The Demonetization Circus


In India, a unique set of circumstances brought a new-age Chanakya – or Machiavelli, for those who have only read Western literature – to the helm.  This time around, history decided to split this shrewd mind into two bodies; one is a flamboyant orator and the other is a behind-the-scenes operator.  A Modi and a Shah, if you will.  It is an interesting combination.  One goes around town taking credit for everything good that is happening in the country, cleverly avoiding comments on anything that will adversely affect his popularity.  The other, it seems, is tirelessly working backstage to orchestrate those events.  Killing of a Muslim Armyman’s dad?  It’s a state law-and-order issue.  Flogging of Dalits?  Wait, that is our vote bank.  Need to comment on that.  Glaring lapses in intelligence and surveillance during the Pathankot and Uri terrorist attacks?  No need to discuss those issues.  Surgical strikes?  Let the Defense Minister loose and dominate the airwaves.  GDP growth numbers?  Yes, we need to take credit for being the fastest growing big economies in the world.  Jobless growth?  We can avoid talking about that.  In a mere two years, this team has managed to turn the debate between haves and have-nots into a debate between nationalists and anti-nationalists.

We can see the same nationalist debate playing out during demonetization, but it has also made Indians temporarily forget the centuries-old caste system and reveal a new class system.  At the top of the ladder are the ones loaded with black money.  From politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen all the way to rich housewives are scrambling to meet the December deadline.  Some say there are apartments, basements, storage spaces and mattresses full of old currency dying to be renewed.  Those who can backdate invoices, businesses that can declare significant amounts of cash on hand, jewelers and peddlers of foreign exchange are suddenly in demand.

Then there is the middle-class whose entire income is white, but it is all stuck in the banks.  In their own country, they are queuing up outside their own banks for hours on end to get their hands on their own money.  In a land where, until recently, 60-70% of the population had no bank account, and only 2-3% of the population paid taxes, these guys are the collateral damage.  They don’t have the cash to pay taxis and rickshaws, buy groceries and vegetables, or even buy two square meals a day.  Some have resorted to chest-thumping and nationalism.  They are probably the ones who have ‘connections’ and have gotten their withdrawals and exchanges done without having to stand in the long lines.  Others are legitimately wondering ‘What is my fault?’  Unlike the black money class, though, they can at least post pictures of the new 2000 rupee notes on Facebook to celebrate their victory of getting their own money back.

And below that is the vast swath of humanity that has belonged to the unorganized sector and lived exclusively on cash.  Some of them are newfound owners of Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts that have not been used much.  Others are still not part of the banking system.  Whether they are employed, partially employed or unemployed, they are noticing some unusual behavior among those at the top of the ladder.  Instead of 2-3 week delays in getting their salaries, they are suddenly getting salaries for 6-12 months in advance.  Some are getting a commission to open bank accounts and deposit a couple of lakhs.  Others are finding out that they can get paid just to stand in a line for hours.  Those in favor of redistribution of wealth will be proud of Modi.

It is easy to see the immediate benefits of the move.  Banks will get capitalized and the central government may not have to resort to financial jugglery to clean up the non-performing assets of the banks.  People will order more credit/debit cards and open more online wallet accounts.  More and more businesses will start accepting plastic money and e-payments.  But unless there are more tax reforms like GST and strong incentives to become law-abiding citizens, will demonetization significantly change the macro-economic picture?  For that to happen, the government will have to demonstrate that it can trust the people and operate with minimal corruption.  And the people will have to trust the government in return and pay their fair share of taxes.  Else, we are back to square one, with stashes of 500 or 1000 rupee notes replaced by stashes of 2000 rupee notes.

Above all, this new episode of the great Indian circus makes me wonder about the nature of money.  Back in the days, currencies used to be backed up by gold reserves.  The US dollar, the world’s reserve currency, was issued against a guarantee that the American government was in possession of an equivalent amount of gold.  Most of the other currencies were pegged to the US dollar.  That all changed in the 70’s when the US government under Richard Nixon did away with the gold standard.  What we carry around in our pockets is just a piece of paper whose value can go up or down based on how many new ones the government decides to print.  Someone like Modi can come along and render 85% of those pieces of paper worthless and there is not much we can do about it.  Does it ever make you wonder what kind of wealth we are accumulating?

The western world loves to stereotype India as the land of spirituality.  While demonetization has lifted some spirits and depressed others, we have carefully locked away our spirituality in temples and other places of worship.  These days, it can also take the form of a large, open public space where phony gurus set up their shops and pontificate for a couple of hours.  We attend the poojas and pravachans, only to get back to accumulating wealth that can disappear overnight.  After observing the seemingly endless queues at my neighborhood bank for the past week, I am wondering whether I should install an ATM in my apartment complex and play these famous Pink Floyd lines in an endless loop:

“Welcome my son, welcome to the machine…

What did you dream?  It’s alright, we told you what to dream…”

Categories: Amit Shah, Demonetization, Economics, India, Modi, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Genius of Bob Dylan

A quick question: How many times have you heard the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature and said ‘Oh yeah, he or she totally deserves it’?  I would assume that for an average reader like me, it almost never happens.  When it comes to Nobel Prizes in the sciences, those who are in the trenches generally know who the top contenders are.  And given how little gets accomplished in world peace each year, the contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize are also generally well known public figures.  By the very nature of literature, it almost never happens in this category.  Since literature in any language qualifies for the Nobel Prize, it is such a vast ocean that it is humanly impossible for anyone to have read everything – or even something – written by every author in the world.  To add to that, there are times when the writer’s socio-political relevance plays a major role and at other times, the author’s indulgence in magical realism has won him or her the top prize.  Come to think of it, it is actually a miracle that the committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature can even come up with a reasonable shortlist every year!

