Thursday, October 30, 2008

Christian Science Monitor to go online-only

Read it here.

The model that they are proposing is an email Monday to Friday that delivers content on a PDF file (for a price, of course). And a weekly print magazine on high-gloss paper.

Sounds reasonable, and given that CSM is not your usual paper (it is subsidized by the Christian Science Church), the success or otherwise of this model will have lessons for mainstream newspapers.

Here and here are my reviews for CSM.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Inscrutable Indians

The Indian middle class is the subject of much introspection. If, as Dipankar Gupta says, it is a model of “mistaken modernity”, it is also the engine that drives the great Indian economic wagon. Journalist Alam Srinivas’s interest in studying the Indian middle class was piqued by its heterogeneous character. In fact, a good part of this book is devoted to outlining the varied subsets of this segment.

Srinivas starts with the rise of what he terms the Neo Middle Class (NMC), a class of conspicuous consumers that came into the spotlight after the opening up of the economy in the early 1990s. The NMC, says Srinivas, constitutes those who have directly benefited from the growth in sunrise sectors such as BPO, event management and IT & communication. New avenues have enabled a generation of youngsters to earn and spend much more than did earlier generations.

Further, Srinivas speaks about the Other Middle Class (OMC), “the outer and larger layer of the NMC nucleus”. The OMC isn’t a fixed entity, rather a Rorschach, a dispersed array of people that varies with the prism through which it is viewed. Viewed from an economic lens, the OMC will include bureaucrats, senior Indian railway officers, CEOs of large PSUs, and senior officers of the Indian military. Likewise, political and social perspectives yield different constituents of the OMC. To wit, the rise of Dalits in the hierarchy of political power has contributed to a burgeoning layer in the middle class.

Srinivas’s excursions into history are less enthusing. The rise of a middle class consciousness in India is attributed to the willingness of Brahmins to educate their progeny and join the Raj’s administrative framework. The rise of a Brahminical political consciousness — the Congress was accused in those days of being a Brahmin-dominated claque — is only cursorily dealt by Srinivas.

Post-Independence, Nehru’s stress on building institutions of academic excellence had the unlikely consequence of contributing to class consciousness. The IITs and IIMs launched a most powerful segment of the Indian middle class. The alumni of these elite institutes were able to command hitherto unheard of salaries, and thanks to reservation, economic well-being spread to the lower rungs of society as well.

Returning to the NMC, Srinivas divides the young into three distinct groups: Spenderati, Seenerati and Smootherati. Spenderati are unabashed spenders, reveling in the heady sensation that shopping gives (them). Seenerati like to be seen at “happening” joints — malls et al — not to spend but to build connections. Smootherati are the more conservative section of the young middle class, who traverse the middle ground between the Spenderati and the Seenerati. These tongue-twisters are Srinivas’s creation, and they do not leave the reader any wiser about spending patterns in today’s India.

Except perhaps when he delves into the economics of beer drinking in the capital, citing his own shift from the Press Club to go pub-hopping in search of groovy music and interesting company. He concedes that he is part of the curious metro crowd that likes to drink at home before going to the pub merely to socialise.

Srinivas comes close to building a cogent argument in tracing Bollywood’s portrayal of the changing habits of the Indian consumer. From the socialist self-denial of Manoj Bharat Kumar to the lush settings of marital discord in Karan Johar’s popcorn entertainment, Bollywood has closely followed the rise of the new India. Srinivas is an emphatic admirer of Dil Chahta Hai, Farhan Akhtar’s 2001 film that instituted an informal, urbane storytelling style.

In “Retail’s Short Tail”, the book’s fifth chapter, Srinivas compares the mall culture in the west to India’s, and points to major differences. Malls in the west took off after the postwar economic boom resulted in both parents working, so that the idea of a place where one could shop for everything was a blessing for time-pressed couples. In India, on the other hand, malls are an extension of the kirana stores, as pioneered by Kishore Biyani’s Big Bazaar format. People jostle with one another to get the best bargains — Indian malls can hardly be thought of as islands of prosperous calm in a sea of deprivation, which description they may be expected to fit.

An interesting account of the rise of the Indian middle class, The Indian Consumer’s most telling takeaway is the new-age motto, “I can spend, so I will.”

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This review appeared in Business Standard.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

'Wasted Vigil' puts spectator at tension's center

In his new novel, The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam, the writer of two previous novels, one of which, Maps for Lost Lovers, won the prestigious Kiriyama Prize, delves into the conflict-ridden reality of modern Afghanistan.

From the Soviet invasion of 1979 to the U.S. war effort in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Afghanistan has been a battleground of opposing ideologies for several decades now.

