Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Perils of a Hasty Mission to Win Immunity

 


Letitita Wright, who rose to fame with her star making turn in Black Panther, posted a link to a YouTube video which raised questions about the Covid – 19 vaccine. Needless to say, Wright was savaged on social media, accused of endorsing unscientific viewpoints and supporting anti – vaccine propaganda. For her part, the actor remained unapologetic and defended her post saying that that there was no intention to hurt anyone and all she had done was air concerns about what the vaccine contained and about what we are being asked to inject into our bodies. Ultimately though, when the tsunami of criticism proved unrelenting she deleted her social media accounts.

I can’t say my understanding of the scientific details pertaining to vaccinations are sound and must confess to an abhorrence of needles although I am not against vaccination itself and think Edward Jenner’s contribution is invaluable. Even so, I have serious doubts about a vaccine for which the trials, tests, research and analysis have taken place at breakneck pace. Pfizer/BioNTech, whose product is being administered to people around the world have emphasized that none of the steps have been skipped, necessary approvals from regulatory bodies have been obtained, the vaccine uses bits of genetic code (mRNA) to build immunity against Covid, and has largely proved to be effective and safe.

So far, so good. But if like me, you have read John Le Carre’s excellent The Constant Gardener, you will be seriously worried about the dark side of Big Pharma. It is well known that pharmaceutical giants have a track record of offering fat incentives to doctors, health care providers and pharma sales reps to promote their iffy drugs. Aggressive, multi – million-dollar marketing by drug makers has led to a proven pattern of over – diagnosis, prescription and drug abuse.

Let us also take a moment to remember the lawsuits lodged against pharmaceuticals, shedding light on fraudulent, illegal conduct that has endangered public health. Global pharma has a long history of shelling out big bucks to settle allegations of criminal wrongdoing, falsifying data and wrongfully promoting drugs beyond a licensed condition. In 2009 and 2012, Pfizer paid billions to settle criminal and civil liabilities for illegally promoting drugs, submitting false claims, bypassing insurance agencies, bribing government officials, hospital administrators, doctors as well as members of regulatory and purchasing committees in countries across the world.

Yet we are keen to place our trust in these pharmaceutical companies because we have had it with 2020 which has been the suckiest year in recent memory and can’t wait for 2021 where armed with immunization from a miracle vaccine we can stride forth boldly into a mask – free existence without worrying endlessly about infection and death. Even if it means being hasty and endangering ourselves further.

This article was published in The New Indian Express.

 

A Treasure Trove Glittering with Brilliance

 


The Greatest Hindi Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Poonam Saxena definitively makes good on its boast. This collection is a labor of love from Saxena who confesses herself to be a devourer of Hindi Literature. Regional writers, barring a few who have enjoyed universal acclaim, have long been denied their fair share of appreciation, admiration and popularity. It is a crying shame, because there is a treasure trove of blinding talent, lurking in the nooks and crannies of the artistic world, waiting to be discovered. Translators who work hard to amend this sad situation deserve to be commended for doing their part to give deserving stories the love and exposure they so richly deserve in addition to enhancing their reach in pop culture.

The stories themselves, lovingly gathered and narrated are a treat for readers who are unfamiliar with the bountiful treasures of Hindi Literature. Saxena has selected 25 stories featuring the best work from an earlier time as well as modern talents. The stories from the Nayi Kahani movement which occurred in post – independent India and mirrored a variety of social ills are particularly harrowing and thought – provoking.

Chandradhar Sharma Guleri’s ‘She Had Said So’ written over a hundred years ago is a timeless tale of selflessness and sacrifice set during World War I were Indian Soldiers were carted off to die, yearning for home, hearth and delicious mangoes while fighting a war on the bidding of their white conquerors. Stories set in the aftermath of the Partition, communal riots, and War chronicling dark and bloody chapters in the history of India and Pakistan such as ‘The Times Have Changed’ by Krishna Sobti, ‘Lord of the Rubble’ by Mohan Rakesh, which made me bawl uncontrollably when old Ghani mian  returns to the home he built which has been reduced to ashes along with the rest of his family and ‘War’ by Shaani capture the horror and pathos of those terrifying times and fill the reader with remorse for the hatred and tolerance that was and is reflective of the sundered bonds between children of what was once the same land.

Poverty and caste discrimination is a recurrent theme in some of the stories which seek to highlight the widening chasms between the privileged and unfortunates which leaves one with a bitter taste in the mouth and a stricken conscience. Premchand’s ‘The Thakur’s Well’ is a hard – hitting tale of poor Gangi who is willing to risk life and limb to slake her husband’s thirst but will have nothing to show for her bravery simply because society will never let her rise above her status as a low caste member

Women’s exploitation as well as the untold hardships they are forced to endure are beautifully portrayed in stories like the chilling, ‘Where Lakshmi is Held Captive’ by Rajendra Yadav. It is one of those stories that you will not forget or forgive in a hurry, given the scale of injustice wreaked by a miserly old man on his own daughter and Agyeya’s ‘Gangrene’, a tale about the tortuous monotony of domestic chores that drain a woman of her vitality. Krishna Baldev Vaid’s ‘Escape’, Yashpal’s ‘Phoolo’s Kurta’ and ‘The Human Measure’ explore the same trope with a touch of macabre humor.

The social evil that is ageism is also highlighted in gripping yarns like Bhisham Sahni, ‘A Feast for the Boss’ where a son wonders what to do with his decrepit old mum when his white boss visits and Usha Priyamvada’s ‘The Homecoming’ where Gajadhar Babu realizes that his family has little use for him on retirement.

