Monday, 16 July 2018

Soccer World Cup: Indian Fan's Dilemma

The month-long sporting extravaganza, often described as greatest show on earth, has drawn to a close and fans of the 'beautiful game' look as bewildered and dazed as if they have undergone a roller coaster ride, with the ride operator failing to switch off in time.

Unpredictability and uncertainty is the beauty of any sport and reputations are not always sacrosanct. But during this soccer world cup, to use a medieval metaphor, the old order was hanged, drawn and quartered, and hardly any reputation escaped the guillotine.

It actually did not come without a warning. Even before the World Cup began there were faint signals of things to come, but not many were discerning enough to see it.

Soccer giants like Italy, which has lifted the cup a couple of times, and three-time finalists Netherlands, failed to qualify. Remember these were the teams which had once provided legendary footballers such as Roberto Baggio and Johan Cruyff.

However since other European football powerhouses such as Germany, Spain, France and England had made the cut and so had the South American giants such as Argentina and Brazil, it gave everyone a false sense of complacency.

For the Indian fans, who may never get to see their home team qualify for World Cup in near future, their favourites kept shifting as this World Cup was fraught with too many uncertainties, and its trajectory would make many of our turncoat (ayaram gayaram) politicians proud.

Before the tournament it is always Argentina or Brazil. These two countries form the default setting for every Indian soccer fan before any world cup.

It is that inherent sense of third world solidarity coupled with the attacking soccer played by these South American powerhouses. In the present edition of World Cup the demi-God status enjoyed by Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr in club soccer was an additional factor.

As the tournament progressed and it became apparent Argentina cannot go far, the Indian supporters backing Messi ported themselves to Brazil and even Uruguay.

I remember an Argentina fan lamenting how could a 'lowly' Croatia humiliate his favourite team in such a manner. Surely it is 'fixed', he demurred. 

Soon by the end of quarter finals Brazil and Uruguay too fell by the wayside and many purist fans of South American officially proclaimed "the world cup is over for us".

Some kept faith and now they latched on to England, after humbly swallowing the fact they were our former colonial masters. Familiarity with English Premier League clubs made them throw their lot with England.

To be fair Harry Kane and his men played much better football than the English teams of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney era, but their best was not enough against Croatia in semi-finals

Now it was the World Cup finals and guys such as Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann of France had become quite popular. And by now some of the Indian fans had mastered how to pronounce tongue twisters such as Modric, Rakitic and even Mandzukic, and begun to respect the killer instincts of these magical men in red and white checks.

Some rooted for the favourites France and many for the underdog Croatia, who had made it to the finals for the first time. Phew! Thus ended the chequered and shifting loyalties of Indian fans this World Cup.

And now it is Ghar Wapsi time - back to Brazil/Argentina and Messi/Neymar fandom.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Social Media, Anti-social Fallout

The verdict is out. Social media is the stealthiest thief of time of this millennium. And the way it beguiles you to part with your precious waking hours, is probably the biggest daylight robberies of our times.

With eyes languidly transfixed on screens of computers and now increasingly smartphones, we keep scrolling up and down for something ‘interesting’ on social media platforms.

This happens immediately after waking up, while having breakfast, waiting for cab (if driving self when stuck in traffic jams or while waiting at traffic signals).

At office it hinges primarily on two factors - How strict your boss is? And how nosey your systems administrator? While at home it is the threshold of patience of your spouse and family members that matters. How much can they take it, as you remain glued to the screens quite unmindful of pending grocery purchase list, utility bills and the ticking time bomb on the domestic affairs front.

Eyes remain hooked to the screen to check who is ‘online’ with green spots next to their names. Messages are sent followed by a delivery tick mark. The wait for the ‘seen’ blue tick begins.

Once that happens, the wait for reply gets underway. Nerves are atingle once the three dots of typing awareness indicator starts dancing in a wavy motion on the screen. It is often followed by a reply, but sometimes the three dots keep dancing in what seems like eternity, with respondent either typing a long message or typing and ‘backspacing’ repeatedly.

