Saturday, May 29, 2010

Beautiful Day ruined


The finale of this American Idol season was a turkey. I supported Lee DeWyze through the series, though not with any great enthusiasm. His performance in the final episode, though, lost him my vote. His opponent Crystal Bowersox was hardly better; after all, screaming in tune is still screaming.
The worst moment of the evening was Lee sleepwalking through U2's Beautiful Day (in case the video has been taken down, just type in the relevant terms and YouTube will offer an alternative). If you want to hear how that song should be sung, try this version by a Norwegian named Kurt Nilsen, who beat out favourite Kelly Clarkson to win the inaugural (and only) World Idol title.
And here, for reference, is the original studio recording and music video.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Asia rules


Skytrax just published its annual list of the world's best airlines, and Asia dominates it. In fact, the top 10 airlines are all based in Asia / Oceania. The Americas, Europe and Africa were blanked. Since Skytrax is headquartered in the United Kingdom, I can't ascribe any regional bias to the selection, which is computed after a large customer response survey.
These are the top 10 in the Airline of the Year race for 2009-2010:
1. Asiana Airlines
2. Singapore Airlines
3. Qatar Airways
4. Cathay Pacific
5. Air New Zealand
6. Etihad Airways
7. Qantas Airways
8. Emirates
9. Thai Airways
10. Malaysia Airlines

Asiana Airlines, by the way, is Korean.

I can understand why American airlines didn't figure, their service standards have always been among the lowest in the world, but the banishment of Europe is a bit surprising. I wouldn't expect British Airways or Air France to make the grade, but Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic should have been in with a shot.
Kingfisher Airlines won for best Indian carrier, and Indigo for best Indian low-cost carrier. The first doesn't impress me too much: if a company is prepared to lose thousands of crores of rupees, it can easily offer great service. The trick is to do that while also making a profit despite tough competition. That's what Indigo's been doing year after year. On short flights I pick Indigo over full-cost carriers even when cost isn't a factor. I don't care overmuch if I'm not fed in the course of an hour long journey. What I want is a comfortable flight which gets me to my destination on time. Indigo's clean, new planes and punctuality haven't let me down so far.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Apple surpasses Microsoft


A little over two months ago, when Bill Gates was toppled from his perch as the world's richest man, I suggested he'd be more upset when Microsoft was dethroned as the most valuable tech company in the world by Apple or Google. At that time, Apple's market capitalisation was about 20% lower than Microsoft's and Google was a further 7 or 8 percent adrift.
The switch happened yesterday. Apple overtook Microsoft on a day when the share price of both companies fell, but Microsoft's fell further. At the trading session's close, Apple's cap was a little over 222 billion dollars, and that of Microsoft around 219 billion.
To put things in perspective, a little over a decade ago, when Steve Ballmer took over as CEO of Microsoft and Steve Jobs returned to Apple, Apple had a market cap of $16 billion to Microsoft's $556 billion.
The company Bill Gates founded has been going through some turmoil, with a number of senior management figures leaving the company, and it seems unlikely its share price will recover sharply in the near future. Google, meanwhile, is having a lot of success with its Android mobile phone system, which could propel it to the number 2 spot sometime in the next twelve months.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Israel and apartheid South Africa


