Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

Somewhere In The World – A new start and a morning raga

April 1, 2023

Fair warning: this is going to be long (tell me something new, you say!) and also personal. Very personal.

Some of you already know this but the last two years or so weren’t kind to me. I know, I know, there were so many who suffered during covid. People lost jobs right in March/April 2020, people lost loved ones to covid or found themselves needing oxygen to make it alive. The current social media/internet discourse is such that unless you are jobless and living in a slum or homeless, you will be judged a privileged brat for daring to talk about your travails (and maybe even then!). But I also know that the knowledge that I am/was fortunate didn’t make it easier to deal with the hand I was dealt. And I also know that I am not alone. So here’s me taking the bullets (should there be any) for all of you who silently suffered during the last two years and couldn’t talk about it. I am writing this not to rant, though, but to hopefully provide pointers on what to do/what not to do. And also to, ironically, reinforce the message (a version of it) I resented: when things do start looking up for you, learn to count your blessings!

I had covid in Dec 2020. It was mild, on the surface. I was sent to the municipal corporation’s isolation center for, well, isolation and treatment. I came out feeling alright and I drove myself to work most days of the week (it was a minimum 90 min drive one way, going up to 2-2.5 hours in the evening).

Three months passed. In mid-late March 2021, I had a particularly busy week when I had barely time to lift my head out of the laptop and worked 10-11 hours every day (at that pace, that is, with no faffing). Unbeknown to me, something had snapped inside. On the last day of that week, I caught myself panting heavily as I walked up the stairs. Now it’s true that I had put on a lot of ‘pandemic weight’ but I had nevertheless never had that issue before.

Things unraveled rapidly from there. I felt extremely fatigued on the Monday after and asked to be allowed to leave early. I reached home by 5 PM, with an appointment to see my family doctor by 6.30. I slept off soundly, like a log, for a full hour. At a time of day when I would normally be working hard.

I was shocked. And then, the doctor told me about something called long covid/post-covid issues. He got my scan done and then pointed to small traces along the perimeter of the lungs. Apparently, my covid infection, mild as it may have been, was in no hurry to leave my body.

My condition kept getting worse from that point. My fatigue increased, my voice would go hoarse if I spoke on long calls. Attending too many calls in a row made me extremely, unreasonably irritated. I would take at least two days off every week.

By June, things were so bad I had to ask for a long leave (without pay). I asked with trepidation, apprehending they would ask me to leave the job. But the organization showed consideration they hadn’t earlier in huddling people together into a cramped office right from Oct 2020 and granted me leave. I made an attempt to rejoin work in July-end. But I wasn’t successful and had to ask for one more month of leave without pay.

Just to fill you in on the ‘how bad’ part, through these months and whenever I took leave from work in April and May, I would frequently fall asleep at 10 AM in the morning. I am a lark, by the way. Mornings are my most productive time and I peak mid-morning. But I found myself simply unable to resist sleep. Attempts to exercise would lead to intense fatigue, which forced me to eat just to retain energy (contributing to further more weight gain).

In September, I was able to join with a ‘hybrid’ schedule with a promise to resume full work-from-office in October.

I was not the same person in body anymore. I still climbed stairs gingerly and I am someone who used to play tennis intensely at least six days a week. But I hobbled through to January 2022.

Then, in January 2022, there was an Omicron wave in India (and especially in Mumbai, which bore the brunt during all waves but the second which hit Delhi harder). Once more, the organisation refused to switch to work from home. Two of my reportees tested positive for covid. Soon, it was my turn. This time, I did have high fever for two days which gave way to a constant wet cough for the next three days. After that, it was gone.

But if I had hoped that a full but short infection would be better than a lingering one, such hopes were soon belied. The fatigue returned if not as intensely as during my earlier struggles with long covid. My ability to concentrate and digest numbers on a spreadsheet (vital for an accountant like me) suffered.

In the meantime, I lost my earlier reporting manager and was switched to one who had recently joined the organisation. Let’s just say he was not too chuffed about having ‘damaged goods’ under his charge and was also not generally the most empathetic soul you could find. After his attempts to gaslight me into denying my health issues failed, we reached a stalemate. At which point, I thanked the CEO for having offered support through 2021 and said I would rather part ways and let my health problems be mine alone and no longer theirs. In getting to this point, I had required counselling (but no meds). So….yeah!

I proceeded to put myself on a diet that got gradually more and more stringent. And as my weight finally began to go down, I swapped the treadmill for outdoor jogging. At first, I took it slow, afraid too much exertion would bring back the ghost of long covid. Eventually, I got up to 6-6.5 km a day (and at a stretch, not staggered). I also got my weight back down to where it once was, back in the good old pre-pandemic days. Still overweight but no longer obese and feeling revitalised within.

And as all this happened, I finally got another assignment. It was a dream profile. It was also in Zimbabwe! Had I already been employed, I might well have dismissed the opportunity without hearing me. But as it was, I decided to find out. My contacts told me I had nothing to fear, that it is a beautiful and safe country. And I agree!

I have now wrapped up nearly three months in a new country, working harder than I ever have post my assignment with Deutsche Bank back in 2009! I work a couple of hours almost every day after getting home and I also work most Sundays. There have been days I sat up till 11 and got up again at 6, taking advantage of the much shorter commute times here (there’s nothing you would call ‘traffic’ by Indian standards) to clock in a couple of hours before I even get to office. And with all this, I have coped and – touchwood – thrived.

And yet, the human brain is nothing if not both restless and whiny. And whenever my mind turns to things I don’t like about my situation, I remember what I was told during my counselling. The doctor emphasised the value of gratitude. We must be grateful, thankful for what we have. No, not in an internet slum-shaming way but to remind ourselves every day that we do have a lot (a lot of which we may be taking for granted) and by so counting our blessings, we mould our state of mind to a happier one. A rose plant may have thorns but we cannot lose sight of the roses in our obsession with finding things to complain about.

And in that spirit, I am sharing a song I listen to every day or nearly every day on the way to work in the morning. It’s a lovely little song by Swing Out Sister with the perfect words to sum up where I am in 2023 and how I got here:

Maybe we’ve made mistakes/Maybe we’re not the only ones

Maybe it’s not too late/ To start all over

Yes, yes, yes! It’s never over till it’s over, as they often say in sports commentary. It’s true. It may sound glib and corny but it’s profound wisdom all the same. There may be light at the end of the tunnel if you’re prepared to plow through to the end.

And if, like me, you went through hell lately and now find yourself in a much better position, be thankful. Articulate to yourself that thankfulness and dwell on it in whatever way you find suitable (for me, it’s an uplifting song like this one).

I have worked in several organisations up to this point and can confidently say none have been perfect in every way. And neither are we perfect, huh! There’s always going to be something you don’t like so much but what about the things you do like? Here in Harare, I am thankful for the much shorter commute, the much cleaner air (than Mumbai), for getting the opportunity to work on a dream profile that greatly enriches my resume and to work under a person who is not just a great manager but a great mentor. All of those things are exceedingly rare, as I know now from painful first hand experience. And it’s worth reminding myself every day , in the morning, just as I get to work, about this.

And with that, I leave you with my morning raga, my daily mantra that keeps me safe from negative energy, from needless fretting and toxic cynicism. Somewhere in the world….

P.S: I love the moment at 3:02 in the video where Corinne extends her hands out to the horizon with a big smile on her face as she mouths the chorus. Truly I do. It’s full of warmth and cheerful energy. Maybe, dear reader, if you are a whippersnapper much, much younger than poor old me, all this makes you snigger cynically. As I did when I was in my twenties. But be warned: thou may not snigger so much when you get to my age. And even if you’re in a much happier place twenty years hence, that is still something to be thankful for. So say thank you for what you have and to the people you love! And let the universe love you back.


A horrible experience with Amazon and how the kirana store killed the ecommerce giant?

December 2, 2022

I bought a smartphone from…a brick-and-mortar shop! I know, how revolutionary, right? How did this even happen? Well, as the Shastri-ism goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.

My old phone has served me well since 2018-end. But lately, its battery has been giving way. I tried changing the charger and it worked for a while. But even that wasn’t doing the trick anymore. So I decided to get another one. I was in the market for a Galaxy A12 (but ended up buying the 128 GB option of A13 instead).

