Archive for October, 2009

Strapped to the Cause

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Oct 31, 2009

Tamil Brahmins and brainy diligence go together. Here is whyV decided he must read some fiction. So he picked up Ulysses, one of the most challenging books ever written

I have always been fascinated by Tamil Brahmins. The austerity, the scientific temper, the ruthless reliance on logic, the capacious memory and the superiority complex. But they seem today to be an endangered species in India due to the way Dravidian politics has developed and captured Tamil Nadu. This is not to defend them on accusations made against them by non-Brahmins, but to talk about these unique people. This is the story of my friend V.

V grew up in the temple town of Madurai. As a boy, he woke up early and studied the scriptures before going to school, and made sure he never came less than first in his class. When he got into IIT, it was unsurprising; indeed, it was predestined. From his birth, his parents had told him that he needed to get out of Tamil Nadu after school, since the reservation system made it difficult for even a student as meritorious as him to get admission to any local engineering college. After graduation, when he went to IIM, letters would come from his parents addressed to him as V, BTech (Hons).

In college, V decided he must read some fiction. He had earlier had little time for leisure reading. At the hostel library, he went for value-for-money, picking up the thickest book available, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Now Ulyssesis one of the most challenging books ever written, and hundreds of thousands of readers have given up in despair halfway through, but to V, it was a book, so it needed to be read, and understood. He read throughUlysses, with the occasional help of a dictionary, then re-read it.

Soon afterward, on a whim, he became a member of the British Council library. Where he discovered three racks full of books on Ulysses.

Being a diligent Tamil Brahmin, and determined to get to the bottom of it, he read all the studies. He learnt that Ulysses worked at seven different levels, he learnt of the various hidden references to the classics, that Joyce wanted to capture all of life by following one man through one day in his life. Over the years, V continued his studies. He read all of Joyce and read up on them. He can recite large chunks of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake from memory. I have no doubt that outside academia, V is the world’s top authority on Joyce and his works.

While working, he decided he needed to learn something new. So he asked himself a question: what the hell is this Western classical music thing? Within a few years, his knowledge was breathtaking. He could listen to renditions of the same Bach symphony by three different philharmonic orchestras and identify each orchestra. He tried to explain to me that it was obvious, this philharmonic’s version was more piquant, that that philharmonic’s version was more stately. It was all lost on me; I only felt awe. So great was his collection of CDs that not only did he have each work of Mozart by various artistes, he also had the complete works of Salieri, Mozart’s bitter rival, as seen in the film Amadeus. Salieri was not bad, V told me, it was just his bad luck that he was a contemporary of  Mozart. He did not deserve being utterly forgotten.

In the meantime, his software career in Silicon Valley progressed well. But some years ago, he told his boss that all this administrative stuff and managing people was boring the hell out of him; he wanted to be a pure programmer again. He was demoted with a raise, leaving him more time to pursue his extra-curricular interests. Which is why he has stayed on in the US. He has no particular love for the country, but he has access to the best libraries in the world, the best art galleries, and he can watch U2  perform live.

It’s travel that is V’s newest passion, or rather, undertaking. He has climbed Kilimanjaro, has been to the Everest base camp, visited Machchu Pichchu. And after many years, I am going to see him again, in January in Delhi. I look forward to that, and I look forward to enjoying again his precise, honest, limpid Brahmin mind.

Water is not a Call away

Friday, October 30th, 2009

On a sunny winter afternoon, I walked around the terrace of our new office, and, almost involuntarily, counted. From this fourth-floor rooftop in Panchsheel Park, a tony South Delhi colony, I could see 18 cellphone towers. Tall urban derricks with their dishes cocked to bounce millions of voices and text massages and whatnot to their intended destinations, with sphinxly non-judgement. Then I counted once more.

I could see 19 Sintex water storage tanks on various roofs, including the one I was standing on. And I thought it was rather symbolic. Nearly the same number of cellphone towers—speaking for the long way we have come on our path to modernity—as water storage systems that tell us that we still lack stability and reliability in the very basic infrastructural services that any citizen can demand legitimately, and that every government is supposed to provide. And this is South Delhi, where nearly every resident household would be in the top three per cent of the Indian population as measured by income. In less affluent parts of the city—and the country—I suspect that the number of cellphone towers would remain roughly the same, but the profusion of Sintex tanks would fall sharply; people wouldn’t be able to afford them, or water doesn’t reach them anyway. The phone calls, however, do.

What sort of country are we living in, and living in unquestioningly? On my last visit to the United States, five years ago, I remember being fascinated by the fact that gallon for gallon, drinking water was more expensive than petrol. And we later heard top American bottled water companies admitting in court that they were just selling tap water in bottles, without any filtering or purification. We are a nation that has nearly 40 per cent of its population toting cellphones and downloading ringtones and filming themselves having sex, and god knows what else, and a lower number having access to a stable supply of water to their homes! And if I say “a stable supply of clean water”, then the percentage would possibly fall to a single digit.

These are the official figures. Not one of the 35 Indian cities with a population of more than one million distributes water for more than a few hours per day. According to a 2006 World Bank study, the performance indicators for none of these cities compare with average international standards. A 2007 study of 20 cities by the Asian Development Bank found that the average duration of supply was only 4.3 hours per day. Not a single city had continuous supply. The longest duration of supply was 12 hours per day in Chandigarh, and the lowest was 20 minutes a day (yes, 20 minutes) in Rajkot.

I am not competent enough to get into the debate of how India’s water supply crisis can be managed. Depending on who you are talking to, you will get broadly two versions of the crisis. One, that metered water in India is priced ridiculously low. That the average amount a family of five on the poverty line pays for water is 1.2 per cent of its budget, well below the affordability threshold of 5 per cent. Most urban water boards are running at huge losses and hence cannot improve delivery systems or quality of water. Whereas any economic entity needs to have an operating ratio of maximum 1 to generate a surplus, water boards in cities like Indore have operating ratios of more than 5, that is, they recover less than 20 per cent of what they spend. These boards are commercial basket cases and are on the road to ruination unless their tariffs are revised drastically upwards.

The other view is that it is outrageous that people would have to pay for such a basic amenity as water. However, given the realities of our inequitous economy, the middle class and the rich should pay much higher—but affordable for them—tariffs, and subsidise quality water delivery to the rest of the country (About 62 per cent of our urban population is on metered water; non-metered water implies facilities like public hand pumps).

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I am sure even India’s top policy makers, if they ever walk the streets of a city like Kolkata, where roadside hand pumps are a common sight, would be startled to see a man bathing at a pump, suddenly take a break because his phone is warbling Kajra re kajra re, the ringtone he has customised for his wife’s calls. And let’s hope our policy maker would be a bit embarrassed too.