Thursday, September 19, 2013

On reading ‘A Matter of Rats’

I started reading Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats at 3 am on a Sunday morning. The book was in my office bag, and finding myself suddenly awake, I took it out and went to my study.

Reading the book was like plunging into a rat hole of memories. I had grown up as a child in a village in Bihar and like the ancestral village that Kumar describes in this book, my village too had an adjacent basti. We called it the Mus-har basti (the village of rat-eaters) where low caste Hindu families domiciled. I knew some of the members of those families as they worked on our fields as day labourers. Many of them visited our house everyday to meet my father, a school teacher who doubled up as the village head.

Unlike in Patna, rats then were not a menace in our village. Rats, along with stray cats and dogs, lived and roamed around in our courtyards and galis. They stole grains and sometimes we used to hear that rat-eaters (Mus-hars) had hunted through our fields after the harvesting was done.

As a child I was rather afraid of the big, fat moles that scurried around half-blind through the narrow lanes of our village, dipping in and out of drains as they wished. Them, and the stray dogs that sometimes chased people for no rhyme or reason.

It was in Delhi where I had first encountered the menace of rats. As a newly married couple, I used to live in a run-down flat in South Delhi with my wife and we used to sleep on the floor on a mattress. One day my wife telephoned me in the office. A rat had bitten her on the head while she was asleep. She had awoken with a sharp pain and when she touched her scalp, she found blood on it.

Initially, I could not believe that a rat could bite humans, but after seeing my wife’s case, I had to. Because of the rat bite, my poor wife had to take antibiotics for a while. Reading Kumar’s book, that memory came back to me. A Musahar, a rat-eating man in Kumar’s book, tells him that rats could bite through bricks and concrete. In Patna, Kumar tells us, remnants of food on the face of babies attracted rats who bit them, and nurses played music at night to protect their toes from being bitten by rats—they believed music kept the rats away.

I could never figure out what had attracted a rat to attack my wife. Anyway, the result of that unfortunate episode was a short story titled Rats that I wrote while staying in that flat, which took me to Sri Lanka for a literary conference.

At 3.25 am, when I was almost done with the book’s prologue, a quarrel broke out in the neighborhood, disturbing the peace and stillness of the early morning. A couple was having a verbal fight. I looked out of the window. Across the side road that lay between my flat and the multi-storey car park where the squabble was in progress, there stood a very old tree, almost as tall as the car park, which, with its thick foliage, hid the couple from my view. Through the gaps in the branches, all I could see was a man in a blue shirt and a woman in green, both of the Chinese race which I could figure out from their accented English. The man was shouting and verbally abusing his wife and at one point seemed to push her around too. He was saying things like ‘you have destroyed my life’ and ‘I am done with you’. The woman seemed to be scared and even though she fought back, her voice was cracking up. The man was going to his car which had its blinking lights on.

The bickering went on for almost half an hour when I decided to start taking some notes for this review.

It was 4.13am when I went back to the book. It was an exciting read, more so because I had waited for almost two weeks before the book reached me in Singapore from Bangalore.

In the chapter ‘Patliputra’, Kumar narrates the history of Bihar through his memories of the history of the city and the province from his school days, and how he used to draw diagrams of rulers and emperors from the past during his class hours. He ascribes his desire for drawing the emperors of the past (people who existed before photography was invented) to his incipient sexuality.

Then he proceeds to talk about art and craft in Patna. He describes visiting a museum in Patna where Napoleon’s four-poster bed was on display. Kumar expresses his disappointment with R K Jalan’s collection which he says was more geared towards flattering power. One of the collected items in the museum is a dinner plate belonging to Emperor Akbar’s Prime Minister Birbal. Jalan had persuaded a Viceroy and later on Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, to eat from the same plate.

In the chapter ‘Patna in the Hole’, Kumar looks for traces of Patna in English literature. Surveying literature from E M Forster to Vikram Seth, Kumar laments the fact that Patna hasn’t had much of a presence, and declining if at all, in English literature. However, there has been a nuanced portrayal of Patna in many stories by some great Hindi writers. From there, Kumar proceeds to lambast Shiva Naipaul, the young brother of V S Naipaul, who had visited Patna and had nothing good to say about Bihar. In contrast, he finds Ian Jack, the founding editor of Granta, to be sympathetic towards Biharis. He describes Jack as a writer who could discern some humanity and dignity in the much reviled people of Bihar.

In the chapter where Kumar mentions Ian Jack’s writings on Bihar, there is a mention of my hometown Kishanganj. Ian Jack once visited Bihar to find a lawyer who had defended a labourer from the Himalayan foothills. This man had spent thirty years in prison because of being found travelling without a ticket on the Assam Mail. The whole episode had turned out to be a case of bureaucratic mismanagement. In his second visit, Jack not only finds the lawyer but also the labourer, the guy who lost 30 years of his life. After his jail term, the man lived just outside the jail in Kishanganj. I wondered if I had ever seen that man in my town.

In the next few chapters, Kumar deftly narrates some of the success stories from Patna. “This book is about my hometown Patna; but at its forefront are stories about people,” he writes. On its pages we meet artist Subodh Gupa and his mentor Robin Shaw Pushp; we hear about Bindeshwar Pathak, the man behind the Sulabh International movement, and filmmaker Prakash Jha, the man who has made Patna’s first mall. We also get to hear from Irfan, a former communist now working as a TV journalist in Delhi. I had had the chance to meet some of these people, so it was thrilling to read about them from a different perspective.

One of the fascinating stories in the book is that of youth poet Raghav and his now estranged wife Leela, a struggling TV actress. In a Rashomon-like narrative, the author tries to examine the truth in their crumbling relationship. “It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves,” says the thief to the woodcutter in the classic Akira Kurusawa film (Kumar has used that quote in the book to make his point).

Through this book, it would be fair to say, Kumar has only tried to present his perspectives on the city where he grew up. He does not make any other claims. “There is no truth in nonfiction; there is only perspective,” he clarifies his stand in the author’s note.

