Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rock On : There is a price to chasing a dream

In the closing frames of the film “Rock On”, a lilting melody wafts through as the credits flash by …”kuch to arzoo kijiye… phir dekhiye, phir dekhiye………” the screen shows how the guitarist Joe (Arjun Rampal) starts a business of identifying new musical talent and his wife (Shahana Goswami) till now involved in the business of selling fish and entirely frustrated by it finally leaves the job. The other characters in the film too begin to pursue their dreams and passions that they had identified in their younger years but had then chosen to bury it deep as they left the carefree years of their youth behind….

But pursuing one’s dreams and passions is not as easy obviously or else every one would be doing it all the time and there would be no need for exhortations to this end. Indeed the biggest graveyard in the world would not be found in any cemetery but in the arena of dreams turned to ashes, passions buried deep and desires ruthlessly cut down to size before they matured enough to bear fruit.

In the film itself, Farhan Akhtar gives up his role as the lead vocalist and settles into the stressed but predictable and materially comfortable life of an investment banker. Arjun Rampal, who stays a guitarist doesn’t fare as well and he and his wife are able to make ends meet – not because his musical passion pays off but because his wife begins a business of supplying fish to Mumbai’s big and happening parties- she detests the work and the manner of people she has to deal with and the way she has to conduct the business ; but in the end – because Joe is a wonderful guitarist but a terrible sense of career, it is her job that puts food on their table.

The secret of a successful passion chase is persistence. Indeed life as such is about persistence ; but persistence is rather a hollow word when the battle that you are fighting is one that you are fighting alone. In Farhan Akhtar’s case, his father’s intense disapproval of his son’s career as a musician makes him don the conventional role of a banker and a similar lack of support from his family ensures that Purab Kohli ends up as an assistant in his father’s jewellery shop.

Life as the makers of “Rock On” seem keen to emphasize is about second chances all right but it is also about getting the right kind of support to ensure that one is able to capitalize on the chances that come one’s way. Without that support – be it from peers as it happens in the film or be it from any other source, one may get any number of chances in life but they will never get us any where at all.

Most of us do not need to be told to Rock On. We want to; we would love to; we want to spend our life rocking…. It is just that many of us have been stopped in our tracks by blows that have left us lame and crippled…. And now no second chance or second wind is enough to convince us that chasing our passions is a good idea at all…..

Saturday, September 20, 2008

How our policmen live and work.....

The death of the Delhi Police special cell officer, Inspector Mohan Chand in an encounter operation on Sunday should be interesting to reflect on for it demonstrates the often thankless conditions the police forces often work under. Of course this short piece is no paean in any way to the functioning of the Indian police. After all, the Police Act of 1861, the bible for the Indian police, is still a colonial legislation designed to create a “politically useful” force. After Independence, the power went into the hands of politicians and in spite of some attempts at reform, not much has changed.

But look at this. Inspector Mohan Chand was a highly decorated officer in the Delhi Police and in a stint of close to 13 years, he was responsible for the arrest of 85 terrorists who had been tracked down by him and had been decorated gallantry awards ten times. Yet shortly after his death of bullet wounds in the stomach – and we will come to that – the political boss of the Delhi Police, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil said that “We will do whatever we can to pay homage to him on behalf of the entire country,”

Generally speaking, it seems that the country didn’t take too much care of the police man when he was alive though. Although portly politicians walk around with all kinds of security – Y,Z, Z plus and what not, police encounter parties which foray into real time danger as they deal with terrorists and other criminal elements seem to do so without adequate backup. Admittedly, the battle on the front lines has to be fought lean and mean and there is no doubt about that, but adequate medical and infra structural help ought to be at hand. The injured Mohan Chand was rushed to the Holy Family Hospital in nearby Okhla and although the doctors there surely would have done their best, the Holy Family is not really a trauma centre equipped or staffed to deal with terrorist inflicted wounds.

The Indian Express recently covered the work situation of a constable in the Delhi Police and their salaries. Some salient features of how the government takes care of them when they are alive and at work – “Salaries of constables are comparable only with semi-skilled workers, though their work is much more complicated and risky. But still the common man mistrusts them, and their own senior officers deal strictly with them.” A beat constable often has to patrol alone at night, armed with only a baton: he stands with two other constables at police pickets and flags down speeding vehicles with only the ‘protection’ of a police barricade…..

The job doesn’t pay well either ; not even after the recent pay commission recommendations which have seen the pay of a constable rise from a scale of Rs 3050-4590 to Rs 3200-4900, not a princely sum of a raise considering the squabbles going on in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy among both the administrative, police and the defence services.

