Thursday, 10 November 2011

Book Review - 1857: The Real Story Of The Great Uprising

"One must praise the lone woman, our great Rani, who roamed the fort and defended the city constantly for eleven days while the British bombarded us..." 

History... the word conjures up images of drab dates, reams upon reams of uninteresting narrative etc. Only those who are interested in the subject will find it appealing. Thus it was that I, a history buff, spotted this lovely title on the book shelf. It seemed quite interesting from the title, and the aficionado in me was intrigued. I turned a few pages to see what it was all about, having recently burned my fingers on Alberuni's India. It came across as something off the beaten track, so I picked it up.

The book was originally written in Marathi around 1883 AD, and chronicles the travels of Vishnu Bhatt Varsaikar from 1857 - 1859 during the time of the uprising. The translation is by Mrinal Pande. This is what makes it a very different book, and very entertaining. It is an eyewitness account of the events of 1857 from the perspective of a normal citizen. It is this approach that feels like a breath of fresh air. It was first printed in 1903 in Marathi

I shall not deal with the content covered by the book - you can look it up in a simple google search. To summarise, a Marathi Brahmin living in Konkan leaves his native village 3 days before the start of the 1857 uprising, travelling to Ujjain, Dhar, Gwalior, Jhansi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Indore, Mhow in the course of his travels. His destination is a major pooja to performed by the royal family of Gwalior. What he goes through, his travails are what constitute the rest of the story told against the backdrop of the independence struggle, which has been dealt with in detail but from a very different perspective. 

The entire struggle is told in second person, sometimes even in first person apparently by a person who saw the events unfolding. This Brahmin was a part of the Rajgharana of Jhansi's royal Brahmin Sabha, and well known to the father of Rani Laxmibai through a common acquaintance. This lends credence to the observations made therein and the events recounted. And, you can actually see history unfold in front of your eyes as you read through the book. It covers aspects of history not covered by our books - the british reprisals, how the uprising's main players came to be, their emotions. That phase will touch your heart and leave a tinge of feeling for the departed souls.

It gives a precious insight into the thoughts of those days, as this material has been written as history was being made. The characters of the Rani of Jhansi, Nana Phadnavis etc all come through as real human beings rather than as caricatures on a page of history. Their emotions, motives, actions, interactions with other major players and with their people provide a motion-picture like effect, a realism to the narrative and keep you spell - bound and enthralled. Having spent our lives reading lifeless characters on pages dealing with massive decisions and momentous occasions in 2 paragraphs, it is a refreshing change to see those same characters come to life in this awesome write-up.

"She got up at the crack of dawn and began her morning wrestling. She would then ride her horse. Occasionally, she would ride an elephant as well. After exercising, she would take a long and luxurious bath. After the bath, she would put on a delicate white Sari from Chanderi"

"When we called on the Rani, she told us that the city would be attacked after dark. She suggested we tell the soldiers that we were her trusted men"

These samples of anecdotes are sprinkled all over the book, which helps us to actually relate to these famous charachters from our history as real flesh-and-blood people...

This book offers far more than that - it gives glimpses into the life of those years, which can never be obtained from history books of the conventional variety. " While most men of Bundelkhand are short, diffident, the women are in contrast well built, good looking confident. In the evening, the streets are lined with flower sellers and young music lovers. The city is rich. Its shops sell everything from carpets and silks to paintings and brass utensils" Between the pages detailing the war, each new town entered is described in a lovely way that brings it to life in front of your eyes.

It also details the reprehensible cruelties and reprisals that visited the Indian people by the cruel British people, the pillage and murder of our land which has been graphically detailed, that leaves one filled with wonder as to how such a thoughtless, amoral bunch of crooks could possibly have ruled most of Earth.

It also brings home one critical point: in the year 1857, there was no concept of India. The process of nation-building had not yet begun, the people had not yet begun to come together. There was a realisation that the people are the same across the land, but no concept of a single nation. The Britishers have been referred to in more than one place as 'sarkar', for example. The common man's disillusionment with foreign rule had not yet come to the fore of the collective common thought. So, we are looking at a people in a state of flux, a people in whom the first stirrings on national thought had begun to awaken. For example, the family of the Author refers to the trip to Gwalior as a trip to "Hindustan", "their women are full of wiles and entice an innocent man" . We are looking at our India in a proto-nationhood stage of its lifecycle, and that is the prime take-away from this book...

