Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Forget the Radia tapes, there's so much more to life...

It’s sad to know how corrupt our countrymen and women have become, sad to learn that the sleaze factor exists almost everywhere (it’s hard to find an institution not tainted by it), sad to realise that people you look up to or consider credible are not really above board, and sad to find no way to get out of the morass of corruption and unethical practices that is slowly drawing in even the honourable men and women. However, in the midst of all the gloom, there are still several things to cheer about. And one source that provides a balm or more than adequate recompense for what we have lost is Nature.

I live in an old colony built by the Tamil Nadu Housing Board, built during the Emergency. So, the buildings are made of sterner stuff and have withstood the ravages of time admirably well. Nowadays, of course, there is talk among residents in some blocks of getting builders to demolish the buildings and erect new ones. The attraction is not only a new and larger house, you get money, and also rent for the period you have to vacate and stay elsewhere. Many old buildings in the Mambalam-KK Nagar area have vanished and new apartment blocks have risen in their place. I somehow dread the thought of buildings in my colony being knocked down. That would seem absurd, judging by the returns. Forget about sentiment, what’s wrong with you, is what most people will tell me.

However, the reason is not really sentiment. It’s Nature. Inside the sprawling colony, especially in the rear part, are numerous trees and plants of all shapes and sizes. The mango, neem, gulmohar, banyan, laburnum, tamarind and champak trees (there’s one teak tree as well) not only provide shade and quiet but they are also home to a wholly different world that lives in its branches, stems and leaves. Among birds, there’s a variety – crows, ravens, woodpeckers, pheasants, mynahs and cuckoos. On a sunny day, you see butterflies flitting in and out of plants, red ants, black ants, snails, leeches… There’s even a monkey who made the treetops his abode for a while, but left when a few ‘I-know-it-all’ residents frightened him away.

The squirrels are among the friendliest lot. They scurry around for scraps of food, build nests, chase one another on the ground and on branches, and squeak the loudest. A few stray dogs and cats have also made the colony home. They lead quiet lives and don’t intrude into people’s lives. They are up for adoption; for example, I’ve adopted three dogs, one of whom accompanied me to the medical store yesterday. A few years ago, there were quite a few mongooses and their screeches would drown all other sound and jerk you up to attention. Perhaps there were snakes too then.

If you care to observe their world closely, the animal world that is, you will be surprised to find how they all live in harmony. Not perfect harmony, there are the usual fights and making-ups, there are territories that must be respected or won and lost, there are rules about respect for the elders, even how to welcome guests or orphans… You are not likely to find corruption and unethical practices here. Yes, might is right, and the law of Nature and the jungle, if you like, prevails, but despite that, there is an observance of natural law, there is credibility to occurrences, and there are lessons to be learnt.

Indeed, there’s so much you can learn from Nature. The emotional high you get from it is exceptional; perhaps only love (in its pure, unadulterated, unconditional form) can equal such a thrill. There’s no place for the Radia tapes and rotten politics in the world of Nature. Sometimes, it’s such a relief knowing there’s so much more to life than even newspapers, television and headlines.

The picture shows a squirrel and a crow sharing rice grains, just outside my bedroom window.

Monday, November 29, 2010

When Lakshman Shruti brought alive an old shooting floor at LV Prasad Studios

Well, it was quite a magical night at the LV Prasad Studios, the last Saturday this month.
After the launch of the Namma Arcot Road initiative on October 2 at Hotel Green Park, which had Mrs Y.G. Parthasarathy, dean and director, PSBB Group of Schools, inuagurating and quite a few eminent citizens of Chennai in attendance, including S. Muthiah, the city chronicler, its coordinators have organised two very successful events.

The last Saturday in October saw a heritage walk at the LV Prasad Studios, with the LV Prasad Film & Television Academy director, K. Hariharan, taking visitors on a tour of the shooting floors, sets, editing rooms et al.

This time (November 27), it was musical rhapsody if you like. There was only standing space and nobody really left until the end. For it was a scintillating performance by the Lakshman Sruthi orchestra. Members of the well-known band regaled a receptive audience with a medley of songs, old and new.

Youngsters, especially some of the students of the L.V. Prasad Film & TV Academy, danced to the music as catchy songs from Endhiran and other films were sung. If a recent hit number had the young freaking out, an old melody had everybody listening in rapt attention. A few from the audience also impressed at the mike, especially Aditya, a differently-able person who sang ‘O shanti shanti’ from the film Vaaranam Aayiram.

The highlight, however, was a virtuoso solo performance by drummer Surendran who had the audience seeking an encore (http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/video/video.php?v=173694322658003&comments).

The stage was set up on an old shooting floor where many film scenes featuring MGR and other leading actors had been shot. Ten minutes into the show and the seats were all full; more chairs had to be brought from the Academy library. That too wasn’t enough, but there was enough standing space and those who didn’t find seats didn’t grumble. They were all just happy to be there.

