Jallikattu – An entire week when Tamil Nadu had a solution looking for a problem

It was a pleasant January morning, close to the Marina beach. More than 30,000 people – of all ages, gender and from different parts of the state have been gathering there, every morning for 5 days in a row, to witness the fate of the country pan out.

No, I am not talking about Jallikattu.

The year was 1999. On Sunday, Jan 31st, India was chasing 298 to win the first test against Pakistan and at 50 for 2, things were looking ominous.  As Ravi would say, Wasim bhai was ‘making the ball talk’. Dravid had just survived a close LBW shout to a ball that straightened. The next one held its course. This was followed by arguably one of the most extraordinary deliveries in Test cricket ever, where the ball pitched in line with the leg stump and swung about 3 inches – the geometrically perfect deviation to miss Dravid’s outside edge and still kiss the top of the off stump. The crowd instinctively let out a collective wow, before reality sunk in and plunged them into a sea of silence. They would later give the Pakistan team a standing ovation as they took a victory lap for the only time in a foreign land (no, Dubai is not foreign). It was probably the game that earned them the tag ‘knowledgeable Chennai crowd’ – an acknowledgement that this audience could transcend beyond the naivety of patriotism and embrace the nuance of Sport.

There was nothing nuanced about the Jallikattu protests though, 18 years on. What was a purposeful, focused resistance on a local issue that started in Alanganallur the previous week, was the perfect, lighted matchstick to the dried haystack that was TN. The protest was an epic, public clash of two schools of thought, that were both enormously flawed. Or as Nolan might put it, it was “an unreasonable force colliding with an illogical object”.

The ban on Jallikattu itself was absurd and it needed to be protested. It was fairly evident that the people who wanted to ban the sport spent precious little time understanding it. For example, both the courts and the media often referred to the sport as bull taming – something that the sport doesn’t involve at all. The whole concept of ‘cruelty’ is also extremely subjective in a country where the meat industry is supported by more than two thirds of its population.

But the argument on the street was equally absurd. PeTA was made out to be this monster lobbyist who had bottomless funding and allies in governments across the globe to carry out their desires at will. That’s a bit like saying AK Hangal was the leading man in Sholay. Most people on the beach pronounced the words ‘vaadi vaasal’ for the first time (and most likely the last). And their overall understanding of the economics of the milk industry was poor. The scale of Jallikattu was too small to either create or destroy a milk consumption pattern and the indigenous breeds in question were anyway low yielding ones with no impact on production. It was basically a protest fuelled entirely by WhatsApp forwards. Only, it was no Tahrir square.

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(Image credit:NDTV)

This was certainly not the famed ‘knowledgeable Chennai crowd’. But something else was going on of historical significance.

For the first time ever, the people of TN did something out of character. They decided to give a fuck about governance. For people who are not familiar with the state, this is as rare an occurrence as Salman pursuing a quest for cinematic excellence or Mohanlal doing justice to a poetry reading of Gulzar. You see, TN has always looked at politics through the same lens as cinema. You need a hero, a villain and a large serving of drama. And oh, it is always someone else’s production. And the public’s job in both cases is to step into a box counter, pledge their allegiance and sit back for the entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong. TN has always taken care of itself, with or without a government – be it the Tsunami or the Chennai floods. But we have seldom taken on the Empire’s Dark Star. We never made it personal until January 2017.

And the new found rage was Beautiful. For an entire week, a state remained angry. Angry at a political class that had failed them. Angry at a republic that never respected its culture. Or its language. Angry that they had no more heroes left to trust. Angry that every institution around them (even auto rickshaws) had been compromised by the ruling class. Angry that the river that ‘ran’ through their capital city was actually a metaphor for the decay of the state itself. SO angry that they could not articulate any of these. And ‘Don’t ban Jallikattu’ seemed like a sufficient SOS for everything else.

No wonder we burnt ourselves out in a week. We ran out of articulations and the anger wore us down. The sense of occasion overwhelmed us and much like Nayan Mongia in the said test, the protestors holed out to square leg on the last day of the test.

