Wednesday, 10 November 2010

On international laws

I just happened to read an article in the French daily "Lemonde" which suggested that the former American president George W Bush personally authorised CIA agents to use the "waterboarding" technique to interrogate prisoners in the wake of 9/11.

Interestingly, human rights experts have mentioned that Bush's admission would theoretically render him liable to criminal action. Even more interestingly, current president Barack Obama has declared that the agents who used the technique cannot be proceeded against for the use of waterboarding as they were only acting on orders.

Subsequent to World War II, all surviving German leaders and a host of others (notably doctors and military commanders) were put on trial for war crimes. There also was the Yamashita trial which established the principle of 'command responsibility'. The now legendary Nuremberg trials established long-held principles of international human rights laws. Under those laws, the likes of Rumsfeld and even George Bush ought to be put on trial.

Its an altogether different matter that they will not. And therein lies the whole irony. The question needs to be asked: does international law count for anything, when the nations that created those laws themselves do not observe them? After all, there was not even a serious investigation into war crimes by allied forces or statesmen. Not a single French officer to my knowledge (subject to correction) was ever put on trial for war crimes in Algeria more than a decade after 1945, by which time the principles of the Nuremberg Trials had long been enshrined.

Or, to pose a slightly more tricky question, do international laws have any sanctity? Let's face it: wartime atrocities and victor's justice are as old as civilisation itself. Much as we may want to wish them off or put a ban on them under inernational laws, the unfortunate reality is that they are inevitable. Under the circumstances, its hard not to ask the question, why have them at all? If the law that applies to Robert Mugabe does not equally apply to Mr. Bush, why on earth are we even bothering to keep up the pretence that exists a framework for administration of justice internationally?

Do not get me wrong, I am not opposed to having a code of conduct or a set of international laws to regulate the protection of human rights. In fact I would be the first to support the existence thereof. What I definitely do not agree with, is applying different yardsticks for different people. If the laws are not going to be applied uniformly, the very purpose of creating them is defeated. And so my contention is, either have international laws in place and enforce them uniformly or just give up the farce. For sure, there can be no middle path on this matter.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Australia in Decline

On 5th December 2006, England walked out to bat at Adelaide one wicket down, 97 ahead of their hosts in the third innings of the test. With just 90 overs left to be bowled, the second test was headed for a predictable tame draw.

But something extraordinary happened over the next few hours. In the face of a magic spell by Shane Warne, England froze in panic and spectacularly imploded. By the end of the day, Australia had pulled of a sensational heist and gone up 2-0 en route a historic Ashes whitewash. The champions had shown just why they had dominated the game so completely for so long.

The end of the series saw the departures of Shane Warne and Glen McGrath- two legendary bowlers, more responsible than anyone else for Australia's climb to such dizzying heights. With them went Justin Langer. Within the next two years Adam Gilchrist, Damien Martyn, Matthew Hayden, Stuart MacGill and Brad Hogg were gone, soon followed by Brett Lee. As if in a flash, a golden generation had vanished.

There was nothing unexpected in it. Any discerning person could see that the Australian team of early/mid 2000s vintage was made up by men who were either already around a generation ago or were in contention back then- in other words, the young men who had turned up since the late 90s were simply not as good as their seniors. I had myself written a piece on this topic a couple of years ago (you can find it in the blog titled 'Inbox' on Cricinfo, the article appeared in August 2008), when Australia were still comfortable seated on top with no apparent signs of decline.

But the cracks, even then, were already apparent. Even the most cock eyed supporter would agree that the Australians were incredibly lucky with the umpiring in the second test at Sydney in January 2008, where they only just managed to get the better of the Indians (ten more minutes, and it would have been a draw). In the game that followed, the Indians, armed with a very inexperienced attack smashed the Kangaroos in Perth- the Australian equivalent of 80s Barbados. Australia losing at Perth to a sub-continental side was unthinkable up until then. The hosts eventually took the series 2-1, but it was far from being the walkover that nearly every series had been over the last decade or so.

If the cracks were concealed then, they were torn wide open over the next couple of years. Since that 2007-08 series against India, the only series Australia won against a quality opponent was against South Africa in early 2009. There have been disappointments on either side of that win: a 0-2 reverse against India in 2008-09 in a series where Australia seldom threatened to win and an even more galling 1-2 defeat at home to South Africa- the first series defeat at home since the all conquering West Indians beat them back in the early 90s. An Ashes defeat to a strictly average England side in 2009 and a 0-2 loss earlier this week in a series where Australia won both tosses, got the best of the conditions and faced an attack that is at best a touch above average, are indicators of a side in deep decline.

What has been commendable is the manner in which Australia continue to approach their game. Despite the setbacks and the loss of several legends, the Australians still look to give their best. The ruthlessness with which they have demolished weaker opponents speak of a side that may no longer be the undisputed champion, but one that is not relinquishing that crown so easily all the same. Having seen the once great West Indies side go into freefall, its a relief to see the tenacity with which the Australians continue playing their cricket.

Nevertheless, the bigger concern they face now is not the decline- that has long since been accepted and realised- but the very real danger that they might slip further. The current Australian side has memories of two series defeats to India, two Ashes losses in four years, a home series defeat against the Proteas and a test loss to a brittle Pakistani side. While Australia have ruthlessly bludgeoned weaker sides into submission, a less than convincing record against stronger sides could well cause the shadow of self-doubt to creep in everytime there is a 50-50 situation. In Ponting they have a man who played right through the golden era and as such, would find it easier to overcome self-doubt when confronted by a crisis, but would a successor who will have not such golden memories be able to do so?

That is going to be the greatest challenge that Australian cricket might have to confront over the coming years.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A game of glorious uncertainties

Today is a day that ought to be remembered for a long long time to come. After a heartstopping finish, the game emerged the unexpected but surprise winner. Today, test cricket demonstrated just why it is regarded as a game of 'glorious' uncertainties. Not for the first time, it silenced those who talk of test cricket being boring and upholding the virtues of T20.

Fittingly perhaps, the hero of the day was a man who's regarded a misfit in the 'fast-food' versions of the game. The man with the unlikely initials of V.V.S, Laxman showed just why he is referred to as 'Very Very Special'. Today's innings was not very very special, it transcended the special- its one of those innings that deserve to be at the highest pinnacle all by themselves.

Sounds like journalistic hyperbole, doesn't it? But look at the situation: at 124-8, India need 92 runs on a deteriorating wicket on which the bounce is uneven. An injured No.10 walks out to join a man whose back is paining so badly that he has missed most of the action in the game and is unable to run. Two injured men with No.11 in tow needing to squeeze out 92 runs on a tough wicket against a pretty decent attack: not the kind of situation where one would expect miracles. The game was Australia's for the taking. India were dead and buried.

But then, this was India v Australia. Anyone who has followed these two teams facing each other over the last decade or so would tell you that when they're at it, its never over till its over.

And so it was the case today. Laxman and Sharma- two tall men- stood tall as others around them fell. Bit by bit, blow by blow, they prised out the Australian stranglehold, until Sharma fell towards the fag end. In came Ojha- a young man of 24 with all the pressure in the world on his shoulders. The pressure nearly finished him off with India a blow away from victory, as the umpire turned down a plumb leg before appeal. Ojha strode out of his crease and another young man, all of 19, saw his chance of becoming a hero. The throw missed by inches and ran into the gap for a heart-breaking four. Two balls later, a wayward delivery clipped Ojha's pad and ran down the leg side, beating the keeper. Amidst a defeaning roar from a crowd that made up in noise what it lacked in numbers, the last wicket pair scrambled the last runs needed for victory.

India had won! Australia, the underdogs coming into the series, but who had pushed the home side as hard as humanly possible had been denied by fate and a great man whose indomitable will overcame an unresponsive body.

That is the stuff of legend. This game itself was the stuff of legend. Written off as a dull draw after day three, it roared back to life after a sensational performance by the Indian bowlers on day four and an even more inspired one by their Australian counterparts. Ultimately, no quarter was given, none was asked... save one heroically sporting gesture by the Australian captain: allowing Laxman a runner when he was well within his rights to deny him one.

And so the spirit of the game shone bright in ways more than one. Cricket showed just why it is the most unique game in the planet. What other game would possibly have produced such heroism, such drama? What other game would have allowed five days of hard fighting to come down to a head and yet have the opponents shake hands and walk off as friends? What game indeed!

