Sunday, December 16, 2007

I'm buying a TV

Want me to get you anything?” is the common refrain this time of the year. Yes, people, its party season again. The time of the year when all the phoren returned come and over-populate every watering hole in town, but really, add to the air-kissing quotient of social Delhi. How I have come to despise it. How I lie.

My answer? “Any spare antibodies?” Not to be alarmist. Or anything. I’m actually a little ill. Nothing antibiotics can’t cure, don’t worry. I’m just laid up in bed (for the most part) and wishing I had a TV in my room. All those stupid plans to actually READ when in my own room just seem far stupider when you don’t have the energy to do so. Instead, seasons upon seasons of Buffy lie in front of you, dusty from the Montreal days, taunting you. Grrr. Argh.

But when one does manage to make their way across to the TV room, one finds a treat. Thank you Soniaben and Modi of the maut ka saudagarfame. You guys have made the past week so effortless. You see, besides the antibodies coming to an end (again, not to be alarmist. or anything) I have also been ending my relationship with The Indian Express. (Again. Not be to alarmist. Or anything). Just that I have a new job now. To start in Jan. With Vir Sanghvi’s new soon-to-launched news channel. But more on how I will waste their time and money later. Let's get back to this sibling rivalry going on in The Gujarat.

One result of the verbal kabbadi going on has been that people have been asking me what’s up with the Congress back-tracking on the maut ka saudagarcomment. Beats me. It really couldn’t be that the Congress has no balls. (Pardon my French). And then they ask, so what do you prefer, the Congress or BJP? Is this my choice, I wonder. That explains my new-found love for Gossip Girls.

But really, I want to come back to the question. When choosing what party you vote for, one assumes, if you are me and have no caste/religious affiliations to speak off, then what is it? Education, vision, perhaps a little something called accountability. It’s when you admit your mistake and are prepared for the consequen… oh forget it. I don’t want to ruin the surprise. So, it makes me (and other friends) wonder, we might be the educated minority here, but don’t we also have a right to be represented?

I heard recently, from the author of yet another book about the rise of modern India, that the people in India who don’t vote are happy people. Makes sense. And so, when I had some of these so-called-happy people sitting in a room with me on a Wednesday night (consider how happy; of six people touting whisky glasses, three were touting iphones. ((That one was stolen at the end of the night is a whole different story!))) Back to the happy people -- before said robbery -- I asked them if Gujarat mattered to them, really. If state elections even matter. The boys told me state elections mattered to them more than national elections, unfortunately, because all their factories are in UP, they can’t vote. Being from Delhi and all that. And so, they were stuck in this incredible cycle of not knowing what the hell to do, except grease a palm. Or get a full generator for their factory.

Let me not start giving my two cents about the power industry. I know very little but I did manage to – in part – transcribe an entire bureaucratic conference about why the industry is not getting privatized in order to have more power in the country on the whole and have now learnt a lot. *Phew* Let’s just say, too many tapes. Many of them red and complicated. Take from that what you will.

So, let me see. First, no one is getting me any antibodies for Christmas. Just my doctor getting me antibiotics. Spoilsport. Second, The Gujarat and Gossip Girl are competing with each other in entertainment quota. Mostly cause all the characters BS. Third, I have no party which has the same values as me so I wouldn’t know who to vote for. Fourth, and if I don’t vote, it’s either because a) I’m happy or b) I’m a resident of a state where my residence gets electricity (so, yes, happy) but I’m not really happy because my factory doesn’t, but since I got land and perhaps some incentive to set up there, but no vote, I don’t/can’t. (Yes, long thoughts result in long sentences. And I realise it's not a strictly either/or situation going on but it makes some kinda sense. Go read it again, you confused b******). And Fifth, the power industry has issues. (As do I, I’m sure you can tell).

Happy holidays everybody – I’m sure you need to get back to the air-kissing. You know, this whole phoren clothes in phancy malls has really taken the wind out of the sails of phoren-dressed peoples who would come back for holidays in their phancy clothes. Who needs Bond Street when you have Citiwalk? And seriously, you’d bump into the same people anyway. And oh yes, even more than that very random thought, what has really kept the blood circulating is self obsessed little Prakash Karat, first saying to the media that if the government continues with this IAEA nonsense, it will have to face elections, and then blaming the media for, seriously dude, blowing it out of proportion. He never said that, no matter what the tapes show. C’mon now.

Turn the damn TV off. Except when I join the new channel. Oh, also except when Gossip Girls is on. And maybe Friends re-runs. Or if you happen to see Times Now’s great documentary (?) on the history of news in which it has great footage from the DD years. And if you catch Arrested Development on. And… oh hell. Keep the TV on. I’m getting one for my room now.

Ta. You know you love me.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I take offence

There are a few books I’ve read – whatever their academic value may be – which have provided me such distinct visuals in my mind, that I’ve become a little emotionally connected to issues that didn’t concern me directly.

I’ll give you an example. Back in boarding school, when we’d study history and independence, I always read that partition was traumatic. But I didn’t have a very clear picture of what had happened on the ground. To ordinary people. So I picked up Freedom at Midnight, which Mrs. Datta (my high school history teacher) told me was a Hollywood version of partition stories. But to me, all of 14 (I think) it was just painful to read these accounts of families being torn apart, fathers being killed in front of their children, complete train carriages being destroyed.

It’s just that I don’t have any family which was affected by partition. The Kashmiri side of my family was already in Delhi for generations, in fact, they avoided much of the chaos of Kashmir too. And my moms side, from Pune, were involved in the freedom struggle (her grandfather led the struggle for independence for the Princely States) but there was no cross-border struggle. But despite that, I’d always wonder what Kashmir was like, what happened there.

Again, I walked through the library looking for something on Kashmir. I’d been there as a child, but all I have is memories of snowballs, apples and houseboats. I finally came across Tavleen Singh’s book, Kashmir: A Tragedy of Errors. It’s ironic that now, with the Indian Express, I have to edit her columns every Sunday! It was my first window into the Valley. I could sense the emptiness, the discontent the Muslim population had with the Kashmiri Pandits and her lament at the general state of the valley. I probably can’t remember specific details about incidents, it’s been about 15 years since I read it, but her descriptions of the empty feeling you got in the towns, the curfew that was stifling life there, still remain with me.

So, it was even more ironic that when I met Tavleen Singh’s son, a journalist, he was talking about comparing Gujarat with the Sikh riots after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination. And it just occurred to me that although I know a fair deal about what happened in 2002 (I was in Montreal at the time), but I didn’t know too much about the Sikh riots, besides the immediate cause. I’d read some accounts, but suddenly I wanted to know more. I picked up When a Tree Shook Delhi, by Manoj Mitta and H.S. Phoolka at the Delhi airport, and by the time I landed in Bangalore, I was done. I think I almost started crying a few times. It’s still absolutely shocking me to what a mob is capable of, I’ve written about this before.

I’m ashamed to say, but when Tehelka came out with its findings on Gujarat, complete with first-hand accounts and boasts from the perpetrators, so many people shrugged it off saying “well I knew that, I really thought their big announcement would be something else”. THIS is how used to violence we have become, whatever the reason.

It’s just that with Nandigram and accusations hurled at the CPM that the state allowed the party cadres to do whatever they wanted, comparisons to Gujarat came about. And again, here you have messages from the top, direct or indirect; in effect allowing people to do what they want, victimize whoever they want. Could we ever seriously wonder why most Indians have no faith in the police? When I started reading Mitta’s account of how the police in Delhi did nothing to stop the violence against the Sikh community for three days – no, helped fuel the violence in many places – I had goosebumps. And that one account from a police officer, which is the closest they came to implicating someone on top – that there had been a senior level meeting where the top of the police were also present, and it was decided to allow riots in the wake of the assassination – is too crazy for me to digest. I mean that.

And I know… I shouldn’t be so wide eyed when faced with these incidents. I mean, after all death surrounds us in this country, but to think that genocide has been a part and parcel of our democracy is too scary a thought.

My colleague at work was talking about the difference between India and Pakistan today. She said that we never had to fight for democracy. We sure did fight for independence, to inherit the system of governance already in place, but it was a top down change of guard. And Pakistan today is actually showing a preference for a particular political system. It’s the same thing that Sunil Khilnani said in The Idea of India; that people in India are largely more connected with their communities than with an overall government (clearly, I’m not directly quoting here!!). But to the point, I think we as a country have finally started to fight for our government too – the government we want – and if I may say so, the media has pretty much everything to do with it.

Why? Because when I saw CNN-IBN this evening, a young doctor from AIIMS was telling a reporter that they were not going to operate on any more politicians, after all, AIIMS is not solely meant for them, I felt a few confidence. She asked him if he can really go through with this, and he said he would, and especially because “you are with us” (talking about the media).

Maybe we didn’t think about how well our democratic set-up would work, but these are important questions that need to be addressed. And if there is a government that cannot, or will not, protect its people – well, its time we hold them responsible. Really. But in real life, can that happen? Will Tehelka’s investigation go anywhere? I won't even go into the delayed and very corrupt justice system in this country.

You know what the scary part is, I think the next time (and I hope there isn’t one) something like this happens – I won’t be able to hide behind my age, or that I was away in university – I’m going to be an adult with voting rights and the ability to protest loudly… wait. Nandigram happened. I was all those things. So are you, whoever is reading this.


