Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke

(Published in The Financial World, Tehelka on 27 June 2011, retrieved from http://www.tehelka.com/story_main50.asp?filename=Ws27062011Amitav.asp)






Author: Amitav GhoshTitle: River of SmokePrice: Rs. 699Publisher: PenguinPages: 553
It’s been a long wait for readers of Sea of Poppies. Exquisitely written and almost bawdily ambitious, that book left us wondering about the fates of five men who jumped ship, and four people who stayed behind. Three years later, River of Smoke answers some of those questions, while throwing up several more.

Sea of Poppies took us into the minds of Deeti, a widow who is saved from the pyre by an untouchable, Raja Neel Rattan Halder, a zamindar who is exiled on a framed charge of forgery, Ah Fatt aka Freddy Modi , his fellow-convict and opium addict, Paulette Lambert, a French orphan who lives on the charity of a new-moneyed British family, Baboo Nob Kissin Pander, the family’s sly gomusta, Jodu, a boatman who was Paulette’s childhood playmate, Zachary Reid, a ‘metif’ – of mixed race – who passes himself off as White and rises to the post of First Mate, and Serang Ali, a former pirate who now heads a band of lascars.

Just as its prequel did, River of Smoke begins with Deeti’s shrine. But now, the timorous, Bhojpuri-speaking bahu is a commanding matriarch who prattles on in Mauritian patois. The people who found their way to the walls of her shrine in Sea of Poppies now make their way to its doors, and as they add their contributions to the Madhubani artwork of its interiors, we find out who their patrons were. In a book that is even longer than its prequel, Amitav Ghosh largely restricts himself to the stories of Neel and Paulette from the cast we know, while lingering on the life of Ah Fatt’s father Bahram Modi.


To know what happened to the rest of the cast of Sea of Poppies, we’ll have to wait for the last book in the trilogy. River of Smoke makes a passing mention of Zachary’s fate, drops a hint about Jodu’s, and somewhere along the way, seems to suggest that everyone – or almost everyone – is reunited with his or her family, at least briefly. There are indications that the relationship between at least two people has changed. Entertaining and informative, River of Smoke builds to a climax which is a tad predictable, but startling in its suddenness.

The crackdown on opium, which would eventually lead to what we now know as ‘The Cutting of the Chinese Melon’, forms the backdrop of the story. The author nimbly knits fiction and history, weaving real-life characters into interactions with the ones he creates, and keeping his audience guessing about which of these are true, which inspired, and which imagined.

This may be the reason for such painstaking detail in Ghosh’s descriptions. Reading about the buttons on Napoleon Bonaparte’s coat, one pictures the General asking a visitor to St. Helena about the Parsi religion and the trade in Canton. The author intersperses a committee’s discussion on British policy in China, with a description of the courses served – regular readers will know Ghosh rarely leaves out his research – and then breaks off from a Chinese magnate’s discussion on opium trade in Canton to describe the delicacy ‘Buddha Jumps over the Wall’. The name of the dish, which sounds like an exotic drink in a contemporary dance club, makes you forget most of the preceding conversation.
The minutiae don’t distract from the subtext, though. China’s singular policy in dealing with foreign powers is subtly compared to that of British colonies. As we’re reading about businessmen who thank their counterparts by gifting them rocks, the Cantonese snack samsa which would yield its Indian spinoff samosa, ropes that hang down from the roofs of taverns to keep drunk patrons from falling down and choking on themselves, and paintings that are manufactured on an assembly line, we are startled by a simple, poignant fact – that the Indian factory is the only one on the Cantonese shore that doesn’t fly a flag, because it doesn’t have one.
While Ghosh compressed multiple lives into the microcosm of the ship in his last book, here he dissects the impact of the events in Canton on its inhabitants. The angst of the colonised seeps through in snide comments such as “Really, there was no language like English for turning lies into legalism”.  
But the most interesting interplay in the book is the balance between racial prejudice and political camaraderie. Democracy is described as a “marvellous tamasha that keeps the common people busy so that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance” by a Parsi businessman, whose comment is toasted by a British ship-owner. The Chamber of Commerce that represents all the non-Chinese businessmen in Canton seems to be a melting pot, where racism dissolves in the interest of business investments. However, the illusion is broken when a bewildered young Bombay businessman asks, “We gave all that money for the dinner, and then they call us monkeys and niggers?”
Ghosh leaves you with a grin when Chinese guards watching a game of cricket try to find logic in it. The portrayal of a Frenchwoman’s attempt to speak English by modifying her own language, which ends up startling sailors with innuendo, borders on slapstick, as does the description of an Indian’s understanding of British idioms. But the name of the dictionary Chinese dealers use to communicate with foreign businessmen has one laughing out loud.
Ironically, while omens provided comic relief in Sea of Poppies, as Nob Kissin Pander scours the elements for signs of Lord Krishna’s presence in Zachary, the bad ones seem potent in River of Smoke. One wonders whether this is an attempt to bring out a character’s belief that India is a land where “it is impossible even for the very best men to be true to themselves.”
Verdict:  Definitely one for the bookshelf!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Lokpal Bill?