On Christmas Day, Namma Arcot Road will organise a storytelling event for children titled ‘An evening with Jeeva Aunty’, at Hotel Green Park. For more details, log on to nammaarcotroad.wordpress.com or follow Namma Arcot Road on Facebook.

Pictures show the Lakshman Shruti orchestra setting the tone for the evening; drummer Surendran (long locks) in his elements; a view of the shooting floor and the audience; Adithya immersed in song; and students of the LV Prasad Film & Television Academy freaking out.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Great show at the Asiad, but when will Indian media be more sympathetic to sport other than cricket

As I write this, news has filtered in, about the Indian women bagging the gold in the 4x400 m relay at the Asiad, bring India’s tally to 13, perhaps a first in a competition against the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. These are great victories for Indian sport, great moments to cherish as well. After what has seemed a very long time, India has suddenly from nowhere been able to produce winners of the calibre of Milkha Singh, P.T. Usha and Sriram Singh. It’ll be interesting to know more about the new world-beaters, but I wonder how much and for how long media here will dwell on such triumphs – after all, it is not cricket.

And that’s the sad part, the point I’d like to stress here. That victories, such as the ones being witnessed at the ongoing Asiad, have come not because of the system, but despite it. In the Olympics, except for various Indian hockey teams (1928-1956, 1964, 1980) that did the country proud by winning gold, and even coming up with sterling performances in other years (Mexico and Munich Games, for instance), there has been little to talk about. Milkha Singh and P.T. Usha became legends but they were exceptions to the rule. Both lost out in the race for the bronze, Usha by 1/100th of a second! If people like Abhinav Bhindra have shown their mettle in recent years, it has more to do with their background and individual effort rather than the Indian sport administration lending a helping hand.

And we all know who calls the shots in Indian sport – politicians and businessmen who know little or have nothing to do with the game. Even considering cricket for a minute, Sharad Pawar may be a good administrator but why should he head the BCCI? Why aren’t players put in charge? The answer always is that players are not good administrators. I have no doubt Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble will soon prove that wrong in Karnataka Why aren’t players of the calibre of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev given key responsibilities? Why wasn’t somebody like Leslie Claudius, who has won for India the most number of medals in hockey, put at the helm of affairs years ago when he would have had so much more to contribute for the sake of Indian hockey? Ajitpal Singh, Govinda, Dhanraj Pillay… I can go on and on, but why weren’t they allowed to do nothing for the country post-retirement?

The media must also share the blame for a lot that is wrong with Indian sport. They go completely gaga over cricket, but forget there are many games that must be covered and given encouragement. Tennis has received coverage, thanks to players like Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amrithraj, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathy and, now, Somdev Dev Varman. But Indian athletes, swimmers, boxers, and hockey, football, basketball, volleyball, table tennis players and many others hardly get a fraction of the coverage that cricket gets. Columnists and agony aunts think it’s a status symbol if a picture of them with a cricketer is published in the papers. So, it’s not surprising when a columnist chooses to pose with Sachin Tendulkar and not Viswanathan Anand, because poor Anand, despite being World No. 1, doesn’t have the glamour quotient. Of course, if you have a handsome boxer who is also a medal winner, then it is different.

Today, there’s such a surfeit of cricket in all its varied forms that someone like me who grew up following every Test match (even the ones India didn’t play in) hardly has any idea what match is being played and where. Big bucks and media are responsible for bringing Indian sport to such a pass. Yes, media played more than its part in unraveling the filth behind the recent Commonwealth Games. But my question is: Where was media during the progress of the construction of stadiums etc? After all, the process was set in motion four years ago. And in its obsession to regularly pillory Suresh Kalmadi and get him his due, all the good things that happened was never highlighted.

Surely, there must have been several well-meaning men and women who made the Commonwealth Games possible. Who highlighted their efforts? Why do media in this country cover only the rotten? Why can’t feel-good stories be featured? These are questions we can only ponder over. Reasons why countries such as Germany, Japan, China and Korea have stolen a march over us in many respects.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A visit to the LV Prasad Studios: Harking back to the past

How it all was then: K. Hariharan explains on one of the shooting floors at the LV Prasad Studios.

Visitors soak in the ambiance inside a typical home, which Hariharan says can be easily transformed into a hotel, room, bar or whatever.

Look at the faces, as Hariharan makes an impression before a vintage Arriflex camera.

Unwinding the spool of Ek Duje Ke Liye.

A packed auditorium, as Hariharan and Sreenivasan the general manager, reminisce about the good old days.

AT the LV Prasad Studios: Soaking up moments of history

Let me get back to happenings closer to home. Not many passersby notice the LV Prasad Studios or the LV Prasad Film & TV Academy on Arunachalam Road in Saligramam. Hardly anybody knows that not many years ago, masters such as Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen had walked down this stretch, from the studios to the lab, carrying reel spools and stuff.

