Sunday, July 26, 2009

When beer cost 16 annas and Egmore railway station had sponge cake, lemonade: here's Anna Varki

She’s 87 years old but, would you believe it, she is keen to proofread! Anna Varki belongs to another age, so too her reminisces. Her memories of the Egmore Railway Station (its centenary was celebrated recently) in the 1930s-40s when life was more easy paced and Chennai quite another city, are vivid. With the city’s birthday less than a month away, Anna’s descriptions of Madras with its old world charm make for delightful reading. So, here’s Anna, in her own words:

Apart from the Marina Beach and good old Moore Market, our one and only mall where you could get everything you wanted, there was the Egmore railway refreshment room. A place I have vivid memories of, where we could have a treat. It used to be a favourite haunt of my father and his journalist buddies, days when journalists had to rush to get news to papers by phone and telegrams They enjoyed their anecdotes and we could hear their raucous laughter. People like Raja of Pithapuram and the Raja of Kollengode all spent time in the Egmore Railway Station refreshment room waiting for their trains.

Those days, trains came and went. Those who spent time in railway refreshment rooms were not travellers but just those who wanted a place to eat or a place to meet. In Chennai those days, eating out was not encouraged, in fact not allowed A bottle of beer cost 8 annas (before the decimal system, we dealt with rupees, annas and paise; 16 annas made a rupee). One rupee was a precious amount, especially for journalists who were so poorly paid. My dad used to take us for a treat to the Egmore refreshment room. We looked forward to sponge cake and lemonade fare and spent time moving around watching cars drive into the platform, people alighting and entering – something so much in the past. We watched the trains coming to the platform, the guard blowing a whistle waving a green flag, and the train steaming out.

No idli dosai. English breakfast consisted of two fried eggs, bacon and coffee. Really Expensive. You could have a four-course English lunch soup, a fish dish, meat dish and a dessert. You couldn’t just eat with a fork. The strict British manners were followed with cutlery meant for specific purposes A great favourite, which now may be termed as Anglo Indian, was rice and curry, and the famous Mullagutawny soup, which is really a kind off pepper rasam with some other ingredients put. Even some chicken pieces could be added which you the termed Chicken Mullagtawny soup.

Train travel those days had four classes - first class, in which only the rich and the British travelled The first class was a four-berth compartment; it had an attached bathroom then. The second-class and inter-class depending on the degree of thickness of the cushions; the inter-class where the cushions were very thin. Last but not least, the third class with wooden seats, in which the majority of people travelled by. A third-class compartment would have forty to fifty seats, long wooden benches; it was the cheapest. Any travel meant a holdall, suitcase and a trunk Travelling light was years away. Not far from Egmore station, round the corner, was the Egmore ice factory, which has a history of its own. One rupee was all my mother sent for the day’s marketing, which included meat, fish, vegetables and everything a family needed, except for the rice masala etc.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Coming up: Madras Day, Madras Week

A couple of months before Madras Day and Madras Week, a group of catalysts or coordinators get together to plan activities for the week. The past two or three years, Madras Day has grown to Madras Week and more, with events spilling over into a whole fortnight.

This year, we thought of having two press conferences – the first a month ahead to announce the celebrations and to invite people who are interested to participate, and the second announcing the complete list of programmes. The first press conference is over and the response to what appeared in the newspapers the following day and after has been quite encouraging. Many called though to explore the possibility of tie-ups with the commercial aspect in mind and they were all sweetly discouraged.

For all that, most people are still not aware of what Madras Day and Madras Week are all about. Those who have participated earlier tend not to mark the week in their calendar. Very few take the initiative to do things on their own. One such is Suma Padmanabhan, principal, Asan Memorial School. This time, even before the group of catalysts had met, she had called for a meeting with her staff and students to discuss the celebrations. The other thing is that unlike most school principals I know, Suma is available on a direct telephone line. You call the number and she picks up; if she is not in her seat, nobody picks up. And that’s the way it should be.

I have not received the Asan schedule for Madras Week yet, but Suma has said that the focus this year will be on Madras as a pioneer in education in India. Mr Muthiah, city historian, would simply love that. He keeps saying that at every forum – that Madras is the first city of modern India.

