Monday, 17 December 2018

In Which Urjit Gives It Those Ones

Urjit Patel had the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of Raghuram Rajan, the rock star economist who had wowed both the banker class and the laity. He had also set a tall order of standing up to the ruling establishment and fight for the interests of the Reserve Bank of India. 

And Patel began on a note that couldn't have been more lacklustre. Barely two months after he took over, the Narendra Modi government came up with its most controversial decision to take away nearly 86% of cash in circulation. He appeared to be a man who was totally clueless about what was going around him.

Ideally such an announcement should have been made by RBI governor, but the Prime Minister chose to take the centrestage and delivered his famous 'Mitron' speech.

As the collateral damage unfolded - dry ATMs, long queues in front of banks and widespread distress, Patel made himself scarce as a Great Indian bustard. The then Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das and current RBI Governor performed the unenviable task of announcing ad-hoc changes in rules regarding deposit and withdrawal of money from banks.

Patel soon earned the sobriquet 'Invisible Man' and became the favourite muse for meme makers and became a butt of ridicule on social media. He came across as a person who could not handle the glare of TV flashbulbs and his parroted response 'we are still counting', when queried about the amount of demonetized currency notes deposited in the banks, helped him move up a few more notches in the meme makers' popularity charts.

Amid all this hilarity nobody noticed when Patel turned the corner. It is difficult to pin-point when Patel's seemingly limitless malleability reached the end of its tether, but appointment of S. Gurumurthy as non-executive director certainly was one such trigger.

Ties between the government and RBI grew frostier with every bi-monthly Monetary Policy Meeting to decide on interest rates. Things reached breaking point when Patel realised the government had sets its eyes on RBI reserves and was planning to hang the Damocles sword over him in the form of hitherto unused Section 7 of RBI Act.

Even then no one thought Patel may actually quit, but this reclusive Gujarati thought it was an opportune time to leave as he did not want to add a new blot 'allowed dilution of RBI autonomy' in his CV, in addition to the existing one - 'presided over demonetisation'.

Also Read: Bangalore Short Takes

Monday, 19 November 2018

Jawa: Back From The Dead

For the bikers in the frugal licence permit raj era of 1960-70s, when 'Be Indian buy Indian' was the norm, owning a Jawa was nirvana on two wheels. Though entombed nearly four decades ago, this Czech pedigreed bike continues to remain in the recesses of the memory of 40-plus generation.

On the other hand for a millennial the name only means a computer programme (albeit with minor spelling change of 'v' instead of 'w') and voluminous books to master it adorn the shelves of second-hand book stalls.

Back then the motorcycling world was ruled by a triumvirate of Jawa, Royal Enfield 'Bullet' and Rajdoot. Jawa and Royal Enfield were considered classy, while Rajdoot was for the plebeians and country bumpkins, and looked down upon.

Jawa and Bullet had its legion of followers. While the former had a sleek look, the latter with UK pedigree had an erect ramrod stiff exterior. While Jawas were patronised by college students and young urban professionals, mainly medical representatives, the latter by those who wanted to wear their machismo on their sleeves. 'It takes a man to ride a Bullet' ran the print ad catch line.

Both had their own unique quirkiness. While Jawa had a kick-starter, which doubled up as gear after ignition, not found in any other bike, Bullet had brake on the left and gear on the right, and it migrated to 'standard' format much later in 2007.

To the credit of Royal Enfield management, they stood the test of time and through their upgrades and new models remained in the business. It weathered the storm of 100 cc bikes and later the entry of global names such as Harley Davidson and Triumph.

Whereas Jawa later gave way to a new avatar Yezdi and that too got mothballed in the 90s, under the onslaught of fuel efficient 100 cc bikes.

Most Yezdis faded away to scrap yards, while some aficionados kept them running with a missionary zeal, despite facing challenges like scarcity of spare parts. For the millennial crowd an occasional bike rally by Jawa-Yezdi Motorcycle Club provided them a nodding acquaintance with the classic their uncles once rode.

However last week Mahindra and Mahindra, under it subsidiary Classic Legends, decided to bring back this iconic bike from the dead. The move has rekindled the euphoria among many cutting across age barrier, evoking a mix of nostalgia and futuristic feel.

