Saturday, January 31, 2009

Luck By Chance

Zoya Akhtar, in Luck By Chance, has understood something fundamental about satirising Bollywood that's been overlooked by makers of dozens of previous spoofs, from Bombay Boys to Om Shanti Om. She's understood that exaggeration, the traditional weapon of parody, is useless in this case. The Hindi film industry's culture and its products are so over the top that further hyperbolising is redundant or counter-productive.
This insight, and the privileged experience that comes with being daughter of the industry's most celebrated script writer and lyricist, have enabled her to create almost a dozen characters who are at once believably realistic and hilariously stereotypical. Hrithik Roshan, Alyy Khan, Anurag Kashyap, Juhi Chawla, Manish Acharya, Isha Sharvani, Saurabh Shukla and Sanjay Kapoor all make an impression in their respective roles, but the show is stolen by one of Bollywood's iconic pairs: Dimple Kapadia and Rishi Kapoor. Kapadia plays a faded actress turned star-mother from hell, and Kapoor has his best role in decades as Romy Rolly, an old-style producer ditched by his lead actor at the thirteenth hour. The cameos and character roles bolster, and occasionally overshadow, the central story about two migrant wannabe actors, Vikram Jaisingh (Farhan Akhtar) and Sona Mishra (Konkana Sen Sharma), trying to make it big in a field dominated by insiders.
Luck By Chance is almost an excellent movie. The film's many virtues have been discussed by reviewers who've been generous with their praise. I'll list the drawbacks that prevent it from being the film it could have been:
1) The action tilts too heavily in Farhan Akhtar's direction. At the end, we realise the film was meant to be about two lives, but for most of its length it seems primarily about one.
2) Akhtar is adequate as Vikram Jaisingh, but not quite the rakishly charming leading man he needs to be. Both he and Sen Sharma are too old for their roles.
3) The fine detailing in camera movement and production design visible in early sequences fades in the later stages. The movie feels like it was shot more or less in sequence and the crew's energy eventually flagged; or the production fell seriously behind schedule, forcing crew members to cut corners.
4) The pace of the narrative is too even.
5) The final encounter between Akhtar and Sen Sharma is a massive let down. The writing, lighting, framing, and setting are all unimaginative, and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's score, never inspired, plunges to its lowest point.
6) Luck By Chance needed more edge to be truly effective. Farhan Akhtar seduces his way to stardom, but his escapades are all joke and no sizzle. Sen Sharma's relationship with Alyy Khan is treated with a 1950s sort of coyness. And when Dimple Kapadia reveals the dark truth about her childhood, there isn't enough bitterness in her voice.
The film, ultimately, is scared of profundity.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Gandhi, Peres, Erdogan, Ignatius and my friend McKinty

Mahatma Gandhi, who was shot dead on this day 61 years ago, never received the Nobel Prize for Peace, an omission that tainted the award forever. The Nobel committee made things worse in succeeding decades by nominating warmongers as soon as they signed any peace agreement. That's how the likes of Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat won the award.
In Davos yesterday, Shimon Peres -- President of Israel, father of that nation's atomic weapons programme, and co-winner of the 1994 Peace Prize alongside Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin -- got into a slanging match with the Turkish premier Recip Erdogan . Erdogan walked out, complaining he wasn't given adequate time to rebut Peres' defence of the Israeli assault on Gaza, which killed over 1300 Palestinians.
The moderator accused of favouring Peres, David Ignatius, is a Jewish-American columnist at the Washington Post who has published several novels. Trying to decide if he was biased, I looked up his Wikipedia entry and then one about his spy novel Body of Lies (adapted by Ridley Scott into a well-made, if slightly cookie-cutter, movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe).
I was pleasantly surprised to find a footnote citing a review of Body of Lies written by an old acquaintance of mine, Adrian McKinty. Adrian and I were college-mates in England in the 1990s, but lost touch later. I learned recently through a common friend that he has settled in the United States and written several thriller novels.
In his review in the Washington Post, Adrian writes: "Ignatius seems to have swallowed whole the Edward Said pill and made a conscious decision that he will not resort to cliche or condescension in his descriptions of the Middle East. As a result, he bends over backward to portray his Arab characters as wise, honorable and decent. We find few instances of anti-Semitism in any of the Arab countries Ferris visits, and even in the misery of a Palestinian refugee camp, we see only fading Yasser Arafat posters rather than venomous anti-Jewish slogans or Hamas hate graffiti. At times, Ignatius seems almost embarrassed that his villain is an actual Arab terrorist (albeit one with a high IQ and a warped sense of morality)..."
This makes David Ignatius an unlikely target for accusations of bias. Perhaps he felt Peres deserved extra time as the lone voice for Israel on the panel, fighting the pro-Palestinian tag team of Erdogan and Arab League head Amr Moussa.
The widely differing opinions on the Gaza crisis remind me of how divisive the IRA issue was in Britain not so long ago. It was a subject Adrian McKinty, a Protestant from Belfast, researched for his Master's in Politics, and it led to an amusing and frustrating episode that involved me. I was the graduate library rep of Lady Margaret Hall College in my first year at Oxford, and passed on Adrian's request for two books published by Sinn Fein, the political party which many considered a front for the terrorist IRA. The librarian, to my astonishment, refused to buy the volumes on moral grounds, and didn't budge despite many protestations that the university was a site of free enquiry.
While this presented an obstacle to Adrian's research, we both figured it only meant he'd have to walk across to the main library, the Bodleian, to access the books. The Bodleian is one of six 'legal deposit' libraries in the British Isles. At that time, publishers of every book copyrighted in the country were required to send a copy to each of these libraries. The law's been modified a bit since then.
So off Adrian went to scan the Bod's old catalogues and rudimentary computerised search system. He discovered that, since Sinn Fein disputed Northern Ireland's place in the UK, it did not recognise legal deposit laws and had not sent any material to the Bodleian.
Adrian saw his thesis prospects being ground to dust between the LMH librarian's distaste for Sinn Fein and Sinn Fein's rejection of UK statutes. One of the most amusing guys I've known, he played up the absurdity of his situation, but it must have caused him some genuine worry.
The librarian who allowed her political prejudice to influence her work was incompetent in other ways too. Though ultimately sacked, she was allowed to stay for too long, probably because she was handicapped and the LMH authorities feared an anti-discrimination lawsuit. I happened to be present when the college treasurer explained to a colleague why the librarian had been fired. "We found she did not flourish in the job", the treasurer said. I resolved right there that, should I ever be in the position of sacking somebody, those would be the words I'd use: "I regret that you haven't flourished in this job".

