Saturday, December 03, 2011

Sphere of Influence by Gideon Haigh: A Review

By John Cheeran
What do you write, when you write on cricket? You write about riveting games, entertaining characters, game’s fault lines, leave out the scoreboard but paint the big picture.
Gideon Haigh, the Australian cricket writer, has put together a collection of writings on cricket and its discontents – Sphere of Influence. Simon and Schuster India has published the book. So, who will be interested in reading the stuff?
The book suffers from the fact that there are hardly any new essays in this. Much of what figures here have been published by and easily trawled on the Internet. And most of the other observations published elsewhere are dated. Haigh is not a stylist so that one can return to this collection and savour it in bits and pieces.
There is nothing new now when you say that India is the new power centre in world cricket and the white half of the sphere of influence does not relish this change. We all know that.
Followers of the game in the subcontinent would relish the portraits of Javed Miandad, Mutttaiah Muralitharan, Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar that feature in the Giants of Asia section. Again, all are taken from Haigh’s scrapbook.
On the brighter side, Haigh raises some interesting questions such as how to save one-day internationals. He would like to rename ODIs as one-day Tests: limited overs, unlimited in scope. Captains would be free to use bowlers when and as often as they wished, and place fielders anywhere they pleased, with a limitation only on boundary riders in the last five overs.
But Haigh rightly points out that such suggestions would not be appreciated by the International Cricket Council. He writes: ”The idea of making anything look more like Test cricket is simply too counterintuitive for cricket’s governing classes.”
And in another essay, A Modest Proposal, Haigh wants the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to cede control over the IPL and the Champions Trophy to the ICC so that the traditional monopoly of the official game is restored. Would that proposal come about had the Australian Cricket Board invented an APL and turned it to a success story?
Certainly, we are going to miss Peter Roebuck.

Title: Sphere of Influence
Author: Gideon Haigh
Publisher: Simon & Schuster India
Price: 399

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: A Review

By John Cheeran
Steve Jobs believed that people do judge a book by its cover. So it is not surprising that the cover of Jobs’s biography, aptly titled Steve Jobs, has a black and white picture of him, looking at you intently, and unblinking.
Great men inspire great biographies. Steve Jobs, the man who founded Apple Computers and agonized over his products in a maddening way, never left anything unattended. Jobs was a man of control. Ask Bill Gates. Then, ask Apple lovers. Whether it is a design detail or having his version of the world, Jobs planned and demanded the best. In Walter Isaacson, former chairman of the CNN and managing editor of Time magazine, Jobs found the right man to put together his life story. But be warned, this is hardly a paid job.
Unlike many of us Jobs knew a lot of things. Such as that he was nearing death and had to rush through whatever he wanted to do in the extra time he had been given. Result is the biography, Steve Jobs. Jobs’s world view was often, nay, almost black and white. In colour, too, he preferred black and white as the cover of the biography testifies. The pictures included in the book, all, again in black and white, convey the colourful nature of Jobs’s personality. He yielded against his will rarely, as when U2’s Bono asked for a special ipod edition in black.
Unlike many of us Jobs did not know many things. Such as who his father was. Jobs had an amazing life, a life that would have been almost impossible in India. He was put up for adoption by his biological parents and Jobs did not know for many years who was his father. The sense of abandonment shaped his life to a certain extent. As much as iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad were American, Jobs, too, was truly American. Circumstances did not deter him and he had the ability to push the envelope all the time. In this, the reality distortion field, did the trick. Only Jobs could have been demanding to a frustrating extent and get what he wanted from his people. Jobs founded Apple in 1976. He was 21. At 19, Jobs spent seven months in India in search of a guru. What have you been doing when you were 19 and 21?
I’m not a digital citizen. Nor am I an iPhone or iPad user. But to read how Jobs built the Apple and pushed boundaries in his quest for innovation is an exciting and enlightening experience.
Jobs was a difficult man to work with and live with. Both the dissembling and the truth-telling were simply different aspects of his Nietzschean attitude that ordinary rules did not apply to him, notes biographer Isaacson who has also authored the biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin.
To many of us, Apple represented the acme of consumerism. Then you read Jobs telling his girlfriend Egan Jennifer that it is important to avoid attachment to material objects. “Our consumer desires are unhealthy, he told her, and to attain enlightenment you need to develop a life of nonattachment and non materialism. Wasn’t he defying that philosophy, Egan asked, by making computers and other products that people coveted?”
Isaacson writes: ”Throughout his career, Jobs liked to see himself as an enlightened rebel pitted against evil empires, a Jedi warrior or Buddhist samurai fighting the forces of darkness.”
With the publication of the biography, many things such as Jobs’s refusal to take treatment for his cancer and his obsession with his fruity diet are quite well known now. One thing, however, you should not miss is Jobs’s reflection on his legacy, in his own words. In it Jobs says:”People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read that are not on the page.”
That’s something that you can chew on.

Title: Steve Jobs
Author: Walter Isaacson
Publisher: Little, Brown, (in India) Hachette, India
Price: Rs 799

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Curse of Mukada (Monkey Magic series): A Review

By John Cheeran

The Curse of Mukada, the first book in the Monkey Magic series is a story about our closest relatives. As 11-year-old Romy’s father Dr Jeremy tells her, apes and monkeys need to be protected from their close relatives. You and me, that is.
It is more than a story – Grant S Clark’s book carries a powerful message for young readers, urging them to be environmentally conscious, wherever they are. In The Curse of Mukada Dr Jeremy sets out to find out why orang-utans (man of the forest) were behaving strangely at the Mukada Nature Reserve in the rainforest island of Borneo in southeast Asia. All of a sudden orang-utans were migrating to the coast, an area they normally avoided and that was home to proboscis monkeys. The proboscis didn’t enjoy orang-utans poking their noses around and the orang-utans were falling sick in the new terrain.
Is Mukada’s Curse the reason why orang-utans are dying now? According to the lore, an orang-utan saved the whole Mukada village except a boy from a huge fire, years ago. But the family that lost its child in the fire cursed the orang-utan for not saving the boy. Romy has been told that orang-utans are dying since then.
Although Dr Jeremy brought Romy along to his mission to Mukada, she expected only to watch her father at work. But Clark wins young readers over by pitting the 11-year-old girl against the dark forces that operate at the forest.
It’s Romy’s adventure that holds together the slim narrative. She makes friends with the orang-utan clan, and manages to exorcize the curse, and your jaw may drop when you find out who are the villains.

Title: The Curse of Mukada
Author: Grant S Clark
Publisher: Hachette India
Price: Rs 175

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tiger’s legend will live on

By John Cheeran
Tiger Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was born a prince but unlike the maharajas before him, he brought to Indian cricket an egalitarian attitude, unparalleled in the nation’s sporting history. Tiger wanted every player to give his best on the field.
He placed a premium on fielding excellence, a still neglected as aspect of the Indian game, and wrote in his famous autobiography, Tiger’s Tale, that in his team there would not be any place for a player however great he is but sloppy on the field.
Pataudi was a no-nonsense man. On a few occasions when one spoke to get his reactions on matters of cricket, his gruff voice over telephone conveyed his imperial manner that upset the officialdom in Indian cricket many a time. Vijay Merchant, the illustrious batsman from Bombay, when he was chairman of the selection committee, used his casting vote to deny Tiger a place in the side. Pataudi was recalled later to lead India against the West Indies in the 1974-75 home series, a series that galvanised Indian cricket. India, after losing the first two Tests, did the unimaginable against the mighty West Indians, by winning the next two.
In Pataudi, India had its finest leader of men (he led India in 40 Tests), till the advent of Sourav Ganguly and Mahinder Singh Dhoni clouded people’s judgments. Tiger’s daring was total in that he contested Lok Sabha elections in 1971 protesting against the abolition of privy-purse. Pataudi only scored 2793 runs in 46 Tests, a number that looks quite ordinary in contemporary cricket, but many still wonder how many more he would have scored if he had not injured his right eye early in his career.
(Tiger died in Delhi at the age of 70 on Thursday. He was suffering from lung disease.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why Dravid is not a one-day wonder but stay with us forever

By John Cheeran
Rahul Dravid, by any reckoning, is not a quitter.
But this Friday is different. Dravid, who never shied away from taking harsh and hard decisions on the field, is playing his last one-day international. India and the rest of the world will be watching for the last time a Dravid draped in colour blue. Champions of the world may not care. MS Dhoni may not care. Brand managers won’t cry. Dravid’s departure from one-day theatre cannot be quantified in terms of the thrills he offered.
He brought to batting crease an approach that was rooted in fundamentals. Never in a hurry, but always alive to the urgencies of the limited over cricket, Dravid lent his broad bat and battered body to Team India’s cause. But, finally, in the rush hour of T20, he was reduced to a loner by a selection committee that had got its priorities absolutely wrong.
After watching Dravid at 38 in England during the Test series, who would not ask Krishnamachari Srikkanth why the batsman was left out from the World Cup squad. Srikkanth could afford to look over Dravid since the World Cup was being held in the sub-continent where flat-track bullies reigned. And what made the same selection committee to recall him?
Many thought Dravid would quit international cricket all together after the England tour. The thought was not out of place especially after Dravid dazzled us with one Test century after another as India plumbed newer depths. This is the time to go. But Dravid has decided to stay back and leave at the same time, surprising yet again with his tenacity and hunger to prove detractors wrong. Dravid was a broken man after Indians immolated themselves in the Caribbean World Cup, in a bid to put Greg Chappell in his place. Dravid then had a lean patch and many wolves had wanted him to accompany Sourav Ganguly to the pavilion. But, then, Dravid believes in himself. Only he knows. Only he knows when to call it quits.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer of 2011: Time for Rahul Dravid to bid farewell

