Cricket, Sensex as spectator sports

indiancompanys011.jpg The Bombay Stock Exchange

It was an unusually intense Friday. Usually, it’s just another week winding down, another edition to make, pretty slow on news.

I have always been a Test cricket freak and Anil Kumble was showing why he’s among the three greatest — if the most underrated — Indian cricketers of the last decade. The master spinner was digging his heels into the ground, refusing to give away his wicket to Brett Lee and Stuart Clark on a hot Adelaide morning.

India had just ended the Aussies’ dream of a world record 17th consecutive Test win in Perth, of all places, and had weathered with aplomb a storm of controversy over allegations of racism against off-spinner Harbhajan Singh and poor umpiring that had cost it the series.

Kumble showed the meaning of the word determination by scoring a dogged 87, simply refusing to get out, taking India to a well-compiled 526.

It was riveting Test cricket.

But I was torn between the match and the stock market. If Test cricket is an old passion, then the economy is a more recent one. In the last few years, I have found I enjoy tracking it and, more importantly, I understand a lot of it.

Like the Australian tour, the Sensex had been on a rough ride in the past few weeks. Potfuls of foreign money, stupendous growth rates and high consumer confidence had taken the index to well past 21,000 points and the peak seemed nowhere near. The sky seemed to low a limit.

And then, the wheels came off. The bad news began pouring in. The US, from where most of the foreign money was coming, was in the grip of a debt crisis. There were a record number of defaults on high-risk, high-interest loans given to those with poor credit ratings (such debt is known as sub-prime credit). Citigroup alone is said to have written off $7.5 billion (that’s about Rs 30,000 crore) on sub-prime losses.

Bank after bank found that their debtors would not pay up.

Then came US unemployment data. Job losses were on the rise and more people were finding employment out of reach. Another sure sign that a dreaded recession was around the corner.

The ‘R’ word was suddenly peppering every conversation.

After dropping record levels, forcing a shutdown earlier in the week, the Sensex was finding the strength to pick itself off the ground. But every three steps it took forward, it seemed to take one back. The recovery wasn’t looking convinvcing at all.

On Friday, it suddenly seemed to have shrugged off the indecision. It steadied, rose and then rose some more. By the time it was done, it had risen 1,140 points, something it had never done before. The market seemed to be sending out a message: I may be down, but I’m not out; I may be trounced, but I won’t go without a fight.

Exactly what Kumble seemed to be telling the Aussies.

The series may be lost — at the time of writing, the Adelaide Test seems to be heading for a draw, meaning the end result will be 2-1 in favour of the Aussies — but India will not return disgraced.

A recession in the US may still hurt the Sensex, but it has shown Kumble-like grit that has spawned respect even among the sceptics.

From 3,000-point levels just seven years ago, the index is today at 18,000-plus. A downturn should take it to about 15,000-point levels. But even that is 500% appreciation in just seven years — and that’s during a recession.

The Indian cricket team, from being pushovers anywhere abroad, have held their heads high in the toughest tour you can get in world cricket today. India has now won series in the West Indies, England, Pakistan and an all-important Test in Perth in the last few years.

The parallels between the Sensex and Indian cricket are there for all to see.

I think the next few months will keep me rivetted to the TV — torn between Star Cricket and CNBC-TV18. And I’ll be smiling all the way.

You may want to look these up:

The Bombay Stock Exchange

The Wall Street Journal

What is freedom of expression?

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I found myself of virgin territory last week. I have been asked to address a gathering of Muslim writers, lawyers, professionals and intellectuals on freedom of expression and the broadcast regulation bill.

While I have taught a couple of semesters for Mumbai University’s Bachelor of Mass Media degree programme at a college in Bandra, I have never really given a speech to an audience like the one mentioned above. While my students have been far from undiscerning, I am particularly jittery about the speech. For one, I don’t really know much about the broadcast bill and freedom of expression is something I’ve so taken for granted, I’ve never really thought about it.

But the invitation has set the mental wheels turning. More than anything else, what’s got me thinking is where do we draw the line with freedom of expression? Are we — and should we be — allowed to say whatever we feel like? In that case, wouldn’t sedition, pornography, insulting religions other than our own be par for the course?

Should we then limit the freedom? But a limited freedom is a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?

My own view is that while readily accept that all freedoms come with a ‘conditions apply’ tag, we tend to forget that with freedom of expression. In countries like the US, that freedom is stretched to the very limit, sanctioned by law. So, you can burn the flag, wear it on your underwear, have legitimate pornography businesses and even racist outfits like the Ku Klux Klan have a voice.

In India, we tend to be a bit more careful. Don’t forget, India is not like every other country. It is much more diverse — and sensitive to social and religious slurs — than a country like the US, which has centuries of democracy behind it, allowing it far more elbow room on an issue like expression.

