Tuesday, December 12, 2017

My First Olympics

MY FIRST OLYMPICS

Ajit Chaudhuri – December 2017


It is difficult to describe the summer of 1976 to readers today; I was just short of 13 years of age and at home for holidays from boarding school, it was the middle of the Emergency and the fear that we could be picked up at any time and castrated was palpable, and “Sholay” had just come out and all we wanted to wear were flared pants and denim jackets with stars above the pockets and to mouth dialogues such as ‘Kitney aadmi they’. It was also the summer of the Montreal Olympics!


While I remembered something about the previous Olympics (1972 at Munich) – Mark Spitz’s 7 swimming golds, Olga Korbut at the gymnastics, and the killing of some athletes by terrorists – I was too young to really follow it. This time, there was some buzz because most African countries were boycotting (the New Zealand rugby team had visited South Africa, which was pariah because of apartheid, and the Africans were pressing for New Zealand to be banned) and because we (i.e. India) were the reigning world hockey champions and were expecting to reclaim the gold medal that had been our right from 1936 (we took bronze in Munich). The main rivalry was between the US, the Soviet Union and East Germany, with China not even being a member of the Olympic movement (Taiwan represented all of China).


Normally, following an international sports event in those days meant reading about it in the newspapers two days later except of course cricket for which we got live test match commentary on the radio (and a small transistor that could be smuggled into school was the ultimate gizmo to own). But, this Olympics, Doordarshan was doing a daily 30-minute telecast of the events of the previous day and there was one apartment in our building that had a small black and white TV (another luxury item of that time) and was not averse to hosting a gang of little boys every evening for one month. The capsule began with two advertisements, one for blades (the actor Benjamin Gilani suggesting a particular brand to his fellow model who was having difficulty shaving) and the other having three ladies in short skirts sitting down and letting hankies slide down their legs, with the one whose hanky slid all the way down giving waxing advice to the others that made no sense whatsoever to us. The ads were also the sign for silence and concentration – the events were about to begin.


The schedule of events was like today, with the swimming and gymnastics being the main spectator sports of the beginning weeks before giving way to athletics. The swimming was quite boring, with a group of extremely ugly and obviously doped up women from East Germany claiming most of the golds (their coach, when asked about their ugliness, made the famous statement ‘they are here to swim, not to sing’) and the Americans facing little competition in the men’s events. The gymnastics, on the other hand, was where many of us pre-teen spectators fell in love for the first time. Most of the others went for the more age-appropriate Nadia Comaneci, who recorded the first perfect ten in the history of gymnastics (the electronic scoreboard had space for only one digit before the decimal, leading to some comic scenes) or her teammate Teodora Ungureanu, but the object of my affections was Nellie Kim of the Soviet Union; 19 years old, of Korean and Tartar ethnicity, stunningly beautiful, and two individual golds along with the team gold. The men’s events also had their drama, with the rivalry between Japan and the Soviet Union being settled in favour of Japan because one of their gymnasts, Shun Fujimoto, chose to complete his events, one of which included landing from a height of eight feet, with a broken knee.


The boxing also had us seriously enthralled. The Americans, subsequently labelled the greatest ever Olympic boxing team, had four of its five gold medallists from the games (including Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers) going on to become professional world champions. But the guy we loved was a left-handed Cuban called Sixto Soria, a dancer in the ring rather than a slugger who went on to lose the light-heavy final to Leon Spinks (who later defeated Mohamed Ali to become the world heavyweight champion). The other Cuban to catch the eye was the heavyweight champion Teofilo Stevenson, who won three golds in the division in a row (Montreal was his second) and who would have been a big name in boxing had he turned professional – he chose to stay on in his comfort zones of Castro and communism.


The athletics had an interesting Indian element – Sriram Singh led the field for a while in the 800 final before fading out to 7th (what we felt for those few moments when he took the lead from the subsequent winner, Alberto Juantorena, is difficult to describe) – Juantorena broke the world record thanks to Sriram’s pacing, and Sriram too set a national record that has only recently been broken. Juantorena also won the 400, a combination of events that had never been done previously and has never been repeated. There were other double gold winners; Tatiana Kazankhina in the women’s 800 and 1500, and Lasse Viren in the men’s 5000 and 10000 (repeating the feat from Munich), but Juantorena was a class apart to us kids. The African boycott meant that the defending champion and favourite for the 400 hurdles, John Akii-Bua of Uganda, was out of contention and we got a first glimpse of the great Edwin Moses. Other than that, 1976 signalled the end of white domination of the men’s 100 metres with Hasely Crawford of Trinidad edging out Don Quarrie of Jamaica (who took gold in the 200) and defending champion Valeri Borzov (we kids referred to him as ‘balls off’ – he later married Ludmilla Turischeva, another glamour doll who, along with my Nellie, took the gymnastics team gold) for the gold.


