Monday, December 17, 2018

Half Lion - Vinay Sitapati

This is a lovely gift from Abhinay complete with a nice message to me. This is also the third or fourth book he has gifted me - all diverse and eclectic in content. Vinay Sitapati's book on P.V. Narasimha Rao, former Prime Minister of India appears to have received wide critical acclaim with the Economist calling it 'The book of the year' and the Times of India calling Vinay 'the new rock star historian;. Vinay has a PhD in politics from Princeton University and has degrees from National Law School Bangalore and from Harvard. He is an Associate Professor who teaches Political Science and Legal studies at Ashoka University.

The book starts with the way PVNR was treated after his death on December 23, 2004, with Congress leaders persuading the family to cremate him in Hyderabad and not Delhi, refusing his body access to the Congress Bhavan and other such unpleasant politics over his death. the finger points clearly at Sonia Gandhi with whom PVNR did not share a great relationship after he was made Prime Minister. In the end, it was in Hyderabad, near the Tank Bund that his final rites were done, and Vinay actually ends up saying that his body was left half burnt (which is the title of the first chapter). It's rather dramatic but it serves its purpose - the former PM was not wanted in Delhi by the Congress by that stage.

Coming from a Brahmin family in Nizam ruled Vangara, in Karim Nagar district PVNR showed an exceptional penchant to learn. His father who was a landowner decided that PV was better off studying and he was sent to another village when he was five to study. The separation seemed to have a traumatic effect on young PV. He was adopted by his rich neighbour who owned some 1000 acres of land and was worried that it might be taken away by the Nizam. PV was debarred from college in Warangal when he and in college mates sang Vande Mataram against orders to stop and were expelled. This was in 1938, Rao was seventeen. He went to Nagpur to complete his degree then went to Pune to study astronomy. He went and studied law in Nagpur and then joined B Ramakrishna Rao, a lawyer in Hyderabad. Married pretty early to Satyamma, he sired eight children with her, but left her to handle the children as well as the lands while he studied and went about with his life and politics.

Rao was influenced by the nationalist leader Swami Ramananda Tirtha, President of Hyderabad State Congress who wanted the lands owned by the middlemen to be transferred to the tillers and make for a socialist society. His other mentor was B. Ramakrishna and he was made the president of Karimnagar district Congress and lost the election in 1952. In 1957 he won the election from Manthani. In 1956 when Andhra was carved from the Madras state there were demands for a separate Telangana. Rao became a minister in the state cabinet. He was in a relationship with one Lakshmi Kantamma, wife of a Forest Officer, who was elected to the Parliament. Rao never let his family close to the politics. He was also never interested in politics - he wanted to be an academic.

In 1971 he was made Chief Minister by Indira Gandhi. He was firm in enforcing his ideas of land reforms which were not very popular. However, the 'Jai Andhra' movement in 1972, which was an offshoot of the mulki judgment, cost him his Chief Ministership. He quietly acquiesced and stepped back. Then he became the General Secretary of the Congress Party. He saw the Emergency through and lived to see the return of Indira Gandhi the Blue Star Operation and the subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi. All through, PV was seen as a man who would not trouble anyone, his demeanour, his quiet and perhaps even his stature made people feel secure with him. There is no reason why he got so many posts without high ambition. In 1970 his wife died. In Delhi he was friendly with a journalist Kalyani Shankar - romantically or no - it's not clear.

He served as Foreign Minister in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet - at a time when Rajiv was trying to get rid of all the older people in the party and getting his own friends and 'yes' men into the party. There is an instance of how one of his friends makes PV put his foot down - a lesson in manners to the sixty plus politician - something he never forgot. When he became PM he banished them all. At the time of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, he was all set to retire. He had sent his books back to Hyderabad and even taken up monkhood at a pitham in South India. Rajiv Gandhi's death opened up a new avenue for him and PV seemed to have played his cards well and somehow managed to become a PM in a minority-led government and at a stage when he was forced to make reforms. He picked his people well, Manmohan Singh was one of them, and went ahead with the reforms that pulled India out of economic crises. In those years he also faced the Babri masjid crises and started the nuclear program despite pressure from the US. He started selling India as am economy for foreigners to invest in, would take businessmen along with him to improve trade.

All through he was politically not very strong and survived by the skin of his teeth. He believed in godmen, Chandraswami and Sharma, had his private relations with women like Lakshmi Kantamma and Kalyani Shankar which he did not hide from anyone, went everywhere with his cook Rajaiah, read thousands of books and made detailed notes, mastered the computer and learned two languages. He wrote and translated books, tried his hand at fiction. He would read books by the dozen and would write notes of appreciation to the authors - Sitapati mentions a note to Arundhati Roy and her reply to him.

