Friday, April 24, 2009

Tum ho toh..... Celebrating Friendships

It was one of the new Airbus 321 planes that Air India has begun to introduce on its domestic routes. I tried on the in flight entertainment for the sheer experience of it. For long, I have been used to carrying my own entertainment on board in the form of a book. I tuned into a video channel. The Farhan Akhtar film Rock On was showing. In fact it was about the end when the band Magick is getting ready to play for one lest time. It is a very different world from the one where they began playing as a band in their early youth.

Two of the four have moved on from their youthful sojourn with music and made some thing of their lives – they are successful... success in terms of what we usually define as success. Two others had not been so lucky. At the time of this final concert, one of them n fact was dying and one other was emigrating after not managing to make any thing much of his life in India. How the men bonded together after having drifted away and celebrated their friendship seeing in that bond an imperishable treasure was some thing that stayed with me long after I picked my bags and left the flight.

Friendships form rather easily in youth and wither away almost quite as easily as in the film as we pass out of our schools and colleges and get busy with our lives. If we happen to be in the same line or business or profession, we may stay in touch in the form of an old boy’s club or an alumni association … but the connections remain tenuous at best. Social pleasantries may be exchanged and hands shaken but they remain rituals of inveterate shallowness

We don’t have time for investing in relationships that truly last ; for we are too busy networking – that is the power play of today – seeking out time to meet and connect with people who matter – matter in the professional and career sphere, that is ; not in the ethereal space called friendship.

so we go to parties , seminars and conferences armed to the teeth with our wallets stuffed with our calling cards because we can’t afford not to; not going or going unarmed may mean a lost business deal – a successful deal will mean more parties and networking events and a more power packed business card. And along the way what is often sacrificed at the altar of professional networking is the rich flavor of friendships – friendships that may or may not open professional or career goals for us but will always be a healing spa for our tired and weary spirits.

as my flight descended to land in Mumbai , the closing credits of Rock On came on screen. it said that long after Magick played their last song together, they continued to meet together every week and they were not weary. not in one-dimensional networking where selfishness and self gain is couched in velvet gloves, but in inhibited friendship, they found the lyric of their lives.

“tum ho toh gaata hai dil tum nahin toh geet kahan tum ho toh hai sab haasil tum nahin toh kya hai yahan “tum ho toh hai har ek pal meherbaan ye jahaan”

Surely few gifts and few joys are worth more !

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Birthday Sir !

The first birth day greeting I received a few days ago wasn’t from any of my friends. It was from an online dining portal who wished me a very happy birthday and very quickly followed up with a query as to how I was planning on celebrating it and could they suggest some options for a nice and quiet meal from their catalogue.
I managed to send them on their way; but soon there was another one coming and this was from my financial planner. he had been suggesting for some time that I was under insured and that I ought to buy some more insurance – from him of course and after his good wishes and all, he didn’t waste any time in reminding me that in buying insurance , age was every thing and that on my birth day , I had become a year older and in all likelihood the premiums would now go up a bit… if only I had bought the policy a little earlier , the cost would have been lesser… but it was not still too late….

A little later, it was the relationship manager at the bank. He went through the motions and then went on to tell me that this was a very auspicious day to begin investments in SIPs of some high grade mutual funds that he would be of course be very happy to recommend. After a brief talk about rupee cost averaging, he urged me to consider buying some gold for the kid’s education and all that. Akshay Tritiya, the Hindu New Year was at hand and what better time to buy gold which was guaranteed to be pure. There were a couple of more phone calls from assorted people some of whom I did not know even existed, much less they knowing and remembering my birthday. By the time my friends and family got around to wishing me eventually, I could tell them with a smirk that they were rather late in the queue.

Makes me think as to how commercialized we have become and we have taken our intimate moments into that commercialized zone, where there are no barriers and boundaries to privacy ; no thinking twice before making what is often an absurdly stupid social transaction.? I mean how can you really greet any one who you have never met in your life and are unlikely to ; or at best some one you meet a couple of times a year and for perhaps for no more than an hour at a time

Less intrusive but no less bothersome are the numerous e mail messages from friends who seem to sprout like mushrooms in the monsoon around your birthday. scroll down a bit, and there is the pitch – a discounted flight ticket for the spouse , a cheap holiday package , home delivered movie tickets and there was even a free pen drive provided I shopped for a certain amount at a shopping portal.

While wanting to sell your product if you have some thing of worth is a good thing ; demeaning special days and occasions in such a shallow way that you know it is phony and I know it is phony is crass ! relationships are sacred and precious and although admittedly the state of most of them is not what it should be and we and our friends often forget dates we ought not to, few of us would like to be greeted on our birthdays by an insurance agent selling a policy on our birthday…..just in case…… that is grotesque and there is no other better way to describe the consumer age we live in!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Indentured Laborers - The First Non-Resident Indians

When we think of NRIs today, we probably largely think of wealthy movers and shakers like Lakshmi Mittal or Swaraj Paul or Bobby Jindal and the likes of them. a few will perhaps recall the many numbers of Indians who sweat it out in the Gulf countries and some others will recall the professionals – the doctors, the scientists and the IT professionals. But not many perhaps will think of the first NRIs as slaves or rather glorified slaves as the indentured laborers from India in a way were.

