An Indian Summer : Book Review

Title: An Indian Summer
Author: James Cameron
First Published: 1974

A middle-aged man, in love with and married to someone much younger and of a different nationality. After being in a head-on collision with a truck, making his way to the newly formed Bangladesh border in pouring rain, in the opposite direction of the refugees pouring in from the east, recovering from an open heart and his teeth being pulled out (to avoid any infection), Cameron wrote “Indian Summer”. Somewhat of a memoir, something of his observations about India (and Britain) and sketches about cities, our people and personalities that we are familiar with, or not or have been expected to revere.

If you do not like writing which is frank and provides honest feedback, this book isn’t for you. Especially, if you are Indian or British and if you are “liberal” minded. James Cameron, working for a “lightish” journalistic assignment, is back in India as he had been a few times, in the last three decades. It is clear from his writing, his relationship with the nation is like that with a feisty mistress who loves, hates, gives tremendous heart ache, is vengeful and yet sets the bed aflame in the night, in the morning and in the afternoon. All without notice, unpredictably. And the marks (of all those) remain.

India Summer - book cover

Embed from Getty Images

What was serendipitous for me was discovering that his young bride Monisha Cameron (later married Denis Forman, after Cameron’s passing away) was from Bangalore and that he spent some time here, working and musing over the way people around were. Her father was a police officer (then retired) and had taken residence in a bungalow, with a retinue of servants right here in Richards Town, in Bangalore where I currently live. Cameron mentions many things which are familiar in this neighbourhood, and also other places and local institutions of the city that we Bangaloreans have grown to be fond of, like the Westend Hotel (now a Taj).

With Moni (fondly referred to thus), he goes through journeys and much else. He speaks of his arrival at Bombay airport only to realise that the hotel where his reservations were supposed to be, have not received the telegram. While he tries to resurrect the reservation or get accommodation in a different hotel. He writes “…they looked back at us with patient, courteous indifference, hoping we would go away. They had all the time in the world and we had not; They could afford to wait.

In this situation, India will always win. There is no purpose in being right if one is powerless …”

His humour is beyond cheeky, and style of writing almost gleeful. His observations, as the newly married couple travel through Calcutta, Madras, Delhi, Bombay and parts of Rajasthan, are nothing short of merciless and scathing, but polite. His admiration open and honest. Consider these.

He had spent some time with Nehru, even riding together every morning in Simla, and were much more than acquaintances. Apart from much else, he describes Nehru as a “purposeless tyrant”. Similarly, he finds Jinnah to be more concerned about his attire than even what was to be Pakistan. He recounts that Jinnah had run away from an interview upon noticing that his servant had dressed him in a pair of not matching cufflinks.

One senses faint but mixed admiration for Mrs. Gandhi and absolute disgust for Attlee, and the then British government during India’s independence and cleaving.

He comments on the corruption, the filth, rows of Indians doing their morning number two, facing away from railway tracks. Cameron, towards the beginning, uses verbiage from Naipaul “Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate mostly by the railway tracks…”. Naipaul gives much consideration to this phenomenon in An Area of Darkness as does Cameron. But, then again if you are unable to appreciate Naipaul’s jabs about India, you won’t Cameron’s either.

He shows sympathy for the thousands of Hindu refugees coming in from East Pakistan, spends time with the then Maharana of Jodhpur. Jodhpur, he was young then, speaks about the removal of the privy purse, but with less hurt than the rubbing of the nose in dirt that Mrs. Gandhi deliberately gave all the erstwhile princely states.

His admiration, for Nirad Choudhuri, the latter used to live somewhere near Asaf Ali Road in Delhi those days, is sky high and unadulterated; but mixed with some sympathy. “…Choudhuri was for me by far and away the most interesting and complicated English writer in contemporary India”. “I greatly wish I could read as much, and remember as much, as that little Nirad Choudhuri. I know I shall never be able to do that”. Of the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which was dedicated “To the British Empire…”, he describes the Indian intelligentsia immediately swallowing the bait and twittering with indignation. “Having read no more than the dedication they did not appreciate that it was a monstrous tease…”. Not much, sadly, has changed in India even now. The intelligentsia is the same, their malaises likewise.

