Thursday, December 31, 2009

It's New Year Eve, but should TASMAC outlets be overcharging?

I returned from office much earlier than usual. With half of my family not at home – on vacation abroad – I had to be back to be with my mother for whom New Year eve is probably just another day. She’s past 82 and gets about in the house doing some small job or the other. She hardly ever steps out because she is highly prone to catching infection. As it is, she has a load of medicines she takes every day and is just coming out from a treatment for urinary infection. So, I didn’t want her to be up and waiting for me to arrive late into the night. Past some age, people not only want to sleep on time, they also lose sleep if the time goes awry. So, here I am thumping the keyboard even as she is lying on the bed waiting for sleep to come, after wishing me goodnight. She hasn’t wished me ‘Happy New Year’. That is usually reserved for the morning. Many a time she hardly utters such words as ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Happy New Year’ but she obviously remembers – her actions speak louder than words and I have got used to all that now.

This yearend, people are eagerly waiting to usher in 2010. Somehow, the new millennium is a decade old and when you come to think of it, ten years have simply whizzed past. It almost seems like it was only yesterday that we heralded the coming of the year 2000. Time does just fly. And so, on the threshold of a new decade, there are new hopes and aspirations and, especially after the economic slowdown in some parts of the world and recession in others, people all over are now hoping that things will definitely change for the better soon. And in 2010, they sense something much better happening than what the earlier years of the millennium hade brought.

As I was driving back home, I noticed some of the roads packed with people on bikes and in cars. Most streets were brightly lit; at many spots, outside shops and entrances to public halls, there was an air of festivity with balloons and buntings. TASMAC shops were packed. Most of these outlets have a small portion by the side where people drink – they are not supposed to anyway, but they do. Tonight, beer bottles were being sold for more than Rs 10 over the MRP (maximum retail price). There was no way you could get a word in, the staff hardly cared. It was clear they had fixed the going rate and if you wanted to buy a bottle of whatever you had to pay the price they asked.

I was thinking of the amount of money TASMAC shops make in this fashion, charging customers over and above MRP. A few weeks ago, at the same shop, a beer bottle was being sold at Rs 5 higher than MRP. I let that pass. But tonight, I was left wondering whether customers like myself must take such corruption lying down. What if an article is written in the newspaper? Will it help get rid of the problem once and for all? I doubt it. There may be a few raids after the story appears, but the heat will die down after a few days and it will be back to square one all over again.

So, on New Year eve, I am left thinking what can be done to rid our society of such ills. Does all this happen only in Chennai or in Tamil Nadu? After all, you wont find TASMAC outlets anywhere else. I remember going to a supermarket in Bangalore and seeing customers pick up their beer, whiskey or wine bottles with minimum fuss. Because there was really nothing to fuss about. You paid the price marked and left. The ambience was clean and good, unlike in any TASMAC outlet you’d half-expect. Sad, when you come to think of it.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A joyous Christmas

Christmas this year has hit a high in Chennai. By early December, several shops had colourful balloons, stars, Santa caps and masks on display for sale. Some of these are being sold at traffic junctions, the youngsters selling the merchandise themselves donning the caps.

It’s perhaps been quite a long time since newspapers had it so good – most of the mainline dailies are flooded with advertisements. Most of them pertain to some super sale or another, there are also pictures and write-ups about women who bake homemade cakes for sale.

Vincent D’Souza, who started the Mylapore Festival some years ago and went on to trigger the Madras Day/Week celebrations, has now a third feather in his cap. He has been the catalyst in organising a Christmastime festival in the area around the San Thome basilica.

Fortunately, the monsoon seems to have disappeared and one hopes it doesn’t make an appearance again this year – we’ve had enough and more of rain. The roads are so bad that you hate driving; motorcyclists are almost petrified of skidding and falling and getting killed. Corporation officials say the roadwork will start once the rains have stopped and the monsoon has passed. But the big question remains: why does this happen every year? Why can’t the Chennai resident have good roads throughout the year? Why do roads have to be re-laid time and again? It just shows how shoddy the work is each time and there is no doubt that contractors are happy with the quality of work they do because every time a road is re-laid there is an opportunity to make money. It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in our city, state and country.

Coming back to Christmas, I was invited to a Christmas party for children put up by Spring into Reading. And during the time I was there, it was an absolute delight to watch the children so eager and excited at the prospect of making colourful balloons and generally sharing fun and joy. When you watch children playing and enjoying themselves, you get to know what unalloyed fun is all about. I always feel that teachers are a fortunate lot – not only do they have an opportunity to mould the lives of others, but can also participate in such activity with innocent, gay abandon. With children, every day is different and there is always one surprise or the other waiting.

As I took some pictures, I suddenly remembered my childhood days, when digital cameras were not around to get pictures taken so easily, when activity centres for kids like the one I was in weren’t around. Yet, most of my generation have great memories of growing up – of games played in gullies, on the street, on playgrounds, in homes, on staircases, on terraces… There were no summer camps in those days. Just summer holidays – spent playing indoor or outdoor games, reading books, going on long walks or for the occasional movie, eating puchkas at roadside corners, sometimes (mostly) eying pretty young things, hoping you’d see them more often. Hmmm. Are the children of today missing something? I would say yes.

In any case, the faces I saw at the Spring into Reading activity centre were bright and cheerful, full of the joy of life. The pictures say everything. You don’t even need captions. Well, the children were being taught to blow balloons and form them into different shapes and patterns. Oftentimes, you wish you were a child all over again. And this was one such time I felt so.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Rural marketing guru scores with 'candid' autobiobraphy: 'Courage My Companion' by R.V. Rajan is worth a read

I have known R.V. Rajan for a few years now, known him more intimately that is. Years ago, I used to occasionally bump into him at meetings organised by the Public Relations Society of India but such meetings were fleeting more than anything else. One fine day in April 2007, if I remember correctly, I was surprised to see him when I entered the room of the executive director of IFRA India, Magdoom Mohamed. I was called for an interview to be an editorial consultant for the organisation and there was Rajan waiting to grill me. Of course, he didn’t, but I think we both recognised each other and the interview flowed smoothly. I went on to get the job and in the next two years or so, I would meet him often, for IFRA work as well as work relating to a house magazine he started for the Rural Marketing Association of India.

So, when Rajan invited me for the launch of his autobiography, Courage My Companion (Productivity and Quality Publishing Pvt Ltd are the publishers), at the GRT Hotel Convention Hall, I readily accepted. Rajan has several faces – basically an advertising man, he founded IFRA India, which is now one of WAN-IFRA’s successful branches worldwide; he was also part of the Round Table; is now an active member of the Rotary and the Advertising Club; and had served AMIC (Asian Media Information & Communication Centre). It’s a “candid” autobiography, as Rajan calls it, because he even mentions visits to “aunty joints” in Bombay where he spent the early part of his career, his regular drinking of an evening, even how he used a string to hold up his trousers (his waistline was so thin then). I am only halfway through the book, so there are likely to be a lot more “candid” confessions.

The book is a remarkable product in a way, because as Rajan mentioned at the launch, whatever he has written is based on his memories. Having been able to recall all the incidents in his life with clarity is indeed remarkable, considering that there are numerous names of people and places and events that are mentioned and that most people nowadays do not even care to remember what happened yesterday. It reflects the kind of person Rajan is - the kind who gives every incidence importance and is passionately involved with whatever is happening, be it work or pleasure.

The release of the book was made to coincide with his receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rural Marketing Association of India. The citation, as you would expect, highlights all his achievements. But what readers, especially youngsters, should note is that Rajan was a dreamer who, backed by dollops of good luck, went on to achieve them. He even constructed six or eight toilets in his house (during his 29 years in the chawls of Bombay, he recalls in the book how he and the others would line up to go to the bathroom in the mornings – there was only one bathroom on a floor to cater to many) to make up for what he had missed in childhood. No wonder then that he, who started his career with Clarion and later with Grant Kenyon, went on to become, at 31, the youngest CEO of a national agency, Advertising Consults India Ltd, in Delhi. In 1986, he established his own agency, Anugrah Marketing & Advertising, now Anugrah Madison, the rural wing of the Madison Communication Group.

