Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Review: Anu Vaidyanathan's Anywhere But Home

Gutsy and humourous!
Anu Vaidyanathan’s Anywhere but Home is an engagingly written account of a woman’s commitment to sports. Written in a wry, humorous, and whacky style, Vaidyanathan unveils the intrepid Indian’s journey through her chosen sport of triathlon – a combination of running, cycling, and swimming. What seems impossible to an old codger like me seems possible for this woman owing to a can-do spirit and a gutsy temperament. I learn a few things like if you are chased by a pack of dogs while on your morning walk/run – as I have been – sing to them. Yes, it does the trick and the dogs wag their tails at me, after my tuneless singing of old Rock-and-roll hits.

Engagingly written, well produced, this book is worth a look because of what it can offer, especially after the Olympics where it was our girls who picked up the medals. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Book Review: B Ground West

Disclosure first: B Ground West is a novel written by a Siddhartha Bhasker, an author I know, whom I met at the launch of an anthology which published his short story as well as mine. Let me introduce him, he has been to IIT, Kgp (Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur) – that hallowed institution of engineering – and this is a story which may have autobiographical elements, though I don’t know for sure. For people like me, who balked at the thought of even writing the entrance exam to IIT, approaching the book itself holds a sense of trepidation. What happens inside the IIT? How brilliant are these superbly endowed beings? What do they do for leisure? Are stories I heard true?

Yes. Stories I heard are true, so the book tells me. What the student looks for is a respite from the intensive coaching that they have been subjected to right from ninth standard. There is also respite from the demands of hands-on parents who are worried that their wards will not make it. One way of rebelling against this merciless drubbing they receive is to write it all and let the world know. That’s how an IIT author is born. The IITs were created to train hardcore engineers who would build the nation, but they turn out to be softcore, confused generalists who would then work as authors, copywriters, film people, consultants, or sales and marketing managers. In short, IIT-ians are considered as the IAS brigade of the corporate world.

Bhasker studied in IIT Kharagpur and wants the world to know the zeitgeist they can expect in this prestigious institution. Wild parties with booze do exist, so also does ragging of a minor kind. The author has chosen the self-publishing route to publication which clearly shows, insofar as editing is concerned. After all, engineers are engineers and not sub-editors.

The present novel B Ground West, is a frank and forthright look at the life of an IIT graduate going through a life crisis, which his friends help him overcome. Kabir, who works in a consultancy, is caught in the firing at a terrorist hit in Churchgate station and becomes depressed. The style is light and readable, and the editing leaves much to be desired. The camaraderie, the chumminess of undergraduate life is obvious as the story shifts from IIT Kharagpur to down-market Kharghar in New Bombay. We get to read a lot about IIT Kharagpur and how the hostel inmates spend their days of youthful abandon. The novelist is good in parts and since the author has also shown commitment in publishing a collection of short stories, he needs to get his act together and read and understand more about the issues facing India and how his characters face them, and, probably overcome them.

Read this novel if you are a fan of IIT novels.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Will GMOs Be Approved in India

One of the crucial debates that’s going on in the country is whether Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) foods will be approved for India. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee which comes under the ministry of environment is considering whether genetically engineered okra, brinjal, mustard, etc. should be allowed to be cultivated in India. Both proponents and opposers are trading charges and accusing each other of being misguided, corrupt, and unreasonable. After all, the activists claim, it’s in the interest of our own children, grandchildren that GMOs need to be banished from this country, as has the Soviet Union and Europe. The dangers of GMOs-related-pesticides and the associated abnormality bring to new-born babies and their parents have been studied independently and verified. But GMO proponents sweep all these under the carpet and claim that it is harmless and bio-degradable.