A word about the hockey – we finished 7th, and have never come near an Olympic podium ever since (except for the boycott ridden Moscow games in 1980). The main positive for hockey lovers was watching a golden generation of Australians establish their country as a hockey power on their way to a silver; Ric Charlesworth (later seen as a left-handed opener for Western Australia scoring 97 against Bedi’s Indians in 1977-78), Terry Walsh and Trevor Smith (they also hammered India 6-1).



All this was more than 40 years ago, and the world has changed. The Soviet Union and East Germany do not exist as countries, China is a sporting superpower, and the hockey team is not the sum of India’s medal hopes. Live coverage of the events is on all day for the entire month of the games, to the extent that it is almost boring even to hard core sports addicts like me. But, back in 1976, that daily 30-minute capsule brought the fascinating world of sports to my closeted existence and left imprints on my mind that can never be erased. Thank you, Doordarshan!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Would You Kill The Fat Man?

WOULD YOU KILL THE FAT MAN?[1]

Two Pager – Ajit Chaudhuri – September 2017


I for one dislike fat people!


I don’t quite know why; perhaps because they embody a lack of self-control (it’s always medication or the thyroid or genetic factors, and yet when you see a fatso you can be sure that food is nearby), perversion (the lack of self-control rarely stops at food), and inequity (in this country, no poor person is fat – and few have got that way without gouging public resources). In my days at Mayo College (for those who don’t know, I taught economics and coached football there in the mid-1980s) the fatsos were rounded up and made to do additional physicals, referred to as ‘Fatty PT’ in those wonderful times before political correctness – I used to feel bad for the pathetic so-and-sos then but wouldn’t now. And when I see one walking down the aisle of a plane, I pray that he is not heading for the empty seat next to me (and when my prayers are unanswered, I brace myself for a battle to protect my rightful space). So, if I were asked the question that forms the title of this note, you can be damn sure about my answer. The less of them, the better! But more about that later!


If you are uncomfortable at my diatribe thus far and are considering discontinuing reading, please don’t! In a case of what can only be considered divine retribution, I recently underwent a ‘360 degree medical’ and tipped the scales at a hundred plus kilos. Now I wish that I could be in denial and say that it is all muscle, or that it’s because I am tall, or even that if I am playing football twice a week at age 54 I must be doing something right, but hey – the numbers don’t lie. I am, officially, a fatso!


And therefore, I am reconsidering my views on a philosophical question that forms the subject of this note. And may I solicit your opinion as well. In scenario 1 below, would you pull the lever? And in scenario 2, would you kill the fat man? Read on!


Scenario 1[2]: You are walking near a trolley-car track when you notice five people tied to it in a row. The next instant, you see a trolley hurtling towards them, out of control. A signal lever is within your reach; if you pull it, you can divert the runaway trolley down a side track, saving the five, but killing another person who is tied to that spur. What would you do?


Scenario 2[3]: You are on a footbridge overlooking the track where five people are tied down and the trolley is rushing towards them. There is no spur this time, but near you on the bridge is a fat man. If you heave him over the bridge, he will fall on the track and his bulk will stop the trolley. He will die in the process. What would you do? (It is of course presumed that your own body is too svelte to stop the trolley, should you be among those considering noble self-sacrifice.)


Most people (90 percent) would pull the lever in scenario 1, and would not kill the fat man in scenario 2. The latter just seems wrong; the cold pulling of a lever versus picking up an innocent bystander just because of his size and heaving him over a bridge, kicking and screaming, to his certain death. And yet, in mathematical terms, both situations are identical – one person dies to save five.


A phenomenon that is simultaneously self-evident and inexplicable tends to be intriguing to philosophers, who came up with the term ‘trolleyology’ to cover the described scenarios, their even more fiendish variants, and the many thought experiments conducted around them. Some findings include that women are less likely to act in either scenario, that people who have just seen a comedy clip are more likely to sacrifice the fat man than people who have just seen a tedious documentary, and that if your case is coming up for parole your chances of getting it are significantly higher if the deciding judge has just had a nice lunch.


