Monday, June 28, 2010

When will we ever learn to stop spitting and urinating in public?

How does the culture of people or a community change or evolve? How long does it take and can the change adhere to a certain direction? These are questions sociologists can possibly answer, not laymen like me.

Despite the coming into force of the law banning spitting in public places, it is nauseating to see tens and scores and hundreds of people clear their throats to direct their sputum to points and places they prefer - while walking on the road, from autorickshaws, cars, vans, buses, from balconies and rooftops... I have seen drivers open the windows to let go. All that you can do is to shield yourself or take evasive action when you hear the sound of a throat being cleared or can clearly see a man pursing his lips, all set to take aim and shoot. Strange as it ay seem, I have not seen many women do this in Chennai or elsewhere – probably it is an attitude born of gender as well.

Out on an evening walk today, I stopped counting the number of men I saw spitting on footpaths, on roads, at hedges, at anything in sight. There was little I could do and I wondered where all the law enforcers were. Have they ever fined someone for spitting in Chennai? I doubt it.

And then, on my way back, a most horrendous scene – a youth urinating next to an ironing unit outside an apartment block in Ashok Nagar. I was thinking of the plight of the iron man who would soon come to resume his work, having to bear the plight of the stink and carry on.

Are we a sick society? I think so. What is the point in talking about cleanliness and environment in seminars in 5-star hotels when those who matter and the authorities concerned do nothing to stop such behaviour? Yes, of course, there are no public toilets, but who is to blame for that? If Tamil Nadu is such a progressive state where are the public toilets in Chennai, the capital? And the few that there are, are they in a state of use at all?

And what about getting people to stop spitting? Is the government doing anything about it? If the same people don’t spit when in Singapore why do they do it here and with such impunity?

Only questions. No answers. There are times when you feel like just giving up. I feel that way now.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The romance of college days in Calcutta and The Telegraph newspaper

Well, the 1980s were not the 1970s anymore. The romance of the earlier decades had withered and dried. There was of course a lot to look forward to; most youngsters of my age then were on the threshold of a whole new career, a whole new life. We had bid goodbye to school. As with most people, schooldays were some of the best days of my life as well. Now we were in college and there was the sense of freedom and independence and authority. Just what the Charms cigarette advertisement portrayed.

We puffed many of those as we did No. 10, which sold very well in those days. Wonder whether they still sell the brand in Kolkata now. In the Calcutta of old, there was also Capstan Filter Kings, a favourite among college students, Wills Flake and Regent, brands I’m sure must be no more. We puffed a lot of those as well; sometimes even Capstan Plain. The hangover of the heady Seventies had not left us. Now we were older and blossoming into young men and knew what we wanted. And there was hardly anybody to come in our way.

Like some of my close friends, I chose to do commerce in college. Classes at St Xavier’s began at 6 in the morning, which meant I had to leave home by 5.30 after a glass of hot milk. Most days the tram would take me to Park Street and I would walk the last kilometre to the college front gate. On cold wintry days I’d stop by at a roadside shop to buy a cigarette and puff on it till I reached college. On other days, Joydip Lahiri would pick me up in his light green Ambassador. Few drove to college in a car those days; Joydip was one and I was lucky he offered to pick me up many a time. I would wait at the Gurusaday Road bus stop and wait to catch a glimpse of his car as it cleared the bend afar and scorched the road at that hour. We would chat non-stop and even before we knew it we would have reached the rear gate at Xavier’s.

One of our classmates was Mudar Patherya, a budding sports writer, and he would bring with him everyday a copy of The Telegraph. The Telegraph was a newcomer in those parts (I mean eastern India) and very few of us had heard of it or read its pages. Mudar was writing for the paper and Sportsworld, both publications from the Ananda Bazar stable.

For years, or rather for more than a century, The Statesman had ruled the roost in the east and it was inconceivable that another newspaper would come along to offer something different. I still remember my father and many of his generation spending the morning hours on a holiday poring over The Statesman, digesting every word. On weekdays, when they left for work early, they would spend the evenings reading the paper. But Saturdays and Sundays were The Statesman days. The newspaper had a Personal column and several other columns you do not find in newspapers even today. Such as greetings from one reader to another; birthday and wedding wishes; invitations to private parties etc. Its editorial page was once considered the best among Indian newspapers. I remember reading William Safire’s London Dateline column, and articles by M. Krishnan on flora, fauna and wildlife. Brilliant columns both.

