Friday, December 21, 2007

A meeting with a famous cousin


His father, Chandran Tharoor, and my father, Tharoor Damodar, were cousins. I do not remember having met Shashi Tharoor (former Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information at the United Nations and senior advisor to the Secretary General) although I do remember meeting his father once, and visiting the wonderful home of Parameswar Uncle (Tharoor Parameswar, Chandran Uncle’s elder brother, headed Reader’s Digest in India for many years in Bombay) in 1975. My father, Parameswar Uncle and Chandran Uncle were good friends, a friendship that lasted years. When my dad passed away in 1984, their condolence letters were among the first to arrive. We still have those letters.

Shashi, like me, has a Calcutta connection. He studied in the City of Joy and then in the mid-1970s left the city to pursue higher studies. He completed a Ph. D. in 1978 at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he received the Robert B. Stewart Prize for Best Student. I had always wanted to meet him but somehow never got around to. In January this year, I had met his mother, Lily Aunty as we call her, in Palakkad.

Well, I finally managed to catch up with Dr. Tharoor earlier this week at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, which along with the Madras Book Club, had arranged for him to speak about his new book, The Elephant, The Tiger, & The Cell Phone. In spite of heavy rain, the auditorium was packed and many had to stand or sit outside the main hall. It was, of course, vintage Shashi Tharoor. Talking about the lethargic (elephant), sprightly (tiger) and modern India (cell phone), Shashi painted a broad canvas that took a macro view of the country that was and is. It is not possible to write all that he said into a blog like this.

The Elephant, The Tiger, & The Cell Phone describes the vast changes that have taken place to turn sleeping India into a country that has made a mark in science and technology, a country that today has a middle class population of more than 300,000,000, as large as the population of the United States. The book is divided into five parts – politics, economy, culture, society and sport – and in it Shashi dwells on the pros and cons of the rapidly changing world.

I asked him how he felt while running for the post of UN Secretary General, whether he had any regrets at losing out to the Korean. He said that he felt he had a fair chance of winning, otherwise he would not have stood at all. He had come second out of seven candidates, and that it was not so bad. Yes, he is enjoying his new freedom, able to paint on a wider canvas.

Shashi is now chairman of the Dubai-based Afras ventures. He had joined the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva in 1978. His key responsibilities included peacekeeping after the Cold War. In January 1998, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, named him the ‘Global Leader of Tomorrow’.

Shashi is the award-winning author of nine books (including the Commonwealth Writers’ prize), as well as hundreds of articles, op-eds, and book reviews in many publications including the
New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, Time, and Newsweek.He has been writing a fortnightly column in The Hindu since 2001 and now also writes a weekly column for The Times of India.

Pic: With Dr. Shashi Tharoor


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas carols… and a boy who stole my heart




The story about my Bangalore visit will not be complete if I do not mention the high point – my visit to the home of Jayanthi and Prakash and how their wonderful son Rohan made a deep impression on me. My hosts Suma and Hari mentioned about an evening at the Prakash’s, but I did not expect it to be quite a fairytale one as it turned out to be. It appeared that Rohan was waiting for our arrival since early evening. He loves singing and hosting programmes, and his father and he had been rehearsing the past few days to put together a Christmas carol-singing programme. Blessed with a mind far more mature than his 12 years, Rohan is one of those rare children who speaks few words, knows what he wants and does things with minimum fuss.

Rohan had a programme lined up for us that evening. On his orders, we trooped into his dimly lit study. He was brilliant on the piano, moving his fingers deftly across the keys without even looking at them (he has been learning how to play the piano from the time he was five, and he has kind words for his teachers Roshni Mukadam and Priya Fernandez). Keeping pace with him and making his own mark was Prakash. Together father and son enthralled the audience of four with carols such as ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’, ‘O Holy Night!’ and ‘Joy to the World’. It was almost like Christmas Day; the only things missing were the Christmas tree and the plum cakes. But it didn’t matter. Rohan charmed us all with his pluck and enthusiasm.

A Class 7 student in Clarence High School, Rohan passed with distinction the Royal School of Music Grade 2 Examination last month. In 2005, he had passed with distinction the Trinity School of Music Grade 1 Examination. The same year, he came first in the United Nations Information Test, and second in the National Science Talent Search Examination.

Rohan says his favourite subjects are mathematics and science, especially chemistry and biology. Interested in math ever since he was in kindergarten (his father taught him how to multiply and divide), that interest received a boost when he read a series of books called Murderous Maths by Kjartan Poskitt, books that showed him how math could be fun and easy to learn. Supplementing all this is Mrs. George, his math teacher. According to Rohan, “She is very funny and makes math a lot of fun. She thinks of really good one-liners in an instant and does things funnily too.”

A class topper throughout, Rohan likes science because it has helped him understand how so many things happen. He likes Mrs. Joseph, his science teacher. Teachers have a great role to play too, don’t they?

What about sport? “I’m not good at running. But I’m a good goalkeeper. I tackle well in basketball. I play tennis (Rohan plays early mornings at the Gymkhana Grounds with his “amazing coach” Shivumar).”

Rohan aspires to become a doctor – a paediatrician or obstetrician-gynaecologist! And when he retires, he wants to be a math teacher! Wow!

What really stole my heart were these sentences he had typed out on a sheet of paper while we were having our drinks and dinner. Here goes: “My inspiration comes from my parents. They are exceptionally wonderful people and I love them a lot. They encourage me to pursue whatever I want unless it is bad and not listen to what everyone else wants me to do. My teachers also inspire me. A famous person who inspires me is Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. In spite of coming from a small place in Tamil Nadu, he rose to become the First Citizen, the President. Another person is Roger Federer. He is a real fighter. He always knows he needs to keep practising to maintain his position as No. 1. If he loses, he always comes back, much better. The perfect person, according to me, is a person who is honest, trustworthy, dedicated to what he does and a good person in general.”

Way to go, Rohan! We’ll be looking out for you in the days ahead!


Pictures (from top): Rohan at the piano; Prakash is as immersed as his son; and Rohan and his family poses before a Mona Lisa picture before the programme.



Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Any remedy in sight?

When your kidneys are healthy, they clean your blood. They also make hormones that keep your bones strong and your blood healthy. When your kidneys fail, you need treatment to replace the work your kidneys used to do. Unless you have a kidney transplant, you will need a treatment called dialysis.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (U.S.A.), there are two main types of dialysis: haemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. Both types filter your blood to rid your body of harmful wastes, extra salt and water. Hemodialysis does that with a machine. Peritoneal dialysis uses the lining of your abdomen, called the peritoneal membrane, to filter your blood. Each type has both risks and benefits. They also require that you follow a special diet. Your doctor can help you decide the best type of dialysis for you.

This information about dialysis written in simple language, I found at the U.S. National Library of Science and National Institutes of Health Web site.

Well, I don’t remember having heard much about dialysis as a child, even during my growing-up years. Life then was of course less complicated. You didn’t hear much about diabetes, cancer or HIV/AIDS either. What was most life threatening then was the ‘heart attack’, and if men over 50 had chest pain or ‘angina pectoris’ like my father did, then they had reason to worry. Heart by-pass surgeries were not much heard of either. And, yes, most children were born ‘normally’; the Caesarian was resorted to only in case of a complication.