The Israeli President Shimon Peres is a wise and intelligent man, as this interview with the Wall Street Journal published yesterday bears out. It also bears out the US media's lapdog approach to Israel, which I have written about before. What kind of interview opens with the question, "Where should we begin?" and then allows the interviewee to set the agenda with a long historical disquisition?
Not a single difficult question is directed at Peres by WSJ staffers through a conversation that must have lasted at least an hour. He is free to display his breadth of learning and play the role of elder statesman.
One issue, in particular, is never raised by anybody in the American media when interviewing Israeli politicians: the nuclear arms the nation possesses, but has never admitted to owning. Back in the 1960s, the United States took Israel at its word that that its nuclear programme was entirely peaceful. The Americans later learned they had been deceived. The brains behind the secret weaponisation operation was Shimon Peres.
It has now emerged that, in 1975, Shimon Peres offered advanced missiles equipped with nuclear bombs to South Africa's P W Botha. So much for Israel's contention that it is a responsible power that would never assist proliferation. Although the sale didn't go through because the South Africans felt the cost was too high, a lot of nuclear tech and material was exchanged between the two nations, and appears to have contributed substantially to the apartheid regime's eventual development of atomic weapons. A letter to South Africa's Minister of Information, written by Shimon Peres in 1974 when he was Defence Minister and now declassified, speaks of how the two nations share, "a common hatred of injustice". I can see that.
The Guardian broke the story about the Israel-SA nuclear connection ten hours before the composition of this blog post. A Google News search shows it was picked up by Ha'aretz five hours ago, and by the Jerusalem Post 2 hours ago.
How many US papers have reported the story so far? Zero.
They'll have to carry it eventually, of course. But their reluctance to do so is evident from the delay.

UPDATE: It is now 17 hours since the Guardian article appeared on the Web. Much of the British press has picked up the story; Arab outlets like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have, naturally, done the same. A denial's been issues by Israel, hardly surprising. The denial's been put out by AP and Reuters.
Still no US coverage. Zip, zero, zilch.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Quote, unquote, misquote

In my college days, my mother, a writer, and my actress sister would regularly be asked for quotes for some newspaper article or other. Almost invariably, a mangled version of what they’d said would appear in print, leaving them fuming. They’re still generous with quotes, but I decided early on not to get into that charade. Nobody is too unimportant to be misquoted, I told myself.
At some point, I began to be asked for my views about contemporary art. I’d try and compensate for refusing to speak on record by providing background information about the subject, or pointing to published writing of mine that could be used in the context. Finally, last month, figuring my lecture on masculinity could do with some publicity, I agreed to an email interview for Time Out. The writer accepted my condition about carrying answers without alteration.
Emboldened by that experience, I wondered if I hadn’t been too absolute about the issue. After all, I’ve written dozens of pieces which wouldn’t have been possible without the co-operation of people willing to be quoted. So I provided written quotes for three different articles in the course of a week. The first appeared in the Times of India’s Crest edition a few days ago. The question posed by Saloni Doshi was, "Do you feel that many of our galleries have taken the role of a museum in terms of delivering museum quality shows or retrospectives etc?" I answered: "When private galleries have mounted retrospectives or memorable group shows, it has usually been within a museum like the NGMA. The Bhupen Khakhar retrospective and Chemould gallery's 40th anniversary show come to mind. I have seen few museum quality shows within the limited space of a private gallery."
The published version reads, “I have seen a few museum quality shows (in Mumbai) within the limited space of a private gallery — the Bhupen Khakhar retrospective and Chemould’s 40th anniversary are the few that come to mind,” comments art critic Girish Shahane".
The added ‘a’ entirely changes the meaning of what I’d written. Now I’m rethinking the whole speaking on record stuff. I’ll wait for the other two pieces to be published before deciding whether to crawl back into quote hibernation.
Although this is the first quote I have provided for publication, it isn’t the first to have appeared in print. Two years ago, a guy named Rahul Jayaram quoted me in an article about a Dante manuscript in Bombay’s Asiatic Library. Only problem was, I had never met or spoken to Rahul Jayaram in my life. He probably thought he’d get away because the article was printed in Calcutta’s Telegraph newspaper; he hadn’t reckoned with Google Alerts.
I tracked him down, and he apologised, but the article remains online, with this quote by me, which is entirely nonsensical in the context: Art critic Girish Shahane concurs. “An abstract artist like Harold Shapinsky was discovered by literature professor Akumal Ramachander when the latter visited his house in New York in the 1980s. Shapinsky was unheard of then,” he says.
As far as I can tell, the British expert quoted throughout the article doesn't exist. In which case, why couldn't Rahul Jayaram make up a fictitious art critic as well? Why me? And why Harold Shapinsky? There are a number of things I will go a lifetime without understanding, and this is one of them.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Yesterday's column for Yahoo!

