PLAYING WITH NUMBERS

THAT GREECE FUDGED ITS CRITICAL ECONOMIC data in its declarations to the EU is by now well known.  But Greece is far from alone in being economical with the truth. Statistical data released by corporates, governments, or for that matter research institutions , all contain a curious mixture  of  half truths , guesstimates, and information which can only be termed  computational sleight of hand : essentially, facts and figures presented  “to serve the purpose for which such data is intended.”  At the end of the day, truth is the biggest casualty.

TODAY’S  Economic Times, FOR INSTANCE, REPORTS serious inaccuracies in the Socio Economic & Caste Census 2011 data released by the Government of India.  #Jean Dreze says that  of the 640 districts covered, data for 628 is in the draft list and only 277 is in the final list. Of the 35 states and Union Territories , 21 are yet to publish their final list.  Besides, the Government of India is reluctant to release core caste data and the underlying rationale for withholding this information from the public domain is, reportedly, to stave off demands for proportional representation upon the discovery that only less than a handful of upper castes ran the entire bureaucracy in India !!

DELIBERATE MISSTATEMENTS OF STATISTICS IN PUBLIC DEBATE is not merely confined to India.  In recent times, facts were consistently  fudged  in the United States by the opponents of #Obamacare and their sympathisers in the media.  It is a big relief that the U.S. Supreme Court has  finally forced the opponents of the #Affordable Care Act to lay their arms to rest.  Similarly, the ink is also not dry yet on the debate on inequality.  #The Financial Times  did its bit to contest #Thomas Piketty’s finding that inequality has increased over the years but had to grudgingly agree with the economist in the face of incontrovertible evidence.  The newspaper should have remembered Lord Acton’s dictum – facts are sacred, comment is free.

BECAUSE NUMBERS HAVE SWAY OVER VIRTUALLY everything that we do, it is hardly surprising that data scientists are now in great demand.  The challenges they face are overwhelming indeed given the exponential increase in data that has to be mined for proper analysis and policy making.  In their books #”Freakonomics”  and #”Superfreakonomics”,  #Steven Levitt and #Stephen Dubner presented nuggets of data that held their readers in thrall.  However, rigorous data analysis has little room for drama.  Properly done and presented, data analysis should aid and not deter enlightened policy making both for Governments and corporates alike.

DATA FOUND IN THE MEDIA   AT LARGE has been particularly tendentious.  Besides, the extent of social inequity gets swept under the carpet most of the time in public debates by mischievous juxtaposition of information.  In the Indian context, for every #Surjit Bhalla appearing in a public debate we also need a #P.  Sainath to peel away the insularity with which we wrap ourselves with.  #Paul Krugman aptly said that “today’s political balance rests on a foundation of ignorance, in which the public has no idea what our society is really like.”  If policy making proceeds on the basis of doctored data,  things will surely spin out of control  as soon as the mists of information asymmetry disappear and the man in the street becomes restive.

BREAKTHROUGHS BY THINKING “WIN-WIN”

THE PROS AND CONS OF THE #NUCLEAR DEAL reached between #Iran and the #Six Super Powers today will be analysed for days and months but for everyone interested in the #Art of Negotiation, the deal clearly drives home the virtues of  thinking “win-win”  in sharp contrast to the “heads I win, tails  you lose”  attitude that is the hallmark of most negotiations.

PARTIES ON BOTH SIDES OF THE NEGOTIATING  TABLE  in the #Iranian Nuclear Deal did of course  resort to every trick available – bullying, brinksmanship, obduracy – what worked in the end however was the calm realisation on both sides that everyone had a lot to lose by walking away  but a lot to gain if they thought “win-win”.

THE #IRANIAN NUCLEAR DEAL STILL REMAINS FRAGILE  (Obama went on record to say that it was based “not on trust but on verification”) but those who steadfastly remained at the negotiating table must be complimented for their pragmatism, for recognising their individual limitations and for staying on course despite provocations from various quarters.  We must also not lose sight of the important fact that on the home front, Iranian negotiators have had to confront as well as tide over  the deep rooted “suspicion of the West”  prevalent amongst a pretty large section of the ruling elite and the local population just as the negotiators of the Super Powers have had to face the intense “demonisation of Islam” and doubts about “the ability of Iranians to keep their promises” prevalent in no small measure in their respective countries.  #Sanctions against Iran may well have continued indefinitely.  It speaks for the maturity of both sides who realised in the end that it would be futile to maintain their original irreconcilable positions.  A leap of faith has surely occurred here.