By John Cheeran
After the triumph in 2011 World Cup not many would have taken India’s tour to the West Indies seriously. The Indian squad itself was depleted, without Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag.
India, however, did well both in the one-day and Test series. Yes, India did not show enough aggression, especially by not going for the kill during the second innings chase on the final day of the third Test. And skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been flayed by many critics for his pussyfooted approach to the end-game.
Am I disappointed? Yes and No. Yes, because it was an opportunity that we did not reach out for. No, considering the overall outcome of the series. It is, however, important to realize that India still depends on seniors such as Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman to steady its ship in the choppy waters of Test cricket. It was a joy and relief to watch Dravid play another match-winning innings (112) in the second innings of the first Test at Sabina Park, Kingston. But, then, Dravid has given his best with India in a crisis. Statistics would show that he has performed on a higher plane away from home. But Dravid is not your man to bet on a situation that borders on gambling as was in the final Test. The classicist that he is, Dravid reiterated his relevance on a cricketscape awash in young dreams.
But there are other things that Dravid has to remember at this age and stage of his career. This is the time to go. The tour to England is a great opportunity for Dravid to put full stop to his splendid career.
Dravid has had his run, after all. Yes, he is fit, and good enough for another 12 months of Test cricket. I hope he remains hungry for success in fields other than cricket too.
But the memory I have of him during India’s last Test series win in England in 2007 was that of a Dravid struggling at Kennington Oval to ensure that nothing goes amiss during India’s second innings, despite a first innings lead of 319 runs. Dravid, after India lost its first three wickets – Wasim Jaffer, Dinesh Karthik and Sachin Tendulkar – for 11 runs, would have been troubled by the memories of the World Cup disaster, and pottered around for 140 minutes for 12 runs. It was not a pretty sight.
Dravid, at 38, is still capable of producing big knocks. He began his Test career in England, and he is more of an English cricketer than an oriental hero. There cannot be a better place for Rahul Dravid to bid adieu than England. I wish he relives the summer of 1996, and walks off to the pavilion, making India asking for more and why.
At that time, Dravid would not be the highest run-getter or the scorer of maximum number of centuries but none will doubt that he gave all he had to India’s cause at the cricket pitch.

Monday, July 11, 2011

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh: A Review

By John Cheeran
Amitav Ghosh is a highly persuasive writer. Unhurried narrative and an eye for detail make him compelling reading. The second of his Ibis trilogy, The River of Smoke, is a long novel at 535 pages but Ghosh succeeds in taking you along the voyage and the slow unfolding of the standoff in Canton between Chinese authorities and an assorted group of merchants who swear by the supremacy of free trade at any cost.
The River of Smoke fills in you with the buildup towards the first opium war between Britain and China in 1839. China had an ambivalent policy towards opium trading in Canton, encouraging British and Indian merchants to operate in connivance with a section of Chinese traders. When the emperor realised that drug addiction was reducing his subjects into zombies he wanted to bring in import restrictions. It threatened the existing commercial relationship between Britain and China.
But what sustains the interest of the reader is the story of Bahram Seth, the Parsi trader, who has taken the biggest gamble at a now-or-never moment in his life to take a huge cargo of opium to Canton. Bahram has been trading in opium with Canton merchants for long, he is familiar with the tics and twitches in the Chinese system and has a yen for making money. But this voyage in 1839 from Bombay to Canton was against heavy odds, starting from the ominous signs at his home and entreaties of his wife Shireenbai, then the storm that destroys the figurehead of his ship Anahita and loss of a large chunk of the cargo.
Though another ship – Redruth, carrying plants and flowers—is there in the sea, it is only to illustrate the unfolding Canton picture.
Yes, Ghosh persuades you to take a stand against the profiteering spirit of English traders in Canton but it is the fate of Bahram Seth that keeps you turning the pages. Bahram, too, is in league with British traders but by painting a fuller picture of the Parsi merchant --his relationship with a Chinese boatwoman and a son he cannot acknowledge in public and the machinations of his brothers-in-law back in Bombay --- you are made to empathize with him. Bahram wants to sell this load of opium at any cost even though he admits to himself that he has sold himself to Ahriman by doing something that is now declared illegal by the Chinese authorities and new commissioner Lin.
With no prospect of selling his cargo and commissioner Lin making plans to destroy the whole load of opium, with little hope to rebuild his life, Bahram muses while watching his nephew playing cricket at the maidan in Fanqui Town. “Will they remember that it was the money we made here, the lessons we learnt and the things we saw that made it all possible? Will they remember that their future was bought at the price of millions of Chinese lives?... Was it just for this: so that these fellows could speak English, and wear hats and trousers, and play cricket?”
Sea of Poppies did not have a heroic, tragic figure as its mast and that did take away the emotional frisson from it. In River of Smoke, long after the siege of Canton was resolved, Bahram refuses to leave you. He lets you drown in a river of smoke.

Monday, June 27, 2011

An Interview With Arjun Shekhar, author of A Flawed God

By John Cheeran
A Flawed God – what’s your central concern in the novel?
The main idea was to bring the point of ownership across to people. I believe ownership of common spaces has been abandoned by humans in a rush towards individual uniqueness and concern. For elaborating this premise, I set the tale in the corporate sector because it is very influential in our individual decisions and in political, and community decision making as well. In turn, the corporate sector is controlled/ directed/ designed by the share market. Because of the huge unseen power that the share market wields upon the existence of humanity (present and future), I call it our new God. And in the way it creates owners sans ownership through its algorithm of speculative investment, I believe shareholders have been forced to become punters rather than owners, people who will never set foot in the company they own and yet are keen to profit from the relationship.
Thus I feel that there is a case for ownership of assets being divorced from psychological ownership of the firm. When the latter is handed over to the people who live in the space as a community and make meaning out of it, then the decision making will surely improve in the firm and thus the flaw shall iron itself out. I believe the most brutal thing humanity has done is to snatch a decision away from its rightful owner; my central concern in the book is to ask for it to be returned to them, an act that will benefit everybody in the short, medium and long run. Many examples of this can be seen in practice - Kannan Devan Tea Estates (S. India), Mondregon Cooperative (Basque country, Spain), Lijjat Papad.

Who’s your audience? Is A Flawed God for meant for the professional, corporate class?
Since the book talks about ownership, I believe the audience could be anybody and indeed I hope to reach to the mainstream non-corporate public too -- people who don't know how silently the corporate world is taking over their lives. For instance, my mom who is an enlightened housewife has found the book very interesting as have a number of non-government organization folks.
As is feedback from corporate sector executives. The massive number of the young corporate workforce would certainly relate and connect immediately to the book, which is why events are slated at many business institutes in the next month to dialog about the concepts presented in the book. I believe any reform has to come from inside and no amount of watchdog or policing from the outside can change anything. Gorbachev did it to communism from inside and so it will be for capitalism too. A movement to make capitalism more accountable is slowly and steadily taking shape in the US shepherded by the Conscious Capitalism Institute set up by a business professor and writer from Boston.

You are discussing ownership rights in corporate sector with an HR perspective. Aren’t you? The argument that stock market is a flawed god, the way you have presented, is that convincing enough?
It is possible that the argument needs more bolstering but then remember I was writing a fun, racy novel because I wanted to get through to an essentially young audience who don't necessarily want to read boring, heavy texts and switch off immediately they hear the word share market. Tell me, when has the share market been brought to the attention of so many people in such a fun way. I have tried to take a serious topic without taking myself too seriously. That was my brief for myself when I started writing - the book must be a novel first and foremost, the messaging will only be a subtext.
The yo yo-ing of the Sensex since January will itself bring home to you the volatile nature of this market and how dangerous it is to let this rule our lives and not even know about it. So much money has been made (and lost) by "owners" of companies in the last six months; it looks completely chaotic from the outside but the insider waits like a hawk to make money from the bull and bear runs that seem to be happening so frequently like there was a tug of war on between the two. The shareholders are enjoying this buy-sell game and the only people being pulled in every possible direction are the staff and the blinkered public.