Asghar Wajahat’s ‘The Spirits of Shah Alam Camp’ and Uday Prakash’s ‘Tirich’ deserve special mention too, though both are going to haunt my nightmares, simply for being undeniably brilliant. In fact, every single story in this lovely collection is replete with merit, making for some very enjoyable reading and truly delicious experiences.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Setting aside Positivity to Fight Injustice

 


I have a sneaking admiration for WhatsApp warriors who devote much of their energy towards proliferating positivity via posts that usually feature photos of cuddly kittens, yoga practitioners showing off their flexibility and rousing quotes that are meant to motivate in a bid to counter the constant barrage of depressing news. The forced cheer and fixation with positivity is not the worst thing in the world. However, the pressure to stay positive and put a cheery spin on everything may not necessarily yield results that are conducive to collective wellbeing.

Take the recent decision announced by the Indian government to regulate digital media and oversee online news coverage, social media and streaming platforms, for instance. In an infamously horrendous year, the content offered by Amazon, Netflix, Hotstar, and the like has been a source of comfort. Of course, there is an abundance of nudity, violence, and other ‘objectionable’ content that run the risk of ‘corrupting the morals’ of the citizens of a moralistic society but that was part of the fun. Indians finally had the freedom to use their discretion to decide for themselves the kind of material they wished to consume. Now that a heavy handed government has stepped in with the ostensible view to promote ‘healthy and wholesome entertainment’ and of course to prevent the viewing of anything that may impugn the integrity of the ruling party, it is impossible not to have serious misgivings.

After all, this is the country where it is okay for folks to piss but not kiss in public. Smoking and drinking advisories are mandatory in films and TV shows not that it has hindered tobacco sales in the least or stopped the government from pocketing profits generated by liquor lovers. Shooting with live animals is discouraged but cruelty to animals in real life is mostly ignored. Depictions of anything explicitly sexual is frowned upon but trying to secure convictions for proven rapists and other sex offenders is close to impossible. In addition to the random cuts demanded by an opaque bureaucracy which may include anything from bleeping ‘breasts’ and blurring an offending undergarment, there is the censorship enforced by the mob. Violent political groups have tried to prevent the screening of films like Padmaavat and caused Tanishq to take down an ad depicting an interfaith union. The latest move to criminalize ‘love jihad’ and its onscreen portrayal is grave cause for concern.

No amount of cute pics and sweet messages should be allowed to convince us that all will be just dandy with the world merely by thinking it will be so. We need to roll up our sleeves and raise our voices when confronted with the looming specter of gross injustice and any attempt to curtail our freedom and personal choices.

This article was published in The New Indian Express.

Dark Themes and a Droll Touch

 


A London – based banker, Anil Singh, finds himself in the boondocks when he finds out that he is the sole heir of an uncle who was murdered in distant Palanpur. Thanks to a girlfriend who is an Indophile, he is persuaded to return to the village and try to make sense of a world that is far removed from his own. Not blessed with the skills of a Sherlock or a Poirot, he nevertheless figures out that the poor Dalit woman who has been arrested for the crime had nothing at all to do with it. While he is concerned about the fate of his uncle, investigating his murder takes a backseat as he takes a stab at photography in order to put together a coffee book, makes an even more half – hearted attempt to farm the land he has inherited, and tries to lend a helping hand in a little village ravaged by poverty and hopelessly oppressed by the caste system. There is a whiff of romance as Anil divides his time between his many tasks and the affections of his white girlfriend and a native beauty, he is drawn too but who can never be a part of his world.

The author of Rumble in a Village, Luc Leruth has based his narrative on economist Jean Dreze’s detailed notes from his sojourn in Palanpur, during 1983 – 84 as part of a research project. Like the author, the protagonist Anil, frequently dips into his father’s notes about his own family’s colorful past and less than honorable role in the history of Palanpur, made for the ostensible purpose of writing a novel, so that he can get a better handle on a way of life that is alien to the Londoner and truth be told, to the vast majority of urban India. In this way, the novel hops between Anil’s exploration of his roots and his father’s account of the seamier side of dreary Palanpur and its sordid secrets harkening back to a time when the British were hard at work raping and looting India, ably assisted by crooked and corrupt Indians who thought nothing of enriching themselves on the misery of those they screwed over from among the poor and lower castes without losing a moment’s sleep over it.

A light – hearted approach is favored by the author which is an odd fit for the dark themes being explored. There is gruesome murder, caste – based discrimination, grinding poverty, ceaseless exploitation, senseless deaths of children and the weak, torture, rape attempts and more, yet the horror of it, fails to land like a punch to the gut owing to the breezy approach and an imprudent reliance on narrative contrivances that fail to cohere in an organic manner. This is particularly apparent in the epilogue, which is supposed to be a touching epistle penned by a grateful student but reads more like a clumsy afterthought on the part of the author.

Opening with murder, Rumble in a Village becomes a leisurely ramble with a steady procession of assorted characters who are gone long before the reader can engage with them in a meaningful manner or fully appreciate their arcs which were instrumental in shaping the evils that continue to plague not just Palanpur but India today. Perhaps, the problem is that folks like Anil and his girlfriend who wants to come to India to see Devi, the Goddess and Shiva’s consort, wash her blouse in some Indian river, cannot hope to truly integrate themselves into the fabric of rural India, despite their best intentions given their unwillingness to distance themselves from their own backgrounds of privilege and plenty.

Which is not to say that the material itself is not intriguing because it is. What it lacks is emotional resonance and one cannot help but think that it could have been so much more, based on the promise offered by its premise.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

A White Savior in Another Hue

 


After a historic win, Kamala Harris is the Veep, and Indians are celebrating like they personally had something to do with it. At Thulasendrapuram, where her maternal grandfather was born, folks partied like there was no tomorrow with crackers, sweets, pujas and kolams, never mind that the Veep has probably never set foot there though she does have childhood memories of long walks with her grandfather in Madras because her mum wished for her to know her roots and cultivate a taste for dope idlis. While it is cool that Biden and Harris won by insisting that both are sweeter than a rotten orange (which is hardly saying much) it is hard to comprehend the euphoria that has gripped America and the rest of the world.

