Friday, July 11, 2008

Billoo - My friend Venkat

Like so many of my good friendships, Venkat and I started off with a fight. He had just arrived in Kathmandu from Sri Lanka. We had gathered at the Bhat-bhateni residence of Nagma ( Mallik ) – the Commerce Attaché at the Indian Embassy - to discuss the issues being faced by the Indian JVs in Nepal with mounting Maoist insurgency. Venkat touched a raw nerve in me by asking – “what are the Indian companies doing to improve the image of India in Nepal ?” That got me started on my pet peeve (something – I realize with the hindsight of age – that didn’t quite endear me to the charming lady Diplomat either !!).

That evening, as Malathi never tired of recounting, -`Venkat came home fuming’ – at the temerity of the Bengali bloke challenging the authority of the all-powerful Indian establishment in Lainchaur. The ripples of that altercation also reached the “Nona-Nina-Mona” Lane of Baluwater through other channels as well - causing some domestic consternation. But, you could trust Malathi to break the ice. “So you are the one who fought with my husband” she charged me point - blank at the very first party we met and then threw a supplementary - “but tell me – are you, by any chance, also a Virgoan ?” On confirming her intuition she broke into her signature waterfall laughter. And there began the “Billoo” factor. ( it was a coinage of our dear Seth – who henceforth insisted on referring to Malathi as my ‘sister’, as she had brokered the ‘truce’ between me and Venkat and, therefore, by definition her husband became my ‘b-i-l’. And, 'Billoo' was just a feline or facile - albeit affectionate - extension of that).

The Rao’s sailed in like a draught of cool breeze – through the re-cycled air of the Kats social circuit - populated primarily with the embassy gentry, a handful of Nepali aristocrats ( both Royalty and Commoners ) and a motley group of Indian businessmen and company executives. Soon, they were the flavour of all the parties in town. Malathi’s infectious vivacity and Venkat’s unaffected joviality made them an instant hit and a popular pair all thru’ their 3 years of stay in Kathmandu.

At first look they might have appeared to be 2 very different people – but it didn’t take long to realize their relationship was built on the bond of a very strong and deep understanding - which made them, as Nina aptly put it, “not just a couple but a team” who beautifully complemented each other. Venkat obviously enjoyed the attention his ‘bubbly and spirited’ wife received in all social gatherings - while she, in turn, thrived on the admiration and respect he commanded with his reputation of being a very competent officer. And, together they made wonderful parents to their 2 lovely kids – Aniket and Amulya – strongly moored, as they were, in solid family values.

I am not sure if the Pew Survey covers what the Nepalese feel and think about India and Indians. But, I guess it can’t be very different from what the USA scores not just from its immediate neighbours but the world at large. In such a context, the First Secretary Political at the Indian Mission at Kathmandu is not usually the most liked diplomat. But, Venkat proved to be different. He never put on the patronizing big brotherly air that comes so naturally to the ‘southern neighbours’ of the Himalyan Kingdom ( nay, Republic ). With his self-effacing style, he quickly won the trust and confidence of the politicians cutting across party lines and affiliations – friendships he carried long after he moved out of Nepal.

He was his own man wherever he went. It was this trait that stood him in good stead even when he was in Uncle Sam’s country. Something that comes through clearly from the tributes he received from those who knew him there – most notably K. P. Nayar of The Telegraph and Chidanand Rajghatta of the ToI. On being interviewed by Arnab Goswami on TIMES NOW, the latter began by paying a personal tribute to Venkat and condolences to Malathi – to use his own words “ they had won many friends in Washington during their stay there”. I got a glimpse of his wide network and circle of influence - when I went to WAS DC last year on some semi-personal work.

Venkat moved to Kabul around the same time I shifted to Delhi in 2006. We’d joke that we were both in “non-family stations” – with me appropriating the self-appointed status of being the local guardians of the “sister” and her kids much to the discomfiture of some of our afore-mentioned common friends who, undoubtedly, had the best interest of his family at heart. In Afghanistan, Venkat shed some weight and with a clean-shaven look was every bit the dapper diplomat. We frivolously attributed this to the therapeutic value of the juicy, lycopene-rich Kandahar pomegranates and the Chinese R & R center next to his house. Kabul being a ‘hardship’ posting his tenure would have normally lasted for 2years. But, Venkat did consider extending it by a year more – finally deciding against it as he wanted to be around for Aniket’s final years in school.

My last email exchanges with him were less than 2 weeks ago. I was in the US and read the statement of the Afghan Intelligence Chief on the assassination attempt at Karzai a few weeks back. I thought it significant that for the first time the Afghan government openly accused a Pakistani ISI hand in the incident – with Karzai – probably in a fit of bravado - even threatening to send his troops into Peshawar to flush out Taliban elements. I wondered if the Political Counselor had something to do with eliciting such a strong reaction from the host government – who were known for carefully calibrating their responses in playing a difficult balancing act.

