Monday 2 December 2019

Signposts of History

[A travelogue of Amritsar's Partition Museum, published in the Deccan Herald on Dec 1, 2019]

Partition. An event that scarred the Indian subcontinent so badly, the aftereffects continue to reverberate today. A line drawn hastily across an ancient land by a British civil servant over a course of a few weeks, but affecting the lives of millions of people. We’ve all seen the movies, read the books, heard a few of the stories. But what has been missing is a detailed resource explaining the events that history that went before it, the news and records from the time, and, perhaps most important, a source for eyewitness accounts and testimony. As we begin to lose our grandparents and parents who have lived those days, recording their stories becomes even more important. Placing these stories in a framework of historical fact gives them their resonance. Fortunately, we have such an effort now: The Museum of Partition, in Amritsar, created within the newly renovated Town Hall, walking distance from the Golden Temple.

There is a newness to this museum’s methods. Not just because it was inaugurated in 2017, but because it seamlessly melds together the documentation related to the subject, audio and visual testimonies of those dark days, and even art inspired by the primary material. On the walls are large posters and timelines of the events, along with artifacts in showcases. Next to these posters and artifacts are large video screens. These play short clips of interviews of involved players and documentaries related to the theme of the room. Headphones attached to the screens let you listen carefully to the video. There are sculptures and artwork explicating the mood of the times.

The museum is structured as a sequence of sections, each focused on a specific time period: the first room talks quickly of the arrival of the British in India as traders, and their ascent as rulers. Subsequently, we have the events of the struggle for Independence, including the roles played by the major leaders of the time. In parallel is the rise of Muslim League and their demands for a separate nation. We go through the hasty process of creating a boundary line between the two soon-to-be-free countries, based on woefully scarce documentation and resources. As we arrive to 15th August, 1947, the people near the boundaries are anxious : they don’t know yet which side their village will fall on. In one small room, we hear Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech, see the jubilation reflected the newspapers of the time.

But in the very next room, the horrors of Partition fall upon us, the visitors. There are the millions of displaced families, thrown out of their hometown with just the clothes on their backs. There are the riots and lootings breaking out as rumours spread and multiply unchecked. There are the entire trains of refugees, slaughtered in retaliation for perceived misdeeds. There are the sole survivors of families, left behind or separated in the chaos. There is the famine and disease as the infrastructure of both countries crumbles under the flood of migrations. The stories are told to us in first person, in video interviews of the the survivors, often with the original artifacts from the time.

One of the memorable stories is from a lady named Sudershana Kumari, who migrated to India with just a metal box where she used to store her dolls. In a video she describes how she left everything, as a child, how she hid from rioters for days, and how she struggled to stay on her feet after reaching India. And right there below the screen is the metal box itself, lending a harsh reality to the story.

There are other stories: One is of a necklace of beads discovered in the excavations of the Indu Valley Civilization. When Partition came, which country would keep it? The heart-rending solution was to split the necklace, bead by bead, into two necklaces, and for each country to take one.

Dozens more stories. Manto is there, Amrita Pritam finds mention, there is Mahashay Dharampal Gulati, the founder of MDH Masalas, known to every Indian from the ads. There are clothes, paintings, knick-knacks, photos, notebooks...

You, the visitor, walk through the rooms, dazed from the onslaught of information and raw emotion, voices and images begging to be remembered. The trauma of another time descends on you, telling you what the history books missed. Around you are other visitors: old folks who probably have a better inkling of those times, young teens and children discovering the story for the first time. The museum serves us all.
I stepped out of the building after several hours, noting with surprise that it was already evening. Outside in the courtyard, a cheeky boy tried to strike up a conversation with me, angling for either money or fun at my expense. Two older men immediately glared at him, warning him off. This is not a place for jest, they seemed to say. Only for memory.

