Sunday, December 7, 2008

My great grandpa is turning in his grave

Sometimes I am lost to a near-impossible task of piecing together all my fragmented childhood memories to make him alive in a sepia tone frame – my great grandfather – whom I missed when I had just begun to understand him.

He died when I was 12. By the time we reached the funeral was over. But none in our family was deeply mournful when he passed away just a few days before him turning 102. When we just arrived at our ancestral home, one of my younger cousins, just four then, gleefully told us “we buried him”. His greatest worry was if the old man would sprout up from the grave.

Even the youngest of the family members shared the common feeling; he was more feared than loved. His presence enforced a degree of silence; even we kids were restrained in our activities. I think the older members of the family were actually using it as a ploy to control us. His walking stick was the most hated object during my pre-school years when I was, away from my parents, raised in my ancestral home. When I throw tantrums grand mother would show his walking stick and tell me, he would come and beat me with that.

Being the youngest and the oldest in the family, there might have existed some sort of power struggle between us. Because, care, attention and consideration were shared between us and we were equally narcissistic, selfish and inconsiderate to others. But both of us eventually lost our powers.

He was tall, fair, healthy and handsome. I suspect his father was envy of him. My great grandpa’s father was tyrannical just as he was. Those old days, in the beginning of 20th century, fathers must be invariably so, tyrannical, unquestioned and whimsical. His father chose a wife for him whom he saw only on the wedding day. She was just opposite to him; dark, short and unattractive. Thus we, the generations, a mix of both was born.

I have a feeling that his father had a devious agenda to limit his marital joys by getting him married to a lady, who was in no way a match for his charm. My father often jokes, “they mated just thrice, that is why they ended up with only three children”. I found some merit in this observation as the great grand father’s contemporaries would have a minimum of ten children each.

The three things that constituted his character were stubbornness, temper and piousness. He was hardworking and single-minded which eventually made him arguably the largest land owner in the village in Malabar where he settled. When I was in second or third standard, I once asked my mother “What was great grandpa doing during the time of independence struggle?” Because, for me, he was the most important one I personally knew who was alive at that time. Mom’s answer was spontaneous “Oh, he might have been planting tapioca”. I think, this applies to the Syrian Christians as a whole, who I observed that, is more driven by individualistic goals rather than the collective social goals.

I never remember a single occasion when he spoke softly to me. During family prayers he used to sit on a chair while every one else would be sitting on a mat. I would be sitting close to him. I was hardly four and he was in his nineties then. He would shout at me for not being loud enough. Then I would lean close to his ears and recite at the top of my voice the Malayalam version of ‘hail mary’. He would yell back at me “Are you out to break my ears?” I would get a sense of satisfaction for having disrupted his carefully conducted evening prayer and earn the silent support of others who were just not able to take on the tyrannical family patriarch.

He went to church every morning. If he was not seen in church for the morning mass, other regular churchgoers, concerned about the nonagenarian’s health, would visit him. On the other hand, the whole parish would be surprised if his grandson – my father – was spotted in church even on Sundays.

One of the very few persons my great grandfather liked was my mother. Once when he visited my home, he was afflicted by dysentery following an overdose of liquor on the previous night (he rarely drank, this was my father’s treat to him). Mom took him to doctor. When they reached town, he handed over his walking stick to my mom and walked freely. She had no choice but to hold the stick. A 95-year old man walking steadily and his 30-year old granddaughter-in-law meekly following him with a walking stick offered a hilarious scene for the onlookers.

Although he entrusted his property to his son and grandsons, he set apart a small piece of land for him where he used to cultivate himself. None would now believe he was once hospitalised in his nineties after falling from a tree. He would save the money for himself. The old man had savings in the local bank for his funeral!

In one way he was lucky to die without any hunch about the precarious position of the landholding he developed with his hard work, thanks to his wayward grandsons. He might be, proverbially, turning in his grave.

There must be so many ordinary great men like him who were not privileged to be written about;they do not have self-obsessed journalist-great grandsons.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obambulating in Indian politics

When analysing the Obama victory, every one is understandably not comfortable with the race talk. Its historic significance for someone of African origin became president of white-majority America. What they say is perfectly correct – ideal – that we mustn’t get fixated on caste, race and religion.

However, I take a rather politically incorrect position here. It is a little naïve to believe that our polity has moved beyond the questions of ethnicity; the identity and origin still remain determining factors. A black man’s ascendance to presidency is a historic highpoint at which Hillary’s ‘white America’ shunned racial considerations. It signifies not only the political wisdom and ability of Obama to transcend race but also high secular values of American people for whom colour was hardly a factor in their political choice.

