Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Start for Bangladesh?

Last year, this time, we were mourning the death of Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan looked irretrievably in trouble. The global financial crisis was just about breaking in, but the party, especially in the Mumbai Stock Exchange, was not yet over. The hope for progress in Bangladesh withered away, and the caretaker government seemed to have lost its way. In Sri Lanka, the war began in earnest, and there were aerial raids on Colombo. Nepal had a shaky government, and Bhutan was looking forward to its first election, with an iota of uncertainty. And, back home, the Manmohan Singh's government was fighting its own battle on the Indo-US Nuclear agreement, and the Left parties were threatening to scuttle the deal. In summary, 2007 ended in uncertainty and chaos.

2008 proved to be a difficult year. For the region as a whole. There was Mumbai, the most blatant organised terror incident since 9/11. We must not forget there were a series of bomb blasts too. The chill of Global Financial Crisis finally reached Indian shores, and wiped off more than 50% of value from BSE. Manmohan Singh survived a bruising battle. Thousands lost their jobs in the IT and ITES sectors, and future looked very uncertain for those who did not.

But, 2008 was also a year of democracy and hope. It was the year of Barack Obama, when American Democracy and American Spirit triumphed over the campaign of fear and hatred. In Pakistan, a fragile democratic government made a fresh start, and despite its limitations, it is still going and progressing in baby steps. In Sri Lanka, the army is pushing deep into tiger territory and there is hope that war may actually be over soon. In Nepal, Maoists have taken power through democratic elections. In Bhutan, the elections happened peacefully and the king stood down. And, finally, the end of year cheer is brought by Bangladesh, where an election took place after seven years, and a coalition, headed by Sheikh Hasina of Awami League, won handsomely.

The events in Bangladesh deserve a special mention, because it is so crucial for the peace and stability in the region and prosperity of India. Bangladesh was lately becoming a safe heaven for all unsavoury activities of ISI and its terror brethren. India's strategic nightmare, before 1971, was to fight wars in both Eastern and Western fronts simultaneously. While the events in 1971 created a separate, prosperous and secular country, the failure of democracy and corrupt governance seriously undermined that prospect. India's economic prosperity was unsustainable because, even a year back, it was surrounded by the who's who of world's failed states : Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. However, the events in 2008, as I recounted above, suddenly makes the region look a lot more stable.

I remember arguing with a friend, at the time when the current caretaker government took over in Dhaka, about the sustainability of democracy in Bangladesh. He, like many others, opined that Bangladeshi people need democratic education and time before the system can work. I was arguing that the Bangladeshi people, despite the general poverty and lack of education, have always behaved wisely when given the opportunity to vote [And, indeed, so did the Indian voters and Pakistani voters]. I now know that both of us were right. Bangladeshi people have voted wisely, yet again. But he was right too - as argued Fareed Zakaria in an eloquently written THE FUTURE OF FREEDOM - democratic institution building and constitutionalism must necessarily precede democratic governance through mass voting.

One would hope that despite the many administrative failures of the caretaker government, they have achieved two things : (a) Established the fear of God in previously unrestrained politicians; and (b) Strengthened some of the institutions, like an independent election commission and a judiciary, and a role model for a responsible army, which will act as a counter-balance to political institutions in the coming years.

The victory of Sheikh Hasina led coalition is being interpreted in different ways across the world. It is being celebrated as a victory of democracy. While it is indeed so, this thought may prompt us to go back to the millennial years, when Awami League had another shot at Governance and messed up big time. This time, it is very different from the people power revolution that ended Ershad's rule in early 1990s [the irony of fate is that HM Ershad is Hasina's coalition partner this time] and brought Khaleda Zia into power. This time, the democratic mandate is a conditional one, and comes with cautious optimism. Shiekh Hasina, more than anyone else, is in a position to understand this, and hopefully she has learnt her lessons this time.

On a more practical, shall we say cynical, way, this is also being interpreted as a win of coalition politics. Bangladeshis, more than anywhere else in the world, vote along party lines, and the victory in election, therefore, can be achieved by consolidating party votes through crafting coalitions. It is often said that the shock victory of BNP in 2001 elections was primarily due to their coalition with Jamaat and IOJ, and a consolidation of conservative votes in the country. This time, it was Awami League which tried to consolidate the liberal and secular votes, and won handsomely because young people voted for it. [Bangladesh has a disproportionate number of young voters in the electorate]

This view is possibly correct, though it undermines the widespread hope that the people of Bangladesh voted against terrorism and corruption in an united way. Without taking away anything from the optimists, one must note that it indeed seems a vote along party lines. While many Bangladeshis overseas are celebrating the defeat of people like Matiur Rahman Nizami, the head of Jamaat and a collaborator with the genocidal Pakistani Army in 1971, I also noted that many of Mafia leaders of 2000, like Nasim Usman of Narayanganj has made a comeback. However, a soul searching exercise, both in the winning party and the losing one, is a distinct possibility now, and one would hope that this will be done with the full perspective of the recent experience.

There are people in India who will celebrate this victory as Awami League is seen as a friendly party. But that view is possibly mistaken. Awami League has to carry out Bangladesh's agenda, and while this should be built on the bedrock of a friendship with India, this isn't unilateral and India must do its bit to make this relationship work. India's Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, is correct in saying recently that this is a very different reality than 1971 and India will work with whoever gets elected in Bangladesh. One would hope such realism will drive Indian policy making and the new Bangladeshi government will have to meet Indians half-way down the road.

Having said this, it indeed helps to have Awami League, as opposed to a doctrinaire party like Jamaat or a party like BNP, which has no mass base and will have to continuously play up the popular sentiment to keep its mandate. With a massive mandate, the new government will have a relatively freer hand and will be able to take decisions / actions as necessary. This is a significant opportunity window for India to build a strong, sustainable relationship.

I shall end with a note of caution: we squandered such opportunities in the past. The Bangladeshi politicians must understand their responsibility and display their accountability to keep the mandate. India too, must abandon its big brother stance and make real concessions to build a relationship based on fairness, rather than expecting gifts of friendship and gratitude from the Bangladeshi government.

A new start for Bangladesh, possibly. But all of us must act responsibly to make anything come out of it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Thinking About Success

I am reading Malcolm Gladwell's OUTLIERS, his investigations into the nature and causes of 'Success' and successful people, including himself. Mr. Gladwell, with his usual penchant for statistical evidence and razor-sharp analysis, opines that individual success emanates from a complex combination of various environmental and circumstantial factors. It is more a 'at the right place, at the right time' theory of success.

I must add here that Mr. Gladwell differs from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's idea of complete randomness - he focuses, instead, on the causation random and systemic, as well as the role perspiration plays. I think my takeaway is here - the 10,000 Hour rule - the theory that any cognitively complex discipline takes about 10,000 hours [about 10 years with 4 hours every working day] to master. However, he debunks the 'specialness' of successful people, which in a way is fundamental to our celebrity-crazed society.

The broader point of this debate about success is how we treat it and how we look at failure. Gladwell makes the point about an approach change to success and failure. Our societies worship success and revile failure. Nowhere it is more visible than in India, where, often, a less successful family member will not make it to some social invitations, while the relationship with the more successful ones will be carried around like a calling card. However, the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of success makes such 'success fetish' unsustainable and unfair. Our approach to failure discourages risk taking and innovation, and in the end, leaves the society poorer, both in ideas and achievements.

It is indeed hard to accept that success is more accidental than commonly proclaimed. Sages, Life Coaches and Business Gurus will all have a problem with the notion. However, it is easy to understand the logic here: No one is denying that hard work, commitment and focus have roles to play in building success [Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule], but these by itself does not guarantee success. And, the fallacy in our thinking is that if someone isn't successful, s/he has not done his/her part - someone can put in hard work and be as committed and yet be less successful.

Of course, this isn't an unknown notion. Woody Allen's Matchpoint is the satirist's take on our success fetish, with the necessary black humour. However, many a times, artists get to the truth faster than the scientists; the science of success is one such thing.

