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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.