Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bombay, meri jawani

Last weekend I made a visit to Bombay for the first time in two years, to attend a high school friend’s tenth wedding anniversary. A fair number of alumni from Rishi Valley School (which is in Andhra Pradesh) live in Bombay, and a few of us were coming from out of town to use the occasion as a sort of mini-reunion.

The first thing I’d like to say is that Bombay taxi drivers are great fun to chat with. Not one of them seems to be from Bombay, and they have a lot to say about Raj Thackeray, but they’re really much more interested in why you aren’t married.

“But what will you do in thirty years’ time?” one of them wanted to know.

“And you like being married, do you?” I asked. He conceded that it was a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea and dropped me off at the party at Churchgate.

The best thing about class reunions is the certain knowledge that no matter how much everyone has evolved, we will all immediately regress to our high school personas and express love as we used to, viz., “Eh! Bastard.”

The next best thing about a class reunion is that you can now drink and eat non-vegetarian food together without getting expelled—Rishi Valley was strictly vegetarian and teetotalling. We have travelled a great distance from sneaking a dried-out chicken leg, flat beer and cigarette on the hostel roof in the dead of night, to chucking flavoured martinis down our gullets while stuffing our faces with meat and dancing badly to ‘The Final Countdown’. You cannot possibly appreciate this distance if you didn’t go to a Krishnamurti Foundation India (KFI) school, but take my word for it.

Sadly, some of us have travelled an equal but opposite distance from staying up all night to hitting the sack at 10pm, and we’re all a lot fatter, but we’re not going to talk about that anymore.

There’s something Faustian about going to boarding school. No matter how much the paths of your lives have diverged, no matter how little you now have in common, no matter how much you wish so-and-so hadn’t ended up with such-and-such partner, you are bound for life to boarding school classmates in a way you aren’t to day school classmates. You might be a professor of atomic science, or the prince of a sesame seed empire, or a renowned theatre personality, or the founder of a world conquering design firm, or a partner at your own law firm, but your soul belongs to School and its atavistic call, in a way that it doesn’t to college or work.

Unless you went to The Doon School, in which case you never had a soul anyway, or The Lawrence School, Sanawar, in which case you’ve never heard the word ‘atavistic’. All this is because you ate chicken and drank while in school.

Anyway, the atavistic call of boarding school his means that when a critical number of people decide it’s time to get together, You Go. When someone is In Town, you All Meet. This is not a complaint. You cannot imagine how wonderful it is to greet people by saying “Eh! Bastard.”

So the reunion was great fun, and it was followed by further revelry at a pleasant joint called The Dome, and after that some lame people—who shall remain nameless—crawled home at 10pm, while everyone else partied on until 3am.

Now, back in my nineteen-years-on adult life, I’m back to reality. And that’s definitely the very best thing about school reunions: that they remind you of a time when everything you looked at was rose-tinted.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Physician, heal thyself

Hello, consumer of news, how goes? I was thinking that since you presumably pay for your morning newspapers in order to get an objective, unmotivated assessment of what’s going on in the world, it would be interesting to get your view on this whole storm about the Press Council of India’s sub-committee report on paid news. What do you think? Oh, you didn’t know anything about any storm about any Press Council of India report on paid news?

If that’s true, I beg you to research it. At the very least it will anger, dishearten and depress you, and who doesn’t look forward to that on a Saturday morning?

Recap: After a lot of pushing by some journalists who still care about this sort of thing, the PCI commissions a sub-committee report on the widely-recognised phenomenon called ‘paid news’, in which journalists, editors and media publishers accept, or demand, payment in cash and kind from corporate houses, politicians and other individuals, in return for certain kinds of coverage (most damagingly, though not exclusively, during elections). The sub-committee report produces a thorough report that doesn’t merely mutter darkly, but gives concrete examples, naming names.

Guess what the PCI does with the report? It forms a 12-member board to figure out whether or not to publish it. Guess what this board does? It shouts the idea down and decides instead to write a tiny little hand-wringing abstract of it, in which a tiny little hand-wringing footnote says that the report will remain ‘on record’. ‘On record’ doesn’t mean ‘appended to the tiny little hand-wringing abstract’, or ‘available on the website’. It means, ‘when people call looking for the report, let’s refer them to the tiny little hand-wringing abstract on the website, and if they don’t fall for that and insist on the actual sub-committee report, let’s make them apply in writing for a hard copy, which we’ll take a week to mail.’

Then journalist P. Sainath of The Hindu writes about how the PCI buried this report. Guess how many newspapers follow up this little scandal? You only get one guess. It’s as if a bunch of emperors suddenly realised that none of them had any clothes on and decided to stay home instead.

Luckily we live in notoriously leaky times, so you can read the full report online.