I love old times and anything to do with heritage, so it came as a bonus when the Namma Arcot Road coordinators got K. Hariharan, director of the Academy, to take a group of heritage enthusiasts around the studios and describe how it all was a few decades ago.

Hariharan is as unassuming as they come, built of sterner stuff as he must be, because he is hands-on with training students at the Academy. What is remarkable about him is that he is a fund of knowledge, not only about film-making but also about the history of the place where he spends most part of his working day. He must be one of the finest teachers of cinema because it’s clear he likes what he’s doing, he loves talking to students and people in general, and he’s clued in to the past and present, views it all in context, and is keen to ensure that students understand not just the technology of film-making but much, much more.

A product of the Film and Television Institute of India, Hariharan might have been born with a ‘silver spoon’ in his mouth, at least judging by the people that surrounded him when he was small. His father was vice-president of Eastman Kodak and top cinematographers would come to Hariharan’s house; even the making of the great Ray’s Charulatha was discussed here. Suffice here to say that Hariharan grew up probably in awe of his father, soaked in all that he saw and heard and later carved a niche for himself. He of course bagged the national award for the Best Tamil Film - Ezhavathu Manithan.

Despite all that and other honours, Hariharan has remained rooted to the ground. Even today, he remembers with gratitude people like L.V. Prasad who inspired him. Indeed, Hariharan told the group how humbling he had felt receiving his national award and sharing stage space with Prasad who was presented the Dada Saheb Phalke Award the same day. It is in the fitness of things that Hariharan heads the Academy set up by Prasad’s son Ramesh.

Although there was intermittent rain, there were at least 60 people who arrived well in time. Even Krishna Kumar, the busy GM of Hotel Green Park, made it a point to be present though he arrived late. The pictures here show the early comers; Gargi Advaithi introducing Hariharan before the tour commenced; people catching every word; and the master taking charge.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The new generation of power brokers: A matter of shame?

O, what a fall there was, my countrymen! And then I, and you, and all of us fell down, whilst bloody treason flourish’d over us…

I was reminded of Mark Antony’s words in Julius Caesar as I listened to the audio tapes and read the transcripts of what Open magazine (Open Media Network) refers to as the X-Tapes. “Tell me what should I tell them,” urges Barkha Dutt; “What kind of story do you want?” asks Vir Sanghvi; “I am there, you want me to speak to anyone…” says Suhail Seth; “Tell Sunil Mittal, you have to work with Raja for another five years…” says A. Raja… Who are all of them speaking to? To Niira Radia (super PR woman, I must hasten to add), head of a PR agency called Vaishnavi Communications.

For all that, PR practitioners interacting closely with journalists and media folk is nothing new. Indeed, an effective PR person is often one who can get a senior journalist for lunch, discuss what can form part of the copy, emphasize key messages, talk in detail about the PR strategy, and finally get most of it, if not everything, published, broadcast or telecast. A lot of all this of course takes place in corporate circles, there is a lot of effort by entrepreneurs nowadays to get journalists to write or say something positive about them. However, moving the pawns on the political chessboard, what is referred to as lobbying in the United States, has not really come out in the open yet here. The X-Tapes has suddenly changed all that and you can’t but wonder how journalists can get so crass as to get involved in recommending or suggesting removal of ministers.

I remember being part of the team that launched the Durex condom in India for the TTK Group about 14 years ago. I had spoken to many journalists in the metros, stressing key messages of the PR campaign, nudging them into carrying stories that conveyed the right message. But I never forced any issue; there was no exchange of money. If anything was given, it was a pack of assorted condoms for those who wished to take it. My bosses were very clear that no money would be paid to get stories planted. No gifting cheques or sending gifts home. I still remember an upstart in Delhi, from Cosmopolitan magazine, who asked for a second pack in the midst of everybody. Of course, we gave it to her, but that was it. There were no calls made to journalists to press for coverage. If an article appeared, well and good, and if it didn’t, fine. Later, when I switched to writing-editing, I would look back at that innings with amusement.

All that was harmless though, almost fun. Television has changed the paradigm forever. During the 1970s-80s, when Doordarshan ruled the roost, even newsreaders were superstars. There was a time when I would wait for Komal G.B. Singh and Sashi Kumar to appear at 9pm, or Tejeshwar Singh and Minu. Of course, decades before TV, there was All India Radio who had people like Melville D’Mello, Sushil Jhaveri, Surojit Sen and Lotika Ratnam reading the news. Impeccable pronunciation and minimal error. They were all heroes of another era, giants, when there was no competition in media; AIR and DD were (and still continue to be) state-owned.

