Saturday, August 27, 2005

I and Idol

Forty Colleges. Hundreds of excited, passionate, screaming college kids. Seven days of competition. One highly coveted trophy. That, in a few disjinted lines is the Purushottam Karandak intercollege one-act play competition.

The Purushottam Karandak is one of the highlights of Pune's cultural scene. Many of the leading lights of Marathi theater and films started out representing their colleges in this competition. Fergusson College has a long history of doing well in the competition, and consequently it is taken very seriously by FC students. Acting in, writing or directing a Purushottam play is a great honour for students, and this year many of the people handling these responsibilities are my friends. That, and the fact that I hadn't yet seen a Purushottam play despite now being in my final year meant that I just had to see it.

Given the prestige of the Purushottam competition, there is usually quite some competition for tickets. However, since the guys in charge are my friends, I and my friend Puranjay got them easily (without standing in any lines, too). Our play was to be performed on the second last day of the eliminations, yesterday. I made my way to the venue, the venerable Bharat Natya mandir in Sadashiv Peth. Being in the old city of Pune , the BNM is easier to find than a needle in a haystack, buit only just. Parking space cannot be found in the vicinity of the auditorium for love or money, so I had to park in college, and take an autorickshaw. Me and Puranjay finally met up, and entered the theater. The other two colleges participating were MIT (that's M for Maharashtra, not Massachusets or Madras) and MM Law College, and there was quite a bit of rivalry and ribbing between the MIT and FC junta. We entered the auditorium early, and took our seats. As the audi filled up however, we were shocked to see that we (just the two of us) had been allotted seats bang in the middle of the MIT area (seating is supposed to be segregated by college). For those of you who have never seen a competitive event (and Purushottam is very competitive) while sitting in the midst of the opposition supporters, I would really not recommend the experience. I personally knew many of the MIT guys sitting around us from school, and so we were never in danger of bodily harm, but we couldn't join in the cheering and taunting of the other side that our compatriots on the other side of the aisle were enjoying. The first play to be screened was the MIT production Three Days Two Nights, about two not-so-well-off college kids who are granted divine powers (Bruce Almighty, anyone?) for the said time period. To a biased guy like me, it seemed like a lot of crap.

Next up was our play, I and Idol. Set in the disturbances in our college in February over the imposition of a PT fine, it looks at three college kids and the idols they adopt. The play focuses more on one of the friends, Adi (played to perfection by Ameya Joshi), who comes to idolise a charismatic student leader who heads the protests against the fine. Adi gets involved with the protests and rises to a high position among the protestors, but the protests get nowhere as the college management refuses to agree to their requests. As the protestors upthe ante by planning a hunger strike, Adi realises that the student leader he idolises is not prepared to make the same sacrifices he expects of his followers, and is only interested in power. Adi goes ahead with the strike anyway, and gets the management to accede to their dermands, but gets seriously ill in the process. The student leader quickly moves in and takes credit for the cancellation of the PT fine, while Adi has to be hospitalised. As Adi recuperates, he finds that he himself is now the idol of a portion of the student body. He realises that their preoccupation with their idols has broken up the three friends. The play ends with all three friends rejecting their idols and resuming their friendship.

The play was written by by Dharmakirti Sumant and directed by Sohum Bhatawdekar, both friends of mine. These two guys really did a good job, and any defiencies you see in the plot are all in my own inept synopsis. The play really brings out what it means to be a Fergusson student, with the endless meetings for siomething or the other, the student protests, and the pointless acrimony between English- and Marathi-medium students. Dharmakirti, apart from writing the play, acted as a fellow student of the main protagonists, who is also the narrator. The direction was faultless, as was the casting. I, as I said before, am a biased observer, but it seems to me that this particular play will definitely do well, and perhaps even end the five-year drought of Purushottam wins for FC.

The results of the elimination round are tomorrow, and the finals will be next weekend. Here's wishing I and Idol the very best of luck!

