Sunday, May 29, 2016

A matter of interpretation

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005)

Produced By: Samuel Goldwyn, Disney, and others
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Owen Kline, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, and others
Pros: Strong story line, lots of emotion, avoid stereotypes, good acting
Cons: Not for the lazy viewer, hurried ending, lack of a relationship between the brothers
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

I was in a mood for a thoughtful film and, after much looking, I decided to give The Squid and the Whale a try. Why I won't say I was disappointed, this movie is not really in the same league as most other good coming of age dramas. The great strength of the movie, or most if the movie at least, is the strong story that always moves forward, never dwindling on a topic and keeping the viewer continuously engaged. Indeed, it does this to a fault, leaving a lot for the viewer to interpret, and that will certainly put a lot of people off.

The acting in the movie was very good, with some strong emotion coming out. It has always surprised me as to how many American families are broken, with children taking it for granted that their parents have different spouses. While I can understand that couple do break up, it has become eerily normal. The movie, set in 80's Brooklyn, captures what could be called a precursor to the age we live in. It does well to avoid stereotypes without losing the emotion. Jesse Eisenberg puts up a grand performance, and is truly the central character. However, the lack of any real relationship between the two brothers is difficult to digest. While I am no expert, I would think that siblings would turn to each other for support during a difficult time - in this case, they seem to be just moving apart for no particular reason - perhaps the director left some part of the story, partially autobiographical, untold?

What really hurts the movie, like so many others, is the hurried ending. It seems as though the director ran out of ideas and decided to just finish the movie using whatever gimmick possible. That was true injustice to a story that was set up so well, which is why I gave a much lower rating that the IMDb average. I would've liked to see more, and at 80 minutes it wouldn't have been too much. Alas, all that is post facto now. (OTFS)

We have a problem

A lot of news has been devoted of late to the treatment of African students in India - primarily in and around Delhi - particularly after the brutal mob-backed murder of a student from Congo that led to a major diplomatic standoff. India's ties with Africa go back far, from the days when Gandhi led movements in South Africa and developed his theory of satyagraha, to the post-colonial age when India backed Independence movements on the continents in the age of decolonization, and then supported their development through training young people in the skills needed for a modern nation. Indeed, the latter continues today, with India supporting the human resources of many countries on the continent.

However, that is largely the Indian government. Indians, the people, have a problem. It's racism, which is rampant in India and, when mixed with inherent caste prejudices, makes for a deadly cocktail. You don't really realize it in the country - fairness creams are all over the place, while it is very common to expect so-called lower castes to clean up after you. Both of these are ingrained at a very young age. Clearly caste-ridden slurs are told without a care: it is just normal. The idea that dark-skinned people are inferior, like monkeys, becomes ingrained without ever meaning to. It takes a few years of living outside to realize all that. Of course, not all of the country is bad, and the Delhi-Punjab-Haryana belt probably represents the worst, but it is a problem nonetheless.

It is not just Africans who face trouble. White people get mobbed, though for opposite reasons, while those from the Northeast are regularly ill-treated especially in the North. Clearly, we have a problem, and while perpetual self-deprecation does no good, it is time to change. We must change. Not because the West tells us to, but because it is necessary to learn to treat other human beings with respect if we expect them to treat us with respect. Today it is Africans, yesterday it was Dalits. How long will the prejudice go on?

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Going too far

Hornet Flight
By Ken Follett

I continue my fascination with Ken Follett with the first book of his that I really had a lot of trouble reading - and it was not a pleasure in the end. Of course, by the time I got to reading it, I already had some fatigue, what with the busy end to the semester and the conference in DC. But I eventually got around to finishing it - and regretted it. It's not that it is badly written, it is written in largely the same characteristic style that has marked all his other works. But then, this goes somewhat out his league and far, too far, into speculation.

