Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe – Niall Ferguson

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe: Ferguson, Niall: 9780593297377:  Amazon.com: Books

“Doom” by Niall Ferguson is analogous to a hastily and haphazardly whipped up world encyclopedia. While the reader is treated to an extraordinary variety of incredible information, she is also plagued by data fatigue. This feature of death by data detracts, from the original essence of the book, which in itself is extremely engrossing and absorbing. Ferguson, a Scottish historian and the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, claims that most of the disasters that have rocked humanity is man-made. Even some of the greatest convulsions of nature such as tectonic earthquakes and roaring volcanic eruptions cause untold misery because of humanity settling and resettling on fault lines and in vulnerable cities. When Mount Vesuvius for example left Pompeii in smoldering ruins, in an apocalyptic explosion, it did not take time for the ruined city to be once again transformed into a teeming and bustling hotbed of trade. But in trying to arrive at this conclusion, Ferguson takes a path that is extraordinarily and excruciatingly circuitous. The exploits of Pliny the Elder in courageously venturing towards Pompeii to chronicle the devastation, before suffocating to death takes up quite a lot of pages and consequently the reader’s time.

 Ferguson’s novel reasoning is based, to a great extent, on the three concepts of “gray rhinos”; “black swans” and “dragon kings”. The term gray rhino as popularized by  American author, commentator, and policy analyst, Michele Wucker, refers to an event that is “dangerous, obvious, and highly probable”. Classic examples being Hurricane Katrina, and the Financial Recession of 2007. A black swan event, on the other hand, according to author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, refers to a situation that “seems to us, on the basis of our limited experience to be impossible.” The COVID-19 pandemic that is at the time of this writing wreaking havoc is a black swan event. Professor on the Chair of Entrepreneurial Risks at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Didier Sornette defines a dragon king as an event so extreme that it lies outside a power law distribution. According to Sornette, examples of dragon king events can be found in six domains: City sizes, acoustic emissions associated with material failure, velocity increments in hydrodynamic turbulence, financial drawdowns, energies of epileptic seizures in humans and animals, and possibly earthquakes. Dragon kings “are extreme events that are statistically and mechanistically different from the rest of their smaller siblings.”

Ferguson also writes that when it comes to any disaster, the scale of damage is dependent on the contagion. Social network structure plays out a vital role in this regard. Banking on the concept of weak ties as elucidated by Mark Granovetter, Ferguson identifies the importance of nodes and networks. For example, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is a direct factor of the basic rate if reproduction, which in turn is a direct outcome of adherence to or neglect of social distancing norms. Paraphrasing Emile Durkheim’s term for elucidating an element of disconnectedness associated with modernity, Ferguson writes that “an economy without crowds is not a ‘new normal’.

This notion of network effects, says Ferguson is also corroborated by the founder of the Ethernet, Robert Metcalfe. According to Metcalfe, greater the number of nodes in a network, the more valuable the network to the nodes collectively, and therefore to its owners. “The history of mankind’s changing susceptibility to infectious diseases tends to be written as a history of pathogens. But it might make as much sense to tell this history as the story of our evolving social networks.”

Ferguson also dwells on two types of errors that primarily trigger manmade disasters, namely, active, and latent errors. Initially proposed by psychologist James Reason, active errors represent errors that are perpetrated by people who are in direct contact with human system interface. Active errors can either be skill-based, rule-based, or knowledge-based. On the other hand, latent errors according to Reason, are the “delayed consequences of technical and organizational actions and decisions – such as reallocating resources, changing the scope of a position, or adjusting staffing.” Ferguson uses the examples of active and latent errors to describe the sinking of the Titanic and the Andrea Gail. Ferguson also claims that untrammeled advances in the field of transportation and conveyance in the form of steamships and rail networks spread disease across continents. The spread of from the Ganges to the rest of the world, for example.

In the final chapters, Ferguson dwells on a potential conflict between two behemoths, the United States and China, which has the potential of bringing untold harm to the world. He also mulls on the potential perils of artificial intelligence and genome mapping which may bring misery to mankind if fallen into wrong hands. A clustered regularly interspaced short palindrome repeats (CRISPR) technology facilitating gene editing is now so cheap that a genetic engineering home lab kit was available for just $1,845 in the year 2020. Ferguson ends his book with references to a whole horde of Dystopian works which presciently predicted novel and unique disasters. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep all make the cut.