IN NEGOTIATIONS NORMALLY,  ALL of us love to “score points”, “prove the other side wrong” and conclude discussions in the fervent hope that “we gained” and “the other side lost”.  We don’t immediately realise that the so called “dominance” we yearn to exercise over the “other side” destroys what little goodwill that remains and that by such conduct we only leave open a chance for the “other side” to “get even” when an opportunity surfaces.  Mercifully, after 24 months of  talks, the participants in the #Iran Nuclear Deal have finally managed to avoid such pitfalls and both sides now clearly know and understand the consequences of reneging on each other’s undertakings.

WE MAY PERHAPS BE TOO CLOSE TO HISTORY  to judge the true merits of the #Iranian Nuclear Deal but there is little doubt that the true #Art of Negotiation reached historic heights today and probably there is no greater example in world history yet where “thinking win-win” has arguably made the world more safer for us despite the rumblings in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the said deal.

BEFORE THE BREAKTHROUGH IN IRAN,  thinking “win-win”  reached another great milestone and that was in Cuba where decades of prejudice and animosity have now opened rich and positive avenues for economic growth both for U.S and Cuba.

AS WITH NATIONS, SO WITH INDIVIDUALS.  We do need to think “win-win”  in our relationships be it at home or at the workplace.  Only then can we look forward to better tomorrows.

WHEN THE FAILURE RATE IS 99.4 %….

THE BODY RESPONSIBLE FOR CONDUCTING competitive tests for admission to professional courses and recruitment for government jobs in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh – VYAvsayik PAriksha Mandal (#Vyapam for short), a.k.a Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board (MPPEB) is at the heart of a storm that exposes the natural consequences of having a deeply flawed education system and the extent to which this has been  exploited by all interests.  Everything you wanted to know about #Vyapam but afraid to ask has been neatly set out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vyapam_Scam  The fact that malpractices were in vogue since the 1990s indicates how deep rooted the malaise is and moreover if the investigations were allowed to proceed truly and freely several thousands of professional degrees that went through the “Vyapam drill” would stand de-recognised.

NOW TAKE THIS REPORT that appeared in the Times of India on June 16, 2015:

Only 0.6% of those who take the AIPMT (All India Pre-medical Entrance Test) crack it. That is an unbelievably high stakes game for a mind boggling 99.4% failing to crack the exam.  Over 630,000 students took the test in 2014. The total number of MBBS (medical) seats in the country is 52,300. Government colleges have a little under 25,000 seats. The all-India quota is 15% excluding institutions like AIIMS and JIPMER. Therefore lakhs vie for around 3700 seats. That is where the 0.6% success rate comes from.  Even if all 52,000 seats were up for grabs only 8% aspirants would make it.

Government medical college seats are coveted for offering education at highly subsidised rates costing between Rs 25,000 and Rs 75,000 for a 4.5 year course and most of these offer better quality education.  The private sector offers just 19,000 seats , if we leave out the management quota (approximately 30 pct of seats) which are sold for Rs 5,500,000 and  Rs 8,000,000.  Private colleges charge between Rs 1,500,000 to Rs Rs 4,000,000 for the MBBS course and most aren’t known for quality education.

WITH SO MANY CHASING SO FEW SEATS, and with little governance overseeing the scramble, fraud is bound to occur – not just with candidates supplied with shirts built with a blue tooth chip stitched to them but also with tiny earphones and SIM cards.  Politicians, senior officials, businessmen, middlemen, and anxious parents are all involved and over 40 persons have so far been touched with the kiss of death ever since the investigations got under way – the whistleblowers wondering when their turn would arrive !! Starting with invigilators, and impersonators, and culminating with valuation of papers (not to speak of the leakage of question papers), the entire system has been abused to such an extent that you only have to specify a degree – you will get it for a price.

