Sep 16, 2010

Protestant Ethics and Whole Lotta Bunkum

China and India have been catching up to America not only via cheap labor and currencies. They are catching us because they now have free markets like we do, education like we do, access to capital and technology like we do, but, most importantly, values like our Greatest Generation had. That is, a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.

In a flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever. Right now the Hindus and Confucians have more Protestant ethics than we do, ……..”

Every time I watch a film like PL or Aakaler sandhaney, I turn to that great upholder-of-all things-Indian-&-Chinese - Tom Friedman. It’s like soaking in the honeyed praise of an insincere, callous boyfriend where you know everything he says is insincere and yet you find comfort in it.

The entire problem with Friendman, and I suspect this is true of all Americans, is his/their habit of reading/determining/understanding complex & evolving situations in very simple and clich├ęd terms of good vs evil, outsourcing vs patriotism, rich vs poor, tax reform vs irresponsible spend, and so on. But matters are never that simple.

Friedman has no idea of how much India has changed with the infusion of easy cash from the BPO sector. He is bang on about the great Indian proclivity towards savings and delayed gratification but he is wholly unaware that like all things, this too is slowly changing here. Second, these comparisons are infantile since you cannot compare spending trends and consumer data for two nations as diverse as the U.S & India. Software services is pegged as one of our greatest sources of revenue and yet it accounts for a measly 0.2% of the GDP!

There are 2 kinds of kids in India today and Friedman seems to be aware of only one. The former is the
23-yr old K.C College graduate who joins the Wipro BPO in Powai and blows all of the Rs 10,000 he makes partying at Lush Lounge, buying CDs for his play Station (which obviously has been gifted by daddy dear) and gifting expensive phones to his gf. Then there is the 23-yr old hailing from a small town near Shimla, who joins an LG call centre at Noida, makes Rs 10,000 a month out of which he is forced to pay for his rent & food and also send money home regularly. Sacrifice and the habit of saving have been drilled into him by his circumstances. It is inane to compare him with the 23-yr old student at Rutgers whose father has lost his job in the recession and is struggling under the weight of a huge mortgage. What is he supposed to do? Flip hamburgers at Denny’s? Sure, he’s already doing that and most probably making plans to backpack across Europe. To expect him to lift boulders and contribute to the mortgage is like asking Salman Khan to develop grey cells.


The divide is not so much between the countries as between types of people & the upbringing they have had. I doubt if any of our children will ever have the drive or tenacity to achieve what our fathers did (at least mine & A’s.) They have too much going for them and there is nothing inherently wrong in this. This is what conditioning is all about. To speak of this as an Indian vs American personality issue is to reduce it to stereotypes.

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I don’t think anyone living in India can be untouched by poverty: it is too much in your face & a constant reminder of how much, when compelled, we can lower the threshold of basic sustenance. I’m currently reading ‘Churchill’s Secret War’ by Madhusree Mukerjee. It’s a slim book, not more than some 350 odd pages, but I’m finding it difficult to traverse those 350 pages. It recounts the gruesome Bengal famine of 1943 and alleges that the famine could have been avoided had it not been for then Brit PM Churchill’s almost rabid hatred for Indians that made him stop the flow of relief food supplies to India. While the ostensible reason was scarcity of shipping vessels, Mukerjee’s painstaking research (7 yrs) shows that on the contrary Britian had such a surplus of carrier fleet that it did not have enough cargo to load all of them! I don’t think anyone can read this book and remain calm when you realize the extent of Churchill’s culpability in not averting the disaster, or when you read about mothers leaving their infants at strangers’ doorsteps in the hope that they would be taken in and thus avoid certain death. What fuels the rage is that nothing has really changed: while Brit imperialism has been dismantled, the poor are still at the mercy of others who decide their fate. So whether it is employment under a Jawahar Rozgaar Yojana or grants under the NREGA, the bureaucrats sitting in air conditioned cabins dole these out in accordance with their whims. If you make the cut, good for you; if you don’t, better luck next time, mate. 

Sep 7, 2010

PEX & Poetry

I’ve always been curious about stuff like Process Excellence (PEX), Kaizen, Six Sigma, Black Belt/Green 
Belt, etc. Keep hearing of them and how they drive organizational efficiency. However, I’ve always been a lil skeptical how much of it was hogwash and how much really effective. Anyway, the current organization has these PEX modules on their intranet which you can subscribe to and complete a basic course. Since new things excite me and I didn’t have much on my hands, I decided to subscribe to the online learning course. It’s fairly detailed and gets tedious after a while and leaves folks like me in much the same condition as Columbus when he started on his ocean voyage, full of hope and spirit but badly ill-informed. Anyway, the problem solving parts are good and I now know what a rusty hinge must feel like. i dunno about process excellence but PEX is definitely an excellent tool for gaining some much-needed self insight.


I have always considered myself extremely fast at doing/executing things. This is not so much a virtue as a direct consequence of my chronic impatience.  I talk  fast, walk fast, climb stairs two at a time, cook fast, and looking back, I recall that I was the first one to always submit the answer sheet at every effing examination I ever took in my school years. Alas, no more. Those damn PEX modules have taught me what it feels like to proceed at snail’s, ok make that the Nano’s pace. So far I have only managed to rope in Vivek & the dude has beaten me every time. bah!

