Tuesday, December 13, 2011

‘Big brother’ wants to watch!

“The government’s stand on the issue of ‘freedom of expression’ may be termed as ambivalent and dependent on political considerations from time to time. Thus while functionaries of the government joined the votaries of ‘free speech’ in defending M. F. Hussain’s ‘freedom of expression’ to paint Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude, the ruling party at the centre had no hesitation in forestalling the publication of “The Red Sari”, Spanish writer, Javier Moro's biography of Sonia Gandhi. Isn’t Sonia more sacred than Bharat Mata, Sarawati or Sita?”

Internet as an open democratic medium has earned the wrath of both the politicians and media persons for obvious reasons. If the politicians hated it because it does not respect their ‘more equal’ status, it has become bête noir for the media persons as it did away with their monopoly over dissemination of news. Now they not only have competition but the easily accessed, 24/7 medium subjected their conduct to relentless scrutiny.

'Big Brother' wants to watch!’, was first  published in The Hans India of December 12, 2011.

Kapil Sibal has certainly set the cat among the pigeons when he demanded executives of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to screen content posted on social networking sites. The Information Technology (Electronic Service Delivery) Rules, 2011, the government notified earlier this year in April, are considered to be the most stringent compared to those in any democratic country. The rules require ‘the intermediaries’ (like Facebook, Google, Orkut etc) that provide a platform to users to post comments and create their own content to remove ‘offensive’ content based on an e-mailed complaint from an aggrieved person.

The immediate provocation for Kapil Sibal’s demand appears to be a cartoon posted on Facebook lampooning Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. Sibal termed it ‘unacceptable.’ In a party that lays great store by loyalty to ‘the’ family, Kapil Sibal, as Information Technology Minister cannot be seen to be deficient. In addition to loyalty Sibal has another reason to be chagrined with the internet, especially the role played by Facebook and Twitter in bringing the government to heel in the recent Indians Against Corruption (IAC) movement.

The government’s stand on the issue of ‘freedom of expression’ may be termed as ambivalent and dependent on political considerations from time to time. Thus while functionaries of the government joined the votaries of ‘free speech’ in defending M. F. Hussain’s ‘freedom of expression’ to paint Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude, the ruling party at the centre had no hesitation in forestalling the publication of The Red Sari”, Spanish writer Javier Moro's biography of Sonia Gandhi. Isn’t Sonia more sacred than Bharat Mata, Sarawati or Sita?

Indian politicians, who strongly believe in the dictum ‘some animals are more equal than others’, have rarely taken kindly to criticism. They certainly could do with eulogy, thank you. Like Kapil Sibal in 2011, in 1987, M. G. Ramachandran’s government wanted to teach a lesson to irreverent journalists. S. M. Balasubramanian the editor of ‘Ananda Vikatan’ was summoned by the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly on April 4, 1987 to tender an apology for a cartoon the magazine published in its issue dated March 29, 1987. The Editor refused to do so because he was not given an opportunity to explain his stand in the matter. The assembly passed a motion by voice vote to award three months rigorous imprisonment to Balasubramanian. The sentence elicited strong reactions from the press and other quarters. Known for hunting with the hound and running with the hare, the Congress party played a curious role in the affair. After supporting the motion in the state assembly, its Home Minister at the centre, P. Chidambaram wished to defuse the crisis by offering an apology to the assembly - on behalf of Balasubramanian! The issue was resolved after M. G. Ramachandran appealed to the assembly to rescind the sentence. Balasubramanian was released after spending two nights in prison.

A similar drama was enacted in Andhra Pradesh during the reign of N. T. Rama Rao as Chief Minister. In 1985 the state legislative Council summoned Ramoji Rao, Editor of ‘Eenaadu’ over the caption of an editorial the paper published criticizing a ruckus in the Council. Ramoji Rao approached the Supreme Court for redress and the issue would have blown into a legislature-judiciary spat. N. T. Rama Rao, already unhappy with the Council’s intransigence over legislative business, resolved the crisis by abolishing the Council.

