletz Dee-ni or any other language?

It's a pity that, along with languages, whole cultures are disappearing. A language brings along with it a host of practices, values and a whole new outlook to life, that is irretrievably lost when the language becomes extinct. What is even more shocking is that even India, which is lauded for its astounding linguistic diversity is home to several endangered languages, of them, Greater Andamanese, which has a mere 7 fluent speakers. I can only hope that the initiative of the the Central Institute for Indian Languages to revive them is successful.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

My brand new food blog

It's finally up! After vigorously debating the pros and cons of Paal Paayasam and Baadam Halwa, I finally posted my first recipe. Unfortunately for you sweet-lovers, it something rather spicy. Maybe I will get around to posting the recipe for Baadam Halwa some time soon. Anyway, check out the new blog here. And let me know how you like it, I mean both the blog and the recipes.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nalanda, Asian universities and the former Yale dean

This opinion column by Jeffrey Garten (former Yale dean) in the New York Times is worth both reading and commenting. First, he acknowledges and appreciates the importance of Asia to the world in general. Second, he realises, unlike most other western policy-makers that countries like India, China, South Korea and Japan joining forces to create a state-of-the-art university could have a significant impact on Asia's future role in world affairs. As an external observer, he asks the many questions we tend to overlook in our euphoria about a potential superpower status in the near future. One important question is whether these countries, especially India and China can effectively cooperate and pool their individual strengths, given their obsession with national sovereignty. Not to mention that Nalanda is in Bihar, as Amit Varma puts it so effectively, and explains in the update to his post of November 14. In a state where there is no guarantee of safety of limb and life, can we honestly expect a world-class university. Ok, ok. I am not saying that Bihar is a horrible place. I am simply observing the apparent and total absence of any kind of government activity in the state. I know many of my readers will blame the state of affairs on the "neglect" of Bihar by the Central Government and lament that there are no national highways in that immensely large state. But still...

That does not solve our problem of founding a world-class institution in India. India has many universities, both private and public. I could not find the actual number of universities in the country, but this Wikipedia article gives you a rather exhaustive list of recognised universities in India. Given the ungodly number of universities that already exist in the country, what exactly is the need to found yet another "world-class" university? As if that is not enough, our beloved policy-makers want to revive the Nalanda University, which is one of the world's oldest universities. It is a Buddhist university. Need I say more? This is ample chance for the Hindutva brigade to appropriate credit for the existence of a university that disappeared in 1197. And also a chance for the wonderful "secular" forces to cry wolf yet again. I would seriously like to know why we cannot just improve the facilities in existing Indian universities, given that there are so many of them? Do countries like China, Japan and South Korea have any objection to contributing to the improvement of our IITs, IIMs and other universities? Maybe the name must change. After all, why would China want to contribute to the Indian Institute of Technology? But, what about others? What is stopping these guys from renaming the Jawaharlal Nehru University as the Pan-Asian University or something like that? Or improving upon existing infrastructure in any of the countries contributing to the task? This obsession with something that has been dead for more than 800 years is beyond my comprehension. As Garten says, we are simply not thinking big enough. We need to move ahead into the 21st century because great ideas are as important as tonnes of money.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Blog surfing, casteism etc...

I have been blog surfing for the last few days. I must say I came across quite a few interesting ones. The most attractive blog title was Anna Mosaranna. Being the eternal mosaranna (curd rice) lover, I realised that I shared this passion with at least one other person: the mystery writer of Anna Mosaranna from Boston. Anyway, another potential Thayir Saadam blog was that of Asal Tamizh Penn. It's humorous, and makes for good bedtime-reading. But, these blogs, coupled with a repeat telecast of the Big Fight on NDTV yesterday on racism, set me thinking about things that one is not supposed to take seriously anyway.

To start with Anna Mosaranna, à la Anna Karenina, it says very little about mosaranna of any kind. It devotes itself, rather disappointingly, to the principles of Economics, both real and imagined. :-( Moving on, Asal Tamizh Penn is, well, very Tamizh. While I recognise and appreciate the humour with which most of her posts are written, a tiny bit of me can't help but wonder why we Indians are so...clannish. It's not as if I am the most inclusive and tolerant person in the universe. But, I try. I try very hard to sound as cosmopolitan as I possibly can. Despite my best efforts I do sound very Tamizh sometimes, notwithstanding the fact that I am not Tamil, at least, not genetically. I mean, are we not better off without out caste-based, language-based, region-based, or whatever-else-based identities? Why must I be expected to behave in a certain way simply because I was born into a certain caste/religion/region etc.? Every post by Asal Tamizh Penn (henceforth known as ATP because the name is too long to type) reinforces a stereotype. Want to know what?
  1. All Tamilians are obsessed with Engineering and Mathematics
  2. Tamil = Brahmin = Vadama Iyer (or Vaathima or Brahacharanam or Iyengar depending on who the writer is)
  3. All Tamilians watch Metti Oli (or whatever else is on now) on Sun TV as against Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Girlfriend Thi (oops! Bahu Thi...) on Star TV
  4. All Tamilians can't speak (or refuse to speak) Hindi because it is injurious to their rather fragile Tamizh pride
  5. The only place worth living in (if you are Tamil and Brahmin) is the overly crowded and increasingly intolerable T Nagar.
  6. All Tamilian parents have this general obsession of getting their sons married to a nice, well-educated, homely, fair, intelligent, and cooks-like-Madisaar Maami Tamizh girl. Actually, that is true of most Indian parents irrespective of language or region. Just replace Madisaar Maami with Sanjeev Kapoor and you get the general idea.
This, and many more stereotypes are reinforced by Ms. ATP. Well, you know, there are people in Chennai. People who are not Brahmin, Tamil or engineers. As unlikely as it may seem, the rest of the world is not as...uhm...stuck up...as our conformists are. What's this about conformism anyway? Why is it so hep to be conformist? Guys, cmon! Lighten up. It's fun to break rules. It's fun not to be traditional. Ever tried sneaking into the kitchen when mum is not around to steal a sweet or a toffee? You must try it some day. It's thrilling beyond measure. I assure you it's just as thrilling not to be Asal Tamizh Penn. Try being not-so-asal. It's fun.

