Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The West Wing: Through The Eyes Of A Romantic

The West Wing: Through The Eyes Of A Romantic

To everyone who thinks that television has to be dumbed down to have mass appeal, to all those who believe that government office work, in particular politics, will make boring entertainment and finally to all those factions who doubt that drama can be entertaining without action, sensationalism, or sex, you all are proven wrong. For the rest of us, the days of despair are over. There is hope. There exists The West Wing.

The West Wing is an American political drama television series, created by Aaron Sorkin. West Wing is the section of White House which houses the American President, his advisors and senior staff. The West Wing (TWW) ran for seven seasons between 1999 and 2007 and covered the two term presidency of a fictitious Democratic president – Jossiah Bartelet. Noted for its accuracy in depiction of lives and workings of people who work there, The West Wing features amongst the top five TV dramas of all time. It holds an IMDB rating of 8.6 at the time of this writing, and has won twenty six Emmy awards and two Peabody awards for its excellence in broadcasting.


I had a rebel streak while growing up. I saw myself as a young Howard Roark who would not submit to society, a Robin Hood who did good just to satiate my personal self. I saw myself as this crusader of goodwill, the one who would clean government of its ills, the one who would join politics and make it work, for good. After Tehelka introduced the phrase “sting operation” to my vocabulary, i invented scenarios in which i would bare corrupt politicians, expose bad cops and would clean this entire 'system'. As we mature, that rebel streak gives way to cynicism but along the way, it sows seeds of escapism. We are all born idealists. We all live as escapists. Political escapism is something that we all have dreamt of. “Things would have been so different if only...”, followed by a sigh and then a silent resignation, this is the reality of our politics. Sadly, it is same, be it India or USA. Yet, all said and done, it is eventually an escapism.

Sorkin roots his brilliant idea in this escapism and applies it to the cream of American politics – The President and his close staff who are responsible for shaping up policy and public debate. In Jossiah Bartelet, we have a fictitious democratic president who is an academic economic professor, a nerd with encyclopedic knowledge, a nobel laureate, a conservative liberal who believes in church yet believes in separation of state and religion, a man not afraid of making unpopular calls because that is what is is right, a family man whose integrity and commitment to his nation and its people is beyond question. If it was an Indian mythology, he would be the equivalent of Lord Krishna in Dwapar Yuga. His staff consists of people who dare to walk the talk, work night and days and have little life outside, are not hesitant to reform archaic laws, tame lobbyists, control opposition and at the same time maintaing support from their own party. We are talking about a bunch of idealists who believe in the greater good. These people are immensely talented, understand each other, and have been given the charge to run a nation. One can not ask for more idealized escapism than this.

Practice v Idealism

Each episode of TWW gives an in-depth look at the process behind how policy framing works. We witness what the White House spokesman says to media and what is the reality behind. How members of each party try to stall the opposition and the means in which they go about it. Through various legislative and executive loopholes, it shows how processes are reinterpreted to suit the need. For many, including me, it occasionally acts as lessons in civics as it has to inform first, dramatize later. But rarely, it is comes off as didactic. Sorkin sprinkles dry humor and wit as dressing to make it palatable. Frequently, he has been accused to trivialize complex issues such as social security, or health care, but television can be educational only to an extent. Yet, even with all the theoretical politics thrown in, once all the layers are undone, it is fundamentally a play between idealism and practicality.

Politics is a dirty game played by dirty people”, my uncle told me as he dipped his Marie biscuit in his hot cup of morning tea. I wanted to argue but knowing the eventual futility, i kept quiet. The Nehruvian idealism was a lost cause for him. Every nation, in its evolution, goes through these phases of idealism and immediate reality. My shining eyes brimming with hope were no match to his years of resignation. Not surprisingly, he had also not heard or seen TWW. TWW concedes that it is a dirty game but adds a twist that when good people play the game, it does not has to be dirty. It can be played smartly.

The tussle between these two poles is layered both systemically and individually. All characters in TWW can be plotted on a linear scale where one end is the ideal ideological beliefs wherein principles can not be compromised at any cost, while the other one is the impending reality to get things done - to survive a day more, another day to ignore and forget. Sorkin paints most of its cast as white, each lying closer to the ideological end. But the one character who impresses most is Toby Zielger, the Director of Communications in this democratic administration. Played brilliantly by Richard Schiff, Toby stands for ideals amidst a messiness of shortcuts and hacks. Schiff's nuanced and textured performance provides a countenance to this pain of an idealist who has to step aside every time he understands that the world does exactly works as he wants to. One has to pick battles, one has to understand when to keep quiet and when not to take it sitting down. This sublime art of balancing two extremes is extremely difficult in real life but to do justice to such an emption in acting is an extraordinaire effort . Toby's performance is a celebration of agony of an idealist wherein each victory is a triumph of conviction and each loss is a lesson towards perfection.

