Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Budget ruminations

It’s Budget day and everyone around me is running for stories on tax benefits, fiscal challenges, duty restructuring et al. The entire office has the feel of something grave hanging in the air, like we have only so many hours before Armageddon and must prepare irrevocably for our fate, which is destined to burst like a bubble the moment the paper goes in for publication. The competition will pounce on us; reputations are at stake and everyone is hassled as to where they’ll stand at the end of it all. The features desk is straining to get movie moguls and art impresarios to quote on what they think of this year’s policy statement. But to no avail. In the midst of bytes and analyses, we all look like one infinite mass of high-strung flesh. I am looking at export figures and getting them tabulated and also at the back of my mind, thinking of the books that have to be reviewed. There are hours to go before this cycle finishes, since on Budget days, office works till midnight, but already, there seems a finality to the proceedings of the day. Indeed, an aura of expectant interest has already evaporated, for there is little meaning to derive from putting figures in their place. Perhaps, the effects of the announcements earlier in the day on various sectors is something that will, after all, excite interest.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Review: Vikram Sarabhai: A Life

The last twenty years have been a time of immense economic vitality for India, and the debate has now conclusively shifted to the movers and shakers of the corporate world. The Nandan Nilekanis and Azim Premjis of the world jostle for space in our brief attention spans. It is pertinent, then, to pause one moment and think about that idealistic post-independence generation, which first gave us many of the institutions we are now deservedly proud of. And who better to lead this remembrance with than the father of India’s space programme, Vikram Sarabhai?

Amrita Shah, a contributing editor at the Indian Express, begins her book by recalling an incident from her childhood that was to leave a deep impression on her. One winter morning in 1971, “I remember very clearly the arrival of the newspaper … and my mother’s audible gasp.

‘What happened?’ I asked, trying to get a peek at the headlines.

‘A great scientist died,’ she said, visibly moved.”

So began a deep fascination for a man who, for Shah, “came to occupy a fuzzy space in my head, an idea of a progressive and romantic figure”. This book is a tribute to her admiration....Read more

Monday, February 26, 2007

Review: In spite of the Gods

A country racing to meld modernism

On the cover of this book is the picture of a turbaned Rajasthani villager, his camel seated behind him, the vast expanse of the Thar desert filling the backdrop. What is fascinating in this otherwise ordinary image is the cell phone that the villager is merrily speaking into. In India today, this anomaly is a common sight: rickshaw pullers, vegetable vendors, mechanics, electricians, hawkers all sporting the latest mobile gadgetry. This was made possible due to a sharp fall in telecom rates, an event that has heralded the ongoing communication revolution in India. The desert villager is your first impression of a book that seeks to capture the many such contradictions besetting India. In any other country, such contradictions may be irreconcilable, but in India, they blend together, existing cheek-by-jowl, and it takes a photomontage such as the one in this book to make them "visible".

Edward Luce worked as the Financial Times' bureau chief in India for five years, and his book, for most parts, reads like a collection of his musings during that stay. The first chapter, "Global and Medieval", starts unremarkably, which given Luce's long stint as a scribe, is not expected. Thankfully, the tide is turned in "The Burra Sahibs" with an account of the Indian Administrative Services. Luce narrates, with evident zeal, the experiences of honest bureaucrats – an oxymoron in India today. V J Kurian and Sanjoy Dasgupta ought to be feted with the Bharat Ratna (India's highest civilian honor, bestowed by the Union government) for displaying the guts to stand up to endemic bureaucratic corruption.

Luce is at his weakest in criticising the Hindu nationalist movement that has swept this county over the past two decades. His bias presents itself vividly in his description of the Godhra incident of 2002, in which a train compartment packed to the brim with Hindus returning from Ayodhya was set afire by an unruly mob (comprising mainly Muslims) at the Godhra railway station in Gujarat. The incident occurred on February 27, 2002 and was the precursor to widespread rioting in Gujarat in which nearly a thousand died, a third of them innocent Muslims. Feb 27, Luce informs us via a footnote, is also the date of the Reichstag fire circa 1933, which sowed the seeds of Hitler's ascendancy. "History has a way of producing strange coincidences," he says. The comparison is facile, if not misleading, and one cannot help feel that Luce is fishing for material to arrive at a pre-meditated opinion. Such a clear stance of his leanings is apparent in other places too.

