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Sunday, January 11, 2015

My Friend, Prakash Desai

Too Precious to Die

Prakash Desai basically knew everything and everyone accepted this…until I came along one cold February evening in 1977. He was  a distant cousin, who staked a claim on me as an annoying older brother; a Nehruvian socialist, who believed in the commanding heights because he hated private enterprise; a member of Baroda’s famed Renaissance Club that had little do with the arts and culture but more inclined to the worldview of Lenin and Stalin. He was as amazing a mass of contradictions as his beloved higher Hinduism he wrote copiously about.

I challenged him on all counts and he patiently heard me out, only to yell at me about my capitalist mindset and, he probably died on January 6, 2015, believing I hated the poor. “Not the poor, Prakash,” I would say to him of an evening in his study or in my garden in Chicago, “but against poverty that your stupid statist system created and thrives on.” He would fly into a rage, “Mr Rajiv Desai, you are in the presence of an advocate of compassion and equity; take your goddamn capitalism and shove it.”

“OK, Prakash,” I would say, “Lighten up. Let’s just have another drink.”

For all of that, he was a bon vivant. In his bar, there were the finest wines, the choicest whiskeys and he mixed a phenomenal vodka martini. Always well dressed, perfectly trimmed beard and thinning hair ever since I knew him, he was charisma personified. He was always Olivier while I was looking at Sean Connery. He was not always but sometimes infuriated when I teased him about taking the boy out of Baroda but never the Baroda out of the boy.

Baroda was where we both went to school ten years apart; he embraced it while I was much more about Bombay, where I grew up and Surat, where I was born. It also happened he was related to me through my father’s family of traditional middle-class Gujarati Nagar Brahmins from Baroda; my Surat connections were wealthy influentials that participated in the freedom movement and had national and international connections. Plus, as I told him, our (Surat) food was French to my paternal family’s (Baroda) food that was Slavic by comparison. “And in any case, Prakash, I’m from Bombay where we were urban sophisticates.”

For 38 years Prakash and I jousted on ideology and lifestyle. He had friends who would create and spread stories about me. He even co-opted not just my wife but also my mother and her sister. “Prakash is right,” my immediate family members would say, “Rajiv is very ‘aristocratic’ in his demeanor.” He also said I was more a Christian than a Hindu. In that sense, he was a Gandhian satyagrahi because he knew how to provoke.

It took me a few years to realize that he was a keen psychiatrist because he analyzed my every response to conclude that I was alienated from my father’s family, from my Nagar Brahmin origin and from the larger Hinduism into which I was born. He also said I embraced Western thinking at a very tender age because of the Theosophists on my mother's side of the family, Surat and Bombay. And therefore married a Goan Christian woman from Ahmedabad. Gujarat.

In my view, he was a phenomenal psychiatrist with an amazing understanding both of the body and the mind. When we were not fighting ideological battles late into the evening, he laid out in crystal-clear terms the sources of my health and conduct on any given issue, personal or professional. He always had not just time but insight…he almost always hit the nail on the head.

I still remember vividly one evening four years ago when my mobile phone rang in the pub at the Delhi Golf Club. I was with friends and excused myself to walk out to the deck. It was Prakash. He told me he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. I was benumbed. As I went back to our table, my friends saw there was something wrong. I told them.

Fast forward to January 6 this year: my mobile phone rang; it was my friend Satu, who the world knows as Sam Pitroda. I was at a friend’s place to dinner. I walked out of the room. Satu said two words: “Prakash died.” I said I’d call him back and collapsed into a paroxysm of grief and tears. It was not unexpected, of course but nevertheless it shattered my consciousness. Just as I did four years ago, I walked back in a zombie state.

How can a friendship disappear…just two phone calls?

Prakash, as I began, knew everything…the mind, the body, the spirit. Now he’s gone and all I have from him is a millionth of his knowledge, a micron of his wisdom. What I do have is some understanding of his compassion and his mighty humanity. Everyone should be so lucky…to know Prakash was to get to know yourself and the world.

