Saturday, August 05, 2006

Newspaper stories

By Mahadevan Ramesh

(This is a rather long Blog entry, folks. So, pour yourself a very large cup of coffee if you want to get through this)

Every couple of months or so in India, a totally wacky, irrelevant, regressive, divisive non-event grabs the headlines, gets totally blown out of proportion, hogs the airwaves endlessly, saps the national energy, increases the collective blood pressure, rocks the country back and forth and eventually asymptotically exits, only after another equally ludicrous news event dislodges it from the front pages.

Last month it was the Sabarimala vs. actor Jayamala episode. It all started innocuously with one of the priests of the famous Sabarimala temple, Kerala, claiming to perform what is termed as ‘Divine Prediction’. He pointed his crystal ball toward the past and in it he saw a woman entering the temple complex several years ago. Nothing to write home about, except that this popular temple has a Victorian moral code with a Manusmriti age covenant which prohibits women (other than prepubescent girls and post menopause women) from entering the temple. Right after the ‘predictions’ an actress in Karnataka, Jayamala, quickly claimed that she was the woman in question and that not only did she enter the temple, but she also wandered into the inner recesses and even touched the idol as well and therefore committed multiple blasphemous acts.

What followed this was an almost nuclear chain reaction of she-said-he-said, she-touched, no-she-did-not, I-regret-touching-the-idol, the-priest-is-a-liar, Jayamala-is-hungry-for-publicity, let-us-get-her. When I last checked, the prognosticating priest had been summarily sacked from his holy duties - and ironically he did not see it coming - and Poojas were being commissioned to ostensibly ‘cleanse’ the temple after such ‘violations’. Legislators in Kerala and Karnataka did their bit parts and raised hell in their respective Assemblies. High courts and the Supreme court were ‘moved’. More actresses came out of the woodwork and claimed to have entered various other temples, clearly violating the temple bans. It was such a bizarre and amusing spectacle to see otherwise grown men sitting down and arguing about utter nonsense, knowing fully well that not even a single iota of good will come out of all these, for more than ninety nine percent of the population.

It was like watching a badly-produced TV serial minus the commercials. Sure the Sabarimala temple is rich and popular. Sure there must be a lot of turf wars going on for controlling its management. But to subject the entire country to this silliness? What is even more intriguing is that there was very little discussion on some of the ‘universal points’ that seem to fall out of the whole incident. That such a famous temple even has gender-based discriminatory rules and that they follow archaic and questionable practices like ‘divine astrological prediction’. It is even more shocking that there was not even a flutter from any of the women’s groups or rationalists forums or from the Brinda Karat kind of Communist politicians. “For all its left leanings and high literacy rates, Kerala is still a highly feudal society.” Says a Kerala journalist friend of mine. Not just Kerala. I would say the entire country is mired in such chronic feudalism that we are unable to liberate ourselves from stupid things like this. Performing poojas to propitiate the sins of women entering a temple? In this twenty first century? In the name of tradition?

Covenants or private rules, such as those issued by the temple in Sabarimala, unfortunately have a legal basis. Private entities can have their own rules and regulations which supercede your fundamental and god-given rights – pardon my pun. You always have the option to not patronize such places, if their covenants put you off. This is no government office, where you can argue about equal rights.

But on the other hand, the public can use its tremendous leverage to pressure the temple to get rid of such rules. In a land where Meera Bai’s single-minded devotion is the stuff legends are made of, a Meera Jasmine is prevented from displaying the same kind of devotion. Yes, there are other religions which have equally discriminatory and sexist practices. But that should be no justification for our retrograde rules.