It is well known that Jawaharlal Nehru adopted the Westminster model of democracy for India, and Luce breaks no new ground in revisiting it. Nehru is portrayed as a saint, not as a man whose privileged background colored his perception and came in the way of devising practical strategies to tackle the impoverished reality of post-Independence India. I find untenable Luce's contention that despite rampant poverty and illiteracy, democracy survives in India because of pluralism. In my view, Indian democracy sustains itself on the Hindu's deep-rooted fatalism, which translates into a certain indifference towards life and one's surroundings, in general. This may arguably have to do with the Bhagwad Gita's central message: One shall not anticipate the fruits of one's actions.

Where Luce's book picks up is in regaling readers with interesting and often dumbfounding Chinese whispers. Can it really be that some Congress party members called their leader Sonia Gandhi "an uneducated Italian housewife" in Luce's presence? Luce adds that these two went on to become Cabinet ministers in the government that was instituted in 2004. It's too delicious a piece of gossip to not know.

The writing on certain states' skewed gender ratio is engaging. So is the impassioned cry against child labor. And Luce tickles the humor bone ever so often. Taking a dig at Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan's omnipresence in television commercials, he remarks, "Wherever you are in India, the chances are that if you close your eyes and throw a dart it will land on a billboard or bus siding bearing Bachchan's distinguished grey-bearded visage." Also look out for a well-articulated caricature of Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh, who comes across as a character straight out of a Dickens novel – megalomaniac messiah of impoverished lower castes.

The problem with the book is that it tries to compress lofty issues into 40 odd pages each. It's not that Luce hasn't done his homework, but he's done only that. Even as the reader waits for him to move from narration to analysis, the book wraps up as little more than the diary entries of an inquisitive reporter.

And yes, dear Andre, if you are reading this, your observation that in India, one need not go looking for a house, a job and a 'life' is wholly unfounded. India, I am happy to inform you, is hardly the spiritual centre of the world, as you claim it is, nor does it possess the moral compass to guide the human race. India is a mish-mash of diverse communities, which are racing against time to claim their place in the sun amidst all the bustle. What this country can offer you is a model in "functional anarchy", not spiritual enlightenment.

Luce just might agree.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A conversation with oneself

I did it again. I spoke to myself over the phone. I seem to be doing everything possible to kill time. I spoke such great things to myself on the phone: I seem to become this other person who is actually talking to someone else and answering questions and giving replies. There is such a sense of possibility then, especially if someone’s watching, in being the centre of attention. I talked about a whole lot of things. Primarily, this sense that hovers above my head of something gravely meaningful when I am done with flowing the stories, the page has been made, the papers in the library read, when I am done with all of that, I sit at my desk, and wishing to not break the chain of thought that has kept me occupied, I go in search of meaning on the Web, and then, when Arts and Letters and Books Inq and googling my name and patrakaar2b and IMDb have had their fill, it’s a shock: it’s a shock to realise that me, the person, who looks for things privy in all places, who thinks of himself as arriving in all glory to the centre of things, things known only to himself — this person suddenly awaiting stimulation, with a sense of such dread, because the other side, after this sense of possibility is killed, after all that has been read and there is no more, is filled to the brim with frustration and ill will. It is a very scary thought to not know what will happen when you are done stimulating your mind, how this person, who ought to read books — ten thousand of them, watch movies — one hundred thousand, one after the other— who has such terrific notions of beauty to imbibe, to spread — feels the dread that comes with knowing that there is nothing more to do right now—in the confines of the work environment, which mandates doing work stuff— to know that in these confines, one can only do so much, one can only indulge so much, from reading reviews of books on Renaissance Art to blogs on underrated books — all of this knowledge one sided, without outlet. How does one gather so much without communicating it with another? How can one then not become one and the other— both simultaneously, so that this burst of passionate energy will find a vent — an outlet that will release the stanched flow? And then the call comes — the call for work, the order to return oneself to this other world, not necessarily of drudgery but another kind of involvement in which one must lose oneself to even begin to operate..quite different, if I may add, jostling for attention, a sort of perfection too, but the nervous kind, that which prevents you from failing but too much of it disappoints if not accompanied by a cult of perfection since one must be perfect in everything...imbibing everything..all of it..and this call necessarily means that one must hold oneself until one is free again, and so on and so forth. For everything must be finished in time...it should all meld together in one infinite chain of perfectible tasks. Until the day ends and one has had such a roller-coaster ride of expectation followed by practicality followed by more expectation that one wonders if knowing everything, understanding everything is possible. And what if it’s not; it’s just another day and you are drenched out!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A tale of two countries