His views of some of our cities seem rather relevant and astute. Of Madras, he writes “Madras has not the second hand self importance of New Delhi nor the hysterical ugliness of Bombay, it is a million miles from the despairing horrors of Calcutta. It is an agreeable, rather boring place; it is the sort of place I would be if I were a town.”

Cameron’s writing in a way is something like that of Malcom Muggeridge, rather stylish in a literary sense, but autobiographical and yet journalistic in nature. With the backdrop of his recent marriage, perhaps makes his story more compassionate than just plain journalistic essay in long form. He is self-deprecating often, slightly morose about his age, the accident, the surgeries, and his ill-health.

By the way, those of you know only James Cameron the movie director might want to look up the journalist (also author of more than a dozen books). He was good enough for a prize to be instituted in his name, for journalism. Since 2017, the University of London kept the memorial lecture, but the prize was replaced by the Eric Robbins prize.

His prose is tight, observations beautiful and the book, slim and deceptively delightful, superbly entertaining and honest.

Advertisements

NASSCOM needs a revamp. Now!

NASSCOM, the trade body and guardian angel for the IT / ITES services industry in India was formed in 1988. Been three decades.While many people are writing on different fora about how the industry (in India) is on a down turn, how thousands will get laid off and sounding out the death knell, perhaps not enough is being said about the trade body which has tried to guide the industry.

For a long time, at least the last 15 years, NASSCOM in its seminars and conferences has been talking about the fact that the industry needs to re-invent itself, how more value than basic IT labour needs to be brought up front and delivered to the clients in the west. Reasonably so, because the member companies (in most cases) have turned the industry into a conglomeration of sweat shops. Some exceptions exist, but at a generic level no change has happened. It still is about fitting one person per <100 sq ft, packing six people to an apartment and clamouring for H1Bs.

The industry exploded with the Y2K crises and companies opportunistically entrenched themselves. Companies moved up the chain, or sideways and land grabbed, but what have they done differently, by looking into the future?

The Offshoring game was invented by the Indian players, but the large foreign MNCs came in late (post year 2000), walloped the Indian competitors at their own game and took away a chunk of the supplier pie and a large portion of the clients’ wallet.

Over the last seventeen years, the industry, as a whole, still remained providing bodies (in whatever glorious form), running large maintenance (app or infrastructure) shops, lower percentage of app dev, configuring ERP and rows of people processing paper or answering phone calls.

The bellwether company pushed training to the institutes that they recruited from, and helped (with others) damage the engineering curricula. So much so that BE (IT) courses got introduced to produce more coolies who didn’t want to put in effort to learn real CS and delve into deeper mathematics. Check a randomly selected syllabus from a university and you will see what I mean.

So why has NASSCOM been ineffectual in guiding the industry in the right direction? Here is one hypothesis. The captains (?) of the industry run NASSCOM, chair it and populate its executive council. Check this list. It isn’t very different from what it looked like the previous year, the year before, and the year before. Many of these folks are not technology people. Not many of these stalwarts have spent time with the clients on a production floor, bull pen, retail warehouse etc. either and do not have deep specialization in an industry domain. Good business people? Sure. But, not technology or domain specialists. No wonder their first knee jerk reaction to the current situation is firing people in India, and hiring in thousands in the US.

So, how would these people really take the industry towards true Digital, high end Analytics, true AI, automation etc.?  Being late in catching up with technology trends isn’t helpful.

Hence, my suggestion that NASSCOM needs to reform itself and get in people who understand these technologies. Folk who understand these technologies, people who understand specific business domains where most movement is expected, and folk who can help shape education for people already in the industry, or students in universities.

There you go. That puts paid to my ever getting employed by the IT / ITES services industry in India.

Millennials aren’t the problem…

All my readers who do not agree with my title line, likely will start flaming me by the time they finish reading this post. But, that is alright.

HR types who aren’t able to manage a young workforce or even provide inspiration to the line managers keep saying that the millennial workforce is different, as an excuse for attrition. I have a gripe about the way HR has become in the services industry, but that reason to get flamed, I will save for later. We keep hearing different ‘negative’ attributes, though contradictory among themselves, assigned to the millennials. Some of these are:

Sense of Entitlement

We keep hearing, millennials feel very entitled, expect promotions quick, get bored quick and do not like to be tied by corporate conventions from the 20th century. Well, way back in 2001, I remember the first sentence the newly recruited network manager uttered as he walked into this open plan office. Went something like – “Where is my cabin?”. That sure sounded like entitlement to me.

