Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Is the best over?

When I was invited to Santiniketan, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect. I know about Rabindranath Tagore and the history (and what I didn’t I googled) but I really haven’t come across someone from Santiniketan either through work or the media – ever. I wasn’t sure if this is a wholly Bong college now, or if people from across India went there. I didn’t even realize it was a government college. I had assumed the Tagore family might be running it.

Anyway, so I went to the university – “from nursery to PhD” I was told really proudly. Of course Tagore is an overwhelming influence and his houses, chai spots et al are part of the guided tour. You even get to see Indira Gandhi’s dorm. There are sculptures all over campus. Most of them are by some guy, Tagore’s friend – whose name I can’t remember. They are really good! Classes are still held under the trees in the open. I asked if there is a holiday on rainy days, but sadly I was shown some covered spots. The college classes are held in buildings.

It was a typical government college in many respects. A bit run down, you can see the lack of proper infrastructure, and you can sense the complete lack of technology. At the same time, you can imagine the sculptors and painters loving this place.

Anyway, to my real story. The next day I spoke at the 10th anniversary of their media department. I was telling the mass com students that outside of TV, print and radio, as journalists they can become part of the development sector. I told them about the community video movement that we are spearheading. Etc.

So, it went well. Then came their regular program. “Discussions” which were actually debates. Two professors were called to sit on the stage and grade each speaker on style and presentation. No kidding. I thought I was back in high school!

But what really disappointed me were the debates. I have always sensed this since the time that I studied political science at Welham Girls, but the subject of politics (and media) seems to have an inbuilt institutionalized negativity. While I realize that corruptions and nepotism are all to real problems, but we teach students to hate the system, to hate politicians, to hate the media and to hate Indian government.

Ok, so things I picked up in the debates.

1. Youth in politics: Everyone talked about Rahul, Varun Gandhi and Sachin Pilot. That only children enter politics and that other young people have no chance. This really pissed me off. While I’m no BJP/Left lover, but these parties have seen many bright individuals rise through the ranks, as have other parties. It’s the Congress along that has this mummy-daddy issue written all over it, but I still don’t think that is the approach to take. When you talk about youth in politics, ESPECIALLY for students, counting only those who stand for elections is such a disservice. What about strategists, speech writers, online departments? When Advani ran last time, his office was filled with volunteers who came to help by leveraging their professional experience. It was all over the media. But it seems no one in Santiniketan could be bothered to read the papers. For soon-to-be professionals this is crucial,
2. Apathy: Let me say this for the record. I really really REALLY don’t think “todays youth” disinterested in politics, I have seen a lot of evidence to the contrary. Only one debater said that not everyone needs to be interested in politics, so lets not generalize. I was so surprised that that all the speeches said “During 1947, the youth came out to support the country… but today..” Ok, I know this college has a great Tagore hangover, so I will allow it, but seriously this logic is deeply flawed. Times, what was at stake, and passions were completely different then. Liberalization has happened, so many more avenues are open, people are rightly trying to build personal careers and personal lives. Politics is a career option and to be honest, when people are affected by a crisis – Jessica Lal to 26/11 – they pour out onto the streets.

I don’t mean to single out Santiniketan, it was a wonderful experience and the students there were very bright and articulate. But it did worry me as to what we are teaching our kids. (And really most of these ‘kids’ were just a few years younger than me.)

That these political science and mass com students are proceeding with a sense of disempowerment and even worse, that the best is over is criminal. That everything about this life, this India, is terrible. That politics is for criminals and there is nothing we can do about it. Ok, that is a gross generalization. I did meet a young girl who stood for local elections to prove a point. She is a great example of how we need to stop bitching and start doing.

I tried to tell the Professors my points and that there is a lot of opportunity and that students should be idealists not bordering on depression, they agreed. But I didn’t get the sense anything was going to change.

I see honor killings on TV and I see scams everywhere. We need to inculcate a sense of confidence in our students and I really don’t think we are doing that.

This is worrying.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I went to China and all I got was a suitcase full of clothes

50% of my house (mother, father, dog, me) is preoccupied with China. (I am not, dog is not). Its often China this, China that. Foreign policy, territory, look at what the Chinese are doing now. My parents went to China last year and came back super impressed with the technological progress. I heard about Shanghai's elevated roads for weeks. I remembered that, a few years ago, when an Indian Express reporter had gone to China, she had written that you never see an extra person hanging about in China. They are all doing something that means something. And they stand in lines. You know, everything that is not India.

