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Friday, February 24, 2017

Pondicherry

I had long felt it would be nice if I could take my parents on an all-expenses paid holiday trip, at least once, and it has worked out at last. I have just returned from a most satisfying holiday in Pondicherry.

We chose the location because my old folks had good memories of their last visit, when they stayed there for several months, seventeen years ago. It was also, I thought, a good choice because it could be a short trip, and wouldn’t put too much of a strain on them. Pupu went along happily, though this was our second trip to the seaside within a month.

So it was a (smooth and quick) afternoon flight to Chennai, and a three and half hour car trip along a very well-maintained and brightly lit highway to the Union Territory that still proudly retains its French connection, along with Chandannagar in our own West Bengal (shades of the same mid-18th century Governor Dupleix, too). The hotel we checked in was posh, as I had decided. Swimming in the rooftop pool was still too cold for our liking, but lazing on deckchairs at sundown and beyond was wonderful, though it did get rather too windy at times. The next three days were spent ambling around the town in a leisurely fashion, on foot and in autos, taking in the beach – early morning, forenoon and evening – a few local eateries (Italiza served up a very good ‘fully loaded’ pizza, Archana’s treated us to a very tasty and filling standard local thali; the dosa at the roadside Café Tifen was quite as delectable), the Ashram, Serenity Beach, Auroville, the Botanical Garden, the Museum, Bharathi Park, Paradise Island (to which we sailed on a motorized catamaran: the place reminded me strongly of Sagardweep) and suchlike. Shilpi dropped in, because she has been camping in Tirupati, so we had fun together for a day.

The promenade with its adjacent rows of well-cared for old buildings in the severe colonial style and French street names makes a very nice walk, though the boulder-bound beach is a bit of a disappontment. The famous Aurobindo Ashram left me unfazed – I am, alas, not religiously inclined in the usual Indian sense – and Auroville, I found, was basically a very big, well-appointed theme park (everytime I visit a nice park, I sigh that we have only Kumaramangalam Park in Durgapur, and nothing at all in blasted Bidhan Nagar, much vaunted as the haunt of affluent and educated people), where the boutique sells exorbitantly priced souvenirs. We joked among ourselves that since the place counts a Bengali sadhu as its USP, Bengali tourists should be welcomed with large discounts. At Auroville, we learnt from a roadside sign that rotikashaala was the Hindi word for boulangerie. Which reminds me, food in Pondicherry is decent but considerably more expensive than in these parts, God bless Bengal; liquor is much cheaper and widely available though they are overdoing the anti-smoking campaign, and the way the roads are swarming with two- and three wheelers whose drivers don’t seem to have heard about traffic rules, they’d save many more lives and lessen air pollution very much more if the administration paid attention in the right place.

As is usual virtually all over the south, the man in the street and his supposedly better educated brothers everywhere, even in fancy hotels, refuse either to speak Hindi or learn proper English (I am not just talking about the atrocious accent – one can quickly get used to wokey and right-ǝ and lunchi – but nine out of ten cannot, or will not, put five English words meaningfully together), so communication with locals was a frustrating non starter. You don’t speak Tamil, you don’t have to talk to us, seems to be the attitude, though we had a niggling suspicion that most of them would prove to be quite nice people if only we could talk to them. If this is what I’d have to let myself in for, Rajdeep, I am sorry but I am not coming to Japan.

The days rapidly grew hotter, so that on the trip back along the scenic East Coast Road, it was already blazing in the afternoon at Mamallapuram, where we stopped for lunch as well as a dekko of the famous rock cut temples and sculptures (by an interesting coincidence, I was reading John Keay's India Discovered, in which these monuments have been given considerable attention as possible artistic prototypes for all later temples in the south). The beach there, by the way, seemed more charming than the ones we had seen before, and apparently good for bathing in. We were back home in Kolkata just before eleven at night on the 22nd. For a long time to come I shall never hear a ship blowing its foghorn without thinking of the municipal buses of Pondi (their autos, on the other hand, use handblown air horns like our rickshaws), and I shall always remember wonderingly that roadside coffee shops were as rare to find there as Sardarjis in Amritsar.

The single smoking rooms – actually, little glass cages – at the airports are a nightmare; half a dozen men crammed together and poisoning one another with exhaled smoke. Why can’t they furnish those rooms with a large exhaust fan, for heaven’s sake, when they can centrally aircondition the whole of the rest of the place? Also, at every airport, food and drink is atrociously expensive. Does anyone know why? And one more thought that has struck me often: if our Metros, shopping malls and airports can be kept so clean, why can’t the major railway stations? I was a little sad to see that Chennai already has an airport to city Metro connection: in Kolkata ours is still under construction. With that and the East-West Metro corridor in operation – and if and when the authorities in their wisdom make a/c buses much more widely available – travelling around Kolkata, which is already much less troublesome than it was in the eighties, will become hugely easier. And of course they must cut down massively on private transport by taxing them heavily and forcing people to park only in designated (preferably multi-storied) parking lots for a hefty fee. Becoming civilized is not cheap and easy, but sure it can be done.

This was my second trip this year, and I am planning to make one more before the hot and busy season sets in at the end of March.

For photos, click here.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Demographic dividend, or monstrous liability?

While reading the storm of posts on Facebook and Twitter over the pros and cons of our PM’s demonetization drive, I was reflecting upon the kind of people who have grown up and become ‘educated’ in India over the last thirty-odd years, correlating with my own long experience of teaching a very large number of such people when they were in their teens over the same time period. Several thousand of my ex-pupils are in the 25 to 45 age bracket now. Here are some broad generalizations I can make about them, and hardly any of these are complimentary. Do read them with patience and see whether you agree on the whole, even if it makes a bitter pill to swallow. Of course I acknowledge exceptions, and know about many of them myself, but remember that by definition the exceptions don’t count for much: how a society behaves depends by and large on the common type.