Today, more than anything, else, Rajan is better known as a rural marketing ‘guru’. He lectures in colleges and institutions and is the driving force behind the RMAI, now headed by Pradeep Kashyap. He has relinquished his post as IFRA India managing director but continues to advise Magdoom, his protégé.

Rajan’s book has several errors; copy-editing is pedestrian. The errors must be corrected if there is a second reprint. However, that does not take away the positives the book has to offer – and there are several of them, such as inspiring readers to work hard, pursue a dream and be candid and honest. Also, the story is all about how even ordinary people can make a mark and tell their story.

Like he suggests in the book, Rajan had once told me to jot down on a sheet of paper my plus and minus points, and to do it honestly. I had to show it to him and a few others who knew me. Once the list was refined, the challenge was to convert the negatives into positives. I am yet to do what he suggested, but I am sure I’ll do it after completing the book.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Let's learn from Siddharth who has just won the Helen Keller Award 2009

Perhaps I have written about him before. But I feel good writing about him again. And not for nothing.

December 2 has been a special day for a special child, twice over. This year, G J Siddharth is just back from Delhi after receiving the prestigious National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) Helen Keller award from union human resources development minister Kapil Sibal. The award is in recognition of his exemplary work in helping disabled people find positions of equality and dignity in the workplace. Siddharth is the only person from south India to have received the award this year.

On the same day in 2005, Siddharth was picked up from his home in Nandanam and driven to the airport to meet India’s First Citizen, the then President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam. The President had earlier responded to Sidharth’s email, saying, “You are indeed a great role model to the able-bodied as well as special children. When I visit Chennai, I will be happy to meet you.” When Siddharth, stunned at receiving the mail, volunteered to go to New Delhi to meet him, the President told Siddharth that he, the President himself, would meet him in Chennai.

Siddharth’s is a story of courage and determination. Immediately after birth, he was infected with jaundice. However, doctors failed to recognise the illness. After five months, when parents Jayakumar and Komala sought specialist help, their son’s problem was diagnosed as ‘mental’. It was only four years later, after detailed examination, that Siddharth was diagnosed as suffering from cerebral palsy.

Following a year at the Spastics Society of India, Bangalore, Siddharth was admitted to the Spastics Society of India, Madras (now Vidya Sagar). He proved to be an excellent student and in 1995 moved to a normal school, Boston Matriculation HS School, Nandanam. In Class 10, Siddharth scored 80%; he could not draw diagrams and was not allowed to do the practical examination. In Class 12, he cleared the Board examination scoring 90% overall. After completing BCom from Vivekananda College in 2002, he went on to complete his MA Economics from Loyola College in 2004; he aggregated 74% in four semesters.

At a job fair organised by Ability Foundation, ABN Amro (now Royal Bank of Scotland, RBS Group), impressed by Siddharth’s academic record, selected him as trainee officer in 2005. He is now an executive. “It is a very responsible job. I check export and import documents for mistakes based on international banking standards and practice. I enjoy my work and feel at home. The support from my colleagues is almost unbelievable,” explains Siddharth, who is the first Certified Documentary Credit Specialist (CDCS) with cerebral palsy in India. His mission is to carry out social work, particularly for uplifting the lives of people with multiple disabilities.

Let there be many, many more people like Siddharth.

Picture shows Siddharth receiving the award from Kapil Sibal. Shekar Gupta of the Indian Express can be seen in the background, cheering.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Where bus shelters, tree trunks are home to soothsayers and gods

With one side of P.T. Rajan Salai unusable, it is not surprising that this elderly soothsayer has made one of the bus shelters his place for trade. He was immersed in reading the newspaper and did not even notice me taking pictures. On an adjacent street, R.K. Shanmugham Salai, I noticed how gods and goddesses can come alive on the base of a tree trunk. I heard that it had started years ago with a small idol and had now grown to its present eye-catching size and status, complete with platform and all. There would be yearly festivities here as as well. Sadly for those who are running this roadside ‘temple’, it is likely to be knocked down by workers engaged in the construction of a hospital building behind it.

P.T. Rajan Salai - just as bad

This is the beginning of P.T. Rajan Salai, from the Anna Main Road side. The mud and bits and pieces of bricks piled up is a sign of things to come as you proceed along the road. Look how one half of the road has been butchered (second picture); so, hardly half of the road space is available for pedestrians as well as motorists. Look at the sorry state of affairs in front of HDFC Bank on the same stretch, and the amount of road-width lost due to digging work. The fourth tells you what a lovely stretch this could have been, but see the state now. And when you see the fifth, you wonder how on earth this vehicle could have got to where it is parked. Perhaps the road was dug after it was parked. Well, it will have to wait a while before it can come out.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Anna Main Road - where might is right

To continue with the plight of Anna Main Road in KK Nagar… look at the barricades placed on the approach stretch to MGR Nagar. This is opposite Hotel Saravana Bhavan (the first hotel of the chain in Madras). There is room for smaller vehicles to pass. Was one of the barricades moved? It is difficult to say. But certainly, it is very confusing for oncoming traffic. Here (second picture) is a lorry taking a sudden U-turn after noticing the barricades at the last minute. The Indica taxi (third picture) has almost hit a barricade, hidden as it was by the lorry in front. Drivers of the Corporation garbage pick-up truck (fourth picture) and the MTC bus (in the last) swing to the other side of the road, pushing the rest of the traffic to the edge.

These were pictures taken within the space of minutes. So, you can imagine how traffic here must be during a whole day! There are no rules here, might is indeed right, and nobody really cares even if the devil were to take the hindmost.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Anna Main Road - a battle of wits

Now, here is the other side of the road leading to Ashok Pillar where autorickshaws, even dismembered ones, are parked as are mini vans, handcarts and all other sundry vehicles. There are encroachments in the form of men hawking wares, mechanics, key-and-lock makers, and smithies… you name them and they’re there.

As you can see, here too, a one-way road has been made two-way. Notice the dugout portion running down the centre. Some temporary patchwork has been done and this is how the road proceeds up to the ESI Hospital and beyond, as you can see in the second picture. Motorists are not quite sure which side to take but keep going as long as there is no vehicle coming from the other side. Far away, there is an MTC bus lumbering ahead and do you notice the autorickshaw and motorcycle right in front of it? A recipe for disaster if there was any.

See the quality of the road in the third picture. It’s dusty, uneven and strewn with gravel. Haven’t you heard of craters on the moon? Look at the last two pictures and you’ll know what I mean. If you are a regular on this stretch, you may need to get new tyres for your vehicle every six months.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Anna Main Road - did you say 'Singara Chennai'?

This is the bus stop at the MGR Nagar junction. All buses from the KK Nagar depot heading towards Vadapalani, Mount Road, Parry’s and T. Nagar pass by and stop here. But as you can see, there is hardly any space for an MTC bus, and MTC drivers need space as you know very well. No wonder buses on this route take the other side of the road. Look at the lovely tree shade in the background, and now you know why I said earlier that this could have been one lovely stretch of road.

So, why are these few women waiting at the bus stop (first picture)? They keep hoping that the bus will stop here and in any case they can see it coming and cross over in time to catch it. In the second and third pictures, look at how two-wheeler riders are trying to gain a foothold on the road to maintain balance even as they are elbowed out of the way by autorickshaws and cars. Judging by these pictures, most two-wheeler riders in the city do not wear helmets. And it can prove costly on this stretch. The last picture here is of a mound of earth piled high atop a median. Not only has the median taken a hard beating, several plants lie buried beneath. So, what was the point in ‘greening the median’ when all the good work accomplished has been recklessly obliterated. Remember, I mentioned proper planning?

Anna Main Road - watch your step

Let’s have a closer view of the condition of roads. No comments, really, except that it’s wiser to be careful about where you step on. What do you make of the third picture? We see so many similar spots across the city. Anyway, I was amused to see the entrepreneurship of the advertiser (see the ‘To Let’ notice stuck on the barricade). Wonder whether he received any call!

