Vantage point

Friday, August 31, 2007

Marathis and Austrians!

It is not surprising that non-Indians here hardly ever say my name right. My name is pronounced differently in different parts of India, so expecting foreigners to get it right is asking for a bit much. In Maharashtra where I came from, the pronunciation is a sanskritized "Ga-oo-rav". In North India, it is pronounced "Gaw-rav". And I have noticed South Indians pronouncing it as "Gav-rav".

Though I grew up being called "Ga-oo-rav" by friends and family in Pune, as I moved to other parts of the country, I started introducing myself as "Gaw-rav", the Northie way, because it seems the easiest to pronounce. Even when I came to the US, that's what I would pronounce it as.

Of course, none of the non-Indians got it right. Variations include gurav, guraav, garav, etc. I am amused at how even a 6 letter name is considered so hard to pronounce., and had almost given up on the hope that any non-Indian will ever pronounce my name right, even after my corrections.

So imagine my surprise yesterday when a non-Indian professor from my department (well, the Chair of the department really) actually pronounced it "Ga-oo-rav", like the Marathis. And it wasn't just a fluke. He said it like that throughout the class. But later as I thought about it, I realized it was not surprising at all.

He is an Austrian named Baumgartner. I have heard everyone pronounce his last name as "Bawm-gartner", whereas I know it should be "Ba-oo-mgartner". My knowledge of his correct pronunciation has less to do with my deep knowledge of the German language and more to do with the fact that there was a Formula-1 driver by that name, and that's how commentators pronounced his name.

Since the "au" sound in his name is similar to that in the sanskritized pronunciation of mine, the first non-Marathi to pronounce my name that way turned out, actually to be an Austrian. Fascinating!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


It is not very easy to create great humour out of embarrasing sex-related situations without crossing the line into "cheap". American Pie managed it, but its sequels fell flat. 40-year-old-virgin managed it very well, and now from the creators of that very movie, comes Superbad which I can very imaginatively describe as "supergood".

The movie, stars Michael Cera, previously famous as George Michael Bluth from one of my favourite sitcoms, Arrested Development, and two hitherto unknown young actors - Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. At its core, the movie seems to have the same basic idea as American Pie - a group of friends desperate to get laid before leaving high school and going to college. Since the core idea seemed very been-there-done-that, I was expecting nothing more than cheap laughs from the movie. However, there is more to the movie than hormonal teens looking for action. Superbad is also about how major inevitable transitions in life can affect friendships. It is about transitioning from a largely egalitarian childhood to a stratified adulthood, where creatures like "success", "pedigree" and "achievement" play decisive roles.

Plus there was the similarity to South Park. A couple of days after watching the movie I realized that I could think of Seth (Hill) as a teenaged Eric Cartman, fat, selfish, insecure, jealous, and completely consumed or obsessed with something. Evan (Cera) could be a teenaged Stan+Kyle, a bit mature, responsible, and slightly embarassed by Seth. And Fogell (Mintz-Plasse) of course is the perfect teenaged Butters, smart but superdorky, always the fall guy, and of course, getting in trouble with the law.

The three teenagers play their roles perfectly, as do Bill Hader and Seth Rogen, the two omnipresent cops. A bit of trivia blast - Seth Rogen also co-wrote the movie with Evan Goldberg. For the less discerning amongst you, this means they named the two main characters after themselves.

This is a movie which is going to be quoted and re-quoted ad nauseum, and it is in your pop cultural interests to watch it as soon as possible.


Monday, August 13, 2007

A Disturbing Pattern

Maybe someone at cricinfo or someone who has some time on their hands can search the commentary archives and verify this, but I seem to be remember that in most if not all series in the last couple of years, Rahul Dravid has dropped regulation catches at crucial moments. This is a distrubing pattern because Dravid's fielding expertise behind the wickets once rivalled that of VVS Laxman, and him dropping catches was almost unheard of. In fact he pulled off some game-turning stunners at slip, most memorable being his catches of Steve Waugh and Martyn off Tendulkar at Adelaide in 03-04.