Farewell, my philosopher king!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tata Sky Scam

Just recently, one Tata Sky connection went on the blink...the remote stopped operating the set-top box. Their service guy came and in a minute told mw the remote "is broken." He pulled out a new remote and offered to sell it to me for 600 rupees cash. I asked him if it was this was a legitimate transaction. He fled.
Next day, another guy showed with a remote and I accepted it. He said my account would be charged 250 rupees. Next day, same thing happened to aconnection in another room. The old non-HD remote simply stopped working. However, in both cases, I found the set-top box could be operated by my HD remote. I have another non-HD connection in my study with the old remote. I checked it to find it isn't working.
When I complained to Customer Care, I was given the run-around and was left holding the phone for ages.Same ol', same ol'.
What a scam! Deactivate old non-HD remotes and open up new revenue streams. 
How low can an Indian business stoop? When business strategy devolves on fleecing customers, what can a customer say?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Rote and prejudice: A broken system

The Tragedy of Higher Education

Despite its huge 1.25 billion population, India wasn’t able to win even one gold medal at the London Olympics 2012. Not a single Indian university is ranked among the Top 200 in the World University Rankings 2013-14 league tables of the highly-respected rating agencies QS and THE. Why? Because both sports and education are dominated by government. Regardless of which party is in power, government control breeds mediocrity. The legions of officials, clerks, and other functionaries who form the massive government machinery are products of the rote and prejudice system that is, was, and unless there’s radical reform, will remain in higher education. 

All talk of global success stories scripted by individuals or diasporas are about marginal phenomena. India’s 735 universities are the dysfunctional crown of an education system which starts with mass illiteracy and progresses to schools without teachers, irrational quotas, poor matriculation rates, and impossible college admissions. As such, there’s no room in the universities for the poor even if they surmount the odds against graduating high school. Those who can afford to, skip Indian universities altogether: they enroll in US, British or Australian universities on the strength of money power or skill in bagging scholarships. The plain unvarnished truth is that Indian higher education institutions simply cannot cope with 21st century demands such as innovation, creativity, ethics, and wisdom.
The current system churns out job seekers, careerists and political cannon fodder. Simultaneously, consumers — students and parents — regard education as a stepping stone to jobs, income, wealth and influence. They seldom make qualitative demands, just a ticket to rewards. They are preoccupied in the first instance with securing admission; then coping with irrelevant syllabuses; managing inadequate teachers and the gargantuan academic bureaucracy and finally confronting the uncertainty of placement.
How have things come to such a sorry pass? At the root is the firm conviction of the academic bureaucracy that higher education for the middle class is more important than universal literacy; the belief that the poor need roti, kapda, makaan and that the government’s role is to create schemes and programmes which provide these basic necessities. The provision of universal primary education could have empowered the poor, equipping them with the basic literacy, skills and tools to earn their livelihood. Instead, the bureaucracy seems to have persuaded the political leadership that paternalistic policies of handouts and subsidies are more appropriate for lifting the illiterate masses out of poverty.
In the education sector, you need only to look at the acronyms of regulators to understand how completely the bureaucracy controls it: NCERT, AICTE, NCTE, SCERT, UGC, ICCSR… and what not! These opaque organisations set syllabuses according to the flavour of the political season; oversee staff recruitment respecting quotas; conduct examinations and hand out grades based on arbitrary invigilation. The academy itself — teachers — has become a unionised anachronism and its young wards unmotivated and cynical. Campuses are dominated by the crowd and stormy wings of established political parties. The best students who discern the Potemkin nature of Indian education hold their breath until graduation and take the first flight out. The ones left behind scramble for admission into the fiercely competitive universe of engineering, medical and management studies. Others flounder, begging for jobs, beseeching influentials, and mostly end up in government employment. The vast majority join the ranks of the jobless, hanging around at street corners, or in the offices of political parties looking for trouble and opportunity.
The first flush of liberalisation presented an incredible opportunity for semi-educated youth from the country’s rundown universities and high schools. Domino’s Pizza, KFC, McDonalds, PVR and a huge universe of global consumer firms offered jobs and training to youth from families without the connections to get them government jobs. The benefits of reform also extended to upper middle class youth who found administrative and professional jobs in large international firms which established businesses here, and later in the domestic corporate sector that had to gear up to meet the competition of multinationals. But the major enemy of reform — the bureaucracy — resuscitated old colonial-era laws to halt liberalisation. The media focussed on larger issues and completely ignored the fact that bureaucratic and industry lobbies have conspired to derail reform in crucial infrastructure, financial, and other sectors. Political parties, especially of communal and casteist complexion, exploited this to their advantage.
This mess is not of today or yesterday; it harks back to the dawn of independence. An all-controlling bureaucracy, ignorant and venal politicians, and apathetic citizens combined to form a system susceptible to extremist appeals. The question has always been about leadership, never about its quality… and so any Tom, Dick, and Harry can aspire to the top slot, given a slick propaganda campaign run by global communication agencies.

