Report: India Today Conclave 2014

I have always tried to keep myself aware of the world around me. Take a peek into my life, and you'll find me spending quite a lot of my time on all kinds of news feed on my HTC device. Apart from science, I take interest in politics, sports, current affairs - national and international - literature, entertainment and in so many other fields. So when everyone I met in New Delhi asked me what I do, I found myself disappointing them again and again.

"How does a PhD in Molecular Biology aspirant find his way to the 13th India Today Conclave?" They couldn't believe me further when I told them of my invitation as the official blogger for the event. Take a careful note, ladies and gentlemen. Take a careful note of the kind of social apathy a gap-toothed, bespectacled science student has to face everyday in his life!

So anyway, while I grudgingly choose to overlook this discrimination, I must tell you of the awesomeness that I witnessed on 7th and 8th March 2014 at the Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi. And of some things that were not so awesome at the same time - at the time of which, I had to leave my seat in order to grab some of those free caramel cappuccino at the in-house cafe.

The very next best thing to a wedding banquet.

I was perhaps the only 'hatke' person in the crowd and in my team (which consisted of Ankit, Ayaan, Daksh and Shweta, also joined by Karthik and Vineet from Indiblogger) at the Taj that day. The topic was 'Winning' and we were all there to 'ideate, debate and celebrate' along with some of the brightest achievers in the country and from all around the world. Rarely do we find social thinkers, intellectuals and politicians, freely and fairly exchange ideas on the same stage. There were a motley of topics to discuss, but as Mr. Aroon Purie declared in his opening speech, an air of the impending General Elections was of the essence.

At 10 am on 7th March - half past the scheduled time of commencement - I was still taking in my surroundings, taking mental notes on how not to freak out and jump around the spotlessly clean hallways inappropriately. I almost gave up my resolve when Adrian Levy passed by, excusing himself awkwardly.

But soon I felt at ease when I overheard a bossy young lady reprimand her colleagues and juniors, from the media control console behind us, "I don't want anyone talking over here. I don't want to hear how tall Amitabh is, how hunky Salman is or how 'local' Kejriwal looks.. I don't want to hear a sound from this place. Is that clear?" Boy it was loud and clear to me, as it affirmed my chain of thought that I was not the only one!

The two-day extravaganza started on the politic notion of development, progress and a careful scrutiny of 'what-has-your-government-done' as Akhilesh Yadav took on Rahul Kanwal. Much to my surprise, he proved to be quite the cool-headed customer as he faced tough questions with unflinching composure.

After a flawless rhetoric on why the government should not tamper in a state's business by Arun Shourie and some other speakers, it was Ranjit Sinha who repeatedly insisted - in a stiffly delivered speech - on how the integrity of CBI remains protected and is still uncompromised. Arvind Panagariya (professor of Economics at Columbia University) and Montek Singh Ahluwalia (Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission) brought some life into the discussion of 'high growth vs high dole' only in the last 10 minutes when the two began a frantic debate on the subject.

Just before lunch, Palestinian-American comedienne Maysoon Zayid, who also suffers from cerebral palsy, nailed it with her outlandish wit and sarcasm. While she began with stuff like this:

"I fear being at an American airport, as they see me as an Arab, a shaking Arab. My dad who comes to drop me, looks like Saddam Hussein, mumbling things from the Quran"

Soon she moved on to the larger issue of how the society should accept and address people with disability. She delivered everything in such excellently placed wit, that the people gave her a standing ovation. Not once, not twice, but thrice! Watch out for her TED-talk session too. She's an inspiring Arab She's an inspiring personality. Oops!

At lunch, the Bengali in me took over, as I skipped the hoity-toity queue (hitting Vasundhara Raje in the process - my claim to fame!) and rushed towards the Prawn Malai Curry dish (Chingri-maacher Malai Curry)!

After lunch, we had an enthralling session of political debate between Vasundhara Raje and Kapil Sibal, followed by a tasteless confession of Ranveer Singh, "I hate Politics, it's murky.." The last three sessions of the night were worth the wait as Amit Shah took on Manish sisodia and Digvijaya Singh over an election debate. Call me a BJP jockstrap, but I ended up clapping the hardest at the times Amit Shah candidly, yet effectively, shot down the tactlessly raised questions of Digvijaya Singh.

