Sunday, 21 December 2008

In the Convent of Little Flowers - Book Review

A truly great novel not only has a gripping plot but is also crafted with such skill that it swallows the reader into its soul. Indeed a difficult mission, but a range of characters and 300 sheaves of pages make the task somewhat simpler. Thus creating enthralling short stories with a single or at most three characters and a time line of only twenty paper leaves is almost impossible. Indu Sunderasan’s latest masterpiece – In the Convent of Little Flowers - is like an oasis in this desert of short story novels.

The nine stories are each distinct in their narration, characterization and emotion. At the end of every story I was left with a unique twang which I had experienced neither in any of my recent reads (outside of In the Convent of Little Flowers) nor in the short tales of this book. It is needless to say that I did not want the collection to come to an end.

Payal and Kamala are two characters that I personally was drawn to the most. The tale of the two sisters’ affection and separation is written with remarkable tenderness, angst and rage. The prose had me feeling helpless and then angry. The words poured with such force that it was difficult to read with calm. The plight of rural India was brought alive by this meeting between a grandmother and a granddaughter. But then the story of Parvati and Nathan brought over immense stillness and at the end of this piece there was a warm smile on my face. The innocence of a child is capable of miracles and Indu Sundaresan’s magical words created that very sensation.

There are other characters worthy of note in this book and the next deserving mention is that of Meha and Chandar. These two characters depict all the values and love that Indian parents stand for. Meha to me is the ideal Indian woman, though a little weak. However, given the generation of her character, I would like to argue that her perceived weakness is what makes her an immortal mother. And then there is Nitu – a mother and a wife. Another portrayal of an Indian woman immersed in the love and well being of her family, but a contemporary Indian woman, she unlike Meha does not suffer her fate in silence. She makes her choice, unconventional though it may be. This strength has no hidden weakness but only courage that is worth applause.

The other five stories also take on Indian women from varied economic and cultural backgrounds of the country and bring out the complexity of relationships with immense dexterity. Together the nine stories are like different flowers in a vase that create a picturesque moment worthy of cherishing for a long time to come.

Not only is “in the Convent of Little Flowers” a thoroughly enjoyable read but it is also a thought provoking book. It does make us realise that while India has progressed, there are some pockets where the era of reforms and development has still not dawned. From an author who made her mark with historical fiction works, this set of contemporary stories is very refreshing and highlights her in-depth understanding of the Indian culture and society – past and present.

Monday, 8 December 2008

NRI Voting Rights and Upcoming Elections

Dear Friends,
The Mumbai Attacks on 26th November highlighted the ineffective and inefficient State Legislature and Parliament, especially with regards to

- complete lack of co-ordination in organizing an immediate rescue mission,
- preparedness to solicit support of the international community and highlight the country's
position in
the wake of a national terror strike,
- a totally mismanaged defence budget with the armed and police forces being very poorly
equipped
and trained, and
- an extremely indifferent attitude to the way domestic security and national intelligence
infrastructure is monitored

These individuals, however, are in the position of power because of our choice - either an explicit choice expressed by our vote or an implicit choice in the absence of our vote. It is thus up to each one of us to ensure that we exercise our franchise and weed out the non performing social servants from our houses of power.

For those amongst us who believe that one vote does not count I would like to highlight the following: In the last Karnataka Assembly elections, in 119-Santhemarahalli Assembly, the winning margin was ONLY ONE VOTE. Hence EACH VOTE COUNTS.

AT PRESENT THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA DOES NOT ALLOW NRIs TO BE ABLE TO VOTE. HOWEVER, THERE IS A BILL IN THE PARLIAMENT FOR THE LAST TWO YEARS WHICH ADDRESSES THIS VERY POINT. THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE (AMENDMENT), 2006 BILL PROPOSES THAT NRIs BE REGISTERED AND PERMITTED TO VOTE. THE TERM OF THE 14th LOK SABHA EXPIRES IN MAY 2009. IF THE AMENDMENTS TO THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE ACT ARE NOT ENACTED BEFORE THE EXPIRY OF THE TERM OF THE CURRENT GOVERNMENT, THE INDIAN DIASPORA WILL YET AGAIN BE DEVOID OF ITS RIGHT TO VOTE IN THE GENERAL ELECTIONS OF THE COUNTRY, NOT TO MENTION THAT THE BILL WILL GO INTO SUSPENSION. THE NEW GOVERNMENT AND PARLIAMENT WILL HAVE TO TAKE UP THE ISSUE AFRESH ALL OVER AGAIN.

WE, THEREFORE NEED TO ENSURE THAT THE REVISED BILL IS INTRODUCED IN THE PARLIAMENT AND ENACTED AS A PRIORITY IN THE UPCOMING BUDGET SESSION OF THE PARLIAMENT (BUDGET SESSION OF 2009).

To help us get the Bill enacted please sign this petition. Please forward this email to all NRIs you know. (The petition is on http://www.petitiononline.com/VOTENRI/petition.html)

Looking forward to full hearted support from you,

Yours sincerely,

Tanushree
contactus@indiagoes2vote.com (http://www.indiagoes2vote.com/)


PS: The bill can be found on
and a copy of the Standing Committee's report can be found on

Friday, 5 December 2008

India Attacked: By Terrorists and Media

Since the Mumbai attacks, a number of articles have been published in the western press about the tragedy, why it happened and the aftermath. One thing that stands out in a number of them is the poor PR process that our leaders have managed to stage – explicitly in their conduct and implicitly by sheer lack of using the diplomatic forum to project India’s views on this tragedy.

While we are all outraged and desire a number of changes, should the global India diaspora be thinking of how can we help in correcting this lapse on the part of our leaders? Should Indian journalists, in India and outside, contribute towards articles that leave out the complexities that encompass the nation and encourage the world to portray an even sorrier picture of our country?

Take a look at some of these articles (not all of them are unbalanced) and share your views. It will be interesting to see how others feel about this.

Monday, 1 December 2008

We the Politicians, Celebrities and Citizens of India

The tragedy is not even over and the leadership of the country is out to gain political mileage. The ruling government has presented the resignations of ministers who could have and should have been more responsible not just in their administration but even in their conduct post the tragedy. Does that help? Not really. Does the government really hold them responsible? Who knows? However, the display definitely seems to calm the public. One good thing that this government is doing – building pressure on foreign soils which need to answer questions they have avoided for far too long.

The opposition is on its own trip. "It is a collective culpable negligence of the government. The responsibility should also be collective and no government has the right to survive after this," party spokesperson Rajeev Prataap Rudy said. Did the reigning BJP government in Rajasthan resign after the Jaipur blasts or did Narendra Modi do anything similar after Ahmendabad was attacked? Then who are the opposition to preach! Can they not use their time and effort more productively by maybe setting up blood donation camps or trying to increase border security in the two Border States just mentioned?

And may I ask where the Mayor of Mumbai is? She has not even come forward once to make a statement in the last three days! Why? What is her contribution to help the city heal?

Appalling! And in the midst of this, the Mumbaikars’ are all screaming and shouting, especially the celebrities. Can I ask how many of them have gone to donate blood, or have deemed it their duty to buy medicines or be there to really care for the injured? Physically attend to the critical night and day? They all want to talk sitting in the cosy confines of their homes, sleep with a pistol under their pillow knowing that they have personal security outside or sit in New York and Delhi and use this tragedy as an interesting talk time quip with friends. Let them rush back and come out of their homes and serve the city that has given them their stature and then talk! Raising money and giving donations is not enough. Do not instigate the people. Shram daan is the answer. Sweat for these people and then instigate them!

Personally, I am on my way back to Mumbai. I made a point to my boss this morning – “I want to go home at the earliest, maybe by the weekend if possible, even if you deem it unsafe. It is my home and I want to be there.” I might just donate blood or I might just be the shoulder for a bereaved friend. But I want to be there. His response – “will you promise to do some work as well”, my response – “I promise I will”. Anything to be back at this hour. He was only joking and I know that.

I get aggravated and I get angry. That is not the answer I understand. I apologise for my rants. But I cannot understand why we are all not putting in efforts but just talking. If Gandhi only spoke, India would not have been free! Each one of us can make a difference. Please rise up to this challenge!

We the Citizens of India

Why is it that we Indians find it so easy to criticize everything but find it absolutely so tiresome to make the tiniest of efforts to do our bit? It could be something as simple as cribbing about a dirty Mumbai but not wanting to walk over to a dustbin to throw the garbage. Or it could be about the pollution in the city but our insistence of taking the car to a meeting few blocks down the road!

