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About Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

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03 April, 2010

Liveblogging from TEDx Mumbai

I’m attending TEDx Mumbai today, and will try liveblogging from the audience. All my updates will appear as entries in this post itself, so to see my latest update, just refresh.

6.09: It’s been a great day at TEDx Mumbai, and Parmesh Shahani, Ajay Hattangadi, Netra Parikh and the other organisers have done a wonderful job of putting it together. The production was slick, there were no screw-ups, and the speakers were worth it. Sure, not all talks were good, and some were crap. But, as I said in my first post this morning, that is inevitable. If some of the talks kick ass, that’s reward enough.

And some of them did more than kick ass. Dhanashree Pandit Rai, Ganesh Devy and Steven Baker gave talks that are worthy of being on—and the ratio of good talks to bad talks was probably better than TED India Mysore.

Also, I didn’t nap at all today. That says it all!

6.02pm Cara Eastcott is last, and launches into a performance poem that I don’t connect with all—and the audience also looks a bit bewildered. She rhymes ‘lie’ with ‘try’ with ‘fly’ and I’m thinking, ‘Why?’ Time to work on the wrap.

5.58pm: Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava are next. An urban planner and urban anthropologist respectively, their talk is about Dharavi—and slums in general. They talk about how it is a misconception that the “Planet of Slums” can be converted into “Highrise Planet”. Rahul says, “We talk about growing vertical because we absorb more people.” But there are other ways of absorbing people—and their talk is about some of the alternate solutions they have.

Koliwada: Matias talks about how when friends from Europe visit this so-called slum, they love it, and feel that it is an urban village—“like Florence!” Koliwada, Rahul explains, “is anachronistic to the idea of Mumbai as an urban space. [...] The word slum is too generic.”

Then they move on to Dharavi. “Land in Dharavi is used in a very special way,” says Rahul. “Many people who don’t have resources, when they find a spot of land, they use it in complex ways.” He shows a slide with a typical toolhouse, with separate images depicting its component functions: “for sleeping, living, working, storing,” This messy structure of Dharavi, he says,“has an internal logic to it. Rural areas prior to the industrial revolution were sites of production.” Such multi-purposed toolhouses were common—and social and cultural life formed itself around it.

Matias talks about toolhouses some more—but in Post-War Tokyo now. And it’s the same. What is Tokyo like today then? It’s a modern city, with high standards of living. It has a vibrant local life, and has developed “incrementally” from the same kind of structures that Dharavi contains today. Indeed, all this developed without the kind of conventional urban planning—zoning etc—that our planners believe in today.

They end with a photograph of a narrow road that they ask us to identify. Some people makes guesses—Mumbai, Bangkok, Tokyo. Well, it’s been photoshopped: the left side is Dharavi—and the right is Tokyo. And instantly you see the similarities.

It’s a worthy talk, though the Powerpoint slides are too cluttered, and I don’t think Matias and Rahul were quite lucid about the overall point they were making. (In general, I guess their point was that organic growth is good and does not stand in the way of development.) Anyway, here’s their website, check out their work for yourself.

5.33pm: The transgendered Lakshmi Tripathi comes on next, resplendent in a graceful silk saree, and tells us about how her journey towards social acceptance made her stronger. “I’ve become like a duck,” she says, “You pour the water on me, it just goes away.”

She begins with her confused childhood. “People used to call me homo—and I didn’t know what homo meant! The only homosexual available in this country was Ashok Row Kavi. So I told my friend to take me to Maheshwari Garden, the Mecca and Medina of homosexual people.” She met Kavi, and told him that she felt abnormal because she was attracted to men’s crotches. Kavi gave her a great answer: “Baby, you’re normal, the world around you is abnormal.”

Lakhsmi embraced her sexuality, and among other things, started learning dance. Her family, “orthodox, Eastern UP Tripathis”, did not get it. Boys don’t dance—and they thought that it was her dancing that was responsible for her sexuality.