Friday, November 16, 2007

For the party

The other day, that was before I went and septified by index finger and was unable to type for almost three weeks, I started this post. At the time, I was going to bash the Left – mostly because I felt like it was a made for media party. Everyday was a new statement, everyday more photo-ops. Like they were getting off from all this attention. A superiority complex. And the more issues they weighed in on, the angrier I got cause it just felt like talking for the sake of talking. For the sake of being on TV.

Well, if we needed any more of an indication of their intellectual dishonesty, look at Nandigram. Now, because the CPM is getting so much flak for not stopping the violence in Nandigram, they are trading in their soul (what soul?) for UPA’s support. So they let the PM et al go to the IAEA at this crucial point. I don’t really have any concrete evidence in my hand but I’m just analyzing what I see unfolding before me.

Firstly, if they really are going to stick to this silly idea that India should not have a nuclear deal with the US, then why even allow this next step? You know, the other day this member of Lalu’s RJD came to the office, and he basically said that the Left’s objections to the deal caught them by surprise because they (the Left) had basically made it known that they would make noises to cater to their audience, but the deal would go through anyway. Well, if this is what they meant, they should have underlined, bold, and italed the word ‘noises’!

Anyway now to Nandigram – the reason I (and many others) believe they have eased up on the deal. See, the point to note is that the CPM makes no real distinction between party and government. The Bengal government doesn’t come down upon the CPM. So CPM hooligans were bashing up the Trinamool thugs, muchos violence ensued, and the state basically let it happen.

Now as more gruesome stories of rape come out, so do comparisons of Nandigram and Gujarat. Now, to be sure, the scale and the provocation are totally different in both cases. Nandigram certainly wasn’t communal, it certainly wasn’t spread over the state. But it was party/state sponsored, and that’s worrying.

More so because of one more thing. The other day, we were discussing which parties we support. And the conclusion we came to was that the Congress wins, in our circle, however undeservingly at times, because at least you get the sense that it is a party of educated people. The BJP, for all its pros, has the biggest con, and that is the communal tint. So what other really educated alternative do we have? And now the Left, being at least supposedly a party of intellectuals, has shown us that it is no better.

Condoning gunda-giri is appalling. And not drawing a distinction between what the state needs and what the party wants makes them as uncouth as the rest of them in my eyes.

When will we become FOR the people?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bloggers in arms

How the internet makes couch potatoes look beyond MTV and soundbites, and translate talk into action

The monks in Burma have no idea. No idea that people all over the world — from Seoul to Vienna — are holding rallies to support their cause. Connecting through Facebook, they are now getting ready to approach Chinese embassies the world over because they believe that China can have the most direct influence over solving Burma’s internal chaos.

This is how it works: once the news of monks rising up against a dictatorial regime was out, people were appalled. But when the news that the Burmese government had censored the internet and media came out, people really started paying attention. To do something. Bloggers in arms. Those who live and breathe the internet.

But why? It’s fair to wonder why someone sitting in Greece (probably basking in the sun) even cares what happens halfway around the world. It all starts with the freedom of expression.

I’ll illustrate: I’d read a few accounts of China and others blocking sites on the internet, but it didn’t quite strike me the way it should have. But the day a friend of mine called me from Pakistan to say, “I haven’t read your blog in ages. Pakistan has blocked it” — it took on a whole new meaning. Of course, it wasn’t me alone; blogspot in its entirety was blocked. But the next time I came across a forum discussing free speech, I spent some more time there.

So what, one may ask, so what if you spend time online? How does it even translate into doing something in the real world? It does, to my mind. The online world is a hook. For many of us, post-materialist, comfortable in our homes, on our laptops, there could almost be no reason to look beyond MTV and soundbites. But people do.

Case and point, the Egyptian blogger who was jailed for criticising the government got coverage in numerous publications the world over, something that would not have been possible even ten years ago. Something more recent? Al Gore and his Nobel Prize. Don’t forget that to put climate change on the global agenda, Gore utilised the internet to its maximum capacity to generate a buzz.

The most interesting aspect of this online activism and outrage is that it is issue-based and not particularly country-based. But can the online community ever put enough pressure to change the outcome of any political fracas? It is an interesting question.

Open-source politics, as this is called, is a huge factor in assessing this possibility — it helps involve more people in political causes than ever. Open-source refers to the fact that anyone can join in and have a say. There is no formal membership and no real top down structure.
And once you’re online, you are a global citizen. You can read The New York Times, Dawn and Le Monde, all at the same time. And because of a borderless existence, at every aggressive foreign policy measure, every repressive action, every time blogspot is banned, the blogosphere goes into a tizzy. The media picks it up and carries the stories. Petitions do the rounds. Increasingly, people have decided to hold rallies in their cities, once they have connected with like-minded people online. The internet, we must remember, is a tool, not the end. Print is translated into action.

There is no doubt that blogging is a huge value addition to politics in general. Media organisations, unfortunately, tend to take themselves so seriously that they forget people are made up of passionate, impulsive instincts. And so, while editorial positions may reflect a certain ideal or ideology, it’s the voice of the people that gives a cue as to where public opinion is heading. It’s the same reason we invented the opinion poll. But in this case, no one is asking but people are telling you anyway. And depending on their number, they can be a formidable force.

And this consociational system reflects the potential the medium has for reflecting the views of the world community. That’s also because the internet brings the issue to you, you don’t have to go find it. Like the Global Climate Summit, which bloggers have arranged online. It’s not just ranting and raving. Those interested will go on fact-finding projects in their own countries. Then a conference will be arranged where a report will be put together. That will be submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change in November.

But another excellent question is, so what? Did it make a difference to General Musharraf that bloggers around the world thought that sacking the chief justice was dictatorial? Maybe not.
But what if you wake up one morning, switch on the TV, and find that people in 67 cities in 38 countries held a rally at the same time to denounce your actions. Suddenly, the dynamic could change. The world is watching you.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

"They call me MR PIG..."

The thing about Pakistan is that it manages to make us look absolutely fabulous in comparison. Power sharing agreements? While Benazir tries to get cases against her withdrawn under the guise of trying to bring democracy in Pakistan, we are a little less refined, but somehow, more honest. Even in our dishonesty. Take for example, Karnataka. The BJP and the JD(S) had a power sharing agreement whereby they would share the chief ministership half-half. So the JD(S) has completed its term, and now it is time for a BJP man to be in that seat. But Deve Gowda and his CM son say no, we won’t. The BJP calls it’s a betrayal (which of course it is) and now everyone is going to take stock of their seats in the state (especially the Congress) and decide if going in for elections is the right idea or carrying on this government, in whatever form. But I digress.

See, the thing is that even the champions of democracy in Pakistan go about it in such a dubious, shady manner that it’s really tough to believe that any of them are actually fighting for a larger cause. Except the lawyers, that is, but I’ll stick to the main political players.

Benazir, Musharraf and Nawaz exhibit the kind of arrogance that is hard to swallow. Not only do they consider this strange ménage e trios the only viable leadership in Pakistan, but I love how they are absolutely convinced that the people look to them as the second coming~! (Maybe not Musharraf so much, but he still does have support on the ground). In contrast, no matter how big the leader in India, and that includes Sonia Gandhi, be it Vajpayee, Advani, Lalu, anyone… they all know that in the end everyone is replaceable. Hell, that they’ve been thrown in and out of office so many times is probably their saving grace. That’s why the current crusade of the Congress to rename every road, airport, building of the country after Rajiv Gandhi is starting to bug me. While I respect his contribution to the country and that he died serving the country, I don’t think he is the single greatest leader to ever be born in India. The Congress needs some perspective or they are going to lose my vote. Economic reforms notwithstanding. [See how emotional the average voter is? But at least I have a say]

Anyway it’s Pakistan I was talking about. When Nawaz made this big thing about returning to Pakistan and was detained at the airport and shipped right out, there were rumours in the Indian Urdu press that he knew what his fate was. He did it to stay in the news because Benazir clearly had the upper hand. Well, then his political gamble was not coming to Pakistan but prior knowledge that he would be shipped off, no contest, but that he went through the drama anyway. Of course, I have no idea if this is true, I asked my boss who said it probably wasn’t cause it’s just too big a gamble to take, but going through the motions of democracy doesn’t actually make you democratic right. And by that I mean, I don’t know if Nawaz or Benazir stand for anyone except themselves.

Now take Benazir’s talks with Mushrraf. The point is that they knew Musharraf is not giving up his post as president. I’ll admit, there was a week in the middle where I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, especially with the whole Iftikar Chaudhary stuff going on, but that Benazir seemed almost ready to accept him as president in uniform is just disgusting. Especially when you consider that this decision would have come in the context of the General forgiving corruption cases against her.

Ok I might be rambling a little now. It’s just that when I contrast all this political posturing from Pakistan’s two alternatives to Musharraf, mostly from their comfortable homes in London’s Park Lane, I can’t understand how that poor country has ended up with this set of losers as their leaders. At least our losers are more open to what they want and don’t want. Even the Congress sycophancy is mighty transparent.

