Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fourth Umpire: What Undid the Aussies - Mirrors, WAGs or Asha?

(Published in Sify.com, on 25th March 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/sports/what-undid-the-aussies-mirrors-wags-or-asha-news-columns-ldzqA4gebig.html)


Sachin jumped up and high-fived Arjun, who hugged him, screaming, “India-Pakistan! India-Pakistan!”

“It’s as if they made India win,” Samyukta smirked, looking at her brother and the other four-and-a-half foot creature swaying around the room with him, before nodding at the television screen, “that’s exactly what Yuvraj and Raina are doing there. It’s creepy when men hug each other.”

Arvind laughed, like all straight men will at anything that stirs homophobia, and added to his daughter’s sentiment, “It’s not as bad as Paes and Bhupathi’s chest bumps, though.”

“Let them celebrate a little,” Sunita said, not making it clear whether she was referring to Sachin and Arjun, or Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina, “India’s won, after all.”

“Look at that loser!” Samyuktha laughed, as a bandaged Brett Lee stared dolefully at one of his teammates.

“India won because they knew their houses would be tarred if they lost before meeting Pakistan,” Arvind said, “that’s our biggest motivating factor. They get cars and houses if they win; they lose their existing cars and houses if they choke.”

“But it’s not only the Indian people who do that. They did the same thing in Bangladesh. No?” Sunita frowned.

“Probably. At least they didn’t send those guys to work in quarries like Kim Jong-Il did to the North Korean football coach,” Arvind said.

“Did they actually do that?” Sunita gasped, “what happened to him?”

“I’ll ask next time I meet someone from that mine,” Arvind promised his wife.

“Did you observe that Australia and India were fielding like each other?” Arvind’s father called, from his reclining chair, “absolute shame!”

“You think that’s fixed too, Pa?” Arvind asked.

“I think it’s divine retribution for that sidey video Brett Lee made with Asha Bhonsle,” Samyuktha grinned, “the ball did what everyone across the world wanted to do to him after it came out.”

“Asha Bhonsle made some video with a foreign band also, no?” Sunita said, “Scarlet Boys or something? Why does she do all these things?”

“Code Red,” Samyuktha said, “though Scarlet Boys would suit them just as well.”

Her grandfather turned, “I don’t think it’s fixed. But Modi probably had some black magic worked on the Australians. They broke an LCD in his dressing room, no?”

“The Australians went to Modi’s house?” Sunita asked her father-in-law.

“No, no, Ponting broke a TV in the team dressing room in the match against Zimbabwe,” her husband said impatiently, “after he was run out.”

“He can’t even aim his cricket kit properly,” snorted Arvind’s father, “no wonder the team didn’t make a single direct hit. With fielding like that, you don’t need the bad luck a broken mirror brings.”

“Does an LCD qualify as a mirror, Pa?” Arvind asked, innocently.

“He’s only continuing the curse,” his father answered, “remember, Hayden broke a mirror in Sydney during the Ashes series.” He added sinisterly, “remember what Ranatunga said. Remember where they come from. Crime is genetic.”

“That was in 2003. Didn’t seem to bring them much bad luck,” answered Arvind, “if you ask me, it’s the WAGs.”

“Wives and Girlfriends,” Samyuktha explained, before her mother could ask.

“What about them?” Sunita asked, curiously.

“The Indian WAGs create a scandal if someone finds a picture of them smoking a few years before the wedding. The Australian WAGs make news when they show up wearing see-through clothes at dinners. Which team do you think was more distracted?”

“So your theory is – in order for a team to perform, they need behnjis for wives?” Samyuktha scoffed at her father.

“Didn’t another one of the...WAGs, is that what you call them? Didn’t one of them get caught in some photo scandal? Bungle or something?” Sunita said.

“It’s a pity it couldn’t happen in the Eden Gardens,” Samyuktha said, “the crowd would have won it for them. None of the Australian cricketers would have been able to go near the boundary rope.”

“Yeah, and the match would have been awarded to Australia,” her father said.

“It’s all because of the mirror, I’m telling you,” his father declared, “you cannot damage a Gujarati’s property without consequences.”

“Like black magic and bad luck?” Arvind suddenly paused, “Pa, if only you could be in charge of a world-wide organisation for racial profiling, the Indian government would have fewer protests to lodge.”

Is the Turban a Terror Threat?

(Published in Sify.com, on 24th March 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/is-the-turban-a-terror-threat-news-columns-ldym9eiahag.html)

(Photo Copyright: Sify.com. Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)

On the 15th of March this year, Indian golfer Jeev Milka Singh’s coach Amritinder Singh was forced to remove his turban in public for a security check at the Milan airport. He told the press that he was being harassed despite being a sportsperson from a country whose Prime Minister wears a turban.

Ridiculously enough, despite having received a letter of apology for the conduct of the security officials from the Italian Golf Federation, Amritinder Singh went through exactly the same humiliating exercise at exactly the same airport on the 23rd of March.

While Foreign Minister S M Krishna has condemned the incident and India has issued a demarche to Italy, we’re left wondering why the incident occurred, and then repeated itself.

Is it racism? Is it religious prejudice? Is it a sadistic streak in a single security official? Is it paranoia? Or was it caused by the same twisted impulse that makes a watchman force someone to change the way he or she has parked the car, or a security guard ask someone to empty out a wallet or handbag at the entrance to a mall – ‘I will because I can; and I’m simply doing my duty’?

Most of us have been subject to such invasive searches at pilgrimage sites, as to put us off religious trips, if not religion itself.

The actual procedure is so cursory and indifferent as to allow anyone to carry anything inside – and it might well be, since terrorists are unlikely to pack bombs into their backpacks.

But the guards on duty often seem to find a bizarre pleasure in making a squirming visitor as uncomfortable as possible. And each one of the people who choose to exercise the little power they have in the most insulting manner possible has a ready excuse – “there have been so many terror attacks!”

