April 30, 2007

Remembering Krishna Menon

The handful of people who still care will mark his 110th birthday on May 3, writes Shashi Tharoor in his latest column devoted to V K Krishna Menon. The man who was seen as Nehru’s blindspot didn’t endear himself with very many other politicians, presumably, because of his reluctance to suffer fools gladly. As Mr Tharoor put it, Krishna Menon’s approach was not calculated to win friends.He died a forgotten backbencher, without even a political party to call his own.

The only visual that comes to mind of his funeral (I was then a newspaper reporter in New Delhi) is that of his body laid out on a truck being surrounded by Madhavan Kutty of Malayala Manorama, Blitz Raghavan (I believe) and a few others.Known for his carping comments the man had a delightful way with words. He was fond of telling his British friends, “You know why the sun didn’t set on their empire? Because God didn’t trust the British in the dark”.

Shashi Tharoor wrote that his father had helped Krishna Menon set up the India Club at The Strand, right across the street from the Indian high commission in London. It was a place where one had masala dosa and tea at prices affordable to young Indian newsmen. The club was also known for serving Southie meal, notably rasam. The cook there, as the story goes, was specially brought by Krishna Menon from Tanjore. Have you heard this one, Mr Tharoor?

April 24, 2007

Can we visualise a self-governing Bangalore?

Union finance minister, Mr P Chidambaram, has come up with a radical idea to make Mumbai a truly global city. It needs greater autonomy and better governance, if it has to deliver on good housing, roads, schools, water, and all the rest of the items that give a place a global city status. An experts committee on Mumbai as international financial capital has said Mumbai needs to be seen across the world as a welcoming cosmopolitan and cultured metropolis capable of accommodating a large number of expatriates.

Isn’t this the kind of vision many have for Bangalore? Mere location of a number of IT companies and BPOs do not make a Silicon Valley, as our consul general in San Francisco, Mr B S Prakash would tell us – ‘Silicon Valley is not a point in the map but a state of mind’. A defining feature of Silicon Valley, according to him, is ‘affluence in the air but with no signs of stress or striving’. We can’t say this about Bangalore, can we?

If we set up an experts committee on Bangalore as a global IT capital, it wouldn’t come up with anything very different from the findings of the Mumbai committee. Mr Chidambaram’s observation on greater autonomy and better governance was made at a conference organized by the Finance ministry and the Confederation of Indian Industry to discuss the experts committee report.

April 18, 2007

It wasn’t a kiss, says The Times of India

What Richard Gere did to Shilpa Shetty on stage in New Delhi the other day wasn’t a kiss. It was a peck, says The Times of India, making a finer point. And here we were, the uninformed, getting hot and bothered, protesting, burning effigies and shouting hai, hai slogans without as much as knowing a peck from a kiss. Now we have it from TOI, quite unambiguously, and I quote, “About the latest case of Shilpa Shetty and Richard Gere, it must be clarified that it wasn’t a kiss, which is meant to be planted on the partner’s lips”.

“It was a peck,” adds TOI, “which in many countries is a normal way to greet each other, and not a sexual act”. It wasn't an S-act, agreed,; but it wasn’t a normal greeting either. Shilpa herself admits it – ‘Richard went slightly overboard’. People elsewhere in the world who peck each other by way of normal greeting are not usually seen bending over their partner in close embrace, while working on her cheeks, both sides, more than once.

The Times(Mysore edition)story – Curb national pecking disorder - carries a picture showing Richard, bending over Shilpa, in a ‘pecking’ position. Says the photo caption,‘The kiss that has nation up in arms’. Nit-picking apart, the newspaper story, played up on Page One, has it, “in a situation where the law is vague and the general public apathetic, the moral brigade seems to be usurping the space’. Shouldn’t that be read as ‘morality brigade’?

Anyway, the thing about TOI is that it gets down to the basics, just in case its readers are clueless even four days after the event, which has been played out in newspapers, TV channels and by bloggers (including this one). I can’t think of many other newspapers that would have given thought to the possibility that the millions who read the Gere-Shetty story and viewed visuals on TV and the Internet, wouldn’t have applied their mind to draw a line between a peck and a kiss.