“Doom” is an unrelenting compilation of events, situations, circumstances, and outcomes. It is also a confusing assemblage of qualitative and quantitative information that has the ability to send the reader into a dizzying journey. While the assertion that most, if not all, catastrophes that has plagued mankind thus far is attributable to manmade causes, is bold and ingenious, the back up arguments in favour of such a proposition are, unfortunately convoluted, contrived, and complex. On the whole, “Doom” represents fodder for thought and further evaluation. Currently we as humanity are going through some extraordinary times. Conflicting prerogatives such as vaccine diplomacy and vaccine nationalism are tugging and pushing at the invisible strings of emotion. As the word grapples with a calamity of unimagined proportions, how we tide though this crisis would not just represent a reflection of who we are as an interconnected global family but also how we are as evolved human beings of character.

“Doom” – just a beginning of possibilities, extensive.   

(Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson is published by Penguin Press and would be released on the 4th of May 2021)

Power To The Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology – Tara Dawson McGuinness & Hana Schank

Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology: McGuinness, Tara  Dawson, Schank, Hana, Slaughter, Anne-Marie, Walker, Darren: 9780691207759:  Amazon.com: Books

“Power To The Public” is a deeply thought provoking, delightfully implementable and definitely an indispensable read for every policy wonk and maven, keen on exploiting and harnessing the potential of Public Interest Technology (PIT for short). This is a field that has, putting it mildly, remained muted for far too long. As the authors illustrate with resounding clarity, adherence to the tenets and principles of PIT may well be the way forward in resolving some of the most seemingly intractable socio economic problems ailing the world at present. So what exactly is PIT? As Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank explain, PIT reduced to its simplest definition means, “the application of design, data, and delivery to advance the public interest and promote the public good in the digital age.” In an era where policies in general and Governmental policies in particular are characterised by a dichotomy where the policy maker is two steps (or more) removed from the end recipient of such a policy, PIT attempts to remove this dilemma by placing the user front and centre. This enables both the Government/public sector and the beneficiary to extract the most out of any benevolent scheme. Lubricating the wheels of PIT are three quintessential elements: “design informed by real human needs, the use of real-time data to guide problem solving, and a focus on delivery in order to continuously learn and improve.”

Even though concise in terms of number of pages, the book is replete with powerful illustrations demonstrating the power of PIT. Unlike the private sector where even a continuous churn of birth and death of corporations might lead to ‘repairable’ dislocations, Governments and the public sector cannot just afford to fail. Such a failure would lead to tumultuous consequences for thousands and millions of people who are dependent on the Government for their very sustenance. The authors illustrate this principle with a fascinating example. Form DHS-1171, in its original avatar represented the longest form for social assistance in the United States. DHS-1171 unfortunately, was also the primary stumbling block for almost two million people in Michigan seeking access to emergency assistance. “Anyone in Michigan in dire need of healthcare, food assistance, emergency cash, or childcare first needed to work their way through more than 1,200 questions.” Such an exasperating exercise could drive people to their wits end and many flummoxed applicants even gave up filling the form thereby sacrificing what otherwise would have constituted invaluable assistance. Michael Brennan the former CEO of the United Way of Southeastern Michigan decided to do something about the gargantuan form. With the assistance of Adam and Lana Selzer, the husband-wife duo, and founders of Civilla, a non-profit design studio dedicated to changing the way public-serving institutions function, Brennan put the principles of PIT to work. Securing an appointment with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) director Nick Lyon; Tim Becker, chief deputy director of MDHHS; Terry Beurer, senior deputy director of the Economic Stability Administration; and Rich Baird, a top aide to Governor Rick Snyder, Brennan and his team made the administrators fill out the nightmarish form along with a whole horde of actual applicants struggling with their own forms. Amidst such a cacophonous setting, the administrators obtained a perfect flavour of the predicament which unwitting form fillers go through.