Update (30/8/2005): I and Idol made it to the final 9. Khidki, (Cummins), Ek hota Kutubuddin (Ness Wadia), Score Square One (PVG COE), Cycle (BMCC), Shimga (IMCC), Kakpinda (Tilak Ayurved College) and My fair... Ready Redi (Garware College) are the other plays that made it. The finals are bound to be tough, so the best of luck again to Sohum and the gang!
(And apologies to Sadashiv Peth junta for my deficient appreciation of their, uh, peth ;-) )

Friday, August 26, 2005

Stoodaint's Paoverrrrr.....

The other day I finally had to do something I successfully avoided for four years in college: Join a Student's Organisation.

It happened when I was entering college. A smartly dressed chap came up to me and first (pointedly) asked me if I spoke Marathi. When he was satisfied that I did, he told me that he was from the Akhil Barateeya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), and that they did a lot of good work for us students, and that they need a lot of moral support from us, and so would I please join. I hemmed and hawed, but he was insistent. The other, bigger and meaner looking ABVP guys started glaring at me. I changed tack. I told him I didn't have change for the one-rupee joining fee. He smiled and told me he had change for a five-hundred if I wanted. I realised nothing could save me now, and resignedly joined up. He gave me a receipt (for one rupee) and congratulated me on my new membership of the ABVP.

So this is what it feels to be in the Sangh Parivar!

Posted in Education.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Fun Finland Facts

A couple of months ago, Michael Higgins wrote an article called "What Finland can teach us" on why applying policies successfully used in an ethnically homogenous country like Finland to diverse countries like India may not produce the same results. Yesterday, thanks to the vagaries of the TTLB Ecosystem, a hundred Finns read his blog. Bemused, Michael wrote another article, "One Hundred Finns" about the phenomenon. This, of course, attracted even more Finnish readership. Many of these Finnish readers were (slightly) miffed about all the misconceptions and prejudices surrounding their country. So, the swell guy that I am, I have decided to compile some facts about Finns and Finland for the six-billion or so of us who are not Finns. So here it is, the Finland Factbook (or What Finns do when they aren't making Mobile Phones and Racing Cars):
  • Finland is not as ethnically homogenous as we believe. A commenter on Finland for thought writes:
    I am (tired of the blond, ethnically homogenous Finn line) , especially as this is a load of crap. Sure, most Finns speak some dialect of Finnish, but the dialects are in fact so diverse that people from different parts of the country sometimes have difficulties understanding each other. If you think you understand Finnish, do pick up a copy of Raumlaissi jaarituksi. Being born in Helsinki and having lived here all my life, I don’t understand half of it.

    Also, the differences between rural and urban cultures are tremendous. This stereotype of silent Finns tends to be less true with e.g. Carelians, who (stereotypically) couldn’t shut up to save their lives. I would say that as an IT consultant in Helsinki, I would have more in common with any colleague in any major European city than, for instance, a small time farmer in Ostrobothnia.

