Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir

Benazir Bhutto is dead.

She has been shot dead [most probably] in Rawalpindi, the garrison town of Pakistan.

The world's leaders are shocked. They should not be - there was enough forewarning of this coming.

Nawaz Sharif said - this is a sad day for Pakistan. Good of him. Prez Musharraf so far said nothing. It happened under his watch, in his city. Probably he knew it all along anyway.

This is a sad day for Pakistan, indeed. But I fear - it is a sad day for the entire South Asia. May be, this will have an impact in shaping the world history. This makes the hopes of democracy and stability in Pakistan even more remote. This gives the madcap dictator Musharraf even more time. With a nuclear arsenal under his command, he is the most dangerous man in the world today.

So, jail for the Justice Chowdhury, and bullets for Benazir. Sharif possibly does not count as he will do a deal. The present American administration indeed has a Pakistan policy, which is working no better than its Iraq or Afghanistan policy. Yes, President Bush will leave a lasting legacy - of making the world a more dangerous place than the Cold War era.

One parting word for Benazir: She was the great hope of our generation. She failed it when power came to her. Perhaps now, she has done her duty in her death - by sending out a wake up call to the confused world caught in its own lies.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

2007

2007 is over, well, almost. We are left with a few more days. Those can still be the defining few more days. Something truely momentus can still happen, which defines the year - for me, for you or may even be for the world. But as Christmas sets in and offices close, my work-year is over and time for reflection has started.



So, how was it overall? For me, it was not a bad year. Remember, 2006 was terrible for me, everything went wrong. It got better in 2007. Some wounds healed, some new grounds were broken. Professionally, a new opportunity opened up. Life became a lot less secure, but a lot more certain. A lot more fulfilling.



So, another year less to count, and one more to remember. Yes, I guess that's defining - I finally got old. My thoughts changed from aspirations to legacy, from profits to property. I thought about money, and realised how careless I have been so far. I regretted buying so many books and not one 'company paper' in my life. It showed me I am no entrepreneur; only a hopeless optimist.



Overall, I lived a boring busy life. Kept low profile, kept my patience, and counted days. Kept promising to myself that someday I shall make it big. In 2007, I also realised that the time is running out.



I saw lots of movies, and read a lot of books. Travelled a lot, clocked up airmiles and wasted lots of time on airport lounges. Most movies I saw are on inflight small screens, and most books I read in the hotel rooms. Did not take a single holiday, and did not drink much. Well, altogether, I lived like a good boy.

Waiting for the recession

Holidays! For me, nothing changes though. No special visits, no special shopping agenda, not many social engagements. This is what the last two crazy years done to my social presence - I was never there, and so I was struck off from many lists. Pity! But there goes my first New Year resolution.

Anyway, it is fairly cold outside. Let's be honest - it is very cold. Colder than the last season, perhaps, though no one talks about these things with any certainty. It is breezy and cold, and I noticed black ice on Thursday afternoon. One of my colleagues explained to me that global warming is not just about warming, it is about making weathers more extreme. So, a warmer July and a colder February is what we are bracing for. Almighty God, why have we forgotten you?

The shops are busy. I took a lot longer than usual to buy some of those last minute gift items. I was expecting a lot less crowd, given the recent headlines about recession. Did I think that there were less number of shoppers than last year? Yes, I did - but more like weather, one can't be certain about these things.

To update those who do not care to read the newspapers, the following is happening: The house prices are not going up. This is because people are fearful that they will not go up, and therefore not investing money in buying houses. The house prices are not going up because at this time, there is a credit squeeze, banks have a lot less loose money which they can lend to anyone. This is again because they actually gave a lot of money to lots of people who should not have borrowed so much, and that led to higher interest rates to keep the inflation down [as all those people were spending money buying things which they should not have in the first place] and this meant these people who could not afford the loans now needed to pay more to keep servicing it. So, yes, I would leave talking about this circular logic as long as you got the sense - we have got into a hole we dug for ourselves.

Funnily, I picked up a book yesterday - Boom Bust: House Prices, Banking and The Recession of 2010, by Fred Harrison. This book is published in 2005, so obviously we knew this all along. Also, almost all leading economists were warning that the debts are going too far. But the recession failed to arrive - almost like those environmental catastrophes everyone talks about and we kept doing whatever we were doing. Mr. Harrison blames two individuals - Alan Greenspan and Gordon Brown - for leading everyone down the path when they knew what lies ahead, at the same time making the point that the real flaw lies in the obsessive faith on one tool of economic management - the Interest Rate - to cure all evils.

Hopefully, this Christmas will pass happily. I am stepping out for some more last minute gifts, and I shall spend as long as I expect on the M&S queue today. So will everyone, and we shall contribute however much we can to keep the recession away [Mike observed, after noticing that I am reading Fred Harrison, that we would talk ourselves into recession]. However, the fears are unlikely to go away. This is primarily because we have an economy, which is not strong on fundamentals. The houses are bought by not those who need it for staying, but those who wants to make a profit on these. Those who need it for staying can't afford it anymore. So, we have a bubble economy - when it goes up, it goes up, but when it goes down, it goes down.

So, is this the end of the era of Globalisation? Will this bust destroy the emerging economies, turn America xenophobic, and push China down the path of military desparatism? Possibly no, but the problem is - this will make it more likely. While I shall not dig myself into a cave and wait for the end of the world, I shall head off for my shopping with this thought - the question of equality is no longer a moral question, but a pragmatic one. If the monetarist regimes across the world fails to control the economic see-saw again, this will tell us that generating economic activity without equitable distribution will make those see-saws only more violent, and they will eventually manage to throw us from our seat. I shall pray that it is not going to be this time around.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fashion Babylon

I am back from India - yes, yet again - and all ready for Christmas. The lovely weather is helping, the phones have become less busy and work hours less gruelling. Not shopped much this year - a bit down as my brother cancelled his visit to England rather last minute and since I have made no other plans, I am in for a rather boring christmas sitting at home. However, I recovered my reading habits, and made a pre-mature new year pledge not to lose it again.

What I just read is 'Fashion Babylon' - a story by Imogen Edward-Jones about a woman fashion designer based in London. Well, whatever the critics say about it, I found it engrossing - not just because I read it cover to cover in two days after such a long time. Not also because it has lots of stories, gossips, about the Fashion Industry and the assorted celebrities [I must admit that one take-away for me is a kinder view of Kate Moss], which probably is the reason lots of people will read it. I liked the human story, the entrepreneur's story, which is embedded into it.

The book starts with a London Fashion Week and ends with New York Fashion Week next year. It describes Paris but skips Milan - and takes the tale through a successful period in the narrator's life. It describes the pressures, the aspirations and the disappointments of the narrator. Also, this is a very London tale - with its pubs, streets, people and lingo wrapped all around, which is fascinating. The gays, the nudity, the drugs are all around - as expected - and this is the sweat-and-dirt view of fashion, as against the glossiness of the more successful 'The Devil Wears Prada' variety.

Overall, a good book to read. And, I am on the next one.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Who wants to be a Fascist?

