February 26, 2007

Ab Kahan, asks Lalu

As TV studio lights dimmed, but before the mike got switched off, following a live interveiw rail minister Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav was heard by viewers, asking, Ab kahan jana hai. I presumed that question was addressed to the TV guys who interviewed him soon after he had presented the rail budget in parliament.

Reading the papers the next morning I realised it was Lalu who was on the move, not the TV-wallahs who set up shop at the channel studio, interviewing people who came their way. As The Hindu reported, "Walking from one TV studio to another and taking up lively discussions through the electronic media, the railway minister handled all the queries with aplomb..."

On the rail budget afternoon I watched Lalu, back to back, on Zee News and NDTV, and then lost interest, as show hosts of varied genders, at different studios, tended to ask the same set of questions. In one of the shows Rabri Devi, thoughtfully positioned in front of a TV channel camera at Patna, had a question for hubby. Wanted to know how the rail minister worked the magic of giving additional passenger facilities without raising fares, and yet showed increased profit with every budget.

"You ought to know," said Lalu, and told the Bihar ex-CM that the (passenger)benefits-(rail)profit ratio worked to the advantage railways and its users alike. The minister then went on to explain it to his wife through a Lalu-Rabri household analogy. They are used to raising cows in their backyard in Patna. As Lalu put it, they give you more milk, if you give them proper care and better nourishment.

February 24, 2007

Pratham: some thoughts

Pratham, Mysore, organized a meeting the other day in a borrowed venue (The Hive school, Yadavagiri) to create awareness and to raise funds. The pretext was the release of the NGOs house magazine – State of Education in Mysore. Managing trustee Mr Ashvini Ranjan was pleased with the turnout, and, possibly, the day’s collection.

“I am overwhelmed by the response,” said Mr Ranjan. He admitted that those at the Pratham, in the last five years of its existence, had been accustomed to seeing empty halls and vacant chairs. As it turned out, Mr Ranjan, was unwittingly responsible for creating awareness of the wrong kind. Something he said on the Cauvery verdict didn’t please some people. They stormed Pratham office, smashed furniture and windows, shouting slogans.

Pratham, for the unfamiliar, is an NGO involved in educating children from weaker sections through non-formal home intervention and in training those volunteering to teach slum children. Mr Ranjan and his team would like to see wider public involvement in the work Pratham is doing.

Convening meetings like the one held at The Hive is okay. Besides, the core group at Pratham would need to do some homework, to reach out to specific interest groups with concrete proposals on how they can help the Pratham cause. My reference is to teachers and student volunteers, young professionals, clubs of all kinds, NGOs involved related spheres, and, notably, the local builders association. Mr Ranjan and his team of resource persons would need to take time to hold meetings with various interest groups to secure their involvement.

I thought of the builders association after hearing Dr T Padmini about her interaction with families of watchmen employed on building sites. Construction workers move from one site to another, with no fixed address or ration card or any other documentary proof that would enable their children to get admission in regular schools. Dr Padmini could discuss with the builders association and explore ways of helping the workers and their children to get primary education. The education department could be persuaded to accept an undertaking by the builders (endorsed by their association) in lieu of proof of residence or other requirements. Dr Padmini would have heard of Mrs Mahadevan’s initiative in opening mobile crèche for nursing mothers among construction workers in New Delhi some decades back. Local builders could be talked into extending facilities for a Pratham type initiative in building sites, if they are not already there.

Findings of Dr Padmini’s survey on the dismal state of primary education among slum children need to be taken to various schools. Those involved in the survey could hold seminars with teachers and senior students at selected schools. The idea is to educate them on the plight of the less advantaged children; and to involve public spirited teachers and students in educating their neighbourhood children.

Pratham could think in terms of networking with orphanages and child welfare institutions. I know of a well-run children’s orphanage – Chamundi Children’s Home – that could benefit from Pratham initiative, to supplement education of the boys and girls of the home who attend regular school. This apart, periodical interaction among children from the home and those who have benefited from Pratham would help in personality development. Pratham could take their children, in manageable groups to visit old people’s homes to spend a day with people there. Such interaction can only be mutually beneficial for the children and the aged alike.

With its website in place Pratham could develop online networking with like-minded individuals and agencies. Speaking of involvement of others, Pratham could look out for online contact with young professionals with volunteer spirit. I know of Mr S L Manjunath and his Infosys team involved in SOFTEN initiative. Others can come up with lots of other contacts worth making.

February 21, 2007

English for pre-school kids

Happened to read an article on ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s’ of teaching English that appears in Pratham publication, State of Education in Mysore. Though the write-up is addressed to teachers of Kannada medium primary classes, it could be instructive for young mothers keen on interactive baby talk, in English, with their two or three-year olds.

Excerpts, reproduced without permission from the teachers’ English teacher, Dr Durai Krishnan:

DO encourage the child to use English household words – table, tube-light, bus, book (without literal translation in mother tongue) so long as they understand what these words stand for.

Common household vocabulary of English words vary with families – mom, dad, breakfast, dining table may not be commonly used in all households.