Some people may shrug their shoulders and agree that the security officials have a valid point.

However, I doubt any country other than India has had a former President, a current Ambassador and a sportsperson frisked at international airports.

Abdul Kalam was subjected to a body search, reportedly including his footwear, in June 2009, at the Delhi airport of all places. The search is believed to have happened at the behest of the American head of Continental Airlines, and the story stayed away from the press for nearly a month.

The Indian Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, was singled out for a full-body pat-down while visiting Mississippi in December 2010 – purportedly because she was wearing a sari.

In both cases, the airlines coolly said there was no violation of protocol, and that their security rules allowed no exemptions, in response to India’s protests. We took it lying down, as always, just in case the harmony of our relationship with the US was disturbed by our remonstrations.

Now, the coach of a leading Indian sportsman has been coerced into submitting to an act he equates to stripping in public.

When security officials have got away with frisking two people carrying diplomatic passports, whose credentials don’t suggest they intended to hijack the planes they were travelling in, do we really expect this protest to be taken seriously?

Whatever the airline or the Italian government has to say, chances are that our politicians and diplomats will smile, shrug and shake hands, while the media goes berserk.

The fact that this particular incident comes so soon after American diplomat (and suspected CIA spy) Raymond Davis literally got away with murder in Pakistan makes me wonder why India throws up its hands so easily when it has reason and logic on its side, when clearly, other countries don’t hesitate to back their citizens even when they have none on theirs.

Is it simply a reflection of the attitude that made us subject to foreign invasions for so many hundreds of years? Is that what made us pack Warren Anderson off to safety after the company he ran had destroyed so many lives? Is that what makes us issue ‘strong condemnations’ and then sit back?

If we chew our lips thoughtfully, and then concede that the turban is a terror threat this time round, we’ll know the answer. Or, perhaps we should wait for Manmohan Singh to oblige the same official on his next trip to Milan before we know for sure.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Of Jaya’s history, Karthik’s geography and the DMK-Cong chemistry

(Published in Sify.com on 18th March, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/tn-polls-jaya-s-history-karthik-s-geography-and-the-dmk-cong-chemistry-news-national-ldssKJaagdg.html)

Picture Courtesy: Sify.com. Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.

The vernacular media had a field day on March 17, filling their pages with analysis, accusations and grievances against sundry parties in their reportage of Jayalalithaa’s move in denying her allies the constituencies they had demanded.

However, Dinamalar seemed less agitated by the AIADMK’s announcement than the Election Commission’s rules. Its lead story goes, “This time round, the Election Commission has announced a plethora of new rules, which have left parties, voters and even officials confused.”

The newspaper does have a point, though. Among the stranger regulations was this one – “All posters, hoardings and posts bearing part flags or the faces of members should be removed from public places, and the colours on them removed.”

But even more bewildering is the urban discrimination of the EC; it has reportedly said, “Only in rural areas, and with the permission of the owner, can political parties put up wall advertisements. But no posters, banners or photos can be put up.” What exactly the content of the wall advertisements can be remains unclear.

This injunction may seem a little weird, especially given the cost of liquor in TASMAC shops – “People cannot carry more than Rs. 1 lakh cash or more than three bottles of alcohol.” Clearly, there is a connection between these two entities, which none of us can fathom.

Not all newspapers were distracted by the rules, though.

‘Why did Jayalalithaa abandon Andipatti?’ screams website OneIndia. We’re not sure whether the writer of this piece has a bone to pick with Jayalalithaa, Brahmins, soothsayers or deserters of Andipatti as it declares, “after being warned that winning would be very, very difficult if she contested from any area near Madurai thanks to heavyweight Central minister Azhagiri, ADMK General Secretary Jayalalithaa has decided to contest from Srirangam, which is largely populated by people of her Brahmin caste.”

However, the report contradicts itself, suggesting Jayalalithaa had considered contesting from several other constituences, including some in the northern part of Tamil Nadu, and arrived at Srirangam by elimination, as her earlier preferences were strongholds of the DMK and its allies. It goes on to mention the ‘plethora of corruption cases’ against Jayalalithaa, and reasons that the AIADMK chief won at Andipatti in 2002 thanks to former Tamil Nadu governor Fathima Beevi, whom it christens her fairy godmother.

It leaves the reader with this nugget of a conundrum - “Since the time of MGR, ADMK’s enormous vote bank of the Mukkulathor community was being safeguarded by Jayalalithaa with Sasikala’s help. So, she has been contesting bravely from Andipatti. But in the past few elections, though she won, it has become obvious that the people of Andipatti have cast her aside. So, having been forced into a corner, Jayalalithaa ruled out Andipatti and will contest from the place where her fellow-Brahmins dominate by numbers. At this juncture, it may be noted that she said her roots are in Srirangam!”

This insightful piece then informs its readers, “former Minister Pandurangan, despite having a big moustache, slaps himself – sorry, touches himself – on the cheeks when he sees Jayalalithaa.” This article evidently tries to convey that he wasn’t given a seat despite this intriguing quirk. It ends with a note that Jayalalithaa will begin her campaign in Madurai on March 18.

An earlier report from the same agency said the MDMK scheduled a high-level ‘emergency meeting’ for March 19, four days after Jayalalithaa said she was willing to give the party only 8 seats, though they had hoped for 16. It quoted anonymous party cadre as chorusing, “when so many people betrayed Jayalalithaa’s trust, we stood as firm as mountains; we never thought she would behave this way.”

The report also states that MDMK leader Vaiko had maintained a calm silence and shown extreme patience, realising these qualities were integral to the self-esteem of his party after a snub from their ally (though other newspapers hinted that he may head a Third Front in response to Jayalalithaa’s affront – umm, that was not intended to rhyme).

