September 21, 2011

Bank Uh! India

So how does it 'FEEL' like? What is the typical experience of banking in India? I had an experience today that is considered par for the course in this country. It's instructive as well as funny.

Some things change. Some things remain the same. That's the nature of India. Showrooms (think Suzuki ... or BMW) that have the look of permanence and solidity can disappear when you revisit some old location after a gap of a year or two. But a street vendor selling ice cream or sweets in front of a Pizza Hut is a permanent fixture over five years, perhaps a decade. People who are familiar with Janpath in New Delhi and know where the Hut and Sony are located will understand what I am talking about.

I recall the guy who used to collect old newspapers from our house back in my childhood days. When we moved house once to a new place which was some 15 miles from the old place, I was astonished to see that the paper-collector got to know about our new location and came to our new quarter to collect the old newspapers. I saw the guy grow old in front of my eyes ... get a head full of white hair. I think I saw his son by-and-by replace him as the guy who would travel from house to house on a bicycle to collect old newspapers, magazines, etc. which he would in turn sell to a wholesale scrap dealer.

But it's only a particular instance of a more general case. Individuals' livelihoods can be so precariously balanced in this country. They are riding a tiger and they can't afford to get down.

The PSU banks meanwhile have been affected by winds of change. The interior decor has turned less claustrophobic and more open and airy.

Although the teller/cash counter is still like a bit of a cage, it's much improved compared to the earlier state of affairs where the cashier/teller used to be stationed inside a cage which had some likeness to the cages in which dangerous wild animals are kept in zoos.

The staff of PSU banks.

Ah! That's the teachable moment. Particularly for those who are foreign to India. And I suppose those who grow foreign through the route of becoming an NRI or a green card holder.

So the PSU banks do not necessarily feel that they're in the service industry. They do not feel the need to be excessively helpful to the customer. The culture is not quite 'May I help you?'

So I was directed to a particular officer for my task and he happened to be momentarily absent from his desk and I waited in vain for some 15 minutes.

But the old-time staff are perhaps more committed to their life's calling -- they've reconciled to the fact that this is going to be the job that they're going to hold for the rest of their active life and retire from. They exhorted the front desk lady to help me. This young lady, quite unlike the older staff, appeared to be physically ill (or doing a pretty good job of acting like she was ill) 

She proceeded to take care of the trouble I had brought for her -- of course she committed an error in updating my new mailing address. She forgot to update the PIN Code or ZIP Code. In India, this can be interpreted as both a major and a minor error.

There was this staff whose job it was to update the Pass Book. (BTW, do you know what a Pass Book is? Well a Pass Book is something very familiar to the old timers but the youngsters may not be familiar with it. All the transactions (debit/credit) of an account holder are recorded in this pass book and account holders can update this pass book at any bank branch. This is a legacy from the days before online banking became quite the vogue.) When I made him my request, he made a hand signal which indicated to me that I should wait (it was quite logical as it turned out since he was busy and in the middle of another transaction). When he was free at last, he stretched his hand out to me to indicate that my turn had come. When I handed him my pass book, he did the needful and handed back my pass book to me. And the entire transaction happened without his raising his head to look at me. I'm sure he would have failed to recognize me if he saw me barely five minutes later.

Indian govt. offices are famous for a fixture called the peon. This is a low-end job which mainly involves ferrying files around from one table to the next. This bank also appeared to have two or three of the species. One of them -- clearly the senior-most among them -- was blithely humming a song as he went about his task of going from one desk to another. Quite a free-spirited bird and I suppose someone who won't develop high blood pressure.

And India moves forward at its own pace — both trying to keep pace with a fast-changing world and forcing the world to adjust itself to the pace at which India moves.

September 19, 2011

A Sane Tax Policy

In any modern nation that has a taxation system, the poor don't pay taxes. In India, more than 90 percent do not pay taxes.

But that makes sense. The poor in India do not use as much of the infrastructure. The poor in India do not use airports. The poor in America do not use private planes.

