Pankaj Dubey’s Debut Novel ‘What a Loser!’ is the Story of Every Stereotyped Human Soul Around Us

The world around us is so full of stereotypes. Some claim to be good whereas most of them turn out to be disastrous. There is also an army of well-intentioned people who work to break these stereotypes. Yet it seems almost impossible to wipe out these stereotypes. The world likes to thrive in these patterns irrespective of whether you like it or not. So, what happens when one chooses to tell the stories of these stereotyped human souls around us? It turns out to be a laugh riot and that is what Pankaj Dubey’s debut novel What a Loser! is. The book is published by Penguin Random House India.

 

Being faithful to his roots, Pankaj picked a protagonist close to home. The interesting aspect of his protagonist is that he is strangely familiar and popular among the rest of the countrymen. But only Pankaj could bring out the finer aspects of this innocent yet dreamy PAKS. PAKS arrives in Mukherjee Nagar carrying some seemingly lofty goals and loads of Sattu and achaar from Begusarai. From the significance of the colour red, be it in the gamchha, the name embroidered in the pillow covers to the terracotta-coloured shirt pieces and the information on the ‘penties’, our author’s attention to details is just spot on. Even if you are not from Begusarai or the cow-belt, you still might relate to PAKS especially if you were raised in a village or small town and migrated to the cities to pursue some sort of a career. Feel free to blame the author if you become all nostalgic and secretly wish for PAKS to succeed in his journey. But he is not even my favourite character.

 

While the author was cheering for his protagonist, I was rooting for the self-proclaimed Badshah of 440, Mukherjee Nagar, New Delhi. Haven’t we all had such wonderful characters in our lives, who are so full of their insecurities, vulnerabilities, false pride and fear of failures? Putting up a brave, proud face even during unfortunate times while making life miserable for others the rest of the time, Subodh Singh only makes this comedy ride of the story more entertaining. His character touches the epitome when PAKS’s Babuji arrives in 440.

 

None of the characters seems fictional even if the author claims so. From the north-easterners Ronnie and Amilie to the Jats who form the opposite gang, each one looks handpicked from one or other’s real life. So are the events in the plot. The secrets of evening colleges, the university politics, the obsession with ‘cool’ English and British Council, the fascination for ‘milky white’ skin and the Punjaban girls are all inimitable truths of a small-town guy in Delhi. The book knits together these urban legends and takes you through a hilarious ‘Dilli Darshan’.

 

I find it hard to ignore that the author doesn’t have much kindness left for his female characters. They are either cold and vicious or come across as eye-candies. I wonder what grudge does the author have against the beautiful girls of Delhi.

 

Even as the book gives a comic touch to the many miseries of these super commoners, the author also manages to poke your eye occasionally while you are busy laughing. Some of us might not even notice the poke, for instance when Subodh Singh asserts his ‘caste superiority’, or when a shootout happens in a University classroom. You realize these are matters of greater concern, in retrospection. But to brood is against the spirit of the book. So pick this book, when you want to leave out your cares for a while and have a peal of hearty laughter.

You can buy the book here.

Tracing India’s Environmental Footprints with EIA 2020

EIA 2020 will have to re-assess its impact on India’s ecological balance even as the country’s aspires for its dream of a 5 trillion dollar economy.

A drop in seismic noise—the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust” due to Covid 19 restrictions is just another discernible marker of the environmental impact of global industrialisation amidst a population exceeding 7 billion people. Even as carbon credits (Fig. 1) are traded worldwide, attempts were afoot to limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius as ratified by 189 countries in the 2016 Paris Agreement. In India, the draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification (EIA) 2020 has recently concluded its public discourse after agitated and contentious feedback from a majority of 17 lakh respondents against the dilution of the EIA process, particularly the exclusion of public consultation for many projects which could adversely impact the environment.

United Nations Carbon Offsets
United Nations Carbon Offsets | Source: United Nations Environment Programme

The inaugural EIA Notification in 1994 required public consultation for ‘all projects requiring environmental clearance from the Central Government’ as listed under 30 categories of its Schedule I. However, the due diligence involved in assessing environmental impact was skewed for “site specific projects such as mining, hydro-power, major irrigation projects, ports and harbours, prospecting and exploration of major minerals in areas above 500 hectares.” According to EIA (1994), the “decision regarding suitability or otherwise of the proposed site” had to be conveyed “within a maximum period of thirty days by the Central Government in the Ministry of Environment and Forests.” This was probably to quash the misgivings of people like Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan which caused the withdrawal of World Bank funding for the Sardar Sarovar Dam in 1993

As governments in independent India have forged ahead to improve the country’s economy after centuries of British plunder, a commitment to environmental impact assessment has largely been influenced by external factors such as the enactment of Environmental Protection Act (1986) after the Bhopal Gas tragedy; or even Indira Gandhi’s establishment of the National Committee for Environmental Planning and Coordination (NCEPC) in April 1972 in preparation of the first environmental conference held in Stockholm in June 1972. But the skewed balance of economic growth and environmental conservation/protection is just as evident in the EIA Notification (2020). 

With the Modi government’s push to support economic growth at the grassroots level, the focus has been India’s micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), growing from 6.33 crore MSMEs reported in the “MSME Ministry’s FY19 annual report.” According to the recent notification by the Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises, MSMEs are categorized by investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment and turnover; ranging from INR 1 crore and INR 5 crore for a micro enterprise, to INR 10 crores and INR 50 crores for a small enterprise, extending to “investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment not exceeding INR 50 crores and turnover less than/equal to INR 250 crores.” Even as the debate about public consultation continues, what is particularly disconcerting is that the government in its attempt to bolster Indian MSMEs has exempted many projects from prior-Environmental Clearance (pEC) or prior-Environmental Permission (pEP) such as  – 

Manufacturing of Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulphonic Acid (LABSA) from LAB; Chemical processing of ores/ concentrate; Manufacturing of Acids; Petroleum products and petrochemical based processing; and Manufacturing of paints, varnishes, pigments, intermediates (excluding blending / mixing).

