More than just intelligence. Here’s why we should embrace AI.

Have you seen a short-film called Sunspring? It’s a rather insipid tale about the future, with three characters mulling about love, revenge, and having to “go to the skull”. The 9-minute odd film has been directed by Oscar Sharp, and was made as part of the Sci-Fi-London film festival’s 48hr Challenge. All in all, if you haven’t seen it till now, you haven’t missed much in life.

So, if the story is nothing to rave about, the acting was no great jigs and the direction was so so, why are we discussing Sunspring?  Well, it is due to Benjamin, who wrote the AI_01screenplay of the movie. And no Benjamin is not some celeb writer or some Pulitzer-prize winner. You see, Benjamin happens to be a rather nondescript piece of technology, which goes by the real name as a recurrent neural network called long short-term memory, or LSTM for short.

Simply speaking, Benjamin is your friendly neighbourhood Artificial Intelligence or AI. It is a bit of technology that is able to learn and create, for instance, in this case, it crawled through 100s of scripts from the 80s and 90s to come up with this one.

It is for the first time ever that a screenplay has been written completely by AI. It is a giant leap in this regards, when AI becomes so intuitive that it can now move into the artistic space, and create content automatically. It is quite unlike say winning a game of chess or even hoping contestants in Jeopardy.

Elementary my dear Watson

Artificial intelligence has been around for quite some time. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the term artificial intelligence is defined as “the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour”. When John McCarthy had coined the term in the AI_31950s, he had meant it a bit different, dubbing it, “It is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs. It is related to the similar task of using computers to understand human intelligence, but AI does not have to confine itself to methods that are biologically observable.”

Thus, from the 50s AI has moved from understanding human intelligence to mimicking it. It is no more about software or hardware, but rather more encompassing in that sense. Effectively, AI could now be an intelligent piece of software, a super-computer, a cloud-based system, or even a smart robot.

Yet, even as the definition evolves, there are certain core characteristics of the system that do not really change. We can broadly characterise AI as a system that is able to remember and learn without much external inputs. It is a self-learning system that learns from its successes and failures. Like say, how IBM’s Deep Blue defeated grandmaster Gary AI_02Kasparov in a rematch in 1997, after having decidedly lost to the master in 1996. It seemed to have evolved, learnt from its flaws, analysed its opponent’s strength.

But then, don’t mistake AI to be a costly proposition, the kind that exists in Deep Blue or IBM Watson. It can be much nimble and ubiquitous. So, your input keypad on the mobile device that remembers the colloquial and vernacular terms used and does not auto-correct them is a form of AI. The mobile assistants Siri, Google Now, Cortana, are also AI. Meantime, the self-driving car that uses concurrent data from sensors all over the car and manages to navigate is an example of a rather complex and a bit more advanced form of AI.

Yet, AI is not about remembering words, or navigating roads, it has a much broader approach and depth to it, ranging from deciphering the string-theory of the universe to say splitting the atom. There is no limitation to where AI can be applied or used, from the puny mobile phone to the massive Hubble telescope.  These days, Google Deepmind is defeating AlphaGo champions, IBM Watson is all the time keen to take up challenges for games or discussions, Intel is using deep learning to make machines smarter, GE is using Predix to create brilliant factories or digital twins. Continue reading

The Blueprint of the Saffron Sweep in UP Elections

In the annals of Indian politics, it is often said that the road to Delhi passes through the state of Uttar Pradesh. With 80 MPs, UP accounts for a lion share in the Lok Sabha. And it doesn’t end there, the state also sends 31 members to Rajya Sabha, thus, winning is important in UP, in case you desire to rule India.

Not surprisingly then, UP also accounts for the maximum Prime Ministers who fought from a constituency in the state, namely, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Choudhary Charan Singh, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Chandra Saffron Sweep UP_shashwatdc_1Shekhar, Atal Behari Vajpayee and now even Narendra Modi. In a sense of terms, UP is like the steering-wheel of Indian politics, he (or she) who controls UP, can steer the politics of this nation in his/her wake.

Little wonder then, winning the election in UP was extremely critical for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Coming bang in the middle of his term, he could not afford to be lax about it. Over the past two years, the aura around PM Modi had waned a bit, with his hands tied up in Rajya Sabha; the NDA government was unable to push its reform agenda as it would have wished. The constant chitter-chatter of intolerance was also taking a toll; he was being pulled for all promises. Even allies like Shiv Sena were not missing an opportunity to jibe at him.