So guess that for Shivraj Patel and the government if they are sincere about doing whatever they can for the likes of the late inspector Mohan Chand, the wok is cut out. Poor image in the public perception, long and unsatisfactory work conditions, poor pay and morale… the issues are endless. Going by the current minster’s record, there may not be much to expect, but it may be worthwhile to watch and see if institutionally, the government moves to make life more bearable for our overworked police force.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Apathy, Activism and the Line in Between

The Christian community has typically been used to living a fairly sheltered and secluded life. The community has been largely till recently been spared the social ostracism that even elite and urbane Muslims have faced in times of communal violence and the poorer sections of the community have till recently been spared the violence that has so regularly lashed the Muslims. The result is a very obvious one: the Christian community has often lacked the institutional mechanism to deal with targeted attacks on the community it is still fumbling to press the right buttons, and apart from the response of human rights activists and bodies of clergy, the lay person’s response has been lukewarm. Indeed the Christian community is perhaps full of people guided by apathy.

Traditionally the Muslim response has been clergy driven and the over riding slogan has been that of “Islam in danger.” Whether Islam was in danger or not at these times, the power of the clergy probably was and that red flag provided certain shrillness to the protests that were driven by a sense of urgency. In contrast, the appropriate Christian response might have been that “Christianity is in danger” but mercifully, the resistance has not taken that route and it is good that it has been this way. The worst possible way to counter fundamentalism of one kind is to replace it with fundamentalism of another kind.

The Christian response to this kind of violence has thus far to be commended for not losing the moral high ground by also resorting to violence. This is especially so because in spite of the largely measured responses from the Christian clergy, in a volatile environment, there is always the danger of some lunatic fringe element shooting off some loose canon.

On the other hand, a better and more effective answer to rising tides of fundamentalism of any shade would be to try and enlarge the space of secular and liberal ideologies and by speaking up against all forms of communalism and sectarian and ethnic or region based violence – whether it affects one’s particular community or language group or not this time round. If it has, this time around… never mind this - there is always another time.

If one disagrees with this thesis, one need not look very far away for evidence. One will remember in that in the not too distant past, the Shiv Sena had as its target the Udipi restaurants dotting the Mumbai landscape. In fact, the Shiv Sena really came of age as a lumpen organization, out to vanquish the South Indians from the city’s landscape. Of course, once the Sena had carved out its identity, it promptly forgot the South Indians and more than a generation later, the Generation X Sena – has begun inventing itself by venting itself on the North Indians - the Biharis and the UP wallahs.

Martin Niemöller, the Nazi era, Christian theologian had it right, when he explained the dangers of looking out only for one’s own. His quote of war time Germany explaining the apathy of many in his generation concerned just with getting on with their lives… “First they came for the Jews…..” has become a lodestar for engagement with wider, liberal elements of civil society whose boundaries are wider than one’s own. Niemoller’s words were later elaborated ….

When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church — and there was nobody left to be concerned.”

In a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-lingual country like India, this prophecy could be fulfilled faster than one thinks. Those who sit back today, unaffected by the plight of any one else’s but their own, comforted in their ghettos could find their security shattered very soon. At the end of the day, when all our identities are stripped down to the bone; there is only one question that remains to be asked ; one that remains to be answered… are you an inclusive person—embracing every one and their culture and belief or are you an exclusive person, with your world shrinking by the day.. as you leave out more and more and more people out of the fold because they are different …. Or are you just plain apathetic … that worst sin of all? For even an excluvist person can perhaps be won over by reasoning or argument …. but an apathetic person can pass through life unmoved by all things and every thing… till his own life is shattered by a glass pane.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Rishton ki jama punji..... Banks and their Social Capital

It happened around afternoon the other day, when some one sent me a panic stricken mail lamenting that his bank had crashed and that his life’s savings had all gone up in smoke and that he was penniless. He further howled in his mail that since he did his business banking from that very same bank and as that account too was disabled, he was done for. He painted a very colorful picture of him begging on the streets as his family starved at him as he signed off.

It was HDFC Bank that they referring to and as I use the same bank, I tried to log into the bank’s net banking site and was greeted by a site maintenance message. This was not unusual either and the bank typically puts this notice up in advance. But when I reported this back to my friend, he reported that the site maintenance had been going on for a while and every now and then, the bank would change the time of the maintenance to be over.

