Sunday, January 27, 2008

Refreshing change

A newspaper that is creating waves in the business world is Mint, from the Hindustan Times stable, HT’s partner being none other than one of the world’s most respected newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, now owned by Rupert Murdoch. Published in the Berliner format (smaller than a broadsheet, but larger than a tabloid), Mint attracts the reader’s attention with its easy-to-read font, classy layout, and the use of colour orange. A few pages contain selections from The Wall Street Journal itself.

The paper, now probably the second largest read business daily after The Economic Times (ET is ahead by a large margin), is published in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. In New Delhi, Mint and Hindustan Times are available for a combined price of Rs 3.50 Monday to Saturday. No doubt, more value for money.

Managing editor Raju Narisetti, backed by his 13 years of experience at The Wall Street Journal, seems to be making a mark after Mint commenced publication in February 2007 ‘to serve as an unbiased and clear-minded chronicler of the Indian dream.’

Like The Hindu (the only newspaper in India to have a Reader’s Editor), Mint welcomes comments, suggestions, or complaints about errors. Readers can alert the newsroom to any errors in the paper. Readers ‘dissatisfied with the response or concerned about mint’s journalistic integrity’ can write directly to the editor. You can have a look at the newspaper’s journalistic conduct that governs it newsroom at www.livemint.com.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tips for safe travel

Travelling by train in India has always fascinated me. Perhaps there is no better way to see the sights and listen to the sounds, as different as they are every 100 or 200 km. In recent years, of course, my train travel has reduced. So, when I get a chance, I just love to sit back and soak in everything.

A month or so ago, on my way to Bangalore by the Lalbagh Express, I received a note from a Southern Railway employee listing the dos and don’ts of safe travel. The list, printed at the Southern Railway Printing Press in Royapuram, consists of 24 points. Some of them seem childish, such as ‘it is unsafe to stand near the doorway and stick out your hands and head in an attempt to look outside’. But travellers would do well to heed some of the instructions (I have edited them to make crisper):

  • Beware of the ‘biscuit gang’ and do not accept food from unknown passengers. It is better you purchase your own food.

  • Ensure your belongings are safe and avoid leaving your luggage and moving about. If you wish to go to the toilet, inform your co-passenger.

  • Avoid sleeping close to windows while wearing gold ornaments; passengers on berths 1, 2, 7, 65, 68, 71 and 72 should be extra cautious (perhaps because these are at the end-sides of each coach).

  • Inform the Railway Police or T.T.E immediately if you notice the movement of suspicious persons (an important point, but how many people do it?). Suspicious persons have been identified in the list as anyone moving up and down with a water bottle and no luggage, somebody standing near the open doorway, and anybody following you to the toilet at night.

  • Be cautious of people who try to distract your attention (not easy to judge, is it?).

  • Keep laptops and cell phones with you always.

  • Chain-lock your suitcase and bag.

  • Close windows and doors of coaches at night.

  • Carry less cash; it is safer to use credit cards.

  • Lodge complaint immediately with the Railway Protection Force or TTE or coach attendant if you find your luggage missing.

  • Pull down window shutters when the trains tops at an unscheduled stop (perhaps this can be followed at night; then again, how many do?)

Some phone numbers in case of emergency:

  • Control Room at the Office of the Southern Railway Police: (044) 28227200
  • Control Room at Chennai Central: (044) 25355077
  • Dy. Superintendent of Railway Police, Chennai Central: 98410 16804
  • Dy. Superintendant of Railway Police, Chennai Egmore: (044) 28190392

An ordinary citizen's fight against alcohol consumption

Narayanan for many years has been running a scientific instruments business. He has always been passionate about social work and, like many who make a mark, he chose a different path to tread early on. For instance, some years ago, he and his wife who have a daughter, decided to adopt a child. It was a heartening gesture. In recent times, as his business has grown to be steady, Narayanan has been focusing more on serving society – taking classes for socially deprived children, investing in a large van that now serves as a mobile library in North Chennai, and garnering support for his drive against consumption of alcohol and drugs.