(Published in Sify.com on 22 June, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/how-do-you-solve-a-problem-like-the-lokpal-bill-news-columns-lgwlWVigbjf.html)




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



We should have known that delusional actors would star in the Lokpal Bill drama when Anna Hazare wrote to Sonia Gandhi, appealing to her to bring in a strong institution to fight corruption.
But then, Hazare may have had his reasons to choose his addressee. After all, she wasn’t accused of receiving kickbacks in the Bofors case, and Ottavio Quattrocchi – believed to be a good friend of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi’s – is innocent as a newborn babe, according to the CBI as well as Indian courts.
Since she received a letter from the new avatar of the original Gandhi, the Italian-born ruler of the ruling party in India has been writing back to him, promising that she does not support the smear campaign her party has been conducting against the Joint Drafting Committee’s civil society panel, which Hazare heads.
The Prime Minister, who still harbours misconceived notions about Caesar’s wife, made his way to centre stage next, after the comic relief provided by the outcry against Hazare’s eulogy to Narendra Modi.
And he hasn’t left. He’s been called ‘weak’, ‘honest’, ‘man of integrity’, ‘leader of world leaders’, ‘ineffectual’ and ‘a puppet’. Then, Rahul Gandhi’s mentor Digvijay Singh made yet another gaffe – an art he seems to have passed on to his pupil – by saying the time was ripe for Sonia’s little boy to become Prime Minister. Who needs a Lokpal when a Congressman can dismiss you, eh?
Manmohan Singh has remained stoic in the face of a to-be-clumsily-withdrawn comment. He may not have been particularly perturbed, given that Rahul Gandhi is India’s surest shot at having a Sarah Palin. Come on. They’re both brunettes, they don’t look their age, they have visions – of rape and Russia, respectively – and they entertain the press all the time.
Rahul thinks Hindu extremism poses a greater threat to India than the Lashkar-e-Tayebba does, he blames Naxalism on “poverty and connectivity”, has said his mother has inspired him to fight corruption, said he doesn’t have to become Prime Minister because he has other job opportunities, and that we give too much time to Pakistan, which “isn’t half as important as we make it”, less than a year after the Mumbai terror attack.
Anyway, we digress. Where were we? Right, delusions. Well, we didn’t digress. Apparently, the Centre is willing for the Prime Minister to come within the jurisdiction of the Lokpal, but not when he is in power. Sigh! If only Nixon had been Indian!
The government doesn’t want the higher judiciary to be within the ambit of the Lokpal Bill either. What, don’t we trust our judges? It’s not like we’ve had a PF scam...err, no, wait, it’s not like the Chief Justice of a High Court has been accused of grabbing lands...err, no, wait, let’s keep it simple. What, don’t we trust our judges?
When all this was going on, Baba Ramdev staged what started off as a farce, and ended up in a police crackdown on thousands of unarmed citizens, and a cross-dressing escapade for the homophobic Baba.
Perhaps provoked by Sushma Swaraj’s impromptu gyrations at Rajghat, everyone started discussing the behaviour of MPs. Here, the government only seems to have a problem with the Lokpal monitoring their behaviour within Parliament. Technically speaking, one supposes Jyoti Singh, a.k.a. the woman who broke flowerpots in the Bihar Assembly, could be hauled up – metaphorically speaking, of course – because the action happened on the threshold.
Whether the government panel made this clear at the meeting of the Joint Drafting Committee or not, the civil society panel was having none of it, and Anna Hazare announced that “there is no other way except fasting” if the government does not pass the legislation in the form he has campaigned for by August 16. The smiling septuagenarian is now thoroughly disillusioned with the government’s promises, and is focusing on a ‘movement’. Let’s hope the word doesn’t encourage Arundhati Roy into throwing her lot in with him.
Then, Pranabda decided to hold a meeting to brief the leaders of the UPA about the standoff with the civil society panel over the Lokpal Bill – just in case they hadn’t watched the news. Sadly, DMK patriarch Karunanidhi couldn’t join the committee in its discussion against corruption despite being in the capital, because he was busy meeting his daughter, who is in jail on suspicion of corruption.
Speaking to the press, Kapil Sibal indulged in some wordplay on a “parallel government outside the government.” Unfortunately, the minister ended up asking for a strong “independent, investigating and prosecuting agency”, but which had checks and balances on its functioning, just in case it turned out to be corrupt too. One never knows, huh?
So, what do they all decide to do? Leave it to the Cabinet to decide. But wait, that’s a problem! Because the Cabinet consists exclusively of ministers, who are part of the ruling coalition! Never mind that a bunch of ministers have been accused of graft, this is a body of elected representatives of the civil society, and therefore better than the civil society.
I think the only way to break the deadlock over the Lokpal Bill, without either party running roughshod over the other, is to demand that there should be a Cabinet from the civil society too.
And while Baba Ramdev may dream of heading it, we must realise that this is a very tricky position.  There’s a certain prejudice in place. So, the person best equipped for it would be Celina Jaitley – after all, she has gone on air saying “gay people are just like normal people”. It can’t be too hard to convince the government that citizens are just like elected citizens, can it?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Don't Journalists Deserve Protection?

