Thursday, July 21, 2016

Slaves of Technology

I had suspected this would happen all along. One fine day you wake up and find that your phone doesn’t respond. There’s this offensive message, “Unfortunately, contacts has stopped.” I receive a call from my brother-in-law who is on the way for a visit, but I can’t access his telephone number. I sit and fume. Not unlike the stupid content writer who wrote this script, the phone, too, is an idiot of the exalted kind. I know because I was one.

Having worked with techies, I pride about my knowledge of technical gizmos and gadgets. So I try uploading my contacts to cloud and restoring it to the damn thing. It restores alright, but still the contacts section is inaccessible, showing the abovementioned message. It’s a virus I am sure, I say, convinced my gizmo is in the last throes of life.

I call up my techie son in the US. It’s midnight there and I can hear his sleep-deprived dreamy voice mumble something about operating systems. It seems he uses an iphone and has used that technology all his life, so he doesn’t know much about Android. Can a phone operating system be so weirdly complex? Papa, how many Applications do you have? I say I have around thirty different applications, including one on which I do sketches and doodles. That’s too many, an application can infect your phone, delete some, it will work, and he goes off right back to dreaming. I try posting my problem on the family Whatsapp group, since that application is working. A cousin’s techie son points me to a discussion group and says I can get my solution there. I go there. There are people who sound like techies with names like Star War characters. Three-pee-oh says the phone is overloaded so delete some applications. I have heard it before.

It sounds so simple. Delete some applications. So I delete a lot many applications I haven’t used lately. I switch off and re-start my phone. It still shows that pesky message, “Unfortunately, your contacts has stopped.” What’s so unfortunate about it? I know it is unfortunate, so don’t rub it in. Besides, your grammar is bad.

This is unfair. I shouldn’t have gone for a smart phone in the first place. Or, I should have bought an iphone, which, I hear, can never catch a virus, and therefore can never be infected like my phone is. Meanwhile, I can’t make any calls. Brother-in-law has to be picked up because a strike is on and rickshaws won’t be plying. There’s no way of knowing when they would reach. Wifey is away in school, so I can’t use her phone.

As one who prides in knowing a bit of technology and has used it to advantage I sit and wring my hands in frustration. I know what it means when friends say their phone memories have been wiped out along with their bank passwords. This is technology without the redeeming factor of good content writing and good programming. The nearest service station is ten kilometres away and, anyway, I won’t be able to go there because of the rickshaw strike.

And, that’s what modern life has become. We all have become slaves of technology.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

About... Britain's Exit from European Union

Overheard in a pub somewhere in England:

Them bastids want to take over our country, heard?
No way, mate. We take them back with what they call Brexit. It means exit from what those arseholes call EU.
Cor blimey! What the bellend is EU?
Some blighters, want to take our beers and our chicks.
Bollocks! I don't want nothing to do with them Twonks!
Then vote Brexit, I say.
Yay! I am bloody Brexit, myself!

The Real Reason behind Suicide of Cotton Farmers in Vidarbha

Today I met Ajit Chavan (name changed) who is from Yavatmal, a district in Vidarbha which is the cotton-growing region of Maharashtra. He works as a driver in our locality and he could only speak Marathi, which I, thankfully, am conversant enough to carry on a conversation. He had recently migrated to the city, which was the reason I became interested in his story.

I asked him why farmers were committing suicide in the cotton growing areas of Vidharbha. From 2012 to April this year, a total of 3,145 farmers committed suicide in the six districts in Vidarbha region – Amravati, Yavatmal, Wardha, Washim, Akola and Buldhana. He said it is because of BT Cotton, the cotton seeds sold by Monsanto’s subsidiary Mahyco. Having been a farmer himself, he could shed light on the real reason why there is a spate of suicides among cotton growers in this region. He had migrated because his family could no longer cultivate cotton which was the traditional crop of that area. He knew the economics of Mahyco’s supposedly superior seeds which are driving cotton farmers to desperation. Here’s what he had to say.

