Monday, October 20, 2008

Business as usual

My mother

While the rest of the world is watching the financial markets collapse with horror and dismay, my mother is ecstatic. Her long cherished worst-case scenario has come true. Her doomsday prediction, which she has been tom-toming for as long as I remember, has finally happened.

The last major depression she witnessed was in 1929, and she has been longing for another ever since. We have been constantly reminded of those fateful years, when things were ‘not good’. Not that she, or for that matter anybody within a hundred miles of her house, held a solitary share on the NYSE, but we have not been allowed to forget that calamity. The troubled times have been made more woeful with every account. “ There were no jobs” she intoned, “and those times will come again. This is what happens when the market disintegrates. There will be no Plan B”.

She came close to realising her prophecy during the Enron crisis or the Asian currency collapse, but much to her disappointment, the markets recovered. She clucked as she watched the recovery, and continued to repeat her judgement day divination. But this crash is fulfilling her every dream. Our patronizing smiles whenever she launched into one of her horror stories have been wiped out, and replaced with an exasperated look. “ I told you so” has not been uttered, but one can see it lingering on her lips. “ The rupee will also collapse…like a sack of flour” is her next bet. I am not in a betting mood, so I gave it a pass.

Unfortunately her foretelling powers do not extend to alternate means of investment. Whenever she is asked that question, she simply shrugs and refuses to be drawn into the discussion. According to her even the FD in a safe-as-houses public sector bank is not safe enough. One would think she lost a fortune when the “Bank of Lahore” collapsed, but I know for a fact that nothing of that sort happened. I mean, the Bank may have foreclosed, but there was never any of my mum’s money in that bank. Else I would have seen some of it.

Odds and Ends

Aravind Adiga wins the Booker for The White Tiger

Delhi Chronicles

The Forgetful City

I normally do not like to write on current affairs as the events are too close for me to offer any dispassionate comments. But I realised that if I wait for too long, the city just forgets.

The bombing of Delhi market place in late September is stale news already. The newspapers and the media are now busy with the latest flavour of the month- the financial meltdown. For the city this may be good and bad.

In a time honoured tradition Delhi seems to forget its dead sooner than most other cities. Going back to Babur , when the plunder of Delhi seemed a routine affair, today’s disasters too, sink quietly into history. After a few days of hullabaloo, people are back to their mundane lives. The fear of the terrorists seems to have a longer affect on my wife though; she is still adamantly refusing to give permission to the girls to see a movie in a hall. Well, she will get over it soon enough.

Is the same true about other cities like New York or London? It seems not. London still remembers 7 September, and nobody is allowed to forget 9/11. The residents there have ceremony on the day; which is very poignant to watch, even over the telly.

There are no such ceremonies for the dead in Delhi though. Last time a bomb attack in Sarojini Nagar market took many innocent lives, and a memorial was put up in the victims’ memory. But I do not see that day being remembered by the media any longer. It is business as usual in the market.

On the other hand, this leads one to seek closure and carry on with life rapidly. The huge mass of people and the timeless memories of the city, absorb such tribulations, which barely cause a ripple. In a way this is a blessing, because living in this city can be trying. The efforts of making a living can be hard. So, sooner one accepts and gets along with it, the easier it is. In any case the walls of the Red Fort have been witness to much such carnage, and another one will not make its colour fade, even slightly.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tea Break

For a change I picked up a book of short stories- Saki’s. I had never read short stories seriously, and was pleasantly surprised with this form of writing. Saki writes delightfully, and the stories refuse to have a tight plot or a schedule. Some of the stories wander around comfortably, while others have a bizarre twist. They all have a comfortable, untroubled, young men with money feel about them, and remind me of similar characters and plots, as in P.G. Woodhouse books or Three Men in a Boat. The stories belong to the times when young men of means stories were popular.

Surprisingly they still strike a chord today. Is it nostalgia for “better”, less troubled times? Or is it Saki’s satirical look at the high and the mighty resonates well with today’s social milieu? In that sense they do a better job of escapism than some of the modern story tellers. The modern novelist’s uncomfortable plots do impinge harshly at times, and Zoe Heller pontificates, “If you want to be comfortable go to a cocktail party”. The language Saki uses is not easy though. A formidable vocabulary and dramatic sentences snuggle easily with smooth narratives to make a compelling read.