Cricket was the winner.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The day after

Its the morning of 1st October 2010. About sixteen hours have passed since the Allahabad High Court passed its judgement on the Babri Masjid issue. Nothing extraordinary has happened in the sixteen hours or so between then and now.

First the judgement: in the opinion of this writer, its one of the most intelligent judgements in perhaps the entire history of the Indian judiciary. Dividing the disputed land into three equal halves between the three parties to the litigation and recognising the land on which the masjid once stood as the birthplace of Shri Ram was a stroke of genius, given the prevailing sentiment here. Most Hindus were convinced that the decision would go in favour of the Waqf Board. In one swoop, Hindu sentiment has been appeased while permitting the Sunni Waqf Board to stake claim to a third of the land in question. Its hard to think of too many historic parellels to such a successful effort at locating the mid-path.

Secondly, its the public reaction that deserves praise. Nothing untoward has happened in the hours since then. Not a shot has been fired, not a single glass shattered, not a single vehicle set afire and far more importantly, not a single person has been physically hurt. That a historic judgement like this which everyone knew had the potential to set the country ablaze, has just passed with no incident whatsoever is perhaps a sign of how far India has moved since those insane days of '92, when hundreds were killed and several hundred terribly injured and thousands left with psychological scars from the mind numbing violence inflicted by mad, unthinking men on people who were totally unconnected with the events at Ayodhya save the fact that they belonged to one of the two communities involved.

Back then in 1992, India has only just opened its economy. Growth was slow, jobs were hard to come by and India was only just emerging out of the shadows of decades of stagnation and backwardness. Is it unreasonable to argue that the India of 2010 provides far better employment opportunities to its youth? Very possibly today's youth have far better avenues for releasing their energies as compared to their predecessors of '92. It could also be possible that after the mindless bloodbath of '92, Indians have become wiser. Perhaps that violence has created an abhorrence for further bloodshed, perhaps the people of India have not the stomach for a second reckoning.

Whatever the reason, the country has (so far) greeted the decision with equinanimity. Everywhere, the general call is for peace. Hopefully India has finally come to the point where food, jobs and infrastructure have come to assume for greater importance for its citizens that the construction of a temple or a mosque. We will soon know whether this writer is rejoicing prematurely or whether India has truly matured as a country.

If all goes well, we the people of India can pat ourselves on our backs for the splendid progress we have made in the last 18 years. We have taken a decisive step towards building the India of tomorrow, towards building a nation much better than the one in which we grew up, a country that provides a far greater life to our children than the one it provided us. God willing, we can finally say that we have exorcised the ghosts of '92.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

All eyes on Ayodhya

6th December 1992 is a day still fresh in memory. I was an eleven year old back then, studying in seventh standard. Sometime late in the morning of that day, the mother of one of my classmates arrived calling for him (possibly her, I no longer recollect). Imagine my surprise when the teacher assented to it without a murmur. I didn't think much about it, notwithstanding the fact that a short while later, another student's mother turned up and I saw the same thing repeat itself all over again.

It then turned into a flood, as someone's mother started turning up every minute or two to take her son or daughter home, until about an hour later, my brother arrived to pick me up. I learnt that my mother too had turned up and my brother (who was in ninth standard then) and I were to go home with her. I had no idea what was happening. All I knew was that I'd got to leave school early and as a passionate school-hating eleven year old, that was itself reason to rejoice.

Later that day, I learnt that a mosque in Ayodhya had been demolished and that riots had broken out as a result. For the next few days, wild mobs ran riot in Bombay (as my city was called in those days), followed by a few days of calm before it started all over again sometime a month later. Kalina, where I used to live in those days, was completely untouched by the violence and so I never got to see first hand what happened.

I was too young to understand the connection between the the demolition of a mosque somewhere over a thousand kilometres away and riots in my city. All that an eleven year old could understand back then was that he didn't have to go to that hated place called school for a few days. I could have never imagined that the events of those few extraordinary weeks would dramatically transform India's political landscape, that it would lead to a communal polarisation the effects of which are felt to this day.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then a fringe right-wing party little known outside the Hindi speaking heartland catapulted itself into the political centrestage as the protector of 'Hinduism and Hindu values. In just over half a decade post-demolition, the BJP came to power at the centre, going on to become the first ever non-Congress government since independence to survive a full term. Such was the political mileage the BJP drew from that event that they remain to this day the main opposition to the Congress. The events at Ayodhya that day paved way for the political process that resulted in the bipolarisation of Indian politics. To this day, every government at the centre is formed either by the Congress or the BJP in coalition with regional players.

But something else too changed: from that point on began a race for one upmanship between Hindus and Muslims in India, with the result that one finds mosques with loudspeakers all over the place and celebration of Hindu festivals are becoming more visible and noisier every year. We have self-proclaimed guardians of social morals out to rough up people under any possible pretext, which could mean something as trivial as youngsters going into pubs.

And there's the spectre of terrorism. India has been rocked by countless terrorist attacks since then, not least the horrors of 26/11, quite apart from countless bomb blasts in various cities across the countries. There are supposed to be terrorist training centres in Karnataka. Madrasas in U.P are suspected to be centres of radicalistion (perhaps unfairly so). Extreme right wing organisations like VHP and Bajrang Dal have become more and more prominent and bolder. There's also the fact that the RSS- often accused of being an organisation of Hindu fanatics that spews hatred against muslims (once again, possibly an inaccurate image)- is attracting greater numbers, especially among the youth.

All of which is a fallout of the chain of events triggered by that demolition on 6th December 1992.

That is why I and millions of other Indians like me are worried. On the 24th of September- this Friday, the Allahabad high court is going to pronounce its final decision on the question of ownership of the piece of land where the masjid once stood. Irrespective of the high court's decision, there is going to be a side that will be disgruntled. The gentlemen adjudicating the case are in the thankless "damned if you do, damned if you don't position". The rest of the country sits in fear of the fallout.

What happens thereafter will tell us where India stands today. Is the India of 2010 a vibrant young country looking to the future or are we still a country where the people have little to do by way of constructive work and as such have the time for needless and meaningless destruction? Are we a nation where the people are more concerned about working hard to improve our lot and building a great country for our future generations or are we an intolerant, narrow-minded and bigoted people with no tolerance for the beliefs of the others?

The answers will be out by the end of this week. All we can do now is to pray silently and hope for the best. Until then, it's all eyes on Ayodhya.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Great player poor captain

Sachin Tendulkar has got to be one of the most universally admired sportsmen in the cricketing world. Surely, no man has smashed so many records, pummeled so many bowlers across so many generations even as he won so many hearts. Despite attaining heights lesser mortals would not even dream of and achieving more than anyone has ever done before and perhaps anyone ever will, Tendulkar has remained firmly grounded, a far cry from many other cricketers whose achievements could be described on the backside of a dinner plate and yet strut about with the ego befitting an emperor.

And yet despite his collosal achievements and inspiring presence, leadership is an art Sachin Tendulkar has never mastered. Just today I was reading an article where Ravi Shastri has mentioned that even the presence of the great Tendulkar has not been sufficient to inspire Mumbai Indians.

Well, I'm a huge admirer of the man. Being from Mumbai, I guess I'm bound to be. And yet, its hard not to feel that far from being a helpless captain unable to solve a problem haunting his team, Sachin Tendulkar is himself the problem. Just the other day, Mumbai Indians- the team led by him- lost their nerve at the fag end of a game they had under complete control and managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

I did not witness the game, but the Cricinfo article took me back thirteen years in time. It was 13th February 1997. India needed 252 off 40 overs to win the finals of the Standard Bank Cup at Durban. At 198-3 after 30 overs, the target was a mere 54 runs off 60 balls with seven wickets in hand- an easy target even allowing for a strong opposition attack. And yet, against the run of play, India spectacularly imploded, losing by a mere 15 runs.

Something eerily similar happened at the Arnos Vale Ground at St. Vincent on 30th April 1997. At 201-3, India needed 49 runs at under a run a ball with seven wickets in hand- another breeze to victory, or so it should have been. Instead a flurry of mindless shots ensued and India were blown out for just 231. The main damager? The little remembered Ottis Gibson with three wickets at the fag end (not to mention a couple of run outs).

Fast forward a dozen years to 14th May 2009. Mumbai Indians needed 4 off 6 balls with three wickets in hand to beat Rajasthan Royals. They got bowled out, adding a solitary run to their total. A victory that had been a mere formality had turned into a ludicrous defeat- a tendency the Mumbai Indians had shown time and again in the first IPL season in 2008 where they actually played a lot better than statistics might suggest.

