Sunday, January 30, 2011

And going back in time in the City of Joy

It’s such a joy to be in Calcutta, the city where I was born and spent two decades of my formative years. Of course, my view is not that of an outsider – someone recently said she vomited every time her father took her there as a child (she probably meant the sights, sounds and smells at the Howrah Station), and I was just trying to keep my temper in control. Yes, we all have heard of Rajiv Gandhi providing that ‘dirtiest city’ label. Let me say that over the years I been there, after leaving the city in 1983, I’ve not really spotted mounds of garbage or offal rotting in the streets. Kolkata that is Calcutta, garbage and all (which city doesn’t have garbage?), has a soul of its own, its residents are some of the warmest you can meet anywhere, the most helpful, and there are few cities that can beat the range of delectable eating fare it offers.

I usually visit the city once a year, except for the odd year when that doesn’t happen – blame it on work or lethargy. Now, after moving on to work that offers me quite a bit of flexible time, I’ve decided to find time for more travel and Calcutta is where I’m likely to head when the time is right. My sister being there is an added incentive. I have a place to stay, there’s lovely home-cooked food, I get fussed over, and the place where she stays is just right for me – away from the city, more than a flavour of the suburban, palm tress all around, sparrows you hardly find nowadays, eagles, a pond… and quiet, especially after evening, which I so very much love. That she and my brother-in-law do not switch off television past midnight is another story, but the past week I’ve got used that rhythm as well.

This time, I caught up with an old friend, a very close one at that. He’s been through some tough times in life – business taking a plunge, a failed marriage, father and uncle dying in quick succession, his mother imprisoned after a legal case was slapped on him by a bride who looked as sweet as sugar (when I saw her years ago) and her family. Whoever said women cannot make life difficult! And stoop to levels that you would not expect of them. Anyway, he’s gone through hell and been able to bounce back, albeit slowly. And we met at the Exide-Haldiram crossing past Camac Street where my brother-on-law has his office.

The City of Joy is very special to me. My father had arrived here in the early 1950s to begin his working career. Calcutta was the place to be in those times (other than Bombay) - for work, that is. My dad must have helped at least 20 of his relatives find employment, including youngsters who didn't know a word of English or Hindi. For example, there was a cousin of mine who would call my dad 'Big Father', after the Malayalam equivalent of it - Valiyachhan. There was a large group of Malayalees that was part of the weekly card games, a very serious business for most of them. My mother would play host many times and I can only wonder at her dexterity in cooking meals for so many! Our house was a sort of refuge for many and I grew up in awe of my dad...

Over masala chai, seated on a bench, we went back in time and then forward. The confidence was back on his face and he was now focused on his business that had picked up. And then as we inhaled and exhaled cigarette smoke and as the wintry Calcutta air blanketed us as we walked past the Birla Planetarium and Rabindra Sadan packed with Republic Day crowds, it seemed like school days once again. Am hoping there will be many more of those evenings.

Now back in Chennai, I’m missing Cal and my sister and all the food (I had an egg roll for Rs 12 at Nawab’s in Gariahat) and the warmth. With my daughter’s camera playing truant (the flash overworked), I couldn’t take many pictures.

Pictures show the pond as seen from my sister’s flat window, palm trees and where sparrows made merry, the buzz at Gariahat junction, the daily newspaper for all to read, and Gariahat by night…

Friday, January 21, 2011

Travelling back in time on the Delhi Metro, suffused with warmth

Travelling on the Delhi Metro was a new experience. The Metro has definitely brought about a change in the lives of many, many Delhiites and shortened distances like never before. A couple of my close friends, senior executives in private insurance companies, use the Metro to commute to work.

Although Delhi roads are broad and there seems to be parking space, at least judging by what little I saw, the number of vehicles on the roads is far, far higher than that on Chennai roads. There are fewer two-wheelers, but vehicles of all shapes and sizes. The larger BMWs and Benzes come out in the night and finding parking space in Connaught Place, where I had dinner one night, is not easy.

The Delhi Metro brought back memories of the Bombay suburban trains, more than it did of the Calcutta Metro. People flow in and out as the train glides to a halt at stations and if you are not sprightly enough you could find yourself wedged in between doors that don’t wait too long to close. It’s fairly comfortable inside; you cannot expect to find a seat during rush hour though. You’ll be lucky to find enough standing space.

There is an entrance directly to the Metro from Pragati Maidan and what I saw of two evenings was people scrambling at the entrance to get in. The Bombay culture of queuing up and being orderly was missing. Policemen with AK-47s have to come up to restore order. Carry bags are screened but it’s not difficult to pass through with an explosive substance if you want to. Because there is no frisking as such. Timings are clearly displayed and the Delhi Metro is clean, almost spic and span.

I used the Metro a couple of times and escorting me were a few handsome youngsters from the Indian Printer & Publisher Services, Training and Research (IPP Star) team. As you age, you get respect (if you deserve it) but I was quite overwhelmed by the care and attention the young turks bestowed on me. They ensured I got in and got off first, purchased tickets for me, stood behind me at the entry and exit points where I had to drop tokens, shepherded me into CNG-powered autorickshaws and dropped me right outside the hotel gate.

