Oct 202013

My Column in the DNA, on the 17th of October 


A few years ago I was on the interview panel of a leading Indian University that had just launched an honours degree programme in Economics. We, me and another professor, were supposed to interview students who had just finished their 12th and evaluate their suitability for this prestigious programme. These were students from all across India; they had scored high percentage in the higher secondary exams and had cleared the university entrance exams with flying colours. So, one expected invigorating interview sessions with the them. We began by asking simple questions: What is the full form of GDP and what does it mean?

Or what is inflation and what does five per cent growth in inflation mean? Most students were flummoxed by these simplest of queries, and we were perplexed because these youngsters averaged over 85 per cent in their class XII board exams. We discussed among  ourselves and decided to lower the bar with such questions like what is the full form of RBI; what is the full form of SBI. But these too met with the same response – blank stares. Or, when the student was street smart then a furtive glance around the room, followed by a look up to the skies, a look down and the classic line “it is on the tip of my tongue, I will get it” … and then a few seconds later “can you give me a hint?”. And so it continued. Finally, we began asking questions that were, what we defined as, sitters: Who is the Finance Minister of India (in those days it was Pranab Mukherjee).

And, we had a list of such questions that anyone should be able to crack. And then a candidate walked in with academic excellence of 90 per cent. He had been on the school hockey team, took part in extra-curricular activities, had great marks in the entrance test.  We asked him: Who is the former Finance Minister of India who is also the current Prime Minister? He looked at us and said, “But that is not in my syllabus but I think it is a  lady, her name begins with P”.

The co-examiner and I looked at each other, neither of us could fathom who the candidate was speaking about. Our confusion must have been evident, because the candidate helpfully added “she usually has her head covered”. We looked at each other and ventured “you mean Pratibhatai Patil, the President?”. The candidate beamed and said “same difference”.

This story may seem farfetched, but it is not. For the last decade I have been a visiting faculty for media-related subjects at the University of Mumbai. Some of the answers at the university level seem as if they are from the film Munnabhai. ‘Sonia Gandhi is the daughter of Indira Gandhi and grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’, is a routine answer. Another standard response is that Hindi is the mother tongue of all Hindus, all other religions speak other languages. Or, another favourite ‘educated people read English news, illiterate people read regional newspapers’ an answer that never fails to get examiners to burst into peals of laughter while marking the answer papers. I have heard professors who correct answer papers for other subjects complain about such ‘innovative’ answers. Sometimes, when the answer is not unique, but written by a series of students, we fear that this was what they had been taught.

There is a problem with education in India. Our graduates know very little. And whatever little they know is usually wrong. Talk to any recruiter and you will hear horror stories of how difficult it is to find entry-level candidates who can walk and talk at the same time. And, if you think that this is just a problem facing the Humanities, it is worse in Engineering. Many private engineering colleges have an unwritten rule instructing teachers that they cannot fail students for lack of knowledge. In fact, given that employers only choose to even interview students who have scored a first class, the mandate in many of these colleges is to ensure that maximum number of students score a first class.

As a result many IT companies that recruit from these institutes end up having to make students take exams that clarify the basics and then spend a considerable amount of time and energy training these ‘first class graduates’ so  that they are able to perform the most mundane of activities. The scenario is not very different in Management programmes either. And, now with professional courses coming into the picture, the scenario has become even more muddied.

There are courses that sound great, even from an employer’s perspective, but there are very few teachers who can be pressed into service. For example, a BSc in Biochemistry cannot really be taught by Biology and Chemistry professors but that’s what is happening now. It needs to be taught by specialists.

In many of these cases, students are the first generation in their families seeking higher education. And, they have dreams of a bright future. Their parent mortgage land and homes to ensure their children have the advantage of a good education. And, the system provides them with a degree that, more often than not, is not worth the paper it is printed on.

As Einstein once said: “The only thing interfering with my learning is my education.” And this has come to pass in India. What we need is a relook at the system of higher education. There are professions that need skills and not degrees. And these skills need to be constantly updated. Academia is also required, but its application is different it is meant to be a quest for knowledge.  In conflating the two what India has is the worst of all possible worlds lack of excellence in academia and lack of skills and employability in candidates. The solution, possibly, is to look at these as separate entities  and aim for excellence in both.

Oct 162013

My column in the DNA on the 3rd of October

The biggest show on Earth replete with drama, emotion, backstabbing, direct attacks, strong personalities, devoted squealing fans hits the road. Elections 2014 is just around the corner, and it is impossible to go outside without being assaulted with hoardings, posters and buntings. On television news too, the looming elections have begun dominating the discourse. And, given that the real world and mainstream media is brimming over with chunaav-related posturing, it is hardly surprising that the battle is carried forward into the social media where we have variants of “my neta the bestest”. And, while that line may sound cute on a six-year-old, it is quite something else coming from seeming adults.

