Monday, May 3, 2010

Educating the Natives

Nearly 15 years ago, a lady representing a famous US-based breakfast foods company, landed in India and swore to change the breakfast habits of Indians. It didn’t quite work out that way. Indians continue to eat their idlis and parathas, even ‘dim paurotis’ (egg & bread). The lady, who had come riding the tiger, went back leaving the smile on the face of the tiger. More recently another lady landed on Indian shores and talked about the relative lack of maturity in the market which had prevented the locals from consuming more gallons of sugared sodas. Now her company is busy pushing old Indian favourites like ‘nimbu pani’ in the same immature market.
I do understand the need for these and many such business heads to talk up the sales of whatever products they are paid to sell. But running down your potential customer seems like a particularly odd way of going about your business. Cereals are great. Hell, my favourite street dog will eat nothing else. And flavoured sodas can be fun I admit. But I am not sure consuming these confers any great maturity or indicates the evolution of a country from barbarism to civilization.
I am reminded of these two instances every time a self-appointed wealth manager from one of the two multinationals I bank with calls me threatening to make my money work for me. One of them promised to prove that my policy of not using leverage to invest in various market instruments was leaving me poorer each year by what I was earning. Luckily I don’t have to struggle for an answer any more when confronted with such jaw-dropping numbers. A simple question stops the marketing pitch mid-path: How much did your bank lose last quarter? The small matter of $8.4 billion of credit losses in the quarter doesn’t exactly inspire confidence does it?
I have no problems with guys who come in and say look at your roads, your sanitation, your trains, your hospitals. God knows we don’t have a clue about running those and could use all the help we can get. But let’s not fix what ain’t broke.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I see them every few days. Maimed beyond recognition, their eyes gouged out, their hands spread out in supplication, are the only active parts of their anatomy. They are children, a little boy and a little girl. Humans, yet so cruelly carved up by a butcher’s knife they defy the definition of humanity. From time to time I drop some packets of food into their hands. Their unseeing eyes register nothing. Often they pass the packets to the man seated next to them. Is he their father or their trader? He looks equally disfigured but I can’t help the surge of anger against him for not protecting the children or worse, forcing them into such a life. Appropriately they live their doomed lives on a street corner that intersects the quintessential government colony of Delhi on the one side and a tony South Delhi district on the other. Occupants of the first let them down with their corruption and inefficiency; the second merely by their apathy. What’s their only hope: an early merciful death?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Of Mr Bachchan's Blog

Thanks to the constant references in the media I was drawn to the blog of the supposedly erudite and articulate patriarch of Bollywood Shri Amitabh Bachchan. After reading his outpourings over the last two days I am gob smacked to say the least! Now either Mr Bachchan has left the task to a linguistically challenged mass murderer of the English language or Mr Bachchan’s vast repertoire doesn’t quite include, ahem, language skills! So what – he’s still a great star and a wonderful human being – right! Curiously for such a messiah, there’s a marked lack of sensitivity towards how the bulk of humanity lives. The latest in his daily deluge exhibits shades of "If they can't have cake, they must be diabetic", imperiousness. Shahenshah indeed!

But for all English language teachers across the globe, putting their young wards of classes 5 or 6 through the paces of rudimentary grammar, this is a readymade test paper. Start reading. The italics are my humble contribution:

From the blog of Shri Bachchan (

DAY 392

Posted on: May 20, 2009 - 12:17 am Prateeksha, Mumbai                                         

There is a sense of completion today. I have visited my father again through the day, and found myself groping for words and expressions to describe him well enough for the foreword that I struggle with for Madhushala. ….

 …………So difficult to do justice to  parents, their selfless love and unconditional care………….

I feel so dwarfed in their presence and now in their legacy that they have bestowed on me. Without ever wanting or asking for something, how did they manage to bring us up, within limited means. How did they cope with economic constraints (Another recession triggered within the Bachchan family???). What did they convey to the world (What pomposity I say) when they were unable to afford the numerous demands of their children. When was it that we realized that we could not match the affluence of our other classmates. What did go through our minds when we had to sit back, to reckon that our material position was different. I cried in despair when in school, because my Mother could not afford to give me  Rs 2/-, yes two rupees, to become a member of the class cricket club. Why were we cycling it to our friends birthday party, where others drove up in chauffeur driven cars. Why wasn’t our drawing room air conditioned like my friends’ (In the 1950s and 1960s which is when I presume Mr Bachchan went to school, how many people in India do you think had air-conditioned drawing rooms?) and why did I possess just one pair of jeans and a pair of loafers for all occasions. I felt embarrassed to be invited to the Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi when Herbert von Karanjan was conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, because I had just my one driven to smithereens pair of orange loafers and a black trouser that was never sent to be dry cleaned because it was an excessive expense. (Presumably washing them wasn’t good enough!)

