Thursday, April 30, 2009


Memo to all Indians reading this: if you have a few days and a little money to spare, and enjoy travelling, come to Esfahan. Iran Air flies to Tehran and the connecting flight to Esfahan will probably be thrown in free; it is very cheap anyway. Week-long tourist visas are available to Indians on arrival in Tehran, so that's not an issue. Just pack a bag and get on that plane, the weather should be good till the beginning of June.
We've seen just a couple of the highlights of this town, but they're magical. Now we are talking of buildings of the calibre of the Alhambra, the Taj Mahal and Chartres Cathedral. These aren't places where you walk in, say hey, this looks interesting, look around for a few minutes, click a couple of pics and head for the next mosque or museum on your list. No, here, your breath is taken away as you enter, you linger for half and hour, an hour, scrutinising this and that detail, and then return in the evening or the next day. These are not places you get confused about a week or a month down the line. "Where did we take this photograph? Was it the Vakil mosque in Shiraz? Or maybe the other one in Yazd?" That kind of memory failure will not happen in the case of Esfahan's Imam mosque and Lotfollah mosque. You will remember them, and you will remember walking out into the marvellous Imam Square, which is comparable in impact to Venice's St.Mark's square, though its atmosphere is entirely different.
Esfahan has, apart from amazing mosques and an atmospheric plaza, some exceptional palaces and gardens, a river with lovely bridges, some of which hold cosy teahouses where you can while away an afternoon, a bazaar selling superb handicrafts, and hotels of every class. Once Iran turns more liberal about liquor and women's clothing, Esfahan will develop into one of the world's favourite heritage tourism destinations. I recommend forgoing the liquor, bearing up with the scarf, and getting that ticket right away.
We have squeezed the rest of our itinerary to make space for three whole days plus an evening in this city. It's been four consecutive days of travelling hundreds of kilometers (trip to Persepolis / Parsagade; bus to Yazd; trip to Meybod etc.; bus to Esfahan), but I'm really happy we planned things the way we did.

I will write in more detail about Esfahan tomorrow or the day after, but right now I want to continue with, and conclude, the discussion about Persian nose jobs. Since I wrote last, I have seen, not just dozens of women, but a fair number of men with the nasal bandage. It appears to be a status symbol in these parts. They say some people wear them without even having had the operation. I didn't believe it till I spotted this mannequin.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


We arrived in Yazd at 9pm, and were accosted by taxi drivers in a manner familiar from India. While we waited for the man we had selected to get his car, another, very grubby gent insisted we come with him. When the car we were awaiting arrived, there was an exchange of words before our man reluctantly signaled that we should go with the other guy. It was a case of licensed taxi versus moonlighter.
At Silk Road Hotel, we were led us across the street to another joint called Orient. “The owner is the same”, the bellboy explained, when I asked what the point was of booking weeks in advance. Silk Road and Orient are restored homes in Yazd’s old city, equipped with a few mod-cons. The rooms are modest, set around a large courtyard in which people gather for meals or just to hang out. Our hotel, unfortunately, was taken over by a group of loud Italians (is there any other kind?).
Yazd is situated between two deserts, and its old quarter consists of winding lanes flanked by houses made from straw and sun baked bricks. The living rooms of large houses are under ground level, ventilated by towers which funnel the breeze downwards. It’s an ingenious way of keeping cool in blazing weather, but, needless to say, doesn’t compare with electric coolers. The traditional houses of Yazd, like those in so many other cities, will soon be gone, replaced by metal and brick constructions. The only exceptions will be those preserved for the tourist trade as hotels, restaurants and museums.
We took a day trip to sites close by Yazd: Meybod, Chak Chak and Kharanaq. Four buildings in Meybod stood out: the fort, caravanserai, ice house and ‘pigeon tower’. The last of these functioned as part of a postal network that used homing pigeons to deliver inter-city mail. Thousands of birds roosted in niches inside the tower, each specializing in one route: Yazd – Shiraz, Yazd – Esfahan, Yazd – Tabriz and so on. Now, stuffed pigeons are places in a few of the niches, to give some idea of how the place must have looked while functional.
Just as the form of the pigeon tower was conditioned by its use, so was the shape of the ice house, a hollow pagoda lined with clay with a tiny opening at the top. Indian architecture is rarely interesting for its mix of form and function; what's important about it usually relates to decorative impulse rather than practical orientation. More on this topic when I return, and have time for a long think-piece.
Chak Chak is an important pilgrimage centre for Zoroastrians, the place where the last Zoroastrian princess disappeared into a mountain. The landscape is imposing, but marred by the guesthouse constructed at the shrine.
Kharanaq is an abandoned town that hints at how this area must have looked before modern construction took over. The buildings are crumbling fast, a process that an ongoing restoration project is attempting to reverse.
On returning to Yazd, we walked to the Atashkdeh, a temple in which a fire burns that has supposedly been preserved for 1400 years, moving two locations in the process. Continuing the Zoroatrian theme, we headed for the abandoned Towers of Silence at the edge of town. When we got there it was nearing dusk and the gatekeeper said the site was closing. From a distance the towers, built at the top of two adjacent hills, looked like miniature forts, blending perfectly with the hills and landscape. The form of corpse disposal Parsis favour seemed perfectly appropriate, even dignified, in this climate and landscape. We were resigned to viewing the towers from a distance, but our intrepid taxi driver signaled he would get us up the towers, and drove round the back where there was no fence or gate. We began scrambling up the steep side of the taller of the two hills, and realized once again how much easier such climbing appears from ground level than it actually is. Not having expected a hike of this sort, I was wearing sandals and carrying a cumbersome satchel. Both Jabeen and I nearly gave up at one point, but sliding downhill seemed an equally bad option, so we convinced ourselves to keep going, and made it to the top while the last hint of light remained. The interior of the dokhmeh was spare, a circular pit now containing stones and gravel. We walked down the easy way and round the hill back to our waiting cab driver who took us to our hotel. He had a metered cab, unusual in Iran, and the fare at the end was 40,000 Rials: a mere 200 rupees for driving five kilometers out and five back, and waiting an hour. After being consistently charged 20,000 Rials for two or three kilometer journeys, this was a bargain. I tacked on a 50 rupee tip, which the driver accepted with surprise and evident pleasure.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Sunday was spent travelling to and gazing at the palaces and tombs of the Achemenid kings. When one has built up a place in one's imagination the reality is often disappointing. That's what I felt in Greece, with Delos and Knossos. But Persepolis lived up to expectations. Built as a way for the King to show off his wealth and power to visiting foreigners, the site is impressive in scale and quality of workmanship.
Our driver mentioned that many Parsis come to Persepolis, and that it is like a religious site for them. Many Zoroastrians moved to India after the Arabs invaded, he said. Always interesting to hear how locals spin inconvenient facts from their past. In this case, Islam is not in any way to blame for the flight of Zoroastrians, nor are Iranians themselves. It is the barbaric Arabs who were responsible.
As far as I know, the Achemenids were not pure Zoroastrians, though they worshipped Ahura Mazda. The next great Persian dynasty, the Sassanids, who rose about five hundred years after Alexander had defeated the Achemenid king and torched Persepolis, were far stricter in their adherence to Zoroastrian belief. It was made the state religion, and Christians, Jews and people of non-Zoroastrian faiths were viciously discriminated against. This is something Parsis tend to gloss over. Everybody wants to be a vicitim.
This thread of victimhood is stronger in Iranian culture than in most others. It's rooted in the founding story of the Shia faith, the killing of Imam Husain at the hands of Yazid's army. A small band of people, pure in their belief, put to the sword by a powerful tyrant. Following this story, told and retold endlessly, Iranisns tend to believe lost struggles are worth it. That's the logic behind their support of the Palestinians. Asking what the Palestinians have got after sixty years of fighting the more powerful Israelis is almost irrelevant. After all, what practical benefit did Imam Husain and his band receive for confronting Yazid? What does it matter if the Arabs are against Iran, the Israelis are against Iran, the Americans are against Iran? They are all crooks and rascals, and only Iran stands up to them.
Few things are more dangerous than making martyrdom the centrepiece of political ideology.
OK, back to Persepolis. There are many halls in the place. A hall of 32 columns, another of a hundred columns. The Achemenids, like the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Egyptians, had no knowledge of arches and domes. The bigger a hall, the more pillars they had to put in; the taller the hall, the thicker those pillars needed to be. The temple of Karnak at Luxor is like a forest of bulbous tree. While the columns in Persepolis are slimmer, I suspect those in the back rows had a pretty bad view of proceedings.
An hour's drive from Persepolis is Pasargade (also spelt Pasargad, Pasargada and Pasargadae), the capital city built by Cyrus the Great 2500 years ago. It consist now of four clumps of ruins set in a meadow. The Iranians, having forgotten who actually built these places, gave them fanciful names. Pasargade, for some reason, was deemed to have a lot to do with Solomon's mother.
Pasargadae is very atmospheric: the ruins within a large plain ringed by hills hint at what a great city it must have been in its prime.
On returning to our hotel, I saw my first bandaged nose. Lonely Planet talks of the love Iranian women have for nose jobs, and Jabeens had spotted a couple of post-operatives on the streets. Having noticed one, I began seeing them all over the place. One or two, presumably straight from the operating theatre, wore huge mask-like bandages, while other had an elegant strip running across the bridge of their now-slim noses.
We are back again in the discussion of hijab and its consequences. If all that men get to see of womens' bodies is a few square inches of face, a lot of work needs to be put into it. Loads of make-up is a prerequisite, but obviously that doesn't suffice given the tendency of Iranians to have hooked beaks.
Funny thing is, nose jobs are common in many places across the globe, but only here do women feel no need to hide the fact of their cosmetic surgery.
I'm hammering this out in a 'coffee net' in Shiraz bus terminal. Our transport to Yazd was cancelled and we have a three hour wait for the next coach. Blame the typos on these difficult circumstances, I'll clean up the text once I'm back in Bombay.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