It is not just India, where the sort of fan behaviour more associated with film stars, football players and rock musicians comes into play with relation to politics. It is everywhere. Follow the discourse in the US, in Russia, in parts of Europe the tendency is the same. Group around strong personalities, build them up, put up the barricades to keep non-believers out, savage the agnostic those who say “hey, wait a minute … but”; and finally from behind the barricades make war on the ‘other’ side.

There is strength in numbers for the most ludicrous position and the new media allows one to gather those numbers from across the networked world to demonstrate a seeming show of strength.

There are superlatives attached to individuals, their personalities, their individual attributes, and the sum total of these attributes positive or negative are transferred to the parties and their policies. And, if this is the case with politicians considered to be boring by most can you imagine the hype associated with musicians and film stars? These fan groups are bound by a dominating personality, bask in reflected glory, look to each other for validation, and create little symbols and codes that define their groups.

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communication theorist, most famous for the quote “the medium is the message” predicted this sort of behaviour way back in the 1960s. According to him, both print and television are highly individualistic media that make the consumer passive recipients of content. These may direct them to buy a film or a bar of soap, but it is very difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to gravitate towards people with similar interests.

In a way, the huge fan clubs for film stars that grew in South India, was as much about the star as it was part of the need of the audience to assert a common identity that of being fans. McLuhan predicted that an era of ‘electronic interdependence’ would come to pass in which people of the world would move from individualism and fragmentation of identities to collective identities. McLuhan calls this the creation of a tribal base.

He says that unless we are aware of the nature of this beast, it is highly likely that we, collectively, or as part of our new affiliation, will fall prey to the inherent tribalism that is an outcome of electronic interdependence. His great fear was that as with tribal life, there would be a tendency towards a “phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence”.

(McLuhan: The Gutenberg Galaxy:The Making of Typographic Man). We have seen this in the past with the global panic on the SARS virus spread by the internet; or the panic caused by the Boston bombings that led to an innocent man being identified by a bunch of netizens who took it upon themselves to play anti-terror cop.  We have also seen the coming together of the ‘tribe’ in the way the Obama campaign was mobilised online, or indeed the way the faithful are rallying behind Narendra Modi (and the BJP) and Rahul Gandhi (and the Congress).

We are seeing the drawbridges go up, the faithful huddling together and excluding everyone else. We are seeing every message being amplified by one side, and every little gaffe being augmented by the other. And, while it is greatly entertaining as a bystander, it also reveals the manner in which the tribes are forming, and keeping the faithful together.

But panic terror and tribal drums foretelling war are not the only aspect of tribal behaviour. There is another which we often overlook. That is coming together to solve problems, working together for a greater good, supporting each other through good times and bad. Helping others put up their houses, or help them with harvest or the hunt.

This part of ‘tribal’ is also enabled by the new digital age. We see support groups for parents with children with rare ailments; there are people who get together to put up shelters for homeless or for working with deprived kids; there are groups for aged singles and more. Tribes work for good, too.

Of late, the digital media has become a convenient whipping boy for all the ills in the world. From riots to sexual harassment; from bullying to breakdown of marriage, it is all the fault of the share button of social networking. But technology is neither good nor bad. It is the way we choose to use technology to create our little ghettos or exploit it to encompass the world, with the belief that there is so much to learn and so much to share that interacting with others, who are different, will only benefit us.

Throughout history both sets have existed those who took pride in their ‘purity’ and their isolation, and others who reached out to beyond their comfort zone. Unfortunately, most of those who chose to remain isolated have been forgotten. Those who chose to reach out have left behind a legacy.

Sep 292013

barbed wire

Guard at the Hazira Port – found the contrasts fairly interesting. I think the guy had snuck out for a smoke … the shot definitely made it seem that way.

Keeping it Out

This was interesting for another reason, because of the nature of the shot and the seeming distance between the Sea and the land, it seemed like the barbed wire kept out the sea :)


This was shot in Mumbai – near the University. I found the interplay of light and shadow quite fascinating. It reminded me of the smaller gate that led into a fortress or a jail …


And this felt like someone was going to fence off the sea

Lifting the Son

And, this is possibly one of my favourites. A sunrise shot – at Hazira. The angle made it seem like that the winch was lifting the sun

Sep 222013

view from the 12th floor

(Mumbai from the 12th floor of India Bulls)

I physically miss Mumbai when i am away from it. There is something about the city – the sheer energy, the sheer buzz, the lack of pretense. that is missing elsewhere. Maybe people from other cities will express similar sentiments about their city. I suppose they would. Often, one hears the statement – the Mumbai you grew up in is very different from the Mumbai today – but so are you :)

In the last 15 years or so, Mumbai’s gloss has been losing its sheen. It is looking tired and tarnished. There are those who blame the transition from Bombay to Mumbai for the issues, there are others who blame ‘outsiders’. Maybe both these statements are right – afterall the people who are making them are highly regarded in their own circles. And, political correctness aside, these are comments that most of us have heard every day. Not just in Mumbai but elsewhere too – the nostalgic remembrance of days gone by – when people knew their place. Where people did not yet comprehend that they were equal citizens of a Republic. Where ‘outsiders’ were fewer and in their little enclaves (one could call them Ghettos, but they weren’t Ghettos, at least not then)


 (Bandra Fishing Village, Mumbai)

Some of my classmates, when i was in school,  lived in the slums. Some had mothers who worked in homes as maids, others had fathers who worked in the mills. I remember one whose dad was a taxi driver. At school we were told, don’t get expensive sweets on your birthday, to distribute. Others in your class cannot afford it. We used to take in those boiled orange sweets (Parle) – remember those?

