Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In the name of the father...

St Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta
Christmas has always been big in Calcutta - thanks to our hang-over of the Raj. It meant long queues at cake shops – Nahoum, Flury’s , even Jalajog in the old days and now Monginis and Kathleens – crowds at the zoo, picnickers on the Maidan and ‘jollification’ on Park Street, plus the traditional Christmas Lunches at the Clubs. However, the churches were generally left for the devoted and faithful, barring a few anglicized liberals who fashionably attended mid-night mass with their Christian friends and colleagues.

Midnight Mass at St Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta
But, over the years people have started thronging the cathedrals. A friend, who volunteers at the St Paul’s, narrated the tough time they had managing people at this year’s service. They had a strange dilemma. After all it’s an open affair – free to all. But, at the end of the day it’s also a worship and a religious ceremony. So, while on the one hand it would be wrong on their part to keep away people – how could they let spectators take over the occasion jostling out those who had come to offer prayers.

Is this a sudden surge of secular urges among the people ? Obviously not. It’s what we Bengalis call “hujug” – a cheap fad – fanned by the media. The same friend described how sundry local TV Channels wanted to gate crash uninvited to film the ceremonies – as if it was a public theatre.

Park Street (Calcutta) in Christmas spirit
At a deeper level, does it mean our attitudes are changing and there is a greater level of acceptance within society in general of different religious denominations? I am afraid not. We still tend to carry a subtle level of prejudice or subliminal discrimination towards religious minorities amongst us – whether in the neighbourhood, work-place or even in our circle of friends. The roots of this could be deep and the causes many. But, media hype will not change it – what would make a difference is true value-based education, which seems to be lacking even in the new crop of educational institutions (read, commercial schools) flourishing in the state.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

AMRI - some thoughts and a few questions..

Are we Bengalis low on Emotional Quotient ( EQ)?

#seeing the TV coverage of some of the Bengali TV Channels, I certainly thought as a race we are EQ challenged. This was certainly no time or place for feigned histrionics – that most of the anchors were indulging in – led, of course, by the upstart “star” of Star Ananda (who was pretending to gasp for breath inside the wards - compalining of suffocation by "Carbon Monoxide" it seems. First of all, who let him in – before the situation had been brought totally undercontrol ?).

#What was #MamataBanerjee doing there with a Micro-phone screaming instructions – promising to reward the local youth for helping out, advising the relatives of the deceased to proceed to SSKM Hospital Mortuary – where the “dead-bodies were being taken for post-mortem” and wait “patiently” as it would take some time for the “bodies to reach” . Few of her Ministers who had reached the scene were busy giving inane news-bytes to channels. There is none to tell our VIPs that the best way to help in such emergencies is to stay out of the way of those managing the crisis. They can cause more harm than good by their interference eager to score a few cheap political points.

# Perhaps, to prove their ‘professionalism’ the AMRI website put up Excel Sheet list of the “dead” – with noting of “bodies that have been identified”. But – not a word of condolence, mourning or regret. The rest of the pages were left as it is – full of marketing spiel. The next day, however, they did carry advertisements in the inside pages of city newspapers – making it a point to thank the staff “who have shown great courage in saving many lives without a thought to their own safety”, the latter I have no reason to disbelieve or discount.

unfair comparisons ?

A Twitter friend took serious umbrage at a comment of a well-known Mumbai journalist, comparing the AMRI tragedy with the Taj 26/11. He felt the comparisons – especially of Bombay and Calcutta were odious – and I agree with him. But, the point she was trying to make, I think , was a bit different. Is it right to compare the professionalism and dedication of The Taj staff with that of AMRI – even if both are ‘service institutions’ as she argues ?

I have reasons to believe, the junior nursing and the service employees - of organizations like AMRI are under-trained and under-paid. They are mostly drawn from very poor quarters of suburban and rural hinterlands of Calcutta and put on the job with minimum induction. Most of them are contractual employees – not even on the hospital’s permanent rolls. The HR policies of these places – set up with the sole objective of making a quick buck – are not conducive to inculcating any sense of pride or belongingness. The lack of professionalism of the employees would be apparent from their blatant casual attitude – on a visit to the Out-patients Departments of any of these private hospitals. Therefore, I for one am not at all surprised – without trying to justify their action in the slightest – at these junior staff - many of them the sole bread earners in poor families - trying to jump off to save their own lives leaving behind the patients under their care.

About the security staff the less said the better. This has become an industry that breeds more insecurity than security. Remember the Dhananjay episode (where the Security Guard was accused of rape and then hanged). Most security agencies get hold of riff-raffs from the slums for a pittance and put them up with shabby uniforms and no training whatsoever. The old peanuts and monkey theory.

Service institutions must have a different ethos and can’t be run as any other commercial organization. This fact is often not appreciated by promoters – who see it just as another profit making enterprise like any of their other ventures in real-estate, FMCG (Fairness Creams) or Undergarments - just as Doctors no longer remember Hippocrates’ oath.

The business model of many of the mushrooming private hospitals and nursing homes are based on the unholy nexus with Insurance TPA (Third Party claim Assessors) outfits.

Domain expertise counts in running hospitals as much as it does in a paan-shop or restaurant. Medical industry needs its own core-competence – which the Apollos, Escorts, Fortis, Medantas, Manipals, Narayan Hrudalayas even the Jasloks and Leelavatis bring on board to some extent, I hope, and that's not to think they are bereft of commercial interests..

Anjan Dutt – a Bengali singer and actor – put it very well, I thought, on a TV show. Calcutta has been taken over, he said, by a breed of businessmen – who have no love for the city and see it only as an object of exploitation for quick profits. The same mentality seems to afflict – even the successful professionals – most notably among them the Doctors, who have earned a terrible reputation for their lack of professional ethics. That’s a real pity – since Calcutta was once known as a centre of medicine with some of the finest physicians and surgeons of the country in every field of specialization. Today, we have train loads of Bengalis travelling to Chennai and Vellore for treatment (ironically, sometimes to the sister hospitals of the same groups which have affiliates in Calcutta).

Much is being written about the government nominees who were on the Board of AMRI. It seems most of them never attended any meetings and the Chairman - believe it or not - claims that he was even not aware he had been elected to the post.

I know a couple of Trustees of the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai. These people take immense pride in their association and, therefore, great interest in the affairs of the hospital. Big names – who are visiting doctors – are extremely demanding on the hospital authorities for medical and support services – as they don’t want their reputation to be compromised.

Here, in Calcutta, people see it only as a ticket for freebies – a perk of being in a position of power or having the right connections  (for the well-known gynaecologist on the board - I am sure it's no more an honour than being the President of The Bengal Club) - and for the hospitals it is a convenient pay-off to flaunt some respectable names on their website.

the first and last resort

The fire-brigade used to be one of our finest outfits. It, probably, is still very good. But, can it be compared with the New York fire-men post 9/11 ? Certainly not. Therefore, it was telling to hear some aggrieved relatives ask – why wasn’t the army called in for the rescue operations. For me – this is indicative of the deep distrust and lack of faith that the general public has developed for most of our public service institutions. The army to them remains the only one that inspires confidence – by the sheer dint of their self-less courage, dedication and discipline.

The sense of service seems to have gone out of our lives – with perhaps, the sole exception of a few religious orders and the armed forces. Consumerism has stolen our hearts and made us irredeemably self-centered.

