Friday, July 27, 2018

Pet care at its best

“The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.” – Charles De Gaulle

Tete-a-tete with Derek Demitrius, Founder of Pune Pet Park

For long, Lohegaon was better known for the Pune International Airport as also for 2 wing, one of India's oldest Air Force bases. Now the place is best known for Pune Pet Park, co-incidentally the brainchild of an ex-Air force maverick, a safe haven for pets that we discovered in the course of trying to do our bit for the wonder dog Ricky from our society premises.

Derek grew up in the cosy, reassuring company of dogs. His canine love became more pronounced when he joined the Indian Air Force in 1984 when he relished every opportunity to interact with and look after the dog squads. In 1995, he was released from the Air Force (not retired, as it was his own request to call it a day). A father of two sons, he eventually moved to Pune for good after spending a few years in New Delhi as a family man.

Derek did some crash courses and ended up becoming a merchandiser, and had brief stints as Country Manager for a couple of reputed companies. He eventually formed his own venture in the UK, a company called Black Scorpion Limited trading in interior accents like clocks, vases, furniture and the like. It were the Black Scorpion proceeds that went into the making of the Pet park project. When the financial needs of the park were beyond Black Scorpion's capacity, Derek dissolved the company and placed all faith in his inherent skills and competencies to get his pet project moving. He knew everything about developing a value chain of vendors and getting other things in place, but he lacked construction experience. So he spent time on research and soon found out that construction was no rocket science. With the right labour, you can achieve what seems impossible otherwise. Thus began an elaborate search on the internet: for designs, electrical fittings, plumbing, and drainage systems. Derek commenced construction on the site in March 2016 and completed the design, layout, electrification and plumbing of the entire park all by himself.

Today, Pune Pet Park has an Aviary, a walk-in Bird Cage approximately the size of one and half times of a 20 foot container, 12000 square feet of space for dogs to run around freely, a 600 foot cage-free, closed air conditioned kennel with another 2000 square feet play area around the kennel. Above all, the Pet park is also equipped with a crematorium and would soon incorporate an Incinerator, prayer Room and memory Room, probably the first for pets in India. Right now we are managing cremations with wood but would eventually move to gas.

The under-construction structures include a small cafeteria, a 4 feet deep, 2000 square feet swimming pool (one of the largest in India) complete with a filtration plant, a Dog Spa and a grooming parlour, Cattery to accommodate 14 cats at a time with individual suites, a rooster for Rabbits hamster and guinea Pigs, an emergency clinic to cater to vaccinations and small surgeries, a Pet store for sale of food and accessories. The entire facility should be full operational end of June next year.

Excerpts from the conversation with Derek:

On the inception of Pune Pet Park...

During 2006-7, Pune witnessed a remarkable inward migration, when co-habitation suddenly became an insurmountable problem. Before people realized, housing societies ceased to be 'co-operative', though the statutory nomenclature continued to suggest the contrary. These imposing residential structures now became an unabashed show of power, money, influence and lifestyle for most inhabitants. During this painful transition, a pet in the house proved a big solace for many emotionally drained individuals who had been suffering the wrath of their callous counterparts for long. Lonely and depressed, all they had for company was their pet dog or cat. The dog especially was now a family member who roamed about freely doing things he took for granted; among other things peeing and pooping at will. The owners had no qualms about this indulgence either.

This was the trigger point for people not used to what they believed were nasty things: doggy smell, poop pee et al. On the other hand, the pet owner likened the odour to the incense offered in a temple. This glaring divide between pet owners vs. non pet owners invited regular altercations between society dwellers. Pet owners hardly acknowledged the need to bathe their pets, clean up their litter while the non pet-owners were in no mood to relent either. What ensued was a huge squabble that has now been conveniently included under the generic term of "Animal Cruelty".

This dichotomy sparked the idea of incepting a Park dedicated to Pets, where people could let their pets poo and pee without causing civic disruption, and also learn more about their responsibilities as pet owners. Thus was born Pune Pet Park and the rest is history.

On the milestones of the Pet Park evolution...

In 2007, we (me and a close friend) used to meet every night at a place opposite Koregaon Park police station. Of the eleven dogs, three belonged to her and eight belonged to me, those that I had adopted or rescued. All dogs were basically pedigree, and the heartthrobs of many: one St Bernard, one Belgian Shepherd, one Labrador, two Pugs, one Havanese, one Corgi, one Mongrel and three Lhasas. These were lovely, harmless dogs who loved the outing and the freedom granted to them. In about a month's time, these 11 grew to almost 40 as others joined the rendezvous. The timing was perfect as, after a hard day at work, people found it refreshing to bring their pet out for a half an hour stroll.