I'm sure you're wondering what's the connection between the three. Is there anything in common between those three games played thirteen years apart? There is. Sachin Tendulkar was the captain in all those games, as he was earlier this week when Mumbai Indians lost their nerve and lost a game that was all but won, as he was in IPL 2008.

It is reasonable to argue that cricketers at that level should be thinking for themselves and as such, should be able to hold their nerves. Fair point. Having never been in the dressing room and having never even played the game at anything vaguely resembling a serious level I of all critics am least qualified to comment. Nevertheless, the question needs to be asked: why does every team the great man has ever led show a tendency to implode when confronted with victory?

I admire Sachin Tendulkar as a batsman. For the sheer quality of his batting and the scarcely believable period over which he has sustained that quality, he is without peer. Across three generations, ten cricket playing countries and in all possible betting conditions, he has scored handsomely. Bradman may have his takers, but going beyond just the average, its worth pointing out that he scored all his runs in just two countries in an age when pitches were generally dead, when one had the luxury of time due to the combination of timeless tests (in Australia) and 120 overs a day (as against 90 a day these days), quite apart from unimaginative field placements, meant that scoring opportunities were far greater.

But great individual players do not necessarily make great leaders. Perhaps every man is bound to have his shortcomings. While Tendulkar's mastery and understanding of the game is unparelled in all the annals of the game, the cricketing Gods held back just a little bit in terms of his leadership.

That perhaps is the master's tragedy.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Analysing 2000s cinema

I recently made an analysis of Indian society in the 1990s using cinema as a reflection of society. The objective of this article is to try and gain similar insights into Indian society in the 2000s using cinema as a reflection of social trends. Before going further, it would be worth mentioning that this analysis is restricted to Hindi cinema. Possibly an analysis of regional cinema along the same lines would throw up similar insights for individual regions within the country.

The 2000s was a dramatic decade that saw India (or at least, urban India) undergo an extraordinary socio-economic transformation. A whole decade post '91, the effects of the liberalising forces unleashed in that historic year started being felt. In those ten years, India underwent a transformation wider and more far reaching than perhaps any that it had experienced in living memory. Inevitably, those changes were reflected in the cinema of that period that was markedly different in terms of content as well as treatment of the subject matter.

The middle-class at the heart of the economic transformation became the primary audience for the movies made. Not surprisingly, the protagonists became ordinary, middle class men. Whereas the protagonist in 80s or 90s Bollywood was usually a heroic figure and a man in economically reduced circumstances, he was now either middle class or rich. Ranbir Kapoor- one of the rising stars of Hindi cinema today- is the very embodiment of the contemporary middle class Indian. The character of Raj in Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) as well as that of Siddharth in Wake Up Sid (2009) was of middle class Indians in their early to late twenties- contrast that with the impoverished characters of that Hritik Roshan played in his first few movies at the beginning of the decade, one gets a picture of the manner in which protagonists evolved as the 200s progressed.

Another trend that became increasingly visible as the decade progresses was the change in outlook towards the world. Whereas in the 90s, it was fashionable to blame politicians, administrators, policemen, capitalists and just about anyone in a position of power (not least the system) for any problem, more and more filmmakers started acknowledging the fact that Indian society had to take responsibility for its problems. And so Ajay Devgan, the quintessential rebellious and angry young man wronged by the system countless times in the 90s played SP Amit Kumar, an honest cop struggling against the system in Gangajal (2003) who in the climax scene reminds the people of his village that the policeman is but one among them and not an outsider.

The same theme was explored in the now legendary blockbuster movie Rang de Basanti (2006), where a bunch of young men with no pride in their country and little commitment to it are awakened from their blissful slumber when a dear friend dies in an air crash caused by bureaucratic negligence. In a radio address Karan Singhania (Siddharth) reminds his audience that the hated politician is a product of the very same society to which we belong and that his shortcomings are but a reflection of the shortcomings of our society. He even goes a step further and points out that the only way to change things is to enter the system and change it from inside.

In fact changing the hated 'system' of 90s vintage by being a part of it is a recurring theme in 2000s cinema. Thus the protagonist Anuradha Sehgal in Satta (2003), who finds herself unexpectedly thrust into the bad mad world of politics but rises above the herd to become numero uno in her party, reminds her countrymen and women that even ordinary people can make a change if they try. Mani Ratnam explored the same theme a year later in Yuva (2004), which was the story of three young men over the short period of a few months. Michael Mukherjee (Ajay Devgan) is a young activist determined to get into politics and change the system, up against Lallan Singh (Abhishek Bachchan), a young man with aspiration of money and power who'll stop at nothing to realise his dreams.

A related theme that was recurrent in 2000s cinema was the need for the youth to step up and contribute to society. Thus in Yuva, Arjun (Vivek Oberoi) was the very image of an educated 20 something Indian in the 90s and 2000s, who dreams of going and settling in the USA where he would enjoy a far better quality of life. Arjun quite unexpectedly falls under the influence of Michael and ends up becoming one of the comrades in Michael's crusade to clean up society. The same theme recurs in Rang de Basanti where Karan Singhania (Siddharth, who also appeared in Yuva), who too plans to turn back on India and settle in the USA forever, turns patriotic and ends up emulating the great Bhagat Singh.

Ashutosh Gowariker's Swades (2004) took up the same theme, albeit for a character already settled abroad. The protagonist Mohan Bhargav (Shah Rukh Khan), who is working for the NASA comes to India on a visit which takes him to a small village. Mohan's first ever exposure to life in rural India causes a metamorphosis in his thinking, prompting him to eventually quit his job at the NASA and return to his country which, he realises, badly needs educated young men to contribute.

Another unexpected trend that kicked off in the early noughties and continued right through to the end of the decade a flurry of period movies as bollywood turned back the clock with the vengeance- unusual in an industry seldom known to dish out period movies.

Kicking off the trend was Kamal Hassan's Hey Ram (2000), a movie that traces the gravitation of the protagonist Saket Ram (Kamal Hassan) towards fundamentalism in the aftermath of the violence attendant to partition. Saket Ram, like other right-wing Hindu fanatics in the late 40s holds Mahatma Gandhi responsible for being soft on the Muslims and sets out to kill the old man before an unexpected meeting with an old acquaintance sets off a series of events that lead him to realise that violence only destroys innocents, irrespective of their religious persuasion. The year 2002 saw the release of no less than 3 movies on Bhagat Singh, all of which were more masala movies than artistic depictions of historical facts.

The year 2005 saw the release of two period movies, one based on the character of Mangal Pandey and the events leading to the great uprising of 1857 and the other based on the life of Subhas Chandra Bose. Of all period movies bollywood has dished out, the later has to be one of the most factually accurate ones. Rang de Basanti, though not a period movie, evoked historical characters to draw parallels between the tyranny of British rulers and that of India's corrupt politicians. Another blockbuster movie from the decade was Jodha Akbar (2008), based on the love story of mughal emperor Akbar and his Hindu wife Jodha Bai. This was in fact Ashutosh Gowariker's second period movie after another blockbuster movie (albeit a work of fiction) Lagaan (2001), which was based on an unusual opportunity presented by the British rulers to the peasants of a province to escape their oppressive taxes for three years.

There were, apart from the above-mentioned ones, quite a few more period movies in the 2000s. Clearly, it seems, there was a renewed interest in rediscovering the past. For a nation that was hitherto only too keen to forget the past up until the late 90s, the new found pride in being Indian perhaps created a greater desire to know the past, to rediscover it. (As I write, Ashutosh Gowariker is making yet another period movie, this one based on the Chittagong uprising of 1930).

While Bollywood increasingly obsessed with the past, there was an even greater obsession with contemporary themes. One recurring theme in 2000s cinema, especially towards the second half of the decade, was terrorism. As terror attacks on India grew in frequency, the manner in which the subject was treated also evolved.

The protagonist Raja (Bobby Deol) in Badal (2000) becomes a terrorist after his father was murdered by a corrupt policeman. Similarly, Amaan in Fiza (2000) and Altaf in Mission Kashmir (2001)- two movies released just a few months apart featuring the same actor, Hritik Roshan, as a terrorist- are young men driven to a life of terrorism by circumstances. Note the sympathetic portrayal of young terrorists at a time when terrorism was but a word in India and happened only in Border States like Kashmir.