The agency then accuses Jayalalithaa of having an unjustifiable degree of pride after bringing DMDK leader Vijaykanth into her fold. The actor, whose honorific is ‘Captain’, is most famous for making a transformer burst with the electric impulses of his nerve endings when the movie villain tried to electrocute him; this feat was only topped by his performing a complicated surgery by the light of a mobile phone.

Sadly, the significance of this paled when Rajnikanth’s Robot performed a Caesarean without a brain, in the middle of a fight with its lady love, and assisted by a team of students. Some may argue that Aamir Khan and the other two Idiots had outdone both when they used car batteries and a mobile phone to deliver a baby.

However, we digress.

Dinathanthi manages to report Jayalalithaa’s announcement, without evident prejudice, while subtly including a report in its latter pages on the benevolence of Karunanidhi in bestowing 63 seats on the Congress.

DMK party mouthpiece Murasoli, which Karunanidhi claims is the first child he fathered (his sexagenarian children continue to be ‘young leaders’) and the one he is proudest of (his other offspring have shown more grey shades than the newsprint), cheerfully ignores developments on the AIADMK front on its website, while focusing on the grace with which the DMK patriarch gave the Congress the seats it wanted.

Dinamani’s headlines read, ‘ADMK’s list of candidates: Communists shocked!’ After saying the Marxist-Communist parties had “emphasised that AIADMK should withdraw its candidates from the areas in which the Left wishes to contest”, it quotes a complicated press release from the Left bloc. The gist of the press release, which speaks of several meetings between several committees of spokespersons, seems to be that this move from their ally has left them shocked, as the meetings ended only an hour before the announcement.

A user comment on the online version of the article had sage advice for the Left. It reads “Hi, dear communist. If you want, please join Karthik or TR. All the seats will go to you. Enjoy!”

While actor-director-cameraman-music director-editor-writer-universal brother T Rajendar, who is sometimes better known as Simbu’s father, has not made news recently, actor Karthik – who was last seen leaping from pillar to post in Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan – is reported to have broken ties with the ‘back-stabbing’ Jayalalithaa, lauded Karunanidhi’s magnanimity, and announced that his party will field candidates for 40 seats.

Unfortunately, an astute reporter points out that many of these seats don’t exist anymore. In a report titled ‘Karthik’s party, which contests even from nonexistent areas!’, the scribe says, “Actor Karthik, the chief of All India Naadaalum Makkal Katchi, announced that the party would contest from 40 constituencies, and released a list of candidates too. However, this contained constituencies that ceased to exist after delimitation, such as Cheranmahadevi, Saathaankulam, Kadalaadi, Ilaiyaankudi, Samayanallur and others. Thus, he has announced his intentions to contest from nonexistent places.”

The piece went on to quote him as telling reporters, complete with ellipsis, “We ha-ave writte-en a letter...to...the ADMK party General Secretary Jayalalithaa...madam. We did this in four sides, four pages. I don’t want to think again about why we came out.”

The reporter, having announced that he is running out of space to use ellipsis, quickly sums up the actor’s ode to Vaiko. The report finally chides Jayalalithaa for allowing Karthik into her fold despite his poor geographical skills, and cautions the actor to make sure the cars he uses for canvassing are provided with engines.

Nakkeeran chose to focus on Karunanidhi, who held a press conference late on Wednesday night. When asked about the ADMK planning to contest from Communist constituencies, he reportedly said, “I don’t peep into the next house or the opposite one.” The reply was greeted by titters, though the report did not say whether the source of mirth was perceived wit, or a mental image of the octogenarian negotiating his wheelchair over the fences that separate good neighbours.

Nuclear Power: Is the Threat Worth the Risk?

(Published in Sify.com on 18th March, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/nuclear-power-is-the-threat-worth-the-risk-news-columns-ldslKhddgcf.html)

(Picture Courtesy: Sify.com. Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)

First, the earthquake in Japan set tsunami alerts ringing across the world. Then, the rating of the subsequent nuclear emergency began to increase every day. While the television beams voyeuristic scenes of trauma and dread into our living rooms, the newspapers carry detailed reports of diplomatic discussions and critical precautions.

The worry of radioactivity in Japan, arguably the most in-control nation in the world today, has set such a wave of panic in motion that our e-mail and phone inboxes are filled with cautionary bulletins about the prospect of acid rain and nuclear danger. However, the world does not seem to see this as a situation where our thirst for nuclear power has to be questioned.

While comics have made mutant superheroes interesting, and movies have made mutant predators horrifying, the only emotions pictures of the victims of the Chernobyl tragedy evoke are pity and concern. Some of these victims were born decades after the actual accident, which itself occurred years before the nuclear arms race became a global contest.

‘If that didn’t serve as a warning to the world, what will?’ one may ask. Perhaps the fact that we don’t live in times when America could get away with dropping the atom bomb on Japan. Yes, America has been accidentally killing civilians all over the Middle East, but if Saddam’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction were anything to go by, the threat of nuclear power is no deterrent.

The world today is full of powerhouses that have loaded guns pointed at each other, so that a deadlock may be facilitated just in case a duel is called. Worse, each country that possesses nuclear weapons, and is conducting nuclear research, claims that it is seeking a method of power generation to replace fossil fuels.

Incidentally, the only controlled nuclear fusion reaction that the earth has access to – the one that’s going on in the sun – is already being harnessed successfully as a clean alternative. We all know that we won’t stop using fossil fuels till we run out of supply.

While Japan tries to recover quickly from a series of related catastrophes, and several countries along the Pacific coast are reviewing their safety mechanisms and keeping their fingers crossed, it’s time the question of nuclear disarmament was taken more seriously.

Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen natural disasters of mammoth proportions nearly every year – Tropical Storm Allison in 2000, the Bhuj earthquake in 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2004, the tsunami of 2004, the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the Java earthquake of 2006, the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the Australian heat wave and resulting bushfires of 2009, the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010, and the Pakistan floods of 2010 come to mind at once.