Sanchit’s Turkey sojourn and the Collective do not have any impact on the novel or even on the argument of a flawed god? Don’t you think the larger puzzle you have tried to offer to readers has not fallen into place?
I used Turkey setting to create the sense of mystery that pulls readers in. Many writers have used this device before. It’s a narrative ploy where the flashbacks set the context for the puzzle even as the protagonist's journey intrigues and keeps the reader's attention; without it I wouldn't have been able to talk about an essentially boring subject - economics and the share market - to a mainstream audience. Your question seems to pass a judgment that a large number of readers don't seem to have come to. Rather the opposite, and here again I nudge you gently towards the Facebook page of the book, where a deluge of reader comments tell me that indeed the puzzle has fallen into place for them. Two things happen by the time you finish the book - one, you agree that the shareholder as owner is a flawed concept and two the reader's curiosity of what is the alternative gets satisfied when the frontline parliament demonstrates how the staff can be persuaded to take on the psychological ownership of the firm and save it from ruin.

A Flawed God by Arjun Shekhar: A Review

By John Cheeran
Arjun Shekhar has a lot to tell. Shekhar has tried to think for himself and the result is his debut novel A Flawed God. It’s an effort to be bold and present an alternative vision for corporate world but it runs the risk of being branded as a naïve outlook.
Shekhar must have read a few recipes on how to write a page-turner but I should say that it does not leave me asking for more. In fact it only gives me a queasy feeling. A Flawed God begins on a promising note, with the protagonist Sanchit Mishra embarking on an ‘HR’ adventure to Turkey. A bit of research would not stand in for a well-crafted plot and convincing character sketches. In Shekhar’s book stock market is the flawed god. It raises some moot points about ownership rights in corporate sector but not even Karl Marx would have been impressed with Shekhar’s theory. Well, it’s fiction but what about conviction?
Shekhar has had his time in human resources (a concept which I can’t figure out after having worked in India and the Middle East for reasonable stretch of time) and attempted to capture the angst of corporate workforce. But the intrigue, mystery, rivalry, politics and envelope-pushing do not come through these pages.
Pause the femme fatal is playing a game at Frozen Air with Sanchit as her pawn. It’s a game that risks their future as well as that of the company’s with the Sanchit having a series of self-discoveries in the process. Pause is the button that controls the events in A Flawed God. There is, of course, the customary heartbreak with Lokesh the loquacious wasting away himself at a sanatorium.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Adapt (Why Success Always Starts With Failure) by Tim Harford: A Review

By John Cheeran
Tim Harford, the undercover economist, has come up with another book of brilliance – Adapt (Why Success Always Starts With Failure). Harford is a renowned economist and a journalist with Financial Times and while his revelation about the importance of adapting in social and corporate life is hardly original his reasoning is quite praiseworthy.
Without Harford telling it, I have always believed that dissent has a role in life and in decision making. Harford gently connects dissent with adaptation, which is, in fact, nothing but Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the survival of the fittest in a given environment. What, however, Harford does not say is this. Fear is the greatest impediment to success. Slay the dragon of fear and humans can achieve extra-ordinary feats, which you can also label as success.
Overcoming the fear of failure takes effort and Harford’s argument of adapt and prosper is valid but hardly new.
Harford presents arresting case studies of decision making in government and corporate sector where top-down hierarchy leaves little room for honest feedback or dissent.
Harford points to HR McMaster’s acclaimed book Dereliction of Duty which argues that the US government and President Lyndon B Johnson bungled up the Vietnam war effort because the US establishment refused to adapt and revise their strategy. Adapt observes “Johnson, an insecure man with the presidency thrust upon him by John F Kennedy’s murder was eager for reassurance and disliked debate. His defence secretary Robert McNamara was the quintessential yes-man, soothing Johnson at every step and ruthlessly enforcing the president’s request to hear a single voice.” McMaster has pointed out in his Dereliction of Duty why alternative perspective is important in decision making. Dereliction of Duty is a definitive account of how an organization can fail from top down.
Harford, in Adapt, says forty years later, nothing has changed in the US military establishment pointing out defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s refusal to listen to dissenting advice, dooming the allied forces in Iraq.
Harford rightly observes that no leader can make the right decision every time. Napoleon, perhaps the finest general in history, invaded Russia with half a million men and lost over 90 per cent of them to death and desertion. Mao Zedong was the greatest of all insurgent commanders but a catastrophic peacetime leader whose blundering arrogance killed tens of millions of his own people.
Harford writes: “We need whistleblowers in our own lives to warn us about the latent errors that we have made and which are just waiting to catch us out. In short, we all need a critic, and for most of us the inner critic is not frankly enough. We need someone who can help us hold those two jostling thoughts at the same time: I’m not a failure – but I have made a mistake.”
He adds:” To embrace the idea of adapting in everyday life seems to be to accept blundering into a process of unremitting failure.”
Harford quotes a Prussian general who once put it, ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy,’ and says what matters is how quickly the leader is able to adapt.
And if you are able to adapt, you may be the next leader.

Title: Adapt (Why Success Always Starts With Failure)
Author: Tim Harford
Publisher: Little, Brown and Hachette India
Price: Rs499
Pages: 311

Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts, says Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is the author, most recently, of “Freedom.” This essay is adapted from a commencement speech he delivered on May 21 at Kenyon College. This essay first appeared in The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune
A COUPLE of weeks ago, I replaced my three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl with a much more powerful BlackBerry Bold. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three years. Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics.
I was, in short, infatuated with my new device. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old device, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship. I’d developed trust issues with my Pearl, accountability issues, compatibility issues and even, toward the end, some doubts about my Pearl’s very sanity, until I’d finally had to admit to myself that I’d outgrown the relationship.
Do I need to point out that — absent some wild, anthropomorphizing projection in which my old BlackBerry felt sad about the waning of my love for it — our relationship was entirely one-sided? Let me point it out anyway.
Let me further point out how ubiquitously the word “sexy” is used to describe late-model gadgets; and how the extremely cool things that we can do now with these gadgets — like impelling them to action with voice commands, or doing that spreading-the-fingers iPhone thing that makes images get bigger — would have looked, to people a hundred years ago, like a magician’s incantations, a magician’s hand gestures; and how, when we want to describe an erotic relationship that’s working perfectly, we speak, indeed, of magic.
Let me toss out the idea that, as our markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.
To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.
Let me suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.
Its first line of defense is to commodify its enemy. You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include the wedding industry, TV ads that feature cute young children or the giving of automobiles as Christmas presents, and the particularly grotesque equation of diamond jewelry with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should buy stuff.
A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)
But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
Consumer technology products would never do anything this unattractive, because they aren’t people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.
And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.
I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love. My friend Alice Sebold likes to talk about “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” She has in mind the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard.
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.
Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?
There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.
This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.
The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.
And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.
When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I was looking for things to find wrong with the world, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong — an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests — the angrier I became.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.
BUT then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.
And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.
Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.
And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.
How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.
Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.
When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.
And who knows what might happen to you then?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Becoming Indian by Pavan K Varma: A Review

By John Cheeran
Pavan K Varma’s Becoming Indian is an interesting read. Varma’s principal points are language, race and culture.
It is an effort largely meant for immigrant Indians who may have an identity crisis while living abroad although in the earlier part of the book he argues for bringing Indian languages out of the shadow of English.
Varma, an Indian bureaucrat, at times comes across as a man inspired by Hindu revivalism for Becoming Indian reminds readers how great a civilization India was five thousand years ago.
Becoming Indian has message with which I have no quarrel. One should not forget his or her cultural roots while getting swamped by globalization. It is a position no self-respecting individual can ignore. But to assume and argue that since your past is so glorious, you can be contemptuous towards modern trends and thoughts would be a suicidal jump.
Varma sounds like a right-winger when he worries about Indians in India, too, losing their culture and more. Echoing Ram Manohar Lohia, he is anxious about the spread and influence of English in contemporary India.
Varma writes: “The resolve to give our own languages the respect that is their due is part of the unfinished agenda of independence.”
Knowing English should not be in clash with Varma’s the earlier stated agenda. What India needs now is an improved level of literacy. Be it in English or any other language.
It is quite another matter that Varma’s career is based on his ability to handle a language which is, in his own words, alien to our ethos. He writes about a new casteism based on the proficiency of English. I wonder whether Varma knows that Dalits recently have built a temple for goddess English. Dalits have realized that the route to prosperity lies not in flogging a dead horse such as Sanskrit but taking the reins of English in their own hands. Varma would be cursing Lord Macaulay’s legacy. People can’t choose their mother tongue but let them choose their languages, let it be more than one.
Varma’s arguments about becoming Indian are both dangerous and flimsy when he writes about the need to speak and write in indigenous language and be seeped in desi culture. Varma, the north Indian babu that he is, easily forgets the fact that there are few things that tie together this vast, disparate nation together. Which culture has Varma in mind when he waxes eloquent about Indian culture? Tamilian’s? or Bengali’s? or Bihari’s?
It is tricky to assume that only what majority does is culture. English plays a critical role in ensuring India’s unity. India today talks to itself in English to understand itself better. You cannot wish away this reality.
And the wide and varied cultures of different regions and communities can be appreciated only with sub-titles and translations in India, mostly, again in English.
So if you are comfortable with such a situation in India, why should one worry about the deleterious effects of Western cultural homogenization? May be one should point out to Varma that MTV and channel V in India are hardly recognizable versions of their ‘degenerate’ western avatars. So are McDonald’s outlets which now cater to Indian vegetarian palate through its samosas and other Indian snacks.
And, finally, I want to ask Pavan Varma this question. Why didn’t he write Becoming Indian in Hindi or any other Indian language? In fact Penguin’s blurb informs me that Varma has written all his books in English. So much for his imperative of bringing Indian languages out of the shadow of English.