She hated hijras—and used to berate them for what they were. They would abuse her as well, unable to figure out what exactly she was. But later, a friend of hers explained to her that male and female were artificial distinctions, and hijras were neither. (“Even the men sitting in this room, is how much men, is a question mark” she says, and everyone laughs.) She identified with that and decided that she wanted to be a hijra—and became “The first hijra in Mumbai’s hijrotic culture.”

“I always wanted to be a courtesan,” she says. “Agar main aurat rehti, tho main India ki sabse badi tawaaif rehti.” So she went and danced in dance bars. As time passed, she ended up forming South Asia’s first transgender association, performing roles as diverse as president and peon. She also hired other hijras to work with her, “disproving the myth that hijras cannot work in an office culture.”

Then the UN got in touch with her and asked her to be part of a taskforce. They gave her a G4 visa—she thought it was “a gay visa.” When she went to the US, she was breezed in through customs and immigration while others waited. ‘Wow,” she thought, “gays have such special rights in the US.”

The next day, she went and saw her flag in the UN building, fluttering among all the others, and thought of how far she had come despite her sexuality.

She ends by pointing out that none of us will ever consider hiring a hijra as a cook or maid in our house. The thought then strikes me: All of us applauding her today, and applauding ourselves for being so liberal—how progressive are we really?

5.07pm: The final session at TEDx Mumbai begins with Zubin Pastakia, a Mumbai-based photographer and urban researcher. He speaks about The Cinemas Project, which “visually traces the lives of Bombay’s disappearing single-screen cinema halls.” The aspect that the project focusses on is not the grand, architectural aspects, but the everyday and commonplace.

His project isn’t nostalgic, though. “The problem of nostalgia,” he explains, “is that it debilitates you, and limits your way of thinking.” He explored these halls as “cultural experiences of space,” distinct from modern multiplexes, neatly demarcated, with clinical efficiency, into rationally ordered, functional zones.

The photographs rolling on the slideshow do a good job of capturing some of the multiple aspects of these theatres. “Something as simple as a projection room,” he explains, “becomes a place of dwelling, a workplace, a sort of shrine.”

Zubin is a nervous speaker, and after an intro to his work, he actually stops and says he’ll let his pictures, still rolling on the screen, do the talking. And they do. (You can see some of them here.) This isn’t one of those presentations that blows you away—but in a quiet way, it leaves its mark.

3.55pm: What a beautiful talk by Dhanashree Pandit Rai. She is a Hindustani Classical musician, and her talk aims to make the form explicable to us. She begins by singing a Nescafe jingle straight up—and then gives us a Hindustani interpretation of it. Spontaneous applause. She then sings a bit of a bhajan as Kishori Amonkar would sing it—and then an interpretation of it by French Baroque musicians, as they’d actually done in the 1980s. She sings a bit of Tchaikovsky—and then does it in Hindustani style, turning it into the Raga Madhuvanti. Masterful.

“If the seven notes are common all over the world,” she says, “then why is that something sounds Japanese, Indian, Western?” The difference, of course, is in what we do with those seven notes, and she shows us some of the conventions of Hindustani classical music: Khatka, Murki, Zamzama (clusters of Murkis) Andolan, Aalap, Taan. She then sings “Summertime” in Hindustani style, using some of these conventions—and it isn’t gimmicky at all. The audience is spellbound.

Rai then sets out to demystify the Raga, which she defines as “a recognisable tune with a fixed set of notes.” She teaches us how to impress laymen by recognising a Raga as we hear it—the typical marriage shehnai tune, which she sings for us, is Raga Malkauns. “Vande Mataram” is Raga Des. “Dhoom Macha Le” is Raga Bhairavi. The Kingfisher jingle, “Norwegian Wood”, “Jhalak Dikhla Ja”: she identifies them all.

She ends with a song for the monsoon, Hindustani style. Another standing ovation, well deserved.

