Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Indian race

The hysteria about “Racists attacks against Indians in Australia” has died down and pubs have restarted serving Fosters (Australian for beer). Of course, Australia is no longer the second-most favoured study destination for Indian students. That honour has now been restored to England.

The good ole deshpremis have roundly condemned the Oz government for not doing enough to protect Indian students. The liberals heaved a collective sighed and introspected on our own racist tendencies. All that can be said has been said and my views on the matter are not very different from those already expressed.

But one thing that just struck me is that if you pick apart the phrase “racist attack against Indians”, doesn’t it sound somewhat fuzzy? For us Indians are not a race per se.

Technically speaking, Indians from the North-East are not from the Aryan-Dravidian stock that the rest come from. On the other hand, a lot of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis do have the same racial roots as us.

Of course, if you leave technicalities and quibbles aside, the aforementioned phrase sounds perfectly natural because we Indians lack an explicitly racial identity. Indians who travel abroad do acquire a quasi-racial identity when they come in contact with other races. I say quasi-racial because that identity is Indian rather than brown or South Asian.

Why is that? Is it because we’ve never been able to get along with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis? Or is it pure Indian hegemony at work—the tendency to assume that anything or anyone from the subcontinent is Indian unless established otherwise.

I’m going to digress for a bit to narrate a conversation that might or might or not be relevant to this post.

As part of an assignment in journo school, a couple of us went to meet an ageing RSS functionary in his ashram. One would expect to see Hindu zealots to see jumping around, tridents held aloft, crying Death to Muslims etc. etc. Yes, the purport of what this guy was trying to say might have been the same but his arguments were much more refined. The first thing he told us that Hinduism wasn’t a religion but a nationality—anyone who is born in India is a Hindu. Which is why they had organized ‘homecoming’ campaigns as opposed to conversions to bring back to the fold Christians and Muslims who had ‘strayed’ from the flock.

I found the argument fascinating and ingenuous in a morbid way. With one swift brush stroke all inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent irrespective of the faith they practice can be branded as Hindus. Of course, this shared Hindu nationality doesn’t stop them from butchering Muslims by the hundreds in state-sponsored pogroms.

Can the same argument be extended to Hinduism as a race?

Is there a subtext to the phrase ‘Racist attack on Indians’ which reads ‘racist attack on Hindus’, or is this is a leap of judgement on my part?

But I do believe a majority of Hindus see Hinduism as being a religion, race and nationality all at once. To most Indians, the terms ‘race’, ‘religion’ and ‘nationality’ all mean the same things. The Indian racial identity is a Hindu identity.

Yawning in protest

What is the nightmare of every leftist? Having to listen to a speech by Narendra Modi and not being able to, rather not having the guts to, heckle him. At a recent conference in Mumbai, the aforesaid misfortune befell him.

The theme of the conference was sustainable development (how original!!) and Modi’s speech was supposed to be the crowning glory.

His speech was along predictable lines—describing Gujarat before him as a state floundering in the darkness and how he came in like a Messiah and lifted the state out of despair. I had heard him speak once in Chennai, before an audience of fanatical Tam-Brams (Tamil Brahmins). He was at his theatrical best then, cocky and eloquent. Here too he was boastful, but as he was speaking before a more genteel audience, his words were measured.

And I just sat there in a corner of that cavernous banquet hall trying to feel outraged.

This was after all the man who had presided over the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims and had turned Muslim localities into modern-day ghettos. But, try as I did, I couldn’t feel outraged. I was more annoyed by his personality, his manner of speaking, his crass boasts. Even if he hadn’t done any of those horrible things, I am sure I would have found him repulsive only if I was made to sit through one of his speeches.

I was still hoping that a less indifferent soul than myself would challenge him or, even better, send a rain-soaked shoe sailing through the air in his general direction (Ever since that blessed Egyptian journo hurled his shoes at George W. Bush, this form of protest has been most in vogue). However, aiming directly at Modi carried the risk of being peppered with bullets by those cussed National Security Group guys.