Here, I adventure a racially disturbing question in the Indian political scene – are we ready for a Dalit prime minister? Let me clarify that one shouldn’t be made prime minister just because he was born Dalit. My question is if Indian society is ready for accepting a so called untouchable as its prime minister – if he or she has all the political, moral and intellectual credential to be the country head?

I don’t say we are not. But I can’t say we are ready. One of the most scholarly, erudite and efficient presidents of the Indian republic who was an ardent practitioner of Nehruvian secularism was a Dalit. History will ever say he was a right choice. The elected head of the most populous state of the country is a Dalit woman.

When K.R.Narayanan died, among the snippets in front page of Times of India, it appeared: country’s first Dalit president dead. It was a brief news, negating and obliviating his great contribution to the country and reducing his historic significance to mere ‘Dalit’ president, implying that ‘Dalitness’ is the foremost thing to talk about him. It appeared to me patronising, prejudicial and condescending.

That we are at a sad state where we are not confident enough to write K.R.Narayanan is dead, presupposing that the reading public needs an introduction – country’s first Dalit president.

When discussing caste or reservation; the articulate sections’ response is often patronising, prejudicial and condescending. Reservation of admissions and appointments are perceived by many as an ill-conceived mechanism which allows some sections to eat away something which is rightfully theirs. Sadly, they choose to rebuff the issue of historical absence of a level playing ground which led to the disenfranchisement of a vast section of population. And a society's collective obligation to close those gaps.

The so called mainstream is not ready to accept Mayavati. I think Modi has greater acceptance than Mayavati in the mainstream. Mayavati is accused of playing up identity politics, for raising the issue of untouchability, perhaps far more fervently than any greater practitioners of divisive politics such as Advani, Modi and co.

I think it is because what Mayavati’s politics raises is an inconvenient truth to many. When she cobbled up an unimaginable Brahmin-Dalit coalition we accused her of political opportunism. Yes, she is cantankerous, whimsical, antagonistic, acrimonious, devious, callous and greedy. But there is a fundamental problem in us, expecting her to be a saint in a murky political system where everyone else is muddied.

However, I do not see Mayavati as an Indian version of Obama. Her ability to consolidate space for subaltern politics is commendable. Her political muscle to withstand heinous annihilation tactics is noteworthy. Her struggle to formulate a formidable mass movement deserves credit.

However, she requires far more grace, wisdom, intellect and studiousness to be equal to Obama. I think, if not Mayavati, in subsequent generations there should be someone, who can rise beyond caste, who is far greater competent to deal with the increasingly complex intricacies of governance. At the historic point at which he/she emerges we, as a polity, also may be better prepared to put behind our intolerances. I think we are preparing.

* obambulate
verb tr.: To walk about.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ee bachelorsinte oro problems (Certain problems of these bachelors..)

Here I am going to discuss something which is little awkward. I will start with quoting an interesting wire copy which I chanced upon a few months ago. Based on a survey among various groups, a new Australian research says working singles are the unhappiest lot.

The singles group, which had an average age of 33, includes singles who worked full time, earned more than an average income and had fair job satisfaction.
Yet despite all of the above, despite good connections with family and friends, they were unhappy about their single status and had "low life satisfaction".
The only unhappier Australians were those on the margins, who include single parents, the unemployed and those with disabilities.
Psychologist Evelyn Field says singles working long hours were dissatisfied about having no partner.
"They would be anxious, stressed and depressed at times," The Daily Telegraph quoted her, as saying.

Me, at 28, a media professional in a metro, with few friends in town and staying alone, passing through the loneliest phase in life, have fully endorsed this research finding.

This feeling started haunting me for sometime, ever since a weird sense of increasingly being distanced and left alone had crept in. It may have something to do with the far greater physical distance from home than it ever used to be, the relatively less number of friends in the close proximity in this distant city and certain other things in life that happened in between.

Last August, it turned 10 years since I am living away from home. The distance gets farther as the years go by. A mix of misfortune, lack of opportunity, academic-familial-professional preoccupations and constraints impacted my search for the soulmate. (And I don’t know if there are any other attributable reasons)

It doesn’t mean that I have completely been denied the feminine presence in the youthful days. I have enjoyed fair amount of love, liking, care and considerations from the opposite sex. Perhaps, on that front, I might be luckier than some others. And there were brief illusions of having almost achieved that priced thing – love.
Most of the people we interact are hypocritical when it comes to love – putting up a rather detached attitude towards such ‘silly things’ and acting brave. Pretty understandable, nobody wants to look vulnerable. It was not the case with me.

Just now, I made a futile search in the internet to find that exact quote from Diary of Anne Frank. It was something like this - Despite all love and care by your family and friends, you won't find perfect happiness until you find somebody who exclusively belongs to you. I have always acknowledged and realised this emotional need of possessing and belonging to someone.