“Frivolous crap!” some of you may opine. And yet this has practical usage in today’s world, where the argument of ‘greater good’ is commonly set against ‘the pain of a few’ and ‘collateral damage’. Arguments for and against the use of torture as an instrument of policy, the building of a dam that inundates tribal villages, and the bombing of a civilian area in which some Al-Qaeda operatives may be hiding, ultimately come down to whether it is OK to kill the fat man (or not).


Trolleyology has obvious military applications, and is part of the course at elite officer training institutions such as West Point! In India, readers would recall the ‘human shield’ case of 9th April 2017, wherein an army major tied a local bystander to his jeep to ensure safe passage from stone throwers while rescuing a stranded election team in Kashmir. And I remember a case in Afghanistan where an Afghan National Army (ANA) post was overrun by the Taliban and its soldiers taken off into the mountains as prisoners. The ANA rescue unit were unable to chase in helicopters, and used what it described as the ‘Afghan way’ of going into the nearest village, picking up ten men, and telling the village shura (a grouping of village elders) that they would be returned when the soldiers came back. They did!


Given the nature of these notes, I would like to conclude by returning to the subject of my obesity (rather than taking you down the path of moral philosophy, ending with the observation that we are all fat men in a world where violations of our rights in the name of security, economic growth, and the longevity of our political masters’ ideologies is a common occurrence). I am reminded of the apocryphal story of a drunk George Bernard Shaw being accosted by a belligerent lady outside a pub.


The lady (severely): “You, Sir, are drunk!”

GBS: “And you, Madam, are ugly! And tomorrow morning, I will be sober”


A month, my dear readers, and I assure you that I will be on this side of a century.


Further reading on Trolleyology for those particularly interested:
1.    “The Trolley Problem” by Thomas Cathcart
2.    “Would You Kill the Fat Man” by David Edmonds



[1] I borrow considerably from “Clang Went the Trolley” by Sarah Bakewell in the NYT of 22-11-2013.
[2] This was set out by the philosopher Philippa Foot as ‘Spur’ in 1967.
[3] This was set out by the philosopher Judith Thomson as ‘Fat Man’ in 1985.

A Lechers' Guide to Women's Cricket

A LECHER’S GUIDE TO WOMEN’S CRICKET

By Ajit Chaudhuri


April is supposed to be the cruellest month[1]. I beg to differ! Nothing is worse than June and July in odd number years – the period between football seasons and with no World Cups, Euros, Olympics or Asiads to watch. The other stuff on TV is execrable – news just has people shouting over each other, and movie channels are overloaded with a genre of films that defy logic; ugly, poor and boring girl meets handsome, rich and single guy who falls madly in love with her and spends the remainder of the film putting up with her shit to convince her that he’s the one (I believe they are called chick flicks). There used to be Wimbledon, but this has been taken over by respectable middle-aged men and a bunch of feminists who have achieved equal pay for less work and are now whining about equal time on centre court The Tour de France has been reduced to a bunch of drug addicts cycling through pretty scenery. What does your average sports-crazy couch potato do?


This year, I have been lucky! While channel surfing some weeks back, I came across a live women’s cricket match in which a tall and elegant left hander had me put down the remote and check out what was going on. I stayed with the channel through the match, and discovered in the process that there was women’s world cup (WWC) on, that the cricket was alright (but not great), and that there was something else that appealed to me that I could not articulate at the time. I subsequently saw many of the matches played, and now have a better idea of that ‘something else’ – it was a certain honesty, passion and unconditional love for the game that was common to all teams, that transcended money and contracts and images on TV and all that is completely absent from the men’s game. I saw players who were delighted to be there, who ensured that my focus stayed on cricket (nobody gave a crap about how she looked, or diverted attention with bizarre celebratory acts and hair styles), and who seemed determined to have their day in the sun before going back to their normal existences as bank clerks or dental assistants or whatever. In some ways, I felt I was back in the 1970s, in the days before cricket lost me as a fan.


“OK, so much for the cricket,” I can hear some of you, my dear readership, say, “how were the women?” And I confess that, despite my observations of the previous paragraph, I was not oblivious to this question. And my answer is – on average, not great! But averages are misleading; there was some talent in the looks department out there, I did expend time and effort weeding them out, and this note is the outcome of my study. But first, a few caveats – my sampling frame is inadequate (I did not see the West Indies and South Africa play), validity is an issue (cricket is not suitable for research of this nature, with helmets and protective padding serving as the equivalent of burkhas), and I had my own biases (for example, she had to be a good cricketer to make the list). Anyhow, here is a top 10 in alphabetic order!