So, with all these things in mind, I decided to join a friend in Beijing and Shanghai. I had a list of things I wanted to see: The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Military Museum; everything that sounded deadly, and to be honest, scary. Even my Express editor had made a face when I'd mentioned I was going to China..."why there?" So you can imagine, I was expecting some form of a sterile clean hospital masquerading as a country.

Hello, shock -- I didn't expect you! The Chinese are noisy, pushy, smelly (noodles and cigarettes), juvenile, talkative and obsessed with ice cream!

As I travelled through the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, the question that was swirling in my mind the whole time was: "how would I describe China in an article?" And the same answer kept coming back to me again and again. I felt that the urban populations -- because I never ventured out of these two cities -- are encouraged to be, and also trapped in, a state of perpetual adolescence. Perhaps its the consumer culture that is literally exploding from every corner because of new-to-China capitalism. Perhaps its the fact that its a Communist country that needs its people distracted enough to not challenge government. Perhaps it is the fact that the state encourages these mass good that spill onto the streets. Perhaps its the fact that most of urban China consists of young, single, trendy people with no siblings; so therefore very independent lives which cash to spend and not much family to spend it on. (In fact, imagine a generation of people who have no idea what it is to grow up with a brother or sister. They have at the most, two first cousins.) They are riding the wave that the Chinese government is providing them: fast jobs, flashy cities, deep pockets, and the joy of being an only child. Perhaps its all of the above!

And what do I mean by perpetual adolescence: fasination with cartoons (especially wearing cartoon themed clothes), ice cream nearing a national obsession, most grown women wearing only "cute" clothes (its as if the concept of 'sexy' has not yet arrived in China) and finally, a meekness and an inability to think for yourself.

To clarify, I don't mean that there are no independent, mature, wordly men and women in China. There are. But allow me to highlight some simple stories that might show you what I mean by stunted personalities. Of course, there is no doubt that this is a direct result of a communist regime where rules and rules are rules -- and they are not meant to be broken. We took a boat ride in Shanghai. By the time we reached the top of the boat, all the chairs were taken. Predictably, we asked the waiter if we could have another chair. He said no, only these chairs were available. I looked inside; a few rooms had spare chairs. Can we bring them out, I asked. No. Getting angry, I said I didn't want to stand through the boat ride and went off downstairs, with my friend Ankur, to find the captain. Finally the captain gave us 3 folding chairs from a stack of folding chairs downstairs. We came upstairs, sat on them. Another Chinese couple looked at us curiously, and inquired about getting chairs as well. The waiter said no, they listened. Finally, an hour later, when we were leaving the boat, the couple noticed the stack of folding chairs on the way out. The man went beserk. I hadn't really seen that. I thought about it -- in India, the enterprising waiter would have made a big production about getting a chair to earn a tip. Not in China. A rule is a rule is a rule. The same thing happened with us at the Shanghai Museum. Purchases were paid for on one card, but we wanted separate bags. "One bag per purchase," the cashier kept repeating till we explained to him that giving out an extra plastic bag really isn't a big deal. I won't bore you with more stories, but you get the drift.

At the same time, there is a growing concern about these nuclear families. Outside the MOCA (Shanghai Musuem of Contemporary Art), after a lazy lunch at the fabulous garden restaurant, Barbarossa, we came across tens of people in the garden sitting with posters with lists on them. They were in Chinese, so I couldn't make out what was going on. A few of the signs had pictures and for a fleeting second I wondered if this was a protest about missing people. But on second glance, the pictures were more facebook-y than anything, and I realised this was a marriage market! Reading the year of birth on the posters, it seems the parents of countless 29-33 year olds had given up on letting their children find a suitable mate and taken to the streets (or gardens!) There were even more people browsing through the posters, mostly older couples, ostensibly looking for a mate for their child. Coming from a country built on matrimonial ads and the rest, it wasn't new -- but the desperate form it took spoke volumes about what the undercurrent regarding the single child is.

