The new tennis league is crazy but good fun, says Federer

My piece for The New Yorker online on the International Premier Tennis League and what it means for the future of the sport.

I can’t deny that the league possesses a certain easy charm that, gradually if not entirely, grew on me over the weekend. There was, for one thing, the sheer novelty of watching all those stars assembled in the same place. I couldn’t take my eyes off Federer and Sampras, who were huddled together on a bench—what were they talking about?—and my eyes kept following Sampras as he sauntered over to Boris Becker, who stood a few metres in front of Goran Ivanisevic (Becker wasn’t playing; he was part of the audience). Gaël Monfils danced with the Indian star Sania Mirza. Ivanovic laughed a lot, wrapped her arms around the French player Fabrice Santoro, and at one point broke into a fake bow to mark her awe at a particularly impressive Federer overhead.

This was sheer entertainment, of course, just cheap celebrity watching. It certainly lacked the intensity of a Wimbledon final (or even, truth be told, of the club matches I play a couple of times a week). But I think that’s part of the point. Tennis is an amazing sport, but even its biggest fans would be hard-pressed to say that it is a fun sport. Agassi called tennis “the loneliest sport” in his autobiography; he compared it to “solitary confinement.” Few things in life are as nerve-wracking as going for a second serve at, say, 30-40, 4-5. There’s nothing quite as miserable as netting an easy volley on match point, or as watching yourself—helplessly, as if from the outside—fritter away a lead.

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More on the Bay of Bengal…

Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing Sunil Amrith’s fascinating book on the Bay of Bengal for The New York Times Book Review. I recently met Amrith in Pondicherry. We drove up the coast and talked about his research and the fascinating–if often overlooked–history of this part of the world. I wrote about our afternoon together for The Hindu.

I’m standing in the fishing village of Arikamedu, outside Pondicherry. I’m visiting with Sunil Amrith, a professor of History at the University of London. Amrith is the author of a recent book titled Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants.

I first came across the book about a year ago, when I was asked to review it. It piqued my curiosity. I have grown up along the Bay, in Pondicherry and Auroville. Very little writing and research exists about this area. I feel as though I have grown up lacking a conceptual vocabulary to understand my world. Amrith’s work has given me a new frame of reference. It has led me to revisit, and re-imagine, the landscape of my youth.

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Turning Litter Into Roads

My article from Bloomberg Businessweek on a new technology that has the potential to solve (or at least alleviate) two of India’s biggest problems: garbage and infrastructure.

It is difficult to exaggerate India’s garbage problem. Jairam Ramesh, the nation’s former environment minister, has said that if there were a “Nobel prize for dirt and filth,” India would win it. As much as 40 percent of the country’s municipal waste remains uncollected, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of the waste that is collected, almost none is recycled.

Much of India’s garbage is made up of plastic—a scourge of the nation’s new consumer economy. The country’s Central Pollution Control Board says more than 15,000 tons of plastic waste are generated daily. The Supreme Court of India recently observed: “We are sitting on a plastic time bomb.”

Vasudevan sees an opportunity. A professor of chemistry at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, near Madurai, he insists that plastic gets a bad rap. Rather than an incipient environmental calamity, plastic, in Vasudevan’s opinion, is a “gift from the gods”; it’s up to humans to use it wisely. And he’s devised a way to transform common plastic litter—not only thicker acrylics and bottles but also grocery bags and wrappers—into a partial substitute for bitumen in asphalt.

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NPR All Things Considered

A short written and recorded segment from National Public Radio, All Things Considered: India’s election through the prism of literature. I chose V S Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now to talk about the significance of Modi’s election.

Audio clip here 

When I think of what just happened in Indian politics, I think about a book I first read some 24 years ago. That book was India: A Million Mutinies Now, by the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul. Naipaul traveled through India in the late ’80s; he wrote before the economic reforms of the ’90s, before the social transformations of the new millennium.

But Naipaul was prescient. In a series of incisive portraits, he captured the incipient hopes and ambitions of the Indian people. He wrote detailed character sketches of businessmen, stockbrokers, politicians, women breaking free from oppressive traditions. Naipaul described these people — ordinary people — finding a new voice and identity. He wrote that they were discovering “the idea of freedom.”

In many ways, that idea — a sense of self-confidence, of individual self-expression — has found shape in Modi’s election.

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India’s Election Choice: Growth Economy or Welfare State

An article from Bloomberg Businessweek, on the upcoming elections in India.

Indian elections aren’t known for their clarity. Messy, cacophonous affairs, they stretch across months and almost invariably result in fragmented verdicts. Political groupings are opportunistic, driven by personality rather than issues; competing party platforms are often indistinguishable.

This year’s parliamentary elections—the nation’s 16th since independence, running from April 7 to May 12—are proving an exception. The distinctions between India’s leading parties are unusually sharp; the race is shaping up as a genuine battle of ideas, a real debate over the direction of the nation.

Youth vs. experience, communal vs. secular: These are the lines along which the elections are generally being interpreted. But there is, also, a third distinction between the parties, one that’s less remarked upon but arguably more important. The elections are in many ways a contest over economic ideas, over the model of development best suited to India. This contest significantly raises the stakes for Indian voters; the outcome of these elections could very well determine the fortunes of an economy that has recently fallen into stagnation.

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What Philippines Can Learn From 2004 Tsunami

A belated post of my article on Typhoon Haiyan, and possible lessons from the Asian Tsunami. Published in Bloomberg View.