Anna Main Road - no rules here

Here’s a boy who has cycled down from a street in MGR Nagar behind the police booth (which, not surprisingly, is closed). He wants to head straight to R.K. Shanmugham Salai (behind me to the left) but has had to wend his way around a mound of earth. The second picture was shot just beside the police booth. Note how a one-way road is being used as two-way – there’s no choice here for both drivers – the Ambassador car is heading straight to Nesapakkam while the share autorickshaw wants to take a right turn to MGR Nagar. And when an MTC bus passes by (on the wrong side, of course) people just have to wait.

Anna Main Road - what a price to pay for clean waterways?

It is one of Chennai’s arterial roads – Ashok Pillar Road or now better known as Anna Main Road. It would have actually been a lovely, broad, tree-shaded stretch, extending from the Ashok Pillar to Nesapakkam, past KK Nagar. But reality is different. It is a disgrace that the road named after C. N. Annadurai and passing through areas (KK Nagar and MGR Nagar) named after the present as well as former chief ministers of the state should be in such a sorry state. The scene at the Anna Road-MGR Nagar junction exemplifies all that is wrong with planning and implementation. And it has to do with the Chennai City River Conservation Project (CCRCP).

It was in October 2000 that the Union Environment and Forests Ministry approved the sanction of Rs 490 crore for Chennai Metrowater to prevent the entry of sewage into the city's watercourses — Adyar, Cooum, Buckingham Canal and other drainage courses — by intercepting, diverting and treating sewage (now I understand that the project is worth Rs 1,200 crore or more). In any case, CCRCP was supposed to have been completed by December 2005, but here we are in November 2009 and reporters I have spoken to say that the work that has been going on for ages at the Anna Main Road-MGR Nagar junction has to do with some rectification relating to the project.

Has the project been useful at all? Has the quality of the water in the city’s waterways improved after more than Rs 350 crore was spent on CCRPC? Anna University was given the task of monitoring the quality of water. Has the university come out with any report on this? I am not aware of it. I do know that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board had found that the quality of water samples remained the same – in the Otteri Nullah, Buckingham Canal, Adyar and Cooum rivers. Indeed, four years ago, Minister G. K. Vasan and former chief urban planner G. Dattatri had raised questions about whether any tangible benefits had accrued from the project. Other activists were convinced that it had not brought about any substantial change. Today, nobody seems to asking such questions anymore. Or, if they are, they are not being heard. Sadly, mainline newspapers – the city has four now – have not really bothered to cover the story properly by speaking to all the stakeholders and do regular a follow-up.

Talking about improving the quality of the city’s waterways, it was in 1967 while launching the clean Cooum project that Annadurai is reported to have said: “The Cooum will bring Madras city a place for pride like the Thames to London”. Forty-two years have passed and if anything the condition of the Cooum and other rivers have only deteriorated. You could as well call them open sewage drains. And to think that once upon a time people in Chetpet had bathed in the Cooum, and until the late 1960s boats cruised down the Buckingham Canal carrying paddy and hay from Nellore in Andhra Pradesh!

It’s in the midst of all this that the Public Works Department and the Chennai Corporation have jointly proposed an integrated flood management project to be implemented under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). As several other projects of the government, this one too is grandiose - connecting the waterways, lakes and storm-water drains in the city and creating an integrated network. But plans are one thing and implementation is quite another.

They say a picture is worth more than a thousand words and that seeing is believing. Well, here’s a picture or pictures if you like, of Anna Main Road, at the MGR Nagar junction, which has been chaotic even in better times. I had shot the pictures today after the morning rush hour. Nobody really knows what all the digging and implantation of the huge girders are all about but, yes, authoritative sources say it is indeed correction work relating to CCRCP.

In the first picture, notice two MTC buses heading in opposite directions using one side of the road because that is all the space they have. Notice the senior citizen (extreme left) atop a mound trying to cross the road. The second is a close-up of a huge mound with a lamppost lying across even as a hoarding in the background seems to suggest that all is well with the world. The third is not just a close shot of the girders. Notice the woman in a blue sari crossing the road using one of the girders as a platform. And even as life goes on, a new pit is being dug and you can only guess for what.

More on the state of roads in the blogs to follow.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chennai's roads: what is the Corporation doing?

Whatever is happening to the roads in Chennai? It’s getting worse by the day, a nightmare driving on them. It is the same story year after year once the monsoon sets in. There are a few days of rain and that is enough to render the roads unfit for travel. The top coating (bitumen, is it?) peels off ever so easily, there are potholes everywhere and this time, there are craters as well. The reason: several roads have been dug up and left as they are – either with deep pits or with sand and loose gravel casually dumped over them to temporarily facilitate travel. What really is the Chennai Corporation doing? It is all right for the mayor and the commissioner to be present at inaugurations and launch various projects, wade through water when there is rain to inspect areas that are flooded, but about the roads? Don’t they or other corporation officials ever travel on the city roads, have they never seen the state of the roads or do they just not want to do anything?

Earlier this week, a schoolboy got run over by a monster of a commercial vehicle – his schoolbag had apparently got entangled in the vehicle. How such a vehicle was allowed to ply on a congested lane off Arcot Road during peak morning rush hour is a question no official or policeman has been to answer satisfactorily to the media. Not only did the boy die a horrendous death, yesterday his father, only 52 or so, a heart patient, died, leaving the wife and mother to face the world alone. What a tragedy! What is her state of mind, I even dread to imagine.

With the roads in such a bad condition as they are (please drive on Anna Main Road, the inside streets in KK Nagar, Govindan Road in Mambalam to get a flavour of what I am talking about), there cannot be a better recipe for accidents. How did the schoolboy’s bag get entangled in the vehicle that ran over him? It might have been possible that he lost his balance over a pit or pothole or crater. After all, who in the media bothers to talk to eyewitnesses or visit the spot of accident and get inputs from the hawker or shopkeeper? Neighbourhood newspapers have been repeatedly highlighting the terrible state of roads. Pillar Talk, for instance, has been almost waging a war against officialdom, with pictures of the dug-up portions on Anna Main Road near the MGR Nagar bus stop, which has remained thus for years. And to think that KK Nagar is named after the chief minister of Tamil Nadu! What a shame!

I have not driven much after the rains in other parts of Chennai, but I am sure the same potholes and craters and rough edges with the bitumen all gone are there everywhere. Wonder how north Chennai must be like!

All this raises the big question: Why do citizens have to pay taxes (house tax, water tax, income tax, sales tax…) when basic infrastructure is lacking? Is it so difficult for the state government to provide decent roads?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An IPS officer's effort to inspire children

My editor suddenly gave me a book to review. Its author, C Sylendra Babu, is undoubtedly one of the stars of the Indian Police Service. An officer of the 1987 batch, the Special Task Force chief and inspector general of police, Tamil Nadu, is a recipient of the President of India’s Medal for Devotion to Duty, the Prime Minister’s Medal for Life Saving and the Chief Minister’s Medal for Gallantry. ‘Boys & Girls Be Ambitious’ is not Babu’s first book; he has written five others, including ‘You Too Can Become An IPS Officer’.

‘Be Ambitious’, as former director general of police W I Davaram mentions in the preface, is a sort of wake-up call for boys and girls who have lost focus and don’t really know what to do with their lives. The subjects range from ambition and ability to nutritious food and meditation, from enthusiasm and character to leadership and communication skills, and from fear of learning to falling in love with work.

A book by a person with Babu’s credentials is bound to get a second look. In this case, Babu could have made his work stand out from the numerous self-improvement books you see in book stores across the country if only he had brought in much more of his personal experiences to enthuse the reader. Indeed, his various stints, including those as superintendent of police in different districts, as joint commissioner of police, Chennai City, and chief of the STF would have provided him enough fodder for providing inspiring examples. But what we have is less of that and more examples of Martin Luther King Jr, John Kennedy, Terry Fox, even Rober Clive. That may all be well but there is quite nothing like bringing your own experiences to the fore.