Ok...now, moving on to the Big Fight. It was pretty ridiculous to see intelligent individuals talk about how racist India is. Casteist, well...that's true. But racists? How the hell can Indians be racist when there are so many different skin colours within India itself. Of course, being fair is considered paramount for women. But not too many people really care about the complexion of men. And, the last time I checked, Andrew Symonds was a man. It's simply stupid to argue that Indians taunted Symonds because he was black. Other Australian, English, Pakistani and Sri Lankan players have been taunted by spectators. Of course, such behaviour cannot be condoned, but to call it racist abuse is simply going overboard. All I can say is, let's stop exaggerating issues and tackle those issues that really need to be addressed. Can't decide what is important? How about female foeticide, education for all, economic development and empowerment of lower castes? Symonds is a sportsman. He must learn to deal with crowd behaviour. Nothing can be done to 70,000 spectators. The mindset must change. And that change will take time. In the meantime, the Australians would do well to learn a lesson or two about not racially abusing people too.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sounding an idea out...

I have an idea. Why not begin a food blog? And display my not-negligible cooking talent, helping the many who don't cook in the bargain, by publishing recipes on a new blog called Nalabaagam? (The name is just an idea. It may change.) Does that interest any of you out there? Please do leave comments so that I know what you are thinking. If it does seem interesting, you can expect the first post of the new blog in a couple of days. What say?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Outsourcing revisited

Yesterday, I watched, for the second time, a Discovery Feature by Thomas L Friedman that deals with the phenomenon of outsourcing in India. When I first watched it a year ago, I was impressed by the depth and range behind the feature. I stopped there. I did not bother to go through the comments to the video on YouTube. But yesterday, I found the comments more interesting. The video explores the changing relationship between the service provider and the customer. Call any service centre in the US and chances are, you will hear an Indian voice on the other end. You could have problems with your computer, your bank account, your investments, your food processor or your hair dryer and more often than not, it will be an Indian fixing it for you. This state of affairs would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. The internet, falling cost of communication and technological development have made this kind of outsourcing, not just possible, but very common. Think about it, you have decided to mortgage your house. The bank approves the mortgage. The next day, the formalities are complete and you have your money. Would this be possible in the pre-BPO world? I doubt it. For, when you are enjoying a good night's sleep in the US, India is awake and working to complete the paperwork you will need in 12 hours.

All this sounds fantastic, but some of the comments to the said video on YouTube are shocking. One person says,
"i can hardly begin to tell you how disgusting this phenomenon is. You people that are so impressed by this "great" video do NOT seem to understand that 99.9999999% of Americans HATE getting an Indian voice when they call and need something. Please take a moment and let it sink in. AMERICANS CAN'T STAND INDIA CALL CENTERS!!!"
Need I even comment? This person, who so hates getting an Indian voice on a call can't spell the word Indian properly. And yes, he seems to think that people are objects. No wonder people that are impressed don't understand something. I mean, what the &^@!?? Being American does not give someone the right to be derisive of those who are not. The last time I checked, Indians spoke English as well as anyone else. In fact, we stick to conventional English grammar more closely that the Americans. And, I thought English was English and not American. Honestly, I don't care what the Americans like and what they hate. If I were a call centre employee in India, I would do my job because I am paid for it. Whoever said I needed to speak with an American twang to be considered competent? Try telling the Quebecois that their French is not French. Or the Australians that their English is not English. You wouldn't dare, would you? So why do people assume they can say what they want about Indian English just because we have other, well-developed languages? (Or is this guy/girl simply racist?) Are we any less fluent than the Americans because we don't have an American accent?

I have nothing against Americans in general. But, this comment by one American effectively ensures that other, moderate voices are never heard. This guy (or girl) goes on to claim that the American Customer Service people clean up the mess Indians create. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Don't believe me? Visit a call centre and find out for yourself. Or, believe people like Friedman who are, at least, objective in their evaluation of outsourcing.

No matter what the Americans, or anyone else for that matter, think, the fact remains that outsourcing is here to stay. Live with it! If people don't like hearing Indian voices when they call, they should learn to live with their million gadgets that don't work. I have lived in France for two years. It is a fact that people cannot survive in the west if their gadgets were to stop working. Try living with broken computers, banks that take 8 days to clear your cheque and investments that go haywire because the financial consultant is on vacation. Then, you will understand how much easier your life has become thanks to outsourcing. The reason is simple. Indians do the same job, as well as any American (or Brit/Frenchman/Australian) for half the cost. And companies exist to make money. Indian call centres are not disappearing any time soon. The sooner the world learns to cope, the better.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Firecrackers...

Today was Diwali (Ref. earlier post of the day for explanation). Every year, I fall sick on this day. No, it's not some strange and unknown curse like that of the Pharaohs that gets me, but a simple allergy. Every year, I get allergic to the smoke caused by firecrackers and fall sick. Last year, it was a throat infection. The year before last I was, thankfully, in Paris. And in the preceding years, I was variously sick with cold, sneezing, throat infection and even fever. This year, I suspect it will be wheezing. I can hardly breathe. The air is full of smoke. I wish I could do something about it. Before any of you begin to accuse me of double standards, I have never burst crackers, even as a kid, nor do I intend to in the near future. I refused to burst them, not because I was making a statement against pollution, but because I was terrified of the noise it made.

Anyway, my rants apart, the point is, is this really necessary? The last I heard, Diwali was also known as Deepavali: the festival of lights. I don't see too much light here in Chennai. Instead, I hear the kind of noise one would expect if he/she were stuck on Mount Road with everyone around them honking. One look at the price list of the local supermarket reveals rather a lot. One would have to spend nearly Rs. 2000 ($50) on firecrackers for a child. This, assuming the said kid likes to burst them and have a good time. And in India, Rs. 2000 is a lot of money. Is this really needed? Can't we teach our kids to spend that money better? Even a trip to a restaurant or new clothes would be worth it. It appears a criminal waste to buy firecrackers for $50 only to burn them up (literally) the next day. Be honest, would you burn a $50 bill for fun? I wouldn't.

Oh well, I am ranting again. My cousin tells me my questions attest the fact that I am old. She is 12. Maybe she is right. At the ripe old age of 25, I fail to appreciate the intricacies of cracker-bursting and look at it as a waste of money rather than necessary expenditure. Yes, she is right. I am growing old!