“Several of the officials had never seen the form up close. While that may be hard to imagine, this type of distance is commonplace across government. The farther up the hierarchy a person gets, the more distance they have from both the people they serve and the caseworkers who serve them.” Thus began the DHS-1171 form redesign project. With the actual people in need of benefits being placed front and centre, the form was repurposed with only the essential questions framed in collaboration with legislators. A team of legal and technology experts thus reduced the time taken for filling a most vital and crucial emergency assistance from almost a whole day to just under thirty minutes. “The focus on understanding both beneficiaries and frontline state workers grounded the team’s efforts. Hearing how the process wasn’t working for anyone helped make the case for change.”

Similarly, by placing the homeless people front and centre, Rockford was able to successfully obliterate the scourge of homelessness. In the year 2015 Rockford ended veterans’ homelessness. In 2017 they went one step further by putting an end to chronic homelessness, and are well on their way to totally ending homelessness. The Built to Zero team tasked with eliminating the blight of homelessness initiated what at that time seemed an ambitious endeavour by making a list of every single veteran in Rockford who was homeless, so they could understand the totality of Rockford’s homeless population and their needs. “But the list creation process also did something else. It changed the problem being solved from a series of disconnected inputs—number of beds filled, number of people fed, number of patients served—to a concrete and shared goal that centered on human lives. Ultimately, the list changed the focus from numbers of beds and meals and services to one single number: people who remain homeless.”

The book also discusses the perils of not understanding the basic wants of the needy and the unfortunate. When the Corona virus pandemic unleashed its fury on an unprepared United States, a commendably bipartisan promulgation resulted in a massive allocation of almost a trillion dollars in aid for the affected, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, a massive, 880-page12 economic stimulus package. However a complete absence of a  grassroots level planning ensured that the benefits under CARES was to a great extent disproportionate to the needs of the targeted. Thus while behemoths such as Boeing and the Distilled Spirits Council got quite a fat stimulus package, “the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a part of the bill aimed at helping small businesses, ran out of money twelve days after it launched, necessitating the creation of a second bill to help fill the meteor-sized holes in the first one. Numerous reports surfaced of businesses that couldn’t even remotely qualify as a small business receiving money through CARES, among them fast-food chain Shake Shack, high-end restaurant chain Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and even the Los Angeles Lakers, a $4.4 billion franchise. But for true small businesses, the help was very uneven. At the same time, many of the people suffering the most found the requirements in the bill meant that they didn’t qualify for help.”

All of these examples, argue McGuinness and Schank, are emblematic of four uncompromising essentials: First, government is an inevitable and uncompromising necessity to tide over the most crucial problems besetting the world today. Second, the stumbling block lies within the systems, incentives and structures encompassing the Government ecosystem and not the Government itself or its workers. Third, while technology definitely has an invaluable role to play in problem solving, it can never be a solution in itself. Algorithms can never displace empathy. can play a critical role, but it is never the solution alone. Fourth, the role of Government is to aid and assist without discrimination or bias. No segment of the population must be isolated or kept out from the parenthesis of prosperity and a basic acceptable quality of life.

At a time when the world is teetering helplessly while being ravaged by an insidious pandemic, the role of PIT in instituting indelible reforms cannot be stressed or emphasizes enough. Messrs. McGuinness and Schank bring their enviable experience in this domain to bear by paving the way.

“Power to the Public” – a defining read in desperate times.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for men – Caroline Criado Perez

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men: Criado Perez,  Caroline: 9781419729072: Amazon.com: Books

Starting off with what has to be some of the most memorable opening words in the history of contemporary literature, British journalist and author, Caroline Criado Perez proceeds to illustrate in an eviscerating fashion, the deprivation of the deserving rights of half the human population under the sun. “Invisible Women” is sans a semblance of any doubt, the most seminal book dealing with women’s rights and denial since Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex.’ The world seems to blissfully function under a preternatural dogma that has at its core a “male unless indicated otherwise” approach. This taken-for-granted male universality, Ms. Perez demonstrates, results in some serious and significant absence of sex-disaggregated data. “Men have confused their own point of view with the absolute truth. There are issues, be it the female body, women’s unpaid care burden or the male violence against women that have always warranted serious discussions but have often been overlooked and deemed unimportant”, writes Ms. Perez. The title of the book itself represents a master stroke. The book is titled ‘Invisible Women’ because women are just that: invisible. Thankless and tedious tasks such as childcare, elderly care and unpaid household work, are derisively and disturbingly assumed to be the sole prerogative of the feminine gender. This back breaking labour does not just go unrecognized, it also remains absolutely unnoticed, and thus, invisible.

