Thursday, November 10, 2016


After the two shocking events I wrote about yesterday – election of Trump and demonetisation of 500/1000 rupee notes in India – my mind is searching for answers, which are hard to come by. My post about the latter has invited a lot of comments from friends and trolls, praising the PM for his bold move, overnight transformation of the economy, et al. A lot of people are put to needless harassment and loss and people in well-paying jobs are saying: it’s for the good, so grin and bear it. So, you, urban middle-class office workers, what do you know about the rural villager who has to walk a few kilometres to the nearest bank, and, when there, he is handicapped as he doesn’t know how to fill in a form? We are living in frightening times where every day brings some new revelations, or, news of revelations not made. Therefore, here are some rambling thoughts on democracy and development.

When you dig deeper, you find that the malady lies buried down in several layers of a deep gorge of misdeeds in this unipolar world. Is there a disregard for democratic norms? Is there a lack of proper understanding of how democracy works? Was democratic institutions compromised? Is the one who is better at compromising democratic norms the winner in an election? If so, what have we done to safeguard democracy? Is communism the better alternative, in a world where the world’s leading communist countries have turned capitalists with a vengeance?

It’s a fearful world we inhabit. First let me deal with the election of Trump to the highest office of the world. There were allegations of Russians having hacked into Clinton’s emails. It’s quite possible. Maybe, even Clinton had rigged the Democratic nomination to be the nominee. As I said it’s a fearful and distressful world we inhabit. The winner could be the one who knows how to subvert the democratic process. As the Wikileaks revelations reveal the world is not a safe place for governments and corporations anymore. However, the Wikileaks revelations came too late, didn’t it? By the time it came out everything was over. Anything could happen today. We are probably experiencing the first shocks of this horrid future as demonstrated by recent incidents.

There’s no doubt that the America (By America I mean the U.S.A.) that stands for truth and democracy may be truly compromising its democratic ideals. To get ahead it is willing to sacrifice anything, as Obama’s support for fracking and the Keystone pipe line shows. Around the world also, America says it has interests, meaning private business interests, not interest of a free and democratic world. The point is, America is no longer interested in propagating its democratic ideology, nor is the leadership here in India, as seen by the oppression of minorities in recent times.

In its quest to be a world economic leader, China has created one of the biggest commercial-industrial complexes in the world, leading to pollution of its air, water, and cities. We have to ask ourselves if this is the development we want and aspire for. Our present dispensation wants to follow the path shown by China, i.e., development at all costs: smart cities, superfast trains, industrial corridors, exploitation of earth for minerals, etc. There are some pitfalls here, which we aren’t aware of.
After plundering its countryside for coal, iron, copper, gold, and bauxite, China is aggressively seeking mining licences in Africa and less developed economies. At the forefront of development, China is today the world’s largest economy and is increasingly being belligerent militarily also. And, discreetly, America and Russia are partners in China’s growth.

Meanwhile, the vast military-industrial complex in America keeps wars going on in Asia and other parts because it’s in their interest to do so. There used to be a sacrosanct rule that militaries will not attack civilian targets and places where people lived. These days, wars are going on in city neighbourhoods putting the women and children there to unnecessary trauma as the wars in Homs, Aleppo, and Mosul in Syria show. Soldiers and militia-men are pictured blasting whole towns and neighbourhoods.

America is perhaps one of the few countries where arms can be manufactured and exported to foreign countries freely. There is the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) by which the President can stop export of arms, but it’s rarely enforced, because, as often seen, the President himself acts as the salesman for American arms. There are curbs on exporting arms to groups who are of an extremist ideology, but these rules are conveniently overlooked. The military-industrial complex and its lobbyists see that the flow of arms to even extreme groups is maintained.

In India, when we have development as the foremost ideal to generate jobs, we tend to overlook the pitfalls into which America and China fell. We are following them in the mad scramble for development, giving mining rights in our pristine lands to Chinese corporations, buying arms from America, and generally revelling in our new friendship with America. But, do not forget, America only has interests, meaning business interests. Once this is kept aside America will consider India on par with Pakistan, even favour the latter.

America is a big user of biotechnology. Many believe that biotechnology is an advancement of science and its use can alleviate world hunger. In fact, this fallacy has no basis in truth. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may give marginally increased production for a few years, but take a heavy toll on the soil on which cultivation is done. The pesticides that form a part of GMO-based cultivation have been proved to cause cancer and birth defects. American corporations have used biotechnology with disastrous results in the developing world, spreading poisonous pesticides, giving birth to mentally-challenged children, and increasing the number of sick people in the world.

The powerful GMO lobby in the US can bend laws to their advantage, and appoint chairmen to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) which regulates biotechnology. Over the years, it has been found that top executives of GMO companies are appointed as chairmen of FDA because, ironically, they are experts and have the knowledge. They, in turn, turn a blind eye to the doings of GMO corporations with the result that today harmful carcinogens like Glyphosate are widely used in America. Obama assumed office with the promise of labelling GMO products on their covers, but, as he remits office, he has signed into law, a proposal that precludes the labelling of GMO products.