I have read very few works by Nobel laureates.  I cannot attribute it to my undying love for literature.  Rather, it is a side effect of being a compulsive traveller and an even more compulsive book buyer.  I hate shopping, but cannot walk out of a bookstore without buying a book.  I recently heard that there is a word for people who buy books and keep stacking them on their shelves without reading them.  Guilty as charged!  It has gotten to a level now where I avoid walking into bookstores.  However, I end up cheating myself when I am killing time at international airports.  And the bookstores at these airports invariably carry works of their homegrown Nobel laureates (if any).  I have picked up an occasional Orhan Pamuk, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Steinbeck or a V.S. Naipaul, but I believe that, for an average reader, the works can be hit or miss.  Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colors spoke to me because of its inherent East-West cultural conflict.  Naipaul’s Among the Believers worked exceedingly well, but ironically, India: A Million Mutinies Now somehow felt too dense.  Steinbeck’s legendary The Grapes of Wrath made me go from ‘Why?’ to ‘Nailed it!’ in the last five pages.  In magical realism, Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera seemed magical only in patches, but One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I am not done with yet, grips you from the first page.

All of this reading has been after the fact.  So, when I read last week that Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, my first reaction was ‘For a change, I know the winner!’  It was quickly overshadowed by doubts.  In this vast ocean of world literature, where does a singer-songwriter stand in the hierarchy?  If you want to pick a singer-songwriter, why pick someone from the United States, which already has an outsized cultural influence around the world that half of the world has come to resent?  Would it make more sense to pick someone from some other cultural or linguistic background to help raise his or her global profile?  After all, Nobel committees have missed the mark several times in the past.  No Nobel Peace Prize for M. K. Gandhi?  A Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama?  Even in literature, no Nobel Prize for Jorge Luis Borges?  Not surprisingly, a lot of commentators have criticized the decision over the past week.

Some of the criticism might be valid, but listening to his songs for the millionth time over in the last couple of days managed to clear all those doubts for me.   A top down approach to making such decisions might be able to explain this anomaly.  Let us assume that we want to be unconventional this year and pick a singer-songwriter.  And we want to restrict ourselves to the English language.  How many artists come to your mind?  I don’t even need all the fingertips of one of my hands to count them.  An overwhelming majority of the songs talk about some stage of love.  The reach and influence of most of the bands rarely lasts beyond a decade.  Very few singers are gifted enough to write their own songs.  Or, the gifted songwriters are rarely good composers and singers.  Mark Knopfler stands tall.  Bruce Springsteen is a stalwart.  Alanis Morrissette brought something refreshing to the table.  Rage Against the Machine tried to capture the contemporary mood.  Some old school hip hop artists made the art form a cultural force to reckon with.  But if you go searching for something ahead of its times in the English speaking world, it will probably boil down to Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan.

Pink Floyd was undoubtedly a perfect storm.  Incredible lyrics, mind-blowing pyrotechnics, technical finesse, clever use of electronics, philosophical undertones that were only matched by the silent pauses in the music.  When you add up all the talent of the four core band members, the result is immortality.  As if all that weren’t enough, they came up with the concept of concept albums.  They imagined a world in which a 60-plus minute album like Dark Side of the Moon or Division Bell could be considered one song.  Or an album like Animals could brilliantly capture the human condition that George Orwell did in his book The Animal Farm.  Pink Floyd’s ‘artistic product,’ if you will, belongs to a rare genre in which you can just read the lyrics and without having heard the song, you are convinced that this has to be a beautiful song.

Bob Dylan’s genius lies in the fact that it belongs to that same rare genre, but doesn’t stop there.  The music has none of the pyrotechnics or the technical finesse, but it doesn’t need any of that.  Like Brazil’s Bossanova singers, Dylan could be sitting in a public square, strumming his guitar and humming along, and people will gravitate towards it.  The folksy, nasal voice.  The simplicity of the chords that is only matched by the incisive commentary on contemporary issues.  Capturing the vagaries of life that so easily transcend cultural boundaries.  Lyrics and style that evolve and age with the singer.  Music that appeals to everyone from an assembly line worker to a soldier on the field to an academic researcher to the occupant of the highest political office.  Even on a piece of paper, the songs sing themselves to you.

As an Average Joe, I can now stop knockin on heavens door and claim that, for once, I know the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  And with a singer-songwriter winning the coveted prize, I do not feel as if times they are a changin.  But I can definitely say to the critics:

We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view

That is the genius of Bob Dylan.

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The Triumph & Tragedy of Rio

I will start with a confession.  If I had another life, I would choose badminton as my career.  I have been playing it for as long as I can remember.  Unfortunately, like millions of other Indians growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I entered tenth grade and kissed my dreams of a sports career goodbye.  For the past twenty years or so, I have been what Americans call a ‘weekend warrior.’  I still devote lots of hours a week to the sport, but I am not a competitive athlete.  The enthusiasm for sports, though, spills over to quadrennial events like the world cups and the Olympics.

