Sunday, December 23, 2012

Oh for that Merry Christmas! When caste, suicide, rape were never today's monsters

I’ve always loved Christmas and the season surrounding it. The best part of the year. In Calcutta, we had quite a few Anglo-Indians as our neighbours. Other Christians as well. We would receive plum cakes without fail every year; we would listen to Christmas carols and, of course, to Jim Reeves. There would be innumerable walks down Park Street and past Flurys once I grew older. It would be quite like a season of dreams. There was nothing that worried us. It was an all-too-beautiful world.

I never knew what caste really meant when I was in school, except knowing there were certain communities classified under Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe. My classmates were children of all hues. We had a Muslim class monitor, Jilani, who sadly died in an accident. He had great felicity of style, could write legibly with both hands. Then there were Noor Zaman and Noor Afzal, brothers, who dazzled on the football field. Vincent Das used to sing Kishore Kumar songs behind my desk even as class was on. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, it just didn't matter. I would visit the school chapel regularly and spend a few minutes in meditation. Today, no wonder, I have to rack my brains to try and understand what a ‘caste Hindu’ is!

I didn’t know what a ‘suicide’ was until a family friend’s son decided to take his own life as a student at IIT-Madras. Far away in Calcutta, all I comprehended was that  his family members had gone numb and were not even talking. It was one of those rare occurrences. There is hardly a day today where the newspapers do not mention a suicide in your city. 

I never knew what ‘rape’ meant; do not remember having even heard the word while in school. Frankly, I do not ever remember having read reports on suicide or rape in The Statesman city pages. Or may be, I was just too naive. 

So, what has gone so horribly wrong, I ask myself. Many of my generation and the ones before must be asking the same questions. Has the Indian man changed? Or has the Indian woman? Have we become more ‘animal-like’? Perhaps it’s not appropriate to use that phrase – even animals behave better, much better.

The girl who is in hospital… what karma had she done? That’s what my sister asked me last evening. Even if she were to survive and get back home, how many deaths would she be dying each day?

Death penalty is really not the answer. The challenge is to get people to respect each other, to make it possible for anyone, women included, to go to a police station and file a complaint, to have policemen do a proper job, to bring criminals to justice in the shortest possible time, and have justice delivered. Utopia, you’d think. But it’s true.

Seeing the scenes unfold in Delhi, a day before Christmas, I have a horrible feeling that unless a miracle happens, we will slide slowly towards anarchy and disaster. A banana republic, or a country fragmented.  Much like the Mughal times. Sometimes, it’s a scary thought that this may not be too far away.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Journalism: on the cusp between what it was once and what it is now

It’s been quite a long hiatus…. this blog, I mean. Sometimes, or perhaps more often than not, you seem to think there’s little motivation to keep it going. So many things have been happening in the media, I sometimes wonder whether I did the right thing, switching over to journalism from a cosy job in the insurance industry. If I was still with United India, I might have been chief manager (which is saying something) and if I were with a private insurance company, I might have, well, been vice-president.

That is what some of my batch mates are today – why, there are one or two of them who are directors, so VP is really no big deal. The salaries can be mouth-watering for somebody like me. Most of my mates in the private sector draw not less than Rs 2 lakh a month! Well, it might not compare with the likes of a Sanat Hazra (Rs 2.7 crore a year) or a Jaideep Bose (Rs 4 crore-plus), both from The Times of India stable, but without a doubt you are in orbit.

Like V.S. Maniam (now settled in the US of A), formerly of The Statesman, who writes in his book, A life in Journalism, I have been a rolling stone gathering little moss. Now, of course, it’s a little too late in the day to salvage anything… but perhaps there is still a bit of pride left.

The Hoot editorial says it all. It’s a shame that Journalism has come to this pass, and I'm not talking about India alone. What the future will be, is anybody’s guess. But frankly, it’s like your honour is at stake. The lead articles that appear in the latest issue of The Caravan will not inspire those who are ready to join the profession. What’s television come to? Theatre of the absurd? I don’t think I'm interested in watching Arnab Goswami and News Hour any more.

May be I should put my energies and something worthwhile. Like, for instance, when the father of a friend of mine died suddenly a few days ago. He was past 80 and died a natural death. Yet, no ambulance was ready to ferry him to the hospital. And no doctor was willing to certify him dead. It was finally a relative’s friend, a doctor, who agreed to come by. Even in death, there seems little peace. The man hadn't harmed anybody, had done no wrong… yet. When will newspapers/ television devote their time and energies in covering such stories? 

The real India is oft forgotten or given a go-by. Why? Everywhere (save The Hindu, the Express and The Telegraph), and not necessarily in only The Times of India, the stature of the editor has diminished. It’s sad when you come to think of it. It’s perhaps indicative the way the world has changed. A journal such as Grassroots that I edit, is now closing its printed version because there are not enough advertisements. A shame really. Stories in every issue of it will warm the cockles of your heart. That’s life, it’s the sad truth we are faced with more often these days.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Time to strengthen ourselves with nerves of steel and move on

He liked to call himself a political cartoonist and, according to an interview on a television channel, he believed only in two divides – the rich and the poor. Caste and community did not figure in his scheme of things, he said. That must be saying something because, after all, he was the “emperor of Hindu hearts” who had the ability to trigger extreme emotions in people, be it love or hatred.

It’s difficult to pigeon-hole a personality such as Bal Thackeray. To those in the Shiv Sena he was a demigod, to many others he was far from it. His party has often hit the headlines for the wrong reasons - intolerance, vandalism and creating terror - and today’s generation isn't particularly reverential or forgiving. This is evident from the kind of comments that flooded social media soon after he passed away. 

In death as in life, some would say. I am reminded of Mark Antony's speech (in Julius Caesar): The evil that men do lives after them... the good is oft interred with their bones... so let it be with Casear... Innocuous comments on Facebook, and two girls are having to pay a heavy price for it. And a clinic destroyed.

For all that, Thackeray comes across as quite a likeable person when you see and hear him in television interviews and you really can’t find fault with some of his answers. As a cartoonist he always brought humour to the fore. His close friends included Lata Mangeshkar, Big B, Rajinikanth and Sachin Tendulkar, people you couldn't dream of pointing a finger against. He donned the role of father-figure to Sanjay Dutt not so long ago, had a Muslim doctor for years as he did a man-Friday Gurka. So surely, there must have been another side to him, a side that most people hardly knew existed.

Also, you simply cannot ignore the record crowds that swelled around his lifeless body at the funeral. Very quickly, Thackeray won a place  in a rare pantheon inhabited by Mahatma Gandhi, Pope John Paul, Jawaharlal Nehru, Princess Diana... Fear alone would not have propelled so many people on to the streets. Charisma...? Mystique? Romance? Undoubtedly, bits of all that. Admired for his openness, tough talk and boldness, a raw courage that rubbed off on his followers and allowed them to brazen it out times without number. A Robin Hood sort of figure who had once said India needed a Hitler. 

