Posted on 31-08-2014
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Real examples on design perversity form the basis of my learning in the five countries I wrote about last week. Let me start with the ingenious design principles I’ve lived with in France. From these I’ve learnt that every selling proposition has to be aspirational and disruptive.

Nearly every day, coming from Left Bank to Right Bank in Paris, I had to cross the world-famous Louvre Museum. You can’t imagine the controversy at the time of the commissioning of Pyramide du Louvre by President François Mitterrand in 1984. This huge 71-feet high pyramid structure, and its square base with 115-ft sides, was objected to as ancient Egypt’s Pharaoh culture entering the heart of the liberalised Catholic French society.

Not only that, detractors said its architect being Chinese American IM Pei, he perversely stuck plastic American ways in front of a European Palace. Counter-arguments came when the pyramid was first reported to have 666 glass panes, the number of the Beast in the Bible’s New Testament. Actually it was 689 glass segments, but even Dan Brown’s best seller Da Vinci Code referred to this Satanic number later. In reality there is extensive learning here. The expanded museum entrance now effectively guides people to numerous destinations within its large subterranean network. Juxtaposing the Louvre’s medieval classicism with an ultra-modern structure actually established a traditional-contemporary blend that’s both disruptive and aspirational. This stark harmony pulls in 10 million annual visitors and considerably higher revenues for the renovated Louvre.

Japanese businessmen have long been enamoured of French luxury design. They order a special travel bag from Hermes that takes six months to make and costs 30,000 Euros. This stand-up bag opens on the side to accommodate two wine bottles and two wine glasses. There is sophisticated artistry in every square centimetre of the bag. It’s incredible how the Japanese appreciate this authentic, original product from Hermes, saying they come to France especially to buy it. Hermes is undoubtedly a very big French luxury product brand. Wouldn’t you say their paying attention to a niche market of aspirational travel bags for rich Japanese business people is a disruptive way of creating product design?

Artistic living style is not only for rich people. Many French stores sell only disruptive and aspirational objects of art, from low to high price. You can’t ever experience such an unstructured entertaining paradise with preconceived ideas of what to buy or why you are entering. Just watching the unique stationery, home decorations, miscellaneous functional items gives you myriad ideas. One store I visited was selling wooden hand mannequins where all the finger joints can move. These are generally required for learning anatomy drawing or measuring man-machine ergonomics. A shelf here had hundreds of hands. Funnily enough all of them had four fingers pushed down, one pointing upwards. I laughed, making the sales girls immediately get busy putting the other fingers up or down. “We have to rearrange these fingers all day,” they laughed, “because when no one is looking, shoppers get tempted to be naughty to put the middle finger up!” I was lured to buy this beautifully designed mannequin. As an object of art on my table, I can see how every guest is attracted to play with different gestures of the fingers.

In Place de la Madelaine near Place de la Concorde, where Queen Marie Antoinette was guillotined, there’s a crystal objects-of-art store called Baccarat. One day, as I was explaining to my wife how Indian Maharajas were among the biggest Baccarat customers, the salesman heard me. I too could surprise my wife by carrying Baccarat every day, he suggested. I dismissed him, saying its glass breaks. Undeterred, he displayed a range of exquisite glass rings in different colours, saying they were marvellously crafted to match beautiful Indian saris draped by beautiful Indian women. I was left with no choice. Baccarat rings burn your pocket less than diamonds do, but I can tell you their elegant, disruptive looks will turn more heads than diamonds ever could.

To establish their supremacy, French kings wanted control over nature too. Their palace gardens were designed with total disruption. Outstanding human handicraft was used to maintain hedges in incredible geometrical shapes that have rounded architecture, unlike skyscraper buildings with sharp edges. When you walk down half a kilometre with French gardens on either side to enter a French castle often surrounded by a majestic water reflection, you feel you are in another world. Visiting 16th-century Château de Chenonceau with my author friend Abhijit Bhaduri, I indicated to him the embellishment factor in French culture. The stained-glass design on the window has exactly the design of the wooden floor, so you can see just one contiguous idea being driven from floor to window. The French frequently use a driving force called “fil conducteur” for big ideation. This is a sensitive nerve that harmoniously creates coherence among different subjects. In 2003 I had written a white paper on how business needs a fil conducteur to grow with coherence.

Here’s my analogous learning. A company’s strategic team has to be like an English garden where plants of different shapes and sizes thrive independently to bring different ideas on the table. When strategy comes to operations for implementation, the French garden’s stringent, uniform design can be compared to a company’s operational processes and its workforce. If operations are driven like a French garden with no choice to deviate from the structured pattern it is set in, business result will be achieved with coherence and consistency.
Aspiration and disruption factors are so profound in France that with the passion to embed them, you bathe in them. I’ll continue next week on how I’ve imbibed knowledge of design from the four other countries — Germany, USA, Japan and Italy.

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Posted on 08-06-2014
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

An 86-year-old Englishman sitting adjacent to me on our flight to London last week, turned to me and said, “You are lucky you can travel with me today.” Seeing the perplexed expression on my face he hurriedly elaborated, “In my younger days when I was living in Calcutta, you could never have done this, I would never have had occasion to meet you.”

Conversing with Paul Winslow on that flight opened up a whole new angle of our colonial past. “I’m not a racist, but racism was ingrained as a natural element in the colonizer’s mind,” he openly declared, “It’s our colonial baggage.” He wistfully spoke about Calcutta then; the city was more British and a familiar home to him, much more than any city in England has been for him since. “Through the second World War years we were safe here. I could never believe we will not permanently stay in India.” He was 19 when they left Kolkata in 1947.

Paul’s father was working in a British multinational bank established in Kolkata, India’s most active port due to the prolific British Empire trade the East India Company carried out. He was a covenanted employee, meaning an Englishmen of a certain class who would come from England on contract to occupy a senior position and who was provided accommodation in a British community. Such colonies all over India hired hundreds of Indian servants to keep the parks and lawns free from weeds. These clubs had amenities for playing polo, tennis, golf and other games, Anglo-Indians and Indians were certainly not allowed in, and English women were barred from entering the bar and smoking room.

