Saturday, January 27, 2007

Blogging Davos

I reckon the World Economic Forum (WEF) meets at Davos make more business sense than the UN, though both are equally ineffective when it comes to re-ordering the world. At Davos no one hears of a cash-crunch for running the show. The UN is plagued by shortfall in funding by some member states. I don't suppose, at Davos, they adopt resolutions that get routinely flouted by members.

Presumably, there is a lot more fun and booze at Davos, going by the blogs. The 800 company CEOs attending the show are encouraged to blog at the WEF online journal of its participants. A Davos delegate blogs of the night he went into his hotel bar to find something to eat, and ended up meeting some Amazon-based Brazilian social entrepreneurs - 'we ended up drinking beers and swapping stories well into the night.' Speaking of meeting people the blogger writes of the immense opportunities Davos provides. He reckons the best place to meet people are in the minivans (seating six) that shuttle delegates around various happenings spots in Davos.

The International Herald Tribune/NYT blog is my favourite. Last year they ran a post about people flocking the Google party to gawk at its co-founders - Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Besides gawkers there were, at the party, connoisseurs whose focus was on the passing drinks tray, at which 1959 Pauillac Bordeaux and 1990 Krug champagne were on offer.

The no-celebrity policy adopted by the WEF for this year was a mistake, according to an unnamed invitee cited in the NYT blog. Stars such as Angelina Jolie and Sheron Stone, who made a splash in the proceedings in previous years, were not invited this time. WEF founder director Klaus Schwab, 67, is reported to have held that the conference "committed to improving the state of the world" lost its sense of seriousness and purpose, if the invited celebs cornered much of the attention.

Prof. Schwab, in a reference to the media/delegate attention drawn by Stone in 2005 was reported to have told WSJ that she had a "bit of her own show going and that's not what we really appreciate." But then Prof. Schwab, who has been running the show since 1971, knows as well as anyone does that people go to Davos not just to discuss the global economy or the status of poverty in Africa.

A business leader, they say, could wind up spending $10,000 dollars a day on a Davos trip. Surely, he can't be doing this to lament the fate of Africans who live on a dollar a day. For the 2,400-odd delegates from 90 countries, it presumably makes business sense to be in Davos. It saves many of them half a dozen trips to China, US, India, Australia or Brazil. Global networking is what this is all about. I remember reading this refreshing take on Davos in the Deutsche Welle blog. It referred to the Davos forum as an excuse for many to gossip about designer clothes and dine on lobster - 'one must always look one's best while discussing the poor.'

Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic, in a blog last year, was reported to have spoken of pushing a space shuttle service for public travel. Virgin's CEO said he would be on the inaugural flight with family after Enterprise completed 50 test flights. The Google guy Sergei who also evinced interest in getting into space tourism quipped he would wait till Branson had sent 1000 flights - 'we have to offer our passengers return tickets.'

WEF, experimenting last year with opening up blogs for delegates, invited participants to post on what they reckoned accounted for success. Richard Branson listed his 10 points, the first of which was, 'you've got to challenge the big ones.'

Point 10: 'Be a common, regular person'.
Point 3: 'Haggle, everything is negotiable';
Point 7: 'Don't lead 'sheep', herd 'cats';
Point 6: 'Smile for the cameras'.

A young entrepreneur from Finland posting her take wrote: "I would regard myself as successful, if I am able to raise two balanced adults from my two-year old, and the younger one, aged 4 months."

Friday, January 19, 2007

Columnist Buchwald: Dead, on his own terms

Art Buchwald is dead. And his only concern, as he slipped into unconsciousness was, “I just don’t want to die the same day Castro dies”. So says the satirist’s long-time friend at Washington Post, Ben Bradlee. Buchwald died of kidney failure, Jan.20, at his son’s place in Washington D C. He was 81.

I thought the old man was gone well over a year back when his syndicated column stopped appearing in The Hindu. Buchwald was then very much alive and kicking , though with only his left leg. The right one had been amputated below the knee. His kidneys were failing. Refusing dialysis the 80-year-old celebrity satirist opted, instead, to enter a Washington hospice, to 'go gently into the night when all else fails'. This was in February last.