Recently, around 110 Nobel laureates came in support of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). They signed a memorandum endorsing GMOs and especially Golden Rice which is a product that the GMO-giant Monsanto has been developing over the past 20 years, without success. The endorsement has been spearheaded by one Nobel-winner Richard Roberts who is the chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs. New England Biolabs according to its website is, “a recognized world leader in the discovery, development and commercialization of recombinant and native enzymes for genomic research.” In fact, it is closely related – for comfort – to the GMO manufacturing companies in the scope of its research and products.

Roberts has succeeded in getting the 110 Nobel-laureates to believe that those who are opposing GMO rice – in this case Greenpeace and other NGOs – are entities which aren’t scientific, and who do not follow scientific thought. For example sample what he says:

“We’re scientists. We understand the logic of science. It's easy to see what Greenpeace is doing is damaging and is anti-science," Roberts told The Washington Post. “Greenpeace initially, and then some of their allies, deliberately went out of their way to scare people. It was a way for them to raise money for their cause." What made the GMO-producing company choose the head of a laboratory of a similar research company to garner signatures of so many Nobel laureates? What’s not clear is who funded the signature campaign Roberts initiated, and who funded the special-purpose website which was created to tom-tom support for the GMO, golden rice. No, Roberts wouldn’t spend time and money to do it himself, if he had no monetary incentive given to him.

In fact the activists opposing GMOs have always been repeating the very same thing. They have been stating again and again that they are for scientific discussion and discourse on GMOs based on third-party scientific research, which GMO companies like Monsanto are firmly opposing. Monsanto has been researching and arriving at its own conclusions, which, according to another hoary Indian saying, is like appoint a thief as the guardian of the treasury. Monsanto has it going smoothly as most of the top functionaries in US’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are people who have been associated with it in some capacity. Michael Taylor, a Monsanto director, was appointed in 2010 as commissioner of FDA. The current chief of FDA was Monsanto’s vice-president for public policy. This also applies to US department of agriculture (USDA) where most of the top people are linked to Monsanto as executives or lobbyists.

India has had a record of GMO use since the eighties with its approval of BT cotton, which is grown in the cotton-growing areas of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Increasingly, the farmers who have been using BT cotton seeds have been committing suicide because of the high cost of seeds and the weedicide Roundup which goes by the chemical name of Glyphosate. Glyphosate is known to destroy gut bacteria, which helps in digesting food and assimilating nutrients into the body.

It’s this weedicide Roundup which is causing more problem than the GMO seeds itself. It is a carcinogen and has been found to penetrate human bodies, and is found in the blood, urine, and milk of humans. Moreover, it pollutes aquifiers and causes trans-gene pollution of other crops. The delicate ecosystem of Vidharba’s cotton-growing areas have been so compromised by Glyphosate that farmers who want to return to traditional cotton cultivation are finding that the soil has become fallow and unproductive.

Even the produce of the GMO seeds is questionable. As Dr Michael Antoniou of King’s College London School of Medicine in the UK states:

“Research studies show that genetically modified crops have harmful effects on laboratory animals in feeding trials and on the environment during cultivation. They have increased the use of pesticides and have failed to increase yields.”

Monsanto is like the Microsoft of genetic engineering, wanting to control and hold its market to such an extent that it wants nothing but world domination. Like Microsoft it will brook no interference in its way of functioning and policies. It saw a window when the present dispensation in India announced its Make in India initiative. It came with a big bag and promised so much investment to appease those in power, the rider being that its products would have a smooth introduction into the Indian market. It seems, an unsuspecting public that has tasted the fruits of GMOs (BT cotton) is being force-fed other GMOs with the delusional argument that they are scientific and, therefore, good for people.