Waste Management & Soil Contamination Image
Waste Management & Soil Contamination | Source: Memuco

The decentralization effected by EIA 2006 included a segregation of projects not requiring an “Environment Impact Assessment report” (Category ‘B2’). In EIA 2006, projects categorised as B2 did not require public consultation, similar to EIA 2020. However, the lack of accountability afforded to MSMEs in EIA 2020 is astounding considering the environmental impact of exempted projects. The unfettered manufacturing of products like LABSA, acids, paints, and petroleum/ petrochemical derivatives is especially alarming considering many of these processes are listed as generating hazardous waste in Schedule I of the Hazardous Waste Rules 2016. This undetected contamination by environmental pollutants is exacerbated by the fact that violation reporting is no longer the purview of Indian citizenry. 

According to Traverso-Soto, González-Mazo, and Lara-Martín, “the major fraction of synthetic surfactants are disposed down the drain to sewers… and sludges are also a potential source of contamination for soils, groundwater and adjacent rivers as they tend to contain high concentrations of organic contaminants and are often used in agriculture after anaerobic digestion.” Combined with an increase in EIA validity periods and reduced frequency of compliance reporting, the ambiguous jurisprudence of EIA 2020 is debatably unequitable in its attempt at environmental conservation and preservation. Although the shift to renewable energy is evident in the exemption from pEC or pEP for projects like “Solar Photo Voltaic (PV) Power projects, Solar Thermal Power Plants and development of Solar Parks,” the EIA 2020 will have to re-assess its impact on India’s ecological balance even as the country’s aspires for its dream of a 5 trillion dollar economy.

Cover Image: Supriti Malhotra

 

Ismat Chughtai Birth Anniversary: Remembering Her Through Her Stories

Ismat Chughtai’s stories and characters cut through time and remain relevant even in the 21st century. She wrote in Urdu and was part of the Progressive Writer’s Movement. The movement focused on how art can contribute to the betterment of society by commenting on its evils and hypocrisy.

Ismat Chughtai is well known for etching out female characters that did not fit any mould society cast for them. The characters are rebellious by their very nature or paradoxically through subverting the restrictions imposed on them. They dare to question. They dare to be themselves. Through such bold characters, Chughtai also sheds light on the barriers of gender, class, and caste prevalent in society during her lifetime, which unfortunately clog minds in India till today.  

One of Chughtai’s most well known stories is Lihaaf or The Quilt as translated in English. She had to go to Lahore to face obscenity charges for this short story. Lihaaf is a curious mix of understatement and being out there. It does not explicitly mention sexual acts except obliquely. Yet what was unsettling for readers then and perhaps even now is the portrayal of same-sex love. It showed women not only in control of their sexuality but also boldly expressing it. Chughtai’s manner of unsettling the reader gives her stories an unparalleled power that still holds sway.  Her stories prick at the norms and restrictions accepted as a status quo. It lays bare the faults in many of our beliefs, thus shocking the reader.

For example, in her short story, Mole or Til, she depicts a village woman, Rani, who poses as a model for the painter, Ganeshchand Choudhry. Rani is fully aware of her beauty and knows how to sway the people to do her bidding. Choudhry expects her to be grateful for letting her stay at his home. But Rani is not one to submit to feelings of pitiful charity. She is vocal about her desires and never lets Choudhry dictate her whether it is in posing as a model or otherwise.

Similarly and perhaps even bolder is her story, The Homemaker or Gharwali. The story portrays Mirza, a shop owner who lets Lajo be a maid in his house. Lajo is another carefree personality that Chughtai has created. She does not want to be shackled by marriage to one man. She is perfectly happy to love Mirza and take care of his house. But she would prefer giving her love to a lot of people rather than being tied to one man. The Homemaker shows how passion and love are supposed to be regulated and kept under control for the sake of decency. To escape this garb of decency, men court courtesans while women are expected to be pure. Lajo cannot succumb to these restrictions of being ‘good woman or wife.’ Chughtai thus portrays a society’s hypocrisy about marriage and its gendered double standards over a person’s desires.

The short story, All Alone, briefly traces Shahzad’s growth from college to adulthood. She finished her BA and ‘was inundated with marriage proposals.’ She loved someone else, Dilshad Mirza, and not the proposals that came pouring in. Instead, she enrolled in a course for painting and becomes absolutely immersed in it. So much so that she does not realise the passage of time. Many things happened in between, notably India’s Independence and Partition. The story shows Shahzad choosing her own path and rejecting marriage. In today’s modern times as well, women are pressured into believing that marriage is the ultimate goal in their life. In Chughtai’s story, Shahzad showed how opting for a profession does not mean she was incomplete or discontented with her life; or that she longed for a soul mate. She chose to embrace her art and puts to rest any rumours about her being a lonely sad woman. She refuses to be an object of self-pity because the society believes that a woman cannot be happy alone.  This story was way ahead of its time and is a brilliant portrayal of women as artists and their connection with their creation.

Chughtai’s short stories expressed different facets of female thought and desire in a witty yet detailed manner. The stories feel relatable hundred years later as they continue to call out hollow societal ideas and practices prevalent today.

Creator's-Image-ShwethaHS

Creator’s Image by Shwetha H S Looks for the Interesting in the Mundanities of Life

The difference between a full-blown novel and a short story is perhaps similar to that of a long term relationship and a one-night stand. A reader reads a short story without the expectation of a long term commitment but this very aspect of a short story compounds the pressure on the writer. The margin for error is nil. The author cannot make mistakes in the first page to compensate for them in the subsequent pages. What comes about in those few thousand words lasts as the first and the final impression of the encounter on the reader’s mind.

