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Bookmark these reads on culture

It’s fascinating to look at multidisciplinary studies in understanding culture. To this purpose, Jared Rubin‘s posts on the Broadstreet blog are amazingly well-articulated and engage with the critical questions in research on culture not excluding other writers who write for the blog.

I came across the work of John Mohr who is no more but had a major release just before his death – Measuring Culture. In this book, he discusses approaches to measuring cultural attributes of people, institutions and cultures.

Another interesting read is Joseph Henrich’s The weirdest people in the world.

Why my heart gently weeps

I cried all the way while driving back home. This was three weeks ago. I was at the Aadhar enrolment centre in New Delhi for an update in my national identity card, my first outing after the lockdown in April. If I didn’t have to leave for the UK in December for my research, I wouldn’t risk my life trying to get that update. A cash-strapped researcher can not afford the treatment if the pandemic strikes, but worse would be the cancellation of my dreams and a future I have diligently worked for over the past year.

India is, any given day, a nation of swarming multitudes and when the government reopened select services at carefully curated, stringently limited centres to facilitate the outbound journey of researchers like me,  it came with a tacit understanding that there would be crowd, streams of it, and social distancing would be impossible. That update, as it was, was the first step in applying for the visa. I just couldn’t miss it.

As soon as I stepped out of the centre and got into the car, I broke down. Ten kilometres of the journey back home was tearfully difficult – I stopped at traffic signals and felt ashamed at my emotional outburst. A woman crying at the wheel is a woman in distress. I didn’t want the world to see and make assumptions about my life, especially not when I had a tough time making sense of the outburst myself. And then, the reflection came to me in a blinding moment. The mask and the conversations from behind the mask at the centre flashed before me. It’s weird that I am saying this but I am quite awkward with social conversations. So, isolation and lack of social interaction shouldn’t affect me much, I have always told myself. Except that in many ways, we skip life’s profound realisations only to get a handle on them in the simplest of ways. Like, stepping out after months for an update in the identity card.

I am not the life of a party but street conversations with strangers is my strong suit. They say introverts excel at one on one conversations. Never ever in my life have I survived an Uber ride without conversing with the driver, for instance. It’s true that common, working class people set off something in me. I want to connect in deeply spiritual ways that only life connects all human beings irrespective of class, caste or religion. But that day, I couldn’t bear what I had just lived through – being inside an enrollment centre throbbing with people but all I did was to keep looking at my watch to count the minutes, making sure I didn’t spend too long inside the air-conditioned enclosure. Someone like me, who has given days to long conversations with strangers even at the risk of not meeting writing deadlines, was fearful, observing frantically the six-feet distance and constantly adjusting the face mask. At the moment this happened, I didn’t realise the tragic turn our human lives have taken. In the solitude of the steering, it hit me hard. I cried and cried and cried. Perhaps, I needed to vent, let it all out and at that very moment, it felt like a dam had broken inside me, oceans heaving in my heart and tearing me up like the rivers they swallow.

I had feared on some days that Covid-19 will turn us into socially reclusive human beings. I write about this today because I want to put it away, like a small note submitted towards building human memories on the pandemic. But what I am becoming is more than just my grief melting into tears in moments of emotional weakness. I am doing socially awkward things, just the way extremely recluse humans do. In recent weeks, I have kept cancelling important work calls. Often, I tell them that I am unwell or someone I know is. Often, I just want to postpone everything to the week that never comes. I read a message and respond to it hours or days later. I shy away from taking calls unless it’s the courier guy with my ear pods or stationary. I have set my phone to two call and app block schedules, which offer strictly limited scope for conversations. I have deleted Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp from my phone, as if I were winding down for a long hibernation. I feel like a giant, fatigued panda, who just have started a war with spoken words and no fellow humans without a valid reason to back it up.

I once told a friend going through a divorce, my dear, do not postpone joy. Even as I recollect this here, I remain on the hurting, sorrowful trip of delaying it for myself. I feel inertia, anger and stoic stubbornness about self-isolation that I have never felt before. The quarantine may have gotten to me, you might say. I would merely say that I still wake up everyday and try to shun all of this distress by writing. Just trying these days, like today, is an act of courage.

Times when journalism was useful for the academia

When I was actively reporting, I overlooked the academic papers that referred to my reports. As a journalist, I wrote on diverse themes – from culture to politics to economy. I remember how my academic sources would direct me to my reports referred to in research papers but I wouldn’t bookmark them. Only recently, I have wanted to and been bookmarking them here.

Check out the CASI Penn links below:


First published in Mint:

Sanskrit: reviving the language in today’s India

First published in Mint:

Will English become India’s weakness?

First published here:

Dalits look upon English as the language of emancipation

First published in Mint:

The pitfalls of Linguistic Jingoism

First published here:

Hullabaloo in the Hinterland

First published in Mint:–Hullabaloo-in-the-hinterland.html

Patna’s Brave New Nights

Pallavi Singh

That hot June afternoon in 1992 left an indelible imprint on Shanker Dutt’s memory. “June 5, in fact, let me tell you,” he says matter-of-factly.

The professor of English was at Patna University’s Darbhanga House, the heritage precinct where postgraduate classes for literature students are held, attending a farewell function for one of his colleagues. “Some of the students wanted to gatecrash. They were prevented from doing so but one of the students broke the glass of one of the doors and fired a shot,” he recalls.

The bullet hit Dutt, who was on the dais, in the wrist, “shattering all the bones”. Yet, when they took him to the doctor, he was reluctant to disclose how he had been injured. “A bullet wound meant a medico-legal case. One of my colleagues told the doctor I had tripped but the doctor, of course, figured it out,” he says.

It was Dutt’s first experience of fear in the city of his birth. By the 1990s, the historical capital was a hub of notoriety and lawlessness, a classic case of cow-belt indiscipline, perversity and despair.