As a country, we should be proud of the fact that we sent our largest ever contingent of more than 100 athletes to the Rio Olympics.  However, over the past two weeks, the skewed perceptions and unrealistic expectations of our nation of 1.25 billion people have disappointed me more than the valiant efforts of the Indian Olympic contingent regardless of whether they qualified for the finals or how close they got to winning a medal.  Until the mid-90’s, we were an extremely poor country.  And there are several studies establishing a reasonable correlation between per capita GDP and the number of medals countries win at the Olympics.  When a country is struggling to feed its population, it is foolhardy to expect a huge medal tally at an event that celebrates ‘Fitter, stronger, faster.’

After the first generation economic reforms of the early 90’s, millions of Indians have moved out of poverty and into middle class.  Globalization, disposable income and ease of travel have all made our society aware of what is going on in the rest of the world.  Unfortunately, a country trying to claim its rightful place in the international political and economic order is expecting the moon from our athletes without showing any interest in building a sports culture.  It is a huge jigsaw puzzle, but the three critical pieces of the puzzle are the government, corporations and the society.

The overall apathy of the government starts at the local level.  While there are schemes and allocations for promoting sports at the district and taluka level, the situation on the ground is similar to any other government scheme.  A friend of mine who teaches table tennis in a tier III city school recently mentioned that the government allocates money for annual inter-school tournaments, which is siphoned off by the ‘system.’  The tournament organizers have to scramble to get sponsorships, which are hard to find in smaller towns.  As a consequence, they have to ask the kids to bring all the required sports equipment and supplies for the tournament.

At the highest level, the government has undertaken some admirable initiatives.  The sports awards help the athletes get the much needed attention.  Supporting medal prospects by providing them the equipment and training facilities is another good initiative.  However, these initiatives serve only those who have beaten all the odds to reach the top of the pyramid.  Unless the bottom of the pyramid is widened by cleaning up the system at the local level, we will keep hovering around the 3-5 medal mark at the Olympics.

Government is always the easiest punching bag.  As a country, we need to realize that only about 3-4% of Indians pay taxes.  When the government is preoccupied with basics like implementing mid-day meal schemes, boosting girl child education, building girls’ toilets in schools and enhancing graduation rates, it is a long way away from building world class sports facilities in tier II or III cities.  This is where the corporations can step in.  The government has created huge CSR mandates for corporations, which can be effectively used for physical education, spotting talent early and supporting promising athletes all the way from age 5-6 to the highest international level.  Traditionally, PSU’s like Indian Oil, Railways, banks and conglomerates like the Tatas and Reliance have shown leadership in supporting athletes.  A lot of sports leagues are springing up, which assure the top athletes decent remuneration if they reach the top of the pyramid.  Unfortunately, most of this support comes after you have proven your mettle at the state or national level, which is a bit late in the life of an athlete.  If big names like Sachin Tendulkar, Abhinav Bindra, Mahesh Bhupati, Malleshwari, Mary Kom and others can get together with the big corporations, implementing sports programs from the bottom up will not be difficult.  Prakash Padukone proved it when he threatened a revolt against the badminton babudom in the late 90’s.  It is important to note that it took us 20 years – an entire generation – to start producing world class badminton players.  We see it happening in boxing, wrestling, archery and a handful of other sports, which is a good start.  It is an extremely slow and arduous process, which now needs to expand to other Olympic sports.

In the end, the onus is on the society.  It begins with us.  The most basic building block of a sports culture is putting physical fitness on par with intellectual achievements or success in business.  My generation mostly played sports in school or college as a hobby and then was compelled to start exercising again after age thirty or forty because of health issues.  That needs to change.  Let us prioritize physical fitness in our lives and build some appreciation for what it takes to run a 6 minute mile.  If your cousin or nephew or son or daughter are showing a spark, encourage them to pick up the sport they are interested in.  Tell them that representing our country at the Olympics is superior to getting into an IIT, clearing the IAS exam or building the next unicorn start-up.  We need to support local initiatives like city marathons and sporting events.  Even if you are not a sportsperson, just go volunteer for a marathon that your friend of family member is running.  I bet you will be motivated to run the next one.

When interviewing candidates for new jobs, most of us do not care about achievements in sports, which is in stark contrast to the recruitment process in some industry segments in the United States, where sportspersons are considered better than an average candidate.  The logic is straightforward.  The tremendous dedication and focus required to excel in sports even at the state level easily permeate in other aspects of life.  I was once told by a successful American businessman that he reads the resumes of the candidates from the bottom to the top.  Beyond a certain threshold of academic grades, everyone is intellectually capable of getting the job done.  What separates a candidate from the pack is non-academic achievements.

The Rio Olympics are over.  Before the Tokyo Olympics come around and we lament another poor medal haul, let us begin by picking up some physical activity.  Watch the sports you love on a regular basis, understand the nuances and try to inculcate them at your level.  As a society, if we start today, it will take at least 2-3 decades to start getting a respectable medal haul at the Olympics.  At the very least, instead of lamenting the near medal misses or criticising the athletes for not qualifying to the final rounds, we will start admiring their dedication, single minded focus, muscle tone, speed, agility and their athleticism.  And then, if Sindhu wins gold at the Tokyo Olympics and lets out another primal scream, it will give you goose bumps.