As a fundamental example, across the globe women use public transport more than men. They engage in multiple transportation shifts. Dropping kids at school, commuting to work, accompanying the unwell at home to a hospital or dispensary, and finally rounding off a hectic schedule by completing grocery shopping while heading back home, women are the ones who are in need of a fully functioning, reliable, adequate, and sufficient transport infrastructure. However, as Ms. Perez informs her readers, rarely does a transportation policy take into consideration such a ubiquitous pattern adopted by a woman. A suffocatingly crowded peak transportation crowd, sparse availability of transport late in the evenings and the very design of vehicles all have an unmissable bias towards men. Cases abound of women being groped, sexually abused, and harassed during the course of their journey. A horrific case in point being the singularly ghastly Nirbhaya rape case in New Delhi.

To cite another unfortunate trend, consider the employ of safety mechanisms and equipment in automobiles such as airbags and headrests. All major automobile companies, prior to introducing every new vehicle model, test their safety and resilience by using ‘Crash test dummies.’ Very few people are aware that these Crash Test dummies are invariably designed around a 50th percentile male, about 1.77 meters tall and weighing 76 kilograms. There is a brazen neglect of the fact that women, are on average, shorter, and lighter, a critical and crucial fact which the test procedures conveniently overlook. Thus in any unfortunate car crash, an even more unfortunate women is 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured and 17 percent more likely to die! An elementary sex-disaggregated data will very easily ameliorate what in hindsight looks to be an absolutely intolerable practice.

Similarly while there are limits in many industries on the weights that can be lifted while at work (industries predominantly populated by men), there are no prescribed limits or regulations on a nurse or a woman healthcare worker who spends a predominant proportion of her time assisting and lifting patients far more heavier than her. Hence thr potential for women to be struck by hazardous muscular and bone tissue injuries are much higher than for men. Staying within the medical sphere, a revealing study unearthed the fact that a complex kind of pacemaker had, based on clinical trials, been calibrated for male hearts. When the female results were aggregated, the researchers were astonished to find that if the women’s use had been calibrated on women’s results, then there would likely have been a 76% reduction in heart failure for those women who didn’t qualify based on male results, but did qualify when women’s statistical outcomes had been considered.

One of the most highly hailed, subscribed to, and reveled about drug in the modern world of medicine, is Pfizer’s Viagra. A boon bestowing aphrodisiac for millions, Viagra was however an accidentally ‘repurposed’ wonder. An initial study of the drug conducted in the year 2013 revealed that Viagra was most effective in relieving dysmenorrhea – commonly known as ‘period pain.’ But an astounding refusal to fund the study for evaluating its efficacy further, meant that the trial petered out. Dr. Richard Legro, who lead the study bemoaned that the reviewers probably did not see dysmenorrhea as a priority public health issue.

A seemingly prosaic and plain activity such as snow cleaning suffers from an inherent and implicit male bias. This was hammered home in an enlightening fashion to a bunch of  councilors in Sweden. Public authorities in the town of Karlskoga were assessing their efficiency of their practices in embellishing gender equality.  This assessment disclosed that the council’s policy of clearing roads first favoured men, who used automobiles much more than women, the latter being more pedestrians than drivers. When the snow clearing policy was altered to first clear those paths taken by women who walked and used public transport, Karlskoga saved public money because of a material drop in the number of women admitted to hospital after falling on snowy surfaces.

The world of economics is not far behind either in encouraging and adding to the gender gap. The gospel of Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) fails miserably in not taking within its hallowed ambit unpaid household and care work, the impact of taxes on women’s choice to join the labor force, and the disproportionate representation of women among the world’s poor. According to a report issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (“OECD”), not counting unpaid care work leads to misestimating households’ material well-being and societies’ wealth. If included, unpaid care work would constitute 40% of Swiss GDP (Schiess and SchönBühlmann, 2004) and would be equivalent to 63% of Indian GDP (Budlender, 2008).