By the middle of the decade, the situation had changed completely as city after Indian city was confronted by the ugly spectre of terrorist attacks. Rehan (Aamir Khan) in Fanaa (2006) is an unabashed terrorist, who has no qualms about deceiving and impregnating a blind girl. Despite rediscovering her several years later with his little son, Rehan remains attached to his sinister cause. A similar theme is noticeable in Kurbaan (2009), where the protagonist Ehsaan (Saif Ali Khan) unabashedly deceives a young lady into marrying him purely with the intention of using her as a means to get an entry into the USA.

Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday (2008) presented a very different perspective on the subject (those who haven’t seen the movie: please skip this para as there’s a spoiler here), showing an unnamed common man taking on and destroying terrorists in retaliation of their dastardly acts. Another movie, released around the same time titled Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008) showed the damage terrorism does to the innocents affected by it. Veteran actor Nasseruddin Shah, who played the common man in A Wednesday himself had made his directorial debut a year earlier in Yun Hota toh Kya Hota (2007), a movie featuring unconnected protagonists brought together by destiny on the ill-fated American Airways flight on 9/11.

Another contemporary trend in Indian society was the rise of small town India. Not surprisingly, the same was reflected in the appearance of movies set in provincial India. Suddenly, an industry that seemed too obsessed with Swiss locales to show India (except Bombay and Delhi) started exploring life in the Hindi-speaking heartland. Interestingly, most of those movies were based on politics. Haasil (2003), Gangajal (2003) and Apharan (2005) were all movies based either on politics or political figures. Omkara (2006) too featured characters involved in political machinations. Sehar (2005) is a thriller drama showing the conflict between the police and organized crime (with the inevitable political nexus involved) in 90s Lucknow. Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) too was set in a provincial city.

One last contemporary theme that merits attention was the treatment of sexuality. Sex has traditionally been a taboo topic in India and Indian cinema has traditionally been rather prudish on the subject. In cinematic tradition, true women are supposed to be self-sacrificing and absolutely selfless, concerned only about the larger good of the family. Pre-marital sex was immoral and unacceptable. There also was the fact that sexuality was supposed to be conventional; homosexuality or lesbianism was unthinkable.

All that changed as the decade progressed. And so Anuradha Sehgal in Satta (2003) has a physical relationship with her mentor- unthinkable for a female protagonist in the old century. Vidya in Paa (2009) is a woman who not only has a child out of wedlock, but also goes on to live a perfectly normal life as an unmarried mother- once again, something unthinkable for a woman in 20th century India. Salaam Namaste (2005) features a young couple having a live-in relationship. Nishabd (2007) explores the midlife crisis of a 60 year old man who falls in love with a girl of 17. Mixed Doubles (2006) features two urban couples that swap partners just to ‘spice up’ life. Looking at the number of unconventional situations explored, it’s evident that sexuality was no longer such a taboo topic. What is even more remarkable however, is the fact that women are increasingly portrayed as sexually liberated beings with a mind and desires of their own.

But sexual liberation was not just restricted to women. The 2000s saw homosexuality being increasingly acknowledged and accepted as an undeniable aspect of reality. Whereas homosexual men were always portrayed as effeminate and feeble in the old century, they suddenly became normal men. The eponymous protagonist in My Brother Nikhil (2005) is a closet homosexual who is ostracised when it is discovered that he is HIV positive, but finally gains acceptance from society. Dostana (2008) features a gay couple (admittedly men who pretend to be gay) as its protagonists. Fashion (2008) featured a fashion designer who was gay. None of the above-mentioned characters were shown even remotely as abnormal, effeminate or laughable as had been the case as recently as the late 90s (note the effeminate character in the 1998 blockbuster Ghulam).

And so from the point of view of Hindi cinema, the 2000s has to be remembered as the decade when politics, history, introspection, sexual liberation, a true sense of patriotism and a greater sense of society’s responsibilities for its own problems came to occupy a prominent place in the collective consciousness. To be sure, these are just a few of the undercurrents evident in cinema of the period. Social historians would doubtless throw up many more observations than this writer has managed.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Tryst with Destiny

As I write, there remain all of 30 minutes to go before the stroke of midnight takes the date to 15th August- a day that is special for every Indian who has ever been to school. At the stroke of midnight this day 63 years ago, India finally achieved the independence that generations of Indians dreamt of, for which thousands sacrificed their lives and millions of common men and women underwent untold difficulties and sufferings.

Three and sixty years after Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India made that epic speech it is time for India to sit and ask itself the question: have we kept our tryst with destiny?

The facts are staggering. The average life expectancy in India is 68 years today against 31.8 at the time of independence. The colonised, impoverished land of 1947 is today the fourth biggest economy in the world (in terms of purchasing power parity) and the second fastest growing out of the major world economies. India's 250-300 strong middle class is expected to go up to 600 million or so in two more decades. Indeed, we can go on producing any number of statistics to illustrate the extraordinary progress India has made in the last six decades, especially in the years post `91.

Now for a reality check: After three and sixty years of independence, India ranks 134/ 182 on the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index. 44% of the children under five are malnutritioned and nearly 7% of the children born do not live beyond the age of 5. 72% of the population does not have access to improved sanitation facilities and about 11% of the population (which amounts to over 100 million people- more than the population of France, Spain and Italy combined) does not have access to improved water sources- figures far worse than those of Algeria.

While people living in the major cities may celebrate India's rise and our advance towards 'superpower' status, there still are a horde of statistics that shows just how far we still need to go before our 'superpower' dreams become a reality. No country can ever became a superpower with nearly half its population crushed by poverty, when thousands of farmers are committing suicide due to indebtedness. A country where millions of people are so badly off that nearly a third of its territory falls under the scope of operations of militant communists can never claim to be a major power. A country where half the population of its financial capital lives in slums has serious challenges to surmount.

Its true that steady, if slow, progress is being made in remedying these problems and that millions of people are getting the opportunity to improve their lot. Nevertheless, quicker progres is needed. Schemes like NREGS, PURA and housing development programmes need to be implemented in all honesty over several years before we can give our impoverished millions their freedom.

Let's face it: political independence and democracy means nothing if they cannot guarantee two basic meals and the most basic dignity every human being is entitled to. Every country's true status is reflected by the condition of the people at the bottom end of the pyramid. As of today, that lower end comprises over half the population.

Yes, we are a young, vibrant and rising nation. Ours is a dynamic economy, a society undergoing a profound socio-economic transformation. But our cities are dirty, our roads are pathetic, none of our cities can provide round the clock water or electricity supply to its citizens. Baring a handful of them, none of our cities have anything vaguely resembling a public transport (and I'm not even talking about the countless problems rural Indians face).

We may take pride in our improving pay packages, we still see hundreds of thousands of people struggling to find a roof to live under. We may take pride in our cars, but still find small children begging at the signals. We may have state of the art malls, but look through the windows and you're likely to see thousands below living in slums.

Only if we confront and accept that harsh truth and do something about it, will we manage to keep that tryst with destiny. If on the other hand, we continue to look the other way as we have for six decades now, the tryst with destiny will remain nothing but pure words.

Which way we go is entirely our choice . Our destiny is in our own hands

Monday, 9 August 2010

Time to move on

First and foremost, my heartiest congratulations to India for winning the third test at Colombo to level the series 1-1. Sri Lanka hasn't been the happiest hunting ground for India (or any other team for that matter) in recent years. The last two visits (in 2001 and 2008) ended in 1-2 reversals. In fact Dhoni's men became the first Indian side to come back from a tour of Sri Lanka without losing since 1997.

And yet, that says only part of the story. Here was a side that missed Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh and Sreesanth- three out of the four first choice bowlers. In their stead was the most inexperienced bowling attack India fielded in a generation, manned by the 21-year old Ishant Sharma and the 20-year old Abhimanyu Mithun and an even more inexperienced young spinner whose CV read a mere 4 test matches coming into the series. Another key component of the team- Gautam Gambhir- missed the last two tests. Add to it all the fact that Dhoni lost all three tosses.

Under the circumstances, it was a collosal achievement to come back from behind and change 250 plus on a deteriorating fifth day wicket. India showed that limitations notwithstanding, they have the character needed for a side that claims to be No.1.

Nevertheless, one feels that its time India started looking towards the future. Harsh or even cruel as it may sound, its time to have a younger batsman replace Rahul Dravid.

