Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mass rabid transit

I assume I’m not the only person in Delhi to be looking at the construction of the Bus Rapid Transit corridor with the sort of emotion that, thanks to the complex biological wiring evolved in humans over millions of years, directs all the blood flow to the extremities in order to prepare the body to wring its hands.

Premise: Apparently Delhi is a global city—a fantasy widely believed by people who are in the higher echelons of government and who therefore rarely have to actually deal with the city—and needs to upgrade its infrastructure.

Problem: It has lots of traffic, which is growing at the dizzying rate of people getting richer and motor transport getting cheaper all at the same time.

Solution: It would seem reasonable to build flyovers for a signal-free Ring Road, build a Metro, build an eight-lane highway to Gurgaon, and a build a Bus Rapid Transit corridor, all to create an orderly way of getting growing numbers of vehicles and commuters across the city in the fastest possible way.

Unfortunately, of the millions of drivers in this vibrant metropolis, about three hold valid drivers' licences that weren’t bought at a street corner. Even more unfortunately, the people responsible for designing the infrastructure seem to have about three brain cells in working order.

I have nothing but praise for the Metro, but if you’ve driven along the signal-free Ring Road, you’ll have noticed that bus stops have not been relocated or pushed off the road onto a shoulder. This is so that, now that the traffic lights are gone, traffic can still be held up, but for no good reason, and without the predictability.

If you drive on the highway between Delhi and Gurgaon, you’ll notice that the beautiful swirls of roads and roundabouts and exits have been opened to traffic without any signage, presumably so that people can drive without an agenda, enjoying the mildly seasick buzz of repeatedly circling a roundabout wondering what leads where and admiring the setting of the concrete.

Where there is signage it is tiny (craftily saving the public unnecessary expense on boards and paint) and placed in the least useful position possible, such as at the fork of a road instead of much before it, and preferably behind a tree. This serves the purpose of causing motorists in the right lane to have to swerve wildly across seven lanes perpendicularly to traffic at 60kmph (or, more realistically, 80kmph) in order to take a left, assuming that they spot the sign at all on a wild impulse to see what happens to be behind the tree.

But the real beauty of the provider-consumer relationship lies in the Bus Rapid Transit system. Here, bus stops placed in the middle lanes of the road allow people to alight and have to cross other traffic to get to the sides of the road. To avoid an unseemly death-march through traffic, they will be let off at bus stops placed at traffic lights. This will cause traffic to have to get through masses of red lights on the BRT stretch, slowing it to a blood-curdling crawl, which neatly solves the problem of how to get it moving as fast as possible.

I’m just a layperson, of course, so what do I know? There’s probably some glaringly obvious logic that is escaping me. I have no idea who gets put in charge of these things, or why; I don’t even have a clue where to start looking for the answers. Maybe I should check behind a tree.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Taking stocks

Family elders play a crucial role in one’s life, right from the time they stop trying to control you to the time they start dribbling into their bibs and diapers. This window during which they make sense is sometimes so short that if you blink, you’ll miss it; but in that brief golden moment you’ll find the old bags full of handy tips. Their most consistently valuable advice to me has been: Don’t play with fire, knives, boys, or the stock market.

For the most part I have paid heed. I don’t play with fire, except for occasionally passing my finger slowly through a candle flame to see how it feels. I try to keep my pocket knife sheathed, because the memory of dropping my grand-uncle’s sword onto my foot, point first, is forever engraved in my mind and on my foot. I can’t find any boys to play with anymore. As for the stock market, I’m beginning to see what they were getting at.

Like many people who are very nice but no good at making money, I am very nice but no good at making money. I’m fortunate to have good infrastructure and quality of life, but the state of my liquidity and general finances can only be called dire. So, with a fire lit under my fundamentals by the prospect of a pension-less old age and a few holidays I wish I could take, I decided that I needed to Grow My Money. At about the same time, I discovered that the Sensex was not an English county between Essex and Wessex, but an instrument with which to acquire untold millions by doing nothing. This is probably the sort of thinking that the family elders were trying to nip in the bud.

I stomped off to see my brother, who has incredible financial instincts, which is very lucky because he’s busy working on a PhD in Philosophy. He said Risk Appetite, and Investment Horizon, and I immediately started to do crosswords in my head. He rolled his eyes and made me take notes on what I later found I’d earnestly recorded as ‘Madcap Stocks’.

Of course, I did nothing with the information he gave me when the Sensex was at 16,000. The workings of the market are, for me, buried within an impenetrable fog. All I know is that sometimes ‘Sensex Soars, Millions Make Killing’, and sometimes ‘Sensex Crashes, Millions Kill Selves’, and that almost always, the former is considered to be better.

But then, an old friend rang me up and described his life of leisure financed by stock market earnings, and another old friend scolded me for not having a Demat account. I didn’t tell him that I don’t even have a credit card. Momentum was building.

When the Sensex went from 16,000 to 20,000 I cunningly decided that it was time to buy. I gathered together my few beans, borrowed a couple of peanuts, and put the lot into Mutual Funds—which, it turns out, is not the technical term for "your parents’ money". I sat back and waited for five days, and in this interim there was a ‘Sensex Bloodbath, Everyone Buggers Off’. When I checked my Portfolio, I discovered that it had been reduced to a Portfol, which is to say that some of it was missing.

But I’ve re-evaluated my Horizon; I’m a Long Term Investor and I’m not going to get fussed about these blips. The whole thing is notional anyway, they tell me, so my next move is going to be to get myself a rich avatar on Second Life. At least there, if I lose my money, I can still be tall and thin.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Channel surfing

I love the Gary Larson cartoon captioned (approximately), “What people did before they had television”. It shows a family sitting shoulder to shoulder on their living room couch, staring fixedly at a bare wall.

