From Chennai to Mullaperiyar  

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The two lane road from Dindigul district in Tamil Nadu to Kumily, the border town in Kerala, is around 140 kms long. In this stretch, I could notice a marked difference from the barren lands which characterised most parts of the highway from Chennai till Dindigul. Paddy fields were visible all around on both sides of this rather narrow road. Halfway through this road, we entered Theni district which shares its border with Kerala. The variety of crops increased even further. Vast sugarcane fields, corn fields, vineyards, banana plantations and a myriad other cereals and millets, many of which I failed to identify.


Some glimpses of the prosperous Theni district 




The rain poured intermittently. A bike trip spanning 600 Km one way, when the meteorology department had already given a prediction of ‘heavy rains all over south India for the next 48 hours’ , slightly bordered on the insane. It did not help matters either that we were travelling in a bike that was meant for short city rides only. But, this did provide us with the luxury of stopping at each of those fields and see for ourselves what is being cultivated and where the water was coming from. Yes, the water, flowing out from a dilapidated 115-year-old dam situated in another state.
                                       
An agricultural family near Dindigul

                                     
Corn fields in Cumbum, Theni district




The story of Mullaperiyar dam is now familiar to everyone. Or, so we think. In my interactions with random people in Chennai, I realized that the massiveness of this issue is confined to the borders of Kerala. Most of them were unaware of even the basic facts or believed the Sun TV version of it. They do not know the fact that the engineer who built the dam way back in 1895 gave it a life span of 50 years. They do not know that it was built with surki and that currently it has a crack running through its full span. They also do not know that it is situated in a highly seismic zone and a quake above 6.0 in the Richter scale can bring this dam down. And, it is this realization that led two of us to travel down to the place, study the issue and spread the message. Let’s get back to the journey.

Cumbum and Gudalur are the last villages on the Tamil Nadu side. After this, the road starts winding up. The air gets misty. Kerala is situated on the other side of these hills. As we neared the Kerala border, we came across the penstock pipes of a hydro electric power generation plant at lower camp. This is the Periyar power plant, where Tamil Nadu generates electricity using the Mullaperiyar water. The original deed was signed in 1895 with the agreement to use the water for irrigation purpose alone. And, here we have a full fledged power plant. Tamil Nadu had tried to get permission from Kerala for the power plant in the late 40s. But when they saw that support was hard to come by, they started work on the power station in 1955 without waiting for the permission. According to the data presented in Sasidharan Mangathil’s book on Mullaperiyar, Tamil Nadu is now generating 100 crores worth of electricity from Mullaperiyar, whereas Kerala is paid just 7.75 lakhs.

By the time we reached the border, it was well past 12 noon. The border check post was still hidden in the mist. We got into the first shop at the border to ask for directions. There, few people were discussing three small quakes (measuring around 3 on the Richter scale each) that happened near the dam that morning.  According to the Kerala Government, the Mullaperiyar area has experienced 22 earthquakes of around 3.0 in the richter scale since July this year. The Tamil Nadu Government has alleged that this is a gross exaggeration and claimed the number to be not more than two. But I could see from the ground that these reports of earthquakes were not fake. These are people who experienced it firsthand. The tension in the atmosphere was palpable.

Our first aim was to visit the dam, the success of which we never truly believed in. After long talks with forest officials and calling up some others, we realized that getting anywhere near the dam is impossible. And so, we set out to visit the protest venue in Chappath and to meet the locals living in the areas close to the dam. A board hung in front of the protest venue read ‘1801’. The Mullaperiyar samara samithi (Mullaperiyar protest council) began its protest movement for a new dam exactly 1801 days back.  It is an apolitical movement started by the people in the border villages of Idukki. Prof C.P.Roy, the man who started this movement says, “We are ready to give more than enough water for Tamil Nadu. We are just begging for our lives. We want a new dam here.” This sentiment is shared by most of the people in these areas.
                                
A local farmer stands in front of the Mullaperiyar protest venue in Chappath. The board reads '1801', the number of days since the protests started



The protestors

The protest venue

One thing that surprised me was the number of Tamilians sitting at the protest venue demanding a new dam.  Curious to know their take on the issue, I started talking to some of them and surprisingly they had harsh words to convey to Jayalalithaa and Vaiko. Majority of those living in Peerumedu, Devikulam, Munnar etc are Tamils. “Jayalalitha says she cares for the lives of Tamils. So what about Tamilians like me living downstream this dangerous dam? What about our Malayali brothers and sisters? ,” asks S. Daniel, a supervisor at a corn estate in chappath village, one of the places that will be affected first if the Mullaperiyar dam breaks. Daniel’s father Selvaraj was one of the lakhs of Tamilians who migrated from different parts of Tamil Nadu and settled in the border district of Idukki many decades back.

One of the Tamilians whom we interviewed. He has been living in Idukki for the past many decades. He has harsh words for Jayalalithaa and Vaiko (with English subtitles)


 There are no hate speeches or violent slogans here, only a populace living under constant fear of a massive flood. From tea shops to Government offices, the subject of discussion is just the same. Mini, a medical shop owner here says, “My daughter finds it hard to sleep at night. Elders in our locality take turns to sleep at night. Everyone is living under the fear of being washed away in sleep.” Her daughter celebrated her 6th birthday by joining the relay fast at the protest venue in Chappath.

There have been allegations from various quarters that the media and politicians in Kerala are creating a mass hysteria with ulterior motives. But the people in these areas refute any such suggestions. “We have been living under constant fear since the 1970s. Our voices started going outside only recently,” says Shaji Joseph, one of the protestors. The fears have also led to small scale migrations. According to an employee in a tea plantation here, some of his former co-workers have left this place after selling off their meagre properties.

The Mullaperiyar protestors speak..about their protests, about the history of the issue. (No subtitles...Too lazy to add!)