Anya Shrubsole (England): You would not like to confront this big and beefy fast bowler in a dark alley, but the England vice-captain has a pretty and kind face that stayed put for me despite her changing the outcome of the championship game.


Deepti Sharma (India): She is unlikely to ever model fairness cream, but there is something about this girl that grows on you. She bats left-handed and gets her runs when they are most needed, bowls right arm off spin, fields brilliantly, is involved through the course of a game, and caps it all with a radiant smile. India’s most significant losses came when she was demoted down the batting order. At 19, she is one among those who will take Indian cricket into the future. Watch out for her!


Diana Baig (Pakistan): A cricket and football international, this young fast bowler brings athleticism to the Pakistani fielding – one forward-diving pick-up and throw on to the stumps was of a standard that could be an example to its men’s team.


Ellyse Perry (Australia): The Imran Khan of women’s cricket – a genuine all-rounder (i.e. could get into any team in the world on the basis of her batting or bowling alone) who would not be out of place on a catwalk. She is also a football international (always a plus with me), and is married to an Australian rugby international (always a minus).


Hannah Rowe (New Zealand): A tall fast bowler who I don’t know too much about but like anyway.


Inoka Ranaweera (Sri Lanka): The Sri Lankan captain is the only one here purely because of her looks (as discerned by me at one of Sri Lanka’s post-match prize-giving ceremonies). She didn’t have much to say, but looked good while saying it.


Jess Jonassen (Australia): This left arm spinner looks like a schoolmistress (always neat and tidy, hair tied tightly in a bun, emotions always in control), but there’s enough on her to make you speculate as to what it would be like to have her on your arm in an evening gown, with her hair down and a glass of wine in her other hand.


Prasadani Weerakkody (Sri Lanka): A rubenesque left-hander with a Sourav Ganguly-like off-drive – my time spent watching Sri Lanka’s ultimately unsuccessful chase of an Indian total was worth it because of her. She is my No. 1 on the list.


Smriti Mandhana (India): Her WWC was an example of the law of diminishing marginal utility – a good first two outings, and then first in and first out in every subsequent match (with less and less time between the two). But, she contributed in the field through the tournament, including going for catches that she had no chance of reaching, and she is only 20 so things I hope will get better. She is the elegant left-hander of para 2 that had me hooked in the first place. And she looks OK too!


Veda Krishnamurthy (India): I understood why she is in the team only in the last league match – until then, all she did was bubble around in the field, instantly recognizable by the swagger in her step and the colour in her hair. If there was any cricketing talent, it was not obvious to me (she even managed to get herself out in a crucial game without facing a ball). I now know she is the designated pinch-hitter in the side, is good at it, is also a judo black belt, and she is not unpleasant on the eye.



[1] As per the first line of TS Elliot’s poem “The Wasteland”.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Goodbye Greats!

GOODBYE, GREATS!

By Ajit Chaudhuri – 21st May 2017


It’s a sentimental time for ageing sports lovers! I watched the last Test of the West Indies-Pakistan series (10-14 May 2017, Pakistan winning the Test by 101 runs and the series 2-1, its first ever series win in the Windies) that saw the retirement of Misbah-ul-Haq (43) and Younis Khan (39) from cricket. Last night, I watched the Bayern Munich vs. Freiburg game (4-1 to Bayern, who had already won the Bundesliga title) that saw Xabi Alonso (35) and Philipp Lahm (33) bow out from football. And finally, we have Francesco Totti (41) hanging up his boots after next week’s Roma vs. Genoa game, with Roma needing a win to be sure of second position in Serie A and automatic Champion’s League qualification for 2017-18.


Five greats going out over a 20-day period, all quiet, self-deprecating men who brought dignity to sports, has to be worth a few words. And, given the reams of information available on the Internet, I will stick to my own relationship with these five men, why I think they are special, and why they will leave huge gaps behind.


I will begin with a joke about Helmut Kohl, the leader of Germany at the time of German reunification and European integration, who was known for his love for good food. It was said that ‘there was something comforting about an all-powerful German Chancellor who wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about raiding the refrigerator rather than re-drawing the borders of Europe’. There was something similarly comforting about Philipp Lahm, a World Cup (2014) winning German captain who was 5’7’’ and spoke only when he had something to say[i].


