Friday, March 30, 2007

Anil Kumle : A gentleman moves on

Two Sports headlines, both pertaining to cricket caught my headlines his morning. One pertained to Anil Kumble announcing his retirement from one day cricket. And the other was Ian Chappel’s call to Sachin Tendulkar to retire. Ian’s comment, especially barbed was that Tendulkar was that “At the moment he (Tendulkar) looks like a player trying to eke out a career built on a glittering array of statistics”. Kumble called “The Bashful Hero” by BBC, also among the world’s cricketing elite, albeit less glamorous has gracefully withdrawn from the scene attracting glowing tributes from one and all.

In the late sixties, when I first began listening to cricket commentaries (No TV in those days!), one quote from the late Cricketer, Vijay Merchant was often cited. Merchant, who had announced his retirement when in top form was often asked about the correctness of his departure as he perhaps had some years of cricket left. His inevitable reply was that one should leave in a setting where those left behind would mournfully ask “ Why” and not fretfully ask” Why Not ?”.

Till now, I used to think that such words were perhaps the eccentric notions from a by gone era. But no, some wisdom is eternal and Vijay Merchant’s words will perhaps haunt Sachin as he increasingly hears the jeers that will follow Chappel’s bold statement that Tendulkar was playing more for his own interests than the team’s. So will Kumble’s statement at his Bangalore press conference echo that he was to give chance to the younger lot.

Anil Kumble , never the glamour boy of Indian cricket , even if a legend in his own right , has shown by his gesture that it is important not just to begin well and be consistent , but also finish well. Though his fellow leg spinner Shane Warne , whose career graph closely matched Kumble, left in disgrace having tested positive for drugs, not a whiff of scandal ever touched Kumble. No match fixing, no drugs, no fancy advertisements , no streaked hair, no glitzy BMWs with customs duty exemption requested , nothing.

Whether on the cricket field , or off it, knowing when to walk off ,even if there are dreams unfulfilled and a chock full of regrets that will never go away is invaluable. In Anil Kumble’s own words, this wasn’t the way he wanted to leave. He made it to the team but was not played in the matches against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and his last memory of the World Cup that he longed so much to be part of , would be his three wicket haul against Bermuda , a forgettable team by all accounts. Kumble said. In his press conference that “I wanted to go with the ball in my hand. It did not happen in the last World Cup. It's always nice to finish on a high note. Unfortunately, it does not seem to happen.” There is not always a fairytale end. ……” Anil Kumble , the bashful hero with the disarming smile was always admired as a cricketer. Now , he will be admired and respected as a man and a model ….. A different kind of model than those shallow men who often walk our ramps.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Geelani's Human Rights

The Indian Express reports that Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani was denied US visa to visit US for medical treatment. The US has reportedly denied visa to Geelani for his failure to renounce violence as a means for achieving his political goal in Kashmir. In a statement issued here today, Hurriyat Conference termed the denial of visa as a “human rights violation”. Geelani’s purpose of visit to the US was not political but medical. It was a humanitarian issue which deserved sympathetic consideration,” Hurriyat spokesman Ayaz Akber told Indian Express.

The irony here is hard to miss. Geelani has not denied even once that the US contention that he believed in violence as a legitimate way to achieve his ends was a false one and that he believed in non violent means of protest and dissent. Geelani has thus tacitly accepted the fact that in his world view, it is OK to kill people who come in the way of his political and ideological objectives, even if terrorism is denounced by a large majority of the global community.

The ideological freedom to act according to the dictates of his conscience that he has claimed, even if abhorrent to most of us, is not some thing that he is willing to grant the United States government however. Ever since 9/11, the US government has taken a consistent stand to try and root out terrorism, which in itself is a laudable thing, though we may not agree with all of their methods. And consistent with their stated position, they have denied him a visa. And in response, the Hurriyat conference in a statement that is difficult to assimilate or fathom terms it a human rights violation.

