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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.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Deepavali

When my younger sister was growing up, there was a retired gentleman in the neighbourhood who ran a monimela for them in the local park, a children’s self-recreational community, and thanks to his long and untiring efforts many of them not only enjoyed engaging in a lot of healthy communal activities – from picnics to Saraswati pujo to Holi – but developed lifelong friendships. Indeed, my sister married one of the kids she grew up playing with. So here’s remembering Mukti Banerjee with deep regard and thanks: he was one of the most socially valuable human beings I have met in this town.


I had social instincts of the same sort, and I wished very badly that my daughter would enjoy the inestimable benefits of such socializing during her growing-up years. Alas, no father can give his daughter everything he wants to, and I couldn’t give her the experience that I would have liked. There was no Mr. Banerjee around in her childhood years, and the parents of her generation of kids did their damnedest to prevent them from making friends. Let’s bypass that subject: it’s too unsavoury to discuss. But I tried everything I could. So on Kali pujo/Deepavali nights, I have been calling over current and old boys every year to have fun together with lights and rangoli and fireworks and snacks. This year too the tradition has been maintained, but this was the first time in twenty years that Pupu was not with me, and it felt strange, though the children enjoyed themselves as always before. I wonder what the years ahead have in store – until grandchildren come.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Spring-cleaning, zen, distraction, dissolution

Spring cleaning can be cathartic. My mother and I agree that it can be done anytime, even in autumn, and done like a zen practice. While something useful is achieved – cleaning all the useless trash and dirt that keeps accumulating in any house over a period of time – it helps you to unclutter your mind and de-stress. My mother, even at her age, is wonderfully active in both body and mind: she is still teaching math and physics, and though she doesn’t have to, she keeps pottering about the house, sprucing things up all the time. She says it keeps her fit, and looking at clumsy lumps of lard half her age, I cannot but agree. And since I love things spick and span myself, having her around has proved to be a great blessing. For three years I had to do it all by myself, except when my daughter came over now and then, and I couldn’t cope as well as I would have liked to.

Mother and I also agree more and more that the very big trouble with people these days – at least all those who do not have to scrounge for a bare living – is that they have no inner life of their own, nothing to occupy themselves with without the help of other people and all kinds of gadgets and spectacles. That is precisely why they are chatting on the net all the time, or doing the same in the real world in their little gossip groups, and frantically running around from party to shopping mall to party, or staying glued to the television, and looking out for sensations (in response to which ‘need’ the mass media have turned more and more to mere thrill-mongering). And unless there’s something wrong with my eyes, there is no generation gap here: the same is true for a lot of people whether they are teenagers, or middle-aged housewives, or retired and old. Most people in this country do not read anything worthwhile these days (irony, in an age when ‘education’ is regarded as an essential more than ever before in history!); most do not have any hobbies worth the name – blessed are those who do, whether they are singing or painting or gardening or exercising or writing software for fun – and most would either go blank or be horrified if it is suggested that they should cultivate things of the spirit (I do not necessarily mean religious practice: doing math or reading history for the love of it rather than because it helps to get a job or just because everybody else is doing it is spiritual work). So it’s always buy and eat and dress up and chatter and post selfies on Facebook in order to count ‘likes’ thereafter. Or, even worse, ‘follow’ others who do exactly the same. How pathetic can people get?

Add to that the fact that most people, again regardless of age, are living in a perpetually distracted mode. The results would be horrifying, if people had not lost the capacity to take note. Pupils cannot remember lessons they were taught a few weeks ago. Bank clerks make wrong entries right and left. Patients of surgery cough up bits of cotton wool afterwards because the surgeon or nurse was not looking. Drivers run down pedestrians and other drivers day in and day out because they were talking on the phone, or listening to music, or had fallen asleep at the wheel. Parents leave babies behind at airports. Underwear is advertised with the slogan ‘It’s the next best thing to naked’. Journos go gaga over ‘surgical strikes’ as if such things have not happened a hundred times before, or about ‘startups’ as if a few hundred little drops in the ocean are going to make the ocean swell. And all this you can gather by just scanning the newspaper headlines over a week. The world has gone mad. My God, what progress! We have at last been able to shed drawbacks like sobriety and reason and foresight and common sense forever. I keep saying more and more frequently that I am never going to see a doctor who graduated after 1990 – I’d much rather trust my little box of homeopathic pills in my old age – and maybe someday I’ll decide to hoard all my wealth in the form of gold biscuits buried in some garden whose location only I will know. It will be safer than in the hands of thirty-something AMC executives I keep hearing about, those who spew management jargon and cannot spell or remember the date…