Monday 30 September 2019

Socialist Icon

[Published as An Idealist's Journey, in The New Indian Express, on Sep 29, 2019]

In June, 1991, a newspaper cartoon depicted the fall of the Central government thusly: the royal throne of the Prime Ministership stands empty, while Chandra Shekhar, the prime minister, is walking away from it. Rajiv Gandhi and other Congress leaders are pulling at the carpet underneath the throne. “Come back here, so we can topple the government!” the Congress leaders are quoted as saying. In an era of coalition politics and uncertain government, power was held on to at every cost. Yet Chandra Shekhar, the 8th Prime Minister of India, left his post rather than bow to the demands of the Congress, which had given external support to his government. In “Chandra Sekhar: The Last Icon of Ideological Politics”, Harivansh and Ravi Dutt Bajpai chronicle the life and times of the man, and bring alive a complicated chapter of Indian History.

The story starts from the small settlement of Ibrahimpatti, near Ballia in Uttar Pradesh. From modest beginnings, Chandra Sekhar entered politics, strongly influenced by the marxist/socialist politics of Jayprakash Narayan and Acharya Narendra Dev. Born in 1927, he’d seen the struggle for India’s independence, and identified himself with the common man’s struggles. It was but natural for him to join Narendra Dev’s Socialist Party as a worker from the very beginning. During the first general elections held in 1952, he was an active campaigner for his party, though they did not win as they’d hoped. From here on, it is a long and painful path for a man driven by ideology rather than the lust for power.

Chandra Sekhar eventually shifted from the Socialist Party to the Congress, and then became the core of a clique of progressive politicians in the party, nicknamed the Young Turks. This was also the time that Indira Gandhi took centre stage. During the Emergency, he was jailed for his contrary views. As a result, he left the Congress and become a founding member of a loose anti-Congress coalition that became the Janata Party. This metamorphosed into the Janata Dal (Socialist). As anti-Congress sentiment strengthened in the late 80s, the JD(S) became a part of a winning coalition, supported externally by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress, and became the Prime Minister of India.

It didn’t last long. Chandra Sekhar’s native shrewdness and experience made him almost too good a prime minister for the egoistic Rajiv Gandhi to let continue. These were the initial days of the Gulf War of 1990-91, and also the beginnings of the Payments Crisis in India. Harivansh avers that the Chandra Sekhar government’s budget-in-the-making included measures to tackle the economic crisis. But Rajiv Gandhi wanted the credit to go to the Congress, and so applied pressure to change the budget. Chandra Sekhar simply resigned instead. Thereafter, with Narasimha Rao leading the country, Chandra Sekhar faded from the limelight, though he was an MP for more terms.

The author (Harivansh) has been a close associate of Chandra Sekhar from the 70s, and has seen the latter’s rise from a ground-level party worker to the country’s topmost position. This gives him an inside view of his subject’s career and political philosophy. Several anecdotes in the book are from the author’s own encounters with Chandra Sekhar. The author’s sympathy with the Nehruvian socialist causes that Chandra Sekhar espoused, also shines through in the detailed descriptions of the debates during his time in parliament and in party meetings.

Harivansh also highlights Chandra Sekhar’s willingness to mediate between interest groups to bring them together. Whether it’s bringing up the demands of the “Young Turks” to Indira Gandhi, or balancing the demands of the various leaders in the Janata Party coalition, multiple instances of Chandra Sekhar’s efforts are listed here, within the Congress Party and later in keeping the Janata Party/Janata Dal together.

Although the reader may or may not align with Chandra Sekhar’s politics, he will find this detailed career graph of a seasoned, idealistic politician fascinating.

Monday 16 September 2019

Message in a Bottle

[Published as On the Podcasting Couch, in Deccan Herald, on Sep 15, 2019]

Like thousands of others in Bangalore’s IT industry, Srivats groans at the thought of his long commute home from the office. The jam-packed roads, the unruly traffic, the pollution,... even the comfort of driving his own car can’t solve all these. For the first few years, he relied on FM radio and music to entertain himself during the drive. But lately, he’s found a better way. Now he has some of the titans of the software industry give him their life stories at his command. Or sometimes he prefers to hear the latest from productivity gurus and bootstrapped startup founders. And every once in a while, he will tune into discussions on classical music, which is a secret passion for him. All this while he drives, pausing the discussion at his convenience. He’s discovered the wide world of podcasts.

