Sampath G

Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

When you were a teenager and in love with books

In Lifestyle, Literature, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:58 am

G Sampath | Saturday, March 24, 2012

First published in DNA
Last week, I reread Agostino and Disobedience, two short ‘adolescent novels’ by Alberto Moravia, a writer I first read as a 16-year-old and was told I’d outgrow. I’ve often wondered what it means when people say you’ll ‘outgrow’ some author. I’ve noticed this is usually said of writers you first discover when you’re growing up, especially in your teens. As an adult, you might look back at their works with nostalgia, as books that belong to an age inhabited by a more innocent version of yourself.
Perhaps something about these novels appeals to the adolescent sensibility. A sensibility marked by a certain disconnect from the adult universe, and an inability to inherit its preoccupations. It often traps the adult-in-the-making in a profound moral and emotional paralysis — leaving him or her unable to take decisions, even simple ones like whether to get up from the bed or bunk school. It fills you with self-loathing at the same time as it fills you with a sense of superiority, detached as you are, from the necessarily petty concerns of a middle class existence — do well at school so you can go to IIT-IIM (or at least a foreign university), make tons of money, get your own car-house-spouse, have kids, attain a position of power/influence in and beyond your sphere of work, then die post-retirement of a suitably prestigious disease.
Speaking of adolescent angst, of course, the first novel that comes to mind is JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. And it occupies this preeminent place for a reason — Salinger was perhaps the first novelist in English to craft an original narrative voice that was pitch perfect for expressing the adolescent resentment against a world ruled by mercenary grown-ups and rigged by them in such a way that you cannot make the transition to adulthood without doing violence to your own recalcitrant humanity. 
In this sense, the quintessential coming-of-age novel, or the bildungsroman, as it is called, is nothing if not a record of a character gradually, and successfully, sawing off his or her own unthinking goodness, compartmentalising, and learning to parcel it out in a calculated manner in a world where goodness too is part of a larger economy of good(s) and bad, right(s) and wrong (s), and favours given and received.
Coming back to Moravia, in Agostino, which was written during World War II, and banned by fascist Italy when it was published, the 13-year-old eponymous character is the son of a beautiful, rich and fairly young widow. During a summer beach holiday with his mother, Agostino gets involvedwith a gang of working class boys, and in a reversal of the usual class snobbery, it is Agostino who is harassed, bullied and teased by the rowdy kids on account of his wealthy background and ‘superior’ upbringing. Agostino, in order to fit in, starts wearing his oldest and most worn-out clothes, imitates the rough style and crude mannerisms of the lower class boys, and sets out with them on dubious adventures into the neighbouring woods.
But most tellingly, it is the way these ‘lower class’ kids view his mother — as an object of sexual desire, and possibly an easy conquest — that subject him to the defining conflict of his adolescence: what attitude to take towards his mother, who still treats him as her little boy, but who he can no longer look at as just his mother?
In Disobedience, 15-year-old Luca decides that he will disobey all the commandments of urban middle class adolescence — despite being a bright student he consciously neglects his studies, gives away his stamp collection, sells off his books, avoids his friends — until finally, he finds that his ‘game’ of disobedience would remain incomplete unless he disobeyed that most fundamental of all commandments — the commandment to live, and to go on living, which, in his case, meant to go on being a school boy. He decides to die, and almost succeeds, before life intervenes.
When I first read these novels as a 17-year-old, I was convinced they were about my own inner life, which Moravia had accessed through some kind of telepathic literary alchemy. Reading them today, I am struck by the precision with which he charts a teen’s painful confusion as he experiences for the first time the gentle shock of self-consciousness — when we confront the impossible truth that the world does not really care about our wishes.
It is therefore not surprising that students have been at the forefront of revolutionary movements throughout history. Be it Paris in 1968, or Prague Spring or the Naxalbari movement in India, the youthful idealism that powered these movements is essentially born of the deep introspection that begins in adolescence. What passes for a successful passage into ‘well-adjusted’ adulthood is simply the exchange of this idealism for a more pragmatic worldview. And such a personality change cannot but also alter our opinions of the authors we loved during those tumultuous years of self-questioning, the years before we formally made our peace with the adult world.
I suppose the longevity of a writer is to be measured not merely in terms of whether she survives in historical time, but also whether she survives personal time. Does a writer who grabbed you by the eyeballs when you were 15 still do so now that you’re 30? If she doesn’t, then perhaps you can say you’ve outgrown this writer. But if she does, you’ll consider her works a ‘classic’, depending, of course, on the reading culture you’ve been socialised into. After all, there are also people who consider Chicken Soup For the Teenage Soul a classic. And who’s to say it isn’t?

How is Manmohan Singh different from nuclear waste?

In Celebs, Environment, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:56 am