Barely three month had passed when disaster struck. People began complaining against us, and soon they had people shouting more than dogs barking. Pune Mirror seized the opportunity and devoted a whole page report which completely threw things out of gear. The PI from the police station was very helpful as he was aware of our noble intentions. He gave us an alternate place but that didn't work out either. We then hired the Don Bosco Basket Ball court in Koregaon Park and restricted the socializing to weekends.

But that was not what I had planned for, so I began hunting for dedicated land for this purpose. In parallel, I conducted dog training and rehabilitation programs. I was time and again approached by PFA to handle some of their dogs. I was handed over the entire pack of Beagles from Lupin for acclimatization and rehabilitation. Although I was helping PFA, they didn't pay even for basics like dog food. I badly needed a place that would sustain itself, I he could no longer manage with his resources. I had to do something and I to do it fast.

We then changed our policies of adoption and made people bring in food or pay for vaccines if they wanted to adopt a pet. I thankfully realized this was a truly effective filter as we stopped getting calls from people that wanted a pet but did not want to pay to look after it. Thereafter, we were flooded only with genuine inquiries, from people who were really concerned about adopting a dog, willing to spend on it and treat it like a member of the family. This change was encouraging and I started scouting for places with fresh resolve. But most places were either too expensive or far-off from the city.

Then one day, I came across this awesome piece of land in Lohegaon. Since the prices were still high, I was initially looking only for 10000 square feet, but one look at the land, and my dreams got bigger. We measured 20,000 square feet to accommodate a pool and a kennel but something was still not right. It would be nothing compared to the kennels I had seen in the UK or on the net. So, we finally bought a whole corner of 34000 square feet on lease for 11 years, renewable for another 11 years.

On key challenges...

The foremost daunting challenge is Finance. In this country, entrepreneurs don't have many avenues for financing their dream projects, with sweet exceptions like those from the IT sector. Securing private investors for a project like this is very difficult but I have been persistent. We are almost 60% complete in construction terms. If we find a committed investor, we may be able to complete the entire construction year-end, else it will take another year to have this proof-of-concept fully ready.

On the appeal to the world at large...

In general, there are no Dog haters, unlike what the media loves to project. We do have one-off incidents that are not surprisingly blown out of proportion by the media for their own benefit. If you look after your dog well and make sure you clean up behind you, I am sure nobody would ever mind you having a dog. To the people conducting these so-called adoption camps, I have a humble plea: force each volunteer of yours to take a dog home, and you would never have any dog on the street. Stop being hypocrites and pass on a dog to someone with genuine love for pets!

On proposed expansion/diversification plans...

All said and done, Pune Pet Park is merely a proof of concept. I am yearning to see this project duplicated (not franchised) in Pune and other cities as well. I wish this projects grows into an industry by itself, and thankfully, I see lot of scope and potential for that to happen.

So that's Derek for you, a thought leader-practitioner, solitary reaper, dreamer and yet a pragmatist..

To the Venture capital/Private Equity fraternity out there, here's one project vying for your attention and money. Like there's sport beyond cricket, there are viable projects even beyond software setups, food delivery apps and e-commerce stores. Do a thorough due diligence of this project and if you are convinced, please help it grow to a size and scale it deserves. For more details visit

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Volte-face on the Volcker Rule

Courtesy: My thought piece in IIFL Wealth Global Newsletter

While industry lobbyists in the US have obviously different takes on the
Federal filing of proposed changes to the Volcker Rule regulations, it’s the
feasibility of rule’s stated objective, of keeping speculation largely out of
the bank’s sight if not mind, that merits a closer look all over again.