It was Pronoy Roy’s The World this Week that brought the first private news programme on DD. The economist and chartered accountant soon charmed viewers with an easy-going style that was all his own. It provided Roy the stepping stone to success. NDTV arrived and with it came a host of young presenters, with Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Vikram Chandra, Sreenivasan Jain and Arnab Goswami making a mark. With television giving all of them visibility like no other media, they quickly turned stars. Times had changed dramatically, too, and they were pitch-forked to the forefront of Indian politics, hobnobbing with top bureaucrats, ministers and even the Prime Minister at times.

Ambition perhaps got the better of a few of them, as greener pastures beckoned. Rajdeep and Arnab took charge at CNN-IBN and Times Now, respectively. Their felicity with words drove them to stage prime time shows with the Who’s Who of Indian politics. At NDTV, Barkha took on that mantle. Somewhere along the way, they became larger than life figures. Proximity to the country’s powerful was an elixir. And the power they wielded was visible in millions of homes worldwide. Today, there are many viewers who switch off the television set when some of these big names appear. They are absolutely fed up watching the same people debate the same points over and over again. But that’s another story.

Now, with the Open X-Tapes out in the public domain, the question is: whither journalistic ethics and professionalism? The people who preach everyday have been caught red-handed. It is inconceivable to imagine the editorial director of Hindustan Times, Vir Sanghvi, seeking advice from a PR agency head on how to frame his column, or the managing editor of NDTV, Barkha Dutt, plotting moves on the political chessboard even before getting up from bed. Today, it’s a game of high stakes. And sadly, some of the real power brokers happen to be journalists and PR practitioners.

Radia’s connection is not as surprising. After all, PR people are known to network and do not have a very clean image. With her sheer reach and power, she has dwarfed everybody else in the business. The Public Relations Society of India comprising of a motley group of people in its various chapters talk about how PR should be managed and run and often get the so-called experts to lecture them on the niceties of it. Radia could easily teach them a lesson or two.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A visit to SCMS Cochin springs quite a surprise

I had not heard of the SCMS Group of Educational Institutions until a relative of mine recently took up a job there as a faculty member. I understand the group was set up in 1976 by G.P.C. Nayar with the objective of setting high standards in professional education. The group offers two-year courses in communication and management studies, engineering and technology, research and consultancy, among other streams. Subramaniam Swamy is on the board of governors.

Last week, while I was holidaying in Kochi, the relative coaxed me and my uncle into visiting the campus and having a look around. Obviously, he wished to show off the place and once we arrived there I realised we couldn’t blame him for that. It was almost a five-star campus – beautifully maintained lawns, orderly parking, a reception area that could rival any at a luxurious hotel and, more than anything, cleanliness, with not even a slip of paper or plastic lying anywhere.

Of course, I’m sure there must be far better-looking and bigger educational campuses in India than this one, but springing up suddenly on the highway in a place called Muttom in Alwaye, what many might consider the back of beyond, the campus certainly draws your attention.

Discipline, I understand, is enforced strictly here. Even the faculty is not spared – they have to be in their seats by 9am every working day, and can leave only after the clock strikes 5pm. Boys have to wear ties and if any student is found not wearing one, he is likely to be suspended or his parents called. Girls are allowed to wear only churidars; saris were only for the faculty or staff. No jeans or T-shirts here.

I was not sure whether I could click pictures, especially since there were many young women walking around during the time we were there. I didn’t want to be hauled up for misconduct. But eventually I did and the results show – none of the pictures are crystal clear.

On the way back we passed the spot where the Lulu Shopping Mall is coming up. When complete, it is likely to be the biggest one in India, according to hoardings (last picture).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A well-deserved award for Chennai's Rainman

I have known Sekhar Raghavan for some years now. He is a simple, unpretentious man who uses public transport and charms people with his intelligence and ready wit. Raghavan, of course, was the one who established the Rain Centre some years ago. He has campaigned relentlessly for the proper installation of RWH systems. Chennai’s Rainman, as I call him, is a recipient of the Harmony Silver Award 2010.

The award is well deserved – for he has painstakingly shown many, many residents in Chennai how to save water. Raghavan was selected as one of ten recipients of the Harmony Silver Awards this year. The eminent five-member jury panel comprised Chanda Kochhar, MD & CEO of ICICI Bank; Shyam Benegal, veteran filmmaker; Mrinal Pande, editor-in-chief, Hindustan; Piyush Pandey, CEO, Ogilvy & Mather; and Smita Parekh, director, World United Colleges.

Ragahvan received a cash prize of Rs 51,000 and a citation at a function in Mumbai on October 6 organised by the Harmony for Silvers Foundation whose chairperson is Tina Ambani. Since its inception in June 2004, the Foundation has established itself as the voice of India’s Silvers, as it refers to the country’s senior citizens. The Foundation believes that every society owes its seniors financial stability, healthcare, shelter, security and an enabling environment to fulfill their potential.