He didn’t go. What’s more, he lived long enough to write a book – Too Soon to Say Goodbye. Those entering a hospice do not usually last longer than two or three weeks. But Art Buchwald stayed on, and on, for so many weeks that he came to be known around the Washington hospice as The Man Who Wouldn’t Die. He left the place in July last to spend summer at Martha’s Vineyard..

Buchwald had his reasons for quitting the hospice. "It didn't work out the way I had expected," he said, "besides, I've gotten so well that Medicare won't pay for me any more". I had my suspicion as to why Buchwald went to the hospice in the first place. So that he could do a book on his near-death experience. Hospices don't usually get written about, because they are associated with death. Buchwald says he spent time at the hospice discussing his funeral with family - details such as where to hold it, how elaborate it should be; and who would speak on the occasion. The columnist reportedly convinced his long-time friend Carly Simon to sing at his funeral.

Another reason, befitting Buchwald's 'unmatched sense of the absurd', could have been the proximity of the hospice to McDonalds, from where he had a steady supply of burger 'n' fries. Besides junk food, said daughter Jennifer, her dad's other enduring loves were, being at the center-stage, spending time with friends, and writing. Buchwald's decision to discontinue dialysis, after he had it a dozen times, put him right there at the center-stage, turning him into a story.

As for spending time with friends Buchwald had so many visitors during his stay at the hospice that on some days it was standing room only. He was believed to have toyed with the idea of putting a tariff on it, $ 25 a visit. His only worry at leaving the hospice, they said, was whether people would still want to see him when he was no longer in the 'death-house'.

Art Buchwald’s only regret, presumably, was that death claimed him before he got around to complete his ultimate work - a pornographic one. In a foreword to one of his books Art Buchwald had observed, "It is absolutely essential that anyone today who claims to be a writer must produce a pornographic book". It was, he reckoned, a status symbol, comparable with that of the Hemingway era, when, in order to be a writer, you had to bag a lion.

"If I ever hope to be taken seriously as a writer, I must get down to work on my book" So he wrote in 1968. But then Art Buchwald could not proceeded beyond the first paragraph. His problem was , "every time I start a paragraph: - ‘Harry looked at the two girls in his bed and shook his head. How could he ever satisfy both of them and still make the seven ten for Scarsdale’ - I say to myself, Is this something the Supreme Court would want to read?"

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A blog-to-flook story

The Hollywood movie, The Devil Wears Prada, that won for Meryl Streep a Golden Globe Award (2007, for best actress) started life as a blog by Lauren Weisberger. She had blogged about her days as an assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour. It made such sensational reading that a publisher chose to make a book of it. The book became a best-seller and morphed into a movie. Ms. Weisberger has since written another book, described by Kimberly Llewellyn as a novel about the glammed-out New York city life entitled Everyone Worth Knowing. Kimberly, a four-book novelist, blogging on Lauren says, "I'd never seen anything like it. The I-Love-Lauren websites. The I-hate-Lauren sites. Incredible. I don't recall a time when a writer has evoked such emotion in readers."

Lauren Weisberger's case may be exceptional, but it does make the point that every other blogger may have a book in him/her. The genre is called 'blook'. But the urge to make a blook of their blogs remains for ever bottled up within most bloggers. Mercifully so, one might add. For, in this age of e-book and self-publishing, if the blooker genie were to get out of every blogger's bottle, there would be a literary tsunami in the publishing scene. It is guesstimated that there are some 50 million blogs out there in blogosphere, and 75,000 more created every day. It is an ego trip for a whole lot of them, blogging. Someone called it e-casting ('e' for ego).

