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.