PV was a contradiction, a man thrust into the position of power without him wanting it. He would have been happier in a college just as Manmohan Singh might have been but they did bring their own brand of leadership and achieved much quietly. The Babri case was one where he was said not to have done anything - Sitapati devotes an entire chapter to it and it appears that PV tried to get parties together through backchannel talks, made errors in judgment about people and felt betrayed when the mosque was brought down. Despite the best of intentions, people are judged by the outcomes and PV will have to bear the cross. PV, right from his days as Chief Minister in Andhra, had a way of isolating himself by choosing a course of action in conflict with his mentors or his colleagues - land reforms in Andhra, hawala cases against his colleagues when PM, sidelining Rajiv Gandhi's friends and perhaps even ignoring Sonia Gandhi, overestimating his judgment and underestimating VHP and Shiv Sena and even Arjun Singh, these seemed to be some of his faults. That he did what he felt was right was pretty clear.

Small incidents give his character away. The way he takes apart a malfunctioning water pump and repairs it, the way he figures a way to get better yields from cotton, the way he learns ten languages and computers, and pretty much anything he sets his mind to are interesting. He was not one to worry about credit long as the job was done as in the case of the nuclear program (Vajpayee completed the job) and the economic reforms (he attributed that to Rajiv Gandhi). A weakness for women is one of his faults, it says.

An interesting book. Thanks Abhinay.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

My Musical Notes 18 - Leo Sayer's 'Endless Flight'

There was this little shop in Chirag Ali lane, one I never knew existed. Choudary took me there one day when we were in Abids for some work in our first year Engineering. I was thrilled to see that the quaint little shop had a very unique collection of music. I had never heard of most of those artistes - some rare stuff.

That visit, I bought Leo Sayer's 'Endless Flight'. It's one of those one-song tapes (like Yes's 'Owner of a Lonely Heart) which I found later. Leo's biggest hit was 'When I need you' - a delightful ballad that stays with you. Never heard much of the other songs but this one stayed in most of my slow song collections. Leo had another great hit 'More than I can say'.

Choudary was not much of a music collector, but he was enthusiastic about music (he is enthusiastic about everything). I clearly remember him coming along with me (he was my manager and chief negotiator then, and even now) when we went to buy a Phillips car deck and a couple of speakers. On my own, I would have probably bought a music system minus speakers or made some gaffe like that so I would always take him along to bring some sanity.

That was my first personal music system, my own, bought with some money I earned from some cricket prize. (Choudary would also come along to buy my first car, my first TV, and several other things for me). If I remember right we got it for 1200 bucks. What was brilliant about Choudary was that he also bargained with the shop in Abis to throw in a cassette free (things I would never have done). We got Iron Maiden's - 'The Number of the Beast' (Can I Play With Madness) which put me off iron Maiden forever. But since I lost that tape, I need to record this here.

That Phillips car deck with an auto-reverse system and green indicators that shoe warmly in the night, gave me hours and hours of musical pleasure. We somehow fixed it in an old books shelf which could hold all my cassettes at the bottom and the car deck above with those two speakers hanging up on the wall.

Thanks is owed to Choudary for my car deck, Iron Maiden and Leo Sayer for now. He will feature much more in more musical notes later of course.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Movie

It's a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tennessee Willaims adapted into a movie. Released in 1958 it starred Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor.

A hurting and alcoholic ex-athlete who hates his wife, an older brother and his family who is out to get their share in their rich and dying father's wealth and the drama that unfolds over the space of two nights. Wonderful stuff.

I Am Not a Crook - Art Buchwald

It's a full book of columns that Art Buchwald wrote about Nixon and his bumbling Watergate gang and by the end of it, you know the entire story and some. In fact, Art dedicates this book to Richard Nixon. John Dean, someone called Stancy, Eldeman, Ehrlichman, Ron Ziegler, Charles Colson and his grandmother, Kissinger and his wife Nancy..and almost everyone even remotely connected with the White House. One column has two people working in the White House talking to one another, another where the White House is talking, plumbers, psychiatrists, George Washington, the much so that you wonder if any angle has been left alone.

As always, Art Buchwald's columns leave you laughing out loud. One piece was exceptional because it drew more than one laugh. It's where a second-hand car sales showroom decides to bug its prospective customers so they get to know what the customers are talking about when the salesman is not around so they can better address their needs. It's hilarious.