I first saw him as a young kid in the 2002-03 season and must confess that, good as he appeared to be, I felt for his future – here was a wingback trying to break in to a Bayern team that had the Frenchmen Lizarazu and Sagnol (the former a star of the 1998 WC-winning side who I humbly confess to having met at a match between Chelsea and Marseilles in London in 2010 – he had long retired – and the latter a fixture for France at the 2002 and 2006 WCs). The Bayern coach obviously felt similarly, because he was farmed out to Stuttgart on a two-year loan spell, returning in 2005 as first choice in his position for both club and country. He went on to win almost everything there was to win (a European title eluded him) in a career that spanned three WCs. He will be remembered for his versatility, playing at both right and left wingback through his career and also moving to central midfield as per the demands of the then-Bayern coach Pep Guardiola. He will also be remembered for his sense of calm, and his subdued and low-key leadership style.


The 2002-03 football season was memorable (to me) for another reason – Real Madrid’s expensively assembled Galacticos (the best players in the world; Zidane, Figo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, et al) were chased to the title by …. not Barca, not Valencia, not Sevilla, but a team called Real Sociedad from Spain’s Basque region. It was a fascinating chase for neutrals like me – the little club simply did not relent, and ended up only two points behind Real in a race that was decided only on the last playing day. The stars for RS were its big-man-little-man strike force of Kovacevic and Nihat, who were played in by the youngest ever captain of a La Liga side – Xabi Alonso. Alonso went on to play for Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and won everything there was to win at both club and country. Such was his influence at each club that, had his final game been played at any of the four, the home supporters’ respect and sense of loss would have been the same.


This was because of his game; he combined the ability to sit in front of a defence and protect it (the defensive midfielder or the ‘Makalele’) with being able to set up moves from far back in the field (the deep-lying playmaker – one of only two exponents of this art that I have seen). This was also because of his demeanour; fans would remember De Jong’s kung-fu kick on his chest in the 2010 WC final that was not punished by the referee, and the way Alonso smiled it off and played the remaining 60 minutes of the match in pain to earn his WC winner’s medal.


Let me now move to cricket, and to the Pakistanis! It is something of a surprise to me that Indian cricket fans (the genuine ones, not the tools who infest stadiums these days for social reasons and/or as an outlet to their patriotic fervour) haven’t made a bigger deal about this. The Guardian in England said that ‘for all their records, their achievements are not of the kind best expressed in numbers or on lists. Between them, they carried Pakistan through the hardest, darkest years and, in doing so, they did not just serve their country but also the sport and all of us who love it.’[ii]


Misbah-ul-Haq was a late bloomer – my first memory of him was that paddle scoop that he played in the T20 WC final in 2007 that handed India the title. He took on Test captaincy in the aftermath of the 2010 spot fixing scandal, and dealt with the public opprobrium, the difficulty of not playing Tests at home, the inability of the Pakistani cricketing authorities to extend vision beyond their noses, and the considerable abuse from past players, to take Pakistan to a no. 1 rank in 2016 (albeit for a short while) while restoring dignity, integrity and respect within and for the team. He has the honour of even being criticised by the Taliban in a rare intrusion by those luminaries into sports punditry – they called him a ‘pathetic player’ in 2013[iii].


I first came across Younis Khan in 2005 – he had scored 147 in Kolkata and 267 in Bangalore – and I knew that there was something here. And there was! Of the 30 men who scored 4,000 plus test runs in the 2000s, he was the only one continuing to ply his trade in 2017 (Gayle continues in franchisee cricket, and Jayawardene and Sangakkara still play counties). He went on to break every Pakistani batting record – the first to score 10,000 test runs and 30 test centuries, has a 50 plus test batting average and a world record five centuries in the 4th innings of a test match. He too had issues with the authorities, including being ‘banned for life’ in 2010, and yet the only time I ever saw him react was when he refused the Pakistani captaincy in 2007, saying that ‘when our families get threatening calls, our effigies are burnt, and our pictures are put on donkeys, I can’t lead the team in such circumstances.’


But it was what they did together that is irreplaceable. On the field, they had the third highest ever runs scored in partnership together (after Hobbes-Sutcliffe and Langer-Ponting). They also brought Pakistani cricket back in from the cold.


