Saturday, February 19, 2011

Youngsters create buzz and energy in what is no longer India's Garden City

I’ve always loved traveling and not many years ago when I was in PR, I was a person on the move. The past few years, though, hasn’t seen much of movement, focused more as I was on editing rather than meeting people and writing. Things are set to change (they already have) with my work for a leading Delhi-based publisher likely to get me on the move again. Another forthcoming assignment as editor of two journals will add to the movement.

Well, earlier this week, or the whole of this week, I was in what was once the Garden City, meeting up with printers, packagers and software solution providers. I would hesitate to call it by that name hereafter. For, the tree cover that Bangalore was so well known for in the past has all but disappeared, making way for brick and glass high-rises, the Metro and what can ostensibly be called infrastructure development. Sadly, I didn’t carry a camera; the old one I had has run its course and I’ll have to pick up a replacement soon. Pictures in this case would have spoken louder than words.

Whether it was the Bommsandra Industrial Area, Vasanthnagar, Kamakshipalaya, Ulsoor or Whitefield, Nandidurg Road, Race Course Road, Bannerghata Road or Peenya Industrial Area, there was a buzz and an energy that is difficult to describe. At Whitefield, my colleague from Delhi and I played merry-go-round a few times before locating offices; there are so many of them – I’m talking about top MNCs such as IBM and ExxonMobil. Almost everywhere, we had to undergo stringent security checks. No name dropping will help anymore. At the ABB office, I had my picture taken while the security chief prepared the visitor pass.

There were youngsters all over the place, many in fairly senior positions. You can spot them with badges on roads, crossing junctions, smoking cigarettes, chatting up over tea or coffee at petty stalls outside glittering modern buildings of chrome, glass and steel... all of them smartly attired, striding purposefully indoors and outdoors almost as if there were no tomorrow. A foreign visitor would readily say that the country's future is in very good hands. I would say too, except that many of them work for overseas companies and MNCs. How much better is they turned entrepreneurs and chose to do something for India! I did meet a four-some of such a kind - all focused on conjuring up software solutions for Indian industry. May they do well.

The other thing I noticed: no trooping into offices or towards cubicles where the person you are supposed to meet, is seated. Now, he or she comes out to greet you and motions towards what are called ‘discussion’ or ‘huddle’ rooms strategically positioned close to the reception. If you wish to go to the wash room, your host has to swipe his card and take you in. Coffee is the preferred beverage that is served, and mineral water is now offered in small sealed bottles. Most of the offices are absolutely world-class. Of course, it’s a sort of caged effect and I for one would feel claustrophobic were I to work in one of these.

With the Metro set to roll soon (the trial run was successful earlier this week), Bangalore residents will find it much easier to commute. The connectivity with buses is an added advantage. Overall, I got the impression that Bangalore has become a far larger city than what we imagine it to be. Even without the IT parks, there has been considerable development, and there is much more to come. The sad part is the price that has been paid for it – the green cover has vanished from many parts of the city. The numerous trees chopped on MG Road for the Metro were / are supposed to have been / be replanted. But people I spoke to say that is unlikely.

Despite the loss of tree cover, despite the weather getting warmer, despite the ills of development and despite the high cost of living, Bangalore continues to attract people and many of them still choose to call it home. It’s as cosmopolitan a city as you would find anywhere in India. That, clubbed with a climate that still scores over other cities, is what makes the city special today; no longer its gardens.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Elections in India do not actually reflect the will of the people, say students

Well, N.S. Venkataraman, trustee, Nandini Voice for The Deprived, keeps me up-to-date with some of the social work he does all the time. Recently, he conducted an all-India essay competition for the college students. The topic: How to overcome money power and muscle power in elections. It may be recalled that Venkataraman had stood for elections some years ago and was unsuccessful.
Ten students were awarded prizes in Chennai on January 30 (Martyr’s Day) N. Vittal, former central vigilance commissioner. B.S. Raghavan, former chief secretary, Government of Tripura, and Gnani, fiery writer complemented the students for their efforts.

So, what did the students have to say? Here goes (the following is the unedited version, so you will find several errors relating to English grammar)

- The targets for the power-hungry Indian politicians are the simple minded and poor citizens living below poverty line, who are vulnerable to the temptations of easy money and vague promises due to their desperate economic and social conditions.

- Such poor citizens are cajoled with bribing for votes and are also threatened with muscle power which is nothing but a by product of money power. Considering the prevalence of the twin evils of money power and muscle power, the results of the Indian elections cannot be considered as genuine mandate of the people.

- The evil practices start even at elections to the students unions in colleges and universities and gain full scale at the panchayat, municipal, state and national level.

- Today, the money and muscle power play such a dominant role in elections, that there is little chance for a common man with honest intentions and little resources to contest elections , even if he has the capability. The political parties are responsible for this situation, since they only consider the “winnability” (money power & muscle power) of the person for nominating him as the party candidate. Therefore, the political parties in India should be held totally responsible for denying the citizens good candidate to choose and thus killing the spirit of electoral democracy.