G Sampath | Saturday, March 3, 2012

First published in DNA
In one of her talks in Mumbai that I attended some years ago, Arundhati Roy posed this question to the audience, or maybe she was quoting from a Hindi poem. She asked, ‘Kya kar raha hai Manmohan Singh aaj kal?’ As the audience tittered, she answered, ‘Vish kya karta hai khoon mein utarne ke baad?’ (What is Manmohan Singh doing these days? What does poison do after it enters the blood stream?)
I don’t remember the context in which she made these comments, but it is an apt description of Singh’s doings over the last couple of weeks. A man who is, according to popular perception, ‘weak’, ‘a puppet’, ‘silent’, and ‘timid’, roars into life just when it matters most. Matters most to whom is the billion dollar question (pun intended).
The last time Singh displayed signs of possessing a vertebral column was in 2008, when he actually threatened to resign if the India-US nuclear deal did not happen. He eventually pushed it through despite the majority in Parliament (the much-vaunted ‘mandate’ of the Indian people) being against it. And we all know about the cash-for-votes scandal that accompanied the trust vote over the nuclear deal.
This time, once again, it is for the nuclear lobby that Singh has rediscovered his tongue and spinal cord. In an interview with the American journal Science, he has made uncharacteristically malicious allegations about the people’s movement against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, suggesting NGOs funded by US and Scandinavian donors are backing the protests.
If the NGOs connected with the anti-nuclear agitation have diverted foreign funds, sure, they need to be dealt with as per the provisions of the Foreign Currency (Regulation) Act. But is that the issue here? What I find rather pathetic is the reptilian manner in which Singh has successfully shifted the Kudankulam debate away from the real issues (like cost, safety, and the absence of an independent nuclear regulatory regime) to a non-issue (foreign-funding of NGOs).
One might well ask: Is it the protests against the Kudankulam nuclear plant that is funded by foreign money, or the plant’s advocates, namely, Singh and his government? Who exactly are the foreigners here? The guys building the plant are Russians. The nuclear fuel for the reactors will also be supplied by foreigners, maybe Americans, who are now eligible to do so, thanks to Singh’s nuclear deal. As for the man maligning the opposition to the project, well, Singh is undoubtedly the most foreign money-friendly PM in India’s history.
And who is the PM accusing of taking money from foreign hands? The protesters opposing the Kudankulam nuclear project. And who are they? Fisher folk, farmers, shopkeepers, Dalit workers, beedi-rolling women, and residents of Kudankulam and Idinthakarai villages. These fishermen and workers have been forking out small donations in cash and kind to sustain their simple, nonviolent struggle. They don’t need big money to keep their protests going simply because it’s a matter of life and death for them.
But even assuming, for the sake of argument, that foreign money has gone into sustaining these protests, does that make the protests illegitimate? The government has the entire resources of the state at its disposal, not to mention a compliant media ready to offer crores worth of media space for pro-nuclear, pro-state propaganda. Setting aside the legality of it, don’t the poor villagers of Kudankulam — the David fighting the Goliath of the corporate state — have a moral right to access whatever financial support comes their way, be it from within India or abroad?
Having said that, Singh has not produced a shred of evidence to back his insinuation that the Kudankulam protests are aided by foreign NGOs. And now, following his lead, the Maharashtra State Congress has begun to allege that the protests against the Jaitapur nuclear project are also backed by foreign NGOs.
Basically, the idea is that the state will have a monopoly over virtue, just as it has a monopoly over the use of force. And the lever that will enable the state to retain this monopoly is the notion of ‘national interest’, which assumes centrality in the emotionally charged discourse of patriotism. Violent protests will be dismissed as Maoism or terrorism or separatism, all crimes against the Indian state. And non-violent protests that threaten to upset the corporate applecart can be dismissed as foreign-funded and hence anti-Indian. And, of course, who can dare argue with patriotism?
But what a strange and schizophrenic patriotism this is, which believes India cannot grow without foreign money or FDI, and welcomes foreign capital in the form of a Monsanto but launches a witch hunt against NGOs that may campaign against Monsanto using foreign money.
Much has been made of how Singh is supposedly ‘clean’. In reality he’s no different from a Raja or a Koda — only, his corruption doesn’t take the form of graft. Singh’s corruption is the corruption of a functionary, of someone who can stoop to any level to please his political masters, or mistress, as the case may be, and this somehow strikes me as far more ignoble than the corruption of someone who is merely greedy or power-hungry.
In a matter of just 20 years since liberalisation, unleashed, incidentally, by Singh in his avatar as finance minister, the world’s biggest democracy has devolved into a banana republic where a bunch of thugs can easily murder freedom of expression and get away with it while it’s almost impossible to express dissent or protest in a meaningful manner. The Indian state, and foreign capital, whose domestic help Singh is, have it all worked out. The poison is doing its job well.

‘Constitutions serve a managerial purpose’

In Interview, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:53 am

G Sampath: Sunday, Feb 26, 2012
First published in DNA
While we take written Constitutions for granted today, human beings did not always organise their societies based on rules laid out in a single document. In an exclusive interview, Linda Colley, professor of history at Princeton University, who has done extensive research on the role of written constitutions in the evolution of the modern world of nation states, and was in India recently on a lecture tour, tells DNA how they served as political devices that fostered internal colonialism and aided overland and maritime empire. Excerpts:
The dominant view of a written constitution is that it is a progressive force. Are you suggesting that it is primarily a tool of empire? Would you say that of the Indian Constitution as well?
In part because the advent of modern written constitutions is so closely bound up with the American and French Revolutions, these instruments tend to be viewed as a progressive force. They often have been, but it depends on the constitution in question. In practice, constitutions can be both progressive and authoritarian. For instance, Stalin drafted a constitution in the ’30s which provided for democracy and which was ratified by over 50 million people. But this constitution was also worded so as to tie the different parts of the Soviet empire tightly together. As Edmund Burke analysed in the 1790s, virtually all written constitutions (including India’s) are the work of small groups of individuals.As senior advocate RajeevDhavan writes, many parts of India’s Constitution “struck a chord with some of the people. But whether ‘the people’ participated in the process of constitution-making is highly doubtful”. Virtually all constitutions have some kind of didactic and managerial purpose.
How would you characterise the relationship between the American constitution and American empire today?
The Federal Constitution of 1787 helped conceal from white Americans that the USA retained imperial features: it excluded indigenous peoples and blacks as well as women from citizenship, yet fostered the idea of all of the American continent as potentially a Union, a nation. Since the late 19thcentury, Americans have also (along with the British) been keen on writing constitutions for others — for instance, for Japan and Germany after 1945. As this suggests, the American constitution is a vital part of American self-legitimation as well as a text of government. It is a text which caters to the still powerful notion that the US is the vital beacon of liberty for the world.
How do you account for the universal popularity of the written constitution? What was the single biggest factor in its gaining such wide acceptance?
The success and prosperity of the US after 1787 was a great advertisement for written constitutions, especially after slavery was abolished there with the Civil War. But the most powerful reason why written constitutions took off, I suspect, was that their invention coincided with a mass expansion of print across the continents. This is one of the most important and unexplored aspects of 19th century global history: how newspapers and magazines reprinted written constitutions from across the world and so gave people struggling for rights all sorts of new political ideas.
How do you respond to the fact that the past year has seen so many mass mobilsations and people’s protests in many parts of the world, many of them asking for nothing more than for implementation of constitutional guarantees?
This shows both the strength and the limits of written constitutions. They are only as good and as effective as how far they are implemented and abided by, by the powerful. If a country’s rulers and military can override or ignore them, written constitutions, as James Madison said, are no more than pieces of parchment or paper

Why not make Arnab Goswami Prime Minister?

