Friday, December 31, 2010

Heritage hero or villain?

This afternoon, BBC World broadcast an episode of Heritage Heroes applauding the work of Mohamed Turshi al Soghayer who was instrumental in conserving the traditional multi-storey houses of Rijal Alma in southern Saudi Arabia. The chairperson of the jury was Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, head of the Saudi Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, whose statement can be read on the Heritage Heroes site here.
Earlier, I'd read a New York Times article about real estate development in Mecca, including the building of a huge clocktower modelled on Big Ben and a series of highrises right next to the Kaaba. The clocktower is six times the height of its Westminster model, over 1900 feet as against Big Ben's 315 feet.

The apartment blocks and clocktower were built by bulldozing an old Ottoman fortress and levelling the hill on which it stood, to fulfill the demand among super-wealthy Muslims to have a room overlooking Islam's most holy site. Rapid construction around the Kaaba has displaced Meccans who've lived close to the site for generations, and created a divide between the rich who ring the complex and their less well-off brethren who have been forced further afield. According to many this runs contrary to the idea of Mecca as a place where class distinctions, so prominent elsewhere, fade, and are replaced by a sense of oneness and solidarity among all Muslims.
Prince Sultan, head of the Heritage Heroes jury was asked about the kitsch version of Big Ben rising where a hill and fortress used to be. He replied curtly, “When I am in Mecca and go around the kaaba, I don’t look up.” So much for commitment to heritage. It was surprising in any case coming from a member of the clan of Al Saud, probably responsible for more destruction of built heritage down the generations than any other currently powerful family in the entire world.
On a related note, today's Mumbai Mirror has the results of a poll listing the city's 'seven wonders'. It's a bit of hyperbole, but two predictable winners are VT / CST station and Haji Ali. Haji Ali was ruined years ago when a guesthouse was built right behind the dargah, warping the delicate outline of the structure seen against the sky. Now there's a proposal to dilute heritage norms for VT, and to use land on its eastern side to build, what else, shopping complexes and hotels. All of Bombay's municipal corporators ganged up not long ago to push through a scheme to redevelop Crawford market along similar lines. This morning's paper left me thinking: if the skyline around the Kaaba could be destroyed, what hope for a 19th century railway station and market?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rasta to Zion, cut and paste

Bobby Farrell, of Boney M died in St.Petersberg yesterday, in his hotel rather than during a performance of Rasputin. I wrote a column about Boney M and geopolitics a few weeks ago, but since Yahoo! is in the midst of a reorganisation, and all our columns have temporarily gone off line, I'm cutting and pasting the piece here.

Rasta to Zion

The Palestine International Festival of Dance and Music, designed to draw attention to water shortages in the West Bank, isn’t exactly the hottest ticket on the global performance circuit. The only reason the disco band Boney M’s gig in Ramallah gained coverage was that organisers asked the band not to play one of its greatest hits, Rivers of Babylon. The lyrics, derived from the Old Testament’s Book of Psalms, are words spoken by Jews lamenting their exile from Jerusalem, which is frequently referred to in the Bible as Zion:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion.

When the wicked

Carried us away in captivity

Required from us a song.

Now how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

Any mention of Zion is a tricky matter in the Arab world, where the state of Israel is frequently disparaged as ‘the Zionist entity’. The Wachowski brothers discovered this when their film The Matrix Reloaded was banned in Egypt. The authorities claimed they objected to the portrayal of a Creator, but the real problem probably lay with the rebel stronghold in the movie being named Zion.

The Wachowskis, aware they might be labelled Zionist propagandists, had taken precautions, like putting the rebel leader Morpheus in charge of a ship called the Nebuchadnezzar. That gentleman was a king of Babylon who conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC, and returned to crush a revolt a decade later. The Jews captured or driven into exile in this period constituted the first Diaspora. Nebuchadnezzar may have constructed one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but it counted for little in the minds of those who composed the Bible. There, he is forever the wicked king carrying the Chosen into captivity. It is commonly held that history is written by the winners. The Old Testament appears to disprove that theory, as do a few Rajput tracts I know.

Despite the bad notices in the Holy Book, Nebuchadnezzar has attracted his share of fans down the ages, like a certain Saddam Hussein who dreamt of becoming the second ruler from what is now Iraq to conquer Jerusalem. Unlike his predecessor, however, Saddam was a mediocre general. The Nebuchadnezzar division of his Republican Guard found considerably less success in battle than the Nebuchadnezzar of the Matrix series, leave alone the army of the ancient Babylonian king.

Those who saw The Matrix Reloaded might have noticed a preponderance of dreadlocks at the dance party within the rebel camp before the crucial battle. This arguably echoes a different tradition of longing for Zion, Rastafarian rather than Jewish.

The Rastafarian faith traces its origins to the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who launched a Back to Africa movement in the early twentieth century. In one of his more fervid speeches, Garvey proclaimed, “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; he shall be the redeemer”. When, some years later, Ras Tafari Makonnen became Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, it was interpreted by many Jamaicans as the crowning Garvey had spoken about. In Rastafari theology, Haile Selassie, who claimed descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, came to be regarded an incarnation of Jesus. Ethiopia was considered Zion, the land to which the African Diaspora would return from its exile in Babylon, variously seen as Jamaica or the West.

Ethiopia, the Promised Land? What were those guys smoking, you might ask. The answer is: preparations of Cannabis Indica, a plant indentured labourers from the subcontinent introduced to the Caribbean. Rastafaris believe, as do some dreadlocked sadhus, that ganja has spiritual properties. Smoking it is a sacrament.

The songs of the most famous Rastafari convert, Bob Marley, are saturated with the political and philosophical beliefs of the movement. When Marley sings Iron, Lion, Zion or Zion Train; or when he speaks in Exodus of leaving Babylon and returning to the fatherland; he’s referring to places outside Israel and Iraq, and even Asia. This is also true, as it happens, of Rivers of Babylon, originally recorded by the Rastafarian reggae group The Melodians before being covered by Boney M in a version that achieved worldwide success.

Maybe that’s what Maize Williams of Boney M should have told the organisers of the Palestine festival. It’s not Jerusalem the people in my song are remembering, it’s obviously Addis Ababa. There’s more than one Zion in the world.

There’s also, as it turns out more than one Boney M in the world. There are as many Boney Ms, in fact, as there were members in the band’s line-up in the late 1970s. After disco collapsed as precipitously as Arab defences had during the 1967 war, the group spent years in the wilderness before the nostalgic revival of the early 1990s brought them back to the limelight. Each of the four toured separately as Boney M; the only problem was, just two of the four had ever sung a word in the band’s studio records. The other two were there to dance attractively and lip sync in concerts. Maizie Williams, who rocked Ramallah a few days ago, is one of the non-singers. How would she sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Out of tune, unless helped by backing vocalists, with the volume turned low on her microphone.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Contempt of Court

If there's one good thing to come out of the absurd verdict in the trial of Binayak Sen, it is the overthrow of the idea that decisions of courts are beyond criticism. In the past, the threat of being hauled up for contempt restricted public contestation of judgements. This self-censorship has been relaxed in recent years, and appears to have disappeared entirely after the Binayak Sen verdict, which has been called 'shocking' in an editorial of the Hindu, and a 'kangaroo trial' and 'a farce' by members of the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi. Today's Times of India carries two articles critical of the way the case proceeded and highlights the flimsiness of evidence.
Essentially, one of India's most distinguished public health practitioners and human rights activists was held without bail for months and has now been sentenced to life in jail because he supposedly served as a conduit between an imprisoned Left wing extremist leader and other militants. The proof of this were letters recovered, not from Dr.Sen himself, but from a businessman who first said he was given the material by Dr.Sen and then retracted the statement. The place where the letters were recovered was mentioned as 'Station Road' in the police report. This was later changed to a completely different location, namely 'Mahindra Hotel'. The court accepted that a typing error led to the police putting down 'Station Road' instead of 'Mahindra Hotel'.
The police, after going through Binayak Sen's home and computer, came up with proof of his sympathy with terrorists in the form of pamphlets and books about Naxalism. Well, if that's evidence, then they could lock me up as a Maoist militant, since I have similar material lying about in my house. There was also an email sent by Dr.Sen's wife to somebody in the ISI; that was the Indian Social Institute, not Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, but the police were satisfied the ISI label meant the Sens were colluding with Pakistan.
The case sheds light on the working of the whole judicial system in India. If a trial in the world's spotlight, during which two dozen Nobel laureates as well as human rights organisations like Amnesty International have spoken out on the defendant's behalf, becomes such a grotesque travesty of justice, imagine what it's like for the poor of Chattisgarh and other regions. What chance do they have against a combination of harsh laws, merciless police and pliant judges? None. And what happens when large sections of the population feel they have no recourse within the legal framework? They decide to work outside it.
I'm certain the verdict will be overturned in a higher court and Binayak Sen will eventually be acquitted. But he will have spent years in custody by then, and it will be wrong to suggest, the day he is set free, that justice has finally been done.