Podcasts - independently produced serial audio programs, distributed over the net and playable on phones or laptops. Like radio shows, a specific podcast is owned by a person or an organization, so the different episodes of a podcast “show” usually have a common theme. Like blog posts or streamed TV, there’s software for your phone or your laptop that lets you subscribe to a podcast series, so you know when a new episode is out. And somewhat like streaming music apps, podcast apps are optimized for quick access and listening - so they can be heard on a car commute, or during a gym session, or simply while taking a walk. But put together, all these advantages give the listener an experience and convenience that can’t be matched elsewhere. And now they’re the hot new trend in India.

Take Arnab Ray’s podcast, Attention Pliss, as an example.

Ray will be a well known figure to readers and bloggers in India. His popular blog, GreatBong, spoke of the experience of being a 90s kid in India, growing up on Sachin Tendulkar’s batting and Mithun Chakraborty films, seeing India grow through liberalization and the software industry. He went on to write several popular books, the latest being a crime thriller, Sultan of Delhi. But his newest effort is this weekly podcast, which completes a year in August.

Attention Pliss tries to cover topics that are current in the media, both Indian and international,” he explains. “Some episodes are like a news roundup, a summary of what’s happened in the past few days. In others, I do a deep dive on some topic. Similar to my blog, I take my experience of 90s India as a reference. For example, in a recent episode recorded during the cricket world cup, I went over the captaincy styles of the various Indian cricket captains since Sunil Gavaskar, and compared them to the typical managers you’d find in an office. The week after, I might be covering Trump, or Modi. Or take listener requests for topics.”

In the US, podcasts are seen as a natural evolution of Talk Radio - that is, radio shows and channels that feature interviews, discussions, reportage and opinion, instead of music. Several radio jockeys are stars in their own right. Arnab points to Dan Rather, a popular journalist and news anchor, who has been a cult figure on news channels. Rather has made the transition to talk radio, and is equally popular there - in fact, he has a Youtube show as well now. “There aren’t any such radio stars in India, who command their own following solely on the basis of radio shows.”

Even before dedicated spoken word radio channels came up, US radio had plays and radio dramas ranging from Superman to The War of the Worlds, that played to enthusiastic audiences in the 40s and 50s. So there’s a history of listeners sitting down to hear people talking, discussing the news and telling stories on the radio.

As internet technology and recording technology grew better, podcasts began to replace these radio shows. The first podcasts appeared in 2004, though adoption was niche. Since around 2014, the emergence of dedicated software to create podcasts, and podcast apps installed by default on smartphones, have helped their recent resurgence. Today, there are an estimated 7,50,000 different podcast shows worldwide.

What’s the history of spoken word content in India? All India Radio, once the primary radio channel in the country, did feature short programs with plays and reportage, but public interest has moved in favour of private channels these days. Private radio in India is barred from broadcasting news, so it has gone to the other extreme and has focused on music (although some would say delivering advertisements were the main interest). Chat shows and interviews are sparse and shallow. Perhaps the only radio star of lasting fame is Ameen Sayani, who hosted a fill music countdown show for decades, and was known for his velvety voice and warm attitude. But there has been no one to take his place in India.

A few things have changed here recently, leading towards podcast adoption. At the infrastructure level, there has been a sharp rise in the usage of smartphones and apps in recent years. Along with the usual Whatsapp and TikTok apps, users have been moving to consume more multimedia content - on Youtube, on music streaming apps like Gaana and Prime Music, and lately video content on various streaming platforms. This is all bolstered by dramatically cheaper network bandwidth and more reliable connectivity.

An increased commute time and more interest in fitness-related sports gives people time when they are looking for audio content, but not more mindless music.

There’s also a change in the social fabric, at least in the cities. Unrelenting work pressures and splintering social connections leave us with less people to talk to. Perhaps because of the instinctive wish for conversation, more people in India are looking for people to talk to, or at least listen to.

Put these things together, and more and more people are moving towards spoken word audio programs. Podcasts are the perfect antidote to the problem, and in response, more podcasts produced by Indians, for the Indian market, are showing up.