Another interesting thing that stares out of this news brouhaha is this peculiar practice by us Hindus of having our own favorite temples and gods, the importance we give to pilgrimage etc, Being highly ritualistic is now becoming the watermark of our Hindu belief system. Like teenage boys showing loyalties to their football teams, we align ourselves to a Tirupati temple or a Badrinath temple or a Kumbh, and don’t for a moment mind all the inconveniences, (sometimes even the probability of death by stampede) expenses and so on in visiting those places. Even eighty year olds who need to be carried away in dolis to the temples don’t mind the troubles, just because they earn brownie points from god. (In fact, the more hassles they go through, the more spiritual they feel) Why are we so crazy? Isn’t it said somewhere that all temples are kind of equal and doesn’t adwaita tell us that our own inner spirituality is equivalent to the external supreme being that we idolize? Why don’t we visit our corner temple instead of trekking it all the way? Why don’t we have healthy national debates on aspects of religion instead of people clinging to their wild beliefs?

We, as a nation, are so immature that we get carried away by the heat of the battle that oftentimes we don’t even bother to figure out why the battle is being fought in the first place. We don’t parse the headlines or digest the news. We get seduced by the statements, press reports on-camera antics of people that we believe the superficial to be the reality.

-------------- X ------------ X --------- X

A couple of weeks ago, the lead story was this five year old boy, named Prince, falling into an abandoned bore well and subsequently getting masterfully rescued by some great men from the army and the Mumbai fire brigade. All parents watched with heightened tension, perhaps clutching their own children, as Prince was yanked out. (and there were others who watched, purely out of morbid curiosity) Right after the kid came out of the hell hole, he was declared ‘mentally and physically’ fit, and off he went on his fifteen minutes of fame. He and his parents were all over the TV and they were even given some cash awards. Who knows, if Maneka Gandhi doesn’t let loose her Animal Rights brigade, we may even see Prince on top of an elephant next Republic Day, clutching his bravery award.

From time to time one hears of such miraculous rescue efforts of kids falling into wells. Remember Baby Jessica McLure in the USA? She fell into a well in Texas and created the same kind of hysteria and voyeurism. She was even an honorary marshal in the Independence parade after her ‘brave’ fall. (Remember Woody Allen’s classic movie Radio Days, where he depicts similar scenes?)

Great story. But I’d say enough already.

If anybody should resonate with this event, it is those careless guys whose human error it is that the pit was left open. They should be identified and prosecuted for an extremely avoidable tragedy. Potholes and crevices and deathtraps are all over the country, even in highway systems of such model cities like Pune and Bangalore, causing unfortunate accidents. This incident should have highlighted the black hole menace countrywide and how to systematically plug them. We should have had debates on child safety and public safety.

It was wonderful that the army stepped in and performed a miracle. If anybody was a hero, it is them army guys. Instead, we seem to make a hero out of the boy who had the dumb luck of taking one misstep. The kid did exactly what any other five year old will do under a similar circumstance. To bestow extra bravery and intelligence on the kid because of the situation is ridiculous. It wasn’t as if Prince was applying MBA methodologies and Universal problem solving techniques sixty feet below the earth.
Surely we don’t want every five year old to think it is cool to fall into a well and be instantly declared a hero. Why do we learn the wrong lessons?

--------------- X ----------- X ----------- X

All the Tantris of Sabarimala and Prince – please go away! Out of my face, please. Out, out!!!

You know who my heroes are? Mittal and Nattu. That is Mittal as in Lakshmi Mittal and Nattu as in N. R. ‘Nattu’ Natraj.

Lakshmi Mittal, an Indian, recently merged his Mittal Steel company with the European Arcelor Corp. to create the largest steel company in the world, employing hundreds of thousands of people. He, by the way, is the third richest dude in the world, according to Forbes, with nearly twenty billion dollars to his name.

Nattu Natraj, just last week completed the Badwaters Marathon in Death Valley, California, donning the Indian tricolor flag. This race is dubbed as the ‘baddest, toughest foot race on the planet’ and Nattu was among a selected group of 85 world class athletes from twelve countries. The ‘marathon’ is actually over five marathons long, covering a distance of nearly 210 km. Death Valley records a bone-melting 125 degree heat (50 deg C) which goes up to 145 degrees on asphalt. The temperature is so high that credit cards are supposed to melt and cold drinks turn into tepid soups in ten minutes, according to a reporter of the Washington Post. And the course goes through approximately five kilometers of vertical ups and downs. Nattu Natraj came in at number fifty overall, finishing the race in about 46 hours.