At the end of each chapter there are brief sketches of people who symbolise the subject in that chapter. For instance, at the end of the chapter on ‘Ambition’ is a resume of Alexander the Great; the Rani of Jhansi is chosen to exemplify overcoming ‘Fear’. Here again, contemporary heroes would have scored much better with the reader. Gautama Buddha, Alexander, Sir Isaac Newton, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Albert Einstein, Thomas Alva Edison and Christopher Columbus are all there, but children (the target audience), even others, would already have read about them in history books. Babu himself writes about children looking for role models, other than film stars and cricketers, who can inspire and transform. Thus, it would have been so much better if all the people mentioned were contemporary heroes, such as a Narayana Murthy, an Azim Premji, a Vishwanathan Anand, a Kiran Bedi or a Walter Davaram. Of such, there are only three – APJ Abdul Kalam, AR Rahman and Abhinav Bhindra. And Indian examples, please. We have our own Sylvester Stallones and Jackie Chans.

In the end, it’s a painstaking effort by the author who has interacted with students over the years and loves academia, but 250-odd pages is a little too much, so is the Rs 140 price tag. A 150-page book priced below Rs 100 would have been much better.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Neyveli Lignite chief does some plain speaking, talks about 'actionable intelligence', 'family engineering'

Coming shortly after that brilliant Subroto Bagchi speech to IIM Bangalore students, a copy of which a colleague had sent me, here comes another thought-provoking one – from Neyveli Lignite Corporation’s chairman and managing director, A. R. Ansari. I was given a CD that contained his special address to the company’s workforce in Neyveli on ‘Combating Climate Change with Engineering Solutions’ on Engineers Day (to mark the birth anniversary of that remarkable engineer, Sir M Visweswaraiah). And I must say that he made some very pertinent points, least of which was that NLC employees had simply “passed away” time the past five decades, doing very little to grow the company. He also wondered whether the company would survive after 30 years if no diversification were made. I’ll not resort to reported speech. It somehow takes away the energy from what has been said. So, let me reproduce some interesting nuggets from his speech. It is also interesting to note that though the subject was ‘engineering solutions’, Ansari said engineers didn’t really need a speech on that at all and instead chose to focus on what he called ‘family engineering’. Another term he constantly referred to was ‘actionable intelligence’, possibly taken from a book he referred to (Acrobat of Change), but which made immense sense in the end. Read on:

We are not tuned to accepting change. It’s a human problem. It’s a huge inertia. There is huge inertia in every individual, which does not allow you to change your thinking.

I will briefly dwell on certain areas that require our attention, and if you have ‘actionable intelligence’ you can overcome any change that is likely to come your way. A small example: during November 2008 we did not generate (power) because we could not supply lignite. We did not prepare ourselves to face the vagaries of God. It is a change. You must accept. It needed actionable intelligence, we should have anticipated. We did not prepare many things, did not take preventive measures. How many of us are taking steps to correct errors? Where is our actionable intelligence? If we have certain things we must maintain them. We must have things to meet future exigencies. Many examples I can quote – social engineering, ecological engineering… but have we done family engineering?

That is most important - if you can really see the change in your own house. Teenagers you cannot control. It is not possible. Did you anticipate it? What are you going to do for them? This is where your actionable intelligence has to work. If this is happening in your own house, the engineering solution has to be adopted there. It is a period to serve the children, not fire them. The same teenager when he comes out – if the parents had anticipated and served him well – becomes the best citizen. It depends on the parents. That is an area we have to look at seriously. If the correction has taken place properly, the child will become a good citizen. We feel we don’t have time; parents don’t have time, neither the mother nor the father. We don’t pay attention to the child.

Today’s scenario – youngsters – what is happening? The highest rate of divorce is taking place among young couples. That change we have not anticipated. When your earning is very high at a young age and both (husband and wife) have high earnings, they have not seen the bad days. They don’t know how to manage. They become arrogant with the money coming in quickly; they are very determined, there is no flexibility. That causes separation. Those days, this sort of thing did not exist.

You are supposed to play a model role for your children. How many of us are doing that? Please put your hand on your heart – how many of us are doing justice to our children, our family members? That can be a wonderful engineering solution if we do. That is how society is built. I am not talking about social engineering here, only what is needed for good society. These changes will continue to come.

What is the growth of NLL in the last six decades. Nil. We have only lived, but not lived like a roaring tiger. Today, with the capacity of engineers in Neyveli, we still produce less than NTPC, our profits are only 10-20% of theirs. We have never taken (the help of) actionable intelligence. Most of us wanted to pass away the time in the past five decades. Such a lovely area, such high potential. We have not tapped the potential of the engineers. People at the top have failed. Think big, something will happen. Let people laugh. Can we survive with lignite-based thermal stations and lignite mines. It (company) will die in 30 years.

Think of later generations. Had we thought of diversification one decade ago we could have been a giant organisation, on par with NTPC. Our actionable intelligence was missing totally. We must keep thinking how to get such growth even in the worst conditions. Forget small problems that will happen in any industry. Think how to make life more comfortable for the people who are working, for their families. What will happen to the next generation? If you think along those lines, you will definitely think about the growth of your company. Thinking should never be stopped. The moment you stop thinking, the company, house, or family will stop growing. As human beings we are all selfish, but that selfishness has to be very limited. First priority must be towards the organisation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Of Don Bosco School and Enid Blyton books

Calcutta brings back so many memories, they can only be narrated over a period. Some of the memories are of how I used to walk across the Park Circus maidan to school everyday and return by almost the same route, taking a detour sometimes by walking back through the tram depot.

I still remember the schoolbag, with the name DBPC (Don Bosco Park Circus) emblazoned across. Every three or four years I would buy a new bag – from the school stationery. The last bag would probably have lasted years. At the beginning of every academic year, which in those days was January-December, there was a lot of excitement. We students would get the stationery list along with the report card at the end of the year. The list would contain the names of all the textbooks and the number of different-size notebooks we had to buy. On a scheduled date, parents and children would crowd the school stationery outlet (it was really the office fee counter), present the list and the money and take away the books, pencil boxes, brown paper, calendars etc.

Back home, it would be a time for covering the books, affixing labels, writing names and subjects and, of course, smelling and going through some of the books that interested me. I loved to check out the English language and literature, geography and moral science books. My mother was a sort of martinet, very strict with everything I did. She would teach me most of the subjects in the lower classes, give me math problems to work out, correct them later, ask me questions on portions and ensure that I wasted little time studying.

In the lower classes, study time at home would usually be after 3 in the afternoon. Or 4. There was no television in those days to distract you. Only the radio, and that was only switched on during lunchtime for Hindi film songs on Vividh Bharati or at 7pm to listen to Jayamala. Dad would listen to the 9 o’ clock news before going to sleep; by then my sister and I would have already hit the bed. All that was when I was in the lower classes before sister got married.

The spare time we got would be spent reading Enid Blyton books. Those Dreadful Children was the first Blyton book I read – a gift from mother for my birthday. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Blyton and her innumerable books, a relationship that continues to this day. First Term at Malory Towers was the second book, Six Cousins at Mistletoe Farm the third and Six Cousins Again the next. Soon, the Five Findouters entered my life as did the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. And then came Barney and Snubby, the Adventure series and several others.

The afternoons when mother, sister and I went to Gariahat would be eagerly awaited. Sister and I would head to the old second-hand bookshop down one of the streets and pick up half a dozen Blyton books at prices that are unimaginable today – Rs 5 or Rs 10. And each book was an original, complete with its original smell. Some of them would have names and tidbits of information scrawled on the pages. But it didn’t matter, as long as all the pages were there. Soon, we had built up a considerable collection of books, many of them are still with my sister in Calcutta.

In recent years, I have hardly had time to read Blyton’s books but some day I will go back in time. My daughter has a wonderful collection of them and it is just one of life’s wonderful things that she, too, is a great Blyton fan and has such an incredible appetite for reading.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Remembering father

Subroto Bagchi’s speech at IIM Bangalore reminded me of my father and how all his life he lived by his principles. He was short-tempered and would flare up in an instant if things were not to his liking. But most of his anger possibly blew up during his younger days; I was a late child and by the time I had grown up he had mellowed down considerably.