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Times of India: Confused as Usual

Yesterday's Times carried a prominent headline stating, "Indonesia Bans Yoga for Muslims". The body text indicated something a bit different: a religious body in Indonesia has issued an edict prohibiting its followers from chanting mantras while practising asanas. For the Times, one Muslim council directing its followers to stop saying 'Om' equals a multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation proscribing yoga entirely.
In today's international section, a headline reads "Queen escaped Oz govt's plot to assassinate her". Apparently, back in 1970, while Queen Elizabeth II was journeying in the Blue Mountains, a large log was placed in her train's path. Had the train been travelling faster when it hit the log, it would have gone off the rails, threatening the lives of the queen and Prince Philip.
The main suspects in the plot, which has only now been revealed, were members of the Irish Republican Army, but Australian republicans were also considered possible perpetrators. The Times article omits the IRA, and capitalises 'republicans'. The copy editor obviously concluded the word referred to leaders of Australia's ruling political party, rather than to anti-monarchist activists. This confusion resulted in a headline blaming the Australian government for the plot.
Those readers who merely scan headlines will come away with some twisted ideas about the Indonesian and Australian political systems.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Preity Zinta barks at Slumdogs

Preity Zinta is obviously in the mood to shoot her mouth off these days. Her latest salvo, published in today's Hindustan Times includes some choice bits about the condition of Bombay:
"We should forget about national identity cards... we should have Mumbai identity cards with finger prints and eyes scanned so that no extra people come into the city."
I can see it now. Our police, who have failed to create a manageable fingerprint database of hardened criminals, go around with biometric scanners, arresting Indian citizens for moving around in their own country. Should they arrest Zinta herself, who was brought up in Simla? Or Shahrukh Khan, who grew up in Delhi; or Amitabh Bachchan, born in Allahabad? Or should there be a cut-off point to regularise migrants like there is for slums?
It is those slums that have got Zinta so worked up. She isn't against migrants like herself and Shahrukh; it's the proles in the shanties she despises:
"At this point, I also would like to mention that it breaks my heart when I see what small-minded politicians have made out of Mumbai. Obviously, slums exist because they are looked upon as vote banks. Really, people of Mumbai should wake up and slap those who’re creating vote banks."
And here I was, believing slums had something to do with millions of people in the countryside who are so desperately poor they're willing to move to cities and brave sub-human conditions in order to scrape together a living. But let me not interrupt:
"There’s congestion.. and we have to wake up every morning to see garbage being dumped outside our windows... But look.. I’m getting carried away. Let’s talk about diamonds.. cream.. chocolates.. wines and sweet sweet things."
Nasty slumdogs, taking Preity's mind off diamonds, chocolates and wine.

Monday, January 26, 2009

User-Generated Urban Regeneration

Rahul Srivastava, a friend of mine who majored in anthropology and was the first director of PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research), has helped set up a new consultancy called Urbz, which works on the principle of 'user generated cities'. He has written a number of articles on this theme, frequently in collaboration with fellow-Urbz member Matias Echanove.
PUKAR is doing some important work in urban regeneration, and I'm sure Urbz will also make a substantial contribution to the field. Nothing I write in this piece should be taken as belittling their achievements or intentions. I do, however, have fundamental differences with Rahul's view of city development. Take the issue of slums in general and Dharavi in particular. The subject is on many minds because of the stark visuals seen in Slumdog Millionaire. Rahul and his partners at Urbz have an unusual take on it: "Often dubbed “Asia’s largest slum,” Dharavi is in fact a heart-shaped agglomeration of primarily informal settlements that bustle with economic activities. It is located literally in the heart of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital." Let me first voice a pet peeve about the use of the word 'literally'. Why do people always use it when they can't mean it literally? As in, 'I literally died', or 'literally in the heart of Mumbai".
That trivial matter behind us, let's analyse the purport of the sentence. Dharavi is called Asia's largest slum, while IN FACT it is not a slum at all but something else. An agglomeration of primarily informal settlements. In another essay, published in Art India magazine, Rahul and Echanove go further, speaking of "millions around the world who actually live in villages that are misrepresented as slums."
The enemy of informal settlements is, of course, the planned township. In good postmodern fashion (see my previous post for more on that), Rahul and Echanove (R & E) favour bottom-up, incremental development in consultation with communities, rather than any master planning by state agencies. They take as a model the development of Tokyo after WWII, where local activists and residents designed precincts because the government had other priorities. The gulf between Tokyo and Dharavi, though, is immense. Tokyo was devastated by bombing during the war, and so citizens had a clean slate of sorts to work with. They stayed within the law, maintained high construction and hygiene standards, and were provided requisite utilities. Dharavi, on the other hand, is an overcrowded mess of shanties built illegally on state land by residents who, for the most part, have to contend with pathetic sanitation facilities. In fairness, I should clarify that all my knowledge of Tokyo is second-hand, I've never visited Japan. If anybody has been there and feels the comparison with Dharavi is apt, please let me know. I doubt, however, that any Tokyo neighbourhood looked like this after it was rebuilt:

This photograph was taken by Matias Echanove, who knows both Tokyo and Dharavi well.
In their Art India piece, R & E hold up the bazaar as the ideal metaphor for the city, writing, "No wonder the bazaar is making a comeback in post-industrial cities: farmers' markets, music festivals and the like appealing to an increasingly cosmopolitan and bohemian generation...". They then provide the example of the Bombay Bazaar in Tokyo, a restaurant that "is part of a new group of venues that have adopted slummy-looking vernacular architecture as a fashion statement." Slumminess tends to become a fashion statement when there aren't any actual slums around.
I love comeback bazaars like London's Borough market myself. But the fact is they cater not to the clientele that farmers' markets originally did, but to prosperous citizens who can afford handmade oatcakes, organic heather-fed lamb and seaweed-eating hogget. The rustic feel of Borough market is cherished by those who have grown up shopping at Sainsbury's. It seems an odd model for places which have till very recently not experienced the convenience of modern retailing. R & E decry the clinical design of planned neighbourhoods, but they fall into the trap of glorifying its opposite. A bit like India's communist parties which support dubious regimes like Iran's theocracy just because they are anti-American.
In critiquing the antiseptic, R & E end up glorifying the septic.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ahmedabad recollections