My favorite is the following – most educated Indians crib about politicians, but never step out to vote. They always have a ready excuse and the most frequently used is – one vote will not make a difference! I would urge us to start keeping a tab of how many of us say this and see if the numbers actually make a difference. Add the number of willing non resident Indian (NRI) voters to it who are discouraged because of our system and the numbers will look even more different. And then add the number of non-willing NRI voters and I bet that the difference will be glaring.

Only 45% people voted in the recent elections in Delhi, a dismal turnout. Anyone to do the stats of how many eligible student voters did their bit? Can someone provide the answer to how many doctors and engineers or businessmen actually walked to the polling booths to have their voice heard? If even one amongst you reading this failed to go to the polling booth, in my view you have do not have a right to question the government. It is not your voice that is being represented as you did not deem it necessary. So when you chose not to put forward someone who would fight for you, how can you question someone who is probably representing the rights of someone else; someone with needs and priorities different from yours?

We live in the world’s most populated democracy and love to scream about our rights as a citizen from the roof tops. Have we, however, ever given even the minutest of thoughts to our duties as a citizen? It is like John F Kennedy said – “Ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for the country.” In fact taking his words further in this hour of a national calamity – let us not ask what the nation will do for us, but what together we can do for the freedom of man!
[JFK’s speech, a must read for every self righteous citizen – can be found on this site]

Friday, 28 November 2008

Mumbai: A Lesson of Living and Loving??

Over the last two days, like most of the world, I have expressed my emotions without inhibition. Be it a feeling of violation or be it anger towards some of the reactions that I am hearing, I have been voicing my views actively. At the same time I have been analyzing and debating with friends, measures that India probably needs to install going forward. Everyone has their views of what should be done ranging from compulsory military service being introduced to imposing of military rule in the country. Given the absolute shock value of India’s own 9/11, people’s ideas are also extreme.

While I would love to comment on all of this, I think there is something more fundamental that I would like to address before that. And that is the uncertainty of life. As a friend mentioned in his email yesterday, “there is absolutely no certainty in life about what lies ahead for us.. We could be driving on a road and a crane could fall on us or we could be having dinner / doing business in a hotel and get shot down... The inevitability of death to this body of ours seems so crystal clear.” His email had me thinking – if I were to die today, at this very moment, would I feel that I had lived a meaningful life? Would I transcend into the other world knowing that I had rendered all my duties? Will my conversations with God convince Him that in me He had a lot to be proud of? And above all, will I be able to close my eyes without any regrets?

I do think I lead an honest life, doing all that I do with sincerity. At the work place I believe that I have always strived to give my best, sometimes even getting unduly attached to my work. In fact, friends have often jested with an opinion that I am married to my job. There I have absolutely no regrets. On the personal front I am not so sure.

My family knows of their importance in my life and my unconditional love and support for them. However, I do think that I could spend some more time with them. There are friends who I think I would like to see and spend some more time with. I have been promising them a visit for a long time, not realizing that I need to grab the opportunity when it comes. Procrastination in being with the ones you care about might not be the smartest idea given the uncertainty of life. I am seeing this more clearly than ever before, today!

And then there comes something which I has been nagging me for the last twenty four hours – how measured should one be in human interaction. If a desire to express an emotion or admiration exists, is there merit in debating its articulation and the timing of the same? Is the deliberation worth, given that a prolonged delay could snatch away any opportunity of making these feelings known? How fair is it that the human race, in spreading terrorism and fear, has little qualm; but in spreading love and togetherness we sometimes take an eternity. Resolving this very basic conflict will hopefully help each one of us improve our own lives and also show us the way forward in these troubled times.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Mumbai - Calm Collected Response Need of the Hour

This continues to be Mumbaikars' worst nightmare prolonged beyond comprehension. However, I believe that as a city we need to remain calm and not be instigated. A number of our "celebrities" have made inflammatory remarks and displayed not just immaturity but a total lack of balanced view. [1] As educated citizens we should refrain from reacting to these statements with aggression.

The need of the hour is for us to stand together and help the task forces in the rescue operations. We need to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the authorities at the earliest. It is imperative now that we all display maturity, efficiency and professionalism. Mumbai is a city that has come out of various crisis only because of its spirit and unity. This time we need to deploy our perseverance, courage and togetherness like never before. Let the world know that not only are we not deterred but we also salute and support our defense personnel who have done a tremendous job in the last 24 plus hours.

[1] Point in case is Mrs. Shobha De, who in her attack on the government and authorities has completely forgotten that lapses have happened on the part of private enterprise as well. This is not the time to point fingers and call for public uproar. The hotels have lost a number of their staff, 14 policemen have been martyred and over a 125 civilians have been brutally murdered. My deepest condolences to all the bereaved families.

Mumbai - My City of Dreams

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I sat in the office, across from the Oberoi hotel, beaming with excitement. It seemed to me that finally my wish of returning to Mumbai, my city of dreams, was going to be fulfilled. All organizational issues seemed to have been resolved and the paperwork was apparently nearly complete. I flew out of Mumbai with eager anticipation, to pack my bags and bid adieu to London, my city of bridges.

Today, I am at home in London sitting spellbound by the television coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks. I am feeling violated and vulnerable. It is as though my house has been broken into and ransacked in my absence, and I have to watch from afar as a mere passerby. The office has also informed me that my departure will now not be in the next ten days as I had expected, but is subject to security concerns being alleviated and the firm getting enough comfort that it is safe for me to return to my own city. While I appreciate the thoughtfulness, I am saddened that my watch from afar will probably be prolonged.

Truth be acknowledged, my presence in Mumbai is not going to have even an iota of impact on the current situation or the lives of the inhabitants. I am no anti terrorist expert, nor am I trained in combat and neither am I equipped to handle rescue operations. By the grace of God, my near and dear ones are all safe and sound. So why is the delay of just a few days becoming such an agony for me? Because it is my home that is burning and I want to be there. If not for anything else then to share the pain that the others are going through.

I moved to Mumbai as a teenager about sixteen years ago, having lived all over India and South East Asia. My experiences in each of the places we had lived in were unique, but Mumbai somehow was just different. It was in Mumbai that I first got in touch with my true values and keenest ambitions. The tryst with schooling here honed my leadership skills. My interest in theater developed in this city which is the hotbed of Indian theater. It was Mumbai that became the stepping stone for my career trajectory and lastly it is Mumbai where I found some of my best friends. Mumbai has never come forward to embrace me like a mother for a child. But it has always inspired me to go after what I believe in, and in my quest it has been a silent supporter.

The shores of Worli Seaface have provided me with long walks and a cool breeze, when I needed to clear my head and think clearly. The tea stalls at Churhgate were mid night thirst quenchers after a long and arduous day of play rehearsals. Juhu beach and Chowpatty highlighted the simple pleasures of life, ranging from a road side snack bite, a camel ride or the absolutely gorgeous sun set over the Arabian Sea. And I cannot forget the Mumbai roads – the institution that brought me closer to the street kids (the ones selling small wares and the ones forced into begging) who showed me how despite all odds one can still smile and persevere.

The Taj Mahal hotel is special to me for a number of reasons. Shamiana, the coffee shop was a treat spot for our family for a large part of my childhood. Amongst the most cherished memories I have of the hotel are of an evening a few days before I was to fly out to for my MBA. In front of the Taj, overlooking the sea, two of my closest friends stood by me and expressed their concern over my well being in a foreign land. To be honest, more than anything else, they were worried that I would fall for a Frenchman and be heart broken. So in all candidness they had selected the picturesque spot to lecture me, so that if nothing else, the view would draw me back to Mumbai. (Strangely enough, they are now both settled in the US for good!) It is unbelievable that the same architectural icon that I remember so vividly, and was at just a few days back, has been gutted by a terrorist attack. The burning images of the Taj seem to be movie trailers that I wish I had never seen.

My romance with Bombay and the stories of our rendezvous’ are endless. I can continue to narrate instances and experiences from dawn to dusk. Bombay holds all that is dear to me and it is for that reason that I want to head back and head back soon. In this hour I want to make sure that while the battle has been tough, the dreams that the city held still exist; and the city only perseveres harder to achieve its own dreams and destiny. I want to fly home, home where I belong and I want to fly now.

Mumbai under Siege - Are Citizens not Responsible?

2008 has been an unprecedented year in the history of India’s struggle against terrorism. No longer are violent attacks limited to Tier I cities and no longer are the perpetrators targeting public transport systems. It has suddenly become a campaign aiming every city which is even slightly sensitive to communal tensions. The modus operandi is to destroy the most basic every day hang outs – shopping areas, restaurants, hotels and even residential locales. And if the ongoing terror siege of Mumbai is an indication, terrorist organizations in India are succeeding in their mission.

