Thursday, June 25, 2015

40 years on, India is different now

Here is Emergency, 30 years ago

A few other points that come to my mind. The India then and now are vastly different - politically, economically and sociologically.

There was just one Congress, under Indira Gandhi, that dominated the political spectrum. Today, we have a plethora of parties, many of them regional ones. At one end, she was seen as a strong-willed leader who could get things done, and who kept India's national interest uppermost. At the other end, for Indira haters, she was an arrogant dictator.

At that time, there was hardly any private sector, that catered to our essential daily subsistence needs. We just had government-owned behemoths, the efficiency levels of which left a lot to be desired; and concepts like accountability weren't much heard of.

Forget internet, mobile phone or social media; there was not even television then. There was just one All India Radio, and a couple of newspapers and magazines for us to know what was happening in our country. There was little knowledge of what "other cultures and traditions" actually meant; the only source was a few foreign radio stations like BBC, Radio Australia, Voice of America etc, that were available on Short Wave bands.

The world itself has moved on, quite a distance, in the past 40 years. Most significantly, there is no USSR now. There is only one USA. With the fall of the Soviet empire, the Berlin Wall too came down. And along with it all the barriers that separated different ideologies and cultures too. (However, we are yet to figure out some way on how to co-exist in a world full of diversity.)

There is still this talk about whether Emergency, as it happened 40 years ago, will ever happen again. It is extremely difficult, for many reasons. In retrospect, we can see that there was a context then.

There was already an External Emergency in existence, due to the 1971 war with Pakistan. There was a bogey about foreign forces trying to break up India. So, Mrs Gandhi saw everything through that prism. No one had the guts to stand up against her, or put across a different view point. When opposition political parties and activists finally stood up, she could only see it as a deterioration in the state of the nation.

Another reason is the Constitution has been amended to make proclamation of Internal Emergency a difficult process that needs the approval of the Cabinet and both Houses of Parliament.

All said and done, there was lot of suffering during those days, which are now referred to as the Darkest Days of Democracy. Still there is little tolerance for contrarian views; some people have had to pay with their lives for standing up to strong power centres, so much so that there is often fear among many people to speak out. But what we then saw was an institutionalized, government-sanctioned suppression of any contrarian views.

It was a turning point in India's history, no doubt; a period many would like to forget rather than remember.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Missing, last seen on WhatsApp

Recently, my friend from Kolkata narrated an anecdote that happened in his neighbourhood.

A 20-year old college student went missing. He had returned after studies, but went out soon after, saying he was going to meet a friend. But neither did he mention anyone's name nor people at home ask. When he wasn't back even after 10 pm, folks at home began to get worried.

They called him on his mobile. But the calls repeatedly gave an 'out of coverage area' reply. Friends too tried, but to no avail. Messages too evoke no response.

A friend thought of checking WhatsApp. The Last Seen time stamp was only 10 minutes behind the actual time. That meant he was active on the messaging app. But the friends couldn't figure out why he hadn't bothered to inform where he was, but "was happily" WhatsApping.

A quick explanation was he might have tried to call or message but the mobile connectivity might have been bad. He might have been online as his data lines were more stable or he was on someone's Wi-Fi.

No sooner his friend noticed the missing boy's time stamp change to 'online' than he shot off a message.

"Where the hell are you? All are worried."

To the delight of everyone, he replied.

"I am at (a friend's) house. Don't worry. It's raining heavily here. Can't step out. Will come once rain reduces."

"Then why the **** you didn't tell anyone at home ...."

"Chill. Nothing to worry. Call wasn't going through. Will call now. Or you also tell them."

Apparently it was true that in the other part of the city, it was raining, and he was genuinely stuck.

He was back home around midnight to a lecture on how he should remember to keep someone posted on his whereabouts if he wasn't where he normally should be.

But the other takeaways from this incident were: one, how internet-based messaging platforms can help when the default phone call and SMS don't seem to work; and two, perhaps, more significantly, the clue the time stamp on Last Seen can provide about your status.