In this year alone, the earthquake and tsunami in Chile was quickly followed by floods in Australia and an earthquake in New Zealand, before the horror in Japan.

With our current carbon footprint doing nothing to decrease the threat of global warming, several astronomical marvels being predicted that could alter the forces acting on the earth, and naturally occurring tectonic shifts in the offing, it is only to be expected that we’ve not seen the last – or the worst – of natural disasters.

While the drop of a bomb could wipe out entire nations, a leak from a reactor can damage millions of lives, many of which won’t be conceived for years to come.

As we face the very real danger of this in Japan, shouldn’t we focus less on the implications that the paralysis of a booming economy has for the business world, and seriously think about nuclear disarmament? I’m not talking about stopping expansion here, because that isn’t enough. It’s time the world as a whole thought about dismantling its nuclear apparatus.

Of course, there will be objections, and of course experts will argue against the logic of such a drastic call. Governments will assure us that they have the right safeguards in place. But unless we intend to fight a war to end all wars yet again, we’re only setting ourselves up for a cataclysm to destroy life as we know it.

Secret Diary: Dhoni's Debt to Rajni and Captain

(Published in Sify.com on March 17, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/sports/Secret-diary-Dhoni-s-debt-to-Rajini-and-Captain-imagegallery-cricket-ldqruageiea.html#galname)

A sting - like most, imagined.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Nobleman with an Evil Streak: Interview with Jeffrey Archer

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 13th March, 2011)

This is an interview I did with Jeffrey Archer on his promotional tour of Only Time Will Tell, the first book of the five-part Series The Clifton Chronicles. The audio of the interview is here, and the text of my write-up below. From his mock-racial profiling to his rant against publishers and Bollywood, none of the author's barbs is seriously meant. He was usually pulling the leg of someone or the other within earshot. So, here's the interview - which consists largely of his witticisms and my giggles - and a write-up, which some of you may prefer. As for the interview, and I'm not saying this to sell it, the last bit, about colour-blindness, is the funn(i)est.


As I wait in the Presidential Suite, I wonder whether I should address Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare as ‘Lord Archer’, ‘Mr. Archer’ or ‘Jeffrey’, and prepare for a suited-up, right-wing nobleman to walk in, adjusting his pince nez as he dusts off lint with a monogrammed handkerchief.

When a white-haired, T-shirted gentleman saunters in, hands in pockets, hollering, “’Morning!” to the squirming hotel staff, I’m so surprised I say, “Hi!”

“Hello!” he grins, and looks around, “nice room! Why wasn’t I given this one?” Shaking his head in mock-frustration, he plonks himself down on the sofa.

“It can’t be much fun to be on tour when the World Cup is on,” I begin, and the author says, “It’s awful not to be able to see any. Which reminds me – come back, Australian!” – this to Daniel Watts, the Managing Director of Pan Macmillan, Asia (whom he bullies at regular intervals, seemingly with more enjoyment after I remark that it’s like watching the verbal-attack version of Bodyline). He wants his latest offering, Only Time Will Tell, first book of the five-part series The Clifton Chronicles, hand-delivered to AB de Villiers, on pain of death.

He then chides the Australian for not knowing who de Villiers is, and the Indian representative of his publishers because, “Your problem is AB can run three runs while your lot run one. You’ve got the best batting team in the world! But they can’t run between the wickets, and they can’t field. They’re FAT!” Having left the two men looking suitably sheepish, he turns to me, “The final will be between England and Ireland!”

“What is with you and the Irish?” I burst out, forgetting that this man has been a bestseller since before I was born, and that his weekly tax bill likely tops my annual earnings.

“Oh, I love the Irish!” Jeffrey Archer smiles, “They’re such a great race! Good people. They read such a lot of books too. Big readers, big writers.” In The Prison Diaries, he declares, “God gave the Irish the gift of language, and threw in some potatoes as an afterthought.”

We finally remember he’s here to promote Only Time Will Tell, which traces the early years of Harry Clifton, the son of a waitress and either a stevedore or a titled shipping magnate. The series will span a century, but the first book is a cliff-hanger. “It’s a horrible ending!” I whine, “the book’s too short!”

He gasps, “It’s nearly four hundred pages! What do you want, blood?” He waves his hand dismissively, “stop complaining. You’ll know in a year. I’ve written the first draft, so I know what happens to Harry. At the end of the first book, I thought, ‘oh, my God, how am I going to get out of this?’ I’m not TELLING you! The one thing I will tell you is that he’s a writer. So you’re going to get all my knowledge of awful publishers, and all the experiences I’ve been through!”

The other things he reveals about the second book are: (a) it could be called Above and Beyond, or The Sins of the Father (b) it’s set in the 1940s, with the backdrop of World War II (c) half of it will take place in America. “No KGB,” he smiles.

I ask if his writing has got more personal, since A Prisoner of Birth took us to Belmarsh, and Only Time Will Tell takes us to Weston-super-Mare and Oxford – Archer’s alma mater. “All authors do that, don’t they? You know, you write about what you know about. Jane Austen, Scott Fitzgerald... Of course, Shakespeare didn’t. He never went to Denmark or Italy or France, and he wrote about them all the time.” I smirk, “if he had, he’d’ve known there were no monasteries in the Roman Republic.” Archer laughs, “good point!”

He then says, “There’s a lot of Harry in me. I want Harry to come from a background I understand. I’m going to do him for a hundred years, and I don’t want to keep making him up.” Harry’s mother Maisie is based on Archer’s own mother, who graduated at sixty, wrote a novel, and created a character called ‘Tuppence’ – Jeffrey’s alter ego.