A blook, if you haven't heard, is a hybrid literary form. It is a book that started life as a blog. This new literary genre holds out enticing possibilities. Bloggers, particularly failed authors, need not look for a publisher; nor worry about rejection slips. The age of self-publishing is with us. And the blook is here to stay. The founder of a self-publishing site, Bob Young, has even instituted the Lulu Blooker Award, on the lines of the reputed Man Booker Prize. The inaugural year blooker prize, announced in April last year, attracted 89 entries from 12 countries.

And the winner was blogger Julie Powell, 33, till then an unpuiblished author holding a dead-end office job in New York. She told The Guardian that blogging had kick-started her writing career. And she had no idea what a blog was until her husband initiated her into it. The jury described her blook, "a heartfelt, funny and occasionally obscene tell-all about her journey of self-discovery and cholesterol."

It all started when Julie Powell, frustrated with publishers' rejection slips, and bored with her day job, sought to engage herself by trying out all 524 recipes given in a book of French cookery. Her understanding husband not only tasted what she dished out but also suggested that Julie chronicle her cookery efforts in an online journal. The blog attracted a publisher's attention, and the rest, as they say, is history. Julie's blook is reported to have sold 100,000 copies. Among short-listed entries was by another foodie, Russell Davies who blook-ed a blog on his visits to London's 'greasy spoon' cafes. Title of the blook: Egg, Bacon, Chips and Beans.

The cookery blook-ing reminds me of a friend, Vidya Nagaraj, who has blogged about her online search to get the right recipe for 'masale-puri', a Mysore street-food specialty. Vidya lives in a small Japanese town where her family of four are the only Indians. Her perseverance to take on a Japanese town with her culinary might, her masale-puri recipe hunt, the response of Mysoreans to uphold the culinary reputation of Vidya, nay, of India, in remote Japan, and the hassles of being a vegetarian in a town of non-veggies has in them the spark of a blook.

As she put it in her blog, A Mysorean's Japan Diary, "Vegetable choices are very limited in this small town. For the first time in my life, I saw beans and ladies-finger sold in packets of 6 and 10... Now what is a south Indian vegetarian supposed to do with just 8 or 10 beans?"

Aviator Capt. Anup Murthy was minding his own business (of doing consultancy work and flying airplanes) till he took to blogging some months back. A few weeks into his incarnation as blogger Anup realized he was developing an audience beyond his family and friends. His blog now has a cult following and Anup's air travelogue has given rise to a plea that he publish his blog journal in Kannada.

A Mysore cardiologist, Dr Javeed Nayeem, who has taken to blogging writes about Tabebuia blossoming in his town as knowledgeably as charting a network of heritage walks through Mysore, a town steeped in history. And then we have in Mysore a potential blooker in Mr. Krishna Vattam, an old-time journalist, who recently underwent a crash course in the use of computer conducted by his school-going grandson, so that he could get into blogging to "kick-start his literary writing career". Mr. Vattam's recollection of anecdotal stories on life and past times of Mysore and his propensity to view current events in the context of Mysore's recent history could make engaging blog material. And a potential blook.

The blog-to-movie progression of The Devil Wears Prada makes another point. That there is something beyond blook, for a hit blog - a 'flook'. A flick made out of blook.

Friday, January 12, 2007

CEO Arun Sarin's a 'dignity' clause in his contract

I read ( can't recall where) sometime back, that Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin had it written into his contract that if and when his time came, he could not be asked to go by sending him an unceremonious "electronic mail or any other electronic messaging service." I read this in the context of a report that a UK-based insurance company had sacked 2,400 of its employees via terse e-mail.

By insisting that hiring and firing be done with some dignity, Mr. Sarin can be said to have set a precedent for HRDs. But then, do many of those who get fired really care? The shock could be the same whether you learn of it through a decently drafted e-mail or a three-word SMS, saying 'u r out'.

I once got sacked, but it happened decades before our graceless Internet era. I was then a proof-reader at a London printers. You got paid weekly, on Friday afternoons. And got sacked as well on Fridays. An hour before clock-out on Fridays, the cashier used to go round the printing works carrying a tray of sealed envelopes, and handing out pay packets to shop-floor employees. Like others, I awaited the cashier's arrival with the usual eagerness on that fateful Friday afternoon. He came, delivered, and left. He had left in my packet more money, twice my weekly pay.