The protestors talk about migration from the area and other issues



Contrasting with this hysteria is the nonchalance or rather the lack of awareness about the problems related to the dam, in the border districts of Tamil Nadu.  Even those who are aware see this as Kerala’s trick to deny them access to water. When asked about Kerala Government’s written promise to give same amount of water from the new dam, Murugan, a farmer in Theni said-“It is hard to trust such assurances from politicians. Our lives depend on that water.” It is true. Without this water, they will all starve to death and it’s natural that they react in anger when there is a question on their livelihood. It is up to the activists and politicians on either side to come together and educate the masses on the true situation of the dam. And then arrive at a solution that will save the lives of Keralites and at the same time safeguarding the livelihood of the Tamilians.
                                            
                      The water level indicator at the Thekkady side of the Mullaperiyar reservoir

As aspiring journalists, we are told to be balanced in whatever we report, even if it involves your personal interests. But, after studying the facts in this case I can see only a lopsided balance, which is not because of the conflict of interest of being a Malayali myself, but because the realities of this case are so.  Besides Mullaperiyar, Kerala is giving water to Tamil Nadu through many other dams like Siruvani, Neyyar, Parambikkulam etc. Even when the decibel levels rose on the Mullaperiyar issue, for not once did Kerala think of cutting off water from these dams.

Some voices from the streets of Chappath, Idukki district


According to the precautionary principle, in any given scenario when lives are stake any decision taken should be to save those lives. This should take precedence over all other factors. But even considering all these facts, the construction of new dam is not going to be an easy task (even if Tamil Nadu agrees to it) since the area is biodiversity hotspot consisting of the Periyar tiger reserve.

PS- The situation has grown worse in the two weeks since I made this visit. The border districts on both sides are simmering with angry protests. And, some sections of the media are trying to milk this situation by planting false stories like this, and some others (CNN IBN & NDTV) stoop down even further by spreading it without checking facts. The full page Ads in National newspapers by Jayalalithaa was severely criticised by Supreme Court yesterday.  Both states were also asked to be restrained in their opinions related to the dam. Hope better sense prevails and both states reach a settlement for a new dam.

ASEAN-India FTA: Death knell for small farmers?  

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As the issue of allowing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail trade is being widely debated for its pros and cons, here's a look at the Indo-ASEAN free trade agreement signed in 2009 and how it adversely affect Indian farmers(especially those in Kerala). Though the technicalities of FDI in retail are entirely different, some after effects are similar. 

Trade barriers are a thing of the past in a post liberalised world. As more and more trade treaties are signed, limitations which used to exist in trade between two countries have reduced to a large extent. The advocates of free trade project this as a win-win situation in which both the countries involved will benefit. But at the other side, the reduction in tariffs of agricultural and marine goods is bound to hit farmers and small and medium enterprises (SME) hard. 

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India signed the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods (TIG) Agreement in Bangkok on 13 August 2009. It paved the way for the creation of one of the world’s largest free trade areas consisting of 1.8 billion people and a combined GDP of US$ 2.8 trillion. 
One of the main features of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement (AIFTA) is the tariff reduction commitments which provides for a phased reduction of import duties on Indian and ASEAN member countries’ agricultural and non-agricultural goods between January 2010 and January 2016. The products are classified under 4 broad headings-Normal track, sensitive track, special products and exclusion list. For the products in the exclusion list, there is no tariff reduction. Excluding the products in this list, India has made commitments to reduce or eliminate tariffs for over 89% of all of its agriculture, marine and manufactured goods by 2016. 

India’s exclusion list contains some of its major agricultural products like coconut, cotton, dairy products, wheat, paddy/rice, sugarcane, apples, etc. But the presence of a product on the exclusion list does not guarantee protection from all competition. Local producers of the agricultural and other products listed in the list could face increased competition from imports of cheaper substitutes whose tariffs are being reduced under different tracks in the FTA.

Tariffs for many agricultural products which are included in the other lists will drop to zero by 2016. This will result in a drastic reduction in demand for local agricultural products. Under the safeguard provisions of the FTA, countries are allowed to raise tariffs in case of emergencies. But it cannot be above the levels stipulated in the Agreement. With tariffs dropping to zero for most products by 2016, this becomes meaningless. Therefore India’s commitments under AIFTA are likely to cause significant negative impact on livelihoods and food security across several segments of the rural population in the country.

South India, especially Kerala will be the most affected by this scenario because it shares a similar tropical agro climatic condition as South East Asia. Both regions cultivate the same kinds of crops. The marine fisheries resources are similar too. Natural rubber, coconut, tea, coffee, spices, cashew, and tropical fish varieties etc are common to both regions. 

The CPIM politburo in a statement released on the day that the FTA was signed said, “Eliminating the tariff in 80 percent goods traded between India and the ASEAN countries would be harmful for domestic industries, agriculture and fisheries, which have already been adversely affected by the economic slowdown. This would have an adverse impact on the economies of the states, particularly Kerala. The claim made by the government that excluding some items from the list of tariff concessions would address the sensitivities in agriculture and other sectors did not hold much water. The sharp cuts in import duties in the future would affect the livelihood of a very large number of people in the country”

But Union minister Vayalar Ravi disagreed with this view saying that, “This is far from the truth, because in today’s world none lives in isolation and the farmers can look forward to a positive future because of the agreement. This pact would enable our farmers to compete with the rest of the world and the central government would help them through proper policies and support”

Added to this scenario, some key products like black tea, coffee, pepper, crude palm oil and refined palm oil are kept in a separate category called special products. The products in this list are subject to tariff reduction commitments unlike those in the exclusion list. No other country has kept any products under this category. It is still unclear why India opted for such an arrangement which directly affects the business of small enterprises. 

On the brighter side, import liberalisation in intermediate goods like electrical machinery, optical, photo, medical apparatus, chemical products, plastics, copper etc will benefit the Indian MNCs that are active in the region, in the chemicals and iron & steel sectors. It will also be advantageous to some extent to the services sector. 

So, the Indian establishment has to grapple with the dilemma of being an active partner in ASEAN to counter the primacy of China in the region and at the same time isg faced the problems of livelihood of farmers and small enterprises in a world of unfettered trade. 



References: 

1. Financial liberalization and agriculture: An overview of the challenges before developing countries by Smitha Francis and Murali Kallummal.