In the past, two state elections had exposed BJP’s Achilles Heel. The first one was in Delhi, where an overconfident BJP received a severe drubbing and stoked the ambitions of Arvind Kejriwal. The second one was Bihar elections, where a Nitish-Lalu Mahagatbandhan was able to stall the Modi juggernaut. The losses in Bihar and Delhi emboldened the opposition, and PM Modi was seemingly much weaker than the ‘loh purush‘ image that he projects.

In the midst of this melee came a must-win UP elections. For PM Modi it was almost a battle of survival and of relevance. A loss in UP, would not only give a boost to the opposition but would also have the demurred party-wallahs start questioning the “my way or the highway” approach of the PM. Modi had little option, but to win UP and win it big.

This is the reason, why Amit Shah and his team shifted bag, baggage and bunker to UP, and worked tirelessly for months and months before the elections. The blueprint for UP was constructed on numerous pegs, right from caste arithmetic to development politics; the whole campaign was mounted on a grand scale. Here’s a primer to how story of lotus-blossom unfolded in UP:

The great gamble of demonetization

One of the biggest rallying points for the opposition parties, including Congress and rest was the black money issue. In the run-up to the general election in 2014, the BJP in many ways had overplayed the black-money bogey promising impossible things like 15 lakhs in Saffron Sweep UP_shashwatdc_5each person’s account to give a size of the problem. Yet, while the figure was notional, it was used a baton to whack BJP and especially PM Modi every now and then. “Where’s the black money in my account?” had become a common jibe by the opposition party leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamta Banerjee and so on.

Even though the government had put in measures to deal with black money, the public perception was building against them. PM Modi had to do something big and monumental to truly shift this impression. This was especially more critical as in the UP elections, there was nothing significant to showcase to the populace. It was in this regards that the PM brought in the demonetization on November 8, 2016. By presenting the exercise as a war on black money and corruption, the PM was able to create a narrative that worked with the common populace. While the whole nation was troubled by the sudden annulment of 86% of existing currency, the fact that a leader was doing something seemed to have mattered more for the layman. The fact that PM’s personal integrity is rated quite high, helped shaped the narrative well. The opposition were in disarray, knowing not how to react or whom to attack. By turning the demonetization debate personal, politicians like Mamta Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi played into the hands of Modi. No more, were we discussing the logic, rationale or economics, but using exaggerated adjectives to debunk it. This turned the whole discussion into a “Us” versus “Them”, in which the public sympathy was with the man who was taking on all the rich and powerful. Continue reading

Concocting Dissent, Fomenting Despair

At the very onset, before we move even move an inch, here are some current statistics on India for some ready consumption:

  • Real GDP growth – 7.1% (vs. 6.9% year earlier) *link
  •  Inflation – 3.17% in Jan’17 (the lowest ever) *link
  •  Foreign Exchange Reserves – $360 bn (vs. $294 bn in Mar 14) *link
  • Net FDI flows – $46 bn (up by 18%) *link
  • Current account deficit – $22.1 bn (down from -$26.8 bn last year) *link
  • Fiscal deficit (% of GDP) – 3.2% (vs. 3.99% last year) *link
  • Competitive Index – 4.52 points out of 7 (the 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report) *link
  • Per capita income – Rs. 103818 (vs. 94178 last year) *link
  • Financial inclusion – 260 million PMJDY accounts in Dec’16 *link
  • LPG for Poor – 5 lakh new connections given to poor  *link

And to top it all, in November 2016, the Indian government undertook a step that not only surprised its own citizen, but flabbergasted the world. It demonetized the high-currency notes (1000 & 500) that accounted for over 80% of total market cuurency circulation. Everything went into a tizzy, there were serpentine queues, there were issues of liquidity, yet, the government kept working on it, and within a span of 90-days, things were all normal. Not to forget, they were normal and Digital. 

Sone ki chidiya?

In fact, after a flurry of global economist debunking demonetization or predicting doom, things have much changed. There is a growing consensus that if the requisite Manufacturing dissent_shashwatdc_2complementary actions towards digitization are undertaken, demonetization could actually accelerate the shift to a cashless — thereby transparent and yes, less corrupt — society. Recently, the Secretary General of Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Angel Gurria came all out in support of demonetization. “India has been a star performer in gloomy times. We do not have many cases of 7% growth (GDP). It is a top reformer among all the G-20 countries he stated at an event.

Even on the foreign policy, India seems to be doing fairly well. China’s all caught up in the South China Sea, in North Korea, or back home, to really bother about us. Pakistan, well, it is there and will be. Russia is busy in the US, Europe is stagnating, so is South Asia, and President Trump is doing wonderful things in the US. Our influence and our equity has improved under the current government’s watch.

