Sunday, December 24, 2017

Book Review: Veerappan: Chasing The Brigand

“There are no atheists in the jungle” — writes Vijay Kumar, the police officer who eventually killed the dreaded sandalwood smuggler and forest brigand Veerappan. This is obviously a rip-off on the American phrase “there are no atheists in a foxhole” — used to indicate that extremely stressful situations makes anyone a believer. Autobiographies generally allow you to gaze into the author’s soul. We read them because, we get to see life from the point of view of the author and get to live, albeit briefly, the life of someone who is very different from us. With these sort of cheesy lines from army books, Vijay Kumar signals to us that he is a cop who isn’t used to “baring” his emotions to other people. I was all prepared to hear Vijay Kumar tell me about his hunt for Veerappan in the deep jungles of Sathyamangalam, a jungle according to him that was as formidable as his foe. Instead I got a fairly impersonal story that serves as a fast racy thriller and one that feels like its always at an arm’s length away from the “real” Vijay Kumar.
Koose Munnisamy Veerappan was well-known criminal in the state of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and chased by police from both states. However, the people of Tamil Nadu had this unexplained fascination for Veerappan. He polarized the population into those who thought he was some sort of Robinhood and those who thought he was just a cruel murderer. The first time I learned about Veerappan was from the movie Captain Prabhakaran (Rs 2 ticket in PerInbaVilas theater, Thirunelveli), a hagiographic take on the fugitive. On one hand, I grew up watching journalists openly supporting the brigand and accusing the cops of feeding and growing him and on the other hand Walter Devaram — TN’s most famous cop ever was publicly demanding his head. This effect he had on people intrigued me. You’d generally expect a murderer, smuggler, and kidnapper to be unanimously hated by all, how does he get to polarize people instead? I wanted to know. And thats why I picked up this book.
Vijay Kumar IPS is a well known cop in Tamil Nadu and succeeded Devaram as the head of STF tasked to nab Veerappan. The lead character of the famous Tamil movie Kaakha Kaakha was supposedly modeled after his mannerisms, he was in Rajiv Gandhi’s Special Protection Group, and BSF in Kashmir. Vijay Kumar has structured this book as a multi-threaded narrative that goes back and forth in time. It starts with a phone call he receives from the then CM Jayalalitha requesting him to come join the effort to capture Veerappan, it then goes into Vijay Kumar’s past and the rigorous training he went through in India and abroad, and then goes way back in time to tell the story of Veerappan’s past and all the cops who tried to hunt him down. While this is an interesting narrative structure to keeps things fast paced, it doesn’t feel like an autobiography, which is generally linear. It feels like a Dan Brown fiction thriller and Vijay Kumar is further limited because of his introductory note “In some cases, I have deliberately blurred sequences, obscured details and scrambled timelines in order to preserve operational secrecy and protect identities of people who were involved in sensitive missions”. This forces narrative choices that makes the book feel even more “commercial”. Also, I had a problem with the narrative structure of this book that I had with the TV series Wonder Years, or the movie Titanic. Any story narrated from the point of view of a single person must either contain events where the narrator was present or events which could’ve been narrated by someone else to the narrator. Vijay Kumar liberally writes about Veerappan’s optimism, his regrets and his feelings — which seem like needless “masala” thrown into an other wise realistic narration.
There were several ‘aha’ moments in the book. The brief origin story of Veerappan told from the POV of the rather senseless partition of states in the 60s, the story of “Rambo” Vijay Kumar’s valiant effort to nab Veerappan and the cruel way in which he was bombed by Veerappan on Good Friday (called as the “Good Friday Massacre”), the gruesome murder of Karnataka STF Shrinivas, Veerappan’s daring escape from Karnataka STF and his revenge bombing of STF base camp. All these have been narrated in great detail by Vijay Kumar who collects information from a variety of his sources to enrich this narration. I especially felt for “Rambo” Gopalakrishnan, nicknamed so because of his body builder frame. The Good Friday Massacre permenantly disabled him and he passed away recently. Reading this book made me feel for all the unnamed sacrifices made by the police force for meagre financial returns and almost no limelight. There were police officers who volunteered to be part of the STF just for pride. They put their life in danger, they spent days without food in terrible conditions and lived far away from loved ones. All for what?
This book also provides significant insight into the police procedural and intelligence aspects that were crucial to the eventual killing of Veerappan. I was hoping to understand Vijay Kumar’s hypothesis, his thought process or just about any sort of access into his brain to enjoy this autobiography. Again, Vijay Kumar keeps this book at an uncomfortable distance from him. We get detailed descriptions of setups involving Veerappan’s informers, his wife Muthulakshmi, and the prisoners who were known to Veerappan. It tells us how many months/years of work go into getting one set up to fruition. When it fails, its back to the drawing board again. And there were several failed set ups for Veerappan, until the one that finally got him. What this book also brings to light is the murky connections that Veerappan had with famous people in TN. The Mr. X that Vijay Kumar describes, the one who finally helped them get Veerappan, seems like a very interesting character. I wonder who he is.
The best part of the book is the countdown to Veerappan’s final moments. The operation is described in minute detail. Suddenly, for a brief moment, Vijay Kumar comes alive as an author and opens up his thoughts and his mind to us. We really get to live the ebbs and flows of his anxiety and care about what happens. This to me was the bst chapter of the book. There was always a suspicion among the public that the encounter that killed Veerappan was staged. I wonder if the amount of effort Vijay Kumar puts into that chapter reflects his intensity to counter that rather unfair criticism. I wanted to know if his killing was staged or real. This chapter presents the operation leading to his death in such a detailed fashion that it becomes hard to question the legitimacy of his death. He managed to convince this layman reader with that chapter.
To conclude, this book is a good read from the POV of learning about the life experiences of a cop who was in charge of this cat and mouse game. It is neither Vijay Kumar’s autobiography nor a Veerappan biography. I wanted to know what Vijay Kumar thought of Veerappan, what his colleagues thought of him and what he wanted the reader to think about about Veerappan. We don’t get a lot of this. While this book gives insights into Veerappan’s ruthlessness (he kills his own child) and his general character profile. It doesn’t go deep into his motivations. In a sense, its not a true “both sides of the coin” story. Its not an unbiased look at the forest brigand. My personal intuition and bias is with the police force and I did want to see Veerappan caught or killed. But it is human nature to seek, to question and to understand both sides of the story, to get an unbiased view of what happened and make sure all those who were at fault were brought to justice. It is human nature to understand another human being (the author in this case). As to what motivated him and his innermost emotions that made him the person he was, that vicarious peep into the inner recesses of his mind or his world. In that way, this book did not help me “get to the truth”.