As far as Patna goes, Kumar’s view of the city is that of hopelessness. “I see in Patna’s decline, in its pretensions to development, in its plain dullness, the stark story of middle age and death,” he says. “It’s all hopeless, really—that is what Patna and I are saying to each other.”

Every time the US-based author returns to Patna, he is reminded of his youth (the time of his life when discovery of sex happened for him), and the present question of ageing and mortality (his Patna-based parents are in the last years of their lives). “To return to Patna is to find the challenging thought of death, like the tip of a knife, pressing against my rib,” he writes.

Kumar’s ode to Patna ends on a melancholy note. Some Westerners might see a crumbling Patna as the Indian version of ancient Rome, but he sees this city in a different light—the city where he grew up and where his ageing parents live. “When I step on Patna’s soil, I only want to see how much older my patents look,” he writes. “I arrive in Patna and a few days later I leave. Each time I leave, I wonder about the circumstances under which I will need to return.”

The book, which starts off with a youthful exuberance, ends up with an old age-like gracefulness—understated, sober, melancholic and wise. As I come to the last page of the book, I understand why Kumar calls the book, A Matter of Rats. It is a tribute to the life and people of Patna, rather than an examination of the past and speculation of the future of the capital of Bihar. It is this quality of the book that makes it an endearing read.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Amit Virmani: Audiences need something to keep them engaged

Singapore-based filmmaker Amit Virmani’s debut, “Cowboys in Paradise”, was one of the most talked-about Asian documentaries in recent years. The controversial film on sex tourism in Bali (Indonesia) garnered international acclaim and has been broadcast in over 110 countries.
His second documentary feature film, “Menstrual Man” (2013), is already making waves. The film documents the struggles of India’s Muruganantham, a school dropout who realised that the majority of women in India couldn’t afford sanitary pads and decided to do something about it. A Netflix audience favourite at Hot Docs 2013, the film underscores the importance of empowering women to combat poverty and highlights the power every individual has to make a difference.
Amit is a graduate of Southwestern University, Texas, where he was honored with the Feminist Voices Award.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Tiger tales, Neurolinguistics and the power of positive thinking

Imagine you are standing in front of a tiger. Not in a zoo but in a real forest. And let’s say this tiger is a man-eater.

How would you feel?

You will quake in your boots, right? Clichéd but that’s saying a lot in just five words.

Beyond the surface truth, a lot more stuff happens within your body at that moment. For example, your body diverts 30 percent of your glucose into your blood stream to give you strength to face the danger. The brain releases fear-related hormones. Your heart wants to jump out of your throat. You break into a sweat. And so on.

Now, replace this tiger with your boss. Yes, your boss in the office.

Do you feel the same about your boss? Are you afraid of him? Are you afraid of losing your job?

If you are, then you are living in a condition of constant danger. You are living your life in the shadow of a tiger, and it is damaging your brain. Not just your brain but your entire well-being.

If you do your job well, you should not be afraid of your boss. A good boss needs a good worker like you. He needs you as much as you need him to succeed.

The same goes for your boss—your boss also has a boss in the chain of command. Like you, he too shouldn’t be afraid of his boss. And for the same reason.

So, what’s the point? The point is that a good leader would lead and not just play games with employees to keep his chair intact. A boss who is not like a fear-inducing tiger will ensure more positivity in the office. Positive employees are happy employees and happy employees are productive and loyal employees. I bet you can find plenty of evidence to back that claim.

Neurolinguistics and the power of positive suggestion

The above described scenario didn’t come to me just like that. I recently bumped into a former colleague who now teaches at a bank management institute in India. She is a scholar of Neurolinguistics and she coaches bankers and top banking executives in leadership roles.

In her long career, she said she had seen many professionals damaging themselves because of negative thinking. She had seen this especially in India (she has been working in India after working in Switzerland for many years) where sycophancy and toadyism are considered important traits for survival. You can’t create a healthy working environment if you are not a positive-thinking leader—that’s her point.

Many banking leaders in India love to cling to their chairs so much so that they don’t allow their juniors to be groomed for top positions. What if they become better than me or replace me? That’s their fear.

This shortsightedness has created a leadership vacuum in the banking sector in India—a sector which will see more job creation than the manufacturing sector in the years ahead.

According to her, your negative thoughts induce the release of harmful hormones in your body, making you ill and disease-prone. The language you use affects your brain and its wiring—that is Neurolinguistics in short.

Her prescription? Always think positive. Tell yourself you can do it (let’s say public speaking) and you will be able to do it. Imagine positive scenarios for yourself and believe in them. They will happen. It is as simple as that.

Don’t use the word ‘try’—as in ‘I will try to achieve my goal’. Say, ‘I will achieve my goal’ instead. Don’t let the word ‘try’ become an obstacle in your path to success.

Don’t be afraid of your weaknesses—we all have our weaknesses. Don’t focus on them. Focus on your strengths. When you see Javier Bardem on screen mouthing dialogues in English, you don’t mind his weird accent. You enjoy his acting. Bardem is successful because he is exploiting his strength—his acting abilities. Vladimir Nabokov, the famous novelist, was not a great speaker of English but he wrote some of the most scintillating sentences in the English language. Dr. Abdul Kalam, former President of India, might not have a great accent but he always has great content to share. He focuses on his content and that has made him a darling of people, an inspiring figure.

The choice is yours. You want to think positive and stay healthy or you want to have negative thoughts and damage your brains. 

You have to try it to believe it. Promise me that you will think positive today and see how it goes.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Charity screening of 'Menstrual Man' in Singapore

Singapore-based filmmaker Amit Virmani, who shot to fame with his first film, Cowboys in Paradise, is screening his second documentary film, Menstrual Man, in Singapore on 6 August 2013.

This is a charity screening so friends in Singapore please help this effort. Book your tickets online today!

“Menstrual Man” tells the inspiring story of a man who rose from below the poverty line to stand up for the ignored and forgotten. It underscores the role of social entrepreneurship in combatting poverty, and the importance of economic empowerment of women to enable a better world.