(Published in Sify.com on 15 June, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/don-t-journalists-deserve-protection-news-columns-lgoj80hdabh.html)




(Image Courtesy: Sify.com. Unauthorised reproduction of this photograph is prohibited.)



Martin Amis once wrote a story called Career Move in which poets have home gyms and date exotic women, while screen writers post hopeful letters to distinguished magazine editors.
The story comes to mind when one reads of planned murders of unarmed journalists and activists, and contrasts the protection given to the people who fight crime with the convoys and armoured vehicles that ferry politicians and bureaucrats.
Up to the millennium, every aspiring journalist knew he or she would never have money or clout; journalism was not a profession, it was a calling. It was practically a judiciary, presenting evidence, judging, and sentencing wrongdoers.
But the media boom made the profession glamorous, the names famous, and the salaries humongous. There are newspaper editors whose paycheques would trump those of the CEOs of IT giants. Ironically, this rise in financial and social stature only seems to have compounded the threats they face.
Nobody likes scribes. The bad ones walk up to bereaved families and make polite enquiries about their mood. The good ones are hated by politicians because they’re impartial unless they’ve been bought, and by criminals who haven’t entered politics because they expose their activities.
So why does a tribe that knows it is universally hated, and knows its stories will most likely be wrapped around peanuts the next day, risk so much? For the pursuit of truth? For a corruption-free world? For the love of ideals?
The mourners at Mid-Day Special Investigations Editor Jyotirmoy Dey’s funeral, and the journalists who took out a march to present their demands to Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, included his colleagues, friends and protégés; but there were others too, who were afraid they would be next.
In response to their calls for a CBI probe and assurance of security for journalists, all Chavan could offer was consideration of a bill to make attacks on journalists a cognisable and non-bailable offence.
Dey’s murder was reminiscent of the killing of RTI activist Amit Jethwa less than a year ago, in Ahmedabad. At the time, police speculated that Jethwa was killed because of his campaign against alleged illegal mining. Now, police speculate that Dey may have been shot because of his reportage on the oil mafia.
While killings of journalists may not seem too common an occurrence in India, a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says there have been seven murders of reporters in the last decade in this country, which have gone unsolved or unpunished. And this figure doesn’t include the journalists who die on the job, while reporting from conflict zones or covering street protests.

Most of the other countries on the list compiled by the CPJ are practically war zones, or run by dictatorial governments.
When Pakistani journalist Syed Shahzad was found to have been tortured and killed on May 31, the news came as a shock. But we’re talking about a country where a man was shot by security forces on camera, and allowed to bleed to death.