So, who is going to be the next Pakistani PM? Now that Nawaz is definitely stuck in Saudi (right?) he is out of the game, is it Benazir? But Mushrraf would be mad to let her in, because all said and done, she is definitely a shrewd woman who persist in finding a way of overthrowing him. But the question is; what then? Will she call for free and fair elections, putting even herself at the mercy of the electorate at large? The fact that our government might well be making that decision is extraordinary. We should count ourselves lucky.

Look around. I think we have the best house in the neighbourhood.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Little India

No drama. But I really felt this irrational love for this country as I saw the last few moments of CNN-IBN’s India 360 today. Small town India celebrating our cricket win – unusual suspects who didn’t have fancy Indian flags, in these small lanes, grandfathers on charpais shakin it, you know what I mean. And all to the tune of that Bunti aur Babli song...“chote, chote shaheron se…” All of us fancy shamncy city folk often forget about the rest of them, and so I’m also happy that the victory made headlines on the same day Rahul Gandhi was made AICC general secretary. Cause otherwise the media would have had to pay really unnecessary fan-fare to what was inevitable, as if it was an achievement. Kinda puts it in perspective.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ours IS to reason why

I talk about divine intervention a lot. But I’m not actually religious. And I’m certainly not one of those people who is extreme about being non-religious, I understand the need for organized religion even if I don’t subscribe to it.

And so, when the Ram Setu controversy hit headlines, my initial reaction was something along the lines of the people who want to define this debate in the context of religion v/s development. That’s fair I think, because we are going to remain stuck in the dark ages if we don’t understand that breaking down a building does not mean your faith has been broken. By the way, if you haven’t already, read Vir Sanghvi’s Sunday piece in HT, I thought he did a great job of explaining how the BJP/RSS etc are doing a great job of promoting this random extremism in Hinduism which is so unnecessary. I mean it’s true. The Indian Express carried an edit a few days ago that said that if this is all the BJP has as a political card -- dressing up as characters from the Ramayana and holding rallys, disrupting working people -- then clearly if there is a midterm poll, its not going to have too much to offer to the people. It's too hypocritical a party, they okayed this project (as they did with the nuclear talks with the US) but now they’re wasting everyone’s time protesting against. Anyway, with the Congress affidavit telling people that there is no proof Ram existed – even if they have detracted the statement – the BJP has been given another chance. True that. My boss actually wrote an article saying that India isn’t ready and doesn’t even need a debate which tests the validity of religions. You believe, then good. I'll take your word for it.

But at the same time, I also wasn’t too sure if I am pro this canal building, especially if there could be another route. See, I remember the first time I heard about the Ram Setu, that there were actually these stones or whatever, and it could be the route Ram took to rescue Sita, I thought it was bloody cool that these things may have happened. Like when they discovered Dwarka under-water (Dwarka right?) or that the Saraswati did exist? I repeat, I’m not religious, although I am a Hindu, but I actually think it’s cool because it just makes our history all the richer. Yes, I can be a sentimental git sometimes.

But I also have the annoying habit of thinking with my head and not with my heart. So, what I don’t understand is, why don’t we know information about this proposed canal? How much will it cost? How much money can India make of it? What will be the ecological damage? In fact, I saw We the People on NDTV and despite so many people saying, we want to hear about environmental effects etc, the discussion never really turned there, people kept getting louder and I went to see if the dog was doing something exciting cause I was getting bored. We can never change the debate from religion v/s development to an informed debate over the merits and de-merits of a proposal if we don’t get serious. And I know that has been the attempt with the nuclear deal on the part of the government and every lawyer in the country, to explain to us the nuances of the nuclear deal, but I’m pretty sure we’re only doing it cause America is watching! Why can’t we do the same in our own house, while setting internal affairs?

No wonder people write off politics. They don’t want to know, they don’t want to listen, because at the end of the day bullshit arguments are being made 99.9% of the time. I’m really lucky to be working at a place where people actually sit and engage with the issues of the day, in fact, I’m definitely the most far removed from reality of the lot. But come sunset I’m a fucking genius when I tell my friends what’s happening in the country.

My answer, perhaps, is this: If you can preserve a monument because it’s going to be a heritage site and people can some soak in history, yes, keep it. If it’s going to be submerged underwater and you can’t really tell the difference, then maybe it’s ok for the story to remain in the history books while we build a much needed canal. If it’s going to damage the eco-system of the area, then tell me to what extent. And then tell me what kind of money the country is going to make off it and which pockets, exactly, it will go into. Will this help people in the area?

And on the basis of that, I’ll tell you what I think.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

oft when on my couch i lie

Yes, I know that’s from Daffodils. And yes, it might just be totally out of context. Big woof.

Alright, let me explain what’s going on in my head, if that’s possible. See, yesterday I read a post on desicritics by Bhaskar Dasgupta about rage. He talked about this Kashmiri man that bloggers had identified from pictures who went to each and every rally with an Islamic slant to it to protest against any and everything. And in cyberspace, he talked about bloggers who also rant and rave about everyone and everything. They hate America. They hate the Middle East. They hate fundamentalists. They hate secularists. Industrialists and environmentalists in the same breath. You know that I mean.

Anyway, then there is that other kind of rage which I am trying to understand. The news has been filled with horrific scenes. Agra is burning. Bhagalpur saw a mob frenzy over a man stealing a gold chain. This, that, and everything in between. And I was wondering what makes people so worked up that they are ready to burn down their own city, kill complete strangers at the drop of a hat. I understand that when a truck killed four Muslim boys in a procession in Agra, it was tragic. The same way I understand that when a scooterist does not give you way when you’re impatient to get somewhere it’s bloody frustrating. But to give into mob violence or road rage is just absolutely alien to me.

Yes, there are reasons. In the case of Agra, if we move beyond unemployment, poverty and the frustrations of urbanisation, you still have to ask, how does groupthink lead you to this moment where you are ready to KILL someone? I was told by someone that they are pretty sure the incident in Agra was fuelled by Mulayam Singh supporters to show Mayawati’s handle on law and order in a bad light. So, order and life is up for grabs. Well, I suppose that’s nothing new to us right?

One of my favourite Angel episodes is set in the 60s where a girl blames Angel for a murder she committed. Because of the fear induced due to McCarthyism, people are quick to blame and the crowd gets so worked up, they hang Angel. But the moment they realise what they have done, they are ashamed and slowly slink away.

But then what we witness in India, the kind of violence that spills on the streets is immensely different. Right after I saw the footage of the policeman on a scooter dragging the gold-chain thief through the streets of Bihar, NDTV had their evening entertainment show, Night Out. And as they went through scenes of old Hindi movies (nostalgia surrounding old brother-sister Hindi movies) my dad pointed out that some of those scenes, where the good guy avenges his sister’s honour on the streets, well, it’s really no different from what we see in real life.

I read this article by Rajdeep Sardesai, actually I think it was a blog, where he says that we have become so damn complacent as a country – but it couldn’t have been like this even a little while ago. It’s as if once we got independence and had no gora boss over our heads, it was a free for all. And he’s right you know. This month we carried old Indian Express editorials and articles that were written around the time of independence as a tribute to 60 years of independence. There is so much hope, there is so much responsibility in those words – I mean, these people were crafting a nation for god’s sake. And they really did have the weight of the world on their shoulders because they were creating the law by which India would function. In fact, the article I was most impressed with was when the Express decided to stop production in 1942 because the British did not allow them to publish information about leaders (including Gandhi who was in jail). Ramnath Goenka said he rather not publish at all than publish crap and pretend the movement wasn’t happening. Do we have that kind of integrity now? Are we moving closer to standing up for justice?

Or maybe this is just a middle class dream. It never really existed for everyone. I mean, when Dr. Karan Singh came to the office for Idea Exchange, he said that in 1947, with independence, everyone really thought that caste would slowly become a thing of the past. As India became a free country, we would really be free from these shackles. And look now, 60 years later, and caste is as important, no probably even more since its gone from social to political and we’ve gone and bloody institunalised the damn thing. I’m not saying reservations are bad, what I’m saying is the dream that something like caste would not even be a factor in this country has been totally shattered.

And then you have pockets of this country that are so poor, so backward, that you wonder if we can ever make it out. Where was that volcano… yeah, Pompei? Damn, it’s too late. But anyway, the History Channel had this show about how the ruins had been discovered. The commentary was something like this – clearly this town was a ‘developing’ or ‘underdeveloped’ one because at the time there was no mechanism for sewage removal and the city stank. And my mother turned around and looked at me and said, he could be talking about our country. This, civilisations later.

This is what bugs me about the Left. While I understand that in theory what they stand for might be all very good but in practice how the hell can it ever work? They oppose the nuclear deal because they think our foreign policy will become subservient to the US? Well, goddamn it, but isn’t the point of having our foreign policy to be able to make a decision to actually consort with whoever we want? And so what’s the crime if we want a deal with the US? We chose to take technology that can help the country develop. You know, India has great reserves of thorium but we lack the technology to get it. But once we have it, man, even people like Mukesh Ambani say that watch me, I will set up 40 plants and generate power. But ONLY if I can get the damn technology.