August 6, 2013. 715PM.
Golden Village Great World City
All profits go to MPEVDS, a village development society featured in the film.

More Details here

Friday, July 26, 2013

An evening with a Hollywood editor

Yesterday, I spent nearly two hours in the company of a veteran Hollywood video editor.

His name is Kris Trexler and he is an Emmy Award winning editor. Los Angeles-based Trexler has been nominated for the Emmy’s five times in his 30-year career. Twice he has won it. He has worked on hit TV shows in the US, such as In Living Color, Ellen, Titus, According to Jim, and Rita Rocks. He has also edited some music videos of Michael Jackson and Tina Turner and has worked on the taped segments of the Academy Awards.

Most recently, Trexler has been editing the hit Disney dance and comedy show, Shake It Up. After three successful seasons, the show is folding up and Trexler has been hired to edit another hot TV show in Hollywood. His new work starts from next month.

Trexler was addressing some local video editors in the Singapore Media Academy (SMA) in a talent forum yesterday. He is a regular visitor to Singapore and he conducts an editing master class here once a year. He also taught editing at Nanyang Polytechnic a couple of years back and loves Singapore as a city.

Trexler is a self-taught editor. He did not go to any film school. He learnt all the tricks of the editing trade on the job.

Trexler started out in his editing career at a time when digital editing was just taking birth. There was a demand for technicians who could learn to edit films (video) on computers and Trexler jumped into the fray. He became one of the pioneers of computerised video editing, using the revolutionary CMX system to edit “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons”, top rated CBS network comedies in the late 1970s.

Ever since, he has been constantly employed. He works for eight months and then takes a four month break. It is during the break that he conducts his editing classes.

Video literacy and editing

Today, video is ubiquitous (thanks to smartphones and YouTube and Facebook) and there are plenty of awfully edited videos on the Internet, he said. If people could learn the basics of editing, they could really improve their home videos.

I call this need video literacy. Today we live in the world of videos—from surveillance footage to our casual videos taken through our iPhones and iPads. They all end up somewhere on the Internet. Like we learnt how to read and write in school, how to use syntax and grammar, the same kind of literacy is required to handle the language of video.

In the SMA forum, most of the discussion centred on editing software.

Trexler lamented how Apple’s Final Cut Pro (FCP) X has disappointed professional editors. FCP was a great piece of editing software and after Apple discontinued FCP 7, it fell out of favour. When Apple had announced FCP X after a hiatus of several years, Trexler was over-excited. He wanted to use it to cut his next project on. When the product was finally released and he downloaded it from the App Store, he was disillusioned with what he saw.

The new version is not convenient for editing longer footage, he said. Creating and using duplicates is a problem with the software. However, he thinks that FCP X is great for editing documentaries.

After his initial rejection, Trexler is slowly coming to terms with FCP X again and is exploring it.

Hollywood is a 100 percent Avid town, Trexler said. All Hollywood editors use Avid to edit their footage. Most Hollywood productions use multi-cam footage (videos shot with four-cameras, A, B, C, and X). It is easier to edit such footage on Avid. Avid also has some unique features which other softwares don’t have, he claimed.

Trexler also appreciated Adobe’s editing software, Premiere. He said the software has evolved over the years and many editors are using it now (though not in Hollywood). Apple’s loss (after the folly of FCP X) has been Adobe Premiere’s gain.

If you are budding video editor, Trexler has one simple advice for you: you should learn both FCP and Avid. If you know how to use FCP, it should not be difficult to learn Avid in a day.

That’s what Trexler thinks. You want to try?

Thursday, July 04, 2013

20 things you should be thinking about if you care about journalism

1. Why don’t we build the audience before we build the product?

2. As technology companies have become media companies, media companies must become technology companies.

3. Are we talking too much about tools and too little about culture change?

4. The future of news design is about how content is created, not how it is presented.

5. Journalists need to be a lot more aware of data security.

6. Who, what, when, where have been commoditised. Journalism needs to focus on why, how, what next.

7. Content is now like water. It’s everywhere. Value comes from packaging it.

8. The many new faces of the unit formerly known as the article. – Circa‘s idea is to «atomise» the article, Fast Company is experimenting with «slow live blogging».

9. The best games for mobile are built for mobile, not adapted from desktop.

10. The metrics for success we use are old, industrial, wrong metrics.

11. What if we made engagement as important as consumption?

12. More people are paying for digital news in 2013 compared to 2012. But still very few.

13.  Paywalls are still more wall than pay.

14. Rule if you want people to pay for your content: It doesn’t matter if you value it, but if they value it. Part of our mission is to improve people’s lives. If we do that, revenues will follow.

15. Is it true that if it didn’t happen in English, it didn’t happen at all?

16. The past does not buy our future. Without taking risks, each dollar in profit will turn into $0.56 of loss within 5 years.

17. Bad CEOs and worse editors are using the past to kill our future. See it as your Occupy-moment. Demand change of your bosses.

18. When using social media platforms, ask yourself: 1. Who benefits? 2. Who’s in charge?

19. Your smartphone is your newsroom.

20. The big red button to make the internet go away again: Would you press it?

Top rule:  Rule of the internet: It's cheaper and easier to try than to debate about trying.

[Adapted from]

Friday, June 14, 2013

The day human privacy died

When Edward Snowden blew his whistle on the secret big data surveillance system of the US government, called PRISM, I could hear only a murmur of outrage from humanity.

While some knew that the government eavesdrops on our conversations and technology was available to enable this, people in general had no clue about it—the way the vastness of the operation has been unearthed.

Snowden’s revelation—proof of the US government’s secret plan—should have come as a big shock. It was like finding out that your privacy had been bombed out by a drone and you didn’t know about it.

“I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded,” Snowden said in an interview. “That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”

There should have been a tsunami of revolt after the Snowden interview. Instead, all we got were some heroic applauds for Snowden, usual condemnation from the US government and the justifications for the programme by the secret service, and the rest was soon forgotten.

Did you see any action after this?