I now return to football, and to Francesco Totti. I first saw him as Serie A’s youngest ever club captain in a madly attack-minded Roma side in 1998-99, and then combining the roles of a ‘media punta’ and a ‘false 9’ (more than 10 years before either position had become fashionable) in the Italian team that did surprisingly well in the Euro 2000 (Totti was the man of the match in a pulsating loss to France in the final). He went on to a winner’s medal in the 2006 WC, starring again as a between-the-lines playmaker who would turn up as centre forward at critical moments, signifying most of what was worthy about the team (along with Cannavaro’s defending and Buffon’s goalkeeping) and none that was bad (like the abuse that resulted in the infamous head-butt in the final that won the WC for Italy).


He is irreplaceable for two reasons. The first is that he is the last one-club man in the upper echelons of football – he never left his boyhood club, where he retires next week. The second is for his handling of that fatal combination of Roman God looks, inert shyness, and a reputation for stupidity (from some minor gaffes on television and a strong Roman accent), and the jokes that resulted from it. He went about collecting the jokes himself, with two stipulations; they could reflect badly on him but not his family, and they had to be readable by children. The book “All the Totti Jokes” was published in 2003 with a third stipulation – the proceedings from its sales had to go to a charitable project to help the elderly in Rome and to a UNICEF project for homeless children in DR Congo. It was a smash hit!


My favourites –


‘The three hardest years for Totti? Class 1 in elementary school.’


‘A tragic story in the newspaper: Totti’s library had burnt down. Totti is inconsolable. ‘No! I hadn’t finished colouring the second one yet.’


‘Totti and Del Piero came out of an exam at the CEPU (a remedial school for high school drop-outs and losers).

Totti: Alex, how did it go?

Del Piero: Not so well, Francesco! I handed in a blank sheet.

Totti: You too? Now they are going to say that I copied.’


You just have to love a guy who can do this!


To conclude – thank you, all five of you, for the wonderful memories and for reinforcing in us why we love sports so much! I for one will never forget you.




[i] And when he spoke, it was powerful stuff! He received a record Bayern Munich fine for criticizing the club’s transfer policy and its lack of a footballing philosophy and strategic plan in 2009. And when regular captain Ballack wanted his armband back after the 2010 World Cup (Ballack was injured, and Lahm was chosen instead to captain Germany at the tournament), Lahm said he saw no reason as to why he (Lahm) should relinquish the captaincy. Coach Jochi Lowe agreed, and Ballack never played for Germany again.
[ii] “Misbah and Younis did more than serve Pakistan, they served cricket”, The Guardian, 16th May 2017.
[iii] “Taliban urge Pakistanis to ‘stop praising Sachin Tendulkar’, BBC News, 28th November 2013.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Things I'll Never Say

The Things I’ll Never Say

A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – May 2017



I moved from Delhi to Mumbai in 2014! This is not exactly New York to Jhumri Telaiya (or, before I offend anyone, the other way around) – nonetheless, it takes some getting used to. Looking back, the three biggest culture shocks I faced were 1) I have to refrain from questioning the virtue of my opponents’ female relatives while playing football, 2) the right to scratch my testicles in public places has ceased to exist and 3) in social sector meetings, I am invariably the jholawallah in the room.


Many of you, my dear readers, would empathise with the debilitating effects of the first two shocks; it is the third that requires some articulation. Social sector meetings are typically meant for NGOs and left leaning academics to ruminate about the state of the world, where the opinion on the corporate sector is akin to what President Trump’s would be on a cross between North Korea and the New York Times. These are supposed to be alien spaces for the likes of me who represent large conglomerates; we are the barbarians at the gate, good only for signing cheques to make up for the harm that we inflict upon society, the ones subjected to whispered pejoratives when our backs are turned (and more voluble stuff once we leave the room) – you get the drift. In Mumbai, things are a little different – such meetings are genteel affairs attended mostly by middlemen (usually consulting firms masquerading as NGOs), where the corporate sector are the good guys and the discussion is focussed on money, returns and visibility. My opinions are solicited, and my jokes are laughed at. But not many people in the room have worked directly with the community, and critical (for me) questions such as ‘have you discussed the need for the project with the proposed beneficiaries?’ elicit responses similar to that of the Taliban when asked about the need for women’s agency. All in all, good fun!


More boring are my meetings with recent converts to the social sector (Mumbai for some reason has a lot of them) – usually people who ‘know someone’ and therefore who I am not able to politely fob off. Most of them have me glazing over within three minutes (my normal in meetings is ten), and scoring goals for Brazil or Real Madrid in my mind while waiting for the torture to end. The reasons for this are threefold.