I think it’s a poem by Philip Larkin – The Whitsun Weddings – where he talks about a train journey he took and watched the various people on the platforms. And one thing he says (and again, I’m not quite sure I’m referring to the right poem here!) always stuck with me. He talks about that train ride as a moment they all shared in time – he and this bunch of strangers – and how they all have different beginnings and different ends but this is a moment in time they just happened to share.

I guess we are all a bunch of strangers living in this country together, bound by what we see on the streets and on TV. But you know what -- it’s an experience we share together. So let’s not pretend it doesn’t matter.

Kyunki, there's a world out there

It may not be fashionable to say it, but the Hindi soap operas — Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, for instance — actually might be doing us some good. Now if you are like me and flip through channels, hear overly dramatic music and change — don’t. Cable TV might be succeeding where government policy didn’t. Changing the way Indian women see their world.

How exactly does that happen? First off, this isn’t new. Back in the days when the public service broadcaster — Doordarshan (DD) — was launched, one of the guiding thoughts behind it was that the media can actually be used as a tool for development. It’s a simple premise. The visual image leaves a lasting imprint in our minds. And especially for those who cannot read, television is an effective tool for communication. Wilbur Schramm, author of Mass Media and National Development, was the proponent of this — what we now term ‘development communication’.

Instead of the government forcing changes in lifestyle, the population would become aware of a need that was not satisfied by their present behaviour. And then they would borrow behaviour that would come closer to meeting those needs. And so based on soaps in Latin America, Hum Log was the first Indian soap to try out this concept, with a good measure of success.

Post-liberalisation, TV channels have been flourishing. Some 112 million households in India own a television. Of those, 61 per cent have cable or satellite service, according to the National Readership Studies Council, 2006. And the casual observer may think that the role of educating through entertainment has been relegated to DD alone. To its credit, DD is living up to its mandate. Health shows like Kalyani, and their positive effects on rural populations, have been documented by external agencies. And now, it appears, cable TV is not too far behind.

A new study by Robert Jensen of Brown University and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago has revealed that cable TV has had a distinctively helpful effect on women in rural India. Among their findings, conducted over a three-year period in five states (Bihar, Goa, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Delhi), is that gender attitudes have been positively affected. Women don’t think their husband beating them is as acceptable now, son preference has gone down, female school enrolment has gone up, and birth spacing has increased. Now, there may be other factors contributing to these changes, no doubt, but one thing is for certain. Soap operas are changing the way women see their role in society and in families, and TV has a part to play in it. And changing expectations is the first step to changing reality.

Examples. When Tulsi (of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi) finds out her son raped a woman, she sides with the victim. In the end, she shoots her son. It may be a tad dramatic (we are talking about a soap opera, after all), but she stands up for what is right. In Saloni Ka Safar, a girl’s complexion is symbolic of the Indian bias against dark skin.

You are allowed to raise your eyebrow at this point. Really, you say, are those overdressed women in the prime-time Hindi soap opera world are changing rural India? Yes. And you know why? Because, for the majority of the country, television is the window to the world. And while the city folk may want to ape the lavish lifestyles of their on-screen heroes — some people partly blame the big fat Indian wedding phenomenon on these serials — rural women admire their independence. Think about it. At their basest levels, studies have shown that exposure to television in rural areas have had an effect on latrine building and fan usage. And even more amazing is a mother welcoming a girl child because she learnt on television that she too can grow up to be a powerful, independent woman. And that education is key, so she sends her daughter to school with her brothers.

But what is it about chiffon-clad city women in particular that appeals? Because underneath the make-up and diamonds, the problems are common. Rich yes, but the women of Indian soaps are deeply traditional. Some work, but many are full-time homemakers. The problems — inner wheelings and dealings of joint families — strike a chord. They go to the temple, hold havans, they even observe Karva Chauth. And millions all over the country cheer them on as they fight for a place of respect within the family.

That’s just it. A click of a button and they take a walk around the world to ease their troubled minds.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

How the world sees US?

A search for answers opens Pandora's Box

The question — “why do they hate us?” — leaves Americans rather perplexed.

Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani author recently wrote an article where he described, for an American audience, how Lahore changed over time and became fundamentalist as a direct result of US foreign policy.

Nodding when asked if he had read the article, Amar Bakshi revealed that he was to be published along with Hamid in The Washington Post, except for a delayed deadline.
Bakshi, who left Delhi for Lahore, is involved in a very interesting project — one that he pitched to Newsweek International’s editor Fareed Zakaria, and is now in partly funded by The Washington Post too.

It involves him traveling around the world and finding out how people view America.
It is open-ended: there is no clear itinerary and no particular aspect (political, cultural, economic) to cover. He keeps a blog, and posts videos, which he updates as and when he finishes a leg of his journey.

So the question to ask is, how does the world see America? To get a clearer picture, Bakshi has shied away from talking about President Bush because then Bush bashing invariably overtakes the conversation. Instead, he has attempted to visit an assortment of characters.

In India, he has met a 62-year-old widowed politician in Kerala, who admires the independence of American women; a leader of the JKLF who believes the US has a definite role to play in ending the Kashmir conflict; the CEO of a clothing export company in Tamil Nadu, who is profiting from American consumerism; the leader of an anti-Coca Cola movement in Kerala who is agitating against ‘American Imperialism’; a professor at a madarsa in Maharashtra who is inspired by secular ideals stemming from American literature; a 9/11-loving original member of the terrorist outfit SIMI in Kerala... the list goes on.

His findings show there is nothing simple about the way the world sees the US. Especially in places affected by war, Bakshi muses; people don’t realise that if one young man dies, eighty people are affected. It’s not just his family, but extended family, co-workers, friends. The same goes when a big American company coming in affects the small farmer.

Within India itself, views differ widely. One of the more intriguing posts is about his meeting with several young men from the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind party in Calicut, Kerala. The anti-US talk is harsh, but as one of the members later tells him, “They try to talk big when they are all together,” and mischievously asks him what it is like to date an American woman. Pala Koya, the leader of the National Democratic Front in Kerala also sharply critiques the US. But as he tells Bakshi, “I’m not saying something I wouldn’t want the Americans to hear.”

And they sure are paying attention. Bakshi’s blog, How The World Sees America, is popular. The reactions his posts invite add immensely to the value of this project — how people react to a foreigner’ assessment of other people’ views about America. Lively debates arise on the website after Bakshi has written a post.

His article about the American girl in Mumbai once again raised the question of the subcontinental fetish of white skin. And the admission by an eminent journalist in Communist-run Kerela, that most people in the state only pay lip-service to the ideology of American cultural imperialism, is overtaken by debate over how Bakshi’s blog projects Kerela.

While the point of this entire project is to talk to individuals in order to string together a larger picture for an American audience, it is also serving as a mirror for other countries. Of what a foreigner, albeit of Indian origin, makes of people’s complex relationship with the US.

Bakshi’s stop in Pakistan will undoubtedly, provide much food for thought and fodder for debate. For everyone.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

One size doesn't fit all

Media strategists, like lobbyists, are either considered very good or scum. Especially when it comes to political media management. Because, after all, most of it is crisis handling. And when the press comes to ask you questions, and you have a team prepared to give it answers (not necessarily spin per se, but we are tiptoeing pretty close to that), THEN one wonders if that’s right. But then again, if you are a minister or a chief minister of a state, you really don’t have the time to sit and answer all questions and perhaps can’t remember every minute detail, and you need a team to help you.

Fair enough. This is definitely a song I have sung before.

But I always wondered that if you had the sophisticated kind of media management in India, as you do in the States, what would it look like? Well, this question was answered when I went for an Idea Exchange with Vasundhara Raje Scindia, chief minister, Rajasthan. First off – and I missed this because I came in late – people asked her if she thought her government did a bad job handling the Gujjar riots and she held up a copy of an Express edit and said “well, all the answers to what I should have done are in this edit” which gave my boss quite a shock (at the thoroughness of her PR team's research or perhaps that she reads our edits with such rapt attention) that he was stunned into silence for the next hour. But seriously, despite people telling me she was arrogant etc etc, I actually thought she did a good job of keeping the conversation firmly to the subject she wanted to discuss – development in Rajasthan. And I thought she had some pretty good ideas. She said that because the people didn’t trust the government, they had now been employing the services of NGOs – who people do trust – to put the plans out. The same innovative thinking in their insurance scheme that has a built in scholarship for 9-12 yr olds, and she said the centre had lifted this idea and used it in the aam aadmi scheme.

She’s articulate, she’s got the little press conferences do’s and don’ts all down – taking the reporters name to give that personal touch, although she does sound contrived. Total sound byte answers. But, impressive preparation.

The only problem is that I really associate India and democracy here as being a little – messy? You know, the same enthusiasm with which chairs are thrown about in parliament (something which is not restricted to India alone let me assure you) is what I associate with politicians talking to the press. They are themselves, for better or worse.

I’ve asked this question many times over. And let me clarify. A Mani Shanker Aiyer is articulate too. So is PC. As are many others. But they don’t sound like they are talking for print or TV. They just sound like they can express themselves in a clear, rational and smart manner. So then, is political media management necessary as the press mushrooms in this country or will it lead towards a media oriented democracy – which isn’t such a rosy option in the long run. Case and point, the US.