As has been my wont for the last several years, I placed the order through Amazon and availed the exchange option. I haven’t bought a phone from a store (other than the budget phone I had to buy for the official SIM) in the last seven-eight years. I am a hardcore ecommerce/online delivery user, having used Flipkart, Bigbasket, Dunzo, Swiggy, Zepto, the whole lot.

I have a Prime subscription and Amazon said the order delivery would happen on the day after between 7 AM – 9 PM. It’s normal that Amazon gives such a massive time slot so I didn’t pay heed.

Minutes turned to hours and 9 PM came and went. At ten past 9 or so, the delivery agent finally arrived. He took one look at the exchange phone and rejected it, citing some flimsy claim of damage in the body. I asked if he could at least arrange for half of the exchange discount I was originally entitled to. The system/process evidently didn’t give him the flexibility to do that. I asked him to process a rejection.

I chose a different exchange phone (lucky, I had another one!) in absolute as-good-as-new condition and placed a fresh order.

Once more, the time for delivery was the day after 7AM-9PM.

At 8:30 PM, with no sign of delivery, I checked on customercare and the automated message informed me that the order would be delivered by 9 PM. Emphasis on the word ‘by’.

Once more, 9 PM passed me by. At ten past 9, I called up the delivery agent on his number.

He told me he had ten deliveries lined up and would not be able to deliver until past 10.30 PM!

When I said it was an exchange order, he became reluctant to even come, citing my rising temper. I said I couldn’t help my temper (I didn’t cuss or use any rude language by the way, only raised my voice) because Amazon customercare had told me the order would be delivered by 9 PM, that they had deceived me when he was clearly in no position to meet such a commitment. In an instant, we went from combating each other to commiserating with each other, stuck as we both were with Amazon!

He assured he would make delivery but only past 10:30 and with that I bid him goodbye.

I thought about the situation for a minute and then rushed out out of home. I calculated that at least some of the nearby mobile phone sale and repair shops would be open even past 9 in the-city-that-never-sleeps.

So it was. The store owner-cum-salesperson told me he didn’t have A12 but could arrange A13 with 128 GB. He didn’t waste too much time in arriving at a mutually acceptable price point as well (just 500 more than what I would have paid on Amazon for the same phone, sans exchange). He didn’t have the model readily in the shop. So what? His logistical operation proved to be far more agile and responsive than big daddy Amazon! He rang up somebody and mentioned the model and asked to make it snappy.

Sure enough, a young chap arrived with a package containing the phone I needed. Brand new in sealed container with warranty card. No foul play here. I had already told him I couldn’t pay him in cash but could do a mobile online payment which he was fine with it. So, after opening the package and satisfying myself of the contents, I made the payment.

I got the Amazon order cancelled again.

That isn’t even the end of the story. The day after, I took the exchange phone the Amazon delivery agent had refused to accept along with two other, even older, phones and was able to fetch a small price for them. It was less than what Amazon offered on the website but it was something. And it sure beat waiting until past 9 to find out the exchange may NOT meet some obscure Amazon parameter!

I understand that, at least in India, Amazon is already a little embattled. They have shut down the edutech and wholesale business unit already. So perhaps, the sudden precipitous drop in service delivery I experienced is simply a part of their wider problems.

However, if anybody working with Amazon is reading this, I still have a few suggestions to make:

i) Number one is the counter to what you were going to say – I should say what I have to, to customercare. I can’t talk to a robot or automated message. Especially if it’s going to give me a standard message that turns out to be wrong and misleading, as in my case. Pl consider having a customer care executive for genuine grievances again or be prepared to lose customers who can’t deal with your arrogance anymore.

ii) Consider offering more freemium/premium price points. For eg, you could ask for a price even from Amazon prime customers for delivery of certain products if you know that delivering it within the committed timeline is a challenge, or at least tight. I understand that many Indian customers act like you made them purchase a Rolls Royce if you fix a price point next to any servide but there are many, on the other hand, like me who would pay for the commitment. Provided it’s a commitment.

iii) Rather than giving a very wide 14 hour time slot, you could tell me the delivery would take two days and fix a narrower timeslot, say 5-7 PM. I had it delivered at the apartment my parents live in (and where I am at currently), otherwise such a wide timeline is frightfully inconvenient if both spouses are working and also happen to be the only adults living in the apartment.

iv) This is somewhat linked to (i). I would much rather be proactively flagged of delays in the order rather than have to find out from the delivery agent past 9 PM. Related, everyone in India isn’t a night owl and doesn’t have other unhealthy lifestyle habits like having dinner at 10 and then watching OTT for two more hours before crashing. I am a lark and for me, a delivery past 10 is an inconvenience I can tolerate once or twice but not as standard. Especially, again, if I was told the order would be delivered by 9 PM. Emphasis once more on the word by.

v) Related to the delivery agent’s tale of woes that he narrated to me, please stop stretching the system and beating up the workforce, expecting them to perform miracles as standard service. It sets you up for failure, eventually, as it perhaps seems to be at the moment. Once again, I would be absolutely fine with the delivery taking a day more and for myself and the delivery agent to conduct the transaction at a more earthly hour. It obviously depends what item but I don’t expect the same quickness in delivery for phones or electronic items as I might for groceries. This should be quite apparent. And, once again, you can get around this by customizing priority as per different price points.

I am sure that, from the Amazon insider perspective, there is a very ‘logical’ technical reason for why what I am asking is more insurmountable than scaling Everest. This, after all, is what happens when organizations elevate process-driven to such a fine art that it rigidly boxes them in and makes them oblivious to the customer’s requirement. And this is exactly why I have mentioned the part about getting the phone from a humble phone shop. Not exactly a kirana store but similar in size and style of operation.

They said hypermarkets would kill the kirana store. They didn’t. They said that as well when Amazon came in. Amazon did hurt kiranas a lot more but many, at least in Mumbai, have still survived and in enough numbers that many of us are able to shop at a kirana two minutes away even today. I have never been too comfortable with buying apparel or footwear online anyway.

And now, the one supposedly failsafe thing, mobile phone delivery – you had one job, Amazon! Had the delivery agent for the first delivery simply been empowered to give me a portion of the exchange discount I was originally offered, I wouldn’t have attempted to buy the phone ‘offline’. I gave you another chance and you failed, again! Yes, I am sure in your head, you’re bristling at my impatience or even laughing at me for ‘whining’ about not staying up until 10.30.

But the bottomline is not only me but everyone in my family would now consider buying a smartphone in a shop again. We already did buy refrigerators from the shop last year.

Given that online retail works on minimum personal contact (and just forget about rapport), the bar is higher when it comes to customer service. You fail me once and I will call it an aberration. You fail me twice, and in quick succession at that, and I will switch. So I have.

It may be that many others right now in India are switching or considering a switch. And maybe they just aren’t going to write it on a blog. And didn’t bother telling your customercare because…who wants to yell at a robot! And much to your chagrin, ‘offline’ stores have survived even covid in India. And we will gladly go back to them if this is what passes for customer service for an Amazon Prime customer.

Porcupine Tree, Russia and Liz Truss

October 15, 2022

What follows is the text of a video-essay I have done, pulling together three threads – the staggering decline of Russia in the 90s, the decline of the music industry in the last two decades and the wobbles of the UK lately in particular and post-Brexit in general.

Porcupine Tree.  If you don’t know who they are, they are an alternative rock/progressive rock band led by Steven Wilson, who built up to a large following  within the progressive rock world in the 2000s.

In 2002, they came out with an album called In Absentia and it had a song called Sound of Muzak.  The chorus of the song goes, “One of the wonders of the world is going down/It’s going down I know/It’s one of the blunders of the world that no one cares/no one cares enough”

Remember, this was 2002.  The Metallica-Napster feud had happened but illegal filesharing had yet to take off in a big way.  I am going to cite US RIAA figures here because I could not find a 20 year comparison for global recorded music revenue, inflation adjusted.  So…in 2002, recorded music revenues in the US touched USD 12.6 bn which was already down from last year.  In 2021, the same figure was USD 15 bn.  Gee, so much growth, that’s just fantastic, right?  Hold on, let’s look at inflation adjusted figures. In 2021, dollars, 2002 revenues would have been USD 19 bn.  1999 remains the best year for the music industry going back to 1973, with an inflation adjusted revenue of USD 23 bn.  You can find the link to these numbers in the description.