My column for Yahoo! India, published yesterday.

Do not hope to hope again



Brad Pitt, who has stayed impeccably diplomatic throughout his career, grew unusually opinionated while promoting Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, in which he had a starring role. Pitt said, about the movie that gave Jews fictional revenge on Hitler, "The Second World War could still deliver more stories and films, but I believe that Quentin put a cover on that pot. With Basterds, everything that can be said to this genre has been said. The film destroys every symbol. The work is done, end of story." He went on to dismiss his Interview with the Vampire co-star Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie as “a ridiculous movie”. Pitt’s agent, immediately activating damage control mode, stated the actor had not seen Valkyrie, and suggested much had been lost in translation because the interview appeared in the German magazine, Stern.
I caught Valkyrie on its release, and found it a passable, workmanlike effort hobbled by its adherence to historical fact (we knew beforehand the plot to assassinate Hitler would fail). I viewed it again, on television, after going through the Inglourious Basterds experience, and couldn’t sit through it. Every character appeared to be a parody of himself, and scenes taut with tension in the initial screening now verged on comical. Brad Pitt’s characterisation of Tarantino’s achievement, I concluded, was perfectly accurate.


It must be obvious by now that this column is about the recently completed election in the United Kingdom. Just kidding. About the obviousness, that is, not about the UK election. Few were enthused by that poll, which ended with the first hung Westminster parliament for decades, and the first coalition government since the Second World War. We had, in Gordon Brown, a candidate very difficult to like; Gordon Grey would be a more appropriate name for him. He was faced, in David Cameron, with an opponent very difficult to hate, though his privileged Eton-Oxford schooling inclined many Brits to despise him. The third party, the Liberal Democrats, were squeezed by Cameron’s move to the middle ground. Their most pressing aim remained changing the constitution to enable more Liberal Democrats to be elected in the future. The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, referred to his party as, “the vanguard of the political centre-left”, a bit of an oxymoron, like calling Hrishikesh Mukherjee a revolutionary middle-of-the-road director.
Clegg and Cameron are now in a decidedly oxymoronic Conservative-Liberal alliance, their differences papered over for the time being by their uncannily similar appearance. I half-expect a scientist to announce the two were subjects of a twins-raised-apart project begun in the 1960s, which has conclusively established that ideological tendencies are not inherited traits.
India’s apathy to the election is a sign of its growing distance from the former imperial power. One cannot imagine today a scene of the sort depicted in Satyajit Ray’s masterful Charulata (itself based on Rabindranath Tagore’s semi-autobiographical novella Nastanirh), in which the Anglophile Bhupati Majumdar is so preoccupied with the tussle between Liberal Gladstone and Tory Disraeli that he fails to notice his wife Charulata’s growing romantic attachment to his younger brother Amal. I suspect, however, that the dullness of the UK election as seen from an Indian perspective was not just a function of the personalities involved, nor of India’s increasingly independent developmental trajectory, but the result of another election held eighteen months previously, the US Presidential race that ended with Barack Obama’s move to the White House. That was the Inglourious Basterds of campaigns. It put a cover on the genre of the election as spectacle. The son of a Kenyan goatherd rising to become the world’s most powerful man: who can top a narrative like that? Who can compete with those momentous speeches, that epic tussle with Hillary Clinton, the grotesque intervention of Sarah Palin, the urgent context of two wars and a financial meltdown? Most importantly, as the soaring poetry of Obama’s campaign turns into the plodding prose of administration, and as his promise of an end to partisanship gives way to the reality of a nation seemingly more divided than ever, who can once more hope to evoke hope in an electorate? Not even the most charismatic politician could possess that degree of audacity.
There is, however, a little light at the end of the tunnel. Ed Miliband shows signs of running for the leadership of the Labour party, and the man opposing him is likely to be his elder brother David. The brother-versus-brother scenario was left untouched by the American election of 2008, and promises some diverting, if meaningless, entertainment in the near future.