A must read for all Indians in my opinion...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Reflections: The Beauty of Ratnagiri

Reflections: The Beauty of Ratnagiri: Ratnagiri... a land of almost unparalleled beauty just waiting to be discovered. A beautiful town with a nice serene atmosphere, it is a tow...

The Beauty of Ratnagiri

Ratnagiri... a land of almost unparalleled beauty just waiting to be discovered. A beautiful town with a nice serene atmosphere, it is a town that is off the beaten track, and is not too well known as a tourist destination. Its natural beauty has not gained prominence, since what is highlighted is only The Ratnagiri Hapus Mango Variety. I was stunned at the lovely town, which far surpassed my expectations

But first, getting there.... I recommended the Rail link- Konkan Railway. This is because of the superlative scenes of stunning visual appeal that greet you along the way. If you are a photo-enthusiast, I suggest you travel by Sleeper class to get some awesome shots, which are so plentiful that you will be spoiled for choice as to what to capture on camera. No joke, there. Some snaps are given below, taken only with a Sony Ericsson Mobile Phone with 2 MP camera. I did not even have a camera in my hand luggage, since as it was not a sight-seeing tour

Ratnagiri lies on the Konkan Railway line, and is one of the most important stations on that line. The station itself is a distance of 6 km from the mail town, and you will require an auto (@100 - 120) to get to the town. It has decent rail connectivity with several major trains having a halt. 

Please note that some lovely scenes were missed - including a couple of other waterfalls as I was not prepared and properly equipped. But these will give you some idea of the beauty of the line

The Konkan Railway is a real treat - I counted 32 tunnels myself, with one being more than 10 minutes in terms of time spent in the tunnel... awesome. Treat yourself - take a trip with konkan railways! At Ratnagiri itself, hotelling is not a problem. Details are easily available on the internet, with contact numbers which you can use to book in advance. 

A word about the food: Pure Vegetarians watch out! If you want a pure-veg restaurant, there is only one, but that is very good indeed - Hotel Mithila. The rates are reasonable, the quality is superb and the taste generally is what you would expect. 

The Sea Beaches at Ratnagiri are awesome in their virgin beauty and unspoiled calm - no crowds, polythene or general littering, untouched and pristine - a sight for sore eyes tired of seeing crowded beaches. These are beaches you can truly enjoy, in whose beauty you can truly revel. 

There are a multitude of locations to visit as per your taste- Theeba Palace, Theeba point, Pawas, Ratnadurg Fort, Ganaptipule, Parashuram Temple, Bhatye Beach, Mandvi Beach to name but a few. For most locations, autos are easily available and indeed recommended - even Ganpatipule and Pawas. In fact, you can even catch a bus to Ganapatipule  - it takes 45 minutes by bus, 35 by auto. There are also several pilgrimage spots - Ganapatipule, Parshuram Temple and Pawas, for example

Ganapatipule is famous for the Swayambhu Ganeshji Temple, and is one the most famous pilgrimmage locations in this part of India. What is not too well known is that Ganapatipule is also home to one of the most spectacular, pristine, clean sea beaches you can even clap your eyes upon. 

Pawas - a village with visual imagery you will by now have become acquainted to - is 15 km from Ratnagiri town, and is home to the Samadhi of Swami Swaroopanand, now a lovely and awesome temple. It is also home to a Parshuram Temple, and is decidedly worth the visit. 

Thiba Point in main Ratnagiri town is home to a lovely stepped garden ( Daytime snaps below is from an online site; we were there at sunset as can be seen from our snap)

Some snaps from my and my wife's mobile camera are given below that will give an idea as to what awaits the tourist.... Plan a trip to Ratnagiri... not for the mangoes, but for the beauty. I have purposely steered clear from mango and its derivative products that are available, and the Mango orchards, since all too many people are aware of that! There is far more to Ratnagiri than mangoes...

Monday, 7 November 2011

Reflections: Inflation... a household perspective; a case for C...