The problem with Hornet Flight is the rather superficial description of technology that basically forms the backbone of the novel: from the wrecked airplane to the radar system, it all feels amateurish at best. And then the story itself! I know this is a work of fiction, but there's a difference between regular fiction and science fiction, and I'm not sure which one this really is. In the end, the story seemed very hollow, and Winston Churchill taking some (brave) kids around military installations during World War II's fiercest fighting was just too much to believe. A disappointment. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

Will VS stay out?

The electoral story in Kerala is actually two stories. First, the headline. As usual, the LDF defeated the incumbent UDF government of Oomen Chandy almost 2-to-1, as has been the norm in Kerala. Indeed, in 2011, this was almost broken by the veteran communist VS Achuthanandan's spirited campaign, but Chandy obviously was not going to achieve that. The Left's victory did not surprise anybody, although P Vijayan's rise as the CM did. The question will be whether Vijayan can hope to have the party behind him, or will VS act as a thorn on his feet for the next five years?

The Congress ideally should think deeply about its loss and the massive corruption scandals that have hit it. Nationwide, the party has become synonymous with corruption and minority appeasement, and nowhere it is more glaring than in Kerala. And despite Shashi Tharoor's attempts at painting a rosy picture over it, the rot is there for everyone to see. However, idealism is not how the Congress runs, and they will most likely shrug it off and wait to win in 2021. However, they should look at what happened in neighboring Tamil Nadu and realize that their victory is not guaranteed in a changing Indian political landscape.

Now, that's the main story. There is one more thing though, something that would've been impossible just five years ago: Kerala was the only state where the BJP increased its vote share from the 2014 Modi wave, and in the process won its first ever MLA in the Assembly: the veteran warhorse O Rajgopal, who took a good thirty years of defeats (often by tiny margins) to get here. What's more, the party came a close second in many contests, in some cases being defeated by less than 2,000 votes. Never before would this have been even a remote possibility in the state, but the fact is that the BJP has picked up votes from both the LDF and the UDF, and it was the surprising subject of many a election rally. And while it does not have the seats to show for it, its performance is very encouraging. 

The Left in Bengal: An Obituary

It was supposed to be the alliance of opportunists that would make history - two forces that have been at battle (literally) for decades, coming together to stop an all-powerful common enemy. The Congress-Left alliance, much-derided because the parties were simultaneously fighting each other in Kerala, was supposed to take the state back from the TMC. In the end, not only did the TMC win with the largest majority in the history of the Assembly, the Left tasted the kiss of death from the Congress, being reduced to its lowest ever margin ever (while the Congress itself managed to improve a bit). Add to that, the BJP managed to win six seats, establishing that it was indeed a rising force in the state.

In many respects, this election could be called a Mamata Banerjee wave, as she asked voters to vote for her and disregard the party candidate, who would just be a puppet. That might sound terrible, but it's a fact that India's politics both in the states and at the Center has become increasingly Presidential, and the Congress-Left alliance's lack of a single leader made it much worse for them. Mamata won more seats than ever before, with several new candidates defeating incumbents from the Opposition. The Left has been absolutely annihilated in the state that it once rules for 34 years, the springboard of its national ambitions. The decision to make a hypocritical alliance with the Congress was the last nail in the coffin - while the Left's voters happily voted for Congress candidates, the opposite was not true, because the Congress' voters had suffered under the Left's militia's for decades, and no amount of loyalty to the Gandhi dynasty was going to erase that. That the Left could not see this shows just how much it has lost touch with the country (and the world at large).

Now that Mamata has a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, there is no doubt that she will work to entrench her party in every aspect of the state's life. After all, she learned it from the Left, and has outdone them in many respects. This victory cements Bengal's slow decline from India's premiere province to a backward jihadi factory because of the suicidal way in which the electorate voted for decades. But then again, the state did give the BJP six seats. That might seem small, but then the party went from 2 seats in the 80s to a full majority of 282 in 2014 in the Lok Sabha, so small victories are not be ignored. Perhaps the future will be different. But not the near future. 