So, now, in addition to BT cotton a whole lot of products like okra, brinjal, mustard, rice, etc. are going to come to India in the near future if their introduction is approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Proponents of GMOs are fighting tooth and nail for its introduction saying it will end hunger from our midst if the GMOs with magical properties are approved. Activists and right-thinking people who know the perils of GMOs have been opposing it. The problem is that once GMOs gain entry it would be very difficult to make them leave, as the GMO-producing companies will use every trick in the books to stay. The fight is evenly balanced now and there’s no knowing which way it would tip.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The City of Nocturnal Terrors

 “For the city, his city, stood unchanging on the edge of time: the same burning dry city of his nocturnal terrors and the solitary pleasures of puberty, where flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels and putrefying swamps.”
-   Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in Times of Cholera

In Gabriel Marquez’s Macondo nothing happened for four centuries, but in the small town of Kidangannor, a lot had happened, most of which unnoticed and undocumented. It was so small and rustic a place that to buy a tube of toothpaste I had to travel four kilometres to the nearest town of Kozhencherry. The very social fabric had changed from one of respect for the neighbour to one of hatred. The town changed, as all places should. If you go there today you will be stared at, sarcastic comments will be made, and even caustic questions would be asked to your face. Such was the transformation that people who once returned for its idyll stopped coming, others went to distant countries to settle down as migrants and never come back. They had outgrown the town.

It could all be attributed to the discontent growing among the poor and dispossessed. The once subjugated ones had risen and created their own political affiliation and demanded better terms for themselves. Farming ceased to exist as a driving force of the economy, and unpredictable weather made it difficult to plant anything with any success. The labour rates went sky high and one-time farmers were making losses on their crops.

Consequently farm labourers turned themselves into gangs of thieves, raiding uninhabited houses, and geriatric homes where the old house owner and his wife were the only residents. The children were in far-away countries, working at their unforgiving jobs, affording a holiday to the native land only in two years or more.

My father was one who had come back from the great city of Bombay to settle down as a gentleman farmer, facing heavy odds. He gave up farming when his health declined, or, was it the other way around, I don’t know. I used to regularly visit my parents in my home town, out of a sense of duty. That was until the day it happened.

We – my wife, son, and I – were sleeping in our house, beside our ancestral house. Those were pre-ATM years and I had carried a lot of cash to do some maintenance work on my house. The robbers somehow entered the house, burgled all our money, even extracting the money from my wallet without disturbing my return ticket. Then I woke up and found the night light off and asked my wife if she had done so. She said she hadn’t. Then I thought maybe it’s a power cut of which there were many. But then glancing up I saw the fan whirring and, suddenly, I became alert, I knew something was going on. I switched on the light to see the extent of the burglary. The money I had kept for repairs in a leather bag was all gone, so were a lot of accessories including: sun glasses, deodorants, and a few saris of my wife.

I never imagined I would be the victim of a robbery in my own home town, a small place where there wasn’t a police station or even a movie theatre. The precision of the theft startled me. Such was my shock. The robbers had executed everything carefully, having studied and planned everything. They knew how and from where to enter the house, where I kept my money, and where we slept. All this meant that they knew us and our routines well. Immediately my suspicion went on the maintenance workers who came to my house to carry out repairs. They were all trustworthy people with whom I had worked before but you can’t look at a person and know who is a thief. Maybe, their economic necessity was dire, they were dissolute, and they needed the money to survive.

From that day I withdrew from my village of my birth, Kidangannoor. Years passed, my parents died, and I lost touch altogether. These days I pass by it, look at it, and remember all the good days I had enjoyed in it. It had grown distant and had become for me the “city of nocturnal terrors and the solitary pleasures of puberty” as Marquez wrote. The nocturnal terror of that night had made me wary. I had enjoyed its pleasures, and bathed in its canals and walked the hills, but it held no more charm for me now, because I had moved on in life.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Novel "Bandookwala, MBA, Harvard" Going in for Sixth Edit

What? A sixth edit of your novel, are you mad? Some of you know how mad I am for my novel "Mr. Bandookwala, MBA, Harvard," for which I will do anything even a sixth edit.

This time it will be complete re-write. Yes, every word will be re-typed. I know where I have gone wrong and how I can correct it. I need to take it away from the writing desk, into more intimate spaces, such as the terrace, and the perch by the window. Writing, sitting at a desk, makes us dogmatic, didactic. A novel is not that. A novel is a fresh new look at things, from a wholly new perspective, which is why I want to move away from the desk.