Sudhir Raikar

Born out of former Fed Chair Paul Volcker’s firm belief that speculation by
banks played a key role in the financial debacle post 2007, the Volcker Rule
bans proprietary trading by mega commercial banks, given that it inherently
puts tax-payer insured bank deposits at great risk. The rule disallows banks
certain investments on their own accounts, as also constricts their deals with
covered funds, primarily hedge funds and PE funds.
Part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of the
Obama era, (which US President Donald Trump terms a ‘disaster’ with
characteristic disdain) this rule stirred up a hornet’s nest before its July 2015
implementation that was hence preceded by several revisions, exceptions and
even a lawsuit by community banks. Post the rollout, the ensuing ripples kept
the rule in the eye of the storm. Among others, many Wall Street banks were
forced to overhaul their trading operations and forego many big-ticket
investment vehicles. Another notable fallout, many experts claimed, was the
liquidity squeeze in fixed income markets. Revered trading pundits from top-
notch banks quit their jobs to fulfil their hedging aspirations elsewhere. While
many blamed the government for the brain drain, Volcker rule proponents
argued this exodus was in fact a good thing since it ushered in what they
believed was a new era of responsible banking.
Now in the Trump regime, responding to long-held grievances, federal
regulators are revisiting the Volcker Rule to simplify it and tailor compliance in
line with the exact need, i.e. more regulation of firms doing substantial trading
and fewer norms for firms with modest trades.
There’s a faction that believes this proposed amendment is a master plan
hatched in a friendlier political regime. They claim the big banks have teamed
up to denigrate the Volcker Rule under lame excuses like it affects their ability
to serve customer needs or would spell economic doom and invite recession
sooner or later. They claim the big fish among banks are keen to resume their
casino adventures and wish to minimise the number of watchdogs over them by
pushing for Fed to be the sole authority for the Volcker rule enforcement.

And then there are detractors on the other side who demand complete
elimination of the rule, which they say, overlooks the inherent perils of a
commercial bank loan, of placing customary risky bets on the borrower’s
credibility on depositor money that are more harmful than the hazards of
security trading. The Volcker rule, they hold, make banks even more vulnerable
in extending commercial loans and shoddy mortgage loans, in trying to make up
for the missed hedging opportunities. The 2008 crisis, they reason, had more to
do with Lehman and AIG debacles, not with the trade wings of banking biggies.
There’s obviously some merit in the claims on either side, but the crux of the
matter is the subjectivity of the subject matter – how does one distinguish
between a proprietary trade and a market making activity. And is it possible to
distinguish a hedge as either genuine or forbidden? In a typical banking
scenario, a banker can always make a strong case for risk mitigation when he
may actually be speculating on some event happening or not happening like for
instance a rise or fall in a currency bet. Would the new provisions counter that
sticky challenge, or would status quo prevail?

Agreed, making an all-encompassing regulation is never easy. The UK Vickers
draft reforms, that were supposed to be an answer to the Volcker rule, have been
scrapped by the EU, as it was grappling with the enormity of the criteria used to
force banks to split off trading activities, that many believed would create
instability and hinder investments. So, Britain would now go solo on Vickers in
forcing UK banks to ring-fence their retail deposits in a separately capitalised
subsidiary. The ring-fence sounds fine in theory - one bank with two
subsidiaries, retail and investment, almost separate but somewhat together - but
would it work in practice is anybody’s guess.

The ideal situation requires the bank to furnish a detailed explanation of how
specific hedges have been made against specific exposures. Which means the
regulator should be asking for crystal clear hedge-exposure linkages from every
bank. This gives hedging freedom to the bank but holds it accountable in the
same breath.

But reportedly, under the proposed revision, banks would be free to establish
their own risk limits for trades and determine the compliance of such trades
without the need to demonstrate before the regulators. The regulators would in
turn ensure that the banks’ risk limits are in line with customer demand.

Whether banks and regulators would play their parts as they should, or would
the minimal regulation inspire banks to unleash their risk-taking cravings, only
time would tell.

From Micro to Macro: Architecting sunrise possibilities

In an industry where buzzwords thrive on the periphery of the field of action before they transform into action, it’s imperative that we take a closer look at any emergent phenomenon before placing big bets on it. One such proposition is the Microservices architecture.

Sudhir Raikar | IIFL | Mumbai | July 21, 2018 13:47 IST


From the expert to the enthusiast, everyone talks of the Internet of Things (IoT). Even those who merely discussed things on the internet are now thinking of the world in IoT terms. But few from the business world are aware of one architecture that would be integral to most radical transformations in the tech world going forward. Although it’s gained prominence more in the context of IoT, its indisputable value prop soars high on its own merit. The Amazons and the Netflixes of the world have reaped rich rewards of scale and scope, thanks to the incredible support of Microservices that extends to the diverse worlds of web, mobile and other devices and comes with the promise of cost-effectiveness, rapid innovation, risk mitigation, and high flexibility. Closer home, the Wipros, Infosyses, Cognizants and TCSes are flaunting their Microservices philosophies in some depth. Industry body Nasscom hosted a focused workshop on Microservices Architecture last year for the benefit of Senior Developers, Solution Architects, Technical Architects and Tech managers.