One parting comment: I have commented before about the extreme success fetishism in India. Celebrity obsession is universal and a feature of a modern society; but in India, success fetish extends to one's one family and is creating a new caste system. It is easy to see that India is almost two countries today: one, brightly lit, young, urban, aspirational, successful; the other, dark and hopeless, so complete in failure that suicide is often the only option left. I have noticed that many Indians, otherwise educated and considerate, would privately opine that if there was a way to get rid of [perpetrate genocide, in other words] this less successful lair, India will be better off and emerge as a more powerful country. I am certain this is not going to happen, but we desperately need to rethink about how we think about success and what we do with our less successful.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Day 5: War Game

The rhetoric of war - from India and from Pakistan - continues to dominate the news. It is almost a hotchpotch, with both Prime Ministers saying that there would be no war, and others warning each other. There is news of troop movements, population movements from some of the border villages and increasing activity from the Americans to keep peace. The tone inside India continues to be angry, and slowly the anger is shifting from our own politicians to Pakistan, and the Muslim community. Things, in summary, do not look very promising.

Somehow, it seems that both sides are playing a war game. As a political obligation, as if it must be done. There is a certain acceptance that war will not happen - both the Prime Ministers said that - and therefore, it is okay to gesticulate and show strength. But it indeed is a very dangerous game. In modern history, as many wars started by accident as by intent. All it needs is a madman somewhere, and they are not in short supply.

I have never been to Pakistan, but had Pakistani friends and teachers. What I understood of Pakistan is (a) it is country in search of a nationhood; (b) the abiding purpose of nationhood in Pakistan is the anti-thesis of what India stands for.

An Islamic nation-state does not sound too plausible, as Islam is not a national identity. As modern India sought to create a national identity, in terms of philosophies and symbols, Pakistan tried to create a nationhood on the basis of Islam. It hasn't worked so far, and it is unlikely to work in the future. So, the country will have to deal with its internal chasm at the same time as it tries to project itself in the modern world. A task, so far, all of Pakistan's leaders have failed to accomplish.

The initial feudal opportunism that created Pakistan manifested itself in the successive military regimes that ruled the country. Interestingly, contrary to its image, Pakistan has not been a Islamic revivalist country, rather one in which religious parties have got only modest success. It is the feudal rulers which invented the religion as a tool of keeping people focused away from governance issues; religion as people's opium, in true sense.

So, the idea of Pakistan stands directly against the idea of India: an imagined Islamic nation-state as against a aspirationally secular one; a political structure aimed at perpetuation of feudal rule against an ambition to create a modern state through universal suffrage.

I think this is the essential conflict one has to resolve. There are two ways it can end, either India becoming more like Pakistan, a state for Hindus ruled by a fascist clique; or, Pakistan can eventually become more like India, a tolerant, democratic state. The first one is a possibility and war will facilitate that. The second one is aspirational and will require generations, but something worth dying for.

We should realize that, for all its faults and feudal underpinnings, the current government in Pakistan is a democratic one. We must continue to have faith in the basic decency of Pakistani people, who are as peace-loving and as much keen to living a normal family life as we are. Maintaining this democratic government, while the power and prestige of the Pakistani army is spent on fighting its own civil war, will advance us down the road of creating a stabler Pakistan, and a peaceful region.

War, on the contrary, will push us down the other path. It will stop Pakistan's own civil war and unite the combatants. It will allow Pakistani Military to gesticulate and regain some of its lost prestige. It will allow us to undermine our own institutions, and allow xenophobes like Narendra Modi to gain political mileage. It will push us down the same path as Pakistan - one of oligarchic rule, division and lack of imagination.

If we remember Mumbai, we should remember two things. One, the captured terrorist, Kasav, left home because he asked for a shirt as a festive gift and did not get it from his parents. Keeping Pakistan poor, hungry and shirtless does not help. India must, as a pre-eminent economy in the region, help Pakistan rebuild its economy. This will undermine Pakistani military and its terror recruiters; it will help those decent Pakistanis who want to build a modern peaceful country.

Two, we must go to war - but this one is inside India. Why did we tolerate the mafia in Mumbai for decades? We should send our army to Mumbai, not Rajasthan. Our snipers should look out for Dawood, and take him out wherever he is in the world. We should demolish every Mafia business, put in jail every tainted politician and police officer, and follow zero tolerance on corruption and crime in every Indian city. It is our war, and we must finish this one quickly.

I am in the minority in India at this time. But the hope is, in our great country and democracy, even my opinion counts.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Day 4: The Christmas Day

I spent the Christmas Day as lazily as I could, knowing that I have to start one of the toughest years of my life in a week's time :) So, I am resting and preparing. Oh yes, I spent some time reading today, after a long time.

I am reading Dan Airley's Predictably Irrational, an entertaining book talking about human behaviour based on a series of campus experiments mostly conducted in the MIT. It makes entertaining read, and often presents interesting ideas [Self-control Credit Card being one: I would have opted for one if it was available]. It is valuable in terms of insights, though arguably, low on empirical base. I don't know whether MIT's students [and some from Berkley] represent the human race, but the conclusions are interesting, and often common-sense.

I am preparing for 2009 at the same time. 2009 is going to be a watershed year - or at least, I am planning to make it one. One of my strategies in 2009, as if I have picked this up from Professor Airley, is to limit my options and focus on few. 2008 has been an expansive year, when I tried to do too many things at the same time. I was also blinded by the abundance of options available, particularly as I travelled and met new people, and talked about new ideas. For example, I talked/ thought about starting a packaged food business, a nursery school franchise, a formalwear business for women, a lingerie business, a web design studio, a graphic design training business, an employee leasing organization and an e-learning consultancy, all in the space of one year. Each option looked attractive, I had made the appropriate connections and could have got started if I wanted to. But, obviously, at the year-end, I know I have to work on limiting my options rather than expanding them.

2008 changed my perspective quite a bit. This time, a year back, I almost had what I wanted in life: Job of a travelling salesman. This satisfied the adventurer in me. However, as I would have known then, and know with experience now, romantic notions rarely survive the first contact with reality. The year gave me a lot of exposure, and ideas, often far-fetched. But, at the hindsight, it taught me just one thing to take away: It pays to be patient. I have made my mistakes as I was too enthusiastic, too involved and too self-oblivious. Life isn't just a romantic journey, and here I am, at the end of a fairly eventful year, thinking about what to do next.

I have made a few friends in 2008, and resurrected some old friendships too. Few of those, I already know, will be for life. However, the truth is, I lost a few friends too, whom I valued and respected. Lost, not through bitterness and dispute, but mostly through neglect and lack of contact. The problem in friendship is that neglect is often a greater sin than dispute, and it will be hard to regain the same level of trust and comfort. But, this will surely top the agenda for me in 2009.

When I first planned to travel to UK in 2003, I wanted to go there to study. One thing led to another, and I landed up in the country as an immigrant. My plans to stay out a limited time and enhance my skills became a full-fledged commitment to stay long term and settle in the country. I have always been divided on this issue: Whether to stay on or to return. I felt strong desire to return immediately after my mother's death in 2006, but stayed on as I did not complete my original agenda of skill enhancement. I felt strongly about it again in 2008, when frequent trips to India enhanced my familiarity and allowed me to assess the opportunities first hand. However, the lesson in patience tells me now to be circumspect, first complete the agenda of skill enhancement and then work out a strategy of return/ moving on. I do think this skill enhancement agenda will dominate most of 2009.

