Friday, December 9, 2016

A State weeps for its Amma

Much much before I learnt of Planck's constant, I knew of 2 political constants in Tamil Nadu - 2 constants which couldn't be more dissimilar but which periodically, meticulously exchanged places once every 5 years. And now, with one of those constants gone, it feels surreal, unbelievable almost.
Amma was always...just...there...lurking in the shadows when her bête noire was the Chief Minister and at all other times, she loomed large - the quintessential administrative head of her State. There are so many layers to her that one wonders if there is anyone who has been able to peel through all of them. Yet, it feels so inadequate and wrong to see many from outside Tamil Nadu oversimplifying her simply based on 2 data points - her disproportionate assets case and her stentorian control over her party.

I wonder how many know what she had to face that dark day in March 1989 when her modesty was outraged, in the Assembly of the State, no less!
I wonder how many know what a staggeringly well-read person she was and the depth of knowledge she brought to the table for any conversation.
I wonder how many know how she had complete grasp of administration in its truest sense - how well-prepared she would be for every meeting with bureaucrats.
I wonder how many know the insecurities she faced - from being a fair-skinned Brahmin woman not born in Tamil Nadu, in a patriarchal, caste-crazed, social milieu at a time when women were, forget being politicians, not even a side story in the political set-up.
I wonder how many know the dire poverty she was born into that pushed her to take up acting, to make ends meet for her family.
I wonder how many know her indefatigable love for reading and her regret at not being able to pursue academics.

It is a pity that all that most of the non-South/non-Tamil media, both national and international, can refer to her schemes is as "populist" - an adjective that does gross injustice to her larger administrative acumen. Yes, there were the mixies and grinders and laptops that no doubt proliferated the freebie culture, but to identify her administration by this alone is patently unfair.

Jayalalithaa did more for feminism than most west-educated liberals demanding freedom for women to go to pubs and wear whatever they wanted, ever conceived.
Her achievement in increasing higher education in Tamil Nadu, her tuition assistance to first-generation learners, her cradle baby scheme for kids abandoned by their biological parents (that single-handedly did more to eradicating female infanticide than most other schemes put together), her conceiving all-women police stations - all have done immeasurable good to the emancipation of women in the State. She leaves behind a State with India's highest rate of industrial employment and lowest rate of crimes against women. Though it would be unfair to rubbish the contribution of the grand old patriarch who kept the administration & development of the State running after he took over, credit for much of the social sector schemes ought to go to Jayalalithaa.

And what to say about the confidence in the government when(ever) she is in power! As Jey Dee eloquently says, the aam junta simply *knew* that under her, power cuts would be less, PDS would be better and the big daddy of them all - that Law & Order would be impeccable.

An aspect of L&O that we easily tend to overlook - for all talk of administration, we are selfish in the sense that we generally only talk about how we, the recipients, feel about it. But how does it feel from the other side - the enforcers. It's no secret that under her, the cops of the State felt truly empowered - which goes a long way in ensuring proper L&O.

What is incredible is not that she had no godfather (MGR was, by all means, her political godfather), but the way she built the party after she was sidelined in the immediate aftermath of his death. It is also said that MGR had begun to shun her towards the last few years of his rule when he began to perceive her as becoming more ambitious.

The immense sense of personal loss that people from all walks of life feel now - cutting across social and economic divides, is to be seen to be believed. These are absolutely apolitical people from totally middle class backgrounds who feel deeply aggrieved.
As a friend put it simply, never again will Tamil Nadu elect someone of her class, fortitude, intelligence, sophistication and charisma.

In a way though, the manner of her passing is a befitting tribute to the iron lady that she was - going at the peak of her powers. She passed away not as a powerless bystander but as a lady very much in control of her State & her people, having just won a historic re-election.

Rest well, Amma, much it is that you have done to the State and its people.
This is a void that will take some time to fill, if at all.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Thalavali da!

