Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Gourmet retailing and Ramesh

Yesterday while going back from office I dropped into the Godrej Nature's Basket store on Warden Road (a tony neighborhood of Mumbai, for those not familiar with Mumbai). This store had opened maybe a couple of years back (then called Godrej Nature Fresh) and was popular in the locality. On Saturday afternoons I used to drop in to pick up veggies on my way back home. Then in the last few months I had not had the time to go there and then they stopped doing home deliveries as well. Yesterday I was in for a big surprise. The store had undergone a massive changeover. Welcome to gourmet retailing.

It was brighter and larger (don't ask me how because it is still the same place). What surprised me was the stocks on the shelves - gourmet food and imported stuff like the kind you rarely find on Indian store shelves. From the Swiss cheeses (sorry, no aamchi paneer), to French wines to the best cold cuts and organic food - it was all there. And yes, some sinful Haagen-Dazs frozen desserts. The price would be a few months salary for most of our countrymen. But this is the heart of one of the wealthiest localities of Mumbai. Of the old store, the only familiar stuff were the vegetables and fruits. At 8:30 PM there was a fair sprinkling of people shopping, including a few foreigners from the neighborhood.

Apparently the makeover has happened in the last one month. And according to one of the staff members, the sales have gone up since then. The staff were smartly dressed in an all black outfit. I got talking to a couple of them - lets call them Ramesh and Himanshu. Ramesh is from Asansol (no don't reach out for the map of India; It is a district in West Bengal and known for its steel industry at one point of time). Ramesh is a graduate, his father used to work in a local factory and his brother has a small business there. He came to Mumbai when a few of his friends studying engineering in Mumbai called him over and asked him to apply for a one-year course in Retail Management. Ramesh was enthusiastic and rattled off his course subjects like sourcing, visual merchandising etc. Himanshu is also a graduate from the Mumbai University and joined Godrej Retail. They were smart, very enthusiastic about their jobs and pleasant to talk to. They travel really long distances to get to their work and work long hours (the store clsoes at 10:30 PM).

Even as I came out of the shop, I had informed a few friends about the makeover and urged them to lighten their pockets by visiting the store. I had spent a pleasant half an hour picking up stuff that I didn't really want to but could not resist. I mean for how long can you resist strawberry cheese cake from Haagen-Dazs? Well, I can't for long.

But more importantly this also set me thinking. Ramesh and Himanshu are probably not bright enough to have gone into an engineering school or a career in the IT industry or become doctor or CAs. Their schooling and background means they do not speak polished English that would have got them into a call centre job. But they are otherwise bright, hard working, willing to learn and are very enthusiastic. Organized retailing is giving them the opportunity. They are looking to become store managers and supervisors very soon and I have no doubt they will and that too sooner rather than later.

And this is a good enough reason to cheer organized retailing. It is creating job opportunities for youngsters where none existed. Even though the jobs are not in millions, but they are already running into thousands. And that is why irrespective of what the comrades in the Left parties say, organized retailing should be encouraged - whether it is Vishal Retail or Wal Mart or Food Bazaar or Reliance Fresh or gourmet retailing like Godrej Nature's Basket.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Mumbai dreams

My car insurance is due for renewal next month. For the last two weeks I have received calls from various general insurance companies seeking appointments and promising me the best rates in town. What a change from the days when one public sector company's products were thrust upon us and one had to run from pillar to post if a claim was due. But today's story is not about the service levels of insurance companies.

Today's story is about a young lad in his late teens who called me up the other day and said he was representing a leading private sector general insurance company. The voice was a bit brash, spoke in casual Hindi and sounded aggressive. He almost demanded an appointment and promised the best rates in town. I called him over to my office and he arrived on time. That is when I saw that he was a young boy. Curiosity got the better of me and I started asking him a few questions:

Self (S): Do you work for XYZ Insurance company or do you represent a DSA?

Boy (B): I work for the company.Here is my visiting card. You can also call up my manager.

S: Are you from Mumbai? Have you done any IRDA course?

B: I am from Ahmedabad. No, I have not done any course. I am class XII pass.

S: Don't you want to study further? How did you land up in Mumbai? Where do you stay?

B: Sir, to study more you need money (to quote him verbatim, Sir ji padne ke liye peesha lagta hai). My father sent me to Mumbai to find work as my income supports my parents and my sister. When I came here I was staying with a relative; but he started demanding money from my parents. Since he was asking for Rs40,000 and we could not afford that, he has turned me out today in the morning.

S: So what are you going to do?

B: I spoke to my manager and he has arranged a small room for me next to our office in Sion for Rs1,300 rent and a deposit of Rs5,000.

S: How did you find this job?

B: When I came here, I saw an ad of this insurance company outside Sion station. I called up the manager and next day presented myself.

S: How much do you earn in this job? Will you do any professional courses later?

B: My fixed salary is Rs6,000 and provident fund is deducted from that. I expect to earn my first commission of Rs10,000 this month. And I think in a year I should be able to earn commissions of Rs125,000 at least. I am confident about that. No, I will not do any courses. But I will definitely achieve something in Mumbai. (To verbatim report his last statement - main yahaan zaroor kuch bankar dikhaaonga)

The firmness in his voice caught me unguarded. Then and more so now I believe that he will prove himself and achieve something in this city. At least I do not have any doubt on that. His dream is the dream of Vijay in Deewar and Agneepath and Gurukant Desai in Guru. I was wondering whether I would have been able to solicit business when the roof over my head had been taken away the same morning. Would I have groveled for business especially before someone who is quite evidently way up on the social ladder? Without being insolent he was confident in what he was asking for.

And that brings me to why I wrote this incident. Reforms have given an opportunity to many people like this boy to have hope and search for a new career. Before setting foot in Mumbai he had worked in the textile market in Ahmedabad and earned a pittance. But now he is dreaming of big things in Mumbai. He still does not aspire to buy a car in the next one year, but wants to buy a house after two years.

I have long believed that the poor and the disenfranchised in this country need opportunities and a shot at doing better things, they do not need the patronage of the politicians and their employment guarantee schemes. The patronage is intended to keep the poor where they are and to be brought out when votes are required. But new opportunities - and like it or not most of them have come through over the last decade because of reforms and liberalization - will unshackle the abilities and the strength of all cross sections of this society. May this boy achieve his dreams. Oh, and I must tell you this - when he gets married, he wants a working spouse.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Glass bowl and a visiting card

It was an early Sunday morning and I was in Oxford Book Store near Churchgate. Wife and son were attending a Soka Gakkai meet and I was reading a collection of Ruskin Bond stories over a spinach quiche with melted cheese and ginger tea (both highly recommended). The Ruskin Bond stories on various people he has met over a period of time really absorbed me. Particularly the one of a police inspector (and also Ruskin Bond's beer drinking partner) who never made it big. The inspector told a fascinating story of the killing of a queen where he let the murderer go scot free looking at the motive and the human angle. I was just finishing the story when my phone rang informing me that my time was up and it was time to pick up wife and son.

I picked up a couple of Ruskin Bond's books for my son and headed towards the cash counter. There was an elderly gentleman at the counter and he was impeccably dressed. On a Sunday morning he was formally attired as disciplined old men tend to be, quite a contrast to my rumpled jeans, T-shirt and chappals. I strolled over to the magazine counter on the left as I waited my turn at the cashier. At this early hour, there was only one person attending customers and no one was in a tearing hurry.

At the counter, there was a glass bowl with a collection of visiting cards - you know the kind one usually sees in various restaurants for draw of lots or for sending promotional literature. Now I have this strange habit of looking at these visiting cards as I while away my time. I also tend to look at the visitor's comments book in different stores, especially when wife is shopping. It is interesting to see which part of the city do people come from into a particular shop, and what their comments are. At times I am also surprised at how easily people leave their mobile phone numbers and addresses. Today a card lying near the top drew my attention briefly. It was a member of the female species with her name starting with "T" and there was something unusual about the card - probably the color or probably the font - that drew my attention.