1)   If they have good internet access and are comfortable with chatting/posting in English (even if that is very clumsy, stilted English interspersed with vernaculars), they belong to a very privileged minority. How many would they be? Twenty, thirty, fifty million at most?
2)    And yet they have an overblown sense of identity and entitlement. They believe they speak for all of India – many are affronted if it is suggested that they don’t even know much of India. They believe ‘national progress’ is coterminous with what they want.
3)   They ape Americans in everything except the good and important things. So – as I have pointed out once before – artificially tattered jeans, short skirts, ‘cool’ slang and chewing gum and rock music and fast cars/bikes and jingoistic chest thumping yes; hard work, cleanliness, love of greenery, charity, respect for the law, punctuality, keeping promises, courtesy to strangers, quietness in public and support for libraries, museums and research facilities, no no.
4)   They like to think and act as though they are informed, intelligent, independent beings, but – and they hate to hear this – they loathe learning and reasoned argument, they form opinions quickly then steadfastly ignore all evidence to the contrary, they are driven by emotion of a very violent, febrile, evanescent kind and the herd instinct in everything, whether it be choices relating to cinema or music, clothes, food, politics, subjects of formal study and career preferences, ‘status’-symbols and what have you. In addition, two other factors drive them powerfully: tradition (best observed when it comes to marriage – look at how powerful issues of caste and dowry and ‘correct dressing’ still are) and advertizing (right now they all want iPhones and compact SUVs because they all want iPhones and compact SUVs, or so they learn from the ads and the all-important peer groups, outside which they rarely venture).
5)    They are intensely patriotic – which means they hate Pakistan and revile any Indian who finds fault with Indians (numerous quotes from Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi and Ambedkar would make them froth at the mouth!) – and that seems to go very comfortably hand in hand with slavering over dreams of migrating to the US, or at least getting jobs with US multinationals, as well as being totally uninterested in knowing about their own land, its history and culture, its flora and fauna; with littering streets right and left, with being utterly callous about doing things that can improve the lot of one billion Indians who suffer from age-old neglect and exploitation. No matter whether they are male or female, whenever they talk about freedom, rights, equality and all that stuff, just observe how they treat their domestic help, waiters at restaurants and attendants at shopping malls, or how much they care about disturbing neighbours while enjoying themselves.
6)    They worship big money, no matter how it is made. So any startup zillionaire, even if he has made his pile selling discount coupons or gutkha over the Net, is much more a hero to them than a freedom fighter, a teacher, a social worker or a writer (indeed, it is this class which, having read virtually nothing outside textbooks and comic books, admires Chetan Bhagat, Ravinder Singh and E. L. James as ‘writers’). That admiration, however, is mixed up with a lot of envy and secret anger, so if you are rich (and famous), you quickly learn to keep such ‘admirers’ at arm’s length in your personal life.
7)    They are out and out opportunists, talking big wherever they feel completely safe and ‘in’, as when trolling anonymously on social media, and slavishly kowtowing to power everywhere else, knowing full well which side of the bread is buttered, and being truly passionate only about keeping their own skins safe. Best exemplified by the committed socialist at JNU who became a committed neoliberal overnight as soon as prospects arose of getting a scholarship from the department of Economics of the University of Chicago. So they have no problem with turning coat every other day and always saluting the rising sun. They are all devoted to Narendra Modi as long as he wields the levers of power: one big defeat of his at the hustings and they’ll say ‘Narendra who?’
8)    When it comes to religion, they are divided into two broad groups – either they blindly conform to lokaachaar, no questions allowed, or they equally blindly condemn all things spiritual as troublesome and useless nonsense, without making any attempt at studying and understanding any religion in depth. Makes for a weird and volatile mix.
9)  They are bone lazy and they compulsively over-eat (look at the obesity epidemic, and count the number of young Indian tourists as opposed to white skins who prefer to trek or cycle rather than hire cars). They are also materialistic in the crudest possible sense: look at the kind of movie that always makes a hit with them; look at how they go gaga over cricket rather than, say, hockey; look at how many books they buy as opposed to cellphones, jewellery, liquor, clothes and beauty care; look at the way, too, they are painting the walls of their houses these days!
10)  In a country where very little pathbreaking scientific research is ever done, they are all currently obsessed with technology – the word being restricted narrowly, of course, to consumer gadgets, virtually all of them developed in one tiny corner of the planet very far from India. Am I seriously wrong in comparing this with any other form of hard-drug addiction: that most tell-tale sign of empty and pointless lives?

This is the human material we are dealing with, whether we are small-town teachers or prime ministers. I handled their like as pupils twenty five to thirty years ago, I am handling them as parents now. Is it likely that any serious national progress can be hoped for, progress as understood by the finest minds our country has produced?

In To My Daughter I have touched upon this malaise in passing. Reading Pankaj Mishra’s new book Age of Anger brought these thoughts back to the fore. And it has occurred to me that making sense of the present chaos all around the world requires profound, sustained, intensive reading of the kind that the people I have described above – in India, especially, but to some extent everywhere – have lost both the desire and the capacity for doing.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

That fleeting butterfly, happiness

Am I a sourpuss? I don’t think so, though the world has tried very hard to make me one. There are still a lot of things that make me sometimes quietly and sometimes even boisterously happy.

I am happy that without any kind of sociopolitical clout, I have earned the right to be called ‘Sir’ by just about everybody, from my pupils, ex pupils and their parents to neighbours, policemen and politicians and bankers and shopkeepers and mechanics that I know.
I am happy when old boys reminisce with nostalgia about their class days.
I am happy when I find young people who read a lot of good books.
I am happy every time I see signs of kindness and charity.
I am happy that poverty has visibly reduced in this country: I rarely see the kind of hungry people in rags that I saw everywhere in my childhood.
John Denver sang ‘Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy’, and bright, crisp, balmy days make me happy always, as today was.
Finding good new authors to read never fails to make me happy.
Hearing that my daughter’s friends call me a cool dad makes me happy.
I am happy that medicine and surgery have very significantly improved – people, at least if they have money, suffer much less, for much less time these days than fifty years ago.
It makes me happy that I managed to rise above poverty by my own efforts in my youth, and that I am inching towards affluence, without ever taking recourse to crime or self-abasement.
The internet makes a very private person like me happy by providing so much entertainment at home. I rarely go to the cinema any more – hardly twice in the last five years, in fact.