The media has been covering the Mumbai attacks through the night and has over and over again blamed the government and law enforcement agencies for this tragedy. Given the enormity and the gravity of the situation, indeed the very first question that needs to be answered post resolution is why and how did this happen. However, is it a question that needs to be answered only by the governing entities? I do not think so.

As a nation, and more so as the city of Mumbai, we have fought terrorism for a long time now. There is an inherent realization in each one of us that we are probably not safe. But there is no effort from the citizens to help the police. We frown upon their check posts, we do not co-operate with their random scrutiny and some of us do not even consider answering their questions worth our while. When the government implements new laws to fight terrorists, “minorities” amongst us just jump at the opportunity and play it out to be an oppression dictate.

Private organizations have made little effort in beefing up security at their own premises. It is not just in terms of scanning people and their belongings (which in fact some offices implement very efficiently), but in terms of installing security cameras, having a trained vigilance team in place to monitor the footage and employing qualified security guards at and around entrances. If one considers why the two hotels (the Taj and Trident) could be taken under control by terrorists, one reason immediately stands out. Both have multiple entrances which can be broken into without being noticed. Who should take responsibility for safeguarding private premises? If we start expecting the police to do so then I think we should stop expecting them to monitor other crimes in the city.

There are critical questions, however, that the authorities need to answer. Despite the robust intelligence infrastructure that the country has, how was the possibility of such a shootout and siege missed? How could the weapons be used in open public places without the attackers being detected? Why did it take the fire brigade 30 minutes to reach the Taj? And lastly why was media allowed to come in close proximity of some of the attack sites, such that forensic evidence could have been destroyed?

Yet again our city of dreams has been invaded and our attitude remains unchanged. We are still looking for a scapegoat to pass on the blame to. But it is high time that we realize that it is only collective responsibility and joint accountability that will lead to a meaningful fight against terrorism. In the absence of this we remain a vulnerable and ready target for those who want to create chaos and disrupt lives; more than they already are.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Economics of Education

Professor King of East London University turned Halloween 2008 into a “Death of Capitalism” party but he is probably celebrating a little prematurely. Like the immortal Bollywood hero, capitalism has suffered incomprehensible battering, is severely injured and is hooked to enormous life support systems. However, with all global experts aiding resuscitation efforts, recovery is now visible; albeit sluggish. Just like the Bolllywood film, which, without the miraculous recovery of the hero would be a big box office flop; normal life in most of the world today will deflate without the existence of capitalism.

Capitalism has permeated our lives to an extent where most of our actions depend on their economic consequences. This includes even the most basic of human necessities such as access to education. In India for example we permit child labour with the excuse that in some cases it is the only means to help families survive. There is never a thought given to the fact that in addition to employing the tiny hands, the mouldable brains could be simultaneously nourished at the work place. But in the guise of practicality (i.e. economic gain), idealism is in hiding; setting lower benchmarks for the society. And we are thrilled at achievement of the mere stretch of our hands needed to touch these low ceilings.

Thus it is heartening and inspiring to know that the Indian parliament has finally (after six long years) passed the Right to Education bill. Now the state is not only guaranteeing free education to all children between the ages of six and fourteen, but also taking accountability such that a legal action is possible in case a child is wrongfully denied access to schooling. Without diluting the original draft, the bill also requires doing away with donation, capitation and interviewing the child or parents as part of a screening procedure. On the face of it, this seems to be a very fair enactment of a fundamental birthright of children.

There is also a requirement for private schools to reserve 25% of the class capacity at entry levels for the disadvantaged children from the neighbourhood. Now this makes complete sense as opposed to the caste based reservation that exists at the under and post graduate levels in India. The Right to Education bill seems to be aiming at creating a level playing field by providing an equal opportunity to all children and hopefully the government will supplement this in the coming years with financial aid for the meritorious but financially challenged pupils. The current “quota system” on the other hand is a blatant exploitation of the prevalent illiteracy to gain electoral votes.

Coming back to the basis of today’s society, the effective enactment of this bill can have far reaching economic benefits for the country. The theory of economics has for long been a proponent of increase in productivity as a means to economic prosperity. The first step in increasing productivity is increasing education levels. This is proven in examples of both Tamil Nadu and Kerela in India[1]. Literacy rate in Kerela is close to a 100%. The availability of skilled workforce in Kerela has earned it the number 5 position in the country in terms of investment attractiveness and infrastructure penetration. This in turn makes the state the third most affluent state in India.

In the 1980s, Tamil Nadu government decided to introduce the mid-day meals in schools. While it is debatable that the introduction of the scheme was more to gain electoral ballots than to promote education, the non-bureaucratic implementation of the scheme resulted in each child in the state spending an average of seven years at school. This is amongst the highest figures in the country and has contributed to the average 6% - 7% growth of the state economy over the last decade and a half (more than the national average in some years).

These two examples give a small preview of what is achievable if the nation with the world’s second largest population can effectively implement the Right to Education bill. Add to this that the average age of the country is c. 25 years and the impact seems to be even more far reaching.

No economic growth is possible without political stability and education can go a long way in making the Indian population more aware of the realistic situation. India is a land of myriad sensitivities. Varied cultures, languages, religions and castes complicate the comprehension of the simplest of view points. Add to this the extensive illiteracy prevalent and today a potent brew is available for the country’s power hungry politicians. Creating communal tensions and using cultural biases to skew perception of the masses away from the truth is what Indian politicians are most adept at.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s (MNS) chief[2] has recently used cultural origins to create a so called “social welfare” agenda to fight the upcoming general elections. This is because probably he has no other action point on which he can sway the votes of the people in his favour. Instigating the indigenous population of Maharashtra (against immigrants from other Indian states) seems to be a low hanging fruit from which a violent and visible battle can be started. What the leadership has forgotten to highlight is that while immigration into Mumbai exists, the employment opportunities are also almost on an equal footing. Emigrating to other states in search of better livelihoods is an equal option to the people of Maharashtra. There is no law which is pro-immigrants in the state. And finally the same politicians who are crying foul against north Indians have fought previous general elections with predominantly north Indian parties to win a piece of action in the centre. But why has the common man not thought about these arguments, because his mind has not been trained to think beyond what he hears!

In a recent address Justice Shri S.Rajendra Babu, stated “It [education] emancipates the human beings and leads to liberation from ignorance.”[3] With one step having been taken in the right direction one can only hope that with increasing literacy levels, awareness permeates our social framework, such that we are no longer slaves to someone else’s ideas but we can use our own intelligence to make rationale decisions, understand our rights and acknowledge our duties. Hopefully India’s investment into education will be fair and lead us to more prosperity and stability.

[1] Source: India Brand Equity Forum
[2] Followed by the leadership of the Nationalist Congress Party
[3] Inaugural address by Justice Shri S.Rajendra Babu, Chairperson, NHRC at National Level Seminar on “Right to Education ” held on 11th and 12th September 2008 in New Delhi

Friday, 31 October 2008

The Mist and The Magic - A Question of Faith?

There comes a point in each person’s life where there is mist clouding the path ahead, and however hard one tries there is no way forward apparent to the human eye. The tumultuous market environment of the last few weeks has been one such point in the lives of a number of finance professionals. Non-existent revenue generation opportunities, endangered job situations, tanking markets and hence pensions, increased living costs, the ensuing winter – gloom and doom seems to be all around. Government bail outs provided a glimmer hope on one day but the next day the hedge fund redemptions took all joy out of the world that was only beginning to smile. When hopes came crashing down it was a sad world out there..

I was not a happy camper and the black driver who picked me up late last night from work seemed to sense my uneasiness. Adept at conversing with people in myriad moods, these gentlemen sometimes give a perspective on life which can really make one think long and hard. What was my worry I was asked. No visibility on any recent revenue generation – not to worry, many were in a worse position as they did not even have the opportunity to contribute to a P&L. Job security – well for the time being I am in safe hands, so why was I worried about three months hence. Worst case scenario – I could do the PhD I have been contemplating, start working for CNN or BBC (always an option it seems….) or go back to India and work with street children which I have always wanted to do. Tanking markets – I still have a long way to go before I need to really start worrying about my pension it seemed! That made me smile.

I was told that my current problem is that I am trying too hard to second guess God and my problem in the future could be trying to adjust to a lower pay scale maybe. The conversation ended on that note as I had reached home.

