Archive for August, 2009

Green shoots? I wonder…

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 August 26th, 2009 Joydeep Ghosh

While the sharp upward movement in the stock markets would indicate that the worst is over, the numbers are not too convincing.
Analysts are clear in their view that better corporate numbers worldwide are more a function of reduced costs, rather than better performance.
As far as India goes, already drought has hit the country pretty badly. Consequently, agricultural production and gross domestic product will be hit. This means higher food prices, higher inflation, and ultimately, higher interest rates.
Worse still, a bad season means reduced purchasing power of rural India. Though the Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has expanded the scope of NREGA, it will at best ensure that the poor do not die because of lack of food.
So the lack of demand will continue to hit companies, which are dependent on rural India, to generate revenues.
In other words, salaries are not going to improve in a hurry cramping the working middle or upper middle class’s ability to make big buying decisions.
While builders are aggressively building and touting ‘affordable’ homes, the definition of affordability has changed – a flat costing Rs 25-40 lakh flat may sound affordable to many, especially after the heady days of Rs 1 crore flats even at the suburbs (well, it’s still like that in many places).
But going by a simple thumb rule, here are some interesting numbers. To get a loan of say Rs 30 lakh for 20 years, a person needs to have take-home salary of around Rs 60,000 – 80,000 per month – a gross salary of Rs 7-10 lakh.
I wonder how many people would be willing to risk this unless the deal is really good.
Also, while the job market is improving, it’s still not a free-for-all (no hiring to just have the numbers). Importantly, salary hikes are much more conservative, if at all. Buying a car or a second car will also be a tough decision.
Signals from the world economy are not great either. The US, in spite of some decent numbers, does not seem to be out of the woods. And China’s growth, many feel, is a bubble.
Not quite a bright picture. Of course, markets might turn around much before that. But it will be more liquidity driven and less due to economic fundamentals.

To me, it will be a while (perhaps more than a while) before things really turnaround. Till then, well, life goes on.

In Memory of Shezan

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 August 25th, 2009 Praveen Bose

It’s been ten days. And, I still can’t get over the fact that the restaurant next door is no more. The floor where the restaurant operated is now just an empty, blank space.

The exorbitant rent was too much for the operator to swallow. The land-lord had been trying to evict the restaurant operator for over an year, and where he did not succeed, the market forces did.

While, earlier, many of the staff working in some of the firms in the neighbourhood would order something to be delivered in their offices, the downturn and the salary cuts had an indirect impact on the business of Shezan. A plain case of the trickle down effect. Here, it was a trickling down of the impact of the salary cuts.

Shezan had been seeing a steady fall in the number of people coming for dine-ins ever since the global slowdown began. When many businesses in and around the restaurant began to down their shutters, the signs looked ominous. But, Shezan seemed to weather the slowdown with dignity if you went by the number of orders they were receiving for food to be delivered.

The restaurant operator (he was a contemporary of mine in college) had once lamented to me, “Now the orders of of much lesser value. It end up making the same efforts to deliver it, but make much lesser money.”
While, a couple of  months ago, a high-end Italian restaurant went down, Shezan seemed to be able to keep its head above water. Alas, while the news reports of the slowdown easing trickles in, the result has not been a proportional trickling down of the wealth creation, if any.
The real estate slump too had a huge impact. Many of the regulars to Shezan were those who made money in the real estate boom. The real estate bust has had a major impact on its revenues.

Bravo! I say to the landlord who managed to speed up the demise of a restaurant. Perhaps it was “mercy killing”.