In Celebs, Humour, Popular Culture, Satire, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:49 am

G Sampath | Saturday, February 18, 2012

First published in DNA
No, I am serious. I don’t watch his debates every day, but whenever I do, I am struck by his absolute and unimpeachable commitment to national interest, his love for the people of India, and his fearless examination of every issue to its last possible TRP.
Nobody, not even the BCCI, which denies everything, can deny thatArnab Goswami is the only person in the country to whom every Indian is answerable.
Our politicians, at any rate, hold him in higher regard than Parliament. Which is why you will see them in his channel’s studio more than you see them in Parliament. Whether or not they take part in parliamentary debates, they dare not bunk the debates conducted nightly by Arnab Goswami. And no matter how provocative the questions posed to them, they won’t dream of staging a walk-out from Arnab’schambers like they do every 13 minutes in the Lok Sabha.
Besides, India today is a nation full of outrages — inflation, malnutrition, scams, rapes, the Indian Test team’s ridiculous performance Down Under, SRK becoming brand ambassador of a state whose name I can’t spell anymore, a minister watching porn in a country where nobody watches porn — the list of outrageous phenomena is endless. AndArnab has mastered the art of being outraged. He is the only person I know who can be more outraged than outrage itself.
And that is a talent that our current crop of politicians sorely lack. Nothing fazes them. Poverty? Nothing new. Corruption? Ho-hum. Army atrocities in the north-east? Nothing new. Inflation? Well, let them eat soap. But Arnab? He can extract outrage from a dead cockroach. “Who is responsible for the mysterious death of this innocent cockroach, Mr Prime Minister? The nation needs to know. Was the cockroach really a member of the Indian Mujahideen, as is being claimed by intelligence agencies, or was he another loyal follower of my TV show who spontaneously combusted in uncontrollable outrage?”
Besides, if not Arnab Goswami, who else? Sachin Tendulkar, you say? Well, Sachin is not a bad choice for Prime Minister. His impressive selfishness, his distinguished track record of putting his own interest above that of the collective’s, and ability to amass massive personal milestones will gel perfectly with the prevailing ethos among our Parliamentarians. But one thing that may not work is his voice — sweet as it may sound to his trillion fans, it will get drowned in the well of the House before he can say ‘100’.
My mother thinks Rahul Gandhi should become PM because he is less ferocious and more handsome than Arnab Goswami. But honestly, looks aren’t everything, are they? After all, who does the PM have to woo? Only foreign investors, not Sunny Leone. And foreign investors hardly go for looks, and neither does Leone, on available evidence.
In any case, what are Rahul Gandhi’s credentials? His biggest achievement to date is to grow a beard, which, to his credit, he has done with superb skill, foresight and political acumen.
His beard is a metaphorical representation of his profound grief at the plight of India’s malnourished millions, the Dalits, the adivasis, and the suicide-committing farmers, all of whom have been waiting for 60 years for the barest essentials of life, like FDI in retail, lower taxes for corporates, and fiscal discipline, which any day are more important than utopian, outdated, commie ideas like food, health and education for all, even for those who can’t pay for it.
But the other, much-discussed alternative is also a beard, but one attached to the face of a man named Narendra Modi. This year — this month, next week, in fact — marks the tenth anniversary of the singular event that propelled Modi to power, and today has him being spoken about by respected industrialists and journalists-turned-party intellectuals as the ideal PM for India. To be sure, Modi would be no more communal than the Congress worthies who kept Rushdie out of the Jaipur Lit Fest and presided over the 1984 Sikh riots. But still, if you are a pseudo-secularist, you’d expect at least appearances to be kept up, andModi’s track record, combined with his calculated, unrepentant, humourless anti-secularism is — I won’t deny it — infinitely scarier than even Arnab Goswami at his scariest.
So that leaves only Rajinikanth, who, with his newly acquired six-pack abs that you surely could not have missed in all the Kochadaiyaan posters, is more omnipotent than ever before and can demolish every obstacle in India’s path to superpowerdom with a flick of his little finger or a click in Photoshop, whichever applicable.
All said and done, he is the only real contender that Arnab needs to worry about. I would settle the matter by calling both of them to a duel on Juhu beach one Sunday morning. But the duel will be fought using only words and gestures, without bodily contact. Whoever wins will, I am sure, be the best Prime Minister India’s ever had.
While Rajini might vaporise Arnab with his laughter, Arnab might pre-empt it by unleashing on Rajini his finger-wagging verbiage of infinite outrage. In which case, Rajini, whose compassionate heart melts at even the tiniest, teeny weenie injustice, would collapse instantly into a heap of sand, and Arnab would emerge the winner. But it would be a close call.