Today, it is a different world. If you don’t have diabetes, cancer, HIV, kidney problems, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, you are lucky! But those who are not, have to face up to the challenge, and many do. Like my relative who has and continues to show tremendous courage in undergoing treatment. It is people like her who inspire others – she smiles, does her domestic chores, takes time off to draw and paint, eats out, visits fairs, and generally is good as almost normal. Just like an aunt of mine who too underwent dialysis in her old age, but kept everybody in splits with her jokes, was always eager to gossip, talk about the movies, and, yes, travel! Amazing woman, my aunt! I have never known anyone yet with the kind of love for life she had.

Coming back to dialysis, I understand that it costs anywhere between Rs 900 and Rs 1300 for a single session of dialysis, which can last up to four or five hours. Many patients who visit hospitals for treatment need three or four sessions a week. They spend Rs 3000-4000 a week; Rs 12,000-Rs 16,000 a month! Plus medicines. An injection that is sometimes given every week costs Rs 1500… so, you can imagine the kind of money that has to be spent. Is there no way to make dialysis less expensive?

There is insurance, of course. But how many bother to take insurance? How many can afford the premiums? And even if you are insured, seeking reimbursement from the insurer or third party administrator (heard of TPAs?) can be an excruciatingly painful task. My good friend Hari has been fighting for almost a year to claim his rightful dues. He still hasn’t received full reimbursement. What is worst, he tells me, is that banks (he had taken the policy through an MNC bank), insurance companies and TPAs don’t give a damn about the you and your family are going through. They need ‘three working days’ to answer a simple query! And oftentimes, the answer when it comes, is in no way related to the question you had, which was simply: How long will you take to settle my claim or what is the document you would like me to furnish so that settlement can be hastened? So much for efficiency! What then is the remedy? I don’t see any in sight.

Garden City still charms


Well, I was on a visit to Bangalore last week to meet a close relative who is undergoing dialysis and also to take time off from work. In spite of so many trains to Bangalore, it is not easy to get a ticket at short notice, especially on night trains. People like me cannot really plan things too early. I chose to travel by Lalbagh Express; after all, I could work in the morning and lose just half a day.

The journey was uneventful. In recent times, I’ve not been lucky with co-passengers. Where are the ones who smile and share stories? Or those who gladly volunteer to buy you a cup of tea? I have travelled enough in trains in India in the 1970s-80s-90s to feel the difference. Somehow, with the IT boom and all that is modern, people seem to have less time to talk or communicate. Wonder where we are all heading!

One of the things I noticed, being in the newspaper and media industry, was that vernacular newspapers and magazines are more popular than those in English. While the person seated next to me was engrossed in the latest Kumdam magazine, another was reading the Dinakaran newspaper, and a third a Telugu magazine. Did I spot a Malayalam Chandamama somewhere? Perhaps I did.

One of the good things about travelling in trains like Lalbagh and Brindavan is the variety of food that is on offer, one after the other. Tea or coffee tastes reasonably good the first time; after that, you might as well be drinking dishwater. At least that is what I experienced this time. There were hardly any beggars, but the eunuchs or hijras went about their business with little opposition from any railway authority. One dominant one even played ‘drums’ on the head of a helpless passenger and in the bargain coerced another to part with small change.

Bangalaore, in spite of what most people these days have to say, continues to retain a bit of its old garden-city charm. The weather was extremely pleasant, except in the night when chilly winds took over. I enjoyed my visit to Best of Bengal, an eatery close to Cox Town; the vegetable thali was filling, and the fried fish absolutely yummy. This is a restaurant that runs pretty much on its own terms, with little change over the years. The Bengali family that runs it seems to be able to attract a regular clientele. And at the end of the day, you can say that you had original Bengali food.

Picture shows the restaurant facade.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A newspaper produced by students

Recently, I was at the S.R. M. University campus in Kattangalathur. With the S.R.M. School of Journalism & Mass Communication having established itself there, students from the campus as well as from other S.R.M. campuses (Ramavaram and Modinagar) have now begun contributing to the campus newspaper, their own newsletter, called Spectrum. Students from various disciplines have been identified as correspondents and they now have the task of gathering and putting together information for the journal, which will appear once every fortnight.

Present at the launch of the paper was P. Sathyanarayanan, the Vice Chancellor, and S. Muthiah, honorary dean of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, under whose guidance Venkat Pulapaka, head of the journalism department, and his team coordinated with students to produce the newspaper. Spectrum is not a lab journal; it is a sort of community newspaper and, if it takes off, could well be a worthwhile effort. The onus will be on the students to contribute enough material for 12-16 pages every fortnight. The faculty will help with final editing and page making, but then that is not much of a challenge for those who have been in the business for years.

Incidentally, the S.R.M. School of Journalism & Mass Communication, Kattangalathur, will offer a part-time postgraduate diploma course in journalism of nine months duration, at the S.R.M. Nightingale Matriculation Higher Secondary School in West Mambalam (68, Thambiah Road), Chennai. Classes are scheduled to commence from January 21, 2008, and will be from 6.30 pm to 8 pm, five days a week.

The course has been designed as a postgraduate course, open to graduates from any recognised university / institution recognised by the University Grants Commission. The objective is to equip aspiring journalists and writers with the latest knowledge in the fields of newspaper and magazine publishing as well as other media and to impart professional skills to enable them to pursue careers as full-time or part-time journalists.

The faculty, an eminent one with long experience in journalism and communication, is likely to include Muthiah, who is also well-known journalist and author; Pulapaka; S.R. Madhu, senior writer-editor who has worked with The Times of India and Span; Sam Rajappa, senior journalist at The Statesman, Chennai; Tim Murari and Shreekumar Varma, both well-known writers and authors; Vincent D’Souza, editor of Adyar Times and Mylapore Times; and, well, myself who will also double up as course coordinator.

For details, you can contact Shanthi at 9884133355.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Remember Fountain Plaza?

After a long time, I had occasion to visit the New Ajnabi Mithai Ghar, better known as Ajnabi’s, in Fountain Plaza. Ajnabi’s was a favourite haunt in the early 1980s of youngsters, especially college students; as far as I remember, the eatery was there ever since Fountain Plaza emerged on the shopping landscape in Madras. Ajnabi was popular for its mouthwatering varieties of sweets, savouries and chaats, and also what was called, the Jain eggless cake. Indeed, the eggless cake variety included fresh cream cakes, vanilla, butter scotch, choco truffle, black forest, strawberry, pineapple, black currant, orange, dry fruit, choconut and browny. More than anything else, it was the sort of perfect hangout of an evening in those days, like Tic Tac on Nungambakkam High Road.

Well, things haven’t changed much at Ajnabi’s. There was a crowd when I entered this afternoon. I noticed a range of juices, supari and papad, chips, channa jor garam… quite a mind-boggling variety. Young girls waited near the chaat counter for their plates of samosa, kachori, dahi puri, pav bhaji, dahi papdi chaat… The person at the cash counter, who I’m sure represents the second generation of the Gujarati family that runs the place, had a keen eye on his assistants and belted orders from time to time to keep the momentum of work on.

I wondered what it is that has kept this enterprise going, in spite of new eateries sprouting all the time in Chennai. Judging by what I saw in the half hour I was there, it occurred to me that if you offer quality and back it with personal care and service, you can be assured of a winner anytime, anywhere. I also noticed that the assistants were enjoying what they were doing- they were smiling at each other, pulling each other’s legs, and all the while working at a feverish pace. No complaints at all!

