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Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Christmas: The Mystery of Faith

Growing up as a child in Juhu’s Theosophical Colony, the beach was my front yard and I wandered on the sands, marveling at the mystery of the sea. My grandfather told me the sea is a connector and that on the other side was another country where some young guy like me was being told the same thing by his grandfather. I always wondered how the equivalent of me on the other side of the ocean lived. Did he eat the same food; did he speak English, Gujarati and a smattering of Hindi? Was there another Bombay on the other seashore?

Those days I was a student at the colony’s Besant Montessori, where I had many friends, also from the same exclusive (not about wealth) community. An older boy, Freddie, if I recall…it’s been too long and the memory may not be exact…used to take me for long walks on the beach to Versova with someone older. I cannot remember if the older person was his father or older brother or uncle. I do remember it was breathtakingly beautiful, like Goa’s Morjim beach today.

They used to catch crabs, bring them home, boil them in an aluminum container and that was dinner. I couldn't for the life of me understand how people could eat these horribly ugly creatures. But Versova was gorgeous. So when we said our morning prayer at the Besant Montessori: “Thank you God for the world so sweet…,” I always said “Thank you God for Versova.”

Freddie (and I’m not even sure if that was his name; it’s been so long) was a Roman Catholic from Goa, who used to go every Sunday with his family to Juhu Church for something called “Mass.” In Gujarati, the word refers to meat and having seen him eat the crabs, I figured that’s what it was all about. Later, when I was much older, when we went to live in Christ Church Lane in Byculla Bridge, most of my friends were Goan Catholic. I got to know the Catholic belief in Jesus, how he was born of a virgin and how he died for our sins. They too used to go Sunday to church to affirm the belief.

Much later, when I befriended a woman, a Goan Catholic, who became my wife, I went to Christmas Mass with her and have done so ever since. Knowing the Jesus story, I felt kind of cool with the whole ceremony. Each time, the priest said, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.””Faith?” Transcending reason? That was not in my vocabulary. Over the years, this “mystery of faith” concept lingered in my consciousness. I knew in the back of my mind that in the run-of-the-mill sense, faith has to do with superstition and human relationships.

What struck me at Christmas Mass today, where I held my granddaughter in the chapel at Delhi’s Vatican Embassy, the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, was that she was the “mystery of faith.” It was her first Christmas and she looked upward and saw my wife, who was in the balcony, singing with her choir. She waved, yelled “oy” loudly, much to the embarrassment of her parents and her aunt and cousin; but when she blew her a kiss, almost everyone melted. It was like “Joy to the World.”

So what is this mystery of faith? We had no time to ponder these philosophical issues when our daughters came along. We just soldiered on, bringing them up the best way we could. Decades later, I am beginning to understand. The faith thing is about the continuation of the species in general and the family in particular. We don’t know, other than in the biological sense, how children attain consciousness. There is some sort of an app in the human genetic code that when the biology is done, the child develops a personality and asserts her individuality. 

This is the mystery of faith.

True, Maria Montessori studied this early childhood development by observing children from birth. True, there are biological explanations of how children learn and all that. But holding my granddaughter in church today and have the Nuncio (Ambassador) proclaim the “mystery of faith” while the choir sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” I experienced an epiphany: faith is about unconditional love. My mind went back to my wedding day; the birth of my daughters. Yep: it is about love and it is boundless.

As the page of my life turns golden, I do think every now and then about mortality. When I held my granddaughter at the Mass tonight, I realized faith is also about eternity. It’s easy to love our own daughters and we did and do. Bringing them up was an existential challenge. To hold my post millennial granddaughter in my arms while listening to the proclamation of faith and its mystery was a spiritual experience

She just plain showed up in our life and gave me a glimpse of immortality.

Hallelujah!

PS: When the Mass was done, there was really no “Silent Night,” the granddaughter was all over the place, long past her bedtime, hanging with other kids like a party animal, using her limited vocabulary and her limitless cuteness to stir things up. Finally, when her mother picked her up to take her home, she protested. The cry of a future yet to unravel! A glimpse of immortality. The mystery of faith!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Last Word: Have Oppn MPs misunderstood the nature of lobbying?

Have Opposition MPs misunderstood the nature of lobbying as well as its legal status?


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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Debate: BJP's Walmart attack

The issue of Wal-Mart lobbying on Monday (December 10) led to a political storm with Opposition creating pandemonium in the Rajya Sabha and promising to create further trouble tomorrow by pressing its demand for a probe and a statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In a debate moderated by TIMES NOW's Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami, panelists -- Renuka Chaudhary, Natl. Spokesperson & MP, Rajya Sabha Congress; Swaminathan Aiyar, Consulting Editor, Economic Times; Venkaiah Naidu, Senior leader & MP, Rajya Sabha, BJP; Derek O Brien, Chief Whip & MP, TMC; Rajiv Desai, Chairman & CEO, Comma Consulting debate the issue.