Its not just the parents. Young Chinese are definitely thinking about this policy too. For better or for worse, Psingh and I were stuck in the middle of a 5 hour diatribe on the subject (in Chinese) on a local train from Beijing to Shanghai. Firstly, we were told only a chair car was available. 13 hours? Seemed a bit much, but mentally picturing a Shatabdi, we decided to wing it. I won't bother going into how we almost missed the train -- literally running on the platform with our bags as the trains signal went off.... getting into whatever bogey was in front of me... trudging through the local compartments that were teeming with people -- because me and my friends always ending up chasing trains, planes and buses. But when we did get on, it turned out to be 3rd class equivalent of China's train system... complete with seat sharing, smoking indoors and the stench of alcohol. And surprise! The lights were not switched off at night (how much was I missing the Indian Railways at night!) and people are "expected" to talk. And they did! After the initial staring at us, laughing at us, and half the compartment watching Ugly Betty with us on my laptop, they finally forgot us. Unfortunately, we were caught in the middle of a hectic conversation which, as much as we tried, we could not end. Betty, a young Chinese girl who spoke some English, translated a bit for me -- and yes, the single child policy was being hotly contested. Perhaps liberal living will ultimately give way to liberal thinking; it must surely be interlinked at some level. This -- without a free media.

By the way, Betty also asked Psingh and me if we were sisters and then told us that she couldn't tell us apart! Nice racial profiling here, Betts :)

But my own racial profiling aside, I have to say I was so impressed with Shanghai that I kinda want to live there for a bit! Its a newer New York in terms of infrastructure, and time will tell in terms of energy. Right now the World Expo is going on and the city is basking in the glory. Signs are everywhere, the road adorned with flowers, English hotlines have been set up for clueless tourists like me and restaurants are full. In comparison, Beijing is like a sleepy old town, the hotbed of monuments and government. I'd be inclined to make a Delhi-Bombay comparison, but I assure you, these cities a couple of many decades into the future!

That brings us into this whole planning debate, which can get messy. It also takes me back to my living room. Is the Chinese model better? But what about democracy? Can you really plan out entire sections of the city, neat and clean, and then allow people to settle there? Or must it always through extensive debate and protests and have each vote counted. I know that a lot of the older people I have met who have gone to China (even people I met at the airport) feel disillusioned at the fact that India is no where close to looking - and functioning - as developed as China. After visiting China, Kamal Nath's "India China in the same breath" statements seem hollow. That I've met people who have travelled to the interiors and said that development is taking place everywhere makes me wonder if China will ever move towards democracy the way it is moving a few centuries ahead. After all, Google, Facebook, Youtube and other staples of our online lives were missing, and I have heard about email accounts being closed overnight.

In the end, my test to myself is: would I rather be born a girl in India or one in China? Riding the wave of urbanization here, or riding it there.

I choose India -- as long as I can make it to China's banging cities every once in a while. As yes, fill those suitcases!

PS - I had a whole of adventures in China that I'll write about soon-ish! Keep coming back!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

On the Cards

Urban Indians are hooked to poker and are playing it everywhere—on trains, in business schools, on movie shoots and in farmhouses.

Delhi seems to suddenly close shop on weekends. Even the phone doesn’t ring often, and when it does, I am usually asked, “You don’t play poker, right? Good. Let’s do something else!”

Poker, the saying goes, takes a day to learn and a lifetime to master. Urban India seems to be spending its lifetime mastering this game. My friend Dhaval Mudgal, 25, lead singer of the popular Delhi band, Half Step Down, arranged to teach me the game at his small flat. “Some games are pretty serious and they wouldn’t want a stranger—or a non-player there,” he said.

His friends were settled around a small table, shuffling cards when I arrived. Guitars and mini bongo drums were in a corner in the bright orange living room. Coronas were being passed around, and IPL cricket was being played on TV. The day’s “buy in” was Rs 3,000 (players buy chips worth a certain amount and play with that; like traditional card games, you have to make your card sequences but poker has the added kick of betting on your hand—and your opponents’). Most of the players had come after work, still in their office clothes, and would go home just in time to wash up and sleep. A poker game lasts for at least four hours. Simrit Tiwana, a fashion designer seated at the table, recounted how she lost a great hand in a dramatic play amidst peals of laughter. So was she playing with only Rs 3,000 tonight? Laughing, she said, “That’s an eyewash. If the game is good, you can end up buying in four times, and then you’re gambling with Rs 12,000.”

In upwardly mobile India, this American game that involves playing with your mind—and money—has struck the perfect chord. That Indians love to gamble is no secret. We’ve been seeing it from the time Yudhishtir gambled away his wife and brothers in the Mahabharata. Today, poker is just exclusive enough and accessible enough to be the game of choice—on movie sets, in overnight trains, in farmhouses and in business schools. Chances are there will be a game at your neighbours’ tonight. And if you are a “shark”, a good player “who really understands the game,” you’ll have a social standing.