The trailer was awesome. The Neruppu da track was yet another high point. 21st July was probably the highest point. And then, it was all downhill. I thought, at its worst, Kabali would be a Mankatha - an average storyline that would ride on the hero's star-power & charisma to deliver a winner. The premise was grand - an ageing don who gets out of jail and is confronted with a hostile environment. We were smacking our lips imagining how this was a story-line tailor-made for someone like Rajni for his age. We were so happy that Rajni wouldn't be doing any of those atrocious running-around-trees with actresses half his age. We thought after the mindless splurging of money on sets by the likes of established directors like Shankar, a new young director would infuse a breath of fresh air and bring out the by-now-lost histrionic capabilities of the Superstar. And how wrong we were! There wasn't even an excuse for a storyline. What was the main theme - Kabali re-establishing his hold in Kuala Lampur or searching for his presumed-dead wife, I'm still wondering. One of the top moments in a Rajni movie is, of course the "intro scene" and that turned out to be a damp squib as well. Whatever charisma he exhibits in the movie was shown in the trailer, with little else left in the movie. Apart from Rajni, there was little else anyway – no matter how talented Radhika Apte might be. I hate to admit this, but as much as Baahubali was a symbol of pride for all Telugus, Kabali is an embarrassment for Tamils, especially after all the humongous hype and hoopla that preceded its release. Sorry Thalaiva, but you've let us down. Federer might not win Grand Slams, but at least it's still a joy to watch him play. :-(

Thursday, June 2, 2016

"One" of a Kind

He was one of the few guys who I took a liking to within a few instances of having come across, which were mostly TV interviews. But more importantly, this guy turned out to be all of it and more. He might be my batch mate but the awe remains. I’m still unsure if it’s his disarming and super-affable nature or the fact that he comes closest to me as far as backgrounds go, but there is this genuineness and sincerity about his persona that struck me that has stuck on. To me, he represents how a civil servant should be. Now I don’t know him personally and I sure as hell hope I’m not wrong in what I say of him, but based on what I’ve got to hear of him, both from his IAS batch-mates and elsewhere, turns out he’s every bit the gem I think of him to be.

His almost 35-minute speech in this video will attest to what I say here. And the deepest connect I share with him is the passion & emotion with which he spoke about impacting the lives of the poor and delivering justice to the common man, and I was moved to the point of tears – both by how sincerely he conveyed the point and the fact that that was what I set out for but will not be able to do.

Irrespective of all the practical/honest answers that people will give you these days (and you get them a lot once you’re inside the service), for the sincere guy, this impacting the life of the rural poor and causing positive societal change – irrespective of how clichéd it might sound, is among the primary things civil service is all about. Now being in the Revenue Services, I’ve seen enough to know there is much I can contribute and cause positive change, but this connect with the poorest of the poor, this delivery of justice to the Kamla Devis & Kishan Lals of India – far away from the humdrum of an airport or a Central Excise office – is something I will never get. And though I do have an attempt left, you know when you’ve moved on, leaving a tiny bit of you behind.

But to Gaurav Agarwal – that tiny bit of me that prompted me to leave the financial by-lanes of Chicago and return to India, not very unlike you, will remain with the likes you. The calm demeanour, the earnestness of approach and sincerity of purpose – I hope these remain with you all through your 30-year-career, Gaurav, as I hope they do with me, and hope the winds of destiny blow us onto the same path sometime in the future, as we build a better India.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Ranbir Kapoor Urban Employment Generation Scheme

The star-power of the Gandhi family. An unending supply of funds courtesy the national exchequer. The glamour of economists like Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen. A proven intellectual like Dr.Manmohan Singh.
All of these contributed to create the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Now, replace . . .
1. Gandhi family with Kapoor family
2. National Exchequer with Sajid Nadiadwala
3. Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen with Deepika Padukone
4. Dr Manmohan Singh with Imtiaz Ali
What you get is Tamasha. A movie that makes you question the very purpose of film-making. The movie was very thought-provoking in the sense that there were umpteen moments throughout when I would sit and wonder - why did they have to make this movie? And every single time, I came up with the same answer - MNREGS.
Imtiaz Ali, by now, has a reputation as a good director. The incumbent Kapoor is Ranbir. Glamour-flavour of the season, of course Deepika. And of course, Sajid Nadiadwala for money. So now they hunted for a plot. Of course, boy-accidentally-meets-girl-in-exotic-foreign-location. That is ok, but hasn't it been done to death? Ummm, ok. So let's make it intellectuaaal (Banno tera swagger lage saaaxy). We'll try to intellectualize emotions. You know, both will be common folks. But they'll meet at this god-awesome exotic locale and be completely filmy characters. Then they'll come back to India and become normal again. Then there'll be emotional turmoil. Oh yes and plenty of scope for "acting", at least for Ranbir.
I understand split personality, I understand multiple personality disorder, I also know of special children. But Ranbir's acting transcended all this. In that he tried to exhibit one or more of all this and ended up portraying himself much beyond any of this. And ends up irritating you to nails-scratching-blackboard levels.
Deepika has had the same steady level of acting since her first movie. When the camera's not focussing on either her superbly-toned legs (there's this hilarious moment when she wakes up from bed fully clothed - a kurti on top and leggings upto her ankle. Then she sees Ranbir playing football with a couple of kids. She goes down to get coffee after changing...into hot shorts :D) or her dimples, she's trying to emote in that perennially half-choked voice of hers.
The thing with Prem Ratan Dhan Payo was that it didn't take itself seriously. It was a dumb movie from end to end and made no pretense about being otherwise. It didn't take itself seriously which contributed to some hilarity from time to time. Tamasha, while attempting to be fun, is not. It's a movie which (apparently) seeks to explore the finer nuances of human emotions blah blah.
Tamasha could very well be renamed RKUEGS.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

