Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Road Much Travelled

When I first travelled on the Bombay-Pune highway sometime in 1985, I had no idea that it was to be the ‘road most travelled’ in my life. That road has given me many lovely memories - from very romantic rides to a life-changing journey when we took Jaya home ( read Kats, Rains and The Woods by clicking here). Of course, it was then the old highway - winding steeply across the Lonavala ghats (traversing some 2000 feet in just about 7 kms). There was that mandatory stop at Ramakant in Khopoli for Vada-Pavs and occasionally a beer or 2, when one was not travelling on work.

In the monsoons driving through the ghats was a near surrealistic experience. At one level it was the sheer beauty of torrid rain tearing the veil of low-hanging clouds – like the gushing waterfall guarding the entrance to Phantom’s cave. And, there was that edge-of-the-seat tension – as the rickety old Fiats and rattling Ambassadors struggled to negotiate the bends and curves, their frail wipers flapping feebly - wilting under the force of the downpour and the driver leaning forward with his nose almost touching the windscreen in the mistaken belief that, by doing so he could see the road ahead better.

Aati kya Khandala

By the time we left Pune in 1996 – construction of the new “Expressway” had just begun. Only the small link stretch from Pashan to Dehu Road had been completed – which was generally unused except by lovers for a long drive on a moonlit night. Not for once did I think then - that I would have to keep going back on that route in the years to come.

But exactly 10 years later, the road beckoned me again. On a wintry Feb morning in 2006, I drove up the new Expressway for the first time to check out – what would be Jaya’s new school, nestled in the Sahyadri Hills on the way to Bhimashankar, off the Pune-Nashik highway (Read Back to School by clicking here). Since then, I have been travelling on it – practically once every month, sometimes even twice, more than I do (or have ever done) on any other highway.

Of course – what now appears like a ribbon-like path has been forsaken for the 6 lane racing tracks. The old Ramakant has been replaced by giant Food Malls. (There’s only one outlet that sells decent Vada-pavs – Shree Datta – on the down lane just before the Khalapur Toll-naka). Romance has given way to the thrill of speed.

Earlier it used to be said that, the time taken and cost of travel were roughly the same – no matter which mode of transport you chose – Road, Rail or Air. I remember the fare on the Avro Shuttle flights was then Rs 145 and a first-class ticket on the Deccan Queen Rs 105. The shared taxi was Rs 90 – I think. The travel time on the DQ was three and a half-hour and by road it was a little over 4 hours. Though the flying time was only 20 minutes – taking into account the time spent in traveling to / from and waiting at the airport – it still added to around 3½ to 4 hours.

While the cost equation has gone terribly awry (air tickets now cost nearly Rs 3k and the AC Char Car fare on the humble DQ is Rs 250) – surprisingly, there hasn’t been much improvement on the time factor. Point to point, from one end of the Expressway to the other, one can comfortably reach in an hour and a half (between the 2 toll-nakas of Khalapur/Khopoli and Talegaon - a distance of about 70 kms – I clock an average of 45 minutes). But the entry and exit at both Pune and Mumbai have become a veritable nightmare – of course, Mumbai more so. Getting to Panvel from anywhere in Mumbai can take up to 90 minutes even on a good day. The return traffic can be far worse - Sundays and weekends are no exception. So, all told, unless you are travelling early in the morning or returning very late at night – it still takes nearly 4 hours either way.

Sadly, something else hasn’t changed too. Overturned trucks and tankers were always a common sight on the ghats. Inexperienced drivers of over-loaded vehicles often lost balance on the sharp turns. Frequently one also saw crumpled evidence of some major collisions from the night before. These would generally be found on the Lonavala-Pune stretch where the road was broader and the traffic thin – tempting drivers to step on the gas.

Cousins of Shumacher

Actually, in my opinion, it is the close proximity of Mumbai and Pune – which is the main cause of accidents. Because of the relatively short distance between the 2 cities, many motorists – who would have otherwise not ventured on a highway are lured by the road. This culture of highway adventurism has further increased with the new Expressway. Most people think it is the Indian equivalent of German Autobahns where there are no limits on speed. Probably, at a subliminal level they fancy themselves as distant cousins of Michael Shumacher – and have this irresistible urge to hit the road and burn rubber for vicariously experiencing the joys and highs of Formula One racing .

The official ‘speed limit’ is 80 kmph for the greater part – but most people never drive at less than a 100, often going beyond to 120 or more. Even on the ghat-sections – where the recommended limit is 30kmph – very few drop the speedometer below 80 or a 60 at best. With no idea of the rules of highway driving, let alone etiquette, lane cutting and overtaking is rampant. Staying on your own lane is no guarantee – as vehicles that come hurtling at monstrous speeds would either chase you off the track or overtake dangerously from the left with every chance of your losing control in a momentary lapse of concentration or reflex.