Narayanan hopes to make ‘Paadam’ as he calls it a dynamic people’s movement that will usher in comprehensive social change. “While drawing inspiration from Gandhian philosophy and values, the movement will use inputs and experiences of other nations and proactive communities,” he says, referring to the hard work put in by his team to research and gather data on the subject of alcohol consumption.

Paadam has established chapters in Tamil Nadu’s 31 districts; these chapters will provide leadership and direction to groups of youth and communities to fight alcohol and drug abuse. “All of us agree that a strong containment policy backed by public support is more effective than total prohibition. Mere preaching on moral grounds will not bear fruit,” he is convinced. And adds that production, marketing and distribution of alcohol and drugs is an economic activity that harms society. He stresses that hundreds and thousands of families, especially in the lower rung of society, have been destroyed because the family head comes home drunk every day.

Narayanan and his teams spread across Tamil Nadu will focus on creating a strong public opinion against the supply of alcohol, which includes advertisements related to alcohol and sale of illicit liquor. He is collecting as many signatures as he can to prove that many people are against the sale and consumption of alcohol on the streets, as does generally happen in TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited) shops in Tamil Nadu. Of course, after repeated pleas from affected residents and action from authorities, several TASMAC shops have had to shift premises. But many continue to flourish in residential localities, near schools and colleges. Women, young girls especially find it very difficult to walk past these shops to their homes.

So, will Narayanan’s movement, Paadam, gain momentum? Will his efforts lead to something substantial? We will have to wait and watch, as he plans peaceful demonstrations in all the districts in the days ahead. If you wish to support his cause, you can contact him at 98403 93581.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Mylapore Festival grows bigger





This year’s Mylapore Festival appeared bigger and better than last year’s. What started off as a kolam contest a few years ago has now become a much-awaited festival, complete with concerts at the Nageswara Park, art and craft classes for children, classical dances inside Sri Kapali temple, a handicrafts bazaar, an exhibition of Tamil books, and performances by troupes from Kerala, Puduchery, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Heritage and nature walks were arranged on Saturday and Sunday.

The Art Street (Pitchupillai Street) created by fine arts students drew the maximum crowds, mainly women. The Food Street (Sundareswarar Street) also drew crowds – several items were sold out in the first two or three hours.

Vincent D’Souza (editor, Mylapore Times and Arcot Road Times) and his team deserve all the credit for organizing the entire show spread over four days. It’s an exercise he has been conducting the past seven or eight years, kick-starting the process September-October onwards, paying attention to the minutest detail. Indeed, it was the success of the Mylapore festival that really led to a few of us coming together to organise Madras Day and Madras Week.

Yes, credit must also go to Sundaram Finance for supporting the Mylapore festival the past few years. Corporate support for community events is always so welcome.

I will let the pictures here tell you the story better. From top: Stilt-walkers walk down Art Street; fancy jewellery and knick-knacks for women on sale; an artist completes the portrait of the seated girl in less than 30 minutes; and crowding around a corner for more knick-knacks and jewellery.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Portuguese show the way

I am just back from the Mylapore Festival, heartened by the fact that it has become bigger and better over the years. More about the festival later. Mylapore is one of Chennai’s oldest villages – its history goes centuries back, hundreds of years before the British or the Portuguese arrived – and I’m sure it has a fascinating past. Talking about Mylapore, I am often reminded of the history of Madras, of the years of yore…

For people of our generation, in this day and age, it is difficult to picture the days of yore when residents travelled in palanquins, when the President’s guards were armed with bows and arrows, swords and shields, and men wore large conical hats. Although Madras might have been more colourful then, the ways of people remain largely unchanged. The crowds that visit the city’s temples and bazaars are similar to those in the past. Madras fishermen still venture out to the sea in frail craft as their forefathers did years ago.