It has been six months since the Jallikattu protests, but things have only gotten from worse to tragic, for this state. Nieces, nephews, friends and nephews of friends of the departed have announced themselves as the heir to the throne. Not because they want to, but because they can. An actor who has been so scared of failure for two decades continues to be delusional and insult the intelligence of an entire state. The national parties hover over the state like hawks waiting for its injured prey to breath its last. A legislative cabinet whose collective IQ can be challenged by a kindergarten class is settling down to ‘cash in’ on the two remaining years of elected office.

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(image credit: Hindustan Times)

The worst part? None of this is even veiled. This is the most unprecedented, unequivocal ridicule of a citizenry in recent memory. And until now, the said citizenry is still in the theatre, waiting for a climax. Not realizing that the film is about them.

Tamil Nadu can really use a really good revolution now. One that is not naïve but honest. One that is not indifferent but selfish. Or like the ‘Big Boss’ often says, one where we don’t feel leaders are from Mars, but our own streets and colonies.

A revolution that is all rage. And no bull.

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A life long disagreement. A lump. A void

I cant remember the last time I had a lump in my throat when a politician died. I do today. I surprise myself because I have never voted for the person, hated her brand of leadership and rarely agreed with her for the most part of her career. But her career also panned my entire adult life and I realize today that the battles we fought together and against – me as a citizen and she as my representative, have defined a large part of my life. A part that ended today. So it is difficult to differentiate the personal from the political, when it comes to emotions on this day.

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The Misfit

I felt for her as a ten year old boy watching the live telecast of MGR’s funeral, when she was man-handled out of the gun carriage carrying his body. Amidst hardened coterie men, she was an odd one out in that picture. I couldn’t help thinking that she somehow just did not fit in. If you had told me that day that the same cadre will fall on her feet willingly and worship her only a decade later, I would have been very happy with the World’s justice mechanism.

I had to take 25 C to my school and every time it crossed church park, there will invariably be someone whispering “that is Jayalalitha’s school”. I was proud of her. There is no country man outside my state who had / has a Chief Minister who topped the state in the Matriculation exams. She just seemed to never fit in! Years later, I would Love to show off her interview with Simi Garewal (1999) to my friends from elsewhere. I even bought a collection of short stories by Somerset Maugham, because she mentioned it as her favourite book in that interview.

I did not root for her in the first election that ensued. It was also the first that I actively followed in my life – a time when the term “Amma” referred to someone else in TN politics. An election that fascinated me as a boy because at barber shops and family functions – my biggest source of political discourse at the time, it was pitched as the battle of the wife Vs the lover. And marriages have always won in this part of the World. As she would point out in an interview many years later, almost all of the female leaders in Asia have been related by blood or marriage to a male leader. Though on this occasion, both lost.

The walking tragedy

What happened in the TN assembly in 1989 shocked me even as a boy. Probably the first of many incidents that would disillusion dravidian politics as a concept for me.

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When I read about her in those years, her loneliness drew me to her. The child who lived away from family, the girl who was forced into an acting career she did not like, the man who took her entire youth as hostage, a lover and a political successor who was just left to fend for herself…her melancholy was not just sad. It was mythical, somehow. And magnetic.

The Hatred

I protested against her and got lathi charged during the 1996 elections. That campaign involved morphing of her images onto photos of goddesses and religious icons. It had outraged all of Loyola College at the time for some strange reason and we walked down Sterling road in protest. In that phase of my life, my political views were being shaped more by anger than by inspiration. And those were not her finest years. That made it easier.

My Mom spent her entire career in the state government and when their union strike in the late 90s was met with an unprecedented iron fist, my anger against her found a new high. I was still too young to fathom the concept of decisive governance. But that notwithstanding, she was at that point more a despot more than a democratic leader.

I hated her for the hours I spent at traffic signals on my bike, under a scorching sun, so that her never ending entourage could cross. They usually stopped traffic about 30 mts before it crossed a spot.

It was around this time that the corruption allegations surfaced as well. But the TN polity has always been comfortably numb with the concept of corruption. The hero worship which is the base of politics in this state, almost justifies it to a certain extent. But nothing justified THAT wedding!   The obscenity of wealth on showcase during that week was probably what alienated her forever in the minds of families like mine.

