Shantaram, A romantic take on everything

I love this book because:

  • Its set almost entirely in Bombay. Salaam Bombay.
  • It gives a very heart-felt view of India, Indians, and everything Indian.
  • It reminds me a lot of Godfather (the book). It also reminded me of my first read of Godfather, which, sadly, happened only once.
  • It also reminded me of Harold Robbins’s Never Love a Stranger. There is something about the first person narrative that Nabokov abuses in Lolita to trick the reader, but Roberts uses with elan. I have rarely liked a first person narrative more than this.
  • I love sweeping sagas.
  • I loved the trivia: on knife fighting, on the Automatic Kalashnikov assault rifles, the inner workings of the Bombay Underworld, the Afghan War, Colaba, gritty slum life in Bombay, and a whole lot more.
  • The terrific one liners. There are so many of them, a few brilliant, a few corny, and a few unbelievably true.
  • Made me introspect on aspects of my life which I had buried for a long time.
  • Brought tears to my eyes more than once.
  • Is a gripping page-turner. 900+ pages in 3 days?!?
  • Celebrates the human spirit.
  • The romantic in me is happy and content; the cynic in me smiling.

Shantaram will be one of my favorite books for a long time to come.

Jingoism revisited

People keep telling me how good things will happen to India if we stop complaining and start doing things. I agree. No amount of armchair philosophy and acerbic cribbing can beat direct action on the ground (italics inspired from The Direct Action Day).

NGO’s are doing their bit. Examples like Barefoot College, which do transform lives en masse are inspiring. But the question which bothers me is how viable it is as a career alternative? Can I work full-time for an NGO and sustain a normal family on that income? I doubt that. This has a two fold impact. Either people do it part time, while debugging Java code for their day jobs; or highly inspired people take it up no matter what, and don’t bother about better living conditions for themselves or their families. Why is working for a good cause not a viable career option? Why does primary school teaching pay so less? Why is the media coverage for these causes so restricted.

Let me elaborate on the media point a little (currently obsessed with this “manufacturing consent” phenomenon, apologies). We have seen India Today do their Person of the Year feature on someone who has made a real difference at the grass root level, we see coverage on some NGO’s now and then, we also have sites like Good News India which appreciate and publicize great work done by unselfish people. But if you compare the number of articles, features, headlines, cover stories, etc. covering the BPO/IT sector, covering their glamor, how-to-get-in-tips, going ga-ga over the global economy, etc. with the miniscule amount of coverage that NGO’s get, you know why people are not inspired that much. But the reason for this difference in media treatment need not be attributed to Chomskian filters, but can be easily attributed to the fact that NGO-type of work is still not a viable career option for a fresh graduate who is looking for a job.

Currently our manufacturing, government, political, transport, financial and other non-IT sectors are not as lucrative as the BPO sector. The consequences are obvious – we are just losing a huge chunk of educated quality work force, who instead of working on things which do matter to us, are selling long distance calling cards to someone who hates them in some godforsaken place. We have to see whether the money they are bringing in to India is comparable to the benefits that’d have accrued over a long term had they decided to put in their brains and energy into working for India directly. I think the latter would yield better results had it paid as much as the call centers. This is where some amount of Jingoism comes in. I beat my chest and scream that we should not be licking ass, and should be kicking it instead, and I hope that someone (including me) hears me and does something worthwhile.

But why are non-IT sectors not as lucrative as the IT sectors? I don’t know fully. Needs more academic study.

Of course, all of it is economics. The Brits looting like common robbers, the Americans doing it in the grab of neo-colonialism, the Elite taking horse riding lessons (couldn’t resist this dig S), the Media raving about movies like Page 3, and almost everything that results in anything is attributed to economics. So, if everything were economics, where does government policy come in? why can’t free markets rule the world? Why do we need countries, governments, organizations, unions, etc. taking care of people who cannot take care of themselves. I think that is what separates us from the free market loving animals of Masai Mara. We try to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves. And when that doesn’t happen, we cry foul. We cry foul because, according to us, exploitation of the not-so-intellectually-or-technologically equipped class of people is not fair. Not abiding by live-and-let-live is unfair. But, free markets do have their place. Aggressive economic thinking resulting in great profits is a great thing. People who can do it should be allowed to do it. But if that starts happening at the cost of an entire set of people, an entire culture, across centuries to alter the mind-set of generations, I have a problem with it.

I am a jingo alright.


My striving for abstractness and ambiguity is all gone and the real context emerges. Next time, I will write in even more cryptic tongue using only pronouns and articles.

With that said – now for the real discussion.

1 – Why do we assume that the British were any better than Chengiz Khan or Muhammaad Ghazni? They did build railways, educational institutions, and postal departments – but we need to investigate why they did it? Was it to help us? Beeeep!! Wrong answer.

Railways to transport goods to and from ports efficiently, educational institutions to encourage the elite Indians (who were already licking the British ass) to study and become employees of the British Raj, and postal departments to serve some similar purpose, its plain economics again. We are dealing with more sophisticated robbers who knew that pointless killing was …well, pointless.