Wonder what it will take to change that, if ever?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gorkhaland Express

Telengana Protestors

In a comment on one of my older blog posts  - the Siliguri Connection (click here to read) a correspondent wrote – that Siliguri should claim its status as a city-state like Chandigarh by the time Gorkhaland is formed (which – according to him or her is only a matter of time). My first reaction – probably emanating from my latent main-land arrogance and Bengali chauvinism - was to dismiss it as a flippant and tongue-in-cheek remark like many friends and readers of my blog are prone to (especially, when posting anonymously). But, then it got me thinking.

Maha - heartburns

Though I have a decent working knowledge of modern Indian history – as any average educated Indian – I have never quite fathomed the under-currents of sub-nationalism that seem to drive the demand for smaller states. I have read and heard – how the linguistic division of the states post independence was an artificial creation. Having lived in Maharashtra for a better part of my life – I have known about the  Marathi heartburn over the loss of Belgaum to Karnataka. But, frankly the extent of underlying emotions  arising out of denial of state identity didn’t quite register on me.  I always thought, it was the politicians jostling to create their own fiefdoms within a democratic set up.

With Kashmir weighing heavily upon our psyche, splintering of the 7 sisters of the North-east and Khalistan – at one time – looking close to the realms of possibility – we have somehow been conditioned to think of any demands for new states as signs of secessionism. We were inclined to put the original demand for Gorkhaland in the same bracket. The making of the 3 new small states of Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand was also seen more as an exercise of political expediency.

teaching 'em to count

So – when Mayawati declared her intention to split UP into 4 smaller states, our initial reactions were understandably cynical. Certainly, it was a political masterstroke. As a Tweeple wit remarked – before Rahul Gandhi could come to terms with one UP, she created 4 – enough for him to lose count. But, deeper reflection would reveal greater sense beneath her apparently whimsical sleight of hand. After all, what does Uttar Pradesh mean – the inimitable sociologist Ashish Nandy asked in a TV debate. While naming the erstwhile Central provinces – Madhya Pradesh could be attributed to a simple lack of creativity, to christen United Provinces as Uttar Pradesh was bereft of any rationale.
of Maha - Rashtras

That brings me to my favourite party quiz question in Mumbai: Why is Maharashtra called Maharashtra? The real reason – as once explained to a senior colleague of mine – Nirmal Sinha – by a  Marathi Trade Union Leader – is not what the Thackeray Tiger would have us believe (Maha – as in great – rashtra) but “Mahadev (or Shiva)’s Rashtra”. That’s because – it seems 8 out of the 12 Jyotirlingas of Shiva were located in the greater Bombay State ( Somnath, Dwarka, Ujjain, Bhimashanker, Trimbakeshwar, Sri Sailam Mallikarjuna, Omkareshwar, Grijhneshwar). It’s another matter that 4 of them now fall outside of Maharashtra ( in Gujarat, MP and Andhra).

So is it any surprise that, the young Scindia scion – on coming to Mumbai tries to claim his Maratha roots by speaking a smattering of Marathi ?

But, the bigger question is - if by carving out Maharashtra we nixed the identity of the Marathi speaking people around the region.

and, minor - rashtras

Now whether Bundelkhand should include parts of MP as well will be decided in the course of time. But, the question that is boiling is Telengana and can’t be put off much longer. There is little justification of denying Telengana statehood in the face of such over-pouring emotions and political angst and to hold Hyderabad as a pawn in the negotiations is absolutely ludicrous, in my judgment – with due deference to the retired judge whose charming wife light-heartedly says he is a better flirt than a jurist (who said I am not afraid of libel !!).

little donuts

One of my favourite authors, Charles Handy, had in a management context talked of the “Donut Principle”. It basically means, people can identify themselves best at two levels. So you can be a Bengali and an Indian – but not a Bengali, Eastern Indian and Indian (debunking our old proclivity to term any one south of the Vindhyas as South Indians and everyone in the cow belt – North Indians). So, it is difficult to impose artificial regional identities on ethno-culturally heterogeneous communities.

Though I won’t go as far as my former editor boss – who advocates breaking up of South Asia into independent small states – a la the European Union - but with a common national cricket team (where Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh will be allowed to have their own cricket teams and Nepal can have the status of Switzerland, retaining their own currency), I think  a further devolution is inevitable and already evident in the emergence of regional parties that have come to stay.

An article by B G Varghese puts some of the issues in a balanced framework (Better and more beautiful)

Meanwhile, I will be waiting for Siliguri to become the Chandigarh of the East.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Of Tweeps and foes

I have been off this space for a bit – though it wasn’t a planned holiday. Not that I have been missed – I am sure –  enough to provide an explanation or seek leave of absence. But, the question I have been asking myself is – if I missed being around, considering my oft repeated assertion that, I write not for an audience but essentially for myself.

To be honest – as many of you know – I haven’t been exactly on “Maun Mohan Singh" mode during this period. I have been tweeting a lot – much to the irritation of my FaceBook friends at whom the tweets are automatically bombarded. I have been an early blogger (since 2001) but a late Tweepie (only since 2009). Have been around on FB for a while now – though far less active having gone thru’ my phase of FB fatigue.
Tho’ I am often put off by the disclosures of rather intimate personal details on FB or the tendency of some Facebookers (or bookies, if you like) to peddle profundity under the mistaken notion of quoting something profound – FB remains a much more friendly and human medium for sure.

Twitter on the other hand – tho’ much more impersonal - can be fun and intellectually stimulating. Its 140 characters limit – gives it a “crossword”  or “scrabble” like feel and trying to express yourself in just so many words can actually start getting you hooked. While FB is like a good Bong “adda session” – Twitter, I find, is more of friendly sparring. On Twitter you meet more like minded people of similar interests. Tho’ as always there are the mavericks like me – who have an opinion and view on anything and everything, and don’t feel apologetic and self-conscious to say them.

While on Facebook it appears rude to block or ‘un-friend’ someone and one does feel some degree of social pressure in not accepting “friend request” on Twitter  you have no such problem and can ‘follow’ or ‘unfollow’ anyone at will and no one even cares (unless you are an ultra-sensitive narcissist – but then you aren’t worth following in any case).

Some, of course, try to turn Twitter also into a chat forum (from a ‘micro-blogging’ site as it’s meant to be) sharing details of their every little fart or burp – but you are under no compulsion to suffer them.
There are the iconic Tweepies  - kind of cult figures - whom you would like to trail (Salman Rushdie being one of my latest favourites) and others who desperately try to create a brand for themselves managing to build quite a large follower base through unabashed self-promotion. Then, there are a few whom you’d like to follow just for fun or a good laugh like Digvijaya Singh.  But, the ones I assiduously avoid are the ‘celebrity” Tweepies – especially from the electronic media (read TV) and showbiz. The latter are disgustingly shallow and superficial and the former have a nauseatingly inflated sense of self-importance though totally lacking in depth (with notable exceptions like Rajdeep Sardesai).

I would be dishonest, if I were to say that adding a name to my list of followers doesn’t give a slight pleasurable rub to my ego.  But, overall I am happy to be in a closed circle of friends like at GhoseSpot. Overall, Twitter is a medium I have come to enjoy. Let’s see how long the fliratation lasts.

But, the bottom-line is - if you aren't yet following me on Twitter - please do so pronto at www.twitter.com/SandipGhose :-)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

TRP is a 3 letter word

Once – little before he left the country, over idlis and coffee at the Saravana Bhavan on Janpath - Raju Narisetti, the founding editor of MINT (now Managing Ed at Washington Post), had jokingly talked about “the farm house index of Indian editors”. He had surprised me by rattling out names of senior editors who owned multi-crores worth farm-houses around Delhi, villas and holiday homes in the hills and by the sea.