It is, I have discovered with surprise not unmixed with bemusement, hard even to enjoy one’s happiness. It is not only that other people try very hard to take it away if they become aware of it, because they can’t bear to see anyone happy for long, the likes of me even suffer from a guilty conscience – ‘Do I have a right to be happy?’ There is the voice constantly warning me inside not to turn into a happy fool, like so many I have seen. And if nothing else, there’s always the anxiety over the knowledge that I, like everyone else on earth, am running out of time…


I have made thousands of people laugh, though they all know I am basically a very serious person. I read this story about a monk who made people laugh, while still managing to live a sober, industrious and saintly life, and when he died and was being cremated, he was still making people laugh through their tears because the fireworks he had hidden in his clothes were going off one by one. That is the kind of man that I admire.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Digha

My daughter and I had a lovely time at Digha last weekend, which I was visiting for the first time since my college days. Everything is now vastly improved, from the roads to the resort ambience. Pupu has written about the trip on her blog. For photos, click this link.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Holmes, Harry Potter, and forgetting

Against the background of avidly watching the new Sherlock season episode by episode, and agreeing to like or dislike this or that facet of the show and plot, my daughter and I fell to wondering how in this fast and frenetic age, so many people still cling with such strong nostalgia to the undying saga of the world's most famous fictional detective. So much has changed that Holmes' London, nay the whole world, is well-nigh unrecognizable to us, yet we keep harking back fondly to the old happy memories, and every new attempt to alter, redesign, modernize the stories draws literally tens of millions of people the world over still, all eager to criticize, but unable to stay away. If you don't envy Conan Doyle, whom would you rather envy?

From that, quite naturally, we went on to ask each other whether we could expect the same sort of thing to happen to other, later great stories, such as the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Perhaps not, we agreed sadly, and the fault would not be the writers'. It is a truly sad age we live in, despite all the surface progress and prosperity and glitz: people are poor as never before. Because things keep happening so fast and fade from the collective memory so soon that we can hardly hope to leave anything in the line of a heritage behind for our own older selves, leave alone for posterity. So that the economy can keep moving, and things keep getting sold, and people of the most superficial kind keep being entertained, we have made a world where nothing stays, because nothing really matters, there is nothing that we truly care for any more -- not even ourselves and our memories.

Think about it. I don't feel like carrying on now. Perhaps I shall come back to this post in a few days' time. Meanwhile, do look up this post in my other blog.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The turning of the year

2016 was a year of deaths in my family. I lost three seniors, one of them very very dear to me.

Like most other recent years, this one was full of sound and fury, signifying very little (iPhone 7 launched!!!). One of the most important developments – for those who are educated and care for both science and nature – happened very quietly at the very end of the year: China has officially declared that it is going to ban the ivory trade in 2017.

The most interesting thing I have learnt about Donald Trump so far is that he does not use email. This is all of a piece with several related items of data I have gleaned and remembered over the years: a) that Mother Teresa built up a great organisation and ran a very tight ship till her last breath without a computer, b) that Oprah Winfrey bought a PC only after she was a multi-billionaire, c) that Bill Gates keeps all his most sensitive documents in hardcopy, d) that following the snooping-over-the-Net scandal, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has ordered all the most sensitive government papers to be manually typewritten, e) that employees in France have just won a 'right to disconnect', f) that Raymond Reddington of The Blacklist fame is, like Trump, a smug dinosaur who has lived through the so-called communication revolution with huge success, without having an email, Skype, Facebook, Whatsapp or Twitter account. Considering the size of my internet footprint, I am already ashamed, and I shall want my daughter to keep this in mind while negotiating the brave new world. It makes me glad that she is very wary of the PayTM kind of stuff, and tells me she doesn’t miss it one bit.

The year ended blissfully in my daughter’s company, finishing off the Star Wars saga among other things. I have been privileged to read a lot of good books and watch some good movies recently. Sherlock Holmes season 4 episode 1 was a shocker, though I had become rather bored with the series earlier. Now I must carry on and find out how Holmes/Cumberbatch ‘saves John Watson’, as per Mary’s last wish. And what on earth are the two of them going to do with little Rosamund? Julian Rathbone’s sequel to A Very English Agent, called Birth of a Nation, was a rollicking good yarn: I am eagerly awaiting the third book in the series. Charlie/Eddie Bosham has become one of my great favourites among literary characters now.

A very moving book I read recently was The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, and once more I must admit I am ashamed that I did not know of a conservationist of his stature till now. Do read up on him and his beloved elephants on the Net; you will find a wealth of interesting information, including the amazing (yes, I meant that word) story of how they came to mourn for him at the Reserve Lodge after he died, tragically, at age 61 of a heart attack. The anecdote about how his beloved bull Mnumzane had to be put down when he needn’t have moved me to tears, and these days that takes some doing. Anthony would have been delighted to hear about the news from China.

Reading Anthony brought back to mind an old and dear love: Gerald Durrell. Much as I now admire Anthony, who wrote ‘To me the only good cage is an empty cage’, I agree, for I believe very good reasons, with Gerry, that without zoos most animals would soon become extinct: therefore zoos must stay, only they must be far better built and managed, as he showed us how. It drove me to look up the website of the love of Gerry’s life, the Jersey Wildlife Trust that he set up, and that is now (fittingly) named Durrell Wildlife Park. I also read up about his (second-) wife, the scientist Lee Wilson, who married Gerry specifically because he had a zoo of his own, and now runs it in his loving memory – as Francoise runs Lawrence’s dream come true, The Thula Thula Wildlife Reserve in South Africa. It is heartbreaking indeed to learn that few youngsters these days read as wonderful a classic as My Family and other Animals, and that the Trust is once again having money problems. I don’t feel charitable about too many things these days, but if I had pots of money I know where much of that would have gone…

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Behold: there cometh the Lord

Christmas Eve.

For many years I was always away from home on this night... Mussoorie, Hrishikesh, Vizag, Darjeeling, Shillong, Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur, Shimla, Nainital, Jabbalpur, Puri and so on and so forth. These days I stay at home, missing my daughter.

I last wrote about Christmas six years ago.

Now I listen to Jim Reeves: Mary's little boy child, Silent Night, O come all ye faithful, Jingle Bells, Senor Santa Claus, Welcome to my world. You will find all of them on Youtube. Sing along with me. And try Abide with me. And Easter by John  Neihardt.

On earth, peace to men of goodwill.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Another year is dying...

