Wednesday, May 24, 2006

On the outside looking in

It takes forever to get from Trivandrum to Bangalore. The flight is delayed and There. Are. NO. LOOS in the security lounge at Trivandrum airport. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! I considered going over to a potted palm and letting fly, then discretion prevailed. Statistical outlier – there were at least 4 pregnant women flying out of Trivandrum. Am I missing something here? I need more data to do a Levitt on this.

Bangalore traffic sucks. In comparison even Delhi is orderly, Bombay serene and Cal sheer heaven. Seriously. Objective opinion. An hour and a quarter from the airport to Lavelle Road. (On the way out at 5 a.m. today, it took 11 minutes.) As a result, I’m already in a bad mood by the time I check in. Further downer – after Chennai, this hotel seems a bit of a dump. I’m biased, it’s actually clean and adequate, but they can’t give me an ironing board (I cannot stand wearing un-ironed clothes. Some kink. Ask a shrink) and there’s no shoe mitt in the wardrobe. I call around to see whether I can move out in the morning. Nope. The entire damn city is full up. Mem: business ops – public loos in Chennai, hotels in Bangalore.

The natives were friendly, so we decided to stay the night. I needed to get out of that depressing room for a while. Koshy’s? Shoot me for sacrilege, but I find it too hot, too noisy and too predictable. The evening was salvaged by texted advice from a friendly Blooru. I ended up walking down past Koshy’s to The Tavern, a nice pub paradoxically located in what must be one of the worst hotels around.

I looked around and there was only one other person who looked over 30. Ugly old sod, too. Then I realised it was the mirror behind the bar. Two techies perched on their stools beside me, talking shop with heart-wrenching sincerity until Techie #3 walked over, draped an arm over each shoulder and turned the conversation to the staple of men in bars. I checked her out (the girl he was talking about) in the mirror. Yes, very attractive. A gora in jeans bellied up on my other side. That accent? Northern Ireland, it turned out. Didn’t like to call himself a Brit, but definitely more stiff uppah lip than Irish blarney. He was too propah to share my munchies, finished one mug of beer and vanished. No Guinness. Can one get Guinness on tap in any bar in India? I’d make a pilgrimage.

A couple two stools away had an animated conversation. The guy was big and flashy, the kind who takes the mufflers off his bike exhaust. The girl looked altogether smarter. Plump. Nice hands. At one point she put two books back in her tote. Sensible enough to stay away from low-rises and navel show. Strictly no touching, I noticed. Till another girl in a tight T and tighter jeans wandered up, exchanged greetings, hugged the guy a little longer than seemed warranted, wandered away. Wandered back twice more, major PDA each time. Girl #1 looked at her watch, lit a cigarette. Till that point she had been sharing cigarettes with Mr. Flash. In a few minutes she was gone. Flash drifted desolately after her till the door, came back, brushed off Ms. Tight T, extracted a helmet from under the stool, walked out. Tsk. Lack of focus, son. Elvis had a whole lot of songs about it. The least he could have done was see she got home safe.

Santosh behind the bar mixed me a nice vodka with lime and bitters, stopped by once in a while to talk. About soccer and why he supports Italy (Oh, so you’re from CALcutta, sir? THAT explains why you support Brazil!), about the long hours and clients and about weight training. Santosh, you’re a nice guy but I don’t take your b.s. Bicep-curling as much as you can bench-press? Nobody can do that. Nobody. Unless they have severe pectoral atrophy. And I wish you’d let me take your picture.

I perched there for a while, nursing my drink, looking around without making eye contact. The sound was excellent, balanced, the music good but not great. Till a certain guitar phrase dropped into the evening. Contemplative. Almost tentative … think you can tell / heaven from hell / blue skies from rain … That did it. I took over the playlist. My second drink (Smirnoff have an Orange Twist, it’s good) went with Shine on and Walk of Life. They even threw in some Santana. I felt good, even though they started switching off and shutting down at half eleven.

The night air was pleasant. Cars fretted at the crossing outside the Empire Hotel. As I reached K.C. Das, two girls were parking a scooter opposite. I thought Bangalore shuts down before midnight? Maybe they were only looking for some dinner.