His more than worthy successor, R Sukumar, has written a very thought provoking edit last week on media ethics titled “The real-issue-with-journalism” (click link here). Suku starts his piece – talking about his own company leased accommodation and hits the nail straight on its head. Historically, a newspaper journalist was hugely underpaid. Even after “corporatisation” of print-media today, most of the editors of leading newspapers earn only a fraction of what is paid to the head honcho of the same media house (Only 3 or 4 Indian Editors – on last count - are known to be earning Corporate Salaries with Employee Stock Options et al. Please don't ask me for names !!)

If I were to use my favourite analogy (click here to read) of a restaurant with newspapers, and if I liken the Editor to a celebrity Chef, there are many instances of Michelin Chefs paid higher than the General Managers of a hotel. Thankfully things are changing. But, still on average a journalists remuneration in not comparable to those of their marketing and commercial colleagues, who reside on the other side of the LoC as it were (to use another of my pet phrase when talking about newspapers click here) in the Church vs State divide between editorial and marketing believed to exist in the media world.

not of manor born

Only – perhaps – The Statesman, in its good old days, provided fancy accommodation to its editors (at the haloed Minto Park Complex – the premier residential address of Calcutta’s top box-wallah company executives - on D L Khan Road near the Calcutta Zoo) and, probably, also the Bennett Coleman Group (Times of India), with its large cache of prime properties in Mumbai. Others pretty much had to fend for themselves and have to do so even now.

The point I am trying to make isn’t that – inequalities in remuneration alone justify journalists taking undue favours from state, corporations, businessmen, politicians or individuals. But, the roots of such ethically ambivalent behavior probably lie there.

The desire to acquire wealth – of which land and property is a prime denomination – is a basic and universal human need that exist from time immemorial. But, in a feudal society like ours – where traditionally exceptional fortune could only be earned through the benevolence and favours granted by the rulers (read, those in power) or deprivation of the weaker sections of society, greed for “land” and “residential” property is a national affliction . So, we have Army Generals, Judges, bureaucrats and politicians all running after 'special quotas' and out of turn allocations of prime property.

It has always been considered fair-game to get land allotted from government at concessional rates for constructing “patrakar colonies”, “press enclaves” or “media centres” – treating it almost on the same footing as cheap booze at the Press Club, like a standard journalistic perk.

I remember a friend and a colleague fighting a legal battle with the Government of Maharashtra for converting the tenancy rights of an apartment on Pedder Road in Mumbai, where his late father – an eminent vernacular editor – had been granted permanent lifetime residence by a former Chief Minister of the state.

Lodi, Lutyens or Aurangzeb

Private corporations were quick to latch on to the trick. Many firms dabbling in real estate on the side offer priority allotment to journalists even before the bookings are opened to the public (like in the olden days of ‘public issues’ – promoters granted cheap shares to their friends in the media out of their quota reserved for business associates) others offer free or low rent residence to journalists – out of their pool of company flats or properties indirectly owned by them. One mega-corporation (no prizes for guessing) is particularly known for such generosity. I know of some journalists enjoying their hospitality long past their retirement at a prime address on Aurangzeb Road.

But, the question is to what extent does this compromise a journalist’s independence?

Gucci, Prada or Birkin

Without equivocating – I am not sure if I would put the above at par with free-loading Food and Lifestyle journalists. How many of our Food Critics pay for their restaurant bills? The girl-friend of a well-known glamour boy of Indian media (herself a ‘lifestyle’ journalist of some repute) is known to flaunt a collection of designer hand-bags – that’s the envy of many high society ladies - received as gifts on junkets of international fashion houses, on which she accompanied her partner.

Here again the truth is – many junior journalists wouldn’t be able to afford 5 star meals on a regular basis paying out of their own pocket and till quite recently not too many media houses would reimburse their bills either, assuming as a matter of course, that it was a free dinner in any case.

One clever media baron caught on to this rather early and decided - instead of his journalists receiving free meal tickets or other favours for positive plugs in their columns – to publish a ‘rate card’ for “paid Content” – cutting off the middle-man as it were and brilliantly monetizing a business opportunity.

Mr Pony-tail and Queen Bee

This has led to increased porosity in the once water-tight Chinese walls between advertising and editorial – with increasing instances of advertisers influencing content. It is no longer limited to a few usual suspects – known for having a slew of journalists and editors on their payroll. Why waste efforts at cultivating individual journos – when you can strike deals with the owners or the management themselves ? Therefore, it’s also not surprising that, perhaps - the most infamous among them have dismantled their in-house media-fixing department and outsourced it to the queen bee of the PR industry. One of the most “respected” business house – during a long stand-off with a top media conglomerate – shifted patronage to their rival group, not just in terms of advertising support but also sponsorship of mega events – in lieu of positive editorial coverage. Much has been written and talked about – with little result – about the media clout of a walking sartorial disaster doubling as an academic imposter ( the ‘Baba Ramdev’ of the Education Business). And, the recent family spat in a southern media empire – reveals a lot about how vulnerable the most self-righteous editors can be to external pressure.

But, pay-offs needn’t always be in cash or favours. As we have seen during the recent “R-gate” controversy – power can be a big “turn-on” as well. Many years back – a late editorial doyen, had pointed out to me some members of his ilk at a popular watering hole in Delhi – saying they are a breed of “fixers who masquerade as editors”. You have to only visit the same venue on any evening on Max Mueller Marg in New Delhi – if you wish to spot some these species.

on a different track

There are other ways of dishing out favours too. Suku in his article has talked of journalists lobbying for the “Padma Awards”. Junkets are the simplest and an age-old lolly-pop which still hasn’t lost its charm for many. Now, I am told, the in-thing is to provide "scholarships" to the kids of journalists through family or corporate trusts.

In an era when the country seems almost besieged by insurgent movements in different corners and neighbourly disquiet – many a journalist, due to their proximity to certain groups, become self-proclaimed “interlocutors” (be it of the Nagas, GNLF, ULFA or Kashmir for many years) and get inducted into “Track 2” diplomacy – for which they are rewarded in invisible ways by the government either through one of the ministries or Intel agencies like the RAW. Many of them are in the 'pay' (I am advisedly not using the term 'take' ) of the government for services they may well consider "patriotic" and, perhaps, a ticket for a "Padma".

There are many instances like the one of a senior editor setting up his own TV Content production company which was commissioned to do special programming on Kashmir. In some of our neighbouring countries - Indian journalists turned media-entrepreneurs have launched publications - which locals are convince have been funded indirectly by the Indian establishment.

These are by no means new tricks. We all remember how in the cold war era journalists were actively wooed by both the blocks and thinly veiled accusations often surfaced about someone being an agent of CIA or KGB depending on their Left or Right leanings.

The idea of this long narrative was not to chronicle what’s wrong with the journalistic world and how rot has set in to media. I genuinely believe that, our media is no less or more corrupt (for that matter ethical and principled) than any other section of our society or professions. So, it brings me back to the earlier question – as to what extent does such gratifications compromise a journalist's integrity.

hooch, hooch, hooray

I am inclined to take a somewhat amoral position on this. To me – if the media gave so much coverage to Anna Hazare, the 2G Scam or Adarsh is not because they had a sudden churn of conscience but they had simply no option. They could have done otherwise only at the risk of losing viewership or readership. The key, therefore, to making all our institutions behave responsibly and ethically lies in the arousal of public consciousness about issues that affect us. And, it is here that – crusaders like Anna Hazare, civil society activists, RTI champions and – most importantly – a fiercely independent judiciary plays the catalyst role. The triangular diagram above - perhaps - best depicts the construct that will balance the dynamics at play.

