In Search Of The True Indian

I met him three years ago, somewhere near North Block. As a rule, I refuse to meet people in the three-dimensional world. I made an exception for him because he once tweeted that I am the most beautifully idiosyncratic Indian writer. “Now, this is somebody who has good judgment. He understands my work, unlike the half-brained slobs I see every day.” I told myself.  We shall call him “Indian”. I do not want to name him and shame him. But, when I think about the “nature-nurture debate”, it is hard to get this fellow off my mind.

When I met him, he said that he “loved” a quote on my wall:

“We all talk about clarity and sanity all the time, but the truth is it’s very dangerous. True clarity and sanity won’t allow you to do anything — it will just make you jump off the building.

I have my doubts. I am the happiest person I have ever known. My hypothesis is that most people find it difficult to get out of their beds in the morning because they are sad. It is sadness which doesn’t allow them to do anything. They are sad, but they do not see the world half as clearly as I do. This was red flag enough.

He was unbearably depressed. I found this bizarre. When I said that I found this hard to believe, he said, “I know that it is strange for a very young man to be so depressed, but this is how I feel now.” I asked him whether he was a victim of “office politics”. He said that “office politics” is not the only source of misery. There are many other. This was news to me.

He said, “I don’t think you are trying to make a point on your blog. It is always along these lines, ‘I said this to her, and then she said this to him.’ But, what comes through is the absolute pettiness that emerges from the interactions between half-anglicized Indians.” The depressed are refreshingly frank.

I tried to cheer him up saying that a Masters from UChicago will take him very far in this third-world city where people are quickly impressed. But, he said that he studied something pointless. I reassured him. He will tower over everybody like an Albert Einstein in newsrooms in Delhi where journalists have IQs in the range of hockey scores. But, he did not budge. He is useless. Pedagogues had as much as said so, in that almighty piece of paper.

It was then his grandfather called him on the phone to ask whether he took the bananas in the fridge. He said, thinking long and hard, “Strictly speaking, that is not true.” He lived with his grandparents. His grandparents and mother were doctors. But, when she was young, his topper-type mother married a never-do-well from the hills. Before his mother jilted this Pahadi idiot who never did an honest day’s job, he was crawling.

On the first day of every academic year, his teachers at Modern School asked him what his father did. He couldn’t stand this diabolic torture. When he was a child, he said, “My mother (Softly) is a doctor (Emphasis added).” Soon, it dawned on him that he could not get away with it. He learned to say that his father was in “import-export business”. But, one day a girl walked to him and said cheerfully that her father was in “import-export business” too. He did not know what to tell her. When he was twelve, he decided that enough was enough. He walked toward the teacher, leaped and whispered in her ears, “My parents are divorced, and my father doesn’t do anything.” That did it for her.

My girlfriend once told me that her schoolmates asked three questions whenever she joined a new school, “In which part of Delhi do you live? What does your father do? Which car does he drive?” In all the cosmos, nothing mattered more to them.

He was bright, but he barely passed 10th standard. His mother (presumably an enterprising woman) decided to ship out and live in a ghetto in the UK where his grades did not bother anyone. I asked him how he managed to get into a school in the UK. He laughed and asked me whether I was living under a rock for long. “This is the age of decadence. Education standards have been declining throughout the world.” When he was ejected from University of Chicago at the age of 25, he resembled his father. He had no desire to work.

He said, “Your prose is very ‘westernized’. But, if you like western thinkers so much, why don’t you live in the west? Without living in the west for a few years, you will never understand the west.”

I said that there was no conscious attempt to “deracinate” myself. I do not see things this way at all. The best books are ‘western’. I haven’t really bothered to read Indian writers for the same reason I have never been on a social networking website created by an Indian. This did not convince him. He sighed saying that he did not know that colonialism spawned people who have such dichotomous lives.

