Saturday, September 29, 2007

Whispers in New Delhi's corridors of power

Presumably, the most read media in New Delhi bureaucratic circles is not The Times of India or Hindustan Times, but a little known Bhopal-based website with a pedestrian title – Whispers in the Corridors -it keeps you posted on impending postings & transfers of IAS/IPS officials; it carries rumors on who’s under suspension, who are tipped to go on deputation to the Centre, from where; and whose name is up for reversion to the parent state.

Whispers publishes political tidbits, corporate changes and other water-cooler gossip. A recent post in Whispers claimed that intelligence agencies have put together a list of top 50 movers & shakers in politics, the men who call the shots in corridors of power in various state capitals. The website calls them ‘big brothers of political masters’; and it claims the PM has the list, along with information on the degree of their proximity to PMO and 10 Janpath.

Whispers doesn’t name names, but throws up clues for the benefit of those familiar with the dynamics of power. A certain Mumbai-based businessman is said to have the remote-control on Rajasthan; he can get done anything in the state. If you can’t guess who, here is a clue - he takes active interest in cricket; holds a diplomatic passport. Another businessman, again from Mumbai, can move matters in Bihar; clue – deals with auto industry. ‘A shipping and trading magnet’ can do things in Gujarat; a Mumbai builder is the man for Maharashtra. A Delhi-based real-estate developer is said to be calling the shots in Haryana; A promotee police officer is believed to be doing it in UP.

How about Madhya Pradesh? The site has nothing on this. But my guess is Suresh Mehrothra, the man behind Whispers in the Corridors.

Anyway, reading Whispers is fun. Much of it is, admittedly, hogwash, but many of its hunches, they say, approximate facts. Snag is in figuring out facts from the hogwash.Which is why Whispers, they say, has become required reading for the bureaucrats in the reckoning, besides liaison men and the lobbyists who do the rounds of the Secretariat corridors and the central hall of the Parliament House.

Whispers reminds me of Claud Cockburn’s cyclostyled gossip-sheet that kept London’s Whitehall on the buzz in the 30s. Called, simply, The Week, the gossip-sheet was read by bureaucrats, by leading politicians, bankers and journalists. Philip Toynbee said, “this cyclostyled sheet, which made public all the news and rumours of news which the official press fought shy of, was a squib which exploded effectively in many strange places”.

Claud Cockburn, in an introduction to a book by his wife, Patricia – The Years of The Week – wrote: “Friends and enemies are in agreement at least on one fact. It is that The Week exercised an influence and commanded an attention grossly, almost absurdly, out of proportion to its own resources”.

Perhaps, one could say the same about the Whispers of Bhopal. The Week of London was produced with the help of a few part-timers, in a dusty, one-room office in Victoria Street. The Bhopal website is brought out from a modest government quarter (allotted to journalists) at T T Nagar. The Whispers publisher, Dr Suresh Mehrotra, has a degree in medicine, but he has been a journalist as long as I have known him.

The media incarnation of Suresh, I believe, had its beginning as a Hindi journalist reporting for a news agency from Ujjain. Most high-flyers have had humble beginnings. Suresh and I came to be posted as newspaper correspondents in Bhopal around the same time, in early eighties. I worked for The Times of India, and he, for the Free Press Journal that had opened an edition from Indore.

For someone new to the print media (he had till then been a UNI wire service reporter), that too, in a paper that had yet to make its presence felt in Bhopal, Suresh kept up a steady flow of ‘exclusive’ news stories, much to the surprise and envy of his colleagues in the media. He was quick to earn a grudging recognition from media peers; he developed a network of contacts in official and political circles. I found him unfailingly helpful whenever I needed a contact or information on a story I was working on.

Contacts are the life blood of a newsman; and Suresh had it in abundance. Whispers thrives on official shop-talk; and it has sustained for six year now, on the strength of Suresh Mehrotra’s extensive contacts. Soft-spoken Suresh has a way with people that makes you swap cell number and e-mail addresse with him on your first meeting. I lost touch with him long before they invented e-mail;before the cell phone tsunami hit us.I learnt of his Whispers during a recent Delhi visit.