Now I am thinking and trying to understand if I am really trying to second guess God (or destiny or fate or Maktub). Yes I am, because I am scared of not achieving what I have set out to. I would like to safeguard myself and my ambitions. I would like to have a set of options available to me if things do not work out as planned. However, the more I think about the worrisome situation, the more negative and anxious I become. Anxiety yields nothing but leads to actions which are not fully thought out and hence can result in dire consequences. The sensible choice thus would be to leave the mist to its own being and wait for it to clear so that the way ahead can be seen.

The difficulty in that is that I would like to have control in the way tomorrow shapes and I would like to have made my choice yesterday. Am I being fair to myself and my ambitions with this lack of patience? I do not know. What I do know though is that it is time for me not to beat myself up for the small things in life that are not in my control. What I also am beginning to realise is that I need to have faith, faith that things will fall into place and I will achieve my ambitions for which I have worked long and hard. It is like Al said when he called last week, “it is when you start to believe that the magic beings to happen”. I hope I can truly start believing in the good as I would love to see the magic happen….Wouldn't you?

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The Indian Woman - A Perspective

India is undergoing seismic shifts which are transforming the country’s economic setup, consumer attitudes, political system and even the traditional family unit. While in most other spheres the function of most stakeholders has altered; in the case of the household it is the role of women that has experienced the most visible changes. No longer confined to the four walls of a house, a tempting description of the modern Indian woman could be - a highly educated and driven career woman, fighting neck to neck to create her place under the sun. While not entirely incorrect, this would be an incomplete description. However ambitious she may be, the Indian woman is still the strongest pillar supporting the family architecture. She still remains a mother, a wife, a daughter and a sister before embarking on the journey of realizing her professional dreams.

India has the world’s largest number of professionally qualified women
[1] and the highest number of women executives heading financial institutions[2]. With intelligent women abounding globally, it is not talent alone that has enabled Indian women to attain this distinction. It is not even that India is not a male dominated society so that women have it easier; much to the contrary actually. There are no gender biased judicial privileges that make it simpler for Indian women to scale these heights. However, in their mothers (and mothers-in-law) Indian women find invaluable and selfless contribution in running the household and bringing up children. It is the affection, devotion and stamina of mothers (and mothers-in-law) which have allowed the modern Indian woman to lead a satisfied life without compromising either her family or her career.

Co-existing with this Fortune magazine cover gracing female personalities is another segment of the modern Indian women which believes that the utilization of education, experience and exposure is most worthwhile in grooming children into becoming worthy and stable individuals. The tremendous sacrifice of these women, who give up lucrative career opportunities to provide early guidance, emotional stability and a support system, enhances the independence and intelligence of their children (as research has proven
[3]). The Indian youth owes its success and well being in a big way to the Indian mother.

It is not just as a mother that the Indian woman cares for her family. The quintessential Indian wife has always walked along side her husband partaking some of his responsibilities. It is often for this reason that the modern Indian woman works, to guarantee that there is more than ample not just for her husband and children but also for the extended family. While she works hard to bolster the family, the modern Indian woman also handles compromises and change with equanimity to ensure that any transition is smooth for the family. It is a well known fact that today’s global enterprise and pride of India, Infosys, was started with the savings of Mrs. Sudha Murty, wife of the current Infosys Chief Mentor. Mrs. Murty’s faith in her husband, her unflinching support towards his passion, and her ability to successfully run the household with a smaller financial corpus has given the world one of its leading IT and consulting firms.
[4] Not only did she provide the monetary means but in the subsequent year quit her promising job to relocate with her husband and help him in his business endeavour. No wonder they say that behind every successful man there is a woman! The modern Indian woman should be proud of herself for the same.

And while the mothers and the wives do their bits, the daughters can only learn from them. A society that has since time immemorial been biased towards the male child, is today beginning to witness an unthinkable tide. Daughters are providing for and taking care of their parents increasingly. Sullaja Firodia Motwani is an example of a daughter who is a father’s pride. Despite being born in a business family, Sullaja carved her own path and worked for a financial consulting firm in the US before returning to India to head that same company’s operations. However, when her father’s business started to see tougher times, Sullaja gave up her job and donned the hat of the co-captain in order to manoeuvre the Kinetic group out of troubled waters. She could have left the task to her brother alone and stuck to the identity she had created for herself. But acknowledging her responsibilities she stepped in and accepted the challenge.

The world talks about female infanticide, dowry deaths and female sexual harassment in India. What the world forgets to realize in the interim is that in these changing times, the contemporary Indian woman is sometimes faced with contradicting identities. While the feminist activists push her to one extreme, the tradionalist conservatives push her towards the other. The woman herself in the process is lost. However, in my opinion the identity of the Indian woman is what it always has been and can be simply described as:

"Kaaryeshumantri Karaneshudasi Bhoyjeshumata Sayaneshurambha
Dharmanukula Kshamayadharitri Sadgunmetatv hi Pavitranam
Syabharya Bhartasmanugamini Nityam Madhuvaktri Sabharya hi Bhakti"


Translated from Sanskrit in my interpretation as:

The one wise as a minister, who toils with endless energy and is the provider of food and luxuries,
The one who helps pick the right from wrong, has an endless capacity to forgive, is a collection of virtues and a pillar of purity,
The one who walks along side providing unconditional support, always has a kind word to say and is an epitome of sincerity

There remains little room for confusion now but ample for progress and prosperity.



Dedication:
This piece is dedicated foremost to my mother, a qualified lawyer and an accomplished classical singer, who gave up her career possibilities for her family. We are all indebted to her for the same. Next, this is dedicated to my elder sister who in my childhood was a second mother (much to my dislike). A very qualified dietician and a nutritionist she has decided to work only part time as her priority now are her two children. And lastly this is for my maternal grandmother, who from an early age taught me the importance of discipline and devotion.

[1] Source: www.mapofindia.com

[2] Three of the world’s largest surviving banking institutions’ operations in India (JP Morgan, HSBC and UBS) are headed by women. Fidelity Asset management, PWC and rating agency Crisil are other examples of organizations with women at the helm. Indian banking institutions such as RBI and ICICI have had women steering them for a long time now and in that respect are a global rarity.
[3] Jim Brown, Agape Press, November 14, 2005

Two new studies indicate parents might want to reconsider sending their children to daycare or preschool. In one study, Stanford University and University of California researchers found that children who spend more than six hours a day in center-based care outside the home showed poor social skills. According to the researchers, the children in the investigation showed "diminished levels of cooperation, sharing, motivated engagement in classroom tasks, and greater aggression. And in another study, this one conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a researcher found that kids who spent long hours in daycare and preschool exhibited "poorer work habits and poorer social skills through third grade." These children, according to the study, tended more than others to have trouble concentrating and completing their school work.

[4] Source: Sudha Murty’s Autobiography: “In 1981 Murty wanted to start Infosys. He had a vision and zero capital…initially I was very apprehensive about Murty getting into business. We did not have any business background .. Moreover we were living a comfortable life in Bombay with a regular pay check and I didn’t want to rock the boat. But Murty was passionate about creating good quality software. I decided to support him. Typical of Murty, he just had a dream and no money. So I gave him Rs 10,000 which I had saved for a rainy day, without his knowledge and told him, this is all I have. Take it. I give you three years sabbatical leave. I will take care of the financial needs of our house. You go and chase your dreams without any worry. But you have only three years!”

Thursday, 25 September 2008

To My Friends

Over the last few days I have tried to define friendship and have always fallen short of words. Many a great writers and poets have written about this unique relationship, however, no one has been able to render it the requisite justice. I am not sure if it can ever be expressed in entirety, what this beautiful equation brings to each person’s life.

They say that chance makes families while choice makes friends. I am not sure if that is true, as it were not my conscious selections that bloomed into my most precious friendships. In fact I think I have been uniquely lucky in the fact that kind and gentle souls crossed my life path and decided to grant me the honour of their companionship.

It has not always been camaraderie in proximity. My closest friends, in fact, are on continents other than mine. I do not see them more than once or maximum twice in a year. But it is these individuals who I count on in times of need and who have cherished my successes more than I myself. Similarly it is enough for me to read an email, a text message or hear their voice on the phone and I can tell what is their state of mind is. It is their agony which hurts me more and their troubles can make me forget mine. And it is the thought of their absence from my life that troubles me the most.

It is not months or years that have created the bonds that are so very special to me today; it is a unique connection, an appreciative understanding of the actual person behind the name. It is the implicit faith on either side that a truthful opinion or an honest emotion will not be spurned or snapped at. I am humbled by the gift that I have received from these absolutely fantastic human beings. It does not matter whether they reside in America, Europe, Africa or India. They know who they are and they know I am indebted to them. God bless them all.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Colour Blindness

We see the white, the black and the brown. And then we judge.