Surprisingly, the Ajnabi success does not seem to have rubbed off on some of the other shops in the mall (Fountain Plaza, unlike Spencer’s or the City Centre, is not enclosed – there are open spaces, nooks and aisles that still retain the charm of the early 1980s). I did not notice many customers in other shops. Of course, you cannot beat the numbers gathered at a popular chaat shop but even so, it is clear that many of the textile and fancy stores have lost out to their fancied cousins in the super malls. Jagdeep’s, or Jags, the ‘jean specialist’, is still there though the crowds you saw there 25 years ago are missing.

The car park was full and vehicles kept coming in as others left. The attendants were having a tough time regulating traffic inside the compound. It was heartwarming to see such hustle-bustle about the place. I left with a good feeling. Fountain Plaza, thanks to Ajnabi and a few other stores, is still very much alive and kicking.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hindi filmdom's first superstar

It was one of those lazy Sunday afternoons. Usually, I would have preferred a siesta, but this Sunday I thought I’d watch an old Hindi film. Zee Classic has the staple ‘Old Melodies’ section after each feature film, the same songs keep appearing day after day. Great songs, most of them, but surely the Zee Classic library should have much more to offer viewers who love to watch old Hindi film songs. Coming up a series of songs that Sunday afternoon was the feature film of the early 1970s, ‘Andaz’. It was many, many years ago that I had seen the movie and here was an opportunity I did not wish to miss.

Andaz was released when I was a child. My childhood memories of Andaz are all about Kishore Kumar’s ‘Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana, Yahan Kal Kya Ho Kisne Jaana…’ and his famous yodeling. And, of course, Rajesh Khanna! Indeed for many years, I thought Andaz was all about Rajesh Khanna and Hema Malini. I had no idea there was a certain Shammi Kapoor in it and that Kapoor was actually the hero. Rajesh Khanna’s role was a minor one, a guest appearance. Yet, many people remember Andaz because of him and that Kishore song.

The song itself is used as flashback. It signals the dramatic entry of Khanna, much like ‘Rote Hue Aate Hain Sab, Hasta Hua Jo Jayega…’ introduces Big B in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar years later. When Andaz was released in 1971, Khanna was a superstar, Hindi film’s first superstar. I wonder how many of today’ generation really know the kind of superstar that Khanna was. There has never quite been one like him, either before or after, Dilip Kumar and Big B included.

Rajesh Khanna joined the film industry in 1966 after winning an all-India talent contest. He first film, Aakhri Khat, went unnoticed. It was Aradhana (1969) that catapulted him into the limelight. Who can forget ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani Kab Ayege Tu…’ filmed against the backdrop of the Darjeeling hills, and Khanna, Sujit Kumar in tow, playing ‘footsie’ with the lovely Sharmila Tagore? When Rafi, Kishore and Lata sing to S.D. Burman’s music, you can only expect magic, and magic indeed it is that unfolds as Khanna (in two roles – father and son) and Tagore build up a sizzling chemistry leading up to ‘Roop Tera Mastana’ and beyond. Incidentally, Khanna found most success pairing with Tagore and Mumtaz (anybody remember her?)

After Aradhana, a string of hits followed. I don’t quite remember the order, but I do vividly remember listening to the songs on radio, of Kati Patang, Amar Prem, Anand, Sachcha Jhutha, Dushman, Daag, Namak Haraam, Bawarchi, Hathi Mere Sathi, Aap ki Kasam, Khamoshi and Safar. I hadn’t seen most of these films in the theatre; it was only years later when television arrived that I saw them, backed by childhood memories.

Coming back to Hindi Film’s first superstar who won three Filmfare Best Actor Awards and eventually a Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award… Well, Rajesh Khanna was literally a phenomenon. I remember my elder sister (we were in Calcutta in those days; she is still there) talking about lipstick marks on Khanna’s cars and about teenage girls and women writing his name in blood! Without doubt, Khanna in the early 1970s had shaken Hindi filmdom like no one had ever before. And nobody since him has been able to generate that kind of hysteria. Neither Big B nor King Khan.

This is what I read about Khanna in a Web site called Upperstall.com: As hit followed hit and women all over the country swooned over him, Rajesh Khanna admitted feeling 'next to God'. The site adds that the BBC made a film on him called Bombay Superstar, and a textbook prescribed by the Bombay University contained an essay, 'The Charisma of Rajesh Khanna’!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Marriages are made in heaven

Marriages, they say, are made in heaven. I am reminded of this saying every time I pass the Kodambakkam over-bridge, thanks to the Menaka cards advertising double-liner that you cannot fail to notice plastered on to a building on one side of the bridge: Marriages are made in heaven; marriage cards are made in Menaka. This line seems to be almost as evergreen as the Lifeboy soap tagline in Hindi which I have heard and enjoyed so many times over radio over the years: Tandurusti ki raksha karta hai Lifeboy; Lifeboy hai jahan, tandurusti hai vahan. Which translated, means: Lifeboy safeguards your health; where there is Lifeboy, there is health.

Well, talking about marriages being made in heaven, I’m sure there’s quite a lot to be said for and against the topic. Last week I read an article in Reader’s Digest, about people falling in love well past their 70s or 80s, after the death of their spouses, convinced that there is life yet to sustain a marriage. So, love can happen any time, anywhere. And even if it means being together for a few years, in the twilight zone of your life, it’s an emotion that draws you inexorably closer and closer, exhilarates, takes you on a roller-coaster ride and sometimes provides you an orgasmic high. Here’s raising a toast to true love. Something not many people find in their whole lives.

I know of several couples who have married after falling in love, or fallen in love and married. It’s difficult to say which works. Couples who have had arranged marriages would say that there’s romance and charm in marrying first and falling in love afterwards; while those that have experienced what love is all about before marriage would swear by their experience. I think the true test of love is retaining the emotion, the excitement of being together, and being able to care and share everything together, all through your life. It’s the incredibly powerful feeling that tells you that there is somebody there for you who is thinking of you all the time, to the exclusion of all else. No matter how many people are around. For instance, there was this young lady who told me one day that she had fallen in love and the man she had married was just the right person for her. Even in a crowd, in the midst of people, when our eyes meet, we know we are there for each other, we connect, she said. Well! On the other hand, I have seen (we all have, haven’t we?) couples in arranged marriages leading boring, desultory lives, without even the fondness you might expect, yet putting up a cheery facade.

Two weeks ago, a family member got married. He was 50 and the bride, a divorcee, was in her late 40s. An arranged marriage. For the bridegroom, it was an achievement of sorts. For years, he had toiled hard, looking after his parents and sister, making ends meet. He had let go thoughts about his marriage, scouting for prospective men for his sister. He never succeeded. Textile business was hard work and Tirupur, Salem, Erode and Triplicane in Chennai are not really the sort of picture-postcard places that come to mind. To cut the long story short, the bridegroom’s father who attended his engagement, did not live to witness the marriage; his mother was leading a vegetable’s existence in a wheelchair, oblivious to everything happening around her.

In spite of it all, the face of the bridegroom was one of cheer and happiness. Remarkable, I thought. The bride appeared as coy and demure as any other half her age. She harboured dreams too, I was certain. May they both live happily ever after. And may they find true companionship and love.