The GMO lobby sees India as a big market and is waiting to introduce their products through legislation in India. The danger to India is that GMOs may be seen as bringing about development and, therefore, adopted, as a part of the development agenda. So also is the condoning of the demonetisation of 500/1000 rupee notes. It’s a part of development, isn’t it? It’s because of the stiff fight put up by activists such as Vandana Shiva and others that, so far, India hasn’t become a GMO-cultivating nation like Argentina. Argentina has discovered, albeit late, that GMOs are harmful because of the increasing cases of birth defects in its child population. Venezuela has totally banned GMO products from the country, after its bitter experience with its usage. In India, BT cotton is the only GMO product that has been approved for cultivation, and has caused untold sufferings to farmers in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

More in the next instalment of “Random Musings of a Solitary Walker.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Will Chicklit and Dudelit Destroy Indian Writing in English?

 The problem with IIT-ians writing these days is that there are too many of them, and mostly they are men. If they wanted to write novels why didn’t they do BA literature and an MFA? No. They would rather go to IIT where all the smart people can be found doing smart things, and then they will see what they want to do. In the meantime, they want to try writing a novel. So, they write a kind of DUDELIT – of and by dudes – akin to CHICKLIT, the genre about girls facing growing up pangs. There’s heartbreak in between terms, there are those mischievous episodes, laboratory shenanigans, wild parties where alcohol is consumed, and dread of coming exams, which all of them pass. They drift to their management jobs, family businesses or go to IIM (Indian Institute of Management) to learn management. Then they will be called the “Double Aiis”. Basically, they are very confused about their career choices.

Do Dudelit writers know that the government is subsidising Rupees two to three hundred thousand for their education every year? What has the Indian government gained by making Chetan Bhagat a mechanical engineer when he went on to become a banker and then a writer of pulp novels? Yes, he pays taxes, but didn’t he deprive a poor deserving candidate of a seat in the prestigious IIT, who would have gone on to pay taxes and invented better railway coaches, or, better toilets?

The United States has a system by which meritorious students get scholarships and grants for studying in prestigious institutions. Therefore they realise the benefits of hard work and progress in life using the lessons they have learnt using these scholarships. They do not abandon their engineering degrees, but work in them for years as dedicated engineers. Here our government – not universities – provides the subsidies, the hostel accommodation, purportedly to create excellent engineers, but ends up getting an individual who writes pulp novels.

So what does it all say to those beholden readers who approach the dude’s Dudelit book with a reverent look, and a feeling of trepidation? “Look we are cool. Dude, we made it. And, believe us, it’s no big deal. Most of all, we had fun.” An IIT-ian enters his career with an advantage. Irrespective of whether he has done mechanical, civil, or, chemical engineering, he is directly recruited into a management position without having to go through the grind. Yes, life is unfair. From my personal experience, I rotted in middle management jobs all my life where I did all the work and had to report to such IIM managers who didn’t know an “artwork” from a “work of art.” And when it came to promotions and increments I wasn’t given any and they became vice-presidents overnight.

There have been many novels in this genre including ones by India’s most successful indigenous Dudelit writer, Chetan Bhagat. In the US literature about the growing up pains of girls is called Chicklit, Dudelit is something similar. There is growing up pains, problems with teachers, problems with girlfriends, a bit of allusion to books and famous writers, a lot of technical stuff which a lay reader won’t understand, the heavenly tea at the nearby kiosk, and, ultimately, heartbreak.
Dudelit and its sister Chicklit have done much damage to Indian literature. They have rather successfully closed the doors for a few emerging literary writers, translators, occupying their space with titles such as “Half Girlfriend,” and “An Indian Girl.” Love and heartbreak occupies a major chunk of the narrative, though a sanitised kind of love. Now you can find novels with titles such as “Why I will always love you,” “Endlessly in Love,” and “I can’t but love you.” In other words, it’s the deliberate pandering to a low taste by publishers and their agents who deal in pure tripe. Sometimes, the dumbing down is deliberate, a lowly attempt to titillate the reader to browse through the book and then buy, as it is priced cheaply. These novels are empty of any intellectual content because they are written in a hurry and are badly edited. The authors of these books regularly appear on television shows and in literary festivals and even endorse corporate entities. Eager news channels give them that opportunity.

Reading these novels one would almost think India is a land of well-heeled middle-class people who address each other as “dude,” and “guy.” [Some also address each other as “laudey” meaning, phallus.] There would be no mention of the raging problems which can be seen in IITs like suicide and casteism. Their worlds are sequestered and the huge gorilla in the living room of poverty and environmental changes are never mentioned. Reading them you will believe love is the panacea to all ills of society. Publishers are making the mistake that Indian film industry made years ago, i.e., give the audience what they want and forget about the art of film-making and scripting.

