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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.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why the Congress Party was destroyed

It’s a bit of a long story, so you will have to bear with me.

In November 1981, I met Rajiv Gandhi, who had just given up his job in Indian Airlines because he had “to help Mummy” somehow. I lived in the US then but managed to get an interview with him. On a crisp November afternoon, my first-ever trip to Delhi; I walked into One Akbar Road.

The meeting was set for 2 pm. I waited in the outer office for a few minutes. He came out wearing a blue-checked shirt and the most perfectly-tailored blue jeans I’d ever seen. Used to buying jeans from the racks of Levi stores, I was struck…what a perfect fit!

“Hi,” he said. It was the beginning of a relationship that eventually brought me back to India after spending the most part of the 1970s and 1980s in the US. We became good friends. In 1987, when he came to the US, I met him.

“So are you a millionaire?” he asked me.

“Huh?” I responded.

“Well, you come to Delhi so often. Just come back and stay,” he told me.

So we moved lock, stock and barrel to Delhi in December 1987.

He was the Prime Minister then and I was giddy at 38 years of age to have unfettered access to the Prime Minister of India. Over the years, he was good to me, taking me on trips abroad and in India on his prime ministerial plane. I saw the world and India from rarefied heights.

And there were more such amazing privileges, including meeting world leaders, being personally introduced to them by India’s dashing new Prime Minister: Ronald Reagan, Hafez Assad of Syria, big guns in Germany, France, Hungary, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union.

Heady times for a 40-year old.

Two decades later, I sit and worry that the saffron party with an absolute majority might make life difficult for me and my family. As a Gujarati, I never bought into Narendra Modi’s impressionist painting of Gujarat as some sort of an El Dorado. And have said so in the newspapers and on television.

Should the new dispensation seek to hound opponents, I am a sitting duck
But what is sad, and which explains why they were destroyed, is the Congress, in the past year, has practiced what a perceptive journalist called “bad faith politics.” The leadership remained inaccessible, surrounded as they were by the palace guard.

From 1997 through 2004, I met Mrs Sonia Gandhi regularly, sometimes even every day, not for any political purpose but simply for professional inputs on how to run an election campaign. She put me in charge of the advertising campaign and at my instance, set up a media committee to address the editorial part of the print media. Later, when television came to the fore, I persuaded Mrs Gandhi to revamp the press conference room into a television-friendly venue.

We struggled through losses in 1998 and 1999. In 2004, I thought I was in the thick of things until some Congress apparatchiks orchestrated a coup to take over. In the American way of saying things, I was shafted.

Even after the 2004 verdict in favor of the Congress, I insisted that that the BJP lost not because of its “India Shining” campaign but because of abundant evidence of bad governance, including the idiotic nuclear blasts in 1998 and the Pramod Mahajan machine of corruption.

The apparatchiks convinced Mrs Gandhi that a “pro-poor” policy was the lesson learned from the 2004 victory.

After that, the Congress lost the plot. Instead of capitalizing on the gains of UPA policies in their first term, they began this errant, arrogant program brought in by Rahul Gandhi, who the apparatchiks saw as their ticket to power for the next decade or more, given he was young.

Trouble was Mr Gandhi brought into his team, bright young sparks from Ivy League universities who had a post-modern view of the world. Imposing policies such as the food security bill, the tribal rights bill, the land acquisition bill that won kudos on highfalutin campuses the world over, Mr Gandhi and his team thought India’s pre-modern voters would buy it and vote the Congress to power again.

It is true that in the West, there is growing intellectual movement against corporate capitalism and questions are being asked the motives and practices of large corporations. In bringing such post-modern issues to the election campaign against the simple message of aspiration Mr Modi purveyed, Mr Gandhi now presides over the ruins of the 130-year old Indian National Congress.

Mr Gandhi and his Ivy League acolytes have presided over the utter decimation of the Grand Old Party founded by Allan Octavian Hume in December 1885.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A New Narcissism

The Culture of Righteousness

Oh the irony! 