  • In 1940, the Finnish Army defeated an invasion of their country by the Soviet Red Army, a feat not to be repeated untill 1989. They then fought the Soviets again for four years, and then fought with German troops in Lapland.
  • Finns make some really good music. If you haven't heard Finnish bands like Ensiferum and Children of Bodom, you should.
  • Jacques Chirac once said that "after Finland, Britain has the worst food." Soon after, Mr. Chirac was sent a bomb hidden in a cellphone. No arrests have been made as yet. (WARNING: Only the first line in this point is true. DO NOT take the rest of it seriously.)
  • Finland plays host to the world Mosquito Swatting Championships. Apparently (and I have trouble believing this) they are better at this than us Indians.
  • Finland has two million guns in a country of around five million people (There is, incredibly, an article on Gun Politics in Finland on Wikipedia). Despite this, Finns have prudently refrained from killing each other in large numbers since 1920, when 20,000 people died in a bloody Civil War.
  • Finland is the least corrupt nation in the world, according to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. It is also the most Globally Competitive Country, according t the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index..
  • Finalnd is home to New Age guru/eccentric Ior Bock, who, according to Wikipedia has a fan following among "New Age minded people from Goa" (?!). I'm a Goan, however, and I have never heard of him. Maybe it's because I'm Old Age minded.
  • Armi Kuusela won the first ever Miss Universe contest as Miss Finland.
  • The only Finnish contribution to the spoken English language is "sauna". The Finns are very fond of saunas, and have even started a Finnish Sauna Society.
  • Finalnd's most popular cocktail, the Salmiakki Koskenkorva, was, according to Wikipedia, invented after the Simpson's episode Flaming Moe's was broadcast in Finland. Apparently, the Finns saw Moe Szyslak make a cocktail with cough syrup, and were inspired to promptly make a version of their own with ammonium chloride based candy.
  • Finns are either a very interesting people, or there are a lot of Finnish pranksters on Wikipedia.
  • Update 1: Reader Ravikiran Rao points out that Finland has been hosting the Wife Carrying Championships since 1992. Much to the dissappointment of the hardy wife-carrying Finns, this sport has come to be dominated by Estonians.
This, sadly is all I could find on Finland on short notice. If you have a fact that you think should be included. Please keep comments clean. Abusive comments in English will be deleted. Comments in Suomi will be deleted if they contain the words "Perkele" or "Vittu", as these are the only Suomi swear words I know.

Narendra Modi's Crime

Saisuresh Sivaswamy writes in that the Congress's crime in 1984 was just as bad as Narendra Modi's in 2002. The only difference is that Modi is villified, while the Congressmen who led the 1984 rioters have enjoyed the protection of the state for twenty-one years.

But, as I said, look at the difference. Congressman Jagdish Tytler against whom there was a direct charge of instigation by victims, had to be dragged off the Union Cabinet kicking and screaming. As minister for NRI affairs, he toured overseas, including the Land of the Free that is America, and no one saw it fit to rescind his visa.

He was just one; other Congress leaders at whom there was more than a needle of suspicion pointing, did not suffer any indignity.

On the other hand, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi against whom there is no direct charge in the riots but one of presiding over an inactive administration, is blackballed, denied a visa, a hysterical campaign is mounted whenever he tours the country or goes overseas. I hold no brief for Modi or anyone of his ilk, I believe all rioters passive and active should be hanged to death, but I cannot understand this dichotomy in treatment of communal riots.
Here, I agree with the author. Narendra Modi is often potrayed as a bigoted despot, ordering pogroms agaisnt people he doesn't like. If he is, there is no evidence to show it. What the evidence does seem to show is that Sangh Parivar activists, enraged by the Godhra incident, began a senseless orgy of violence as an attempt to punish the "perpetrators" of the Godhra riots. What Modi did was sat by and watched. This may not be because he agreed with the rioters, or he because he believed that the Muslims of Gujarat needed to be "taught a lesson". It is probably because he realised that the people who were rioting were his supporters, and that he did not want to antagonise them. It may even be that his motives were good, that he had a vision for his state that he did not want to derail by being needlessly (in his mind) severe on his supporters. But the fact is, that in 2002, Narendra Modi had a choice: do the right thing or stay in office. For whatever reason, he chose the latter, and three thousand people died as a result.

Now here's the thing, politicians throughout the history of India have faced this exact same choice, and have taken the exact same decision. To the best of my knowledge, the only Indian leader who actually stepped in to stop mob violence at the expense of his political movement is Mahatama Gandhi, who in 1922 called off the Non-Cooperation Movement because of the Chauri Chaura riots. Many Indians curse him for this very thing, they believe that stopping the Non-Cooperation Movement cost India dear, and that the death of a few policemen in Chauri Chaura did not justify it. Perhaps they are right, stopping the Non-Cooperation movement, which was hugely successful upto that point, may have delayed Indian Independance by over two decades. But what would have happened if the movement continued, and the violence escalated? A lot of people would have died in senseless violence between the British administration and Indians freedom fighters, as was happening at that time in Ireland. India would have become independant, but at the cost of many thousand lives. Many people would have ready to pay that price. Narendra Modi certainly would. But it took a great man like Gandhi to sacrifice his movement, his dreams and his freedom to save innocent lives.