UPDATE, December 28: Rajinder Sachar, the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, has called the Binayak Sen judgement "nonsensical", and said he was ashamed to belong to a judicial system that delivered such a '"ridiculous judgement". I cannot recall any previous Indian verdict being described in such scathing terms by a former judge.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy holidays, Barack Obama

There's finally a caesura in the narrative of Barack Obama's presidency. The stimulus was signed when he'd barely taken charge, leading to an early partisan divide that only became sharper as the months progressed. His first December break was interrupted by a would-be terrorist trying to blow up an airplane. Earlier this summer, with the jobs situation looking grim as ever, an oil well blew up and, though it wasn't the government's fault, Obama's image took a beating. His vacation in Maine and his wife's trip top Spain around that time got them a shellacking from the Right. It's been twenty three months of perpetual crisis.
Now he can relax for a few days knowing he's already fulfilled most of the promises he made during his campaign. OK, it's pretty difficult to live up to statements like, The world will look back to this time as the moment our planet began to heal. But Obama couldn't have got elected without making such grandiose claims, so he has to accept the inevitable feeling among ardent (and naive) supporters, of being let down.
A presidential campaign is like a ramp show with impractical and unwearable but hugely creative clothes on display. It's a hypothesis that needs major adjustments after practical tests. The question is: does the Obama pret line look sort of like his ramp show? I'd say it's a close enough variant and, after the DADT repeal, maybe some on the Left might begin to agree.
The biggest let-down of these two years has been, of course, unemployment. But a President can't create jobs out of thin air, at least not in the long term. The stimulus kept job losses down, the Fed's actions helped keep the economy growing, and now he's managed a second huge stimulus package. Estate tax cuts may be about the worst way to stimulate jobs growth, but there was no realistic path forward without giving in to some Republican demands, pretty much everyone agrees with that. At this point, Obama just wants the unemployment rate down to between 7 and 8 % in two years; if it remains around 10%, he's likely to lose the next election. I doubt any man could be re-elected President after having near double digit unemployment for virtually the entire term of his presidency.
To get unemployment down, companies have to start hiring. And for companies to start hiring, they have to feel a sense of stability. The health care law and new financial regulations appear to have created a sense of insecurity among entrepreneurs. They will not expand while they feel uncertain, any more than an old-time trading vessel would leave port during a storm. Having pushed through much of his long-term agenda, Obama requires to calm public discourse so owners of firms feel they can chart their own course without interference.
The START victory gives him the impetus to turn seriously to international affairs, where Republicans will provide less opposition. Unfortunately, both Israel and Iran are saddled with the worst imaginable regimes, so progress in the Middle East, which should be his first priority, looks improbable.
It'll be interesting to see how he decides to steer. Meanwhile, I hope he gets some deserved rest, without some lunatic attempting a terrorist strike against American citizens.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tendulkar and Bradman

Now Sachin Tendulkar's got his 50th Test century, the media have predictably revived the debate about whether he's the greatest batsman of all time. Well, of course not. Donald Bradman's clearly the greatest batsman who ever lived by a wide margin.
Batting averages have not shifted all that much in the past century. After a long career, a good Test batsman typically ends with an average of between 40 and 45; an exceptional one with an average of between 45 and 50; and an all-time great with a 50 plus average. That, at least, was the case before helmets became the norm, grounds grew smaller and bats more powerful. When helmets were rare, in the late 1970s and early 80s, there were four batsmen in the entire world with an average of over 50: Greg Chappell, Sunil Gavaskar, Vivian Richards and Javed Miandad. Chappell was replaced by Allan Border as the 50 plus Aussie in the 1980s. In the first sixty years that India played Test cricket, Gavaskar was the only batsman to end a substantial career with a Test average above 50 . Contrast this with the fact that the current Indian team itself has four batsmen averaging 50 plus: Sachin, Dravid, Sehwag and Gambhir. Pretty much every major team has one or two players in that category.
Judging by the stats, batting's become easier than it used to be; certainly no harder. It is reasonable to assume, then, that batsmen of the past would have had more or less the same success if transported to the present; their average would be in the same ballpark.
How, then, is there even a suggestion that Sachin Tendulkar, with an average in the mid-fifties, might be the equal of Bradman who averaged virtually 100? There simply is no comparison. Bradman is one of those outliers that defies comprehension; he is so far above any other batsman to have ever played cricket that he becomes a serious contender for the title of greatest sportsman of the twentieth century. I can't think of any sport where one person has left his contemporaries quite so far in his wake.
In any debate about the greats, Bradman should be left out of the equation, he's way greater than everybody else. What Sachin's done in the past year, I believe, is to put himself at the top of that group of 'everybody else'. About five years ago, Brian Lara and Sachin had similar records, and there was a valid debate about who was the preeminent batsman of their generation. Ricky Ponting had hit such a purple patch it seemed he might in the end overtake both Lara and Tendulkar. Well, Ponting's career graph has described a trajectory quite normal among great batsmen: a peak between the ages of 28 and 32, when the career average rises to the high 50s, and then a gradual falling off till it gets to about 50 at the time of retirement. Dravid's graph shows the same pattern, a rise to 57 or 58 and then a decline back to 52 - 53; The careers of Richards and Miandad also followed a similar arc. Sachin has defied this trend, by getting an improbable second wind late in the day. Having played more tests, scored more runs and hit more Test and ODI centuries than any other batsman in history, he's cemented a place as the second greatest batsman to have ever lived.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The death of the Hollywood star-driven drama

James L Brooks' How Do You Know, one of the rare recent examples of a big budget spent mainly on actors, is doing very poorly at the box office, as is The Tourist, starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. This is probably because they're bad films, but it makes me wonder what happened to the star-driven drama. I can think of few hit films of the recent past that compare with Brooks' previous Jack Nicholson starrers, As Good as it Gets and Terms of Endearment.
Thirty years ago, the second highest grossing film of 1981, behind the leader Raiders of the Lost Ark, was On Golden Pond, starring Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda. In 1983, the aforementioned Terms of Endearment, in which Jack Nicholson teamed with Shirley McLaine, was second behind Return of the Jedi. Dramas had been overtaken by comedies and special-effects laden blockbusters, but movies with big star casts that not only became hits but were contenders at the Oscars, retained a secure niche.
I guess there were three films in 2009 that might make that category: The Blind Side, Up In The Air and Julie and Julia, though I'm not sure if the latter two qualify since they ranked no. 38 and 34 respectively in the annual box-office standings. There hasn't been a single release of the kind I'm talking about so far this year. Nor was there in 2008, when Angelina Jolie's The Changeling was 80th, and Sean Penn's Milk 89th; or in 2007, when Johnny Depp's Sweeney Todd ended 49th, George Clooney's Michael Clayton 55th and Daniel Day Lewis's There Will be Blood 66th on the annual charts.
The last Oscar winning, box-office topping, star-led drama I can think of was A Beautiful Mind. The Academy awards are shifting to niche movies as a result of the drying out of powerful mainstream dramas. Not a happy trend for their ratings. But I wonder why Hollywood's no longer making movies of the On Golden Pond, Out of Africa, Rain Man and Dances with Wolves variety. Any thoughts?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The new Australia