Categories: Rio de Janeiro, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Patriotism: Poles Apart

Ever since a handful of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students shouted anti-India slogans at a campus rally in Delhi, a lot of airtime and pixel space have been devoted to covering all sides of the patriotism debate. In the last forty-eight hours, what changed the dynamic for me was the news from the other side of the planet that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demanded Apple, Inc. to unlock the phone of a terrorist and – lo and behold – Apple refused to unlock it. Here is a company as American as apple pie – patriotic enough to manufacture millions of phones in China every year but etch ‘Designed in California’ on each one of them – refusing to play ball with the FBI in a case of terrorism on American soil. Can you imagine the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) demanding that Micromax unlock Afzal Guru’s phone and Micromax refusing it? If the unfolding events in Delhi are any indication, there would probably be no Micromax by tomorrow. The civilized way in which the patriotism debate is playing out in the United States is a jarring contrast to the immaturity on display from all sides in India. There are many facets to the debate, but there seem to be three important L’s defining it: Liberty, Law-enforcement and Leadership.

At the highest level, this is a question of liberty. The American declaration of independence famously proclaims that liberty is one of the unalienable rights of all human beings and – more importantly – governments are created to protect it. The constitution that is based on this core principle is one of the shortest constitutions in the world and enumerates all aspects of life the government cannot and should not interfere with. The Indian constitution, on the other hand, has the dubious distinction of being the longest constitution of the world and painstakingly lists all the powers vested in the government. Don’t get me wrong. Babasaheb Ambedkar is my hero; more so than Mahatma Gandhi or Pandit Nehru. At the time of gaining independence, his astute legal mind realized that India was an extremely diverse country divided along caste, creed and linguistic lines for centuries. Without the fear of a heavy-handed government, our society might not have had any incentive to reform. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of the constitutionally vested powers in the government, combined with decades of socialist policies, have ensured that most of us grow up with a stunted view of liberty. Instead of doubting the government’s intentions and abilities, we implicitly consider government an unalienable part of our lives. Mai-baap Sarkar! Apple is a free enterprise and places its contract with its customers above its patriotic duty toward the government. JNU is a centrally subsidized institute and the government feels compelled to decide what is patriotic and what is not.

A few notches below liberty is the issue of law enforcement. Barring an occasional O.J. Simpson kind of case, which exposes the loopholes in the system, American police forces, investigative agencies and the judicial system form a well-oiled machine of delivering timely justice. Even the toughest terrorism and mass shooting related cases usually reach their conclusion within two-to-five years of filing charge sheets. On the other hand, the entire law enforcement machinery in India is stuck in a vicious cycle. While they consider Sarkar to be Mai-baap, Indian citizens don’t trust the government enough to pay taxes. Majority of those taxes get siphoned off by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Very little money is left for providing adequate resources and freedom to our police force, investigative agencies or the judiciary. All these branches of government are chronically understaffed (some of the lowest ratios in the world) and none of them have any incentive to defy the almighty government and show its independence. Just like politics hates a vacuum, society hates a vacuum when it comes to law enforcement. When evidence can be tampered with, witnesses can be made to disappear, cops and judges can be bought, and the system takes at least a decade to punish the wrongdoer, what is the harm in taking the law in your own hands, especially when the Mai-baap Sarkar is on your side? To add to that, when the judiciary moves at glacial speed, well-funded media assume the role of judge, jury and executioner. What is the harm? Over there in the United States, Apple may be defying FBI’s order and writing an open letter to its customers defending its stance, but the local representative of Cupertino is well aware of the fact that taking law in his or her own hands will be dealt with swiftly and sternly. Even the American media, mostly polarized, seem to understand the moral hazard in FBI’s demand and is conducting the debate maturely.

The final piece of the puzzle is leadership. On the economic front, Prime Minister Modi has shown some leadership and, after the initial hubris, seems to be willing to work with the opposition to get the economy moving again. But almost every time he has had an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership qualities, he has been missing in action. It is easy to argue that he has too many issues on his plate and cannot be expected to weigh in on every religious skirmish or caste-based crime in the country. Nobody is expecting that from him. However, his astute political mind and amazing oratorical skills seem to betray him every time an issue enters public consciousness and becomes a national conversation about the fundamentals of cultural, social or ideological liberty. Perhaps he has taken the ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ catchphrase to heart and believes that as long as he keeps his head down and delivers on his promises of jobs and prosperity, people will forgive him for his acts of omission and commission. On the other side of the world, President Obama does not comment on each incident of homicide or political dissent, either. But he rarely misses an opportunity to comment on the raging national debate of the day; be it a mass shooting and gun control, a seminal Supreme Court verdict on gay rights, or the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. Such statesmanship becomes all the more important in a country with a muddled understanding of the concept of liberty and a law enforcement vacuum being exploited by overzealous media.

I am not an unabashed admirer of the United States. As they say, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms.’ The American system has its own flaws. A country with more guns than people, a rigged financial system that nearly took the entire world down, a racial divide that is still glaringly big, a foreign policy that preaches one thing and practices another; the list is endless. But the question for us is: Instead of pointing fingers at the Americans, are we willing to notice a few good aspects of the world’s first republic and implement them in the world’s largest republic? As the American presidents keep exhorting at the end of every State of the Union speech, are we willing to move toward a more perfect union?

Categories: Current affairs, India, JNU, Patriotism, Politics, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

When Marriages are Made in Heaven…and Heaven is Called Koramangala!