Title: Becoming Indian
Author: Pavan K Varma
Publisher: Allen Lane (Penguin)
Price: Rs499
Pages: 275

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

‘We are walking porn for Indians. But beware of cricketers’

By John Cheeran
Thank you, Gabriella Pasqualotto for telling the truth.
The IPL cheergirl from South Africa who was part of the Mumbai Indians squad finally said what we had talked about in hushed whispers all along -- that cricketers chase the skirt, more than the ball.
She was quickly fired from the cheerleading squad by IPL chairman Chirayu Amin after a cricketer complained about her blog post for
I cannot but mention that when golfer Tiger Woods was swirled into a sex scandal two years ago, some of us were discussing whether India’s cricketing god was the biggest philanderer in international sport. But, again, that’s Indian cricket’s best kept secret. May be one day, a brave, spunky girl would shed her inhibitions, after shedding her clothes, to tell the truth just as Gabriella did.
But, for now, Gabriella has not damaged the reputations of Indian cricketers. Says she: “The few Indian players we have met, such as MS Dhoni and Rohit Sharma have been very polite and keep to themselves in the dark corners. Hotshots like Tendulkar with families at home are never present.”
The fact that Gabriella’s tell-all post was published on April 28, but the Indian media caught on to the story only NOW, tells the narrative skills of our mainstream media. All of them who waited upon cricketers during the last year’s IPL afterhours parties had the same stories as that of Gabriella to tell but only in private.
Now that she is back home in South Africa, Gabriella had more to say about the disgraceful manner in which she was booted out. She says: “I was sent home as if I was a criminal. I was treated as if I had taken drugs or done something awful, and I was never offered an opportunity to give my side of the story.”

Below is an excerpt from Gabriella’s blog that cost her place in the IPL.

To the citizens, we are practically like walking porn! All eyes are on you all the time; it is complete voyeurism. The women double take, see you and then pretend you do not exist. The men see your face, then your boobs, your butt, and then your boobs again! As we walk, all you hear is “IPL, IPL!” with a little head jingle!

‘Ol Graeme Smith will flirt with anything while his girlfriend lurks behind him. The Aussies are fun but naughty, such as Aiden Blizzard and Dan Christian. By the end of a crazy evening, a certain someone had played kissing catchers with three girls known to me only, although he has his own girlfriend back home. He cooed to each girl, “Come home with me, I just want to cuddle!’
Oh, please! I have come to realise that cricketers are the most loose and mischievous sportsmen I have come across. Makes me wonder if I should worry about them more than the commoners on the street! I still have a long while here, so I shall keep my tip list in mind.
Tip number 1: ‘Beware of the cricketers!’

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Sunset Club by Khushwant Singh: A Review

By John Cheeran

Few consider Khushwant Singh as a great writer. He has been an agent provocateur, raconteur and a celebrated editor in India. Singh writes without pomposity and that’s the hallmark of his success as a writer.
Even in the autumn of his life the Sardar’s zest for life is undiminished and The Sunset Club is further proof for that. The Sunset Club, tagged as analects of the year 2009, chronicles the friendship of three oldies – a Hindu, a Sikh and a Muslim – but are commentaries on contemporary India, especially between January 26, 2009 and January 26, 2010.
It does not take great effort on your part to realize that Sardar Boota Singh is Khushwant Singh himself. At one point Nawab Barkatullah Baig Dehlavi tells his wife about Boota “He is good company. He spices his talk with anecdotes, quotations and improper language. One can never tell how much of what he says is true, but it doesn’t matter. I enjoy listening to him.”
Readers, too, enjoy listening to Khushwant Singh. Through the discussions among the three friends Singh subtly reveals where his sympathies lie. Singh has only contempt for ‘fundoos’ and turncoats such as Najma Heptullah are subjected to ridicule.
Yes, improper language punctuates the pages of The Sunset Club. Singh has tried to keep the old men’s bench at Lodhi Gardens warm throughout the pages mainly by the sexual exploits of bachelor Punjabi brahmin Sharma, Baig and Boota. But those exploits are too simple to arouse the reader’s interest and only the portrait of contemporary India that forces you to finish the book. Yes, old age and infirmity lurks in the background but it is the recollections of the youth and hope for the next day that is remarkable about the Sunset. And despite the departure of Baig and Sharma, it is hope that makes Boota gaze upon Bara Gumbad and feel that it still does resemble the fully rounded bosom of a young woman.

Title: The Sunset Club
Author: Khushwant Singh
Publisher: Penguin Viking (2010)
Pages: 218
Price: 399

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Geek Nation by Angela Saini: A Review

By John Cheeran
India is in the eyes of the beholder. It can be anything to anyone. Such freedom allows you to come up with premises such as ‘Is India a geek nation?’
Angela Saini’s Geek Nation – how Indian science is taking over the world -- is an attempt to find out whether the large number of engineers and doctors churned out by this vast country’s educational institutions make it a nation of geeks. Saini, a UK-based science journalist, after her detours through space centres and Sanskrit research institutes is not entirely convinced that India is geeky in spirit and soul.
Geek Nation is an interesting read. Saini, daughter of an Indian immigrant engineer, is an engineer-turned-journalist. Her book informs the reader about the ancient and modern tradition of India’s experiments with truth and science.
For, how many, in this age of ‘information technology,’ know of the role played by former prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru to inculcate scientific temper among the ignorant and illiterate masses? Saini, quite rightly, points out that contemporary India’s large posse of software engineers and doctors and technicians are a direct result of the lead role played by Nehru especially in setting up premier institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology (IITs).
And, yes, an Indian – Aryabhatta -- invented zero! But such an inquisitive tradition has been abused too in modern India. The trend of Indian middle classes re-imagining a glorious Hindu past and looking for all science in Vedas and Upanishads is in fact hilarious as well as disturbing.
To begin with Saini is forced to explain the title of her book. In the past to be a geek meant something of an oddball. And that’s why Infosys chairman NR Narayana Murthy asks Saini ‘is geek a good thing?’ Saini reassures him that being a geek is a good thing according to her book.
Saini, in her quest for geek grail, visits Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thumpa in Kerala, Indian Space Science Research Organisation in Bangalore, Infosys Campus in Electronics City, IBM India Research Lab, Tata Consultancy Services headquarters, National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the tuberculosis clinic in Chennai as well as the Academy of Sanskrit Research in Melkot in Karnataka, and The Oriental Research Institute in Mysore. She also meets Indian Rationalist Association president Sanal Edamaruku in New Delhi. And, much more.
Predictably, scientists who Saini visit are an optimistic lot and assure that India will catch up with science superpowers such as the US, China and Japan soon. But it is quite evident that scientific temper that Nehru wished for is quite absent in the country despite the large number of qualified engineers and doctors.
The zeal of some of India’s scientists leaves Saini troubled as in the case of Champadi Raman Mukundan, the inventor of the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature software. Mukundan claims that he can read anyone’s mind with his mindreading machine. Saini says the problem lies with Indian leaders and police officers, in thrall to science and technology, seem willing to place their trust in new research and inventors however wacky their ideas might sound to others. In India, unlike anywhere else, nuttiness, without which science can’t flourish, is encouraged without any questions. It can, at times, backfire too.
The only way India can transform its society is by coming up with cutting edge scientific and technological inventions. India’s so called IT revolution has not yet resulted in a microchip. We still don’t have our own aircraft engine. We can’t develop drugs that will cure infectious diseases. Saini observes that efforts of Indian biotechnologists to develop a single drug to fight tuberculosis remain almost a lottery.
India aims for low-cost solutions. India’s research budget is frugal when compared to the West and China. The country’s advantage is that it has a huge, but cheap, educated workforce who can be tasked to crack software and research codes. There is no reason to despair of a technological dystopia. May luck be with India.
But I wonder why Saini visited Lavasa and a devote a whole chapter – Geeks Rule – to Ajit Gulabchand’s real estate project when she wanted to figure out if there was a real scientific revolution going on in the country.
Finally, is it of any consequence that I was reading Geek Nation a few days after the ‘Geek Nation’ paid a tearful farewell to Sathya Sai Baba, considered a saint by many and a charlatan by many others?