Now given all these facts and stats, one would naturally assume that Indians would be smug about themselves, happy, proud, ecstatic if not outright boisterous celebrations with Old Monk and Thumbsup.

Right? Right? RIGHT?

Rather strangely, No! Now imagine, if you were a tourist who’s come down to India, and wants to get a feel of things from news channels, print papers and digital medium about the mood of the nation. Well, in case you did, it would depress the daylights out of you. All that is there to read and watch are things about all these poor students that are being viciously attacked, daughters of martyrs are being threatened with rape, celebs that troll, ministers that patronize, I mean, generally, all things would seem so murky, sad and disconcerting. Suddenly, the India that the stats above extol, and the India that is represented is in absolute contrast to each other. So, while we celebrate the multiplicity of god, have we Indians also discovered the multiplicity of truth?

Chimp sniffer

Of all the strange things that monkeys do, there’s this one trait that still takes the cake, sniffing — you know — sniffing their own bottoms. A lot many monkeys (apes, etc) have been observed with such a deplorable trait, putting their finger in the bum and then sniffing at it. Usually it ends in a disaster or disgust, like it did here. But no one has been able to fathom, why they actually do it. I mean, all is good, hunky-dory, and they’d put the finger there, sniff it and suffer.

Now, I believe, there’s this one trait that a few-many humans are inclined with. After all, we aren’t all that genetically different from our butt-sniffing cousins. There’s this chance that a quite a few of those habituated ones are currently residing in India and by sheer serendipity of life, are now at top positions in the media business, fashioning the outlook and the slant of the society with their morbidity. From their perch on the top, these ravens of despondency, relentlessly croak their views spreading all melancholy around.

And if that wasn’t enough, quite a few of these human-chimp sniffers can also be found on the social media sites, writing poignant messages or tweeting scathing masterpieces. Continue reading

Dear Hollywood, Could you please STOP ‘Lionizing’ India!

First things first; let’s say a small prayer to whatever powers that be — up there and down under — that Lion didn’t win any ‘Oscars’ at the 89th Academy Awards. The Dev Patel starrer had been nominated for 5 of them, namely, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Music, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography. Thankfully it won none.

Had this movie won any awards at the Academy Awards, we would have been badgered with “Indian-ness”, despite the fact that the movie is produced by a foreign studio, directed and helmed by a foreign crew and even the actors (except for a few tit-bits and the chief protagonist) are all foreigners.Lion_film_India_1

Yet, the foreign DNA of the film is not why I wish the film the failed, there’s no pseudo nationalism at work. The reason, I harbour such feelings is, because undoubtedly Lion is a much below-par movie. The whole excitement around it has taken me by surprise. Built largely on the Slumdog Millionaire construct, Lion is purported to be a true-story. Sadly it is little else but a stereotypical production that lacks empathy or understanding on the topic or the people that it portrays.

Ostensibly, Lion is a tale of a 7-year-old boy named Saroo as he gets separated from his family and brother, travels some 1200 kms unknowingly across India before landing in Kolkata, and is finally adopted by a set of parents in Tasmania, Australia. After a gap of 25 years, Saroo Brierley traces back his past on Google Earth and reunites with his family. This is an epic journey that has its bearings in truth.

In real life, Saroo retraced his steps in the sleepy town of Khandwa in 2012, and his story was well covered by the media at large, from BBC to Times of India, everyone featured this extraordinary human tale of emotions and resolution.

Now, as any astute person, Saroo decided to cash on the new-found fame and he quickly penned a book on his own journey, ‘A Long Way Home’. The book was published in 2013, and by 2016, Lion was released. It was all done in a jiffy, so as to speak.

While I have yet to read the book, I did watch the film and it really stuck me as another Schadenfreude Millionaire tale that had appeared on screen some years back. What essentially befuddles me is the manner in which India is still portrayed especially by international film-makers; a shoddy, poor, dirty, degraded place where crime and criminals abound. Continue reading

Indian Railways: Doomed for Disaster

Around 150 people died in the recent train accident near Kanpur. The passengers of Indore-Patna Express were in deep slumber, when some 14 coaches of the train were derailed, apparently due to a rail fracture. It is one of the worse rail accidents of recenttrain-accident times, almost equally in casualties as that of Gyaneshwari Express in which some 150 had died in 2010, when the train had been derailed by Maoists in West Bengal. The scale of deaths and injuries makes the current accident, one of the worst in the history of Indian Railways. Sadly, going by the things as they are, this accident won’t certainly be the last “major one” in India’s transport sector.

