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

Monday, January 17, 2011

Will the World Cup spin in India’s favour?

By John Cheeran

Will the World Cup spin in India’s favour?
National selectors hope so. On Monday, they selected three specialist spinners – leg-spinner Piyush Chawla, off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and experienced off-spinner Harbhajan Singh -- in its 15-man squad.
The third spinner knocked Kerala’s fiery fast bowler S Sreesanth and Mumbai batsman Rohit Sharma from the team.
There is an abundance of spinning talent in the side when you consider that Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Yusuf Pathan and Suresh Raina could turn the ball. Even Sachin Tendulkar, playing in his sixth World Cup, can send down an over or two.
Focusing excessively on desi factor could back fire in the end. Because, others may do better than what Indians are supposed to do in such situations. In 1987, Graham Gooch and company swept India out of the World Cup final.
Make no mistake. It’s the batsmen who are going to win this World Cup. No matter what bowlers can try, if the pitch is not under prepared, that is.
Injuries are a worry for this side, especially in batting department. At the moment Tendulkar (hamstring), Virender Sehwag (shoulder) and Gautam Gambhir (elbow) are nursing injuries.
Let’s listen to selection committee chairman Krishnamachari Srikkanth on Monday: “We took everything into consideration. The conditions, the opponents... everything that we need to win. We are playing in India, in spin friendly conditions. There are no surprises, it’s a sensible team. We are confident we will win (the World Cup) playing in India. Our team has been playing really well in both Tests and
One-dayers. We have a strong batting lineup backed up by sound bowling. It’s a balanced team. Every team has injury concerns. It’s part and parcel of the game. The current teams form gives us a lot of confidence. The team’s doing brilliantly. We defended a small total of 190 against South Africa in South Africa. Playing at home is a lot of pressure. I pray for the players. Let’s leave the rest to God and hope for the best. The greatness of any team lies in the handling of pressure. And I hope they can repeat our feat of 83.”
Srikkanth was a member of the Indian team that won the 1983 World Cup in England.
India will play against England, South Africa, West Indies,
Bangladesh, Ireland and Netherlands in Group B.
This will be the third World Cup to be staged in the
subcontinent, after the 1987 and the 1996 editions. India qualified for the semifinals on both occasions. India was a finalist in 2003, but exited in the first round in
the last edition in the Caribbean.
India is one of the favourites for the 14-team tournament, which begins commences with a match between India and Bangladesh at Dhaka on February 19.
The final will be played in Mumbai on April 2.
Indian team for World Cup:
Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain), Virender Sehwag
(vice-captain), Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Yusuf Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Ravichandran Ashwin, Piyush Chawla, Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra and Praveen Kumar.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bangalore’s bleeding hearts wrapped in newsprint

By John Cheeran
Bangalore is a wonderful city. I’m afraid t has the largest number of bleeding hearts and NGOs per square feet in India. It has ambitious Citybankesque civic agencies, including Janaagraha.
Newsmen and women, too, are a special breed in Bangalore. They empathise with readers, and espouse social causes to such an extent that often they end up tilting at windmills much in the manner of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Living in Bangalore for quite some time now and occasionally reading newspapers, I have come across several cases of campaign/community/journalism in the city. It seems to me every evening, editors are waiting for an Aarushi or Jesicca Lall so that their bleeding hearts can be wrapped in eight columns of newsprint. So I have read campaigns blaming a city compound wall for the death of a college student, a drain for the death of a young boy, a pack of stray dogs for killing an infant.
How sensible are such kind of journalism? A compound wall collapses, and someone gets trapped and dies. On a rainy day, a boy, accompanied by his mother, falls into a an uncovered drain and disappears. An unattended baby out of a brood of six gets mauled by a stray dog in a hut. All these instances are unfortunate.
But in each case the media reaction has been to blame the nebulous, less than perfect system for the tragedies. You can rail at the system because it is the easiest way. You can hang a stray dog for maiming a baby. You can hang a compound wall for killing a young college girl. You can carpet bomb a drain for gobbling up a young boy.
I find this trend rather unsettling.
The system will be always less than perfect and one has got to work on to improve it. But at the individual level, don’t we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves?
Don’t parents have a responsibility to protect their children? When you have six kids, almost all of them one or two years apart, how much attention can be given to each of them?
Don’t you have a thought before bringing young lives to this inhospitable, cruel and chaotic world? Of course, the parents of the baby who was attacked and killed by a pack of stray dogs in Bagalur in Bangalore are poor. They deserve sympathy for their financial misery but not for going without condoms. Yes, when you are breeding like dogs, you end up leading a dog’s life. Tragedy becomes complete when the father mourns the loss of his only boy among the brood! May be would not have been so heart broken had the dogs killed one of his daughters.
It is utter nonsense to argue that society has to take care of children. It doesn’t work. The right to live sounds really great in a debating room but onus is on you to stay alive. All the editors who treated the story big time on their front pages and the politicians in the state assembly who shouted against stray dogs would not step forward to help the grief-stricken family to build a house with safe doors so that another pack of stray dogs won’t bound in.
It’s a world of iniquity and injustice but everyone has to fend for himself.
John Cheeran at Blogged