On How Our Hidden Insecurities as a Society Surfaced thanks to #ChennaiFloods

Pardon me for being cynical but this whole business of "all communities rose as one", "Muslims serving Hindus meals", "Hindus staying inside mosques", "Muslims, Christians & Hindus together fight the floods" is getting a tad too exasperating. Are we such a failed state that we have to seek not only solace but joy at such things?

I know Chennai is among the more communally peaceful places in the country, and I am every bit proud to be a Chennaite, but do you mean to say Muslims & Hindus in Mumbai would have fought with each other when faced with a disaster of such mammoth proportions? I'm amazed at our level of insecurity as a nation. It is understandable if our media does this job of hyping up trivialities (for want of a better word), but it's plain sad to see the common people hype up what is *expected* in a mature democracy, or at least in any state that aspires to be and sees itself as a major world power.
The common man on the streets might not match your level of intellectualism in drawing room debates but he is definitely high above the incredibly low standards you set for him - that he would indulge in petty faith-based fights & not help when the very question of humanity and survival has arisen. I'm saddened that you thought so lowly of him. I didn't. And I'm glad he didn't prove me wrong.
Another thing - all of you saw what all Chennai is - all these weeks. Now here's an example of what Chennai is *NOT*.
  • Chennai is not the stereotype this article portrays us to be. I've faced my fair share of stereotyping by my North-Indian friends but even the most ignorant among them did not paint such a picture of us.
  • I can understand that you want to flood people's homes with positivity but this article is really scraping the barrel.
  • And the saddest part - the last paragraph. One of Mudhalvan's most classic dialogues was "Kadaiseela yennaiyum arasiyalvaadhiya aakkittaangaley!" (In the end, they have made me also a politician). How sad that after all the stories of heroism, valour, determination & courage transcending caste, creed, religion, sex, Rasheeda Bhagat had to make this to be yet another story of Muslims Vs the Rest!

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Primer on life as a Probationer – for all first-timers

First of all, congratulations for having cleared one of the most prestigious examinations in the country. You are in one of those confounding situations where your life will both dramatically change as well as remain the same in a matter of months. How you react to both the change as well as the sameness will determine w̶h̶o̶  what you are.

