Archive for February, 2011

Swearing out loud

Monday, February 21st, 2011 February 21st, 2011 Sunaina Vasudev

This is a naïve piece of writing based on a concept which today signifies naiveté, honour and the significance of an oath of honour.

I am told that on submitting an application for a US passport you have to swear that the documents and information submitted is true to the best of your knowledge. The exercise has a powerful effect on a conscientious person and although you know the documents will be verified inspite of the oath, the act is inspiring. The importance given to a person’s word of honour underlines the respect for the individual that is enshrined in the country’s Constitution.

Most oaths including the one taken by defence officers on commissioning and doctors definitely instill the significance of the moment from what I am given to understand, the solemn moment in the celebratory environment.

So it is surprising that I haven’t come across the necessity of a similar oath in India. We would take a pledge of loyalty to the country in school but have never had the occasion for one post that. Our pledge in school although mundane on a day to day basis, on occasion (Independence Day and Republic Day) touched an emotional chord.

In contrast, the application for a passport, the symbol of my citizenship, was a daylong painful experience the first time around and although the renewal was much more efficient, it was all business. This is all the more unusual for a country that likes to wear its nationalism on its sleeve or its movie tickets (the national anthem sung before a movie is a major bugbear with me and I can’t understand why on a Saturday night I need to project my national pride before watching a Bollywood potboiler!!!).

Is it a systemic lack of respect for the Individual citizen which leads to limited significance for his word of honour? Or is it because we have seen the oaths administered to our elected representatives and the executive machinery being so frivolously treated by them that we have lost belief in the word of honour being significant? The Prime Minister has also further diluted the significance of the oath of honour to serve in the best interest of the country by ducking under the umbrella of coalition politics.

In all the brouhaha the corruption charges generated with major coverage on how much money was wasted and lost, there is limited focus on the honour aspect. The lines are blurred as when a minister is corrupt he does sell his honour so when we investigate and jail such a person, the crime of corruption also incorporates honour to an extent. But, it has to go the length of a criminal investigation for the person to fall from grace. The aspersion cast on his character and honour are just side-plays to the criminal aspect. There was a time when the aspersion would have been enough for the person to resign from public life and active politics.

So is honour then an old-fashioned concept? Or has the low emphasis on the word of honour of the regular citizen set the stage for an erosion in its significance for public personas as well? Is this a healthy development in a young democracy? Is this what our children will imbibe?

How naïve, childish and immature is this piece?

Untrained cubs and gaffes

Friday, February 18th, 2011 February 18th, 2011 Kalpana PathakKalpana Pathak

An interesting conversation took place with an old friend last week. Lets call him Mr X.

So Mr X asked me if I had noticed the increase in correction(s) newspapers carry these days and the mistakes they make.

I honestly had no clue. I did notice the corrections (I guess, almost every day) but never paid attention to their increasing numbers.

He said on some days there are more than two corrections–beginning from the front page, of course.

Mr X has spent a good 25 years in journalism and is a consulting editor with various publications. So when he tells me something, I sit up and notice.

I asked him what the reason could be. He said, lack of training.

According to him, most journalism school passouts are recruited and assigned beats. They are never trained, because the senior reporters/ editors are too busy doing other things. “So if you are not taught how to know your subject, how will you ask the right questions?” he asked.

I agreed and remembered an earlier discussion with another senior journalist. Lets call her Ms Y.

So Ms Y is one of the best corporate reporters I have ever known. She told me how her Resident Editor would have hourly morning training sessions with cub reporters (including her) during which they would discuss the day’s news developments and understand the same. This made her understand and report on any sector, confidently.

Honestly, I have never heard of such training before in a newspaper organisation. And the best thing is, she practices the same with cub reporters in her organisation.

I wonder, if companies can put new recruits on a year’s training, why can’t media organisations put their reporters or desk on training? They recruit reporters as trainees but ask them to fend for themselves.

So how do you make a reporter understand that when covering a murder case, a constable cannot be a reliable source! That the clerk in a certain university department cannot tell you much beyond his profile.