The Telegraph not only brought a whiff of fresh air, in terms of treatment of stories and more feature articles, under M.J. Akbar it also flourished and soon began giving The Statesman a run for its money. The fact was that the younger crowd got hooked to the newcomer, a generation The Statesman was unable to woo. It is no surprise that, today, that younger generation which grew reading The Telegraph has made it the newspaper of choice. It is another matter whether The Times of India or Hindustan Times has made an impact, but The Telegraph continues to be the No. 1 daily in Kolkata.

As far as The Statesman is concerned, it is a sad story indeed. What a fall from its high citadel! All they have now are very few stars (if you can call them that) such as Sam Rajappa, the paper’s senior special correspondent in Madras for many years who is now overseeing the group’s journalism course. There is no second rung or new-generation rung to take it forward, it seems. I haven’t seen a copy of the newspaper in months, the last time was a couple of years ago, and the number of pages had reduced considerably, the print quality was poor and it had in all reckoning given up the fight. Something my father and those of his generation, even mine to an extent, would never ever have quite imagined.

That is the reason I see The Telegraph as very special. It had begun to blossom even as we were blossoming ourselves. Memories of reading the paper or bits of it in the classroom are still vivid. We would do it with Father Jorris (it was said he had played football for Belgium in the Olympics) or Father Maliyakel noticing. Or one of us would carry it with us on our way to the chai shop outside where we’d decide plans for the day - a movie somewhere or a visit to the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club or just a walk down Park Street and Chowringhee to get to see some of the most beautiful young girls in India and to find out sometimes if fortune favoured the brave. Study hardly mattered.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Thanks to Internet, newspaper reading habits are changing; but the printed paper still has its charms

My better half has just returned after a visit to the United Kingdom. When she arrived at the airport, her face as radiant as ever despite all the travel, and I asked her whether she had missed Chennai (she had been away for almost two months), she coolly drawled that she hadn’t. She hadn’t missed Chennai at all; it was only her friends and relatives here she had missed. Given half a chance, she looked set to make another trip again. Later, she whispered to me as if revealing a secret that she wouldn’t mind settling down in the U.K. if only she could take along with her all the people she loved ever so dearly.

Oh to be in England, now that April is there… does that ring a bell? Well, that may be one of those unforgettable lines in English poetry but who wouldn’t ever agree! There’s quite nothing like the English countryside and no city quite like London. No garbage, no stench, lovely roads, greenery all around, ducks and swans in lakes and ponds, hardly the pressure of population, people out on their walks, dogs in tow… you could go on and on about England. After visits to London, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Nottingham, Peterborough and Cardiff, my wife had become much more confident than she ever was, and quite an expert photographer, having taken some wonderful picture-postcard shots of the English countryside.

She’s still to complete describing her varied experiences, but one of the things she mentioned, something I was particularly interested in, was about the newspaper reading habits of people she had met and stayed with. Well, most people in England seem to make do by reading newspapers online. Indeed, in some families, it is a ritual with the early morning coffee or tea. Her niece, with two young children to mother, cannot start her day without logging on to her favourite newspaper Web sites, some of them local. With the e-paper readily available without paying a pie, it is almost as good as being in Chennai or Mumbai or Thiruvananthapuram. So, it isn’t really empty talk about newspapers having an awfully hard time in the developed world. For all that, there are still local newspapers such as the Nottingham Post or the London Evening Standard doing fairly well. She was kind enough to get me copies of each, and what I first noticed was the number of pages – 72. Despite the newsprint prices skyrocketing worldwide, mind you.

Compare that with India. A broad sweep of the past two decades shows how the face of the media has rapidly changed in India and yet how old habits like reading the newspaper have gained ground. When CNN brought the Gulf War to millions of viewers in India in the early 1990s, many had prophesied the beginning of the end of newspapers. Today, almost 20 years later, the newspaper industry is flourishing in India; it is the second largest in the world, after China. Currently, India's print media is estimated to reach more than 220 million people. However, in a country of more than one billion people, about 360 million literate Indians do not subscribe to a newspaper. So, where really is the comparison between India and developed countries like the U.K.?