The other interesting thing that happened in 2008 is my involvement with the education ventures in India. I have, so far, no commercial involvement, but got the opportunity to have a ring-fence view of the private enterprise in education. The sector seems to be poised for exponential growth, and I do see opportunities there. I have been recently offered a partnership in a venture too, which I have put off for the moment. It is attractive, no doubt, and I see quite a bit of money there too. But, of course, my plans to return to India still months away [not in 2009] and I am not yet sure that this is the way to build great educational institutes. No doubt, I would love to have an opportunity to be involved with one: But, I am not certain that any of private B-schools and Engineering Colleges I have been interacting with, have the necessary infrastructure - physical and human - to impart World-Class education. It does seem that the Government has no idea how to enhance education opportunities in the country. In trying to create higher education capacity, they have opened it up to Private Enterprise without the necessary checks-and-balances; resulting in profit-making degree shops all over the country.

I have also read a lot of books about emergent India in 2008, and have planned, yes, to write my own in 2009. Does anyone need another one? I thought I have noticed an unique perspective - a sub-altern story of liberalization and economic growth - which is yet to be written. I do not know where I shall find the time after managing my job, family and studies: But this is something I shall surely wish to do in 2009. I am not sure whether I would want to interview a number of people and write their stories, or will be able to complete my agenda to travel around India to write about it. But, I shall keep posting more about this project as I go along.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Day 3: An Order with Indiaplaza.in

First, a statement: I was one of e-commerce's early converts in Kolkata. I placed my first order on Amazon.com for a book called Digital Darwinism back in early 1999. At $14 shipping, this was meant to be an one-off, just for the experience. However, for all the excitement, the book did not arrive even after the promised three week delivery time. I obviously chose the cheapest shipping option, which meant the book had to come by India Post from Mumbai. So, I decided to give Amazon a grace of a week, knowing how our postal system works. But when it still did not arrive, I wrote to Amazon - half-hearted - saying that the books have not arrived yet, and if they could let me know when it was shipped.



In three days time, I received a replacement copy of the book, sent Fedex First Class. The original book did arrive, in a leisurely eight weeks. But by then, I have become a convert.



It isn't difficult to see why Amazon lost so much money in its first years. But then, they bought my lifelong loyalty through that extraordinary act of responsiveness. I do buy books and gadgets worth £250 every month [that's my estimate/budget, so I definitely spend more than that amount] and almost all my purchases are through Amazon UK. Who says long term thinking does not pay in business?




So, when in India, one thing I surely miss is the extraordinary online shopping experience that I get in the UK. And, believe it or not, as I try to assess how my life will be if I moved back to India, this, along with the availability and speed of Broadband, is my biggest concerns. I know India will catch up, but it has a long way to go.

As if to illustrate this point, I had this amazing experience with Indiaplaza.in recently. I used to be regular at Fabmall, the site's earlier incarnation, and even maintained a book club membership when I was in India. Since then, I used it occasionally, primarily to buy books not otherwise available in the UK, or in some cases, to avail Indian edition prices.

Compared with my Amazon experience, Indiaplaza.in offers low value. The interface is clunky, and the order process is slow and payment gateway often fails [I had to try thrice to place my last order]. But there is more than that. I am a regular book buyer, and I find it easier, cheaper and more reliable to buy books on Amazon than in a physical store. I am sure I owe an explanation, especially why I find this easier and more reliable: obviously for the user ratings and feedback. Amazon also gives out quite a bit of detail about the books, its physical dimension, number of pages, when it was published and even the editorial comments. For some books, it is even possible to look inside the book, and flip through the table of contents. Indiaplaza.in, by comparison, is pedestrian, often missing out on the book's cover photo, and dishes out only very limited detail. And, this is why, while 100% of my books and electronics purchases are online in the UK, I only occasionally buy through Indiaplaza.in, preferring Crossword instead [though the web site is roughly 20% cheaper].

The other problem with Indiaplaza is its customer service. It is terrible, in short. My latest interaction today pushed me over the edge - made me feel angry, a rare thing :) Here is what happened.

I noticed a promotion on Indiaplaza recently. They were offering a very good deal - if I pre-ordered Nandan Nilkeni's Imagining India, they were promising an author-signed copy for a limited time, a Rs. 100/- Gift Certificate and a free Book Club membership, which will entitle me enhanced discounts. I read excerpts of Mr. Nilkeni's book on newspapers, and wanted to read the book. So, I immediately clicked and placed the order.

Here is what happened next. The book arrived, unsigned. A mail notified that the book club membership and the gift certificate will be sent on a particular date. The Gift certificate arrived on mail, but not the book club membership. Surprisingly, I did not complain - I have gotten used to such sloppiness and may be the Indian indifference inside me is alive and well. But, indeed, I was not impressed.

However, I lost my cool when I tried using the Gift Certificate and was prompted that it will only work for orders over Rs. 350/-. Not a big amount [I was trying to place an order worth Rs. 300/-], but this was a bit too much. I felt obliged to write, especially because I filled in a survey recently wherein I was rather complimentary about Indiaplaza.

What happens next is instructive - things businesses should avoid. First, I get a reply, which is insensitive at best, though I shall classify this as bureaucratic and rude. I shall quote the mail here:

Dear Supriyo Chaudhuri,
I would like to inform you that that you have placed the order for Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century with out authors sign. The price of the book with authors sign is Rs 573.
The free gift certificate worth Rs 100 and the book club membership worth Rs 500 has been sent to you. The GC sent to you for the book Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century is a conditional GC and it can be redeemed only against the order value of Rs 350/-.I apologize for the inconvenience caused to you in this regard.
Warm Regards,
Thara,
Indiaplaza team

I am put off by the "Dear Supriyo Chaudhuri" part itself. I would have expected a "Dear Supriyo" or "Dear Mr. Chaudhuri", or at least a Hi. That format of addressing tells me that I am possibly getting a mail from a Bot. But, then, the content - they are telling me that the price with Author's signature is more [an usual thing on auction sites, but slightly out of place for a mainstream bookseller], after the promotion is done and the order is placed. My complaint was that I was not told whether the book club membership has been activated, and the flat statement clearly tells me that I am a liar. And, in context, the apologies in the end appears insincere and cosmetic.

By now, of course, my mind is made up - I am not going to touch Indiaplaza.in ever again. However, no one wants to be called a fool and a liar in consecutive sentences, so I had to write back. I wrote this:

One clarification: where do you think that option was given - to pay more for the author-signed copy?
I clicked on your promotion - and got this book. Am I right in thinking that the promotion was intentionally misleading?
I would have appreciated if I was told about the book club membership and the fact that the GC is conditional. I do think there is a serious problem with communication, as I felt rather infuriated with the tone and content of this reply. I do think that you haven't got it at all.

And, lo behold, this is the reply I get:

Dear Supriyo Chaudhuri,
I am very that the promotion displayed does not show the amount of the books. But actually the promotions shows the 2 different books available.
Also the gift certificate details regarding the condtion is mentioned in the terms and condition whereas it is not mentioned in the main page.
As the promotion is being run by our vendors we are unable to help you in this regard.
Warm Regards,
Jai Ganesh
Indiaplaza team

While I am used to talking to an automaton and being addressed Supriyo Chaudhuri all the time, I am stunned because (a) the mail is so carelessly written, including the missing word - was it sorry? angry? annoyed? amused? - in the first sentence; (b) The promotion does not show two books, as I could dig out the original promotion email, which clearly states the price and promises a signed copy - so the agent is lying; (c) The company is guilty of hidden catches, as they seem to be burying a very important point - that the Gift Certificate is conditional - in the 'Terms and Conditions' [which one does not read while committing the original purchase]; and (d) The company, or the agent, is naive and committed the mother sin of Internet shopping, by trying to blame 'the vendors'. I did not place my trust on the vendors, did I?

It is ironic that this experience centers around Mr. Nilkeni's book, which is an optimistic assessment of India's chances, and places its faith on Indian entrepreneurship and inventiveness. The story, without trying to find mal-intent, shows the systemic issues that Indian companies must face: a provider state mindset. In the socialist states, and in the past, the power belonged to the seller, the supplier. But that is past: Today, the consumers control the agenda. I am the consumer in this case, and can reasonably expect a bit more respect and care. I surely deserve a sincere apology, and definitely not deserve to be called a fool [because i did not notice there are two books] and a liar [because I say I did not get a notification on Book Club membership].