Even as I write this, news has trickled in, about the two girls who were arrested for their comments, having deactivated their Facebook accounts fearing fresh reprisal. Such a shame! Intolerance. It’s been the bane of Indians for some time now. What sort of democracy are we living in? In the age of social media, the ugly head of intolerance is likely to surface again and again unless the government is strong and does what is expected and what is right. Like The Economic Times says, Thackeray’s death is perhaps the right time to firmly close the chapter of hate and division. It’s also time we strengthened ourselves with nerves of steel and moved on, and developed a more tolerant attitude towards each other. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Chatti or Zidane, it doesn't really matter man...

Memories of my dear father cropped up when I visited the barber’s recently. This was not the regular saloon that I usually visit, but fed up with the kind of service from my old faithful, I decided to try my luck elsewhere. I had espied another hair-cutting saloon, much closer home and, strange as it may seem, it resembled the one I was taken to in good old Calcutta by who else but my dad.  

One of the two middle-aged barbers resembled the one who used to not-so-delicately cut my hair when I wasn’t old enough to go to the barber’s alone; the ceiling fan whirred like it did in the good old times; and there was none of the alarming accoutrements of modern hair-cutting. There was the smell of Old Spice and Vaseline; somehow, both combined to herald the magic of old. The furniture looked as if it was sourced from Murray’s and, more than anything, the two barbers hardly spoke a word to each other or to anybody else. The one doing my hair (or whatever was left of it) bent down to whisper in my ear and find out whether he could use the ‘machine’ that was tucked away in the back lanes of the draw. Suddenly, I was reminded of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and wondered whether I’d need a password to enter the hoary portals the next time.

In life, things work mysteriously (magically, for some). When I was in primary school and still not considered old enough to go out alone, my dad would take me to the barber’s. It was all just a routine – chop, chop, chop. The barber was a wizened old man, my dad’s favourite. At the end of it, my head would resemble a clean slate and it would have indeed been the envy of Zinedine Zidane were he the poster boy then. I’m not sure whether I cried when I returned but my hunch is I did… at least initially. All my friends had well-cropped hair that was left to luxuriate over time. So, no wonder they burst out laughing every time I came home with my slate clean. When their laughter could no longer be contained, they decided to give me a name and so I became Chatti. No elevation in status, mind you. Just a friendly euphemism for a deep round container called pot. I tolerated it, there was no other way. So, when my friends were upbeat and liked to show their friendly side, they would chorus “chatti” and I would cringe with embarrassment – inside my home of course.

Looking back, it all seems so silly. But see how life plays out the scenes. Today, even if I wanted to grow luxuriant hair I wouldn't be ale to. Simply because I’m on the verge of being bald. It’s a sort of status I now seem to enjoy. Convenience apart, I feel Sexy. Imagine if I had felt this way when I was in school primary and had the gumption to tell my dad so! I can almost feel him turning in his grave… God bless him. That sort of feeling would have given my friends a complex, wouldn't it?

Nowadays I chuckle to myself when I see pictures of young corporate honchos doing the Zidane or, shall we say, the SN Eternal Romantic cut?! After all, didn't I start that years ago, years before Big B strode on to the screen with his over-the-ears hairdo? This post is of course for my father. I always miss him but know he is there somewhere close; must be letting out a loud guffaw. Also for my dear childhood friends who were my classmates in school. We travelled a common path for a decade or so before we went different ways… but old memories die hard. Here’s raising a toast to all of them (being Saturday, I mean what I say)… and to the good old days in Calcutta when life was much simpler and, well, sexier…

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The vagaries of life, and the mysteries of afterlife...

Yes, it’s been quite a long while… the result of a fair amount of travel. In today’s digital world there are no excuses for not blogging or tweeting on a regular basis… it’s all up to the individual as they say… you keep learning all the time. I’ve had my fair share of lessons… and now that my daughter has gifted me an iPad, things should improve…

Over the past few days, I’ve been ‘texting’ a friend of mine quite frequently. She is in Calcutta, my favourite city… Her mother is in the Peerless Hospital ICU; she’s been there for some days now. Most of her organs are not functioning. She is on a ventilator, yet she is alive to things happening around her, motioning her daughter for a drop of water, her ears open to all that is being said. Now that her kidneys are not functioning, the doctors are recommending dialysis, but they aren’t quite sure whether it will help resuscitate her. She is 77.

My friend, her brother and others (myself included) wonder whether dialysis will help at all and whether the old woman will be able to take its rigours. The family is in favour of just letting her be, letting her pass away into the sunset instead of artificially propping her up. Most of us would agree with the view. The old lady seems to be holding on though. For how long, nobody can tell. These are the mysteries of life. Even the so-called state-of-the-art technology comes a cropper against what is purely God’s will.

There has been unhappy news on the health front the past month. A senior colleague lost his wife to an unpronounceable disease (sounded like a Czechoslovakian name)… a disease, he says affects one in a million. He tried his best, even bringing home a Tibetan doctor from Dharamshala, Haryana. In the end, nothing really worked. Her end was sudden and peaceful. Only a few months ago, I had met her at a breakfast talk show. She was her usual chirpy and gentle self. Many times when I called him, she would pick up the phone and enquire how I was before passing it on to her husband. It’s a void in his life unlikely to filled even by Time.

Yet another senior colleague is going through hard times. His wife was diagnosed with cancer of the liver and is undergoing treatment at the Cancer Institute. She is a brave woman and knows what she is going through. Unlike many I have known, the family has not made it a secret. The husband has been quite open about the illness, has sought varied opinion and, as a result, there are many praying for her. My Calcutta friend says she doesn’t quite believe in prayers, but many do, especially when driven to the depths of despair as I’m sure this senior colleague has been.

In life you must be prepared to expect the unexpected. How many of us truly are? Both the women struck by grave illness would have least expected it to overtake them. In the first case, the woman was reduced to a vegetable, immune to the presence of anybody in her room. There were two nurses looking after her 24/7… it all ended in the course of a year. In a way, she was luckier than others. I have known of people who have been in coma for years, one an army major in his 50s. He was fed through a nasal tube for more than four years. He was a family friend. It’s something I’ll never forget.

Often, I wonder where people go to after death. Is the person immediately reborn as somebody else (insect, animal or human being) in some other part of the world? My sister says she loves England and wishes everyday that in her next life she be born there some where… as an Enid Blyton character because she so dearly loves Blyton and her books. Does God listen to our prayers and will He meet out aspirations? If only we knew! Afterlife seems such a surreal mix of fact and fantasy. And no wonder as we grow older, many of us turn to spiritual books for some hope, indication, solace… and strength. I see myself heading that way soon...

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Of Sundays, op-ed pieces and morning walks...