A FICCI- PricewaterhouseCoopers estimate says that India’s print industry would grow from 162 billion rupees or $3.38 billion (2008) to 213 billion rupees or $4.44 billion in 2013. The relative share of newspaper and magazine publishing (87%) is not likely to change, says the report. The advertising segment, the report points out, will grow at 16%, compared to growth in circulation revenues of 8%. Circulation revenues are set to touch Rs 62 billion (USD 1.3 billion) in 2012, from Rs 58 billion (USD 1.2 billion) in 2008. The magazine publishing market is expected to reach Rs 29 billion (USD 604 million) in 2013 (Rs.21 billion, USD 438 million in 2008). Internet advertising is projected to grow by 32%, touching Rs 20 billion (USD 417 million) in 2013, from Rs 5 billion (USD 104 million) in 2008, increasing its share of the advertising pie to 5.5%.

Statistics are, of course, boring. But they do point to reality. Except for the elite classes, people who own a computer at home, or have access to one in office, reading newspapers online is just not possible for Indians. The reason the newspaper industry here is flourishing.

In recent weeks I have made reading newspapers online a habit. I'm particularly happy to read The Telegraph, Kolkata. Will tell you why later... But, yes, reading online does not match the charm of holding a newspaper nestled in an armchair, sometimes smelling its pages, and marking out articles you wish to reserve for your scrapbook.

Friday, June 18, 2010

World Cup Football: When Kempes, Luque, Rossi and Maradona created magic... and the legend of Milla

On a day when the mighty Germans crash-landed at Port Elizabeth, courtesy Serbia, I am reminded of that awesome German team captained by Lothar Matthaus, the versatile midfield sweeper who led the Germans to victory in the 1990 World Cup. Matthaus played in five World Cups, probably the most capped German football player of all time. But what a dream team he had. And remember, it was West Germany in 1990 – not the unified team of today. There was Andreas Brehme, Thomas Hassler, Rudi Voller, Karl-Heinz Riedle, Thomas Berthold and Jurgen Klinsmann, each a possible match winner.

The seniors have all gone and today’s German team, with the exception of Klose, Podolski and another, are all new faces. It is a young team with young blood but they failed to deliver today and, according to a BBC report, the German coach is said to have been devastated by the loss. Well, perhaps from this new team will arise some stars, we can never tell. But for Germany, it’s a major blow after Klose was red-carded – a loss after 1986 in the early rounds of a World Cup is indeed something for a three-time winner.

Talking of stars, what is any World Cup Football tournament without stars? If the India-England Test series of 1971-72 led me to the charms of listening to cricket commentary on the radio, it was the World Cup of 1978 that got me into a tizzy over football (not that the Calcutta Senior Division League didn’t). And who wouldn’t, after hearing of the exploits of two gentlemen called Mario Kempes and Leopold Luque! Kempes, with his long locks and devastating runs, made it his World Cup, scoring six times, including a brace in the final. Luque, with flowing mane, though not as long as Kempes’, scored four goals in the tournament and caught the eye with incisive raids mainly down the left flank. Many a time it would seem defenders were making way as he weaved his way in and out at will, crossing the ball into the penalty area often to find Kempes within striking distance.

In 1982, it was Italy’s Poalo Rossi who scored six goals to win the Golden Boot, three of them coming in a shock win over Brazil, a memorable hat-trick. Maradona played in this World Cup as well, but he was to make a mark only in 1986 – with two goals that will never fade from public memory. Both the goals were scored in the same match against England (the game was played against the background of the Falklands War between Argentina and the U.K.). One was the ‘Hand of God’ goal (the ball had struck his hand before he scored) and the other was voted ‘goal of the century’ in a poll conducted by FIFA later. It was a dream run, perhaps never to be seen again, that saw Maradona getting past five or six English players, including the goalkeeper, Peter Shilton. It’s a tough ask from even a dribbler of the calibre of Messi.

The thrills of the World Cup endured into its next edition in Italy. Maradona had by then passed his prime and it was not the likes of him or Kempes or Rossi who thrilled. Who would ever have given a Cameroon player a chance to create some wondrous romance! He was probably nearing 40, an age when most footballers would have hung up their boots. But thankfully, Roger Milla didn’t, and wasn’t the whole world thankful for it! Two of his early goals came against Romania. The interesting thing with Milla was that he would celebrate every goal of his with a lovely little jig near the flagpole. There seemed to be an aura about him and I remember how a bunch of us left a wedding reception early to catch Milla play against Columbia. And he didn’t disappoint – two of his goals came in extra time and carried Cameroon into the quarters.