While the long-distance buses and over-loaded Sumos ferrying passengers are a menace, the real high-risk category are the small cars – the Altos, Swifts, Santros and their clones. Apart from overturning easily, these lightweight cars are prone to tyre-bursts at high-speed, which is almost always fatal on an Expressway. Therefore, it is easy to come-by the crushed remains of a car that was flung across the divider and hit a vehicle coming from the opposite direction.

I can understand that, it may not be possible to control lane cutting without highway patrols with their own fast cars as they have in the West. But, why can’t we impose speed control with the help of cameras that are now easily available and eminently affordable. If we wish to catch up with the developed world by building such arterial freeway , we should also adopt some of their good practices too. Basic safety should be a matter of right for the users of a toll-road. The toll operators should be made to compulsorily install speed-control equipments – such as radars and cameras - as a pre-condition of their license. Equally, the state authorities are duty bound to enforce regulations that they themselves have set. But then, human lives always come cheap in our country – be it in terrorist attacks or road accidents.

Vada-pavs on the bend

Without such safeguards, every trip is a test of nerves for which I routinely tank myself with caffeine – at the first gas-station immediately upon entering the Expressway. On occasions when I feel energetic enough to drive right through – usually on the return leg of the journey - I definitely stop for a break before the exit toll-naka – either for a coffee at the new well appointed CCD or tea and Vada-Pav at Shree Datta. But then, I was not cut out for living life on the fast-lane anyway.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Collateral Benefits

The term “collateral damage” has become popular after 26/11 – but there have been also some ‘collateral benefits’ too, if I may call them so.

One among them, is the introspection it has set in motion within the media (we saw a bit of that earlier after the Arushi Talwar case) about their role in covering the event; For the first time perhaps there has been such a public outcry over the TV Channels making a spectacle (some called it a “light and sound show”) out of a national tragedy. The security agencies and the government too have come down with a heavy hand (ham-handedly some might say) to chastise the channels for what they thought was rather “irresponsible” coverage often at the risk of compromising the operations. Advisories are being issued by the I & B Ministry. And there is serious talk about a Code of Conduct being prescribed (one hears - a PiL signed by 19,000 people has been filed to that effect) and mumblings about “self-regulation”. This has put the leading channels - and their star editors – for once on the back-foot, if not veritably on the mat.

So we have NDTV running a scroll challenging ‘unsubstantiated allegations’ and threatening action. Barkha wrote a lengthy defence on the NDTV website (read by clicking here) and Rajdeep valiantly argued his case (and that of his fellow-broadcasters’) on CNN-IBN’s sister channel CNBC-TV18 (in a special edition of “Storyboard” - brilliantly moderated by Anuradha Sengupta).

If there was one up-‘anchor-ship’ among the channels there was also up-commando-ship among the security agencies – each more keen to speak to the camera about the success of their operations only to be proved wrong a few minutes later. Therefore, Rajdeep made a valid point when he said that our establishment must also learn how to manage a 1000-pound Gorilla that 24/7 Television News can be. Our authorities – be it the police, security forces or politicians – need to be put through some basic media training. As the Reuters South Asia correspondent Phil Smith pointed out – you can’t blame the ‘twenty something’ reporters who saw this as an opportunity of a lifetime to shoot into fame a la Christiane Amanpour in Kuwait and Iraq or even our very own Ms Dutt of Kargil fame.

I found Meenakshi Madhvani had an interesting take on all this. She thought what would finally buck the trend is advertisers turning away from channels which sensationalise news – realising that editorial environment is as important than as TRP ratings.

However much we flay the electronic media for sensationalism and over exposure – the nearly 60 hours of non-stop TV coverage that gripped the world across geo-political fault-lines has undeniably played a massive role in rallying the entire nation in our own ‘desi’ version of war against terror.

In all this chatter, here’s one earthy first-hand account of that fateful night (Click here to read the article)

Light and Sound Show on TV

For me personally, 26/11 was in some ways a replay of the Kandahar Hijack of the Indian Airlines plane IC 814 and the Royal Family Killings that followed. I was based in Kathmandu then - so I happened to see them from very close quarters. Though both those incidents were of a very different order of magnitude, there were similarities in the manner of their unfolding. Particularly after the Palace Massacre, I remember the kind of public outrage there was in Nepal about the ‘insensitive’ coverage of the Indian electronic media, who had landed up within hours of the incident (some of them were accused of “stage-managing” public protests against King Gyanendra). One very respected Nepali voice pleaded while being interviewed on a channel – “why don’t you realize, for us it’s a national tragedy – please let us mourn in peace.” (Read “A Kingdom Mourns”)

This time round – I just happened to be in front of the television when the story broke. But, thereafter, by a certain quirk of circumstances (a visiting overseas colleague was holed up in The Trident), I was glued to the flat screen for nearly 36 hours without a break. So, I saw the coverage ‘grenade by grenade’ and one gun-shot at a time, as it were, right from the start.