Party zone: (Top to bottom) Dak Bungalow Road, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, is lined with new hotels and restaurants; and a group of teenagers celebrate Nishant Kumar’s (in black) 13th birthday at Yo! China in Bandar Bagicha; Kapil’s Eleven restaurant does brisk business on weekday evenings; the Saturday night show at Mona cinema is sold out; Maurya Lok complex is crowded despite the late hour; and the renovated precincts of Chhaju Bagh police station
In the four years since chief minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar took over, 317 criminal cases have been reported, against 1,393 such cases in 2000-04. Speedy trials ensured a total of 38,824 convictions—in mostly theft, murder, extortion and kidnapping cases—between 2006 and 2009. Most of Bihar’s infamous dons are in jail, including Shahabuddin, the former Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) politician who once went live on television, daring the state police to arrest him.

As evening approaches, police vehicles zip down the streets; dozens of policemen are stationed at corners. At newly renovated police stations (the state’s recent move to improve these battered posts has added to police confidence), officials actively attend to routine complaints.

Emboldened by the improvement in law and order, people in Patna have now embarked on a nightlife that assiduously chronicles middle-class ambitions, its appetite for change and hunger for recreational options.

Prabhat Kaushal, a garment shop owner, didn’t think it was risky to allow his 13-year-old son Riddiman a night out with friends—unlike earlier, when businessmen were hesitant to venture out late at night for fear of extortion and kidnapping. Kaushal dropped his son at casual dining restaurant Yo! China where bright lights from the wood-crafted ceiling illuminated the faces of 10 teenagers.

Outside, the evening is just getting started. Mobile vans and food stalls at the Maurya Lok Complex, Patna’s answer to Connaught Place, are busy rustling up freshly cooked Chinese and south Indian food, as people saunter in.

Yet, for Riddiman and his friend Nishant Kumar, Yo! China in Bandar Bagicha was just the right place for Kumar’s birthday bash. His voice brims with excitement as he explains: “Here, it’s air conditioned and we can order till midnight.” It was the 13-year-old’s first birthday celebration outside his home—but then this year is different, he remarks. “Now, all my friends hang out till late in the restaurants and so my father eventually agreed for me to treat my friends at a hotel,” the class VIII student at the city’s DAV Public School says. The online call registry Just Dial now has more than 150 restaurants on its Patna list, most of them less than five years old.

At Mona, one of the city’s oldest cinema halls and now converted into a multiplex, all weekend shows for the 9pm to midnight slots are “house full”, says manager Ajay Kumar Kataruka. “There was a time when we had to cancel late-night shows. Now, we don’t have tickets for people coming in late,” he says.

Different service sector players have reached the state, almost a decade after most metros saw the first wave, and consumers have lots of options. Yo! China’s many competitors include local entrepreneurs and national restaurant chains such as Kapil’s Eleven, owned by cricketer Kapil Dev; for leisurely evenings, there’s the Patna Golf Club or the Country Club International.

At the Bankipore Club, Kavindra, a businessman who uses only his first name, has been a member for more than 40 years. He recalls, “People would try to get out early and move together in groups to any specified destination so that numbers give them a sense of strength.” Now, of course, the club—like several others—has been revamped and is packed to capacity till midnight. The world where RJD’s Lalu Prasad threatened to cancel the lease of the Patna Golf Club seems very distant.

While Patna welcomes the new, significant attention is being paid to the old, neglected cultural centres. Kalidas Rangalaya, one of Patna’s oldest theatres, rescued from decay, stages plays round the week; BSNA, a state-run organization for the promotion of art and culture, hosts regular cultural programmes at the Bhartiya Nritya Kala Mandir auditorium. This is where weekend cultural events—Shukr Gulzar (Friday Bloom) and Shani Bahaar (Saturday Spring)— have also come up in the last two years.

“Art and culture follow only in a secure environment,” says Kavindra.

At the Cine Society, often fabled to be “as ancient as Patna”, its 50-odd members try to revive “the old days” twice a month—harking back to the time when they would screen rare classics. In the 1960s, the club used to import cinema reels from Europe for film screenings.

Bereft of an auditorium, society members now convert the patients’ waiting room at the Sen Laboratory diagnostic centre into an auditorium for screening movies—the Laboratory owner is a Cine Society member.

“In the 1970s, there were more than 300 members and films would be screened at the very spacious hall of the Indian Medical Academy. There are never too many people now since more entertainment avenues have opened in the city, but we haven’t stopped,” says Dutt, who is a member of the Cine Society.

At the historic bridge over the Ganga on the outskirts of the city, the youth have found their new pulse. Mahatma Gandhi Setu, one of the longest river bridges in Asia, weighed down by years of decay and traffic, now gets a fresh set of visitors after dusk—restless, and often in love.

This story was first published in Mint:

The Week That Was: Favorite Reads

I am always intrigued by developments in China, but this piece felt like the disturbing facts have moved closer home in India, especially in the context of what has happened in Jammu and Kashmir in the last few days (I blogged about this here).  Imagine being tracked down by the government down to every step you take or intercepted at every corner of the world you drive to? The court-approved Deadbeat Map does worse to Chinese people, and in that country, such things apparently have stopped bothering people.  The Deadbeat app tracks people blacklisted by the Chinese government for creditworthiness or payment of fines and also allows the dissemination of this utterly private information on social media by complete strangers, to alert authorities! I haven’t heard of a more bizarre government-public partnership at work, enabled by technology! But, imagine this being very, very popular with people in China, and it is.

Adam Minter, in the Bloomberg piece, writes:

Depicted outside of China as a creepy digital panopticon, this network of so-called social-credit systems is seen within China as a means to generate something the country sorely lacks: trust. For that, perpetual surveillance and the loss of privacy are a small price to pay.