Budhdhadev Bhattacharya, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, commented upon the recent violence of Nandigram - 'they have been paid back by their own coins' - commenting upon his party-workers' recent assault on Nandigram, an unremarkable village in West Bengal where an unique people's resistance movement to the Government's land acquisition took form. The resisting few had outside help - from an assortment of opposition parties and left-wing guerrillas - and they have fought for their corner. They managed to cut off the roads, and embarrassed and terrorised police, who managed to torture and fire upon innocent civilians in some cases. Then came the CPIM Cadres, armed and facilitated by the state machinery, while police stood by and in fact blocked everyone else from reaching the village. The Governor of the state lodged a protest, but CPIM created a huge ruckus on his comments. The cadres invaded Nandigram and flushed out the resistance - while scores of central security force personnel was held back by the state and the protests in Calcutta changed nothing. Then, the Chief Minister announced victory, with these comments.

This would have been a standard tale of an industrialising society. Industry needs land, and the transformation is often cruel and violent. This could have also been an unremarkable story of political violence, which is commonplace in India, where armed cadres of one party fights with another. But the erudite Chief Minister, by staying silent when the violence continued for good many days, and then making comments justifying the violence, let this incident transcend both.

There was another story which grabbed headlines in India recently. The criminals of Gujrat riots recently confessed - on camera on a sting operation - that they had direct support of the Chief Minister of the state, Narendra Modi, who gave them three days to 'clean up' the muslim areas. Modi was termed a Fascist, for letting the state police stand aside, while the butchery continued unabated.

What's the key difference between what Modi did, and what the enlightened, secular Chief Minister of West Bengal did? Just that Modi did not justify the killers' actions officially. He made a similar statement to that of Budhdhadev's - implied that the muslim community has been paid back for their crimes in Godhra, 'paid back in their own coins'. BB went a step further, he said 'he can't deny his political self', which Modi, pragmatic as he is, did not say.

Modi is Fascist, as CPIM says. Indeed, he used the state machinery ruthlessly to run a brutal pogrom. But genocides are not only defined by scale, but by intention. Wiping out those who are dissimilar to ourselves is an equivalent crime of attacking those who don't agree with us. Fascism is not just about an ideology, or being right or left of the centre, but also about ignoring the rule of law for the sake of one's political self.

The cat is out of the bag, therefore. Meanwhile, we will continue to suffer. This is because we would keep thinking that we are unaffected, and this is about Muslims, the wayward peasants of Nandigram, madcap Maoists, and not us. And, yes, we shall forget Rev. Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - A Review

I read this novel by Mohsin Hamid non-stop, over a few hours this Sunday. It is written in a witty, engaging, conversational style, telling the story of a Pakistani boy who studied in Princeton and worked for a highly esteemed financial services company, only to find himself at odds with America in the wake of the tension of India-Pakistan stand off after the attack on Indian Parliament, 9/11 and the tragic turn in his love life.

There is a lot to like this novel. It is easy to identify yourself with the central character, the ambitions, constraints and reservations very familiar. Its style is engaging, and wit, disarming. The novel contains a subtle description of life in Lahore, its oldness, its markets and its people. It depicts New York too, may be with less conviction, but with no less love.

However, it suffers from - in my view - one crucial drawback. Conviction. It remains difficult to fathom why Changiz - the central character - does what he does. There is a certain unreasonableness in his demand on America. His tragedy in love does not convince us of the cruel inconsideration of the modern, material civilisation, which it plausibly could; it stands out like an accident, a sad turn but really an event unrelated but in narrator's mind.

I close the book - even after its intriguing end - thinking, but who is America. Changez does not think of all the kindnesses of life, but blames a whole country for what he thought was injustice, never trying to put it in perspective or assessing its fundamentals. He is poetic in his hate, poetically imprecise. And, that, in this world of real fundamentalists and real hate, sounds unconvincing and unreal.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Emergency in Pakistan

President Musharaf has made history by being the only Pakistani president in history to impose emergency twice. Lot of commentators say that the situation is alike Martial Law, which has been imposed on the country no less than five times in its sixty year history.

However, what’s interesting to me is what the President said in his TV speech – “I appeal to my critics – give us time! Your democracies have matured over centuries, but ours is a new one and needs time. We are making great progress, but it is necessary, from time to time, to correct the course.”

It is very similar to what a prominent Bangladeshi blogger wrote, in defending the martial law in Bangladesh: “Over the last thousand years, Bangalees have not had much autonomous democratic control of their destinies. We have been ruled during this time from Delhi or London or Islamabad. Even since 1971, our political leaders have often been autocratic leaders. So theoretically speaking we have had at best 15 years in the last 1500 years of free rule. Given this, should we be so sure of what democracy or which model of democracy suits us best? Should we not even spend some time on deliberating on our structure of government and representation?” [That’s Farhan – in his Conversation With An Optimist; http://nazimfarhan.blogspot.com]

I know this view is very prevalent in Asia, and I am sure the Thai generals also have some similar excuse. It is commonly believed by the elite that the people need to be told how they should vote [not far, in conceptualization, from the current US faith in Engineered Democracies].

However, despite this, the 'people' proved uncannily prescient. In Bangladesh, for example, governments were booted out for non-performance. In Pakistan, the experience has been similar. Even in India, which had a 20-month emergency period in its 60 year history, the dictatorial Mrs. Gandhi was taught a lesson by the electorate for suspending democracy.

So, I see the flip side of Musharaf’s argument. The democracy is immature, but so is the ruling elite. It is less a fault of people and democratic process, because they always voted well when given a chance, and more a fault of the ruling elite to improve the situation in these countries. Farhan is a very intelligent man and a keen observer of the political process, but he is indeed wrong – what the countries need is a restoration of democratic process, not the suspension of it.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Indian English

I visited an IELTS Training centre in Hyderabad today – Institute of Articulate Communication! Or, was it “Articulative (!) Communication”? Don’t remember, but this proves a point.

The point is – something new is happening to Indian English. Consider this: “The fast-growing, developing world uses the home as a sleeping bag and the office cubicle as a garden of courtship. Skin to skin is no sin, it helps to relax and truly pluralistic relationships are polygamous. Fidelity has many definitions and it is an insult to human heart when it is divided into categories in a reductionist manner.” I quoted that paragraph from India Today magazine’s round-table discussion on marriage and infidelity, and this is Dr. Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist.

Or, this – the anti-nuclear deal parties are ‘stone age obscurantist’ and pro ones are ‘stooges’ and ‘sell-out-ists’! Recently, in a business presentation, a very senior doctor was trying to impress my British associates by telling them that they can successfully recruit nurses from India by working with his hospital. He said: “Listen closely to what we are saying – by working with us, you will have millions [!] of trained nurses knocking at your door very soon.” My associates were probably frightened, but they did well to hide what they felt.