You know what? Snowden knows that people would be callous, that they will not do anything. He said: “The great fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. [People] won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things… And in the months ahead, the years ahead, it’s only going to get worse.”

While Snowden went missing from his hotel in Hong Kong, you moved on with your daily life. You always do.

But, hey, here, take a pause with me. Stop playing that video game for a minute. And consider this.

History will remember this Snowden moment as the day when human privacy died. And if you have not spoken out, your silence will be construed as your acquiescence. You will have to answer to the questions of your children and grandchildren. Why did you not stop it when we were being enslaved?

But do you even care?

Most people are past caring about anything that does not directly affect their well-being—and I applaud the system that they have silently enabled to turn them into this state of emasculation.

Like they stopped caring for what has remained a sham of a concept like democracy. Your government will do what it wants to do. What you think your government should be doing is immaterial.

Like democracy, a lofty concept like privacy has no place in the new world order that you live in. Your addiction to the cyber space has vacuumed out your privacy—it gives you the carbonated sugary drink that you love and crave for but what it does is makes you sick over time. And weakens your will to fight the system.

If you don’t believe in human privacy, you don’t believe in human dignity. And a life without dignity is anything but human. If you don’t get this, go look at yourself in the mirror.

“I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity,” Snowden said in an interview.

In the end, it is all about making choices.

Snowden made a choice and he does not regret it. He has had “a very comfortable life” that included a salary of roughly $200,000, a girlfriend with whom he shared a home in Hawaii, a stable career, and a family he loves, he told The Guardian. “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

What are the choices that you are going to make? Think about it. Some have already started a campaign. The Mozilla Foundation, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, Reddit, and a host of other organisations are supporting a petition, Stop Watching Us. If you can’t do something on your own, at least join the good side of the battle. Don’t look for a leader. Get started now. Remember what Snowden has said? “I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act.”

Friday, May 31, 2013

Kith and Kin: A Portrait of a Southern Indian clan

I have been trying to take a crack at Sheila Kumar’s collection of short stories Kith and Kin (Rupa, 2012) for a few months but without much success. In between, I read more than half of Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time and then abandoned it—it didn’t seem to go anywhere. I returned his The Finkler Question unread to the library. I flitted from book to book, mostly nonfiction and even dabbled into Manto’s stories for a while. But I could barely finish a novel (managed to read three chapters of Buddenbrooks). And all this while, Kith and Kin, sitting on my bookshelf, excoriated me for being so fiendish and obtuse. I became my own nightmare.

Then I came across an opening, a mental pass, that offered me some redemption. Or cut me some slack, if you go for the less dramatic.

I was travelling and I carried Kumar’s book to give it one more try. Luckily, this time the book yielded to me. Is the mind more receptive to new experiences when one is traveling at 30,000 feet above the ground? Is the airborne mind so tremulous with unexpected disasters that it is eager to absorb anything new? Anything that can distract the mind is a welcome absorption at that altitude.

During the two hours of flight time, I could read Kumar’s stories and enjoy some of them.

Kith and Kin contains 19 stories about the Melekat clan of Kerala. Ammini Amma is the matriarch of the clan and Mon Repos is the matriarch’s house in south Malabar. The various members of this clan— three generations of brothers and sisters and their grandchildren—inhabit different cities in India. This is a proud clan, with beauty running in the genes, but with some customary exceptions.

Through these stories, Kumar explores a range of human emotions, both carnal and spiritual and always with a touch of wit and humour. In Kingfisher Morning, for example, Sindhu’s affair with Deepender comes to an abrupt end when she finds out that he was two-timing with Seema, her own sister, in Delhi. There is even a slow-mo moment when this discovery takes place but instead of feeling blue after encountering her sister, Sindhu thinks of Seema’s hairy armpits. Deepender loathes women with hairy pits. “Hope Seema has done something about hers,” she contemplates.

Some stories in the collection end with a twist in the tale which feels contrived. In All Those Doors, Anita, a journalist, goes to interview a famous theatre and film actor—‘a thinking woman’s sex symbol’ who has retreated to the hills near Coimbatore. The interview goes very well and Anita imagines a life with this famous person—an opposite of the shallow Chetan, her boyfriend of two years.

As Anita leaves the house after the interview, the actor goes back into his house to surf kiddy porn. Some might think this is a clever ending but there is this sudden shift in the point of view which is jarring.

In these stories, Kumar shows her flair for comic writing. But this is not the sort of comic writing that reminds you of early Naipaul; nor does it display the chutzpah of Rushdie’s literary playfulness.

To Kumar’s credit, she draws most scenes well and some of her passages are expertly well-written. However, her prose is overwrought at places and she barely exercises restraint, resulting in overexposing her characters. Also, there are far too many references to contemporary books, writers and film stars in these stories. It is possible that Kumar prefers Woody Allen over Hemingway. But all her stylistic choices mar an otherwise readable collection of short stories which could have been a deeper study of a Southern Indian clan.  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

India’s population: Boon or bane?

If you are an Indian child of the 1970s and 80s, you would remember the ‘population explosion’ scare of that era. During the days of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government (1966-77 and 1980-84), India’s bulging population was seen a threat to the country’s future so much so that Indira’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, ran an controversial campaign of forced sterilization during the emergency (1975-77).

India’s large and growing population has long been seen as a problem, perhaps even the most important long-term problem facing the country,” writes Singapore-based economist Sanjeev Sanyal, currently Deutsche Bank’s Global Strategist, in his book, The Indian Renaissance. “This is not surprising given the sustained increase in population in the second half of the 20th century—from 361 million in 1951 to around 1.1 billion in 2007. Between 1951 and 1991, the country’s population grew at an average rate of over 2 percent per year.”

In the 1970s and 80s, this fast clip of population growth was an alarming problem for India because the country was growing only at the rate of 3.5 percent. This led the government of the day to pursue a policy of population control and family planning.

But come the 1990s and the tone of the government changes. India’s population explosion was no more seen as a problem. It was touted as “the population dividend.”
How did this turnaround happen?

