Friday, 18 September 2020

My Favourite Cry-Along Movie

[Spoiler alert]

As a rule, I don't watch tear-jerkers. I can't handle them. My favourite genres are science fiction, superhero, rom-com and comedy.

But there's one movie I keep going back to every once in a while when I'm by myself, and no one can see me dabbing at my eyes with a tissue. This is the Bollywood movie 'Dil Hai Tumhara' (My Heart is Yours). In the words of the little girl in 'Cheeni Kum', this movie is not "sad-sad", it's "happy-sad". There are some extremely touching scenes in it that I love to go back and watch over and over, and it's impossible to stay dry-eyed.

For those who don't know the story, Sarita (played by Rekha) is a married woman with a daughter. Her husband secretly has a mistress and a (younger) daughter through her. The husband and the other woman die in a car accident, but before he dies, the husband makes Sarita promise to bring up his daughter along with their own. Sarita does so, but can never bring herself to show love to the other woman's daughter. This continues right into the adulthood of the two girls, the elder girl Nimmi (Nirmala) played by Mahima Chaudhry and the younger adoptive one Shalu (Shalini) played by Preity Zinta. All that Shalu wants is the love of her mother, but she never gets it.

In spite of the mother's coldness to her adoptive daughter, the elder girl is very loving towards her sister, and this is reciprocated. The scenes between the two sisters are very touching. Towards the end, the mother also realises her adoptive daughter's worth and completely softens towards her.

The romantic parts of the movie involving Arjun Ramphal are quite silly and not moving at all. It's the scenes between the sisters, and between the adoptive mother and daughter, that always get me.

Mahima Chaudhry (right) is an absolute sweetheart as the loving elder sister

These scenes do something to me:

1. The backstory with the background song "kabhi hasna hai, kabhi rona hai; jeevan sukh dukh ka sangam hai" (One must sometimes laugh and sometimes cry; life is a mix of happiness and sadness) shows how the two girls were brought up differently by Sarita, and how the elder one makes up for the lack of love shown by the mother.





9:20 to 13:00

2. How the sisters seem to fight but are very close.


20:00 to 23:40

3. An extended scene with lots of drama. Sarita believes Shalu is trying to steal Dev (Arjun Ramphal) from *her* daughter Nimmi. She reveals that Shalu is not her daughter, and accuses her of trying to do to Nimmi what Shalu's mother had done to her. But Nimmi remains loyal to Shalu, and is even willing to give up Dev for her. Shalu in turn decides to sacrifice her love for the sake of her sister's happiness, and pretends that she loves someone else (Sameer, played by Jimmy Shergill).

It's interesting that the man in the triangle is treated as an inanimate object in this movie ("You marry him. No, you marry him!")



2:05:17 to 2:14:10

4. My favourite scene, where Shalu goes to Dev's father played by Alok Nath [Aside: This man was later exposed as a creep during the #MeToo movement, and this is one of his usual benign "nice daddy" roles with which he fooled everyone for years]. She gets him to agree that Dev and Nimmi's wedding will go ahead in spite of the soon-to-be-public scandal of her own "illegitimate" birth. Sarita overhears the conversation and realises that Shalu has been loyal to both herself and Nimmi. They are reconciled.

One of Preity Zinta's most powerful performances

The moment Sarita realises how unfairly she has judged her adoptive daughter all these years

All's well between the women in the family, and there's only one wrinkle left to sort out - which sister gets the inanimate object?

2:32:25 to 2:42:35

And this post wouldn't be complete without the song 'Dil Laga Liya':

(Creating this blog post was very pleasurable, and only cost me a couple of more tissues when watching those clips.)

Sunday, 6 September 2020

A Dire Prediction - A Disastrous Military Debacle For India In November 2020

Indians tend to grossly overestimate their country's power with respect to China, and they are about to receive both a nasty surprise and a costly lesson.

[Update 13/09/2020: In the week since this post went up, I have received a number of negative comments, all from Indians as expected. However, I'm more convinced than ever that this scenario is going to be played out in November. An article in the Financial Times makes a similar prediction about timing.]

I have a scenario to share, based on a synthesis of several disparate factoids from history and current affairs, generously garnished with my own perceptions and opinions. Some of these opinions are politically incorrect, and will no doubt offend many readers, but I am putting them out there for the simple reason that the scenario I am presenting is an important one, and it requires this unvarnished perspective. [Thanks to Rock Dawar for reviewing a draft and providing useful comments.]

A map of India and China (The borders are the official ones from the Indian perspective, but many areas shown as Indian territory here are actually held by China and Pakistan, and others are still disputed)

1. From what I have understood of the Chinese (and at the great risk of generalising across 1.4 billion Chinese people, the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government and the People's Liberation Army), it is their commonly held belief that their country and civilisation have been historically humiliated by colonial powers (the "Century of Humiliation"), and that their time has finally come. They see themselves as one of the greatest civilisations on earth, if not the greatest, and yearn to be recognised as such by the rest of the world. They would like to see China regain its rightful place in the world as one of its great powers, with no threats or challenges in the Asia-Pacific region.

The US is of course China's main rival in today's world. The hawks in the Chinese establishment, especially in the increasingly influential PLA, view the US as the main impediment to China's rise, and hence as Enemy Number One. The hawks in the US would return the favour. It is a classic replay of the Thucydides Trap, in which an established power (Sparta then, the US now) is threatened by the rise of a new one (Athens then, China now). According to analysts, the Thucydides Trap has been responsible for war in 12 of the 16 cases when shifts of power occurred in world history.