But no shoes were lobbed at him, no one heckled him and no one challenged him in the questions session. I was in one-sixteenth of a mind to shoe-bomb him but then it thought about what would happen next and put the idea out of my head. At worst, I would have been thrashed by the security guys and some zealous Modi fans, and sacked from my job. At best, I would only be sacked from my job. I had a feeling I wouldn’t go down in the annals of Indian journalism as a martyr to a lofty cause. On hearing news of my sacking, people wouldn’t say, “Oh, he had such a promising career ahead of him and he threw it all away in a moment of passion.” They would say, “I always knew he was weird and this just proves it.”

So, what was my grand gesture of dissent? A giant, albeit noiseless, yawn.

However, there was one moment when Modi really pissed me off and I almost reached for my shoe. In response to a question about what he had done for women in Gujarat, he began, “If I lived in the West, I would be known as a feminist.”

Now, what puts the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 in a league of its own, is the level of sexual violence unleashed against women. Accounts such as that of wombs ripped open and fetuses stuck on tridents and brandished about, of mass gang-rapes, 30, even 40, men taking their turns at one girl, are enough to make the blood curdle in anyone’s veins. And this man has the nerve to call himself a feminist.

Post script: Here is an argument that a lot of Gujaratis make which really gets my goat. They say, “Yes, what happened during 2002 was unfortunate but Modi is a good non-corrupt administrator and has done a lot for the good of Gujarat.” My standard response is, so did Hitler (Umm not for the good of Gujarat, for the good of pre-war Germany). He did start a hate campaign against the Jews which culminated in genocide but he was credited with pushing the German economy out of its post-first-world-war doldrums. The German economy was booming before the Second War broke out and Hitler was known as an effective administrator. The comparisons between the two are unmistakable. Modi is a textbook dictator if ever there was one. He is known to have scant regard for the opinion of any else, he has worked to hard establish something that can only be described as The Cult of Narendra Modi, and he is known to subvert the course of justice when it is seen to be working against him.

The main attraction of a dictatorship for the merchant classes is that they are hasslefree, pro-business and ruthless. So it is not surprising at all that Modi is held up by some as a hero of Gujarat.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Leave no stone unturned

Another try at finding a story

 It was just another sweltering Monday morning as I wended my way through the swarm of people, rickshaws and two-wheelers outside Thane railway station. I popped into an ATM owned by a large bank that has consistently been stonewalling me whenever I have approached them for information. Of course, I wasn’t feeling vengeful as I entered the ATM. I just needed some cash.

The ATM machine dutifully swallowed up my ATM card and started making gurgling noises—which usually means that a cash dispensation is imminent. This particular time though the gurgling continued for what seemed like five minutes, at the end of which a “network error” message flashed on the screen.

“Bugger!!” I thought as I hurried to catch the 10:10 from Thane to CST. Then it struck me, “What if this bank’s ATMs all over the city are down?”.

In my defense, this might have been a shot in the dark but it was not as far-fetched as it sounds. A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine had produced a story which was carried on the front page. And the story had the same inglorious roots as my experience that morning--a friend had tipped him off about an ATM not working, he had followed up on that and it turned out there was some satellite error or some such big thing. And what really rankled was even I had been unable to withdraw cash that same day but hadn’t followed up on it. That front page story could have been mine.

That morning, in a departure from most Monday mornings, I actually had two story ideas in mindwhich I intended to work on. But I told myself, “greed is good” and the prospect of a front page story was alluring. So, here is what I did—I texted half the people I knew in Mumbai, my folks who were in Pune and a friend in Delhi (on the possibility that it was national, or at least a state-wide, problem) asking them to check if the  nearest XXX Bank ATM was working, if it wasn’t too much bother. I figured that out of all these people I had texted at least two would reply, which would be enough to string together a story if indeed there was something wrong while the rest would ignore it. I was in for a surprise.

