To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, September 03, 2012

Old Hindi movie songs and spirituality?!

Most Indians of Gen-X who understand Hindi (or at least watched Hindi movies, which is a bigger population!) know that many songs in Hindi movies of yore, say upto 1970s, had 'double meanings'.  But double meaning of the gentle kind like 'Aanchal mein kya jee?...' (Kishore Kumar), not the like of 'Choli kay peechhay kya hai...' (Neena Gupta gyrating in 'Khalnayak').  And I mention one from the 1980s because the ones with 'real' double meanings, especially those from movies made in the 'noughties' (the first decade of 21st century, not to be confused with 'naughty'!), hardly leave anything to imagination.  And that applies to the songs with double meanings, not ones in recent times which have single, explicit meanings (just listen to 'Bheege honth tere...')!

Anyway, talking of the old Hindi movie songs, the double meanings in those songs were of two kinds.  There were some which were naughty (in a decent way, in keeping with social mores of the time), alluding 'between lines' to things which they could not in polite conversation (after all, those were the times when a mere touch between screen lovers could ignite sparks!).  And then there were some with perfectly normal lyrics but with a hidden meaning hinting at spirituality.  These were the songs which really touched the chords of one's heart.

Some of these songs, while ostensibly talking of the mundane, eventually made it clear that the allusion had all through been to higher things.  An example of this kind would be 'Laaga chunri mein daag...' - not the recent movie with that title, but the Manna Dey song picturised on Raj Kapoor.  Here, while the initial stanzas of the song seemed to be saying something mundane, the closing lines make it clear that the connotation all through had been to 'this world and hereafter': 'O ri chunariya atma mori, nain hain maya jaal...'.

And then there were songs which did not make any effort to clarify their meaning in any detail, perhaps because no such clarification was needed by the listeners!  Take the supremely soulful 'Mere sajan hain us paar...', sung by the maestro Sachin Dev Burman for 'Bandini', picturised on Nutan and Dharmendra.  I'm told the tune belongs to a musical tradition known in the Eastern part of India as 'Bhatiyali', alluding to songs sung mostly by boatmen and their ilk.  In this song, the first and the third stanzas, 'Mere sajan hain us par...', and 'Mat khel jal jayegi', talk of the longing of a lovelorn for her lover, supposedly living on the 'other side' (maybe of a river?), while the second stanza ('Man ki kitab se tum...') seems to hint at the ephemeral nature of fame or reputation.

What's to be noted is that while the meanings of the first and second stanzas is clear to the listener (one 'other-worldly' and the other promoting 'vairagya'), the meaning of the last stanza is not so clear.  A casual listener may conclude that this stanza ('Mat khel jal jayegi, kehti hai aag mere man ki...') cautions the lovelorn lady not to be consumed by the 'fire' of love, while she protests that she's after all the constant companion of her beloved ('Main bandini piya ki, main sangini hoon sajan ki...').  But just dig a little bit deeper and there's another meaning that shines forth: that the path of devotion to God is like walking on fire, and your only support is a firm conviction that you (the soul) can gain His companionship.  The masterstroke is the final line which subtly hints at His constant call: 'Mera kheenchti hai aanchal, manmeet teri hai pukar...'.

More on such songs later...

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Backing the wrong horse(s)...

The headline news (or "breaking news", as most news channels are wont to call it!) in almost all Indian newspapers today is how Manmohan Singh, taking over Finance ministry after Pranab Mukherji resigned en route to the President House, choose to meet his old 'groupies' Montek Singh Ahluwalia and C Rangarajan for a start.  And how this signalled great things to come...

It's striking how we Indians as a people, raised as many of us are (or at least were, till a couple of decades back) on mythological stories, are highly susceptible to the 'history syndrome'.  At the slightest pretext, whenever we even get a hint of an incident (or even a persona) resembling anything that has happened any time in the past - right from Rama's time to Krishna's and all the way till the end of 20th century and everything in between - we are wont to clutch at the straws of history/mythology and get our danders up 

(or down, as the case may be) basis the similarity of circumstances.  Little do we realize the dynamic nature of history - things once gone are hardly likely to come back, not in the same form at least.  Even if we could at least learn something from history, it'd be of some use; but no, we're content with just being nostalgic and all rosy eyed...