Where TOI lays it on the line is in this sentence – ‘even the slightest of pecks can raise a furore in the land of the Kamasutra and Khajuraho. Correction, my reporter friend, we’re now known as the land of call centres and the Bollywood that gave the world the song number – Choli ke peeche kya hai. And I have a problem with the TOI report that says bizarre public reaction (to ’a slight peck or a mere brush of the lips’) is not something peculiar to India – ‘it seems to be a sub-continental malady’.

Such needless comparison, that in no way furthers the story, may not go down well with our neighbours. I doubt if the story would have played out in this manner, had a comparable incident happened in Pakistan or Bangladesh. I don’t know if TV channels there would have shown the tell-tale video clip, which fueled widespread public protest. One can’t imagine such incident happening there, in the first place. And in some parts of the world, the pair involved would not have got away with it, and survived to tell their tale to the media.

Cross-posted in Desicitics .

April 17, 2007

Some questions for our media

Fixing an emergency water pump at K R Sagar calls for celebration on two counts: -
1)That they managed to install the pump, at last; and
2)that the pump will ensure regular water supply in Mysore even during the peak of summer, when KRS water level dips below the 72-ft mark.

The scheme for installation of an emergency pump was sanctioned in Sept.2003; and the work was promptly handed over to a private contractor, who was to complete it by April 2004. A media report refers to the three-year delay, without any explanation. The delay is attributed to ‘various reasons’.

Well, what are these reasons? Wouldn’t anyone want to know? Did the authorities take action against the contractor, who remains unnamed in the newspaper I get. Should such person's identity be protected by our media?

The scheme, when sanctioned, was estimated to cost Rs.1.5 crores. What has it cost eventually? One would have thought the media would raise these questions with the authorities. If officials stonewalled reporters,it is understandable. What is not understandable is media’s apparent indifference. Now there is the Right to Information Act for the media to tap. Maybe, it is a hassle. The answers we get at the end of it all may not be satisfactory. Never mind if they don’t all answers. Media should try.They can do a story on how legislation works.

April 16, 2007

Civic 'shramdhan'

I wonder how Suryadevra Ramchandra Rao would have handled the situation caused by contamination of central water storage tank that supplies water to Mysore. That it has been in a state of neglect for years became public knowledge following recent media exposure through a citizens’ initiative led by ex-MLA Ramdas. The city corporation has since hired 150 men to clean up the tank and as a result water supply from the tank has remained suspended for the last three days and stay that way at least for the next three days.

With a more responsive civic administration the task could have been completed by now. The thought crossed my mind on reading about the Surat civic body chief in Sunday Herald. The way Surat under S R Rao coped with citywide garbage pile-up in the wake of the 1994 floods speaks of a responsive civic administration that inspired people to cooperate with the civic body. Mr Rao’s operating principle is “step out from AC to DC” (that is, from air-conditioned offices to daily chores at the street level).

The mantra motivated the staff and inspired citizens’ groups that mobilized residents into, what they called, ‘Rao sena’, to help in civic efforts. In Mysore our neighborhood netas can mobilize crowd in a jiffy for dharna, gherao or thod-phod of public property. If only they could use their crowd-forming potential for a civic shramdhan, our cash-strapped municipal corporation could have saved money on hiring labour, and accomplished the tank clean-up sooner.

The ex-MLA deserves our thanks for exposing this monumental official neglect. Had he followed up his good work by moving in his supporters for helping out with the clean-up of the water tank, the ex-MLA would have earned his credentials to become my MLA once again.

April 12, 2007

Talking (Kannada) Movies

Cine Maatu, a Bangalore forum of film enthusiasts, plans on screening a series of award-winning Kannada movies that are hard to find in the theatres/TV. As the forum convenor, Mr B R Gopinath, told The Hindu reporter Bageshree, the best of our films are less accessible to viewers than the works of international masters.

Among the movies the forum has lined up for showing, on the second weekend of every month, are Beru, Phaniyamma, Kanneshwara Rama, and a host of others accessed from Girish Kasaravalli’s personal library. His own movie, Nayi Neralu, is expected to be shown at the inaugural of Cine Maatu. The film maker has thrown open his vast collection for the benefit of film enthusiasts. It is an idea worth emulating by others with a personal video library.

