Saturday, December 30, 2006

FAQ: What do I do the whole day?

I remember an envious colleague telling me on the day I retired, "I wish I too could say, a Monday is just another day."

Ogden Nash articulated the thought in a verse:
Monday is the day that everything starts all over again;
It's the day when life becomes grotesque again,
Because it is the day when you have to face your desk again;

The bliss of retirement, of not having to go to work, is short-lived. Before long you discover there is another side to a life free from Monday-morning work hassle. Now I have people asking how I manage to spend time in retirement. I tell them about my collection of unread books, the TV remote, that handy device for channel-surfing. I tell them about my blog. They nod agreeably. And just about when I feel that the issue has been settled, they pop the question: "Yes, but what is it that you do the entire day?"

Even while in service, friends and relatives, whose perception of a journalist is based on what they see in movies, had difficulty believing that I was capable of an honest day's work. A journalist is seen generally fooling around in coffeehouses or the press club much of the day, dropping in at the office for a while to work the phone and tap a few hundred words on his PC before rushing out for cocktails in the evening. If this is called work, they wonder what idling would be all about.

I mean, they can clearly see the slogging involved in the job done by a ledger-pushing bank clerk or a bricklayer. Even some government babus manage to look busy and purposeful. But when it comes to the media, people are a bit dense on what, precisely, a newspaper correspondent does. I suppose one could raise the same question about the Pope or the President of India.

Our TV and print media photos usually show the President taking a leisurely ride on the horse-drawn Victoria down Rajpath on R Day, hosting lavish parties for visiting dignitaries or pinning medals on people. My boss at the Times of India News Service desk was seen doing not much other than signing sub-editors’ duty charts, leave-sanction forms and lighting up his Guntur cheroot that got put out every now and then. He made seem time-consuming. The boss always managed to look important, purposeful, and in his loosened up tie and rolled up sleeves, fully occupied.

As I said, since retirement the most persistent FAQ I have had, even from well-meaning folk: What do I do the whole day? Spending time on the Net, or with a book, isn’t seen as ‘activity’. I don’t go to the bank or post-office; or stir out my house to pay the phone or power bill. I had a neighbour in Coonoor who had a flair for fixing things - electric iron boxes, mixie, torches, vintage HMV sets that play gramophone records and virtually any other thing that would otherwise have been consigned to the kabariwalah.

Watches and wall clocks that don't run fascinated my busybody neighbour . Occasionally, when he found himself on loose ends, he checked out his neighbours, asking if they needed anything he could fetch from the market or if they had a dripping tap that needed a fresh washer. In contrast, there I was, doing none of this. Must confess I haven’t even mastered the art of wiring a blown fuse. What’s worse, I often get caught ‘book-handed’.

If there is anything a wife usually gets bugged about in a man milling around the house 24x7, it is his obsession with books. Her refrain, ‘don't sit there hiding your face behind a book, do something.’ In retirement, count yourself lucky if you get to read a book, without being interrupted, by having to answer phone calls that are usually for others in the house; distracted by someone ringing the door bell – dobhi or subzi-lady. This is when you miss the office. I used to take a book to work; averaged two titles a week.

Retirement is not all about a running argument with your wife. It makes you more reflective; ponder philosophical questions such as, "How did I age so quickly?" It seemed not so long ago, when I was a care-free bachelor, then, a not-so-caring husband in newspaper, and job-driven absentee father for my son; and now, a grandpa. After retirement, notably, after a grandson happens, you find more relevance to life. Snag is you realize that there isn't much life ahead for you to benefit from the enlightment.

And then the changed lifestyle leaves you with time to think, particularly during those insomnic spells. Few people really do think, although most believe they do. Thinking is demanding and tiring. It is an exercise for the mind. Thinking is hard work. Need I say anything else about how I spend most of my day?

(See earlier version of this piece in

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Of Punch & Shadow, and a street dog named Brownie

When our Bitsy died my wife and I resolved never to keep a dog ever again. Bitsy was irreplaceable. But my wife's madness for dogs hasn't gone away, even decades after Bitsy's death. It is in her DNA. Whenever she phones any of her many sisters the conversation eventually turns to dogs. She talks about Prince with Gowri in Mysore; about Joey, with Chitra, the dead old Tuffy, with Rajesh (both in Chennai). At a recent family get-together in Bangalore, hosted by Gita, the bunch of sisters ran a seminar on dogs. Besides their own Punch and Shadow Gita's daughter, Bubly, is friends with Rocky, Tommy, Blackie and a couple of other street dogs of Kammanhalli, Bangalore.

Speaking of street dogs we had one at Coonoor that fed on leftovers offered by neighbourhood residents. Piloo Nazir, who isn't a rice eater, bought rice from the fair-price shop, only to feed our friendly neighbourhood dog. She boiled leafy vegetable with a fistful of rice, and served it without salt or sugar,but with spoonsful of sympathy. The dog had it all without complaining.

But then he was not finicky, like Prince in Mysore, who would wait till late in the evening, on an empty stomach, for his master Raghottam to come home from the club with the customary packet of chicken bones. Our neighbourhood dog was not as fussy as Shadow in Bangalore who would want his fresh milk and rice served in stainless steel bowl, preferably hand-fed by my niece Bubly. Our dog was not as pampered as Tuffy or sheltered in a Velacherry delux apartment as Joey.

When my nephew Kartik had to leave Joey in the care of the SPCA at Vepery, Chennai, for a few days, the handler was instructed to serve him curd and rice, which wasn't on the kennel menu. The dog handler told him that he would have to order it from a nearby restaurant. Kartik left with him a hefty advance to cover the food plus a little something for the curd-and-rice care.

Yes, we are a dog-mad clan. I must say I married into one. Before our wedding, my wife had a dog named Bhutto. Whether or not Bhutto is remembered in Pakistan, the name is part of our family folklore. I am not sure what prompted my wife's family to name their dog after a signatory to the Simla Agreement. But then there need not always be a reason for in one's doings.

Unlike pet dogs that are taken out for daily walk by pet owners, our dog in Coonoor used to walk people in the neighbourhood. He escorted school kids to the bus stand. He took our neighbours, the Ramans, to the temple, and escorted my wife and me on our morning walks. Which was why we named him Walker - Brownie V Walker, to call him by his full name. That 'V' in the middle sorted him out from other Brownies in town. One should not confuse our dog with Brownie A Walker ( of Aruvankadu) or 'B' (for Bedford) Walker. I don't know why, but most street dogs we found in Coonoor were brown.

Walker had many friends, who joined him on our walks. And before we made it to the St.Anthony School kerb, we had a gang of brownies, all friends of Walker, walking us along. At times Walker followed a jogger for a few yards to sniff him out. A few of the morning walkers he didn't particularly fancy. There is this lady with a boy's hairdo. Whenever she happened to overtake us on the street, Walker barked. She was not amused; we looked elsewhere in embarrassment. The lady once shouted out across the street, asking us why we didn't have him on a leash. She, probably, didn't see Walker was a street dog who happened to walk along with us.

We could not get rid of him, even if we wanted to. There is no way Walker would disown us. He has no ego. Shoo him away and he would be back, wagging his tail with added vigour before you could say Brownie Vannarpet Walker. At times I got put off by his prancing, pouncing and licking at my forearm as soon as I step out of the house in the morning. Walker, who spent the night out in the cold, was always at our door-step in the morning. We humans we are so full of ourselves that we fail to to appreciate Walker's selfless cheerfulness after a night out in the cold and the exuberance with which he greeted us in the morning.

But then I couldn't bring myself to admit Walker into the family fold. You see, we once had a dog, Bitsy, who was picked up from the streets in Bhopal. We took Bitsy along when I was transferred to Chandigarh and then on to Chennai. He died at the age of 13, of kidney failure. Bitsy was an adorable rogue and undisciplined to the core. The only person he ever listened to was Dinkar, our office assistant. But then Dinkar could not come with us to Chennai. Fortunately, we had a spare bedroom in our Pantheon Road residence and we locked Bitsy in there whenever we had visitors.

Those who know dogs know that most of them are allergic to khaki. Walker didn't fancy our postman. We could have asked him not to wear khaki, if only to appease Walker. But that would have been against regulations. But then Walker was freaky. He didn't like my newspaper delivery boy either. And he didn't wear khaki.

We really don't understand dogs, do we? My junk mail the other day had this to say about dogs:
They follow you around with their tongues out; only respond to simple commands; their needs are basic and predictable; they whine when such needs are not met; they scratch a lot, and sometimes drool; make loud noises and sometimes smell bad; they are rude and rowdy, especially when they are with others like them.

What does it all add up to? Dogs are men that wag their tails. In some respects, they are more sensible than humans. I have not seen a dog throwing stones at stray men. Have you ?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Talking Gandhi over brandy

(Published in Nov. 2003, the theme of this piece is ever-relevant, and eminently recycleable every other Oct. 2. Wonder if Dr M S Rao has found a publisher for his irreverent book on Gandhi.)

It takes courage for someone to attempt a book on Gandhi. He is so over-written about that a Google web search for books on the Mahatma throws up 324,000 references. There is so much information overload that anyone who entertains thoughts of publishing yet another book ought to be either Gandhi's grandson or mentally challenged. Dr. M.S. Rao is neither. And he has a book in the works; and is in search of a publisher.

Dr. Rao, a medical practitioner disenchanted with his profession, is settled in Coonoor and runs a guest-house - - with his English wife. Apparently, he has better credentials to write about the ills of medical profession than about Gandhi. Dr. Rao has written about it in 'Look After Yourself. No One Else Will - How to bypass the medical profession and stay healthy'.

I didn't know Dr. Rao well enough to dissuade him from doing the Gandhi book when he called me the other day for a get-together. I didn't know what I was in for when I suggested the Velan Ritz bar. Discussing Gandhi over rum and lukewarm water wasn't quite my idea of spending the evening. Besides, care-takers of his legacy would rather prescribe a glass of goat milk to go with Gandhi. Speaking of legacy, it is said a London restaurant owner named his enterprise Gandhi Steak House. In a magazine article Gopalkrishna Gandhi said, 'Gandhi (the name) sells, so does his steak; and together the two work magic for the restaurant owner'. Speaking for himself, Gandhi's grandson says it works for him eminently - 'paths open, pot holes close to let the person bearing the name pass'. At airports he gets waved through by customs officials when they look at Mr Gandhi's passport.