The seeds aren’t cheap, they cost Rs 2400 per 400 gram and you need Rs 6,200 worth of seeds for one acre of land. He has seven acres of land. Monsanto’s seeds have to be sprayed with its own herbicide Roundup (a lethal chemical and a carcinogen called Glyphosate) which cost Rs 1500 for 100 millilitres. (I am not going into the toxicity of Glyphosate in this short article.) Roundup has to be sprayed five times during the crop’s life cycle so it is an additional Rs 7500 for an acre, assuming 100 millilitres will suffice for an acre. And, he hasn’t included labour costs in this. By this time the farmer has already spent Rs 100,000 and is in debt. Mahyco’s seeds are supposed to give better crop, but it isn’t so. The finished cotton when sold in the market fetches Rs 5,000 per 100 kilograms.

BT Cotton Seed per acre = Rs 6,200
Roundup (herbicide) per acre = Rs 7,500
Total of BT Cotton and Roundup per acre = Rs 13,700
For seven acres it works to = (13,700 x 7) Rs 95,900 ... (1)
Labour cost (weeding, sowing, harvesting) = Rs 25,000 ... (2)
Total expenditure (1 + 2) for 7 acres of land Rs = Rs 1,20,900
To recover his investment he will have to get 2500 kg of cotton (@ sales price of Rs 5000 per 100 kilograms). He doesn’t even get that much.

After investing so much money – often borrowed from unscrupulous moneylenders – the subsistence farmer is not able to recover his investment, leave alone meet his food expenses. How could he maintain a family? BT cotton needs constant care and also needs more water in the water-scarce area of Yavatmal. This is what drives a farmer to suicide.

A word about traditional Indian agriculture would, I am sure, be of interest. Indian farmers being poor don’t buy seeds; they store seeds from their own crop to sow in the next season, because it is free. May I call this seed cycle? Mahyco wants them to buy their expensive seeds and herbicide every season. That’s an expensive proposition leading to high costs for the subsistence farmer.
So, Ajit’s family has abandoned BT cotton cultivation and has taken up soyabean and pulses cultivation, on which expenses are low. These crops don’t require constant tending and also requires less water. And, since he is working in the city as a driver he is able to send some money home to meet expenses.

Recently, the government has approved cultivation of GMO mustard seed in India. Monsanto’s brinjal, okra and other products will follow. A multinational can trot out many reasons to convince us that their seeds are better because they are genetically modified and are, therefore, high technology. But at the poor and illiterate farmer’s level, the above economic assessment shows that farmers end up being ruined and have to think of selling their land and migrating to cities to survive.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Shifting Paradigm

Today the whole paradigm is shifting from the performer to what is happening behind the stage. So, it’s not what is happening in Indian Premier League but what is happening behind the scenes (Who is paid what? Who gets to comment?). It’s not what is happening at Euro cup, but how and where the fans are clashing. It’s not about music but what the singers like Kayne West and Kim Kardashian are doing. It’s about why Justin Bieber – that chap who sings like a woman – and Selena Gomez split. It’s not about the movies anymore but what the stars did, how often they had sex, what they said after breaking up about the “silly ex.”
So, also in literature – since this is a passion – we are interested in Where Rushdie and Lakshmi holidayed and what they ate and wore. Our literature festivals are hardly festivals where people go to hear authors and ask questions. (I am assuming that they do read books.) The authors, faux authors I may add, who may have written a book ten years ago, or a celebrity who had her biography ghost-written, a la Monica Lewinsky, comes and pontificates about literature. And the true literature lover drools at the star value on display, the humour, the smart repartee. The audience gets talked down to, and when they want to ask a legitimate question they are told to shut up – had this experience – and told to take the conversation back stage. Only, the conversation backstage never happens.
In the interregnum, in this melee of sorts, the real artistic talent, or sportsperson gets sidelined. It’s always how much money was bet and how much made. Artistic talent is ignored. Therefore is it legitimate to develop artistic talent? Yeah, why not write a nonsensical book and spend a couple of millions hiring spin doctors and internet marketers to sell it. And fall in love with a celebrity of sorts and then break up and have the press writing vitriol about your sex life? Else, why not write a scathing caricature of a megalomaniac political leader and get a blackened face? Ah, you have made it my boy! Brilliant!
That’s what we are secretly aspiring for, aren’t we?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Architecture of the Flesh – Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar has the unique talent of combining the everyday aspects of life with eroticism and mysteriousness. This collection – mistakenly filed under Architecture by an ignorant librarian! – is about his obsession with the body and the things about it which shocks us on a daily basis. Sometimes, our bodies are fine, coasting along, till it, of a sudden, refuses to oblige. Then terror strikes. His poems may shock at first with their erotic content, but on a second reading there is a hidden sub-text of political comment, an apparent social injustice and a whiff of the exotic. How he manages all this is puzzling and enigmatic. His talents are in full show in his poetry collection, “Architecture of Flesh,” published by Paperwall.