Tendulkar should retire only when God retires

In Celebs, Cricket, Humour, Satire, Sports, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:45 am

G Sampath | Saturday, February 4, 2012


First published in DNA
I am so enraged that I can barely even type. I am absolutely, gloriously, magnificently appalled that someone of the stature of Imran Khan should have the gall to suggest that Sachin Tendulkar should have retired after the 2011 World Cup. How dare he even suggest thatSachin should ever retire! Does God retire? For Indian cricket fans — every single one of whom is also a loyal Sachin fan — this is the moral and cricketing equivalent of someone outraging their modesty. That too in public. And for free.
If I was a lumpen element and could get a visa to Pakistan I would personally ransack Imran Khan’s office for offending my religious sentiment.
Really, does Imran have any idea what Sachin means for India? Is he aware that every timeSachin goes out to bat, he carries a billion hopes on his helmet? Is he aware that no Indian cares whether India wins a match or not so long as Sachin scores a hundred? And this is when you are speaking of a ‘normal’ Sachin hundred.
But what is at stake today is not any Sachin century but Sachin’s hundredth hundred! CanImran imagine how many orgasms an Indian cricket fan gets by merely contemplating this feat? Does he not know that a billion Indians forget all their problems, such as poverty, corruption, and parking space, the moment they see Sachin on screen — even if it is onlySachin poking and prodding at a fifth-rate spinner on a first-rate batting track? Does he know how many Indian commentators and sports writers have made their careers by praising Sachin endlessly and tirelessly? Does he now expect them to start sucking up to some callow youngster who is less than half their age and doesn’t know how to respect elders?
Imran Khan is wise enough to know these things, which is why I find it hard to understand his comment. And it’s not just Imran. Last week, the former Indian bowling coach, Bruce Reid, remarked that all three — SachinDravid, and Laxman — should retire so that India can groom youngsters for a strong team in the future. Hello! When will the world understand that in India cricket is not a team game? The two teams that play are merely a sporting framework, a platform, where individuals go out and create personal milestones, break records, and keep playing till such time that there are friends in the board who can ensure you keep getting selected, and friends in the media who will raise such a stink if you are dropped that no selector will dare drop you.
Besides, the three oldies have given their services to India for so many years now that theBCCI cannot be so ungrateful as to sack them just because they have stopped performing. You cannot force someone to retire on the basis of such flimsy reasons as lack of fitness or lack of form. And to insinuate that a player should retire just because he is getting old betrays the worst form of ageist prejudice.
Come to think of it, the double standards we apply to our cricketers are scandalous. While every other profession enjoys a retirement age of 58, why should our players not play till they are 58? Imagine how many more centuries Tendulkar can score if he played till 2032! Not less than 400! And if we are getting so excited over his hundredth hundred, imagine how fantastic it will be if Sachin (who has never hit a 400, by the way, though the mediocre BrianLara has) scores a quadruple century of centuries!
As it happens, India is not scheduled to play any Tests abroad for the next two years, which means there is no urgency for the oldies to retire at least for the next two years. And if we don’t play abroad ever again, they don’t need to retire at all — ever!
That is why I believe that from now on India should play only at home. If we do that, and if theBCCI has the foresight to schedule Test matches only against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Holland, Canada, and Uzbekistan, I am sure Sachin will be able to play till he is 58 and acquire more milestones than anyone else in the history of not just cricket, but of any sport — he can become the one sportsman with more records to his name than any sportsman in any sport anywhere in the world at any time, beginning with the Olympics of ancient Greece. In fact, why restrict his greatness to the field of sport — he can even become the one human being with more records to his name than any human being who ever lived or lives or will live. Imagine how proud it will make all of us Indians!
But it’s not enough even if we continue to select him for the Indian team till the general retirement age of 58. We should give him special extensions till he is 100 years old. The crowning glory of his career, and the mother of all his records, will be when Sachin — with the help of a walking stick if need be — becomes the first man in the history of the universe to score a hundred at the age of 100. What a stupendous record that will be! Of course, that is assuming he would have got his hundredth hundred by the time he is 100. But even thinking about this gives me goose bumps in my tennis elbow.