Title: Geek Nation
Author: Angela Saini
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Hachette India
Pages: 280
Price: 499

Friday, April 22, 2011

Third Best by Arjun Rao: A Review

By John Cheeran
Making out was not a term in vogue when we went to a co-ed school. The Class of 1999 at Shore Mount, of course, has different priorities. Arjun Rao’s Third Best has plenty of stolen kisses, dreamy as well as cynical lovers, music, bullying, boxing and football. But it does not have a centre.
Third Best traces the life of a batch of schoolmates in Shore Mount, an imaginary co-ed public school meant for the progeny of the rich, upper middle class. It is an enjoyable first novel from Rao but I wonder how many of the characters will stay with the reader after she finishes the final page.
Every writer should not be burdened with expectations of tackling the great questions of his or her day. That would be pointless. Here Rao offers us a peek into a whole lot of youngsters (the class of 1999) but in the process he has failed to do justice to any one of them. Easily said, Third Best is the story of the coming of age of Nirvan Shrivastav, a shy, reluctant hero burdened with a family history of achievements at Mount.
Nirvan is in awe of his successful elder brother Moksh who is with him at the Mount, and his father and grandfather. The blossoming of Nirvan’s leadership qualities, grit and fidelity however fails to sweep you off your feet. Yes, Nirvan stands firm when bullied and beaten almost to death by Nanda and still does not rat on him. Nirvan, the quiet hero, reclaims his girlfriend Ruma from the boxing champion Nanda through a Bollywood kind of revenge but does not win over readers.
Among the many faces that make up Third Best --- Gautam, Nirvan, Ruma, Natasha, Bose, Zoya, Gomez ---, I was fascinated by Faraz the handsome. Girls, juniors and seniors, are always chasing him and asking him out on the dance floor but the guy falls for his teacher Zoya, living without her husband who is serving the Indian army in Nagaland. There was minimum of fuss in their mutual need and all that music that flows and enriches Third Best added warmth and poignancy to a foredoomed relationship.
Rao writes well but should have been persuaded by the editors to limit himself. At 376 pages, Third Best is an overwritten answer sheet.

(Arjun Rao studied in The Lawrence School in Lovedale and now teaches history in The Doon School, Dehradun.)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Bharat bhagya vidhata ! (by MJ Akbar in Sunday Guardian)

Editor's note: The Greatest Headline on Sunday Morning: Bharat bhagya vidhata by MJ Akbar in Sunday Guardian.

Trust MJ Akbar to come up with the three words that summed up the nation's mood and the winning moment on Saturday night in Mumbai. This one was definitely sweeter than the one he gave for The Asian Age front page when India defeated Pakistan in the 1996 World Cup quarter final played in Bangalore -- VICTORY. A few weeks later I joined The Asian Age in New Delhi.

A cursory look at Sunday’s morning newspapers in India reveals the paucity of clearheaded thinking in newsrooms. Few newspapers had the élan to think in simple, but striking terms. All the more reason to raise a toast to Akbar.

Below read the front page comment Akbar wrote in Sunday Guardian celebrating and savouring the emperor's -- Mahendra Singh Dhoni -- great triumph as a leader. India winning its second World Cup.

By MJ Akbar in The Sunday Guardian

The romance of cricket has but one competitor, the mystery of conspiracy. When the two become part of the same narrative, there is an all-time best-seller. We have had two in one week.
The credibility of both SMSes and bookies rose sharply before the IndiaPakistan semi-final when a pre-match SMS circulated what the bookies thought — or knew? — what was going to happen: India would bat first, make 260, lose 3 to 4 wickets in first 25 overs, Pak would cruise to 100, lose 2 quick wickets, be 150 for 5, crumble and lose by over 20 runs. Twenty minutes before the finals on Saturday I received this SMS: Lanka will bat first, score between 240 to 250. Tendulkar would fail (meaning, score 37), as would Sehwag, but Gambhir would shine and India would win.
At 2.30 pm Lanka batted first, but the prescient SMS had underestimated their score. They put on a batting performance that began with professional virtuosity, and paced it like a musical overture: minimum fuss at the start, no histrionics, the music’s passage crafted by a captain who knew this had to be the innings of his life, but ending with a thunderous clash of cymbals, a mighty final five overs that climaxed a perfect harmony. Mahela Jayawardene’s Sri Lanka had outdistanced the know-all SMS by a crucial 25 runs. Would that become the vital difference that kept the World Cup in either the largest or the smallest of the cricket countries of South Asia?
It was evident that Mahendra Dhoni had made his first big mistake of the tournament by investing in Sreesanth. It was not merely the runs that he gave away to Lanka’s cool batsmen, but the manner in which he gave them, with that strange alchemy of petulance and ability that has made him a wanderer rather than a fixture in the side. Sreesanth is not a boy big enough for the big moment.
The Indian innings was an essay in transition. The old order was giving way to the new. Gautam Gambhir did not merely deliver in mathematical terms, important as they are; a new captain was claiming his place for the future in front of the most important audience of his career. When Gambhir and Dhoni were batting with India at 170 for 3, the only question was whether those last five overs of the Lanka innings had been the gamechanger. At this stage, a target of 140 to 250, with Yuvraj still to come was eminently reasonable. India was full of runs and Lanka short of wickets. There was suddenly a big hole where wickets should have been, and for one reason alone: the last finale of the greatest bowler in Lanka’s history, Muralitharan, seemed to have lost its magical, piercing rhythm.
Dhoni and Gambhir made the failure of Sehwag and Sachin irrelevant. A team is always greater than the sum of its most combustible sparklers. Such was their dominance that when Murli returned in the last ten overs, he surrendered a wide and was hit for a four. The mojo was gone. Then, as if to prove that cricket would always remain the eventual winner, Gambhir was bowled. Drama revived, a dying game returned to life. Indian hearts were attacked when a run out and an lbw went to the third umpire at 241. But there was a batting power play left. Surely India could not come so near and yet be so far.
If Sri Lanka had a king as their captain, India had an emperor. Moreover, he had a prince as partner, Yuvraj. Emperors save their best for the last. The six that brought India its second World Cup, in the new capital of international cricket, will be adorned in history as the finest stroke of a game that began in England and has become Indian. The final began with the Indian national anthem. Our anthem was the perfect metaphor. Bharat bhagya vidhata…Jaya hey!

Friday, March 25, 2011

2011 World Cup: When greatness beckons Dhoni’s India

By John Cheeran
Greatness beckons Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men. When it mattered, India came up with a fine team effort to knock the faltering world champions Australia from their unsteady pedestal. From being banished from the first round of the 2007 World Cup, India, under Dhoni’s leadership, has come a long way.
In 1996, too, played at home, India had carved out a confident victory in the quarterfinal. However, that quarterfinal will now be played when India clashes with Pakistan in Mohali in what is 2011 semifinal. Few would now like to recall what happened in the semifinal against Sri Lanka in 1996. Banish all negative thoughts, say shrinks.
This has been an interesting World Cup so far for India and Indians. Dhoni, as a captain and player, and his men hardly inspired confidence in the group stage except against the West Indians, in their last group match. They stuttered against Ireland, the Netherlands, Bangladesh, England and South Africa.
Well, the important point was that they lost only one game -- against South Africa -- though they came quite close to that against the now-hot, now-cold England.
No one can now accuse India that they are over dependent on their talisman, Sachin Tendulkar. Yes, Tendulkar is in great form. He has hit two brilliant centuries but none in a winning cause and to say this would be churlish. It was not Tendulkar’s fault that the rest of the batsmen couldn’t contribute enough in those two matches to seal the victory. But equally what matters is that whenever India won there were other men working hard to ensure the winning runs. And that augurs well for India not just in the World Cup but for the coming days as well.
Hopes are ballooning to new heights now all across this vast, passionate but broiling land. Heat is on. Can India defeat their neighbours and intense rivals Pakistan in the semifinal to be played on March 30? A lot many people said India’s match against Australia in the quarterfinal was the final played two matches early. That is preposterous. The real turner, the game-changer is only at hand. No match between India and Pakistan could be watched without keeping a dose of aspirin at hand. The heart attack could come at any moment.
Many are taking refuge in the fact that India has never lost a match against Pakistan in the World Cups. Three of those wins came during the campaign of Mohammad Azharuddin, who knew how to spread his butter and bets. In 1992, when Imran Khan lifted the World Cup we could console ourselves by replaying the winning moments against Pakistan in the group stage. In 1996, India’s disappointments were washed away in the slipstream of the quarterfinal victory against Pakistan in Bangalore. In 1999, in the backdrop of Kargil skirmish, Azharuddin’s Indians were feted for defeating Pakistan yet again, though Pakistan went on to play Australia in the final. There is no final bigger than the clash against Pakistan. In 2003, Sourav Ganguly’s decision to bowl first in the final against Australia was pardoned since India had beaten Pakistan in the early stage.
All these are comforting thoughts. In a surcharged atmosphere in Mohali, India could stop the band of mercenaries from Pakistan, led by the wild and wily Shahid Afridi. Pakistan the country would be on the verge of an implosion but despite almost being a cricketing outcast, that team has been justifying its right to play dazzling and exasperating cricket. The absence of star players has not stopped Afridi’s men from being inventive, divisive and united on the field.
By applying the right kind of heat, the solid Pakistan can be liquefied. India outclassed an Australia in decline by playing to its strength, spin. Ricky Ponting, despite a self-flagellating century, lost the match to India by investing his faith in his pace trio of Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson, the Kangaroo hallmark in the post-Shane Warne era.
Has Dhoni sorted out his bowling worries? To ask R Ashwin to open bowling could prove suicidal against the fleet-footed Pakistanis. How would Indian spinners fare when confronted by the cheeky Pakistanis? Is there a spinner in the Indian ranks with the effectiveness of Afridi, who has taken 21 wickets in the tournament so far?
Virender Sehwag and Tendulkar are capable of hanging Pakistani spinners from the outside edge of their bats. But one cannot be blind to the reality that Pakistan boasts of a better bowling attack.
Someone – fate, God or the betting syndicate -- has already decided who will win this World Cup. All of us – including Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, are waiting to find out which is that side. The side that has much more than a Tendulkar, prayer mats and beads. You bet.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Dubai on Empty: AA Gill in Vanity Fair

Editor's note: For those who have lived in Dubai and those who are still living in Dubai and for those who are itching to go to Dubai.