A few moments back, Dravid dropped a simple catch of Michael Vaughan's off Anil Kumble. If Vaughan plays an Atherton-ish grinding innings and ekes out a draw, the catch will come back to haunt Dravid just like Prior's chance to Tendulkar in the first innings. And anecdotally I think this has been happening quite frequently of late. Maybe it is the effect of slowing reflexes with age combined with the fact that as a captain he always has to keep thinking about what to do next. Whatever the reason, I think the pattern is very disturbing and needs to be corrected especially in view of the forthcoming series against Pakistan and Australia.

Maybe it is time for Dravid to hand over the slip fielding responsibilities to younger and more reflexive hands like Wasim Jaffer.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

3 Great Bands for $50!!

Nothing much really happens in Centre County, Pennsylvania. Once in a while there is a great concert. Like last year, I went to a Bob Dylan concert. He sounded quite raspy but the experience was worth it. There have been a few bands playing once in a while, but nothing compared to what's coming up in two weeks. On August 21st, in Altoona, just 40 miles from here, there will be a concert featuring three kick-ass bands - Counting Crows, Live and Collective Soul. Ticket price - just 50 bucks. And Rupal, my fiancee, has decided that we are going to the concert with her paying for the tickets as my birthday present. As Confucious put it so eloquently - WOOHOOOO!!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Have We Really Learnt a Lesson?

A friend of mine whom I really respect, a pucca Mumbaikar, wrote in an email recently -

but let me tell you that dark period taught mumbai that communal violence doesnt help anybody.. so when ppl were speculating the Gujarat carnage might spill over to mumbai, i was absolutely at peace that nothing of that sort was gonna happen.. mumbai has learnt a lesson; and learnt it really the hard way, by paying a very heavy price for the same.. i just hope other cities & citizens take lesson from mumbai and mend their ways..

His sentiment is shared uniformly across Mumbai. However, as valid as the sentiment might be, it is a bit naive. It assumes that riots are a spontaneous response by mobs. When hot-headed individuals get out of control, and spark off something ugly. In terms of those kind of riots, I agree that Mumbai has learnt a lesson. We have seen riots like those in recent years in Bhiwandi, Malegaon, Solapur, Lucknow, and so on. Some silly reason leads to an eruption of underlying resentment. Innocents are knifed or raped, the police comes in, there is a curfew for two or three days. Thins return to normal.

What we saw in Mumbai in 1992-93 was a different beast of a riot altogether. As bad as the law and order in our country is, it is capable and strong enough to quell riots within a few days. Especially the police and quasi-police forces in a city like Mumbai are certainly capable enough. The Mumbai riots or the Gujarat riots of 2002 or even the Delhi riots of 1984 are of much more vile nature. They are ruthlessly organized by political entities, often with several police elements complicit in their perpetuation. Blame can be specifically laid at the door of people.

And yet, there is no accountability. People who masterminded the 1984 riots became Ministers. And now, even though convictions have been handed out in the 1993 blasts case, there is no action against those responsible for the 1992-93 riots.

It would seem to me that if Mumbai had really learnt a lesson, the guilty might not be able to get away so easily. Yet, they have. We Mumbaikars are content to lead our lives with mass murderers in our midst, and in our legislatures and municipalities. What is to stop them from repeating the horror when it is politically tenable? Especially now that the perpetrators themselves, i.e. people like the Shiv Sena and Abu Azmi are battling for relevance and survival?

The utter neglect of the Srikrishna Commission report is a slap in the face, not just of our democracy and law and order, but also in the face of the common sense of the common Mumbaikar. Until punishing those guilty of the riots doesn't become as much of a political priority as punishing those guilty of the 1993 blasts, I refuse to believe that Mumbai has learnt a lesson.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Objectivity and Sainath

Last week I was at a PhD students conference in Washington D.C. During one of the sessions on theory construction, the topic being discussed was the importance of objectivity. To come up with good theories, is objectivity sacrosanct? Do your own passionate beliefs about something blind you from seeing a truth which might be contrary to what you hold dear? Or is passionate subjectivity necessary to give you the firepower to buck trends and break new ground? As with most things to do with research, there was no clear answer, with equally compelling arguments given by both sides.