A couple of them were from Varanasi, one all set to tie the knot. I asked him what he planned to do since his fiancĂ©e had a government job in the holy city. He said he would decide after the wedding, a dilemma many youngsters in middle-class families are thrown into. He was proud he had studied at the Benaras Hindu University, India’s No. 1 university in his books (and also by an India Today – Nielsen survey). I chatted up the others; they were a friendly and enthusiastic lot, bubbling with energy, cracking jokes, and I, during the moments I spent with them, suddenly felt younger. And as the train passed the India Gate, Yamuna Bank, Akshardham, Mayur Vihar, Mayur Vihar Extension and New Ashok Nagar stations on to Noida Sector 15, my thoughts raced back to my early years of work more than two decades ago.

No picture was possible at the Metro where photography is banned, but this one at the Printpack exhibition more than made up for it. As some of them provided the protective shield for me at the Metro, these young turks (I don’t know why I’m calling them so) quickly flanked me, eager for a picture that will always bring me wonderful memories.

A quake that got me rushing down the stairs in Noida

Travelling and meeting people is one of the things I’ve always loved and during my days as the PR head for a leading South Indian-based company, I enjoyed being on the move. In recent years there hasn’t been as much travel as I would have liked – travel on work, that is – but things are likely to change.

Well, earlier this week, I was in Delhi to attend the Printpack 2011 exhibition at Pragati Maidan. The weather was simply gorgeous and I enjoyed myself, both at the exhibition and outside. I’ve of course been to Delhi several times but this time it was a different capital city, with many more huge flyovers (Chennai’s flyovers are really no match for those in Delhi, except perhaps for the Kathipara grade separator) and the Metro. The Metro has changed the lives of many, young and old, men and women, workers as well as executives and businessmen. More about the Metro in a bit…

There was a surprise in Delhi waiting for me… an earthquake, the night the Indian cricketers beat the South Africans. It’s boring sometimes when you are alone in a hotel room and when there’s little to do except reading or watching television. I kept watching the match and decided to take a short nap before the last overs. When I woke up, the match had just ended. As I trotted to the toilet, I felt the room shaking and held on to the side wall, wondering whether I was having a dizzy spell. A few seconds later, the room shook again, this time more violently, and it continued for what seemed endless seconds. I sort of panicked and instinctively switched on the news channels.

There are some channels that do work late into the night. India TV and Aaj Tak flashed the news within ten minutes of the quake, even going on to say that Noida (where I was staying), Gurgaon, Faridabad and Ghaziabad were rocked by a quake that measured 7.4 on the Richter Scale. I rushed downstairs in my pyjamas, with my mobile phones, wallet and camera. The Christmas tree in the lobby had toppled and the two men on duty were wondering what to do. It was too cold to be hovering outside. We chatted and had hot masala chai and after about an hour I took courage to get back into my room. However, I couldn’t find sleep till about 4am. An experience I’m unlikely to forget in a hurry.

Pictures show the building that shook, a view from outside my window of Noida’s congested roads, and the family nearby who makes a living from selling knick-knacks. The man’s wife refused to be photographed although he pleaded with her. But she came back to see the picture I had taken and smiled.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Life can be heavenly without blogs and Facebook

It’s been a few days – indeed, since the New Year – since I’ve tried to be ‘active’ on my blog or on Facebook. Of course, there has been work, as it comes in large doses sometimes. But more than that, I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to stop blogging for a while and hosting ‘stuff’ on Facebook. It was, I surprisingly found, quite a welcome break. I felt like I had switched off my mobile phone and I actually enjoyed some sort of freedom. It’s difficult to explain.

I know blogs and Facebook and Twitter and all the rest are great communication tools, but we could still enjoy life without all of that. And enjoy life more, really. Perhaps technology has made children out of some of us adults. Like tweaking a new toy and getting the thrill out of it.

What I enjoyed most of all during the past two weeks, was the time spent with books (no, not newspapers). J.K. Rowling or Jodi Picoult or Ashok Banker, it was time well spent. And I was just thinking about how I had wasted all those moments making friends on Facebook and trying to keep old and new relationships alive. Oh no, I wasn’t really trying. Who does anyway! It’s just that most often there hardly seems any life there at all. It’s so much better calling friends or relatives over or going out and meeting them.

So, I was wondering why I ever got into Facebook and whether it has been useful at all. The answer that kept constantly hammering inside my head was No. The objective was to try and hook up with old school and college friends, probably a long-lost sweetheart, but either nobody cared or they didn’t have the time. Except for a few. But what I have noticed is that even if it has to do with old school friends, there isn’t that urge to revitalize those old bonds. Even among very close friends. Well, if you have 500 and 1000 and 2000 friends, you can’t expect to keep everybody happy, can you?