Its skyline erupting from the desert in just two decades, Dubai is a cautionary tale about what money can’t buy: a culture of its own. After gorging on the Viagra of easy credit, the emirate has the world’s tallest building, the world’s most expensive racetrack, and a financial crisis to match. From the Western mercenaries and Asian drones who maintain the gaudy show to 100-odd families who are impervious to any economic reality, A. A. Gill discovers that no one truly belongs in Dubai, where the legacy of oil has made everything worthless.

The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real. It’s a fable, a fairy tale, like The Arabian Nights. More correctly, it’s a cautionary tale. Dubai is the story of the three wishes, where, as every kid knows, with the third wish you demand three more wishes. And as every genie knows, more wishes lead to more greed, more misery, more bad credit, and much, much, much more bad taste. Dubai is Las Vegas without the showgirls, the gambling, or Elvis. Dubai is a financial Disneyland without the fun. It’s a holiday resort with the worst climate in the world. It boils. It’s humid. And the constant wind is full of sand. The first thing you see when you arrive is the airport, with its echoing marble halls. It’s big enough to be the hub of a continent. Dubai suffers from gigantism—a national inferiority complex that has to make everything bigger and biggest. This includes their financial crisis.
Outside, in the sodden heat, you pass hundreds and hundreds of regimented palm trees and you wonder who waters them and what with. The skyline, in the dusty haze, looks like the cover of a dystopian science-fiction novella. Clusters of skyscrapers lurch out at the gray desert accompanied by their moribund cranes, propped up with scaffolding, swagged in plastic sheeting. Dubai thought it was going to grow up to be the Arab Singapore—a commercial, banking, and insurance service port on the Gulf with hospitality and footballers’ time-shares, an oasis of R&R for the less well endowed. But it hasn’t quite worked out. The vertical streets of offices are empty. A derelict skyscraper looks exactly the same as one that’s teeming with commerce. They huddle around the current tallest building in the world—a monument to small-nation penis envy. This pylon erected with the Viagra of credit is now a big, naked exclamation of Dubai’s fiscal embarrassment. It was going to be called Burj Dubai, but as Dubai was unable to make their payments, they were forced to go to their Gulf neighbor, head towel in hand, to get a loan. So now it’s called Burj Khalifa, after Abu Dhabi’s ruler, who coughed up $10 billion to its over-extended neighbor.
Dubai has been built very fast. The plan was money. The architect was money. The designer was money and the builder was money. And if you ever wondered what money would look like if it were left to its own devices, it’s Dubai.
My driver gets lost more than once. He’s lived here all his life. He says he always gets lost. The roads keep changing. It’s a confusion of orange traffic cones and interlocking barriers; access roads peter out into long drops to rubble and dust. Nothing actually goes anywhere. The wide lanes loop around endlessly, and then there’s no place to go. No plaza or square, no center. Nowhere to hang out, nowhere to walk. Why would you walk? In this heat? You pull over and throw your keys to a valet, and get indoors as quickly as possible, generally in one of the countless shopping centers that look like the airports of lesser nations or Egyptian tombs. They echo with the slow footfalls of the security guards. In the boutiques, the glossy assistants stare at mannequins with a mutual mime of cashmere-folding despair. Dubai has been mugged by its own greed. Its consumer economy is being maintained by oil-rich families to whom depressions, booms, lottery wins, and recessions mean little. Riches and wealth are relative terms. But not ones we’re related to. There is an indoor ski mountain, probably the biggest indoor ski mountain in a desert, where the Arab boys queue for suits and boots and skis. The smarter locals arrive in their own designer après-ski gear, with fur and moon boots. You walk through the doors and it’s like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the land of permanent winter. The fat boys push past carrying their snowboards toward the Tyrolean chocolate shop and Swiss fir trees and slide down the hill with a practiced arrogance. The girls slither, splay-legged, hijabs fluttering, in the manufactured snow.
No one dreamed of this. Twenty years ago, none of this was here. No Narnia. No seven-star hotels. No tallest prick buildings. Just a home of pastoralist tented families herding goats, racing camels, shooting one another. And a handful of greasy, armed empire mechanics in khaki shorts, drilling for oil. In just one life span, Dubai has gone from sitting on a rug to swiveling on a fake Eames chair 100 stories up. And not a single local has had to lift a finger to make it happen. That’s not quite fair—of course they’ve lifted a finger; to call the waiter, berate the busboy. The money seeped out of the ground and they spent it. Pretty much all of it. You look at this place and you realize not a single thing is indigenous, not one of this culture’s goods and chattels originated here. Even the goats have gone. This was a civilization that was bought wholesale. The Gulf is the proof of Carnegie’s warning about wealth: “There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.” Emiratis are born retired. They waft through this city in their white dishdashas and headscarves and their obsessively tapered humorless faces. They’re out of place in their own country. They have imported and built a city, a fortress of extravagance, that excludes themselves. They have become duplicitous, schizophrenic. They don’t allow their own national dress in the clubs and bars that serve alcohol, the restaurants with the hungry girls sipping champagne. So they slip into Western clothes to go out.
The Gulf Arabs have become the minority in this country they wished out of the desert. They are now less than 20 percent of the total population. Among the other 80-plus percent are the white mercenary workers who come here for tax-free salaries to do managerial and entrepreneurial jobs, parasites and sycophants for cash. For them money is a driving principle and validation. They came to be young, single, greedy, and insincere. None of them are very clever. So they live lives that revolve around drink and porn sex and pool parties and barbecues with a lot of hysterical laughing and theme nights, karaoke, and slobbery, regretful coupling. In fact, as in all cases of embarrassing arrested development, these expats on the short-term make don’t expect to put down roots here, have children here, or grow old here. Everyone’s on a visa dependent on a job.
Then there is a third category of people: the drones. The workers. The Asians: Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and Filipinos. Early in the morning, before the white mercenaries have negotiated their hangovers, long before the Emiratis have shouted at the maid, buses full of hard-hatted Asians pull into building sites. They have the tough, downtrodden look of Communist posters from the 30s—they are both the slaves of capital and the heroes of labor. Asians man the hotels; they run the civil service and the utilities and commercial businesses; they are the clerks and the secretaries, the lawyers, the doctors, the accountants; there isn’t a single facet of this state that would function if they didn’t maintain it. No one with an Emirati passport could change a fuse. Yet, the workers, who make up roughly 71 percent of the population, have precious few rights here. They can’t become citizens, though some are the third generation of their family to be born here. They can be deported at any time. They have no redress. Many of the Asian laborers are owed back pay they aren’t likely to get. There are reams of anecdotal stories about the abuse of guest workers. I’m told about the Pakistani shop assistant who, picking up an Arab woman’s shopping bags, accidentally passed gas, got arrested, and was jailed.
The Arabs live in their own ghettos, large, dull containments of big houses that are half garage behind security walls, weighed down with satellite dishes. We drive by an empty lot, and my driver tells me that this was the site of the house of the second son of a high-ranking official. Daddy had it bulldozed when his boy was caught having a Western-style rich-brats’ party. There is a growing, unspoken problem with the indigenous youth here. Fat, and spoiled beyond reason, they are titanically rude. They have reportedly taken to forming slovenly gangs that have been responsible for random attacks on foreign workers and women simply for the computer-game fun of it. This is a generation of kids who expect to never seriously work—but do expect secure jobs. An Indian manager who runs hotels in Dubai told me that everybody dreads the call from some royal Arab telling them to expect a nephew who will be coming to work. The boy will demand an office, a secretary, a car, wages, deference, and an empty schedule. It’s a sort of protection shakedown that you pay to do business here.
The Al Maktoums are secretive and autocratic, as most Arab despots are. The emir is always prime minister. Abu Dhabi’s ruler is always president. The royal family’s public exposure is universally adoring, supine, sycophantic, and breathlessly bland. There are rumors, always rumors, about disappeared princesses, abducted children, madness, and suicide. The royal family owes its power to an intricate web of family alliance, patronage, and operatic charity. It is sincerely respected.
The Al Maktoums have taken to horse racing. They practically own the British and Irish bloodstock business. It’s a clever and self-serving hobby. Horses are one of the very few upper-class American and European enthusiasms that are shared with Arabs. All racehorses have a little Arab in them. So the Al Maktoums can mix in the West without that stigma that the Saudis suffer from back home—the public decorum with a private, Western decadence. The simple business of betting is of course ignored with a disdainfully turned shoulder. Since Dubai’s construction-based economy stumbled, the prince has obliviously opened a massive and spectacularly hideous hippodrome, the Meydan Racecourse. The biggest racetrack in the world, it cost almost $3 billion to build. It’s home to the Dubai World Cup, the most expensive horse race in the world, naturally. This place couldn’t have the second-most expensive horse race in the world. The winner pockets $10 million.
The track sits in a wasteland surrounded by the exhausted squirm of motorways. I walk around it and look not at the galloping horses and their bright jockeys but back up at the stands. Here in one long panorama is the Dantean vision of modern Dubai—the Arabs huddled in a glass dome, looking like creatures from a Star Trek episode in their sepulchral winding-sheet dishdashas. Next to them are the stands for Westerners, mostly British, loud and drunk, dressed in their tarty party gear. The girls, raucous and provocative, have fat thighs that wobble in tiny frocks. Cantilevered bosoms lurch. The boys, spiky and gelled, glassy-eyed and leering. In the last enclosure, the Asians, packed in with families and picnics, excited to be out of the Portakabin dormitories and the boredom and the homesickness of Internet cafés. In front of them all are the ranks of wired-up security guards, making sure the layers of this mutually dismissive society don’t pollute each other. After the horses have run, Elton John will perform.
Dubai is the parable of what money makes when it has no purpose but its own multiplication and grandeur. When the culture that holds it is too frail to contain it. Dubai is a place that doesn’t just know the price of everything and the value of nothing but makes everything worthless. The answer to everything in Dubai is money. In the darkness of the hot night, the motorways roar with Ferraris and Porsches and Lamborghinis; the fat boys are befuddled and stupefied by sports cars they race around on nowhere roads, going nowhere. Taxi drivers of their ambitionless, all-consuming entitlement. Shortchanged by being given everything. Cursed with money.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wild Things by Dave Eggers: A Review