As Srivats’ choice of topics shows, the variety of shows available as podcasts is a major draw too. The topics a podcast covers are highly dependent on the creator. Often, in the case of bloggers or media personalities, the topics are an extension of their previous efforts (Arnab, for example). Book reviewers, movie makers and critics, current affairs analysts, sportsmen - all are taking to podcasting on their own subjects, and in fact their existing online presence is what sells the podcast to the initial audience. But there are other podcast done by relative unknowns, focusing on newer topics that simply couldn’t have been possible earlier. Golgappa, a Marathi language podcast, is a combination of interviews and comedy, featuring a different guest each week. Binge On, a relatively new podcast, covers interesting releases on online streaming video platforms. And, in a cross between blogging and old timey radio programs, Croc’s Tales is a podcast where a storyteller creates stories based on prompts from the audience.

The rise of podcasts in India is special in another way: it’s strictly unofficial, without any support from large public organizations, unlike other countries. In the US, one of the largest podcast producers is NPR, the National Public Radio - comparable to our All India Radio. NPR has been producing podcasts since 2005, and its hundreds of podcasts routinely feature in ratings charts in terms of subscribers. The UK has podcasts produced by the BBC. Most newspapers in these countries also have podcasts to summarize the news, discuss current affairs, or showcase new artistic talent. In India, however, the space is populated by relatively small, independent producers who are following a passion rather than money. New podcasts are popularized purely by word of mouth.

Vikram Mohan is one of the upcoming podcast producers. He, too, started off being a podcast consumer. “At one time I used to listen to music on my commute. These days, it’s mostly all podcasts.” Not content with just listening to them, Vikram now produces podcasts as well - Arnab’s podcast is one of several that he produces as part of his company, Talking Stuff Network. “Our thought was that, we are missing the desi perspective in podcasts because they’re all produced in the west. There must be more like us who want to hear their own people.So we started producing these podcasts ourselves. It was the right move, because I’ve seen the interest in Indian podcasts go up in the last few years.”

Vikram and Arnab record Attention Pliss together - Vikram from Hyderabad and Arnab from the US. They use a web conferencing tool similar to Skype, which records as they talk. On the hardware side, the two need nothing more than dedicated recording microphones, easily available on online marketplaces. Once the initial recording is done, it takes Vikram about 2 to 3 hours to post-process, clean up the audio, add background music, and upload to the hosting service. But the quality of the final product is comparable to, say, Akashvani radio programs, with clear audio and well-integrated music. Compare this process to the effort in starting a new TV channel or a radio station. Even a Youtube channel takes more equipment. No wonder the number of podcasts is increasing at a rapid clip.

Once you listen to a few podcasts, another facet of difference becomes apparent: podcasts are by and large more spontaneous. Srivats agrees. “It feels like normal people talking. On the classical music podcasts I listen to, one episode was about the bloopers that orchestra musicians made while playing live - and apparently there are bootleg recordings available of these performances. The hosts were calm about it, instead pointing out such mistakes are a part of every musician’s life. It makes music more human, you know?”

Arnab works in the same spirit. “I don’t write down or rehearse the text. When we do news roundup episodes of Attention Pliss, we usually just have a list of topics that we want to cover, but no detailed script. We generally improvise the details.” Indeed, in a recent episode of his own podcast, Arnab forgot the name of Nixon’s Secretary of State and googled it live, while recording (it was Henry Kissinger, by the way). A formal radio program would never have allowed this freedom.

Although there are close to 3000 podcast series in India, these are still early days. The wide variety of podcasts worldwide indicates many directions we haven’t yet gone in.

The first that comes to mind is Indian-language podcasts. Some of these have been coming up, such as the aforementioned Gol Gappa in Marathi, and a semi-regular Stories of Premchand podcast in Hindi. Most other languages have a couple of podcasts, but nothing close to what the demand can be.

One rather interesting use of the podcast medium is to further investigative journalism. In its first season, the American podcast Serial used interviews, narration, and old-fashioned reportage, to dig into the 1999 murder of a high school student in Baltimore, USA. The podcast was both popular and critically acclaimed, and went on to top all the downloads charts. Two further seasons, focusing on other crimes, have since been made. One could imagine the interest in such a series in the Indian market.

Although this article talks of the growth of podcasts in India, the growth is limited to urban, upper-middle-class folks for now. But with the continual increasing penetration of smartphones, apps and bandwidth, the next big growth spurt could be rural-targeted podcasts - and that could be the push that the medium needs, finally, to be the next big thing in social media for India. Apps like Facebook, Whatsapp, and now, Gaana and Youtube are providing content to one and all - why not an easy-to-use podcast player?