It was in 1995 that Raghavan, a Besant Nagar resident, started campaigning for rainwater harvesting (RWH) in the area and impressed upon residents the need to put as much rainwater into the soil as possible. People took him seriously only when neighbourhood newspaper Adyar Times wrote about his initiative. From 1998 onwards, Raghavan’s campaign gathered momentum. He was able to convince residents to build recharge wells. Meanwhile, he was inducted into a high-powered committee for RWH under the leadership of Shanta Sheela Nair, then secretary, Municipal Administration and Water Supply.

In 1999, Raghavan filed a PIL in the Madras High Court against Chennai Corporation, to prevent the construction of storm water drains. “The drains constructed either on one side or both sides of important roads were meant to discharge all the rain falling on roads into the sea. It was clearly a wasteful, anti-harvesting measure,” he says.

Thanks to Ramakrishnan, an NRI, the Akash Ganga Trust, a citizens’ group consisting of RWH practitioners and experts was formed in January 2002. The Centre for Science and Environment decided to support Raghavan and, thus, the Rain Centre was born. Support also came from M.S. Swaminathan who suggested to then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa that she inaugurate the Centre. And she did, providing a major boost for RWH in the city.

Raghavan steered activities at the Rain Centre, which included getting schoolchildren to come and see what proper RWH was all about. Soon, the Centre became a reference point for RWH and Raghavan found himself busy answering numerous calls, advising residents and arranging for plumbers. “There was a paucity of plumbers, PVC pipes and cement rings for recharge wells. The Rain Centre would receive at least 50 calls a day. It trained 30 plumbers on the correct methods of RWH and they were deputed on calls,” he recalls.

The Bay View Apartments in Kalakshetra Colony, Besant Nagar, comprising five residential blocks of 140 flats has a model RWH system, implemented under Raghavan’s supervision. Each block has its own well. The water harvested from rooftops is taken to the main well through a filter (made up of sand-blue metal pebbles) and to three recharge wells in each block. The roofs are kept clean; bursting fire crackers and hand-washing are not allowed. The run-off water at the ground level is led to the same recharge wells with the help of a speed breaker near the gate. None of the structures are hidden. They are de-silted twice a year; the perforated lid is removed and plastered again after de-silting. The maintenance budget of Rs 10,000 is met by all the blocks together.

“Any RWH system is complete only if it harvests rooftop as well as the rainwater that falls all around the built-up area (run-off). The driveway run-off, particularly in multi-storeyed residential and commercial complexes is ignored due to inconvenience or ignorance. Secondly, even while harvesting rooftop water, care is not taken to apportion it to different structures such as a sump, or recharge structures such as open well and wells and pits. Finally, RWH systems must be cleaned and de-silted, especially pre-monsoon. Many residents ignore this point. In several homes residents do not even know where the RWH structure is,” says Raghavan.

The Rain Centre’s thrust is on creating awareness about the importance of RWH, not only in augmenting resources but also in raising groundwater levels and sustaining the water table, helping citizens to implement RWH systems in an efficient and cost-effective manner, and carrying out studies on the nature of sub-soil, the effectiveness and adequacy of various structures and the post-monsoon impact on quality and exploitable quantity of groundwater.

In Chennai, residents who implemented RWH reported appreciable increase in water level in their wells. On an average, the water table rose by 6-8 metres. Residents in areas like Mandavelli had never seen the table rise so high in the past 30 years, says Raghavan, adding that the moral is that old dug wells can indeed be revived. “If the monsoon is favourable, even shallow wells can be revived; water from such wells is far better than borewell water. We have to make sincere attempts to harvest every drop of water that falls on our heads before thinking in terms of mega projects like interlinking of rivers and desalination of sea water.”

Since October 2005, Raghavan has been sensitizing the residents of Kovalam, a coastal town in Tamil Nadu, about the relevance and importance of ecological sanitation. He was also associated with the construction of a model composting toilet in Kovalam. In January 2008, nine composting toilets were constructed by the Akash Ganga Trust in the habitats of fishermen and other economically weaker sections in Kovalam.

Since 2007, the Akash Ganga Trust has partnered with the Institute of Buddhism and Economics to promote eco-sanitation in Kovalam. The Institute is a non-profit organisation associated with Komazawa University in Tokyo, Japan. Every year during the past three years, the Institute has brought a group of Japanese college students to India to expose them to Indian culture and community development. The programme has developed a special relationship with Kovalam. “On coming to know that almost 60% of women there did not have access to a toilet of any kind, the students suggested that the Institute make building latrines a priority for future visits,” Raghavan says. The organisations worked together to construct eco-san units in the village. Backed by grants from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, 66 eco-san toilets were constructed in a Dalit settlement in Kovalam and in a nearby village.