The motivation to remain hooked on to screens is as myriad as human emotions, especially those related to the seven deadly sins. How many ‘likes’ or comments my latest selfie pout or hair cut has elicited. It has been nearly two hours since I uploaded that photo of me in that new dress, why no comment from my BFF yet? I put that photo of mine at Pattaya beach and guess what? 250 likes in half an hour!

At a more impersonal level the much polarized political atmosphere provides enough fodder to remain glued to the smartphone screens.

Rahul Gandhi, secularism, Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley, JNU, Arvind Kejriwal, Kashmir, job reservation and above all Jawaharlal Nehru are some of the keywords that provide more than enough grist to troll crowd. Trolling ranges from downright abuse in unprintable words to rape or murder threats. A common thread running among all trolls is a deeply ingrained misogyny. Film actresses and women journalists with anti-establishment views are a fair game.

Another toxic misuse of social media is peddling of fake news, often described in polite terms as alternate facts. It started off as a mischievous phenomenon often to push forth or reinforce one’s own prejudice or to cast aspersions on rivals. Often beginning with a disclaimer ‘forwarded as received’ it used to end with a punch line ‘if you agree then please share’.

Some of the recent success stories of fake news gone viral in India include the one regarding the presence of a micro-chip in Rs 2,000 note, Mark Tully praising Narendra Modi and of course a wide phalanx of news to pillory Jawaharlal Nehru – accusing him of being a drunkard, womaniser and blaming him for almost every ill plaguing the country.

But now fake news is no longer an innocuous prank. It has mutated into a scourge and is even causing loss of lives. The current WhatsApp fuelled rumours regarding child lifters is a case in point. Dozens of people have been murdered across the country based on description and photos of ‘child lifters’ circulated on WhatsApp.

Media pundits often used to say that mass media promotes narcotising dysfunction among its readers and viewers. In simple terms people are so badly inundated with news and views on a particular issue that they become apathetic to it.

But present day social media is turning this premise on its head. It is often whipping up frenzy among a section of people to mobilize an ill-informed mob to carry out murderous assaults.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

An Ode To an ATM

I was seen as a game changer. I relieved Indians the tyranny of trudging to a bank every time they needed cash, be mindful of banking hours and holidays, and sometimes even the mood swings of the hassled bank teller.

Though the expansion of my name stands for automated teller machine (ATM), the HSBC slogan ‘Anytime Money’ gained greater currency in people’s minds.

In 1990s I was patronized mainly by the uber rich metro based yuppies with fat bank balance, but now my card (or cards) can be found in every second wallet and my footprint extends to small towns and even rural areas.

The clientèle has also become very diverse, ranging from ultra tech savvy to nervous novices - teens who just got the first ATM card issued in their name or elderly pensioners, who have been using bank withdrawal slips and cheques all their lives, trying to make a switch. The latter category often seeks the help of security guards or is chaperoned by ATM savvy relatives.

In short I have become so much a part of their life that an ‘ATM out of order’ or ‘no cash’ board is enough to trigger a panic attack among most of them.

Over the years I too have undergone many makeovers. Earlier I used to gulp in the card for authentication and gulp out only after the transaction got over. The worried look on the faces of customers after I gulp in their cards used to evoke in me a range of emotions - from amusement to concern.

The duration a card spent inside the machine used to be directly proportional to upward movement of anxiety levels among the customers, as there used to be numerous cases of cards getting stuck within machines. This had to be followed up by numerous visits to the bank and a brush with its bureaucracy, which many customers had long unlearned.

Another nightmare is of course the ghost transactions. The money does not come, but you get a text message of money being withdrawn. Until this anomaly gets corrected in statement, the anxiety levels refuse to come down.

When demonetization was announced the whole nation queued up in front of me, though I had very little to offer. It was as if the Indian public has been sent on treasure hunt trying to spot an ATM with cash in it.

Almost everybody became aware of the ATMs located in their own localities and even far flung ones, including those put up by nondescript cooperative banks in small lanes.

I was not equipped to handle the new series of Rs 2,000 notes and the humble Rs 100, which was generally looked down upon, suddenly became the much sought after currency.