Which brings me to observe that the way ‘Indian English’ is evolving and spreading, no native Englishman is going to recognize it as his own language in fifty years’ time. No Indian is ever worried, he is only ‘tensed’ (not even ‘tense’, mind you); they never move house, they ‘shift’, they all live in ‘colonies’, there are some of us who call their spouses ‘siblings’, no one has heard words like ‘wonder’ and ‘conscience’, they are always angry on you and have very less money, everybody finds everything awesome and exciting and great and amazing; children growing up in rustic families and fed on American movies have learnt to address people vastly superior in every way with ‘Hey’, utterly oblivious of how simian that makes them sound. Once more, my God, what progress.  

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

That time of the year once more

Autumn is approaching. The sun has slanted southwards, and the days are already markedly shorter, though the muggy heat will not go away until Diwali is past. I am looking forward with relish, as always, to the three months from mid-November to mid-February. The sky is azure, but the sun is still far too hot, and hurts the eyes. I hope things will be better this winter than the last time, which was a big disappointment. The years zip by these days: the Darjeeling trip, back in January, seems so far back in the past already.

Of late, I have been brushing up my French on the net. My progress has been fast, because I remember much more than I have forgotten. But the language has changed somewhat in the last thirty years: they are using words now that we didn’t then. ‘L’internet’ needs no translation, but ‘ordinateur’ (computer) is now all over the place too; surprisingly, so is ‘robot’ – have robots become household gadgets in France, then? And as I suppose it is with colloquialisms in all languages, nice words have been replaced with crude or downright ugly ones, so ‘aimable’ (friendly) is hardly to be seen, since ‘sympa’ (short for sympathetique, obviously) is now preferred, though it also means just plain nice. And while in my time the verb aimer meant both to like and to love, they seem to be using ‘j’aime’ more and more to mean ‘I like’ only these days, reserving ‘j’adore’ to express ‘I love’… and yet ‘I love you’ is still expressed as ‘je t’aime’, the idiots. Anyway, after this is done, I might start learning something all new, or maybe something like Persian or Sanskrit, which I have longed to master for ages.

My daughter has got me hooked to all kinds of serialized TV shows. We have enjoyed several together, such as the Marco Polo series until it was inexplicably cut short, and the new Sherlock Holmes series, until they started becoming too bizarre for my taste. Then there was Boston Legal, and we have both become great fans of James Spader. So I have gone over to The Blacklist. And I am watching Castle too alongside, and the old Star Trek series, both 1966 and 1987. Alongwith which I have been reading a lot of new books, thanks in no small measure to Pupu as well as a few old boys, Rajdeep especially. Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement made for very thought-provoking reading: why is our art and cinema, and literature in particular, deafeningly silent on the environmental question? A work of fiction that I especially enjoyed was A Very English Agent by Julian Rathbone – it’s about a mid-19th century James Bond, if you can imagine it, only without the glitz and swagger, and the author has managed to weave in everybody from the Duke of Wellington and Queen Victoria to Darwin, Shelley and Karl Marx into it. I am eagerly waiting to lay my hands on the sequel. And re-reading Saiyyad Mujtaba Ali’s Deshe Bideshe is a pleasure that never palls. I wish that Khaled Hosseini would read it, even in translation.