“The Prime Minister had himself announced in parliament that India’s population, criticised for being a curse, is actually a boon,” says noted economist Dr. Amir Ullah Khan, Deputy Director, Strategy, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, India. “The 600 million strong workforce does not just provide cheap labour, it also is the largest provider of skilled manpower in the world. It is the youngest population in the world with a mean age of 24 years, in a globe that is ageing pretty fast. The large population, with its striking diversity that is not seen in the stark homogeneity of China, offers the world a variety of skills in terms of languages spoken, technology education and adaptability in disparate environments. With the millions of Indians now going to school and getting skilled, India is the largest provider of engineers (more than half a million annually) and English speaking professionals in the world.”

With middle class population in excess of 300 million, India is the largest market for automobiles, high value foods, mobile phones etc ahead of or just behind China.

“This turn around has happened as education levels have gone up - nearly 98% of children are enrolled in primary schools now,” says Khan. “Also because of the fall in fertility rates, an average Indian family now has less than three children compared to five a couple of decades ago, leading to increased expense on education and health per child.”

The dependency ratio

Demographic accelerations and decelerations have huge impacts on a country’s economic performance, and that’s where the secret lies of understanding why India’s population boom is a boon.

“The dependency ratio (the ratio of the population outside the working age group relative to the population in the working age) is the key,” says Prasenjit K Basu, MD and Head of Asia (regional) Research & Economics at Maybank Kim Eng Holdings, Singapore. “As the dependency ratio falls, a nation’s savings rate typically rises (as long as those of working age are mostly employed!). If the nation’s savings rate rises, so should its investment/GDP ratio, and a rise in the latter boosts productivity and therefore prosperity. This is the virtuous circle that Japan entered in the 1950-90 period (when its dependency ratio was steadily declining), and Korea did from 1965-2010, China from 1978-2013 (the dependency ratio there is going to start rising from next year). And India is in the middle of its demographic dividend phase (the period of declining dependency ratios) which will last from 1990 to 2035.”

A boon turning out to be a bane?

However, not all economists see India’s burgeoning population as a boon.

“The demographic dividend that we talk about is actually turning out to be bane for India, because of lack of skill or employability on part of the Indian labors,” argues Nilanjan Banik, Professor at Institute for Financial Management and Research, Chennai Area, India. “Consider this. In the private sector, approximately 10 to 15 million jobs were created in 2011-12 but not all could not be filled up as 75 per cent of this jobs required skill such as vocational training which are not to be found among the prospective applicants. Be it doctors, engineers, or even MBA graduates, there is a dearth of quality professionals in India. This is precisely why every year corporates like Infosys (service), ITC (manufactured consumer items), Apollo (medical), and L&T (engineering), to name a few, are left with vacant seats, or prefer to recruit people with foreign degrees, rather than employ graduates from India.”

“This year’s Economic Survey puts the jobs question at the forefront and for all the right reasons,” says Dr. Rajesh Chakrabarti, Executive Director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, and Clinical Associate Professor, Indian School of Business, Mohali, Punjab, India. “It is not clear that India will be able to create the kind of jobs in sufficient numbers to employ its millions.”

“The point is higher number can not be sustained as a boon,” says Dr. Debashis Chakraborty, Assistant Professor, Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi. “There needs to be skill-formation for smooth progression and human development aumgmentation has a crucial role there.”

What can be done?

“In this regard, Indian policymakers should take a lesson from the growth performance of the newly industrialised economies in Asia, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, which is typically driven by designing curriculum, so that more people can be employed,” says Dr. Banik. “In India, on the other hand, government regulation in higher education is actually hindering supply of quality education.”

“What India needs is rapid skill development to ready its growing population for the marketplace for jobs,” says Dr. Chakraborty. “That is the critical challenge.”

India now will have to take a call whether we want to be a manufacturing hub (e.g. like China) or service hub (e.g. Singapore)?” he says. “Once we are ourselves clear on that front, appropriate education and training policies can be devised to reap demographic dividend.”

These arguments are in line with a report, ‘State of the Urban Youth, India 2012: Employment, Livelihoods, Skills,’ published by IRIS Knowledge Foundation in collaboration with UN-HABITAT.

The report suggests that unequal access to opportunity and the lack of emphasis on education remains a persistent problem in India. While the country is undergoing a demographic transition, regional disparities in education mean the benefits will not be evenly spread across the country. That, if one may say, is the fine irony of India’s population boon.

India’s population-related trends at a glance

  • India is currently the second most populous country in the world, with over 1.21 billion people (2011 census)—this represents more than a sixth of the world’s population.

  • Every third person in an Indian city today is a youth.

  • India is projected to be the world’s most populous country by 2025, surpassing China. It’s population will reach 1.6 billion by 2050.

  • India has more than 50 percent of its population below the age of 25 and more than 65 percent below the age of 35.

  • By 2020, India is set to become the world’s youngest country with 64 per cent of its population in the working age group.

  • In about seven years, the median individual in India will be 29 years.

  • The population in the age-group of 15-34 increased from 353 million in 2001 to 430 million in 2011. Current predictions suggest a steady increase in the youth population to 464 million by 2021 and finally a decline to 458 million by 2026.

  • India is set to experience a dynamic transformation as the population burden of the past turns into a demographic dividend, but the benefits will be tempered with social and spatial inequalities—according to a report the ‘State of the Urban Youth, India 2012: Employment, Livelihoods, Skills,’ published by IRIS Knowledge Foundation in collaboration with UN-HABITAT.

  • The report says the southern and western States will be the first to experience a growth dividend as they accounted for 63 per cent of all formally trained people. The largest share of youth with formal skills was found in Kerala, followed by Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Among those undergoing training, Maharashtra had the highest share, Bihar the lowest.
[This article was published in Tabla! Singapore in May 2013 and should not be reproduced without the permission of SPH]

Hair and the Indian

Hair now and gone tomorrow. That’s the story of hair, in short, for most Indians. In between (one is telescoping time here), there is a long struggle to hold on to the heritage one is born with it. Most fail at it, but some go to incredible lengths to preserve the luxuriant foliage on one’s pate.

