Pound foolish

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Power will go the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low caliber and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fights amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water would be taxed in India – Winston Churchill

Shashi Tharoor, the enfant terrible of Congress party, has done the unthinkable. He has brought together Indians on a common platform. The subject is all too familiar and comfortable – blame the past for the present.

Speaking at the Oxford Society Debate, Tharoor eloquently presented the case for British to repair its past in its handling of India. The facts were there and cannot be undisputed. Presented in a charming way, laced with trenchant wit and with spirit of a criminal lawyer closing his arguments in an open and shut case, Tharoor asked the British to acknowledge their moral turpitude in their rule of India. Shylock like he asked, pay a pound and/or say sorry. Brilliant, Tharoor. Take a bow!

East India Company came into being on December 31, 1600. It was a joint stock company created to trade with East Indies but ended up trading in Indian subcontinent and China. The company eventually grew into ruling India through private armies and instigating one royal state against another. Company Rule in India came into being after Battle of Plassey in 1757 and British Crown eventually took over after the failed 1857 Indian Rebellion, which is popularly known as “sepoy mutiny”.

Of course the British cannot defend the indefensible. Colonialism is wrong on moral grounds. To exploit, suppress, divide and rule another country by force is wrong. The British are thanked in many parts for what they left behind – railway network, universities, communication systems, banning of sati and systems of administration like constitution and parliamentary democracy apart from English language and cricket. Before we thank the British let’s be reminded of what another Englishman called Adam Smith told us- benevolence is not the motive for the acts of a businessman, but profit. What the British took from India, is definitely more than what they gave, the difference is profit. A look at the activities of the Company in neighbouring Quang China substantiates the argument.

In the 17th and 18th centuries Chinese silk, tea and porcelain was much in demand in western world. Chinese had nothing of interest to import from the western nations creating a great trade imbalance. East India Company started growing opium in India and started exporting to China much to the peril of Chinese people as addicts grew in number. In 1839 the Chinese Emperor ordered seizure and destruction of opium imports and much quantity was destroyed. Enraged Britain (on behalf of East India Company) attacked China and defeated it in a quick war. In 1842 a second opium war was fought after Treaty of Nanking (which lead to creation of HongKong island under British rule) was a failure. The power that MNC’s exercise through their governments has a bloody history!

Before dismissing EIC as a residue of a barbarian era, one needs to remind the influence big corporations have on people in the modern era. United Fruit Company (UFCO) was a US based company which produced and traded fruits, mainly bananas. It owned large tracts of land in many countries, especially Central America and any agrarian reform required UFCO’s consent though being a US company. The nexus was deep and corruption was steep. In 1954, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán‘s democratically elected government was toppled by an armed aggression aided by US government. UFCO, whose large tracts of land were under threat under Guzman’s government, played a big role in the incident. It convinced the powers of Washington that the Guzman was trying to align with the Soviet bloc. Guatemala to date is a country that is being ripped apart by sectarian divide, the seeds of which were sown by a banana trading company! The phrase ‘banana republic’ owes a lot to companies such as UFCO. Such is the power of money and commerce.

Back to India and British. To blame the British for the present state of India is right, wrong and misplaced. Seventy years may not be a very long time, but definitely not a short time, to build a better India. British may have divided India and Indians to rule, but to rule with the tools of division is a self-inflicted crime. Handloom did not lose to power loom because of the British, but due to the winds of change .Even today, a hand woven Kanjeevaram saree commands a premium over its power loom version. British did not teach rest of India to label all those living below the Vindhayas as Madrasis. British did not ask us not to expand our railways, improve our education systems and perpetuate our caste systems. In our eagerness to point fingers at others, we are hurting our hands.

Thailand, is a perfect case study. It is the only country in Southeast Asia not to have been colonised. A mix of smart kings, location and sheer luck prevented it being colonised. Applying the British baiters argument, Thailand should be a leading economic power in Southeast Asia or Asia if not the world. Singapore and China which were colonised have achieved much more than Thailand did. Japan followed a policy called sakoku (closed nation) after it was partly colonised and then became coloniser on its own. Bombed out in the second world war, Japan dropped its imperialist ambitions and built itself into a technological and soft power.