The above anecdote was narrated by my friend during a recent dinner get together we had with a few of our common friends, when he visited Bengaluru. His story triggered a debate on whether the Last Seen feature is an invasion of privacy or it is helpful.

Here is a gist of the arguments: some on predictable lines, some new lines of thought.

Against Hiding
  • Since when is WhatsApping a crime?
  • Why should I care if someone knows when I checked WhatsApp last? How does it matter to anyone? I might check at 1 in the afternoon or 4 in the night.
  • WhatsApp is not like Email. It is an instant messaging platform used for quick communication. So Online and Last Seen are important indicators, that show how easily I can be accessed.
  • Hiding doesn't serve any purpose anyway, because the double tick will indicate that I have got the message. And the blue tick (if I haven't disabled that) means I have read it too. So, what is the big deal? What am I trying to hide anyway?
For Hiding
  • Since it's an instant messaging platform, I am online most of the time. Then, why publicize additionally the precise timings too?
  • It's a system prone to technical issues, and not reliable. One, if the app is running in the background, especially on Android phones, I might be shown as online, when I am not actually. Two, if I only opened the app, and not read or typed a message, sometimes the Last Seen gets updated. Three, when using the web version, sometimes you are shown online, even when you have minimised the browser. The Last Seen feature is flawed and misleading.
  • Some people expect a reply from me immediately (on seeing that I have been online), when actually I haven't had time to type out a reply. 
  • Suppose I was chatting late at night with my friend in the US, my mom wants to know why I wasn't sleeping, and with whom I was chatting late in the night! Mom I can handle, but why should everyone else too know that I was up late into the night. It's total invasion of privacy. A provision to make oneself invisible is what is actually needed.
All of these finally got washed down with a few drinks and a generous helping of some Continental and Chinese delicacies.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Her dreams and their expectations

The visit was long overdue, and finally I got time one evening to drop by my friends' house.

Let's call them Sithesh and Sarah. They are bank executives, and they have a daughter Sangeetha who has just completed 12th.

One flip side of a bank job, is the transfer. You are liable to be moved from one to city to another anywhere in the country. And when both husband and wife work in banks, it can sort of wreak havoc with the family life.

Sithesh and Sarah have had their share of the problem, which proved to be quite troublesome especially after Sangeetha came. They had to be in different cities for years. Somehow, they have managed to pull it off, thanks to their parents and friends.

As soon as I landed up in their house, we launched ourselves into a non-stop conversation. There was so much to catch up.

Some half an hour later, Sangeetha came in. She had gone to her neighbour's house. It's about two years since I last met her.

In a while, she too joined our conversation. She spoke about her school, her teachers, her strict headmistress and her friends. Quite an opinionated girl, she had her own views about topics as varied as our education system, corporal punishment, dress code, traditions, taboos etc.

A little later, she brought a book in which she had drawn beautiful pictures; some of them pencil sketches, some them water-coloured drawings. There were images of landscape, objects, people --  a wide variety of the life we see around us. As I turned the pages, I could sense her eagerness for my nods of approval.

I was immediately reminded of what she had told me when I had come to their house the last time -- her ambition to make it big the world of design and arts. As she turned the pages of the scrap book of her creative work, she told me how she had read up on successful people in the field, the courses she could pursue and what lay in store for her in the profession.

When I told her that her work was good, it was neither by way of mere encouragement or blind flattery. I had meant it, for her works were stunning.

It was dinner time. While having the sumptuous spread that they had prepared, her parents spoke about what they made of their daughter's interests.

For them, it was merely her hobby, a pastime, or even a waste of time, as it was cutting into her study hours. She would be reading some article on design and art, instead of reading something related to school work, they whined.

I summoned my diplomatic skills, and merely nodded in approval, as a debate on turning hobbies into careers ensued. I took my own example, of how I consciously chose to do a post-graduation in Journalism though I had got admission to PG courses in Bio-Chemistry, Physical Chemistry and Applied Chemistry.

