Jaipur Literature Festival, on state affairs and chaos in India

Ravi Venkatesan, former chairman of Microsoft India, painted a really gloomy picture of India’s future. “We should be seriously concerned about the country we are living in, if even we as elite can’t get justice.” The judiciary and law enforcement doesn’t work, he stated, and told the tale of how he can’t get a tenant out of his house who isn’t paying the rent.

“India is maybe the hardest market for anyone, local and international,” Venkatesan went on. The employees are unemployable, the judiciary doesn’t work, development banks have disappeared, the paperwork kills the companies – this chokes and suffocates the whole country, he said. Too much business in India is still based on privileged access to resources, he stated. Companies think: “If the whole pie is inedible, I’m starving as well.”

One big reason for the “mess” is, according to Venkatesan, that the middle class is withdrawing from society. The public schools are bad, so they sent their kids to private ones, same goes for hospitals. And because there is no electricity, they buy generators, instead of tackling the problem. “The classist society is back, which we once thought overcome,” adds essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul.

A mother and her children at the Jaipur train station

A mother and her children at the Jaipur train station

Journalist and author John Elliott sees a slow implosion of institutions happening in India. “Democracy is there, people get elected, but it doesn’t work, as the representatives leave the people high and dry.” The political dynasties are looking more after the family wealth than the good of the country.

Mukulika Banerjee, professor in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, described the plight of the farmers who switched to new types of grains, given to them by international companies. First, they generated good yields, but these varieties were very thirsty, so the water table dropped, and because of the rich harvests, the prices fell. “So when the growing of paddy wasn’t possible anymore, the went on to sand mining, brick making, growing poppy seeds, pilfering coal from trains.” They knew that it is illegal, but they couldn’t do anything else and had to survive, she said.

That’s also the reason why we see so many farmer’s suicides, adds Ralston Saul. What we need are other models of productions, for example the milk cooperative model in India, where the income is sufficient to live on.

Sunil Khilnani, professor of Politics, and director of King’s College in London, saw the professional standards for lawyers, doctors and others go down in the last decades. “Now you can buy a licence to fly an airplane – that is worrying,” he said. A lot of what happens in the country is a fix-it-deal instead of real politics.

He also complained about the fact that everybody has the right to be offended – and by doing so narrows the space for freedom of speech. Author Peter Godwin took the same line, when he said about cultural events: “If you don’t like something, you just threaten violence, and then the government says: Oh no, we can’t do this because of public security. That is threatening.”

The always present, but often not so attentive and hands-on police

The always present, but often not so attentive and hands-on police

One positive thought came from Khilnani as well: In Tamil Nadu one could see that Chief Ministers come and go, ministers come and go, but because bureaucracy is in place and organisations deliver, the state does well. “So we don’t always need great leaders.” Actually he thinks that people will one day be able overcome India’s petrified system. “This is a country with enormous potential, with young passionate people, great national resources, a great history, and people who actually believe they can change things, who are more and more passionate than the generations before.”

The temptation for honest bureaucrats and politicians to accept a bribe is huge, said John Elliott. If someone climbs up the ladder and then has the possibility to get several Million Dollars – that would change his whole life enormously. “In one little decision, he can change the prospects for himself and his family.”

Elliott thinks the petty corruption can be tackled, the one citizens worry about on an everyday basis, like to get a police officer to register a case, get a water connection, get into hospital, get the child to school. “But the big one? Hardly possible.” Also because politicians in India need a lot of money to get up the ladder, so they have to borrow money, and then pay it back by doing favours.

He also complains about the government which is more concerned about issuing new schemes – “normally with some name of Nehru or Gandhi attached” – than putting the existing one into place.

Ravi Venkatesan, the Microsoft India Ex-chairman, went on on another panel: For most mulit-national companies, India is not a relevant source of revenues and growth, because they aren’t successful here. Because of that, India is loosing out on investment, know-how and the opportunities these companies could bring. “Particularly in the last four years the amount of chaos was going up and investments were going down.”

Dogs fighting over the little bit

Dogs fighting over garbage which is still collected by hand all over India

“50 years ago India was described as a functioning anarchy. This still seems to be true,” Venkatesan remarks bitterly. This is visible, for example, in the terrible rankings the subcontinent has in the Worldbank’s Ease of Doing Business rating, he says. Companies would rather look towards Indonesia or Nigeria for investments.

For Venkatesan, chaos is everything that makes life difficult: uncertainty of governance, too much bureaucracy, bad infrastructure like roads and electricity, corruption. But somehow, he says, the companies have to cope with it, because India’s consumer market is number five worldwide and can’t be overlooked. “C0mpanies that somehow succeed here, like Samsung or Suzuki or Hyundai, can succeed everywhere.”

