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.”