It really took a while before I could handle the new Rs 2,000 note. But the new note was frowned upon by shopkeepers as they found it difficult to dispense change as the availability of new Rs 500 note was still very low.

Till the supply of Rs 500 stabilized, Rs 100 continued to relish its unexpected second coming, a throwback to pre-1980s, after which the inflation took a heavy toll and it lost out to peers with greater purchasing power.

Of late the governments and bankers have been pushing for cashless transactions with swipe machines and point of sale devices becoming commonplace enough to be found in neigbourhood kirana stores. It has also caught the fancy of millennial and yuppies.

But still cash cannot be wished away. The latest RBI data says that the currency with the public has reached a record high level of over Rs 18.5 lakh crore, more than double from the low of about Rs 7.8 lakh crore it had hit post-demonetisation in late 2016.

As long as cash is around, so will I. Unless of course some new high tech invention happens, courtesy artificial intelligence.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Biplab Deb Uninterrupted

When Tripura voters inked their index fingers on February 18 to elect their public representatives, little did they know they were in for exciting times.

Decades of Marxist rule had made them averse to continuity and they were sick and tired of their fellow countrymen post pictures on social media of their chief minister Manik Sarkar as 'poorest CM' and patronisingly talk about his austere, Gandhian ways.

It was like having to make do with a daily 'healthy' diet of rice gruel or oats, while the rich aroma of biryani wafted into their homes from neighbourhood during lunch and dinner times.

It was becoming a bit too jarring and they thought they would rather have a more Epicurean leader who would bring 'development' to their sedate and dour existence. 

Although Tripura has a high literacy rate, the state lacks job opportunities and hence the problem of unemployment is very high. Moreover for the educated class there are only government jobs to aspire for, as there is little private investment. 

The images they used to see on television screens of technological strides made in distant metros of Delhi, Bangalore or Mumbai, symbolised by spanking steel and glass structures housing technology parks and shopping malls, was too alluring.

Hence when Prime Minister came calling and during his campaign tour dangled a new acronym 'Hira' - "H for highway, I for Internet way, R for roadways and A for airways", many began daydreaming that an El Dorado was around the corner.

Few days later the verdict came. And needless to say it was stunning. It was as Oscar Wilde once said "There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

The early days were quite heady. The symbols of previous regime, the statues of Karl Marx and other Communist vestiges were pulled down with gusto.

A tall, youthful looking chief minister Biplab Deb, the youngest one in the state, with a sartorial taste that would make costume designer of Dharma productions proud, was sworn in.

This former gym instructor was always seen in his customary ethnic chic wedding guest attire, right up to dupatta. He gave the impression that at any moment he may shake a leg or two to a wedding song we see in Sooraj Barjatya or Karan Johar films.

It was a breath of fresh air for Tripura voters, especially the young ones, who were tired of chief ministers who looked like ancient pensioners and failed in providing them jobs.

True to his flamboyant style within one month of swearing-in he made a blockbuster opening.

He claimed that internet and satellite communication existed in the days of Mahabharata. "Internet and satellite system had existed during the lakhs of years ago. How could Dhritarashtra see through Sanjay's eyes? There was technology available at that time... Internet was there, satellite communication was there."

To be fair this is not the first time a politician has tried to airbrush our ancient puranas and myths to make them look advanced and tech savvy. This trend of waxing eloquent about our glorious past, which was later 'ruined' by Muslim and British invaders, has always been there among the political and intellectual class. But of late it has seen a spike with leaders of Biplab's own party in the forefront.

They have been spinning yarns regarding ancient India's technological strides in areas such as aviation and plastic surgery. However this was probably the first time someone has credited our ancestors with a large footprint in digital technology.

Barely had the social media and twitterati done with cracking up over Deb's remarks, through memes and one-liners, he fired his next salvo. This of course revealed his exclusivist mindset honed up during his long drawn association with RSS.

He remarked that Diana Hayden is not an Indian beauty, while Aishwarya Rai is, thereby revealing his aversion for brown skin and minorities. This ruffled many feathers among the feminist and anti-fairness cream activists.

Next he waded into another controversy while commenting on the vexing problem of high number of educated unemployed, who had in fact rallied behind his party during elections.