It has been ages since India had its first lady Prime Minister, woman President and Chief Ministers belonging to the female gender. Though iconic, the consensus is they all had more of the sinner than saint in them. None of them spent their terms working tirelessly to promote the feminist cause, empower the girl child and alleviate the evils of a world that has been ruined by the male of the species. On the contrary, women and the rest of the citizens continued to muddle along while the divas like the dudes before them went about the dirty business conducted in the corridors of power which is usually not discussed openly unless one fancies being locked up in jail without the prospect of bail. The question is why is everyone assuming that Kamala, more power to her, is some sort of wand – wielding, fairy Godmother type who is going to magically transform the world and make it a better place?

The only major difference between India and America is that in these parts, corruption is worn as a badge of dishonor, and ordinary folks are dully resigned to it, especially since it seems to be part of the job description for career politicians whereas in the United States of A, leaders do the vilest things from behind the polished veneer of their fancy suits and glib tongues espousing liberal values while throwing their weight behind everything that is anything but. Trump did away with the hypocrisy and must be credited with revealing that the position of President attracts jerks and bullies.

US Presidents are expected to do what is best for their own even if it means screwing over the rest of the world by starting wars, abetting the assassination of elected leaders in order to install tyrants of their choosing, and stand by as millions are slaughtered as a direct result of their actions. Biden and Harris promise more of the same – to be the white saviors we don’t want or need. So why are we cheering already? 

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Putting a Price on the Priceless

Freedom of expression is sacrosanct and the right to express an opinion even at the risk of giving offense is inalienable. Yet, this foremost of democratic principles is usually under attack, more so in the wake of chilling crimes against those who have dared to antagonize extremists. Outrage especially when escalated by social media has deadly consequences. In Paris, the beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty after he shared caricatures of the prophet Muhammad with his pupils has led to widespread horror and condemnation. He was allegedly attacked by an 18 – year old who was later shot dead by police officials.

The tragedy is the second attack to take place during the trial of those behind the appalling Charlie Hebdo massacre in January, 2015. 14 people are currently being tried for the killings at the French satirical newspaper. Shortly after the trial commenced this year, two members of a television production company were stabbed outside the former premises of Charlie Hebdo in response to the newspaper’s decision to republish their controversial and inflammatory caricatures of Muhammad in pornographic poses. Paty’s demise following this attack has reignited the debate surrounding free speech. Back home, a feel good ad that inadvertently sparked indignation was taken down when pressured by right wing trolls which in turn generated outrage among liberal wokesters. This has drawn attention to questions pertaining to personal and professional liberties being curtailed in a prevailing atmosphere of increasing intolerance.

There are many who stand firmly behind democratic principles but many more are asking if freedom of expression is worth it. Nobody (or at least anybody with a shred of decency) denies that it is indisputably wrong and unforgivable to kill people for their ideas, opinions and cartoons but there are also those who wonder if free speech justifies upsetting religious sentiments, jeopardizing inter – faith harmony and risking death.

Charlie Hebdo like the ghouls on social media have prided themselves on their vulgarity, crude depictions, irreverence for all things religious, and staunch refusal to incorporate nuance, subtlety, thoughtfulness or good taste into their editorial decisions. Personally, I found their cartoons of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee whose drowned body had washed up in Turkey, disgusting and distasteful in the extreme. However, as a matter of principle, it is important not to indulge those who take offense and feel free to be as thuggish as they please with negligible respect for the rights of others. By urging people to recalibrate their sensitivities and sensibilities perhaps we can lessen the impact of virulent outrage and outright hatred. We also need to remember that freedom and tolerance are never without limits. Nothing endangers liberty more than a tendency to take it too far.

 This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Curse of the Unbroken Hymen

 

Yayati rescuing Devayani.

The myth of Dhrishadvati aka Madhavi from the Mahabharata is an unusual one. According to legend, this remarkable Princess was the daughter of Yayati who had been granted a boon which could easily be confused with a curse) according to which she would bear only sons and her virginity would be restored after every delivery. Naturally, in a world where unbroken hymens were highly prized and women were valued on the basis of their ability to breed and bring forth sons, she was a commodity whose womb was bartered away repeatedly to venerable Kings who sought to perpetuate their lineage in exchange for a hefty fee of an equine nature. It is a bizarre tale featuring a protagonist who serves one who took his devotion to his Guru to extreme levels in an effort to pay his gurudakshina, no doubt written by men twisted enough to find a way to glorify sordid deeds and pimping, somehow marrying these to their version of morality.


Madhavi Mahadevan’s, Bride of the Forest: The Untold Story of Yayati’s Daughter, is a harrowing saga of grace about a woman who managed to be generous, kind and compassionate even while held hostage to the feckless notions of dharma adhered to by powerful men who thought nothing of inflicting pain on women in order to fuel their grandiose dreams. The author does an admirable job of handling the sensational material with sensitivity even as she infuses it with the gentle beats of a pain – wracked heart.

Drishadvati’s story was never her own and Mahadevan, ushers the reader down the winding and more obscure alleys of myth and legend to meet characters like Nahusha, an ancestor of the Pandavas who rose to unheard of heights only to fall into ignominy after lust, avarice and hubris saw him reduced to a serpent, Garuda, the enlightened mount of Vishnu who can’t help but yearn for what might have been had his mother not succumbed to jealousy, the irascible Vishwamitra who was destined to cause a cosmic ruckus when his mother appropriated something meant for his sister, the frenemies - Devayani and Sharmistha who tore each other apart before learning to prop the pieces up, devious Kacha and bellicose Sukracharya.

All these stories inform the fate of Drishadvati who was a victim of neglect and abandonment before she was to discover that there was much worse in store for her. Reduced to the unenviable status of chattel and made to bear four sons to four different fathers, she has been viewed as immaculate and virtuous, on account of her unquestioning obedience and submission to her father, the Brahmin, Galava, to whom she was handed over to pay off his debt and the other men who temporarily wielded power over her. In this narrative though, she comports herself with dignity, courage and a certain resilience that sees her strike a blow against patriarchy with minimum fanfare and maximum effect.

