Sunday, December 1, 2013


Ever since I decided to involve myself in the pursuit of learning a bit of ‘Organic’ farming, I have often been asked two questions. What is Organic Food? And what is GM food? Before I set out to give a lay man explanation and add my two bit on why you should be concerned about what you eat, let me say, that I find it absurd that people would have more knowledge about stock markets and politics than the food they eat.  Think about where we are as a society, if we spend a lot of time understanding health insurance policies but, do not spend any, in knowing how and where what we eat was grown or comes from.  So, as you read this rumbling from an extinct journalist, find some time to research further on the food you eat.

‘Organic’ products are any product which is grown ‘Organically’. By ‘Organic’, what we mean is using what has been given by nature and hence it would mean ‘Natural’. Every crop or soil needs some form of nourishment and in ‘Organic’ farming the manure used is natural without ‘factory produced chemicals’ or what is commonly known as ‘pesticides and insecticides’. I draw the distinction because everything, even organic manure, is made of chemicals. The difference is whether it is made naturally or made in a factory with levels that are ‘unnatural’ and hence ‘hazardous’.  As I write further I will be using ‘Pesticides’ and ‘Factory produced chemicals’ interchangeably. For the reader the two should mean the same.  Remember, there are ‘organic pesticides and insecticides’ as well.

 How do they make manure that is ‘Organic’? Simple, from cow dung, wet and dry waste and water. But, using this manure does not necessarily mean that there will be no ‘pesticide’ in the food that is produced. This is because the land in which the food was grown could already have been exposed to pesticides. Let us say you start an ‘Organic’ farm and grow your crop of carrots without pesticides but, the farmer who owned the land before may have extensively used ‘pesticides’ and ‘contaminated’ the soil. So, even though you do not use ‘pesticide’, your crop will have traces of it. This is just one factor, there are many others, like ‘pesticide’ content in the seed you sow, ‘pesticide’ use in the farm next to you or ‘pesticide’ levels in ground water.

The bottom line is, no matter how ‘Organic’ a farm may be, there are extraneous factors that may result in its produce being ‘contaminated’ by ‘pesticides and insecticides’. In effect, the farming is process ‘factory chemical’ free but, the produce may not be. So, when you buy a brand of ‘Organic’ food do not be certain that it has absolutely zero contamination. Here’s the thing, when you grow something ‘organically’ then you slowly and surely reduce the amount of that ‘factory produced chemical’ in the food that is produced. Take for example a sack of rice in your house. Let us say you have a cockroach problem and so you spray one of those sprays available in the market. The question is simple. Would you spray a whole bottle of it on the rice sack and then wash it and eat it? I suspect if you are sane, you would not.  But, you may not be averse to eating the sack of rice if it was stored in a room which has been sprayed.  Again, if the rice was to be fed for a new born baby, I am sure you would ensure that it was kept as far away from the spray as possible.

The fundamental point here is -we all know that pesticide and insecticides are harmful. Now, do we ignore it in our food or do we try and find food that has lesser and lesser ‘contamination’.  I am not suggesting that we all change what we eat from the next meal or that we all begin farming. What I am saying is, at least spend the time in knowing what you eat. I believe nature and the body will find a cure and recuperate and so, I hate those doomsday ‘organic’ thinkers. It is important to know that we have limited knowledge of life and then decide on the basis of that limited knowledge and then trust that the decision is right. Simple, find out and try to know more about the food you eat and then trust that you will make the right choice. Trust me, I still eat food that’s been grown for the ‘mass market’ but, I also try and find food that is grown ‘organically’. There are times when I say ‘I’ll take my chances’. But, the point is that I am not being careless about the food I eat and I am thinking about it as much as I think about taking a health insurance policy or buying a house.

Now, we get to the other issue, GM foods. When I grow a crop of Carrots I am absolutely not sure about which bees, birds, butterfly or insects are pollinating on it. Yes, my crop of carrot is grown ‘Organically’ but, my neighbouring farmer or the one after him may be growing a completely different crop of carrot. When the bees and birds travel from his crop to my crop they do what is known as ‘Cross pollination’. This means that my carrot and my neighbour’s carrot have had sex and are going to produce a new variety of carrot. This is a natural process and seed breeders have used this to make ‘Hybrid seeds’.  The idea is if my neighbours carrot is more resisted to disease A and mine deals with disease B better, then the chances are that some of their offspring would deal with both A and B better. This is a process of ‘Natural sex’ between the crops to make a new one which is healthier and they are called ‘Hybrids’.

GM on the other hand means Genetic Modification. This means that I will take the DNA of my carrot and ‘mutate’ it with the DNA of a cabbage. Then I call it GM Carrot or GM cabbage depending on the more dominant traits.  The farmer and seed conservator who taught me a lot about elementary farming Sangeetha Sharma of 'Annadhana' calls this ‘Unsafe Sex’.  The fundamental difference according to experts is that in ‘Hybrids’ we produce a new variety and in GM we produce a new species. This is like when a dog and a horse are forced to have intercourse and then you claim the offspring is a GM Dog or a GM Horse. The truth is the off spring is neither a horse nor a dog. It is something new.