Sunday, September 03, 2017

Tamil Nadu's Upper Funnel Education strategy and why its brilliant

Tamil Nadu has one of the best education strategies in the country. Let me start with an analogy that will help you appreciate this.

Imagine you are an e-commerce website owner. You have a webpage (like amazon.com or flipkart.com) that allows people to visit the webpage, prospect products, maybe add-to-cart and eventually buy. Think of your webpage as a funnel. The top of the funnel is people visiting the webpage. Mid-funnel is people prospecting products. Bottom funnel is people doing "Add-to-Cart". You have couple of important strategy options for digital marketing this webpage. Strategy 1: You adopt an upper funnel strategy. Your digital marketing efforts drives as much of the population to simply visit your webpage. It is prospected by many, and then a small subset will add-to-cart and a subset of that will complete purchase. Strategy 2: You adopt a bottom-funnel strategy. Your digital marketing efforts specifically targets people who are more likely to "add-to-cart". In effect - you only want those people who will take the "add-to-cart" action to visit your webpage. The traffic coming to your webpage is much lower, but those who come will most likely convert.

People pick from these two strategies based on their constraints and priorities. If you want to keep your server capacity cost low - you pick strategy 2; if you want brand awareness of your webpage to be high - you pick strategy 1.  Here is the key thing - the definition of traffic quality - depends on what you think of success. Strategy 1 could define quality as (number of people who know about my webpage)/(total population). This strategy focuses on more people being exposed to your webpage so that they have a habit of visiting when the need arises. Strategy 2 defines quality as (people who actually purchase)/(people who visit my webpage). There is no consistent definition of quality. It depends on what you, as the owner of the web page, want to do. It is dangerous to evaluate one strategy with metrics used by another strategy.

Tamil Nadu has an upper funnel strategy for college education. It wants as much of the population to either (a) get exposed to college education or (b) pass college and get exposed to professional career. It does not specifically optimize or even care about how many people eventually convert to great jobs in the end. It wants to make people going to college a habit, passing college a natural thing and hopes that this virtuous cycle habit formation leads to both direct and indirect positive effects. The definition of quality is more social - "what % of population get exposure to college education". Thats why it has a 12th pass % of 92%. Karnataka has a 12th pass % of 52%. It is adopting lower funnel optimization. Its definition of quality is (people who get jobs)/(people who get to college). Therefore, it is okay with a large chunk of its population not experiencing college or a professional career. While this is horrible for Karnataka's population, thats the state's strategy.