Once the mood of the people changes – everyone will slowly fall in line and change their tune (if not their hue). My friends in the media will probably kill me for this comparison – it will then be much like the voters of Tamil Nadu – who after accepting all the gifts of TVs, Washing Machines and drowned in hooch – still go and vote for exactly the party and candidate they want. Past favours and gratifications received will not really matter any more.

So, TRP, isn’t such a bad word after all.

(Note & Disclaimer: The above account is based on impressions gathered through many years of fraternising with the journalist and media community. None of the examples cited relate or pertain in anyway to my experiences in the media houses I have worked in during the course of my professional career).

My other blog-posts on Media:

Light and Sound on TV

3 Wise Men

Deceptively Simple

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday salivation

Are you a closet voyeur like me (except that I reside in a glass paneled closet) - who reads this new series “Diary of a single girl” in the Time Life Supplement of the Sunday ToI (click here)? While indulging in vicarious relish – on a lazy Sunday morning over my 3rd cup of tea in bed, I wonder how representative is this profile of the typical “single girl” ? Admittedly, Times Life is a supplement that’s editorially mandated to cover a whole range of lifestyle topics from relationships to religion and sex to spirituality (generally in that order). But, is it meant to be mere prurient fantasia to titillate the imagination of the readers or a peek-a-boo into the changing trends in society - I am not so sure. Also the question arises in my mind, to what extent does newspapers and media have a responsibility towards shaping societal norms ?

The ‘single girl’ who is the subject of this diary or journal – is professionally accomplished and has a successful career of her own and keeps (no pun intended) a long distance relationship with a fully ‘loaded’ boy-friend, her partner for rocking “palang-tod” sex. Her best friend is a gay guy – who understands her perfectly better than any man or girl-friend could. She flirts with and cock-teases other men – such as her boy-friend’s brother or her gym instructor (who can” stretch her inner thigh muscles like no other man can” ) – but stops short of jumping into bed with them – as an assertion of her sexual confidence of the new-age woman, who has sex on her terms only and knows where to draw the line or say no (being ‘sexually responsible’ in an amoral world is the mantra’).

Even my best friends (gay or gal) would not call me a prude. Living in Mumbai and Delhi, I have known a quite a few professionally successful single women (now, don’t ask for names or cell numbers, please !!) . Probably, only one or two of them would come tantalizingly close to this description– but still they would be more an exception than the rule. But, then I don’t claim to know the whole universe of sexually liberated single girls . Therefore, I can’t still reconcile myself to this column appearing in a Sunday family newspaper. Media they say, sometimes foretell social trends. Perhaps, this could well turn out to be a format of the future. Is this a life-style option – I would think for my daughter ? Frankly, I am undecided.

In another piece in today’s paper, Shobhaa De writes (click here to read) – “scratch the surface and we are all voyeurs”. And, I have earned a special right to be so – for yesterday, I turned 51 (for those of you who forgot to wish me Happy Birthday) !!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reflections on a roll

Exploring Bihar – many parts of it that I had never seenbefore – has been, perhaps, the most interesting experience of my current job till date. It’s been like re-discovering the Indian heartland. Those who consider Bihar backward –haven’t probably visited interior West Bengal. Masked in fudged statistics of agricultural growth and claims of more equitable income redistribution by land reforms – the Communists masterfully kept the state wrapped in a poverty net for over 30years.

Travelling through not only the districts but even the shanty suburbs of Calcutta – one feels depressed to see how living standards far from moving up has indeed slipped back. Sights in the less affluent parts on the fringes of the big city – narrow lanes with cyclerickshaws bellowing their air-horns and road side vendors selling fish and vegetables in the light of kerosene lamps , hand-carts of tele-bhaja sellers and hawkers of Phuchka dispensed in the most unhygienic standards, neon-lit local sweet-meat shops – seem almost implanted from rural mofussils of the 50s and 60s of yore. Time has stood still here for more than half a decade easily – notwithstanding the mindless and aesthetically appalling concretization all around.

Political agnostics

True West Bengal doesnot have the baggage of social inequities and not beset by the cast fissures ofBihar and UP – though a religious fault-line is soon developing with both the current and previous ruling parties trying to create a separate vote-bank of the growing minority, who were traditionally politically agnostic. That has in fact further diverted the attention of the political class from real issues of development.

In comparison, remote Siwan in the Western Bihar (birthplace of Dr Rajendra Prasad) – though not one of the most developed constituencies of the state - appears more civilized than an average district town in West Bengal. A look at the District’s official website http://siwan.bih.nic.in/ gives some indication of
the greater engagement of the administration - a sense of ownership - in governance. For me, however, a simple index of development is the cement consumption in the area – which was large enough for us to spin-off Siwan as a separate Sales Area cutting off its umbilical code with Chapra, to which it was earlier attached.

the power of 3 and Didi

It’s probably thanks to the 3 Railway Ministers Bihar had invery close succession – Nitish, Paswan and Laloo – the Siwan station is visibly neat and tidy –where one wouldn’t mind waiting if the train’s late in arriving. But, I was more impressed by the train itself – on which I traveled to Lucknow from there. The AC1st coupe on the Vaishali Express is one of the cleanest I have bee non in a long time. The attendants were courteous and helpful. During the 6 hours journey – the sweeper came at least
thrice offering to clean the cabin - something that’s becoming a rarity these days. I can’t say this any longer of trains emanating from Howrah or Sealdah (Calcutta) these days. In any case Bengalis, are never known for their service orientation. But, now with their “Didi” (succeeded by her chella) at the helm – theyhave total immunity from all work ethics.

We all lament that, train journeys are not the same anymore. But, for a change I quite enjoyed this one – whistling past the cow-belt country, watching the prosperous fields soak in the mellow sun of the fading summer, while gorging on a packed lunch of dry mutton curry and parathas.

The train reached Lucknow on the dot of time and was alloted berth at the old station of “chota line” – the terminal for the meter gauge service that has since been closed. Though not as imposing as the main “Char Bagh” station – it’s still charming. The best part is – presumably, under Maywati’s programme for social upliftment of the backward classes – all Coolies have been provided with hand-carts, no doubt making their lives much easier as also it lightens the conscience of passengers who dump their load on these poor porters.

Viva Taj

I used to be a regular at The Taj in Lucknow – in the late 90s when it had just opened. Even then it was one of my favourite hotels – and morethan anything else I remembered it for its very good Awadhi restaurant –Oudhiyana – which could any day give the ITC’s Dum-Pukht a run for its money. I have always wondered why the Taj hasn’t carried Awadhi cuisine to their restaurants in other cities. – when they do such a fine job of it in Lucknow.

Went back to The Taj – now re-christened Vivanta, their new mid-priced brand - again after nearly 14 years. The value of address has been greatly enhanced by Maywati’s beautification drive ofthe Gomti embankment – where it was earlier a solitary structure. Its design very naturally blends into the red sand-stone architecture that now adorns the stretch alongside the river. The refurbished rooms are very smart and the service has become crisper.

I used to be earlier somewhat critical of the Vivanta . I thought it was a forced make-over to make a brand differentiation. But, now I think they are getting their act together and I am beginning to like it. Recently we stayed at the Vivanta Malabar in Cochin and loved the place. The attitude of the staff, I find are more friendly and helpful in keeping with the old Taj culture and not uppity and synthetic as in their flagship luxury properties like the (Taj) Mahal on Mansingh Road in Delhi.

But the best part of the experience was Oudhiyana – which,mercifully, have been retained in its pristine glory – without trying to go for a facelift or relaunch. Apart from the excellent Kakori and Galauti – Chef Sharma turned out a brilliant Gosht Nahari for us – which he admitted is not simmered overnight, as the traditional masters would do – but slow cooked over an hour in a special mutton stock.