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Monday, December 17, 2012

Advocacy of interest or corporate bribery?

"...to secure the public interest, it is vital that the government shine a light on the power brokerages and influences peddlers in Delhi and other states."

Though the BJP's noisemakers may not appreciate it, through their hysterical outbursts against Wal-Mart, they may have unwittingly sponsored a major reform in pursuit of good governance. In its misbegotten campaign against the American firm, the BJP threatened to disrupt Parliament again, as it has done repeatedly for the past nine years. This prompted Parliamentary Affairs minister Kamal Nath to agree to a public inquiry into the company’s lobbying activities in India. Though a spectacularly ignorant BJP spokesman suggested that the minister’s assent to an inquiry proved their point, the truth is that the UPA’s quick response saved the day and it appears that much overdue legislation will now be enacted.

The BJP’s empty-vessel strategy to corner the government on lobbying by Wal-Mart boomeranged in Parliament because of Mr Nath’s finesse. Reports say the government will appoint a retired judge to conduct the inquiry. Most likely, the exercise will stretch out and will hold no more sensation value; the BJP will find some other dubious platform from which to rant against the UPA government. As such, the inquiry will join the long list of commissions that have provided not much more than sinecures for superannuated law officers.

On the other hand, the government could actually use the inquiry to clean up the murk that surrounds lobbying in India. To secure the public interest, it is vital that the government shine a light on power brokerages and influence peddlers in Delhi and in the various states.

A thoughtful judge at the helm of the inquiry might recommend the establishment of a Parliamentary registry that provides credentials to lobbyists, individual as well as firms. In accepting such credentials, lobbyists would be required to disclose their clients and fees received. The registry could go a step further and demand from various government ministries, departments and agencies periodic reports on any contacts they may have had with lobbyists.

Recommendations of this nature could bring much needed transparency to the conduct of public affairs; you won’t have a BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting bribes or a DMK minister A Raja playing fast and loose with the allocation of telecom spectrum. A whole horde of middlemen, the kind you see at power lunches in The Taj or cocktail parties at The Oberoi, will stand exposed. The business of lobbying could become professional and cleansed of the stain of corruption.

Lobbying is a time-honored practice that dates at least as far back as the signing of the Magna Carta in 13th-century England, from whence sprang the right of association and the right to petition authority, the cornerstones of the lobbying profession.

Closer to home and to the age, lobbying has had many beneficial outcomes. These include campaigns for universal primary education, against sex trafficking, to lower taxes on toiletries and cosmetics, to amend laws governing the business of financial services, courier firms and cable operators, among others. They have been successful and have benefited the public interest as much as the interests of those who sponsored them.

This article appeared in Hindustan Times on December 16, 2012.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Andy capped - How to outsmart the smartest of smartphones

Bunny recently outsmarted a smartphone. We’d heard of smartphones. Like we’d heard of flying saucers, and of the giant Hadron collider which scientists have been using to discover whether the Higgs-Boson god particle actually exists. But, as in the case of flying saucers and the giant Hadron collider, we’d never actually met a smartphone. Not until our friend Rajiv got himself one.

Rajiv – who runs a PR company and has been known to hob as well as nob with people like Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit (though the rumour that he calls her Auntiji is probably not based on fact) and the current tenant of Rashtrapati Bhavan, Prez Pranabda – has always been a well-informed and generally clued-up guy. But ever since he got the smartphone he’s become like a brainiac with a genius-level IQ, a sort of Viswanathan Anand who’s been taking IIT-JEE coaching classes on the sly, or an Einstein who’s been given a prescription for Dabur Chyawanprash Golis for Gaining Gyan.



Something or the other, to which no one present seems to know the answer, crops up in conversation. Like who won the last but one assembly by-election in the Phalana-Dhimka district of Gujarat. Or whether it was Mukesh or Mohammed Rafi who did the voice-over for the hero in the Dilip Kumar-starrer Naya Daur. Or what the mean temperature in Vladivostok is during the winter solstice.

And before you know it, Rajiv has whipped out his smartphone, performed some tantric jantar-mantar with it, and come up with the answer to whatever the question was: the winner of the Phalana-Dhimka by-election, the playback singer for Naya Daur, the mean winter solstice Vladivostok temperature. In Celsius, as well as Fahrenheit. So there.

It’s spooky. It’s the electronic age equivalent of a magical brass lamp with an inbuilt know-it-all genie at your command. And Rajiv is not the only person we know who’s got his own rent-agenie in the form of a smartphone. A number of our other friends have got them as well.