It began with TIMES NOW carrying a footer of the PTI Flash about firing inside a Colaba restaurant (Café Leopold), followed in quick succession by another ticker on the shoot out at the VT Station. The first was billed as a fight between Nigerian students and latter as possibly a ‘gang-war’. In a few minutes, CNN-IBN had picked up the news. Their reporters were screaming about firings at “The Taj-Oberoi” – without making a distinction between the two hotels. Soon they had Suhel Seth on the phone from Bombay. He had come to attend a wedding and was staying at The Taj. The hotel had pro-actively called guests who were out - asking them not to come back immediately. Suhel was venting his spleen at the nincompoop politicians who can’t offer basic security to the citizens. Like many of us, I don’t think he had realized till then the seriousness of the situation. There was another young lady, a fashion journalist, who was partying at the Indigo, calling in to say – they were stuck inside the restaurant, which had pulled down its shutters and turned-off the lights – because of firing going on in the vicinity. In a little while, Vikram Singh Mehta (Chairman of Shell India – who, when in Mumbai, stays at the NCPA Towers right behind the Oberoi) was on the line giving an eyewitness account of fire belching out from The Oberoi lobby, which he could see from his apartment.

During this time – NDTV, or at least those watching the channel, were blissfully unaware of what was happening in Mumbai and they continued with their show “Cricketing Matters” where Sonali Chander was listlessly chatting away with Ajay Jadeja about the amiable nature of Sachin Tendulkar on and off the pitch. At 11 – they brought on the eyelash fluttering Sunetra Chaudhury “breaking news”.

By then, TIMES NOW was already airing live footages of the encounter at VT Station borrowed from the STAR NEWS OB Vans. At CNN-IBN Anubha Bhonsle held post till Bhupendra Chaubey came on air and their cameras reached the scene of action at The Taj. But when Srinivasan Jain took charge of the NDTV telecast, between him at the studio and the Shivnath Thukral-Shaili Chopra duo on the front-line at the Gateway of India - they were easily ahead of the rest (that I am partial towards Chopra women – in this case not Priyanka but Shaili – is well known!!).

However, things changed once Ms Dutt parachuted into Nariman Point the next morning. Around the same time Rajdeep appeared in front of The Taj. Much before that, since the night infact, Arnab was firmly ensconced at the TIMES NOW desk. But, from then on it became a battle for the “eye-balls”.

TIMES NOW – stuck to a no frills coverage for practically 72 hours non-stop. One must hand it out to not only their tenacious Editor-Anchor but also their team of feisty young reporters.

Once their ‘star’ arrived on the scene, NDTV all but pulled out their previous night’s team of Vasu-Shivnath-Shaily. After trying her signature high-pitched ‘ball-by-ball’ commentary for a while – she quickly shifted gear, taking a ‘softer’ line - talking to family members of hostages waiting anxiously outside the hotel. Soon she was interviewing Shobhaa De. By the evening she was hosting a chat show with the so-called Mumbai “intellectuals” (if the city had any in the first place) in a program emotively titled “Enough is Enough”.

CNN-IBN struck a middle ground between the fact-based, non-hysterical reporting of TIMES NOW and the high emotion-packed coverage on NDTV. Overall they were much more balanced (barring some shrill anchoring by the lady who shares her last name with me - spelt exactly the same way with an ‘e’ at the end). Well, I suppose, you do need product differentiation even in TV News coverage.

In my view, TIMES NOW carried the day with Arnab playing a marathon Test Match style innings (much like the double century of - Rajdeep’s Dad, the redoubtable Dilip Sardesai, at Kingston in ‘71 – the same series in which Gavaskar had scored his first double ton in Port of Spain). He never left the studio and was, therefore, able to control what was being aired - unlike, I suspect, some of the other channels whose editors were busy on the field.

Of course, I didn’t watch the Hindi Channels – which I am told were dramatised to the point of being pure paranoia arousing “news-o-tainment”.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

India's Apocalypse

Everything about the Bombay apocalypse has been shown incessantly, spoken untiringly and written endlessly. So there is precious little I can add – even as an ordinary citizen or resident of this fantastic city. In any case, the experience was too gruesome for words.