By choosing to walk away from all the things she has been taught to aspire towards as a woman, Drishadvati reclaims her agency. Having returned to her beloved forests, she heals and more importantly learns to forgive those who wronged her even benefitting them with supreme selflessness. Kudos to the author for re-creating a character who inspires admiration even at her most pitiable.

This book review was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Leave them Kids Alone!

 

It was never easy being a kid but this is a particularly frightful time to be one. Schools remain shut as the pandemic has forced the enforcement of safety measures with varying levels of strictness. Which means children are losing out on those precious hours when they can have their parents out of their hair, catch up with friends and get up to all kinds of mischief while the teacher is droning on about all the things they need to memorize if they hope to become a Doctor or Engineer. They are also missing out on all those tedious extra classes their parents had signed them up for in the hope that their precious offspring will become an Olympic gold medalist, Noble laureate, or at the very least one of those geeky types who make a gazillion bucks by inventing apps, gadgets and all those techie thingamajigs.

Now they have online classes where they keep their eyes glued to a screen, pretending to pay attention to flustered teachers who have yet to master the demands of the new medium, fudging notes, casually cheating on tests while diligently catching up with buddies and cousins on Hangouts arguing about whose parents are more annoying or engaging in heated debates regarding the awesomeness of One Direction Vs BTS. When they have a little down time, they are expected to help with household chores and they can’t afford to slack off since their mommies have sworn to cook their handheld devices in the microwave the next time there is a dirty dish in the sink, chocolate milk stains under the table, or laundry items that have not been folded and put away.

And then there are those coding classes which are all the rage thanks to Madhuri Dixit’s white smile and convincing spiel about how coding is invaluable towards helping youngsters enhance their logical faculties, math skills, creativity and of course, the possibility of becoming the next generation’s Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. The only consolation is that the older kids have it worse. The ones who have to clear the dreaded entrance exams which are tough to crack in the best of times but have become even more formidable thanks to the Covid – 19 threat and the ensuing mayhem. Or those whose parents paid exorbitant rates to get admission to fancy colleges in India or abroad only to be told that the campuses and classrooms are indefinitely closed.

With increased levels of anxiety, stress and depression being reported among children, perhaps it is of paramount importance to ease up on the pressures of our expectations regarding what we want for our youngsters and let them chart their own course in an uncertain future. After all, they are marginally less befuddled than we are.

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.

When Wanton Women Own their Wickedness


 

A good short story collection is exactly what is needed in these troubled times when those who aren’t afflicted with ADHD are addicted to Netflix or trapped in a toxic relationship with their smartphone. These allow readers to squeeze in bite – sized doses of sublime stories between massive social media surfing sessions, leaving them feeling good about feeding their brains and souls something that isn’t sludge. But writing short stories is a fraught business and it takes tremendous skill to cram engrossing plots, memorable characters, and literary merit into a few pages. Over the years, I have come to have a lot of appreciation for the maestros of the craft who pull off this feat in style.  Nisha Susan is one of these and her collection of gems, The Women who forgot to invent Facebook and other stories is a master class in the art and craft of storytelling.

It is a women – centric collection and yet it defies expectations on every level. Told with light – hearted whimsy, savage wit and brutal candour, the stories explore many facets of millennial women, steadfastly refusing to paint them as long suffering victims, stoic saints or inspiring heroes who are entitled to our pity, admiration and tendency to deify. With an insouciant wink and a nod, Susan presents a parade of women trying to cope with the challenges of love, sex, careers and everything else in between while dealing with the challenges posed by a world that has been taken hostage by technology with romance and relationships being the earliest casualties.

Over the course of twelve engrossing tales, Susan enables us to make the acquaintance of her quirky, oftentimes unapologetically amoral and thoroughly unlikeable characters. These include bar – hopping buddies who draw up a sex map, talented dancers from Kerala who manage to have rocking sex lives away from the prying eyes of their conservative folks, a Rebecca – inspired tale about a young wife who disappears into her husband’s dead wife’s  secret – online world of vice, a cheating spouse who becomes murderous on discovering that he is being cheated on, a singer and a Prince who run into each other in a chat room, an author who is trolled to within an inch of her life, and a lady boss who becomes uncomfortably aroused while trying to provide insurance for potential victims of revenge – porn.

It is a riot and a half, because Susan steadfastly refuses to genuflect before the grand altar of political correctness, preferring to present her protagonists with their unsightly warts presented to maximum advantage. With bold and brazen strokes of Susan’s brush, these folks wander off the pages of her book and waltz into your life, and you are sorry only when the song and dance is over. Her protagonists lie to each other and themselves, deceive and are deceived, are not above victimising others even as they choose not to rise above their own victimhood, while never being anything less than fascinating and absolutely real. Susan dares you to sit in judgement of this lot or resist their attempt to sweep you into the whirligig of their messed up realities.

This collection is the equivalent of a boxed assortment of expensive Belgian chocolate, every single one of which sends your senses into overdrive with bursts of exquisite flavour.

This book review was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Lessons from a Witch Hunt


A beloved actor passed away. Initial reports suggested that he had taken his own life. It was a heart - breaking tragedy which saw an outpouring of shock and grief that quickly gave way to mass rage. The mob went after those who had formerly been named and shamed as flag bearers of nepotism but gave up when they realized that those who live in shimmering citadels of ivory are unlikely to be hurt by the sentiments of the raucous, mud – slinging multitudes even at their most vehement. All they have to do is draw the shades and wait it out in air – conditioned comfort till the blood – thirsty, unthinking hordes are offered up a sacrificial lamb, to slake their fury. In this case, it was the girlfriend who has since been questioned exhaustively by minions of the law, harassed by some members of the rabble –rousing press, and hounded endlessly by hooligans baying for her blood.