One should be taxed at a rate commensurate with one's level of income. This is obvious and does not need debating. When the super rich have to pay taxes at a lower rate as Warren Buffett has reiterated so often, it's clearly unfair.

Millionaires need to be taxed at a higher but fair rate. A 90 percent rate of income tax is clearly unfair. But a 30 percent or 35 percent rate of tax seems fair enough.

Those in the 10 million to 50 million bracket can correspondingly be charged at a higher rate than the mere single-digit millionaires.

Those in the 50 million to 100 million bracket need to pay even higher taxes.

The tax rate can increase by 5 percentage points for every tax bracket.

The other brackets should be: 100 - 200 million, 200 - 300, and so on.

I won't mind if the tax rate reaches 90 percent at some point.

What's the harm?

A multi-billionaire is essentially a winner of a lottery. A Bill Gates or Sergey Brin or Buffett or Zuckerberg is not necessarily a 1,000 times or a million times smarter than the average person who might be earning 1,000 times less or a million times less. Same goes for the hedge fund guys and the bank and other CEOs.

Many billionaires (the saner ones) are making their pledges to donate back most of their wealth. What would be different if they were paying a higher rate of tax?

September 16, 2011

The Strangest Thing

What is it that draws us to a news such as the untimely death of a celebrity? Whether it's Diana or Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley and John Lennon and so many others?

Now we have the untimely, tragic death of a teenage son of a cricket star.

It must tell us something about ourselves above all. Are we attracted to these events by any chance because at some level, we somehow prove ourselves to be superior to the dead by having simply outlived them?

After all, one of our most fundamental biological traits must be the desire to stay alive for as long as possible. Whatever else it's that you want to do, you have to be alive in the first place to be able to accomplish that.

Celebrities are celebrities in the first place because we choose to idolize them. This idolization perhaps involves both admiration and envy.

We must envy celebrities as they have surely achieved success in life in any of the myriad ways in which we may choose to define the term.

Thus when celebrities die, and we outlast them, we can have a covert last laugh.

Whereas under normal circumstances, we are nobodies and our demise — whether early, on time or belated — won't be noticed much by the world at large, when celebrities expire, we suddenly see that the tables have been turned.

We can feel sorry for the family of the dead in their season of tragedy and thus be superior.

And I also think of the thoughts that must go through the minds of someone who is critically injured and is on the way to death. This question becomes even more strange and heart-wrenching and perplexing when the person involved is a teenager like the son of Azharuddin who died on this day.

Does a teenager regret that his life is ending so much before its time. Does he feel angry or pity for himself? Does he wish to remain alive so that he may grow old with a loved one? Do teenagers have a philosophical understanding of life? Do they know what they want in life?

Or may be the medications are such that the injured patient is essentially unconscious and unaware of himself. Perhaps he is beyond having awareness of concepts of life and death like we have during our waking hours. Are we not sort of temporarily dead when we are asleep? Will we regret it if without our knowing and before our time, we just happened to slip into death in our sleep? Would we know? If there's no pain or anything involved, then we won't know. So, we won't feel anything about dying. Luckily, the human body is built robustly enough that such things do not happen regularly while we are alive and well and young.

Surely medical doctors would know more about the level of consciousness in the brain of dying patients. But what a journey it must be ... to travel that path that one will travel but only once. EVER. No matter what.

Isn't like a journey into and inside an astronomical black hole and its event horizon? That's the only other journey in the universe that I can think of which is irreversible.

At any rate, at the present moment.

Man-made rituals on the other hand — such as marriage — appear so silly and trite in comparison to this ultimate one way street.

I will end as I began: I am still absolutely perplexed and mystified.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

All I propose to do in this post is collect in one place the book reviews published at various places.

From The Telegraph:


Excerpts:

Every generation tends to look silly to the one after; those beehive hairdos, those chain smokers. Reacting to previous experience, we don’t make progress, necessarily. Vicars have randy daughters and randy daughters give birth to boys who in turn become vicars.