Two worried aunts and my brother-in-law called me up asking if I was in trouble and needed some cash. Some friends asked me where I was and gave me directions to the nearest ATM (not much help because I was in a moving train at that time). One friend called up and told me that now I could withdraw cash from any bank’s ATM without being charged for it. I told him that I had written a story about the new ATM rule and since that was my only by-lined copy in weeks I wasn’t likely to forget the subject of that story. When I told him I was fishing for a new story he said, “Dude, ATMs conk out all the time. Where is the story there?” Touche.

Of course, it didn’t end there. Two friends had replied that the ATMs they had tried were out of order but no reports of a “network error”. On the off-chance that I was sitting on a big story, I tramped around Parel station hunting for a XXX bank ATM. After half an hour, I was perspiring profusely but still hadn’t found one so I took a cab to an ATM I knew existed. I went in, put card in, the machine gurgled and, much to my dismay, dispensed the Rs 100 that I had requested.

Fortunately, I had messaged only people I know well, who I could afford to have think that I am weird (or who anyway thought so). And I guess you have to follow up on these cold leads (some would call them stone-cold leads).

So, I went to office and started work on my two other ideas, one of which actually translated into a story. Revenge on XXX bank would have to wait for another day.



Saturday, May 9, 2009

finding stories

Having spent the good part of three months as a cub reporter floundering in the impenetrable waters of business journalism, I can safely say that there is no consensus even among the stalwarts on how one must go about chasing stories.

Until now most tradesmen have told me that the only way to find stories is by talking to people, and that’s an advice I have taken to heart. Not that it has done me much good. Most people I met in the course of following this advice had an air of studied tolerance while talking to me, as though I were a tiresome child that must be indulged.

In such cases, although one realizes there is no chance of getting a story, one is obliged to carry on a conversation for at least half an hour. One can’t show up for a ‘relationship-building interaction’ (code for ‘I have no idea what questions to ask you but want to meet you in the hope that you will blurt out your bank’s dirty little secrets) and push off after five minutes no matter how laboured  the conversation is. For there are two battles to be fought when meeting people and at least one must be won. One is to find a story, and that’s a battle I have been consistently losing. The other is to try not to look like a complete idiot by blacking out five minutes inside the meeting. So instead of concentrating on the spiel my interviewee is giving me, I must think of what I am going to ask him next. And maintaining a steady pipeline of questions is the most tiresome job, especially when you don’t give a damn about what the person sitting opposite is saying.

So I have learnt that one must have a story idea or at least a ghost of a story idea before fixing up a meeting. Of course, the one time I actually had an idea the person I was meeting completely blew me off. The bugger thought that I had traveled to the other end of the neighboring town just to present my calling card to him and gaze fondly at his mouse-like face broken by looping untrimmed whiskers, sitting atop a shrunken shriveled frame. I clearly remember what he said—“I thought you just wanted to meet me. I didn’t know you were going to ask me questions about my business.” Of course.

So far, so bad. But I thought this is the only way to go about finding stories—at least on paper. So I was in for a shock during the weekly editorial meeting. The higher-up presiding over the meeting had already pummeled me a little for not enough about what was happening on my beat when he asked me how I went about hunting for stories. “By meeting people,” I replied confidently—at least I knew the answer to this one. “That’s not how one goes about finding stories,” thundered the higher-up. “You should follow up on current developments.”

I glared accusingly at the people sitting at the table who had advised me thus. But they continued to stare ahead with glassy expressions on their faces.

Apparently there is a third slightly more extreme approach. I was grumbling to a colleague about how difficult it was to get any kind of information from foreign banks. He told me to just write to them saying I had learnt that their bank was about to collapse or something to that effect and would they like to comment, failing which I would run the story anyway. “You will hear from them within the hour,” he assured me.

