If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 23 September 2011

Buy shoes and mess up the world

Have you seen this TV advertisement?

A pretty young woman is in a store to buy shoes, along with her husband or boyfriend. She tries out a pair, doesn’t quite like it and decides to go elsewhere. The man drives her to another shop, she isn’t satisfied. Another drive. On the way, the pretty woman takes fancy in a store and asks her partner to stop. Not good enough … another drive. They apparently visit different corners of the town in a smart new car while the sunny day turns into a diffused evening. At the nth store, she decides to go back to the first one.

The ad isn’t trying to sell no shoes. It’s for a new small car that runs on diesel. The punch line is: Drive India, khulke!

A recent newspaper report  said that of the 25 lakh cars sold in India in 2010, 30% were with diesel engines. Industry experts predict that by 2017, when the yearly car sales are expected to cross 56,00,000, 50% will be diesel cars. The share of diesel cars has been increasing over the years because the subsidised diesel is becoming progressively cheaper compared to petrol. (A litre of it costs ₹44 against ₹71 for petrol in my city.) So people prefer to buy diesel vehicles although a mid-size diesel sedan costs Rs.1,00,000 more than its petrol variant.

The government subsidises diesel to keep the cost of rail and road transportation low; and of agricultural products, as farmers need diesel to run irrigation pumps. But the unintended beneficiaries, owners of diesel cars and fuel-guzzling SUVs, are cornering more and more of the subsidy that goes into diesel. According to the report, cars have already become the second biggest user of diesel. Cars use 15% of diesel in the country, as against 12% by buses and agriculture each, 10% by industries, and 6% by the railways. In absolute terms too, the subsidy is astronomically large. The government charges excise duty of ₹14.35 on a litre of petrol, but only ₹4.60 on diesel. This means it pays every Indian, including Mr Mukesh Ambani, ₹9.75 for every litre of diesel purchased. (Whether there should be any subsidy on petrol either is another question.)

Notionally, the poor, many of whom wouldn’t see the inside of a car in their lifetime, are paying the price of the subsidy as otherwise the amount could go to some poverty alleviation programme. Should this go on?

There are two other reasons why this should stop immediately. Diesel is a dirtier fuel than petrol. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), diesel engines emit toxic air contaminants and human carcinogens. So, the environment too is paying the price for some people buying fancy shoes.

Secondly, global warming is a fact we are living through. Summers are distinctly hotter than what they were in my childhood, that is, fifty years ago. The monsoon rains are erratic, and many more cyclones hit us than earlier.

As automobile emission is a major contributor to global warming, governments (including local governments) are expected to introduce disincentives to reduce the use of personal cars. In an article in New York Times (26 June 2011), Elisabeth Rosenthal writes, “many European cities are … creating environments openly hostile to cars.” Cities like Vienna, Munich, and Copenhagen have closed vast stretches of roads to automobiles. Barcelona and Paris have widened bike lanes to reduce space for cars. If you drive a vehicle in London or Stockholm, you pay huge charges just to enter the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon emission may enter. “The methods vary, but the mission is clear – to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation”, writes Rosenthal.

One wonders if Indians live on the same planet. Although queer people like our former environment minister Mr Jairam Ramesh make contrary noise from time to time against fuel-hungry big cars and Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs), the Indian ruling elite seems deaf and blind to the need to discourage personal vehicles and encourage zero-emission traffic. There are no bike lanes in Indian cities. Forget bike lanes, you don’t even have footpaths in many cities, particularly in the newly developed areas. You are forced to take an auto even for a short distance which you would otherwise walk.

On the contrary, governments offer cheap – if not free – land and tax breaks to car manufacturers so that they may flood our roads with low-priced cars. As small diesel cars become popular – they certainly will – there will be a lot more auto emission. Both central and state governments must make a beginning to turn the tide.

There is a simple way to do so. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, an NGO that has been fighting for the environment, in Denmark diesel cars are taxed higher to offset the lower cost of fuel. And so it is in Sri Lanka. If the Indian government follows suit, it can recover the subsidy paid on the lifespan of a diesel car / SUV upfront. This will also work as a disincentive against environment-unfriendly vehicles.

There was some noise on this issue a few months ago. The government reportedly considered differential pricing for diesel to be sold to cars. Our finance minister declared it was not practicable. He hasn’t told us why diesel cars and SUVs cannot be taxed higher.

[Photograph courtesy Wikipedia]

20 September 2011

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Corrupt Indians

I know, the combination of the heading of this article and the picture above is rather jarring. In this short essay, I am going to connect the two. Let me begin with a few true stories.

Sometime in the late 1990s, a remote town in the USA: Two Indian students are booked for speeding. They quickly offer a bribe to the police officer. After a long hard look, the officer says, ‘During my twenty years in this job, I’ve been offered bribe thrice. On every occasion, it was an Indian.’