The resurrection. Of sorts.

In 2001 when she won, I was heartbroken. But something had changed. There was a pronounced objectivity in her actions and even a cynic like me started to believe in her intent. It was as though she suddenly realized that time was short. Most importantly, she started fitting in. Or may be we just reconciled to her norm. Either way, my views also matured from the personal to the objective. It was becoming less about the entourage and more about the economy. We profited from the real estate boom around the IT highway, but I could also see a vision of some sort taking shape. What happened from an industrial perspective in that term was unprecedented for the state. It is also the reason why I later found humour in the so called Gujarat story, which was a much lesser product (on most indices) compared to Jaya’s, except it was marketed better.

I admired her when she banned religious conversions in the state in 2002. I cannot think of a more decisive and rational move at the confluence of religion and politics, made by an Indian leader.

I admired her for being the ONLY politician in the south to have a consistent view on Sri Lanka throughout (pro Eelam but anti LTTE). This, while I disagreed with her vehemently on the subject.

I always felt secure with her representing my state’s interests with the central government. Whether it was Kaveri or GST – no one could mess with her. No one did, until the end.

I am not a fan of welfare politics but I could see that behind the megalomania of self branding across the canteen, pharmacy, salt and water, there was an agenda. I don’t buy into that agenda but I respected the plan. I have eaten at Amma canteen and the food was great! It is an administrative gold standard that she was able to maintain the food and the premises at such high levels of quality, even after many years. In a country of ‘great ideas’ and ‘bad executions’, she was miles ahead as an administrator.

In many ways, that is the real void she has left behind. We have so few of such managers left.

Her legacy. My lump.

I hate her brand of leadership. I loathe her for creating a party and a government with no second line. Not even a spine. I find it insulting to the intelligence of the entire state. But that is also the tragedy of Jayalalitha. This is evidently not her chosen career. But one she stuck on because of her bullheadedness – one that she handcrafted for survival. In many ironical ways, hers is the antithesis of a tamil cinema script – A leading lady, a hero who is also her villain and an ending where she has her revenge but somehow still manages to eke out a tragedy.

I hated how she treated my city’s icons. She converted a 450 Cr structure meant for the legislative assembly into a hospital and was threatening to shut down my favourite city library as well. Why? because she could. Because they were created by her rival. I hate her for making my city’s street corners into filthy wine shops.

I hated her party men for what they did during the Chennai floods when hundreds of relief volunteers were forced to stamp her stickers on supplies. I hate her for never speaking about it.

I am scared by the leadership void she has created in my state. I fear for the future of my city. But as I see her last procession to the burial ground, it is a strange love that rises up to my throat. Because I know that person. I know her story. We were in this together. I know her mistakes but I also know her injuries. I know what she had to endure. All I want to do is to hug that 15 year old girl from church park, before she was pushed into the tumultuous world of fame that will eventually consume her and tell her that it will be all be OK. We will all be OK.

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The social Social

(Written for Futuron. Original post can be found here. Images used are not mine. Original copyrights apply)

When I typed this title out, MS Word promptly asked me if I felt like deleting the repeated word. I asked it to ignore instead, as I was referring to the world of social activism with the former and media with the latter. But may be, even the computer realizes that these two really are strange bedfellows. And if the events of the last couple of years have told us anything, it is indeed that these namesake phenomena do have a strange relationship.

There is a popular view point that internet in general and the advent of social networking in particular have definitely altered the way people come together in situations of social unrest, in a manner that makes it easier to build momentum for a cause. Clearly, the mainstream media loves this speel and is even a strong advocate of this. Every day we see TV news stories and magazine cover stories about how Facebook and Twitter have galvanized a protest here and an uprising there.

On the other side, there is also the cynical view that social media activism is at best arm chair activism, where all that is expected of the user is a click to like or Retweet or at their strenuous best, a blog post. As far as ‘social revolutions’ go, even for the much talked about Iranian uprising of ’09 or the more recent political turnarounds in Tunisia and Egypt, there is a lot of doubt and the speculation on the scale at which social media really helped these events.