But, I had to be careful here not to infuriate my hosts, after all it was a sensitive subject; and it should not appear that I was trying to "wrongly" influence my friends' daughter.

Both Sithesh and Sarah want Sangeetha to be a doctor. They have their own reasons.

"She is good in studies; even top scores in biology. There are so many children who want to be doctors, but their parents don't have the money to educate them. But here there is no such problem. Sangeetha is so lucky to have everything. Children of 12 Std need to be guided to the right profession; and not allowed to choose one based on someone's recommendations or based on what they read on the internet. Parents know their children well, and therefore they are the best people to guide them to the right profession." They went on and on.

Now, I couldn't help making murmurs of disapproval. Without sounding crass or cut-and-dried, I gently suggested to them that though it was the duty of the parents to guide their children through the right path and give all support they need; after all, it's the children's career and life, and it should be left to them to take the final call.

Soon it emerged that the parents were opting the doctor's profession not just because Sangeetha was good in biology, but it was as a safe choice (for the parents), and given her academic brilliance, it almost looked as if Sangeetha's career in the medical profession will be stellar success.

There might be good career prospects in design and arts, they agreed with me. But why take the risk, why mess with life?, so went their argument.

I felt a bit sad, when a little later Sangeetha told me (without her parents hearing) that she would pursue medicine, because that is what her parents want. "After all, they have to support me in my education; it's not practical to rebel against them, when I am dependent on them."

She will soon be writing entrance examinations to medical colleges around the country. Knowing her, I am pretty sure that she will pass with good marks, and ultimately choose a good college (on suggestions from her parents, rather than anyone else), and do well in the medical course too.

However, I wonder if she is making the right choice. Should she pursue her passion or merely follow what her parents want her to do?

How will it all pan out for her when she is done with academics, and steps out into the real, hard world of patients, doctors and hospitals? That's the time your passion will be the only driving force. At that time, will the dormant interest for design and arts rear its head and spoil the chances for Sangeetha?

I don't know.

As of now, I can only wish her well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Kashmir problem: a different perspective


Kashmir: The Unwritten HistoryKashmir: The Unwritten History by Christopher Snedden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have for long been wanting to read this book, since Kashmir issue has intrigued me.

While many divisive problems around the world have either been resolved or are slowly inching towards a solution, this has defied one. Every time someone makes an attempt, ironically, it only seems to get worse.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is not sure of what the Kashmir problem is all about, especially its genesis.

The author, an Australian politico-socio researcher, provides an alternative history of the region.

For example, what is popularly known in India and Pakistan is that it's the raid of Kashmir by Pashtoon tribesmen from Pakistan, immediately after Independence, that forced the Maharaja to join India. But Snedden, with extensive documentation, says there was already widespread discontent in Poonch and Mirpur against the Maharaja.

He also talks about the communal polarisation in areas like Jammu and Poonch.

Besides the anti-British struggle for India's Independence, there was a parallel anti-Maharaja agitation for Kashmir's independence spurred by the sense of Kashmiriyat (Kashmiri pride).

Add to these, the creation of Azad Kashmir.

Given these and many other complex ground realities across the province (a lot of them, not widely known, which the author elucidates very clearly and elaborately), the decision for the Hindu ruler of the Muslim-majority province (to join India or Pakistan) wasn't an easy one. He dithered and dithered; until he had to take a decision, to join India, in October 1947.

This book probably has the most number of appendixes: the entire second half of the book.

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

An afternoon of food, books and friends

I am part of a Facebook group of bibliophiles. When I saw a post a week ago, about plans for a get together, I had mixed thoughts running through my mind.

Images of striking up conversations with, and getting to know people with whom I had interacted only online, began flashing. That's exciting for me. Moreover, I have always felt that bonding with people having common interests is easier, than randomly saying Hi to a stranger and striking up a conversation.

But another thought seemed to be weighing me down. After all, they are strangers. Nowhere it's said bibliophiles are also the most affable human beings on earth. (In fact, I know some with airs of huge diameter around them, and attitudes that poke you everywhere.)