IN #NARENDRA MODI’s WELL-MEANING REFORM AGENDA, most unfortunately, education has received very low priority.  The budget outlay is just a little over 1% and to add insult to injury, universities and professional centres of learning that depend on Government funds for support are sought to be packed by persons whose ideological leanings matter rather than their professional competence.  The #Vyapam Scam will have the unfortunate consequence of most Indians viewing the qualifications of doctors who they consult with deep suspicion.  The scam should at least be a wake up call for the #Narendra Modi Government to initiate emergency reforms  in Indian education.

KNOW YOUR COMPANY, KNOW YOUR COUNTRY….

A SURE CURE FOR INSOMNIA is to pick up an annual report of a company and start reading – by page 3 one is sure to yawn.  There are company chairmen however who have distinguished themselves by using the AGM as a platform for relaying a compelling “feel good” theme every year for their shareholders with a judicious mix of PR and examples of corporate social responsibility.  In India, #HINDUSTAN UNILEVER LIMITED (HUL) is clearly a leader of this practice and the annual ritual that began with Mr #T. Thomas has been carried forward with finesse to the present day.  Early, last week, most Indian dailies carried a full page speech delivered by the current chairman of HUL, Mr #Harish Manwani.  In the midst of cataloguing all the useful  things that HUL has done for India, the following facts were also laid bare before shareholders :

  • India has a population of 1.22 Billion in 29 states and 7 union territories;
  • 1652 languages are spoken in India, 86 different scripts and 6 major religions;
  • Per capital income within different states range from Rs 17,000 to Rs 1,50,000;
  • 1 out of 4 undernourished people in the world live in India;
  • Around 97 million Indians do not have access to an improved source of drinking water;
  • There are more households in India with a mobile phone than a toilet;
  • 792 million Indians live without improved sanitation of which 597 million Indians defecate in the open;
  • Over 60 million Indian children are stunted  – the highest prevalence in the world;
  • India has the highest number of child deaths from diarrhoea and pneumonia – with 609,000 children dying each year before their fifth birthday from these diseases

HARISH MANWANI’S AGM ADDRESS was aptly titled “Serving Many Indias“. He should be complimented for sensitising his shareholders  (and the general public at large who cared to read his address) about the stark facts about India which would have probably gone unnoticed in the midst of the current noise pollution surrounding #Lalit Modi.

A TRUE AND FAIR VIEW OF #CAs….?

COLD, HARD FACTS AND FIGURES – THESE are an Accountant’s domain.  As I write this, the #Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (#ICAI) is celebrating the 66th Chartered Accountants’ Day.  It is also pertinent to note that there are over 237,000 CAs registered with ICAI and amongst them is Mr #Piyush Goyal, the Honourable Minister of State for Power, Coal and New & Renewable Energy.  Unless I am mistaken,  he has the distinction of being the first CA to hold ministerial office.  For a portfolio involving complicated power tariff calculations, transmission and distribution systems and subsidies, #Narendra Modi has probably made the right choice for the position.

A  CHARTERED ACCOUNTANT (“CA”) does indeed go through a real, hard grind before he earns and secures the privilege of certifying books of accounts.  For a starvation stipend termed “articled fees”, the aspiring CA simply has to sweat his way through during his apprenticeship to an audit firm, even as he struggles hard trying to make sense of a whole array of tax laws, tax treatments, accounting standards, et al.  The list of subjects with respect to which “expert knowledge” is expected of the CA is indeed mind boggling.  My respect for CAs has been greater than the respect I accord to other professionals quite simply because one rarely meets CAs who are capable of bullshitting – it is simply against their grain.

NONETHELESS, WHEN FINANCIAL FRAUD is discovered, the first person to be contacted is the in-house CA who is usually a Financial Controller (also usually armed with cost accounting and company secretarial qualifications ) and the in house Internal Auditor – (usually also a CA) before reaching out to statutory auditors.  Unless the fraud has been discovered or unearthed in the course of day to day operations, the post mortem of fraud has usually proceeded from an examination of accounts which have been certified as representing a true and fair view of the financial position of the company and the lens of scrutiny widens to the examination of the professional conduct of the CA.