It’s a good idea to be aware of the specifics of this architecture even for business stakeholders as it would only help spot the Next-gen winners from the software universe placing faith on this architecture before placing long term bets on their perceived propositions.

So, what are Microservices?

To answer that, we must first establish the litmus test of Enterprise Technology. It is the supreme quality of Change-readiness. In modern-day business, change is constant and instant and tech teams of established setups also need to be in start-up mode. Markets are getting wider, scaling out is the new norm, so is the adoption of emerging technology, which is no longer a matter of choice.

On the other hand, shrinking Time-to-Market calls for rapid development in distributed environments backed by continuous deployment.

Given that preface, let’s turn to the core value prop of
Microservices which is its Change-friendliness. Their contexts and boundaries are defined in terms of distinct business capabilities.

They are right-sized, invariably small (think scope of service, not lines of code)
They are independently deployable in line with business needs: for instance, a new feature or a bug fix would be deployed immediately as also tracked for performance and behaviour.

Deployment decisions are choreographed in collaboration with service owners eliminating the need for orchestration across multiple teams which is invariably arduous. Service owners are free to choose the technologies and persistence mechanisms for building and operating individual services with consensus agreement on cross team parameters like log aggregation, monitoring and error-diagnosis. Services collaborate with each other using technology-agnostic network calls. They offer a cost-effective and low-risk test bed for evaluating the effectiveness of new technologies in production environments. One may be tempted to ask, what does all that mean for business?

A lot really! Among other things, scaling of operations now becomes ‘on-demand’ and cost-effective, exactly in line with business needs. Independent deployment, with quick failure isolation and rollbacks, ensures quick value delivery to the market. Ready-to-deploy business capabilities make customer engagement more holistic across different channels.
Smaller codebase means significantly lower risk and cost of replacing or rewiring software (vis-à-vis the typical monolith compromise of coping with core modules running on redundant technologies)

Microservices: The deal

How they deal with change in business requirements?

Unlike in monoliths, responsibilities are decomposed in respective services defined by business capabilities, hence change affects only the given module, data segments are API-encapsulated while service overlaps are mapped through higher-order services or hypermedia.

How they deal with business capability enhancements or modifications?

Bounded contexts enable independent deployment of the impacted service(s) without disturbing business capabilities residing in other services. This eliminates the need for time-consuming and costly regression tests of the monolith universe.

How they deal with situations where business abstractions are dependent on low-level services outside their bounded contexts?

‘API gateway’ inverts the dependencies between clients and microservices in this scenario. The secondary abstraction is declared by the high-level abstraction within its service interface and is implemented by the dependant collaborating services through several means - reducing network chattiness, performing protocol translations, concurrently aggregating service responses and transforming service responses in specific end-user formats.

A closer look at API gateways

In the microservice universe, a client’s RESTful HTTP request to individual services can be a painful user experience given the plethora of requests to different services.
Enter the API gateway which tailors APIs to client’s network capabilities.
For instance, a desktop client may make multiple calls while mobile client would make a single request. The API gateway will proxy finely-grained desktop requests to corresponding services while handling coarse-grained mobile requests by aggregating multiple service call results.

Outcome: optimized communication between clients and applications while encapsulation of microservice details. API Gateways ease the evolution of microservices: whether two microservices merge or one is partitioned into two, updation would be made at the API gateway-level, the clients on the other side of the gateway would be impervious to the change.

Why Microservices call for Continuous Deployment?

Microservices are highly amenable to change and continuous deployment makes it rapid and reliable. Microservices make deployment easier, so that it becomes faster and frequent. Faster deployment ensures faster feedback from the market.

Faster feedback ensures timely improvements – making it more responsive and secure.

Why Microservices and Polyglot Persistence go together?

The microservice approach of multiple teams managing discrete services naturally implies database capability within each service, else coupling at the data level would defeat the very purpose of autonomy.

Using multiple data stores invites eventual consistency which is a known compromise in most businesses. Even relational databases settle for eventual consistency when data is sent to or read from remote systems like value chain databases.