Fighting off skepticism, and with fingers crossed, I replied to the post, telling the organizer to count me in.

On the appointed day, yesterday; a few minutes after the appointed hour of 12.30 pm, I landed up at Toit, a popular joint on 100 ft Road in Indiranagar. As I reached the 2nd floor, I was guided to the far corner, where tables had been booked.

I was neither the first to arrive nor the last. But the body language of the few who were already seated seemed to convey the impression that they knew me or recognized me (obviously via the FB profile photo.) Broad smiles, shake of hands, and self-introductions. As everyone else trouped in, the protocol carried on for a few more minutes.

We took out the books we had brought for either exchange or giveaway, and spread them on the table. The focus quickly shifted to that as each one of us lounged forward to pick them up, flipped pages and exchanged notes. Ice had broken even before we realised. Comments about how possessive we are about our books ... jokes and banter ...

Before landing up there, I had thought no one would find me interesting to talk to, and I would myself be struggling to make conversations with strangers. (My social skills are pretty bad.) I was completely wrong. We found many topics (besides books) to talk about. In fact, I was talking so much, I wasn't eating; so had to shut up and focus on food.

The best part, some of them were friends of my friends -- two of them are good friends of my ex-colleague; and the cousin of another is married to my schoolmate and family friend. What a pleasant surprise!

As the drinks arrived - from water to cocktails to beer - the conversation centred around how Indian and western cultures look at drinks... And, when the food - broccoli, pasta, pizza, burger etc - started landing up, the focus shifted to vegetarian vs non-vegetarian. How beef is Kerala's "favorite food", and what would happen if it were banned in Kerala.

Meanwhile, I realised quite late that it had been raining cats and dogs. A gentle reminder was the few drops, which found the gaps in the ceiling, falling on me. O, by the way, toit in French is roof.

At the end of it all, around 4 pm, the most remarkable takeaway was the bonhomie: I didn't feel anyone was a stranger. The only flipside, if there was one, was that the seating arrangement at the corner didn't make it quite comfortable for all of us to move around and mingle with one another as much as we would have wanted to. But we all had resolved to catch up, and keep in touch.

As the evening gave way to night, my Facebook notification pings wouldn't stop buzzing, with friend requests, posts and comments in the group.

So long. ... The buzz now is that the next meet-up will be a potluck party.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Trials and tribulations of life

Life takes its own twists and turns. Not everything is in our control. Probably, very few things are in our control.

For some, life is a steady journey, with not many ups and downs. But not all are so lucky.

But irrespective of how big each one's ups and downs are, for each one of us, the hardships we endure are very severe, and challenging. As they say, everyone bears his own cross.

I chanced upon this blog piece on NDTV - My Mother Doesn't Know My Name Anymore - by the familiar news anchor and reporter Um-E-Kulsoom.

It made painful reading. It must have taken enormous effort and courage to share the trauma. One can imagine the pain and hardship they all must have gone through. Hats off to their courage with which they have faced it all.

I was also reminded of similar instances.

Here's one of them.

It would be unfair to wish for a problem-free life. So, The least we can do is to face the challenges life throws at us with equanimity.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Story of Google's transformation from startup to mega multinational

How Google WorksHow Google Works by Eric Schmidt

Just in case you think this book is all about geeky software jargon on how Google works, it's not.

The book by Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman, and Jonathan Rosenberg, the adviser to CEO Larry Page, is a gripping, well-structured, description of the core principles that underline the work ethics of the company. The authors were CEO and senior vice president during Google's formative years.

Don't expect an objective assessment of Google as a company, because the authors are still employees!

The book is about the legendary transformation of a startup to a mega multinational. After reading it, I am not surprised that Google is what it is: one of the most successful and employee-friendly IT companies.

The book talks about what type of workers the company employs, how some of the most acclaimed products were born, how major crises were resolved, etc.

