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.