Saturday, December 03, 2011

On squeezed middle, occupy and bunga bunga

It seems the Oxford English Dictionary has chosen ‘squeezed middle’ as word of the year. Of course there’s the desirable kind of squeezed middle, that almost everyone in the upper middle aspires to, but the squeezed middle in the OED is sterner stuff. It refers to British Labour party politician Ed Miliband’s “term for those seen as bearing the brunt of government tax burdens whilst having the least with which to relieve it”.
Maybe the British take their taxes seriously. Here in India, of course, it’s a bit of a joke, haha. Only 33.5 million people of our 1.21 billion pay any personal income tax at all, according to data quoted by our Minister of State for Finance SS Palanimanickam in Parliament in August.  That’s 2.77 per cent of the population. If you’re bearing the brunt of taxes, like me, you should be wondering why and looking for ways to get out of bearing this brunt. Try unemployment, or a brief holiday in Tihar jail in the company of many rich and famous personalities, or both.
Some among the 2.77 per cent of us here are ‘squeezed’, and comprise the 'squeezed middle', which raises a very important question: where, in a body, is the middle located? My knowledge of biology and mathematics caused me to suspect that the middle would be sort of halfway up from the bottom...a little above waist level, generally speaking. Of course this is rubbish. In India, as we’ve been hearing expert commissions say for a few years now, somewhere between 37 and 77 percent of the population live on less than Rs 20 a day. The difference between those two percentages is about half a billion people, but hey, no one said statistics is a precise science, or that we know how to count beyond 99,999, except for tax and bribe purposes. Besides, how would we have Important Meetings without some proper sounding numbers? What would the Planning Commission do?
Even their poverty line, pegged at Rs 32 per person per day in urban areas, leaves about 30 or 40 or 50 percent of the population below the said line. Your guess on exact numbers is as good as mine, which is as good as the Planning Commission’s, because actually no one in this country knows the correct answer to this question. They ought to make it the Rs 5 crore question in Kaun Banega Crorepati and wait for the right answer.
So what I was saying is that the squeezed middle here is a part of the 2.77 per cent who pay tax. These are folks who spend at least Rs 100 a day overall, or Rs 3,000 a month each, which makes them rich compared to the poor sods who get by on Rs 32 a day. The squeezed middle is actually near the top! About ear level, I’d say.
Meanwhile a survey by a ‘wealth prospecting’ agency called Wealth X reported last month that 8,200 Really Rich People own more than 50 per cent of India’s total wealth. These are folks who own a minimum of Rs 150 crore each. They’re at the top, and the middle has to be below the top, so again, the squeezed middle is about ear level.
It’s a very thin squeezed middle, so we can safely say that in India’s gargantuan body, there’s very little between the ears.
Perhaps that is also the condition of the Oxford English Dictionary. They had stronger contenders for the global word of the year in English, but chose the one they did.
Occupy, as in ‘Occupy Wall Street’, was among the contenders. There’s plenty more force in that one. The spirit of 'occupy' is moving people and buffeting governments around the world. It’s the genuine angst that fed into the Arab Spring – remember it started with a street vendor’s self-immolation in Tunisia. His last words before he set himself on fire were reported to be, “How do you expect me to make a living?”
He was maddened by poverty and corruption after he’d had his wares confiscated by the municipal authorities.
Think of how many times a day such things happen in India. The municipal truck that comes by and steals away the street vendor’s good until he or she pays a bribe to recover’ve probably seen it happen at some point. The municipal guys, like the beat cops, are from the 'squeezed middle'. They're fighting the Arab Spring, and the Occupy.
Occupy is a meaningful word around the world. 
So is another of the contenders that lost out. I refer here to ‘bunga bunga’, meaning parties of the sort former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is world-famous for having. These involve several bare-naked ladies and quality intoxicants.
Now that’s a word with clear appeal all around the planet. Forget Wall Street...who in the squeezed middle wouldn't wish to occupy, or shall we say, squeeze into, Berlusconi's villa?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The beauty of faith and the wisdom of doubt

