Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The beauty of The God of Small Things wasn't just in the quality of Arundhati Roy's descriptive powers. It was in the intimacy, her ability to go dig into the deepest thoughts, hopes and dreams with engaging, understanding, insight and compassion, finding light in darkness. It was deeply personal and truly universal. 

You can still see glimpses of that magic 20 years later in The MInistry of Utmost Happiness but the problem with the book is her need to showcase her hard-earned perspective on broader political themes. The imbalance of her extreme-left positions that you see in her non-fiction soak into this book, leading to a black and white world of the oppressed masses fighting against the big bad state with its military power. It is a perfectly legitimate perspective in non-fiction (where you can agree or disagree with her). However, it ends up being the greatest flaw in this work of fiction, robbing it of nuance, and of the ability to see human beings from multiple, often conflicting, points of view that can elevate fiction into art, and turning it into a unidimensional polemic.

Ultimately, it ends up being the kind of book that we would have raved about as a debut. Great writing, ambitious in its scope, but lacking true wisdom, selective in its empathy, ideological in its characterisation. Which is a pity because in the first section where she talks of the journey of the boy Aftab into the hijra Anjum in the shadow of the Jama Masjid, she shows all of the skill and understanding that makes The God of Small Things a once in a lifetime masterpiece. 

This on the other hand is a good read, but one that struggles to make a broader political statement, where the politics overwhelms the writing and ultimately diminishes it. It takes much much more skill to write powerful political fiction. Arundhati Roy would be well served to read The Feast of the Goat as a reminder of what the genre can and should aspire to. 

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Some thoughts after being stranded after last night's London attacks

Last night after the high of Cardiff I took the train back to London before flying back to India . Midway through the train ride, I was cruelly reminded of what a messed up world we live in. As anxiety gripped the passengers, as fear replaced joy, the train rolled into Paddington. People began running, rushing, fearing they wouldn't get a vehicle to take them back home. 

They needn't have bothered. There wasn't a single taxi. Not one. No way for 60000 people to get home. Like many others, I was stranded in a foreign country wondering whether I should walk or wait and wondering how I would get to the airport. Ubers kept cancelling. The closest emotion to last night was the Mumbai terrorist attacks or the riots I saw as a child. 

I was fortunate to be able to eventually get a premium Uber and a hotel that organised an airport drop 2 hours later but as I was being driven back by a Muslim, Pakistani Kashmiri who was working through the night to drop people home and who was horrified by all that was happening around him I was struck by the essential fuckedupness of the world today. 

A world where identity strips us of our shared humanity, where the labels we use for ourselves and for others (Hindu, Muslim, tribal, non- tribal, Christian, White, Sunni, Dalit, Shia, Immigrant and more) allow us to regress into the primitive, savage beasts we once were.

But hold on that's not fair to primitive, savage beasts. Because they killed for food for protection. We kill today simply to reinforce the superiority of our labels, while only displaying our insecurities and cowardice. Children, teenagers at a concert, a 60 year old farmer, an Air Force employee eating mutton, tourists seeking commonality and understanding, someone looking for the education his parents never had. That's who we kill. 

And our leaders, both religious and political, refuse to lead us to a better world, to condemn the violence in their followers, to spread a message of love and understanding, to lead by example.

As I fly back home, I leave the violence of last nights terror attacks in London and head towards the violence I know I will read about in tomorrow's morning newspaper in Mumbai. 

Because this is our world today. Because every single day innocent people will die. Because our leaders don't lead. And because we are no longer human. We are just labels. Like everyone around us. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

South Africa... wildlife and magic

This is just a list but one I've been meaning to put up for a year. We went to South Africa last year and over the course of 2 weeks here's a list of wildlife we saw (including flightless birds). What a truly extraordinary country... I can't imagine a better place for children to discover nature. Whether it's sitting 6 feet away from a lion or seeing whales in the ocean, there is magic every day and the miracle of this planet surrounds you every single moment. 

If you haven't been to South Africa yet, just go!  