The first is the predictability of the conversation, which is invariably a long and boring monologue in three acts; what I call ‘the great sacrifice’, ‘the grand vision’, and ‘the brilliant idea’ (in order of temporal precedence). In the first act, the person expounds on his/her qualities, qualifications, and corporate experience, describes the epiphany and subsequent move into the social sector while not neglecting to mention the likely exalted position and earnings s/he would be at but for this, and conveys how fortunate we all are that s/he has taken this step. The second act is an articulation of the need for extreme poverty to be eliminated or some other similar objective achieved, to which the person is going to devote him/her self towards. And the third act is a much more mundane plan by which all this is going to happen – often something like a self-flushing pre-fabricated toilet that my employers should pay for. Common across these are a focus on self, a declining level of detail, and no time left for me to respond with my thoughts (which is probably not such a bad thing).


The second is the liberal use of jargon during the spiel. ‘Bottom of Pyramid’ usually crops up in minute 1, often in acronym, and is then repeated every other minute. Other high frequency stuff is ‘optics’, ‘metrics’ and ‘impact investment’. More recently, I have been zapped with ‘adaptive leadership’ and ‘capital plus approach’.


The third is what is not said but is assumed, along with the erroneous presumption that I share the view – usually that the beneficiary community is just a dumb bunch of dole seekers, that the government does nothing, and that the sustainability of the proposed project will be assured by poor people paying for costly services once they see their efficacy – all of which are rarely supported by hard facts.


I am, however, occasionally, very occasionally, confronted with a neo-convert who is not an unadulterated waste of time; who is looking to learn rather than to teach, who sees the community as a resource rather than as a recipient, and who has an open mind on what it would take to make a difference. Official meetings are not conducive for giving unsolicited advice but, if I could, this is what I would say to this lot.


One – go to the ground, do something, and then talk! Nobody is interested in what you are going to do unless it has a basis in what you have already done. Learn about the communities you wish to work for, understand their strengths and aspirations, and base your proposed work on this. Don’t take short cuts! Test your assumptions!


Two – lose the halo! Within the social sector, it is a sure sign of a charlatan. If you really think that you are making a sacrifice, for God’s sake go back to selling soap or investing money or whatever it is that you are moving away from.


Three – work for the poorest and most vulnerable! If the poverty line is at 26 percent, work for those in the 0-10 percentile, they are the hardest to reach and effectively do something for, and are therefore the most worthy of your efforts. Leave the easier stuff to others. And know that market-based solutions do not work for this section.


Four – understand the importance of institutions! Widespread change doesn’t happen because an inspired individual takes on a system, this only happens in Ayn Rand novels and in the PR material of those with self-anointed halos. And recognize the role of existing institutions, governmental and others, in what you propose to do.


Five – know that poverty is more than the lack of this or that, it has a relational element and is also about access to rights. Giving someone a cow does not convert him/her from poor to non-poor (as the government’s flagship Integrated Rural Development Programme discovered in the 1970s). Addressing the structural aspects of poverty, the barriers caused by caste, gender, et al, is far more difficult than doling out benefits, but it is this that may bring about lasting change.



I would like to benignly conclude by stating that Mumbai is a great place, dynamic and inspiring, but its NGO sector is not. And don’t feel too bad for me, I am paid reasonably well for the time spent being bored by these guys. But I have a darker set of alternative conclusions – that the world is changing, and I am that dinosaur from Jurassic Park expecting discussions with NGOs to focus on the community, rights and participation, that the people described here and their new age rubric is the way of the future, and that maybe I should learn from instead of laugh at them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Reality Check!

A REALITY CHECK

A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – October 2016


What is statesmanship? Different dictionaries have different definitions, but none quite bring out the multiple flavours and nuances of this term. Comparing statesmanship with other constructs of leadership gives one a better perspective, (such as an article on the difference between Israeli Presidents Peres and Netanyahu[1]). Some wit, differentiating between statesmen and politicians, suggested that the former were like vegetables, ‘you don’t like them but they’re good for you’, and the latter ice cream, ‘yummy, I’ll worry about the stomach ache later’.


I was not around during my country’s formative years as an independent nation – my generation spent its late teens and twenties in the 1980s, a time bereft of anything resembling statesmanship. It was later, after extensive travel in the neighbourhood[2], that I came to the conclusion that I may not have seen it, but we definitely had it – many things that we take for granted (the ability to elect and change leaders, an army that is under civilian control, a secular and functional constitution, an independent judiciary, the existence of institutions such as an election commission and a comptroller and auditor general, et al) simply do not exist in other places – and we have much to be thankful to our (currently much maligned) early leaders for.