The travesty is that after every such incident, a set of actions/reactions follow almost in an autonomous mode. The opposition will bay for blood, the experts will decry the state of railways, the media will highlight all the unfulfilled promises and commitments, and the rail minister will set up a committee to investigate, promising strictest action possible. As the days pass and the dust settles down, the accident will become a statistic, invoked only in times of similar accidents, largely as an illustration of how “no lessons are ever learned”.

But then running Indian Railways is by no means an easy task. Sample these stats; indian-railways-1railways have a network of more than 64000 kms in length. It runs around 7000 commuter trains; 12000 long-distance trains and 6000 freight trains this network daily. Around 22 million passengers commute over the network each day. That is the sheer size and scale of this network. Given, the sheer scale, an accident like this in a few years should not raise much eyebrows, after all even Six Sigma allows you a few faults in a million, doesn’t it? But it does and should, because the faults in Indian Railways system can have ghastly repercussions. Imagine, it was a rail fracture in the Kanpur accident (a crack that is a few inches wide on the metal track) that killed so many and injured so many more. Faults on railways are always a killer. Thus, there is just no excuse for them.

Realising the dire state of the railways, the minister Suresh Prabhu had proposed to invest ₹ 1,27,000 crore over 2015-19 in safety work, which includes track renewal. In addition to ₹1,02,000 crore to be spent on the locomotives, coaches, etc. And such steps were not the first ones. The previous government had appointed a committee under Anil Kakodkar to enhance railway safety.

Yet, in spite of all the ‘supposed’investment in safety and all the great plans, the real problem lies in the very manner in which the railways is run. The way the organisation (for a want of a better term) is structured, it is doomed for disaster and going bust in the days indian-railway-budgetto come. Indian Railways (IR) is right now like a patient that is afflicted with tuberculosis, the symptoms are all there. But if we only concentrate on the manifestation and ignore the ailment, the patient is going to eventually die. The prognosis for IR is similarly dour. And here’s why:

IR is living beyond its pockets — for every 100 bucks that it earns, the transporter is actually spending some 114 bucks. A deficit of straight 14%, that’s crazy isn’t it?

And can you guess what the biggest reason for this business anomaly is, it is the bloody manpower. Don’t get it? Sample this: Continue reading

Thousand to Zilch: Why Indians are rejoicing the #WarOnBlackMoney

It is extremely rare for an Indian Prime Minister to make an address to the nation. Usually, when he (or she) does, something seriously is amiss. The last time, I recall, a Prime Minister making “an address to the nation” was in 2014, where a serious looking PM Manmohan Singh bid adieu to the nation. Thus, a PM’s address is a bad omen. Not surprisingly then, when PM Narendra Modi did the same on 8th November, you knew something was up, it was his first “address” in over 2 years in office. And sure it was. A modi-address-759dour looking PM then in the 20 mins made an announcement that sent the whole country in a tizzy. He announced a war on black money with almost immediate demonetization of 500 & 1000 Rupee notes. “The arrangement of buying and selling through existing 500 and 1000 notes will not be available. These will be just worthless piece of paper”.

Never before in the history of modern world, 86% of currency in circulation was turned into worthless in a matter of 2-3 hours. And this was done with absolute planning. The decision came out at 9 pm, and the 500 & 1000 notes ceased being a legal tender at 11.59 pm. In this time, the black money hoarders could do precious little to convert it into another assets like gold or other precious metal. While the government would circulate a completely new (500 & 2000) denomination notes, the banks would be closed for a day, there would be limits on withdrawals, and so many other dos and donts. Come to think of it, there was hardly another way to bring about such demonetization, it has to be hard and it had to be sudden.

Immediately after the announcement, people hit the streets trying to exchange the ubiquitous 500 and 1000 bucks, by making small purchases or things like that. But as the shutterstock_388023334word spread, the exchange stalled. No one was ready to touch the currency with a barge pole. Shopkeeperrs would smile indulgently on being offered these notes. Outside ATMs, there was a huge queue of people, withdrawing 400 bucks at a time. Ditto, long queues at petrol pumps, as people tried to use the notes to tank up their vehicles. Even on the television, you could all these people standing outside ATMs and petrol pumps trying to lay their hands on whatever 100 or 50 they could lay their hands on. People across the board were confused, irritated, and even angry at the way their Tuesday night had been laid waste. But yet, almost all were in agreement that it was a bold, necessary and welcome move by the government. There was hardly a soul on the road, who did not support or complement PM Modi on this move.

So how is that when so many people were troubled and disconcerted with a policy action, yet they seemed to be happy and glad for it? Continue reading

The World is Round — Again!