Hailing from Kerala he has an excellent command over many languages including: Malayalam, English, and Tamil. In Aphrodisiac he writes:

“My balls!” he cries as shredded testicles
Find their way into dark alley eateries
Where powdered sperm with battered baby flesh
Are sold as phallic pills
To bolster flagging will.

There are places on earth where powdered sperms are sold as aphrodisiacs. Now this may deviate a bit from erotic, but the symbolism is one of mixing the esoteric sexual power of the Aphrodisiac with body parts. Bold and experimental the poet takes on known canons of poetry with his unique opinion about what constitutes poetry.

In a sensitive poem about death Intensive Care Unit – I he writes:

Four islands is a death row in a shroud
Glimmering and tearful glints that fade into the spirit.
Four square squints of machinery life
Chrome sores lit up with steely corroding tides.

Porthole lights went off in one island today
As it sank into a sea wet with wasted sadness
Its generators switched off and respirators cut off
And oxygen vents closed for public view.

Certainly it’s a poem about death and how one thinks of it when one is confined to a bed in an Intensive Care Unit. It is also about the architecture of the flesh, how our arteries and veins refuse to co-operate some times, how our bowels complain and then shut up.

All in all, a good collection from a major poetic talent from down south. Worth buying for a look for its provocative imagery and boldness of treatment with occasional erotic glimpses. (To buy online:, Rs 225).

Saturday, May 28, 2016

What Does Social Media Mean to You?

One of the things I have noticed on social media is that everybody is broadcasting themselves, as if they are celebrities. I called up a friend and was told, “What, you don’t read my Facebook posts?” he was accusing me of not reading his Facebook posts to learn about his broadcasts, of his celebrity status. He was actually thinking, “Here I am such a celebrity on Facebook with 2000 followers and this idiot wants to meet me. Let him see my posts, I don’t have the time.”

We may lose a lot of friends that way. And, truth is, of these 2000 followers whom you call friends, no one cares a hoot – nada, zilch – about you, what you post, what selfies you upload. It all goes into a void. And, you aren’t a celebrity, some people have already ignored you, others are in the process. What you consider as your broadcast has already been censored by listeners.

With what I have experienced in online forums – quite a few – I have no illusions about celebrity-dom or being popular. Sure, I admire those people who get hundreds of likes on their posts. They have made social media their alternate life, while I see it as just a place to relax, catch up, stay in touch.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

A Wedding: When the Rap Music Made Us Hungry

I went to a childhood friend’s son’s wedding yesterday. This friend was a neighbour in the suburb of Chembur and all the family was known to me. So, it was an occasion to renew old bonds, and to show off my mildewing old suit. It is interesting how the Syrian Christian weddings take place. People are at their best and their worst at the same time, as you will see. At this wedding, as usual, there is an interesting mix of Christians from around Bombay. In one corner were the Santa Cruz Marthomites, because the girl was from there, in another was the Vashi Marthomites, because the boy was a member there, in another corner was the Panvel Marthomites, as the boy is currently based there. Scattered elsewhere were the odd Anglican CSIs from Sanpada, Chembur, and Vakola.

Everybody was in their best behaviour at 7 p.m. which was the official time of the reception. Children were running around, a DJ was being crazily loud, but no dancing happened, we are conservative, you know, though a few old uncles, well past their seventies were seen jiving with their hands in their pockets. Well, um, the DJ also danced alone, behind his console. Then the welcome drinks came as a welcome relief from the heat, and, then, what is called “starters” which was panneer, vegetable sizzlers, and chicken tikkas. We waited exchanging pleasantries with an old neighbour, my companion for the evening, from long ago. We hadn’t seen each other for ages, so we had a lot to share.

Though the DJ was splitting our ear drums with crazy rap and hip-hop numbers, we managed to talk, as only Malayalis can. We used sign language mostly. Then one hour passed and the bride and groom hadn’t arrived. An emcee said they were on the way and there would be a sweet welcome for them. Meanwhile, beauties were seen sashaying and young studs were seen swaggering around. So we waited in patience, ogling the girls in pretty numbers, men doddering around, old uncles and aunts in wheel chairs, all in silent expectation.