At their core, though, the simple mechanics of creating and listening to podcasts will remain their greatest strength. Technology has simplified every aspect of artistic expression - phone cameras now take videos, word processing software and self-publishing let you publish novels, and digital tools help you create music. But podcasts may be the mechanism that help you communicate with the world in the most natural and personal way possible: by talking.

Monday 14 May 2018

Mapping the Stars

[Published as Mapping Stars the American way, in The New Indian Express, on May 13, 2018]

The common image of astronomers looking through the telescope and making momentous discoveries immediately belongs only to the movies. In real life, astronomy comes with a huge workload of recordkeeping and patient observation. At the end of the 19th century, this workload was handled by humans, known as "computers", and they did the calculations related to astronomical data manually. In her book The Glass Universe, Dava Sobel tells us the stories of the "computers" of Harvard Observatory, and how the observatory offered these roles to women in a before-its-time display of equal rights.

"Computers" worked with spectroscopic photographs of portions of the sky, produced on large plates of glass, to classify and track stars. The Harvard Observatory was a leader in this effort, its decades-spanning archive of photographs an invaluable resource worldwide. Its program was financed by a rich dowager named Anna Draper in memory of her scientist husband. Beginning with the commissioning of new telescopes, the project expanded to include stipends for more computers, mostly women.

Through the narrow prism of Harvard’s program, Sobel tracks the various advances in the field of analytic astronomy. There were the so-called Fraunhofer lines - dark lines in the spectrums of stars. Were they indicators of the elemental composition of the stars? And would a combination of Fraunhofer lines and brightness be enough to group and categorize the stars? The researchers at Harvard debated, expanded, and modified the categorization system more than once, eventually leading the way in publishing a standard followed by the world. Then there were the so-called “variable” stars – stars that regularly changed in brightness over time. Researchers became experts in tracking and categorizing these variable stars, helping in understanding of star clusters and distant novas.

And over it all, the bigger questions: how big is the universe? How far are the stars from us and each other? How fast are they moving? Are there other galaxies than ours? Sobel tracks the multiple attempts to answer these questions, and how the evolving data from Harvard contributed to the answers.

Because the book focuses on Harvard, it tends to omit the contributions of the rest of the world, treating Harvard and the American astronomy scene as the Mecca of astronomy. As an Indian reader, the most galling of these omissions was the consistent misspelling of the astrophysicist Meghnad Saha’s name, who’s referred to as "Meg Nad Saha".

On the other hand, the book also underlines the infrastructural advantage that the United States has enjoyed over most of the world, in that even a lab assistant has access to the world’s best equipment and facilities to pursue her interest. Progress in scientific research requires a lot of man-hours (or woman-hours in this case), but the money and equipment is critical to back it up. Harvard’s path to an exhaustive catalogue of stars is charted over more than a century in this book.

The larger question of women in research is also talked about here. While the directory of the observatory, Dr. Pickering, is for having women in his laboratory and wants to give them the honours they are entitled to, society around them is uncomfortable about this switch. Even the Harvard president, Abbott Lowell, doesn’t like the idea much. But over the course of the century, the perception slowly changes, until the pioneering researchers from the observatory are offered doctorates, leadership positions, and awards. There is still some way to go to fix the skewed gender ratio in the sciences, but this history offers a path.

Dava Sobel has put in a huge amount of research into this book. Her style matches the 18th century correspondence that she quotes, making the book occasionally tough going, but the reader is rewarded by a panoramic view of a scientific discipline in transition on multiple fronts: civil rights, core concepts, and influence on the world.

Friday 22 December 2017

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

A few thoughts on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea

This is why you read. This is why you read stuff you didn’t know much about. This is why you trust “best books” lists and critics’ opinions, and pick up a book you’ve never heard any of your friends talk about.
Because sometimes, the book you picked up as a result turns your mind upside down and makes you see the world through different eyes. I’d bought this book several years ago, but it just sat in my shelf after I found it was a “response” to Jane Eyre, and I hadn’t read Jane Eyre yet.