Japan is a historical enemy but not a hugely credible one today, except in alliance with the US. Other Western countries are viewed with suspicion as continuing to harbour colonial ambitions, and as threats to the degree they are aligned with the US. Indeed, the West may have been responsible for the current state of strained relations, having prodded China into opening its market in the 1970s. China has now beaten them at the capitalist game, and grown rich and powerful on the back of that achievement. It is unlikely that the West can ever put that genie back into its bottle, but other non-Western nations may serve as useful proxies to delay China's rise, even if they are sacrificed in the process. That brings us to India.

India has so far not been high on the Chinese radar, but the recent friction along the India-China border may have raised India's profile within China as a hostile nation, and one in a loose alliance with the West to boot.


Detail of the various disputed regions between India, Pakistan, and China

2. Regardless of their opinion of the Indic civilisation based on some shared history (i.e., the Buddhist influence), the Chinese probably don't think much of India as a modern-day power, especially not in comparison with themselves. They have left India far behind. The two countries were at rough parity in the 1950s, but China's economy today is about five times bigger than India's and far healthier, which provides a robust underpinning for its corresponding military and geopolitical superiority.

While Indians still tend to think of the two countries as peers, with China only slightly ahead, this opinion is not shared by the Chinese (nor is it reflective of reality!) The Chinese probably feel indignant that a wretchedly poor and inferior country even dares to pose a challenge to their great civilisation. The likely reaction of the Chinese establishment (which may also have the approval of the Chinese people) would be a desire to show an uppity India its place in no uncertain terms, so that India stays down and doesn't dare challenge their country ever again. Indeed, it is possible that inflated Indian opinion about their country's power relative to China may increase the risk of a conflict, just as in 1962, when Jawaharlal Nehru's government unwisely provoked China into hostilities even as India was completely unprepared for the repercussions.

From one perspective, India and China have no real quarrel, and in the words of one analyst, "may as well be on different planets". But there have been border disputes between them for decades. It is my view that there were many historical junctures in the last seven decades since Indian independence for these disputes to have been settled relatively amicably, but India let them slip, believing it could get a better deal. Unfortunately, India's negotiating position has only worsened with time, and any settlement today will be on much more unfavourable terms. India has locked itself into a set of expectations that are increasingly at odds with reality, and something has to give. With the lessons of 1962 apparently still not learned in New Delhi, another reality check is overdue. China today is unlikely to be as generous towards India as it may have been in the 1950s, and the West is only too willing to exploit this schism between these two non-Western powers, egging India on into a confrontation it will lose disastrously.

3. Students of history will remember that China attacked Vietnam in early 1979 to "teach Vietnam a lesson" for deposing the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia the previous year.  A possible takeaway from this incident is that in addition to an understandable sensitivity to security threats, China is also not a particularly forgiving country where threats to national pride are involved. (There is of course the opposite view among some analysts that 1979 was an exception in China's otherwise exemplary record as a peaceful player in international relations, and among others that the war was related more to a decade-long period of tension with the Soviet Union, of which Vietnam was a client state.)

4. Students of history will also remember that in the India-China war of 1962, China attacked India (after months of Indian provocation, admittedly) on an extremely well chosen date - 20 October 1962. This was at the height of the Cuban missile crisis between the US and the USSR (16-28 October 1962), when the attention of both superpowers was exclusively on each other, and neither had the bandwidth to look at any issue anywhere else in the world. If China wanted to teach India a lesson today, it would probably look to find another such gripping event when world attention is irrevocably drawn elsewhere. 

5. From what I'm reading, the issue of mail-in ballots is crucial to the coming US election in Nov 2020. Voters supporting the Democrats seem to prefer mail-in ballots to a disproportionate extent. So the scenario that is being considered is that Trump is going to seem to win big on the night of Nov 3 (the so-called "red mirage"), but as the mail-in ballots continue to come in and get counted, state after state will flip to the Democrats. Since the delegate count in each state goes completely to one side or the other based on the parties' relative vote share, the balance of delegates will start to shift dramatically after a few days of counting. A few days after Nov 3, the mid-point may be reached, and thereafter the election will start to look like Biden's.

6. The political divide in the US has never been sharper or nastier. Both sides are uncompromising in their revulsion for each other. And Trump is a person who will not hesitate to use any means to stay in power. He and his Republican supporters will not allow the election to be taken from them in this way. But neither will the Democrats take it lying down if Trump tries to steal the election that they see themselves winning. I think there will be huge chaos in the US in the days following the election. Both sides will mount legal challenges in the courts of course, but I would not rule out widespread violence in the streets as well. We could even see a mini civil war.

7. Allowing a week for events in the US to escalate, that may be the time when China chooses to strike at India (around 10 Nov). The US will have no bandwidth to spare, being completely focused on its internal crisis. Russia today is a mere shadow of the USSR in terms of power, and cannot credibly intervene against China. In any case, Putin's Russia is more or less allied with China today and does not have any particular affinity for India. China will face no serious international opposition to such an adventure, and India will have to face this attack entirely alone.

8. India's own internal situation in early to mid-November is likely to be dire. The Covid death toll could be in the region of 200,000 (up from about 70,000 today). The Indian economy, already in recession, will be in far worse shape in a couple of months, with both inflation and unemployment up significantly. Parts of the country could be experiencing starvation. India will be at its weakest at that point, hit by the twin blows of a pandemic and unprecedented economic crisis.

9. What exactly will China do? I don't think the impact of China's actions will be as inconsequential as in 1962, when China invaded, but quickly withdrew to the old border after making a point. This time, I expect China's objectives to be more ambitious, so there will be some significant and permanent changes. I imagine that altering India's perceptions about the relative power of the two countries would be as important an objective to China as territorial gains. China will want to "fix" India for good, so they won't have to worry about their southern border again. 