Tamil Nadu has consciously made passing 12th std easy, consciously allowed liberal centums and high marks in Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology. It optimizes to put as many people in a position of applying to college. BITS, RECs, Delhi Colleges, and top colleges in other states have relied on 12th marks as a basis for admission. To help its students get into these non-TN colleges - Tamil Nadu has ensured that its students stand the best chance relative to students from other states. In parallel and quite obviously, it has increased its own server capacity in terms of number of colleges within TN to ensure the infrastructure support for its strategy. Now voila! - Magic. TN has not only pumped in its students into its own rapidly growing list of colleges but also into any available seat in non-TN colleges. Think of the virtuous cycle effects here. When BITS switched to normalization (which is (your mark)/(your state first mark)) - Tamil Nadu increased the "if you have to be above 90% its better that you be 96%" density to counter that strategy. It is a deliberate strategy to give its students the best chance everywhere. It has had flagrant success in exposing students to college education and embarrassing defeats to those exposed. But it has made sure getting to and completing college is as automatic a habit as brushing your teeth. It is quite a stunning feat. And it has taken all castes along in this journey - dalits, brahmins, thevars, MBCs, OBCs - the whole kitchen sink. Everybody has prospered. No one has been left behind. The country did not wise up to it until now. So we have NEET - a competitive move from other states to shut us down. Tamil Nadu's counter should have been "Fair enough. Bring it on". What it doesn't need now is a ill-informed intra-state caste war. That will only make it weaker. What it needs is a new game plan.

To conclude. In a philosophical decision of "Should I pass a person who is only semi-likely to succeed"  or "Should I fail a person who is semi likely to succeed" - Tamil Nadu has reduced false negatives (type II errors) and increased false positives (type I errors). It is morally and ethically the right strategy from a social justice point of view. This fantastic strategy has caused (a) a state with abnormally high self-esteem where almost all people have college degrees and most have professional degrees (b) the false positives - i.e. people who fail to secure professional jobs still be useful to society by finding other ways to survive as a college graduate and (c) a generation of highly valuable "graduate educated" parents to the next batch of TN children entering school. Lastly, it has allowed me, a late bloomer in education, to prosper later in a career. I could've been easily discarded as not good enough if I were a student in Karnataka. I owe my life to TN's strategy. This chance that I got is what is being assaulted by NEET. It stops the state from determining its strategy. Thats why NEET is poison and thats why TN should innovate a new strategy to get around it. 

Friday, April 07, 2017

Katru Veliyidai - The unusual Maniratnam man

This is a fairly decent movie. Certain interactions between the Karthi and Aditi - when the former behaves like a dick and the latter like a squirming worm - made you cringe on your seat and made you want to look away. These are powerfully well thought out and well written moments. Very subtle but the tension is like an elephant in the room head butts you. But they come with severe distractions. The jarring close-ups on Karthi was a strange vehicle. I understand that close-ups are used as some mood inducing vehicles by cinematographers. However, showing Karthi almost exclusively in close-ups  was just too much of 'why dont you step back from the camera dude' for me. I say this because a big part of the movie runs on his ability to charm and mysteriously smile his way into Aditi's heart and ours. The chemistry that makes us feel for them seems absent. Mostly because the love seems baseless and rushed. On either direction, it was hard for me to see why a person of that mind-set would pursue the other person so mindlessly. One can say "that is love" but somehow i feel it isn't.

The entire crux of the movie is the surprise on seeing a new Manirathnam man. The Maniratnam man is usually a highly virtuous, likeable, principled and forceful personality. People like Baradwaj Rangan exagerrate that all Maniratnam men are neither black nor white but superbly grey. I don't necessarily agree. From a perception point of view, they are always likeable. They are the people's man. And the law cant be a basis for grey if your men are always likeable.  This movie was different because the hero came off as genuinely unlikeable. I simply loved that subtlety. The heroine came off as a confused person and very unlike Maniratnam's girls who are usually independent, decisive and never abused. Here she is the opposite. Which was also interesting even if a little bit anachronistic. I wish the suffering of his journey was brough out better. He looked as smug and as much of a jerk as a POW as he looked in his airforce base. It was hard to believe he had changed his attitude by the end of the movie.

Overall this is not as bad as Kadal or Ravanan (his worst) and not in the class of Iruvar (his best). It rests firmly as his 50th percentile movie. It is a reverse portrayal of GVM's Nee Dhaan En Pon Vasantham but much less boring. The pretentiousness of "oh! we sleep together before marriage, have babies before marriage, family drinks saarayam, we are so cool" was weighing down on me. Those show pieces of fake rebellion could've been avoided. But I am coming to terms with the new Maniratnam. One of us has changed. I don't know if its me or him. But the relationship with my boyhood adulation has changed in the last 15 years.  

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Nirmal Shekhar

Some news items make you sad. Nirmal Shekar passing away is one. I had this article cut and stuck on my bedroom wall for many years. I have read it and re-read it countless times (as I recollect here). Nirmal Shekar is a sports writer I grew up reading and the best sports writer I have ever read. I was so sad to hear the news of his passing away. Reading his version of the extent of grass and wind chill in the Edgbaston pitch made you want to wear a sweater in 40C Madras sun. Stefan Edberg arching like a bow while serving, Becker flying parallel to the ground to get that unreachable volley, the years of Pete Sampras worship and then the magic of Federer were all special if you saw it through the eyes of Nirmal Sekhar. His writing was more flair and more poetry than sports but then who cares.

Link to my favorite article of his is here