Basically, the music industry has been in secular decline for the last 20 years.  While it bottomed out in 2015 (which was a terrible 7 bn) and has been growing every year since, it would need to grow by 50% inflation adjusted just to get back to 1999.  Except for nostalgic reasons, would you actually like to be in a business that’s not even performing as well as 1999?  And consider now that I am not talking about an obsolete activity like manufacturing typewriters.  This is the music industry in general.  One of the wonders of the world is going down and no one cares. 

In 2002, no one cared if file sharing would hurt music industry revenues, because it cost nothing, it was convenient and there was no way for government to catch hold of so many people using the internet to download illegally.  And then, it got even better when streaming happened.  You may have heard a number of musicians complain that they get worse than pennies to the dollar from Spotify.  But you get all the music you need for $10 a month so why would you care.  In India, it’s as low as Rs.119 which is not even 1.5 dollars.  It’s super convenient for us as consumers,

But did we stop to think that in order to consume, we work somewhere, at a place we call our employer or organization, whatever, and we depend on the wellbeing of such organizations in turn to keep our jobs? What if something wrecked the industry we are in?  Is it always so simple as just jumping to another industry?  What of those who don’t have roles that let them so easily move to a totally different industry?  What, I got mine, so screw yours, right?  Have we paused to reflect on what everybody thinking that would lead to?

Here’s what I think that would lead to.  And that’s where Russia comes in.  Today, the world is horrified, and rightly so, by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Especially if you happen to live in Europe or the US, you may be forgiven for thinking war was a thing of the past because you are pretty far away from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen.  Oh, did you know that India fought four wars against Pakistan from 1947 to date and that’s without counting frequent conflagrations along the border. 

But anyway, back to Russia.  When you react to the Russian invasion as if it’s an absolute black swan event, a shocking aberration, you ignore what happened to Russia after the end of the Cold War.  Now this is not in any way to justify their invasion of Ukraine but we need to understand what kind of forces were unleashed by the end of the Cold War.  Forces which are not limited to Russia.

As you know, with the end of the Cold War, the satellite nations broke away from Soviet Union which now became the Russian Federation. The new leadership in Russia decided that they would need to implement drastic free market reforms to ensure that communism never returned.  The fact that the short term impact of such reforms would be absolutely devastating to millions of Russians did not figure in their calculations. 

The result was that between 1990 to 1995, Russia’s GDP shrank by 50%.  Yeah, 50%.  So it was like if we all had no option but to work in the music industry even as it collapsed.  Assets built by the Soviet state were broken up and sold off to oligarchs friendly to the leadership, particularly Yuriy Luzhkov. It was not until 1999 that a period of sustained economic growth began once more in Russia.  And who was the President of Russia by now…but Vladimir Putin?  There is a much more nuanced view on the transition from Yelstin to Putin but in this video, I will not delve into that.  Let’s just say that for now, like the music industry in the 00s, Russia was in staggering decline for a whole decade and it took until 2004 for the GDP of Russia to pass its 1990 level.

Can you imagine living in a country like that?  Well, maybe it’s time to expand your imagination. 

And before I explain why, let me introduce a few more characters involved in the Russian mess.  You see, having operated under socialism for more than half a century, Russia needed a blueprint to switch to capitalism.  And this blueprint was provided by American economists who advised Russia on how to implement economic reforms.  For this purpose, Larry Summers, then serving in the Bill Clinton administration, set up a project through the Harvard Institute for International Development to provide advise to the Russian govt.  Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz also provided advise to the Russian govt.  And while it is true that the Russian govt did not implement many of the safeguards they had recommended, they did in essence desire drastic rather than gradual reforms.  (

Now, at the same time as all this was going on, a nation that considered itself non-aligned but which was regarded as a Soviet ally by the West, also had a forex reserve crisis and needed a bailout from the IMF.  It had to liberalize its economy and remove licences and import restrictions as a precondition of the bailout.  However, it implemented gradual rather than drastic reforms and in 2022, has emerged as the fifth largest economy in the world, surpassing the United Kingdom.  The nation I am talking about is India.  So…there was an alternative approach which was not tried out in Russia for whatever may be the reasons. One reason I can think of corruption. “two high-ranking functionaries in the Yeltsin pre-election headquarters were seized with $500 million of cash that they had been carrying out of a government building. Another similar such scandal, the “Bank of New York” affair, happened three years later when it became known that billions of dollars had been hidden in Western bank accounts as part of a money-laundering scheme to shelter the incomes of Russian oligarchs under the protection of leading government bureaucrats and with the participation of Western businessmen”  And if that meant millions would suffer in the short run, well, there’s that line again – I got mine, screw yours.

And with that, I come to the UK.  The economy of the UK is lately in the news for all the wrong reasons.  This has sort of become a pattern post-Brexit but now the trend appears to have dramatically accelerated.  UK Prime Minister Liz Truss’s proposal for sharp tax cuts for the super-rich without a concrete roadmap to fund them spooked the markets, coming as it did at a time of high inflation.  And I don’t just speak of the stock markets.  The bigger and more worrying bloodbath is in the bond markets.  This week, the UK 10 year bond yield hit a fourteen year high of 4.6% before coming back down a touch to 4.2%.  Now why is that bad news?  Well, the yield rises in inverse relation to demand for bonds.  When investors have less confidence in the long term prospects of an economy, they are less inclined to buy a long term bond instrument (aka the 10 year bond).  So a rising yield on a sovereign bond essentially means investors want a bigger discount on these bonds to buy them. 

There are a number of other grim indicators when it comes to the UK economy. The pound sterling is valued in a range between 1.08 to 1.13 to the dollar.  At the start of the year, it was 1.36. In 2007, it was 2.02.

Valued in dollars, the UK economy hit 3.11 trillion dollars in 2007, only to plummet during the 2008 crisis.   After recovering to 2.96 trillion by 2014, it began to slide again as David Cameron embarked on an austerity program.  It hit 3.19 trillion in 2021 and would be expected to grow further but for the prediction of a worldwide recession.

So, again, in essence, you have had a country struggle for nearly fifteen years to get back to its pre-meltdown GDP level.  The reaction to Liz Truss’s mini budget was one of outrage and contributed to a panic sell-off of bonds.  But really, for the last ten years, the economy has stagnated and periods of slow growth have been off-sett by mild contractions.  The last ten years have also seen relentless cuts to public spending.  The size of government expenditure actually fell from 2010 to 2014.  In 2021, it had increased by 15% from the level of 2010.  And at roughly the same time, private consumption has dropped 10% from 66% in 2013 to 60% in March 2022.–of-nominal-gdp#:~:text=United%20Kingdom%20Private%20Consumption%20accounted,an%20average%20share%20of%2063.7%20%25.

Why exactly is the govt squeezing public expenditure at a time when private consumption is already under the squeeze? 

Because they don’t care, simple!  They may collect your votes to win an election, but they are only loyal to a small band of wealthy donors.  And those wealthy donors don’t care whether or not you are able to keep your head above the water.  They want their tax cuts, they want more money in their bank account.  And as long as they got theirs, screw yours. 

And this isn’t a movie that’s only going to play in Russia or UK.  It’s coming sooner or later to any economy that follows the principle of stripping more and more public assets to fund lower and lower tax rates.  It is not as if this philosophy is bad anywhere and everywhere.  If you don’t exercise fiscal discipline at all, you end up like Sri Lanka.  But you can run govt on the basis that you want to create a larger pie with a bigger share for everyone, not enlarge the pie of the super rich at the expense of everyone else.  In other words, you can buy LPs or CDs or even digital downloads of a band so that you get to own music that you enjoy for a lifetime while also putting something into the band’s kitty rather than saying I am going to stream it for cheap and screw the band whose music I love. 

So…what’s the upshot of all of this?  Well, I am no activist or revolutionary so I am not going to suggest ideas for a left-wing revolution.  And I have seen socialism wreck the city of Kolkata so I am not signing up for THAT anyway.  Instead, I am going to start small and local.  I have ideas for things you can do in your neighbourhood, your city, and then your state and eventually your nation, to enrich the place that you live in.  You can choose to spend your money on things that build and maintain the distinctive character of your city in particular and your country in general and you may find that it costs a lot less than the holiday to a faraway exotic destination that you’re afraid of missing out.  I will discuss these ideas in the upcoming video or videos.  But I will end by leaving you with a new motto instead of “I got mine so screw yours” and that is “We are all in this together”.