While old timers were happy the manufacturers have taken care to retain its retro looks, especially the iconic petrol tank, the younger generation was drooling over the fact that it had high tech features like liquid cooled engines, used in high performance bikes.

There are three models on offer – Jawa, Jawa 42 and Perak. All with eye-catching colours, and the bobber design of Perak has left many bike lovers pining for a test drive.

Once again the old rivalry is back. Considering the pricing and specification of its models, Jawa is once again pitted against Bullet. However, Jawa has a lot of groundwork to do in terms of establishing dealer and service network across the country.

Also Read: Bangalore Short Takes

Sunday, 21 October 2018

#Me Too Maelstrom Mauls Many

Five years ago, when Tarun Tejpal, the editor of Tehelka magazine, was caught pants down for his testosterone fuelled antics with a young colleague and later faced the full glare of social media, I had thought that lucky were those editors and journalists who had carried out similar acts in the pre-internet and typewriter days.

Names of M.J. Akbar and some others (still not outed yet), who were part of press club folklore, came to my mind. During my student days in the late 80s and early 90s Akbar was a big name in journalism and his column ‘Byline' was something we all looked forward to in the now defunct Sunday magazine of Anand Bazar Patrika stable. I also happened to read his book Riot After Riot and a biography on Jawaharlal Nehru (Nehru: The Making of India). All this gave me an impression of him being a man of great erudition.

But later in a baffling fashion he chose politics and my respect for him went down a few notches, as I thought it was a great loss for journalism. However during my rookie sub-editor days in Mumbai I got to know that the prodigal was returning to journalism and starting a new paper Asian Age.

When the recruitment happened, the grapevine had it that only 'fast' girls were getting recruited and all key position were occupied by women with very little experience. My respect for him dived many more notches. However, still the general perception was that although he was a 'ladies’ man' he was 'good at his job'.

That was also the time India embraced economic liberalisation and newsrooms also witnessed drastic changes. The editor's age profile became much younger and there were more women joining the profession. The look and feel of newspapers also changed, thanks to better printing technology and headlines became catchier than matter of fact.

The presence of higher number of women and younger workforce was a mixed bag. On one hand it brought about greater gender sensitization (use of misogynist Hindi expletives came down) and the blooming of office romances. But some of the superiors, deeply entrenched in patriarchy, took advantage of the power they enjoyed to treat their junior women colleagues as a fair game. They used this by dangling carrots like dinner invites, junkets and out of turn promotions. Those days sexual harassment redress mechanisms were not even thought of.

Newspaper offices then were closed places and nothing spilled over to the public domain. A Tejpal type incident those days would have been swept under the carpet or settled with mere apology or a transfer.

Managements used to close ranks and observe an incestuous 'code of silence' so that the publications name is not sullied. Even rival newspapers too adhered to this code, keeping in mind the glass houses they all were in. In those pre-cellphone/internet days even gossips never used to travel beyond the confines of office canteens or press clubs.

Internet and social media changed the rules of the game as it now 'follows' us everywhere and now it has also proved that in addition to making contemporary events go 'viral', it can even exhume issues that happened two decades ago to haunt the perpetrators by 'calling out'.

In India #me too fire got noticed nearly an year after US. It has simmered for long and took its own sweet time to become vigorous enough to singe people's reputations. But once actor Tanushree Dutta lit the fire, it has been relentless like the French guillotine and many reputations fell by the wayside.

While some were quite obvious as they wore their playboy selves on their sleeves, but names like Vinod Dua, Jatin Das and others evoked shock and disbelief, as they were considered quite progressive and respectable.

It first started with the film industry and later spread to the English journalism, thanks to a journalist named Sandhya Menon. The first to get caught in its cross hairs was K.R. Sreenivas, the resident editor of a prominent daily, to be followed by some Kolkata and Delhi based journalists.

While their ex-colleagues were coming out with unsavoury details about their peccadilloes, I again wondered whether this #me too will address the elephant in the room or be rest content with having a tilt at bit players.

Finally, the much anticipated happened. Akbar got outed and as expected it opened a Pandora's box. And I must admit that despite being aware of his Casanova ways, the Tweets left me shell shocked. They were far more toxic than the above-mentioned press club gossip, which at the most made him appear as a flamboyant editor with a glad eye for women. 