In Shiraz

Shiraz can’t be called a beautiful or charming town, but it has more than enough of interest to keep one occupied for a couple of days. After a heavy breakfast, we walked to the Pars museum opposite the citadel, before rambling through Vakil bazaar looking at carpets, ornaments, glassware and nuts. The only thing we bought were two kurtas, both made in India, for Jabeen, who is now reassured she doesn’t have to wear a long coat at all times. The bazaar, like most of Shiraz’s heritage sites, is being carefully reconstructed. Parts of the old town look bombed out, full of crumbling naked brick structures; but everywhere are signs of rebuilding, and whatever restoration work we’ve seen is of high quality.
After taking in the Vakil mosque, we spent an hour at the Shah-e-Cheragh mausoleum. It contains the tomb of the brother of Imam Reza, whose own tomb in Mashhad is the central monument of the Shia faith in Iran. The inside of the Shah-e-Cheragh memorial is a fabulous collection of glass covered ceilings and pillars, room after room of mirrors gleaming over visitors saying namaaz, asking for intercession or just lolling around on the carpeted floors.
A very different atmosphere was found in a madarsa we happened upon, which wasn’t in our guidebook. The courtyard had a garden of the sort Iran specializes in, with flowering and fruit bearing trees. This was a laid back place: clerics relaxed on benches or sat around in alcoves enjoying the spring morning. The Shiraz breeze is cool and refreshing, blowing in from the mountains that ring the city.
After lunch, we headed to outlying sights: first Bagh e Eram in the northwest, a centuries old garden now in the charge of Shiraz’s botanical college. There’s a slightly kitschy nineteenth century palace in the middle of the grounds. On one side of the palace is a traditionally laid out Persian paradise garden. On the other side, foreign influences have been allowed in, involving a Japanese rock garden and a European-style lawn ringed with flowers. The only drawback of Bagh e Eram was that the watercourses had been allowed to run dry. This is always the case in India’s Mughal gardens (except for that tomb in Agra which receives a zillion visitors), but I hoped the Iranians would have kept the water flowing.
We then took a taxi to the tomb of Hafez, a poet every Iranian loves. After having a cup in the teahouse, we climbed to the tomb and were surprised to find it was in an open circular pavilion within a compact square. Visitors sat at the periphery, many reading from the works of Hafez. The divides of the country seemed to melt here: on a bench in an adjacent garden, which contains the graves of renowned artists, two girls sat smoking and chatting. One had her hair dyed blue, the second mauve. The next bench was occupied by women in voluminous black cloaks. There was, however, one tense moment at the site. As we walked up the pavilion steps, we saw a woman resting her right hand on the cenotaph and whispering some words, perhaps a prayer or a favourite couplet. A group of three young things were taking pictures, and one by one, they sat on the cenotaph itself while their friends clicked happily. I was rather taken aback, and so, obviously, was the woman, who went away shaking her head and joined her husband who was staring daggers at the merry trio.
The tension dissipated as more people walked up and did as the woman had done, placing a hand on the inscribed slab of rock and murmuring reverently. Some placed roses on the tombstone.
Our last stop was the Nasir ol Molk mosque in the south east. The taxi driver had a coughing fit as we approached the place, and nearly collided with a van in the process. He stuffed a tissue into his mouth and tried to stop the coughing with such determination that tears welled in his eyes. I wondered if I should offer him my handkerchief, but we arrived at the mosque just then. The driver extracted the tissue, and I saw it was stained bright red. I gave him a 20,000 Rial note, and when he handed 5,000 back, I was tempted to say, “Um, actually, keep the change”.
Iran asks tourists planning to visit from India to have themselves tested for HIV, TB, and Hepatitis A, B and C. Since they’re so concerned about health, maybe they should do something about consumptive taxi drivers.
We were the only people at the Nasir Ol Molk mosque, which made a great end to the day. Till the sun sank, we sat in the courtyard admiring the finely decorated tiles on the facades and the stained glass in the winter prayer chamber, Our guidebook also mentioned ‘exquisitely carved stone pillars’ in that chamber, but both Jabeen and I took one look at them and had the same dismissive thought: You want exquisitely carved stone pillars, come to India.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Journey to Shiraz