The senior expatriates were given large bungalows with expansive gardens in cantonments for those who came to join military service. Civil Lines were for important government officers and others who occupied positions critical to British domination of the country. Individual British families were served by Indian domestic help over whom they always maintained a social distance and superior attitude as was normal and customary then. So in his social interactions, Paul never did deal with brown-skinned people because Indians were barred from places he would frequent such as social clubs. Even during his travels he’d use the compartments reserved for Anglo-Saxons only, so his exposure to the real India was minimal. He spoke about it all to me in a very candid way, not to provoke me in any way, just to explain how he lived.

A ticket to revisit India after 67 years was a birthday gift his son gave Paul. He was shocked to experience the non-British Kolkata so full of so many people he could never have imagined before. Clubs he’d swung many a tennis stroke in were no longer an Englishman’s preserve, but totally changed. His fond memories became farfetched, only physical British structures like Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Monument and the High Court were glaringly reminiscent. The beautiful Hoogly riverbank he’d enjoyed walking along with his Scottish mother was unrecognizable. The city had become like the English cities he avoids nowadays because they are so full of immigrants. Even in his little village in the historic county of Yorkshire with Celtic traditions, “People are talking Russian on the streets, Portugese in the pubs, the plumber you summon speaks Polish, farmhands look to be of Asian or African origin, and shops are selling foreign foods like black bread, samosas, pickled cucumbers or vodka,” he said. Then twirling his white, Dali-like moustache, he continued, “Mind you I’m not racist, but when you are culturally disturbed it seems like racism. I have a hard time identifying multi-cultural London as being part of my own country.”

Immigration seems to have become a concern for local inhabitants like Paul who speak in terms of losing national identity. The European Union free movement laws are allowing East European migrants to legally flood into the UK. They comprise over 700,000 today, even as further immigration from European Union countries continues unabated. Because the welfare system is so generous, Britain is becoming the most overcrowded nation in Europe. It is estimated that by 2015, Britain’s population density will be twice that of Germany, and four times that of France.

In addition about 3 million Asians comprise almost 5% of the population, half of whom are Indians, others from Pakistan, Bangladesh and from African countries too. “I find Indians are softer and more disciplined in India than in England,” Paul said, playfully adding, “Of course it’s possible that because roads and things are so terrifically undisciplined in India that it all goes unnoticed!” When local residents feel like aliens in their own homes, ethnic minorities will face different challenges as cultures will always clash, believed Paul. The British Ministry of Internal Affairs has a historically high record of over half a million unaddressed cases related to immigrants. It seems it will take at least 37 years to process them. Studies show that white skinned people have a better chance of employment. Unemployment rates among black Africans is 27%, Bangladeshis 24%, Indians only 12% as most of them hold University degrees, while only 8% of the white population is unemployed.

“When my grandchildren have birthday parties I feel amazed and lost seeing all the coloured faces of their friends,” he said. “Earlier people would come to England to learn English culture and way of living. Now we have to adjust and be sensitive to the ways of the immigrants and learn from them in our own land.” When I rebutted that we in India had to learn the English culture and language which was not our own, he quickly replied, “But you had no choice! Don’t forget we were the rulers!” Then with a twinkle in his eye he smiled, “But India will always thank us for that pressure we gave you of learning English. You are global citizens now, your country’s newspapers write impeccable English!” .

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Posted on 04-05-2014
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Forty one years ago was the first time I arrived at Rue de la Glaciere in Paris 13th district crossing an old, open metro bridge. Turning right at an old Haussmannian building, a small road called Rue du Champs-de-l’Alouette had a modern building adjacent to it constructed after the Great War. I came here now to focus on apartment house number 23. Nothing had changed. Cafe l’Alouette in front remains more or less the same. My journey in France had started here after I’d arrived at scientist Late Dr Pyne’s laboratory. He didn’t know me, I’d just heard about him. When I landed in Paris mid-November 1973 at age 19 with less than the $8 I’d left India with, this most generous man gave me my first shelter and turning point here.

To pay homage to Dr Pyne’s memory, I sat at the cafe to look at the building’s 3rd floor and recall my first 3 months in Paris when I understood no French, and could never afford to come to this cafe. I ordered my favourite casse-croute (food for breaking hunger), a platter of multi-choice smoked ham and pate with French baguette (bread). In spite of the overcast 10 degree Celcius weather, people were sitting outdoors as the awning had heaters above to keep the air warm over the tables, a development I’d not seen 41 years ago. While contemplating on my 3rd floor mission, some humming voices suddenly reached my ears. Two women, about 30 and 60 years old, were engaged in intense conversation. The older woman recounting her stressful young life, symbolized French social life today. Activating my research habit of eavesdropping on potins (gossip), I could not miss out on this.

A French sociologue had once long ago advised me that to understand French society I should listen to people talk in coffee shops, hair salons, in the park. I’d been lucky earlier that that a friend was working at a women’s hair salon near my home, and she’d agreed to cut my hair at a corner of the beauty parlour so I could listen to Parisian potins. Women would openly gossip for hours while getting their hair done. They unknowingly gave me immense knowledge about French society which I’d used to induce marketing strategies for different clients. This kind of gossip makes you aware of economic problems, adultery, social discrepancies, love affairs, new trends, food habits, generally about everyday social life and living. Now in Cafe l’Alouette the elder woman was narrating her personal life kaleidoscope to her young friend: “Electricity bill, water bill, EMI bill, cooking gas bill, house tax, income tax, these are life’s daily burdens. In this country, you just cannot enjoy love and better living without stress. That’s all I’ve seen in my young working years.”

Her husband had left her, so she had to manage their 2 children. She’d worked as personal secretary to an entrepreneur, maintaining a life and style beyond her means and call of duty. She’d liked her work but slowly understood she’d become too dependent on her boss. If she raised economic problems troubling her like paying bills, he’d immediately say that personal problems should not be brought to the office. But whenever she looked a little down, her boss would buy her expensive clothes or accessories or take her out for dinner in sophisticated Parisian restaurants, splurging much more than what she needed. “Instead of spending on my dresses and accessories, if I had this extra amount, I would not have struggled to pay bills. But it was impossible to express this to my boss.”