The over-exhuberance with Manmohan Singh taking charge of Finance ministry, and pulling along his 'old' team on the first day, is another demonstration of the same syndrome.  Now, nobody has got anything against Dr. Singh - he's a decent enough man, who's come up the ladder by dint of his technical/academic brilliance.  But how in the world is this 'opportunity' - of being in charge of Finance ministry again (though there were snide remarks earlier that even as PM he preferred to deal with Financial and Economic issues rather than the wider ones, including political) - supposed to add to his ability to deal with the country's current economic situation any more than what he was already able to do as PM?  

And are we really sure he 'understands' the current world/economic paradigm the same way he did 20 years back?  Perhaps he does (being a brilliant economist himself), but there's a world of difference between understanding something and doing, or even being 'allowed to do' (ref. all the the talk of 'coalition dharma'), something to help the situation.  Do we expect that Dr. Singh would just pull out his magic wand (of 1990s vintage!), say "Abracadabra", and all our economic ills would just vanish?!  And that too when the wand itself has rusted quite a bit in the intervening 20 years.  Call it 'old wine in new bottle' or whatever you may, the reality is that Dr. Singh may find himself as flummoxed (and hand-tied) in dealing with the current situation as FM (esp. if he chooses to use 20 year-old methods) as he has been as PM.

As for Montek, the guy appears to have actually deteriorated in his outlook over these 20 years.  Part of the blame must be put in the

space he finds himself in - as head of a communist-style 'apparatchik' body lording over Central Govt. resources and granting 'doles' to provincial govts.  Never mind that the resources are raised in the same provinces (and then 'appropriated' by the Centre and part of it funneled into the black home called Govt. bureaucracy)!  And never mind whether the money so doled out actually reaches the target populations.  The fact that Montek has got totally disjointed from ground realities is borne out by many indications, one being his view that a 'normal' person an live on Rs. 30 a day (presumably, if that 'normal person' doesn't have to spend Rs. 3 million on a couple of toilets, of the kind recently built in Montek's fiefdom Yojana Bhawan), while 'Montek-ji' himself can fly around the world on 'official' tours at a cost of crores.  If ever there was a contest for the best 'armchair economist' (living within ivory towers), Montek will qualify without even running for it!

As for Rangarajan, the best one could say about him is that he prefers to 'stick to his knitting'.  As Governor of Reserve Bank of India, he excelled in dealing with esoteric things like repo rates, CRR, (theoretical) inflation trends and such like.  And one suspects he has continued to restrict himself to dealing only with faceless numbers rather than real people.  Probably he can talk at length on the shape of money supply in the economy, without even a hint of what that 'money' means to the person on the ground trying to survive with the same (or even reduced) 'supply' of it while prices of everyday items keeps going up and up and up.  Something that not only doesn't hit people like Rangarajan, insulated as they are from any level of price rise, but is sanitized by the same people into faceless concepts of 'inflation' ('double dip' or not), 'stagflation', 'recession' and the like - much more palateable to deal with than the ugly realities of abject poverty and penury at both urban and rural levels.

Is it any surprise that with such a merry bunch at the helm, our economy is in the doldrums.  These are the people who, even when they get themselves up to do something at last, start talking about dealing with 'investor sentiment' and 'market trends', not even making a passing reference to the plight of the same 'common man' to whom many of them have to go every five years.  As if their first accoutability lies with the 'international community' and not to their constituents.   Well, talk of investors and market all you like, but at least explain to the common man how doing something to improve these is likely to (it's only a possibility after all, not a certainty) lead to a better deal for him.  

A classic example is how the Govt. machinery dealt with the resistance to foreign investment in the retail sector.  On paper, a whole lot of downstream benefits could be envisaged, from better realizations for farmers to more competitive prices for the consumers, eliminating middlemen from both ends of the chain.  But no, the Govt. preferred to talk only of how permitting this would lead to a great improvement in investor sentiment (even as many farmers' bodies got wise about the potential benefits, and chose to take a stand counter to the agitating trader community who seemed to have a bigger ear of the powers that be across the political spectrum)!

And you know why they wouldn't talk about the common man's reality on any issue?  It's because, in his heart of hearts, in the privacy of his leir, any intelligent man (discounting the idealistic fools), either in the economic or in the political space, knows that the machinery and mechanism which has been built up since our independence (and even before) is so rusted and moth-eaten by corruption that come what may, only a very small portion of economic benefits actually reach the common man for whom it's meant.  