God must then be colour blind. He sees no colour and judges no one......

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Cain and Able?

The current economic crisis has prompted US Presidential candidate John McCain to make some very powerful statements. My favourite is the following:

"I warned two years ago that this situation was deteriorating and unacceptable," McCain said. "And the old-boy network and the corruption in Washington is directly involved and one of the causes of this financial crisis that we're in today. And I know how to fix it and I know how to get things done."

My question is, Sir if you do know how to fix it, what is stopping you from sharing the wisdom with the senior echelons of the global financial industry. Mr. Bernanke and Paulson notwithstanding, I am sure that the average American worker who you so vociferously proclaim to be the best in the world will be eternally grateful!

Now if you, the Americans were thinking if you could indeed vote for him, read the following:

"We need to set up a 9/11 Commission in order to get to the bottom of this and get it fixed, and act to clean up this corruption… They've violated the social contract that capitalism and the citizen have, and we can't ever let this happen again. I'll make sure it never happens again."

I am beginning to think that this guy might be a bigger entertainer than George Bush. Does capitalism have a social contract? And as far as his promise to ensure that this catastrophe is not repeated goes, well Sir, with all due respect I am sure you are not the only one with that vow. Global regulators have already started working towards that. Oops! You came with that wish a day too late!

Anything other trick that you can pull out of your hat today?

Beginning of the End

The City was not the same today. There was somber silence all around. Market forces had prevailed, the Fed had retreated and Lehman Brothers was laid to rest. Merrill Lynch, the largest US broker, agreed to forsake its independence in order to survive; albeit never again to be the same bull it used to be. AIG is on life support systems and Washington Mutual is fighting to live.

Two days and the world has changed. All the global financial innovation, the seemingly cavernous balance sheets and an opportunity of a life time to gain assets at deep discounts could not prevent this disaster. A look within and everyone saw their own domestic mess. It was too daunting a task to then take on an entity whose transactions cannot be understood or valued. Smug bankers who love to gloat about their deals and paychecks were left speechless and pay less. Some ironic justice on a rare bright, beautiful and sunny September morning in London.

While the US financial industry is licking its wounds, Europe should be ready for the coming onslaught and be prepared. It is not going to be fun ride from here on and there are a lot of hard lessons to be learnt. I only hope that unlike LTCM, Russian crisis and the dot com bust this tragedy is not short lived in the memory of the world. I hope it teaches bankers, corporates and the wider financial industry to control greed and the unnecessary aggression.

Canary Wharf is not the same tonight. There are no waiting cars outside the buildings that house the bulge bracket survivors. More floors are in darkness than usual and there is no one walking home late at night. The tube station is eerily quiet. It seems as if everyone and everything is pensive, except for the Reuters screen showcasing the tanking share market – a mocking reminder of what we have brought upon ourselves. Will we ever learn?

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

The Unsatiated Hunger

It happened once again yesterday. A middle aged corporate executive met me for an official meeting but did not see a professional, instead saw a woman who his manhood had given the birthright to hit on. I am not sure at what point in the meeting did I realize what was really happening but I do know that the discomfort had set in early on. His mere gaze was making me feel creepy. His smirks were sending unpleasant vibes. His handshake at the end did it all. The pervert refused to let go of my hand. With four other people in the room, he had the guts to be so blatant while I on the other hand was meek enough to wiggle out my hand, walk out of that office and not utter a word.

I was seething with anger, was frustrated with my own reaction and to some extent felt exploited. I had to talk to let the steam out with someone who would understand, someone who I trust. So I called baloo. “Not all of them are swines. Sorry you have to meet them but keep going on”, said my friend and I decided to bury the episode. While on the face of it I have buried the episode I am still thinking about it and wondering if I did something to elicit that behavior. Rationality tells me that I am a complete idiot to hold myself even remotely responsible and yet the violated me feels maybe I do need to partake some of the blame. Just the thought of it makes me feel sick in the pit of my stomach. I also know that it is my word against that of this hungry man and hence there is not much I can do. So maybe I should just forget it all like a nightmare.

What happened with me was minor and trivial compared to the agony of molested and/or raped women. Their trauma is not easily assuaged. Yet the society (eastern and western) often neglects their suffering and deems them partially accountable. Take the case of the 25-year old rape victim in the UK who was told that her compensation would be reduced 25% as she had been drinking before the assault. It took a lawyer to point out that drinking was in no form or fashion an invitation for exploitation. The girl ultimately received the compensation in entirety, however, the intermediate verdict did the work of salt in the wounds; ensuring that any healing of the scars would be more aggravating.

In a number of countries sexual assault is considered an offense only if penetration happens or in case the physical association occurs without consent. What about the cases where there is no intercourse but the forced foreplay itself inhibits the woman from seeking sexual intimacy in the future? What about marital rape or instances where the woman gives in to physical intimacy only to save her own life? And why is it that the woman who is the victim needs to answer all the difficult questions, face the embarrassment and further expose her humiliation for evidence?

The feeling of being victimized, extended emotional and physical exposure, insensitive dealings of the law enforcement authorities and the attitude of the society prevents majority of the women from speaking out about sexual abuse that they have been subjected to. The ordeal ferments within causing confidence issues and emotional imbalances. With time the anguish only worsens and the woman suffers in silence while the perpetrator goes about leading a normal life probably inflicting pain on more innocent women who cross his path.

What can satisfy this hunger of men? Is it unlimited flow of the female body in varied shapes and sizes at their beck and call? Is it easy access to anything and everything that can be associated with sex? Or is it the other extreme of starving men completely of any female association? Or should every accused be simply castrated to set an example for the others of his kind? There needs to be a solution and there needs to be more sympathy. In a society where we fight for the rights of animals, we need to find some way to restore respect for the gender responsible for sustaining human life.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Women - More experimental or simply more open minded?

According to Hog Gadling, his observations lead him to conclude that while men are either straight or gay, women tend to be more experimental. Hence his hypotheses that there could be a higher number of bisexual women than men. He asked me what my views were. Are women really more experimental?

Now, I am not the most qualified person to answer this question with authority. However, if I were to consider the driving factors of what drives men and women into relationships, then I think I would tend to agree with Hob. To begin with there is the common knowledge that while physical intimacy is typically more important for men in a relationship, for women it is emotional intimacy that is more essential. Next, there are probably more societal pressures on single women to get out of the situation than there are on men. And lastly, women can tend to have more expectations from a relationship than men.

If I take all these three factors together then I would think that in the absence of expectations being met and faced with societal pressures, it is highly probable that women enter into a relationship with their own gender as that is also more emotionally satisfying. So there is a possibility that women become more experimental. For men however, given their need for physical intimacy it would be very difficult to experiment with a gender that holds no attraction or possibility of satisfaction!

The truth none the less could also simply be that women are simply more open minded than men. Any views, ideas, research anyone?

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Abortion - Is The Timing Right?

In the twenty first century we scream about equality. Equality between races, equality between religions, equality between genders; our quest for equality is never ending. However, in some cases, while trying to empower one stakeholder we overlook another stakeholder who becomes a sacrificial lamb in the whole exercise. This in particular seems to be true in case of abortion.

I am not anti abortion. I am completely for it. Women should have the right to decide the life they want to lead, the economic pressures they want to put up with and the physical challenges they wish to endure. To that extent, abortion is fair. I also believe that every child that is born should be loved and cared for. This is not possible if the child is considered a burden even before she is born. And from that point of view an abortion is justified for a foetus as well.

The debate that I am having with myself and with my readers is not about the legality of abortion but more about the timing of abortion. Let us consider the human gestation cycle briefly. There are two clear stages in prenatal development. The first stage lasts for eight weeks, the embryonic stage. From week four to week eight there are basic organs that begin to develop. The next stage is the foetal development stage, the first four weeks of which are the ones where the foetus is most vulnerable. From week thirteen; the skin, bones and muscles start to take shape such that by week nineteen a heart beat is in place and can be heard with a stethoscope. This also when scientific research proves that the foetus becomes aware of pain, distress and suffering.

Currently in the UK abortion is legal up to the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. In the first nine weeks in fact all procedures carried out are oral and do not call for any surgery. However, from there on the “treatment” is not oral. From week nine to thirteen “suction” is used to literally suck the pregnancy out of the womb. From week thirteen to twenty-four there are varied forms of surgeries used to terminate the pregnancy. Most often this involves an oral medicine in step one and then a physical procedure in step two. This second step causes the cervix to dilate and the uterus to contract resulting in an orchestrated miscarriage. From week nineteen onwards this implies that as the uterus is contracting, there is a possibility of the foetus feeling the anguish and distress. Have we considered if we are in a position of authority to subject the foetus to this pain?