DO proceed teaching from the known to unknown in respect of words, sentence formation and conveying ideas.

When it comes to teaching, spoken words precede writing – No slates or notebooks until a ‘child’s mouth is full of English’, says Dr Krishnan, and at the primary level teaching of writing should be limited to the alphabet, and the child’s own name.

DO keep talking to your child – acting, laughing, story-telling; reading is no substitute to talking.

DO NOT alter the child’s learning sequence – listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Speaking to children and story-telling are best done outdoors, outside a class-room setting.

Books are not for reading – use them for showing pictures, talking about them; and also use charts, flashcards, photos, 3-D toys etc.

Teach a child one word at a time – speaking it out clearly, loudly, with lip movements.

For further details contact duraikris@gmail.com. Dr Durai Krishnan, a retired BARC scientist, is founder trustee of Sethu Bandhana Trust, Mysore.

February 20, 2007

The Mysore labour crunch

After reading the story in The Hindu any passing motorcyclist in dark glasses sets me thinking if he has been responsible for holding up building work somewhere in the city. For Mr A Ravindra, a builder with many ongoing projects, is quoted as saying that many of his workers, in recent weeks and months, had stopped work, only to show up a couple of weeks later “on a motorbike, wearing dark glasses and flaunt their new-found prosperity”.

Local construction workers, they say, come from families that own farmland on the city outskirts. With a phenomenal rise in the price of agriculture land (an acre can fetch anything from Rs.30 to 90 lakhs) quite a few construction workers have made a minor fortune by disposing of their land. Another factor citied by employers facing a ‘high rate’ of attrition in the last couple of months is that many of those working on construction sites have found better paid work with local IT companies, as gardeners, sweepers and caretakers.

The labour scenario in the building projects reflects vertical mobility of unskilled labour. It is an upshot of the very economic factors that have enriched builders and land speculators. Have these beneficiaries passed on the benefits of the building boom to their labour force by giving their workers a fair hike in wages and improving their working conditions?

Big builders have resorted to ‘import’ of workers from other parts of the state and the country. Maybe a time would come when they would think of making labour a stakeholder, entitled to dividend, in the projects the builders take up.

B2B with K: A saturation limit?

Change the name of this blog to ‘ramblers park’. The account of 1960s nostalgic journey through NW frontier has reached the saturation limit, says a commenter in my previous post. Far from it, my friend.. I thought we had just begun. One person’s ‘saturation limit’ can be seen as a ‘starting point’ by someone else, as the following mail I got suggests.

“ Your exchanges with Mr. Kini and the blogs that you put up almost like letters to each other (made public) has been fascinating”, writes another friend. “…these stories (through an exchange of letters) has kept me so interested that despite time constraints, I never fail to open the blog park website frequently, to see what’s posted on your adventures.”

To go back to the initial comment, it goes on to say, “could we expect you to come down to earth and post things about Mysore – something closer to home?” It’s a thought. But then I thought you could get personal in blogging. Incidentally, are we talking of the same blog here?

For those who care to read more nostalgia , Kini has posted his latest - Facing No Man's Land....

February 18, 2007

B2B: Kini hits a speed-breaker

Word from Herne Bay, UK, is that our friend Kini isn’t doing well,again.Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) has a way of draining body and mind - "barely being able to get up in the morning as if my head is filled with cotton wool, choking for breath, no strength in my burning legs and chest wall in a clamp. Then as the day progresses with more oxygen in the system, life becomes possible. My head is full of half completed sentences for my next blog of my trip across Pakistan".

Getting through daily routine takes some doing. What most of us take for granted is an ordeal for Kini – ‘I find it hard to stay in front of the PC and string words together’. In an earlier e-mail, referring to our B2B Kini said he hoped to resume his account of his overland trip to London. In his earlier piece Kini gave us an idea of how he got bitten by this overland travel bug.

I look forward to reading his accout of transiting Pakistan, in the 60s, when the country was perceived the least India-friendly. Kini had a refreshingly differnt experience - 'We took a 2 days 2 nights train from Quetta to Zahedan in Iran . The tickets were bought for us by a stranger, the station master of Lahore mainline station who put us up, fed us, took us around and gave us a surprise by putting us on this train'.

February 17, 2007

B2B with K: Clueless in Germany, a tale of two visits

Leaving London on that May morning (in 1967) in a 12-seater van we motored down to Dover, from where we took a car-ferry to Ostend. Brian, our tour manager and driver, was into endurance driving; wanted to try out how far, and long he could drive in one stretch. The mad bloke drove through the day, and night, through the subsequent day, halting just long enough for a wash, meals and for petrol.

Out of the car ferry at Ostend, we drove through Belgium, halting briefly in Brussels to ensure we were headed to Germany. I got to see the Black Forest by night; drove right through that renowned spa town on the forest edge, Baden Baden. But then we spent an hour or two in an unknown town, went into a crowded bar hoping to find someone who could speak English. No luck. Whoever Brian tried to speak to just shrugged his shoulder and carried on with whatever he was doing.