Catharsis is the psychological word that describes the purging of emotions like pity and fear through art which results in restoration. Argumentative Indians that we are, we accepted debate- especially one in which blaming someone of past deeds and seeking reparation – as an art. Purging of emotions does not lead to enlightenment, growth or a better society. Robert Clives and General Dyers are amongst (and within) us. Happy that a good speech has gone viral and has opened an opportunity to relook at past. What needs to go viral is positive change, casteless society and equality. The words of Churchill needs to be repatriated.

No debate about that!

Regards,

Kamesh

 

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Bahubali’s of our mind

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If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales – Albert Einstein

3000000000 rupees is the collection count for the latest fantasy thriller Bahubali as on Eid weekend. It’s a familiar tale of warring brothers to be the king of a fictional land told with larger than life canvas, amazing techniques and gripping story telling. Watching Bahubali in Hindi (dubbed from Telugu) in a packed theatre in Mumbai in its second week of run on a Eid weekend is a joy and a surprise. Standing up on its own against Salman ‘Bajarangi’ Khan on a Eid weekend is no mean achievement. Kudos to S S Rajamouli and team for not just thinking big but making the fantasy a reality.

Much has been written about the film. Its high budget (of 250 crores) and Hollywood level digital effects. The film is a visual delight thanks to the over used but effective chroma keys and CGI’s. Controlled story telling with the exception of few songs (can we ever do away with them?) the movie has broken more than a few records. A more intense actor than Prabhas could have added more depth to the story. Importantly it establishes fantasy and fairy tales as the first choice in story telling for children and adults alike. But, why do we like fantasy as a genre be it in films or stories?

One word that describes our love for fantasy is escapism. It is the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy. Human mind is capable of achieving many things; only that the human body does not support many of them. What you cannot achieve physically, fantasise. Create a hero, preferably a super hero who does the impossible in the most unexpected way. Through their deeds and acts we defeat our enemies, achieve the impossible and emerge winners!

The success of a hero is dependent upon the strength of the villain. A weak villain is a dampener to the whole superhero plot. It is a classic dilemma that the Marvel comics guys face. As their heroes need to be fitted out with more and more advanced weaponry, they need to create villains who are equally well equipped (but bit less) to ensure a battle that grips the viewer!.

Fiction is a world that is far more real than fantasy. In fantasy world, things that can never happen in real life are portrayed. In fiction, the characters are real with emotions that are close to the real world and we can connect in an easier way. Fiction can take less liberties whereas fantasy is limited only by the writers imagination. Fiction can sometimes mix with fantasy. In The Winter’s Tale there is a coast in a landlocked country (modern day Czech republic). You can get away with it if you are Shakespeare though!

The effect of fiction in films on our psyche (though short term) is especially high. There is a spring in your step, mind is excited and you are on a high… it is something everyone feels after watching a war movie. You live through the characters and have successfully accomplished or completed a mission – all while sitting in a plush chair in an air-conditioned room while eating popcorn! Similar is the effect on you when you watch a tragic movie – it lingers on in your memory as it pulls few of your delicate heart strings. On the contrary comedy leaves you relived and hardly has any after effect. As someone said, “it is easy to die, than to make people laugh!” TV serials and dramas have similar effect on us – positive or negative is another issue though!

Does fantasy become reality? Yes they do. As Jules Verne said, ” Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real”. Submarine, taser guns, helicopter, virtual world, atomic power, cell phone, satellite communications, Apple QuickTime and many more inventions have been inspired by fantasy writers. Is Pushpaka Vimana in our mythological tales, a precursor to the modern day airplane? Doremon’s gadgets that solve many a problem of Nobita, may one day be our utilities.

Ramayana, Mahabharata, Illiad, 1001 Nights are timeless classics with their tales told and retold to child after child, generation after generation without losing their charm, in fact even increasing it. Read them, share them, again and again. You can discover joy, spirituality and knowledge through fantasy that might one day turn into reality. Bahubali is in your mind!