When the PEX gets too much, I take a small break; feel I have earned it. I delve into some delicious poetry. If delicious strikes you as a strange adjective, wait till you read her yourself. She evokes the kinesthetic effects of keats, marquez, and lorca. You will simultaneously feel and smell and taste every word as her poetry strums something within you. This is sensual poetry at its best and very few people can do true justice to eroticism. Most Indians anyway have no understanding that eroticism and pornography are totally divorced from each other.

Coming back to Sharanya Manivannan, hers is the voice of your mother and my grandmother and as you read along you get a sense of time repeating itself; there is both a sense of history and the whiff of freshness in her poems. Frankly, I didn’t think too much of her prose, though she’s a regular columnist, but her poetry is something that explodes within you and leaves you, err..umm… shaken and stirred.

As you proceed along her substantial body of work (she’s only 25!) you can identify the pet themes – desire, confident sexuality, death, separation, obsession, death of grandmother. As with the themes, the images and metaphors are often repetitive – blood, violence, animal & food imagery – without being mundane or forced. There is pride in an almost suffocating/obsessive love and the indefatigable passion that accompanies it and the awareness that such closeness must give way to separation (even death is separation.) I especially loved How to Eat a Wolf, Inventories of the Heart, The Mapmaker’s Wife, Banishing, Dream of Burying my grandmother, Rituals for Closure, and First Language. As i read and re-read 1,2 & 3, i felt an old anguish well up from somewhere deep within. This is the pain you feel as you read Eliot, George Herbert, and Emily Dickinson. That is no mean feat. 

As much as I loved her poetry I have two reservations: first, will her readership be restricted (largely) to women? I am not sure how men will respond to her authorship. The reigning deities of lit crit may applaud her but many men will judge her poems in terms of labels – raunchy, audacious, sexy. Her poems are all this and more, much more. It doesn’t help that the little lady is smoking hot and knows it & flaunts it unabashedly!

Second, I wonder how she will mature and will she explore other themes and images and paint diverse canvasses or restrict herself to what she’s doing now. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing ordinary or mundane about her accomplishment, only greedy glut that I am I’d love to see her soar higher and arrange the colors of the rainbow differently. Believe me, with her words, she can.

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It is befitting that i take down my old volume of keats tonite. Wasn't he the dude who wrote, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever?" Read SM's poems and you will know how wrong he was. Love between a man and a woman is one of the most beautiful things He could compel and yet its beauty pales like the waxing moon. Such love is fragile, afraid, tentative and we do everything in our power to render it meaningless.   

Sep 5, 2010

Some Films, Some Thoughts

As I watched The Bridges of Madison County again, a thing struck me – there is a girl inside every grown woman. I don’t know if there is a boy inside every adult male, but the take a close at Francesca giggling like a school girl when she has startled Robert into dropping the purple flowers by calling them poisonous and later when he is recounting tales of his encounter with a gorilla, and you’ll know what I’m referring to. Of course she is slightly drunk at this point, more relaxed than before and can laugh uninhibitedly at his tales. It is this laughter that women lose as they pursue their “life of small details”  post marriage & children. Explaining this she says that when a woman decides to start a family, she puts a stop to her life so that her children can move. There are various kinds of mothers – excellent ones, good ones, not so capable ones – but I think, in varying degrees this is true of all mothers. By the time the children gave grown and are settled, the hubby has retired as the Sr VP of a huge MNC, and the in-laws are safely tucked in their graves, you have completely forgotten what it means to have the time when you didn’t have to bother about buying grocery, paying bills on time, ensuring there was enough chicken in the fridge to tide over sudden guests, and handle everything from repairing washing machines to your daughter’s broken heart. I don’t mean this in any sad, self-indulgent manner. This is the way it’s always been done and frankly, while it does seem a lil overwhelming and unfair at times, it works best. At least for the kids. You watch a film like Udaan and you realize what not having a mother means.

I don’t want to write much on Udaan as I’d huge expectations from the film after reading Jai’s review but it’s been a disappointment at many levels. However, this is the only film I can recall which has moved me solely in the ways and means I function as a mother. One of the reasons is perhaps the younger son Arjun, a quiet, helpess 6-yr old is close to my d and both share a strange resemblance. But even Rohan, the 18-yr old hero, is really a lost boy who would have turned out all right had his mother been alive to act as a buffer between him &  the abusive father  it is his curse to live with.

While the movie has its flaws, it also achieves a rare balance - there are no pure villains. As you watch Bhairav Singh, the father with a monstrous ego, you realize that more than evil, he is dysfunctional, someone too far gone to benefit from any help. We don’t know who or what has made him this way or if he was simply born like that, but there is a brief conversation with his younger brother  where it is hinted that he has had to fight an oppressive father while protecting the younger brother. No wonder, the two brothers have turned out so different.