We used to attend each other’s festivals. Haldi Kumkum, for example was a multi cultural, multi community event. Women would go to other people’s homes (with reluctant kids in tow) – communicate, chatter, complain about their husbands, exchange notes about their kids. This was not so long ago.

  (Gudi Padwa – Girgaum, Mumbai)

Somehow, while we maybe right about other reasons, including corruption, bad policing, the dying mills, influx of outsiders, de-gentrification of Bombay, i wonder if the reason is even more basic – we have stopped forging deeper social bonds. Attending each other’s festivals, participating in little joys. Somehow we seem to have moved into our little ghettos – those ghettos might be gated towers where people of a single economic background live (as a friend pointed out – how do you see us little people from up there) , or they maybe sprawling chawls where Ambedkar Nagar is very clearly demarcated from Kumbharwaadi (who look up at the buildings and wonder about the life). There are separate schools, separate hospitals, separate colleges. It is almost as though we have said – so what if you can vote the same as us – you are not us. we don’t want you and we don’t want to intermingle. And they say to us, who the hell are you – you can’t even speak one Indian language properly, you can’t even pronounce your names correctly – what on earth do we want from you!

the bead seller_
(Many strands, each separate – how do they come together? Kala Ghoda – Mumbai)

Even the Sarvajanik Ganpati - started by Tilak to both bypass British rules & to foster a sense of community are now little ghettos. There is a Ganpati every 500 metres, each organised by a separate entity. A festival that brought us so much joy has now become one more thing to be endured, as competing groups of strongmen &  extortionists collect money with veiled threats, take over  pavements and streets, and create general chaos and mayhem. As our maid pointed out “wasooli cha dhanda zaala hai”. She doesn’t send her daughters to the pandals. We no longer go.  no longer pray together. I miss participating in the aarti – i used to know all the stanzas at one point in time, but i can no longer bear to go. The piety has gone. It is now about Hindi film music and Bollywood dancing. Not that i have anything against either, but religious events are about sharing and participating, a disco is about dancing.

The fabric of society is woven, thread by thread, event by event, occasion by occasion. We are just not creating enough threads that holds everything together. And somehow, in this city where women had a great say, where the first working women made their mark, where women brought their sons up to be good men – women have been edged out. That ability of women to reach across class, across community and talk to a sister under the skin, that has been severely dented. Maybe, that is what needs to be nurtured.

You can’t prevent people from making Mumbai their home. You cannot change the name back. There is no point crying for the past or even romanticizing it. The past was not perfect, nothing ever is. But we can forge a future – a future that is better. And, while there needs to be a fix on infrastructure, and corruption, and the builder’s lobby, and employment – there is also that little thing that we can do – reach out and form ties. Learn the language, learn multiple languages, attend each other’s festivals, reach out – or am i expecting too much?


Sep 222013

My comment piece in the DNA on the 11th of September

In Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, two young men knifed another man who was stalking a woman. The stalker’s family lynched the two. And before you could say “what happened” there was a full blown communal riot that claimed 38 lives.

The army has got called out to restore order. It is alleged by political parties of all hues and shades that the riots were caused not by people intent on killing each other, but by a video on youtube that showed, in graphic detail, the lynching of the two young men. Except that the video was not of this particular incident in Muzaffarnagar, but of a similar incident in Pakistan a few years ago. This is not the first time that doctored pictures and doctored YouTube videos have been used to inflame passions. Fake videos and photoshopped images of the violence in Burma towards Rohingya Muslims caused a backlash across various parts of the world, including India.

Similar tactics were used during the Assam riots last year. As always, the call is to get politicians not to shoot off their mouths before they see evidence, but to curtail social media because, the logic goes, that 90% of India who have no access to social media will get outraged by seeing inflammatory, disparaging and obscene picture and video content on computers and smart phones they don’t possess, and spontaneously burst into riots.

If you think that Indian politicians are the only ones subscribing to this logic, you would be wrong. The Turkish PM laid his troubles at the door of social media, so has the Brazilian government.Even the British Police blamed the power of social media in fanning the London Riots.

But, to blame the tool (social media) for riots is to mistake the wood for the trees. It gives administrators a convenient way out for their reading and mishandling of the situation. There was no youtube or social media during the Partition, or during the 1984 riots. The internet was at a nascent stage during the 1992 riots, and social media, as we know it, at a fledgling stage during the 2002 riots.

Then as now, it is people who caused riots, people who make inflammatory speeches and people who kill other people. Putting those who cause and participate in riots in prison is the solution, not curtailing social media.