Iran is notorious for detaining journalists in Tehran’s Evin prison. The sentencing of Sri Lankan journalist J S Tissainayagam to 20 years in jail was revoked in the face of international outcry. However, these are countries where journalists are often seen enemies of the state.

We live in one where politicians smile into our living rooms on every prime time news show, and where crime reporters have close friends in the police force.
While the media has sometimes played an ugly role in milking tragic occurrences for their entertainment value, it is undeniable that the media has been successful in exposing poor governance and injustice. From the Jessica Lall case to the 2G scam, it has been instrumental in shaping public opinion and pressing for legal action. During the Emergency, newspapers even made a statement with silence, by leaving blank spaces to symbolise censorship.
And yet, we’re left with the knowledge that an illustrious career spanning two decades has ended with the tears of a mother and sister – made public by photojournalists whose voyeuristic instincts wouldn’t grant the family privacy in mourning.
Those images will fuel sit-ins and fasts over the next few days, maybe weeks.  But unless a system is put in place to provide security to journalists, either by the government or the media houses they work for, people will run out of reasons to join this field. Because to guard democracy, a free press is not enough; we need a press that does not have to be afraid to be free.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Open Letters to Our 'Leaders'





Let’s look back on the first week of June.
First, we learn that the contest between A Raja and Dayanidhi Maran continues – if not for a ministry, for a scandal. While Dayanidhi’s alleged theft of Rs 440 crore is rather paltry compared to Raja’s Thirteen Digit Heist, a secret telephone exchange is certainly more the stuff of detective novels than a bunch of licences. The DMK’s woes are aggravated by the court closing for vacations before it could send Kanimozhi trotting back to the air-conditioned environs of her home.
Meanwhile, Baba Ramdev got the most senior Union Ministers to bend backwards even before they attended one of his camps. Sadly, the Delhi Police didn’t take his lessons in flexibility as seriously, and ended up provoking comparisons to Jallianwallah Bagh by storming a peaceful protest with teargas shells and batons.
As the uneasy alliance at the Centre squirms in response to questions about its conduct, here are some tips for the protagonists:
Dear Manmohan Singh,
We all know you’re going to bring up Caesar’s Wife again, now that everyone’s demanding an apology from you for the police crackdown at Ramlila Maidan.
If only you had paid as much attention to your history and literature lessons as you did to economics, you might have been aware of the context in which Julius Caesar declared that his wife must be blameless. Caesar had his wife executed on suspicion of infidelity. He married again, replacing the executed wife with a ‘blameless’ one.
So, you might want to mull that over before you next declare that “The Prime Minister, like Caesar’s wife, should be blameless”.
Dear Sonia Gandhi,
It’s about time you stopped listening to your ‘inner voice’ and found ‘inner peace’ instead. Clueless? Well, watch Kung Fu Panda 2. Or, hop along to Haridwar, and join Baba Ramdev’s camp.
Whether his breathing techniques work for you or not, his whimsical sayings may cue your son in to what has currency in the media.
But you might want to skip the midnight raid ritual this time. What’s up with that, anyway? Was it your idea of a ‘bunga bunga’? Sigh, Signor Berlusconi must lament the loss of your citizenship – think of all the role play (complete with uniformed personnel) he could have had at his, if only you’d graced them!
Dear Baba Ramdev,
We took the Pranayam Fightback as a solution to avenging the 313 Brigade attack on a naval base in Pakistan.
We took the prances to the dais, the singing in the middle of interviews and the anachronistic, inappropriate screams of “Vande Mataram!”
But, a woman’s clothes to escape the police – really? We don’t know your stance on waxing at the moment, but most of us don’t grow beards. Next time round, you MIGHT want to trim that fuzz.
Dear Anna Hazare,
Since Baba Ramdev’s fast played out like a spoof of yours, and ended with Janardhan Dwivedi declaring that Congress workers would use your door-to-door technique to expose the forces corrupting the movement against corruption, you might want to distance yourself from the circus.
At the very least, you might want to change the venue. It’s believed that several tourists are under the impression that Jantar Mantar was an ancient protest site.
Dear L K Advani,
We expect your demand for an Emergency Parliament session will be followed by a demand for a confidence motion.
If you do decide to play an active role in politics again, you might want to replace those photographs of you working out in a gym with snapshots of you fasting. They’re both rather popular ways to keep fit, but the latter is more trendy right now. Ask Beyonce.
Dear Kanimozhi,
Cheer up about the site of your summer holidays. Yeah, you only have a fan, but Tihar has a generator, right? So you won’t have to go through power cuts – it’s that time of year in Delhi, isn’t it? Well, in Tamil Nadu, we’re rather confused because those were nearly a daily affair when Daddy Dearest was in power.
Second, you can use this to gain sympathy votes if you ever run for office again – ‘I’m a woman, they sent me to jail; I’m a mommy, they sent me to jail; it’s summer, they sent me to jail’.
Dear Karunanidhi,
You can’t actually think the whole ‘they are trying to undermine the Dravida movement by throwing my daughter in jail’ thingamajig is going to work!
Well, Kanimozhi is not quite the best Dravidian symbol to latch on to because (a) her English is arguably better than her Tamil (b) She didn’t give her son a Tamil (or Russian) name (c) She’s not made anti-Hindi or anti-Brahmin comments so far (d) She was born after the Dravida party had split up into a series of warring factions.
It might be a better idea to go back to cuddling Raja.
Dear Dayanidhi Maran,
A telephone exchange now, really? And then you say it wasn’t for Sun TV. So, it was for personal – oops, official – use.
Well, fair enough. But then, you’ve said, “After I resigned, there could have been an investigation. When I was not a minister, nobody wanted to get in touch with me.”
Umm... If that was the case, why did you need 323 lines?!
Dear A Raja,
Yeah, it’s not fair. Talk about line maro-ing.