Reading Nabokov and Thakazhi has helped. I consider Thakazhi one of the greatest writers of our times, undiscovered, because no good translations exist. He has written around 25 novels, 200 short stories, and a few autobiographies. All his novels are exceptional, his writing characterises the human condition better than most over-hyped writers of today.

However, I am not as talented as Thakazhi. His range and canvas is immense, varied and unmatched. In talent he can match Shakespeare and Cervantes and in range he can easily beat Marquez. But why is he still considered a regional writer and ignored? I think the Sahitya Akademi should translate all his works and then put it to the world to decide on his greatness.

Reading an interview I learnt that Thakazhi wrote in the night. Even his daughters were surprised to learn that he wrote at all, under cover of the night, when all was calm. After a tiring night of writing he used to drop in to the local bar (kallu shappu) for a few drinks of palm wine. The writer who went to interview him at home was told by a wayfarer, "He must be in the kallu shappu." I think during the day he read and thought deeply about contemporary issues to put them into words in the night.

Already I have sacrificed a lot of time on this novel. So, why not sacrifice a little more. After all, as a friend said, "It's only the good things - writing - that matter, the rest can be forgiven." So, friends, wish me luck, if you see this in a kindly light.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Slaves of Technology

I had suspected this would happen all along. One fine day you wake up and find that your phone doesn’t respond. There’s this offensive message, “Unfortunately, contacts has stopped.” I receive a call from my brother-in-law who is on the way for a visit, but I can’t access his telephone number. I sit and fume. Not unlike the stupid content writer who wrote this script, the phone, too, is an idiot of the exalted kind. I know because I was one.

Having worked with techies, I pride about my knowledge of technical gizmos and gadgets. So I try uploading my contacts to cloud and restoring it to the damn thing. It restores alright, but still the contacts section is inaccessible, showing the abovementioned message. It’s a virus I am sure, I say, convinced my gizmo is in the last throes of life.

I call up my techie son in the US. It’s midnight there and I can hear his sleep-deprived dreamy voice mumble something about operating systems. It seems he uses an iphone and has used that technology all his life, so he doesn’t know much about Android. Can a phone operating system be so weirdly complex? Papa, how many Applications do you have? I say I have around thirty different applications, including one on which I do sketches and doodles. That’s too many, an application can infect your phone, delete some, it will work, and he goes off right back to dreaming. I try posting my problem on the family Whatsapp group, since that application is working. A cousin’s techie son points me to a discussion group and says I can get my solution there. I go there. There are people who sound like techies with names like Star War characters. Three-pee-oh says the phone is overloaded so delete some applications. I have heard it before.

It sounds so simple. Delete some applications. So I delete a lot many applications I haven’t used lately. I switch off and re-start my phone. It still shows that pesky message, “Unfortunately, your contacts has stopped.” What’s so unfortunate about it? I know it is unfortunate, so don’t rub it in. Besides, your grammar is bad.

This is unfair. I shouldn’t have gone for a smart phone in the first place. Or, I should have bought an iphone, which, I hear, can never catch a virus, and therefore can never be infected like my phone is. Meanwhile, I can’t make any calls. Brother-in-law has to be picked up because a strike is on and rickshaws won’t be plying. There’s no way of knowing when they would reach. Wifey is away in school, so I can’t use her phone.

As one who prides in knowing a bit of technology and has used it to advantage I sit and wring my hands in frustration. I know what it means when friends say their phone memories have been wiped out along with their bank passwords. This is technology without the redeeming factor of good content writing and good programming. The nearest service station is ten kilometres away and, anyway, I won’t be able to go there because of the rickshaw strike.