The Dream Job

Imagine the opportunity to serve your country, the potential to draft policy and change future, to work with colleagues who understand your thoughts before they are to be said, to work with your best friends, to have a belief in oneself to deliver and to deliver what is most important. To work with people who are equally passionate as you are and to be surrounded by really smart individuals who equally care, enjoy and respect their work is something that many of us search throughout our lives. To be able to do what you really want is a gift.

Sorkin brings this work ethic front and close and does not pickle it with undue sentiment or unnecessary sex. Romantic flings, trash talks exist but are minimal and mostly kept in the background. It is Sorkin's magical genius to create such powerful characters and to make us believe in them. At the end of each episode, there is a wish on everyone's lips to be a part of this on-screen team and do the kind of the work that they do; everyone wants to enter politics.

Furthermore, Sorkin layers each episode with long, meaningful and quite pedantic dialogues and expects his actors to do justice to them. He has a keen eye to remind us the cost of idealism as well. Leo Spencer, the Chief of Staff in this administration lives alone as his wife left him because he did not have enough time for her. Other characters are also mostly single, either unmarried or divorced, but rarely in relationships as there is no time outside work. But their love and togetherness for each other is warmer than any family could be be. In one episode, here is Leo talking to his colleague -

This guy's walking down a street, when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up "Hey you! Can you help me out?" The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up "Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?" The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. "Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says "Are you stupid? Now we're both down here!" and the friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out."

A rich production quality, crisp editing, solid performance and exceptional script, yet, TWW is not an easy watch. It takes time to get used to its style. It is a demanding TV series. It expects viewers to rise up and take notice, audience participation is mandatory as it dissects one issue after another. It refuses to appeal to the lowest common denominator. That it has a mass appeal is indeed a surprising end result, even for its die hard fans. It reaffirms our faith in humanity. People want to be treated with respect and the shows that treat people with respect get it back as well.

Dr. Eric Rabkin, a professor in Literature department at University of Michigan describes fantasy as “ the diametric, diachronic reversal of the ground rules of the narrative world”. Considering the present level of politics, Sorkin's The West Wing is fantasy of orgasmic proportions. It comes very close to political porn for nerds and idealists. The first time I saw TWW, i watched it back to back, in its entirety, all seven seasons. Since then, i have seen it three more times now. The itch to watch it another time is getting stronger. As they say, once a romantic, always a romantic. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Delhi Half marathon 2013

Delhi half marathon will be remembered more for post run reasons that during its run reasons. That and the fact that with 2:27:02, it also came out to be my personal best so far.

The post run was much fanfare with Aarti and mummy waiting for me at the finish line. Post run queue was also resolved very quickly by the organizers, something that TCS 10K did not do well last year. Also, a Delhi special Gajar juice and homemade Gajrela were the best post run food one could hope for.

ADHM started with me in group E along with thousands of other participants. It was a sea of people. The A batch was to start at 7:40 and every other batch after 3 mins. There was no F batch, aka E is the last one. Our time to leave was at 8 am. Many were happy to walk and smile at the starting point, so it became a dodging game. But what i did not anticipate was how long will this dodging last. Right till the  finish point, the dodging was on. There was relief when we hit India gate and continued to Sansad marg and back. But at the finish line, especially for the last two , people had give up and were very happy to walk the last 2K. A spring finish was quite difficult as i was running with a constant utterance of "Excuse me".

People of Runners High are always awesome. I met Mayank and 7K and ran with him till 8k. I met Neeraj at around 8.5K and ran with him till 9K. I was looking for Nikunj but he was ahead of me as i met him at the queue to receive medal. That 1K with Mayank allowed me to recalibrate my pace and it was great.

The route chosen is simply one of the good ones to run in Delhi. It starts from Nehru stadium and goes to Lodhi Gardens,  a U turn to go back to India Gate. From India Gate you run towards the Rashtrapati Bhavan and take a right at Sansad Marg. The return is the same way except for a small detour on to Janpath where you visit Le Meredian as well. It was quite scenic especially, the bit near India Gate.

I remembered the Tortoise story and till 5K, i did not became a rabbit. However, after 13K, i could see the guy with 2:45 time marker and i thought i was too close to him. So, i ran faster up until 19K when i had little pain in my rib area. A quick spray and i was all set for a finishing sprint.