Sundays are when you also try and find time to read the newspapers. Often I wonder why newspapers can’t do enough to make some of the op-ed pieces interesting. Sample, for example, this motley collection (on the page titled Thought) from today’s Sunday Express Magazine. The Institution of CAG Deserves More Respect says Upendra Nath Sharma, a former professor of sociology, in a longish piece whose lead doesn’t wake up the reader one bit (don’t we all know that the CAG Report has put the government in the dock?). Manmohan’s Three Monkeys: Fumble, Mumble, Grumble writes another professor, Pushpesh Pant. So, what’s new? Don’t we all know that too? Do we need to read a 600-word piece to know more? T.S.R. Subramanian writing about Moily’s Excellent Ministry and the Blacking Out of Indian Growth has really nothing special to offer readers – we all know about “bankruptcy in governance over six decades”, don’t we? And then, there’s the 'evergreen' G. Parthasarathy talking about Why Af-Pak Border is of Vital Interest to India. Oh come on! Who doesn’t know this as well and, not surprisingly, there’s not one line in that whole piece that says something new. Don’t columnists have a retirement age? How do some of them manage to remain on the op-ed pages for years? Surely, we don't have a dearth of good, thought-provoking writers. May be that is worth a story…


We had a good attendance at the Press Institute of India during the three days of talks. Thanks mainly to students of the Asian College of Journalism who not only made it in fairly large numbers but also sat through the talks and came up with interesting questions. There is always so much scope to learn for the serious minded. But many of these talks are similar; I have attended so many over the years. I think we need younger blood to come forward and speak out on matters that concern them. And having talks/presentations in Tamil (after all this is Tamil Nadu) in as many places as possible is important if the message about caring for or taking pride in a city is to be disseminated. Talks in five-star hotels and clubs or similar places, mostly by the same people saying the same things, is really not going to make much of a difference. Because it is the same people who attend each of these meetings year after year. Which means many, many more people must be roped in to act as catalysts/coordinators.


Have finally decided to restart my early morning walks. It’s been the odd evening walk in recent days but after yesterday’s experience the “early to bed and early to rise” lullaby keeps playing in my ears. To motivate me, there’s a new pair of Reebok shoes and I’m now intent on putting it through the paces.

Yesterday, the traffic was just too much… so much that I had to jump over imaginary pavements and squeeze my body through small gaps and between humans and animals. Reason: a political party meeting round the corner and police having placed barricades to divert vehicles, while trying to shoo away many who cared a damn. People who receive the least respect, I learned the hard way yesterday, were those who walked on our great roads. Drivers of vehicles, all and sundry, would plough through you if given a chance. It’s like each person hates the other – the cyclist the pavement walker, the motorcyclist the car driver, the autorickshaw driver the MTC bus driver…  and you can play this any which way you like… but the common denominator is hatred. Road rage… and it may be only a matter of time before knives and clubs and guns are used freely to decide right of way. God help!

And to think that a few of us were ‘celebrating’ the founding of the city called Madras or Chennai… acting as catalysts or coordinators during Madras Week… sometimes I wonder what really is left to like about the city… My mother keeps talking about how wonderful the place once was, etc etc… My mother can’t believe that a city can take so much traffic… I tell her if there was discipline, things would have been different. Look at Bombay… still years ahead in some of these things… But when will we ever learn! Anyway, small mercies… the devils don’t wake up too early in the morning, so the fainthearted like me may perhaps just find some time to take a quick walk and back.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Yes, names and designations do matter

Editing a journal is not easy, especially if it is targeted at an external audience. I can imagine the anxieties editors of mainline newspapers and magazines go through every day ensuring that copy produced is clean. For, many reporters/writers I know do not really care much about checking and double-checking facts.

It was only last week that I had an argument with my nephew when he wondered how people led lives in earlier years when there wasn’t Google. Many of my generation and those older know only too well how much simpler and happier life was without Google and all the gizmos we have today. What's more, typists and reporters/writers were far more careful, too. My father would type out a full page without a single error while today we rely too much on Spell-check and take little effort ourselves to double-check. And we all know how Googling up information isn’t as good as being there where it matters. Google is of course an excellent tool/guide, an encyclopedia, but I wouldn’t rely on it fully.

Comment is free but are facts still sacred? Yes of course they are! Earlier this week, I was surprised to receive an email from the director and managing trustee of a school in Bangalore saying that although she liked the article that was published in Grassroots (a journal produced by the Press institute of India), she was not happy with a couple of errors in a paragraph, including the misspelling of her name. She insisted that I make the necessary changes in the electronic version and in the next issue of the journal.

When I forwarded the mail to the writer (a Chameli Devi Award winner who ran a column in the Deccan Herald for 27 years), I received a response saying she was “baffled”. “The 'corrections' essentially amount to what I have said. In fact I was a little hesitant about doing this story after she expressed some reservations that my article could antagonise government authorities. But I was later assured that there were ‘no reservations’, and as you know I held the article back by a few months while carefully choosing my wordings. Personally I don’t think any correction is called for. In fact, given the trouble I had sending you the photos, I should have given up long ago,” she explained.She went on to add that after 47 years in journalism,  three national awards, one lifetime achievement award, writing 11 books and  two bestsellers,  and teaching journalism at the post graduate level in Mumbai and Bangalore, she didn’t think she was careless or had “got  my facts wrong.”

That I thought was not quite the right approach or attitude, especially from somebody as senior as her. There is no doubt it is important to get names and the basic facts correct. I wouldn’t like my name misspelt. Designations matter, too. In the story, the names of the women carried no designation. To an extent, therefore, what the director of the institute said was right: “It is my institution that is being written about - an institution into which I have put many years of devoted effort. If it was a patent issue it would have been a grievous error. Imagine the light bulb being credited to Adison instead of Edison. I certainly hope you can see it from my point of view and carry the note in the next issue.”

May be that was going overboard slightly. It was after all a wonderful story about a school showing others the way. But then, a misspelt name and omitted designations seemed to matter more. Moral of the story: You should not trifle with names and facts. And if a mistake has been made, acknowledge it and make amends.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

If you can understand life, you can understand cancer: Dr V. Shantha

A winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service as well as the Padma Shree and Padma Bhushan, Dr V. Shantha of the Cancer Institute, Chennai, is such an extraordinary woman. The few things that strike you immediately when you meet her are her utter simplicity, passion for work, commitment to a cause, dedication and devotion to duty, and compassion and care. Years ago when I was writing a weekly column for the Indian Express, I had met her in her office at the Cancer Institute and I came out of that meeting inspired and humbled. After listening to her talk recently at the Public Relations Society of India on the occasion of International Women’s Day, when she said the confidence that nothing was impossible to achieve must come from within, that women must wake up from their slumber, with confidence in their capability and strength, that when you had commitment and purpose, you needn’t be disturbed by circumstances or obstacles, I was inspired and humbled all over again. That led me to meet her again in the same office. I invited her to talk at the Press Institute of India. She agreed, but said she’d only speak about healthcare with specific reference to cancer.

So, yesterday, when she arrived at the Press Institute to talk, it was for me, certainly a moment to cherish. Born in a distinguished family of scientists, Shantha dreamt of becoming a doctor ever since she was a small girl; her uncle and granduncle were Nobel Laureates. She acquired MBBS, DG and MD (Obstetrics and Gynaecology) degrees between 1949 and 1955. In April 1955 she joined the Cancer Institute, set up in 1954 by the Women’s India Association Cancer Relief Fund as its resident medical officer, in preference to the assistant surgeon’s post in the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Madras. With Dr Krishnamurthy she played a crucial role in developing the institute from a cottage hospital of 12 beds to what is today a comprehensive institution of international stature.