Cross-filed from Desicritic and in Zine5.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Accident victim care court ruling

My public-spirited friend ERR passed on a mail he got from a friend, with a note that if we spread the word widely and long enough, lives could be saved. The message in the mail, doing the rounds as chain-mail and among bloggers, pertains to a ‘Supreme Court ruling’ that enables a by-stander to rush victims of hit-and-run accidents/assaults to hospital, without anxiety over hassles with the police or court-kachheri chakkar.

A stranger who brings an accident victim to hospital can walk out after leaving the victim in ER and it is the hospital’s responsibility to inform the police. First-aid /medical care come first. Question of payment and police formalities would arise only after the victim had been given immediate medical attention at ER.

My thoughts on reading this was, how come the mainstream media and TV channels missed such critical public interest court ruling. What was the case in reference to which the Supreme Court gave the ruling? In fact, did the apex court give such a ruling at all?

Googling for answers I ran into this observation from an Ahmedabad-based law firm. Its prime spokesman Mr Homi Maratha, in response to a post in, is quoted as saying that hospitals have their own policies and as part of the procedure they adopt the responsibility of the person who brings in the injured does not end at leaving the accident victim at a hospital. You can always refer the SCC or Constitution Law of India, ‘you can find certain relevant authorities’.

Another advocate, Mr Sidharth in New Dehi says an answer could be found in the Commentary on the Constitution.

This was where I left my Google search. Maybe, someone legally knowledgeable could take this from here. Wonder if a query under RTI Act would be admissible in this case; in ascertaining the authenticity of what is being widely circulated as a Supreme Court ruling.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Dosa of San Francisco

At Sunnyvale Saravanaa Bhavan, we had to wait for 30 minutes for a table of four, that too, after a 40 minute drive on a freeway at 60 mph. Which goes to show the lengths to which NRIs can go for ‘desi’ food.

My visit to Sunnyvale Saravanaa was two years ago. There has since been a proliferation of Indian eateries in the San Francisco Bay Area. What’s more, desi food has come to figure in ‘Food & Wine’ section of the mainstream US media. A hefty Sunday paper gave big play recently to a restaurant called The Dosa in San Francisco. The newspaper write-up apparently worked up a prominent Indian resident, B S Prakash – ‘I read it, first with amusement, then with irritation and ending with burning indignation’.

Mr Prakash, reviewing the newspaper review on the web, says he was amused at the description of dosa as ‘a large thin crispy crepe - sour and not sweet’ filled with buttery potato, onions and cilantro, to be eaten with a dip of chutney’. He made a mental note that he ought to repay this with a review for Rediff of a snooty French restaurant serving crepe – ‘a crisp, smallish dosa-sweet and not sour, and with a topping, not of masala but of maple syrup’.

Mr Prakash, who does a monthly column for Rediff, holds a day job. He is India’s Consul General in San Francisco. What irritated our columnist was the firangi’s description of dosa, embellishing her narration with references to mutton and egg-fillings, the things not palatable to a traditionalist. His ‘burning indignation’ was, however, reserved for the foreign restaurant reviewer’s perception of desi service.

First, the food writer didn’t relish that The Dosa doesn’t take reservations. This can’t be an issue with most NRI restaurant-goers. If anything, they factor in the waiting time while planning to eat out. My experience at Saravana Bhavan wasn’t uncommon. It was the same story at Milpitas Bhima’s, where they have a pager system to facilitate the throng waiting for a table.

While registering your name at the reception counter they allot a number and and give you a pager. The idea is that you don’t need to crowd around the restaurant door, waiting for the reception desk to call out your name and number. With a pager you can stroll out or wait in the parking lot; and pager-buzz alerts whenever a table is made available.