St. Mark’s Cathedral was right opposite my hotel. As I passed the wrought-iron gate I could see the portico, the watchman an ominous shadow crouching from the neon glare. And so to bed … If I’d known what Tuesday held in store I might not have bothered to get out of bed. But that’s another day, maybe even another story.

**** ****

Southern Comfort

Photographs and questions. Coming in over Trivandrum, I realise that there are far more coconut trees in the world that I had thought possible, and 87.32% of them are right here below me. Palm-fronds stretch from the sea to the eastern horizon. If I stepped out of the plane in mid-air, I might be able to walk across Trivandrum on the tops of these palms, a Brobdingnagian lawn springy between the toes.

A red gash amidst the green. What is quarried here? Rocks? Gravel? Just the red earth itself?

Monday morning I walked to the sea. Down Radhakrishna Salai to the crossing with Kamarajar Marg. Along the way, more weird glass fronts than a protest mob could throw stones at (ooohhh the lovely music of breaking panes). Obviously this is not the right part of town for heritage buildings. One forlorn house with louvred windows (is this why Cal reminds some people of Madras?) cowered in a corner of a school compound. A large energetic gent in a mundu and check shirt bustled past in a super-walk, occasionally jumping in the air and pumping a fist.

A trim 70-ish gent with Col. Blimp moustaches asked me why I was taking pictures. I resisted the urge to go “Sir, sorry sir” and drawled “Oh, it’s a survey of public urination commissioned by the World Bank.” He was not amused. Afterwards, I felt sorry. But by then he was long gone.

In Chennai, there are no peremptory signs that say “No parking here”. Instead, the signs read “Please do not park in front of this gate”. Such courtesy is charming. I could like this place. One sign on a government building (naturally) warns “Trespasser will be prosecuted”. They know who you are, son, don’t try it again. (One has this mental picture of their waking up to rude graffiti on the front door … the Trespasser strikes again!)

Under the fly-over, past the TTK office, the TTK auditorium, more offices, crossings where the traffic lights change for their own pleasure because nobody pays them any heed at six in the morning, the road is wide, clean*. It’s nowhere near as muggy as I’d expected, there’s a fitful breeze off the sea. A sprightly old man in a spotless white shirt and mundu marches in front of me. His pleasantly dumpy wife trundles along behind her lord and master, swathed in a silk sari (at this hour?); they both have sandal-paste lines on their foreheads. When they reach the next crossing, L&M solicitously waits for his wife to catch up, then takes her hand and hurries her across the road. Softie! (I like.)

Every hundred yards or so I have to hold my breath and speed up to get away from the stench of urine. Not a random pee, but specific points where the pavement is pitted from ammoniacal attacks. With the heat and the humidity fermenting the stuff, it’s like a chlorine attack. Not a single public toilet in sight. Why can’t Sulabh get their act together in this city?

But there are also the smells of incense and of jasmine flowers. A girl emerges from a side road in a chic top and denim skirt; very hip, but her hair is loose and down to her waist and is adorned with a huge bunch of flowers. I sniff appreciatively as she crosses my path. A few steps down, a man is selling green coconuts off a barrow. The scent of a bunch of incense sticks reminds me of childhood and grandmothers. A small shrine takes up the entire pavement at one point. Beside it, more green coconuts and a lady selling flowers. And bananas. A weird combination until you take the shrine into account. Then it fits. I dig out the loose change in my pocket. Using sign language, I get a two-foot length of threaded flowers. Lovely. Lacking hair, I wind it round the strap of my camera bag. Now it’ll smell good for the rest of the day.

Right at the corner, a large walled estate with a few decrepit buildings. Only the government can so under-utilise prime property. Across the road, some kind of para-military headquarters (no signage), a squad lined up in front of the steps in khaki shorts and sweat-damp vests, an officer or instructor bellowing incomprehensible commands in the manner of uniformed drill anywhere in the world. “AAAAarrrhhhh baaarrrrhhh HROOO HRUP!!” Translation – my piles are killing me so I’ll be damned if I’ll give YOU lot any joy!