Could it have been an accounting error? When I went to him, the cashier assured me there had been no mistake and that all the money was mine for keeps. He also let it be known that the company no longer needed my services. That extra cash was in lieu of the one-week notice period. Can you think of a nastier way of getting sacked? Gracelessness was the standard operating procedure for some companies.

There were exceptions. In Life magazine, it was said they didn't believe in sacking their staff. Instead, the chosen ones were made to feel so unwanted that they left on their own, sooner than later. Writing about her experiences in a book, Such Is Life, a former staffer described how those who fell out of favour were put through, what the author termed, the 'Treatment' by the Life management. A senior writer under 'Treatment' found, on his return from a vacation, that his desk on the editorial floor occupied by someone else. He found his personal effects shifted, in his absence, to an office on the floor above.

At his new office the staff writer was given a room to himself, with larger carpet space. However he was no longer asked to attend editorial conferences. No assignment came his way. He was left to his own devices. The management believed their dignified indifference would drive most people to resignation. But they misjudged the staff writer who used his time in the 'cooler' to write a novel. It got rave reviews. When the management realised he was building up a successful writing career at Life's expense, the man was relocated to his earlier desk on the editorial floor.

Such was Life then.
Now we need the 'dignity' clause.
(Unabridged version at Dateline Mysore,

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Being positive under provocation

This New Year I resolved to stay unruffled about nasty things people might say. "Don't be provoked, think positive," I said to myself. I soon realised that this was easier resolved than done.

Let me explain. In response to something I wrote, I got a mail, saying, "What the f--- r u",without as much as a question mark by way of punctuation. I didn't mind the f-word, a graphic speech form some people adopt to drive home their point. But his use of 'u' and 'r' was inexcusable. I sent a reply, saying I wish my anonymous friend showed a semblance of e-mail etiquette the next time he sent an abusive mail.

Now, how does one give a positive spin to such mail? Columnist Art Buchwald, they say, hung on his office wall framed copies of selected mail he received. Nastier ones merited the pride of wall space. Some stinkers on display at his office read:
"You are a nasty, ugly old man."
"Get the hell out of the US. Try Siberia."
"We girls think you most contemptible."

"Are you a writer or an idiot?"

Art's point is that you cannot be said to have arrived till you begin getting hate mail. I only wish my anonymous ill-wisher had spelt out his 'u' and 'r' and abbreviated the f-word.

Speaking of English, the language spoken by today's youth doesn't quite conform to grammar and the ground rules of English usage as laid down in Wren & Martin. During my last US trip to visit our son and daughter-in-law, some of their friends addressed my wife and me as "Hi, guys," without making a gender distinction. My wife, who is forgiving by nature, didn't think much of this. I, being a stickler for form, found this 'Hi, guy' thing disagreeable.

Typical snatches of conversation we had to cope with ran like this:
What's up, guys!
You smile, not quite knowing what to say to this 25-year-old who asked the question.
So, what did you, guys, see in LA ?
You list places - Universal Studios, Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Museum of Tolerance and so on.
"What, you guys were in LA and came away without seeing Disneyland?"

I got so worked up over this 'guy' talk by 'desi' friends that I posted a message on an NRI web site, giving vent to my smouldering indignation. My message evoked an e-mail response: "Tumhe aur kaam nahin hai kya? Are you unemployed, or something?"

This was deflating. This happened a while before my New Year resolve . Now, with my new-found positive mindset, I reckon, I shouldn’t have dripped over this 'Hi, guy' thing, in the first place. I can see this as a generation leveller. Viewed in this light I would rather have a young thing address me, 'Hi, guy,' than 'Uncleji.'

Recycled from Dateline Mysore,

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Would anyone know God's e-mail ID ?