Father used to smoke cigarettes, bought them in tins I have heard my mother say, but I never ever saw him smoking. So, he must have quit the habit before I was born or immediately thereafter. One of the things he held dear was truthfulness. He was sometimes too straightforward; opening up and saying things he needn’t really let people know. A stickler for time and punctuality, he would never keep anybody waiting. He was a man of few wants – I never saw him wearing a tie although there are pictures of him in a suit, complete with tie and all. He would wear white crisp shirts to office, and dark trousers.

Every working day, father would catch the tram from Park Circus where we stayed to Dalhousie Square, later known as BBD Bagh, where his office was. Perhaps office provided him lunch, for I have never seen him carry food or water. His was the typical office-goer’s mechanical routine – leave at 7.30am, catch the tram from the depot close by and return by 6.30pm or latest 7pm. The days he didn’t come by 6.45pm or so, we’d begin to get worried, at least in the later part of his career, because he had suffered a heart attack early and was quite never the same person again. He lost his bravado and confidence and seemed to expect another attack all the time.

Nights would get worrisome whenever a chest pain came along, which was often. Father would then put a tablet (Sorbitrate) beneath his tongue and sit up if the pain was too uncomfortable. Gradually, the pain would subside and he would go back to sleep. And until that happened, mother and I would keep an eye on him. Sister, too.

Despite all that, those were the good old days you can talk about all the time. Relatives, friends and neighbours used to come in almost every day; on weekends there would be card games either at home or in a relative or friend’s home. Father and the others took the games very seriously. It was almost a regimen. Every Saturday or Sunday he’d be ready to go out for a card game, or the guests would come over. The card-playing Malayalee crowd hardly exists in Calcutta now, not that I have heard of. All that was a thing of the past – of the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, many Malayalees had left Calcutta; some of them to Madras and other cities. We also eventually left in 1983, and the sheer mention of it pains me no end. Calcutta was a romance of a different kind. And a lot of those memories are of father and the way he looked after all of us.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Go, kiss the world, she told her son even as she lay dying: Subrota Bagchi on how life has to be lived

I’ve often wondered whether I, as a person, am out of sync with the times. New developments – I refer to those in technology mainly – hardly enthuse me. I still prefer tried and tested methods and am a firm believer of the adage, Old is Gold. I’m sure if I had a good, portable typewriter I would be happy using it rather than an MS Windows XP driven computer. I love history, reading old books, and still swear by Enid Blyton, whose books kept me engrossed as a child. Not for me Harry Potter, although my daughter tells me that J.K. Rowling is magical.

I still wear my first watch – an HMT Jawahar that my brother-in-law purchased for me in Calcutta when I was in Class 11 or 12. It cost Rs 178 then. I still wind it every other day and wear it with more than a touch of sentiment. The other watch I treasure is the one my father received the day he retired from office, an HMT gold-plated day-date classic. The year was 1978 and you won’t find many of them anymore. The Rolexes, Omegas and Rados do not really interest me. Yes, a Tissot will, because my dad had a Tissot, which he sadly lost one evening in the tram. If he hadn’t, I would have had that, too, and treasured it as well.

I hardly buy new things for myself. I am more excited in giving or buying for others, to see the smile and excitement on their faces. My wife and daughter reprimand me for wearing the same shirt on two consecutive days, but I tell them I don’t wear the same shirt to office on two consecutive days – may be at home, which is excusable. They don’t comment on my inner wear though, but I know I like to use the banyans and underwear as long as there are no holes or tears. Recently, when buying a new pair of spectacles, my wife and relatives pointed to one frame and insisted that I buy it. Finally, I did, but was aghast when I learnt it cost Rs 4,000. I wear it but I know I’d have been happier wearing a frame that cost Rs 350.

Subroto Bagchi, the CEO of MindTree, reminded me of some of my ‘idiosyncrasies’ when I was reading his article on ‘defining success’. I not only felt immensely moved at what he had written (it was his speech to the Class of 2006 at IIM Bangalore), but also empathized deeply with his experiences.

Bagchi was the last child in a family of five brothers. His earliest memory of his father was as a district employment officer in Koraput, Orissa. There was no electricity, no primary school, and water did not flow from a tap, he says. Bagchi learnt at home, he did not go to school till he was eight. The family belongings fitted into the back of a jeep. His mother, raised by a widow who had come to India as a refugee from East Bengal, was a matriculate. His parents set the foundation of Bagchi’s life, his values.

Bagchi’s father was given a jeep by his office, but he used it only to travel to the interiors. He walked to office, saying it was an expensive resource. It was Bagchi’s first childhood lesson in governance.

Bagchi’s father treated the driver with respect. Even the children called him ‘dada’ (elder brother). It was a lesson Bagchi passed on to his children. When he had a car and driver, his children would call the driver ‘Raju uncle’. The lesson Bagchi learnt: you treat small people with more respect; it is more important to respect your subordinates.

The children would read aloud the newspaper every day. It was a routine and Bagchi and his brothers learnt of the outside world by reading it. But they were told to fold the newspaper neatly once it was read. His father would say that the newspaper and the toilet had to be left the way it was found. The lesson here for Bagchi: show consideration to others.

The family did not own a radio, forget owning a home. Everytime, Bagchi’s father would pass it off lightly, saying that they did not need one – there were already five of them (referring to his sons). For Bagchi, it meant it was important not to measure personal success and sense of well being through material possessions.

Although Bagchi’s father had a transferable job, his mother would plant seedlings, nurture them and get the flowers to bloom. Neighbours wondered why she took all that trouble, she would say that she wished to make a place she inherited more beautiful than how she found it. It is not about what you create for yourself, it is what you leave behind that defines success, Bagchi says.

During the Indo-Pak war of 1965, Bagchi’s mother developed cataract and her eyesight was none too good. So, he would read the newspaper aloud to her and they would discuss happenings. All of it provided fertile ground for Bagchi’s imagination and he realised that if we could imagine a future we could create it, and if we created it others would live in it.

In 1969, Bagchi’s mother went blind. She lived till 2002.During those 32 years, she never complained, but went about her work as if nothing had happened. It showed Bagchi that success was about achieving a sense of independence, about not seeing the world but seeing the light.

In 1992, Bagchi’s father who had by then retired, suffered third-degree burn injuries and lay in a Safdarjang Hospital bed bandaged from head to toe. The place was “cockroach-infested, dirty and inhuman”, a “theatre of death”. The nurses were so overworked, one even refused to change an empty blood bottle, urging Bagchi to do it himself. Yet, his father, seeing the nurse, asked her why she had not gone home after working so long. “There I learnt that there is no limit to how concerned you can be for another human being and what the limit of inclusion is you can create”, he says. Bagchi’s father died the following day. “He was a man whose success was defined by his principles, his frugality, his universalism and his sense of inclusion. Success is your ability to rise above discomfort. Success is not about building material comforts – the transistor he could never buy but or the house he never owned. His success is about the legacy he left, the continuity of his ideals that grew beyond the smallness of an ill-paid, unrecognised government servant’s world ,” Bagchi explains.

At age 82, when Bagchi’s mother had a paralytic stroke and lay in a hospital bed in Bhubaneshwar, he, now in the IT industry and travelling wide, flew down to se her. He spent two weeks with her, but she hardly showed any sign of improvement or change for the worse. Finally, when he had to leave, he bent down and kissed her cheek. “In that paralytic state and a garbled voice, she said, ‘Why are you kissing me? Go kiss the world.’ Her river was nearing its journey, at the confluence of life and death, this woman who to India as a refugee, raised by a widowed mother, no more educated than high school, married to an anonymous government servant whose last salary was Rs 300, robbed of her eyesight by fate and crowned by adversity was telling me to go and kiss the world!”

And Bagchi ends: “Success to me is about vision. It is the ability to rise above the immediacy of pain. It is about imagination. It is about sensitivity to small people. It is about building inclusion. It is about connectedness to a larger world existence. It is about personal tenacity. It is about giving back more to life than what you take out of it. It is about creating extraordinary success with ordinary lives.”