However, must admit eating in front of a huge portrait of Wajid Ali Shah and the Nawab looking straight onto the plate – did induce a tiny of guilt, which had to be overcome with a generous gulp of a deep rich Sula Dindori Shiraz.

Finally I was left wondering, if only Wajid Ali could haveavailed of Bariatric surgery a la Nitin Gadkari – we probably would have a few more signature entrees of Oudhiyana.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Opium in a Handbag

Reached the end of the “River” and what a beautiful and rewarding journey it was. It’s arguably Amitav Ghosh’finest novel yet and I ungrudgingly take back all the criticisms and reservations heaped on him in my earlier blogs (Click here to read). Though billed as the second part of the trilogy – the narrative sails on its own and the threads linking it with the Ibis (Sea of Poppies) are at best tenuous. Here, the historical backdrop – is not like

a cloak sitting heavily on the story, but - acquires a life of its own as Ghosh, the master of minutiae, paints the canvas with every little detail of a Chinese scroll painting. Unlike some of his previous works – Ghosh doesn’t challenge or intimidate his readers – instead transports them to a charming old world, as if after a few draughts of that magical smoke. The historical details – such as Bahram’s chance encounter with Napoleon - yes, as in Bonaparte – in St Helena does not distract. And, the parallel tale of Paulette and Fitcher Penrose on the Red Ruth

– in search of the elusive Chinese Camellia is beautifully woven into the main plot – probably leaving a

trail to be picked up in the final part of the trilogy. A must read for everyone – even if one had missed The Sea of Poppies.

Handbag as a fashion statement

But, the book I am enjoying immensely is the Political Biography of Mayawati by the journalist Ajoy Bose. I had resisted it for a long time – probably because of my innate prejudice for the subject. But, on my couple of recent trips to Lucknow – I couldn’t help but being impressed by transformation she has wrought to the city. At the risk of being scoffed at by my more evolved friends – I have no qualms in admitting, I found grandeur, vision and aesthetic taste in what had been described as grotesque display of megalomania. Undoubtedly very deep and astute thi

nking has gone behind creation of these monuments of Dalit iconism.

Any future regime thinking of destroying them – would have to do so at their own peril and no naming any number of roads, bridges, airports, educational institutions, hospitals or other centres after members of one ‘family’ - can outdo these gigantic feats of architecture. In any case, it is better than the stadium I believe Mulayam Singh had built in his constituency – which is now a public cattle grazing ground.

It would be fashionable to argue that the humongous amounts of monies spent to build t
hese structures could have been better utilized on power plants and infrastructure projects that would have benefited the people and contributed to the development of the state. But, while roads, bridges and power
projects can be built even through private investments or PPPs – social re-engineering can only be done by the state and it is difficult to put a price tag on the costs of social change. Bose’ book gives a terrific insight to the psyche of Mayawati and, her late mentor, Kanshiram and the movement they created that could well be a turning point of Indian history.

My only worry is – after 400 years when future generations of archaeologists excavate the ruins of the Maya Age of Modern India and unearth the great Behenjis statues – they might mistake her handbags to be the fashion statement of our times.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Trauma and Coma

As the nation recovers from the trauma of the Anna Hazare’s Ram Lila Saga - the government seems to have quietly slipped back to its pristine state of virtual coma.

Sometimes I suspect, the peoples’ grouse against this government is not as much because it is deemed to be corrupt as it is considered incompetent.

At least the crisis had stirred the ruling party to some kind of action – however, misguided or ham-handed they might have been. But, once the situation was brought under control by the wily manipulations of the Machiavellian Bong – Congress’ “man for all seasons” , Pranab Mukherjee - the party seems to be again at a loss for direction.

I for one always felt that - Anna was merely a 'symbol' of the issue that is agitating the national psyche (Please read my earlier blog: Jai Ho by clicking here). By his near ascetic persona built on a Gandhian mould he was able to capture the imagination of the nation as a crusader against corruption. To me his idiosyncrasies – such as not allowing the youth of his village to drink and flogging them in public if caught – are no more relevant than Gandhi’s kinks of sleeping naked with nubile women and making his wife clean toilets. Equally, accusation of being an unelected, ‘self-appointed’ peoples’ representative etc, doesn’t wash. Today – by definition - you cannot win elections unless you are corrupt. Equally, any alleged chinks in the credentials of Anna’s associates can’t detract from their cause.

I could myself write a thesis on how corruption is ingrained in our bones and – notwithstanding the morality preached in our scriptures – Indians are genetically coded to be corrupt. So, I have no illusions that, a Lokpal Bill would have been a panacea (or to use the new favourite catchphrase “magic wand” – wand pronounced as ‘waand”) of all ills. But, that’s not the reason why we should throw the baby out with the bath-water.

The Prime Minister has himself acknowledged his government is perceived to be the most corrupt government in the history of India. The Lokpal Bill presented to him an opportunity to seize the agenda turn the problem on its head. He could have cleverly appropriated (or, in the least, co-opted) the ownership of the idea (as they had done – by default or design – in the case of RTI) and initiated effective steps to give the country a powerful machinery for tackling corruption. That would have also been a good way to shift away the focus from the individual to the larger cause. But, alas they lack both in intent and statesmanship.

Instead what we are seeing is the relapse of arrogance - with spin masters like Salman Khurshid asserting - "we may have made errors in judgment, but didn't commit any mistakes". We see the government and the party behaving churlishly - as if they were forced to swallow a bitter pill - which, being unable to digest, they are trying to eject out of their system by a combination of emetics and purgatives. In a classic case of shooting the messenger – the media has become the favourite fall guy to cover up the bungling of the government – the likes of Kapil Sibal suddenly feeling jilted by their favourite TV news anchors.

So, a GoM (group of ministers) has been appointed to tackle the media (making it difficult not to draw parallels with the Emergency) and the dirty tricks department has been commissioned to split ranks within Anna’s supporters, rent opposing voices of dissent, order searches and investigations to rip open their past and try to trip them with notices and charges of tax non-compliances or violations. The political crisis managers surely realize, far from embarrassing or discrediting them by these motivated actions – they are only exposing the government’s dubious designs further.

The first thing to do at such uncomfortable times is to cast doubts about the funding of the agitation. The Congress did this during the JP movement accusing it of being funded by the CIA and, I was reading Ajoy Bose’ Political Biography of Mayawati last night – the same insinuation was made against Kanshiram in the early days of the BSP. That could well be the truth, as Congress politicians surely know how political campaigns are financed. One hears similar whispers about Indian intelligence agencies inspired actions in our neighbouring countries. In Nepal, where I have lived for some length of time, almost everything – from rising prices to riots - is blamed on machinations of RAW. So, those who are asking, who paid for Anna’s medical bills at Medanta, may also like to put the same question to the first family of the Congress Party. The declared combined wealth of Sonia and Rahul would not be enough to pay for their trips, holidays and SG’s treatment abroad. But then, why should someone ask the obvious. (See link by clicking here)

The exercise of asking Ministers to declare their assets was similarly farcical. It raised more questions than it answered. If the idea was to build credibility and show transparency – the effect was just the opposite. Surely, the government doesn’t think the people of India are such morons to believe the ridiculous disclosures of wealth. But, they probably think that the people simply don’t care – so politicians can get away with anything.

One would have thought – the Anna episode would have served as a wake up call. But, alas you can’t hear the alarm clock in a state of coma.


