Wednesday, 23 August 2017

RBI - Ha, Ha, Ha!

RBI was never a laughing matter until Urjit Patel came along. Before that the Central Bank job used to be a very boring and staid affair with jaded, bald headed men in grey suits and grand-fatherly air appearing on business TV channels from time to time and talking about the intricacies of monetary policy and announcing interest rates. Apart from bankers, pensioners (as their fixed deposit income was at stake) and the Sensex driven class, it went totally over the heads of the plebeian class.

Along came Raghuram Rajan, who added some pizzazz to the post with a touch of glamour. The pink press and the society ladies were swooning at his good looks (he was probably the first governor with full crop of hair) and athletic prowess. He was a keen marathon runner and TV cameramen used to keep an eagle's eye to spot him among the teeming runners during Mumbai marathon.

His financial wizardry and his gumption to stand up to the political bosses were dismissed as a mere footnote. He left the stage for good and with his integrity intact. Though it left many female fans heartbroken and their nascent interest to differentiate between repo rate and reverse repo rates, to impress their peers at kitty parties, died a premature death.

After his exit many names started doing rounds and most were the chip of the old block - the bald headed grey suited mandarins who had graced various posts in finance ministry and the now defunct planning commission.

The mantle finally fell on a totally unknown commodity - Urjit Patel. Political commentators yawned: Oh no! Not another Gujju. As all key posts were already cornered by them.

Patel came across as what the TV comic character Mr Bean would have been if he had gone easy on calories. Unlike his predecessor he is extremely wary of media and sometimes even provided Bean like moments when confronted with TV flashbulbs. During the high noon of demonetization, he almost succeeded in making himself invisible. When nosy TV journalists once made a rare sighting of Patel, their Salim Ali moment lasted a few nano seconds. They had to rest content witnessing his rare ability to sprint away!

The then Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das held forth on behalf of the government and the unenviable job of announcing changes in rules regarding deposit and withdrawal of money from banks on an everyday basis.

Those were the early days of demonetization and the much vaunted premise of panic stricken black money hoarders flowing their unaccounted stash in the Ganges or setting them on fire did appeal to many and sceptics were bullied to silence.

However, after the initial shock and awe the deeply ingrained jugaad mindset of the Indian populace took over. New money laundering techniques were improvised and demonetized cash started flowing into the banks. RBI, which used to reveal the exact inflow of money on a daily basis, suddenly clammed up.

Now more than eight months after the exercise, RBI continues to be coy about how much money actually got deposited in the banks. “They are still counting,” is what our Finance Minister would like us to believe. And Patel too like 'his master's voice' continues to parrot the same line in one Parliamentary committee after other.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Return of The Prodigal

First it was the hoardings, then the front page advertisements in newspapers of a well known bespectacled and smug face. For the first time I noticed he has a mole on his forehead. 

After a hiatus of six months, post-truth icon Arnab Goswami was coming back to TV screens, and his fans began feeling giddy and delirious. With their echo chamber bereft of its favourite nightingale, they were battling cold turkey conditions all these months.

After all how long can one make do with cheap imitations like Gaurav Sawant! Even during his earnest display of machismo (being clad in battle fatigues at newsroom) Gaurav seemed like Ben Stiller trying to pass off as Rambo Sylvester Stallone. 

Now the fans wanted to make up for the lost opportunities of the inimitable Arnab fix that transports them to a feel good delirium. His force multiplier vocal cords, which he uses to decimate Pakistani panelists, were sorely missed while the country was going through tumultuous events such as surgical strikes, demonetisation and UP elections.

As the launch date of the Republic TV channel approached the hype was gradually built up. His fans regrouped under various hashtag battle formation across all social media platforms, ready to blow Republic's trumpet and pounce on detractors in a manner which would make even Goebbels blush.

True to the hype he began from where he left off. For fans and worshippers their echo chamber was once again vibrant with the hyper-ventilating jingoism they were addicted to. The template continues to be same: Find an 'other' and attack him or her in a pack, never allow them to put their views across. What amazes me is how some of the panellists, especially the Pakistanis, even agree to appear for the show considering its pointlessness.