3.27pm: Ganesh Devy delivers a kickass talk on how language evolves. Unlike previous speakers today, he uses Powerpoint really well—many slides, like the one in the picture below, have just one word on it.  They stay minimal, to the point, and that much more powerful because of it. His talk isn’t dramatic, but he holds everyone’s attention, and at one point everyone bursts into laughter when he speaks of the Mahabharata coming down to us by an oral tradition: “Everybody in India knows the Mahabharata because no one reads.”

Later he says, “96% of Indians speak 4% of languages, and 4% of Indians speak 96% of languages.” At the time of independence, he says, the figure was 46%, not 4%. This loss of languages is a loss of historical knowledge. “If a democracy means respect for diversity,” he says, “then will a democracy be able to exist by killing diversity? [...] We are creating a graveyard of mother tongues.”

Devy’s last slide reads, “Every language is a unique world view.” Some of us give him a standing ovation. This was the best talk of the day, and TEDx Mumbai has been worth it just for this.


3.04pm: Am I at TEDx or a ninth standard geography class? Nisha Yadav gives a talk on writing systems of the Indus Valley Civilisation that is accompanied by a boring Powerpoint presentation with masses of text, tables, graphs and pictures of seals etc. Yadav is part of a team that’s been working on deciphering the Indus Valley script, and the subject matter is massively fascinating. There’s a compelling story to tell here—but Yadav does not have the skills for it.

The organisers of TEDx Mumbai this have done an awesome job—the event has run like clockwork, with no glitches at all. But I wish they’d briefed the speakers better on what TED (and TEDx) talks are like—and maybe gone through their material with them, helping them structure it into a good presentation. Yadav has probably never given a talk at an event like this, and it’s a bit unfair to expect better of her.

That said, nothing excuses sentences like this one: “We compare the conditional entropy of Indus sign system with other linguistic and non-linguistic systems.” Yes, exactly.

I just cast my eyes through the audience, and six people are sleeping, including a Facebook friend I won’t name here. It’s not just the lunch.

2.43pm: Laxmi Pratury, the host and curator of TED India in Mysore last year, gives a speech where she speaks about TED’s plans for hosting and supporting further events like this in India. We want to help create “billionaires of moments”, she says—which is a good way to put it. Every TED conference gives us a few moments we’ll always remember, that enrich us in some way. The more such events we participate in, the closer we get to being billionaires.

Going by some of the feedback I’m getting from around me, though, TEDx Mumbai is small change. Ah well…

2.27pm: QOTD from Supriya Nair: “I have heard that the tart is a significant improvement on the mousse.”

There you go then.

2.18pm: Lunch was good. Now comes the hard part of these conventions: staying awake. This is the most challenging session for both the speakers and the audience, who have the same aim: of keeping the latter from nodding off. My talk at TEDx Roorkee was in the afternoon, and I was massively sleepy when my turn came, and had a headache as well. But I got through it okay: no one fell asleep in the audience, and a couple of sincere students actually took notes.

Or maybe they were liveblogging?

1.04pm: Steven Baker is next, and the theme of his talk is: “My Journey as a Bollywood Extra.” He’s acted in films like Dostana, Jaanemann, Gangster, Salaam-e-Ishq—“very big films with very small parts”. He also tells us about B-grade films he’s acted in like Iqrar: By Chance: “I knew it wasn’t going to be a box-office hit; I was doing three roles in it.”

Steven tells us about the “underworld in Colaba”, which specialises in “trade in bollywood extras.” He elaborates: “As a white foreigner, all you have to do is step out of your hotel, and an agent will come up to you and say, Hey, you want to be in the movies?

The rest of his talk is about the journey that then begins. He speaks about the “Bollywood caste system”—in which gora extras are at the bottom—and shares hazaar anecdotes with us—such as when a fellow gora extra went up to a spot boy and asked for “one garam chai.” It turned out to be Johny Lever.

Baker is crisp, self-deprecating and hysterically funny. I hope this video makes it to (Only the rare TEDx video does, as far as I know.) It’s great fun, and redeems this session entirely.