His first remark sounded like a trite PJ. What should civil engineers do? Join the civil services. Mechanical engineers do not fit the bill and hence should not venture into it.

At a different event he chided the youth for running after politicians to get government jobs and advised them to seek self-employment instead. Nothing wrong in that, but the choices he offered made many cringe – rear cows or sell paan.

Barring his own party men, who were left red faced and seething, his remarks vigorously tickled social media’s funny bone.

Then came the parting shot against those trying to attack his government. "When I was young... people used to say if it's government property, you can do anything you want with it... just as you do to a lauki. A vegetable seller brings fresh lauki to the bazaar at 8 am. By 9 am that lauki gathers so many nail marks, it cannot be sold. You either have to feed it to a cow at the bazaar or take it back home. My government cannot be like that, no one can leave nail marks on it. Whoever leaves nail marks, their nails will be cut," he said.

For Tripura residents it's truly nail biting days ahead, wondering where next will their boisterous leader train his loose cannon.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Rape, Protests and Whataboutery

Rape has once again ceased to be a statistic. In our country it happens once in a few years and in its wake brings in a widespread convulsive outrage, which spills on to the streets.

Keyboard warriors call for eye for an eye retribution and as a template cite methods used in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, whom they otherwise look down upon. Some end up betraying their latent patriarchy, while others, especially the political class, end up with their foot well entrenched in their mouths.

Last time it was the infamous December, 2012 Delhi gang-rape, often referred to as Nirbhaya case. As the incident happened in the national capital, it instantly caught the eye of national television. Egged on by saturation TV coverage and continuous buzz on social media, the outrage was instantaneous.

Delhi's wintry smog laden streets got filled with protesters and the government of the day had a tough time dealing with them. Footage of policemen using water cannons and canes to control the restive mob became a staple fare of almost all TV channels.

In Delhi even those who had never taken part in a protest in their lives got busy preparing placards and heading to protest venues. All this put the government of the day on back foot.

Newspapers were forced to report every rape case that came their way and that too provide a good display instead of relegating them to 'in brief' sections.

Dinner table conversations started veering over the topic and parents of teenage children had tough time answering queries like 'what is rape?' or how different it was from molestation!

The pontificating anchors pointed out the victim was just like us, called her 'India's daughter' and cautioned us that it could happen to any of us and they whipped up a sentiment of blood lust among the masses. The culprits happened to be from the fringes of society with no political or social clout, the very riff-raff detested by the middle class.

They were put immediately behind bars and going by the standards of Indian judiciary the trials were speedy enough. The government also formed the Justice Verma commission, which recommended many changes in laws related to sexual assaults.

Gradually the outrage died down and the daily rapes retreated to its realm of statistics and police record books.


The current outrage, in contrast, is a slow-burn one caused by gruesome rapes in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir and Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, which acquired limelight months after the actual incident. In the interim period they remained on life support on social media through the posts filed by activists fighting the cases.

Both cases were different from the Delhi rape in one aspect - the alleged perpetrators were influential people with political and social clout.

Moreover since both places were located far away from the myopic TV cameras of our news channels they got little attention and the cases dragged on for months with the perpetrators almost succeeding in burying them.

In fact the clout enjoyed by the perpetrators at Kathua was so strong that there were street demonstrations in the district to defend them. They even unfurled the Tricolour and invoked religious symbols to defend the perpetrators. The accused included a temple priest and few police officers.

Even more appalling was the conduct of the lawyers who actively protested the filing of the chargesheet by the crime branch against the accused.

In Unnao rape case the accused happened to be a BJP MLA and hence the matter was in deep freeze from day one. The tipping point was reached when the Unnao rape victim's father died after being in police custody. Around the same time the contents of Kathua case chargesheet was published in a Delhi newspaper.

For national media this was its Rip Van Winkle awakening. TV channels could no longer remain in their cosy self-censored bubbles and ignore the protests breaking out in every corner of the country, mostly orchestrated through social media.

But having been embedded with the establishment for the past four years, they were not exactly comfortable in attacking it. Soon whataboutery crept in, where were these protesters when rapes happened in Assam, where is the money collected through social media campaign going.