Saki (real name Hector Hugh Munro) apparently derives his pseudonym from the Arabic word for the “the cup bearer”. Of course, we are well aware of the use of this word in many Bollywood dramas.

My favourite story is The Unrest Cure, and though it seems to be a bit on the slap stick side, I thoroughly enjoyed it. A story of an old couple who express a need of some excitement in their life, get dollops of it when Clovis, a Bertie Wooster (remember P.G. Woodhouse Jeeves stories?) kind of character, decides to do them a favour. A laugh a sentence kind of story- right up my street.

Other stories are more sombre, and Sredini Vastar, is in that genre. A story about a boy and his pet polecat, where the bad aunt gets her just dues. A riveting read, but at the end I was a little disgusted by it. It supposedly appeals to Englishmen, as it is rated as “one of the best in English Literature”; but I was kind of put off.

The rest of the stories did their job of keeping me well entertained, and I would definitely recommend this book for a rainy day, or when you need more courage to plunge into a serious read.

So, thanks Saki, for a nice teatime break.

Odds and Ends

Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms ,

I know it is a surprise that you are hearing from me. But I assure you that you have never been far away from my mind. I have constantly thought about you when I was dying, and till my last breath I kept you in my mind.

( Note that this e-mail is NOT written from Heaven, but was composed just before I popped it. Please do not reply to this e-mail as I will not be there to read it. Unless you have my new e-mail address, of course)

Now that I have departed for the world beyond, you must be thinking did I care for you. I assure you that my caring goes way beyond your expectations. I have a large sum of money which I have left for the person I loved the most. Yes, you.

I insist that you should be the full owner of my estate and LARGE sum of money which I have stashed away in Nigeria. This LARGE sum of money ( $/UK Pounds/ Rs, 10,000,000) is now YOURS. YOU must accept this LARGE sum of money to show how much you love me.

I have instructed my lawyer Mr. John Smith, who is a leading Liar in London to make arrangements to send you this money. He will need a few details as listed below, before he can transfer this LARGE sum of money to you.

Your Name:
Full Address
Phone numbers
Credit Card no
CVV ( Secret number)
Credit Card PIN
Bank Account No
ATM Card No
Internet user name and password.

Mr. Smith will take immediate action after you have e-mailed these details to his e-mail :

Please also note that you also have to send Mr. Smith has to be paid a nominal sum for his efforts. So it would be very nice if you send him a bank order worth $ 100 to his Bank Account in Nigeria.

Remembering you from Heaven

Mr. Greg Norman.

Delhi Chronicles

Reading James Wood, a columnist with the New Yorker, led me to bemoan the lack of any intelligent or worthwhile issues addressed by our politicians. Not that McCain or Obama stretch one’s intellectual capabilities, but at least, they address today’s issues, and not get stuck in rhetoric. Our political parties are constantly jostling for limited space mostly around caste and religion. I am just sick of this. As a city boy such distinctions seem trivial to me. That they become matters of life and death for some seems really obtuse.

While the US politicians place the economy and foreign affairs in the centre and debate about it, in the Indian elections all one gets is vitriolic attacks on meaningless issues. At this point I expect some good citizen to stand up and say that we are ignoring the poor and the downtrodden, and they are the real issues. With respect I disagree. Don’t get me wrong. The problem exists; my objection is to how we address it. With a corrupt bureaucracy and singular lack of governance capability, the government and its myriad arms are the wrong people to address this issue. They should just get out of the way.

If one looks at the infrastructure problems in Delhi, the private sector seems to have done much better in solving them. Look at the successes:- telecom, electricity distribution, NH8 expressway and the NOIDA toll way. The metro seems to be the only success in the government’s basket, but only because the management was with a bureaucrat with an entrepreneur’s mindset. A list of area where the government seriously needs to get out is transport (despite the Green Line disaster which I attribute to the corrupt bureaucrat’s handing out limited licenses), water treating and distribution, police and electricity generation. The development of the roads needs to be given to local authorities like the resident welfare associations.

We need better politicians and bureaucrats, and not some manipulating ignoramuses who twist the system to meet their narrow interests. We need people with vision which matches today’s needs.