I do not know what the current data looks like but as far back as in 2002, the Tribune had reported that nearly 10,000 innocent civilians were among the 28,000 who lost their lives and property worth millions of rupees was destroyed. There are certainly many players fishing in Kashmir’s muddy waters, but Geelani’s group and those with similar ideologies were responsible for a part of this colossal human misery. Geelani and his cohorts didn’t care much to ensure the human rights of all those who had to leave their homes and hearths for ever and for all the widows and orphans that they and their actions have created. But when Geelani’s only remaining kidney turns malignant and treatment is needed in the US, suddenly human rights become important.

The irony extends further. India is a country that the Hurriyat conference loves to hate. Pakistan is the land of destiny for them. Yet after the US visa refusal, when Imran Khan offered free treatment to Geelani at his fairly well equipped cancer hospital, then offer was declined and alternative treatment was arranged at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital. In comment, the Hurriyat spokesman had this to say “ We were told that after the US, the treatment in India ranks among the best in the world.” It is unfair to take digs at the plight of a seriously ailing man but clearly human rights looks and feel different from a hospital bed when one’s own survival is at stake and expediency prevails over reasoning and ideology. And kudos for once to the United States for not bending , though they could well have used the visa as a bargaining tool in the Kashmir chess game.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Playing Cards in an iPod Generation

As I move around the city of Delhi, I come across two kinds of people. In the seedy Nehru Place area of Delhi, where I have my office the lunch break sees every empty space occupied by groups of men squatting on newspapers. They are laughing and chatting among themselves as they play cards and exchange easy gossip in n atmosphere of easy and effortless camaraderie. The sight of people crowding out narrow aisles by squatting and idling away their time is by playing cards is not pleasant one, especially as the lunch breaks look rather extended at the expense of the stated working hours. Besides, I was brought up in a culture which considers playing cards an abomination and a hobby fit only for the dissolute... Besides, cards games were considered in my family, just a whisker’s leap away from the practically unforgivable sin of gambling. Although I don’t relish several things about card games and that is probably ingrained in me, I cannot but notice the fellowship and friendship that it generates and sustains.

In the evening, I meet an altogether group of people as I travel back home in my chartered bus. This is a different crowd and a wired crowd , in the sense that all or most of the passengers in the bus have a pair of wires sticking out of their ears which disappear some where into their clothes. No the passengers are not all wearing hearing aids or appliances; they are just immersed in their own private world , the wires discreetly disappearing into discreetly or indiscreetly kept mobile phones or music players. Most have mobile phones which have at least an FM Radio in built and many have an mp3 player built in too. Most of the affluent ones do not use chartered buses but a few who do flash their snazzy Apple iPods or Sony Mp3 walkmans or their garish Chinese imitations.

The difference between the people who I see in the afternoon and the ones I travel back with could not b starker. The first lot is mostly people, who are in their late forties or fifties. Most appear not to be gizmo savvy, and indeed if this crowd has mobile phones which are possible, they are obviously not hopelessly in love with it. No wires follow them around as they hunker down with their worn out playing cards on stair cases and aisles. Theirs is a parallel universe where companionship, friendship and camaraderie are every thing and the fulcrum around which their lives revolve. Even though card playing is not the healthiest of pastimes, it certainly provides human connectedness among people. The evening crowd is self immersed. Each one is tuned in – to the Radio Mirchi or the Radio City or their Himesh Reshammiya music track. It is a self contained, atomized universe devoid of any neighborly conversation.

The FM channels are all full of call in programs and the telephone lines seem to be chock full of callers wanting to hat up the anonymous Radio Jockeys but there is no conversation happening across people. The medium of diversion in the middle aged crowd of the afternoon is a cheap pack of cards; in the passengers of the evening bus, it is the ubiquitous mp3 player. Neither an addiction to a pack of cards nor an addiction to a radio channel can be termed healthy. But whereas cards seem to allow for bonding, comradeship and companionship to develop and flourish, the FM radios and the iPod develop isolationism , individualism and an atomization leading to an increasing culture of independence and of having little use or sensitivity to the other , to he neighbor whom I am called to love. A pack of cards or an iPod dangling from the neck – the jury is sill out on which is more damaging of the two.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Missing Friends….