Jug Suraiya makes this point in today’s Times of India, in his essay ‘Let’s Stop Talking Like Brats’. ‘We won’t grow up unless our language does first’ – he says – and points out India’s ‘adolescent personality’. He points out that ‘bubblespeak’ – a take from Orwellian doublespeak and a spoken equivalent of speech bubbles of comic books – is an essential element of our language in use, and won’t go away despite our increasing hobnobbing with the emotionally matured world.

In the end, much of this is ascribed to the Indian character, brash, adolescent and uneasy. However, this is not happening to the native languages, I must point out. They are becoming funny, cosmopolitan, light and increasingly adopting bollywoody-ism, most famously the use of ‘Mamu’ and ‘Bole To’. The language is changing, undeniably, but these changes in local language project a new confidence to accept and incorporate a ‘national common denominator’, a sign of confidence and maturity. However, the English speaking in India is walking the reverse direction, obscuring itself into indecipherable flourish and ‘babble-speak’ and projecting its emotional insecurity in embracing the world.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

New India - Yet Again

I just finished my fourth trip to India in as many months, and now have this huge challenge on my plate - that of running a full-scale business in India.

Mythologies and emotions aside, this is surely a very daunting task. As I keep mentioning to my colleagues, paraphasing an observation about China - from outside, all one sees is the huge multiplier effect, x times the population, y times the size of middle class, number of people in the age group 18 - 30 larger than the whole population of Western Europe; but once you are in, it is actually a game of endless divisions - languages, states, religions, so on and so forth.

The popular British colonial view of India was summed up by Winston Churchill, when he observed that India is no more a country than the Equator. While this reflects more Edwardian delusion than historical reality, the diversity of India is undeniable, and plain to see even for Indians.

The key in operating in India, however, is in ability to see and operate with, to quote another, kinder, colonial observer - the historian Vincent Smith - 'The Unity in Diversity'. In business strategy terms, this will mean working with not just the large numbers, but the quality and variety of the populace.

Kind of obvious, but not so, as I have discovered in my last few years in Britain. For most observers outside, India is a fuzzy, metaphysical lump, 'like, to a blind man, piono playing appears to be movement of fingers and no music'. That comment was made by Rabindranath Tagore, India's leading poet, about a hundred years back, but things have changed very little.

In fact, the understanding of India has improved little, despite this corporate rush of doing the 'India thing'. The new, English-speaking, yuppie India has emerged, almost in line with the mystical but monolithic western perception, and has become the 'global' face of India. Predictably, a beevy of businesses have gone into India armed with strategies designed for this 'New Indian', with a near-complete ignorance of the village connections, parental ties, religious constraints, deep-seated fears and mildness of ambition that is so uniquely Indian.

The trouble is that when you exclude 'Indian pecularities', you exclude Indians, millions of them. This makes business plans unviable - strategies don't work anymore.

Interestingly, this is what our business is all about - teaching English to Indians, making them more homogeneous, accessible to global businesses.

But I am already having other ideas. It appears to me that our business will be about letting Indians discover the world in their own terms, letting the diversity out. English is an wonderful instrument, not just of homogenization, but of ability and freedom, and our strategy will be to 'unlock the ability' hidden in every Indian. This is difficult, but this is what will differentiate us. So, that's my journey and it starts here.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Business in India - Finally Launched




The English training business in India finally got launched - on the 28th September in Hyderabad. An interesting point in life for me - this took me three years of effort to get there. This meant bringing together people I have worked with for a while to make this project happen, and some of the new people I came across. For this launch, everyone came together - a happy occasion.

The idea was to create a multi-purpose learning centre with a core offer of English language training. The problem of English language training indeed is that it is difficult to build a medium to long term offering, which means that one needs new students to sign up every month or so to keep going. This is the other end of the scale of the education business, where you need students in annual cycles perhaps.

In India, a price-sensitive and highly competitive market for English Language training, it will be a challenge to establish a premium training centre. The business model will be a matter of negotiation and exploration, and long term commitment would be needed to get the business going.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Purpose of Education

C. is staying with us now, and she forced this discussion on us : Who would you call an ‘educated’ person? As one thing leads to other, the thought trail went further – what is the purpose of education anyway and how does it affect anyone individually and also a society as a whole.

Big questions, these. Also, one needs to be qualified to answer such questions. But there must be layman’s answer: A sort of a generalist view, which may not earn a Ph D, but something which can be understood and can be used to explain some of the maladies of lack of education.

When the question was asked, a Sanksrit sloka came to my mind, which says Education gives you humility, which leads to success, fame and money. A very concise statement on the purpose of education, but slightly dated perhaps. Humility is not COOL. It is OUT. Self-advertising is IN. It is a Brand You world, as Tom Peters will say. So, has the purpose of education changed?

But if you look at the process of education, and the format of it, you will see quite a bit has been retained since the ancient ages. For example, the teacher refuses to go away, despite the internet. Education, as opposed to training, is often about learning things, which may not have a direct practical significance, not at least in the short term. So, has the purpose of education really changed?

Not quite, I would say. I would try the best answer that I can reconcile with my Hindu upbringing: education is about knowing the unknown, and removing the fear of the different. We all have our cosy corners, as a child or as an adult, and education is the process of initiating us to the world. It is about making us open, and humble.

Yes, it is not about qualifications or grades. Neither is it about the time spent or number of books read or numbers of pages written. Nor about being an expert. It is about the ability of stepping out of one’s comfort zone and meeting the world. Knowing that people, and places, are different. Our lives are inevitably narrow – in terms of time and space. Education is about introducing the existence of the wider world in our lives; it is indeed about imbibing a long view, of ourselves, of our societies.

An educated person, then, is one who respects – others, otherness. One, who knows the advantages of humility, as Hindu sages so pragmatically advised. One who can question what J K Galbraith called ‘conventional wisdom’. One who imbibes the open and enlightened approach to morality with the humanist respect and general good behaviour. S/he is one who does not hide in the classroom, but meet the world halfway down the road.

I must admit, as it is plain to see, that a deliberate attempt has been made, in the last thirty or so years, to move education away from this format. I see no conspiracy, let me assert, just the general blindness that comes with success. The ‘conventional wisdom’ is that in those thirty years, human civilisation has achieved a lot, more than any other previous centuries. A sense of perspective would have prompted a question: Was the invention of making a fire a less arduous discovery than the process of creating usable atomic energy? Or creating the first wheel any less significant than creating hybrid automobile engines? However, such confidence in ‘the way it is going’ has prompted a move, in format as in substance, from the education which initiates one to the unknown, to a format which is for creating experts - a narrower comfort zone and false confidence combined with essential short-termism.

Let us return to C. again, for a final thought. Her Ph D thesis is about Innovation, Flexibility and Competitiveness. How coincidental, considering that her world view prompted us to think about education in the first place? I say that as innovation is so intricately related to the openness than comes with good education, the art of humility and long view. I am sure that she will disagree with me vigorously regarding my views on education, but I hope that, in the end of her Ph D, she will return to the advise of my Hindu sage – I paraphrase – Education gives humility, which leads to openness, flexibility and finally, competitiveness.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Room to Read

I am now reading John Wood's Leaving Microsoft to Change The World and am hugely inspired by it.