10. As the first of three territorial issues, China is very concerned about the security of the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). This is the economic lifeline to Western China, providing access to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, but it passes too close to the border with India for China's comfort. In the event of future hostilities, India has the potential to disrupt this corridor. However, if the Kashmir Valley can be annexed and made part of Pakistani territory, then that creates an additional buffer to secure the CPEC from external attack.

Notice how close the CPEC passes to the LOC (Line of Control) between India and Pakistan.

11. The second territory of interest is Ladakh to the east of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh is arid and largely uninhabited, but it is militarily strategic. Annexing all or a large part of Ladakh can secure China's Tibetan border against India much more effectively.

Ladakh lies east of Jammu and Kashmir, and borders Tibet.

12. The third piece of territory is Arunachal Pradesh in India's far east, which China has long claimed as "South Tibet". India's northeastern states are connected to the mainland through a narrow corridor in Siliguri (the "chicken's neck"). It may be relatively easy for China to cut off the entire northeast by seizing this narrow corridor, and later bargaining to give back Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya in exchange for Arunachal, and possibly negotiating an independent status for Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram.

The region of Asia that lies between India and China is known as Indo-China for good reason, and reflects the historical interaction between the two ancient civilisations. The cultures of this region have both Indic and Sinic elements. While China may lack the appetite to actively annex regions with Indo-Chinese cultures, it would definitely prefer them to exist as independent buffer states rather than have them in the opposite camp.


Although the narrow "chicken's neck" corridor in Siliguri is buffered by Nepal and Bhutan, a determined China could hammer through at this point and cut off India's access to its entire northeast.

13. Expert opinion even within India has concluded that India's ability to fight a two-front war, never high to begin with, has weakened significantly. I believe this is how such a war will unfold. China will strike first at multiple points along the 4000 km long border, then after a few days, when India has shifted military resources away from its Western border with Pakistan to deal with this threat, the Pakistani army will strike to take the Kashmir valley in coordination with the PLA. They will likely get the full support of the local Kashmiri population. There could be an exodus of Hindus from Jammu into India. The entire state (comprising Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh) could be lost to India in days.

14. Together, China and Pakistan may be able to take many Indian POWs, just like India did to Pakistan in 1971, simply by cutting off access to territory and forcing the surrender of isolated troops. This would be an additional bargaining point for later. The Indian military could suffer massive casualties, especially in Kashmir, because the local people may ally with the Pakistanis and take their revenge for years of real or perceived oppression.

15. In about two weeks, by end-November, the war could essentially be over, leaving India with no options whatsoever. India will not be able to exercise its nuclear option against China because retribution would be immediate and incalculable.

16. Indian PM Narendra Modi and Pakistani PM Imran Khan may be summoned to Beijing (or a more neutral venue like Moscow) to sign a tripartite agreement between China, India and Pakistan, "settling" the border issue once and for all. India will essentially give up Kashmir to Pakistan, and Ladakh/Arunachal to China. Some of the northeastern states that are culturally Indic, like Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, could be "generously" returned to India, and the others (Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram) may be wrested from India and turned into "independent" countries. No prizes for guessing which way they will align thereafter.

17. As part of the agreement, India will have to accept China's suzerainty over Asia and agree not to oppose any Chinese initiative in future. India will also have to agree to limits on its own military power, especially its naval power.

18. Modi will return to India in disgrace after signing such an agreement, and I suspect he will not last long in power thereafter. After all, a humiliated nation needs scapegoats, and the Indian army also needs a "stabbed in the back" theory to avoid being blamed. There will be anti-Muslim pogroms throughout India, of course.

19. There could be a couple of silver linings to this debacle from the Indian perspective. First, there will probably be no further border conflicts, because a Pax Sinica will prevail thereafter. China wants a peaceful environment in which to do business, and it will probably prevail upon Pakistan to be satisfied with the acquisition of Kashmir and not create any further trouble in the region. Jihadist terror from across the Pakistani border is therefore likely to cease under Chinese pressure. Hence, in spite of smarting from a humiliating military defeat, Indians may paradoxically enjoy a prolonged period of peace and stability in the region. Second, as a result of this enforced peace, India will probably make great economic progress, like Japan or Germany after WW II. Indians will have no choice but to focus on the only thing that they can control without being perceived as a threat - the country's development, for which Chinese funding may also be available! In about a generation, India could achieve middle-income status and ensure a better life for its own people.

20. The million dollar question is - Is China likely to mount such an audacious attack on India in the first place? The risks of adventurism are high. After all, the invasion of Vietnam in 1979 is not considered an unqualified success by analysts. However, if events unfold as detailed in this post, the rewards to China are high too. The main development from China's perspective is that India will be forced to exit its incipient alliance with the US (as part of The Quad), and will pose no further threat to Chinese power for the foreseeable future. China will be free to engage with its primary rival, the United States, from a position of greater strength and leverage.

The one big factor that could negate this extreme scenario is China's traditional restraint, and patience to play an even longer game. In other words, the above events may yet play out, but over a couple of decades rather than in November 2020.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

More Democracy, Less Hypocrisy - A Prescription To Fix The Tragicomedy Of India's Language Policy

Prologue - What makes a sitcom funny?

One of the recurring tropes in situational comedy is ignorance. The audience is aware of something that the characters themselves aren't. The result is a series of humorous situations, as the characters, who make logical deductions and decisions based on their incorrect understanding of the situation, end up making blunder after hilarious blunder.