Book review: The Night Eternal

In Book Reviews, Uncategorized, Vampires on March 30, 2012 at 10:43 am

First published: Sunday, Jan 29, 2012, 9:45 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Book: The Night Eternal
Guillermo Del Toro & Chuck Hogan
HarperCollins
372 pages
Rs250
What if human beings were supplanted at the top of the food chain by a “creature race of superior strength”? What if their staple diet was human blood? And how would this affect your relationship with your son/girlfriend/father/ boyfriend/mother/office colleague? This thought experiment is carried out with frightening attention to detail in film director Guillermo Del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan’s trilogy of vampire thrillers, of which The Night Eternal is the third and final instalment.
The superior species in question is, of course, the vampire. But Del Toro and Hogan’s vampires are not Twilight-type creatures with emo good looks and a weakness for luxury sedans (Edward drives an Aston Martin V12Vanquish while Carlisle owns a Mercedes S55 AMG). They are humanoid monsters whose interest in you is similar to what a lizard feels for a cockroach. And human beings are pretty much below the cockroach in the new world order established by the Master, the super-intelligent, telepathic, preternaturally powerful, 2000-year-old vampire that takes control of the planet after subjugating the human race. 
With the wily vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian having died at the hands of the Master, it is now up to a motley crew of bickering resistance fighters — Dr Ephraim Goodweather, his former girlfriend Nora Martinez, rat catcherVasiliy Fet, a black gangbanger Gus, and Mr Quinlan, an estranged offspring of the Master and the lone vampire aligned with the humans — to overcome the Master and bring the old order back.
This page-turner strikes the ideal balance between effective characterisation and fast-paced plot. The consequences of a vampire-dominated world for human relations and outlook are imaginatively worked out. In one passage, for instance, Alex Creem, a gangster, talks about the women he has saved from being ‘turned’ (into vampires). He protects them so he can sleep with them. “The women were nothing very special, a few desperate strays they had picked up along the way — but they were women and they were warm and alive. ‘Alive’ was very sexy these days.” In a world ruled by the undead, where most ‘women’ are out to suck you dry — only of your blood, alas — ‘alive’ would indeed be the high point of sexiness.
The vampire-ruled world is one where there is no shopping, TV offers only reruns of shows past, and night is day and day is night (because sunlight is fatal to vampires). And human beings are organised into a new caste system based on their blood group. They are bred in captivity for their blood, much like livestock are for their meat or milk or eggs. No school for you, and no office — just sit there and make blood.
Contrary to what we might believe — given our exalted notions about humanity and so-called civilization — not all humans find the new reality to be worse than what existed before. Many make their peace with their vampire overlords, and do well for themselves. Everett Barnes is one of them. A doctor and entrepreneur, he runs industrial camps where humans are farmed for blood, which he packages and distributes to the vampire population.
Barnes’ justification for these camps (not unlike our SEZs and sweatshops) is eerily reminiscent of the neoliberal orthodoxy that dictates government policy in most countries today: “The basic human biological function — the creation of blood — is an enormous resource to their kind [vampires]…the camp exists neither to punish nor oppress. It is simply a facility, constructed for mass production and maximum efficiency.”
You can’t have a more accurate description of the moral philosophy of free market economics. If vampires and zombies have come back with a vengeance in mass culture, there must be reasons for it, and you can be sure cultural theorists and social psychologists will have some ready. Yet one can’t help but speculate on the socio-economic parallels between a world where humans exist to service vampires and a world where humans exist to service vampiric capital.
In both cases, the moral imperative is displaced by the economic imperative. Is the return of the vampire and zombies in popular culture also a return of a repressed truth about the plight of humanity in today’s world?
To their credit, the vampires in this book, unlike their human counterparts on Wall Street and the PMO, are no hypocrites. The Master admits that it believes in no morality. And this amorality makes it easier for the vampire to achieve dominance over humans who have retained a semblance of morality even under extreme circumstances.
The character of Ephraim Goodweather embodies this struggle between the logic of expediency and the logic of morality — a morality that is closely tied up with whatever it is that lends a person his or her humanity.
But in the end, which is a bit of a mish-mash in this book, it is this very humanity — which is not an economic resource, and therefore has no value in the calculus of capitalism — that trumps, and stumps, the all-powerful Master. Can the little humans in the real world put up a similarly strong fight against their equivalent of the vampire adversary, marauding capital? Well, you’ll have to be around for a really long time to find out. And that, only a vampire can do.

The Pereira and the Ferreira: A tale of two Bandra boys

In Culture and Society, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

G Sampath | Saturday, January 21, 2012

First published in DNA 

One guy killed seven people and spent one month in jail. Another killed nobody and spent 56 months in jail. As they say, we are all equal before the law, aren’t we.
The double standards of the Indian state — mind-boggling benevolence in one case, calculated viciousness in another — are nowhere more apparent than in the case of two Bandra boys, one a Pereira, the other a Ferreira, both of whom were in the news earlier this month. The contrasting ways in which the two were treated by our law enforcement machinery is a parable that says much about the kind of society we’ve become.
Allister Pereira, 25, is the son of a rich businessman. On November 12, 2006, driving under the influence of alcohol, he ran over 15 labourers sleeping on the pavement on Carter Road, killing seven. By any yardstick, this was an open-and-shut case of a man killing seven people.
But in the five-and-a-half years from November 2006 to January 2012, Pereira spent exactly one month in jail. In April 2007, a sessions court convicted him, awarding him six months imprisonment and a fine of Rs5 lakh. It’s not clear what verdict Pereira was expecting, but he chose to challen ge this judgment in the Bombay High Court. The high court upheld the conviction, but extended his sentence to three years. It also lambasted the manner in which the Mumbai police went about investigating the crime, and criticised its tardiness in submitting the report. We can’t say for sure why the Mumbai police was lacklustre in its investigation; we can’t say why the cops were so slow in filing their report; and we can’t say why the sessions court handed out a sentence that was found to be too lenient by the higher court; but the reasons are not difficult to guess.
Pereira, who was out on bail, appealed to the Supreme Court. This January, the apex court upheld his sentence of three years, and cancelled his bail bond. Pereira surrendered, and finally, more than five years after his crime, it looks like he will serve out his punishment.
Cut to Arun Ferreira, a 40-year-old social worker. Ferreira was picked up by the police in Nagpur on May 8, 2007. He was charged with conspiracy to plant bombs, and over the years, slapped with nearly a dozen cases, ranging from murder, to attacking the police, to burning a railway engine. In September 2011, he was acquitted of all the charges.  But the moment he stepped out of the jail, he was illegally re-arrested by cops in plain clothes, and charged in two more cases. He again rotted in jail till January, when, after the police failed to produce a shred of evidence against him for any of the charges — he was acquitted on 10 of the 11 cases and given bail on one — he was allowed to go home. In all, from May 2007 to January 2012, Ferreira was made to spend four years and eight months in jail even though there was no evidence of him having committed a single crime.
The contrast with Pereira couldn’t be starker. Why would the state let a spoilt brat who killed seven people, live in freedom for five years, and in another case, imprison for almost five years, on false charges, a man who has been working for the welfare of the most marginalised of Indians — the poor, the working class, the Dalits?
So what exactly was Ferreira’s crime, which, in the eyes of the state, merited a far more stringent prosecution than Pereira’s? Well, the police believe him to be a Naxal sympathiser. Yet strangely enough, they cannot put him in jail for being a Naxal sympathiser. Why not? This may come as news to many people, but according to the Constitution of India, a citizen has the right to believe in any ideology, and believing in Naxalism or Maoism is no crime, so long as he or she does not indulge in violence or break any law.
Ferreira, as a matter of fact, is a self-proclaimed Naxal sympathiser, but there is no evidence linking him to any act of Naxal violence. Nevertheless, his work and his ideology — especially the idea of rights and entitlements that he was busy transmitting to the downtrodden — was not palatable to those who control the levers of power in this country. What if more and more of the poor and marginalised start fighting for their rights — as has been happening in Jaitapur, in Kudankulam, in Kalinga Nagar, in Manesar, and in the mineral belt stretching from Chhattisgarh to Bihar to Orissa?
Well, then Indian democracy might actually start functioning a little, and for the corporate-funded political class that plays musical chairs in New Delhi every five years, that’s a scary proposition. Hence the importance of keeping the Ferreiras in jail. According to media reports, the number of political prisoners in Maharashtra has gone up from 40 in October 2010, to 125 in December 2011. And as the global economy worsens, putting greater pressure on third world natural resources and entitlements of the poor, the crackdown on rights-oriented activists (as opposed to the welfare-oriented ‘CSR activists’ whom big business and the state love) is only set to get worse. As of today, it’s the Pereiras who call the shots in India, and they don’t want any Ferreiras running wild in the countryside.