So she collected an exquisite wardrobe to attend official parties and to accompany the boss to different functions. Because her wardrobe was so classy, her friends would consider her above their lifestyle and not include her in their social life. “My allure was higher than my earning,” she said. But she had nobody to tell her woes to then. The comfort of a regular job and commanding position at office kept her very busy. She simultaneously handled all requirements of the boss’s wife and children. In his absence on family holiday, her responsibility was to maintain the office. “After returning from summer holiday, he’d get angry seeing my pale, tired face. He never understood that I never did get the chance to go to the south of France to get a sun tan,” the elderly woman bemoaned. “When he was here I had to be in office before time because he always wanted some intimate time with me. He’d also take my sympathy complaining about his unhappy domestic life. Years went by without my realizing I was not only his secretary but his mistress, I performed both roles.”

Now that she’s retired, the bills are still there but, “I have no work pressure or the pressure of being the boss’s pin-up secretary.” Her son now works in Hongkong and daughter’s in America; she visits them regularly. “So my friend, enjoy your life now, don’t wait to relax till you reach my age. Mistress-secretary was a kind of aura I lived in. I was so conditioned to being the pivot in the office, at the centre of all important happenings that I could never find or adjust to another man because nobody could give me this kind of life full of action and power. My biggest regret is that I live alone and have no lover now.”

Her key message was, “The more you get influenced by and align to superficial society, you’ll live beyond your affordability, and only pay bills; the number and size of bills will continue to grow.” The younger girl asked if she was happy then. “I don’t know,” the elder one answered. “I was so hassled with bills payment, at the same time enamoured with outings in chic restaurants with beautiful dresses while always giving him my best smile, it seemed to me that attending the boss was another bill I was paying.”

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Posted on 23-03-2014
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

My friend Jean Michel, whom I consider among the world’s best French chefs, always tells me that the balance of salt and pepper is the most critical part of a savory dish to capture the guest’s taste buds. He says he disrupts a sweet dish with a pinch of salt to raise the sweet’s savory undertone. All this is quite understandable in Western models of Cartesian dualism, the philosophy of mind and body distinction developed by René Descartes.

Hi-funda pepper and salt: Let me now recount other tasty pepper and salt effects. As a guest lecturer in an MBA school in Europe, after a general introduction, the first question I threw at a global group of senior management attendees was, “What’s the difference between salt and pepper?” I expected a quick answer but it swelled into a big subject, perhaps because the almost 100 participants in the class were from different countries. I’d allocated 20 minutes for them to write and explain salt and pepper, but the 5-6 people in every table were keen to narrate with examples. The result was fascinating. Technocrats, scientists, managers of different subjects equated the result, or turned the subject around in their mouths towards gravitation, density, weight, analysis of its nature connect and so on. In sum, they were happy weighing the subject as heavy substance. I gave them full liberty of expression, without interrupting their serious case, but I could never imagine it would occupy my whole session. In those pre-PowerPoint days, this first slide in my OHP presentation was so well thrashed that I did not need to open the 19 other slides I had prepared. My session was enthusiastic and far-reaching. When I put my “Thank You” slide saying we salt makes savory products tasty, and pepper that adds spicy zing to the tongue, everybody was thrilled: “The best of marketing action is simplicity,” they concluded.

Pepper, salt, sugar disruptive social phenomenon: On returning to India, I find pepper, salt and sugar have a totally different aspect at the social level. When I take a Caucasian friend to a coffee shop or restaurant and invite them to have nimbu pani (fresh lime water) or lassi (Indian milk shake), my conversation in placing the order flummoxes them. Should it be salty, sugary or both; I confidently answer the waiter’s queries on more salt, rock salt or black salt and sometimes less sugar, leaving my friend quite curious about the meaning. Europeans take it as perversion and want to taste such a concoction but very few seem to like the taste. This is the way that I can clearly express how different India is. The typical South Indian curd rice plays more with the salt and spices effect to enhance taste, but my 83-year-old Bengali mother will put a touch of sugar in it, and that’s my cultural education, the taste I have grown up with is what my tongue will accept.

Among the country’s biggest snacking consumption is “chaat.” It now seems to have become a kind of luxurious snack too because 5-star hotels have a special counter to make chaat. On one side the chefs handle Indian chaat, on its opposite side is Japanese sushi. You can imagine the contrast of chaat vs sushi. Chaat is definitely a more disruptive cultural phenomenon as it has salt, pepper, sugar and a fourth element, the sour aspect with tamarind as the base. Now I observe that this disruption has been extended to Indian politics as well.

Pepper, salt, sugar politics: On a daily basis, different political party members use umpteen types of pepper to create hot topics. Aside from peppering up Parliament House, they have spicy, fiery street protests that pull out historical perspectives and legendary politicians of yesteryear to justify their authenticity. The idea is to scorch with peppery subjects. From time to time the media acts as a catalyst by adding some sweet syrup in it and the debate rolls on to gather weight and speed along with it. The public laps up this disruptive situation, the mudslinging debate is the taste we have become habituated to.

Then suddenly another political drama puts salt on all the wounds that have opened up like corruption, minority issues, regional racism among others. Salt, pepper and sugar can be flung from any direction; this is exactly the way we enjoy our political debate every day. In this kind of unstructured form you will find some disruptive catalyst political party playing with the death of farmers; another political party will count in which state what number of farmers committed suicide. When the debate veers into the corruption topic, it again flogs the salt, sugar, pepper misbalance, who did more, who did less. Similarly when politics-talk hits the riots, it’s who killed how many people where. As of now, no political party has found a great solution to balance pepper, salt, sugar and sour, the way we get them in our chaat, nimbu pani or lassi.

Uniqueness of Indian politics: Undoubtedly, no country in the world has this disruptive taste legacy of combining pepper, salt and sugar the way its specific to Indian culture. This multi-dimensional taste belongs to Indians and extends into our social tolerance levels. So who will win the forthcoming parliamentary elections is totally dependent on how the trio-taste of salt, pepper and sugar pans out in electioneering.