As I moved towards the payment counter from the magazine racks, I thought I saw this elderly gentleman at the counter quickly taking this particular card from the glass bowl and put it inside a white envelope he had in his hand, which was kept on the counter with one of his hairy arms on top of it. It piqued my curiosity immensely and I went and stood next to this person to get a closer look at him. The counter staff was busy punching in the details of this man's purchases. Total bill in excess of Rs3,000 and all in the form of magazines and office stationery. The person took out crisp five hundred rupee notes from the same envelope and handed it over to the cashier.

Apart from some stationery and note books, he was buying a hordes of magazines. I craned my neck to gauge the reading habits of a person who picks up visiting cards of unknown people from public places. It was varied - the reading habit, I mean. Making it to the shopping basket were Forbes, Fortune, Businessworld, Maxim and Debonair. I did not catch a glimpse all the magazines. This man was in his 50s at least, bald headed and boasted of a huge beer belly. He was dressed in a nice blue full sleeved shirt (I could not catch the brand), was wearing Color Plus cotton trousers of dark blue color and polished black shoes.

As soon as he collected his packets, he moved out of the store and left me thinking. Did he pick up the card or not? I am sure it was not my imagination running riot after reading a couple of Ruskin Bond stories. What was the name on the card? I was cursing myself for not remembering it. What were his intentions? Will he go home and then dial the number of an unknown lady? Or am I imagining too many things after reading the Ruskin Bond stories? As I collected my books and walked out into a bright sunny day, I made a mental note not to drop my card in any glass bowl in any store or restaurant in future.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Of poverty and extremism

It was about 5-6 years back. A routine office work had taken my friend to Jhargram, 190kms from Kolkata and on the main line from Kolkata to Tatanagar (Jamshedpur) on South Eastern railway. Travelers on the Kolkata-Tatanagar route know that Jhargram is where adivasi's get into the train and are a familiar sight with their bundles of cut wood. Often one sees youngsters going to Kolkata to take some exams for government jobs. My friend (let me call him Ani) was working in the IT department of a government owned company. By nature Ani was a friendly and gregarious person. On his visits to Jhargram, he would be put up in the Rajbaari (translates to "King's palace"), where even today one can get a room for Rs550 per night and have a retinue of 5 servants waiting on you.

During this visit, Ani had seen newspaper items about Naxal presence in Jhargram and some associated killings in the region. He asked a local district officer, an adivasi by origin and a very hard working fellow about Naxals. "Babu, do you want to see one of the training camps?", was the response of Murmu. Ani was not only keen at the prospect but also excited. He extended his stay by a day and both of them headed into the jungles the next day.

Deep in the jungles in Salboni (most of the journey was undertaken in a car), inside a hut Ani came face to face with 5-6 young girls. His guess is they were aged anywhere between 12-19 years. His initial questions on why they were not in school etc was met with hostile looks till Murmu (who was also acting as the interpreter) explained to them that the "babu meant no harm". Murmu then asked the girls to get some tea for the babu and that broke the proverbial ice.

After tea, Ani was shown cache of arms used for training, which was kept in a metal trunk underneath a bed. It had arms ranging from small daggers to country made pistols and rifles. As the visit came to an end, Ani proffered the girls two Rs100 notes. While they were obviously happy at this unforeseen bounty, there was something that was bothering them. Murmu clarified, "Babu, what will they do with hundred rupee notes here. Nobody will be able to change it for them. In the villages deep inside the jungle, people have not seen or used notes of such high denomination." Ani then gave whatever money he had in small denominations much to the happiness of the girls and left.

On the way back, Ani asked Murmu, "Are you involved with them?" Murmu replied, "I am not involved with them now. But I have seen the abject poverty and exploitation at close hand. These tribal people are honest people. So from time to time I give them any useful information I may have about police raids etc." Murmu had friends in the police department and used to get information about impending police raids. Similarly he tips off the local newspapers and journalists as well when there is a story to be told.

Throughout the return journey to Kolkata, Ani could not forget the images of the girls who did not know what to do with hundred rupee notes since it was too large a denomination for them. He had spent over five times that money for his two nights in Jhargram Rajbaari. He often thinks about it even today when he reads about the rising Naxal presence in the country. He is not surprised. Given the linkages and infiltration within the administration, the abject poverty and exploitation, the Naxals will always find willing recruits to join them in their deathly dance of violence and retribution. Another form of exploitation? Who knows?

(Note: The events mentioned above are true and based on my discussions with Ani (name changed).)

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Have a laugh

Today I will highlight some headlines and adverts in the morning newspapers that caught my eye.

The first one: The Babu Jagjivan Ram Centenary Celebration Committee has released half page advertisement today in Hindustan Times, which highlights "some important facts". I wanted to highlight two of these:

1. "He laid the foundation of nationalization in India by nationalizing private airlines and established Indian Airlines and the Air India"

Given the way Air India - at one time rated the best airline in the world when the Tatas used to run it - has shaped up since nationalization and has no notable achievements to its credit since then, I would have thought all admirers of Babu Jagjivan Ram would rather hide this fact. Should we question the intelligence of the Committee Members who were involved in designing and proof reading this ad or there are people who still genuinely believe that Babu Jagjivan Ram did a great thing by nationalizing Air India? The only people who would thank him for this would be the ageing air hostesses and all the union bosses of Air India. Definitely not any fare paying passenger.

2. "In 1974 when he was the Defence Minister, India won a war for the first time ever in its history. Nearly one lakh Pakistani soldiers surrendered and Bangladesh was created."

First, Bangladesh was created in 1971. At least basic historical facts should not be misrepresented. And then again, many would consider that India had won the 1965 Indo-Pak war, although a UN ceasefire ended the war. And this is not the febrile imagination of a patriotic Indian, but read the following comments:

a) Dennis Kux's "India and the United States estranged democracies" also provides a summary of the war.
Although both sides lost heavily in men and materiel, and neither gained a decisive military advantage, India had the better of the war. New Delhi achieved its basic goal of thwarting Pakistan's attempt to seize Kashmir by force. Pakistan gained nothing from a conflict which it had instigated.

b) An excerpt from Stanley Wolpert's India, summarizing the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, is as follows:
In three weeks the second IndoPak War ended in what appeared to be a draw when the embargo placed by Washington on U.S. ammunition and replacements for both armies forced cessation of conflict before either side won a clear victory. India, however, was in a position to inflict grave damage to, if not capture, Pakistan's capital of the Punjab when the cease-fire was called, and controlled Kashmir's strategic Uri-Poonch bulge, much to Ayub's chagrin.

c) TIME magazine analyzing the conflict, reported that India held 690 Mi2 of Pakistan territory while Pakistan held 250 Mi2 of Indian territory in Kashmir and Rajasthan, but had lost half its armour.
Cut off from U.S. and British arms supplies, denied Russian aid, and severely mauled by the larger Indian armed forces, Pakistan could continue the fight only by teaming up with Red China and turning its back on the U.N. ... India, by contrast, is still the big gainer in the war. Shastri had united the nation as never before.

(Source: Wikipedia)

As a patriotic India, I would expect that an ad like this released in India would actually hail India as the victor in the 1965 war.

The second one: A small news item in Economic Times caught my eye:

"Mumbai as Int'l Finance Centre: Cabinet to take a call"

I thought an overzealous sub-editor would have out a wrong headline. After all how can the cabinet decide whether Mumbai will become an international, global, galactic, Asian or South Asian Financial centre? I mean the cabinet can decide cement prices but surely it cannot decree what Mumbai will be come in a global context. Surely even Priya Ranjan Das Munshi will not be able to draft a law to that effect. But no, this does not seem to be the work of a late night sub-ed. Read the news item:

"The Cabinet will take a final call on whether Mumbai is ready to become a global financial hub. The high-powered expert committee..."