Media organisations think journalism schools should have taught us this. And journalism schools think the students will learn it all on the job!

A few days ago I knocked my boss’ door to discuss a story. An otherwise patient gentleman, he snapped at me saying he had been trying to email someone for the last 30 minutes and was not able to do so. My boss had just finished advising a colleague on her story.

I reminded him that since my immediate boss was on a sabbatical, he was the only one I could discuss the idea with. He gave me a patient hearing, as always.

This made me think, if after putting in over five years in journalism, I still need guidance and advice for my stories, how clueless would a cub reporter be?

But what about the mistakes senior reporters make?

An editor of a weekly magazine says many are in such a hurry to finish their stories, that checking facts takes a back seat.

So Mr X’s logic of training does hold a lot of water. Because the seniors were also cub reporters at one point of time.

High on decibel, low on substance

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 February 16th, 2011 Shibangi DasShibangi Das

Just when you thought certain cliched catchphrases had made their way out of our daily-speak, situations make them apt like never before.

In this instance, it was at a press conference where one of the world’s biggest IT companies, and one of India’s leading IT education providers announced a tie-up to help improve IT employability among Indian youth. When asked why the partners chose each other for this particular venture, they replied they have had several fruitful relationships with each other in the past and considering their leadership in their respective markets, they were the best choice for each other. Great!

So when we asked, “How different is what you are offering now from what your were offering before?” The answer was as good as, “Ab naye XYZ detergent ke saath, safedi ki chamkaar aur zyaada” (Now XYZ detergent makes whiteness brighter than before).

We all know. Nothing is ever new. The chamkaar is still just the same. After all, just how white can white be?

What is with everyone trying to get ahead of each other and themselves in trying to be innovative? All we’re innovating is new punchlines and ways of advertising run-of-the-mill products and services.

Gimmicks to grab attention, raise interest and arouse desire (from the very reliable AIDAS model)* are making corporates desperate for a way to differentiate themselves in the market. And make tall claims to prove themselves a step ahead of their competitors. So while detergents are essentially supposed to clean clothes and do nothing else, the differentiating factor for the latest brand on the block is to contain moisture to not dry your hands while you wash your clothes. It certainly induces the action of purchase from the target market.

But is the last part of the model - Satisfaction - important to the seller anymore? Or is the publicity and income generated from the first four stages of AIDAS enough to fulfil their obligation to their vision and to the promise they make to their customers?

I love innovation. I love new products. And I most definitely love that detergent that keeps my hands soft. All I am pondering over is how much more we can keep wanting? And all I am wondering is to what extent will we be made to believe that something is new and exactly what we were looking for?

So can the two companies who couldn’t explain what is so different about their latest offering tell me what the point of the press conference was?

* AIDAS is a psychological model of consumer behaviour that explain the stages a buyer goes through from awareness about a product/service till satisfaction derived from its use. It stands for attracting ATTENTION, raising INTEREST, arousing DESIRE, inducing ACTION and creating SATISFACTION.

Comic capers

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011 February 9th, 2011 Pablo ChaterjiPablo Chaterji

I read an article the other day about how infuriatingly and unnecessarily complicated the English language has become, partly because of the way the corporate world has taken it over. The article mentioned how people no longer start a project - they ‘activate’ it. A person doesn’t reply or respond to you - they ‘revert’. It’s not enough to just agree with someone – you have to be ‘in sync’ or ‘with’ them. Nobody thinks any more – they ‘ideate’. There’s a whole bunch of other such examples in the article, to which I’d like to add another – ‘graphic novel’. For some reason, it’s become infra dig to say ‘comic book’ or just plain ‘comics’. ‘Graphic novel’ supposedly lends an air of gravity to the proceedings, but why on earth would you want an air of gravity in your comics? They’re meant to be fun, for heaven’s sake! Anyway, now that I’ve got that rant out of the way, allow me to tell you about some comic books that are good fun and have an automotive touch to them as well. 