If there has been one Bengali political leader above controversy, it was late Benoy Krishna Chowdhury. A minister for about 20 years since the first Left Front government in 1977, he was the chief architect of the land reforms and Panchayet Raj of Bengal. Try as you might, you won’t find one news report that questions his integrity. While Chowdhury was alive, one day, a friend of mine was on a local train where three young men were chatting.

One of the boys said Benoy Chowdhury and he were from the same village and his family was close to the leader. Chowdhury used to visit their house often. When he became a minister, the boy’s father took him to the former and requested him to find a job for his son. The boy went on to add, with a sense of injury, ‘Would you believe it? He told us on our face he wouldn’t be able to help.’

Hearing this, the passengers who were following the story were upset. The general consensus was that the minister had done something morally wrong. My friend joined the conversation and asked, ‘Do you seriously believe it is a minister’s responsibility to find jobs for people known to him?’

Everyone around thought it was.

The third incident, circa 2006: My wife has applied for a passport. A police inspector is in our Kolkata residence for verification. We have furnished all the documents required as per rules, but the inspector isn’t satisfied. After asking several irrelevant questions, he insists that my wife produce proof that her late father indeed worked in the city mentioned in her school leaving certificate.

We protest, ‘Do you know any married woman who carries her late father’s employment records? Can you prove where your father worked?’

The inspector says nothing. He drinks tea and leaves.

For us, it would have been better to pay him the money he expected. Maybe, two hundred rupees would have sufficed. Because of our pig-headed response, we had to run around different government offices during the next two months. We paid over five times the amount on taxi fare alone.


Barring exceptions of people paying under the table to get illegal benefits, no one pays bribes unless forced to. Greasing the babus’ palms is almost mandatory in government offices like the public vehicles departments, property registries, commercial tax offices, offices that issue life support systems like SC/ST certificates, ration cards etc. The last story is about one such department. But the other two indicate the extent of corruption among the Indian middleclass in general.

A vast majority of our people is too poor and wretched to be corrupt. Things haven’t changed for them. In contrast, a market driven aspirational change defines our middleclass today. We have started believing “Greed is good!” Men haven’t become hedonistic in the literal sense that they are only after wine, women and song, but, they are certainly after wealth and more creature comforts. This “maximalist” lifestyle is surely a breeding ground of corruption. When everyone wants to be rich in a poor country, the competition is intense and value and ethics have to be thrown out of the window. Arvind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger brings this out in morbid details.

Commodification of education and healthcare has made things worse. People belonging to the erstwhile “noble” professions of teaching and medicine are the worst mercenaries of our time. Everything can be and has to be bought. Cutting corners has become a way of life. We pay illegal donations to get our children admitted to engineering / medical colleges and brag about it. We have no qualms about currying favour with the powerful people we know. We would rather pay the traffic policeman Rs.50 than pay a penalty of Rs.100.

Further, as there is no moral peg to hang our thoughts, we don’t even realise that we too are corrupt. The same people who do these and much worse things also support Anna Hazare and demand that an elaborate structure be set up to catch and punish the corrupt.

In India, there exists massive angst particularly after a series of mega scams of 2009-10 and a cavalier central government’s reluctant, half-hearted efforts to book the guilty. (Some state governments like Karnataka are equally bad.) The Anna team – the core team has only 22 members – deserves acclaim for giving a concrete shape to the anguish of millions. A young friend of mine, Anirban Dasgupta writes that the good thing about the Anna movement

"… has been that people in various places (yes, only urban though) have come out to speak about a system that ails our society. … we, the common people of India, have raised our voice and have lent strength to the movement. Had we remained indifferent (like we are to the fast of Irom Sharmila in Manipur), Anna would have gone nowhere.
"The very belief that yes we can change a system or force our parliament to adopt a law which gives more power to the common man can give a lot of confidence to the people."

Yes, it is certainly a triumph of democracy. All talks suggesting that parliamentarians can do as they please until the next election are pure hogwash. Also, if this movement led to a more efficient system to tackle corruption, it would be a big step forward. (In Karnataka, Mr Santosh Hegde has shown what a Lok Ayukta can do.)

But as many have pointed out, the Hazare group is strangely quiet on corporate corruption, the mother of all scams. Also, they are only against politicians and governments, without taking any ideological position on other serious issues. The massive erosion of values of our time doesn’t seem to be on their agenda. I do not know how the value deficiency in our society can be addressed, but I believe without that there is no emancipation. This is the crux of the matter. We have to change the way we think.

Let us recall that in 1974, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) began a movement against corruption and poor governance. It shook the country, led to the Emergency, and ultimately, the end of Congress rule at the Centre and in many Indian states.