Well and truly lost

Monday, August 24th, 2009 August 24th, 2009 Pablo ChaterjiPablo Chaterji

It almost embarrasses me to admit it, but for a fellow who spends most of his time travelling (for a living, no less), I’m rather directionally challenged. Just to give
you a small example, I have been living in the Bombay suburb of Bandra for over two years now, and I still don’t know my way around it properly, apart from a couple of routes to and from the office. It doesn’t help that much of Bandra is still a maze of old-world lanes and alleys, but surely someone who’s driven thousands of kilometres all over the country should have at least a passing familiarity with his own neighbourhood? Not in my case, it would appear; I am usually to be found with a blank expression on my face if someone asks me for directions within Bandra.
This regrettable state of affairs extends itself well beyond the boundaries of Bombay. I normally pick up a car in Delhi whenever I’m driving around up north, and I always have a few nervous moments the night before I’m to leave Delhi – you see, getting out of that damn city has never been an easy task for me. The family I stay with there has a chauffeur, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to ask him for detailed directions about how to exit Delhi. His standard response is ‘But didn’t I tell you the last time you were here?’, to which I can do no more than grin sheepishly and beg his indulgence once again. Of course, the fact that I often end up getting hopelessly lost despite his advice is another matter. Entering the city provides just as many opportunities for losing my way – I once ended up crossing the Yamuna Bridge four times without realising quite what I was doing. On another memorable occasion, I drove almost all the way to Meerut, when my goal was to head in exactly the opposite direction. I feel, however, that I’m not entirely to blame as far as Delhi is concerned – I find the number of roundabouts and multi-directional flyovers in that city maddeningly difficult to decipher.
I must also admit that I’m a bit paranoid about routes when I’m out on the open road (it’s a Virgo trait, even though I’m a Leo by birth – long story). If I don’t see a distance marker or board for a while, I start to wonder if I’m on the right track and feel an urgent need to stop immediately and ask the nearest person. Of course, this can have its drawbacks. If I’m told I’m headed the right way, but the person looks of dubious navigational ability, then my worries deepen; if I’m laughed at and told I’m miles off the track, then of course I feel a right idiot. Not that passers-by are always piercingly accurate when doling out route advice, mind. Up north, the way to anywhere is frequently ‘Go straight and take a right’, often accentuated by pointing left. Is it any wonder I’m paranoid?
This is why I like living in Bombay, despite my being at a loss about my immediate surroundings. Of all the major cities in India, it’s the easiest to exit and enter; to the best of my knowledge, there are only four roads in and out of the city, and they’re all ‘straight down’ – no lefts, rights, circles and wildly-divergent flyovers to worry about. I’ve already mentioned Delhi’s peculiarities; Calcutta, Madras and Bangalore can be equally confusing in their own unique ways. Still, having said all this, it’s equally true that getting lost is often
more fun than being on the right road all the time. A great number of my most cherished adventures have been the result of taking a right instead of a left, and that’s something I wouldn’t change for all the world.

Theatre Calling

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009 August 22nd, 2009 Abhilasha OjhaAbhilasha Ojha

Confession time: I didn’t want to come back to work after a two-week break. Did I head to an exotic destination? No. Did I manage to get all the house work done? No. In fact, my home needs a LOT of attention right now. Did I just chill? Yes and no.

I joined a theatre workshop for two weeks and kept up my grueling schedule much to the disappointment of my parents. My father was ecstatic when I told him that I was taking a two-week break and not going out of the city. “Great, so you’ll stay with us for some time?” When I informed him that the leave was actually for a 10-day theatre workshop (1.30-5.30 pm everyday) he didn’t say much.

I come from a family where, despite all the good intentions perhaps, my parents never encouraged me, beyond a point, to pursue creative activities. They were aware of my interests in singing, dancing, acting and writing but just didn’t have enough exposure themselves to tap various avenues to nurture my talent. As long as I was singing to relatives and participating in school competitions, it was okay. But a ‘career’ in singing was a firm NO. She might disagree today but I remember my mum actually stating that my horoscope clearly mentioned that a career in singing would result in “an enemy murdering me”. And, trust me, even though I laugh at the thought now, at that time – I was 13 years old — it was a scary feeling. So, if they didn’t want me to go to Mumbai (Bombay in those days) for college, I argued meekly but never fought back. If they said, singing and dancing is good as a hobby but no, you can’t think of it as a career, I thought they knew what was best for me. If they patted my back in front of others and said, “She’s a good girl. She always listens,” I was happy and content. In that sense, I lacked the drive to pursue my own dreams. I was scared of going against them.