Thomas Friedman is a journalist/author who is not really an exceptional journalist or an exceptional author. He has won a few Pulitzer prizes, but he is not popular because of them. His claim to fame is a rather elementary named book, titled, ‘The World is Flat’. Published in 2005, it is world-is-flatquite a simple book talking about the state of affairs of the world, especially in connection with globalization. The book speaks of how the world is coming together as one big place from Denver to Dalian to Bangalore. It was meant to be a chronicle of our times, and a sort of prognosis of the things that are yet to come. Friedman reaped rich rewards from his book, traveling across the globe, giving talks and discussing the subject.

When the book came out, there was much fanfare around it. The book seemed to propose a hypothesis, no less significant, than say E=MC²  or better still, like the discovery of New World by Msieu. Columbus.

The book spoke about a new globalized inter-connected world where information, people, money and even ideas moved across at breathtaking speed. It was a world where, kids in the US had to be wary of growing up in a world, where kids in India or China could easily replace them. The world was being progressively flattened, and there was little to do to prevent the eventuality.

It has been a decade since Friedman came up with book and much water has flown in the Mississippi River or the Yangtze or even the Ganges since then to erode the beautiful facade of ‘flatness’. I recall listening to all a talk by Friedman, which he gave in Mumbai at NASSCOM summit. In it, he spoke about how times had changed from the past, when American kids would leave food on the plate and their parents would chide them, “spare a thought for the hungry millions in India”. And now, when the kids are disinclined to study, the current parents warn their kids, “be scared of the learning millions in India”. Honestly, my heart swelled with happiness at the prospect of living in a world where nationality did not dictate your destiny. We could be anyone, we wanted, so long as we wanted it hard enough. The future indeed seemed rosy and bright, during such times.

Cut to today, and I chanced upon the latest vitriol by Republican presidential nominee (and possibly — god forbid, would-be American President) Donald Trump, wherein he blamed India, China shutterstock_299401883and Mexico for the “greatest jobs theft” in the history of the world. According to him, Indians and other nationals were gobbling up American jobs. Indians were no more a threat, but rather scheming thieves that stole and cheated. Now how could that narrative change so quickly? What happened to that ‘flat world’ that was meant to be equal for all Continue reading

Dear Uber, do you really ‘love’ the taxi-riders in Mumbai?

Recently, the Maharashtra government put forth a set of draft rules for regulating the taxi industry. These rules have been in the works for some time as various taxi-operators (especially in the city of Mumbai) have been demanding “uniform code” for the industry. The chorus for such rules has come from the lower-end (kaali-peeli taxi-wallas and the autorickshaws) and the upper end (radio-taxi operators like Meru and TabCab) as well. And yet, the funniest part is that there is already a stringent set of laws that regulate the functioning of these operators. So why the hell are they asking for more?shutterstock_345346703

Actually, they are not. These taxi stakeholders are demanding something more mundane, something basic. Something that spells as parity in business. The crux for any business to function normally is that all the players in the sector will be treated same. Simple to say that rules and regulations should be the same for all the players. So, what is good for the goose, should be good for the gander. Right? Apparently not, when the gander is a multi-billion ride share MNC that goes by the name of Uber.

In fact, Uber has raised a stink regarding the Maharashtra government’s draft, opposing it with all the muscle that it can muster. The US-based cab aggregator has decried the rules, calling them restrictive and archaic. It even launched a high-octane public petition, seeking the lay citizen to sign-up and fight against the restrictive norms. The petition paints a rather gloomy picture, namely, if the rules are implemented, it “will mean an end to the Uber I know and love today”.  Rather than talking just logic, or talking about the facts that are hurting competition, the petition tries to tug the emotional chords, love, shove and the works.

Now that seems to be taking things a tad bit-bit too far, like a Karan Johar movie with Anurag Kashyap dialogues. You see, taxi-riders in Mumbai don’t really love Uber or Ola, but yes they do seem to hate the kaali-peelis and autorickshaw-wallas. After decades and decades of suffering the indifferent and condescending attitude of these monopolistic ruffians, they have finally found deliverance at the hand of these cab aggregators. This welcome shift started with start of Meru in the city, and blossomed with Ola and Uber. To put it rather bluntly, the taxi-riders in the city like the convenience of a no-nonsense service that is way cheaper than the kaali-peelis. I mean Rs. 6 per km is even cheaper than taking your own car out. That is secret behind that “love” that Uber claims it receives. Yet, this incentivised love is usually not monogamous, the denizens will shift to anyone that offers a bigger bonanza. I mean, if there was a cab operator that offered Rs. 3 per km ride, of course, more would ‘love’ it than any Uber or Ola. There’s no emotion in economics? Continue reading

Get some ‘Balls’, Bollywood!