Faulty DNA

As a nation, we are far too stoical – coming to think of it, even a tragedy of such enormity failed to rattle us completely. It already seems like business as usual (not just in Mumbai – which has this ‘indomitable and indefatigable’ tag of its own making attached; but, also in rest of the country). Perhaps, repeated tragedies over the ages - both man-made and natural - have engineered our DNAs to make us immune to collective pain.

Sure, we don’t have to rush to hospitals for panic attacks, run to shrinks, reach out for Prozac and Anxiolactics as the Americans did after 9/11. Neither did one expect to see a dignified display of national solidarity by wearing the tri-colour as they did in the US (where – Jay Leno joked - 300 million pin-up lapel badges of the US Flag had to be flown in from Taiwan).

Made-up faces and endless chatter

It’s also not surprising, that a series of chain SMSs failed to make people wear black (or white, as the case may be if you were in the South) or bring out people for candle light vigils or silent marches in the large numbers, as New York was in September 2001. But one didn’t evidence any shock and horror on the face of the common man on the street or the well-powdered visages of the usual suspects on TV panel discussions – Alyque Padamsee, Anil Dharkar, Shobhaa De, Simi Garewal and now also Rahul Bose.

We are also very talkative as would be evident from the endless chatter on all 24 hours news channels. We don’t mourn and grieve in silence – nor do we allow others to. We have a compulsive need for verbal regurgitation on every issue with little action to match.

So do I believe anything will change? Cynical as I may sound, I don’t think so. How many times before have we heard the term “intelligence failure”? Or the assertion that Intelligence Agencies had warned about the possibility of the attacks much in advance - but the police or state authorities did not act upon it. It was said after the Bombay train blasts of July 05, the Kabul Embassy bombing (which was true by the way – apart from RAW, the Afghan and American Military Intelligence had passed on information about an impending attack with almost precise details – including the make of the car etc), the recent Delhi blasts and practically every other terror attack in the past.

Wake-up call for the Decendants of Kumbhakarna

Is there any reason to believe that now things will change for good - the nation and political parties will stand together as one – leaving aside considerations of their vote banks – to pledge that we won’t let this happen again? I think it’s utter bull-shit that, last week's national ordeal would prove to be a ‘wake-up call’ (if we didn’t wake up even after the repeated terror incidents of all these years - then, as a race we must be descendants of Kumbhakarna). The theory that, this time terror has struck the under-belly of the ‘rich and powerful’ who will make the establishment act – is based on an erroneous premise.

The rot has set in far too deep. The sacking of a Shivaraj Patil (who had no business to be the Home Minister in the first place – I wouldn’t therefore blame his incompetence rather that of those who gave him that all important portfolio to begin with – as a tool for their own self-preservation – by providing them with political intelligence and leaving the real job of managing internal security to the PMO and the NSA) or sacrificing a Vilas Rao Deshmukh and R R Patil at the alter of electoral expediency wouldn’t make any real difference either.

Nor will the creation of a Central Agency for National Security a la the US Department of Homeland Security or introduction of more draconian laws to curb terror – serve any purpose unless it is backed by political will and bi-partisan and unanimous support across the political spectrum.

What is required is an over-haul of the entire system – which is beyond the capacity or comprehension of our present day leaders who are too busy with their internecine fights to bother about fundamental structural reforms. A discerning friend questioned rather incisively - in an age of specialization in every field how can we have service aspirant from every academic discipline appear for the entrance exam not knowing whether he / she would be joining the IAS, IFS, IRS, IPS, Railways or Indian Posts? At another basic level – another friend in the intelligence establishment admitted that, age old tried and tested systems like the ‘beat constable’ as the primary source of gathering ground-level intelligence has been systematically dismantled and the humungous investments in hard-wares such as metal detectors, CCTVs, Radio interceptors gather dust. Even today – I was allowed to walk into the airport without having to pass through the metal detector.

We will continue to hear only pious platitudes (such as “the guilty will be punished” and “such attacks will unite us rather than divide us”) or indictments from the opposition trying to make cheap political capital out of a national tragedy - until the next one hits us, perhaps with even greater ferocity.

The Last Men Standing

The armed forces remain the last surviving institution in this country. God forbid if even they are politicized, it would mean the end of India as we knew it. That would be even more dangerous than the much-prophesied disintegration of Pakistan into a rogue-state, which probably it already is. A dismembered and beheaded behemoth like India can be many times worse than a hydra-headed monster.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Sailing with Priyanka on the Ibis

(Picture above - Priyanka Chopra, Kangana Ranawat and Mugdha Godse - stars of the new movie 'Fashion')

I haven’t seen Madhur Bhandarkar’s ‘Fashion’ yet – but, I am sure that I’m not the only middle-aged man salivating at the bill-boards of the ravishing Priyanka Chopra with her ‘come hither’ look (she’s coming out more sharp and confident with every passing movie click here– tho’ I'm told, in Fashion it is Kangana Ranawat who steals the show with her acting and dagger looks. See her pic below).