However, as somebody jokingly said, “your success rate is quite low”. After each illusory phase, let-downs and ‘voluntary retirements’ what always helped me move on is the intuitive optimism that some day I will meet up with the one who was chosen for me before the earth was born. The other day I was thinking, this search had actually started when I was in fifth or sixth standard. 17-18 years, the search is still on!

At this point of time I honestly don’t know what happened to my optimism. All I know is that it has just not happened yet.

The other day I happened to read in orkut a beautiful description about an ideal partner. It could be a borrowed thought for me. But it is something I too feel, may be many others too.

My perfect partner is the person who is able to provide
the three most important elements I value in a relationship- trust, love and respect. She is someone who can appreciate my company all the time, bring a smile to my heart, someone I can walk with or be with and not say a word and know that was the best conversation I ever had!.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sivaraj Patil is a great let-down

If anything can potentially overshadow all what Manmohan Singh Government had done – the legislation and implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Right to Information Act, Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, Civilian Nuclear Deal and its serious efforts to be all inclusive; constitution of Sachar Committee, farm loan waiver, reservation in the higher institutions of learning, legislative initiatives for 33 per cent women representation – that could be its clumsy handling of the law and order situation in the country which allowed a free-run for all sorts of trouble mongers.

When the Sonia Gandhi-led UPA came to power after handing a shock defeat to the BJP, hopes were high about the new dispensation cleaning up the political environment in the country. The six years of NDA regime saw absolute communalisation of our institutions, polity and thoughts. The national agenda was always centred around communal issues as if we had nothing else to discuss as a country, as a society. In the context of unexplained but frequent terror strikes and pogroms including what happened in Gujarat the very existence of India as a secular democratic country was always under threat.

Sonia Gandhi, who has shown uncharacteristic resolve, charisma and composure in cobbling up a national alliance, who outwitted the communal combine and stole the thunder by renouncing the prime minister post and who became the darling of the country’s liberal left-leaning intelligentsia, had even promised a regime which would put an end to the divisive politics the country had lived with for sometime.

The UPA regime had shown initial signs of promise by taking some unprecedented steps like the formation of National Advisory Commission and National Knowledge Commission which involved activists-leaders in the civil society in the national reconstruction process and efforts for a broad legal and legislative framework for combating communal violence. Some would even say that such efforts have achieved their partial success although way too behind their targets.

However, the handling of internal security in the last four years which was completely devoid of political cleverness, wisdom and sensitiveness to the ground realities has literally belied all expectations. The appointment and retention of Sivaraj Patil as the Home Minister can even be construed as an undoing of whatever good deeds Sonia has supposedly done.

This gentleman who lost election appeared out of touch during most of the time when a national calamity or insurgency cropped up. His response to the media during critical situations is lifeless, mechanical and bureaucratic. He is elusive and insulate from what is happening around. He is recluse and taciturn which makes him thoroughly unfit to be a top executive in a democratic establishment which is answerable to the masses.

His performance hitherto has been a tragedy of errors. He started with a false tsunami alarm – of an approaching sweeping national disaster – which turned out premature and exaggerated. For that false alarm fiasco, he was unkindly snubbed by his own cabinet colleague science and technology minister Kapil Sibal. The latest could be his changing clothes thrice on the Delhi bomb blast day.

From North-east insurgency to naxal menace, from Kashmir crisis to serial blasts, from Orissa killings to Karnataka attacks, all incidents point to a half-asleep home minister who is absent minded, unaware and unimaginative. It doesn’t mean to say that a much stronger home minister could have wiped off all the menaces. (His predecessor, mosque-demolisher Advani was more part of the problem than solution)

But it goes without saying the internal security administration under Sivaraj Patil terribly failed in foreseeing troubles and pre-empting them. For staying close to the core theme I am not straying into the thoroughly misguided anti-naxal devise, Salva Judum and the detention of Dr. Binayak Sen.

My focus is on three instances of mishandlings which can potentially surrender our polity to the designs of those extremists who are out to convert India into a communal cauldron. One is Amarnath Yathra controversy. Needless to say, Gulam Nabi Asad-led Congress government in Jammu Kashmir and their coalition partners PDP also played their part. Granting of land to Amarnath Shrine Board and its withdrawal had actually given impetus to extremist forces on both sides of the communal divide. The BJP as well as separatists smelt opportunity to push through their agendas.

The granting of land to Shrine Board inflamed the separatists’ theme of usurping of Kashmiri land from its original inhabitants and it appealed to the Kashmiri Muslims. Following the withdrawal of the ordinance, the BJP went to town with its pet theme – that the Hindu sentiments were undermined and the Congress-led anti-Hindu government had given in to the demands of Muslim extremists. The result was a boiling Kashmir, communal resentment all across the nation and a complete U-turn from the fragile peace process in Kashmir.