Breaking the Revolving Door

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all in this election cycle, and the one result that showed just how hollow all the opinion polls have been, is the return of Jayalalitha as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for a second consecutive term, a feat unmatched in 30 years, during which the state electorate kept alternating between massive victories to one side or the other. This time, while she retained a majority, the DMK (in alliance with the Congress) did manage to increase its numbers, but not by enough. Therefore, for the first time in a generation, a continuing CM will have to deal with an Opposition that is not very far off from the ruling party in terms of numbers in the Assembly.

Amma's victory can be attributed also to her crushing blow to the alphabet soup of smaller parties in the state, particularly the bravado of Captain Vijaykanth who tried to assemble his own third front, refusing to ally with any of the larger parties or even the BJP. His dreams of emerging a kingmaker in a historic election blew up in his face as Amma took all the votes he was looking for, reducing that alliance to nothing. Casteist outfits like the PMK, Eelam-based outfits such as Vaiko's, and the breakaway Manila Congress, all bit the dust from the Amma juggernaut. And that is perhaps the highlight of the election: a fractured polity that Amma was able to take to her advantage. It is highly likely that in the event of a usual bipolar contest, she would've been defeated. Indeed, in the UT of Puducherry, she was defeated by the DMK-Congress alliance.

Some would attribute her victory to the list of freebies she has offered, but really, that has become so common in the state that nobody really wins on the basis of it - it is secondary. So many parties have done it so often that it has lost its novelty. The victory goes to her shrewd political calculations, including her decision not to antagonize the Central Government and thus follow her own path. She has five years ahead of her, while the Opposition needs to wonder how they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. 

A Photo Finish

It was history in the making last week, with the Modi wave of 2014 reaching its logical conclusion in Assam. The BJP and its allies - the BPF and the AGP - won a clear majority in the Vidhan Sabha and displaced the 15-year reign of Tarun Gogoi, in the process effectively destroying the Congress and the AUDF in what used to be its most entrenched constituencies, and throwing up Sarbanand Sonowal as the new Chief Minister of the state, while also creating a Lok Sabha opening and an empty spot on the Union Cabinet (Youth Affairs and Sports). Phew!

The BJP has indeed come a long way, from being a so-called upper caste, North Indian party, it has now captured the largest state in the Northeast with a Chief Minister who is a tribal, in the process displacing a once-invincible political party. Tarun Gogoi, who decided to go it alone and project his son (who is another one in Rahul Gandhi's coterie), clearly suffered a huge setback, not just from a strong BJP with a local face, but also by the defection of Himanta Biswas Sarma, who was the master strategist for the Congress and whose loss the Grand Old Party could not possible deal with. Sarma did not mince words in an interview to NDTV, when he denounced Rahul Gandhi and the entrenched dynasties of the Congress. And while some surmise that a tie-up with the AUDF could've helped the Congress, the fact is that the overt communal tone of the former would've further polarized the electorate, which was already seething with rage over Gogoi's open-door policy for illegal Muslim immigrants.

The BJP has also learned its lessons from the annus horribilis that was 2015. It gave great powers to the local leadership, projected a single leader who was very popular in the state, used the Central leadership on as needed, and stuck to its core issues: deporting (or at least disenfranchising) illegal immigrants and rebuilding a wrecked economy. And although the victory seemed perfect, even destined, the truth is that it takes a lot of effort for a party as massive as the BJP to change tactics so swiftly, which is certainly to the credit of Amit Shah.

Now the BJP is in government in Assam, Nagaland (as the junior partner in the DAN), and Arunachal Pradesh (with Congress rebels who brought down the party's government in that state, the Congress' only victory in 2014), while also having an understanding the SDF in Sikkim - that's half the states in the region, and a majority of the population (although Assam takes care of that by itself). Amit Shah clearly has his eyes set on the rest of the region, and Sarma appears to be his go-to man there. Some interesting times are ahead in India's Northeast. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Quite an experience!