Diwali, religion etc...

First of all, wish you a very Happy Diwali. For those of you wondering what hell that is, it is an Indian festival celebrated for the same reason that all other Indian festivals are: to eat, watch the zillion special programmes on television and enjoy a holiday. Given that Diwali is a Hindu festival, now would be a good time to talk of religion. A religion that claims to be one of the most tolerant in the world. Don't get me wrong. Hinduism is very tolerant if the devotee is just left alone. But, our guardians of religion (read priests and temple officials) just decide to make things as difficult as possible for the average Hindu. This priest claims that the God housed in the Sri Krishna temple at Guruvayoor does not like salwar-kameez! The salwar-kameez is a North Indian attire that millions of Indian women, including me, feel comfortable wearing. It is so popular that it can probably be called India's national dress. Now, apparently, God decided that he did not like the women entering his temple to be clad in salwar-kameez. Pray, how does a priest know what God likes and does not like? Does God have a mobile phone on which the priest can contact him? Or perhaps, as Amit Varma suggests, He must simply provide an RSS feed of his wishes.

But seriously, what was Mr. Padmanabhan Sharma (the astrologer/priest/whatever else he is) thinking? That rational, thinking individuals would actually take him seriously? And just who is he to decide what women devotees should wear? This is not the first time the Guruvayoor temple is in the news for the wrong reasons. Some time back, the head priest of the temple denied entry to a devotee because he was married to a Christian. As I had said in my earlier post, if Hinduism is as inclusive as it claims to be, it must accept that dresses are part of a culture. Denying entry into women who wear salwar-kameez is tantamount to denying entry to women because they are Punjabi or Haryanvi. Whatever happened to equality? Can't we try and set an example? Or am I being a heretic?

PS: In case any of you are wondering why the look and feel of my blog keeps changing, I am experimenting with templates. I am hardly an expert in XML. So please bear with me until I get a template that satisfies me.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

It's a fictional character...for Heaven's sake!

Yes, I mean Albus Dumbledore, the lovable Headmaster in the Harry Potter books. The hype and hoopla surrounding the recent revelation that Dumbledore is gay is unbelievable. I have read analyses, letters, book reviews and even a feature in a magazine on how it affects the series. Well...the simple truth is, it doesn't. Dumbledore's sexuality has absolutely no bearing on the story itself. Neither is it obvious to readers that Dumbledore was, in fact, gay. Then, what's the big deal? Whatever our reaction may be to homosexuality in general, I don't see how that interferes with our enjoyment of the books.

My greatest confusion comes from people saying homosexuality is anti-Christian and so it ruins the books for the reader. Tell me, do we think about religion while reading a story book? At least, I don't. To me, Dumbledore's sexual preferences hold no consequence whatsoever. To me, Dumbledore is a brilliantly etched fictional character, with his own flaws and drawbacks. That is what makes him human. If he is gay, and that is a problem, then it would be just another one of his flaws. Why should long-time readers of the Potter books suddenly detest both the author and the series? Do we stop reading the works of Oscar Wilde because he happened to be gay? If not, then why are we so obsessed with Dumbledore?

Maybe we, as readers, should learn to separate fact from fiction. Maybe we should be more rational in our outlook towards things that exist, even if we don't agree with what's happening. Does that make me a bad person? I hardly think so.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Karnataka quagmire

The drama surrounding the refusal of Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy to hand over power to the BJP is old news. That, in itself , was betrayal of an agreement in my opinion. But what has happened since the state came under President's Rule on October 9, goes beyond all expectations. Not that I believed that our politicians had any morals in the first place, but the actions of the Janata Dal (S) and the BJP in the state really take the cake. First, a state Chief Minister back down from a very public agreement to transfer power to his coalition partners. Then, the father of the said CM, who also happens to be the chief of the Party and a former Prime Minister of the country says it was a sin to have ever entered into a power-sharing agreement with a "communal" party. You see, he did not know, at that time, that the BJP was communal. He vows his support to the minority communities and promises not to let a power-hungry "fascist" party take power in the state. In the meantime, he tries to broker a deal with other parties to try and get his son back on the Chief Minister's chair. All attempts fail and the state comes under Central rule.

Barely two weeks later, we learn that the said "communal" and "fascist" party and the "secular" one are bedfellows again. The leaders are seen shaking hands and hugging one another in public. They all troop to the Governor of the state to try and convince him to invite them to form a government. The Governor, being answerable to the Central Government, asks for a couple of days to decide. Impatient with the delay, the "fascists" threaten to take to the streets, in an attempt to force the Governor's hand. As if this is not enough, the president of the "secular" party's state unit calls it "a murder of democracy."

Of course, it's a murder of democracy. It is not murder when two parties that contested one another in the election join hands in an unholy alliance, simply because they want power. And, it is not murder when one of the two parties backtracks on a public commitment and calls it's ally a fascist. It is definitely not murder when suddenly, driven by a desire to seize power, the two adversaries reach a compromise and go back to the Governor to get their power back. Neither is it murder when the two parties, terrified of facing a mid-term election shower praises on the ally they slandered barely 2 weeks ago. But, of course, the refusal of a state Governor to take a decision without first consulting the Centre on it is a murder of democracy. But of course!

Is this what we wanted when we elected our government? What does the average Indian voter do when he/she votes to throw a government out simply to realise that the government will be back in power anyway with the help of the same people they slandered not 2 weeks ago? Are we really living in a democracy? Do we, as voters, actually have a choice? Or are we being asked to choose between the Devil and the deep blue sea? I only have questions. And no answers.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Women, marriage and compromise

Yesterday, I was going through Ms. Bansal's blog, and I came across this post on Chak De India. I know it's a bit late to write on this movie, especially as I have already written on it once. But, the temptation was irresistible. What caught my attention was not so much the post itself but a comment to the post. This comment, made by someone called Madan, presumably a man, sums up the overall attitude towards women. He says,
"In addition most men are pretty balanced in their outlook towards life,career and family and seem to have no problem juggling them irrespective of their maritial status. But all we hear from the female is constant crib about how society is somehow denying them their rightful place? Strange considering the fact most women marry UP and not DOWN. Men unfortunately don't have the luxury of moving up the social ladder thru marriage." (click here for full post)
He goes on to claim that men and women are given equal opportunities but the equality of result cannot be guaranteed. Equal opportunities? Really? What about the woman who is forced to drop out of school because the education of her brother is more important and the family cannot afford to educate them both? What about the woman who is married off at 18 and has 3 children by the time she is 23? And what about the millions of Indian women who work as house-maids because they face harassment and humiliation if they choose to do anything else? Does Madan and others like him have answer to why women are paid only half as much as men in the construction industry when they work just as hard? India may be on the path to economic development, but the hard truth is that women have to be twice as good as men in their careers to be considered as equals. A woman taking a few months off as maternity leave is seen as a liability to a company rather than as an investment.