So, that is the most captivating incident of my Day Three in trying to figure how life in India will be. I spent yesterday in College Street, walking through the ruins of Bengali Book Trade and regretted the lack of imagination. Today, I stood face to face with the unimaginative corporate India, which can't get basic things straightened up. Indians may soon be in the moon, and create Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, but to create an Amazon.com, it is going to take a while.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Day 2: Walking Around in College Street

I spent most of today walking around in College Street. Yes, College Street, that old, run-down, crowded area of Calcutta, which was its core - its heart - till about recently, till Sector 5 took over. All the things Calcutta was known for was here: Its colleges, its Coffee House, its most famous square, its bookshops. As I walked around, I knew the streets and its corners, and almost recognized the people, after all these years. I realized that I spent most of my college life on these roads [as opposed to being inside the classes as I should have], but also realized that it has changed very little since then.

Before I was in the area, I was asking my father how the Bengali publishers are doing. My assumption was that they should be doing well. The reasons are plain to see: There are new channels of book selling, the new departmental stores, and a new trend where being a Bengali is actually fashionable. The Bengali eateries are doing well. So are Bengal-focused websites. So, I was expecting to see a sort of a revival in the college street, home of most Bengali publishers.

I am also aware that at least one Bengali publishing house has done very well in the recent past. Ananda Publishers. They were always good, but of late, they have integrated their various businesses - Newspaper, Magazines, Television, Radio, Events and Book Publishing - extremely well and built an institution. As we walked past their large three storied showroom [which, I recalled, was a modest shop when I was in college], I could visibly see the signs of wealth and success. I was hoping that this would be the general story of College Street too.

However, my experience turned out to be exactly the opposite. It was sad to see some of the once famous publishers so run down and fragile. I walked into Signet, the publisher who earned its name as much for the literature it published as its signature cover designs, many of them done by Satyajit Ray, in his earlier career as a Graphic Artist. I was after the Bengali translation of Jim Corbett's The Man-eaters of Kumayon, a hunting tale immortalized by a very special cover design by Satyajit Ray. I did find the book, but horrified by its production and print [production and print used to be USP of Signet]. I then walked into Granthalay, another publisher who made their name by publishing collected works of famous post-independence Bengali writers. An uninterested staff informed me that most of those books are out of print, and few volumes may be available here and there.

I almost gave up my search and went over a bookseller I knew for years. My intent is to build a library of Bengali literature, something that I dreamt of as a college kid but could not afford. I realized, in the few brief minutes of walking around, that the opportunity is fast disappearing, as, very shortly, may be in a couple of years' time, none of the books I coveted, will be available in print anymore. Once in his shop, I tried to take his counsel on my next intended purchase, the Collected Works of Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay, the novelist who is known for Satyajit Ray's timeless adaptation of his classic, Pather Panchali, but has also written at least a dozen of captivating novels. I could get a copy - an overpriced centennial edition - but was put off by the print, paper, design and spelling errors.

At this point, I had to ask, what's going on. The market for Bengali books should be expanding - expat bengalis are trying to rediscover their roots more than ever and the new 'young' bengal finds its fashionable to be Bengali. Besides, there is a huge market in Bangladesh and the interactions between the two countries have expanded significantly over the last 15 years. However, it seems that the Bengali publishers, who hold the rights for some of most remarkable pieces of Bengali literary and artistic creation, are going nowhere.

I was offered three explanations. First, the market for books have changed, tastes have changed. Possibly yes, but frankly, I have noticed more Bengali books, and translations from Bengali Classic books, on the upmarket shop-windows more than ever. So, while there may be a change in demand, there is no fundamental issues with demand. There may be an issue with distribution strategies, which most Bengali publishing houses, being small and family-run organizations, have failed to grasp. Yesterday, I was watching Big Bazaar with fascination; today, I am looking at the the backwater of the economy that the phenomena like Big Bazaar is bound to create.

The second explanation, as one would guess, was piracy. I was told that the market for Bangladesh, which should be bigger in size terms than West Bengal, is virtually inaccessible because of pirated, local editions. This is, of course, a very common argument, offered by any book publisher or music producer anywhere in the world. However, piracy actually reflects that there is no fundamental problem with demand, but only a flaw in distribution. Besides, the way to deal with piracy is to stick to the basics - ensuring that every copy of the original publication looks worth its value in terms of print and production; instead, most Bengali publishers made their books look like pirated copies, with cheap paper, clumsy printing and terrible production.

The third thought, interestingly, was offered as an explanation why the books are so terribly produced. I was told, like a zillion times before this, that the Indian consumers seek VALUE, and hence, as long as they can read the content, they are happy and they don't care for the quality of paper or the aesthetics of the cover design. I do think this thought is fundamentally flawed. As a lover of books, and an avid purchaser, I know I buy books not just to read, but to preserve. I would not buy most of the books I buy if I was just supposed to read; a library copy would have suited the purpose just fine. And, the moment I think of a book as a commodity that needs to be preserved long term, the requirements of aesthetics become more important than ever.

I did think of a reason for this rapid decline in terms of production quality, and unfortunately, I am going to blame the government, yet again. The Left Front government in West Bengal has done many commendable things, including a significant investment in building public libraries across the state. I had a feeling that the book market today, at least the one in College Street, exists solely to meet the requirements of the Library purchaser, a paid Civil Servant who demands maximum value for his buck and buys books he is not going to read, much less preserve. The shop-windows at Crossword and Starmark are only a fraction of the market; the real market that gets these publishers excited is the one which those bureaucrats control. So, no surprises then that the most coveted publications of our literature are being value-unbundled, commoditized, by the very people who should try to preserve its value and keep the heritage for the posterity.

Day 1: Visiting the Big Bazaar

I spent some time today buying groceries, and visualizing, back of my mind, what life will be like once I have decided to shift back to India. I did go to the neighbourhood Big Bazaar, the trailblazing Indian retail outlet, though it is not exactly neighbourhood. We had to drive about 5 kilometers, not too far by Indian standards, but some distance compared to what I have to do in England. There are a number of things one would immediately notice, as the comparison meter back of my mind started working furiously both on the comparative scale with England as well as my past experiences in India.

To start with, there was nothing comparable in India five years back. Big Bazaar was possibly the first household supply retail chain [I may be wrong], and looking at their gift book and the array of brands, they have done surprisingly well in this short span of time. I tried reading 'It Happened in India' by Kishor Biyani earlier, where he recounted the story of Big Bazaar, though found the book hard to read and could not progress beyond the first few pages. But I know that Mr. Biyani had Pantaloons, which I always thought to be a downmarket, discount clothing retailer, before he started Big Bazaar, a discount supermarket. Of course, I have seen the transformation of Pantaloons from downmarket to upmarket solely on the basis of price, and I think that was the way Mr. Biyani's Future Group initially wanted to position their outlets. But Pantaloons' repositioning had nothing more than adding pricier goods on its shelves and going for - in some cases - swankier real estate. Even today, the Pantaloons outlets are extremely crammed, noisy, with overtly selsy staff - and I avoid them by a mile.

In comparison to how they have done in Pantaloons, it is amazing how successful they were with Big Bazaar. I think it is about being a natural with this kind of marketplace. Big Bazaars are crammed too, and decidedly downmarket - but its nature is to be so. Prices are good, and the selection of wares [except in the food section] is fairly extensive. It is noisy, both in terms of physical and visual noise, but that gives it a feel of a deal-seekers' paradise. Indeed, this is what Indians naturally want to do - find a deal. The Big Bazaar obviously struck the right chord.