I just finished reading a book with the quaint title “ Clive Avenue” written by a guy called T.S.Tirumurti and published by Penguin.. the book is about a quaint cul de sac street by the name of Clive Avenue, which is so obscure that even after Madras became Chennai and Mount Road became Anna Salai , the tiny Clive Avenue remained as it was, too obscure to rename. In its confines live a few assorted families – friends , more than neighbors, who love and live out their lives together and living together for decades , actually grow old together. There is a certain bonding, a certain closeness and tenderness that one can not but envy , especially people like me , who are perpetual migrants and have no one to bond with.

There are many disadvantages in being a perpetual migrant, even though it seems that I have lived in Delhi for almost all except a small piece of my life. When I first stepped into Delhi, I was a son of a bureaucrat and so were all my friends from school, drifting through Delhi because their dads happened to be also in the service of the government of India. We finished school and drifted off into our different careers and courses and for all practical purposes for ever lost track of each other. Till today, I do Google searches for some whose names and faces I remember, but no and has helped me to trace out anything. Even if I did turn up with any thing , I am not sure what we would be able to talk any thing meaningfully as we would have drifted apart , not having grown up together now for decades.

Although most of us chase after urbanization and come and live in the metros, there is some thing to be said for living in the smaller towns, where your immediate neighbor is not a total stranger, friends are not people you meet at weddings, birthdays or funerals but people you have known all your lives and have grown up with. To know that speeches need not be made or bouquets delivered to drive any point home because you are always home.

Orkut, Friendster and their many clones express the modern yuppie’s yearning for communion and look for the elusive human touch through the tap of the key board and the flick of the mouse. While on line sites and hubs do provide the theoretical opportunity to meet with people one might otherwise never meet , relationships and friendships carved out over the net are at best shallow and meaningless and and at worst abusive and exploitative.

The cloak of anonymity that the net provides may be a platform for sharing thoughts and emotions that one would be hesitant to do in real life but if one is looking for support, love and concern from merely an online “friendship” , then more often than not one is headed for disappointment. Encouragement and empathy can be expressed when all is said and done and when all the emoticon buttons and avatars exhausted , not by instant messaging but by looking a friend in the eye and asking for and receiving love and support and giving it in turn. True friendships take a life time to cultivate and nurture. Friends cultivated over instant messaging and chats and networking sites can certainly be the springboard for meaningful friendships provided we recognize the limitations- that when the browser window is closed and the cache cleared , we would have nothing left but the memories of a chat session – not an anchor that we can rely on in the storms and sun shines of life.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Killing me Softly.....

Major multi national drug companies are killing us softly and surely even as debates about TRIPS, intellectual property rights , the Mashlekar committee report and other such concerns sail over our head. These and other hens will come home to roost when their implications hit us in real life. Let me share an instance:

A few weeks ago, I got an e mail from some one practising medicine in China. He had come to know of me through a mutual friend. This doctor in china had a patient who was suffering from chronic myeloid leukaemia and needed a drug called Imatinib. The drug was a product of the Swiss drug giant (Glivec) and at the price at which it was available in China, it was going to cost his patient a whopping Rs. One Lakh per month for an indefinite period, given the nature of cancer treatment. But the doctor had heard that in India, generic versions of the drug were available which were available at much lower prices and could I please check about the actual cost and availability.

I did some background research on the net as I had not been acquainted with the drug before though it would be in the news soon enough. My surfing revealed that Indian firms like Ranbaxy, CIPLA and others were indeed manufacturing it although the prices could not be discerned. So to get specific information, I went along to the near by chemist and found that generic versions were indeed available and the prices wee negotiable. But at Rs. 70 per capsule of Imatinib 100mg, though not exactly cheap, the price gap between the Novartis product and the Indian variants was yawning. Glivec is priced at Rs 1, 20,000 per month by Novartis when generic versions manufactured by Indian companies are available for Rs 8,000.

Although the drugs were eventually procured and found their way to my friend’s patient in China, one wonders how long such life saving drugs will be even relatively accessible to the common man. For it is in respect of this drug Glivec, that Novartis has filed a suit alleging violation of the patent laws and the TRIPS agreement in the Chennai High Court. As a life saving drug, it is important that the product be available at prices that one can consider affordable.