Internet as an open democratic medium has earned the wrath of both the politicians and media persons for obvious reasons. If the politicians hated it because it does not respect their ‘more equal’ status, it has become bete noir for the media persons as it did away with their monopoly over dissemination of news. Now they not only have competition but the easily accessed, 24/7 medium subjected their conduct to relentless scrutiny.

Much as Kapil Sibal and his government would wish to govern the internet to ensure ordinary folk show due respect to the politicians at all times, it is easier said than done. There are an estimated 100 million netizens in India. We are the third most populous netizen country in the world after China and the US. But how does the Indian government police content posted outside India? If every article, cartoon, video and comment posted on the internet had to be screened and cleared before publishing, the process would simply crash the system. 

Secondly, regulating information flow had never worked. The erstwhile Soviet Union did It for 70 years deluding itself that the ‘worker’s paradise’ was really popular with the masses. Nearer home, though Indira Gandhi bowed to international pressure and ended the infamous emergency in 1977, she called for elections with the smug satisfaction that her regime was popular, which was the impression fed to her by her own propaganda machinery. For it was she who disbanded four private news agencies and created her hand-maiden Samachar!

TAIL PIECE: There are many ‘iron curtain’ jokes but this one on the popularity of Russia’s mouth piece PRAVDA, though seemingly apocryphal, has a tell-tale lesson for the Kapil Sibal’s of this world: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a citizen of Moscow went to his favourite coffee shop and asked a waiter to bring him a cup of the brew and the day’s PRAVDA. The waiter politely informed him, ‘Sir, I will bring you your coffee, but I am afraid I can’t bring PRAVDA because it was closed down.’ 

As the waiter deposited his coffee cup, the man asked him again to bring the day’s PRAVDA. The waiter politely replied again that the PRAVDA was closed down. However the man continued to ask for PRAVDA every five minutes. Finally, the exasperated waiter lost his cool and shouted, ‘How many times do I have to tell you Sir that PRAVDA was closed down?’ The man replied with obvious relish, ‘I want to hear it again and again and again!’ 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Memoirs of a man of letters!

This tongue-in-cheek take on  ‘memoirs’ appeared in The Hans India on November 25, 2011.
‘Guruji, I need your help’, gushed a breathless Subbu. He has this habit of barging in on me with news of ‘earth-shaking events’ or ‘momentous’ requests.  Subbu is a decent sort of chap, helpful to others and eager to learn but when he gets a ‘bee in his bonnet’ he is quite a bother. Considering his nature, it would perhaps be a little unkind to say he is exasperating at times.

‘What’s it?’ I asked politely, adding sotto voce, ‘this time’ with a silent sigh. ‘Guruji, I want to publish my memoirs’, said he eagerly. I understood. This is the season for publishing memoirs. Everyone who is anyone is up to publishing them. Some do this to get ‘it’ off their chest; some because they want to bitch on their colleagues and others with whom they want to settle scores. And some do it to make a quick buck by cashing in on salacious tidbits they are privy to, before signing off. But Subbu? I couldn’t imagine the editors of Penguin, Harper-Collins or other publishing houses queuing up before Subbu’s residence to buy off his memoirs. ‘Why do you want to publish your memoirs?’ I asked politely hoping that I might be able to dissuade him. ‘I have so many memorable events in my life, which I want to share with the world.’ Of course, everyone thinks so. Only the cynics call it human weakness or vanity .

‘OK’, I said, ‘let’s begin with your childhood’. Why does everyone who writes a memoir include a chapter about childhood? “As a child, I and my friends used to play in the dusty and muddy by lanes of a small village in the outback of rural Bihar….I used to walk four miles every day to school….Our class teacher was a tyrant and he used to make us stand in the hot sun all day as a punishment.” This will help the reader understand, (a) the writer was a poor boy; (b) his heart is in the right place because he did not forget his humble beginnings and is not ashamed of speaking about them; and (c) he made it big in life although he came from a very humble beginning. 