2. ASEAN-India FTA- Noises of dissent from deep south by K.N.Harilal [Kerala State Planning board Occasional Paper]

3. ASEAN investment report 2011

Interview: Author Ashokamithran  

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Ashokamithran is one of the most celebrated writers in post-independence Tamil literature. As part of a writing project on translations, I had an opportunity to meet him to get his thoughts on translations. I decided to convert this into a full fledged interview for this blog.
                                                 
Ashokamitran, whose real name is Thyagarajan, has written eight novels and numerous short stories.  He won the "Sahitya Akademi" award in 1996 for his work "Appavin Snegidhar", a collection of short stories.  He worked in the Tamil film industry in the 50s and 60s and then went on to become a full time writer.  At 80, he is still bursting forth with energy when he talks about writing. Though his voice is feeble and sometimes broken, his memory is still impeccable. He recounted many stories, a few of which am sharing here. And yes, this was my first ever interviewing experience.

How did you start off? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
In those days, writing was very much part of everyday life. Nowadays, telephony and internet has taken out writing from our daily routine. We used to write letters regularly. Office work also involved a lot of writing- memos, notes etc. Now we have paperless offices. In school also, we were encouraged to come up with our own works of creativity.

Have you ever thought about doing any other work, other than writing?
No. My father died prematurely and I was quite young at that time. I was in Secunderabad at that time. I lacked elder's guidance. So, I had to make my own decisions. Then I shifted to Chennai and worked in the film industry for about a decade. And then, slowly writing began to take up most of my time. So I left the industry and took up writing full time.

Some of your books are set in the film industry.
Yes, I've written quite a lot about it. I was working as a public relations officer. Replying to letters was my main job there. We used to get a lot of letters from students and others asking for permission to visit the studio. I was supposed to reply that they can't visit the studio, at the same time I had to convey it pleasantly. So we had a convoluted way of writing those replies-diplomatic, feel good replies. Film shooting was at private places. Now they shoot everywhere from Chennai streets to Alaska.

I was reading the translation of your book 'Karaintha Nizhalgal'(star crossed). There was this scene where one of the technicians brings his whole family to the studio to watch the shooting.
Yes, yes. But we used to avoid the general public. Then, there will be officials whom we couldn't say 'No' to. For example, this income tax officer who used to insist on visiting the studio often. We couldn’t say no to an income tax officer! There was this one time in 1956 when Chinese premier Chou En Lai was visiting Chennai and he wanted to visit the studio. So we made arrangements for the visit. The problem was, at that time the young Dalai Lama was also visiting. The film that was being shot then was about kings and people who were loyal to the king. Chou En Lai did not like it because it went against his brand of communism. On the other hand, Dalai Lama was a pleasant fellow and he enjoyed every bit of the song and dance.

So, you had started writing while you were in the industry?
Yes. I started with short stories. Then, I started writing a novel for some contest. I couldn't complete it on time. I completed it about ten years later, the novel 'Viduthalai'(liberation). That was a bit pompous.

But, I've read somewhere that you concentrate more on intense experiences of small lives than grand sacrifices, public protest and posturing.
Yes, yes. That's very true. I don't carry an explicit social message. The reader can derive anything he wants. Otherwise, the essence of the story is lost. Anyway, am not a very popular writer!

Whatever I've read about you and heard from others, tells me otherwise
(laughs) It’s a very slow process. As a writer, you become known to people very gradually.

After 1980s, your books began to be translated more. Your fame spread outside the state during this period?
Yes, I became known in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta after that. I think I became more known in those places than in Tamil Nadu. That was the time when there were a lot of fights over languages, the anti-Hindi agitations and such movements. There was so much antagonism against the Hindi speaking people here and vice versa too. They make a fuss over these languages all the time. Each language has its own beauty. I've translated the biographies of Bankim chandra chatterjee and the Mother of Aurobindo ashram. I've also translated Anita Desai's 'Fire on the mountain'. It was not a great novel, but it did win a Sahitya academy award. Whatever fuss they make about ours being a classical language, we are yet to produce a work comparable to those of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. Devdas is one of his weaker novels. Even to its level, we haven't reached.

That's the only work of his that most people know about.
Yes. He never prescribed drinking as a solution to lost love. It was a written in a very realistic framework. But somehow, people interpreted it in the wrong way. He was extremely unhappy. He used to say that if I had known that people would interpret it this way, I would never have written that. So, what I was saying was, in Tamil we have big novels which run to thousands of pages, but those can't match the sublime quality of his work. Much needs to be done here. In Tamil, we do have some great poetry though.

You are one of the few fulltime writers in Tamil? Why don't we have more people who take this up as a profession?
How will you survive as a writer in this age! And there are no institutions which gives jobs to writers. Even your college would n't give me a job. Also, you wouldn't always get paid when others use parts of your work. For example, many situations from my books have appeared in a number of films but they have never credited me. It can be by accident, but this is what happens.

You had said long time back that people with integrity can never make a film. Was it based on your experience in the industry?
Yes, It is difficult to be honest in this industry. In my book 'karaintha nizhalgal', based on the film industry, the character Reddiar who is a producer is a straight forward man. He goes bankrupt and he never completes his project. There are thousands of films that are in different stages of completion. There are thousand others which are completed, but no one is ready to buy it. There is so much happening behind the scenes.

So, how do you feel about the current state? The studio system that existed here has crumbled. What are your thoughts on the monopoly that is running the industry?
It is financially in the clutches of a team, the Marans and their cousins. Now they are selling it as an international product rather than catering to the local audience. I don't understand the films these days. I still remember the days of going to theater to watch Chaplin or Fellini.

You've written in your book 'Mansarovar' that "A man living in his hometown is under various constraints. This is why everyone seeks to be free, live in anonymity away from their native towns." Was it written from your own experiences?
It is true for everybody, not only a writer. In a place where you are not known, you can do anything. The anonymity helps. It is a fact. But, somebody has to point it out. That is what I did.

You moved to Chennai from Secunderabad, where you spend your early years. The novel '18th parallel' was set there. So, the early days must've influenced you during writing the book.
18th parallel is the line that passes through Hyderabad. When you create a character, you have to provide some context, some location. It was set in the background of the Indian govt taking over Hyderabad after independence and the preceding turmoil. Not much has been written about the place. It was my first book to be translated to Telegu. It was received with great respect there.