Secondly, Madan claims that most women marry up in an attempt to move up the social ladder. Ever stopped to think why women prefer a man who earns better than she does? The reason is simple. Very few men can take it if their wives are more successful in their careers than they are. A woman chooses a man who earns better than her to avoid the ego clashes that will inevitably occur. There are other, more practical reasons for this. It is inevitably the woman who quits her job, or downsizes her career as Bansal puts it, to take care of the kids. In this scenario, it would only make more sense if the husband earned better so that the family remains financially stable even after the loss of the woman's income. Of course, if men are willing to be stay-at-home dads, there would be no reason for women to marry up.

As for the claim that men don't have the luxury of moving up the social ladder through marriage, nothing could be farther from the truth. Why do men ask for dowry? Because they think it's culturally correct? No. It is because they know they are simply incapable of acquiring the money through their own hard work. It it obviously easier to ask your father-in-law for a car or a flat than to work towards buying one yourself. If this is not moving up the social ladder through marriage, then what is? As if this is not enough, another reader says,
"In fact , the woman survives on the money brought by the husband if she is not working. Everything comes for a price. If the woman is not working , she has to repay by serving her husband in lieu of the food and material comforts he provides her."
What the hell? A woman repays her husband by serving him food and cleaning up after him? If it is business, then what about the free sex the husband gets on demand? Is that business too? A price to pay for staying at home and eating out of the husband's earnings? If all this is true, then I don't think we are talking about a family at all. We are talking about a profit-making corporation where there is no free lunch. And the job of a wife is simply that: a job. And, like all jobs, the employer can be changed. This is an extremely cynical world view and has no place in our lives. I do not say this citing Indian culture or society. I say this because as human beings, we all need a place to call home. A place where every action, or lack of it, will not be measured in monetary terms. I can only hope that this viewpoint is the exception rather than the rule. Otherwise, we will have to rethink our existence as human beings.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Love affairs, society and violence

Recently, there have been reports in the media about couples eloping to get married and the drama that follows the event. The latest news story is about Telugu film star Chiranjeevi's daughter's wedding to her lover of 4 years against her parents wishes. The national media followed the story almost obsessively, even talking to Chiranjeevi himself and to his daughter. In the meantime, the Rizwanur Rahman murder case increasingly resembles the infamous honour killings of Punjab and Haryana. And parts of Pakistan too. But, all this drama behind the elopement and marriage of a star-kid raises one important question. How much attention should the media give to such happenings? Does the mere fact that Srija is Chiranjeevi's daughter nullify her right to a private life. Everything was discussed in the Press. From the cost of her wedding dress to the honeymoon destination, everything was talked about. Experts condemned Chiranjeevi, wondered if Srija was really in love given that she was only 18 and raised a hue and cry about security to the newly-married couple. These experts appropriate the right to talk about her private life simply because she has a star father. Once the hype and hoopla dies down, what is to become of the couple? Does anyone care? Or is it simply a way of increasing circulation and improving TRP ratings?

The Rizwanur murder is another case in point. The media is more obsessed about the love affair between Rizwanur and Priyanka Todi than in the murder itself. Of course, who want to see the gory details of police investigation, post-mortem examinations and forensic evidence? The elopement and marriage of the couple is more interesting right? Is this what the media should do? What about more serious issues like the Global Hunger Report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute was barely mentioned by the media. Where are we going? What is the media, which is supposed to be the fourth estate, doing to create awareness on important issues?

That said, a second issue regarding these elopements and marriages must be addressed. Couples don't elope for the thrill of it. They elope because of parental opposition, pressure and other problems. Nobody likes to run away from home. They are forced to. By this, I am not justifying the decision of the couple to run away. I am simply trying to understand the reasons behind such a decision. This blogpost by Rashmi Bansal hits the nail on the head. The problem is the unwillingness to compromise. Parents always think their kids are too young, too immature or too naive to be able to choose a life partner. That said, kids refuse to acknowledge that their parents' advice and knowledge can sometimes be heeded. Where is the solution? Is there a meeting point? Will things ever change?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Education, reservations and reform

A few days ago, The Hindu reported that the TN Assembly had passed a bill approving 3.5% reservations for minorities (Christians and Muslims) within the 30% quota already existing for backward classes. This 3.5% for minorities is yet another attempt at affirmative action, although whether it really serves to uplift the downtrodden is questionable. The trend towards affirmative action through special quotas seems to be never-ending. Think about it; Tamil Nadu has the highest percentage of reserved seats totalling to a massive 69%, leading even the Apex Court to say that reservations must not exceed 50% if they are to retain their relevance. But no, our politicians have found a way out of the quagmire. They simply create extra seats in engineering and medical colleges to accommodate the reservations-less students and circumvent the Supreme Court ruling. Anyway, the point here is this: what does the rest of the world do if this reservation trend continues? How do good students belonging to unreserved categories get admission into good colleges or get government jobs if this quota goes on increasing?

More importantly, does this quota system really help those who need the help? I think the Times of India got it right this time. We need to start thinking beyond quotas. Far from working towards the abolition of the caste system, the quota system actually reinforces caste identities and helps in entrenching the caste system more firmly in Indian society. The creation of several caste-based political parties is clearly a pointer to this trend. Why can't we rise above petty considerations of caste, religion and community and look at the capacity of the person in question. How does the caste of the applicant to a college or a job matter if the person concerned is capable of carrying on his duties to perfection? Perhaps it is time to look at another way of providing affirmative action. Or perhaps we must now move on from our caste-conscious behaviour and learn to think beyond it.