I was also able to convince my good friend Meena Dadha of the Mukti Foundation to be a part of the week’s celebrations. She readily agreed, and her Prakrit Arts in Kotturpuram will have eight Chennai-based artists present ‘Besh, Besh, Besh’, a candid view of life in the city, the simplicity of its people and its tree-lined streets. These are not really the well-known artists, but those whose works are waiting to be seen and appreciated - Rama Suresh, Manisha Raju, Raju Durshettiwar, Nelson, Taygrajan, Usha Devi, N. Ramchandran and Vinay. I managed a coup of sorts by getting Mr Muthiah to agree to inaugurate the exhibition on August 15. Meena’s show will be on for a week.

Relevance of Rajaji, Swatantra Party today

Back in Chennai, the weather continues to be oppressive, although it is not as bad as it was during April-June. There have been no rains as such although the local media does go ga-ga at the slightest drizzle when there is no reason to.

N. S. Venkataraman, who runs the NGO, Nandini Voice for the Deprived, has been doing a lot for society. He stood for the Parliamentary elections, but lost. Not that he lacked support; what he did not have was money and muscle power. And without these two elements, you cannot expect to win an election in India.

Venkataraman always comes up with something interesting. He may have lost the elections but that has not deterred him from carrying on with the same gusto. His NGO and the Indian Liberal Group is organising on August 15 (Independence Day) a meeting in Chennai to discuss the relevance of the Swatantra Party’s philosophy to present times.

The Swatantra Party was founded by Rajaji on August 1,1959. The party does not exist anymore. However, according to Venkataraman, the philosophy enunciated by the Swatantra Party, particularly its vigorous opposition to ‘state capitalism’ and ‘permit licence, quota Raj’ , appear to be well accepted by the Governments in India today. Perhaps, Swatantra Party was ahead of its time, he adds.

The discussion, Venkataraman feels, is timely. With 50 years having passed after the formation of Swatantra Party, it would be a great intellectual exercise for economists, social activists and political thinkers to introspect on the relevance of Swatantra Party’s philosophy and Rajaji’s advocacy of free economy to today’s India, he says.

A few college students will be asked to provide critical analysis on the subject, which will also give an indication as to how the present day youth view Rajaji’s thoughts and Swatantra Party’s philosophy.

Recognising excellence

Although all may not be well with Sri Lankan media and questions continue to be be raised about the government’s treatment of journalists, it is heartening to know that several initiatives are being taken to recognise excellence in the field. One such has been taken by the Asia-Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists (APFEJ), which is currently accepting entries for the 2009 Asia-Pacific Awards for Excellence in Environmental Journalism.

The awards "recognise the efforts of journalists working on environmental issues and to encourage environmental journalism across the region." Interested journalists are asked to submit stories that were published in local media between 1 January and 31 December 2008, by August 31. Submissions can cover or address "any aspect of the environment" in the region or the applicant's country. This work can include scientific research and findings, protected areas, climate change, ecotourism, conservation, sustainable development, eco-friendly alternative products and fuels, environmental education, environmental political issues, threats to the environment, mining, logging, oil extraction and other forms of exploitation of natural resources and social issues related to the environment.

The contest was first introduced in 1990 to promote high quality coverage of environmental issues and acknowledge the work of communication professionals in that field.

APFEJ is the oldest and largest organization of professional environmental journalists and has more than 12,000 members around the world. From 12 members at its
establishment in 1988, APFEJ has grown to encompass 154 members - of which 42 are from within the Asia and Pacific region and 112 outside. The mission of APFEJ to build into a strong, independent and committed to promote excellence in environmental journalism worldwide by supporting environmental journalists specially Asia pacific through Professionalism, Freedom of expression, Social responsibility, environmental justice, Networking and training.

More details on the awards can be viewed on web site.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

All is not well with the media in Sri Lanka

I received an email from Vincent Brossel, Asia-Pacific Desk, Reporters Without Borders, which seems to suggest that all is not well with the media in Sri Lanka. He refers to the International Mission group that includes the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the International Media Support (IMS), the International News Safety Institute (INSI), the International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), and the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC).