Nostalgia part 2: the noughties and how they came to nought

November 27, 2020

I wrote about the 90s here. I haven’t much reflected on the noughties – I did in the earlier post touch upon a combination of rising aspirations and rising cynicism in that decade – but two separate events brought the period back to my mind.

One was a forum thread on best movies in each decade and, relative to the other decades including the ’10s, I struggled to name really, really memorable movies that had touched me from the 00s. The other is that I am reading Obama’s new book and he is describing the meltdown.

I think the meltdown was in many ways the perfect, whilst also terribly cruel, culmination of a decade in which things seemed to be going swimmingly well…for some of us.

Maybe that is why I have difficulty recalling that period. Because some part of my mind is probably scarred by the bruises of shattered aspirations. Even while India did not, at least immediately, suffer much blowback from the crisis, it was already clear that things wouldn’t be the same.

Oh, but how wonderful it would have been were it not for the crisis! But was it really?

What about Iraq, is the immediate counterpoint that comes to my mind. The economic boom we rode was juxtaposed against the wanton destruction of a country that had no part, none whatsoever, in the 9/11 attacks on the US. And the US strikes were premised on the purported presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). WMDs that, as it turned out, were never found. Rumsfeld quipped, “Shit happens.”

It was a remark that incensed me then and still does to date. But it summed up the times aptly. With the economic gravy train now speeding more like a bullet train, we didn’t care, let’s be honest. No we didn’t, really, not beyond venting our perfunctory dose of indignation at the Imperial States of America.

Yes, this was the decade in which we (as in people living outside the USA) came to perceive a thinly veiled hubris of invincibility in US’ actions and loathed them for it. Perhaps the hubris had always been there but it was as if a curtain had been lifted in the Bush era. In his Hollywood-like pronouncement right after 9/11: “Wanted: Osama Dead or Alive” or the later statement “In the War against Terror, you’re either with us or against us”, the styling of the war on Iraq as Operation Shock and Awe to Rumsfeld’s unapologetic apology of “Shit Happens”. It did feel from the outside as if the US had mistaken war games for, uh, games. Games without the terrible real world consequences that they had wrought.

But again, what did we really do? Did India, then a still non-aligned nation and in fact governed by a multi party alliance supported by the Communists, rally around the Third World in opposition to the war or build bridges with voices of dissent in France? Nope. If anything, we doted on Bush as the first US President who was ready to do business with India. And that was true enough, yes. But we learned to compartmentalize the ‘Bad Bush’, the one who was blowing up Iraq, from the ‘Good Bush’, the one who would let India keep its nuclear facilities. We did that again with Trump, by the way.

It was then a decade of immense possibilities but also immense hypocrisy. To pick up the thread from my previous post, this was the decade in which we got malls. We started pushing trolleys in supermarkets where we once used to shop in crowded and dinghy markets (without the super). Mumbai and Pune were brought closer by a world-class expressway. Uh, I don’t know about Chinese highways or the Autobahn but I have been on a bunch of Interstates in the US and the section after Lonavla (towards Pune) compares well, I kid you not.

We got airconditioned cafes that were more like lounges where you could take your own sweet time to sip the coffee and devote more of your time to conversing with your companion. We got more and more of the glass-fronted office complexes that are ‘normal’ today but were almost entirely novel back then. And these complexes housed not just a who’s who of India but verily of the world as more and more MNCs headed to India to grab opportunities.

Yup, in a world of endless possibilities, grabbing opportunities was the no.1 priority. Real estate was already beginning to get costly but still within reach of the middle class and many families, including mine, upgraded our living conditions more than significantly in this decade. It was the perfect opportunity. Our cars improved, first steadily, then dramatically. And just forget about the mobile phones. At least here in India, we did eke out most of the decade content with those bulky and clunky Nokia phones but the more affluent and more ‘with it’ amongst us could already be seen upgrading to phones that cost a five figure sum in Indian rupees (or about two hundred and fifty dollars in noughties rupees). Believe it or not, that sounded like a lot to us.

The chartered accountant under whom I apprenticed had already got himself a Blackberry by 2007 or so. It was around 2007 too that the Indian stock market ascended dizzying heights. Said chartered accountant had a junior partner in his firm who traded a lot in the stock market.

I knew nothing then about the impending housing crash in the US, that we were about to witness the greatest ‘main street’ crash since the Great Depression. I did sense, however, that the valuations on the stock market (and I mean the Indian one, not even Wall Street) were starting to look out of whack. I remembered what I had read in Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad – that when people who normally stay a North Pole away from the stock markets start asking where they should invest is the time to book your profits and get the hell out. I told this junior partner (and my immediate boss) to do so and he scoffed, seeing me as a Negative Nancy of sorts. I told my mother too and after repeated haranguing, she listened.

I had the satisfaction of being proved right even without knowing everything that had been going on. The markets tanked in early 2008 and we picked up some stocks on the rebound. We picked up a bit too early because it had another dip before getting back on steady footing. But we did sell those stocks for a handsome profit years later. My junior partner on the other hand made a big loss.

It wasn’t a devastating loss for him, he was ok. But it was for many others, especially those on the other side of the Greenwich Meridian. Much like the characters of the wonderful movie The Big Short, I felt empty even in ‘victory’. It was a pyrrhic victory. I had prevailed over the excessively exuberant. But in the wake of this ‘victory’ lay utter economic carnage.

A new US President bookended the chapter of endless possibilities by achieving what had hitherto been inconceivable – of winning the top job in the world as a black man. Alas, the road to recovery that lay in front of him, in front of us was long and arduous. And not only did he not possess the superhuman powers that his fans seemed to believe he did, he turned out to be an incremental reformer, a cautious moderate and hardly the swashbuckling populist he had been mistaken to be. He did a decent job of turning things around but as we know now, he left too many high and dry in the process and those turned to Trump in 2016 when faced with the prospect of a Hillary Clinton Presidency to cap Obama’s.

But much as I came to be a trenchant and cynical critic of Obama over the years, he had set himself up for a task he was always bound to fail in. Rather, we set him up for failure.

Because what we wanted was impossible. In truth, what we wanted from him was the noughties back. But the noughties could never come back. The noughties were built on the back of a phony real estate market and a phony war. Neither in and of themselves were desirable in the least. But it was they in tandem that propelled the best of all times, at least for those of us who lived through those times and weren’t in, uh, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Afghanistan…you get the drift.

When the real estate market in the US collapsed, it was described as a house of cards. But what also had turned out to be a house of cards was our collective aspiration for a tomorrow that would keep getting better and better. That tomorrow looks increasingly distant and covid has taken away the one fig leaf the eternal optimists used to offer us – that world conditions are empirically better than ever before. No, in 2020, they are not going to be better than 2019 or 2018.

It seemed like we were just about to take off for the stars when the ladder got pulled away from below us, leaving us to fall and fall hard. And the thought that our starry-eyed dreams were built on a foundation of lies and deceit is a heck of a hard swallow.

Well, in the words of a famous philosopher, the one with the best words, ‘it is what it is’.

Hum Jo Chalne Lage – driving on Indian roads

November 21, 2020

Hum Jo Chalne Lage – the pleasant (and copied) Shaan solo composed by Pritam for the film Jab We Met – brings forth idyllic impressions of travelling in India. But does driving in India square up with such visages? Lately, I have a ringside view and I believe driving on our roads tells us a lot about why things are the way they are.

I say lately because I didn’t used to drive, didn’t have to. Having grown up in Mumbai, I am used to navigating the packed local trains in this city and inured to the supposed difficulty of it…on most days anyway. I took driving lessons and got my licence made years back. But everybody knows driving school and the business of actually driving by yourself in India are entirely different.