It was a painful experience that recurred over a number of years. I'd wake up, switch on the television and find Australia on approximately 165 for 1 on the first day of a Test match. By the end of the day, typically, the team would have put on something like 350 for 3, with Ricky Ponting 85 not out. On the odd occasion when early wickets fell, Adam Gilchrist or Andrew Symonds hit a run-a-ball century and the home team would get to 400 before the opposition fully understood the balance had shifted. Then, McGrath, Brett Lee and Warne would use the pressure of that first innings total to squash visiting batsmen.
It's all different now. Missing an established opening pair, and with middle order stalwarts out of form, Australia typically lose half their side before hitting 200, and it's left to Hussey to play the kind of role VVS Laxman did for India before Dhoni's emergence, and Steve Waugh adopted during the early phase of Aussie dominance (though Waugh, typically, took a tally from big to enormous, rather than from meager to respectable).
Out in South Africa, India can only pray for more rain after the first day of the first Test. I didn't watch any part of that match because it's on a new channel called Ten Cricket. I've already paid for Ten Sports, and now the firm has shifted some of its previously acquired and advertised properties to a new channel and is charging separately for them. How is this allowed?
There's also a channel called Ten Action which I can't get because TataSky has a problem with it. There's no point asking any customer service chaps what the issue is, they don't know, or won't tell. Ten Action was previously Zee Sports; TataSky cut deals with every Zee channel except Zee Sports, and the stalemate has evidently continued after the channel's change of name.
Ten Action broadcasts La Liga, which means I miss watching the two best football teams on earth. On the bright side, it also means I get a little more sleep.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Assange conspiracy

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you. I'm warming to the notion that the rape charges against Julian Assange are part of a plot, at the centre of which is not the elder of his two accusers, Anna Ardin, an activist who has hogged most of the media's attention, but the other woman Sofia Wilen, who has more or less disappeared since the charges were framed.
Consider the timeline (based on one of Guy Rundle's articles and an interview with Claes Borgstrom):
August 13: Assange has sex with Ardin, who hosts him in Stockholm during his Sweden tour.
August 14: Wilen attends a meeting addressed by Assange, makes contact with him, gets herself invited to a party that evening.
August 16: Assange is invited by Wilen to her home in Enkoping, and has sex with her twice; once with a condom, the second time without.
August 18: Wilen gets in touch with Ardin and they share notes, after which they decide they've been raped.
August 20: They file charges, which are immediately leaked to the press.
August 21: Eva Finne, chief prosecutor for Stockholm, rejects the rape charges. The same day Ardin says in a newspaper interview that Assange was not violent and she didn't feel threatened by him.
August 23: Claes Borgstrom, a lawyer - politician, inserts himself into the case.
August 30: Borgstrom approaches a prosecuter in Gothenburg, Marianne Ny, who agrees to resurrect the charges against Assange.
August 31: Assange gives a deposition before the prosecutor, and applies for a Swedish work and residency permit.
After Assange leaves the country, the prosecutor decides his deposition wasn't enough; so an Interpol notice, an international manhunt, and an incarceration in London follow.

It was apparent for a long time before Assange's application for residence that he was thinking of moving his centre of operations to Sweden. It would have been politically embarassing for Sweden to be the headquarters of Wikileaks, but such embarrassment was preempted thanks to the rape charge. A well-connected politician and a pliable prosecutor got in the mix, but they needed a complaint first. Most people have pointed fingers at Ardin as the plotter, but she just seems like a borderline loony activist to me, a curious mix of right- and left-wing ideologies. After the complaint was made, she erased embarrassing blog posts and tweets, but they remained easily accessible through caches. Wilen, on the other hand, has whitewashed her cyber presence with great proficiency; techies say only a professional could manage such a thorough job. Unlike Ardin, Wilen appears to have no history we can track; she just appears, seduces Assange, gets in touch with Ardin, cries rape, and vanishes. Very suspicious.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Defence land and squatters

I received a number of responses, almost unanimously negative, to my column about armies and cities. One of the best exchanges was with a respondent named Harjodh, who disputed my statement that defence land was commonly encroached upon: "Secondly – as regards army land being occupied being squatters, could you give specific, concrete examples of it? As far as I know, if any squatters enter army land, they are thrown out." He said I was taking a very Bombay-biased view, and that even in Bombay encroachments were on civil land outside defence boundaries: "yes there are squatters in Cuffe Parade area. But they are outside the walls. Thirdly, again.. with the examples you give, you are taking a narrow view of defence land on Bombay more specifically in Colaba (not in santacruz or madh island). When you say in your article 'The army itself has not been able to stop some of its land being occupied by squatters.' I would presume you are talking of the entire lands of the army all India. The squatters are on the lands situated outside defence lands."

At the time, I could not find much material to back up my claim, which was based on personal conversations from the past. However, in the forty days since then, a lot of information about defence land has been made public. We were first told what a huge bank of unutilised land the forces own. Now we have details of how much of that unutilised land has been taken over illegally.
"The defence ministry has now admitted that around 11,052 acres of its 17.30 lakh acres of land across the country has been encroached or occupied illegally.
Leading the list of states where the maximum number of encroachments has taken place is Uttar Pradesh (2,949 acres), followed closely by Maharashtra (2,285 acres), as per information provided by defence minister A K Antony in a written reply to Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.
Some others in the list include Haryana (961 acres), J&K (722 acres), Assam (617 acres), Punjab (494 acres), Bihar (456 acres), Madhya Pradesh (448 acres), Rajasthan (418 acres), West Bengal (406 acres), Gujarat (304 acres) and Delhi (107 acres)."

11,000 acres may be a lot of land, but accounts for less than 1% of the total holdings of the military. The land currently being used in legal ways is 2 lakh acres. That leaves over 15 lakh acres unutilised or under-utilised.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hindustan Times: Thanks for the virus

I stay away from Indian newspaper sites as much as I can because of the intrusive ads they use, but can't avoid them completely. So ,this morning, a link from Google News took me to the Hindustan Times website; about five seconds later, I got a virus alert. I hit 'Heal' on the virus guard and thought I'd caught it. I was mistaken. I found I couldn't access any files on the machine because, ostensibly, a disk defragmentation was required. I've seen that kind of thing before: run the defrag and it eventually says there's a problem with the system and only buying HDD Plus (the malware in question) will solve it.
The last virus that attacked my machine came from the Indian Railways online reservation system. That was particularly infuriating because it's a site that generates revenues through ticket sales and has no business foisting bank loan ads on clients.
Luckily I'm not in the middle (or worse, near the end) of a long article with an urgent deadline. Also, I use a wireless modem that allows me to surf from my laptop. Small mercies.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Anish Kapoor: Better on a second look

The official opening of Anish Kapoor's show at Mehboob Studio last evening drew a large crowd, and that livened up the work considerably. Kapoor's mirror sculptures rely on what is around them. In a massive, mostly vacant room, their effect is muted. When the space fills up, the sculptures teem with interesting reflections.
Performative pieces like Shooting Into a Corner also gain from having a substantial audience; the oohs and aahs as the cannon goes off help create a sense of community among those present.
The wood chips that so distracted me on my first visit have thankfully been removed from under the S-shaped wall, and replaced with discreet stacks of slate-grey squares.
Finally, I think I appreciated the show more this time round because I hankered less for what was absent. I knew what I was going to see -- and what I was not going to see -- when I walked in, and calibrated my expectations accordingly. I'm happy therefore, that I wrote that downbeat first-look piece: those who read it went into the show with relatively low expectations and generally came away happy.
The air conditioning was working perfectly last evening, which also helped. As did the champagne, lobster and shami kababs available in the garden.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Of Football, Potholes and Britishness

My Yahoo! column for the fortnight can be read here. It's about football, powdered eggs, textile mills, John Lennon, and majoritarianism, among other things.