Reflections: Inflation... a household perspective; a case for C...: Inflation: The Hot Topic of discussion in all financial newspapers as well as dailies; stating 9 - 10% figures; food inflation in the range ...

Inflation... a household perspective; a case for CPI

Inflation: The Hot Topic of discussion in all financial newspapers as well as dailies; stating 9 - 10% figures; food inflation in the range of 15% or thereabouts... They further state that this has been  a problem for the past 2 years only

I have just one point to make in answer: In Jabalpur, in the year 2004 - 2005, our groceries bill per month from the local supermarket was 1000 rupees. Today, it is 2500 rupees. Milk was Rs. 18 in that year; today I am shelling out Rs. 33/-. On groceries, a simple calculation will tell you that it works out to 20% over the past 7 years, and 17% on milk over the past 7 years

You can do this calculation over any number of household products; the results will be extremely disturbing. Now these are hard figures and facts, and are incontestable. As to the reason for grocery bills  and milk as examples, this is to ensure that no errors creep in. For other products - clothing, for example, the expenses will naturally rise over time due to a rise in standard of living. But the Milk - a per litre costing - this is independent of that factor. Similarly, groceries can be considered to be a stable comparison as long as the size of family is the same over the period of comparison. We were a family of 3 then, and we are a family of 3 now. Our food habits have remained largely the same - we are procuring the same tur daal, moong daal, aata, biscuits, soaps etc. 

One reason could be that we are measuring WPI inflation - wholesale inflation. Another reason could be that the product basket that is measured as a part of the WPI inflation calculation and their relative weightages need to be re-looked at. Whatever be the reason, the fact of the matter remains that we are not capturing the true on-field scenario.

We are simply not capturing consumer - level data, unlike the developed economies, wherein this is reglularly tracked and monitored as a matter of course. We need to develop systems to capture CPI - consumer price indexed inflation. This seemingly simple task is actually quite a tall order given that this would require capturing on-store sales data across the marked product categories in a scenario when most stores do not even cut proper bills of sale

Now, there is a simple way out that occurs to my admittedly untrained eye: there are now superstores and departmental stores which regularly capture consumer data as well as bills of sale on central information systems. This was not the case even 5 - 7 years ago, when such stores were mostly in top-10 metros in our country; even in the smaller cities they were present only in creamy-layer dominated areas. But today, this is not the case since such LFRs and MFRs (Large Format Retail / Modern Format Retail stores) are scattered through most of the major cities. Hence, we can have access to representative data. All it now requires is someone in authority to think of this, since I dont think the above is all that impractical

The only objection I can think of is that this would cover only consumer products, and the other categories are left out in the cold. To that extent, that is accepted as a shortcoming. But, if you think about it, the data for such categories would be far simpler to collate once the major voluminous consumer data is collated. Secondly, the impact of technology must also have been felt in that sector as well, and can be harnessed. One thing is sure, though: if we want representative and accurate data for our economy we will firstly have to harness technology, and secondly we will have to do it fast

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Media... and us citizens

Of late, it has become a habit to first read... and then criticize the media for reporting precisely what we have just read with a great deal of interest. Take the latest example of what happened in Mumbai, or many such  previous sensational cases. Many bloggers, readers have made the point that the Media frequently resorts to sensationalism, that it does not highlight and make attempts to reform. What precisely is the role of the Media in a modern and free society? And why does the media write what it does? The Media is simply the mirror reflection of the society. It will only write what the people want to read... they are in the business of selling news. That is one undeniable truth, and the sooner we accept it the better.

It is our patronage of the kind of reportage that occurs in the news, our penchant for the sensational and the spicy that forces the Media to highlight what it does. If we did not read it - they would not print or show it for the very simple reason that sales will be adversely impacted. So, rather than scream at and blame the Media, we should all look in the mirror and say " I am to blame".

But what we should be asking ourselves is what should the role of Media in our - or any free - society be?     The Media is a powerful tool – it is something we Indians can be extremely proud of. But it depends upon us – its image and its structure, its form and its content depends upon us. We are the determinants of The Media.  We are looking at our own reflection… we are the viewers. We are the ones who ensure that the Media and its components exist. The choice between the role of Media – reporting + information V/s entertainment is made by us.