A related trope is deception. Some of the characters have a secret that they hide from other characters. The audience is in on the secret of course, and this results in another sequence of situations where the ignorant characters make their comical blunders because of their ignorance, while the guilty ones are put into equally hilarious situations as they attempt to keep up their deception.

A third related trope is miscommunication. The audience is aware of what a character is trying to convey, often in desperation, but the message is either not received, or is misread by other characters, and this miscommunication provides the resulting comedy.

The Great Indian Sitcom

The Great Indian Sitcom of language policy - now in its 73rd year

An observer of India's language policies over the past 73 years since the country's independence, especially in education, could be forgiven for believing they were watching an extended situational comedy, given the existence of all of the above tropes. Unfortunately, the serious impact of such policies on the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of Indian society makes this less a comedy and more a farce or a tragedy. For the purpose of this post, I will refer to it as a tragicomedy because it has elements of both.

Ignorance has been displayed on numerous occasions when decision makers have presumed to know what is best for their constituents, and issued edicts with complete moral certainty.

Deception is equally on display as elites piously prescribe a certain course of action for the masses, then quietly pursue the opposite course themselves.

Miscommunication has also been frequently seen, as leaders pretend not to hear what people are struggling to tell them, and policy experts remain deaf to popular demand.

In Tonight's Episode 

This blog post has been prompted by yet another episode in the Great Indian Sitcom, i.e., the release of India's National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.



While the NEP contains a number of common sense reforms that are long overdue, an element in it that has stirred up controversy is a seemingly innocuous clause:
Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language. Thereafter, the home/local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible. This will be followed by both public and private schools.
Now, many politically neutral authority figures with experience working at the grassroots level support a policy of providing initial education in a child's home language in order to ease learning. They believe that once a child is comfortable in the school environment and develops the ability to learn, they can be taught additional languages and can even handle a switch to a different medium of instruction later on. This is not a purely Indian view. There is even a UNESCO document that recommends such an approach, and it needs to be carefully considered.

What raises suspicions about such a policy in the Indian context is that there is a strong ideological lobby within the country that supports this approach for an ulterior reason. India has a politically significant constituency opposed to the English language, and the primary drivers for such antipathy range from envy (an inability to communicate in English, and hence a desire to ensure that the language does not play an important role within the country) to a belief that the use of English is a vestige of colonialism, and that the country will never become truly free until the minds of Indians are completely de-colonised. A third ideological driver is the belief that India is a "civilisational state", that language and culture cannot be separated, and that the prevalence and power of the English language ultimately threatens Indian civilisation itself. This anti-English constituency supports the education of children in their mother-tongue, not out of concern for the child, but because it is a blow against English. A number of these people do not in fact support the change in medium of instruction to English at any stage.

Discerning the tropes

Ignorance

Something has been changing in the background over the years, which a hypothetical audience can now see, but not all the characters on the Indian stage are aware of or are willing to acknowledge yet.

Knowledge of the English language is fast becoming a fundamental life skill worldwide, on par with basic literacy and numeracy.  Proficiency in English, perhaps more than gender or ethnicity, is the new glass ceiling that keeps people from rising above a certain socio-economic level. This is true worldwide, not just in India.

In the past, members of the anti-English lobby in India used to point to advanced countries, even the former Axis countries of Japan, Germany and Italy, arguing that if these countries could recover from defeat and re-establish themselves as advanced nations while providing pride of place to their own national languages in preference to English, India could very well do the same.

Of course, they conveniently tended to neglect the major complication in India's case, which is that India does not have a single language that it can call its national language, but literally hundreds of authentically native languages, and that emphasising one language over all others would be perpetrating a new colonialism within the country's borders.

The problem with the "Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan" ideology is that Hindustan is pluralistic to the extreme, and represents far more than the Hindi language or the Hindu religion. This majoritarian ideology lacks the vision and the empathy to deliver what such a diverse society requires.

Even overlooking that complication, the time for a supreme "national language" has passed. Those very same advanced countries that the anti-English lobby in India used as examples, have now adopted English with vigour. A recent study of 55 countries, including Japan, Germany, and Italy, and surprising examples like China, shows that over 50% of public schools in these countries have adopted English as the medium of instruction at the primary level. For private schools, the figure is over 85%! Those numbers are only growing.

Further underlining the importance of English in education is the fact that English-Taught Programs (ETPs) in universities have been growing at dramatic rates even in traditionally non-English speaking countries. This is a study providing examples from Europe, China and Korea.

About half of Europe's population of 750 million people can reportedly hold a conversation in English. How does India fare by that measure?

In today's world, a National Education Policy that does not talk about how it proposes to provide Indian children with the essential life skill of English language proficiency is failing in a fundamental responsibility to its citizens.

Deception

It is not as if the importance of English to an individual's social advancement has gone entirely unrecognised in India. Government-run schools providing free public education have always tended to use regional languages as their medium of instruction, but it is telling that the elites of the country, including the very politicians making a career out of their anti-English polemic, have invariably sent their own children not to these public schools, but to private schools with English as the medium of instruction. This is a phenomenon as old as the republic itself.

Without access to English skills, India's poor will be perpetually outside looking in. Wilfully ignoring this reality is criminal.

The sheer hypocrisy is staggering. The pious, patriotic posturing and exhortations to be true to one's culture are aimed at entrenching privilege and keeping the masses from competing with the progeny of the elite classes. So many scions of prominent anti-English public figures are not only fluent in English, many of them work for multinational corporations and live in the West.

Needless to say, such hypocrisy and perpetuation of privilege are indefensible, especially in a putative democracy where everyone is meant to have equal rights.