Most of you will know about Tintin, the strip’s creator Hergé and the superb drawings Hergé made of the automobiles of the eras about which he wrote. I’m a Tintin fan too, with all the titles in my collection, and I was under the impression that Hergé was the be and end all of Belgian comic book artists – until I discovered the Adventures of Spirou and Fantasio, quite by accident. Spirou, a young bellhop, and Fantasio, a reporter, go off and get involved in all sorts of hair-raising situations, and keeping them company are their faithful companions – Spip, a feisty squirrel, and Beastie, a mysterious ape-like creature with leopard spots and a right hook like Joe Frazier. Count Cul de Sac, a rich inventor and confidante, keeps them supplied with all manner of improbable weapons, and all of these characters, along with dastardly villains of all hues, combine to make for a series that is great fun to read. Best of all, the writers and artists (various people wrote and drew the strip, but André Franquin is considered the definitive author) included a whole host of cars in the strips, and all of them are drawn with painstaking attention to detail. Spirou and Fantasio drive a fictional car called a Turbotraction, a sleek sportscar that looks like a cross between a Renault Alpine and a Jaguar. Other panels have real world cars – a cute Messerschmitt bubble car, Fiat 500s and 600s, humongous Cadillacs and Chevrolets, Jaguar XKs, MG roadsters, Citroen DSs, Renault Dauphines, Lambretta and Vespa scooters and an updated version of the Turbotraction called the Turbot II, which looks like something out of the Jetsons. 

Another lovely little comic strip is Clifton, which deals with the adventures of Colonel Sir Harold Wilberforce Clifton, retired from British MI5 but occasionally active for Her Majesty’s Government. Clifton drives an MG TD, which is almost always wrecked but is repaired free of cost, and a little cat called James Bond, and his stiff-upper-lip approach to the lairiest of situations leads to much humour. Other cars appearing in the strips include Ford Cortinas, Rover 3.5 Ls, Rolls-Royces of different sorts, Hillmans, Buicks, London cabs and even London milk floats. I’ve managed to collect all the Spirou and Fantasio comics available in India, and am now on the lookout for the entire run of Clifton comics that have been translated into English – and yes, they’re comics, not ‘graphic novels’. 

Of pharaohs and mummies

Monday, February 7th, 2011 February 7th, 2011 Nayanima BasuNayanima Basu

“I have killed the pharaoh”, shouted 27-year old Khalid Islambouli after shooting the then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat 37 times in October 1981, shocking the entire world and shaking the Arab Muslim world for the first time. Today similar angst and pent-up mood can be seen in the beautiful streets of Cairo, where millions have become hungry for democracy. But the most important question at this moment is: Will there really be democracy in Egypt if and when President Hosni Mubarak steps down?

It is not easy to answer this question through any kind of analysis and parenthesis. The so-called ‘orderly transition’ is bound to get translated into huge paradigm shifts changing the axis of geopolitics completely. According to some, this could well be yet another attempt towards strengthening of ‘Islamisation’ and is about religion while some truly believe that this massive upheaval by the common Egyptian people who took to the streets for more than two weeks now demanding for a democratic set-up in their country.

The irony is, even though Egyptian society is deeply divided between rich and poor, the protest was started by Gucci-clad women that later got swelled with the participation of common man.

The protests were led by young Egyptian boys and girls, who want to desperately see a change in their lifetime for a better future, have finally come out of the Sphinx-like silence. And leading this young brigade was an elderly ElBaradei whose claim to instant fame was finding the WMDs or Weapons of Mass Destruction in Saddam’s Iraq, which is now the world’s most favourite battlefield besides, Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the WMDs could never be unearthed even though Saddam was most ruthlessly executed. Nevertheless, ElBaradei, who was then the director general of International Atomic Energy Agency, was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Not to mention, he has spent a large portion of his life outside Egypt.