I don’t know which of the above approaches will work for me. It is possible that there is no concrete formula for seeking out stories—maybe it is just a matter of luck, persistence and streetsmartness. Only time and a few by-lines will tell.


musical associations

I recently read a blog post about how certain songs reminded the author about certain people, which struck a cord with me. Now I am far from a music aficionado and my taste in music has never been considered hip—not when I was fifteen and not now. But I do associate certain songs or certain artists with certain periods in my life.

The farthest back that I can remember is when I was in fourth grade. Cable TV had just started making inroads into middle class drawing rooms and we didn’t use to watch that much TV those days. Friday nights were however reserved for a weekly countdown show called Philips Top 10, which featured the top 10 Bollywood songs playing that week. I don’t think the producers went through the trouble of conducting an audience poll—it was just a random assortment of songs that they thought were popular. Barring a few which went on to become classics, most of the songs are long-forgotten, as are the movies which they featured in.

Then in seventh grade I came across a really nice album, ‘Yaadein’ by an obscure artist called Saurav. The music was sad, romantic in an old-world way and even a little cheesy, but as a kid just entering his teens, I took to it like a cat to a bowl of milk. I had just discovered that thwarted love or love lost is a much more interesting theme than madly-in-love, and that preference holds to this day. Saurav was just one in that long list of pop-stars who take out an album and are never to be heard of again. That was before the days of Google, so if you wanted to track a public figure there was only so much you can do in the manner of an enquiry. I saved his cassette for quite a few years and listened to it intermittently until the tape began to squeak. It disappeared after I moved out of my parents’ home and went off to college.  

Directly after Saurav, there was briefly fascinated by a pretty ordinary band called Aqua. Ours is a generation which has n’t been raised on radio and our only window Western pop was MTV and Channel V. Foreign music videos had only just begun to enter the Indian market. Along with heavyweights such as Michael Jackson and Backstreet Boys, any average band from the West which cared to make India a part of its marketing strategy was embraced by Indian youngsters. Case in point--the thoroughly annoying song by Aqua “I am a Barbie girl” was a resounding success.

As my taste in music further evolved, I took to Boy zone and subsequently Ronan Keating with an unnatural fervour. How was I to know that most of their best songs were covers. And I thought it was wise of them to stick to covers instead of churning out drivel like Backstreet Boys.

“When you say nothing at all” was our anthem in the tenth grade and we sang it lustily whenever there was no authority within earshot.

In eleventh grade I discovered All India Radio FM service and that was also when a lot of private FM radio stations were launching. Eleventh and twelfth grade is a singularly boring period in one’s student life since it entails staying at home immersed in textbooks for long stretches. One isn’t jaded enough to realize that all that swotting is going to get one nowhere and one still listens to a parent’s entreaties to study. I have FM to thank for making those dreary days a little more bearable. I was also introduced to the Carpenters and my affair with them continues till this day. “Top of the World” is the song I usually belt out on the rare occasions that I am pressed to sing. That, and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver.

When I left home and went to Pune to pursue a course in engineering, I was holed up in a depressing hostel building which was located at a sufficient distance from any place that a student would possibly be interested in going. My music collection consisted of a couple of CDs that I had hurriedly put together before going off to hostel. I listened to Jon Bon Jovi a lot in that year more out of compulsion than anything else. Thankfully Bon Jovi’s anthem--his shrill assertion that his life is in fact his life-- was not part of the CD. A friend presented me with a CD of John Denver since I had mentioned to him that I enjoyed country music, and I finally had music that I liked. I would lounge on my bed in my hostel, gazing out of the window at a wall of brown mountains in the distance and listen to Denver croon longingly about his picturesque little red-neck hometown.

If you have John Denver, Glen Campbell can’t be far away. I had heard his most famous “Rhinestone Cowboy” earlier, but I quickly learnt that that wasn’t his best song. I enjoy “Gently on my mind” more and I still listen to ‘True Grit’ when I need a pep talk. I also discovered Frank Sinatra and added ‘Strangers in the Night’ to the list of songs to be sung upon request.