Every disaster is particular. Different regions and nations face different challenges (and opportunities) in confronting nature’s fury. Still, there are enough broad similarities to make it worth asking: What lessons does the Asian tsunami have to offer those responding to Haiyan?

In the weeks and months after the tsunami, the area where I live (like affected regions across the Indian Ocean) witnessed something of a second wave: a veritable tide of air-conditioned cars and vans, of relief workers from around the world. These men and women (pink-faced and sweaty under the South Indian sun, dressed in clean, ironed clothes that contrasted poignantly with the rags worn by survivors) poured into the villages around here, promising succor.

In many ways, their concern was heartening. But one of the central lessons of that disaster is that international aid, while absolutely essential, can also be too much of a good thing. It’s not just quantity that counts; the quality is essential, too.

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The Cost of Growth in India

Article from The New Yorker online about coastal erosion in South India. An accompaniment to the print article from the previous week. Be sure to also check out the accompanying slide show.

I was in Kadapakkam because I was interested in understanding the impact of large infrastructure projects on people’s lives. The conventional wisdom among policymakers and development experts is that poor infrastructure is holding back India’s growth. K.P.M.G., the consulting and accounting company, calculates that the nation’s transportation and logistics bottlenecks reduce its growth rate by up to two per cent a year. A government report that came out last week estimates that infrastructure projects worth some two hundred and fifty billion dollars are stalled, mired in red tape. Last year, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said that India must meet its infrastructure-spending targets over the next five years “at any cost.”

But what, really, are the costs of large infrastructure projects?

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Letter from Tamil Nadu: Rush

My article on the East Coast Road and the changes it has brought, published in The New Yorker 

What happens when a big road meets a small village?

It was early on a summer day, the sun was still soft, and traffic was thick on the East Coast Road, in the South Indian village of Kadapakkam. In the center of the village, trucks and auto-rickshaws and taxis coalesced into a mess of diesel fumes and honking horns. Two buses met at a right angle at an intersection; each refused to yield, vehicles piled up, and for a moment this agricultural and fishing hamlet of some three thousand people was witness to the unlikely spectacle of a traffic jam.

K. Ganesh, a twenty-seven-year-old photographer from the village, stood outside his studio and grimaced. Ganesh was born and reared in Kadapakkam. He could remember when a motor vehicle was a rare sight in these parts. It wasn’t so long ago that he got around on a bicycle; now he owned a motorcycle.

“When the East Coast Road was first built, people didn’t know what to make of all the traffic,” Ganesh told me. They were annoyed by the pollution, kept awake by the noise, and terrified of the accidents. Ganesh recalled at least a hundred deaths in the area during the past decade or so, since the building of the road, a seven-hundred-kilometre-long highway that runs through the state of Tamil Nadu. Sometimes he was called by the police to take pictures of the mutilated bodies.

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My review, in The New York Times Book Review, of Crossing the Bay of Bengal, Sunil Amrith’s excellent new book. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in migration, environmental history, the Tamil diaspora, or the multicultural worlds that border the Bay.

A few miles up the road from my home, on a sandy beach in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, there is a crumbling fort that extends into the Bay of Bengal. The fort was built in the 17th century; over the years, it has been controlled by Mughal rulers from the north, by the French and by the British. Farther down the coast, past a string of fishing villages, sits the former French colony of Pondicherry, its wide boulevards and elegant villas overlooking the shimmering waters of the bay. A few miles away is an ancient Roman trading outpost. And two and a half hours beyond sits the former Danish port town of Tranquebar, its yellow fort blending into the sand, its rusty cannons pointing at the ocean.

The diversity of this region — a triangle of flat land that extends along the southeastern coast of India — is testament to an ancient history of migration, imperial conquest and seaborne commerce. As Sunil S. Amrith writes in his fascinating new book, “Crossing the Bay of Bengal,” the countries bordering the bay have for centuries been home to a cosmopolitan world that “is strangely familiar from the vantage point of the early 21st century — a world of polyglot traders and cross-cultural marriages, a world in which long-distance travel is a common experience.”

Lacking a political union to give it coherence, this world has often been overlooked. Although several books have been written about the strategic and geopolitical significance of the Indian Ocean — Robert D. Kaplan’s “Monsoon,” for instance — there is little awareness of the cultural and historical ties that bind diverse nations bordering the bay. Amrith’s signal achievement is to bring these ties to light. In doing so, he gives voice — and an identity — to one of the most complex and culturally interesting regions of the world.

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The Economic Crisis India Needs

My article in Bloomberg Businessweek, on India’s economic crisis–its worst in over two decades.

India finds itself in a particularly tight situation for at least two reasons. First, the nation’s current-account deficit, at 4.8 percent, is one of the largest among major emerging markets. With growth down, and exports subdued because of lower demand in China and Europe, that deficit is becoming harder to service. Second, any attempt to raise interest rates to tame inflation could further stifle investment and growth.

A dangerous—and dangerously self-reinforcing—narrative is taking hold. While policymakers tout the nation’s solid fundamentals, there’s a growing sense that they’re essentially helpless. There is talk of a possible credit downgrade; rumors abound (vigorously denied by the government) that India might eventually need an IMF loan. “Signs of panic,” editorialized theFinancial Express, one of India’s leading dailies.

India’s problems are certainly real. The country’s facing what is widely acknowledged to be its most severe crisis since 1991. But as dismal as the situation appears, India could yet emerge stronger, if not quite unscathed, from its troubles. In fact, a case could be made that India’s struggles are just the medicine its economy requires.

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