Undoubtedly, among the current breed of Indian actors, Shahrukh Khan (SRK) is one of the most articulate ones. He is well-read and can hold a conversation on quite a few topics that his colleagues will go blank on. SRK also has an immense capacity for self-depreciating humour. And while there is no doubt that he floats a few inches over the ground thanks to his superstar status, there are still moments when he comes out every bit like the combative Delhiwalla that he portrayed in one of his recent movies. Not surprisingly, SRK at times lets go of diplomacy that is so much a part of modern-day success and speaks his mind in a candid manner.

It was in one such moment of rush, back in 2010, that SRK spoke of the pressures faced while managing his IPL team, KKR. Back then, tensions between India and Pakistan were at a high due to border skirmishes, and by thumping his support for Pakistani players, SRK had put his Leg Before the Wicket. There was an immediate outcry over his “unpatriotic act”, and as the impending release of his movie “My Name is Khan (MNIK)” neared, the clamor only got louder.

Not surprisingly, Shiv Sena, a political party prone to petty provocations, immediately took offense. The party mouth-piece Saamna dubbed SRK “unpatriotic” and called for a ban on the screening of his film. As the release date of MNIK got closer, the tensions escalated. Theater owners were warned not to screen the film, and there were numerous protests all over, accompanied with the regular burning-and-stamping-the-effigy-in-front-of-the-newschannel-camera moments.

But when all this didn’t work, political activists attacked several cinema halls that were to screen MNIK. Hoodlums entered halls and damaged screens of the Metro theater in south Mumbai and the Huma Cinema at Kanjurmarg. Meanwhile, there were the other set of goons that pelted stones and broke the glasses of Mehul cinema in suburban Mulund. This was typical intimidation strategy at work.

In all this melee, the Congress government backed SRK to the hilt, providing heavy police cover to theaters screening the film, putting some 1500 Shiv Sena party workers in my-name-is-khan-banpreventive custody, and even warning Uddhav Thackeray of dire repercussions. The battle lines were drawn, a defiant SRK refused to apologise, whereas the Shiv Sena would have nothing less than it. As the battle progressed, the saffron party seemed to lose steam and was looking for a way out of the imbroglio, with its leader talking about a “public apology” as an acceptable truce. That did not come though, and the film was released among heightened tensions. As is the case with quite a few SRK movies, MNIK earned its crores, got all the awards, and was declared a hit.

The ban, the threat and all that, just fell apart like a phuski bomb (what we call in Mumbai) or like a dud. This was one of the rare times, when Bollywood had stood up to political hooliganism and prevailed, like they do so much in those pot-boilers.

Yet, the odd bit here was not about how SRK was attacked, but the fact that almost no one from Bollywood came to his aid. Even as the attacks on him were mounting, none from the film fraternity spoke publicly in his support. Of course, there were those conciliatory and my-name-is-khan-ban2diplomatic mumbo-jumbo, here and there, but these were largely from the smaller actors, the ones people call character artists. The big shots of Bollywood were dumb-founded, much like their likeness that represents them at Madame Tussauds and elsewhere. The Khans, the Kapoors and even the Bachchans, kept mum. Bollywood, the big family of superstars, was more like a petrified herd of goats. The kind that will retreat into the barnyard at the sign of first trouble.

It has been six years to that confrontation. and precious little seem to have changed. This time round, there is another SRK movie that is caught in the political grind, but not because of his utterance but rather the temerity on the part of the film makers to cast a Pakistani actress in it. And just like, in 2010, we are again having trouble with Pakistan at the borders, and people are yet again baying for the blood of artists and singers from that nation. But this time, SRK is not alone, he has his good friend Karan Johar (KJo) for company. With KJo’s film “Ae Dil Hain Mushkil” featuring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan nearing for release, the time for political haymaking is reaching a crescendo. Continue reading

Congratulations on winning the Bronze Sakshi. I so wish you had Not!

To be honest, there can hardly be a bigger high on this planet than winning the Olympic Medal. Competing against the very best athletes in the world, it takes a hell lot more from an individual to make it to the podium. In that regards, the dramatic win of a 23-year-old Indian lady from Rohtak is nothing short of spectacular. It was a fabulous treat to have a charged-up Sakshi Malik taken on Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova in a dramatic finish in the 58kg freestyle wrestling category, winning the bout and finally opening India’s medal account.Olympic 7

The excitement and buzz that the win generated is fairly understandable, the #SakshiMalik hastag was trending on Twitter, you had all sorts of celebs that were toasting the young lady, right from PM Modi to our Olympic Ambassador Salman Khan (ohh sorry, @BeingSalmanKhan hasn’t found the time yet to congratulate Sakshi, possibly will, after his promotions of Freaky Ali are over). I even heard Sakshi’s mother on radio exploding into how the “bharat ki beti” had brought honour for the nation and Sakshi’s brother was like, this is the best “rakshabandhan gift”, et al.