Since so many people are speaking of Narendra Modi as the best Prime Minister India could have, the latest being Preity Zinta, here's my account of what I experienced of the man's development policies. I travelled to Ahmedabad in March 2007, my first and thus far only visit to the city. The town has over a dozen world class historical monuments, some great modern architecture and a fine museum, but has never made it to India's tourist map because it is noisy, dirty and lacks atmosphere. Gujarat's ban on liquor doesn't help.
Most auto rickshaw men are clueless about major architectural landmarks. Luckily, I ran into a driver named Mohammad who specialises in ferrying around the few heritage-seekers who come to Ahmedabad. He saved me a lot of time, aside from taking me to one or two interesting places that guidebooks don't mention and, at the end of the day, only charged what his meter showed.
Most of Ahmedabad's oldest surviving monuments are delicately-embellished mosques. Many have been in continuous use for half a millennium; they predate the Mughal emperor Akbar's takeover of Gujarat. I expected the people in these mosques to treat me with suspicion. I have encountered such suspicion in places like Bhopal and Banaras, and assumed the onslaught that Muslims in Gujarat faced in 2002 must have made them wary of strangers. To my surprise, I was received warmly everywhere I went, with caretakers going out of their way to point out decorative details I might have missed. One young Maulana, on learning I was a journalist, took me round the mosque under his charge, showing me places where it leaked, other areas where the structure had weakened and needed to be propped up by bamboo sticks. He'd been asking for assistance from the state government since the earthquake of 2001 without any response. He pleaded with me to send letters to the Archaeological Survey (ASI) or any other conservation authority I knew to bring the neglect of the monument to their notice. I promised him I would, but am ashamed to confess I did nothing after returning to Bombay.
On my final evening in Ahmedabad, I rode through an area of the old city called Astodia, to find many of the structures bordering the street were being bulldozed. One old man stood in what had been his living room on the third floor of a building whose entire front had been gouged out. He had probably stayed in that home his whole life. Many of the structures being demolished were clearly over a hundred years old. It was unfathomable why anybody would want to destroy one of the few places in the city with real character. My immediate reaction was that, since most of the residents of Astodia were Muslim, the administration probably didn't care what happened to them. It was one more strike on behalf of Modi's revolution.
Back home, I tried to make sense of what I'd seen by googling the Ahmedabad news. I learned that the city's municipal authorities had decided to widen the main Astodia road in the 1950s. The case went to court and, in 1964, residents got a stay on demolitions. When I visited, the locals had just lost their final appeal, the stay had being vacated, and the municipality had gone to work immediately.
Along that road lie two of the 500 year-old mosques I have spoken of, including the Rani Sipri mosque, a small but exquisite construction in excellent condition. The Ahmedabad municipality planned to take down the compound walls of these places as part of their road-widening plan. Since both were ASI-protected structures, conservationists prevented the vandalism by getting a court order in the nick of time. But they could do nothing about more recent buildings of architectural merit, because the list of Ahmedabad's heritage structures had not been published.
In the months since I witnessed those bulldozers at work, I have spoken to some Modi supporters from Ahmedabad about the destruction. Their defence has been that, a) the widening of the congested arterial road is necessary for Modi's 'Megacity Ahmedabad' plans; b) The residents have been given good alternate accommodation and are happy with the deal; and c) Many Hindu roadside shrines were removed as part of the civic improvement drive, so there is no special targetting of Muslims involved. I have not verified these claims.
The road widening, though is yet to be completed, and just today there's a news item about a Brazilian student of kathak performing in public as a protest against the destruction of Astodia's heritage. So, what is it the Brazilian could see that Modi's acolytes in the municipal corporation could not? The answer lies partly in the time-warp involved in the demolition. It was mooted an astonishing fifty years before it was executed. I've written about the revolution in museum architecture that took place in the twenty years between the design of the new NGMA wing and its construction. It's hardly surprising that ideas of urban planning have also substantially changed between the 1950s and 2009.
The urban planning revolution began even as the Astodia road was first being scrutinised. If one were to mention a single event that kick-started the movement, it would be the publication in 1961 of Jane Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which took on the policies of Robert Moses, the man who transformed New York City. Town planners like Moses believed in making cities more liveable by executing big-ticket public works projects: expressways and bridges, parks and promenades, dams and waterworks, and massive public housing schemes. Whatever came in the way of these efforts was bulldozed without much consideration of value. The new way pioneered by Jacobs rejected this rationlist, top-down approach in favour of decentralisation, preserving and empowering communities, consulting locals rather than depending solely on appointed experts, and working on a small rather than gargantuan scale.
This movement is now seen as a shift from modernist to post-modernist thinking. A modernist would view Astodia as a traffic bottleneck ghetto of mostly impoverished citizens, living in uncomfortably tiny habitations without good public utilities. A post-modernist would see it as a close-knit community dwelling in old structures, some of them finely crafted, practising a lifestyle that had developed organically down generations.
In India now, we are faced with an interesting conflict. NGOs have overwhelmingly adopted the post-modern approach, but administrators preserve the modernist mindset, with one important variation, namely that they rarely accomplish what they set out to do in the proper time frame, thus negating the essential advantage of modernist planning, which is its emphasis on rationality and efficiency. The fact that the Astodia road widening is yet to be completed nearly two years after the demolition drive is a good example of Indian modernist planning.
The modernist and post-modernist viewpoints are so distinct that one side cannot comprehend the other's perspective. As I took that ride through Astodia, for instance, I found it mind-boggling anybody would even consider demolishing that row of antique buildings. I am sure that, conversely, some officers of the municipal corporation were amazed to discover activists fighting to preserve that enclave intact.
Although I thought the razing of buildings in Astodia foolish, I have not bought entirely into the post-modern line of thought. My friend Rahul Srivastava has recently co-written an article about Dharavi which exemplifies what I believe to be the shortcomings of the postmodern-NGO approach to urban planning. More on that in a day or two.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Slumdog, Q & A and the Art of Adaptation

I watched Slumdog Millionaire last evening. If it wins the Oscar for best film, it will be one of the weaker movies to have done so. However, I'd rate it higher than past winners like Driving Miss Daisy and Braveheart, and at about the same level as Million Dollar Baby. (The paragraphs that follow reveal some plot details. If you don't want to know about those, stop reading now)
Slumdog departs substantially from the novel on which it is based, Vikas Swarup's Q & A, about which I wrote in a previous post. The basic premise has been retained: a poor youth wins a quiz show because the questions asked happen to connect with episodes in his life. But everything from the name of the main character to the questions themselves has been altered. For the most part, the changes work. The film is less sleazy than the novel, has much more heart. Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the screenplay, understands Bombay better than does Vikas Swarup. Recognising that an episodic format is easier to pull off in fiction than in cinema, Beaufoy has added a framing romance and a love-hate fraternal relationship which provide the film interesting personalities and a compact narrative arc.
The three main characters, Jamal, his brother, Salim, and the girl he loves, Latika, are each played by three actors, one for childhood scenes, one for adolescence and one for adulthood. Eight of these nine actors perform satisfactorily, but the adult Salim is a washout, robbing the film of intensity at crucial moments.
Another drawback is the film's failure to come up with a coherent explanation for the actions of the quizmaster, played by Anil Kapoor. In the book, the superstar host has a financial stake in the show. The prize money is a billion rupees rather than the 20 million of the film. The producers don't actually have the billion, forcing the host to place obstacles in the contestant's path. Anil Kapoor is far less villainous than his literary counterpart, but he does mislead Jamal at one point, for no clear reason.
Slumdog Millionaire, being a Hollywood production, faced copyright issues that the novel did not. To ward off potential lawsuits, they chose to collaborate with Celador, the makers of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, precisely replicating the name, sets and format of the worldwide hit. Naturally, they dropped the scam angle, but couldn't come up with an adequate alternate motivation for Anil Kapoor's deceit.
Indians will, of course, frequently find the use of English jarring, and receive as outlandish or banal a few scenes that people with no knowledge of India are likely to consider deeply interesting and insightful. But that's unavoidable in a project of this sort. Slumdog offers plenty of visual excitement, though of a rather horrific sort, even for locals, and certainly for Indians who have never been to the city, because the terrain of Bombay is so underexplored despite the Hindi film industry being based here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