PS: On an unrelated note, anyone noticed that all those people who left comments on my previous post (saying I was the one who was bullshitting) are men?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The importance of making sense...

I try my best to be as concise as possible when I post. Even then, I sometimes worry about whether I am making my point clearly to my readers. But, here is a blog that worries about nothing: not good writing, not logic, not sensible opinions, nothing. I came across this site when I was reading old posts on Boiling Blood. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I came across the link to the author's profile.

Before I began this post, I wondered if it was worth commenting upon, and prompting my readers to read total crap like this. But then, I decided that I had a lot to say on it and I could not hold back for fear of popularising the blog. When I read the first post ranting about lazy women and echal and pathu, I thought this guy was being sarcastic. But no, I had over-estimated his intelligence. A brief reading of other posts proved to me that he was, indeed, the chauvinist I thought he was. What else do you call a man who says America's low savings rate is because women don't go dhooram during their periods and dare to eat before the esteemed men of the family have had their fill? Anyway, there it is, male chauvinism at its worst. Or best as you may call it. Do the world's feminists have advice to render about handling such men? Honestly, if I knew the guy, I would probably advise all my female friends to stay the hell away from him. Whoever would want to marry him and be treated like an unpaid maid?

That said, I have a serious grudge against people who write in SMS-talk on their blogs. Why the hell can't people take the time to dot their i's and cross their t's? And yes, capitalise their I's?? Ok ok...I am ranting...but please...follow the basics of English grammar...for the sake of your poor readers.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Some responses...

To begin, let me refer my readers to a comment made to my previous post on the nuclear deal. This post is intended mainly as a riposte to the said comment. Arun, while it is true that American ambitions in the rest of the world are far from innocent, I think it is naive to think that India will have to support the US' "atrocities" in the rest of the world if it signs the nuclear deal. The nuclear deal with the US is precisely that: a deal detailing the intricacies of civil nuclear cooperation with the United States. It does not mean that India relinquishes control over its foreign policy. It does not mean that we become the United States' unquestioning ally on the lines of the UK either. It does not even mean that we are totally dependent on the United States for energy, technology, fuel or anything else. After having signed the deal with the US, India is free to sign similar deals with other countries of the P-5. There is nothing in the 123 Agreement that bars India from doing so.

Secondly, I had said in my post that the withdrawal of the deal symbolises a surrender to the Left. The issue here is not of how beneficial the deal is to India. The issue is loss of credibility. The issue could have debated, argued upon, fought for or even rejected before the signing of the 123 Agreement. That is perfectly democratic. But, the fact that a democratically elected government backtracks on a commitment made after the signing of the agreement by no less that the head of government is condemnable. I would not have complained if the withdrawal had resulted from a change of government following a national election. Governments are perfectly free to withdraw from a commitment made by a previous government. That is national politics. But the withdrawal of the commitment by the very same person who signed it in the first place is unacceptable. What makes matters worse is that he takes the decision, not after a vote in Parliament, as is expected in a democracy, but after talks with some selected leaders of the Left, which extends "outside support" but refuses to be part of the government. Not to mention that the meeting is chaired by a woman who is, in no way, accountable to the people who elected her, because she holds no position of responsibility in the government. She is a Member of Parliament like any other. But, her status as daughter-in-law of the Dynasty gives her the power to decide the fate of an issue as important as a bilateral agreement that could have a tremendous impact on India's future. With that, I rest my case.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The deal is dead...or so he said...

As the Times of India puts in its article of about 12 hours ago, "The Nuclear deal is dead. Long live the nuclear deal." The cat is finally out of the bag. The Government of India has surrendered to the blackmail of the Left. A Left, that supports the government "from outside." What does that mean? you may wonder. It means that the Left parties in India hold a lot of power without any responsibility whatsoever. It means they can blackmail the government into accepting their stance without being answerable to anyone, not the Parliament, not the Press, and certainly not the voters. It may not be politically correct to say this, but the Government of India has been brought to its knees by a combination of blackmail, power politics and populism. And, as always, the Congress government has buckled, driven almost exclusively by the desire to stay in power as long as possible.

I am not exactly the greatest fan of the Congress, nor of its dynastic and sycophantic nature. To me, the withdrawal of deal is tantamount to betrayal. As an Indian, I think it is a serious loss of credibility. And if I were the President of any country in the world, I would ask myself just what guarantee I had that the Indian government would not backtrack on a commitment a few months later. An article on Reuters says that rather plainly. The government of India loses both the deal and its credibility by giving in to a Left that refuses to step out of the Cold War-era and into the 21st Century. A Left, that does nothing to contribute to the phenomenal economic growth that India has been witnessing for the last decade. In fact, the Left in India actively campaigns against liberalisation and loosening of governmental control on industry in the name of social justice.

And, while we are on the subject of the nuclear deal, this article in The Hindu caught my attention. It is established fact that a country whose military stays away from politics is freer than one ruled by a military junta. But, what about our esteemed scientists? With all due respect for the ex-chairpersons and ex-directors of the various scientific research institutions of this country, I think they would do well to shut up. Their job is to carry out scientific research and development. And they should stop with doing that. They do not understand either the politics or the economics of the proposed deal, and must thus keep their noses out of the affair. I may not be an authority in nuclear technology, but I certainly think I am qualified enough to discuss the politics of the deal. Just as I think our scientists are not qualified to do the same. All I say to them is this: advise the government by all means, but leave the final decision to the political decision-makers at the top. And stop pretending you know everything about everything simply because the issue is vaguely scientific.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Economic development and social welfare...among other things...

Yet again, I am going to talk about two different things. But, this time around, the two are not entirely unrelated to one another. First, Amalia sent me a link a couple of days ago that spoke of the OECD report on India. It is an article of Le Monde, that says India can reduce its poverty levels to half the current level by 2015. The Policy Brief released by the OECD can be accessed in PDF format here. The report simply confirms what economist have been saying for years; that economic liberalisation has benefited large sections of society, but that further reforms are needed if we want the growth to be sustainable and more inclusive. The Policy Brief puts it rather succinctly when it says, "Reform must continue if government is to achieve its growth targets." I am happy to learn that India is on the right track with liberalisation, no matter what the Left says or wants to believe. It is, of course, evident that there are several sectors that need to be reformed if the phenomenal growth rate of the past two decades is to be sustained.