Let us not kid ourselves. None of this is about justice. It is not even a question of innocence or guilt which is unlikely to ever be established beyond a shadow of doubt. The entire thing has become little more than a circus side – show cobbled together by the mean-spirited who have been feeding the mob a steady diet of increasingly bizarre and deranged conspiracy theories with cold – hearted calculation. If this shit storm ever abates, the only thing that is likely to remain buried is the truth. As for justice, it was never on the cards.

We know all this. Because it has happened before. There have been hundreds of high profile cases which have not been solved satisfactorily and there are probably a gazillion more that did not make it to the headlines. Moreover, let us not forget that there is a pandemic out there roiling through the populace, a mounting death toll, an economy that is poised precariously on the brink of collapse, soaring unemployment rates, caste, religion, and gender based crimes, rising illiteracy, poverty, and the calamitous state of just about everything else. Yet, it has become the norm to fixate with borderline monomania on a single tragedy, until the next cataclysmic disaster strikes to divert attention elsewhere and satiate a deep – seated need for blood, gore and heady entertainment on a scale equivalent to what was formerly witnessed at the Coliseum or during those dark times when royals, traitors and all manner of the damned were publicly guillotined or burnt at the stake on suspicion of witchcraft.

Perhaps it would be wiser to take a good, hard look at ourselves and what we stand for, instead of sitting in judgement of a girlfriend who stands accused in the court of public opinion but is innocent until proved guilty.

This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Bad Money and Worse!

 


Vivek Kaul’s unsparing and inspired analysis of the shambolic state of Indian banking and the Public Sector Banks owned by the government in his new book, Bad Money: Inside the NPA Mess and How it Threatens the Indian Banking System is hugely fascinating and every bit as horrifying. Thanks to the likes of infamous defaulters on behemoth loans like Nirav Modi and the King of good times, Vijay Mallya, the media as well as the public found themselves paying attention to the twists and turns in the murky world of high finance, especially since the poster boys for bad money merely represent the small fry in a gargantuan problem. The abysmal state of the banking system reeling under the crushing weight of bad loans to the tune of over 10 lakh crores has become painfully apparent.

The questions boil over demanding explanations… How did the Indian Financial System managed to land itself in such a hopeless mess? Why were so many defaulters and corporates allowed to get away scot – free with their ill – gotten gains having brought the economy dangerously close to the brink of total collapse? What is the government’s role in all this and why exactly are key officials who ought to have kept their eyes on the ball caught so often with their pants down? Exactly how much of the taxpayers’ money has been forked over to keep the PSBs afloat? Is the money stashed in banks after a lifetime of toil and labour safe? What is the exact price being paid for the staggering levels of corruption, malfeasance and disgraceful negligence on display? Is there a feasible solution to the banking crisis? Kaul undertakes the task of providing simple answers that are never simplistic while unravelling the many layers to a complicated issue without being condescending or obfuscating despite possessing a formidable intellect and a gift for grasping the intricacies of the complex, confusing maze of Economics and Finance.

Divided into two halves composed of crisp chapters and concise writing with a fair bit of number crunching that mercifully manages to spare the brain from the trauma of keeping track of impossible mathematics, Kaul’s Bad Money is never less than engrossing. The reader becomes familiar with the history of banking as the author details the factors that led to excessive government control over banking, the assorted variables that led to the present crisis while skilfully establishing the fragility of financing positions and the extent of the rot that has set in.

Kaul expresses his disdain for political posturing and bumbling moves like the populist loan melas that succeeded only in generating corruption, crony capitalism, partisanship, and fostering financial irresponsibility. These also failed those they were intended to help. The author shines a light on an intrinsically flawed system where knowledge is separated from power and existing enforcement agencies have failed to deter frauds, leading to the inevitable fallout from bad loans with small time borrowers who are unable to pay feeling the full weight of the law even as the big fish swim to greener pastures.

The author makes it clear that the banking system is in bad shape. Efforts to amend the damage have come undone. Sound solutions though available are not being implemented since nobody wishes to upset the status quo which benefits the corrupt. The government which ought to dilute its stakes in the PSBs would rather pretend to be doing something without actually doing anything. While this state of affairs persists, the bad money is not going anywhere. Kaul’s book is brave and brilliant and must be made mandatory reading for all.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

What is in a Language?


 It happens every few years. A desperate politician type hoping to mobilise his dwindling vote bank says something stupid about India needing a ‘unifying’ language and insisting that language is Hindi. A political opponent responds with a loaded tweet about being asked if she is an Indian because she cannot or will not speak Hindi. And that does it. The South Indians rally together to #StopHindiImposition united like never before by their shared concerns about protecting their beautiful languages. And there are always those who leap into the fray, crazed eyes glinting wildly fuelled by dreams of an India where everybody speaks and swears in the same language, worships the same Gods, wears the same clothes, and eats the same veggie saapadu washed down with gaumutra.

Oh my Kadavuley! I have always wondered about the pointlessness of it all. After all, the British have already done a thorough job with English imposition. Practically everybody speaks English in India (pidgin English counts!), since it is the true unifying language not just in India but the rest of the world as well. All parents want their children to study in Angrezi medium schools because hard – bitten practicality wins over pretend idealism every single time. And nobody can claim that fancy, high – paying jobs where you get to wear those perfectly tailored suits and step into air – conditioned sanctuaries of polished steel and chrome away from the unforgiving tropical heat to lord it over the unfortunates who haven’t made it past the hallowed portal can be nailed down if one is fluent only in Hindi. Or Tamil. Or insert any regional language you prefer.

So the great majority of us speak English with varying degrees of fluency and have neglected our mother – tongues. Can we read high – falutin poetry and prose or deliver a formal speech in the language of our ancestors? Of course not. We shell out beaucoup bucks to master the Queen’s English or its poor cousin, American English and yet we hardly speak it like natives even though we like to pretend otherwise. I will never forget that time, when I enthusiastically charged into a Macy’s, NY, to take advantage of a handbag sale only to have the saleswoman look at me with the withering scorn reserved for savage illiterates because she could not follow my Indian accent.