Also referring to the fact-finding and advocacy missions made by delegations from the International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka in June 2007 and October 2008, he has drafted an open letter dated 16 July 2009 to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The letter makes it clear that conditions in the island nation are still not favourable for total press freedom. And that, coming after the annihilation of the LTTE, comes as a surprise. Many would have thought that once the LTTE terror was bypassed permanently, Sri Lanka would look ahead with confidence and allow its institutions to grow unfettered. If what Vincent’s mail suggests is correct, it is certainly cause for worry and anguish for the many courageous journalists in that country. I have had the opportunity to interact with student journalists from Sri Lanka and also the management and editors of a couple of leading newspaper chains in Sri Lanka and I have always found them to be extremely warm and thoroughly professional. Let us hope that conditions there improve soon enough and that Sri Lanka returns to being the country that it once was in the years before the 1980s.

Here are excerpts from the latter to the Sri Lankan President:

The International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka is extremely concerned over the
ongoing spate of violent attacks against the media. However, in spite of the military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the deterioration of the press freedom situation in the country has continued. We welcome your recent statement ensuring the safety of Tamil-language media outlets following a series of harrowing attacks and death threats against their personnel. However, we believe that much needs to be done immediately to ensure that Sri Lanka’s journalists and independent news media in Sinhala, Tamil and English enjoy the freedom and safety to which they are entitled in a democracy.

The International Mission would therefore like to propose to you and your Government a 11-point plan to redress the perilous press freedom environment in Sri Lanka:

1. Combat impunity through the creation of a Special Prosecutor’s Office for the investigation of crimes against the media with full autonomy to investigate attacks on and assassinations of journalists and to bring those responsible to justice. Several journalists have been killed since 2007, and yet none of these murders has yet been solved.

2. In accordance with international standards on media freedom and freedom of expression, put in place effective measures to ensure that all journalists can work safely, in particular in areas where local council elections will soon take place such as Jaffna and Vavuniya.

3. Release imprisoned journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and his colleagues B. Jasiharan and V. Vallarmathy, who have been detained since March 2008 under the Emergency Regulations, and were later charged under the 2006 Prevention of Terrorism Act. Withdraw all unjustified complaints and lawsuits brought by the police and
government against journalists and freedom of expression activists and repeal legal provisions which may be used to punish journalists for engaging in legitimate media work, including those found in anti-terrorism legislation.

4. Release the first results of the investigation into the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009.

5. Provide full and unconditional access to the IDP camps for all media in order to report freely and fairly on the reconstruction process since the end of the war. The media can play a vital role in making sure that the reconstruction and reconciliation efforts are genuine and have real impact to bringing lasting peace.

6. Repeal the Press Council Act No. 5 of 1973, which includes powers to fine and/or impose criminal measures, including sentencing journalists, editors and publishers to lengthy prison terms. Instead, allow the media to strengthen the existing self-regulatory mechanism, in accordance with democratic practices.

7. Introduce training for the police, army and the intelligence agencies on freedom of expression and the important role of the media in a democratic society. Since 2007, security forces have been allegedly responsible for kidnapping, beating and threatening at least 30 journalists and media workers.

8. Award financial compensation to journalists who have been arbitrarily detained, beaten or otherwise harassed by security forces.

9. Invite the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom and Expression to visit Sri Lanka, in line with your Government’s commitments to the Human rights Council in 2006.

10. Work with the state-owned media to ensure the immediate end to direct verbal attacks and threats against independent journalists and press freedom activists, which has in particular promoted the unethical spread of accusations portraying the media as LTTE-supporters in a concerted hate campaign that has put several journalists lives in unnecessary danger.

11. Introduce structural legal reforms to create an enabling environment for a free and independent media including by transforming existing state media into independent public service media, with guaranteed editorial independence, by adopting a strong right to information law and by overhauling broadcast regulation to put it in the hands of an independent regulator with a mandate to regulate in the public interest.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Unbelievable scenes in court

It was a planned visit to the family court on the Madras high court premises. A friend of outs was seeking divorce and she wanted somebody with her for moral support. We readily consented. Spending a Monday morning in court is not exactly the best of starts for the week. But we hadn’t bargained for what we saw. The court was jam-packed with lawyers and petitioners and in the corridors you had to jostle to find your way. There were all kinds of scenes. For example, as a woman screamed and pushed her two children toward her husband, asking him to take care of them, and rushed away, another woman wailed miserably. It was clear that all is not well with Indian marriages. Family disputes are on the rise and with nuclear families being the norm and the joint family system almost extinct, God alone knows how healthy the state of Indian marriages are. In the chaotically busy room, it was not hard to imagine why courts in India are overloaded with pending cases. Our friend managed to complete her business and was mighty relieved to come out into the sunshine. However, the story did not end there. Two hours later, she called to say she that had lost her gold chain. She had travelled to the court and back in an autorickshaw and she was convinced that somebody had cleverly snatched her chain on the court premises.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Farewell, MJ