An intelligent administration is expected to foresee this crisis and forestall such impending dangers. Instead of going ahead with the implementation of a court order favouring the lease of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, which can be called the genesis of the trouble, the administration could have sought some more time and could have tried to deal with this potential problem within the precincts of judicial system itself. It happened otherwise and the result was there for all to see; fuelling of mistrust and mutual hatred which serves the agenda of extremists on both sides.

The next is a government, particularly a home minister remaining clueless when series of bomb blasts happening in different places. We know for sure that every bomb blast is a god-send for one political party which is engaged in stereotyping and hatemongering. By not effectively tackling the terror menace the government is actually playing into the hands of the rightist forces.

The third is the well-plotted and engineered violence in Orissa and Karnataka against Christians which reminds us of the pattern of violence in Gujarat (thankfully, the recent ones did not assume that proportions). The false pretext for the one-sided attacks and its timing suggest that this is yet another attempt to divide the polity on communal lines in the run up to the elections which could eventually benefit the Sangh Parivar which feeds on majoritarian communalism.

As the election year approaches, given the communally sensitive Indian situation, the internal security administration should be able to monitor the furtive moves of trouble mongers.

Needless to say, air-headed Sivaraj Patil is a great let-down for all those who want a complete clamp down on shameless communalists.

Factors affecting a reporting career...

In my earlier job, as a correspondent handling municipal corporation beat, my nonstop reporting on the civic body’s complete failure in waste disposal earned me a nick name – garbage correspondent. I loved being called so for it further endeared me to my colleagues and carried subtle recognition for my work. I reported administrative apathy, public anger and corruption related to garbage menace. I ran campaigns, analysis pieces and wrote about the effective waste management proposals turned down by the municipal authorities. Appreciation from colleagues and readers must have given me further motivation.

Yet, the continuous reporting on civic issues posed serious questions about my graduating to be a journalist effectively handling issues with wider socio-economic implications and addressing larger audience. Notwithstanding the call of duty, I constantly confronted the fear of ending up as a life-long ‘garbage correspondent’. I found myself increasingly out of place when, for example, the subprime crisis and the subsequent global economic recession were discussed. I found myself without the necessary tools to develop an understanding and to effectively analyze issues in relation to the larger economic matrix.

Fighting the fear of being pushed into the rut of routine reporting I found that keeping myself motivated was my biggest challenge. An equally worrying factor was the shrinking knowledge base as my personal reading and academic quests took a back seat.

Therefore, I was happy when I got an offer to join a financial daily and am now striving to be equal to the challenges offered by the new job. Obviously, from covering a municipal corporation to tracking the Indian automobile industry, the transition is not easy. After four months in a new place, a new organization and the hitherto unfamiliar domain of business journalism, I find that many challenges -- of getting familiarized with the environment and learning new things -- remain. The question is how far I am open to the demands of constant learning and of acquiring new skills.

Having been in journalism for four years, I sometimes saw my stories losing sheen in the absence of fresh insights. Other than on-the-job
exposure to new challenges, an opportunity for a focused training never happened to me yet and I often felt I had to rely more on
A refreshing approach to writing, story ideas and the subjects one is
pursuing are essential in this profession where consistency of
performance is a big challenge. I often go back to novels, popular
magazines and even to playing chess to keep up the creative and intellectual

(Different people may have different opinion on the same topic. And we can approach it from different view points - politically and apolitically. This is actually the second part of my entry for a journalism traning course which I mentioned earlier. It was written eight months ago. If I were to write on the same topic now, after a year in business journalism, things may change..)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Obama experience

This is long overdue. I wanted to write about it sometime back. And I couldn’t write it when I wanted to write. Now I start without the required homework. It is all about my personal experience as a Barack Obama fan.

I rarely had heroes or role models in life, although I liked a few persons and at times thought if I could be one like them. But as I move on I forget that. Sometime later I would say “Oh, I had once shosen this man as my hero”.

So many people had inspired me for their character, style, commitment, integrity and achievement. I am a fan of Brazilian soccer, I am a fan of Kajol. I like everyone in Brazilian football team, especially Ronaldinjo with his cheerfulness, brilliance and swiftness. I think Robinjo has taken over his place in my favourite list. Whenever I watch Kajol with her curly hair and bright eyes on screen I become so happy.

I admire Rahul Dravid and Viswanathan Anand for their calm and genteel nature. I like Manmohan Singh for his scholarship, humility and integrity. I like Sonia Gandhi for her selfpossessedness, cordiality and concern for poor.