So, are you a writer who writes mostly from things which you've experienced, places you've seen?
Yes, experiences feeds into your writing all the time. And also, you’ve to give a context or a background to your characters. So it’s easier to set them in familiar places.

Are you writing anything now?
I am suffering from cramps for the past weeks and I am tired too. So haven't written much recently. Before that I wrote a story that was published in some magazine few weeks back.

And then I made a request for a click. What happened next floored me, and also showed how down to earth this man is. He told me-“Wait. I’ve to respect the camera and the photographer. So, let me wear a clean shirt, comb my hair and come”. Even after I requested him not to take all those troubles, he insisted on it and within a minute, came dressed in a white shirt and with neatly combed hair. As I started clicking, he was worried whether there was enough light in the room and was even prepared to walk out into the balcony. Those troubles, I didn’t let him take. And so, an interview which was supposed to finish in 20 minutes went on for an hour...

As I walked out to my bike, he was there waving from the balcony. A lesson learned in humility…


Reverse colonization or a quest for food?  

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In the past one year, the drought in the Horn of Africa consisting of Ethiopia and Somalia has morphed into the biggest humanitarian crisis in history. People migrating to refugee camps perish before they could reach their destinations. While this painful process is going on, a new wave of agriculture is taking shape in these countries. Agricultural companies from developing countries like India and China are making huge investments in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries. They are buying up lakhs of hectares of arable land, sometimes after evicting the original inhabitants.

A feature of these African countries is that the farmers do not have any rights on their land. Government owns majority of the farmlands in Ethiopia. The peasants use ancient techniques of cultivation. When rains fail, their survival depends on the food aid. To breathe life into this agriculture sector, the Ethiopian Government began wooing foreign investors in the later part of the past decade. They were offered large tracts of land at rock bottom prices. They were also given tax breaks and Government built the roads and other infrastructure.

The biggest investor in Ethiopia currently is Karuturi Global ltd., a Bangalore based neo agricultural company. In the province of Gambella, they were given 300,000 hectares of land on a 50 year lease, at 10 dollars a hectare. They are cultivating palm, rice, sugar etc. They had promised homes, schools and clinics to be built in the locality but these are yet to be fulfilled. Thousands of farmers were evicted from the land they have farmed for generations. Compensations were not given because they do not have ownership on their land. Recently, Ethiopia slashed the size of Karuturi Global Ltd.’s land concession that was larger than Luxembourg on concern it was too big for a single company to manage and to enable an annual migration of antelope.

Forests across hundreds of hectares are being felled and burned to the dismay of locals and environmentalists concerned about the fate of the region's rich wildlife. There have allegedly been a number of arrests and killings of local people who oppose the recent land investment. The deals are signed in such a way that there are no limits to where the companies can sell their crops. So, most of these agro products are exported. David Hillam, Deputy Director of the FAO, told a conference in Washington DC in 2009, "Imagine empty trucks being driven into, say Ethiopia, at the time of food shortages caused by war or drought, and being driven out again, full of grain to feed people overseas. Can you imagine the political consequences?" However, Karuturi's CEO, Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, denies such allegations when he says, "We are putting money into Africa and making the lives of these exploited people better."

In Ethiopia, some of the land now being used by foreign companies had formerly been used for the production of teff, the staple diet of most Ethiopians. Now the land is being used by companies like Karuturi to produce such crops as maize for export. It is believed such shifts have contributed to the recent local price increase in teff, the supply of which has decreased as demand has increased. 

The Indian Government and the Indian business associations have provided strong support for these companies’ endeavors in Africa. The stagnant food grain production and dependence on international food imports prompted the Government to look for other avenues. Rapid industrialisation and conversion of farmland for other uses has reduced food grain production. Water availability, exacerbated by climate change and increasingly erratic rainfall has also hit Indian agriculture hard. The opening up of some agricultural items to International trade without proper restrictions, have also impacted the domestic prices.  In this scenario, the Indian Government has supported a host of initiatives to facilitate Indian agricultural companies in their overseas investments in Africa.  They support conventional new greenfield foreign direct investments, merger and acquisitions, public-private partnerships and specific tariff reductions on agricultural goods imported to India.

Another major way the Indian government has financially facilitated the process is by giving concessional Lines of credit to various African governments, banks, and financial institutions through the Indian ExportImport Bank (Exim Bank). Often such lines of credit are for the purpose of national development projects, and where these projects involve agricultural development, Indian foreign investors stand ready to win concessions and contracts for agricultural development in the form of their foreign direct investment. The Indian government has also liberalised its regulations on allowing outward foreign direct investment by Indian companies. The Confederation of Indian Industries and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries have organised several buyer-seller meets between African delegates and Indian businesses to facilitate agricultural investments in these countries.
                                  
In 2009 the FAO along with the World Bank and other organizations drafted the Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI) principles, a set of best practices and principles that foreign investors ‘can’ adhere to. These set of rules were supposed to govern the international transactions of farmland and also expected to incorporate the rights of the local residents. However the RAI principles have been widely criticised by activists and scholars as an insufficient response that can actually result in legitimising a process many feel is rife with exploitation and rights abuses. Critics say the fact that the principles are only voluntary falls far short of actual laws and strict regulations that could be enforced.

In June this year, Obang Metho, Executive Director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), a non-violent, grassroots social justice movement, wrote an open letter to thepeople of India. She raised some pertinent questions-“Any who resent the colonial past of your own country, should know that it began through the British East India Trading Company; where some of the more unscrupulous often colluded with corrupt indigenous government officials. What would Gandhi say today were he to know that Indians, who were only freed from the shackles of colonialism in recent history, were now at the forefront of this “land-grabbing” as part of the race for foreign control over African land and resources; currently being called the Neo-Colonialism of Africa?” The Indian media was largely silent on this issue except for an article by Jayati Ghosh in frontline two months back. The rest of the media were largely celebratory with regard to companies like Karuturi.

So, are we trampling upon the rights and lives of these innocent Africans in our quest to become a developed country? Or, are processes like these inevitable in a world which is increasingly finding it hard to feed its millions?


References for this post- Rick Rowden's study on 'India's role in the global farmland grab'
Youtube video reports by guardian and other media.