How did we feel in University when we could not get our bottle of Coca Cola, because it cost 4 annas - 25 paise ! (Oh cruel fate Рno coke for young thirsty Amit!) Or those delicious pieces of saut̩ed cucumber that used to come by in little hand carts outside the college gates.

Years later, when we got established in life and were in a capacity to buy crates of Coco (a new brand?) Cola, to drive in the luxury of the latest output, to walk into a popular restaurant without self consciousness (Strange I still feel self conscious in those specialty French restaurants but self consciousness, now that’s another thing), to possess our own home far removed from the 10 by 10, 8 occupants ‘digs’ that we lived in, when in Kolkata, and when we offered grandiosely to our parents the option of asking for whatever they wanted, why did we get no response from them. Why did they not accept anything from us. Why, all they wanted, was that private little moment, when they desired us to sit with them and tell them what transpired all day. That is all….


My anxiety.. my love.. and  more !!

Amitabh Bachchan

My Note: For more such gems, visit

Friday, May 1, 2009

Death of a Teacher

News of the death of my old school teacher Hoshang Kapadia who taught me English through classes XI-XII, has come as a shock. Hoshi or Kapadia as he was called was a gentle, genial soul with a peculiar sense of humour which I found quite mystifying then, but seems so civilized and urbane now.

As is our wont when an old companion passes away, I remember him through the fragments of memory that have survived the decades gone by. We were 17, I think, when he got us to debate on the travails of teenagers. In a classful of angst-ridden boys that was a recipe for disaster but he managed to get us to do reasonable soul-searching with his patience and tact.

In between classes on Coleridge and Shakespeare, his great passion was to turn some of us into good public speakers. To that end he would devote enormous time and energy working with us to fine tune our diction, style, delivery and the nous needed for debating. And it worked alright. The A-team of my good friend Sandip Ghose and AP Singh, was considered the crack debating outfit in Calcutta debating circles of the mid 80s. Subroto Talukdar and I were the reservists, a fact which to my great shame I held against our mentor at that point.

In truth he was much too generous and kind a soul to ever have anything but the best interests of his students at heart. I had the great fortune of continuing my English Literature studies in college under his brother Rohinton, a massive influence on a whole generation of students at Xaviers in Calcutta. Both brothers had the unique ability to turn their students into close friends.

In losing Hoshang Kapadia, I feel a sense of great personal loss, like a childhood friend passing away. Ironically I read about his death the same day that my 13-year old daughter went for her first inter-school public speaking competition. In the end she won only an honourable mention. But I know Hoshi Kapadia, teacher of English and mentor of boys at Don Bosco School, Calcutta would have been happy.

Thank you sir.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Proud to be a Punjabi

Sixty one years ago a well-heeled Punjabi hindu family based in Lahore started its long trudge back to India in the midst of the partition riots. Leaving behind a prosperous business, a house large enough to have stables for the horses and kennels for the dogs, the large group of old and young went through hell before reaching Dehradun. Here they confronted their new reality for the first time when the relatives they had hoped would take them in turned them down forcing them into the Government's hastily created refugee camps. Life was tough in these camps especially for the women used to a more genteel living and now having to use public spaces for their daily chores. Snake bites, malaria and hunger were a part of their existence.

Somehow they persevered eking out a meagre existence by selling food at the nearby railway station. Each morning the women would rise early and cook and the boys would go and hawk it at the station. Then the hunt would start for cheap rations. This continued for several years before finally the family migrated to Shimla and started its life all over again.

Through it there were two constants - they would not beg, ever. Not even to go back to the relatives who had turned them away. And they would not borrow because they knew they had no means of repaying the loans. The pain this caused was intense. One young son died of diarrhea and another grew up with polio. For the others, the teens were not an age to frolic but a time to put their shoulder to the family wheel. But they endured and passed on their lessons to another, more privileged generation.

