Wednesday, November 24, 2010

White Nights

I have not seen Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya, and nor do I intend to see it. However, a couple of reviews of his most recent movie, Guzaarish, mentioned the earlier movie, so I thought of checking out the plot. This led me to Dostoveysky's 'White Nights', and I realized with great joy that I had earlier read this story, loved it, and had forgotten both the name of the story as well as the author (for some reason I thought the author had been Kafka!). Anyhow, glad to get back in touch with this fantastic story.

Plot below (thanks to Wikipedia):

Like many of Dostoevsky's stories, "White Nights" is told in first person by a nameless narrator who lives alone in a city and suffers from loneliness and the inability to stop thinking. The character is an archetype of a perpetual dreamer. He lives his life in his own mind, imagining that an old man he always passes but never talks to or houses are his friends. The short story is divided into six sections:

First Night

The story opens with a quotation by Ivan Turgenev

"And was it his destined part
Only one moment in his life
To be close to your heart?
Or was he fated from the start
to live for just one fleeting instant,
within the purlieus of your heart."

The narrator describes his experience walking in the streets of St. Petersburg. He loves the city at night time during which he feels comfortable in the city. He no longer feels comfortable during the day because all the people he was used to seeing were not there. He drew his emotions from there. If they were happy, he was happy. If they were despondent, he was despondent. He felt alone when seeing new faces. The main character also knew the houses. As he strolled down the streets they would talk to him and tell him how they were being renovated or painted a new color or being torn down. The main character lives alone in a small apartment in Saint Petersburg with only his older, non-social maid Matrona to keep him company.

He tells the story of his relationship with a young girl called Nastenka (a diminutive of the name Anastasia). He first sees her standing against a railing while crying. He becomes concerned and considers asking what's wrong but eventually steels himself to continue walking. There is something special about her and he is very curious. When he hears her scream, he intervenes and saves her from a man who is harassing her.

The main character feels timid and begins shaking while she holds his arm. He explains that he is alone, that he has never known a woman, so he is timid. Nastenka reassures him that ladies like timidity and she likes it, too. He tells her how he spends every minute of every day dreaming about a girl that would just say two words to him, who will not repulse him or ridicule him as he approached. He explains how he thinks of talking to a random girl timidly, respectfully, passionately; telling her that he is dying in solitude and how he has no chance of making a mark on any girl. He tells her that it is a girl's duty not to rudely reject or mock one as timid and luckless as he is.

As they reach Nastenka's door, the main character asks if he will ever see her again. Before she can answer, he adds that he will be at the spot they met tomorrow anyway just so he can relive this one happy moment in his lonely life. She agrees, stating she can't forbid him not to come and she has to be there anyway. The girl would tell him her story and be with him, provided that it does not lead into romance. She too is as lonely as the narrator.

Second Night

On their second meeting, Nastenka introduces herself to him and the two become friends by relating to each other. She exclaims that she has been thinking and knows nothing of him. He responds that he has no history because he has spent his life utterly alone. When she presses him to continue on the matter, the term "dreamer" pops up as the main character explains that he is of that archetype. The main character defines " 'The dreamer' - if you want an exact definition - is not a human being, but a creature of an intermediate sort."

In a precursor to a similar speech in Notes from Underground, the narrator gives a verbose speech about his longing for companionship leading Nastenka to comment, " talk as if you were reading from a book".

He begins to tell his story in third person as he call himself "the hero." This "hero" is happy the hour when all work ends and people walk about. He references Vasily Zhukovsky as he mentions "The Goddess of Fancy". He dreams of everything in this time; from befriending poets to having a place in the winter with a girl by his side. He states that the dreariness of everyday life kills people while he can make his life as he wishes it to be at any time in his dreams.

At the end of his moving speech, Nastenka sympathetically assures him that she would be his friend.

Nastenka's Story

The third part is Nastenka relating her life story to the narrator. She lived with her strict grandmother who gave her a largely sheltered upbringing. Her grandmother's pension being too small, they rent out their house to gain income. When their early lodger dies, he's replaced by a younger man closer to Nastenka's age much to her grandmother's distaste. The young man begins a silent courtship with Nastenka giving her a book often so that she may develop a reading habit. She takes a liking to the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Aleksandr Pushkinas a result. One day, the young man invites her and her grandmother to the theater running The Barber of Seville.

Upon the night that the young lodger is about to leave Petersburg for Moscow, Nastenka escapes her grandmother and urges him to marry her. He refuses immediate marriage, stating that he does not have money to support them but he assures her that he would return for her exactly a year later. Nastenka finishes her story at the end of this, noting that a year has gone and he hasn't sent her a single letter.