A few minutes later, someone tapped my shoulder from behind, asking in perfect English what our problem was. He ignored Brian, in, what I would call, the characteristic German disregard for men and matters British. Anyway, we needed German currency to be fed into the automatic petrol vending machine, and direction to some place we could hope for a hot meal. The gentleman at the bar was helpful, and acknowledged my ‘nameste’ with folded hands.

Brian had learnt his first lesson in organising overland tours; that you can’t count on a German in Germany to speak English with an Englishman. I felt somewhat indispensable, and flattered by Germany’s preferential treatment towards a desi. But then I had a German experience of another kind on my subsequent visit to the country 27 years later, in 1994.

This time I was in a group of foreign journalists on a jaunt at the German government expense. I represented the Times of India. The others in the group were from Australia, S Korea, Brunei, Indonesia, Lebanon, and an India-born woman representing Vatican Radio. Apart from the Australian woman reporter and our German escort, our group was coloured. You can’t fault the official hospitality. We travelled business class, were put up at posh hotels in Bonn, Berlin, Dresden and Hamburg.

On escort duty was a kindly middle-aged lady (can’t remember her name) from Hanover. The state information department, drafted her, wife of a businessman, because she spoke English and expressed her interest in interacting with people from other countries and cultures.

Much to her embarrassment, we were greeted with cat-calls from some young things hanging out at the Dresden railway station. At Bonn, on a stroll on my own at a market square, where some leather-jackets on motorbikes ganged up to hold an impromptu rock concert, a middle-aged shopper helpfully advised me to stay out of their sight. At a Cologne pub,where we stopped by for snacks, and local German beer, I was given a dirty stare by a stranger in the wash-room. I swiftly made my way back to our group to find safety in numbers.

It was at a German bar, some 27 years earlier, that I met a helpful stranger who made me feel so welcome in Germany. I was then an anonymous tourist. But here I was now, a guest of the German government being ‘carried ‘ in business class comfort, but given a menacing stare by a stranger for ‘trespassing’. Mine might have been an isolated experience and this sort of thing may well be happening elsewhere in the world.

I still recall the swinging sixties when young Germans, notably, female and single, used to come to Britain as au-pair, ostensibly, to learn English, but, in reality, to find a husband. They seemed to have a preference for desi grooms. My experienced friends, three of them to be precise, have it that German girls with working knowledge of English made good wives. I know Kini would say, French are better in this department.

February 16, 2007

Millie runs a blog, at 81

Ran into this interesting blog run by Millie who has many gripes in her life to write about. At 81, she is billed the Internet's oldest blogger. This is what her blog is about:

Millie Garfield is one of the Internet's oldest bloggers, according to The Ageless Project. With an authentic and humorous voice, a knack for story telling and frequent updates, Millie's blog, My Mom's Blog, shows that people want to hear from someone with a story to tell

February 15, 2007

Let’s do a Juhu in Mysore, says Dr Shenoy

That Mysore residents/voters ought to organize themselves to put up their own candidates in the next city corporation election is a thought-provoking proposal. And,if I may add (with due apology to Dr Bhamy Shenoy), it should not go unconsidered merely because the idea comes from a convener of Mysore Grahakara Parishat (MGP). Dr Shenoy cites the Juhu citizens initiative at the recent Mumbai city corporation elections.

Alfred D’Souza, Independent, sponsored by the Juhu residents, polled 4,582 votes, defeating his Congress (3,900 votes) and BJP (3,200) rivals. Polling percentage was 43.These figures reflect:1) Citizens initiative works, if the target we set is modest, and tangible with a definite time-frame; 2) campaign power of the political biggies can be countered with effect; and 3) there is still a log way to go in persuading people to cast their vote, even if it is the fate of their own candidate that is at stake. Political pundits may have other interpretation for the low polling percentage at Juhu.

The Juhu people’s campaign story started six months back (a realistic timeline) when a Juhu corporation area sabha was formed on the Janaagraha concept developed in Bangalore, says Dr Shenoy in a Star of Mysore article (Feb.15, 2007).

A polling booth (Juhu municipal ward had 37) was taken as the primary unit, and about 100 residents from each booth met to choose their area sabha representative (ASR). The grass-roots level meeting had folks from various walks of life in varied age-groups (17-70). Names of persons with candidate potential were sent by various booths. Eventually, a short-list of four was considered at a meeting of area sabha representatives. Mr D’Souza was their choice. Citizens, notably, the prominent ones, canvassed for the people’s candidate. And campaign expenses (Rs.60,000) came from ad. Revenue of a Juhu citizen welfare magazine.

Dr Shenoy, seeing lessons here for Mysorean, suggests a start be made in Mysore. Let’s mobilize citizens from five of the 65 municipal wards, says Dr Shenoy.My first thought is that MGP could make a start in such citizens initiative from its home ground, Yadavagiri, and Dr Shenoy should announce right away that he is not a candidate. Maybe, he is not interested. Besides, elections do not favour ex-IITans, as Dr.Shenoy is well aware. But a public declaration by him, and a few other NGO spokespersons with high media visibility (need I name them?), would help create much needed public trust in citizen’s initiative.