Like how RDBMS uses event streams for constructing reliable views, the microservice world uses event sourcing for triggering service updates from ‘events to log’. The trade-off in favour of high availability becomes even more acceptable when compared to the Multi-Version Concurrency Control issues of the relational world.

Embracing Microservices: No cookbook in the kitchen

Every organization is different – you can’t mirror success stories, or even failures for that matter. How to ensure whether microservices are fit for purpose. Microservices demand a paradigm shift - Cultural, Structural and Functional.

Compelling benefits come bundled with significant complexities.

The Adoption challenge

For Greenfield projects

When businesses need to evolve rapidly, the monolith environment may work best for managing small number of applications to deliver the firm’s competitive edge. Microservices however would be helpful to startups in building a minimum viable product.

For Brownfield projects

When established businesses need to scale rapidly across large, complex applications, microservices becomes fit for purpose but given the tangled dependencies between applications, an incremental approach to the evolution is highly advisable:

Getting in microservice mode calls for:

Defining core business capabilities for decomposition into services

Dissecting services in terms of business, processes, constraints, channels and data behaviours to be able to ‘group those things that change for the same reason’

Identifying capabilities to bridge skill gaps of technical team on emerging technologies and best practices

Questions that demand credible answers… a partial list

How does one move forward in the absence of standards?

How does one form the Microservice team – domain experts, technical architects, emerging tech champions, networking wizards…How does one bridge the skill gap?

How does one choose technologies, techniques, protocols, frameworks, and tools?

How does one approach design, development and deployment?

How does one identify services?

How does one define service boundaries?

How does one chip off services from the monolith structure?

Why and when does one split services, merge them, or create new services?

How does one deal with service interfaces?

Is there a way to ensure a uniform way to call services?

How does one ensure the quality of code bases given the fact that small doesn’t automatically guarantee quality?

How does one build coherence and reusability across different components?

How does one tackle the accidents post the ‘first version’ release?

How does one avoid versioning nightmares?

How does one adopt a culture of individual deployment s before evolving into continuous deployment mode: given the monolith legacy of single unit deployments and regression tests?

Summing up

Microservices are an evolutionary phenomenon, not a ready-to-deploy solution. They will ensure measurable value to an organization only if they are Fit for Purpose – irrespective of whether the project is Greenfield or Brownfield. Microservices Vs. Monolith is not a black and white David Vs. Goliath scenario. Both have distinct value props. Precisely why Microservice trade-offs should be guided by respective trade realities, not merely by the experiences of other organizations.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Amplitude Vs Magnitude

Latitude & Longitude are invariably constricting

Verisimilitude is only an illusion

Attitude is highly susceptible

Aptitude is intrinsically self-centered

Altitude can be dizzying

Fortitude demands enactment

Gratitude becomes part of give and take

Rectitude is relative

Solitude is liberating

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Twain on stage, albeit off the Mark

"Mark Twain: Live in Bombay!"

Written by Gabriel Emanuel
Staged by Padatik-Rikh

Photo courtesy: India Today

At the outset, thanks to Gabriel for the wonderful reimagination of an actual event that dates back to the Bombay of 1896. It's always easy to pinpoint subjective flaws in hindsight but it takes both craft and conviction for a purposeful recreation rooted in history. Twain's three-month visit to India was essentially a plan to recoup the heavy losses he and his investors incurred from his failed enterprise and yet it was profound in the manner Twain captured the India of that time in his 712-page travelogue Following the Equator, and the effect he had on the people here. That a voyage to a deprived nation should stem from an economic necessity is a story worthy of dramatization, and given Twain's wit and wisdom, a tale for posterity indeed. Gabriel's adaptation hence assumes greater significance, in that it urges the audience, Indians in particular, to look back and learn more about the peculiarities of India from Twain's perceptive quips. The more you delve deep, the more you would agree nothing much has changed here, even though a lot appears to have.

Vinay Sharma's version of Samuel Longhorne Clemens - white suit, untidy hair, shaggy eyebrows, furrowed face, probing eyes, nasal drawl et al - is engaging in flashes - especially in the parts where Mark spares his inimitable tongue-in-cheek advice for the youth of the time, or makes a few perceptive 'India' observations. But ahead of Sharma's effort, though a feat of sorts given that he pervaded the stage for a good ninety minutes, it's Sudip Sanyal's astute lighting that spins more magic through its wonderful variations. Just to cite an instance, note the 'illumination' of the book atop the table at the very end, as if speaking on Mark's behalf: "Mark my words as you leave the auditorium".