“Most of recorded human history is one big data gap,” writes Perez at the very beginning of her wonderful book. “Starting with the theory of Man the Hunter, chroniclers of the past have left little space for women’s role in the evolution of humanity, whether cultural or biological. Instead, the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall. When it comes to the lives of the other half if humanity, there is often nothing but silence.”

The time to remedy this deafening silence is now.  

Breaking Through: A Memoir – Isher Judge Ahluwalia

Amazon.com: BREAKING THROUGH: A Memoir eBook: Ahluwalia, Isher Judge:  Kindle Store

On the 26th of September 2020, Isher Judge Ahluwalia breathed her last. An effervescent and endearing personality in addition to being a brilliant economist who juxtaposed vision with common sense, the Padmabushan awardee was also the wife of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, former deputy chairman of the Indian Planning Commission. “Breaking Through” is Isher Ahluwalia’s autobiography penned in a disarmingly candid and refreshing manner. The inspiring story of a pickle manufacturer’s great grand-daughter who influenced the decisions of policy mavens and rubbed shoulders with some of the most prominent economists and powerful politicians globally, warms the very cockles of the heart.

When her memoir was completed, Ahluwalia had lost her reading and writing faculties. Her husband, however turned out to be an able ally and scribe. ‘As my health weakened, he would take dictation, type out the chapters, sit and read them out to me, write out my corrections in hand, and work them into the typed version. He is certainly the highest Qualified Research Assistant that I could hope for.”

However as the memoir reveals, before Isher Judge Ahluwalia succumbed to an insidious and rare form of brain tumour, Glioblastoma, she had laid claims to some Herculean achievements and stupendous accomplishments that marked her as an inspirational woman of substance. A role model worthy of emulation, Ahluwalia had through a combination of sheer determination and uncompromising passion shattered the glass ceiling of stereotypes to scale heady heights of success in both academia and professional career. The ninth daughter amongst 11 children (“a full cricket team of 11”), Ahluwalia was also expected to follow in the footsteps of her elder sisters. A few years of schooling followed by marriage children and a docile and uneventful existence as a dutiful housewife. However this rebellious girl bucked the trend of orthodoxy in thinking and made it to Presidency College in Kolkata (then Calcutta) first before finding herself in the hallowed portals of Delhi School of Economics.

Spurred on by an insatiable love for the subject and encouraged by a phalanx of benevolent professors, Ahluwalia obtained a scholarship and secured an admission into the Economics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was taken into the tutelage of future Noble Laureates such as Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow in addition to giants in the field such as Charles Kindleberger. A chance opportunity with the International Monetary Fund results in an introduction to Montek. This chance encounter progresses towards courtship before finally ending in marriage. As Ahluwalia illustrates, in a domain greatly dominated by men, Ahluwalia carved out a niche for herself in the area of policy research. A book highlighting the perils of the Indian economic orthodoxy, courtesy a morass of policy paralysis that was the prerogative of the Left, was published by the Oxford University Press. Ahluwalia also undertook lots of development work for the World Bank and was also involved with ICRIER in India in various capacities. Innovative thinking on Ahluwalia’s part resulted in the Borlaug Institute for South Asia being set up in India and an Infosys Chair for Agriculture being established at ICRIER.  

Throughout the book, Ahluwalia emphasizes an imperative to remain grounded and never to forget one’s roots. Whether it be elucidating on her value system, unflinching devotion to the Gurbani, and a need to accommodate Montek’s career progress whilst concentrating on her own professional career, she inadvertently reveals the importance and indispensability of an element of balance in her personal and professional life. A close friend of Dr. Manmohan Singh and his wife, Ahluwalia wistfully reminisces on the futility of the Former Prime Minister’s attempts to revitalize and rejuvenate the Indian economy during UPA II. Exasperated at every turn, Dr. Manmohan Singh was more a helpless nominee than a powerful leader of a nation. “I wondered why the Prime Minister didn’t just resign”, writes Ahluwalia.