Personally, I would hate to call any society’s revolution a ‘Twitter’ or a ‘Facebook’ effect, as I feel that completely belittles the movement, which at the end of the day can only belong to the people, whose hunger or suffering or injustice it really is about. So what is the difference that social networking makes? When NBC Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel was asked how people in Tahrir Square communicated with each other as well as the rest of the World, he said “People were communicating mostly by cell phone.  That was the overwhelming source of communications and information distribution….When they thought that the cell phones weren’t safe, or that the cell phone messages weren’t safe, they would switch to Twitter.  Then, when they thought Twitter messages were compromised, they would switch to Facebook….And then, of course, when the government shut it down, people just started talking to each other.”

A social network in any developing or 3rd World nation will never be representative of the entire nation, as it is a function of internet penetration and access to computing / mobile devices, both of which are likely to be scarce in these regions. Even if it is an event happening in a developed country (like the more recent & more notorious London riots), the ratio of the number of people discussing it on social media to the number that is on the ground is going to be fairly miniscule. So it does not bring scale. It is unfair to expect it to.

So then, is it useful to mobilize finances? The US Red Cross has about 365,000 followers on Facebook. A recent study revealed that about 3% of its donations come from online. Social media is probably going to be a fraction of that. On the other hand, their $10 SMS campaign in the US for Haiti relief work, which was backed by the US State Department, brought in almost a Million Dollars in donation, in just a few days.

I have personally not come across a case where significant financial contribution has been mobilized for a cause, purely on social media. The problem is also infrastructure related to a certain extent. Most social networks do not have credit or payment capabilities at this point. FB credits is probably the most significant move in this direction, but it will be some time before this virtual currency can be leveraged in the real world. So for now, all we can do is amplify the message by sharing links to payment portals on FB and Twitter, something that has not found too many takers as it involves leaving the platform.

How about advocacy for the cause? Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent article on The New Yorker, had compared social media activism to the ‘Greensboro4’ and how the dynamics are completely different. Of course. For four colored students to walk into and sit-in inside a racist restaurant in the 1960s, or for a young man to step out into Tahrir square risking physical injury is an act of bravery. It requires your blood to boil, you mind to have absolute clarity and your heart to believe in something so much, that you would even expose yourself to harm, to achieve it. This cannot be achieved just on a computing device. But then, we knew that already, dint we?

The actual role that social networking plays in a mass social movement in my opinion is not any of these, but that of a mobile PR officer. That of a distress Flare. Imagine a February 1, 1960 with mobile devices and social networks:

  • I am one of the Greensboro 4, walking into the Woolworth restaurant to stage a civil rights sit-in. I walked in because I cared about the real world I live in.
  • I am likely to have a substantial number of colored people from Greensboro as my Facebook & Twitter contacts. I tweet about my sit-in and create an event. A few people RSVP and turn up for it. It is not large enough. But many do RT and share my update.
  • The local newspaper and TV channel (I know, but just continue to imagine, will ya?) reporter who is desperately looking for civil rights news, picks up the Twitter trend and does a small story on it.
  • Suddenly, hundreds in the neighbourhood know about the sit-in and they are all excited. Their blood boils and their heart believes. They step out and talk to each other. Many decide to join.
  • The TV reporter at the venue sees the growing mass and the coverage reaches prime time, nationally. The American civil rights movement gets dubbed as a Twitter revolution!

Nothing wrong with this, except that social media was just an enabler. And that by itself is no mean achievement. It is an enabler that revolutionaries of the past would have loved to have. One that revolutionaries of the future cannot live without. It is our flare! Just as these guys found out in Delhi!

Short put

So Tharoor tweets…

ShashiTharoor

Naxalite KanuSanyal’s suicide ydy confirms that violence&destruction hv never achieved anything positive.Wish RDB had been more constructive


really now? Kanu Sanyal led a very happy life of violence for over 3/4ths of a century. He was old, senile and unwell. And so decided to end his life at 82, as violently as he had lived it. How the fuck does this suddenly become an anti-violence message? The man must be turning in his grave 😉

How Manmohan Singh stole my burp from under my nose

Mumbai is hot. Too hot for March. And too hot to be choosing your brand of soft drink in the middle of the day, under the unforgiving sun. You just drink what you get, first. In this mad rush between your dying throat and your out-reached hand, there is no time for thought. Not the least, for the story of how the bottle you are clutching, arrived into that refrigerator.