Irreverence / Arrogance

Weren’t you irreverent / arrogant, when you were in your 20s? I was. Actually, I still am. What do these attributes have to do with a specific generation? In fact, the millennials are way more tuned to the way technology is moving today, they are walking lock-step with advancement and easily are able to filter away extraneous noise effortlessly. If they are more technology aware, or sharper than others, then they can choose to have a bit of a swag, I think.

Not being able to use their education

Oh, c’mon. Who provided them the education or designed the curriculum in the first place. IT / ITES services companies in India, driven by the KPI of billability, have practically destroyed engineering education by abdicating from their responsibility and pushing training into the colleges. The bellwether company was singularly responsible for starting this, and the rest of the sheep followed. Making a student usable is the employers’ responsibility, not the college’s. Now, you can’t come back and say colleges are producing unemployable youth.

Distracted

As opposed to what? Just because they don’t want to have a collar around the neck and be in the office every day? Maybe, your place of employment offers nothing to keep them mentally engaged. The employee engagement index survey thingy is rubbish, bin it and save some money. Seen enough places with high engagement scores, and high attrition.

Oh, they are so stuck to their electronic devices.

We weren’t because we didn’t have our lives proliferated with these devices, remember? Aren’t gen-x and gen-y folk glued to their smart phones as well? Seen many, including this MNC CEO friend, who goes on vacation with a laptop, a tablet, two phones and a smart watch and get completely restive without an internet connection.

…and I could go on with other examples and attributes.

There is this Simon Sinek interview (on youtube), where her passionately talks about millennials, their sense of entitlement (and why it came about), their lack of social connects etc. Blames parents, but also the millennials … and I do not agree. The millennials aren’t really very different from what we were at their age. Just that the social context is different today, and thus the millennial reaction seems to be contrary to what we have grown up with. The problem lies with us, not with the millennials.

Allow me to end with an anecdote. On a flight home from Mumbai (earlier this year), I had a millennial sitting next to me. We got chatting. Figured from what she disclosed, she was maybe 25 – 26 and was already on her fourth job. She had already worked as an assistant arranger for a fashion choreographer, had worked in a call centre, in some start up as a merchandiser and was now an interning in a school learning to act. OMG, What an irresponsible person, with no longevity at work, right? When I asked her why did she change so often, and went on to completely different areas… her answer was “I am trying to find myself”. Internally, I mocked this ‘airhead’, while pretending to be stoic. Her remark, however, stayed with me. Much later, the profundity of her statement (even if that is not what she really meant) dawned upon me. What we, ‘the know-alls’ have lost is exactly that desire to find ourselves and have trained ourselves to be a service and talentless labour force.

Something tells me, folk who keep blaming the millennials, likely have something to gain by constantly blaming them.

Now, got that flamethrower ready?

Everest, the tallest.

The mountain is in the news again, for three different reasons, all in the same week. One of human conquest, one of human stupidity, and the third of nature’s unpredictability.

The mountain is in the news again, for three different reasons, all in the same week. One of human conquest, one of human stupidity, and the third of nature’s unpredictability.

First, the one about human achievement. Indian mountaineer, Anshu Jamsenpa summitted twice, within a week. She has summited twice in 10 days in 2011, and last week was witness to her fourth and fifth successful summits.

Anshu Jamsenpa with HH Dalai Lama
Anshu, with HH Dalai Lama

The 37-year-old mother of two from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh (state in the far east of India), summitted on the 16th May, and then again on the 21st May. Before her second ascent, Anshu said: “My only aim now is to unfurl the national flag once again atop Mt Everest and pay homage to Lord Buddha. I seek blessings and support from my fellow countrymen.” She was blessed by HH Dalai Lama before leaving for the expedition. What a Rockstar!