1) Seal colony of over 5000 seals plus 4-5 other seal sightings 
2) Great white sharks 
3) Ostrich
4) Emu 
5) Springbok 
6) Baboon
7) Penguins 
8) Ring tailed lemur
9) Black and white lemur 
10) Spider monkey
11) Vervette monkey
12) Hanuman Monkey
13) Spectacle monkey
14) Blue Duiker
15) Capuchin Monkey
16) Squirrel monkey 
17) Golden handed Tamarin monkey 
18) Indian flying fox bat 
19) Brydes whale 
20) Humpback whale 
21) Warthog
22) Kudu
23) Elephant
24) Zebra
25) Buffalo 
26) Blessbok
27) Black backed Jackal 
28) Impala 
29) Wildebeest 
30) Giraffe 
31) Steinbok
32) Bushbuck
33) Hippopotamus
34) Common duiker
35) Lion 
36) Vulture 
37) Waterbuck 
38) White Rhino
39) Chameleon
40) Water monitor lizard 
41) Nile crocodile 

Friday, March 17, 2017

How Technology is Changing the Face of Entertainment

I was asked to write an article on how "Technology is Changing the Face of Entertainment" for ET Online, a version of which appeared on ET online on the 17th. However since the editing has butchered the piece and made it incomprehensible I decided to post the original piece here. 

Technology changing the face of entertainment

We live in an industry that is eternally optimistic, where everyone assumes the business of media and entertainment will continue to grow. Newspapers believe they are all powerful and television believes it is destined to perpetually be pervasive. The movie industry looks at China and believes we are going to jump from five thousand to thirty thousand screens. People look at OTT platforms like Netflix, Eros now, Amazon Prime and think they will mean additional streams of money over and above the conventional revenue model. Everyone believes that the entertainment industry is only going to get bigger and stronger and more lucrative thanks to technology.

What people fail to understand is that technology is disruptive and that the nature of technological impact is not incremental.  All traditional sources of earning revenue and consuming entertainment are under threat, nothing is sacred, nothing is unbreakable and ten or fifteen years later many of these things from newspapers to movie theatres may not even exist.

I work in an office, where most of my team is under 30 years of age. If you ask them, what was the last advertisement in print that you saw in the last seven days or even a noteworthy headline, they would not be able to recall it. They consume news and information on Facebook or Twitter or an app like ‘in shorts’ , and not from newspapers. When this generation starts driving 60-70 percent of consumer spends, they will not suddenly start reading newspapers overnight. Just imagine the consequences of this on the newspaper industry in the future.

Television has been the primary source of entertainment for the average Indian family in smaller towns for almost 3 decades. Restaurant, bars, malls and even movie theatres are not regular sources of entertainment. There has always been a fight for the remote control in single screen families. The transition which is happening in the span of five to ten years is about Indian families going from a single screen family to a multiple screen family. This is going to have tremendous impact on consumer behaviour. When everyone is sitting and consuming entertainment of their choice at a time of their choice, at a place of their choice, without having to worry about what content caters to everyone whether from the perspective of interest, taste, morality or demographic, why would someone sit and watch personalised content in a collective environment? Besides big movies, sports or award ceremonies what other content would be watched by every single member of a family from age 5 to 65 together? What does this mean to the TV a industry as we know it?

With regard to movies, the scenario is very similar. For a single movie experience, the costs vary from anywhere between Rs.1000- 2000 on a weekend for a family of 4 if we include travel, popcorn etc. Very rarely does a movie - like a Jungle Book or a Dangal - which is a shared visual experience for the entire family come along. But if you look at a smaller movie, which has something to offer but has a more targeted demographic, I don’t understand why it should be a Rs.1000 experience as opposed to a Rs.50 -100 experience for the one single member of the family' who is interested in the film. There may be hundreds of thousands of people who want to watch independent cinema but are unable to make this a 1000 rupee group experience.