So finally it is achche din for the fans, with onerous tasks like trolling (read act like keyboard lynch mobs, intimidate and even issue rape threats) the detractors and playing cheerleader to the anchor thrown in. For them he remains the minstrel of utmost happiness!

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Vinod Khanna's Unforgettable Role

The death of a yesteryear superstar often brings back memories lying mothballed in remote corners of one's mind. Few weeks before his death a picture of a sick and ailing Vinod Khanna flanked by two people sent shock waves across the social media. Those on the wrong side of 40 were aghast that their teen idol has become so emaciated. He was reportedly suffering from bladder cancer.

After a couple of rumours about his 'death' the inevitable ultimately happened. And he was 70, not an untimely exit, but still looked a tad early considering that he was an adorable hunk during his prime. At the death of every actor there is a flood of write ups listing among others his most influential films.

Though many had listed movies like Amar Akbar Antony, Lahoo ke do rang, Chandini or Jurm, but to me the movie that remains hauntingly etched in my mind is Mere Apne (1971), a little known film which he did in the early part of his career when he was transitioning from a villain to hero and still many films away from stardom.

Directed by legendary Gulzar, the movie steers clear from the Bollywood binary of good versus evil, with all characters having shades of grey in varying degrees. The only exception is Meena Kumari, who after having lived all her life in a village comes face to face with changing mores of city life in the autumn of her life.

The film was about campus violence, educated unemployed and the ongoing rivalry between two gangs - one led by Vinod Khanna and the other by Shatrughan Sinha. As both Vinod and Shatrughan were newcomers they had a lot to prove, with no starry airs to distract them. Hence one gets to see some great acting on display. As for Gulzar, he showed lots of promise in his debut venture and later went on to make masterpieces like Maachis.

Much later after Vinod Khanna had become a Member of Parliament he had told a journalist that during the shooting of Mere Apne there was a cold war going on at the sets between the FTII trained actors and the rest. Shatrughan, Asrani, Paintal were FTII trained whereas Vinod Khanna wasn't. But he did make up for his lack of formal training with amazing screen presence and carried off his role with aplomb.

Later he went on to become a very bankable star and a formidable rival to Amitabh Bachchan, but suddenly left all that to join Acharya Rajneesh's ashram, leaving many of his producers and fans befuddled or heartbroken. Thankfully, unlike Rajesh Khanna, whose career suffered a sudden shipwreck from which he could never recover, it was not the end of his film career. He returned after few years and proved his could still set the box office on fire.

Be it his acting career, quest for spirituality or taking a plunge into politics Vinod Khanna lived his life in his own terms, without caring much about 'log kya kahenge'.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Monday, 24 April 2017

Notes From Kashmir

Mumbai ka fashion aur Kashmir ka mausam, donon ka koi bharosa nahin hai (Mumbai's fashion and Kashmir weather are unpredictable and change abruptly) quipped Hilal our affable cab driver while referring to this year's unseasonal snowfall in Kashmir on April first week. Later I heard the same gag from others.

For someone fed on a daily diet of TV footage of masked stone throwers, a couple of disturbing viral videos and political uncertainty in Kashmir, I was wishing the above quip on uncertainty was strictly confined to the weather and not about any other aspect of life in Kashmir.

Srinagar airport provided a picture of surcharged security. Here the CISF men were wielding guns, instead of metal detectors and while leaving the airport we saw a line of vehicles waiting to get in. "While entering Srinagar airport people have to undergo two baggage checks, one at entrance and one inside," explained Hilal pointing to a check post outside the airport and a posse of security personnel.

As Hilal cut his Toyota Innova through the dusty narrow streets of Srinagar on our way to Pahalgam, the day of our first night halt, the landscape of houses, shops and mosques with sloping corrugated tin roofs, mostly green in colour, caught our attention. "This is to prevent snow from accumulating on the roof," said Hilal. Later I discovered that many of these roofs had ornate wooden ceilings underneath.

When we reached Srinagar outskirts, names like Pampore, Pulwana rang a bell, as they were scenes of recent bloody gun battles between the terrorists and security personnel. All through our stay in Kashmir (April 15-19), we used to constantly run into armoured trucks, with mounted guns. The presence of security personnel was all pervasive with jawans from CRPF and BSF, wielding automatic guns, at prominent street corners and sensitive areas.