The second story is about Ravi Kumar, from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh who is untraceable on the mountain after having summitted on the 20th. Kumar and his guide, Lakpa Wongya Sherpa, got separated during the descent near the Balcony and the latter was later found unconscious and suffering from frostbite at Camp IV.

a8e9f2b6fac66d36d1761c9c30b10f5dIn another incident six climbers suffering from altitude sickness had to be rescued and then sent to different hospitals. The human body isn’t made for 25K feet, and the body cells literally start dying at that altitude. If one isn’t a trained and seasoned super hi-alt mountaineer, please stick to doing mid-altitude treks. Everest or other 8-thousanders aren’t really for you stupids.

The other in-fashion thing for some years now is to go up the mountain with a guide. Everest isn’t a tourist spot, you know. In 1996, most of those killed on the mountain weren’t seasoned mountaineers either. And there is no business that a ward should get separated from a guide. The life of the ward is the guide’s responsibility. Lakpa, this might have been your eighth summit, but your license needs to be taken away.

And finally, “…a piece of mountaineering history has disappeared “, said British mountaineer Tim Mosedale after he descended from his sixth successful summit attempt. Considered to be the last obstacle, some 58 metres below the summit, the rocky outcrop known as the Hillary Step has collapsed. Likely because of the 2015 earthquake. Last year, the American Himalayan Foundation did publish images, but it was not clear whether the rock formation had actually collapsed because of the snow cover. Tim Mosedale who summitted last year as well this year, has confirmed, with pictures that he has posted.

The crumbling away of the Hillary Step makes summitting easier and quicker for the inexperienced climbers, but also will expose them to the elements for a longer time because of the potential traffic jam which will ensue with larger number of climbers passing through that spot.

p034s06h
Deaths on Mt Everest (data, graph courtesy – BBC)

More than 240 people have died on the mountain (above base camp) so far, and three more already added this year, more so since climbing up has become almost a joke. Teams have to be sent up every year to clear rubbish and debris from previous years’ climbs. There are bodies on the mountain, and plenty debris. Most seasoned pioneers regret what happens to the mountain every climbing season.

But, we need to stop for a moment and perhaps listen to Sagarmatha. The mountain, I believe, is telling us that she feels tired and abused and that we should stop climbing her now.

 

Tentwallah Movies

Movie Review 

The Cinema Travellers
Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya
Cave Films

Vikalp, a group of five filmmakers from Bangalore came together to revive the screening of documentary films, given the lack of viewership or enthusiasm for documentaries. Over the last three odd years, they have been screening documentaries every fourth Thursday of a month at Everest Theatre in Frazer Town, Bangalore. That is some 40 screenings and they are going into hiatus, post their last screening last night of “The Cinema Travellers”.

This is a story of three personalities, and their environments in the Maharashtra heartland of Satara. This is a story of three people passionate about cinema as their world changes around them. This is a story of two folk using older technology carbon rod arc projectors to show movies in makeshift tents in rural settings where movie halls might not be close by. There definitely was a time, when these travelling cinema guys covered quite a distance screening movies; but the world has changed a bit. And this is also a story of the ace movie projector repairman, and innovator and his passion.

Mohammad, the travelling cinema businessman struggling to make ends meet; Bapu, does it completely out of passion, benevolence and his desire to take cinema to the villagers; and Prakash, the projector repairman, the innovator and inventor. Three related stories, interwoven beautifully.

Mohammad runs a crew of eight-nine men, going from village to village, small town to small town and pitching tent with village fairs, and other social events and screening the movies under the title of “Sumedh Talkies”. They do not make a lot of money anymore, what with Rs 30 a ticket. The projector keeps malfunctioning, the repairmen bungling more often than not and the movie distributors often getting late in getting the celluloid reels to the screening. Must have been a challenge getting movie reels to a moving destination in any case.

Bapu, based in village Ond in Satara, runs “Akhay Touring Talkies” not necessarily as a business, but more of taking cinema to the villagers. His old truck has caught rust, is crumbling away, doesn’t run, is pulled by a tractor to the destination screening location; but houses the projector. Rainfall causes havoc to the truck. The children from the village make the announcements to pull people in. Some of his crew have been with him from the beginning. But, times continue to be bad. The year is worse than the previous one which was worse than its previous one.