High-rise cycle

Today's Times of India carries a story about plans to build a 101 storey high-rise in Wadala. The piece begins by hinting the time isn't right to conceive such a grandiose project. However, considering the usual length of business cycles and the years taken for large buildings to be completed, the middle of a downturn might be the perfect time for these sorts of proposals.
High-rise buildings are the ultimate architectural sign of business confidence, even hubris. They tend to be conceived at the peak of business cycles, and completed at the trough. The Empire State building, the first habitable modern structure to be the tallest edifice in the world (setting aside the few months that the Chrysler Building held that honour) was completed in 1931, as the Great Depression really began to bite. It remained largely unoccupied for years.
The Sears Tower was first envisioned during a retail boom in the 1960s. By 1974, when the tower was ready to be occupied, the owners discovered their revenue projections had been very optimistic. Sears Roebuck eventually had to mortgage the property.
Margaret Thatcher took over in hard times, but by her second term in office the British economy was growing at a healthy rate. That's when bankers dreamt up an ambitious regeneration scheme for the docklands, with a showpiece tower that would be Europe's highest building. Canary Wharf hung out the To Let signs in 1991, running smack into a massive recession, meaning that, like the Empire State and the Sears Tower had done, it lay half-empty, causing bankruptcies and changes in ownership.
After the World Trade Centres were attacked, many people suggested the era of tall buildings was over. The exact opposite happened, as a housing bubble led to a slew of dizzyingly high structures being proposed and passed. So now we wait for Burj Dubai to open the doors of its 5 billion dollar, 800 meter plus tower in mid-2009. Something tells me the promoters of the project aren't thrilled about their timing.
On the plus side, as economies eventually turn around and demand for office rentals creeps up, the tallest buildings begin to seem like icons of a city rather than white elephants. Who can imagine Manhattan without the Empire State Building?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Rahul Gandhi and the Politics of Hope

Just switched on the telly and heard Rahul Gandhi speaking at a conference of top police officers in Jaipur, and it made me very afraid. The man is completely out of his depth in any forum. He said something like, "A hero is only necessary when systems fail". What is that supposed to mean? Can terrorists be countered by a 'system' independent of human agency? Can computers and robots do the job? If not, don't some people, at some stage, have to put themselves in harm's way to counter terrorists? It could be the person who infiltrates an organisation to gather intelligence rather than a policeman or commando in sight of cameras, but surely his anonymity doesn't make him any less a hero. Will the provision of top class equipment ensure that firefighters always quell flames with no threat to their person? What about the firemen who perished at the World Trade Centre towers despite their efficient systems and excellent equipment?
Humans are sometimes said to get smarter with each generation, but political dynasties describe a different trend. In the case of the Gandhi family, we go from Jawaharlal Nehru's broad vision and intellectual grasp, to Indira who barely scraped through college, Rajiv who flunked out, and now this chump of uncertain educational attainment.
I remember the euphoria that greeted Rajiv Gandhi's election victory in 1984. Over 400 seats in parliament, the power to move the country in whichever direction he chose. Early progress in Assam, Punjab and Sri Lanka, and then everything going pear shaped. A leader and his coterie taking the country down a disastrous path of international military intervention, profligate spending, and manipulation of sectarian emotions (Shah Bano, Ram Shilanyas) strengthening hardliners on both sides of the religious divide.
There are strong moves to resurrect Rajiv Gandhi as a prophet, a man who brought the computer and telecom revolution to India and began dismantling the license raj. Some of this praise is justified, but the damage he did was far greater than any benefit that's accrued to the nation through policies he set in motion.
I thought of Rajiv Gandhi a lot during the American election season, because Barack Obama represented hope, and Rajiv hope betrayed. Their paths to power were very different, though. Obama is obviously a man of immense intellectual capacity coupled with a calm temperament and a vision worthy of Nehru. I believe he will do better by his country and the world than Rajiv did by India. As for Rajiv's son, he could be our Prime Minister in six months. The only worse fate I can imagine is the other option: another BJP-led government.

Update, January 23: with Manmohan Singh in hospital for a bypass, it seems even more likely that Rahul Gandhi will be the Congress candidate for PM, alas.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Live Blogging the Inauguration

Maize is a dreadful colour. Don't drop that bible.
The Announcer sounds like the ring guy Michael Buffer. In the red corner, Geoooorge Buuuuush... let's get ready to rumble.
Obama looks spaced out, probably going over the speech in his head.
Diane Feinstein speaks exclusively in cliches.
Rick Warren. More cliches. The gay pastor's bound to do better.
"As we forgive those who trespass against us". Hmmm
Aretha's seen many better days, though she isn't as out of tune as Lata Mangeshkar now gets.
Biden's taking the oath. I don't agree with Karl Rove about many things, but I think he was spot on in calling Biden a 'blowhard doofus'. Biden's wife, who appeared perpetually on the verge of tears during the campaign, has joined the gaffe brigade.
Ma, Perlman, and the others in a multiethnic band play sweetly. The tune is sleepy to start with, picks up for a bit, goes pleasantly drowsy again. Wonder how it's playing to the million plus on the mall.
Roberts, whose elevation to the court Obama voted against, administers the oath. A brief stumble, nothing serious. He's still rehearsing that speech.
It is done. Bye bye Bush. We will not miss you.
The artillery booms, flags wave. The 'president elect' phrase is retired for at least four years, not a minute too soon.
I had a feeling he'd be humbled at the start.
He's got the rhythm going. Good tone. Difficult to get right.
Now it's sounding like a campaign speech.
"On this day..." heard it before.
"Greatness must be earned." As, apparently, must Bournville chocolate. If anybody understands that ad, let me know.
People died at Khe Sanh so Americans could live a better life? Gettysburg and Normandy I understand.
George Bush Sr. is wearing Davy Crockett headgear.
Bogged down. This is not inspiring.
Reaching for the usual historical linkages, but it feels like a stretch.
"Warming planet" followed by shots of freezing crowd members swathed in woollens. There's a renegade editor in the crew.
"Non-believers"!!! Yippee.
He says Pahkistahn, but Muslim like muslin.
Desultory clapping.
The troops again.
"The levees break." Bush jr's probably wincing.
Finally, the personal touch brings real applause. Father might have been refused service in restaurants.
Flapping wings hard, hoping to get enough elevation to soar at the end, almost makes it.
Elizabeth Alexander. Can she top the highlight of the Clinton inauguration, Maya Angelou's performance?
She keeps it very simple. Crowd begins to disperse.
The simplicity doesn't build to anything.
Is she done?
Another religious guy. Not the gay pastor, far as I can tell. Civil rights type. Slurs his words, but he's better than the poet, less mannered, something genuine coming through the biblical rhetoric.
Gosh, he's going yellow-mellow, red man-ahead man, white-right. Never rhyme adjectives.
Biden is taking photographs. Doofus.
National anthem. Can't help thinking of the Borat version.
Time to leave. Very underwhelming. It's clear we're in a deep hole and words will not raise us out of it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

NGMA issues

The National Gallery of Modern Art, located in Delhi's Jaipur House, is inaugurating its new wing today. A few years ago, the museum's director Rajeev Lochan showed me the plans for the extension . I mentioned the design looked dated, and he explained why. The project kicked off in the mid 1970s. A design was selected in the early 1980s. Virtually the same plan has been executed in the 21st century. In the intervening decades, museum architecture's undergone a revolution with the creation of structures like Bilbao's Guggenheim, Denver's Frederic Hamilton building, and the British Museum's Great Court.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry

The Denver Art Museum's extension, conceived by Daniel Liebeskind

The glass roof of the British Museum's Great Court, designed by Norman Foster

Indians, even those who haven't travelled abroad, might find some of these edifices familiar. Hrithik Roshan danced inside the Great Court for Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. And Rajinikanth did a jig in a blond wig before the Bilbao Guggenheim in Sivaji. Will the NGMA extension similarly inspire film choreographers? I doubt it.