From here on, the tale as it will unfold is fairly straight. As soon as Sakshi lands in India, there will be a whole lot of jubilation and celebration, she will ride out from the airport to shower of rose-petals, will be hosted by the PM and CM, granted land parcels, would be featured in adverts, and there might even be a film made on her struggle. And then, we also have another medal winner in PV Sindhu, who by the virtue of getting a gold/silver would be as joyously feted, in almost a templatised approach.

The trouble is that in all this euphoria, what will be forgotten is that it took a good fortnight and more for India to win a medal in an event, where you have 207 countries participating with over 11000 athletes in 306 events and 28 sports. A nation that aspires to be a global power; will shortly be the most populous country on the face of the world, cannot even manage to reach the finals of most events, let alone win a medal. If one looks at the performance of the Indian athletes, it will be a very long-list “Did Not Qualify”. The fact, that a Dipa Karmakar had to attempt a death-defying Produnova move to reach the 4th position, speaks volumes of how ill-equipped Indian athletes are. And yet, every 4 years, India continues to send a bigger and more bigger sports contingent to these Olympics. This year, in fact, India had the biggest contingent of all nations. And yet, where do we stand on the medals tally, at 71 right now, with even countries like Kenya, Jamaica, Indonesia and even Mongolia ranked much higher (let’s not even take the name of our neighbour, whose name starts with a C). Continue reading

Trekking up the Tiger’s Nest

“Come on, of course you have to do it. Everyone who comes to Bhutan has to do it. It is like almost mandatory,” is basically how Dawa Penjor, the CEO of Bhutan Media Foundation, reacted when I told him that I was giving Tiger’s Nest a miss, especially as ‘I hate trekking’. There was a look of incredulity on him, like I was planning to not see Eiffel on the visit to Paris, or miss the great Pyramids while visiting Egypt. Similarly, I guess, missing Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) is just not an option in Bhutan.

Thankfully, Dawa moved from incredulity to encouragement, and went on to soothe my frayed nerves that had started jingling at the very prospect of a climb up the mountainous path. “Don’t worry; you will surely be able to do it. After all even 70 year-olds are known to have climbed up the hill, pretty easily,” was his winning argument. It was only later that I Taktsang monastery Bhutanrealised, that “70 year-old” was more like a placebo for hassled nerves.

Nonetheless, I took the bait, and then our common friend Sonam Gyambo tinkered with my itinerary to fit in the one-day trek in the two days that I was left with in Bhutan. A phone call to his friend in Kicchu Monastery — whom he referred to as a healthy monk, and then we were all set for a climb up the hill. From skipping Taktsang to setting out to visit it, I had made a big leap of faith in a matter of few hours.

My reservations against Tiger’s Nest were not without reasons. You see, I am certainly not in the best of physical frames. The last time I had stood on a weighing scale, it groaned itself to some 3 digit number. Secondly, I am certainly not the trekking types; I more like the loaf-wander-drifter types. I loathe the very concept of those trekkers whose only aim is to quickly reach a point, take some selfies, preen and quickly descend. I am more likely to contemplate on a silly lily, or admire an ant-hill. I hate the rush in life, and I detest it more so on those scenic beautiful mountains. After all, “what is this life full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”, and I love to stand and stare without a rhyme or a reason.

And then, when I saw the pictures of Tiger’s Nest from a trek-able purview, I knew it would be stretching myself to an impossible scale. The last trek, I had undertaken was more than a decade back and here was a monastery that challenged you from an edge of a cliff, 3000 metres above sea-level. Nah let the tiger (or tigress) rest peacefully there. I had no intent to disturb it at all.

Anyways, on my last day in Bhutan, I was down there in the Paro Valley, with the healthy-monk to guide me to the top, and my better-half and two sons to inspire me to the there. On the first glimpse of monastery, as a tiny little white dot stuck afar into the green hill that stood rather tall, I knew it would not be an easy task. And how right was I.