It is soon going to be thirty years since I came back to Durgapur, twenty since my daughter was born, and fifteen since I quit my schoolteacher’s job.  In seven years’ time, if I survive, I shall have reached the official age of retirement, and qualify to be a senior citizen.

It’s been a long haul, and not too painful but certainly disappointing and unrewarding on the whole – I have in mind the lives of many a thousand man to compare with when I make that assessment. Maybe that’s the way it turns out for most people. It has also been a long, long slog, and I am not sure whether I can look forward to something better at last. But anyway, 2016 is also done. We are having a long winter this time, so that is good, though I wish it had rained a bit…

It has been a quiet and satisfying year on the whole. A year of travels, a year of living with my parents again after ages, a year of watching my daughter grow into an adult. A year of strange surprises, whose sting is going to be felt in 2017 – the election of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi’s demonetization circus. A year of feeling too often that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. A year of walking on my own feet again: and doing everything a normal man can do with a once-broken leg except jump, but knowing sadly that it will never stop hurting as long as I live. A year without too-serious accidents to self and family, thank God. One more year of hoping and being disappointed about a few good things happening to India. A year of a great deal of reading and TV-serial watching.

I came back from a big city when I had begun to feel that I was not destined for great things, and it would be pathetic to spend a lifetime in a metropolis unless you were doing great things (my view is that if you live in Kolkata, it’s worth it only if you are either Didi or Dada. That is a very short but very pithy summary of my outlook on life. I have seen New York and Delhi at close quarters too, and I have found no reason to change that opinion. In Delhi you are a nobody unless you are at least a Lok Sabha member as well as a national celebrity or dollar billionaire). Much better to be a fairly big fish in a small pond. I am eternally thankful to this one-horse town because it has fed me well and on the whole left me at peace to live my own life. My only regrets are that it is getting too crowded, dusty and noisy for my taste, that I could never have a swimming pool close to home, that ‘educated’ people here by and large don’t have any civic sense and charity, and don’t read anything at all. Not a very big list of grouches, really. Now that there are fairly decent hospitals nearby, and high speed internet at home, and the NH2 is getting better still, I am sitting pretty. My investment advisor assures me that if things keep going as they are, I shall have a pretty good ‘pension’ to draw upon after I am sixty, and by that time my daughter is likely to be looking after herself, so I can be a free bird. The rest is in God’s hands.

I have been travelling more and more often these days, so I need a good car. My own, a small hatchback, is still in fine fettle, but getting old. I am not sure about buying a new one, because my car sits in the garage for most of the year. It makes far more sense to hire one whenever I go out of town. I was delighted to hear that a new startup called Zoomcar has begun to hire out self-driven cars for exactly this purpose, and I contacted them, but they don’t have any plans to start a service in this region anytime soon. There are lots of people in my town who give you cars on hire, but they come with their own drivers, and I insist on taking along my own. So this is a request to my readers: can you put me in touch with someone in the Durgapur-Asansol region who is willing to rent out a Toyota Innova in good condition on those terms, at, say, Rs. 1500 a day, fuel and driver excluded? I shall always ask for it with several days’ notice, and how good care I take of cars will be evident to anyone who tries driving my own.

One good thing about street culture hereabouts in passing: during the time I grew up, Bengalis who were strangers addressed one another as dada (an honorific equivalent to elder brother). I have made fun in the other blog of people who have of late begun to address all females as madam instead of kakima, mashi or didi as they did in the old days. I am pleased to note, though, that of late men of all ages are increasingly addressing one another as kaku (‘uncle’) by default. I think that quaint though it is, it is certainly an improvement – just as I insist that all who address me by my first name though they don’t know me from Adam (as the call centre-operative type, trained ‘American’-style, tend to do) have taken one big step backwards towards monkeyhood.


You’ve got ten days to give India a pleasant surprise for a change, Mr. Modi. We are waiting.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Jayalalithaa, adieu

Puratchi Thalaivi, Amma, Selvi Jayalalithaa has died at age 68. The whole of Tamil Nadu is apparently in shock, and 26 people have already died on receiving the news. Mourning on this scale was apparently last seen when M. G. Ramachandran, her mentor in both filmdom and politics as well as erstwhile chief minister, passed away in 1987. 'She attracted a level of support that verged on the bizarre', says the BBC obituary. Bengalis might also read this article.

I have lived a long time, so I cannot deny that I had read and heard a lot about her, but I must candidly admit that in the last 24 hours I learnt much more than I did before. She was apparently a diversely talented woman – a child prodigy at dance, a much above average student, a superstar on the celluloid screen, very different from all her political colleagues from down south because she could hold her own in Parliament with aplomb in English (besides being able to quote the likes of Chanakya fluently in Sanskrit), a lover of books, much hurt and abused in the course of her rise to power (and she was always very proud that unlike most Asian women leaders, she had done it virtually all on her own), the only chief minister who was disqualified and briefly went to jail, but one who came back again and again to rule in unabashedly despotic and lavishly self-indulgent style, who became more and more fiercely reclusive as she kept growing old, accused of extreme corruption and shameless populism yet successful not only in winning and keeping the passionate adoration of millions but in taking (or at least keeping) her state to nearly the top of the list in terms of literacy, prosperity and order… truly, the stuff of legends quite out of keeping with the age! What does that teach us about India? 

I wish Sonia Gandhi, Mayavati and Mamata Banerjee would take a few leaves out of her book. And her life is one more confirmation of several things I have said, namely that a) vast numbers of voters do not mind ‘corruption’ and self-aggrandizement as long as the leader can ‘deliver’, both in terms of personal charisma and worldly lollies, b) populism* pays, especially in a poor country, so long as you don’t bankrupt the exchequer, c) every politician is not ‘uneducated’ compared to the average engineer, and d) women with energy, talent, grit and clear goals are neither objected to nor thwarted from rising to the top by this so-called male-dominated society. So if most women want to whine instead, they shouldn’t expect much sympathy. Feminists might chew this over. This is what I have taught my daughter anyway.

P.S., Dec. 08: *And maybe it wasn't 'populism' in the pejorative sense that word is normally used. I just read this extract from a recent book by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze.