Admittedly, a museum's potential as a backdrop for a song-and-dance is not a fantastic criterion by which to judge it. But I do have one yardstick by which to measure the success of the NGMA extension, namely, does it give M. F. Husain's iconic canvas, Zameen, the room it deserves? The painting, first exhibited in 1955 and immediately recognised as a masterpiece, is a little over 18 feet long, not massive by contemporary standards. Yet it has been hidden away in storage for years. It ought to be hung in a space of sufficient depth so its full impact can be felt. If anybody reads this after having visited the new NGMA, please let me know if the architect and curator have done the painting justice.
Whatever the status of the Delhi museum, it seems that Bombay's NGMA, housed in the Cowasjee Jehangir Hall, will continue to languish. Two years ago, I distributed a pamphlet at the opening of the show Edge of Desire at CJ Hall. The note, which criticised Rajeev Lochan's handling of the Bombay gallery, was to be published in an E-zine due for launch at the time. That website never got off the ground, but I'm reproducing the entire text of the pamphlet in my next blog entry, because I feel it's as relevant as it was twenty-four months ago Or perhaps even more pertinent since we can't expect private galleries to mount substantial group shows during the current downturn.
All the points I made in that appeal have been revalidated in the past two years. An excellent example was the refusal by Lochan to display the Benodebehari Mukherjee retrospective in Bombay. Gulammohammed Sheikh, one of India's finest painters, gave up more than a year of his creative life to put together the show in conjunction with his co-curator, the scholar R. Sivakumar. Since the government offered only paltry funding, Sheikh persuaded galleries like Espace, Vadehra and The Guild to sponsor catalogues. The works lay in Jaipur House for months after the Delhi show was taken down, but were never transferred to the empty Bombay space despite repeated entreaties by the show's curators and a number of artists and art lovers.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dream Walk

OK, the Standard Chartered Marathon raises a lot of money for charity, so I'm glad they organise it annually. But I could do without the hype of calling it Asia's largest such event. Because few of the participants run the 42 kilometers. The majority enter what is called the Dream Run, a six kilometer scenic route from VT to the Oberoi, down Marine Drive and up to Azad Maidan. Most marathons set the low bar at 10K, so obviously a concession has been made for supremely unfit Indians. Still, six kilometers is not child's play. I'd be impressed if thousands of Bombayites ran that far. But they don't. Almost all walk the 6K, breaking into a jog now and then for maybe a hundred meters before slowing down because they're out of breath.
Only in India could thousands of people go for a Sunday morning stroll and come away believing they took part in a marathon.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Malayali Mystique 1

January's been mostly devoid of big name openings, giving lesser known artists a place in the peak-season limelight. The Guild, a gallery that has consistently showcased new talent, has a solo by Lokesh Khodke, which I viewed today. My first feeling on encountering Khodke's canvases was, "Here's a Marathi boy trying to paint like a Mallu." As it happened, a Baroda-based artist was in the gallery, and when she asked me what I thought, I mentioned this response. She pursed her lips in an expression I took to be somewhere between non-committal and disapproving.
Here's a large oil from Khodke's exhibition.

And here's a painting by Ratheesh T., an exciting young artist based in Trivandrum.

The colours Ratheesh uses jump out at you, and his affinity for the bizarre is entirely unforced. Visual lushness, sometimes bordering on kitsch, comes naturally to many Malayali artists, as does dreamlike or nightmarish imagery. It's easy to connect their palette to the landscape of their home state. Lokesh Khodke, on the other hand, appears to be working self-consciously in a surrealistic mode. His pictures, lacking the quirkiness one sees in Ratheesh, end up resorting to some fairly obvious symbols. The images demand lavish, luminous hues, but he holds back, reluctant or unable to go the whole hog.
Once back home, I read the exhibition catalogue and discovered that Khodke was born and raised in Bhopal, not Maharashtra as I'd assumed. I hope he develops imagery connected to the visual culture and landscape of his childhood and youth instead of following painters who influenced him while a student at M S University Baroda's Faculty of Fine Arts.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Just saw Ghajini, and can't fathom why it's got such bad press. It's the best meat-and-potatoes commercial flick I've seen in ages. It has a great basic gimmick: a protagonist afflicted with short-term memory loss who wants to avenge the killing of his fiancee. The love story, told in flashbacks, gives the movie an emotional core, and also involves many funny situations. The performances are uniformly good, leaning toward over-the-top as you'd expect. Camerawork, pacing, fights, visual effects, sound design are top-notch by Hindi film standards, way better than in Chandni Chowk to China.
On the negative side, the dance numbers with Aamir in them are a bit embarassing. He's definitely too old to be doing that stuff, but you can say that about all the Khans plus Akshay Kumar. A couple of scenes are dreadfully thought out and executed, like one in a train where Asin rescues girls being sold into the sex trade. And the costume designer should've been sacked on day one.
Ghajini's stunning box office has probably been helped by the mood of the country at the moment. Many among those who can afford movie tickets have had vengeance on their mind for the past month and a half.

Old Economy Fraud, New Economy Fraud

A majority of Indians believe that corporate fraud must involve embezzlement. In the case of the Satyam scandal, reporters seem convinced that Ramalinga Raju siphoned off company funds. The jury is still out on what actually happened, but I have a feeling Raju's confessional statement about overstating profits is broadly accurate.
The mindset of the public is a little behind the times. In the old days, the sly business practise was to play down profits, even pretend to be running at a loss if possible. High profits meant high taxes. Why pay the government when one could skim the cream by overstating expenses?
Things have changed in the new economy. Skim milk is costlier than full-cream. Wealth is determined not by the cash you have stashed but the current price of your holdings. Big profits drive up share values, and stocks can be sold with a minimal burden. Thanks to Mr. Chidambaram, long-term capital gains tax from the sale of equities is ZERO. You can make billions without parting with a paisa. Fictitious profits will earn you far more than fictitious costs.
That's how WorldCom did it, that's how Enron did it. Raju's stake in Satyam dropped from 25% to about 8% over the past half-dozen years. He made crores by selling shares whose value was inflated by his machinations. And he put the gains where any good Malthusian would: in land.
It's a typically Indian mix of the pre and post-industrial. Raju had seen exactly how funny money could be. During the tech bubble, he spent 4990 million rupees to buy a website called IndiaWorld, which had annual revenues of less than 10 million. The day after the purchase, on November 30, 1999, Satyam's shares rose by 30% in New York, adding 640 million dollars to the company's market cap, and more than 4990 million rupees to Raju's personal wealth. Much of that disappeared in the bust of 2000. No wonder he saw real security in land.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Chandni Chowk to China

Saw the film last evening and wanted to enjoy it. Because I like Akshay Kumar's goofy smile and pretty much everything about Deepika Padukone. Unfortunately, Akshay spent most of the film shedding tears, and Deepika appears to have spent most of the time since Om Shanti Om gaining weight. She's lucky that, like Manisha Koirala, added kilos don't show on her face.
He's definitely too old for roles like this. Recall the scene in Tashan where Kareena Kapoor reveals she is his childhood sweetheart. He looks puzzled, as if wondering "How come you've aged only ten years to my thirty?"
If you want to know what Chandni Chowk to China is like, think Manmohan Desai formula flick meets Kung Fu Panda. It's a promising mix, and the movie is consistently adequate, but never exciting, hurt by tepid songs and dances, unimaginative sets and shoddy special effects.
If the brain-dead Singh is Kinng could be a hit, Chandni Chowk to China deserves to do well at the multiplex. There's little else to say, except that the Great Wall of China is NOT visible from outer space.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Intriguing Iqbal Geoffrey

A couple of days ago I received a book in the post titled The art of Iqbal Geoffrey, a handsome volume published by Pakistan's National Art Gallery.