But as the pandemic and the attendant lockdowns raged on, I realized that local trains would be shut for a long time, longer than it would take for at least my workplace to resume office operations. And even if they did, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with the complete lack of distancing in the trains. So I used the time to learn driving…this time with my dad’s driver. It was his parting gift of sorts to me, as my dad retired this year. He taught me important things about the practical aspects of driving in and adjusting to dense city traffic. After a few trips back and forth to my workplace, he said I was ready and pushed me off the nest. It’s been three months since then and I have been doing OK. If I did have close shaves occasionally in the beginning, I am in control these days, to the extent one can be on Indian roads and I will get to that.

There is something about Indian roads that you would probably not perceive unless you are a driver. Which is that often times, what YOU, as a passenger, may take to be good roads are NOT good roads. A road without potholes is a good one, right? Wrong! The level of the road surface needs to be reasonably constant without unexpected undulations. Unfortunately, that is often not the case in India.

I will talk about a particularly treacherous spot – which is just where the double decker flyover portion of Santacruz-Chembur Link Road (SCLR as we call it here) lands when going towards Santacruz. The flyover kind of bends as you descend and join CST road in Kurla. The problem is there is a steep embankment on the rightmost lane with a sort of pit in the middle. This means your car will suddenly lose ‘footing’ as it gets there. The first time I drove through that patch, I was not aware of this and my car, clocking no more than 70 kph, skidded a bit. I am a vigilant driver, maybe because I am ‘new, so I braked in time and cut the speed enough to get through it. But nothing in the flyover design prepares you for that and it’s a wonder that there haven’t been more accidents in that stretch. While negotiating it, I remembered that bizarre incident where a vehicle practically flew off a flyover in Hyderabad and crashed onto the road below! Yes, that happened, for real!

Was that rash driving on the part of the driver? To some extent, yes. But only a poorly designed flyover would cause a vehicle to simply fly off a flyover. But this is India and we do poor designs all the time.

And THAT brings me to the good and the bad about the experience of driving in India or why drivers have to drive the way they/we do.

The roads are either bad or inadequate for the volume of traffic (or both) and there is also very little space devoted to footpaths leading to pedestrians having to occupy the road shoulders as they walk.

This forces drivers to engage in a constant battle of one-upmanship on the roads to grab that inch of real estate before the other guy does. Trust me, the reason you see vehicles lane jumping and zig zagging isn’t because ‘we Indians are like that only’. It’s because everyone is looking to get out of the mess that we call Indian roads as soon as possible. I know because I do too, as somebody who used to complain about lane cutting from the vantage point of the passenger’s seat. It’s not necessarily because it saves time (though it does, to some extent) but because from the moment you wade into heavy and chaotic traffic, you are trying to get out of the chaos as soon as you can.

You may protest and insist that no, give Indians any road and they will still drive like this. But I have a couple or more of counter examples. On Bandra Worli Sea Link, on the Eastern Freeway or on Palm Beach Road, the road surface is good, cruising speeds are easily attained and drivers tend to relax. I wouldn’t say there is NO rash driving but on these roads, you can sit back and enjoy the experience of driving for a bit. I have yet to take my car out for a spin there but you can observe the same thing on the Mumbai Pune Expressway. There is the odd impatient twat but mostly, even the honking subsides almost to nothing and there is hardly any lane cutting. Why would you cut lanes when there isn’t a car behind or ahead of you for several metres?

But the rest of the time…you are trying to navigate the chaos. And here’s the good part of it. The good part is that to a man, every driver is aware of the chaos. Even the bullies. The bullies may switch on the high beam and honk until you yield but they all calculate their risks.

So…when somebody cuts lanes in front of your nose, you will honk and accelerate and try your best to stop them…right up to the point where you physically cannot thwart them anymore. And at that point, you will brake and let them pass. And they will return the favour when you barge in in front of them. Everybody knows it’s not personal. And everybody knows where to stop before you end up colliding into each other.

This is the paradox of Indian roads. In the chaos, there is safety. We intuit that we are in a high risk zone and we must be careful while at the same time not being so cautious that we get left behind and get stuck in the mess.

Here’s a little video that compares. Of course it cherry picks suitable examples but it’s also true that an accident of the sort you see in the first couple of instances is rare in India because we know better than to speed through a junction. We expect the worst and prepare.

And in this way, Indian roads are a microcosm of life in India. We are masters at navigating chaos. We do it at world beating standards. But we are so good at it that we forget that we don’t HAVE to do that all the time, that we can build our way out of chaos. What got us here may not be enough to get us to where we seem to want to go. But do we really want to, is the question.

90s Nostalgia – what life used to be like

August 17, 2020

For the longest time, I have shunned nostalgia. Which is not the same as avoiding old pop culture (or non pop) products.  One of the first books I remember reading and enjoying was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles and one of the first Hindi songs I remember loving was Pukarta Chala Hoon Main (Tamil was different as I was lapping up then contemporary works of Raja and Rahman). I have absolutely no problem with ‘old’ art because art isn’t old or new, it’s just an act of expression at a point of time.

But, getting back to nostalgia, the last few years have made me reminisce what life used to be like.  I don’t want to say life was better then (albeit it was, in a way, which I will get to), but the thought occurred to me that it’s time for those of us who grew up in the 90s to start writing about it.  To stop being in denial and accept we are adults 😉 and old enough to ‘reminisce’. 😦

This isn’t just going to be about all the things we did in the 90s that we don’t have to do/don’t get to do anymore.

I am going to talk instead about my journey as an observer, an onlooker of rapid change.  The transformation apace in India made it a very exciting time to live through.  It’s possible that in some sense, the transformation in smaller cities in recent years has been equally exciting but the time I speak of was before our metros got clogged and overburdened beyond control (not that they weren’t already overburdened at that time).

I am just about old enough to remember when we didn’t have a computer.  My late grandfather got a 286 ( 286 Mhz! Yes!) around 1992-93.  There was not much I could do with this so-not-user-friendly computer but I did get to play Pacman.

Music was exclusively consumed on cassette or radio. There was a Videocon TV with only 12 channels and a Videocon washing machine that didn’t have a timer. We had both till 1999, go figure.  The fridge was Godrej.  When foreign brands didn’t offer cheap options, you bought Indian by default. Did Indian brands somewhere get the branding wrong, or did they fail to stay abreast of improvements in technology in consumer durables?  Oh, my air conditioner is still a Voltas.

Oh, what did we watch on TV?  I don’t remember the exact timelines but until 93 or so, we had just DD National, DD Metro (now dead) and a pirate channel run by the local cable operator which would broadcast movies in terrible print, with ads that covered up all but the core of the TV screen.  Then, Zee came in with Hindi programming. And Star TV.

The programming of Star TV was very different from today.  The sitcoms of the day were Bold And The Beautiful, Santa Barbara, Picket Fences, LA Law.  AND British classics like Yes Minister, Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.

Today, it would make no sense whatsoever to excitedly watch reruns of old American and British series.  But when you don’t have wiki to tell you just how old they are and you have never had the chance to watch such programming all these years on your TV, you don’t complain over such trifles.

Speaking of, anybody remember deferred live?  I do. One particularly memorable instance of it was when Star TV was showing Agassi v/s Chang at the Australian Open LIVE with really good picture quality.   But Agassi was off colour and it turned into a boring display of attritional baseline tennis (who knew then that that would describe 90% of ATP tennis today!).  We switched to DD where a deferred live telecast of Becker v/s Woodforde was underway.  We barely saw anything of the ball as the two got to net more often (or so it seemed) in GAMES than Agassi and Chang in entire SETS, but we loved it.

As we moved into the late 90s, the first truly radical changes to our way of life happened. We got our first Windows PC with a Pentium 1000 processor.  Soon, we also got a VSNL internet connection.  It was so slow that internet over a 2G datapack would fare better than it, seriously.  But again, when you have NEVER had internet at all, you appreciate whatever internet you get. We got our first audio CD, a Kishore Kumar-RD Burman compilation.  I am not sure we fully appreciated it because you could only play it on PC speakers then (there were no CD stereo systems yet, at least none that we could afford) which didn’t offer the most amazing sound quality.