Before we arrive at 1639, when the British found their settlement at Fort St George, it is worthwhile to take a broad sweep of ‘the great world without’ if only to understand the reasons for the formation of the East India Company. A thousand years before the British came to India, Indian colonists had set sail from ports such as Mahabalipuram (the Pallavas were then in power) and spread Indian culture in Siam, Cambodia, Malaya and the East Indian Islands. Cotton, spices, jewels and perfumes were transported up the Red Sea to the courts of the Roman emperors, and from Egyptian ports to the courts of European kings.

Things changed in the 15th Century after the Portuguese discovered the route around the Cape and began trade with India. The Portuguese got a stronghold on the trade in spices and cotton goods and soon became the monarchs of all they surveyed, monopolising trade on both sides of the Indian peninsula. However, the locals hated their haughtiness, arrogance, religious intolerance and immortality. It was in 1522, when Henry VIII was King of England, that the Portuguese occupied Santhome. Low sand hills by the mouth of a small river, which expanded near the shore into a lagoon, became the site of the early Portuguese settlement, later a fortified town of wealth and importance.

In the 16 Century, people in England wore clothes made of wool, silk or linen. South India was the main source of the much sought after cotton goods. The Portuguese were in the right place at the right time – they charged heavily for the material and earned high profits. They traded in pepper in similar manner, importing it from India and selling it to the English at a high price.

The Portuguese earned the wrath of the Dutch, too. The Dutch were the great merchants in Europe, the rich traders of Amsterdam who bought spices each year from the Portuguese in Lisbon. In 1580, the Dutchmen formed themselves into the United Provinces. When Philip II of Spain took over as King of Portugal, he excluded the Dutch from trade. Equal to the task, the Dutch ventured into Indian seas, hoping to outdo the Portuguese. Those were days of long voyages in small sailing ships, usually not larger than 300 tonnes.

Targetting the Malay Archipelago or the Spice Islands, the Dutch in 1600 erected a factory at Bantam in Java; trade expanded to Batavia, which became their centre of trade and the seat of the Dutch Government in the East. As the Portuguese power waned, the Dutch were ready to take over. In 1610, they erected a fort at Pulicat, then part of an area loosely controlled by the Vijaynagar Rajah. The news of the Dutch success in South India reached the ears of the fuming English merchants in London who now became desperate to have a share of the Indian trade.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A magic carpet of green

At a recent meeting of the Public Relations Society of India, Chennai Chapter, the speaker was talking about blogs and how many blogs churn out worthwhile stuff. He referred to a blog by an IT student that critically analysed a Club Mahindra brochure and went on to point out that while the company’s advertisement spoke about one thing, it was not quite what was delivered on the ground. That got me recalling my visit to a Club Mahindra resort a few years ago. So, here’s that story:

It was my daughter’s prize-winning effort at a competition that earned us an all-cost-paid three-day-two-night stay at one of Club Mahindra’s best properties, the Lakeview Munnar. From Chennai, we took the overnight train to Kochi. After a leisurely breakfast in Kochi, we set off on the four-hour journey towards the ‘high ranges of Travancore’, which makes for South India’s most dramatic mountain scenery. The high ranges of Munnar were earlier known as Kannan Devan Hills, named after a certain Kannan Devan, who it is said was a landlord in the Anchanad Valley on the eastern side of Idukki District.

The popular image of Kerala is of a lush coastal region with swaying palm trees, lazy backwaters and golden sand. There is quite a different Kerala too – the Kerala of the hills far removed from the humidity of the coast. In the native language, Munnar means ‘three streams’. Three gurgling mountain streams – Muthirapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala – tumble down to meet in Munnar and later join the Periyar River.