Milla turned into a legend and if you think I’m joking watch the Coca Cola advertisement that is being telecast during the Cup matches this year. You’ll find the ever-smiling Milla with one of his front teeth missing. In 1990, Cameroon rode on the Milla legend to almost threaten England. It was Milla again who came in as substitute to score and draw level. But then dreams have to end sometime. Four years later, Milla appeared fro Cameroon again, and scored one last time in a World Cup (against Russia) before his team was knocked out.

Watch the Coca Cola ad and when you have the time, tune into YouTube to catch those delightful Milla goals of yesteryear.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's the World Cup... and memories of the Calcutta football league come alive

I love it when it’s time for World Cup Football. Apart from some lovely recent memories of World Cup matches, every time the tournament arrives it takes me back to my boyhood, when I used to be an avid follower of the First Division football matches in Calcutta. During the league, the matches would be played in the late afternoon, and commentary would begin around 4.15 on All India Radio. Only three teams mattered to most Calcuttans then – East Bengal whose fan I was, Mohun Bagan and Mohameddan Sporting, the first two more than Sporting. There were, of course, other top teams such as Tollygunge Agragami, Howrah Union and Sporting Union (I forget the other names) but they didn’t really matter – you would finally expect either East Bengal or Mohun Bagan to win the league. The same went for the IFA Shield too.

In school, there was a clear divide between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan supporters. There would not only be vivid descriptions of matches and the skills of the star players but also heated arguments about who was the better team. Three of my neighbours, classmates all of us, were ardent Mohun Bagan supporters and I remember in the early 1980s when television had arrived, I would go next door to watch East Bengal-Mohun Bagan encounters (television came to our home later), keeping my emotions under check as I was surrounded by Bagan supporters.

Cricket even then was very popular. Sunil Gavaskar was the undisputed king and there would be endless discussions about him, Salim Durrani (he would hit sixers on demand), Bishen Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna, Venkat, Engineer, later Kirmani…. almost an endless list. But when spring and summer arrived, it was football that brought many of us boys to the radio in the 1970s.

Football was a working class game and Calcutta had followers in the thousands; it’s the same even today although there are no stars like of old. I was hooked to radio commentary also because of commentators such as Ashish Ray (is he in London now?) who, with his perfect diction and flawless English, made matches even more memorable and I’m sure even created his own fan club. In cricket, it was Anand Setalwad and Suresh Suraiya.

And then there were the stars. What are games and tournaments and championships without stars anyway? I had no favourite as such; there were so many of them you enjoyed watching on the field. They were our own Maradonas and Messis (there can only be one Pele). On top of my list I would place Surajit Sengupta, a wily left-winger, a dazzler with the ball. Even the best defenders such as Subroto Bhattacharya (served Mohun Bagan during most of his career) found him hot to handle. I was once fortunate in seeing him firsthand play five-a-side football at the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club and there was one chip shot I remember he essayed with effortless ease – it sailed past a solid line of defence and landed at the foot of the striker. I don’t remember whether a goal was scored, but that chip by Surajit was sheer poetry.

I would place Md Habib very close to Surajit. I have never seen Habib play; only listened to his exploits on radio. But it was clear he was a master strategist, a craftsman, and the opposition respected him. Habib and his younger brother Akbar (wonder where they are now), together with Subhash Bhowmick, formed at one time in the 1970s the main striking duo for East Bengal. The brothers worked in tandem and many a time found the net in league and IFA Shield matches. This was long before the likes of Shabbir Ali and Shyam Thapa of the bicycle kick fame (in 1979, when I was a teenager, Thapa’s bicycle kick goal against East Bengal gave Mohun Bagan the IFA Shield that year).

Then there was Bhowmick, that mercurial striker who even my sister seemed to know. He switched between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan all through his career, but on his day he could bulldoze through any defence. I still remember a picture that appeared in The Statesman of Md Nayeem (Md Sporting), a great defender, trying to halt Bhowmick’s progress, but in vain as it turned out. Bhowmick went on to turn coach and in recent years came under the scanner for being caught red-handed accepting a bribe. But my memories of him will always remain the man who posed a threat to any defence and could score goals almost at will.