Apart from bringing in quality movies for interested viewers, the Bangalore film enthusiast forum would arrange interaction of film makers with audience following every screening. Such interaction would be of interest to a far wider audience, if only the forum convenor could arrange to put out typescript of the proceedings on the web. The forum members could create an e-group or a website, to archive interaction with makers of award-winning films.

Films such as Beru, themed on degradation of values in the bureaucratic system and corruption in the administration, have relevance. One would like to hear from its director P Sheshadri about how he came to choose the theme and the hassles he had, if any, filming/distributing it. Sadly enough, the film has not got the kind of exposure it deserves. I recall journalist Krishna Prasad once wrote in his Deccan Herald column that at a special screening in Shimoga the award-winner Beru drew an audience of two. Yes, there was a turnout of just two persons for the show.

This must be an all-time record. Can’t wait to see how many Beru draws at the Cine Maatu screening (due April 15). Convenor’s contact number – 9242523523.

Title of this post has been copied from BBC World, with my apologies to programme producer Tom Brook.

April 11, 2007

Our man in San Francisco

Heads of Indian missions abroad are seen as remote figures, working at reports to South Block from behind closed doors in posh offices. They are usually seen showing up at public 'do's' – R Day flag-hoisting at NRI gatherings, tape-cutting to open an exhibition of works by a visiting artist – and heard holding forth at Indo-So-and-so Friendship Society meeting or a chamber-of-commerce seminar inaugural.

So, it wasn't with much expectation of a response I e-mailed our Consul General in San Francisco Mr B S Prakash on the need for an NRI/consulate initiative to donate desi books/CDs to public libraries in the US. This was a year ago. To my pleasant surprise he promptly mailed back thanking me for my interest, adding that he felt nice hearing from someone from Mysore. Mr Prakash did M A (Philosophy) from Manasa Gangotri and taught at Maharaja's College for a year before joining Indian Foreign Service. In his college days Mr Prakash was a keen debater in Kannada; recalls that among his partners in debating was Shubhachandra, now a professor in Jainology dept., Mysore University (Professor, are you reading this?)Ambassador Prakash(so ranked,in diplomatic hierarchy) admits to being nostalgic about his Mysore connection;his Gangotri days.

More recently, when I drew his attention to a particularly touching tribute to Poornachandra Tejaswi by a 16-year old Bangalore girl, Mr Prakash reminisced – "For me, in the seventies, totally caught up with the magic of navya, Tejeswi's writings were a welcome relief . . . that he was Kuvempu's son, and yet so different was another cause for marvel". I reckon we haven't heard the last word on Tejaswi from Mr Prakash, who runs a column in Rediff.com where he writes on literature, arts and lifestyle.

More articulate among those in our diplomatic corps write on lofty issues pertaining to international relations, global terrorism. Mr Prakash does it as well, for The Hindu edit page. He is equally proficient in writing about his experience in California. Mr Prakash's Rediff.Column gives one an insight into the man, his flair for writing and his mundane interests. He watches "a fair amount of TV, all kinds, movies, series, news, views, sports and scandals".

His recent piece – Get up and get rich – was triggered by a TV show featuring Donald Trump talking money. He can write knowledgeably about Barry Bonds, Bollywood stars. And about A R Rahman – didn't know that he was born in one faith, and a family crisis made him turn to another, making a Dileep kumar, an Allah Rakha Rahman.

Invited to preside over a Stanford University music festival evening when the music maestro was honoured, our envoy did his home work on Rahman. Which gave him material for a Rediff.column, with references about our reigning movie Khans and Rais and popular songs – Chaiya, Chaiya, Taal Se Taal Mila.

Mr Prakash takes in his stride someone using his web-space to take a swipe at the consulate, because no one picked up the phone when he called or many of the consulate e-mail responses are automated. My experience on this has been refreshingly different. Anyway, what has it all to do with Mr Prakash's writings?

Someone else asks, 'As CG, does Mr Prakash have nothing better to do?' He appears to have in mind a stereotype image of a diplomat. I would say the likes of Prakash have an edge over other less well endowed career diplomats. His reputation as a lifestyle writer can only help him widen contacts and give a human face to CG's office that is generally associated with issuing visa, stamping passport extension, and taking care of visiting dignitaries from India.