Then there are the long evening walks, and the occasional chats with my parents, during which we have a lot of old threads to pick up. All this, mind you, goes hand in hand with the two classes daily, and an extra one now and then. So I have my hands full. Only, I am beginning to withdraw myself even more than before from ‘society’. If I had much more money, I’d already be living in a moated castle, and the uninvited would find it very difficult to enter, leave alone see me. I had already begun to dislike the majority of my species by the time I was a teenager – too ignorant, too crude, too selfish and too distracted – and then I gave more than thirty years to trying to be good to them, and finding out whether they were worth befriending. I have now had enough. I am making it a rule to act upon my own warning: leaving aside a few old favourites, I don’t even communicate with ex-students who have stayed out of touch for longer than a whole year. For long I did them the courtesy of answering letters and emails, even if they had nothing interesting to say; these days I don’t. What is the point? There have been too many instances of being disappointed – the worst type being those who get back in touch with ecstatic expressions of satisfaction, and then drop out for good again after one or two exchanges…well, not the worst, maybe, because I keep recalling the many who at various points of my life averred that they ‘loved’ me, and have since vanished without a trace. I have had a lot of help in the process of losing faith and respect for humanity. So I keep the number of my Facebook friends firmly on zero, and my whatsapp status is a stern tickoff for people who would like to ‘chat’. My public phone is switched off for nearly half the day. The occasional pangs of loneliness are infinitely preferable to the ‘companionship’ of people who have literally nothing to give me, do not sufficiently value what I can give them, and will not cherish memories.

As for the worth of my profession, I regard myself as no better and no worse than, say, a cobbler. They need to get their shoes mended, I can help them, they come, get their work done, pay me, go away and forget. I don’t do something criminal, something I have to be ashamed about, but there is no pride left, no lasting sense of achievement and satisfaction apart from the money that I have been able to make, and the little good that has done for some time to those who have been dependent on me. I don’t think I have been able to teach anybody anything much, anything of lasting value to them and to society at large. I used to think I was making a difference: I am now old enough to believe otherwise. Alongwith that resignation has vanished all expectation. I no longer think that anybody should remember me with gratitude, affection and respect. Those were illusions that hurt a great deal while I clung to them: no more.

Which makes me wonder more and more: have I shortchanged myself all these years? If money was truly all that I could expect in return for my services, haven’t I charged people far less all along than I should have? If that is really true, it’s now far too late to do anything about it, but at least those of my readers who are very young – and they include, most importantly, my daughter – should learn something from my story, at least. As for me, I keep wishing more and more that I’d win a big lottery, or that some rich uncle would leave me a fortune… not that that is ever going to happen, because I don’t buy lottery tickets, and I have no rich uncles. Then for the rest of my life I’d be able to work just for fun, and God, little does this town know how picky I am going to become then! But anyway, I can see the shore now, and things are definitely going to change for the better in a few years’ time, inshallah.

I read about a young doctor in government employ in one of my newspapers today, here. God bless him. It is hard to believe that such youngsters still exist, and very galling to think that I cannot recall any old boy of mine about whom I can boast for being someone like that (are there any? Do let me know). I only pray that this young man does not feel, twenty years from now, that he has wasted his life on ingrates…


DurgaPujo around the corner once more. Yuck.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The miracle of compound interest

A lot of slightly educated people believe technology alone has made the modern world. The truth, as always, is considerably more complex. Four other factors have played a major role: ideology (think, for instance, of democracy and socialism – as society changing powers, they are hardly three centuries old), organization (think factory system and corporate structures, which divided risk, vastly increased and standardized production scales, and put millions into regimented employment), advertizing (hundreds of millions are simultaneously, daily, constantly told what to buy, from soap to processed food to education to healthcare to entertainment, lifelong, until they quite forget what it means to make independent choices) and the miracle of compound interest.

Few middle class people from non-business families really understand the power of sustained saving. Here’s a sample of what it can do for you. At 8% annual rate of interest (that’s roughly what you get at present from the PPF, income-tax free), compounded quarterly, you get Rs. 52,485 on an initial deposit of Rs. 1,000 after 50 years. Check out the figures for yourself here. Imagine, now, you are depositing Rs. 1,000 – yes, just 1,000 – every month for fifty years, and I leave it to you to figure out the kind of money you will have at the end of that time. A serious saver will put aside much more than a mere Rs. 1,000 rupees a month. And other kinds of savings are far more profitable. The BSE Sensex has grown 280 times since its inception in 1980. Which means that someone who invested Rs.100,000 in it at start has Rs. 28 million now.