One of the first things Dr Santha said was that there was really no need to be afraid of cancer – it was just like any other disease. Sixty-five per cent of cancers were curable, Dr Shantha said, especially if detected early. Advanced stages of cancer had no cure and the best was palliative care. However, overall, there is no doubt that developments in science have blunted the power of a disease whose name most people even today take with bated breath. While it is breast and cervical cancer for women, lung cancer is the top killer among men, overtaking oral and other forms of cancer. Dr Shantha does not believe in miracles; her faith in medical science is as strong as ever. All the improvements in cancer cure were a result of it, she said and pointed out how the disease could now be diagnosed even at the molecular stage (without any sort of growth/tumour or physical appearance as such).

Dr Shantha was critical as ever of the tobacco lobby and recalled how once she refused to have a chain smoker as a member of a cancer-prevention body. “Keep tobacco sponsors away from sports,” was her clarion call. She was also not for having any person who smoked as a teacher in a school. “If he smokes how can he be an example to children,” she wondered.

There were many questions, including a few from students of the Asian College of Journalism. Others shared thoughts and concerns. One visitor told the doctor how a family was shattered after a woman in it tested positive for colon and lung cancer. There was nobody in the house who smoked. That was when Dr Shantha mentioned about some cancers taking the genetic route; it could even skip a generation or two. Another talked about how his mother, after having been diagnosed with breast cancer 26 years ago, continued to lead a normal life. Contrary to what most people believe, chemotherapy and radiation did not cause pain, Dr Shantha said; the pain was due to cancer, not the treatment. “If you understand life, you understand cancer,” she said, indicating that the disease in many ways is complex and beyond the control of the human being, just as everyday life is. She ended just as she had begun, on a positive note. Adopt a positive outlook at all times, she emphasised. Somebody then whispered into my ear: “If you are mentally strong, you win more than half the battle.”

Pictures how Dr Shantha speaking, answering questions, and students from te Asian College of Journalism who turned up in considerable number and took a great interest in the programme...

Monday, July 16, 2012

Perform or perish, is the message for those in the media

We’ve all heard about the pink slip, haven’t we? It’s usually always associated with private companies who hire and fire at will. During my innings in the public sector, I’ve experienced firsthand the meaning of job security. United India Insurance was then the second largest general insurance company in India after New India (the insurance sector was not opened to private investment then) and possibly had the second largest number of employees as well. On the one side, merit was hardly rewarded; so even if you stood on your head and worked it was unlikely you would gain an out-of-turn promotion in two years. Like the rest in my batch, I had to wait four years before I got my first promotion and I never stayed long enough to even get a whiff of the second. Today, of course, most of my batch-mates are well ensconced in the private sector, with fancy designations such as vice-president and executive director, and they are all very well paid, too. Looking back, I wonder now whether I did the right thing moving on to journalism. But no regrets.

The point is UI or any of the public sector companies never issued a pink slip to an employee. At least, I haven’t heard of such an occurrence so far. Even the ugly ducklings or rotten eggs were given more than sufficient time to reform, which really meant infinite time. I’d heard of horrendous stories of employees belonging to one union or another coming drunk to office, creating scenes, gheraoing officers and generally bossing around. But it was only much later that I got to experience some of it in my own office. It was then that I made up my mind to leave. Am not sure whether things have improved in UI and the other companies; perhaps they have after all. In any case, nobody’s ever lost their job. You just couldn’t unless you managed hara-kiri; at worst it was a suspension if the vigilance department recommended.

A few weeks ago, a former colleague at The Times of India Group in Chennai called me to say his job was on the line. Apparently, there were strong rumours that TOI was downsizing again and that meant only the best could survive. Would I be able to help? Not in terms of ensuring that his job was safe… but by helping him find another? Close to 50, it’s difficult to be in the job market. He is a page layout artiste and nowadays with most reporters learning Quark and CCI and what have you it will be even more difficult for him. I said I’d help him get freelance work and our conversation ended. A couple of days ago, he called me again. This time, there was more certainty in his voice. He had received a call from Mumbai and the HR executive asked him to put in his papers. My colleague knew the branch head well but there was little the latter could do. Once his name was short-listed to appear on that unenviable list, it was only a matter of time. I feel sorry for him. He tells me there are quite a few others who will be out of work in a month. But I can see that TOI is recruiting as well, judging by several new bylines in the main paper.

There have also been reports by media watchers about some employees at the Dainik Bhaskar being asked to leave. Whatever it is, an employer has the right to retain you or throw you out. Whether asking an employee age 50 who has probably spent 15-20 years working for you to leave in a month is gentlemanly enough, providing an answer in today’s world, when only the leanest and meanest survive, is not easy. Employers do have the right to ask employees to leave. One thing is for sure: the pressure on those in the media to perform everyday is now getting almost unbearable even for some of the chaps who’ve probably taken their job for granted all along. I somehow get the feeling that the media industry in India will get to see more job losses in the coming months. And there may be few blue-eyed boys left.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

65 years of Independence, and the state of health care infrastructure in India is shockingly poor

I usually look forward to the weekends. Even though there are no holidays as such for one who works more from home than from the office, the weekends continue to bring a sort of leisurely charm. When the weather is on your side and when there is the Euro Cup and Wimbledon going, it’s quite a lot to keep you in cheer. The past few days have, however, been slightly unnerving, what with a senior member of the family unwell and various tests conducted and reports collected. There have been visits to the doctor, the specialist and others for gathering varied shades of opinion.

It’s only when you read stories about the real India, that you realise how lucky we all are, born and brought up in the towns and cities, where access to most things basic is not very difficult, where there are indeed doctors and specialists to consult. While editing stories for a journal, I was left wondering how little we have achieved as a country even if you are to consider something as basic as infrastructure. Good roads, clean drinking water, proper transport… health care. Do we even realise that as we click pictures on Fb or chat or call, there are pregnant women desperate to get to a clinic miles away, that there is no transport worth the name to take them, that in the so-called public health centres or clinics, there are no doctors. And people, especially the tribals, the poor, the villagers, are struggling just to be alive. 