When I indulge myself in psychoanalysis, and suggest Archer got more comfortable talking about his own life after writing The Prison Diaries, he muses, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that! How interesting!” I venture to suggest his experience in prison was contrary to a poignant sentence in Harry’s story – “an abundance of sympathy can be more overwhelming than solitude.” To that, his Lordship snaps, “You don’t take everything so literally! I’m a writer. I do what I do. Treat me as a simple man!”

On the subject of hypocrisy, I tell him that for someone who was once so proud of not being computer savvy, he’s rather an avid blogger and tweeter. He gives me a ‘gotcha!’ look and says his secretary Alison does all of that. “I tell her on the phone, or I dictate it!”

He speaks of how painstakingly he brought in the temporal setting, of an era when tennis players wore long trousers, and football fans applauded the opposition. I smugly point out that he referred to the United Provinces as “Uttar Pradesh”, before 1940. “Oh, that’s bad!” he says, looking sheepish for once. Then he adds graciously, “Well done! But it didn’t stop your enjoying the book!”

However, he refuses to allow my contention that colour blindness isn’t inherited from the paternal side. “Stop making things up! I had that checked by a leading doctor. Go back and get in your basket!” he roars. “So there’s no loophole?” I ask, and he shakes his head furiously, “no loop...ah! Wait for Book 3!”

I ask whom he would cast if the series were televised. He wags a finger at me, “Only Indians say ‘who will play the main lead?’ It’s because of Bollywood!” He sighs, “get back to serious questions!”

I decide to do all his fans a service. “You have to tell me who Mentor from A Matter of Honour is!” Archer looks puzzled, “Mentor?” and pauses. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! The only book I’ve read in the last twenty years of my own is Kane and Abel, which I re-crafted. I don’t read them again. I’m on to the next book.”

However, he plans to take “a whole week off” after his sixteen-cities-in-four-weeks tour. Then, it’s back to writing in chunks of two hours through the day, with the indulgence of two theatre visits a week when he’s in London.

He’s also busy with charity auctioneering, and will conduct auctions for the Queensland floods, and the earthquake in New Zealand on his tour. I can’t resist asking him what he thinks of Anish Kapoor’s art and he sighs, “I can’t work it out. I’m not a modern. Very popular, though. Very highly thought of.”

As he signs my books with a felt-tip pen, we discuss a mutual hatred of people who can’t read books without bending their spines. Daniel steps in with a hard-sell of the limited edition hardback, which Archer ruins with, “humph! A first edition of Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less is worth something. This isn’t!”

He chases me off with, “We’re tired of you. Go away and don’t darken my doorway again! Write your own novel. I’m going to find lots of things wrong with it!”

As I leave, he begins telling Daniel everything that’s wrong with the Australian cricket team, since “the day you lost Gillespie, Gilchrist and Warne.” I recall reading that journalists in Mumbai had to interview him with the England-South Africa match on mute.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Logic of Brands: It Doesn't 'Ad' Up

(Published in Sify.com on 11 March, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/the-worst-ads-of-the-season-news-columns-ldlmdxecajj.html)

There’s such a thing as getting too much sun. However, with the summer yet to set in, the heat seems to have got to our ad agencies. If someone were to have to select the worst advertisement of the season, he or she would be hard put to make a decision.

In the beginning, there was that unforgettable soft-drink ad.

Suddenly, five cricketers decided to go topless, with body paint; clearly, the ad agency had been going through back issues of Sports Illustrated when inspiration struck.

The major debates in my family were about whether Harbhajan Singh had broken the statutes of his religion in taking a razor to his torso, and whether Virender Sehwag had used a body double to do away with some of his unflattering curves.

However, I believe the larger impact of the ad was that seeing our cricketers half-naked was so hard to stomach that most people purged the drink from their shopping lists, and switched to its rival.

Sadly, the executives of the rival then felt compelled to come out with an even more repulsive ad – which seems to have been nicknamed the ‘Brr’ campaign.

Some of my friends believe it was originally inspired by Javed Jaffrey from the ‘Hamdard ka Cinkara tonic’ ad, which was last televised when all of us were in school. But I believe it has drawn from the dances hijras have been performing in every movie that spoofs them. This time round, the debate in my family centred on whether the pigeon had been shaved for the ad.

The prospects of snacking while watching cricket matches have been severely dampened by a high-definition video of M S Dhoni streaming sweat as he steps in to bat. It does damage the image of ‘Captain Cool’, while simultaneously making me wish my television screen was as blurry as the ancient one my grandfather bought.

The other sector that has decided to appeal to the un-aesthetic sense of its target audience is the motor vehicle industry.

It began with a man staring out of the window and “wowwwww!”-ing as a woman in high heels walks by, while having dinner with his annoyed wife. Clearly, the ad makers were naïve enough to think we were naïve enough to think he was staring at the high-heeled woman, and not the box-like car that was following her. But, when the couple is out petting other people’s babies in prams, the wife “wowwwww!”-s at the car. Inexplicably, the husband looks pleased with himself.

What is even more bewildering is a note from the makers of the car, saying they had slowed down the footage, so we could take a good look at the car – just in case we thought that was the car’s top speed.

But this ad appears positively classy when compared to the campaign for a bike – scratch that, a scooter – that any man would be embarrassed to ride. The latest ad for that one shows two women sexually harassing their boyfriends from the backseat, ostensibly in a bid to outdo each other. An old woman shields her stuffed toy’s eyes from the sight – a disturbing image in itself – while her husband excitedly tells her that the lasses are trying to prove that the scooter has body balance.

Among the other epiphanies I’ve had pre-summer is that the Khan with the least annoying voice is Salman. I don’t even remember which brands Shah Rukh Khan represents – in his determination to outdo Amitabh Bachchan, he seems to have signed more ad contracts than the Big B, in addition to the Don remakes and KBC Version 2.0. The reason Aamir Khan’s brand image is so foggy is that, irrespective of which company he’s advertising for, he has a penchant for disguise. Saif Ali Khan’s pencil moustache doesn’t quite qualify as a disguise, but I do wish the sound engineers would man up his voice next time round – you know, take it a few octaves down.