Of course, interest rates will not always be 8%, and they might be compounded half-yearly, or even yearly, in which case the yields will be considerably less. On the other hand, there are times when yields are much higher – in the 1980s, when I started saving in a very small way, the Indian banks were offering interest as high as 14% on long term fixed deposits. Admittedly, that was a very special period; interest rates have never again been so high anywhere in the last 250-odd years. In fact, during the time when many people got seriously rich by saving and investing – say, the merchants in Europe during the early middle ages, or when the British-Indian government was raising funds to build the railways – the long-term interest rate on ‘safe’ investments ranged between 3 and 5 per cent. But that didn’t stop long-term savers from getting rich.

Why did relatively so few people get rich over time, then? Well, partly because too few of them ever had anything to save – historically, 90%-plus of populations lived from hand to mouth – and partly because of those who did, only a tiny fraction ever bothered to save in a sustained, long-term manner (that is just as true today as it ever was!), and some were unfortunate enough to have their lifetime savings washed away by accidental disasters, such as disease and war and hyperinflation. The key is time and diligence. Very few people with the ability to save do save month after month, year after year, for entire lifetimes, especially knowing that with humble beginnings, that process has to carry on for several generations for families to get seriously rich. But that does not change the fact that, apart from those who strike gold, only long-term savers get rich. These days, for obvious reasons, people are fascinated by the stories of those who became wealthy almost overnight, the sports celebrity- and Rowling and Zuckerberg types, but the fact is most of the richest folks in the world are those who ancestors have been saving assiduously for centuries. What fascinates me is the story of the Medicis, Fuggers and Rothschilds, or the Indian Chettiars in the south who financed Rajendra Chola’s expeditions to Sri Lanka more than a thousand years ago, or the great Jain seth who hedged his bets by lending to both Rana Sanga and Babur before the battle of Khanwa. Their descendants are still among the richest people on the planet, though, unlike the insecure and attention-hungry nouveau riche, they avoid hogging the headlines. Such men can truly paraphrase the poet and say ‘Kings may come and PMs may go, but we go on forever!’ And it’s all due to the miracle of patience harnessed to compound interest. Ask the Marwari community elders. Of course, looking at the way their descendants are burning money now, it’s a safe bet that many of them will be out on the streets pretty soon. There are laws of history that you defy only at your peril. You can do your own research on this.


So it frightens me to think that economic basics are going awry in a historically-unique way all over the world. And as with almost everything else that is bad, it’s America that has shown the way. Interest rates have dived so far that in some countries the banks not only don’t give you any interest at all on savings, they actually charge a negative interest on it, meaning you are penalized for saving. Simultaneously the credit card economy has led millions of not-too-well-off people to live far beyond their means, saddling individuals as well as whole nations with such enormous debt burdens that no one knows how it will ever be repaid. The motto seems to be ‘sacrifice the future for the sake of today’ – carpe diem pushed to a monstrous extreme. It reminds me of a horror story written, if I remember correctly, by Isaac Asimov, about a man who borrows so much that he has exhausted his credit limit, but he is so addicted to living the high life that he cannot stop splurging, and the bank persuades him to carry on, provided he signs off his son’s future too: the son will be born with an inherited debt burden, and spend perhaps his whole life trying to pay it back. That’s the story of bonded labour all over again, and repeating itself in a highly ‘advanced’ society! The long term implications are mind-boggling, and not just at the individual level. With China buying up trillions of dollars of U.S. debt, there may soon come a time when the Chinese own a significant enough portion of the American economy for major political decisions on behalf of Americans to be taken not in Washington D.C. any more but from Beijing. It will then probably be the first bloodless conquest of a major nation in history since Ashoka’s dharmavijaya of Asia began…

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Bengaluru and Singur

I remember writing as a student of economics in the 1980s that the way things were going, all the big political problems of the next century (at least in India-) would centre around land availability, and in an earlier post on this blog itself I quoted a UN Secretary-General to the effect that all the wars (and of course, riots-) of the 21st century would be focused on water. Also, alas, these problems have no quick-fix technical solutions visible on the horizon.