Both Indian men and women love their hair, but women obviously love them more. Long tresses that are shiny and healthy are a mark of good health and beauty. Traditionally, Indian men like women who have black and long hair. Indian poetry is full of praise for the long-tressed beauty. Look at the Indian film actresses: from the beginning of cinema, they have sported long hair, and their dense, silky locks have set nationwide trends in hairstyles. Remember the fringe of actress Sadhna (popularly known as the Sadhna cut) in the 1960s? Or for men, the Dev Anand style ‘puff’ hair, the Amitabh Bachchan style middle-parted hair or more recently, Salman Khan and Amir Khan’s ever-changing hairstyles? They have been ardently copied by their countrymen. 

While both men and women in India loved their hair, the fact is that men cared a little less about maintaining their hair. Even though they wanted their hair to be thick, black, and luxuriant, they didn’t do much about it. There was a time, when a ‘champi’ (hair oil massage) was all that a man needed, and even today, hair oil is an everyday habit with about 50 percent of the population. Older men put henna in their hair. Over the decades, however, as with their interest, their options have evolved. Now they have a variety of oils, shampoos, conditioners, and post wash products to choose from. In addition, most Indian men turn to dyes to hide their grey hair when they begin to age.

A testimony to this Indian obsession with hair is the growing hair care market. According to industry figures, the size of the hair care market is Rs 13,000 crore (US$2413 million), of which Rs 6664 crore (US$1237) is the size of the hair oil market alone. This is such a huge market that top Bollywood actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee, and Amitabh Bachchan have been endorsing hair oil brands, earning crores of rupees in fees.

“In the last five years, the hair oil industry has been registering healthy double digit growth mainly due to increasing hair damages due to lifestyle and environmental changes,” Minoo Phakey, marketing head, hair oil, Dabur India, told an Indian newspaper.[1]

But many Indian men don’t stop with hair oil when it comes to preserving their youthful look. They are turning to even hair weaving and hair transplant treatments, even though these are highly expensive procedures. A typical hair transplant, a painful process, costs about Rs. 1.5 lakh (about $4,000). Today when incomes have risen in India, well-to-do men can afford such treatments. Thankfully, there is no dearth of role models for them: Akshaye Khanna, Sunny Deol, Dharmendra, Rajnikanth, Salman Khan and Amitabh Bachchan from the Bollywood brigade and Virendra Sehwag, Ravi Shastri and Harsha Bhogle from the cricketing world have all gone for hair weaving and transplants at some point of their career.

From Hair to Eternity—Hair and rituals in Indian culture

In a deeply religious and spiritual country like India, hair is not just a part of one’s outer personality. It has its own spiritual dimensions. For Sikh men, for example, maintaining their hair and keeping their beard is part of their religious identity. Both Hindus and Muslims in India shave off their hair at different points of time for spiritual reasons and it starts right after birth. Muslims shave off their children’s birth hair within weeks after their birth and donate in charity gold or silver equal in weight to the hair.

For Hindus, the hair from birth is associated with undesirable traits from past lives. So, it is believed that the child’s ‘mundan’ ritual frees him or her of her past. Hindu men go for a tonsure when they lose a parent.

Hindus also offer their hair as a sacrifice to their gods, and they do it for a variety of reasons, ranging from seeking good luck and riches to ward off sickness and unfavourable circumstances. The practice is common in southern India, especially at temples such as the famous Tirumala Venkateswara Temple of Lord Vishnu, where people flock from all parts of India to be shaved.

Splitting the hair

Where does all this hair go? That is a million dollar question. That brings us to the world of the big business of hair. Temple hair donation has made India the world leader in the hair extension trade.

When devotees offer their hair to the gods, temples auction them off to wholesalers, who in turn export them to countries like the US and the UK where demand for Indian hair is high— Hollywood actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian have pushed up demand for hair extensions. Hair extensions make women feel glamorous—that’s the prevailing belief.

The practice of selling human hair is a good source of income for the temples. The money raised is used for charitable activities. And the prices are good: one kilogram of Indian hair can bring in as much as $250 on average; it would have fetched $20 15 years ago, according to a people in the trade. Last year Tirumala temple, apparently made 2,000m rupees (more than £22m), from auctioning hair[2].

So, there is more to hair than what meets the eyes. For Indians, hair is not just a matter of beauty and good looks, it is also a symbol of devotion. It can be safely said that as India evolves and redefines its culture, the Indian love affair with hair will continue. Probably we will see more funky hairdos in India but the fashion police will also be equally ruthless.

Hair is big business

Today, hair is big business the world over. Both the young and the old in the West turn to hair extensions and hair addition. The young go for coloured extensions while the middle-aged ladies opt for it to create a glamorous effect.

According to approximate figures from U.N. Comtrade, the U.S. imported over US$900 million-worth of wigs, false beards, eyebrows, eyelashes and similar products in 2010, while the U.K. imported $79 million-worth and China and Hong Kong $71 million.

There is high demand for Indian hair for wig making and hair extensions. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, India exported $190 million-worth of hair and related hair products in 2009-10 and could more than double that to $470 million by 2013-14. The newspaper sourced these figures from the Department for Commerce and Industry, Government of India.

Indian hair is preferred because it is both “thin and strong”. Indian temple hair is valued because, according to one report, most of the temple hair donors are rural women. In most cases, their hair has never been dyed, blow-dried, or even cut.

The temples first sort the donated hair and then sell it through online auctions. According to Chennai-based Curlsnwaves, one of the country’s largest exporters of hair, the acquired hair is first processed, stripped of colour and re-dyed before being exported.

Hair extension is not just a fashion abroad—Indian women are also embracing it. “Hair is the first thing an Indian woman would look after,” says a Mumbai-based hairstylist in the Aljazeera documenrtaty film, Witness—Hair India. “More than her skin. Indian woman are obsessed with length. They all like to have their hair extended.”