Raghavan has served as a member of the Task Force on Water set up by the Confederation of Indian Industry. He obtained his BSc and MSc degrees in Physics from Madras Christian College, Tambaram. His father, M.V. Raghavan, was the first General Manager of Ashok Leyland who moved to the Amalgamations Group and later served as Director and General Manager of The Mail.

Pictures show the facade of the Rain Centre in Mandavelipakkam; Raghavan seated before a rainwater harvesting model that is common in the rural areas of Rajasthan; and illustrations and pictures that adorn the walls of the Rain Centre.

An abridged version of this story first appeared in
The Hindu Business Line.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A pantheon in honour of a most fascinating Hindu god

The Shiva Temple on Old Airport Road in Bangalore has probably the largest idol of Lord Shiva in this part of the world (South India). It is 65-foot tall. Against a background of hills carved in cement, Shiva is seated in the lotus position, as the River Ganga flows by quietly before him.

Devotees float diyas in the pond (which represents the Ganges); so doing is said to help us get rid of our sins.

Jethanand Melwani’s marble plaque. The Melwanis run several charities and although I sensed a commercial element during the visit, you don’t have to pay anything to enter and soak in the experience, except paying Rs 2 for safe custody of your footwear, and Rs 25 for a camera.

Shops selling artifacts, on the way to the temple.

An unexpected visit to the Shiva Temple on Old Airport Road

The absence of my usual host in Bangalore probably worked as a blessing in disguise. For, not wanting to stay at any relative’s, I found accommodation in a guest house in Kodahalli (Old Airport Road) run by an acquaintance – a woman entrepreneur who drives a Scorpio, is an expert cook and cocktail-maker (so she tells me) and who hasn’t forgotten my help years ago when I provided the content for her brochure.

So, it was homely food cooked by a young man from Bihar – hot, crisp chapattis, delicious dal, mouth-watering potato-cauliflower kurma… curd, papad, pickle… Hmmm.

I got talking with some of the youngsters staying at the guest house, all of them from the IT sector. They worked for companies such as HCL and TCS but I found their communication skills in English woefully inadequate. A few of them were not keen entering into conversation at all. I then understood what some of the experts speaking at CII and other forums mean when they say that most Indian engineers and IT professionals do not have the managerial skills. For, without proper communication, how can you ever manage people?

One of the residents, Murali Krishnamurthy, was friendlier than the rest. His family was in Chennai and he had just joined a new project in Bangalore. That project was likely to be completed in three months or so, by when he would be deputed to South Africa. Now, he wasn’t quite sure which city in South Africa he would be sent, which I found rather surprising. Was it Durban or Johannesburg, I asked him. He didn’t seem to know, neither much about the two cities. His mind currently was focused more on a pressing issue at hand – renting a flat for about Rs 6,000. Do such flats exist in Bangalore?

Murali was keen that I accompany him to the local Shiva temple. I didn’t want to disappoint him and went along after breakfast. It was a long winding road in Murugesa Palaya that led to the temple; there were children happily playing carrom on the stretch and husbands making crisp dosas for passersby as wives washed clothes outside.

To my astonishment, it was not just another Shiva temple, but one that had a 65-foot idol of Shiva and a 32-foot high idol of Ganesha. Although I could not find an authoritative source, I gathered that the temple was built by Jethanand Melwani, whose plaque lay right before the Massive Shiva idol. Meera, a volunteer (I assumed), told me that Ravi Melwani, Jethanand’s grandson, was overseeing maintenance.

What struck me was how the entire premises was kept spick and span, and the large number of young men and women volunteers, if they were indeed volunteers. The ambience was peaceful, serene, and different from the crowded temples we often visit. I saw a picture there of Dada J.P. Vaswani, a spiritual leader.

Meera mentioned the name of the Humanitarian Foundation that was doing a lot of charity work and showed me pictures of poor, utterly sick people they had picked up from the streets and given shelter.

Pictures show Ganesha welcoming visitors; a close-up gives you an idea of the size of the statue; devotees praying and clicking pictures; and resting for a while before the massive Shiva idol (see next blog).

Maddening traffic: Lingering images of a vacation

It was yet another break in Bangalore. But this time, it didn’t turn out to be quite a vacation as I had hoped it would be. For one, my usual host was out of town for the most part and, for another, Bangalore city traffic showed its ugliest face to me, yet.

I had also looked forward to milder temperatures and had even taken a sweater along, but I found myself sweating after a brisk walk and wondered what had happened to the Bangalore of old…

Once back in the Cantonment area, I felt more at home. But this time again, the migratory birds were missing atop the tall trees in the ITC compound that fronts the residence that has been almost like home the past several years.

So, instead of pictures of birds and trees, I shot some of the chaotic traffic, images of which still linger in my mind. Bangalore residents seem to have developed patience though, not many honked despite the long wait at signals. Driving, however, was reckless as I found to my horror on many occasions.