The Privileged are Gaining from Caste Reservations


“Madam, your family marriages are arranged or love?”
I was trying to think of a fitting reply to the last in a series of bizarre questions from the census workers, when I noticed they were glancing at a plaque – it contained my grandfather’s name, which reveals his caste. That was in May 2010 – a whole year before the proposal for inclusion of caste in census was approved by the Cabinet. A journalist became quite a hero in media circles for answering a direct question about his caste with “outcast”. Apparently, the response was duly registered.
Few proposals have encountered less opposition in Parliament. Because in India, when people cast their votes, they vote for their castes.
But will enumeration of caste data lead to anything substantial, apart from helping politicians target their promises and tirades in various pockets? In combination with details of income, will it grant the underprivileged access to education? The question of caste is particularly iffy in Tamil Nadu. While the North has seen massive protests by students against caste-based reservation, Tamil Nadu has been increasing its reservation quota for “Backward Classes” in quantum leaps so that the total percentage of reserved seats is 69, far higher than the 50 percent stipulated by the Supreme Court.
The issue is complicated further by the fact that the term “classes” – which indicates economic rather than social hierarchy – has somehow become synonymous with its converse “castes”. However, few states have seen a stronger backlash in the face of attempts to exclude the “creamy layer” from benefits than Tamil Nadu. When Chief Minister M G Ramachandran passed an order to this effect in 1979, his party’s candidates for the Lok Sabha lost so badly that he panicked, withdrew the order and increased the reservation for Backward Classes by 19 percent – nearly doubling the quota.
Despite repeated rulings by the Supreme Court, the state – like most others – has ignored directives on removing the “Creamy Layer”.
In July 2010, a Supreme Court Bench hearing a writ petition, granted protection of Tamil Nadu’s current quota for another year, asking the State Backward Classes Commission to revisit the reservation issue “on the basis of the quantifiable data in respect of the communities in question.” At the moment, this doesn’t include family income. Worse still, economic backwardness is weighted at just 10 percent in determining the “backwardness” of a group – which leaves poorer students competing for fewer seats.
After the announcement of this year’s school final exam results, the newspapers were filled with heart-warming success stories of school toppers whose parents were construction labourers, domestic help or security guards. Lost in the paragraphs containing the children’s dreams of becoming lawyers, doctors or engineers were the footnotes – they would continue to work in the fireworks factories and cotton mills where they moonlighted, unless someone could sponsor their higher education. As things stand, free seats and scholarships are being doled out to people who don’t need them.