The whole revenue model of the entertainment industry is going to change. The pillars of media and entertainment are all going to be destroyed in the next ten years, namely radio, television, newspapers, and movie theatres. When we look at things like NETFLIX; Amazon; EROS now, I don’t think these are ways for traditional media to make extra money; these are ways to destroy traditional media.

Some people believe that at least the larger visual experiences will continue to happen on large screens.  I don’t understand how that is true, except for live events, because the biggest funding in the west in the field of entertainment is in the field of augmented and virtual reality.  Today, you can go to a movie theatre, and watch the movie come alive by virtue of 3 D spectacles and it’s a great experience, but it isn't yet a fully immersive 360 degree VR experience. If the price of a VR handset drops in the future, to an affordable range of Rs.1000 or so, one would be able to sit comfortably in your living room and enjoy a truly immersive experience where you feel you are right in the middle of the action. I do not understand what the ‘big’ experience would be in future.

So when one talks of a technology and disruption, our perspective tends to be very conservative. I don’t remember who said it but this really stuck - when you look at a 5 year horizon the world doesn’t change much, but if you look at a 10 year horizon, the world seems unrecognizable. If you look at your life 5 years ago, things will not appear so different, but when you look at your life 10 years ago- from your gadgets; your music, your books, it seems you were on a different planet.  People rarely have the ability to look beyond a 3-5 year horizon and understand how rapidly change happens. If you were to extrapolate the rate of change on a 10 year graph, you will be able to realize that the world is transforming at an unprecedented speed.

One thing that will not change is that content will be consumed and the creators of content will be valued. We talk about how many people share a video of toddlers stumbling into a BBC interview on YouTube, and say that any and everyone can become a content creator. But even if you look at YouTube which is the biggest user generated platform, the people who are making money are actual professionals like Lilly Singh. They are modern day content creators (true creative voices) who do this for a living and all that technology does is just distribute the content these professionals create. 

So what is going to happen is that all the change is going to happen at the distribution level. The tools of content creation may change, and the ways of distribution will change, but what will not change is that there will be creative voices that are creating content. I feel that for anyone to be relevant 10 years from now, if you are in the entertainment business, the question that you should ask yourself is not how consumption or distribution will change, because no one knows and anyone who believes they know are lying. The question is how do you stay relevant in the process of content creation?  

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Short thoughts on the Miracle of the Camp Nou

So I just saw the PSG Barcelona game again. First off, let's be clear, Barca deserve to go through. They do because of their mental strength, their quality and their sheer bloody minded will to win. 

That being said I have to say this could have had such a different score line on another night, because of a few inches, a few bounces.. I have never seen anything like it.

The own goal and the moronic defending on goals 1 and 3 alone granted Barca 3 goals. Without them and the Suarez dive penalty Barca would have scored 2 goals, not 6. The Cavani and Di Maria chances could easily have given PSG 3 goals and not 1. That's even leaving aside Cavani hitting the post and the 2 penalty shouts against Mascherano. It's not like Barca was battering the PSG goal or creating clear cut chances except the last 8 minutes.

Basically this game could have actually been a 3-2 win for PSG on another night. It is a game and a result that was nothing short of a miracle. The result of one teams indomitable will to win and self belief meeting another teams complete and total mental breakdown and complete loss of self belief. The result of luck, genius, mistakes, bounces and the destiny that winners make for themselves. PSG fans can blame the referee but the truth is Barca won because they were meant to win. Because sometimes the perfect storm meets a miracle. And that's what happened that night. 

Friday, March 03, 2017

Don't fall for the bullshit... here's what the Gurmehar Kaur issue is really about!

So much has been written about the recent incidents regarding Gurmehar Kaur, that we seem to have forgotten what the issue is in the first place. In this echo chamber of rage and outrage, between celebrity posts and political piggy-backing, the facts and real issues are forgotten. So let's remove the hysteria and emotion and remind ourselves what the issues here really are.