The column can be accessed at Yahoo! here.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A reason to cheer?


Today's Mumbai Mirror leads with a story about public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam's driver being transferred after showing up in a suit instead of his uniform on the day Ajmal Kasab was sentenced to death.
Forget the driver for a second, here's my question: why are people offering bouquets to the prosecutor? As far as Kasab himself was concerned, I have never heard of a more open and shut case in my life. The guy was caught on CCTV cameras shooting at people, clicked by a news photographer up close, and seen by over a dozen people who lived to testify about his actions. Plus he was captured quite literally red-handed at the end of his trail of murder. It would have taken a feat of incompetence beyond even the capacity of our police force to botch that argument.
There were, however, two persons charged with laying the groundwork for the terror attack who were tried along with Kasab. Both these gentlemen, Fahim Ansari and Sabahuddin Ahmed, were acquitted by judge Tahaliyani, who made deeply critical remarks about the investigation.
The response to the performance of Nikam and the policemen who briefed him is akin to cheering our cricket team for its showing in the T20 World Cup. It's true we lost to Australia, West Indies and Sri Lanka, but we did beat Afghanistan.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Vishy's greatest win


It wasn't a beautiful match, the just-concluded World Championship between the reigning champion Viswanathan Anand and his Bulgarian challenger Veselin Topalov. I suspect only one of the twelve games, Game 4, which Vishy won with the white pieces, will be remembered as a classic. That game was the kind professionals dream about, where the opponent makes no obvious blunders but nevertheless finds himself down a point at the end.
Despite the relative paucity of classical elegance, this is probably Anand's greatest win because the match was an ordeal, a test of mental strength and, at the end of it, Anand stands like one of those epic heroes who triumphs over everything thrown at him, not without luck, not without having vulnerabilities exposed, but having demonstrated an inspiring combination of courage, will power, grit and ability.
The first reason the match qualified as an ordeal was that Topalov committed himself to the so-called Sofia rules, which meant no light draws were offered, play continued till the position was completely dead. Instead of getting the occasional easy day, where after 25 moves both players say, "this position is more or less equal, let's not bother trying to find a win", Anand had to play endgame after endgame precisely. One slightly inexact move at that level can turn a draw into a loss. In the end it turned out that the challenger was as mentally drained by his self-imposed commitment as the champion.
Secondly, Anand was delayed getting to Sofia because of the Icelandic volcano. He had a 40 hour road trip to cope with, and asked for a three day postponement, but was given only a day's extra time. He lost the first game, possibly because he was still suffering the effects of his journey. Being down a point in a twelve game match is serious; it means that, in eleven games, you have to win two more than your opponent.
The match swung Vishy's way by Game 5, after he won his first two games with white. He then had an opportunity to virtually seal a victory in games 6 and 7, in both of which he had white pieces. A win in one of those would have put the match beyond Topalov's reach, but the challenger played magnificently and almost defeated the champ playing black. Then Anand made a huge mistake and allowed Topalov to equalise the score. At this point the momentum had swung entirely to Topalov, and I felt Anand might not have any reserve of energy within him. Instead, it was the challenger who seemed to succumb to exhaustion in the final games. Playing white in Game 12, with the scores equal, he made a massive error and let Anand take the match without the necessity of a tie-breaker. Later he claimed that he was superstitious about playing the tie-break on May 13, and therefore wanted to finish it off in game 12 itself.
If that's true, Anand should be happy he got only a day's postponement and not the three he'd asked for.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Landmark at Phoenix

Now that the bookstore chain Landmark's biggest Bombay branch has opened in Phoenix Mills, there's no need for me to visit any other shopping centre in the city. I checked out the stacks last evening, and was pleased with pretty much everything, except the fact that three art quarterlies were on sale, but not Art India, which features a lead article by me in its current issue, and whose office is walking distance from Phoenix.
Jabeen's sometimes disappointed that I always think of Phoenix when shopping is mentioned, complaining it has the same old stuff. My response is simple: seeing the same old stuff in the same old place is only to be expected, but seeing the same old stuff in a different place (which would be the outcome were I to visit any other mall) is depressing.