If marriages are indeed made in heaven, it is time God looked into the affairs of His department of matrimony. It has given too much licence to too many to enter into matrimony on the flimsiest of grounds - love. Whoever says a marriage works merely because the boy and girl involved are emotionally involved. We see the same old tiresome story being played out everywhere. The boy and the girl fall in love, become man and wife, fall out of love and live miserably ever after. Or have their personal lives exposed in divorce proceedings.

I want to send God a memo on the marriages He makes in heaven. Would someone let me have His e-mail ID? "I'm not even sure I believe in marriages anymore," said Gloria Swanson, a movie star of the silent era, after three unsuccessful marriages. I have just finished reading her engrossing memoirs, Swanson on Swanson. It is a 550-pager and Gloria needed every page to recount her life story spanning five marriages.

Murphy's law of wedding states that everything that can go wrong with a marriage usually does. I read somewhere that 45 percent marriages in the US end up in divorce. Can God afford such high rejection rate of marriages made in heaven? In India we have other ways of putting an end to marriages. Such as bride burning. This happens in 'wed-now-pay-later' cases. Trouble arises when the bride's parents don't pay dowry. You see, marriages, even if made in heaven, can be about money.

The Heavens have been much too liberal in sanctioning so-called 'love marriages'. If you ask me, it is a contradiction in terms, love marriage. For love, as we knew it during courtship, rarely survives marriage. People in love have no idea of what they are getting into. Nor are they in a mood to listen to voice of experience What they don't realise is that unlike courtship during which lovers spend quality time together, marriage means spending time with your partner on a 24-hour basis.

When love fades out and you come down from cloud 9 you might well be lumbered with a spouse who snores, blabbers in sleep, watches too much sports on TV, takes too much time at the bath and carries magazines to the loo. It is adjustment, accommodation, understanding, a flair for argument usually over trivia and a spirit of endurance that sustain a marriage.

I have nothing against love marriage. My son Ravi has married the girl of his choice. To be candid, I can't say I jumped with joy when Ravi first mentioned Meera, the girl he had in mind, in a long-distance call from the US, I was relieved, though, to learn that the person my son had in mind for matrimony was not Mexican, Spanish or Chinese, but an ABCD (America Born Confused 'Desi'). Meera must have been a confused girl. How else could one explain her choice? Normally, I am not among those who would quarrel with the notion that love knows no nationality. But this case wasn't normal. I was the father of the groom.

As father of the groom, I had certain responsiblities, such as breaking the news to my aged parents, their conservative clan of relations at Pollachi, not to speak of my wife's not-so-progressive sisters. My son choosing his own life-partner was, in itself, enough to raise their conservative eye-brows. And a girl born and brought up in the US was clearly an unknown entity. No one in our family circles was familiar with such species.

Meera helped matters by making a pre-wedding familiarisation visit to India. She spared me the unenviable task of having to reassure our relations that not all America-born girls need be 'memsab' in temperament. With her unassuming ways and pleasing manners Meera managed to dispel apprehensions and inspire confidence and affection in my clan. The only snag was that many of my relations couldn't get the hang of Meera's accent.

Parental concerns are not always in the reckoning of some of our determined youths. Defiance of parents by those in love is a running theme of many of our movies.If God wants to protect his made-in-heaven brand image, he ought to rein in love-struck youths from rushing in where sensible people would pause to contemplate the consequences of matrimony. Today's youth watch too much soap, too many movies such as Dil to Pagal Hai, Kuch Kuch Hotha Hai, Salam Namaste, and, of course, that mother of all mismatched couple movies - Kabhi Alvida Na Kehana.

If such films have to be made at all because of box-office compulsions, they should be given 'PG' certificate i.e. vulnerable youths could be allowed to watch such films only in the company of sensible parents.It is a matter of perspective. Take Devdas. I view it as a promotional film for liquor; and also a film about the virtues of arranged marriage. Paru's parents in Devdas ensure that their daughter has an enduring married life. Just imagine her plight, if Paru had married Devdas.