Reporting, Information and Entertainment are all important, constituent roles of a functioning Media in a Modern Society. But when people start to derive entertainment from someones’ misfortune… that is a sign of depravity.  For entertainment, we have sports and movies etcetera.  Misfortune is not fun. It should not be regarded as such!

There are any number of issues that can be taken up by the Media, like the status of Primary Education, Inflation, Population Control, Crime Control, Armed Forces Upgradation,  Current Affairs, Energy Security, China, Dumping... why is there a profound silence on these matters of primary importance to India? There is no discernible national dialogue on these matters.

Why should there be a dialogue? How can there be a dialogue when the people are themselves not interested in the matter, when there is little realisation how a national dialogue on such matters can influence national policy and make the powers that be sit up and take notice? A dialogue requires participants... the absence of a national dialogue is mute testimony to the fact that there just aren't many participants.

And that is precisely why we should be worried as a nation. Rather than blame the Media for the poor quality of reportage, let us start questioning oureselves....

The only question that now remains regards the efficacy of such efforts. One such example can be quoted from our Media- the almost incessant focus on Black Money, which is just showing signs of bringing in some results. The moot question is how did this happen - black money was always a serious issue. Why has it taken centre-stage now? In my opinion, the people started getting more vocal, bringing this issue centre-stage. The Media, to be fair, also helped in this by continously highlighting cases of corruption.

From this we can conclude that the Media, thus, has another important role in a free society, over and above the 3 primary roles of Reportage, Information & Analysis and Entertainment: leading change - social as well as economic - maybe even political change. In that, our Media has been sightly slow and reactive rather than proactive. (Even so, there have been notable exceptions which are unfortunately very few and far between). However, recent developments have altered the scenario a lot: there is increasing evidence of proactivism. For this to continue, we need to keep leading issues centrestage in our minds and be supportive in terms of our attention. This passive support from us will suffice...

There is a hindi proverb: taali do haaton se bajti hai, which is quite apt here. For this to continue, we citizens too have to do our part. All that is required is passive support in the form of our interest and awareness (awareness that problems exists AND that they are serious enough to impact our families).

The author is  not pro-Media; nor pro-citizen. This is just an objective statement based on personal observations. There has been increasing evidence of some superb work by both the Media and the general populace in recent years... let us keep this up and even extend this. From our side, as I stated earlier- all that is needed is passive support and awareness...

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Affordable Tablet

The Aakash... coming after the Nano, is already making waves across the world. It seems we are getting a reputation for creating affordable technology solutions. Another example is the connection of rural hinterlands through the computer kiosk that provides farming, fishing and market information.

A tablet at that price is certainly going to make an impact. But care needs to be taken that the primary focus and positioning is not lost. Consider the Nano - it has become a second or even third car for families, while the original target segment of families who could not afford a car remains untapped. The Nano is still delivering decent numbers of 5000 - 10000 per month - but these are nowhere near the targeted numbers or the potential of the original target market

Similar is the situation with the Aakash - it might just become a second device of professionals or middle / upper middle class people. We should understand one thing clearly - in such hands, there will be a comparison with the higher - end models, which will generate negative publicity for the product. And, in the handset market, negative publicity can be critical

Hence, initially, it will have to ensured that the targeted segment is tapped properly. Once that has been done, avenues to tap secondary market segments can be thought of. It needs to be understood that this device is not meant to compare with the higher end tabs that are currently present. It is a simple price-feature trade-off to cater to a market segment which would otherwise not be able to reap the benefits and advantages of a tablet technology. Secondly, it is meant to provide affordable technology in the hands of such people who will be able to use its productivity features to learn technology, get adapted to it, and use its features to enhance their productivity. It is meant to be used as a tool to create a techno-savvy populace, if I can state a generalisation

The future looks to be bright for the Aakash, which will fulfill a felt need. With proper distribution and after sales support, there is no reason why it cannot make it. Furthermore, beyond the sceptre of sales and profitability, it has already started enhancing Brand India's image even before its launch, judging from the article on Washington Post. Let us hope for a success in this venture... it will be a shot in the arm for Brand India, as well as give a vital technology tool in our hands....