Overlooking the moral aspect of this, there are instances of late abortions in which the abortion actually results in an underdeveloped child being born who subsequently perishes outside of the womb. The child is then dismembered and disposed. This entire exercise can be a trauma for the woman undergoing the procedure not withstanding what the helpless gasping soul would go through. Are we really justified in bringing a life into this world for a few minutes only to kill it?

This was the crux of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill that was dismissed by the UK parliament. The bill attempted to reduce the abortion time limit from twenty four to twenty two weeks. However, majority of the MPs backed the twenty four week limit. The MPs deliberated and pondered and finally expressed their views. Should we women also not consider making up our minds sooner if unfortunately caught in such a situation or are we justified in taking our time to make up our minds, only to subject an innocent, vulnerable and helpless foetus to capital punishment of sorts.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

A resurrecting institution or a crumbling pillar?

Human relationships do not survive on rationale, they thrive on emotions; and binding emotions are the foundations of the most basic human relationship - friendship. The knowledge of unconditional acceptance, existence of mutual respect and trust and the presence of genuine affection. It is hard to imagine that with these ingredients in place, there would be fragility in any relationship (occasional feeling of vulnerability maybe) let alone friendship. If this foundation forms the basis of a marriage, strengthens with time and the individuals grow in tandem, why should that marriage be deemed fragile?

For one, marriage can be viewed as limiting and curtailing individual freedom. Logic nevertheless insinuates that where there is mutual respect there is space for both partners to achieve their ambitions. Unconditional acceptance on the other hand results in complementing a partner’s perceived weaknesses by lending support. Affection facilitates compromises which call for a slight challenge, parking the so called ego on the roadside while traveling on life’s journeys.

A second reason is external interference - the perception of our society on what married life should be. It could range from what the role of a man and woman in a marriage should be to how the couple appear in public to what constitutes a “family”. External interference becomes a concern when it bothers either of the two stakeholders of marriage who makes an “issue” out of this external noise. Once again, a simple view I have is that mutual respect and trust lend confidence to adopt honest sharing and aid in devising a solution that works for the couple.

Intolerance and impatience are a combined third culprit which could potentially weaken the foundation of marriage. Acknowledging that not a single one of us is perfect should ward away intolerance. Even Gandhi was not perfect! And the fact that time takes it own course should help us deal with impatience.

In the Indian context, a fourth very important factor is “arranged” marriage. In the true sense of the word, the marriage is arranged by elders of the family. Little or no choice is given to the two people expected to commit for life, on how they feel about the alliance. No argument can support that a relationship created thus is susceptible to significant weakness. This was the only route available to older Indian generations. It did lead to several unhappy marriages which continued to ferment in their sorrows due to societal pressures. However, with the current generation having a choice to pick who they want to spend their life and grow old with; with increased levels of awareness and understanding, why should the institution be deemed fragile. It should only become stronger or so I would “rationally” conclude.

I could be looking at things simplistically; however, life is what we make out of it. It is as simple as we keep it or as complicated as we weave it to become. Marriage has been the pillar of modern society for a long time, and if it has stood the test of time there must be some merit in the institution. The perception is ours and the decision to challenge our views and beliefs is solely ours. While marriage is not fragile it is not tamper proof either. But then life itself is not invincible, is it?

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Land of Jungle Raj

India is a land of contrasts. The north and the south are poles apart. North Indians are typically materialistic while the southerners are spiritual. Languages of the two regions have distinct origins, hence are entirely uncorrelated. If north Indian food is rich and spicy, south Indian food is simple and mild. Similarly, the east and the west have individual identities. The west is more industrialized than the east. While the east is mountainous and lush green, the west is a desert. The typical soft demeanour of east Indians is an antithesis to the more prevalent aggression in west India. With such disparity, I could not find one word or phrase that described modern India. That was until my current trip to the homeland.

Total chaos in Indian politics over the Indo US nuclear deal, the rampant “fix and settle it” attitude of corporate India and the complete ignorance of urban India towards civic responsibilities, highlighted the national attitude and description of India - “survival of the fittest” in a thriving “jungle Raj”.

Nuclear energy can be a part solution to India’s energy crisis. The communists supporting the coalition government, however, object to the Indo US nuclear deal on pretext of “perceived threat to national security”. Instead of devising counter proposals like mature adults, or forming an expert committee to weigh the pros and cons, the left decided to withdraw support and put the country at risk of early elections in the current difficult times. The entire melodrama was a lame means to gain much needed political mileage. Presumably the communists have realized their limitations and dying influence. If the nuclear deal is implemented and successful, the left would not only lose further ground but also a historic election propaganda suggesting all that is foreign is bad. The ensuing horse trading prior to the parliamentary vote of confidence was bewildering. Money was distributed like candy; imprisoned parliamentarians were called to support their factions and blatant opportunistic defection transpired. All in an attempt to retain power and survive! This crude “power hungry" attitude has made us the laughing stock of the world. But do we care?

As long as there is economic advancement at individual level there is little concern for the image of the country, inclusive growth or even working with foresight. We are content in being a reactive society rather than being proactive people. India is predominantly an agricultural economy, however, little has been done to empower farmers, while IT sector for example gets unessential support. Finally, a huge “compassionate” effort was made in the form of the farm loan waiver program in the last budget. More of an attempt to win votes keeping in mind next years’ elections! There is an upcoming sector, however, which could make a difference – the retail sector. At a recent conference, I asked a panel comprising of senior executives of leading Indian retail chains, on how they could help farmers and improve their lives. The answer was crisp and clear. While cooperation between the corporate and the farmer could prove productive, since it does not make sense for the bottom line yet, there is no point in making the effort. Simple analysis shows that a little time, effort and money invested today would help the retailers going forward – reduce dependence on imports, increase sourcing mix, ensuring quality etc. At the same time it will spread prosperity to the grass root level. However, with just the short term in mind there is little that is deemed fit to be done.

When the crunch time comes and there is realisation that something should have been done in the past, Indians have a convenient trick at hand to use – “settle” the issue and fix the problem ostensibly. That is why reliable “relationships” with bureaucracy and judiciary are paramount to succeed in corporate India. If required environmental clearances have not been obtained and the concerned entity is pulled up, it is only a matter of time and a few bank rolls that the enquiry is withdrawn. When an ostentatious amount of money is raised via a ridiculously priced IPO; bankers, regulators and lawyers all keep mum despite glaring absence of any bankable asset to lend value to the project. The clout of the promoter prohibits anyone from speaking their mind and the fee earned is another reason to stifle speech. When post IPO the share price crashes, in a grand (“face saving”) gesture the promoter “dilutes” his own holding by a meagre 3% and conducts a bonus issue. If the investors were purely institutional accounts I would have said well too bad they knew the risk they were undertaking. With substantial retail participation, there needs to be some more prudence adopted. Or will we protect investors only once another stock market scandal surfaces?

There is an absence of independent regulators and think tanks in India. Media and journalists are neither incentivised nor encouraged to build awareness and rouse public discussions. In fact even the educated population enjoys reading Bollywood gossip more than grasping the fundamentals about national economics, policy, politics and security. We seem to be content being a nation that works in hindsight and not with foresight. How then do we propose to grow and become a world leader? Or is it just more talk without substance in the typical Indian fashion?

Monday, 21 July 2008

It happens only in India

India is in dire need of bridging its power deficit gap which could potentially undo all the progress the nation has made to-date. Collaborating with foreign partners on nuclear technology transfer can be a big boon. The left in India, however, disagrees. It is strange but true. The people’s welfare party of India, the left, is not thinking for the people. It is not thinking of the long run. With the government deciding to go ahead with the US nuclear treaty, the left has pulled its support provided to the current coalition government. Result – a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha tomorrow.

Scenario one: UPA wins and the staus quo remains. However, needing 272 votes, it is unlikely that the UPA government will survive.

Scenario two: UPA loses and there are early elections. In addition to UPA, India loses as in these difficult times attention is shifted from policy making and decision taking matters. There is a drain on the exchequer which only widens the already increasing deficit.

The elections could get the Congress led government comes back to power. Great, once again status quo can be reinstated and the tax payer’s money was only wasted as it is not worth more than water down the drains. However, another unlikely outcome given the current environment of increasing food and oil prices and the lack of support currently being extended to the United Party Alliance (what spectacular unity indeed).