This is a story of his leaving a cushy job in Microsoft in China, and setting up Room To Read. This tells the story of his encounter with school children in Nepal and promising to come back with books for their library, tapping in his hotmail contacts, and finally going on to set up Room to Read.



I must admit I am inspired, and I wish to do something similar in India. I can see what a revolutionary role free public libraries can play, and know about Andrew Carnegie and his project. While I set up the English Training business, I see this as a worthwhile project to get involved in.



There are t-s to cross, and i-s to be dotted. But I have now got started on this - setting up a chain of free reading rooms in India. I am talking to a few Rotary clubs, and intend to speak to Indian businessmen as I meet them.

Calcutta Moment

Don't blink, or you go under.



The policeman sleeps,

The eve teasers hang about -

The eve is trying apple juice in the corner shop.



Buses everywhere.

A queue forms in front of the ATM.

Another, in the panipuri shop nearby.



This is Ekdalia.

The corner of joy.

An eternal Calcutta moment frozen in a frame.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Keep Going

There are moments when you think,
Life's not worth living.
Either boring or compulsive,
All is tedious, and repulsive.

These are moments when you see
What we live for, is the key.
Money matters, but we know,
There are limits it can go.

So is love, or sex if you please,
Happiness appears more of a tease.
Friendships matter, but waver too,
No one lives just as you.

These are moments when you choose,
To keep going or cut loose.
All of us have habits to keep,
Even on board of a sinking ship.

So, keep going, keep going till you die,
Because you can't change, nor can I.
Head down, and throw up hands,
Or say, let us dig in sands.

Englishwala

So what do I do? When I get into a conversation, the question inevitably comes up.

I have noticed I try to answer this differently every time: 'I am a business man, setting up training business', 'I am in International Business Development and setting up a training business' and 'I am a training professional, setting up a training chain'. There may be another few variations but I don't recall it at this time.So, when I thought of getting used to one straight answer, this is what I arrived at - I am Englishwala, and my job is to set up a business of training English.

Yes, worldwide, and as my job title will say - India is included. I always wanted to do something worthwhile with my life. My Calcutta childhood did not show many possibilities, and my indifferent academic results did not inspire others to think of anything other than a standard office job for myself. So, I did - as destined - start off as a computer operator, gradually moving into customer facing roles, and then by a stroke of luck, in training.

IT Training it was - and yes, I was more or less at the right place at the right time. In 1995, APTECH was leading the industry with several new ideas. Indian IT just started becoming a serious industry, and APTECH, a clear No. 2 in the IT Training industry, turned heads by one initiative after another - creating franchise models to reach smaller cities, using a partnership with Zee TV to start training on TV, working with Zee TV and Apple Computers to create Neighbourhood Learning Centres, creating multiple specialised training brands like Arena for Multimedia Training, Hardcore for Hardware training etc. They were the first ones to create an online learning portal - http://www.onlinevarsity.com/ - back in 1996. Also, International Franchising - APTECH moved to Bangladesh and several African countries during that period. All these initiatives, backed by a very intelligent and aggressive campaign 'We are No. 1', suddenly put NIIT, the market leader, on the backfoot.

However, APTECH's challenge did not last long. After a few sparkling years, by 1997/98, its influences were waning as NIIT gradually regained its market. I shall talk about this fascinating yeo-yeo game later in this blog, and also say how I managed to play a small role in this shift. But, for the moment, I wanted to say how much that APTECH stint made a difference in my life.I learnt the Challenger's art in APTECH, I always say. We did a lot of new things, and explored new ideas. I learnt my marketing in APTECH, though I never publicly admit it. Later when I moved to NIIT and waged a war on APTECH, I used the techniques I learnt there.

Once, I was told by a very senior NIIT executive that I am one of the best education salesman in India; a compliment I accepted without embarassment. Something I did not acknowledge then, but know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I learnt most of my trade in those short, impressionable years at APTECH.

This is not to say that I did not learn anything at NIIT - I learnt a lot about operation, people management, systems and processes, documentation, franchise management. I combined the best of my learnings at both the places, and wanted to become the best Education Businessman in the world.

From there, to this Englishwala role. There are lots of stories to be told - of that journey, of this journey. That's what I intend to do here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

My life is changing

I could not write the blog as often as I wished to in the last few months. This blog, Sunday Posts, was supposed to be about thoughts and ideas, and I suppose the hard, practical facet of life took precedence during this period. I was having a thinking holiday, which was refreshing, but one I can not afford for much longer.

My life is set to change now. I am taking over as the Overseas Development Director for a training and recruitment company this Friday, and will be straight onto the airport thereafter. This inevitably means even more pressured thinking and lot less time to write a blog.

I could have let the blog die. I did seriously consider that, and pledged to return to blog writing when I would have restored sanity and comfort in my life again. But, then, I had this flash of insight – first in many days – such a thing will never happen.

I realised that it is a much better idea to turn this blog into a daily diary, trivial in the context of my lofty goals, but alive. I realised my thoughts will now be hidden in the life I live, and new possibilities will arise and die everyday. So, be it – a daily diary in Sunday Posts, I shall retain the name for my vanity, where I shall write about my travels, my learning, my failings, my vanity and my life. This is thought harvesting, I paused o think, I shall be able to think because I live, and there is no better tutor in thinking than those harsh, trivial realities of life which reign supreme at times like this.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A Very British Affair

So, it seems BAE had paid Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, ex-Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States, whose face and name became familiar to all of us in days following the 9/11, upto $120 million a year, in bribes.

Well, we knew that. That's not news. The Serious Fraud Office in UK wanted to investigate, but dropped the case after the Government stepped in. That's also old news.

What should make us pause and think, however, is what Tony Blair said in justifying why the investigations should be dropped.

He said that if the SFO investigation into BAE had not been dropped, it would have led to "the complete wreckage of a vital strategic relationship and the loss of thousands of British jobs".

Vital Strategic Relationship with a corrupt, repressive and undemocratic Saudi regime, one must note. Also, of course, protecting British jobs justify bribing and securing contracts under the table - for our comfort.

Strategic Relationship is more valuable for rule of law, it is okay to bribe if that protects jobs, it is great to sponsor corruption - that's the message we get. And, perhaps, also that very British message - Do Not Embarass.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

India's Edsel Mistake

Reading through Simon Robinson's 'India Without the Slogans' in TIME, I could sense a danger for India : Edsel.

Well, Edsel as in Ford Edsel, one of the most famous examples of over-hyping, effectively advertising a product and raising expectations before the actual product completely failed to match expectations.

There is lot of talk on India now. Incredible India! As Robinson mentions, this years World Economic Forum meeting was replete with 'India Everywhere' advertising. India is moving up the chain : it is no longer hyphenated with Pakistan, implying its self-destructing conflict, but with China, underscoring its emerging economic might. Indian businessmen are on a global buying spree, Indian companies are hugely successful in IT, real estate prices are going through the roof, salaries are rising, there is a clear optimism in the air.