I haven’t read such brilliant, moving stuff in a long, long time. I thank my senior colleague, Mr S. R. Madhu, for forwarding it to me. Some day, I hope I will be able to meet Mr Bagchi himself and reminisce about the values of old.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

How albums trigger childhood memories

A cousin of mine called today morning, inviting me over for lunch. Now that is something I always relish – visiting homes where you’ve been invited and enjoying home-cooked food. Sometimes, of course, when the number of guests is too many, food is ordered and with my cousins in Chennai, it is usually the same caterer. Eventually, I did not go for lunch – preferred to have it at home – but told her that I’d come to taste the pal payasam she had made. And so, post-lunch, my niece and I went to her home in Ashok Nagar. It was almost 2pm and most people at her place were in slumber. The children were watching television; they switched it off as soon as we entered, almost as if to say “thank you for coming”. What a bore television can be! Can’t children of this generation talk and shout and play on holiday afternoons as we used to do when we were kids?

My cousin’s younger sister was looking at old pictures from the family album. Seeing us, she perked up and showed us pictures of her parents, her childhood, the family home, even pictures of her with her pet dog and cat. And all along I had thought she detested pets. Here she was years ago, in one picture, stroking her pet dog in bed and, in another, posing for the camera, a hand on her cat. There were pictures of her and her three sisters (it was one of them who had called me over for lunch) in various stages of growth – from chubby semi-clad children to naughty adolescents to young women on the threshold of matrimony. And one, showing the youngest of them, flush with her pregnancy. There was also a picture of their mother with her sisters and brothers, all seven of them posing together for posterity at the marriage reception of my cousin. Only three of that generation remain, although the ones no more could easily have lived some years longer.

In a couple of those pictures, I spotted myself, my wife and daughter, and even my mother. Today, we all look so different. It’s amazing what a few years can do to your personality, how the freshness of childhood and youth can give way to old age and disease. Sometimes, you feel misty-eyed and wish that you could roll back all those years, go right back to childhood and to your friends who meant so much to you. Suddenly, you don’t even know where all of them are. Yes, you do have information or contact numbers of a few of them, but who takes the trouble to reach out and keep in touch? Hardly anybody. The ‘reaching out’ part is always conveniently postponed.

Seeing all those old pictures in my cousin’s album I decided to spend some time one day soon on all the albums at home, go through each one of them and drown myself in nostalgia. I have also decided to reach out to a few of my classmates whose phone numbers I have. Not that I have grown old, but memories are memories.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's the monsoon once more

The northeast monsoon seems to have finally set in. It’s been cloudy in Chennai the past day or so, with the occasional drizzle. It’s all right as long as there are scattered showers and the occasional drizzle, but everybody here must be dreading the cyclone that is bound to arrive. By the end of December, you can be sure that the city would have been devastated (yes, that’s the word) by one or two cyclones from the Bay of Bengal.

When I was a child in Calcutta, there was a sort of romance then with the monsoon rain. I used look out from different windows in the house to watch the crows and pigeons getting wet, some of them cuddled up on a parapet with their beaks tucked in. There would be eagles soaking in the rain, perched atop chimneys or other high points on buildings. And then there were hundreds of sparrows, too. Where do you find them these days? Chennai has lost all its sparrows - I don't remember seeing many ever since I came to the city in the early 1980s.

Yes, back in Calcutta, there would be the odd flooding on the roads. I still remember wading home from school through streets full of water, shoes in hand sometimes, and schoolbag safe on my shoulders. It was all fun, part of the carefree world of childhood when even nature seemed one with you. Nowadays, I am terrified whenever there is mention of a depression forming in the Bay of Bengal. The monsoon and the rains somehow do not hold that old charm anymore. All I can think of is the muck on the roads that you are forced to step on, the craters on the roads that erupt each monsoon and remain for weeks after, and floodwaters entering the house where I stay, like it did last year.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A welcome break in Thrissur

A break from the usual routine is an absolute must. If only we could have as many breaks as possible in a year. We have a group of relatives that has been going out on excursions at regular intervals. In less than one year now, we have had four outings, which is not bad at all – Wayanad started it all, then there was Tiruvannamalai, Yercaud and last weekend, Thrissur.

The weather in Kerala was hot and sometimes the heat can take away the charm of a trek or a walk outdoors. It was a small group that left Chennai by the Alleppey Express; others joined in from Coimbatore, Bangalore and Kerala. The occasion: the 60th birthday of one of us. There was a visit to Guruvayur as well. It was a Sunday and the temple was packed with crowds – there were several weddings - but we managed to have more than a fleeting glimpse of Lord Guruvayurappan and felt great at the end of it. Then, of course, the customary visit to the Mammiyoor Temple nearby. If only trips like these last longer! But thanks for small mercies, I guess. We were at least able to meet and spend time together.

There was also the more sobering aspect of two elderly relatives being very unwell, both with almost irreversible conditions, both who could have led more productive lives. One was in a coma, the other had his mental faculties running asunder. If only God could be kinder, you wish. After all, these are people who are so dear to you and you can’t bear to see them suffering. But then, you know there is a Supreme Being out there and whatever happens in this world of ours, we have very little control. We can only pray and hope that things will get better. We can only wish the best for others and keep praying, hoping that God will listen and be there for us.

Pictures show the way to the Athirappily waterfalls in Thrissur, a view of the waterfalls from afar, a closer view, a monkey atop a tree, and monkeys having a feast.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Vintage P.C. Alexander makes his presence felt - moots 5-year secure term for governors

At the launch of Muthiah’s yet another labour of love, The Raj Bhavans of Tamil Nadu, it was the former civil servant and governor, P.C. Alexander, who outshone everyone else and stole the limelight. It might not have been the perfect forum to air his views on what I would call the politicization of the office of the governor in India, but Alexander was in full flow and, not surprisingly, the media lapped it all up. Both The Times of India and The Hindu gave prominent space to what he said.

Recollecting his years as governor of Tamil Nadu, including a year (1989) when the state was under President’s rule, Alexander said that that was the best year of his more than 55 years of civil as well as non-civil service. But he never really explained why. Perhaps it had to do with the peaceful circumstances when the state was under President’s rule.

It was all very well to have a magnificent home to stay, but the governor lacked security of tenure, Alexander said. “It is the unkindest way of keeping such a high dignitary in office. After 60 years of Independence, the governor should be given five years of security,” he said, pointing out that the appointment of the governor under the Constitution depended on the pleasure of the President of India and it could very well be that the governor woke up one morning to learn that the pleasure had been withdrawn. He also said that the pleasure was not the President’s alone, many a time the pleasure was the Prime Minister’s.

Alexander was for some method to be followed by the President for the appointment of the governor. There has to be a committee with the Chief Justice as chairman, the home minister and three eminent people, to select the governor, he said. Stating that the job of a governor was a political one, he urged politicians not to shy away from aspiring to be governor. “But when politicians become governors, they should forget their past political affiliations and deal with the job with impartiality.”

Advising governors-to-be, Alexander said that they must not consider themselves to be employees of the Centre. As a Constitutional appointee, no Prime Minister could tell the governor what should be done or who (political party) should be selected in a crisis. Referring to the framers of the Constitution and the high standards of morality and impartiality of those days, Alexander hinted at a broader look at the provisions of the Constitution relating to the appointment and powers of the governor, especially at a time when “things are not very bright.”

At his age, he probably surprised many with such a pertinent and meaningful speech. You could easily gauge his brilliance and it was not without reason that he once held perhaps the most powerful position ever held by any civil servant in India - that of principal secretary to former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An evening at the Raj Bhavan, Guindy

Well, you have to give it to him, really. S Muthiah, chronicler of Madras, is such an amazing man that it is hard to find words to describe him. Here he is with yet another book – even he has lost count of the number, he told me, adding there were more than 30.

‘The Raj Bhavans of Tamil Nadu, a coffee-table pictorial history, is a magnificent book about not only the two Raj Bhavans in Tamil Nadu, but also about the different homes of the governors before they finally moved to the Raj Bhavan in Guindy. Raj Bhavan Ooty was the summer residence-cum-office until the 1930s when the governor and his office staff would be there for about six months. That practice continued till Independence, with shorter stays, and even till 1967 with even shorter stays. That was the year the DMK came to power.