ASIDE OF JUGGLING FUNDS TO MEET DAY TO DAY financial needs of the business, an occupational hazard of a CA occupying the senior most financial position in a company is the  constant pressure to approve particular expenses which may either be irregular in nature or beyond permissible limits.  They are under stress too when it comes to valuations (be it goodwill or opening/closing stock), accounting for receivables and inventory, booking of extraordinary income, depreciation et al – the list is endless and a pliable CA or a careless one may well end up window dressing the financial position of his company. The pressure on CAs has also risen immensely ever since listed companies are required to file quarterly results.  #Jairam Ramesh compared  this “quarterly production of results” drill to the title of the  popular Hindi film #Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak – he called it the #Quarter Se Quarter Tak  syndrome. Nearly two decades ago, I think, #Pradip Shah, #CRISIL’s first CEO and himself a distinguished CA, created a stir when he sounded a note of caution  to his fellow CAs to ensure that they remain mindful of their analytical rigour and depth  of scrutiny so that the  the financial statements they certify do indeed reflect a true and fair view. His warnings are relevant even today.

NOT SO LONG AGO I HAD THE PRIVILEGE OF being present at  Board Meeting of a company where the item of discussion was the selection of the CFO.  Interestingly, a key member of the Board managed to convince his other colleagues that the short listed candidate (with the highest recommendations from a powerful section of shareholders)  should be rejected on the ground that “this chap does not have it in him to meaningfully challenge the CEO on financial matters.”  It was a telling testimony I think of  the present day expectation from CAs who are aspiring for senior financial/audit positions.

THE ICAI HAS ITS HEART IN THE RIGHT PLACE.  Its motto* is taken from Aditya Hridayam of the Yudha Kanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana.  It is part of the exhortation by Sage Agastya to Rama before his imminent duel with Ravana.    The sage offers salutations to the Lord who abides in the heart of all beings keeping awake when they are asleep:  Ya Esa Suptesu Jagruti*.  

We need wakeful and alert CAs more than we needed them yesterday !!

“IF YOU CAN WINK, YOU’RE WELCOME…..”

CEOs NATURALLY LIKE SEAMLESS, UNBRIDLED EXERCISE  of power but three vital limbs of a modern corporate (aside of shareholders) supposedly work towards ensuring that such power is exercised reasonably. The limbs in question are risk management, internal audit and in-house legal departments.  A reality check of corporations across the world would however reveal that the professionals attached to these limbs are, more often than not, and entirely for wrong reasons, the most unpopular lot of any corporate.  The tide is slowly turning in their favour although old attitudes are hard to dislodge.

THE COMPLEXITIES OF DOING BUSINESS TODAY and the regulatory compliances that have to be ensured on a day to day basis should, in the normal course, result in adequate respect being accorded to #risk management, #internal audit and #in-house legal professionals.  However, are their voices heeded and their recommendations and findings implemented ?  The answer is anybody’s guess.

IT IS ONE OF THE IRONIES OF MODERN CIVILISATION that there is a hell of a lot of money to be made by breaching the law or by diluting adherence to applicable compliances. For instance, no one has yet estimated the billions of dollars corporates have made, say, by the violations of #sanctions on Iran although there have been instances of some high profile fining.  The banking industry is particularly vulnerable.  #Matthew Vincent, a columnist with the #Financial Times recently asked : ” If 16 global banks can incur GBP 306 Billion of fines and provisions in 5 years…and still make profits, has “getting caught” simply become a cost of doing business ?”

FOR THE MEDICAL PROFESSION, IN ORDER TO SAVE human lives, #Dr Atul Gawande famously recommended that we must mandatorily run through an irreducible minimum of checklists.  What is the equivalent for corporates ?  #The Sarbanes-Oxley Act triggered a host of checklists for corporate compliance and it resulted in an increase in the intake of risk management and audit professionals in most MNCs.  Nevertheless, the credo of “profits at any cost” or “profit in everything that we do” has still marginalized the above named professionals.  Sadly, company managements particularly look for pedigreed but weak-kneed ones who can either merely “go through the motions” or “wink” at breaches.  This tacit pact has spelt the ruin of several corporates from #Enron to #Lehman Brothers (nearer home, #Satyam Computers) and audit firms catalysed their doom by looking the other way when irregularities stared at their faces.  When the columnist #John Plender spoke of “moral capital in secular decline” a reader from the #Financial Times aptly commented: “An action that brings a big reward will be adopted no matter how unethical it can be, if the risk to get caught is low enough.”