Rather than generating outrage, these digital debtor prisons have proven extremely popular. A 2018 survey of more than 2,200 Chinese citizens found that 80 percent had joined a commercial social-credit system (Sesame Credit, which requires users to opt-in, was the most popular service), although only 7 percent were aware of that they’d been included within a government system. More surprisingly, 80 percent of respondents either somewhat or strongly approved of social-credit systems, with the strongest support coming from older, educated and more affluent urbanites — a demographic generally associated with more “liberal” values such as the sanctity of privacy.

On social media, at least, China revels in seeing individuals land on social credit-related blacklists. In 2016, when the National Tourism Administration published the names of people banned from plane travel, the news generated thousands of “likes” and repostings on the Sina Weibo social media site.

Hmmm. Read more here.

This Cambridge University Press research also illustrates how, compared to other countries, average public concern in China, especially about issues such as climate change, is relatively low, and concern varies greatly among Chinese citizens, across different provinces and between coastal and inland areas.

Another super interesting piece in The Economist tracked the shift of global banking and finance to India in spite of the constraints it poses to business, thanks to the large churn out of engineers graduating from the country’s university system. Interestingly, unlike manufacturing, global finance firms in India are managing to overcome the typical challenges: a labyrinthine maze of permissions, taxes and red tape, business-unfriendly labour laws, and struggling transport and communications networks.

India has long received other countries’ outsourced jobs. Some of those are unsophisticated, such as answering phones or processing forms. Many, however, rely on Indian universities’ remarkable ability to turn out engineers in great numbers, and computing firms’ ability to use them to solve complex problems. Such tasks may be dismissed as “back-office”. But they are at the heart of modern finance.

In recent years banks have become global networks that link apps on smartphones, workstations used for sales, and sophisticated programs used to manage compliance and allocate capital. Systems that once merely updated balances now determine financial-product marketing—whom to send offers to, when to increase credit limits and when to adjust charges. For banks all over the world, many such tasks are now done in India.
…. bankers say they have been startled by how fast India, notwithstanding its local challenges, has become an intellectual force that is now shaping their global futures.

In EPW, a smart curation of articles to understand inequality in India is enlightening and keeps you updated on the latest in this area. Mainly, the themes here focus on the question of inequality and whether economic growth alone can mitigate it, how inequality is measured and if at all it’s being correctly measured in India, the areas of concentration of wealth, rise in inequality in the post-reform period and long term trends in inequality in India. Another EPW curation of important reads on the growth of Hindu nationalism might be useful too.

A critical McKinsey report released earlier this month on the future of Asia and ways in which the continent will lead the world economy offers an overview of Asia’s role in international trade, corporations in Asia, technology, and the Asian consumer, drawing a comprehensive picture of how the continent is growing and what this could mean for the world.

One of the most dramatic developments of the past 30 years has been emerging Asia’s soaring consumption and its integration into global flows of trade, capital, talent, and innovation. In the decades ahead, Asia’s economies will go from participating in these flows to determining their shape and direction. Indeed, in many areas—from the internet to trade and luxury goods—they already are. The question is no longer how quickly Asia will rise; it is how Asia will lead.

The McKinsey report on International Trade:

Because of its diversity and geographic sweep, Asia is not and likely will never be the same kind of tightly integrated trade entity as the European Union or NAFTA. Although it is a looser constellation of countries, trade ties and cooperation are deepening across the region. Today 52 percent of Asian trade is intra-regional, compared to just 41 percent in North America. This points toward a new trend of firms building self-contained regional supply chains to serve Asian markets. It also indicates deepening trade ties among Asian countries themselves—with much more room to grow. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a new free trade agreement that includes 16 countries across the region, including China, Japan, India, and Vietnam.

While trade in goods has flattened, service flows have become the real connective tissue of the global economy. In fact, services trade is growing 60 percent faster than trade in goods—and Asia’s services trade is growing 1.7 times faster than the rest of the world’s. While India and the Philippines are among the biggest exporters of back-office business services, trade in knowledge-intensive services is still in its infancy across most Asian countries and represents an important gap to be filled.

On Corporations:

Asian firms have become global market leaders not only in industrial and automotive sectors but in areas like technology, finance, and logistics. Over the past 20 years, as these economies have evolved, the industry mix of the region’s largest firms has shifted. Manufacturing of capital goods is now a smaller share of the region’s economy, while infrastructure and financial services have grown significantly.

The ownership structures, growth strategies, and operating styles of Asian corporate giants differ from those of publicly owned Western multinationals. About two-thirds of the 110 Chinese companies in the Fortune 500 are state owned. The region also has a number of large conglomerates. South Korea’s top five family-controlled chaebols together account for roughly half of the value in the country’s stock market. Japan’s “big six” keiretsu similarly have outsize weight in the country’s equity market; each one owns dozens of companies spanning several industries. All major Japanese car manufacturers, for example, can be tied back to a keiretsu. India’s top six conglomerates alone employ more than two million people.


On Technology:

Whether they are digital leaders or laggards, the next stage of the journey for countries across the region is to go beyond consumer use and encourage wider adoption of digital tools in traditional sectors, from agriculture to retail and logistics. Similarly, the public and social sectors can continue deploying digital systems to make government services and healthcare more efficient. The ultimate goal is harnessing the latest technology tools to boost productivity in a meaningful way.

Innovation hubs are starting to take root. As of April 2019, Asia was home to more than one-third of the world’s “unicorns” (start-ups valued at more than $1 billion). Ninety-one of these companies are in China, followed by India with 13, South Korea with six, and Indonesia at four.

On Asian consumer:

The growing Asian middle class will soon be three billion strong. Southeast Asia alone had some 80 million households in the consuming class just a few years ago. Now that number is on track to double to 163 million households by 2030, with Indonesia, in particular, generating tens of millions of newly prosperous consumers.

Do read the full report here.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have raged on for more than two months now. This Economist piece succinctly sums up China’s continued interest in this Asian commerce hub and how it has a lot to do with China’s closed economy.

Key points below:

The paradox is that the more autocratic the mainland gets the more it needs Hong Kong commercially. Had China reformed its financial and legal system, the territory would be irrelevant to its global business. Instead the opposite has happened: China has grown fast and globalised, but not opened up.