The Mittal news caused only very small ripples in the standard American newspapers. Even on the day of the deal, there was no news story in the USA Today – not even in the Money section. The ‘smart money’ in Europe was rooting for Sverstal, a Russian steel company to merge with Arcelor and not a lowly Mittal owned outfit.

And the Nattu Natraj story wasn’t even mentioned in any of the Indian publications. When marginal Indian sportspersons, who flunk out in the second rounds of silly tournaments get so much of air time, it is a shame that a true national achievement is completely missed out.

Man has been dealing with iron since the stone ages. (alright, alright – since the iron age) It went out of fashion so long ago that many of the developed countries don’t even indulge in iron mining or steel making any more. You can see ghost town upon ghost town in Pennsylvania, when you drive along the Allegheny river. “A commodity like plain steel is low down in the food chain.” I myself have taught this in my Supply Chain Management course to my MBA students. But somebody has found this unlikely engine to fuel his way to the top rungs of the rich people list. Mittal’s beginnings were humble enough, in rural Rajasthan. By his own admission, his English was so bad, he felt inadequate when he was in college. What are the odds of a simple Indian striking it so rich in a non-sexy pursuit?

I have known Nattu Natraj for nearly twenty years now. He is a graduate of IIT Madras and a Ph. D from Carnegie Mellon and now lives in the Boulder, Colorado area, just down the road from where I used to live. He was even my roommate briefly (during which time the 9/11 happened and we both actually sat in front of the TV for hours on end). In many respects, he is a card carrying South Indian – his meals were not much more than the traditional South Indian rice-sambhar-yoghurt variety (in fact, a while back, I had published his famous sambhar recipe on the net) Somewhere along the line, he developed his interests in physical endurance activities and would casually do a marathon or climb a fourteen thousand feet peak as a throat-clearing exercise.. Nattu probably has zero body fat, while most of the rest of us hang around Desi parties with possibly the hugest paunches ever recorded in the history of Indian civilization. .

When I examine Mittal and Nattu, a few common things emerge (other than the fact that they both are iron men). They both chose a non-glamorous domain to build their self-actualization dreams. Once identified, they pursued the dream with a single-minded dedication, first by gaining the domain knowledge and skills and then by developing a game plan for the long haul. They both have that infinite patience, unwavering ‘stick-to-it’ive ness, in spite of so many distractions and naysayers around them. They allocate their physical, mental and spiritual resources for the entire duration of the course, avoiding dropping out or quickly burning out or settling for simple things. And most importantly, they stay the course – which is considered almost a sin in many corporate boardrooms, because most corporate types expect ‘action’ and ‘progress’ every two minutes. The Mittal plan is quite different from the Tata, Ambani model, because he did not diversify like them. In the last year, I have owned shares of Tata Steel, Inland Steel, Carpenter etc. and know how much patience it takes to endure the static or downward price movements. Similarly, Nattu has not followed the P. T. Usha model of participating in many different kinds of events. He has stuck to ultra marathons and endurance challenges. I had been also a long distance runner for over a decade and I know that it is a lonely pursuit with few cheerleaders and with nothing more than a cold beer at the end of the race as reward.

I would go as far to call this total dedication to the end-goal and systematically pursuing it without getting distracted by sidebar events, a National Soft Skill we have in India. After all, we have had rishis who performed long penances in isolated spots in the Himalayas. We should identify people who have such mental tenacity and sharp focus, impart them with relevant hard skills and let them loose in all kinds of spheres. I predict that the first medal India will get in the Olympics, whenever that is, will be in an endurance category like the 10 km race, rather than in hundred meters sprint.

--------------- x ------------- X ----------- X --------

I am still bummed that the USA Today nearly blacked out the Mittal story. The Western media, in my mind at least, is very WASP-centric.