One channel began an innuendo campaign against Deepika Singh, the valiant lawyer who has taken up the Kathua case against heavy odds, alleging that she was pocketing the money.

Moreover, the moment Prime Minister broke his silence expressing displeasure over such 'incidents', TV channel displayed the same kind of euphoria that a child shows after he gets back his favourite toy, which he had thought was lost forever.

For them it was a early ghar wapsi after a brief flirtation with anti-establishment hashtags.

Image courtesy: Facebook

Monday, 26 March 2018

Nirav Modi: The LoU Guru

While the country was smitten by the pre-Valentine wink of Priya Prakash Varrier, a débutante Malayalam actress, her 15 minutes of fame and court cases in tow, a Diamantaire (honestly I was hearing the term for the first time) did the same at India's banking system and law enforcement machinery, whose snores were quite deafening.

Nirav Modi, hitherto known only to uber rich diamond jewellery buyers, has now become a household name and hot topic at dinner table discussions and esoteric terms like LoU, Swift code becoming more commonplace.

His uncle Mehul Choksi was not well known but his Gitanjali Diamonds and Gili were a regular fixture at newspaper ads and advertisement hoardings dotting the cities.

The TDS weary, Aadhaar tethered middle class were left gawking when the king size life of Nirav Modi unfolded on their LED TV screens. The repeated footage of this baby-faced man in the company of gorgeous women dripping in diamonds wowed many hearts.

The man planned his flight well in advance and cocked a snook at the Indian law enforcement agencies. It would have been business as usual had the erring Punjab National Bank official not superannuated or his successor had agreed to play ball with them.

And once India's second largest public sector bank dropped the bombshell, TV news channels had to break out of their self imposed cocoon of playing lapdog and guard dog to the government of the day. These channels and their social media cells buckled up their armour with hashtags containing words such as 'loot', 'jewel thief' and the like, and got down to the wild goose chase with each channel claiming 'exclusives' of their reporters having spotted them at Hong Kong, New York and other locations.

All of them evoked just a long languid yawns as they hardly looked convincing. It was like Inspector Jacques Clouseau trying hard to look as effective as Sherlock Holmes. A while later it came to light that many well known media houses had refused to pursue allegations against Modi and Choksi, despite many red flags raised by whistle blowers.

Now the uncle-nephew duo has joined the growing illustrious group of elusive scoff laws, who are well ensconced at various foreign shores. Ironically some of them are reportedly in England, the home of our old colonisers East India Company. 

Monday, 12 March 2018

Remembering 1993 Bombay Serial Blasts

March 12, 1993: It was just another Friday. But as the Churchgate bound local reached the terminus around 6 pm, there were only a handful people on the platform. Normally when a train enters the Churchgate station during evening peak hours the platforms will be packed with people, easily numbering thousands, waiting to pounce on it.

Those inside the incoming train follow an unwritten code of either sitting tight on their seats or huddle on the side of the doors to brace for a stampede from incoming passengers. Even before the train comes to a complete halt the intrepid and nimble footed ones on the platform perform some dare devil jumps on to the train and make a dash for a seat.

Once the train stops there is a flood of commuters darting towards empty seats and comfortable standing positions on the aisle, with some ending up with broken spectacles or bruised knees. After the commotion tapers off, those wanting to alight at Churchgate gradually get up and wade through the crowd towards the door.

However on this day the train passengers were spared of this drill of ducking kamikaze assaults. But as I alighted the train, the eerily empty look of a normally bustling station was not very welcoming. A thought crossed the back of my mind "Has another communal riot started".

The city had already gone through two waves of bloodletting after the three domes of Babri Masjid came down on December 6, 1992. As I reached the exit subway, I asked a cop whether there is any problem in the city, why there are so few people in the station.

He said a bomb has gone off and all offices have closed down. People left for their homes in the afternoon itself. 

I just couldn't get it and began to wonder how could one bomb empty up the whole of city's central business district.