Yes, sixty-five years of Independence, and the state of health care infrastructure in our country is shockingly poor. In rural India, home to 70 per cent of the population, many villages still remain cut off. If there is a medical emergency there is no hospital to go to, transport is non-existent, the so-called public health centres do not function properly, there are no doctors or nurses. In many villages in Odisha, senior medical officers’ posts have been lying vacant for the past 12 years; there is no anaesthetist, so no major surgery. No gynaecologist either. It’s a nightmare for pregnant women, many babies die after being born due lack of medical intervention; deaths among infants below five years have been scored at 90 for every 1000 children. In these parts, life lies, well, truly in God’s hands 

In Sikkim, the September 2011 quake turned out to be an eye-opener. People saw firsthand the inadequacy of the state’s healthcare system. The only place that offered hope to the stricken people was Gangtok, the state capital – there were hospitals there capable of handling emergencies. One tribal woman was lucky; she gave birth to a baby minutes after being airlifted from her village to Gangtok. It’s a sad reflection of how an Indian state lies cut off, neglected and forgotten. Will P.A. Sangma contesting the Presidential election change anything on the ground? We all know what the answer is.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Agents of change: Children show the way

The Press Institute of India and the Chennai Press Club in partnership with UNICEF conducted recently a media engagement programme with children whose participation has brought about changes in local communities and local governments. UNICEF continues to support and strengthen children and young people in civic engagement initiatives and networks in Tamil Nadu. There are child participation groups, which can be termed as models in Tamil Nadu, which work towards realising child rights. The children have been participating in issues concerning them in local communities and local governance and bringing about changes that help the realisation of child rights. The programme held at the Chennai Press Club auditorium saw children, positive agents of change, interacting directly with the media.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, available to every person in India, including children. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that children should be active participants in any decision-making process that impacts their lives, and their views given due consideration in accordance with their age and maturity. Children and young people can participate at multiple levels and in different contexts, from the personal to the global, and in a range of institutional settings, from the household and school to the municipal council and global advocacy processes.

It was really to showcase examples of children-led advocacy and to highlight the fact that such changes lead to betterment of society that the programme was conducted. What surprised me most was the confidence the children showed in speaking to the media. The hall was packed with photographers, television cameramen and reporters, but it only seemed to enthuse the children to speak out, loud and clear. Even girls, as young as the ones you see in the picture, did not let go of the mike easily. Lessons for some of our PR and communication practitioners... We are hoping these exercises (this is the second in a series of six planned) will translate into meaningful stories in the press and media, and lead to greater motivation and participation. 

Picture shows yours truly with Sugata Roy, UNICEF Communications head (bespectacled, centre), and some of the children at the Chennai Press Club.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

One helluva summer trip, eh?

Talking about Kulu Manali and the hills, let me get back to the whirlwind tour my cousins braved to make in the summer. It turned out to be quite a trip really. No sooner did they arrive in Delhi after a long train journey, than first my nephew and then one of my cousins swooned and fell. A splash of water and sips of juice brought them back in the reckoning for the long trip ahead. The Delhi heat can be unbearable for the visitor. The tour operator had arranged a non-AC bus to take the forty or so of them (it was one big group) to Agra, Ayodhya, Mathura, Bodh Gaya, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Kulu Manali, and, finally, the Wagah Border. My cousins say they must (between the four of them) have spent more than Rs 3000 on water on the trip.

The puris in Mathura did most of them no good. To add insult to injury, the operator came around to distribute Eldopar capsules. Apparently, this was a yearly occurrence in Mathura and every year he would hope it wouldn’t happen. But this year was no different. In Ayodhya, my cousins and all those in queue were frisked so badly at many places, it was like being molested, they said. At the end of it, all that they could see was a small idol of Lord Rama from several feet away. There were so many policemen and soldiers deployed to guard the site, guns in hand, behind sandbags... like waiting for Godot. Such a waste of human resource! Don’t we see that so often in our cities too?

The worst experience, they recount, was at the Wagah Border. On the Indian side, there were hundreds waiting to see the change of guard. On the Pakistani side, hardly anybody. A senor ranking army officer got (at least tried to) the adrenalin and spirits flowing by talking about the ‘enemy’. After hours of waiting, at the appointed time when the floodgates were opened, the crowd surged forward and the inevitable happened: there was a stampede. My nephew was tossed aside to one side; his uncle to another. My cousins, wise women, decided not to go forward and beat a hasty retreat, sideways, I guess. All this in scorching heat with no head cover whatsoever. Not end of the story. The operator had booked them all by second-class sleeper from Delhi.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Oh to be up in the hills, like Mr Bond

Who doesn’t envy Ruskin Bond! I do. Every time I read about him or see his picture in the newspaper I wonder, if only life had been different and I had had the gift of storytelling like he had and the good fortune to have my books sold, I, too would have chosen a place far away from the maddening crowd, the offal, the noise and the traffic – up in the hills where the climes are cooler and you feel twenty years younger.

A week or so ago, Mr Bond was in Chennai and as my daughter got several of his books (including some of the old ones she had bought as a kid) autographed, she asked him for his email ID. Come over to Shimla, he quipped… That’s God’s gift, too. To be able to say something like that. Pure and simple luxuries that are not gifted to many. Well, if I was a good enough writer, I might have said the same thing: come over to Nainital or Dalhousie or Kullu Manali…

Oh, not Kullu Manali. My cousins and a nephew are just back after a whirlwind tour of north India. Kullu Manali, they say, is warm! Yesterday, when I met another cousin at a family do, he said the same thing – Coonoor is warm. With the way we are destroying our forests and chopping down trees mercilessly, all this comes as no major surprise. It may only be a matter of time before we begin to see old homes and bungalows in the hills being bulldozed by ‘developers’ to make way for skyscrapers. What a shame that will be!

Mr Bond is infinitely lucky. But even he knows only too well (and writes about it, too) that the Shimla of today isn’t quite the Simla of old. Am not sure whether the famous mall retains its old-world charm. Darjeeling’s, I’m told, does.

Well, I have The Room on the Roof and Mr Oliver’s Diary waiting for me on my table. But presently, I’m in the midst of Bill Aitken’s fascinating book called Seven Sacred Rivers. There’s no better friend than a book, is there? I learned that years ago when I fell in love with Enid Blyton’s books. I can imaging my sister writing her diary and finding time in the midst of teaching and household chores to read her favourite books. And now that the monsoon has hit Calcutta, there can’t be a better time with books and a hot, strong cup of tea. Mr Bond, perhaps, might like that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Equality for women! Where's respect for them in the first place?

A girl in her early teens leaves her village near the Sundarbans in West Bengal to seek a livelihood in the City of Joy, to earn money to educate her older brother. After being exploited initially, she finds loving people in the home of a well-to-do family. But for how long will her joy last, before she is forced to return to the Sundarbans and marry? Your guess is as good as mine.

They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I have edited the story of a woman ill-treated by her husband and forced to lead a life of her own without her children, but who recovered her poise and accepted life with equanimity. A remarkable story of courage against the odds. Luckily, she’s doing well.

Sangha and Urnila come from India’s neglected northeast. With their families left destitute, the two girls arrive in Chennai and are taken care of at the Love Care Centre. Sangha has dreams of bagging the job of an airhostess some day, while Urnila hopes to become a nurse. They persevere and work hard. How are they faring today? We hope they are doing well.  

Then, there is a poignant story of students, mostly girls, walking non-stop for two hours and more to reach their school in a remote part of Kashmir. Despite lack of some facilities, they never complain. They hardly miss a class and wish to study to become teachers and doctors and to make a place for themselves in society. A lesson for some of our city-bred children, you’d say?

Can timid, shy women gain self-confidence, learn to run a business and stand on their feet? Yes, they can.  Project Eco, established by the YRG Medical, Educational and Research Foundation, Chennai, not only encourages entrepreneurship among underprivileged women, it has turned many into respectable breadwinners. Yet another example of how women, once they are given a free hand, can excel and prove a thing or two.  