Book Review: Sikandar  

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When I finished reading the novel ‘Sikandar’ the past week, little did I know that it was something prophetic. Originally written in Bengali by Binayak Banerjee and translated into English by Soma Ghosh, it chronicles a reality show called 'sikandar' modeled on the same lines of Bigg boss (yes, with that stupid extra G). Being an ardent hater of all kinds of 'reality' shows, I was reluctant to read this. But then, lines of praise like 'remarkable insight into the depths of human existence where passing personalities engage in a life and death existential struggle to attain one's true human destiny' on the blurb, made me read this. And by the end, I was disappointed!

Coming back to the prophecy, I was quite surprised yesterday when Sami Agnivesh announced that he is going to enter bigg boss. My first reaction was- ‘this must be the hangover from that book’. Because, one of the ten contestants in the ‘sikandar’ reality show is ‘Swami Samyuktanand’, an ascetic like Agnivesh. I guess Agnivesh must have got this book through the ‘book reviews’ program and took it to heart.  Like the character, Agnivesh seems to have plans to preach at the wrong place. This comment from him yesterday is a primer for what to expect from him- "The girls inside the house don't seem to have any social responsibility.  I want to make them realize just how many girl children are killed in the womb and how many women are burnt alive in the name of sati”.

Enough of Agnivesh’s ramblings. The first problem with the book is that it confuses you right from the introduction.  The introduction throws at you a set of ten highly confusing Bengali names and their brief background. By the time you are done with it, you will be highly disoriented and you will have to keep on going back to these introductions to make sense of who is what and which, unless you are related to these people. Talking about relations, another funny thing is that all of the ten contestants are related or rather know each other in one way or the other. Some had shared fights. Some had shared beds. Some had shared stages. And it is an eclectic mix of characters- actor, industrialist, former revolutionary, prostitute etc.

I read this one right after I finished Jose Saramago’s classic ‘Blindness’, which also handles a similar, but REAL situation. There also, a group of people are quarantined in a building after a mysterious contagious blindness grips a place. It chronicles the change in their behavioural patterns, captures their quirks and builds it up into a larger picture of how humans react in peculiar situations, with the use of sublime prose peppered with philosophical overtones. In ‘Sikandar’ also, the author seems to have similar intentions, but the ‘pearls of philosophy’ from every other character looks out of place at several passages. Having said that, I did like certain sections and certain characters, most notably Rangajoba Sanyal, the ex-revolutionary who is in the show to get enough money to cure her daughter’s cancer.  But, most of the characters are half developed, especially the ones who are eliminated from the show in the earlier stages itself.

By the time I finished the book, I had only this to say- “So?” I kept on reading the book expecting for something to ‘happen’. There were too many loose ends and many things which were not explained. Having recently done a project on translations and the problems associated with it, I have a feeling that some things were actually ‘lost in translation’. How I wish I has some Bengali knowledge! But then, I don’t want to read another novel on ‘reality shows’, which are anything but REAL!

On a serious note, Swami Agnivesh’s big boss news comes as a disappointment. After his recent pivotal role as the Govt’s mediator with the Maoists and that epic NDTV show in which he silenced Barkha Dutt, this was something that he could’ve avoided.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at  BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!

Metallica in bangalore: When the bell tolled for us!  

Posted by Praveen


                                
The picture worth a frame. Metallica thanking the Indian crowd after the concert. 29/10/11

In the past 5-6 years, I’ve attended almost every concert by international bands in India- from Maiden to Porcupine tree to Meshuggah. Each of those was like a dream come true. But one name on top of my band wishlist remained uncut, a band which served as the best possible introduction to my favorite genre of music. It was towards the end of high school that someone lend me an overused cassette of the black album. I was told that I will either love it to the core or hate it to the extreme. Those days, the term music band used to bring to my mind such illustrious names as 'backstreet boys', 'westlife', 'boyzone' etc. Songs with pumping beats were 'rock' to me. I didn't know that something called metal existed. I pushed that old cassette into my not so big tape recorder. The opening strains of 'Enter sandman' were heard. The next one hour was like a blur. I couldn't make any sense of it. All I knew was I felt really pumped up hearing some of the songs. Metallica, the name registered in my brain. I didn't know how big they were nor was I big enough to appreciate how good that album was.

In the next two years, I heard more music of the same genre. I discovered Priest, Maiden, Sabbath, Megadeth etc. Slayer and Pantera came in later. But Metallica remained the eternal favorite. And, after watching classic concert DVDs like the 'Monsters of Rock' in Moscow, I wanted to be one among those screaming madmen, forced against the front barricade.  In the past decade, Metallica released some albums which many felt they shouldn't have. From being a bunch of four guys who were angry at the system, they (Lars Ulrich, to be precise) flaunted their elevation to bourgeois class by cracking down on kids downloading their music. They shifted from the raw fast paced pure thrash of the 80s to the mellower mainstream tone of the late 90s. But still for those first five albums, for those evergreen riffs and for those five discs of immense expression of anger, we love them. Maybe, worship them.

It has been months of anticipation, from the day 'Metallica in India' concerts were announced. The events in Delhi on Oct 27 made us all frantic. A veil of uncertainty remained over the Bangalore concert as I got on the train from Madras. I was dying to click this concert but before long it was clear that any such dreams are best forgotten. The weekend was the coming together of many old friends in Bangalore, all united under what James Hetfield termed as the 'metallica family'. As we travelled to the concert, we could see the road from MG road to palace grounds was chockablock with traffic, and all of those vehicles had groups of people wearing black metallica tees. Strangers flashed the horns at each other.

Passing through the gates, we got a taste of how big the crowd was going to be. It was a task to locate our huge group sitting under the 'blue tree', enjoying the power of jagermeister. Familiar faces, glimpsed and forgotten at many concerts, passed by. I was getting restless to go in and tried to pull in the others. They lounged around, even as most of the crowd went inside the concert arena. At a distance, we saw a convoy of cars riding into the ground, in our direction. Three of them passed me by. The fourth one had a familiar face sitting by the side and smiling. Familiar to me, not the other way around! It was Lars Ulrich. I stood there, dazed. The next second, I could sense myself running alongwith the car flashing the horns at him. He looked straight into my eyes and flashed it back. I felt like I was caught in one of those slow motion scenes, which take an eternity to finish. Or was it my senses slowing up!? The next car had caught up with my running by then. I turned my head and there he was, my favorite Metallica man- James Hetfield. Now I was screaming incoherently, running alongwith the car and with the horns still flashing. I realised that lightning can strike the same place twice when Hetfield also did what Ulrich had done few seconds back. Somewhere, I caught a glimpse of Hammett too. The next five minutes, a few of us ran around screaming in random directions. It still didn't sink in, whether it was jagermeister's trick or whether it all actually happened.

