Times of India

Something's in A Name

We lived in Mexico City for four years in the late seventies, and there learned an important civic virtue: how to name our streets. Our first home was in a neighbourhood called Polanco, where all the streets were named after writers, and Shakespeare, Dickens, Tagore and other literary greats surrounded us. We lived on the corner of La Fontaine and Homer, while our friends lived between Dante and Cervantes.  To visit a colleague a few blocks away I had to cross Tolstoy, Goethe, Jane Austen and Ibsen. Once I got lost in the colony and by the time I found myself I had received a comprehensive lesson in world literature.

Golden Arches East

Although the strident criticism against American fast food has died and 34 McDonald's restaurants have quietly opened in India, critics of globalisation don't tire of reminding us that the world is increasingly becoming a copy of America. McDonald's amazing success in a hundred countries has impressed business students for years, but to others the expression McWorld conjures scary images of cultural imperialism and a uniform, standardised, homogenized consumer world.

Coming of Age

An extraordinary thing happened this summer whose significance has escaped almost everyone. While the nation was engrossed in petrol pumps, Shivani's murder, and other weighty matters, Wipro, the software company in Bangalore, quietly bought Spectramind, a call centre in Delhi, from ChrysCapital, a venture capital fund. The call centre was valued at Rs 606 crores and this landmark event sent a strong positive signal to the global financial world that India may finally be coming of age.

A Fine Balance

Last week I met a young lady from Japan. We got talking and she said that she was travelling around India exploring our spiritual traditions. In an unguarded moment she admitted that she was seeking solace from her lonely, banal and desperate life and hoped that India might offer her a spiritual guide to the art of living. Nothing unusual in that, I thought. She is part of a great tradition of travellers to India who have sought consolation from the material world. The tendency goes back to Fa Hien and Huan Tsang, two Chinese travellers in the first millennium AD, who came looking for Buddhist wisdom.

A South Asian Puzzle

The stubborn persistence of child malnutrition in India is truly one of the tragedies of our time. Many of us have long agonised over this preventable problem, and we continue to ask, why do half our children not get either enough or the right food or adequate care? Even in sub-Saharan Africa only thirty percent of the children are malnourished versus fifty percent in South Asia. And this 20-point gap exists despite our much higher levels of per capita income, education and even safer water access. One-third of the babies in India are born with low birth weight compared to one-sixth in sub-Saharan Africa.

Guiding Your Karma

The recent World Cup of football entertained 1.5 billion around the world, and people drew all sorts of lessons, but it confirmed to me once again the role of luck in human affairs. At crucial moments, it was not skill that separated winners from losers but chance, and part of the peculiar beauty of human excellence on the football field is, I expect, its vulnerability to things we cannot control. If it was skill alone Brazil should have won all the 14 World Cups, as the German coach confessed.


It is a relief that Indo-Pak tempers have cooled and we can once again get back to our lives. As we do, let us ponder over Isaiah Berlin's words, “Men do not live by fighting evils. They live by positive goals.” Berlin was a great intellectual presence in the mid-20th century, and one of his positive goals that many Indians seem to be seeking today is a clean city. I realised this after reading the unusually large mail that my column on civic pride generated last month from communities across the country.

When Less is More

Soon after he became prime minister, Winston Churchill wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty to ask, “Pray Sir, tell me on one side of one sheet of paper, how the Royal Navy is preparing for the war.” Churchill knew that if he did not qualify his request he would have received an unreadable 400-page report. Brevity is a great virtue, and nowhere more needed than in India. Our judges write judgements that are too long; our lawyers ramble on; our executives try to impress with lengthy memos; our politicians--well, try to get in a word. Our public affairs would improve tangibly if our power to be silent were equal to our power to speak.

Peace, Not War

It is difficult to speak of the murder of innocent people, but it is also impossible to remain silent. First it was Gujarat, now it is Jammu. The nation's mood has turned angry, and far too many sensible people are ready to go to war. In these troubled times, I sometimes think we are fortunate to have a hesitant poet for a prime minister. But our hawks accuse him of indecision and clamour for an American or Israeli style response. The Prussian master of strategy, Clausewitz, teaches that one must only start a war that one can win.

A Matter of Civic Pride

This government often reminds us that we ought to have more national pride, but I think that civic pride is more important, more durable, and a stronger foundation for nationhood. Indeed, a more civic-minded citizenry might have been able to contain the damage in joyless Gujarat, if not prevented the tragedy. Mahatma Gandhi, a Gujarati, often counselled Indians that they would not be worthy of independence until they became more caring and considerate neighbours.