Friday, November 26, 2010

First view of Anish Kapoor's Bombay show

So I saw the Anish Kapoor show at Mehboob Studio last evening, and was a bit underwhelmed. The selection consists of six mirror sculptures and two works in red wax. I had hoped for more varied fare that would give Bombayites a flavour of the artist's output over the years.
The sound stage is very atmospheric, but creates problems in display. The extremely high ceiling reduces the experiential scale of the art, and therefore its effect. The floor is not perfectly level, and so plywood chips have been inserted underneath sculptures to keep their balance right. In one instance -- a sinuous mirror wall that evokes Richard Serra -- this looks really tacky, because the sculpture is thin and the chips protrude from beneath it. As for the shiny wall-hung pieces, I've never been a huge fan of those.
The wax sculptures were by far the best part of the exhibition. But even the excellent Shooting into a Corner, which is bound to be the most popular exhibit, didn't work as well for me at Mehboob Studio as it had at Kapoor's Royal Academy survey. It consists of a cannon that periodically shoots a large plug of red wax onto a wall. The sound of the cannon going off echoes perfectly in the large hall; but the white wall has been purpose built, and extends only a few feet in each direction from the corner towards which the wax is shot. The sense of violation of a space that contributes to the work's impact is undercut by the manifest artificiality of the setting.
It appears the Delhi show might actually work better than the Bombay one, contrary to what I have suggested in my Tehelka piece. If that's the case, I'll be really angry, because Bombay is Kapoor's home town, and this is where he had always planned to have his first extensive exhibition. Kapoor, a savvy businessman as well as a fine artist, doubtless knows the benefits that could accrue from having an exhibition at the NGMA inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi.

Now for the gossip: there were quite a few Bollywood personalities at last evening's preview, as befits an event at Mehboob Studio presented by Louis Vuitton. The males -- Kabir Bedi, Shekhar Kapur, Rahul Bose -- all spent long minutes in front of the artworks, discussing them with companions. The women -- Kangana Ranaut, Mallika Arora (Update: Malaika, not Mallika, thanks Deepanajana) and somebody who apparently was Kareena Kapoor (I was too far away to get a proper look) -- were only interested in being photographed in front of the art and with the artist. I don't blame them: it's impossible to concentrate on art wearing the sort of dresses they were wearing. Ranaut looked gorgeous, but kept tripping over her gown. (Update: It was Karishma Kapoor; no wonder I thought it didn't look much like Kareena)
Securitymen have been placed next to each work, warning viewers off when they are deemed too close. I was thus warned about five times in the two hours I spent at the preview. It got pretty annoying. Plus the air conditioning wasn't functioning well. Luckily, I was wearing a shirt and jeans, the chaps in suits were in bad shape.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ended up being as tedious as the first half of the book from which it is adapted. I wish they'd junked most of those interminable scenes in the tent and concentrated entirely on the Horcruxes, basically made it into an action film instead of a tragi-romance of the kind that fourteen year-old girls seem to love. By which I mean HP7:1 is quite close in mood to the Twilight series. Hermione's even begun to look a bit like Bella, all pale and frail.
I liked the opening a lot though. The melancholy hits you hard right at the start, and the music has a lot to do with it. Nine out of ten Hollywood films use the same soupy sound to tug at heartstrings, but I felt the score of the Deathly Hallows had something profound to it. Maybe I'd change my mind on a second viewing, I'm never confident about my musical judgment anyway.
As soon as the first chase gets under way, one realises the director David Yates is on much firmer footing in emotional scenes than slam-bang ones. That was the case in Order of the Phoenix as well. In Half-Blood Prince, Yates chose a classical pace, and I think that resulted in the most successful of the three Harry Potter films he's directed. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also by far the best of the last three books in the series.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My article on Anish Kapoor in Tehelka

Tehelka has published a backgrounder by me about Anish Kapoor in advance of the artist's shows in Delhi and Bombay. It can be read here. Tehelka, as the name suggests, likes sensationalism, and I guess they found my article a bit tame. To compensate, they've picked the most potentially controversial bits for the blurbs, and somewhat misrepresented my words in the intro.
"Girish Shahane traces his decades of evolution and explains why Bombay, and not Delhi, will have the real show", the introduction reads. While I've said the Bombay show was planned first, and will have the larger pieces because of the limitations of the Delhi NGMA's new wing, by no means do I believe there's a 'real show' and a 'false show' involved. I suspect the Bombay show will be more spectacular because of the scale allowed by the venue, but there will be plenty of interest in the Delhi display as well. Anish Kapoor isn't going to send second rate work for an exhibition in India's premier museum of modern art.
I also can't understand the meaning of the headline, 'His unsunny passage to India'.

Update: After seeing the exhibition in Delhi, I realised my sources provided me with a very wrong impression about the NGMA show. Mea culpa: the article is entirely misleading about the Delhi segment's content and quality.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A matter of conviction

One problem with India's political and legal systems is that no top leader is ever convicted.
One problem with Pakistan's political and legal systems is that all top leaders are convicted.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Diplomat Pudding

My Yahoo column for this fortnight can be accessed here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Diesel, Benz and Tata

I travelled to he burbs yesterday after a break and saw two new shops had opened on the Bandra - Juhu stretch, accompanied by dozens of placards marking the surrounding territory. Diesel at Juhu has gone the whole hog with its 'Stupid' campaign. The store itself has large letters stencilled on its glass front screaming 'In Stupid We Trust'. I don't blame them, only somebody stupid would buy that stuff at those prices.
Täshi is a new shoe store run by a wing of the Tata group. Täshi supposedly means 'auspicious' in Tibetan; or at least 'Tashi' means auspicious. Little did Reuben and Rose Mattus know, when they founded Häagen-Dazs in the Bronx, that they'd kick of a long and disturbing trend in faux-European umlauting.
I'm not going to explore Täshi anytime soon. My experience with DTH has put me off the Tata brand. Besides, their Nanos aren't doing too well either. Tata Motors has offered a free upgrade (which they insist is not a recall) because the cars have a bad habit of catching fire.

This might be Ratan Tata's shot at automotive history. Karl Benz developed the internal combustion engine for motor cars. Tata has, apparently, developed a spontaneous combustion engine.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An accountability law

The MMRDA has revoked the Adarsh society's occupation certificate, and the society has replied that it was built after obtaining all required permissions, and will go to court against the revocation. The episode follows a common pattern: permits are provided by corrupt officials in contravention of norms; at some point, the issue becomes public knowledge thanks to activists and investigative reporters; then, the administration reverses the permission with a stroke of the pen, harming a number of people who were not part of any underhand deals.
I recall a few years ago, most taxis in the city had switched to horrid smoke-spewing three cylinder engines; after a PIL, the administration decided all these retrofitted engines were illegal and would have to be junked. Many taxi drivers who had followed a trend presuming it was legal were saddled with unbearable costs. The permits they had received were suddenly useless. The people who issued those permits suffered no adverse consequences.
Should there not be an accountability mechanism in place for such incidents? Perhaps we need a law stating that permits once given cannot be cancelled UNLESS action is taken against officials responsible for handing out those permissions in the first place. And the action against bureaucrats can't be mere suspension, for many of the culprits retire to lives of luxury before their misdeeds come to light.
If there are any lawyers reading this, I'd like to know if it's theoretically possible to develop a provision of this sort. Could we have a requirement, for example, that an FIR be filed simultaneously with any such revocation of permit?

Friday, November 5, 2010

More on Defence land

A Ministry of Defence report has reportedly criticised the lack of transparency in utilisation of defence land. The armed forces own 17 lakh acres across India, of which just 2 lakh acres is being used by 62 cantonments.
One of the arguments against my proposition that the military shift away from densely populated zones was that land acquisition is a huge obstacle. Well, it appears the forces have more than enough land of their own. If they need to acquire more, they can do so through internal resource generation. The price of unutilised defence land is estimated at 20 trillion rupees, which is ten times the current annual budget.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What's the payment, dude?