Dr. Rao is no goat-milk Gandhian. Indeed he believes that Gandhi needs to be saved from such elements. He claims his book is an attempt to 'liberate' Gandhi. The thing that is going for him is this incurable obsession with the subject and Dr. Rao's belief that no book has succeeded in explaining fully the phenomenon of Gandhi, who, he says, is impossible to pigeonhole. As he put it, the man was a politician, philosopher, doctor, dietician, sex-therapist, ascetic, veterinarian, social reformer, woolly-headed anarchist, mystic, rabble-rouser and a compulsive cleaner of latrines.It is about time someone presented Gandhi in a manner that was not only acceptable to the present times, but interesting to an entire spectrum of readers, says Dr. Rao in a prologue to his book, which is nearly done. The prologue gives us the author's sense of Gandhi in today's world.

Dr. Rao poses the question: What, for instance, would Gandhi do, if a bunch of thugs rough him up, as they do in Mafia movies? After the deed is done the thugs leave Gandhi, with a bleeding nose, and a warning: "It will be worse next time, old man, unless you give up making salt."And then Gandhi gets a call from another thug informing that one of his sons was being held for ransom and he would be killed, if Gandhi didn't pay up. To which Gandhi reacts, "You've got the wrong number, mate. I have no dough, so go ahead and do what you think is best. By the way, which son of mine are you holding? I have millions of them." So spoke the father of the nation, in an alien accent. Having spent 17 years in Liverpool Dr. Rao can't be faulted for embellishing Gandhi's lingo.

Dr. Rao says one can find much that is self-incriminating in Gandhi's own writings. And anyone diligent enough to go through them could interpret Gandhi in any light. If one wanted to dismiss Gandhi as manic depressive, one could do so in Gandhi's own words. "If we were to conclude he was an egotist, he says so himself; a sexual faddist, he tells us this quite plainly; and a nut case, he joyfully agrees," says Dr. Rao.The author says he has peppered his book with remarks on Gandhi by non-Indians, because "citations from others are, by far, the surest way to impress Indians, whose peculiar psyche does not lend them to believe their own kind." A book gets noticed, if it informs, interprets, irritates or exhilarates the reader. Whether or not he delivers on the other three attributes it appears Dr. Rao would have no problem irritating readers with some of his self-opinionated remarks.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A social nobody, with no-good address

(Published in Sept.2002 when I used to live in Coonoor. Now based in Mysore, I stay on the classy end of Dewan’s Road, where real-estate value of flats has nearly doubled in the last two years, says my friend and property developer Mr M B Nagakumar.)

At out-of-town parties and social gatherings when people learn I belong to Coonoor, I tend to draw more attention than other out-of-town guests, say, from Cuddalore or Namakkal. "Oh, you're from Coonoor?" they ask with envious interest, taking you, perhaps, for a planter, a retired company vice-president or Maneckshaw's neighbour. The moment they learn that I live in Vannarpet, Coonoor, the "interested" guests lose interest and move along to find someone else to say "hi" to.

Some socially self-conscious folk in my locality feel that I misrepresent our address. Balaji, a youth in our neighbourhood, can't see why I keep mentioning Vannarpet, while our housing board flats are located at Srinagar Colony. I tell him that even the beat postman and auto-men are not quite familiar with this name. In fact, our locality has yet another name - Thanthai Periyar Nagar. I whip out my voter identity card to prove this.

Balaji has a point. By flaunting my unenviable address I might be making a social statement.Vannarpet, I concede, doesn't sound quite classy. The address could prove fatal for social-climbers. You could lose a contact, as I did with an old schoolmate of mine. After we finished schooling in New Delhi in the late fifties, we went our different ways, till our paths crossed three years back. That was when I heard that my schoolmate had become the top brass in the Coonoor military establishment. His address: Flagstaff House, Wellington.

I phoned and he was happy to hear from an old schoolmate. A few days later he asked my wife and me to dinner at the Flagstaff House. We spent a pleasant evening, at the end of which we resolved that we would stay in touch. But we never got round to meeting again and my friend eventually retired from the army and left Coonoor. I can't figure out why we didn't meet again, but the thought crossed my mind that my address might have had something to do with it. But to be fair to him, I must say we had not been pals at school, though we have had some common friends.

In my younger days when I spent three years in London my friends and I were particular about finding digs at a "decent address." We would not have anything to do with Southall, which had the reputation of being blue-collar and infested with our compatriots. A joke that did the rounds had it that when someone asked a policeman for directions in Southall, he was told, "Turn right at the traffic lights, take the third left and follow the curry-smell and you can't miss it, mate." The stranger followed the directions faithfully, but got confused by a profusion of curry-smells. The friendly London bobby had not said which curry - mutton, fish or plain chicken.

Those days you could get a reasonably big and fully furnished room, all to yourself, for three guineas a week in Brixton, Camden Town or Shepherds Bush. But we were willing to pay as much and a few bob more for an attic or even basement digs, so long as it carried an address in Chelsea, South Kensington or Hampstead.

The London telephone numbers in the sixties carried a three-letter area code followed by a four-digit number. I used to share a bed-sitter with a friend at Bayswater, a middle-class locality, but we managed to get an 'MAR' phone number that belonged to the Marble Arch exchange, an upscale commercial district. My crummy basement room at Swiss Cottage had a phone connected to the exchange at Hampstead, an affluent residential area. It helped to have a classy area-code, particularly if you needed to work the phone in your line of business. Area codes such as 'HAM' (for Hampstead), 'BEL' (Belgravia) or 'KEN' (Kensington) had an element of social magic that persuaded unsuspecting strangers to return your calls.

Of course, you can't underrate the importance of acquiring a London Westend address. It made business sense for commercial establishments based in the suburbs to rent a Westend postal address. I worked for a few months in a shoestring community news weekly, India Weekly. that was brought out by a voluntary group of journalists. But we had an impressive address that we shared with the London Bureau of the Ananda Bazar group of newspapers. India Weekly was located next door to the London Daily Mail on Carmelite Street. I could claim that I have worked in the famed Fleet Street.

Subsequently, I edited The Afro-Asian Echo, a journal run by a Nigerian who had fled to London with his loot in the wake of the civil war in his country. He paid through the nose for locating the Echo's business office in the upscale Oxford Street area. And the journal folded up in six months. Maintaining a classy business address proved fatally expensive. The Nigerian still owes me a month's pay.

In the US the very well-to-do live in gated communities where you can't acquire real estate merely because you have the lolly. You've got to be socially acceptable. This rules out most ethnic minorities and African-Americans unless, of course, you happen to be Oprah Winfrey or Denzel Washington. Social exclusivity is zealously guarded by residents. Their point is acquisition of houses by any Tom, Dick or Harry who can pay the asking price tends to bring down the property value in the area.

Nearer home, I can't think of a city better planned for perpetrating social snobbery than New Delhi - the largest babuland in the country. You can judge the status and class of a government official by the locality he comes from. Sarojini Nagar is Class III and II. Kaka Nagar is decidedly Class I. R K Puram and Rabindra Nagar are both government residential colonies, but they are a class apart. Residents of Moti Nagar are not in the same league as those living in Maharani Bagh.

A socially upscale address does not necessarily mean decent living conditions. I spent over 10 years in Chennai in a flat infested with mosquitoes all the year round. Coovum flowed, nay, remained stagnant with syrupy effluent, barely a block away from our apartments complex. Whenever the wind blew our way the stench would waft into our second-floor drawing room. When it rained one had to wade through ankle-deep water to reach the parking lot. The residents shared the apartment complex with lizards, cockroach, bandicoots and an assortment of other janthus. My address: Parsn Towers, Pantheon Road. It was classy

Monday, September 04, 2006

VIPs: Some are, Simply, Simple

(Sonia Lunches with 'Commoner' - Newspaper headline.

Karnataka Chief Minister, Mr H D Kumaraswamy, has taken to overnight halts at villagers' residence while he is out on tour. This way, says CM, I get to understand people's grassroots problem better.
We have a President with the common touch. The very name A P J Kalam has become synonimous with simplicity. Following piece appeared in July 2002; was written on the eve of Dr. Kalam's shift in residence from the residential quarters of Anna University, Chennai, to Rashtrapati Bhavan.)

So, our 'missiles man' Kalam put himself through the security routine at Chennai airport the other day. Kalam Insists On Going Through Security Process said a page four box-item in The Hindu. His 'insistence' on opening up his own hand baggage for inspection is understandable. For A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, after moving to Rashtrapati Bhavan, would no longer be allowed to get away with such a thing. Surely, we can't have our President queuing up at the Indian Airlines check-in counter.

Dr. Kalam being frisked by a CISF chap before walking through a metal-detector would have made a great picture. It could have been turned into a media event. His airport security act might be seen by critics as a PR exercise. But then the MIT (Madras Institute of Technology) diploma-holder in aeronautical engineering who scaled such heights in the world of academics and scientists doesn't have to resort to such stunts. The humility and simplicity of the man is writ large on his face, attire and demeanour. In fact, if Dr. Kalam were to travel abroad without the Presidential 'bandha,' some uninformed 'immigration' bloke at a European airport might pull him in for questioning, as happened to Dr. Amartya Sen at Zurich airport some time back.

At Coonoor, where I live, I have seen Field Marshal Maneckshaw awaiting his turn at the cash counter in a bank. My bank employee neighbour Jayakumar made acquaintance with the Field Marshal during his periodical visits to the Bedford branch of Union Bank. An ex-serviceman himself, Jayakumar is overwhelmed by Maneckshaw's refreshing accessibility - "When I was in the army I couldn't dream of going anywhere near the general, let alone having a word with him."

Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, as union communications minister, used to visit the Hanuman temple in New Delhi's Irwin Road on Thursday evenings without 'bandobast.' The message Kalam and Maneckshaw send out through personal example is generally lost on most others in public life, for whom rules and regulations are meant for lesser mortals, and flouting them is the norm for a VIP. Haven't we heard of 'chota-mota' political busybodies throwing their weight about at airports and, at times, holding up commercial flights to await the late arrival of some VIP? Black cats in attendance, escort vehicles and advance patrol cars constitute the ultimate status symbol.

We now have a President who delights in browsing at airport bookstalls and chatting with the sales staff. The question is: would Dr. Kalam be able to, nay, would he be allowed to, do his thing, now that he has tenanted Rashtrapati Bhavan? Presidential office is protocol-driven and an element of pomp and ceremony goes with the turf. Initial reaction to Kalam's choice as the NDA presidential nominee was one of surprise in many quarters. Besides, one doesn't associate the likes of Dr. Kalam with the political polemics the presidential race evoked.

And then, it was not as if he got elected to the highest office in the land on the strength of personal credentials. Dr. Kalam wasn't even the first choice of NDA, which was shopping for an expedient 'minority' candidate. Cynics would have us believe that there was a toss-up between Muslim and 'Isai' in which the former had an edge. The outcome of the presidential race would have been different had Dr. Kalam been adopted by the left parties instead of the NDA.

Viewed in this light, the presidential race smacked of political match-fixing. Everyone knew the score even before the game started. What mattered was the numbers, not the relative merits of the opposing candidates. There is no such thing as 'conscience' vote in political contests. The last time they resorted to the ploy was when Indira Gandhi backed V.V. Giri in the name of 'conscience' vote against the official presidential nominee of the Congress. In politics, you follow your 'conscience' only if you want to split the party.

I admire Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal for her courage in taking on a fight she very well knew she couldn't win. She called it a 'symbolic' contest; willingly submitted herself to becoming the 'symbol' for the side that didn't have the numbers, but wanted to make a political point. The left parties sought to demonstrate their 'ideological' divide with the BJP-led ruling alliance.
NDA, in its choice of Dr. Kalam, sought to play the 'minority' card. We didn't see him as a Muslim till the BJP-driven ruling coalition opted for Dr. Kalam's candidature.

We have had Muslims as Presidents before, but the circumstances were not the same. The Gujarat riots and BJP's party political compulsions in the state accounted for an unwarranted focus on Dr. Kalam's minority status. Likewise, few saw Capt. Sahgal as a Tamilian. That she was a Tamil by birth was made out to be a factor in the contest against the Ramanathapuram-born A.P.J. Kalam. We have had a contest between two illustrious persons who belonged to the same and the smallest of the minority groups - 'Hindustani.'

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Importance of being Aarthi Prabhu

(During every Ganesh Puja my mind goes back to the Ganesh festival I celebrated some 15 years back at Kudal, a modest Maharashtra village. This piece, published in 2002, is about a legend Kudal gave to Marathi literature. About Aarthi Prabhu, who continues to live in the hearts and minds of the people of Kudal decades after the poet's demise.)

I had not heard of Aarthi Prabhu till I visited his native village, Kudal, in Maharashtra. This was some 15 years ago, over two decades after Aarthi Prabhu's death. But people still talked about him as if he had been with them till the other day. They spoke of him in endearing terms, but with an acute sense of sadness. Aarthi Prabhu died young, at the age of 46, in 1976.

My Kudal visit was sponsored by a generous friend, R.S. Sawant, settled in Chennai, and made annual visits to his native Kudal during the Ganesh festival. When I expressed a desire to visit his part of the country during Ganesh puja, a major social event for Marathis, Sawant readily offered to take me along, but on one condition. "You shall not open your purse during the entire trip," ruled Sawant, "better still, forget your wallet at home." It was a ten-day trip. Such was his Maratha hospitality.

As I said, everyone in Kudal knew someone who had known Aarthi Prabhu, Kudal's native man of letters. He is still so much a household name that you have got to be bit of a dud not to be familiar with the name - if you ask, "Aarthi, who?" folks in Kudal could give you that funny look. Mrs Sawant, wife of my host, had been to the same school as Aarthi Prabhu. Their headmaster, K.A. Wardekar, was the first to identify Aarthi's literary potentials. Wardekar was a Maths teacher, and Aarthi had particular distaste for the subject. But then he used to show his early writings to Wardekar, who felt inadequate to judge their literary merit - "I referred the boy to P.S. Nerlurkar."

My hosts took me to Wardekar's house at Vengurla. Every other person you are introduced to makes it a point to mention that Sunil Gavaskar belongs here and they have named a local sports stadium at Vengurla after the cricket legend. Mr Wardekar talked about 'madcap' Chandu, as Aarthi Prabhu was known among friends and schoolmates. Chintamani Triambak Khanolkar was his name. "Magazines would not accept his initial poems," said Wardekar, "perhaps, because his name didn't sound literary." The pseudonym - Aarthi Prabhu - helped sell his works. After he had gained literary fame Aarthi Prabhu had novels and treatise published under his own name.

Aarthi wasn't particularly well-read. He was not familiar enough with Marathi literature to be influenced by anyone's works. At school he was poor in studies; at home he wasn't endeared by his parents. Wardekar had kept in touch with Aarthi Prabhu even after he gave up studies to help his father at the eating house run by the family - "Aarthi was a victim of child abuse, often beaten up by his father." Wardekar was a regular customer at the eating house - "They served mid-day meals at Rs.50 a month."

After his father's death Aarthi wound up the family eating house and moved to Bombay, in 1959, with his wife, three children, widowed mother and an uncle. The first and the only job he held was that of an attendant in All India Radio. He used to commute to work from Karjat, which is closer to Pune than Mumbai. Aarthi Prabhu could not hold the AIR job for long. He was turned out on suspicion that he had Communist leanings.

It turned out to be a blessing, as Mrs Sawant put it. The Tata Centre for Promotion of Arts and Literature discovered Aarthi's potential and offered him a monthly scholarship of Rs.1,000. The two-year term was extended for a further period of two years. It was during this time that Aarthi's oversized family saw some happy days. It was also a period during which Aarthi was prolific in his writings. His plays became popular.

For someone who had problems getting through high school, Aarthi Prabhu's works came to be prescribed for Marathi literature students at the post-graduate level. Seven scholars have done PhDs on various aspects of Aarthi Prabhu's literary work. His literary reputation brought Aarthi Prabhu close to the Mangeshkar family. Lata and her sister Asha Bhosle set to music and sang some of his poems. As Wardekar put it, Aathi's regret was that his literary worth went unrecognised in native Kudal during his lifetime. Kudal boasts of a 125-year-old public library with a collection of 20,000 titles, but it did not have a set of the complete works of Aarthi Prabhu.

His personal misery and poverty did not cramp Aarthi's literary output, which was prolific till the end. They say that even in his deathbed at K E M Hospital he didn't give up on his writing; he handed in to the attending doctor a scrap of paper in which he had scribbled these lines shortly before the end came:

"At the last turn of my life's journey,
There should be a blossom of flowers;
And if possible, I should get up and walk,
To complete my journey of life."

The leading character in American Beauty, that masterpiece on decadence of life in the suburbia, says, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life; and this is true of every day, except the day you die." Aarthi Prabhu, even on the verge of death, sought to live even his final hours as if it were his first day.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The unsung sub-editors in print media

( This piece appeared in July 2002, and relates to the print media in New Delhi during the Sixties. Most newspaper readers may not be familiar with the species called 'sub-editors'. They put in shape raw copy written by correspondents. Sub-editors process the story submitted by a correspondent, and give headlines to what appears on the printed page. Reporters/correspondents corner all the glory; get invited to booze parties, the press tours. Behind every correspondent's byline in newspapers, there is usually an unsung sub-editor. )

Every office has its sacred cow. Ours at the Times of India (TOI) came in the guise of a Special Correspondent (with capital 'S' and 'C,' in grudging recognition of his sacred cow status). He was an unmitigated pain in the butt for us on the TOI news service desk. This piece, however, is not just about an 'SC' (who was, in fact, a brahmin in the office hierarchy); it is more about that downtrodden backroom species in a newspaper office, called sub-editor.

Inspiration for this piece came from a paragraph in which writer Brendan Gill sums up his spell as an editor on The New Yorker magazine. In his book, Here at The New Yorker, Gill wrote, and I quote: "For a time, I served as an editor as well as a writer, but the experiment proved uncongenial to my vanity. We had writers so inept that one had to rewrite them almost word for word, and when, at a cocktail or dinner party, I would hear a writer praised for a profile that was, in fact, almost entirely my handiwork, I would grind my teeth with ill-conceived rage."

Gill can be said to have spoken for the universal brotherhood of sub-editors in the print media. Speaking for myself, I have occasionally had an odd reporter thanking me for, what Gill calls "the usual tidying up of grammatical loose ends." But, as a class, reporters are not given to acknowledging the value-addition done to their work by rewrite persons. If anything, reporters are quick to blame the editorial desk for "butchering" their copy.

During my early days with TOI as sub-editor on the news service desk in New Delhi, we had a Lucknow-based special correspondent, who enjoyed a sacred-cow status with the editor. We shall call him Shastri. He had a know-all air about him and, what's worse, he believed that sub-editors were part of the editorial furniture in a newspaper office.

Shastri had a penchant for Victorian flourish in his writing. Which was okay in a Sunday magazine piece. But news reports on something as mundane as question hour proceedings in the legislative assembly or the CPI state council meeting called for straight-forward journalese, to describe who hit out at what and when pandemonium prevailed in the house. But then Shastri had in him the genes of Shakespeare, who probably was born Seshappaiyer in a Telugu Brahmin family before the literary world reinvented him.