I consider Rajendra Singh as the most successful man as he greened up a perennially drought-striken Rajasthan village through water harvesting techniques. I adore Arundhati Roy for her eloquence.

But when I started following democratic presidential primaries, I never had the faintest idea that I would eventually become an addict to US election news. And someone would so powerfully attract me to the halo of his personality.

It did happen. When I first read Obama won the Iowa caucus, I was happy seeing that a political underdog had an upset win over larger-than-life opponent. It was my natural emotional association with underdogs in general.

Still I refused to believe that this would herald the historic emergence of a possible black president. I just thought “The guy would put up the best fight, so much the better”.

Needless to say, it was Barack’s upset victory in the first caucus that made me track the American presidential election with greater interest than ever before. Earlier, when Barack Obama announced his candidacy, I took it as a tokenistic bid by an ambitious Black politician. I just took it as a clever guy’s shortcut to fame as an opponent to Hillary Clinton who is all the way to winning democratic nomination and presidency.

Yes, things excite you when it exceeds your expectations. That happened with Barack Obama. With the few initial primary victories I realised that Obama winning the democratic nomination is no longer a wishful thinking but a realistic possibility.

What followed was my complete absorption in the democratic fight for nomination in the subsequent weeks upto June 7, when Hillary Clinton finally accepted defeat. The reports of Obama victories on the pages of Indian Express and political theatre of ET made my days brighter, Clinton victories caused heart aches.

Why I liked him was not merely because of his eventual emergence as a winnable candidate. Yes, his black underdog image was perhaps something very easy to identify with. Other than that, I subscribed to the belief that he is an epitome of the change that we can believe in as his campaign has effectively sent across.

He comes across as the perfect antithesis of war-mongering George W Bush. He belongs to the level-headed, cerebral democrats like Al Gore and John Kerry. Much before the presidential election he opposed American invasion in Iraq and demanded withdrawal of troops from there, much like the most of American youth. Remember, cutting across party lines prominent politicians in the US supported the war.

He belongs to the rare breed of politicians who brought environment and global warming into the campaign agenda. He withstood with elegance the attempts to make presidential battle an ugly racist war. He inspired us with profound expressions, thoughts and words. He exhumes confidence, cheerfulness and receptiveness. He is young, lean, tall, sporty and handsome. Most of all, his was a compelling story. I joined millions of Obama fans across the world.

I was never tired of reading anything related to US election. When I come to office I would gleefully turn to net to know the latest turns and twists of the long drawn out presidential battle. I was enjoying the sportive spirit of that fight and glad that I got something serious to engage with.

In certain ways this addiction had a narcotising effect and it was a diversionary tactic, a wonderful getaway from mundaneness of job, much like my father’s escape to drinks and gambling. Yet it had its advantages too. The most notable advantage would be perhaps my initiation into reading the web editions of New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

I shared with others my passion for Barack Obama. I even got my self registered as supporter of Obama for Change campaign through net. I kept getting mails from his campaign.

I deliberately brought US election into discussion with my colleagues just to gauge if others are feeling equal measure of passion, just as I am. Going through his campaign website, I was excited to find out that his political position has something to do with automobile industry, which happens to be my beat.

He went to Detroit and asked automobile manufacturers to stop making gas guzzlers and promised support for making green cars. This further attached me to Barack. When I was in company with six US journalists at the Reuters training programme in April our topic of discussion was this Obama phenomenon.

It was quite heartening to see that they are all invariably white, still supporting Barack. Mike Riley, who I met first at the training course, was a political reporter with Denver Post who was looking forward to cover Democratic National Convention in August.

I shared my admiration for Obama’s position on gas guzzlers with Sharon Carty, the Detroit-based automobile correspondent of USA Today. She later sent me the link of a detailed report on US automobile industry and presidential battle, saying “saw this story today and thought of you”.

A few weeks later, during our chat CEO of a company gave me a different reason why Obama would be a success – “future belongs to mix”. Himself half-German and half-US, he said smilingly “I am a mix”. By the time, it became a habit for me to bring Obama into conversation wherever I go.

The other day I went to attend a lecture on US presidential election by journalist-turned professor Robert W Jenson titled "The 2008 U.S. Presidential Election: Change is in the Air, but Not on the Ground". Although he argues that Barack is mostly rhetoric, he too says that he would vote for Obama in November.

One group which excited me with great cheer for Obama was none else but children of my own place, a far distant interior village from the fast moving cities were global politics is hotly debated. When I went home last month I was called to talk to students of my former school with which I still keep an active emotional bondage.

When I asked who you support in the US presidential election the boys in one voice loudly said “Barack Obama”. I was surprised to see the enthusiasm in their eyes.