As a result, Hong Kong’s economy is disproportionately useful to China. It has a status within a body of international law and rules that gives it seamless access to Western markets. The status is multifaceted. It includes: a higher credit rating; lower risk-weights for bank and counterparty exposures; the ability to clear dollars easily; independent membership of the wto; “equivalence” status for its stock exchange with those in America, Europe and Japan; recognition as a “developed” stockmarket by index firms and co-operation agreements with other securities regulators.

Cross-border bank lending booked in Hong Kong has roughly doubled in the past decade, much of it Chinese companies borrowing dollars intermediated through the territory. Hong Kong’s stock market is now the world’s fourth-largest, behind Tokyo’s but ahead of London’s. About 70% of the capital raised on it is for Chinese firms, but strikingly the mix has shifted from state enterprises to tech firms such as Tencent, Meituan and Xiaomi. These firms have specifically chosen not to do mainland listings because the markets there are too immature and closed off from Western investors. Alibaba, an e-commerce conglomerate, is also in the process of doing a Hong Kong listing (at present it is only listed in New York). Most Chinese foreign direct investment flows through Hong Kong. The stock domiciled in the territory has roughly doubled in the last decade, to $2trn. Hong Kong’s share of total fdi flowing into mainland China has remained fairly constant, at 60%. Although the amount of multinational money flowing into and out of China has soared, most firms still prefer to have Hong Kong’s legal stamp.

Meanwhile, the number of multinationals with their regional headquarters in the territory has increased by two-thirds since 1997, to around 1,500. Hong Kong hosts the most valuable life insurer in the world, excluding mainland China, aia, while a global firm with a big Asian arm, Prudential, is about to shift its regulatory domicile to Hong Kong.

This all means that how turmoil in Hong Kong is resolved matters to more than just to its own people. Already boards of multinationals are debating over whether to move their regional domicile to Singapore. Indeed, one existing weak spot for Hong Kong is that major American tech firms, such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, have set up their regional headquarters in Singapore, perhaps because of cyber-worries. An executive with a biotech startup says the company is moving money out of the territory and considering an American listing instead.

China will not take action in Hong Kong lightly: it knows how much is at stake economically and how much its biggest firms depend on the territory, quite apart from the reputational risk. Yet it also sees the situation spiraling into a threat to the Communist Party itself—one that America, it believes, is trying to exploit.

My favorite BJP leader Sushma Swaraj passed away last week. Here is Jaya Jaitley’s beautiful tribute to her.

On Indian economy’s current slowdown, a Business Standard op-ed that debunks the argument that the slowdown is cyclical, and another that takes a hard look at the growth figures, yet again.

Another brilliant piece by my former Mint colleague Remya Nair on how the Modi government has used the Food Corporation of India to keep fiscal deficit artificially low – by transferring its liabilities to the FCI via NSSF loans and keeping the actual food subsidy in the budget low.

I conclude this post two beautiful pieces of writing. First is this post by Adam O’Fallon Price in The Paris Review on his obsessive-compulsive disorder and writing:

Controlling a sentence—controlling this sentence, as I type—is for me the best, most pleasurable work there is. I build the paragraph, tagged by its thematic first word: control. In crafting this sentence, this paragraph, this essay, I get to be both architect and construction worker, and both jobs offer equally pleasing aspects of control. The former involves creative design and abstract thought; the latter brings the visceral, simultaneously logical and intuitive pleasure of finding the right word, moving it around, putting it in just the right place. Having written that sentence, I know I must reverse myself and concede that the idea of there being “just the right place” is illusory—that even this work is, in its essence, as arbitrary as anything else. This is true, but nonetheless as I write, I shut out the world, other responsibilities, Twitter, the news, everything.

Second and last is this touching, forever relevant The Newyorker piece by Toni Morrison who also passed away last week. The sentences that resonated with me:

I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home.

Don’t Let TikTok Play You!

I couldn’t resist my curiosity to find out more about TikTok, the social media app that’s bringing the mass following for scores of people from India’s hinterland. Watching all those TikTok people for a couple of days, I am left with an overpowering sense of fatigue. I know I qualify to be judgemental, elitist and parochial purely because I am saying that I am tired of TikTok. But if this is the new form of a culture shaped by an app that makes you while away your time creating nothing but millions of crassly funny videos, I say, God save us.

It’s not a question of moral trepidation, though: In an economy where jobs have been shrinking and an education system that doesn’t focus on skills but mere degrees, I couldn’t blame these teenagers out to have some fun on TikTok. Perhaps, they don’t have anything better to do. Many users are from small towns of India with luxury to bunk colleges where nothing much happens except irregular classes and absentee teachers. However, must these people still not show some enterprise and find out ways to find meaning in their lives instead of acting like small children obsessed with dumb toys?

TikTok, after all, is no YouTube. There is no window of originality here – you aren’t a hero here because you are a great singer or a dancer or actor. But even popular artists today are on TikTok – from singers to actors to dancers. TikTok has amassed great audiences and everyone seems to want a pie of this. Its appeal lies in the ease with which it allows users to film and edit musical videos or to lip-sync to popular film dialogues which can be picked from its database of songs, visual effects, or sound bites. Everyone else with originality is here because they want the audience, but the popularity of second-rate content creators far exceeds the original folks here. This is what TikTok does – a user may be from any place on earth but if one can appeal to the taste of audiences on TikTok, that’s what matters. And I am all for little known talent to splash all over us, but there is a problem of quality with popular taste and TikTok exhibits it only too well.

Some of the videos are so tasteless, yet shockingly popular, that it makes you wonder if we are hurtling towards an apocalypse where it would no longer matter if any good art exists as long as it has a million views.