Ignorant of Shastri's special status, in my early days with TOI news desk, I took liberty with his copy, cutting out the literary foreplay from a news story on zero hour hungama at the UP assembly. Shastri was not amused. Besides, he was a pal of my chief at the news service desk. The next morning our shift in-charge, K T R Menon, gave me a piece of helpful advice - "We don't edit Shastri's copy; we just mark paragraphs and bung it in." Menon, an accomplished rewrite man, knew better than investing his professional skills on Shastri's work. The TOI editor, Girilal Jain, used to ask 'KTR' to "run through" editorials and his edit-page articles before they were sent down for printing. Such has been his professional reputation that Menon, after retirement from New Delhi TOI news desk, was recalled by the management to help launch a daily in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Girilal, like most editors, had his favorites. Reporters generally had free access to the editor, particularly those with extensive contacts in political and bureaucratic circles. And Girilal, like all editors, believed that his editorials and political punditry made waves. Political correspondents and those who covered the PMO gave the editor feedback, filling him in on the impact his writings made in South Block. And the correspondents contrived an impact-report, even if Girilal's editorial words of wisdom went unread on any given day by those at the government decision-making level.

We had a Pandey, Special Correspondent, whose proficiency in palm-reading rather than his professional merit opened the editor's door for him and put him on the fast track. But the snag with being such "special asset" reporter was that his sacred cow status did not survive Girilal Jain. When Arun Shourie took over as executive editor, Pandey, who had everything going for him till then, suddenly found himself as lost as a stray cow squatting on a Daryagunj road divider during rush hour. Shourie didn't care for Pandey's proficiency in astrology. Which was too bad, because Pandey could have read into his stars and warned Arun Shourie that he wouldn't last more than six months in The Times of India. (As it turned out Shhourie didn't last for more than six months on The Times.)

Some reporters might be lousy writers, but they knew how to keep their bosses in good humor. We had an Assam correspondent who made regular shipments of quality tea and honey to the news editor. That he made money running a benami taxi service went unreported. There was this Bhopal correspondent of another national daily who got a car allotted on CM's discretionary quota (during the permit raj) and was running it as a taxi. This was brought to the CM's notice. During one of his visits to New Delhi, the CM, when he had occasion to meet the newspaper owner, asked him in all innocence, "But don't you pay your reporters well?" When the press baron wanted to know why the CM seemed concerned about salary levels at his newspaper, the latter remarked, "Well, your man in Bhopal presumably runs a taxi to make both ends meet." The correspondent was promptly transferred out of Bhopal. So much for taxi-operators who doubled as newspaper correspondents.

In contrast to the stepmotherly treatment meted out to sub-editors in Indian newspapers, a deskman on a British daily was a valued person. Reporters found it worthwhile cultivating him rather than complain against desk. At The Northern Echo, a British daily published from Darlington, UK, I did a stint as sub-editor in the mid-Sixties. Those days in Britain one was not considered for a desk job until one had put in at least five years as a reporter. Newspapers in Britain faced a perennial shortage of capable deskmen. At the Echo they thought well of sub-editors from India, "Do you know Sunny Rao?" the chief sub asked me on my first day at work. "He was a damn good sub." Sunny Rao had worked on the TOI desk in Bombay. He had left the Echo before I joined them. I realised that as an Indian I had a reputation to maintain. On the Echo editorial desk I took the slot that was vacated by another Indian and former Indian Express sub, Subash Chopra, who moved over to The Times, London.

The editor rarely, if ever, questioned a sub-editor's action. The music critic of the Echo once took up with my editor Don Evans the treatment his music review had received at the editorial desk. I happened to have reworded the first paragraph of the music concert review. A couple of days after the publication of the review, Don sent word that he wished to meet me at his office. After the pleasantries Don politely broached the subject, saying that our music critic was unhappy about the handling of his copy by the editorial desk. I told Don that I was constrained to rewrite the first paragraph in the interest of clarity - "When I could not understand the jargon the critic had used, I didn't expect our readers would."

I'll end this piece with the last word on sacred cow Shastri. Some days after I had been advised not to touch his copy, the editorial desk noticed a glaring literal error in a story (I believe it was about the Kumbhmela at Allahabad) and, we, the lowly sub-editors, conspired to let Shastri's article pass through the editorial desk untouched. The reporter's reference to a public place came to be printed as 'pubic' place. The report carried Shastri's byline, and thus, our sacred cow got nailed in print. We didn't hear Shastri cribbing against sub-editors.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Women in my life

(Published in Aug.2002, this piece relates to the late Sixties, when women in print media were a rare species.)

I am not pretentious enough to believe that intimate aspects of my life would interest anyone other than my wife. The mischief in the heading is calculated to get the attention of friends and family to my Zine5 ramblings My adorable platoon of nieces - Uma, Ranjini, Savitha, Kavitha, Swetha and Babli - wouldn't be drawn to reading this feature had I headlined it, blandly, Women in My Life in Journalism.

With no further ado I'll introduce Usha Rao ( later, Rai) and Prabha Behl - the only women I knew of among local reporters when I joined the profession in New Delhi in the sixties. That female journalists were a rare species those days had much to do with the perception of newspaper management. They could not, then, bring themselves to ask women to work long hours or do night shifts; nor count on women makeing a career in journalism. And the few who did, became prone to absenteeism after marriage. What was worse, some of them got married to someone within the profession.

Usha Rao of The Times of India became a 'Rai' after her marriage to Raghu Rai, famed photographer who was then with The Statesman. She used to do the Delhi University beat. I was then on the staff of The National Herald. Though a senior reporter, I was assigned the campus beat as a 'punishment' for having fallen out with my editorial boss. After having covered the Delhi administration and done political reporting at the local level I was unceremoniously assigned to reporting college functions, student union elections, convocation ceremonies, ragging incidents and the like. Usha, my senior on the campus beat, realised the situation and helped me out with news contacts and, occasionally, with carbon copy of her stories, at a time when my performance was being closely monitored by my tormentor. My missing even a minor story attracted a sternly worded memo from the editor.

Female Viewpoint
High-powered political reporting was then generally a male prerogative. Women reporters, even after years in the profession, were rarely assigned anything other than health, education or social welfare departments. But then some women have a way of carving out a niche for themselves. Usha Rai in her later years as journalist developed an expertise in ecology and does extensive writing on wildlife and environmental issues.

Even in general assignments such as a plane crash or political campaigns, news editors usually managed to find a woman's angle for female journalists. My former TOI colleague Kalpana Sharma is now doing very well at The Hindu, with her expertise in taking a "female viewpoint" on virtually any issue - the 9/11 attack, Afghanistan under Taliban, or the Gujarat riots.
Prabha Behl, the other female reporter from my early newspaper days was a go-getter; rose up to be chief reporter of The Hindustan Times. She had the potential to break out of fluff reporting. She died young. Her daughter Barkha Dutt is making waves as a livewire in TV reporting.
Among the few women journalists of my Delhi days, Neena Vyas has risen to the level of a political correspondent of The Hindu. During my dog days at The National Herald Neena was doing the campus beat for The Statesman. I had first met Neena in London, where, in the sixties, her husband and my college friend Ravi Vyas worked for Longman's Green, the publishers. I recall Neena having done a stint as apprentice with the Associated Press, London Bureau.

My editor at The National Herald, M Chalapati Rau, had been credited with the view that a woman on the staff would be a needless distraction on the editorial desk and at the reporters' room. Perhaps, he had a point. For when our news editor Kripalani eventually managed to persuade 'M C' to approve the recruitment of a female art critic, Priya Karunakaran, it was a matter of celebration for some of us on the staff. 'Pikky' showed up on Friday evenings to submit her review for publication and hung around for coffee and a chat with some of us in the reporters' room. This was, perhaps, what 'M C' had in mind when he referred to "a needless distraction."

Gender Bias
The Indian Express
of those days was a "progressive" employer. If I remember right, Tavleen Singh got a break in journalism with IE Delhi. Another Express staffer in those days, Razia Ismail, gave up journalism to join the UNICEF.

The Times of India, where I spent two decades, proved to be a stamping ground for women journalists. Some of us who belong to the old school suspected a reversal in the management's gender bias. The pendulum swung in favour of women, not just in the matter of recruitment. Much to our envy, some of our women colleagues were even favoured with plum assignments. It was during my stint as the TOI Bhopal correspondent (in the eighties) "bandit queen" Phoolan Devi surrendered before the then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Arjun Singh, and was lodged in the Gwalior jail. And my editor sent Ayesha Kagal, an editorial colleague from Mumbai, to interview Phoolan in jail. As the TOI man in Madhya Pradesh, I ought to have handled the assignment. Instead, I was asked to meet Ayesha on her arrival from Mumbai and tag along with her to Gwalior to facilitate the interview. I was familiar with the town and had contacts with local officials.

I doubted whether Ayesha was even familiar with the language spoken in the Hindi heartland. As it turned out, Phoolan Devi wasn't familiar with it either. She spoke a Chattisgarhi dialect and we could communicate with her only through an interpreter. Which was just as well. For I gathered later that the "bandit queen" was given to foul-mouthing males and that in response to my questions had used the kind of language that would have embarrassed us. But then the bandit queen developed a liking for Ayesha and invited her back the next day without me. I realised then that my woman colleague from Mumbai would get a better story. But I beat her to it by telexing a story based on our first meeting. My interview with Phoolan Devi appeared the next day. And Ayesha, being the good sport that she was, appreciated it. But then Ms Kagal had the last word. Her story on Phoolan Devi appeared as a full-page spread on the TOI Sunday Review!

It was Nancy Reagan who likened a woman to a teabag - only in hot water do you realise how strong she is. Pushpa Iyengar, my TOI colleague, proved the point with her coverage of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Rajiv was blown to smithereens in a bomb attack at an election meeting in Sriperumpudur, Tamil Nadu. It was an assignment no journalist would have missed. If only they had anticipated the bomb blast, TOI would have flown in a senior correspondent from Bombay or Delhi. In journalistic parlance we call it "parachute reporting" - cornering of plum assignments by seniors from the headquarters, ignoring the claim of the TOI Chennai news bureau.

Suicide Bomber
Pushpa had set out from Chennai to do a routine election meeting coverage at Sriperumpudur. Rajiv Gandhi drove down there on arrival at the Chennai airport from some place in Andhra Pradesh. Shortly after he reached the venue of the public meeting, Rajiv Gandhi worked his way to the dais accepting garlands from the local notables who had lined up to greet him. In the receiving line was a female suicide bomber who had activated a trigger for the RDX explosives strapped to her body as Rajiv approached her to accept her greetings.