But, for all this, one wonders whether India is selling ahead of itself. Robinson talks about the age-old Indian problems of infrastructure. Thriving democracy often throws up nasty parochialism. Corruption refuses to die. Communalism rears its head in most economically advanced states. For all the slickness in talk, there is the squalor of the slums. Modernisers grapple with vested interests. For each step forward, there are two leaps backward.

However, that by itself is not a problem. All countries go through this phase, the labour pain of development. China has gone through famine, poverty, self destruction, before unleashing its entrepreneurs on the world. Japan had its share of trouble. Dickens and Marx recorded industrial age Britain.

The problem are the slogans. Robinson says : it is better to be surprised than disappointed. He was in the wrong city - a smaller town in North-eastern India which the Indian marketers did not want the world to see. But, that indeed is India. Like Edsel's infamous front-grill. Or finless tail. You can't hide them for long.

As we compare and compete with China, we must not make the assumption we are on the same league yet. China had years of prepartion before bursting into the world scene. It had invested in infrastructure for years. It is much ahead in many economic indicators - including entrepreneurship. [As an Indian, reading James Kynge's China Shakes The World is a sobering experience] And, it does not feel the need to sell itself with slogans and packaging.

India may be making the Edsel mistake: its advertising may seem too clever, and its message, void of substance.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Alfred Chandler

Alfred Chandler passed away last month.

It's funny that I chose Alfred Chandler as my nickname on Second Life. Playfully, I wanted to be the business historian of the Second Life businesses :-)

However, having lived in the age of Internet, I am an worshipper of enterprise. For me, managers are outdated and out of touch, and completely incapable of leading because the environment is fluid and expectations are uncertain. For me, the entrepreneur is the hero.

Chandler had just the opposite view. For him, managers were real heros. They were the value creators. He saw it at the pinnacle of the industrial age. More importantly, he worked it out with Alfred Sloan and GM, which needed all of Sloan's efforts after living on the brink under William Durant's management by the seat of pants.

Chandler is also remembered for his contribution on strategy thinking. He is remembered for his studies of strategy and structure, which is ever more relevant today, when the companies need to reassess their structure and recreate themselves.

He, like Peter Drucker, represented the golden age of manegerialism and big company leadership. Who knows what Second Life will bring about next?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Eleventh Force

Thomas Friedman can be rightly called the Cheerleader-in-Chief of Globalisation. His unending enthusiasm, coupled with his great capacity to observe only the sunny side of things, makes his books a kind of sugary-syrup, something that feels good and cheerful while it lasts.

Whatever my attitudes towards his books, here is something I wanted to add to one of his lists.

He lists - in his 'The World is Flat' - 10 great flattening forces of globalisation: namely, 1. Walls coming down [Berlin Wall]; 2. Connectivity [WWW]; 3. Work Flow Software; 4. Uploading [Open Source Software]; 5. Outsourcing; 6. Offshoring; 7. Supply Chaining; 8. Insourcing; 9. In-forming [Web Search]; 10. The Steroids [Digital, Mobile, Personal & Virtual].

I wanted to add another, the eleventh, English Language.

If it was commerce that led the first and the second wave of globalisation [Globalisation 2.0 as Friedman calls it], it is global communication and cultural infusion and uniformity will lead the next. The big spread of English Language training in China [there are more school children in China learning the language than England, Australia, Canada and New Zealand combined], the gradual increase in popularity of English in Easter Europe over French, German and Russian - points a trend.

English Language and Internet necessarily fed each other's growth. But, as it seems, this is now reaching a critical mass, the point where it stops being just a trend, and becomes a force.

One last observation though: The spread of English Language will not necessarily establish the global superiority of the English speaking nations. As one of my English colleagues told me - they don't need to learn another language - this will essentially weaken, not strengthen these societies. It is the paradox of power - it always rests with the curious. English, in the next generation, will be a 'flattener' - the millions of global english speakers will now set out to rob the native english speakers of one last advantage they were complecent about.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Morality of Profit

In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago.

Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so.

Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself.

Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was, as I mentioned, that this is a reward for risks taken. However, there were others, most notably Marx, who saw profits as a fruit of exploitation of labourers by industrialists. In Marx’s view, human beings create value by adding labour to raw material available naturally, and hence labour was the only source of all human value-creation. However, capitalists, to use Marx’s language, pay labourers less than fair share of the value they created, and pocket the rest – surplus value – as profits. In Marx’s world, the poor entrepreneur would have been entitled to a salary commensurate with the hours he would put in, and may be an interest if he has put in any money, and possibly a rent if he used his own house – but not much else.

Marx’s view was highly influential, as we all know. However, this was, if I may say, a straightjacket befitting the pen of a brilliant journalist, as Marx indeed was. He lived in Industrial Revolution England and observed labourers toiling in sub-human condition to earn their masters an idle life of luxury. Marx’s was a moral outrage, but like an excitable journalist, he equated his momentary observations with the vision of a universal truth, and stigmatised profits.

However, if Marx lived today, he would have known he missed two significant points. First, in the post-industrial era, it is evident that profits don’t solely come from the amount of labour put in. And, second, in the era of organised labour and talent shortage [in complete reverse of Marx’s days when labourers were unorganised, unskilled, and without any option but to work for a subsistence wage], the bargaining power of workers are significant. Despite this, however, the profit margins are growing, and not shrinking, as it should have been following Marx’s model.

Marx’s views proved to be enduring. It is not just the socialists thought of profit as unjust, everyone on the other side of the profit divide have been suspicious of its nature. This is because there is an inherent moral question to be asked about profits, and the industrial era exploitation may have changed form, but still persists and often rear its head.

Today’s profits can be seen as

Total Profits = Rewards for Value Creation + Value Grab

To explain, a business creates value in many ways, starting with by simply being there, making available goods and services in a beneficial way to customers who wish to pay for it. Businesses also create value through other methods, most notably through innovation [by creating new product or service possibilities, by meeting a market need], information [by creating demand, educating customers about solutions to their problems or desires] and enabling [by allowing able employees, suppliers and associates to use their infrastructure to solve problems]. Profits, justifiably, reward these value creating activities.

But, this is only part of the overall profits businesses earn. The other portion is the profit arising from value grab, through usurpation of what’s not morally owned, such as the extra fruits of worker’s labour, natural resources, subsidies funded by public money, and income generated by bullying the customers without alternative. Modern businesses are replete with examples of value-grab, and all businesses earn an element of profits through value-grab.

Now, understandably, there is a thin line between value creation and value grab, similar to the one between being an opportunist and being an entrepreneur. However, it is not impossible to identify, or even measure profits arising out of value grab. This is essentially because while value creation is a win/win process, value grabbing is a zero sum game, and someone must earn less of a profit or be worse off for a business to earn its value-grab extra.

If it’s zero-sum, is it such a bad thing for businesses to earn profits through value-grab? After all, this sounds like businesses earning profits at the expense of a competitor, though agreeably earning profits by compromising environment and bullying customers will indeed be a bad thing.