There’s a new study out in the latest issue of the journal Nature that says people are overconfident because it has evolutionary benefits. The study’s authors have stated, with confidence, that in the evolutionary scheme of things, in all competitive situations where there is doubt about the outcome of a contest, overconfidence is the best strategy.
I always take ‘studies’ with a pinch of salt. Given the right funding, I can confidently state that a study can prove anything. I’ve read studies that ‘prove’ that moderate drinking is good and bad, that vegetarianism is good and bad, that this food or that food makes us fat, or doesn’t, and so on.
Why, there are even studies that say human beings are responsible for global warming, and others that confidently say this is all hot air!
It seems to me that a lot of researchers are having a lot of fun proving everything and their opposites. I hope someone will fund me to study this hypothesis.
There may be something to this overconfidence study, though.
The key point in favour of overconfidence is that it propels people to attempt feats they would otherwise give up on even before starting. It makes people attempt the barely possible, and even the impossible. In many instances they perish in the attempt. In some, they succeed, and thereby make history.
The grandest stories of human achievement and endeavor are made of such stuff. If the adventurers and explorers of yore had not given in to overconfidence, they wouldn’t have pointed their rickety wooden ships at the open and uncharted seas, and set sail, guided by instinct and the stars.
That they did worked to their favour, and arguably, to ours.
A similar spirit, buoyed with a faith in divine powers, inspired and enabled our ancestors to build the great structures they did. It seems incredible to imagine that the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and all the great cathedrals of Europe were built before machines as we know them had been invented. They were all made with human and animal labour, and the most basic tools.

Today we have so much by way of technology, but nowhere in the world do we see marvels of architecture like the ones of old. In India, especially, we only see variations of ugliness and mediocrity.
A part of the failing is because of lack of vision and imagination. A part is due to lack of the kind of royal purses that enabled those ventures. And a part is probably due to lack of that spirit of overconfidence, and an erosion of faith.
Anyone who so much as suggested building a new Taj Mahal in today’s day and age would be laughed at as mad, find NGOs campaigning against them for wastage of money, and wake up to find the Income Tax and CBI at their doors.
We live in practical times. Our thoughts are of taxes and hikes, not earth and heaven.
Even practical people, however, tend to suffer from a particular delusion that affects the majority of humankind.
It is well known that most people think they are right all the time. Psychologists have been noting this for years. They even have a word for it. It’s called ‘overestimation’.
Overestimation applies especially to beliefs. We all tend to believe that our views and values are the most correct, or the theories we subscribe to, the best.
This is where overconfidence can start to go seriously wrong. It’s one thing to build a Taj Mahal or set sail upon an unknown sea. It’s another to embark upon a witch hunt.
The people who wanted to burn Galileo Galilei at the stake (he was let off but spent his remaining life in house arrest) were probably good folks with firm conviction. They truly believed the earth was the centre of the universe, and decided that Galileo, who said the sun was the centre, was a heretic. Galileo made his own position worse by supporting his fellow scientist Nicholas Copernicus’ view that the earth moves around the sun.
In the event, it turned out that the folks who had such confidence in their beliefs - the same people who built the magnificent cathedrals and palaces of Florence, and supported artists from Michelangelo down - were wrong. 
And so it goes. Even today, most of the troubles in the world are on account of people’s certainty that they are right.
The worst examples of this can be seen in fundamentalists of all hues.
For example, Osama bin Laden was a good man in his own way. He followed a certain code of conduct and fought for it in his own way.
His problem was that he believed only his way was right, and every other way was wrong. He was prepared to kill or die for it.
That didn’t do the world, or him, much good.
There may be great value in confidence and overconfidence, but there is at least equal merit in doubt.