The pictures, from inside an autorickshaw and an SUV, were taken near MG Road, which has, sadly, been reduced to a shadow of its former self. So much for flyovers.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Obama flatters India's elite audiences, but...

Barack Obama is a good orator, teleprompter or no teleprompter. He may not quite be the charmer that Bill Clinton was during his visit in 2000, nor may he have the Clinton charisma, but there’s no doubt that he is able to leave an impression on most occasions when he speaks. And he did so today in Parliament, with the MPs and invited guests giving him a standing ovation.

Flattering an elite audience may be good politics (and Obama is a consummate one) but words are easily forgotten when they do not translate into action on the ground, action that heralds change for the better. If India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had no compunctions uttering the ‘K’ word today, Obama proved the skeptics wrong and toughened his stance by referring to “safe havens” in Pakistan and the need to eliminate them. Although he mentioned clearly that it was up to the two nations (India and Pakistan) to resolve differences and move forward, he did not point to anything specific. Dr Singh, too, had nothing much to offer, saying that unless Pakistan stopped sponsoring terrorism, there was no way forward. These are oft repeated stances and the Obama-Manmohan meeting certainly has not found any quick-fix remedy.

In Parliament, Obama talked about three ways India and the United States could work together – what he termed as shared prosperity, shared sense of security, and good governance. As far as prosperity is concerned, it was Dr Singh who hit the nail on the head (earlier in a press conference) when he said that economic development was all about raising the standard of living of millions, the majority of Indians who lived in the villages. And as far as good governance is concerned, we all know what the Indian government, central or state, is capable of. Indeed, if we really had good governance after Independence, we would have become a developed country probably a decade or more ago. That we are still struggling to emerge from that catchphrase is the harsh truth.

Yes, there is no doubt that India is different from what it was even ten years ago, from the time Clinton arrived here. But we still have miles to go as far as basic infrastructure is concerned – be it agricultural infrastructure, industrial infrastructure or civic infrastructure. Where are good roads in cities (have a look at some of the pictures in my earlier blogs), where is clean drinking water for even those who live in urban slums, where is affordable housing, adequate transportation… the list can go on and on. In fact, Dr Singh mentioned the necessity to build infrastructure during the press conference.

Any visitor to India can see what is lacking. President Obama, too, must have seen some of it (the lack of infrastructure). After all, when you are driven in a limousine in a cavalcade to places like the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Humayun’s Tomb and St Xavier’s College, there is not much of the ground reality your eye can catch. Obama of course said all the right things, even endorsing India’s stand for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council (another significant utterance). His ‘Dhanyavad’ and ‘Jai Hind’ were set to charm everybody, but like I said, he is not Bill Clinton.

One thing for sure though, is that he seems quite well read and well informed. His references to Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar were not lost on those who listened; so too were the words he echoed of Rabindranath Tagore (when the head is held high) and Jawaharlal Nehru (midnight hour). You wouldn’t call them red herrings, would you?

I thought all those references were remarkable, especially when he talked about how Mahatma Gandhi was indirectly responsible for him becoming American President (tracing Gandhi to Martin Luther King and to the first Black US President). What I also thought remarkable was his castigating the Burmese government for running a dictatorship and conducting a sham election. There was a reference to Iran as well, which might not have gone down too well with many in Parliament.

In the circumstances, Obama did well for himself. But there was nothing spectacular, not was anything of the sort expected. He knocked off the ‘outsourcing’ bogey and that may have given some of the IT honchos reason to cheer. For the President, 50,000 will be the number to take home gladly – the number of jobs for Americans thanks to various deals signed with Indian business establishments. After all, it’s the American economy that cost him votes in the mid-term elections, and if he is to make a comeback and try for a second term in office, 50,000 jobs coming so soon after the fiasco he faced will be the elixir he’s looking for.

So, what about India’s masses? Are they going to see some quick changes on the ground? Hardly. Is striking business deals enough? Will the deals be able to get rid of the so-called Maoist threat, for instance? Will it get rid of starvation deaths or appease those in the North-east? You know the answer as well as I do.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Kalaignar Karunanidhi Nagar: Shoddy work by TNEB

To add to those ugly scars in KK Nagar, look at the reality on the ground... shocking to say the least.

This is an electricity switch box inside a colony, installed years ago. You wonder how such a thing was allowed in the first place. That aside, residents say the electricity cable here catches fire when there is rain and eventually there is an explosion. This has been the pattern over the past few years.

About ten days ago, the same thing happened. Residents say they could see the sparks, the water bubbling and, indeed, they were awaiting the explosion when a couple of them decided to rush to the TNEB office to get somebody to switch off the transformer mains. This they somehow managed.