TIkTok world is a strange world – strange and sometimes pretty faces keep staring at the screen lip-syncing to a song or some humor and millions watch it and want more. It’s all aimless because it’s not going anywhere. These 15-second videos are hurting eyes, attention spans, our idea of time and our sense of propriety. In any other universe, this would be abnormal. But what TikTok has done is create its own alternate universe where no one has to face the real world anymore. The real world where stalking girls isn’t funny and sexist jokes can’t pass as internet-breaking humor! Of course, there is hardly any political correctness in TikTok stars, most of them teenagers, which is even more worrying given these folks will eventually someday walk into the real world far different from the virtual reality they create and inhabit. The sheer scale of TikTok is terrifying: it is not just the most popular social app on the planet but also a fast-growing one, promising to distort reality as it exists.

To start with, there are tools to distort, conflate or deflate you physically; then there are tools to always beautify your world no matter where you are dancing before your camera in dingy surroundings or next to a nullah. And there are always Bollywood songs to sing, no matter whether you understand music or not.

This is not the real world but is TikTok better than the grim facts of life? Maybe not, as its users have complained of abuse and harassment on the platform with the app management doing nothing at all. But when TikTok meets the real world, it can get fatal. A boy died while making a video for TikTok, a man killed his wife for being active on the app, and another woman committed suicide after her husband reprimanded her for being on TikTok; TikTok stardom sometimes leads to grim murders, and we don’t like these at all.

Education Is A Great Leveller And IITs Do It Best

I have always felt that IITs have been the subject of unfair criticism over the years. I think IITs flowed with the liberalization wave of India. Indian economy opened and offered IITians a chance to go all over the world. Brain drain happened and media reportage on big salaries for IITians became the sensational stories of success every Indian wanted to chase. I read this piece by Sandipan Deb in Mint recently and I felt I had so much to say. After all, I come from the state where a phenomenon like Super30 exists, having lifted over the years hundreds of bright students from economically weaker households out of their circumstances, and enabling their dreams to make it to the IITs. If you are interested in reading more about Bihar’s obsession with the IITs, you could read this story I did ages ago , but this still holds true.

My op-ed for Newslaundry, prompted by Deb’s piece, primarily says this:


I write today because the film Super30 reminded me of Ratan. He was my best friend in college where I was studying for my 12th. Tall, dark and sensitive, with a heart pure gold. Every morning, our college van undertook a bumpy ride to reach his house on the outskirts of Patna. He would emerge from the front door, his shoes sticking to the kutcha road muddied in the rains. In monsoons, I would see him wade, and wear the same mud-stained jeans throughout the week. For a girl who was constantly told to make friends with people she could learn from, Ratan was my best friend in a city where girls weren’t expected to compete. Ratan had a dream too – to make life comfortable for his parents. His father, a clerk at the Secretariat, believed he could make it to the IITs. After all, Ratan was the top of the class, great at Maths and English and Science. Unlike the students in Super30, he didn’t even need the coaching. Just eight hours of study every day and everyone knew his chances were bright.

Ratan made it to one of the top three IITs and drifted away. In a decade, our paths crossed and I found him transformed. Ratan had acquired an American accent, his hair coloured ember, and muscles the size of Stallone. And he was doing his best for his parents: right from bearing expenses for his sister’s wedding to getting his mother a 10,000 rupee facial in a tony beauty clinic in Delhi. His job at an American multinational had taken him around the world, and in just five years at his job, he could now afford the fees of a mid-career MBA in S

Ratan hasn’t been the only IITian I know. As a journalist writing on India’s higher education, I met hundreds of them on the IIT campuses. I still remember writing about the trio at IIT-Delhi who made a fun film called Formula 69, and they weren’t the only ones devising brilliant ways to express themselves, within and outside the academic frameworks. There were others whose IIT education helped them overcome the limitations imposed on them by their physical disabilities and the barriers of caste. I distinctly remember the absolutely inspiring story of this talented guy with a major physical deformity, who if not for his IIT education, wouldn’t be leading teams at MNCs today. What’s more, he fared handsomely in the marriage department and now is proud father of two bright kids completing his circle of joy at home. Then, there were many others who burnt the proverbial midnight oil to study mechanical engineering but took up coding jobs in the American companies because the money was good. 

For long, parents in India have ambitiously woven the IIT dreams for their sons and the boys have obliged. The path is usually decided in the womb – if it’s a boy, he needs to go to the IIT; if it’s a girl, she needs to be a doctor. Anyone else doing anything else is not good enough, a mere compromise for vaulting ambitions of families propelling aspiring IITians into the real and daunting challenge of making it to the IITs. It’s here, in this clamour of ambition, that we get to see the great enterprise of millions of Indians for whom education remains a great leveller and IITs, with their high standards of pedagogy and rigorous training, have been doing a great job of it. 

Super30, beyond the grit and glamour of its success stories, is also a reminder of what an education at the IIT has done for thousands of Indians over the years.  It has inspired, uplifted and made them believe in the power of education to make their lives better, and this is better than anything the materialistic brands in your Instagram feed promise you every day. In Kota, the city where coaching centres are grim reminders of the rat race for the IITs, the students come from villages and small towns most people in India’s cities wouldn’t have heard of. They hear of them in the headlines of stories celebrating their incredible successes. Fair enough then that the appeal of the IITs endures; more than 11 lakh students appeared for the IIT-JEE this year.

The real trouble  lies in the culture of looking at the IITs as repositories of money-minting jobs. An education doesn’t just prepare us for jobs; a good education’s primary job is to enable dreams, find our ever-lasting purpose in life and to allow us to find ways to live for that purpose. Yet, the appeal of brand IIT remains inextricably linked to its promise of jobs with attractive pay packages. The media coverage on IIT placements and the preponderance of reports on pay packages makes it worse. Making it to the IITs thus has become sort of an Indian fable – person makes it to the IIT and makes it big. Not surprisingly, because for long, a person’s success and social status have been defined by his job and the economic value of his labour. For men in particular, failing to earn enough money doesn’t just mean economic hardship and loss of social status; it’s also an insurmountable barrier in the marriage market. 