As per the disclosures, he was a sexual predator on the loose, with no one to question or curb him and he got away with all this for decades. Journalist Saba Naqvi recalling her stint in the Telegraph and without naming Akbar summed him up very well, “He behaved like a village Thakur who set off to claim any young thing that caught his fancy."

Amid all this hoopla there are allegations of witch hunt and not adhering to the due process. While the former cannot be ruled out as a few innocent men may get pilloried for no fault of theirs, the latter point does not hold much water. 

In many disclosures the victims had stated that they had approached sexual harassment redress committees, but no action was taken. At the most the erring employees were transferred, which is just a change of scene for them. The infamous ordeal of Rina Mukherjee a journalist with The Statesman is a case in point. She was terminated for filing a sexual harassment complaint against her news coordinator and had to fight a long drawn legal battle spanning more than a decade.

It is a well known fact that at many media establishments sexual harassment redress committees are mere sinecures of little consequence. So far no media company has taken any drastic action like say Infosys took against Phaneesh Murthy in 2002, when he got embroiled in a sexual harassment case. 

Also Read: Bangalore Short Takes

Monday, 8 October 2018

In Praise of Macaulay

English language is a favourite punching bag for the country's political class, as it pays them rich electoral dividends. While those in the cow belt dub it as a vestige of our colonial past, often to mask their obscurantist agendas and insecurities, those in the south of Vindhyas and eastern India see it as an impediment or even a threat to their native tongues.

But at the same time they ensure that their immediate kith and kin study in the best English medium schools and later acquire foreign degrees.

The latest to fire a salvo against English was Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, who termed the English language a ‘disease’ left behind by the British and stressing that Hindi was the symbol of “socio-political and linguistic unity”. The occasion happened to be 'Hindi Divas'.

He lamented that the Constituent Assembly (which framed the Constitution) had accepted Hindi as one of the official languages of the country, but its wishes have not been fulfilled. Interestingly, the same assembly had also adopted English as an official language at the same meeting.

Later at another meeting he clarified that “English mind” is an illness, and not the language, and stated the country should be proud of its rich heritage.

For the political class irrespective of the party or the ideology they profess, English is a red rag that charges them up. They see Thomas Babington Macaulay, the man who played a major role in bringing in English education to India, as an evil incarnate.

Though Macaulay had a very narrow utilitarian intent to promote the language among the elite Indians to build an English knowing clerical class, the fallout it created was something nobody had foreseen.

It did develop an elite class in all parts of the country, especially urban centres, but in the linguistically diverse India, English soon emerged as a link language and also a means to acquire global knowledge in science, mathematics law and all forms of modern scholarship.

Though we may not like to admit it but the seeds of nationalism, social reform and even freedom struggle were also unwittingly laid because of English language.

The formation of Indian National Congress in 1885, in which Scotsman ornithologist turned civil servant Allan Octavian Hume played a major part, became a platform of the political fight towards India's freedom.

In the early days Congress party was a gaggle of lawyers drawn from the length and breadth of the country and they all conversed and even made speeches in English.

This is how an Ismaili Koja Muslim lawyer Mohammed Ali Jinnah became friends with Maharashtrian Brahmin Gopal Krishna Gokhale; a Gujarati Baniya lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi got acquainted and later became related to Tamil Brahmin lawyer S Rajagopalachari.

It is the same English education that helped Dr B.R. Ambedkar fight the deeply entrenched casteist oppression prevalent during his period and become one of the most influential and inspiring figures in general and for the underprivileged classes in particular. That is how the idea of India took shape. All this is part of our history and cannot be wished away.

And now cut to the last decade of twentieth century. While US technology giants were scouting for locations to outsource their work, what worked in India's favour? It was again the knowledge of English language, though the constant attacks on the language had taken its toll in terms of standards.

Cheap and well trained manpower was also available in China and many other countries, and they had far superior infrastructure, but it is the much maligned English education that swung deals in India's favour.

US company officials were ready to overlook potholed roads and crumbling infrastructure to set up base in India. Now the Chinese are burning midnight oil to master English language and wrest the lone unique selling proposition (USP) India enjoys, and our above mentioned political class is working overtime to hasten that process.

Also Read: Bangalore Short Takes

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 teams officially proclaimed "the world cup is over for us".

Some kept faith and 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.

Also Read: Bangalore Short Takes

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.

Also Read: Bangalore Short Takes

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.

Also Read: Bangalore Short Takes