Once that was done, the TNEB staff got down to 'rectifying' the problem, but they did not bring the cables required. And so, a 'temporary' solution was found. The pictures show what that solution turned out to be.

Not only is it an ugly sight, the exposed cables pose danger to one and all. There are children who play in the colony and today I saw a grandfather trying to fish out a ball that had fallen into the ditch.

So, doesn't the TNEB have a job to complete? And how on earth could they have left the cables exposed like this and not returned to complete the work even after ten days! This despite a TNEB staff being a resident of the colony.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Kalaignar Karunanidhi Nagar: Look at what Alagiriswamy Salai has been reduced to

This is the entry point to Alagiriswamy Salai, where Padma Seshadri School is situated. More than 5,000 students study in the school. The road opens out to Anna Main Road where you can see the autos parked on one stretch.

Today, no man, woman, child or vehicle can enter this stretch - the picture tells the story. Only thing is nobody quite knows what the digging is all about. Sewage? Storm-water drains? You can keep guessing.

Whatever it be, does it take more a month (or is it two?) to get rid of this ugly sight and restore some semblance of normality here?

Elders who live in the colonies adjacent are not only horrified, they are helpless. They don't have the courage to venture out on work or even go for a walk. One wrong step and you do not know where you will land. I wonder whether even a teenager would muster courage to try and find some way over this heap.

Like they say even thieves have a humane or soft corner, one would expect some decency in construction. But look at the way material is left on the ground - look at the rusty iron bars almost waiting to be trod over...

Look at the fourth picture here that shows you the way to the school. The firm that runs a cab service in one of the lanes is having a field day, literally.

A little ahead is another dug-up area (last picture) that hogs quite a bit of road space. On weekdays with hundreds of school kids, parents and drivers moving around you can imagine the condition here.

Certainly, this place from a distance looks like one that has been bombed. And the hunch is that it is likely to remain so for a long while.

Kalaignar Karunanidhi Nagar: Pictures that tell a tale of utter neglect

Well, KK Nagar in Chennai is Kalaignar Karunanidhi Nagar, named after the present chief minister of Tamil Nadu. But have a look at some these pictures and then you begin to wonder why on earth this place has been relegated to the periphery of development all these years.

I have done this before - clicking pictures that offend the eye for too long, and have sent them to newspaper offices. Some papers have indeed written about such civic woes. But finally, little changes on the ground. That's how our democracy functions.

Pictures of course speak louder than words. So, take a close look.

These pictures relate to one end of PT Rajan Salai, where it hits Anna Main Road or Ashok Pillar Road. On the right is the new Saravana Bhavan sweets outlet (trust them to launch this during Diwali!) and an Aavin booth. A little behind from where these pictures were taken is the HDFC Bank.

As you can see, the dug-up portion has taken up more than half of the road.

Imagine the plight of motorists and walkers here during heavy rain or when there are floods. To a person not used to these parts, during floods, it is a death trap.

So, will the government administration do something about this, and do it quickly? Your guess is as good as mine. I have sent the pictures to the top newspapers in Chennai and to a leading TV channel.

More pictures follow...

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A bitter pill: Mahatma Gandhi is no longer relevant to today's youth

Nandini Voice for the Deprived conducted an essay competition for school and college students (17 to 25 years old) on Gandhi Jayanthi. The topic was whether Mahatma Gandhi is relevant in today’s India.

Not surprisingly, many students point out that Mahatma Gandhi would have largely gone out of public memory thanks to the present state of affairs in the country, but for the holiday observed on October 2, his birthday.

Students say Gandhiji is being humiliated year after year, by corrupt and dishonest people holding positions of power and authority (politicians, bureaucrats and now even those in the Defence services), who preside over meetings to pay tributes to the Father of the Nation on Gandhi Jayanthi but resort to all kinds of unholy ways to stay on in power, to amass wealth and benefit family members.

Students say that it is extremely difficult to imagine that a person like Mahatma Gandhi lived and worked in India. They find is impossible to Gandhiji’s teachings to current happenings. Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy is out of sync with present times is what they feel. Many provide the examples of the widespread consumption of liquor in the country today and the deep-rooted corruption in public life and government departments as the most visible acts of defiance of Gandhiji’s philosophy.

So, who is responsible for all this? Several students say that those who claim to be ardent followers of Mahatma Gandhi have not lived up to his ideals and standards and have remained as poor role models for today’s youth.

Those who strongly believe in Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy today are few and they are unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices and wage the intense struggle required to try and cleanse society of its evils. Of course, politicians and bureaucrats have only hastened the decay of the moral fibre.

Will any leader be willing to use non-violent means and fast like Gandhiji did? The unanimous answer was No.

The views expressed are those of the more than thousand students who participated in the contest and they cannot be taken lightly, Munnabhai and Gandhigiri notwithstanding.