X: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Guy: I’m just a regular guy with an engineering degree. A decade ago, kids my age used to take their GREs and go to America. These days, everyone around me is moving to Koramangala and starting his own company. I thought I’d try my hand at copying some idea from America and Indianizing it. All of a sudden, my friends started getting married. Maybe it’s the right time for me to get married.

X: Tell me about your team. After all, we invest in the team.

Guy: Me, my degree that gives me the illusion that I can solve any problem, my raging hormones that make me believe that I can sell anything to anyone and the two I’s in my institute’s name that are enough to fool any investor in the world.

X: What if your illusion turns out to be delusional?

Guy: As long as I am painting rosy pictures to the investors and getting them to pay my salary, it’s a nice illusion. It will be a delusion only when the money runs out and we have nothing to show for it. Till then, just enjoying the ride.

X: So, tell me about your product.

Guy: It’s just the fourth question! I wasn’t expecting you to go there so soon. Well, I have a nice package. Once you test-ride it, you would wanna ride it some more!

X: How about market segmentation and product market fitment?

Guy: Till now, I was not too serious about relationships. I used to walk into bars and focus exclusively on the wild and single ones, married but looking ones or those who are divorced and are going through a mid-life crisis. Product market fitment was quite good because I rarely had any complaints. I can give you a few references, if you want. Markets have changed now and my offerings have also changed. So, I am focusing more on ‘homely,’ ‘wheatish complexion,’ ‘nuclear family,’ ‘cooking,’ ‘classical singing or dancing,’ ‘knitting and painting,’ ‘conservative values but liberal outlook’ kind of market. You know, the market where sometimes you see some subtle hints of caste and subcaste. Sometimes it’s all blatant and out in the open. I am looking for the ‘conservative values but liberal outlook,’ though. So, I prefer the subtle hints market.

X: And what about your product differentiation?

Guy: On the personal front, check out my history of clients. It speaks for itself. Plus, I can always give you some references who will gloat about all the different features of my product. Other than that, on the professional front, unwarranted swagger, ignorance about international trends, total lack of awareness about what it takes to build a large company, no vision or patience; the usual entrepreneurial stuff.

X: Tell me a little bit about your KPIs.

Guy: KPIs in marriage? They’ve been the same for ages! Destination wedding, FB photos, honeymoon at some exotic location, FB photos, new home and car, FB photos, kid # 1, FB photos, kid # 2, less FB photos, get stuck in a rut and start cheating, still lovey-dovey FB photos, kids’ graduation, FB photos, their marriages, their kids, hoping that they will keep the endless loop going and then, one fine day, say goodbye to everything. Even your FB photos that nobody cares about.

X: How about traction?

Guy: Solid traction in the married but looking and divorced and going through mid-life crisis markets. Traction in the wild and single market is a bit lower because, at the back of its mind, the market is still worried about mundane things like the ‘future.’ Traction was off the charts when I visited Bangkok a few months ago. A little less when I was in my previous IT job and had to do a few deployment trips to the West. I have heard a lot about the Uzbekistan market lately, but haven’t tested the waters there.

X: And growth plans?

Guy: I’m in the marriage market now. I foresee raging hormones disappearing and boredom setting in. Growth will stunt significantly in the near term, but once I join the married but looking market, I expect growth to pick up again. It’s cyclical. You have to study the ups and downs in the market and cash in when it is your time. Else, you just become a perpetual whiner.

X: Do you have any exit strategy in mind?

Guy: It depends. If there are no kids in the picture, the divorced market is open for you. The growth trends are quite robust in the market. Kids can complicate things a bit. Growth is slightly slower in that market, but the married but looking market is also decent.

X: It’s too early for me to invest. I need to see more traction. Keep me posted and let’s catch up again when you have more traction.

Guy: So, you have just borrowed the Western vocabulary. Not the mentality, right?  You are not intellectually capable enough to have any sensible conversation.

Moral of the story:  A lot (of nonsense) can happen over a coffee!

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Traffic: Indian Death-trap or American Libertarian Utopia?

There are a million differences between India and the United States; people, culture, laws, history, religion. The list can go on and on. But when you return to India after a decade or so in America, one thing you can’t escape from and have to deal with daily is the chaotic traffic. Depending on how you look at it, this phenomenon is either an incredible feat of human imagination or an utterly avoidable, yet worsening death spiral that is taking more and more lives every day. While I personally believe it’s the latter, there are times when, as a bystander, I wonder whether it can serve as Exhibit A for American libertarian philosophy.

Before we get into the specifics, a crash course on libertarianism as a political philosophy is in order. The popularity Ron Paul enjoyed in the last few election cycles has reminded Americans of this school of thought that I believe was pioneered by Austrians a century or two ago. But in India, forget about followers of libertarianism, finding people who are even aware of it is as difficult as find a unicorn. The philosophy is based on a deeply held belief that when it comes to the things governments can or cannot do, personal liberty and freedom trump all other considerations. Almost! The exceptions generally made are national security, law & order and certain infrastructure projects that ease the movement of people and goods around the country.

For starters, this concept is alien and even counter-intuitive for a vast majority of Indians of today. Other than a handful of big, well-established business houses and the new wave of entrepreneurs who have to constantly fight the archaic web of Indian bureaucracy, most Indians are brainwashed to think that ‘mai-baap sarkaar’ or, as right-wing Americans would call it, cradle-to-grave government, has an important role to play in everyone’s life and the society’s wellbeing. This has led to an interesting paradox that is modern-day India: A country of a billion+ people that has the fastest growing economy in the world and one of the worst rankings in ease of doing business (140 something out of 180-odd countries).