Miscommunication

Again, it is not as if the masses in India are oblivious to the importance of English or to the fact that a lack of English skills is what keeps them from competing on equal terms with their elites. They have been voting with their feet, scraping together their meagre earnings in a bid to send their children to English-medium private schools of whatever quality.

The thirst to learn English is real, and no responsive government can ignore it

In some cases, governments have listened and responded, and the popular reception to these measures has confirmed that the demand was no chimera.

When the government of Karnataka announced in 2019 that one section of Year 1 in some government schools would be taught in the medium of English, there was a virtual stampede, resulting in the government being forced to consider opening many more.

It was especially surprising that the government of Uttar Pradesh, headed by a member of an organisation not known for its sympathy towards English, decided to introduce English into government-run schools right from kindergarten. If such is the demand for English in the Hindi heartland, which is the relative beneficiary at a national level from having Hindi as the lingua franca, one can imagine what it must be in the rest of the country.

The most dramatic example has come from Andhra Pradesh, where the state government has made English the only medium of instruction in public schools, and even the state language (Telugu) is only a compulsory subject, not the medium of instruction. It is nothing short of revolutionary, and the measure's popularity suggests the policy cannot be reversed by future governments of any ideological stripe.

"In order to eradicate poverty, students should get jobs, and English as the medium of instruction is required for that" - Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy

If policymakers and political leaders remain deaf to the demands of their constituencies even after these examples have shown them what those demands are, it suggests wilful denial, which is an abrogation of trust that voters have placed in their elected representatives.

What needs to be done?

This is a no-brainer, but let me spell it out. Indian governments, whether Central or state, should simply do what they are supposed to as democratically elected executive bodies.

To break it down into two simple steps:

1. Ask the people what they want
2. Give it to them

Specifically,

1. Find out what people want as the medium of instruction for their children, whether through surveys, referenda, or other feedback methods

2. Do whatever is necessary in practical terms to ensure that this is provided, anticipating and solving the many logistical and infrastructural problems that would constrain its rollout

I cannot understand what is controversial about this. I guess we all know what the result of such a study of citizen wants is going to be. Yes, it's going to be an overwhelming vote in favour of English. (Cue boos from the "nationalist" lobby.) The reluctance to go down this obvious path is purely because the anticipated popular choice is not to the liking of the decision-making elite.

Let us be very clear on this. If someone opposes giving the people what they want, they are being undemocratic, period. Such opposition is simply unconscionable and nothing less than a crime.

I have heard educated people argue against this conclusion on a variety of grounds, some of which are:

1. "People don't really want an English-language education for their kids, even if it seems that way. They're really just asking for better-run schools, regardless of language of instruction."

2. "At the grassroots level, English is not important. The local language is more important, and hence children should be instructed in the local language."

3. "Any survey or referendum organised for the purpose of gathering data to determine language policy will be influenced by politics, so we shouldn't conduct one."

4. "Look at what happened with the Brexit referendum. It shows that it's very dangerous to ask people what they want. People don't understand complex issues, and can shoot themselves in the foot."

5. "Even if you want to provide English-medium education, there are no skilled teachers, so how are you going to do it?"

I'm frankly astonished at these weasel words. The very same arguments can equally be used to argue against holding elections and respecting an electoral mandate, yet nobody dares to do that. Why do these lame excuses become respectable arguments outside the context of elections?

Brave New World

The good news, if Indian decision-makers show the courage to do what their constituents are crying out for them to do, is that it is easier today than ever before to carry this out.

Researcher Sugata Mitra's 1999 "hole in the wall" experiment involving slum children and their unaided discovery and exploration of computers was simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. There is tremendous thirst for knowledge among India's disadvantaged. Governments must respond!

For one, when people want a policy measure to succeed, they will extend their utmost cooperation to make that happen. The will of the people is not just a rhetorical device. It can be the difference between failure and overwhelming success.

Second, the finding that children learn best through their native language is not an automatic argument against the early introduction of English. This is a false choice. Any number of tailored approaches will work to familiarise children with the English language in a given cultural context. When the target audience is so strongly receptive, they will pull out all the stops required to make this work.

Third, the post-Covid world has clearly demonstrated that remote working and remote learning are eminently practical. Local teachers can use online resources to educate themselves even as they educate their pupils. They can be co-learners and facilitators rather than teachers in the strict sense of the word.

Fourth, since the infrastructure required for online learning requires investments in electrification and telecommunications, this policy provides an additional impetus for these needed infrastructural developments. Far from infrastructure gaps providing an excuse not to adopt a high-tech approach to education, the requirement for online learning should be seen as a critical driver for delivering infrastructure.

Fifth, innovations in online education, even for severely disadvantaged sections, have been around for a long time, e.g., Prof. Brij Kothari's SLS (Same Language Subtitling) for broadcast programs.

Conclusion

In short, it is high time the curtain was brought down on the tragicomedy of India's self-inflicted handicaps to social advancement.

The people are speaking loud and clear, and only the most cynical still refuse to acknowledge it. Indians want their children to reach their full potential, and to enjoy everything the modern world has to offer. They clearly recognise that the key to opening the door to that Utopia is English language proficiency. It is the duty of government at every level to step up and deliver to that demand.

There will no doubt be obstacles galore in the path to achieving that dream, but the correct attitude is to look for ways to remove those obstacles, not to use them as excuses for inaction.

Enough is enough!

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Sage Thoughts On Modi's Beard

It was recently remarked upon that Modi has been seen with a longer beard than his usual trimmed one. It was also speculated, with good reason, that this is part of a deliberate PR strategy to make him appear like a wise old rishi (sage), so as to make him even more venerable to his devout followers.