Gautam Sarkar and Pintu Choudhury were great half-backs or linkmen as they used to be called in those days. Ball players both, they were instrumental in turning the tide of many a game, feeding the forwards while at the same time retaining possession of the midfield. Sometimes, you wonder why India never figures in the World Cup. All that you hear are the heydays of Chunni Goswami and P.K. Banerjee. I used to wonder then, when there seemed to be a surfeit of such footballers, most of them from Bengal. There was Inder Singh of JCT Mills, Phagwara (Punjab), of course, and Harjinder Singh, and may be a couple of Goan players (I can’t recall the names now), but Bengal’s contribution to Indian football in those years was just extraordinary.

There were several other players who made a mark on the playing fields of Calcutta in the 1970s and early 1980s, players such as Swapan Senguta and Ulaganathan, speedy wingers both. Their runs down the flank at times mesmerised spectators and defenders alike and I really don’t know whether the Kolkata league as it must be now called is fortunate to see their likes now. It must be said that the country's top footballers made a beeline for Calcutta then, the Mecca of football, to try and make a mark. Most did, some left without a leaving a trace.

The change in the football scene in Calcutta began in the early 1980s when two Iranians, Majid Bhaskar and Jamshed Nassiri, arrived. They played for East Bengal initially. Majid was a master craftsman and it was said that he played for Iran in the World Cup. In any case, he weaved magic on the field and both these Iranians were the forerunners to other imports to the league, including the Nigerians. Heard of Chima Okerie who ended up playing for all the three major clubs? Sadly though, after the advent of Majid, Jamshed and Chima, football was quite never the same in Calcutta or Kolkata. I haven’t heard of homegrown legends in years. More about the World Cup later.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Right to Education Act: Practicable? Or, is it "herding children together in the name of education"?

It seems small coincidence that no sooner did I write about a retired railway employee’s passion for contributing to poor schoolchildren than The New Indian Express today devoted five full pages to ‘Children and the road to empowerment’. Several stories make up the feature, but what struck me was that many points mentioned in the stories matched exactly with what Balasubramaniam has been trying to highlight all along.

The Right to Education Act, passed in April this year, talks about providing free education to all children ages 6 to 14, including children with disabilities (the Act does not say anything about children up to 6 years of age). The Express points out there are 9.2 million children in this age group who do not go to school. Significantly, the Act makes a provision that from the coming year, 25 percent seats in all schools, government as well as private, must be set aside for children from weaker sections of society. How this will translate on the ground has to be seen – as somebody told me today how can you straightaway bring children from two extreme ends of the spectrum together! I agree.

There are many things that seem impracticable. For instance, according to the Act, it is the duty of the local government or authority to establish schools in all neighbourhoods within three years of the commencement of the Act. Students must have access to school within one km of their homes. Is this really possible? What we haven’t been able to do in more than 60 years of Independence, are we going to achieve in three years?

If the Act talks of free education, what about expenses incurred by each school? How much will the government bear? No child can be denied admission for lack of age proof, says the Act, and warns of fines of a minimum of Rs 25,000 if capitation fee or any such fee is demanded by the school.

Then, there are various norms schools have to fulfill to be considered eligible to be recognised. This means having at least one teacher in a class, separate toilets for boys and girls, teaching equipment, a playground, a library, drinking water, a kitchen shed for mid-day meals… (read the previous blog and see how all this matches with what Subramaniam has been saying). Teachers must possess minimum qualifications prescribed; the student teacher ration must not exceed 30:1 (Balasubramaniam says 1:25 is ideal).

The overall cost for the programme, according to the Express report, will be Rs 1.71 lakh crore (how many millions of rupees is that?). Lakhs of teachers will have to be recruited. The Act debars teaches from being deputed for any work other than for decennial census and elections. No private tuitions please, says the Act.

Overall, the objective seems to be to make schools responsible and responsive to children’s needs, to provide every child an opportunity to study and come up in life. Whether all this is really possible in our country is difficult to tell. Who will ensure the rules are implemented and followed? Will all private schools agree to admitting children from weaker sections? Will the quality of education suffer f this happens? These are hard questions.

Chennai’s veteran educationist Mrs Y.G. Partahsarathy, dean and director of the Padma Seshadri group of schools, terms the whole exercise as “herding children together in the name of education.” Children can’t just be “plunged into school”, she says in a report. She is more for teaching children in rural India basic aspects first, such as cleanliness and hygiene. This obviously seems to practical thing to do. But our political system and government functions differently.