- The ground conditions have to be improved, so that men who value certain code of ethics are enabled to come to the centre stage of politics and contest in the elections.

- The use of money power and muscle power in elections are the direct consequence of corruption in government machinery, which have made money power and muscle power in elections possible. Therefore, without eradicating corruption, it would not be possible to defeat money power and muscle power in elections.

- Obviously, those in pivotal positions like Prime Minister and Chief Ministers should have the will and quality of mind set to combat corruption. If they are party to the corruption either as active participant or as silent spectator, the country has no hope of cleansing the electoral process.

- The Election Commission can play a positive role but it has it’s own limitations, since it depends upon the government machinery to conduct elections, which are under the control of many dishonest politicians.


Curb black money circulation

Fine-tune the RTI Act

Impose President’s rule three months before the general elections

Need for fast track court for election disputes

Deny permission for more than two terms

Insist on internal democracy in political parties

Curb family interests

Scrap MP/MLA constituency fund

Introduce finger print electronic voting

Permit online voting

Conduct knowledge test for candidates

Bring down cost of election campaign

Educate the voters

Let the Election Commission assume a bigger role

Give security to Election Commissioners / Electoral Officers

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Just agreeing to get married can bring families together

There’s always something to look forward to at family functions when cousins, uncles, aunts, elders and friends come together and everybody enjoys meeting each other and exchanging banter. It’s like the good old days when I used to look forward to visiting cousins’ homes in Kerala, and even a couple of their homes in the city where I grew up – Calcutta.

Although I might not have made many visits – traveling by train to Palghat, with a stop-over in Madras, or to Bombay, where an aunt stayed, by second-class sleeper was considered too cumbersome to be done at regular intervals. Also, there was the cost factor – parents in middle-class families in those days tried hard to make ends meet and save whatever money was possible.

I, of course, looked forward to every train journey. I loved sitting by a window and watch the world go by, which was often the greenery of Bengal and Orissa, and the seemingly endless tracts of Andhra Pradesh. It was an absolute thrill when I first passed tunnels during my first visit to Bombay in the early 1970s. The trip was memorable for another reason – it was the first time I had a drink (I was still in school), thanks to a generous uncle who poured large pegs of Chivas Regal into steel tumblers so that my dad could not make out. Or if he did get a whiff, he did not show he knew and I must thank him for it. Strangely enough, I did not get tipsy and remember watching the fare dished out by Doordarshan (another first) in the sitting room, occasionally entering the bedroom to take a swig.

Coming back to the subject of family get-togethers, I attended one on Saturday, which brought together a fairly large group of cousins and their children, and aunts and uncles. The occasion: a niece’s engagement. It was an elaborate function, almost as grand as a wedding, complete with a sumptuous banana-leaf lunch. The only thing missing was ice cream (or did I miss it?) but that didn’t seem to matter.

Generations ago, Malayali families really conducted no engagement to announce a marriage. Once an alliance was decided, it was marriage straightaway and the groom would present the bride with a kasavu mundu. That was it. No tying the thali or garlanding each other. All that came much later. Malayali marriages were so short that over time some of those who conducted such weddings added a little extra here and a little extra there – exchange of betel leaves, touching the feet of elders etc – to prolong the ceremony. All this I have from a fairly authentic source.

Perhaps in those days, there was more trust or there were no fears of the groom or bride running away! I was engaged myself, although my wife now insists it was no proper engagement. All that happened was some of the elders in her family arriving at my uncle’s and ‘sealing the deal’ while presenting fruits and betel leaves and nuts and what have you.

Of course, once you are engaged you know you're stuck. You can almost feel your feet being fettered. Being engaged didn’t give me a license to do anything either. My would-be wife refused to come out even for a cup of tea, she was loathe to accept any gift, and all that she did without making a fuss was post letters to Korba where I was working. In short, the license was only for communicating – quite safe in those days, as snail mail took its time and it was just about ten years after Bill Gates had founded Microsoft. The one time she came out (I must give her credit for that), she was accompanied by her elder sister and brother-in-law and I dared not even hold her hand as we traipsed over crumpled footpaths around Gemini, a few steps behind the senior couple, me trying to make sweet conversation. The dinner at the Chinese restaurant was a bit of non-starter because it was there she decided she wanted to throw up – perhaps the occasion had overawed her or it was just one of those periods when a woman's mood swings beyond a man's comprehension.

Today’s youngsters, however, don’t have such problems. There’s MSN and Skype, there’s SMS, Android, iPad… never really a dull moment. And if they are not allowed to go out together they’d surely call their parents weird or feel weird themselves. Like I overheard a college girl telling another: “They all have boyfriends da, always out most of the time… and I feel kinda weird…” If she can get so desperate I can only wonder at what boys her age who are forced to lead cloistered lives must feel… Anyway, more power to engagements, marriages and family get-togethers.