Boy watching travelling cinema in Ond, Maharshtra
The magic. The magic of cinema.

And then, there is Prakash. Repairs old projectors. Projectionists would pay obeisance to him, should a projector go bad mid show, just to make the machine work through and bring it to Prakash in the morning. As the travelling cinema business started on a downward spiral, many of these cinema folk fell into bad times, and could not even collect their projectors (which they had left with Prakash) back. Meanwhile, having done repairs for over 40 years, Prakash understood what is wrong with all these machines. He has made a projector of his own, named it Prakash (light, in Marathi and after his own name), which uses the motor to also rewind the reels and runs the moving parts in an oil bath instead of using the usual grease. These certainly are revolutionary changes in a way. His story is one of nostalgia, of machines waiting to be picked up, of water spoiling cans of film, dust gathering on the old machines, journals of dues that moviewallahs owe him and of the dwindling business.

Yet the movie is in a way about looking ahead, with the protagonists making peace with the change around them. Some changes that they accept, some that they despair about and can’t understand. The world has moved, movies appear on the telly, satellite television has arrived, and so has the internet.

Both Mohammed and Bapu go to Mumbai to buy new digital projectors, laptops and UPSes. Works out for the former, even with the loans that he has to take, even with him having to sell his old projector as junk. But the new complications do not work too well for Bapu. For his last shows of the season, before the rains set in, he has to fall back to his old faithful. Ironically, he even latches the door of truck with a strip of celluloid. Prakash shuts his repair shop for the day and heads over to the farms where his nephews still till the land, and the former has created handy seed sowing tools with a definite rate of seed sowing based on the speed of gait of the bullocks and the distance they cover. And that he plans to computerize the operation over time. Prakash emphasizes, how important it is to teach the young and encourage them.

This is, one of the best documentaries I have ever watched. A documentary that my 11 year old enjoyed. For many things really. The cinematography is fantastic, some of the still imagery even better. This is a story shot over five years, of a legacy of over 70 years falling to pieces. Again, as I mentioned earlier, this is a story of hope and not of despair. There is respect for the old, and some delight of the new. There is some sadness, but certainly some moments of joy.

In Abraham and Madheshiya’s not over the top work, you get an given intimate access to a delicate and sensitive experience. The scenes do not seem contrived, and the people seem to be oblivious of the presence of a camera, adding to the authenticity of the film.

The documentary won a special Jury award at Cannes last year, and got selected at Toronto, New York and many others. If you spy a screening somewhere, make time and go see it.

Hrvatska 01 : Zagreb, Croatia’s capital in the northwest

“​Zagreb, Croatia’s northwestern capital, is distinguished by its 18th- and 19th-century Austro-Hungarian architecture.” That is how Wikipedia starts describing the city of about 800000, capital of a country that the EU considers one of the poorest and backward in the union. This isn’t large by any standards, but packs a lot of character. Croatia is one of the parts that former Yugoslavia got broken into. 

Landing in from Heathrow, the new Zagreb airport was quite a change. Small, with one KLM 737 just arrived before us, and three luggage belts but modern.

Immigration takes a while, and so does luggage. But, as a tourist, who cares. Not as if I had some place to get to in a hurry. As one steps out, has a different feel compared to a western European city. Felt somewhat like Bratislava really. The trees look different, but green. The houses look different, but nice. Somewhat picturesque, but not overwhelmingly so. 

Took about 20 minutes to town. The taxi drivers at the airport will fleece you. Uber is available, but has long wait time. What showed 3 minutes turned to 24 as soon as I booked it.

Staying at a mid range place in Donji Grad, the lower city, which is one of the 17 districts of Zagreb. Two days of lack of sleep is about to take a toll, but certainly not before stepping out to buy some food.

If you happen to buy at the local super market, it is pretty cheap. I bought a baguette, some cheese, some prosciutto and a beer in glass bottle (bottle returnable). A quick efficient sandwich, more like four.

All of 50 kuna. But, there is plenty food available,  plenty coffee and plenty beer ( Ožujsko, made by Molson Coors, is the most popular Lager around). All across town.