I do not, for a moment, say that the new species is going to be bad. It may well be better than the existing ones. It may be better than a carrot and a cabbage, it may be better than a dog and a horse, BUT, it is neither a carrot nor a cabbage or a horse or a dog. It is a new species. You and I may eat it as carrots, but, we need to know it is not.  I do not want to even go near the debate over whether GM foods are good or bad. I only want people to be aware that this is what it means.

 At some level, I feel sad that we have relegated issues about food as a mere policy issue. This piece that I have written is purely an expression of frustration and a request to the reader to start finding out about the food he or she eats. I must declare that I do not have the knowledge to tell the reader what is right and what is wrong.  The decision on what you eat must be made by you, but, just remember you need to make a decision and make it with as much prudence and diligence that you show while you investing money or when you cast a vote.  After all it is you who is eating. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Madras Cafe - Just another film.

Film makers have a great role in making history relevant to the masses. Especially, in the times we live, when not many have the time to read about events that shape our today. The film maker has an added edge, the power to give a visual element, recreate an event and leave it etched in the minds of the audience. So, when they decide to make a film, on an event that has played an emotional part in a nation’s conscience, it is important for them to recognise the enormous responsibility they are signing up for.  Putting out a disclaimer “That all characters in the film are fictitious” does not absolve the film maker of this responsibility.

Yes, not all film makers take that responsibility seriously. But, the point is simple – they have the right to make a film and the audience has a right to judge their effort. The trouble is when I am refused even the right to watch a film and make that judgement. The trouble is when a few irrational, incompetent, ill informed propagandists can stop me from making my own judgement. The trouble is when I do not even know if the film is worth so much thought.

Since, I do not live within the geographical confines of the ‘Tamil Nadu’ I did have the right to see ‘Madras Cafe’.  I started writing this review because a fellow journalist suggested I should. But, I also want to write it because those who could not watch the film must know that the fuss around it is not worth it. The irony is that the film says nothing, nothing at all, that is either contrarian or converse to history as it has been told to us. In fact, my only objection is that it does not say anything controversial and it could and should have been much better and said much more. It is just another film. I was disappointed but, that’s just me.

Before I make a brief review of the film, may I just remind all the protesting propagandists, that the LTTE had admitted its role in the Rajiv assassination and their chief was convicted by Indian courts and was declared a proclaimed offender. Anton Balasingham even made a desperate effort at expressing regret for that dastardly act. So, two decades later, when a film is made stating this very fact you have no reason to object.  In fact the film says nothing against the ‘Tamil Cause’ it even tracks its genesis to the 83 riots. It simply reiterates a widely accepted version of events.  

Kevin Costner starrer ‘JFK’ is one of the finest films made on the conspiracy theories behind the Kennedy assassination. I hope, someday, we make something as powerful on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. As for ‘Madras Cafe’ it is nowhere near a master piece or a memorable film I would want in my collection. Unfortunately, it was based on a topic that deserved much better. There were moments when I thought it was a tragic joke and there were moments when it was gripping.

To start with, John Abraham just did not fit the part of a RAW agent in the first half.  In fact, I thought the whole portrayal of a RAW agent in a war zone was pathetic. That a journalist (Nargis Fakhri) would be aware of his activities made it even more hilarious. I mean, we can't be so raw while portraying the RAW. It would not have taken too much hard work to find out the real nature of the operations of the LTTE, the RAW and the Sri Lankan forces. The fact that the research was superficial was proven by the omission of portrayal of important events like Pirabhakaran’s visit to Delhi and a failed attempt on Rajiv Gandhi's life in Colombo. The refusal to make the plot more complex by studying details of the investigations also reflected in the final script. None of this was even touched upon and would have only added to the script. The trouble is that the film made the plot, the issue, superficial and simple. 

Staying with the first half, I must mention that the most hilarious part was when the RAW chief has a meeting with the number 2 in the ‘tigers’ hierarchy.  The conversation that unfolds is hilarious and it was as if the director just needed a small link to get to the next bit of the story. Here again the director decided to add his imagination to history. But, at the end of the day it is a piece of fiction which comes with a disclaimer and so we forgive the confusion between fact, fiction and the marriage between the two.

In the second half the movie does get better. Here you have the chatter between Jaffna, London, Singapore, Bangkok and Chennai. The assassination conspiracy begins to unfold and as the plot grips the actors lose their grip. Laboured acting by those playing key roles like a source in Bangkok (Dibang), RAW Chief (Siddaratha Basu) proved costly. Our very own RAW agent was better in the second half and a worthy mention in the acting department was Prakash Belawadi’s performance as the RAW Chennai station chief. The conspiracy plot left me wanting more. The technical side had done their job well. The editing and cinematography were particularly commendable. I just wish the director had worked as hard on the conspiracy and history as he did on making it into a film. Even the actors who played the role of SL Tamils, who facilitate the assassins, were not true to the Tamil accent. 