In the long period I've been a freelancer, I've noticed a striking difference between Indian and foreign publications. When chaps from abroad ask me to write, they always provide the basic information I need to make up my mind. By basic information I'm speaking of the subject, the word length, the deadline and the payment. Indian editors, on the other hand, invariably act coy about money. I can't recall a single commissioning editor who provided me with all important details in the initial approach. Recently, I've written for Take On Art magazine and Outlook Traveller; have accepted assignments from Caravan and Tehelka; and rejected proposals from three or four other publications. In every single case, it was left up to me to ask what I was going to be paid.
The reluctance to discuss fees stems, I suppose, from the fact that most magazines and newspapers these days pay very poorly. Still, since the issue's going to come up at some point, why not just get it over with right at the start?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Siachen, Adarsh, patriotism and security

I've got lots of negative feedback for the Yahoo! column in which I suggested that military bases should gradually move out of big cities. The military is treated like a holy cow in India, and this results in tabooing logic in favour of national pride (some comments to my previous post use sound rational arguments, but many that I have junked simply question my patriotism).
The conflict at the Siachen glacier is a good example of how patriotic thinking works. Thousands of Indian soldiers are posted in rotation on the highest battlefield in the world. They are there because of a botched preemptive strike the Indian army initiated back in 1984, resulting in a standoff in an uninhabitable zone of no strategic value. The cost in human lives as well as budgetary outlay has been staggering. Some 2000 Indian soldiers died in the first 13 years of the stalemate, there are no figures of how many more have perished in the 13 years since, but a total figure of around 3000 is probably accurate. Most of these deaths are due to harsh conditions, in which temperatures regularly dip to -60 degrees C. And yet there is no will to solve the Siachen issue through dialogue, no public pressure to bring these soldiers back. Far from suggesting a solution needs to be found, we celebrate the army's sacrifices in film, song and advertising.
Consider, now, the issue of the Adarsh Housing society. Let's assume that everything was done according to the book, and the flats were given over to war veterans and Kargil widows. These apartments are worth some 80 million rupees each, nearly 2 million dollars. They are sold at 10 percent of their market value to people living on a monthly income of some 20,000 rupees, or 500 dollars. The fact is that, in ordinary circumstances, these veterans and widows would not be able to afford even the 80 lakhs they are charged. They buy the homes because they're great investments. As soon as they can, they sell the flats to civilians and buy themselves comfortable homes in the north of the city which cost half the market price of the Adarsh flats. They are left with some 30 million to put in fixed deposits at 10% interest, giving them 3 million rupees a year to live off, ten times what they are getting by way of pensions. These are back of the envelope calculations, but this sort of thing has played out in every housing scheme where defence personnel have been granted housing at subsidised rates. Within a few years, these complexes come to be occupied by civvies.
Now, I'm not questioning whether or not these particular veterans and widows deserve the largesse. Let's presume they do. The fact remains that Adarsh would have housed civilians through sub-letting or direct sale within a few years of the keys of flats being handed over. The security risk the Navy is protesting about, in other words, exists independent of the corruption scandal. That' an example of the pressure a city like Bombay places on the military.
The idea that I'm asking the armed forces to make sacrifices in favour of a builders' lobby is entirely wrong. My argument is that it might be beneficial even from the military's perspective to gradually vacate land in densely populated cities like Bombay, Poona and Bangalore. The military's presence spurs urban development upto a point, then becomes a neutral factor, before eventually turning into a net impediment. It is equally true that urban development helps the military upto a point by providing necessary services, but eventually becomes an impediment to optimal functioning.
Cities grew as hubs of manufacturing, but many of the largest metropolises now host few working factories. Armies first flourished in forts, but now have no need for such structures. The Indian army recently moved out of Delhi fort, and I hope they will soon do the same in Agra fort, enhancing the city's heritage tourism potential. All I'm suggesting is that a similar flexibility be shown in considering the future of camps in metropolises. Better to draft a twenty year plan now than to have a decision forced on you twenty years down the line.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Armies and Cities

My column on Yahoo! this time asks whether military establishments should move out of metropolises. Read it here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The conspiracy

I haven't been able to post because I've spent all my spare time replying to comments about my Lonely Planet article. The Hindutva guys are on Thorn Tree, as well, defending Lonely Planet. Which should give LP some pause for thought.
A conspiracy theory had to be around the corner, and one has been invented. Apparently, though I claim to be a freelancer, I have 'intimate links' to Outlook Traveller and Time Out, which are rivals to Lonely Planet. The person who wrote that obviously doesn't understand what a freelancer is. We freelancers write for anybody who pays well enough. Tomorrow I'd happily write for LP if they offered me a story and sent me to an interesting location.
The Outlook Traveller experience, in fact, was a disaster. I wish there was some way I could remove my name from the piece on the Web. My story was changed radically and a number of new sentences added, containing factual errors. For example, the City Palace is called "a complex of beautiful buildings in granite and marble". Anyone who has been to Udaipur knows there's very little granite and marble in the City Palace. But there the error stays, with my name attached.
I was so furious with Outlook after that assignment, that I swore off writing for them, before agreeing to do a piece just fifteen days ago. None of the editorial staff responsible for shredding my Rajasthan articles are there any more, so I decided to let bygones be bygones.
Still, I am some way from being an Outlook Traveller shill.
I'm much more loyal to Time Out; after all, I had a column in the mag for years, and think it's kept an incredibly high standard since its inaugural issue. But my Time Out loyalty doesn't extend to guidebooks. I bought Lonely Planet India, after all, not the Time Out guide. That was because I liked the LPs I used on foreign trips. The only Time Out guide I have consulted was the Chicago one, and I didn't find it particularly useful.

Meanwhile, I'm in Delhi again, trying to get a paper done for a seminar tomorrow. I've visited about once each month for the past six, and discovered in the process that Delhi drivers know nothing about the city. One time, I wanted to go to the India International Centre, asked the driver if he knew it, or IIC or the Habitat Centre (which the autowallas usually know). He kept shaking his head. I said finally, OK, just take me to Lodi Gardens and I'll direct you from there.
He had not heard of Lodi Gardens.
Today my driver got lost looking for Kasturba Gandhi Road and then Maharani Bagh. Luckily, I've developed a habit of picking up one of the free maps on the India Tourism counter at the airport. It's always proved really useful, and even more so now that every tourist car driver seems to have arrived in Delhi within the past six months.

UPDATE: October 28. This evening after the seminar was done for the day I was chatting with a few friends including Jitish Kallat. Jitish is staying in the same guest house as I am, in Maharani Bagh.
I said to him, "You got in pretty late last night".
He said, "It took me two and a half hours from the airport. The driver took me to a place called Rani Bagh. After about forty-five minutes of driving from the airport, I began to suspect this wasn't where I should be heading. I asked the driver if he was sure. He said he was absolutely sure, 'Rani Bagh used to be Maharani Bagh, now everyone called it Rani Bagh for short'."
Once at Rani Bagh Jitish grew doubly sure this couldn't be his destination. Rani Bagh is in north-west Delhi and Maharani Bagh in the south-east.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The deficit experiment

David Cameron is no softy, that much is clear. The kind of cuts to services he envisages go beyond what any government has attempted without being pressured by creditors. So now we have an interesting experiment being set up: in the United States, the Obama administration has chosen to live with deficits for the medium term, and wait for revenues to rise once the economy begins to grow again. The UK has taken a very different direction. Five years down the line, we will know which approach worked best.
However, I doubt if any rigid positions will budge as a result of this transcontinental experiment. After all, my friends who are enthusiastic about free markets refuse to blame lax regulation and excessive speculation for the meltdown of 2008, despite all the evidence that those two in combination triggered the financial crisis. They blame, instead two quasi-government housing loan agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both of which were in existence for decades before the crash, and pursuing the same policies through that entire period, which saw a number of real estate booms and busts.

Two sidelights:
The party that stands to lose the most as a result of Cameron's first budget and future economic plans is the junior partner in the ruling coalition. The Lib Dems are going to have a really tough time next time round with what's probably going to be a polarised electorate.

It's been funny to see France half-paralysed by protests against a proposed raising of the retirement age to 62, while Brits appear to have meekly accepted retirement at 66.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lonely Planet's Islamophobia

My Yahoo! column this week focuses on errors and biases in Lonely Planet's wildly popular India guide. Read the piece here.
A couple of years ago I emailed Lonely Planet, pointing out some of the errors mentioned in this article. I received no response, and when the new edition arrived I found it carried most of the same mistakes.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lennon, Imagine and Come Together

I'm late with a 70th birthday homage to John Lennon, but that's because I've been shuttling between cities too much.