Vinod Nair – the dapper and charming “Fashaan Editor” of Echtee has commented on his Facebook ‘Wall’ – “ Fashion not so FASHIONable” (and, you thought I give bad titles !!) pronouncing it as a ‘shallow’ portrayal (thought it was all about being shallow and hollow in the first place, but who would know better than Vinod - see pic below). Critics like Rajiv Masand have trashed it for similar reasons. Our mutual Facebook friend, Mrinalini, is more pointed in her observations. “Isn’t it Bhandarkar’s modus-operandi, where he pretends to expose the under-belly (like that term – apropos PC baby !!) of society… whereas in reality it is simply sensationalism and titillating movie making” ? she asks very pertinently.

But is it only menopausing males like me – who are making a beeline for the movie to pander their sagging libido? I suspect not. Some argue that - Page 3, Corporate and Fashion represent a new genre of Bollywood films. What do we call it - “Neo-realism” ? I won’t put these films any where close to the category – of, say, the cinematic versions of Arthur Hailey’s - Airport, Hotel – which tried to demystify the aura of those establishments – giving us a glimpse of the real ‘goings-on’ inside the corridors, kitchens and control rooms – even while weaving a thrilling plot around them. I remember another such movie while in college – ‘Network’, about the dirt and muck of TV Newsrooms and how TV personalities like Barbara Walters and Larry King are created. Nor is it a Bollywood version of Satyajit Ray’s 'Nayaak' – digging beneath the skin of a super-star.

These films – I think, reflect another social phenomenon – which, I believe, is largely the creation of our media. This is different and distinct from the yellow journalism practiced by the film magazines of yore fabricating gossip about the lives of movie-stars. That was a game of selling fantasies to a socially and economically deprived (occasionally, depraved) class. Whereas today it’s all about selling fake dreams. By the relentless chatter about the ‘life-style’ of the so called 'glam-set' (being simply rich and famous is passe these days) – they make believe that success and fame are just a hand-shake away. All it requires is a minor bending of morals – but the glamour and glitz that follows is more than worth that little compromise be it on the catwalk, corporate ladder or the proverbial casting couch. (Picture on the left - Bipasha Basu in a scene from 'Corporate').

Sociologists (or social anthropologists) can tell us what is it about us and our children (more than the earlier generations) that we crave for such vicarious existence. But, those who think that, this is purely an urban middle-class affliction are mistaken. Only this weekend I met a gentleman – who has done a research amongst farmers of Punjab about the kind of content they would like in a newspapers designed specifically for them. Apart from the expected news about politics, economy and trend in commodities – he was surprised by their overwhelming demand for a full feature life-style section. I don’t see why it should be any different in UP, Bihar or even West Bengal. ( On the right : Priyanka - when she was a little less 'evolved')

And, here I am not being judgmental for I do like Priyanka. Be sure, I will go see FASHION very soon. Because, that’s the closest I can get to a ramp.

Jumping off the ship

Meanwhile, on its way to Mareech ( Mauritius) the IBIS has pulled in her sails to weather a storm in mid-ocean ( Read earlier blog: 'In Bed with Ghosh' by clicking here). Five jump ship – the head serang, a lascar, the two convicts and a condemned migrant (girmitya), - and take off on a long boat to seek their fortunes eastwards – to Singapore and China. The Sea of Poppies -first of a new trilogy - certainly has the scale and sweep of an epic. Each of the characters have a story of their own to tell (product of rigorous research, undoubtedly). But, to what effect I am not sure. The strands loosely plied together into a thick rope - but separate all the same, often appearing disconnected and ready to come apart. In parts it reads like a very literal translation of a historical Bengali novel –of a genre reminiscent of Sunil Gangopadhya’s “Shei Shomoy”. The book picks up pace towards the end just as the IBIS gathers wind in her sails. That’s when, perhaps, Ghosh also decides to dispense with his voluminous tomes - Dictionaries and Reference books. (My uncle from London wrote: “ I am reading the Sea of Poppies. I wish there was a glossary for the now forgotten terms of various dishes and other slangs”).

The Booker may not be the ultimate recognition for an author (I think it's a huge marketing scam engineered by the publishing community - that's why I won't read Adiga's White Tiger) but it gives me the re-assurance that I am not in the minority of one. And, while the Booker may have eluded Ghosh, I don't see why an author of his stature and standing should put a whole list of minor awards - such as the Hutch Crossword or the Frankfurt International e-book Prize - as testimonies on the cover.