In continuance of my earlier post, here is a perceptive article by Sevanti Ninan in today's Hindu, that speaks about the declining status of newspapers in the US, with special reference to the Philadelphia Inquirer, whose management dropped 71 employees in January. It would be pertinent to mention here that unlike the US, India is witnessing a healthy boom in newspaper readership. The Hindustan Times group launched its business daily Mint recently, in association with the Wall Street Journal. The project is headed by Mr Raju Narisetti, an old Wall Street hand, who gave up its European edition to launch Mint. The Times group, in association with HT, has come out with an afternoon daily — Metro Now, that's aimed at the youth (dumb youth, if I may add, after going through the paper recently — draped as it is with celebrity scandals and gossip). Even the regional media market is going strong with healthy competition in Delhi alone among four major Hindi dailies. Analysts ascribe the boom to rising literacy levels that are bringing more and more Indians into the reading fold. Newspapers globally are known to benefit from this trend.

Ninan's piece is reproduced below:

Broadsheet story

SEVANTI NINAN

In the U.S., newspapers are becoming the dinosaurs of the media world.

Photo: AP

Losing ground: The Philadelphia Inquirer building.

IT feels more than a little strange to go from a country where new newspapers continue to enter the market to one where they are becoming the dinosaurs of the media world. Walk into a relative's home in Atlanta, and you discover that they don't take newspapers any more on weekdays. Ditto another relative in Maryland. Walk into a friend's home in New York and you find that they have stopped taking them altogether. Go around a graduate studies class in Philadelphia and ask how many read newspapers, and two out of 15 hands go up. True, the rest read headlines on the Net, but that still makes the bundle of paper at the doorstep a thing of the past. And a friend reports from the Columbia School of Journalism that in her class the number of grad students who said they read newspapers of the paper variety were zero. Even though they were available for free in the school. Imagine, she says hysterically, journalism students!

Changed circumstances

Which, of course, is doing something to newspaper establishments. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has had an illustrious past, a journalist waves at a long row of framed certificates on the wall and says "those are all the Pulitzers we don't win any more." The most recent one dates back to 1997. Last year the paper got new local owners, this year in January it sacked 71 people. Walk around its huge newsroom and you can spot the empty bays where journalists sat till a few weeks ago. Andy Maykuth, the journalist showing me around, was travelling to Afghanistan every year to report from there until a couple of years ago. He can still go to Afghanistan — if he can find a Philadelphia angle to the story.

The editor, Bill Marimow, reels off the reasons for the sorry state of affairs with the practised air of a man who has had to explain this quite often. There has been fragmentation of media. First TV took away advertising from newspapers, then it migrated to the Internet, now even podcasts are sponsored. Two, classified advertising has vanished with the advent of Net ventures like Craig's List. Sound familiar. Not so long ago, the editor of the Guardian in Britain was telling an audience in Delhi the same thing. Three, young Americans do not read newspapers. Period. Four, the cutbacks and reduced staff are making it very difficult to maintain quality. So readers are migrating to free newspapers and smaller suburban ones that have local news.

Whether it is The Boston Globe, or the Baltimore Sun or the St. Louis Post and Despatch in Missouri, the quality regional papers are suffering. And their journalists are paying for it with their jobs. The Globe announced the closure of three foreign bureaus last month in an effort to minimise the 19 job cuts in its newsroom that have been mandated by its parent company. If students in universities in any part of the country read newspapers, they are likely to be reading The New York Times which takes care to woo them with subscriptions which cost 50 per cent of the regular price for a home delivered copy. Both The Times and The Wall Street Journal are increasingly being read nationwide, while the latter has paying readers on the Net as well. NYT did its cost cutting earlier and is now investing heavily in its digital edition.

TV news suffers too

The picture is not rosy for TV news either. The young are scarcely watching it any more. They prefer YouTube or the satirical Daily News Show on Comedy Central. The average age for TV news audiences is about sixty years. Which explains why so much advertising on American TV news is for remedies for cholesterol, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. The Pew Research Foundation has a chart showing that the percentage of those reading newspapers dropped steadily every year in every age group between 1999 and 2005. But 69 per cent of those in the 65 plus age group are still reading newspapers whereas only 38 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds and 37 per cent of 24 to 34 year olds are. Vincent Price, a communications professor specialising in public opinion research, says that each new generation heading in consumes less news than the last one.