We entered the concert arena on a high, of having seen them up close. Rain started pouring and the slush was getting heavier. We had missed two opening acts by then. The Scottish rock act Biffy clyro was playing in the rain and they were surprisingly good. By then, our group had got lost in the huge crowd and I managed to get five of us together. After Biffy Clyro, it was a wait of almost an hour for metallica to start. Old rock and metal hits were heard from the speakers as the technicians went about their job. In between, one of the band's representatives asked the crowd to step back a little from the barricade and they promptly obeyed. The spirit was building up by then. And at 10 minutes past eight, the strains of 'ecstasy of gold', that classic Ennio Morricone score from 'The good, the bad and the ugly', were heard. A staple of all metallica concerts from the 80s, the theme accompanied by scenes from the movie projected on the screen, had the crowd screaming in anticipation for the band's appearance. Then, at the crescendo, Lars popped in behind the kit and played the opening beats of the epic 'creeping death'. All hell broke loose when Hetfield, Hammett and Trujillo joined in. There was a sudden surge forward and the moshpits started.
                                                 
Trujillo during one of his famous antics

The Hemingway inspired 'For whom the bell tolls' followed. 'Fuel' fit in with the racing mood that India was gripped in over the weekend.  Hammett launching into the solo amidst the pyrotechnics brought in goosebumps. Their own knowledge of how fans perceive their recent albums was best exemplified by James asking the crowd permission to play the song ‘Cyanide’ from the ‘Death magnetic’ album. The best moment of the day came at the end of 'The memory remains', when the crowd chanted non-stop for three minutes. The look of astonishment on Hetfield's face had to be seen to be believed. This chanting prompted him to say, "Bangalore, you are beautiful". ‘One’ was another of the much awaited songs of the night. When those intro gunshots and helicopter sounds replicating a war scene were heard, the screams were louder than for most other songs. And how they pulled it off, Oh boy!
Hetfield in full flow as the pyrotechnics go off during 'fuel'

This Metallica was surely different from the ones that we caught a glimpse of in recent times in youtube, going through their motions and looking almost bored on stage. It looked like they were truly excited in discovering so many fans in a country that they never been before.  This perhaps was the band discovering their lost form and it all looked like a throwback to their heydays in the 90s. With the exception of 'sad but true', almost every song was perfectly rendered. The tightness was best on display in 'Master of puppets'. When Hetfield went to the upper stage, raised up the mike and sang the 'master, master' chorus with the crowd, the excitement had reached a crescendo. Many (including yours truly) had tears in their eyes, having fulfilled a dream of 20 years.  And, then he gave us that evil laugh too! Could this have got any better?

 
Kirk Hammett with Trujillo in the background

‘Nothing else matters’ was another highly anticipated song and as with every other song, the whole crowd sang to it. With ‘Enter sandman’ ending in fireworks ending in fireworks lighting up the sky, the band bid the customary ‘goodbye before the encore’. With the crowd crying out for more, they were back before long with the cover song ‘Am I evil?’ The song ‘battery’ was one unexpected inclusion in the set list. ‘Seek & destroy’ provided a perfect end to the best concert that I have watched till date. The crowd of almost 50,000 clearly surpassed the previous attendance levels in international concerts in India. Lars Ulrich soon announced that they will surely be back in India soon. So, all is not lost for those of you who missed it this time.  They hung around on the stage for more than 10 minutes after they finished playing, distributing more and more plectrums and drum sticks. It looked like they just couldn’t get enough of the Indian crowd. As we walked back through the heavy slush, I mentally struck off that name from the top of my band wish list. Now, left on top is one more from the Big four, Slayer and AC/DC.
                                     
Hetfield and Trujillo

Metallica is more than just a band to many of us. It is an emotion that binds a million black tee sporting people worldwide. They gave us the first taste of metal music, when we did not know any such thing existed. Over the years, we have listened to a thousand more bands. But Metallica remained the eternal favorite. And, after watching classic concert DVDs like the 'Monsters of Rock' in Moscow, I wanted to be one among those screaming madmen, forced against the front barricade.  In the past decade, Metallica released some albums which many felt they shouldn't have. From being a bunch of four guys who were angry at the system, they flaunted their elevation to bourgeois class by cracking down on kids downloading their music. They shifted from the raw fast paced pure thrash of the 80s to the mellower mainstream tone of the 90s. But still for those first five albums, for those evergreen riffs and for those five discs of immense expression of anger, we love them. Maybe, worship them. This concert was a slap on the face for those posers who said that ‘Metallica is passé’.
                                     
Lars Ulrich

Setlist:
The Ecstasy of Gold (Ennio Morricone's theme song from 'The good, the bad and the ugly')
Creeping Death
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Fuel
Ride the Lightning
Fade to Black
Cyanide
The Memory Remains
Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
Sad But True
All Nightmare Long
One
Master of Puppets
Blackened
Nothing Else Matters
Enter Sandman

Encore:
Am I Evil? (Diamond Head cover)
Battery
Seek & Destroy


All pictures courtesy- Metallica.com

A trip to Thalankuppam  

Posted by Praveen in ,


Thalankuppam is a small fishing hamlet to the north of Chennai, near Ennur high road. The place's claim to fame is that the climax of the Tamil movie 'Kaakha kaakha' was shot here. When SidK suggested this place to us, we weren't exactly jumping up with excitement. But, we were all eager to get out after many rusty unproductive weekends in Chennai. We set out from the college in the afternoon sun and traced our way along the Marina beach. The route was pretty easy as it runs parallel to the beach in most places. Nikhil, sitting behind Sidk's bike was having a stupid 'high' smile all the way through.
Pillion riding..