But unterstanding the market takes time, Venkatesan goes on. “You can’t come in and be arrogant and think, just because a formula worked in the US or Europe, it will work in India as well.” It took McDonalds eight years to figure out how to run successfully in India, he says. First they failed miserably before they adopted.

The chaos overwhelmes many a company, means Venkatesan. Not just internationals, but locals as well, who increasingly invest outside of the country.

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, doesn’t think a growing GDP and progress is all that should be looked after. In the villages of Jharkhand, he said, people are still living like in the 5th century when Buddha was teaching. “We have to ensure they get employment opportunites and we have to give them basic amenities,” Sinha said.

Local traditions still play a huge role in today's India

Local traditions still play a huge role in today’s India

Jaipur Literature Festival, on world powers

What if Latin America ruled the world? is a book by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, a lecturer of law in London. At the Literature Festival in Jaipur he gave the answer: “We had dancing and great football everywhere.” Delhi-based Professor Dipankar Gupta added that Indians for sure are not in the run for world domination. “We are neither black nor white, a mere brown in the middle. That in itself is a kind of non-starter if you want to rule the world.”

Indian reading

Welcome to the debate named “Who will rule the World?” Pretty soon the panelists – two China experts, two Indian academics, a member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords and a senior lecturer at Birkbeck College – re-framed the question and asked not who will rule the world, but who should.

Above mentioned Guardiola-Rivera argued that South American countries made a good example as they gave power back to the formerly oppressed in recent years. “In Bolivia and Ecuador now, the indigenous people who are back in control are proposing to us all that we should think of nature as having rights of its own.” So the decision on world power should depend on who makes the right choices – decisions like not to develop nuclear weapons, not to engage in violence, not to destroy nature.

Director of the Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory in Noida, Dipankar Gupta,  touted another model of governing excellence, namely Scandinavia. “Look at Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden. They don’t think about ruling the world, they worry about ruling themselves.” Especially India should first look inside, before aspiring to control others, he continues. “That Indians rule Indians – this is yet to happen.”

Lord Meghnad Desai, a peer in the UK House of Lords, took the view that it is not necessarily a nation state that should rule, but a system of governance or an ideology that could be represented in various regions at the same time. “You may not like it,” he told the audience, “but capitalism rules the world, Google, Microsoft, Coca-Cola”. Because their penetration reaches deep into our lifes.


Rana Mitter, professor of history and politics of modern China at Oxford University, however believes that countries will remain important, “because that’s where democracy expresses it’s best”. One panelist predicted that next to the states, the United Nations will keep on dangling along, as they did over the last 60 or so years. “I’m happy as long as they are not part of the problem. But they won’t be the answer either.”

China, normally the favourite topic at forums like these, also got it’s (fairly small) share. Chinese author Xiaolu Guo pointed out that her country might be economically mighty, but it’s cultural influence remains uncertain. “China is number two after the US economically but the power or culture is still with America, from the Eskimos to New Zealand,” she said. In the West no one, for instance, speaks Chinese, whereas the educated people in China speak English. “American culture percolates everywhere in the world but while China is affected by Americanization it’s a one way cultural exchange.”

Jaipur Literature Festival, Amartya Sen

welcome painting

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen opened this year’s (once more gorgeous) Jaipur Literature Festival. And even though the Harvard economist’s words sometimes were hard to understand due to his sluggish pronunciation (he is 80 years old, after all), his thoughts were as sharp as arrows.

In his keynote, titled “A Wish a Day for a Week”, he presented the imagined dialogue between himself and a kind of fairy, called “the goddess of medium things”.

His seven wishes for India included a revival of humanities at school, like classical music and dance as well as languages like Sanscrit and Greece – because nowadays the Youth primarily is interested in science and technology, “as the society is getting more and more business oriented”, he said.

Other hopes included a strong right-wing secular party that doesn’t rely on communal politics, and a stronger concentration of the parties on the left on the poor and downtrodden. Rather than agitate for cheaper amenities for the Middle Class like power, water, fuel and fertilizer, the left-wing parties should be more responsive for the needs of the poor people, Mr Sen argued.

He continued: India is now capable of sending a cryogenic rocket into space and calls itself part of the “elite club”, but half of the population still defecates in the open, children aren’t vaccinated, nowhere else life so many undernourished children, and not everybody has access to healthcare.

Some things, Mr Sen, admitted, have been achieved. Since independence there hasn’t been a famine, polio is now eradicated, the recent typhoon evacuation was so successful the predicted disaster didn’t happen, and some states provide good education. But more needs to be done, he said.

Mr Sen also lashed out about the re-criminalization of homosexual behaviour, and got a lot of applause for that. The Supreme Court “criminalised a totally private behaviour”, he criticised.