This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of  Education World.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Looking Back in Anger

Bigots and busybodies looking back in anger

Candidates for the Civil Service Aptitude Test (CSAT) conducted by the Union Public Service Commission rocked the national capital with vociferous protests for two weeks in July-August demanding changes in the test format. They said CSAT was biased in favor of students from English-medium schools and those who came from ‘technical’ streams of learning such as engineering.

In 2011, the commission introduced CSAT to test the analytical and comprehension capabilities of aspirant civil servants rather than mere ability to memorize. The test determines whether a candidate is qualified to write the main examination. Billed as the toughest in the world, the UPSC’s civil service entrance exam attracts more than 500,000 aspirants each year of whom a mere 0.01-0.03 percent make the grade and go on to join the premier civil services such as the IAS, IFS and IPS. There is no more elite corps in the world than of the Indian civil services.

The agitators’ demands were based on a simple fact: analysis and comprehension are far removed from rote learning encouraged by the school education system. As such, CSAT became a formidable obstacle for them. The ability to define, categorize and organize requires considerably greater learning than to regurgitate memorized material. In the traditional education system where the image of a Brahmin mugging slokas exerts powerful influence, cognitive testing based on reason and comprehension is a great disrupter.

Fastening on the emotive language divide in the country, the agitators cleverly argued that CSAT is loaded against Hindi-belt candidates. For decades, Hindi heartland political leaders have not pushed just Hindi as the medium of instruction and government transactions, but also the end of English usage. Some states like Gujarat and West Bengal went to ridiculous lengths to make regional medium education mandatory. Millions of young Gujaratis and Bengalis suffered over the decades. Any wonder then that these two states became harbingers of the most regressive ideologies and chauvinist worldviews?

Advocates of Hindi and regional languages harbor a misbegotten sense of victimhood, spilled over from the colonial experience. For them the language and culture of the minority of English-speaking people is alien to the values and practices of “the real India'” i.e Bharat. Simultaneously, this ‘alien’ culture still enjoys a colonial-style advantage six decades after the end of British rule. What’s left unsaid is that English language learning has not only remained alive but has morphed into an aspiration for India’s growing middle class, chasing jobs and career opportunities around the world. This established trend can only grow as India begins to engage more actively with the global economy.

Modern history is littered with victims of the India-Bharat divide promoted by language chauvinists, bigots and busybodies. After India won independence in 1947, these elements made a virtue of denying the nation’s British heritage and looking back in anger to a pre-colonial golden age. Of late, mindsets have turned atavistic and are beginning to hallucinate about a mythical Hindu age that Muslim invaders had allegedly obliterated and subverted.

John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a path-breaking English stage and screen production of the 1950s. It dealt with the longing in a once-mighty Britain for its glorious past. In the newly emergent post-World War II era and the loss of its colonies, some British people experienced remorse because “everything’s changed” while others rued that “everything’s remained the same.” 

This syndrome is now sweeping india as various crackpots and extremists keep popping up with increasing frequency making absurd claims and bigoted statements about the glory of a mythical past on the one hand, and victimhood on the other. The inter-play between these emotions defines the current political agenda. Meanwhile important issues — education, healthcare, roads, water, transport, law and order — suffer neglect.

By pandering to such agitators, governments and political parties are mindlessly promoting a culture of entitlement in which no judgments can be made about individual capability and proficiency. Like its evil twin, reservation, entitlement weakens an already frayed social fabric. Governance is too much to expect in these circumstances, and policy making is held captive in the dungeons of do-nothing.

People start to believe that any achievements will result only from agitation and group solidarity, influence-peddling and corruption. What the CSAT candidates protested, political parties supported, and the government accepted the strange proposition that the entrance into the civil services is less about merit than ‘fairness’ to those who see themselves as disadvantaged.