Have things improved in the last 37 years? The economy has become bigger, we have many more billionaires today, and the middleclass is much better off. But the poor continue to live a life of misery. Instead of going down, graft has increased manifold. With every passing year, the quality of governance is becoming worse, despite some welcome changes like the Right to Information Act.

In many ways, the situation now is worse than in the time of the JP movement. No, I don’t say that limitations of the JP movement are responsible for the downward slide, although some of JP’s lieutenants have metamorphosed into big time thieves. The slide is mainly due to the model of “development” that our rulers have chosen. What I am trying to say is that changing laws wouldn't make a difference. We need to change our society as a political unit at a much deeper level, in a more fundamental way.

Like the JP movement, the Anna movement too ignores the bigger issue of value deficiency in the society. It too may lead to just a change of regime and no change in substance.

Kolkata, Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday, 9 September 2011

The dream is over

Meri prem kahani khatam huyi
Mera jeevanka sangeet gaya
Mera sundar swapna beet gaya

My love story has come to an end, 
So has the music of my life. 
The beautiful dream is over.
In the no-man’s land between boyhood and manhood, we had only boys for company. Having studied in a same-sex school and given the social norms of the 1960s, my friends and I had hardly any feminine companionship outside family. So we often fell in love with film actresses. In The picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde said that everyone falls in love with a film star at some time or other. I guess we did so once too often … with the beautiful sexy heroines of Hindi films, where there was an abundance of beauties.

When we began watching Hindi films – of course on the sly – Madhubala and Nargis, the two most beautiful women to have ever walked this earth were no longer on the scene and Meena Kumari, who would die in 1972 because of alcoholism, was past her prime. But those who were there were no less ravishing. The reigning divas were Waheeda Rehman, Nutan, and Sadhana Sivadasani. We didn’t ignore the lesser stars either – like Nanda, Saira Banu, and Asha Parekh. Each one of them was beautiful in their own way and radiated charm and spirit. And one cannot forget the vivacious Anglo-Burmese actress Helen, who was the permanent cabaret dancer in all Hindi films of the sixties!

Describing feminine beauty has been a challenging task for writers over the ages. Only the best in the business have made a decent job of it occasionally. The lesser ones have made a hash of it regularly. Therefore, instead of trying your patience, Dear Reader, I’ve pasted some photographs above. In the unlikely event that you don’t recognise them, they are, from the left: Nanda, Waheeda, Helen, and Sadhana. 

I fell in love with them and a few others regularly, one at a time, depending on who was the heroine of the last film I’d seen:  Sadhana in Mera Saya, Nanda in Ek phool do maali, Waheeda in Guide, and so on …. They exuded charm and sexuality and filled my personal sky with a pleasant amorous glow. (Incidentally, while reviewing Mera Saya, a a film critic of The Statesman chose to disambiguate that the film had  nothing to do with women's underclothing!) 

A few days ago, a friend forwarded a recent picture of these beautiful women. This is how they look now. Believe it or not, these are the same persons, Nanda, Waheeda, Helen, and Sadhana.

It hurt that my former lovers look so pitiably unglamorous now. What the picture shows are not just ineluctable signs of aging, but something much more complex. In it, Helen looks spritely, although a touch overweight. Waheeda is barely passable, but not a shadow of her past. The other two beauties of yore have turned into worse than overworked working-class women, ravaged by time, devoid of beauty or spirit. Life would have taken a heavy toll on them. I couldn’t help reflecting that many of my female acquaintances of their age, who are ordinary middleclass class women, are a lot more beautiful today. 

The present appearance of the past stars possibly reflects the stormy lives some of them have lived. Underneath a world of glamour and wealth, there would be stories of broken relationships, exploitation by male colleagues, loneliness, incompleteness, and alcoholism.  Far from the madding, cheering crowds, they would have had to deal with the haunting silence of personal tragedies. 

Of the four women, Helen, who is Salman Khan’s step mother, seems a happy woman. What about the rest?

There were many suitors for Nanda, but she turned them down. In 1992, a middle-aged Nanda got engaged to film director Manmohan Desai, who committed suicide in 1994 by jumping off his own building. Nanda has remained unmarried. Today, she lives in Mumbai and is accessible only to family and close friends. 

Sadhana married film director R.K. Nayyar in 1965. The couple had no children. Since her husband’s death in 1995, she has been living alone in Mumbai as a tenant in an apartment building. Recently, she has complained that a builder is threatening her to vacate her ground-floor flat. 

Guru Dutt, who made brilliant films within the parameters of popular Indian cinema in the 1950s, was born Vasant Kumar Shivashankar Padukone. His tumultuous relationships with a Bengali singer, the numero uno of the time, Geeta Roy, and the Urdu speaking Waheeda Rehman from Hyderabad, destroyed the former.