The Best Western that I am in is in a less touristy area, and this closer to where locals live. Has a different, quieter feel, but is close to the railway station and about 10 minutes from the center of town. It is reasonably priced, provides a turn down service with a chocolate on the pillow and a pretty decent breakfast.

I walked out, looking for a local Sim card. Don’t go by what web sites seem to proclaim about tourist Sim cards with great deals. Those are difficult to find. Get a local whatever Sim to ensure you have telephony, internet would be available in your hotel. 

This area of Donji Grad has a different feel, with neighbors talking to each other, petunias on windows, some dereliction, coffee bars with friends smoking over coffee or a beer, some super markets.

 

 Many of the walls are covered with rather artistic graffiti. Check my facebook post on the same subject and some other interesting images.

 You get the drift. 

As I ambled around, I visited the railway station for a short while. In front of the station is a large park at the end of which is the Opera house. 


There is this ancient hotel, the Esplanade next door which was used by the passengers of the Orient Express which used to stop at Zagreb. The railway station has a quaint feel to it, some buildings from the early 20th century and some rectangular non description ones from the communist era.

There is a small railway museum here too.

Later in the night, I stepped out to get to the main square, with the famous equestrian statue. Found a busker, playing out a very familiar tune.

You will recognize it too. Very often, I find the quality of buskers in western towns often betray the cultural standards of a city. Classical music, if you find, is a good sign.

Ban Jelačić Square is officially known as Trg bana Jelačića, is colloquially called Jelačić plac. This is where the young of Zagreb seem to  hang out, and most tours start from. This is a good place to see Zagreb’s famous blue trams including the old heritage  ones.

Incidentally, the day before, 11th April, marked the anniversary of Croatia’s declaration of independence by a puppet regime, in 1941. These are a handful of people, a bit of an embarrassment to the populace who celebrated the event. The group gathered at Jelačić square.

Touch down Croatia / Hrvatska

Visiting Zagreb

Ever read Alistair MacLean novels, as a young adult or even later? He wrote one called ‘The Partisans’, which I read while in senior school. Never mind what that story was about, but the setting was former Yugoslavia. Exotic sounding Zagreb, Mostar, Sarajevo, Graz, Zadar etc which became infamous later during the Serbo-Croat-Bosnian conflict. Somewhere along the line a city whose name started with a Z, sure did pique some interest in me and that interest to get there, sometime in life, remained.
Just before getting my shackles removed, closing my eyes and forefinger jabbing a map of Europe pointed roughly to Croatia. What shackles, you ask. Ah, but that is a story for another day.

Dealt with the Croatian embassy for a Visa. Have never figured why such seemingly immigration risk insignificant countries need such amazing amount of paperwork to issue a tourist visa and why do they charge so much? Am I about to illegally migrate…to Croatia? Not as if there is a large bunch Indians traveling to Croatia either.

 

Meanwhile, getting tickets on miles from British Airways was as much a bitch as it always has been. Can’t fly through here, not from there, not on this day, not on that, not in economy, not this airline etc etc. Getting some workable, but inconvenient combination is akin to expecting a singularity type event to happen and a space time continuum portal, to the other dimension,​ open up. So they routed me through LHR, but couldn’t find me a miles seat to Zagreb. That is supposed to be my destination, you see. In any case, my return trip on miles and paid LHR->ZAG ends up costing more than flying economy to ZAG and back.

The travel day from finally arrived. BA seems to have fallen on bad times. Their planes lack upkeep, the service borders now on surly, the food is just plain bad. Their Twitter CS team is callous in approach as well.

If you are flying short-haul economy, then you pay for food. Their central software system crashes, and disables online check-in too.

But, still interesting things happen. There are things happening everyday which make one gleeful. Finally the app based check-in today morning, self baggage drop and tag printing, and touch less card swipe on board for a coffee. Technology, when it works, is sheer magic.

Then this beautiful innovation of filter coffee in this cup with a cloth net filter.

Why didn’t someone think of this earlier?

Visible sunrises are still a delight. Even more so in England.

And then, John Cleese is going to be back on the tube; so reports The Telegraph.

…And touch down into sunny Zagreb. After a long line at immigration and a (fleecing) taxi drive, here is the view from my upgraded room

More on Zagreb and Croatia as I travel through next some days…