The old trimmed beard, giving Modi the efficient and deadly look that suits him so well (OK, he may not be efficient, but he is deadly, as his many victims would attest (if they're still around))

The new, longer beard - an attempt at cultivating a sage-like image. Does it work?

I must say that the rishi look reminded me of so many less-than-complimentary episodes from Hindu mythology that I simply couldn't understand how this was supposed to be a positive image makeover.

Let me illustrate.

1. Shakuntala and the curse of Sage Durvasa

When Sage Durvasa visited the ashram of Sage Kanva in the latter's absence, his adoptive daughter Shakuntala attended on him. But she was lost in daydreams about King Dushyanta, which enraged the sage. He cursed her saying Dushyanta would forget her. (Of course, it all ended well eventually, but this is the bit that we're interested in.)


After all the talk about Vikas (development) during his pre-2014 election speeches, can one blame a poor nation for daydreaming about it? Apparently yes. The Modi curse has taken effect, most dramatically.

2. Ravana and his abduction of Sita

Ravana's devious plan to abduct Sita consisted of having his henchmen lure both Rama and Lakshmana away from their cottage deep into the forest, while he approached Sita disguised as a mendicant and begged for alms. He hadn't reckoned with the lakshman rekha, a charmed line drawn with the tip of an arrow by Lakshmana around the cottage, which acted as a barrier to the demon king. Ravana then realised he would have to lure Sita out of the magic circle through sweet words and deceit. Gullible Sita trusted the cunning mendicant and stepped outside the protective circle. Once the deed was done, nothing could save her, and Ravana carried her away.

Once voted in, the man proved impossible to dislodge, helped amply by the fact that he has no credible opposition. Even those who can now see that he is a demon are resigned to his perpetual rule.

3. Vishwamitra and the creation of Trishanku Swarga

King Trishanku approached Sage Vasishtha with a request to be allowed to ascend to heaven in his earthly body, and the sage outright refused his outlandish request. Trishanku then approached Vasishtha's arch-rival, Sage Vishwamitra, with the same request. Vishwamitra took on this task with relish as a way to stick it to his rival, and performed a ritual to enable Trishanku to rise to heaven in his earthly body.

Things came unstuck when Indra, king of the gods, pushed Trishanku out of heaven, and he tumbled back to earth. Vishwamitra halted his fall, but couldn't push him back into heaven. So Trishanku remained stuck, upside-down, between heaven and earth. As a consolation, Vishwamitra built an alternate heaven around Trishanku ("Trishanku Swarga"), but he remained upside-down.

The Indian economy has strong fundamentals, and can potentially grow at double-digit rates under a wise government. Alas, Modi's government is anything but, and so the economy is stuck, unable to progress in spite of its inherent entrepreneurship and pent-up demand.

4. Vishwamitra's temptation by Menaka

During Vishwamitra's penance, Indra (the king of the gods) sent Menaka, an apsara (nymph) to distract the sage and prevent him from attaining formidable spiritual powers. She succeeded, for a while at least.

Modi has claimed more than once to be unattached to the loaves and fishes of office, but betrays an unbecoming fondness for them all the same.

5. Vishwamitra's refusal to accept his daughter Shakuntala

Well, what do you know? The story comes full circle because the daydreaming damsel we saw earlier was none other than the daughter born to the apsara Menaka and Vishwamitra. He didn't want anything to do with the baby, so Menaka handed him over to Sage Kanva, who adopted and brought her up.

For a man who was acerbic in his barbs against the Congress government before the 2014 election, Modi shows a curious reluctance to take responsibility. He is quick to claim credit for all successes, even if their seeds were sown by previous governments, but equally quick to pass the blame for his failures onto any convenient scapegoat.

6. Bhasmasura and Shiva's imprudent boon

The demon Bhasmasura prayed long and hard to Shiva, and when the latter appeared before him to grant him a boon, Bhasmasura asked for the ability to reduce anyone to ashes by touching their heads. A careless Shiva granted the boon, then was horrified to see Bhasmasura attempt to touch Shiva's own head. Shiva ran for his life, and it was only Vishnu (in the guise of the temptress Mohini), who managed to trick Bhasmasura into following her dance moves, culminating in her touching her own head...

Modi (and his followers) have made much of his "muscular" foreign policy combined with a highly personalised style of diplomacy, and he devoted a great deal of effort towards wooing China's Xi Jinping. But things went horribly wrong when Modi's failure to adhere to his agreement with Xi (the so-called "Wuhan Consensus") led to a military confrontation in June 2020. While the Indian army acquitted itself creditably during that episode, Modi's own behaviour was disappointing. In his speeches following the confrontation, he did not mention China by name even once!

Conclusion

I don't think a longer beard is going to do Modi's image any favours. His new look only reminds one of several episodes from Hindu mythology when sages did less-than-wonderful things.

I think he should go back to the trimmed and deadly look.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

My Celebrity Crushes Down The Ages

A recent post on this subject by a Facebook friend inspired me to make a list of my celebrity crushes too.

I classify these into two groups.

"Level 1" celebrity crushes are those you fantasise about pleasurably.
"Level 2" crushes are those you cry over, because you realise they're unattainable.

I have only ever had one Level 2 celebrity crush, at the age of 16 - Audrey Hepburn.

I saw both 'Roman Holiday' and 'My Fair Lady' within a span of a few months, and I fell hard. It took me many months to recover.

Audrey Hepburn in 'Roman Holiday' - There will never be another

All the others have been Level 1 crushes, so let me list them by entertainment medium, and then in chronological order.