Unfortunately, even that did not inspire me to return to the warm embrace of my mother – tongue – Tamil, which I speak disgracefully according to most. Or learn Hindi. Why should I? The purpose of language is communication so we can understand each other better. And that will happen only if we focus on the essence of what is being communicated. Not the words themselves. Or the language in which they are uttered.

This column was published in The New Indian Express.  

GLAUCOPHOBIA

 


It is hard to write about anything that is not about Corona, celebs or celebs afflicted with Corona. But if you are as determined as I am it is not that difficult to come up with something that is not panic – inducing or superfluous. Such as the much overlooked, age old problem that is stress – related silvering or as it is unflatteringly called – ‘going grey’. In a world where lovely locks are valued more highly than talent, personality or virtue and only slightly less than all the treasure in the world, it is a matter of earth – shattering importance when one discovers those unwelcome strands of silver sticking out from the scalp with ominous intent.

The unfortunate individual, in this case, yours truly, then needed to deal with the unbearable trauma that inevitably follows. Haunted by visions of impending senescence, decrepitude, failing health, dementia and death, I briefly considered therapy for stress reduction or cheaper options like embarking on a virtual quest for the fountain of youth. I developed a depressing new habit which involves examining the scalp minutely, bemoaning my lost youth and willing the white hairs to disappear or magically become glossy and black again.

My mother advised not thinking too much about greying hair assuring me that it would exacerbate the situation and recommended elaborate home remedies featuring amla powder, fenugreek, coconut oil, assorted items sourced from the pantry and that notorious henna which does little more than reveal that you are trying to conceal your streak of silver. She also recommended yoga, breathing exercises and meditation. In her opinion, these three can fix all the problems in the world from the trifling to the apocalyptic. The husband said I am panicking over nothing pointing to the shock of silver he wears with ease and pretended not to hear when I muttered darkly about a sexist world where men with the ‘salt and pepper’ look are considered distinguished and stylish while greying women are seen as having given up on themselves and deserving of being airbrushed out of existence.

One friend said I should take the plunge and find an app that will allow me to find a beautician equipped with PPE to style and colour my hair. Another friend said I should own the greying strands and ease myself into a new look as an eccentric, genius type author.  An acquaintance who no doubt has a bone to pick with me offered to pluck out the offending greys though it is well known that silvers and greys show up in droves to mourn their fallen compadres. The internet offered umpteen solutions ranging from the practicable to the preposterous. I swear there are folks out there who swear by pee therapy as the perfect solution for all your hair – related concerns!

Finally, I considered accepting the greys and moving on to more worthwhile pursuits. After all how can I hope to be fully empowered and self  - actualized if I am going to enslave myself to the demands of vanity and devote my years to painstakingly dyeing my hair and fighting to resurrect the parts of my body that have refused to resist gravity despite my half – hearted attempts at self – care?  It would be wonderful to claim that I have made my peace with my ‘greysome’ situation and am handling it with grace and acceptance. But I remain hopelessly conflicted and wish there was a solution to this hair – raising dilemma.

This article was published in The New Indian Express.

When Paranoia met Corona

 


Even in pre – Corona days, I was a compulsive hand washer and my handbag was never without a small bottle of sanitizer. One can never be too careful. People in these parts poop, pee, and noisily spit just about anywhere. As a WFH author, I have long encouraged myself to practice social distancing and it was never difficult because I have an abhorrence of crowds and will risk wading into one only if Vijay Sethupathy/Devarokonda have released a movie. Social gatherings aren’t a big draw either unless there is coffee and cake. But since I can brew a wicked cup of coffee myself and now that my relationship with my tempestuous oven is cordial there is no reason to try and cure my tendency to be a hopeless introvert who is perfectly comfortable eschewing socializing, virtual or otherwise.

The husband who was cautious to start with seems headed towards full-blown hyper - vigilantism. He is making his own sanitizer with isopropyl alcohol and glycerine, vacuuming every inch of the house and scrubbing all available surfaces with lizol and I believe he spends his free time drawing up plans to build a sterile bubble we can step into every time we have to step out in order to rebuff germs as well as its carriers for good.

We have welcomed the newly enforced rules and regulations insisting that people wash their hands with soap and reaffirm their commitment to personal hygiene. Yet, even I can’t help but think we are going too far and it is high time we got a grip. For it is one thing to be sensibly cautious but quite another when we allow ourselves to become dangerously paranoid. There are too many news articles attesting to how we have swung towards the latter. 

These are hardly the best of times and it is okay to be scared. But when we allow unfounded fear and irrational concerns to rule over good sense, an already crappy situation becomes far crappier. It is heart-breaking to hear about doctors being pelted with stones, nurses evicted from their apartments by heartless landlords, relatives of the deceased being hounded and harassed while attempting to perform the last rites, and immigrant workers being barred entry from their villages and towns. It is sensible to want to avoid risking infection but not if it is going to cost us our humanity.

We are in this together and it is only a matter of time before we learn to live with Corona the way we do with the umpteen viruses, bacteria and thoughtless humans out there. So wash your hands, drink your coffee, eat your cake and do whatever it takes to prevent going stir crazy.

This article was published in The New Indian Express.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

A Chronicle of Unconventional Choices



Manjula Padmanabhan’s ‘Getting There’ is supposed to be a romp on the wild side as the author gazes back fondly on her ‘spiritual quest’ to find love, truth, and her identity. Mostly, though it is a chronicle of unconventional choices made by those rare individuals who can afford to get away with partnering with the devil within. It all began for Padmanabhan, when she decided to shed a few spare kilos by visiting a diet clinic and had an epiphany which prompted her to undertake a quest to lose the baggage she was lugging around like dead weight instead. Two Dutch men showing up at her lodgings to meet a bidi seller turned Guru gives her the impetus to follow her reckless impulses to sever the serpentine ties of familial/ societal expectations, and journey to the other end of the globe.