A lot of people in the entertainment industry with whom I speak to today (in the line of duty) share similar stories, tell me about times they were regarded as outcasts, how parents always screamed and shouted at their “wastrel son” or the “stupid daughter who thinks she can be a star”. I remember speaking to actor Deepak Dobriyal and asking him if those times, those taunts, those accusations hurt? “Of course, I was very upset then. But I knew my goal very well.”

And that’s where I faltered completely. I never had any risk-taking abilities (I don’t, even today) and back in college days, instead of going to the music society (which, in my college, was also riddled with politics back then) I wanted to catch films, share all sorts of gossip and coffee with my friends. Today, I do regret wasting all that time in college. I had a fixed pocket money of Rs 1,000 in college days (this had to include my sojourns with friends, money to board buses and buy books) and silly as it sounds, it never occurred that I could ask my dad to give me more money to attend plays and concerts, stuff that I used to secretly circle in newspapers promising to watch all of those when I would start earning myself. For the record, summer job was another strict NO for me.

Anyway, the theatre workshop that I’d attended recently brought back a flood of memories of my childhood days, my earliest dreams and ambitions, the confidence with which I used to get up, look my teachers in the eye and say, “Ma’am, I want to be a singer when I grow up.”

The workshop, hosted by Actor Factor (a Delhi-based theatre company) and conducted by Shelli Koffman had a mixed age group (15 and above). Needless to say, I was the oldest in the batch and every time I walked into the hall where the sessions were being held, I gaped at the confidence of youngsters and their desire to do a summer job and use the money to enroll themselves in the workshop. I was amazed at parents who would walk into the hall and sit silently, observing their children, enquiring from them if they liked the activity. I felt secretly happy when 14-year-old Vani, a girl from DPS mentioned that her parents, having observed her at a school play, thought she was inclined towards acting and promptly got her to the workshop. It felt good to look at kids making mistakes at the final production on stage and still finding the confidence to look at the audience and laugh. As for myself; it simply felt good to be on stage after all these years.

I had a fun-filled and an enriching time at the workshop. For the past 10 days, my life has revolved around theatre and creative activities that I’ve always loved but never knew where to begin. For the past 10 days I’ve been a youngster all over again. Only this time, I was far more confident, happier and far more content.

PS: This post was written two months ago. Right now, I’m a part of an advanced acting workshop and working towards a production — 6 pm to 10 pm every day — and we’ve finalised a folktale from Bihar, just in case you’re interested in the details.

Clichéd as it may sound, it’s never too late to pursue your dreams despite your job, your home and other commitments. Ask yourself, is there any activity that you want to take up despite your hectic schedule? Share it with us on the blog.

Big fight at the Press Club

Friday, August 21st, 2009 August 21st, 2009 Aditi PhadnisAditi Phadnis

The Press Club of India (PCI), Delhi is one of the most democratic places on earth. Sure, as with all enterprises run by journalists, this one too tends to get mired in verbiage, fruitless mudslinging (frequently using facts that are incorrect) and name-dropping. It also runs - God know how.  And having finished their work, when journalists come here, they tend to attack the bar, leading to some piquant situations where alcohol plays a big role in the outcome.

The PCI is democratic because since its inception, it is a place where women can walk in drink or not drink, without the risk that some kind of value judgment will made on them. During the Emergency PCI was the place where newspersons would hang out asking each other how their day was.

But the daily humdrum of PCI is extremely entertaining. Once, while watching the fruitless efforts of a colleague to flag down a waiter, a British journalist commented sympathetically: “yes, I know, it is difficult to tell the waiters from the journalists”.

Last week a famous Bangladeshi singer was invited to PCI. Every Bengali who follows culture has heard of her. So it was a philistine who introduced her: “And now, Ms Lisa Mohammad will sing a song”, mispronouncing her name.

Sacrilege! But the audience bore it and after Ms Ahmad had corrected the journalist for getting her name wrong, she began singing.

The songs were beautiful enough to bring tears to the eyes of some. When the concert came to an end, she said her last song would be a piece of Rabindra Sangeet Bengalis revere: the national anthem of Bangladesh ‘Amar Sonar Bangla, Aami tomake bhalo bashi’. Everyone stood up, except four persons who were sitting in the front row. They continued to sit.