Just a couple of days before the conference came the news that P Sainath is the recipient of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award. Having read his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought and many of his newspaper articles, the objectivity debate seemed even more relevant.

Sainath thoroughly deserves the award. I have great respect for him, because he has always displayed something sorely lacking in the Indian media - initiative. Bucking the urban-centric trend of journalism, he travels to the hinterland and brings us stories from there. Sainath's work is thought of by some as the injection of reality into our affluent middle class world views.

Which is why personally I am very disappointed at the inadequacies of the way he brings us this reality. Often I get frustrated, because he is obviously a very intelligent and circumspect man. I can only blame those inadequacies on the lack of objectivity. Even though he does a fantastic job of unearthing stories and documenting them, the spin he puts on it betrays his own beliefs, which are at the very least left-of-centre.

His book was about people who were nothing but victims of the state. Those displaced due to dams, coal mines, and so on, and now leading a penniless existence. Tribals who were forced up to give up the very forests that sustain them. There is one thread common to all these stories - someone sitting either in the national capital or state capital deciding what is the best for everyone. And a complete lack of the sanctity of property rights, due to which anyone, whether it is the government or a private corporation which has bribed the government, can steal your land from you.

But "sanctity of private property rights" probably seems like too capitalist an idea for Sainath. The truth is interfering with his subjective opinions. Which is why most of the times, Sainath is there-but-not-quite-there. Some of his opinions like the ones here are correct. The WTO IS a sham. Subsidies ARE cornered by the elite. Food security IS a myth. And anyone who knows free markets will join Sainath in voicing those opinions.

Where he falters very often is labeling the post-1991 policies as "free market capitalism" and saying they have been as bad, if not worse for the poor of this country, as socialism was. The neo-liberal policies often cop the blame from him. But whenever you take an issue he has raised and dig deeper, the underlying reason is still statist interventionism. However his overall writing continues to create the illusion, willfully or otherwise, that free market ideas are part of the problem.

I wrote a post a few weeks back about a specific point he raised. The disparity in power supply to urban and rural households. Dig deeper and the problem lies with monopolistic state owned electricity boards that have no incentive to even serve their customers, let alone treat them fairly. Leave resource distribution to a central authority like the government and some will always be more equal than others.

But Sainath never goes that deep. Even his harshest indictments of the government have been at a fairly superficial level, probably because he knows that if he goes too deep, the answer he comes up with may not suit his own tastes. And that stops him from becoming a truly great journalist.

Of course, losing his subjectivity would also mean he loses his passion. If he didn't have this very passion, he would have been happy covering the meaningless lives of film stars or politicians or cricketers. His biggest strength is also his biggest weakness.

As Surjeet Bhalla wrote in an article critiquing(registration required) a specific point Sainath made

Populism pays and pays much more than hard-headed factual analysis. By keeping the guilt in check, it makes the Scotch of the elite go down that much better.

There is no point in expecting Sainath to change. In fact there is no need for Sainath to change. He is playing his role well enough. He continues to get his hands dirty and inject doses of reality into our consciousness, though the reality itself is a bit skewed. What we need is people having a different belief system getting their hands dirty. What we need is a more diverse marketplace of ideas. We need people to go to villages, and tell those stories, pinpointing the real problems instead of guilt-peddling.

It seems hypocritical for me, sitting in the United States to exhort people to do what Sainath does, but in a complementary fashion. All I can do is hope that such people turn up. And I am fortunate enough to know personally, a few friends who are also getting their hands dirty in rural India. They are not journalists.... not yet anyway. But a counter-movement based on real free market ideals, not the government-contract-variety of free markets ideals, is slowly but surely taking off.