In his reply, Venkat wrote that he was getting ready to pack his bags after a very fulfilling stint and would be back in August. He mildly chastised me for not coming to visit him in Kabul ( which he always insisted was “safer than Delhi” ) and even had a jab at me saying that, I was probably waiting for his successor to come from Tanzania – who we also knew from our Kathmandu days. He mentioned that, he might come to Delhi on a short official visit in early July when we should try to catch up. As luck would have it – I was in Delhi the last weekend – but somehow didn’t manage to connect. The rest, of course, as they say was splashed all over the newspapers and regurgitated endlessly on our TV channels.

Seeing Malathi’s brother Girish, an Air-force officer, saluting Venkat for one last time as they blew the bugles at the War Crematorium in Brar Square and clutching on to Aniket close to his chest trying hard to hold back his own tears as a proud serviceman – I thought, I can never feel even an iota of what he was going thru’ at the loss of his sister ’s husband.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Lipstick season in America

A cartoon in the USA Today shows the proverbial refrigerator salesman in Eskimoland with the caption " I like to look at the brighter side of things, thank God I don't sell SUVs".
With gasoline at $ 4+ per gallon there is smell of coffee in the US air. But it’s not Ms Rice alone who’s mad at the emerging economies like China and India consuming more food and oil, pushing the world (read America) towards an energy and food crisis, she has many supporters among the Indian Diaspora as well.

Mr Basu of Bethesda MD is angry, his young ‘shala’ (b-I-l) in Calcutta drives to work everyday and does not use ‘public transport’ (which in Calcutta would mean sardine packed buses at 40° C and 90 % humidity). “Desher lok-era koshto korte bhuley-gecche, mairi ” – he fumes, recalling the hard times his generation had to go through, at his b-I-l’s age, when they first came to American in the early 70s. His compatriots nod in sombre agreement. It doesn’t occur to him that applying a PPP factor (and, no Mortgages to pay) his software engineer shala’s "mainey" might compare quite favourably to his own dollar denominated paycheck. So, why grudge the young chap a little showing-off by driving his dinky Alto to work.

An engineer from Shibpur, Basu-da used to work for a construction company that built nuclear power plants. So given his ‘alternate’ energy background, he was simply appalled that, millions of Indians even till this day cook in open hearth chullahs – unmindful of carbon emissions. They could surely look at solar energy if not nuclear power he asserted (I guess he meant sun-baked chapattis!!). And, it’s absolutely no excuse that the US refuses to sign the Kyoto protocol – because the situation of the 2 countries are not comparable at all. He couldn’t be more right.

Mrs. Basu, on the other hand, was not too unhappy. She was looking forward to her saree shopping at the Bongo Sammelan in Toronto this 4th of July Independence Day weekend. Last year at Detroit, the cheeky salesman from Calcutta had told her - he had to mark up the prices of his saris due to the falling value of the dollar. Now with the Rupee having slid back to Rs 44 – it serves him right – and she can’t wait to give it back to him.

The last word has to come, as always, from our Kutchi “oracle” of Boston. He is convinced that, with Inflation having touched 11% and petrol at Rs 56 – it’s now India’s time for reckoning. You can’t counter his dooms-day prediction - no matter how hard you try to argue that, a country that has lived in penury for 50 years is more resilient to an economic downturn than those who make a virtue of over-consumption in every sphere. Or that, it’d be less difficult for a guy who has commuted all his life in crammed buses and crowded trains to put his car back into the garage and switch to his old life-style or, for that matter, switch-off his air-conditioners when power becomes too expensive or if there is a load-shedding than those who can’t f*rt without electricity.

So is it surprising that the latest Pew Survey shows that Indians love America but don’t like Americans as much ? We probably need to send our Comrades or the fiery Didi ( Mamata Banerjee ) from Kolkata to tell them that, the world's food and energy crisis can be solved in a jiffy - if the Americans wasted a little less food and conserved some gas and power – or simply, their restaurants cut the size of the helpings (which would also bring down the cost of national health-care).

But you hear some real gems over the radio. For example, ‘Wedding sagas’ are making a comeback in Hollywood (there are 4 releases scheduled this summer). People love to watch a wedding (even more than “RomComs”) when they are feeling low - becauses “marriages symbolize the ultimate victory of hope over experience”.

And, Gyms are trying to check falling membership not just by cutting rates but also with an ingenious sales spiel: “exercising helps you de-stress when the chips are down”.

Of all the ones I heard, my favourite is this theory about the correlation between the rising sales of lipsticks and recession. It seems when times are bad – women visit malls just for a ‘feel -good’ experience but not being able to splurge on expensive cosmetics as before - walk out buying just a lipstick instead (click here to read) . And, this is pure empirical research – there’s nothing Freudian about it.