 Udaan is not really about following your dreams or any such crap. The point is that Rohan may have settled in Jamshedpur and continued to study engineering, had his father really tried to understand and at least minimally support his aspirations, without trying to beat them out of him. There are many of us who wanted to do something that we eventually gave up because the parents talked us out of it, and frankly, we’ll do the same to our kids. It is not merely about unfulfilled dreams.

What Udaan probably talks about is having the balls to shoulder the responsibility that you assumed and see it through. For all his rigorous discipline, Bhairav Singh has failed to shoulder his primary responsibilities and instead embraced abuse and violence as the easy way out. Rohan, while daring to dream, also has the courage to accept and bear his responsibilities.

Speaking of which, what exactly are these responsibilities we make so much of. My family, my parents, my career, my house, my city….its endless. The thing about any responsibility is that it is an orphan and always eager for adoption. Anyone who assumes it, will become its bearer. You don’t need relationships to be forged in blood or job descriptions to be authorized. It becomes yours, the moment love enters the heart; it happens to Rohan too as he comes to love his step-brother. If being a man is all about shouldering responsibilities, then Rohan is one at the film’s end.


Sep 1, 2010

Leon, Death & Unfinished Conversations

There have been many movies made about con men/gangsters/assasins who come into sudden contact with a helpless kid, get attached to it and finally lay down their lives protecting the young ‘un. Most of these films are quite good for a one-time watch. ‘Leon’ however, is an aberration and despite watching it for the third time yesterday, I still can’t figure out why. Released in 1994, directed by Luc Besson, hovering around 34th position in IMDB’s list of 250 all time great films, the French film ‘Leon’ is about the dull looking, silent and ruthlessly efficient contract killer Leon who is forced to adopt the 12-year old street smart Mathilde after the latter’s family is wiped out by corrupt DEA official Stansfiled (played with over the top psychotic glee by gary oldman.) The pleasure about watching films like ‘Leon’ today is not simply because you inadvertently watch for traces of oldman as we know him today in films like ‘Black Knight’. As different as chalk & cheese and both so splendid.

Anyway, to come back to ‘Leon’ and why it is a great film despite not really being one. The improbabilities strike you early on and if that isn’t enough, Jean Reno’s Leon is not really an easily accessible character. You never know what is going on in his mind and apart from his habit of guzzling milk and his extreme attachment for a plant he carries around whenever he shifts from one shabby lodging to another, there isn’t much to him. He isn’t really the romantic prototype of the silent, strong, brooding hero. If it wasn’t for the striking Mathilde, Leon wouldn’t arouse our interest at all. He’s unattractively dressed, mumbles and is clearly bad at communicating, & doesn’t seem particularly spirited. Mathilde (Natalie portman) on the other hand is a delight. You can see she is growing up to be the kind of chick men will die for – hauntingly beautiful, tough as a burnt cookie, soft and vulnerable inside as a cheesecake; street smart and defensive and hungry to avenge the death of her little brother.

One of the things which I must’ve completely missed out during my previous viewing is the tentative, never fully explored, so barely etched that you think you’re mistaken, hint of sexuality between the two. While she is obviously hungry for affection and seeks a surrogate father in him, the Freudian overtones of father-fixation persist. She even openly confesses her love for him and sends him chocking on his milk. None of this is sleazy and it is Reno and Besson’s peculiar genius that so much introversion is achieved that you are forever doubting if you’ve read the human interactions correctly. Reno obviously comes to love her in a perfectly selfless manner but is there something, you wonder? Another time, a different place, a slightly older girl, a slightly less bruised Reno..... endless possibilties, none of which take away anything from what is offered to us.

Though it has been done many times, what touches me the most about this film is the understated manner in which the interaction between the 2 plays out – no scenes of close bonding, no flashbacks of fond fathers (her dad was a drug dealer), no mushy moments. She attaches herself to him like a leech, he rebuffs but she doesn’t let go, he accepts her, and then discovers how precious life is. Worms her way in is a more apt way of putting this. In the film’s penultimate scene that’s what he tells her, “You have taught me to love life.” I think you can deal in the business of death super efficiently only when you stop fearing death (Hurt Locker). That’s what Leon is when the film begins – unafraid of death, hence a cold, callous, flawless, mercenary. It is as if he can survive in the world only by deliberately killing all those emotions that make us feel alive. The moment those emotions are awakened, there is no place for him anymore. That is the beauty of this film. That cold, detached realization dawns that you have to embrace death before you can truly learn to love life.

As I watched Leon perish, I had a sudden picture of interrupted conversations. Whether we realize it or not, our lives are replete with instances of such interrupted conversations – phone calls abruptly cut short because of pending work, sms texting suddenly abandoned because you can’t keep substituting feelings for words over airwaves, heated discussions over politics never resolved because you promised to meet later but clouds came in the way, and lastly, words left unsaid because you thought they weren’t important enough.

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Tere khusboo me basey khat, mein jalata kaise
Pyar mein doobe hue khat, mein jalata kaise
Tere haaton ke likhey khat, mein jalata kaise
Tere khat aaj mein ganga mein, baha aaya hu
Aag behte hue paani mein, laga aaya hu

R.I.P.