And that's been the reason the States got into trouble in the first place. The government did the agenda setting -- hello, Iraq -- and the press followed. And the people saw the headlines and soundbytes that the establishment kindly provided, and accepted it. So while Ms. Raje was right to say that she only wanted to talk about development, taken in a larger context [lets move beyond her because she only got me thinking on this line so no offence to her], but as a public figure if you only answer and talk about what you want, then after a point, the media will also get lazy and stop thinking for itself. And thats why people start putting themselves into these watertight camps, I'm liberal, I'm conservative.... and talk to those who agree with them. And like Jon Stewart said (in my all time favourite episode of the erstwhile 'debate' show on CNN - Crossfire) it is all political THEATRE.

Questions, questions and more questions. Grr. But democracy isn't meant to be the smoothest ride in the world now, it it?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

It ain’t over till it’s over


Potter drama and then more Potter drama

First, the movie. Off we went, including a friend who has apparently been living under a rock since he had no idea about the books, movies, plot. They all laughed as they heard me explaining in not-so-hushed tones what was going on: “That fat kid is his cousin, very painful,” “So, the bad guy Voldemort killed Harry’s parents,” “Those are the Dementors, they suck the happiness out of you, I rather thought they’d be less... corporeal,” “I need a new hairdryer” (yes, I am easily distracted). And then when Hermione goes on a rant, blowing up Harry and Ron for being idiots and not realising all the various layers of thought Cho was going through as she kissed Harry, the boys laughed — “this sounds like you-know-who, doesn’t breathe between sentences and goes through a million different things like a truck out of control on a busy highway!” We come out, to the pronouncement from the friend who formerly lived under a rock, “Well, that’s an interesting concept!” Indeedy.

A day later, the boss comes in with great enthusiasm: quickly, do something on the spoilers all over the net. That entails reading them, I realise. Oh no. Now — two days before the release — I’m armed with all kinds of Harry information — true or otherwise. So what should I do? It’s only fair to ruin everyone else’s fun. I call a few friends who I know will definitely not want to hear this. Many phones are slammed down on me. Yes, I know. I’m going straight to hell.

So I figure, I’ll read the Half Blood Prince again, soak it all in, then get to the last one. I’ll make a weekend out of it. This plan sounds good, calm, bordering on boring. I should have known my tryst with Harry was not done yet.

Next day — phone rings. It’s someone from a publishing house in the US — one that I’d mentioned in my article — because it was rumoured one of their employees leaked the photocopied pages of Deathly Hallows. And they wanted me to help track down where that information came from. I bet they want to roast that employee (if he exists). To think I might have a part in that one!

Dammit Harry, I’m going to miss you.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

All things Harry II

And a little tribute to the series from me -- I just saw The Order of the Phoenix, and am loving how dark it has all become!

It is difficult for a reader to not connect with the (quite literal) magical journey Harry and his friends have embarked upon. The eternal tug of war between order and chaos that we experience in real life is reflected in the political tension of the magical world that spills into the (ostensibly) orderly world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry lives for most of the year.

A metaphor for the challenges of life, there are fantastic demons that plague the children in their pre-teen years, forcing them to mature before their time. We hear it all the time, how kids today are growing up too fast. Harry, Ron and Hermoine (and even Draco Malfoy) are the best examples of this. Consider one of the first barbs the children encounter. In the world of Harry Potter, non-magical people are known as 'muggles' and those with only one magical parent, 'half-bloods'. So when Draco Malfoy, a pure blood since both his parents are magical, insults Hermoine for being 'muggle born', it is especially cruel because it implies that she is not good enough to be part of the magical world. This thought is echoed by Harry's arch nemesis, Lord Voldemort, who believes in only preserving blood purity (although, interestingly, he himself is a half-blood). The parallels with history are almost as apparent as the futility of the mission.

The world of Harry Potter is as real as it is imaginary because of the relationships, between both the adult and children, and the children themselves, which are at the heart of the story. Harry, who had been brought up by an uncaring aunt and uncle, was quite unexpectedly brought into the magical world on his eleventh birthday. The people he encounters and grows to love – Hermoine, Ron and Ron's family, to the adults who become parent figures he had been sorely lacking – headmaster Dumbledore; Hagrid, the gamekeeper at Hogwarts; Sirius Black, his godfather – are a lesson in trust and loyalty for the boy. It is ironic that a 'children's book' deals so much with death – not only is Voldemort obsessed with killing Harry but he is equally fixated on his own immortality. The utter finality of death is never more apparent to the children than with the death of their beloved Dumbledore. The Death Eaters, the guards of the deadly prison Azkeban, slowly become fixtures in the narrative.

Dark magic is also a temptation Harry must learn to resist. While it hold great power, figures such as Lord Voldemort and Lucius Malfoy are reminders to him that absolute power corrupts. But there is no judgment, it is for each individual to decide between black and white – interestingly, once there is a smudge of black, no matter how much white you put in, it will never be any other colour than grey. And that is a lesson the children learn as they grow older.

But amidst the chaos, comes the order. The order of an ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances. If Harry is caught breaking the rules, he is punished, often missing his beloved game of Quidditch. The order of just another typical family at Ron's house; the order of mealtimes at Hogwarts; the order of friendship; of budding romances; of trust; of loyalty and of faith. Of the fact that death doesn't mean the end of love. Of friendship.

This is a story of adventure. But more than that, it is a story of the family we choose to make our own. And that's what Harry and his friends have become to millions all over the world – family.

All things Harry

Leaking chamber of secrets

With one day left till the worldwide release of the last instalment of the Harry Potter series, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, spoilers threaten to ruin the ending for all of us. Mahima Kaul explains why you need to watch where you click

What is with this Harry Potter mania?

When J.K. Rowling started to write the series, she did not have a target audience in mind. Her publishing house, Bloomsbury, assumed it would appeal to children the most. But its imagination, themes, and the hard questions it poses have transcended age. It’s not everyday that a series sells 325 million copies worldwide — and is translated into 63 languages! 250 million copies of Deathly Hallows have already been pre-ordered. Britain is going to release a series of 7 postage stamps to commemorate the event! Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the movie adaptation of the fifth book, raked in $330 million worldwide on its first weekend. An entire industry that includes toys and games feeds off the Harry Potter franchise. Mania, indeed!

What are spoilers? And fan-fic?

Spoilers basically tell you the plot of a yet unreleased movie/book. Harry Potter is not the only series to face this problem — for the Sex and the City finale, four separate endings were shot, so that if one ending leaked, they could use another so as to keep the finale fresh for viewers.
Some Potter fans, such as those who run the websites and vowed to keep away from spoilers, and have refused to publish the rumours of plot-points floating around the Internet.

Many online communities have kept themselves entertained by creating Potter fan-fic, which are fan based versions of how the book ends. They are both harmless (for the publishers, especially) and quite popular. The key difference is that spoilers claim to be the real thing while fan-fic is a take-off (and often a tribute) to the original.

Where and who leaked them?

A month ago, someone going by the name of Gabriel claimed that he had hacked into the computers at Bloomsbury and posted key plot points on his website. He said it had been easy since many employees had kept chapters and drafts of the book on their computers.

More recently, a sequence of photos of a hand leafing through the 700-page book has been released on the Internet. The story doing the rounds on blogs is that someone who was responsible for counting the number of books in a carton took these pictures and posted them online. While many maintain that this is also fake, some bloggers claim that the photographs of the book’s epilogue were taken by Barnes & Noble employees themselves. Scholastic, Rowling’s US publisher, has neither confirmed nor denied the accuracy of the leaks.

So how are the publishers protecting the book?

The final book was published in an undisclosed location. The 65 publishers worldwide have started delivering copies to bookstores for the synchronised world book launch. There is major security — there are sensors on the cartons which will go off if it is opened before time, tracking devices on delivery trucks, and even guard dogs posted at certain storage places.

While the publishers have been asking people not to re-post spoilers floating on the Internet, they will definitely not hurt sales figures because all Potter fans will like to own a copy of the book!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Worm in the Apple?

In iPhone, the company that gave us iPod may have to contend with technology being a great leveller of reputation

I never jumped on to the iPod bandwagon. Let me assure you, I was probably the only person in Montreal not bouncing along the streets plugged into an iPod, exchanging a knowing nod with fellow Macaholics as I crossed them on the street. But that didn’t make me miss out on the phenomenon that is the iPod — the product that is poised for an elevated place in the technology hall of fame (if there is such a place). It isn’t really surprising —Mac was always considered the cooler (richer) cousin of the PC, so any product Apple Inc. came up with just had to be slicker than the rest.

Apple managed to ride the cool wave for a long time. Very intelligent and perceptive marketing is the backbone to an already impressive product — ‘Think Different,’ Apple urged us and then told us how, with the ‘Switch’ campaign that followed. The computer offered software that allowed people like you and me to produce movies, music, websites, whose quality could rival big production houses. The iPod offered new ways of organising and transferring music— and everyone wondered how they ever did without it!

But now we are faced with the iPhone. Can it bring about a similar (global) Mac attack? Let’s go step by step.

Why would you buy an iPhone? (As opposed to simply salivating at the thought of owning one.) It’s the first phone that does not extend its software to accommodate extra features (for example, a music player) but instead it essentially condenses an entire operating system into a phone — a mini Mac, if you will. Its real feature, then, lies in applications that have not been introduced as yet. This means that you can do virtually anything with it, with features far beyond what a Blackberry offers.