P.P.S., Jan 08, 2017: I also read this article in today's newspaper. And I wish India had more Chief Ministers like that.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Shantiniketan

The weather being balmy and my workload lighter, I made a quick trip to Shantiniketan on Sunday the 4th December. I had gone there last on my scooter in February 2014. My two young old boys Swarnava and Jishnu accompanied me.

I never tire of that road, and this time it was in good condition all through. A brief stop at Banalakshmi to pick up a few titbits, then at the new open-air tribal-culture museum called Srijani Shilpagram. Nice, though not deeply memorable, and I could have done with fewer cackling females around. The baul sang tunefully beside the lake: I wish I could listen in greater peace. No wonder the poet wrote ‘stop here, or gently pass’. And that was more than 200 years ago, in a far more civilized country…

The authorities at Vishvabharati seem to be taking greater care of the campus than before: there are No Smoking and No Plastic signs everywhere, you can stop only at designated parking lots, and the Rabindra Bhavan museum has been refurbished, though the collection on display is far smaller than it used to be. My bonus was a portrait of Anna Turkhud that I had never seen before. (Oh, and this is for Mr. Modi, who had declared the night before that even beggars had started accepting alms online: there was a foreign lady and her daughter and husband, and they had to pay Rs. 680 for their tickets, and the man at the counter flatly refused to accept a Visa card, so the three had to fish out currency notes from all their wallets to make up the sum, grumbling all the while).

Sonajhuri was next, much publicized in the movie Belasheshey. The resorts were a disappointment: if you want a nice place to relax, go to Mukutmanipur. And there’s too much dust in the air for the haat-s to suit my taste.

Back to Durgapur just in time for lunch with biryani at a restaurant right next to my house, and I was home by 2:30, time enough for a snooze before the evening class. I hope the boys enjoyed themselves. Swarnava had made egg rolls for breakfast with his own hands. Good job, Swarnava. And Jishnu’s enthusiasm was infectious: I need someone like that to goad me into setting out. But as you see boys, any trip longer than this requires an overnight stay, and the cost shoots up, so think about it. I hope I have adequately explained why I have given up trying to take old boys on long trips.

I keep missing Pupu acutely every time I make a trip like this. I hope I can do the next one with her. This time round she was tied up with her end-semester exams.

Pictures, a little later.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Demonetization - come December

If only there weren’t so many elements of avoidable tragedy in it, the demonetization drive could have been enjoyed as a gigantic farce. It’s becoming more like that with every passing day.

On a serious note, Dr. Manmohan Singh (with whom Narendra Modi won’t dream of comparing himself in terms of either economic knowledge or governmental experience) has categorically condemned the whole thing in Parliament as an instance of monumental mismanagement, as well as of organized loot and legalized plunder. Which, except to the determined zealot who will look at black and call it white, is becoming more and more apparent. And now, what with government functionaries being caught taking bribes of lakhs in new 2,000-rupee notes (and that too in Gujarat of all places) and terrorists being found dead with the same kind of notes on them – where did they get it from, so soon after the release? – banks giving out notes printed in a hurry which are so badly made they are themselves refusing to take them back until the RBI orders them to, government being increasingly forced to relax initial rules because distress of common people and chances of looming economic disaster are becoming apparent (as with the Nov. 23 announcement that Rs. 21,000 crore are going to be distributed to farmers, even through co-op banks and post offices so that they can buy seeds), people trading jokes about how they can use internet transactions to modernize bribe-taking, a Union Cabinet minister wondering aloud how much the common man must be suffering if someone like him can be harassed for asking to pay a hospital bill in old notes, an erudite and stern governor of the Reserve Bank being shunted out with undue haste only weeks ago and replaced with someone who has been ordered to keep his mouth shut, the fact that all the fat-cats of the country are carrying on with their high living as though nothing untoward has happened (which, it is highly probable, hasn’t for them), the prime minister acting like a village nautanki performer (mujhe jinda bhi jwala diya jaye…) and shedding tears every other day telling his acolytes how much he is agonizing over the plight of the poor whose service is his only aim but refusing to participate in parliamentary debates, even to explain how his scheme is ‘helping the poor’… one thing is clear, whatever else the whole thing was meant for, it was not meant to ‘fight corruption’, or to serve as an example of how efficiently our government can handle a vast undertaking to earn the admiration of the world. It would be a very quick war indeed if, God forbid, they have to fight one against any country more significant than Bhutan with this kind of preparedness. The tanks wouldn’t move and the planes wouldn’t fly because they had ‘forgotten’ to stock up on fuel.

Here is another media essay which at least gives him the benefit of the doubt, and those of you who remember Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister will find reason to think that it is highly probable – perhaps the PM, naïve, attention-hungry and obsessed with destroying the Congress as he is, was quietly taken for a ride by shadowy people in high places for their own great long-term advantage. I have long known that the truly powerful do their damnedest to pull strings from behind the scene, and let those in public prominence take the rap if things go badly. Perhaps they assured him only too well that this way the country would experience a painless miracle, and he would go down immediately into the history books in a blaze of glory…

I have talked and written about and against corruption since long, long before it suddenly became fashionable, briefly owing to the nationwide ‘movement’ launched by Arvind Kejriwal and friends, and then Modi and Co. hijacked it. Most people do not have long memories and attention spans, nor the ability to comprehend involved arguments (imagine, after reading the last two posts, a student was actually stupid enough to ask me ‘Sir, do you think black money can be controlled?’!), nor indeed the desire to think about and understand any serious issue – all they are looking for is excitement of the football and rap music variety, or opportunities to assert their ‘opinions’, and they don’t even understand that opinions need to be buttressed by fact and logic. And this, I have found, alas, is as true about average teenagers as their parents – which is why I hardly talk in public about anything but the weather. But for the microscopic few who still appreciate good reasoned argument and the great need for it, here are a few things.

Remove ‘corruption’? First, one man’s tradition can be another’s corruption (think of idol worship and marrying among relatives) – who is to decide? Second, corruption is hardly coterminous with money and economics: kaamchori is corruption, cheating in exams is corruption, making a faulty diagnosis of your patient through carelessness is corruption, adulterating food and using false weights in your shop is corruption, favouritism with students is corruption, littering the streets is corruption, spreading nasty rumours about people is corruption, praying to God for material favours is corruption: who on earth is a mere prime minister that he even imagines he can stop it, especially when he isn’t even remotely interested in bringing about a social revolution? Gandhi and Stalin tried and failed, remember? And they were titans.