 

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Bubble Trouble

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It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Adam Smith

Small or big, things or nations, they can hurt. Last fortnight the world’s financial markets were dealt crushing blows by tiny Greece and big China.

Greeks with 11 million in population shook up the European financial markets with their inability to payback their debt. China, the second largest economy  in the world’s most populous country -there are more people in a Chinese city than there are in entire Greece- scared the wits out of financial wizards across the world with their irrational exuberance.

Great Depression in 1930’s, dotcom bust in early 2000, Lehman collapse in 2008 and the ensuing economic crisis to the current Greek and Chinese crisis’s have been analysed and categorised by economists with reams of data and complicated technical formulae. However, one word describes it better than any theory: greed.

Financial markets have the innate ability to stoke the greed in us to pay for the profit of few with the penury of many. When greed of the individuals comes together to form a behaviour in the society, euphoria sets, rationality steps out and form what economists call ‘bubbles’. After chocolates, get-rich-quick is one temptation few can resist with success. If others are doing it, there must be some truth is a common logic which leads to personal and society’s disaster.

History of world’s finance is replete with stories of individuals, organisations and even countries going belly up at frequent intervals. Let’s look at two of the many bubbles that the world has seen over the past 400 years.

South Sea Bubble

In 1700’s England was awash with cash but with few avenues to invest. Only 499 individuals got the opportunity to invest in East India Company. A new ‘money maker’ was need. In 1711 a company called South Sea Company was formed to profit from trading in South American seas. None of the directors of the company had the slightest of experience in South American trade. Dreams were sold and bought at a premium by commons, lords and fools. As the greater fool theory – someone else will buy from me at a higher price – gathered pace, the share price of the company multiplied. From 100 pounds the share price rose to 1000 pound. Even the king could not resist and invested 100,000 pounds in the company! As for South Sea Company’s actual business, the jury is still out wondering what they were (proposing or really) trading.

By 1725 the directors realised that the share prices did not match the reality of the business performance (if any) and they sold out. News leaked and the stock crashed leaving many a pauper. One of the biggest losers was no less a human than Isaac Newton, who exclaimed, “I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.” Gravity effects stock prices also!

Chinese and the Lycoris Plant 

Jun Zi Lan singularly caused financial hardship and exposed Chinese to be suckers (like anyone else). Jun Zi Lan is no gentleman but a plant, even if the name means Gentleman Blue.

It came to China from Africa in 1930 and was much sought out by royals and prominent citizens. By 1980 as China grew in prosperity, Jun plant and its variants became a symbol of prosperity and everybody wanted to own one.

Optimism begat optimism and fools followed fools. Supply was limited, prices went up, multiplied and defied gravity. By 1985 the price of some of the variants of the Jun plant had moved from 100 yuan to 200,000 yuan, which some estimated to be equivalent to 300 years of salary of a fresh Chinese graduate.

By 1985 , press reports appeared (probably planted by the government) of the madness of the phenomenon to own this plant. Optimism gave way immediately to pessimism and everybody sold the plants. Prices crashed and in few months Jun Zi Lan lost 99% of its value! Like the plant, many a smart investor turned blue!

Lessons from financial bubbles 

We too fall prey to temptation to get rich, that too quick and quicker than your neighbour. No money is ever earned without hard work, intelligence and enterprise. Most important ingredient to create wealth is time. What grows faster than plants, hence plants like your financial plans need to be nurtured to grow and bloom. Better be a small winner, than a great loser. As Confucius said, “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”.

Regards,

Kamesh

 

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Noose Networks

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The coincidence is unmistakable and is happening for years, day after day. Everyday only that much of news and advertisements are produced in the world that fits the newspaper exactly – corner to corner. Be it 16 pages in Times of India or 32 page tabloid Mumbai Mirror! News happens just to fill in the blanks of newsprint, an uncoated ground wood paper. Or is it?

Fourth Estate or the press (or media) has an important, exalted and sometimes hated place in our life. Ever since the first newspaper in the world, a German one called Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien (Account of all distinguished and commemorable news) or The Relation came into being about 300 years ago, news became the new dish in the morning diet.