The book is in fact a beautifully thought out paean to all those who were responsible for the uplift of the author. It is almost as though Ahluwalia is bidding a fond farewell to a phalanx of beneficiaries before bidding goodbye. Dr Udham Singh, Walter Robineck at IMF-Washington, LK Jha, IG Patel, are some of the names that are singled out for exceptional praise. However an economist who had a lasting influence on the author and her thinking was the late T N Srinivasan Sanjivi Guhan. India’s executive director-alternate at the World Bank, senior economist of the Brandt Commission, professorial fellow at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and a member of the governing board of Kalakshetra, Guhan brought a revolutionary perspective to economic analysis and political philosophy. Ahluwalia remembers with great precision a letter written by Guhan to her that blended metaphysics and spirituality to convey economic thought. “In Bhartakanda, everything is policy. From policy, policy arises and into policy it returns. Take away policy and policy remains”

The reader is hit like a thunderbolt when Isher Ahluwalia in a matter of fact manner elucidates a craniotomy procedure that reveals the presence of the fatal tumour in her brain. With an incredible sense of detachment and an incredulous vein of astounding practicality she confronts the situation head on and while acknowledging that she might not have much time on the planet, she also confesses as to how lucky and blessed she has been to have had such a full and fulfilling life. One cannot but pause to admire this phenomenal woman and wish that her tribe increases manifold.

Steering clear of political biases and controversies, Isher Judge Ahluwalia focuses on urgent and topical issues that requires bipartisan attention and ones that have far reaching ramifications in the future. Thus issues such as urban planning, Solid Waste Management, Water and Food Security that cause policy wonks to have sleepless nights are addressed in a beautifully lucid and practical manner.

Breezy, warm, witty, and wonderful, “Breaking Through” is not just a dexterously crafted memoir. It is a deliberately intended manifesto for every aspiring schoolgirl who aims to make it big in a world dominated by glass ceilings. For such an indelible manifesto we are all indebted to Isher Judge Ahluwalia. Her legacy and contribution are for the ages.

A Hope called Tanya Coleridge by George Michael

TaniaColeridge Instagram posts (photos and videos) - Picuki.com
(Image Credit: Picuki.com)

Tanya Coleridge sashaying down the ramp with an uninhibited confidence; Tanya Coleridge winking seductively; Tanya Coleridge crossing a turnstile and hiring a taxi. Tanya Coleridge….

George Michael with a grotesque piece of jewelry dangling from his ear and a cool pair of sunglasses covering his eyes, lent bohemia a bold and licentious meaning with his pop-gospel balladry when he introduced the world to “Father Figure.” A renegade, a rebellious gay and an eccentric when it came to purveying a particular brand of music, George Michael had a fantastic perpetrator in crime, in the form of the sensual Tanya Coleridge when he pushed this phenomenal and controversial song down the alley of his friends and foes alike. Commencing with a confession and having libelous undertones, “Father Figure” is almost akin to cocking a snook at received wisdom and conventional mores. You can feel George Michael showing his finger to the world while he croons to a lilting music that has an indelible haunt to it.

But the genius of George Michael required the daring of the beautiful Tanya Coleridge to convey his message of impetuosity and impunity. “For just one moment/To be bold and naked/At your side”, could not have been even a remote possibility without the bold and arresting Tanya Coleridge. Irresistibly carnal and inimitably metaphysical at the same time, “Father Figure” is a paean to purity and a homily to the peculiarity. It is celebrating the characteristics of fidelity, while also spurring on a venture into the realms of promiscuity. There is not even a blurring line between the pure and the derisive. Right and wrong coalesce into a confounding kaleidoscope of choice and action. Is “Father Figure” incestuous? In my personal opinion, it does not even come remotely close to being ascribed that damning label. Is it against conventional mores? Of course! When compared to some of the controversial melodies churned out by the likes of Prince, “Father Figure”, doesn’t even come close to ascending the rungs of the controversial ladder of provocation. At the same time it is not as docile as the Christmas melodies dished out by its own creator either. So what ground does this fabulous piece of music occupy and claim?

Absolutely nothing! “Father Figure” lays claims to neither oeuvre nor stereotype. It is just an unashamed homage to the fragilities and foibles of mankind. A tribute that is conveyed by a combination of cathartic vocal chords and a curvaceous figure. “Father Figure” asserts that it is perfectly acceptable to err on the side of audacity. Atonement is just a choice. The cross that hangs from George Michael’s ear is not a symbol of confession but a sign of incredulous defiance. As is every twist, turn and tantalizing wink of the marvelous Tanya Coleridge.