One thing that jumps out in comparison with England is how many floor staff are available to help. There seemed to be uniformed staff milling around everywhere, a far cry from our neighbourhood Tesco, where it is hard to find anyone to seek help. I found the staff extremely helpful [with some exceptions], a big difference from Tesco, where the staff is mostly rude, ignorant and unhelpful [with exceptions]. I was surprised to find a merchandiser willing to help me find things outside her aisle, and another who advised me that the quality of vegetable I am trying to buy isn't very good [it turned out to be so] and hence he will do an on-the-spot reduction [he also complained about the supply of vegetables and advised that I should shop on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays]. I did wonder whether Big Bazaar is woefully overstaffed, but not so, when one considers the service the customers get. It will be hard to create a Bazaar without people being around after all.

The other thing I could not miss is how surprisingly low-tech the whole operation is. There were computers at the till and bar code scanners, though the system broke down while I was shopping and some items did not have a proper tag. But I was handed over a Big Bazaar passbook, like yesteryear's Bank Passbook where I was supposed to stick stickers and get every purchase certificated. I was told that this will win me gifts, though the terms and conditions were a few pages long. However, I am sure Big Bazaar, for its level of popularity, can do with a loyalty card, and I shall give full marks to Tesco for its wonderful Club Card scheme. Given the diversity of Future Group, they can even have a multi-brand loyalty programme like Nectar. I would guess this is where the Indian retailers need help, and this is exactly why many of them are tying up with global majors - technology. I am sure the two areas they will primarily be looking at is customer loyalty programmes and sorting out their supply chain - empty vegetable aisle isn't a confidence booster - and technology and processes can solve a lot of the problems.

I have another observation too, about the quality of the things I bought. My rating will be - Inconsistent - as some the things I bought were nowhere near the quality I expected of them. I bought a cricket bat which was coming of the edges, and though I have paid only Rs. 299/-, I was disappointed to see that. I bought some homeware too, which could have been better, given that I dished out a rather premium price in this case. But, when I step out of the comparison with organized retail in England, which is an unfair comparison because that industry is four decades old, and think what was available in India even 5 years ago, I know that they have come a long way.

Big Bazaar is exactly what it says on the tin, overall - a big Bazaar. With all its chaos and shortcomings. One would surely miss the bargaining [I am reminded of Anurag Mathur's The Inscrutable American - the instance where the Indian student decides to bargain in an American supermarket], but almost everything else is present. It isn't easy to maintain a neighbourhood feel in organized retail; but that's exactly what the Big Bazaar has managed to do.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Preparing for 2009

I am taking a week's break, first time in two years. Moreover, I am taking this break in Calcutta - staying home without any prior commitments - and this must be a first in more than five years. This feels suitably new, and enormously exciting. I am not a lazy git, but this break allows me a pause to think and plan. And, I haven't had a chance to pause for a while.

I come to this break with a plan. I have realised three things. One, I have made a number of mistakes - in my personal and professional life - in 2008. The good news is that I want to correct my mistakes and move forward. This is what I wanted to do during the next seven days - reflect and learn and plan ahead.

Two, during all the excitement of my daily life, I missed out on what is important. I have ignored my health, lost the initiative on professional development and the sight of a final goal. I lived my life one day at a time for far too long. I desperately need a bit of long view - an evaluation of all my priorities in the context of where I am going.

Three, in the absence of a real goal, I have made up many goals, and pursued multiple things in the last five years. This never helps, and this is getting nowhere. Time now for me to stop and get rid of most of the opportunities I am pursuing, to focus on the important few.

End of the year is always a great time to do this sort of thing, and fortunately for me, this break has come in very handy. As the year comes to a close, several mistakes I have made have come to the fore, mostly in my personal life, but some professionally too. What I have to hope for now is a clean break with the past, and imagine as if the life gets over on the 31st December, and reboots on the 1st January. I read on a poster - Today is the first day of the rest of my life. True for me, word for word.

As I said, I am in Calcutta, and I clearly know that I feel happier, more respected and connected while I am in India. My stay in England allows me enormous opportunities to learn; but I am convinced that spending the rest of my life there will be a mistake. I know the advantages staying in England will bring, but I don't want to live my life for a pension.

This will be a significant challenge. I know one relocation is enough for a lifetime, and I am already planning for my second. [At the bottom of my heart, I still want to do a few years in the States, though I haven't planned for or done anything so far towards that direction.] I would allow this a considerable length of time, 12 to 18 months is the current plan, and hopefully come back by the middle of 2010. I am confident that I should be able to manage this transition on my own terms, but I have to get started - and this is what I shall be doing over next few days as well.

Breaking my vow, I shall turn Sunday Posts again to a Private Diary, and write the story of my second relocation here. Coming back to India must combine with a rediscovery of India, and of myself, so I shall not be too much off the track anyway. However, keeping track of these days, ideas and the challenges will help me later to trace my steps back, useful as always.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Agenda of India

Like American exceptionalism, many Indians have a strong sense of a special purpose that their country will play in the history of the World.

It can be argued that India is a pretty modern nation, as many Western historians have insisted, created based on a somewhat 19th century concept. Many Indians feel deeply offended by this and point towards its rich history, culture and united identity spanning over many centuries. Both sides are right, proving Amartya Sen right, who quoted one of his professors who said, 'whatever can be said about India, the opposite is also right'. This is a bit about two Indias too, one modern, self-confident nation, and the other, eternal, pinned to its history, identity, existing side by side.

Interestingly, you can almost two kinds of exceptionalism in India, therefore. One, of eternal values, of disregarding material wealth and pursuing spiritual glory, which many Indians present as a solution to what is wrong with mankind today. Many of them will argue that Indians are very special people, ascetic at heart and emotional/spiritual in their every day behaviour, a model community far removed from the ills of western individualism and greed. Not necessarily true everywhere, but no doubt India is exceptional, as any visitor to the land will vouch.

Exceptionalism, in the other sense, is however far more visible today. More precisely, in today's English Language newspapers, English press and in the recent flurry of books about India. This is more about a modern democratic nation, which is shaking off the poverty of its past and emerging as a model for all developing nations worldwide. While it has gained in popularity, this view isn't new - witness Nehru and his grand plans to unite the world on the principles of peace and cooperation - and it was omnipresent since the day the young nation decided to embark on universal adult suffrage and parliamentary democracy. This is the new India's sense of exceptionalism - of establishing an ideal and a model.

All that, of course, has terribly gone wrong. India became synonymous to poverty, red tape, chaos, corruption, inefficiency, political muddle and musclemanship. And, the truth is - none of these were solved before the current optimism has set in. Looking at the recent list of releases on India and its enormous potential, one tends to get the feel of an enormous bubble all over again, one which bursts with the first encounter of reality in any Indian airports. Almost everyone, and everything, points us to the non-changeable nature of India, the essential Indian idea of exceptionalism, while billboards, bookstores and politicians proudly proclaim the 'special role' of India.

At times, indeed, it feels that we are a self-important nation. Contrast the reporting of the recent conference of world leaders on the economic crisis. Our Prime Minister did deliver an informed speech, but Indian media essentially reported that he showed the world leaders the way and taught them economics. I did spend time to mine the comments made on Mr. Singh's speech, and found nothing to support that presumption, which was near universal in the Indian media and minds.

I have also noted, with some dismay, the comments made by some readers on the Lord Macaulay issue. Lord Macaulay was a cunning imperialist, who created, on purpose, an English educated class in India, which could not connect itself to their own country any more. This undermined India, and perpetuated British rule, as Macaulay intended. I also noted that Macaulay did not differentiate much between the muslims and hindus of India and was out to undermine both cultures. However, the observers - who left their comments in English and have obviously done well because of their English education - chose to prevail on another point: Defend the spoof which was circulated in the name of Macaulay, most possibly by the Hindu supremacists in our country. There was this exceptionalism of a very different kind - a going back to the past to an Utopian Hindu glory - which will leave out more than half the citizen of India and would go against the tolerance and continuity which are very much the part of India's ethos.