Need I say anything more?

The third one: Another headline from the ET:
"No legal bar on tainted becoming ministers: Govt
The Centre on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that there is no express bar under the Constitution which requires that the tainted ministers charged with commission of serious offences should resign."

I am amazed. Since there is no constitutional bar, what this government is saying is that it is free to appoint criminals as ministers and they do not have to resign. I wonder what crimes are barred and not barred by our constitution. I am planning to get hold of the list soon.

The last one: And lastly look at what the Congress party, which says it is the natural party born to rule the country and would like all of us to believe its secular ideals and modern outlook, is promising voters in Uttar Pradesh. According to a ToI headline, "UP Cong promises the moon"

The party has, in its manifesto, pledged to provide legal immunity to quota laws by putting them in the 9th schedule of the constitution and to give SC status to "machua" (boatmen) and 15 subgroups in this caste.

And this is what the heir apparent in the party has to say during his campaign - "After 15 years, now they are asking for one more term for development. This is a false promise. They have ruled you by dividing you on the lines of caste and religion," Rahul said amidst applause. Ha, ha! Congress party does not believe in divide and rule. And here is Mickey Mouse signing off.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Cricket World Cup 2007: Dispatches from West Indies and India

Last few days have been very hectic for me. I have been at multiple places at the same time trying to cover all the happenings in the West Indies and the repercussions back home, much like Salman Rushdie's protagonist in The Midnight's Children. Here are my reports (unedited, unaltered)

24th March 2007 (2:15 AM IST): India's men in blues have lost rather surrendered to the Sri Lankan team. "What do these Bangladeshi's and Sri Lankans eat that our players don't," asked the wife long distance, in a voice that was more lethal than Gabbar Singh's in Sholay when he asked, "Yeh, Ramgarh waale apne chokariyon ko kaun se chakki ka pisa hua aata khilate hain?" These days you can carry on a silly conversation long distance given the way telecom tariffs have come down. "Non veg food and beef steaks," I said quickly referring to my notes of my meetings with the Sri Lankan and the Bangladeshi captain. Wifey, prone to not listening when her better half is speaking like any self respecting Bong girl said, "They should have more Bongs in the team. The fish will do the trick." Fish and beef? I could not see the correlation, but I let it pass. This was no time for frivolities, as Bertie would have said. It was time for action and reporting.

24th March, 2007 (4:30 AM IST): The press conferences are over. Rumors are flying thick and fast. Greg Chappell was rattled by inflammatory questions posed to him by the members of the fourth estate, which indicates that some people may be plotting against him. A source in the Port-of-Spain police force said that Greg has asked for additional police protection. No one who is known to Greg is allowed to meet him alone in the room, especially after the sad death, now confirmed murder, of Bob Woolmer by one or more people he seemed to have known well.

The Trinidad police is not taking any chances and only unknown persons are allowed to go and meet him. He has been provided with bullet proof jacket to be worn at all hours. No Indians are allowed to meet him. In fact, Greg Chappell apparently got the scare of his life when a hotel employee tried to stuff the newspaper on the door handle and as a result made some suspicious noises. The said bell boy has been detained for further questioning and the newspaper has been send for forensic examination to Washington.

Dravid in the post match conference said, "I take full responsibility. Now the selectors have an easy job ahead of them for 2011. They know which sixteen will certainly not be there."

23rd March, 2007 (5:00 AM IST): The Pakistan team sent out a congratulatory note to Greg Chappell thanking him for ensuring that India was out of the World Cup as well. There is a fair chance that now they will not be beaten black and blue when they return home. When asked, Greg Chappell said, "I am not employed by you people and I am not prepared to answer it." He also said that congratulations were not due just to him, but to the entire team since he thinks "it's a collective responsibility" and he would love to share credits with people it is due to.

Geo TV has reported that Khawar Zaidi, a Pakistan diplomat, is being flown in from Washington to personally greet Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid, along with the rest of the Indian team on behalf of the Pakistan government. Pakistan government has promised land to the Indian team in the upmarket Defence Housing Colony in Clifton in Karachi. President Musharraff's campaign in the forthcoming elections will focus on India's early ouster from the World Cup. Things are indeed happening fast.

24th March 2007 (7:00 AM IST): Sachin Tendulkar, Vice Captain, said, "I am looking forward to the 2011 World Cup," as he stepped out of the hotel to go for a photo shoot. Apparently ESPN and Star Sports have given him a lucrative contract to be one of the panelists in their illustrious list, which includes greats like Sunil Gavaskar. The next four years Sachin plans to devote to rigorous training of his vocal chords in anticipation of the challenging job ahead.

The hotel were the Indian team is staying wore a deserted look. Everybody was out (partying) and those who were not out were having small parties in their rooms.

24th March 2007 (9:30 AM - 8:00 PM IST): India has woken up to the news that India is most likely out of the World Cup. I just flew in (in a time machine, of course) to get the reactions in India.

Kolkata: In Kolkata, a procession was brought out by cricket lovers demanding the reinstatement of Jag Mohan Dalmiya at the helm of BCCI and Sourav Ganguly as the Indian cricket captain. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the embattled Chief Minister of West Bengal said, "I will ask Prakash (Karat) to raise it in the next meeting of the UPA coordination committee and our MPs will also raise the issue in parliament after it reconvenes after the current recess."

Mumbai: A member of the Mumbai Cricket Association and the Prabhadevi Morning Walker's Association has said that Sachin should be made the non-playing captain till younger talent is groomed, preferably from Mumbai. A despondent cricket fan said, "The Indian team is fit only to play Rakhee's bouncers." Yuvraj Singh has apparently refused to play ball and vowed his loyalities towards another starlet.

Bhopal: Kiran More, the erstwhile selector, has squarely blamed Sourav Ganguly. He said, "The Indian team's entry into the 2003 World Cup finals had raised India's hopes and expectations. If only Ganguly had not led the team into the finals then we had almost managed to forget 1983." Off the record he said that is why he had dropped Ganguly and tried to hound him out of Indian cricket.

Somewhere in Uttar Pradesh: Rahul Gandhi, the crown prince of Congress, interrupted his campaign for the forthcoming UP elections and took of his skull cap he wears when he is Deoband or Aligarh to speak to the press. He said, "If my grandmother had been alive, she surely would have been the Prime Minister of India and then India would have won the World Cup. Look at 1983, who was the Prime Minister then?"

And in true traditions of the Gandhi family when asked what he was going to do about the loss, he said, "Humein dekhna hain, hum dekhenge..." "Rahul baba resembled his dear father when he said this," observed an old timer as he wiped a tear from the corner of his eyes. Rahul also said that BJP and Samajwadi Party were to be blamed for India's loss since they only encouraged wrestling (SP) and stick wielding (the RSS).

Delhi: A section of the Congress has demanded that Sonia Gandhi replace Sharad Pawar as the President of the BCCI and Rahul Gandhi be made the Chairman of the selection committee, since he had secured admission to St Stephen's College, New Delhi, under the sports quota, when he did not meet academic standards, which only goes to show what a great sportsman he is. "Sonia lao, cricket bachao" is the slogan coined by Ambika Soni and Mani Shankar Iyer jointly. Sonia has refused to comment and is maintaining her sphinx like silence. During the day she only spoke to her daughter, Priyanka.

Meanwhile the BJP has blamed the Congress for India's performance. They said because Italy does not play cricket, Sonia Gandhi does not encourage our cricketers. They also blamed Indira Gandhi for the creation of Bangladesh without which the tragedy of losing to Bangladesh could not have happened. "Na rahegi baans, na bajegi bansoori" was their inimitable logic. Atal Behari Vajpayee has refused to be drawn into the controversy and has decided not to campaign for the UP polls since he is unwell (any cricket fan would understand and sympathise with him).