Another ad whose brand I don’t remember stars John Abraham, Akshay Kumar, Ritiesh Deshmukh, and a portly character whom I’ve never seen before, pledging to forgo various types of food till the Indian team achieves a stipulated goal.

Though the Zoo-Zoos lost their cuteness a while ago, their new Super-Zoo-Zoo is the only ad character who makes me smile when he stops the bullet, however kitschy the Chuck Norris and Rajnikanth jokes have made that particular action.

My conclusion from this analysis is that a series of unfortunate inspirations can make a cliché funny.

Fourth Umpire: It's All Because of Emigration!

(Published in Sify.com, on 10 March 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/sports/it-s-all-because-of-emigration-news-columns-ldjqg8hhjae.html )

“Pa, why are you watching Kenya vs. Can...?” Arvind trailed off, as the seventy-year-old man raised one hand, and continued to write with the other.

“Dad!” Sachin whispered, tugging at Arvind’s shirt, “he’s not letting us watch highlights of all the matches we missed because of school. Arjun and I want to take leave for all the India matches.”


“Dad! Arjun’s parents said yes!” Sachin whined.

“I’m sure he told them your parents said yes,” Arvind grunted, “no, Sachin.”

“Why do you want to take leave for all the India matches?” Sachin’s grandfather called, without turning around, “you should be watching these. These are the teams of the future.”

“Kenya and Canada?” Arvind scoffed.

“You were laughing about Kenya, Holland and Canada when I said we’d have a new winner. Two out of those three have almost been giant-killers this tournament,” his father finally turned, “and remember, Bangladesh almost beat India. Ireland did beat England. Canada would have beaten Pakistan if not for Afridi.”

“Pa, that’s the point of a game. See, there’s an Afridi!”

“No, no, no,” the old man held up his handiwork, “I have calculated the chances of who will make it to the top. It’s an open field now. We could see all the so-called minnows go through. Except Kenya – I don’t expect them to make it on current form.”

“Excellent analysis, Pa. You should join Sidhu and Ganguly,” Arvind suggested, “at least you have something original to say.”

“You know why this problem has come up?” his father smiled triumphantly.

“Because you’re senile?”

His father waved the comment aside, and handed over the paper he had been scribbling on, “I mean the problem of the minnows.”

“I want to take leave! Arjun will laugh at me!” Sachin screamed, suddenly.

“Ask your mother,” Arvind frowned at the figures as his son dashed off, “Pa, India cannot lose to Netherlands!”

“Psychological advantage. We tied with England, but the Dutch almost defeated England, and Ireland did beat them. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is here!” and the old man pointed to an underlined word.

“EMI?” Arvind sighed, “now, your theory is the cricketers have to pay EMIs, so they are taking money to pay badly?”

“Not EMI. Emi. Short form of ‘emigration’. That’s the problem!” his father ran the pen down a list of names, “look at the Canadian team – full of Indians! That boy Balaji Rao was a Tamil Nadu player. If we had used him properly, he’d be taking wickets for India now. Waste of potential. There’s even a Mishra in the Kenyan team!”

“And what about Ireland?”

“Cricket brings Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland together. It’s like an India-Pakistan XI!” his father said, excitedly.

“No, Pa, they’re not the enemies!”

“Yes, correct. England is the enemy. Our politicians still don’t understand that!”

“Okay, so now, it’s not just emigration. It’s all because of colonialism,” Arvind rolled his eyes.

“Ah, but to understand the influence of colonialism on cricket, you have to look at a different team,” his father smiled, “South Africa.”

“What, reservation and affirmative action?”

“No, no. All those players would be in the Dutch team if not for colonialism!”

“Yeah, colonialism wrecked everything. Otherwise, Afridi, Sachin and Balaji Rao would be in the same gilli danda team!”

“Arvind!” Sunita came in, with the other Sachin, “you told him he can take leave? And now you’re discussing his gilli danda team!”

“I don’t have a gilli danda team! You never listen to me, Dad!” and their son stormed out of the room. Suddenly, he peeped in, “if you don’t let me take leave, I’ll drink tap water and fall sick!”

“Good parting shot!” his grandfather called.

“That’s one good reason to emigrate,” Arvind conceded, “that threat wouldn’t work in Canada.”

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

I Was Made To Feel like a Transplanted Organ: Shashi Tharoor (Exclusive Interview)

(Published on Sify.com, on 8 March 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/I-felt-like-a-transplanted-organ-Shashi-Tharoor-imagegallery-National-ldhr0rjcjfc.html)

This is a fun interview I did with Shashi Tharoor when he was on a trip to Madras. Go to the Sify.com URL for better pictures of him, and a nicer slideshow; but if you're too lazy, the contents of the interview are pasted below, along with a consolation picture. As a non-Tweeter, I visited Tharoor's page today, after receiving an email saying he'd tweeted about this piece. What cracked me up was not his link, but his hilarious response to a jibe from a journalist, who clearly feels accurate transcription is no virtue. Read on.

(Photo Courtesy: Sify.com. Unauthorised use of this picture is prohibited.)

Be it for his “outreach programme” on Twitter or his involvement in the IPL controversy, Shashi Tharoor has been in focus so much that he quips, “I’m no longer breaking news, I’ve already been broken”. However, the writer-politician still fills his flying visits with talks, book launches and meetings. Between warding off Malayali filmmakers who want him to act – to the suggestion that he’s probably younger than most of the South’s leading heroes, he laughs, “I’m not quite sure that’s accurate” – and trying to finish a “non-scholarly” work on India’s foreign policy, the former minister opens up to Nandini Krishnan about his writing, the ups and downs of his entry into politics, and his dreams for India.

You’re working on a book right now. You came out with Shadows Across the Playing Field weeks after assuming your portfolio. How do you find the time to write?