Landmark's located in the basement of Palladium, the new, high-end section of Phoenix. My regular stop in Palladium is Bespoke Cafe, run by the same management as The Tasting Room. The cafe, tucked away inside a men's fashion store called The Collective, offers a juicy beefburger topped with blue cheese that makes it easy to forgive the place its silly name. It also has coffees and wines on the menu. It's never full, for some reason, which means it'll probably close down soon, and I'll be deprived of the only good burger within a five kilometer radius of my home.
Palladium has some ridiculous stuff in it, like the Movenpick ice cream parlour handing out minuscule scoops (80 ml, I was informed) for 120 rupees plus VAT. Next door there's an Ed Hardy shop displaying minimal T-shirts with maximal patterns and even more maximal price tags (commonly 10,000 rupees, or 225 dollars, for one flimsy garment). If you like getting less for more, these are the places for you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Judgment day


Yesterday, the Supreme Court prohibited tests like narco-analysis and 'brain mapping' from being performed on unwilling suspects. The three-judge bench ruled the tests are "cruel, inhuman and degrading" and contravene peoples' right not to incriminate themselves. I've written before about voodoo technologies being passed off as science, so I'm really glad the court has finally put an end to that dangerous nonsense.
Now the police might actually have to try and find evidence, like, you know, fingerprints, DNA matches, bank transfers, the kind of thing that holds up in court if you do your homework. Unfortunately, it's more likely they'll simply cook up stuff, as they tried to do in the case of the 26/11 co-accused Fahim Ansari and Sabauddin Ahmed. To the cops' dismay, the crisp map they produced from a dead terrorist's bloodied pocket weeks after the attacks did not pass muster with the judge.
Chief Justice Balakrishnan, who was on the bench which made the narco ruling, has a couple of other important matters to sort out before he clears his desk on May 11. Tomorrow at 10.30am, he will pronounce his verdict on the Ambani versus Ambani gas dispute. I've written about that case as well, expressing my support for the younger Ambani in the matter. I've put (some of) my money where my mouth is, taking a punt on the stock of Reliance Natural Resources Ltd., which is bound to skyrocket if the court rules in Anil Ambani's favour. It's not often that you get to bet on justice (or what you believe is justice) being done.

UPDATE: Friday, May 7: The supreme Court ruled in a split verdict in favour of Reliance Industries Limited against Reliance Natural Resources Limited. Essentially, the majority opinion appears to give carte blanche to the government to change contracts as it wishes, when it wishes.
The issue is complicated, but as far as I can tell, it is akin to this example: The government owns a lot of land. It leases a plot to person A. Person A enters into a contract with person B re-leasing the plot for 10 rupees a year. The price of land goes up dramatically. Now person A approaches a friend in the government and says he wants more rent for the plot. The government steps in and claims that it does not like the price of 10 rupees a year, and that B must pay A 20 rupees a year, in order not to cause a loss to the owner of the plot. The case goes to court, and is decided in favour of the government and A.

The message to international as well as domestic investors is clear: do not assume that any contracts you sign in relation to national resources like oil and natural gas hold any value. The government can change policy at a later date and apply it with retrospective effect to the agreement you signed.

This is very bad news for the country. As for my personal bet, I assumed the RNRL stock would plummet if an unfavourable judgment came out, but it held up surprisingly well for a few minutes before beginning to fall, and even then it only fell about 8% in the first half hour. I managed to get out with a tiny profit, which is astonishing. I woke up believing that, should the case be decided in RIL's favour, I'd be out of pocket for half my investment.

FURTHER UPDATE: The reason the RNRL stock didn't buckle is that the judgment has a fudge embedded in it. It takes congnizance of the MOU between the Ambani brothers, and asks their companies to renegotiate the contract in line with the MOU. I have no clue what this means, but I guess some, who might know better, feel there's still some value in the RNRL stock.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Memories and Memorials

Here's the text of my Yahoo! column without the minor editorial changes made before its publication.