Delhi’s Khirkee village sprawls across the street from the Saket malls, with their seductive offerings of consumerist dreams. Khoj, an exciting arts collective, is located there and most of the artists and writers who come there share an outspoken disdain for the malls across the street.

Khoj attracts creative people from all over the world. They are as far removed from its location as the people who shop in the malls. Both are light years away; the malls, where once inside you could be in any American suburb. Equally, given its cutting edge creative sensibilities, Khoj may well have been in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Having known and publicized Khoj for many years and been impressed by its progress, this was my first trip to their newly refurbished quarters. In the event, many years later, we found ourselves in their edgily restored offices in Khirkee, the village where the law minister of the ill-fated government of Arvind Kejriwal, led a raid against the many Africans, who live in this disgusting arrondisement.
To get to Khoj, you negotiate the heart-attack traffic near the malls and finally pull into the village, where there are no roads to speak of but there are hundreds of cars, honking and worming their way in a hell-bent-for-leather approach. It has no infrastructure but has the problems of traffic and pollution,

One Wednesday evening, we found ourselves there after a trip that can best be described as appalling. The Khoj property is world class: slick and modern. It is a building that Pradip Sachdeva, a well-known Delhi architect, set up as his office in the 1990s. There’s not much left of his imprint; the Khoj office is interesting still. We learned that the redevelopment was undertaken by a Singapore architectural firm.

The irony doesn't stop there. On the way, the substitute driver, who brought us there, fielded insistent calls from his wife. I heard him say, “Ask the next door neighbor for milk and sugar.” He has a seven-month old child. After his conversation, he turned to me and said, “Please, Sir, can you give me an advance? I have a financial problem.” It made me distinctly uncomfortable to think of our destination and the event we were attending there.

Then we walked into the slick Khoj quarters, there to listen to Ryan Bromley, an academic with an undergraduate degree in international relations from a college in Warsaw, Poland, and a graduate degree from the City University in London in “food policy.”

Bromley’s presentation was titled “Spanish Conceptual Gastronomy: A Curatorial Approach.” He took off from Ferran Adria’s el Bulli restaurant in the Costa Brava region of Spain. The restaurant got varied reviews from people who ate there; many said it was  hard to get a reservation; others could not get over the experimental nature of the chef’s menu. It still started a revolution in gastronomy.

Bromley said molecular gastronomy has its roots in the application of laboratory physics and chemistry to cooking. Cutting-edge concept that it is, the extension from a post-modern science to an avant-garde art form seemed just a bit contrived; it was a bit like witnessing a caesarian birth. I suspect he had to stretch his thesis to accommodate the “artists” who were present there, with little interest in food.

Also haunting and distracting me was the driver’s conversation with his wife. It jarred every sensibility in me and made me much less responsive to the proceedings.I had read lots about molecular gastronomy and even made a laughable attempt some years ago to book a dinner table one afternoon at Alinea, the buzzy Chicago restaurant run by Grant Achatz, who worked with Ferran Adria in Spain.

Back at Khoj, Bromley was joined by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, from the Raqs Collective, a group of creative individuals that has been making waves in Delhi as the 21st century Bohemians. Sengupta took off into philosophical areas; building on Bromley’s thesis that the Establishment including philosophers, scholars, clerics and sundry disciplinarians provided the historical obstacles to the evolution of gastronomy, referring to sacerdotal strictures against gluttony.

What Sengupta added to the conversation was a wow factor. All the young impressionables had shining eyes as he expounded on philosophy and culture, with perfect sound bites that had the audience reeling with hushed applause at the man’s sweep of western philosophy and Hindu mythology; reminded me of my friend. Ashis Nandy, the rock star of the alternative universe.

In the end, I came away from the Khoj event, troubled. Bromley had some good insights, when it came to new school cuisine. Sengupta was impressive with Wikipedia-style knowledge.. In the "interactive session" that followed, a twenty-something artist talked about her eating only raw food, mostly because she opposed processed food and corporations.That was when we left..