So last year, I finally read the classic and liked it enough to want to put this book back on the reading queue. And now that I’ve read this one, it’s as if Bronte created a flimsy story on top of a seething cauldron of experience, something tame that hid all the violence that colonialism and racism has wrought. Rhys unpacks all those underlying experiences - the heiress from Jamaica who’s caught between two other sides in her own country, the Englishman with his assumed superiority, whose discomfort with the tropical paradise makes others doubt their own home, the tacit assumption by him that non-whites aren’t mature or cultured enough, the same place turning beautiful or strange when seen through different eyes. She makes us see all these experiences through the characters’ eyes, and we understand them all even if we don’t always agree.

And by the end, the death of the heroine - yes, Antoinette is the real heroine, not the governess who stole the Englishman’s heart - comes as a fated, prophesied event rather than a happy accident to free up the husband.

Read, read. Really.

The Girl with the Golden Parasol, by Uday Prakash

A few thoughts on Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol

Nope, this is not a romance set in dreamland. This is a book that hits you with force, reminiscent of militantly activist stories like Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal or the Marathi hit Sairat. This is because it comes from the modern Hindi literature milieu, which has been (over- (in my opinion)) focused on issues of caste over the past decades. It’s written by the progressive writer Uday Prakash, and translated by the extremely talented Jason Grunebaum. Personally, however, I can’t imagine reading only this one style of literature, which is what’s been keeping me away from “serious” Hindi lit lately.

But at its core, this is a very engaging story. Rahul and Anjali (I’m pretty sure these names weren’t chosen at random, refer to DDLJ) are students in a university in Madhya Pradesh. Anjali the daughter of a brahmin and socially powerful father, Rahul from a lower caste, middle-class family. Yes, they fall in love, and yes, everyone is against them. The story is set in the backdrop of student life in the late 90s in the Hindi heartland, with political goondas, unqualified teachers, and the essential-to-hindi-lit question of caste troubling the hero. Every once in awhile, the internal monologues veer towards the oppression of caste and the oppression of capitalism.

For all the heavy-handedness, you genuinely feel for the characters, and you enjoy the rootedness of the story (the references to Madhuri Dixit, the samosas, the hostel life). The rootedness has been conspicuously missing from Indian lit in English, but it’s there in Hindi lit in spades. This is a worthy book to have translated and brought to the larger reading audience.

Apropos of nothing: I remember reading a recent Hindi book named Banaras Talkies that captured the hostel life in Varanasi. It wasn’t as serious as this book, but it was recommended to me by a friend of a friend who’d actually studied there and vouched for the authenticity of the tone and the locale. The Girl with the Golden Parasol captures that same kind of feeling even though I haven’t been there. That’s some kind of achievement.

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

A few thoughts on Masako Togawa’s The Master Key

The Master Key is set in a rather rundown apartment complex for women. Each of the occupants have their own dramatic stories: a woman who want to be a mouse, a violinist with a paralyzed finger, a dwarf medium, a woman in a Miss-Havisham-like state of waiting. Togawa makes this a building of endless morbid interest. The Master Key of the title refers to a key that hangs behind the receptionist’s desk, a key that can open any of the doors in the building, and which would give the owner the power to peer into all these rooms. In some sense, the book itself is the reader’s master key, letting him into private rooms and private lives.

Binding all these separate stories together is a shadowy crime: a dead child buried in the basement 7 years ago. And now that the building is about to be shifted to make space for a road, the discovery of the crime is imminent. But there’s a religious cult leader who seems to know about things from the past. And there are mysterious phone calls to the receptionist. Who else knows about the murder?

To be clear: this is not a detective book. There is no deduction or investigating as you’d expect from my summary above. It’s more a series of psychological portraits of damaged women, tied together with this overarching theme of murder. Yes, there is a mystery that is resolved at the end with a surprising twist, but to my mind the core of the book would probably have worked without it, too. The pattern of the book is somewhat similar to this year’s Penance, by Kanae Minato, where the tragic stories of the characters after the crime was committed are more important than the crime itself.

Given this is a short book, it would be a good sharp read for fans of thrillers. Parts of it may feel slightly dated - this was written in 1984, after all - but the characters live on in your head.