But there is a small glitch. At the moment the iPhone has tied up to a single network provider in the US — Cingular — and it only allows Apple software to operate on the iPhone. This will have to change — Apple made the right decision in the 1990s when it tied up with Intel and embraced Microsoft software for Mac, instantly expanding its customer base. Now, it needs to differentiate its product from the many, many cell phones in the market. And the challenge is the same. It needs to enable consumers to play around with the product instead of being limited by it.

So will Apple’s unique branding work for iPhone? Apple’s success has rested on its image as an alternative to the system. But with the iPhone and Apple TV, uniqueness is lost. Cheaper cousins of iPhone are certainly going to crop up. News reports already talk of the initial sales boom slowing down.

We, the global community of consumers, are spoilt for choice. We are constantly adopting technology we really don’t need — simply because we can! And no doubt, the iPhone wants to ride this wave. But will we bite?

Outside of selling itself as the hippest, edgiest version of any product out there, there are some practical steps Apple should take to advance its consumer base — firstly, improve its customer service because at the moment the company is notorious for being difficult about repairing its products. But more importantly, like it did when it released the iPod nano, it needs to come up with an iPhone for the budget shopper — or a person like me — who just needs a phone, but not necessarily one with a global mapping system.

This is the crux of the matter. Apple is now in the mass-producing world of consumer electronics, and unless it wants to remain a high-end luxury product service, its strategy needs to be revised. The iPhone media hype was a freebie. It’s almost a guarantee that when the Apple TV is launched, there will be no overnight queue waiting impatiently for the moment they can plug in their newest idiot box.

Technology can be a great leveller. Apple will have to ensure it doesn’t fall too far from the (consumer) tree.

Friday, June 22, 2007

That space atop Raisina Hill

As politicians and pundits get serious about the presidential polls, the blogs are agog. They even have a suggestion: Why not Bill Clinton?

A petition to get President Kalam has been going around the internet for over eight months now, so when amidst rumours of Shivraj Patil, Somnath Chatterjee and Pranab Mukherjee, the name Pratibha Patil came up, the blogosphere went into a tizzy. IndieQuill applauded the latest nominee (lovingly called ‘President Aunty’) and introduced her to its readers — “You know her, of course, from... er, um...” A list of pros and cons was devised. (The most convincing pro — ‘not Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’).

A victim of tokenism? Don’t feel offended, Pratibhatai, some said, after all (as Hindustaniat explains) so many before you have been token presidents — Sikh, Muslim, what’s the difference? In fact, it’s because she is difficult to oppose — India Interacts calls it “the advantages of being a lightweight”.

Try the question Grandma’s Tales puts up: why does the Union government oppose Kalam if he appears to be the people’s choice? Mixed Bag pushes further and asks for a merit-based answer, why (either) Patil or Kalam? But it adds an interesting little sidenote — Pratibha Patil’s wikipedia page was updated instantly. So, our netas have discovered the internet. Who knew?

Many are unsure if Patil can live up to Kalam — as The Utterances of a Peculiar Mindset wonders, “where is the stature?” The Indian Muslim Blog is not impressed with Pratibhatai’s history — the Mughals were not invaders as they settled down in India, and the purdah system was already there — and she is confused between purdah and hijab. Tut, tut.

But do we even need a president, asks E=mc^2, calling the post “a waste of resources”. Patil may have more political merit than Kalam, but since the country apparently has no idea of what merit is, what does it matter? The thought is echoed by India Syndicate, which wonders why it makes a difference at all. And more importantly, who is going to Parliament while all these deliberations and negotiations happen? On the other hand, My Desi Blog is suspicious about the fight parties are putting up for this post. Is it because all concerned parties want to be able to use (and abuse?) the special powers of the president?

And the blogs are not fooled by the argument that this is a proud day for women’s emancipation. India Uncut wonders if the BJP goes against any future choice the Congress makes for any position — and if the candidate is a man — will it mean that it is “blatantly against the cause of men?” Really, at least let her ride on her laurels!

So what can be done about this sad state of affairs? The nomination seems like settling for second best; the person chosen is stature-less; and the justification for the choice seems empty at best.

Never fear, suggestions are here!

Churumuri has a novel idea. Why not appoint Bill Clinton as president of India. No, really. Among the stellar reasons given, the three most convincing are: if the Indian cricket team can have a foreign coach, why not a foreign president? If Hillary wins, and with Bill in Rashtrapati Bhawan, the nuclear deal is a given. But the last tops it all, because, “finally, we will have someone who will make use of all 340 rooms atop Raisina Hill.”

We’re not done. It’s India Time has another suggestion. Why not Musharraf as president (of India?). Before you gasp with shock, read on. It’s the only way to bring democracy to Pakistan (ha ha), it will be seen as a warm gesture and Pakistan will give up its claim to Kashmir (we’re listening), Musharraf will have to come with his nuclear briefcase making the sub-continent safer (go on...) and finally, he only fears mango trees, and since India has so many mango trees, it will be enough to make him behave... (Sold!)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Space Police


A site called Orkut is at the centre of a billowing controversy. The Shiv Sena’s student wing, the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, is protesting against ‘defamatory matter’ on Chatrapati Shivaji and Bal Thackeray on the website. What is Orkut? Can the internet really be censored? Mahima Kaul takes on the questions

What is Orkut?

Orkut is Google’s social networking website. It was launched on January 22, 2004. Members create profiles, upload pictures and personal information, leave ‘scraps’ (messages) and join communities. Orkut has become especially popular with the Indian youth who are often not allowed to mix as freely in real life as they can on the internet.
However, its virtual communities have been getting the site into trouble. In 2006, the US was concerned that terrorists may be using the site after groups supporting Osama bin Laden began mushrooming on it. But the majority of Orkut communities are non controversial.

What is the current controversy about?

While the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena initially demanded that internet cafés be closed down and that internet service providers (ISPs) ban Orkut, they have now registered a complaint with the Mumbai police. Sify, Mumbai’s biggest ISP, refused to ban the site. Sify says that unless there is an official directive, Orkut can sue them for blocking its site. Also, it is one of the main reasons young people visit cyber cafes.
The Controller of Certifying Authority (under the IT ministry) is reviewing the complaint. It is authorised to monitor online content and block offensive sites.

Have websites been banned before in India?

In India, the first such incident took place in September 2003, when government wanted to ban Yahoo Groups because one of their groups was allegedly linked to Kynhun, a separatist group from Meghalaya. However, because the ISPs did not know how to ban a single group, all groups on Yahoo ended up being banned for two weeks. In July 2006, government ordered a ban on 17 websites, but again due to the ISPs’ inability to ban specific sites, whole websites ended up being banned. There was a major uproar in the media, the ban was lifted.

What kind of things are censored the world over?

Certain countries restrict the internet more than others. According to the OpenNet initiative, China, Vietnam and Iran are the worst offenders.
The two biggest reasons officially cited for restricting the internet are child pornography and support for terrorism. In the US, the Common Decency Act (1996) restricts online speech that could be seen by minors. In the UK, schools, public libraries etc are encouraged to install software called Cleanfeed, which is a content filter. In the past, the Home Office had asked ISPs to block access to articles that glorified terrorism. This is within the purview of their Terrorism Act, 2006.
Countries, like Pakistan, Egypt, Iran are critical of sites that criticise the government. Recently, an Egyptian blogger was sent to jail on that count. China’s strict control of the internet is well-known, and in North Korea it is available to only a few people.

Why is the internet difficult to control?

Accessing blocked sites is made easy by proxy servers. Proxy servers are un-banned websites that can display banned content. All one needs to do is put in the address of the banned site on the proxy server website and the page will be opened. Similarly, programmes such as Psiphon (popular in China) and JAP allow users to browse the web anonymously.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

close encounters of the gujjar kind

I had gone to Bangalore for the weekend when the Gujjar agitation made national headlines. Before I could wrap my head around it, they were everywhere, not restricted to Rajasthan at all -- from my TV to the Noida toll bridge! Normal life was being disturbed and violence ensued.
Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje called the Gujjar leader and discussed their demands -- reservations for the community on the basis that are too, ST -- and they called off the protests.

So this morning, when on my way to work, my boss called me to say 'Idea Exchange -- Colonel Bainsala -- I was interested to hear what he had to say for himself. I mean, I know they want ST status and all that, but I had been paying close attention to the mainstream media's long debates on whether it was ethical for the Gujjars to have blocked roads and railway tracks for their own interests.

At Idea Exchange, Colonel Bainsala and co were asked by various reporters to explain why they thought they fit into the ST category. They had this notebook which spelt out all the customs etc of ST communities and they said that theirs were just the same. I don't know how it works really, but till they attain this status will they have to ensure that their community (in Rajasthan) remains in the dark ages? The good news is that a committee will take a call on this issue in 3 months. But at the same time, it really does sound like a race to the bottom.