The emcee was looking harassed but was managing quite well. We had run out of subjects to talk about. Then we started pointing out the people – who looked familiar - and how we were either related or were from the same village. It was like playing a game. Then this game, too, exhausted. We were consuming starters and welcome drinks by the litres. It seemed as if we won’t need dinner if this continued.

Then the emcee triumphantly announced, at 9.30 p.m. that the girl and boy had arrived, after two-and-half hours of waiting. Curiously we were very hungry by this time. The zen-like patience we had exhibited earlier had evaporated and we were waiting for the announcement that food is served. Even the sashaying and swaggering had stopped. See, the music had not entertained us, it had made us impatient and edgy. All the more reason to believe that modern music doesn’t work for us old codgers. We were waiting for the meeting to begin so the music would stop.

Then there began a round of introduction for the bride, groom and their families. The emcee handled this expertly. I guess he has some experience with such states of anomie, or he would have been a wreck by now. That over, the bride sang a song, which was melodious. We all admired her voice and said, “She is very talented.” Our eyes were on the buffet tables to see if it had begun to be filled with food.

Introductions over, the groom gave a very humorous speech, which was lost on a distracted audience. Only a few claps resulted. Since the music stopped, talk had resumed. One uncle, potbellied, was standing, welcome drink in hand, staring at the audience continuously from a front row, as if searching for meaning to life.

Mercifully, then the emcee announced that the function had ended. And then the whole audience erupted into an ungainly and unglamorous dash towards the food tables. The carefully nurtured sangfroid of the evening was abandoned. Manners were disregarded, feet stamped, saris and sequinned dresses held aloft, husbands were separated from wives, mothers from children, brothers from sisters. At the buffet queue, luckily I managed to get behind my wife, but my companion for the evening and his wife, son, and grandson were not to be seen.

Luckily we found a seat to sit on. Like in a train, seats were reserved, and a handbag on the seat meant it was “Reserved against Cancellation (RAC)” by the lifting of the handbag. My companion then came around asking for his wife. Then the wife came asking for her husband. And, then the son and grandson came asking for both father and mother. We had become a chomping, slurping, gorging mass by then.

You see the rap and hip-hop music had made us crazily hungry.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Problems of Today's Youth

A survey in today’s Times of India states that 58 per cent (Bombay) of youth have considered committing suicide. Only 26 per cent in Bombay have told their parents about it and discussed the reasons with them. This is frightening and shocking, at the same time. What is going wrong? It also says that the reason for contemplating suicide is because of depression. Whatever, however they are, parents love their children. I am yet to meet a parent who says he/she dislikes his/her child. (With the exception of a celebrity who allegedly killed her own daughter recently.) 

Something is wrong and, obviously, seriously wrong. So I decided to go a bit into the problems faced by children. What is causing this huge resentment in children? We, as middle class parents, want the best for our children and work hard for it. In the process, we also forget something about the modern world in which children grow up.

Here are a few pointers, because it concerns us, most of all, because they are the future of society and of the country.

1. They don’t understand what is going on.

Yes, they don’t. They don’t read newspapers, they skim through the news. They would watch some reality shows or competitions rather than a few good news channels. Parents should encourage the reading habit in children by buying them books appropriate for their age.

2. Easy availability of sub-standard entertainment (video and audio).

I mean, I listened to some of the songs young people listened to and was appalled. There isn’t music, just beats, and the lyrics are just horrible, except for a few catch words repeated, “Waka, waka, yeh, yeh.” Is that lyrics? That would make the youth more frustrated because entertainment should also address human issues: love, longing, nature, and incidents. Songs about love and longing is acceptable but not music videos that are provocative, such as Lady GaGa’s (She isn’t a lady, is she?).

And, most importantly, pornography is easily available, leading to a growth in desire, but not respect for the other sex. A person who views pornography cannot and will never respect the other sex. As a corollary he/she may not get respect from the opposite sex, leading to depression. Thoughts about unnatural sex forms a barrier between a boy and a girl and that could lead to misunderstandings and fights. That might be the reason behind most cases of sex offenses and crime.