Our vacation in Iran and Syria began today. Air Arabia allows us to fly to Shiraz and return from Aleppo, saving us the trouble of back-tracking to Tehran and Damascus. On the negative side, the airline’s schedule is brutal. Our flight was to take off from Bombay at 4.55am, meaning zero sleep the previous night. Then there was a five hour wait at Sharjah before the connector to Shiraz.

It’s understandable if one is tired at the end of a journey, but we were exhausted before it even began. Just as we were due to board, an announcer said there was weather trouble in the UAE, and our flight would only leave at 7am. I longed for the grimy recliners that used to occupy the Sahar airport departures lobby, but they’ve been removed in the recent upgrade.

We finally got on the plane and sped across the sea, but were placed on a holding pattern for about half an hour, circling the dunes till we felt dizzy. I heard the word ‘khamsin’ being mentioned by the Arabic announcer, and, if I remember my Tintin, that means sandstorm. There was no sandstorm visible in Sharjah itself, but Dubai’s towers appeared cloaked in brown. Maybe the khamsin had moved to the neighbouring Emirate by the time we landed.

Sharjah airport can’t be described as a dump, because it is clean, but there’s absolutely nothing to do there. No wi-fi, no duty free to speak off, unless you want to buy stuffed toy camels, and just one place to grab a bite, a Costa Coffee outlet offering 22 Dirham sandwiches. We ate one each because Air Arabia offers nothing free to eat or drink apart from 100ml of water. (Update: on our return journey we discovered a wing of the airport we had missed, which has a large but expensive duty free section and a food court)

The journey to Shiraz was bumpy, but enlivened by some incredible landscapes, places where the earth seemed to have given way completely: one particular cliff’s edge evoked a real end of the world sort of feeling. At Shiraz airport, there was no place open that would change our dollars but a woman selling perfume agreed to exchange 100 dollars at a fair rate. The transaction was assisted by an Iranian we’d met on our flight, who is a student in Pune, but he didn’t necessarily make things less confusing. The Iranian currency is the Rial, and it has been devalued greatly in past decades. That means we are back again in a land where calculations have to be made in tens or hundreds of thousands. To make matters worse, Iranians don’t believe in the Rial, they are hung up on a currency called the Toman which existed in the distant past. They quote all prices in Tomans, though not a single Toman is to be found anywhere. So I’d start counting what the perfumer had given me, and as I said, “50,000… 1,00,000…” the friendly student from Pune butted in with, “No, no, not 50,000, it is 5,000” “But see here on the note, it says 50,000”. “No, no, there’s a mistake in our currency, there is an extra zero, it should actually be 5,000”.

Luckily, dollars are accepted for large transactions, allowing an escape from the Rial-Toman dialectic.

Though dog tired, we took a walk around the city centre before dusk. Jabeen was feeling the injustice of being forced to wear a scarf. It’s something she’s been upset about considerably in advance of the fact. It’s obviously a big deal in Iran how many centimeters of hair are actually visible under the cover, a sign of how traditional or liberal a woman is. With women confined to coats and scarves, the space for exhibitionism has been taken over by Iranian males. They like their shirts tight and their pants tighter, and strut about in a manner that brings the word ‘gigolo’ frequently to mind.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Prabhakaran: how will it end?

Governments across the world are asking for an immediate ceasefire in Sri Lanka, but they know it isn't going to happen. No army stops operations while so close to a decisive victory at the end of a long civil war. The LTTE, in a final demonstration of brutality, has used civilians as shields, putting at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people it claims to represent. It is another matter that Tamil protesters across Europe and writers like Arundhati Roy refuse to see this strategem for what it is, and choose to blame only the Lankan government for civilian casualties.
It is likely that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the ruthless leader of the LTTE, will be captured or killed in a matter of days. Most commentators believe Prabhakaran will choose death over imprisonment. He told journalists in 2002 that LTTE cadres had instructions to kill him if he compromised the ultimate goal of the organisation.
A surprising number of leading terrorists and insurgents, however, have ended up in jail.

Abimael Guzman of Peru's Shining Path was caught in a ballet studio in Lima where he had been living comfortably.

Carlos, 'the Jackal', hopped from country to country till his Sudanese hosts gave him up to foreign intelligence agencies.

Abdullah Ocalan of the Kurdistan People's Party was trapped by Turkish agents in Kenya. In each case, news of the capture came as an anti-climax, because these men's actions had made them into larger-than-life personalities in the minds of the public.
The Sri Lankan authorities might decide they prefer Prabhakaran dead rather than alive, but if the man who sent thousands to a gory end is given a choice, don't be surprised if he timidly chooses a cell block over of a grave.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Election flip-flops

This election campaign, largely bereft of issues, is turning into a series of shoot first, mumble later episodes. Here are some positions taken by leaders and then renounced or modified.

L K Advani: We will renegotiate the nuclear deal.
We cannot disregard an international agreement.

Manmohan Singh: The Left is always on the wrong side of history.
I have high regard for leaders of the Left parties.

Sharad Pawar: A Maharashtrian should get a chance to be Prime Minister.
I don't have the numbers.

Karunanidhi: Prabhakaran is a good friend.
One cannot forget that the LTTE was behind Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.

Pranab Mukherjee: Lalu will find it difficult to even become a minister because he is with nobody.
Lalu is part of the UPA, my broken Hindi created the confusion.