Since her marriage with Guru Dutt in 1953, Geeta Roy has been known as Geeta Dutt. Although the hugely talented husband-wife team produced some of the finest Hindi songs, their paradise was to be lost soon. In 1956 a little-known Telugu actress Waheeda made her Hindi debut in Guru Dutt's C.I.D. Dutt, who was extremely disciplined in his professional life, was thoroughly undisciplined in his personal life. He smoked and drank heavily and kept odd hours. Dutt’s affair with Waheeda drove Gita Dutt to alcohol.  Guru Dutt didn’t discover bliss in infidelity either. He committed suicide in 1964, reportedly in his third attempt, after Waheeda had drifted out of his life.

It’s poignant that Geeta lent her voice to Waheeda who sang some of the achingly romantic songs to Guru Dutt on screen. (The song used as the epigraph of this article is not one of them.)

Geeta Dutt was shattered after the death of her estranged husband. By then, she had destroyed her career and had been virtually out of work. Her attempt to resurrect her singing was only partially successful. She, like Meena Kumari, drank herself to death. She too died of cirrhosis of liver in 1972, four months later.

Life could not have been easy for Waheeda Rehman either. Her second film with Guru Dutt, Kaagaz ke phool was about a successful film director's decline after he fell in love with his lead actress. Over time Waheeda drifted apart from Dutt, although they continued to work together into the 1960s. She played the second female lead in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam "under some strain". They broke up after the film failed to get critical acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival in 1963. Guru Dutt was to die soon.

A decade later, Waheeda married a relatively unknown actor, Kamaljit and the couple had two sons. Kamaljit too died in 2000. 

Whatever I have written above has been sourced from the Internet. Part of it may be inaccurate, but there is no denying the fact that Waheeda, Nanda, and Sadhana lost their lovers/husbands early. And their faces are the best testimony of the struggles they have gone through. It is sad that the women who kindled warmth and desire in a million hearts had to live with heartbreaks and lack of warmth.

They remind me of a line of the Bengali poet Sukanta Bhattacharya:  You are like those who turn on the street lights every evening, but have to live through long dark nights in their own homes.

Friday, 09 September 2011

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Change in the air?

In the long-distance state transport bus my seat was behind the conductor’s. As it hit the highway, I tapped the conductor on the shoulder and asked him to stop in front of the college where I work three days a week. I always do that and fall asleep for the remaining two hours of the journey.

‘Do you teach there?’ Asked the conductor.

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Sir, please take this seat.’ So saying, he moved away from the window seat next to the door and offered the place of honour to me. It was embarrassing, but I couldn’t say no.

My father often quoted a Sanskrit adage: Swadeshe pujyate raja, vidwan sarvatra pujyate. The king is worshipped in his own kingdom, but the scholar is revered everywhere. It was dad’s way of inspiring me to take studies seriously. Values have changed since I was a child. One’s worth no longer depends on how much knowledge one has, but on how much one has in bank. But the delusion that teachers are scholars has survived. The bus conductor obviously believes both.

‘Sir, what time do you return?’

‘Shortly after five thirty in the evening.’

‘While returning, I should reach the college around that time. Please note my phone number. When you are free, give me a call and check where I am. You know, buses don’t sometimes stop at that place.’

I was amazed. In West Bengal, you are delighted if government employees do what they are paid to do. Extension of such courtesies is unheard of. As I called his number to save it, I came to know his name is Tridib Datta. An enlightening conversation followed.

I asked, ‘How are the long-distance routes doing? I heard they are profitable?’

‘That depends on how we run them. We have screwed up the corporation. People used to run buses when they felt like. But things are changing.’

Well, the flavour of the season in West Bengal is parivantan, change. We have just shown the door to a supremely inefficient, corrupt and self-serving regime and brought in a brand-new yet-to-be-tested government. I got interested.

‘What exactly is changing?’

‘You know, drivers and conductors would take buses on long routes. Instead of coming back the next day, they would take a day off and return the next day. No one would question. Such things have stopped.’


‘Yes. We get fat pay packets these days. We have no excuse not to do our work.’

‘It is a pleasure meeting you, Tridib Babu, but do many of your colleagues share your views? Is it becoming the norm?’

‘I have just heard this from a colleague in CTC (Calcutta Tramways Company). A conductor had been promoted to the officer’s cadre. Over time, he became a key man. No purchase order would go out without his approval. Last week, he was handed back his conductor’s bag. His promotion had been illegal. He is trying to protest, but he can’t escape.’

Later, in the evening, my phone rang while I was packing up. It was Tridib Babu. He called up to check if I had finished.

Those who write on current affairs like I do, have written thousands of articles on how incorrigibly evil government servants are. Through this true story, I salute a wonderful government employee and a fine gentleman. He gives us hope that things might actually change!

Saturday, 03 September 2011