By John Cheeran
As a kid I never read Where The Wild Things Are, the picture book by American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak. I missed the film version too when it was released. Now I’m lucky to have read Dave Eggers’s version The Wild Things at such an adult age, where there is little room left for wonder. Or so, I thought.
But The Wild Things made me five all over again. I was worried about the fate of Max the King every time Carol or Bull disagreed with him and gave dirty looks. With an imagination that often lands Max in trouble, the King uses it to good effect to rule over the beasts in the island.

To write engaging stuff for young people is a challenging task. Although it is only a retelling of the Sendak tale, Eggers’s skill as a storyteller comes across clearly. And, for me, not having read Sendak’s story, the joy, excitement and anxiety were real. Editor of McSweeney’s has done a great job.
Let the wild rumpus start!

Friday, March 04, 2011

Do you still bet on Dhoni and India?

By John Cheeran
The World Cup is finally coming alive. With associate member Ireland outclassing England, the inventor of the game, in a glorious exhibition of cricketing nous, this World Cup is full of possibilities. There could be more stunning upsets along the way to Wankhede Stadium on April 2.
First is a straight question. Will India win the World Cup? Now there is swelling rank of doubting Thomases despite the belligerence against Bangladesh in the Cup opener and Sachin Tendulkar’s century against England. India’s bowling is weak with or without S Sreesanth, captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni must concede that point.
There is another immediate question. How much of a struggle will it be for India to overcome Ireland on Sunday? Yes, India will win against Ireland, will they huff and puff in doing that? If Ireland could chase down 327 runs against England, they could pretty well stretch India’s resources at Chinnaswamy Stadium. And remember that Ireland had knocked out Pakistan from the 2007 World Cup. And in this edition, they had come quite close to surprising Bangladesh. Now with the West Indies humiliating Bangladesh, they were bundled out for 58, Group B can throw up fascinating equations. And to consider that many had written off the West Indies side when the tournament began. It will hurt India hard that it lost a point when it tied with England. But, then, they were lucky to stop in England in its track in the final over.
In any tournament, in any international match, be it Test cricket, ODIs or Twnety20s, India’s problems always stemmed from its flaccid bowling attack. It does not take a third eye to spot that. With India’s fielding far below par, batsmen have a daunting task ahead of them. India’s spinners are struggling to take wickets. On the other hand, for Pakistan skipper Shahid Afridi has injected a new life with a stirring performance by capturing five wickets when it mattered against a rebellious bunch of Canadians.
And now we wonder who said India were the favourites to win the cup?

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest: A Review

By John Cheeran
I just finished reading Stieg Larsson’s final part of the Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. I’m yet to figure out the storm around Larsson’s trilogy. The book can hardly described as riveting writing or a thrilling piece of crime fiction. Yes, Larsson deals with individual freedom in an advanced society such as Sweden where personal liberty counts a great deal.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is not a book that you would return to. It is too detailed, too long and lacks the element unknown to sustain the reader’s interest. I, however, found that Larsson’s depiction of newsroom tension quite interesting. It is hardly surprising when you consider that he was a journalist and an editor in Sweden. The other striking thing about Larsson’s work is the role of women. Lisbeth Salander is unusual heroine by Indian standards. She is the central figure in Millennium trilogy, warts and all. Not just Salander. A whole lot of feisty, independent women play crucial roles to take the story forward in Larsson’s long winding effort, including editor Erica Berger, lawyer Giannini and security agent Figuerola. All of them know what they want from life and go about getting it without less drama and less fuss. Compared to them the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist is a wallflower.
Men, too, are from a different world, with their actions determined to a large extent by individual freedom with society taking a back seat in determining what is wrong and what is right. I did not enjoy The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest as crime fiction but it helped me to understand how life gets unspooled in a society where individual comes first, most of the times.
Disclosure: I’m yet to read the first two books – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire in the Millennium trilogy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Madhouse: True stories of the inmates of Hostel 4, IIT-Bombay: A Review

By John Cheeran
Here is an awesome book.
Madhouse: True stories of the inmates of Hostel 4, IIT-Bombay is going to be a trendsetter. It puts together utterly common and uncommon moments from the lives of a group of students, achievers of some sort, for they cracked the JEE to get in to the IIT.
Though all the recollections in Madhouse are specific to one of the hostels in IIT Bombay – there are 9 others, including a ladies hostel (hostel 10) but you don’t have to be an IITian to enjoy these true stories on hostel food, ragging, pondies, phone, entertainment programmes (EPs), copying, girlfriends and other assorted adventures.
These stories cover a timeline of less than 10 years (roughly a period ranging from 1972-1985) out of IIT Bombay’s more than 50-year history.
It’s an unputdownable book, especially if you remain young at heart. Any reader should be able to recall more than one occasion from his student/hostel life similar to that Madhouse speaks about. These colourful tales do make you nostalgic of a time of infinite freedom and immense pressure to live up to parental expectations.
Madhouse shatters a few myths regarding how above average and brilliant the guys and girls who make the cut to the IIT are. May be, after reading these true accounts, you would feel that what a bunch of quirky, degenerate and spoilt characters are these people, with no qualms about flouting rules of all kinds.
Some of these tales are absolutely wacky. Bakul Desai (contributing editor and a successful businessman based in Hyderabad) wanted to bring an elephant to the campus for the H4’s EP (entertainment programme). An enterprising Bakul, in his desperation, went to Antop Hill and had a negotiation with underworld don Varadaraja Mudaliar for renting out an elephant without knowing who the guy was. Later Bakul tells how they invented ways to use the public coin phone in the hostel without inserting coins. I burst out laughing when he described the day when a telephone department official came with a big bag to collect all the coins from the phone box but only to be shocked when he opened the box by the sight of matchsticks, broken strings, crumpled computer cards, rubber bands, clips, pins and an assortment of wires made of steel, copper, plastic, a wad of chewing gum and a 50 paise coin in the middle of it.
Who thought IIT students could be so enterprising?
Most of the heroes and heroines of Madhouse have done well in life. Many here recount that they learnt more by bunking classes than from classrooms.
Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was a commie then at IIT Bombay has traveled quite distance to become BJP ideologue and now an advisor to Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. Manohar (Manu) Parrikar is another H4 inmate who became BJP chief minister of Goa and now the opposition leader in the assembly.
Urmilla Deshpande (editor) and Bakul Desai (contributing editor) deserve a toast for putting together this book. It was Bakul who took the lead to get the project on track. Urmilla played her role as a sensitive editor to perfection by letting these stories speak by themselves without the writer in her taking over to shape them. She realized that in these stories style and content were inseparable. She should know having married an H4 inmate Hashish Koj La (Ashish Khosla).