Kamal Nath, Union Minister of Trade & Commerce, has blamed the lobby producing cricket bats for India's woes. He has said India will ban the export of cricket bats so that more bats at lower prices are available in India for our budding cricketers. He said his government will impose price limits on cricket bats and the government will supply bats to minorities on a preferential basis in line with the PMs statement that "minorities have first right on the country's resources." He said he will also urge the Pakistan administration to take similar steps.

Mumbai, ZEE TV studios: In a hurriedly convened press conference. Pradeep Guha, ZEE TVs CEO, announced that his channel would start airing a new serial from Monday titled "Kyonki Sachin bhi kabhi cricket khelta tha". The serial to be produced by Balaji Telefilms will be directed by none other than Ekta Kapoor, India's soap opera queen. Pradeep Guha said, "This serial will be a hit with housewives across the country as they would regain the control of the TV remote that they had lost since the start of the World Cup."

25th March 2007 (5:00 AM IST): The Sri Lankan skipper, Mahela Jayewardene said, "Cricket is a funny game." From where he is sitting, I am sure he sees many funny things. Meanwhile the Bermuda captain, Irvine Romaine, has said, "That the whole of corporate India wants us to beat Bangladesh. Don't worry, we will try our best." So corporate India and Bermuda is rising to save India's team for another battle another day.

Rumors are that corporate India is trying to fix the match and has approached the Bangladeshi players to throw away their match so that India can qualify. Prakash Karat, General secretary of CPI (M), who has recently fallen in love with industrialists and industrialization has reportedly promised corporate India that he will ensure that West Bengal government offers land for settling the Bangladeshi players if they lose to Bermuda and are unable to go back to their country. Bermuda players have vowed to take India to the next round. There is hope yet.

25th March 2007 (6:00 AM IST): Ricky Ponting said that he preferred the Australian way of winning rather than the Indian way of losing. He was reacting to Sunil Gavaskar's comments that while Aussies were unpopular champions of the game, Indians were more popular (losers). "Sachin has more sponsors running after him than the entire Aussie team," said Gavaskar when I met him in the hotel lobby.

25th March 2007 (9:00 AM IST): In the offices of a foreign brokerage house in Nariman Point, Mumbai, an analyst is writing a "Buy" report on Zee Tele. His earlier fears that Zee would have a poor quarter because of the World Cup will not come true any longer. But he is not happy after having been dragged into his Dilbertian cubicle on a bright Sunday morning. "Curse the Indian team," he muttered under his breath as he typed furiously on the keyboard. A sentiment with which the rest of the country agreed.

After 48 hours of non-stop working and criss-crossing the Atlantic, I need some sleep now. Ciao. Good night, sleep tight and don't let the bugs bite.

(All the characters mentioned in my dispatches are true and real life. Any resemblance to persons dead or living is purely intentional. However, the same cannot be said about the events.)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Rahul Gandhi, filmy ishtyle

For a long time now I have believed that Indian history will some time give a pride of place to the late Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao. He was one of the most erudite and scholarly PMs and politicians we had. But that is not the reason. If Dr. Manmohan Singh is credited with being the poster boy of reforms, then a large share of the credit has to go to P V Narasimha Rao. Mr. Rao was no more a believer of reforms than say Indira Gandhi. Dr. Manmohan Singh did not write any documents and scholarly papers on economic reforms in the 70s and 80s. Economic reality of the day meant that one either acted to bring this country back from the brink of disaster or push it further into an age of darkness started by the late Smt Indira Gandhi.

P V Narasimha Rao made the right choice and he brought in an economist-bureaucrat to do what was prescribed to be done. If today India is acknowledged for its economic potential and lauded for achievements of the last decade and a half, due credit has to go to P V Narasimha Rao. Of course, a party steeped in sycophancy which cannot see behind the name Gandhi will never acknowledge the same. They even did not give a decent burial place (Narasimha Rao's final humiliation) in the capital to the late departed PM since the party believes that only the Nehru-Gandhi name can adorn each and every monument, structure and social schemes in this country.

Why should Dr. Singh share the credit for reforms with Mr. Rao? Simply because Mr. Rao was heading a coalition government then, similar to what Dr. Singh is doing now. Dr. Singh was not a seasoned politician then and even now he remains a reluctant and an uncomfortable one. Mr. Rao not only gave a free hand to his FM and his team but also ensured that they were shielded from the politics of the day. His diplomacy and political legerdemain ensured that Dr. Singh was left free to do his job. Mr. Rao took along with him the BJP, the Left Front and sundry other political groups. Sure reforms did slow down during the last two years, but it did not come to a standstill or take a step back as is happening now.

The parallels between now and then is similar. Once again the Congress is heading a coalition government. But the politics of the day has been so badly handled that both the BJP and the Left Front are opposing the economic policies of the government. Within Congress, their leaders are opposing government's policy decisions. To a not so keen observer, it will be difficult to say who is in the government and who is outside. And the poor Doctor is a man besieged. One had expected that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi would have managed the political side with Dr. Singh and his team getting on with the job. She and her band of merry advisors have instead created a royal mess. They have proven that the Congress cannot run a coalition government and has no respect or tolerance for its allies.

You dear reader may be wondering what started this diatribe? It was a report in the Indian Express, titled 'Gandhis wouldn't have let Babri fall'. This is what Rahul baba reportedly told reporters during his campaign in Uttar Pradesh. No prizes for guessing what constituency he was trying to address and who he was trying to appease in the golden traditions of the Congress. His take was that he was giving facts and if any member of the Gandhi family had been in active politics, the Babri Masjid would have been still standing in all its glory. He also said, in his father's forgettable "naani yaad dila doonga" style, that had Rajiv Gandhi been alive, "he would stand in front of Babri Masjid if it will do any good. They would have to kill him first." This is a dialogue worthy of Kader Khan. Rahul Gandhi has indeed learnt a few things from his father. Difficult to believe that the late Mr. Rajiv Gandhi had such sentiments. He is the one who took the retrograde step of turning back the Supreme Court judgment on the Shah Bano case and he is the person under whose regime the Babri Masjid locks were opened for worship.

And who was Rahul Gandhi blaming? Of course, P V Narasimha Rao but without naming him. How easy for Rahul to say this. If only it was possible to fool all the people all the time, Rahul would have been able to revive the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. I am hoping that Congress continues its slide in Uttar Pradesh during the forthcoming assembly polls. Rahul also blamed Congress's alliance with Baujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1996 for Congress's declines. If the migrant taxi drivers in Mumbai are correct then Rahul may have to eat humble pie very soon. Because according to the taxi drivers, BSP is slated to make a come back in the forthcoming polls and then Congress may want to get hitched to her coattails only to keep BJP out of power even if it means it will cut its own nose.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Truth and rumors - the Nandigram tragedy

Last night at about ten, I received a call from a school friend of mine. He sounded agitated. The issue was Nandigram. He said he had spoken to many people in West Bengal and in towns near Nandigram. He had worked in that locality in his younger days as an officer in a public sector company and clearly knows the region well. The gist of his statements were as follows:

"A very bad and evil thing has happened. The government and the cadres of the Left Front have gone on a spree killing innocent people. While the official numbers say 14 dead, the actual number of dead is over 500. A ditch in Nandigram is littered with bodies. Something like this last happened in Jallianwala Bag. Everyone is West Bengal is agitated, people are coming out on the streets in Kolkata. This Left Front government will not get elected again. West Bengal is on fire."

Clearly the revolutionary spirit of my friend had been awakened by what by all accounts is a most tragic incident. He said all this and more. While I am relying on my memory to write the statements, I can assure you that there is no exaggeration. I had also been watching the news on prime time television switching between CNN-IBN and NDTV trying to catch on what had happened (avoiding the noise of the anchor and concentrating on the visuals) and trying to make sense out of it. What I have understood so far (and even I have spoken to a few people in Kolkata):

1. The West Bengal CM quite some time back had assured the people of Nandigram that no land will be acquired for the SEZ if they did not want it and the SEZ will be shifted elsewhere. But apparently the administration was yet to withdraw the notice for land acquisition although all such activities had come to a stop.