One can get into the historic reasons behind this implicit faith in government as a force for good. And in the long and illustrious history of India, there are many. There is Kautilya’s (Chanakya) ‘Arthashastra’ from ancient India, which advocated the setting up of a sprawling surveillance state to track and control every aspect of human life. And then, there is the post-independence socialist system set up primarily by Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. After more than 150 years of British rule that left India indigent, illiterate, dying of hunger and hopelessly dependent on foreign imports, one can debate whether the bureaucratic cobwebs left behind by the British and the closed economy have done more harm than good. But the bottom line is that Indians are conditioned to look at the government as the enabler, or snatcher, of practically everything! If the government handles just national security and infrastructure, how can we justify the huge bureaucracy and their fat salaries? They need some work!

And yet, it is one of the biggest ironies that Indian traffic has developed as American libertarian utopia. It starts with getting licenses. In spite of recent attempts at reforming the driver’s license granting system, I can safely say that virtually nobody takes any tests or knows anything about driving rules and regulations. Through a vast network of ‘agents,’ Indians can get driver’s licenses by showing up only when a digital photo needs to be taken. The tests can be ‘managed.’

This leads to certain harmless, amusing spectacles like using the right indicator to let other drivers overtake you. Nobody uses the indicator for its intended purpose, anyway. If you’ve paid for them, might as well invent a new use for those blinkers. On Indian highways, a truck driver turning his right indicator on to ‘indicate’ that you can overtake him is quite common. But the lack of any rules also leads to ‘jungle-raaj’ (jungle rule) in lane observance. At any signal, the largest vehicle is standing in the rightmost lane. Smaller SUVs or sedans are next to them. Rickshaws come after that. And two-wheelers are like gap-fillers. They can fit in wherever there is space.  Plus, there is also an unwritten rule that the leftover space on the extreme left is a two-wheeler lane, which magically forms as soon as the signal turns red.  That’s the pecking order. In India, when deciding which lane you belong to, every driver implicitly agrees that size does matter.

There is also some weird competition to get to the front of the line at every signal, as if those precious 2-3 seconds saved are going to dramatically change your life. Indians may not have the time to ponder where the country is headed and whether obeying rules can help change that direction, but every Indian driver is dying to see what’s going on at the intersection and whether he or she can bump the red light!

To control pollution, Indian authorities have installed countdown clocks at some signals to tell drivers how long it is going to take before the light turns green. Instead of turning off the engine to reduce pollution, Indians have invented a new interpretation of the clock: How long before you can start encroaching on and effectively blocking the intersection. As soon as the countdown to the last 10 seconds starts, Indians think that it’s their moral obligation to start inching toward the middle of the intersection. If your ‘foreign-returned’ self wants to wait till the light turns green, they don’t hesitate to blow the horn and give you the ‘what’s-wrong-with-you?’ look when passing you by.

In cities like Bangalore with perpetually clogged arteries, drivers have taken this behavior to a higher plane. At certain intersections in the city center, to ensure smooth movement of traffic, cops suspend the automatic switching systems and manually control lights during rush hour. In such cases, when traffic from one side has to stop for longer than usual, Indian drivers suddenly get a fit of moral outrage. Even when they can see why they are not being allowed to go, after a few minutes, the horns start blaring in unison, telling the traffic cop that they have waited long enough. If the cop doesn’t budge, they take the law in their own hands, conclude that it’s their turn and hence have a right to proceed. The best part of this moral outrage is that it is felt only when you are the victim. It melts away into the ether, or smog, when the driver is breaking the law.

I am sure the helplessness of the traffic cops in such situations has something to do with the extremely low traffic cops-to-drivers ratio in India. But their lethargy knows no bounds and on several occasions, they can be seen encouraging unlawful behavior. To add to that, it is an everyday sight to see vehicles of government agencies openly flouting the traffic rules. The very people entrusted with law enforcement and performing government duties – traffic police, cops, public transport drivers, bureaucrats, politicians – roam around as if the laws don’t apply to them.

With this state of affairs, you can imagine the plight of pedestrians. It is an open secret in India that pedestrians have no rights. And since they are lowest in the food-chain and cops don’t have the time to help them, they take the law in their own hands. Literally! It is a perfectly normal sight in India to see pedestrians trying to cross streets waving their own hands telling the traffic to stop. Whether the driver will yield depends, naturally, on the speed at which he or she is driving. And while the hapless pedestrians can never find a big-enough and clean-enough footpath to walk on, bikers can occasionally use the footpath – or whatever is left of it – with no compunction; once again, just to get a good view of the intersection. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it hasn’t killed any Indians yet who are curious about the goings-on at the intersection.

Come festival season, which is upon us, things get worse. There are huge processions of Gods being carted around town or gurus sitting in high chairs (like the Pope roaming around in Pope-Mobile) being paraded with pride. Since the traffic cops don’t have the time for these events, procession organizers turn into cops. They have the God-given or Godman-given and hence, unchallenged, authority to stop all the traffic at any intersection to ensure smooth passage of the procession. It goes without saying that in secular India, this right is extended to all processions and public displays of all faiths, blocking traffic throughout the year.