Varun Gandhi: I will cut off their hands.
Non-violence is my religion.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The futile search for Satyam's siphon

The Serious Fraud Investigation Office has submitted its final report on the Satyam case last week, and it tallies with my belief that Ramalinga Raju was broadly telling the truth in his confessional statement. He created fictitious sources of funds, plumped the company's balance sheet in order to keep the stock price high, and made hundreds of crores by selling shares at prices he knew were far in excess of what the company deserved.
I wrote three months ago that we are conditioned to believe fraud must involve skimming and siphoning. Throughout the Satyam investigation, enforcement officials as well as the media have been convinced that large scale embezzlement is at the root of the scandal. Since no evidence of embezzlement has been found by the SFIO, journalists are counting that as a setback to the investigative process. Hindustan Times carried a funny article on the issue two weeks ago, in which 'flummoxed' CBI officials complained about the Raju brothers' failure to co-operate on the issue of siphoning. The presumption on part of the writer as well as the investigating agency was that embezzlement had to have taken place, the only question was how. Moneycontrol put out a report last Friday headlined, 'SFIO fails to figure out siphoning of Satyam funds by Rajus', and Mint carried a similar piece, both with the same underlying assumptions regarding the nature of the Satyam fraud.
Early on in the crisis, there were allegations that the Rajus had created fictitious employees, and diverted the salaries of these non-existent individuals to their personal account. That would have been one way of taking money directly from the company, but would have worked at cross purposes with the strategy of inflating profits. I wasn't surprised when this allegation was disproved.
Ramalinga Raju provided us with a convincing motive for his actions, as well as an indication of how he went about defrauding shareholders. The SFIO has uncovered perfectly good evidence of bank deposits which did not exist, evidence that backs up Raju's original story. The Maytas episode also fits perfectly into this picture. Why, then, are the police and media trying to jam the pieces of evidence into a completely different jigsaw puzzle?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Taxi Driver's Story

Reading a report about Sikhs being forced to pay Pakistan's Taliban a levy, I was reminded of an encounter with a taxi driver in London back in September 2006. After landing at Heathrow, the painter Sudhir Patwardhan and I called for a cab to take us to our hotel in Southwark. Fifteen minutes later, a Sikh man walked into the terminal holding a placard with my name written on it. He was about fifty, dressed in a spotless white button-down tucked into dark trousers. He greeted us cordially and offered to take our suitcases. We declined.
After feeding the details of our destination into the GPS prompter in his car, the man asked in fluent Hindustani where we lived and what brought us to London. Our replies elicited more questions. I wasn’t in the mood for much talk after the overnight flight, but eventually felt obliged to ask him where he was from.

“Afghanistan”, he said.

My interest, and Sudhir's, was suddenly roused.

“Afghanistan? How long were you there?”

“I was born near Kabul.”

“So did you parents move there?”

“No, our family was in Afghanistan for over 300 years.”

“But you speak such good Hindi.”

“I speak many languages. Pashto, Russian, Uzbek, Punjabi, Hindi, now English.”

“And how long have you been in England?”

“Eight years.”

"You left when the Taliban took over?”

“No, before.” His voice turned bitter. “Everybody here speaks about the Taliban, but for us the mujahideen were much worse. The Taliban only made Sikhs and Hindus wear different clothing, so they could be distinguished from Muslims. That way we wouldn't be forced to say namaaz and things like that. But the mujahideen would insist we become Muslims, and we had to keep bribing them to leave us alone”

He stretched his left arm so the sleeve rode back to reveal laceration scars on the wrist. “I have these all over my body: arms, abdomen, back. That’s what they did to people who refused to convert.”

He was born in a village, but his father wanted to educate his sons well, and sent him to university in India. After graduating, he opened a chemist's shop in Kabul. Business was good during Najibullah’s reign; he imported medicines from India, tying up with companies like Ranbaxy and Alembic to supply life-saving drugs. Once the civil war reached the Afghan capital, the bad times began, and got rapidly worse after the Soviet withdrawal. Business declined and persecution of minorities rose. He sold one of his two houses to pay off the mujahideen, and closed one of his two shops. In those days, Kabul had a law that one chemist had to stay open late each night. It was done by rotation and, the day it was his turn, he was kidnapped in the small hours as he returned home after closing shop.

"They tortured me for days. I was sure I wasn't going to get out alive. I tried reasoning with them, saying that God was the god of humanity, not just the god of Muslims, and that force was no way to propagate religion. That only made them beat me more.

"Luckily, a friend from my village was visiting Kabul and dropped in to meet me. When my wife related all that had happened, he told her this country is no good for you any more, you have to leave, sell everything if you must. He used his contacts to locate the kidnappers, fix a ransom, and free me. He arranged transport, taking us all to Peshawar. I barely remember what happened in the days after that, the places we were taken to, loaded onto and unloaded from trucks. Finally, we came to Karachi and were put on a boat to England. The British were very good to us. Their mission in Kabul checked the details I provided, and once they were sure we were telling the truth, we got asylum.
"It's funny where life can take you. I'd never have thought I would be driving a taxi in London. But my son and daughter are studying now, the boy is in university, he won't be a taxi driver."

Friday, April 17, 2009

The world's media get it wrong on farmer suicides

OK, I've been going hard at TOI, Mumbai Mirror, NDTV and other Indian news outlets for a while, and feel it's time to illustrate how their foreign brethren don't necessarily do a better job. Two days ago, the Belfast Telegraph headlined a story, "Farmers in India commit mass suicide as crops fail". The first line read, "Over 1500 farmers in an Indian state committed suicide after being driven to debt by crop failure, it was reported today." I haven't been able to find where 'it was reported'. If you can, please let me know. The state in question is Chattisgarh.
So, the Belfast Telegraph, which presumably has no correspondents in India, picks up a news item from who knows where, and tacks on a misleading headline. The phrase 'mass suicide' gives the impression of a co-ordinated, cult-like act. Strangely, London's Independent, which does have reporters based in this country, picks up the Belfast Telegraph piece. Then, Huffington Post links on its home page to the Independent's coverage, and carries a blog post by Mallika Chopra, wellness-guru Deepak Chopra's daughter, based on the unverified story. Discussing the 1500 suicides, she writes, "To give a more tangible visualization of that number, that's about four full jumbo jet planes' worth of passengers suddenly committing suicide." Which would be dreadful, except it never happened. 1500 Chattisgarh farmers did not 'suddenly' take their own lives.
I don't want to diminish the real and continuing tragedy of farmer suicides, but irresponsible journalism is hardly the best way to focus international attention on it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Times of India's coverage of a rape: insensitive and inaccurate