So how exactly will tomorrow’s Egypt shape-up? Mubarak has clearly stated to Christiane Amanpour of ABC News, who was the only reporter to interview him during this turmoil that he would not flee as that is not his style and he would die on Egyptian soil. Just a little reminder here Egypt’s soil had been much fertile to give birth to some of the most dreadful names of the world such as Ayman al-Zawahiri – the leader of Al-Qaeda and Mohamed Atta, one the main masterminds behind the September 11, 2001 attack of the World Trade Centre.

Is the coming in of Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian mainstream politics a good sign after a prolonged ban? Did Egyptians really want this? Well, Mubarak’s resignation is also not the only solution. Egypt needs to adopt a proper constitution that would define all roles clearly with a proper mechanism. A constitution that should be adopted quickly. And quickly because neither the Egyptians nor the world can afford to let forces of religious fundamentalism creep in.  Remember, Israel is watching…

The magnificent men and their flying machines

Sunday, February 6th, 2011 February 6th, 2011 Praveen Bose

Notice the “magnificent men” is all small. Yes, that’s the fate of the aviators (rather, pilots) of today. That’s unlike the yesteryears when aviators were more famous than their flying machines. Today, at least for the common man, the machines are larger than the pilots.
It’s again time for Aero India. There will be all those fantastic machines doing most unbelievable of acts many of which seem to defy nature, like the ‘cobra’ by the Sukhois. But, who the pilot is perhaps will be forgotten within minutes of the act, while the act will remain etched in the minds of the hundreds who will be there to watch the acts.

As machines get more sophisticated, they seem to stand out on their own, perhaps having an identity of their own. With the end of dog fights as in the wars of yesteryears, you may no longer have new war heroes who are pilots.

So, Howard Hughes, Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart and many others have a place of their own. They will never be overshadowed by any of today’s pilots… whose machines (even civilian) are too sophisticated to let the pilots overshadow them.

Today’s heroes are like Steve Fosset who flew around the world in a hot air balloon and Jacques Piccard who reached the stratosphere in a balloon.

As an Indian I better be satisfied with the test pilots who fly the machines developed by Indian scientists. Test pilots are perhaps the bravest lot you see today. After the experience  of the aircraft Indians have been trying to build on their own, perhaps our pilots are the bravest of the lot today.

I shall be watching the bravest pilots the Magnificent Men flying their machines.

Raja ki jayegi baraat…?

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011 February 3rd, 2011 Joydeep Ghosh

Today’s front page headlines ‘Raja, two aides arrested’ left me wondering. Why were they arrested? Means, ok, they might have helped some companies make quick monies, broken a few rules, and there was some loss to the exchequer. But aren’t we used to it.

Come on, guys… have a heart. During BJP’s time, some company (I don’t remember the name off hand) bought some hotels and sold it at a huge premium to another company.

Then, there is Karnataka, Aadarsh, Sugar, Common Wealth Games, Onions, Black Money, Aarushi murder case, Ramalinga Raju (of Satyam fame) and god knows, what else and where else.

The media has been kept busy by, besides the Niira Radia tapes, a whole lot of other scams. Journalists, armed with leaks, hit front pages every day.

But will any of these cases ever see a logical conclusion? – Front page news, media pressure and all are fine. Television channels especially, are quick to point out that a lot of cases have come out in the open because of media pressure. Then, these cases get stuck.

Many of these accused remain just like that, accused. After a few months, newspapers and channels start referring to the accused as ‘allegedly accused’ (well, some play it safe and use ‘allegedly accused’ from the very beginning).

After sometime, the media moves on to uncover new scams. And the ‘allegedly accused’ move on with their lives. Some retire, others hide and yet others are quietly rehabilitated (away from media glare). Few suffer. Then, why bother…

Eden’s Garden of shame

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011 February 2nd, 2011 Aabhas Sharma

Since I haven’t been keeping tabs on international cricket for a while, the news that Eden Gardens wouldn’t be hosting the World Cup match between India and England on February 27 was a bit of a shocker. I was disappointed to know that India’s marquee stadium was denied the chance of hosting a “big” match because it wasn’t deemed fit enough for the World Cup.