The campaign against cheaper access to drugs, initially highlighted by the high cost of anti retro virals has now spread to look at other drugs with global religious leaders having joined worldwide demands that the company withdraw the case in India. These include Nobel Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, Bishop Yvon Ambroise of the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India, Prawate Khidharn, General Secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia, Bishop Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Charitable associations see Novartis’ challenge as one against the right of worldwide poor patients for affordable drugs.

Drug companies have long argued that huge funding is required to research and carry out clinical trials for new drugs and they need to recover the costs by pricing them high in the initial years when they hold exclusive patents. If that alone were the case , the reasoning might still hold good for the phenomena of ever greening of molecules that large companies indulge in and which will prevent the manufacture of generic versions ever. Ever greening allows companies to make slight changes in off patent molecules and patent those again arguing it has improved efficiency and is in that sense a never ending cycle.

Even as drug companies see their only loyalty to the share holder and there is and will be a perennial clash between private profit and public interest , the only way out seems to be to break the gird lock of private funding in the research of new drugs and encourage, publicise and encourage initiatives like the Neglected Diseases Foundation whose vision it is to improve the quality of life & the health of people suffering from neglected diseases by developing new drugs or new formulations of existing drugs for patients suffering from these diseases. The foundation has broken new ground by launching ASAQ, a none patented, once a day, fixed dose anti malarial, the first new anti malarial drug in decades. Even as drug companies for the most part treat the sick as vulnerable milking cows, initiatives like the Neglected Diseases Foundation deserve all the publicity; encouragement and funding that they need to expand their portfolio.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Future of Om Stores

Standing amid the open sacks of rice, sugar and pulses that clutter the floor of the tiny Om Stores, the shop's eponymous owner, Om Prakash, cuts a forlorn figure. Mr Prakash, whose family has run the ramshackle store in Delhi’s New Friends Colony for 30 years, is preparing to do battle with the juggernaut of progress thundering towards him in the form of the American retailer, Wal-Mart, and he's not looking forward to it. He is one of India's 12 million shopkeepers who fear being driven out of business by the chain of supermarkets that Wal-Mart is planning to open in every major town in the country. The first is due to open later this year.

Sonia Gandhi, the head of the ruling Congress Party, has expressed her alarm, however, over the influx of the big brand supermarkets. She wrote to the prime minister recently to voice concerns over the welfare of some 35 million people who depend on small shops for their livelihood. Their fate at the hands of big, foreign retailers could trigger a backlash against her party, which is well-supported among the rural poor. When I read of Sonia Gandhi’s letter, I could not help wondering as to how having set a process in motion, now it is possible to realistically reverse it.

Sure there might be agitations when the Vice President of Wal-Mart visits India and there might be temporary slow downs and hiccups , but the process is well nigh irreversible for the simple reason that these sort of projects in the long run will benefit a larger number of people than they will inevitably affect socially and economically.

In the days when Pepsi, in the first wave of liberalization was coming in, there was a lot of emphasis given to the fact that Pepsi was not coming to India just to sell fuzzy drinks, but also to set up agro processing units that would increase crop yields. Today, many years after the initial battle has perhaps been forgotten, Pepsi survives because it benefited more people than it displaced – possibly the manufacturers of Campa Cola and the like. Then Coke came in and the Chauhans of Thums Up initially set up the Bombay Club to lobby for a level playing field, before they cashed in and sold the brand to Coke.

Some thing similar happened when KFC first set up their outlet in Bangalore. The restaurant was damaged, customers were threatened, and there was a lot of talk of how it would threaten the native born Udupi Hotels. A decade or so later, Coke, Pepsi and KFC (and these are only a few well known examples) all survive simply because the products they brought in were more enticing or useful to people than to the small minority that they might have harmed.

When India was a quasi socialist state, it was one thing to keep our doors and windows shut to the world and pretend that nothing existed outside of Ambassador Cars, HMT watches and Godrej Fridges. Today that era we have consciously dismantled and have opened up to the world. It is not just that Coca Cola or Wal-Mart that does business in India but also that Tata buys off Tetley and Corus, HINDALCO buys off Novelis and Taj hotels buy off classy Boston and London properties. When such things happen and Indian companies acquire other concerns and become multi nationals in their right (and presumably demonstrating the same characteristics that multi nationals else where do!), we celebrate it as a coming of age of the Indian industry which it is.