The song ended. The singer bowed low and folded her hand. Suddenly there was a loud comment in the midst of the applause. It was a term of abuse in Hindi that begins with a B.

The golden moment was broken. The singer did not know who the abuse was meant for. Others craned their necks to see who had made it. Those who were sitting got up to beat up the person who was abusing them. “Who said that” one of them asked. One journalist bounded up in front and shouted: “I said it, and I will say it again. You were sitting when the national anthem was playing. I will fix you.”

A crowd gathered as a fistfight started. The singer was paralysed and the security staff whisked her away. A sublime evening dissolved into a brawl. But then that’s journalists for you!

Spaced out

Thursday, August 13th, 2009 August 13th, 2009 Rrishi Raote

Crowded and bedraggled as it is, there’s something uncommonly pleasing about Darjeeling. Having spent a few days there recently, I was able to meditate on how beautiful views and cool weather offer ample compensation for narrow, slippery walkways, running drains, taps running dry, and damp and poky accommodation.

Being a condemned Delhiite, my thoughts turned inevitably to the home city. Here in central Delhi are umpteen ministries housed in awful Socialist-style blocks, crammed full of peons and paper and divided up into a warren of cubbyholes and passages — while outside is the open sweep of the so-called Central Vista. No wonder you see lower-rung civil servants taking extended lunch breaks on the grass. Is it possible that this cramped architectural perspective has some relationship with the cramped policy thinking that came out of these edifices?

Newer government buildings to house new or newly expansionist ministries and departments, however, offer a different paradigm. These state-funded monoliths can afford to have what no privately developed office building can: plenty of space, both within (i.e., broad corridors and chambers) and without (i.e., lawns, which furnish the necessary setback for the appreciation, from the citizens’ street level, of the vertical acres of tinted glass and imperial pink sandstone). They also start with the paper-limiting advantages of computerisation. Could it be that this lavish gift of space will contribute to a slight opening up, a greater responsiveness, in official thinking?

(To give one small example, when the post office once housed in the generously proportioned Eastern Court on Janpath was shifted to a cramped and dingy single room opening onto the unlovable middle lane of Connaught Place, the friendliness and helpfulness of its workers — the employees moved with their office — took a palpable dip.)

The new defence buildings — administrative offices, officers’ clubs, hospitals, research headquarters — offer by far the most promising prospect. There, the tradition of “the commanding officer has the last word” is an asset, because, paradoxically in a military setting, it preserves the potential for an individual’s ideas to have a visible effect on the final outcome. That element of quirkiness, sometimes even downright bad taste, is actually rather attractive in a government building.

Of course the military has always had spacious institutional quarters — like the cantonments. But now, for the first time in a long time, it is building itself significant new space. Concomitantly, there’s a hint that there’s some new thinking also going on — slowly, painfully and creakily, of course. Is it possible that the two go together?

Behind The Mask

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009 August 11th, 2009 Praveen Bose

Its mask, mask everywhere. A friend on a visit to a top hospital waiting in the OPD for seeing the doctor for the mandatory check-up called me up, speaking in a voice that reflected fear and frustration: “This place is so crowded, what if someone has the swine flu. An, I am kept waiting here for so long. I could definitely contract something.”

The crowding in hospitals is no longer a strange phenomena. No matter how many hospitals, the much of the general population remains underserved or untouched by good quality healthcare.
The media is doing quite a bit, it seems, in building the fear psychosis about swine flu. And, it may not be long before we may stop going out. Or, even being ‘open’.

I am reminded of the advice that my parents had given me when in school. “Do not talk to strangers.” Now, it must be “don’t breathe when near strangers.”

I was in for a surprise yesterday. I had been to the friendly neighbourhood pharmacy. The pharmacist, Rakesh, and his helps, i.e. 1 + 3 were all wearing the now popular green surgical mask. No sure how to react at the sight, I broke into a laughter. But, the four of them didn’t seem to be amused.

Rakesh said in a stern voice. “I don’t know what is breathed out by the people who come for medicines nowadays. I have to take care or I will contract the germs they may harbour and give it to everyone in the family. So, I better be safe than sorry.”