This was also the period when at least moderately swanky cars and cars in all sorts of varieties began to appear on the roads in middle class areas and in distant suburbs.  En route to Thane from Kalyan (where I lived then) via the Bhiwandi Bypass, you could see cars like Daewoo’s Cielo.  What Daewoo?  What Cielo? Google it man! 😉  Of course…YOU didn’t have a car and YOU were in a hired Ambassador.  During that period, the changes underway were sometimes, if not often, out of your reach.  But even to see Cielos, Ford Escorts, Opel Astras and Honda Citys on the road was exciting when you could count the models on the fingers of two hands before – 800, Zen, Esteem, Ambassador, Padmini, 118 NE and Contessa (very occasionally).  The most successful personal vehicle segment today – the SUV – didn’t even exist then – you had straight up Jeeps like the Mahindra Jeep, the Commander or Maruti Gypsy. The Sumo would join their ranks soon as well.

The life that we led then in the suburbs would be regarded as impossibly dreary today (though we didn’t know it then, because us kids played and played, mothers were busy with running the household as they still are and fathers came home from work to unwind to TV programmes and/or music. )  Anything exotic meant a trip to the city (meaning downtown Mumbai coming up to Dadar/Matunga).  And that could mean something like looking for an audio cassette of K L Saigal hits.  Listen to this: my uncle living in Chicago is a huge fan of Saigal and asked if we could get a cassette of his hits.  We looked for it in a couple of music stores in Dadar with no luck.  We finally found it only in Rhythm House.  We asked if we could get to play the tape (because so often you would get a cassette home and play only to hear that dreaded off key sound that told you the tape was spoiled) but they said their policy wouldn’t permit it and asked us to rely on them as it was, after all, Rhythm House.  I am happy to report they didn’t let us down.  Not that it matters because Rhythm House is dead! Oh well.

My first taste of liquor-tinged chocolate was also in South Mumbai.  At the Central Plaza theater in Girgaum. We went over there to watch Lost World and paid what was then a princely sum of Rs.80 for lower stall tickets.  When I say lower stall, it was the first or second row!  But the theater had the aforesaid chocolates among its food offerings to taste during the intermission.  And it brought on yet another attack of bronchitis for poor me, but I didn’t regret it.

More changes had been afoot during this time.  Star TV made way for focused channels to cater to Hindi and English audience.  Star Plus which had sitcoms whose sole concern wasn’t saas-bahu intrigue.  Saboot was the favourite at our home of all these offerings.  It was a whodunit with a twist in the conceit – you saw the murderer commit the crime and THEN this diminutive female police officer who was as persistent as a bloodhound would investigate the crime and keep asking questions, first to others, then to the one you already knew was the murderer.  And the questions kept getting more and more uncomfortable as she drew closer to the truth.  The show worked brilliantly even though you knew who had committed the crime and you knew she would get to the murderer in the end.  Would that our mainstream TV programming had even this level of creativity to offer today!

But the more exciting development – both for me and my grandfather in particular – was Star Movies.  Now you could watch movies any time of the day on a channel that showed nothing but movies. Imagine that!  😀  Oh, when such seemingly small pleasures meant the world to us. But let me tell you that the catalog of Star Movies alone then was far better than all the English movie channels put together today.  You know why?  Because they were less risk averse.  So you could watch oddball films that hadn’t exactly set the box office on fire.  And even if you didn’t enjoy all of them, you got exposed to different genres, different styles of filmmaking. It’s where I watched movies like Dead Zone, Phenomenon or The Edge.  If you haven’t watched them, google them and check out their subjects.  And keep them in mind next time somebody mouths a truism that isn’t really true like “oh, all plots, all conceits have been exhausted”.

In 2001, we moved to Vashi which immediately upgraded our lifestyle significantly just by being there.  In Kalyan, we didn’t dare eat out and if you saw what those places looked like, you would agree too. We could now go out frequently. The company too offered a car to my father as the driving distance from Vashi to his Lower Parel office would be within their fuel allowance limits.  I discovered the existence of expensive coffee chains like Cafe Coffee Day and Barista (also dead). I did not enjoy the taste of cappuccino then and do not now but the notion that you could be with a friend and take your own sweet time to sip coffee in comfortable, air conditioned environs was itself so new then. Likewise, bookstores like Oxford (again…I don’t need to mention its fate) in Churchgate allowed you to just get a book off the shelf and read for a while before you decide to purchase it.  And you could return without purchasing anything at all.  That was a level of trust retailers had never shown before and that felt…revolutionary.

By 2003, Navi Mumbai had its first mall, Centre One.  Its original avatar has since downed shutters and reopened to tenuous existence…whether this existence will re-exist post covid-19 is anybody’s guess. I got to borrow my mother’s mobile phone when I went to a coaching class in Ghatkopar every evening. By 2003, we had also enjoyed our first ride on the Mumbai-Pune expressway.

We didn’t notice, I think, when the end of our (my generation’s) innocence happened.  When you’re on a treadmill of rising aspirations, you don’t stop to take a look and notice something odd.  But in retrospect, that moment was the Gateway blasts in 2003.

There were two repercussions of the blast.  Gateway became a high security zone and could no longer be a venue for live events.  As a Mumbaiite, it is hard not to remember the blasts every time I watch this video (and, as a music lover, I watch it often):

But the more significant consequence of the incident was it exposed what news reporting in India had become.  Every news channel reported wildly different death tolls and none, I repeat none, got it right. This was the moment that exposed clearly that information had become a mere commodity for those who professed to bring you the news, that getting there first mattered more, far more, to them than getting to the truth.  When you could not completely rely on what news channels reported, it was hard not to become cynical. It is why I am somewhat unsympathetic when I hear liberals of a certain stripe moan about fake news in the age of Trump (and Modi).  Darling, that train left the station long ago and you didn’t notice.  Maybe because you had a good life then and a world order that was agreeable to your worldview?

This combination of rising cynicism AND rising aspirations (along with improving abilities of the market to provide the consumer what he seeks) has marked developments since then.  I took my first flight in 2006 and it was a memorable experience for me, particularly because T1 as we know it had come into being. But it was also in 2006 that I returned home from work to face angry parents who were upset I hadn’t received any of their multiple calls (the phone was in my pocket and I couldn’t hear it ring in the noisy bus).  The reason?  There had been a blast in a local train in rush hour, right around the time I had been returning home.

In 2007, I attended a rock show for the first time and had made it two by the end of the year (Iron Maiden, first, then Scorpions). But the 26/11 blasts in 2008 drove big bands away for quite some time from Mumbai.  And by the time Mumbai became less unsafe again, big band rock was either not in great health anymore or was overbooked in America and Europe with no need for an India outreach. And you know what Barkha Dutt did whilst reporting on 26/11.

At some point, the dam has burst and the cynicism has been replaced by anger, by fury.  I do not think the fury is all bad.  Even if you think – as I do – that the conspiracy theories floating around Sushant Singh Rajput’s death are wild, unless you are on the take, you probably agree that the debate around nepotism and the industry’s unprofessional practices is a much needed one.  It is good that we care.  But is it so good when a Union Minister incites a mob to fire bullets at protesters in crass, expletive-laden Hindi?  Again, if you stepped back a little from whataboutisms, you would agree with me that what a minister cannot do, at least in principle, is to tell people to take law into their own hands.  Just the same as you cannot say the mob wouldn’t have rioted and destroyed property in the city they live in had somebody who purportedly made an offensive Facebook post been arrested ‘in time’.

And that is partly the purpose of recounting what I have.  As I said, mine isn’t the nostalgia of ‘going back to those days’. No, my purpose with this recollection is to show that there was a time not so long ago when we were, if not happy, at least a lot less angry as a people with  a lot less.  Materially, our lot has not got worse since then; it has improved.  I remember when there was no JJ Flyover, no Eastern Freeway, no T2, no metro, no air conditioned Volvo buses being operated by city transport undertakings.  No 4G Data, no streaming, no ecommerce.  No malls at all, forget about malls as big, as awesome as Seawood Central. The Windows PC I mentioned?  It cost the same, in 90s rupees at that, as a decent notebook (I mean the little brother of the laptop, to be clear).  Think about that.  Think about everything that we take for granted that didn’t even exist not so long ago.

And…that’s all.  Not going to issue any judgments, any ‘pearls of wisdom’ (!).  You’re probably an adult, just like me. You need no advice.  But if I have at least made you pause and introspect, I will consider my job done.