Anytime there's a tribute concert or any memorial event for Lennon, there'll be hordes of people swaying and singing Imagine. I understand why. Imagine is free of inputs from Lennon's band-mates. It is a simple, moving and radical song. But its emotional impact and political message have been dampened by overuse, turning the song into a cliche (though some chap on American Idol a couple of years ago refused to sing the 'no religion' verse, reminding us of its better days). Imagine, moreover, lacks the sardonic wit that enlivened Lennon's songs and interviews.
I find Come Together from Abbey Road a good antidote to Imagine, and think of it as the most representative Lennon song (you can hear it here). Take the title, for a start. It seems to seek peace and harmony in a manner similar to Imagine, but also contains, as Lennon once pointed out, 'the other meaning'. The refrain goes, 'Come together, right now, over me'. The first two words are flower-child-y enough, but what's unusual is the imperative mood, as if we were being commanded to inculcate tolerance and liberalism. This feeling is heightened by the next phrase, 'right now'. Not only must we learn to live as one, but we are ordered to do so immediately. And then the mysterious 'over me', which doesn't have a pindownable meaning. The line starts out in one place and ends somewhere else altogether.

These are the words of the entire song:

Here come old flattop he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball he one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker he just do what he please

He wear no shoeshine he got toe-jam football
He got monkey finger he shoot coca-cola
He say "I know you, you know me"
One thing I can tell you is you got to be free
Come together right now over me

He bag production he got walrus gumboot
He got Ono sideboard he one spinal cracker
He got feet down below his knees
Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease
Come together right now over me

He roller-coaster he got early warning
He got muddy water he one mojo filter
He say "One and one and one is three"
Got to be good-looking 'cause he's so hard to see
Come together right now over me

The song's frequently interpreted as a description of Lennon, or of all four Beatles in succession, but it's pointless seeking that kind of coherence in words deliberately written as gibberish. We have the protagonist described as 'flat top' at the start, but two lines later this is transformed into 'hair down below his knee', as if a marine suddenly turned into a hippie. The protagonist doesn't come across as a winning personality: joo-joo eyeball, toejam football, monkey finger, walrus gumboot, muddy water, spinal cracker, while all largely undecipherable, certainly don't constitute attractive features. The 'feel his disease' bit more or less settles the case. What worth are we to ascribe to such a man's viewpoint?
The protagonist wants two things of us: first that we come together; second that we be free. These two desires encapsulate the contradictory nature of the freedom envisioned by sixties' counterculture. To explain what I mean, let's turn to the two sources Lennon used in creating the song. The first line is pinched from Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch Me, a song that also inspired Lennon's tune. Though Lennon, on McCartney's advice, slowed down the rhythm of Come Together, he was sued for plagiarism and settled out of court.

You can hear the Berry song here. Lennon's 'flat-top, grooving up slowly' is a riff on lines in the third stanza:

You Can't Catch Me

I bought a brand-new air-mobile.
It' custom-made, 'twas a Flight De Ville.
With a pow'ful motor and some hideaway wings.
Push in on the button and you will get a scene.

Now you can't catch me,
Baby, you can't catch me.
'Cause if you get too close,
You know I'm gone, like a cool breeze.

New Jersey Turnpike in the wee, wee hours,
I was rollin' slow because of drizzlin' showers.
Here come a flat-top, he was movin' up with me,
Then come wavin' goodbye a little' old souped-up jitney.
I put my foot in my tank and I began to roll.
Moanin' siren, 'twas a state patrol.
So I let out my wings and then I blew my horn,
Bye-bye New Jersey, I' become airborne.

For Chuck Berry, freedom is simple. It means fast cars, pretty girls, money, and rock and roll. Authority might try getting in the way, but Berry's quicker, and has a vast continent in which to ride and hide.
The protagonist of Come Together is on a different trip. He 'shoots Coca Cola' and is on a roller-coaster. The suggestion is of physical stasis accompanied by neural stimulation. The rhythm, described by McCartney as 'swampy', creates the appropriate drugged mood, so different from the snappy pace of the Chuck Berry number. The title of Come Together was derived from Timothy Leary's quixotic campaign for California governor against Ronald Reagan. Leary was an advocate of drug use and legalising marijuana. He joined John and Yoko at their Montreal bed-in, and asked Lennon to write a song built around his campaign slogan, 'Come together, join the party'. Lennon didn't comply, but composed the tune we know around the time Leary was jailed for drug possession. Chuck Berry, meanwhile, had finished serving a sentence for pursuing his own brand of freedom: he was jailed for violating the Mann Act, transporting an underage female across state lines. The girl in question was somewhat younger than Sweet Little Sixteen, and Berry's air-mobile obviously not quick enough to evade the flat-tops.
While Berry's view of the world has always been entirely self-centred and pleasure-driven, Leary's journey was different. He began his experiments with drugs after discovering mushrooms used as hallucinogens in ritual ceremonies among natives of South America. Mind-altering drugs, in this tradition, were supposed to be simultaneously a reaching within the self and a reaching out to others, simultaneously an individualistic and communitarian act. That's the ideal enunciated in Lennon's song: the twin injunctions of 'gotta be free' and 'come together'. But the imagery he invents, half nonsensical though it is, undercuts the possibility of reaching out while also being self-absorbed, and thus serves as a critique of himself as well as of sixties' counterculture as a whole.

After this analysis, which will doubtless be received as over-reading by many, it's time for some light relief. In 1972, Lennon and Berry appeared live on the Mike Douglas show, the only time the two greats met. Introducing his guest, Lennon made his famous comment that, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry. Their jam session was a bit of a train wreck, obviously under-rehearsed, and not helped by Yoko Ono on Berry's left punctuating proceedings with the occasional primal scream.
You can see Lennon's introduction here, their attempt at Johnny B. Goode here, a truly catastrophic Memphis, Tennessee here. Don't miss Berry's startled response to Yoko's scream at 3.15.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


The HCC Group, builders of Lavasa township, claim in an ad that they've turned the area greener. Click on the images and see them at higher resolution. You will notice that the settlement is built around a lake created by a dam. In the 2007 image, the lake level is low, and there's no water streaming in, or collected in the area beyond the dam. In the 2010 image, there's water everywhere. The 'before' picture appears to have been taken in high summer, and the 'after' one at the end of a very wet quarter.
The connection between extra greenery and the construction of hundreds of concrete tower blocks remains unproven.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A new life

So, American forces picked up a German Afghan named Ahmed Sidiqi in Kabul, and drone-bombed his colleagues, five German citizens of mainly Arab extraction, in the lawless, tribal, mountainous, inaccessible, remote (take your pick) area of Pakistan near the Afghan border. Sidiqi used to live in Hamburg, but, some time last year, left for Afghanistan, from where he travelled to Pakistan for terror training.
His family is in denial (aren't they always?). They're like, well, he wasn't flourishing in Hamburg, and so decided to start a new life in Kabul. Isn't it about time people understood that, no matter how poorly you're doing in Western Europe, shifting to Kabul is not a rational career choice. There's somethin' else going on there.
The Germans appear less than impressed with the American move, and have downplayed warnings of a possible commando-style attack in Europe. That's puzzling. The imam of the mosque that Sidiqi attended, Mamoun Darkazanli, was called an associate of Osama bin Laden by the 9/11 commission. He's facing charges in Spain related to his Al Qaeda links, but none in Germany. I can't figure that out. Germany goes after Tom Cruise for being a Scientologist, but has no official comment about Darkazanli.
If this were a spy novel, the plot would go something like: Sidiqi is a CIA plant, and Darkazanli's working for the Germans. Neither the Germans nor the Americans, nor Sidiqi nor Darkazanli know that both chaps are moles. The Germans are onto something really big, maybe the place where Osama bin Laden is hanging out, but they're foiled because of the premature 'arrest' of Sidiqi and the killing of his associates. They go into a funk, and reject the possibility of 26/11-style terror in Europe. And bin Laden continues to send out occasional greetings from his hideout in a lawless, tribal, mountainous, inaccessible, remote (take your pick) area of Pakistan.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