Shwetha H S begins her short stories collection with the title-story Creator’s Image which is a deeply reflective metaphorical tale about the human civilization. With multi-layers of deliberation presented with intelligent twists and turns, this story holds the book together. There are ten other stories which tell us the tales of extraordinary moments of our ordinary lives. In fact, the selection of subjects and plot betray Shwetha’s love for the fleeting moments of life, her attempts to hold them for a little longer in her gaze and pluck a story out from those moments.

Most of the stories are relatable and you will find parts of yourself in one or the other tale. The stage is most often a snapshot of the routine life. Through the course of the story, her pen closes in on one character who can be considered the protagonist. She deals with the character in greater details and the suspense hangs around this character’s action or inaction. While this method works for a few of the stories, it also makes a few of them predictable. As a result, they end up short of making a lasting impact. The stories that hit the mark linger with you for sometime and keep you invested in the plot even after they have ended.

The book also deals with moments of dilemma humans face while making decisions in life, no matter how significant or insignificant. This pits the reader’s choices against those of the characters time and again and makes for a very fluid vantage point which does not distance itself too much away from the characters and the stories. You will find yourself in situations where your vantage point gets flooded away with helplessness and there remains hardly any difference between you as a reader and the characters sketched in the stories.

The language is lucid and mature. The author has constructed her stories with not a word extra or unnecessary. There is no needless rhetoric or the microscopic background details. She balances the ‘told’ and the ‘untold’ deftly in all her stories and the reader is neither dumbed down nor is left to stray too far in the dark at any point.

My favourite stories in the book are Tears of the Goddess, To Each His Own, and Creator’s Image. The book is available on Amazon Kindle and if you are looking for a quick-read without having to commit to the rigours of reading a big fat novel in the already ominous season of lockdowns and unlocks, Creator’s Image is the one night stand you are looking for.

You can buy the book here.

Old-Possums-Book-of-Practical-Cats

Reading T.S. Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ On International Cat Day

A reputation of being indifferent, queenly, and uncaring has been built around cats. Most view cats through this stereotype. However, far from being indifferent, I think of cats as being creatures that value their space and show affection in their own unique ways. Each is endowed with a personality and style.

T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats celebrates this uniqueness. T.S. Eliot is known for epitomizing the 20th century post World War I disillusion with systems and civilizations. However, in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, he penned light, humorous verses that create some of the most memorable cat characters in English literature. It was these verses that inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cats. While the musical attempts to create a plot out of the poems, the original poems in the collection are largely stand alone poems that weave whimsical stories about different cats. The poems in a way anoint cats with a glory that the species deserve!

This is seen right at the beginning in the first poem, The Naming of Cats. Naming a cat is a solemn occasion. One must choose the name wisely. No silly riff raff of a name should be given. Instead,

“...a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified.”

Right here, we come across the idea that cats are unique and their names should carry substance. True to this idea, all the cats in the rest of the poems have unique and quite British sounding names. They have strange and peculiar qualities including the stereotypical ones such as being curious or having many lives.

The Old Gumbie Cat is about a house cat Jennyanydots, who takes her work seriously and maintains peace in the house by training all the mice! Deuteronomy in Old Deuteronomy is a well respected and loved neighbourhood cat. He has lived a long life and is accorded the requisite respect by the humans by allowing him to sleep undisturbed anywhere he pleases.

Some of the cat characters even have professions which have made them famous. Gus in Gus: The Theatre Cat has enacted every role there is to play and is particularly proud of playing the part of Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell. Macavity: The Mystery Cat portrays Macavity who is called the “Napoleon of Crime!” He is a master criminal who is always ready with alibis and is never to be found on the scene of the crime, much to the bafflement of the Scotland Yard!

Can you imagine cats as pirates? Growltiger was a terrifying one throughout the Thames until he met his match and “was forced to walk the plank” in Growltiger’s Last Stand.

And what if trains ran under the scrutiny of meticulous cats? Would they run better? Absolutely! Midnight Mail needs the services of these nocturnal creatures in Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat. Skimble’s “glass-green eyes” are enough to give a green signal for the train to depart. Skimbleshanks offers many benefits aboard the train from keeping it mice-free to being awake for keeping watch and supervising humans who could sleep on the job! He is the true “Cat of the Railway Train.”

The last poem in the collection, The Ad-dressing of Cats, addresses the human and cat relationship. T.S. Eliot humorously lists down rules of addressing a cat. The first and foremost rule is that of respecting the cat and allowing it to trust you through first. Only then will the cat deign to consider you your friend so that you may name and keep it. It is precisely this behavior that drives the notion of cats having airs. But, I guess, cats are just like humans. We wouldn’t want to be unnecessarily and without consent be cuddled, right? Unsolicited affection is uncomfortable. So, what is the harm in asking for consent? Think!

You can buy the book here. We have also made a collection of books from Japan about cats. Read more about them here.

The Circle of Karma Is a Moving Depiction of Individuality and Self Reflection From Bhutan

Kunzang Choden’s The Circle of Karma was the first English novel to be published in Bhutan by a woman.

Set in approximately, 1950s and 1960s Bhutan, the novel is written in a chronological order and narrated from a third person point of view. The protagonist in The Circle of Karma is Tsomo. The novel portrays the various events and experiences that Tsomo goes through in her life right from being a child in Tang Valley in Bumthang District in Bhutan to her old age in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. The central theme of Tsomo’s journey and her self-development shows the importance of individuality and self-reflection as a way to always improve oneself.