We have had writers, journalists and poets posted as heads of mission. Poet and essayist Octavio Paz was Maxican ambassador to India, John Freeman (ex-New Statesman) served as the UK high commissioner in New Delhi. Our journalists and columnists have represented India. I can think of three – Prem Bhatia (Kenya), Dr K S Shelvanker (Sweden), Kuldip Nayar (UK).

Cross-posted in Desicritics

April 10, 2007

CM and government officials

Mr H D Kumaraswamy heads a government in which, it appears, he cannot rely on his own officials. His complaint is that bureaucrats, far from addressing people’s problems, do not even deem it necessary to bring them to his notice.

CM says, if only the officials were responsive to public issues, he wouldn’t need to hold janatha darshan and go on night-stay in villages to get an idea of the extent of the problems such as housing, sanitation, water supply education and healthcare. Addressing a meeting of about 100 officials – DCs, zilla parishat CEOs, dept. secretaries – CM observed our officials could do with some compassion, a mother’s heart, as he put it.

This is in sharp contrast to the tough talking the CM did on earlier occasions. Whether or not his change-of-heart call works with officials the chief minister appears to have had a change of mind in coping with non-performing officials – threat has given way to an appeal.

Bringing Montessori into mainstream education

It’s good, it is holistic, and is child-friendly. And yet Montessori is widely seen as experimental, with parents and education policy makers not quite willing to accept it as mainstream school education. A report in The Hindu says the system has been adopted in just 10 schools in Bangalore, Chennai, till the fifth std.

I didn’t know Bangalore has an institute of Montessori studies, which has trained nearly 100 teachers in the past decade. A couple of teachers from the institute spoke to the media about the positives of the Montessori system. Every child works to his/her own time-table. The focus is on hands-on method of learning; on laying the ‘right foundation for blooming to happen’.

That’s fine, but does it get children the kind of grades they do, with the rote-based system? This is what concerns most parents. And this is why they prefer to put their children in conventional schools, where they are encouraged to rely on coaching classes and guidebooks to get through their exams. Does the Montessori Institute have an answer to such parental concerns?

The answer lies with the government. It needs to take a policy decision to have all primary schools in Karnataka adopt the Montessori method. The government school teachers could be suitably retrained.

Meanwhile at the Bangalore institute they are reportedly conducting seminars on ‘Understanding Montessori’ for the benefit of anyone who cares to attend – teachers, parents, social workers, child psychologists. Check out their website. Contact – iims.blr@gmail.com .

April 7, 2007

Is this media ‘silly season’?

Those in the media know of, what is called, ‘silly season’ when hard news is hard to come by and reporters contrive news stories to keep themselves in print. When I set up a media blog with young friend Anand Balaji we would remember to sponsor an award for the silliest story of the season, comprising a citation plus a basket of Ooty carrots.

Among nominees for this category would be this Page One story in The Hindu (Bangalore) with the headline – ‘How safe are IT professionals working in booming Silicon City?’ Isn’t that a mouthful for a newspaper headline? The recent murder of software engineer Manoj Kumar has thrown up this all-important question, says the story, and cites statistics to substantiate the reporter’s statement. Readers are told there have been three such murders (software guys) in the last two years.

The news report speaks of “a notion that professionals from (IT) companies are increasingly becoming soft targets for criminals”. This is bit of a stretch because the suspects in all the three murders are said to be first-time offenders, not hardcore criminals.

The Hindu story is bylined. I don’t wish to name the reporter, as the focus here is on the story, not the reporter. It is not the reporter alone who can be held responsible for this silly story. The sub-editor (do newspapers still have one) who is accountable to the published text has evidently not exercised his news judgment The guy who gave the headline must have been particularly blank-headed to have come with something so bland as the ‘how-safe-is-it’ headline. And then the late-night editor, or whoever decides on page one stories, must have been hard put to it to find anything better for the page one bottom-spread slot.