New rules, confusion... a threat, then fear

I have been a resident of Madras for close to 24 years and have been driving on the city’s roads for more than 18. Driving in Chennai, of course, is no longer a pleasure; indeed, it has become a tough task and is not something anybody looks forward to with a sense of glee. Recently I read somewhere that about 600 vehicles (I suppose they include two-wheelers as well as four-wheelers) are added to the city’s roads every day! More than 200,000 vehicles a year! If what I read is true, then the situation is alarming. Where does the city have space for all these vehicles to move about? Even for parking? I have no idea how many old vehicles are condemned and given to the scrap dealers, but I’m sure that the figure scarcely matches the 600-a-day number. Most middle-class families own one or two vehicles and with many constantly upgrading from two-wheeler to four-wheeler and within four-wheelers, it is not very surprising that so many new vehicles are introduced to Chennai roads daily.

All this has led to policemen finding it extremely difficult to manage traffic, and not only during peak hours. They really do not have a solution to this. What they often end up doing is change routes, experiment with one-way traffic for a while, and, if the results are not encouraging, return to the old model.

This is what is now being tried out at the Ashok Pillar (Ashok Nagar) junction, which is one of the busiest junctions in the city. With one-way traffic introduced earlier this week on certain streets adjoining the Pillar, vehicles – of all shapes and sizes – now have a free run past Pillar, on to 11th Avenue, and then roundabout to Udhayam Theatre towards K.K. Nagar. Many drivers find this new freedom exhilarating and are not too keen on taking leg off accelerator. Cross-cross lines marked in the middle of some of these streets are indication for drivers to switch lanes and, needless to add, journeys around Pillar have never been quite as adventurous.

The result: pedestrians are the worst affected. Forget crossing roads here, they can hardly walk, out of sheer fear for their lives. Passengers availing public transport from Pillar find that bus stops have changed and that they have to trudge long distances. Share-auto drivers are a harassed lot anyway – now they have to break traffic rules if they wish to stop to welcome passengers or disgorge a crowd of noisy children. Then there is the Indian Oil petrol bunk, a busy bunk before the new traffic regulations. The staff there now seems to have little work – members have been reduced to innocent bystanders who watch the vehicles zipping past.

In the middle of all this was an email threat received by a private television channel, targeting schools and public places in K.K. Nagar. November 30 was the day the senders had chosen to do their dastardly act. So, more policemen on the streets, in schools, outside places of worship, several vehicles stopped for checking, schools closed… Quite a dramatic week indeed! It’s not yet over! But what I never could understand or got around to knowing was why on earth K.K. Nagar was singled out for creating all the confusion and fear.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

No takers for journalism?

Years ago, Madras’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan ran a successful journalism course. I do not know exactly when the Bhavan started offering the course – it might have been in the 1950s or early 1960s. From old-timers, I understand that the course was well received and classes were generally packed with about 40-50 students, thanks mainly to the excellent faculty. When I was a student at the Bhavan’s in the early 1990s, I was probably the oldest in the class of 25-odd, which had a fair sprinkling of girls; many were in their early 20s but I don’t think there was anyone who had touched 30. A few years later, I returned to the Bhavan as lecturer and handled classes in reporting and editing. During all those years, the Bhavan continued to exude its own charm and I felt happy giving back something to the institution. And, of course, being in the midst of a young crowd. Otherwise, you wouldn’t travel once every week all the way to Mylapore, braving the rush around the Kapaleeswarar Temple, for all of Rs 150, would you?

During the late 1990s, attendance for the journalism course at the Bhavan dipped and oftentimes I would enter the classroom to see only five or six students present. And that was how I gradually lost the enthusiasm to teach there. Later, one year, I heard that the journalism class was called off, and I haven’t heard of classes resuming there since.

I was reminded of the Bhavan recently when I was given the responsibility of coordinating a postgraduate diploma course in journalism for the SRM School of Journalism & Mass Communication’s evening programme in West Mambalam, at the SRM Nightingale School. Once the advertisements appeared, I received about 20 calls, mostly from students who were pursuing their graduation degrees. There were calls from others who were working, and one middle-aged man who said he was hell-bent on studying journalism and that he was a loyal reader of several newspapers for years. Almost all those who called seemed intent on joining the course, especially when I mentioned that the faculty would be an eminent one.

However, when I enquired from the SRM corporate office about the number of admissions, I was very surprised to learn that not one person had formally applied or paid the fee! That was two weeks after the advertisements appeared. So, what was keeping them away? Was it the fee? Is Rs 12,750 too much for a nine-month course? I wonder!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A doomed city?

A few days ago, I was leafing through an old issue of Aside, The Magazine of Madras as it was called, an excellent publication that focused on the city’s heritage, environment, civic issues, business and art, years before Madras Musings appeared on the scene. Sadly, Aside, which had Abraham Eraly as its chief editor, stopped publication many years ago.

I noticed in the copy an advertisement by Side Effects, a cozy little nook in El Dorado on Nungambakkam High Road. As an insurance officer undergoing training then on Nungambakkam’s Fourth Lane (now better known for MOP Vaishnav College and the Ispahani Centre), I would visit Side Effects regularly. There was a smart young fellow who would chat up customers and generally keep the place alive. You found almost everything you wanted there – books, magazines, audiotapes, cards, stationery and gifts.

I must quote here excerpts from an article from S. Krishnan, that wonderful writer who kept readers of The Hindu hooked to his weekly column Between You & Me. Please remember that this article by Krishnan, titled, Dirge for a Doomed City, appeared in the Aside issue dated 30 April 1990, an issue that celebrated Madras’s 350th birthday.

Excerpts:

This is a dirge for a doomed city which grew graciously for three hundred years, only to transmogrify itself in the next fifty years into a huge urban slum with an almost obsessive desire to strangle itself out of existence… I do not see a single ray of hope that can be salvaged from the morass it has mindlessly sunk into. Of course other metropolitan cities have similar problems, but at least there is some semblance of administration in them – as for us, we have had no city fathers for probably twenty five years. Cities like Delhi and Bangalore make a conscious effort to restrict ugliness in the design of new buildings and to beautify themselves, but we rejoice in letting apartment buildings, which look like crazy quilts, come up. Calcutta is usually held up as a horrible example of urban decay, but vivacity, good spirits and artistic feeling pervade among its people. Whereas Madras is singularly distinguished by the lack of manners of its people and the garish vulgarity of its ‘artistic manifestations’…

…A whole generation of people born in the fifties probably believe that it was always so – the clogged streets, the filth, the insane traffic, which looks as if it is directed by Laurel and Hardy, and the total indifference of people towards one another. No, it was not always so. While never laying claim to being one of the truly beautiful cities in the world, Madras was a charming city of tree-filled avenues and tranquil atmosphere. It was quite extraordinarily clean, a fact that every new visitor always commented upon. The Cooum and the Buckingham Canal were nowhere near as noisome as they are today. If there were slums they did not occupy either side of the road as they do now…

… There was an old-world courtesy among the people. Young persons were deferential towards elders. Neither students nor labour went on strike at the drop of a hat and took out processions. There was hardly any vandalism and the city was not plastered with obscene posters. Some parts of the city were indeed crowded, but one did not feel choked and strangled as one does today…

… It is a truism that once discipline is allowed to become slack, a major contribution of our present rulers, it is very difficult indeed to tighten things up again. But the only option we have is to keep trying…

...This is Madras in its 350th year. One can only cry besides the waters of the Cooum.