The novel moves from giving a general glimpse of Bhutan’s cultural and social aspects from a child’s (Tsomo’s) perspective at the beginning to the more specific events of Tsomo’s life and journey.

Through her family, Tsomo learns several gender roles (doing household chores, gardening, and weaving, to name a few) and gender myths namely that of female suffering and endurance. From her father, she learns the cruel truth that girls, because of their gender, are not supposed to get educated and learn to read and write.

Tsomo suffers a terrible loss during her childhood and consequently, she runs away from her home to free herself from the restrictions of belonging and relationships. Her bold decision is a major turning point of the novel. It puts her on a bumpy path of severe trials and tribulations. However, those very trials also give her the independence to grow and stand on her own two feet. To sustain herself during her days of struggle, Tsomo becomes a road construction worker. The reconstruction of the Thimphu Dzong and the construction of the roads provide a sense of the setting, which is around the time when Bhutan had chosen to modernize and open up to the world, slowly but surely.

Tsomo meets many women sharing the same dreams and struggles. She finds a new sister in another fellow worker, Dechen Choki. She also embarks on many pilgrimages which broaden her way of thinking by giving her exposure to several other cultures and peoples. At the same time, these travels also force her to face a pressing conflict that has consumed her since she ran away: whether to have a ‘normal’ life (with a husband and children) and be a good wife and a good woman as her parents had taught her or to pursue a life of religion.

The next set of events takes her away from her religious desires at the end of which she learns how the patriarchal society has taught women to always have hatred and suspicion towards each other and not to hold the men accountable. She realizes that she must relearn everything that society has taught her about gender roles. This is the other major turning point that portrays an epiphany and self-realization on Tsomo’s part.

By tracing Tsomo’s growth from childhood to adulthood and finally old age, The Circle of Karma, can be called a female bildungsroman as it depicts both Tsomo’s physical and psychological journey. The story highlights girls’ experiences of the world and how from an early age itself, both boys and girls internalize gender roles and expectations. In making Tsomo, someone who has chosen to not be defined by relationships that burden a women’s identity, the author has deftly questioned those gender roles. She has depicted the conflict that Tsomo faces in wanting to fit in to society’s expectations from a woman, yet at the same time trying to carve her own identity.

The novel showcases female friendships and solidarity and how women can support each other in times of need and deed which is the exact opposite of the internalization of the predominant idea about women being enemies to each other.  

The other important themes are religion and the idea of karma. The latter permeates the story and is reflected in the title of the novel. The idea of karma is present in everyone’s thoughts. This religious concept is used to rationalize one’s fortunes or misfortunes, but karma as a journey is what stands out as Tsomo’s life comes to full circle at the end of the novel.

The Circle of Karma employs several nuanced interpretations of travel as a motif – be it in Tsomo’s actual physical journey, or her spiritual and mental growth, or in the abstract concept of karma itself which travels and walks together with you in the present and in the afterlife.

You can buy the book here.

Urvashi Bahuguna’s Terrarium Touches Upon the Momentary Motions of Everyday Life

Terrarium by Urvashi Bahuguna is her debut poetry collection published by The Great Indian Poetry Collective. Her verses possess a singular and almost unnerving style of unraveling the magical from within the everyday. Terrarium’s poems touch upon the momentary motions of everyday life. Those motions may seem ephemeral but leave an immeasurable mark on all of us. For instance, the first part of the collection portrays how Bahuguna’s childhood experiences especially of moving to and living in Goa, shaped her perspectives.

In doing so, Bahuguna, vividly depicts her surroundings such that they come alive and remain etched in our minds. In The Heart of a Mango, she conjures up a much followed and cherished summer tradition in many parts of India: of devouring mangoes of all kinds. She evokes the feeling of richness a mango brought to her family particularly to her father.

In Last Ride before the Monsoon, she forges a primordial connection with water and how a part of us is lost to its infiniteness:

Listening to the weeping on the water,
some piece of us is lost too.
And for being unknown it slips
silvertailed below the still boat.

The complete primitive and hence pristine aura of the poems is possible because she weaves in imagery of nature as we never imagined it before. She has an eye for the minutest detail and recreates it in extraordinarily surreal metaphors. This is best exemplified in the poem Waiting for Movement. It begins with a strikingly colourful description:

The laburnum is late
with its lightening yolk.
An abundance of mulberries
stains bowls.

Thereafter, the tiniest movements that paradoxically encapsulate stillness, are described. Through this, she creates an apprehension that something is about to happen, only to end it with an anti climactic shattering of that tense stillness with a much-needed breeze.

Bahuguna’s attention to the physical uniqueness and elements of the environment around her possibly comes from Miss Fatima’s Geography class where, as she says in her poem, Ms. Fatima she learnt, “to love this bruised and bumpy earth.” It was there in class she traced the country’s physical features and “know the map of India like people supposed we knew the cuts and flat moles on our hands.”

The second part of the collection talks of love, growing apart, and trying to come to terms with the end of a relationship.  Here too, metaphors of geography seep in along with her beautiful skill of turning anything mundane into magic. For example, sleeping next to her lover like a child drooling is described as:

My mouth leaves a trail of moon drool,
tooth whisked, quiet as sugar melting off the tongue.

Such ordinariness and profundity of her verses create an intimacy between the reader and the writer. The rest of the book also captures the author’s various viewpoints and experiences. Terrarium can be called a slant autobiography. However, it is also one that speaks as much about the author as about the world around us from the societal fears a girl is taught to the greater environmental problems haunting the world that are blithely ignored.

It absorbs so much of the invisible things we miss out because of how we dismiss it as ordinary. Yet, they are a pulsating world of their own. Perhaps this is why the collection is titled Terrarium. A terrarium is a miniature garden enclosed in a glass container. It is minuscule but nurtures so much. Similarly, it is the quotidian living of our lives and experiencing the beating of our emotions that nurtures us and leaves such a deep impact on who we are. The theme of Identity is explored, not overtly, but subtly in the poems by mingling the little invisible influences of people, places, news and societal mores.