If you have read Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Sea of Poppies, you will know. In the 18th century, the labor needs of the rapidly expanding British Empire were met by the slave trade.This was opposed by Christian reformers like William Wilberforce in Britain and William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, tabled a motion in Parliament in 1792 to gradually abolish slavery. In 1807, the shipping of slaves to British colonies was forbidden and in 1808, the slave trade was prohibited. The gap in the labour market was filled by indentured labourers or contract labourers, and these came largely from india. Although these men( and some women); mostly from the cow belt of India and usually victims of political machinations as well as poverty and often both were treated marginally better than slaves, they too were permanently uprooted from their home lands which they would never see again. India was the source for the greatest number of indentured workers to the New World, and approximately 1.3 million individuals crossed the oceans under contracts of indenture.

As Amitav Ghosh’s book recounts, poverty, political upheaval, ecological disasters such as droughts, floods, and famines, and overcrowding were causing increased internal migration and large refugee populations. Conditions were often so bad that although many Indian communities were close-knit and, in some cases, migration overseas actually violated certain caste restrictions, many individuals often felt compelled to abandon their homes and families and seek employment in other areas of India or across the ocean in an effort to improve their situations

Many of the indentured labourers were convicts. Indian convicts transported out in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped settle and colonize the overseas European empires. Such workers filled a critical need for labor, playing an especially significant role in carrying out the building and infrastructure projects that were so critical to the institution and consolidation of the Empire. For instance, Indian convicts sent to Singapore built some of the finest colonial buildings here, including the St Andrews Cathedral and Government House. With the convicts came indentured labourers to provide manpower for the ports and railway, Sepoys and Sikh policemen, milkman, tailors and artisans, merchants and moneylenders

The end of indentured labour from India was actually decided through the intervention of the growing clout of the Indian nationalist movement; and it happened as later as in the earliest years of the 20th century- that is barely a hundred years ago. Curzon was the first Viceroy to India to actually consider the plight of the indentured labourer an issue and, although he often had to accept the commands of his superiors in England, he was staunch in pressing the issue and raising awareness. Gandhiji was also instrumental in bringing to light the racism and inequality suffered through the indenture system and low-paying labour. In fact 2016, just eight years away, will mark the centenary of the struggle spearheaded by Gandhiji against continued Indian indentureship from India to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Fiji and Mauritius, among several other countries, at the height of British colonialism, an event that might well go unrecognized in spite of the now institutionalized pravasi bharatiya divas observed every year.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Coaching Classes : Sweat Shops of Education

The son of a friend recently went away all the way from Delhi to Kerala to prepare for the medical entrance tests. It seems that they have coaching centers there which have tracked the entrance tests of some medical colleges for years and have now got the requisite expertise to say that any one that enrolls with them has a much better chance of cracking the tests than the man on the road who can’t access these privileges.

Nearer home, my newspaper vendor puts in with the daily newspaper, pamphlets of institutes some well known and some not, that would put the neighborhood kids through their board exams, their medical entrance tests, their IIT entrance exams and all other kinds. That there is so much demand for them and that they are mushrooming by the day, makes me feel extremely uneasy. however in the rather bizarre imitation of keeping up with the Jones, and try and beat the competition which is getting stiffer by the day, most people I know will have to make use of one or the other of them. may be some will enroll in more than one such coach shop , leading to the piquant situation where a bright student – may be some one who has topped the IIT–JEE is claimed by more than one institution.

What started in a small way with Agrawal Classes and Brilliant Tutorials nearly 30 years ago has transformed into a big business today. In north India, Kota is a well known hub where the coaching school industry has grown and multiplied. In fact, it has even given rise to ancillary industries like those who rent out rooms and those who supply meals to the numerous people who turn up from the remotest parts of India who take up lodgings here and take rigorous tuitions so that they can crack the IIT entrance tests.

While coaching classes are certainly churning out would be scholars in an assembly line fashion and for small town India, where often there is wealth but lack of opportunity, this seems to be a god sent opportunity to pursue higher education. Very likely, given the state of the formal education system in India, these children would never be able to clear the entrance examinations without the coaching that these institutes would provide.

But what about aptitude? The entrance tests to IIT and elsewhere were conceived to evaluate aptitude as much as or even more than merits. By quantifying examination results, we have ensured that aptitude has been thrown in to a never never land of oblivion. Says Prof. M.S. Ananth, Director, IIT-M “by attending the IIT coaching classes, students were learning a wrong lesson that the ends justify the means.” They (students) think there is nothing wrong in missing school to attend coaching. But the student does not realize his real loss." he further says that the coaching institutes were enabling many among the less-than-best students to crack the test and keeping girls from qualifying.

Meanwhile industry body Assocham's estimate of size of the Coaching Class Industry is based on about 6 lakh students attending these classes every year at an average cost of Rs.1.7 lakhs per year and average cost of each student is 1.7 lakhs ,as given by a spokesman of the Industry body provided to TOI. According to Assocham, the staggering sum of Rs.10, 000 crore is being netted every year by private Academies that coach students for admission test,

Meanwhile the common man is caught between a rock and a hard place. There are heaps of private universities and even foreign universities, where admissions are relatively easier but the costs are unaffordable. Publicly funded institutions are relatively cheap (though they are getting expensive), but the road to their door leads through very expensive coaching institutions. and with the state steadily privatizing education in guise or the other, things presumably can only get worse for the present.