The simple answer to that question is that since it is zero-sum, businesses grabbling value don’t contribute in the society. For a society, total incremental benefit of the business is

Social contribution of business = (total profits – value grab) – social costs

Besides, businesses earn as often at the expense of the community, the environment and its employees, as its competitors. And, often unravelling competition affects communities and ways of life, thereby increasing social costs in its turn. Therefore, it may be said that the value-grab activities erode value that the businesses create for society, and goes against the moral justification of profit-making.

So, what ensures the morality of profit-making? The salary-taking entrepreneur model has proved to be a failure – precisely because such a model discounts all value creation possibilities and contributes nothing to the society in turn.

The capitalist checks-and-balances theory always put emphasis on Competition. The theory goes that the competition in the product market ensures that value creation is the only method of creating surpluses, by limiting, and eventually eliminating, all possibilities of value-grab. The new ‘love your profits’ morality makes an implicit assumption of existence of perfect competition in the market, and views all profits as purified by the trial of fire by Competitive Markets.

However, this is journalism posing as universal truth, yet again. Competition exists, in certain market sector, in certain countries. However, to eliminate value grabbing possibilities, competition must exist on all markets, such as capital markets [so that everyone has access to capital on fair terms], labour markets [labour should be free to move for highest reward], global markets [there should no tariff barriers, or at least a fair system], none of which exist in reality. Besides, the biggest profits are being made in some industries which have been kept non-competitive by design, or on the back of monopolistic former public utilities.

And, this presents us with the biggest problem of profits by value-grab. While apparently zero-sum, these tendencies do actually destroy value, by discouraging value creating entrepreneurialism, and indeed, by creating barriers against it. As we move towards a society of scarcity, our highest priority should be encouraging those entrepreneurs who set out to create value – and deliver something out of nothing – and in this context, pampering the deal-making types will become inconvenient, immoral and ultimately counter-productive.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Thought for Today

I tried telling my friend – I have decided to change myself. She asked – what’s new? Point taken – I keep saying that.

But I did change. I am increasingly becoming a glass-half-empty kind of a person. I sure was not this kind earlier. I am, after all, a salesman. Someone, who lives to believe in future, should not see anything but the half-full portion of the glass. Some salesmen go even further – they see only half the glass!

I am sure getting old. Becoming a grumpy old man! But I promised never to get old. So, my bitterness can’t be on account of my getting old. I am growing old because I am feeling bitter.

But am I really bitter? Well, that’s a theory my friend believes in. Well, I have started thinking of late, may be for the first time in my life. And, I am amused with a lot of things these days. Like, all this talk of democracy; all the seriousness of the politicians; all the pompousness of modern businesses; all the pretence of intellectuals; the whole feeling that the world has always been like this, and will be.

No, I must state my point. I am not bitter, but I am irritated. I always wondered why God spoke to Moses but wont do that with me. Well, with age and experience – I have now got an answer. God speaks to every one of us, all the time. There are people who strive to listen; and others, don’t – they are too busy with the noises, hustle and bustle of life. I think the world is getting noisier and noisier.

Old or not, I am trying to hear what God has to say. I am trying to mute the Sky TV, but don’t seem to have the remote control.

Monday, April 16, 2007

In search of optimism

So, when did Capitalism win its decisive victory? Well, if my weekly trash rag have to be believed, it happened some time between Ronald Reagan getting too old for B movies and George Bush deciding to spread democracy in Middle East.

This weekly rag is The Economist. I read this for last ten years - first because I loved its tone and optimism, then because it made me angry, and now because I have become an optimist by infection and waiting to see when the pundit editors of The Economist see reason.

Because, capitalism is not winning. Well, I dont want to appear a scarecrow, frustrated about life and bitter about everything. I want to believe in a glorious future of continuous prosperity. I am a believer, of man's ability to dream, create and deliver. As my boss - an house-owner and therefore an optimist - was recounting that doomsday predictions from the 1970s did not materialise, and people are indeed better off, I wanted to believe him.

However, capitalism is not winning. It is a great system for a world of plenty, for a growing world. But, it has very few answers for a maturing civilisation. One with limited resources. And, resources, whatever The Economist may preach, are not monetary. In a maturing civilisation, they are basic - water, air, food etc.

Capitalism is not losing the war in the fields of Iraq. It is just a symptom, a malady that will go away. The Economist seems to believe that the french are the last men standing against it, so they are devoting their cover stories to make the Frech voters see reason. They will. So, will millions of people in China, India and Africa - all will integrate themselves in the capitalist system.

But capitalism is losing the war here, in my room, on the street, over and underground. As civilisation matures, the strain on resources become unbearable. The system provide no controlled way of distribution. The biggest folly of the system is that it is selfish, it is short term. It has no solutions for a world where growth is no longer an option.

And, here is a proof that I am no socialist. I always believed Marx was a failed prophet, he was immature, he had this capitalist disease of being short term. I feel more like the French emperor, who knew the disaster will come, but his time would pass.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Good Reads

I came across this site www.goodreads.com - a site for people who read books and love to talk about them.

Great idea - latest in the social networking space - and I signed up immediately. Not only that, I sent out an invitation to almost everyone on my Google Address Book who read books.

Well, the idea may not work. It may turn out to be too tedious, as I felt while going through it, too much to write. Also, dont know whether people who read and love books also love spending time on the net - increasingly it sure will, but we are talking now. I mean, whether this transformation will happen before the money runs out, as they say!

But a good idea remains a good idea, and smart thinking, guys! I shall keep spreading the word and invite other people to sign up.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Khartoum, Gordon and Gladstone

When Gordon Brown stood up to present his 11th budget, he did not miss the occassion to remind the MPs that only one man before him - Gladstone - had the distinction of presenting eleven budgets. In fact, Gladstone did 12, but by the time he was doing his 11th, he was already the Prime Minister.

His intended audience, of course, was Tony Blair, who is supposed to retire end of June, and hand over the No. 10 to Gordon Brown. It may be a fairly short lease, as things are not looking good for Labour, and Gordon Brown must inject some new ideas and thoughts to lift its fortunes. However, so far, it is not looking so good.

Take Iraq, for example. Brown has said little what he will do with Iraq. Withdrawing may quickly become as big a disaster as staying on. It seems that withdrawing now will cede space to Iran, at a juncture when they are increasingly defiant and becoming a real risk.

Or, fiscal policies for example. If Brown did anything new in his budget, it was playing with trivia, and this budget was promptly dubbed as a '2p Budget' in the media. Not very helpful, I suppose! The other new idea was to try to turn Green, but so far the policy seems to be imposing taxes that affect people trying to live a normal modern life, than demonstrating any sincere intention to make a difference. Green taxes, fine - but where is the additional investment in transport which will make it easy for people to shun cars and airplanes? Where is the drive for renewable energy? Brown certainly does not want to present his 12th budget.

Also, another favourite parallel - now there is a problem in Khartoum, there is a Gordon who invokes Gladstone. I do believe that Sudan is becoming a huge embarassment, a clear evidence that the West does not care, and will undermine Western influence in Africa completely if this is allowed to go on. Along with Bush administration's ill-advised intervention in Somalia, the ongoing disaster in Sudan will further weaken the standing of Western powers in Africa. Not a good thing - as it seems that the next proxy war between superpowers will be fought on African soils.