One other thought. A person's political affiliation shouldn't be a factor going against his/her choice as people's candidate.Political parties too often ignore the claims their own workers, which could leave party persons, with good credentials, neither here nor there.

February 12, 2007

That (aircrash) photo is a fake

Read my earlier item A photo worth a millon words. and, then, what follows:

This photo is a fake. An airplane can never remain stable even for a second with the loss of the horizontal and vertical stabilizer. Not even a second. It should be in an uncontrolled spin vertically downward. In a vertical downward spiral, there's no
time for anyone to have taken the photo and the position of the airplane with respect to the horizon and clouds in the background (any aviator can spot this)suggests aircraft flying straight and level. This is impossible. Clearly, one of the clever fakes that I have seen recently but nevertheless a complete fake.

Capt. Anup Murthy

(Dr. Anand got this e-mail, a copy of which was marked to me.)

A photo worth a million words

Worth a million words in praise of one man’s audacity in the face of death; his out-of-the-box thinking and split-second reflexes. My reference is to the passenger who took this picture (if you can see its copy pasted on this blog) moments before he went down with a crashing plane involved in a mid-air collision over South America.

The photo was recovered from the memory stick in a digital camera found in the wreckage. It’s owner, identified with the help of camera serial number (presumably, under warranty), was Paulo G Muller, actor in a children’s theatre at Porto Alegre, Brazil.

I got this picture in e-mail forwarded by my friend Dr (Lt.Col.) Y N I Anand, who had got it through a link chain (which carry mostly junk, but an occasional gem such as this one). Thank you, doctor sahib.But I must admit,seeing the picture my first thought was, could this be really real?

February 11, 2007

Mundane story behind a media scoop

If it was not for the old fashioned beat reporting by Orlando Sentinel editorial staff the NASA astronauts love-triangle story would have perhaps been missed by the media. The Sentinel editor credited his paper’s scoop to the shoe-leather work by beat reporters. Referring to this my friend and retired resident editor of The Economic Times, Bangalore, Mr N Nageswaran recalled his experience as police reporter in the Madras edition of The Indian Express in the late 50s.

As reporter on late night duty (also called the mortuary beat) it was Mr Nageswaran’s job to make late-night calls to all city police stations, followed by a visit to the General Hospital mortuary. It was on one such routine visit the reporter learnt that the police had brought in a short while earlier a body identified as Arumugam, a rickshaw-puller. It made little more than a news-in-brief. Cases of drunk and dead rickshawmen picked up from street by the police were not uncommon.

As Mr Nageswaran was leaving the hospital mortuary its caretaker in need of a smoke told the obliging reporter that the body had marks of injury, probably caused by beating. On the basis of further information he gathered from a police contact Mr Nageswaran pieced together a story that made Page One.

The story was that a sub-inspector in the Flower Bazar area had an eye on flower-seller Rukmani. Her inconvenient husband was taken to the police station on the pretext of investigation. That was the last Rukmani saw of her rickshaw-puller husband. His name: Arumugam..

It was a story the police wanted to bury. On the morning it appeared in The Express the Madras police commissioner, S Parthasarathy Iyengar, sent Inspector Senthamari to Indian Express to get a retraction and an apology from the reporter. The inspector met the Express supremo Ramnath Goenka to register a complaint of false and misleading reporting by the Indian Express. Goenka directed chief reporter Ganapathy Sharma to sort out the issue. “We used to call him ‘Gunboat Jack’”, said Mr Nageswaran, “the chief reporter wanted me to meet Goenka and apologise to the inspector”. He did neither, saying his (Mr Nageswaran’s) job was to report to the chief reporter, and, that he stood by his story. Meanwhile the story of Arumugam’s death in police custody was picked up by other papers. The police sub-inspector who started it all was eventually convicted on the strength of Rukmani’s testimony.

B2B with K: Leaving London, home-bound

‘Right ho, then,’ was all that my friend Sushil Nangia said as he saw me off outside Waterloo Station on that May morning in 1967. I was leaving London for good, and had chosen to do it overland in a 12-seater van, with six others – two men, three women and a girl child. Compared to the turnout Kini had at New Delhi station when he set off on a hitch-hike to London, my send-off from London, heading home to New Delhi, was a quiet affair.

In fact, I wasn’t expecting anyone to show up, as I had taken leave of my friends the previous evening. Sushil surprised me, by turning up at the Waterloo station parking lot,our designated departure point. To be there that early, to meet me for a few minutes, Nangia had sacrificed his Sunday morning that one usually spent breakfasting in bed and poring over the bulky Sunday papers. But then Nangia is a peculiar guy in the Bertie Wooster kind of way. And he was among the more unpredictable of the friends I had in London those days.

For all you know, Nangia might have turned up to make sure that I wasn’t bluffing about undertaking this crazy overland exercise. Kini is intrigued, not by my mode of transport, but by my decision to return to India, at a time when thousands were prepared to sell their assets back home, even risk their lives to come and live in the UK. More on that, a little later.