Salman Rushdie told me once that Hitchens was one of the two funniest people he had known (the other was Bruce Chatwin). I was unconvinced until I read in Arguably the following passage: “Is there anything less funny than a woman relating a dream she’s just had? (‘And then Quentin was there somehow. And so were you, in a strange sort of way. And it was all so peaceful.’ Peaceful?).” Of all the beliefs from which he has yet to deviate is the conviction that “the people who must never have power are the humourless”. 


From The New York Times:


Excerpts:

Anyone who occasionally opens one of our more serious periodicals has learned that the byline of Christopher Hitchens is an opportunity to be delighted or maddened — possibly both — but in any case not to be missed. He is our intellectual omnivore, exhilarating and infuriating, if not in equal parts at least with equal wit. He has been rather famously an aggressive critic of God and his followers, after cutting his sacrilegious teeth on Mother Teresa. He wrote a deadpan argument for trying Henry Kissinger as a war criminal, then was branded an apostate by former friends on the left for vigorously supporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (He memorably — a lot of what Hitchens has written merits the adverb — shot back that his antiwar critics were “the sort who, discovering a viper in the bed of their child, would place the first call to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”) And he is dying of esophageal cancer, a fact he has faced with exceptional aplomb.


If there is a God, and he lacks a sense of irony, he will send Hitchens to the hottest precinct of hell. If God does have a sense of irony, Hitchens will spend eternity in a town that serves no liquor and has no library. Either way, heaven will be a less interesting place.

The definitive Christopher Hitchens profile:


The New Yorker:


Excerpts:


At a dinner a few months ago in San Francisco with his wife, Carol Blue, and some others, Hitchens wore a pale jacket and a shirt unbuttoned far enough to hint at what one ex-girlfriend has called “the pelt of the Hitch.” Hitchens, who only recently gave up the habit of smoking in the shower, was working through a pack of cigarettes while talking to two women at his end of the table: a Stanford doctor in her early thirties whom he’d met once before, and a friend of hers, a librarian. He spoke with wit and eloquence about Iranian politics and what he saw as the unnecessary handsomeness of Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco.

We were in Hitchens’s home in Washington. His top-floor apartment, with a wide view that includes No. 1 Observatory Circle, the Vice-Presidential residence, is large and handsome: sparely furnished, with a grand piano, books piled on the floor, a few embassy invitations on the mantelpiece, and prints and paintings propped against the walls rather than hung from them; these include an oil painting of Hitchens and Blue (a dark-haired, darkly dressed woman—a young Susan Sontag) with coffee, whiskey, and cigarettes on a table in front of them




Hitchens has the life that a spirited thirteen-year-old boy might hope adulthood to be: he wakes up when he likes, works from home, is married to someone who wears leopard-skin high heels, and conducts heady, serious discussions late into the night. I arrived just after midday, and Hitchens said that it was “time for a cocktail”; he poured a large drink. His hair flopped over his forehead, and he pushed it back using just the tips of his fingers, his hand as unbending as a mannequin’s.


He noted that he never likes going to bed. “I’m not that keen on the idea of being unconscious,” he said. “There’s plenty of time to be unconscious coming up.” In Washington, his socializing usually takes place at home. “I can have some sort of control over who comes, what gets talked about, what gets eaten, what gets drunk, and the ashtrays,” he said. “Call me set in my ways.” (Hitchens’s predominant tone is quietly self-parodying. Even his farewells are ironic: “It’s been real,” “Stay cool.”) Guests at the Hitchens salon include people he first knew in London, who call him “Hitch,” including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and his great friend Martin Amis (“The only blond I have ever really loved,” Hitchens once said); long-standing American friends like Christopher Buckley and Graydon Carter; an international network of dissidents and intellectuals; and, these days, such figures as David Frum, the former Bush Administration speechwriter, and Grover Norquist, the conservative activist. In September, he hosted Barham Salih, a Kurd who is a Deputy Prime Minister of the new Iraqi government. Many guests can report seeing Hitchens step out of the room after dinner, write a column, then step back almost before the topic of conversation has changed.


From The Boston Globe:

September 07, 2011

New Delhi Bomb Blast : 7 September 2011 (a.k.a. 7/9)

Article first published as Delhi Bomb Blast on Technorati.