Can we have the pesticide menu, please?

In Humour, Satire, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:40 am

G Sampath | Saturday, January 7, 2012


I’m not very adventurous in my drinking habits. I generally stick to wine. And while I’ve had whiskey, brandy, feni, cognac, chang, gin and arrack, besides several other region and country-specific spirits and sub-spirits whose names I don’t remember now, I’d never tasted pesticide.
So when I was invited by Pesti Cola, a leading MNC pesticide manufacturer, to attend a pesticide-tasting workshop, I accepted immediately.
The venue of the workshop was a luxurious resort in the heart of Vidarbha. As you would know, pesticide is a really popular drink in these parts, and people run up huge debts to indulge their weakness for this beverage. The resort was situated in the middle of a cotton farm, where the very air was redolent with the rich aroma of freshly brewed pesticide.
I found myself at a table with five different glasses of vintage pesticides. Also present were Mr Arsenic, the COO of Pesti Cola, Mr BT Gene, COO of the agri-business giant Consanto, Mr Terminator, COO of the seed company Maha-Seedy, and Mr Squeeze, COO of Vile-Mart.
Mr Arsenic handed me a glass to taste. The label said, ‘2006 Coudoulet de Vidarbh Nitrobenzene’. It was a bright, juicy and delicious pesticide with a cyanide flavor that leaves you with a subtle aftertaste of death even after you spit it out, as I did.
“Try the 2007 Domaine de la Yavatmal Heptachlore. It’s my favourite,” said Mr Terminator, offering me the glass. “It is a well-balanced pesticide that pairs well with small loans at usurious interest rates. Farmers who don’t get a decent price for their produce love this pesticide, as it has the power to transport you to another world altogether, far away from debts and terminator seeds.”
“But you have to check out the 2008 Chateau de la Wardha Mercury Chloride,” said Mr BT Gene, handing me another glass. “From the great Chateau de la Wardha, it is a sexy, full-bodied pesticide that turns you into a body in nine seconds flat. Consanto offers a 250 ml can of this drink free with every 500 seeds of Bt Cotton.”
The COOs exchanged glances as I picked up a glass that said ‘2003 Domaine de Amaravati Nickel Chloride Vieilles.’ They looked at me expectantly as I took a sip. “This polished, mineral-driven, understated pesticide will develop even greater complexity as you gargle your mouth with it,” I said, spitting it out. “While it is not as strong as Cabernet Endosulfan Bhuldana, it is better endowed than Pinot Noire Washim Ethyl Parathion.”
But the vintage drink I really liked was the 2001 Yavatmal Chardonnay Sodium Methane Arsonate. Ripe, lush and incredibly concentrated, this limited-production pesticide, which can be consumed even if you are not a farmer, is definitely one of the best Arsenic-based drinks ever.
I asked the COO of Pesti Cola about the pesticide market in India. “Well, India is the fastest growing market,” he said. “There are 650 million farmers in India, of which only 250,000 have committed suicide till date. And of these, only 179,000 had consumed pesticide. Just imagine how many million gallons of pesticides we’d sell if we can persuade all of India’s surviving farmers to commit suicide! Obviously, we have a huge market to tap!”
“Right,” I said, spitting out a mouthful of the well-balanced and curvaceous Cabernet Kelzara Nitrofen Blanc. “But how do you ensure that the demand keeps growing?”
“What do you mean?” said Mr BT Gene. “What makes you think the demand for pesticides won’t grow?”
“Well, you know, with so many people switching to organic farming and all that — do pesticides have a future, really?”
All the COOs burst out laughing. “Are you really this naive or are you joking?” and they laughed some more when they realised I was serious. “Nobody makes pesticides for crops anymore,” explained Mr Arsenic. “It’s an open secret that they are hardly effective. Our real target is the farmer — they are the real pests, after all, don’t you agree?”
“That’s self-evident,” said Mr Squeeze, the Vile-Mart COO, who had been sitting quietly in a corner all this while. “Farmers are unnecessary middlemen between the food and the consumer. If we eliminate them, we will be able to reach the food to the consumer at a much cheaper price — that’s how Vile-Mart became the world’s largest retailer.”
“In fact, I was just telling Mr Arsenic,” said Mr Terminator, “They should launch an ad campaign, selling the concept of how pesticide IS the coolest drink for the Indian farmer. You have Coke and Pepsi for urban India, and Pesti for rural India — that should be the brand positioning.”
“We’re working on it,” said Mr Arsenic. “We want to raise awareness on this issue. People wrongly assume that you have to be a farmer to commit suicide by drinking pesticide. We want to make pesticide the top-of-mind option for anyone contemplating suicide. Hopefully, in the years to come, even bureaucrats, politicians and CEOs will want to commit suicide by drinking pesticide. But for now, we’re happy to focus on farmers.”
The COOs decided to raise a toast. “To the great Indian farmer,” we said, clinking our glasses.