Sharma is first-rate in his personification but you hardly feel he's addressing a Bombay crowd of a bygone era. We may be wrong but we heard 'Mark' make a mention of his wife's demise in the play. If she was alive during the Bombay visit (Twain reportedly traveled with his wife Olivia, daughter and a colleague, Mr. Smythe) why should this reference find a place in the script?

Besides, Sharma's talk unknowingly takes the form of a know-all sermon as he moves from one handpicked reference to the other, and is hardly consistent with the acquired diction and intonation. (The 'Baaambay' gets a bit put-on at times) This comes as a great disappointment when we learn that Twain preferred an informal, conversational style for his talks which he referred to as "At Home." An essay titled 'Mark Twain's Little Known Travels in India' published in the April 1996 web magazine edition of the Hawaii-based Hinduism Today informs us that Twain tailored each talk to suit the sensibilities of the given audience. A Bombay newspaper had this to say about Twain's Bombay lecture "With his feet planted some distance apart and a hand sometimes in his trousers' pockets, elbow sometimes placed against his cheek and supported by the other arm whilst his eyes oftener than not gazed as he would in the presence of a group of familiar friends and never once raised his voice above a conversational pitch."

Sharma's rendering is not even remotely "At Home". It even sounds glaringly rehearsed in one longish, over-vehement Pap-Huck enactment, a passage from Twain's profound work "Huckleberry Finn" (No wonder, Hemingway famously remarked "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.")

Sadly, Sharma goes overboard both as Pap and Huck, but the crown for his most fanciful portrayal must go to the 'Golden arm' narration. This being a rather preposterous folktale condemning the perils of avarice (one that faintly reminds you of Tagore's Lost Jewels), winning the listener's attention called for more zing than what Sharma assumed. Luckily for him, he was helped by many flashy enthusiasts among the audience who seemed keen, nay desperate, to underline their incredibly-timed guffaws as living proof of their gushing intellect and interest. The 'Golden Arm' bit was God sent for this tribe and, not surprisingly, fetched a thundering applause.

While we feel audience involvement as volunteers is a great idea, it runs the risk of fanning the inherent desire of many craving for their moment of glory, which could disturb the play's conviction if not dilute it. Thankfully, the volunteer chosen for the occasion (with the customary preface "That lovely lady in so and so dress") didn't add her own histrionics to Sharma's ghastly rendering of the ghost story. In the play on Einstein, one frisky remark 'You remind me of my first wife' prompted a needless response from the volunteer and ended up trivialising the story of Einstein. As it is, for a large part of the audience, watching a play on Einstein/Mark is more a staged exhibition of their 'intellectual' propensities than an earnest desire to know the scientist/writer better. It should come as no surprise if they pounce on anything that even remotely sounds frivolous.

However hard one tries to dismiss the temptation, one is inclined to compare Sharma's Mark with Naseer's Einstein. The latter was a vastly superior portrayal and left enough to savour long after Naseer was done with it. Thanks to Naseer's studied approach - an intricate mix of discipline and discretion, intuition and insight, effort and facility - Einstein came alive on stage through an engaging monologue with his audience that underlined Einstein's diverse emotions - delight, despondency, reminiscence, regret, fear, fulfilment, belief, bewilderment, guilt, and gullibility. Sharma would do well to learn from Naseer's reflective utterances of the celebrated Einstein aphorisms (with a delightful German twang), undoubtedly a case study in effortless acting. Playing legends on screen and stage is more about bearing the weight of responsibility, not throwing that of authority.

The flip side of the Padatik production notwithstanding, it was great to note the almost full house that greeted Mark Twain at Prithvi. We hope Gabriel Emanuel's love for Mark Twain will motivate the younger populace to probe deeper into the reflective realism of Huck Finn, mesmerising romanticism of Tom Sawyer and piercing pessimism of The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Else, much of Twain's timeless works would remain classics as he defined them: books that people praise and don't read!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

October in April

Hats off to writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar for giving us October minus the heat. The narrative is indeterminate by design. This story of love, fidelity, redemption or something else depending on how you interpret it, takes root in a hospital ward, blooms amid urine pouches and jasmine flowers, and is almost oblivious to the din of intimidating equipment, constant medical intervention, and even the plight of helpless kin. The wonderful support cast and veritable hotel and hospital backdrops make October immensely watchable, so do Varun Dhawan and Banita Sandhu. The former happily takes off his 'student of the year' robes and the latter trusts her eyes to do the needful. That the story demands it is another story.