The story takes place in the house of Marcus Caldwell, a British doctor who has made Usha, a town near Jalalabad, his home since marrying an Afghan doctor. Both Qatrina, his wife, and Zameen, their daughter, have been lost to the tyranny of the Taliban, yet Marcus continues to live there like "a prophet in wreckage."

Over the course of the story, several people will visit his house: a Russian from St. Petersburg searching for her soldier brother, a young Islamic fundamentalist taking cover for a few days, a former CIA man much disillusioned with his role as spy, and others. Marcus is the benevolent patriarch who shelters them all under the intent gaze of a Buddha head that was discovered during the building of the house and the perfume factory adjacent to it.

Aslam's writing gradually unravels the histories of the cast of characters and takes us into a civilization that, even though we learn more and more about it with every passing day, is still inscrutable to the Western eye. The presence of a Buddha in Marcus' house, given the actual destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, is employed aptly by Aslam as a connecting thread.

A pragmatist, Aslam takes no sides in the fight between Islam and the West, even as he approaches a rigid stance against terrorism. The softly gleaming beauty of his prose is immediately reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje, and the moral clarity of his concerns heralds a brave new voice in the mold of Salman Rushdie.

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From St Petersburg Times.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Not your usual travel memoir

What the Daily Telegraph’s former Africa correspondent, Tim Butcher, set out to do in 2004 is something even the doughtiest will be loath to try. Enamoured by the legendary adventure of Henry Morton Stanley and buoyed by his mother’s pleasant experience as a young traveller in the Congo, he set out to retrace Stanley’s journey along the mighty Congo River.

Stanley also happened to be a Telegraph correspondent who, in 1874, had undertaken a rigorous trek along the Congo River, the first of its kind, which revealed to Europe the hidden treasures that lay buried in Africa’s heart. Butcher is of the arguable view that it was Stanley’s report of the richness of the Congo basin that inspired King Leopold of Belgium to launch his colonial designs in Africa, followed, of course, by other European powers.

All this provides sufficient ground to Butcher to contemplate a similar journey, not just for purely personal reasons, which he carefully enumerates, but also to document the sheer scale of change that has set in the Congo since the first colonialists arrived at its doorstep in the nineteenth century. Since gaining independence from the Belgians in 1964, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has witnessed relentless instability. After the Second Congo War (1998-2003), the country plunged into anarchy, with the Mai-Mai rebels unleashing looting, rioting, rape and random violence.

Nearly everyone, from UN aid officials to local administrators, discourage Butcher’s travel plans. The areas that the Mai-Mai are the most active in — Kindu and Kalemie — form a major part of his travel itinerary. Yet, in August 2004, Butcher books a flight from Johannesburg to the Congo, and writes his first will. His phantasmagoric journey, starting from Lake Tanganyika on the DRC’s eastern border with Tanzania, is aided and abetted by a diverse array of people — volunteer bikers, pygmy leaders, English missionaries and so on.

The Africa Butcher criss-crosses is one where past glories have given way to a hollowed-out reality. Countless villages on his route have no semblance of normal life. Once smooth roads are now potholed and uneven. There is no power, or intermittent bouts of it. No water supply, leaving locals to use the river for drinking, washing and sewage. Dysentery and malaria are widespread, and Butcher spends several nights in areas where the threat of epidemics is very real. Most days he wakes up feeling groggy and feverish. His anti-malaria pills make him nauseous, and he must ensure adequate supplies of boiled water are at hand.

Even so, health and hygiene aren’t the least of his concerns. Always on the move so as not to arouse suspicion, Butcher stretches himself to the extremity of endurance. He encounters Mai-Mai rebels and mass graves on his way, and begins to realise that he can easily be caught in the crossfire of rival factions. Once in Kindu, he is advised by a naval commander to discontinue his journey. Cdr Wilson explains to him that the rebel commander is angry about some of his men not receiving well-paid promotions, and is therefore, threatening to pull out of the peace process.

But Butcher, nudged forth by the almost hallucinatory thrust of his ambition, keeps moving. Somewhere in the backdrop of this fragile peace, he reaches the Congo River, a most unimpressive sighting:

“The moment came during another long day of motorbiking as we picked our way along a section of track not noticeably different from the 600 kilometers that went before. We simply turned the corner and there, unheralded, in front of me, lay one of the natural wonders of the world. The object of so much mystery for generations of outsiders, and the thing that had fired my imagination through years of research, oozed lazily downstream between two thickly forested banks almost a kilometer apart.”

Butcher’s high scholarship makes this a compelling read. He sprinkles his account with references to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and to cinematic adaptations of The African Queen. But through it all, the grimness of central Africa and its lost potential hang heavy. Butcher, who is now the Middle East correspondent of the Telegraph, has done yeoman’s service to his former beat by being not only an intrepid adventurer but also an entertaining writer.

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This review appeared in Business Standard.