In Delhi, on any given night, some12 to 13 poker games are on. “Wherever poker has started, it has stayed,” says 29-year-old Pranav Bagai, an entrepreneur who has started Shark, a design label devoted exclusively to poker products. By Diwali, Shark will have poker tables, and chips, even customised tables, sets and other accessories. A poker table costs around Rs 25,000-Rs 30,000 and the chips Rs 5,000-Rs 10,000.

In Mumbai, poker tournaments are becoming popular. Since gambling is not technically allowed, organisers collect money on entry and then players play for prizes like laptops and flat-screen TVs. Weekend trips to Alibaug normally involve poker sets. People have started putting disclaimers in party invites saying that “this is not a poker party” to keep it light and breezy.

So what is the pull? Sakshi Salve, a 27-year-old scriptwriter who “was curious about the game since everyone was playing it”, says poker “tells you a lot about people”. “When you play with them, bluff, bet, win, lose… you see a person’s character. I know so much more about my friends now,” she says. Salve has been hosting a poker evening at her house every few weeks for the past couple of months. Bottles of wine are cooled for the occasion as are crib notes. Her poker gang consists of young, fashionable women, and in her Delhi house, Jimmy Choos, Blackberrys and poker chips go hand-in-hand. Salve feels it’s a good way to spend an evening without going out. “I only gamble as much as I’d spend on a night out,” she says, “so, not more than a few thousand rupees.”

For others, it’s a way to de-stress. Akshat Kretrapal, a student of the prestigious Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, arranges poker games for students. During orientation, about 50 students turned up at poker night to learn the game. Even the professors play with students, “a good way to relieve the stress from a hectic study schedule,” he tells us. Bollywood too is catching up. Producer Vicky Bahri started playing the game three years ago while on location for a movie. A crew member, who had returned from Hollywood, taught them the game. They played daily for 20 days and were hooked. “Now we play every Friday,” he says, “and people often ask me to call them for the next game. We always have new people at our table!” His group enjoys it so much that instead of flying down to Delhi for a trip, they chose to travel by train , making the overnight trip a poker night. He adds, “If you play it with the right spirit, it is a great way of catching up with friends and de-stressing.”

Delhi-based businessman Anirudh Khaitan likes the skill involved in the game. “It’s all math,” says the 32-year-old. “You calculate your chances of winning a hand and then you can decide if you should bet. Say, Rs 50,000 is lying on the table, and you have a chance to put in Rs 30,000—this is your decision: should you put in Rs 30,000 to win Rs 50,000? It would be made much easier if you only have to put in Rs 10,000 for the Rs 50,000 – because your return is higher,”says Anirudh whose farmhouse, many say, has seen legendary poker games. Some months ago, a game that began at midnight ended only at around 2 pm.

Riding on the wave, Powerplay, a Gurgaon-based sports company, is launching the IPRT (Indian Poker Ranking Tournament) on a large scale, starting in Goa and expanding to Sri Lanka and Nepal. This is a platform for Indian players to get ranked so they can play at an international level. And while it is arranging to form a poker team which will have payouts like trips to Vegas and Macau, it also mentions that it is not promoting gambling because poker is not a game of chance, but one of skill.

Players want poker to be removed from the gambling law because they believe luck is but one component. When talking about other players, phrases like “he really understands the game” crop up a lot. There are books, videos, journals and articles that discuss poker plays and what to do when faced with certain set of cards.

Former poker player and author James McManus says, “Sometimes…the game is much more than just a game.” In the 1800s, when poker started gaining momentum, it suited the mood of the American Wild West. McManus writes that poker was a game “whose rules favored a frontiersman’s initiative and cunning, an entrepreneur’s creative sense of risk, and a democratic openness to every class of player.” Poker was tied up with images of gunfire and manliness, but always, a game of winnings. McManus claims to be surprised by “the extent to which poker logic was deployed by the leaders of countries with nuclear weapons to help them figure out when and how to bluff, as well as which adversaries are or aren’t bluffing: from the war between the US and Japan, through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, to the standoffs today with Iran and North Korea.”

Young, urban Indians probably wouldn’t care about world politics, as they comfortably shuffle cards in their living rooms or on train coaches. Seems they are right after Mark Twain’s heart, who might have one of the best quotes about poker: “There are few things that are so unpardonably neglected in our country as poker…It is enough to make one ashamed of the species.”