Why I Dread a 'Good Yewening' Wish

(Published in India Writes, India.com, on 7 June 2011, retrieved from http://www.indiawrites.com/celebrity-speak/why-i-dread-a-‘good-yewening’-wish/)







I remember a time when the sound I dreaded most was that of the slippery voice creeping up by my ear as I browsed through the cosmetics on display, to say:
“Medam, your faice is wery dork. Will you see some faerness cream?”
“No, it isn’t dark.”
“Medam, your wopen pores are wery lorge. Will you see skin-toightening cream?”
Now, I think longingly of the sales assistant who believed pointing out my facial flaws would endear her to me. Because these days, the sound I dread most is the whistle of the parking assistant, followed by the ingratiating, “good yewening, medam.”
That takes the number of sub-species I have discovered over the last five years to three – one, a circle of middle-aged socialites who only pose for the papers in strappy blouses or vintage cars or both; second, a posse of women who offer perfume, makeup, solutions for non-flawless skin and an inferiority complex the moment you walk into a store; and third, a crop of ‘parking assistants’ who expect to be tipped simply for existing.
You’ve just eased your car into a slot, when the panicky whistle sounds, and a uniformed man runs to you like he’s going to save you from dying by fire, one hand holding his whistle and the other struck out as if he’s about to scream, “noooooooooooooooooooooooo!” in a Bollywood movie.
“Medam, push slightly this side,” he pants.
“Push whom?”  
“Medam, cawr,” he says, unfazed.
You sigh and get back in. Excited, he frowns in concentration and flutters one hand toward himself, while the other supports the whistle, which is working overtime. “Puhishoo, puhishoo, PUHISHOOOOO!”
Holding up the panicky hand, he runs back and then wags it at you urgently. You edge forward, and he runs to the front of the car, willing it to move a few more micro-inches forward. Then, his expression turns horrified and he bangs your bonnet in a bid to get you to stop.
“You made a dent!” you scream.
He ponders for a second, and then yelps and draws one knee to his chest.
“Medam, you ran over my leg!” he moans, and then, adds magnanimously, “but it’s okay.”
You meet him again an hour later, just as you’ve pulled your car out. Holding up his whistle and hand, he throws himself about your car and then taps on the glass with one hand, while clumsily saluting you with the other. “Good yewening, medam.”
You roll down the window when he places a foot somewhere between your wheel and the headlights. “What?”
Good yewening, medam.” Salute. And then he holds out his palm, “good yewening, medam. Tea, medam.”
After losing most of my five-rupee coins and notes to the vandals of my car, I contemplated carrying around a flask of tea with me. After a SWOT analysis of my driving skills suggested that my seats would consume most of the beverage, I abandoned the idea, and finally decided to stop paying them to do what they’re paid to do.
Since then, I’ve lost a heel of my one good pair of yewening shoes in a bid to outrun one of them to my car. I’ve nearly lost my toe to another who decided to prove his worth by trying to bang my door shut while whistling. I’ve almost squashed the foot of an assistant who beat me to the wheel. I’ve left a few square inches of my sari under the boot of another.
But I met my match with a parking assistant who guided another car to halt across my path, before he marched up to my window and banged, “medam, hello?”
 “What?”
“Tea, medam.”
 “What for?”
“One nyimit, medam.”
He did take a minute to whistle till I nearly went deaf, urging the driver of the other car to move till I had a whole micro-inch of extra space.
“Ask him to move some more.”
“More-aa, medam?” he gave me a long-suffering glance, and then hunched along to the other driver and called, “ladies, sir. Medam wants more place.”
When the driver had glared at me and moved enough to let me finally drive off, the parking assistant banged my bonnet, “tea, medam.” With a flourish, he indicated the luxurious space accorded to me.
“What for? Isn’t that why they pay you your salary?”
“Medam!” he exclaimed, looking appalled at my grasp of corporate economics, “I could have just been sitting in my chair.”
As I parted with my last green Gandhi, I thought wistfully of the many appraisals I could have used that line at. 