So I was reading about the recent street violence in Bengaluru not only with sadness but with a profound sense of déjà vu. I simply cannot get worked up over such things any more, unlike most ‘educated’ people below forty today, who at least profess to be amazed and shocked like little children every time.

Conflict between the two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (erstwhile Madras province and Mysore) has been brewing, with occasional destructive (and broadly speaking futile) public outbursts for nearly a century now. The problem has only been exacerbated by a booming population, growing per-capita water demand (which is a certain accompaniment to the conventional kind of development that has been in vogue worldwide – even the Colorado no longer flows into the sea), and increased climatic vagaries which most scientists now ascribe to global warming. No government directive, no court order can make either party ever and permanently happy, for the simple reason that there is too little water to go around, and at times the shortage becomes critical enough for people to become violently angry. If you haven’t had to stand in line for water with a bucket for hours daily for years on end, or if you are not civilized enough to empathize with those who must, you will never understand them. Certainly the current street violence could have been sharply curbed if the state government concerned had been more vigilant and prompt in taking action: there is much reason to suspect that they deliberately sat tight until things got ugly enough for the central government and the Supreme Court to grow upset, and then it was curbed quickly enough (I saw what difference government alacrity can make during the anti-Sikh riots post Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, the difference between Delhi and Calcutta, when I walked around the latter city reporting on the carnage, which Jyoti Basu shut down overnight simply by calling in the army, as Rajiv Gandhi did not).  

But the anger and discontent will simmer, and boil over again as soon as another severe shortage strikes. Until – God forbid – two states decide to go to war. Don’t imagine that is something impossible: far worse has often happened. That’s the advantage of knowing history. India’s founding fathers were always afraid that centrifugal tendencies could rip the young nation apart, and if such a thing happens, it will most certainly be triggered by crises over essential natural resources, not over mobile apps and fancy startups with which the urban, well-off youth, comfortably cushioned and cocooned for most of the time, keeps itself happily anesthetized. The same anger and discontent are brewing among Punjab, Haryana, UP and Delhi over sharing the waters of the dying, filth-filled Yamuna, and between India and Bangladesh over the Ganga waters released (or not-) through the Farakka Barrage. One only prays that the apocalypse will be delayed a bit more. That it will come is almost sure.

Which brings me to the story of Singur. Following the Supreme Court judgment (the court and the army seem to be the only institutions left in which the people can still justifiably keep faith!) – that the state government took over 1,000 acres and gave it to the Tatas unlawfully – Mamata Banerjee celebrated with a ‘people’s victory party’ at ground zero. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown is a very old proverb, so it is rare to see the kind of relief and happy smile that was visible on her face yesterday. The internet will be awash with barbs and invectives, of course: they will all try to sound ‘progressive’ and ‘rational’, but they will be primarily motivated by pure dismay and envy. Funny that in a country where we so worship success, we can’t bear to see anybody being successful and happy, even briefly, unless it somehow serves our own petty vested interests (my son the bekaar engineer could have got a job at the Nano plant, maybe, or I could have got a sub-contract supplying nuts and bolts). Let her enjoy it, because her relief and happiness are bound to be ephemeral.


She knows as well as her detractors that her state desperately needs investment in infrastructure and industry. She knows land is terribly scarce in this grossly overpopulated state (90+ million, in an area much smaller than France or Germany). Fighting for the unwillingly dispossessed at Singur brought her spectacularly to power, so she can never admit, even to herself, that she was wrong. She knows that the public euphoria over the current success story will not last long. She knows that Singur might have sent the wrong signals in some quarters at least, and she needs to woo them back. That the work culture in the state is very poor, that bureaucratic red-tapism is bad if not the worst in the country, and that there is a mafia-raaj of sorts that she can rein in only at great peril to her own political existence are three factors that will work strongly against the inflow of new investments, and there are no magic wands to get rid of them (so no point in blaming her personally, at least too much – just ask yourself, could you have done better?) Add to everything else the fact that all kinds of landholders have now tasted blood, and will ask for the earth to give up their lands to future projects, which might easily make them unviable – it is happening more and more frequently with everything from airports to roads to hospitals. A devil’s brew indeed. Unless you are really very petty-minded, won’t you wish her luck?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Murshidabad

I missed out on the planned holidaying and travelling last year owing to the accident. I became mobile again by December, and the New Year resolution was to make up for the lost year. Three quarters of the year has passed, and that is the vow I have been assiduously fulfilling, as any regular reader of this blog should know.