He attributed much of his depression to being compelled to live in the west. He loved Nirad Chaudhuri—who loved the west—and Pankaj Mishra, who, for all ranting, still prefers to live there. When I said that we have such fucked up lives, he sighed, “But, Pankaj Mishra is having a swell time, with his British wife and everything.”

Tired hearing that a passage of Nirad Chaudhuri is enough to take libertarianism out of me, I bought Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. I read the first few dozen pages before throwing it away. It was written in the sort of pedantic prose a school headmaster turned out of a public school hundred years ago would have written.  

The west was a nameless, faceless enemy. But, after a decade in the west, Indian streets had become unbearable. “I hate walking the streets because I do not like seeing these lower class people. I never go out, but when I go to the super market, the guy at the counter talks to me. I find that really oppressive”, he once said. He did not like his grandparents either. “My grandmother is so primitive. She is not westernized. I pray for her to die so that I can live in this house with my grandfather.” he said. The feeling was mutual, because he looked like his father.

His preoccupation with the west colored his perception of everything around him. Whenever he spoke, it was along these lines:

“My grandfather does not know why I lock my door when I am alone in my room. Indians do not understand the concept of privacy.”

“Theory is a western concept.”

“Morality is a western concept. Indians do not even know what “morality” means.”

“Did they understand you? I am sure that they did not. Indians do not know how to reason with each other.”

“Why do these people stare at me? Is it because I am westernized? I smile and make eye contact. I haven’t seen Indians doing that.”

But, despite everything, he loved the idea of India. Everywhere, he searched frantically for true Indianness.

Steve Jobs And The Nature-Nurture Debate

a-young-steve-jobs-smelled-so-bad-he-had-to-be-put-on-the-night-shift-at-atariMany years ago, I dropped out of college. People have often asked me whether I felt fear when I dropped out of engineering college. But, people are cowards. They do not understand college dropouts. The night I decided to drop out, I paced on the terrace of the college hostel, throwing stones, watching their trajectories. I felt exhilaration and a great sense of relief. Then onward, I had all the time in the world to read whatever I wanted to read.  Everything I did since then—and before—was rooted in my absolute confidence in creating a world of sublime beauty and tenderness by pressing my fingers on the keyboard.  

In the years I spent there, I cut myself off from the outside world to read the tall pile of books in my otherwise Spartan wooden room. My hostel mates called it “The Eiffel Tower”. All they could hear was me shutting the door loudly behind their backs. So, they often loosened the screws of my room to see what went on inside my room. Each time they did, I filled those holes with my large collection of ancient pens and pencils. Once, they did not allow me to sleep till 2 past midnight because they wanted to know what was in my briefcase. It was a battle I won.

In one of those days, I read a speech by Steve Jobs on dropping out of college. It was beautifully written. If Steve Jobs were not a visionary leader, he would have been one of the greatest writers of our times and of all times. The impulse that drives men like Steve Jobs to lose everything for their beliefs is the same that drives me to burn inhuman energy to create a work of unparalleled beauty. Over years, I read his speech many times because what kept me going was that I loved to write. Nothing else mattered much to me. Years later, when I was working in a run-down building in Safdarjung, I wept reading a beautifully written eulogy. It was the most beautiful tribute written when Steve Jobs died. It was written by Steve Jobs’ sister Mona Simpson, a successful novelist who was unaware of his existence for the first 25 years of her life. Mona Simpson’s husband is a writer for The Simpsons.

Similarities do not end there. Steve Jobs’ biological father ran a popular Mediterranean restaurant in Silicon Valley. Once Steve Jobs’ biological father told Mona Simpson without knowing that Steve Jobs was his own son: “Even Steve Jobs used to eat there. Yeah, he was a great tipper.” Steve Jobs called his biological parents his egg and sperm bank. But, it was his egg and sperm bank that shaped him, and not the working class parents who raised him.