Monday, January 24, 2011

“I’m glad his agony is over” Girish Karnad on Bhimsen Joshi

By John Cheeran
This should have been about Bhimsen Joshi but this is about Girish Karnad, playwright, actor and film director. All Monday morning television news channels in India were paying tributes to Pandit Joshi, 89, the music maestro, who passed away in Pune.

Anyone dies, in India, the tradition has been to say it is a great loss to country and the person’s chosen field of vocation. Karnad bluntly said Joshi’s passing away is no loss for the country. How different he sounded.

I have never met Karnad, only seen him and heard him on a couple of occasions in Bangalore. He has a booming voice and irreverent, blunt take on all things.
I have read Karnad’s play Hayavadana. I have watched him presenting the science programme Turning Point in the early days of Doordarshan. He always came across as a no-nonsense person. So it was not a surprise that Karnad, though quite close to Joshi, did not have any cloying tribute to offer.

Let’s listen to what Karnad said about Bhimsen Joshi.
“His death was no loss. In fact, I’m glad that his agony is over. I don’t think Indian music has lost anything by his passing away. He was not great but one of the most popular musicians of modern era. He was no guru. He was not worried about the next generation. He was worried only about developing himself as an artist. Joshi had god given talent. How he used it, developed it and enriched was all that mattered to him. He was no puritan. He loved music in any form. That makes him great. There was no hypocrisy. It was all upfront. He was built like horse. He used to drink, eat fish. He used to drink and perform at concert. He never failed to connect with his audience. He had a glorious life.”

Well, well. It’s time we learnt how to be honest from Karnad.

Friday, January 21, 2011

India = Innovative, Noisy, Dynamic, Inequitable, Adaptive, says Patrick French, author of India, a portrait

By John Cheeran

Author Patrick French fields 16 questions from John Cheeran in Bangalore

1. You are historian who writes biographies. Which role is more challenging, the role of biographer or that of historian?
It's more difficult to write good biography. How can you fully understand another's motivation?
2. The technique used in telling the India story, eliciting a nation’s contemporary history by talking to individuals, is one that perfected by VS Naipaul. Have you borrowed from Naipaul in terms of writing technique?
No. This is a new take on India - my own.
3. For whom – Indians or foreigners -- is this portrait mainly sketched for?
This is a book for every Indian reader, and especially for the youth. It asks: What is happening in India today - and why?

4. Your book has been projected as an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people. What’s the most striking, intimate aspect about the India that you chronicle?
That every paradox co-exists.
5. How would you sum up India in a sentence or, in six words?
Innovative, Noisy, Dynamic, Inequitable, Adaptive!
6. What makes you describe India the most interesting place in the world?
It was Ram Guha who said that, and I agreed with him. Can you think of a more interesting country?
7. You seem to have little love for MK Gandhi. In the book, you describe him as an anaconda. Has India done well to bury Gandhian ideals to embrace free market and redefine Hindu rate of growth?
I am an admirer of Gandhi in many ways, but I don't believe in blind deification of anyone.
8. Does India growth story need to make a pause to push social equity as suggested by some economists?
A pause in economic growth is not a sound or logical principle. Do you really believe that if the economy stopped generating money, the rich would give their money away to the poor?
9. Despite your perceptive analysis about hereditary aspects of Indian politics, you seem to be an admirer of Rahul Gandhi. Why?
Because he has a quiet and subtle approach to politics.
10. Do you think India is ready for its first Dalit or Muslim Prime Minister? Will it ever happen?
11. You write in your book that a politician told you that you could buy journalists like prostitutes. How rotten is Indian media? You must have totally missed Radiia tapes while writing the book.
The book went to the publisher before the Raadia tapes were leaked. They are another example of what I write about.
12. The optimism with which you write about India – unlike many foreigners in the past – isn’t it misplaced? For the country has too many fault lines such as poverty, illiteracy, Maoists and even the indifference to suffering…
I don't think it's wrong to be optimistic about India. Good and bad don't cancel each other out.
13. Historian Ramachandra Guha says India is a 50-50 democracy. How do you rate and what do you think of Indian democracy?
Democracy in India is thriving, but the political parties need to be more open to new talent. I would say 60-40 in favour.
14. Which is your next book?
Wait and see!
15. You have written India’s biography. But which Indian’s biography you would like to write. And, why?
Not sure.
16. Is there anything else I should have asked you, but didn’t?


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

India, A Portrait by Patrick French: A review and an interview

By John Cheeran
Historian Ramachandra Guha the other day in Bangalore described Patrick French as the Gundappa Vishwanath among historian-biographers. Guha explained—Vishwanath scored a century on his Test debut. And unlike many other Indian batsmen who had begun in such a fashion but never scored a century again – Abbas Ali Baig, AG Kirpal Singh, Hanumanth Singh, Deepakh Sodhan, etc -- Vishy went on to score 13 more Test centuries.
(What Guha didn’t tell his Bangalore audience and French was that Vishwanath scored 0 in his first Test innings!)
French, too, had an impressive debut in 1994 with the biography of Younghusband-The Last Great Imperial Adventurer.
India: A Portrait is French’s fifth book and Guha considers all of French’s work worth a ton each.
French has written a very engaging account of contemporary India but to call India, A Portrait an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people is stretching ambition a bit too far.
In recent times there have been many takers for the India story. In Spite of The Gods by FT journalist Edward Luce was an early forerunner. Ramachandra Guha in his India After Gandhi, however, balances his optimism about India with the remark that “India is a 50-50 democracy.”
Only Fareed Zakaria, editor-at large at Time magazine, in recent times has cautioned that India has a Nigeria within its boundaries and advocated caution and correction to redress the fault lines.
French is in love with India and, may be, the fact that he is married to an Indian woman plays a role. The wonderful thing about India that is Bharat is that you can build any narrative – ranging from bleak to cheery -- about India since the country carries within many divergent and contradictory worlds.
French neatly divides his portrait of India into three sections --- Rashtra, Lakshmi and Samaj – and goes about meeting people and retelling stories to paint his picture. He has a great way of telling a story and his wry observations about the country such as the acronym of the now defunct Congress splinter group in Kerala, Democratic Indian Congress (Karunakaran) – DIC(K)-- makes you keep on reading. Somewhere, he describes Mahatma Gandhi as an anaconda. And he is struck by the fact that Sonia Gandhi and Indian Constituent Assembly has the same birthday and Christopher Lee, who earlier had played Dracula, played Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the film Jinnah.

But what’s essentially new in French’s India?
For those who are familiar with the India story in recent times, there are few fresh insights. To a large extent the book rests on the research French done to uncover the background of the 545 members of Lok Sabha. French shows that heredity plays a significant role in determining your chances to contest and win elections in India.
It’s nothing new. All of us knew that. It’s no big deal anymore and that’s why the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi has repeatedly admitted that if not for his father, grandmother and great grandfather he would not have been in the current political role. But French is not too critical about the role hereditary MPs (HMPs) are playing.
In an interview with this writer French says nepotism in democracy is not surprising. “Already there is backlash against nepotism in many parties, including the Congress. Reform in the Youth Congress is driven by Rahul Gandhi. If that goes well, there would be a rapid decline in nepotism,” says French.
French is so besotted with the India that he has seen from a vantage point that he ends up saying that the integration among communities in India is much better than the multiculturalism practised by Britain. French says, in Britain, multiculturalism has resulted in immigrant community ghettoes, rather than integration. He says London has more purdha-clad women than many parts of India. “No woman wears burqa in Bangalore,” says French looking at the small gathering of men and women that has assembled for the launch of India Portrait, in Park Hotel in Bangalore.
Ah, I can only say that French has not seen enough of India.
As could happen with a book of this nature, most of the stories that French talks about have been already published and discussed. A classic case in point is the story of Venkatesh the enchained quarry man in Mysore. It is quite amusing that the reporter who initially wrote the story accompanies French for a retelling of it. It is apt that French ends his book with the chapter titled it can happen only in India.
French, however, uses the story of Venkatesh to point out what he considers as the most striking feature of his India portrait—a particular kind of inhumanity.
French says this form of inhumanity is something specific to India. “It’s a kind of indifference just taken for granted and accepted,” says French. This indifference, French adds, may have roots in caste system. “In India you find impeccably clean shops, outside of it you will also find heaps of filth. This, again, is particular to India.”
In India A Portrait, French has played the dual role of historian and biographer deftly. Says French: “I’m curious about people. My focus is always on individuals but not in a judgmental way. I always give the individual a hearing. Obscure, little detail can tell you much.”
French, who has written the authorised biography of VS Naipaul, The World Is What It is, said Naipaul was quite a handful to deal with, with his roots and links to Trinidad, Britain and India.
And as a biographer which Indian interests you most?
“BR Ambedkar. He was an Indian hero, not just a Dalit hero. Personally, too, he had an interesting life, with two marriages and the second one to a Brahmin,” says French.
Here, one cannot miss the French connection.

India: A Portrait has been published by Penguin India
John Cheeran at Blogged