This month all the schools have examinations, so my kids gratefully gave me leave, and I escaped for a couple of days at once. Two days again, Friday and Saturday, the 9th and 10th September. Early morning set-off, and I headed for Murshidabad with Firoz at the wheel. Strange that the town is so rich in history and only 170 or so kilometres away, yet I had not visited it in all these years!

Thanks to our incumbent President, the ride was silk smooth via Shantiniketan and Nannoor till Kirnahar. The whole countryside along the way was lush green, thanks to the season and the recent rains; in some places vast swathes of paddy were under water, and the kaash flowers were growing in wild profusion everywhere. Then from Kandi onwards the road condition deteriorated, and there was a massive traffic jam while entering Berhampore (apparently a daily affair now, what with all the vehicles and too few roads), so it took all of five hours to arrive at the gates of the Hazarduari palace, though I had – foolishly – reckoned on four. I put up at a modest hotel for a change, Manjusha, because it was right in the heart of the tourist circuit, located bang on the bank of the full and fast-flowing Bhagirathi, I took an instant liking to the proprietor, and because he promised to show me round his magic garden. About that more later.

A bath, a quick lunch and a snooze was followed by a round-the-town tour in a reserved ‘Toto’, now the vehicle of choice, the rickshaws having completely vanished and the tongas nearly so. We stopped at so many places I have lost count, but the highlights were the Katra mosque, the 1100-odd graves of Mir Jaffar’s descendants (there are graves for favourite slaves and pet pigeons too), the Nashipur rajbati, the Kathgola garden villa (built by a family of very successful smugglers in the 18th century), the house (actually the kutcherry) of the Jagat Seths – for a brief period one of the richest families in the world, which controlled a large fraction of the entire country’s trade and money supply – capped with a trip to the Motijheel. Kudos to our current CM for visualizing and laying out the new Park-cum-tourism complex there – look it up on the net, it’s still a work in progress. I particularly enjoyed the sound and light show.

So much for the first day. Happily tired out, I went to sleep at an uncharacteristically early hour, no drink or sleeping pill needed. Early next morning, Sanjoy the same Toto driver took us across the river on a boat, and we looked around. This time the big attraction was the Khoshbaag garden, where the nawabs Alivardi Khan and Siraj lie buried. At the Kiriteshwari temple – supposed to be one of the 51 peeths dedicated to the Mother Goddess – the priest insisted that he had seen me before somewhere, and asked for a cigarette. On the way back, we toured the Hazarduari (900 real doors, 100 false). Grand enough, if you consider that all that pomp and pelf was put on display after the nawabs had lost their freedom and power completely. To think that this city once ruled Bengal, Bihar and Odisha together, financed the Mughal throne, and getting their hands on it set the British on the way to a world-girdling empire! All that remains is crumbling buildings, the jute and silk trades, the Toto driving syndicate, the mango orchards, and thousands of young men gone far away to work as masons and builders.  And sighs. Nineveh and Tyre.  sic transit gloria mundi…

I am glad, by the way, that the Archaeological Survey of India has maintained so many monuments and laid out nice, neat gardens around them. I saw some few repair and renovation works in progress, too, but one could wish for more. Perhaps that will happen if Murshidabad is brought back to the centre of the tourism map from the fringes. Funny to learn that for a few days post 15th August 1947 it became part of (East-) Pakistan, only to be returned. But it is quite evident that Hindu and Muslim have been living cheek by jowl here for ages without much friction, leave alone overt and violent conflict. Heartening, that.

So at mid-day we returned to the hotel. As he had promised, the proprietor showed us around his garden. My God, if anyone has a green thumb, this man does, or maybe he has been blessed by the Ganga, but he has built up a botanical miracle in that half acre of his. What didn’t I see? Rare and precious plants from all around the country, indeed the globe, were blooming there, camellia, dolonchampa, rudraksha, triphola, jayitri-jayphol, camphor, white and red sandalwood, apples and mangoes side by side… I forget. He wouldn’t tell me his secret, fobbing me off with ‘shob i mayer ichchhe!’ I begged him to upload a video on YouTube, and promised to publicise his work all I could via tripadvisor, which keeps telling me to write reviews of places I have visited.