While George Michael may have given his adoring legion of fans a raft of mellifluous hits, nothing compares to the electric fervour and tension of “Father Figure.” George Michael’s own contradictions and dilemma in an age that was inclined to look at gay libertarianism more as a counterculture than an accepted way of life, finds full disclosure in “Father Figure.” In fact in an interview that Tanya Coleridge gave years after the video was made, she admitted that it was extremely difficult for George Michael to enact the intimate scenes in the song. The tug and push of his homosexuality was putting up a screen of defiance between the uber talented singer and the magnificent model. It is ample testimony to Tanya Coleridge’s brilliance and accommodation that allowed George Michael to complete the shooting.

In a follow up album ‘Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1’, George Michael pulled off a veritable coup by gathering a bevy of jaw dropping beauties, including Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, and Christy Turlington. While each one of them acted as a consummate foil to the gay predilections of the immortal singer, none of them could even hold a candle to the exuberance, enthusiasm, and effervescence of Tanya Coleridge.

“Father Figure” was and continues to be a taboo and a Teutonic statement. A statement conjured by the dynamic duo of Tanya Coleridge and George Michael. A combination that stands for resistance, evokes resilience, and restores confidence in humanity.

Thank you, Tanya Coleridge!

Thank you, George Michael. Sleep Well Legend!

Pagglait

Pagglait - Wikipedia
(Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Wikipedia describes Pagglait as a ‘dark comedy drama film.’ The movie is neither comical nor bleak. Elucidating on a theme that is interesting, but not Avant Garde, Director, Umesh Bist has done an appreciable job in assessing the pulse of the viewer. Pagglait is a cathartic experience of a young widow over the course of a thirteen day ritual following the untimely demise of her husband. Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra) loses her spouse Astik (unnamed and unseen) in unexpected circumstances and before she can even come to grips with her monumental loss, she is caught in a whirlpool of intricate family politics, bickering and a gobsmacking revelation.

The film begins with a family beset with grief upon the loss of a young son. Shivendra Giri (Ashutosh Rana), and his wife Usha (Sheeba Chaddha) receive a rude jolt when their son Astik dies suddenly. Even when they are coming to terms with their irreparable loss, a deluge of relatives add to the chaos and confusion. To add insult to agony, Sandhya finds a photograph of a beautiful woman carefully hidden amongst the possessions of her late husband. By a strange quirk of coincidence, Sandhya finds out that her husband’s past lover (or a carefully hidden current flame?) happens to be his workplace colleague, Akanksha (Sayani Gupta). Sandhya is now left to grapple with a new dilemma. Should she weep over the loss of a husband whom she did not even know well, or should she disparage him for two timing her in a remorseless fashion?  

Paggalait is a story of loss, pain, realisation, recouping, relief, and resurrection. Sanya Malhotra as a confused and confounded Sandhya essays her role to perfection. She is the epitome of patience, perplexity, and perseverance. She has an admirable poise that endears her to her audience. Ashutosh Rana as the grieving father is at his muted best. Walking the tightrope between eccentric relatives and the private mourning over the loss of a son, Rana demonstrates why he is easily one of the best in the business. He executes his role with a panache that is effortless. Raghubir Yadav, as Pappu (also referred to as Tayyaji) the elder brother of Shivendra, is irascibly brilliant. Hypocritical, irritating and dominating, Yadav is his inimitable self. Whether it be admonishing family members for their recalcitrance over a neglected ritual or consuming alcohol himself after dictating a period of prohibition for the rest, Yadav is his usual exemplary self. Sheeba Chaddha, in the role of a bereaved mother warms the very cockles of the heart. Helpless, hapless, and hurried, she is a poor women who is shackled to the dictates of not just elaborate procedures but also the damned pestilence of a coterie of a chatty and insensitive group of people.

As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, with Standard Operating Procedures such as social distancing etc putting paid to the hopes of people flocking to the movies, the Over The Top (“OTT”) segment of the entertainment industry has elevated itself to a new level. The quality of some of the documentaries and movies is enticingly captivating. “Pagglait” squarely belongs to this category. Even though dealing with a topic and elaborating on a theme that is not novel by any stretch of imagination, the movie succeeds beyond any semblance of doubt in capturing the imagination of its viewers.