Subbu said, ‘As a boy, I used to steal my father’s cigarettes to smoke with my friends.’ I forbore to say, show me any boy who didn't do it, for it would kill his enthusiasm. I told him, ‘we will make it cigars in the memoirs; but not the country variety. Havana or Cheroot would look classy.’ He considered it a moment, and then nodded.

‘What else did you do as a boy?’ I continued. He said, ‘I kissed Meena’. I exclaimed, ‘who’ but then added, ‘she would be old enough to be your grandmother’. ‘Oh no, I didn’t mean Meena Kumari. This girl was our neighbour in Tamil Nadu.’ ‘You couldn’t have done it’, I said, ‘because Meena is young enough to be your daughter now.’ ‘Guruji, you are mistaken’, Subbu said with a little impatience, ‘I was not referring to either the Hindi tragedienne or the Telugu movie queen; I was referring to a sweet little girl, my friend’s younger sister.’ Then his ‘kiss’ would not excite readers, sending their pulses racing. However, I did not want to dampen his enthusiasm, so I continued. ‘What made you do it?’ He said, ‘I saw my uncle, my father’s younger brother kissing our maid behind the haystack and thought I would do it too.’ Freud might be able to explain this impulse, or is it Jung? Anyway it was not up to me.

‘What next?’ I asked. ‘I would like to devote a chapter deriding the editor of…’ He named prominent English daily. Privately I was a little disappointed. I thought he would have more of the ‘kissing Meena’ stuff. There would be no queer men or naked women, which would go down well with readers and, more importantly, reviewers. For instance, no reviewer who reviewed the memoirs of a celebrity (I do not remember whose memoirs it was) left out this bit: “...and then she removed her clothes and lay completely naked before me on the carpet.” The reviewers did not tell us what happened afterwards.

‘What do you have against the editor?’ I asked.  Subbu nonchalantly replied, ‘He never published my letters. You know, I regularly write letters to the editors of various newspapers, mostly on topics of national importance.’ ‘But the editor of that newspaper doesn’t even get to see your letters’, I explained. ‘The letters are vetted by the junior most trainee sub-editor. He is directed to choose letters that broadly follow the paper’s editorial policy. His job is to correct spelling and grammar and slash the letters to make them concise. And yes, he gets to decide whether 'of' should follow 'Apropos' or not!'

Friday, November 11, 2011

The first three estates

“The first three estates” appeared in The Hans India, an English daily published from Hyderabad and other centres in its issue dated November 10, 2011.   

‘What are the first three estates?’ screamed the woman police officer in Tamil-accented Telugu, in a scene in a popular Telugu movie. For some inexplicable reason, the Telugu people seem to love it if their speech is disfigured. In movies, Telugu is often spoken by Tamil, Kannada, Marathi and north Indian actors in their own accents. ‘Accented speech’ is used as a comic relief in movies in other languages, but in Telugu movies it appears to be de rigeur. If one goes by the movies made of and for the ‘younger’ generation, Telugu is often spoken in them in anything but a Telugu accent. As Telugu movie script writers are not partial to any language they mutilate English too - and not just in pronunciation but also in meaning - in their ‘Telugu’ dialogues. Then there is this ‘Telugu’ television presenter who conducts interviews with film celebrities and politicians in English-accented Telugu. And why not? If English can be spoken with a Telugu accent, why not the other way round?

‘I don’t know madam’, mumbled the cowering television journalist. ‘The first three estates are legislature, executive and judiciary’, the police officer pompously informed the journalist in a spirit of imparting wisdom, sweetly addressing him as ‘scum’. What she ‘endearingly’ called him doesn’t translate well into English, nor is ‘very’ printable, but that was the gist of it. One might wonder whether in real life senior police officers treat television journalists with such contempt or whether general knowledge quizzes forms part of police interrogation. Does the scene reflect a dumbing down of values in the highly competitive movie industry? But these questions are beside the point.