Post script: Seventeen years on, the city has only changed… for better or worse, I don’t have to tell you, do I? The waters of the Cooum, wherever they exist, have only got filthier. And, pray, where are the tree-filled avenues?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Sixty years post-Independence, yet...

With the northeast monsoon setting in quite early this year, Chennai residents can expect rain in the days ahead. There was one 24 hour-long spell of heavy rain, thanks to a depression along the coast. And Chennai roads, as it happens each year, got flooded with water. Authorities stress that de-silting operations have been conducted and that this year you will not get to see floods on several roads. For that, however, we will have to wait and see. The first downpour proved the contrary.

With the construction of flyovers or over bridges in progress at various key spots in the city, travelling has become quite a nightmare. Many roads have turned one-way; this arrangement seems to be working well in one or two places. Many wonder when work on the Kathipara over-bridge, probably the largest of the bridges under construction or what might turn out to be the largest ever in Chennai once it is built, will finally end! Situated at a major junction en route the airport, work on the bridge has resulted in airport-bound travellers having to leave homes hours before flights.

While the Kathipara over-bridge, once ready for use, might ease the flow of traffic to some extent, you wonder whether the other flyovers (in T. Nagar especially) would serve a similar purpose! By the time construction is complete, the number of vehicles on the roads would be increased manifold and things might not really be all that different at all. I, like many optimists, hope that the bridges will indeed make a difference and make driving in those areas relatively easier.

Another problem that residents in some areas in the city are facing nowadays is fluctuating voltage. This has led to television sets blanking out, tubelight chokes choking up, and computers crashing. With electricity wires and cables running above ground in places, it is another nightmare for people during the monsoon when you never really know where you are putting your foot while navigating flooded roads.

Sometimes, I think whether I would in my lifetime ever get to see in Chennai good roads, clean surroundings, uninterrupted power supply, clean potable water, and, most important, the sense of discipline that has enabled other cities in the world to offer its citizens a much better quality of life.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Where fair winds no longer blow

It was at the Frankfurt airport, while waiting to board a flight to Vienna, that I picked up a copy of the Financial Times. Its special report for the day focused on environmental impacts of global warming. Writing in it, Fiona Harvey says that Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, has asked all its suppliers to measure their greenhouse gas emissions. The supermarket chain will label all the products it sells to show how much carbon went into their manufacture. Wal-Mart’s decision to seek the ‘carbon footprint’ of is suppliers is reflective of businesses around the world stepping up efforts to reduce their environmental impact.

Carbon footprints provide a measure of how much of an impact an individual or company is having on the planet, and a carbon label is an indication of the amount of carbon-di-oxide emitted as a result of producing goods and services. So, Harvey adds, that if you are eating a Cadbury Dairy milk chocolate bar, you will know the impact you are creating on the environment.

It is not only on manufacture that companies are focusing. They are also seriously looking at transporting goods in ways that can reduce emissions. It is all about greening fleets and reducing route distances.

In the special report, Clive Cookson points out that it has been a year of unusual weather in many parts of the world. In Europe, the southeastern part of the continent has suffered heat, drought and forest fires, while exceptional summer rainfall inundated the northwest. In the U.S., Texas was flooded while California was hot. Heavy monsoon rain has caused devastation in South Asia. Cookson adds that enough computer modelling has been done for meteorologists to warn with confidence that a warming climate will bring more extreme and more variable weather, and that global warming is increasing flooding because warmer air holds more moisture – a 1 degree C temperature change can increase rainfall by 7 per cent.

Writing in the same report, Andrea Felsted says that according to Torsten Jeworrek, a member of Munich Re’s management board, the year has not seen an extraordinary event hit the insurance and reinsurance markets such as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005. Munich Re is one of the world’s largest insurers, re-insurers and insurance brokers that have signed up to a series of principles for managing and reducing the risk of climate change. The industry aims to influence public policy to help manage climate change. Felsted says that insurers believe urgent action is needed to reduce the risk from climate change if cover is to remain affordable and widely available. The Association of British Insurers, for instance, has suggested that insurers offer incentives, such as lower premiums on insuring more efficient cars, and ask for improvements in energy efficiency in buildings.

A headline in the special report that caught my attention was ‘China’s future clouded by smog’. According to Geoff Dyer, as the pace of growth of the Chinese economy continues to surprise many, the environmental damage the boom is causing is also causing surprise. The country is becoming one of the world’s main sources of pollution, he adds. With the Chinese economy galloping at the rate of 11 per cent a year, Chinese emissions of greenhouse gases could surpass that of the United States by the year-end. As a result of the pollution from factories, nearly 60 per cent of China’s rivers cannot be used as sources of drinking water and more than a quarter of rivers are not clean enough for industrial use. About 700 million people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste. There’s industrial smog, too. Dyer points out that a number of studies have concluded that the cost of pollution in China could be between 8 per cent and 12 per cent of the country’s GDP every year.

After reading it all, I was left wondering where India was headed!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Citizens of the world


Helping Ifra publications with the multiblog at IfraExpo 2007 were three young journalism students – Arlette Mazic, Claudia Grünwald, and Johanna Schönfeld – from the FHWien University of Applied Sciences of WKW, a Vienna-based institution. An enterprising lot, they would suddenly burst into laughter in the midst of keying in stories; somehow, they brought more life into the Ifra Gazette and Multiblog newsroom.

Arlette, the senior most, has that rare passion for journalism and a fire in her belly, if you will. She would stay late evenings to complete her pieces, breaking away to take pictures of scenes at the Expo past 7 pm. She joined a few of the editors and myself the first evening over glasses of beer and champagne. We were soaking in the atmosphere at the Reed Wien Messe foyer – it was the Cross Media Awards Nite and the general spirit was one of partying. She mentioned how much she enjoyed it all. The following morning, after I had edited some of her pieces, she said, “How much I could have learnt from you…” I could have told her the same thing – there is quite a bit to be learnt from young journalists these days.

Arelette loves Hindi films and her favourite star is Sharukh Khan. She hasn’t seen many Hindi films though. But she vividly remembers Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and sought explanations for certain scenes in the movie I couldn’t recollect. Her boyfriend, Ramitin Abidi, had seen Sholay several times, and she is desperate to see it too, but has not been able to get hold of a CD or DVD so far. Areltte would walk me sometimes to Hotel Hilton Danube where I stayed; her car was parked close by. She would make it a point to ensure that I reached the hotel gates safely before walking her way back to the car park. I gave her a list of Hindi films she should see with Ramtin and I promised to get her a few CDs if I ever visited Vienna again.

Areltte was keen that I help her with her multiblog effort on the final day. However, that was not to be as both of us were saddled with work and just when it seemed I might find the time, it was late afternoon and time for the newsroom to close down.

That was not the last I saw of Arlette. As promised, she arrived at the hotel at about 10 pm, complete with Mirabell chocolates and Marillen Likor (a mild drink). I was, of course, taken aback. She wanted me to meet Ramtin who was waiting on the other side of the road, and hastily we crossed the Hilton overbridge.

Ramtin is from Teheran. He studied in Vienna after leaving Teheran with his mother and brother during the Iran-Iraq war. Together, we drove towards Vienna’s District 1, filled with imposing buildings such as the Burgtheater and the Parliament. It was a part of Vienna I had never seen earlier.