Oh, and here’s Steven’s Twitter page.

Update (1.06pm): My neighbour in the Blue Frog booth, Peter Griffin, disagrees with my views on Steven’s talk. “Where was the idea?” he says. “It was entertaining, but it wasn’t TED.” That’s a point, I guess.

12.42pm: The next speaker is a gentleman named Kishor Rithe, and his subject is “Saving Tigers=Saving People.” Hmm. The best article I’ve read on this subject is ‘Sell the Tiger to Save it’ by Barun Mitra. Somehow, I think Rithe will have a different perspective on this.

Straight up, he launches into Powerpoint slides with masses of text on each, hazaar points and all that. It feels like I’m in a college lecture again. This is the first such talk today, and I’m surprised it took so long. In such events, a big percentage of the talks (mis)use Powerpoint to put everyone to sleep. Powerpoint is an astonishingly strong storytelling device, but you need to know how to use it. (Cue: Steve Jobs and Duarte.) The way Rithe is using it, it is a distraction—is the audience going to read all that text or listen to him? Also, it’s numbing.

Half the presentation gives us facts about tigers in India; the other half is self-promotional: about how much Rithe does to protect tigers in India, in generic terms (“I started replicating successful conservation models”) rather than specific, which would have been much more interesting. All in all, bo-ring.

12.21pm: The first speaker of the second session is V Raghunathan, who is speaking about “why we behave the way we do.” He wrote the book Games Indians Play, in which he used a game-theoretic framework to explain the behaviour of Indians. I enjoyed reading it, even if it didn’t contain anything new for me.

He starts his speech here explaining the Prisoner’s Dilemma at length. Isn’t that a bit too basic for a TEDx audience? After five minutes of this, he moves on to examples from everyday life to describe how Indians are “privately smart, publicly dumb.” “Low trustworthiness is one aspect of us as a people,” he says. His slides contain cartoons, two which have in small print below: “source: internet” and “source: internet images.” Ah well.

I’m glad his slides have cartoons and not masses of text, though. It’s easy on the eye, and he speaks well, moving into Hindi once in a while as he tells his stories. He’s taught MBA students for 20 years now, and public speaking clearly comes easy to him. Everyone can relate to the stuff he talks about (how we redistribute garbage instead of clearing it, for example, which might explain why my room is always messy), and the audience laughs at all his jokes. Overall, it’s a worthy talk. I’m not sleepy yet.

11.59am: Session 2 begins with a presentation by the designer of on a new product/feature they’re building. WTF? This is a talk you give to VCs or to your boss. What on earth is it doing at TEDx? I understand that Cleartrip has sponsored this event, but this really should not be part of the main event itself.

For what it’s worth, I use Make My Trip for my airline bookings. I will continue doing so. This is most tasteless—and rude to all the people here, whose time is surely worth more than this.

On a positive note, I’ve bumped into old buddies Dina Mehta and Peter Griffin here, and am now with them in a small, cosy booth at the back. Dina tweeted a picture from the first session; follow the red arrow to see me.

11.18am: Anupam Kher is next. I have mixed feelings about him. On one hand, he is unquestionably a great actor. On the other, he has been head of the censor board in India, and has spoken in favour of censorship, and thus, by default, against freedom of expression. But you shouldn’t judge an artist’s work by his political views, and I push them to the side as I watch the talk.

His introduction seems a bit long—and soon I realise with horror that his introduction is the speech. He starts by telling stories from his childhood—and goes on telling one disconnected story after another. After about ten minutes of this, he gets to the central theme of his talk: Dreaming. But he goes on telling stories about his younger days until Ajay tells him that he has three minutes left. “But I’ve just started,” he complains. He then quickly sums it up by saying that failure is important for success. Stunningly original insight, eh?

The crowd loves it, because he’s been funny and disarming throughout, but a week later no one here will remember what this speech was about. That’s a pity. If he’d scripted and timed his talk, it could have been a cracker.