A more probable outcome is another hung parliament with a more fractured coalition. Most likely candidate to lead the new coalition government for India – Mayawati, the erstwhile leader of the “downtrodden”. Does her gang of warlords comprise the new generation think tank that the country needs to leap into another era of growth? Not by any stretch of imagination. If she continues in power then Indians need to brace themselves and prepare for what could be a roller coaster ride. However, once again, in the game of Indian politics, a high likelihood exists of Mayawati government being derailed 6 – 8 months in their seats of power. Having been the Prime Minister, Mayawati would not be able to reclaim her position as the chief minister of her home state Uttar Pradesh (the most populated state in India and hence one with the highest representation in the Parliament). Eliminating a long standing opponent would be a great tactical move by the Congress. However, this would call for another round of general elections and more water down the drain!

While politicians win and lose, the convicted vote for the no confidence motion from their prison cells, the lay man; the most affected person can only wait and watch. So what if she lives in the world’s largest democracy. She, the “proud and educated” Indian citizen has to learn that electoral politics win over electoral welfare any and every day. Such is the state of a shining nation! Some things can happen only in India!

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Has India Really Arrived?

The July 9th edition of the Economist carried an article with the title “Overconfident India”, claiming that “Indians are complacent about the perils of multi-lateral diplomacy, and much else”. The article which had a very condescending tone evoked a variety of responses from the Indian diaspora in London. There were some who felt that recently the Economist has taken a holier than thou approach towards emerging markets (recently the publication carried a similar article on Russia) which should soften. A few opined that the general judgemental nature of the bi-weekly magazine is on a rise and creating a bad taste in their mouths. Strangely some people I met were indifferent to this article as in their view it made no difference what the Economist had to say, India had arrived. And then there was a bunch, admittedly a minority, which did think the article was based on strong arguments and stating only the obvious albeit a little too abrasively.

After having read and re-read the article and having discussed it with a number of people, I have been trying to figure out where is it that I stand. I am not sure that the tone of the article is acceptable but then the truth of the content cannot be ignored either. As difficult as it is for me to admit, I have to be truthful and say that I do believe that we Indians have let the bull markets drive our confidence to a point where it is now bordering on arrogance. Like the group of indifferent Indians we would like to believe that India has arrived on the global map and we can demand the moon and the stars and the world should deliver.

However, is it really true that we can still tempt global investors to pump their money into our country which desperately needs foreign investment? Is FDI in India still as viable an opportunity? Will FII money get the same returns in India as opposed to say the Middle East? Has India Inc generated sufficient confidence with investors to back them in difficult times? Have our regulators worked with a larger view in mind? Is our legal framework strong enough to handout timely judicious decisions? These are questions that need some honest answers in order for us to be able to really review as to how truly India has arrived.

In the last few years, it is a fact; India has received a record amount of foreign investment. While lower than some other emerging markets, the capital inflow into India had been rising until the credit crunch started. However, if one inspects more closely, most of that investment came as all global investors wanted a piece of the action. The numbers also justify this. From April 2007 – March 2008, while the FDI in the country was c. USD 29.89bn, net FII into the country was also similar at c. USD 29.40bn. In fact this FII figure would have been higher had the market not tanked in 2008 when foreign investors were net sellers of c. USD 10.64bn in the months of February and March. Hence my conclusion that investors came into India to gain from an upward momentum in the stock market not with an intention to invest from a long term basis. This in itself should indicate that we as a country have not arrived. People are not buying into our long term strategy yet.

An infrastructure deficit country, representing a USD 500bn opportunity in the next four years, India should be able to attract a lot more FDI. What is rather interesting is that the highest FDI has come into the services sector (financial and non-financial) which is almost 2.5x that of infrastructure inflow. In fact the cumulative FDI figures from April 2000 – March 2008 indicate that the most attractive investment proposition has been the services sector with 22.64% (financial and non-financial) share of the entire pool, with infrastructure accounting only for 9.35%. There has to be a reason for foreign investors not putting money into Indian infrastructure. Yes, initially infrastructure was a closed sector; however, even with 100% ownership being permitted the sector is not attracting investors. Is it the absence of independent regulators? Is it the fear of governments not being able to fund annuities? Is it the absence of quality strategic partners? There needs to be a reason for this slow moving inflow. And we need to address this. In the absence of a domestic corporate debt market and limited availability of bank funding currently (both domestically and internationally) are we planning to fund the entire spend via equity markets, PE funds and sovereign reserves?

Well it can be proposed that infrastructure and FDI represent areas where interest is just beginning to develop and so over the coming years there is tremendous potential. I will buy that for a while. Let us turn our attention to India Inc in that case and see if we as a country have given the world enough confidence to invest in our propositions because that is the key to unlocking the dollar inflow. Indians are well known for their entrepreneurship and that has never been of any concern. However, corporate governance in India has questionable for quite some time now. To quote our premier Dr Singh from his recent (July 01, 2008) speech at the Jubilee year celebration of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, “….I do not find adequate attention being given to corporate governance. Unless Indian firms come to be recognized world wide for good corporate governance they will not be able to compete globally in an increasingly interdependent integrated world. In the era of protectionism few bothered about corporate governance and transparency in accounting and management. Such laxity, however, is no longer possible.” For the head of the nation to say this is publicly indicates that corporate governance is indeed an issue which needs to be addressed. The question is how are we addressing this.

Corporate governance depends on the commitment of managements towards integrity and transparency in business. The legal support provided by the judiciary also goes a long way in determining corporate governance standards in a county. Most of our businesses are promoter backed businesses with decision centres being at the helm of the family. While professionals are employed, in a number of cases, these individuals do not have the authority to make judgement calls. Why talk only about the corporates. Even Indian banks (public and private sector) which have offshore branches have a system where by all decisions are made by the same central committee in India. This decision making process behind closed doors does not suggest sufficient transparency. With a lack of autonomy and accountability it is difficult to retain talent which impairs management quality. With families owning majority of the voting rights in corporate India, sometimes via cross holdings, achieving an impartial vote is difficult. Concentrated shareholding also greys the area between generating shareholder value and creating personal wealth. It becomes even more critical, in countries like India, for the law of the land to protect rights of the shareholders. The English common law legal system, which India follows, could come to our rescue here. India in fact ranks highest in the shareholders’ rights index with a score of 5. However, the rule of law index which measures the implementation of written law shows a different picture. India ranks 41st out of 49 countries ahead only of Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Indonesia, Peru and Philippines. In fact our judiciary has limited capacity to deal with securities cases. While High Courts of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkatta and Chennai are equipped to deal with such cases, they can only deal with the cases that belong within their territorial jurisdiction and only if the claim is above a certain threshold.

India’s ranking in the global corruption perception index is not spectacular either. As a nation we rank 74th, down four positions from 2006. That does not sound like progress. In fact Transparency international reports that Indians below the poverty level cough up almost INR 9bn annually to pay for basic necessities such as electricity. In addition, recently the attitude of the Indian government toward the German government offering free information on un-accounted money belonging to Indians, lying in Liechtenstein, has raised eyebrows. While other nations have taken the information provided, Indian government has taken no action and only maintained silence. This does not speak well about our attitude towards transparency and curbing corruption.

Corruption can be cleansed with time and corporate governance can be developed with time. These arguments could be put forth. Well then let us see how our regulators stack up. As opposed to dealing with one or two regulators, Indian corporates need to deal with the government of India, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). While the government formulates big picture policies, the RBI and SEBI are responsible for implementation and execution. There is a clear lack of co-operation and co-ordination between the government and the regulatory bodies. Take for example the 2007 budget speech of the finance minister. He announced that post the February 2007 budget, short selling for institutional investors would be permitted. There was no action taken by SEBI until late 2007 when it was announced that short selling would come in effect on 21 February, 2008, however, there is still no sign of this being put into operation anytime soon. Similarly, the same budget spoke about exchangeable bond issuance being permitted. The RBI published the guidelines only in early 2008 and even then the execution framework has not been detailed. For a country that is looking to invite investors these delays just seems too long and irresponsible. And while these are just two instances, many more such examples exist. Investors do not wait for anyone but the right opportunity and if when the cash is available our policies are not, the country will lose out as it has in the past. In fact with multiple bodies governing inflows into India, it is already tedious to set up vehicles investing in the country.

When investigated closely, there is not a single stakeholder of the Indian economy totally developed and ready to take on responsibilities and accountabilities full on. There is still a long way to go for each party involved. How can we then claim that India has arrived?

