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.