2. In Nandigram, the CPI(M) cadres and administration officials had been driven out in January and since then they have not been able to go back. The villagers have bee under the control of the agitationists and quite possibly there are outsiders in their midst fomenting trouble. Roads have been dug up and ditches have been built to ensure that vehicles cannot move in.

3. The West Bengal government sent in police force to "reclaim Nandigram". Sometime back a policeman had been killed and his body discovered after many days. Apparently commingling with the police force were the CPI (M) cadres itching for violence and revenge.

In this melee one side started the firing - both sides obviously accuse the other. 14 lives, some innocent and some not, have been lost. Numerous questions crop up:

1. Who were the people who had driven out the administration and what were they holding out against even after the government had put a stop to land acquisition?

2. Who had supplied arms and ammunition to this group and what is their motive? Where did the crowd get crude bombs from?

3. Why had the West Bengal government not withdrawn the notification for land acquisition if it had acceded to the "people's will"?

4. Why were the police force sent on Wednesday - two months since the resistance? Should it have been sent earlier or later after trying to resolve the stand off through dialogues?

The media has been frothing at the mouth calling Buddhadeb Bhattacharya names and heralding the beginnings of a new revolution. One TV channel had the caption "Blood in Buddhadeb's hands". He has also been compared to General Dyer and in a comparison it was said that General Dyer was probably the better of the two. This debate has now turned into a debate of whether industrial development is necessary. Mamata Banerjee has already called for a 12-hour bandh in Kolkata today. Many political parties have supported it. The result is Kolkata will "enjoy" a three day weekend, few buses and taxis will be burnt, some public property will be destroyed and lakhs of students will not be able to appear for the board exams that are going on.

To my mind, the two casualties of this will be truth and development. I called back my friend about half an hour back to see if he had any further updates. He said, "The situation is not bad. Most of what I was told yesterday seems to be rumors (goojob is the Bengali term that he used). But today's bandh has brought life in Kolkata to a near stand still and those who have dared to venture out are facing numerous problems." There you have it. In a matter of twelve hours, the views had taken an about turn. I have long believed that:

1. Indian media should behave more responsibly, tell the truth but not necessarily be sensationalist at all times and also look at the greater national interest (read the balanced editorial in Indian Express today)

2. Indian government and states should do better PR

And of course I wish, but it is too much to expect, that political parties could at times rise beyond petty politicking.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Olympic ka race ya police ka case?

I have been a big fan of Amitabh Bachchan for longer than I can remember. In fact there was a time when I would try and memorize lengthy dialogues from his hit films. Many a bacchanalian nights revelries would end with my friends urging me to say the dialogues from some Bachchan movie, and I trying my best to impersonate the Big B's baritone voice.

Such a dialogue came to my mind today morning. Early in the morning (8ish is more like it), I was standing waiting for "Lift number 3" to come down and swallow me in. I had pressed the button and the light on the panel had lit up. The lift was making its journey down from the 10th floor. I am not a morning person normally and was still trying to keep my eyelids wide apart and thinking of the long day ahead. I mean I was not in a mood of hustle and bustle. Suddenly from behind me a gust of wind blew in. Not exactly, but you get the impression, right? A man, obviously in a hurry, rushed in.

Now I must describe this man who broke into my early morning revelry. Tall, well built and a slight hint of a beer belly. Clearly someone who use to be a regular at the gym in the not so distant past, but probably his professional life was not allowing him to pursue his passion any longer or too many dinners with clients with lots of booze. Was he an ad industry types? Possibly yes, if his dress of denim shirt hanging loose over his khaki trousers and a small diamond stud earring in his left ear was anything to go by.

Definitely not a banker types. Although I had some doubts about his being an ad industry pro since most of the ad industry professionals that I know, excluding my good friend SGT, never get out of the bed before the sun is well and truly on its way to the midday mark. By the way I must hasten to add, before I lose a friend, that SGT does not wear diamond earrings. But the "early-morning-ad-person's" shoes were designed and worn to draw the attention from the most placid and uninterested onlooker.

The shoes definitely merit a special discussion. They were large, larger than what the person's physique would suggest. Not surprising given that the black shiny leather shoes were very narrow in the front. It (I mean the shoes and not the man) also had some sort of floral pattern around the edges. The sort of shoes you probably see dancing enthusiasts wearing in pubs or bars. They reminded me of some of the white shiny shoes that Jeetendra used to wear in his hey days. Shudder.

Now Mr. Pointy Shoe rushed past me and started jabbing at the lift button as if willing the lift to hurry down fast or rather ASAP as his ad industry boss may have barked at him time and again. He did not stop with one or two jabs. He was clearly a man who believed that once you start jabbing at the lift button, you might as well try and destroy it forever. Or maybe he really believed that his earnest and desperate jabbing would actually bring the lift down faster. The lift, unfortunately for Mr. Pointy Shoe, was in no hurry and was coming down by stopping at each and every floor on the way down, possibly exchanging greetings with the floor cleaner and the security personnel on each floor.

Finally the lift arrived. Much to Mr. Pointy Shoe's frustration, two other people got into the lift apart from us. While he wanted to go to the 6th floor, the other two gents wanted to get down on the 3rd and the 5th floor. As if that was not enough, the lift decided to take a stop on the 1st floor - a stop it had missed during its downward journey. Mr. Pointy Shoes was clearly getting impatient and jumped off the lift as soon as it reached the 6th.

And I remembered the dialogue from Amar Akbar Anthony, which long years of neglect had driven to the deep recesses of my memory, which is also rapidly failing with the advancing decades. The very appropriate dialogue, said by who else but the Big B and penned by Kader Khan, goes something like this: "Aadmi zindagi mein sirf do ich baar aisa bhagta hai, ya to Olympic ka race ho, ya police ka case ho." I wonder which one of the two was it in Mr. Pointy Shoe's case? Or was it an impatient boss or a client presentation not ready but due at ten in the morning? I was smiling as I got out on the 8th - not at Mr. Pointy Shoes, but at having successfully dug out the old dialogue from the recesses of my memory.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Jaipur and Bhaonta - one country, two world's

Rajkumar was driving us from Jaipur to Bhaonta. Bhaonta is a small nondescript village about an hour and half's drive from Jaipur where Rajendra Singh, Magsaysay Award winner and water man of Rajasthan, started working his wonders. Testimony to his work is painted on a wall in the village where the President of India gave him an award. More important is the sight of water streams in villages in that area that were bone dry for decades and the grateful look in the eyes of the villagers when one mentions the name of Rajendra Singh. It had all started with my request to Rajendra Singh to interview him And he said before that you must see the work we have done. So that is what brought us to Jaipur that day.

But this story is not about Rajendra Singh, this one is about Rajkumar. There was something about Rajkumar that told us from miles away that he is a rajput - the moustache, the walk and the proud head held high. Rajkumar graduated from being a mechanic in a two-wheeler workshop to driving a tourist taxi. While working as a mechanic, he fell in love with a college student who used to come to the garage with her two-wheeler. His love was reciprocated and the two love birds got married after much opposition from the girl's parents (naturally, right?). Rajkumar's wife went on to do her post graduate studies in English and today teaches in a local college. Rajkumar continues to drive the taxi.

His wife has also started an export business - exporting local handicrafts and Rajkumar is in the process of trying to get her a loan from a local bank. He deals with the local bank officials because "they do not treat women well". He with his traditional rajput aggression and bravado is better at dealing with the bank officials. Rajkumar and his "Rajkumari" seem to be destined for a happy ending, the kind we see in movies where the rich educated girl and the poor illiterate boy live happily ever after.