Of them, the most important is education. In a way, the report vindicated my post of July 22, that creativity is becoming a bad word for most schools, given the national obsession with grades. There are many things wrong with our educational system. The first is that we still pride ourselves on a system created to school a nation of clerks. The second problem is that a government that is so keen on making out IITs and IIMs as good as Harvard spends next to nothing on primary education. I repeat the question I asked some time back on the same blog. How does one get to the IITs or the IIMs when he does not know how to gain access to kindergarten? The government must now concentrate on enabling students from less privileged backgrounds, notably girls, to get at least primary education. Otherwise, we are closing the doors to sustainable development, both economic and human.

That said, I also think the government is doing its best, given the circumstances, to improve the situation. As the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia said on a programme on BBC today, we are an open society. It is easy to find weaknesses in the system. That is a good thing. But, we must also document the successes and find encouragement for further reforms in them. A second statement by Ahluwalia reassured me that our fate is in the right hands. To a question on whether development would 'trickle down' to the bottom, he said that he did not like the expression. As he put it, it implies that development takes place at the top and is distributed to the lower levels. He added that for growth to be inclusive, development must start from the lowest levels. I completely agree. And I hope he stays put at the Planning Commission long enough to ensure that he implements the policies he creates.

Ok...now, moving on. This article of the International Herald Tribune caught my attention this morning. It made me wonder whether the world would have taken such a death in India so lightly. One case of a farmer committing suicide in India hits the headlines and everyone, including starving African nations start talking about how economic growth in India is not inclusive. A case of double standards? I certainly think so. Also, I think such a situation is practically impossible in India. Indian society is too close-knit, even in urban centres, to completely ignore a person like this for months. I only hope that, in the euphoria of economic development, we do not lose sight of the social support system that makes India so special. To me, it is something that must be preserved.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Politics, security and technology...

Here is a post, once again, that talks of things that are unrelated to one another. Let me start with politics, security and armed political opposition. Yesterday, I was at the CSA seminar on Civil Society in Conflict situations. There, one of the speakers, a distinguished and retired army officer analysed some of the characteristics of violence-ridden and conflict-torn societies. He said, in his rather interesting presentation, that conflict situations are often characterised by a lack of basic amenities, poverty, high levels of unemployment and absence of infrastructure. That reminded me of the fabled robbers of Chambal Valley, so famously characterised by Phoolan Devi. But, these factors do not always lead to conflict. Or inversely, all conflict situations are not necessarily characterised by the above problems. In fact, some of the most violent armed struggles of the world have been started and sustained by the prosperous.

Take, for example, the secessionist violence that the Democratic Republic of Congo suffered for decades. The province that wanted to secede, Katanga possesses practically 90% of DRC's natural resources. The same is the case with insurgency in Punjab. Punjab is one of India's richest states, in terms of agricultural produce. As I said some time back in my post on Bihar, the desire to secede or rise in arms against the state comes, not only from the poorest, but also from the richest states. Was Tamil Nadu ever as backward as the Northeast? Why then, did the campaign for a separate Tamil nation catch the people's imagination in the 1960s? Armed political resistance only starts where the insurgents are sure of carrying it on successfully. Insurgency will hardly work in a place where the common man is too worried about his next meal to support insurgent groups. What creates problems and incites insurgency is economic development and influx of money in the absence of good governance. That said, there is no linear relationship between poverty, unemployment and violence. the relationship is much more complex and merits a more detailed study then is possible on a simple blog. So, I will leave that to someone else.

Now, over to technology. The other day, I saw the brand new Lenovo with an in-built face recognition system. Now, that is the kind of computer I would like to buy. But, the said laptop had many more features and weighed just 900 grams. And, cost a whopping 120,000 rupees (about $3000.) So, I contented myself with just looking. The way technology has evolved over the last ten years is amazing. Using fingerprint identification or face recognition to access your computer would have been unthinkable at the turn of the century. At least, for us non-techies. Today, biometric identification for security had permeated every aspect of life. The French Government's decision to include biometric identifiers in all passports issued after September 2006, is symbolic of the change that is sweeping Europe and the rest of the world. It will perhaps take a few more years to get to India, not because we are far behind technologically, but because the Indian government takes a lot longer to act that the EU does. Not to mention that decisions are implemented a decade after they are actually taken, by which time they become redundant. Let us hope we get biometric passports soon. At least before my passport is due for renewal in 2014!

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Great Indian Novel

That's right. It is the famous book by Shashi Tharoor I am talking about. I know it's a bit late to review that book on this blog, but what can I do? I bought myself a copy just a week ago, and finished reading it just a couple of hours ago. But, I can say this confidently. I regret having taken so long to read a book that is so delightfully irreverent and astonishingly well-informed. Now, where do I start? Before I say anything else, let me state that I always knew that Tharoor was a prolific writer. But, this one exceeded my expectations. To cut a long story short, I loved the book. There were many things that I liked about the book. The first, and most important: the treatment of the fictional Gangaji, (the real-life Gandhi) as a master tactician, an expert politician, and sometimes, a biased moralist. The portrayal must have ruffled quite a few Congress feathers when it was first published. It makes me wonder if the current generation of Congress-walahs have even read the book. After all, Tharoor does not exactly flatter them by labelling their 'Goddess Indira' as Priya Duryodhani. Or is the allusion too subtle for the videshi mind of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi to grasp? Do the apologists of the Dynasty even have the brains required to understand Tharoor's satire? I highly doubt they do. For if they had, they would not have nominated him as India's candidate for the position of Secretary General of the United Nations. Congratulations Mr. Tharoor! You have made your point quite clearly.

The second positive aspect, perhaps as important as the first is our beloved first Prime Minister as Dritarashtra. Oh yes, Dritarashtra was blind, literally. That is not his fault. But, Nehru was blind in the metaphorical sense. And, as Tharoor puts it, chose to see the world as he wanted to see it and not as it really was. The analogy, I must say, is quite apt. The references to Draupadi Mokrasi puzzled me, until the very end. Until about an hour after I finished the book. The brilliance of it all hit me on the face as suddenly as a flash of sunlight in a dull, dreary day. Draupadi Mokrasi is precisely that, De-mocracy!! Wow!