After you went past the gates of the Chennai port trust, we faced some heavy truck traffic. For about 9 kms, we could see a long line of trucks. Its dusty and a little carelessness can land you under some big wheels. We almost had a truck tipping and falling on our head, after it well into a ditch. Thankfully, when it reached halfway through the tipping, it felt its not worthwhile and went back to normalcy.
The heavy truck traffic near Chennai port trust. This line stretches for 9 Km.

All of Chennai's industries are situated in North Chennai. Right from the legendary bullet factory to Ashok Leyland, the road is chockablock with factories on either side. So, naturally one can see smoke billowing out from high walled compounds. And if you look closely on the beach sides, you can see parts of pipes running to the sea, to dump out the effluents from the factories.
Eating up the sun

Pipes(the red ones) carrying effluents from the factory to the sea

The team enjoying a short rest.

The tea shop at Thalankuppam junction took me back to the days in shanghumokhom beach in Trivandrum because of the chilly bhaji and the strong tea, which tasted exactly like what we get back home. The tea shop owner was a cool dude whose T-shirt screamed, "Sorry girls, I date only models." From the junction, it is just a matter of one kilometer before we reach the Thalankuppam pier. On the way, we saw groups of old women sitting on the ground and playing cards. Some kids were having a competition on spinning tops.
The tea shop guy and his family. Checkout his cool t-shirt.

The bikes doesn't go till the pier. We stopped at a place which looked like a small boat jetty. There were so many rusted cylinders, cans, pipes and other industrial wastes dumped in the vicinity, a picture perfect "urban decay". A short walk took us to the pier, near where the river flows silently into the sea, forming an estuary. There  were only very few people at the place, and all of them were from the locality. Some old men were sitting on the edge and fishing. 




Scenes of urban decay..


The pier was nothing like the sea bridge back home, which even in its widely concreted pathway of safety scared me sometimes. This consisted of two beams on either side running till the end. And connecting beams in between at regular intervals. Like Rahul said, 'looks like a railway line'. Only that, under the line you have waves crashing in and walking is precarious at first. 

A country boat passed under the bridge and naturally, I pointed the camera at the boat. Just then, the man in the boat, who looked like some kind of anofficial, pointed his fingers and shouted-"switch off the camera. This is a prohibited area. I'll call the police". This old sea bridge beside some industrial dump, prohibited area! This was not my first run in with moronic officials who get agitated on seeing the camera. And as always, to satisfy his ego, I said, "Sorry sir, I didn't know". After some more repetitions of "I'll call the police", he went on his way. Case of frustrated middle aged officials taking our their anger on hapless travellers and harmless photographers!

Anyway, we started walking on the thin ledge towards the end of the pier. Rahul, the 'master of cliches' that he is, started playing the song 'uyirin uyirae' from 'Kaakha Kaakha', possibly a respectful nod to that movie which was partly shot here :P . Halfway through the walk, Rahul and Nikhil abandoned the idea of reaching the end and sat down. We continued walking. The wet ledges on some places scared us. But, it was all in the mind. After sometime, we started walking casually. Inside the dilapidated structure at the end of the beach, two men were getting ready to return after the day's catch. The sunset was on the side opposite to the beach. In Chennai, we are not lucky enough to see the sun going down into the sea and since am an early riser, watching it coming up is out of the question.
A walk over the sea..

or a swim under the bridge

After sunset, it was time for some long shutter speed experiments under the bridge. Rahul got a local cigar from one of the locals. Even the non-smoker in me was attracted to the romanticism of smoking a cigar. We all had our brains blasted by it. It was getting pitch dark and the return journey started. The "master of cliches" played the title song from the latest Tamil flick 'Mankaatha', as he saw a group of guys playing cards under the street light.




Long shutter experiments under the bridge

Capitalism, Industry,Pollution...death.


The boat jetty at night


 The BJP 'Thattukada' was one of the highlights of the return trip. We are so used to seeing the faces from the Gandhi family everywhere. And so it was a surprise when I saw photos of Advani and Vajpayee in a small shop in North Chennai. I had to say that I am a BJP supporter to make the shopkeeper pose with the pictures.

The return ride was difficult, with the darkness, dust and the heavy truck traffic. When visiting North Chennai, better leave your cars behind and trip in bikes if you don't want yourself sandwiched in between two trucks. We stopped near the Burma bazaar to savour Burmese street food. We ordered more and more of 'Attho', 'Fry', 'onion filled eggs' and ofcourse, had our fill with free unlimited soup. We went back to our dens with a vow to do 'this' more often. 



                                      Burmese street food...Attho,fry,stuffed eggs etcetera etcetera

The 'business' of open letters  

Posted by Praveen


It is the season of open letters. From Narendrabhai Modi(whose usual line of thought is that the sword is mightier than the pen) to Rajdeep Sardesai, everyone is writing an open letter. Then, there was an over-the-top open letter from a Madrasan to a Delhi boy, which resulted in this particular Madrasan girl trending on twitter and which spawned a 100 other equally over-the-top open replies. The latest open letter is by the bleeding hearts of India Inc(minus the likes of TATA and Ambanis). The letter is addressed to the govt of India. 

The letter is divided into four parts. The first three parts vaguely deals with issues related to corruption, eradicating which will supposedly make our country heaven. They talk about how the common man suffers because of corruption and also on the need to come up with reforms to fight this. There are also brave references to the corporate-politician nexus. Suggestions are made to enact a law similar to The Bribery Act, 2010 of U.K. And then there are suggestions for a proper redressal mechanism and cleansing of the judiciary. But when it comes to the last point, one will realise why India Inc(one of the biggest benefactors of corruption) is suddenly so concerned about corruption. 

The fourth point talks about 'environmental clearances which continues to delay several investment proposals and hamper economic growth'. The environmental clearances, tied up with the Forests Rights Act is a particularly touchy issue which even resulted in the 'transfer' of former environment minister Jairam Ramesh to another ministry. When he was the minister, he refused to give clearances to many projects and later had to cave in, most notably in the case of the POSCO project. It was a constant tussle between him and the 'development at any cost' advocates in the government and the PMO. It is no secret that these tussles and pressures from vested interests in the industry resulted in his job change. 