I asked Rajkumar, whether he plans to buy his own car and run a taxi service some day.

"No, sir. There is no money in running a tourist taxi. There are just too many taxis and too few tourists. And a majority of the tourists do not use taxis and use auto rickshaws," said Rajkumar as we passed one of the many forts in Jaipur and hit the highway full of advertisements for Omaxe City and many other cities and shopping malls coming up with a vengeance.

"In fact there is more money to be earned by being an auto rickshaw driver than driving a tourist taxi," he concluded.

Huh, what was that! "Is that so, then why don't you...?," I started to ask.

Before I could complete my question, Raj answered my half completed question and also gave me a lesson on immigrant labor and its success. "Sahib, I am from this city. People will say "Rajkumar rajput is driving an auto" and that will lower my prestige in the society. Therefore, I will continue to drive the taxi even if I can earn more doing something else. It would be different if I were to go and work in Delhi or Kolkata. There I would not mind even working as a manual labor. Here in Jaipur, it is people from Bihar and West Bengal who come and do all these jobs, stay in tiny one room pigeon holes and when they go back to their home towns, they boast of their earnings and better life style and bring in more people. All this drives down the wages and earnings for us because we cannot do the same. These people from Bihar and Kolkata also work harder and for longer hours, because they do not have anything else to do."

"Do you regret not studying?," I asked.

"No, sir. There is this friend of mine who studied and is a graduate. But there were no jobs for him here and the jobs that were there, he felt, were beneath his dignity. His father was well to do, so there was no urgent need for him to start his livelihood. He has got married, started a family and his father still supports him. At times I tell his father to throw him out of the house so that he starts earning his livelihood. That would be the biggest favor the father could do to the son. Otherwise what will happen to the son after the father passes away? That is the problem with education, sir. It makes you incapable of doing certain jobs and there are not enough opportunities for what you think you are qualified for," he confidently concluded. Reminded me of one of my favorite stories by Somerset Maugham - The Verger.

We had reached Bhaonta, a small dusty village with scattered huts, very little vegetation, stray cattles and surrounded by brown barren hills. After locating our guide (Rajendra Singh had informed one of his co-workers of our visit), we trekked for a kilometer or two to see how the johads were built and ground water was being replenished. It was a hot sunny day and after about an hour of steady walking we were thirsty and slightly breathless. We sat under a tree near a well and Rajkumar virtually barked at a cattle grazer nearby to fetch us some water from the well after ascertaining the caste of villagers who used that well. The cattle grazer ran to fulfill Rajkumar's command and first offered him water and then to us. Right from the time we had reached the village Rajkumar was in command. You could seethat he was strutting around and in some way exuding power, which you could feel from a distance. I was stunned.

"I am a rajput," was what he offered as a matter of fact explanation. One and half hours out of Jaipur and caste equations were alive as they had been many decades back.

"I cannot drink from the same well as a lower caste person or eat with him. This is the way life is in villages. A few months back, I was driving back to Jaipur and stopped to have water in one of the villages. The people chased me till I told them I was a rajput. Otherwise I may have got lynched that day for drinking water from a particular well." continued Rajkumar.

"But what do you do when you are in Jaipur? How do you know the caste of the person who is sitting next to you in a tea shop," I asked.

"In the city it is different; we do not care about these things out there," laughed Rajkumar.

We returned to Jaipur after dusk and after meeting the Waterman checked into our hotel well past 9:00 PM. Settling down to a warm Rajasthani meal washed down with a chilled beer, it seemed we were light years away from where we where the whole day. Which of the two are real? Or are both real? Can one of them influence and change the other for better? What is better?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How the other India lives and spends

A close friend's better half (BH) was distressed the other day. Their driver had asked for a loan of Rs100,000 and he already owed them over Rs40,000, a part of what he had borrowed exactly a year back for his daughter's wedding. He had spent Rs2 lacs on his daughter's wedding - a considerable sum, in general and surely for Lakshman - the driver - who earned about Rs7,000 per month.

"He takes us for granted and your friend never tells him anything. This time also he has agreed to give him Rs85,000," complained the BH.

"What does he need the money for now," I asked.

"For the bidaai ceremony," replied BH.

Seeing my open mouth, BH elaborated, "Lakshman's daughter is going to her husband's home for the first time after her wedding. There is a ceremony associated with this and therefore Lakshman is going to spend the said amount primarily on gifts etc."

It set me thinking. Exactly eleven years ago, I had spent all of Rs75,000 on my wedding and honeymoon. My wife's father would have spent a slightly larger sum and as some readers would know, the bong wedding has two parts to it - the wedding day at the bride's house and a bou bhaat (bride's feast) on the third day of the wedding at the groom's place. Typically expenses at each of the locations is borne by the respective families. I am giving this preamble so that readers do not presume that my in-laws were spending on my behalf. I could not afford to spend more because that is what my savings amounted to after four years of hard work and numerous weekend binges with my college mates.Obviously I was loathe to borrow and did not want my retired parents to burn a hole in their pocket.

Why does Lakshman want to spend way beyond his means? It has to do with what the biraadri (community) will think and say if he does not spend. If he does not spend then he will lose face in the community and this is the prime motivation to spend and get into debt, which he can hope to clear over a few years in the very least. I, of course, did not care two hoots about what the biraadri (community) said. I could afford to do that with my parents living in urban Calcutta (now Kolkata) and residing in Mumbai.

Is my friend encouraging his profligate spending by advancing him the money at no interest? No. If they don't give Lakshman the money, he will borrow it from a money lender at usurious rates of interest - ranging between 100-120% pa, a burden he is unlikely to recover from in a long long time. It is much more sensible and humane to give him the loan rather than have him get into the clutches of loan sharks.

But how does Lakshman even think of asking such a large loan from his employer? Would some Lakshman have done the same ten years back (that is as long as I have had a driver)? IMHO the increasing economic disparity and the increasing conspicuous consumption by middle and higher income group people, means that people like Lakshman have far better sense of their employer's spends and spending ability. He knows that his boss has bought this half a million dollar apartment (Rs2.5 crores) in suburban Mumbai, owns two cars (and changes his car every second year) and shops in glitzy malls every weekend, and surely then he can give him a loan of a lakh of rupees (couple of thousand dollars).

Looked at in this context Lakshman's demand is not as outrageous as BH would think it is. It is unfortunate that Lakshman will spend the money on what many would look as wasteful expenditure and not on acquiring an asset or educating his children or anything that promises a better tomorrow for him, his wife or his children. As he looks into the future, there is very little ray of hope. For him, life still remains a struggle to make ends meet even as wage growth in India is the highest in the region according to various surveys. I can only hope and pray that Lakshman's daughter is happy in her marriage.

PS: What would I have done in my friend's place and why? I am sure I would have behaved in much the same manner (and in the past I have). Apart from being compassionate (like my friend and his BH), there is another factor probably working subconsciously. Everytime I see a crime committed by a first time criminal, somewhere I know that people like us (PLUs) are potential targets. This hit home in Kolkata last weekend where Ravinder Kumar Luthra was brutally murdered by their domestic help of ten years. A six year old kid was kidnapped and brutally killed in a distant suburb of Mumbai and the murderer was well known to the family. Somewhere down there even I am scared. Irrespective of the walls that we build around ourselves to protect us and to keep out people like them (PLTs), we have to be mindful that at one level we remain vulnerable. And for a few thousand rupees I would rather have relatively happy people working for me rather than worry everytime my son or daughter is driven alone by the driver. Is this a form of insurance? May be and again may be not, but certainly it buys some peace of mind.

Monday, February 12, 2007

From Bombayite to Mumbaikar

I landed in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1991 with dreams in my eyes. More than two decades later this aspiring Bombayite is a full fledged Mumbaikar.