There was no food during the race. Only water and electral. I saw oranges only after 14K mark and by that time it was too late. Run without food was a good learning experience. Aid stations were poorly managed in Delhi. There were no garbage bins and they were giving 200ml water bottles or electral tetra packs. For one, a runner only needs couple of sips and not entire 200ml. So, throwing the remaining unused water seemed like a crime. And that too onto the street as there was no garbage bin. It was really sad, especially to do so near the India Gate area.

The Bhangra arrangement near start/finish point was good. So was couple of music stops as they were playing some amazing music. The crowd to cheer was significantly less than i had expected.  Also, at one point the traffic police were stopping runners for vehicles to pass. That was also unacceptable.

Overall, city runs are no longer that fun to run. Trail runs at KTM and Bangalore Ultra were much more fun. With a smaller audience, peaceful assembly and enthusiastic support, especially from RH, ADHM does not even stand close.  But for now, a feeling of been there done that. Plus the flatness of Delhi road is unbeatable.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book review: How much should a person consume

How much should a person consume: Thinking through the environment
Author: Ramachandra Guha

Couple of years ago, on vacation from my US job,  i went to see a waterfall near Ranchi with my family during pre-monsoon season. Few decades ago, Ranchi was considered to be a hill station, known for its cool winds and scenic mountains. It is quite difficult to imagine so given the hot weather and rapid urbanization that exists today. The viewpoint to see this waterfall was about 15Kms away from the nearest highway. It was a kaccha road with a desolated wilderness on both sides. Anticipating a scenic fall, we didn't minded the bumpiness of our ride, nor the warm weather. But finally it was all a dud as the waterfall was running dry at this point of time. But this was not the only thing that had disappointed me. At the viewpoint, local villagers had setup small stalls selling pepsi, coke, packed Lehar chips and mixtures bags along with the Indian special chai. Their children pestered us to buy from their respective stall.  At the bottom of this waterfall, I could see empty Pepsi and Coke bottles, along with plastic wrappers of the very same chips packets floating on the remaining small pool of water.

My US stint  had already Americanized me sufficiently and i was, and still am, a big fan of the national parks there. The comparison of this poorly managed waterfall viewpoint to well maintained US national parks was hard to escape. Two questions remained as i left that spot - (1) Why are there local people there? Why this area can not be quarantined off and maintained by state or central government. Basically mimic a state park for this waterfall. (2) What all needs to be done to ensure that plastic is kept away from this ecosystem? Remove those stalls, cleanup the pool, educate masses, impose fines were some of the ideas but without state intervention none of them were practical.

Since that trip I had always maintained that the only way to preserve natural ecosystems is to keep humans away from them. No marks for guessing, but American influence of the concept of national parks is quite high in shaping up such a conclusion.  I was fairly confident about my solution and considered it to be the only way to go forward. It is a remarkable feeling when you read something that changes fundamentally on what you have strongly believed in earlier.  While reading How much should a person consume, i experienced that feeling and no longer subscribe to this theory anymore.

Guha in this book argues that traditionally environmentalists have looked at this problem of environment degradation through an individualistic lens. Social elements and  contextual conditions are largely ignored in this process. In the chapter Three Environmental Utopias, for sure the best and most informative,  Guha buckets the entire breed of environmentalists based on their ideal outcome scenarios in three buckets - agrarian, primitivists and scientific industrialization. Agrarians wants everyone of us to practice agriculture:  plant our own food, cook our own meals and live a life that is village like. Primitivists want us to abandon societal elements and live like how hunter-gatherers used to live. In both Agrarians and Primitivists utopian scenario, environmental degradation would be under check as there are not enough avenues to hurt sustainability. Scientific Industrialists discard both of them and argue for a measured, checked and a closely monitored industrialization as the way forward. It understands that modernity and technological progress are inevitable; it instead argues for a controlled and sustainable progress. Guha points that among the three, scientific industrialization is the only one that has a forward looking approach.  Interestingly, Guha adds, Indian environmentalists wish for a agrarian model while their western counterparts want a primitivist model.

However, Guha discards all three utopias as each one of them are quite individualistic in nature. Guha bases his argument based on movements such as Chipko movement and Narmada Bachao Aandolan. He also gives examples of how Indian tribals and villagers have been living in a close relationship with nature for such a long time and this human contact has not resulted in any degradation.  Not only this, these communities have also resisted degradation at the hands of industrialists or greedy government agents. Citing research of various other on-field researchers, who have been largely ignored by the environmentalists, Guha argues for a new kind of utopia that has its roots in diversity, sustainability and equity. Guha calls it as social ecology.