Pushpa, recovering from the initial shock of the deafening blast, waded through the shattered remains amid the rush of those fleeing the scene in panic. She was joined by two other women journalists - Nina Gopal of The Gulf News and another woman representing The New York Times. The two of them had travelled with Rajiv and Nina had interviewed him on their way from the airport to Sriperumpudur.

Meanwhile hell broke loose at TOI. At my Chennai residence, I was woken up from sleep by a call from Bombay. They wanted a story within the next 30 minutes. I had no idea when Pushpa would be able to make it back to office and how. Soon after the blast the police had cordoned off the exit points from Sriperumpudur. A sketchy report phoned in from there would not do for TOI.

The police and the state information department officials were no wiser on the blast. Anyway they were not generally known to have been of much help with information on such crisis assignments. As I twiddled my thumb and wondered what to do, Pushpa called from our Nungambakkam Road office. She had made it back from the blast scene well ahead of most others - "I got a lift in Rajiv Gandhi's car," she told me.

"As I got talking to this girl from Gulf News a driver came up and asked us to leave the place quickly and get into his car," Pushpa said. "He said, 'Rajiv sir has instructed me to make sure the madams reach their hotels safely'." And the loyal driver was there to follow Rajiv's directive, even though his boss was no more. Pushpa joined the other two on their trip back to Chennai. And filed the story of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination for The Times of India. Pushpa Iyengar later became deputy editor with The Deccan Chronicle, Hyderabad.

Women have come a long way, from my early days in journalism.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Misfit in Today’s Media World

(This story relates to journalism in the 70s, when reporting was about working your calf muscles and your phone; about tapping reticent news sources, and missing stories. Those were the days before the Internet, 24/7 news channels, and blogs, to which print media reporters today can now outsource their news-gathering work. Today’s newspaper correspondents don’t report news; they package it. My generation of reporters may find ourselves a misfit on today’s media scene - Are you reading me, Mr Krishna Vattam, Mr Gouri Satya ?
This piece was titled ‘The Punjab Beat’ when it first appeared in May, 2002

Every other journalist, they say, has an unfinished book in his drawer. I started work on my unfinished book in late Seventies. I was then a sub-editor with The Times of India in New Delhi, and envious of reporters, who appeared to have everything going for them - byline, high visibility, influence and cocktail invitations on most evenings. I became wiser later, when they posted me the Punjab correspondent, at a time when militant groups held sway in many parts of the then troubled state.

Admittedly, a Chandigarh dateline gave one visibility in high places those days. Not evident, however, was that behind those bylined stories was usually a much-harassed reporter who spent long and, at times, futile hours working the phone and tapping reticent news sources to put together a story. And, at the end of the day, you might not have accessed all facts or even got them all right. But this reality hits you too late to make amends, that is, when you see the other newspapers the morning after or get a memo from the editor, saying, "We have been beaten by the competition." On such occasions you feel you could have done without a byline on your story. Editors have a way of unsettling you with unceremonious memos and late night phone calls, wanting to know why you didn't file anything on a killing in Kapurthala or gas-cylinder blast at Batinda.

The correspondent of an outstation newspaper, based in a state capital, is held accountable for whatever happens elsewhere in the state. He can't beat the news agencies - PTI and UNI - which appeared to have their men everywhere. But you don't tell this to an agitated news editor who doesn't let you have a word in edgeways when he is on the blower. You can't argue with an avalanche, can you ?

PTI and UNI could have been a major menace for me and Chandigarh-based correspondents of other outstation papers, if we had not cultivated the agency reporters so that we stayed alerted on news breaks. I knew of a colleague based in Patna who dreaded late-night phone calls from his office in New Delhi. He was dedicated and hard-working, which wasn't enough. He failed to develop a rapport with the news agency guys.

The worst thing that can happen to a reporter is finding that the news report he just finished filing has already been overtaken by subsequent developments, that too close to his deadline (the time by which he is required to submit his report for publication). Soon after my posting at Chandigarh I attended a press conference, addressed jointly by three Sikh leaders - H S Longowal, P S Badal and G S Tohra. Longowal had then signed an agreement with Rajiv Gandhi. The other two Sikh leaders entertained misgivings about the Centre's intentions. However, it was mainly due to Longowal's initiative the three Sikh leaders had come to share a common platform for the first time in their political career. Their joint press conference had the making of a sure-fire front-page story.

By the time I telexed the story (we didn't have computers then) it was 5 p m. I decided to call it a day and go home early. After having delivered a major front-page story I did not expect the New Delhi office of The Times of India to bother me with any phone call about a stray blast at Batala or a shooting incident at Gurdaspur. They were common occurances in Punjab those days.

But then minutes after I reached home that evening there was a call from New Delhi, asking for a story on a shooting incident at a gurudwara in Sangrur. The victim, this time, was Longowal. The Akali leader, on way to his village after addressing the Chandigarh press conference, was shot dead by militants when he stopped by at a gurudwara to address a congregation. This was not just a front-pager. It was the lead story, on which I had to get cracking under mounting deadline pressure. Such was a reporter's life in Punjab those days. So much for dateline Chandigarh.

As for my book in the making, it still remains unfinished, with nearly 200 pages of typed manuscript done. As I said earlier, I started work on the book when I was a sub-editor. I used to work six-hour shifts, which left me with enough time for book-writing. But then I gave up creative writing when I became a reporter

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Soapbox speakers

(Published in June 2002. I haven't been to London since the late Sixties. Hyde Park Speakers' Corner was then an exclusive British institution devoted to freedom of expression, of cranks, windbags and other unemployables. I read that some years back, they tried it out in Singapore. Wonder what its current status is; if the Singapore's soapbox orators still have their corner. Would any of our Singapore familiar folks - Capt. Anup Murthy, Mrs. Vidya Nagaraj - know ?)

My friend and Zine5 writer Padmini Natarajan says that her Wednesday feature 'This and That' is her 'soap-box in the corner of Hyde Park'. By making such declaration she has licensed herself 'to wax and wane, grumble and groan, cheer and cry', blah blah blah. This, despite some 'skillful arm-twisting' by her editor. At the real place they are known to have done much else, unedited at that.

At the Marble Arch end of London's Hyde Park there is a corner meant for soap-box orators. I was a regular there, initially as a passive listener , and eventually, a back-row heckler, on Saturday afternoons in the Swinging Sixties. The Speakers' Corner attracted all sorts, from the world over - petty politicians on dole, dissidents in exile, extremists, evangelists in search of a congregation, cranks and other windbags. The thing about the speakers' corner was that it gave commoners (in terms of freedom of speech) the type of immunity MPs enjoy in the House of Commons. What made the place a prime source of Saturday afternoon entertainment for Londoners and visitors alike was that the speakers represented all creeds, colours of skin, shades of opinion and degrees of madness.

Michael Foot in his book Debts of Honour - a collection of essays on the personalities to whom the author felt indebted - refers to Bonar Thompson, a Hyde Park orator who valued his freedom so much that he refused to earn a living and lived on what others gave him in the name of freedom. N'Khrumah, several other leaders of newly independent African countries and our own Krishna Menon had graduated from the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner.

It took lung-power, wit and guts and a fairly thick skin to survive as a soap-box speaker. Those with king-size egos were cut to size by the sharp and highly interactive audience. Your voice should be loud enough to drown the noise coming from hecklers at the back row; and it helped if you had something sensible to say.

Some senior soap-boxers, however, were exempt from this criteria. There was this pathetic, but delightful, basket case who had collected, over the years, a band of faithful listeners who were so accustomed to his senseless and repetitive speech that they would not accept anything fresh or sensible from him. This crowd knew his script by heart and checked the speaker if he departed from the text and prompted him if the speaker skipped a phrase or fumbled for a word.

Then there was Sam, who said he could have been Billy Graham, if only he had taken to golf. It was golf, said Sam, that had brought Billy Graham close to LBJ and Nixon. It was at a game of golf Cecil B Demille invited Billy Graham to go into the movies. He declined the offer because, as Sam put it, "Billy boy was already making a fortune as special envoy to the president of the universe." But then Sam didn't approve of those who became disgustingly rich - "I am proud to be on dole in Britain."

Sam then went on to caution the audience of the wrath to come, despite, nay, because of the likes of Billy boy. "I warn you," said Sam, "there will be much weeping and wailing, and gnashing of teeth." An old woman in the audience yelled, "But Sam, I have no teeth!" to which Sam responded, "Don't worry, madam. We will get you dentures under the National Health Service scheme."

At the adjacent soap-box George held forth on how his lousy set of teeth had kept him away from serving his queen and country. He claimed that he would have been in the royal navy during the War, had it not been for his rotten teeth. "In London those days bombs fell all over the place," said George, "and I had planned on getting away from it all by joining the navy."
But the doctor at the naval recruitment board held that George didn't have a chance.

"Why, doc?"

"Your teeth are bad, George, that is why."

George got furious. "What have my teeth got to do with this, doc? Can't you see, I am going to fight the enemy, not eat them."

An African soap-boxer who claimed to have been on dole ever since he came to England took delight in deriding the British - "Britain is a nation of inventive geniuses; they make 40 different types of electrical plugs, none of which work satisfactorily." Britain, he said, was a nation of chips-eaters - "They have fish with chips, beef curry with chips, baked beans and chips, pie, pudding... you name it, they have it with chips. Why, presumably, they even have sex with chips."

Heckler : "Tell me, do you still eat people who visit your country?"

Speaker: "Oh yes, we do. But don't worry, we no longer eat Englishmen. Because the last one we put in the pot ate all the potato.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

To London, with 12 shillings in pocket

(Appeared in Zine5, June 2002)

In 1964 I gave up a secure government job in New Delhi, for an uncertain future in London. I was then 26, an age at which you think you know all the answers. Now, at 62, (in 2002 when this piece was done) I know that I don't even know all the questions.

