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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