In the meantime, to tide over the 24 days left to know the outcome, all political parties and media have become fantastic shakers, shaking up the salt-pepper-sugar of political antics to find or destroy the right balance. But who knows the right balance? Perhaps the end taste will be sour like tamarind (imli), a very India-centric disrupting taste that’s succulently sour. This is our political drama that connects hugely to the mouth taste of our 1.2 billion people. Let’s enjoy our salt, sugar, pepper politics, perhaps along with tamarind.

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Posted on 16-03-2014
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

India, the world’s most populous democracy, never converges to nation building. A 2013 UN report stated that a third of the world’s poorest people live in India.

Democratic pitfalls in politics: In our democracy, anybody can get a political party ticket to be a Member of the Legislative Assembly or Member of Parliament and wield power. Even a murderous criminal, slapped with court cases, can become an electoral candidate, as also a jailbird who can pull strings to emerge on bail. Political parties are ferreting out silver screen personalities to woo as candidates to gloriously pull in their fan base. They mostly win, whether through popularity or arm-twisting the public is not clear.

In empowering retired film stars as politicians, their on-screen fame gets transferred to political power. What can a film star deliver to the country? Indian film audiences particularly favour fantasy and theatrical plots, so that’s become the standard output from Bollywood and regional cinema. Short on real social relevance, these films do not project new ideas nor futuristic social or technology trends. Their history documentation does not help the public to learn something beyond the obvious. Through cinematography, film personalities like Charles Chaplin, Orson Wells, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Meryl Streep, Georges Lucas, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio Gassman, among others, have incited a paradigm shift in people’s ideation, inspired invention, and shown different dimensions that combine art, socio cultural change and philosophical debates.

India’s film personalities are yet to be credited with having bought in newness that’s changed society for the better. Their popularity is based on their professional talent of dancing, acting, and dramatic off-screen love affairs. Most Bollywoodians live in a paradisiacal world; they provide low cost entertainment, particularly to the poor. Nowadays non-resident Indians (NRI) worldwide also lap up these films of unbelievable, mythical or ideal social life stories not seen in Western society.

Can filmy people solve administrative or development issues through politics? Do they understand the requirements of the poor, of employment, of city infrastructure? Poverty-striken voters who have no choice in the way they live imagine that these film personalities who create miracles in cinema may also create fantasy in politics. They like the idea of unreachable stars being physically visible now. Political parties use stars to camouflage what’s unsavoury. It’s almost like FMCG products using film stars in advertisements or as brand ambassador to gloss over the product’s unknown factors, quality deficiencies or to reach consumers with easy familiarity. Should professionally active stars paint their faces for the studio floor or the Parliament House floor? The answer is part of democratic India’s political science.

In this context a candidate like Nandan Nilekani is unique in every sense but his party should not use him to hide its defects. I’d earlier written (in October 2009 and October 2013 that India needs high quality technocrats and visionary entrepreneurs to govern and change our political colour. I consider Nilekani an apolitical doer. He has displayed integrity, entrepreneurship with ingenuity, managerial leadership in his business career and successfully devised the mammoth Aadhar project. Even if his political party does not win the election, whoever forms the Government should be obliged to take him in a paradigm changing role. I have seen such an example made by French President Francois Mitterrand who took opposition party people as Ministers. He played the role of a national president, not a political party’s president.

Underprivileged people’s democratic pitfall: The disastrous way that most of our underprivileged people live, with no shelter, work, education or food and non-existent social security, seems to be a democratic right. Nobody, least of all the Government, has made sufficient effort to educate them practically, provide jobs, improve their living style. The longer they live in such non-empowered situations, the less will they know about how to fight for their rights. Is this their democracy? Political parties enjoy the underprivileged people vote bank, make them promises that are rarely kept after the votes come in. Pure-play political drama pops up on TV nowadays. It’s all about candidates, tomato throwing, ink smearing, polls predicting party seats, analysts interpreting poll results, rallies, violence, dynasty and tea seller politics. Does the underprivileged 80% understand this circus? But they know for sure of that ceremonial day of outing to cast the vote; they expect no return.

Social and infrastructure democratic pitfall: Our democratic code is so tolerant that a man can urinate anywhere on the street, with no civic consideration, no social respect. He’s oblivious to women walking past him. This act becomes disgraceful because it’s done in full public view, but who cares? Is tampering with public infrastructure another democratic right? Overloaded trucks damage smaller roads they are not supposed to ply on. To place underground broadband or electrical cables a road contractor digs trench-like holes. Sometimes he does not refill the hole for months, even years. Obviously cars and motorbikes get stuck at night, or people fall in, break bones. After one contractor loosely fixes the road, the next, the drain pipes contractor, starts digging again. There’s just no respite for citizens. The trend is never to finish any work elegantly or on time. This is the continuity of jugad, an intrinsic part of our democracy.

Comparing pitfalls in our democracy to the Rubik cube puzzle, it’s almost impossible to get the single colour winning pattern. As all political parties in India are looking for coalition partners, perhaps we need to learn from European league football clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Manchester United on how to lease and mix players of different political parties to make an exciting team. World Cup football represents individual countries, but league football very successfully gets the best players from different countries. Should we get a league team coach from there to train us on how to manage a coalition like European league football?

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Posted on 16-02-2014
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Death from racism is even more painfully shameful in a heterogeneous country like India. We can only empathize with the heavy heart Nido’s parents are carrying. We pride ourselves about India’s tricolour flag bringing ‘unity in diversity’ and ours being the world’s most spiritual society, but in the face of regional discrimination in our everyday life, everything becomes hogwash.