(Laughs) Oh, yes, Shadows Across the Playing Field...Yeah, except that I wrote it the summer of ’08, at the time India-Pakistan cricket relations had just completed a period of sixty years. It was published unusually late. It should have been out by January, when India was supposed to be touring Pakistan, but that tour got cancelled after 26/11. So the book got delayed. I couldn’t have written it as minister, I assure you.

Speaking of becoming minister, after all the things you’d said in The Great Indian Novel, specifically with the character of Priya Duryodhani, the Congress is the last party one would’ve expected you to represent.

No, as I explained during the election campaign, when my opponents tried to make capital of my earlier writings, I’m not fighting the election of 1977. The world’s changed, the country’s changed, the party’s changed, the issues of the period I wrote about are not the issues of today. I mean, at that point, there seemed to be a real threat to our democracy.

Today, if there is any threat, it’s not from my party. There have been undemocratic tendencies elsewhere, so, for me, the Congress party is by far the most attractive of the political options available in the country.

For someone who’s had a career in diplomacy, you’ve had an unusual number of controversies about things you’ve said being taken out of context, such as ‘interlocutor’ and ‘cattle class’.

I must say it was a bit sobering. First of all, you mentioned ‘interlocutor’ – and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, since then, it seems to have become a very popularly used word in politics. But no one has apologised for having tried to embarrass me and the Prime Minister over it.

In the case of the ‘cattle class’ remark, obviously most English-speaking people knew perfectly well that if at all anyone should be offended, it was the airlines, that are being attacked for herding in people like cattle. It is not a reference to people as cattle. But people saw it particularly useful as a stick to beat me on the head with.

The fact is, there’s a certain kind of media culture in our country, which specialises in sensationalism. So in some ways, departing this limelight was a blessed relief.

How did you take it when it happened, and what do you feel now, when you look back at that period?

Obviously, I feel somewhat sad, because I had a three-decade career in the international system, in which, at every one of my jobs, I was requested by my organisations to speak to the press and I did so. And I developed, if I may say so, something of a reputation for being rather good at it. I was the person wheeled out to appear on BBC’s Hard Talk, or to take on not only CNN, but the anti-UN Fox channel, and so on and so forth, and never in my entire career was I ever accused of saying one thing that was out of place, or inappropriate, or provoked controversy.

So, the last thing I ever expected when I entered Indian politics was that, within months, I would be dubbed a controversialist.

To some degree, I was made to feel like a transplanted organ, which the body rejects. But, you know, I’ve taken it in stride. There’s a great story that Natwar Singh told me. After he was sworn in, in 1984, he remarked to Indira Gandhi, “I’d better go and get a few bandhgalas stitched”, and she replied, “You’d better grow a thicker skin.” So that advice has come back now to me. I’m going to grow a thicker skin.

When you successfully joined government, it was the beginning of a new era for a lot of us, because here’s someone who speaks about Hindu culture with a British accent...

(Laughs) It’s an Indian accent, not a British one! But go on...

Well, you nearly headed the UN, and yet you speak Malayalam, you belong both here and there, and you didn’t use family influence or muscle your way into Parliament. Do you think of yourself as a trend-setter?

I hope that others will follow this example, because whenever I speak to students, lots of questions come up about how youngsters can engage in politics, whether you have to be the son of an MP to get in, and I say, ‘No, you can get involved at the grassroots level.’

Our system certainly is affected by our cultural tendency to have sons and daughters follow their father’s profession. It’s not just cultural, it’s also partly political logic that in large constituencies with limited means of communication, name recognition and old loyalties are genuine assets in an election.

In my case, I had the advantage that I was relatively known despite never having been in politics, despite never having had a political pedigree. But even though I got elected, the disadvantage of not having had a political background became rapidly apparent.

What makes that a disadvantage?

Well, you’re in a profession to which most people have devoted their lifetime, people who entered politics as students, worked their way through to the youth wing of the party, became active politicians at the state level and then moved on to the national level.

So they feel they’ve put in a lot of hard yards, and whatever you may have accomplished outside, you haven’t gone through what they have, and so there’s bound to be a certain level of, shall we say, non-acceptance.

I’m working on it. I do show a genuine willingness to learn, and I don’t pretend to know all the answers. I think I can ask some of the right questions because I’ been dealing with all sorts of issues and problems around the world. But I’m fully conscious that in politics, I’m still a novice, and that’s an inevitability.

On another note, there’s a dichotomy between your speeches about India and your writing. Your speeches tend to be optimistic and inspiring, whereas in both your fiction and non-fiction writing, you can’t really escape the reality of India.

I still think I’m basically an optimist. An optimist is someone who regards the future with uncertainty. A pessimist tells you everything’s bound to go wrong. The optimist says things might go wrong, there might be a possibility of, if you do the right things, getting the right result. I’m that kind of optimist.

I still think there are things wrong in our society, in our politics, in our economy, things we need to fix. But I see enough grounds to say ‘but we can get the right things done’. My speeches are anchored in the same set of facts that I write about, but I think they come out perhaps as a distillation of those, perhaps as more overtly bullish than the books.

Books have space for nuance and detail, but fundamentally, it’s the same set of analyses, the same thought process, and I am upbeat about India.

There’s been a sort of case of India vs. Indians over the past few decades – Emergency in the seventies, a closed market and red tape in the eighties, teething problems after liberalisation in the nineties, and corruption in the new millennium. So, as an optimist, what are your dreams and aspirations for India?

I think my dreams and aspirations are already coming through in the sense that there’s much more demand for accountability and reform in our system. Even though I said some negative things about aspects of our media, as a whole, our media is playing a good role in showing up miscarriages of justice.

The Jessica Lal case would not have been resolved without courageous media intervention. I think public awareness of Naxalism, of the alleged charges of corruption that recently came up, is certainly a huge change from the days when such stories would never make it to the media, when people did things quietly under the table and citizens lived with it.