At the beginning of the week there was a Media Foundation of India discussion on the PCI report. The panel included Justice GN Ray, Chairman of the PCI, and Justice JS Verma, Chairman of the Independent Broadcast Regulatory Authority. Justice Ray refused to say why the 12-member drafting committee had to be constituted, or how it voted, and stuck to his sulky position that the PCI has accepted the truth of the report, so what’s all the complaining about? Justice Verma’s main agenda seemed to be to cover for his pal, saying that the footnote can legally be interpreted as “incorporated by reference”, so what’s all the complaining about?

Concerned journalists on the panel called the PCI a ‘toothless tiger’. They talked about how in the 1980s and 1990s regional newspapers didn’t pay their reporters a salary, but gave them a commission on any ads they brought in; how corporate management is increasingly sidelining editors; how journalists are given lists of subjects to cover in a target number of column inches.

The PCI sub-committee report, the burial of that report, and the media’s lack of interest in that burial points to a complicity so deep that nobody can afford to turn the lens on themselves. It takes the idea that there are always a few rotten apples in the barrel, and shows that the one you bite into every morning is ridden with maggots. There’s no better reason for you to care.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Home alone

The other day I was fondly remembering how my mother cooked endless meals for us when we were kids in Switzerland. She also spent a lot of time driving us to the doctor, cleaning the house, and picking up all our sheddings and messings; and while I have no recollection of her being bad-tempered about this with us, I do remember her listening repeatedly to a Bruce Springsteen song about getting shot at point blank range. I figure now that she must have been recalibrating the meaning of moving from the third world to the first-world nation.

Anyway, in a fit of gratitude, I took her out to dinner at a somewhat fancy restaurant. All that slaving for us has worn her poor body out to the point where a wild, splurgy dinner out means soup and a sandwich, followed by going to bed. I don’t know how anyone can drag out this latter process for an hour, but she has some shamanistic routine involving pots of cream, mysterious medicines, aromatic sleep aids, and an unbelievable amount of pottering around.

At any rate, at the end of the meal she announced her post-prandial plan, which was to go to bed. In the spirit of sharing, I announced my post-prandial plan, which was to go to my favourite neighbourhood bar and have a beer or two.
“How nice. With whom?” she asked.

“By myself,” I said.

Apparently this was the wrong answer. Her eyes developed the Hood of Anguish, which is what your mother’s eyes develop when she thinks that going to a bar by yourself is how alcoholism begins.

“Going to a bar by yourself is how alcoholism begins,” she said. I think I saw Ingmar Bergman giving her the thumbs up from behind a pillar; I definitely heard a ghostly violin playing just behind her left shoulder.

“I’m just going to have a beer, you know,” I said.

“By yourself,” she said, shaking her gory locks at me. “In a bar.”

Mother-daughter dynamics being what they are, if I’d had any doubts about the wisdom of my plan, which I didn’t, they would have vanished instantly. I smiled my steeliest smile, wished her a vigorous bout of putting herself to bed, and sauntered off to my bar, where I had a pleasant evening drinking my beer, listening to music and staring at the wind-blown trees. I was so irritated by her foreboding, though, that I had a couple more beers than I would otherwise—it was happy hour after all. In fact just thinking about the foreboding makes me need a cocktail…

No, but seriously, the fine art of going out for a reflective, solitary drink is dying. Even the waiter who attended my table kept looking around in befuddlement, saying, Ma’am is alone tonight? Yes, I said, ma’am is alone. Nice night, isn’t it? He looked deeply uncomfortable and scuttled off.

I sat there, nobody bothered me, I paid my bill like a responsible citizen, and buggered off home. It was great. I bet that if I’d had testicles instead of ovaries, none of this would have been anguishing, or befuddling, or uncomfortable-making; the Hood wouldn’t have appeared. How irritating can a parent be?

The worst thing about a nagging mother, though, is not having her around. I’m so fond of ignoring her ambient anxiety that a commentary-free life seems less luxury than chore. She’s gone off to visit others of her children (on the flimsy grounds that she loves them too) and while I should be out dancing on tables somewhere, all I’m doing is moping and missing her. In case she’s reading this: I may have to go and drown my sorrows.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Delhi 2010: The Commonwealth Shames

Journalist: How come the roof of the stadium is leaking?

Official: Due to heavy rains, due to which water collected on the floor.

That’s the level of response we’re getting to increasingly pissed off questions about why a CWG Organising Committee with an elephantiasis-afflicted budget is unable to construct a waterproof building. Our representatives and public servants are treating us the way they always do, which is like retarded children who will hopefully get so involved in the drama of the story (rain fell! water collected on the floor!) that we won’t be tempted to dwell on the whole philosophy behind the concept of roofing.

I’m not going to say, as ex-sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyer recently said, that I will be unhappy if the Commonwealth Games in Delhi this October are a success. But that’s only because I couldn’t care less whether the Games are a triumph or a dismal failure, or poor-to-middling, or pretty good. I couldn’t give a toss whether our stadia end up being dazzling 23rd-century marvels or large leaky shanties; whether the athletes have a fabulous time or faint mid-event due to insufficient nutrition; whether the press shames India or covers it in glory; whether we win any medals or not; in other words whether, at the end of the day, Delhi puts on a good show.

