Isolation of the poor

May 28, 2014

I didn’t expect to come across this sharp observation, when I started reading ‘The Montessori Method’ by Mari Montessori:

Such spectacles of extreme brutality are possible here at the very gate of a cosmopolitan city, the mother of civilisation and queen of the fine arts, because of a new fact which was unknown to past centuries, namely, the isolation of the masses of the poor. 

In the Middle Ages, leprosy was isolated: the Catholics isolated the Hebrews in the Ghetto; but poverty was never considered a peril and aninfamy so great that it must be isolated. The homes of the poor were scattered among those of the rich and the contrast between these was a commonplace in literature up to our own times. Indeed, when I was a child in school, teachers, for the purpose of moral education, frequently resorted to the illustration of the kind princess who sends help to the poor cottage next door, or of the good children from the great house who carry food to the sick woman in the neighbouring attic.

To-day all this would be as unreal and artificial as a fairy tale. The poor may no longer learn from their more fortunate neighbours lessons in courtesy and good breeding, they no longer have the hope of help from them in cases of extreme need. We have herded them together far from us, without the walls, leaving them to learn of each other, in the abandon of desperation, the cruel lessons of brutality and vice. Anyone in whom the social conscience is awake must see that we have thus created infected regions that threaten with deadly peril the city which, wishing to make all beautiful and shining according to an aesthetic and aristocratic ideal, has thrust without its walls whatever is ugly or diseased. 



September 26, 2013

I can see the absurdity of even recounting an act that should be considered routine. However, today is the day, when I feel reassured that it is possible to get a task done in a government office, renowned to be amongst the worst, without paying a single paise bribe. Yes, it has taken time. Yes, there were some helpful souls at the Bangalore and Coimbatore offices. Yes, there were moments of doubt. Yes, I hated the experience throughout. Yes, my wife had more persistence and tact than me. Yes, the process is unnecessarily (or deliberately?) tedious, manual and convoluted. Yes, I did encounter some real crooks, cruelly poking holes at every turn but who shrivel when you fight back.

After 1.5 years, the transfer of registration of our car from Bangalore to Coimbatore is completed, with no bribes paid – directly or indirectly. While the re-registration was a 4-5 month long process, the refund of the road tax has happened today.

I know, I personally might not have done this without shunning the corporate life – I might possibly have outsourced the act of corruption to a middleman. Now that I don’t place a premium on my time, or rather know how to utilize my time while waiting endlessly, anywhere, I can play the game at their pace. We haven’t even drawn out the RTI weapon yet – then we can possibly challenge and change the pace as well. Gained confidence for more such battles. I hope, this resolve won’t wilt under more pressing circumstances.

And I hope, there will come a time, when I don’t ever have to boastfully recount what should be a routine act, and a bunch of 16-year old girls, accustomed to hardships, will not offer a rousing ovation for such a routine act, like they did today.

For that wee bit of freedom

September 19, 2013

As I walked my daughter to school and came out, I heard a few instructions being given to older kids during their morning assembly.

Avoid talking to strangers. Do not accept anything from them. Be alert.
AVOID going out ALONE.

All sane advices, I should think, as a modern day urban parent. But damn it. What kind of a world have we created for our kids; a world, where they can not go out alone – and chase butterflies; fly kites, and run after the cut ones; spin tops, and split those of your opponents; play cricket on the streets; surreptitiously jump into the backyards of locked houses to retrieve the ball hit there by an aspiring Srikanth, alright, Shikhar; climb trees, and pluck fruits, or gather neem leaves for Bhogi, or just sleep on a cushy intersection of branches; go to the library; cycle; explore; discover; learn. Alone.

And we dare to deride this generation as loners, couch potatoes, computer game freaks and nerds.

Of course, I can hear you – they can do some of it and a lot more…within the protected walls of your posh apartment complex, if you stay in one: under the watchful eyes of security guards and caretakers. Of course, they have their private swimming pools. Of course, they travel to one new country every year; and they have their Disney Worlds. Stuff, many of us couldn’t have dreamt of.

But I dare say, a child will trade all these for that wee bit of freedom, if she knows of its existence.

Festering Remnants of Brahminic segregation

March 1, 2012

Are you a vegetarian?

This fairly innocuous-sounding question greets you, when you start hunting for a house to rent in Chennai. Skim the surface off the question, and you wish you never decided to come to Chennai. Its intent is plain. Are you a Brahmin?

Some of them may be genuinely looking only for vegetarians (and not necessarily Brahmins) to occupy their houses. Some of them are bold enough to specify “for Brahmins only!” on the advertisements or to their brokers. Many of them do not have the courage to be open about it and hide behind the vegetarian-question. But you can always sense their discomfort, in knowing that you are a non-Brahmin Vegetarian.