Dinner was at Café Landtmann (opposite the Burgtheater), where we shared a Tafelspitz, Areltte’s choice. When were they planning to get married, I asked. When he decides to put the engagement ring, Arlette shot back. Ramtin had visited Bombay as a child, and he still remembers the crowd and the atmosphere. He, with his strong views on various aspects of life, seemed to me to be a man of this world. Arlette matched this with her exuberance and love of adventure and new media.

After I returned to Chennai, I was pleasantly surprised one evening to receive an email from Arlette. Open the attachment and have a look, she had written. It was a picture of her with Ramtin, and she was displaying the engagement ring on her finger. It was a special moment they both savoured. And I couldn’t resist raising a toast and saying,” All the very best, dear friends!”

(A triumphant Arlette shows off her engagement ring as Ramtin savours the special moment.)

Where old coexists with new




The Hilton Vienna Danube has a prime location on the Danube River, close to Vienna’s fair and exhibition site. The hotel has 367 rooms, two restaurants, a coffee house, a bar and a wide range of wellness facilities. You can use the Internet facility if you wish – it costs a minimum of Euro 5 for 15 minutes, and you will need a credit card. Indeed, a credit card is the preferred mode of payment even when you check in.

The city centre is only ten minutes away by shuttle service or public transportation, so you can enjoy all the attractions Vienna has to offer, from St. Stephan’s Cathedral to the Spanish Riding School. The hotel provides a complimentary shuttle service to the city centre at regular intervals.

There are several sightseeing spots in Vienna – St. Stephan’s Cathedral, State Opera, Art History Museum, Parliament, National Theatre, Town Hall, the University, the Danube Tower, Belvedere Castle, and many churches. The Ifra team arrived in Vienna on a Saturday afternoon. I, like most others, had only that afternoon and the following morning to spare for sightseeing. The rest of the time, till we left the following Friday, was just work.

Well, we got into our stride almost immediately after checking in at the Hotel Hilton Danube. Dean Roper, editor-in-chief of Ifra publications, my Chennai colleague Antony and myself headed towards Stephanplatz, a square at the centre of Vienna named after its most famous landmark, the Stephansdom, Vienna’s cathedral and one of the tallest churches in the world. St. Stephan’s Cathedral and horse-drawn carriages usually form the backdrop to most visit-Austria brochures and Vienna city maps. The sight of Stephansdom is simply awesome and you have to be there to experience it. Opposite Stephansdom is Haas-Haus, a piece of striking modern architecture – on its glass and steel structure you can see Stephansdom silhouetted – Wow!

The whole area around the Cathedral is a mixture of the old and new – some of the world’s best known brands in exclusive shopping streets vying for your attention with centuries-old buildings and churches around them. There is probably no better example of how the old can exist with the new in a harmonious blend, and if we have to protect and conserve our heritage, we must learn from Viennese and other Europeans as well. Because, in Darmstadt too, I noticed how well cared for some of the old buildings were. Either people live there or the basements are let out to shops. The buildings are in use, and that is the best way you can preserve heritage.

(Picture, from top: a view of St. Stephan's Cathedral; the glass and steel Haas-Haus; and a tourist overawed by the atmosphere.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

An event to remember


The IfraExpo in Vienna, this year, a first for the city, saw 10,600 newspaper and media experts from 87 countries participating. Whew! Some numbers that. At the international exhibition for the newspaper industry held in the city of music, it became clear that while print continues to play the lead, it is receiving increasing cross-media support from the Internet and mobile services.

The Expo, held in the two exhibition halls (15,126 m² floor space) of the Reed Messe in Vienna, recorded the highest number of exhibitors since the first Ifra exhibition in 1970: 367 exhibitors (a 9 percent increase compared to Amsterdam in 2006) from 33 countries showed proven and innovative technology solutions as well as new business models for publishing houses. These included 100 companies, mainly from Austria, the neighbouring Eastern European states and the U.S.A.

One of the main attractions during IfraExpo was the special exhibition dedicated to the Ifra XMA Cross Media Awards 2007 competition that was held for the second time. Thirty-six publishing houses from 18 countries entered a total of 50 projects for Ifra XMA 2007. This year’s focus was on cross-media projects for ‘creating and building communities’. From the Hotel Hilton Danube, where the Ifra team stayed, it is just a 15-minute brisk walk to the Rein Messe. Of course, most of us took the bus that was arranged in the morning, but there were quite a few who trudged along a shorter route alongside the Danube to the Expo. The arrangements at the venue were superb – several resting spots, cafes, two large restaurants, even coffee-and-snack trolleys on the move. While Halls A and B where the suppliers exhibited their ware became the focus of activity through the three days, with supplier-prospective client groups engaged in discussion after discussion, the conference halls (Schubert and Lehar) were much quieter, with various speakers focused on engaging the audience. Attendance was not even for all sessions though, it depended on the ability of the speaker. Delegates felt free to get up and leave or to not attend at all. I was helping the Ifra publishing team headed by Kerry Northrup with the Gazette. Except for a couple of stories I really did not have much work – the strong Ifra edit team comprising of editor-in-chief Dean Roper, deputy editors Valerie Arnould and Mari Pascual, and senior editors Charlotte Janischewski, Klaus Plummer and Brian Veseling took care of everything. I chipped in with some support for the multiblog as well, but only towards the end. There was also Stephan Leib, print publishing manager, and Anton Jolkovski, digital publishing manager. Quite a team! Kerry as usual was in charge of the multiblog. This time, he had three girls to help him. And they did not disappoint. One of them, Arlette, impressed me with her hard work and passion for the job. But more about Arlette, Ramtin Abidi, and the sights and sounds of Vienna later.

(Picture: a section of IfraExpo 2007 participants at the Cross Media Awards Nite, which was followed by celebration with cocktails on the first day.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A day in Darmstadt


Ifra, the world’s leading organisation for newspaper and media publishing, is headquartered in Darmstadt, Germany. I was on my way to attend IfraExpo 2007, the annual event of the newspaper industry in Vienna, and thought a halt in Darmstadt would be useful. The flight to Frankfurt was uneventful. Lufthansa Airlines had only a Tamil movie to offer those who were keen to watch something. In any case, most people on board preferred to get their two good winks of sleep. When we arrived in Frankfurt, we (two of my colleagues and myself) got through Immigration quickly (where do you get to see the crowds except in India?) and proceeded towards the exit gate. Yohan, the driver on contract with Ifra, was waiting to receive us. And off we headed in a Mercedes Benz towards Darmstadt, about 40 km away.

Darmstadt has only a small variety of sights. Most of them within walking distance from the hotel where we stayed, Best Western, which exuded an old-world charm. There were quite a few places listed on the map to see – St. Ludwig’s Church, the Residential Palace, Market Square and Old City Hall, the Wedding Tower, Russian Chapel, House of History and State Archives, the Hessian State Museum, the Prince-Georgs-Palace with Porcelain Museum, the Forest Spiral…

After refreshing ourselves, colleague Antony and I caught a cab near the city centre to the Ifra Office. The office itself is an old building, about 100 years old, but well maintained, and like Best Western, it has an old-world charm, and is quite unlike the typical office you expect to see. I had meetings with Dean Roper, editor-in-chief of the Ifra news magazine called newspaper techniques, and Anton, Ifra’s digital publishing manager and newsflow editor of the Ifra multiblog. Several Ifra colleagues had already left for Vienna to ready the stage for the Expo.