The trouble is that I am comparing it with a JFK or a Valkyrie and that is extremely unfair. Net -net it was high time we had someone attempt a film on the assassination. I just wish it was a better attempt. I may wish it was more fact than fiction but, the bottom line is simple – there is nothing wrong about the film and something wrong, terribly wrong, with those who are protesting against its release.  History has many versions and Madras Cafe is just a film maker’s imagination of partial facts from widely accepted versions of a tragic event. Let it pass. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013


A few weeks ago a close friend had come home for a weekend with her 12 year old son. In one of our outings I said the beauty of Bangalore is its weather. The 12 year old shot back ‘but it does not matter. I am a 21st century kid”.  I was amused and confused at the start. In retrospect it was pure stupidity. But, I decided to probe further and get into an argument. I asked “why does weather not matter to a 21st century kid”. The 12 year old shot back “I live in Air Con and the weather outside is irrelevant”. 

It is true isn’t it? In most of our big cities, our kids are growing up with complete abandon to nature. Malls, centrally air conditioned spaces, schools which are cocooned in concrete and houses where gadgets ensure there is minimal cerebral or physical activity required to keep one occupied. Then, when we miss a bit of nature we go on an expensive vacation to the hills or a forest. There we pay and get five (four or three depending on our bank balance) star protection. We will step out for a bit near a river for a few hours and claim “we love nature”!

The trouble is, in the age of internet and technology, we have slowly cut ourselves from what has produced and nurtured us as a race. Even more appalling is that we ensure that our next generation is more cut off than we were. The western civilizations are a couple of generations ahead of us in this ‘cutting off from nature’ curve. But, have we learnt anything from the troubles and perils faced by those ahead of us? Or are we merely going to follow them.

In the midst of these thoughts and armed with a stupid belief that I am older and wiser I continued my engagement with the 12 year old. I told him “O.K. you are a 21st century kid and don’t need weather, but if you won’t step out of the A.C who is going to make the food you eat? Surely to grow food you need to get out of A.C”. The kid would not let me feel superior even for a micro second. He shot back “There would be farms in controlled temperature environments or we would find a gadget that ensures we don’t feel hungry”.  Like a fool I persisted “But you can’t eat a gadget and you need food, water and air to survive”. He hit back again within a second “We may find tablets that replace food or energy bars and machine produced burgers that need not be grown in farms!! And finally who needs water we’ll have coke”!

As I gave up and conceded defeat to the 12 year old I was left anxious. Have we become so arrogant that as a human race we take the basic things of life for granted and what has this arrogance cost us?  Do we really believe that making money and making software would keep us alive? When I read debates between models of growth in economics, I am pushed to believe that it should ideally be models of social thought and not growth.

Consider our cities and what we define as security. Most of the Indian middle and upper classes have been buying and investing plots of land around our ever growing cities. Making money out of land by rendering it useless is more important than making food out of it. Rural schools produce students who want to imitate those of us who have already become creatures of the concrete jungles.  The idea of progress is defined as those who have made millions in the cities. Today, it’s strenuous to find a young farmer. Most of those who till their lands are in their early 50’s and upwards. The younger ones are making plans to sell their lands and move into the cities. Eventually who will grow food ?

The fear and prediction of the future we will have on this path has even had a visual representation. It seems like the imaginary “Kryptonians” from where superman came.  Even in that imagined, film maker’s version of an advanced race there is a warning that krypton disintegrated and yet, we will refuse to learn our lessons.  When you do everything artificial you run the risk of cutting yourself completely from what brought us this far. In that we run the risk of complete annihilation.

Call it the ‘superman syndrome’. It is when man believes that he can control the environment he lives in. He believes that he has the power to script the process of his life. Yes, men have built environments and largely in our cities we live in such belief that we would get the resources we need. If there is no ground water we will transport it. When we need electricity we will have nuclear reactors and when the climate becomes harsh we will turn to air conditioners. But, can we sustain and prevail over nature all the time? And most important is when the ability to control the environment begins to control us as a race?

It’s not enough to turn to ayurveda, naturopathy, morning walks and planting trees. What is required is a complete change of priorities and a realization that the Human is just part of a large and complex universe. The more we cut off from it, the more we will be alone as a race and the more we are alone the faster we will perish.  So maybe it is time to redefine economic models of growth with a strong sense of the cost and risk it takes to keep going the way we are. The reformation has to be sociological, economic, philosophical and psychological.

There are a sensible few who are returning to preserve what is left of the connection we have to the universe and there are many who take us further away from our basics with their arguments of ‘floor space index” and sky scrapers and economic growth.

Obviously there are many who have warned us of the dangers of following the path we have taken and among them was a frail man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.  He was a visionary who outlined a road map and a seer who predicted that we would face all the social, personal, political and economic problems that we face today because we chose a path that would only lead to this. Ironically, we listen to our fathers a little too late in our lives and it still does not seem too late.