According to Muthiah, the initial brief was to prepare a typical coffee-table book, with pictures and fluffy text. But being the person he is, he declined to do anything like that and suggested instead that a pictorial history of the mansions of the governors of the state was more what he would like to do. This he mentioned today at the release function of the book, where were present Surjit Singh Barnala, the Tamil Nadu governor; P. C. Alexander, former principal secretary to Indira Gandhi, a highly distinguished diplomat who served stints abroad in the UNO and was also governor in Tamil Nadu (1988-90, including President’s rule) and in Maharashtra (1993-2002); Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali, prince of Arcot; Andrew Simkin, consul general, United States Consulate General, Chennai; Mike Nithavrianakis, British deputy high commissioner, south India; and T.V. Giridhar, director, South Zone Cultural Centre, Thanjavur (publishers of the book).

The venue: the Durbar Hall at the Raj Bhavan, Guindy.

I reached well in time, driving past healthy deer lazing around the sprawling campus. I was hesitant to stop and take pictures as there were a couple of vehicles following me on the narrow pathway. Also, it was my first visit to the governor’s residence and I was wary.

People had already begun arriving; several were seated. There was, of course, the mandatory security check. The press card helped, although I was attending the programme based on Muthiah’s personal invite. The function was scheduled to begin at 5pm and there were 15 minutes to go. There was nothing I could do except sit down in the row allotted for the Press and wait. There was Anwar, the photographer whose pictures of the two Raj Bhavans have added to the exclusivity of the book. Prasad from Pace Systems was there, with his wife. And slowly, many others I knew kept coming.

Just after the stroke of 5 in the evening, there came an announcement: “Please remain standing. His Excellency is arriving.” It was indication, if any were needed, that the tradition of the Raj continues even today in some form or the other.

What surprised me, or rather shocked me, was the utter indiscipline inside the hall even after the governor had arrived and all the dignitaries were seated on the dais. Cellphones kept beeping at intervals, people answered calls, others talked to one another – the only sound missing was a baby’s wail. There were plenty of photographers and video cameramen, so many that I wondered for whom they all worked and which publications or TV channel they represented. A cameraman from a TV channel, for instance, had two others to move around with him. Talk about utilisation of resources! There were also several men who really seemed to have no connection with the proceedings standing below the stage on either side. Were they all employed in the Raj Bhavan, I wondered again.

Thankfully, most of the speeches were short, although none too sweet. Save Alexander’s, and I shall talk about that later. The Nawab of Arcot had a four-page written speech that he managed to cut short to about eight or ten minutes, and many breathed a sigh of relief at the end of it. It was Barnala’s 85th birthday and every speaker wished him happy birthday. There were even Urdu couplets recited, by a gentleman whose name I couldn’t quite gather.

Finally, came time for the national anthem. And when high tea was announced, many were glad that it was all over.

The pictures, which I had taken, show Mike Nithavrianakis receiving the first copy of the book from Barnala; others (l-r) are Giridhar, Muthiah, Alexander, Nawab Md Abdul Ali, and Simkin; and a deer outside the Durbar Hall (your probably will need to blow up the picture to see it; it was dark and my flash weak).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Of runaway brides and bright chameleons

Quite a lousy day at the office. Almost all the stories I edited were the feel-bad kind – crimes and suicides. Judging by the recent number of suicides in the city, especially by schoolchildren and college students, I wonder where we are headed! Not allowed to celebrate Diwali with his friends, a college student hanged himself to death on Sunday. His father, a police constable, had forbidden him from joining the Diwali celebrations with his friends because he had scored low marks in an exam.

They say that you don’t realise how bad things are unless it happens to you or to people you know closely. This morning, I woke up to the sound of loud chatter from the kitchen and the doorway. My mother, my wife, the friendly woman next door who would put many a hardnosed journalist to shame (such is her nose for news) and a cranky old servant were all discussing something; actually it all seemed too confusing, you know how it is when a few women get together. Anyway, the fact was that our maid was missing from her house. Apparently, if the gossip was to be believed (more often than not, it can be), she and her husband were not getting along. I overheard them saying there was a sister-in-law who was making the life of our maid miserable. Her husband had asked her to “get lost” and that was exactly she did. So, last evening, the family came here searching for her (I wasn’t around and so didn’t know) and left in a huff.

So far, there’s no news whether she’s returned home. Chances are she might have, because few mothers would leave two small children and go away for good. She must have done that to scare him, my wife stressed. It was almost as if she was implying that if I dared to try out anything silly with her, she would choose her path. Amen.

After Shiny Ahuja’s misadventures, you have to be even careful what you say about your maid. Also, remember, that in Chennai servant maids have now formed an association or union and have demanded minimum wages for a start. Back in Calcutta where I grew up, we had an old ayah who brought my lunch to school, scrubbed my head and face with a towel after the break to clear the beads of sweat, and who accompanied me to places near home where mom would not send me alone. As I grew into adolescence and began eyeing pretty young things and attractive middle-aged women, there was hardly any maid in the area worth looking at a second time. The only shocking incident was to find one early morning the driver of a neighbour snuggling near the terrace doorway with a woman who was not his wife but a maid somewhere. He was such a pest that nobody dared say anything. Finally, he and the maid began shacking up downstairs near the motor pump.

However, I do remember of a maid who turned young men on. She worked at my friend’s house and every time I went there, which was not too often, I would take a second look at what appeared to me then to be quite a voluptuous figure. I still remember one night after a drink or two a few of us had dropped by in my friend’s place late in the night and who would open the door, but the voluptuous one. She has half asleep and whether because of that or otherwise, it was difficult to tell, but she had her sari pallu so casually thrown around her that it did nothing to hide what it was supposed to. Her huge breasts were almost on the verge of breaking loose from one of the thinnest blouses I had seen. Fortunately, they didn’t and I survived to tell this tale. Of course, you can never say with women. For all that, if we had tried something silly, she could have dealt us a resounding slap. Who knows? Can you ever tell what exactly is a woman thinking?

Well, I must end with this tailpiece. A woman I got friendly with hardly three months ago, initially replied to my smses and would even take the initiative to call and keep in touch. Two or three weeks later, she just disappeared from the radar choosing not to reply at all. And then, there was a sort of bouncing back, only to disappear again. It was clear she was the front-seat driver, choosing to communicate when she wanted and keeping silent when that helped her. A few days ago, I told her that she was not quite the person I knew earlier. Her reply was really ‘cool’ – “Yes, I have changed,” she said, adding, “I keep changing all the time.” Huh, now would you call her a chameleon?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's nice to work on a Sunday, sometimes

Well, at the end of the day’s work (night work really), I can’t complain. Life at the office could perhaps not have been more peaceful than what it was today. Not many stories to be rewritten and edited, a few pages to be proofread, and I was through even before midnight. It was while driving down the city roads that I realised how a Sunday can mean different. Or, was it just that everybody was indoors after a weekend of bursting firecrackers and a month-long routine of shopping? I’ll perhaps never know. All that I saw were empty roads, few cars and even fewer two-wheelers – can you believe that in Chennai? Except for some activity at the Ashok Pillar junction, where I didn’t have to stop because the signal was blinking yellow and there was hardly any traffic, it was one hell of a roller-coaster ride.

Tonight, even the liquor shops seemed to have closed early. I did not see the usual groups of people chatting away or entering into inebriated conversations. There is one spot where you usually find a group of men, either standing near motorcycles or astride them. I have never been able to gather what really happens in the building adjacent. Perhaps there is a wine shop. Or may be it is pleasure of the forbidden kind. Quite a lot of that exists in Chennai, as anybody can tell you. For all you know, the portly middle-aged, heavy-breasted woman next door could well be running a brothel. It actually happened once in the colony I stay. And it took quite some time and effort to get her to vacate.