Brazil - Russia - China... Vs India

BRIC.... that is what we are known as. BRIC... all of us Indians - at least the educated ones - take immense pride in the supposed fact that we are the poster-boys of the world. We are growing at 8% in GDP terms (some of us might even think that 6.5% is not bad considering how the rest of the world is doing), we escaped the 2008 financial crisis. Great. Fabulous. 

BRIC: Brazil, Russia, India, China. How do we compare? And why are we thinking only about China? Look at some facts now, enumerated below (click link for full details)

  1. Adult Literacy:
    1. Russia 99.6%
    2. Brazil 90%
    3. China 94%
    4. India 62.8%
    5. Even Sri Lanka 90.6%!!!!
  2. Life Expectancy:
    1. Russia: 68.8
    2. Brazil: 73.5
    3. China: 73.5
    4. India: 65.4
    5. Sri Lanka:  74.9!!!!
  3. Under-5 Mortality:
    1. Russia: 12
    2. Brazil: 21
    3. China: 19
    4. India: 66
    5. Sri Lanka: 15!!!!
  4. Total Fertility Rate:
    1. Russia: 1.5
    2. Brazil: 1.8
    3. China: 1.6
    4. India: 2.5
    5. Sri Lanka: 2.2!!!!
  5. Gender Inequality Index:
    1. Russia: 59
    2. Brazil: 80
    3. China: 35
    4. India: 129
    5. Sri Lanka: 74!!!!
What nonsense are we talking about? Gender Equality, Primary Schooling, Life Expectancy, Infant Mortality, Literacy are all basic indices that indicate quality of life and governance. And in each, B/R/C are ahead. We compare ourselves with China in terms of Freedom of Expression... good, that we should. But then we should also compare all the other parameters of pertinence. And why aren't we benchmarking ourselves against Brazil - a country similar in size and challenges? Even Sri Lanka is ahead of us

We look at economic indices and worry... perhaps it is high time that we looked at these basic indices - for the very simple economic reason that a healthy, literate, Well-schooled and taken care of population will be more productive. Dont believe me? Well, Per Capita Income of these countries is Russia 14561, Brazil 10162, China 7476, India 3468, and Sri Lanka 4943!

What is the quality of governance that we are giving our people? More to the point, how sustainable is our model of growth if the basic needs of the majority of the population are not addressed? This is indicative of a deeper problem within us: unless the changes initiated in the past 20 years are not drilled till the grass-roots levels, the figures are not going to be very different. We are creating an urban rural divide within us wherein the rural population will lag behind. And unless literacy levels go up & mortality goes down you cannot expect productivity to significantly improve

Let us take an example: farm productivity. It is among the lowest even in the developing world. Dont you think that an educated farmer will be more amenable to and willing to accept the advances in agriculture? Will he not be better aware? Will that not translate into a better output? We are talking about infrastructure... to my mind, these basic indices are equally important for development and need to tackled on a war footing. The evidence that they impact development is omnipresent. What is required is our will and effort.

The alternative is continue on the current road map. We are doing fairly well... 7  -9 % GDP growth isn't bad. But this top-heavy model of development will increase the Rich-Poor and Urban-Rural divide and create further wedges in our socio - economic fabric. Unless the advantages of growth trickle to all levels, the full benefits will not be realised. In short, it is simply not sustainable. For it to be sustainable, most critically, each strata of society should be in a position to take advantage of it.

This is not a communist viewpoint- I am talking pure economic sense. Unless basic indices are in place, the people will not benefit fully from any development simply because their awareness levels will not enable them to grab the opportunities that come. And, if they lag, the effects of their backwardness on the economic productivity of the nation are too worrisome to contemplate...

Wake Up, India. We are not doing nearly as well as we think we are.... we need to get out act together. 

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

How Do We Respond?

This is not about the enclosed incident... it is more concerned with the response. The first question that comes to my mind is why should some boys have the courage to first of all eve tease, and then secondly back it up with violence. The next question that comes to my mind is equally disturbing - why are such incidents - I am referring to random violence - on the increase? And the third obvious question that pops up is what are we as individuals and as citizens doing about it?