“Society needs to engage more in helping women”, he went on. The male-female ration is especially bad in the North and West, and much better in the South and East – so a lot could be learnt even within India, he concluded.

Amartya Sen and John Makinson

In his conversation with John Makinson, chairman of Penguin Random House, Mr Sen added: “To worship GDP growth as a reward in itself … is a big mistake.” The social dimensions of political issues should get more attention, he thinks.

On rapes, he argued they get more attention in the newspapers than for example trafficking, “because they happen to the very rich; most of them happen to Dalit women, but they do happen to the rich as well”.

He again lashed out on the subsidies the politicians put in place which are “for the economic betterment of themselves”. “The electricity is so subsidised in India, I have to switch off the AC every time I come to a hotel room – paid for by the people of India.”

On the new Aam Aadmi Party, he said, he was “inclined to cheer”. “It was wonderful that a party could appeal to the grievances that have gripped the country and sense that we need something different.” But it is problematic that they are in the office and do the wrong things,, says Mr Sen. “When they now cut the electricity bills, the hotel temperature will sink from 17°C to 14°C.”

His advise would be, “they have to think much more clearly about what they want”. Are the aam aadmi the ones that need cheaper power or the ones that don’t have power and water connection at all, he asked his audience.

Happy LOL-Diwali


Trying to understand Diwali

On Diwali – one of the most important festival for Hindus – gifts like sweets and dry fruits are exchanged, and often the employers double the salary or at least give something extra. This leads to guards being especially attentive in the weeks prior to Diwali, cleaners being particularly thoroughly, taxi drivers demanding extra cash, and everybody greeting each other.

I actually enjoyed looking for gifts – but had problems with giving them away. Who should get one – even the guy who brings the newspapers? What do I say when presenting them? Do they need an accompanying card? A wrapping maybe?

With some people I got the timing wrong. I wanted to wait for the day itself or the friday before it – and then I didn’t meet them. When I wanted to hand the basked full of european sweets over to my landlord, he also wasn’t there. But his son opened the door – and told me the grandfather had died two days earlier. So they couldn’t accept presents.

My gardener on the other hand wanted everything. A day before the festival, I was about to bring back the big gas cylinder I don’t need anymore, when he saw me and asked if he could have the bottle. As the cylinder is worth 4000 rupees, and his salary is 1500, I told him he could have it as a Diwali present. Nonetheless he asked for Diwali money the next day.

The guard from my house – whom I actually never see guarding – acted especially weird.  After giving him an expensive box of dry fruits and 500 rupees, he came to my door and told me he wanted to give the money back to me: His explanation: He feels dumped as the tenant before me used to give him 2000 rupees. I was so flabbergasted I just shut the door in front of his nose.

The Making of Raavan

During the festival of Dussehra, huge effigies of Raavas,n symbolising evil, are burnt in dozens or even hundreds of places in the city and in towns all over North India.

But where do they come from? Most of them are made in Titarpur in West Delhi, where the sidewalks and traffic islands as well as the space underneath the flyovers and metro stations are turned into seasonal open air workshops.

Here the men (and, sadly, children) chop the bamboo for the frames, cover them with old saris, affix layers and layers of colourful paper, use tar to paint the mustaches black, apply light bulbs to make the eyes glow green – and then load the parts onto trucks, to somewhere put them together to from the 20 meters high figures. Which then go up in flames in a matter of minutes.

Delhi Photo Festival

snatching Giacomo Brunelli's work

snatching Giacomo Brunelli’s work

Wow. The second edition of the Delhi Photo Festival is just that: amazing. Being the country’s first ever photography festival, the guys from Nazar Foundation together with the Indian Habitat Center again managed to create a photographer’s delight. 2013’s theme is ‘grace’. And graceful presentations of contemporary photographic practices they are.

There is Prabuddha Dasgupta’s black and white work for example, who’s definition of grace inspired 2013’s theme. His models are laughing, longing, seducing, dreaming with this beautiful elegance, for which Dasgupta was lacking a description.

Or in a much more brutal way, Chinki Shukla captured the life of residents in Jadugoda, a nuclear mining town in Jharkhand, that has been hit by the effects of radiation. The people’s living with deformations and their tragedies because of loss of life here are shown in beauty.

Seeing the world of Alain Laboile's children

Seeing the world of Alain Laboile’s children

Then there is Alain Laboile, seizing the moments of innocent play of his six children – in a way that the pictures look like works of art. There’s a lot of mud and deep forest, a swing and ropes,  fogged glass and a kitchen hideout – like everybody’s family holiday, but in extraordinary portaits.

Especially empathetic (and courageous to exhibit it in India): The work of Maika Elan, who shows the warmth and intimacy of same-sex relationships in Vietnam.