I have a complicated relationship with math. I remember elementary school, when I was pretty bad at it - that time in fifth grade when I, for some reason, didn't study for the exam and couldn't remember divisibility tests or prime factorization, and ended up flunking that test. Ouch. While it never got that low again, it wasn't a joyous ride after that either. I remember the utter confusion I faced in those difficult years of JEE prep, when I found myself to be bad at everything but Chemistry, and I had to choose between Math and Physics - I chose Math.

Oh, how the tables have turned since college. Of course, college math, with a heavy focus on calculus, is different from high school math. And college chemistry is in a league of its own! I found that from hating Physics and reluctantly embracing Math, I came to love Physics and Math in equal measure (and strongly dislike Chemistry!). Last semester, when I took ME 412, this strange reversal came to full bloom - while the Physics was challenging but interesting, the Math was astonishingly simple, at a pre-calculus level even. It might sound funny that we could solve complex physical problems without calculus, but at the very edge of human knowledge, it is often the simplest of things that helps us find our way - what is sometimes called 'from first principles'.

And thus I embark on several years more of computational studies, where Physics is well-known if difficult to understand, and the challenge is finding a solution to it. From being frightened of Math and Physics, I'm all set to embrace a career in it (along with a bit of computer science). 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Still Riding High: #NaMoVijayDiwas

 May 16, 2014 will go down as a watershed day in Indian politics, the day when Narendra Modi led the BJP to its first ever Lok Sabha majority. For the Indian right, it was a moment when they could finally come out of the closet, when the vice-like grip of the illiberal Left was weakened, and a genuine ideological battle could be waged. Some say that we live in a post-ideological world, but on that day, it was ideology. Since then, much water has flown below the bridge.

For many, Modi has not been the miracle-maker that he was expected to be. He has chosen a steady path to reform as opposed to the fast-pace of PVN Rao, that other right-wing Prime Minister who stands tall today. In that respect, he is closer to a Vajpayee. But there is a clear method and vision, even if it is incremental. Modi has also been stymied by a recalcitrant Congress Party in the Rajya Sabha, where the entire logic of having the upper house has been wrecked.

On areas that are not legislative in nature, he has done quite well, with foreign policy being right on top. Because his leadership is strong, he can make bold moves such as his visit to Lahore, something that few PMs can think about doing without a massive backlash at home. And most importantly, he is sincere and ready to fight the long fights needed to bring India back to her ancient glory.

For the Indian right, it is necessary that we match Modi's actions with our own. Come 2019, all forces that are opposed to him and the right wing will unite. It will be the Mahabharat of all electoral battles, and everyone must join forces to ensure Modi has a second term, which is a must for India's progress. Till then though, we can sit back and know that Modi is guaranteed to be around for another three years, and there is much to be achieved in those years.

Harking back to that glorious day, let's hope to see many more.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Paper Napkin

Former right-wing intellectual and cabinet minister in the last AB Vajpayee government Arun Shourie has become that very thing he has spent his entire life deriding - a Lutyens-media fueled #AdarshLiberal. In yet another interview to Karan Thapar - which he now seems to be ready to give at just the most convenient of times - he accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of running a presidential-style government and treating people like paper napkins. Alas, as Jaggi points out in his fabulous piece on Swarajya, Shourie is himself being used as a paper napkin by the Deep Congress. Has he ever wondered why he is being feted by the English media, which would not so much have touched him just a few years ago? Why is it that they want him to speak his mind on Modi, but would not dare to ask a question on his entire body of work that has exposed the hollowness of the Deep Congress and how it has subverted the entire country?