When Steve Jobs’ high school sweetheart visited his home for the first time, she wondered “how these hardworking, blue-collar parents, these people with common sense but so few books, gave him the space to be completely otherworldly. To be extraordinary, in fact.” But, Steve Jobs’ biological father was a PhD in Economics and Political Science. He was his mother’s teaching assistant when she was a doctoral candidate. Steve Jobs was born when his father was 23. When Steve Jobs was young, his girl friend gave birth to a child he was not willing to raise. He was then 23 years old. Jobs’ biological parents wanted him to be adopted by a wealthier couple that rejected him at the final moment because they wanted a baby girl, and not a baby boy. So much for the belief that parents prefer baby boys. Anyone who has read enough about gender knows that parents prefer to adopt baby girls.

Is Steve Jobs’ case exceptional? No. As Bryan Caplan points out:

“In early 1979, a pair of identical twin brothers who had been separated at four weeks were reunited after 39 years. Both named Jim, they discovered that they smoked the same brand of cigarettes, vacationed in the same town and both called their dog “Toy.” Struck by the story, psychologists at the University of Minnesota started studying separated twins that same year. Their efforts blossomed into the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, which ran for a quarter century, attracting world-wide fascination and antipathy.  The Minnesota researchers tracked down every pair they could find—and measured traits related to almost every aspect of life: health, cognition, personality, happiness, career, creativity, politics, religion, sex and much more. The Minnesota study reveals genetic effects on virtually every trait. The breakdown between nature, nurture and everything else varies from trait to trait. But Ms. Segal emphasizes the uniformity of the results—the consistent power of genes, the limited influence of parenting. Some findings go down easy: As most would expect, identical twins raised apart have virtually identical heights as adults. Some findings seem obvious after the fact: Genes, but not upbringing, have a pretty big effect on personality traits like ambition, optimism, aggression and traditionalism. Other findings perennially cause outrage: The IQs of separated identical twins are almost as similar as their heights. Critics of intelligence research often hail the importance of practice rather than inborn talent, but a three-day test of the Minnesota twins’ motor skills showed that how much you benefit from practice is itself partly an inborn talent.”

Mumbai: The World’s Most Paradoxical Real Estate Market

11Mumbai is the densest major city in the world. Over five decades ago, urban planners reduced Mumbai’s floor space index (FSI, or The ratio of floor area to the area of the plot) to lower the population density of the city.  Now, in much of Mumbai’s central city, the maximum built-up area permitted on a 1,000 square feet plot is merely 1,330 square feet. Urban planners believed they can decongest Mumbai by restricting the development of floor space in the city. But, this did not happen. Instead of preventing migration to the city, this made Mumbai’s real estate unaffordable to most migrants. People did not stop migrating to the city of dreams for the numerous opportunities it offered. They settled down in confined spaces and made the city their home. Those who could afford Mumbai’s expensive real estate bought homes; rest created the slums.

In cities across the world, to allow redevelopment of buildings, when FSI restrictions were imposed, the permissible FSI was set above the FSI of existing buildings. In global cities, when population density increased, FSI levels were raised too. But, in Mumbai, neither was true. Since 1964, the FSI in Mumbai has declined. In 1964, the FSI in Nariman Point was 4.5. Today, in much of Mumbai’s Island City, the FSI is 1.33.

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Why India Needs Faster Urbanisation More Than Ever

URBANISATION-new-012We need not invent new technology to raise Indian wages to global standards. It is, of course, true that wages depend on technological advancement. But, India can make technology that exists all around the world accessible to everybody by making its cities attractive to foreigners and global firms. Modern technology can be made accessible to even the least-skilled workers by allowing rural Indians to migrate to such cities. To cut a long story short, India can raise its wages to global standards by being more urbanised. This is already happening. According to the World Bank, by 2050, 75 per cent of India’s 1.6-billion population would be urbanised. member: In contrast, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), merely 70 per cent of world population would live in urban areas by 2050.