The result is that what is called peer pressure – also known as keeping up with the Joneses, though of course in India it wouldn’t be the Joneses, but the Suris, or the Mathurs, or some such – began to build up on Bunny to join the smartphone set. Being so technologically challenged that for a long time i imagined the keyboard formulation called QWERTY to be an umbrella organisation for LGBT fraternities, i was automatically excluded from any such pressure. My getting a smartphone would be like Manmohan Singh being given a gift voucher for Elocution Lessons on Public Speaking. Gee, thanks. But what the heck am i supposed to do with the darn thing?

So Bunny dutifully began to bone up on smartphones. She found out that the name of the genie inside smartphones was Android, Andy to friends. And Andy had something called apps, which are to Andy what abs are to John Abraham, a sort of existential defining trait: i apps, therefore i am.

Thanks to its apps, your personalized Andy could play you music, show you a film, tell you what time it was on the planet Mars, and teach you Gangnam style horse dancing in Seven Easy Steps. All this for about 30,000 bucks, plus or minus change.

Then Bunny asked herself a question: did she really want – for 30,000 bucks, plus or minus change – something that would every day, in every way show her how much smarter it was than her? How smart – or how dumb – was that? That’s when Bunny outsmarted the smartest smartphone ever invented. By deciding not to buy a smartphone.

This article by Jug Suraiya appeared in Times of India on December 14, 2012.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nostalgia live

We should have been called the Magnificent Seven. I thought of this 40 years later. There were seven of us; one died; one didn’t come. So we were left with the Infamous Five last weekend. Not to bore you or anything but aside of me there were Harry, Brave, Chua and Mirchi, (forgive me guys for using the given names), who were inseparable at Baroda’s MS University’s Faculty of Technology.  Harry came from Perth in Western Australia, Chua came from Singapore and Brave and Mirchi came from Bombay for the reunion.
Before anything else, I can only say that it was an amazing feat for busy people in their sixties; not that anyone behaved that old. The guards were down and the conversation was not that different than the ones we had sitting together on the wall of the MSU hostels. Except there was a lot more depth, given the 40 years of experience since we last met together. We talked about our lives and our time together in Baroda. And the swear words!So Harry has a respected career in the oil business and is still the innocent; Mirchi runs a successful engineering business and still remains the best standup comic I have known; Brave actually runs the world with his phenomenal perspective on the human condition; Chua, the genius, virtually ran Citibank globally and now plays golf.
When we knew each other in Baroda, we were mostly broke and way behind the academic curriculum. We had dreams. And one way or the other, we may have realized them. Chua, aka Venky, put the whole thing in perspective: “We are normal people, married to the same woman for all these years, with wonderful children and now grandchildren.” And Venky, being Chua, asked: “Are we really boring people?”
This whole business of the reunion began when I sent my friends a reminder of the fabulous stuff we did in Baroda as mere kids. We were in the Shakespeare Society; we ran a newspaper called Implosion; we set up Beaux Esprit, an event management unit that held several rock concerts. Plus most of all, we went to almost every night show in the local theater, regardless of the movie. We even saw a South Indian move called “Danger Biscuit,” which Venky says he uses to screw everyone’s happiness in the charade game.
In the two days we spent together, we felt connected. Yes, the connection was engineering school and the hostels; but there seemed to be more: why would anyone come from all over the world to have dinner?  Clearly, we all liked each other, never mind that we may have had differences. What was obvious we enjoyed each other and admired what we had done in the 40 years that had passed. Actually, the relationship now was more civil and fond than we ever experienced in Baroda. Most of us had met individually over the years but never together. 
The reunion was unique: we all realized it was a special occasion. The chances of this ever happening again are remote. My view, echoed by Venky, is we should meet again; life has raced past and it is wonderful to put a brake on it and catch up with friends who influenced it in ways we just now begin to realize. We all got along in fabulous way. Plus we had better food and drinks since we last met together in some dhaba in Baroda.
Our reunion got me thinking. When we last met together, we had the world ahead of us in which to make a mark. Forty years later, we’ve done what we can in many different ways. The general take among us was we’ve all not done too badly. My take on this is we can do much more. Regardless of what I may or may not have achieved, my trip in life has been to reach out to friends who have influenced my life. Turns out they are all high achievers.It is more satisfying than any professional or financial achievement. 
The post Diwali weekend with old friends endorsed two things: one, all my friends have done well for themselves; two, all our wings have roots in our undergraduate days of a basic life that may be difficult for us to live today. All I can hope is this reunion will lead to new relationships and that we can meet again and explore beyond hellos the ties that bind us.
For me, Marcel Proust said it: Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
What a wonderful weekend after the triumph of good over evil!


This article appeared on Times of India website on November 21, 2012