It seems self-defeating to strike at the heart of government, its civil services, with a contradictory demand to change everything and to change nothing. As such, the future looks bleak for the ‘steel frame’ services which are already at sixes and sevens, measuring up to the demands of a modernizing state and the aspirations of an increasingly assertive citizenry.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of  Education World.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Hard Day's Life

Not Linear but Disruptive

My Dad died, a victim of Alzheimer’s as did his Dad before that. Both lived well into their 90s. I have wondered all these years if the same thing would happen to me. I’m not sure I am condemned to Alzheimer’s; what I do know is I keep meticulous records about everything that happens in my life. I am a journalist and a journalism teacher, so I have notes…some old-style, on pen and paper, though increasingly on laptops and phones.

But that’s a digression. What I want to share is a concern that Alzheimer’s is a little understood condition. I refuse to call it a disease because there is simply no treatment. My intuitive grasp of the condition is it means you have no shared memories and therefore no friends or relatives. As such, the Alzheimer’s patient is denied nostalgia.

I am a huge fan of nostalgia and my life has been spent tracking and befriending people I knew as a child and beyond. So the initial rush was fine…we met or conversed on email and various other social media platforms…and I, for one, was delighted. In many cases, we even had several occasions to meet personally. Then reality set in…after the initial rush, the connect fizzled. Nostalgia is like a third-world currency…it fades soon enough.

After all these years, when I made it a mission to get in touch with old friends, I have come to realize a drink and dinner is great fun with people from the past…there is really nothing beyond that. So you share the old school tie, the shared neighborhood and the pranks and some old stories that can be told once, maybe twice. Beyond that, there is no connect…everyone has their own lives

So fine, nostalgia can only go far. But it’s made me think…when I was born in Surat, then lived on Juhu Beach, Warden Road, Byculla Bridge, Ahmadabad, Baroda, Athens, Cincinnati, Chicago and then finally Delhi…all these lives I have tried to understand as seamless…a temporal progression…as in the history books we were taught in schools. Perhaps they weren't.

I now have come to understand that continuum is simply a timeline construct put on our lives. Fact is in Surat, Bombay, Ahmadabad, Baroda, Athens, Cincinnati, Chicago, I lived in different worlds. Increasingly, I am beginning to challenge the connective geometry of space and time. In the end, these phases of my life may not be a natural progression. These experiences are not unified in a single historical narrative; that life may be an agglomerate of experiences that have nothing to do with each other and that you are the only common factor.

Changes that take place in a human life, both internally and externally, are huge. I. for one, seem to have nothing in common with the four-year-old growing up on Juhu Beach. As such, our lives are really not a smooth progression from birth to death.

Not to get too esoteric, the point I want to make is all of us have disjointed lives, especially those who have the chance for mobility. I can remember going to a village in Gujarat with my friend from Chicago. What was most interesting he met a friend in the bazaar, who ran a kiosk and offered us a free Coke. This is someone he grew up with; my friend went on to become an influential doctor in Chicago but his buddy, like his family before him, still ran a small shop…the past (my friend’s) running into the present (his friend’s); different as night and day; today and yesterday.

I am no philosopher but I am increasingly convinced that work needs to be done to question, if not challenge, the assumption that individual lives are a serial progression from birth to death. My life from the 1950s onward has changed so dramatically, it takes old songs, movies and photographs to make it hold together.

The idea that it is a single life, a single person that journeys from birth to death is worth questioning. The links between the various phases are man-made; there is continuity in empirical terms. Just looking at my own experiences, I can see that a linear framework does not adequately describe my life.

In the decades I have lived on this planet, I have seen changes from where I wrote on a slate with chalk to a holder dipped in ink to a fountain pen to a ballpoint pen to a typewriter to a computer to a phone; from 78 rpm records on a crank-operated record player to an Ipod; from copious “hard copy” files to cloud storage.  The changes are disruptive in the sense they presaged completely new ways of doing things.

Disruptive defines, in my mind, the new understanding of my life. Everything changes…you can say it was thus in the 1950s, 1960s et al. Aside of my own memories, I find no connect between the guy who ran around on the beach and the guy who shivered in the Chicago cold and the guy who now battles life in Delhi.