Forests and natural resources are being raped and reaped across the country over the last few years. The arrival of huge FDIs and the need for more land has resulted in indigenous communities getting uprooted and huge amount of land being given to corporates for a pittance. The 'environmetal clearances'can be an effective tool in able hands. So, it serves the corporates well if they can take the sting out of these regulations. The letter says-

"it is worthwhile considering the introduction of an on-line AUCTION process for allocation of natural resources which will provide the much needed TRANSPARENCY and prevent discretionary and irregular practices. Owing to several such impediments, fresh investments are not forthcoming at the pace required for a rapidly growing economy such as ours. Policy uncertainties and delays in approvals are forcing many large corporate entities to seek out opportunities in other geographies"

It looks more like a heartfelt appeal to the Govt to give every available land to the corporates. The first three points on corruption looks like a cloak to cover this intended request. 


Are we all writing Open letters?

Talking about open letters, we all seem to be unknowingly writing open letters. This report about google handing over a wikileaks volunteer's gmail data to US government is a shocking reminder of how our privacy is at the mercy of google. Even though google can save itself from some of the blame by pointing to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act under which they had to reveal the information, it is no excuse for not fighting it out for their clients' privacy. The google transparency report gives some disturbing figures. It is a report on the requests to google from government agencies and federal courts around the world to remove content from their services and hand over user data. The number of requests from India(1700) and the percentage of compliance(79%) tells some tale. And as expected, Switzerland, that country which is the symbol of secrecy, has made 'zero' requests. 

image courtesy-earthpm.com

Where did the funds from India go?  

Posted by Praveen in , , ,


And so, I was reading up on the current crisis in Somalia and the entire horn of Africa, as part of an assignment to write an essay on it. There is a huge requirement for funds there and countries and organisations from world over are contributing. So, naturally I was curious to know what India did for the cause. All the figures are available at  United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)'s financial tracking site. Suffice to say, it was a huge disappointment to see India's table. We had pledged an amount of $ 8,000,000 and ended up contributing zero(as on oct 3, 2011). 

2011- Pledge of $ 8,000,000 for Horn of Africa drought and that of $ 1,000,000 for Myanmar earthquake not honoured


The site has an easily searchable archive of contributions that each country has provided during various disasters the world over in the last decade. India had failed to honour their pledges on three previous occasions in this decade-2010,2007,2005. 


2005. Pledge of $ 25,000,000 not fulfilled for earthquake in South Asia


2007-Pledge of $50,000 for Peru earthquake and that of $ 1,000,000 for Bangladesh cyclone, not honoured.


2010-Pledge of $ 5,000,000 for Chile earthquake not honoured.



At the same time, it has to be said that India did contribute to various other causes during the same time period. But pledging help and then failing to honour it is an entirely different matter. The question is, was this money ever released? And if so, where was it re-routed to? Or, whether it is a case of just pledging some money and then forgetting about it? I have no idea where to look for, to answer these questions. Can someone help?

Book Review: The Shiva Trilogy  

Posted by Praveen in ,



The Immortals of Meluha

My only reason for picking up 'The immortals of Meluha' was the eyeball grabber of a cover. Well, it required something like that to catch my attention, simply because this was not my kind of reading. To be frank, I was taken aback a bit at first. A pot smoking Shiva uttering words like 'Dammit', came in as a surprise. Maybe, what I liked in the book was also the same- a shiva who was more of a human than a mythical God, a Shiva with all the confusions and oddities in behaviour that are characteristic of humans. And then, a whole 'nauseatingly perfect' community of people pinning all their hopes of redemption on the arrival of a blue-throated man from a foreign land. It works well, being the page turner that the book is, setting the context, fixing the geography and ethcing the characters for the next parts of the trilogy.


 The Secret of the Nagas




Secret of Nagas takes off right where the first book left off, landing you in the middle of some serious action. Amish then proceeds to redefine the true meaning of evil. A heartening thing about the trilogy till now is that the author has avoided the typical 'black & white' picturisation of good and evil, the way it was done in many of our old texts. Most of us have grown up reading the simplified versions of the epics, with the likes of Raavana and Duryodhana seen as personifications of evil. Visual adaptations of these epics also follow the same line. There is no scope for the good qualities that they possessed. And all of it remains unknown to us, until we read those alternative texts, which are not that popular.

The Shiva trilogy, though not anywhere near in stature or content when compared to those alternative texts, triumphs in not giving us any clear cut demarcations of good or evil. Just when you decide in your mind that "here comes the bad guy!", the story turns on its head revealing a completely new side of the 'bad guy'. There is goodness and God in everyone. At the same time, no one is a complete paragon of virtue. Even Shiva is not infallible. Even he is prone to uncontrolled and misdirected anger. In the first part, you are led to believe that Meluhans are the perfect race except for aberrations like the 'vikarma tradition'. Then slowly, you get to see the problems that come with such insane levels of perfection. Then you see the creativity of the unorganised Chandravanshis and you are suddenly thinking from an entirely different angle.

Shiva's is unsurprisingly the most well etched character in the book. The next one is perhaps Parvateshwar, the Meluhan general and the true follower of Lord Ram. The way he reacts to Shiva, his unquestioning devotion to Meluhan and Lord Ram's principles and then his slow transformation to seeing Shiva as his Lord, are well crafted. And to be honest, I liked Anandmayi's character more than Sati's in the second book. Have to agree that part of it is due to the oozing sexiness. I feel that except Sati, most other characters weren't expanded as much as they deserved to be.  And Bappiraj, was that a nod to the king of bling?
Though I didn’t find both of the books as worth all the hype, it did set me thinking on larger questions of history and how we see it. In an ‘arts and culture’ class in college last month, the lecturer was telling us how history is anything but the truth. To make this point clear, he gave us the simple analogy of how the things that happened in that class will get misreported to someone who didn’t attend the class, and how this will be subject to further misinterpretation as it is passed on to the next one. If such a simple thing is prone to so many errors in reporting within the span of a day, how believable are our historic texts, which are written by some random guy from another century! That realization helped me in seeing this series of twisted history through a new light. Forgot to add, the Naga cover ROCKS!

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