The legend of Michael Jackson seems to be growing all the time. More than a billion people are said to have watched his memorial service that was conducted at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles. According to the LA Times, 1.6 million had sought tickets to attend; in the end, the hall was filled to capacity, with 17,500 inside. The occasion was somber and many celebrities shared their experiences with the King of Pop. Several television channels stopped regular programming for the memorial service. For many, it was an experience of a lifetime.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Landmark judgment signals victory for gays in India

It’s in many ways a turning point for India. The ruling by the Delhi High Court today, which in effect decriminalises homosexuality, is a landmark judgment, especially considering the society we in India live in. There is a Chennai connection here - Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court A. P. Shah was only a few months ago Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. Sources say that he is a judge known for his progressive rulings and with today’s judgment he will win more hearts on that score. Justice Muralidhar was the other judge who teamed with Shah to overturn the gay sex ban.

Interestingly, according to the New York Times, homosexuality has been illegal in India since 1861, when British rulers codified a law prohibiting ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal’. The law, known as Section 377 of India’s penal code, has long been viewed as an archaic holdover from colonialism by its detractors, say writers Heather Timmons and Hari Kumar. Britain legalised homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967, adds the report, but many of its former colonies, including Singapore, Zimbabwe and Malaysia, still retain strict laws against same-sex relations.

India is the world’s largest democracy. People enjoy their freedom here; many misuse it. However, people are bound by social mores, customs and tradition. Although liberalisation in the early 1990s and the IT boom that followed not only opened up the country’s economy but also opened up people’s minds, there is still a large section that adheres to custom and what society considers ‘correct’ behaviour. Looking at today’s judgment in that context, I wonder how much of a change on the ground we will get to see. Will gays and lesbians come out in the open to marry or lead lives together? As the Times report points out, it is not uncommon for gay men and women (in India) to marry heterosexuals and have families, while carrying on secret relationships with members of the same sex. So, will families be jettisoned from now on in favour of such secret relationships? It is not very hard to tell – I would say no. Things will remain pretty much the same.

Will the judgment erase the stigma many associate with same-sex relationships and transgenders? Indeed, in my view, the judgment might not help change the attitude people generally have toward homosexuals, lesbians, hijras or eunuchs. Hijras, unfortunately, are looked down upon, often treated with contempt and derision. Will that attitude change on our streets and public places, on buses and on trains? I doubt it. It’s all well for judges to rule in a courtroom, but things don’t really transform as much on the ground. The learned judges have, of course, based their ruling on the premise of ‘equality before the law’ which Article 14 of the Indian Constitution guarantees, discrimination ‘on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth’ which Article 15 prohibits, and ‘protection of life and personal liberty’, which Article 21 ensures.

Also, there is the acceptability factor among people themselves. The Times report quotes Maulana Abdul Khaliq Madrasi, a vice chancellor of Dar ul-Uloom, the main university for Islamic education in India, as saying that the ruling will “corrupt Indian boys and girls”. Murli Manohar Joshi, the leader of the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has called for an overturning of the ruling. The courts cannot decide such issues, he says. The Wall Street Journal mentions that a grouping of Indian Catholic bishops saying the church doesn't oppose the decision but doesn't support extending rights to marriage rights for gay or lesbian Indians. Though the majority of Indians may not really care – after all, it is an individual decision – and would be happy to see the gays happy, there will be others who will fight to disagree.

Of course, in recent years gay and lesbian relationships have been accepted in India's cities. Last Sunday saw gay Pride Marches in Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore. Kolkata's is coming up this week.

Today is a victory day for the gays, and let’s be happy for them. Let's also hope that the judgment will give many of them new confidence to lead the lives they've always wanted to lead, without fearing public ridicule or being ashamed of themselves.

(Picture shows transsexuals celebrating during the Pride March in Bangalore; courtesy BBC, AFP/Getty Images; photographer Dibyangshu Sarkar.)