I dont have an answer to the first one. Quite frankly, I dont have the slightest idea as to the reason. One thing is certain, at least to my mind: our falling morals standards, our it-doesn't-concern-me attitude, corruption and the attendant I-can-get-away-with-it feeling, are all involved. One cant just state that there is one specific reason. As to the second question, this is obviously connected to the first. 
My main concern is what is our response? Do we, as a people care? If by response you mean reading the news and ruminating over it / blogging about it (like me) / forgetting it / discussing it, then neither constitutes a response. In my mind, we need to become a lot more community minded, to join together and create a cohesive response. This is indeed not going to happen overnight, but it needs to be done. And the impacts of this will be experienced in a multitude of areas. It might sound far-fetched and idealistic, but there is no other sure-fire way
Because, when you come right down to brass tacks, the absence of a fear of a punitive response is one of the major factors that engenders such behaviour. And if you look around you, this absence of a fear is evident everywhere. Punitive response does not mean action from the side of the law (which is a topic unto itself) but rather presenting a common front; responding to a person in genuine need; ensuring a community feeling; creating proper pressure on the administrative machinery to act etc etc. 
We are so concerned with ourselves and our families that we fail to see the impact on society, or our roles and responsibilities as citizens.And it is this that is most worrisome... it is this basic lack of understanding that is at the root of several problems - even corruption. We pay bribes - to ease our own way, unmindful of the long-term damage that is being done to our country. And, somewhere along the line, corruption is also one of the factors that is equally to blame, since corruption engenders a safety net for illicit behaviour - people believe that they can get away with it. Thirdly, the lack of a proper functioning legal system where the guilty get swift retribution is also yet another factor that is responsible.
Community awareness, Corruption are both social evils- and they are affecting us in diverse ways. Unless we wake up to our responsibilities, there can be no improvement.... 

The Diwali Season

I have read a few articles regarding Diwali season offtake from retail counters. What surprises me is why should this be News? 

One, it is a foregone conclusion that the sales would be slower - given the burgeoning interest rates, high inflation, job losses et al. That should have been obvious, even more so if you take into account the buildup to the season in terms freight increases, fuel price increases, LPG price revision, high food inflation, rising home loan EMIs (all issues that lower disposable income) slowdown in all macro-economic indicators. It should have been difficult to imagine any other outcome...

Two, The fear of a double - dip recession which is being expressed these days. With the European and American drama playing out the way it is, the problem (from a consumer's perspective) is only being exacerbated. And it is a fallacy to believe that this does not impact on sentiment - every little thing, each small factor has a perceptible impact on consumer sentiment

Three, We have just come out of a major recession, which means that people are likely to be far more defensive on hearing any negativity

Four, people are more aware, better informed and better connected than ever before. Try talking to anyone - shopkeeper, auto driver, doctor, housewife... the sentiment will be the same. I know because I did - and, in my opinion, so should every professional. We salesguys are supposed to be people in direct touch with the market - and who does the market comprise? People, that's who! More to the point, this means that points 1 - 3 would have been well known to the general populace... 

And people are suprised at slower sales growth!!!! Amazing!!!!

The above only adds to only one conclusion... slower sales offtake was only to be expected. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Occupy Wall Street...

A chance of click in the blog directory took me to a blog on "Occupy Wall Street" protest...

Is it just another flash in the pan... or something more? Much is being made of it as on date, but only time will tell as to how it develops, and how far it goes. I for one will be watching and observing these developments with interest, since in my opinion this just could just be a symptom of something else in the wind. I say this because this is really borne out of the overall socio-economic situation that pervades in modern society. Call it the Rich-Poor divide, or a result of the economic woes, or an overall dissatisfaction... call it what you will. The name or the classification is immaterial. What is far more pertinent to me - and by extension all professionals - is the impact on society, organisations and overall conduct.

Protests have been a part of life since the beginning of society, and are nothing new. Protests also cut both ways - they can bring about positive change... then again, they may prove destructive. And that is precisely why organisations will have to pay greater heed to these developments, since they can have far-reaching consequences. That is not to state that you forget business and focus exclusively on the protest, but rather inculcate an internal attitude to engender positive change within themselves so as to become more transparent, more effective. It has to be remembered that organisations are a part of this same society, that the employees are from within the same 99%.