This morning's papers all covered the tragic gangrape of an American student studying at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The Times of India's story, written by V Narayan and Anahita Mukherji, was headlined, 'US student raped by batchmates in Mumbai'. I heard of the incident last night, but it was a fresh shock to wake up to this headline. I found it hard to believe students of TISS would commit such a crime, given the institution's concern with fighting institutionalised discrimination of all kinds.
Reading the full Times report, I found the 'batchmates' theory was being advanced by the police, who were the source of virtually all the information in the piece. The only other voice in the article was that of an unnamed person from TISS, who contradicted police claims that the rapists were students of the institute.
How did the Times so confidently speak of the rapists being TISS students though there was an alternative version being put forward, and though the police are notoriously bad with facts in such matters.
It now appears the TISS source was right, and the police wrong.
Another shocking bit in the Times report was this opening line, "A 23 year-old American scholar at the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) at Deonar was gangraped after a drinking binge in a Mumbai apartment, police said on Wednesday." What kind of binge is it which has a woman sleep through a gangrape and wake up only the next afternoon? Isn't it far more likely the rapists had a plan already in place, and spiked the victim's drink? Why use words like 'binge' at all, which dredge up the sordid history of the victim's character being made the centre of rape trials, aside from giving the impression that maybe the rapists were too drunk to know what they were doing?
The writers will claim they were only quoting the police, but how many policemen in the city even know what the word 'binge' means? The sentence is no direct quote, and probably involved translation from Hindi or Marathi, which means the final wording was entirely up to the reporters.
I just read a newer article which quotes the vicitim saying she believes her drink was spiked, exactly what the circumstances suggested in the first place. She also speaks of how the police did not help at all when she first approached them the day after the rape.
The Times is fond of silly stunts like italicising the word 'alleged' in every crime report, presumably to highlight the contingent nature of what is written. It would do better to sensitise its reporters to the need for a careful use of words when writing about such important issues.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bombay: urban planning basket case - 2

Our corporators obviously do not believe in the dictum, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I just signed a petition against the proposed revamp of Rani Bagh, the city's largest botanical garden. If the plan goes through, many of the 3000 trees of 227 species will be felled to make way for an aquarium, theatre, car park and staff quarters. The cost of the operation will be about 500 crores, much of which will not be recovered even if ticket prices are increased enormously.
What the Rani Bagh plan demonstrates, aside from the sheer idiocy of the chaps at the helm of Bombay's affairs, is that money is not in short supply in the city. The state as well as the municipal corporation have plenty of funds coming in from octroi, stamp duty and other lucrative levies. The common complaint that Bombay is mistreated by the Maharashtra administration and deprived of its fair share of Central government income is nonsense. Just travel a little way east and experience summer afternoons without electricity and you'll know how privileged this city really is. The taxation argument is specious because most large companies which pay their dues in Bombay have factories located outside the city. Besides, if everything we gave the centre was returned to us, what would go toward alleviating poverty, defending our borders, building ports and inter-state highways? Big cities are expected to take care of themselves revenue-wise, aside from contributing to the national exchequer, and Bombay does that pretty efficiently.
It isn't a lack of funds that's hurting Bombay, so much as a lack of will and vision. How else can one explain the plan to build a skywalk from VT to Churchgate, Mantralaya and Colaba? That section of town, as many commentators have noted, is pretty pedestrian friendly. I walked from Colaba's 3rd Pasta Lane to VT just last evening, and found few barriers to movement despite the hawkers camped within the DN Road arcade. Near the Bennett Coleman building, pedestrians hurried across the road to the railway station, ignoring an overbridge available to them at that spot.
And there's the rub. The authorities find it impossible to maintain sites and enforce regulations that would keep our roads and pavements in good shape. To be more accurate, the authorities are reluctant to do these things, because that would be the equivalent of killing the goose that lays golden eggs. Vehicles parked in no-halt zones, unlicensed peddlers, pavement-blocking shanties, illegal extensions to shop fronts, all these are sources of income. The convenient approach is to leave them where they after penalising them for their transgressions, and offer expensive 'solutions' like skywalks, projects which themselves provide new revenue streams through kickbacks.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Kausik and Kiran

I wrote recently about sculptors who create quirky machines, and two more names can be added to that list: Kausik Mukhopadhyay and Kiran Subbaiah. They are currently showing at Pundole and Chatterjee & Lal respectively, and both exhibitions are well worth a visit.
Mukhopadhyay and Subbaiah make an interesting study in similarity and contrast. The former has transformed the Pundole gallery space into something like the laboratory of a mad inventor who sources machine components from flea markets. The assemblages mirror the chaos of India's bazaars and the mix and match feel of its urban centres. Metronomes go wild at the gallery's far end; closer to the entrance, a tank that can be operated by visitors points its barrel this way and that; a plastic motorcyclist spins round inside a table fan, mimicking the 'globe of death' stunt familiar from circuses.
When I visited the gallery two days after the opening, only one of the dozens of gizmos Mukhopadhyay had dreamed up was malfunctioning, which was pretty good going considering the usual standards of our artists. The contraptions were switched on only when we walked into the gallery, because keeping them going was creating an unbearable racket.

There was no such issue with Kiran Subbaiah's constructions. Subbaiah is a cerebral artist who has degrees from Santiniketan's Kala Bhavan, Baroda's MS University, and London's Royal College of Art. His sculptures and digital prints combine a prankster's humour and anarchistic attitude with precise conceptualisation and rigourous attention to form. In a work titled 'Articulation', a ball of twine serves as a brain, leading out to a dangling 'tongue', which happens to be tied near its loose end. Another ball lies on the floor, prevented from rolling about by attached wheels, instruments of locomotion that have become impediments to movement. On a table close by, a wedge of watermelon has turned into a sickle: slice becoming slicer.
Conceptually-oriented works are often one-trick ponies, and some of Subbaiah's are no exception. Even one-trick ponies can have abiding value provided they satisfy two conditions which have remained constant since Marcel Duchamp invented the one-trick pony artwork a century ago: first, the one trick must be a really good trick; and second, the pony should have some attractive qualities apart from its trick. The sculptures and photographs at Chatterjee & Lal satisfy both conditions.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tendulkar, Goody and Madame Tussauds

Madame Tussauds is a scam. Celebrities are co-opted into this scam because being selected for a Tussauds waxwork has successfully been marketed as a huge honour. So, people like Sachin Tendulkar consent to spending hours getting measured for a wax figure, and, once the model is ready, posing next to the likeness in a publicity shoot covered in most national dailies. Indians planning a holiday in London see the article and put Madame Tussauds in their places-to-visit list.
The scam takes advantage of the fact that, while cameras do not function like eyes, people believe they do. In photographs, the wax Sachin Tendulkar bears a fair resemblance to the live man, though the Tussauds marketing team must have wished the great batsman had shaved before the photo-op. When people actually visit the collection and see the work in three dimensions, they will find an uninteresting dummy placed alongside other equally uninteresting dummies, which happen to be crafted in the dimensions of the persons they represent.