Get out of your house. Go to the nearest department store, put your head into their fridge, close your eyes, pick any bottle randomly and look at the label behind. If it does not read ‘product of Pepsico or The Coca Cola company’, you can take a flight to Delhi and cut my balls off.
It is not just your cola. It is your water, orange juice, mango, apple, lime, energy drink, your pack of chips and even your breakfast oats – most of these brands are all owned by one of these two cola companies. When I was growing up in the 80s, things were a bit different. There was this company in Vile Parle, making this absolutely stunning drink called Thums Up, with cool ads. This other company making ‘campy’ orange drinks and heck, I even had a local manufacturer making cola under the name of Kali. In other words, I had a fucking choice. And boy, I can still taste those solid burps after that first gulp of Thums Up in ‘Abilash Bakeries’ as a school kid.
Things changed after 1991. A man with a blue turban opened up the gates of the Indian market and 2 bulldozers came inside, muscling their way in with superior advertising budgets. The Indian companies obviously did not have deep enough purses and so they caved in. In what was one of the most baffling moves ever in Indian corporate history, Thums Up – the then market leader with an almost monopoly in the cola market, sold itself to Coke for a measly $60 Million. Far cry from today, where we are buying global steel and auto giants at roughly 75 times that price.
And what happened to my neighbourhood Kalimark? Those visionaries, who identified the power of rural India, decades before McKinsey did? It has been reduced to a company without a website.
I read this interesting piece the other day about how Pepsi and Coke are pulling out of schools. Now I have not done an extensive research to fully understand the quality practices of these two companies or judge them from an ethical or scientific perspective. But then I dont have to. If an organization like the Centre for Science and Environment, which has MS Swaminathan as its chair person tells me that there is more pesticide content in my bottle of Pepsi than in Obama’s, then I have a problem. And if you tell me they are using 7 lakh litres of water a day per plant, when some families in my town cant manage 1 litre of clean water in a week, then I have a Big Fucking Problem.
But what foxes me is that even today, with consumerism at its peak in India, we do not have a mainstream soft drink player. Yeah, the Daburs of the World (read ‘Real’) still try, but lets not kid ourselves. Your neighborhood tea stall is more likely to stock ‘limca’ or ‘nimbooz’, than ‘Real’. Why do we call it ‘fair trade’ when marketing muscle can beat innovation? Why do press releases by the CSE have a shorter life than a Ranbir Kapoor Pepsi ad? How come the press is more interested in Indira Nooyi’s power than her pesticides?
I dont drink Thums Up these days, as the burp brings many disturbing pictures to my mind. In the mean time, the only guy who seems to get this drift and even find humour in it is Simbuthevan 😉
PS: Remeber the famous Andy Warhol quote? “A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum in the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it and you know it”. Really? mmm…

WTF moments of this week

Read this interesting piece the other day about the academy awards jury. This is scary. You know which part? That a bunch of wheelchaired seniles warmed up to Brokeback Mountain, not long ago! Ah, proves my theory that we always underestimate old people.
Totally enjoyed another interrupted YouTube coverage of an IPL match. This time, slightly more because of the CSK win. However almost fell off my chair the next morning when I read Dada’s comments. I have a question for him: Please explain to me the concept of ‘death bowling’ in a T20 match. With only 20 overs, isnt it more like a ‘Death Match’? Whats next? calling the last ball of the inning a ‘genocide ball’ and that of the match ‘the armageddon’?
And yes, how can you do a WTF segment without Mayawati! Read about the garland-gate yesterday. Cant help thinking it is probably up there among the funniest and the most ironic moments in Indian politics, especially coming after this press release. Ofcourse, the saddest tragedy of it all is that we can never be a caste-free nation, with people like her around. And most dont realize that.
Anyway, while on WTF, did anybody see that really annoying Hero Honda CBZ ad? The one where the guy says ‘Thinking is such a waste of time’? If that doesnt go off air in the next few days, I think India might lose interest in motorcycles altogether. and more people like me would puke during supper. PIL anyone?