What I think about cancel culture

July 9, 2020

I probably shouldn’t write this.  On social issues, I am very libertarian.  Like, live your life however you want as long as you respect the law, and it’s none of my business. Because anything I say now about cancel culture will be conjoined at the hip with J K Rowling.  If you don’t believe me, that was the fate that befell the signatories of the open letter in defence of free speech published on Harper’s.

But I have been thinking about why I have strong views on this issue.  And about the question I get that do I think free speech means freedom from consequences?

The answer to that question is clearly, no.  Yes, you have every right to engage me without your tone being policed.  Even if you are wrong, you have the right to call me a bigot.  Because that comes with the territory. Free speech.

But I don’t believe people would be talking about cancel culture if it was just that.

Two incident documented here and here suggest it’s much more than that.

The firing of David Shor in particular shook me at my very core.  Back in 2009, I had dreamed of pursuing a PhD in economics and had been advised that my pursuit would be better served if I did so abroad rather than in India.  But with the meltdown then in full swing, people already stuck in UK and US warned me not to take the leap and I didn’t.  And I reflect today that had I done so, I could have been David Shor, fired for a totally innocuous communication only because I would have been employed in one of the occupations that appear particularly vulnerable to cancel culture (though not the only ones, see the other example) – writers, journalists, academics and think-tank operatives.

For perspective, I still live in India, an India that was already in the grip of a prolonged recession except as per official stats even before covid and whose political situation is what it is.  But these are problems I know how to deal with or at least am aware of.  Had you told me in 2009 that there would emerge a culture in America, of all places, that would force me to watch my back lest I get fired with no second chances even if I don’t say anything wrong and am simply misconstrued, I would have simply refused to believe you.  On a side note, you are going to ask why am I poking my nose in American matters if I don’t have skin in the game and my answer to that is, no, I do have and I am not going to tell you how and why as I am entitled to keep that private.

But let’s get back to the crux of it: being fired with no second chances.

The idea that it should be ok, in all cases indiscriminately, for someone to be fired with no second chances, no opportunity to present your side, no opportunity either to apologize and/or delete the tweet or social media post in question, is, quite simply, draconian and frightening.

Yes, it does not violate the First Amendment.  But it is not the First Amendment that makes a society free.  It is a tolerance of diverse opinions that does.  Otherwise, only the President and other politicians would enjoy First Amendment protections.  And that’s where America seems to have got to. The President can ask four Congresswomen to go back to their countries and nobody can do anything about it because he is the President.  But if David Shor shares a study that suggests peaceful protests help liberals in elections and riots help conservatives, he is a bigot and should be fired even if he apologizes or takes back his tweet (and he did apologize)?  I hope at least juxtaposing the two things in the way that I have helps you understand why this is mad.

Back to tolerance.  No, tolerance does not mean I am saying you are to tolerate my bigoted opinions.  Tolerance means only that you tolerate the notion that a person may make a mistake and should be given an opportunity to make amends.  Now, does saying the N word come under those ‘mistakes’?  I don’t think so.  And I think if we apply a bit of common sense, it is easy enough to separate blatantly bigoted expressions from those that are only being construed as such via a particular interpretation.

It behooves corporations to undertake due process before firing somebody for such a reason.  Allow the person to show the entire conversation and make their case and then, independently judge whether it could at least be construed as a bonafide mistake.  If the person has made a mistake, ask them to apologize and remove the tweet/post.

If a person has a habit of saying blatantly bigoted things and then apologizing and deleting them when caught, have a three strikes rule so nobody gets to take undue advantage of tolerance.

What I am saying: there are practical ways to address this in a way that it does not start to resemble censorship imposed through the instrument of corporate power.  Corporations themselves ought to consider such approaches in the first place.  (Perhaps, they don’t because they enjoy being ceded so much power by the left.  Hoo boy, companies get to decide what people should say…couldn’t ask for anything better, from a corporate perspective. )

BUT it also behooves the militant, activist online left to consider such approaches on their own part.  Yes, you can hound a person and their employer until the employer decides the person is a hot potato and drops them like one. But just because you can doesn’t mean it is right, from a moral perspective.  So don’t feel too morally uppity about yourself; it’s possible that in your zealousness, you may have destroyed someone’s life and hopefully you are still able to sleep tight in the knowledge that you did.

A large part of what makes us human is indeed that we are not perfect.  Best not to destroy that imperfection by attempting to impose a moral language code, especially if it’s quite possible that in the fullness of time, said code will consume you as well.  It is hard to visualize that in your teens, in your twenties but when today’s normal speech becomes the bigotry of the 2040s and your tweets from back in 2020 can be used against you?  What then?

To conclude, I repeat, a framework where what one tweets does not come without consequences but where the ‘offender’ is given ample opportunity to explain themselves or to make amends and demonstrate regret before the ultimate consequence of parting them from their livelihood, might be the way to go. It will not deliver instant gratification to the twitter mob but life is not lived in an instant and a life’s work should not be wiped out in an instant either, not unless demonstrably good cause exists to justify doing so.

PS: If you want to troll me for posting a link, please don’t waste your time.  The Nymag article about Shor is how I came to know about it and I could have posted that instead. I did not because these are precisely the kind of needy grievances I have come to detest.  I am not spreading anything, other than information, by posting those links.

USA in Trump times

September 22, 2018

I resurrect a dead blog…to write again about a visit to the USA.  The last time (and my first time there) was in 2014, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term.  Much has changed since then, and particularly since, of course, 2016.  A measure of just how much had changed is that when my aunt invited me to come over, I asked, as discreetly as I could, if it was safe.  In that moment, I truly understood where travel advisories issued about safety in India came from. As one from an ethnicity that is in the minority in the US, I felt less certain in the wake of all that had been said and done through the course of a fractious and polarising election and its aftermath…even though I KNOW quite a few of my relatives and friends live there and have reported no reason to worry so far.

I needn’t have worried too much, though, because my itinerary took me to (mostly) blue country throughout (just like last time by the way) – Chicago where my aunt lives, Niagara and Washington DC.  Of these, Niagara county flipped for Trump after years of voting for Democrats, though.  Whilst we walked through Niagara on a very hot afternoon (only mango lassi from an Indian street vendor – 2/3 in Indian style – bailed us out) looking for a place to eat, somebody we asked for directions advised us not to go to a particular part of Niagara.  Was it because of crime issues or was it because it was Trump country?  We could only wonder.

It was in DC, though, that the full import of the Trump presidency hit home – through the overwhelming opposition/disdain towards it from residents and visitors.  Our guide for the free tour of Capitol indulged in many a sly dig at Trump’s expense.  Sample this:  while describing the amount of violence that ensued between Congressmen when Congress was in session in the 19th century, he said that most of us cannot imagine something like this today.  He went on to speculate, “But can that change in the future?”  And smiled naughtily as he shrugged.  While explaining the painting described as Apothesis of Washington that adorns the ceiling of the rotunda, he said that it was meant to depict democracy as something akin to religion in USA, adding that the right to vote is something we have to take very seriously.

A much less subtle message was rammed home on our last day in DC.  On the previous two days, the weather as well as our exhaustion from touring the sprawling Museum of American History had forced us to postpone our walk down to the White House (or about as close to it as security arrangements would let us get to it).  On the last day, my aunt had decided she wanted to spend a couple more hours at the American History Museum, having spent all of the previous day there already (and yes, it DOES deserve that much time, if not more) and we were headed to the Spy Museum.  With our Circulator Bus getting held up for too long at the Lincoln Memorial, we decided against getting down at the Monument bus stop to walk down to the Ellipse.  But the driver stopped the bus there and said you could walk 10 minutes to get a good view of White House from the front and offered anybody who wished to see it to get down here.  She repeated her appeal twice, thrice and none of the (mostly White and many possibly European visitors) passengers in the bus got down.  The genial and venerable African American lady burst out laughing saying, “Nobody wants to see the White House?”

Speaking of African Americans, there was heightened consciousness this time about what it meant to be an African American in the USA.  My cousin (aunt’s daughter) had me read Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me (which was brilliant and, indeed, felt like the ghost of James Baldwin had somehow gotten into Mr Coates). We were frequently invited, if not exhorted, to see the new Museum of African American History in DC.  Another item we could not tick off in our 3 1/2 day stay in that magnificent city, along with the American Indian Museum, the National Art Gallery, the Natural History Museum and so on.  And Circulator bus drivers as well as cabbies discussed the African American condition with us.