Life is cheap in India. Deaths from myriad random and unnatural causes are all too commonplace.

Nobody will really be able to give an accurate count of the number of terrorist attacks that have happened over the past few years.

It's fashionable to compare any and all terrorist attacks to the gold standard christened as 9/11. There is no ambiguity about what event it refers to.

But when attacks become all too commonplace, it's a bit tiring to come up with numerical shortcuts to refer to them. Should today's attack be called 7/9? The Mumbai attacks (not 26/11) on the suburban train system is already barely there in the faintest storehouse of our memory bank. The attacks on some crowded markets in Delhi around Diwali time is also but a mere part of the white noise background of my/our subconscious.

At least in New York City, they are coming up with a permanent memorial that will have the names of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day.

In India, there are hardly any permanent memorials of that kind. Life is surely cheap in India.

Will we ever even get to know the names of the 11 individuals who perished today near the Delhi High Court?

I hope the news media will bother to investigate the human stories behind the dead. Did those individuals have any premonitions that this day was going to be the last day of their existence in this universe?

In India, people have a lot of faith in gods and religion. When people start on any important journey, they do not forget to seek the blessings of whatever gods they believe in and whose photographs they tend to keep in their homes in some special place.

Clearly, god failed to protect them this day. Many families must have been permanently devastated today. But even this will be sought to be explained away in religious terms by appealing to the mysterious ways of god.

Hardly anyone will be persuaded to change their religious beliefs in fundamental ways. But if anyone really bothers to reflect about random occurrences of death such as these blasts, there's but one conclusion to reach -- there can not be a benevolent planner behind these events.

It's however surely too much to expect such fundamental shifts in mindsets in Indians. They are mostly illiterate or semi-literate. Their circle of sympathy extends only to their kith and kin. They are mostly untouched by tragedy visiting unknown families.

We are all selfish. I do not know if that's an evolutionary trait that helps us survive. Non-Indians (people in the developed nations of America or Europe) will care little for tragedies visiting poor Indians. We in India are hardly touched by the frequent occurrences of bomb blasts in Iraq and Pakistan.

The benighted citizenry of Africa can hardly be faulted if they are left equally unimpressed by Indian tragedies.

What changed because of 9/11? Statecraft, policies, geopolitics, strategic affairs, war doctrines, etc. Did people change? I do not think any society changed in deep manner. No society became permanently more kinder, gentler, more giving because of 9/11. No society rejected the concept of god as because it finally realized that 9/11 conclusively proved that such concepts are crazy, childish notions.

We seem to have a capacity to fall back into old habits, familiar ways of thinking, our own parochial and tribal mindsets and affiliations and beliefs. We seem to have an immense capacity to consume trivia and dross.

This is not a manifesto written in anger. It's merely a statement of fact.

September 03, 2011

Age of Empowerment

The attraction of the Anna movement apart from the topic of anti-corruption which is everyone's favorite whipping boy, was or is the fact that it is empowering.

It is weird to compare this movement to the Arab Spring as that would be like aspiring to scale the economic heights that Bangladesh has climbed.

Over and shrill nationalism is quite scary as it brooks no dissent.

India's core problem is clearly not corruption.

But people are easily swayed by symbolism rather than hard realities.

This happens even in developed economies such as the United States where opportunistic politicians are harnessing superficial problems such as outsourcing, illegal/legal immigration, big government rather than focusing on fundamental shifts in the nature of the global economic structure.

There will be disillusionment at some point. It remains to be seen what happens after that point is reached.

It's as clear and true as the Earth moving around the Sun that India won't become a developed nation.

Sex and Religion

Clearly that brings together two important topics.

Greta Cristina writes wonderfully about a report that has come out that shows how atheists have it better in matters of sex. Good to hear.

But the survey is clearly confined to Western nations with their (already) rather liberal cultures and the three monotheistic religions.

I want to bring a bit of a different perspective to it. Here in India, I have observed an entire generation grow up during the 30 odd years of my own life.