If, on October 4, Delhi wakes up to find world-class stadia all completed, the Games Village ready for occupation, and the roads and pavements of the city magically put back together in spruced up form, it won’t make a whit of a difference to me. As far as I’m concerned we’ve already lost, we’re already shamed, and we’ve already shown ourselves to be a contemptible bunch of losers. Because while, like everyone else, I’d love to see a decent result, I would much rather have had a decent process.

A decent process would be a display of integrity and efficiency by the leadership, organisers, and implementing agencies at every step—that means managing time, and not treating public funds like a lucky dip. Integrity would mean motivating everyone involved with organising and preparing for the Games to get on board with the shared goals of a) doing a first-rate job of hosting an international sporting event; b) being left with a first-rate set of sporting facilities for our young athletes to grow up with, and a much-upgraded city; and c) all this at minimal cost and inconvenience to the people of India during the process. It means best practices.

This we have already hopelessly failed to do. So if Delhi doesn’t collapse into a giant fiery crater in the earth, I won’t think phew, everything went off all right. I will think of the shady outfit called AM Films in London, engaged at a cost of £200,000 without so much as a scrap of written documentation. I will think of a budget swollen to eighteen times its original estimate. I will search for a good metaphor for taxpayer money going down the toilet and, upsettingly enough, find it in the alleged purchase of toilet paper at Rs 4,000 a roll.

Much like the roof issue, our officials want us to give them more money because they have no time left, and to ignore the fact that they have no time left because they didn’t do their jobs, which was to do things on time. They want us to help salvage our ‘national pride’, and ignore the fact that we don’t have any national pride because of them and the fact that we put up with them. And I’m terrified that we will cooperate.

Two questions. How stupid do they think we are? And: How stupid are we?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A good man is hard to find

The world being what it is, we cynics get little respite. Once in a while, though, something makes your heart soar. I felt that in April, when I saw a YouTube video called ‘Collateral Murder’. Now I’d like to find Julian Assange and give him a big hug and a kiss. And maybe a sandwich and a clean t-shirt. And maybe donate my life savings to his website, which this week was to Rolling Stone’s general-slaying report what a nuclear bomb is to a firecracker.

The big deal is not what the 92,000-document ‘Afghan War Diary’ reveals, which is, in sum, that Pakistan is a creepy double-dealer and that the United States prefers to be bitch-slapped than to risk a geostrategic alliance, even as it hushes up its own indiscretions on the battlefield. Everyone knew that. The big deal is that graphic official evidence of it could impact US public sentiment, thus far contained by the curt phrase ‘national security’, and maybe prompt policy change.

But the much bigger deal is that WikiLeaks itself, in concept and execution, has come to the world’s notice as a game-changer in journalism and the way information is accessed and processed. For the first time, whistleblowers across the world have a relatively safe, technologically sophisticated platform where they can anonymously expose secret documentation—military, political, corporate or any other kind. Information thus declassified and released to the public is potentially volcanic. Is it even legal? Assange’s response to that is a metaphorical middle finger, and several wins in court. That, I like to think, should make the abuse of power a little less easy, or at least a little less carefree.

Some of WikiLeaks’s techniques strike me as similar to those of terrorist networks: armies of anonymous volunteer workers; cells of activity, each of which has knowledge of only a limited part of the system so that any compromise is also limited; an individual, mobile, guerrilla style of operation. Hundreds of people work with Assange, but WikiLeaks is more or less synonymous with the 39-year-old Australian, and almost nobody knows where he is until he surfaces for a TED Talk here or a press conference there. The New Yorker magazine calls WikiLeaks “not quite an organisation; it is better described as a media insurgency”.

And indeed, Assange—a tall, baby-faced, low-voiced, steely-eyed mathematician, physicist and hacker—is an extremist, a crusader for the just individual against the dodgy institution. He despises the cosy mutual back-scratching between journalists and ‘official sources’ that so constrains mainstream reporting. And he takes the fall for the whistleblowers he protects, so, paradoxically, this champion of transparency is paranoid and slippery as an eel himself, living an almost impossibly transient life. In his youth he went through 37 schools as he travelled with his mother; spent days in the wild by himself, has slept in parks and on floors. Today he lives out of a knapsack, sleeps in the houses of friends of friends or in hotels, and constantly changes his phone number and email address. Home is any of four places where he holes up if he falls sick.

WikiLeaks could well be vulnerable to manipulation and abuse itself; but Assange is something of a modern-day hero in a world that has too few. If you hadn’t heard of him before, chances are you’ll hear of him again. I wish him ever-greater paranoia and elusiveness, because I can just see shadowy officials in dark corridors trying to figure out how to get rid of him.

WikiLeaks has an India page. May many more Indians use it, and may many more keep track of it. God knows we could use some help with transparency.