Yet, the time has revealed that excruciating long hours and hard work have their limitations, especially in the age of automation which has wreaked havoc on jobs as we know them. It’s in this shaky new world that the nature of jobs, meaning of success and how one earns the living needs to be redefined. There may be cues for an alternative approach here. May be, disentangling from the pursuit of a job and career the pressure of making impossible amounts of money could lead us on the right path. Maybe then, we will see the unreasonable pressure on the IIT aspirants and the students easing up. And maybe then, we will truly learn how to appreciate the transformative power of the IITs, beyond the considerations of money and capitalistic ideas of success.

Do read the full piece here.

Kabir Singh Doesn’t Exist In An Alternate Universe. Fellow Feminists, It’s Time To Accept It

Though it’s a bit late in the day, here are my thoughts on Kabir Singh, the movie, which has been trashed by feminists as utterly vile and sickening for the sheer misogyny of its lead character played by Shahid Kapoor. A few critics have argued that Kabir Singh, the character, is so misogynistic that he couldn’t possibly exist in the universe we live in. Right from his violation of consent while kissing his love interest played by Kiara Advani,  to his treatment of women in general, Kabir Singh many argue couldn’t belong to the world we live in. They say, it’s impossible and I wonder why. Isn’t this the world where men rape women with rods and rape babies when they are as young as two. I have even heard that some of them don’t even spare lesser than mortal animals in their animalistic quest for sexual gratification. I haven’t heard anyone scream over these reports and say that these men couldn’t be from our world. They are in our world and we accept this with great horror and disgust. Kabir Singh needs this acceptance too, an imperfect, deeply misogynistic man tugging at our feminist hearts as a curse only to be condemned.

Yes, life and reality of it can be very difficult to swallow. For someone who feels very strongly about sexism, I hate to be saying this but Kabir Singh is NOT from an alternate universe. I hear you when you insist he is. What you mean, really, is that he couldn’t be belonging to this world. Yes, he couldn’t be, with his ugliness and imperfections but world, as it exists, can be very ugly. Not accepting ugliness as part of your world, I think, is a mostly urban and utterly myopic view of the world, acutely unaware of the small town cultural and social landscape, especially in the Hindi belt of our country.

In a very real world where girls haven’t been raised to be independent individuals, men step in to behave like Kabir Singh, and are welcomed to behave like one. They could be our fathers, boyfriends, and husbands. They could be in our families, or outside of it, but their existence isn’t unreal. I have heard the noise on the male protagonist in the movie not caring about consent to kiss women, or make out with them, but for decades, we have had women allowing men to usurp what’s been theirs, willingly or unwillingly, and it’s this universe (not alternate) that the film portrays. This explains why the struggle for women’s rights_right from a Shah Bano to the pending legislation on marital rape remains a difficult one.

To get back to the film, since when do we label reality as an alternate universe, say it doesn’t exist? That’s like being in a place of privilege and making judgments about a reality that may not be yours. And do I need to say that without placing difficult truths where they belong, we (feminists) could never win any battle? Without accepting what the problem is and why, one couldn’t really address the problem. And that brings me to what I thought the problem is that truly needs to be discussed.

What made me very anxious about the movie was the character of Kiara Advani. Haven’t I seen many of her ilk in the town I grew up in and did they not travel with me when I moved to a global city for my global education? Many landed in the city with their boyfriends hailing cabs, carrying their suitcases to their rooms, showing them the path from college to hostel and suggesting, sounding very concerned, safe ways to navigate in the foreign city and keep themselves surrounded by people (especially Indian friends) all the time. This protective girl gang partied together and ate together and slept together, shutting themselves in the process to the multicultural world they found themselves transported to for their education.

I saw them needing boyfriends or brothers or mothers for security, protection and every day adjustments in life as if they could always have the luxury to live life joined to the hips with those they love and trust. Nothing wrong with this, after all, India is great for the support system that covers in its broad sweep friends and families who are utterly protective and giving.  Perfectly fine, but this may be why the spirit to venture out and live life independently dies early in some girls. and they are not to be blamed. We are in a country where a majority of girls are still raised to get married and start a family. I am not talking in thin air, maybe this UN Women report I wrote about yesterday will give you a sense of the problem.

If you aren’t one of them, I must tell you that you (and I too) are in minority. You are lucky you aren’t told to continue in a tasteless, abusive marriage because marriages are forever. You are bright and you deserve it, but those conditioned to act like they would die without a Kabir Singh don’t need your shock and condescension, for Kabir Singh is just the kind of man they may be stuck with for life. What would really help is your acceptance that such men exist just as they do, the rapists and dacoits and murderers do, and then LOUDLY say, cinema reflects life and life is sad. Life is sad, yes. At times. Girls like Kiara Advani’s character exist. They are in a prison cell, the lock to the prison door is missing and yet, they stay.

Why are they staying? Often times, they don’t have the support of parents who say, girl, we are with you, don’t take anyone’s shit. Sometimes, they don’t even know that they should walk out or if it’s okay to walk out. Sometimes, they know but they still won’t. Sometimes, they just can’t. Let us please not forget the real issues, then. The real issues we (feminists) need to be raging about are our unfair inheritance laws, son preference in Indian society, female foeticide, social structures that don’t favor strong and independent girls, cultural underpinnings that wouldn’t allow men to help out women in domestic chores, women sacrificing careers to make way for obligations in a marriage, inequality in families that hinders or limits their access to education, jobs, a career, their rights to property, equal pay …… the list is endless. Don’t say these don’t exist. Next time, you think of Kabir Singh, say this aloud: Kabir Singh is a product of the inequalities women face. Then, be very angry about these inequalities and make this into a chorus. This anger will do justice to Kiara Advanis across India you wouldn’t want to let down.  





In this book of history, you are the hero

Shubhashree Sangameswaran was a software engineer, decoding programming questions with her technical expertise and poise. Then she became a life chronicler.