By evening, the HDFC bank site was still down and the bank gave up extending the time for “maintenance” and instead posting a new message reporting a technical snag and that they were working hard to resolve it at the earliest. A couple of news sites had started covering the news and reported that the snag had been noticed at about 8 am and that the bank’s retail operations were crippled as customers could neither access their ATMs or their bank site and were basically handicapped. Apparently a few could withdraw some limited cash from non HDFC Bank ATMs but many couldn’t. After patting my pocket, I check that I had enough cash to hold out at least a day, I went back to my work.

The incident helped put into perspective a whole range of expectations that have arisen in the last decade or less that has considerably raised the bar in customer satisfaction levels. Consider this: in an earlier birth, the bank would have been open for just four hours – typically from 10 AM to 2PM and the banking could only be done only at the branch where you had an account. The accounts would have been maintained manually and we would be huddling together (not queuing together!) with her hands stretched out claw like towards the cage like structure that was the teller’s chamber from where cash would be dispensed. That claw like fingers would be clutching at a clunky yellow metal piece with a number – the all important “token”.

Banking disruptions were much more common then than now, but some how people tolerated them, lived with them and learnt how to cope with them. The bank staff too I n their cantankerous way helped out and cooperated, especially after if a string of holidays and bank strikes led to unusual crowds once the bank opened. Along the way, the banks also managed to build up rishton ki jamaa punji as the Bank of India advertisement campaign talks about.

HDFC Bank of course is a professionally managed bank and the website, net banking and every thing else was accessible as always in less than a day. But this bank, like most of the modern banks which are focused on the net or phone banking or ATMs has not been able to build that web of relationships perhaps that would generate it some social dividend. In that little over half a day that I had mails criss crossing about the HDFC Bank being inaccessible and the “inconvenience is regretted” type notice that they had put out on their web site.

A few were heard saying that when the bank itself would not accept even a day’s default on payments of loans, credit card dues and so on, why should the customers allow it to get away with a simple one or two line apology ? True enough at one level but the fact that the banks of today do not offer the personalized experience of past days and even those rare visits to the bank are a much depersonalized experience in spite of the plush lounges and fancy décor adds to the angst of customers. Ultimately, the new banks will need to fix this bug in some way – they have a lot of jamaa punji but they do not have rishton ki jama punji.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mr. Modi and Mr.Monroe

I never thought that I would write any thing even remotely favoring Narendra Modi, so this comes as a surprise. But the thought of the current US administration preaching human rights to any one is horrifying. In fact Narendra Modi, who displayed a very studied restraint in the after math of the Gujarat bomb blasts, recently comes through as a statesman in comparison. And the whole episode really goes onto prove that might is right in international relations.

Of course there is little doubt of Narendra Modi’s explicit and implicit involvement in the Gujarat riots, but the tough act to swallow was the moral grand standing by the Bush administration, which to protect its view of the way in which the world should function happily trampled upon the rights of several sovereign countries and governments without thinking twice.

The thing with the American law by whose provisions of course Bush is abiding is Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act that confers discretionary powers on the administration and using that provision, the administration is trying to legistalate for the world at large a morality which the administration itself does not follow.

The Bush administration has long tried to pass off its own transgressions and trespasses under religious and patriotic cloaks. Way back in 2002, Bush said to West Point graduates and future US Army Commanders that “We are in a conflict between good and evil. And America will call evil by its name,” A little further down the road, chronologically, Nabil Shaath, who was Palestinian foreign minister in 2003 said to the BBC: "President Bush said to all of us: 'I am driven with a mission from God'. God would tell me, 'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did.”

Of course Bush is not the first American president to promote American interests through any means possible. For that, we can back to 1823, when president James Monroe outlined a pillar of American government policy- that the American continents(north and south) was the exclusive playing field of the United States and no other country’s involvement and interference would be tolerated. The influence of the doctrine was first seen in Latin America and subsequently post World War II, through out the world. The US State Department web site clearly describes this pivotal doctrine of American foreign policy and says that it “provided precedent and support for U.S. expansion on the American continent. In the late 1800s, U.S. economic and military power enabled it to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine's greatest extension came with Theodore Roosevelt's Corollary, which inverted the original meaning of the doctrine and came to justify unilateral U.S. intervention in Latin America.”

The initial application of the Monroe doctrine was of course territorial but over time, it today connotes now just American territorial hegemony but the hegemony of the American way of life and their ideology. And so democracy human rights, religious liberty and other facets of American life are imposed on the world. Not that these things are necessarily unimportant but the manner in which these virtues have been introduced and imposed in the world often give offence and give off a whiff of arrogance.As Mr. Modi is discovering to his chagrin unfortunately.