A friend had accused me of being a lazy reader who doesn’t know how to engage with a demanding author. I worked hard with Ghosh in bed and on planes during my trips. Perhaps, I too should have taken a whiff of that magical substance made from Poppy flowers to have appreciated it better. But, in the end - I feel as wasted as the rest of the human cargo on board after days of a tiring and turbulent voyage. So, now I have turned to Le Carre’s latest : A MOST WANTED MAN. Somehow, I get a feeling that, I will enjoy this one more. Tho' my ultimate fantasy remains - sailing on a schooner with Priyanka !!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How many gays do I know...or have in my life ?

A recent blog-post by my friend Raju N – the ‘Romantic Realist’ Ed of MINT – titled “How many Muslims do I have in your Newsroom…. ?” ( click here to read the full article) had got me going. Another e-mail forwarded by a respected elder – a former ambassador – ( see excerpt below) had me further worked up. So, this was meant to be my two-penny bit on secularism and minorities. But, half way down the piece, I was way-laid by the front page news item in today’s ToI – “Homosexuality a disease, says Government” (click here) and that set me thinking - how many gays do I really know ?

Dubbed in Kathmandu

Having studied in an all-boys missionary school – there were, of course, the odd brother or father, who were rumored to have been caught with their hands tucked under some junior’s ‘half-pants’. Though looking back, I can’t be certain they displayed pedophilic tendencies or just deviant expressions of pent up sexuality. To my mind, they were at best ( or worst) duo-sexual ( I think the commonly used term ‘bi-sexual’ is a misnomer). But, even denying them the benefit of doubt – I can’t think of any “declared” or “confirmed” gay or lesbian among my circle of friends and acquaintances – barring, perhaps, just two. One is a banker in London – cousin of a classmate and contemporary of some close friends with whom he studied engineering at IIT – Kanpur. The other is a well-known author – of Indian origin – who lives in Kathmandu – the “widowed” partner of a legendary artist and editor / author. Kathmandu is known to have a large gay population – though I have met a few of them socially can’t claim to know any of them well.

So, I have often wondered if it’s possible that there are some closet gays or lesbians I know – who are able to successfully hide their proclivities with a garb of hetro-sexual behaviour (in our society – even a lack of interest in women or vice-versa is often considered “normal”). I feel a little handicapped at not being endowed with my good “buddy” Farhad Wadia’s extra sensory powers of recognizing gays and ‘hookers’ in a crowd – ( who proudly claims that he has a "GAYDAR" - short for Gay RADAR, but he is not a HOMOphobe and has many gay friends - for the record!!). Now this inquiry in my mind is not arising – as you might suspect - out of any prurient interest but a genuine social ( if not sociological ) concern.

the 'unsuitable' question

The question that bothers me is – how would we deal with a gay in our midst, either in the family or at the work-place? Though today our newspapers have miles of column-centimeters on gay rights and TV channels are also airing shows on gay issues – I have seen from close quarters how journalist friends snigger and jibe at their allegedly gay colleagues on the editorial floor. Similarly, I have heard top artists make snide comments about their gay compatriots. Perhaps because of their ingrained diversity and sheer strength of numbers, the advertising agencies and other creative shops are probably a little more liberal (and, a wee-bit less judgemental)– but, still there is a very low level of acceptance even in the so-called enlightened circles. I believe it's not perchance, therefore, that - the known number of gays in Corporate India is extremely low.

We do have a Leila Seth writing in her autobiography about how she coped on coming to know that her son is gay. And, the other day I heard Vikram Seth talk about it openly in a Barkha Dutt show on NDTV ( Read: Morality cannot overshadow fundamental rights) . But, then every mother isn’t a former Chief Justice of High Court, just as every son isn’t an internationally acclaimed celebrity author. So, how do ordinary people in our societal context handle such a sensitive issue?

the 'Man of Steel' and his AK-47

I have heard parents joke as to how relieved they were – when their son actually proposed to a girl. Or, I remember a very senior bureaucrat telling us – how he had very gingerly broached to his rather reclusive musician son – confirming our stereotypical mindset – the question, if he was by any chance otherwise inclined and the young man shot back saying “ Dad, I don’t need your permission to be gay !!” And, there was this unkind corporate gossip doing the rounds some years back on how the ‘Czar of Steel’ lost his throne because of his excessive fondness for an AK-47, his protégé with the same initials whom he wanted to anoint as successor. (Much to the credit of the latter – he ‘moved in’ with his mentor and master, literally - lock, stock and barrel, when the former was forced to ‘move out’ and they lived happily together until his rather premature demise a couple of years ago. So much, for proverbial gay loyalty).