Just then I came across a pavement newspaper seller and bought an eveninger Newsday, which is currently defunct. It was part of the Mid-Day stable, but used to hit the stands only by 5 pm, whereas other tabloids get printed and sold in the afternoon.

For the paper it was perhaps a big day and it had reported the blasts with a banner headline of bombs going off at various parts of the city, something that afternoon papers had missed. It was the biggest ever terror attack prior to 9/11. The 24/7 news channels and their shrill news hour debates, social media were still many years away in India.

As I went to the Air-India building side, where one of the bombs went off, the road was quite literally carpeted with glass pieces, as the glass panes in nearby buildings too had suffered damage. There were patches of blood here and there and the road was cordoned off.

Normally while going to that part of Nariman Point I used to admire and gawk at those high end imported cars and SUVs parked on its premises. Remember those days the good old Ambassador was still ruling Indian roads. All these cars were now reduced to charred remains with their bonnets wide open and hoods blown off. Many of these cars remained there for months before they were cleared off.

Those were pre-cell phone days and telecommunication was a government monopoly. A landline telephone was a prized
possession one acquired after long waits, numerous visits to telecom office and greasing many palms.

Owning an STD booth was considered a major start up venture those days and many amassed a fortune out of it. Each booth used to have long queues, especially after 9 pm when the call charges were the lowest.

However on that particular day by 9 pm the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, which caters to Bombay area, (it had not become Mumbai then) crashed unable to bear the load, as everyone was calling their near and dear ones to talk about the catastrophe that had wrecked Bombay. Those days fibre optic cables was something you read about only in science journals, while the good old copper wires were the ground reality.

The subsequent investigation revealed that the explosives were shipped in from Pakistan through sea route and docked somewhere in the neighbouring district of Raigarh. Much larger quantities of explosives were stored there than that was used on March 12, as they were planning more such serial blasts.

Nearly 15 years later the same route was used by terrorists to carry out the infamous 26/11 terror attack on prime locations of Mumbai's central business district, thereby pointing to the fact that no lessons were learnt. 

The two waves of communal violence I mentioned earlier brought in communal fissures which later would get solidified and internalised among its people. Prior to that the city had never witnessed any widespread communal riot and probably the closest it came to was in distant Bhiwandi in 1984.

Stickers saying 'garv se kaho hum Hindu hain' (be proud to say we are Hindus) started appearing on the doors of apartments and at shop cash counters. So were red tikkas on many foreheads.

While travelling in trains the bhajan sessions became almost a regular feature, with voices more shrill than pious. Among commuters I would often overhear people derisively use the term 'landya' (for Muslims) and their association with 'do number ka dhanda' (illegal businesses).

All visible symbols and appearances of being an orthodox Muslim, such as fez cap, goatee and other sartorial peculiarities became very scarce in public places. Even non-Muslims who were sporting beards and French beards felt that a discreet clean shaven look was better part of valour.

Probably sensing this deep communal schism, a Parsi tea stall owner at railway station (I think it was Dadar) had put up a board, 'Yeh ek Parsi bava ki dukaan hai, Jai Maharashtra' (This shop is owned by a Parsi). During the riots there were cases of Parsis being mistaken for Muslims and getting targeted by Shiv Sena storm troopers.

While the embers of the communal violence and blasts died down, the process of ghettoisation got under way. Muslims who were feeling insecure in Hindu majority areas began to move out and vice versa. Mumbra a marshy land close to Thane creek became the new refuge of riot affected Muslims and the area mushroomed into a concrete jungle with little regard to planning and amenities.

Many housing societies in the city started embracing vegetarians only credo and it became more prevalent in upscale areas such as Napean Sea Road, inhabited by diamond traders of Gujarati-Jain origins and Marwari businessmen.

After they tasted success in turning their respective housing societies into veg only enclaves, it only whetted their zeal for food fascism. Thanks to the financial clout they enjoyed and the hold they had in the corridors of power they succeeded in shuttering non-vegetarian restaurants and meat shops in the entire neighbourhood.

The other day I heard a writer observe that Chowpatty beach is probably the only coastline in the world where you won't be able to savour fish-related dishes. The unravelling of much-touted cosmopolitan Bombay has come a long way.