The beach is … flat. No sand dunes to mark high tide. Hardly any noise of breakers. No sea-tang in the air. There’s an orderly crowd half-way between the road and the water-line. A passing policeman, his little finger delicately linked with a friend’s, informs me that it’s “yo-u-gaH, sairrrr”. But they seem to be waving and bowing rather than doing any yogasana I know. Morning walkers hunker down on the sidewalk. Obviously the morning chat is as important as the exercise. Out in the sticks, the morning dump provides both exercise (since nobody will dump in the vicinity of their own home) and social interaction. In the cities, the ritual remains but the dump has been eliminated. Sanitised version.

On the way back I stopped for a kaapi at a hole-in-the-wall. Right next to another glass-front (blue on brown. Jesus wept!), the Hotel Manhattan. Complete with the “Brooklyn Coffee Bar and Diner”. Next door, four men sat on newspapers spread across the pavement. They weren’t playing cards or even talking, just sitting there watching the morning. Or perhaps they were waiting for somebody. I got good coffee, service with a smile and free advice on whether to take an auto back to the hotel (now that the sun is up). Come to think of it, everybody who’s been of service to me in Chennai has smiled. Wide, brilliant smiles. I’m beginning to like Chennai.

* - About the clean roads … (from a conversation on the flight home). Chennai could be blessed because its infrastructure is not overloaded with free riders. The rural economy has grown not only in Tamil Nadu but also in two of the three neighbouring states. The third has its own metropolis which is closer for the rural refugee. Ergo, there are fewer families trickling into Chennai in search of a living, hardly any shanty-dwellers or free riders. The paradox is that Chennai still has a fairly low CPI. Has anybody done a study of the effect of cheap labour on the Consumer Price Index in these parts? Or vice versa? What’s the real estate growth? I should check.

Parallel thought – West Bengal and specifically Calcutta suffer from the lack of even Class B cities in the vicinity. Which is why the city is struggling to breathe under the weight of its population. Specifically, under the weight of the vast majority of the population who do not or cannot pay taxes.

**** ****

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Inconsequential personal musings

Sunday evening with only my laptop for company. Durrant’s Bar in Chennai. Apparently Charles Durrant, may his tribe increase, was the first recorded wine merchant in this city. Radhakrishnan and Kamaraj look on, stony-faced, from their portraits on the far wall. I don’t think they’re happy here. Judging from their expressions, “den of iniquity” would be the mildest phrase that crossed their minds.

A corner table and a faux antique book-case with one volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1986 Book of the Year, since you didn’t ask) and seven vo\umes of “Castes and Tribes of Southern India” (A. Thurston and K. Rangachari, but I can’t access it because the case is locked). Is this a recent addition in view of the current furore, or did ITC Welcomgroup have a premonition that this would be the most gripping read for travelling tipplers? Another seven volumes - “Crimes and Punishment”. Why don’t Fyodor’s* descendants make a fuss about this one, eh? Poor Kaavya, she was a patsy.

Somehow I can’t relate to Chennai. My apologies. I know there’s at least one Chennai resident who drops by, but there is a huge disconnect. Even more so than with South Delhi, and that’s saying a lot. So I sit by my window and I watch the cars roll by … This is the down-side of travelling on work, the monotony of hotel rooms and the alienation of strange gyms where one has to hunt out the barbell rack. So much better if I could sit at a tea-stall in Azamgarh in the chill of early winter and compare angochha prices with a leather-faced farmer.

An old Brit on the adjoining sofa snorts out loud at something he reads in the paper, winks at me, then pulls out his cell-phone and carries on a loud and long conversation. So much for “propah”. Behind me, a 20-something couple discuss the Most Important Issues in the world in subdued tones. He leans back to look nonchalant. The effect is spoilt when he fumbles for her hand and she draws it back in embarrassment. I’m glad I’m no longer young.

The maitre’d leads in another young couple, seats them with an Oily Bird on the other side of the room. Loud greetings and animated conversation. I wish I could at least understand Tamil. It would also have made the morning dose of Radio Mirchi (driving in from the airport) more fun. (Why do Radio Mirchi RJs talk so much? The only one I can stand is Mir, but perhaps I’m biased there.)