The urbanisation process in India has been very slow for much of the history. But, today, urbanisation in India is faster than in most parts of the world. India is likely to witness the highest surge in urbanisation in the next few decades, even greater than China’s. When more people live close to each other in urban areas, there will be greater trade, production and foreign investment. No economist doubts that India needs greater urbanisation, at a much faster pace. But, for this to happen, policies in cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi should improve. If the policies in cities like Mumbai or Bengaluru do not attract global firms, they will take their businesses elsewhere. India needs gateway cities.

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What Owning A Home In Mumbai’s ‘Wild West’ Means

hbs2-e1440604617877Our relationship with cities is very similar to that of with our own children. People love their cities. They tend to cherish features that outsiders rarely find inspiring. This is even truer of large, unique cities. Priya Suhas loves everything about Mumbai, including the potholes on roads and eunuchs who ask for money at traffic signals. In the city everybody considers a congested concrete jungle, she has found open green spaces. Floor space in Mumbai is more regulated than most places in the world. But unlike many other architects in this city, she does not feel any compulsion to knock off superfluous walls or to turn her balcony into a window ledge seating. She loves everything the city has to offer. Priya Suhas is a talented production designer and architect who has worked in movies like Dirty Picture, Saathiya and Bhoot.

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Why Dharavi Needs Skyscrapers

Dhavari-SlumsMumbai’s Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums, is a standing testament to the view that urban planners have little control over the population density of an area. When people wish to migrate to an area where land supply is scarce, population density is bound to rise, irrespective of how stringent building regulations are. Due to this, population density is the highest in low-rise settlement areas like Dharavi and not in the areas in Mumbai where there are high-rise buildings. In fact, the population density of Dharavi is many times of that of Mumbai. Even though there are no formal studies, Dharavi houses about 300,000 to a million people in a 557 acre area. In , the population density is 3,230 people per hectare. But, in Chamra Bazar, the most populated neighbourhood in Dharavi, population density is 44,460 people per hectare.

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Teachers’ Day: 5 Best Teachers Of Real Estate Economics

maxresdefaultFor years, former World Bank researcher Alain Bertaud tirelessly argued that India is the only country on earth where building height regulations are imposed in large cities without paying any attention to demand for residential property. It is largely because of Alain Bertaud’s efforts that many Indian urban policy makers now tend to think that floor space index (FSI) values should be higher in Indian metropolises, especially in Mumbai. An important lesson Indian policy makers ought to learn from Bertaud is that for the mass transit to work, a city should have a vast population concentrated around main mass transit corridors. Without the right land use policy, right pricing and efficient residential property markets, mass transit systems will not be successful. The transportation networks in a city must adjust to the spatial structure of a city and needs of its people. Another important lesson Bertaud has to teach us is that vehicles and ox carts occupy expensive land in Indian cities without paying for it. India needs to allocate real estate in cities more efficiently. Harvard Economist Edward Glaeser once said that he learned everything he knows about land use restrictions in developing countries from Alain Bertaud. Anyone who rigorously studied real estate markets in developing countries would probably agree with Glaeser because there are few other guideposts to find.

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Urban Planners, Look At Housing Prices

scep1_corporatetower_1Urban planners rarely pay attention to residential real estate markets. But, it is impossible to plan the development of a city ignoring real estate prices. They are a source of valuable information. Recently, Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu said the government would extensively consult citizens to plan cities. However, even if urban planning is done after consulting citizens, all their needs and preferences may not be met. The reason is, of course, that residents of a city need not have all the information that is necessary to give reliable answers. Moreover, in many cases, they may act on information they have not yet verbalised. For instance, residents of an area may believe that crime rates are high where they live. However, high residential property prices in the neighbourhood may suggest that this is probably not true.

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The Nirvikar Singh Interview

Nirvikar Singh teaches economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has been an advisor to several startups in the Silicon Valley. One of the most talented economists of Indian origin, Singh’s areas of research include information technology, electronic commerce and economic reforms in India. In an exclusive interview to PropGuide, he discusses the Indian government’s plans for the infrastructure and real estate sector in India and proposes an alternate plan for developing the low cost residential projects.