It makes for quite an unusual sight – a woman carrying passenger luggage at a railway station. But in Chhattisgarh's Raipur Station, Maanbai and Parasai do just that. While one inspired another, together they now inspire other women. Life is not easy at all, but they find happiness in what they do.

The last example possibly exemplifies the nature of women in general. They are easy to please, create little fuss, are absolutely devoted if you are faithful, will do anything for you if you show them you care, even become great lovers and teach you a thing or two… But that (showing them you care), unfortunately, seems to be hard coming. We seem to be born in a culture that despises women and takes perverse pleasure in taking every opportunity to leer and sneer at them.

Now, how in the wide world did I get into all this? Well, while my daughter was in the midst of her learning lessons with her car, I noticed drivers on the pavement and other good-for-nothings watching her very effort closely as if to say, let’s see how you do it. Even as she drives there are many who take a second or third look to see if she’s doing OK (negative vibes, you bet). All of it makes me wonder whether things might have been different in a developed world. And the strong feeling I get is: YES, it would. Also, why are we talking about 33 per cent reservation for women when it really means nothing on the ground. It's no wonder it hasn't happened as yet, and even if it were to some day, do you really think it will make any difference? Ha! And if this is indeed true of Indian cities, what about the much, much larger swathe that is rural India? Isn't it a curse being born a girl in India? Where's television and, eh, Arnab Goswami?

Monday, June 11, 2012

An Ind-Suzuki and a Fiat, faithful companions both

My first real job was in the tea estates in the Niligiris. Many of the estates even today look as if they’ve just popped out of a picture postcard. When I was there in the early 1980s I was taken around in Land Rovers and on Jawa motorcycles. There are very few bikes as macho as the Jawa, the outlines so seductive that it leaves you pining to own one. Coloured like military-fatigues, the purr and the whirr of the Jawa tempted me no end, to try a shot at learning to ride it and perhaps strike a decent deal with a second-hand bike.

But the Jawa was not for me. I was slated for a far less macho-looking India import – the Suzuki. Or rather, the Ind-Suzuki as it was called, the first of the 100 cc bikes to arrive in India. It was my brother-in-law’s and he was leaving for the Gulf, so would I put the bike to good use? It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. And with what little cycling experience I had, I began my affair with a proper bike once the gleaming Ind-Suzuki arrived from Bangalore. I was also given a helmet that was military-smart.

I still remember screeching to halt at signals especially if there was a cop in sight. Some of the best moments were when I would launch into first gear and take off after a day’s work at the insurance office, right outside Harrison’s at the Anna Nagar roundabout, even as I espied a few nurses in the hospital next door grinning ear-to-ear and exchanging banter, their eyes focused on me. Or may be that was just my imagination going astray… The Ind-Suzuki behaved well, was easy to please and after a few years of use, it returned to its original home in Bangalore. It is still in the owner’s garage today, used whenever my brother-in-law visits from Dubai. And whenever I'm there, I lift up the cover and have a look at its tank, the gleam gone but the warmth still there.

When the Fiat arrived (my first car), it brought along with it quite a bit of adventure. On the evening of the first day I had taken it to work, it taught me a lesson or two. Never mistake the accelerator for the brake and if you hit something or somebody, please stop by and find out if all’s well. Below the Gemini flyover I pressed the accelerator hard and swerved as a fish-cart suddenly appeared out of nowhere. One of its wheels squealed out in pain as a few coconuts and other accoutrements toppled over. I went along pretending not to see hands trying to stop me or voices hurling abuses. As I wended my way through the traffic in T. Nagar that flush of anxiety came to the fore as I bumped into an auto-rickshaw. The driver, however, was not the kind to let me go. And so he followed me home. It all ended at a garage where I paid for the damages.

Once I was tamed, the Fiat was like a mother – always protective and friendly, despite the heat, the signals and traffic jams, and the most unpredictable drivers. When I had to finally let go of it after ten years or so, it was a sorrowful parting. Only then did I realise that you can develop close bonds with the inanimate as well.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I owe quite a bit to Sindri... and to Hari

I learnt driving pretty late, even if it meant just cycling. For years in Calcutta, I used the best means of transport – my sturdy two legs (they aren’t as sturdy now) and, of course, public transport, which more often than not meant the friendly laid-back tram. When one of my close buddies used to visit, driving a Hero Majestic moped, I used to fancy driving such a vehicle but that never happened. Much later, when I was posted in Korba, an industrial township in east Madhya Pradesh, I would fancy driving an Enfield Bullet. The development officer working in the branch would announce his arrival with the thunderous roar of his Bullet. He and his family soon became neighbours and there were a couple of occasions when I tried driving that monster. That I escaped unscathed is only part of the story.

My first lessons in riding something of import were taken on an open field in Sindri, yet another industrial township, but in Bihar, a township that reeked of old world charm and all that’s good with the world. Those were the heady days of the 1970s, a world for me that was then filled with my cousin Hari, his friend Bum (yes, we all wondered what a name!), some super-friendly neighbours, the weekly film show... Hari and Bum were older to me by a few years, the exuberance and adventure of late adolescence having overtaken them, and so they spent exhilarating moments under trees and outside kiosks puffing ever so lovingly on cigarettes and bidis. I did give them admirable (for my age, that is) company, but ensured that such early-on experience did not lead me inexorably to the world of ganja and hashish as it did both of them.   

Back to that sprawling field... I was trying my best to gain a semblance of balance on Hari’s bicycle and finally yelled out in orgasmic triumph as I managed to cycle a short distance before I fell off and hurt my leg badly. It was early morning and no passerby in sight to witness the shameful moment, so I plodded on and after a couple of heaves and pushes and surges I was able to circle the field. If there was anybody watching he would have thought what a seasoned cyclist I was! Those balancing lessons were never forgotten and although I was never too fond of the bicycle (that seat always tended to pain my crotch) I found I had indeed graduated to make an attempt with a motorcycle.

Hari is now in Palakkad; he can hardly see. He quit a paying job in Durgapur years ago and tries to make a living dabbling in the stock market. His wife has an ailment – she’s schizophrenic, and he has two children to look after. Life can take terrible turns. We do keep in touch and sometimes in those few minutes of coming together again, we wonder if life had only been a little kinder (to him) and, yes, if those good old days in Sindri could return. There’s no news about Bum, but wherever he is, let him be well. Hari’s dad, my father’s youngest brother, has died and all of us in the family have lost such a wonderful storyteller.He was the one who introduced me to the world of Sherlock Homes and Alfred Hitchcock and spun tales around almost every page of the Illustrated Weekly.