If it is ok for Indian multi nationals to grow, thrive and multiply and presumably adopt the practices of multi nationals world wide, when it comes to their impact on the local economy and their sensitivities to social concerns wherever they operate, then why create a fuss about other companies coming and operating here. Sure there needs to be regulation and legislation to ensure that basic national concerns are not violated. But by creating an environment where we discourage others from coming shopping to our shores, while we celebrate the same when our own home grown companies do so, surely we are to be accused of eating our cake and having it too!

Monday, March 12, 2007

How much money do we need to live on ?

To say that one needs money to live is to but state the obvious , but even with inflation and all , I am wondering as to how much money does one really need to live in today’s age. The cost of living must be going up faster than our comprehension and experience. How else can one explain that Rs 35,000 crores is the estimated size of what could be the biggest income tax evasion scam in this country. India does not have a very healthy record of tax compliance and tax evasion has been quite the norm among the non salaried classes almost since the days of independence. Several rounds of VDIS including a fairly recent one that the current finance minister in an earlier avatar had introduced have had a rather modest success.

The reasons for tax evasion have generally been explained away as that the tax rates are unreasonably high , although there has been a very definite effort made in recent years to reduce the tax slabs and make them comparable with the tax regimes of other progressive countries. The effort has been understood to be reasonably successful and income tax collection has been increasing over the years.

But what occurs to me is not the semantics of whether our tax rates are high or low and whether therefore it is fine therefore to evade them. What occurs to me is the larger moral question. In a country where so many farmers are daily committing suicide , because they cannot even afford square meals a day for themselves and their family , we have people evading tax to the tune of 20 to 30,000 crores of Rupees and then taking their seats in the race courses watching their thorough bred horses run and win some more money.

The fact that all this money has been accumulated through illegal means and tax evasion compounds the fault but even if all that money were legitimately earned and accounted for , the question would still arise in my mind as to how much money does one need to live, all right, even to live a life of comparative luxury perhaps. The merchant princes of Bombay of the nineteenth century , the first entrepreneurs and industrialists of modern India like say Jamsetji Tata were driven by an ideology and a vision that the purpose of wealth creation was that after keeping behind a legitimate proportion of it, the rest of it should go back to the society from whose labor it was generated in the first place. Similar sentiments have been expressed by N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys. On those foundations, modern Indian philanthropy was born and is sustained to this day

Today , reading these stories and others like it, I get the picture that for all the tall talk about Corporate Social Responsibility and all that blah by the various chambers of industry , our consciences are anesthetized and we are oblivious to any thing except our own advancement in life and the amoral pursuit of creature comforts. The Bible tells us plainly that we are called to be our brothers’ keepers and others like Jamsetji Tata have reflected the same thought in a different vocabulary but in today’s day and age , we are lost the ability to be the keepers of our own conscience , let alone think of our brother or our neighbor.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

How Nice to be a Dictator

It must be nice to be an absolute ruler. You can do more or less what you want without worrying about niceties and things like being accountable. Just look at president Pervez Musharraf – he had an activist Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry who was handing out uncomfortable judgments, unpalatable to the government and one day the President got tired and said “ off with his head….” And soon enough, the learned Chief Justice was out of a job.

The President had before you could blink your eye lid decided that the Chief Justice of Pakistan had misused his authority after summary proceedings reminiscent of those followed in a Kangaroo Court, the man was gone. Speculation for Chaudhry's fall ranged from reports that he had misused his influence to secure official employment for his son, to recent court rulings that had challenged the government's authority. Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said Musharraf removed Chaudhry for "misuse of authority" but gave no further details.

The procedures to be followed in India to impeach (not “remove” or “sack”), any judge in even a High Court are so mind boggling that we haven’t succeeded in removing any so far. The Constitution of India has laid down how a judge of a high court or the Supreme Court can be removed. Its Article 124 (4) says: 'A judge of the Supreme Court shall not be removed from his office except by an order of the President passed after an address by each House of Parliament supported by a majority of the total membership of that House and by a majority of not less than two third of the members of the House present and voting has been presented to the President in the same session for such removal on the ground of proved misbehavior or incapacity.'