Pictures taken at the engagement I attended show the para (vessel) being filled with nira (rice) by family members; the nirapara, which symbolises prosperity and perhaps fertility; an elder stands up to formally announce the engagement as close family members strain their ears to listen; one of the signatories to the document; and women power and bonding.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Namma Arcot Road coordinators need to get their act together

When the Namma Arcot Road initiative got going formally in the first week of October (on Gandhi Jayanti) with Mrs Y.G. Parthasarathy, dean and director, Padma Seshadri Group of Schools, inaugurating, veteran journalist and Chennai Historian S. Muthiah sharing his words of wisdom, and Madras Day/Week catalysts such as Prema Kasturi, V. Sriram and yours truly in attendance, there was a sort of expectation that the group would indeed do something to make Arcot Road, comprising areas from Ashok Nagar to Porur, a happening place at least once a month with heritage talks and walks and getting the Who’s Who of the city to a part of town that’s usually considered the periphery.

Not that the expectation has been proved wrong, but I would like to tell the coordinators or catalysts of the Namma Arcot Road initiative that while the going has been fairly good on the monthly event front, the progress made on the social documenting front, which was stressed as important by Muthiah and which really should be one of the most important planks of the group, has been disappointing. It’s four months past the inaugural effort and to learn that no old-timer has been interviewed yet to record for posterity what the area was once all about, is almost as good as no progress having been made.

I understand that after a meeting with Mrs YGP an effort was made to rope in students of Padma Seshadri, KK Nagar, to help in the social documentation, but since nothing has come of it (strange, since the dean had herself assured the group and given the go-ahead), it is high time the coordinators seek another school or schools in the area to not only bolster their confidence but also strengthen the initiative. I hear that the principal of Amrita Vidyalaya is keen to get her students to do something but getting this off the ground quickly is what the NAR coordinators must now seriously look at.

The question oft asked me is ‘why social documentation’ or how will it help. As a student of history and one interested in conserving heritage, I can only say that successful completion of the exercise could lead to a possible book or books about Arcot Road. And a book like that is worth more than its weight in gold.

The other thing I’d like to tell the coordinators is that more effort must be made to get events listed in newspapers, especially in the neighbourhood papers that reach many homes in the area. People must know when an event is happening and what it is about. A visit to newspaper offices, mainline and neighbourhood, is essential. Taking the easy route of emailing a press release may not always be the right thing to do. Also, the press needs to see a face or two, not different faces at different times. So, somebody in the group who has a flair for this kind of PR activity and who also has patience must take up what is not an enviable job.

Another thing is the aspect of introducing NAR and the people behind it at every event. This is a very important role and no matter how old NAR will be one day, introducing the initiative briefly and also the people (coordinators) behind it helps. There are new people in the audience every time. Even if there are regulars, there is no harm in launching a five-minute spiel to get the message across. And this has to be done by somebody who can speak fairly well, doesn’t take too long to say what has to be said, and who can hold the attention of the audience. I have seen this go asunder the last couple of times, and this is not the way to go.

The coordinators may think I’m a little harsh, but the fact is that these things need to be plainly told. And as a sort of adviser I guess I have that liberty. The Madras Book Club is an example of how a well-conducted programme, month after month, can earn the respect of people, and how it has made in a mark in the ten years and more of its existence. The Club started informally, with space offered by a leading hotel and little else other than tea and biscuits. Membership was free. Today, it costs Rs 600 to be a member, the events are usually packed to capacity because the Club is able to get leading writers and publishers on one platform.

So, Binita and Gargi, and all the rest of the coordinators, I think you will do well to have a sort of postmortem and get the train back on track. Not that it has veered off, but it is running a bit directionless now. This happens with most voluntary efforts, so there's nothing to feel bad about at all. The initiative becomes healthier when you learn and keep correcting mistakes all the time.

Well, Chitra Madhavan, despite the audio system not performing as it should have, held the audience’s attention last Saturday with a talk about temples in the Arcot Road area. The attendance could have been far better, and that is where events being listed in newspapers help.

Chitra, who is a good friend, is as modest as they come. She is a fount of knowledge. After completing her M.A. and M. Phil from the Department of Indian History, University of Madras, and her PhD from the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Mysore, Chitra was awarded a junior fellowship in archaeology for 2001-01 for post-doctoral research. She has authored two volumes each of the History and Culture of Tamil Nadu and Vishnu Temples of South India. She has also co-edited South India Heritage – An Introduction. She is now working on another post-doctoral dissertation with a fellowship from the Indian Council of Historical research, New Delhi.

Pictures show Chitra making her presentation, a view of the audience, and yours truly introducing the guest and adding his two-bit on social documentation.