At least the book claims to be a publication of Pakistan's National Art Gallery. Why do I doubt the identity of the publisher? You would, too, if you knew Iqbal Geoffrey, aka Barrister Syedna Mohamed Jawaid Iqbal Jafree of Lyallpur in Pakistan, Slarpore in India and Brighton in the UK; chairman of Geoffrey and Khitran, Barristers and Solicitors, Pakistan's oldest and largest law firm; graduate in law and art history from Harvard University; Laureate of the 1965 Paris Biennial; and Arts Counsel of Great Britain appointed by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
I first came across the artist's name while I was consulting editor at Art India magazine. The listings at the back of the magazine's April 2003 issue contained an entry for his show of MicroMinimalist SupraSculptures at London's National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, curated by Professor Norbert Lynton and Sir Nicholas Serota no less. I began a correspondence with him, playing along with his self-image of being 'the greatest artist ever'.
A little less than two years later, there was a large show of Pakistani art in Bombay's NGMA, curated by Quddus Mirza. I was happy to hear that Geoffrey's work was included, and that he himself would be in Bombay for the opening. Despite the many references he had made to his achievements in the 1960s, I didn't expect him to be the kindly old gentleman he turned out to be. I'd placed him in the category of young, hip artists who adopt personae, creating a whole history and identity for themselves online.
Disconcertingly, he kept the mask up at all times, to such a degree that I began to wonder if he actually believed everything he said about himself. We'd be discussing practical matters like exchanging dollars for rupees when he'd slip in a reference to how Sir Herbert Read had pronounced him "an astonishing phenomenon". To complicate matters further, there actually is a record in the Smithsonian libraries database of a monograph titled Iqbal Geoffrey: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolours 1949-1963, and Herbert Read is listed as one of the contributors. In 1949, it's worth remembering, Geoffrey was just ten years old. The Tate Modern has in its collection a canvas by the artist painted in 1958, when he was 19 years old, and donated in 1962. The handling of paint and the colour scheme is reminiscent of the work Akbar Padamsee was doing around that time.
Iqbal Geoffrey's works displayed at the NGMA were disappointingly run-of-the-mill: a series of collages made primarily from glossy advertisements. The images in the book I've just received are devoted entirely to collages and mixed-media works in that style. They are recent creations, which would have been of some interest, had the artist not hyped them and himself so much. Even as I have grown very fond of Iqbalji personally, my interest in his art has waned after viewing the NGMA selection.

So, what's the truth behind Iqbal Geoffrey's life and career? Perhaps he made a name for himself at a very early age. Maybe, in the manner of Souza, he was briefly the toast of the London art fraternity before sliding into obscurity. It is possible he has, in his mind, extended that brief period in the limelight to a career of glittering, multifarious achievements. I can only speculate. What is certain is that his persona is far more interesting than the physical works by him that I have seen.
In conclusion, I quote a line from the preface to the book, The art of Iqbal Geoffrey, by its editor Zoha Haider, or Shahzadi Zoha Noor-Fatima Alla'dittii AnnuRadha Haider to provide her full name: "To beneficially (and usefully) explore this Monograph one must magnanimously study it dilgently in-between-the-lines with goodwill afterthought (but do not think of the pink elephant!) and without taking the line for a ride. Neither marrow, nor narrow the line."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

pics of the day

I've been out the entire day and have little to post. Here are two images to fill the gap. First, another encounter between Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and a visiting giant, in this case the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Second, in the lead up to Martin Luther King Junior's birth anniversary on January 15, an image of him delivering the famous I Have a Dream speech. The entire speech can be viewed on YouTube. What struck me when I first saw a film of the historic event was the number of people wearing Gandhi caps.

Monday, January 12, 2009


I turned 40 yesterday. In the manner of Macbeth, I had imagined the event with such dread as it approached that I endured its arrival with equanimity.
In some ways life is as it was twenty years ago. I live in the same flat. I have no responsibilities. No job, debts, boss, employees, property or children. On any given day, I can wake when I want and do pretty much what takes my fancy. I am still with the same partner and wear the same size jeans. Since relationships and waistlines occupy so much space in lifestyle magazines, that must count for a lot.

Slumdog Q and A

Slumdog Millionaire, which has yet to be released in India, just swept the Golden Globe Awards. The film is based on a novel titled Q and A by Vikas Swarup, which I snippet-reviewed when it came out. Here's that review:

Ram Mohammad Thomas wins a billion rupees on a quiz show. The sponsor’s convinced he’s cheated, and gets the police to arrest Ram. A female lawyer rescues him, and wants to know how he, a barely educated waiter, could answer twelve complex general knowledge questions. Each chapter of Vikas Swarup’s novel Q and A corresponds to one of the questions from the quiz. In telling the lawyer how he knew each answer, Ram ends up telling a part of his life story.

The device makes for an intriguing structure and allows Swarup to stuff the book with sensationalist yarns. To give you a feel of them, here’s some of the action. Chapter 1: Policeman sodomises Ram using baton. Chapter 2: Film star enters auditorium in disguise and gropes Ram’s friend Salim. Chapter 3: Priest sodomises adolescent son of fellow priest. Chapter 4: Drunk former astronomer molests daughter. Chapter 5: Assistant Warden of remand home attempts to sodomise Salim. Events stay mainly in the sordid-squalid range, but rarely come through as depressing, thanks to Swarup’s snappy, easy-to-read style, full of phrases like ‘soulful melody’, ‘bevy of beauties’ and ‘whirlwind romance’.

In a canvas painted with such broad brush strokes it’s silly to expect a refined understanding of caste and community (the north Indian Salim can become a Bombay dabbawala), or anything approaching realism. But Q and A is a fun, fast, unpretentious novel, and there aren’t many of those being written in English by Indians.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Odd One Out

A few days ago, President George Bush invited the three living former US presidents to the White House for a meeting with Barack Obama.