Not everything about the film is convincing, certainly not the overdone brashness of Varun's hotel intern character. The liberty he enjoys - both at the hotel and hospital - is a deliberate directorial ploy to plug in 'JUST FOR LAUGHS' moments in an end-to-end sombre film. But what the film conveys in mute frames, and through everyday dialogues of everyday characters, more than condones the indulgence of a few implausible scenes.

A review of October is truly besides the point, as any attempt to distill Chaturvedi’s script into illuminating lines would prove futile. This is a film for viewing and ruminating. And without a thought to the media buzz about its alleged inspiration - the 2013 sci-fi flick "Her". True or untrue, why should we bother?

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The Twain Shall Meet (apologies to Kipling)

Naseeruddin Shah’s portrayal of Einstein should have made Canadian-born poet and playwright Gabriel Emanuel a household name in India. That it didn’t tells a lot about the sorry state of theatre in India. The customary attendance at Prithvi and NCPA, more often than not, is more of an intellectual pendant flaunted by the elitist SoBo brigade (and their deprived and desperate cousins from distant suburbs). Their applause, barring few exceptions, largely smacks of a theatrical love for theatre (befitting, they would claim). Having said that, the play was hailed by critics as Mumbai’s topmost stage production in 2014. That’s no mean achievement, thanks to the celestial, long-distance chemistry between Emanuel and Naseer that left audiences of all makes enthralled. Einstein is Emanuel’s most popular play that premiered at Toronto in 1985. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it has had a great run across the globe, winning accolades in the US, Brazil, Portugal, Israel, Argentina, Spain, India, Pakistan, Dubai among other nations.

Refer to for a NCPA show review and a dated tete-a-tete with the dramatist

Emanuel is back in India, bringing us Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain as we know him better, in what promises to be another delectable stage offering. Following the premiere at the Prithvi on April 21, two shows are scheduled at the Padatik Theatre in Calcutta on April 24 and 29. A tour to other cities is in the works.

Being a lonely molecule, disillusioned at that, I am not adequately qualified to promote the play, more so after having made a royal mess of all private relations (blame my brief stint in public relations)

But I sincerely appeal to a few quintessential mavericks to go watch the play, if they are not aware already, and spread the good word in their circle of influence, based on a rather elusive rapport I share with them, having had some delightful email and text conversations on a host of issues - from Kosambi to Kishore Kumar, from Ray to Renoir, from Shaw to Shakespeare, from Bicycle Thieves to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.

Among them, Manohar Parrikar, CM Goa who is currently in the US for treatment but sill very much accessible, Amar Ambani, partner at IIFL Wealth and a dear friend, actor director Naseeruddin Shah, star actor Aamir Khan, offbeat actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Ray biographer Andrew Robinson, Ray's photographer Nemai Ghosh, actor-psychiatrist Dr Mohan Agashe, film makers Tigmanshu Dhulia and Mansoor Khan, and a few casting directors from Mumbai.

Excerpts of my conversation with the prolific playwright:

After Einstein, what drew you to Twain, or to India, or perhaps both at the same time?

Ironically, I was drawn to Twain before Einstein. Years ago, I had written a one actor play entitled “Mark Twain in the Holy Land” which was about Twain’s visit to Palestine in 1867 which he wrote about in The Innocents Abroad. The play was to appear at a festival in Jerusalem but at the last minute the actor was lured away by an expensive film contract and the play got shelved. After watching Einstein at the Prithvi Theatre a few years ago, I suddenly recalled that Twain had also been to India and wrote about it in "Following the Equator”. Whereas the Palestine of the 19th century he had found to be desolate and mournful, India, for Twain, was “the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty of splendour and rags of palaces and hovels of a thousand religions and two million gods, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of speech, the mother of history, grandmother of legend, the one land that all men desire to see…”

I was struck by Twain’s fascination with India and knew that this time, the play was meant to be. And no better place for the play to premiere but at the Prithvi Theatre. Indeed, I was amazed to discover that while Twain was touring around Bombay, he stopped to give an entertaining public lecture at the Novelty Theatre on January 24, 1896. Who knows? Perhaps the Novelty was the Prithvi of its day. And so, my play imagines what that magical evening must have been like…

What was your key source for the research - was it Twain's ‘Following the Equator’ besides books and chronicles about him?

