Dec 042012

Let me start of by saying I have little interest in sport (except, out of loyalty, for cricket), but this story about the International Olympic Committee suspending the Indian olympic body not only caught my eye, it made me laugh.

Here’s how the semi-official Press Trust of India reported it:

“The decision was largely expected after the IOA decided to go ahead with the elections on Wednesday under the government’s Sports Code, defying the IOC’s diktat to hold the polls under the Olympic Charter. …

“The IOC had repeatedly told the IOA not follow the code for the elections on the ground that it would be a violation of the Olympic Charter and compromise autonomy. But the IOA went ahead saying they were bound by the Delhi High Court order.”

Of course, this is sad for the many Indian athletes who will no doubt suffer because the IOC’s expected move (it’s to be announced later today) means the IOA will stop getting money from the IOC, and Indian athletes will be prevented from competing in Olympic events under the Indian flag; they can, however, compete under the IOC’s auspices.

Then what’s funny? As anyone who knows Indian sports officialdom will tell you, this is perhaps the world’s greatest collection of self-obsessed, sad men whose usefulness has long passed their sell-by date. It isn’t uncommon for promising athletes to be treated like the servants of said officials; it’s also not uncommon for international athletic meets to see almost as many officials as athletes.

Sadly, in the world of global sports, India is an also-ran, so the autocratic moves by Indian officialdom can only be matched by a body that’s more autocratic than it. Enter, the IOC.

This is not cricket after all, where every move by the Board of Cricket Control in India had global ramifications because it’s the world’s biggest market for the game (and the other cricket boards grin and bear it); this is the Olympics.

What India does in the world of global sports is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. To put it mildly, no one cares — except the IOC. But I’m quite confident of a swift resolution of the issue, after all the suspension means Indian officials can no longer attend Olympic meetings and events.

Nov 192012

One hurdle a crime writer faces is devising a plausible plot. This is true for most writers in the genre, but especially so for someone who sets their stories in a place like India.
No mere crime of passion or culpable homicide will do. There must be an element of intrigue that raises more questions than it answers. Why? Because the best real crimes in India can only be conjured up by a writer on acid; so convoluted are their plots, so full of implausible twists and turns that to summon them from the depths of your imagination would take real talent — or a hallucinogen.
Case in point: The killing this weekend near Delhi of Ponty, the billionaire businessman, by his younger brother ostensibly over the ownership of a farmhouse. (The two had also been feuding over the division of the billion-dollar company built by their father). It would be just like Richard III, except the younger brother was killed at the scene, too.
Gurudeep Singh Chadha, to give Ponty his full name, was emblematic of the new India: a tycoon thrown up by the murky nexus of business and politics. He owned real estate; held the monopoly on the liquor business in Uttar Pradesh state, home to 200 million people; and, until recently, enjoyed political patronage. Not bad for someone who began his career selling snacks on the streets.
His end was as sudden as his rise was meteoric.
According to various media reports, Ponty came to the farmhouse with between 30 and 40 men to take possession of the property. His brother, Hardeep, on hearing of Ponty’s movements, took his own armed entourage to the farmhouse, of which they both claimed ownership. An argument quickly devolved into gunfire. Hardeep shot Ponty, and was himself shot by one of his brother’s guards. Both men were killed. Police said three weapons, all licensed, and including an AK-47, were recovered from the scene. Forty rounds of ammunition were fired.
Now, since this a good, old-fashioned killing, there are more questions than answers; much grist for the conspiracy-fueled mill. Here are some being raised in the Indian media:
1. Why did the brothers, who were feuding over a company, decide to open fire over a mere farmhouse?
2. Why, if 40 rounds of ammunition were fired , were there only two fatalities (and one injury)?
3. What was the role played by the state-provided security personnel who accompanied the two men? Did they, in fact, play a role in the killing? Or did they get there too late?
Of course, these questions will be asked repeatedly and, given the flexible nature of public accountability in India, the answers will vary each time.
And given the unholy nexus of criminality, commerce and politics in India, such incidents are unlikely to be isolated or indeed act as a deterrent. For every Ponty who’s killed, there are hundreds, probably thousands of others, who only saw the life he led and the success he achieved. They form the cornerstone of the new India.
Which brings me back to fiction. The best fiction reflects society. It’s part of the reason I loved Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger so much. L’affaire Ponty is a possible postscript to that novel. It’s tragic that it had to end in violence.

Nov 172012

The political cartoonist harnessed Mumbai’s working-class rage into the the city’s most potent political force.
That he loved Mumbai, there’s little doubt — though his supporters in the Shiv Sena found a funny way of showing it. Of his politics, the less said the better.
Balasaheb was 86. R.I.P.