And if you thought that you can never get starstruck, just you wait for Amitabh Bachchan to make a grand entry, mister! Boy, what a personality! I don't think I blinked even once in that one hour. He ruled Bollywood in the 1970s and he still rules India with a classy sense of wit, humour and showmanship.

Arvind Kejriwal - Former Chief Minister of Delhi - was hungover from his extremely recent Gujarat trip, from where he was picked up - Dark Knight style - and heli dropped at the Taj Palace Hotel at New Delhi. Answering to pointed questions and quips and viral sms messages, Kejriwal seemed like a shadow of his usual self. That was when I realized that the brilliant anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal is losing a hard-fought battle of self-realization and integrity against the common-man politician Arvind Kejriwal. I personally have little hopes from him in the coming elections, but I do hope that he survives the fall only to make a comeback and inspire people to join politics all over again.

The second day was less of politics and belonged largely to the spellbinding taste of the Pierre Hermé macarons and chocolates! Hailed as the Picasso of Pastry, this man imagines the taste and look of his creations, sketches it down to ponder on it further and then if it passes his tests, he decides to make it. Trust me, they are 'must haves'.

While Deepika Padukone's session turned out to be a much-abused advice on relationships, Omar Abdullah's objective stand on the Kashmiri students' sedition charges is a stand that other politicians and journalists should also follow and observe. An ebullient Jack Sim (Founder of the World Toilet Organization) blew the lid off the issue of toilet and sanitation, which is otherwise considered to be a taboo. How shameful it is that it takes a foreigner to remind us the importance of healthy sanitation and how much we lack the practice of it!

We witnessed the genius of robotics as renowned roboticist Dr. Henrik Schärfe let his almost-human android do most the talking. We listened to Adrian Levy, Hooman Majd and Himanshu Roy as they spoke about the 26/11 terror-attack. We heard the authors Aatish Taseer and Kamila Shamsie as they spoke on India, Pakistan and Fab India. Jesselyn Radack and Harish Salve addressed the issue of protecting the whistle-blowers and activists, and how to protect individual privacy. Speaking on the issue of why India should pursue spendthrift space projects while it needs to be feeding the hungry, Dr. K. Radhakrishnan and Dr. Jean-Yves Le Gall reminded us again how important it is to keep challenging obstacles and pushing human limits to achieve the unachievable.

And then I met Kalki Koechlin. While she was discussing issues surrounding women, womanhood and the societal apathy towards them at the event, we spoke for a little while over lunch. While I'm almost always skeptical of how these celebrities behave, I was immediately won over when I noticed that she used her hands to lick the plates clean, instead of the pretentious fork. Yes 'fork you', other famous people! She was extremely humble and welcoming. And when it comes to talent, she leaves no doubt as she delivers a powerful performance. Here is an excerpt of the spectacular monologue:

"Enough of a woman who has become vicious from her environment. Enough of a woman who has to become a man to compete, who has to weaken where she is strong or strengthen where she is weak. Enough of a woman who has to make space for her child and lover, who has to occupy what space is left-over. Enough of uninformed teenage girls bleeding upto losing their virginity and keeping silent after. Enough of having to deal all alone with the morning after. Enough! Enough of the disposed fetus or the unwanted daughter. Enough of girls in fairy dresses with bulimia and major complexes. Enough of parents in denial, gender gaps in dividing sexes. I am tired, you are tired, we are all tired. We are tired of acting, manicuring, exercising, aborting, procreating, posing, not shopping, smiling, fuc*ing, threading, the pill, makeup, high heels, stainless steel, tampons, covering up, nurturing, caring and crying!"

So while I cannot yet explain what a PhD aspirant in Molecular Biology hoped to achieve by attending the 13th India Today Conclave, I can only say this: It feels good to get an unedited version of the things that go on, of the things that matter. It feels good to finally get an objective news and not being told someone else's opinion on TV! The people I met in this event make headlines on a daily basis, and it feels great to hear them first-hand and form my own unaided opinion on whether I should like them or not.

But then that's just me. For other information of the event, do follow this link: Ciao!

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