Third Night

The narrator gradually realizes that despite his assurance that their friendship would remain platonic, he has inevitably fallen in love with her. But he nevertheless helps her by writing and posting a letter to her lover and hides away his feelings for her. They await his reply for the letter or his appearance; but, gradually, Nastenka grows restless at his absence. She takes comfort in the narrator's friendship. Unaware of the depth of his feelings for her, she states that "I love you so, because you haven't fallen in love with me." The narrator, despairing due to the unrequited nature of his love for her, notes that he has now begun to feel alienated from her as well.

Fourth Night

Nastenka despairs at the absence of her lover and his reply even though she knows that he's in St. Petersburg. The narrator continues to comfort her to which she's extremely grateful, leading the narrator to break his resolve and confess his love for her. Nastenka is disoriented at first, and the narrator, realizing that they can no longer continue to be friends in the manner that they did before, insists on never seeing her again; however, she urges him to stay. They take a walk where Nastenka states that maybe their relationship might become romantic some day, but she obviously wants his friendship in her life. The narrator becomes hopeful at this prospect when during their walk, they pass by a young man who stops and calls after them. He turns out to be Nastenka's lover into whose arms she jumps. She returns briefly to kiss the narrator but journeys into the night with her love leaving him alone and broken hearted.


"My nights came to an end with a morning. The weather was dreadful. It was pouring, and the rain kept beating dismally against my windowpanes".

The final section is a brief afterword that relates a letter which Nastenka sends him apologizing for hurting him and insisting that she would always be thankful for his companionship. She also mentions that she would be married within a week and hoped that he would come. The narrator breaks into tears upon reading the letter. Matryona, his maid, interrupts his thoughts by telling him she's finished cleaning the cobwebs. The narrator notes that though he'd never considered Matryona to be an old woman, she looked far older to him then than she ever did before, and briefly wonders if his own future is to be without companionship and love. He however refuses to despair.

"But that I should feel any resentment against you, Nastenka! That I should cast a dark shadow over your bright, serene happiness! ...That I should crush a single one of those delicate blooms which you will wear in your dark hair when you walk up the aisle to the altar with him! Oh no — never, never! May your sky be always clear, may your dear smile be always bright and happy, and may you be for ever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness which you gave to another lonely and grateful heart ... Good Lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn't such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man's life?"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Let's measure!

On Aug 27, I had posted this, with ideas for 5 potential trades. I thought it would be good to take stock of how these trades would have done given that it has been a quarter since the ideas. Here is a table outlining the performance of these hypothetical trades.

Approximately 21% annualized returns. Not a spectacular performance, but then not bad either! Just buying the index would have given approximately a 9% return over the same period, but this portfolio is designed to be perform even when the index does not. So in theory, it should outperform over a longer time frame. I will keep tracking it and reporting results to see how the damn thing goes.

Analyzing each of the 5 trades, I think the only place I went significantly wrong was in the oil marketing companies. However, current under performance is primarily due to rising crude prices, which in turn is due to a weak USD. I remain confident that the pack should recover with continuing weakness in the global economy.

The (very reasonable) assumption here is that one would have put an equal amount of money to work on each leg of a trade (e.g. if one has Rs 100 in total for this portfolio, then I would buy / short a stock worth Rs 20. For a paired trade, I would buy for Rs 10 and short for Rs 10). CMP as on date includes dividends paid between 27 Aug and today.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Augean stables getting cleaned? What a stink...

Looks like this is the come-to-Jesus moment for Indian politicians.

The Supreme Court of India has rightly asked why the supposedly clean Prime Minister was dawdling when A Raja was brazenly stealing the country's wealth in broad daylight. The government is in a bind, the Maharashtra CM is gone over stealing war widows homes, and the CWG culprit also is out of the Congress party's charmed circles. In Karnataka, the BJP CM is trying to brazen out the fact that 4 of his relatives were alloted plots in prime areas for a song. This is par for the course, and the fellow has to explain himself NOT because he should be flogged and jailed for corruption, but because this has come to light at a time when the BJP wants to embarrass the government on corruption charges. Meanwhile, an independent think-tank says that fully 50% of India's GDP is made up of black money, which pays no taxes and is illegal!