That said, the next 1-1.5 years of your life will be one of the most interesting and will lay the foundation for the rest of your career (and in some cases, your life as well). Given below is a compendium of things I wish I’d known before joining. I wouldn’t call them “do’s and don’t’s” in the strict sense of the word, rather a breezy peek-in into how life will be as a probationer. I hope you find this useful. Here goes!
  1. Training is a whole lot of fun and more! Assuming you’re coming here after some work experience, this is college all over again and a bonus fun period. Make good use of it. This is where you will (hopefully) build bonds that will (possibly) last a lifetime.
  2. Spend time in the academy. Localites tend to go home at the drop of a hat, I’d suggest spend time at the academy getting to know people or better still, plan weekend outings.
  3. Never be preachy. Folks, especially in the Service and that too, during probation, tend to stay away from preachy people, particularly from batch-mates. You are not here to correct others. Correct yourself if you can.
  4. Keep your rules to yourself. More specifically adherence to rules. Don’t be overly loud about your adherence to rules. People are, in general, allergic to rule-adherence. Just like how justice should not only be done, but seen to be done, likewise, you being a strict follower of rules is one thing, but to be seen to be a strict follower of rules is quite something else.
  5. You will constantly be judged whether you like it or not. Funnily, it is not only your actions but your inactions as well that will be judged. Also, people will, within a few interactions, sub-consciously stereotype you. It is an inherent trait. Why, even you will see yourself doing it. People are more comfortable bracketing you into groups/cliques.
  6. Try to get a conceptual understanding of whatever law is taught. Theory can always wait, be as hands-on as possible, especially when interacting with seniors. Field-experience always helps.
  7. Regionalism exists. Deal with it.
  8. There will be ample opportunities to travel. Use this to go to new places, not to go back to your home town (unless you have pressing reasons). You will never get the opportunity to travel free with no pressure in your mind and deadlines to meet.
  9. Love-Life – Ahem. It’s great if you manage to find your soul-mate here, but ideally, get committed once both you AND your girl/guy are both settled in a service (whether same or different). Umpteen stories abound of couples forming in FC/training only for them to go down the drain a year later because one of them got a different service. Muchly avoidable heartbreak.
  10. At all times, be cognizant of the fact that you are being paid. Try to do at least a little justice to the salary the government pays you.
  11. Take initiative. There is much you can do here. Do not worry about how small or insignificant your initiative might be. Every initiative is welcomed here. And if it is useful to your batchmates, nothing like it!
  12. Stay away from negativity. There will be no dearth of people cribbing about stuff – whether it be the salary, the service, Sarkar, whatnot. Negativity is contagious, positivity isn’t quite. Be positive – That is the only thing that will keep you going.
  13. Identify problems, but constantly keep looking for solutions. People with solutions are always wanted, especially in Sarkar. And this is the kind of people we need, if we want to take the nation forward.
  14. Don’t have sky-high expectations from your batch-mates. Your batch is, after all, a microcosm of the nation at large. Elitest, intelligent'est, etc. you all might be, but there will be generous doses of hypocrisy, biases, groupism, revulsion towards rules, jealousy, pettiness, narrow-mindedness etc. This is important because it helps you prepare for what you’re going to face for the next 25-30 years.
  15. Be receptive to change. Food, clothing, habits – if it helps you improve and be a better individual, government servant or citizen. Or simply if it is more convenient to you. :)
  16. There will be periods during training when you’ll feel bored, pointless, etc. Always be involved in some kind of activity or the other – whether with the academy or among your group of friends. There is too much to be learnt, understood and done for you to be bored. And mind you, I’m not talking about class or studies!
  17. All said and done, your batch will comprise of probably the most diverse set of people you would have ever come across in your life. The diversity is so staggering that it might sometimes overwhelm you. This is diversity in its most comprehensive sense – geography, caste, religion, region, social standing, etc. You’ll meet people with incredible stories, crazy profiles and awesome personalities. Each person is a source of wisdom, intelligence and knowledge – in most cases how to be (and in a few, how not to be too :D).
  18. Treat everyone with respect – irrespective of their designation. It is quite natural that our newly acquired designation, fancy as it sounds, along with the power it entails, might disorient us and make our heads heavy, however treat even your subordinates with respect.
  19. Leave a legacy – to your institution, your service and your juniors. One of the fundamental problems in India is how bad we are at knowledge-transfer, thus causing your juniors to repeat the same mistakes you did. Committing the same mistakes is a crime. There should always be novelty, even in mistakes. :D
  20. Have loads of fun. Make the best use of your training. You have a challenging 2-3 decades ahead of you. Make good friends in your batch. When the chips are down or when drinks are on the house, there should always be a batchmate just a phone-call away.
All the very best! Bharat Sarkar welcomes you!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