They chatted before the cameras for a fair time, but none of the others so much as looked at Jimmy Carter, who stood uneasily at a distance from the main group. I can't help feeling that the weird body language had something to do with the current violence in Gaza. Carter has written a book, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid, which places him at the fringes of the American political spectrum: way out left, like he was in the presidential gathering. The others in the meeting might have many foreign policy differences, but they have all been at pains to register their unwavering support for Israel. Perhaps even looking toward the only Nobel Peace Prize winner in the room and smiling would have sent wrong signals to the incredibly powerful pro-Israel lobby.
Ironically, Jimmy Carter has done more for Israel's security than perhaps any non-Israeli alive. The greatest achievement of his presidency was the agreement at Camp David, signed by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, which led to the normalisation of relations between Israel and Egypt. The land-for-peace formula established at Camp David became a template for future deals, but none of the agreements signed after 1980 proved as robust as the Egypt-Israel detente, which has endured for three decades.
Carter put his reputation on the line to push the agreements through, extending the deadline for negotiations, patiently going back and forth between two leaders who hated each other. They got Nobel Peace Prizes immediately, he had to wait 22 years for his own gong. Unjust, perhaps, but better than the volley of bullets that was Sadat's ultimate reward for signing the treaty.

Friday, January 9, 2009


Over fifty hours after Ramalinga Raju confessed to carrying out the biggest fraud in Indian corporate history, the police have yet to pop across to his house and question the man, let alone arrest him. They say they are waiting for a complaint. Funny thing is, anytime people arrange a party, cops land up at 11pm and inform the organisers that playing loud music isn't allowed after 10.30. Those who enquire if anyone's complained are informed rudely that the authorities can act even in the absence of complaints. Then negotiations start over the amount of cash or booze to be handed over before the partying can begin again.
I suppose Raju has sent negotiators to police headquarters in advance.

Roots of the Crisis

In my last post I wrote of how the threat of war distracts from the "roots of the crisis". I was referring to Pakistan's support of terrorism. The deeper root is, of course, the dispute over Kashmir. The current Indian administration could have negotiated some kind of deal while General Musharraf was in charge. He held all the levers of power and offered some very reasonable approaches to resolving the issue. Unfortunately, Manmohan Singh followed the tradition of Indian heads of government in showing no interest in resolving the vexed question. I wrote an article about it in the Sunday Times of India last April, and warned the window of opportunity would not remain open forever. Notwithstanding the recent election in Jammu and Kashmir state, that window seems to have firmly shut.

Copycats 2: Israel, India and Pakistan

CNN IBN is not the only media outlet asking if India should bomb Pakistan, emulating Israel's assault on Gaza. A concise response to such an idea is provided by Tunku Varadarajan in a Forbes magazine article .
When the possibility of attacking Pakistan is brought up in Indian newspapers and on television, there is, as a rule, no serious discussion of a potential nuclear holocaust. Pundits speak of surgical strikes and limited war, ignoring the atomic weapons pointed at Bombay and Delhi. We have no way of stopping those once the missiles take off. All we could do in response to the killing of millions of our civilians is to kill millions of Pakistani civilians. There is now talk of India buying a missile shield from the US, but it will be years before we get it and the technology's unproven in any case.
If Hamas had nuclear weapons, Israel would never have attacked Gaza. If Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons, Bush would never have invaded Iraq.
India, then, needs to exert diplomatic pressure without rattling sabres, and that's precisely what it is doing. Nothing pleases Pakistan's politicians more than headlines about war. The world immediately get scared and does all it can to cool things down between the countries. The United States, which wants Pakistan's forces to focus on the border with Afghanistan, asks India to tone down its rhetoric in order to stop any shifting of battalions eastward. Attention is drawn away from the roots of the crisis.
Pakistan's foreign minister tried to highlight the threat of war in a television address, but India didn't take the bait. It continued to demand a crackdown by Pakistan on militant groups. It saw that the Pakistani government had painted itself into a corner by reflexively talking about the need for proper evidence, and denying the terrorists were Pakistani. This time India did have evidence about the origins of the attackers. One of them was captured on cameras and closed circuit TV and then captured by the police. Now the Pakistan government has really tied itself in knots over the issue, as demonstrated by the sacking of the National Security Advisor.
Compare the measured response of India now with its bellicosity after the Parliament attack of December 2001. All leave was cancelled for military personnel, and troops were sent to frontlines. Threats and counter-threats filled the airwaves. In May 2002, Prime Minister Vajpayee went to Kashmir and told troops to prepare for a 'decisive battle'. Of course, it was all just posturing, he was never going to be able to carry out the threat. In the end, nothing whatsoever was achieved by a tense standoff that lasted over a year.
I have two classmates who joined the military after school: KJ is a naval officer and MB is in the army. KJ was posted in Bombay through the 2001-2002 crisis. When we met one day, he spoke of how easy he had it compared to MB, who was stuck in a tent near Jaisalmer in 50 degree celsius heat. That's how army officers and jawans spent 2002: without leave, without any opportunity to see their families. Does wonders for morale.
I'm glad the current administration is low on posturing and high on procedure. That's what you get when policy wonks are in charge rather than poets. No charisma at all, little to appeal to the media or the public at large, but in the end more effective in making India's case to the world. I can't bear to watch Manmohan Singh speak for more than two minutes, but there's no man I would rather have at India's helm during the current global financial crisis.
Pranab Mukherjee, I believe, has been an outstanding external affairs minister. He is, in a way, a ridiculous figure. It's almost embarrassing seeing his 4 foot 10 frame next to visiting foreign secretaries. Condoleezza Rice always has an amused smile when she's with him, and it sometimes appears she's trying hard to stop it from turning into a giggle.

Mukherjee's Bengali accent is so thick that I have problems deciphering what he is saying. I can only imagine the difficulty foreign visitors go through. It would be rude to ask for a translator, but how else to conduct a proper conversation?
The Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi on the other hand has a bearing worthy of his impressive name. He is tall and poised, immaculately dressed, equally comfortable in Urdu and English. Clearly a member of the feudal elite, the sort who possess thousands of acres and an Oxbridge education.

Once you get past Mukherjee's physical limitations, however, you develop great respect for him. The nuclear deal negotiated by India with the US under his watch was the single greatest triumph of Indian diplomacy in the past thirty years. His speech in Parliament during the debate about the 123 Agreement was outstanding, though his careful argument was overshadowed by Rahul Gandhi's dimples.
It's a pity so many Indians are deluded by the bluster of right-wingers and take to parroting nonsense about the country being a 'soft state'. What we need to be is not a soft state or a hard state but a smart state. A smart state is aware of its limitations. It does not cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war against a neighbour armed with nuclear weapons. And it understands there are many kinds of pressure that can be brought to bear on countries aside from the threat of invasion or bombing.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Satyam's topsy-turvy plan