A colleague of mine visiting Kolkata on research work was telling me that after a wonderful dinner at a restaurant in Park Street, when the restaurant manager approached her, she spoke appreciatively. The manager was very happy, and asked where she’s come from. She replied Bangalore, when the next words he whispered totally shocked her, “Kolkata could be better if there were no indecent Biharis spoiling the city.” The irony was that she was from Bihar. Having grown up as a Bengali in West Bengal, I can vouch for such culturally racist sentiments. Marwaris are offensively referred to as Mero, Biharis as Khotta, Oriyas as Ure and all South Indians as Madrassis. When I look at other states, similar codifications apply; North-Easterners are Chinkis, Kerelites are Kurkurias, in Karnataka the derogatory words for Tamilians are Konga or Pandi, Tamilians call Andhraites as Kolty and Kannadigas as Kalli and all North Indians as Setu. Whereas the word Bhaiyya is respectful in North India, for states South of the Vindhyas, it’s a belittling reference to North Indians.

From retail distributors in Pune, I’ve heard gripes about the alleged parochial arm-twisting in Maharashtra that has frightened away all Biharis who’d actually been their low-cost labour base. It seems workers from Bihar are very sincere, hardworking and dedicated. They’d come without families, and distributors gave them room and board next to the godown where several of them stayed together. They were willing to work day and night, whenever required. Local distributors unhappily said that Maharastra is not allowing them to come because of high local unemployment, but that Maharashtrians don’t work as hard and demand more money. They work fixed 8-hour timings and return to their families at night. So the distributer’s loading-unloading time takes longer, with delays leading to business loss. Whatever may be the business implication for the distributors, for people from Bihar the situation amounts to preventing their fundamental right to work anywhere in India, at the same time its exploitation of labour, and social discrimination that leads to fostering hatred among fellow Indians.

When you look at India’s heterogeneous perspective, there are many areas that can potentially divide us. Take arranged marriages as the indicator of what’s acceptable. First comes religion, then caste, language, then state of origin. It’s very clear that no family will arrange a marriage with people speaking a different language. The exception I’ve noticed is among Rajputs where the ruler stratum is the most important factor. Whether the bride or groom comes from Rajasthan, Nepal, Bengal, Gujarat or Karnataka or Manipur does not matter so long as the social lineage is from the ruling family, although in independent India nobody has any ruling powers anymore. Other areas critical in arranged marriages are matching family status in terms of economic power and what the boy, and nowadays the girl, earns. Matching the education level matters as that anticipates the couple’s money earning capacity and long-term compatibility. A most denigrating factor is checking the colour of skin which purportedly determines beauty. All marriage advertisements look for a fair person, while a dark-skinned person describes himself/herself as wheat complexioned.

Interstate, cross communal marriages between persons speaking different languages or having different religious beliefs can happen only in a love marriage. So aside from race, religion, caste or language, we subscribe to divisions of the rich and poor, literacy-illiteracy, lower to higher education, social status of men and women in jobs, being a native from a north, west, south, eastern state, social standing of being a member of a family who is in politics, industry owner, independent businessman, trader, armed forces, educators, priests, working in corporate, MNC company, having a government job, or professionals like doctors, lawyers or tailors and carpenters. So many ingredients are available in our country to express our racism.

The race problem is not limited to India alone. Inspite of being part of the European Union, the different countries in Europe rarely identify with one another as Europeans. All may have the same skin colour, but each nation has its own language, so no unity. Significantly, a historical residue can create such strong hatred that a whole race was about to be obliterated. Since the 12th century when the Pope declared that Catholics are prohibited from lending money, people turned to the Jews for their economic requirement. Borrowers are either unable to pay back or lenders take their advantage, but the cumulative result was hatred institutionalized against the Jewish society. Nazi Hitler’s “Final Solution” strategy to exterminate Jews expressed blatant racism propagated by the State. Even in different economic difficulties situations racism can be expressed. After World War II, the French were very negative with Italians and Spaniards. After 6 decades this feeling is almost repaired, although if somebody is doing something the wrong way, I still hear comments like, “Why are you working stupidly like a Portugese?”

A controversial survey done across 3 decades in 80 countries, and mapped by Washington Post, put India at No. 2 position after Jordan among the world’s most racist countries. The accuracy of this survey is being questioned. As addressing African origin people as Black or Negro is taboo in the US, you have to call them African Americans, so would any American openly express bias? TV debaters vehemently argue for and against Indians being racists. It’s a pity that our education system is so archaic that children are still not taught to appreciate the diversity of our different states, language, religion, food habits, social culture of the country in a positive way. Unless that happens, extreme discrimination that killed Nido will always be there.

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Posted on 26-01-2014
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

British colonizers clandestinely implanted the sanctity of the ten commandments into the value system of India’s elite classes. These, as I wrote last week, taught us not to challenge, revolt or take responsibility, be a happy subordinate, a perfect clerk, respect designated superiors, compromise, propagate and speak English to land plum jobs, learn by rote, use manpower not automation, perpetuate social turmoil to turn mass attention away from the ruler’s megalomaniac actions. 

In today’s political situation, the bad bacteria from these commandments appear to be flourishing and infiltrating the 3 very clear political classes that are emerging: (1) “Elite dynasty followers class,” an off-shoot of British colonialism, (2) “Non secular class as per opposition’s perception,” and (3) “New politically active dharna (protest) class.” With bad bacteria smothering India, everyone’s lungs have been infected in various degrees.

Elite dynasty follower class:” The feudal attitude of these politicians is evident from various arrogant references. One equated economy airplane seats to “cattle class;” another mocked the opposition candidate’s humble tea selling livelihood beginnings, saying rising above that would be impossible but selling tea outside the venues of important dynasty follower meetings will be allowed. When the dynasty candidate jumps atop a police van defying road traffic rules to allow the outstretched hands of “subjects” to touch his fingers, it’s not considered a mistake, just “de-dynastification.” But for our country’s huge population that travels over a heap of bricks in a truck or climbs atop utility vehicles to wash them, this charade is every day lived experience.  Trapped with low incomes, they consider rich privileged people as a higher caste, an elevated status the poor cannot occupy. Interestingly, the not rich and young Zap generation perceive such showmanship as election drama hype where nothing substantial will occur for them in any case. 

