Sunday, November 29, 2009

Freedom in China & Nilekani’s IUD

“When the Chinese get freedom, this depression will end,” my great-uncle Hosappan paused with a dramatic sigh, shifted the home-rolled beedi from the left to the right molars after relighting it with his ancient Zippo lighter, and continued, “and that’s why Obama met the college kids in China and told them that information should be freely available. Which information? Whose? Glasnost. Perestroika.” He chuckled and refused to say more on the topic – every story has to stop before the end, that being his ambiguous motto.

Till the Cuban missile crisis, everyone in my village used to call him “Fibbu” for some now-forgotten reason though his name was Jose (pronounced with a J). Around the end of October 1962, he told everyone that he should henceforth be called Jose (pronounced as Hosay). Decades back, he baptized me by whispering roughly in my ear “Call me Hosappan." He seemed a nonagenarian then and still does – bald head, clean shaven, strangely black hair sticking out of his ears and nostrils, thick mat of white hair on his chest, wizened face with deep-set unblinking dark brown eyes peering through bushy black eyebrows. In my worst nightmares, I see him as the Grim Reaper.

He was a communist then – in 1962. Two shelves on the left side of his library store his collection of those days. When I was a kid, I borrowed two books from that side: the first called “Relativity and dialectical materialism” (mistaking dialectic and dielectric) and the second, a censored version of “The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer” sent to him as a wedding gift by a Jana of Brno, signed and sealed by a Party member (which I assumed then to be a sign of authenticity). It was much later that I discovered the I-love-you scene with Becky Thatcher in an uncensored copy of the book. Though Hosappan might still not know about that scene, I doubt whether that stunted his love life in any way.

He converted to capitalism in 1973 – before his second marriage. It was after he saw Godfather, some claim. The postmaster of that time confided in many that it was after the twelfth letter (without reply) to a Jana of Brno. All I know for sure is that his second wife was a spendthrift. He changed his wife once more but remained a capitalist.

During my last visit, he expressed to me his displeasure with Nandan Nilekani with hot-blooded capitalist fervour “Social security. Healthcare. My arse. It’s going to be like during the Emergency if not as in concentration camps. All names will be deleted and instead, everyone will get a unique number. It has something to do with contraception – man or woman, everyone will get an IUD.”

Saturday, November 28, 2009

From Developing To Developed Without Being Nouveau Riche

Hans Rosling says that income per person in India and China will overtake that of the US and the UK by July 2048. Headlines in the print media never include error bars associated with data points even though Rosling himself hints at probable sources of error, for example, read the interview in the Economic Times. But, the common man on the street knows that Rosling must be right. Give or take a few rupees, onions at Rs 35/kg, jeera rice at Rs 50/kg, a sovereign of gold at Rs 14000, a cent of land in a Tier II/III city at Rs 1000000, a 25-year old with a half-baked degree earning enough to stay in a 1 bedroom flat and keep 4 servants (to wash the car, to clean, to cook, to walk the dog or the baby). In most Indian cities, if you talk about the great divide, the reply is “It trickles down” and you hope that it trickles fast fearing the birth of urban Naxalites. At least 100 years after independence, we should become developed, right?

We have nearly 40 years and there is plenty to do – for us and the government. The list is long and it is quite meaningless and too tiring to be complete here. As far as the government is concerned, they should first stop devaluing the education system. It is the most important infrastructure project and to stretch the metaphor, relying on quantity rather than quality is like building a bridge without concrete. Secondly, the government should listen to people like Enrique Penalosa (the former mayor of Bogota – read this article from the Hindu in which he says “Footpaths make all the difference”). Some time before we are developed, we will learn to walk, we will stop wanting to be a manager and we will take a degree to be educated on a subject we love.

Before we are developed, there are a few things we can do to be prepared. First, consider the case of Rahul (name changed). He was a VP in an investment bank in the US (graduate from IIT, postgraduate from an Ivy league school in the US). He faced a slump in his career out there and was given an opportunity to relocate to the Indian office and build a group or leave the firm. He made the obvious choice to be the successful “expat” in India. Within a year or so, he had nearly a dozen or more IIT graduates working for him and he was on the “fast-track”. He came and went in a posh sedan, with a driver who carried his bag from the entrance of the office to the car in true British Raj fashion. Back in the US, he must have used public transport along with his boss and probably his boss’ boss. Sure, there are snooty people out there but they are usually pea-brained or super-rich and mentally challenged. With more and more people becoming crorepatis (I am still a few zeros away from that and do correct me if that is a low denomination these days), it is important to avoid the problems of the nouveau riche (NV). In the old days, the NV were sent to prep schools to be educated on how to pretend to be born with blue blood. These days, the NV should learn from people like Obama (he might bow low to the Emperor of Japan but none, with sense, will doubt that it is due to low self-esteem). The lesson seems to be: try not to be nouveau riche.

Secondly, we should be ready for the pains associated with the developed world and the list includes higher rates of suicide, divorce; fierce competition in a meritocratic society; and, a view of being either a success story or a loser. Here, I would like to recommend a TED talk by Alain de Botton on a kinder gentler philosophy of success. He stresses that we should always allow for the haphazard in our lives – random events that could make or break us (hopefully, just for a while). For example, on Monday, if the Dubai debt crisis triggers the next wave of defaults and a black swan waddles into our life saying “I am back.”

Friday, November 27, 2009

It’s About Sex, Right?

When did she ask me that – fifteen years back? Or, is it twenty? A few days back, I saw a clip of the movie “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” which is based on the book by Milan Kundera. And yesterday, I picked up that book from a lending library. Probably that triggered this chain of thought.

I had given that book as a birthday present to her. Two years later, I gave her “Love In The Time Of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was when we met a few years later that she asked me the question “It’s about sex, right?”. I did not know how to reply. That year, I got her an omnibus edition of Daphne du Maurier’s novels. I did not know then that that would be my last gift to her.

The next time I heard that same question was nearly half a decade later, and from a friend from erstwhile Soviet bloc. A mutual colleague had given to her Philip Roth’s “Sabbath’s Theatre” which I had read around that time. And by sheer coincidence, we were reading the latest from John Irving “A Widow For One Year”. Must have been around 7:45 on a winter morning, temperature well below freezing point, while we warmed our hands with a cup of hot coffee and before we got on with our work, and we were discussing the books we had read recently. And she asked me “It’s about sex, right?”. I did not know how to reply.

Even now, I wish I knew/know how to reply.