I’d thought I would belly up (stop sniggering, I’ve lost a full kilo, and no, “drop in the ocean” is not the epitome of wit here) to the bar and talk to the bartender. Ranjith, however, is a fresh-faced hotel management trainee who also has to run the tables. I can’t shoot the breeze with him. In any case, bartenders in India don’t seem to have mastered the fine art of being surrogate shrinks. They think that juggling bottles and lighting up the rims of cocktail glasses is where it’s at.

Stranger still, I haven’t come across any blog by a bartender. Considering that a bouncer and a waiter are among the more popular blogs I read, one would have expected a bartender to show up somewhere in what the Griff calls “blog pradesh”. But no, none that I have found yet. One reads that barkeeps are the default confidantes of lonely men in shirt-sleeves leaning over counters, they should have a stock of good stories they could work into a blog and later into the El Dorado of a book deal. Where are they? Any volunteers?

The vodka martini is good. One more should spin me over the edge into sleep. I desperately need it after starting the day at half three, taking a budget flight with cramped seating, hunting an elusive and confused client around two hotels and a university and then slogging around two separate (and disappointing) campuses in mid-day heat approaching 40 Celsius. The plus points of finishing early – an ESPN documentary on the 1990 and ’94 World Cups and Chhupa Rustam, a surprisingly good hidden camera show on NDTV. So now I shall nurse this second drink till my head hums with sleep, then return to my room (very nice room too), put up “Do Not Disturb” signs everywhere and tuck in my laptop and myself. And hope I don’t wake up at 2 a.m. to channel-surf while my mouth gets sour.

Tomorrow will be tough enough anyway, starting with a morning meeting, going on to a city that I’ve never visited before and ending in a third.

Good night, sweet prince, and may the angels / choir you to your rest. This attendant lord needs his bed.

**** ****

* - Thank you, Marauder

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Red reckoner

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

As a civil servant, I should steer clear of political discussions in public. I try to toe that line even in this space, where I am (supposedly) anonymous and (fortunately) faceless. Arnab, however, has no such constraints or compunctions, hence this debate over on his blog. Strewth! (One expects Bongs to get het-up over these things - in fact, we get het-up over damn near anything - but do note the paar-sawn phrom Waste-arn ishtet who’s got his knickers in a twist there.)

One particular coalition has formed the government in this state since 1977. This coalition has just won the Assembly elections for the seventh time in a row. In previous elections, there have always been allegations of rigging and intimidation. This time round, the Election Commission seemed to adopt a “French law” approach – guilty until proven innocent – and took unprecedented precautions to ensure fair polling.

Over the last two months, there have been endless discussions of how two EC initiatives would affect the ruling coalition. First, the rigorous correction and updating of the electoral rolls, whereby two and a half million supposedly “bogus voters” were struck off. Second, the pervasive scrutiny through the EC’s Observers and the security with para-military forces; in both cases the numbers were increased four-fold. The consensus was that this would totally rule out the coalition’s “scientific rigging” and therefore have an adverse effect on their poll performance.

The results - they now have 235 seats, up from 199 the last time. Regardless of whether this is a vindication of the Left Front, I am happy for a personal reason.


Over the last 17 years, I’ve worked in four major (Parliamentary / Assembly / simultaneous) elections and a slew of minor (municipality / Panchayat) ones. I am sick and tired of the assumption that the “administration” actively aids the ruling party during elections. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink, “so did you safeguard your job this time?”, “oh, you guys have the results ready before the polls open” – even though nobody has ever said this to my face, it rankles when I hear these insinuations about some friends and colleagues whom I believe in. Wonder what the same cynics will say this time?

The layman just sees the lines in front of the booths on poll day. Very few people appreciate the years – yes, years – of effort that go into the process, starting with the preparation of the electoral rolls and the voter ID cards (the latter an EPIC* exercise, ha, couldn’t resist that). And this is before polls are even announced. All hell breaks loose after the announcement of polls.