There was a time when movie scripts were well researched for accuracy. Therefore they were generally devoid of factual errors. Now everyone works to tight schedules and tighter deadlines. This is the electronic age; the age of SMSes and e-mails, and the need for instant gratification in everything. If anyone bothers to ‘research’ at all, Google is the gospel and Wikipedia the Veda. There is of course nothing wrong in using the internet but only as a starting point. A factual error in a dialogue in a minor scene in a movie may not raise an eyebrow. But it certainly does if it is repeated by the editor of a national news magazine. The north Indian editor of an English magazine could not have picked it up from a Telugu movie. But he made the same error in a last page editorial. Watch out, for there may be many more such pearls of wisdom in his much publicised memoirs slated to be released this month. In another last page editorial he referred to P. V. Narasimha Rao’s autobiographical novel, ‘The Insider’ as ‘The Outsider’. Deadlines, bloody deadlines! It is precisely for this reason, nowadays many newspapers run a ‘Corrections’ column.

All this confusion about the first three estates arose because of the use of the expression, ‘the fourth estate’. In the movie scene described earlier, the television journalist whimpers that he is from the ‘fourth estate’ adding helpfully as we Indians do when groping for words, ‘you know’. The officer would have none of it. She had time only to imparting wisdom and mouthing obscenities. 

The coinage of the phrase ‘the fourth estate’ is attributed to Edmund Burke. In his book, ‘On Heroes and Hero Worship’ (1841) Thomas Carlyle says, Burke used it for the first time in a speech in the British House of Commons in 1787. Burke’s speech marks a very important occasion, that of opening parliamentary proceedings to the press.  Looking up at the press gallery he said, “There are three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” The three estates Burke referred to were the Lords Spiritual (the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords), the Lords Temporal (the secular members of the House of Lords) and the House of Commons. There is some dispute however to the quote attributed to Burke but the definitions of the first three estates were well established. In any case the phrase ‘the fourth estate’ connotes that the press is the fourth pillar of democracy, whose function is to provide checks and balances to the parliament and the executive. The first amendment to the US constitution specifically prohibits making any law that infringes on the freedom of the press. In India every time our rulers feel insecure – because of some expose or other - the first thing they look askance is at freedom of the press. They seek to weaken the fourth pillar!

The expression ‘fourth pillar’ might have led to the misconception that the other three pillars nay estates were the legislature, executive and judiciary. Then there is a fifth estate with various meanings attributed to it but generally refers to a class that is none of the four estates. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Between black and white...!

The article ‘Between black and white...!’ appeared in The Hans India, Hyderabad on October 26, 2011.

To those who are familiar with the ways of working class women in the north coastal Andhra districts, it is no surprise to see them carrying their cash, notes and coins in a small cloth bag tucked into the sari at the waist. The small bag that can be closed with a draw string, tucked into the waist is safer than a man’s pocket. Also to those familiar with the area it is no surprise to see cigars smoked with the burning end held in the mouth. Perhaps the nicotine intake provides the necessary physiological relaxation from back-breaking manual labour under a blazing sun but nobody could ever explain how the weird habit of smoking with the burning end in the mouth came about. Both men and women indulge in this rather bizarre habit that is cause for statistically significant incidence of oral cancer in the region.

However I was pleasantly surprised to see a woman take out a mobile phone and a battery charger from her receptacle at the waist and seek a socket to plug it in. She was the maistree for women manual labour. She has on call a number of women workers. They assist masons in construction work by carrying in bricks and cement mortar and carrying out debris in large metal basins as a head load. This was in 2008 when I spent a couple of months back home for renovating our ancestral home. The masons and the coolies commenced their work between 9 & 10 AM and broke for lunch at 1 PM. The men went to the terrace for a smoke and a snooze and the women retired to the hall. Unbidden, they switched on the ceiling fan and lied down for a brief rest. It appears they have fans and colour televisions at home and on the days they didn’t work, watched the telly, especially the ‘serials’.

