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.  



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.