Third, if we are to limit the whole discourse on corruption merely to a ‘war’ on black money, is the country seriously interested in it? I have been laughing up my sleeve reading a lot of ignorant young people fulminate with righteous indignation in support of the PM’s crusade, blissfully unaware that many of their dads would lose their jobs and perhaps even go to jail if the broom really began to sweep clean: in the public sector, so many people have got their jobs and promotions only through greasing palms, and grown fat on bribes (and so many people have been drawing salaries from companies which have piled up gigantic losses and should have been wound up long ago to stop draining hardworking taxpayers’ money – corruption of the most disgusting sort!), while in the private, so many so-called jobs essentially involve swindling people into buying things they don’t really need, or can’t benefit from, at vastly inflated prices! My God, I wonder sometimes, do most people stop growing once they are five years old? And these are technically speaking educated people, too…

Funnily, not one person who is supporting the current crusade has read, understood and agreed with me that merely a one-time demonetization scheme will do virtually nothing either to destroy the existence of the current stock of black money or to stop its generation. Which makes me surer with every passing day that most Modi-supporters (except, of course, those who are making large gains from his project) neither know what this is all about nor care – they are just thrilled to bits that ‘something exciting’ is being done. Especially since they have been lucky enough this time round not to be seriously hurt. I wonder what they will say if and when the government takes away their mothers’ entire undeclared stock of gold jewellery next, because it is all ‘black’? Or are they secretly assured that nothing really drastic like that will ever happen, because the whole thing was designed just for people like them to have a bit of fun?

Thinking people, even those broadly sympathetic to our current PM, are now agreed that this man likes grand ideas far more than the nitty gritty of the implementation process, and so he keeps sending up one rocket after another, hoping some of them will reach their targets – someone has very aptly quipped ‘shoot first, aim later’. My own street bears loud testimony, for instance, to just how stillborn the great Swachh Bharat campaign has been; we can all see how many MNCs have become suddenly enthused by the Make in India slogan; the much publicized ‘surgical strike’ across the border has definitely and abruptly increased the death toll of Indian soldiers through cross-border firing; so also the much tomtommed Jan Dhan account project, millions of empty accounts created under which have suddenly filled up with thousands of crores this month, certainly not the money of ‘poor’ account holders. How many people needlessly suffer does not bother him, as long as he can console himself that he has several lakh supporters on his mobile app: the next elections, after all, are a comfortable two and half years away. Or maybe not… the people have borne the burden more or less uncomplainingly this last month, but December begins tomorrow, and all government employees (that includes soldiers, policemen, IAS officers and taxmen!) expect to get their salaries on or before the 10th, and if they cannot withdraw more than a small fraction of the money they want – their own money, mind you – the public mood might sour very very quickly indeed (it cannot be a coincidence that the November announcement was made after most of them had already got paid for the month). And the silly craze about suddenly becoming a cashless society will deepen the rural-urban divide far more than the Nehru-Gandhi zamaana ever did, because plastic cards and e-wallets need basic literacy, electrical power and fast internet connections, and it will be a long, long time yet before such things are available in all 700,000 villages in India.

Be that as it may, I can put this much in writing: this entire episode in the history of our country has eroded my faith in democracy as nothing could ever do since the time I learned to observe and think. With so many uninformed, bigoted and foolish people around who claim to be educated, and whose enthusiasms are as gross, superficial and ephemeral as those of any illiterate slum dweller, it is no longer a system that can claim my respect. An exasperated George Bernard Shaw condemned it as a ‘haphazard mobocracy’ almost a century ago, and today I cannot think any better of it any more. Which hurts me so badly that I am still holding on to a faint hope that Mr. Modi will finally pleasantly surprise me by delivering on his promises. I never was fundamentally prejudiced against him, as this blogpost and this one will bear testimony.

P.S., Dec. 01: 1) That one of my worries was spot-on is confirmed by this news item in one of the Bengali dailies today. 2) People are already going around with large amounts of fake 2,000-rupee notes. I myself wouldn't have believed it could be done so fast! And we apparently don't need subversives from across the border to do this, either. So much for another of the PM's tall claims...

Friday, November 18, 2016

Currency shock, second part

Facebook and Twitter are apparently flooded with comments on the current anti-black money drive, some supporting it as blindly and vociferously as others are opposing it tooth and nail, but, though the blog counter keeps climbing as always, I have got only three people to write in rejoinders as yet! And I thought I was writing about something that touches everybody’s lives. Goes to show how painful most people find it to think and speak/write rationally and civilly, as opposed to screaming mindlessly…

There are two things that I want to add to what I have already written. Though the PM keeps murmuring ad nauseam that ‘ordinary and poor men’ are not being hurt, it’s only the dirty rich who are suffering, the mass media are either totally blind or else it must be accepted for a fact that no rich man has had reason to feel harassed. Tell me, how many tycoons, filmstars and cricket stars have you seen standing in queues before ATMs trying to withdraw a paltry few thousands over the last week, either with your own eyes or in the papers, the net or TV? What can you do with people who can stand under the blazing sun and chortle ‘What a lovely moonlit night!’? And what is all this about catching people with black money anyway?

Economic pundits differ greatly about the definition of black money – ask Google about it. But in order even to start finding and destroying or mopping up black money on a significant scale, the government must first decide on a working definition – and preferably get the permission of Parliament and the Supreme Court. They have never insisted that everybody who has an income must file a tax return every year throughout his working life. As things stand, only 3 per cent (or is it just one?) of the country’s population pays income tax, and they consist largely of salaried folks in the organized sector, besides a few corporate businessmen. I remember that back in 1991 I heard for the first time that we schoolteachers who also have ‘other sources’ of income must hereafter file returns on their own; their employers keeping tabs on their behalf and deducting tax at source would no longer be enough. I cannot speak for anybody else, but I have been filing returns, and paying taxes, ever since then: the practice remains unbroken though I have been self-employed for nearly fifteen years now.