As we neared the town of Anantnag, the traffic became dense and there were jams in various stretches, so were the potholes. Sensing our displeasure, Hilal quipped that to "reach heaven you have to first cross through the hell!”

At Anantnag we came across the first spray painted anti-India graffiti calling for azadi on walls and shop shutters and some praising Burhan Wani. During our stay in Kashmir we did come across similar graffiti with alarming regularity while passing through other sensitive places, especially Lal Chowk and Downtown Srinagar. At some places they were overwritten using red spray paint. All this provided a grim reminder of seething discontent amid the outward calm.

After Anantnag the traffic became thinner and it was a much smoother ride with lesser amount of potholes and landscape too became much more scenic. Then we entered Sangam village, and we were informed it apparently acquired the name as Raj Kapoor's Sangam was shot there.

At Sangam we came across neatly piled up well chiseled wooden pieces arranged in a square pattern at various places. "These are cricket bat manufacturing units," explained Hilal.

Quite surprisingly most bat making units had Virat Kohli as their poster boy on their signage and just one such unit had picture of Shahid Afridi and that too sharing space with Kohli. Probably it was done keeping in mind the Indian buyers or because Pakistani cricket is currently going through a lean patch with no master class wielders of willow on the horizon after Afridi.

Once the road started running parallel to the gushing Lidder river the landscape underwent a picture perfect makeover. Tall trees, including the much famed deodar and pines, made up the breathtaking landscape and it continued well up to Pahalgam.

While unloading suitcases at the hotel in Pahalgam, Hilal advised us not to go out of the hotel premises after dark. By nightfall the place became cold and the streets were deserted barring some lone men clad in pheren (a long woollen overcoat) or some random vehicle passing by.

Kashmiris have a peculiar way of wearing pheren. Very rarely did I come across someone who has slipped his arms through both the sleeves. The first person I came across had slipped right arm through the sleeve, while the left sleeve was dangling freely. I assumed probably he was handicapped! Later I came across many who had both sleeves dangling and realised it was their way of beating the cold.

Due to unseasonal snowfall in April first week, the mountains had lavish toppings of it and a lot had flowed down the ravines. From a distance they looked like white shards and as our vehicle traversed towards Aru valley they were visible from close quarters.

These were huge blocks of ice with 2-3 foot thickness. They were not so white and appeared mixed up with mud and even the remains of vehicle fumes. As our vehicle neared the Aru valley I came across houses that had small tank like structures made of stones to store snow!

Treading on snow can be extremely treacherous and slips could take a toll on your ligaments and even bones. But I was astounded by the enthusiasm shown by some senior citizens. At Chandan Wadi I came across an elderly gent, easily a decade or two past his retirement, being pulled up the slope on a sledge by a guide.

Another Sikh gent with a flowing grey beard had a slip while posing for a photo while sporting a 'V' sign. As a reflex action my eyes got shut, but a while later I was amazed to see him get up. Later at Gulmarg too I saw such boisterous senior citizens happily trying their hand at skiing and sledging down the slope. Age no bar – For Indians from plains snow makes them do crazy things!

While returning to Srinagar from Pahalgam we came across many shops that had downed shutters. We thought it was because of Sunday, but later realised it was due to a bandh call in protest against police firing on protesting students.

Fortunately during our itinerary we never ran into any untoward incidents, though we did tread many times through usual trouble spots such as Lal Chowk and Downtown Srinagar. Quite often on returning to hotel after sight seeing trips, I used to find the front page of Greater Kashmir daily awash with news of unrest in Srinagar.

I have been hearing about Dal lake right from the geography classes in school, and later saw many film songs featuring Shammi Kapoor with the lake as background. Even then its vastness astounded me, especially when viewed from the Pari Mahal.

The shikara ride could have been pleasant but was marred by floating hawkers trying to sell their wares ranging from handicrafts, shawls and even offering photo sessions in traditional dresses.

One of the most visible signs of protracted militancy in the area was total absence of liquor shops and cinema halls. A sundowner during cool nights would have been welcome, but most hotel managers told us alcohol is banned in State and we too did not come across any liquor shops while traversing through the city. And Hilal being a devout Muslim was of little help!