The search for whatever it is that propels this Quixotic mission sees Padmanabhan cheat on her sweet if bland boyfriend, lie through her teeth to all her loved ones and inconvenience or hurt more than a few of those who cross her path. Written with disarming candour, the author makes no bones about her selfish self – indulgences, sexual conquests and privilege which leaves her free to do exactly as she pleases, rationalizing or brushing aside the inconvenient pangs of conscience.

Amusing and awkward in parts, ‘Getting There’ is most engrossing and yet an uncomfortable pall hangs over it, as it is hard to shake the feeling that the narrator’s personal journey was made possible on account of the freedom she enjoys to go where her wayward will takes her which is something that others hailing from this neck of the woods would give an arm and leg for even in these supposedly evolved times, let alone in the 70s where this tale is set. And the narrator uses it mainly to follow through on largely idiosyncratic whims which includes traipsing across the U.S.A and Europe mostly at other people’s expense, getting high, abandoning her diet, sleeping a lot and working a little.
Getting back to the existential angst at the root of this epic search for the self, the narrator with bravura chutzpah makes it clear that she cannot abide societal norms which dictate that a woman can never be fulfilled if she fails to get married to a suitable man and dutifully trot out children. Naturally, she is judged by her own brother, exasperated roommate and a breathtakingly jingoistic NRI type. Padmanabhan, of course, is shamed by their words but it is also water off a duck’s back and you can’t help but applaud the fierceness which sees her so committed to doing her own thing.

A self – proclaimed feminist and one who is committed to being truthful as well as not inflicting hurt, the narrator with admirable bravery, lays bare the cracks and fissures in her own philosophy and principles by revealing the many times she thought nothing of throwing another woman under the bus while in pursuit of passion, lying to get her way or shrugging aside the pain she is causing others. Like the unforgiving lens that confronted her in the dietician’s clinic, Padmanabhan does a striptease to reveal her psyche, warts and all in its naked glory and it is impossible to look away.

This review was originally published in The New Indian Express.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Being Indian

#JusticeForJeyarajAndBennix

Most of us are heartily sick of the gloom and doom forecasting headlines that inform us every single day that India has witnessed a record spike in Covid positive cases and deaths. We are then helpfully informed that the numbers are probably not reflective of how bad the ground reality actually is. A favored coping mechanism is to ignore the news, busy ourselves with daily routines, debate whether to bake a vanilla sponge cake with chocolate glace icing which is certain to undo hours of yoga, cardio and strength training, weigh the pros and cons carefully before succumbing to the sugar demons lying to yourself that you are doing it for the kids though you know you are going to finish most of it, then tune into Netflix and binge watch a show to distract yourself from anxieties pertaining to Corona and your strained relationship with the weighing machine.

Every once in a while though a case comes along that shakes us to the core and forces us out of the ennui that has come to characterize our existence. The custodial deaths of Jeyaraj (58) and his son Bennix (31) have sent shock waves rippling across the nation already reeling from a global pandemic. The facts of the case at least the ones that are available and not entirely contradictory are grisly in the extreme. Father and son were beaten, tortured and allegedly sodomized before they were declared dead in a Kovilpatti Govt. hospital which is about 100 kms away from where they were arrested for supposedly violating lockdown rules and regulations at Sathankulam, Tuticorin district. Two of the cops involved have been suspended and another two transferred.

Public outrage has reached its zenith and a multitude of voices have been raised demanding #JusticeForJeyarajandFenix. Trending hashtags don't really fixate on accuracy which probably explains why Bennix has become Fenix. All agree that the token disciplinary action taken against the dirty cops and magistrate is inadequate to say the least. The ruling govt. as well as the opposition have duly called each other out and promised the victims' families compensation to the tune of 25 lakhs. One can only hope that once the smoke dies down and the hashtag stops trending, the fight for justice continues.

These are troubled times and if we pause to introspect, it become abundantly clear that we are also responsible for this brutal,unforgivable system where the rot of corruption has set in too deep. As Indians, we have become inured to doing things we shouldn't because we know we can get away with it. And we are right about that. Folks especially if they are rich and powerful can easily get away with murder, theft and just about anything else provided they have the money to throw at problems or the connections that will help them wiggle free. All of us play along because that is the only way to get along with fellow citizens of a morally challenged nation.

The legal system is in shambles and law enforcement is a joke and a half. The courts are so backed up, that a case is unlikely to see the light of day even after the perpetrator has lived to the ripe old age of 200 before kicking the bucket. Small wonder rapists, kidnappers and extortionists roam the streets like they own it while families of the victims bury their dead and cower in their homes destroyed by grief and fear. As for the rest of us, we are perfectly content to coast along just as long as we or our loved ones are untouched by the madness and savagery lurking outside the cosy comfort and confines of our home, work and lives.

That makes us complicit in this systemic evil as everybody is guilty of wrongdoing at a major or minor level. Are the beady eyes of IT officials raking your dubious company's records? Just buy them a fancy car, a crate of booze, or a trip abroad. In trouble with the law because your son and heir got drunk and mowed down a car killing a family of four or bludgeoned his wife to death with a dumbbell?  No problem... there is always somebody who knows somebody who can brush these things under the carpet. All you have to do is buy a five - bedroom sea - facing apartment for some politico type's mistress. You do it without blinking thanking your lucky stars that you have not been called upon to provide the mistress as well. Your kid can't be bothered with burning the midnight oil for a medical seat? Not an issue... It has already been bought and paid for. So what if some auto driver's daughter killed herself because her decent marks notwithstanding, admission was denied her? The outrage will die down eventually. It always does. Why the hell should we bother about the problems of the poor and the unfortunate?

So we shrug our shoulders and say, THIS IS INDIA. We will remind ourselves of our culture, heritage, philosophy, Taj Mahal. Yoga, Ayurveda, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Kamasutra, Madhuri Dixit, Virat Kohli, P.V. Sindhu and Dindigul thallapakatti biriyani so we can take pride in being Indian and ignore the anti - nationals constantly harping about all the things that are so horrifically wrong with this land like raucous crows. What else  can we do? Everything else is too hard and it is somebody else's problem. Definitely not ours. So there! 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

CALM DOWN!


This year continues to boggle the mind with its capacity for unleashing tragedy on an unfathomable scale. The tragic passing of 34 - year old Sushant Singh Rajput has led to an outpouring of grief and triggered a much needed conversation about mental health. But of course, it didn't end there. The whole thing has become an unstoppable juggernaut of toxicity. First, there were the paparazzi types who plastered photos of his remains across the internet, uncaring that he is survived by family and friends who don't need this nonsense while coping with their loss. If that were not bad enough they barged into the homes of his aged, traumatized father and relatives with their prying cameras and intrusive questions so that their suffering could be broadcast on prime television for the consumption of the voracious public. Then the conspiracy theories began with everybody playing detective and floating theories that ran the gamut from bizarre, highly improbable to outright ridiculous, which was shared across social media where folks became more and more frenzied not unlike the sharks when they get a whiff of fresh blood.

You would think things couldn't get worse but of  course they did. Many denizens on the net and graduates of shady institutions like Whatsapp have gone certifiably bonkers after all and these have come to the conclusion that Karan Johar, Alia Bhatt and all the products of 'evil nepotism' are to blame for the death of Sushant (as if any of us can pretend that we give a crap about the collective good and not the ones who matter to us most!). Apparently even Salman Khan aka Sallu bhai aka Black Buck/Pavement dwellers killer and his family were also not as committed to Being Human as they routinely insist. Now I am not a Karan Johar fan. The man's show is insufferable and unwatchable and he spells coffee with a K (Sacrilege! And also Sacre Bleu!) Enough said. As for Salman Khan, I try not to be mean - spirited but confess to laughing out loud when my Dad described him as a 'topless and talentless wonder!' to get my cousin who is a fan to quit raving about him.

Be that as it may, it is awful to lash out madly even if you are grieving over the loss of a life snuffed out too soon and actually point fingers at others without rhyme or reason accusing them of being responsible for someone's death. That is a serious charge and it is unseemly to hurl such accusations without a shred of proof. Such conduct is inhumane and insufferable and we need to give it a rest. Period.

 It is perfectly understandable to envy the rich, powerful, beautiful and famous celebs whom most are obsessed with. But that doesn't mean you have been issued a free pass to attack them at every turn and spew hatred in their direction every chance you get.  It is unfair to make them the unwilling objects of either extreme reverence or revulsion. Why is it so hard for people to enjoy their work and leave them alone, resisting the urge to stick their noses into their private lives or sit in judgement of them?

Sushant's demise is a reminder that being talented, successful, good looking and famous does not render you immune to human suffering. We have been conditioned to think that being gorgeous, perfectly groomed, skinny and sculpted just so, expensively attired, branded out from head to toe, fabulously wealthy, Instagram worthy and famous are things to aspire toward because these thing supposedly make life fabulous and worth living. But we all know it is not true. People who have these things can still be more depressed than the immigrant who has been trudging homeward without even a buck to call his own or a  mouthful of food or water to sustain himself or a regular Joe who has been chasing away Corona blues with condensed milk while sighing over (insert the celeb you love/hate follow here)'s glam Instagram feed. It is inexplicable but there you have it.

Sometimes, it sucks to be alive and we don't need to compound the situation by being so hard on either ourselves or each other. Even the discussions surrounding mental health have devolved into heated arguments with bilge being spouted every which way. Some are convinced that posting a cutely worded post about how their door is always open, the house and kitchen bench is always safe, they can have coffee brewing in minutes, can lend you their understanding shoulders to cry on, blah, blah, etc. on FB can help those dealing with depression, feeling alone or suffering in silence. There are many who think that people are depressed because they stubbornly refuse to be happy. That these misguided souls who don't get how fortunate they are compared to the aforementioned immigrant workers simply need to get over themselves and move on. If they do yoga, try meditation, listen to whale sounds, catch up with buddies, etc. they will be right as rain.

Others insist that the taboos and stigma surrounding mental health and seeking treatment for the same be addressed by getting worked up about it while issuing torrential twitter threads. Of course, everybody is an expert these days on everything be it Corona, suicide, depression or defense, so nobody cares for anybody else's POV. All I can say is that sometimes a cup of coffee, a scoop of ice cream, a snatch of a beloved tune or a friendly conversation can go a long way and sometimes a prescription made out by a professional can provide relief. Whatever floats your boat in in other words. It does not have to be strictly this or that. It can be a little bit of this, that and more.

We still don't have answers where depression and assorted mental ailments are concerned. It is cool that we are trying to figure it out. Perhaps we will have a better handle on these things in future and lives can be saved. In the meantime, all we can do is support each other's choices whatever they may be and stop turning on each other when we are not attacking celebs for painting their faces to show solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, being flag bearers of nepotism, or hawking their fave brand of lipstick. As for Sushant Singh Rajput, it is important that we celebrate his life, work, generosity, instead of attacking Karan Johar for not inviting him to some lousy party where the glam brigade show up in their designer togs and ignore the scrumptious food after photographing it for Instagram because their dietician warned them to stick only to boiled cabbage (which needs to be thrown up immediately after) because that is the only way to manage the Herculean task of pouring  oneself into a bandage dress. He may not have wanted to attend anyway because Sushant clearly preferred to spend his time on Quantum physics, helping the needy, writing poetry, playing the guitar, reading Sartre, making his kinda films, dreaming of visiting his slice of the moon and simply being himself. His memory would be better served if we remembered all the good things he stood for and learned from the demons he wrestled with. Don't you agree? 

Goodbye Sushant. Keep on doing your thing wherever you are. We will miss you.