10.56am: The next speakers are the double act of Danny Carroll and Anju Venkat. They walk on stage together and Danny says that the subject of their talk is: ‘How you can reverse terminal cancer using just diet.’ I’ve lost relatives and friends to cancer, and this seems immensely dubious to me. If only Ben Goldacre was here.

Carroll shows us a brief sales film that feels like one of those teleshopping clips you see on some channels at 1am, selling you the belt that makes you lose 10kgs in a week and suchlike.

After that, Venkat gives a speech that feels like it’s in Deepak Chopra territory. The living force in a blade of grass and all that. This is pseudo-scientific bullshit. I’m amazed that TEDx called these people here. Much WTFness.

If I remember correctly, Goldacre, in his superb book Bad Science, described such crap as “cargo-cult science”, which he has described in another context thus: “The form is superficially right, the superscript numbers are there, the technical words are scattered about, she talks about research and trials and findings, but the substance is lacking.” Quite.

10.21am: The first session begins. It’s called ‘Hopes and Dreams’, and Viren Rasquinha delivers the first talk. He’s a bit nervous, but he makes a couple of wisecracks and gets into his flow easily enough. He speaks of how he was inspired by Leander Paes’s Olympic bronze medal in 1996 (which he wrongly describes as India’s first solo Olympic medal, but never mind that.)

Every TED Speaker should speak about something they’re passionate about—not just something they have knowledge of—and Viren qualifies here. He forgets his self-concsiousness as he starts talking about his pain that India wins so few gold medals. In 2008, he points out, India won one medal while puny Belarus won four. Then he takes us through some inspiring stories of current sportspeople who are fighting the odds.

After that, the talk lapses into corporate presentation as he speaks about his company, Olympic Gold Quest. The text-laden powerpoint slides come on as he breaks up the costs of creating an Olympic medalist. He says that if a million Indians pay Rs 10 a month, that would fund 600 athletes towards Olympic achievement. Ah well. Transaction costs. But where are the Narayan Murthys and Vijay Mallyas, I wonder.

The applause is clearly genuine as Viren ends. The audience likes him and is rooting for him—and by doing so, needless to say, it’s rooting for itself.

9.58am: Ajay Hattangadi, one of the organisers, gives a brief, eloquent introduction to the event in which he refers to the Bombay Gym incident and says that he sees TEDx as being “a nursery for new ideas.” In particular, “ideas that need to be defended.” Well said.

9.54am: Supriya Nair, my neighbour at the Blue Frog booth where I’ve parked myself, tells me a disturbing story. Last night the TEDx speakers went for dinner to Bombay Gym. At about 11pm, a member of the staff came and told them that one of the speakers, the transgendered Lakshmi Tripathi, had to leave. Apparently she was making some of the Bombay Gym members uncomfortable.

Just for this, I hope the Shiv Sena asks them to rename their establishment to Mumbai Vyayaamshaala.

9.31am: We really must stop meeting like this. This is my second TEDx event in two weeks—I was at TEDx Roorkee on March 27, where I was one of the speakers. That event was organised by a bunch of students at IIT Roorkee, the audience consisted of a handful of their fellow students, and there were (understandable) glitches through the day. This one seems somewhat more professional. To begin with, everyone wears badges, the screen is bigger, and there’s internet.

The purpose of an event like this is twofold: you get to listen to some interesting talks; and you meet interesting people. I was at TED India in Mysore earlier this year as a TED Fellow, and much of both happened. (My report of that event is here.)But it’s unfair to hold that up as a standard for a TEDx event, which is organised at a local scale with far fewer resources.

The schedule for today’s event looks interesting. The thing about curating an event like this is that you never really know what will work. You could invite someone otherwise kickass, and he could deliver a really boring talk. Or you could call someone no one’s heard of who ends up rocking the house—as Sunitha Krishnan did at TED India. The most one can expect is that some of the talks turn out to be interesting. All of them certainly won’t.

Okay, time for me to go get some coffee. Staying awake at these events is sometimes a challenge…

Posted by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

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