Indian electoral regulations must be the world’s most detailed. Every damn step from the publication of the rolls to the identification of the agents for counting of votes is covered by about 371 different rules. I kid you not. Even after the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines, each polling party carries a mind-numbing assortment of statutory and non-statutory “Covers and Forms”. They carry sealing wax, lanterns, file tags, spare ink. At the despatch centre, it takes them an hour or so to check off all the stuff against the list. In West Bengal, it’s a survival requirement – chances are that some polling agent will know more than them about dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s and if they don’t follow the procedure to the last detail, that agent will create merry hell in the polling booth. That’s one booth. No district has less than 2500 polling booths. If you’re the district officer in charge, would you take any chances?

That’s the other point about running elections in West Bengal. The level of political awareness is amazing. As a result, every political party knows the ins and outs of election regulations and makes damn sure the administration follows it. Far more so than elsewhere – on duty in another state, I’ve seen a 1 hour delay in the opening of the strong room and issue of EVMs on counting day, candidates and agents waiting without a clue, all because the Returning Officer in question couldn’t do without dyeing his beard on Sundays. In Bengal, that would have sparked a lengthy exchange of faxes and phone calls with the Election Commission, with detailed expositions of the penalties for dereliction of duty under the Representation of the People Act, 1956; there, it was dismissed as a minor procedural glitch.

All in all, election time is high stress and fatigue. It’s quite normal for the entire team at sub-divisional headquarters (even more so than at the district level) to go without sleep for three or four nights in a row, umpteen times during the election period. Allah knows what it does to our efficiency. One slogged one’s (rather too ample) fundament almost to the bone in the pursuit of fair and trouble-free elections (though to be quite frank, one was driven more by professional ego than by any devotion to the democratic ideal.) Wherefore, dear ladies and gentles, it bit like an adder and stung like a serpent when supercilious so-and-sos sneered at our impartiality. Many thanks to the Election Commission for doing an ISO-2001 and vindicating our efforts. Would that they had done it sooner.


I shouldn’t comment on development either. For nearly four years, I was a glorified traveling salesman for the State. Please note, a salesman for the State and not for the government. I believed in the product and still do, so my views are not impartial.

One phenomenon I have noted is that Bangalis outside West Bengal are the most virulent critics of this state. Very few of them will ever admit that there is anything of worth here. The standard response is “Okhaney kokhono kissu hobe naa!” (Nothing’s ever going to change there). I wonder why this is so. Perhaps the answer lies in a conversation three years ago with an honourable exception to this rule. He was quite clear about the reason. His fellow Bangalis on the East Coast of the USA, he said, sought to convince themselves that they were better off there than they ever could be back at home. Wherefore the criticism of all things in Bengal.

This could be true. Against this, I offer the succinct summary offered by my friend who chucked up the fast track (INSEAD, Gothenborg, Harvard, Monitor Consulting) and came back – “The West may have a higher standard of living, but here we have the best quality of life”. Worth a thought.


There’s also one thread of the debate on Demented Mind that rubbishes Bengal and Bengalis for putting up with the same government for 29 years. Matter of opinion. I shan’t comment, since I’ve only voted once in my life and it wasn’t this time.

There are, however, some unfavourable comparisons with other states. Apparently other states have advantages that my state doesn’t. From within the system, I must admit that my state does lack in some sterling practises. To wit …

I have never seen or even heard of a politician in this state, let alone a civil servant, prostrate himself before a Chief Minister or any other politician. In seventeen years, I have heard of only one instance where a district officer was transferred and had to pack up and leave post-haste. Post-haste in this case meant about a week, not 12 hours, and this was not because of any differences with the ruling party but over a failure of the administration that stayed in the national headlines for some months (it has even re-surfaced occasionally over the years).

I have never heard of a senior civil servant having to prepare chewing tobacco for a politician’s delectation. I have never had to visit the office of any political party to “pay respects”, nor has this “lapse” led to any setback in my career. Party visit, hell, I can wager that there isn’t even a single picture of the Chief Minister or any political icon** in any government office in this state. This is in sharp contrast to my experience in another state, where I unwittingly stirred up a hornet’s nest by asking a Returning Officer to remove a 2’x3’ picture of the Chief Minister that hung behind his chair.