I am reminded of those lessons I learnt (by myself) in Sindri's playing fields thanks to my daughter taking to driving her car these days. Chennai’s roads are chaotic at the best of times and today I realise how it is to be a parent waiting for a child to reach office and to return home. I have gone through the grind, picking up a couple of stars on my debut… more of it soon.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Back to my roots... to a magic number called 30/2

It’s almost thirty years since I left Calcutta. Yet, no other city draws me as close as she does. I used to dream about living in Bombay, which eventually happened, just as Madras also happened… yet at heart I still remain a Calcuttan. It’s perhaps bound to be natural when it’s the place where you’ve spent the first twenty years of your life… where you first experienced the sunshine and the rain, where you learnt to play marbles and spin the top, where you sweated it out on the school fields and in the assembly hall, where you first got attracted to the opposite sex (it happened outside school, and I still remember her face!), where you had your first nocturnal emission (on the pillow!), where you first inhaled the cigarette smoke, where for the first time you tried a cocktail of beer and whisky and found yourself desperately trying to hold on to the railings of a tram, where you felt your first pangs of love (which after a while seemed to be infatuation of the sublime kind) and, that too, with somebody older to you, where you first tried to shake a leg or two on the party floor and knew in an instant that it wasn’t your cup of tea, where you knew that there really couldn’t be anything more beautiful and lovelier than the Bengali woman… well, let me stop this panegyric…

A few months ago, my sister (who is much more a Calcuttan than I can ever hope to be) and I decided to take a walk down memory lane. And it really was a walk from Modern High School and the Beckbagan junction towards the magic number called 30/2… Jhowtala Road was where we had lived for two decades and more… my sister probably since the late 1950s. What we saw horrified us – footpaths were encroached by settlers, buildings lay battered by old age, and a monstrosity of a mall was rising from the ruins that was earlier the electricity board campus. Plaster was peeling off and cobwebs hung from what was the post office – I used to go there many a time to buy inland covers and stamps. We could almost feel a ghoulish laughter as we kept on towards that magic number… 

Pictures show the Beckbagan junction, as familiar as home to many of us who have left Cal; the tents erected by squatters on the way to 30/2; the shabby state of the buildings en route; the pharmacy from where we used to buy medicines, which had seen much better times; the upcoming mall (not of the Darjeeling kind) that seems quite out of place here; the road we would all take on our way to school, college, office or club; and yet another of those side streets that almost seems to be crying out to get back to the 1950s and '60s.... what a shame!

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Remembering an uncle who meant so much…

My earliest memories of him are of Cadbury’s chocolates lying on shelves hidden behind curtains, his whistling of popular tunes, his incessant ringing of the doorbell, and his unmistakable penchant for dressing up well. My sister, older to me by almost a decade, remembers having gone out with him to see Ben-Hur when she was hardly in her teens, and of him gifting her presents at regular intervals, one blue frock picked up on her birthday from a roadside retailer in Ballygunge still vivid in her memory. He was our favourite uncle, father figure in later years to many, somebody who exuded authority and charisma – indeed, one of those chosen ones. He was daring, belying his fairly slight appearance. Stories of him taking on a belligerent kabuliwala (remember that moving short story by Rabindranath Tagore?) in the Calcutta of the 1950s have been narrated with bated breath. And of such stuff are legends made.

Neithlath Ramachandra Menon, N.R. Menon, or N.R. as many knew him, passed away yesterday morning after a long-drawn and remarkable battle with Alzheimer’s. Until the disease struck him a few years ago, none in our family had probably ever known what the most common form of dementia was like. He was always forgetful, those who knew him closely would even joke about it, some considered it as fanciful, some didn’t. The day he struggled to get back home in his car was when it dawned on his family, that there was certainly some kind of a problem. Irritability and aggression are some of the symptoms of the disease and as days passed, these came to the fore. My aunt bore most of the brunt but, sadly, she lost another battle – against kidney failure. It was into his own arms she collapsed and fell even as she was climbing up the stairs in her own home in Palakkad… her sudden death led him into a sort of abyss from which he really found no escape. But like the hero he was in real life to all of us, he battled on relentless…

As long as my aunt was alive she was there to cushion his aggressive spirit. Daughters, after all, have limitations, although my two cousin sisters showed they were more than equal to the task. Alzheimer’s in a person who was headstrong, always a leader, had people in his command, can be a terrible thing. It proved so in his case. He would, in the initial stages, be desperate to get out of the house, enter homes, spend sleepless nights foraging – not for food – but for bank account and post office statements… worried to death that people were out to cheat and steal his money. Such activity would go on well past midnight, indeed any hour, he had lost all relevance for time. Despite it all, he would still hold on to your hand firmly, not willing to let go till you nodded to what he seemed to be saying, because most of it was unintelligible. A year or so ago, when I visited him in his home in Kochi, he would come out of his room every few minutes in the dead of night and ask me why I was sleeping alone… the following afternoon, he sat next to me on the sofa, not willing to rest till I had finished with the newspapers. So much for old time’s sake!

It’s when you come face to face with a disease as daunting as Alzheimer’s that you feel humbled; you get to understand life in its varied hues so much better, you realise that wealth and flamboyance (and he was a flamboyant man…) in the end do not really mean anything. Hardly two pounds of flesh and a few bones… and even that doesn’t count because it’s the soul that lives forever, the body is just a vehicle.

Would my uncle ever have thought in his prime that Alzheimer’s would clasp him ever so tightly? Why, even ordinary folks like me would like to think that old age is a mirage and that we will remain young and robust forever. Little do we realise that in life’s unseen and mysterious eddies, all of us lie buried… and we have to plop into the river when the time comes. It’s what we have accomplished that matters… that sets the stage for a future life, be it in another planet or Vaikuntha if you like….

Today, as we grieve for the loss of somebody who stood out like a beacon of hope for many in the family, a leader among men, a care-giver, who, as his elder daughter said so aptly, never bore any ill-will or rancour or bitterness towards anyone, it’s also a time to celebrate… for him having gained mukti or final deliverance, and for touching so many hearts that it is difficult to come to terms with his absence. He must be up there somewhere with my aunt who he loved dearly and for whom did everything he possibly could to please (he took her out almost every evening, even if it was window shopping, and that is not as easy as it sounds). They were indeed a ‘made for each other’ couple who lived up to the billing.

My memories go back to Calcutta once again, when he took me once to Mohan’s in New Market and bought for me a delectable pair of shirts and trousers, the time he took me to the Strand and the Maidan, the time he spared to come to the Bangalore Cantonment Station when I was visiting the Garden City for the first time in the early 1980s, all those walks on MG and Brigade Roads with my aunt and cousins in tow, his way with banquet managers in hotels such as the resplendent Amber in Calcutta (he was a connoisseur of food)... not to forget the night when he arrived past midnight (in the early 1970s) with a doctor after my dad had his first heart attack, the other days when he took him for check-ups to the doctor… it’s a fairly long list and my sister can fill in for the many blanks I have left.

Although it appeared he died ever so alone, it wasn't really the case. He was surrounded (suffused on occasions) by love and the struggle of his loved ones. It was only that the abyss of Alzheimer’s had drawn his conscious mind away from his home to somewhere far, far away and even then, as much as many of us got the strong feeling (and we were probably right), his thoughts must have continued to have had a strong focus on his family that he loved so much and cared for. Even as he would have loved to reach out and touch and feel the hands of people he loved, Alzheimer’s scored and created a vast gap between reality and the obscure. But we were all there to cushion him on his journey to the heavens. 