In fact, there are quite a few classy restaurants in the California Bay Area that don’t take reservations as a matter of policy. I know of an Italian joint in Pleasanton (or is it Dublin?) that doesn’t accept reservations. The wait-time is 20 to 40 minutes. The restaurant has, helpfully, a liquor-dispensing counter that enables you to linger over a glass of wine or beer while waiting for a table or delivery of your take-out order.

Apart from no reservations facility, Marianne, the media food columnist, finds other aspects of the service in the Indian restaurant unacceptable. Having found a seat at The Dosa, she was made to order straightaway. Presumably, she is used to the fuss made by the bloke in a bow-tie with a writing-pad who hands out an oversize menu card and a wine list, and waits on you to order. Instead, she got a tattered menu card, only after she asked for it (normally, desi customers have their minds made up on what to order even before settling in). She started with idli ($4.95 a plate), moved to masala dosa ($8.95), and, presumably, wound up with carrot halwa. Marianne’s complaint was that they brought her a bill (instead of a ‘check’ placed in between a leather padded folder) even before she sent for it. And then there was this ‘water boy’ who kept filling her glass with water even when it was not fully empty; and refilling her sambar bowl, unasked for.

Marianne found the service appalling. I wonder how she would rate Mysore’s GTR Tiffin Room or Indira Bhavan; and the Bangalore Udupi, close to the central bus stand, on a narrow one-way street, with no parking;it is always crowded. The place has an age-old reputation for vannai dosa

As for The Dosa of San Francisco, Marriane has better credentials to comment on its service. Because neither I nor Mr Prakash have been there. He admits he cannot as yet vouch for The Dosa’s authenticity - “it is not easy for me to shell out $8.95 plus taxes for a dosa”. In my case, it would work out to another $1,200 or more, by way of airfare from Bangalore.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Tribute to film critic and friend M Shamim

Retired journalist Atul Cowsish doesn’t visit the Delhi Press Club often; and whenever he does, he doesn’t stay beyond eight or half-past. When Atul went there a couple of Sundays back, for a condolence meeting, he stayed on for an hour after the meet, hoping that I might drop in at the club. I was visiting Delhi then, after a 11-year gap. The condolence meet was for a senior club member and common friend M Shamim. The three of us, Shamim, Atul and I, had been part of the local media scene in Delhi of the 60s and the seventies, when newspaper reporters were a close-knit group; and everyone knew everyone else.

I didn’t go to the club that day because I didn’t know about the condolence meet. In fact, I learned about Shamim’s demise only at a subsequent visit to the club to meet Atul, by appointment. Cowsish and I used to cover the Delhi Administration (or was it the municipal corporation beat?); he, for The Statesman, and I, for The National Herald. We met that evening at the club after three decades. To celebrate the occasion Atul stayed beyond 9 p m, lingering over his customary two smalls.

Shamim and I were on a different beat together. We did the round of cinema houses on Fridays to review, for our papers, the latest releases. We saw two, and, on occasions, three films, back-to-back as they say, and also took in a late-evening booze party hosted by a visiting director or Bollywood star.

There was camaraderie among film critics of English dailies and the bunch of us taxied together from one cinema house to another, to catch up on the latest releases. The core group comprised K M Amladi of Hindustan Times, Debu Mazumdar of Indian Express, Habib Tanveer of The Patriot, Amita Malik of The Statesman, and yours truly, then representing National Herald. Shamim of The Times of India was our group lead, a dada in fact.

At the press club condolence meet a former Times colleague Yogendra Bali said in his tribute, “I remember the whole of Bollywood used to be scared of him (Shamim), for he never spared anyone in his (film) reviews”.

Bali often used to tag along with Shamim on his Friday rounds of cinema houses, and, occasionally, stand in for him whenever Shamim couldn’t make it to a show. I wouldn’t say, as Bali does, that Bollywood was scared of Shamim. He was pampered by most Bollywood busybodies; and many held him in high regard. But no one who was anyone in Bollywood those days could afford to ignore Shamim.

As someone from a lesser paper(National Herald) I basked in the reflected clout Shamim had with Bollywood folks. He wouldn’t let them take any of us for granted in the matter of invites to a special screening or a Bollywood party. Shamim rarely accepted an exclusive invitation from any film world biggie. It was all or none , he used to tell them.