A quick tour of the office over (thanks to Anton), Antony and I found that we had the rest of the day to wander the streets of Darmstadt. One of the places we chose (because it was very close to the Ifra Office) was the Artists’ Colony on Mathildenhohe. In 1899, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse invited seven artists of the Jugendstil School to come to Dramstadt to create a ‘living and working world’, including private houses and studios. In the premises is the Wedding Tower, a plant-tree grove at its foot, and an exhibition building. There is an eatery here as well, but we couldn’t find anything suiting our taste. We found our way to a curio shop, run immaculately by two women, and they were happy to pose for pictures.

A couple of hours later, we decided to break for lunch at a wayside restaurant. The pizza margarita was simply huge and, sadly, we had to forego a quarter of it in spite of our best efforts. Our walk through the streets of Dramstadt made for an enjoyable afternoon. We passed some of the landmarks – the Technische Universitat, the Hessisches Landesmuseum, and the Marktplatz mit Altern Rathaus.

What struck me was the way heritage buildings are cared for in Germany. Old buildings are not only well maintained but also inhabited, mostly by shops and stores, to ensure that the buildings remain alive and well. A lesson for us in India. But will we ever learn?

Arunoday, from RIND, joined us for an evening outing. The weather was almost perfect – chilly winds and temperature tipping below 10 degrees Centigrade. Stores were not crowded, many were empty or closed, but well lit, showcasing the interiors. Dinner was at a wayside restaurant again. There were few residents on the streets, but the city centre was as usual packed with children and teenagers, waiting for trams and buses on their way home.

Darmstadt was picture perfect that night. And we enjoyed every minute of it.

(Picture was taken inside the Artists' Colony on Mathildenhohe.)



Monday, October 08, 2007

Think multimedia


I am now in Vienna, Austria´’s capital city. It’s a great city with a great history, a mixture of imperial flair and modernity, and a great place to live. But more of the sights and sounds of Vienna later. And of Darmstadt too, a small city near Frankfurt where Ifra is headquartered. I must dwell today on the first day of IfraExpo 2007 here in Vienna, a forum for the world’s top publishers and editors to meet. I am here to witness firsthand the going-on at the Expo and also to do stories for the Ifra Gazette, which will be produced every day of the Expo.

There was an interesting session I attended this afternoon. Naka Nathaniel, a journalist from The New York Times Company, U.S.A., has during the past seven years travelled from Alaska to Zimbabwe, creating content for the newspaper’s website. Nathaniel’s kit includes a Canon HV20 high-definition camera, a Mac Book Pro, a portable hard drive, a tripod, a wireless microphone and a backpack. His kit has grown smaller – for example, his camera is tiny and does not draw much attention. “It makes a difference when you are doing sensitive stories,” Nathaniel told the audience at the Focus Session on Cross-media Publishing, speaking about his experience as a backpack and multimedia journalist. It was an interesting presentation from a journalist who has never worked in a newsroom for the most part of his career. And it showed the packed house how newspapers in recent years have embraced the opportunities of multimedia.

“Don’t worry about what everybody else is doing. Just put your journalist on to the field and do your own story,” Nathaniel exhorted the editors and publishers, mentioning how The New York Times follows this example. He had words of advice for them – narrative storytelling, tight and well-edited content, closely-shot pictures, an exclusive or unique story, and conversation with readers usually works best. Nathaniel’s presentation included a chilling video on the genocide in Darfur, which he had shot with his senior colleague and award-winning columnist, Nick Kristof. Such videos have helped The New York Times hold the attention of online reader for longer periods, he said. He pointed out that the newspaper has been sharing such videos with major U.S. television networks as well.

Dwelling on audience behaviour, Dr. Dietmar Schantin, director of Newsplex, Ifra, Germany, said that the audience expects comfortable access to relevant editorial and commercial content, at all times, in any place, and on any media or device. Readers, he added, normally follow the ‘best of breed’ approach for media services and want to be actively integrated into the communication flow. “Media usage changes during the course of the day. While newspapers, radio and television score high in the morning, the Internet and magazines take over later.

Kicking off the session, Chris Lloyd, Assistant Managing Editor, The Telegraph Media Group, U.K. (among the first newspapers to install an integrated newsroom), explained that the focus of the Group is not only to keep its readers updated, but also to want them to react and respond. It has been more than a year since the Group made a historic move from Canary Wharf to Victoria in Central London. The objectives of integration are now slowly being realised. Online traffic has recorded terrific growth, with unique users crossing the 10-million mark. The newspaper has benefited too from online gains. Advertising revenue has grown as well, across all platforms.

(Picture: Eight students from the International School in Vienna at a conference session voice their opinions about what they like and do not like about online media.)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

With the girls at Stella

I was quite surprised the other day to receive a call from Dr. Sundari, head of the PR Department at Stella Maris. She wanted me to take a couple of classes on journalism for M.A. students of the PR course. I gladly agreed.

Occasionally, I’ve been taking journalism classes – reporting, editing and writing – for several years now, having started with the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mylapore, the institution from where I completed my journalism course years ago. Even so, stepping into an all-girls college, into an all-girls classroom did give me a few initial nervous moments. However, all the nervousness vanished after I was introduced to the class first by Dr. Sundari and then by a student.

It is always good to see bright young faces and I noticed quite a few among the 15-odd students who listened to me attentively. Although news, newsrooms and newspaper organisations all over the world have changed dramatically the past few years and are continuing to change, what with the advent of citizen journalists and bloggers, the fundamentals remain the same.

Citizen journalists and bloggers have a place but so do sub-editors and reporters. Newsrooms and editors now have to grapple with several challenges, one of which is checking the authenticity of citizen journalism stories that come in by the hundreds. Another challenge is to get middle-level and senior editors in the print media to accept change and adapt quickly. The third is to keep pace with technology – it is not just the Internet today, but Web 2.0, RSS, broadband formats, printed electronics, the semantic web, and what have you.

I managed to take the students across a broad sweep of history – the past and present. Above all, I told them that if they wish to succeed and rise above the ordinary, they must have honesty, commitment, dedication and a passion for what they are doing. I hope that the girls will remember the finer points rather than the niceties of theory. One girl stood up to say that they had learnt a lot from my sessions over two days. I am sure she meant what she said and hope that some of that learning is not about journalism but about human values.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

In God's Own Country

It was our visit to the Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple after about a year. Rain greeted us as we arrived and continued at sporadic intervals throughout our stay there. We chose to stay at the Ramakrishna Home, less than 200 metres from the main entrance to the temple. The exterior of the Home now sports a new look; it was probably refurbished last year, the 50th year of its founding. You can dine here in air-conditioned comfort (on the first floor) if you like. The room we stayed in was clean, but there was no mirror or hook/hanger in the bathroom, no regulator for the fan in the room either. These are things managements in hotels must look at.

In spite of the rain, there were morning queues outside the main temple entrance. We had to wait patiently for two hours outside before being whisked by the security staff, metal detector and all, and directed inside. We managed only one darshan the first morning, but made up for it in the evening with three – surprisingly, the morning crowds had vanished and it almost seemed as if we were in just another Kerala temple. But, of course, Guruvayur is special and the special feeling sticks to you as long as you are there.