Of course, the story that we cook only vegetarian food at home, and I occasionally eat meat in hotels, complicates the picture. I told my wife not to bother narrating this tale after listening to her the first time. So, we were just vegetarians, and I insisted that the brokers tell the landlords that we are non-Brahmin-vegetarians to avoid questions, later, on the missing thread or the non-Brahmin dialect.

Though many of my closest friends, since school days, have been (and still are) Brahmins, I have never felt excluded from their company. The first time, I was exposed to this exclusivity of the Chennai Brahmin club was when I went to a few carnatic music kutcheris alone, ten years back. Now this rude shock…the blatant display of casteism in the heart of the capital city, amongst, probably, the most educated elite of Tamilnadu…100 years after the Dalit Kanagalingam was bestowed with the Brahminic thread, by the Brahmin-born reformist-poet Bharati (who himself had forsaken the thread) in obstinate, sacrilegious defiance of the orthodoxy of that era.

This, sadly, is enough fodder to keep the crass anti-brahmin rhetoric of the Dravidian movement alive.

P.S. : We are finally going to be in a small apartment complex, as tenants to a generous Brahmin family. In the words of the broker, who was confused to hear that we are vegetarians but not Brahmins, “it is a nice apartment with only brahmin residents”.

A small sample of ads from Google search:


Enemies of the state

July 20, 2010

The head-on collision of trains in West Bengal, again, proves that the Government is barking up the wrong trees, in treating Maoists and terrorists as the biggest enemies of the state. It should stop pooling all its resources and non-existent intelligence in fighting only these enemies, however real they are.

Can we wake up and launch a war on inefficiency, callousness and corruption?

$700 billion bailout plan in US Vs. Farm Loan waiver in India

September 30, 2008

There was a hue and cry from the corporate world and business media about the farm loan waiver. I found it amusing then. It looks even more amusing now, in the wake of the $700 billion bailout plan (now aborted) in that, presumptive, most capitalist of capitalist countries, the US. There was a muted response to this plan in the mainstream media; most debates were about how best to finetune this plan. 

P.Sainath ridicules this plan, in The Hindu, contrasting these reactions against the earlier rage over the “historic farm loan waiver for $16 billion”. (Sainath belongs to those rare breed of journalists, who slog it out in the vast rural hinterland to unearth the real truths, while his more elitist counterparts hog the limelight with lazy-sleazy sting operations and Arushi sagas. His apparent Socialist leanings notwithstanding, it is the existence of honest contrarian-journalists like him, which will make democracy and ‘free markets’ work and evolve).

Whether we like it or not, for those of us who were waiting for the crash, the developments are interesting, to say the least. This is definitely a serious test for capitalism and at the end of it, hopefully, we will evolve to a higher, humane form of capitalism (or whatever new -ism) and not find recluse in retrograde initiatives. The real danger is not the impending recession or a repeat of the ‘Great Depression’ with ripples across the world, but a reactionary withdrawal of heads into an excessive-regulatory shell. A temporary recession, which doesn’t hinder future growth, is more welcome than a few more decades of decadent licence-raj.

Ethics of a sting operation

April 22, 2008

Sting operations have become the favoured tool of journalists in India, thanks to the rapid rise to fame of Tehelka through a string of sting operations. Sting operations raise a serious moral question. What is right and what is wrong? What do we expect from people in positions of influence – do they have to be infallible?

Take the recent case of Jothikumaran of Indian Hockey Federation. Money is offered deliberately to this person and the reporters, the audience along with them, are expecting him to refuse it. This stretches the thread of morality to the extreme. I am not trying to pass judgement on whether Jothikumaran has committed such commissions in the past or not. But in this specific case, not many people in his position would have come out clean, when someone insists on them taking a bribe for committing a ‘not-so-harmful’ crime.

The purpose of investigative journalism should be to investigate and expose ‘crimes’ that have ‘occurred’ or are in the process of ‘occurring’. It is not to tease and induce a person to commit an error and then trash him for that.

Before commissioning a sting operation, the editor has to ask himself a few questions:

  1. Does the reporter have any personal vendetta or other external motivation for doing this operation (the Delhi school teacher case)?
  2. Is this operation going to expose a crime that has already happened (like the Gujarat pogrom) or is it going to induce a crime and then expose it (like the IHF case)?
  3. Is it merely going to test the moral fabric of a person? How many normal honest people will be able to resist the temptation of risk-free money thrown at them or a good-looking girl knocking at their doors voluntarily?

I dont think it is the duty of media or anybody to test how a person will react to a situation, by creating a situation. We have every right to demand the highest order of integrity from everybody, when a real ‘situation’ arises. But that does not give us the right to infringe on the lives of unsuspecting ‘victims’ and make them ‘guilty’.

Every person has his or her fallibilities. By trying to exploit these fallibilities, let not the journalists take the lazy route to reform the society. Trying to expose people in the process of committing real crimes is a tough task. But that is what we expect from our journalists.