I went to England on a labour voucher. Those days, citizens of the Commonwealth countries could migrate in search of job to England on a voucher issued by the British ministry of labour. It didn't promise a job, but guaranteed a dole for a work-permit holder till he found employment. Getting a labour voucher posed no hassles for those with an university degree. And it was convenient for many educated unemployables from India and former African colonies to find their way to England.

Some of them, with a political agenda at home and flair for public speaking, went on dole for as long as they could and spent time promoting their pet cause at the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner. It is the only place that guaranteed unfettered freedom of speech. You could even abuse the royalty. But then you could be taken for a crank. There was this middle-aged Irishman, who blamed his permanent unemployment status to the Royal Navy recruitment board. George brought his own soapbox to the Hyde Park corner on Saturday afternoons and held forth on his pet grouse against the armed forces.

"I volunteered for military service," said George, "when bombs were falling all over London." He was rejected on medical grounds. A naval doctor who examined him said, "George, your teeth are bad." To which George responded, "Doc, I am going to fight the enemy, not eat them." The recruitment authorities remained unpersuaded. And George has been telling this story ever since at the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner.

The work permit listed my occupation as 'journalist'. It took me over two years to get a job on a British newspaper. Till then I did an assortment of odd jobs. Which included a two-week stint as a packer in a clothes wearhouse; and a clerical officer ( a civil service job) in a post office savings bank.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) allowed a work-permit holder three pounds sterling as foreign exchange for travel. This was my pocket money during the 10-day boat trip from Bombay to Genova in Italy and an overnight train journey from there to London. That I was left with 12 shillings when I reached the London Victoria station, at the end of the 12-day journey, spoke for my scrupulous money management. In violation of the currency regulations I carried some Indian rupees, but the only place en route where I could convert it was Karachi.

M.V. Asia, a Lloyd Triestino boat, sailed into Karachi a day after it left Bombay. I went ashore with a group of passengers to get a feel of the Pakistani city. The moneychanger at the port exchanged our rupee for an equal amount of Pakistani rupee. However, a paanwalah in Karachi city was eager to give two Pakistani rupees for every Indian rupee we offered. Indian paan that he imported/smuggled was considered a delicacy there.

My friend Satish Kohli (we used to live in the same neighbourhood in New Delhi) who was to meet my train at Victoria that afternoon wasn't there. Finding myself friendless in unfamiliar London, without an address to go to and with no more than 12 shillings in my pocket didn't do much good for my spirits. Satish did turn up eventually (he had been held up at work) and took me home to his bed-sitter at Golders Green.

London tended to grow on me. And even when I found work at a newspaper in North-east England I used to travel to spend a weekend in London every other week. I was in England during the 'swinging' sixties, when the Beatles were a rage, and the Twiggy look was in vogue; when girls, in mini-skirts, went for a boyish cut and boys wore long hair. But there were things where change was inordinately slow in coming. Sound of Music was on at a Tottenhamcourt Road cinema house (the year was 1964). The movie was still running when I left London three years later! Agatha Christie's Moustrap was playing for the 13th year at a London theatre.

The first job I got through the employment exchange was that of a proof-reader at a North London printing press. They don't keep you on dole for more than six weeks at a time. If you don't find anything worthwhile within this period, you have to take up whatever job they offer you at the labour exchange. And journalists were not recruited through labour exchange.

I didn't last for more than three weeks as a proof-reader. On the third pay-day (they pay weekly, on Fridays) I felt that my envelope was heavier than usual and on counting the cash I found there was twice the amount I got as weekly wages. This was their way of showing you the door. My supervisor, a Pakistani, later explained to me over a drink that the manager who had bungled on a job work chose to make a scapegoat of me.

My next job was with India Weekly, brought out by a group of London-based Indian journalists and supported by the Indian High Commission. P N Haksar was deputy high commissioner and Salman Hyder, who retired as foreign secretary a few years back, was in the mid-sixties a first-secretary (information) at the High Commission. India Weekly was the brainchild of the then London bureau chief of the Calcutta daily Hindustan Standard, Dr. Tarapada Basu. He managed the weekly, with voluntary contributions from S K Shelvankar of The Hindu, Iqbal Singh of the Patriot and Shisantu Das of the Indian Express.

My position at India Weekly remained unspecified. So was my job description. I wasn't given an appointment letter. I was paid through office voucher an amount that was not much higher than what I would have got as dole, if I had registered myself as unemployed. You could call my stint at India Weekly sweat labour. But I cheerfully endured it. It kept me away from the humiliating dole queue.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Journalism: The last reort of a flunky

(The Zine5 piece appeared in June 2002; it relates to early 1960s when journalism wasn't a well paying job. Nor was it one's first career choice. The headline says it all.)

I suppose a poor academic track record - low second division in BA (Hons.) and a high third in MA - had something to do with my becoming a journalist, if only because it effectively ruled out most other job avenues. In the early sixties there weren't many options for the likes of me. My grades were too low for a teaching job. Many of my batchmates took up teaching while they studied for the IAS entrance exam. Some, who had influential parents, got covenanted jobs with Metalbox, ICI and other foreign companies or became assistant managers in the tea estates.

My father, a government babu, wanted me to appear for the IAS exam. I did. And spent hours daily 'group-studying' with friends at the Janpath (New Delhi) Coffee House. Not surprisingly, I flunked the exam. I couldn't blame the coffee house. For all others in the study group got through the exam and eventually rose up to the level of a joint secretary and above.
In fact, it was through a coffee house contact I learnt of a job opening at The Press Information Bureau (PIB) in the Union I & B Ministry. The basic qualification was a graduate degree and a diploma in journalism. A senior PIB official, K.K. Nair (better known for his writings on art and culture under the pen-name 'Chaitanya'), recommended my appointment on a temporary basis, on condition that I pursued the diploma course through evening classes conducted by the Punjab University department of journalism. I had carried to the job interview clippings of the features I had done for a youth magazine during my Delhi University days. Besides, my having done post-graduation from the Delhi School of Economics probably weighed in my favour.

I was appointed 'Assistant Journalist' at a princely salary of Rs.450 a month. This was in 1961. Newspapers paid much less those days. Fresh graduates recruited as probationary sub-editors at the Press Trust of India (PTI) got a monthly stipend of Rs.150. Entry level salary at the Times of India didn't exceed Rs.300. It was less at The Indian Express. Many of my seniors at the PIB had switched over from newspapers to the then better paying government jobs.

H.Y. Sharda Prasad, who made a mark as press advisor to Indira Gandhi, was once on the editorial desk of the Indian Express. My boss Pratap Kapur, had given up a job on The Times of India to become Information Officer in PIB.. The then head of the PIB photo publicity unit P.N. Khosla had come to the government from the News Chronicle. It was during my stint at the photo publicity unit (1961-64) I had occasion to come in contact with well known photographers, T. Kasinath, who headed the Photo Division of the I & B ministry and T.S. Satyan, who worked for Life magazine. Now settled in Mysore, Mr. Satyan is working on a book recalling his days as news photographer in New Delhi. Not many photographers of those days had familiarity with English of the grammatical kind, let alone a flair for writing. During my recent Mysore visit I re-established contact with Mr. Satyan after a lapse of 38 years.

Though I was lucky to have landed a government job I was not happy there. I wasn't among those who fancied a secure 10-to-5 job Not when you were in your early twenties. I cheerfully endured the irregular hours kept by working journalists. While in the PIB I used to envy news reporters whiling away the afternoons at the coffee house; late-shift sub-editors at The Hindustan Times (then located on the first floor at the Connaught Circus) dropping in at the Scindia House Milk Bar around 10 p.m. for a quick bite.

Before long I started looking around for an opening in a newspaper. At The Statesman, which then had the last of its British news editors, they wanted me to go out and get a story before they would interview me. As the news editor put it, "when I joined this paper in Calcutta the editor sent me out on a monsoon story before I was offered job." Monsoon was ruled out for me. It was then mid-summer in New Delhi. I settled for a piece on the thrills of gliding because I could persuade a friend at the gliding club to take me up for a spin. The next day I reported to the news editor, who tossed at me a noterpad made out of waste newsprint.. And I had to turn out 750 words right there, in his presence. Some 45 minutes later I handed in my copy. The news editor went through the first few paragraphs and pronounced, "No, this is not up to the Statesman standard."

My next target was The Times of India, which had advertised for trainee journalists. You were required to submit a 1500-word essay on a topic of current interest. I wrote something about Indian agriculture having been a gamble in the monsoon. This was the pet theme of my economics professor, Dr. B.M. Bhatia, at The Hindu College (Delhi). Anyway, I got called for an interview, where they quizzed me about some recent TOI edit-page pieces. Though aspiring to become a journalist I wasn't a scrupulous newspaper reader. As some of the less prepared contestants do on the BBC Mastermind programme I said, 'pass' to too many questions (for which I didn't know the answers) . In fact, I wasn't even well up on the editorial leading lights at TOI those days.

A couple of years after this interview, when I went to England to take my chances there, I used to see every morning, on a London red-bus, a middle-aged person poring over the Times of India. He used to board at St. John's Wood and alight at The Strand. After observing him for a few days I went up to him to ask, "Excuse me Sir, are you Mr. Girilal Jain?" He took his time to size me up before saying, "No, I am Kumud Khanna."

How was I to know that Girilal had by then left for India to become the TOI resident editor in New Delhi and that Khanna had taken over as the paper's London correspondent? After his London assignment Kumud Khanna became editor of The Illustrated Weekly for a brief spell before Pritish Nandy came along to jazz it up so much that the Weekly lost its credibility as a serious journal and eventually went out of circulation.

To return to the theme of my job-hunting in New Delhi, I made another unsuccessful attempt to join a newspaper, this time at The Patriot, by which time I became so bored with the government job that I quit the PIB and left for England to take my chances there. For someone rejected by the Patriot - as its news editor put it eloquently, "Krishnan, your English is poor and your grammar is weak" - I got a break in mainstream journalism aborad, in a British provincial daily, The Northern Echo published from Darlington in North-east England.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Plea to Rahul Dravid: Please Endorse 'Maddur Vada'

(Appeared in in May, 2005)

The idea occurred to me during one of those commercial breaks when you simply can't escape ads by switching channels. They synchronise their breaks, these TV channels. With some skilful channel-surfing you can dodge some disagreeable ads for some time. Having to put up with a silly commercial once in a while can be trying enough, but some channels are at their annoying worst when they repeat selected ads during the same commercial break. This happens usually during the telecast of a blockbuster. That is when a 'maha movie' gets to be a 'maha bore.'