So, the point of my rambling article is this: Narendra Modi is a criminal who should be punished for his crimes. But so are a lot of other Indian politicians. They may commit these crimes out of the best possible motives, but they are still crimes. Vilifying only Modi may seem justified, but treating him as a one-off monster just gives other, equally culpable politicians a free pass.

Posted in Politics and Economics.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

A Liberated Mumbai

Ever since the creation of Maharashtra State in 1960, there has been a lot of argument and heartburn over the status of Mumbai city. The chief minister of the recently defunct Bombay state, Morarji Desai, wanted Mumbai (then Bombay) to be part of the state of Gujarat, on account of the large Gujarati-speaking population there. Over the years, several residents of Mumbai have argued for the creation of a separate State/Union Territory of Mumbai. Maharashtrians, however react angrily to what they see as an attempt to dismember their state. Creating a separate political entity because of a change in the demographics due to immigration by outsiders is never a terribly popular idea.

After the recent floods in Mumbai, the idea of Mumbai as a separate political unit has gained currency. The failure of the state administration to properly deal with the flooding is perceived as Maharshtra failing its capital city. There is a sense that Maharashtra is looting Mumbai, that the current political situation benefits only Maharashtra to the detriment of Mumbai. Just separate Mumbai from Maharashtra, some Mumbaikars say, and all our problems will be solved. Gaurav Sabnis writes about such demands:
One such "cause" that is supported fashionably is the matter of making Mumbai a union territory. Instinctively it seems great, doesn't it? Here is Mumbai, contributing a chunk of the country's taxes. And yet it is let down by these politicians who come from Latur, Nagar, Konkan, Baramati. Yes, instinctively we feel that making Bombay a UT or even a separate state will solve most of its problems because then the leaders of Bombay will be answerable to Bombayites.
However, is their criticism of Maharashtrians mooching of Mumbai justified? Is the rest of Maharashtra making merry at Mumbai's expense. Gaurav writes:
Even today, Mumbai's infrastructure is far better than Pune or Nagpur. Mumbai has over 60 fly-overs, two wide arterial roads, an efficient bus transport service and a creaking-but-functional suburban rail system. Pune and Nagpur combined have barely half a dozen flyovers. They have no public transport to speak of, and the roads, at least in Pune, are no great shakes. The roads in Nagpur are superb, thanks to an efficient commissioner in their Civic Corporation, and not because of mooching off Mumbai.
That is, of course not to speak of the power situation. Mumbai enjoyed, in the peak of summer, an uninterrupted 24-hour electricity supply, invariably genrated in Maharashtra. The rest of Maharashtra had to deal with daily power cuts of five hours in the city, and an unbelievable nine hours in the countryside. This sorry situation almost caused riots in the summer months in many areas of Maharshtra who felt like they had got a raw deal. For Mumbaikars to now claim that they are being looted by Maharashtra seems like incredible hubris to those Maharshtrians who sat out the better part of the summer in darkness.

There is another aspect to this issue. Many Maharashtrians (and not just right wing nutjobs like this guy) feel that their state is being taken over by non-Maharashtrian immigrants. This feeling is prevelant even in predominantly Marathi-speaking cities like Pune and Kolhapur. In light of this, support to the idea of a separate Mumbai will be political suicide for any Maharashtrian politician. Not only that, but the idea is likely to cause a lot of bad feeling, and even violence.