But I know for a fact that a majority – maybe it’s the vast majority – of small and medium income earners in this country have never filed returns (I can personally think of lots of grocers and mishtiwallahs and small building- or labour-contractors and even doctors and teachers, especially in rural and semi-urban areas). If all income that is not declared to the tax authorities is black money, then most people, or at least a majority of them, deal in black all the time, all the money they have is ‘black’, though for a lot of them it might mean only a few tens of thousands a month! My driver in the early 2000s actually exclaimed ‘Why should you pay income tax? Isn’t it only film actors who do that?’ and I have satisfied myself that that is the attitude of a great many ordinary people. Besides, in how many places do you shop where they give you regular receipts as a rule?

So unless your real purpose is to harass a lot of perfectly ordinary and non-criminal people (and maybe shoot yourself in the foot by bringing economic growth to a grinding halt), you should first – and gradually – make arrangements so that every single income earner is persuaded to file returns. That, and not sudden demonetization, was the right way to begin. Do you have any idea how long that will take, and how difficult it is going to be? Imagine even explaining to a cattle-dealer in some remote village in Chattisgarh why he must file income tax returns, and how! And is the IT department ready to handle a sudden tenfold increase in the number of files it is called to deal with?

Next, if you really want to get the majority of people into the white economy, you must persuade them that paying taxes is good for them, not only because it is easy and not too heavy a burden, but they are helping the nation to progress in ways that they can see and benefit from. Any government which is visibly working hard to deliver basic everyday essentials – water, sanitation and sewerage, roads, lights, houses, schools and medical care – finds it much easier to do that than one which merely spends millions on advertizing that happy days are just round the corner. Likewise, any government which keeps taxes light finds it easier to collect. Under India’s tax regime, you are punished if you declare income honestly: that needs to change, and at once. If I had my way, income up to Rs. 50,000 a month in cities for self-employed people with families should be tax free, income upto a lakh a month should be liable to just 5% tax, upto 3 three lakhs a month, 10% and so on. If a 30% tax rate is to be applied at all, let that fall only upon those who earn more than a crore a year. Isn’t that much fairer for all concerned? If such a system is applied sternly without fear or favour, it is virtually certain that overall tax collections are going to swell enormously. Does the government want that, or not?

Whereas it seems to me that the entire target seems to be the middle class (by which I mean all those whose family incomes are between one and twenty lakhs a month). It looks as if creating a big sensation by harassing them was the real purpose – heaven knows why. Look at this declaration of the government that those who are depositing upto Rs. 250,000 at a time in old big notes with the banks will not be ‘scrutinized’ by the taxmen. How ridiculous! Consider a man who has declared an income of Rs. 40 lakhs: he obviously must keep depositing more than that paltry amount many times a year, mustn’t he? So the above-mentioned warning means that even if all his money is white, hard-earned money, he may be bothered by tax officials if he deposits more than Rs. 2.5 lakhs in November and December this year. Is that a way to draw out black money, or one designed to drive even more people under the scanner?

And meanwhile there are tycoons who are merrily marrying off their children with lavish do-s costing tens, even hundreds of crores, apparently cocking a snook at all the powers that be. Am I to assume that in a country where a person who earns more than ten lakhs a year is officially considered ‘rich’, such people have ‘earned’ those zillions honestly, declared them in full to the tax authorities, and are now spending it all in white? Here’s a thought: why didn’t the government first go for all those who have bought Rs. 50-lakh-plus cars and Rs. 5 crore-plus penthouses and gone holidaying to seven-star resorts within the last ten years? And why not after the temples which routinely take in crores of rupees every day from devotees, and are well known to have stashes of cash and gold to the tune of tens, even hundreds of lakh crore rupees? Something is rotten in the state of India, and even more so with those few thousand zealots around the country who are praising the government to high heavens on the social media for seriously going after the seriously rich … to be blind is bad, to be blind and stupid is worse, but to be blind, stupid and bloody-minded really takes the cake.

P.S., Nov. 21: I should like to leave a link here to this open letter signed by a number of eminent citizens, dated Nov. 16, and to this editorial in my newspaper today, because they broadly share my standpoint. If and when this whole exercise turns out to be a damp squib achieved at enormous national cost, and the government has a lot of egg on the face, my readers should remember that I told them so. If it turns out the other way, I shall certainly praise this government fulsomely.

P.P.S., Nov. 26: Just to put things on record, for my own future reference if nothing else: Dr. Manmohan Singh has called the process a 'monumental management failure' and 'a case of organised loot and legalized plunder'; Amartya Sen has said 'at one stroke it has declared all Indians, indeed all holders of Indian currency, as possibly crooks, unless they can establish they are not', and that 'only an authoritarian government can calmly cause such misery to the people', while Mamata Banerjee has, quite rightly, I believe, taken strong objection to the PM posing as the only saint in the country, and calling everybody who does not agree with him a crook. I shall be very curious to know where the BJP itself got the money to fight and win the last Lok Sabha elections, and how much of it was white. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Currency shock: political gimmick or anything more?

On Tuesday, November 08, 2016, the Prime Minister told the nation that in a ‘bold and unprecedented move’, the government was going to demonetize all 500- and 1000-rupee notes effective from midnight. Following the amnesty scheme which was announced a few months ago to mop up black money – which, as everytime before, has obviously been a dismal failure – the government, as it had threatened earlier, has gone in for a truly draconian measure. Now let us calmly consider whether it is likely to work.

To start with, let us first take note of what the PM (and indeed, it was virtually the PM’s unilateral decision – even some Cabinet ministers apparently did not know about it before the announcement was publicly made, leave alone chief general managers of the biggest banks, who sounded clueless that night on TV – makes one wonder whether parliamentary democracy has already been given a quiet burial in this country) purportedly intends to achieve with such a measure. According to him, it will serve three main purposes: a) suck in black money and/or destroy it, b) tackle the menace of fake notes being shovelled into the country from across the border, c) make it difficult if not impossible for terrorists to stay solvent enough to be effective. All most desirable objectives, no one can doubt that. The question is, how likely are they to be achieved, and at what cost?