Terrarium is the perfect cosy read on a rainy day. It allows you to lose yourself to the leafy monsoon foliage of the verses. The lines leave you contemplating your role, connection, and identity with yourself and the world around you.

You can buy the book here.

Capacity Building for India’s Emerging Economy – Jottings From the FICCI-SRMIST Webinar

A five trillion-dollar dream of the world’s sixth largest economy depends on “over 600 million people under the age of 25 years” (Fig. 1). Among these, 300000 students from 3500 educational institutes in India were found to be only 46% employable by the 2020 India Skills Report, an annual skills assessment conducted by Wheebox in collaboration with Taggd, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Association of Indian Universities (AIU), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

Fig. 1: Addition to Working Age Population
Source: K.P. Kannan & G. Raveendran

According to the India Skills Report, “The pitiable figures of India’s formally trained workforce – which stand at merely 2.3% in comparison to economies like South Korea which has a mammoth share of 96% – indicate that the former will have to rethink, redefine, and repaint the entire talent map of the country to stand a fair chance of participating in global jobs market and hence, play a resourceful role in the growing economy.”  A few days before the National Education Policy 2020 was launched, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) collaborated with the SRM Institute of Science & Technology (SRMIST) to bring together policymakers, industry and academia for a discussion on The Emerging Economies: Identify and Create Competencies. 

Held on July 23rd 2020, the webinar played host to diverse stakeholders such as Piyush Goyal, Union Minister of Commerce and Industry and Railways, OECD’s Andres Schleicher, industry leaders such as Hemal Shah (Dell Technologies), Lokesh Sharma (AWS, Amazon), as well as academic leaders such as Prof. Ramgopal Rao (IIT, Delhi) and as Prof. Tan Eng Chye (President-NUS, Singapore). With Pranjal Sharma and Mohandas Pai moderating panel discussions, the FICCI-SRMIST webinar explored solutions for capacity building through sharing of best practices while considering opportunities for enhanced synthesis between government, industry and academia.

For Piyush Goyal, “Aatmanirbhar Bharat is going to be the defining moment for India’s future.” While the ambition of Aatmanirbhar Bharat remains economic self-reliance, the Covid 19 pandemic has not only thrown global supply chains in disarray, but is altering the way the world works and learns. Ernst and Young’s Workforce Advisor, Anurag Malik said, “Covid has accelerated future trends, and the number one trend is remote working with almost every company” resorting to “95% remote working.” The ‘New Normal’ has altered conventional approaches to employment, and employability (Fig. 2) will increasingly involve each of the “4 skills of business communication, numerical skills, critical thinking skills and computer skills” assessed during the Wheebox National Employability Test survey (WNET) for the 2020 India Skills Report.

Fig. 2: India’s Workforce Employability 2014-2020
Source: India Skills Report 2020 (Wheebox)

The digital economy, which was largely a consumer-driven marketplace, is being formally disrupted by the implications of social distancing caused by Covid 19. According to Amazon’s Lokesh Sharma, “3.7 billion are connected to the internet, 50% of which are Asians, and 24% are Indians. Disruption is happening in work (Gig economy), worker (Type of job), and workplace (Remote Working).” Even as governments and corporates strive towards mitigating the negative impact of Covid 19 worldwide, the dynamics of the global workforce is in flux. According to Gartner’s report, Future of Work Trends Post Covid 19, 32% of organizations are replacing full-time employees with contingent workers as a cost-saving measure.”  Combined with India’s 15 million freelancers currently accounting for USD 1 billion of the USD 2-3 billion global freelancer market,” strategic interventions in the global gig economy require capacity building for “talent liquidity” and a course correction for the “disproportionate value” represented by income inequality worldwide.

Fig. 3: Gender-Wise Workforce Participation and Employability in India 2014-2020
Source: India Skills Report 2020 (Wheebox)

For Reliance’s Bijoy Sahoo, “In 1980, China and India GDP were same. But in 2020, China’s GDP is 3 times of India’s GDP.” According to the Economic Survey 2019-20, “80% of India’s workforce is employed in the unorganised sector, and only 23% of India’s 48.1% population (women)” participate in country’s workforce (Fig. 3) in 2018. Although 20th century’stalent migration with value migration” has caused the Indo-China GDP difference, capacity building of India’s working age population will require increased gender parity and apposite skill development. While the Government of India’s Skill India Mission aims to impart employable skills to a minimum of 300 million by 2022,  Sahoo questioned the difference in the “capacity building of the SRM graduate and the migrant worker?” As K.P. Kannan suggests, the “informality of employment of the majority of the Indian workers characterised by insecurity and low earnings is closely linked to their levels of education, initial conditions of poverty, and rural residence (Fig. 4).”

Fig. 4: Percentage of Workers with Secondary Level and Above Education
Source: K.P. Kannan & G. Raveendran

Arun Jain of Intellect Design suggests “design thinking for sharp identification of opportunities…to harness the potential of 900 remote working million farmers” or the unorganized workforce. Jain expounded on the elements of the design thinking framework which includes “a system of knowledge cataloguing; a system of dialoguing (Circle time is an example of dialoguing); and a system for asking questions (instead of the hierarchical parent-child relationship that exists in India).” However, as Sharma suggests, “the value of skills is a 5-year threshold.” Andres Schleicher, Director, Directorate of Education and Skills, OECD, stresses that it is important to “extract value from skills,” citing the example that despite “Japan having a very strong skill distribution system, few people get the opportunity to use their skills to productive use.” As Goyal asserts, “With 1 in 4 graduating in 2030 expected to be from Indian educational institutes, the future of mankind is going to look to you (educationists).”