Still it was a good evening. 

My take was very different from the earnest questioner. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my generation questioned societal norms and pushed for human rights.Christopher Lasch wrote his 1979 classic “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations” in which he lashed out against the transformation of  the "Boomer" generation in America into a self-obsessed constituency as it entered its 30s. He deprecated the "pathological narcissism" of young America after the protests, first against the Vietnam War and then against capitalism. Going by the back and forth at Khoj that evening, I can only conclude that we now have in India a culture of narcissism masquerading as righteousness. 

Sadly, the interesting presentation by Bromley on new trends in gastronomy was overwhelmed by the narcissistic righteousness of the audience. Adria was lost as was his concept of molecular gastronomy. Which is what we went there for in the first place.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Capital Chatter

Heard in the Capital...

"The main victim of Modi's goebbelsian propaganda is the candidate himself...his disastrous ticket distribution strategy is based on the assumption that there is a wave in his favor."

Monday, March 24, 2014

Capital Chatter

Heard in the Capital...

"Modi destroyed the BJP; the BJP destroyed his artful campaign."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Satya Nadella ascension: misleading triumphalism

The elevation of India-born and schooled Satya Narayana Nadella to chief executive officer at Microsoft Inc, USA — the world’s most well-known IT corporation (annual revenue: $77.85 billion or Rs.484,149 crore) — has been widely reported in the media. All reports were anchored by a streak of pride proclaiming it as an Indian achievement. This puffing of the collective chest is one more indication that the media responds to such stimuli in an overwrought manner, used as they are to what Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul described as “a negative way of perceiving” events and trends.

Elaborating on his construct in India: A Wounded Civilization (1976), Naipaul wrote: “In an active, busy country, full of passion and controversy, it is not an easy thing to grasp, this negative way of perceiving. Yet it is fundamental to an understanding of India’s intellectual second-rateness… (which) may be the most startling and depressing thing about the world’s second most populous country.”

Naipaul’s insightful observation is still valid in the second decade of the new millennium. After a decade of promising growth and unlocking of the nation’s unlimited potential, India’s “second-rateness” seems to have overwhelmed it. Everywhere one turns, the promise seems to be in terminal decline with the media typically blaming government. This is the essence of this “negative way of perceiving” — externalize the problem and bring in fascists or anarchists to save the day. Any option is preferable to deep thinking and introspection.

At the heart of the problems debilitating the nation and Indian society, is a dysfunctional education system. Indeed, it may not be too far off the mark to tag the Nadella ascension as a full-blown indictment of the Indian academy. The higher education system does produce world-class scientists, engineers, managers and doctors but the economy lacks the sophistication to absorb them. Consequently, these heavily-subsidised technical and professional academic institutions produce skilled manpower for more evolved global corporations.

But even as the brightest and best move on to script success stories elsewhere, Indian enterprises struggle to find the engineers, managers and doctors needed to meet the demands of a growing economy. To fill these demands, the education bureaucracy and freewheeling entrepreneurs have devised a system of selection defined by examinations and rote learning. 

The ones with the highest scores are usually recruited by global corporations; the remainder battle for survival or success in local enterprises and joint ventures which struggle to cope with the demand for marketing, supply chain, maintenance, logistics managers and the dead hand of socialism — regulation, labour laws, taxation, finance. This leaves little room for innovating new products, services, processes, and systems.

Nadella’s ascension nevertheless provides a welcome opportunity for assessment of an education system which has become a programme of elite selection rather than public empowerment and enlightenment. National pride is probably the last reaction it ought to evoke, given the fact that Nadella and a whole host of such immigrant success stories are scripted outside of India. In the end, Nadella’s achievement is an American success story, an endorsement of the American dream. It’s also a summary rejection of the Indian milieu in which conformism and mediocrity inevitably triumph over innovation and excellence.