And, that’s what modern life has become. We all have become slaves of technology.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

About... Britain's Exit from European Union

Overheard in a pub somewhere in England:

Them bastids want to take over our country, heard?
No way, mate. We take them back with what they call Brexit. It means exit from what those arseholes call EU.
Cor blimey! What the bellend is EU?
Some blighters, want to take our beers and our chicks.
Bollocks! I don't want nothing to do with them Twonks!
Then vote Brexit, I say.
Yay! I am bloody Brexit, myself!

The Real Reason behind Suicide of Cotton Farmers in Vidarbha

Today I met Ajit Chavan (name changed) who is from Yavatmal, a district in Vidarbha which is the cotton-growing region of Maharashtra. He works as a driver in our locality and he could only speak Marathi, which I, thankfully, am conversant enough to carry on a conversation. He had recently migrated to the city, which was the reason I became interested in his story.

I asked him why farmers were committing suicide in the cotton growing areas of Vidharbha. From 2012 to April this year, a total of 3,145 farmers committed suicide in the six districts in Vidarbha region – Amravati, Yavatmal, Wardha, Washim, Akola and Buldhana. He said it is because of BT Cotton, the cotton seeds sold by Monsanto’s subsidiary Mahyco. Having been a farmer himself, he could shed light on the real reason why there is a spate of suicides among cotton growers in this region. He had migrated because his family could no longer cultivate cotton which was the traditional crop of that area. He knew the economics of Mahyco’s supposedly superior seeds which are driving cotton farmers to desperation. Here’s what he had to say.

The seeds aren’t cheap, they cost Rs 2400 per 400 gram and you need Rs 6,200 worth of seeds for one acre of land. He has seven acres of land. Monsanto’s seeds have to be sprayed with its own herbicide Roundup (a lethal chemical and a carcinogen called Glyphosate) which cost Rs 1500 for 100 millilitres. (I am not going into the toxicity of Glyphosate in this short article.) Roundup has to be sprayed five times during the crop’s life cycle so it is an additional Rs 7500 for an acre, assuming 100 millilitres will suffice for an acre. And, he hasn’t included labour costs in this. By this time the farmer has already spent Rs 100,000 and is in debt. Mahyco’s seeds are supposed to give better crop, but it isn’t so. The finished cotton when sold in the market fetches Rs 5,000 per 100 kilograms.

BT Cotton Seed per acre = Rs 6,200
Roundup (herbicide) per acre = Rs 7,500
Total of BT Cotton and Roundup per acre = Rs 13,700
For seven acres it works to = (13,700 x 7) Rs 95,900 ... (1)
Labour cost (weeding, sowing, harvesting) = Rs 25,000 ... (2)
Total expenditure (1 + 2) for 7 acres of land Rs = Rs 1,20,900
To recover his investment he will have to get 2500 kg of cotton (@ sales price of Rs 5000 per 100 kilograms). He doesn’t even get that much.

After investing so much money – often borrowed from unscrupulous moneylenders – the subsistence farmer is not able to recover his investment, leave alone meet his food expenses. How could he maintain a family? BT cotton needs constant care and also needs more water in the water-scarce area of Yavatmal. This is what drives a farmer to suicide.

A word about traditional Indian agriculture would, I am sure, be of interest. Indian farmers being poor don’t buy seeds; they store seeds from their own crop to sow in the next season, because it is free. May I call this seed cycle? Mahyco wants them to buy their expensive seeds and herbicide every season. That’s an expensive proposition leading to high costs for the subsistence farmer.
So, Ajit’s family has abandoned BT cotton cultivation and has taken up soyabean and pulses cultivation, on which expenses are low. These crops don’t require constant tending and also requires less water. And, since he is working in the city as a driver he is able to send some money home to meet expenses.