Fifteen years ago when I was an eightth standard student I was not aware who all were contesting in the US presidential election. Bill Clinton was twice elected as US president when I was a school boy, I still don’t know who his opponents were. My little brothers are fast catching up with what happens around the world. I asked them why they like him. The answer was simple and plain, “He is the first black to contest for American Presidency”. It summed up the fact that the resilient and successful underdog appealed to the young generation of my fellow natives.

Barack Obama, who gave up plum jobs in corporate law firms to become a civil rights lawyer and community organiser in the impoverished south side of Chicago was an interesting story to share with them.

My laziness and procrastination cause a long delay in pinning up an Obama poster in my cubicle. That too is a long overdue.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A biography outlining your career

In the fourth year of my career, I see myself as someone who has just begun his journey along the exciting and meaningful profession of journalism. The impressionable adolescence obsessed with reading, debates, poetry and activism with a mix of personal struggle against the constraints of rural backwardness, I believe, shaped the journalist in me.

Yes, born in a village in Kerala, educated in local schools in the vernacular medium (Malayalam) and in government-run universities, I am one among millions of rural youth who broke into the urban expanses of the professional world. At the risk of sounding immodest, I add that among the hundreds of professionals produced by a village cluster with a population of 70,000, I am the only journalist writing in English.

Writing in a language whose basic grammar I picked up after 18 is indeed a matter of pride for me. Yet, the foremost feeling is expectation mixed with apprehension about the long way ahead. A degree course in English has put my basics right and a postgraduation in journalism with practical training has made me reasonably confident in journalistic English.

Apprehension about the loss of a linguistic proficiency I painstakingly acquired made me leave a comfortable sub-editor’s job in The Malayala Manorama to take up a reporter’s post in a comparatively smaller English paper with less salary but with more challenges. After two fruitful years in The New Indian Express I have now graduated to The Hindu group and this I hope will definitely aid in my further learning and growth.

(Part of my entry for a short-term course on Writing International News, held in Mumbai from April 21-25. Six US and seven Indian journalists, including me, were the participants)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Father, Son and Spirit

A hard nut to crack seems apt for describing him. An enigmatic, unemotional person with no real friends would be an uncharitable elaboration. Yet, he often appears so. It is about my father, who has always been elusive to all my attempts to understand him.

I had grown up in constant confrontation with him and I owe much to him for what I am and what not I am. I think, most shades of my character are of my mother and are diametrically opposite to father’s character. “I married you, just to maintain the equilibrium of the universe,” father used to tell my mother in the beginning years of their marriage. And he is correct in saying so.

I am conversational, foolishly open and unseemly sensitive. But, he is taciturn, mysterious and mostly unaffected. He has a playful funny side, which makes him sometimes very endearing. But, a closer look would reveal that it is his own escapade from the trouble-ridden reality which is his own creation.

One would be surprised to see his artfulness in creating a mess out of nothing. Ever since I began to see him, he has been the most bankrupt man I personally know. There is an easily identifiable pattern in his slump into perennial bankruptcy; a drunk drive into an unwise investment project end up in an inescapable financial hell.

During my internship days, I did a feature on the travails of families under the stranglehold of local moneylenders in the city. I used to joke, “This is my tribute to my bankrupt father”.

After having done all ‘firework’ he will fall into silence, snore at night and idle away his daytime with playing cards, chess, reading papers and a long siesta. On the other had, mom might be suffering from `frying pan-on-the head’ sort of situation.

We were on the brink of a total collapse following the million rupee-loss in his biggest ever misadventure; two years of ginger cultivation in some leased land in Karnataka. My higher secondary days were a bitter battle against attachment procedures, neighbourhood humiliation, heightened family tension and virtual isolation. I remember, mother waking him up in the middle of night and picking up another round of quarrel. “After having spoilt all our sleeps, are you snoring at night?”
Most of the time, I was an anxious lone witness to those wee hour fights all my childhood. (A little cool-headed, my brother often skipped them).

Though, we scraped through the collapse, an unexpected agrarian crisis that gripped our region, affected us deeply. By the time I joined for Masters we were in a very bad shape. But, somehow, I eventually became magnanimous and sympathetic to my father who was constantly defeated by his own games. A two-line note attached to the DD once he sent me when I was in hostel told about the drying up of pepper wines and a difficult time and ended with ‘yours loving father’ which left me in tears.

I became emotional, because this followed a cold phase in our relation. No matter how hard mother pushed me, I found it very difficult to say `bye’ to him every time I leave home after a brief stay. But things changed, we began to talk, walk together and share jokes.