One of the first sights of Mumbai that has left a lasting impression was the sight of romancing couples with the fair one clad in traditional burkha on Marine drive. We stared gawkily at an alien sight. Conservatism, modernism, youth, progress, defiance, rebel, hope, love, tolerance – all rolled into one as two pairs of eyes locked into each other. That defined the quintessential spirit of Bombay, thankfully retained by Mumbai except minor disruptions.

Nearly twenty years later, on a pleasant December evening, I was sitting at Starters & More in Churchgate sipping an R&C when in walked four burkha clad women – unaccompanied by any male – and sat with panache out there sipping their non-alcoholic beverages, exchanging notes and devouring the mouth watering starters. Where else in India can you see a scene like this?

All these years haven’t changed the better things about Mumbai – the name change notwithstanding. And as the bard remarked, “What’s there in a name?”. As I look back, I focus on the changes for the better and mind you there have been many.

The good
Girgaum Chowpatty has been cleaned and how. What used to be a sleazy hang out place after dusk in 1991, is today a well lit place where family and friends (and not to forget the Dada-Dadi’s) can stay on till late at nite. Ditto in Bandra Band Stand and Jogger’s Park. If there is one thing that underlines both these initiatives it is the activism shown by concerned citizens and the citizen-government partnership. I believe such initiatives can change the face of Mumbai for all concerned for the better. Even as I write this, a group of citizens are putting finishing touches to the blue print for the development of Mumbai. AGNIs campaign ensured that more Mumbaikars came out to vote in the municipal elections held a few weeks back.

The could-be better
Mumbai year after year does see a gradual improvement in its infrastructure. Yes, it is still not anywhere close to what the denizens require. The roads have improved, there are many flyovers, we have the Mumbai-Pune expressway, there is at least one additional railway track for suburban trains and one for long distance trains, and there are more suburban trains with twelve coaches. The Western Express highway has been magically widened and further improvement work goes on thanks to the present CM and the MMRDA chairman. But has it eased the inconveniences? Not really since the population of the city has kept on increasing disproportionately.

Ten years back, a weekend meant spending time in a friends house or having five friends over. Today increasingly people spend their day out at shopping malls! Linking Road market is passé and InOrbit Mall, Life Style and Big Bazaar are in. But the city like India remains a city of contrasts and paradoxes. We have glitzy shopping malls vying for space with run down slums.

And the ugly
Even as thousands of shoppers throng the shopping malls on weekends, security guards brutally beat up a suspected shoplifter who later succumbs to his injuries. Has intolerance increased? Most definitely yes. Road rage is real and middle class and upper middle class people are more intolerant of other religions and regions. I understand there are leading Indian companies who do not have a single Moslem holiday in their calendars and thus, appear to be wearing their religion on their sleeves.

The more things change...
Mumbai has also had an immense influence across the country. The old lady of Boribunder has changed, probably forever, the way newspapers look. Today the Editor is no longer important, invitation price is in and the front page increasingly resembles Page 3, which anyway gets read the first.

If you have it, by all means flaunt it, is the new mantra of the chattering classes. And as someone remarked on the television channel, “If you can count it, then you don’t have it.” This is a sign of the changing times, pun intended. For the upcoming Valentine’s Day celebrations, you can hire a yacht from the Taj group and whisk your beloved to watch the sun setting on the Arabian Sea and a dinner afterwards – all for the princely sum of Rs100,000.

Culture and music have changed – redefined by the TV serials and the video remixes. A school teacher in distant Salem recently told me that most of her students aspired for modelling as a career and their role models had changed from the neighbourhood geek to Bips and Bebo (Bipasha and Kareena to those unfamiliar with Page 3).

Is all this wrong? Not really. Role models have changed, but look at the number of new career options that have opened up. Veejaying, DJing, modelling, teaching accents, TV newscasters – you don’t need to be just a doctor, engineer or a chartered accountant anymore. Rasna Pub has given way to Hard Rock CafĂ©.

...the more they remain the same
Many things have changed. But equal numbers of things haven’t. Mumbai still remains the land of hope and dreams. Kaun Banega Crorepati resurrected a has-been superstar into new iconic status and an unparalleled brand ambassador. Where else in India can you dream of that? Prithvi Theatre is still an outlet for some excellent theatrical fare (and also continues to serve a mean Irish Coffee), Nana Chudasma’s banner still flutters on Marine Drive and Amul hoardings still bring a smile on a dreary Monday morning as one drives to office.

Thank you Mumbai from this Mumbaikar!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Why Mr. Tata ?

At the onset let me make a confession. I am an unabashed admirer of the House of Tatas, their business ethos and ethics - all the more because through generations they have been able to preserve this. Jamsetji Tata, followed by JRD and then Ratan Tata have preserved the group character and culture. Even a brief visit to Jamshedpur epitomizes what the Tatas have stood for over a century. All this has been done without currying favors with politicians and the powers that be or breaking the law of the land. It must have hurt when their airline JV with Singapore Airlines was scuttled and rules and laws were changed to ensure that Tatas could not enter the space (no pun intended). But the Tatas stood their ground.

Today's anguish and criticism direct against the Tatas is therefore for a different reason. The textile mill of the Tatas was called Swadeshi Mills. Indian Hotels, the legend goes, was set up by Jamsetji Tata when he was refused entry into a plush hotel in Mumbai during pre-independence. Therefore I was very surprised and pained to see the "Advanced Internship Program" for MBA students was not open to students from the Indian management institute's. Clearly as Indian companies go global, they will become more multicultural and attract a truly multinational work force. The companies will go out of their way to attract a global work force and assimilate them into their fold much like Unilever, GE and Citigroup does.

But what anguished me was the seeming discrimination against students from Indian management institutes in this internship program. The program is open to only students of Wharton and HBS. Why not the students of IIMs? True that the program is not open to students of many other leading foreign management institutes like LBS or Stern or Insead as well. Are the students of Harvard and Wharton a class above others? The global experience does not necessarily say so. Sure they are best of the breed, but companies like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Deutsche, UBS, JP Morgan et. al seem to think the same about students from the IIMs and recruiting them for the same job and at the same salaries for global postings. Should not the Tata group be giving the same opportunity to students in India to see what the group is doing overseas and elsewhere.

The Tata Administrative Services, which used to be one of the most sought after jobs some decades back, has lost much of its luster after the onslaught of the MNCs, consultants and the investment banks on Indian campuses. This would be a very strong platform to revive this. I hope someone brings it to the notice of the group chairman to ensure that as they aim for a multicultural and multinational workforce, they should broaden their intake from different management institutes to get the best of the breed. If students from Insead, IIM A, IIM B etc do not make the cut during the selection procedure, for sure let them not be selected. But do not deny them the chance. The selection criteria on past work experience, academic excellence et. al. is absolutely fine. Let their be true meritocracy. I know that a company or group can go to the campuses it wants to go to and not to all and sundry campuses. But only Harvard and Wharton? Why Mr. Tata?

Tales of rum, milk and honey

This was originally posted at Bombay Diaries.


Tales of rum, milk and honey
Last night I had to meet for dinner a friend at a suburban five star hotel in Mumbai. I was early and thirsty (as usual my wife may like to add), and asked for a "bar menu". I was politely informed that it was a "dry" day and the next few days were also "dry" days, which meant NO ALCOHOL. Disappointed I ordered a fresh lime soda (sweet) and buried my head into "Saturday" (a novel by Ian McEwan), as I waited for my friend to turn up (he was arriving from Chennai).

Then I noticed that some people were being served drinks and it dawned on me that foreigners are served liquors even on dry days. They are not forced to pay respect to Gandhiji. On enquiring I learnt that even NRIs will be served liquor on producing proof of their being NRIs. That cheered me up a bit since my friend was a NRI and I promptly SMSed him to get proof of his non-resident status, which will buy us a couple to quench the thirst.