Revolution: Meet the new boss same as the old boss

In Politics, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:39 am

First published: Sunday, Jan 1, 2012, 8:00 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
There is a lot to be said for change. It gives you a break from whoever is oppressing you at the moment. But change need not necessarily be for the better. More often than not, what seems new is the same old in a different garb. Sometimes, it is worse than what was displaced. And whenever it is hailed by the American press as a true revolution, you can rest assured it’s nothing of the sort.
It is fairly easy to establish whether a given ‘regime change’ qualifies as a revolution, or is just an eyewash that replaces one ruling elite with another. You ask three simple questions: Has more political power passed into the hands of the working classes after the ‘revolution’? Has income inequality reduced, or is likely to reduce, after the revolution? Will economic activity be directed by working class interests (instead of working class interests playing second fiddle to so-called economic imperatives)?
If the answer to all three questions is a clear ‘yes’, ladies and gentlemen, we have a true revolution in our midst. If the answer to even one of them is ‘no’, then, sorry, what we have is not a revolution but merely the fantasy — a bloody fantasy, no doubt, but still a fantasy — of a revolution.
Let’s apply this three-question test to a few revolutionary ‘moments’ in recent history.
India’s independence, 1947: This was one big bogus revolution which installed a native elite in place of the white man, and the plight of the adivasi-farmer-worker either remained the same or, as in post-liberalisation India, began to dramatically worsen. If you think Anna and Lokpal or any other legislation will save us, please spare yourself the fantasy.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989: The working classes in the former Eastern bloc countries, and Russia especially, are economically worse off now than they were under the Communist regime. Yes, they have freedom of expression. But they lost a golden opportunity to build a society that could combine democracy with economic justice.
The end of apartheid in South Africa, 1990: Neither the Black ghettoes nor the abysmal levels of poverty and crime among the Blacks have reduced in a post-apartheid South Africa with black presidents. Racism is illegal, but the economic disparities between the black majority and the white minority continues as before, and the reason even a man like Nelson Mandela could do nothing much after coming to power is the same reason why the so-called Arab Spring is far from the ‘revolution’ it is touted to be.
The Arab Spring, 2011: The radical uprisings can at best be termed ‘pre-revolutions’ or aspiring revolutions, nothing more. Why? Because in each of these countries – Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yeman, Bahrain —- the working classes have a long way to go before they can wrest political power or even influence from the ruling class.
It might be useful to look at the Middle-East scenario in some detail, for it presents the best case study for what’s likely to happen to other people’s protests around the world.
The petro-dollar effect
You may have noticed that the same American press which went gaga over the Egyptian protests on Tahrir Square was silent on the brutal repression of the people’s uprisings in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, with a nod from the US, sent its tanks into Bahrain to quell the protests and prop up the king. So how come what’s hailed as a ‘revolution’ for the Egyptians is not so for the people of Bahrain?
As with any criminal investigation, follow the money. Two things have happened to the world economy since the last Middle-East oil crisis in the mid-1970s: the financialisation, and internationalisation, of capital. These two phenomena, accelerated by technological advances, have changed the nature of global markets. As political economist Adam Hanieh has pointed out, the six Gulf Co-operative Council (GCC) states — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain and Oman — have been central to this process.
With the GCC states accounting for more than half the world’s oil exports, they began accumulating huge surpluses, which kept rising as oil prices rose ten-fold, from $9.76 per barrel in 1999 to $90.32 per barrel in November 2007. Most of these cash reserves were held in dollars — the Americans made sure they did, through a mix of coercion and bribery. This ensured that the Arab ruling class had a stake in keeping the dollar as the international reserve currency — crucial for bankrolling the debt-ridden American economy.
But the GCC’s petro-dollars can’t be sitting idle. They have to go somewhere as investment, and they did — to American and European banks. This money found its way to the equity and money markets in the West, fuelling the American housing bubble and the sub-prime crisis; it also accounted for the bulk of the FDI flowing into all the middle-east countries, serving to prop up the long-standing dictatorships that came under pressure this year — in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan.
By end-2007, private investments by GCC-based companies or families totaled $2.2 trillion — more than the combined GDP of Australia and India for 2008, and more than the assets held by the Chinese central bank.
Fictitious profits
It would not have been so bad if all this money had been invested in industry or employment-generating productive activity. But it was not — the rate of profit for most productive activity, from agriculture to making soap, had anyway fallen way below the interest rates fixed by bankers and lenders.
So, much of the capital went into speculative investment on assets. [This means you get a return on capital not by creating value (through productive use of labour), but by relying on a continuous flow of liquidity into the asset market, causing an appreciation in its value. For example, I will buy a house/share and wait for more money to come into the real estate/stock market, and when it does, the price of my house/share will go up, and I will sell it and pocket a profit— all without having produced an iota of value. The financial sector of capitalism is basically a giant Ponzi scheme.]
But speculative profit is fictitious profit. At some point, it needs to have some ‘real value’ backing it. If it doesn’t, it will create a bubble, which will burst one day. And when that happens, the owners of such investments (usually banks) go bankrupt, as they did when the US housing bubble burst in 2008. But a society controlled by rich investors will not let rich investors go bankrupt.
The working class will be made to pay for the foolish losses of the rich through a ‘bail-out’ —basically a transfer of tax payer’s money (public wealth) into banks (private hands). This ‘bail-out’ money — also referred to as a ‘stimulus package’ by the financial press — will set in motion another stream of capital flows, leading to another bubble-burst cycle (unless that money goes into productive activity, in which case it might kick-start consumption and demand).
But much of the bail-out money post the 2008 crisis has again gone into speculative trading and investments, which means that things are not going to improve. If capital accumulation has to happen (the business press’ term for this is ‘economic growth’), it will have to be by dispossessing the state of its assets, exploiting as yet untapped natural resources, and further driving down the wages of the working classes around the world.
What’s at stake
So, for the US, what is at stake in the Middle-East is control over the world’s largest energy reserves. This also has the effect of ensuring that the dollar remains the global reserve currency and speculators keep making money while the working classes and poor around the world get into austerity/starvation mode.
Given the strategic importance of the Middle-East for the global investor class (whose interests the US military presence serves to protect), it shouldn’t be surprising that the Gulf has basically been a staging post for the invasion and illegal occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
As of now, the interests of the ruling classes of the Gulf and Middle-East states are completely aligned with those of global capital, and opposed to those of the working classes in these countries. So in the present scenario, no matter who comes to power after whatever elections are held, as we saw in the case of post-apartheid South Africa, and will see in Egypt, political change will not automatically usher in a change in economic orientation away from the global neoliberal agenda (privatisation, liberalisation, free flow of capital, restrictions on worker rights), which has been at the heart of increasing economic distress all over the world. And without that change, any political change will amount to nothing for the vast majority bravely standing up to the military might in these repressive regimes.
To sum up: there can be no ‘revolution’ worth the name in any of the poorer Middle-East nations unless the oil-rich Gulf monarchies are overthrown; but that’s not going to happen unless the US gets out of the Middle-East; and that’s not going to happen unless the oil runs out; and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