Having said that, do I support full freedom to say what we want to? Yes and no. I believe, like virtually all of us, that we should be free to criticise the state, express an opinion on where we are going as a nation, speak up on national issues, etc, I don’t think we should allow someone to put images of our gods on toilet bowls and bathroom slippers, as we have seen in the West. I have even seen pornographic interpretations of our deities and I don’t think any person of any faith would feel good about that.

If I sound like my thoughts on the matter are not fully formed, that’s because they aren’t. I’m shocked at myself for how much I’ve taken this freedom for granted. As a journalist, I should have done better, thought more about it. My speech is scheduled for February 3. I have no idea what I’ll say, but, till then, much of my mental space will be occupied by it.

What will I come up with, finally? Watch this space.

What the Nano will mean to Mumbai

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The Rs 1-lakh ‘people’s car’ is finally here.

Ratan Tata has kept his promise and India can’t stop marvelling.

It’s not what we all thought it would be — an autorickshaw with four wheels, a souped-up scooter, a sputtering, crawling contraption, a disappointment…

It’s a car. Smartly designed, powerful enough, full of high-performance promise (certain aspects of it make the Maruti 800 pale in comparison), roomy, if short on luggage space, and a price tag that will make you smile. And, hey, it’s cute too.

 So what does it mean to Mumbai?

How often have we seen a family of four holding on for dear life to a scooter flirting with death amid cars high on Speed and drivers low on common sense? How often have you seen a mother trying to get herself and her two children back home intact on a peak-hour suburban train or civic bus? None of these guys could ever hope for a modicum of comfort or safety while travelling in this city.

The Nano changes this. The lower middle-class has an option now. It gives them a chance to not put up with rude, whimsical bus conductors, train ticket clerks, rickshaw drivers. It gives them a chance to get home safe to their families. It gives them a chance to move up the ladder from being Mr Nobody to being a car owner (in this New India, car ownership is often used as a barometer to judge whether you have arrived or are just another loser). It gives them a chance to not remain a mere footnote in the India story.

The Nano has empowered them.

So, I don’t buy the argument that it will merely add to already alarming pollution levels. It conforms to every emission standard. In any case, where are the naysayers when gas guzzler after gas guzzler enters the premium segment?

I laugh when they say the Nano’s guaranteed to screw up the traffic even more. Perhaps they should turn an eye to those families who own more than one car per member.

The Nano may prove to be a great leveller then when it hits the road. Is that why there are so many people alarmed by it?

This car, I suspect, is a paradigm-changing event for India —  in social terms, industrial terms, in terms of price standards, and the way Indian industry and innovation is viewed across the world.

Sorry if I sound like I’m gushing, but I really do believe it. I believe it will rank alongside such historical markers of modern India like the introduction of economic reforms in the early ’90s, the 1983 World Cup win, India’s first ‘people’s car’, the Maruti 800, the rise of our IT dominance and the Sensex crossing — and staying above — 20,000.

Take a bow, Mr Tata.

  How the world viewed Nano

Mumbai’s New Year shame

On December 31, 2007, two non-resident Indian couples walked into the plush JW Marriott hotel near Juhu Beach on the city’s western coast. As they left the New Year’s Eve party just after 1.30 am, a gang of drunken youth leched at one of the girls. She let fly with some choice abuse.

That’s when the horror began.

The youth edged closer, threatening her and her companions. The snarling, menacing gang lunged at the girls, fondling them, pinning down their dates. They jeered and hooted as the terrified, bawling women screamed for help. It never came.

More passersby joined in the ‘fun’ even as someone ripped the skirt off one of the girls.

A couple of Hindustan Times photographers — Satish Bate and Prasad Gori — managed to capture the horror on film. They tried to help, but couldn’t do much. Just then, they spotted a police van and flagged it down. A cane charge dispersed the mob and the stunned couples were whisked away to Juhu police station.

But, no complaint was filed the police decided to do nothing. Tracking down the molestors would have been too much trouble.

The next day, the city woke up to pictures of the horror splashed across the HT front page. There was outrage as police chief DN Jadhav said it was no big deal and that the media was “making a mountain out of a molehill”.

HT then decided to file a complaint as witness to the horror and marched to Juhu police station. They met a wall of bureaucracy. The police argued over whose jurisdiction the case fell under, taking five hours to register a mere three pages of statements.

At the time of writing, the police has been forced to take action, hunting down the molestors and arresting them. Only, now it’s the politicians’ turn to shame the city. The Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray and his cousin Raj, who heads a rival party, are each claiming that the men arrested are innocent and that Maharashtrian culture would never allow them to commit such an act.

Each, of course, is trying to convert a crime into votes.

I wonder whether it’s a bigger shame than the crime itself.

Mumbai Unlimited

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 A typical ride on a Mumbai train.
The crush and pull of the crowd in a Mumbai suburban train can be dehumanising. So what keeps you the quintessential Mumbaikar — humane, hopeful, and, as the Johnny Walker ad says, someone who keeps walking? Spirit. The famous, much-talked-about Spirit of Mumbai. Cheers to that.