1) Gurmehar didn't suddenly leap into the spotlight last week because of what she said about war or Pakistan. She made that statement in April of 2016 and the statement came and went without causing any ripples. This whole issue started because of what she said last week when  she protested against political violence in Delhi University. 
She didn't attack the PM. She didn't attack the Government. She didn't attack the BJP. She didn't attack the country. 
Yes she named the ABVB but I don't think anyone disagrees that in this specific instance it was the ABVP that was involved in violence.  
I don't understand how a statement condemning the ABVP for a violent incident and saying she refuses to be scared of them makes her anti-national.

2) Criticising the ABVP violence doesn't mean that in this specific instance she was endorsing any other political party or their youth wings. Anyone who has studied in DU knows that none of the youth political parties are particularly clean. But if in this specific instance it was the ABVP that was responsible, why would she criticise the NSUI or anyone else?

3) I don't understand why normal people who are not ABVP members took offence at her protesting against them. We are a country where far too many people have neither the courage nor the interest to care about issues that affect society at large. I work with young people everyday and I am reminded of the Roman Circus with movies, celebrity gossip and shopping replacing gladiatorial combat while the issues that actually affect our lives are blissfully ignored. 
In an environment like this we should all celebrate a 20 year old who girl cares enough to speak up against political violence, to say that she isn't scared of goondas masquerading as student leaders. What exactly is offensive here? I wish more people had her courage. 

4) What is offensive is that after her initial post, she was inundated with abuse and threats of rape, murder and other forms of violence. As a society, should that not be a non-negotiable? That a 20 year old speaking up against political violence shouldn't face the kind of disgusting abuse and threats she did. Even if for some reason you think she said something wrong, or think she is anti-national (though I don't know why, look at point 1), can you really justify and support the threats of violence, rape and murder against her?

5) The issue only got politicised in a meaningful way when a central government minister attacked her for a statement that she had made in April of LAST YEAR about war, a statement that had NOTHING to do with the current issue. Again I don't understand why Kiren Rijiju attacked her. She didn't attack the Government or the BJP. Why did a Government spokesperson choose to enter the conversation? What exactly was he defending? Even if you assume was right to criticise her anti-war campaign from last year, how was it relevant to the current issue of political violence in DU? How did it reduce or diminish what she was saying right now? What is it about Gurmehar that angered Rijiju? That she condemned violence? That she said she wouldn't be scared of the ABVP? Does that mean he feels that the violence was justified? Or that students should be scared of the ABVP? Is that the official Government position? 

6) When a government spokesperson chose to wade into the issue, why criticise just Gurmehar and not the ABVP members who threatened her, the people who abused her or, for that matter, the violence itself? BJP MP Pratap Simha tweeted comparing her to Dawood Ibrahim? Who exactly reminds us of Dawood? The frenzied mob threatening to rape and murder a young girl? Or a child standing up against violence?
When an incident like this happens, I expect all our leaders, regardless of political party, to reject and criticise the threats of violence, rape and murder that she faced. Failure to do so sends out the message that if you disagree with someone it's okay to threaten and intimidate that person. That's not how democracy works! 

7) Why don't people realise that the issue here is not Virender Sehwag or Randeep Hooda or the BJP or Kiren Rijiju or Gurmehar's father or anti-nationalism? There are just 2 issues here and they are very simple:
(A) A young girl criticised political violence and said she won't be afraid of a youth political party that threatened violence. There is NOTHING wrong with that sentiment or statement and she deserves only applause for it. 
(B) She was abused and threatened with extreme violence for making that statement until she had to withdraw from her protest and leave her home and city out of fear. There is NOTHING that makes such a response justifiable or acceptable in any way.

So strip away the media noise, the politics, the Government and the opposition, the labels of left and right and liberal. It comes down to this. A country where the young speak their mind, reject violence and refuse to be intimidated is a country to be proud of. A country where courage and a rejection of violence faces a torrent of abuse, threats and intimidation is a country to be ashamed of. We need to decide and create the kind of country we want to be. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

On my grandmother's passing...

After 38 years
You walk into
An empty room
With an empty bed
In an empty house 
Where an empty breath 
Echoes with the silence
Of 94 years