In my final year of engineering college, I was hooked to Bob Dylan. My friend and I would pile into his beat-up  Jeep and go on long drives and, since neither of us are the chatty sorts, I would listen to Bob Dylan on my MP3 player. When I listen it to ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ it reminds me of that year—drives on Pune’s pot-holed roads, loads of free time, the imminent end to engineering.

I know this has turned into a tedious account of the evolution of my taste in music which is still quite undiscerning. The point, however, is the power of association--these songs remind me of particular periods in my life. I don’t even have to dig out old tracks and play old tracks. I just need to hum a verse and the memories come flooding back. And I have always been a sucker for nostalgia. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Which is your stop, sir?

I think people traveling by Mumbai local trains should have destination tags taped to the front of their shirts. Just like at business events, where they name tags. Of course, that arrangement is not prefect either because the name of the person is printed in bigger letters than the name of the organization. So, if you are a journalist who is looking to save business cards and avoid unnecessary small talk, you are left with no choice but to squint at people’s breasts awkwardly until you decide whether its worth your while to introduce yourself.
But returning to the point, people traveling in local trains should wear destination tags. If you are one of the daredevil types that hang from the door, you are exempted. But if you are one who gets on the train at one of the earlier stops and manages bag a seat, it is mandatory. I shall explain why. Standing commuters who want a seat generally crowd around seated commuters, ready to pounce on the first seat that falls vacant. Of course, given Indians love for forming queues, there is a queue which you can’t jump. So the first in the queue usually stands between two rows of facing seats. Now if this person knew that all the seated commuters were getting off at the last stop he wouldn’t be standing there between the seats with an expectant hang-dog expression on his face. He would give up hopes of finding a seat and stand in a more comfortable position. And the seated commuters would be spared the pleasure of having his crotch and butt in their faces. It’s a win-win for all concerned.
Now we wouldn’t have needed this system that badly if the commuter traffic obeyed the laws. Let me explain. There is a law that holds that the 8:58 local to Thane will empty at a station called Ghatkopar and all standees will get a seat. But commuter traffic doesn’t play by the rules always. So once you have passed Ghatkopar and non of the seated guys have got up, you are just standing there looking pathetic and willing those bastards to get up. It is not just that you are tired and at the end of a hard day--It is also a question of dashed hopes and broken rules. You have come to expect something which you are summarily denied.
So the solution to all this is for commuters to wear destination tags. Whats the alternative—surveying the seated commuters to ascertain where they are getting off? That’s so lame. And also think of all the unnecessary conversation that entails. So, in the interests of overall efficiency and commuter satisfaction, I propose that all local train commuters should be made to wear destination tags.

