# 27 Of Mughals and Mangoes, Battling Bubbles
Mughals and Mangoes
It was a scorcher of a day in Delhi. I asked Jiten, visiting from San Jose, whether he would like some mangoes. Very much. I pulled some Sindhura mangoes out of the fridge, and tried not to make too much a mess of carving slices for us.
“Really chilled!”, Jiten remarked. “Brings out the flavour - I must remember that next time I eat a mango.”
I was a little puzzled. Chilled mangoes are axiomatic for me, like chilled beer. Even the Mughals knew this. About the mangoes, I mean. I have a childhood memory of the sound-and-light show - the son et lumiere, we called it then - at Delhi’s Red Fort, telling us how Emperors relished mangoes that had been cooled in the flowing waters of the Yamuna.
‘Cool’ is relative. If you’re sitting on a marble throne, in a sandstone palace baked by the Delhi sun, even if the air around you is being stirred by peacock-feather fans, anything that’s not burning to the touch is cool. But chilled? Mangoes popped in the tepid June waters of the Yamuna most definitely were not.
Poor Mughals - here were two of us, ordinary citizens of two republics, slouched in our arm-chairs, definitely no Peacock Throne in evidence, looking out at a scorched street from an almost-chilled room, wondering whether to carve up another really-chilled mango. We did.
I have to confess, I’m a bit of a Lee Kuan Yew fan - he of the malarial swamp that became the rich city state of Singapore. Like him, I believe that air-conditioning was one of the most transforming inventions of the 20th century. I’m waiting for Bangalore residents who read this to say, “Come to our city”. As a Dilli-walla, I can’t have a 30-second conversation with someone from Bangalore without them jangling their weather-jingoism. Thank you all very much, but I like our broad streets, our gorgeous parks, and my air-conditioning. I have the same conversation, in my head, with guides who drone on about the luxury of our ancient forts and palaces, “But did they have air-conditioning? Or chilled mangoes?”
Or antibiotics? Less than a century ago, a President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, lost his son because of a blister that formed when he was playing tennis. “When I look out that window, I always see my boy playing tennis on that court out there.” the President would tell a friend. Today, it is virtually unthinkable that anyone should develop a raging, fatal sepsis from a tennis blister. But in 1924, four years before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, a blister killed the son of one of the world’s most powerful men. In 1940, a team based in Oxford developed a protocol for purifying penicillin that enabled its mass production and distribution by 1945.
Today, the pharmaceutical industry churns out 40 bn dollars worth of antibiotics a year. In India, thanks to drug laws that circumscribe the validity of drug patents, they are incredibly cheap. Too cheap, some would say, encouraging over-use, and the build-up of antibiotic resistance. But the larger point is that the story of technology is the story of the democratisation of technology.
For millennia, only the richest and most powerful could transmit messages to business correspondents or rival kings in other locations. As early as 2400 B.C. the Pharaohs had a highly developed courier system that sent their decrees out across their kingdom. Kings and successful traders knew the value of timely news to effective governance and sustained profits, and put considerable resources behind dedicated channels of communication; but the first attempts at a widely accessible postal system were not seen until forty centuries later, in 17th century France.
When technology became our main courier, widespread access was achieved in the blink of a historical eyelid. In 1995, as an early adopter, I paid 16 rupees a minute for cellphone calls - incoming and outgoing. Today, a month’s worth of “all-you-can-talk” cell phone plans costs less than a couple of alphonso mangoes. Chilled, of course.
After air-conditioning, my favorite form of technology is audio-recording. Once, only kings could lure a Tansen into performing for them. Others had to make do with the bard in their midst, and if your resident minstrel was Cacofonix, you had to lump it. Thirty years ago, a friend and I took a driving holiday in Himachal in a Maruti 800, the back-seat taken up by a borrowed boom-box and a carton stacked with CDs. “I feel like a king”, I told her, “riding through the Himalayas with music from all over the world”, as we cycled through Zakir Hussain, Bruce Hornsby, and Peter Gabriel. Today, thanks to Spotify, my almost weightless phone pipes music into every set of speakers I own, in our Himalayan cottage, our Delhi flat, and in the car that travels between them.
Over the last few weeks, as central banks throttle back on easy money, many commentators have warned of a “VC winter”, when Venture Capitalists become more picky about funding the tidal wave of start-ups across the world. There has been no shortage of Schadenfreude, either, by those who say the world doesn’t need 10-minute groceries. I wouldn’t disagree, but the same risk capital is also funding gene-editing scientists and nuclear energy evangelists.
Somewhere in that raft of genomic start-ups, I’m sure, are remedies that will do to cancers what penicillin did to tennis blisters. And it would be a pity if the renewed wave of interest in nuclear energy petered out because of a funding winter.
I mean, burning coal to chill those mangoes is so last century!
It’s not ‘that’ wet
Last week it was a ban on wheat exports; this week, it is a reduction of excise duties on diesel and petroleum. The government is taking administrative action to combat inflation, supplementing the RBI’s move towards tighter money supply.
For every rupee of excise revenue the government gives up, it will need to borrow one rupee more, and the borrowing program is already showing signs of strain. A couple of weeks ago, we heard that the Ministry of Finance was complaining about higher borrowing costs, signalling to the RBI that they need to control bond yields. This whole game seems to me a little bit like trying to maintain a flat surface on a water bed. Push down at one end, and the water balloons up at the other.
Tax revenues are ahead of target, so some observers believe that the fiscal deficit will be under control. I suspect, though, that much of the tax buoyancy is due to inflation. Government expenditure will need to keep pace with price levels, pushing the deficit back up again. On the non-tax front, the government is dealing with several setbacks - the RBI’s dividend, at 30,307 cr, is a fraction of last year’s payout of 99,122 cr; the LIC IPO was drastically cut back, in recognition of capital market conditions, and the long-awaited divestment of the petroleum company BPCL seems off the cards.
The latter is hardly surprising: this morning, the Hindu reported that oil marketing companies are asking their dealers to restrict the sale of diesel, “as more bulk consumers seek to take advantage of the relatively lower price at which the fuel is sold to retail buyers.” Dual pricing rarely works - one would have thought the Indian government learned this a long time ago. This morning, television channels went wall-to-wall with the narrative that the drop in excise duties is evidence of how the Modi government always cares for its people. I am sure this also translates into oil companies being forced to keep down their profit margins. It will be a while before BPCL is offloaded, and till then, its dividend payout to the government will also be curtailed.
That water bed is getting distinctly choppy.