One thing perhaps positive about Father is his humour when he is in good mood. Once during prayers, it somehow slipped into a subtle indictment of his transgressions. Mother prayed, “Lord, we dedicate to you all those who drink alcohols”. Brother prayed, “Lord, we dedicate all those who smoke”. I stepped up and prayed, “Lord, we dedicate to you all those who cause misery to their families”. And then father completed, “Lord, we dedicate to you all those who ridicule us”. We all suddenly burst into laughter.

In childhood he was our playmate. During our occasional good times, we played chess till very late in the night. All three of us, Father, brother and me, were so conscious to be extremely silent for fear of mother’s fury. Though he cared little about our clothing or schooling, he bought us books and magazines.

He gifted me ‘Freedom at Midnight’ when I was in seventh. Most of other rural folks would have thought such acts ‘irrational’ and ‘wasteful’ at that time. He definitely has a role in me becoming a newspaper junky who eventually turned a journo. We discussed politics from my fifth standard and shared a left-of-the center position.

Though those bitter old days are behind us, he often gives us nightmares by an unpredictable shift to that wayward ways. A fortnight earlier, we had to employ all emotional blackmailing tactics to put to rest his latest potentially disastrous project in mind: running a Rs 4-lakh chitfund. And in retrospect, it is not at all nice to have an alcoholic father. Not only the countess slights from the relatives but also the constant fear of an imminent collapse which I passed through make me extremely weary of that idea. I often feel that my worrying habit and proneness to melancholy have their roots in the trouble-torn childhood.

But it does have its positive sides too. I got a proletarian sentiment which drives my journalism (I think) because of those hardships. I am so miserly in spending money since I suffered much from its constrained supply. I am somehow insulated to the wises like drinking and smoking without any deliberate effort. When friends ask me why I don’t drink, I have a ready reply. “My father has finished my quota and the quota for five generations after me. So I am left with no liquor!”

The one who found the greatest virtue in his alcoholic antics is none but father himself. “Since I had this wretched life, my children escaped from all these habits,” he often muses.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reading Lajja after 13 yrs

It was in the first quarter of 1995, just before my ninth exam, I first read Lajja. Needless to say, the far lighter Malayalam translation, which was not heavy-packed with the statistical data that Taslima had used, had moved me greatly. I was proud to have read the most controversial novel of that time and was hopeful about the meaningful debate on majoritarian communalism it would trigger.

Thirteen years later, the local school boy who grew in physical and academic sense (though remains as confused and touchy as he was), who has by now turned an avid anglophile and an English journalist, revisited the sad story of Suranjan. The disorientation of a progressive, intelligent and politically sensitive youth Suranjan in the communal mayhem in Bangladesh post Babri Masjid demolition and the “naïve mix of idealism and optimism” of his deeply patriotic father Sudhanmoy Dutta who is ashamed to leave his homeland give us a poignant story. Which, I believe is very realistic and sincere portrayal of deep personal tragedies in the midst of communal barbarism.

The novel brilliantly exposes our savage instinct to vanquish the weak. It reaffirms our commonsensical understanding of the origin of all communal cleansing: the ugly desire for power and resources; the ulterior intention to capture the legitimate political and physical space of the hapless minority using the numerical muzzle. In Indian condition, the victims are primarily Muslims as exemplified by Gujarat and countless riots which preceded it. Whereas, in Bangladesh it is Hindus who stayed on the motherland for the pride and love of Bengal.

At the receiving end of all barbarism, alienation and slights including the brutal rape and killing of his sister Maya, Suranjan soliloquises “What the BJP was in India, the Jamaat-i-Islami was in Bangladesh. The purpose of both groups was the same – the establishment of what might be called fundamentalism” (page 133).

All these years after the first reading I was disappointed since the novel has unfortunately hit the wrong target. I wondered all these years why it couldn’t be the trigger point of a useful debate on majoritarian communalism which in Indian situation would have helped analyse the anatomy of Sangh Parivar politics. But the intellectually void fundamental elements in the Muslim clerical leadership took offense and have been carrying out a vicious attack against the writer who had shown an outstanding commitment towards secular humanism. In fact, they could have turned the table on Saffronists. On the otherhand, the likes of Modi and Advani, the Hindu counterparts of Muslim and Christian fanatics in other parts of the world, comfortably sit at home and slyly smile at the vociferous expression of intolerance by the Muslim fundamentalists.

In certain ways, it is the failure of Indian liberal elites, intellectual community and particularly the Left, that the highly critical points raised by Taslima could not prompt a constructive debate in the secular platform. It ended up in the wrong hands and turned extremely counter productive and in the process exposed a spineless political leadership (Left in Bengal and Congress in the Centre) who disowned the writer at the behest of an unruly crowd, the self-styled saviours of Indian Muslims, who in turn, paint them badly and put them in a very precarious position. Who is as morally bankrupt as Advani and co.