pass the parcel

Sometimes I wonder whether I am plain unlucky in terms of social situations that I find myself in. I have been characterized as a social retard, social idiot and a sociopath by different people depending on how pissed they were with me after I had a committed yet another faux pas. In my assessment, I am a blessed with a combination of social awkwardness, revulsion for small talk and a monumental disinterest in the day-to-day lives of most of the people I chance to meet in the course of my work—all in equal measure. In a previous post I ahd pointed out the anomaly of my character make-up and the profession of my choice, journalism. So it is to be expected that when my profession and my personality rub shoulders, there are plenty sparks.
My boss was invited for a social do by this uppity foreign bank and since he was definitely not going to fritter away a Saturday night at a PR event of a company whose payrolls he doesn’t figure on, the invite fell in my lap. I find any form of interaction taxing and when it is a ‘social, interaction—bereft of any direct professional objective or gain—I am naturally at my worst. But since I am endowed with an eternal zest for self-improvement, I bit my lip and strode forth to the event which had promised a spoof of Hamlet on the invite.
The moment I stepped into the hall my worst fears were validated. There was not a soul I knew except the CEO of the bank who looked right through me. So I went to men’s room with the intention of taking as much time. I splashed my face with water, took an inordinately long time over my hair but and hung around for as long as I could before the others took me for a freak. If I had been the only inhabitant of the loo, I would have never come out.
On emerging from the john, I scanned the crowd looking for another person with a haversack or any bag. If you are trying to seek out a journalist, a haversack is a dead giveaway. Who else would come to a social evening with a haversack slung over the shoulder except someone who had come straight from work and didn’t have a car to leave his bag in? I finally spotted a youthful chap but it turned out that he was the bartender coming in for his shift. I didn’t know what to make of the gathering. There were kids, spouses, girlfriends and of course they all seemed to know each other. I felt like I had trespassed on to the bank’s “for the spouse, kids and girlfriend/boy friend” party. There were caricature artists, tarot card readers and some other such trade-peddlers scattered around the hall—a up-market fun-fair if ever there was one.
After a frantic consultation with a friend through text-SMS (it also makes u look busy) I caught hold of some of these suit-clad obsequious young men who were ushering guests in. I told them I was a journalist and would appreciate it if they could introduce me to their some of their guests. Poor bastard, I think he didn’t know what to make of me, so he introduced me to the next, suit-clad obsequious usherer he caught sight of. And so began the ridiculous exercise of pass-the-parcel. I was tossed about from on usherer to another, with the turn-over time becoming increasingly short over between each pass until I landed up with a gent who belonged to a property consultant. He quickly introduced me to another gent from his own company and it was become increasingly clear that I had become a pariah, to be dropped like a hot potato. This next gent didn’t bother to introduce me to anyone else, choosing to just bail out on me. At least that put an end to the pass-the parcel game. I sneaked off to the bar and asked the bartender to fix me up a large. My frazzled nerves needed to be steadied and I took up position in a cozy corner of the room and began ‘nursing my drink.
I was fast approaching the agreeable stage of happy-high when the communications head of the bank showed up. My pitiful, lonely state must have rended her heart and she was quite kind. She apologized for forgetting to tell me to get someone along and I brushed aside her apology—I was too buzzed to be affected by such minor problems as not having anyone to talk to. But she bustled off, promising to be back and sure enough, she cam back with a very agreeable senior bloke from the bank. We struck up a conversation and it was already the longest conversation I had had that evening when the communications lady appeared with two other girls—a girl from the PR agency that represents the bank and her friend. Their brief was surely to not let me out of sight in case I killed myself out of the grief of loneliness because they stuck to me doggedly despite my attempts to shake them off. It is not that I didn’t want their company—I was buzzed enough to start a conversation with a chimpanzee—I just didn’t want them to be there against their will.
But when the hall opened for the play and they followed me as I slunk away to the far side of the hall, I decided they were my companions fro the evening.
The ‘spoof’ of Hamlet was an out-and-out stand-up comedy routine obviously inspired by the ‘scary movie’ tri-quels. It was funny in parts but the humour was pedestrian and not clever at all. It had all the trappings of a contemporary—audience interactions, responding to the audience—but overall, it was a very ordinary affair.
The play was bearable but when they decided to reenact the whole play in fast-forward and backwards even the previously appreciative audience became restive. They finally rounded off the play after threatening to reenact it ‘sideways’ but the evening of fun was not over just yet. Every such event has to have a bubbly annoying emcee and this one was no different. She made one of the characters reenact one of the scenes and insisted on playing after him. On another occasion, I would have marveled at her chutzpah but it time was getting on, I was hungry and I had long journey home ahead of me. The event ended after they had made the men in the audience give their women roses and I rushed off to the buffet table. I was eating my meal doubly quick and was just about done with my first round when my two companions materialized out of nowhere. The either found me damn good company or their brief was to stick to me until I exited the premises. We made casual conversation until I withdrew, with the excuse that I had along way to travel.
So, there it is—my first social do made bearable my two large shots of rum, a kindly corporate communications lady and two determined PR girls.