Mrs Parthasarathy may have been bold to have said all that (she is usually quite outspoken), but we need many more views from academicians, principals, teachers and parents across the country before the Act is implemented. Healthy debate is necessary for progress. Sadly, there is very little of it happening in our country. Even the TV talk shows have become jarring with the same people appearing all the time. Education of children is so very vital for India and it is time that those who matter aired their views about the Right to Education Act in the open.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A retired railway employee champions the cause of poor children in government schools

Sixty-six-year-old N. Subramaniam, resident of Virugambakkam, does a lot of social work for children. He has turned out to be a champion of children studying in village panchayat union elementary schools and corporation and municipality schools.

Children with “gifted parents” are able to avail good education in better private elite schools, he says, adding that they have talented teachers, separate teachers for each subject, neat classrooms with individual chairs and tables, a clean environment, a playground, a library, and recourse to extra-curricular activity. Such children are “blessed”, he says, pointing to the sad condition of children from poor families studying in village panchayat union elementary schools and corporation and municipality primary schools.

These poor children do not have proper clothes to wear, and sufficient, timely or nutritious food to eat. There is no study material available. Although the government has allotted funds to extend various kinds of facilities to improve the condition of the poor children (free education, dresses, midday meals, text books and note books), the concessions hardly reach the children in the manner desired, he says. Sadly, the parents of children in class I (there is no pre-KG, LKG and UKG for them) do not take adequate care of education due to ignorance coupled with poverty.

According to Subramaniam, the teacher-child ratio fixed by the government is 1:40. For example, in a village school with a student strength of around 80 there are usually only two teachers. One would be on leave, leaving the other to handle the 80 students of various standards with different subjects, a practically impossible task. He is for reducing the ratio to 1:20 or 1:25.

During activity-based learning sessions, children sit on the floor as do teachers; the mats they use get worn out soon. To make matters worse, there is lack of drinking water and no proper toilets. Girls suffer badly. Many of such schools are converted into shelters for the homeless during natural calamities and during such days the children do not have any classes. Then, unruly elements take over the premises.

The teachers are not only overburdened with work, they are used to conduct surveys and pitch in for election work etc. The teachers are not well paid either and thus are forced to do additional work.

Subramaniam strongly feels the government has a social responsibility to improve the condition of government schools, especially when students in several of these schools perform very well. Ministers, MPs and MLAs must take time to step into these schools and set right deficiencies/problems, he says.

I have written about Subramaniam’s efforts earlier and tried to highlight the good work he has been doing. If only we had many more Subramaniams who feel the same way and help poor students with free books and stationery on a regular basis. Subramaniam has been silently doing all that ever since he retired from the Railways. May he continue the good work.

Friday, June 11, 2010

After the heady 1970s, Pauls Press announces closure and leaves many distraught

It turned out to be quite a moving story really – the closure of Pauls Press. I read the story thanks to a colleague of mine at WAN-IFRA who sent it to me. The article that had appeared in a recent issue of Indian Printer & Publisher.

It was in 1975 (the heady Seventies) that Rajinder Paul established Pauls Press, the year his daughter, Sonal, was born. He was producing a small theatre magazine called Enact. Recalling those days in the article, his wife Sunita talks about the days of letterpress printing, with hand-composed text using metal type. Offset printing was just about making an appearance in Delhi, she writes. The next revolution in printing – DtP – was waiting to arrive.

Those were indeed heady times, as Sunita reminisces, and at Pauls Press there was the special flavour of debate and tea and art and politics. For me, the 1970s marked heady days in school with some absolutely charming teachers, Rajesh Khanna films and Kishore Kumar songs. But all good stories have to change some day. And that day in this case wasn’t too far away.

Rajinder was a victim of degenerative rheumatoid arthritis. He closed Enact, unable to run after advertisements. Nine years later, he was no more. But he had left behind tonnes of goodwill in the printing world. Sunita now took up the challenge of not only facing the world bravely but also took charge of the press her husband had started. Life went along and the press was perhaps doing fairly well when Sonal joined the business, in 2002. Things improved dramatically and went on an even keel till 2007.

And then suddenly, unable to keep pace with the dramatic changes in the printing world as well as work ethic, Pauls Press had to cut costs and try and survive. As Sunita writes, the economic recession of 2009 was “the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. We found ourselves to be a dinosaur within a span of 20 years in the new technology-intensive industry and decided we deserved extinction…” Sure, they were unwilling to compromise on quality and somehow the old joys of working had all disappeared.