Similarly, in terms of the economy, if you look at the range of professional options available to the average bright young person graduating from college, it’s twenty-thirty times the number my generation had, when essentially, if you were in the sciences, you became an engineer or a doctor; if you were in the arts, you were going to be IAS or IFS. So I would say my optimism is certainly in the process of being vindicated.

You spoke about how you sobered down after joining politics, but even when it comes to your novels, your earlier writing was a lot cheekier. Riot was subtle and poignant. Do you think your writing has sobered down too?

Yes, definitely. You see, each book meant a lot to me in the sense that it took a lot out of me just to find that time and space to do it. So I didn’t want to be typecast, to be formulaic or repetitive, because I was trying to bring more out of myself as a writer.

When I wrote The Great Indian Novel, it got almost uniformly enthusiastic reactions here and elsewhere in the world. Show Business got very good reviews in the West, but in India, many people thought, ‘oh, you know, this chap, what is this, he’s just interested in trivial things like Bollywood.’

If I wrote another satirical novel, I was afraid I would get the same sort of dismissive reaction from people who are not prepared to see beyond the ...what you call ‘cheekiness’, or others may call ‘exuberance’...to the serious message I was trying to convey. I’ve often argued that the duty of a satirist in any case is to entertain in order to edify.

So I thought, let me write a serious novel to show that I’m capable of a different kind of depth, and that was what Riot was.

Do you think the quality of Hindi cinema has improved since Show Business came out?

Oh, yes! It’s changed. I’m not going to judge whether it has improved or not, but it has changed. And I think one of the factors is the NRI audience, which wasn’t there in the period I was writing about. Now, it’s a very significant part of the marketing strategy of a Bollywood filmmaker. The second thing that changed, of course, is the role of smugglers. (Laughs) One trend I completely missed, because I wrote the novel in 1990, was the subsequent infusion of crime money into Bollywood, which seemed in danger of taking over the industry until they managed to clean it up.

But would the goats chewing away at the pile outside a Bollywood studio still find the book better than the film?

(Laughs.) Yeah, I think so.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Minority Rule: The India-Pakistan Divide

(Published in Sify.com on 4 March 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/minority-rule-the-india-pakistan-divide-news-columns-ldepEychcfc.html)

(Photo Courtesy: Sify.com. Unauthorised reproduction of this image is not permitted.)

‘What is the difference between India and Pakistan?’ We’ve all pondered over this question, usually at some stage of our school lives. Having grown up under the impression that the two nations were sworn enemies, we discover during our history classes that they were once part of the same country.

It is much later, though, that the difference becomes apparent –India is made up of a majority of minorities; in Pakistan, the majority is a minority and won’t tolerate any other. This is why extremists deemed it right to kill minister Shahbaz Bhatti and governor Salman Taseer for choosing to stand up for a woman sentenced to death for ‘blasphemy’.

Cross the Line of Control, and welcome to a country where the minority is always right. Perhaps it began with the inception of Pakistan, when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi decided the country deserved Rs. 55 crore from the national treasury. Next, came the battle for Kashmir – in wringing its hands before the UN on the threshold of victory, India turned the state into a gangrenous limb.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, when a look at the reservation table will tell you what I mean when I say India is constituted by a majority of minorities. While a piece of the pie is kept aside for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC/STs), the lion’s share belongs to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Most Backward Classes (MBCs).

No wonder then that everyone’s scrambling for the lowest spot on the caste-class ladder. I find it rather ironic that people who converted to other religions to shed the burden of labels that the caste-ridden Hindu hierarchy imposed on them, now want to be known as ‘Dalit Christians’ and ‘Dalit Muslims’.

Sadly enough, the phrase ‘appeasing the minorities’ has slipped into common political parlance, and has become an acceptable pre-poll tactic. The majority stands to gain from it, and those of us who don’t qualify for any of the right labels sigh.

People point eagerly to the Women’s Reservation Bill as proof that India’s minority-consciousness is headed in the right direction. But do we really need another mechanism to allow the wives and daughters of politicians into the control room, when India is essentially ruled by a woman who is about as Indian as Queen Victoria was German?

The real minority in India, though, comprises decision-makers. In that, perhaps, we have something in common with the Pakistan. In Pakistan, the shots are literally called by bearded men supposedly living in caves (and yet owning posh residences in expensive localities). In India, resolutions that will affect the entire nation are focused around the petty interests of the people who sign on the dotted lines.

The most recent example of this was Mamata Banerjee’s Rail Budget, which left most of the country confused about whether it was indeed the Union Rail Budget, or an election-manifesto-of-sorts for West Bengal. ‘Didi’ went on to bewilder the nation a few days later, by deciding to cover up what looked like the start of her campaign, with a hint that she may not contest polls in her home state. Yeah, right.

Further down south, the DMK is wondering how to react to allegations that one of its leaders is involved in the fishy business off the Lankan coast.

Meanwhile, the parents of a murdered child are being accused of conspiring to kill her – when they were the ones who fought against the CBI’s plea to close the Aarushi Talwar case – even as a man who has looted the treasury continued to head the Telecom Ministry well into his media trial. Weeks after the official inquiry began, A Raja’s actions were defended by minister Kapil Sibal.

And where are these leaders when an actual emergency crops up? While Muammar Gaddafi’s tanks and aircraft target the residents of Tripoli, India is patting itself on the back for getting a third of the Indian migrant population out of Libya.

As Pakistan propels itself towards becoming a failed state, we should start thinking about what label we as a country can bid for – banana republic? If our agricultural sector was doing well enough to qualify us for that term, our statistics on farmer suicides wouldn’t read the way they do. Perhaps we could call ourselves a Minority Raj. Only concerns that will affect a minority of the nation matter – well, as long as it’s the right minority.
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