Jade Goody's husband has been lobbying to have a figure of his wife installed in the museum, claiming it was one of her final wishes. Tussauds is unlikely to consent, for featuring the reality TV star would lower the profile of its dummy list. A death mask of Goody might be more appropriate than a full figure. The original Madame Tussaud, after all, came to public attention in the era of the French revolution by casting the faces of executed prisoners. Many of those casts still exist, and are displayed in a back room of the tourist attraction, categorised under 'History'. When I visited the place, having been directed there by a solicitous aunt during my first stay in London, I found the history section a huge relief from the tedium of the main exhibit.

Update April 15: Today's Mumbai Mirror carries an excerpt from this post in its column Blogger's Park. While the publicity is welcome, I'm amazed that the Mirror has actually set one of its sub-editors on my piece. Is it ethical to change the content of a blog in this fashion?
Aside from being irked, I'm surprised that the Mirror's subs have time spare to correct entries that need no correcting. The shoddy grammar evident in pieces filed by their reporters gives the impression of an organisation deeply understaffed in the proof-reading department.

Friday, April 10, 2009


For Good Friday, here's a passage I wrote after visiting Egypt and Israel.

If victimhood is the religion of our age, Jerusalem must be its sanctum. The old city is divided in four, and plaints rise from each quarter, crying, ‘we, too, have suffered’. Dominant among them is the Holocaust, preserved in Israel’s consciousness through museums and memorials. A single man’s death in Jerusalem two thousand years ago provides a counterweight to the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis in Europe. The instrument of his torture has become the central symbol of the world’s largest faith. Believers come from around the globe to reenact Christ’s final journey, to bear the cross for a few steps, to halt and weep at each station.

Members of Jerusalem's most populous community, the Arab Muslims, have their own grievances, stemming from the annexation of their part of the city in 1967. Heavily-armed Israeli soldiers stand at every corner, impervious to the resentful looks they receive from shopkeepers and passersby in the tense streets. Muslims are ashamed and outraged that one of their holiest sites, holding the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, is under alien control. The armies of Islam wrested the town, seemingly for ever, after centuries of Crusades and Jihads; to have had it taken away in the modern era by a minuscule community is an unendurable humiliation. Inside the complex, a museum highlights the cruelty of the present dispensation. Israeli soldiers have, on occasion, entered the site and even shot protestors within it. Bloodied clothes worn by these martyrs to the Palestinian cause are displayed in the museum. They have become soiled with age, the blood has dried and turned dirty brown, but their power to move the faithful remains undiminished.

Finally there are the Armenians, who exist in such small numbers that they need to advertise their presence, and their own tragedy. Posters glued on walls in their section of town remind visitors of the first genocide of the twentieth century, in which over a million Armenians were killed under the orders of the Young Turks, who had taken over the reins of the fading Ottoman Empire.

That event, unlike the Holocaust, barely makes the text-books. Most tourists would be hard-put to locate Armenia on the map. The Armenians are outsiders for another reason: three of the tragedies which permeate the atmosphere of Jerusalem are interconnected. Christ’s crucifixion, blamed on Jews who were said to have sinned against the light, inspired centuries of European prejudice against that community. The exiles, pogroms and massacres Jews endured in Europe gave birth to a Zionist ideal that could only flourish through suppression of Arab natives. The Armenian tragedy connects to none of this, it is like flotsam washed ashore in a distant land by the tide of history.

Travelling to Jerusalem after visiting Cairo brings home the vastly different ways in which people connect to their past. The avenues of Egypt’s capital are lined with magnificent three thousand year old monolithic statues. Sculptures which the world’s major museums would fight to possess stand unprotected, meriting barely a glance from locals. The incredible riches of the Egyptian Museum, the massive pyramids on the city’s outskirts fronted by the Sphinx, evoke pride among Cairenes, but little passion. Jerusalem, though exceptionally picturesque, comes a poor second to Cairo where ancient heritage is concerned. Almost nothing has been found dating from the last era of Jewish control, let alone the earlier age of David and Solomon. There is the Wailing Wall, of course, and a couple of columns here, an arcade there. Yet each stone, each pillar, each church and mosque, is invested with an astonishing level of emotional attachment. The barest evidence of the remains of a Jewish dwelling occasions a grandiose reconstruction. If such revisionings are to be believed, Jerusalem’s palaces in the time of Jesus were an unflattering mix of Roman and Asian styles. Their lack of beauty and proportion is irrelevant, because the excavated artefacts and standing monuments of Jerusalem, unlike those of Cairo, are living history, which is full of evasions, conflicts and lies, but all the more compelling for that reason.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

NDTV's seven (er, make that ten) Wonders of India

Did you follow NDTV's extraordinarily tedious catalogue of India's architectural landmarks (with a few natural sites thrown in for good measure) titled Seven Wonders of India? I presume not, for why would you follow an extraordinarily tedious catalogue of anything? The series began last year, and I watched it for a couple of minutes now and then while channel surfing. After a few weeks spent covering heritage monuments -- shot and edited in the annoying blurry-pan-and-jump-cut style that is now the industry standard -- the show shifted to indoor settings where bored, overdressed celebrities were told what was worth treasuring in their respective states.
Last week, when the final results were announced, the channel cheated. Instead of narrowing the choice down to seven as promised, ten sites made it to the final list. Aside from the 7 Wonders -- Konark, Khajuraho, Madurai's Meenakshi temple, Jaisalmer Fort, Delhi's Red Fort, Nalanda and Dholavira -- the Taj Mahal was nominated The Wonder of India (yawn), Tawang Monastery got a nod as Spiritual Wonder of India, and the Golden Temple was dubbed Wonder of India: Peace and Harmony, a peculiar award for a complex that not long ago became a refuge for well-armed terrorists and was stormed by the Indian army.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Obama's plan: more of the same?