It’s painful to see the slow decline of what authors such as Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai, Kiran Nagarkar, Shashi Deshpande, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Anita Nair, Amit Chaudhari, CP Surendran, et al have tried to build up, i.e., a tentative fledgling identity for Indian writing in English. I am not including Salman Rushdie, or, Vikram Seth because they are expatriate writers and their points of view are unique and extraneous. It was a small beginning which should have led to something bigger and better. One almost thought that there would be a lot of translations of prolific regional language writers and poets. But this dream remains a dream. Today, regional writers would consider themselves lucky to be published by Sahitya Akademi, if at all. Even those authors published by the Akademi have not been successful in establishing a readership because of Chicklit and Dudelit novels.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Confession of a Failed Writer

You start out with a lot of hope. Hope is integral to your belief that you can write. But the world thinks otherwise. The first thing they tell you point blank is that you can’t write. The truth, of course, is that the world doesn’t like the idea of writing. But they don’t tell you that. Instead they tell you will never make it good as a writer, so do something else. The second thing they will tell you is to choose a trade; tapping toddy, or something.

That something for me was selling space. I had set out to become a journalist as a first stop on my way to become a writer. I thought the Times of India (TOI) was the paper. I was wrong, of course. Ah, well, I have been wrong so many times. Well, anyway, TOI wouldn’t have me, in spite of the learned letters I wrote in its letters column starting with “Apropos of Mr. Hard-to-comprehend’s article of November 5, 1980.” And I thought, what the hell, I’ll become a space seller in publishing. It’s easy to get a job as a space seller because nobody wants the job. Nobody wants the job because it’s the hardest job in the world. Imagine walking into an office and asking them to advertise in your newspaper. “Tell me, why should we give you aadvertishment? From where do we get money to aadvertishe in your rag?” Suddenly you feel very small as if it would have been better if you were selling brooms, toilet cleaners, or, door mats.

I stuck it out for a while, worked for various publishing companies. It’s not difficult to retain a job in space selling, and, even rise to be supervisor. All you do is bribe your mole in advertising agencies to let you know when an ad is coming. You go there, collect the release order and wave it around in the office saying, “I did it. I sold a full page.” They applaud your patience and courage in doing a peon’s job. But deep down I was still looking for a break as a journalist.

Then wandering through life, by fluke, I become a journalist. O tempora o mores! I was sub-editing proofs in a fortnightly when the features team quit en masse and went to another fortnightly. Don’t ask me, such things happen in publishing. I was recruited to writing features. Ah, this is my dream job! That is when they say the most subversive thing that can be said to a writer. They say you can’t write to save your life. I found that it’s more difficult to hold on to feature writing than space selling. For example, sources will not talk to you, people who matter will avoid you, the high and mighty will not return your calls, and they only talk to people who are in their old-boys network. As if applying chilli paste over your wounded ego, you have a nit-picking features editor, who insults you in editorial meetings.

But I go on writing, thinking one day the big break will come. It never does. Then I switch professions. Seeing as to how much my copywriting friends are getting I switch to copywriting for corporations. I discover that I am in a vacuum, and I sense emptiness. Nobody in the organisation knows how to write a straight clear sentence in English. Yet, they all presume they are Shakespeares waiting to be discovered.

I write copy for them to approve. I wait quiveringly for their approval and their pay check. I correct their atrocious English, gritting my teeth and cursing my fate. See, they are guys who don’t know the difference between “loose” and “lose” and “your” and “you’re.” And, anxious as I am for their approval, they put me down in the worst manner possible. “It doesn’t have flow.” Pray, do tell me what is flow? Does Ginsberg’s Howl have flow? Does Kerouac’s On the Road have flow? And, you, who can’t write a decent sentence, are telling me about flow? Every time they say that the writer inside me dies a little. The writer in me fails. The dream clock ticks in reverse. I get funny demands on my time. A website has to go up in four days, a brochure has to be written and printed in two days, a brand manual has to be completed in a week. These are laborious works requiring days of proof checking. I race against time, I forget to eat my food, I binge on fast food, I drink to drown my recurring nightmares of the sales going down because the copywriter screwed up. I take my work home on Sundays and on holidays. I can’t believe I could be blackmailed into doing all this.

They heap the worst indignities on me. Even the IIT/Ms can’t write, and they lecture me on grammar. They send me emails from their blackberries, emails such as, “I thk u hv gt t ‘ll wrng. Tis don’ hv no flo.” What’s the great flow of words you are talking about? Ilyad? The Upanishads? I suppress a scream and sit in their cabins with my head down. By the time I get my pay check I am a wreck. And, I realise my pay check will not pay for lost pride, and, most importantly, will not last for the month. It won’t pay my son’s fees in engineering college. No, I don’t want him to be a writer, engineering is better. The world doesn’t need writers, they need engineers more. They give me a miserly increment while my colleagues in sales get bonuses and trips abroad. I cry silently, I despise what I have become. I become a number in their employee list, I become an inhuman resource. My teeth fall off, my head becomes bald, my skin is sallow, I get cramps in the night, and I spend days in hospital ICUs.

When my son gets a job, I give up. I have failed, but not completely. I have some fight left in me and this is what I want to salvage. I sit for hours and write, trying to get back my skill, get back myself, get back what I believe in. I pick up my pen and write and write and write; writing is my revenge. I pick up the wasted skeins of my thoughts and feelings and shape them into words. I write poems, articles, plays, short fiction, and work on a novel. That’s when I am convinced I can do it, that I can write again.