And that applies to 'trickling down' of any economic & social good under the sun - unemployment benefits (the NREGS chain riddled with corruption at all levels and leakink like a sieve), education (whole armies of teachers drawing salaries from Govt. but not setting foot in the dilapidated rural 'schools'; why do you think there are riots every time a recruitment drive for teachers or policemen is held - because it's a licence to draw a pay withouth working & thus 'loot of the treasury'), health (primary healthcare centre workers playing truant, just like their brethren the teachers), industry (e.g. mining, a daylight robbery industry the likes of which are alleged to be driver of Naxalism), even law and order (a special case - a force tied down to its British-era 'legacy' as a tool of repression in the hands of the powers that be).

Faced with such 'insurmountable' challenges of economic development to benefit the common man, what do smart men like Manmohan, Montek, Rangarajan, et al do?  Why, they keep tinkering with this or that 'rate' or 'indicator' a bit this way or that way, while making all the right noises at Davos and Mexico, if only to ensure that after retirement (if it ever comes, for this lucky group) they have plenty of offers from the 'international community'.

Is the situation totally hopeless?  Is there not even a glimmer of hope?  I believe there is.  Just that we've to learn, as a country and people, to stop putting our stock in hopeless personages.  A lot has been said about Indian 'jugaad', the proclivity of the Indian people to get around any roadblock by using 'whatever works'.  Some negative comments have also been made against the 'jugaad' mentality - legitimate complaints that this mentality is condoning social/economic ills, encouraging corruption and letting people get away with murder.  However, I believe it's the Indian ethos of micro-level entrepreneurship (in the widest sense of the term), whether called 'jugaad' or something else, which'd eventually help us rise above the conundrum in which we find ourselves.  And that would probably happen in spite of, not becuase of, any shenanigans indulged in by the holier-than-thou armchair economists and technocrats.

There is a passage towards the end of 'War and Peace' where Tolstoy puts down the realization that it's not great kings and emperors who win battles, but the soldiers on the ground whose courage or cowardice on a given day and in a given battle actually decides the fate of that battle (and eventually the war).  This resonates closely with the timeless Indian classic Bhagvadgeeta which says while being engaged relentlessly in work, one shouldn't even think that things come about because of his efforts ('maa karmaphalheturbhu...').  If only the self-important 'rulers' like Manmohan, Montek & Rangarajan would get the import of this philosophy and focus on 'getting out of the way' of the common man as he goes about building his dream with his own two hands...

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Unemployment dole vs. 'Minimum Wages'

There was a news item in the Economic Times page 11 today that the Central Govt. is trying to deal with the fallout of the Karnataka High Court order last year (for equalization of MNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) wages with those mandated under Minimum Wages Act) by revising the wages, while simultaneously going in for an appeal to the Supreme Court.

My take: Decide first whether it's a dole (which is support for the poor) or proper 'employment' (which should lead to creation or value addition of certain economic goods)?  Has there been any sort of evaluation of the 'projects' undertaken under MNREGS to understand whether they're really useful to the rural economy or society - that is, those projects which are actually carried out, not the ones which remain only on paper and become a tool for rural/intermediate level functionaries to loot money.  If not, let's treat this purely as a dole, and not talk about parity with Minimum Wages which are paid for proper employment.
It seems some state governments, in the garb of supporting a socially progressive scheme, are going overboard raising MNREGS 'wages' to those mandated under Minimum Wages Act.  Treating it as another one to hand out largesse, on the same lines as the 'Rice at Two Rupees' and such other schemes, which have in the past led to virtual bankruptcy of the concerned state treasuries.  

Already, in the past few years, there have been huge demographic shifts in the rural workforce earlier coming to work in the farms of Punjab etc. and on construction projects.  Now many of them prefer to stay in their villages and take advantage of MNREGS.  This has led to huge rises in wages in these sectors due to severe shortage of manpower.  

Now, it may be said that the rise in wages, coupled with more leverage in the hands of workers, may not be a bad thing in itself – at least it’s paid for proper hard work (though there probably needs to be better management of rising industrial tensions, ref. the recurring cases of industrial unrest in Gurgaon-Manesar belt).  Bottomline: it's still payment for legitimate economic 'work'.
This Budget, they announced the intention to bring in an 'urban' employment guarantee scheme.  Before expanding the scope of such schemes, can we have a national consensus to treat wages as wages (with all associated privileges) and dole as dole.  Else there may be long term effects on the labour market which the politicians may not visualise now (or, even if they do, choose to turn a blind eye to, for political gains).