Nangia was among my contemporaries who settled for permanent residency in England. He was then a clerical officer at a London county council office, a secure and pensionable civil service job. And with a felt on his head and rolled-up umbrella, and sporting a wire-frame pair of spectacles, he looked a brown sahib down to the tip of his polished black shoes. With such a start ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ Nangia must have retired as a Whitehall busybody. I lost touch with him. Wonder if he wears braces, like Larry King.

Nangia and I have known each other from college days. And we usually found ourselves at the same coffee-house table, presided over by ‘Speedy’ (S P Dutt), who was to be known, years later, as Barkha Dutt’s dad. Nangia and I had come to Britain around the same time, along with a group of other coffee-house regulars. During ‘Speedy’s’ occasional trips (he then worked for Air-India in New Delhi) we used to gather at India Tea House (Oxford St.?). Like at the Delhi coffee house, we spent hours at London Tea House whenever Speedy came on his visits.

At the Waterloo parking lot Nangia made small talk with Brian, and asked how we discovered each other. Well, I met Brian through the New Statesman personal column, advertising an India trip overland, by the shortest sensible route. The trip, Brian cautioned, was not for those who expected to be ‘carried’ by others in the group; who were not prepared to accept some heat and discomfort; and definitely not for those who couldn’t ‘get along’ with strangers.

Brian promised to transport us in a brand new 12-seater van, which I learnt later was funded mainly through our contributions, as down-payment on a vehicle loan. I don’t remember how much he charged, but it was less than a hundred pounds per head, excluding visa fees for Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. I couldn’t get Pakistan visa. Flew from Kabul to Amritsar, to rejoin the rest who drove through Pakistan.

We paid for our food and accommodation, wherever Brian chose to make a night halt. In Tehran, Istanbul and Kabul we spent a couple of days or more. We split into companionable sub-groups for dining and doing the town. Brian, Carol (a student nurse on way to catch up with her boyfriend in Sydney) and I happened to club-up.

Kini wants to know why I returned to India, at a time when every thing started going for me. A two-word answer to that would be, ‘home sickness’. It was true I had not planned on getting back. Like Kini with his wishful thinking, of marrying Francoise Sagan, my dream was to move on, from England, to places before settling down at Sao Paulo. Though Kini didn’t get Sagan, he did marry someone suitably French, I was wider off the mark in my dreaming. I have settled down in Mysore(my Sao Paulo).

One’s dreams have a way of getting blurred with changing realities. My reality, after three years in England, was an intensified pull of my folks back home, coupled with a certain new-found fondness for India, and all things Indian. I don't know why our Bharat began to look mahan when I viewed it from London or Darlington. The other factor that bothered me was that I was beginning to get accustomed to a cushy lifestyle and creature comforts. And felt the longer I got used to them in the UK the tougher it would have been for me to get back. That, on my return,I discovered an India that wasn't that mahan was quite another matter.

A question I would like to ask Satish, Subash, Sushil, and Kini, who have made the UK their home is this. Has the thought of getting back ever crossed your mind ?

February 8, 2007

B2B with K: My take on the names you dropped...

Kini, a quickie on my recollection of the names you dropped in your last post. Mentioned here in order of their appearance in your account:

Irshad Panchatan: Knew him less as a mime artist than as a friend of my friend O P Kohli (is no more), who was the elder brother of Satish, who had sustained me during my cashless days in London. Are you still with me, Kini? Anyway, whenever Irshad was in Delhi he spent time with O P, with whom I used to hang around in the Janpath, and later Thambu Coffee house.

Irshad and O P were associated with the Hindustani Theatre, patronized by, among others a local architect Anand, and Shama Zaidi. Wonder if you ever ran into Vidya Sagar, a painter who used to hang around when the theatre group rehearsed at Shankar Market. Vidya Sagar later followed us to London, where he found a job at India House (as lift operator, I believe). My recall of Vidya Sagar was that of romantic dreamer, who was intensely in love with someone. I credit him with this self-serving quote, “Being in love is a 24-hour job; it’s impossible to be in love and do much else at the same time”.

Years later when I was posted as the Times of India correspondent in Bhopal I had a call from Sagar saying he was in town as a guest of Bharat Bhavan that invited noted artists and performers to conduct workshops. Sagar was still in London doing well as an artist, and, presumably, out of love.

O V Vijayan: You know, Kini, a website set up to celebrate our cartoonists and their work, doesn’t have any mention of Vijayan in its homage to a few greats in cartooning. The website, CartoonistsIndia.com, has been set up at the initiative of a CEO whose last name rhymes with yours, Ashok Kheny, Incidentally, they pay tribute to Abu, who was a cartoonist at the London Sunday Observer. He used to frequent India Club, at Strand, for lunch, usually a Southie thali. Soft-spoken, pipe-smoking Abu Abraham had a pleasing personality. As someone in the higher editorial echelon of a mainstream Fleet St. paper Abu was my career role model.I was introduced to him by Iqbal Singh of Patriot, as a misguided youngman who had given up a govt. job (at the Press Information Bureau) to come to London. That was a pretty factual, if unflattering introduction,I thought.