Monday, April 22, 2013

On Boston Bombings: A Convoluted Narrative of Terror

In the last few days, the developments of the Boston marathon bombing case have dominated the international media coverage.

The attacks took everyone by surprise.

We had all become complacent about terror attacks on the US soil and we thought these were a thing of the past. There hadn't been any major terror attack in the States by Jehadists since 9/11. In fact, the danger was more from demented shooters who went postal from time to time and killed innocent children and adults, their fellow citizens.

When I heard of the Boston attacks, I had a sense of foreboding just like I had it when the Twin Towers fell more than a decade ago. Only the scale was smaller this time. But its security repercussions might be deeper and more widespread. When and how this will pan out only time will tell.

For now, the Boston Bombings are a reminder that the US territory is still not safe. That terrorism is still able to cast its dark shadow on the American people. The bombers had the temerity to carry out the attacks in public, at the site of a world famous marathon.

Why did this attack happen? Was it meant to intimidate people? Did it contain a message? Who was behind the attacks? Everyone wanted to know about the attackers and their motive. President Obama, very rightly, asked people to hold their guns and not jump to ready-made conclusions. The suspects included people who opposed Obama's gun control legislation.

Whoever was behind the attacks, the attacks were condemned, and characterized as acts of cowardice. The world expressed solidarity with the victims of the bombings. On the other side of the globe, on the same day,  14 people died in Afghanistan in terror attacks and I doubt if anyone heard about it. Yahoo did this story, Boston attacks are reminder of violence elsewhere, to make us aware of the violence elsewhere.

Major manhunt

After the attacks took place on Monday 15 April, the security forces started a major manhunt. Finally, on Friday 19 April, two Chechen brother were captured--one dead, another alive. Police identified the suspects as brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26 (Suspect One), who died in hospital, and Dzhokhar Tsarnev, 19 (Suspect Two), who remained at large and was later captured.

According to US security forces and Boston police, these two brothers were behind the attacks. Their photos and videos at the marathon site with backpacks established their guilt. Further guilt was underlined when the elder brother killed a police officer in pursuit before he himself died in a gun battle. The younger one, 19, had partied the night before he was captured hiding in a boat. He had even tweeted: I'm a stress-free kind of a guy. Are these the tell tale signs of a terrorist? Why did they defy the typical terrorist stereotype?

Except for the fact that the elder brother was interviewed by the FBI in 2011 (for suspected Chechen terrorist links), on the request of the Russian government, there was no other evidence of his involvement in terror activities. If there was anything else, that information has not come out into the public. The mother and father of the accused have said that their sons are innocent and that they have been set up by the security agency, FBI. The Guardian reports:

The FBI's previous contacts with one of the alleged Boston bombers have come under intense scrutiny as questions were raised about whether it missed vital clues that could have prevented the attack, which killed three people and injured more than 170.
As questions were raised about how well known the brothers were to federal investigators, their mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, said that the FBI had spoken to the family on multiple occasions. In an interview broadcast by Russia Today before the end of the manhunt on Friday, Tsarnaeva, a naturalised US citizen, said FBI agents had spoken to her in the past.
"They were telling me that Tamerlan was really an extremist leader and they were afraid of him. They told me whatever information he is getting, he gets from these extremists' sites." Tsarnaeva, speaking from Dagestan, claimed that the FBI were monitoring her son "at every step", and had been "controlling" him for three to five years. She did not give specific dates. 
How far are these claims true? No media agency has so far investigated these claims. They have only reported them. In India, we have seen many cases of young people getting implicated in terror attacks or even being killed in fake encounters and later on it turns out that they were innocent citizens (read the Muslim Question at Tehelka). The Tsarnaev brothers could well be the Boston bombers but so far they are only the accused in this case, according to the US media.

If the brothers were trained terrorists, the motive behind the attacks was not clear. Why should Chechen rebels attack Americans? Their enemies would be Russians, not Americans. It does not make much sense.  The New York Times reports today:

The brothers’ motives are still unclear. Of Chechen heritage, they had lived in the United States for years, according to friends and relatives, and no direct ties have been publicly established with known Chechen terrorist or separatist groups. While Dzhokhar became a naturalized American citizen last year, Tamerlan was still seeking citizenship. Their father, Anzor, said Tamerlan had made last year’s trip to renew his Russian passport.
The NYT said that Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six months in Dagestan in 2012, and analysts said that sojourn might have marked a crucial step in his alleged path toward the bombings.

The other narrative

Curiously, some alternative media in the US are pointing fingers at the security agencies for possible prior knowledge of the attacks. Almost a year ago, the NYT had run this story: Terrorist Plots, Hatched by the F.B.I.

Pointing at the insinuations of this story, some alternative media outlets have reported that there was a security drill at the marathon site on the same day and there were private security people with black backpacks there too but the US agencies have so far discounted that angle. Mainstream media, however,  has not confirmed this. In fact, what seems to be an attempt to the discredit such views, CBS News had its twitter channel hacked with messages implicating the US government of hiding the truth behind the Boston bombings. The BBC reports:

CBS Twitter accounts hacked by 'pro-Damascus group'
The Twitter accounts for two CBS news programmes in the US have been suspended after being hacked. Fake messages appearing on the @60Minutes account criticised US support for "terrorist" rebels in Syria and others accused Barack Obama of trying to "take away your guns". A group calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army claimed to have been responsible for hijacking the accounts.
The fake messages that appeared on the @60Minutes account reportedly included:
"The US government is hiding the real culprit of the Boston bombing"
"The US government is sponsoring a coup in Venezuela and a terrorist war in Syria"
"Your duty is to protect your nation from the parasites that have taken your government"
"Obama wants to destroy the Syrian and American people. We must stop this beast"

Meanwhile, DEBKAfile, an Israeli intelligence analysis site, has reported that the Tsarnaev brothers were double agents who decoyed US into terror trap.