Google must be one of the unique places to work in: where almost everything is done differently -- order and perfection are looked at with worry and disappointment, chaos is welcomed, failure is not frowned upon, the dress code is: 'wear something', employees can work on bizarre ideas that they come up with during their off-duty hours, they can continue to pursue a project even if the bosses have rubbished it, the usefulness of a new product to the customer takes precedence over any discussion about the money it will bring to the company, etc.

It's a book worth reading, at least to know that there are ways of working, different from the ones practised by most firms, and such unconventional methods can also be successful.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Savile horrors, a scandal of unimaginable proportions

Saville - The Beast: The Inside Story of the Greatest Scandal in TV History (Large Print 16pt)Saville - The Beast: The Inside Story of the Greatest Scandal in TV History by John McShane

I grew up listening to the BBC. I still do. Don't exactly remember Jimmy Saville's shows, though I have heard recordings later. But I do remember those of Dave Lee Travis. I was a regular listener of his A Jolly Good Show.

Jimmy Savile was a famous radio host, largehearted philanthropist, and well connected to big names. But the seedy side of his personality, remained hidden all through his life. Only after his death hundreds of women, now in 50s and 60s have come out in the open recalling how Uncle Jimmy molested or actually sexually assaulted them.

One aspect is the horrendous crime. But the intriguing aspect is, how Savile and many others got away with it for so many years. In fact, it looks like he had to die for his victims to even make anonymous claims. And all that took place on the most revered BBC premises.

The book would have made better reading if the accounts of victims were interspersed with better insights into the social mores prevailing in those days, and what held back so many hundreds of victims from speaking out. Also, some more details on BBC of those days, which didn't do anything, though many people there knew about it.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Friday, April 10, 2015

2014: The Election That Changed India by Rajdeep Sardesai

2014: The Election That Changed India
If you need an introduction to the recent political history of India, then read this book. Good reportage by Rajdeep. Easy read. No heavy political analyses.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Online liberty and tolerance

Section 66A of the IT Act has been struck down. But does it mean that people can make objectionable comments and get away with it?

There are sections in IPC like 153, 153A, 504, 506 etc which have been invoked in the past, and will continue to be invoked in the future too.

What has been struck down is only a section that was introduced specifically mentioning electronic communication.

Since more communication today happens online rather than offline, undoubtedly we need clear idea of what is okay and what is not okay.

NEW AGE DILEMMA

I remember being told when I was a child how I should be careful while talking when elders are around. That's no longer the case now. The new generation particularly is very outspoken. However, not all their comments are objectionable.

Very often, what we see online is only an extension of what we see offline, probably a bit more as the virtual setting works as an incentive to open the minds out.

Free expression of thoughts, ideas, comments, suggestions, criticisms, alternative ways of approaching issues and problems should be seen as healthy rather than objectionable. They might look on the face of it cut-and-dried or irreverent or sometimes even outrageous. But as long as the intentions are good, it should be okay.

What should actually be seen as objectionable and clamped down strictly are incitement to violence, hatred, enmity among sections of people, statements that are coloured and discriminatory from the point of view of caste, religion, gender, language etc. made to show sections of people in poor light etc.

NEED FOR PRUDENCE

We may all have the freedom to speak out our minds. But we should also be mature enough to exercise discretion and ensure that we speak the right thing, at the right time, in the right place, in the right manner.

All of us do that in our daily lives. So many times we would have decided not to say something to someone at a particular time in a particular place, because we thought it was inappropriate. So exercise of such prudence and discretion is nothing new or unusual.

On the internet many of us tend to get carried away because we are physically way from the real world. In one way that is good, because some fresh, original thoughts flow out of our minds. At the other end, when we see such postings and comments, we need to understand that these are unfettered, true feelings of people. We need to acknowledge the genuineness behind the thoughts.

As we see more free expressions of thoughts, parallely we also need to develop greater amounts of tolerance. They are interlinked.

Sometimes I see people who actively support free speech are highly intolerant when other people exercise their right to free speech. That won't do.