Najmul Hasan: An old friend and colleague, first at The National Herald and, years later, at TOI, with a flair things artistic. For a reporter Najmul had connection with officials, politicians and others who usually had media dealings with special correspondents (a higher reporter breed). In later years Najmul (I heard he is no more) and I fell out, never to patch up, over misunderstanding on something I now find silly.

Kini writes that 50 odd friends and well-wishers gathered at New Delhi railway station as he set out on his hitch-hike to London in 1964. In contrast, three years later, I had this lone friend, Sushil Nangia who turned up in front of Waterloo station on that sunny morning when I left London for good in a 12-seater van, at the start of our overland trip to India. It was May 3, 1967. Have you met my friend Nangia, Kini ?

February 7, 2007

I’m a sakku-moottai, aren’t we all, at times ?

I read with a certain guilt-feeling Lakshmi Ramanan’s latest in Mangayar Malar (Tamil mag.) – Nee Oru Sakku-mootaiya? (Are you a bluff artist?). That hyphenated s-word is a Tamil term for someone adept at making excuses to cover-up a lapse or cope with an embarrassing omission. I have been guilty of resorting to it with Shyamala (which is how we call her), particularly, whenever my wife and I neglected to meet her ailing mother (she is no more) during our occasional Chennai visits.

Lakshmi Ramanan, a prolific Tamil short story and feature writer, is my wife’s cousin. Her parents – Ramasami Iyer and ‘Thirukkural’ Kalyani Mami – had been a great help when we were setting up house in New Delhi in early 70s. At a time when we had no elder relations in Delhi to look up to for advice and guidance Shyamala’s parents were there for us.

I don’t recall the specific excuses I made up, but Shyamala or her IAS husband Mr Ramanan ( who retired as Chief Secretary in Rajasthan) have been decent enough not to challenge me. If anything, they acted as if they believed my cock ‘n’ bull that I invented on the spur of the moment. The pair of them are delightful conversationalists. Shyamala speaks as breezily as she writes.

I don’t get to read much of what she writes (can’t keep pace with her turnover in varied magazines - Mangayar Malar, Kalki, Kalaimagal, Ananda Vikatan, Kumudam Bhakti Spl.). However I recall a piece she did on her grand-father, Venkatsamy Iyer of Chamarajanagar. The reputation he had with all his grandkids (including my wife) was that of a stern person who had firm beliefs about the status of women, and their place in our households. In his reckoning a woman’s place was firmly in the kitchen.

Shyamala happens to be the first female graduate in the family (she passed out from Delhi’s Indraprasth College)in her days. She couldn’t have even thought of becoming a graduate, if her grand-father had lived longer. He died before she joined college. Shyamala recalled that when she once showed him a medal she got in school her granddad asked, “what would you do with a medal?” Education was not for girls, who should focus on marriage and on their work in the kitchen.

Irony was, as Shyamla put it, “I couldn’t have got married to Mr. Ramanan, had my grandfather not died at the time he did”. Mr Ramanan wanted a graduate bride..

February 6, 2007

Autobiography of an ordinary Indian

Blogger Narendra Shenoy prescribes three ways to make it to Medikeri. My favourite would be, what Mr Shenoy would call, “an inexpensive and characterful way”. Bussing it there from Mysore. Here, a note of caution from Mr Shenoy: Be prepared to share it with livestock. To put it in the blogger’s own words, “I traveled once this way for a lark and had to share my seat with a goat and a rooster. (When I told this to Sheela, all that she asked me was, ‘were they MBAs too?’ – talk about empathy ).

I happened by Mr Shenoy's blog through a Google Blogs Alert. His blog is named – Autobiography of an ordinary Indian – We have had one from an ‘unknown’ Indian, this was quite a while ago.The book had put Nirad Chaudhuri on the short list of the great Indian English writers of his time.

Mr Shenoy who styles himself ‘an ordinary Indian’ says a question that has bothered him is: “why should only the rich and famous be allowed to write autobiographies?” He reckons he is unlikely to be rich or famous anytime soon, anyways, and, by inference, he could not write his bio. So Mr Shenoy chose to blog it, his autobiography.

May I suggest something, Mr Shenoy? Don’t jazz it up to the point where you don’t get to recognize your own life. Besides, a common Indian’s life story told as it plays out during these trying times, would anytime be more salesworthy than fiction from an ordinary Indian. With your style, and with Sheela to help you along with the narrative, you might even make a 'blook' of it - blog morphed to a book.

February 5, 2007

B2B with K: Kabul in the hippy, happier days

Kini, Wonder if you have seen Kabir Khan’s Kabul Express. It’s a film about two TV journalists on assignment in Afghanistan following the fall of Taliban. Our Kabul visits, yours and mine (in May 1967) made three years apart,predates that of John Abraham and Arshad Warsi by four decades. In the 2006 movie the two actors were featured as media men exposed to life-threatening situation while driving through Afghan countryside.

We did Kabul during the good old, carefree days when travel was safer and even regular guys took to back-packing. We had with us a middle-aged wife of a businessman from Norfolk who was bored with golf and country life. She traveled overland with us to get a feel of the world, and send picture postcards home from exotic-sounding places.