And in all this turmoil newspapers are changing hands. The big chains like Gannet and Knight Ridder are selling less profitable newspapers, sometimes to local owners, sometimes to over-seventy billionaires who believe newspapers are read because they are still reading them. Jack Welch, formerly of General Electric, is reportedly trying to buy The Boston Globe, and Rupert Murdoch is apparently eyeing Newsday in Long Island. The decline may be terminal but America's broadsheet story is not quite over yet.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

An evening to remember

Last night, we had the distinguished honour of hosting the books editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Cheryl Reed and her husband Greg, who is Senior Business correspondent at the Chicago Tribune, to dinner. It was a very pleasant meeting, interspersed with lengthy discussions on a series of issues, such as the state of the Indian media and how it compares with the scenario in the US. The traditional medium of news, be it print or television, is losing its position in the US. What was shocking to learn was that not only were papers folding up and TV news viewership dwindling, but also the supposed rise of the Internet was only theoretically so: Greg said there was no way to prove that the Net was gaining at the cost of other media, when the entire industry, as it were, was losing steam. Americans, in Greg and Cheryl’s view, are just not interested in news anymore. Video games, yes; news, no. 9/11 was supposed to have increased the ordinary American’s interest in the outside world, but paradoxically, it had the opposite effect. People just lost appetite for any news, since the most of it was anyway depressing. "Being happy," Cheryl said, "is a big concern in America. Even psychiatrists advise their patients to not read/watch news, in any format."

The meeting was an eye-opener in other ways, especially with regard to American attitudes. For instance, we (that includes my sis, mom and I) were told that since announcing her interest in running for presidency in 2008, Hillary Clinton has been photographed from close quarters by several newspapers, revealing, in the process, her wrinkles and acne — in other words, signs of impending old age — while Obama, on the other hand, is pictured on the beach, indulging in water sports and generally coming across as a "rockstar". How did any of this matter, we asked, in a presidential contest? Surely, people would be more interested in what these people thought on various issues rather than how they looked. No, not so, was the refrain. "Looks," said Cheryl, "matter a great deal in American society. A lot of people would vote on how well groomed the candidate is when appearing in public, and not really concern themselves with other issues." That said, she added that despite a general wave of antagonism for Bush owing to the mess in Iraq, ordinary Americans are not vocalising their criticism of the war, because they do not want to let down the soldiers who are fighting under very tough conditions in the Middle East. This is especially resonant today because a lot of people remember the shabby treatment doled out to the soldiers who returned from Vietnam three decades ago.

Another interesting discussion was on the state of the Indian print media. Cheryl said that she did not like the Indian journo’s propensity to bombard the reader with a lot of facts without informing why one should care for them. "Simplicity is largely lacking from the papers here," she said, "and for a common reader, a lot of the printed news may end up meaning nothing much." Greg said the Indian media’s priorities are quite misplaced — he derided the big-bang reporting on the Tata-Corus deal, saying such a news item would only merit a tiny paragraph in an American paper. Why blow up issues that do not concern the common man at an immediate level? He said reporting on racism — as in the recent Shilpa Shetty row — makes sense since it affects ordinary lives, but a mega steel deal? He also agreed with Cheryl on the simplicity argument, saying Indian newspapers should look to the Wall Street Journal for inspiration. It’s the most widely read and respected paper abroad, yet very approachable too.

Also, in both Greg’s and Cheryl’s opinion, attending a journalism school is not quite the same as actually going out into the field and getting one’s hands dirty in the thick of reporting. Greg said interning with a newspaper was far better education than spending two years in a J-school to learn the ropes which you apply on the field only when you start working. So why not from the word go? That said, Cheryl conceded that literary journalism (since I evinced an interest in it) may call for some kind of grooming like the Arts programme offered by Indiana University.

Overall, it was a very fruitful discussion, helping us to clear quite a few cobwebs that had settled on our perceptions about the US. Greg and Cheryl too seemed to have had a good time. They loved the food and Greg particularly was amused at my mom’s solicitousness. Their extended Indian trip was an enjoyable one as well, including sojourns to Kerala and Rajasthan — easily the must-visit places on any tourist’s itinerary.