The conclusion reached by DEBKAfile’s counterterrorism and intelligence sources is that the brothers were double agents, hired by US and Saudi intelligence to penetrate the Wahhabi jihadist networks which, helped by Saudi financial institutions, had spread across the restive Russian Caucasian.
Instead, the two former Chechens betrayed their mission and went secretly over to the radical Islamist networks.
By this tortuous path, the brothers earned the dubious distinction of being the first terrorist operatives to import al Qaeda terror to the United States through a winding route outside the Middle East – the Caucasus.

I could not find any mention of this in the mainstream US media. This could be mere speculation at this stage but who knows how twisted the truth is?

I have no sympathy for terrorists of any hue but I also don't like simple bedtimes stories when it comes to a deadly issue like solving the crime behind terror attacks. This convoluted narrative of the Boston bombing terror attack must not be allowed to have loose ends. If there is more than what meets the eye, then that truth must also come out in public.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Anuradha Kumar: A writer to watch

Anuradha Kumar is one of those rare writers who straddle the worlds of writing for children and adults with equal ease. Today, when the publishing market is competitive and segmented and subdivided like never before, finding success in more than one genre is not easy–and the fact that Anu sails successfully in more than one genre is a testament to her huge talent. Yet she started out without much ambition, as she mentions in this interview with Kitaab. “I started writing stories when I found myself bored in the corporate world, then submitted these to online magazines and then I just wanted to do more,” she says.
Anu’s first book was In Search Of A Raja And Other Stories published by Writers Workshop. This was followed by The Dollmakers’ Island and Letters for Paul. Her most recent novel is, It Takes a Murder (Hachette). In between all these novels, she has published many successful books for children. Eminent author and scholar Pankaj Mishra has described her as a writer to watch. Read this interview and you will know why.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

P. Sainath to speak at AMU

The I G Khan Memorial Trust
& Club for Short Evening Courses, GEC, AMU

 invites you to
The lives of others: Stories of Workers
P. Sainath
Yeh Hum Kyun Sahein
Yeh Hum Kyun Sahein
Saturday March 9th 2013
Saturday March 9th 2013

 ‘India and the age of inequality’
 Lecture by noted journalist P. Sainath
11 AM / Kennedy Auditorium

panel discussion with

Prof Madih ur Rehman Sherwani
Janwadi Rickshaw Chalak Unio
AV presentation – AMU students
2.30 PM / Lecture Theatre, GEC

a play by
Jana Natya Manch
4.30 PM / GEC Lawns

Screening of feature film
Do Bigha Zameen
Presented by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya
5.30 PM / Kennedy Auditorium


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Notes from the Jaipur Literature Festival – Part 2

25 January 2013

On the second day of JLF 2013, I attended two sessions: one by Faramerz Dabhoiwala on The Origins of Sex and another by Jawed Akhtar on Bollywood and the National Narrative.

Faramerz Daboiwala on The Origins of Sex

Faramerz was in conversation with William Dalrymple. Dalrymple introduced the teacher at Oxford in most glowing terms and then took a back seat.

Faramerz made the following main points, in relation to his book, The Origins of Sex. The book was based on his PhD thesis and portrays the history of sexuality and sexual mores in the last two hundred years.

- Sexual revolution did not start in the 1960s. It started in 18th century England.

- Then, sex outside marriage was not acceptable at all; vigilante groups looked for any couple who indulged in extramarital sex and presented them to the courts. They were punished, flogged and paraded naked on streets. Listening to him, I began to realize how the West sees many Muslim societies today: two centuries ago, they weren’t any different from them (from what we see and hear about sexual crimes in the Arab or other Muslim societies).

- Aristocrats in England started demanding that they be allowed to have a private sex life separate from their public life.

- Courtesans were the first celebrities. They published memoirs and were scandal mongers. Their memoirs sold in large numbers making them money to survive in old age. They also blackmailed aristocrats and threatened to expose them in public.

- A famous courtesan (who is on the cover of Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s book) ordered her painting and published stamp sized prints for men to carry them in their watches (like today's cellphones)

- There were people who wrote books anonymously, published them and wrote glowing reviews of their own books. 

Javed Akhtar on Bollywood and National Narrative

Well-known lyricist and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar was in conversation with film historian Rachel Dwyer.

- Javed Akhtar said that when they (he and Salim) were writing scripts, they did not know that they were creating a phenomenon (The Angry Young Man of the 1970s). They were just writing good stories. Only in hindsight did they know that their works were path-breaking, and that they were defining a generation. What were their heroes rebelling against? Very minor things, like, they wanted to marry the girl of their choice; it was a rebellion against their parents. They did not touch any institution.

- Being a film lyricist, Javed Saheb dwelled heavily on the devolution of lyrics in Hindi cinema. He said that film songs earlier had tehzeeb (courtesy, a cultivated manner and civility) in them; now that etiquette is gone. In the past, even B-grade films' songs had a soul, poetry in their lines.

- You have to be kindhearted to say today's lyrics are poetry.

- We are also responsible for degeneration of our films and songs: Choli ke peeche kya hai (the suggestive but popular song from Subhash Ghai’s film, Khalnayak) was made by 9 people; who made it a hit? Who were the other 9 crore people? At homes, people proudly told me, he said, see my 8-yr old can dance so well on Choli ke peeche kya hai? What does that say about us as parents? Where are we going as a society? 

- Our Vocabulary has shrunk; proverbs have died; we have replaced them with poor language and some bad American words, not even proper English.

- Today's kids have less than half the vocabulary of their parents.

- Only the poor go to vernacular schools, so they use cheap language, it gets reflected in our cinema, giving it even more credibility.

- Good and bad films were always made: but in the past, most hits were good films; today, most hits are bad films. Show me a good film that has done a business of 200 crores?

- Some young filmmakers are making quality films today. It is good. (Examples: Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar)

- We had abandoned language and arts in the last 30-40 years. We wanted cars and fridges. Now today's generation takes them for granted. They want something else. They want arts, and literature, so (that’s why we see) this revival of arts and literature in India

- I am not pessimistic. In the next ten years, we will make even better films which will have better aesthetic quality.