Anyway, with that, I will end this eulogy of Tharoor and his book. I do, however, have something to say about Nita's latest blogpost. She has finally completed an incomplete post on NRIs and dollar-earning desis. It was published, if I remember right, way back in October 2006. Wow Nita! Your posts certainly have a long gestation period. Her objections to Rashmi Bansal's article on Rediff are certainly valid. When I first read the said article a year ago, I wasn't as offended as Nita. In fact, I even questioned her defensiveness. But today, I bear testimony to the fact that attitudes evolve. I am just as bugged as Nita by the way Bansal portrays all Indians working abroad as those who are not good enough to make it to top-of-the-rung institutions in India.

Secondly, Nita's feelings about nostalgia are quite valid too. Not everyone feels the need to wax eloquent about crowded sabzi mandis and traffic jams and mum's cooking. We must accept that some people are decidedly happier in their First-World homes with 52-inch televisions and three cars. That doesn't mean they are not Indian. Why do we, as Indians, feel the need to be so judgemental about those who choose to make a foreign land their home despite what Bansal calls cold reception? Do they not have the right to choose the way they want to live? Do we seriously think our NRI cousins or American-born nephews are out to make us jealous and plant diffidence and wistfulness in our desi heads? If we do, we are simply too naive for the world...and lack greatly in entrepreneurship and confidence. If some of us want to chase dollar dreams, so be it? Why is the rest of the world so bothered about that? We may or not may not be good Indians, but we are certainly successful and happy, albeit in an alien land.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Randomness... and the Ram debate too!

Yay!! India are the new Twenty20 World Champions! It's unbelievable... I was crossing my fingers and hoping they don't go and mess this up. It seems my wishes do come true sometimes. :-) Anyway, what I really wanted to write about is rather more serious than India becoming World Champions. The ruckus at the BJP's Tamil Nadu office yesterday is condemnable. I said, in a post a few days ago, that mixing up faith, fact, myth, economics and politics is just plain dirty. While I still stick to that statement, I feel that politicians would do well to refrain from commenting on things they don't understand. Yes, I am talking about our esteemed Chief Minister's comments that Ram is as imaginary a character as those in his novels, and that he was a drunkard. While myth and legend can certainly not be proved or disproved by historians and archaeologists, we would do well to remember that people do not simply cease to believe in the myth one day.

A politician's claim that a revered Hindu God is both imaginary and a drunkard is condemnable. I believe in Ram. Not in his existence as an individual, but in the sway he holds over millions of devout Hindus across the world. If I choose to believe that Ram existed in the Treta Yuga and that he was of divine descent, so be it. Who is a State Chief Minister, who owes both his position and his authority to the millions of believers like me who elected him to call me an idiot? I agree that the right to free speech is fundamental in any democracy. But, my freedom of expression only goes as far as my neighbour's ear. If my statement hurts another in any way, or strikes at the root of his religious belief, I automatically lose the right to free speech. If this holds true for a normal citizen like me, it should rightfully hold true for the Chief Minister too. After all, in a democracy, all are equal.

The question now, is one of economics, not religion or politics. Will the Sethusamudram Project benefit India in the long run? If so, there is no question that it must continue. The existence of Ram or our belief in it is not the Chief Minister's business. That said, I also came across a news item (I can't find the link now...), where a senior DMK leader has exhorted his party men to behead anyone who dares to talk about Ram or his existence. Now, I will say exactly what I please. Why the hell should anyone kill me for expressing my religious beliefs? Are we really living in a democracy. Yesterday's television images of DMK party men vandalising the BJP office and declaring to kill anyone who believes in Ram on camera was shocking. These scenes remind me of Poet Subramanya Bharati's statement, "Pey aatchi seythaal pinam thinnum saathirangal." A bad translation of the line would be "When demons rule, the law eats corpses." That seems to be an apt description of what is going on with the Ram debate in Tamil Nadu. Why must I fear for my life if I am a believing Hindu? Isn't India supposed to be a secular state? Or is secularism just symbolic? I don't know. I have many questions...and no answers...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Mobile phones, cricket and much more...

Before you start wondering what the connection is between mobile phones and cricket, let me clarify...NOTHING. I simply have two unrelated things to say and did not want to publish twice on the same day. Ok...mobile phones first. I have been obsessed with mobile phones lately. The introduction of the new MotoRazr2 (V9) did nothing to diminish it. I don't pretend to be an expert in mobile phone technology, but the MotoRazr sure has a special place in my heart. Maybe because it was the first mobile phone I actually had a choice in buying. I remember going with my dad to buy my very first mobile phone in December 2003. I had just started working at the Alliance Francaise and Dad had agreed to buy me a phone on the condition that I would pay the bill. As he was not very happy with having to buy me a phone, he settled for the cheapest available model, a Sony Ericsson T105. It was a rather boring phone that one could use for nothing other than making calls and sending text messages. Just my luck that it stayed with me for nearly 21 months, until August 2005.

Then came the Nokia 3120. I did not want that phone. I wanted to go out and choose a decent one myself so that I did not have to embarrass myself with the T105 in France. In fact, I was not even sure it would work there. My aunt chose to surprise me with a new phone and went out and purchased the said Nokia. It lasted exactly a year. It conked out the minute its warranty expired. I have no idea why. After using a borrowed phone for a couple of months I decided enough was enough. I wanted a proper phone, one that I would be proud to own. And it turned out to be a MotoRazr. It's been 9 months since I bought it, and I have not had a single complaint so far. That is why I was so excited when I learnt that Motorola was launching an upgraded version in the MotoRazr2 (V9). I don't care what more it can do and how different it is from the V3i that I own. I am totally in love with the way it looks and am wishing someone would offer to buy it for me as a birthday gift. :-P

That said, I come to cricket. The semi-finals of the T20 World Cup is currently under way. I am praying, like millions of other Indians, that India beat Australia in this match. But you never know. The Indian team has the habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in crucial matches. While I am a supporter of the Indian team, my desire to see India win goes beyond patriotism. To be truthful, I am sick and tired of Australia winning all the time. A good game needs to see some decent competition. I wish India would fell the giant and get to the finals. It would be sensational to see India play Pakistan in the finals of the T20 World Cup. Personally, I prefer the longer 50-over version of cricket. Watching a match of T20 feels like watching a match of football disguised as cricket. The feeling was reinforced when I heard that there is something similar to a penalty shoot-out if a match is tied. Anyway, to each one his own. T20 is here to stay and it generates interest. Let's see what happens to Team India in the T20 World Cup...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Remembering...