So, do I believe in this special purpose of India then? The short answer is yes, because I am Indian, and immensely proud and self-conscious to be one. While I do question the wisdom of India branding which is going on now, I do believe in India's message and the agenda - of creating a modern, developed nation in spite of poverty and backwardness. However, this agenda also includes timeless Indian values - tolerance, patience and emotional/material balance - and the exceptionalism for us is not in trying to be special, but in being imitable.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Macaulay and I

I was prompted to write about Lord Macaulay because of a hoax mail forwarded to me. Eventually, I was surprised to find how widespread the hoax is, as I recently found Amitabh Bachchan, rather carelessly, putting it up on his blog. I know writing a blog is very different from writing a piece for a published journal, and on that count, Mr. B's indiscretion is forgivable. But he being who he is, his views will be counted - and therefore, one would wish he is more careful about what he writes, even in a blog.

But, obviously, since I wrote about him, I seem to have acquired a connection with Lord Macaulay. I did not think I was writing about him, though; I found the quote sent to me full of contradictions, not just because of its rather modern language, but also because its public cynicism, which is not Victorian, and certainly not British. Coming on the wake of several famines, the comment that Macaulay did not see a poor man in India [before he decided to introduce English Language as a medium of instruction] seemed odd. So I decided to enquire, and what I found is that this quote was an obvious and crude attempt - much like other such attempts before and since - to distort the history of India. So, what I wrote was much less about Macaulay and more about attempts, by a section of our society and intellectuals, to spread lies and pervert our understanding of India's history. I wanted to write a decent man's case for a true history of India, without any particular love for a British colonialist who had little understanding of the languages and culture of India.

However, two things have happened since. I have received many, public and private, comments, mostly angry, on my 'defence of Macaulay'. While I thought I was defending my right to know unbiased history, some of the readers took it for my arrogance and lack of patriotism. It was amusing to note that most of these comments were written in English, some of them by people living in the United States. No, it was actually reassuring, because it almost told me that the scheming Lord has failed, and English, against his wishes, has become a language of our success and power.

Second, I noticed with dismay that Macaulay's sense of superiority, based more out of his ignorance than understanding, has been endemic. Today's Britons fail to understand India, and India's culture, due to this inherited blindness, and have little regard for our ascendant civilization. This is also amusing, because we, around 100 years before Macaulay's time, failed to grasp the ascendancy of Britain, and handed over our cultural, moral and economic superiority on a platter. It feels like that the history seems to be on a mending course.

Lord Macaulay and I have another thing in common. English Language training to Indians seem to be our common objective, though the dead lord wanted to create an 'English educated class' and I set out to 'democratise the access to English Language training' through commercial means. I have stated my goal, in a style fitting the grandeur of a corporate brochure, that we wish to transform English - from a language of bondage to a language of freedom in India. I am anti-Macaulay by deed, then, and my objectives are to undo the harm he unleashed on us.

When I think about Lord Macaulay, this is then my true feeling : He, in fact, divided India in belief and value systems. Or, shall we say that he created a new caste system in India, just when we were trying to emerge from our old, unjust ways of life? He divided India's village from city, people from people, and limited the opportunities and made us build a privilege society, not based on merit, but based on the accidents of birth and access.
In summary, he did exactly what the creator of the hoax mail set out to do: distort our vision and divided us. Mr. Bachchan got it right in the end: He writes that we should not let anyone divide us ever again.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The White Tiger

I am travelling in India again, and the last ten days have been hectic. The global recession is catching up on us, if not materially, but most definitely psychologically. The nervousness of the entrepreneurs are becoming obvious, and relatively insignificant business cycle movements are extracting big pounds of flesh from us. I realize the best strategy now is to keep my head down and keep doing the job I am doing - hopefully I shall be able to emerge soon from this abyss, and be able to set the terms again.

It did indeed help that I read Arvind Adiga's The White Tiger at this very moment. Darkly humorous, the tale reminded me of Crime and Punishment at times. The difference is the punishment bit, obviously this tale ends in the protagonist emerging as a successful entrepreneur in 21st century Bangalore. Probably indicative of the milieu, that difference, whereas 19th century Russia was grappling with moral insecurities and despair, 21st century India is relativist, pragmatic and matter-of-fact. The contrasting stories standing for two different countries, and two different times.

I normally stay away from prize-winning books, not least because they tend to be overpriced. Many a time, with many notable exceptions, these books represent a spatial, politically fashionable [at the time] view, and often, are very difficult to read. I stayed away from White Tiger expecting exactly these attributes, and I am sure the low expectations surely helped. I read non-stop and that's not something I shall usually do with a work of fiction.

My key reason for reading this in the first place is the advice, cited somewhere recently: If you read one book about India this year, read White Tiger. I must say this isn't very much off the mark - though it may be offensive to some people, this is a beautiful book about the underlife in India.

The story ends with optimism, despite its dark trail. The protagonist emerges, from darkness, to use the book's metaphor, into light, and offers a new, aspirational view of the world. The story rotates on a violent incident, but despite its gruesomeness, that violence merges into the broader tale, as the rubbish gets washed into, and washed out by, the Ganges. I may say that this is a tale of the anticipation of violence, but in the end, when it happens, it becomes almost insignificant because of its expectedness.

The key sentiment in India is indifference. Mr. Adiga, an Indian by birth but not a resident, has mastered the indifferent, always-on tone of Indian life to perfection. The two Indias of his time clashes and merges seamlessly, as Ashok/Balram emerges through the social divide - as only he can do, as he is the rarest of the animals, the White Tiger.

A must read, I shall recommend it anyone interested in India.

One last word. My takeaway - a beautiful quote from Iqbal - when you know the beautiful in this world, you cease to be a slave.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Why Terrorists Will Fail

Yes, I just left the link - because I could not write any more. Watching Moshe cry out for his mother - I knew why terrorism, of any kind, for any cause, is fundamentally wrong and stands against what is good in being human. And, this is why terrorism can not succeed.

But then I get this comment from a friend:

Hey,I thought u r a liberal person but after watching that vdo now i am doubtful about yr thoughts. Did u see the comments??? They said they hate Islam, muslims r evil.........etc etc. Is this what u want to see? Then the heading of yr blog should be " Why we shall hate Muslims". Do u know what is Islam mean??? Islam means peace. U cant blame the whole muslim world for few terrorists. Anywz, i dont want to argue with u but yes after this i will never visit yr sundayposts.blogspots.com.

I must shout Not Guilty here - the comments on the Video are not mine, nor do I subscribe to those thoughts. However, I did realize the dangers of leaving the video without an explanation. So, here is one - why I think that video tells us why terrorists will fail.

But, before that, I must also acknowledge that some people sent me emails saying that I don't remark upon the children crying out in Gaza. But that's the wrong point. The cries of Gaza's Children do not justify the killing of Moshe's parents. The difference of being human and being a monster is to choose between feeling the pain and trying to square up by killing someone else's parents. And, the history will bear proof: Monsters never win.

Coming back to the original comment - of course, all Muslims are not terrorists. I have been reading Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence recently, where Professor Sen argues that reducing ourselves to a single identity [an Indian, a Muslim, a Salesman, a Son, a Husband, a Father and the like] and giving up the choice, which allows us to play different roles depending on the circumstances, essentially leads to loss of self and violence. Besides, there is this quote from Jean Paul Satre I came across, which is relevant for any community: 'The Jew is a man. It is the anti-Semite who sees the man as a Jew'. Yes, indeed, there is no one who is a 'muslim' out and out, it is one of the many identities of the man [or woman] who happens to follow Islam; s/he carries many other identities - a parent, a sibling, a ward, a professional, a business person, a working man, a lover of books etc. It is only our eyes, if we choose to see it that way, s/he appears to be a muslim, and only that.

Indeed, we have started equating, no doubt influenced by clash of civilizations thinking, muslims with terrorists in many parts of the world. But that thinking is obviously flawed, as it is indeed hard to find a pure civilization. One wonders how the euphoria about globalization and belief in such civilizational boundaries can sit side by side in popular imagination; but that 'us and them' thinking also narrows our perspective and limits our own choice of identities. So, by that thinking, it seems logical to reduce, for some people, being an Western Man [or woman] and lay an automatic claim of being civilized: experience often suggest otherwise.