The first time I ever laid eyes on a television was at the ripe old age of seven, in Switzerland. It was the size of a large toaster, and it beamed black and white images of news anchors reading bulletins about debates between French President Giscard d’Estaing and his challenger, Fran├žois Mitterand. It bored us to tears, and there was lots of blizzardy stuff on the screen, but we were very excited about it anyway. (And it was thanks to the television that my parents discovered that there was something wrong with my eyesight; my mother asked me if I could see the screen from where I sat, and I asked her which one of the two she meant.)

It was eventually upgraded to a slightly larger colour set with no snow, as technology roused itself into a slow warm-up jog. French programming, however, is extremely liberal stuff—the French introduce their children to sex almost as soon as they introduce them to wine—so my parents authorised us to watch only a bunch of cartoons and Zorro (which sabotaged the whole idea of colour television by being shot in black and white), although we watched all the adult stuff anyway whenever they were out.

By the time I was a teenager in Jakarta, we had an even larger colour television on which we were treated to colour images of Indonesian news anchors reading bulletins about the lack of debate between President Suharto and the rest of the country. It bored us to tears, but we also had a video cassette player by then, and so were able to watch B-grade Hollywood films on VHS tapes, which my mother said were American Bilge but which the rest of us, including my father, loved.

It was a long time before I got to a point where there was a nice TV, enough time and enough moronic programming to ensnare me—only in the past five years, really. Now I’m hopelessly addicted to American Bilge, and even my mother admits to a pale enjoyment of Friends (though I don’t think she’ll ever appreciate the vacuous thrill of sitting through an episode of E! News Daily).

Before we had television, I read. It was great, even though there was a cockroach as big as my foot that lived somewhere in the bookshelf and got its jollies from charging me. I’m glad I developed the reading habit before the temptations of television came along, because if I hadn’t, I’d be a complete zombie (I think ‘remote control’ refers to the power of programmers over viewers). You know those people who don’t have a television and don’t want one? I’m not one of those people. There are worse things than to kick off your shoes and sit down to an episode of House or some particularly non-challenging movie on HBO—it’s certainly better than smoking, or getting drunk, or watching the Hallmark channel instead.

Despite my love for books, I’m having to remind myself to read rather than turn on some version of the television—especially since the television manufacturing industry, after going through the laborious process of making ever-larger sets, is now busy breaking them down again to smaller and smaller sizes, for treadmills, for watches, so that you can take your idiot box along wherever you go. I’m having to remind myself that the Delhi Book Fair is on, and that I like going there. It’s a bit of struggle, and I haven’t made it yet, but I live in hope. Now pass the remote.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Irish cream

My mother was raised by Irish nuns at Loreto Convent, an institution that has produced thousands of Indian women known for their carefully neutral accents, good grooming, a ravenous appetite for lacy doilies, and a propensity to hum weird Irish ditties (“Pooot your eeer agaaainst the craaahck, somebody wants to heeer”—which, back then, referred to listening at a door).

She spent much of her youth saying Hail Marys and trying to be a ‘naughty fairy’ rather than an ‘eejit’; and while her essential nature is sunny and fun loving, she developed a lifetime supply of guilt about it. It’s become a bit of a family joke that, wherever she goes, she is attended by a ghostly cohort of moral supervisors, wimples agog. “We can fit in one car,” my sister might say, “though it’ll be a bit of a squeeze what with Mother Bernadine and Mother Damien.” If we plan anything even faintly fun, we assure mum, sotto voce, that we won’t tell Them.

On the upside, my mother bequeathed to us the incredible literary tradition that They left her—the tradition of Jonathan Swift, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde. The girls at Loreto weren’t allowed to read the likes of James Joyce, who used swear words, but I devoured them all, down to John Banville and Anne Enright. Of all the literary traditions in the world, it’s the Irish I feel the greatest affinity with. So, despite Delhi’s bitter cold, my cultural genes drew me out on many evenings this last fortnight to attend the first Irish Literary Festival, organised by the Embassy of Ireland and the Ireland Literature Exchange.

It introduced me to the work of novelists Dermot Bolger and Gerard Donovan. I loved photographer John Minihan’s iconic shots of Samuel Beckett, and his documentation of the “dying Irish art of dying”. Children’s fantasy writers Oisin McGann (that’s Oh-sheen) and Conor Kostick read from their books, as did novelists John Boyne, Claire Kilroy, and Northern Ireland’s Glenn Patterson, who brought high humour to the evening. Kilroy’s Tenderwire was the only book available for sale; I bought it, and read it, and it’s a treat.

It was a treat, too, to listen to poet Anthony Cronin, a frail old giant of Irish letters, and Anne Haverty, who is also a poet and a novelist. Poet Derek Mahon, introduced as one of the most important writers of all time, talked about his first experience of Indo-Irish links being the time he was almost mown down by the passing cortege of the Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera and President Radhakrishnan, who was visiting.

Micheál O Conghaile represented the small but dedicated world of Irish-language publishing. A native Irish speaker, he beautifully likened the experience of expressing oneself in a second language (English) with waking in an unfamiliar house and trying to get breakfast together in an unfamiliar kitchen. He read a brilliant short story about a dead man who crashes his own wake, with understandably disturbing consequences.

The festival was sadly under-attended, partly because of the clash with the Jaipur literary event, and partly because these writers are unfamiliar to Indian audiences—even though that’s the best reason to be in the audience. It’s too bad that contemporary Irish work is largely absent in our bookstores, and it’s too bad that most of the authors’ books were not available at the events, but I like to think that this will change with future editions of the festival. And maybe, next time, the authors’ lodgings at The Grand Hyatt won’t go up in flames midway through the festival.

I reported to my mother that there was a total absence of wimples at the festival. She said that in that case, she’d come next year.