The President of the United States says the world is facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The US Treasury Secretary, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, has two big tasks before him. "The first is to "minimize the damage as the world works its way out of the excesses" of lending and speculation that almost inevitably led to the crisis. And, second, "to focus on how the architecture or framework of the global financial system is going to change over time ... to deal with the next crisis." The US government's response to the grave systemic threat, framed by the likes of Larry Summers, comes under scathing attack from the economists Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.
But that was 1998, why bring it up now?
Well, you probably know why. It feels like deja vu all over again. The persons involved are a decade older, two of them have received Nobel gongs in the intervening period, but Sachs, Krugman and Stiglitz, along with a number of Leftish thinkers, are once again ranged against Summers, who was assistant to Robert Rubin in the Clinton era and is now advising Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
I'm not familiar enough with the world of finance to fully understand the Summers-Geithner plan, but I get its bare bones, as well as the main thrust of the counter-argument. Geithner-Summers want a public-private partnership to buy up so-called toxic assets. Krugman, Stiglitz and Sachs suggest this is just more genuflecting before Wall Street. Taxpayers will take most of the risks while private financial institutions stand to gain most of the profit, should there be any.
So why did Obama choose this direction? The alternative suggested by free marketeers is to do nothing. If institutions go under, so be it, bailouts are unfair and should never be resorted to. This view, rejected by the Bush administration, was never likely to be adopted by Obama. Of the proposals from the Left, one involves a complicated surgery to divide each institution into 'bad' and 'good' components, but the most popular idea is to nationalise troubled banks.
I believe Obama's decision to take the middle path between doing nothing and nationalisation should be seen in the context of his other acts, which are breathtaking in scope. His budget attempts a fundamental change in energy policy, and inaugurates a significant rethinking of education and healthcare. Two days ago, we got news that the military will be rejigged, ridding it of its big-nations-pitted-against-one-another mindset. Internationally, Obama has reached out to Iran, slapped Israel on the wrist over settlements in occupied territory, shifted policy with respect to Cuba and Syria, recast the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, admitted the US bears some culpability for drugs-related violence in Mexico, and called for a renewed disarmament dialogue with Russia and an end to nuclear weapons. Each of these is a step leftward that, in less trying times, would have induced outrage among conservatives, but Obama's got away relatively easily because anybody going after him for this stuff right now would resemble Billy Zane chasing Leonardo DiCaprio around the sinking Titanic.
Had the US president decided to nationalise banks, he'd have been bogged down fighting for a proposal deeply antithetical to the way the United States thinks of itself. He'd have spent all his political capital tackling the financial crisis, making it nearly impossible to push through his ambitious agenda on health care, the environment, defense and foreign policy. Had the nationalisation plan, having been put in motion, then failed to right the system fairly quickly, the Democratic party would have been locked out of the Presidency for the foreseeable future, and seen its numbers slide precipitously in the Senate and House.
In this light, it is easy to understand why Obama went along with Geithner's Wall Street friendly plan. It doesn't mean he's pursuing the same studiously centrist path that Bill Clinton did, and I'm surprised liberal commentators have failed to see the wisdom in the approach he's chosen.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Inimitable Bobilli

The Times of India's sports section is a source of hilarity each morning, thanks to the writings of Bobilli Vijay Kumar. Mr. Bobilli's approach to the English language resembles the batting of some tailenders who, undetered by their lack of eye-hand coordination, keep spectators entertained with extravagant heaves, swipes and slashes.
As the Indian cricket team's tour of New Zealand reaches its damp conclusion, let us cast our eyes back on some of BVK's memorable insights into the contest. These are not, I should stress, carefully chosen highlights: those who trawl TOI's user-hostile archives will doubtless land a richer catch.

14 February: Dhoni's men will be setting off in pursuit of the game's Holy Grail itself, on a mission many deem nigh impossible.
Yes, New Zealand, for all its beauty and purity, has always been a dreaded place for cricketing tourists: its spongy wickets, windy conditions, tenacious players (not to speak of blinkered umpires, not too long ago) made it an ideal holiday spot for pesky mothers-in-law.
Playing away has, of course, rarely been as enjoyable as a walk in the rain: but over the years, thanks partly to the shrinking of the globe, such an idea doesn't give the shivers anymore...
Only five players have experienced the travails of New Zealand. A lot will depend on how well Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman convert that into an advantage. The others, even if they are in the pink of form, will have to grope and cope around them.
In the end, it will all come down to overcoming the conditions. Can India interpret the omens on their way correctly? Can they unravel the Holy Grail and come back triumphant?

Some might argue that lifting the World Cup or beating Australia in Australia would be a more substantial achievement than winning a series in New Zealand. What I really want to know, though, is how grails are unraveled.

26 February: The problem is, the next game is in less than 24 hours; there is absolutely no time to pull out Plan B.

Memo to Gary Kirsten: incorporate intensive training in pulling out Plan B, there is clearly room for improvement in that area.

7 March: The Indian cricket team was left swinging on a tricky question after the second one-dayer was officially abandoned at around 8.30pm on Friday night...
In a game that saw more stops than starts, or indeed wickets, India were ahead right from the time the dubious coin twirled in the air.

Which means that, on at least one occasion, play stopped without first having started, right? And why was the coin 'dubious'? Did it have two heads or two tails?

14 March: If the square is shorter than a fine lady's leg on the one side, on the other, the cover boundary looks even sweeter. The NZ bowlers must already be feeling bare and helpless: in fact, gang-rape can't be far from their fears...
It's their bowling that needs urgent aid from Red Cross: and India will not want to be that benevolent soul.

Bet you didn't know that fine ladies have short legs.

15 March: Sehwag faced four deliveries and couldn’t manage even one run: the ball beat his gasping willow and seamed maniacally, almost in celebration, after that...
Daniel Vettori stuck to his much-mauled seamers and reaped their dividends.

Allow your bowlers to reap their own dividends, Daniel, it's the considerate thing to do, specially in these harsh times.

30 March: Resuming the day on 252 for two, with danger still looming nearby, the overnight pair (Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar), had to bury their heads into the ground and forget about everything else.

The myth that ostriches bury their heads in sand when faced with predators is used as a metaphor for the human tendency to ignore bad news. "Dig in" is the phrase usually utilised in the situation in which Tendulkar and Gambhir found themselves. It's derived from trench warfare, and refers to resolute defence in the face of sustained attack.

7 April: (I have provided more extensive annotations to articles published this morning) Rahul Dravid barely needed seven overs into the tour here to claim his 181st Test catch. The edge from Martin Guptill, in the first test at Hamilton, helped him sit on par with Mark Waugh, who needed all of his 128 matches to become the best catcher in the game.

Does having the most catches mean being the best catcher? Even if it does, Mark Waugh got to the world record long before his final test. Near the end of his career he dropped a few sitters.

But then the long wait began. India
took 29 wickets since then but Dravid didn’t get his record-breaking catch... It didn’t help that in the second Test at Napier, he had to stand at third slip as Yuvraj Singh was handed that position. ..

Does this mean both players stood at third slip? Must have been cramped.

The 182nd catch deserved special treatment; he slowly got up and pumped his fists like Hercules.

Strangely, in books I've read related to Greek mythology, Hercules never once pumps his fists.

Zaheer Khan bowled 15 straight overs, either side of lunch, but couldn’t expose the top order.

That's like saying, 'he dug and he dug, but couldn't expose the soil's surface'. The job of new ball bowlers is to remove the top order, thus exposing the middle, and potentially lower, order.

He accounted for McIntosh and Flynn; but NZ are not all about apples: they have a few decent bats as well.

I get the connection between apple and McIntosh, but where does Flynn come into that equation?