The bottom line being, according to me, why blame the government ? – as a society we still have a very long way to go before accepting persons of alternative sexual orientation and give them their rightful place in society. It will be a while before MSM and WSW become a part of our lexicon. Many who are crying hoarse on the subject – other than those who are directly affected – are at best doing a lip service to their cause. But, I guess we have to make a beginning somewhere. And, to that extent – I admire the very open-minded and bold stance taken by the judges of the Delhi High Court hearing the petition.

I can see some of you are convinced that, I must be in the throes of acute MLC (mid-life crisis) to take up such a topic for my blog. I admit that, so far I have steadfastly steered clear of issues of personal choice or preferences. But, I was emboldened after reading a blog of my young cousin on how to chose the perfect bra. Check-out: Rheality Check (click here)

Post Script:

Ambassador Deb Mukharji's Letter to the Secretary,
Vivekakanda International, New Delhi

Shri Mukul Kanitkar, Secretary
To: VK
International Delhi **

Dear Shri

You may recall the invitation to me to speak at the
Vivekananda Kendra International in Chanakyapuri on July 2, 2008, on the current
developments in Nepal at your monthly Vimarsha programme. May I say that I
was greatly impressed by the courtesy and the efficiency of all

At the conclusion of my talk I was presented with a book
in gift wrapping which I was able to see only weeks later due to my absence from
Delhi and other pre-occupations. The book is titled 'Expressions of
Christianity:with a focus on India', published by Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan
Trust, Chennai.

The book is a compilation of articles which, in
short, viciously denigrates Christians and Christianity. The individual
pieces of information could be factually correct, as may have been the
information in Mother India of Katherine Mayo, described by Gandhiji as an
inspector of drains. While it is an unfortunate and inescapable fact that there
are people and organisations who may feel that the denigration of others
enhances themselves, I would like to place on record my deepest sense of shock
and humiliation that this kind of material is being published and distributed
under the banner of the name of one of the greatest sons of India.

May I add that such activity directly contravenes what you
mentioned to me in your introductory letter, and I quote, "In 1993 when this
precious plot of land was allotted to Kendra in the prime diplomatic area of
Chanakyapuri; the grand vision of a centre for inter-civilizational dialogue and
spreading of Sanatana thought to the humanity was envisaged." There cannot be
dialogue on the basis of denigration and hatred.

Needless to say,
such hate literature acquires some relevance in the context of what is happening
in Orissa and Karnataka today.

I would like to inform you that this
letter is being forwarded to other Indian citizens who may feel

Deb Mukharji 15.10.2008.

** Vivekananda International Centre, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi is a branch of the Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari and is in no way connected to the Ramakrishna Mission and Math

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Durga Puja Index of Bengal Economy

(a Durga Puja pandal in Calcutta depicting the 'Nano' episode of Singur)

When we were growing up in the 60s and 70s, there weren’t any “mega-Pujas”. We had the humble community “para – Sarbojonins” in every locality. Then there were the ‘heritage’ Pujas of North Calcutta - Bagbazar, Kumartuli, Ahiritola, College Square, Vivekananda Road and a few – such as Park-Circus, Madox Square, Swamaj-Sebi Sangha (Lake Road) - in the South.

The emphasis at most of the Pujas was essentially on the beauty and artistry of the ‘idol’ ( the Murti or Pratima). While the traditional ones like Baghbazar (‘Daaker Saaj’) or Madox Square stuck to their pristine style – others experimented a bit with form. The Puja committees tried to out do each other on the novelty of their “thakur” as we referred to the image of the Goddess. Ramesh Pal was the doyen of Kumartuli and having his sculpture bestowed a certain stature to the Puja. Remember on one occasion – a Puja in the Bhowanipur area, I think, had an idol made entirely of “shola” by an artist from Shantiniketan – Ananta Malakar, which became the talk of the city. Later the piece was moved to an art museum - instead of immersing it in the Hooghly as was the custom.

The pandals and the lighting were still important – but they were generally shorn of glitz and extravagance. Each year some Puja or the other tried some minor innovations or gimmicks in the form of tableau inside the mandap, architectural replica in cloth of well-known temples or monuments on the façade of the pandal or thematic lighting. But these were at best secondary attractions and ornamental add-ons, usually deployed by the lesser-known Pujas as differentiators to draw crowds. The illumination was infact a specialty of Chandernagore – which was more famous for Jagadhatri Puja, which comes later in the year.

community sarbojonins

The community Sarbojonins were all organized with modest budgets – raised primarily from contributions of the local residents, ‘topped-up’ with small amounts in the form of souvenir advertisements and product display banners. The larger Pujas like Baghbazar, Madox Square and Park-Circus generated some additional revenues from selling exhibition stalls in the Puja grounds.