 Posted by at 9:12 am
Nov 152012

There’s little Indians hate more than foreigners writing (or making a film or insert your chosen art form here) about the country. This sentiment is particularly evident in a city like Bombay. “Why do they want to see only the negative side of the country?” is one question. “Who do they think they are?” is another. “Why don’t they focus on their own problems?” All, of course, are valid questions, and I’ve asked these very questions, particularly when I lived in India, about various documentaries and films that portrayed Bombay and, indeed, India.
But now that I’ve written a novel set in Mumbai from the comfort of my living room in the U.S., I have a different take. Possibly because I did get a few , “Sitting in America and writing about us…” sort of comments — mostly said half in jest. Anyhoo, that’s the reason for my reversal.
Hypocrisy? Perhaps. But I’d like to think of it more as a disinterested view.
A previous blog post chronicles a list of my favorite books on Bombay.
It’s only on revisiting that post today did I realize that four of the five books on the list were written by authors who don’t live in the city. Among them is Katherine Boo, the author of Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which won the National Book Award last night for Nonfiction.
Here’s what I wrote about the book at the time:

Reporter Katherine Boo’s telling of life in a Mumbai slum can be daunting reading, but it provides stark and necessary relief to much of the narratives emerging from India in the Western media about India’s growing prosperity.

Here’s what I liked about Boo’s book: She neither patronized nor infantilized the subjects of her book. Now, that’s a rare trait in most of us with relatively privileged upbringings who deal with the poor or poverty. Boo’s focus comes from her career, which has been spent reporting on poverty in cities like Mumbai, but also in American communities.

Her reporting on the mentally retarded in Washington, D.C., won her a Public Service Pulitzer in 2000. Here’s what the awards committee said about her work at the time:

“Awarded to The Washington Post, notably for the work of Katherine Boo, that disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms.”

Her article “The Marriage Cure”, which reported on Oklahoma’s efforts to promote marriage as a way out of poverty, won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004.

What is especially remarkable about Boo’s reporting is that she’s avoided the allure of reporting on the world’s “big events,” preferring instead to focus her attention on social issues. Here’s how the Guardian described her in a recent profile:

“American reporter Katherine Boo decided early on that hers would be a different route. Once and only once did she agree to write about life at the top: in 1993, as a reporter at the Washington Post, she was commissioned to write a lengthy magazine profile of the new vice-president, Al Gore.
Afterwards she felt it had been pointless. “I get tired of obsessing about characters,” she says when we meet in London. “I feel like there’s a lot of people who want to do that kind of work, and they’re really good at it. I think social issues are kind of worthy things that people graduate from, to a large extent. In journalism, if you get to be really hot stuff, that’s where you get to go – to the White House! – and that’s too bad.”
So Boo, then in her late 20s, returned to her vocation: writing about the lives of the poorest people in America.”

I highly recommend Beyond the Beautiful Forevers if you haven’t read it yet. It’s a remarkable work of reporting that delves deeply into the lives of people whom the rest of us do our best to ignore.

Oct 222012

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the sales of Ayn Rand’s work in India.
This was the headline: :
“Why Ayn Rand outsells Karl Marx in India by 16 to 1 (and what else she tells us about countries)”

Here’s more from the article:

Rand’s minor cult status in India has been noted before. According to one report, Indians searched Google for Ayn Rand more often than anyone else until 2007, when a Tea-Party obsessed America took over the top spot. It’s typically read as a reaction to the country’s stratified social hierarchy and heavy, lumbering government, anathema to the fiercely self-sufficient heroes of Rand’s novels. Indeed, one Indian libertarian, writing a few years ago—before the rise of the Tea Party—argued that she was even more respected in India than America because Indians actually live in the “collectivist, pseudo-statist, tradition-bound, mystic society” that she would have decried (unlike American Rand fans, who only think they do.)

The Google citation presumably is based upon this Economist article, which the article cites.

What does all of this tell us about India? May I humbly suggest that the answer is nothing.
After all, it’s a country where you can buy Mein Kampf and the anti-Semitic hoax Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but where you still can’t legally buy a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
The availability of certain books and the lack of availability of others may provide a hint about reading tastes of certain groups of people, but little else.
Are there Indian who worship at the fountainhead of individualism? Sure.
Are there those who want to set up a Maoist regime? Absolutely.

Of course, is it possible that the sales of Rand’s works means the growth of individualism in India, a country where even today notions of self-expression and privacy are practically nonexistent outside the major cities. The real story would be if Rand’s works outsold Marx and others in Hindi or any of the regional languages. English, after all, is confined to a tiny sliver of the nation of 1.2 billion people. What’s 100 million people — especially when they don’t vote.