April 6, 2007

Arguing India

Argumentative Indians are everywhere. Four of them - from New Delhi, New York, Toronto and Reading, UK – have clubbed up to set up a blog to argue it out. They are drawn from varied fields – college teacher (Debjani), chartered accountant (Kaiser), university professor (Ananya) and newspaper woman (Ishani). A four-line statement of purpose that goes with their group blog – Arguing India – says the idea is to understand India, appreciate her myriad contradictions through arguments and contestations.

My contact in this argumentative group is Ananya Mukherjee Reed, Associate Professor (political science) and Director, International Secretariat for Human Development, York University, Toronto. I have been in touch with her, in the sense I keep sending her alert mail on posts I wish to share with others, and Ananya has been unfailingly prompt in appreciation of my gesture. I haven’t got to argue with her, yet. The professor is said to be ‘passionate about arguing’.

Her group blog, in its statement of purpose, raises provocative questions:Is India a democracy (at all)? Is she booming (in real terms)? Does the caste system still exist? Come on, Ananya; the real argument is over the quota system, which, some would argue, represents a radical role reversal of castes in political terms. Brahmins are now the quiet ones, with so-called lesser castes making all the noise.

And then, the arguing bloggers ask, ‘Is ‘Water’ an accurate representation of India’s reality? If it were so, why wouldn’t India have adopted the movie as the country’s official Oscar nominee? I have flogged my prejudices in my blog, and in Desicritics. Perhaps,Ananya could make a reference to my take on ‘Water’, to only put a bit of polemics in Arguing India.

April 4, 2007

The ‘flat world’ effect

The Hindu carries a revealing story on Bangalore fruit marts where California grapes, Chinese pears and Washington apples compete for shelf space with desi varieties. This, presumably, is the ‘Flat World’ phenomenon to which Thomas Friedman and Nandan Nilekani refer when they talk of leveling the playing field. I get a few other messages from The Hindu story that deserved a byline of the reporter who did it.

1)Bangaloreans, by and large, prefer desi fruits because of the price advantage.
2)There is no appreciable price difference between apples from Shimla (Rs.90) and the ones imported from the US (Rs.100). Which, I reckon, means that transportation costs of sending apple from Shimla is nearly as much as the expenses in air-freighting it from Washington. The message here is that the produce from Shimla can do better, sales-wise, in Bangalore with a streamlined transport, and better packaging and cold storage facilities.
3)I wonder if the ‘playing field’ has been 'leveled' enough, for apples from Shimla and organges from Coorg to find their way to the fruit marts in Boston, Brisbane and Bejing.
4)There is a sting in the tail of the media story. It refers to a Basvanagudi fruit stall owner who flogs desi apples with stickers saying, ‘From USA’. A 'flat world' side-effect?

Our media news priorities

Karnataka government has suspended 157 doctors for staying away from work, health minister R Ashok told the legislative council during question hour the other day. That most of them were disinclined to work in rural areas is no less significant. The minister also informed the House that 14,770 posts remained unfilled in the departments of health & family welfare; the dept. of ayurveda, yoga and naturopathy; of unani, siddha and homoeopathy; and the dept. of drugs control. Didn’t know our government had so many departments.

An acute staff shortage in government hospitals doesn’t make headlines. Deccan Herald carried this info under ‘At a Glance’ column, clubbing it with two other items on a Town Hall dharana by a group of Hindu activists in Bangalore against alleged religious conversions; and a road accident claiming three lives in Arsikere. The Hindu published it under Karnataka news-briefs.

So much for development journalism. To quote blogger Viju, giving her reason for taking to blogging, “It (mainstream media) has no room for what I love; development journalism”

April 3, 2007

Coping with copying in exams

Karnataka education minister Basavaraj Horatti has decreed that SSLC candidates found copying would now be debarred for three years, instead of a year or two as was done earlier. This is a deterrent insofar as the students planning on copying in exams would now think thrice (not just twice) before taking the plunge, besides upgrading their anti-detection skills. It has been established that copiers are usually smarter than exam invigilators.

The (mal)practice has now become a joint enterprise involving students and unscrupulous teachers. Recently it was reported that 52 Bangalore SSLC candidates had their answer papers replaced with ghost-written ones, in as many as five subjects - Kannada, English, Hindi, Math and science. That they managed to get this far before detection speaks of lapses in the system. We’re dealing here with a candidate-examiner collaboration on an organized scale. Three school headmasters are reported to be in custody and six others face criminal charges.