On March 31 this year, Pauls Press formally announced closure, but kept half a door open for reopening some time. There were several letters of deep regret – from well-wishers and those who had worked closely with Rajinder, Sunita and Sonal over the years. One letter from Subhasis Ganguly of the Pearson India Group sums it all: “I am really feeling depressed. I still look forward to those long coffee sessions, debates, scheduling, breaking our heads for small or even minute details…There is a deep pain in the core of my heart. I will miss you. Now no one will care anymore whether there is a typo on page x or the font size of chapter headings differs by one point…

Reading the story, I could even feel the way Paul Press must have functioned during those heady days. What a pity the good old days can never come back! I hope some day Sunita and Sonal are able to bring life back to the press set up by Rajinder. Of course, it will never be the heady days of the Seventies again (those years can never come back). Even so, it will mean much.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

When a 'rogue' autorickshaw driver in Chennai met his match

Well, surprisingly, I received a couple of calls from people who happened to read my blog about politeness and graciousness. They seemed to suggest that I was just going overboard and that in today’s world there was really no place for all the old values of life. Effectively, they were telling me not to take things to heart. I told them that as far as I was concerned, values and principles in life never got out of fashion… And the conversation ended there, with both of them having given up on me. So, let’s move on…

The other evening, I got a call from a friend of mine, a Bengali who had in recent years made Chennai her home. She sounded all flustered and desperate, and I wondered what the problem was. It turned out to be quite some problem. Apparently, her partner, a writer, had taken an autorickshaw in the Kilpauk area and had hardly settled down inside the vehicle when he realised that the driver was literally taking him for a ride – a dangerous one at that, speeding and swerving against oncoming traffic.

Startled, the writer told the driver to stop, that he did not wish to be ferried this way. Here, I did not get the story very clear. But what I understood was that once the writer got down, the driver followed him to a fruit stall, demanded money and when the passenger refused, slapped him in front of all those present. Not a soul ventured to help, although some vendors might have known the writer as he was a regular customer. His spectacles broke; it was an expensive frame, and more than anything, the writer had never bargained for such an insult. He was shell-shocked.

The girl was brave and told me she was determined to get the driver caught and punished. The local police station had not properly registered an FIR. I put her on to a newspaper editor I knew and the story appeared the following day, complete with the name of the police station and inspector. Fortunately, the writer had noted the autorickshaw number.

The report had the desired result. Although attempts were initially made by the police to shirk the issue stating that the vehicle number noted was perhaps not the right one, eventually efforts were made to trace the autorickshaw in question.

For a while I never heard the end of the story. Today, I received an email from the young woman, a copy editor, saying that the rogue driver was finally caught by the police and that her friend, the writer, was summoned to the police station to identify him. The driver was booked under some section of the IPC and in all probability he may get out sooner than you can say Jack Robinson.

However, the moral of the story is that if we as citizens can be as brave as the writer couple, things can change in India. How many of us go to a police station to register a complaint? How many are keen to press for justice and seek finality to cases such as this? Very, very few. Of course, knowing somebody helps, especially if he or she is an editor or reporter in a newspaper. But I think the larger issue here is facing the challenge head-on and ensuring that culprits do not go scot-free.

That evening, the young woman said she hated such a place where even onlookers did not come forward to help. She had decided to leave the city and go to Kolkata where she belonged. Now, after the guilty was punished, at least seemingly so, I wonder whether she has changed her mind about Chennai. It might be worth her while to think whether such ‘justice’ would have been possible in other cities in India. If you asked me, I’d say no.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Where is the politeness, graciousness of the past?

I’ve often wondered why many people, or most, prefer to avoid phone calls when they please. Of course, it’s nothing new at all. How many times have you tried to reach out to someone in an office only to be told that he or she is in a meeting. You leave your number and expect to be called back later, but that invariably never happens.

It’s especially distressing when people whom you know and trust behave indifferently when they choose to and are bothered in the least about etiquette or manners. You expect them to be the sort of person you are and when they behave the way they do it leaves more than a sour taste in the mouth.

I have often experienced this and every time I hope that somebody will turn out different, he or she goes on to prove me wrong. The sad part is that there are very few in today’s world who bother to acknowledge what you have done for them, who are grateful for small gestures and offerings of help. All that is conveniently forgotten, and in a hurry, too.