Honest doubt is what makes science possible. It enables questioning of strongly held beliefs, and allows for modification of those beliefs over time. In science, a theory is true only until it is proved false, or partially true. That happens with even the best of theories. For example, Newton’s theory of gravitation was held to be universally true, until Einstein’s came along.
The scientific way has brought us far. It has made life much, much better for most of humankind. It has literally brought us from darkness into light.
Yet there are unintended consequences.
The scientific worldview has diminished faith. A consequence of this is that it has diminished nearly all human endeavor to the utilitarian.
Our natural reflex now is to reduce all activity to accounts of profit and loss. We only do things for comfort and material gain.
And so we are left with a world that has all the beauty and grandeur of a balance sheet.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11: The long shadow in South Asia

Today is 9/11. It’s a date charged with meaning and history. Few of us who were old enough to remember the day will ever forget what we were doing when the two hijacked planes hit the twin towers in New York a decade ago. 

I used to work for India Today newsmagazine at the time. I remember hearing of the first plane hitting the towers, and heading towards the TV a floor below to see it. By the time I got there the second plane had hit. My hair stood on end, because I realised this could not be coincidence. 

Half an hour later, the Pentagon took a hit. The US president was rushed to a bomb shelter somewhere because the Americans realised they were under attack from an unidentified foe. They scrambled their fighter jets, but the jets didn’t really know what to shoot at.

In days that followed, it became clear that the attacks had been coordinated by a group named Al Qaeda, and the name of Osama bin Laden became synonymous with terrorism throughout the world.

In the decade that followed, a lot happened. The Americans invaded Afghanistan and found themselves battling Mujahideen forces they had helped arm and train. Pakistan was quickly drawn into the conflict, and had to choose between supporting the Americans or going to war against them, and possibly India. General Pervez Musharraf quickly decided that this was a losing proposition, and so Pakistan began a painful turnaround to confront its former protégés, including the Taliban, which was then in government in Kabul.

The Americans and their western allies have managed to knock the Taliban out of government. They eventually killed Osama bin Laden too, only a few months ago. They have used targeted assassination of key figures as part of the strategy to eliminate terror attacks directed against them. 

However, Afghanistan remains a mess, and its president Hamid Karzai is by all accounts little more than the mayor of Kabul. His control does not extend beyond the borders of the capital. The American plans to withdraw from Afghanistan have come to nought. They are stuck there in an expensive and apparently endless conflict, much as the Russians before them.

The American decision to stay on for another decade in Afghanistan may have come as something of a surprise to the Taliban. 

Friends visiting from there had mentioned that the Taliban were already wondering if China would be the next to attack them. They had written off the Americans as goners.

The Americans on their part were keen to depart, because they figured they could continue the war through drones and cruise missiles. No one can actually run a government in Kabul, or Baghdad, or anywhere else, unless they have the military hardware to stop cruise missiles and drones. 

The calculation was simple: the Taliban could either strike a deal with them, and share power in Afghanistan, or continue the fight and stew.

The Taliban have apparently chosen to stew, and keep the Americans in the pot with them. 

The other folks who feel the heat from this conflict are the Pakistanis, and to a lesser extent, the Indians. Pakistan suffers more than we do because they are the frontline state in this conflict. They’ve had a proper war going on in various parts of their country these last 10 years. Their internal convulsions from this war are continuing.

Both India and Pakistan have suffered grievously from terrorism. Yet there is an element of irony in the terror tragedies that befell Pakistan. 

Their military headquarters were attacked, a naval base in Karachi was attacked, the Marriott hotel in Islamabad was attacked, to name only a few. The attackers in every instance had earlier found shelter, and even support, from elements in the Pakistani state establishment.

A lot of the monsters they created have turned on them now. And yet, elements in the Pakistani state continue to harbour and protect many of these characters. The raid that got Osama proved this beyond any reasonable doubt.

Pakistani hawks keep their pet terrorists in their protection as weapons to be used as and when needed. Osama, of course, was also a blank cheque because in the name of the ‘war on terror’ the Pakistanis got billions of dollars from the Americans. 

The weapons are used to ensure that Pakistan has leverage in bargaining with India or Afghanistan or the US.