For Prof. Ramagopal Rao, IIT, Delhi, “Bringing industry brings relevance in research and delivery gets strengthened.” As Director of India’s “oldest incubation platform,” Rao suggests “generating patent portfolio and start up culture in Higher Educational Institutes (HEIs), with HEI equity for incubation” similar to Stanford’s investment in Google. Of course, the fact that “11 of 21 unicorns (Fig. 5) founded in India or by Indians abroad, are founded by IIT Delhi alumni” is evidence of “inception to impact.” However, IIM’s business-minded Rishikesha Krishnan urges that, “If industry can absorb at TRL level (Technology Readiness Level), then academic research and institutional start-ups will make a greater difference to industry.”

Fig. 5: Indian Start-ups
Source: Tracxn (Mint)

Prof. Tan Eng Chye (NUS Singapore) agrees that strengths of education include internships/industry practise and promoting entrepreneurship. Prof. Chye provides the example of “corporate labs with 1/3 cost share between government, industry and HEI with IP (Intellectual Property) shared between the company and educational institute” with NUS students participating in these corporate labs “in 14 cities around the world including in Silicon Vallay, Tel Aviv, Jakarta, Europe and China.” Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and “after the program, 100 companies by graduates raised approx. USD 600 million in funds.” As Dell’s Hemal Shah says, “Don’t just embrace change, lead it with passion.” With Covid 19 changing the dynamics of the global economy, technological adoption is increasingly influencing the world’s way of life including workforce management and knowledge acquisition. Ajit Ranade, Aditya Birla, asserts that “What Covid 19 has achieved for Digital India, even demonetization couldn’t manage.” Goyal agrees that while “industry may have to be re-oriented, production centres may shift,”… it is important to “democratise development, progress and prosperity.”

Abdullah Khan’s Debut Novel Patna Blues Is More Than Just a Political Statement

In India, we attach a plethora of stereotypes to one’s identity. Judging the person by his/her name, religion and home-state is a common practice. Some words like Bihari, Momdan, Chinky, Madrasi among others are used loosely and are often meant to be derogatory. Abdullah Khan in his debut novel Patna Blues traces the life of one such identity which is both a Bihari and a Muslim. The book talks about the desire, dreams, and destiny of a young boy Arif Khan based in Patna. Arif khan in his early 20s preparing to be an Indian Administration Officer, falls in love with a married Hindu woman much older than him. With so much to handle in a large family of three younger sisters and a brother, his miseries increase with this sweet distraction. He consistently finds himself at the crossroads- struggling to choose between his dreams and desire.

The book is a page turner with a lot of drama unfolding with each chapter, line by line. It is set up in early 80s spanning over 20 years against the backdrop of political events of the time. The political events are so intricately woven and meticulously placed in the story that for a moment you forget that it was a reality of a time- The times of VCR, PCOs, Mandal commission, fall of Babri Masjid, 1993 Mumbai attacks, Bihar’s Chara Ghotala, and many more.

The book does not sympathize with the struggles the identity brings him rather makes a strong point on what is and what ought to be. It smoothly ventures into the life of his family members and their aspirations. Many a time, it cuts open the wounds to show bare the prejudices of a majority of society towards a few. Arif’s father, a police officer in Patna is not handed over confidential documents just because of his religion despite his clean records. Younger brother, an aspiring actor faces mockery and rejection owing to his accent despite being talented. The family has to deal with the pressure of ill practices and beliefs of society like arranging dowry for his sisters. However, the author does not delve much into the lives of sisters and they are just to add more ‘blues’ to their life and story. Their portrayal is typical- with suppressed dreams and forced acceptance for their destiny- with everything culminating into marriage.

The book is not at all about making a political statement but shows the effort of a Muslim family to live a comfortable and respectful life despite all odds. Intermittently, the story line is showered with Urdu shayari and old Bollywood song lines which make it refreshing. The story written in simple words is entertaining. It also captures the popular places of Patna like Gandhi Maidan, Dak bunglow Square making it vivid and close to reality. This story of love, aspiration, failure, and grief travels places from Patna to the interiors of Bihar, to some of the metro cities and captures the sentiments of society about one’s identity.

Pick the book for a journey back in time, for a journey from expectations to reality, dreams to destiny, and above all from grief to hope. You can buy the book here.

Malathi Ramachandran’s Mandu is a poetic justice to the love of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur

He was a poet, a musician and an artist before life adorned him with a blood-smeared crown. She was the purest of the souls that walked the earth. She breathed music and poetry with her very existence. He was looking for redemption, but he instead found love. Life gave him her and together they went on to live forever in the songs and folklores of Malwa. Malathi Ramachandran drew inspiration from these folklores for her new book ‘Mandu’, that speaks of the romance of Sultan Baz Bahadur and his love Roopmati.

My greatest fear while reading any historical fiction is that a writer’s poor imagination might destroy my fascination for the original story. However, with time, I have learnt to acknowledge that writing a historical novel isn’t as easy as it might seem.  One of the many challenges in writing historical fiction is that many a time the readers already are familiar with the plot and the climax. Especially for stories of the likes of Baz and Roopmati, it is more than challenging because of its popularity among the audience. Such books can be lost on the readers without an engaging narration and skilful story-telling. That way, Malathi needs to be lauded for her courage and conviction with the subject that she chose for this book.

In her prologue, Malathi offers to “whisk the readers away to another era and love other lives between the covers of a book” and I must say she did well on that offer of hers. Even before Baz and Roopmati fell in love with each other, I had fallen in love with Mandu and Malwa, thanks to Malathi. She paints beautiful imageries of the valleys, the plains, the city that it was and of course, the Holy Narmada, who is almost another character in the lives of the star-crossed lovers. Her splendid narration not only transports you to different lifetimes but also lets you bring back the fragrance of those bygone days into your current timeline, the sweetness of which lasts even after the book is done. I am now convinced that when I visit Mandu, I will see more than just the ruins.