There’s always a danger that we may create whole generations of young people (a la US or even partly like Germany) dependent on dole, and on a much more massive scale than in other countries.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reminiscing about a wedding in the 70s...

The topic of a family reunion has been flying in the air, in my (online) interactions with certain clan members (some settled out of India now) lately.  F2F (that, for those uninitiated, is short or text lingo for face to face), it came up when I met an aunt (my later mother's cousin, let's call her "SM") after decades, ironically at the home of her daughter who's been staying in the same town as I for quite a few years now, but whose husband and children I met for the first time (and they likewise, with my family)! And how did the meeting come about?  Ironically, aided by an online tool, the ubiquitous Facebook, where SM (perhaps the only one of her generation in our clan active on FB) saw my message and responded with a phone call.

So, as often happens when you meet a relative after such a long time, we got talking about previous family gatherings.  One of the interesting ones was when we had gone to Patna for SM's wedding (isn't it curious that in those times, despite our resource constraints, we managed to go attend family gatherings in other towns, whereas now we don't do that even for many functions in our own town?).  Interestingly, the eldest daughter of our aunt at Patna, who was actually older than SM, was called "... mashi" (aunt) by SM, in a sort of reversal of roles.  I guess this disparity between age and relationship is not something unique in our clan.  More interesting was the case of one 'meshomoshai' (uncle), who was the brother of one of our 'didimas' (my mother's aunt).  He was called '....da' (grand uncle) by some, including those who probably knew him before he became a 'meshomoshai', while the rest of us (including I) continued to call him '..... meshomoshai'.  I met his son my cousin recently while he was in Delhi, and he mentioned having visited '....da' (or elder cousin), the son of the said 'didima' (who was meshomoshai's sister), who most of us call '.....mama' (or uncle)!  Go figure.

I digress (and will continue to do that off and on).  The wedding in Patna happened when I was perhaps 6 or 7.  Not 5, as far as I remember, because I would've been 5 when the Bangladesh war happened, and we had trenches dug in front of our house in Delhi Cantt., to take shelter in case of a bombing, which mercifully never came about (we had all sorts of theories on the reason for the 'Z' shape of the trenches, including that it was so because a bomb, if it fell on a trench, would just roll to the end of trench, sparing the 'occupants'!!).  Anyways, to return to the wedding, we traveled from Delhi to Patna on a train with a steam engine in vogue those days (now I hear the Indian Railways is charging a bomb letting people travel on heritage trains with steam engines, some of which keep breaking down being not very well maintained).  It was probably better than travelling on a train with a diesel engine (as happened later on another travel for another wedding), where the soot tended to get into your hair and face if you so much as poked your head out to catch the wind.  For us children, the train journey used to be the highlight of any travel, while our parents were probably pulling their hair out trying to manage the whole affair.

I don't remember much about the wedding proper, except the dressing up part.  What I do remember are the episodes around the wedding where we children had the most fun.  It was of course quite a madhouse, what with relatives of all hues milling about the large two-storied house.  Once, when we children were sort of locked up on one floor, perhaps as we were making two much nuisance, we threw down the footwear of all guests which were piled there - quite a sight!  Once, our eldest cousin '....da' (the son of our aunt at Patna), made quite a hash of 'chicken leg'.  What happened was that he wanted to treat the whole household and guests to a sumptuous meal of chicken curry and rice, ensuring that each one got a 'leg piece' (something prized in those days, unlike now when chicken legs are treated at par with red meat and avoided due to health concerns, even exported on 'cut price' basis).  So he got quite a number of dressed chickens home.  When it was time for the meal, it was found that the chicken legs were not sufficient for everyone.  The reason?  '....da' had counted the number of people correctly (being fairly good with numbers, as he was a manager of Cole biscuit co.), but had then divided that number by FOUR, to get the number of chickens required!!  We had quite a laugh, ribbing '....da' on the number of legs a chicken had.

But the high point of the function was undoubtedly the proper theatre skit we children put up.  I remember because I had a walk on bit part, of a 'suited booted Englishman'.  It was a properly done affair, with a well made stage, backdrop, curtain drops, props, dresses, et al.  It was orchestrated by our talented cousins from Kolkata who ran Children's Little Theatre group, a minor rage in the Gariahat area in those days.  At the end of the skit, there was even an award distribution ceremony.

Ironically, it was an interaction with the elder of those cousins, now in US, which brought back many of these memories ('purano smiriti').  Talk of the world being round...