All this action is great for our polity. However, it is by no means enough. It all started gaining momentum because Sonia Gandhi got moving on the Adarsh society scam. (Aside: Much as I am against dynastic politics, I believe that Rahul Gandhi and his mom are India's best bets for probity in public life at this point in time). This is great, but we need to institutionalize comeuppance in our system. A corrupt person should be caught by a truly independent investigative agency, something like the Central Election Commission (the CBI? Ha Ha Ha - this is probably the most docile and conveniently blind of lapdogs in the world), be tried by courts which do not take 20 years to deliver their judgements, and be meted out swift punishment.

All this can be done, though it is by no means simple to do. But then, greatness for a country does not come on a platter - it has to be won through hard work and bloody-mindedness.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

There's something about them...

Watching Michelle Obama dance very gracefully to a Koli song along with tiny schoolchildren while Barack nodded enthusiastically in tune with the music, the wife made an astute remark. There is something about both of them! An elusive something that captures dignity, grace and honesty.

I agree totally! The couple go on eco-friendly holidays, are fit and athletic, undeniably intelligent, super powerful, and yet seem down to earth and likable (sic: of course I have never met them myself so can only rely on portrayals in the mass media).

More power to the Obamas! I hope the dude overcomes his mid term electoral drubbing and wins a second term for himself. He, and his wife are shining role models in an increasingly cynical and bleak world.

Monday, November 08, 2010


The wife, kid and I spent a few indolent days in Goa recently. We stayed very close to the Cansaulim beach, and I for one was quite impressed. Nice, spotlessly clean beach, no crowds, clean water and white sands!

Add pina colada (nice), Corona beer (nicer) and Margaritas (nicest) to the mix, and we are talking serious hedonism! However, the most fun was had by the daughter - she made sure that her dad got a lot of exercise to wear off the alcohol (carrying her about) and that her mom did not suffer from too much of sleep (feeding her on demand). She had a blast in the pool, and made zillions of friends, on the airplane, in restaurants or where we stayed.

We did not venture out much (in fact, not at all) but did enjoy some good Goan cuisine. Alas, crabs were out (sigh!). However, we did get compensation in the form of a rainbow!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

New York, New York

First, a confession - I am a confirmed Indophile. Despite having had many opportunities to work and live abroad in the short span that has been my working life, I always chose to stay back in India. And insularity had nothing to do with it - I have travelled quite a bit - all over Europe, South East Asia, Australia and Africa.

Now that that is out of the way, I come to the main point - I think New York is truly the greatest city in the world. Apart from day trips once or twice each year, I have experienced NY for exactly a week. And what a week! The wife and I lived in style at the Ritz, practically overlooking Ms. Liberty and in shouting distance from the Bull of Wall Street. We had many drink-sozzled nights with our IIM buddies in the Village(?? - I was too drunk to be geographically astute) and we partook of some wholesome junk at various restaurants across the city. The sheer infectiousness, the rhythm, the joie-de-vivre of the city totally took us in.

I think the eureka moment came when we were on our way back to our hotel, and the taxi driver started speaking in Pakistani urdu on his cell-phone, describing some nocturnal activities that he had been upto / would like to be upto (a conversation which would have made my ears turn red, had they not been already numb with generous helpings of alcohol) to his buddy, and the wife and I exchanged suppressed giggles, that I got it. New York is a melting pot, a city that gives you the freedom of anonymity in exchange for your enriching its already super-rich cultural milieu. When someone attacks New York, they attack all the nations of the world. They attack humanity.

New York rocks!

Weird rules spoil the game

More often than not, we as a country prefer to have a plethora of rules. Exemptions, special situations and sub clauses are the norm. We truly have spaghetti - like laws (and I don't mean that they are yummy!), income tax rules, excise duties and what not.

A prime example of this is the Coal India IPO. If one had applied for shares worth Rs 100,000 (the maximum amount under the 'Retail' category), one would have got shares worth approximately Rs 46,000. However, if one had applied for shares worth Rs 100,001, one would have got shares worth Rs. 5,000! Rules such as this, while meant to protect the elusive 'small investor' just make it mandatory for people to game the system and apply all sorts of means (like applying as a retail guy even though I'm actually a HNI through other peoples' names or 'renting' demat accounts for hot IPOs) to maximize economic benefits. Rupenben Panchal and her ilk proliferate in such a system. Such systems are always regressive, and it is high time we realized that we are all homo-economicus i.e. we respond to incentives.

We need to make rules simple and easy to understand. No one should be able to say - I need to pay mega$$$ tax since I made mega $$$ profits. However, applying sub-clause xii-b under section VII part ix of 1960 Companies Law as applicable in 21c Excise and Exports Amendment 1984, I can declare myself insolvent. Hence no tax.