Tailpiece: The last time I sent a communication to God was in 1971. The letter (no Internet then) I sent was returned undelivered. I had not given the proper PIN code for heaven. 1971 was the year I got married.

For the unabridged version of this piece look up Dateline Mysore in zine5.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Saraswati, an Unschooled Middle-class Mother

(Republished to mark the death anniversary of a woman of substance. The piece was initially published in Jan.2003)

My neighbor in Coonoor, G.V. Raman, lost his mother, Saraswati, when she was nearly 90; an age when she believed it was better to be gone than be alive any longer, overstaying your welcome. A month before her death she had made out a will, listing among other items a bank deposit of Rs. 50,000 to be set aside for funeral rites. She also made a trip to Coonoor that was to be her farewell visit.For someone named after the goddess of learning, Saraswati didn't do much schooling - a third standard dropout. Saraswati belonged to the vanishing species of unschooled middle-class mothers. They don't make mothers like Saraswati nowadays.

Today's middle-class mothers come with an academic degree. Which doesn't necessarily make them more educated. The purpose of education, one would think, is to enable you to cope with the world you come to confront in life. Saraswati's world centred around her husband and children and she learnt to cope with the rigors of domestic life at an age when today's girls are at school and full of dreams fed on Barbara Cartland. Saraswati became a near child-bride, kept house and bore children before she turned 20. She was married at 13 to someone eight years older than her. On the final count she produced 11 children - eight male and three female - of whom seven (four and three) survive her. No school or university can offer a course to cope with this situation.

If anything, among the Western educated women there is a libbers' school of thought that would like to wish away motherhood. I read about this writer, Ellen Peck, whose book The Baby Trap extolled the virtues and joys of not having children. She composed an obituary to motherhood, which was published in The New York Times on Mother's Day. Saraswati's generation was brought up in a tradition where women didn't have rights. She only had duties. A woman was expected to be a dutiful daughter, dutiful wife and mother. It takes some education in tolerance for one to conform to such tradition.

"My mother was solely devoted to the comforts and well-being of my father," says Raman. Always at her husband's beck and call, Saraswati's purpose in life was to please him.Her husband's position at the Aruvankadu cordite factory in the pre-Independence days entailed occasional entertaining of his British colleagues at home. Saraswati picked up enough social etiquette to make inane small talk with Mrs Norris, Flannegan or McCantyre.

At Pune, where her husband was posted , Saraswati had the occasion to accompany her husband to a VIP reception at which the visiting governor sought her out to exchange a few words. Saraswati was the only woman wearing diamond nose-rings and sari in the 'madisar' style adopted by orthodox Brahmins. "Mother didn't betray any communication problem," says Raman. That she didn't know a word of English didn't pose difficulty. She had mastered Ananda Bodhini, a guidebook that listed core English words and their meaning in readable Tamil.

She wouldn't address her husband by name, not only out of reverence but also because of a belief that a woman who addressed her husband by his proper or nick name tended to shorten his life. He died some 25 years earlier than she did, even though Saraswati was scrupulous enough not to address him as Gopalan even once in his presence. According to Raman, his mother's only regret was that her husband did not live to share with her the fruits of his government service. His last drawn pension was less than Rs. 500 while Saraswati drew a family pension that was ten times the amount.

And she spent much of it on gifts, tips, autorickshaw rides to the bank and, occasionally, movies. Rajnikant was her favorite. She listed in a diary all the films she had seen her entire life. Raman described his mother as sociable. She relished spending evenings at the sit-out in front of her house watching the world pass by and trading gossip with the milkman, vegetable vendor and the flower woman who relied on her for their daily news fix. The old lady's favorite reading was Dina Thanti , a Tamil daily noted for its coverage of crime and social gossip .

Saraswati was fastidious. Till death she wouldn't give up on the nine-yard sari, wearing which was increasingly becoming an ordeal. She never sat down to eat without a napkin; and always rounded off her meals with sugared curd in a silver cup and spoon.As Raman put it, "My mother might not have been born with a silver spoon, but she left behind one." He treasures it