Therefore, all Muslims are not terrorists. Therefore, many of my Muslim friends felt upset watching the video, not because they thought that this was justified on ground of atrocities in Gaza, but because their human self, of being a son/daughter, parent and so on, took precedence. To tell the truth, when I watched the video, I could not resist tears: this is because I was thinking of my longing to see my own late mother, and the realization that no amount of effort can bring her back. Such moments make us feel human - in all our frailties and feelings - and so felt many friends, regardless of their religion and political allegiance, and nationality.

This is exactly why terrorists will not succeed. Each new recruit they inspire with the cause of Gaza, Kashmir and Iraq, thousands will be repelled by watching Moshe cry. This is also the central point of a book by Gilles Kepel [Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: The Future of Middle East] where his central thesis is that as George Bush failed in his strategy to bring change in Middle East through violent intervention, Osama Bin Laden failed too - in his strategy, yes, to bring change in the Middle East through violent means. Bush's ill fated intervention in Iraq helped recruit thousands of new terrorists and suicide bombers; but the violent jihad in Iraq repelled many decent, clear thinking Muslims all over the world. And, this is the point, in any political movement, throughout history, extremism never wins. Never wins long term. The basic decency in human nature always wins. All the time. This possibly proves Professor Sen's point: every man/woman represents multiple identities, but any extreme doctrine puts unnatural, and therefore unsustainable, stress on one.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Being Indian

Interestingly, while I felt intense pain about Mumbai and tried to write my private thoughts on this blog, I have been on the receiving end of some stinging criticism, some of it for what I have been writing, but most of it for who I am and what I do. That strain of criticism ranged from affectionate - 'you are a third party regardless' - to downright hostile, like this one from a friend [which I have edited a bit to make it impersonal]:

Do you really think that, people who are sitting in London,NY,LA and writing about Mumbai are true INDIANs? Well, you may argue that from the bottom of their heart they are Indian and it's their country. What a joke indeed . The gentleman who called them third party is absolutely correct.

These people who left this country, are still licking the feet of already snooty West for their due residency or citizenship are of course not true Indians. These people have no positive contribution to Indian welfare. Just don't tell me all of them are very bright and they are doing phenomenally well in West....don't tell me that all of them have to pursue their global career. A number of NRI's who are now making sound was not doing soooo..well here and left this country.They should not pass judgments now.

Yes, we Indians are corrupt, we take bribes, we are suffering from severe leadership problem, complete administrative failure is there, we have coordination problems, we are not united, this is not the proper time to declare war against Pakistan, we can't only blame the outsiders,we don't give value for lives.......everything is true.....but sitting in London and thinking only about India's crisis ........what say?

There indeed is a personal story here, but the feeling, I suppose, is widely shared: Indians living abroad do not have the right to lecture about what the country should or should not do, at times like this. Despite my personal situation - I am very much an NRI and stand accused - I can understand the pain, and agonize that I have done my bit to evoke this reaction [talked about all the evils that plague us everyday in India].

However, the point is that I did not even realize I am third party till I have been told I am a third party. With most of my family and friends in India, I never thought I am an NRI before being told I am indeed one. But the correspondent is indeed correct - my claim to the Indian identity is surely less than her. Or, is it?

We are back on to the original debate: what makes an Indian? Residency? That will make me British, and some of the mafia who abetted the crime more Indian than me. That can't be right. Bureaucratic definitions apart, is it okay to count out the Indian diaspora across the world and say that they have no right to feel the pain and say what they think can be done right?

While I was on the subject, I read the objections again, and discovered something else. That whole thought about 'doing well', which sits almost irrelevantly in the context of the argument, is actually the central point. That's the new definition of whose opinions are acceptable in India - those who are doing well. Who do not contribute means who do not contribute financially, and more than residency or birth, it is actually the income, the property and the visiting cards make the modern Indian.

This is unlike any other country though. I am not certain that an expat American would be treated the same way. Or, British, for that matter. Kipling famously said that wherever there is an English soldier buried, that little stretch of land is England. Or, the Japanese, or the Chinese - who thrive on their diaspora and built their global businesses on the basis of these connections.

In fact, so did Indians. Indian-Americans and other members of Indian diaspora surely helped spread the message of India. Many of them invested in India, but more so - many more opened the doors to travelling Indians, helping students, job seekers and family visitors to study, work and travel abroad. Many implanted parts of their culture and religion in other parts of the world, many times in the face of local resistance, and enthusiastically educated their foreign friends about the values Indian. I know many non-residents who watched TV as anxiously as anyone during this crisis in Mumbai, felt as angry and grieved as much. So, I am certain we are not very different from any other community/ race in the world. [I recalled a very poignant story in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies, where an expat Bangladeshi family watch Dhaka burn on TV.]

Except that doing well bit. Nirod C Chaudhuri, a brilliant commentator of the Indian diaspora, talked about how we endlessly keep talking about the successful members of our families and treat any discussion about the less successful ones with disdain and apathy. We are addicted to success, we worship it.

So, we have long denied people who are less successful than us the right to be 'equal' Indians. We have always frowned at failures, and were embarrassed by difficulty. We have excluded them from the rights and rituals of modern India, and built an who's-who society. Interestingly, terrorists knew that too - they knew that by walking into our poshest hotels, they will create the maximum impact. No amount of bombs around the city, which kills our less successful citizens, would have made us feel this desperate.

And, the solution is actually right there - building a more inclusive society. Caring about citizens, without considering whether he is someone or not. I watched this story on TV where a doctor, who was staying in the Taj and who actually looked after an wounded Taj employee during the seize was describing, how, after the wounded man was handed over to the rescue team, the hospital wanted to know what is the person's division/ rank in the hotel, as if the care will depend on the same. However, if we sat up when bombs were going off in our cities and pavement dwellers and scavengers were getting killed, we could have possibly repulsed the terrorists who stood victorious over dead bodies in the coveted Chamber inside the Taj Mahal hotel.

So, there I go, lecturing again, a less-than-successful NRI. But I know that when I am counted as an Indian like every other person in the country and in the diaspora, the country will stand stronger and prouder than today.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mumbai: Why are we getting it wrong again?

The usual and the expected have happened. India is cutting off air and rail links with Pakistan, and suspending the peace process effectively. Pakistan is threatening to shift 100,000 men to the borders with India, from the Afghan borders where they are currently stationed.

So, terrorists have won.

That's exactly what they came for, didn't they? They wanted International Media coverage and they got it. They wanted India and Pakistan face off each other yet again and release the pressure on Afghan border - they are going to get it. They wanted India to threaten Pakistan again, and millions of decent Pakistanis to feel threatened by India and betrayed by America - which is going to happen. They wanted to weaken the Pakistani state, which is going to happen. They will possibly even be successful, in the next few days, in triggering off a riot and undermine the Indian state even further.

This operation will be hailed as a great success in the annals of terrorism and many more operations like this will be planned now.

Someone was talking to me yesterday that Indians want IOP - India Occupied Pakistan. That is the extent of delusion that the novo-rich, confident Indian middle class lives with. In this day and age, you don't occupy another country. Much less a nuclear capable country. Much less a country like India, which has its own problems to solve, can afford it. I asked him whether he is ready to pay a 50% income tax to cover the costs of waging such a war. He said - India's problems lie with people like me, the NRIs, who do not understand the pain.

Yes, I am third party, but I understand the pain. I sat in front of TV sets for three days. I have lost a friend too, in this battle. I do think it is war - war on India, war on civilized behaviour. But I don't think that this can be stopped by grandstanding, politicking, by pointing fingers, by losing sense. The only way we can save ourselves, and our future generations, by being imaginative now.