India is indeed on a growth path, a path that will lead us towards prosperity. However, it is na├»ve to assume that we have arrived simply because we have been seeing witnessing inflows of capital. It is presumptuous and pretentious. Since the economy has only opened 16 years ago we have only started seeing the colour of money in the recent times. This does not illustrate our supremacy in any way. If we want to continue on the growth path then as a country we need to come out of the current very difficult environment. The global financial markets are in turmoil. Domestic inflation is increasing rapidly caused by the rally in oil prices. A net importer of oil, with subsidies on oil, Indian deficit is only widening. To curb the inflation we need to increase domestic rates which in turn will slow the growth. And a net import economy we have a weak rupee (the rupee depreciated c.9% since Jan 2008) which does not bode well again does it? Let us not forget that we also need to fund the rising food costs and an upcoming election which will eat into the exchequer’s reserves. These are difficult times. Times which call for prudence and perseverance. Times which call for collective measures to be taken. It is high time for India to wake up and smell the coffee!

Friday, 11 July 2008

The Sound of Music

Music has an uncanny ability to simultaneously enthrall and empower the listener. Then be it imagery or be it prose, the thought process becomes crystal clear. Most of us have experienced this at some point or the other. This evening while talking to a Romanian friend I had this realization all over again. He has been listening a lot to Indian classical music these days. In his words it helps him “structure his thoughts” and focus on his thesis. Strangely enough as I write this piece I am listening to a recording of Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on the MohanVeena (an adaptation of the Hawaiian guitar). If I were to think back, I have always listened to music while studying, working with spreadsheets or doing anything that requires concentration and focus.

Music in Indian mythology has been granted divine status and it is said that the laws and forms of music were first revealed to sage Narad. Maybe this is why it is so closely related to meditation and relaxation? The early recorded origins of Indian classical music can be traced back to the Samveda (one of the four most ancient holy Hindu scriptures). Today, Indian classical music has two different and very distinct forms – Hindustani which is a North Indian style and Carnatic which is the South Indian technique. Both forms of the art have their roots in the Natyashastra, a music treatise written in the Gupta period of Indian history (circa 320 – 550 AD). The main principle of these art forms is the raga or the melody formula. Each raga has a distinct set of five or more notes to be used in a distinct order. While there is quite an emphasis on vocal music in both styles, in Hindustani music each raga has a prescribed time or season. Carnatic ragas do not carry along any such prescription. Over the course of history, Hindustani music has been substantially influenced by Persian culture whereas Carnatic music has retained most of its original form.

Along with the Persian influence in the art form, Hindustani classical has also inherited some musical instruments from Northwestern Asia. Two key Hindustani classic instruments with their origins in Persian art form are the sitar and sarod. They are also among the most popular string instruments in Hindustani music (while the violin and veena are more popular in Carnatic music). I must admit that I am quite partial to both the instruments and in particular to the sitar. London being such a global city offers a number of opportunities to listen to great maestros playing live. One such rare and unique occasion was a fusion performance by Ustaad Nishat Khan on the sitar and the world renowned Paco Pena on the guitar. The soft and soothing sitar with the impassioned and strong guitar seemed to intrigue not just me but a whole host of Londoners from varied cultures and myriad walks of life. The event saw an almost packed house at the Royal Festival Hall.

Ustaad Khan played the sitar in the Hindustani style accompanied by the tabla (Indian percussion instrument) and Paco Pena played the guitar in flamenco style along with the bongo and a vocalist. Each expert retained the sanctity of his own style and played individually to begin with, introducing the instruments. After having provided an initial flavor of the two forms and the characters of the instruments, the two maestros took off together to create blended music which seemed to be an independent art form in its own. The two percussionists seemed to be in perfect synch with one another as was the vocalist with the other four musicians on stage. There was not one person in the audience who wanted the performance to end and when it did there was a huge applause for an encore. The artists gratified the audience and what ensued is unforgettable. The sounds of the sitar brought to life the image of a stealthily flowing waterfall and the accompanying guitar brought the warm rays of the sun. The percussion instruments filled in for the blowing breeze and the vocalist stepped in for the chirping birds. It was a gripping and unique experience. The fact that I remember the sensation in the auditorium after all these months should indicate how thrilling the experience was.

I have yet to encounter another art form with such an ability to transcend all barriers and touch the inner chords of millions of hearts. Nothing can bring a smile on the face of a Londoner like the street busker plucking away at his guitar in the middle of the night. There is no alternative to jazz by the canal on a warm summer evening. There is no substituting Beethoven by fire on a cold winter day. And nothing can take place of Ustaad Zakir Hussain playing the tabla with Shivmani on the drums while the clouds thunder in the dense Mumbai monsoon. Music is universal and without boundaries. It needs no language, cast, color or race; it is simply the sound of music and is happy to be so.

PS: This has to be a coincidence. Just yeaterday I wrote this post and today I was introduced to one of the newest inventions in the world of music. It is a Swiss instrument called the Hang, invented in 2006. While modelled after percussion instruments it also has melody. The lower notes sound like as if the Sarod is being palyed and there is an element of the South Indian ghatam as well

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

In Vitro Financing

There was a news article this morning, which I read (courtesy Mr. Cold Caller) with much amusement. Apparently a seventy year old woman in Uttar Pradesh (a Northern state in India) gave birth to twins. The new mother and her husband (a poor farming couple) have two married daughters and grandchildren. However, they were so desperate for a male heir that they took a bank loan for IVF treatment and surprisingly they found a bank ready to grant them such a loan! And here we are racking our brains because of sub-prime! I would really like to know which bank at what terms dished this loan. Will never ever invest my money in that bank at least!

Anyway, coming back to the point. So the IVF treatment has resulted in the couple being blessed with twins (“bhagwan jab deta hai to chappar phad kar deta hai” i.e. when it rains it pours!), a boy and a girl. The couple’s happiness knows no boundaries as their life long wish of having a son has been granted. Now they have someone to look after their property after they die; someone to carry on the family name. But pray I ask who will look after this precious son if the parents were to leave planet earth before the kid turns a teenager? More importantly who will repay the IVF treatment loan? The son? How? By selling the precious property he was born to protect?

It does take all kind of incidents to make life so interesting and spicy! Cheers!

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Mama Mia Here I go Again.....

Ever so often friends visiting London want to know which musical they should go for. If it is their first musical experience I instantly recommend Mama Mia. It is a musical based on the music of the Swedish pop group of the seventies, ABBA. Mama Mia is one of the few musicals which makes everyone smile and come out of the theater dancing. Meryl Streep in a recent interview mentioned how she had taken a bunch of children to see the show two days post the 9/11 twin tower attacks. In her words the musical had such an impact that everyone felt elated post the show and more than the performance it was the music that had touched people.

I have always been partial to ABBA music as I grew up listening to the songs. Even today I remember the lyrics of most ABBA songs. My first stage performance was a rendition of the very soft ABBA song “I have a dream”. Initially I liked the songs for their cheerfulness. As I grew older I began to appreciate the melody of some and later the lyrics of still others. Every ABBA song has something unique about it. “I have a dream” is a song about hope and following your dreams. It has beautiful lyrics. “Dancing Queen” has beats that wants everyone to put on their dancing shoes at that very moment. It is contagious. “Chiquitita” is a song about friendship and understanding. It lends support. “Lay all you love on me” is an ABBA song that talks about unashamed love. It is a great humming tune. And finally one cannot forget “Thank you for the music” which I think is a great homage to music. I can safely say that whatever the mood there is an appropriate ABBA song to pep you up or broaden your smiles.

Mama Mia, the movie, released in the US yesterday and for some reason I was under the impression that it had released in the UK too. I wanted to catch the first show of the second day. When I realized that the movie releases in the UK only next week I was quite disappointed and in order to make up for my disappointment put on my ABBA Golden Hits CD. I was listening to ABBA after ages and it made me realize how powerful this music is.

ABBA is probably one of the few pop groups to have gained universal praise and acceptance. Even 25 years after they split, the group is popular from the US to Australia and with all age groups. There are at least two movies made inspired by the group’s music and now the musical has been made into a Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. The number of documentaries (on the group) telecast is innumerable. The musical is also amongst the most popular ones running to packed houses daily, forget getting discounted tickets. ABBA is a rare phenomena and one I am very thankful for. If you have not had the chance to experience it, watch the movie. I am certain you will not be disappointed.

PS: Some my personal favourite musicals (other than Mama Mia)
1. Phantom of the Opera (an absolute classic)
2. Lion King (very different and a unique experience)
3. Blood Brothers (absolutely fabulous music and performances)
4. Les Miserables (grand sets and production value)
5. We Will Rock You (based on the music of the legendary Queen)
6. Mary Poppins (no longer playing in London)
7. Footloose (no longer playing in London)