You're out, just walk

Why are cricketers these days so demonstrative when they disagree with an umpire's decision to give them out?
In the old days, they just tucked their bat and walked off. That was when we had no way to tell if the umpire was right.
Now, we have a dozen cameras, tramlines, hotspots, snickometers, super slomo, and all sorts of other technology to determine if a decision was accurate. Surely there's LESS reason for batsmen to let us know they think they've been robbed.
And yet we have Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid all looking shocked, and doing a Bollywood act on being dismissed during the current Test.
One of those three decisions was incorrect: Gambhir got a snick onto his pad and wasn't LBW. The other two calls were perfectly fine, and the great players who showed dissent only made themselves look foolish in the bargain.
Guys, stay dignified, just walk when that finger goes up. The truth will out.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Down the Drain

My Yahoo! column this fortnight is gutter journalism. Well, it's about drains and sewage and suchlike. Read it here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ayodhya question

Here's my Ayodhya question for the day: could we imagine a verdict dividing the land in the fashion it has been, had the mosque still been standing? If the structure was intact, this verdict would necessitate its demolition, and it's hard to see a court ordering such a thing. That's probably why judges dithered for so long in the first place.
Which means the demolition of the mosque, an act in direct contravention of Supreme Court orders, led to the legal recognition of the claims of those who supported demolishing the mosque to begin with.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Ayodhya Verdict

There are many absurdities that have piled up in the years since the Ayodhya cases began to be heard decades ago, so it is hardly surprising the verdict is itself a hodgepodge.
I am particularly taken by Justice Dharam Veer Sharma's summation of the matter.
The way I see it, there are four issues that can be enumerated in descending order of certitude:
1) We can be absolutely sure a mosque existed at the spot for centuries.
2) We can be fairly certain the mosque was built on the order of Emperor Babur's general Mir Baqi around 1528.
3) We have strongly divided views on whether the mosque was built after demolishing a temple.
4) We have no way at all of proving the spot is the birthplace of Lord Rama. What archeological evidence we have suggests that the present site of Ayodhya was not settled at the time when Rama is supposed to have been born.

In Justice Sharma's 'issues for briefing' the order of certitude I have outlined is reversed. In his view:

1) The disputed site is the birthplace of Lord Ram.
2) The mosque on it was constructed after demolishing a temple.
3) The year of the mosque's construction is uncertain (the verdict says the plaintiffs have failed to prove it was built by Mir Baqi or Babur).
4) It cannot be treated as a mosque at all, since it "came into existence against the tenets of Islam".

I feel I've travelled through the looking glass.

And now, onto the Supreme Court, and a few more years of the same arguments.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why we make such terrible films

The opening show of Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, based on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, brought plenty of North Bombay celebs to Nariman Point. In the lobby of the Jamshed Bhabha auditorium afterward, I heard a veteran film star loudly complain that the play was as incomprehensible as Ramanujan’s mathematics. The problem, I was tempted to tell her, was not with the production but with her movies, whose intellectual range stretched all the way from infantile to juvenile. A diet of Bollywood pap creates an incapacity to chew and digest more substantial matter.

The rest of my article on the subject of movie quality, published in the current issue of Time Out, can be read here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Recipe for Famine

My Yahoo! column on free enterprise and food security can be read here.

The image is of a 1944 drawing from Chittaprosad's Famine series. The work was featured in Saffronart's December 2001 auction, and is reproduced without permission.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Indigo wigs out

A month ago, I posted about my favourite budget airline Indigo's new look. I wrote about the short bobs all the flight attendants were sporting: When it works, it looks great in a chic French way. When things go wrong, the hair seems wig-like..."

It now seems the hair looked like a wig because it WAS a wig. A number of flight attendants didn't want to cut thier tresses, and were given the wig option. Now, in a further relaxation of rules, Indigo is allowing long hair to be pinned up neatly. I knew that would happen sooner or later. My final comment in that previous post was: "I wonder how long it will be before a very Indian combination of laziness, love of long hair and hatred of regimentation leads flight attendants to protest the airline's extended uniform." Not long at all it turns out; the uniformity lasted all of one month.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bulbs and ovens

About two years ago, we began switching all our bulbs to CFL. Everytime a bulb popped, we'd replace it with one considered more environmentally friendly. Today, the first CFL bulb flickered and died. Two years seems like a pretty good run, but considering these lights are seven times the price of normal ones, I doubt if it makes economic sense to use them.
Having said that, I was very annoyed by the frequency with which the standard bulbs had begun to blow. I thought there was an issue with the wiring, which is why the CFL test was important; it proved it was the bulbs and not the wires that were dodgy.
Did light bulbs always die so early? Or are they just not making them as well as they used to? There are just so many products now that seem built to malfunction in short order: printers, DVD players, washing machines, not to mention small things like faucets. Then there are services that keep breaking down: satellite TV, broadband, stuff like that. There seems always something in the house that isn't working the way it should do.
I suppose I shouldn't be nostalgic about the old days; partly because one simply didn't notice things going wrong when one was a child, since that was someone else's responsibility; partly because there were far fewer appliances in homes, and that's not a state to which I wish to return; and partly because government services were poor enough to leave indelible memories: telephones that went dead at crucial times, gas cylinders that didn't arrive for weeks after they were ordered.
There are, however, some products that force one to exclaim, "They just don't build them like that any more". My favourite is the Belling oven. Tens of thousands of Indians travelled to England after independence, and every single one of them returned with a Belling.

One sees them in a number of homes fifty or sixty years later, still working, though perhaps not as efficiently as they did when brand new. Our Belling was replaced by a BPL Sanyo over a decade ago, but sits in a corner of the kitchen, used to brown pie crusts which don't acquire the perfect colour in the newer machine; and for simple tasks like grilling cheese toast.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Tata Sky saga continues

Around August 15, I made a complaint saying certain channels like CNN and BBC were no longer playing on my Tata Sky connection. I was told there were some issues with these channels, things would be sorted out in a day or two. A few days later I called to ask when things would be sorted out. The person speaking to me had never heard of BBC and CNN. Eventually, he took a complaint of a general nature. There was no follow up from Tata Sky.
Five days later I called to complain once more. This time, I was given an assurance of action within 72 hours. About 72 hours later, a man appeared, examined the cables, said they were full of water and would need to be replaced. He promised to come the next day. He disappeared.
Four days later, I called TataSky again, asking why the cable guy hadn't returned. My problem would be addressed in 72 hours, I was assured. 72 hours later, a different repairer arrived. I wasn't in Bombay at the time. He did some work for half an hour and left. When I returned, I found one of the two TV sets in the home working fine, while the other had no signal at all.
So I called Tata Sky again. They promised to send a man. Nobody arrived. I called again and spoke to a senior. She apologised and said she would check about why nobody had come. An hour later a woman called from the local office, saying the delay was because of the auto rickshaw strike. The man would definitely come the next morning.
He finally arrived at 4pm yesterday. He looked at the cables, said they were full of water and needed replacing. I said that's what the first guy had said. He didn't have the cable with him, so he'd definitely come the next day to do the job. I said that's what the first guy had said.
I'm waiting to see if the latest promise is kept.

Update, Friday September 10: Three more days of the same old thing. The man didn't return, I have spoken to three more Tata Sky executives and three more of their seniors, all of whom promised to tackle the problem immediately.
Finally, the engineer who had last visited my house called, only to say he was having trouble procuring cable and would therefore not be able to help.
Right now, the Tata Sky customer service number I've been calling for three weeks, 18604256633, seems not to be functional. I get an MTNL woman on the line saying the number does not exist.