Let me ask: what is the point in mobilizing armies on the Pakistan border? Who bears the cost? What will it achieve? Do we reasonably believe that we shall go into a war? Can we go into a war? Why do we have to show nuclear brinkmanship once again, proving to the world clearly that we are not responsible with our power and realistic about our ability?

I read the The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, and it tells you the story what will happen. Nothing. Pakistan will bleed financially at this time, and its people will be even more impoverished. Its civilian government will be even more discredited. And, then, either we shall see another military coup which will bring in an authoritarian regime, or, worse, we shall see a popular revolt, leading to anarchy and chaos, as we saw in the last days of the Musharraf regime. Does this help anyone? Would this make Indians in Mumbai feel secure? I doubt.

I strongly believe that Pakistan is a failed state, one that is completely outside the control of its government. True, the terrorists may have called Pakistan, but they surely did not call its Prime Minister. True, may be ISI is involved - but they will only get what they want if we resume hostilities now. Our only choice is a measured response, for once, and acceptance of the offer the Government of Pakistan has made on this one. India can now seek assistance from Scotland Yard and even the CIA, and the Israelis, because this was an international event. This may help us long term - even this may help us capture Dawood Ibrahim and make him walk the gallows - and secure our cities.

For me, I don't want to see troops mobilized on the border. I want to see more police on the streets, more investment in intelligence gathering, more efforts to curb corruption. I want to see Mafia being routed out of Mumbai. I want to see better maritime security. I want to see investments in urban schools and job creation, that helps people out of poverty and despair. More than anything, I want to see a leader who treats us as intelligent people and talks to us as one.

Bollywood learnt this lesson some time back. There used to be dumb formula movies, with same story, similar songs, because 'Indian public did not want anything else'. But once some directors started making movies outside the formula, with innovative story and sometimes, without a song, and those films became widely successful, the stereotype broke down. In fact, formula movies are out of fashion these days - Indian public has proved themselves to be intelligent and matured.

When would our politicians learn this?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai: The New War on Terror

Finally, we hope, the seize in Mumbai is over. 250 people, and counting, died, and more than 300 were injured, some critically. Two NSG commandos, fourteen police officers, scores of known faces among them. The entire city is recovering from shock and disbelief - the schools, colleges, offices were closed for two days, and now opening. The stock market opened yesterday, but the attendance was minimal, a rumour of firing nearby almost closed it down around mid-day. I would have said, the city is limping back to normalcy - but someone reminded me that the city will never be normal again.

Surely, questions will be asked and investigations will be launched. The government has to show that it is acting. The opposition will have to show that they know as much and are capable to govern, if power comes their way. Rhetoric will fly. Some issues will flare up; some issues will retreat from headlines. [One notable casualty of this crisis : Raj Thackaray and his MNS - we never felt more 'Indian' like now, and 'Maharastra for Maharastrians' will be out of fashion now] But, one thing is certain : India's war on terror has to start.

What is important at this stage is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The 'Blame Pakistan' strategy is past its sale-by date. The Indian politicians feel comfortable heaping blame on Pakistan, as if that absolves them of their responsibility of guarding us. If Pakistan is such a natural, believable threat, then we should have posted NSG on the Gateway of India. We knew hotels were targets when the Marriott in Pakistan was blown up. So, there is no comfort in thinking that if Pakistan is involved, the politicians are not at fault.

Now, Pakistan. Let's accept that it is a failed state. The government there controls the government offices, and possibly the army barracks, but not much else. They have no idea what's happening in the country. We may cajole them and get the ISI chief to fly to India [though he won't come] but this is all grandstanding - nothing of substance.

What we need is substantive action. We need imagination now, not the stale drama that plays out every time these things happen. The fact is that we have to build our own security, by stamping out our mafia [who would have helped such attacks logistically], by taking serious and continuous action against corruption in our society, and by raising citizen awareness and allowing citizen watch on terrorism. Sending troops to stand on the Pakistani border with guns blazing will not solve our problem; we have been there before and it did not solve anything.

I think India's security can not be guaranteed till we continue to live in the region of failed states. We always gloss over the fact that almost all our neighbours - Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Afghanistan - face significant challenges to their state. India can not succeed continuously and sustainably if the people in these states do not share the prosperity and hope. India has done little in the past: in fact, it has rather done its bit in destabilizing some of these countries. Like sending troops to the border, and making Pakistani government, however crooked, spend resources on keeping its troops mobilized, and therefore, its people poor.

Let's face it. We can not wipe out Pakistan from the face of the earth, whatever we say. That thinking is dated - those things don't happen anymore. Nuclear weapons are no solution - not just that Pakistan has them too, if we nuke Islamabad, Delhi is gone; if we nuke Karachi, we may as well stop bothering about Mumbai.

So, we have to live with it. And, if we want to be able to talk to a Prime Minister in Pakistan to solve our problems, we have to let that Prime Minister govern. We won't do ourselves a favour by undermining the government in Pakistan, though that's the easiest thing to do. Making demands like ISI chief come to Pakistan helps no one; the Government in Pakistan looks weak, and that helps another ambitious Army General to mount a coup someday.

What we can not do is to repeat Bush mistakes. Terrorism today isn't any more a State affair. Even if a section of ISI supported this attack, we will not be able to stop them by bombing Pakistan. This is a new, post-Bush war on terror, which has to be fought on three fronts: Internal Security, Citizen Partnership and Shared Prosperity.

Internal Security is possibly the easiest to talk about. We have heard a lot of talk of agency coordination. That has to happen. One has to realize that the Home Ministry is not exactly a retirement home, and someone with more dynamism and imagination than Shivraj Patil has to handle that. It is time, possibly, to create a Homeland Security ministry. While that will add to bureaucratic costs, we need to give real power to them. I repeat - corruption in our society is the biggest security risk, and this needs to be tackled. The Homeland security and the NSG also needs to take on the mafia; Chota Shakil and Arun Gawli run their empires miles away from the scenes of these terror attacks, and that can not be tolerated anymore.

Citizen participation is more important than just internal security measures, but this is possibly more difficult to do in India. Citizens in India are not valued as adults; the legacy of the state capitalism days perhaps. Again, a reference to what I have seen living in London: It is the citizens' awareness and their participation in the community that keeps it clean, safe and secure. Here, citizens' opinions are valued and their rights are sacrosanct. If they feel threatened, the police and their MPs may as well stand by them. I am tired of hearing the argument that there are so many people in India that we can't do this. That is dictatorial bullshit - democracies can not function if you think you have too many voters and therefore, can not listen to each of them. Citizens' participation could be our biggest shield against the acts of terror. We should start by valuing citizens' rights - not just their rights to life, but also to a secure environment, to work, to education, to fair process. The terror attacks of this week has possibly told the elite of the society that they are not as safe as they thought they are. They now need to understand their war on terror has to start with taking the man on street on their side, and building a defence mechanism together.

Third, and this should be our Foreign and Finance ministry's job: We must lift this region of failed states and build a region of Shared Prosperity. We must help Sri Lanka stamp out its terrorists. We must help the government in Nepal to bring prosperity to that poor country. We must help Bangladesh to build a stable democracy after the elections. We must look at Myanmar critically, and beyond our immediate needs of energy, and see whether we are siding with the right guys [most probably not: we got this wrong in Nepal earlier, and that did not help]. More than most, we must work with the government of Pakistan and help them secure themselves and their country.

At times like this, it is easy to lose reason to rage, and do something silly. The worst mistake we can commit will be to start a riot, victimising those same citizens of ours who we must get on our side if we have to build a secure country. The second worst mistake will be to start a political game with Pakistan - we get nothing out of that. I hear the rumour that the peace process with Pakistan may be suspended; that would possibly the worst mistake we can commit.

Terrorists, even if they came by boat from another country, can not harm us if we are resolute, strong and united. Our war on terror, therefore, must start at home. Terror can not be stamped out by waging war; it must be stamped out by giving a strong answer internally, at the grassroots level. Let our politicians not hijack this war one more time.

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