Coming back to the day at the office, as I have said, I hate all these crime and tragedy stories. And while editing some of them churned out by our master crime story writers, I almost feel like a young doctor wielding the scalpel for the first time, hesitant and unsure, wondering what the final outcome will be. Today, there was this rather bizarre story about a woman in the kitchen busy cooking, when suddenly a firecracker ‘rocket’ landed in the vessel full of hot oil. You can well imagine what happened. There must have been some ugly, deafening sound and, sure enough, the hot oil splashed all over the woman’s body. Her burn injuries were severe and, frankly, I do not even remember whether the copy mentioned her as being dead or alive; although I do think it is the latter. So horrific and sudden can death be sometimes.

Thankfully, there were fewer injuries from fire accidents this Diwali than last year, but there were many more fire accidents. Despite all the awareness drives initiated by the police commissioner and the Corporation officials to raise about fire safety and what have you, we are at the end of the day, Indians. And being Indians, we all love to listen to something and forget about it, or be just plain disobedient. I noticed many children yesterday, most of them hardly six years old, lighting up firecrackers and scampering away to ‘safety’ even as elders watch with amusement yards away. One even had a candle burning dangerously close to a Maruti car.

Anyway, Diwali this year is over… well almost. My wife now tells me that a few people in the city will be celebrating the Festival of Lights tomorrow (Monday) as well, as will the people of Karnataka. Beyond that, there’s the monsoon to look forward to. And only after it has come and flooded Chennai in ample measure can we even think of Christmas and the New Year.

Spring always comes

For almost a year now, I have not had two back-to-back holidays. You know how it is working for a newspaper. Finally, Diwali fell on a Saturday (small mercies) and then there was the regular Sunday off. However, you can plan all you want but reality can be a little harsh sometimes. Last night, I received a call from the other editor (somebody called us “rewrite specialists”) asking a favour of me – whether I could come in on Sunday (today) and give him HIS two back-to-back holidays. I had told him that I’d get back to him today, taking some time to think whether that would indeed be possible. After all, I had planned to go out with my wife and her cousins, generally going around town. She was probably looking forward to it as well because, caught as we all are in the midst of our day-to-day work, we hardly find time to be in the company of the people who are close to us. And by this, I mean not only my wife, but also relatives and friends. I wish at times that all those afternoons and evenings of carefree banter, laced with cigarette smoke would come alive again. But that may yet never be.

Indeed, I might have just lost a friend forever… I’m quite sure. I had promised her several times that I would visit her place, a quiet lovely nook as good as any you will find in Chennai. With trees all around, the occasional sound of the temple bell and the twittering of birds, it's an ideal place for lazing and having long meaningful conversations. And if you have a glass of chilled beer in your hands, the experience might almost be heavenly. In any case, my promises remained just that – promises. Not that I intended to hurt her, but something or the other would always turn up at the last moment and I would not be able to make it. This time, she was clearly annoyed and minced no words – if you really cared for people and for what you say, you would have found the time to be here. It just shows how important a friend I am in your life, she blurted out. I was, of course, apologetic. Tried to pacify her with soothing words, but somehow, there seemed to be a finality to her words. And, judging by what I had done, there really was no reason why she shouldn’t be annoyed with me. So mush for carefree afternoons of banter and chilled beer and wisps of cigarette smoke... I, of course, left the smoking habit for good years ago.

Which brings me back to the day ahead. As I key in these words, it’s almost lunchtime. In a few hours I’d be in office, rewriting and editing monotonous stuff, most of it crime stories that interest me the least. Not that anything else interests me much these days. Politics doesn’t… you see the condition of roads in Chennai, the number of unnecessary flyovers that have been and are being built, the garbage piled up at places, the flouting of traffic rules, drunken driving… the list is endless… and you detest the politician and the administrators. This is not something Chennai-specific; it’s the same story across India. Perhaps it’s better here in the south. Sport doesn’t interest me as much as it did when I was younger. There’s such an overdoes of cricket that you simple don’t care who’s playing or what the tournament is. Yes, I do try to find time to watch the odd Federer brilliance or the Usain Bolt magic. But that’s it.

Now, I wonder why life has to be like this…. Not quite the way I had wished it would be. Personally, once you cross the 45-year mark, you sense almost daily that your dreams are all over and the best will never come. It takes a lot of courage then to face life head-on, especially when a sense of despair overwhelms you, when you know you are not really doing the things you ought to be. But there is always hope. I remember a book my sister used to read and quote often from, when we spent our childhood days together in good old Calcutta years ago. Spring always comes, she would say, and I find myself echoing those very words when I reach a point of no return.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

'Chai, Chai' brings a new flavour

It’s been exactly two weeks since I put a new post on my blog. When I started blogging in July 2006, I had never really thought of it as a serious pursuit, the reason why that year there were only two productive months for my blogs, would you believe it! And those blogs, in any case, were driven by the fact that I had decided to churn out something for Madras Day. That I ended up writing more about motor racing and ecological sanitation for rural communities was another matter. There was an improvement in 2007, when I produced blogs for five months, again buoyed by the Madras Week events. It’s only in the past two years that I have tried to be more dogged, writing about several things that I care about, and not just Madras Day and Madras Week.

Nevertheless, during the past two days, I have been doing some introspection, wondering whether writing about things that have already been reported makes any sense at all. After all, a blog is all about finding a platform to express your opinion and letting go of your emotions once in a while. The introspection was driven in part by a friend’s blog, of which I have managed to read only a few posts. And in the days and weeks ahead, you might notice a new flavour to my blogs.

Bishwanath Ghosh’s blog, ‘By the Ganges’ or ‘On the Ganga Mail’ (click alongside to read) I found captivating… more for its simplicity and openness, and, yes, in the depth of its emotion as well. BG, as he is better known among friends, is my colleague in the newspaper office. He is a man of few words, and when he speaks he is hardly audible. But that’s his style; most of the time, he appears to be in a world of his own even though he may be keying in a story or editing a piece. BG is a thinker and writer. No, he is not cut out for putting the famous TOI ‘package’ stories together. Thankfully, it now appears he will be begin a new innings as a ‘writer only’, with a lot of flexibility thrown into his work schedule. Well, more power to his pen or the keys on his keyboard, for BG has quite a few books in him.

BG’s first book, ‘Chai, Chai’ was launched in the markets a few days earlier. But it received a formal launch at the Madras Book Club meeting on Thursday (October 15) that saw a full house, complete with ‘people who matter’ in attendance. Of course, you can’t think of the Madras Book Club without S. Muthiah or K.S. Padmanabhan, and nowadays, S.R. Madhu. I still remember the days when there would be hardly 50-odd people to grace a Book Club meet. There would be tea, no snack that I can remember. But ever since the Hotel Connemara showed interest and offered space for the meetings and also offered snacks, attendance grew and more joined in as members.

The growth of the Club has mainly been due to the fact that Muthiah and Padmanabhan between themselves have been able to get several well-known authors to have their books launched through the Club in Chennai, and get a decent audience for the launch of books of the not-so-well-known authors, too. There are, on an average, about two meetings in a month, which is more than value for money (a single membership for a year costs only Rs 600). That the Club has grown in stature is evident. Muthiah said at the launch of BG’s book that Jaswant Singh was trying to get a date for the launch of his book on Jinnah at a Madras Book Club meeting.

Coming back to BG, for a man of few words, it is not easy to make a public speech. But he played it right, by opting not to speak as such. P.C. Ramakrishna, the man with the golden voice, did a great job, reading excerpts from the book, adding anecdotes, and throwing questions at BG to get the conversation started. And then the others joined in. There were several in the audience who had interesting comments to make; one even wondered whether Basin Bridge could have featured as an important junction in the book.

I wonder whether BG has plans for another book on platforms, but I did suggest to him that he could in the future visit some of the lesser-known, quaint railway stations (like one called Champa in east Madhya Pradesh I used to get down often at once) that you find in many places in India. Life in and around these stations might be an altogether different story than the ones BG has written about – of Jolarpet, Guntakal, Shoranur and others.

BG naturally felt the absence of his mother at the launch; she had passed away only a few weeks ago. But in the warmth that was palpable at the evening function and the welcome which ‘Chai, Chai’ received, it was clear that the son had his mother’s blessings in abundance.

BG will soon get started with his second book that is likely to feature specific areas in Madras that is Chennai. Royapuram is probably the first locality in his list.