The bronze statue at the martyrs’ memorial in South Bombay stands on a peculiar, somewhat cone-shaped pedestal. Perhaps the designer’s intention was to mimic the form of a torch, with the pedestal as its handle and the statue as the flame. That’s the only explanation I’ve been able to dream up, having given the matter considerable thought.
The pedestal could be overlooked, if the sculpture itself made a powerful impact. The composition consists of a loin-cloth clad farmer fused to a kurta wearing city dweller. The two jointly hold a mashaal that resembles a fly whisk. While the farmer is comfortable in his pose, his partner looks distraught, perhaps because he is being nudged off balance and risks toppling from his perch. It must be particularly galling for him to be in that position because, after all, few loin-cloth wearing farmers lost their lives in the push for the creation of Maharashtra. It was people in urban areas who suffered, particularly citizens of Bombay which was the flashpoint of the five year long agitation. After first attempting to forge a bilingual entity, Jawaharlal Nehru proposed a three way division, in which Gujarat and Maharashtra would be fully fledged states while Bombay was ruled directly by the Centre. The Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti rejected this notion out of hand, and took to the streets in protest.
Those protests have now largely passed from history into legend. The myth has grown that peaceful demonstrators came out on the streets in January 1956, and were shot in cold blood by police under the orders of Morarji Desai. In some accounts, the firing takes place in 1960, although Desai had moved to the Central government by then. We read versions of this tale in commemorative supplements from newspapers:
“Hutatma Chowk: a sculpture set up in memory of the 105 deaths that occurred in 1960 when a peaceful demonstration by the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (United Maharashtra Committee) was fired upon by the police.”
In blogs:
“During one peaceful protest in 1956, under the auspices of Morarji Desai’s Congress government in Bombay state, police opened fire and killed 105 people.”
In encyclopedias:
“In January 1956, demonstrators were fired upon by the police at Flora Fountain in the capital city of Mumbai. Flora Fountain was subsequently renamed Hutatma Chowk or "Martyr's Crossroads" in their memory. It is estimated that in all, 105 people were shot by security forces. Morarji Desai, who was the then chief minister of Bombay state was later removed and replaced by YB Chawan as a result of criticism related to this incident.”
And on NGO websites:
“In January that year, police fired upon participants of a peaceful demonstration at Flora Fountain. 105 people died in the firing. Flora Fountain was subsequently renamed Hutatma Chowk and a memorial was built in their memory.”