Non secular class as per opposition’s perception:” A predetermined single candidate often becomes a driving force, as in the Presidential election system followed by the US, France and others. Although the “non secular class as per opposition’s perception” has declared a leader, their super-leaders warn against over-confidence as in 2004. Actually all parties have understood it’s not easy to get the common man to select a 2014 election candidate. But when a single leader is focused, winning possibilities increase, as people can identify the person, as evident in the 2011 West Bengal assembly election. The current Chief Minister’s hard hitting spotlight was in sharp contrast to the then Leftist party’s focus on the Party, not an individual. So the Party was shocked with defeat after 34 uninterrupted years of ruling.

TV intervention: When elite national ruling politicians display anger on television, their attitude seems to reflect, “Voters should vote, not interfere with the dynastic kingdom. We know what they deserve.” Sometimes their party colleagues play to the gallery by showing intolerance for such arrogance, although the not rich and Zappers instantly recognize it as a balancing act to keep the electorate quiet. Actually leaders and followers of both dynastic and non secular parties get into chaotic television debates. They should record themselves along with the anchor to hear sounds no different from busy railway stations or fish markets. I wonder why they rant like that? If the voter were my customer, why would I express such anger? It’s time the political class takes lessons on developing soft skills to talk graciously on TV and to the masses.

New politically active dharna (protest) class:” This class is extremely edgy about stopping bad bacteria from continuing to infect politics. When they fight bacteria with dharnas, the other classes that kowtow to the colonial ruling system feel unsteady as the carpet’s being pulled from under their feet. Suddenly accepted conventions and interpretations are getting challenged. Unexpectedly the social chasm has become visible between the upper class that’s currently content with power, money and contacts bringing them a comfortable life, and the neglected, lower income society. The masses have to contend with corruption, harassment, inconvenience and indignity on a daily basis. Revolt from this society that’s tired of being smothered with platitudes will pose severe unanticipated problems. This population is of 2 types; the largest section tolerantly accepts everything, the non-accepters become hooligans. Both have their reasons because the Government takes no responsibility for their dignity of life and livelihood.

Take the life of the golgappa / puchka / panipuri (crunchy wheat-spice-lentil snack) seller. This street vendor has to find a spot where many people move around, like marketplaces, adjacent to Government offices where the public are made to wait, outside girls’ colleges, construction or factory sites. Daily sales stretch Rs 900-2000 depending on location, day of the week, whether it’s raining, sweltering heat or biting cold. After deducting his spend for procurement, transport and daily bribes, his net income swings between Rs 300-700. He struggles for a lucrative, crowded place every day, but high demand areas correspondingly command higher kickbacks. Standing 9-12 hours daily, 7 days a week, he physically cannot attend to his family. Should he fall sick, his income goes for a toss. Who can resolve his vulnerable situation? It’s illegal to be a floating vendor unless he’s lucky to be among the one million with Hawkers Cards issued by the Government. Whether allowed or disallowed, his is a situation of mercy. So dharna class politics becomes relevant for him.

For those immune to colonial bacteria, display of revolt by the dharna class chief minister is quite disconcerting. The fervor of their criticism equals the connect basic masses have for new dharna politics. Without hype or hunger for the comfort of bacterial politics, if the dharna class seriously wants to break bad colonial bacteria, they can create real disruption. Becoming accountable to those they rule, they can apply the genuine vaccination to stop this bacterial politics. But if the vaccination is antibiotic with short term effect, they too will dissipate. Continuing the discomfort they have created will help ferret out the hitherto unacknowledged elite-downtrodden divide and cleanse our colonial bacteria forever.

To download above article in PDF Colonial bacteria in Indian politics

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Posted on 22-12-2013
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Anaesthesia does not happen only in the operation theatre. Outside the OT, there’s permanent anaesthesia people can get into from which they don’t wake up. It could affect at the political, societal or individual level. For example, the resolve to return to Delhi’s electorate for an answer on whether without a clear majority a political party should form the Government has upset the mind-balance of other parties who’ve never considered such a move. Political power is also anesthesia.  Now let recount individual opulence aneasthesia with two women, not of high aristocratic stock, but who married into aristocracy. They got so engulfed in that anaesthetic living style, they became insensitive.

Farah: The daughter of Sohrab Diba, a middle class man and Captain in the Imperial Iranian Army, found herself catapulted into deep pomp and pleasure to wear the 2500-year-old crown of Iranian royalty. At age 9 Farah Diba lost her father, at 21 while studying architecture in Paris, her stunning beauty transported her into the royal arms of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran. She married His Imperial Highness on 21 December 1959. The seed of anaesthesia was sown. In 1969 the title of Shahbanu (Empress) was created for her.

The Iranian imperial family was overthrown and legally abolished by the Ayatollah Khomeini led 1979 Iranian Revolution. But she continues to consider herself Shahbanu till today. In her 20-year life with the Shah, he went to other women but she did not bother as she was too busy being part of royal society. The Shah’s two previous wives bore him no son.

In a French television interview, I heard her admit to spending an anxious first month of marriage when she did not conceive. Without bearing a son, her royal status will be short-lived. The second month found her pregnant and slipping further into anesthesia. After 34 years of being deposed, she still maintains her family was ill treated at home and by other countries that refused them shelter in exile. She’s forgotten that her despot husband had formed a secret security agency called SAVAK that imprisoned over 100,000 political prisoners opposed to the monarchy, and inhumanly tortured them, as per a 1976 Amnesty Report.

Farah Diba claims her son Reza who crowned himself Shah of Iran in exile is the country’s only legitimate ruler. She fails to mention that Reza Shah, her father-in-law, was an army colonel who seized power in a coup in 1921, deposed the reigning Shah and crowned himself King. So in reality her pomp and pelf was a deception and ill gotten, not from royalty that lives with tradition over generations.

Nadine: From factory worker to Baroness is another step into anaesthesia. Nadine Lhopitallier, a school dropout from a basic middle class French family, got a job in an automobile factory. Looking for more money, she became a painter’s model and used his high society connections to enter films in 1952. She changed her name to Nadine Tallier. In 1962 her dream came true; she became not just a billionaire’s choice, but crossed the threshold into European aristocracy. Lhopitallier to Tallier was shortening of letters, much like an artist’s signature. But Tallier to Madame Baronne Nadine de Rothschild was total displacement in family and social status.