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Cranial Showdown: A reality show for the IITs



First, a series of scams. Second, an alumnus and Minister starts a debate about the quality of education. Third, a rapid fire round of controversial statements and backtracks from sundry ministries, and a declaration that the elite institute is best equipped to clean rivers. Fourth, a snub from the government to a proposal on hiking fees.
The scene is all set for the IITs to star in a TV reality show.
Perhaps, given the content of Jairam Ramesh’s surmise, the institute should pit its staff against the students. As celebrity host, they might want to call in the Minister, who’s happy to give away awards at the convocation, particularly fond of disrobing in public, and seemingly unable to control the upward jerk of his extremities towards his facial orifice.
While the TV channels get into bidding wars – which, in all likelihood, will be won by Doordarshan – here’s a blueprint that might allow them to compete with Lok Sabha’s new reality show starring Meira Kumar.
Music begins. The words CRANIAL SHOWDOWN – which the Ministry of Environment showed remarkable ingenuity in coming up with – flash on screen.
Task 1: Put your mouth where your money is
An anxious group of ten students stares at the door nervously. Some are thinking up smart lines for dumb chicks at the next culturals, others are trying to solve CAT questions, and the rest are strumming imaginary guitars. Jairam Ramesh walks in to a drumroll, and smiles cheerily. The boys stand up and clap, because that’s what you’re supposed to do at the sound of a drumroll.
JR: Okay, boys, are you ready for an IQ test?
Boy 1: Sir, are we competing against each other or against the staff?
JR: Excellent question. Two points for that, and an automatic pass to the next level. The rest of you: “The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Discuss.”
The boys groan together.
Boy 2: Sir, that question’s been a pick up line since you were at Insti.
JR (looking surprised)Wow! So you guys are still as bright as we were, huh? Well, good work, then. Everyone goes to the next level.
The boys whoop.
JR (to the audience)But you can still vote for your favourites. If you like Boy 1 – Sailesh – send in ‘IIT Space CS Space B1’ to...(pauses)Wait a minute, do I have to do this for ten people? I don’t even know your darned names! And I didn’t even get the ministry I wanted! I mean, this is a big joke! Boy 6 to Boy 10, get out now!
Storms off angrily. Camera follows him outside, where he walks purposefully towards a jacaranda tree, rests his head against a branch, sighs and then walks off. Another camera’s been following the five eliminated boys.
Boy 6: It just isn’t fair. We’re just numbers to him. And he doesn’t even know how to crunch them properly.
Boy 7: You know what, I don’t care. I didn’t want to come to this crappy show in the first place.
Boy 8: I mean, he could have told us the cut-off, at the very least!
Boy 9: Can’t you count? It was 5!
Boy 10: In this case, it wasn’t about cut-offs, dude. It’s scatter factor. Jeez. I’m so glad to be leaving this pathetic show, with a pathetic bunch of contestants!
Boy 4 (who has come out to heckle them)Yeah, trot along, losers. IIT is about survival of the fittest.  That’s our motto. We say that when students kill themselves; we say that when people get eliminated from Cranial Showdown. Too bad.
He slams the door shut on them, and goes back in, to glare at the other four contestants.
Task 2: No crash land-ing!
This time, seven men in suits stand in a room, looking suspiciously at the camera. Their hands are in their pockets, they hate the press. These must be the Directors. Our host confirms it for us.
JR: Are you all ready for this challenge?
Director 1: Do you really want to do this in front of the press?
JR: They’re paying us for it, man.
Director 2: I’m going to kill you, you *&%$#@%^! You went and told them that the students are brilliant, the staff is not. I was in the same hostel as you. I even ragged you on your first day! (Takes a few threatening steps towards him and points his index finger at the precise centre of JR’s chin) You may not remember me, but I’ll make sure you never forget!
Storms off, hissing at the cameras.
JR: Whoa, what’s got his goat?
Director 3: Some students, apparently. They’ve been grumbling about the shortage of girls on campus, and finally decided to do something about it.
JR: Like, he actually had a goat?
Director 4: What, Osama can and he can’t? Survival of the fittest, man! Have you forgotten?
Director 5: Are we going to stand here talking about goats and memory loss all day, or do you have a task for us?