Is reservations good? Many asked him why he thought that reservations would make them any better -- and I really appreciated the answer. He said that it might not, but now that the mechanism exists, they want to be part of it. To my mind, it all boils down to the fact that simple governance is lacking and the only way to ensure any help from the government is to be deemed 'special'. And our middle class mindset sometimes makes us doubt reservations, or view it suspiciously, as a political tool or even an easy out for hard work, but the other side of the coin -- this one -- it is perceived as a lifeline.

And what if they are not found to be worth of ST reservations? They said they would continue their struggle because they wanted to bring their community out of the dark ages. They gave us many facts and figures of how there were no women MBBS or persons in the IAS from their community.

Colonel Bainsala and his two colleagues are obviously intelligent men. They argued their case with passion, speaking in both Hindi and English. I found their story very interesting because they told us that they had been protesting peacefully for seven years now, but only after violent incidents (which they did not plan) did the state take them seriously. Shouldn't there be a mechanism for these things?

Its the largest questions that bugged me the entire time -- how does a small community get any attention in this country without resorting to violence? Bainsala and co. were ready with facts, passages from the Constitution, the findings of earlier committees on the state of scheduled tribes -- in fact, it was endearing to see how hard they tried to work within the system. But it was very disturbing to see that the system doesn't reward them for playing by the rules at all.

We have just dealt with Muslim reservations, and for that matter, even SC questions have such an emotional tinge that the debate is naturally on the frontpages of newspapers. After all, do you really want to keep a religious community behind? Or do you think, as upper castes, the lower castes should stay in 'their place?' No? Then debate it dammit. But this debate stirred no such emotions, in fact, they were even asked why they used priests during weddings if they consider themselves tribals and I silently thought 'this is NOT the point and we are getting distracted by stupid nitpicking. They are here because they want progress, education, medication, roads, electricity, a good life. It has nothing to do with who uses and doesn't use priests for wedding ceremonies.'

For a democracy, we certainly thrive on chaos. And inaction. They have been asking for a leg up for seven years. And no one paid heed till somebody died. Is that democracy? For heaven's sake... why do we have a consitution and constitutional mechanisms if we don't seem to want to use them??? The real test is not when they work for the have's -- its when they work for the have-not's. We need to function by the book, not by emotion.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Head bangers’ ball

From all corners of the country they came. College students and managers. Musicians and journos. eye hitched a ride with the Great Indian Rock Fan who goes anywhere the music is

A sea of heads bobs to the music. Ripples of hands and camera phones. Steven Tyler has danced on to the stage. Joe Perry takes the microphone, “India, do you know why we love you? It’s because you gave us the Kamasutra!” Thirty thousand voices roar back lustily.

It’s a spectacle that has drawn Akshay Dhar, a HR trainee and industrial social worker in Puducherry, to Bangalore. Friends Colin Fernandes and Harsher Singh have flown in from Delhi. They aren’t alone. Guitar slung over shoulders and tattoos on show, college students from all corners of the country have hopped on to trains to be part of this headbangers’ ball. Managers in pinstriped suits have junked their laptops and PowerPoint presentations to catch a flight to the city of watering holes.

Meet India’s new breed of city-hopping concertgoers, who think nothing of bouncing around the country in search of good music. Says Dhar, “The fantastic thing about going to watch Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, Roger Waters and others perform is that we get to experience these bands in our lifetime—live. Just look at the thousands who get together to hear the music. It’s the intensity of the crowd and the passion for the music that makes the difference. Sitting in a bar or in your room and listening to the same music just doesn’t compare.”

When Raghav Modi and his friends, young graduates who have just started working in Delhi, heard about Roger Waters coming to Mumbai, these Pink Floyd fans knew this was a show they couldn’t miss. “There were about 20 of us who ended up going. We knew this was the closest we would ever get to Waters!”

For Dhaval Mudgal, a member of the immensely popular Delhi band Half Step Down, Pink Floyd was as good as it gets. “The Roger Waters concert was a life-changing experience for me not only as a listener, but as a musician. I was blown away by the organisation and the visuals—I absorbed a lot about performance.” Mudgal had to miss Aerosmith last week, but only because his band was performing in Mumbai the same weekend.

Unfortunately, there are always those who miss the show. “It’s always some other city,” cribs Dwaipayan Banerjee, who recently finished a Masters in sociology at the Delhi School of Economics and is off to pursue a Ph.D. at New York University this fall. “We grew up with this music. So of course you want to hear these bands. I only wish that more bands, like Franz Ferdinand, Keane, were coming. And don’t think there is no demand, because even when Herbie Hancock came, and Delhi is not a city known for its jazz taste, it was sold out. So, I really hope more acts follow!”Banerjee’s wish might come true. The buzz is that the next acts in town will be Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Metallica.

Back at the concert, the band is in exit mode. But like all good bands, they come back for one last song. Don’t wanna miss a thing it is. A mite soppy but the crowd loves it—they sure were never going to miss this.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Who's news?

India is a far more animated – and honest – democracy than the US. Political propaganda through a national television network is not India's forte – ironically, that belongs to 'the land of the free'. Because America seems to be moving towards an almost regimented political correctness, it becomes difficult to gauge what they really think about issues. By contrast, here in India, although corruption is institutionalised and general chaos prevails, somehow people behave exactly the way they are. So chairs are thrown in parliament and laundry gets washed in public. In part, of course, the credit goes to the freedom our media enjoys.

So, when the DMK contemplates launching a new channel -- because consequent to the Karunanidhi-Maran dispute it is losing valuable air time -- it is adding to the already overcrowded airwaves in Tamil Nadu that are almost entirely monopolised by political party owned (or backed) channels. So the AIADMK has Jaya TV, the DMK had Sun TV (till the split with Dayanidhi Maran) and the PMK has Makkal TV.

Tamil Nadu type developments in the media are a cause for serious concern. What happens when government or a political/private player starts to dictate news content? The ready example we have is US and it is worth exploring it to understand the dynamics. In 1996 Fox News was launched by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. It has grown to become the country's most popular cable news channel, mainly for its decidedly opinionated news coverage. Although Fox mottos read 'Fair and Balanced' and 'We Report, You Decide', it is in fact, anything but. Liberals have widely accused Fox for operating as a mouthpiece for the Republican government. Proof, they said, came the from the internal memos that were leaked by someone in the organization. The memos highlighted the channel's agenda-driven stance on issues, including the Iraq War which, read, "It began Monday morning (NY time) with the US and Iraqi military surrounding Fallujah. We will cover this hour by hour today, explaining repeatedly why it is happening. It won't be long before some people start to decry the use of 'excessive force'. We won't be among that group..." Fox News also painted the world in black and white, something that appealed to the American viewer. For those who knew no better, they accepted opinion as fact, and support for the Iraq war increased because any anti-war sentiment was equated with anti-nationalist sentiment.

In the same vein, imagine if politically backed news channels in India started to broadcast agenda-driven news. While different channels in Tamil Nadu may applaud the ruling party's policies or trash them, depending on its ownership, the matter could get dangerous if party agenda driven subjects began to focus on communalism, casteism, or secession. And like in the US, if a national channel in India were to be launched by a vested interest, the scale of misinformation, especially in a country where the percentage of uneducated and impressionable people is high, would be all the more devastating.

The scenario is not far-fetched. Consider this, in its annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index, 2005, Reporters Without Borders found the US placed 44th out of 167 countries. India was placed at 106, Nepal at 160 and Pakistan at 150. In 2006 the US had moved down to 53 while India had performed marginally better at 103. Nepal remained at 159, and Pakistan dropped to 157. Thus if the world's sole superpower has only the 53 rd freest media in the world, subversion of the Indian media is a distinct possibility.

Political ownership of the media always proves problematic because objectivity can be easily lost. When a political party publishes a newsletter, it makes abundantly clear that party's stand on issues and events. Even in a newspaper, the editorials take stands on issues, although technically, the front page reflects the news of the day. But if a television channel does not openly admit to its political affiliation, it could nevertheless editorialise news bulletin to promote specific political ideology while presenting the news. Take, for example, that while introducing a segment on how American movies were popular in the Arab world, a Fox News anchor said "They hate what we stand for, so why do they love our movies so much?". Instantly the difference between news and opinion is blurred. The danger is in the delivery of content, because unfortunately, people enjoy sensationalism, so that if a media organisation is not inherently responsible or particular about how it portrays events, misinformation and biases take root.

Another reason why political party backed television in particular is worrying for India is because the millions who cannot read rely on the radio and TV for information. And people trust what they see, and there is plenty of room for manipulation. In such a scenario propaganda will turn our vibrant, albeit often messy democracy, into a country of pod-people.

On the other hand, top down censorship is always easy to identify. If the government were to censor certain topics or suppress news, the media would be up in arms. During the Emergency, the Indian Express carried a blank editorial in protest! But, it gets trickier when one is not sure of the mandate that may drive a media house, especially if the accuracy of the news is not questioned and assumed to be true.

Legally, anyone can own a television channel. And if political parties in India are jumping into the fray, whether they admit it or not, media watchdogs and regulators are bound to monitor them. In fact, I&B ministry has a Broadcasting Code to ensure just this, because as Jim Morrison of the Doors said, "Whoever controls the media, controls the mind."

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Butterflying to rock 101

In the watering holes of Bangalore, between beers and cigarettes, the Aerosmith concert is being discussed animatedly. The visuals were incredible, one thinks, but nothing can compare to the production that Iron Maiden put up last year. What about the giant floating pig at the Roger Waters concert in Bombay, asks another.