Cinema halls too were conspicuous by their absence. The only remnant of a hall we came across was Shiraz at Khanyaar, but it had elaborate barbed wire fencing and was now functioning as a CRPF camp. Hilal reeled out some 5-6 names of cinema halls that used to function in the city during his childhood days and recounted that the last movie he saw in theatre was in 1999. Ever since VCRs, VCDs and now pen drives have been providing the tenuous link with visual entertainment for most Kashmiris.

During our stay in Srinagar I was quite surprised by the presence of Sikhs. First I thought it was because of widespread presence of army, but later I realised that many of them were traders and long term residents. Some were even part of Jammu and Kashmir police. The presence of gurudwaras in Srinagar and even in remote Pahalgam indicated that their presence was deep rooted and long standing. 

Srinagar's streets continue to be swarmed by now defunct Maruti 800 cars. Though in other cities they may have become as rare as house sparrows, here the iconic family car continues to have a good presence, while newer small cars like Alto and Hyundai Eon have so far met with modest success.

For tour operators last year was a tough one and they are hoping and praying for a better tourists inflow in 2017. According to them there are three evils - politicians, some black sheep in their society (read militants) and media, a comparatively new entrant in this hall of shame. "One stone throwing incident happens and TV channels keep playing the footage for days together," was their common refrain.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Travelling Back In Time


Have a close look at me. Apart from being a watch of Soviet era vintage you may have noticed that I just have one hand.

Now don't think I am a defective piece, caused due to bad workmanship. I was meant to be like that only. 

In an era when watches are turning into wearable devices and checking time comes way down the priority list, I may look like a laughable oddity.

I may evoke the same amusement as Mumbai's ancient Premier Padmini taxis, with their clumsy column mounted gears, to a Formula One driver.

I know the questions coming to your mind. "How the heck did guys those days check time? Were they only concerned about hours and not minutes?"

Relax, those were early days of watches and people had a different way of looking at it. In fact during 16th century telling the time using just a single hand was the normal way. Timekeeping began with just a single hand, sundials and the early church clocks kept time this way and pocket watches too followed the norm.

The second hand was introduced only in late 17th century and for the people then it seemed as odd as single hand watches appear to you today.

Reading time on single hand watch does not look as difficult as it may seem. A dial is divided into 144 markers and each of them represents 5 minutes. The 15 and 30 minute markers are bolder.

Now using that yardstick, the time shown on the above watch (double click to zoom the image) is 10:20. Simple, isn't it!

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Monday, 6 March 2017

American Dream Sours In Trump Era

For the TRP driven Indian news channels this was an ideal recipe for a perfect storm. A 32-year-old techie from Hyderabad is shot dead and his co-worker is injured in a shooting at a bar in Kansas in US. The deceased, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, and the injured, Alok Madasani, had a career graph, which could evoke envy among the India's TV viewing middle class.

Hence for them it is unsettling to see people whom they look up to getting mercilessly gunned down by some xenophobic nut in a bar in US. And the assailant's cry 'Get out of my country' sounded eerily similar to 'Go to Pakistan' uttered by saffron brigade back home. Or 'go to your desh/mulk', by Mumbai's MNS storm troopers to UP, Bihari taxi drivers.

Even before they could come to terms with this attack, a rash of copycat hate crime attacks took place on Indians living across US and not just the traditionally polarised south. In all these attacks the common thread was 'get out of my country' cry by the assailants. 

A couple of videos also surfaced on social media about an Indian's house vandalised and a Gujarati woman getting threatened in a New York tube train. Interestingly in the latter case the racist bully happened to be a burly looking black American. He too yelled 'get out of my country' and then went on to invoke 'black power'. So it looks like this hatred against Asian looking migrants is not confined to whites. 

US is no stranger to hate crimes, it has a fairly long history and even during the previous Obama administration we had policemen getting into ugly and bloody spats with black youths. However, during Obama administration the official condemnation was prompt and reprisals were swift.