Don't get me wrong, I am a huge admirer of the man. In fact I have always admired him more than Sachin Tendulkar (and I'm from Mumbai, mind you). I would be the first to point out his monumental contribution to Indian cricket: that partnership with Laxman at Calcutta in 2001, the centuries in England the following year, that epic performance at Adelaide in 2003...the list could go on. Those were the victories that saw India making the transition from an underperforming, directionless side to a contender for the top slot and Dravid, more than any other Indian batsman, was responsible for that.

But that, as it happens, is the past. The unfortunate truth is that Dravid is no longer the force he once was and at 37, he is not going to help the future by being around. He and Tendulkar are both in their late 30s. Add to that VVS Laxman who will be 36 later this year. Given that aging middle order, its imperative that India start preparing for life after them and the only way that can ever happen is by ensuring that as and when they retire, there are youngsters ready to take up their positions- which naturally means that India needs to blood younger players and test them in different conditions as soon as possible. The last thing India would want is to find themselves in an Australia like situation with an avalanche of retirements and a bunch of youngsters not yet ready for the highest level thrust into the role.

With youngsters like Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli banging hard on the selector's doors on the one hand and an old generation of stalwarts looking closer to the end than the beginning on the other, its time for the selectors to put aside sentiment and take some harsh decisions. Given their current form, its impossible to make a case for dropping Tendulkar and Laxman (in any case, its hard to imagine any selector having the courage to drop Tendulkar). Given that, Dravid is, for the better or the worse, the only available option.

Yes it sounds ruthless, heartless even. But it is saying too much to contend that the team should take precedence over the individual? Should sentiment be allowed to come in the way of the team's progress? Is sentiment any justification to deny a rising generation an opportunity to step in and get themselves ready to shoulder the future?

These are the questions that Indian cricket needs to ask itself. In the answer lies the future of Indian cricket.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Why I don't support the naxals

For most educated urban Indians, opposition to the naxals is a no-brainer. The naxals are supposed to be the biggest menace confronting India. It is the duty of every well-intended, patriotic Indian to oppose them tooth and nail, isn't it?

Or is it?

I am perhaps rather more socialist than most Indians and yet I would myself be the first to oppose the Naxalites/ Maoists. That is not to say that I hate them or see them as an evil force. On the contrary, I wholeheartedly support the cauzse they stand for. Nevertheless, I refuse to support them simply because I am sure that the means they have taken adopted will never get them where they intend to reach. While I readily understand and appreciate the need to make noise to be heard, I do not see how violence is ever going to help one achieve the desired ends. History is replete with instances where violence turned into a bloody boomerang that shed the blood of those who threw it.

I know that most people believe violence to be a quicker route to achieve an end- that's what I too believed when I was much younger. It is indeed true that an objective can be easily achieved at gunpoint. But pray, what next? Can a person who has already taken up the sword to achieve his ends then forsake it? Would his followers allow or accept it? What's the guarantee that a power-hungry bunch may not take up that very sword to overthrow he who has renounced it and install a dictatorship far worse than the regime they originally set out to overthrow? Just look at the condition of nearly every former European colony and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Which brings us to the inevitable question: what about India?

Having been to a backward village and seen first hand how bad things are, I can attest to the massive problems rural India faces (and we're talking about 65% or so of the population- about 700 million people). I am painfully aware of the caste system and how evil and vicious it is, how the upper castes mercilessly and ruthlessly exploit and oppress the backward classes and how they have selfishly barred the lower castes from education for centuries, ensuring that they remain backward and servile (to avoid any misunderstanding, met me clarify that I am a brahmin myself). It is equally true that the backward castes remain to this day just that, in economic terms that is. Despite thousands of success stories, there are millions for whom sixty-three years of independence has done little, if at all.

But where lies the solution? To me, the answer to both questions lies in education. Education will empower the backward people to improve their economic conditions and as history had always shown, economic prosperity is bound to eventually bring with it better social acceptance.

Which is why I believe that ideas like the Right to Education, PURA and the use of NREGS for creation of infrastructural assets in rural areas is a huge step in the right direction. For the better or the worse, that is the only way ahead. While the naxals have done a tremendous job of bringing the problems of the backward classes and the tribals into the national consciousness, they will surely realise that the final solution lies not in guns but in building schools, bridges, roads, sanitation facilities and providing electricity and water for the millions who are still denied access to these very necessities that we urban middle class Indians take for granted.

In this relentless war between the Government and the Naxals, victory shall go to the side that dares to restrain itself, to bury its ego, its vested interests and realise neither side can succeed without the help of the other, that the conflict between the two is a self-defeating one that could result in the needless annhilation of thousands or, God forbid, millions of innocents.

Can the two Indias realise that they need each other to survive? Can the two realise that they are no different from one another? Will the realisation ever dawn that no country was saved by destroying itself?

In the answer to these questions lies the future of a great country.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Here comes the monsoon

Mumbai where I live is experiencing the first showers of the monsoon. As I look out of my window, I can see the raindrops coming down gently, pattering against the windows. The very sight of the drops falling from heaven evokes pleasant memories and thoughts. I can still see the sight from my balcony: the rain-washed garden, the drops of water sparkling like pearls, the cool breeze... I'm sure you get the drift.

Going a long way back, I can't help but remember my school days. Ah, the joy of getting wet in the rains! I frequently used to pretend that I'd forgotten to take the umbrella with me while leaving, so that I could (hopefully) get wet on the way back home. The sight of the rains from the window of my school classroom is still etched in my mind as though it happened yesterday. The passage of years have not wiped out those memories.

Then ended school and one fine day I was in college. Suddenly the monsoon assumed different dimensions. The water logging under the railway bridge at Kings' Circle is another of those sights permanently etched in my memory, as are those walks with my college mates to the Five Gardens at Wadala just a stone's throw away from Khalsa College, my alma mater and the wonderful place I have missed ever so often since I graduated from there in 2001 (feels like the dinosaur days now!).

Then one day I was out of college. Suddenly the world looked and felt a whole lot different. We came to terms with the fact that school/ college was a small place within a much wider world, that what happened inside those walls mattered not a jot to the world outside. Suddenly, it turned out that the world was a much bigger place than we had imagined even in our wildest dreams, of which the school or college- which we thought was the world- was but an infinitesmal part.

And suddenly, the monsoon assumed wholly different dimensions. We had to worry about getting wet in the rain for fear of the fact that sitting in an air conditioned room with wet clothes could cause a cold. Rains seemed a nuisance because the streets got mucky and that meant your clothes could get dirty on the way to work. Heavy rains meant traffic jams and unlike in college, reaching late was just not an option. Unlike the good old days when we got free by afternoon, we were usually sitting late into the evening in office- trains getting cancelled just did not matter anymore, the day's work had to be done. One not so fine day, I came to the realisation that the monsoon was a nightmare rather than a pleasure.

It's been ages since I had the luxury of time to gaze at the view from my balcony, being on the move all seven days of the week. As for school, I fear the place has changed so much since I left it in '96, that the sight from my classroom window now remains only in my memory. The memories of college and those wonderful people I studied with (amazing how even the most loathsome people become wonderful in hindsight) seem like fleeting memories of another age.

Those days are long gone by. Nevertheless, one dream that acts as a common thread between childhood and the present is the thought of sitting in my balcony on a rainy day gazing down at the garden, a cool breeze beating against my face with a mug of piping hot coffee and garma garam bhajiya pao (with apologies for non-Hindi readers, the last part cannot be satisfactorily translated). That's one dream I have had since I was not yet in my teens. Sadly, it remains a dream to this day.

Hopefully, someday that dream will become reality!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Subhash Chandra Bose

I was in third or forth standard (I no longer remember the year) when I first came across the name of a man called Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in a lesson in our History textbook dedicated to the man. It spoke about his escape from house arrest and his creation of the Indian National Army. How he did it was not mentioned therein. Still more remarkable was the fact that it was absolutely silent on what he did before that escape. In the years that followed, there was the odd mention of Bose in history textbooks, but little that gave us any idea who the man was or what he had achieved (I grew up in Maharashtra).

It was only when I studied history several years later that I discovered what a collosal national figure he was and how profound his contribution to India's struggle for independence was. Suffice it to say that his contribution was second only to Mahatma Gandhi's (and a pretty close second at that). Sadly, Bose has been almost completely airbrushed from official history. School textbooks, which pretty much constitute the only history most Indians ever get to know, generally contain (or at least contained in my time) little more than a passing reference to the man. Remarkably, Richard Attenborough's Academy Award winning "Gandhi" does not even mention him.

As of today, Bose is almost completely forgotten by foreign (read western ) historians. The few who even bother to acknowledge that he ever existed are scathing of the man who aligned himself with Hitler. Back home in India, it has become fashionable to elevate the man to near God like status. A lot of Bose admirers consider him the solution to every problem India has. Ask them and they are likely to tell you that India would have been a developed and prosperous country had Netaji become India's first prime minister rather than Jawaharlal Nehru. I daresay the truth lies far, far away from both views. The purpose of this article is to try and unravel the real Subhash Chandra Bose.

First, the Indian view. Over the 65 years since his disappearance, the legend of Subhas Chandra Bose has grown bigger and bigger to the point where it has completely overshadowed the man. It is not just inaccurate, but downright unfair to burden someone with extraordinary powers that he never possessed. Bose was a brilliant leader of men and perhaps the one man who read the political situation in India far more accurately than anyone else did. But to conclude that he alone would have changed the course of India's history on the basis of that one fact alone is plain naïve.

Truth be told, its quite likely that in terms of economic policy he would have walked down the same path as Nehru had he come to power. His admiration of the Soviet model is well known and he would most likely have emphasised a strong public sector and heavy industry had he been India's first Prime Minister- not an awful lot different from the Mahalanobis model that Nehru adopted with disastrous consequences.

Politically too, Bose is likely to have left behind a mixed legacy. He was a man who believed in a more centralised approach to decision making that would have done wonders as long as long as a man with good intentions was at the helm but would have been a disaster in the hands of the wrong person. In other words, its likely that the political situation in India would have been somewhat similat to what it was in Indira Gandhi's time in the late 70s.

There's also the fact that Bose had a tendency to divide: he either attracted undying loyalty or outright hatred. The acrimonious Tripuri session testifies to the extent to which he polarised opinion in a party that had long had traditions of accomodating every shade of political view. It's worth remembering here that Bose, then the President, had for over a decade been one of the leaders of the more radical left wing of the party. Another fact completely forgotten is the considerable acrimony between him and Vallabhai Patel and, for that matter, many other right wing leaders. Would such a polarising leader have been able to hold the Indian union together in the turbulent 50s? Given his sheer popularity, strength of character, political nous and that iron will, Bose might very possibly have managed it but he might just as well have failed. Such talk is, of course, mere speculation but it just goes to show that there is indeed no reason to unquestioningly presume that he would have changed the course of Indian history single-handedly.

Coming to the western view of the man: to me its wholly unfair and prejudiced. Bose is vilified for aligning with Hitler against the western allies. But why should he not have done so? True, Hitler was a monster and Nazism an unmixed evil, but if ethics is the sole consideration then what were the great European powers doing when Hitler reoccupied the Rhine, or for that matter swallowed up Austria without firing a shot? And can one forget the fact that the very powers opposing Hitler in the war collaborated with him in his bloodless annexation of Czechoslovakia? If they did so to prevent a second war after the debilitating war a generation earlier, then it was clearly a case of compromising another people's freedom for self-interest. Such being the case, why should someone else not be entitled to do so?

If the western allies were waging a war for freedom against a brutal regime, why did that right to self-determination not extend to others? The British prime minister stated that the Atlantic Charter, which spoke about the right to self-determination, did not apply to India. Why, the British viceroy in India did not even have the decency to consult India opinion before declaring India was at was against Germany. What did 400 million Indians have to fight for? The possibility of freedom at some distant date after the war. But given how many times they had reneged on their promises in the past, not least after the first war, how could Indian leaders ever trust their British rulers to keep their word? And in any case, what did the Cripps proposal contain? The right for any state in India to secede from the union, in other words the likelihood of a Balkanised India. Why should any political leader in the right mind have accepted those proposals?

So why should 400 million Indians have fought on the side of western allies? For the protection of the freedom of European nations at a time when they were themselves unwilling to grant freedom to their colonies? Bose aligned himself with Japan and raised his army from Indian soldiers who were Japanese prisoners of war abandoned by their colonial masters to their own devices during the evacuation of Singapore. If that is how much others cared for Indian soldiers, why should Indians not have acted in self interest? Whichever way you look at it, much western criticism of Bose is plain unfair.

And so where does Subhash Chandra Bose stand then? The answer is admittedly not an easy one. There is not the slightest doubt that he is one of the greatest leaders India has ever had, a man whose contribution to India's independence is unparalleled. He built an army that failed in its mission, but ended up undermining the loyalty of the British army that was the backbone of the British empire in India. That he actually managed to revive the failed Indian National Army is in itself a mircale, given the impossible odds he battled against, that would have broken any ordinary man's will. In short, what we have in Bose is a man with an extraordinary love for his country, whose determination to win his beloved motherland her freedom saw him defy impossible odds and make incredible personal sacrifices.

But it is equally true that Bose was a man who divided opinion, who aroused either undying hatred or unflinching loyalty and little else in between. He firmly believed in an economic model that history has proven to be a flawed one. He won India her freedom, but might well have left behind the mere farce of a democracy had he become India's first Prime Minister. In short, it is very possible that he might have left behind him a legacy every bit as flawed as Nehru's, had been around to see his beloved India an independent land.

Unlike Nehru, Judgement on Bose cannot be made on the strength of posterity. For the better or the worse, Bose is a classic instance of what might have been.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, is frequently held responsible for a lot of India's problems, including many that he did nothing to create by the way. In fact it is fashionable in contemporary India to assign the responsibility for just about any problem to him, to the point where one still gets to hear people holding him responsible for India's poverty to this day (never mind that the man has been dead since six and forty years now). To be sure, the mess that is Kashmir is a Nehruvian legacy and his handling of the China issue was an unqualified disaster. His economic policies resulted in a food crisis that effectively brought us down to our knees by the time Nehru passed away.

And yet, one of Nehru's many enduring legacies is non alignment. India championed the NAM (Non-aligned movement) in the years after independence. Despite India's gravitation towards the Soviet Union in the late 60s and beyond, non-alignment remains one of the cornerstones of Indian foreign to this day. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Indians were of the view that they had backed the wrong horse in those crucial years after independence: At a time when the USA was the undisputed world leader (in Bill Clinton's words, "the most indispensable country in the world") India was at an obvious disadvantage as a backward country that did not enjoy the backing of the lone superpower.

At this distance in time with the benefit of knowledge provided by that most perfect of sciences, hindsight, its clear that non-alignment has worked to India's advantage. Having made giant strides over the last fifteen years or so, India is now the 4th biggest economy in the world (in terms of Purchasing Power Parity), growing at 8-10% per annum at a time when most western economies are struggling to avoid negative growth. Not surprisingly, her clout in the international stage too has grown dramatically over that period. Having opted to remain unaligned, India is now free to pursue her own agenda at the international stage.

Just to illustrate the point, look at what has happened to India's neighbours to the west. Pakistan was once regarded as the model for other countries to emulate, having grown in the region of 5 to 6% during the 70s and up into the 80s. True, military rule has destroyed that country but the military would never have become all powerful but for their collaboration with the USA during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Look what three decades of that collaboration has done to that country: from having a state with an army, they now have an army with a state. Pakistan's economy is in shambles. Unemployment and poverty have reached such catastrophic proportions as to drive the flower of its youth into the hands of terrorists and fundamentalists. The young men lucky enough to make it to the army serve as cannon fodder in someone else's quest for unbridled power.

As recently as 2003, there were many in India who advocated our joining America in their Mesopotamian adventure, if only to curry favour with Uncle Sam. Fortunately, the naysayers far outnumbered the ones who said 'I do'. It needs no genius to say that India would have ended up a junior partner in the marriage, irrespective of the status of her economy. One only needs to look at the way the USA treats its junior partners to know how humiliating a subordinate relationship can be. What foreign statesperson would dare to order aerial bombings on Indian territory? Would any foreigner dare to even suggest to the Indian government how and where it is to deploy its soldiers, much less pressurise it on that score?

What can be more humiliating for a country than to have foreigners (under any pretext, whatsoever) instructing her and deciding the course of her policies? Make no mistake, that is the very fate that would have befallen India, had she chosen to depend on someone else's strength. Having escaped the worst effects of the global crisis, largely due to the conservative attitude of the regulatory authorities (that western observers criticised for so long), there has been a growing realisation that India's path towards development has to necessarily be an autochtonous one.

Nehru made his blunders, some of which haunt India to this day. Nevertheless, one area in which he embarked on the right path was foreign policy. Whatever the reasoning behind the stance he took (India was the first country that refuse to align itself with either side in the cold war), history has vindicated Jawaharlal Nehru. On this count, at least, he got it right.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Witness the Night

I recently purchased a book titled "Witness the Night" by an Indian author called Kishwar Desai. I have hardly ever read Indian writers before and I seldom venture into fiction unless it be detective or pulp fiction. And yet, something about the book intrigued me: the book is about a woman who investigates a murder case where a 14-year old girl is accused of butchering her entirely family in cold blood. In the course of her investigation, she encounters countless hidden facts and comes face to face with the worst aspects of Punjabi society.

The concept looked interesting. Let me confess that I know absolutely nothing about North Indian society, having lived in Bombay all my life. Besides, I trace my roots down to Kerala- the southern most state in India, culturally and geographically far removed from the north (most people in my part of the country would consider anything north of Gujarat as north, which would include even Madhya Pradesh!).

Having finished reading it, I must say that much of what is written in that book is extremely disturbing. Its hard to imagine a book more scathing on Punjabi society. If there is any truth in what is mentioned in that book (and the author's note states that the incidents mentioned therein are indeed true), the life of ladies up north must be incredibly difficult. Indian society has traditionally been patriarchal and unfair to its women, and yet I never imagined that it could possibly be so unfair.

If that book is to be believed, families routinely abort female fetuses (quite conceivable, seeing as a ban against sex determination tests had to be legislated in India). Worse still, girl children are killed right at birth. There even is a scene in the book where the girl accused of the murder discovers the skeletons of little children in their farm and figures out that those are the remains of girls born in the family who were murdered right at birth by family members anxious to escape the burden of dowry when the girls would get married.

The book describes how girls are treated in their own house as second class citizens, subordinate to the boys and whereas boys enjoy considerable liberty in terms of having pre-marital and even extra-marital sex, while girls enjoy nothing even vaguely resembling the same liberty. There is even a mention of how the status of women depends on their capacity to give birth to boys, how women who repeatedly give birth to girls have to bear the taunts of their relatives and all biraadari waale (the term is difficult to translate into English).

If the facts mentioned therein are indeed true, then Punjabi society must be extremely unfair to its women. I know I'm not going to be popular for saying this, but someone has to speak the truth! For the record: I have quite a few Punjabi friends (including my present boss). Much of what's mentioned in that book may be exaggerated, but its hard not to suspect that there might be a certain element of truth in it.

I know for a fact that dowry is a massive social evil common to most parts of India. I confess that I have little idea how it works, belonging as I do to a community where dowry has long since gone out of use- to the point where I do not even know the Tamil word for dowry (I am Tamil, although I trace my roots to Kerala). Nevertheless, I know and appreciate that the problem is far more deeply rooted than most of us appreciate.

There would be many who would dismiss that book as the work of a writer keen to cater to a predominantly western audience and hence writes what her writers like to read. And yet, it would be foolhardy to discount it so hastily. The facts flying in the face are simply too many and too hard-hitting to ignore. Let me present a few examples:

(a) the 2001 census revealed a shocking sex ratio of 754 females for every 1000 males in Punjab as against a national average of 927 (Source: Sex Ratio Declines Further in Five States, The Hindu, 14th December 2007)

(b) It was estimated in May 2007 that on an average one woman falls victim to dowry every week (Source: Dowry Deaths in Punjab, The Tribune, 29th May 2007)

(c) It was estimated that there one woman in Punjab was criminally assaulted everyday and at least two women were kidnapped or molested everyday (Source: Crime Against Women on the Rise in Punjab, Haryana, The Hindu, 8th January 2009)

And it would be worth pointing out that the figures mentioned above could just be the tip of the iceberg. Given the dishonour associated with rape, molestation or kidnapping, only a fraction of the actual number of cases ever go reported. Taken together, the above facts present a pretty grim picture. How can we progress as a country if half our population is suppressed and treated so cruelly?

The inevitable consequence of such a situation is that India's population growth is going to plummet sometime in the next half century or so. With so few women around, there are going to be millions of unmarried men in the country who will never father a child. Fewer women would also inevitably translate into few mothers. Ironically, the social inequality is going to do for population control what our government has abjectly failed to do in the sixty odd years after independence. What is perhaps most worrying is that the presence of so many men without a partner is surely going to lead to spiraling sexual crimes.

These are obvious dangers Indian society has to realise and confront before it gets too late. No society that treated its women so dismally has ever progressed. For those who like to talk about the golden age of Indian history, I would like to point out that ancient Indian society was very liberal with its women and that our decline as a society around thousand years ago also coincides with the period when the status of women started deteriorating.

Hopefully women's reservation will prove a beginning towards a better and more equitable society (I have commented on that subject in another posting earlier in this very blog). Hopefully the bill will see the light of day in the near future. God willing, I shall live to see a far more equitable India than the one in which I now live in.

Whether that comes to pass, only time will tell.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

India- a society in flux

I doubt if there are more than a few thousand Indians for whom the 24th of July would mean anything beyond a mere date. And yet Wednesday, 24th July 1991 is a day that History should remember as India's second independence day- the day when delicensing and economic reforms formally took off. The sweeping reforms introduced that Wednesday changed the course of Indian history. The objective of this article is to try and present the perspectives of an urban Indian on the socio-economic transformation in urban India over the last two decades.

Historically, economic transformations have always fostered social changes. So is the case with India. At the heart of this transformation is a burgeoning middle class. As of today the middle class is about 200 million strong, which constitutes not even 20% the population. However, given an economy that is expected to grow at 7.5% to 10% over the next twenty years or so, it is likely that the number of people below poverty line will shrink as millions will improve their economic circumstances to enter the ranks of the middle class. Several studies (notably those of Deutsche Bank and Mckinsey) estimate that the size of the middle class by 2025 will be about 600 million, which would be close to half the population by then.

There is however one massive difference between the new middle class and the old. whereas the old middle class barely made ends meet, the present generation has purchasing power far exceeding even the wildest dreams of its predecessors. One inevitable effect of the purchasing power available to today's generation (to which this writer belongs) is a seismic shift in lifestyles. The shopping malls that are there in the major cities make for a shopping experience far removed from what our fathers could even dream of. Eating out in an upscale restaurant, which was beyond the dreams of our parents, is something today's generation takes for granted.

Education has become a booming business with thousands of courses mushrooming up, largely because parents today have little hesitation in spending lakhs on the education of their children, hoping that they could get a much better quality of education than we did in our time.

Another noticeable change that has happened is the ability to purchase one's own car. Whereas for my father's generation cars were unaffordable, today most people of my generation who are even reasonably well to do have their own cars. In fact most people in the mid to late 20s have their own vehicle and house- the kind of thing our predecessors could do only towards the end of their careers. The inevitable consequence of the burgeoning demand for vehicles is that Indian roads have become incredibly congested, with traffic snarls the order of the day. Similarly, real estate prices have gone skyrocketing, with real estate prices now beyond the reach of most Indians. Bombay, where I live, is perhaps the worst affected city on both counts.

Consumerism is becoming one of the pre-dominant developments in urban India. One unexpected outcome of the mall boom that growing consumerism has fuelled is the employment opportunities it has provided for the people who work there. Most of them come from slums, belonging to families in economically straightened circumstances. In fact the vast majority of them are the first generation in their families who have made the transition from blue to white collared labour. The combination of education (of admittedly pretty doubtful quality) and the opportunities that having a degree presents has produced a generation of youngsters several million strong, determined to change their lives for the better and naturally hungry for success.

Empowerment of women is one of the major outcomes of the economic transformation. Back in the old days, jobs were hard to come by even for men and a single income was enough to keep a household running comfortably. The vastly increased cost of living that has made double income a necessity rather than a luxury, combined with the incentives for female education given by the government over the past several decades has given Indian women the opportunity to leave the four walls of their houses and compete with the men. Inevitably, perhaps, women finally have financial independence, which in turn means that they can be a lot more assertive than their mothers could have ever dreamt of being. Admittedly, liberation of women is hardly uniform and those in the bigger cities, especially in the South, generally enjoy far greater liberties. Nevertheless, the lot of women even in metropolitan India is vastly improved as compared to their predecessors in the old century.

That, in turn, is leading to a change in social attitudes. Barely a generation ago, an Indian woman who dreamt of a career, who believed in a life beyond mere household duties was looked down upon as unfit to marry and have a family. 24-25 was the age when women were supposed to get married and you were getting old the moment you hit 26. An unmarried daughter whose age was anything over 25 was enough cause for parents to have sleepless nights. But all that has changed today in the bigger cities and it is only a matter of time before such attitudes spill over to the smaller ones. Women are every bit as career oriented as men and it is perfectly acceptable for them to dream of having a career in today's India, a far cry from even a decade ago.