Shourie, like every citizen, has a right to speak his mind. But the people hearing him out also have a right to comment on what they think of him. When you decide to become a public face - and air your dirty laundry in public - you have to be ready for all sorts of criticism. Nobody knows this better than Modi himself. And in this case, Shourie is simply missing the writing on the wall. India has embodied a Presidential form of government for a long time. States are run as Presidential governments. Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalitha, Harish Rawat, Raman Singh, etc. are all the great powers of their states. Nobody cares who their ministers are. Nehru (in his latter terms) and his daughter (right from day one) themselves ran the Union government in a very Presidential style, and Sonia Gandhi ran it as a dictatorship. In 2014, people voted for Modi, they voted in a very Presidential-style election. Shashi Tharoor has been campaigning to usher in a US-style presidential system in India for some years now. And why just in India? Do the Prime Ministers' Questions in the UK not imply centralization of authority and accountability on the PM, a la a Presidential system? Alas, to Shourie, this natural choice made by smart people in free and fair elections seems to be a bad thing, the sort of thinking that would otherwise be characteristic of the liberal Delhi Deep Congress.

The greatest irony in all this is that Shourie seems to be looking to the very Deep Congress that he spent his entire life deriding for some succor, as Modi has basically ignored him. It is never easy for anyone in the right wing to criticize the man who provided the intellectual foundation for the 2014 victory, but we must come to the realization that perhaps Shourie didn't mean everything he used to stand for. He was simply looking for his best chances. The Deep Congress has no place for him, so he embraced the right wing. No doubt he was competent and his research was excellent, but he didn't mean it. When things went wrong for him, when the BJP's former Delhi gang (and Shourie's lifeline) was deposed by Modi, Shourie gladly jumped back to the Deep Congress. In other words, his ideas are up for sale to the highest bidder.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Anatomy of an Obsession


Delhi's full-time film critic and part-time Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal made a name for himself in the arena of political theatrics - from his 370 page long "proof" against former CM Sheila Dixit to his hit-and-run tactics, and even his silent apologies for the inevitable defamation law suits. He has never been one to indulge in subtleties, with full-page ads across newspapers from Kanyakumari to Imphal, extolling himself, all at the cost of Delhi's taxpayers. Recently, he has decided to turn troll-in-chief as well, and his target is (as usual) Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But this is where the lack of subtlety is showing more than ever before. Truth be told, it seems Arvind Kejriwal is deeply obsessed about the Prime Minister. India has over two dozen Chief Ministers, some of them managing populations that are smaller than that of Delhi's, but it seems to be only Kejriwal who finds the time to nitpick about the PM. That is not to say that other CMs do not comment on the PM - they absolutely do - but it is related to substantive policy issues, or matters of law. Even Nitish Kumar, who handily defeated the BJP on the back of Lalu Yadav's massively caste-based campaign last year, has expressed his opposition to the PM through an alternative vision he seeks - a "Sangh-mukt Bharat" as he put it.

But not Kejriwal. From finding fault with the PM's e-Rickshaws in Varanasi to blaming the PM for anything and everything that happens in any little corner of Delhi, Kejriwal is always looking for ways to bring in a Modi angle. Even at the height of national outrage over the AgustaWestland scam that involved the Gandhi dynasty itself, he chose to blame Modi. Of course, after his infamous posters asking Modi to let the Delhi Government do its job, this should not be a complete surprise. And while it does take skill to spin everything around one person, it also takes one more thing: a sociopath's obsession. A criminologist would be able to sight all the signs: a singular obsession for a person, ignoring one's own work and life to stalk the person in question (on Twitter, in this case), continuously seeking that person's attention despite never getting even a hint of it. Need I say more?

Kejriwal's obsession for Modi may be traced back to his record-breaking defeat in Varanasi in 2014. Before that, the man's theatrics were more broad-based, which would make him obsessive or stubborn, but not a sociopath. After that came a few months of dejection, with the knowledge that AAP's bets has failed. But after Kejriwal's massive victory in Delhi, he has gone, as they say, full retard. Now he sees no one else - there is no corrupt Lalu, or Afzal-supporting Kanhaiya, or biased journalists. There is just one man - Modi. He is now Kejriwal's entire world. He is his obsession.