It bears repetition that the elevation of Indian-origin executives to apex positions at Microsoft, Citibank, Pepsi and others is a grim indictment of India’s education system. It is vital not to be misled by triumphal media which adulates the success of Nadella, Vikram Pandit, Indra Nooyi and others as feathers in the nation’s cap. True, these are men and women shaped by India’s higher education system. But they went away, knowing well that opportunities for intellectual growth and pursuit of knowledge lay outside the country.

Things did change as the reforms of 1991 struck root. Admittedly, there are more jobs, larger incomes, and more choice in the market for products, services, and business options. But simultaneously our cities, towns and villages are trapped in the chaos of traffic and pollution, and lack power, water supply and sanitation. Political conflicts have been exacerbated by acrimonious public debate fanned by ignorant and self-serving media. To watch the news on television, or read newspapers and periodicals is to confront doom-and-gloom scenarios purveyed by opinionated apparatchiks of the news business.

Meanwhile, the education system offers little to help young people struggling to understand the mismatch between economic growth and civic responsibility. It’s still mired in the bogs of bureaucracy and robber-baron capital. Yes, there’s been a substantial expansion in the number of universities, colleges and professional institutes. But the end product still remains rote graduates, ill-equipped to do more than pass examinations and unable to handle the demands of a growing economy and changing society.

This article appeared in Education World magazine,  March 2014.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Read The News…

A Review Essay: India Psychedelic

Disclosure: Sidharth Bhatia, the author of the book, India Psychedelic:  the Story of a Rocking Generation, is one phenomenal friend. His celebrated book is making waves. Many of the bands he’s written about and the circumstances of India in the 1960s and early 1970s, I have a personal experience of…because I grew up in Bombay. And as he says, many of us just wanted out from a hopeless situation. I was certainly one of them: Quit India in the early 1970s to make a life in the USA.

What Sid writes about and clearly declares is about a sliver of the population in the cities he includes. Nice thing he is not apologetic about it. He simply talks about the westernized lot, a segment that was and still continues to be dismissed as somehow not Indian, out of touch with the real India. Fact is they were in touch with the world, which people in the political and bureaucratic regime recognized only in 1991, when India was forced to open up for pecuniary reasons.

Sid’s book, above all, is a story of Bombay’s cosmopolitan culture. Only in that wonderful city you had access to the global mainstream, halting and stilted though it was. Globalization first happened in Bombay. As an example, I grew up in Juhu’s Theosophical Colony, going to a school founded by Maria Montessori, the Italian educationist, whose theories on child development were very influential the world over.

Growing up in Juhu and later in Byculla Bridge, I imbibed Western music. My early memory is of the Doris Day song, “How Much is the Doggie in the Window.” Beyond that, mercifully, there was Bill Haley and The Comets…I saw the film “Rock Around the Clock” at Shree Cinema in Mahim off of Cadell Road; then Elvis and Pat Boone and Cliff Richard. And Tony Brent, the old Byculla boy of Portofino fame.

But this is before Sid’s story, which really begins in 1962 after The Beatles’ first single “Love Me Do” in 1962. I remember going to a movie in Regal Cinema in 1964. The trailer was a short film called “The Beatles Come to Town.” The music seared my teenage soul. Soon after, I went to Rhythm House and asked if they had any Beatles…they didn’t. 
The bands that played in Bombay through the 1960s didn't really do the Fab Four…heard more of The Rolling Stones, Gerry and The Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, The Animals. Doesn't surprise me…was hard to play The Beatles with their complicated chords and their incredible harmony. Tell the truth…from 1964 to 1967, I never heard a band play The Beatles.

A legendary group in Bombay that Sid mentions is Reaction. One of my drilled-in memories is a plate of “potato chips” (aka French fries) slathered with Dipy’s pumpkin ‘tomato’ sauce and a coke at Venice on any given afternoon...listening to them do The Rolling Stones. All, I may add, was a little more than rupee a piece for the four of us who shared the fries and had individual cokes. We thought we were the cool crew. In the event, as Sid’s book affirms, we were totally that…cool, except we couldn't afford shades.