Key excerpts:

PropGuide: What are the major flaws in India’s land use policy?

Nirvikar Singh: In India, land ownership and titles are not well-documented. Land markets are imperfect with very high transaction costs, including those imposed by the government. There is a tendency to neglect the externalities associated with the development of the land. These externalities include the costs a developer imposes on existing power, roads, water supply and sewage infrastructure. Taxation is inadequate (especially property tax) to cover maintenance of the necessary infrastructure. India’s land use policy is completely dysfunctional.

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Buildings Make Us Human

When we think of creativity, bricks, mortar or mortgage-backed securities rarely cross our minds. But, building structures and the instruments of finance are as much a product of creativity as the pinnacles of artistic achievement. Buildings are also a major driving force behind human ingenuity.

Creativity requires building, but countries cannot build their way into creativity. Creativity requires high density building, but people with overflowing creativity rarely work in the densest of buildings. Creativity requires proximity, but much of what we call genius is the ability to work in isolation. Exquisite design is the antithesis of ugly, but aesthetics wouldn’t flourish in societies that do not tolerate ugly buildings. To design institutions and offices, we need such a nuanced understanding of the people who inhabit them.

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Data Labs Report: Three Regions That Will Be Investment Hubs

While driving on the roads, we do not usually feel pangs of guilt. But, in Mumbai where there are nearly 700,000 cars on the roads, perhaps an examination of conscience is in order. In South ’s Null Bazar, where the average street area per person is 1.7 sq mt, vehicles impose huge costs. Ox carts come at a price too. Transport is a real estate problem, but urban planners rarely see things this way.

A parked car consumes nearly 14 sq mt of area. A car that travels at 30 km per hour consumes 65 sq mt of area. In New York Mid-town, where the average street area per person is 33.3 sq mt, a car that travels at 30 km per hour barely occupies the space of two people. In Mumbai, it occupies the space meant for 38 people. In the past eight years, the number of cars on Mumbai’s road have grown by 57 per cent. Mumbai’s existing infrastructure seems to be crumbling with its growing population.

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Data Labs Report: Real Estate Demand In The Maximum City Has Been Shifting

The Economist called Mumbai ‘The Minimum City’, directly challenging Suketu ’s fabled expression – ‘Maximum City’ – for the commercial capital. This is an unfair judgment because Mumbai with its population of 1.84 crore is indeed the most affluent city in India. Mumbai contributes to 6 per cent of Indian GDP, and shelters less than 1.5 per cent of its population. Even ’s slums are far more productive than the quaint villages its inhabitants left behind.

But, real estate in Mumbai is almost as expensive as real estate anywhere in the world. In some ways, then, Mumbai is, indeed, ‘The Minimum City’. Mumbai’s buildings can’t reach the skies (though they should, for the city’s growing residential needs), its greenery is sparse and living spaces congested. In , the city of India’s hopes in Mehta’s celebrated book The Maximum City, infrastructure is minimal.

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Data Labs Report: Navi Mumbai

Mumbai, India’s most affluent city, contributes to more than 6% of India’s economy. But, if its infrastructure were adequate, the financial capital of India would have been more prosperous. While this modern metropolis without a doubt deserves far superior infrastructure, one of the most fervent arguments against raising the floor space index (FSI) – the instrument that would allow buildings to get taller in Mumbai – also stops at its “woefully inadequate” infrastructure.

It is true that a high FSI would make certain parts of Mumbai denser. This is an argument that deserves sober attention. But, the costs of developing better infrastructure in Mumbai will be outweighed by the benefits of residential and commercial real estate becoming more affordable when the FSI is raised. Even if this is not so, the arguments in favor of developing infrastructure would carry much weight. 

Most major cities in the world have a ring road or a rapid arterial road that allows residents to easily commute from one part of the city to another. But, Mumbai does not.

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