Britain needs to take a stance, quickly, on Darfur. There is a genocide going on. Keeping hands off - a Gladstonian mistake - will brand Gordon Brown as the man who lost Africa. Besides, it will further emphasize the view that Anglo-Saxon powers only act on their commercial greed and self-interest, and the moral stand they always seem to talk about, is nothing.

So, Gordon Brown has a choice - between being Gordon and being Gladstone - on Sudan. Sadly, we almost know who he will intend to follow.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Purpose

I had to learn, at different twists and turns in life, that everything must have a purpose. There is very little place in this crowded world, and among busy lives, for anything which does not have a purpose.

But, also I learnt in the journey, it is fairly easy to miss-read the purpose of things. Does Sun exist to warm up the earth, or keep it bound in an orbit? Or, less glamourously, is the business about making money or about making a difference? Do I exist to generate more carbon or to contribute?

The other issue about purpose is that it must change over time. Because the purpose is not inate in things, but it is what others, mostly people, find in it. Since societies and people change, the purpose of things must change.

I return to retail, as I must. For example, my grocer had a purpose to exist 20 years back - he was making available, under one roof, things that I needed to buy. That changed, since supermarkets invaded our lives. Sadly, the grocers still believe that they must exist for the same old purpose.

It seems our expectations, as consumers, change far faster than our habits as suppliers or producers. I see things changing in the booksellers' world. I do see a great future of specialist bookstores, who combine a great online and offline model, offer great value on books and create communities of customers.

But, well, how many do it? I was talking to the Finance Head of an upcoming retail store in Calcutta, and asked him how he intends to reward loyal clients. He said he believes the great collection and fine interiors will do the job. No online presence, I must add. No home deliveries. Well.. it has to be that purpose question I need to go back to, yet again.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Iran, Cricket and another week of madness

The last one has been a crazy week - one of confusion and pessimism. The optimist, there are a few of these still left, had nothing to show for his side this week, or so I think.

Let me recount the top events this week:

1. Violence in Iraq continued. A rocket launches near the site where UN Secy General was speaking, and Ba Ki Moon gives half-a-second TV representation of how the war in Iraq continues to unsettle the world. Iraq's Deputy PM gets hurt in a bomb blast, probably initiated by one his bodyguards. People die, more American soldiers go in, and the US Congress pushes for a timeline for troops withdrawal which Prez Bush promises to veto. Tellingly, the person who was seen bring down Saddam Hussein's statue 4 years earlier told the world media that the occupation has been worse than life under Saddam. A vietnam veteran told BBC that after the congress resolution, the war started sounded ominously like 'Nam. And, Prez Bush, clearly running out of ideas and time, said nothing!

2. Iran continued to work on their nuclear capability. When UN decided to take firmer action, they captured few British Soldiers and American Marines to divert attention. If anyone gained from American activities in last few years, it was, indeed, Iran. The world media wrongly assumes that Iran would want, for their own interests, stability in the Middle East. Wrong, I would say, because Iran has its own regional ambition, and stability, under american control, does not help it at all. They, and their Iraqi Shia allies, successfully did what Ronald Reagan wanted to do in reverse - use Saddam Hussein to destabilise the region. So, if Reagan pushed Saddam to keep Iran busy, Iran has pushed America to keep themselves busy and bogged down in Iraq, undermine the Saudi influence in the region and give a window of opportunity to Iran to attain the regional influence they always aspired for.

3. Bob Woolmer was murdered, quite obviously for money reasons. The game, indeed, remains corrupt, though no one will admit this in public. Cricket has become the game of scandals and match fixes, with every major team, player and board being involved in it. Woolmer's death now should bring attention from more serious law enforcers than just the game's governing body [which is corrupt in itself] because it is becoming too dangerous, and it is becoming difficult to keep it away from public eye. Someone will now spill the beans.

4. Gordon Brown presented his 11th budget and reminded his audience that only one man - William Gladstone - has presented so many budgets [he did 12], and by the time Gladstone was presenting his 11th, he was also the Prime Minister. The obvious suggestion was that it is time. The less obvious implication is that he may also choose to present his 12th, by holding both No. 10 and 11 at the same time next year. He also did some tinkering on taxes, and did nothing for anyone other than the bureaucrats. His long term vision for Britain, it seems, is a Britain of pen pushers, an anti-entrepreneurial, stagnating society, much in opposition to the 'Opportunity Society' that Tony Blair talks about. One is bound to feel sad for Blair, a brilliant man, who chose his own undoing in Iraq [Would anyone compare him with Anthony Eden?]

5. India continued its rumbling journey towards industrialisation, with more chaos, more violence and clearer display of administrative incompetence. Rahul Gandhi started asserting himself, but he sounded more like his uncle, impatient and arrogant, than his father, humble and visionary. Time, of course, changes people, as it did to Rajiv, but one has to wait and see.

So, this is more or less it. Not much gleamour of hope, I am afraid.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

New India/ Old India

There are stories I want to believe in. Stories of an emerging nation. Of human achievement, of dreams, of accomplishments of impossible tasks. Of confidence. Of being presented to the world, in its own terms.

Of India – that’s my country. Wherever I am in the world, whatever I do – it is etched in my face and my body. In my tongue, nested in my accent and programmed in the way I think. I share the pride, and bask in glory, of my resurgent nation.

At last, at last. This is the land of the plenty, which invited plunderers from around the world, and in the end, absorbed them in its identity. It is the land of the plural, which spoke in many voices and many languages, but in agreement. It is this nation, comatose for centuries, passive – which awakens up now and talks its own language.

So, supermarkets, superhighways and superscientists. Businessmen who talk about buying out the world. Politicians who bask in a new confidence, and look forward. Students who dream, professionals who swagger on the streets of London and let everyone know their identity.

In 2020, we are going to be a superpower!

But do I lose that India in the bargain, which was dignified in its poverty, calm in its divergence, and ungreedy in its boorishness? Do I lose my moral right to sacrifice, to think of others, to be non-violent and to be different? India embraces the world, right, but is she wearing her own clothes?

A country is an illusion, but one that contains our moralities. One that binds, makes us responsible – the only thing in this godless world that is superior to ourselves that still counts.

I was born with that ‘Indian’ identity. We were then – as I say – comatose! And, yes, we were tainted. We were corrupt. Our non-violence was a mockery in the face of fratricidal riots. We called a muddle coexistence, and mob-pleasing behaviour, tolerance.

Yes, the world cared little about India. Mocked our ‘Hindu’ rate of growth. Our businessmen greased the palms of bureaucrats. We were happily playing our war games with our own neighbours, and paying the global goons to keep peace.

But, somewhere, I was proud and unique – as an Indian. Not one with bollywood tunes, Govinda pants, Munnabhai morality and Montekonomics. But one who saw dignity in paucity, believed education, above all, gives humility, and knew there was no greater value than sacrifice. One who had confidence despite the world, who could look inside and find peace, and reject the intolerance, violence and ignorance in seeking the truth.