Monday, September 6, 2010

No Free Lunch

My column on the food crisis, up today on Yahoo! India, can be read here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Went to Bangalore for a day. Flew Spice Jet, which was a mistake. I was told of a fifteen minute delay at check-in; we were cooped up in a bus for ten minutes without air conditioning or ventilation before being permitted to board; once aboard the captain extended the total delay time to an hour. After saying we'd be on the ground for another 40 minutes, he ended with, "Enjoy the flight".
The passengers in the back half of the airplane were headed to Calcutta. Why would anybody fly Bombay - Bangalore - Calcutta? Because it's a cheap fare, I guess. The Bangalore leg, though, was far from cheap. In fact, it was the most expensive flight that morning. The only one departing between 6.30 and 8 in the morning, unfortunately.
Bangalore's newish airport is about 50 kilometers from the city. My taxi's meter said 630 rupees at the end of the ride. That's a record for any trip I've taken in a taxi in India.
I wanted to try out a good new restaurant, but was forced by the delay to grab a meal at Cafe Y, the eatery closest to my destination. I'd heard about it, a hip place for youngsters to hang out, apparently.
The room was dark and warm when I entered. The only electrical appliances working were two light bulbs and two ceiling fans.
"No power, sir", the waiter smiled.
I chose to sit outside breathing diesel fumes from the generator.
Sorry sir, no power.
Soup and garlic bread?
Sorry sir, no garlic bread, no power.
I settled for two dishes that could be prepared without recourse to an oven, toaster or microwave: seafood chowder and a plate of potato disks. I ate them feeling happy about the facilities in my home town. They haven't turned the lights out yet, that's one thing we can hold on to in Bombay.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Unsurprising surprise

It's been amusing these past years to read continually of 'suprise' or 'unannounced' visits to Afghanistan and Iraq by foreign heads of state. The media never began to feel the redundancy of those words, even though ALL such visits were surprise and unannounced. The surprise, though, was apparently not surprising enough in David Cameron's case. His helicopter was almost brought down over Afghanistan during his visit to that country in June. Insurgents had got wind of his plan to visit troops in the Helmand province.
As it happened, Cameron also faced air problems during his next visit to this part of the world, a well publicised trip to India. A radar at New Delhi airport malfunctioned just as the UK Prime Minister's flight was due to land.
Lots of people are seeking signs of real progress in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well here's one to look out for: Barack Obama arrives in Baghdad or Kabul on a visit that's been announced weeks in advance. Don't hold your breath on that one.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What happened to macho movie star?

I saw a ridiculous film called The Expendables last evening. Such movies are saved, if they're saved at all, by the quality of the action scenes (which was not very high in this case) and the charisma of their stars. The stars of The Expendables were mainly fifty- and sixty-somethings, their faces warped and twisted by time, steroids, and an overdose of the good life. Sylvester Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li (who's just short of 50, and doesn't have a warped and twisted face, but looks more like a banker than an action hero).
And I asked myself: what happened to the macho Hollywood star? Which actors today could carry a franchise like Rocky or Terminator? The last one was probably Vin Diesel, though he never became a megastar in the Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis category. This summer's blockbusters told a depressing tale. The star of two major franchises is a five foot six inch former coke addict called Robert Downey Junior. Now he's a fine actor, one of the best of his generation, and therefore manages to fit the roles of Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, but macho he is not. The youngest of the stars of The Expendables is Jason Statham, who did a series called The Transporter. But he's a Brit. We had the Aussie Russell Crowe playing Robin Hood. Crowe had his macho moment in Gladiator a decade ago, and is now too fat and too old for the job, though, like Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Junior, he's a good enough actor to seem almost right for it.
The top action star right now is Matt Damon thanks to the Bourne series; Matt Damon, remember, the pretty boy of Good Will Hunting, the cerebral, pacifist, left-winger. No wonder the producers of the biggest budget action flick of this summer, The Prince of Persia, felt the sensitive, brooding Jake Gyllenhaal could make the action hero cut. Next year, we'll have Ryan Reynolds playing the Green Lantern, which is going to be like Ben Affleck playing Daredevil.
Speaking of pretty boys in action films, one mustn't forget Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean, alongside a fey Johny Depp. Keira Knightley was probably the most macho thing in those films. It's not surprising the makers of Salt, a role written for a male star, felt able to substitute him with Angelina Jolie in the spy thriller.
(While mourning the death of the macho star, I should add parenthetically that I much prefer the Bourne trilogy to the Rambo movies).

Monday, August 23, 2010


My Yahoo! India column for the fortnight can be read here.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Asia 7 at Palladium, Phoenix Mills

The first thing I notice is the noisiness of the place. We have a table for two, but it's sandwiched between family-seaters, and there's nothing absorbing the sound. I ask for a glass of Spanish red wine, Jabeen a sake cocktail. Sorry, we don't have sake. OK, a mojito then, and a plate of sushi. There's little difference in price between the platter we order and the vegetarian version. I can't imagine anybody paying handsomely for vegetarian sushi, but evidently there are plenty of such people around.
The mojito's oversweet, the wine's watery. Sushi's not bad: some way from Wasabi, obviously, but a notch above the stuff at Global Fusion. We decide on Beijing lamb chops and sticky rice for the main course. Sorry, we don't have lamb chops. OK, the beef Bulgogi, then. Asia 7 is so named because the cuisine covers seven Asian nations: Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan. Indonesia must feel left out. Can't get no sataysfaction. OK, that's not true, Chicken Satay is listed, as Malaysian. The restaurant missed an opportunity to be Asia 8.
The beef is extraordinarily tender, by far the best part of our meal. It's not as flavourful as the Bulgogi one used to get at Busaba, cooked as you watched. Busaba, unfortunately, discontinued the tableside performance, saying customers objected to beef being grilled so publicly. The Bulgogi never tasted as good brought ready from the kitchen.
What went into the sticky rice? We use only pure basmati sir. I knew it, but might as well confirm. Basmati's a thing of joy in biryanis and pulaos. It is out of place in joints like Asia 7. I mean, if they charge 250 rupees for a plate of rice, surely they can get the right type. The sushi, I have to say, didn't appear to use basmati. We skip dessert, which is the usual boring Chinese restaurant list, date pancakes, honey tossed noodles and that kind of thing.
Not a bad dinner overall, but I doubt I'll go back to Asia 7 for a while.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Indigo's new look

I travelled to and from Delhi on Indigo, and was surprised to see the flight attendants not only dressed identically, but sporting similar make-up and hairstyles. The new look consists of a bob matched with bright red lipstick and nail polish. When it works, it looks great in a chic French way. When things go wrong, the hair seems wig-like and the lipstick garish. I wonder how long it will be before a very Indian combination of laziness, love of long hair and hatred of regimentation leads flight attendants to protest the airline's extended uniform.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Return to Ashok Yatri Niwas

The first hotel I ever checked into and stayed in by myself was Delhi's Ashok Yatri Niwas (AYN). An Orwellian tower in a great location just off Janpath, Yatri Niwas was the government's budget option in the capital, a grade below Kanishka next door which was, in turn, cheaper than the five star Ashok in Chanakyapuri.
I was in Delhi in mid-December for a scholarship interview, and in those days was reluctant to stay with aunts and uncles who would gladly have provided more congenial accommodation. AYN had tiny rooms, cement beds, and lifts that took forever to get up and down its twenty or so floors. I couldn't ventilate the musty room because it was unbearably cold even with the windows shut. After spending a miserable night under a lone blanket, trying to breathe through a blocked nose, I woke to discover the Yatri Niwas promise of a hot morning shower was greatly exaggerated. It is possible veterans had used up the warm water before 7 am.
I wasn't in the best frame of mind on reaching the India International Centre, but the interview went well, and I was given the scholarship. That night I walked from AYN to the Central Telegraph Office on Janpath, which was one of the few places in the city offering long distance direct dialling facilities. I called home, and my girlfriend's home, and then celebrated with a fudge sundae at Nirula's, before trudging back shivering inside and out.
When I heard about AYN next, it was because a well-connected man had murdered his wife and burnt her body in the hotel's giant tandoor. This was not great publicity for the establishment, which found it hard to attract visitors even after changing its name to Indraprastha.
Two nights ago, I landed in Delhi at 11pm. I was on a work trip and had been told shortly before my plane took off that I'd be staying at the Ramada Plaza. We got there near midnight, but even at that late hour I was certain I was entering the building that once housed Ashok Yatri Niwas. The place has been tarted up in a baroque-Roman style -- fountain in the front yard, cherubs, marble columns, gilt decorations, Fragonard reproductions, statues of barely-clad women -- but the rooms are tiny as ever. I was surprised to see a flyer boasting the Ramada Plaza had won a best boutique hotel award. What does 'boutique hotel' mean if a 400 room, 20 floor joint run by a multi-national chain can be so described?