Once my friend came in he ordered two drinks - a W&S for himself and a R&C for me. And this is the fun part of it and how the law is sometimes an ass, as someone more eloquent than me had once said. The person who took our order took my friend's identification, gave it a good look up and down and noted down some numbers. He said that these details have to be sent to the Excise Department.

Imagine there is someone in that government department who is supposed to check that the hotel has genuinely sold liquor to only the ones who are permitted to drink (or who need not show their respect to Gandhiji).

I started wondering how will the hotel respond if the Excise Officer asked how and why one person was mixing his drinks by ordering R and W simultaneously and will the government ban such degenerate NRIs from coming into the country? Is mixing drinks allowed or is it against the law? Should there not be a restriction then on how much alcohol one foreigner or NRI can consume on a given day/ night?

I remember two incidents (1) once before breaking the law sitting in the environs of a five star hotel with a foreigner (gora) and quaffing a pitcher of the chilled golden brew. Then my friend's passport had ensured that we were not denied the elixir. (2) The second was related to me by a journalist friend of mine. After an awards ceremony (where else but a five star hotel), there was a dinner party. Some leader of some country had passed away and India had declare a five day mourning. The minister's and government officials were apparently under strict instructions not to partake in alcoholic revelries - that is a Government of India rule when it is declares mourning although many people drink when they are sad. So the chief guest, instead of attending the dinner, quietly slinked away to his room to have a couple. Before leaving he told my friend that if any newspaper the next day publishes his photograph with a glass in hand, then his political career could be jeopardized and therefore, he preferred to drink in the solitude of his room. I am happy to report the minister's career continues to flourish.

That brings me to why I was "inspired" to write this piece. Very early on I was once told that you command respect and you earn it, you do not demand it. So why do these state government's demand that we respect the memory of our leaders in this way? Does it really help or honor anybody, least of all the memory of a dear departed leader?

The liquor shops start telling their customers way ahead of the D-day to stock up. People who want to have a drink any way do. In fact I am told by an ex-student of IIM Ahmedabad that bottles were delivered to their dorms - this is indeed unique and must be thanks to prohibition in Gujarat because in other institutes (at least in the two I have studied), we always had to go out to buy. Their was no friendly neighborhood brewer or seller who did a door to door service. For hooch in Kharagpur, - that was all we could afford - you had to go to the den of the local madam brewer.

To respect the memory of Gandhiji, the government can take one more step. On his birthday and death anniversary, having sex in India can be banned, in respect to Gandhiji's celibacy vows and experiments. On those days condoms will not be sold and only foreigners and NRIs should be allowed to have sex (and only with their likes and not with resident Indians) in India and then report the same to the Ministry of Human Resources.

Better still, they should report beforehand their intention to engage in you-know-what so that an official of the Ministry can verify that they indeed are foreigners and NRIs. Hopefully Arjun Singh will be gainfully employed and have no time for looking at reservations and other pet issues of his. Gandhiji, by his own account, had alcohol and sex in his youth and gave up for his own reasons. How does his memory get respected by forcing his countrymen by banning alcohol in certain states and by banning alcohol sales and serving of liquor on certain days I fail to understand. I wonder how we should honor Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru's memory?

I will end this piece with the story of a lunch that I had partaken more than a decade back.

I was visiting a factory under construction in central India in the early 90s. This town in Maharashtra also practices prohibition. The first thing the PRO of the company had done was to procure a medical certificate, which said that for health reasons he is allowed to drink and buy alcohol. A group of ten people had a boozy beery afternoon and then toddled of to pay respect to the late Mahatma in his Ashram in the city. India must be the only country where people want to get themselves certified as alcoholics and that does not carry a stigma! It is high time such silly rules and laws are dismantled. The citizens will anyway pay respect to the Mahatma if they are aware of his teachings and believe in the same. A film like "Lage raho Munnabhai" does it far better than all the Congressmen (and women), the self proclaimed upholders of Gandhiji's legacy, put together.

I am reminded of a Hindi verse learnt in school (it was by Sant Kabir or Surdas) - "kar ka man ka dari de, man ka manka pher" (drop the rosaries in your hand, and try and reform the rosary in your heart.) And meanwhile lets say three cheers for "sura".

(The intention of the author is not to hurt anyone's sentiments. My apologies in advance to anyone whose sentiments may have been hurt by some of my comments above.)

Economic Times - how much lower now ?

This post was originally blogged over at Bombay Diaries.


The Times of India group every day sets lower and lower standards in journalism (if you call it that for the lack of any other more appropriate word) and never tires of its sick holier than thou attitude. One example was recently pointed out by Amelia Gentleman, a columnist at the International Herald Tribune.

The ToI group has this smartly designed logo (I must give credit where it is due - ToI groups ads and logos etc are smart; after all it is a marketing juggernaut and nothing about journalism) called " The Global Indian Takeover", which in a celebratory mood it appends to any and every article. Do not know which moron decided which article it should get appended to, but apparently last week it got appended to an article on a girl of Indian origin winning the Miss UK title (pointed out by the IHT columnist) . Someone out there is in a desperate need to have his/ her head examined.

Economic Times believes it is a financial newspaper just because it aped the colors of Financial Times many years back (called it salmon pink, I remember, although I am yet to see a salmon on my plate of that color. I have a suggestion - they should change the color to yellow). In recent times, ETs budget coverage has been deplorable especially for the visuals that they use. It suffers from an identity crisis as it tries to ape its sister publication Bombay Times.

But I am digressing. What takes the cake is today's article "Much ado about...." on page 3 of The Economic Times. This is on the picture of Rajasthan's CM and Biocon's CMD air-kissing each other, with the camera angle being such which invited a lot of comment and some called it obscene.

ET felt that the politicians and Hindi TV channels are bereft of ideas (true for once, but it forgets that it itself falls into the same category) and hence, debated on what was just another picture. Fair enough. But ET with all its sagacity and wisdom, decided to devote a couple of columns to it, after having published the picture the previous day. It castigated the TV channels and the politicians for starting a debate on the photograph.

And in its holier than thou attitude, ET went on to say "At ET, we had carried the picture in good faith, without any intention of hurting the sentiments of both Ms Raje and Ms Shaw. In our wall-to-wall coverage of the World Economic Forum, this is one of the few pictures we felt deserved to be carried." Good faith, ha, ha, ha.

Will the ET editor (if there is one, because the Jain's do not believe in editorial content or freedom or how can a newspaper have two viewpoints on an editorial subject matter on the same day) please clarify why "this one is one of the few pictures" that deserved to be carried? Were they the two most important personalities gracing the occasion at WEF on that day? Did they make some major news by what they had to say on that day? I do not remember ET mentioning anything about what they said in ETs "wall to wall" coverage!

ETs stooping does not end there. It also says, "As readers of ET know, air-kissing is a common phenomenon at corporate dos and high-society parties." ETs readers are indeed a wise lot. Other poor souls who do not have the benefit of reading ET do not know such social niceties.

Unfortunately (I believe) the ABP group (erstwhile owners of Business Standard) did not show its marketing acumen with Business Standard the way they showed with The Telegraph in Kolkata and T N Ninan unfortunately never had the backing of the financial muscle power of the Bennet Coleman group. BS would have punched ET if only FDI in newspapers and journals was allowed.

Guess which votary and champion of reforms puts out editorials against FDI in newspapers? No prizes for guessing - it is the venerable publications from the ToI group, which are so keen to protect their turf. Of course, their editorials are full of righteous indignation against Bombay Club and any whiff of protectionism in any other sector. Hopefully HT in association with WSJ will launch a paper which will tell us something more about business, companies and sectors rather than tell us what kind of kissing is a common phenomena at what dos. That I must admit can be safely left to ET, Bombay Times, Mumbai Mirror and of course, the one and only Times of India.

The first one

Just a brief post to notify that I am shifting my blog from here to this blog.