So, what then is the solution? Shekhar Gupta, in an article supporting a separate Mumbai, mentions a possible solution:
Free the city from the clutches of the state’s politicians, make it autonomous, give it a mayor with the powers of a Giuliani or Bloomberg.
I don't know about the rest of India, but in Maharshtra, mayors, and indeed entire city corporations are toothless tigers. Mayors are elected every year in a city council with a life of five years. Furthermore, a policy of reserving the mayoralty for certain community in certain years means that the only person who can be mayor for more than a year at a time is a woman from the scheduled castes. This causes a power vacuum at the top of the municipal corporation that is filled by the Municipal Commissioner, who is an appointed bureaucrat. This means that, in effect, the people of a city have no power to choose their leader. The administrators of our largest cities are chosen, incredibly, by the seniority system of the IAS!

So here, then, is my solution. Give Mumbai, and indeed all large cities, powerful Municipal Corporations that actually have the power to run their cities, without running to the state government for help or permission to do the smallest things. And give the Municipal Corporation a strong, directly elected mayor who is actually answerable to the people, like any decent American or European city. I realise, of course, that this is not the panacea to all of Mumbai's (and other cities') problems. It is, however, a start, and will end the unaccountability that characterises our current model of civic administration. It will also answer most of the grievances of the proponents of a separate Mumbai, without antagonising its oponents. And best of all, this is a solution that can be applied to all cities. Don't just liberate Mumbai, liberate all our cities!

Posted in Politics and Economics.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

My first Parnab Quiz

(Mirrored in Interrobang, the Quiz Blog.)

Parnab Mukherjee (you can see a picture here). That one name is guaranteed to make any serious quizzers blood boil. In his many years of conducting quizzes, he has chalked up a reputation for many things. He's been accused of embellishing his resume, lying about his education, unfairly influencing the outcome of quizzes and having a 6-year old alter ego. In fact, as the saying in quizzing circles goes, the "b" in his name (pronounced "Por-nob" in Bengali) should be left out, because his quizzes are so obscene. But all that is hearsay. I am now in a position to give you the dope on Parnabda first hand because today, I have had the infinite pleasure of actually attending a genuine 24-karat Parnab quiz.

When Salil told me that Parnab was conducting the SCIT Business Quiz, I knew I just had to go. Yes, the quiz was in a remote corner of Pune, and that the organisers were charging an obscene 100 bucks per participant*, but how often do you get to see India's best bad quizmaster perform? I found me an equally enthusiastic partner, and after spending a lot of money on petrol and the exorbitant entry fee, we were there. The quiz, as usual started late (I suspect this was Parnab's fault more than the organisers'). Almost an hour after the indicated time, in walked the great man himself. He then proceeded to conduct the elimination round without referring to any notes whatsoever. In fact, the questions were so off-the-top-of-his-head that he asked a volunteer to write them down so that they would remember them when it was time to check the answers. In theory, such paperless quizzing is what makes him (theoretically) great quizmaster. In theory. Communism works, in theory. But I digress. The elims were extremely so-so. Many of the questions were only tenuously related to business. We didn't do very well at all. We calculated we scored 6 out of 25, and there were many teams who said they'd scored 7s and 8s. We reconciled ourselves to watching the finals fromthe audience seats, and partook of a (really good) repast at the SCIT cafeteria.

We got back to the auditorium 15 mintes late, when they were just announcing the qualifiers, and we found that Ganesh and Salil had qualified for the finals. To our great surprise, so had we. We took our seats on stage, and the long (and allegedly false) introduction of the quizmaster began. This time, they left out the bit about him attending Penn State and Princeton (where he studied Econometrics under John Nash, no less). This may be because of the aforementioned schools' unreasonable reluctance to acknowledge their association with Mr. Mukherjee, but we'll let that pass for now. We will let the fact that several other unsubstantiated claims were made pass. We will even let the fact that Parnabda has really long, scary fingernails pass, and get on to the point of this article, the quiz.