Pranab Mukherjee calls India – the greatest functional democracy, whatever that means. The truth is today – the government has stopped “functioning” and Congressmen are busier discussing the state of Sonia Gandhi’s health than the state of the nation.

Speculations are rife about how unwell she is and whether she’d be able to resume her normal duties soon or she’ll return briefly to anoint the 41 year old “Prince Charming”, if not for the big job, at least as the “working president” of the party.

It’s ironical when the Prime Minister underwent a major coronary by-pass surgery – the government didn’t think it necessary to appoint an interim head – the unstated assumption being everyone knew where the real power strings were firmly held. But, now that the mighty lady herself is out of action we are kept equally in the dark – as it is considered to be a “private affair”.

The nation’s right to know – who’s going to be in charge should an unfortunate eventuality strike – is kept firmly in suspended animation. The allies and the opposition are deferentially silent. I see this as a rather ‘dysfunctional’ democracy – though some would even go to the extent of calling it a Banana Republic.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

the corporate gigolos

Neil Bose – my friend in college, a bright student otherwise – failed to get a first class in his Economics Honours. Calcutta University, of course, applied standards of evaluation that could easily make an Oxford Don stumble. Disheartened and disgusted with our examination system, Neil threatened to write a guide-book on “How to get a First Class – written by a ‘Second Class’ student”.

It’s an old adage – “those who can do, and those who can’t teach”. A great teacher need not necessarily have been a brilliant student – though, there is nothing to prevent it from being the other way round. The same true not just in academics but also in other fields of life – especially sports or music. Some of the best sports coaches - weren’t the champions of the game. Very often – in their own careers they fell short of reaching the top – despite being hugely talented. Chances are – they didn’t get the lucky breaks – but more likely they weren’t temperamentally cut-out for making it big. It is from their failures though they learnt the rules and tricks of success – which they could put to use good use in training others.

Old Boys' Badge Value

Executive Coaching – popular abroad, especially in the US, for quite some time - is catching on India like so many other western fads. Many former senior colleagues connecting on Linked-In and Facebook mention “Executive Coach” as their current occupation. Most of these are glorified announcements of “disguised unemployment”, but still some, I am told, have made a successful practice of it – adding handsomely to the generous superannuation package endowed in their favour by past employers. They largely rely on word of mouth recommendations of friends – much the same way they land on company board memberships through ‘old boys’ network.

Like external directors how much value they really add – is questionable. Only a few amongst them have actually undergone any kind of formal training or have an accreditation for coaching. Many don’t even have a HR or Organisation Behaviour (OB) background. A coach is supposed to operate somewhere between a mentor and a therapist. It requires certain skill sets and competencies like any other profession. These people generally don’t have any such specialization and fly by the seat of their pants. But, still they do have takers.

First, there is a badge value. It’s fashionable to have an executive coach these days – if you are seen to be a high-flyer within the organization. It’s almost like the craze among the rich, famous, yuppies and wannabes for personal trainers at their private gyms. A friend in the HR circuit educated me, it’s a ‘win-win’ formula. Earlier, companies would send their ‘hi-po’s for professional development or advanced management programmes to top management schools. Now, if you are of an employee of any value – it is difficult for an organization to spare you even for a couple of weeks to attend courses. And, even if they do – the incumbent is scared if he or she’d have a job upon return. For this – appointing a coach is a convenient solution. It probably costs as much or less than an external programme and the coachee doesn’t have to take time off from his or her job. Following a round of coaching and mentoring, there are usually some visible behavioural changes, which get reflected in 360 degree appraisals, at least in the short-term, that makes everyone – the boss, the sub-ordinate, his reports and peers – happy, setting in motion a self-fulfilling virtuous cycle.

a susegad after-life

If you have been wondering – where I am leading you to with all this circumlocution, it’s about alternative vocation options, something that I have been pondering over for a long time. There are only a few people I know, who have been able to make a successful career in mid-life or later. It’s not easy to re-invent one-self. Re-skilling is one of the most difficult tasks – though we may not always realize it. Displaced populations – land losers especially – realize it at the hard way. But, this is the “Age of Unreason” – Charles Handy, the Oil Company Executive turned management Guru and Corporate Philosopher had written about. It’s a modern day challenge to prepare for that day of reckoning – otherwise, we are left holding an “Empty Rain-Coat” – to use another Handy title – shorn of our corporate trappings.

Of course, a susegad (socegado) life in Goa would be what the doctor ordered for me. But, even my young daughter refuses to take me seriously when I talk about it. A moderate climate hill-station like Coonoor would have been good too. But, these places are fast getting crowded and running out of basic necessities like water. The bigger question, however, is having neither a hefty retirement corpus nor any other source of annuity - how will I sustain myself. The cost of medical treatment itself is frightening.

Using the same convoluted Bosean logic ( Neil, no relation of the now famous D K Bose), I think - I would have made a decent Corporate Coach (among so many other things) if only I had taken the pains to archive and chronicle all my mistakes and failures in corporate life. Coming to think of it – I have learnt more from bad bosses – some of them, of the Hari Sadu variety - than the ones for whom I loved to work. But, alas I don’t have either the network of contacts or the gravitas. A friend suggested that, a way to overcome the latter could be by getting into tele-coaching – where the coachee would not be able to see me. It seems – the client opens up more when he is not sitting under the glare of the coach or mentor in a chair or a couch – but instead relaxing on his potty or lying in bed with just undies on - scratching his front or back as a thought stimulator. Somehow, it sounds like being a corporate phone gigolo and doesn’t quite appeal to my finer sensibilities.

So my quest – for a corporate ‘after-life” continues. Till then, my downhill slide from one soul breaking job to another is ordained to continue – soaps and shampoos to sanitary napkins and diapers; (news)paper to concrete, as it were.

Any suggestions are most welcome !!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jai ho !!

It would be interesting to see how the show-down between the Government and the ‘civil activists’ pan out in the coming days. Will the government with its spin machinery and administrative might manage to scuttle it – like they succeeded in the case of Ramdev or will it fizzle out under the weight of their own inner contradictions, rifts and cracks that may open up thru’ the ruling party’s backdoor machinations ?

Some felt the movement may have lost steam in the long interregnum. I feel it's only gathered momentum. I was quite surprised the other day - when our domestic, a quiet sort of a chap otherwise, said - seeing Anna on TV - "Accha aadmi hai". I asked if he would support him - pat came his emphatic reply "Karta hoon na..". I sensed the same mood travelling across the country in the last few months.

Do the Congress and UPA Government crisis-managers and spin masters genuinely think l that, by hurling accusations at Anna Hazare & Co at this 11th hour they will be able to swing public opinion against him ? They must be kidding themselves in believing that raking up a 10 year old issue of Rs 2.2 lakhs allegedly spent by the trust on his Birthday celebrations - would demolish his moral standing for leading an anti-corruption crusade.

Frankly, the public would care a damn about Rs 2.2 lakhs controversy or any other skeletons from the closet that may be taken out at the last minute by the government’s dirty tricks department. They know how crores are spent to celebrate the birthdays of political leaders and although there may be no commission of enquiry to probe where those funds come from - the people have no illusions about who actually pay for such obscene extravaganzas. So, if the villagers had decided to celebrate the birthday of the man who has so selflessly devoted his life to change their lot – by spending a couple of lakhs , it’s simply not going to cut ice with the masses at large.

And, make no mistakes – we are not talking here about the “relative scale” – lest some of you are tempted to spring the argument that no amount of corruption can be considered too small. The issue as we all realize is much larger. If the surveys conducted by the various media houses are anything to go by – the nation is seething with anger against corruption – which they have been silently suffering for so long and has now reached Himalyan dimensions – and for the time they have found a credible vehicle for expressing their dissent.