I have had differences (sometimes very “heated differences”) with elected representatives of all hues, albeit over specific issues. This has never brought forth any threat to damage my career, let alone any threat to my life or my family’s security.

Above all, in a state whose population has diverse religious orientations and the potential for “communal” conflagrations, I have never seen any political interference in any situation of communal conflict. On the contrary, my colleague has defused a potential riot by arresting a local leader (of “a certain community”) from his bedroom at midnight. And not a cheep from the Secretariat. A sharp contrast to the experience of my friend in another state, who was specifically directed not to interfere while the streets ran with blood.

This is something I feel strongly about. In a conflict situation, it is not the business of the government to sit in judgement and then back one side or the other. That’s not the rule of law. The government’s job is to ensure that the common citizen does NOT take the law into his or her own hands. If necessary, this should be done by scaring the s**t out of all parties involved. No harm in that if it stops Ate, who would otherwise “cry havoc / and let slip the dogs of war”.

And please, don’t drag up “pseudo-secularism”. I agree that our country is about as truly secular as the USA, perhaps even less so, but that is no justification for any government to stand by and watch its own citizens being butchered. Again, I accept that this has happened at different times against different communities and with the support of different political parties. I do not hold a brief for any particular party, I’m just proud that it does not happen in my state.

Wherefore, dear commenter on Demented Mind who extols the virtues of development, I am actually happy to live and work in my own state. There are problems, I don’t agree with my political masters on all points, there are obstacles to some of the things I want to achieve, but on the whole there is a level of civilized debate and no fear of pogroms.

As a some-time student of political science, however, I must point out that the biggest problem this state faces today is not power or infrastructure or unemployment. It is the lack of an effective opposition. Would any kind critic care to stand up and be counted by doing something in this regard? Put your money where your mouths and keyboards are, sires.

* EPIC – Electoral Photo Identity Card

** The exception is “Netaji” Subhash Chandra Bose, whose portrait (usually against a totally puke-inducing blue background) can be found in most government offices. While he was one of the foremost figures of the nationalist movement, he also founded the Forward Bloc Party which is one of the partners in the Left Front.

**** ****

Saturday, clouded

I love my balcony, my study ... "where peace comes dropping slow ... "

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

We are not amused

Apropos nothing except a bad day at work and a dodgy Net connection …

#2 on my list of put-downs –

Nerdy yokel from out in Ah-kunn-saw makes it to Princeton. Sloping around campus (picture, if you will, the dungarees, straw hat and corn-cob) on his first day, he can’t find the library, so he asks the nearest guy (a sophomore wearing a letter) “Yo! Whah’s thuh lah-brairy at?”

Letter Sweater looks at him with the utmost disdain and says “At Prince-TTUNN, we don’t end a sentence wi’ a pre’po’si’shn”. (Do bear with my attempts at reproducing the glottal stops of the Boston Brahmin).

Yokel thinks this over and says “Yo, in thaht cayse, whah’s the lah-brairy at ... ass-hooooole?”


And my favourite put-down (I am a sort of Anglophile) –

Bar somewhere near 8th and 42nd. A very pucca Englishman is nursing a w&s when a talkative Yank strikes up a conversation. Within 5 minutes of (mostly one-sided) conversation, the Yank is spinning this theory abut how the Brits lost the Empire because of their in-breeding. “I mean, what’s with living in the same house for 800 years and marrying your second cousins? Yer need to be caws–muh-paalit’n. I mean, look at ME. Ah’m a true world citizen! In MAH veins I have Naw-weejian blood, Ee-jipshun blood, Cambodian blood and Eskimo blood!”

The Englishman turns, looks the man up and down and drawls “I say, how terribly jolly of your moth-ah!”

Cue laugh track …

**** ****

Saturday, May 06, 2006

One morning, one morning, one mo-o-orning in May ...

One of my favourite places in the world

Rather fetching, what!

Yes I would ...


Objects of my personal jihad ... oh well

Stupid bird tucked its head in at the last moment. Then it flew away.
Recalcitrant. Delinquent. Gah!

"So different from the family life of our own dear Queen ..."

Disgustingly idyllic

**** ****

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Half baked?