In respect of the subordinate judiciary, Article 235 vests their control in the respective state high court. While a legal historian alone can tell us whether a subordinate judge has at all been removed from office in free India, one can't quite recall whether that fate has ever befallen a high court judge. And a Supreme Court judge certainly hasn't been axed in the 52-year-old constitutional history of our country. The nearest to that was during the Narasimha Rao's Congress regime when a motion for the impeachment of Justice V Ramaswami was brought in Parliament but could not be carried because the Congress abstained from voting.

While none of us would love to be governed by an authoritarian regime where there are no institutions of accountability and no checks and balances, it some times does look that democracy slows down things considerably and puts brakes on the speed at which reforms could be made and justice delivered. Even as I write, there is the case of M.K.Subba, the Congress MP from Tezpur, who is being accused of being actually a Nepali citizen. A senior leader of the Congress Party said that the AICC was not going to make any move immediately, as his case was pending in the Supreme Court. Let the Apex Court decide his fate, said the leader and as far as we know, cases can pond in the Supreme Court for ever.

Subba’s case is just one of many instances where the evidence seems glaring on the surface and yet because of democratic niceties and procedures to be followed in the interests of the principles of natural justice, nothing ever gets down. Perhaps as part of SAARC cooperation and cross border exchanges, we should depute Manmohan Singh and APJ Abdul Kalaam to Islamabad to teach them the nuances of protocol and Tehzeeb while Musharraf gets down to teaching us real governance!

Friday, March 9, 2007

Happy Women's Day , Sir !

Happy Women’s Day, sir, I heard a young girl greet some one yesterday. It reminded me of course that it was the International Women’s Day, March 8th. Also that it was now an object of greeting- much like Happy Holi or Happy Valentine’s Day or Happy New Year. How easy it is to kill days and occasions by reducing them to occasions for exchanging greetings or sending cards. We wish a few people on the streets and in the neighbourhood and our job is done , our consciences are at peace for the next 365 days, till the day rolls in again and by when our fertile minds would have worked out some thing more innovative to dull and anesthetize our consciences.

Not that there are no deeper issues to deal with if we scratch the surface. There are reports which suggest that nearly half of India’s women have never heard of AIDS, let alone worry about taking precautions to protect themselves. Even as epidemics like HIV are getting feminised, another tendency that has come to light in places like Uttar Pradesh is the disturbing 'masculinisation' of the sex ratio. That this has spread to states like Uttar Pradesh is a deviation from the generally accepted norm that sex selective abortion is a matter of concern to the richer states like Punjab, Haryana and others is a worrying trend.

I may along with most other men mumble the usual platitudes about women’s’ empowerment, but I must admit I still have a long way to go. After all I can curse and rave and rant about patriarchy and patriarchal systems that are oppressive in my writing and public posturing, but how to negate the fact that most or perhaps even all men have this very same patriarchal attitude ingrained into their DNA , from their earliest childhood by the manner of their socialization and cultural expectation?

So many even so called so called “aware” and “sensitized” men make all the right noises at home , perhaps even mean a great deal of the sound bytes that they provide ,but then deep rooted , subconscious values and behaviours come into play and men typically end up contradicting themselves. On one hand, we conduct sting operations on the occasion of Women’s Day and haul up doctors who are involved in committing the crime of determining sex of a foetus in India and then on the other hand join hands with countries like China to kill a UN resolution against sex selective abortions.

Nevertheless, progress is slowly but certainly being made though activists will always feel that the pace is still too slow. In the initial days, when one third of the seats in Panchayats and Municipalities were reserved for women, there was a lot of hue and cry. Initially men objected, but when the law was passed anyway, most men who lost the chance to contest often put up dummy women from their family. The scheme worked for a while but then as many of the women got trained and got a taste of political power, they declined to do the men’s bidding blindly.

Things admittedly are better in some parts of the country than others, but unquestionably things are getting better. The bill to reserve one third of seats in Parliament for women is still pending, but the voices that oppose it are getting less hoarse and creative solutions like increasing the number of seats in parliament are being thought of. May be in the next year or so, we will see some progress. Meanwhile, to conclude as I began, A Happy Women’s Day to all!