Recently, the government has approved cultivation of GMO mustard seed in India. Monsanto’s brinjal, okra and other products will follow. A multinational can trot out many reasons to convince us that their seeds are better because they are genetically modified and are, therefore, high technology. But at the poor and illiterate farmer’s level, the above economic assessment shows that farmers end up being ruined and have to think of selling their land and migrating to cities to survive.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Shifting Paradigm

Today the whole paradigm is shifting from the performer to what is happening behind the stage. So, it’s not what is happening in Indian Premier League but what is happening behind the scenes (Who is paid what? Who gets to comment?). It’s not what is happening at Euro cup, but how and where the fans are clashing. It’s not about music but what the singers like Kayne West and Kim Kardashian are doing. It’s about why Justin Bieber – that chap who sings like a woman – and Selena Gomez split. It’s not about the movies anymore but what the stars did, how often they had sex, what they said after breaking up about the “silly ex.”
So, also in literature – since this is a passion – we are interested in Where Rushdie and Lakshmi holidayed and what they ate and wore. Our literature festivals are hardly festivals where people go to hear authors and ask questions. (I am assuming that they do read books.) The authors, faux authors I may add, who may have written a book ten years ago, or a celebrity who had her biography ghost-written, a la Monica Lewinsky, comes and pontificates about literature. And the true literature lover drools at the star value on display, the humour, the smart repartee. The audience gets talked down to, and when they want to ask a legitimate question they are told to shut up – had this experience – and told to take the conversation back stage. Only, the conversation backstage never happens.
In the interregnum, in this melee of sorts, the real artistic talent, or sportsperson gets sidelined. It’s always how much money was bet and how much made. Artistic talent is ignored. Therefore is it legitimate to develop artistic talent? Yeah, why not write a nonsensical book and spend a couple of millions hiring spin doctors and internet marketers to sell it. And fall in love with a celebrity of sorts and then break up and have the press writing vitriol about your sex life? Else, why not write a scathing caricature of a megalomaniac political leader and get a blackened face? Ah, you have made it my boy! Brilliant!
That’s what we are secretly aspiring for, aren’t we?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Architecture of the Flesh – Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar has the unique talent of combining the everyday aspects of life with eroticism and mysteriousness. This collection – mistakenly filed under Architecture by an ignorant librarian! – is about his obsession with the body and the things about it which shocks us on a daily basis. Sometimes, our bodies are fine, coasting along, till it, of a sudden, refuses to oblige. Then terror strikes. His poems may shock at first with their erotic content, but on a second reading there is a hidden sub-text of political comment, an apparent social injustice and a whiff of the exotic. How he manages all this is puzzling and enigmatic. His talents are in full show in his poetry collection, “Architecture of Flesh,” published by Paperwall.

Hailing from Kerala he has an excellent command over many languages including: Malayalam, English, and Tamil. In Aphrodisiac he writes:

“My balls!” he cries as shredded testicles
Find their way into dark alley eateries
Where powdered sperm with battered baby flesh
Are sold as phallic pills
To bolster flagging will.

There are places on earth where powdered sperms are sold as aphrodisiacs. Now this may deviate a bit from erotic, but the symbolism is one of mixing the esoteric sexual power of the Aphrodisiac with body parts. Bold and experimental the poet takes on known canons of poetry with his unique opinion about what constitutes poetry.

In a sensitive poem about death Intensive Care Unit – I he writes:

Four islands is a death row in a shroud
Glimmering and tearful glints that fade into the spirit.
Four square squints of machinery life
Chrome sores lit up with steely corroding tides.

Porthole lights went off in one island today
As it sank into a sea wet with wasted sadness
Its generators switched off and respirators cut off
And oxygen vents closed for public view.

Certainly it’s a poem about death and how one thinks of it when one is confined to a bed in an Intensive Care Unit. It is also about the architecture of the flesh, how our arteries and veins refuse to co-operate some times, how our bowels complain and then shut up.

All in all, a good collection from a major poetic talent from down south. Worth buying for a look for its provocative imagery and boldness of treatment with occasional erotic glimpses. (To buy online: www.poetrywall.in, Rs 225).