It was a smooth and fun drive back home, though the blazing sun kept the airconditioner running almost all the way. I drove for a bit, just to remind myself how much I enjoyed driving once. The old car glided without a hiccup all through, so my plans to buy a new one are indefinitely shelved.

The pujo is coming up, though I never go travelling during that time. It’s when the old boys come visiting. And Diwali I celebrate at home with a lot of enthusiastic teenagers. But where am I going in December, I wonder?

[for photos, click here]

Monday, September 05, 2016

Ode to the baul-s

Teachers’ Day.  Many thanks for all the gifts, cards and messages that have poured in. This post is to pay tribute to a special kind of teacher.

In the days when I was in college (that would be the early 1980s – my daughter is passing through that stage now), I often took the local trains via Bardhaman on my way home to Durgapur from Kolkata. One reason was to save money – I was very poor then, and the difference with express train fares mattered – but there was another, more pleasant one. There would usually be a baul on the Bardhaman Asansol local who would sing his heart out. I remember I used to splurge sometimes, giving him a twenty- or even fifty rupee note (that was a lot of money in those days, certainly to me) to park himself beside me for the whole duration of the journey instead of begging around and sing all he could, interrupted only by little earthen cups of tea, which we both drank with gusto. Many of those songs still play themselves in my mind’s ear, and I can see visuals, even, of the bauls – usually men – breaking into impromptu jigs, strumming on their aktaras and keeping time with their ghungroo-d feet, clad in the traditional white dhoti and saffron or multi-hued kurta, generally also with a turban around the head and a cummerbund. Many of those lyrics have stayed with me forever, too: ami kothay pabo tare/amar moner manush je re, dekhechhi roopsagorey moner manush kancha shona, praner bandhob re/dao dekha doya kore, khanchar bhitor ochin pakhi kemne ashe jaye… there was something in me that vibed very strongly with the kind of music they made, and it has never palled.

Decades later, therefore, it was my privilege to render some little assistance to a certain lady who was doing a doctorate on the theme of Tagore and the bauls. I was dealing with both Tagore and the bauls: few things could make me happier!

A revival of interest among the youth of today seems to be going on. Or so this article in The Statesman says. I, for one, would be delighted. Leaving aside my specific interest in baul music for the moment, it pains me that in India, which has one of the richest and most diverse repertoires of home-grown music in the world, the youth should be so unaware, so forgetful, so apathetic towards it. Mind you, I am no atavistic and chauvinistic propagandist against ‘foreign’ stuff – my own list of favourites from western music is very wide – but that has not prevented me from knowing, cultivating and loving desi stuff, everything from dhrupadi to folk to rabindrasangeet and Hindi movie numbers. What I rue, what fills me with shame and chagrin is that our young should be so ignorant, and ignorantly contemptuous, of our own culture in this matter (and alas, that is most glaringly evident among the urban ‘English-medium’ educated kind, the type I have to deal with all the time for my sins) – except when they hear that some sahibs are interested in it. So it pleases me no end to see a new generation of youth taking active and talented interest in Indian music again, as evidenced not only on TV but on YouTube as well. If there’s a lot of fusion stuff out there, I don’t mind at all, even though much of it is of indifferent quality – let a thousand flowers bloom, for every now and then a gem will emerge (I am still desperately searching for a pop-style rendition of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram that I saw in a music video on TV at least two decades ago – I think it was done by Raageshwari. If someone can locate it, please send me the link). It is good to remember that Tagore himself was the greatest fusion music maker of them all!

A woman in a man’s world whom I have lately come to admire is Parvathy Baul. You can search for her by name on wikipedia.


Here is a link to something I wrote about music several years ago. As for the reason behind my particular fondness for baul songs, maybe in another post. But I would like you to note that this is not something that has come with advancing age: I was moved by the same when I was barely out of adolescence…