It has been quite bewilderingly disappointing to see the way the younger generation deals with the existing cultural and religious value systems.

To be sure, while growing up, kids in India are incessantly bombarded with the idea that it's important to respect the elderly, that they are great storehouses of knowledge and experience and wisdom.

Clearly, the matter of respecting one's elders would have made sense in agrarian societies where the elderly would really have in fact more knowledge by virtue of their longer life experience. Knowledge used to be passed on from generation to generation.

We do not live in agrarian societies any more and we do not acquire our life skills from our parents. It's time therefore that youngsters in India learned to be a bit more skeptical about whatever their elders told them. Youngsters could learn to question the validity of the statements of their elders rather than just blindly accepting them.

The way it is right now, it is sad to see apparently educated youngsters doing nonsensical things.

Take the matter of marriage. In overwhelming numbers, marriages in India still happen via the arranged route. This is clearly absurd. I am curious if this is because youngsters prefer it to be this way or because this is the only option available to them. I am inclined to bet that it is the latter.

If youngsters had the option of having love affairs available to them, perhaps they would choose the route of exploring one's life partners on one's own. As it happens now, usually the parents fix up a marriage without much input from either the boy or the girl concerned.

It's a wonder that such arranged marriages appear to hold up quite well -- as divorce rates are quite low in India. But appearances can be deceiving. Just because two persons remain married to each other for life does not mean that they necessarily have a happy marriage. It is mostly a marriage of convenience.

Marriages in India are more of a social occurrence rather than a matter for individuals to decide. Therefore, it's difficult for marriages to break-up as there is a negative perception regarding that in traditional society.

Marriages also inevitably lead to babies in India. The responsibility for the upbringing up a baby is clearly divided between the husband and the wife. The husband tends to be the money earner who takes care of all stuff that is outside of the home. This might include going to various offices or bringing groceries and vegetables.

The wife is in charge of the home front. This would include taking care of the baby's needs and cooking and related homework.

This division of labor serves both the parties quite well. So, marriages continue to endure though they might be completely bereft of any emotional or physical content.

Also, people in India are mostly poor and living on the edge of a precipice. People do not have that many choices. They have nowhere else to go. Females are quite dependent on the husband for food since he makes all the money while she makes none. This is a sad reality that is changing only slowly. One of the saddest facts is to see young females even today willing to settle into familiar and traditional roles of a housewife. I find it infinitely baffling how someone can pursue an engineering degree and docilely accept the boring lifestyle of a housewife. Surely, young, educated girls have enough brains to look at their mothers who mostly tend to have been housewives themselves who spend 30 years in cooking and bringing up children. How can young girls not find the revolting that they themselves might spend 30 years doing nothing more than cooking and taking care of a baby or two?

The need or desire to have sex is a biological or evolutionary imperative that goes back millions of years and is much older than recent human cultures and traditions. This explains why absurdities such as arranged marriages can at all occur. In India, arranged marriages might often be the only game in town, the only option available. There is no Plan B, or Option B. So, youngsters might accept the choice as the alternative might be bachelorhood and worse, forced celibacy.

Religion is a strange soup that combines bits of culture, rituals, values, traditions, and morals. Why do youngsters accept their parent's religions so blindly? It's mostly a matter of habit and not the result of any great amount of intellectual reflection or debate.

Although India is a famously diverse nation, in fact, people tend to live in uniform communities. People mostly grow up surrounded by others who have the same sort of beliefs. People grow up worshiping the same gods and having the same sorts of religious celebrations from year to year.

Youngsters growing up are not exposed to any competing religious ideologies or belief systems. Clearly, parents are not smart/stupid enough to expose their kids to competing ideologies. Youngsters are not smart/stupid enough to question hand-me-down philosophies on their own. So the stupid belief systems endure.

Religion is rather deeply intertwined with the ebb and flow of life itself. Religion plays a key part in everything, from when babies are born to when folks marry to when they die.

People naturally have lots of intellectual diversions to keep themselves busy or to entertain themselves and do not necessarily wish to enter into heavy-duty matters such as questioning the validity of religious assumptions.

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