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Amitabh short sells Uttar Pradesh

The Congress Party has sought the Election Commission's intervention in banning advertisements, featuring superstar Amitabh Bachchan that glorify governance in Uttar Pradesh. In a series of advertisements carried out in print and electronic media, Bachchan has been highlighting the achievements of the Mulayam Singh Yadav Government. "Uttar Pradesh mein hai dum, kyunki jurm yahan hain kam," the latest advertisement says. But to hear Amitabh Bachchan spout aloud ever so often from television screens that the people of Uttar Pradesh are the most blessed because they have the peace to sleep blissfully at night and that only rumor mongers talk about any jurm in Uttar Pradesh because there isn’t any can impress only the most credulous. Who ever decided that such advertisements should be aired on news channels like NDTV , where minutes after the advertisement has run , news will appear of this sort “Criminals dominate Uttar Pradesh politics” and then “Unchecked abductions in Uttar Pradesh” has to have taken leave of his senses. As for people sleeping well and peacefully, here is another news item, again from NDTV-“Power shortage in Uttar Pradesh”

Now we all know that Amitabh Bacchan has a particular political affiliation and his wife is a member of the Rajya Sabha with the Samajwadi Party tag and Amitabh is the “elder brother” of Samajwadi Party honcho Amar Singh. We also know that Amitabh is a performer and he performs for money. He sells us Reid and Taylor suiting, Parker pens and all sorts of other gadgets. He has in the past also told us about the merits of polio vaccination and other social causes. Along the way, he also earned himself the reputation of being a man of grace, charm and some credibility. His name was and is being suggested as a worthy replacement for President Abdul Kalaam, when his term ends in July. Of course, Amitabh has with suitable humility declined for the moment but he may well be biding his time to see how the cards line up after the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections and how many seats his “brother’s” party picks up.

After seeing the advertisements that Amitabh is now mouthing, I am aghast. Aghast at the game plan of the party strategists who have chosen to air these kind of messages on news channels. Surely viewers here of news channels at the least will know better than believe the propaganda hear just because Amitabh is the one saying it. And what of Amitabh’s own credibility? Can he really look at any one in the eye and mouth that Uttar Pradesh is now under the current dispensation an Uttam Pradesh and that there is no injustice and no crime that is happening there? Has advertising fallen so much that blatant untruths can be uttered on camera by public figures and celebrities without caring at all about the factuality of the case at hand?
Celebrities’ are able to carry off a lot of advertising because of the integrity they have amassed over time and Amitabh has surely amassed a lot of it because of his iconic status. But such a status has not only to be earned but also to be preserved by demonstrating consistency and discretion in the products and campaigns they allow their name to be used in. once before, many eons ago, Amitabh Bachchan had retired from the film industry to briefly enter politics by winning a seat in parliament from Allahabad constituency in 1984, but within a short span of time, he resigned from the Parliament because he felt that all that he was understood to stand for was getting compromised. It looks that the same thing is happening again and Amitabh if he learns lessons from his own past should withdraw from such an abhorrent campaign

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Death of the Chowkidar

When I was in school and lived in Delhi, we often slept on the terrace on the hot, stuffy summer nights. The nights were cool and pleasant and it was still possible on most times to see a sky full of stars. I would drift off to sleep trying to identify the few stars and constellations I knew. The silence of the night would be interrupted by the occasional burst of a car engine and the barking of stray dogs and the rhythmic tap –tap –tap of the chowkidar’s stick along with a shrill puff on his whistle.

Those were idyllic days when crime was little and mostly restricted to petty burglary and nothing more. I never actually saw the chowkidar more than once a month when he came along to collect his wages. He was a genial looking man from the hills, generically referred to as Bahadur and his kindly face inspired no fear or terror but a kind of gentle assurance of protection. The tap-tap –tap of the chowkidar’s stick was a sure antidote against the occasional nightmare and a child’s fears. With my parents by my side at home and the chowkidar blowing his reassuring whistle through the night, a child had nothing to fear.