He was on first-name terms with all big actors of his days. Amitabh Bachchan was then a ‘bachcha’. If I remember right, Saat Hindustani was his first notable film; and its maker, K A Abbas, a good friend of Shamim, held a special screening for us at the Mahadev Rd. Films Division auditorium. I can’t recall what we wrote about the film, and if we mentioned Amitabh's role in it, at all.

Yusuf bhai (Dilip Kumar) who rarely interacted with Delhi film journalists used to phone Shamim whenever he was in town. And Shamim, true to his all-or-none principle, had him call us over as well for an afternoon drink at Oberai. I also remember us spending a long afternoon with Kamal Amrohi when he shared with us the factors responsible for the long delay in the making of Pakheeza. Matters no one would discuss with gossip-driven film media. Such was the relationship Shamim had with Bollywood folks and the trust they reposed on his film critic friends. Amrohi was married to the leading lady Meena Kumari when Pakheeza first went on the studio floor.

And then there was Aradhana, for the release of which the producer had flown the lead players to New Delhi. The Shamim gang was invited to meet Sharmila Tagore at Hotel Imperial. Rajesh Khanna, making a debut in the film, was staying in the adjacent suite. Yogendra Bali might remember this incident, for, I believe, he was also with us then. As we left Sharmila’s suite Mr Khanna’s PR man, met us on the hallway to plead with Shamim to spare a few minutes for Aradhana’s leading man. Shamim turned him down, but politely in his Lucknowi andaz, as we headed to a Connaught Circus cinema house to attend a film premiere.

This was the Shamim I knew. Such was his clout in Bollywood.

Cross-posted in Desicritic and zine5

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Human Rights course for Karnataka cops

We have it from the officer in charge of Karnataka police recruitment and training that constables and sub-inspectors study human rights as a subject during their basic training and that they undergo refresher course at various stages in their career. I read this in The Hindu open page where the officer, Mr D V Guruprasad, gives his take on the Bhagalpur brutality. It is refreshing to note a top cop, in the rank of additional director-general of police, taking a stance on the issue in an open forum.

What I read in his article, however, wasn't so heartening. He says he wasn’t shocked by the TV pictures of a Bhagalpur cop on a motorbike towing a battered chain-snatcher tethered to his vehicle. He attributed the continuing incidents of police in various parts of the country to public apathy. What shocked him about the motorbike incident was that onlookers who watched the brutality either cheered the police or preferred to be mute spectators.

In reference to the public attitude Mr Guruprasad write, “ I have come across many educated and well-placed citizens telling me that if the police do not use the third degree, a criminal cannot be taught a lesson”. This tends to shut out further debate on police excesses. Maybe Mr Guruprasad has a point – the public gets the police it deserves.

In an environment where people passively approve police excesses on crime suspects, Mr Guruprasad says, the police brutality would stop only when policemen are made to realize that there is suitable punishment in store for those who take the law into their own hands. That reminds me; does anyone know or care to find out the current status of the case against the cop on the bike? Has anyone seen a follow-up story in a newspaper or TV channel?

One would have thought the department would, in the interest of discipline of the force, want to see the policemen guilty of excesses (recorded on live TV with no scope for doctoring) meted out a severe punishment in expeditious manner. The irony is those who take the law into their own hands are dealt with in accordance with due process of law, which is not always sufficient or swift enough to be exemplary.

Mr Guruprasad, in his article, refers to the 1980 Bhagalpur blinding of 31 under-trials. A Google search on the progress of the case revealed that three policemen – station in-charge, an ASI and a havildar – were convicted and sentenced to two years in jail plus a fine of Rs.2,000 by trial court in 1987. The main accused got bail and appealed against the sentence. The apex court cancelled the bail and dismissed his appeal in March 2004. And it wasn’t till a month later a special magistrate realized the Rs.2,000 fine and sent the accused to serve out his two-year sentence.