Some of the cities have now made helmets mandatory for two-wheeler riders. It is common to see helmets dangling by some hooks or resting on the footrests, only to be whipped out and put in the place they belong – the heads – as the rider approaches an intersection. More importantly, this has also led to the development of some exquisite, non-verbal communication at intersections. Helmets may have robbed us of yelling and cursing at each other, but hasn’t broken our will to break the law. When two two-wheelers approach an unmanned intersection at night, they don’t even need hand gestures. Head-and-neck gestures are enough to decide who goes first. When the intersection is packed and a two-wheeler wants to go in the wrong direction, a combination of head and hand gestures is enough to request others to let you go. If you are trying to ignore the rider at fault, the gestures are followed by a pat on your shoulder, a honk, a bike-to-bike nudge or some combination thereof. Things can get ugly after that. So, ignore the law-breaker at your own peril!

Honking is another integral part of Indian driving that probably deserves its own post. To give you an example, people in the West may be worried about early warning systems for natural disasters like tsunamis and volcanoes. The Indian driver is still preoccupied with using the horn as an early warning system to announce his or her arrival at the intersection. Even if it is 3am with no other vehicle on the horizon, an Indian driver has to honk when approaching an intersection. It goes on and on and on!

Long story short, in a country where no drivers learn any rules and the law enforcement officials are low in numbers and focused on collecting bribes, the system has invented its own rules. It is an accidental libertarian utopia for which mostly pedestrians and bikers – lowest in the food-chain – are paying the price by getting killed by the thousands every year. Nonetheless, in this stream-of-consciousness country and humanity called India, the streams of traffic keep growing exponentially every year with no change in sight.

Categories: Adventure, Driving, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The final promo of Riding on a Sunbeam is out!

Here is the final promo. Enjoy! Share it NOW and let’s make it go viral!

Take the plunge, and swim upstream…
Let your body burn, and let your heart scream…
Embrace your foolish dream…

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We are almost there! Let’s cross the finish line together!

A year ago, 80 of you believed in our dream. With your support, we have finished 80% of the film. This is the final push and it’s an all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign. We have to raise 5 lakh rupees (~$7000) in 45 days to complete the documentary. Please donate (now!) and share. Join us as we go Riding on a Sunbeam!

Here is the crowdfunding link:

I am Riding on a Sunbeam

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We are almost there! Let’s cross the finish line together!

A year ago, 80 of you believed in our dream. With your support, we have finished 80% of the film. This is the final push and it’s an all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign. We have to raise 5 lakh rupees (~$7000) in 45 days to complete the documentary. Please donate (now!) and share. Join us as we go Riding on a Sunbeam!

Here is the crowdfunding link:

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Beyond Ridiculous: Palestinian, Indian, Portuguese, Spainsh

The Mumbai – Abu Dhabi flight was quite uneventful. As usual, it was delayed. When I am traveling, something has to get delayed. The young Indian girl sitting next to me didn’t seem interested in small talk and I was a bit sleepy as well. But the Abu Dhabi – Sao Paulo flight is turning out to be awesome. As soon as I take my seat, the guy next to me asks me ‘Hind?’ From his accent, I can tell that he is from somewhere in the Middle East. Who else in the world calls Indians ‘Hind’ anymore?

But what ensues is a comedy of errors at first and an exhilarating experience as time goes by. This guy barely speaks English. When I say ‘Yes’ to Hind, I ask him where he is from. He says ‘Filistine.’ Alright! That is interesting. How often do you sit next to a Palestinian guy in a flight? And we are gonna be together for 15 hours. But wait, what about the language barrier? He solves it for me in no time. Without even asking for it, he tells me that he is flying to Sao Paulo and then going to Santa Catarina…in Portuguese! As soon as he says ‘Agora, Sao Paulo.’ I feel a little better. I can talk to this guy in Spanish.

Having spent three-four months in Latin America now, I can fake a lot of things. And Spanish is one of them. So, I immediately ask him ‘Por que?’ When an Arabic guy who speaks broken Portuguese is talking to an Indian guy who speaks broken Spanish, it has to be beyond ridiculous, but a lot of fun as well. He points to his ring finger, and says something like ‘Aana…Santa Catarina.’ My interpretation of that is that his fiancée or wife is a Brazilian girl named Aana and he is going there to visit her. Even before saying anything in return, I am jealous of this guy having a Brazilian fiancée! And then, he volunteers some more information. By writing numbers with his hand on the seat-back screen, he tells me that Abu Dhabi to Sao Paulo is 15 hours (‘horas’ in Portuguese and Spanish) and Santa Catarina is 1:30 hours from Sao Paulo. With a flying action by his hand, he also tells me that because of FIFA, ‘no possible.’ So, with a hand gesture of driving a car, he says it would be six hours instead of one and a half hours to go from Sao Paulo to Santa Catarina.
It is a good segway for me to tell him that I am going to Brazil for FIFA. He immediately launches into ‘Sao Paulo, Curitiba, Salvador…’ I get his drift. I tell him ‘Solo Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte y Rio.’ Silence!

I have rarely met Palestinian travelers and I am now curious to know whether he is half Brazilian or something like that. But how do I ask that complicated question? I try to ask him whether he is going to Brazil for the first time. ‘Primera ves a Brazil?’ I try to use my basic Spanish, hoping that it would sound something similar in Portuguese and he would get it. But it falls flat. I even use my index finger to ask whether it is his first time. But he says ‘No’ and draws 15 again on the screen to indicate that it is going to take 15 hours. Hmmm…so I change my tack and ask him ‘Antes…visitaste Brazil?’ I discover that ‘Antes’ (or before) translates well from Spanish to Portuguese. He immediately gets it and says ‘No, no. Brazil…’ and makes the same gesture I made, indicating that it is his first time. It is followed by laughter from both sides. If someone sitting behind us is listening, he is probably wondering what is so funny about it. But we are just enjoying the fact that we can communicate to each other in a bizarre, twisted way!