Meet India's new breed of city hopping concertgoers. Most in their twenties, they think nothing of bouncing around the country in search of good music. They'd be the same crowd who did London summer holidays with the parents while in high school and have now graduated to a European adventure with friends this summer. You'd find them anywhere from non descript bars that play only rock in their own cities, to schmoozing at five star hotels with the other Page 3 lites.

So what exactly does a rock concert weekend entail? It's rather simple. Since I'm fresh off the boat, I'll walk you through it. A friend (covering it for Maxim) and I take the afternoon flight. Walking out of the airport, I bump into another friend from NDTV. "The band's arriving now", he says excitedly, all poised with a microphone and quick quips. The band arrives, looking like they just did mushrooms and got eaten by a bear. "Duuude," drawls Steven Tyler, "where are the elephants, where are the cobras?" We smile with glee. It's going to be quite the show.

At night, the Blue Bar at the Taj is buzzing. Not only is the band staying in a special suite at the hotel, but Joe Perry is eating in the restaurant that leads into Bangalore's Friday night hotspot. As air kisses sweep the open air bar, the DJ asks the crowd, "Who can name all five members of the band? Free tickets for the correct answer!" NDTV friend bounces in as I sit with some others marveling at the beating the Delhi heat – "I just went to their suite! It's amazing" he gushes, "We have to go for the after-party there!"

It's Saturday now, and people have been lining up since six to get inside. I haven't picked up my reserved ticket yet and just as I reach the booth, my boyfriends eye's light up at the thought of lounge tickets. There is a special entrance. It's above the mosh pit (think private boxes at the Opera). At the back is a room, complete with dinner and a bar. A bit of hobnobbing – Vijay Mallya, Milind Deora, Ashvin Kumar, a few models scattered here and there. A big screen in the corner, and couches for the ones who don't want to brave the crowds. But the most wonderful thing is that the age group is so diverse. And everyone knows the lyrics!

The concert starts. Steven Tyler is a performer to the hilt – although he looks fairly scary up close. They said no cameras allowed but I can see a wave of camera phones swaying to the music. I try and call a friend in Mussurie, because she just has to hear this! Joe Perry takes the microphone, "India – you know why we love you? It's because you gave us the Kamasutra!" as the crowd roars with laughter. Snippets of conversation everywhere – "Hiiiii.. you came too??"; "I really want them to play Janie's got a gun"; "Where is the after party dude, I heard Bangalore shuts early"; "Who else is here from Delhi?"; "I love this song!!"

The band leaves, but as all good bands do, they come back for one last song. As they start to play "Don't wanna miss a thing", the whole stadium has turned into sentimental sops. And before you know it, it's over. My phone rings. "After party at a friends farm…"

Walking out is another 'event'. "Well hello there, I had no idea you were coming!" More air kisses. It's good to be young. It's good to have the money to spend and the weekend to spare. After all, you only live once!

And there we are, back home, back to work, and already making the next plans. Safe to say, I'm a new convert to the concert going city hopping crowd. "Why not," I tell my best friend persuasively, "it's better than just a weekend away, it's a weekend away with something to do!" As she nods enthusiastically, I think, one more soldier down.

It's a bandwagon worth jumping on.

(I'd actually written this for my paper -- the features -- but I think it wasn't working class enough... [I kid, she wanted it to be more about the music, less about air kissing] so wait for another article)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

You learn something new every day

The ironic part about Mayawati’s win in UP is that she did it in a slow and steady manner, quite opposite of the huge tamashas the other parties put up in UP. There was Samajwadi Party with their big ‘UP mein koi jurm nahi’ (courtesy everyone’s favourite superstar, Amitabh Bachchan). There was Rahul Gandhi’s road show with very provocative statements, almost tailormade for national media coverage. Even the BJP that made waves in the press with its communal CD (and even if you believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity), in the end, none of it mattered. On the other hand, there was Mayawati, the sole star of her party, trudging from town to town, taking her message of a more inclusive party to the people. AND the BSP started this process three years ago. Her well oiled party machinery kept its focus : no theaterics, no fuss.

Now, analyses of the polls are coming out. It’s not really that she took away from the Samajwadi Party, but that she took away from the Congress and BJP, they say, which to my mind means that communal doesn’t have the same hook as caste. I suspect it’s a matter of class in the end because at the end of it, its money baby. So you are told that its not that she managed to get that many new upper caste votes, but other non-dalit lower castes who have previously not voted for her. Whatever the case may be, I think the strongest point this election has made is that India still remains a land of the aam aadmi, not of CNN, NDTV or even the Indian Express.

Last night I met a Vietnamese at my favourite watering hole. Thanks to his job at the Gates Foundation, he said that he’s visited over a 100 countries, but thinks India is the most special. He then talked about Delhi, and how he believed that unlike other developing cities in the world, it will never change. To be sure, there will be more industrialisation and it will become smarter -- high rises, the metro, luxury goods – but at the same time, the rich/poor gap will remain. But why, I asked. And he said, because you are so happy to accept a cow and a BMW sharing the same road. It doesn’t bother people. (Democracy has a lot to do with it, he agreed) And so the more things change, the more they will remain the same.

Well, back to the story of Maywati’s stellar campaign and victory. A while ago, maybe a month and a half, I was very eager to write about campaigns in India, and how there is a noticeable lack of technology used. So as part of my mission, I called Vankaiya Naidu, one of the men in charge of the BJP campaign in UP. What are you planning to do, I asked. He wanted to jointly attack the BSP, SP and Congress for prices rises, appeasement politics and anarchy in the state. [In other words, passing the buck]. He told me that jativad v/s rashtrivad would be an issue. About SP’s television ad, he said while it may be garnering them media coverage, people could see the direct contrast with reality, and it would boomerang. In terms of SMS campaigns, or print ads, he said that as much as 60% of UP did not have access to the print media, so the only way forward was people-to-people campaigning. Plus, perhaps they were still nervous about a supposed backlash after the India Shining campaign.

Now, two things of note. When the SP ad came out, I found myself wondering why exactly it was on air. After all, if most people in UP don’t watch TV, then it makes them no difference. And if they do, especially in the wake of Nithari, this ad was horribly offensive. So, in all, and I don’t know if I am giving them too much credit here (and I have mentioned this in one of my old posts), I thought it was done to make the SP a household name – or a national name at least because if Mulayam thought he had a hold on UP, certainly, he would want to branch out. As Mayawati most certainly will. The second was, despite Naidu’s claim that technology had no real place in this campaign, I do find it ironic that there was a communal CD released. But at the same time, the elections proved him right, as yet we do not have the need for technologically forward election campaigns, no matter how many laptops Rahul Gandhi carried with him. Thats one of the stories about Mayawati too -- that she isn't tech savvy, but if she needs figures etc, she just has to ask her party men. They have it on their fingertips.

But back to campaign strategies. In the days of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress had actually brought in an ad agency to help them. The problem, I was told by Rajiv Desai, who was part of the Congress Committee back in the day (and in advertising/PR now), is that a proper brief is not developed in the party about what and how the campaign should be conducted. [Rahul Gandhi did nothing to disprove this in my opinion] He also told me that he thinks parties are not quite sure who their audience is and where their audience is, which is why an ad aimed at farmers may appear in a national paper, where it really doesn’t matter to city folk. The message, then, is lost. Also, the Congress in particular, still depends on star power to solve their problems. Sycophants fight amongst themselves for a chance to arrange a rally for madame or junior, instead of focusing on the real challenges. In fact, Desai told me that much of the money allocated for advertising in smaller, colloquial newspapers is really a big racket, where these local ‘paper’ owners just take money without printing the ads. The one thing the Congress did start after their loss in 1999 was polling. Unfortunately, sycophancy is hard to shake off, and the polls started to be made to look favourable towards the Congress to impress Mrs G.

But ultimately, the issue that made people look elsewhere than the government, and the guys still playing communal cards, was development. Well, that’s what I believe, because after years and years of inaction, you finally give the person who brings the most direct offer to you a chance. No frills, no star campaigners, nothing. No Hindu, Muslim, not even that only my caste will be taken care of. Just the message: everyone, listen up, you will all be taken care of, and I promise to put an end to this gunda raj. PS I mean it, I’m willing to put this sonofabitch in jail.

One more point. The most effective ad (and this extends to campaign strategy/slogans) is the one that gives an offer. There is no point waxing high on philosophy. I was told that the huge posters, buttons etc (which have been cut down by the EC) are largely to convince the party members that it can win. Its to charge up the party workers. And the final message to the voter, then, needs to offer them something solid. Not blame, no division, not history. A tangible choice.

So in the end, nothing flashy worked. And that in itself should give us a sense of where India is at. I’ve always heard people say that the Indian voter is highly intelligent and knows what he wants – and what he doesn’t. The sleeping giant that was UP needed to wake up, and boy, has it woken up. And that also reminds me that the cities, at the end of the days, are little fish. The real voice emerges from the heartland. Maywati did not really have the media, no businessmen backers, no has-been starlets, nothing. She went straight to the guy who has nothing to do with all of it anyway. And made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.