The law, sure, takes its course, though this may take some 24 years after the incident. I don’t know if the court included the interest on the Rs.2,000 fine, realized 17 years after it was imposed

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Manivannan, Mysore's man of the hour

With Mysore municipal commissioner Manivannan P joining Praja-Mysore, we can count on a spurt in the ‘hits’, and hopefully, action-oriented input on the fledging community site. I have had the benefit of a look-in on the communication between Mr Shastri, representing the Praja admin, and Mr Manivannan. Was struck by his observation that a ‘city grows as much as its citizens are ready for it; and it can grow only when it takes its citizens along with it’.

Found it so apt, in the context of what I experienced during a recent visit to New Delhi. Going there after 11 years proved to be a trip of re-discovery, not just of the place but also its people, even those I thought I knew. What with its flyovers and the Metro it is evident that Delhi aspires to become world class city. The question Mr manivannan’s growth mantra raises is: Are Delhi people ready for it? Aspiration needs to be backed up with a change in people’s mindset as world class citizens. A mindset-aspiration gap is an issue that needs to be addressed in Mysore as well. And the hope is Praja input/interaction would create necessary awareness conducive to the much needed change in the public mindset.

The second part of M-mantra – a city grows when it takes its citizens along – calls for an enlightened leadership. In Delhi I noticed the one thing people are uniformly proud of is the Metro rail; and the much talked about man in this context is Mr E Sreedharan.

Needless to add, the name that springs to mind when we talk of Mysore administration is Mr Manivannan P. Googling Manivannan I found the Hubli-Dharwad municipal corporation under Mr. M’s regime as commissioner had the distinction of being the only civic body in Karnataka to have secured ISO certification. A California blogger Nagesh Tavarageri, reproducing Shyam Sundar Vattam’s article in Deccan Herald. posts:

"It took nearly two years to overhaul ‘junk administration’ and make it numero uno in the State. Hard work, dedication and commitment among all sections of the administrative agency has paid rich dividends in the form of ISO-9001;2000 certification from TUV, a German agency."

To quote Mr Manivannan’s mail to Mr Shastri,

"a city government that isn’t responsive loses relevance. But in a democracy public institutions can’t be overlooked, and hence they become fetters in the path of development."

Expressing personal views on the basis of his administrative experience, Mr M says,

"an intelligent citizen is one who understands that the chains can’t be removed, but the need is to increase the speed of the government machinery."

As I see it, Manivannan is the best thing that has happened to Mysore in a long time. Whether it was by design or administrative convenience we now have an administrator with a proven track record. And he is open to ideas, public views and opinion. ‘Informed’ and ‘concerned’ citizens, on their part, would do well to give Mr M a chance. Confrontational activism that defined the NGO-administration relations so far won’t go.

Cross-posted from Praja-Mysore

Monday, September 17, 2007

Delhi roads are not for driving

To zip on M-G Rd., you must dodge trees - News headline

I used to think roads were for driving till I read The Times of India during my recent visit to New Delhi. People there apparently ‘zip on roads’, and the newspaper I used to work for has become more imaginative in giving headlines than in my time (I left Delhi in 1982). I have a problem, though, figuring out why people have to zip, while driving can take them to places. Revisiting Delhi was a trip of rediscovery, of not just the place but its people as well. The changes there made me feel lost, baffled and initmidated. The two verbs in TOI headline - 'zip' and 'dodge' - appeared to sum up the composite mindset of folks in Delhi today.

Anyway, the newspaper story pertained to the traffic hazard posed by trees on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road. It appeared that 50 odd trees were left untouched when they widened a five-km stretch on this road. Such tree-considerate acts, I thought, made Delhi a role model for environment-friendly governance. In my town (Mysore) they have no qualms about felling even vintage trees to widen roads or have an additional building on a college campus. Growth with conservation is an alien concept to Mysore's city managers.