We did not miss our visits to Mammiyoor, Venkatachalapathi and Parthsarathi temples. The automen are a friendly lot here and are willing to ferry you around at nominal rates. This is generally the case throughout Kerala, which makes it such a relief for the tourist. And to think about travelling in autos in Chennai!

Right now, though, the roads in Kerala are in a pathetic state and urgently need repair. Potholes litter most main roads. It took us almost three hours to travel by car from Guruvayur to Palakkad; normally, it would take half the time. There was no sign anywhere of restoration work either. Private bus owners, I understand, had gone on strike a few days earlier demanding better roads. What about the common citizen here, the daily bus traveller, the car driver, the two-wheeler driver? One shudders to think of their plight.

Whatever it is, when you are in God’s Own Country, it’s the good things that you notice – the greenery, the clear water flowing in the rivers, the lush paddy fields, the rice husks laid out on the roads to dry, the absence of garbage on the roads (what do they do with garbage really, shouldn’t we find out?), and the energy in the people as they walk down the streets.

Kerala has an underbelly too… but who cares anyway?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Over a cup of tea

The other day I visited the home of Gowri Gopalkrishnan – I was featuring her in my column for a local newspaper. Gowri, after marriage, spent 20 years looking after her family. She would have probably remained a housewife if it were not for Rajesh, her eldest son. He sensed her ability to become a good teacher and encouraged her to become one.

Enthused, Gowri completed, through NCERT, a crèche and nursery training management course at the Asan Memorial School in 1986. Rajesh was not wrong – she bagged the gold medal. After a year at Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Gowri joined PSBB School, KK Nagar, in 1988 and continued there for 17 years, eventually handling the English lab in the primary. She obtained B.A. and M.A. degrees and completed B. Ed. and M. Ed. as well. In 2004, she passed the integrated skills in English (ISE) course conducted by the Trinity College, London.

After retirement in 2005, Gowri has been teaching communication skills and providing accent training in various organisations such as 24 /7, Aviva Life Insurance, Hyundai and CADD Centre. Her association with PSBB, KK Nagar, continues – every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, she teaches students conversational English. Gowri has been associated with Everonn for a while now, teaching English to college students in rural India, through satellite.

Madras-born Gowri’s father Rao Sahib K. Ramunni Nair was assistant finance secretary in the Madras Presidency. The youngest of nine children, Gowri’s childhood memories are of her garden home in Sarangapani Street, T. Nagar, and of playing ‘Dhappa, I Spy’.

Interview over, I chatted over a cup of tea with Gowri’s husband V.K. Gopalkrishnan, a chemical engineer who has been a successful businessman, and Rajesh, who now runs Turning Point, a counselling centre for children and adults in Ashok Nagar. We got talking about various things – changing times, the lure of the IT sector and its pitfalls, the affordability of the middleclass, and where India is likely to head in the future. Taking part in the conversant was Madhav, Rakesh’s son. He seemed to know the family history well and occasionally refreshed the memory of his grandmother.

Rajesh mentioned the case of a youngster whose life had turned to shambles, thanks to sleepless nights and long hours of work in the IT company he worked for. There was hardly anything Rajesh could do to help; all he could suggest was that the boy be taken to a psychiatrist.

Talking about the growth of cities and towns, Gopalakrishnan is convinced that agriculture would remain India’s mainstay. He quoted the example of Punjab where farmers have adopted the latest methods of farming to heap a rich harvest. According to Gopalakrishnan, Punjab now contributes 21 percent of the country’s GDP, from 0.8 percent decades ago. A sort of miracle brought about by enterprising Punjabi farmers.

The future, Gopalakrishna said, would see the growth of towns in suburban areas across India. So, perhaps, by 2040, you would see less of poromboke land or unused space as you travel outside the cities. It might be like driving through Kerala today, where one village or town follows another, where most of the land is used for agriculture and cultivation and little lies unused.

Our conversation also included dogs – the Gopalakrishnans have had several pet dogs over the years. They now own a German Shepherd called Whoopie Goldberg!

The Gopalakrishnans live in Ashok Nagar and can be contacted at 24892283.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Interesting thoughts from the experts

The Ifra India 2007 Fifteenth Annual Conference, co-sponsored by The Indian Newspaper Society, saw a galaxy of speakers from India and abroad sharing their experiences at the Technical and Publishers’ forums on first two days.

At the end of the Day Two morning session of the Publishers Forum at Ifra India 2007, a panel of experts tackled questions about the future of Indian newspapers. The discussion was prefaced by a series of video interviews with young Indians concerning their views on newspapers compared to other news media.

With lively audience participation, the general conclusion was that India's publishers have some time yet before the digital wave already lapping at the country's shores starts to sweep over them the way it has already in Europe and the United States. Before that time, the panel and audience advised, publishers need to come up with solid strategies for online and particularly mobile media services.

The panel consisted of Kerry J. Northrup, Ifra publications director; Peter Leijten, senior editor of nrc.next in Holland; Peter Sands, director of training for the Press Association in the U.K.; I. Venkat, advertising director of Eenadu Group in India; D.D. Purkayastha, newly named CEO of the ABP Pvt Ltd publishing company in Calcutta; and Ashish Bagga, CEO of the India Today Group.

Earlier, Ashish Bagga, CEO of the India Today Group, presented his company as a case study for building a successful publishing brand in India. He traced the growth of the India Today Group from a single magazine in 1975 to India's most diversified media group today, with interests in magazines, newspaper, television, radio, internet, books and music. The group's portfolio includes 13 magazines, three radio stations, two TV channels, one newspaper, leading classical music label, book publishing and India's only book club. Through its subscribers, readers, viewers and listeners the group reaches out to more than 35 million individuals.

Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of brand-comm, a leading communications consultancy company in India, launched into a thoroughly enjoyable multimedia presentation illustrating how strong brands are developed. For the first session of the Publishers Forum right after lunch, Sridhar had the audience laughing at some of the funny and memorable commercials and advertisements he presented as examples of strong branding. With some notable exceptions, newspapers are not generally very good at branding -- not yet, according to Sridhar. But they are catching on. And his final point of the afternoon is that there will be just two types of companies in the future -- those that are quick and those that are dead.

B.S. Ramesh Kumar, senior planning director for the Bangalore-based Ogilvy & Mather, the first advertising agency in India, compared how his company developed the Titan watch brand with how media companies can develop their own product images in a changing marketplace. Among the lessons: At the heart of a great brand is a great product; don't avoid the extreme in staking out a position as different from your competition as black is from white; understand and adapt your product to the lifestyle decisions of your customers; and stay current.

At the Technical Forum, Purnendu Sen, technical director, The Times of India Group, made an excellent presentation. He spoke about the emotional bond a print manager should have with the workflow in a press. “The printer’s heart must be on the machine,” he stressed. Dwelling on new ideas in quality, Sen feelt the focus must be on people and change, and quality the mission of every newspaper.

Beatrix Beckmann, research engineer, Ifra, Germany, held the audience’s attention with her vision of industrialised printing. Stating that standards had improved in both the process and communication cycle, Beatrix said that reduction of waste is possible with increased automation. “I see the printing house as a service provider; I see media convergence and multi-channel distribution,” she added.

You can get to learn more about IfraExpo 2007 and the Ifra India Conference, Chennai, by logging on to the Ifra Web site, www.ifra.com.