Saturday, April 24, 2010

IPL & An Encounter of a Special Kind

I am in India, doing my last business trip for my current employers. I am always very proud about the work I do, and hence, always wanted to be a good leaver: Leaving things in order as far as possible.

India, as usual, is always enjoyable, and compellingly different from my rather bland life in Britain. Here, I experience none of the solitude that, strangely, bores me these days. Here, it is almost the other world, full of people, ringing phones, friendly strangers, business contacts who become friends, people who know people who know people I know - a constant stream of events, noises and the feeling of being in the middle. Every time I come to India, I feel like staying back.

Interestingly, the current national obsession of India is the Indian Premier League, a football-like version of Cricket, packed with cheerleaders, glitz and glamour. Conveniently packed into 20-overs, 3-hour variety, along with a sprinkling of celebrity businessmen and actresses, IPL is a bold, and failed, attempt, aka English Premier League, to commercialize cricket. The matches happen on TV prime time, and teams are tied to major Indian cities - Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chandigarh, Hyderabad and Jaipur, with Pune and Kochi to be added soon.

To be honest, the branding of IPL has been picture perfect. It has drawn millions to Cricket fields, created fan followings and affiliations where there was none, and drawn cricketers from all over the world to come and play in India. Young Indians, and Indians are predominantly young, started following IPL more than the world cup of Cricket. As I arrived in Mumbai today, I have received three invitations tomorrow evening to watch the IPL final, where the Mumbai team will take on the Chennai team. Unfortunately, none of the invitations are to watch the match in the stadium, where the going rate for tickets have reached £300 apiece; my invitation is to watch the match, with a crowd of committed, no, fanatical, Mumbai fans to be sure, in local movie theatres, which have put their usual fares on hold for the occasion.

I am from Kolkata, but this would be safe for me. Like all Indians in my generation, I remain a huge fan of Sachin Tendulkar, who is a Mumbai icon and will captain the team. I have to avoid making any sympathetic noises for Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who comes from the Eastern city of Ranchi and is the Captain of India and improbably, Chennai. Plainly, I have to keep regional affiliations aside, and adjust to new city-based constructs that modern Indian glitterati have put together.

I am not trying to be critical of IPL. This is as American cricket can get, and as they say in Wall Street, is the way to go. Besides, this is only a logical path that a game like Cricket could follow from its genteel roots - to adjust to the fastness of modern life, to the 24x7 glamour that TV obviates and to create new identities and affiliations for millions of young Indians who, if their wish could be granted, would want their cities extracted from the old state-based identities and given independence. This is the way modern India is going to be, or so they say.

However, I am unable to avoid the controversies surrounding the tournament, which has taken over the news channels. All the elements of muck in modern Indian life is present here: Money laundering, match fixing, bribes, abuse of privileges [commercial flights diverted or cancelled on the orders of Minister's daughter], and scandals [with the king of scams, Sharad Pawar, arguably India's richest man, being involved]. There is a fall guy, Lalit Modi, but we have seen this before. India's is a leaking system, with corrupt guys right at the top, and therefore, we seem to have cycles of corruption - a flood of unaccounted money entering one sector or other, and stealing money from unsuspecting crowds: Remember Harshad Mehta, the great Computer Training scam with Wintech and Zap just before the dotcom bust, and now, this. The failure seems systemic, and comes with all the symptoms of the great Indian disease.

The great Indian disease, indeed, as exemplified by the undignified exit of Shashi Tharoor from the cabinet, alleged, extraordinarily, of securing an extraordinary payout for his friend, Dubai-based Sunanda Pushkar, who seemed to have a good deal-making career, but no other claim to fame other than her closeness to Mr Tharoor. I have been an admirer of Mr Tharoor's writings for a long time, wished improbably that he becomes the Secretary General of the United Nations, and was heartened by his inclusion in the Cabinet. I defended, going out of my way, his frequent faux pas with Twitter, blaming it instead on the Indian lack of understanding of English language and subtle humour. But, what an extraordinary lack of judgement from a man of Mr Tharoor's calibre: the fact that he even got involved in what appeared to be murky from the word go, and then allowed someone close [widely believed to be his girlfriend] to have a stake in a company which he 'mentored', shows that either power got better of Mr Tharoor's senses, or he was never exposed to such close scrutiny, possibly both. The Indianness of the disease is here: The powerful and the articulate almost seem to think that they can get away with anything, and Mr Tharoor, by being a cross between a tragic hero and foolish villain, appeared to be the poster boy of such arrogance.

If this is all too depressing, I do know India is more than these scams and sleaze. One way of looking at this is that India will tolerate this, survive this and go on as it is. The other is whatever you find in India, you will find the opposite. Inevitably: I found mine in Goa, where I was to make a sales pitch, for one last time, in a franchise conference of an up and coming IT training company. As I walked in to the conference late last evening, just in time to join them for their franchise awards and to get a pre-presentation sense of the people and the environment, I was forewarned. I found the music too loud, Bhangra movements completely beyond my abilities and the primary medium to be Hindi, a language I understand, but shamefully, can not speak. I also found myself a bit too cut-off, more comfortable making presentations to corporate audiences talking technology than a table-thumping crowd of small-town entrepreneurs.

Predictably, my presentation this morning was little understood, and I had to abandon my carefully prepared Powerpoint because they were a bit of out of context. I could elicit no reactions to my attempts of humour, and could not make up anything which could cheer the audience up. I dared not mention that I can't speak Hindi, nor I could try the language for the fear of unintentionally picking up a wrong word. Instead, I had to fall back on stories: My provincial roots, vernacular school, not being able to speak English until late in life, various cultural faux pas that I encountered and still continue to commit. But I had to abandon other stories I planned to tell, like how Korean Air fixed the problem of communication using English language, or that Zulus have 39 words for the colour green. I ended the presentation almost because I had to nothing else to say, taking a lonely question from one person in the audience who seemed to have been talking in English all the time anyway. However, what surprised me is the amount of clapping I got in the end, even from those who slept through the session, and the spontaneous warmth and hospitality from all thereafter. I did not think I made much sense, but someone consoled me saying that while what I said was not understood, they felt that I understood what their problems were.

The other maxim about India here: It surprises you all the time. I left humbled, my arrogance of being articulate in English completely washed clean, and shame of not being able to match my hosts in their generosity affirmed emphatically. If anything more was needed, I sat in admiration as the crowd discussed their numbers and committed their next year's numbers: a 100% growth, surely, was predicted with confidence. These young entrepreneurs, coming from small towns, uncorrupted by all the mega-metro illusions, who earn money not by backhanding but by honest efforts round the clock, untouched by the false sense of sophistication and identity-lessness that I carry around, had no time to worry about global recession. They expected none of the government patronage which, as I know well, keep many uncompetitive organizations going in countries like the UK; they were truly their own masters and completely comfortable with that.

My way back to Mumbai, I could not but feel my shame and my happiness together, my arrogance vapourized, but my frustration and doubts gone with it. IPL and the scandals did not seem to matter anymore. My special encounter with the confidence, dynamism and work ethic of small town India was sorely needed; not just to lift my spirit from three years of dead-end work, but also to believe again: However much the rich and the corrupt try to hijack the concept of India and turn it into a convoluted construct in their own shapelessness, the real India is only just getting ready to come to the party.

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