A text message I received just now illustrates the dilemma of the common man. “Repeat of 2002. 2 colonies in Baroda surrounded (etc. etc.) Please try to help. Forward this to as many people as possible. Do something.”

I hate what happened in Ahmedabad then. I’m worried about what’s happening in Baroda now. I wish I could do something about it. Since I’m not the man in charge there, I can only watch television, call friends who know what’s happening … and check back on urgent text messages from “a girl called Shabnam”.

I called my friend and mentor in Delhi. He was a trifle brusque. “We have our men there. This is bullshit. Ignore it.”

If he says the situation is under wraps, I believe him. If he asked me to jump down the lift-shaft, I’d do it without … well, being the way I am, I’d probably ask him a couple of questions first, but I’d do it. This man is bedrock. Bottom line – there is no repeat of the Best Bakery scenario in Baroda now. (The text message even mentioned “near Super Bakery”. Such artful use of the resonance of memory.)

They’re saying it on television all the time. Don’t spread rumours. Do. NOT. Spread. Rumours.

Rumours are poison. This message, for example. I’m a naturally cynical old cuss, so I cross-checked. What if you’re about 22 and you already have a grouse? What if day in and day out for those 22 years, you’ve been systematically poisoned against others, against anybody who doesn’t pray where you pray, eat what you eat, wear the same clothes as you? Wouldn’t it be that much easier to call you out of your house and put a can of kerosene in your hands? Voila, Baroda is no longer an isolated incident, there’s Meerut and Hyderabad and Jajau for company!

I didn’t forward the message. After I’d checked, I called the friend who’d sent it to me. Now she’s texting everybody to whom she’d sent the earlier message, to tell them it was a hoax (she’d got as far as ‘B’ in her phone-book). Let’s hope they haven’t already forwarded it to Aurangabad and Jhumri Thilaiya.

To come back to the average man and his dilemma. If he gets a message like that, he can turn on the radio and check for news, but at the back of his mind there’s a voice saying “Maybe it’s not even on the news yet, there may be people burning to death, SHIT, what do I do?! Whom do I know in Baroda?!” You see how it goes.

So should he ignore it? Should he wait till the afternoon news shows the body-bags being carried out, then curse because “dammit, I knew about this four hours ago, what was the administration doing?!?!” Or should he just call as many people as he can in the hope that somebody will do something about it? Tough call. My friend messaged me. But she also messaged others. Perhaps she should have called me first.

Perhaps I’ve spent too much time within the system. Perhaps it has eroded my individualism. Perhaps that’s why I believe you should leave these things to the people whose job it is to stop the killing. Perhaps. (There’s cynicism involved too; after all the present political equation is very different from the time Ahmedabad happened.)

Or perhaps I’ve seen enough good men within the system who honestly try their best to stay human, to help, to follow their conscience, to preserve their backbones. Either way, there’s no percentage in spreading bad news. Especially without verifying it.

Next step in the hypothesis – if you verify the bad news and it’s true, and you’re all the way across the country, should you spread the news? Would that help? How do you calculate the benefit-cost ratio? Would the news cause some more deaths elsewhere? Or would it mobilise enough decent people to stop the killing? Tough call?

Well, there’s always the belief that the truth shall set you free. But as I grow older, I wonder ….

**** ****

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

ToI-let reading

Riotous item in (where else) the ToI-let Paper. (Link via Uma).

Paulo Coelho. Richard Bach. Khalil Gibran (I’m fairly sure he used to spell it “Kahlil” on his book covers). Ayn Rand. So utterly predictable in their selection of titles-that-I-think-are-deep.

Too too rich for words. Sanjay Suri cites “The Alchemist” and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” among his favourites (I too loved “Jonathan”. At least for a few years after I first read it. At age 7) then says he’s “not into fiction”. His staple is the Gita. Ektaa Kkkkapoor, pay attention.

Amisha Patel has such “a passion for books” that she reads “even between shots” (when, presumably, she could be drag-racing or para-sailing instead. Or painting her nails) “The Prophet is a book that I relate to in every stage of my life.” She “like(s) to read philosophy”, so now she’s “reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez”. Does she read up on the physical sciences from The Alchemist? This is the woman who reportedly claims to be a "gold medallist" in Economics from Tufts and also a Biogenetic Engineer graduate. Oh well. After all, she "also believes that her family are the biggest strength for her".