I think the Sibals, Chidambarams and Salman Khurishids are missing the woods for the trees. We Indians love symbols. And, all of us understand that Anna is just a symbol for a much larger cause. Any other person in his place – say, an Arvind Kejriwal or a Kiran Bedi – would NOT have captured the imagination of the people in the way Anna has been able to with his beatific smile, Gandhian attire and the almost saintly simplicity and directness of his communication – which easily understood by the lowest common denominator, sans the rhetoric and intellectualisation of the establishment spokes persons or even his own compatriots. On the other hand, Ramdev’s credibility and integrity was suspect from the beginning. He had always had a huge set of detractors and skeptics who doubted both his antecedents and claims. It’s reasonable to believe that, he had been propped up by the government and, in the end , became victim of his own charlatan tricks.

But, the situation with Anna is far more tricky as the government had learnt in the first round itself. Thereafter, they had thought - trying to be clever by half – that they would trap them in the committee but had probably underestimated their tenacity. In their hearts – therefore, they knows it could be a ‘no win’ situation for them – unless they are able to sabotage the movement from within – which at the moment looks difficult. Otherwise, if they crack down on the protesters – it may trigger off wide spread agitations around the country. And, if they allow the “anashan” to continue – it has the potential of bringing the government tumbling. So, in a way they are faced with a Hobson’s choice – a mess they have only themselves to blame for.

I don’t also buy the argument that – in a parliamentary democracy one should have to come only through an ‘electoral” route. If that was true no popular movement – would have happened in any country. It is the very argument of corruption that goes against this logic. Strangely some of our intellectuals and political pundits seem to be supporting such a view. From their tweets and articles – denigrating any ‘extra-parliamentary’ movement, it would almost appear that they would prefer corruption to continue than any destabilization of life in the capital. With cost of elections being what they are today (in states like Maharashtra and Karnataka – a Loksabha ticket is rumoured to cost upwards of Rs 30 crores) – would any “civil” representative ever contest an election without being corrupt ? It’s laughable that, ministers are questioning the funding behind these agitations – would they care to explain how political rallies are conducted. Young Manish Tiwari - in his obvious eagerness to impress the first family - sounds like a modern day Goebbels when he says that, Team Anna is corrupt from “top to bottom”.

True the Lokpal may not be the panacea or “magic bullet”, to borrow a term from the colourful vocabulary of our articulate Prime Minister’s men – but it would , at least, drive the fear of God among our rulers to – if nothing else – temper their greed to a more "human" level, from the diabolical proportions it seemed to have reached now.

Long live the republic. Jai ho !!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Rocking Boudis

The advent of the “Bangla (Rock) Band” groups in the late 90s and early 2000 was – to my mind – a watershed of sorts in Bengali culture. Bhoomi, Chandra-bindoo, Krosswinds on one hand broke the shackles of the “Rabindric” culture and on the other, perhaps, unwittingly, liberated Rabindra-sangeet itself from its puritanical traditions (ending of Viswa-Bharati's monopoly rights helped the process) to find a more contemporary expression through a new breed of artists such as Lopamudra Mitra, Swagatlakshmi Dasgupta and Srikantanto Acharya – who no longer found virtue in shamelessly imitating the greats of yore and were confident enough to find a voice of their own, so to speak. In the bargain, they also vacated the rightful pedestal for the maestros - the likes of Debabrata Biswas, Suchitra Mitra, Kanika Bandopadhyay, Hemanto Mukherjee, Pankaj Mullik, Dwijen Mukhopadhyay - as also the more niche exponents like Shantideb Ghosh, Rajeshwari Dutt - to be savoured in seclusion of their permanent hall of fame.

Bengali cinema I think has gone through a similar churn. After losing its way for a while – both commercially and cinematically – following the demise of Satyajit Ray and since Mrinal Sen stopped making movies – while other veterans, the ilk of Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar , faded away and the new crop of talent like Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Gautam Ghosh plateaued off somewhere along the line (Ray’s son Sandip remained hopelessly confined in his Dad’s Feluda series). For a long time – it was perhaps only Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh who kept the flag of up in the national film scene. Other than that, Tollywood – as they pretentiously coined the name for Tollygunj, the studio “para” of Kolkata – descended to unthinkable depths producing some atrocious low budget mimicry of the popular low-end Bollywood genre. Bengali Theatre appeared terminally ill – with Group’s like Nandikar, preferring to hold drama festivals with participants from across the country - instead of mounting original productions of their own. TV serials – trapped in a decadent middle-class milieu – were an affront to once acclaimed artistic sensibilities of the Bengalis.


Not surprisingly, there was no influx of any quality new talent on the scene. Among heroines it was Rituparna (Sengupta) and Prosenjit among the male stars who straddled between crass to class. For any other serious endeavours they had to import talent from elsewhere – be it an Aishwarya for Chokher Bali, a Rahul Bose for Aparna’s works, Nandita Das or at best our home-kid s Raima (Sen) or Konkona (Sen Sharma). In Antaheen, we had Radhika Apte a thetare actress from Pune and Aparna regularly casts Mumbai actors like Rajat Kapoor in her films. Sometime back, on a flight from Mumbai, I met a young girl Sriya (of mixed Punjabi and Bihari parentage) coming to shoot for a Bengali film.

But, things are beginning to change. Thankfully, intelligent movie making is back in vogue and discerning audience is once again being drawn to the theatres. Directors like Aniruddha (Tony) Roy Chowdhury ( maker of Antaheen and Anuraran) have come as a breath of fresh air – making films on contemporary themes that are both uplifting and entertaining. The quality of music in the films is also improving with composers like Shantanu Moitra (the songs and music scores of Antaheen are truly haunting. Listen to Jaon Pakhi by clicking here). More importantly, producers are willing to put their money on such projects – though the budget of Bengali films remains ridiculously low (less than a crore) – it probably costs more in Bollywood to film a single song (or item number) which sometimes involves travelling across the world to shoot its different sequences.

Bong belles and belly dancing

Over the last few weeks – we have been holding a series of company dealer meets across Bengal. The programme was compeered by 2 young actors - a rising starlet (Sonali Chowdhury) and her male counterpart , an upcoming “character artist” (Biswanath Bose). They weren’t exactly a Boman Irani – Lara Dutt combination on stage – but I was impressed by their refreshing spontaneity and unaffected mannerisms – which was a marked departure from the old “Santiniketan” style of conducting cultural shows. And yet, they didn’t ape the Hinglish brigade of Mumbai and MTV – in trying to look and sound hip. They were smart and had the self assured confidence of today’s generation but retained a local flavour and native Bengali wit and humour. In the past, we have flown down ‘B Grade’ MCs from Mumbai – but, I thought, they jarred and failed to connect with the crowd as these youngsters did.

No entertainment today is complete without a generous dose of Bollywood and the mandatory Sheila ki Jawani. But the performances here were much more slick and tastefully than I had imagined having seen such shows in the past. Particularly impressive was the surprise entry of the dusky Paoli Dam – otherwise seen in art films – looking ravishing in a glamorous item number, making people forget the Kazhakstani Belly dancer - Shahira - who was on stage just before her.

That brings me to the changing concept of Bengali Beauty. Now dusky is in. Gone are the times – when our Mashima-Pishima’s would lament their favourite nieces and nephews becoming “dark” (eki re tor emon raang kalo hoye gecche keno ?...aagey koto pharsha cchilli “). Who would have thought earlier that a Paulomi, Radhika (Apte) or Sriya could capture the Bengali imagination.