The strategic goals of Pakistan are at odds with those of the other countries. India will not give them all of Kashmir, however much they may want it. Nor will the Afghans and Americans give Pakistan’s cronies the keys to Kabul. 

The Pakistani state is therefore going to find itself in a bind as long as it continues to desire what it cannot realistically expect to get. 

Terrorism has escaped from the camps and spread through the country. The genie is out of the bottle, and will not hesitate to bite the hand that fed it.

India, which is a close neighbour, suffers along because of the conflicting ambitions of Pakistani hardliners. The problem for India is Kashmir. Indian ‘nationalists’ and Pakistani hawks both demand the entire state for themselves. Kashmiris from the valley generally demand freedom, azadi. They have a strong sense of a unique history and identity separate from that of India or Pakistan.

The situation is complicated because the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was not ethnically homogenous. There’s Jammu, with its largely Hindu Dogra population, the valley of Kashmir with its Kashmiri Muslim population, and Ladakh with its Tibetan Buddhist population. 

On the other side of the Line of Control, too, there are various peoples in the Pakistani administered part of Kashmir and in Gilgit-Baltiststan. Jats, Rajputs and various tribal groups speaking different languages live in those areas. 

It is unlikely that all of these peoples would choose to live under the rule of Kashmiris from the valley. The demand for a united and independent Kashmir must take this fact into account. Kashmiris have to recognise that Jammu & Kashmir is also a mini India in itself.

Pakistan’s demand for all of Kashmir is even more untenable. India cannot, and is not, going to hand Kashmir over, and that should be apparent by now. Nor does the Kashmiri demand for azadi translate into Pakistani rule. Freedom is presumably not the same as bondage under a different master. 

India is the status quoist power in the equation. The Indian government and people would, in all likelihood, settle for a peaceful and democratic administration in the part of Jammu and Kashmir now under Indian control. 

The only dispute here is over the extent of autonomy, and that is negotiable, as long as it stops short of secession. 

An honourable solution can be found that would end or diminish terror attacks in India, and the painful conflict in Kashmir, if all sides back away from their maximalist positions. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sarkari style

I wonder if there is a word for fear of government offices. Google doesn’t seem to know, which probably means there isn’t. However, since this is a common condition that surely afflicts a vast number of people in India, I would like to suggest a term. In departure from the tradition of Greek and Latin roots, we could call it Sarkarophobia.
I suffer from Sarkarophobia. This is strange considering my father worked all his life for the government, and I grew up making occasional visits to his office. This was in the days before computers made their appearance on desks, so files and paperweights and cups of tea were the only objects on desks. It all seemed very innocuous.
The scary nature of the files and paperweights became clear to me much later.
I began to discover the true power and weight of these things when I came to Delhi and bought a third-hand car. I needed a driving license, so I went to the regional transport office (RTO) to apply for one. I was immediately confronted by an army of touts. Walking past these persistent individuals, I tried to find the right forms, but had to ask several people before I was even able to find the right counter to collect this from. There was a rugby scrimmage going on around it. This is not a sport I fancy, but a man must do what a man must do. I entered the fray, and eventually emerged with the form.
It demanded certain things of me that I did not possess, such as proof of residence. I did not have a ration card. I use a mobile phone and had no landline, so the phone bill was not valid proof. The electricity bills were in the landlord’s name, not mine. My rent agreement, while apparently a legal document on stamp paper, was not recognised as proof of residence.
So I did a Kafkaesque run, up and down the building from counter to pillar to post. I took two days off from work to do this and even enlisted the help of a journalist who covered the ministry of surface transport. All to no avail.
Eventually, I had to throw in the towel. I simply could not prove to the honest folks at the RTO that I actually lived in Delhi. Why this should be so important escaped me, since any driving license is valid for all of India. They would be testing me to see if I could drive, so why did it matter what address my electricity bill came to, as long as I was an Indian citizen? I had a passport to prove that!
I eventually got a driving license from my home state, Meghalaya. I have been using it to drive it in Delhi for the last 10 years. The authorities have no problem with that.
I had similar difficulty in proving I live here when I tried to change the address on my passport. I went to the passport office once, saw the scrimmage, and ran away. I went back a second time, with greater resolve, but had to go back because the queue was too long and I had work to do. I went back a third time, bright and early and very determined. The officials were on strike.
Finally, I decided the straight and narrow was not the best path to be on in these complicated times. So I got an agent. The chap took an advance and my documents, but even he couldn’t do the trick. I didn’t have a ration card or voter ID from Delhi.
The whole business has left me bitter and a little befuddled. I don’t understand: if I already have a valid passport, doesn’t it mean I am a citizen of this country? If I am, then why do I need some dodgy document to be able to merely submit my passport form? There is police verification of the current address anyway! So what’s the point of that nonsense about electricity bills and so on?
Truly, the Sarkar has a mind of its own. Or perhaps it has none at all.

Monday, March 21, 2011

99 Things to do Before the Apocalypse

by Samrat X

The world’s imminent demise has been predicted by all sorts of people down the ages, and by now there’s quite a menu of options to how it could end. Would you like to get knocked off by an asteroid or comet, sink under rising seas as polar ice caps melt due to global warming, or freeze as the next ice age comes upon us, or get sucked into a black hole created in a nuclear experiment? At a pinch, if none of this works, we could always blow ourselves to clouds of vapour in a nuclear war.

The day this will happen is well known. Please mark it on your calendars: December 21, 2012. By now you’ve surely heard of the ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end on that day.

There is, therefore, so much to do, and so little time. To make sure I don’t miss out on anything really important, I’m putting together a list of 99 Things to Do Before the Apocalypse.

For starters, I’ve quit my job and started traveling. Heck, if this world and everything on it including me is going to end up, er, ended up, I want to see it before it pops. What a waste of a world and a life it would be to die without knowing what the world I lived on is like.

Secondly, I’ve decided to spend more quality time with people I like and care about. If life is short it would be wise to spend the time in good company.

Third, I’ve decided to live without fear…to live like I’m dying. Far too often the choices we make are dictated by absurd worries. We then live pained lives trying to convince ourselves we’ve averted a disaster, or even half hoping the worst will actually occur, because we made life choices worrying it might. It’s a bit like sleeping under the bed every night because you’re afraid an earthquake might strike.

Well, buildings do need to be designed to resist earthquakes. That makes sense. Lives, however, cannot yet be designed to avert death. That is a certainty every human is born with. In other words, in the context of human life, the worst will definitely happen. The best design for a good life therefore is one that is not cut unduly short, and allows for time well spent.

Individual ideas of what constitutes time well spent may vary. However there are some things essentially human that people across time and space seem to cherish.

A good meal is one. Good sleep is another. Loving relationships come next. Time spent in creative work or work that contributes to the social good would also count for something. If you’re spending too much of your time of life on other stuff, you’re probably making a mistake. You may not get that now. It will strike you when apocalypse comes, which could be tomorrow or a year and something from now.

It is likely that in the end this doomsday prediction will prove to be as false as all the ones that have come before it. That’s great. We humans need to be reminded of apocalypse from time to time to get some perspective into our lives.

That sales figure, that assignment, that crotchety boss, that lovers’ tiff, that ego tussle…you know what? It’s probably not that important.

This is the first of my columns for DNA

Monday, February 14, 2011

Who needs Valentine’s Day?

If you’re single and attractive, every day can be Valentine’s Day. If you’re in a stable relationship, the day holds expectation but no real thrill

Are you single this Valentine’s Day? Do those red heart shaped toys everywhere look like they’ve been put up to mock you? Are you seeing only thorns in the roses being peddled? Dear friend, as the Border Roads Organisation says, fikar not. Don’t fret. You may be single but you are not alone. There are a few million of us with you, and a few million who would happily return to our ranks if only that was easier to do. This love day business is just a galumphing capitalist marketing thingamajig, and it’s worth many crores. Money can’t buy you love but it does buy the soft toy makers Mercs.

So don’t worry about V day. For starters, you need to realize that if you’re single, every day is Valentine’s Day. Just fill your heart with love and spend the day, and maybe the night, with whoever you’re feeling the love for. As long as you don’t end up hurting anyone, including yourself, doing this, it’s perfectly cool. If it’s likely to mess up your life, avoid. A mess is easy to make and hard to clear up, you know.

The pleasures of the single life are gradually being forgotten in today’s world. That’s a bit strange, given how relationships all around seem so fragile nowadays. Marriages collapse around us all the time. Relationships akin to marriage flounder before the vows. The world of those in relationships looks pretty from the outside, but is usually less cheery on the inside, teetering as it does between the extremes of stress and boredom.

Traditionally, the single life has been marked as the highest kind of life in many cultures and religions. The Buddha chose to leave his wife and child to seek enlightenment. Jesus Christ never married.

Even thinkers less divine have not been especially enamored of marriage and relationships. The great Greek philosopher Socrates was unhappily married. He had a good quip on the subject: “If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher!” He became a philosopher.

His wife must have been quite a woman. Plato, Socrates’ most famous disciple, who is said to have had some kind of affair with her, turned gay. He then advocated the view that partners of opposite sex should mate without commitment or love in order to procreate. Do it only for the species was his motto.

Till the early years of the last century, the single life was seen as a most excellent one in many places. From London to Calcutta, life after work revolved around the club, which was usually a ‘gentleman’s club’. The other leisure activities for a gentleman were to play cricket, or go hunting or shooting. Marriage and relationships were concerns for women. Real men had better things to do even when they were not exploring unknown continents or killing hapless animals. On those occasions when they felt the need for female company, they would go to courtesans. That was the custom from Paris to Tokyo to Calcutta.

Now there’s thankfully much greater gender equality, and marriage and relationships have become equal concerns for men and women. That is a good thing but there are side effects. Men in general are more soppy and needy than they used to be, and women, having discovered the joys of freedom, are arguably less interested in marriage and stable relationships. As a result, the default relationship status message now for the modern woman and man is “it’s complicated”.

That’s because contemporary notions of relationships involve far too many expectations.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “While the contemporary Western ideal of marriage involves a relationship of love, friendship, or companionship, marriage historically functioned primarily as an economic and political unit used to create kinship bonds, control inheritance, and share resources and labour.”

In the last 100 years, it’s gone from being a relationship with minimal expectations to one where even love, friendship and companionship are considered insufficient. The idea of a good romantic relationship, created by fiction, drama and poetry, is one where the lovers never cease to feel butterflies in their stomach when they are around one another. Small wonder then that these exciting relationships last the span of a butterfly’s life. Success is their death; the moment they achieve stability, the butterflies depart.

Down the ages, the lover and the husband, or wife, have always been different people.

Remember all those great love stories from around the world - Romeo and Juliet, Heer and Ranjha, Devdas and Paro? They were all tragedies. They ended very badly for the lovers.

All successful love stories end with “…and then they lived happily ever after”. No fairy tale except Shrek goes into the details of the “happily ever after”. Not much drama in, “they drank their tea, and ate their meals, and paid their bills, and remembered anniversaries, for the next 40 years”.

That’s why only new lovers in the first flush of love can be truly happy on Valentine’s Day. For those who have been in stable relationships for a long period of time, it’s another predictable – and hence unexciting - day. For those who’ve been married for a long time, it can be a bit of a bore and a bit of a chore. Both partners must play their appointed roles in the charade of expectations built by advertisements and card companies. They must buy the obligatory roses and gifts and dress up and do the usual ‘special’ things that have long ceased to be special. If the love is gone, the day can weigh heavily on the couple. If the love is still there, it’s probably not what it was initially. It’s more mature, deeper, companionable rather than incendiary.

That sort of love doesn’t need a special day.

Nor do singles who are at peace with themselves.

Samrat’s first novel, The Urban Jungle, was published by Penguin earlier this month