Show me one project that the British started to help the Indian poor of that time, did they build dams to irrigate lands? did they start mass education programs at the primary school levels? Did they bring in the British army from the UK mainland during partition to prevent bloodshed? Did they do anything at all for the Indians?

They just packed their bags and left when they thought that the time had come to leave. It just didn’t make any economic sense to stay back. The logistics was getting too expensive, Gandhi was getting on their nerves, etc. But mostly it was economics. They had looted enough, and the entire colonial model was failing, and it was high time.

Now again, there is this perception that the British were a “gentlemanly” class who were somewhat better rulers than say Germans or Japanese who would’ve fucked us even more. I have seen many people feel good about how we were ruled by British, and we were able to develop an English educated elite who could use the language superiority to serve the British/West after independence too. But were they really that good, the British?

Isn’t it possible that they were humane because they were entirely dependent on the Indian working class at that time to get their jobs done? They just couldn’t afford to have Mangal Pandeys rising all over the place, and screwing up their supply chain, army, etc. Personnel from the British Indian army were fighting British wars in Afghanistan, South East Asia, and other places. Oh, you couldn’t kill their brethren in Uttar Pradesh and expect them to fight your battle for you, can you? The Gentlemanly touch was just to ensure that the average worker wouldn’t complain. The extreme complaints were dealt with quite effectively in Kaalapani.

Also, the whole English language thing. The gift from heavens which have made us oh-so-competitive in the international market. I wonder how the French, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese, etc. are competing in the same market? Do you really think that in this age, language matters? And imagine how gleeful they must have felt when they saw that they could still use their left over labor in India for back office work. Who do you think is complaining about outsourcing in the US/UK, and when is this complaining happening? Right about now, and not any earlier. I think that the 70s and 80s management of US/UK fucked up a lot with a lot of misplaced attention at other things (communism, nuclear apocalypse, etc.) to actually see where the real problem was brewing. Their problem of concern should have been how their delicately established setup of the third world was breaking up, and some of them were catching up, and they just didn’t notice. So, the current Indian growth is better attributed to their complacence during 80s than their benevolence in the 50s.

2 – Most of our middle class BPO employees speak in an American accent, they know about the fifth amendment, they know about the civil war, Martin Luther King Jr, Mardi Gras, the New Jersey Turnpike, etc. And its not just America the country; we are clued into the inner workings of that country. And whats happening there – they ask you whether you are from Kerala? I wonder how they would react if they knew that the current government is held by the Communist Party of India, and Kerala, ironically is Communist too. Do they really know about the problems which North East India is facing? Do they know about the multi-facedness of Indain Cinema? Tsk tsk. And, please talk to a few people from the Mid-west whether they know about the capital of India. Now, how do I know about the Mid-west? Well, I am a product of this fucked up system as well. Sigh.

3 – We need more than just elevated thinking to get us where we should be, much more. We need a cultural revolution. I am with Samba on this. We have been screwed so thoroughly – by the media, by the continuous brainwashing, entire generations are screwed; and to get out of our awe of the white skin, to develop a little bit of self respect and sustain our identity – it does need a revolution of sorts. Elevated thinking will just make this neo-colonialism more efficient. And that wont help us one bit.

And I haven’t even touched on how the global corporate culture has entered and ingrained itself with the Indian corporate scene. And as Soumen said in this post, MacCaulay is back to taste native blood again. Large scale media manipulation is just starting. How many indigenous products are advertised on TV now. Vicco Vajradanti? Oh no! its Pepsodent time now. More on this later.

Long time

It’s been a long time since they left us. It’s been somewhat long since we allowed them to send stuff back to us again. Now, we are also doing things for them at half price. We love their football, we love their movies, we love their currency, we love their literature, some of us even try to speak like them, notwithstanding that we are already speaking their language.

It hurts.


I don’t know. In spite of sustained efforts, I cannot rationalize a few core principles of my life – this hurt being one of them. This inability used to bother me a lot before. It bothers me even now, though not as much. But the hurt still remains.

Why again?

After all, my being here is just a geographic coincidence. I could’ve been anywhere, anyone. Now, the I-could-have-been-anyone thought is a digression worth its own space, and it will get some here later. So, I could’ve been anywhere, and would I be lamenting about my current home’s state of affairs today? As an academic, maybe I might have, and the hurt would have remained academic. But it wouldn’t have hurt this deeply. This one cuts deep. There is something that ties me to my origins, to my people; Part hereditary, part cultural, part self, part randomness: all of these contribute. As for now, I have succumbed to faith and don’t question my origins, I am just thinking of the next level problems. It won’t surprise me if I, in the future, succumb to other faiths as well. Leaps of faith seem to be inevitable.

So, what is the occasion? Oh yes, we are free! Free as in entitled to free beer? Free to install software? Free to make money? Free to think? Free to think fair? Free to rule ourselves? Free to defend ourselves? Free to participate in the the economics of the flat world? Free to do what we want?

What is it that we want? We wanted to be free. Now what?