Morning walk in Saree and 'keds'

But, the change is happening also at another level – literally !!. Earlier – the Bengali’s idea of beauty began and ended with the face (“Ma Lakshmir moton mukh”). Exercise was taboo for Bengali women and girls were seldom encouraged to play games or even take up sports like swimming seriously. Ladies started morning walks in sarees and “keds” only after they were diagnosed of blood ‘sugar’ (Diabetes) and took to yoga on developing arthritis. So you saw some of the most beautiful faces mounted on shapeless figures draped under the all concealing attire – the saree. (Katrina Kaif hadn’t arrived on the scene then to shrink the 9 yards to little over 9 inches ).

from 9 yards to 9 inches

Now Bengali girls are regularly hitting the gym. Bipasha – if not Karina – are their role models (one must give some credit to Rituparana as well - who was probably the first leading Bengali actress with a figure to flaunt). Vandana Luthra’s Slimming Salons are opening all over including in moffusil towns. Gone are the times when – as the rotund Rabindra Sangeet artist sang with a great deal of feeling “Aamar ei deho khani tuley dhoro” (invoking the Lord to lift the temporal body - figuratively of course ) someone from the audience said out aloud “Kshama korben - Parboi Na, Parbo Na” (sorry, can’t do that – implying you are too heavy !!). Today, it’s such a pleasure to see Paoli in tight body-hugging costume being lifted up in the air by her male accompanists in the dance troupe or a Sonali carrying off an off shoulder western gown with √©lan.

the gym-ing boudis

So far so good !! A friend told me, the mushrooming gyms and the Vandana Luthra slimming salons that have sprung up all over – even in mofussil towns - are not an unmixed blessing. As scores of ‘boudis’ make a bee-line for them and shed sarees in favour of jeans and tank-tops – the divorce rate in the state has gone up exponentially.

But, all said and done Bengal is in the cusp of a socio-cultural transformation. Now, if only the economy looked up a bit !!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Amma, Behenji and Didi

(Mamata at the Writers Building after her swearing-in)

Singur Season 2

Mamata Banerjee has kicked off her innings in characteristic style – with a great flurry, seeking publicity and courting controversy from day one.
It seems her “surprise” visits to government departments and hospitals – without informing her officers and ministers – are undertaken only after tipping-off friendly TV channels.

The Singur Soap Opera Season II has also unfolded along predictable lines. First, the hurried ordinance and then passing of the Singur Land Act in the assembly. Her legal advisers would have surely told her that, it was bound to be challenged in court by the Tatas. But, so what ? – she could claim that, she has kept her promise to the electorate and started the process for returning the land in right earnest – blaming any delays on the Tatas and the courts. Those – who view the Supreme Court’s interim ruling as a set-back for the government could be mistaken. Even during the original Singur controversy in 2008 – the intelligentsia went ballistic but she knew her real constituency (read my earlier blogs: Nano Vision I and Nano Vision II).

TV Reality Show Queen

The knowledgeable and politically astute were not expecting a honeymoon. They had anticipated it would be more like a TV Reality Show wedding where the sparks and shoes start flying even before the bride takes off her grease paint. And, this lady never wears any make-up in the first place. So, it was back to the kitchen (cabinet) almost from the nuptial night.

In keeping with her image – she deliberately gives the impression of being in a mad rush, impatient and restless to get things done. And, a little more dangerously, having all the answers with her. This was on display her first interaction with the industry (her brusque disposal of all interjections) – which seemed more an exercise for the camera rather than a genuine interest to solicit ideas and encourage interaction. One suspects - the same would be the objective of forming the "mentor group" for Presidency College - a la the Nalanda University initiative of Nitish. Neither she nor her lieutanants (who faithfully emulate her churlish mannerisms and 'instant solution' proclivity) would have much time for advisors no matter what their stature may be. Her churlish handling of the situation arising out of the death of 18 infants at the Dr B C Roy Memorial Hospital was again true to form.

The worry is how far will mere rhetoric and native PR take her ? She may have the ideas – but does she have the plan and, more importantly, the people and administrative acumen to give it shape. That’s why most of her much touted projects in the railways went beyond the foundation stone ceremonies (and opening of new stations and introduction of new trains in West Bengal) and the ministry has been precariously close to being “derailed” – with an appalling fall in its operational efficiencies.

Poster boys or toy-boys

The older guard in the party are already feeling marginalized. Some senior leaders – like Subrata Mukherjee – have been given insignificant cabinet births – with most major portfolios retained by her. A veteran MLA I met the other day – lamented that they find it difficult to even get an audience with her. The more visible and vocal faces around her lack both administrative and political experience – in any case don’t have much authority to function on their own. Someone like Amit Mitra – is seen more as a “poster boy” - like some big names she had tried to ‘collect’ in the past – such as Nitish Sengupta, General Shankar Roychowdhury (who later went to Rajya Sabha as an independent supported by the Left Front) and the Panja brothers – with the strings of control firmly in her hand.

The bureaucracy is nervous on 2 counts. First, because of her impulsive, whimsical and unpredictable ways - though, this is primarily a concern of the senior officers at Writers’ Building who have greater interaction with her and, in any case, the 'babus' are trained to take the frailties and tantrums of their political masters (can't say mistresses, in this case) in their stride. But, what is making people down the line – especially in the districts - feel shaky is the absence of clear leadership at the ground level. In the Left Front regime there was no ambiguity in the line of command. It was either the local MLA or the party secretary who called the shots. Now everyone is a self-styled leader and none of the pious pronouncements from the top – advising cadres not to interfere with the administration are taken seriously by the local satraps.

the CEO syndrome

Personality cult is here to stay in Indian politics. Suddenly, our political leaders seem gripped by the CEO syndrome. So, it would be unrealistic to expect West Bengal to be any different. But, to be successful what’s the style Mamata Banerjee should adopt ? In neighbouring Bihar, Nitish too has largely by-passed his party men (much to their resentment – but the astounding results of the last election – silenced all criticism) and empowered the bureaucracy. He has gathered some outstanding officers – whose clear mandate is to deliver with speed. Narendra Modi has done pretty much the same in Gujrat, as has Navin Patnaik in Orissa with mixed results.

Even Mamata’s greatest admirers would not put her in the league of these 3 stalwarts of change and development. She would, probably, be more comfortable in positioning herself somewhere in between her two lady contemporaries – the Behenji in Lucknow and the Amma down South in Chennai. Both are imperious and neither have a strong reputation for probity (Mamata wears a brooch of integrity prominently on her pallu - but her partymen make no such pretence). But, in their own way they have ‘delivered’ for their respective constituencies – notwithstanding the corruption in both the states and abysmal Law and Order situation especially in UP. The progress made by Tamil Nadu in Jayalalitha’s previous term – when it had the second highest Industrial growth in the country (next only to Gujrat) is well-known. On a recent trip, I saw the transformation of Lucknow. Though many would call the grand new architectural extravaganza - monuments of megalomania, it says something about the lady’s execution capabilities. Even the CWG scam and a series of other scandals couldn't taint the image of Sheila Dixit, the grand-dame of Delhi - as an able administrator.

Scoring 'Self-goals'

A respected political analyst had said, the problem with the Left front was that, even when in power they viewed themselves as an “opposition party”. Mamata too has to quickly get out of that stormy petrel of protest syndrome. Otherwise – the hounds of the CPM are waiting in the wings to trip at her at the first opportunity, doing unto her what she did to them all these years. If she doesn’t change gears – she could well score a “self-goal” and get beaten in her own game.