And of course Giacomo Brunelli. His edgy black and white depiction of animals in the streets moves the onlooker. He says: “When I was a child I used to spend a great deal of time playing with animals, which I think is the reason as to why I tend to push my camera lens to it’s closest point of focus, forcing a fight or flight reaction out of the animal. This natural, spontaneous reaction is what I try to capture.”

But these are only a few. There is much more to discover. And I’ve only seen the exhibitions in the India Habitat Center – there’s much more to see in many gallies across the city, which have their own independent photography shows, in their own spaces, to coincide with the Festival.

Onions on Rakhi

Today is one more of India’s oh so many semi public holidays: the Hindu festival Raksha Bandhan, or short Rakhi. Sisters tie sacred threads around their brothers wrists for their protection – so the bond between them is celebrated. Brothers in return offer a gift to their sisters.

Yashwant Sinha, a senior politician, said a couple of days ago: When my sisters come to me to tie ‘rakhi’ i will give them onions instead of Gold or Silver.


I did it – I bought some of the expensive vegetables.

Amidst soaring prices, especially in food, onions have once again become a symbol for inflation. Most Indians are using onions in basically every meal, and some form of bread with onion is regarded as a basic diet for the poor.

Besides their importance of being staple food, onions are also a yardstick of how happy Indians are when they go to the market. Local media are reporting that it’s inability to control onion prices had led the Bharitya Janata Party (BJP) to lose power in Delhi in 1998. Since then it has failed to return.

Now the ruling UPA coalition is under fire, because the volatile onion price climbed to 80 Rupees per kilogram (about 1 Euro). People started protesting on the streets, wearing necklaces made out of onions. In Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, a tyre seller was giving away free onions as a mark of protest against the rising prices.

The main opposition party BJP took the opportunity to catch some votes and sold onions at a reduced price of INR 20 per kg to slum dwellers in Bhopal. The ruling parties, in an attempt to secure their power, are selling onions through mobile fair-priced shops, for example in West Bengal and the capital. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit wants to bring down the prices to 25-30 Rupees.

Even imports from the unfriendly neighbour states Pakistan and China were considered – despite the ongoing ceasefire violations at the Line of Control. And newspapers are printing onion-free recipes (“No onion? No need to shed tears!“)

Onions are also trending topic on twitter over and over again. @prash_Shuks wrote: “Today no one is worried about rising prices of petrol, thanx to #onion policy of our govt.” And @anuradha_kush is lashing out on both, the onion price and the crumbling rupee: “What rupee is falling, rupee is falling? Look at the bigger picture. Even our onion is more valuable than their dollar.”

Monsoon Dinner

Went to a delicious and entertaining Monsoon Dinner tonight. Here’s the menu:

Welcome Drink:
It was spiked! So the evening became very funny in the end.

Batata Vada (Fried Potato Balls from Maharashtra),
Kalmi Bade (Lentil Crispies)
Corn Kebab
A discussion unwind at the table, when potatoes, corn and tomatoes – all are native to South America – made it’s way into the Indian cuisine. Nowadays it’s not possible to imagine Indian food without them.

Dal-Baati (from Rajasthan)
Dum Ka Kathal (Jackfruit curry)
Crispy colocasia
Takey Paise (Rajasthani dumplings)
Pineapple Menas Kai (Curry from Karnataka)
Raita: Ginger laced tambli
Turned out most women on my table were into organic farming. I had no idea it had taken off that much in India already. Sad thing I heard: One recalled how the inspector who should examine her farm would have given her the certification for a bribe of 8000 rupees. That was ten years ago. “Now it might be 80 000 or 8 lakh”, joked another.

Jave – Sevaiyaan
Modak, I learned, normally are dumplings made from rice flour with a sweet filling of coconut and jaggery. But these ones were just veeery sweet balls from semolina.

Indian Blues

When I closed my eyes, I heard a big black man with a deep, husky blues voice and next to him a soul diva. When I opened them, I saw a young skinny boy from the Northeast with a stylish flat cap and an Indian lady totally taken away by the music.

The M-A-D Blues Night (Music, Art and Design) at the Blue Frog once again showed me what wonderful musicians India has. In this case Tshering Theeng, Me and the Devil, and the Big Bang Blues – all Delhi based Blues people.

Why so many great musicians come from the Northeast – in this case: Sikkim – is a riddle I still have to solve. Seems high time I have to go there and write a story about it.

So while being in this upmarket concert venue, getting served expensive Mojitos and listening to blues, I nearly forgot I was in India. But then I realised there is nearly as many service personnel as guests and one of them has the only task to swipe the floor every few minutes because the Air Conditioning was leaking – means instead of calling someone to fix this problem, a sweeper is employed. Oh India.

Big Bang Blues

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