There was this Indian couple with a school-going girl. They were going to Bombay for a long vacation. A British student nurse planning to join her boyfriend in Sydney joined in for ‘some fun and a bumpy ride’ to Bombay, from where she was to take a boat to Australia. And then we had Brian who had bought 12-seater with our contribution for the trip and set himself in business as an overland tour operator. He was our driver, and it was his first trip, which made us all equally inexperienced.

Pak refusal to grant visa held me back in Kabul, while the British in the group, made it through Khyber Pass into Pakistan, and then on to India via Wagha border. Had to hang around four days in Kabul for a plane connection to Amritsar. Ariana Afghan Airlines flew to India only twice weekly.

Kabul in the 60s was a staging post for hippies, hitch-hikers and flower children looking for poppy-sourced bliss. ‘Make Love, Not War’ was their mantra. They sustained a host of Afghan youth as tour guides, an euphemism for drug peddlers and pimps. Lodges, cheap and smelly, were full. Cafes in town were packed with those who stayed in cheap lodges, but spent their days at a cafe lingering over coffee for rest & recreation, and to use the rest-rooms (toilets).

Outside were parked vehicles, mostly vans and land-rovers carrying number plates of almost every European country. Some of the vehicles displayed placard advertising seats to London for 50 pounds. I visualized Brian putting up a seat-for-sale signboard on our van, on his way back after offloading us in Bombay.

Kabul those days had a thriving Indian community. They owned petty businesses and shops dealing in all conceivable items – dry fruit, saris, hardware. Many of them had a back office for unlicensed trade such as money-changing and bootleg liquor. I didn’t know if it was illegal to deal in currency, for we paid for most the stuff we bought with dollars. But when I wanted to en-cash a traveler’s cheque a shop-keeper, adopting a hush-hush tone, sent me with a middleman to a house some distance away to receive cash in dollars.

But then money changing on the sly was a standard operating procedure shopkeepers adopted in many places. I had similar experience on reaching Bombay. Everyone I knew usually went to a shopkeeper rather than a bank to have our dollar or traveler cheque encashed. Shopkeepers paid a higher exchange rate. Those were days of severe forex restrictions. Those who emigrated to the UK, as I did, were given a foreign exchange allowance of three pounds.

Meanwhile in Kabul I had a spot of bother when I reached the airport to catch the Amritsar flight. I wasn’t aware you needed an exit visa to leave the country. An immigration official directed me to a designated police station in the city to get he visa. When I mentioned my anxiety about missing the plane the official assured me that the plane would not take off that soon and that I had time enough to make the round trip to the city police station. Irony was my tourist visa was to expire before the next scheduled flight to India, three days later.

I needn’t have worried. For the plane was still there on my return to the airport with exit visa. How was I to know that the published schedule for flights out of Kabul were notional and they were routinely delayed. I would like to presume, this time they held up the flight for me on the say-so of the immigration officer. Even after boarding I found my plane, a Dakota, wouldn’t leave Kabul so easily. The plane on runway made two false starts before take-off .Maybe the pilot was being put through flying training at our expense.

Over to you Kini, for your take at Gateway to India.

February 4, 2007

India will overcome, says who?

Says Edward Luce, who has been India correspondent of The Financial Times, London. He writes about “the strange rise of modern India” in his book, titled, In Spite of the Gods. It won’t be enjoyed, reckons The New York Times review, by Indian diplomats, academics, Hindu nationalists and makers of cow-dung anti-dandruff shampoo. “Most others, I suspect, will relish”, says the reviewer Ben Macintyre.

Nicely put, Ben. My suspicion is that many of the academics and diplomats who read this sentence would want to read the book, if only to repudiate it; and the others would be inclined to buy it to see what is there in it that would not please Hindu nationalists. And I would want to figure out why Ben, the book reviewer, has excluded the shampoo makers.

The author of this book cautions that the expectation of success has infected India’s privileged classes with “a premature spirit of triumphalism” that could prove self-defeating, a case of counting chickens before they are eggs. “India is not on an autopilot to greatness”, says NYT review quoting the author, “it would take an incompetent pilot to crash the plane”.

The Edward Luce prescription:Improve education, strengthen liberal democracy, develop a coherent energy strategy and radically revise the transport system before the country’s car population swells from 40 million today to an expected 200 million by 2030 and brings the entire country to a chocking standstill.

My question: Can we accomplish all this? Sure, all it takes would be a miracle mindset-change in our people and policy-makers alike.

February 3, 2007

B2B with K : Of crossover book and a cross-country trip

Reference: Kini's B2B

Kini, The Hindu review of Inglistan, a Rajesh Talwar novel, says the book is about cultural comparisons, with the leading character holding forth on Indian culture and the crossover - how Gujaratis are the European equivalent of the Jews and how Indian restaurants in London are really Bangaladeshi.

How true.I have found that owners of most of our eating joints in London came from Sylhat district of the then East Pakistan. And they usually named their restaurants after Agra, the Taj or some other renowned Indian landmark or town. There used to be an Agra restaurant in every otherlocality in London of the sixties.