But according to the mason-contractor (having graduated from mason to contractor he didn’t do manual work any more!) who engaged them there were no days when they didn’t work. During summer they were busy in construction work. In early monsoon, they worked as farm labour. And there was construction work again between the monsoons. He said thanks to the rural employment guarantee scheme nowadays it was difficult to engage them.

Rajiv Gandhi had the candour (or naiveté) in his early days as a professional politico to confess that of every rupee the government spent only eighteen paise reached the intended beneficiaries. That his acolyte Mani Shankar Aiyar – who is never tired of singing Rajiv carols - put a new spin on the economics of poverty alleviation in a recent television debate is another matter. According to Mani, who can spin words as well as the next man the eighty-two paise which fall through the cracks in the system were actually ‘administrative’ expenses. You can’t beat Mani in ‘spin’. He loves the sound of his voice, can pontificate in a phoney Oxbridge accent and make the most inane utterance sound ‘intellectual’ as if to say, ‘I’m Sir Oracle; let no dog bark when I speak!’ He quotes Marx and Engels and many others with unpronounceable names to make a point that India would be better off without computers and blue jeans. For him it would be best if the stock markets were closed as they were the play-fields of only the super rich; that Pakistan is really a ‘saint’ state and an ally.     

The rural employment guarantee scheme may be full of chinks and the system might be leaking like a sieve making many middle men rich but their hard work did enable the working class women (and their men) to watch colour television and loll under a ceiling fan on a hot day. These people may not have been aware of a gentleman called Pramod Mahajan whose tenure as telecom minister made it possible for the woman maistree to carry her cellular phone (and charger). They may not also be aware of a gentleman called A. Raja who milked the same telecom for his ‘social justice’ projects. He is a part of the society, isn’t he? What’s wrong if he did some ‘social justice’ for himself?  It is true, not all of us were aware of the enormity of A. Raja’s ‘social justice’ projects, back then.

But then this is the third India between the India of the rich and the ‘other’ India that is the darling of the prophets of doom, the ‘raison d’ etre’ of our bleeding heart liberals. Between the black India that can stow away cash on the black in those famed Swiss banks and the white or the ‘other’ India that sets hearts racing to bleed there are a myriad shades of grey. 

Thursday, August 04, 2011

‘Chanakya’s Chant’ – An intelligent man’s guide to governance and foreign policy!

Had Chānakya been a Western philosopher (like Plato or Aristotle), history probably would have treated him with much more respect. His Arthaśāstra is easily the Earth's first treatise on statecraft, which dealt with economy and governance, foreign policy and war strategy. Indian history, written first by the aliens and then by the left-liberal crowd, with its obsession with a nebulous ‘composite culture’, has not done justice to the great political-philosopher. Westerners, in their ineffable arrogance, used to refer to Chānakya as the Indian Machiavelli although the former preceded him by about two millennia.

Writing a novel steeped in history is no easy task, because the author has to balance historical accuracy with an engaging plot. Ashwin Sanghi's Chānakya's Chant is a fascinating saga of two Chānakyas, the original political-philosopher of the fourth century BCE and his modern incarnation, Gangäsagar Mishra. As the story swings to and fro with a gap of 2300 years, the reader is gripped by its enthralling narrative, delicious irony and accurate rendering of Indian idiom into English, without losing the flavour of either, which is no mean task. The novel is characterized by meticulous research, great felicity of expression and suave story-telling. 

The story of the original Chānakya runs parallel to the known history of the political philosopher with subtle adlibbing to make it an interesting read. As Chānakya fulfills his vow to banish Dhanananda and coronate Chandragupta, he meets his childhood love, Suvasini after prolonged separation but sacrifices his love for the sake of Bharat, which he strove hard to build. For the great political philosopher it was country before self. In return he earns her wrath and curse. She however offers him a means of redemption that was to come several thousands of years later. It ordains that a man should meditate upon a mantra Suvasini cites, and ‘use it to advance a woman’. Two thousand three hundred years later Chānakya’s modern incarnation Gangäsagar Mishra, a professor of history, chances upon the mantra (Chānakya’s Chant) in the form of an inscription on a granite block. 