THE INTERNAL MARGINALISATION OF RISK MANAGEMENT, Internal Audit and In-House Legal functions has also given rise to whistleblowers.  But life is not easy for whistleblowers either.  In the context of several banking scandals, #Beatrice Edwards, Director of the Washington-based #Government Accountability Project, aptly said:

“It is a win-win for everybody involved. The calculation for the Bank is going to be, “OK, how much money can we make by doing this (bad behaviour) before we get caught? Are we going to be able to cover the fine at the very least , and then make a fairly substantial profit and just pay the fine ?” And that would explain why there aren’t any prosecutions, because if the Department of Justice starts prosecuting, then the gravy train kind of shuts down.  Calculate how much money you can make by doing X or by selling Y before getting caught at it and what you think essentially you could settle for, and if what you can make is substantially more than what you can settle for, then you go forward.  If getting caught means (there is) a whistleblower, then you just grind up that employee in the cost of doing business. If the employee whistleblower is lucky, he or she comes out with a successful anti-retaliation claim three or four years after the blood was shed. Or the whistleblower if successful gets an amount of money that may make it possible to go on living – but it is certainly not an amount of money that caused a real pain to a major financial institution on Wall Street. It is a cost benefit analysis. It works because nobody is going to jail. Jail would put a stop to it...”

ULTIMATELY IT DOES APPEAR AS IF THERE IS an unwritten understanding between all participants in society.  This has been analysed in the book #Fragile by Design, co-authored by #Charles Calomiris and #Stephen Haber, the essence of which was aptly summed up in #John Kay’s review : “The incidence of financial crises is the outcome of local political conditions. The authors describe bankers’ interactions with supervisory authorities as a game of “bank bargains” in which the structure and behaviour of a nation’s financial system is the outcome of tacit compromises between competing and cooperative interests mediated in a political arena.”  What applies to banks applies to all other corporates too.

THE PROFESSIONALS DISCUSSED IN THIS POST  have only two options : either wink and sail along or stay their ground, regardless of consequences.

#INDIA IN THE EMERGENCY WARD STILL !!

NO, THIS IS NOT A RECAP OF THE DARK EVENTS THAT ENGULFED India #40 years ago – when human rights were jettisoned and thousands incarcerated without valid reasons – of which much has been written in the past few days.  On the other hand, this is a reminder of the state we are still in, towards which, given our own selfishness and insularity, if I may borrow Mary Midgley’s phrase, we have all cultivated “an active disinclination to feel.”

IT WOULD BE WHOLLY WRONG IF WE DELUDE ourselves into believing that all is hunky-dory by merely having a look at the short blips of Sensex or Nifty and confuse the inflow of FII investment as a sure signal of improved conditions in India.  Radical surgery is long overdue and the only man who can still perform it today is none other than #Narendra Damodardas Modi.  He cannot afford to underestimate the faith that millions have reposed in him and the historic opportunity he still has to change the history of India, positively and forever.

SMART CITIES, BULLET TRAINS AND TECHNOPARKS are all fine and welcome but on most human development indices that measure the quality of life, India still ranks amongst the lowest in the world.  Virtually everything we eat or drink is still unwholesome.  As India Today aptly asked last fortnight  in its cover story :  is it still food on our plate ?  Access to reasonably priced medical/hospital services for a majority of Indians is still beyond reach; the education system is far from ideal; law enforcement and the delivery of justice is still a dream for India’s teeming millions notwithstanding the occasional spark of fairness and urgency that lace judicial verdicts.  Ecological issues also appear to be radically sidelined.

LEST IT BE MISUNDERSTOOD, THE ABOVE FACTS should not lead one to hastily conclude that India is irredeemable.  On the other hand, India, or more correctly, the Indian people have provided the current political leadership with the mandate to change the face of India that would be the envy of the world but time may be running out fast before everything slips at best into catastrophic gradualism and at worst into status quo.

