The Parivartan of club culture in Bengal

January 31st, 2013

While owning a car can be in the wishlist of most middle-class individuals, traveling in public transport comes with some sops too, especially if you are one of those loquacious creatures, who find observing silence for more than a minute at a stretch, quite discomforting.

In Kolkata, you will find many such human beings. These people are born to talk, spread their inexhaustible words of wisdom to the world, and chatter with absolute strangers for hours. I have been to Delhi and Mumbai, but by far, I feel Kolkata seems to have highest concentration of such verbose people.

Then, there are some organised forms of such chatterboxes, popularly known as Para Club (local clubs). When I was a kid, these entities didn’t seem to enjoy much respect among conservatives. They were perceived as a notorious lot, who engaged in Bomabazi (bombing the neighbourhood clubs), had some Dadas (or macho men) in the frontline, and were at their best during Durga Puja, for extorting donations, or what can be best expressed only with the word “Chanda”.

On the positive side, such clubs concatenated our old tradition of Durga Puja with the present times. Again, like the headmen of villages, they could be approached anytime, for even personal problems. So, be it a case of domestic violence or medical emergency or even a case of eve teasing, you had a whole troop of men in support of your cause. Probably this was the reason that Kolkata was seen as safe place for woman and elderly. Kolkata was unlike any other metro city, one of which had a reputation of nursing the most selfish, money-minded people, in the country. Now, that is not my personal opinion. I have grown up hearing this. Leave aside, the large number of Bengalis who have migrated to Delhi for a better life, and more money.

However, in the last decade, the Para culture seems to have changed a lot in Kolkata. Like in any other city, if someone has snatched your purse at night, there would be barely any help from strangers. Durga Puja is tinged with, rather soaked in commercialisation. There are enough corporate sponsors to fund lavish set-up. These days, to donate for Durga Puja, sometimes you need to walk up to the organisers.

Probably, with a motive to resuscitate the waning clubs of Kolkata, our chief minister Mamata Banerjee decided to give one lakh rupees to each of them. But then, how can money change the social matrix, the thinking, or reverse a societal change?  Probably, today’s youth is more interested in studying for some competitive exam at home, rather than engaging themselves in a heated discussion over politics. Our 24-hour news channels and some firebrand news presenters serve the later purpose well.

Moreover, over the years, clubs have become symbols of political outfits. Though they were always associated with one party or another, never before have they received such backing in the form of monetary help from the state government.

And all these thoughts stem from eavesdropping a casual conversation in a train, where a group of women had a good time mocking the policies of state, like  distributing funds to clubs when the government is literally out with a begging bowl for funds. Certainly, times have changed. Bengal finance is the topic discussion in the Chatter Box group like never before!

Sadly, the changed government has failed to see this change.

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Waiting for you, Mr President

June 20th, 2012

If Pranab Mukherjee becomes the 13th  President of India, there are more than 13 reasons to celebrate, for me personally, as well as a for  fraternity of journalists.

The trauma dates back to a sunny afternoon in June 2009, when monsoon rains were yet to hit the parched fields in the Bengal.

I, along with a group of journalists, were off to Jangipur, the winning constituency of Mukherjee, now a mall of financial services. Six hours of ride through rough roads, spotted with potholes, and adorned with posters of Mukherjee, marked the sojourn to Jangipur.

The next day, Mukherjee was to inaugurate branch of  a public sector bank. For those, who have never been to a bank branch inauguration ceremony, don’t be misled. It is a spectacle to see what it takes to inaugurate a bank branch.

At 45 degree Celsius temperature, the crowd that had gathered at a football ground to have a glimpse of Mukherjee, competed with the one I recently saw outside Eden Garden on the day of Kolkata vs Pune match, last IPL season.

The public sector bank had made elaborate arrangements for making the show a success.  A radio jockey  was invited  for  hosting the afternoon’s event. There were food packets stacked in one corner of the ground, but only to be distributed after the programme was over. Seats below sparingly placed fans, hanging precariously on the roof made of yellow and red stitched cloth, were all occupied.

As we were  seated on the front rows, two men were giving minute-to-minute update of FM’s en route to the site. A word to word translation meant this : “In ten minutes, the symbol of development, our most respected, most beloved, Pranab da, finance minister of India will be here. Yes here, right here.”

Mukherjee’s arrival was delayed for more than half hour now. As the crowd was getting a little impatient in the heat, the RJ took over the stage.

“So how will you greet the FM? Will you all whistle and cheer when he comes?,” she asked.

Immediately, the euphoria was back, as if people were imbibed with a high dose of glucose.

Finally, the moment came. Everyone looked up, as the sight of a helicopter was more than a delight for many.
Alas, along with the executive director and chairman of the bank, Pranab da was here. Some on the stage were in black suits and tie, as I wondered about their heat-endurance level. Later, I came to know, the stage was air-conditioned.

FM came, praised the bank and left.

As the FM left, I could see an almost riot like situation in one corner of the stage.  An angry mob was  ready to take on the Police, as they had not got food packets.