Anyway, while watching a pizza commercial, I got the idea that our maddur vada could do with a celebrity endorsement. Paresh Ravel, my favourite actor, is seen taking a big bite of pizza and then muttering through a mouthful, 'Hungry, kya'. It was a class act.I shared my idea with a friend, who visualised Mandya Ramesh endorsing the maddur vada. The snag was that the product was already more widely known than the celebrity. Ambrish was another name that popped up. He is a popular Kannada cinema figure who has turned a politician. But admen prefer a sportsman, preferably a cricketer. The idea is to promote maddur vada globally. Rahul Dravid could be our best bet!

As an endorser, Rahul would be a perfect fit for the product we want to flog. Maddur vada, like cricket, is a great leveller. Few of us who have travelled on the Bangalore-Mysore train have failed to taste it. It's a classless food item, the maddur vada. It's in demand right through the length of the train, in the second class coaches as well as the AC chair car. It's relished by peasants and company presidents alike. Maddur vada and Rahul Dravid will be a creative director's dream match. All that someone needs to do is cash in on this creative kink.

Sometime back in a Zine5 column I suggested to our 'swadeshi' activists an agenda : 'globalise maddur vada'. That was the time when the 'Swadeshi Jagran Manch' (SJM) was hot and bothered over the opening of a KFC outlet in Bangalore. My point was that, instead of fighting foreign chicken-peddlers here in India, SJM ought to take the battle to the KFC home ground. Open a maddur vada joint at Louisville, Kentucky, and make Col. Harland Sanders turn in his grave.

Much water has since flown down the canal from the KRS reservoir to the cane fields of Maddur. And the transnational culinary imperialists having stabilised in Bangalore, have even made inroads into the districts. They have opened a Pizza Corner and a US Pizza joint in Mysore. Isn't it time we hit back, with maddur vada? Make a global brand of it? Bipin Patel, a Uganda restaurant owner in the US, could tell us a thing or two about brand building. He was instrumental in creating a brand image for chaat & samosa in Montana.

Patel opened an all-veg restaurant at Missoula and named it Tipu's Tiger. That was an exotic name. Patel so named his eatery, in homage to the 18th century Tiger of Mysore. He perceived Tipu Sultan as an enlightened ruler who backed diversity and religious freedom. Tipu's Tiger has been written about in every Montana travel guide. Patel made Tipu a brand name in Montana for his chaat & samosa.

Meanwhile multinational culinary imperialists have roped in Preity Zinta to endorse noodles. She now has corporate credentials as a 'brand ambassador'. Imagine Preity on a promotional 'tour in a desert island where they haven't heard of Bollywood. She can introduce herself, 'Hi, I'm Preity, the brand ambassador for Maggi-2-minute noodles'. There is good money for celebrities in product endorsement. What is pertinent, however, is whether celeb endorsements necessarily push sales.

I am a Shah Rukh Khan fan, but that doesn't make me fancy Pepsi. I used to enjoy my occasional pizza even before Paresh Ravel started showing up on the idiot-box muttering, Hungry, kya? Some otherwise sensible actors are not always sensible when it comes to choosing products to endorse. We see Amitabh Bachchan promoting a wide/wild assortment of products. You see him in the Pepsi commercial, the Nerolac paints and Parker pen ads. He also endorses Cadbury's, Reid & Taylor, Emami, and endorses Maruthi Versa and Dabur's Chywanprash. Amitabh is all over TV during commercial breaks.

But then the Big B appears to have his compulsions. His entertainment company crashed, leaving him with the kind of debt that he couldn't meet with his film commitments alone. It was reported that the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation owed Doordarshan a lot of money, which left him with no option but to endorse 10 campaigns for the DD channels, in lieu of a settlement of the outstanding dues. Ad agencies would have us believe that celebs help a brand name with, what is called, top-of-mind recall that translates into sales. I recall Sunny Deol's cryptic one-liner Yeh andar ki bath hai, but can't remember the brand name of the under-garment the actor endorsed. To add to my confusion, Salman Khan has joined in the under-garment endorsement act. We see him in a vest as he says, simply, Asli hero. That must have been the most expensive two words Salman has spoken on camera. That it is the consumer who eventually pays for such crap is not a comforting thought.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Globalise Maddur vada

(The piece dated Dec.2002 was inspired by a protest in vain by swadeshi activists against the opening of a KFC outlet in Bangalore. Did some imaginative thinking on their behalf to suggest causes that could promote their agenda. But then no swadeshi outfit, nor a Maddur culinary tycoon, appears to have taken me seriously.)

Grand Sweets of Adyar has a brand image among NRMs (non-resident Madrasis). MTR of Bangalore has globalised its rava-idli mix. And Krishna Sweets is the Mysore pak market leader in Coimbatore. I believe we have some food for thought here. Why not promote a brand image for idli-dosa in the global food courts? How about globalising gulab jamun mix? Why can't we float a chole-kulche company with market presence in WTO member countries?

I am not talking about the mushrooming of Indian eateries run by NRIs the world over. You can find websites listing desi khana outlets in places such as Miami and Michigan. What I dream about is a maddur vada joint in Manhattan as part of a sambar-vada multinational chain on the McDonalds pattern.

It was in 1948 Richard and Maurice McDonald opened the first fast-burger joint. Within the next four decades McDonald's came to be represented in 103 countries. Its hamburger has been hailed by The Economist as a "symbol of the reassuring predictability, pre-packaged straight forwardness, the sheer lack of pretension of American life." For all this, it wasn't even American in origin. Hamburger, they say, came to the US with immigrants from Hamburg, who had themselves acquired the habit of eating ground beef with onion juice from the nomadic Tartar tribes. As it evolved in the twentieth century a hamburger came with ingredients other than beef, to cater to non-beef eaters and even vegetarians. Around 1920 the burger came to be sheathed in bun.

Maddur vada is known well beyond the geographical confines of Maddur in Karnataka's Cauvery belt. Those who have travelled on the Bangalore-Mysore train could not have failed to taste it. Like Mac-burger, vada lacks any trace of snobbery and is classless insofar as it is consumed with relish by peasants and company presidents. Vada, with all its variants such as sambar-vada, thayir-vada, sada-vada and masal-vada, is a candidate for brand-building on a global scale.When you think of it, vada is just one of the scores of items conducive to standardization, branding and marketing in our globalization efforts of the culinary kind.

If pizza can make it around the world, why can't masala-dosa do the same? It is not as if people in Berlin, Boston and Bristol are not familiar with our tandoori dishes. Some desi stores in Fremont, Sun Valley and Orange County selling condiments and pirated CDs of Indian films have also opened pani-poori counters. I know of a Karnataka gentleman who makes a comfortable living flogging home-made idli-dosa at a desi store in Phoenix during weekends and at NRI social and cultural get-togethers in Arizona.

South Indian thaali meal used to be a speciality at India Club on London's Strand. That was when they had a cook whose rasam was drunk with particular relish by V K Krishna Menon. It is said Menon, our first high commissioner in London, had brought the cook from native Tanjore. Krishna Menon survived on tea. He had a kettle on the burner all the time. The only other liquid he relished was the rasam made by the Tanjore cook.

In London during the sixties we could live on Indian food, if one could afford it. For Indian food cost more than burgers at Wimpy's or fish and chips. There were more of our kind of eating houses in the suburbs than in central London. My personal favourite was Agra Restaurant at Golders Green. Oddly enough one found quite a few other restaurants by the same name in many other parts of London. If there were more than one such eating place in the same locality, the other one was most likely to be named Taj restaurant. The other odd thing was that many of these places were not run by Indians. They were owned by Pakistanis, mostly from Sylhat district (now in Bangladesh). The place was known for its cooks, like Udipi in Karnataka.

Perhaps, the most serious snag with Indian food joints abroad is their varied taste and quality of items. The eats in all Udipi places in the US are not uniformly good and don't taste the same. Besides, some Indian restaurants do not adhere to the high standards of hygiene prescribed by local authorities.Uniformly good quality and taste, and value for money are the key features of the US burger and pizza multinationals.

To make maddur vada or masal dosa truly global, its promoters should address issues of HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) and ISO 9002 quality certification. They should standardize the process system to control hygiene with bacteria-free environment at production facility and sales outlets.

I recall that Swadesh Jan Manch or some such outfit launched a stir against the opening of a KFC outlet in Bangalore some time back. It is, perhaps, time they switched strategy and took their battle to KFC's home ground, instead of fighting their presence in India. 'Be Indian; Buy Indian' has become old hat. Our new slogan ought to be, 'Be Indian; Go global'. Maddur vada in Manhattan should be on the swadeshi agenda. Vajpayee, Advani and Gurumurthy of Swadesh Manch could work on this. Togadia could help, if he stays off it. For no swadeshi cause can be truly lost till it has his support.

And then there is a foreign policy implication. We have the opinion of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman who declared some five years back that countries with McDonalds did not go to war against each other. As Tom put it, "with the hamburger comes an established middle-class which makes a country too sensible to cause trouble." Yashwant or Jaswant or whoever holds the external affairs portfolio when we get to set up a transnational food company would do well to ensure that maddur vada joints are opened in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Coonoorian couch potatoes

(Wrote this piece, Nov.2002, when I was based Coonoor and hosting a weblog – The Coonoor Connection’. Which is now in a state of total disconnect. It died of neglect, when I shifted base to Mysore)

Ideas move the world, they say. This might be the case elsewhere, but not in Coonoor. I can claim to speak from experience. Take this 'couch potato' idea I floated in my homepage, 'The Coonoor Connection.' I thought Coonoor could do with an outfit like the Long Beach (California) Society of Couch Potatoes.I promptly posted a message on the web site about the Long Beach society and its ten-point exercise programme for members - 1) skating on thin ice, 2) casting aspersions, 3) throwing caution to the wind, 4) bending the truth; 5) digging up dirt; 6) flogging a dead horse; 7) going the extra mile; 8) jumping to conclusions; 9) lashing out, and 10) marching to a different drummer.