Debarring candidates – whether for two or three years – makes sense only for those who are found out. But then candidates who are determined to copy and the teachers willing to accommodate them abide by the 11th Commandment – ‘Thou Shall Not Be Caught’. So long as we press on with the current exams system, copying wouldn’t go away. The only way to fight the menace is, perhaps, by reinventing an exam system in which copying would be pointless. Open-book exams may well hold the key. Would it work in all exams?

Educators and policy-makers ought to think of devising a system in which students are tested, not so much for what they know on a given issue or subject, but for their knowledge on where they could find relevant information. In the age of information overload propensity to identify right sources, presenting relevent information in context, and doing it all within a specified time assume importance. Info is free; packaging it in answer papers takes intelligence and gets the grades.

Here is a thought, how about an Internet-driven exam system? In which candidates (with laptops in ‘hotspot’ exam centres) could browse the Net to get answers.On test would be their presentation skills and propensity to identify sources tap-able for answers. Candidates would be required to list their sources for the benefit of examiners. I know this system would not be compatible with all SSLC subjects. Math is one I can think of, where an open-book approach wouldn’t work.

April 1, 2007

Chamarajanagar’s Illinois connection

He was in Shanghai Monday last, Singapore on Wednesday; has a business meeting in Frankfurt Tuesday next. And he is at Chamrarajanagar for the weekend. If asked which one of these places sticks out like a sore thumb, I guess there would be near unanimity on Chamarajanagar, a town that strikes me as dry, dusty, and in a perpectual state of neglect.

I said near-unanimity, because Chamarajanagar is a ‘charm-nagar’ for our man on the move - Dr. Krishna Venkataswamy, Director of Research and Development of GLS Corporation, McHenry, Illinois. He heads, among much else, the company’s R&D facility in China: and he is on the Global Leadership Team for the company’s business operations in Europe and Asia. His responsibilities entail much traveling. And wherever his travels take him – Mumbai, Tokyo, Hong Kong – and, whenever feasible, Dr. Venkataswamy (Venkatesh, to friends) heads home, to Illinois, via his Charm-Nagar.

“I still feel like a boy from a small town who happened to be fortunate in life,” said Venkateh when we met in Mysore during his current whistle-stop chakkar half-way round the world. Venkatesh doesn’t fit in with the swanky pigeon-holed image of a frequent-flyer company executive. With a red bindi on his forehead, and a vintage hairdo that seems to make a fashion statement against the current trend in sporting long, tapering, sideburns, Venkatesh would pass for a Sanskrit scholar or music vidhwan from Agrahara.

It is not just the look, Venkatesh is refreshingly different in his outlook in life as well. He says his passion for science, notably, physics, got him high grades right through to his Ph.D (completed within a record two years and two months). He is a Director of the Distinguished Alumni Board at the University of Florida, and on the Executive Advisory Board for Howe School of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey.
And it is the same passion for science, not the money, that drives him in his work. Venkatesh is a reputed expert in his specialty - thermoplastic elastomers. He has nearly fifty patents to his credit; has chaired many American and international conferences on Thermoplastic Elastomers. But then this small-town boy still finds time to stay in touch with his school – JSS High School – and his friends from the Chamarajanagar days. He referred to Mallesh, now a professor at Gangotri (Mysore), and Prakash (I believe), a company VP in Bangalore.

By way of a pay-back to his native town, and, as an endearing pretext, if I might add, to keep himself in touch with his humble beginnings, Venkatesh funds a local orphanage and pays for the upkeep of a few needy matriculation students of his school. In life, says Venkatesh, he would have never made it to where he had, if it was not for his late mother, periyappa Ramaswamy Iyer, who stepped in to save his family house from being auctioned when Venkatesh was a schoolboy; his grandpa N S Sundaresa Iyer who funded his education through National College, Bangalore, and IIT Madras (1979 batch); and Dr Krishnamurthy who guided him to take up higher studies in Florida and “showed me the ropes in my early years in the US”. ( Isn’t he the Nanjangud municipal school boy who went to IIT Bombay, and made it big in the US with 100 research papers to his credit ?)