WHILE IT APPEARS UNLIKELY THAT WE MAY HEAR THE MIDNIGHT KNOCK at our door as many unfortunate persons did when the #state of emergency was imposed #40 years ago, the growing intolerance of pluralism and intelligent dissent, particularly in academic institutions is  worrisome.  While keeping his counsel to himself, #Narendra Modi should also welcome constructive criticism as listening to “yes men” always may distance him from ground realities and this may prove to be too costly. His situation in this regard is not unlike that of #Arvind Kejriwal’s.

THE PRESENT STATE OF INDIA SHOULD “keep us awake at night” – something that #Amartya Sen pointed out in his address to the Indian Parliament when he delivered the first #Hiren Mukherjee Memorial Lecture on August 11, 2008*. WHAT INDIA LACKS IS A TERRIBLE SENSE OF URGENCY.  While still in the emergency ward, India may run out of oxygen and hence, as #Sadanand Dhume aptly suggested today in #The Times of India, it is time for #Narendra Modi to “trash caution and embrace courage” instead. He will not then be bereft of the overwhelming support of his countrymen  even if some vested interests desert him when the latter discover  to their surprise that he is not subservient to their own self-serving agenda.

__________________________

* Originally published as “The Demands of Justice”. (Revised shorter version under the name “What should Keep Us Awake at Night.”

#3 EVENTS IN A SINGLE DAY – #JUNE 21

#SAYING YES TO YOGA:

THANKS TO NARENDRA MODI, PEOPLE IN most parts of India (and hopefully in the convenient time zones of the Indian diaspora elsewhere) will be inhaling and exhaling in yogic unison from 6.45 am onwards on June 21st (tomorrow).  Although #Patanjali wrote his yoga sutras in the 2nd century before Christ, it took a Narendra Modi to leverage his position as the premier of the world’s largest democracy to drive home the benefits of practicing yoga. It is indeed a great example of how the belief in a good idea or practice can indeed be propagated effectively when such belief is held steadfastly by a person in power. One fervently hopes that the momentum for practising yoga regularly does not fizzle out with the conclusion of the countrywide group exercise tomorrow.

AT THE VERY MINIMUM ONE SHOULD BE CONSCIOUS of the power of breath control and how vital breath is to our lives.  Being conscious of our breathing is in itself salutary to health and the pranic exercises when undertaken regularly would undoubtedly enable us to lead more relaxed, mindful lives.

IF WE HAVE NO DIFFICULTY IN ACCEPTING Physical Education/Physical Training as an essential part of education, we should not have any objection to the introduction of yogic exercises as an integral part of Physical Education right from kindergarten. Exercise in groups induces a tremendous sense of energy and euphoria and I personally experienced  this while practising the sudarshana kriya in groups associated with the Art of Living not so long ago.

MY CURRENT EXERCISE ROUTINE is limited to an hour’s brisk walk every day but I now think that a few simple yogic exercises will only enhance my sense of well-being.  I must now pull out the yoga mat which is stashed somewhere at home !

#MUSICOPHILIA:

THE PUBLICITY BLITZ FOR YOGA HAS PROBABLY eclipsed the fact that June 21 is also celebrated as #World Music Day.  It also happens to be summer solstice – the day when the sun is the farthest from the equator.  As in the case of Yoga, the sense of well-being induced by music is indisputable.  India is indeed a unique place where several forms of music co-exist and flourish.  This has also made “fusion music” possible, the wrath of the purists notwithstanding.  I am delighted to be able to listen to all forms of music and enjoy them immensely.  I do make it a point to listen to music for at least 30 minutes every day.  On a given day, it could be a melange comprising of a composition of #Mozart, a #Thyagaraja kriti by  #Maharajapuram Santhanam, a rendering of raga Megh Malhar by #Rashid Khan, a film song by #Shreya Ghoshal, rounded off with a popular number from #Taylor Swift.

MUSIC IS LIKE OXYGEN FOR ME AND I consider my iPod as a life accessory.  I can only paraphrase the concluding words of #Anthony Storr from his memorable book Music and the Mind : “Although music is not a belief system,…its importance and its appeal also depend upon its being a way of ordering human experience.  Great music both arouses our emotions and also provides a framework within which our passions “enjoy themselves” as Nietzsche put it. Music exalts life, enhances life, and gives it meaning.Great music outlives the individual who created it. It is both personal and beyond the personal. For those who love it, it remains as a fixed point of reference in an unpredictable world…..music has been something for the sake of which it is worthwhile to live on earth…it is an irreplaceable, transcendental blessing.”