I loved how Malathi doesn’t just rush through the romance. Instead, she lets you soak up even the finest details of loving, longing, enduring, embracing and eventually surrendering unto the bliss. She does rush through the conspiracy that changes the lives of our protagonist. Even the climax is rushed, but I am not complaining. Malathi gives you so much of Baz and Roopmati, which makes you feel like it’s a life well-lived and you are no longer afraid of the end. I also loved how the writer gave a life to Begum Hiba, instead of letting her rot in bitterness.

Baz and Roopmati hailed from different faiths and societal statures. So, the readers get a glimpse of these different cultures and how the lovers crossed over when some of them became hurdles. The book in strewn with phrases/words borrowed from Urdu, which only makes it more beautiful to read. The book also generously indulges the readers with some of the poems written by Baz and Roopmati.

The book is a poetic justice to the love of Baz and Roopmati.  I recommend it to lovers of historical fiction/romance genres. It’s a breezy read. Pick it on a rainy day. I promise you it will only make it more enjoyable.

Buy the book here.

Here is another historical fiction that we reviewed.

Racism Should Not Subsume Any and Every Form of Discrimination, This Lexical Reference Should Be Kept Handy

RACISM… the word in vogue right now, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. What is even more astounding is that racism is being used to describe all sorts of discrimination. There might be critics of overt cultural appropriation, but the subversive dilution of racial discrimination means that the blunt force trauma that racially discriminated individuals encounter will become as common an occurrence as eve teasing in India (which could end up in an acid attack by the spurned lover), or just another instance that hordes are facing globally and too big to deal with. A lexical reference for discrimination is necessary, not just for those being discriminated against because of race, but for others who face discrimination everyday because of gender, caste, religion, sexual preference, economic status, or any multitude of discriminatory reasons.

DISCRIMINATION
Oxford: the practice of treating someone or a particular group in society less fairly than
others
MW:     a: prejudiced or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment racial discrimination
b: the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than
individually
Urban a: When YouTube doesn’t allow you watch a video because you don’t live in the
U.S.
b: “Action based on prejudice or racist beliefs that results in unfair treatment of
individuals or groups; unjust conditions in areas such as employment, housing
and education.” – Museum of Tolerance
Law:     n. unequal treatment of persons, for a reason which has nothing to do with legal rights or ability.

Discrimination ranges from microaggressions of prejudice and bias to the killing of a train passenger due to religious reasons or parading a woman naked around the village because of her caste. These people face discrimination too, and they too do not deserve that the apathy towards their experiences with discrimination be diluted further. While societal constructs of discrimination might have changed on the policy level, the implementation leaves much to be desired for.

Among the many isms one might encounter in daily life, discrimination presents itself in many forms. Racism, casteism, elitism, sexism, and cronyism with its derivatives, crony capitalism and nepotism, are rarely happenstances, but a pervading prejudice that extends beyond geographical boundaries. The most recent example is the Cisco lawsuit “for caste discrimination toward an Indian American engineer”, also called CASTEISM.

…ISM
Oxford:            a set of ideas or system of beliefs or behaviour
MW:                 a: a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory
b: an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief
Urban:             a: Someone who does a distinctive specified thing so much, that they are
now notorious for it. They are generally referred as a “their name”-ism.
b: In a fraternity or sorority of the ethnic persuasion, an ism is defined as
an individual that has the same position in line
Marine Law: Known as the International Safety Management Code, the ISM Code is
one of the required regulations in the marine industry

And what might be the difference between elitism and cronyism? The consideration of being among the privileged few and receiving favours for being among the privileged few… The pseudo-intellectual Bengali who hijacks cultural authority is likely exhibiting elitism.

CRONYISM
Oxford:           the situation in which people in power give jobs to their friends
MW:                 partiality to cronies especially as evidenced in the appointment of political
hangers-on to office without regard to their qualifications
Urban:            partiality to friends, expressed by appointment of them to positions of
authority, regardless of their qualifications
Business:       the act of showing partiality to one’s close friends, typically by appointing
them to a position in a company or organization despite the individual not
necessarily being the best person for the position. Although this is favoritism
is frowned upon in many cases, it is often hard to determine what is or is not
cronyism…Although accusations of cronyism are prevalent, they very rarely
amount to any disciplinary action or removals from power.

Cronyism, on the other hand, has existed for as long as societal favoritism has. The influence of social networks in the world extends from panelinhas in Brazil to guanxi in China. According to an Oxfam India report, India Inequality Report 2018, “the total wealth of Indian billionaires is 15% of the GDP of the country, and the richest in India have made their money through crony capitalism rather than through innovation or the fair rules of the market.” The impact of crony capitalism is subversive in its obscure influence on the global political economy.

Even the Covid 19 pandemic has not deterred cronyism (Fig 1.), with the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which provides loans backed by the Small Business Administration, displaying hints of crony capitalism which are often well within legal bounds. According to ForbesManeet Ahuja and Antoine Gara, “In a fresh twist on ‘relationship’ banking, personal connections were key to landing PPP cash whether the intermediary was a big bank, or a small one.” When the PPP application of Families First Pediatrics’ owner, Dallen Ormond, was refused by JPMorgan Chase which had “dished out $20 million in PPP money to two subsidiaries of Ruth’s Hospitality Group, the steakhouse chain parent that has a separate credit line with the bank, Ormond fumed in an email to Forbes, “Please tell the powers that be when this is all over I hope they can find someone to save their newborn baby’s life as they enjoy their $50 steak“”.