There is a reference in Sid’s book also to Jimmy Dorabjee. In 1968, I went to Simla with my parents. Didn’t like to go anywhere with my parents except I had never been north and the town, I thought, was cool; it gave its name to the legendary “Beat Contest,” in which selected bands did their stuff and got prizes. Met Jimmy performing at Davico’s, Bob Dylanesque: with shades, denim jacket, a harmonica around his neck and playing Dylan on his guitar. “The Times,” he sang” “are a-changing.”

What I did not know until later was that Simla referred to the cigarette brand, not to the town. In fact, these contests, as Sid writes in his book, were held in Bombay’s Shanmukhananda Hall in the conservative neighborhood of Matunga. I was once part of the audience there and was reminded of it when in a small private university in America I attended a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert a few years later
In Ahmedabad, in the mid 1960s, there was surprisingly a huge rock scene. Good bands, great music, sad technology. In Baroda, years later, we formed an event management company…as engineering students…that brought the bands from Ahmedabad (surprise!) and made some good money from organizing the concerts. We were four of us…it was the late sixties…and we made more money each event than we got from home in three months.

Beyond that, after I left Bombay reluctantly for Baroda, my girlfriend, now my wife, and I attended jam sessions in Havmor restaurants in Ahmedabad and in Baroda. New Year’s Eve I always went to Ahmedabad to the dance at the Rotary Club Hall where sometimes Scandal, sometimes the Xlents and most times Purple Flower sang.

Finally, for my friend Sid, who wrote this excellent book and made a thought-provoking presentation at the Oxford Book Store in Connaught Place, I want to agree the rock scene in the 1970s was ebullient but grim…peopled as it was by PLUs. My wife asked why there was no reference to Goans rockers in his book. Fact is, and she knows this, the Goans introduced rock music to Bollywood…and in the end made more money than the bands, plus gave us Hindi music to rock by.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Has Rahul's AICC speech redefined political discourse?

Rahul Gandhi’s speech in the AICC meet on Friday has raised the bar in political campaigns. By his allusion to concepts such as freedom and liberty, values and ideas and trusteeship and aspirations, he left his opposition between a rock and a hard place. With its high tone, Rahul's speech cannot be condemned in the usual coarse terms used by the Opposition; else, it will show them up as small men bereft of ideas, steeped in the culture of vile abuse. We can only hope that they rise to the occasion and, finally, the political debate becomes substantive.

Rahul's speech also sought to lift the spirits of the Congress leaders and workers who had gathered to hear him. He laid out the achievements of the UPA government over a decade, talking about the dent made on poverty and emphasising on the empowerment and aspirations of men and women. In particular, he spoke of the new segment that has emerged in India of a socioeconomic group that is above poverty levels but below the middle-class lines. He spoke of the need to take lawmaking away from media and courts to return the function to legislators. He asked lawmakers to join hands to help steer significant pending legislation through Parliament in its final session.

Even when combative, Rahul used humour to put down his opponents; one of them, he said, has a good marketing strategy that can sell combs to the bald; the other specialises in giving haircuts to the bald. He said the complexity and diversity of India called for accent on enhancing democratic foundations, saying that the Congress has always faced such challenges with a zeal for revolutionary reform. Playing his favourite theme, Rahul said the challenges of the 21st century are such that there is no room for "oversimplified nonsolutions" championed by "a communal party led by an individual who is known for stoking communal fires to achieve political ends".

In the final analysis, Rahul achieved a remarkable objective: he asserted the constitutional convention of elected legislators choosing a prime minister and at the same time kept his supporters' hopes alive by promising he will accept whatever role they want him to play after the election.

(This article appeared in http://indiatoday.in, January 18, 2014)