I instinctively found a striking difference when an old school friend called me the other day – quite out of the blue. He was among my closest buddies. Quite a character (I mean it in a good sense). He doesn’t own a mobile phone, still relies on the telephone. He’s heard of Facebook but I doubt whether he uses email at all. And I’m sure he’ll make no sense of blogs. We’ve had great times in Calcutta as classmates, as friends. He was a regular at home till I left Calcutta in the early 1980s. But we would meet and catch up whenever I visited, which was, of course, times without number. He went through a bad patch, had a failed marriage, his mother was humiliated, he lost his father and uncle. His life was in tatters, save for a business he continued to plough through in Howrah. God helps those who help themselves, and so it was with this friend of mine. He managed to salvage some pride and find a landing space. Finally, things are looking up. He looks after his aged mother and after a long time decided the time was right to get in touch with an old friend.

We chatted for a long time and decided to meet once again during my upcoming Calcutta visit. I’m sure it’s going to be a long session as always; probably he’s going to bunk factory that day. Whatever it is, with that phone call he showed that some friendships can remain as strong as ever. I had lost touch, his phone numbers had changed and I had given up hope of finding him. But here he was, bouncing right back. The phone call happened after the New Year and strengthened my resolve to spend more time doing all the things I used to until the Internet arrived – meeting and talking to friends often, devouring a book a day, listening to music, watching a movie, or just window shopping.

My daughter suggests that I sign out from Facebook. She feels my generation is not meant for it. But I haven’t steeled my nerves to do that yet. Now, if there wasn’t a blog, should I have been able to say all this? And if there wasn’t Facebook, would I have had to say all this?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A dull start to 2011, but ending last year with an award wasn't too bad...

It’s been a sort of frigid New Year this time, as least that’s my feeling. Until last year, there would be at least half a dozen greeting cards, and an odd letter. The phone calls ceased a few years ago – the ones on the land line at midnight. A few years ago, New Year would be heralded by the constant rings on the telephone, which would go on till about 1am or so. Those would be followed by calls to friends and relatives the following morning. Last night, even the crackers seemed to fizzle out before exploding.

This year, I have not received a single greeting card, which is perhaps saying something. I wonder whether greeting cars sell at all nowadays, which is a pity really. I remember all those visits to various retail outlets while on a drive to buy New Year greeting cards at the most economical prices. There was also a time then I, like many others, would spend long moments picking and choosing cards, to be sent to my sister or nephews, uncles, aunts, cousins, former sweethearts and all the rest. Now that has become history. Perhaps I must find time to do these things again and surprise a few people. Let me see…

All that you receive nowadays are emails (even from old-timers who say they have nothing much to do with the computer!), many of them copies to the whole universe, and as cryptic as they can get. Then there is Facebook, of course. Sad indeed that the days of waiting for, touching and feeling a card, and reaching for it again and again are over.

Last night was a disaster in other ways – erratic voltage, which meant hands off the PC; a hurried dinner with motivation to do little else; and SMSes not being delivered although the network was deducting the charges.

The good side: well, I made a resolution to complete the Harry Potter series and began with the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. There's nothing better than a good book to lift your spirits.

The day before was in some ways a celebration. I was an award winner – that’s not happening too often these days. This one was from the Public Relations Society of India, for my editorial work on Precis, the body’s newsletter that I have been editing the past seven years and which has won the all-India award fro 2009-10. The award was received by the PRSI secretary in Kolkata at the recently held national conference. This was not a first (Precis has been a winner a few times before), but PRSI thought it fit to formally hand me and the prepress firm the award.

My links with the PRSI are almost two decades old, beginning with my TTK days as a PR person on the move. Those links have remained strong over the years and I have forged long-lasting friendships with quite a few. Some have retired and moved on; others have blossomed and scaled the ladder.

One of the stalwarts who was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award the day before was R.K. Baratan, who, along with Gyan Haksar and M. Gopalkrishnan, was one of the founding members of the PRSI, Chennai Chapter. They were also instrumental in starting the PR degree course in Stella Maris College after convincing Malcolm Adiseshiah, then the vice-chancellor of the University of Madras.

Haksar and Gopalakrishnan are no more, but Baratan continues to be active (he is the president of the Sri Sastha Sangam which runs the Ayyappan Temple in KK Nagar). A topper all through his student days, he has written a couple of books and my talk the day before has now motivated him to complete his second book on PR. With the Radia tapes and all the controversies we are in today, we need people like Baratan to inspire youngsters by clearing the air and adding doses of credibility. Let me hope he will take this as a personal call to be more active in the PRSI.

Pictures show the national vice-president of the PRSI, R.K. Dharan, conducting Tambola (he’s very good at it); Baratan addresses members and their families after receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award; Dharan presents the Precis award to yours truly and Daniel Dass, branch head of Advertising & Sales Promotion Co., which does the page-making and pre-press work; and Dharan presents an award to Neha (for lay out) and to Gopal Singh, head of Nextwave Multimedia, which handles the PRSI Web site.