They asked me whether we in India were racist (not in as many words) and discriminated on colour (this, they did ask straight out).  Didn’t tell them the truth and instead told them what I personally believe in (which is non discrimination).  Should I have?  I don’t know.  Besides, they probably already knew and were just having fun putting us on the spot.

As in my previous visit, I found many who were incredibly eager to help.  From a co passenger on Lufthansa who offered me her headphones when the flight attendant forgot to hand the inflight headphone package to me only for me to report with embarrassment that I already had my own pair of headphones but was only trying to see if I could, like a typical Indian, get a freebie I was entitled to. To a volunteer at an information center just outside the Smithsonian metro station who generously gave us her HUGE umbrella to run across to a store across the road to buy ourselves umbrellas (it was POURING that evening at DC). To the Circulator Bus drivers who waived off the $1 ticket (no idea why) and ushered us in.

Squaring this country with the one that voted for Trump seems a confounding exercise.  Was it that from the outside I did not understand everything about Trump and what the people who voted him into power saw in him that we do not (just the way we voted for Modi, right?)?  Or was it that I should have gone to Trump country to find out?  Should I have?  Would it have been safe?

Bhai verdict: The day Bollywood lost its marbles

May 8, 2015

Bollywood is fond of justifying the, ahem, quality of its mass market films with the pompous “We know what the people (as opposed to pretentious critics, ostensibly) want and we give it to them” line.  But the reactions to the verdict in the 2002 hit-and-run case involving Salman Khan suggest they know very little, if anything, about “the people”.

A sessions court finally pronounced its verdict in the aforesaid case and found Salman Khan guilty of culpable homicide.  Farah Khan, wife of Zayed Khan (and not the Farah Khan you’re probably thinking of), compared the verdict to holding a train driver guilty for running over people who were illegally crossing the tracks.  Singer Abhijeet pretty much condemned ‘illegal’ pavement and road dwellers to a dog’s death and said he used to sleep on the platforms of railway stations when he was homeless.  First off, you are not supposed to squat on railway stations either.  Secondly, while sleeping on the pavement may be illegal, driving over the pavement is, too, if one follows his argument.  Lastly, a word about the legality or otherwise of some of the activities of some members of the Bollywood fraternity might be pertinent here?

In their outpouring of support for Salman Khan (understandable in a realpolitik sense, perhaps, even if cringeworthy) and the utter condescension they expressed to their victims, Bollywood unwittingly unmasked itself.  Behind the curtain of entertainment with its adorable performers was ugly, stinking elitism of the worst kind.  Even if some Bollywood biggies originally hailed from backgrounds not dissimilar to that of the victims in the Bhai case, they made it clear on Wednesday that they had long since forgotten (perhaps forsaken) their roots and staunchly identified themselves with the upper crust of society.

What might be the repercussions of this?  Bollywood has had a bad time lately, salvaged only by the stupendous success of PK.   Maybe their reactions to the Bhai verdict offer a clue as to why.  Those who are completely out of touch with the masses and indeed deride the same ‘unwashed’ folk that flock to cinema halls cannot understand what it takes to entertain them.    No, reacting in a despicable way to justice being served on one of their fraternity won’t lose Bollywood all its patrons.  But it may just add a fresh layer of cynicism to the star-fan relationship.  Is it really worth idolizing an entitled douchebag just because he/she is attractive?   Whereas stars considered advertisements beneath their dignity in the 70s, today they use every trick in the book, every possible channel, be it internet, social media or the traditional media like TV/press, to remain in the limelight 24/7.  Again, perhaps, the above is part of the reason why this has become necessary.

What of the masses themselves?   It would appear that Bhai-_____s have yet to give up the faith.  Be that as it may, cinema lovers may not easily repose so much faith in a movie star in the foreseeable future.  Is this perhaps a “best of times and worst of times” moment for India?  This is, as  I said, a moment where the Indian elite stands ruthlessly unmasked and exposed, their disdain for the have nots never more plainly evident.

Is India still gonna be turning right? Your guess is as good as mine.

India in the era of andh wishwash

March 22, 2015

In these social networked times, it is possible to move around in circles one is comfortable with, read or watch only those mags, books, programmes and movies that suit one’s tastes (rather than watch certain kinds of stuff to fit in with a larger social group) and not feel isolated.  Per chance, an  encounter with the physical dimension can nevertheless bring home the reality with a resounding thud…and provoke thought.

Yours truly was whammed in the face with ground reality yesterday as I took a walk with my wife on the so called ‘Mini Seashore’, an artificial holding pond by the creek side in Vashi.  Along the jogging track, the municipal corporation had put up large boards with pictorial depictions of birds like….jungle crow, sparrow, myna, bulbul, robin, king fisher, flower pecker, kite, etc.  No boards to depict pigeons, by the way.

And yet, guess which bird was seen in the greatest numbers along with the humble crow?  Yup, the marauding pigeon.  I must surely not be the only one to have noticed that Mumbai is overrun with pigeons over the last few years.  And birds that I could once spot on the gallery or balcony (depending on which reference you are familiar with) like sparrows or mynas are seen more and more infrequently.

One of the causes of this is rising pollution.  But the other is the pigeons driving everybody else away, except, again, the nimble crows.  For example, said mini seashore is a much sought after green lung of the satellite city of Navi Mumbai.  Pollution is not necessarily the problem there and I have known the place to be less pigeon-infested even very recently.

What’s changed is somebody decided to use the roof of a public water dispenser to lay out grains for the pigeons to feed on.  We were talking about it and my wife mentioned some superstition by which the pigeon is regarded as a harbinger of good luck.  Now I am about as well versed in superstition as the evil Westerners are about the prowess of ancient Indian science…ahem.  So whether it is a harbinger of good luck or bad luck I wouldn’t know and wouldn’t hazard a guess.

What I can nevertheless observe is the proliferation of this ill conceived fad of feeding pigeons.  Where there was the one Kabutar Khana outside Dadar Station, there is now khana everywhere for ’em lucky ones.  It is questionable whether this fad is based on any reasonable logic and it certainly also imposes human intervention on the ways of nature…with very visible consequences.

The pigeon here is just a microcosm, a symbol of the changes sweeping across India, in which the heartland seems to have come to the metro.  Hurray for national integration, then!  Should I have seen it coming with the grand success of Kyunki saas…and its many mutations?  Should I have seen it coming with the success of several programmes devoted to astrology and the like on news channels?  Absolutely and I would say that I did.  But that I was able to maintain indifference and irreverence towards these changes until the thought of having to only spot robins on pictorial depictions hit me.

If you, whomsoever you may be, have read thus far and not found it a wholly insufferable piece, you must be a kindred mind.  The question then is what does one realistically do in such a scenario?  You cannot hope to have much success with convincing those who have convinced themselves that India did indeed invent everything under the sun before Mahmud of Ghazni stole our scientists away.  You can choose to join them and together all the flock of sheep may merrily sing, “Let us bray!!!”

Or you can choose what I had been doing ere the pigeon interlude and intend to continue to do so.  Stick to your guns but don’t fire them.  Be yourself but no need to trumpet it to the world.  After all, in the land of offended andh wishwash, said act could land you in jail.  But there is strength in numbers. Exert your choice.  Watch the programmes you find interesting.  Don’t just make a mental note to watch it while instead you forward the same cliched joke on whatsapp.  Read the stuff that stimulates your mind.  And share it to kindred minds.  These minds may in turn stumble upon other kindred minds.  And so the chain multiplies.

Consider that in the land of scientology, shows like House of Cards or The Americans are hugely successful.  Or that, the anti superstition PK apart, Bolly has been having a phenomenally bad run lately.  So there is hope…if you trust the power of the markets and overcome your very Indian obligation to please one and all.  You have no obligation to please a bunch of superstitious, jingoistic nuts.  Make your own road, fuel your own reality and let it compete with theirs.  Aa dekhe zara kis mein kitna hai dum.

P.S:  I do profusely apologise for the overload of snark.  But, you see, we the ‘anti patriots’ have feelings too and it is difficult not to feel at least a bit irritated by the deafening ‘I am offended’ brigade.  So please allow me the right to offend you a wee bit more, can’t possibly hurt.

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