Set at an altitude of 5,500 ft, Munnar, with its manicured rolling tea estates and forest-covered hills, is a virtual magic carpet of green. As you climb the winding roads, the hairpin bends provide an ever-changing aspect of the hills and every curve reveals an even more breathtaking view. Once the summer resort of the British, Munnar is still one of the high corners of the world where you can relax and find peace. And that is exactly what we intended to do at Club Mahindra Lakeview, each of whose 96 rooms, suites and cottages offers a panoramic view of the hills surrounded by a veil of mist, and, of course, the verdant tea estates.

Indeed, life in Munnar revolves around tea and the planter. Much of India’s tea is grown here and the air is permeated with its aroma. You could actually call it Tata Tea country; we passed at least five of the company’s tea estates and bought tea from the company’s retail outlet in the town proper. In many ways, Munnar remains the plantation town it was when founded by James Limited of Scotland, one of the early colonial tea companies. Tata Tea took over the plantations – 11,600 acres of them – in 1983. Several spices are also cultivated in Munnar – cardamom, vanilla, pepper, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.

It was Sterling Holiday Resorts that, in 1994, offered its members a whole new experience in Munnar at its property, set close to the tea estates, 14 km from the town. Four years later, Club Mahindra purchased land close to Sterling’s, determined to make its five-star property a one-of-its-kind resort. Club Mahindra offers prospective members three categories of rooms – studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom. Prices vary depending on whether you choose to holiday during the peak season (March, April, June), mid-season (January, February, August) or off-season (May, October, November).

Many of the families who come to holiday in Munnar and stay at Sterling Resorts or Club Mahindra are from Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Comprising mainly businessmen and women, the visitors are usually 35-45 years of age. With a 50 per cent occupancy during the off-season and ‘house-full’ during the peak period, the overall yearly occupancy rate in both resorts averages to about 80 per cent.

A ceramic wall mural at Lakeview’s ‘The Tea Room’ depicts the beautiful Munnar landscape. A variety of tea is served here – broken orange pekoe, Earl Gray, lemon grass tea and other herbal teas. The restaurant serves Indian, Chinese and Continental food as well as ethnic Kerala cuisine. The prices are atrocious, though. A plate of bajjis (eight small pieces) cost us Rs 100. However if money is not a problem, The Tea Room is the place to go to in the evenings – its open terrace offers a spectacular view of the tea gardens amidst the misty hill ranges.

Every evening, Lakeview guests are invited to take part in lively party games such as antakshari. Outdoor activity ranges from sightseeing and fishing to trekking, bird watching and nature walks. For rappelling, rock-climbing and river crossing, you have to register the previous day. The Health Club and Ayurveda Rejuvenating Centre offers gym, sauna, steam and other ayurvedic massages.

If you the adventurous sort and wish to take a walk on the wild side, you can visit the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a three-hour drive from the resort. Here, the wildlife remains largely undisturbed by visitors who observe it from special boats that glide across the lake surface. Although the stars of the Sanctuary are the elephants, there are bear, sambhar, spotted deer and bison as well. The place is ideal for bird-watching enthusiasts. Rajamalai, 35 km from Munnar, is at an altitude of 6,500 ft above sea level. The Nilgiri tahr or mountain goat, a rare species of ibex, can be seen here. An hour’s drive away from Munnar is Madupatty, situated at an elevation of 5,600 ft. The Indo-Swiss Dairy Farm, with about a 100 varieties of high-yielding cattle, provides interesting insights into the practical realities of cattle-breeding in India. The Chinar Sanctuary, bordering Tamil Nadu, 70 m from Munnar, is home to the rare spotted dove and the Kerala laughing thrush; it is also the preferred habitat of the starred tortoise. Then there is Devikulam close by, the ‘pond of the goddess’. According to local myth, the Devi comes everyday to have a morning bath here.

Among the exotic flora found in the forests and grasslands in Munnar is the Neelakurinji. This flower that bathes the hills in blue every twelve years, will bloom next in 2006 AD. Munnar also has the highest peak in South India, Anamudi , which towers over 2695 m. Anamudi is an ideal spot for trekking.