By then, FM and the two bankers were comfortably seated in the helicopter, as they left a smoke of dust in the air.

Some stray lines in FM s speech on how Indian banks had endured since the era of Indira Gandhi made the story. Next was the hunt for Internet. Finally, the sent button clicked, and it was over. Sigh!

A horribly tiring day has come to an end.

Back home at a 1 AM, I took a pledge to never go Jangipur again.

The optimism was short lived. By next week, another PSU had sent an invitation for a bank branch inauguration at Jangipur.

Ever since then, several times, I have been to Jangipur.

Hopefully, I never will not go Jangipur again.

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Keep walking!

April 25th, 2012

The other day, while I was walking up to my office, I could sense there a queue of two or three cars behind me, blaring their way to glory. Obviously, I was the culprit. With my earphone plugged, I could hardly hear the impatient drivers trying their best to get a singular and straightforward message through to me: Get out of the way!

Okay, okay, so I was at fault. After all, listening to music while walking is not a very good idea, especially on Indian roads. Yet, the other day, when these cars were honking their minds out, I had very little option, with or without my headphones in use. There was hardly any space for me to move, as I was on a rather narrow lane. So what did the car drivers expect me to do? Vanish or melt in the April heat?

To give way to a moving vehicle on a road is such a standard norm, that we hardly bother to ask ourselves whether we have certain rights as citizens of a democratic society, or as pedestrians in cities with well-defined traffic laws. I wonder whether there is any book that dwells on the rights and duties of pedestrian living in civil societies.

In fact, there does exist an International Federation of Pedestrians, which seeks to promote and defend the pedestrian’s right to full access and mobility. The organisation, which represents the interests of the pedestrians, particularly the elderly and children, has an Indian arm as well. But sadly, its website hardly impressive and is almost as sorry as the plight of pedestrians on our country.

It is not that there had been no efforts to identify the rights of pedestrians in India. Around 2006 there were some efforts to by the Delhi government to ensure their safe transit passage by introducing push-button on crossings. In Pune too there had been some talk about giving some decent walkways to them.

However, I do not know if Indian cities actually have push-button in place. It will probably a pipedream or luxury for the next ten years at least. As a matter of fact, traffic signals on crossings in most Indian cities are not even equipped with timers. So, if you happen to be in the middle of the road and the signal turns red, there is a very slim chance that the racing vehicles will stop for you, as you sprint your way out of the traffic.

We could probably have more peaceful cities if people honked less and showed a little more respect for pedestrians. That doesn’t seem to be happening, so till then, just keep on walking!

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Entertainment unlimited in Bengal

January 24th, 2012

In Bengal, the word Poriborton (change) is now a cliché.

Till about some eight months ago, one could spot absolute strangers in buses, trains, metro rail and neighborhood street tea shop, suddenly entangled  on a serious political discourse on Mamata vs Buddha. If compiled in a book, the scholarly discussions would make a good research paper for sure.

These days, such erudite Adda sessions are missing. Just to tell readers a few lines of Adda: these are notorious  gossip sessions, often attributed for Kolkata being home to a “work shy population”. May be  Didi is subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility or may be, the pro-Poribortonists know they won’t draw any attention of peer group in cribbing about the thirty four years of communist Bengal.

There is no sense of disappointment either. The public memory is too short to remember the London promises for Kolkata. Yet, Didi knows what it takes make front page picture, most of the time effortlessly. More importantly, she knows how to make people laugh. Little wonder, Didi is a hit in youtube with her unique speech at the Bengal Leads summit. If the diplomats were taken aback by her affable style of conversation cutting all protocols, industrialist were astound to hear Didi calling Sanjay Bhudia, Managing Director, Patton Tanks as “Mr Patton”.

“Mr Jindal is here? You have some land problem? Government, they cooperate with you or not? Fully we cooperate,” was for Sajjan Jindal, chairman-cum-managing director of JSW Steel.

To everyones amusement, the East Georgia and Calcutta University educated chief minister was heard saying, “Bangladesh is on the border of Pakistan.”

She comes out with her best in open-air forums in districts. At the inauguration of book fair, addressing a motley crowd of
representatives of different countries she asked everyone to consider “Bengal as their neighbouring state.”

India has no dearth of entertaining politicians, but it seems Didi is here to give tough competition to Bihar’s Laloo Prasad Yadav. More importantly, Bengal is yet to get London roads, but there is no dearth of entertainment for people in Bengal as long as Didi is here.

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Who is this Youth?

December 15th, 2011

I often wonder, what is this entity called “Youth”?

From whatever little I gather, I come to the conclusion that to be a Youth, one must have some qualities, likes and  dislikes.

The Youth must be hooked to Internet, at least 17 hours a day, the Youth must “work hard, party harder,” the Youth must use Blackberry for Facebook and Twitter updates, the Youth must be an anti-corruption crusader and support candlelight vigils on occasions of national calamity or terrorist attack. The Youth also loves to party, get sloshed and splurge in New Year and Christmas. And  of course, the brand-conscious youth likes wearing Khadi, occasionally though. For general information, the Youth buys an apartment at the age of 28, and a car at the age of 31, and in most often an IT professional. And obviously, the Youth likes Kolaveri Di.