One person had the chutzpah to retort once: “You call that help? What kind of help have you done for me?” Another chose to suddenly cut off all links. The stock reply was she was too busy for words and had hardly any time for herself. Text messages evoked no response. Apparently, she would respond only if she wished to, which was hardly ever. There were assurances of “call you back later”, but they were all empty promises, meaningless words. Yet another person, a journalist to boot, would text about a story that was published, for me to read and comment, but would choose not to respond to other things when she felt like. And, yes, there are other journos who just do not bother to reply to emails sent to tip them off about possible stories - not even an acknowledgment.

Ironically, you’d fine these very people reaching out to you, the moment they needed instant help. Strange indeed, and sad, are the ways of today's world. How I yearn for the politeness and graciousness of the past!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Do we really need a public holiday for all religious festivals? Is this the way we hope to become a developed country?

I became a fan of Mr Subroto Bagchi, who calls himself Gardner, MindTree Ltd (he founded the organisation), ever since I read his ‘Go kiss the world’ speech (refer to my earlier blog). In a recent keynote address at a conference organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (Southern Region), Mr Bagchi made a very pertinent statement – that by 2014 India would overtake the GDP of Japan and that most Indians had just no idea about it.
According to him, 2014 will be significant because for the first time India will be one of the top four richest countries in the whole world. And what will happen after 2014? It will mark the beginning of a journey towards India finally becoming a developed country. He added another profound statement: For the first time in thousands of years, to be poor in this country would not mean you did not have respectability.
Mr Bagchi said that access to a cell phone and micro-finance had changed the Indian landscape. “Give a poor person a cell phone, funds, information… and the whole negotiating platform changes. The acceleration will happen in the next 10 years. It has not been comprehended even by economists, and when that happens, patronage from government and industry will cease. In that context, the discussion about inclusive growth will shift – from caste to regions,” he said, referring to increasing amounts of national space – in Kashmir, North East, Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – that was becoming non-governable.
Mr Bagchi cautioned about four major things coming in the way of progress – politicians, businessmen, bureaucracy and society. The politician wants to succeed at all cost. “Then you lose a sense of appropriateness. Politicians are emperors whom CII cannot reform; only the emperor must choose to be reformed by self-regulation,” he quipped. Businessmen trivialised issues. Bureaucrats had lost the right to govern. And society? “Does society have a sense of purpose? Because society breeds the politician, businessman and government servant.
The broad subject was inclusiveness and Mr Bagchi was clear that inclusiveness was not about caste, jobs and reservation. “It simply means that you create value for people twice removed from you without a sense of quid pro quo. Society needs to understand that our future generations need to be secure, then we will do what it takes to shift from this narrow conversation to building a developed country, which for the first time is staring at you in the face, desperate to be taken, created. We have 10-15 years to make it happen and for the first time there is no foreign hand to be blamed. It’s a never-before time. India’s time has come… the clock is ticking.”
It wasn’t as moving a speech or prose as his ‘Go Kiss the world’ effort. But, yes, Mr Bagchi did set me thinking. For one, I am determined to watch out for 2014. Perhaps India’s GDP may after all cross that of Japan. But the larger question is: will India be able to deliver thereafter? Not in terms of numbers, but in terms of discipline, honesty, sincerity and commitment to achieving goals?
Look at how easily we shirk work. I had some work at the local post office the other day. When I reached, I found the wooden doors closed. There were about 20-odd people waiting. Nobody seemed to have a clue as to why the post office was closed. I looked around for a notice of any sort. But there was none. I tried to think of a possible holiday, but my head went blank. A few others came strolling in, some looked at their watches. It was well past 9am; on any other day the post office would have been open. Suddenly, a wizened old man came out at a fast pace from inside the premises. He seemed to have a hunch. There was a diary in his hand and probably he had consulted it. I looked quizzically at him. “Buddha Poornima,” he mumbled and went his way.
Now, do we really need a central government public holiday for Buddha Poornima? I can understand in regions or states where you have a large population of Buddhists. But India has no such, except perhaps Himachal Pradesh. How many people would have had some urgent work at the post office and returned disappointed? How much money would have been lost in terms of business transacted? The question is not about Buddha Poornima alone – there are several other festivals that really need no public holiday. Mahavir Jayanti is another I can think of immediately. Irrespective of religion, there are many festivals that can be celebrated by those who want to, but is there need for a public holiday? It’s time those governing our country (politicians and bureaucrats) thought about this seriously. Wasting 24 hours in the name of a public holiday declared to celebrate a religious festival is not going to aid the country’s progress.