I just realised I will turn 25 next month. I also just realised that it has been 4 years since I left college. I hated everything while I was there; the library, the department, the rules, the restrictions...everything. Now, I wish I could go back. Go back to the carefree life I led while I was at college. My worries, my problems, my crushes: all of them seem trivial now. It's amazing what four years can do to you. My biggest worry at 21 was whether I would be able to sneak out of college to go watch a rock show at Saarang. Now, I would give anything to be able to worry about that. I suppose it is only normal that people change. In college, I got into trouble every other day. But, come what may, I knew there was one person who would back me up and stand by me. Nandini. Today, I remember those times when I did not value her. I remember those times I did not bother to call and find out how she was doing. It's been a year. A year since I learnt I would never hear her scream into the phone in excitement again. A year since I learnt that I could never again kick her for screaming into my ear. A year since I lost someone I truly loved and never told her that I loved.

I know people don't come back from the dead. I know I am not being realistic in expecting her to call. I still pick up my phone and dial her number sometimes. Yet, I know I need to stop. I wish I could wind the clock back a couple of years. I wish I could have spent more time with her. I wish I could set all the wrongs right. I wish I could have at least told her how much she meant. Unfortunately, all that we wish does not come true... Why her? I suppose it's just fate. I don't know who else to blame. I don't know how else to reconcile to her death. I hope she knew she was loved...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Being Feminist...

I came across a rather interesting blog a couple of days ago. In fact, what attracted me in the first place was the URL rather than its content. It is called beingfeminist.blogspot.com. When I read the latest post, the content interested me too. I bookmarked it, making a mental note to go back in a few days. One of the blog authors, Christina, is an old friend from my days in WCC, Chennai. It was quite by accident that I discovered that I knew the author. Anyway, what really caught my attention was the blogpost titled, "NRI husbands, homemaking and domestic violence...." Hmm...what can I say? The authors are really passionate about what they say, and aren't scared to speak their mind. I must compliment Christina for having said things many other women wouldn't dare say.

That said, I also believe that the views expressed in the above post are not sacrosanct and can be criticised, countered and debated upon. I think Christina is perfectly right when she says that the concept of being a homemaker is so ingrained in the psyche of some women that they cannot imagine themselves as anything else. I personally know many such women. An aunt of mine is so dependent on her husband that she is incapable of stepping out of home and buying vegetables to cook. She is so terrified of getting lost, being harassed, being slandered or being kidnapped (among other things), that she prefers to stay in the safe haven of her own house. She thinks I am a rebel because I went abroad and lived alone for a year and a half. But, have we ever stopped to think why such women exist? What makes them so timid and diffident? Is it society? Family? Chauvinistic husbands who expect their wives to cook and clean for them? Yes, all these factors definitely contribute to the problem.

But, we must not forget that half the problem comes from the women themselves. I personally know many women who regarded a post-graduate degree as a passport to an NRI husband, and consequently, a better lifestyle. Other women who create that mindset are mothers, grandmothers, mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. It would not be an exaggeration to say that women are other women's greatest enemies. Working with other women can be unbelievably complicated. The same holds true within the family. It would do us some good to reflect upon what we tell our girls in their growing-up years. Mothers and grandmothers advise the girls to learn to cook and clean, to groom herself well and get a degree, any degree, so that she can find a suitable boy. It is therefore not surprising that we bring up our men to expect complete submission from their wives. Ever heard a mother tell her daughters to study well so that she will be able to find a great job and a stable career? Somehow, marriage seems to be the be all and end all of a woman's life.

Ok...so what am I saying that is different from Christina's views? In her rants against a male-dominated society, Christina asks how men can be husbands to homemakers. She wonders how a woman can discover herself in dishwashing and mopping of floors. I simply think it is unfair to blame the men for the state of affairs. Ever wondered why a man must work? Ever wondered why it is shameful for a man to take up the performing arts or choose to be a homemaker? No. We don't. The problem is precisely that. As women, we are so caught up in the web of our feminist lives that we forget to stop and look at the other side. Nobody ever questions the necessity of a man's work. It is expected that a man earn his bread and feed his family. It is very easy for us to blame the men in our lives for everything that goes wrong with us. But, think about this. Are men not human beings in their own right? Do they not have the right to want to be homemakers? Can they not cook and clean and take care of kids? Why is it that feminism thinks that women are people but that men are necessarily evil and are out to ruin our lives?

Believe in equality by all means. I completely agree with Christina's views that marriage is not the only thing in life. I also agree when she says that women must not lose themselves in dishwashing and dirty diaper. But, I feel sorry for men when she launches her tirade against them for accepting a homemaker as wife. I think being a homemaker is a more difficult job than feminists would have us believe. Whether you are a man or a woman, try staying at home for a week. And yes, get rid of that maid servant, forget your morning newspaper. Cook, do the dishes, sweep and mop the floor, cook a delicious meal, wash clothes, put them out to dry, remember to get them back in the evening and fold them up, clean up the kitchen after dinner and do the remaining dishes before you go to bed. You will find that your brain is probably more active then, than after a long hard day as a software professional. Mothers don't do this work because they are forced to. My mother would probably feel insulted if someone offered to pay her for this. So would yours; whether she is Indian, American, European or African. Mothers do it because they care. Don't believe me? Ask your mum.

Finally, the question of domestic violence. I completely agree with Christina on that one. Men who beat up their wives, or subject them to emotional abuse deserve to be hanged. Everyone makes mistakes. I won't blame parents for getting their daughter married off. The ideal solution would be the universalisation of love marriages. But since that seems at least a couple of centuries away, I would settle for asking parents not to advise their daughters to "forgive and forget" or "adjust" to such bullshit. A man who beats up his wife deserves no sympathy. Nor do parents who condone such behaviour.