Of course, the Trump administration has already encountered flak for its nepotistic latitude as was evident with Ivanka Trump during the G20 summit in Japan. So, another cronyism derivative, nepotism, which favors family seems par for the course. In India, Kangana Ranaut’s outburst on Koffee with Karan against nepotism is infamous for the can of worms it splattered across the tabloids with eugenics being bandied about for good measure.

Of course, a lexical reference for discrimination would be incomplete without elucidation of the pervasive endemic of RACISM and SEXISM. One of the definitions of race is, “distinct evolutionary lineages within a species,” according to Alan Templeton. The “inventor of modern racial classification” Johann Friedrich Blumenbach published his analysis of human taxonomy, De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa (On the Natural Variety of Mankind) in 1795. According to Nature magazine, Blumenbach’s comparative analysis of cranial shapes “divided the human race into five great families: the Caucasian or white race, the Mongolian or yellow, the Malayan or brown, the Negro or black, and the American or red.”

Race and Genetic Variation
Source: Daniel Utter

Scientists in the 21st century refuse to ascribe race as a biological attribute for human classification, and “prefer to use the term “ancestry” to describe human diversity since race is a social construct.” Ancestry provides an intersectional approach to biocultural adaptation in diverse geographical conditions. Of course, colonialists’ attempts to civilize savages of Asia and Africa added to Blumenbach’s paradoxical authority and continued its subversive influence around the world… Not unlike casteist discrimination in India, which is based on the varna classification originating more than two millennia ago, and continues to be the basis of social identity for many. And let’s not forget the derivatives of discrimination based on gender and sexual preference which include:

  • Sexism: Prejudicial stereotyping based on biological gender attributes with discrimination generally directed towards women and transgenders
  • Sexual Orientation Discrimination: Prejudicial stereotyping based on sexual preference with discrimination generally directed towards those interested in same sex or non-binary sexual orientation

Obviously, while there may be enough reasons to discriminate, the question you need to ask yourself is, whether you should. While social categorization may be necessary for affirmative action or reservations for the disadvantaged in society, human nature has evolved through social constructs of identity and its dark underbelly will continue to resurface until discriminatory actions are considered unacceptable and insupportable not only on a policy level, but also within the layers of human existence.

The-Bones-Of-Grace-Tahmima-Anam Cover

Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace is a Haunting Tale of Incompleteness of Our Being

The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam carries a deeply profound sadness that is difficult to escape. It speaks of such absolute raw and bare emotions that it is hard to keep yourself distanced from it. The second person point of view used in the novel adds to this devastating feeling of the inescapable. The narrative pulls the reader deeper, forcing to confront some of the inevitable realities of human life.

One such reality that shapes the novel as well as human relationships is a sense that we are incomplete and we will not be able to overcome it. We just have to live with it.

As Elijah Strong says at the very start of the novel, “Loneliness is just part of being a person. We long for togetherness, for connection, and yet we’re trapped in our own bodies. We want to know the other fully, but we can’t. We can only stretch out our hands and reach.” This crushing truth permeates The Bones of Grace from the very beginning. Each character is endowed with different shades of incompleteness or a loneliness that haunts all human existence.

Elijah Strong is the character to whom the entire novel is addressed. Zubaida Haque is the narrator. She is from Bangladesh and is a paleontologist studying at Harvard University. Zubaida met Elijah because of a serendipitous coincidence at a concert at Sanders Theatre. Their conversation started on an odd note that is perhaps possible only among complete strangers. Zubaida, submerged in Shostakovich’s Symphony 5, recalls a vivid childhood memory she had suppressed and reveals to Elijah, the complete stranger, about her being adopted. This strange introduction led to the two getting to slowly know and understand each other.

Zubaida has a seemingly well planned life. She has supportive roommates in America. She is selected to go to Dera Bugti in Pakistan to dig out the fossils of the walking whale, Ambulocetus natans. She is betrothed to her childhood friend and sweetheart, Rashid. However, her world collapses when her dig comes to an abrupt end and she returns to Dhaka. She is tormented with the nagging thought that she has lost an opportunity to make a dent in the world.

Moreover, meeting Elijah makes her imagine infinite possibilities beyond the ones set for her in Dhaka. Despite her sense of unease with the world, Zubaida lets the events unfold as they were expected to in Dhaka.

The one dent Zubaida makes is when she volunteers to help a British researcher, Gabriela, record the precarious lives of the ship breakers at the ironically named, Prosperity Ship Breaking, in Chittagong.

The scenes at the ship breaking company further the total desolateness of the novel. It is this setting or point where all the strands of the novel come together: her life with Rashid, her love for Elijah and her need to know her true origins.

Beautifully interwoven is the metaphor of the walking whale and its ambivalent nature. The walking whale was a mammal living eons ago on land but turned to the sea, unlike all others who were beginning to migrate from sea to the land.

Zubaida associates herself with this ambivalence because she has also been thrown against the tide of the world. Just like she wants to unearth the mysteries of the walking whale, she wants to find the mysteries of her origins too. She wants to give her otherwise fragmented self a sense of tangible, unshakeable identity.

The Bones of Grace is a deeply moving novel that leaves you distraught because it makes you think about your own tenuous link with the past and the wider universe. It makes you feel small, but also provides courage to face an intransigent dichotomy of human life: of being connected to others through myriad identities yet being truly connected only to your own self and body.

Even though this book is the final installment of Tahmima Anam’s Bengal Trilogy, the novel can be read as a standalone. Characters from the previous two novels do come in but are on the margins. The story also portrays cities of Bangladesh, Dhaka and Chittagong, giving the reader a glimpse into the life of the privileged in this country.

If the movie, Lion, moved you with its raw treatment of fated identities, The Bones of Grace will make you similarly introspective and emotional.