Delhi, I believed, was different. This was before I read the TOI story. Initially, M-G road was widened (leaving the roadside trees untouched). Now they find the trees are a traffic hazard. Unarguably, Delhi roads get clogged with cars for much of the day, despite the flyovers and the Metro. The question is: would road-widening and felling intrusive trees solve the problem of rising traffic without serious efforts to curb the number of vehicles on Delhi roads?

Maruti, they say, turns out a new car every 15 minutes, and half the vehicles produced in Gurgaon is marketed in the national capital region. The tree story in TOI was not just about the worsening traffic on M.G Road; I thought it had to do with people’s mindset. A car owner is quoted as saying, “It gets tough to swerve the car in time (to evade trees on M.G Road) if one is driving fast, more so with call centre cabs pushing you around.”

The traffic police share this view; their grouse is that the government is sitting on their plea to have the trees uprooted. The Metro rail people extending the line to Gurgaon would like to see those trees gone, to get more road space to work on. The mindset is thus in favour of flattening M-G Road of trees. But then, when the traffic on Gurgoan Road becomes unmanageable again two years from now, they would have no trees to make a scapegoat of.

The status quo is not alarming enough to warrant a tree slaughter. Everyone admits there has been no fatal car-tree collisions on this stretch so far. As a traffic police officer put it, “It is a miracle that nothing has happened so far.” Maybe the cops are counting on something happening, given people’s penchant for fast driving and the menace of call centre cabs. Are these guys reckless beyond redemption? As a small-town resident, I have a problem understanding why fast driving can’t be curbed by the police enforcing lane discipline and speed limits, as they do in world class cities. Doesn't New Delhi aspire to become a world class city?

A prerequisite, presumably, is that people in Delhi need to have a world class mindset. They could make a start by picking up proper driving sense. Take the M-G Road situation. It's my considered opinion that if only road users could be persuaded to ‘drive’ rather than ‘zip’ on the roads, there would be less scope for bang-on collisions with the trees on the road. After all, each tree has a tree guard, which is painted with red reflector stripes. The stretch is well-lit, with blinking light barricades to guide motorists around trees at night.

A car-tree collision, when such precautionary features are in place, is a remote possibility, if car owners in Delhi can learn to drive and not ‘zip’ on the road.

Cross-filed in Zine5 and Desicritic

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

World’s eldest YouTuber?

In response to my post in Desicritic You’re never too old to blog – Eric Shackle, 88, writes about the oldest YouTuber, Olive Riley, 107, who lives in Woy Woy, 50 miles from Sydney. Olive blogs as well. But then she calls it ‘blob’. Which makes her, not just the oldest, but, presumably, the world’s first and the only blober.

I mention this for the record, in view of ambiguity, raised during this 10th anniversary year of blogs, about who the world’s first blogger really was. A decade from now, when the world celebrates a decade of ‘blob-ing’, the world’s first blober issue could be settled by referring to Eric’s comment and this post. Incidentally, would anyone have a clue to when the first e-mail was sent, by who, to whom.

Eric (don’t feel comfortable addressing him as Mr Shackle), who liberated so many senior citizens from ‘computer-phobia’ and encouraged them to browse, blog and otherwise explore the Internet, writes that Sydney was the British colonial capital of the New South Wales when Ms Riley was born (1899). Describing her as physically frail but mentally alert, Eric informs us that the grand old lady of blogosphere who survived two World Wars, the Great Depression (1930), had seen life as a barmaid, egg-sorter and a station cook.

What’s refreshing is Ms Riley can recall her early out-of-this-world days. Reading her you realize that there are things that don’t change with time – such as one’s school day escapades. Olive YouTubed how she was teased at school because of her surname (Dangerfield) and how, in frustration, she landed a low that laid her tormentor flat. Doesn’t this prompt us to reach for Olive’s blob?

Must mention here a paragraph on Mr Eric Shackle. A retired Sydney journalist (do they ever do?) this 88-year-old lists as hobby, Internet searches and writing on them. Does a column for senior citizens in webzines and copy-edits A-Word-a-Day newsletter for India-born Seattle-based word-lover Anu Garg.