He didn’t stop at the explanation though. “Please buy one of these masks. It is only Rs 10. You go out, and use public transport. It is absolutely necessary for you.” That’s some businessman. I still remain a non-believer. The next time he may convince me if I step into the pharmacy.

And, perhaps the next time one walks into a hospital you may have to walk in with a surgical mask to ensure your immunity is not overpowered by some powerful enough disease-causing germs. I hope the next time my friend walks into a hospital, she may be advised to buy a mask from the hospital’s pharmacy.

Jordan is the GOAT

Saturday, August 8th, 2009 August 8th, 2009 Aabhas Sharma

Sports fans across the globe have always had this obsession to argue over who’s the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). Hours are spent debating, dissecting the stats, the overall contribution and all the other nitty gritties that contribute to the making of a legend, a word, in my opinion, thrown around extremely loosely these days. The usual suspects in these debates and arguments are Muhammad Ali, Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods, Diego Maradona, Sir Don Bradman, Roger Federer, Jesse Owens and Michael Jordan.

It’s almost impossible to pick from these pantheon of greats, and very often, it depends on your own perspective of looking at the extraordinary achievements of these great men. Of course, your primary list could look different if you thought Borg was the ultimate tennis player of all time or Pele’s achievements dwarf those of Maradona’s. But more or less these are the names that are bandied around.

There’s a very thin line that separates the greats from the greatest. With no disrespect to any of these great men, in my personal opinion, Michael Jordan sits on a pedestal which any of these men could easily occupy yet they fall short.

Jordan was special, in fact he was more than special. He was unique, a phenomena who lorded over the sport like no one else. He was so good that even God had no choice but to call him God. One might just turn around and say the same about an Ali or Woods. But what separates him from these two is the ability to deliver when it mattered the most.

June 14, 1998 seems like a long time back, and as a basketball fan it seems like eternity. Yet the images of that day, and that shot remain crystal clear. A point down, 18 seconds to go, Jordan with the ball in his hand, made a charge in the Jazz’s half. All eyes on him, he has a sighter and with 5.2 seconds to go he makes the shot and sinks it in. It had to go in, there was no way he was ever going to miss it. A million hearts must have skipped a beat when the ball was air borne for a couple of seconds, but no one was ever in doubt with the outcome. After all it was Jordan, who took the shot, a man who was destined for greatness very early in his age.

The ability to deliver when it mattered the most, in my opinion, is what separates Jordan from the rest. It’s not as if Schumacher didn’t do it. Tiger Woods has a fantastic record at the Masters’ and winning titles from a point where no one gave him a chance. But throughout his career, when his team wanted it the most, Jordan was there. There hasn’t been a single athlete who was so dominant in it’s team fortunes. Of course, people can cite the example of Maradona in the 1986 World Cup. But for all his brilliance, Maradona was always a flawed genius and often went missing in games. Jordan never did. The bigger the occasion, the more he thrived. As his team-mate Scottie Pippen once said, “When we didn’t know what to do, we just passed the ball to Michael.” And he delivered every single time, yes, every single time, when it was a moment to be stood up and counted, Jordan was there. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, could easily have been coined keeping him in mind.

Not many people remember that before sinking that shot against Utah, Jordan had missed five straight shots. He had the courage and the self belief to back him against any opponent in any situation, an ability which only the best of the best possess. Even if the Bulls were trailing by 20 points into the fourth quarter, you always got the feeling that they could turn it around as long as Jordan was around. He knew, his team-mates knew it, the opposition knew it, the fans knew it, hell even people in another galaxy knew it! What was often termed extraordinary for others was just another day at the office for Jordan. You couldn’t help but shake your head in disbelief at some of the stuff he pulled off on the court.

He dominated the sport like on else has ever done, and I don’t mean just basketball. Pick up any sport and it will be hard to find an equivalent of Jordan. A lot of people might come close, especially the great names mentioned earlier in this post. But there was no like him and it’s unlikely to see him getting dethroned from his pedestal for a long time to come. Even his reincarnated avatar might find it difficult to do so, he was that good. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Some see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” Jordan not only asked but probably redefined them as well.