JR: Well, yes. Umm, actually there are tasks for each of you here, and they all involve paperwork. First up, there’s the problem of 40 acres of prime land given away to the Government of Tamil Nadu, which has leased 25.27 acres to the Tatas.
Director 5: Come on, Jay, I’m tired of this. I already told the press that the ‘I’ in the drawings in the land revenue office looks like a ‘C’.
JR (puzzled)You mean, it’s with ITC now,  not Tata?
Director 5: No! CIT not IIT! God, you’re a G-I-T!
JR: This IT industry’s beginning to tick me off!
Director 6: Bravo!
JR: Anyway, Director 5, that’s your paperwork.
Director 5: Hey, there’s no point to this! I also said “If you think legally pursuing a case of this sort would have gotten us this land, you are living in a different world.”
Director 6: Bravo!
Director 5: I quit!
He storms out. The camera follows him to the jacaranda tree, but he doesn’t lean against it.
Director 5 (glaring at the camera)I’ve had it with the press! They want to know why we thanked the government for gifting us back our land. They want to know whether we blame ourselves for a student death. And then they ask about bribes for land! I mean, I’m still paying EMIs for my housing loan! I’ve said this before. (Breathes heavily) I hate TV, and I hate films. I even tried having the film city demolished. They just never answered my letters!
Patient voice behind the camera: Who didn’t answer your letters? The government?
Director 5: Huh? What? No, Oprah. It’s all because of Scientology.
Patient voice behind the camera: What does Oprah have to do with anything?
Director 5: Are you saying Oprah’s an independent entity, disconnected from the world?
Patient voice behind the camera: How is this related to what you said earlier?
Director 5: Are you challenging me to contradict myself? Huh? Is that what you want? You think I can’t? Go check the damn press! (Storms off angrily.)
The cameras go back to the room of directors, which has now been reduced to five people and the host.
JR (with some delight)Wow, this is pretty amazing! Five students and five staff! It evens it all out. Perfect for the next contest!
Director 1: What’s that, arm wrestling? I can beat those wimps any day! You know how many signatures I can scrawl in a day? (Looks proudly at the others.)
Director 4: Wait a minute, did you just call us ‘staff’?
JR: Why, yes.
Director 4: I’m not staying here to be degraded like this!
Storms off. JR looks uncertain and then shrugs.
JR: What was his number? 4? Well, we’ll just have to send off Boy 4 too.
The cameras follow him, as he leads the Directors to the Boys.
JR: Boy 4, leave.
Boy 4: Whaaa...?
JR: You heard me. Leave. You know the motto. Survival of the fittest.
Comic music plays as the boy mournfully drags out his laptop bag and leaves. ‘SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST?’ pops on to the screen.
Director 3: Why did you allow 5 to leave? There’s so much dirt we had on him. Making appointments when his tenure was ending, diversion of 40 crore to the research park without involving the Human Resources Development Ministry, the gold c...
JR (with a wicked grin): And who heads the HRD? (Breaks off into an evil laugh, as the Directors look on with some awe.)
Boy 1: Sir, does this mean that five-fold fee hike will come into effect?
JR: Who gives these boys newspapers? Anyway, if you win the next task, you won’t have to worry about the fees. (Winks at the camera.)We’ll be right back, after this break.
Task 3: Economical Meltdown
The four Boys and four Directors face off, as the host looks on evilly.
JR: Here’s a real test of your wits. Staff against Students.
Director 3: J, it is offensive when you call us staff, you know. We’re not really...
JR: Out! And Boy 3 too.
Boy 3: But, sir, this is just weird. This is murder by numbers.
JR: Oh, I love that film! All right, you can stay. Boy 2, leave.
Boy 2: Hey, that’s unfair!
JR signals frantically for the camera to stay on the contestants, so Boy 2 and Director 3 skip the jacaranda tree ritual.
JR: All right, listen to me carefully. I’m going to give you a problem. Whoever solves it wins the Cranial Showdown for their group. Question. (Breathes deeply. Camera focuses on each contestant’s expression, and moves back to JR’s.) What is the quickest way to melt 10,000 grams of gold?
Boy 3: Easy, sir! Give it to the Directors to distribute for the golden jubilee!
JR: Excellent answer! (Smiles triumphantly.) Did I not tell you that the students are the smart ones? And now you...(Looks at the Directors)  are all FIRED!
The directors begin to walk away slowly, but before they can reach the jacaranda tree, Director 7 speaks for the first time.
Director 7: I don’t know about you guys, but I’m really just waiting for the diamond jubilee!

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