SO, MAKE IT A POINT TO LISTEN TO A FEW MINUTES of music just as you allot some time for exercise.  You will be “moved” anyway !!

#FATHER’S DAY:

ONE DOES NOT WITNESS A FRENZIED celebration of Father’s Day as it is in the case of Mother’s.  Probably Mothers are far more attached to their children than Fathers are – the intensity of the childbirth experience being a principal reason.  For me the overwhelming thought as a parent, as a Father, is simply this : we are in a position to defy death, in a manner of speaking, as we leave behind a little of ourselves in our own children. Was it Wordsworth who said “The Child is the Father of Man” ?  #Dom Moraes called his autobiography “My Son’s Father”. As a father of two children, I can only endorse with all honesty what the poet #Ogden Nash said :

Being a Father/Is Quite a Bother/But I like it rather !!

# MONSOON MUSINGS

ON AND OFF FOR THE PAST FEW DAYS I have been looking out of the window hoping that it would rain soon.  This evening as the first droplets of monsoon landed on the courtyard in front of my building my mood is suddenly upbeat as it always has been when the rains arrive.

THE FIRST RAINS HAVE THEIR OWN CHARM. The smell of rain water and mud (or is it dust?) is strangely pleasing and after the first showers there is a stillness that is so peaceful.  I am transported back to my childhood days thinking of the walls in the verandah at night that would be dotted with all sorts of insects and flies and when it was a field day for odd lizards which surfaced from behind the inclined photo frames of the family ancestry for their prey.  Somewhere in the distance there was a frog croaking always and the sounds of the crickets were unmistakable.  Ours was a cottage in a large compound full of dense vegetation and trees all round and in the pitch darkness outside our house it was always a delight watching the fireflies blinking.  The first rains would soon give way to huge showers, non stop for hours, and when they ceased momentarily it was nearly music listening to the gentle fall of the raindrops on leaves and even when droplets from the roof edges fell on the puddles of water that virtually remained all around the house throughout the season.

IN CITIES, THE MONSOONS HAVE A DIFFERENT FLAVOUR altogether. It is all about raincoats and umbrellas, waterlogged tracks delaying trains for hours, traffic jams, leaking roofs and damp walls, and school children (and office goers) waiting for those torrential rains that could result in a rain holiday or two. In Mumbai we will soon begin watching the lake levels published in page 11 of the newspaper almost as enthusiastically as the Sensex and Nifty numbers and stockbrokers will now hope that the Met Dept has got it all wrong about deficient rainfall signalling #Raghuram Rajan for his next rate cut !  Mumbaikars will also hope and pray at the advent of every monsoon that the precautions taken by BMC against water logging are better than the year before…

RAINS HAVE A FLIP SIDE TOO: FLOODING, destruction of crops, house collapses, loss of life and injury, and the untold misery caused to people living in the margins.  In short, the season brings both relief and sorrow sometimes mirroring the vicissitudes of life itself. Haven’t you also heard, in the context of cricket, when “RAIN STOPS PLAY” ?  Incessant rains induce drudgery too as the late poet Dom Moraes captured succinctly  in one simple line in one of his poems : “It is raining outside like a businessman’s stories…”

MONSOONS HAVE GIVEN BIRTH TO A WHOLE BODY of literature, music and films. One of the most extraordinary short stories ever written is titled “Rain”.  It is by Somerset Maugham where the suspense rests on the last word of the story. There is the legend of Tansen who is said to have induced rain from the heavens through the Amritavarshani raga. And there are many films too with rain (or the lack of it) as an important backdrop  – from Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) in Bengali to Kamal’s Perumazhakkalam (In Times of Torrential Rain) in Malayalam. Who hasn’t heard of the raaga Megh Malhar on which countless film songs have been based ? From the singer Khursheed of yesteryears in Tansen to Barso Re Megha Megha Barso Re in Guru and the sheer celebration of the first rain Ghanana Ghanana Gir Aur Badla in Lagaan  where the combined voices of Udit Narayan, Sukhwinder Singh, Shaan, Shankar Mahadevan and Alka Yagnik work magic will remain etched in memory for ever. On a rainy day, with a steaming cup of coffee in hand I plan to listen to the inimitable renditions of Pandit Jasraj and Rashid Khan of the Megh Malhar raga.  For the moment, as I write this, in my headphones I am listening to Sujata Trivedi singing Boondon Se Baatein set to the memorable music of AR Rahman for  the film Thakshak.