God forbid, if Mittal becomes the richest person in the world, I won’t be surprised if Forbes even stopped compiling the Richest List, because it is so ingrained in many Americans’ minds that the richest person in the world has to be a white American.

If you do a spectral analysis of Western media’s headlines practices, you will see that it becomes news if ten white people die in a train accident. In the same train accident, about a hundred Indians or Chinese will have to die if it were to become newsworthy. In case of Blacks, several hundreds of them will have to die before the media feature it as news.

If terrorists strike the US or Europe or Israel, they will be labeled ‘terrorists’. If the same terrorists hit India, they will be simply called extremists or militants.

------ X -------- X --------- X ------

I am also miffed that there was no bandwidth given to Nattu in India. Perhaps the newspaper gods thought it wasn’t newswprthy enough; or maybe our news folks don’t have the wherewithal to pluck such news stories from the internet or other sources. Most of the time in India, politicians’ utterances, however inane they are, pass off as news.

It is old news that Jaswant Singh, the Foreign Minister in the BJP era, published a show and tell book (yes, the same guy with a face full of eyebrows, causing eyebrow envy everywhere). The highlight of the book was his allegation that there was a CIA ‘mole’ in the Prime Minister’s Office when Mr. Narasimha Rao was the prime minister. Understandably, this accusation sent shock waves in the capital, with every reputable retired IAS officer scurrying for cover and issuing defensive statements. A witch hunt is going on even now and journalists are already speculating. Yesterday, Mr. Singh came out and announced, without batting an eyelid that ‘he wasn’t trying to sensationalize anything’. I beg your pardon? This man has opened the Pandora’s box and then issues a George W Bush kind of statement, completely whitewashing the reality. Thanks, Mr. Singh for teasing the nation and putting us in the black is white paradigm. Surely you weren’t writing a book on Euler’s theorem and trigonometry, If there was indeed a mole in the PMO, why didn’t you do something about it all those years you were a minister in the Central cabinet? Shouldn’t you be prosecuted for neglect of duty and betrayal? It may very well turn out that the only mole in the PM’s Office ten years ago was on the left cheek of Mr. Narasimha Rao, in which case shouldn’t you be prosecuted for rumor-mongering?

-------- X ------------ X ---------- X -------

This has been a pretty ‘heavy’ blog thus far. Let me try to lighten up a bit.

Another headline that usually screams out of our newspapers is ‘PM to meet the President today’. Come on, folks. The two guys live in the same town and are practically neighbors. One would think that one of them will make time – maybe on the way from office - to meet the other person, without making such a fuss and letting the whole world know about it. This headline, of course, will be followed the next day by the ‘the PM met the President yesterday’.

Some headlines are born. Some are created. And some are thrust on us. One of those that was thrust on us was the now-famous quote ‘One small step for me and giant leap for mankind’ when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Yeah, right. Here is a man who endured a five day ordeal of traveling in a cramped vehicle, hanging upside down, eating lousy food and in a crazy suit that was biting into his groin – when he finally steps on a firm surface, his most likely reaction would be ‘Pardon me, but where is the nearest bathroom?’ Instead we hear a well-rehearsed statement, which has been making the rounds in all the TV GK quiz contests for the past forty years.

As I close this rather long Blog, the next inning(s) of the farcical Jagmohan Dalmiya vs. the Cricket Board vs. Saurabh Ganguly vs. all politicos is just about to begin, The West Bengal CM has already hooked a short pitched ball against Dalmia and Mr. John Wright, the erstwhile team trainer, has just published his kiss and tell book, to which Mr. Virendra Sehwag has responded. Dig? We are in for an August of discontent.

A couple of news items in today’s newspaper caught my attention. A guy in West Bengal gets life in prison for killing his wife, because she only gave him half an egg and kept the other half for herself. And in U.P, two policemen will be given Rs 50 per month as ‘moustache allowance’.

Perhaps Mr. Jaswant Singh should apply for a possible eyebrow allowance.

------ X ------- X -------- X ----------