Taktsang monastery BhutanWe were there at the base by around 7.30 am, after parking the car, we started on the route. It was a dusty hilly road, and immediately, it started up. At the start you could hear the horses grunting, possibly doing some horsey pranayam in preparation for the taxing climb ahead. For a moment, I was much tempted to load myself on a horse, but our monky guide was firm, and dissuaded me from it. Believe me; very shortly I would be cursing him for it.

Just about 30 minutes into the climb, my pace had dropped considerably and I was huffing and puffing badly. To save myself from embarrassment and also to not drag the others back, I requested the lot to move ahead, promising them that I would catch up soon. The kids were unaffected by the incline and bounded on their way to the top with the monk and another friend. Meanwhile, the better half was perturbed as well, but she was doing better than me. I asked her to move ahead as well, so that I will have some inspiration to move on. She reluctantly agreed but even that didn’t seem to work.

It must have been an hour and as I dragged myself grudgingly up the road, my condition seemed to get progressively worse. I would walk for 5 minutes and then for the next 15 Taktsang Monastery Bhutanminutes, I would be catching up on my breath. In between, there would be all those horses with those relaxed riders would pass by, and I would grunt in dismay. Why did I ever listen to that monk, is what I grumbled. As the sun gained strength as it made its way across the sky, the going seemed to go tougher.

But then, I was not alone. There were a lot many others from all across the world, climbing up the path to the monastery. The fitter ones would move ahead and pass by, but the not-so fit ones (like me) were moving in a sort of pack. We all were struggling, and the struggle seemed to make us aware of each other.

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Make In India Week: A ‘Nautanki’ that was much necessary

Kya zaroorat hain itna zagmag se event karneka? Make In India simple se bhi to ho sakta hain” (What’s the need for all this extravagance, the Make In India event could have been arranged in simple manner), the elderly sort of man sitting right next to me in the autorickshaw blurted out. It had been a tenuous Monday morning since the auto-wallahs in Mumbai had gone on a flash strike; making the task of finding an auto no less than one of one of Hercules labor. After much consternation and time, had landed myself in a share-auto to BKC, along with two other gentleman who had squeezed in. The fact that all of us were agitated and angry was not surprising, after all when something as mundane as IMG_0356finding an auto becomes an ordeal, something as extraordinary as a Make In India Week (MIIW) seems completely unnecessary. Thus on spotting a green colour media pass for MIIW dangling from my neck, the gentleman in the hard-won share-auto could not help comment. “Auto strike to rokh naheen paya, phir itna bada nautanki kyun?” (The administration could not stall the auto strike, so what is the real need for such an event).

As I alighted the auto and walked past the huge crimson red pavilion with the words “Make In India Centre” emblazoned in huge golden letters, with flags of very many nations fluttering in the foreground, I was thought over the words of the man and was reminded of an anecdotal parable we often share about the way Indians function. It’s the one that has an open dish and Indian cockroaches within it. None escapes, because no sooner one tries to climb out, the rest gang up and pull him IMG_0358down. Somehow, that anecdote seemed apt to me. It seems that we Indians seem to have a problem with success, especially when it is of our very own. We find it hard to digest, to come to terms with it. So we lash out at it, debunk it, call it useless, futile, nautanki, etc.. That is a typical way in which many react in India. But this trend has exacerbated with the coming the PM Narendra Modi. Everything now is perceived from a political prism, thus, if you don’t agree with him, everything he does has to be negative. So what if it is Skill India or Make In India?

The best instance of this bias could be seen in the way the media in general covered the event. The fourth estate largely avoided talking about the event, or when they did it were the negative aspects were highlighted. So the fire at one of the Make In India event became a talking point. There were talks about mismanagement, the lack of coordination by the organisers, the absence of non-NDA states, and then was all the talk about the quantum of MOUs signed and how much would be realised. These were the things that were talked about, not the fact how many attended or what was on display.

Looking beyond the extravagance

Strangely, jamboree was the appellation that the MIIW has been dubbed by the media at large. The event that was spread over a week, and inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, has either been ignored or spoken in a bIMG_20160217_142435lithe manner. The term jamboree (essentially means a large congregation or party; extravagant and lavish. Usually, a boisterous affair.) is symbolic of that mindset, a perspective that has been tinged with ignorance
or naivety. Anyone who visited the event would vehemently argue over the term of reference. The scope and spread of MIIW cannot be expressed as jamboree; it is much beyond those trivial description that hinge largely on size and scale.

But before we come to the very core of what MIIW was, let’s do touch upon its most talked aspect; the size. Indeed, it was one of the most impressive event in terms of scale. Spread over 2,30,000 sq. mt of prime land in Bandra Kurla Complex, there were 27 air-conditioned pavilions that were erected in crimson red.

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