From Books & Book-Worms to Conservatives & Liberals

Contrary to popular perception, I am not a particularly well-read guy. I am very nitpicky about books and don't have the patience to devote a chunk of time on any one cause at any point of time. Now this has been a source of much embarrassment for me, because for some reason (probably because I talk a lot or because I somehow successfully portray that I'm knowledgeable-because-I'm-well-read or both) people tend to assume I've read many books. On many occasions, I've not even heard of the book or the author. Enough of narcissism, onto the actual topic - despite being badly-read, I've always held books in high regard and well-read people in higher regard (don’t ask me why. Is that a bad premise to start off with – Probably. But indulge me for a bit). Sadly though, though I still swear by books and continue to try to have “reading books” in my “must-do” list, I can’t say the same about the latter. Now generalization is something we Indians love to do (for example . . . :D). But in the recent past, I’ve come across a lot of well-read people who have deeply disappointed me. As an individual, I place a lot of premium on attitude and behaviour – and I guess I can even go on to say that building both these constitute one of the essential goals of life. Which is probably why my attitude towards reading is – though reading in itself is a pleasurable and a quite praise-worthy activity, if your reading doesn’t help enhance your attitude and/or behaviour, it’s really a shame. Over the past many months, I’ve come across many well-read folks/book-worms who have exhibited one or more of the following –
  • Air of superiority – I don’t know how this comes about - whether it is because of the knowledge acquired by reading books or the conscious feeling of having read many books, but it is there.
  • Utter Conviction about their point of view – They are so convinced about the opinion they hold that there will not even be any seeds of doubt that will make them entertain or even consider a contrary point of view.
  • Contempt for people who are not well-read but who venture to voice their opinion on issues they might otherwise have knowledge on/exposure to.
  • Mad Obsession – I’m by-and-large a moderate in most spheres of life (*wink wink*) and a strong believer in balance and not being overly taken in or consumed by any one particular person, cause or event. So I find it a little disconcerting when I see folks reading their books with complete disregard for other potentially important things. For instance, I’ve seen folks immersed in books on deep philosophical/existential issues when there’s a poor Commissioner who’s travelled hundreds of kilometers just to handle a class on how to issue show-cause notices, how to stay honest, etc.
Initially I thought these were just outliers, but pretty much every well-read person I have come across unfailingly exhibited one or more of the afore-mentioned characteristics (Ok the sample-size is so small I won’t disclose it, but take my word for it, will you? :D).

*bias alert* Another interesting observation/hypothesis I have is that these well-read folks invariably tend to be liberal. Now I’m not sure if this liberal streak is a conscious or sub-conscious development. While it is a pretty agreeable generalization that conservatives are usually not well-read (Internet Trolls for example) and liberals are well-read, it’s also a shame because there is so much literature conservatives can lay their hands on, without fear of having their political orientation changed (this fear, I am told, is one of the many factors hindering conservatives from reading up). This also probably explains how/why though the “senior” conservatives are comparably (to “senior” liberals) well-read, your average-Joe conservative isn’t anywhere as well-read as your average-Joe lib.
[On a side-note, this is also probably why I tend to lean on the conservative side slightly more often than not. ;-)]

Now we get to another interesting observation – that of how the number of articles/blogs/social media posts by average-Joe liberals on contemporary issues is more than those by average-Joe conservatives (who are more comfortable sharing the few articles written supporting their point of view. Oh how convenient!) – Yakub Memon’s hanging being a case in point. What’s interesting about this is that online social activism costs but a few pennies and a few books/articles. A software engineer-by-day becomes an expert on Yakub Memon’s hanging by night because he’s read a few articles by “investigative” journalists about how Yakub bhai turned himself in voluntarily, RAW had a deal with him, etc. The only time you spend is on reading books/articles. You don’t need to spend valuable time doing research, collecting data or learning the nuances of law. Classic example for this being Shashi Tharoor’s fantastic conclusion that – given that from 1990-2000 there were more hangings as well as a higher incidence of murder while from 2000-2010, there was just one hanging and the murder rate had substantially reduced – hence capital punishment is *not* a deterrent for murder. QED.

I realize I have digressed. To an alarming extent at that. But let that not take away my fundamental grouse with the “well-read”, which is what I had wanted my post to be about when I started. :D

Confession: For a change, I’ll de-generalize and say that this attitude towards books I have talked about here is purely personal – that a direct outcome of reading books should be to improve one’s attitude/behaviour towards the world/people. I completely agree that people’s motivations to read voraciously might range from “acquiring knowledge for the heck of it” to “getting a high for no specific reason” to “acquiring knowledge to acquire an air of superiority” to “personality development”. Given this, each person is completely justified in being arrogant, supercilious, condescending, etc.
But UPSC clear kiya hoon yaar, well-read or not, opinion to rahega na!