After school, I left Delhi and came back after a long while; it seemed that an era had passed. Of course, politically, the country had changed a lot. The roots of terrorism were every where – Kashmir was boiling , and so was Assam , closer to Delhi , Khalistani terrorists were rising and had garrisoned off the hallowed Golden Temple and shortly when after Operation Blue Star , Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated by her own body guards, it seemed that the age of trust was over. When the anti Sikh riots happened, the social fabric of trust vanished not just for the elite living in Lutyen’s bungalows but also for the common man. Some where along the way, the chowkidar, the kindly, courteous man, who protected every one, harmed no one and knew every man, woman and child on his beat was gone. His time and role was over.

In place of the mild mannered chowkidar who often served for years if not a life time , now you have the rough, brawny, and uncouth and in your face “security guard” who inspires much terror and little confidence. Indistinctive and impersonal in their often ill fitting uniforms, they swagger around their beat often around a spiked gate erected artificially over a neighborhood designed in gentler times to be always accessible and open.

These guards know no one and care for no one except for their monotonous security drill but they are mushrooming everywhere. ATMs, housing societies, office complexes they all have dispensed with the chowkidar or his morphed cousin in the offices, the Durwan and have hired security guards. The chowkidar greeted every one with a warm smile and a salaam but the security guard greets you with a shabby notebook and a cheap ballpoint pen where to get to your best friend’s house, you have to supply every conceivable personal detail that he requires.

Are we getting better security for all these guards? May be, may be not. The crime statistics don’t tell an encouraging story. But even though the guards may be necessary in today’s day and age and the whistle blowing watch man of yore has been replaced by siren blowing police patrol jeeps and the stiff and starched guards of firms like Group 4, provide a kind of machine like politeness, I will still miss the endearing smile and care of the chowkidar whose heart was bigger than his stick and whose bark was louder than his bite. He belonged to a time when innocence, kindness and caring were the norm and the gentle tap of his stick signified a benign presence guarding us all. The chowkidar is dead but may his memory endure forever.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Hymn to Ageing

Lago raho Munnabhai has by now become a Bollywood icon, well known for its bubbly, peppy and digestible presentation of Gandhian philosophy to a generation that knows little of and about him. For this, it has been applauded with good reason. But the attention to the Gandhigiri spawned by the movie has eclipsed the attention and spotlight that the film provides to another much needed focus – our senior citizens.

The attention and dignity accorded to the elderly through out the movie is truly laudable and there is even a lively, foot tapping song in the celebration of ageing. In fact the entire sequence around which Sanjay Dutt resorts to Gandhigiri is to restore to a group of senior citizens their house which has been unscrupulously seized by a builder. The bunch of happy go lucky senior citizens presented in the film have their travails all right but through the film , they are presented , not as objects of pity or charity but as people with their own rights to the pursuit of happiness.

Never does Vidya Balan as the vivacious and chirpy radio jockey cum part time care taker of the house ever reflect that her responsibility is a chore or the residents a burden in even the slightest of ways. The song Bara Aaane says it all .. That age , properly understood and supported is never a burden to be borne but a contagious joy to be shared.

This idea needs to be shared with increasing frequency. More and more people are living to longer lives but not all are living joy filled and purposeful lives. In fact a very large number are living out, empty, directionless lives without any other purpose other than simple sustenance from day to day. Often their families and our society itself is increasingly learning to weigh people by the thickness of their wallets and the length of their bank statements.

We have not yet found engaging roles for the wealth of experience, insight and life skills that they carry and that they can transmit to us and our children. After all, though their bodies may be frail, the minds are still sharp. Although globally, bodies like UNESCO, identify and celebrate "intangible human heritage", in front of our very eyes, men and women bearing the scars as well as memories of such epochal events of our history like the Freedom Struggle and the Quit India Movement of 1942, the Second World War, the monumental exodus of the partition, the witnesses of the wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971 walk before us day in and day out as repositories o our heritage, neglected, unwanted and uncared for.

There is much talk and justifiably so of the fact that we who live in the present are but custodians of the earth , its resources and all that God has entrusted to us so that future generations may inherit and use it. We are called to be responsible stewards to ensure that all of this happens. Munnabhai reminds us that we have some way to go.