Yes, to all the above but more important, perhaps, was simply having been a dedicated reader of Mark Twain since my youth. In Twain I had felt a kind of kindred spirit for I had been quite an unreformed rebel in my youth and Twain’s inimitable disdain for all those who exercised power and authority resonated well with me and my kind.

What makes Twain's visit to India a story for posterity, was it the fact that it was essentially a plan to recoup the heavy losses he and his investors incurred from his failed enterprise and yet it was profound in the manner Twain captured the India of that time in his memoir and the effect he had on the people here.

First of all, I think it’s always fun to see ourselves as others, in particular great wits like Twain’s, see us. For example, and I’m purposely not giving away anything here, when he describes the “spectacle” of the great train station in Bombay he says that “it seemed like the whole world was present, half of it inside and the other half outside…and both halves bearing mountainous head loads of bedding and other freight, trying simultaneously to pass each other, in opposing floods, in one narrow door.” And then you have to ask, how much has really changed in the past 120 years? And beyond the local observations lie his unsparing skewering of all things sacred: publishers, priests, and politicians, to name but a few. For example, he attacks the press for promulgating what is commonly referred to today as “fake news”. As Twain said, “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed. But if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed."

How did you go about the reimagining? Could you share your approach and method for the benefit of aspiring dramatists?

I think that when an idea gets hold of you and doesn’t leave you, as with this play the core of which has been embedded in my brain for decades-that’s a sign that sooner or later you must become engaged and wrestle with it until you tame it and cajole it into some new shape and form with substance and life of its own. If the subject is based upon a real person or historical figure than it is essential to devour every bit of information that you can possibly absorb before you begin to write a word in order to painstakingly breathe life into the character. While the character is forming you need to become aware of his taking up residence within you. This may progress to daily conversations. After the extensive refining process comes to a halt, there may only be a small recognizable percent of the raw material which is preserved intact. But if the essence rings true it will pave a path for the character to finally emerge, warts and all. I don’t know if that makes any sense to anyone out there or whether it can benefit any aspiring dramatists. Probably not. More likely I have even depressed a few. But that is my method and what works for me may not work for someone else. Or, to paraphrase Twain when asked whether he had any advice for others how to reach old age cautioned that his own habits included drinking, smoking and a liberal use of profanity. “Those are the habits that protected my long life,” he said, “but they might assassinate yours.” In other words, you can’t necessarily write by adopting another’s method. You have to find your own.

Were you tempted to include characters like his wife Olivia and colleague Smythe as fellow characters?

Olivia was indeed the love of Twain’s life and she does figure at times in his thoughts in the play. It never occurred to have other characters acting in this play because Twain's presence is too commanding. Anyone else would be upstaged. It’s the same reason any actor worth his salt won’t set foot on a stage with a child or a dog. They know that all eyes will remain on the child or the dog.

How did you zero in on Padatik for the enactment? Were you aware of Vinay's profile or Padatik's legacy and body of work beforehand?

I was expecting this question and the honest to goodness truth is that I have no adequate answer. Mark Twain himself believed in something he coined “mental telegraphy”. I know I was first to initiate the contact with the talented Vinay Sharma and he immediately and proudly confessed to owning a moustache (a detail which I was unaware of, by the way.) How and why I arrived at his doorstep remains a mystery to the both of us. I have since become exceedingly impressed by the venerable artistic achievements of both Vinay and Padatik. But we have yet to meet in person and neither was Padatik’s legacy known to me at all before that first contact was made. It can only be explained as a surefire case of "mental telegraphy".

Your expectations from the India run…

On a personal note, I am greatly looking forward to returning to Mumbai and especially to the Prithvi Theatre. The Prithvi is one of those very special theatres and quasi-holy spaces which immediately envelops you in its aura of intimacy. Seeing Naseeruddin Shah perform “Einstein” there in 2015 was simply an unforgettable experience. I had no expectations at the time but the combination of Prithvi’s magic and Naseeruddin's brilliance produced one of those rare and magical evenings of live theatre whose sparks linger long after they have stopped flickering. I was also most impressed by the audience at the Prithvi. They are of various ages though predominantly young; all are full of energy. I am excited to bring something new to the Prithvi stage and audience and to bask in that theatrically charged pool of energy again.