Name, power, money are three essentials she consciously sought, and achieved them all in marriage to Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Reminiscing her 40-year marriage, Nadine proudly explains in a TV show that a family cannot have 2 stars; the husband is the only star. To avoid divorce, the wife has to be submissive. She knew he was a womanizer, but she takes full credit for having done everything to keep her marriage by giving him space. She speculates that she’s perhaps a sophisticated seductress because she always attracts billionaires: “You cannot choose a rich man, he makes the choice. My husband asked me to marry him. I would never have married a plumber!” Not being an aristocrat by birth she says she’s not quite right for the Baron, but her hunger to marry into power, opulence, the title of Baroness, live in sophisticated society and surroundings, and travel around the world made her put on her calculated charms.

Even as a widow the last 10 years, she wallows in the glory of opulence. She’s opened a finishing school in Geneva and where she counsels independent women professionals and dependent housewives to, “Listen to your husband, remember he is the boss.” She is aware feminists will oppose her, but this was her remedy to reduce the increasing number of divorces in the country. In her words, “When you decide on your man, accept him in every situation. You may hear ungainly stories about him, face many problems, but take no action, nor ask any question. Just try to be beautiful always; other than that, don’t do anything.” According to her women have two characters, the image they portray and what is real, and it is upto women to keep the secret and never tell the truth.

In her recent book called “The men of my life” she frankly admits she’d never have penned it if her husband were alive. Considers herself a representative of aristocratic society, she does not care when, being a worker’s daughter, people chide her for saying she will never marry a plumber. She openly tells women to numb their life the way she has done, go after money, power and name, be submissive and a slave to keep the rich, society husband. She says money is a powerful ladder, you can do everything with; become a writer, social worker, a society philosopher or a thought leader. She has written many books to run the children’s homes that she supports. “A Baron can buy or sell anything,” says the Baroness, “I have done something good so our marriage went so well.” This is the opulence of anaesthesia, at the same time with feet firmly on the ground!

To download above article in PDF Opulence anaesthetizes

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Posted on 15-12-2013
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

“Sweep corruption away” is the intent of the broom (jhaadu) symbol political party. Various well wishers commenting online on their website said that “backward” (I’ve always hated this word because it’s against human dignity) classes, the poor and housewives will certainly identify with the broom representation. The respect that all these people deserve and have been denied is what the broom expects to restore.

Actually my livelihood journey started with a broom too. Jumping from a refugee colony outside Kolkata I landed with no better a status in France in 1973. I had no money, spoke no French language, but was fired by an ardent desire to turn into a Parisian artist. Towards that end a sweeper’s job in a Paris lithography studio was a silver lining start for me because I was spending time among famous artists. Initially I would sweep away the visible dirt in the middle of the floor. One day my employer Jacques Gourdon told me something in French which at that time I could not understand. So he took the broom and brush and showed me how I should first clean the corners. I later caught on that cleaning corners is critical and the most important skill to pick up for the job because that’s where sedimentation collects. If you don’t meticulously attack the difficult-to-reach areas to extract congealed dirt hidden there, the broad visible clean surfaces would just be a superficial lie.

This past experience of mine connected me very well to the “Jhaadu strategy.” I extracted two meanings from it: (1) Dignity for the millions in our country whose livelihood comes from the broom (2) Jhaadu to clean unwanted corruption and political drama that gives nothing to the common person. I must say that as a sweeper in Paris, nobody disturbed my dignity while I was executing my job. I was taught the skill of sweeping and I tried to perform to the best of my ability. Unfortunately in our country, poor, literate or illiterate people, whether or not they use brooms at work, are not only cheated with low wages, they also get no dignity in their living and working environment.

India’s extreme heterogeneous population who have been dominated and demoralized for 200 years by British colonial rule do not connect to the country’s political grain. In China, we had Mao Zedong who was a Marx and Lenin follower, but he brought in a new political perspective with the Cultural Revolution. He understood that in China’s cultural setting if everyone is not placed at one level, nothing can fall in order, The Cultural Revolution, extremely relevant to their country, was the innovative political dimension he designed and implemented. Whatever may have been his negative aspects, Mao injected a certain discipline in China that’s helped in economic upliftment. Disciplined Chinese Communism has been a political style that’s represented millions of poor people.

The Communist Party in India has tried to be poor friendly. However, their politics appear “imported” as they are not properly tailored to the common man’s needs nor have they been able to politically drive the nation’s economic requirement. In West Bengal, their big program was to distribute small pieces of land to the deserving masses. However, modernization has since changed the agrarian economy, preventing small farmers from earning a livelihood from such miniscule land holdings. Kerala, the other Communist bastion, saw a large exodus to the Gulf States for jobs. How many poor people can understand or connect to the Communists when they take up causes like anti-nuclear energy? Gandhiji tried to represent the poor, introduced secularism, but unfortunately his image is translated like that of a prophet. After all these past efforts to get close to the masses, when you look at this new party’s Jhaadu symbol, it undoubtedly relates and connects to 70-80% poor people in our country.

As in drawing up business strategy by extrapolating from customer insights, an interesting new trend the Jhaadu party started in the Delhi State elections is creating 70 constituency-specific election manifestoes. After about 20 meetings in each constituency, volunteers took away thousands of suggestions, analyzed them, and then drafted a customized agenda for the betterment of each constituency. The common points made up the party’s Delhi-level manifesto. Knowing the customers’ needs and desires is a surefire win in business. If applied with the same rigour in politics, the results can be tremendous.

Can a political party formed on the foundation of cleaning up society’s ills sustain the immense pressures of its detractors? If its leaders can uphold their avowed principles, manifesto and objective, India will see the masses actually taking part in real politics instead of merely casting votes as routine election activity. But from the media to different political parties, the Jhaadu party is being disgracefully provoked of having developed cold feet and being gutless to govern with outside support. As of now they have not capitulated, they are sticking to their guns of representing the masses and being anticorruption. However, if accusations from detractors make them and their ideology susceptible, they will become like all the others the common man has suffered since Independence. Hope that will not happen.