My India, then, wore its own clothes.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Armenian Genocide

I write this as I watch a free DVD distributed in the TIME by Armenian Groups documenting the history of the genocide on Armenia by the Ottoman Turks.

The story is very familiar. A massacre by design, of innocent, unarmed population, while the world looked on. The supposedly modernising Young Turks turned monsters in the name of national interest. Imperial powers pursued self-interest - as the French Ambassador observed the primacy of business interests over human ones. And the Turkish Government - not unlike the Holocaust denials - denied that there was anything, to this day.
And, very timely. Hrant Dink's blood has not dried yet. The debate on genocide denial is live and well, and currently weighing against Turkey in its discussions with EU. Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Prize in literature contributed to the global awareness of the issue, and Turkey's, despite its modernisation, almost medieval stance regarding this. Not surprisingly, Pamuk is also considered to be under threat.
There are two issues here. First, the Turkish government's failure to accept the responsibility of the genocide. One would think this should be relatively easy. A crime committed so far back in history! However, it is always, surprisingly, so painful - Japan is still wrestling with what it did during the 2nd World War - and so improbable by the nation concerned.
One would wonder, then, how much technology and this apparent progress in lifestyle changes us. Why do Japan, a great economic power, a modern nation, find it so difficult to come to terms with its deeds? Why Turkey, a modern, secular nation, still not able to accept its responsibility in this genocide?
I feel the answer lies in the question. Nationalism, the great creed of the 18th and 19th centuries, justified these horrors. It still does. To be a proud Japanese, or a proud Turk, precedes the necessity of becoming a decent human being. It will seem demeaning for a proud Turkish Prime Minister to accept that killing, in the name of national unity, of more than a million unarmed human beings were unjust. It will be shameful for Japan. It will be - for all future criminals who will justify beastly behaviour in the name of National Interest. [When Blair says that he needed to fight in Iraq to secure British way of life, he is using this line of logic]
Second, the international community, if there is one, almost always failed to stop these massacres. It is always because the leaders that time acted on self-interest. So was it in Armenia, in Europe in 1930s, in Tienanmen, in Serbia, in Darfur. The deployment of muscle and men followed oil and money far more often than human lives. And, of course, no one blames Woodrow Wilson or Lloyd George of being incompetent and inhuman for failing to raising even a finger while Armenians were slaughtered. [I hope history will be as kind to today's leaders for failing to act on the many atrocities happening right now]
I shall sleep tonight with a bad dream. I shall remember how Hitler felt emboldened - on August 22, 1939, he asked, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
Every crime unpunished creates precedence for another terrible crime. As we look the other side, seeds of destruction take hold. When the respect for human life and dignity are lost, we lose everything - our world order reaches a breaking point.
I just hope it will last my time.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I Go Watch Big Brother then!

Britain is abuzz with Big Brother, and the treatment Shilpa Shetty is receiving from some of country's gossip-column celebrities. It is an ungainly, nasty affair. But it is not unusual. The word 'bitching' was not coined for nothing, and bullying and bad behaviour is the order of the day.

The things took a nasty turn as this became the fight of Shilpa versus the ladies of the house. And, yes, they were not nice at all. They could not pronounce Shilpa's name. This is commonplace though. It is usual for someone local not to be able to pronounce another person's alien name, though a reciprocal behaviour is considered to be offensive. It went to such extent Shilpa started getting called 'the Indian', and slowly this led to comments about Indians in general. Not surprisingly, a huge international row about racism ensued.


To me, racism is a non-issue. Well, unlike what people may be led to believe and say, it is there. And, let it be there. It allows some individuals, in a crisis of identity, to have something to cling to. A false superiority is fine as long as it is false, and keeps the individual blind and ignorant.

Before I get charged with racist abuse, let me explain. Channel 4, the broadcaster, is making a point that it isn't racism, it is cultural ignorance. Take this, for example. One of the participants refused to eat Chicken cooked by Shilpa Shetty because 'in India, they undercook the chicken, and hence so many Indians are undernourished'. Or, 'in India, they eat with hands; or is it China'. Surely ignorance - from Celebrities, to be showcased before an admiring public at the Prime time.


Somewhat in line with the queen who suggested cake to hungry public, Jo! But I dont blame you. Yours is exemplary behaviour, to be showcased for fun and excused for ignorance only. Your friends say you are not a 'bad person'. Well, of course, you are not. It seems everyone wants to forget that racism is a social, rather than individual, malaise. It is about ignorance in the core, and not about being a bad person.


That's my point. This huge debate is going nowhere, but watch it and you see what's wrong. Channel 4 does not feel ashamed about showcasing such ignorance, but will run for cover if some particular, labelled words would have been used. Yes, racism in our time is pedantic, it is about playing with words, it is about being safe and correct in the public face. You can't expect to put a camera in the bathroom and can't not have a scandal on your lap.


It is funny time, so watch the fun. A show is being put on. By the dumb CEO of Channel 4 and squeaking TV presenters who never valued decency. A bollywood actress doing her best in what she does best - act. A gang of C-list of celebs trying their best to be what they want to be - celebs. A boring TV show probably nailing the reality show coffin. Politicians who would rather point the blame to individuals, and hide the wider social malaise. And, the media - who would rather spend time analysing what is ignorance and where it becomes racism.

Amen!

Bangladesh : Keep watching!

The world is watching Bangladesh.

Well, not true. The world has other things to watch. Celebrity Big Brother, for example. Or, something else. There is always a show on, aint it? Why would anyone bother about Bangladesh, a country of no significance?

I would say, we better watch. It is a country of 130 million people, poor, with a majority following islam, but democratic – so far! Not an usual thing. And, also, unlike other Islamic democracies, the Prime Ministership is not granted for life [or till retirement]. There is lively elections, free and fair by most counts, and the party in power has been thrown out in last two elections. Some achievement!

It is poor. It is corrupt. But don’t snigger! Think of another poor, corrupt country which is democratic, and you will realise what Bangladesh brings to table. The true test of democracy – how to make the system work at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ – is being played out here.

I am not suggesting that it is perfect. There is a lot of vote buying and black money. Of course! But then nowhere it is perfect, nor it is expected to be. How apt that the term ‘politically correct’ came actually from the Klu Klux Klan. Politics, yes, is all about flexibility, all over the world.

But, today, there is a show on – if the world cares to watch. That fragile democracy has just been given a new lease of life, with the intervention of the International Community. The UN Secy General started on the front-foot, intervening at the right time, when the ruling coalition and its underlings were about to hijack the election process. Army, to everyone’s surprise, stood idle, even with a popular preference towards army intervention. The generals did not walk in, presumably, fearing an international backlash. So different from Thailand or Fiji!

Also, so different from George Bush’s Democracy exports. It is a great success of an international community [including the US] maintaining a principled stance, and securing democracy in an important country.

However, all this happened because the World was not watching Big Brother then. The promised elections are still three to six months away. It will be sad if we forget about the country now, and let democracy falter again.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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