3. Mobile phones.

Parents give mobile phones to children to know where they are, and to find out if they are safe. However, the sad fact is that these high-end mobile phones are misused and most youth exchange pornographic videos on them. That was not the intention with which the phones were given to children. Being in a very impressionable age, they would be tempted to experiment with sex, a bit too soon. I think youth should shun pornography as unnatural, thereby obviating a market for obscene videos.

4. Income disparity. 

Though you may give the best you can afford to your child, they are not blind to the income disparity between you and parents of their friends. This could upset them and depress them. Suddenly, all the love you give them may seem meaningless, though you may be working very hard to give them what they want. Parents should make children understand their financial background, so they wouldn’t make unreasonable demands.

5. Marital discord

Some parents do not get along which each other, resulting in fights, which may really depress the child. Parents need to understand that their fights would affect the child, and that should make them careful before fighting before their child.

6. Children should know how to speak to strangers

Parents teach children not to speak to strangers. But they should also be taught to speak friendly, non-threatening strangers, or, adults, with respect. They should also know how to discourage unwanted people from talking to them. They can demonstrate this by taking children with them for outings and letting them learn from your own behaviour.

7. Learning

Learning should be an overall, personality developing activity. A child should develop musical, athletic, and social skills. They should also respect and appreciate the art and culture of their parents and their ancestors. Put them in touch with these early in life. Just hankering after good grades and percentage is not enough, he/she needs to be an overall champion. So what if he/she is not on the merit list? Being on the merit lists has its on problems; it puts pressure on children and youth. Many merited children have failed subsequently, and non-merited children have excelled also.

8. Being depressed doesn’t help

Psychoanalysis is a science that deals with the working of the mind. It isn’t really a medicinal science (it prescribes medicines in chronic cases) in that it goes into the working of the mind to suggest what can be done. Having positive thoughts, being with positive people, and being occupied by positive activity can cure most cases of depression, which is what I strongly believe. A firm belief in one’s religion can help, that’s why I encourage children to believe in whichever faith they belong to. Faith doesn’t teach children to hate anybody (except maybe the fundamental ones). The very act of singing songs and chanting can heal a troubled person.
Young people idol-worship certain movie stars forgetting that they are humans and, therefore prone to failures. When these idols fail, or, rebuff their advances, they become depressed. Youth should never worship another human being as being infallible. They have their own weaknesses and fallibility.
Waking up every morning thinking how awesome the day is, loving the nature around you, loving the birds and animals can cure you of depression for the entire day. Recently I read somewhere (A Facebook post, I think.) that a single positive thought as soon as you wake up can carry you through the day and make it a big success. So wake up thinking “how beautiful is today.”
There is a lot more to share. So watch this space, as they say.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Puthencavu Mathan Tharakan's Biography Is Published

There are things that come to you by way of ancestry that you cannot deny. One such thing, which I am proud of, is my great uncle Puthencavu Mathan Tharakan, who was my grandfather's cousin. Tharakan also known as "Mahakavi (great poet)" was also called "Sarasa Gayaka Kavi (poet who sings)". He was, as mentioned above, a good singer and writer. The only novel of his that I have read is "Madhubalika," which is curiously set in Calcutta, may be, he has travelled to Calcutta in those days. Among his poems is an epic poem "Vishwadeepam (Light of the World)" based on the life of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Thomas Cyriac (Right) Presenting Puthencavu Mathan Tharakan's Biography to writer Ravi Varma Thampuran.
Here is his Wikipedia biography, which I have written. Family lore is that when he used to visit our village for a Poet's Conference (Kavi Sammelanam) he used to insist on my grandfather P C Mathew sitting beside him on the dais. He and my grandfather were close, as they had grown up together, and were good friends. My grandfather, the abovementioned P C Mathew was a lover of reading and literature and filled his house with many books. I have inherited quite a few of his books from those days, which, bye the bye, is another story, for another post.

I have often felt a need for a published biography of Puthencavu Mathan Tharakan. That seems to have come true with the publication of his biography by Dr. Jose Parakadavil. Here's a photo taken at the launch of the book by Dr. Thomas Cyriac (former Vice-chancellor of Gandhi University) presenting the said book to writer Ravi Varma Thampuran (whose novel Shayyanukamba was published recently).