Raja gave this lovely used book - owned by one R.Sundaram (and signed by him too) when I told him I now desired to collect as many funny books as I could to make my life more full of fun and laughter. He also gave me a Dave Barry book which I am yet to read.

Thanks Raja. And more importantly, thanks Art Buchwald. There was a time when as a youngster I used to read his column in the Hindu and it would make me laugh even then without having a clue about politics in America. When I wrote a column for the first time for the New Indian Express I secretly told myself that I would try to write like Art.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Anjali - Friends and Feelings

Yesterday Anjali got off her school bus with a stricken face. I could spot it from the distance. I could also tell from the way her ability to hold herself decreased as she walked towards me that it was no ordinary matter involving seats or some sharp word from the driver or the ayah. As she came closer to me her face crumpled and tears sprung into her eyes as she hugged me. I asked her what happened.
'Divya fell in our sports class from the slide and hurt herself. She was crying so much. I never saw her cry so much.'
Manali  - Pic courtesy Tenzin
Anjali would not stop crying. When I told her we could go and visit Divya, she calmed down. She started messaging her school Principal Anita aunty and her class teacher Sandhya aunty to find out how Divya was. After their responses came assuring her that Divya was ok, she smiled.

And when she called and spoke to Divya, I could hear her distinct concern and relief in her voice at her friend being fine. Messages flew back and forth after the phone call, friendship vows were exchanged, plans made for making get-well cards.

That pain in her face when she first told me about Divya's hurt (which they could not stay back and help with, because their bus had to go and the teachers had taken Divya away) to the relief and celebration was a complete journey.

Another day last week, she spoke so indignantly about one of her teachers not allowing assistance to a child who needs assistance to write. Anjali grew up with her friend and was shocked that the teacher would refuse assistance even after the assistant was present and was permitted by the school. Once again, I could see her face carry shock and indignation at the unfairness and injustice. She marched straight to her teacher and told her about it.

That's a trait I admire in people - the courage to go and right a wrong. I have been guilty so many times of letting things be, letting them sort themselves out. It's cowardly. 90% of us fail to do that, and I really admire the 10% who stand up for their friends, who feel so strongly about right and wrong, about anything at all. They are so much better than us who don't feel anything at all, or rather deadened by our fears.     

I do wonder at such undiluted concern, at how affected they are as children. I am sure many adults are too. I deeply admire that trait to feel others pain so much, to be so concerned for them that you are beside yourself. I hope Anjali never loses that. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

My Musical Notes 17 - The Best of Alan Parsons Project

I was introduced to Alan Parsons project by Sanjay, my cousin-friend, who was then studying in IIT, Madras and Ram, my brother. The song they got me hooked on to was the one everyone loved 'Eye in the sky'. But then I also remember a song called 'Time' that I discovered in another assorted rock album that I had bought. Technically, that cassette, if I find it, comes before this.

Alan Parsons project brought some intelligence to the table. Right from their formal sounding name to the names of their numbers which go like 'Psychobabble', 'Games people play', Pyromania', 'Old and wise', the group had a distinct presence. They would not fit with the hard rock crazies, nor be the romantic silly headed pops guys. They were in their own little world which fit neither here nor there.

Alan Parsons, however, was always played in the rock music evenings which meant that the default group would have been Anil Menon, Sunnie, Ram, Kiran, Choudary. I loved the whole idea of an eye in the sky but in later years started liking 'Old and Wise', a sad song. However, when I first bought the cassette my favorite was 'Psychobabble'. Another big one for me was 'You don't believe'.

Those were the engineering college days, cricket playing days. My music advisors would be mostly Vidyuth and Naresh. Since not too many enjoyed this kind of psycho music it meant I was left to listen to it by myself in my room mostly. Which I did and thoroughly enjoyed.

The team of Alan Parsons (who worked with the Beatles and Pink Floyd) and Eric Woolfson met at Abbey Road Studios canteen in 1974. Goes to show that canteens should be infested more. 

Revenge of Gaia - James Lovelock

Gaia is the living earth, the part which Lovelock says is one living, breathing organism. This consists of the part of the crust before the molten centre begins.

The concern is about how humans are fast heading to destroying even a self-regulating system like the Gaia. Deforestation and the many other means in which we are leaving carbon footprints are taking us towards a clear doomsday scenario. Lovelock, however, feels that nuclear fission is an answer.

Many scenarios are discussed. Though I did not spend too much time trying to understand the actual mechanism I was impacted enough to think of the carbon footprint I was creating and how I could make some adjustments.