Nethra Raghuraman hits her stride with “The Fountainhead”. Such erudition. Esoteric, even. She also feels “Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri are exceptionally talented”. Soon to join this select list (one surmises) are Siddharth Dhanwant Shanghvi and Raj Kamal Jha (why the hell do I feel superior, the latter is reportedly ensconced on a Caribbean island writing a novel for which he got a 3 crore advance, no matter that The Blue Bedspread was the sheerest bilge)

Parvin Dabas bats far more steadily, citing Vikram Seth and Umberto Eco, but throws it away with a Sehwag-like slash outside off-stump - "It's hard for me to imagine how some people can write so beautifully... books are a work of art(sic)," says Dabas who loves to read a particular passage from Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate.

Shweta Kawatra gets my vote because her “favourite book is Tell me your dreams by Sidney Sheldon”. At least she’s not pretentious.

I wonder what Rahul Bose would mention if asked …

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Monday, May 01, 2006

Phone tics

I want to buy a new cell phone.

Unfortunately, nobody sells cell phones any more, least of all the companies that used to make cell phones. They sell cameras. They sell mp3 players. They sell radios. Each of these has, as an afterthought, the option of use as a phone. You really want something that can make calls? You mean, call somebody? Talk to somebody? How quaint!

Charukesi writes about “technology dissonance” and the “paradox of enhancement”. Me, I’m just looking for a phone. The smaller the better, so it can fit in my pocket. Good battery life, so I don’t need to recharge after every coffee break. And yes, a large phone-book, preferably with that new Nokia feature where you can store up to 5 numbers under one entry. Say, a thousand entry phone-book, that would give me the option of storing 1000x5 numbers. I’m not particular about brands (as long as it’s a Nokia). How do I get one?

Not by going into a shop and asking, evidently. Mobile phones must be the fastest-moving consumer goods around, and that would include mosquito-repellent coils and toilet soap (judging from the ummm, aroma in a couple of the shops). So I wait around till the girl behind the counter turns to look at me, then I clear my throat and …

Before I can say a word, she says “Idhar deejiye” (Hand it over here). Eh? What? While I’m fumbling for my wallet and ID, she asks impatiently “Yes sir, vhaat maadel you vaant?” I ask tentatively, “Aap ko kyaa dena hai? Woh aap ne kaha naa, idhar deejiye? Kya dnoo?” A sudden bright smile and an explanation – she was talking to her colleague at the counter behind me. Fine. But do I make any progress towards getting a phone that fits my specs? Ha!

You see, I don’t know veech maadel I vaant, whether the 867045943vIUOI or the 7438904986EEEEEE4358. Or maybe even the 348958906 FearlessBollocksXXX. I need to buy a decrypting software first, or I could walk out of here with a mid-range airborne weapons platform. Or the patent for a self-fertilising sago plant. Since when does a mobile phone sound like rocket science or biotech jargon?

Look, I don’t want a phone with a camera. I have a camera. I have a mp3 player (two of them, as a matter of fact, no matter that neither of them is in working condition). I also have a diary, an alarm clock, a calculator, a television, a toothbrush and a micro-wave oven; my doctor’s sphygmomanometer is good enough for me and I do not need an instrument for pre-programmed erotic massage, thank you very much. I want a phone. Check out the Tata Indicom ad with Ajay Devgan, it sums up what I mean – “Insaan phone leta hai baat karne ke liye” (People buy phones to talk). Except that this segment is ignored by the makers of mobile phones.

I have been offered, in quick succession, the latest Motorola Motorazr because “it fits my image” (yeah right, people often mistake me for Rahul Dev!), a Samsung phone that revolves round a central pivot (next they’ll offer me a Bey-blade) and a Nokia that looks like an early Sony Play-Station. I don’t want any of these, thanks. I want a PHONE. You know, with those basic specs that I listed up there. Will somebody please tell me where I can get one?

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