When a broom sweeps on the surface, like I first did in my sweeper’s job in Paris, it can polish society’s hard rhinoceros hide. But it’s the corners, like my employer taught me, that we need to get the dirt out of to really clean. Similarly society’s rhino hide can take the beating of natural calamities like tsunamis and earthquakes; manmade catastrophes of wars, piracy and robbery are also inflicted on unsuspecting people. But scratching below that rhino hide you’ll find the living matter that feels and bleeds. In that living mass of flesh there is illiteracy, neglect and discrimination that the same “backward” classes, the poor and housewives experience all the time. It’s mainly for the vulnerable in society that the broom is most familiar, aside from its purported purpose here of cleaning up society’s dirt.

To download above article in PDF Enter the broom

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Posted on 24-11-2013
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

The funfair in the run up to 2014 general elections has begun, although 80% voters don’t understand what goes on inside New Delhi’s Parliament House. But they enjoy the whirlwind arrivals, departures, verbal electioneering wrestles, sometimes interspersed with splashes of black ink, and they vote. The new game now is railway station tea seller vs political dynasty prince.

Let’s take an analogy of this choice before the voter. If equated to moving vehicles, it could be bullock cart vs Rolls Royce; in food its chana (lentils) vs caviar, in water it’s the gushing street pipe where somebody’s stolen the tap vs Evian coming direct from the Alps. Being a creative person, allow me, my Reader, to paint a the 2014 election canvas without any bias between saffron versus tricolor. Their free-for-all includes words of legacy, authenticity, personal relations, quotations from history with right or wrong facts. The missing substance is who will do what for the electorate’s development.

Saffron: Suddenly hand gestures are going up, reminiscent of how Barack Obama would breeze into American electioneering with both hands waving. Indians habitually use the right hand, culturally considering the left hand not auspicious. Whether or not there’s regional nuance here, saffron candidate has adeptly started the Westernized left hand greeting cult. Why not? After all urban Indians are heavily inspired by jeans and Maggi noodles, so why push back remembering Indian traditions instead of adopting the globalizing new? Saffron may not get a Western country visa, but huge Western investment has entered Gujarat. FDIs are given every facility to flourish in business. Since Britain gifted us independence, this is the first time a state chief minister is canvassing so forcefully as his party’s PM designate by showcasing his state’s achievements. Identifying with the common man he’s declared he sold tea to passengers at his home railway station, and then repartees on fellow politicians’ jibes for saying so.

Tricolour: There’s a huge treasure trove of nostalgia/memories here, great-great grandpa, great grandpa, grandma, father, mother as national leaders. Like the bubble gum effect where you chew and mouth-mash, the real juice goes away but the rubbery remnants can be stretched endlessly, or even blown up into airy balloons, tricolour legacy can stretch way back to the pre-Independence leader advocating satyagraha. When people not so conversant with history, that the tricolor dynasty shares the same surname as the Father of the Nation by sheer coincidence, sees tricolor legacy posters with the charkha-spinning satyagrahi, it all seems happily legitimate and dynastic. So bearing this Gujarati surname, tricolor can stomp into saffron’s territory with the double protection of dynasty and coincidence of a distinguished surname.

At the same time, tea seller saffron being from Gujarat can legitimately claim the desirable qualities of the satyagraha leader’s origin as his connect to legacy, and so raise his brand authenticity. Saffron is invoking another Gujarati legacy, he’s planning to erect Sardar’s statue as the world’s tallest. The way McDonald can win the taste buds of all Indians with a burger, can saffron nationalise Gujarati culture?

Meanwhile tricolor’s advantage is like European luxury products Louis Vuitton and Hermes before whom no new commercial brand can ever compete. That’s because such renowned luxury brands take the reference of their long years, selling it as a marker of noble legacy to establish their connoisseur craftsmanship for high brand worth. Having history are the bonus that newcomers can never get. Of course there’s no connoisseur craftsmanship involved in this case, rather tricolor’s dynastic family breeding.

Did Bollywood follow the tricolour family legacy or was it the reverse? Feudalism is officially eradicated, but culturally alive in Indian politics. Bollywood film stars dynastically promote their children, so does tricolor. The great legacy management benefit tricolor has is black & white documentary films, old newspapers, other archives. Tricolour mother’s tough public job is to untangle feathers her son’s emotional flying off the handle criticizing Government policies ruffled; simultaneously she has to keep his political future intact. The sister is also available on demand. Tricolor politician has to only prove his dynastic thoroughbred political family. Tricolor party has several vintage politicians with solid political background and enormous pull in their constituencies. But they can’t climb beyond a certain rung in the ladder, their only choice is to nurture the dynasty scion who needs to grow and get appreciated.

Garland power: Do garlands reflect power? In the old days, politicians would respectfully throw the garlands back to the public in mutual appreciation. Today’s phenomenon is big, bigger, biggest garlands to flex and display political power. The masses are totally confused, are they politicians or prophets? The crux of this election is for the tricolor to convince people that this 6th generation (after great-great grandpa, great grandpa, grandma, father, mother) legacy is the best for India, while saffron has to convince everyone that the style of governing Gujarat is the best for India. One can give you the dynastic encyclopedia while the other can offer a cup of tea even as the train is pulling out of the railway station. You, the voters, have the choice of learning of our country’s political legacy or getting charged or re-charged with cups of tea.

Anyway, don’t look at who is good or bad. Abraham Lincoln had said, "You have to decide whether you want to be right or you want to be a President." An unpainted canvas gives you the liberty of using whatever colors you want. The way great painters never bother about how others consider the painting, the saffron and tricolor canvas seem to have unlimited expression possibilities. The only difference is that these antics will impact a billion people, whereas a painter’s painting may be liked by only the person who buys it.

The crucial question is who will bring livelihood and dignity to 80% of our country’s people who probably don’t understand this colorful saffron vs tricolor electoral canvas stretching like an endless bubble gum?

To download above article in PDF Artist’s canvas of tea seller vs dynasty prince

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