That way the recent bout of xenophobia looks very different. It can be traced to US President Donald Trump's very polarising campaign and his unabashed contempt for ethnic groups such as Mexicans, Arabs and Blacks and all those professing faith in Islam.

In this atmosphere of surcharged majoritarianism, there is a feeling of entitlement among the attackers. In a couple of cases the attackers were not some petty criminals or those living on the fringes of society, but they happened to be war veterans, bragging they have ‘done a lot’ for the country and consider these acts also as part of their nationalist endavour. The proliferation of guns, with little control, has only made matters worse.

When Trump was going about his hate fuelled campaign, many Indians were lulled into complacency that since he had not said anything against Indians residing in US, they were safe. Moreover their professional success, epitomised by two freshly minted corporate icons - Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai, the 'model diaspora' tag, all this deluded them to think they were on par with the privileged white upper class.

Traditionally Indians in US were Democratic party supporters, but of late many are leaning towards the Republicans, buoyed by their professional and entrepreneurial success. There is even a lobby group called Republican Hindu Coalition, which had contributed to Trump's election campaign and was making a common cause with his visceral hatred towards Islam. To humour them Trump had also called Hinduism a great religion and some very enthusiastic fans in Delhi had even conducted a pooja for his victory in US elections.

But little did they know, or for that matter anyone else, that his foot soldiers are not all that discerning and hardly wise enough to differentiate between an Indian with other Asians like Iranians or even Saudis. For them brown skin was like a red rag, more so if it is accompanied with beard or turban. The same way as Indians with Mongolic features get mistaken for being Chinese in their own country!

With the attacks happening on a regular basis it is a rude awakening for the Indian diaspora, who were hallucinating about a privileged status on the back of their economic success. 

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Mastram Mystery Lives On

While surfing through the views website 'Daily O' I came across a link for an article on the right quad titled 'How Mastram Saved Me and My Generation'. For anyone who grew up in the country’s cow belt during late 60s and in 70s Mastram would definitely ring a bell.

In those days of licence permit raj era, when everything was either rationed or in short supply, erotica and porn were no exception. For coming of age teens, the prevailing uptight society offered little to satiate their newly acquired hormonal surge.

Any mingling with opposite sex was frowned upon and any conversation with them beyond 2-3 sentences (and that too on any topic other than class work and home work) would invite the attention of prying eyes (often of friendly neighbourhood auntyjis) and tongues would wag about a ‘chakkar’ in offing.

Those were pre-television days and the word 'internet' was probably not even coined. Hence, as visual entertainment we had to make do with a monthly or fortnightly visit to the theatres to watch Hindi movies, which of course were laden with the social mores of the 70s (read Victorian rectitude). Coy heroines used to snub their restless, lovelorn heroes, raring to get intimate, with a standard gag ‘Abhi nahin shaadi ke baad’. 

Amidst this yawning demand-supply gap functioned some Hindi erotica magazines printed at some underground press and among them novellas (not running to more that 50-60 pages) penned under the pseudonym Mastram enjoyed a best-seller status.

The print and paper quality was very basic. However the paperback size and soft cover proved convenient as they could be snugly rolled into pockets, or even tucked inside socks.

In our godforsaken PSU industrial township, almost 60 km away from nearest full fledged town, they were not available. They were shipped in by those touring cities like Delhi, Agra, Jaipur etc or those pursuing college education in distant towns and staying in hostels. These books were treated like contraband and moved around stealthily to avoid detection of teachers, parents, sisters and younger siblings. 

During school intervals or free periods we often used to sit huddled in the remote corners of play ground to have ‘reading sessions’. One guy would read discreetly and others would listen with amusement and suppressed giggles. The plots were contrived and trespass into all possible taboo relationships (mostly of devar-bhabi and jija-saali liaisons) in the society.

The erotica laden prose helped us improve our Hindi vocabulary (at least we got to know various synonyms of private parts in both Sanskritized and Urduized Hindi) and often functioned as a de facto sex educator, though of dubious authenticity.

During conversations with friends one of the topics used to be regarding the authorship and we used to wonder whether it was one person or more. Hence was surprised to hear that there was a movie in 2014 by the name Mastram, but even that was a ‘fictional biography’. So the mystery around the writer/writers lives on.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat