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Time to rethink public radio in India?

Media in India will inevitably fall into the hands of businesses that have vested interest in politics. May be in India it is time to think of a donation and grant based, non for profit, public radio service such as National Public Radio of USA.

Why radio?

When I think of the term media, I hardly think of radio. TV and news-magazines have appropriated the term ‘media’, denying radio the well deserved credit. Compared to the radio, TV and news-magazines pose more barriers to production and consumption of programming. Though production of good quality radio programs is not easy, listening to a radio station cannot be simpler. One need not be literate and wait for a day or week for a new publication, one need not invest in expensive electronics and cable connection. A radio is a medium for all. It does not require the exclusive attention TV or news-magazines demand.

Private radio in India

Currently, private radio stations in India can only entertain people but not educate them. There are community radio stations which can do so, but cannot debate politics or broadcast news. News broadcasts and political discussions in India are monopolized by the radio owned by the government. When businesses control the government, they will also control the flow of information to the public. While a religious fundamentalist heads ICHR and claims that caste system has worked well, there is no discussions about the beneficiaries and victims of caste system on All India Radio. What are the implications of a muted sex education in a country like India?

The production of radio programs is controlled by Prasar Bharathi and people have no say in what kind of programs they want to listen to. Just as people request for their favourite film songs, there should also be a way to choose a favourite discussion panel on a sensitive issue. Though Prakash Javadekar is planning on opening up options for private stations to broadcast news, the sources are limited and the minister is not clear about whether the stations will be allowed to come up with their own news bulletins.

Independent radio stations should be encouraged in a country that touts democracy. People should have the freedom to choose news bulletins, listen to different views and opinions. This will help Indians to develop a well-rounded view of the world. When Indians are blindly supporting Israeli attacks and celebrating the formation of a new BRICS bank, there must be at least one radio station which informs people about the downsides. Democracy can only be strengthened by creating platforms for expressing dissent.

Public money – Private career

Today the finance minister announced the setting up of five new IITs, IIMs and 12 medical colleges. How much will they help India?

IITs and IIMs subsidize the education of Indians, most of whom, after their education,  migrate to other countries without contributing much back to the country that educated them. Some of the professors in these institutes conduct research using public money, patent the findings, and transfer the technology to private companies.

Medical schools are not any different. Very few doctors get into public service. It’s time that India rethinks the way it is subsidizing higher education.

Open defecation inside IIT Delhi Campus!

This morning I went for a run inside IIT Delhi campus. While running on the south side of the campus, I saw a person emerging out of the bushes with an empty plastic bottle. Considering that it’s 6:15am in the morning, I had a strong feeling that the person was defecating behind those bushes. I immediately looked around to see any informal settlements. I saw a large camp of people. I thought that they must be there working on some temporary maintenance or construction project. Not to embarrass anyone, I just continued running without striking any conversation with any of those people.

I went in search of that camp during lunch time and found another large camp of 30-40 people right by the side of the main road, next to the swimming pool. I went inside the camp hoping to speak to someone. A guy in the camp greeted me and we started chatting.

People in the camp are from Bihar, a state with large dalit population. The people in the camp don’t have access to toilets or washrooms. Everyone, including women, bathe near the water pump and defecate in open. Fortunately, they have access to water and electricity. They run tiny fans inside their tiny tents to get some reprieve from the heat of Delhi. I walked through the camp-site into the construction site. The huge hole in the wall led to into the swimming pool premises. No surprises here. No worker, other than the people who were cleaning the pool, wore any safety gear; not even the guy who was using a big demolishing driller. No goggles, no gloves. I took some photographs and returned to the campsite.

I am more concerned with lack of sanitation than lack of safety gear. That brings us to this question of – Why are people defecating in open inside IIT campus? My guess it this. When the contractor hires temporary / migrant workers to do the job, he does not account for the proper living conditions and facilities. These workers are compelled to live in shanty houses or tents without basic amenities like water, toilets, and electricity. Contractor either makes more money by not paying for these services or charges less money and hence appears competitive by not providing these basic services to his workers. The administrators at IIT Delhi, one of the technologically forward institutes in the country, should insist on providing better living conditions to these informal workers inside its campus.

What is the result of all this? Ordinary public thinks of migrant workers as dirty and shameless people. While the reality of the situation is that these people want to live a life of hygiene and dignity. But it comes at a cost. Construction and maintenance of toilets costs money, washing and bathing costs too – cost of water, cost of storage container, cost of soap, and cost of the washroom structure itself. The builder is not willing to pay that cost. The helplessness of the workers makes them take up jobs even if those jobs don’t provide any basic services.

The hot and humid climate of Delhi is a killer. I am staying in one of the boys hostels. A fan inside a badly ventilated room does not provide any respite from the heat of Delhi and IIT students are not allowed to have coolers (not AC) inside their rooms, unless you bribe the security. If a student cannot sleep well at night, he cannot be alert and productive in class during the day. But that room is any time better than the tents in which those workers are living in this heat. The bathrooms of the hostels with broken doors and dysfunctional taps are any time better than defecating in open. I am grateful for what I have but I am deeply troubled by what is provided to the workers inside the campus.

Apathy is deeply embedded in Indian society and IIT administration is no exception to that. The double standards of Indian government is appallingly visible in its own institutions. At one end, the government talks about safety regulations and total sanitation campaigns. At the other end, the same government is not providing any basic facilities or safety gear to the construction workers working inside its own premises.

I don’t know what happens in other government projects. But I am deeply disappointed with IIT Delhi. A premier institute in the country should know better and set an example for rest of the country. Every human being has the right to be treated with dignity. Exploiting the helplessness of the lower class in a society is social and political, tyranny.

Upset with the situation, I started walking out. I stumbled across a woman preparing pakoras.

“They smell good. I am sure lunch is going to be delicious” I said peering through the tent.

“Come, eat with us,” she invited me with a bright smile on her face.

“No no, my friends are waiting for me. But thanks”

I started walking towards the entrance of the camp and I saw a guy carving a lotus out of a sheet of foam. Two kids were staring at the process with complete concentration.

“Wow, that looks beautiful. Who is this for?” I asked. The kid standing next to the guy raised his hand. Another kid ran inside the house and fetched a large bird.

“Look at the peacock he made for me,” said the kid raising his hands to show me the bird. His prideful face was hiding behind the bird.

“It’s so big and colourful,” I replied.

“Oh it’s getting late. I should go and get something to eat,” I said looking at my watch.

“Why go somewhere, eat with us!” the kids said earnestly

“My friends are waiting for me. I have to go,”

“Come some other time then”

“Sure,” I said with heart filled with gratitude.

Here are some photos for you all

What makes Malgudi days special?

Yes, all episodes of Malgudi days are now available on YouTube. So what?

Click here for the playlist

Why should I watch an old TV series half of whose actors are either dead or about to die? Why should I spend my precious time on Malgudi days when there are so many TV shows to watch ? Why should I care about a TV series which does not use computer graphics, loud background music or is not aired everyday of my living life?

I am not calling Malgudi days as is the greatest show on earth. I am sure there are several shows which are awesome. But Malgudi days matters to India, it holds a huge lesson to the directors and viewers of today’s soaps.

Malgudi days oozes with art. The immersing nature of the series makes Malgudi days a hybrid between a book and theatre. Just take a look at the first episode. So much effort has been put in to create a sense of space and time. The camera does not always focus on the face but zooms out and pans to show how people dressed, how the buildings looked, and how people interacted with the surroundings. Malgudi days makes us enter new worlds and minds.  It is a visual treat.

Today’s TV shows are replete with background music. A loud background music stifles the voice of the artists. Dialogue is what should drive a scene, facial expressions are what should convey the mood of the characters, not some loud music. The screenplay is what makes the delivery powerful and not the constant flashing of lights or crooked camera  angles. Sadly, the plots are recycled with a filling of cliches.

Today’s soaps are made by lazy directors for lazy viewers. Setting the drama as contemporary is convenient. Not much attention has to be paid to the details – No need to build a new set, no necessity to think about what should stay in the frame and what should not. All artistes, wearing a thick makeup that makes their skin look smooth, fair, and soft, appear far from real characters in life. Where is the stained teeth, weather-beaten skin or the shadow of other imperfections that are the reflection of a struggle called life? When characters seem real, they connect better with the viewers.

The last aspect I want to highlight is that of light and sound. Every face is brightly lit and there is always a background music trying to mute the sounds surrounding the characters. The shadows, the darkness, the sound of that river flowing, that bird chirping, or that spinning of the washing machine is what brings the drama closer to the viewers life.

Just seeing someone making coffee with a loud background noise makes the scene look fake and coffee unpalatable. The irregular lighting in the kitchen, that ticking of the lighter that does not light the gas on the first stroke, the that clinking of the steel pot placed on the burner, that sizzling of the milk, that crackle of pouring the coffee into the steel cup, and that cup brimming with coffee of brownish white froth.

Directors, just as writers, should focus on showing and not telling or killing with sound, for that matter.

I am grateful for the works of RK Narayan, the author, and Shankar Nag, the director of Malgudi days.

Human? No, I am an Indian!

I pity you; do I or should I? It is not my problem that you are born to poor parents, of lower caste, from abc religion, reside inside a forest that has resources beneath it, or live on the wrong side of the dam.

It is not my headache that you are a woman. Nor is it my worry that justice, education, access to health or employment is not reaching you. If your land gets grabbed in the name of development, so be it. Comfort of a few million people matters more than the survival of a few thousand.  We need more industries, bigger towns and wider roads so that I can have a variety of job opportunities. I should be able to drive to those places in my private car faster so that I can come back home and watch TV.

All I am worried about is myself and my family; whether my children go to school; whether I have electricity to watch cricket match or soaps; whether I have a job that provides me with good salary and health insurance; whether there are ATMs in my neighbourhood; whether there is high speed internet and good cell phone connection.

I am not bothered that the farmer who is feeding me is dying hungry, I don’t care that my habits and routines are polluting the environment, I am not bothered that my shopping habits is ruining small businesses.

I know that I am the only species on earth who is capable of thinking. But why should I think or act when all my needs are taken care of. Do you know how much work it is to travel, to talk to people, to read, and understand a complex nation like India? I am too busy to spend time on such understanding. I am happy with whatever media or McDonald’s feeds me. I consume information and food quite effortlessly. I confuse my analytical skills with critical thinking skills and if someone opposes my thinking , I will call them pseudo-intellectuals, pseudo-liberals or, better yet, Congress sycophants.

I love peace. Have you seen how many anti-war pages I have liked on facebook? I am an activist. Have you seen how many online petitions I have signed? I believe in bringing in change. Do you know how much money I have donated to charities?

I know that someone has to pay the cost of development, someone has to suffer for my luxuries, someone has to die so that I can procreate. Colonization, racism, sexism, and slavery made the west a developed hemisphere. Look what happiness development has brought them! They can now buy make-up kits and antidepressants with free same day delivery. Credit cards and mobile phones have made such purchases possible virtually from anywhere.

What’s with the people living in villages and forests? What do they know of happiness or civilization? What is life without greed? What is life without the suffocation of living inside concrete buildings , breathing thick smoke or drinking contaminated water ? Why do they want to hide in the forests or villages? Why are they afraid of the comfortable life a city provides? Cowards! I want to show them, those who want to escape from the realities of life, how to face life and live it. After all, Ache din aanewale hain!

I want show that world that India too can be a developed nation by following the path of kindness. We are not cruel like some of the western countries. We, Indians, don’t have the history of invading foreign countries, subjugating their people, wiping them out if needed, and looting their resources. We believe in self-rule (swaraj) and hence in self-colonization. We have bred for a reason. 1.2 billion people! If we subjugate all the Indian poor, it is like subjugating all the people of USA and Europe put together. The carbon footprint of our violence will be minimal as the victims live next door. And yes, we will make those rifles and grenades locally. Local police and army will be brought in to rape the women, butcher the old, and jail the young. We understand our local people and culture better and hence we are more efficient at exploiting them. We will make the British wish that they had outsourced their colonisation to us.

I know that no other creature on earth can think or empathize the way we, the humans, do. But if I think and empathize, I am afraid that I might use that ability all up. I am saving it for all the people who are going to suffer so that they can think about how it all happened and empathize with their fellow victims.

OK, I am a homo-sapien. But what’s in the name of a species? I am an Indian (by that I mean Hindu + upper caste, upper or middle class + male) and that’s what matters!

Jai Hind! And yes, Vande Mataram!

Question of situation

I get haircuts (even Ripley does not believe this!)

I was visiting World Bank office in Nairobi, Kenya and I wanted to look civilized. Or else the bank might fund more projects in India to make us “look” civilized. I was staying in YMCA and it was too late to go out to buy a razor to shave my head (yes, I have so much hair that it needs to be razed, not cut!) I decided to get a haircut from the saloon inside YMCA.

After explaining my hairstylist, Esther, about my necessity of getting a haircut, I sat down on the chair. Of course, we have to kill time. A shave and a haircut that takes ten minutes is too long a silence not to be broken.

“Which country are you from?”

“India,” I said, wallowing in my exoticism.

“I love India. I have always wanted to visit India.”

“You should visit India soon then. Most Kenyans I have met want to visit India.”

My haircut was over by then! Esther prepared me for my shave by lathering up my face and neck. When she was about to scrape the stubble off my neck, she asked “What’s your religion?”

A hard question for an atheist to answer even under normal circumstances. With a knife to my neck, I was gambling. “I am born to Hindu parents,” I responded.

“Hindu? What religion is that?”

“It is a religion which gives you the flexibility to live life any way you want. But some of its followers want you to live life only the way they want. Not sure how different it is from Christianity”

“Oh my God! Can you take me to India with you? I want to spread the love of the lord who died for our sins.”

“What sins have you committed, Esther?”

“I cannot think of any right now. But I must have sinned right? Why would then Jesus die for us, if not for our sins?”

Not knowing how to answer her innocent question, I said, “Visiting India is a long process. You need a passport and a visa. May be your church might help you to visit India.”

“Oh? I need passport and visa even to spread the word of God?”

“Unfortunately, yes”

How am I fighting winter at Berkeley?

Winter in Berkeley for me has always been dreadful – I get to see the Sun for less than 8 hours (50% less than the usual 12 hours of sunlight I am used to India.) and there is no warmth in the light. This pushes me to hibernate. I wake up late, I am drowsy the whole day and I go to bed early. October to February is a disaster. I don’t know what I would have done had I accepted my admission to SNRE at University of Michigan or Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

My PhD qualifying exam is 40 days away and I have a lot of reading to do. So I want to wake up early to get some quality reading time. I find mornings very productive. But I have to fight cold and drowsiness. I never had this problem when I spent summer in Kathmandu. There, the chirping of the birds woke me up at 5:00am. A cup of chai and some breakfast got me going. Here, in Berkeley, nothing is helping – Coffee or Tea has random effect on me. Sometimes, Caffeine keeps me awake and alert but most of the times I go to sleep within 15 minutes of having a cup of black tea. So I came up with a plan.

I went cold turkey with Caffeine. I stopped my caffeine consumption completely. First three days, I suffered severe headaches. Next three days – lethargy, body pain, nausea, lack of appetite. It slowly started getting better after a week. Within 12 days, I was feeling better. In two weeks, caffeine was out of my system. After this exercise, I don’t get any headaches when I miss my afternoon tea or coffee. I am now very sensitive to caffeine. If I have caffeine after 2pm, I cannot go to sleep before midnight. Caffeine now has a very predictable effect on me. My goal is to stop consuming it fully by January 2014 (soon after my quals).

If I can get out of bed early in the morning, there is caffeine to keep me awake. But the challenge is to get out of the bed. To combat cold and to feel comfortable when I am out of bed, I now go to sleep with a pair a socks, beanie, and thermal wear next to me. When the alarm goes off in the morning, I wake up, put on all the layers and then get out of bed. I don’t feel any cold. I am active as soon as I get out of the bed 🙂 It has been almost a month. The practice has been quite effective

I have realized that sitting and reading on bed puts me to sleep (what was I expecting?). I now read either at my desk or in the kitchen. I walk around and read out loud when I feel sleepy. I have to print dense readings as I easily lose track when I read on my computer or tablet.

I am finding qualifying exam as a great opportunity to push myself to confront some of my chronic habits – waking up late, consuming too much caffeine, exercising and meditating infrequently, spending too much time on the internet, not allocating time daily to read and write. My hope is to pass my qualifying exam while fighting these bad habits.

Manipulative Banking – The new norm

I now and then miss my payment due date. Yes, the bank will be fast enough to slap a fee on me. I usually call them and they reverse it for me as they can see from my history that I am good with payments and mistakes happen. But I just realized how out of control credit cards and other loans can get in the era of technology and fine prints.

In the era of technology, people who are not comfortable with online banking, people who don’t have any alerts (phone or email) set up for “fee slapping” will miss out on the action and their credit report will start reflecting this fee even before these people know that there was a missed payment. This is also the era of lack of self-control from the end of customer and the era of art of manipulation from the end of the banks. Every bank wants to give you a credit card so that you lose track of your shopping habits and payment deadlines. The sooner and more often this happens, better it is for the bank, as they can start preying on us. A legislation should protect people from being manipulated. Even the constitution should be amended to say that “bankers will not manipulate people”. Manipulative banking is violence.

I have eight credit cards. I am going to bring them down to four by this month end – one Visa, one Master, one Discover and one American Express. I am extremely good at keeping track of payments and even then I miss deadlines once in a year or two as I get busy with other things in life. I am now thinking of what old people, people who are not good with technology endure in this era of predation. Mint.com has been extremely helpful in tracking my expenditures and incomes. I strongly recommend using mint.

I have realized that the best way to cut down on debt is to keep all my cards locked away. I carry one card with me. I use mint and go through my transactions everyday to keep myself aware of my transactions. This has considerably reduced my expenditures.

Is it the distance?

I claim myself to be a considerable, sensitive and rational person. But that claim seems dubious when I realize that I don’t really care as deeply as I should about some of the important issues that are affecting the larger society. I have thought about this contradiction and here is my hypothesis – I think it is my distance from these issues that makes me think about them less deeply. There seems to be a armour of impersonality that chokes the flow of emotions between two creatures.

I don’t fret about large dams.  I am fine with over consumption and unsustainable management of resources. I continue to consume water and electricity harnessed at a far away place without really thinking about any local solutions such as rainwater harvesting or solar power. The reason for my insensitivity could be that I don’t have to personally go and push people away from their villages to submerge their lands. I am emotionally involved in the issue as I have recruited the Government to be my agent! I am not seeing any immediate harm. I have vested my government with all the powers to commit the necessary crime and coercion, induce the misery on my behalf!

I no longer get singled out for the crimes I am committing on nature and hence on the people and animals who are dependent on it. Now there is a system in place, supported by corporate and media, which worships and encourages reckless consumption. The abstractness of “class” makes it difficult to pinpoint the victim. There is strength in numbers. I want others to drive less and consume less. I am upset with everyone else except myself. When I scorn at this ugly world, I forget that I too am part of that world and most of the times that scorn should be directed inwards as I have played an important role in bringing this world to this point!

Only when interactions get personal can I learn to think and feel about the world deeper than I do now. People ask me, why is it that some Indians worship cow and don’t eat it? For the same reason that you don’t treat your dog as food! Admittedly, dog meat may not be as tasty as beef, but it is not a practice for people to kill their dogs! Why? Because dogs are part of the family. They are closer to your heart. Cows have supported families in India by providing them with milk and dung. Milk provided the necessary calories and nutrients in the form of food while dung was a source of fuel.  It is easy for people to be emotional and spiritual when it comes to cows because that is the kind of interaction they have had with cows all these years. The relationship with livestock is not purely economic. Now a days, there is a distance between our life and the consequences of our lifestyle! I no longer have to worry about the cows or any other animals. I have outsourced these interactions and hence in a way has fuelled all the cruelty.

My interaction with nature these days is completely impersonal! Hence I have no real connection with people, animal, trees, insects and other natural beings around us! This lack of connection is hollowing me out making me all shallow and self-centred! I am distant from the activities that are needed to make me feel connected to the world. I don’t grow my own food own – hence rains piss me off! I don’t build things these days! I just buy stuff. Hence there is no attachment to save it or make it work! I have no idea of what goes into resource mining and where all the waste ends up! A world without emotions is purely mechanical, metallic, toxic! Now a days, I wonder how many of us really enjoy the basics of life – food, friendship, and love, when the media is constantly reconditioning us how to live, love, buy, and be unhappy all the time! At the risk of sounding like a hippy, I want so say that world’s problems can be solved only if we re-establish the connection with the natural world! And yes, that does not mean camping in Yellowstone or backpacking in Yosemite!

Remembering Ajji!

I am reading William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” for last two days. In chapter 24 – Writing family history and memoir, Zinsser talks about the value of documenting family memories. As he says, writers are the custodians of memory. Their responsibility is to hunt those stray memories and bind them to the books with the help of words. The book has made me nostalgic.

Ajji – The master storyteller!

Today I am thinking a lot about my maternal grandmother I lost three years ago. She was the only grandparent who was alive to tell me the enchanting stories from Indian mythology all through the night, place rice morsels in my hands while I sat under the moonlight in the courtyard, give me money to buy those tiny toys and toffee which my parents refused to buy for me!  I don’t remember my grandmother hurting anyone in any way. She radiated warmth and personified tenderness.

In the age of television, the art of storytelling is lost to the blaring media! I was fortunate to have a grandmother who has left me with a part of herself through the stories she conjured for her grandchildren! I know that she is not up there in the skies, residing in the heavens, watching over me because she is right here in my heart, in my memories, and in my name. Yes, her name was Sharada.

If your grandparents are alive, run to them…! Ask them to narrate their struggles, their joys, their hopes! Take pictures of your grandparents, record their voice, if you can. My friends, memories are tricky! Freeze them before they flow out of your lives and vapourize!

I want to sitdown with all my maternal aunts, hear their journey. I want to go back to that house in Tumkur where my mother grew up and see what remains of the place!