An alternative myth, which has the advantage of being amusing, is found in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. The young Saleem Sinai, trying to impress a girl with his bicycle-riding skill, hurtles into a Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti procession. After being jeered for his evident affluence, he’s prompted to speak in Gujarati, at which point he says the only words he knows in that language: Su che? Saaru che. Danda leke maaru che; translated as: How are you? I am well. I’ll take a stick and thrash you to hell! The rhyme becomes a war chant for the Marathi marchers, who surge forward, encounter a counter-procession of Gujaratis, and lay into them, sparking language riots which lead ultimately to the creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat.
In truth, Saleem Sinai was not a cause of the foundation of Maharashtra, but neither was a massacre of unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. Hutatma Chowk has 106 names etched on a slab some distance from the bronze statue; it is clear from the inscription that they died on different occasions and at different places. A number of the names are not Marathi: there’s a Patel, a Cursetjee, and a Singh among others. The strongest argument against the martyr myth, however, concerns not the time or place or mother tongue of the dead, but the manner of their protest. A Time magazine report dated January 30, 1956, describes the peaceful activists thus:
“The rioters blocked streets with boulders and gasoline drums, tore up lampposts, ripped down fences. They smashed statues of Mahatma Gandhi (a Gujarati himself), burned Desai in effigy, flourished pictures of Nehru hung with old shoes as a gesture of despisal. Mobs, sometimes 10,000 strong, stormed police stations, looted Gujarati shops, flung electric light bulbs filled with nitric acid in the faces of police and passersby. Saboteurs derailed trains, hurled stones at buses, set fire to cars.” In this context, the torch held by the two bronze figures at Hutatma Chowk acquires a very different meaning.
It wasn’t just riots that changed Nehru’s mind about keeping Bombay separate from Maharashtra. The losses the Congress suffered in the 1957 elections played a crucial role. The coalition opposed to the Congress was composed mainly of Leftist politicians. Socialists and communists like S M Joshi, S A Dange and Lalji Pendse viewed the language divide between Marathis and Gujaratis as a mirror of the division between proletariat and bourgeoisie, and ignored the warnings of Nehru who believed their agitation would encourage linguistic chauvinism. May 1, Labour Day, was chosen as the date Maharashtra would be born because of the Left’s conviction that the inclusion of Bombay in the state represented a victory of the working class. They soon learned how wrong they were. After 1960, demands began to be made for Marathi quotas in the public and private sector. The Shiv Sena, created in 1966, drove a wedge in the workers’ movement by pandering to the frustrations of bhumiputras. Within ten years of the formation of Maharashtra, the Left had been sidelined in Bombay trades unions and state party politics.
There are many reasons to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Maharashtra’s birth. In the broader context, the division of states along linguistic lines did not produce the worst results imagined by the idea’s detractors. If anything, as Ramachandra Guha convincingly argues in his book India After Gandhi, it helped quiet secessionist rumblings. It remains the case, however, that not only does the Hutatma Chowk martyrs’ torch carry two significations, of liberty and destruction, but the nature of Maharashtra’s genesis has made it impossible to separate one from the other.

Monday, May 3, 2010

My new column

I have just commenced a fortnightly column for Yahoo! India. The column is called Anything That Moves, and the first piece, titled Memories and Memorials, has just been uploaded and can be accessed here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Diamonds are not forever



I received a disturbing letter from the Warden of Rhodes House yesterday. "To be blunt: the Rhodes Scholarships need your financial support," it read (bold type in the original). Anybody who needs my financial support, I thought, is in grave trouble indeed. Luckily for the trust, the letter went out to all former Scholars, many of whom are better equipped to help.
The question is: how did the Rhodes Trust come to this pass? After all, the bequest of Cecil Rhodes had sufficed to fund scholarships to Oxford University for a hundred years, surviving stock market crashes, stagflation and world wars. I glanced at the Trust's accounts, which indicated it had lost a third of its capital in the 2008 meltdown.
The problem has its roots, I believe, in the formation in 2003 of the Rhodes-Mandela Foundation. The idea was that, since the benefactor Cecil Rhodes was a nasty imperialist who had become one of the world's richest men by exploiting the diamonds and gold of southern Africa, the trust owed a special debt to that region. A total sum of 10 million pounds was promised by the Rhodes Trustees to the Rhodes-Mandela Foundation, to be paid over 10 years and matched by an equal amount raised from other sources.
This gift added, annually, about 20% to the trust's expenses, at a time when university fees were rising sharply for non-EU students. The trustees, under the leadership of William Waldegrave, felt the need to increase revenues to compensate. They switched, in 2004, to 'total return' investing, which, from what I can understand, means shifting from fixed-income bonds, and companies that pay substantial dividends (typically, firms in mature, slow-growth industries), to high-growth assets. High growth, of course, comes with high risk. The 'total return' strategy was dandy for three years, struggled for a year after that, and hit a wall in 2008. As far as I can tell, the Rhodes Trust sold most of its holdings near the bottom of the market, and was sitting on cash through the recovery that kicked in after March 2009.
So now they're asking for bequests and donations. They've rejigged the board of trustees, inducting, among others, Narayana Murthy. But William Waldegrave is still Chairman, something I find astonishing. He's a former Tory minister, and Vice Chairman of the Investment Banking Department and Chairman of the European Financial Institutions Group at UBS Investment Bank. No wonder the Trust almost went broke under his watch, that CV reads to me like a recipe for disaster.