Here’s to more of such madness!

Equanimity

Hankering after likes on Facebook and for retweets on Twitter do we pander

Destroying our bodies for that “perfect” post, the portals of Instagram we trawl and wander

Tossing and turning in bed on many a sleepless night consumed by angst and envy

Devoured by anger and enslaved by complexes, we are zombies intoxicated by greed

Conceiving our own despicable and destructive form of a contagious creed

Ultimately we will forage for peace and solidarity

In our elusive search for finding equanimity

(Word Count: 82)

Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #204

First Person Singular: Haruki Murakami

Review: 'First Person Singular,' By Haruki Murakami : NPR

Personally, I anticipate the release of every Haruki Murakami book, with a curiosity that is otherwise deserved for rare and unique occasions. The enthusiasm that gripped me prior to the release of “First Person Singular” was thus, no exception to the norm. Regrettably, the newest book by the much acclaimed Japanese writer, containing a collection of short stories narrated in the first person, has left me feeling more dejected than delighted. While “Men Without Women” meditated on the litany of woes plaguing men shorn of the company of women, “First Person Singular” ruminates on the qualitative and literal attributes of a woman’s beauty (or a lack of it to be precise), to a degree, that is condescendingly jarring.

Each story is narrated by a man whose interests range from jazz to baseball. These men also inform their readers about seemingly ‘ordinary’ women whom they have either dated, or met in the past. For example, in “Carnaval”, a man while introducing a woman with whom he was briefly associated in the past, comes up with a disquietingly uncharitable opening. “Of all the women, I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.” Incidentally, and dispiritingly, he also prefers to address her merely as “F*”, while at the same time scornfully admitting that “her real name had nothing to so with either F or with *.” Immediately after this cringe worthy beginning, the protagonist feebly and almost facetiously attempts to ‘atone’ for this impunity by wading into an agonizing monologue touching upon paradoxical notion of ugliness and beauty in women.

The opening and closing stories of the book commence and conclude with a bang, with a lot of whimpering in between. “The Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” deals with an elderly monkey that has an extraordinary gift of talking in the human language. “Employed” in a run down boarding house, the monkey is also not averse to sampling Kirin beer and holding forth on the music of Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss. This, however, is not the only story where the reader is driven to tedium with elaborate discussions on the technical nuances and intricacies embedded in music. “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova”, the late American Jazz saxophonist and composer, Charlie “Bird” Parker appears in the dream of the first person narrator and plays the ‘bossa nova’, a type of samba developed in the late 1950s and 1960s in Brazil. As a prelude to this scene, the central character, goes on and on about an imaginary roster of musicians jamming with Charlie Bird Parker in tandem. “Who would have ever imagined an unusual lineup like this – Charlie Parker and Antonio Carlos Jobim joining forces? Jimmy Raney on guitar, Jobim on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Roy Haynes on drums – a dream rhythm section so amazing that it makes your heart pound just hearing the names.”  Not that amazing when a poor reader does not possess a fuzzy rodent posterior’s clue on the pioneers and performers of the jazz world.

There are innumerable passages that suddenly segue into long and complicated treatises relating to music and sport. Robert Schumann, Mozart, Nat King Cole, and a plethora of similar musical luminaries waft in and out of stories with irritatingly regular frequencies.

A refreshing departure is “With The Beatles”. The narrator, upon visiting his girlfriend’s house, is invited in by her brother. Upon learning that the girl is not at home, the narrator attempts to leave only to be reigned in by the brother. The narrator is then made to read aloud the concluding portion of Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s dark and bleak story “Spinning Wheels”. Immediately after finishing this story, Akutagawa took his own life. “With The Beatles”, personally for me, is one shining light in an otherwise dull and flaccid book.

French writer and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, at her searing best put gender inequality in its most appropriate context. “Humanity is male, and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ As a fan of the wonderfully gifted Haruki Murakami, I sincerely hope that he does not subscribe to the radically atrocious view about which de Beauvoir expressed her angst and chagrin.

“First Person Singular” – singularly dampening.