I was disappointed for another reason. I had planned with a few friends to actually go to Kolkata and watch the match. I don’t follow cricket these days but watching a live match Eden had been a teenage desire, so I went ahead booked the flight tickets, match tickets and was looking forward to an evening with 90,000 cricket fanatics.But unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. Thanks to the cricketing authorities of our country, thousands of fans were left disappointed.

Personal disappointments aside, what astounded me even more was that unlike the Commonwealth Games stadium delays and missed deadlines, there wasn’t much hoopla about Eden Gardens. How could the BCCI be so callous in their approach towards getting a stadium like Eden ready for the World Cup? They have passed the buck to Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) and said it was not their responsibility.

Can you imagine a World Cup in England and Lord’s not being ready in time? Or the MCG under renovation a month before the World Cup in Australia? But this is the mighty BCCI we are talking about. The world’s richest cricketing body with immense power and clout. And yet, they are powerless when it comes to an issue of this magnitude. The CWG organisers got flak from every nook and corner of the world and yet we see not much said or written about cricket authorities.

Cricket is India’s passion and so-called religion and yet the mecca of Indian cricket ((Wankhede stadium in  Mumbai lost its right of being called the mecca of Indian cricket the day Sachin Tendulkar was booed at the stadium) is not ready. And the best part is that Eden Gardens is scheduled to host not one, but four matches. The fate of the other three matches still hangs in balance.

The BCCI hasn’t taken any action towards those responsible for this mess. To a certain extent, the blame lies somewhat on their shoulders as well. We won’t see heads rolling over this fiasco and we surely won’t see much criticism directed towards the Board.

A friend of mine with whom I was supposed to watch the match Eden summed it up perfectly. To paraphrase what he said raises quite a few pertinent questions. He said “If only the ICC had the guts to deal with all other pending issues (match fixing, spot fixing, treating players like machines, crazy amount of cricket, loss of interest in Test Cricket, poor standards of umpiring) in the same manner that it deemed The Eden unfit, the cricketing world would be a better place. While they seem to have taken a very strong stand on the Eden issue what about the other issues?” Is anyone out there listening?

A nation of change

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011 February 2nd, 2011 Devjyot Ghoshal

History, often, has a propensity for fading away. But when pushed by the human desire for transformation, the past can relegate itself with even greater speed.
In a mere half-century, a tiny island at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula has radically changed itself from a colonial trading port into one of the world’s major financial centres, with among the highest gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates globally in the last year.

The achievement is staggering; there are no two ways about that. But Singapore, except in very small zones, belies that sense of history that is invariably pervades the great erstwhile colonial cities of Asia. Kolkata in particular, and even Mumbai and Delhi, to an extent, conserve a certain old-world charm, which seemingly has been lost here in the Lion City.

That, though, is solely the physical appearance.

Over a meal recently, consisting of delectable Char Sui pork and rice, at a food court in one of the city’s countless malls, a relatively senior government official was kind enough to entertain my numerous questions about the city-state and its people.

In what turned out to be a rather extended session, Mr Chen, if I may call him so, rather unreservedly shared his perspective. But what struck me most, during this conversation, was a particular feeling of lamentation at the breakneck physical transformation of Singapore.

We were in the heart of the city. And the very mall we sat in, the gentleman described, was once a vibrant set of streets, known for its shopping options. Pointing at another direction, he recalled where his house stood and gesticulating again, at what was once his primary school. There was definitely a tinge of regret for what had been lost.

He wasn’t the only one. A real estate agent, of all people, once told me how in his youth he could not locate a particular street, known for its colourful evenings, as the entire block had been demolished and rebuilt in a matter of months.

Singapore, from the outside, mostly does seem like a contemporary construct where change, more than history, is a constant.

But to understand Singapore from the inside is another story. A nation, which consists of 74 per cent Chinese, 13 per cent Malays and the remainder formed of Indian and others, is not as easy to decipher as its architecture.