Film and TV Actresses:

1. Jacqueline Bisset

I saw 'Airport' sometime in 1970 or shortly thereafter. Since I was born in 1963, I wouldn't have been more than 7 or 8 at the time. I don't remember much about this movie except that the stewardess was unbelievably beautiful. Jacqueline Bisset imprinted my still-developing male mind with a model of female beauty that remained with me for a very long time. For years after I saw 'Airport', girls with bob cuts would always get a second look from me.



2. Smita Patil

I probably saw more English movies than Indian language ones when I was growing up, but I did have access to magazines devoted to Bollywood movies, such as Filmfare and Star & Style. One particular issue featured a numbered list of the most beautiful Bollywood heroines of the time, and the caption under the photo of Smita Patil said, "Those smouldering eyes can set the night on fire."

I'll say.



3. Aarathi

Growing up in Bangalore gave me the chance to see a number of Kannada movies, many of which starred the reigning matinee queen of the day, Aarathi. She could be chirpy and mischievous, and also a tragic heroine. The characters she played were the whole package any guy could ask for.



4. Prema Narayan

From the pages of the same Bollywood film magazines, I became acquainted with the face of Prema Narayan. I saw her in a few movies later on, and to this day I cannot understand why she didn't become a major star. I wasn't earning then, but if I had, I would have paid good money to buy tickets to her movies.



5. Cybill Shepherd

Sometime in 1981 (when I was 18), I saw 'Taxi Driver' at a film show organised by my hostel. I found it a weird movie and didn't understand it, but some scenes in it were memorable (Robert Di Niro's "You talkin' to me?"). Cybill Shepherd played an unforgettable character - an older, sophisticated woman who was simultaneously intimidating and desirable.



6. Brooke Shields

Surprisingly, I never saw Brooke Shields in any movie. (No, not even 'The Blue Lagoon'.)

But she was there on posters on the wall of virtually every guy's room in my hostel at IIT Madras. I learnt most forcefully then that thick eyebrows don't hurt a girl's looks one bit.



7. "Fatafat" Jayalakshmi

I saw "Fatafat" Jayalakshmi in the Tamil movie 'Aval Oru Thodarkathai'. Jayalakshmi wasn't even the main heroine in that movie, but she was the one who caught my eye. That was incidentally the movie which gave her that nickname, because she used to keep saying "Fatafat!" throughout.



8. Elizabeth Montgomery

I saw some episodes of 'Bewitched' when I was a student, and remember being struck by the looks of the good witch Samantha. Her mischievous cousin Serena (also played by Montgomery) had a different but equally powerful appeal.

Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha

Elizabeth Montgomery as Serena

9. Suhasini

I saw a fair number of Tamil movies on TV during my 5 years at IIT Madras, and some of them starred Suhasini. She was not glamorously beautiful like many others, but there was something very wholesome and appealing about her. Also, although I am a Tamilian, I have never thought of Tamil as a particularly nice-sounding language. But Suhasini could make Tamil sound incredibly pleasant to the ear, a superpower she shared with Sridevi.



10. Setsuko Hara

In 1987-88 when I was working in Bombay, I had the chance to see many Japanese movies as part of a Japanese film festival in the city. One of them ('Banshun', or 'Late Spring') was a sweetly innocent story of a girl who doesn't want to get married because she doesn't want to leave her widowed father alone. He has to pretend that he is planning to remarry in order to get her to accept the guy who wants to marry her. Setsuko Hara plays the endearing Noriko in this movie, and I don't believe any guy can watch this movie without her doing something to him.



11. Amala Akkineni

During the same period that I was in Bombay, a group of young guys from my project team at work decided to go see a movie together. It was the latest Tamil hit 'Agninakshatram' and it starred a stunningly cute girl called Amala. She was so different from the heroines one usually saw in South Indian movies. Her looks were more Westernised and modern, and she was anything but demure. She made quite an impression on all of us.




12. Sybil Danning

'Streethawk' was a favourite SF serial of mine in the early nineties, featuring a dashing motorcycle cop (Jesse Mach, played by Rex Smith) who rides a superbike, and a nerdy genius (Norman Tuttle, played by Joe Regalbuto) who manages everything at the back-end with his computer skills. Sybil Danning appeared in the episode 'Vegas Run', and the nerdy Norman Tuttle was besotted by her, yet completely tongue-tied. The scene where she takes off her shirt before him and the poor guy almost goes to pieces is one of my favourites. I can fully empathise.

Watch the scene in animation here

13. Shannen Doherty

I watched quite a number of episodes of 'Charmed', until it started getting really silly. My favourite among the three sisters was Prue Halliwell, played by Shannen Doherty.



14. Sarah Michelle Gellar

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' was what I graduated to after 'Charmed', but I stopped watching after it got dark. Some vampire-fighting mixed with romance and humour would have been the right mix for me, so I only hung around as long it maintained that light-ish tone.

I loved the way this cute, petite girl kicked ass.




15. Freema Agyeman

I became a fan of 'Doctor Who' when the new series started with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper. In Series 3, the Doctor (now played by David Tennant) was joined by a new companion, Martha Jones. This character was played by Freema Agyeman, whose mother was from Iran and father from Ghana. Agyeman's looks were striking, and provided another data point to my theory that people of mixed race inherit the best traits of both.



16. Rani Mukerjee

The new wave of Bollywood movies began, in my opinion, with Karan Johar's "K3G" ('Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham'), which cast Rani Mukerjee in a minor but memorable role. Thereafter, I watched a few movies that starred her in the main role, notably 'Chalte Chalte' and 'Paheli'. She had a peculiar kind of smile that hit you somewhere.