In 1914 Britain declared war on Germany which culminated with World War I. Daily Mail, the leading newspaper in Britain felt vindicated. How? It ran a series of hate articles about Germany hyping the anti-German sentiment among British public. Many critics believe Daily Mail stoked the conflict led by its owner Lord Northcliffe. ‘Next to the Kaiser’, wrote the esteemed editor and journalist A.G. Gardiner, ‘Lord Northcliffe has done more than any other living man to bring about the war.’

Who can forget the contribution of Indian Express and The Hindu in the discomfort that Rajiv Gandhi and Congress found on these two papers exposes on Bofors. Ram Nath Goenka the maverick owner of Indian Express became the bête noire of the then government. Reportedly RP Goenka of the RPG group once exclaimed to the South Block bureaucrats, “please clear my files, I’m not that Goenka!”.

On June 1, 1980 5:00 p.m. world of news changed forever. If pen was mightier than the sword, camera subsumed both. CNN on that day unveiled 24 hours of cable television and changed the dynamics of news forever.”Live” became the standard; recorded (even an hour ago)was history! The news and newsmakers alike did not have a second chance. Gone were the days when the news was edited, filtered and made fit to read by the editor. Every bite, every smirk, every move is now captured, replayed and analysed with ferocity of a prosecuting criminal lawyer in an open and shut case.

Our news networks undid the good work of Indian government in Nepal after the earth quake with their insensitivity. These days Indian television news is sad to see or hear. The cacophony of the debates during prime time has reached dangerous levels. Picture this. A hot topic (real or created) is listed for debate. All too familiar spokespersons and analysts are cobbled together for half-hour to debate, opine and… do what? Most of the time, the panellists are requesting for a chance to speak, at least two are speaking at the same time, one has a problem with the microphone, the moderator needs moderation… the farce is endless.

Nothing is more uncomfortable, funny and illogical all at the same time, than the debate involving Pakistani analysts or retired generals on Times Now. As Arnab tries to browbeat them into submission, one wonders what we can achieve if a retired general agrees to wrong doing by his country! No serving general will or can join the debate and no retired general can change or influence the way things are on the ground.

But why television news channels in India (and elsewhere) are into these debates?

Fill the time! We observe that newspapers have exactly enough ads and news to fill the next day’s edition, news channels need to create ‘news’ to fill in the time slots. If there is news, debate it. If there is no news, create one! Just as consumerism creates customers by building desire for new things in life, news networks need to draw audience to its channel. Catharsis (purging of our emotion through art and expression) is a psychological need that a news channel fulfils. Average Indian is frustrated with corruption, non-governance and day-to-day struggles; at 9p.m. every evening he feels “compensated” when the powerful and power-brokers are roasted for few minutes. Democracy with its freedom of speech is a great leveller.

Joseph Pulitzer was enshrined in the principles of journalism. Courage, honesty and standing by the common man were the themes of his newspaper St.Louis Post Dispatch. Success led to purchase of the New York World and in competition for circulation with Hearst’s New York Journal, Pulitzer embarked on a journey of scandal and sensationalism linking himself with yellow journalism.

In the Irving Wallace novel The Almighty, Edward Armstead is a newspaper magnet with an insatiable desire for power that becomes his ruling obsession. To increase his newspapers’ circulation he first manipulates, then controls and eventually ends up creating news. Similarly today’s Fourth Estate stands on the pillars of assumption and presumption all in the name & game of circulation and TRP’s.

During freedom struggle many papers were published to raise national spirit and build communal harmony though they struggled financially. There were and are many who believe in the true power of media and want to use for good of the society. We grow well when we choose the right models. Indian television sadly is enshrined in the principles of fictional Edward Armstead and real Lord Northcliffe. What we need to worry then is not the freedom of the press, but freedom of the free press!

PS: Noise pollution rules are applied from 10 p.m. onwards. Based on the TV debates, we can recommend the time to be advanced to 9 p.m.!

Until my next blog,

Regards,

 

Kamesh

 

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