As telephones rang incessantly and words were exchanged, it was clear he wasn’t alone – no, not any longer. My mother’s (she is older to him by a few years) intermittent sobs betrayed her emotions. After all, she had mothered him for several years in Calcutta before he got married and in her own words, took greater care of him than she did her husband. And all those memories of old continue to flash by in her mind’s eye. There were others who cried, including myself. But soon a greater power enveloped us, assuring that his spirit would continue to guide us in the days and weeks and months ahead... let his soul rest in peace...

PS: I would probably have never moved to Madras if it were not for N.R. He was heading operations in the south for the pesticide company he had served all through in Calcutta and my mother felt he would place me suitably either in his firm or elsewhere. Nothing of the sort happened and, as it turned out, only for my good. Because I learned to stand on my own feet and fight my battles alone. Probably he wished the same thing but was loathe to be open about it. There is also something called 'fate'. It was perhaps not a coincidence that he died on Chithra Pournami, on a day when the moon shone the brightest and biggest in a long time. And today is BuddhaPoornima... somehow it seems he is already up there, shining as bright as Sirius in the night sky.

Monday, April 30, 2012

A 'woman journalist' who believes in respecting the reader

Sushila Ravindranath’s article in the Financial Express, about whether gender really matters for a journalist, set me thinking. Most of the solid contributions to Grassroots and Vidura, two journals from the Press Institute of India stable, come from women (whether they think of themselves as ‘women journalists’ or not is another matter). Sushila mentions several of the well-known names, probably she forgot to mention Sakuntala Narasimhan, Shoma Chatterji and Ammu Joseph, prolific and superb writers all, each well past their prime time yet meticulous and thorough, and Pamela Philipose as well, who now heads the Women’s Feature Service.

There are others who are not so well known, such as Bina Raju who edits Eve’s Touch, and Lakshmi Natarajan, editor and managing director at the Kalki Group. When I met Lakshmi recently, a few things she said struck me. “Speak the truth. Everything is contained in that. To speak the truth we should know the truth, so we should be there and ensure for ourselves that we give a true story,” she said, adding, “Your conscience is then clear. The advertorial concept is picking up very fast, but we are not close to such ideas. We don’t do an advertorial that is based on a write-up sent by somebody. We send somebody to meet the client; we ensure the client has valid information to provide, and that his credentials are okay. Even when our reporters write, stories are based on interviews. Advertising is different. So are opinions. But when it is an article, we ensure we are there.”

The other thing Lakshmi said: she believed in giving readers a lot of respect. “My reader is my customer. We must keep her happy, be it replying to a letter or answering a telephone call. As an editor I make sure that if there is somebody who wishes to talk to me, I will. Even if it is just a New Year greeting, I take the call.” Indeed, it is the speaking of the truth and the attempt to bring credibility that has enabled Mangayar Malar, one of five magazines published by the Kalki Group, to develop quite a remarkable rapport with readers. Significantly, the magazine has no staff reporter, with 70 per cent of the content contributed by readers. Recently, the magazine was chosen by the All India Confederation of the Blind as one of five in India, for publication of the Braille edition.

Lakshmi Natarajan, who has been at the helm of the Kalki Group for more than a year, belongs to the Kalki family (part of the third generation, she is the daughter of K. Rajendran, granddaughter of T. Sadasivam and M.S. Subbulakshmi on her maternal side, and Kalki on the paternal side). She does not get into the day-today working of the magazines, saving her functions more for conceptualising. “The foundations that were laid are very strong,” she says. “We believe in the vision – welfare of the nation – and are carrying it forward. Whatever we do, credibility is right at the top. ‘Commercial’ will probably lie at the bottom.”

Although the role of an editor is quite new to her, Lakshmi’s thinking is clear. “A reporter need not necessarily be a journalist or an editor. But the person working at the desk definitely needs some training, some skills. From the time Kalki and Sadasivam were there, what they had done to the institution and to the outer world was that they trained a number of writers and even converted them into journalists. New writers are always encouraged. We need to do this in a more professional manner, though. The most important thing is for the reporter to do some homework before meeting somebody.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dinamalar surges forward on the new media front

A 60-year-old newspaper has adapted and moved with the times, and moved quickly. Its Web site attracts more than two million unique visitors and more than 190 million page views a month; its iPhone, iPod and iPad applications have recorded a substantial number of downloads and page views, with various apps being made available on the Android platform as well. All run and managed by a small team that is highly focused on delivering value to users as well as clients, and it has paid off well.

It was at the WAN-IFRA Conference in Chennai in September last year that S. Balasubramanian, head-marketing, New Media, Dinamalar, presented a case study of how readers could be attracted to consume news on the mobile platform, and how opportunities could be created for generating new revenue. Dinamalar, printed in ten cities across Tamil Nadu, is a 60-year-old newspaper that sells about 0.9 million copies a day. Balasubramanian refers to as India’s No. 1 publication portal, with 2.05 million unique visitors and more than 20.43 million visitors a month, more than 192 million page views a month, with about 47 per cent of users in the 25-35-year age group.

It’s been quite a remarkable success story, which Balasubramanian in his presentation pointed out was because of innovative content for mobile platforms, dedicated teams for photo and video galleries, dedicated content, technical and marketing teams for the iPhone, iPad and Newshunt mobile site, and special content for the global Tamil community (more than 30 stories relate to NRI Tamilians daily). During the presentation, Balasubramanian described the mobile phone as more than a just walkie-talkie. “It is more than sending or receiving messages, more than accessing mail, it’s about staying connected constantly with the world with the most convenient device that users cannot stay without,” he says.

The success on the digital media platform for Dinamalar is buttressed by some of the statistics Balasubramanian dished out. For example, Dinamalar iPhone apps have registered nearly 46000 downloads, more than 0.63 million visits a month, and five million page views. After the launch of the iPad app, Dinamalar registered 1251 downloads on the very first day. Dinamalar was the first Tamil newspaper to launch the iPhone and iPod touch apps in June 2011, and the first to launch the iPad app in September that year. Overall, one the digital platform, more than 2.6 lakh downloads and 27 million page views a month have been registered. The recently launched Android platform, which runs on a free operating system, has picked up very quickly. In two months, the apps has registered about 30000 downloads, comparatively much faster than the numbers notched up by the iPhone apps. A Windows-based app, and the Android tab have also been launched, is what I hear.

“We have notched up some good numbers as far as mobile apps are concerned. If you look at the iPhone app, we already have more than 50000 downloads (during the past seven months after launch). You must remember we are a Tamil language Web site, which in a way is a limitation. Anybody using the apps must know to read Tamil. A sizeable number of the NRI Tamil population may not know to read, although they can talk fluently. So, despite all that, we have substantial numbers,” Balasubramanian explains. The Dinamalar Web site attracts regular traffic from Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. Currently, the digital apps are offered free, but the paid route is likely to be adopted soon. On average, the user comes to the Dinamalar Web site once in three days, which is a significant number.” However, getting clients to run campaigns on a CPM basis is one of the big challenges for Bala and his team. “We have huge traffic and clients can leverage on this.” Dinamalar has made substantial investment for is New Media division, which includes a 60-strong editorial team and a video division that does special stories.