Now the dislikes. The Youth will never ever — and that is an absolute NO NO — watch television soaps (wonder where the channels get their TRPs from). The Youth must dislike spending time with those pestering  relatives who come with a new marriage proposal everyday, and Youth must not excessively enjoy visiting places of religious interest.

Now that I know what it takes to be a Youth, I see, Internet also provides a list of Youth icons. Narain Karthikeyan, Rahul Gandhi, Sania Mirza, M S Dhoni, Priyanaka Chopra are Youth icons. Several years ago, even Anil Ambani, Shahrukh Khan and once even good old Orkut, managed to be Youth icons at one popular television channel.

No doubt, these people are achievers in their respective fields, but do a majority of young people in India really connect with these so-called ‘icons’?

How does the young man, somewhere in his mid-20s, selling Jhal Muri (for those who don’t know, it is one of the most popular street foods in Bengal, and someone told me the English version is dried fried rice with onion and chilly) at the bus-stand  relate with Narain Karthikeyan and or Anil Ambani? Does the teenage kid selling potato chips, who is as mature in counting money as a cashier in a big retail chain, endorse  Rahul Gandhi as his icon?

And what about those youngsters in rural areas who travel long distance for study or work and use  decade-old computers at cyber cafe, instead of Blackberry, to mark their presence in the world of internet? What about  those teenage girls and boys who get married right at the age of 18 or less, who, don’t understand the lyrics of Kolaveri Di? (Most of us don’t understand the lyrics I guess).

Google tells me that only 8.4 per cent of the population in India uses Internet. So why is it that we are so biased towards this handful of young people in  portraying an imaginary consumerism-driven  construct of Youth?

May be like, Financial Inclusion drive, we need one Youth Inclusion drive in India!

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And I witnessed history

October 19th, 2011

Last month, soon after a visit to the Liberty and Twin Tower Memorial, I was having my favourite flat bread sandwich at Subway with Pakistani and Argentine journalists, when a sudden march of more than a dozen New York policemen and women, gigantic by all standards, turned everyone’s head.

The scene resembled some typical Bollywood flick where policemen in disguise of buying a sandwich were on the look out for a possible convict who had just managed to dig a tunnel and slip out of the jail.

Outside, right at the heart of America’s financial district in Manhattan, young American Turks were shouting anti-establishment slogans. It was anyone’s guess that the Police had come to look for some protester, rather than a bite of Subway salad that afternoon.

It was September 17th, the day, the Occupy Wall Street Movement had started. That day I read the protests as nothing more than ruckus by bunch of college kids, throwing tantrums on rich parents on a Sunday afternoon.

Now, when I see those scary images of riots on local television channels in India, I realise, I witnessed history.

Back at Manhattan, The New York Stock Exchange Building that day was as silent as the Calcutta Stock Exchange (a regional stock exchange in India, dysfunctional over the last decade), encircled by half mast American flags, due to the commemoration week of the 10th anniversary of 911 attacks. The Wall Street Bull was bearish with Police escorts on all sides.

Just a day before, as a spectator at the New York Times morning edit meet, I remember one of the stories being pitched for the front page was the beginning of an era of democratic protests, with Anna Hazare in India as one of the examples. However, the story had no mention of protests in the biggest democracy, the United States of America. At that time, (only about four weeks ago), the protesters were seen as a group without leadership, fascinated by the revolt in Egypt, deserving no comparison with the Tea Party movement.

“Inspired by the peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, tonight we are are coming together in Times Square to show the world that the power of the people is an unstoppable force of global change. Today, we are fighting back against the dictators of our country - the Wall Street banks - and we are winning,” said Linnea Palmer Paton, 23, a student at New York University. (This is from the Occupy Wall Street website press release).

About fifteen days later after my New York trip, I was in Chicago. At a strategic location between the Chicago Federal Reserve Office and the Chicago Board of Trade, I saw similar protests, although with more caustic slogans. “Say Goodbye to US$”, and “Free Market, my A$$” and Hitler’s bankers - Wall Street” had replaced “Wall Street is destroying America”, and “people over profit”.

By then, these Young Turks were in the Wall Street Journal, if not in Wall Street, and Tahrir Square was relegated to the inside pages of most American newspapers.

But, inside Chicago Mercantile Exchange, it was a different world. It is one of the few exchanges where open outcry still is in vogue. Behind the chaos of screaming brokers and the red and green flash lights of price movements, and paper bits scattered all over the floor, some of biggest trades of the day in Soya and Corn were going on in perfect harmony.

Again a few weeks later I was back at Minnesota on the last leg of my fellowship and I heard protests in this pristine city of the Midwest.

Now, back in India, I hear what started as( what I thought ) as tantrums by errant kids, has spread to Europe and Asia. From London to Rome, there are scenes of violent protests.

So my Subway sandwich was indeed historic!

Let’s see what’s in store for India. Occupy Dalal Street or Mint Road?

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