To take them in order: suck in black money? Was this the right and only way? The vast bulk of the so-called hoard of black money, it is well known, is held in numbered accounts abroad, over which our government either has no control or won’t do anything about (obviously because it will hurt too badly the fat-cat collective which can and will bring down any government which tries – remember a certain V.P. Singh?), or as bad loans taken by large corporates (I have heard the mention of eleven lakh crore rupees floating around – how many luxury cars, condos and even private jets have been bought with that money?), or in the form of gold and real estate. Unless those are touched, nothing significant can be achieved in this regard. Besides, it is not as if the government is going to shrink the money supply permanently and force the entire populace to shift rapidly to a cashless economy (anyone who knows India outside the metros will not have to be explained why that will remain a pipe dream for some decades yet): they are simply going to replace old notes with an equal number of new ones – what is to prevent millions of people from building up their hoards again within a few months, or at most a year or two? How many times can you render shock therapy of this sort – once in three or four decades (it has been done in living memory only twice before, in 1946 and 1978)? As for lots of people voluntarily depositing large sums of black money with the banks by December 30, who but a fool believes that most people with large stashes are going to do that, when it is much more profitable to suffer a certain one-time loss than get into the white on-record economy once and for all: especially when it is widely known that a very large percentage of black money holders do not even have incomes from legal sources, and can therefore never declare their incomes (think of those whose bulk incomes come from bribes, cutbacks, under-invoicing, passing off vast sums as ‘agricultural income’ on which the government deliberately refrains from imposing a tax, or crime of various sorts, including systematic large-scale theft, racketeering or fraud)?

As for the second claim, the best I can say in favour of the government is, let us see. One thing I know – nothing can be designed with technology that cannot be technologically copied. I have heard of tamper-proof and forgery-proof stuff far too often to be naïve enough to believe that any such thing exists. If powerful agencies – I mean national governments with an axe to grind – are hell-bent on forging the new notes again, I think it will be just a matter of time before they succeed, and not too long either.

Regarding the third claim, I really must say ‘Oh yeah?’ I don’t wish to add much to that. Terrorist organisations are going to be stopped just by changing some currency notes? Ask the FBI and CIA… It is a wonder that in this day and age governments can find large numbers of people to believe such promises. But of course, people like Donald Trump can become President of the United States. Makes one despair for the prospects of democracy…

Therefore it makes one wonder: was the whole thing done as an exciting gimmick by a government with flagging popularity, or one with an immediate, purely political agenda (such as crippling the opposition in the forthcoming Assembly elections in certain key states, who were depending largely on distributing unaccounted largesse to buy votes en masse)?

So what is the deal we are actually getting? A very large number of people, including very ordinary people (in the sense of being non-criminal and non-rich), like me and my doctor, my driver, my cook, my gardener and lots of friends are having a more or less bad time, running over and over again to their banks and queuing up for hours either to deposit cash or withdraw money, because they need it to meet regular household expenses, whereas a smaller number are facing much worse trouble because they owe relatively large sums to people who won’t take cheques, like hospitals, hotels and wedding caterers. A lot of even more humble people, like slum dwellers and villagers, many of whom don’t even have bank accounts and stuff like Aadhar cards, and have always put aside much of their savings in 500 and 1000 rupee notes, are in even worse straits: they simply don’t know what to do, whom to turn to. Heaven knows how much they stand to lose, and certainly they don’t know why they have suddenly been made to suffer like this. If the whole thing had simply been done gradually, with more forward planning and logistical preparation, this needless nuisance could have been avoided. The last time they (P. Chidambaram) did it, it happened so smoothly that nobody had occasion even to raise an eyebrow. But then, the last time they didn’t launch a massive propaganda blitz about slaying dragons! Meanwhile, how many tens of millions of man hours are going to be lost merely standing in queues?

So, then, if we really wanted to rein in black money in earnest, are there ways it can be done? Yes. Emphatically so, provided the government is honest of purpose, determined to do it, and has the requisite skill and finesse. First, get every adult in the country (remembering that nearly 70% of them still live in villages, some in very remote ones indeed) into the banking net. It will be as difficult as making every adult literate, and we are still far from achieving that. Next, shrink the money supply permanently (did you know that though India’s economy is a tiny fraction of the size of the American, we have far more money in circulation than they do? It is an open permission, nay encouragement, to people to hoard cash and make even very big deals in the black, from buying jewellery to houses), and make it mandatory that all large transactions – say, for argument’s sake, all purchases above Rs. 50,000 – must be made online, or by card or cheque. Third, reduce taxes that are inordinately high, and only goad people to deal in the black: when you buy a house in India, you pay stamp duty and registration fees to the tune of 6-7% of the value of the purchase, whereas in many advanced countries it is only 1% or a little more; and all self-employed people are unwittingly encouraged to avoid paying direct taxes because, firstly, they find it grossly unfair that compared to salaried people, they are heavily overtaxed since they do not get any non-taxable perks, and the income tax slabs are absurd, putting a man who earns anything above ten lakhs a year – a modest sum in today’s India, especially for any city dweller with a family – in the same tax bracket as a film star, cricketer or business tycoon who earns thousands of times more. Fourth, make tax filing a far simpler, faster and less tricky business than it is now, reward those who voluntarily disclose the bulk of their incomes and pay taxes on them, catch and severely punish those who still cheat without any kind of fear or favour (this must start with removing all immunity, official and informal, that senior bureaucrats, politicians, lawyers, journalists and tycoons currently enjoy).

Just those four steps, assiduously implemented over one whole decade, will change the whole ball game. Is any government ready to do that? I do not think the present government at the centre qualifies. What do you say?

P.S. 1) Two PILs have already been filed in the Supreme Court challenging this government order. The Court will hold the initial hearing on Tuesday, November 15.  And at least one political party has given official notice calling for a debate in Parliament on the subject.

P.S. 2) The mechanic who services my kitchen chimney and gas oven happily accepted five hundred rupee notes from me today, saying he has no problems with depositing such currency with his bank once a week till December 30. If he can do it, why can't Big Bazaar, I wonder? Indeed, they could make a killing over the next six weeks by advertizing their willingness to accept old notes for all purchases. That would make things a little less inconvenient for a lot of people, I think.

P.S. 3) This is what the BJP said in 2014 when the same move had been launched by the Congress government, albeit with far less fanfare and shock effect. Can anyone tell me which part of the ground reality has changed in these last two years?

P.S. 4, Nov. 14: This is an edit-page article in Anandabazar Patrika on the subject, linked here for all who can read Bangla. And here is a balanced assessment of how far we can rely on the current measures to make a significant dent on the black economy.