The letter sent out yesterday by Ramalinga Raju brought to mind an Agatha Christie story titled Murder in the Mews. A woman is found dead in her house, apparently having shot herself. The gun is in her right hand, but the wound is above her left ear, leading police to believe she has, in fact, been murdered. Evidence points to a blackmailer, but in the end Hercule Poirot discovers it is not murder disguised as suicide, but suicide disguised as murder.
The victim's housemate returned home to find her friend had taken her own life. Wanting to implicate the blackmailer, whom she held responsible for the suicide, the housemate removed the gun from her friend's left hand and placed it in the right, knowing the police would immediately notice the discrepancy.
How does this connect with Satyam? Well, when Ramalinga Raju decided to buy the family-owned Maytas Properties and the family-run Maytas Infra, everybody assumed that Satyam was bailing them out with its huge cash reserve. It now turns out that he was planning to pay them with money that did not exist, thus cleaning up Satyam's balance sheet while acquiring real assets for the company. It wasn't Satyam bailing out Maytas, but Maytas bailing out Satyam.
Maytas, however, simply wasn't valuable enough to justify the price decided upon by Raju, which matched the amount of fictitious cash Satyam was carrying on its books. After the September-October crash hit real estate harder than any other sector, shelling out 1.6 billion dollars, most of it for an unlisted firm, was never going to fly. Had Raju acted a few months earlier, he might have managed to push the plan through, though opposition from insitutional investors was guaranteed.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive is a fascinating dictionary devoted to the influence of Indian languages on English (with a smattering of words from other colonies). The dictionary supplied substantial portions of the vocabulary used by British sailors in Amitav Ghosh's novel, Sea of Poppies.
A native festal excitement, is how Hobson-Jobson defines its own title, whose root lies in Ya Hassan, Ya Hussain, the cry of mourners beating their breasts during Muharram processions marking the killing at Karbala of Imam Hussein, grandson of prophet Muhammad. Tonight's the night for those processions, climaxing ten days of prayer, preaching and tears. Those in Bombay interested in viewing the flaggelants can make their way to Dongri, a precinct with a strong Shia Muslim presence.
Dongri, which gets its name from dongar, Marathi for hill, figures in Hobson-Jobson as the root of a word all of you will know. The area was a center of textile trading in the 19th century, producing a rough cloth called dongri kapad. This eventually mutated to dungarees, referring to overalls made from denim. Denim itself is related to another place name, the town of Nimes in France, which used to produce twill fabric known as serge de Nimes.
Back in the nineteenth century, when the word Hobson-Jobson was in common use, the Ashura procession was the single largest religious gathering of the year in Bombay. Sunni Muslims participated in large numbers, as did Hindus, "especially the Mahrattas". After Lokmanya Tilak came up with the idea of public Ganeshotsavs, those Mahrattas got their own celebration to look forward to, and gradually dropped out of the Muharram ranks, switching from Ya Hussain Ya Hussain to Ganpati Bappa Morya.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


The mainstream media in India have been turning tabloid for years, and the crises of recent weeks pushed their irresponsibility quotient up many notches. I was stunned last night to find a long discussion on CNN-IBN about whether India should emulate Israel’s response to Hamas rocket attacks. In other words, should we deal with Pakistan the way Israel is currently dealing with Gaza.

I will return to the specific issue of Israel-Gaza and India-Pakistan in a bit. For the moment, let me examine the media’s love of copycat formulations. A great example of this was the reaction of Raghav Bahl, Managing Director of India’s biggest business channel CNBC TV18, to the market crash of October 2008. Bahl suggested that interest rate cuts and stimulus packages were no way to tackle the crisis. What was needed was a “big idea”. His own big idea? India ought to shore up share prices by creating a Sovereign Wealth Fund that would buy Indian equities.

‘Sovereign Wealth Fund’ is such a buzz phrase that mediapeople are dying to jump onto the bandwagon and take their country with them. Me too, they shout, my country should have an SWF too. If Kuwait and Taiwan can, why not us?

Now, anybody who knows anything about SWFs is aware they are created by nations running budget surpluses as a way of deploying excess money. Most such funds are employed by countries whose economies depend on a single commodity. The investments serve as a hedge against the potential drop in price of that commodity.

India does not depend on a single commodity. More importantly, it does not enjoy a budgetary surplus. It has run large deficits for decades, the reining in of which has been one of the main challenges for successive administrations.

As for Bahl’s suggestion that we buy shares in Indian firms with this wealth fund, the purpose of SWFs is to acquire assets abroad. Purchasing in the parent country would defeat the primary goal of such vehicles.

Bahl suggested in an interview on his own channel that we dip into our foreign exchange reserve, sell 20 billion dollars worth of US treasuries, and use the money to buy shares. His interviewer politely suggested (I give him credit for this, since Bahl presumably has the power to fire him) that selling foreign exchange reserves would be unwise because, no matter where India takes the money from, it would add to its deficit, reducing its creditworthiness. Since the forex reserve is used as a marker of a country’s ability (and the ability of corporations within that country) to pay foreign obligations, lowering our reserves would immediately impact our credit rating. The cost of accessing funds abroad could rise for Indian firms, potentially negating any positive effect that shoring up share prices might produce.

Bahl replied: “If one doesn’t arrest the secondary price damage in the economy today, the equity capital formation will be gone and the GDP growth will be seriously jeopardised, and that is a fundamental downgrade. This is only a financial rejigging of the balance sheet of the country, temporarily, and I am not saying do this forever.

The US stepped in and picked up USD 6 trillion of gross Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac assets. It is a temporary measure. They are not going to be holding that forever. Why cannot our policymakers, given the cornucopia they have in their hands, go out and do that.”

Hacking our way through the jargon, we spot Bahl’s second copycat formulation. The first, remember, was: Kuwait and Norway have sovereign wealth funds, why not us? Answer: we don’t run a surplus and our government does not receive commodity-related windfalls.

Now the argument is: The US bought distressed assets, and provided bailouts, why can’t we? Well, consider the position the US was in. Its mortgage network was on the verge of collapse; the banking system was like a swimmer with cramp waving frantically before disappearing underwater; two of the ‘big three’ car companies were weeks away from running out of cash and filing for bankruptcy. Most people agreed the nation was facing its worst financial crisis for seventy years.

Compare with India. Is our financial system under threat? No, our banks are well capitalised and conservatively run. Is our mortgage market in danger? No, virtually all borrowers are able to pay back their loans because Indian banks never offer subprime clients easy money. Is any major Indian company about to go bankrupt? No, our big companies are, in general, financially healthy, and will be able to weather comfortably the fall in price of their shares. Is India looking at a painful recession? No, while the economies of dozens of countries, including the US, have begun to shrink, the worst case scenario for India in the absence of further global shocks is GDP growth of about 6% for the financial year 2008-09 and 4% for 2009-10. What if there are further global shocks? We'd be in deeper trouble, but buying 20 billion dollars worth of shares wouldn't help us weather that in any case.

You might recall that, in early 2008, India offered a bailout package of its own. It wrote off small loans that public sector banks had extended to farmers. The move was, without doubt, made with an eye to the general election of 2009. But it was also a reaction to the real pain millions of farmers were feeling. The loan waiver attempted to redress in some measure the enormous imbalances of wealth within the country. These imbalances have always existed, but the gap has grown substantially while India’s economy boomed these past years.

When the policy was announced, CNBC TV18 was full of experts deriding the measure, cursing government handouts, invoking moral hazards. A few months later, the head of the same channel argued for government support to the 2% of Indians affected by share movements, the same 2% who’ve been making money hand over fist for four years while markets scaled one peak after another. Moral of the story: subsidies are fine as long as they are given to the rich.