However, his answer deepens the mystery. If he has never been to Brazil, he perhaps has no Brazilian roots. Is his mom or dad Brazilian and moved to Palestine? Are they activist types? Those questions are way too complicated. But when I ask him where in Palestine he is from, he says ‘Ramallah.’ I guess he understands ‘where.’ He keeps dropping the word ‘Aana’ all the time, which makes me think that he really loves this Brazilian girl. Once again, he volunteers more information about himself. He starts describing what he does. He does the car gesture again and I ask him ‘Mechanic?’ He says ‘No.’ He makes a headphone gesture for sound, makes some more gestures that indicate speakers on the roof and on the window of the flight. He also mentions other electronic systems in the car. I get it. He handles car electronics. Good going. So, I ask him ‘Brazil visa?’ ‘Ahhhh…..’ he says immediately and pulls out his passport. He flips to the page on which he has the Brazilian visa and makes me read the lines that say that the Brazilian girl is his wife (‘esposa’ on his visa) and that is how he got the visa. It is so much easier to pull out passports to describe things.

I want to tell him that I have been to his part of the world. So, I pull out my passport and flip to the pages that have stamps for Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. I also mention to him that I have been to Burj al Barajna, one of the earliest Palestinian refugee camps in the heart of Beirut that was set up in 1948. He responds with a long ‘Ahhhhh,’ but still points to the Israeli stamp and asks ‘Why?’ I tell him ‘Old Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa.’ He understands it right away.

But by pulling out my passport, I have dug myself a grave. He points to the main page of the passport and asks me again ‘Hind?’ He is wondering why I have a US passport if I am from India. Holy cow! How am I going to explain that to him? Luckily, he gives me a start. He asks me ‘Baba Amriki? Mother Amriki?’ Negative, but it’s good to know that he understands Baba and mama. In fact, it is strange that the Marathi language has borrowed the word ‘baba’ directly from Arabic! But let us not dwell on that. I try hard to explain to him that I was born in the US, but my parents are Indian. I fail…miserably. So, I pull out my cellphone, start drafting an email and write down that in 1979, baba and mama were in the US. And blah blah blah. He gets it right away.

And then, he asks me what I do. Can it get any worse? Getting the term ‘neuroscience’ across when both are speaking their third – or fourth – languages is like your worst nightmare coming true. I have now drifted so far away from neuroscience that I should probably choose a profession that is simpler to explain. But neuroscience is still the first thing that comes to my mind when someone asks me what I do.

With a series of hand gestures pointing to my head, I once again fail spectacularly to convey that I study the brain. Then I use the word ‘doctor’ and he gets it. I immediately tell him that it is one level lower. He asks ‘nurse?’ and I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. How the hell do I explain research? I say x-ray, MRI machine and he asks ‘Macina?’ I just nod. I do something related to brain machines. That is good enough. Then he starts telling me how his brother, who is 34 years of age, has had a head injury and is not doing well. I ask him how old he is and he says he is only 23. With a big gap between my hands, I ask him 34? 23? Grande! (Big gap). He gets it right away. He says that his dad has two wives and he has six brothers. In Islam, he tells me, they are allowed to have four. To pull his leg, I ask him ‘So, what about you? Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela?’ And he laughs out loud. He starts with ‘Aana’ again, points to his ring and says ‘Mi amore. Wahid (or one in Arabic).’

I do the customary one to ten in Arabic that I learned while traveling and that makes him happy. He then points to the passport and says ‘US passport…good’ and tells me that with the Palestinian passport, he is only allowed to enter Jordania or Jordan. He also says that he is going to Brazil now to get a Brazilian passport. With that passport, he is free to go anywhere in the world! USA, France, Switzerland, Hindustan.

He tries to explain how he met the Brazilian girl. If I understand it right, she visited Palestine a few years ago through an NGO. They then kept in touch through email for 5 years. She then came back to marry him and, in a way, gave him his ticket to freedom!

I want to know a lot more about him, but I am also exhausted and need to catch up on sleep. Trying to have a conversation in your fourth language is a ‘brain drain.’ As I close my eyes, it makes me wonder: This guy is on a one-way, 15 hour journey to Brazil and won’t be back until he gets his Brazilian citizenship. I am on this long flight just to go see how countries I have nothing to do with play football, a game I am not particularly good at. Two journeys that are beyond ridiculous lead to a twisted, humorous conversation that is beyond ridiculous. But we manage to talk. We manage to satisfy that innate human urge to communicate. To exchange information!

Toward the end of our conversation, I realize that ‘Aana’ cannot be his wife’s name. He has been using it for things totally unrelated to her. It means something like ‘me’ or ‘mine’ in Arabic. That means that for most of the time that I was talking to him, I was making some assumptions about his wife that were also beyond ridiculous!

To top it all, I am writing this article sitting right next to him, confident that he cannot read a word of what I am writing. This, my friends, is life on the road!

For the football fans, here is another article on

Categories: Brazil, English, Language, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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