Harbhajan, who had started bowling a few overs before lunch, was almost unplayable. Using the breeze, he got the ball to dip and turn or bounce after pitching. Suddenly, the Kiwis looked like they were on a burning tin roof.

Tin roofs get hot in the sun, but aren't flammable as far as I know.

I intend updating this post periodically with effusions from the keyboard of the inimitable Bobilli. If you come upon a passage worth a mention, do point me to it, I'll add it along with any comment you may have.

UPDATE 1: Gautam Gambhir completes his century: He punched the air, came out of his helmet and thanked the skies above. (thanks, pp)

2: After strutting around for more than 15 years, Australia have finally started walking with their tails tucked under the legs.
Are they really being ensnared by that monster called vicious cycle? Or are they just the latest victims of the malaise not-so-popularly known as the champion's syndrome? (thank you, av)

3. Sunday, April 19: Unfortunately, it looks like Bobilli isn't covering the IPL for the Times. However, we still have his column to look forward to. This from today's piece, make of it what you will: The cricket captain in some ways is larger than life, if not the game itself: unlike in other sports, he is not just the leader on the field whose job is to keep the flock together; he can't be only mother, father, brother, teacher for each and every player.

4: Monday, June 8, following Federer's victory over Soderling in the French Open final: ... the brave Swede just couldn’t pin Federer to his backhand, allowing himself to be demolished as delicately as a craftsman can. The grammar indicates that the 'craftsman' is Soderling, though of course Bobilli is referring to Federer when he uses that term. Craftsmen, it is worth mentioning, are not associated with demolitions, however delicate.

5: Sunday, July 12: Almost two years ago, when the Dilip Vengsarkar-led selection panel decided that it was time for hot blood, it seemed that Dravid's career was going cold too: his form had gone for a walk and his bat was behaving like an invisible stick; not too surprisingly, impulsive minds started ringing.

Friday, April 3, 2009

News items that sounded like April Fool's jokes, but weren't

My last Fool's Day related post. Three stories from April 1 or thereabouts which could have passed for jokes.
Story 1: A researcher from Tabriz, Iran, has published a paper titled, 'Ejaculation as a potential treatment of nasal congestion in mature males'. Sina Zarrintan suggests in the publication Medical Hypotheses that, since breathing problems during hayfever attacks are caused by inflamation of blood vessels in the nose, this might be countered by ejaculating, which leads to a constriction of blood vessels across the body. The neurologist has not studied his hypothesis on live subjects, but is convinced his treatment is preferable to prescribed decongestants, which, “if used for more than two or three days, can actually make congestion worse".
The dosage is adjustable, according to Zarrintan: "It can be done time-to-time to alleviate the congestion and the patient can adjust the number of intercourses or masturbations depending on the severity of the symptoms".

Story 2: A bank called up Bombay's Naresh Goomer to check if he had booked air tickets worth Rs.75,000 online in the recent past. When Goomer said he hadn't, the bank provided him with the name, mobile number and booking address of the passengers who had bought Bombay to Jaipur and Jaipur to Lucknow flights on Goomer's wife's credit card. Goomer took the information to the Juhu police, telling them they could intercept the culprits once they checked in at the airport. Instead, the police called the suspect's mobile number from the station's landline. Nobody answered. When the landline rang a few minutes later, the officer picked up the phone and said, "Juhu police station", at which point the caller hung up without saying a word. On being asked for his version of the story, Juhu senior police inspector Deepak Katkade said: "Investigations are going on and I cannot reveal the progress at this point of time. But we will definitely crack the case.''

Story 3: Sanjay Dutt has been made National General Secretary of the Samajwadi Party.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

MTNL: Always Fool's Day

After the ATMs yesterday, it's the turn of my Net connection to break down, forcing me to head for the neighbourhood cybercafe. It isn't just me: most subscribers to MTNL's broadband service were unable to access the Web through the day. The employee who registered my complaint said they've been overwhelmed by calls from irate customers. Apparently, MTNL officers have struck work today over wage demands. I suspect there's been some sabotaging of services as part of their protest.
Have these chaps done anything to deserve the pay hike they're demanding? Despite all the benefits the government provides MTNL and its sister concern BSNL, the two companies are struggling to keep pace with private telecom operators. Of course, managers will provide a litany of grouses that appear legitimate, but consider this: the government has given the two firms a huge, many would argue unfair, headstart in rolling out 3G services across the country. You'd think they'd immediately launch a massive campaign to capture customers, but two months after starting 3G operations in Delhi, MTNL has attracted only 300 subscribers. 300! BSNL has launched 3G in 24 towns, and now has a subscriber base of, wait for it, 2900.
The delay in 3G auctions was the final failure for a UPA telecom policy that's been a shambles from the get-go. Eventually, though, Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance and others will be permitted to offer enhanced mobile connectivity. Once that happens, the public sector undertakings will have trouble retaining even the few thousand clients they have on their roster.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Banks play pranks

There hasn't been too much April foolery in the dailies this morning. Maybe it's because history has played enough jokes on us these past fifteen months. Imagine somebody predicting two years ago: as oil prices rise, more grain will be converted to fuel, sparking food riots in a dozen countries. Oil will rise to nearly 150 dollars a barrel and then collapse under $40. Hundred year-old financial institutions will go bankrupt. An island with one of the highest living standards in the world will need an IMF bailout. The US will nationalise or part-nationalise its banking and insurance sectors. The American President will sack the head of General Motors. The world's economy will shrink for the first time in sixty years.
What could a newspaper print to top all this?
I did feel like the butt of an April Fool's prank this morning. I went to town to buy an air ticket which had to be paid for in cash. My bank, HDFC, has a branch on Marine drive, right next to the airline's office. I popped in there, to be told the machine was out of order. Can I cash a cheque, then? Sorry, we're on financial year-end accounts duty, the branch is shut for customers. No problem, I thought, there are plenty of ATMs in the area. I trudged around Churchgate in 40 degree heat and couldn't find a single machine that would spit out the required currency notes. The Reserve Bank's mandate that all ATMs should be free-to-use starting today had obviously thrown a spanner in the works.
I don't know why the RBI took this decision. It's true that charges for customers of one bank who used the ATM of another were not transparent. But eliminating cross-bank usage fees will disincentivize the expansion of ATM networks. Banks might spin off most of their machines into separate companies which charge everybody equally.
I ended up at another HDFC branch, where the ATM was working, but in an ungenerous mood. It kept asking me to enter a smaller amount, and finally deigned to provide 5000 rupees, well short of what I needed. When I prodded it again, I was told I'd fulfilled my day's quota. I went into one of those mindless repitition exercises, feeling like Oliver Twist asking for more soup. It was all in vain, and I'm back home now without the air ticket, feeling I've been punk'd.