I know this story because you see these were the families of my parents. I learnt two lessons from them - no work is below my dignity and debt is never an answer to any crisis. Often it worsens it.

To an America fattened, weakened and finally flattened by debt Obama says “yes we can”. Another generation of Indians, devastated by a partition they were not responsible for, said ‘no we won’t. They were tough men, often crude and unpolished, and mostly reviled for being grasping and unaesthetic. But today I feel proud of them, glad for the legacy of self-respect and hard work they have left me with.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The War in Mumbai

If my blood boiled to see the terror attacks in Mumbai this last week, I was also appalled by the role played by the TV news media. In the first place, someone needs to define for these newbies what news is. Between doling out on-the-spot awards to our bravehearts, pushing to-do lists, and adopting causes, each of them had only one preoccupation – to prove the exclusivity of their coverage. There was little insight, no investigation, basically now news reporting. Old reporting hands in the print media have been shocked by the gullibility of the TV journos who seem to lap up anything that came from anyone in uniform as if it were the gospel truth. The result was that every few hours we were dutifully informed how the Taj had been ‘sanitised’ and promptly the firing would start again.

This of course highlighted the failure of the authorities charged with taking on the terrorists. But frankly the initial weak-kneed response by the local authorities as well as the police wasn't anything new. It has been visible all along, through all the bombings and the attacks in the past. There is clearly no central command ever in these situations partly because law & order is a state subject and the states are least qualified to handle terror which is seen as a central issue.

But the political paralysis this time was new and very alarming. In the past various leaders have been the first to come out and issue empty statements about things being in control (even if they were not). This time around for 12 hours after the first bit of firing there was absolutely no response. In fact, the next morning Mumbai police put out an alert saying don't go out of your homes unless you have to. Now we know that apart from the 9 terrorists killed another 10-12 got away and are probably in hiding somewhere in the city. At that point only the cops knew it and they must have informed the political leaders, which is why they stayed away not wanting to expose themselves.

The crucial issue for me is what was the military/intelligence leadership up to? The NSG commandos appeared so ill-trained and lacking in basic discipline. It seemed like a throwback to Operation Bluestar. Shooting away recklessly for 36 hours at a static target hardly seems a modern operation. There wasn't even a semblance of an intermediary who would talk to the kidnappers while the commandos took charge. I can understand now why we have made such a mess of Kashmir.

I think in blaming Pakistan, we are just looking for a scapegoat for our own ineptness and the lack of calibre in our leadership. Sure Pakistan is culpable but its political leadership has no control over its terrorist agencies and we should have been working with them long before this incident happened to blow up the terrorist cells in covert operations. If we claim to know exactly where Dawood lives in Karachi why have not been able to take him out in all these years. It’s not like our intelligence agencies don't operate in Pakistan. I think there's just too much bluster and lack of elementary education.

Meanwhile, the US continues with its cynical intervention in world affairs. Its efforts are directed at preventing a war between India and Pakistan only because it fears Pakistan will move a 100000 men from the Afghan border and hurt its own operations in Kabul. Now if China uses this opportunity to mount a limited attack to reclaim its territory in Arunachal, will the US back India? I doubt it.

Some form of a war is inevitable now, largely for political reasons but its impact will be to turn the current recession into a 30s style economic depression.  

Friday, September 5, 2008

Girls for Food in Bihar

As if the misery of the poor affected by the floods in Bihar isn't bad enough, comes horrifying news of how the human trafficking vultures have descended on the blighted state. There have been a few stories on the subject largely in the international press ( but the Indian media is yet to take too much notice. Guess it's old news for them and there are more graphic horrors to report. 12-year old girls being pushed into prostitution by their mothers to buy food for the rest of the family, is too old a story in India to get any reader or viewer overtly worried. And if the audience isn't interested, the media couldn't be bothered. 

It's also a convenient alibi for when you want to shut your eyes to the sad state of real India, far removed from the hype of the rising middle class and its obscenely unctuous avarice. But it's one thing to accept that there are two Indias, quite another to actually superimpose 10% of the population onto the remaining 90% and pretend we are all fine here. Check the scandalous fashion spread in the latest issue of Vogue India, in which poor, nameless people sport $10,000 handbags and $100 bibs. Talk of exploitation and apathy.