Gangäsagar enthrones his protégé, Chandini Gupta, the daughter of a poor pan vendor as the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy by clever manoeuvring. The novel begins with Chandini’s swearing in as the Prime Minster of India, watched on television by her terminally ill mentor from a hospital bed. The rest of the story was told as a flash back. It lays bare every nuance of contemporary politics: caste, gender and religion and of course the Indian brand of secularism. Careers were made and broken; reputations made and willfully sullied. Human life is worth nothing if it does not suit someone’s political ascendance and no strategy too mean. Favours were granted and called; honey-traps laid to bring enemies into submission and hemlock flowed to eliminate them. If a fellow politician were to be sacrificed to swing public sympathy and electoral gain, well, it was worth doing it. There is a hijacked plane, engineered riots and stage-managed shootouts. There is the nexus between industrialists and politicians. Industrialists were used to bankroll elections and the recalcitrant ones were brought into submission with the aid of pliant trade unions and law enforcement agencies. Secret service personnel were used for political ends. Honest journalists were trapped and manipulated to perform sting operations on political enemies. And there is even mention of land allotment to SEZs and the telecom scam.  The rumour about a former prime minister’s illegitimate child, sensationalized by his political secretary in a tell-all book about palace intrigues and amorous exploits, was used with thin disguise.

India did pay a great tribute to the author of Arthaśāstra by naming the diplomatic enclave in Delhi ‘Chānakyapuri’, but, how one wishes India had a foreign policy mandarin of the calibre of Chānakya or his modern incarnation, Gangäsagar! While Chandini as the suave foreign minister wows her own party and opposition members on the floor of parliament, her mentor pulls ‘RAW’ strings to play China against Pakistan by having the Chinese arrest a Pakistani spy who was ‘about to foment trouble in China’s Uyghur minority province’. It is certainly feasible, for Xinxiang is China’s ‘Achilles’ heel’ and Pakistan is the world’s crucible and exporter of Jihadi terror. Another stratagem pulled off by the wily Gangäsagar was to have adopted Russian designs for gas centrifuges (presumably for nuclear reactors) sold to North Korea and Libya, both pariahs for the US, making them believe they were actually buying them from Pakistan. If only India could pull off such a stratagem to sow dissension between Pakistan and the US!

Contrast these coups with Jawaharlal Nehru’s starry-eyed idealism in being obsessed with NAM (a body comprising of tin-pot dictators and banana republics) or I. K. Gujral’s idiocy in giving away India’s ‘intelligence assets’ to Pakistan. It takes years for intelligence agencies to place and cultivate assets in the higher echelons of an enemy nation, not to speak of great personal risks its officers take.

Sanghi’s otherwise meticulous research was marred by a few factual errors. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar used to send eighty five and fifty four representatives respectively to parliament (p.392), but before these states were bifurcated in 2001. After the creation of UttaraKhand (5) and Jharkhand (14) the number of constituencies in UP and Bihar were reduced to 80 and 40 respectively. Similarly, in the Indian constitution, there is no provision for President’s rule at the centre (p. 404). However, this error was corrected two pages later with reference to a caretaker prime minister’.

Sanghi did not bother to please the left-lib crowd by highlighting filth, poverty and squalor. Nor did he use 'adultery, incest and masturbation' to make it to a Booker's list, although the novel is not devoid of sex. There is just a modicum of it, natural and otherwise, that is germane to the story and no more. But is it necessary for India's woman prime minister to have a fling with her male British counterpart?

Chānakya's Chant is the story of contemporary India told boldly with sardonic humour. And for once, the blurb about the book being ‘cracker of a page-turner’ is true! As the story winds down to a stunning dénouement it makes readers hold their breath.

Chānakya's Chant. Ashwin Sanghi. 2010. Westland. Chennai. Pages x + 448. Price Rs 195

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