The quiz was, in a word, weird. The questions, as in the elims, were asked without reference to any notes. The answers, too, were given without reference to notes. This rather unfortunate coincidence has led to uncomfortable questions about some of Parnabda's facts. However, since many of the questions were on topics that no one present had ever heard of, we were not in a position of actually challenging the great man. The only complaint I have to make about his four normal rounds is that they were either extremely arbitrary or extremely easy.

The two Parnab Special rounds, of course, were a different story. I call them "Parnab Special"s because I am sure no other quizmaster in the world has either the pizaz or the maaz to attempt them. The first of these Parnab Specials was the newspaper round. The gist of the newspaper round is that you get a newspaper, you choose you a page, and Parnab asks you a question that appears on the page. We chose the front page of the newspaper assigned to us (the 9th July issue of The Hindu). Parnab agreed, and began giving us a lot of gas about couriers, Meghdhoot and the Indian Postal Department. Then, changing subjects with aplomb (and leaving us wondering about the necessity of the aforementioned gas) he asked us the name of the two leading characters in Whatchamacallit, a book by Kalidas. Confused by the explanation of the round given us by Parnab, we mumbled some answer. Parnab smiled and told us that the correct anwer, Shiva and someone else. And how did he link it to our assigned newspaper? Very simple. In a obscure corner of our page, was a tiny 2 sq cm ad for Neelkanth Jewellers. And Neelkanth, as any idiot knows, is one of Lord Shiva's names. Simple, no? The outsatnding brilliance of this question left me stunned, and I didn't really listen to the questions asked the others, but my partner assured me that they were equally astounding.

But the showcase round, as in any other Parnab quiz, was the speciality round. Speciality rounds feature in many Indian quizzes, but the twist in Parnab's version is that you can choose a topic of your choice, off the top of your head, and he asks you a question off the top of his. Your topic can be as obscure as you wish, in fact, he encourages obscurity. However, having been warned that Parnab punishes obscurity, I chose the most general topic I could think of, History. On being prodded to narrow my speciality, I chose Western History. He smiled, and asked me the British Prime Minister who preceded Margaret Thatcher. He gave several clues, saying that the man in question was a Tory, an ex-businessman, and a founder of the New Labour tradition that Tony Blair belongs to. I answered James Callaghan, because although his biodata did not correspond with what Parnab gave in his clues (he was a Labour Party member who used to be a civil servant), he was Thatcher's predecessor**, and that was the question. Parnab disagreed, and said that the answer was Edward Heath. Now Heath, although a Tory, was not Thatcher's predecessor as PM. Nor was he ever a businessman. But such is Parnab's amazing stage presence, his supreme self-confidence, and his extreme pig-headedness that I did not attempt to dispute the answer. He went to the other teams, who had chosen such amazing topics as Heinz and Campbell Soup. Parnab rose to the occaison and asked superlative question, which of course we were unable to answer. Afetr this round, the quiz finished (to the great relief of all involved) and to our greta surprise, we finished third. Due to extreme mental anguish, I fail to recall the names of the winners and runners up, but they did well, and I do not grudge them their extra prize money. I was just glad that the ordeal was over, and ran home.

Thus ended my first Parnab quiz. Will I ever attend another, given the opportunity? Of course I will! This was the most entertaining quiz I ever went to. Parnab truly lives up to his reputation of being overconfident, obnoxious, and the best bad quizmaster in India. What a guy!

PS: I have an idea about an interesting meme. I have included links to every previous anti-Parab article I could find. How about, every time anyopne writes about Parnab, they include links to all the previous articles, so that we have all the relevant opinions and evidence in one place? The next person to write about Parnab, please try it out.

* Before I get any hate mail form SCIT junta, I'll just clarify this. The fee was for all ten-twelve events in the fest, and so wasn't all that exorbitant. We felt it was bad because we had to fork out that much for just one event. I'm sure the guys who took part in multiple events found it reasonable.

** See the list of British PMs here.

Posted in Quizzing, College Fests and other Crap.