Outside of this chapter, rest of the book does not reflect the quality as is expected of him. The book starts off as a memoir wherein he reflects how he got introduced to this field. Three chapters, are dedicated to Lewis Mumford, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Madhav Gadgil respectively. Guha's main focus appears to correct wrongs committed by historians in forgetting these unsung heroes.  Guha's prose is laden with praise for them but it does not go into much detail about their respective works. The chapter on Madhav Gadgil does discuss some of his constructive points but those points are stated as a matter of self-evident facts without due diligence or research behind them.  The chapters titled Democracy in the Forest, and Authoritarianism in the Wild, are nice historical accounts but they lack sufficient context as Guha covers too much time in too few pages. However, the biggest setback is the title of the book because the book's contents has nothing to do with it. The book is an historical biography of environmentalism and the title betrays this fundamental motif. Guha does dedicate the last chapter to this question and offers a range of answers, each without due justification or research.

Off the people fighting in the name of environmentalism, Guha mocks them by categorizing them as "the fallacy of a romantic economist" or "the fallacy of a pessimist biologist". Economists with their growth focussed models fail to notice that sustained growth is impossible as a long term solution, especially when it involves raw natural materials. Similarly biologists with their "we are all doomed" future does not offer any solace either. Guha offers his own insights into this problem.  Guha's account fails to stand when judged by the same yardstick as used by him on other solutions.  However, here i will put the blame on his literary skills not on the content.  I  find his solutions agreeable based on my own research. Decentralization, transparency, accountability, active participation by local communities is the way forward. Each context, each situation will require a novel application of these fundamentals to preserve our environment.

I was frequently drawn back to that Ranchi waterfall trip as i was reading this book. The solution here is to not isolate the locals away from waterfall but to empower them to protect it. They should be educated, and may be incentivized, to not sell plastic products, or atleast have proper waste disposal mechanisms to keep the ecology clean. Given the state of things as they exists, a state or central body may be insufficient to maintain our waterfall. However, with local participation, the tasks suddenly seems tractable.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Life In: Nov 5 - Dec 17

Sometimes, things just keep coming up.  That is how i would describe this period. Lots of events attended.

~ Delhi : Two trips to Delhi.
!! The first one came at the last moment and was for Aarti's Roka. Good celebration, chaos and fun!

!! Second was booked in advance for Airtel Delhi Half marathon. But the focus shifted to Banquet hall hunting. 

!! Airtel Delhi Half marathon was awesome. Time taken was 2:27:02.  Bib number was 11025. Gajrela post run was well deserved. 

!!  Visited Cafe Turtle at Khan market. Cafe Turtle was brilliant. Had breakfast with Kashish and Vyas. 

!! Also met Achin at Delhi. Had a lunch get together with entire family.

!! Watched A Separation while waiting for the flight. Very good film. 

~ Aam Aadmi Party won 28 seats in Delhi. Spent a lot of time on the day of results to understand how things work. Very happy with the progress that this party has made.  My AAP support blog post can be found here

~ Went to Indian Ocean concert at Chowdiah Memorial Hall with Raksha. Good concert, Susmit's replacement was good but Susmit is still missed.  They played lesser played songs and it was good to hear them live. 

~ Went to Chennai for a recruitment trip for a day. Had awesome food near Besant beach at 5 different places including bhajji by the beach, salted peanuts, Murgan Idli, a biryani place and a snack place.  Lunch was also a typical Tam food at Park hotel. So, a big foodie trip in the end!

~ Went to listen Arjun Mazumdar, Founder IndiaHikes, speak at TieCon. Great inspiring story there. 

~ BWW has started.

~Attended MS Accelerator demo sessions. Good energy levels among startups there. Very polished pitches. Also attended Unpluggd conference in half. 

~ Bangalore Ultra was awesome. Finished 25K in 3:05. Nice trail and good fun. Race report

~ Training for Auroville HM has started with RH.

~ Attended book launch Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha. Book is yet to be read.

~Attended talk by Dr.  Trilochan Shastry on How to make politics voter friendly in India. 

~ Wrote an article on BPIBC for Citizen Matters. Article can be read here - http://bangalore.citizenmatters.in/articles/bangalore-politically-inspired-book-club-meetups

~ Books: Bad Samarians: The myth of free trade and the secret history of capitalism by Ha Joon Jang. My review

~ Movies: 
Ender's game: (3.5/5) I saw it after Bangalore Ultra, so i was quite tired. Hence i enjoyed it :) .
Hunger Games 2 - Catching Fire: 2.5/5. Average. Had higher expectations i guess.