As economic growth is spreading beyong the ten biggest cities, jobs are springing up all over the country- and I'm not even talking of jobs abroad. Labour mobility is increasingly becoming common, with the result that thousands of couples are relocating to other cities in search of better opportunities, with the inevitable consequence that families are increasingly becoming nuclear with just couples having one or two children (its incredibly rare to see urban couples having more than two children). As families become increasingly nuclear, people are naturally becoming more and more individualistic. Although Indian society still remains essentially collectivist, people are increasingly becoming aware of the concept of privacy and having a personal space- something that was virtually unknown a generation ago. Old family values are rapidly disintegrating, leading to a massive generation gap between the fathers and sons in today's India.

Another transformation in the making is the change in attitudes towards sex. Indian society has traditionally been a prudish one where sex as a topic is taboo, as it still remains in many ways. And yet, its impossible not to notice how freely one can talk about sex today. Remember, we're talking about a society where a song which had the word 'sexy' got into hot waters as late as 1994. Fast forward to 2009, not an eyebrow was raised when the lead character in the movie Paa decided to have a child out of wedlock and was shown living a perfectly normal and respectable life thereafter- something that was unthinkable for the lead actress of a Hindi movie barely ten years ago. The difference in public reaction speaks volumes about the extent to which attitudes have changed between then and now.

Barely a couple of years ago, I remember reading that some high court decreed that a live-in partner would enjoy the rights of a spouse. As of now, there is a governmental initiative to amend the Hindu Marriage Act to ease the divorce process. Not one group of self-proclaimed guardians of social morality raised a ruckus about it. Why, the matter went barely noticed. It's hard to imagine such a thing happening as late as the turn of the century, when political parties were bringing the roof down on the issue of youngsters celebrating Valentine's Day (granted that there still are extreme right-wing organisations wreaking havoc occasionally, but they are pretty much the exception now).

The institution of marriage is another aspect of traditional Indian life this is beginning to come under pressure. Admittedly divorce is still a rare phenomenon- a few thousand in a population of one billion is but a drop in the ocean- and yet, anyone living in the major cities would acknowledge that it is no longer an extraordinary event. The increasing trend of young people moving away from their home town to work has resulted in thousands of youngsters living in cities where they are complete strangers and as such immune from the social influences they would be subject to back home. Not surprisingly live-in relationships are becoming increasingly common, especially in the bigger cities.

Even perceptions of marriage have changed. Whereas people of my parent's generation married in their early to mid 20s, it is commonplace to people to wait until their late twenties or even the early thirties to marry. At 29 I'm still single but still under no pressure to marry. It is common to see women in the mid/ late 20s who are still single and not yet looking out in urban India- unthinkable a generation ago. With the age of marriage getting pushed further and further away, it is quite possible that sexual mores might change in a generation or two, to the point where extra-marital sex might become not just acceptable, but possibly even the norm.

Another problem is in social interaction with the opposite sex. People like me who were born in the early 80s- the first post '91 generation- are in many ways, sandwiched between the two worlds. Urban Indian society is caught in a time-trap between the old and the new. Outwardly most urban youth like me are highly modernised and yet somewhere deep down, we still haven't completely unentangled ourselves from the past. Just to give a simple example, most young men of my age (including this writer) would be hesitant to propose a young lady for a lunch or dinner date simply because its hard to be sure how the proposal would be taken. It was unthinkable a generation ago, but generally acceptable today- generally, but not necessarily so! In short, it is difficult to know what is acceptable and what is not.

This problem becomes more pronounced when people from smaller places come to bigger cities. The reason is pretty simple: society is a lot more conservative in provincial cities, where young men and young women cannot mix freely- being seen with a member of the opposite sex can itself land you into trouble. Coming from a world where its nearly impossible to freely communicate with the opposite sex to one where one can freely interact, many of them make the mistake of presuming that anything goes. Lot of young men from smaller cities make the mistake of presuming that the woman is interested in them merely because she talks to them freely and happily live under the illusion until realisation dawns- usually with an egg in the face.

For women too, the transition is (I imagine, subject to correction) a trying one, stuck as they are between 20th century India and India of the new millenium. If on the one hand they are looking to liberate themselves, some part of them is still struggling to break free from the past. Outwardly, they may speak English fluently and wear trendy dresses that could, at times, even be revealing. But beneath the surface, few of them have truly managed to liberate themselves. To this day, I hear of women still content to let their menfolk make the decisions- and I'm talking about educated young ladies who would appear 'mod' from outside. This being the case, I daresay little must have changed in provincial cities.

One last significant change worth mentioning, which is beginning to happen is the blurring of caste distinctions. The fact is that the caste system haunts India to this day, but anyone familiar with urban society would know that caste distinctions are rapidly vanishing. At a time of rapid economic growth and plentiful opportunities for employment, commerce dictates decisions and caste is obviously a factor that counts for little, if at all. True, most people at junior levels or menial jobs are of the lower castes, but the reason for that is the legacy of the past and not any deliberate attempt to exclude them from learning.

The question that naturally arises is, what is all this in aid of? The answer is admittedly not easy to come by, especially in an evolving society like India in the throes of a socio-economic transformation bigger and quicker in scale and nature than any since perhaps the transformation wrought by British policy two centuries ago. It is equally significant to bear in mind that the changes mentioned in this article are by no means permanent, but a transitory phase in the transformation of urban Indian society. Given these two facts, any conclusions one may draw from the present are largely guesswork- not even the most astute social historian will be able to project the future with any degree of certainty. The conclusions I shall go on to state need to be viewed in this light.

As I see it, Indian society will make a transition towards a more economically equitable society in that more and more people will move from poverty or below poverty line to middle class over the next few decades. How long that transformation takes is anybody's guess. What is certain is that the speed and the nature of the change will vary from region to region. Whereas the south and the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat are likely to have the middle class constitute more than half their population in another 15-20 years, the corresponding transition in eastern India and most northern states is likely to take a generation or two longer. I daresay by 2050, we should have lifted at least 300-400 million people out of poverty.

At a social level, its likely that people will become more and more individualistic. While family is likely to retain its importance over the individual, the trend will almost certainly be that of nuclear families. What it naturally means is that there will be a huge generation gap between the fathers and sons (borrowing the title of Turgenev's famous novel) of India. We are increasingly going to find an older generation struggling to come to terms with a new world far removed from the one in which they grew up. What the nature and outcome of that generation gap will be, only time will tell.

As for society itself, I daresay that caste distinctions will start disintegrating. In the new world, economic power rather than caste is likely to be the determinant of one's social status. That such an outlook is materialistic is true, but then it is far better than the caste system. Whereas one can aspire to improve one's economic conditions, the caste that one is born into is a stigma or a privilege (depending on which side of the divide you are) for life that one does nothing to earn.

Whether the said changes will actually happen, how and when they will do so, should they come to pass at all, is a tough question to answer. For sure, different sections of society will make the transition at different stages. Whereas people like this writer, who belong to the old middle class, have already made the transition to upper middle class (the new upper-middle class if you may), there are a few hundred million from poor families who constitute the first generation middle class. The transition to upper middle class that ones like me have undergone would perhaps be a generation or two away for them. Further below them are the people who are poor or below poverty line, for whom just making it to the middle class is a dream and who are unlikely to make it at least until another couple of generations if not beyond.

Needless to say, values and social sensibilities will also evolve according to economic status. While the upper middle classes will be quicker to adopt western influences and abandon traditional sensibilities, the lower middle class- people whose parents were poor and as such share their sensibilities will remain more conservative for another generation or two. In other words, what we can expect is a continuation of the status quo: different sections of societies with vastly different cultural sensibilities co-existing, each of them aspiring to a lifestyle and a way of living imitating the one above.

It is just a matter of time before the multiplex/ coffee house culture makes its presence felt in smaller cities, which will start underegoing a lifestyle transformation similar to the one the bigger cities have undergone over the last 6-7 years. What kind of social changes that in turn will wreak is a matter of conjecture. Not being very familiar with life in provincial cities- which is a very different world from the major cities- this writer is hardly in a position to make an informed guess.

But one thing is certain, a massive change is happening and what we're seeing is just the beginning. For sure, India is a society in flux.