Another piece in The Hindu Sunday magazine, this one on a cross-country rickshaw run, Kini, reminds me of your Delhi-London hitch-hike (1964, was it?). The magazine piece by Antara Das is about a Kochi-Darjeeling three-wheeler ride undertaken by some 30 odd teams, many from Britain. It took them two weeks to finish the 3,500-km course. Compared to what you and our friend Subash Chopra did, thumbing lifts across West Asia and Europe, the auto-rickshaw ride would have been a cakewalk.

I don’t know if Subash and you were thoughtful enough to maintain a diary. Rickshaw-runners, we are told, ran blogs. In the words of a blogger, unfamiliar with the coomon mode of transport in Asian roads, an autorickshaw was no more than ‘ a bench-seat bolted over a two-stroke engine’. As one of them put it in a sum-up post, “…3219 km on the clock, seven spark blugs burnt out, one full service, a total of Rs 200 paid in bribes; and Rs.70, in toll charges”.

Maybe, you would like to check out www.rickshawrun.com; might even be driven to put down your thoughts on the 1964 hitch-hike. You don’t hear of people doing this sort of thing nowadays. It is perhaps because thumbing lifts no longer works in most countries. Car owners and truck drivers do not trust strangers with backpacks. Cross-country roads are no longer safe for hitch-hikers; and more countries would refuse Indians transit visa today than they did in the sixties.

In 1967, when a group of us did London-Bombay overland in a 12-seater, Pakistan was the only country (of the eight-nation crossover) that refused me a visa. My British companions had to leave me in Kabul, to fly over and rejoin them in Amritsar, while they drove through the famed Khyber Pass into Pakistan and exited via Lahore and Wagha border to enter India. From Amritsar we took the road again to Bombay.

I guess it took us about 12 or more days, of steady driving , with halts at Grass in Austria, Maribar (Yugoslavia), Istanbul, Tehran, Mehshad, Kandahar, Kabul, and a few other places I can’t recall.

February 2, 2007

What makes Shiva tick

It can now be disclosed that I have a film-making nephew, Shivakumar Ramanathan; and his 40-minute audio-visual creation – The Portent – was screened at a recent festival for niche films in Mumbai. This must come as a revelation for many of those who claim to know Shiva, and this includes his extended family of aunts and uncles and a platoon of cousins. All that they knew till now was that Shiva holds a day job, as a regular guy in a regular company, in Los Angeles.

What was unknown and appreciated even less was his romance with film-making.. Shiva slogs during weekends on things films and filming. He has been doing this double-take in life ever since he moved to LA (was it a decade back, Shiva, or more?). So far as I can gather Shiva Keeps himself in touch with few friends outside his film school circle. He has no family (by which I mean wife and kids). And his mother’s constant concern is that her only son is pushing 34, and still unmarried, maintains a punishing pace of work; and he brushes aside suggestions that it was time he set up family. Shiva puts films first.

Putting films before family is not an idea that a middle-class Iyer mother from a Chennai’s conservative locality (Kotturpuram) can accept. But I reckon my young nephew can’t be faulted for thinking that a wedding could wait till he made his first marriage (with films) work. Now that The Portent has happened, would Shiva reorder his priorities in life? A delegation of his well-wishers – sister, two aunts and a nephew – that returned from the Mumbai film-fest (Shiva couldn’t make it) was pleased with his accomplishment, but had on its mind just one question: ‘What next, Shiva? They didn’t mean his film-making – ‘life’s about other things as well, such as shaadi ‘.

I guess I am getting preachy. Surely,Shiva didn’t send me his DVD to have me psychoanalyze him on the pretext of writing about his film. Speaking of which, Shiva’s 44-minute offering -The Portent – is on paranormal phenomenon, with some blood and bullets thrown in. Violence is not explicit, but is menacingly suggestive. Which heightens effect. My wife, on learning about the theme, didn’t want us to watch the DVD at night.

Visuals are pretty sharp, though I felt the soundtrack of dialogues could do with more clarity. Or was it only me who couldn’t catch the words because of wax in my ear? Speaking of soundtrack I thought slipping in a bit of tabla as background music to some action shots was cool.

The Portent could leave an involved viewer with questions. The film is on Ben Fisher, a medical man troubled by his innate power to see other people’s future, not just of his patients but total strangers He knew what was coming for them in the near future,but couldn’t explain how. Forewarning those facing impending death or violence wasn't always a good idea. He could be implicated. Anyway he was rarely believed by anyone. And he could not do anything to avert the tragedy he knew was waiting to happen.

My two question: 1) Does Ben’s power extend to people living beyond a certain geographical radius? Is there a range limit to his psychic-radar? I mean, could Shiva have given his story an added dimension of a political thriller by granting his lead player the power to see what the future holds for those who live in the White House? The Portent was shot in LA; and I can even identify the locale in some scences - Shiva's studio in an Orange County apartments complex

2) Is Ben’s power limited to predicting violence and deaths alone? Why doesn’t he foresee some nice and pleasant things happening in people’s lives?