An average Puja would net at best a lakh of Rupees of which they would carry-forward couple of thousands to the next year – after paying for the well-earned revelry of the organizing members and volunteers after the immersion. If some extra funds were still left over – it was used for a film show, jatra or a musical evening as a post-puja bonanza for the locality – while the festive mood still lasted. Even the most affluent Pujas didn’t have a budget of more than Rs 2 to 3 lakhs or 5 lakhs at best.

The standard contribution of a household would be in the range of Rs 10 to 50, which would go to Rs 100 if you were really well off ( the term “HNW” hadn’t been invented then). At Rs 500 you would be considered a VIP and a thousand Rupees would raise your status to that of a Principal Benefactor.the trend of 'Mega-Pujas'

The era of more opulent Pujas started in the mid 70s – which saw a revival of non-communist political configurations in the state. So, newer Pujas like the Ballygunj Evergreen Sangha in Ekdalia came up, with the patronage of the up-coming generation of “youth leaders” who were more adept at raising funds. Till then such ostentatious display of pomp were generally reserved for some Kali Pujas organized by notorious Dons of the underworld – most notable among them was the legendary “Phata-Keshto” (the subject of a recent low-grade Tollywood production starring Mithun Chakravarty). Came across an interesting article on a web-site: Puja Company - The Old world Chanda dependent Festivities are passe; the Sponsors are here (click here for full article)

Even then – the culture of inaugurating the Pujas with Bollywood stars hadn’t set-in. The opening honours were generally reserved for the local Municipal Councilor (who had to grant permission for the pandal – blocking sections of the road) or, at times, the MLA or MP. Today, lakhs of Rupees are spent on getting celebrities from Mumbai for “ribbon-cutting”.

I lived away from Bengal for almost 2 decades. Returning to Calcutta in early 2000s – I found the scale of things had changed exponentially. I was told that the budget of a regular “Para Sarbojonin” is now no less than Rs 25 – 30 lakhs. A little up-scale Puja would be between Rs 50lakhs to a crores. And, the real top-end Pujas could be as high as Rs 2 crores or even more.

I believe there are nearly 5,000 Pujas in greater Calcutta alone. At an average of Rs 10 lakhs per Puja – that’d be a whopping Rs 500 crores at a very conservative estimate. Some would place the figure at over Rs 1,000 crores. And, this is for Calcutta alone. The Pujas in the Districts, I am sure, have been scaled up in equal proportions.

rising SDP and growing Puja Budgets

Considering that most of the benefits of economic growth are believed to have accrued in rural and up-country Bengal these figures are baffling indeed. At any rate, it would out-strip by a huge margin - the highly padded statistics of increase in the State Domestic Product (SDP) and Per-capita income published by the State government. It's all the more remarkable that, this grand up-scaling of the Pujas has happened in the last 30 years, when the state has been ruled by the Communists - who shouldn't be encouraging idol worship or any other form of Puja as a matter of philosophy.

a matter of spirit

It’s another matter tho’ – very little has changed in the conditions surrounding these pandals. Food is still sold in the most un-hygienic form by roadside vendors – no one gives a damn about safety, sanitation, cleanliness or pollution. Loudspeakers and horns continue to blare undeterred. Old vegetable colours and clay that were used to making the idols are being replaced with chemical substitutes – that pollute the river and ponds, poisoning fish. The cloth and tarpaulin pandals are giving way to more sophisticate synthetic materials of construction. Nothing has evolved in the last 40 years – only the crowds continue to swell each year. At The Telegraph, we had attempted to bring back some of the pristine and simple joys of the Pujas - while encouraging a few progressive practices in keeping with the times - such as Eco-friendliness, Safety ( every year there are instances of burning down of Pandals by electrical short-circuit - caused mainly due to illegal tapping of power connections), Hygiene in and around the pandals (simple provision of toilets) and facilities for the physically challenged - thru' a contest called the "True Spirit Puja" (click here to read). But, with very limited success, I must admit - tho' I am told, much to the credit of the paper and the sponsors, the contest ( and, thereby, the concept) has still been kept alive.

who cares ?

But these are non-issues in today’s market driven economy. What matters is the increase in spends. It’s also pointless wondering if even a part of this Rs 500 or thousand crores could have been diverted to more productive or developmental expenditure – which could truly contribute to uplifting the economic index of the state. Frankly – who cares ? Not, we the Bengalis !! I am sure there must be a sociological explanation to this – going far beyond the apparent economic inconsistencies.

Also read new blog on Durga Puja by clicking here: Outlook Diary