It has been a year since this message was posted . And I have yet to hear a word from anyone by way of response. Not because of our inadequacy. It is my firm belief that Coonoorians are in no way less accomplished than Californians on any of the ten counts. My own favorite is flogging a dead horse.Coonoorians, with their web silence, convey a message. That they are one better than Californians. Our couch potatoes are much too lazy even to organise themselves on the lines of the lazy ones of Long Beach.

Our plus point is the Nilgiris weather. As Kalyani, my friend from Ooty, put it, weather here for much of the year is just conducive to laziness, warm blankets, hot tea and pakoras, and, of course, good books.Speaking of Coonoorians' propensity to stonewall ideas, the very idea of my starting a homepage was to try and put our heads together to break this stone wall and promote online interaction on life in Coonoor, the feel and flavour of the place, its people, their lifestyle, its flora and fauna.

I opened an 'Ideas' page to which those who believed in bettering our quality of life could send their input. I made it a point to mention that we prefer ideas that are weird and wild. Never mind if they think you're crazy. I can't think of anyone crazier than that Newton bloke who played ball with an apple, instead of eating it. And we all know what he came up with.

Some people see sausages and think of Picasso. We could do with those who think on such lines in Coonoor. Who knows, some such crazies might even think of starting an art gallery in town. In 'The Coonoor Connection' I have had people posting even some sensible ideas. But till date none of the ideas or the issues raised in the web site has made a difference to Coonoor. My homepage remains firmly stuck at home.

"We live in our own cozy world," says Thomman Kuruvilla, a public-spirited youngster, "if change is the rule of life, Coonoor has been an exception". According to Sangeetha Shinde, a Coonoor girl doing MBA in London, Coonoorians are status-quo-happy - "I can't see the peers in Coonoor allowing a Mcdonald's or Pizza Hut to set up shop anytime soon." On a more serious note Sangeetha says it was time we decided whether we need to produce more of our tea that has lost its market or shift focus to tourism, cottage crafts and other sectors with exports earning potential.

It is input from the likes of Thomman and Sangeetha that makes our day in the Coonoor Connection team - myself, son, daughter-in-law and my wife, without whose tolerance and tendency to ignore mounting dial-up internet bills, this site would have folded up a long while ago. I would like to share with you samplings of the mail we get at the Coonoor web site.Marshall Gass who left Coonoor over three decades back to settle in New Zealand has this to say: "So many mates from the old school days have made contact since my e-mail went on your web site - Hindley, ramamurthi, natarajan, Francis Mathews, Eates. Amazing. It was the best fun in the world catching up with those guys I played marbles with 35 years ago."

Of his old school, Lawrence, Edwin Good from Melbourne said: "Lovedale was tough, but there is little doubt in my mind that I would not have achieved what I did, only on a junior Cambridge certificate, without the grounding and character-building that went with it in Lovedale. The motto 'Never Give In' has always stood me in good stead in times of adversity." Edwin was a student in 1943-48, of what was then the Lawrence Memorial Royal Military School, Lovedale.

Son of a locomotive driver, Edwin, on finishing school, moved to Nairobi and spent the next 40 years as an oil company executive in Dar-es-Salam, Kampala, Lagos and, finally, Melbourne. Happily retired now, Edwin has a wish to fulfil - "God willing, I intend to take Margaret to India on a sentimental journey."

A Londoner, Agnes L'hostis, wrote that Coonoor by night resembled a Swiss Alpine resort. However, daytime Coonoor was a picture of, what he called "Indian urbanity of jostling market-place, throw-it-anywhere (usually in the river) untidiness and a predictably chaotic bus station." The picture doesn't deter Warren Ezekiel, who lives in Melborune and "is still not tired of travelling to Nilgiris once every 18 months."

From Delaware, US, a non-resident Coonoorian, Susan Grandy posted a message on the web site saying that she was rather distraught after her last Coonoor visit. The Ooty flower show brought back memories of the good old days when the Kuriens of Strathern used to walk away with the prize. She could not accept the fact that they charged an entry fee at Sims Park - "I remember we used to go there in the evenings for a walk." Raiding the Sims Park orchard used to be the favorite pastime of Nina Varghese, a Chennai-based journalist who grew up in Coonoor; even though one ran the risk of getting caught by the mali.

A retired army officer who was once posted at Wellington wrote us to compliment the Nilgiris people for their ban-plastics campaign. Said Colonel (retd) A Sridharan, VSM,: "We were pleasantly surprised in not being handed out any plastic carry-bags wherever we went. Yes, we did see an odd carry-bag here and there on the roadside and these were, presumably, the ones left behind by tourists from the plains." The colonel was being charitable to Nilgiri folk.

And then we have Navin Williams who makes periodical trips to Coonoor from Mumbai to visit grand-parents. They keep telling him about how Coonoor has grown in all the wrong ways - traffic, the noise, dirt and the general downward slide of what was once a quiet and elegant town. What Navin would like to know is: "Since we have such a large populace around the world that is in love with Coonoor, can't we find ways that we can all contribute to improve Coonoor?"


Comment: You are too unkind to us. Beaches are WARM and you have to get up and do things. We are cool people and believe that life is in being, not doing. Thanks for quoting me. Makes me feel I've written something worthwhile if someone can remember it - Kalyani

Saturday, May 06, 2006

No ideas, please, we’re Mysoreans

As someone who hasn't been in Mysore long enough to take it in our cynical stride, I was envious of Mangalore when I read in The Hindu about the success of their Jana Mana TV serial. The Mangalore city channel programme had completed 250 weekly episodes and we haven't emulated it? Never mind that Mysore hadn't thought of it first. Can't we copy a good idea when we see one? We have a Mysore city channel; we don't lack people with creative resources or talent to produce a TV programme. With some lobbying in the right quarters, we could even find sponsors with a charitable disposition. Why, then, can't we have a Jana Mana in Mysore? Why... WHY?

I gave vent to my feelings in And there wasn't a spate of e-mail by way of reaction. Three persons wrote back, though I alerted 30, seeking feedback to my website message. An excellent idea, wrote Bapu Satyanarayana, an articulate senior citizen who takes active interest in civic issues.I phoned friends and acquaintances. Got a sympathetic hearing and many reasons why they thought the idea wouldn't work. A commonly heard line was: ‘Mysore is no Mangalore’. It was as plain and simple as that. I was being such a ‘tube light’, not to have thought of it.

For those who might be unfamiliar with Jana Mana, it is a community-driven TV programme that is informative, educative, entertaining and interactive. The weekly TV programme, devised by a group of public spirited individuals, addresses everyday concerns of people. They get people with hands-on expertise to answer FAQs phoned-in by viewers. They tell you how old one's neighbourhood church is, or where one can take a course in nanotechnology, the recipe for Kori Sukka, or how to crack CET.

Among the three respondents to my website lament was Anil Thagadur, a spirited Mysorean located in Dulles. He offered to contribute his bit and also his time to mobilise Mysoreans in the US, if only someone at our end took the initiative to put together a TV programme. He spoke of PBS TV and the National Public Radio in the US that are known for exceptional programmes on community development. Anil said, even in the US it was a struggle to find adequate support to start a not-for-profit venture, but once it got going it could really become the voice of the people, for the people. He suggested we collaborate with those running Jana Mana in Mangalore.

Bhamy Shenoy, a social activist, would like to see Jana Mana do more than address civic issues. “We need programmes that debate issues, expose shenanigans in public life, bureaucratic hassles, and expose frauds played on consumers by traders”. Don't we see a touch of Ralph Nadar here? Shenoy's prescription could keep away potential sponsors and prove to be the proverbial red rag to the establishment.

But then Bhamy Shenoy isn't frightfully optimistic about making a go of Jana Mana in Mysore. “I wonder how many Mysoreans would take interest in such things”, he says. He reckons that the main challenge here is motivating people to get involved in civic affairs.The educated and the social elite don't usually get involved, in the belief that they make little impact on civic affairs. The gullible are easily mobilised by political netas for bandhs and street protests.

To protest is our birthright, but it takes a nattering neta to turn it into vandalism. A recent street protest in front of the DC's office turned violent. There was slogan-shouting that went with some window-smashing. The DC's office furniture got thrown about, as in a John Wayne movie. I don't recall who the protesters were or what they were protesting. The thing that has stuck in the public mind is the ransacking of the DC's office.

Trouble is our netas who choreograph political stunt scenes with the vote bank in mind are not usually imaginative. Same old slogans and tiresome attacks on familiar targets. In Mysore, the other day, some so-called Kannada activists went around prime commercial areas blacking out hoardings with messages in English. I believe it was a Sunday morning, when the high streets were deserted and shops closed.

In such unguarded urban settings it wasn't a daring thing to do, going about with a can of paint and a spray gun to disfigure hoardings. It pales in comparison to the ransacking of the DC's office during working hours, in full public glare. The English-baiters with paint cans were led by an MLA. While the protesters with spray paint were at it in Shivrampet, someone drew their attention to vehicle number plates. The MLA is reported to have promptly picked up a can and brush to work on a number plate that carried the registration number in universally understood English format!

Maybe Shenoy has a point. How do you motivate the spray paint brigade to see that a Jana Mana programme, rather than disfiguring vehicle number plates, might have a better chance of promoting the Kannada cause? You have got to have civic sense for this, a certain spirit of inquiry, openness to ideas; in other words, you have to be Mangalorean.

A message posted in the context of some other issue in the Mysore website evoked a cryptic response from Mahadev, another non-resident Mysorean:”We see a lot of ideas on the Net, but the net result is minimal”. Mysore's answer to the Jana Mana idea is: “No ideas, please; we're Mysoreans”.

(When this piece was written in May, 2005, there was response from three persons to the ‘Jana Mana’ idea. There has been no addition to the number in the past year. Post on ‘Jana Mana’ is still there on the web along with several others waiting to be noticed.)