One fine day in Bangalore, where pleasant weather makes up for the congestion on roads, she began to unravel human hearts.

Preservation movement: Founder of My Life Chronicles and personal historian Sumit Chowdhury (right) speaks to a client. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Her questions to the old lady before her were simple, yet intimate—details on her life, success and failures, hopes and dreams, and past. The interview soon turned into a series of imageries conveyed through raw emotions—the small blanket of the 80-year-old’s childhood days to the toy bicycles and the first crush, the reprimand of the math teacher, her first job, and the ups and downs of life afterwards. Every minute memory now had to be shaped into a life story with imageries turning to metaphors, like art itself.

Sangameswaran was recording personal histories of families, ordinary as humans can be, with little claim to grand narrative, but enough stories to tell. “Just the fact that these are individuals like you and me wanting to record their own histories makes it very interesting, especially because the exercise of historical writing has seldom recorded the living and the mundane,” she says. “People want to tell their stories because they think they are unusual.”

Sangameswaran’s list of such clients may not be long, but there are many of her ilk now in India, restless about their jobs and curious about the lives of others—corporate executives, engineers, retired professors, entrepreneurs with small businesses and freelance writers—who are recording and writing personal histories, encouraged by an explosion of individual ambitions to journal lives.

“Nearly all of them want these stories written for posterity, to be passed on as souvenir. Many think their experiences and struggles can inspire their future generations,” she says.

The engineering graduate from Bangalore Institute of Technology switched two jobs in software and advertising firms in Singapore before heading to Bangalore last year to join My Life Chronicles, a rising firm and possibly the only in India that specializes in personal histories, as a professional writer.

In the firm’s small office in Bangalore’s Koramangala, its founder Sumit Chowdhury runs a team of two personal historians and half a dozen-odd freelance writers to put together personal histories, memoirs and biographies using digital and print media. Typically, the videos use high-definition cameras and combine photo montages and music with live interviews. The books carry first-person narratives with family photos, images of letters, and audio interviews on disc.

His subjects and clients are ordinary people—middle-aged men and women and elderly parents, among others—looking to immortalize their histories in books and videos, albeit at a price with each memoir costing 20,000-50,000.

Chroniclers at his firm start by asking the clients why and how they would want to preserve their memories. They then prepare a questionnaire on various aspects of human lives, including career, home, spirituality, childhood and more. “The most common forms of life stories are biographies and autobiographies,” says Chowdhury, an engineering graduate from the National Institute of Technology in Durgapur, West Bengal, and a management graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B), who quit his job at Honeywell to set up the firm. Chowdhury says there have been books dedicated to the fifth birthday of a child, pets, institutions and individuals behind them, and on parents of a woman staying alone.

What prompted this venture was his father’s untimely demise and subsequent sale of some of his personal diaries to a scrap dealer. The journal collection included inland letters, now extinct, and greeting cards exchanged between family and friends and his father during his stay in Canada and Durgapur carrying intimate details of his life and struggles. “The sale of his diaries affected me deeply because I had lost a part of his history at a time when there were no emails. I began worrying about preserving what was left of his collection and also digitize it,” remembers Chowdhury.

For many clients of personal historians, the memories attached to the subjects of such accounts continue to linger and grow. D.V.R. Seshadri, adjunct faculty at IIM-B, dedicated a book to his father, who taught at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), which has now reached almost everyone he taught and brought to him newer stories about his father, which also tell the history of the institute. “When the book was released at a family function, everyone was in tears during the reading. It was a very powerful moment,” says Seshadri.

Then, for the next 30 minutes, Seshadri patiently narrated the story of his father’s life as chronicled in the book:

About his tenure at IIT-M: “He devoted his time to the development of the four-year first-degree curriculum in chemical engineering and to the quality improvement program in engineering.” On his role as enquiry officer for the staff strike at IIT-M in 1973: “Whether liked or not, someone has to carry out such work. Let me do this…”

And, then, there are ones telling grimmer tales of struggles and of human resilience in times of crises. A management graduate requesting not to be named suffered a brain haemorrhage and subsequent paralysis in the thick of recession a couple of years ago. His wife, herself a management graduate, quit her job to help her husband recover. Now, they have commissioned a book on the experience that changed their lives.

The likes of Seshadri have grown and so, a number of freelance personal historians have also emerged.

As a woman who rarely talks about herself, it wasn’t Sudha Nair’s ambition to be a personal historian. A commerce graduate, she always dealt in textiles and fabrics for her export firm in Bangalore. Then one day, her long-time friend wanted to write a book on her decade-long single life in Bangalore and Nair came to her rescue. “You could be in a high-flying job, but when you question yourself on why you are here, such books can help you find the answer,” she says.

Anupama Vijayakumar, a 31-year-old management graduate and former banker who now works as a freelance writer, says individual histories also tell enough about the history of the times, but to write it sensibly, interviews and research have to be quite extensive. “How to approach the client and how not to offend them while asking questions are also some of the essential tools,” she says.

The trend in personal histories reflects a revolution under way in how we regard social history. History once was all about kings and queens and not about the subjects. Then came a subaltern wave when the focus shifted from ruling elite to the lowest common denominator, the common man. In the 1980s and 1990s, India’s new ruling elites became the centre of much of contemporary history, with books such as The Polyester Prince and Mahabharata in Polyester: The Making of the World’s Richest Brothers and Their Feud by Hamish McDonald recording lives of industrialists Dhirubhai Ambani and his two sons Mukesh and Anil.

Historians say personal histories are a means to move beyond dates and statistics to record history and make it more interesting. “It can be very hard on the reader to understand the complex subject whether it is economics, politics and social change without looking at the individual experience,” says historian Patrick French whose latest book India: a Portrait talks about post-independence India, with examples of personal histories of individuals such as a man who had been chained in a quarry for two years near Mysore and also telecom revolutionaries such as Sunil Bharti Mittal, who rose from middle class to become the head of Bharti Airtel Ltd, one of India’s biggest telecom companies.