IT IS OFT REPEATED THAT WHEN TWO ENGLISHMEN meet the icebreaker is a brief discussion on the weather.  When it rains, the typical conversation opener is to state the obvious : “Good Rain!”  “Really Bad Rains Today” or quite simply “Oh, I am all wet..” The late Khushwant Singh often wrote engagingly on the Indian monsoons.  Remarking on the  vagaries of the rains in India, he once wryly remarked, that sometimes, “by the time you finish saying Chakravarti Rajagopalachari a shower is over !”

I MUST END THIS PIECE as  I now need to download Cynthia Barnett’s “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History” on my Kindle.

#THE NESTLE INDIA AFFAIR – GOING BEYOND BRAND AMBASSADORS & MAGGI NOODLES

THE PRESENCE OF LEAD AND HIGH LEVELS  OF MSG (monosodium glutamate), a flavour enhancer, in the #Maggi Noodles packets of #Nestle India has understandably caused a stir in all the right quarters and the authorities are also probably correct  in holding celebrities accountable  for endorsing brands without caring to examine what they lend their names for.

IT IS OF COURSE ANYBODY’S GUESS IF the sales of a product  really rises merely because a matinee idol has endorsed it although it may be possibly true in the case of  clothes/fashion accessories.  We are told that Amitabh Bachchan has more than 15 mn followers on  Twitter and that  Madhuri Dixit has 3.6 mn on the same platform.  My own take is that purchase decisions of persons on Twitter particularly with respect to food items are not really influenced by the number of followers that celebrities (who endorse such items) command on social media.  However, the #Nestle India affair will make celebrities in India more circumspect henceforth before they take on brands for endorsement – notwithstanding the attraction of a hefty fee.  If they do, they may demand a rigorous certification before hand and that would be a good thing for all of us.

WHAT BEGAN AS AN ACTION BY THE UTTAR PRADESH Food Safety & Drug Administration soon spread to other areas, notably in the State of Kerala which ordered the complete withdrawal of #Maggi packets from all shop shelves statewide. It is not quite clear from the Maggi episode if Nestle India was unfairly singled out particularly when it is doubtful if most processed foods in India will pass the rigorous tests of quality control. While one cannot complain that the action taken by the Government of Kerala is Draconian, it may not be able to successfully escape the charge of selective targeting particularly when the State happens to be a region where vegetables are sold with the most toxic chemicals injected into them for “better colour” and “quick ripening” effects !  Mind you, this is on top of the indiscriminate use of fertilisers.  Against public outcry, the Government of Kerala recently despatched a team to Tamil Nadu to discuss the containment and prevention of the obnoxious practice of chemical injection into vegetables sent for sale into Kerala from Tamil Nadu.  Serious follow up action on the ground on this issue has yet to be seen.

NOT SO LONG AGO, WHEN SHAHRUKH KHAN was chided in public for endorsing a soft drink, he retorted saying that  probably more toxic chemicals have found their way in the breast milk of nursing mothers in India on account of fertilizers  in the food they ate rather than in the product he endorsed !!  He was dead right.

THERE IS PROBABLY A LOT TO BE DONE BY US INDIVIDUALLY in our own selfish interests. Every Indian family having space for a garden should grow their own vegetables. We could then even avoid paying premium in the select outlets that sell “organic food”.  The Malayalam filmmaker #Roshan Andrews caused a positive stir in Kerala when his popular film #”How Old Are You” powerfully portrayed the beneficial effects of having one’s own small garden. At the end of the day we have to take care of ourselves: manufacturers of processed foods and mass growers of vegetables and fruits may well know how to avoid the long arm of law. It is our precious health that is on the line.