I am reminded of the term ‘statesmanship’ in the current climate of mass jingoism, chest beating, and clamour for war, where morons and provincial upstarts are masquerading as policy makers, and where an intellectually challenged leadership (across the political spectrum, may I add) are displaying their absence of vision in the manner of the flashers that hung around outside girls’ colleges in the 1980s.


Here is a reality check for you, my friends!


One: ‘You can fight history, but you can’t fight geography’ – Pakistan will always be your neighbour, and you will always share a long border. What sort of a relationship do you want, in the long term, and how do you propose to go about building it? Don’t forget that countries are unlike homes, where the neighbourhood bully can Haryana-style threaten and harass someone it doesn’t like into vacating and moving away.


Two: Nobody wins a nuclear war!


Three: You may not win a conventional war! Pakistan may be a mess, but its army is not – like us, it is a professional army that knows how to fight. Unlike us, its hardware, spares and ammunition come from a single and reliable source (we obtain these from 6-7 countries, most of them notoriously unreliable[3]). It is by no means a given that a conventional war will result in a quick and painless victory.


Four: You will not have international support! There may be widespread exasperation with Pakistan, but it would be foolish to assume unequivocal support for us if hostilities escalate[4]. And, don’t forget, they (unlike us) have an all-weather friend with veto powers in the UN’s Security Council.


Five: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you! Ninety percent of Pakistan’s fresh water comes from India, but threatening to abrogate treaties and divert rivers at the first sign of tension is remarkably short sighted (even by the current abysmal standards) given that three major Indian rivers originate in China.


Six: Goodbye, permanent membership of the Security Council! Our own narrative of ‘a jaw for a tooth’, etc. in the recent escalation of tension is at odds with others’ view that this is a silly fight (to quote The Economist, ‘the tenor of recent exchanges between the two countries is suggestive of playground conflict’[5]) but for the facts that we are lobbing live mortar rounds at each other, thousands of villagers along the LoC have been evacuated, and both countries are nuclear armed. We need to maintain a modicum of maturity to be taken seriously at the world’s stage.


Seven: Pakistan is an army with a country (and not the other way around)! The rational security calculus that emphasizes the primacy of national interest and a calibration of the costs and benefits of conflict, which would demonstrate the necessity of compromise with India (more so after having lost three wars to us), does not apply here. To them, ‘not winning, even repeatedly, is not the same as losing. Simply giving up and accepting status quo and India’s supremacy is, by definition, defeat’. And victory is ‘the ability to continue fighting, regardless of the consequences for the nation’s development, welfare, or international opinion’.[6]


Eight: You are losing Kashmir! The valley has been rocked by protests and curfews for the past four months, which seems fine with everybody except the average Joe on Kashmiri streets, the poor Johnnies at the receiving end of the protests, and me. I am deeply uncomfortable with what is happening there which, according to Kashmiri friends and colleagues, is the worst they have lived through. So what, our policy makers would say, screw them and screw you! So this – as per seven above, the Pakistani state will not give up its relationship with non-state terror groups as long as they, i.e. the terror groups, have operational utility. And they will have utility as long as we have a bad relationship with Kashmir[7]. So if you don’t want these buggers crossing the border and doing their stuff, sort out Kashmir. Nothing binds Pakistan’s deeply fractured polity and society more than protests in Kashmir. Not even Islam!


To conclude, my dear chest-beating leaders, distinguish between going to war without a strategy and fighting elections in Uttar Pradesh. Don’t let the imperatives of the latter take you down the former path. The cacophony of dumbass supporters may not be synonymous with national interest. Show a little bloody statesmanship!



[1] Ben-Meir, Alon, “Statesmanship vs. Demagoguery’, The Huffington Post issue of 29th September 2016, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alon-benmeir/statesmanship-versus-dema_b_12251224.html.
[2] With due modesty, I have visited and travelled in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
[3] Prakash, Arun, “Look Before You Escalate”, Indian Express issue of 26th September 2016.
[4] Mehta, PB, “The Die is Cast’, Indian Express issue of 1st October 2016.
[5] “Reversing Roles”, The Economist issue of 8th October 2016.
[6] Fair, Christine, “Fighting to the End: The Pakistani Army’s Way of War”, Journal of Strategic Security, No. 4, Vol. 7, 2014, Oxford University Press, NY.
[7] Varshney, A, “Inside Outside”, Indian Express issue of 27th September 2016.