French also says personal histories don’t need to be objective. “You have to leave the reader to make that decision, provided you present the facts fully and accurately,” he says.

Histories centring on the common man, once considered impossible, are now possible, thanks also to an explosion in online search tools, new accessibility of historical documents and genealogy databases, and the ease of digital cameras.

Dan Curtis, a personal historian based in Canada, has recorded about a dozen such histories as video documentaries, yet to pick up in India.

The trend, now popular in the West with the US-based Association of Personal Historians (APH) growing from about 15 members in 1995 to more than 600 worldwide, is slowly gathering momentum in India. Chowdhury’s firm is the only Indian firm registered with APH. In his two-year-old firm, six personal histories have been written and two are in the process. About 10 freelancers have also applied for a job. Yet, growth in personal histories is often hindered by the investment such projects require. “We are working on very low margins. Lot of people are interested, but they just find it expensive. A lot still needs to be done to make it sustainable,” says Chowdhury.

This first appeared in Mint.

Theatre | Hullabaloo in the hinterland

In the summer of 2005, the quiet village of Manakody in Kerala’s Thrissur district woke up to the sound of drums and dance. A group of six people, including Chilean musician Claudio Clavija and fledgling theatre director Martin John Chalissery, who is from the same district, had come visiting the village, seeking the help of paddy workers in staging plays. “It was new to them. The fact that someone would stage a play next to them and ask them to participate in the process of staging it,” says Chalissery, popularly known as Martin.

The villagers collected donations in coins and cleared their fields, fresh from the harvest, to erect a stage. Soon, the plays, mostly in Malayalam, were being staged more frequently, with themes centred on local issues that affect the farmers directly—the labour of harvest, the precariousness of the monsoon, and the inequalities in society.


That changed with the response his experimental plays received in Manakody. Martin moved back from chile, and to the village, in 2008.

But today he is not the only one taking theatre to its rustic roots.

Other groups from small towns are also revving up the theatre scene with productions that not only touch upon local socio-political issues but also employ the traditional art forms of their regions to revive folk traditions.

Developing social life and provoking people to think about relevant issues is also a function of art.


Many such groups are now making their way to Delhi to stage plays, says Dhingra. It can be a long haul, with production units travelling with their props in buses and trains to reach airports to board flights to the Capital. The NT Theatre from Manipur, for example, brought along bamboo poles from Imphal to Delhi for the palanquin they would use in their play.

META shortlisted 10 theatre groups for its awards in 2013—most of them productions from small towns. “The very fact that some of these plays won over many glamorous theatre productions from big cities shows the impact that grass-roots theatre can have. These plays talked about real issues that have a connect with the masses,” says Dhingra.

Eklavya Uvach
Eklavya Uvach

The play, Rout explains, is a myth redefined by time—a retelling of the Mahabharat where lower-caste Eklavya, a disciple of master-archer Dronacharya, refuses to sacrifice his thumb as dakshina (fee) to benefit the upper-caste Brahmin Arjuna, the favoured disciple, a theme that received a thundering response not only in the caste-divided regions of Kolar but also in Delhi and Bhopal, where the play was staged in January. “In the play, Eklavya never thinks of himself as Arjun the Pandav prince’s competitor; rather, he insists on acquiring knowledge irrespective of his birth, caste and religion,” explains Rout.

For years, Ramaiah and a few others saved a rupee a day for the establishment of Adima Rangatanda, envisioned as a cultural response to address the roots of social exclusion in India. “Adima has since been active in developing theatre practices through understanding oral tradition and narratives, and experimenting in pedagogy with numerous tribal communities,” says Rout, a product of the NSD and a native of Jajpur village in Orissa’s Cuttack district, where his grandfather worked as an artiste of the indigenous jatra form, a folk tradition of storytelling. He joined the group in 2010; he was teaching scenography at the University of Hyderabad at the time.

These groups are not only changing the artistic landscape, but also the lives of the people involved in the plays. Martin’s SCCP functions as a space for farm labourers and local traders to bond irrespective of caste and religion in a deeply divided society with pronounced caste hierarchies. “They are also becoming open to discussions around education, art, politics, social issues, et al. Art is not only for enjoyment. Developing social life of people and provoking people to think about socially relevant issues is also a function of art,” says Martin.

In Jeetrai Hansda’s Maidi’s Artist Association of Tribal (Maat) in Bagbera, a village in Jharkhand, the performers are all children of colliery workers, rice-beer sellers and farm labourers. Most of them work as shepherds during the day and do theatre after sunset.

Hansda, himself a Santhal tribal, grew up in a time when industrialization was evident all around him. At the NSD, in his mid-30s, he would read newspaper reports on plays in languages such as Oriya, Bengali and Hindi. He felt the tribal plays from his roots remained invisible, unsung. “Tribals have a lot to teach. They don’t kill girls, they respect nature, they don’t go animal hunting, they don’t rape women,’’ says Hansda. In 2007, he went back to his village, in the tribal region of Kalhan in Jharkhand, and founded Maat, named after the Jharkhandi dramatist Maidi Hansda.

Imphal’s NT Theatre, formed in memory of local theatre director Ninthounja Tombi in 1998, produces plays written by local playwrights focusing on the state of Manipur today—the conflict over the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa) and the agitation led by its popular activist Irom Sharmila. NT’s most popular play The Priestess, written by Budha Chingtham, shows the protagonist suffering at the hands of “invisible powers”, raped and forced to drink liquor. “The play thrives on indigenous techniques of martial arts and Maibi dance to weave its narrative,” says Ningthounja Ronika, managing director of NT.

The use of traditional art forms is the strength of such plays, says Rout. In contrast with the glamorous, form-oriented European influences in many Indian plays, drama from the hinterland thrives less on the claptrap of special effects and technology and more on folk traditions to bring to the stage the realities of Indian life.

This first appeared in Mint.