To the Water Station, slowly, slowly

In Humour, Theatre, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:35 am

G Sampath | Saturday, December 24, 2011

First published in DNA
In his 1088-page novel, Infinite Jest, which I haven’t read and may never read but intend to read and want to have read, David Foster Wallace imagines a movie called ‘Infinite Jest’. It’s a piece of entertainment so fatally compelling that all you want to do in life is to watch it over and over again — with no thoughts of eating or sleeping or any other activity — until you die. This week, I watched a mind-blowing (some would say, mind-numbing) play, called The Water Station, which was the absolute opposite of Wallace’s movie: it seeks, and attains, the zero degree of entertainment.
I am no theatre critic, and this is not a review of the play. But all the same, I want to talk about what happens when you watch a two-hour play in which nothing happens, and happens very slowly.
The main character of The Water Station is a dripping tap. The main action is the dripping of the tap. And the main dialogue is the sound of the tap dripping. No plot. No story. No characters either — as in nobody with an identity or history. Was there a setting? Well, from what I could make out, the stage was supposedly a barren landscape where there is nothing save this dripping tap, and some junk.
Random people (yes, the play does have people in it!) walk around the tap, get wet, walk around the tap, roll on the floor, walk around the tap, drink water, walk around the tap, make faces, walk around the tap, and go off stage.
But that’s not all. The most striking, anti-sexy feature of the performance cannot be described, only experienced: it’s utter, infinite, excruciating, slowness. In the opening sequence, for instance, a girl takes 25 minutes to walk from one end of the stage to the water tap, a distance that an ageing, arthritic snail with a heart problem would cover in not more than 10 minutes.
Even the most casual of physical movements, like turning your head, is premeditated, stretched out, and imbued with the calibrated poise of a sky walker doing a hand-stand on a bicycle hundred meters from the ground.
My wife, who I had taken along, nodded off on my shoulder five minutes into the show. She woke up when somebody in the audience sneezed.
“Did I miss anything?” she asked, stifling a yawn, not very successfully.
“The girl was there when you dozed off. Now she’s reached here.” She promptly closed her eyes. She wasn’t alone in taking advantage of the silence and the darkness to take a power nap. A few walked out midway.
As we shuffled out of the auditorium after it was over, I overheard a girl complain, “This was just a social experiment to demonstrate that people can be fooled into believing they were intelligent enough to see the emperor’s new clothes. Only, nobody would dare admit he was wearing no clothes, and this was no theatre. What a scam!”
So, was it really a scam? Of course, that is one more ‘interpretation’ of the performance, and cannot be dismissed outright. At any rate, it does illuminate our expectations when we pay money to go watch a ‘show’. The foremost of these expectations is the sense that we are entitled to ‘being entertained.’
‘Being entertained’ means that for two hours, you forget that you are an overweight slob, have a sadistic boss, and the last date for paying your electricity bill was yesterday. The Water Station lops off the ‘entertainment’ bit and offers you just ‘being’. It takes your expectation to be entertained, shreds it to a thousand little pieces, and flings it back at your face.
If you can surrender yourself to this process, a process that would last all of 7,200 seconds, wherein every second will be made to pause, step forward, and shake hands with you before retreating gently back into the seamless flow of time, if you can sit through this dramatic encounter between time and self till the very end, you might just come away with a glimpse of something alive, something that comes to life only when entertainment is either transcended or suspended.
The Water Station, conceived by the late Japanese playwright Shogo Ohta, is a choreographed rebellion against the tyranny of time as a cultural construct (as opposed to an effect of nature); it rebels against the tyranny of narrative, against the dictatorship of words, and against the passivity induced in an audience seeking entertainment and all its familiar referents.
But most tellingly, with its relentless slowness, it forces us to confront the reality of how civilisation has enslaved us to speed, and how the leisurely, natural rhythms of life have been surrendered to the speeded-up, artificial timelines of production and consumption. As you sit there in the darkness, restless and befuddled, but impatient to consume the performance and move on, you almost yell at the actors to “Get on with it already!”
However, by privileging stillness over moving on, The Water Station makes you confront this internalised consumerist reflex of moving on — to the next thing to be consumed or produced. Its aesthetics of nothingness and silence is an implicit critique of a culture whose presiding logic is ‘what next?’ The performance forces you to stay in the present, where nothing happens, nothing needs to be done, and all you need is to be. That’s whyThe Water Station is theatre that is as difficult to experience as it is rewarding to have experienced.