That established her as one of my favourites for quite a few years.


17. Kajol

The one unattractive thing about Rani Mukerjee was her voice. A film blog even referred to it as "strep-infected". Her cousin Kajol didn't have that negative, but Rani Mukerjee overshadowed her in my mind. It was only when I saw Kajol in 'Fanaa' that I realised she was breathtakingly beautiful herself.

Like with Brooke Shields, I realised once again that thick eyebrows (even those that threaten to form a unibrow) don't detract at all from a girl's looks.


18. Teri Hatcher

I had seen Teri Hatcher in episodes of 'Lois and Clark', and also in that famous episode of 'Seinfeld', but that was after she had had multiple rounds of plastic surgery. Years later, I saw her in her earlier avatar as the scatterbrained Penny Parker in many episodes of 'MacGyver', when she was more innocent-looking. Those episodes of 'MacGyver' where she appeared were something to look forward to.


19. Rachael Taylor

Not too many women have knocked me off balance once I developed into a jaded, middle-aged man, but when I started watching Australian movies, I came across the jaw-dropping Rachael Taylor. Those who have watched only Hollywood (not Australian) movies may remember seeing her in the first 'Transformers' movie. (No, not Megan Fox. The other good-looking one.) I've seen her in the Australian movies 'Any Questions for Ben' and 'Red Dog'.

Man!



20. Gal Gadot

Next up is Gal Gadot. You could say Gadot got a bit of a free ride because the fictional character she played (Wonder Woman) has been a crush of mine since my childhood, and almost any woman who played the part could have waltzed into my heart. It didn't hurt that Gadot projected the same innocently idealistic persona that had always endeared Wonder Woman to me.


21. Jessica Alba

Like Gal Gadot, Jessica Alba also got a bit of a free ride from her character (Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman) because I have always liked that character from the Fantastic Four comics, so all that Alba had to do was continue to act nice. Which she did.



22. Rachael Harris

The serial 'Lucifer' was an off-beat one, and the most impressive woman for me was Dr. Linda the psychiatrist, played by Rachael Harris. She was smart and sensible, and her glasses lent her an extra air of intelligence and gravitas. As far as I was concerned, Rachael Harris edged out all the other (very attractive) women on that show.




Models:

This is my list of celebrity crushes who were not actresses but models. I saw them in print and TV ads.

23. Karen Lunel

Most Indian guys who grew up in the 70s and 80s would remember the ads for Liril soap featuring a girl under a waterfall. That was Karen Lunel, who must have launched a billion male fantasies.


24. Kitu Gidwani

Another popular model of the 80s was Kaushalya (Kitu) Gidwani. She had a bit of the Jacqueline Bisset look, I think, and that must have been part of the reason she appealed to me.



25. Sophie Falkiner

Soon after I arrived in Australia, I began to see ads on TV for "Neutrogena Pore Refining Cream". I thought the product was silly (who wants to refine their pores?), but the model promoting it was a knockout. I was almost tempted to buy a couple of tubes of that silly product.



26. Megan Gale

Another mixed-race person (English father and Maori mother) with striking looks who appeared in Australian ads around the year 2000 was Megan Gale. There is definitely something to be said for mixed-race unions.



Singers:

27. Kylie Minogue

I saw one of Kylie Minogue's songs ('She Did It Again') on TV in the UAE a few months before I migrated to Australia, and then discovered she was Australian! That was a nice welcome to the new country.



Voice crushes:

And then there were some singers who captivated me with their voices alone. Try not to be distracted by the visuals in the links below. Just listen to the audio.

28. BK Sumitra

'Veena Ninageko Ee Kampana' - This was one of the first Kannada songs I heard on the radio in Bangalore, and it was sung by BK Sumitra. I wasn't even 10, and I found myself having romantic fantasies about this unseen woman.



29. Mayte Mateos and MarĂ­a Mendiola (Baccara)

In my teens, I got hooked onto Western pop, and often turned on the radio to listen to the hits of the day. When I heard 'Ay Ay Sailor', I literally had goose pimples. Those voices were haunting and sweet as syrup. As the lyrics of the song would say, they "sure done something to me".




30. Karen Carpenter (The Carpenters)

I've always loved Karen Carpenter's voice, and a couple of her songs gave me goose pimples when I heard them on the radio. One was 'Yesterday Once More', and the other was 'Sweet Sweet Smile'. There was something extra special that she put into those songs.






31. Prabha Atre

Ever since I discovered Hindustani Classical Music at the age of 22, it has been my favourite genre of music. Of all the songs I heard on the many audiocassettes I collected, 'Tan Man Dhan Tope Varun' in Raag Kalavati has been special. There's something about Prabha Atre's voice in this song that hits me more than any other song in the entire genre.




Sports:

I don't watch a lot of sports, so I haven't had as many crushes in this area as in movies and music. But there have been a couple.

32. Wu Jiani

In 1982, the Asian Games were held in New Delhi, and we managed to see the games in all their glory, since colour TV became available in India just in time for that event.

I remember watching graceful gymnasts from all over Asia, and the one who got the most medals and applause was Wu Jiani from China. She was spectacular, and I wasn't even 20. It wasn't because of her medal count that hers is the only name I remember from those games.



33. Marion Jones

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the US track and field athlete Marion Jones won a number of medals as well as hearts. Unfortunately, she was later found to be a drug cheat and stripped of her medals. But I won't forget her grin.



That's quite a number of celebrity crushes for one lifetime. I wonder if there will be more.

[Related post: The Most Attractive Women of Star Trek TNG]