Bush – Modi connection

Anyway, the extreme rightism and faith-based politics are not something patented by Sangh. The same traits are more than evident in George W Bush, who unleashed the `war of civilization’. Read the review of ‘The Assault on Reason: How the politics of fear, secrecy and blind faith subvert wise decision making, degrade America and imperil America and the world,” authored by Al Gore, Bush's opponent who was unjustly denied the presidency by the jury which was obviously biased towards the Republican. (A.G.Noorani, Frontline, Feb 1).

“President Bush has stolen the symbolism and body language of religion and used it to disguise the most radical effort…” observes Al Gore. Does it find resonance in BJP’s accession of religion?

“No President in recent history abused power with such impunity,” Al Gore observes about Bush. Keeping Modi in mind, we can complement “No ruler in the recent history butchered his country men with such impunity”.

Cast blindness:
In an essay on apartheid in the context of Barak Obama’s presidential bid, I came across a new word: colour blindness. “Colour blindness and sense of equality are not the same,” it says. The ‘no cast war’ carried out by the upper class Delhi students can be dubbed as a convenient ‘cast blindness’.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Economic devastation and Crisis response of Wayanad Farmers

A lop-sided international trade regime, an adverse climatic condition and sustained governmental apathy have caused a reverse trend in the agriculture sector across the country. Its implications in the agricultural economy have been reflected in the series of farmers' suicides in different states. One alarming case is Wayanad district of Kerala where 549 farmers committed suicide in five years. Notwithstanding the specificities of Kerala's agricultural scenario this is a microcosm of the Indian situation which calls for serious attention.

The shortest possible way of describing the devastation in Wayanad would be this: debt, drought and sharp fall in global crop prices have spelt doom to the five lakh-strong smallholding farmers of this primarily agricultural economy. Five successive years of drought, from 1999, have left the region with enormous tracts of non-cultivable farms and fields. This coupled with low price for agriculture produce has made the situation even worse. Pepper, the main source of income for a majority of Wayanad farmers, which once touched Rs.270 per Kg crashed to Rs.60. The recent slight improvement in the price does not alter the situation significantly. Coffee which used to fetch Rs. 70 per Kg for the farmer plummeted to Rs.15 in the same period. The Spices Board statistics show that the export value of pepper which was Rs. 885.28 crores in 1999 fell to a paltry Rs.178.8 crores in 2003. Similarly the nation's coffee exports also declined considerably – from $265 million in 1999 to $143 million in 2002.

The above mentioned economic collapse has led to multifaceted social chaos. It has upset the loan economy. The region's loan economy, which has always been a representative of Indian agriculture, is in the doldrums. The smallholding farmers, whose budgeting was dependent on loans from scheduled and co-operative banks, consistently failed to repay the annual installments and the interest had a multi-fold increase. Rs. 752 crores is the collective outstanding debt of Wayanad farmers who have mortgaged their land to national banks. The size of the liability towards private moneylenders might be almost the same. Some of the farmers in the stranglehold of banks and private moneylenders took the extreme step.
Meanwhile, there was no meaningful governmental intervention to check the 'social tragedy'. Notwithstanding the announcements of several packages there is no substantial debt relief for the farmers. Let alone writing off the loans, the Central and State governments have not yet been ready to waive the interest of farm loans. In fact, the sweat of Wayanad farmers has substantially contributed to the exchequer through the export of cash crops and has enhanced the profit of scheduled banks through the repayment of heavy loans. But they were let down in the hour of crisis.

As far as the productivity is concerned, the government had hardly any programme for the irrigation of the farm fields. Setting up of independent irrigation facilities is not possible for the smallholding farmers in the district. Most of the land remains unirrigated in the absence of any large scale project. This is despite the fact that the abundant Kabani River flows through the heart of Wayanad.

In sum, the government and the financial institutions are insensitive and relief measures are largely ineffective. It is interesting to see the way the agrarian community responded to the crisis. While a few chose to end their lives the general trend is to fight back. The political response spearheaded by agitating farmer outfits like the Farmers Relief Forum and `Porattam' (meaning `The Struggle') saw the end of revenue recovery and attachment procedures. Banks now limit their punitive action against the defaulters to sending notices.

A substantive response with a long-term perspective has been initiated by farmers' clusters and is guided by NGOs. Organic farming has gathered momentum in the land which was abused with excessive chemical fertilizing. Internationally certified organic farmers have begun selling their produces in the international market at a price higher than the market price. Rural credit system is active in Wayanad and the SHGs, to an extent, act as a safety net.

The alarming level of rural unemployment has resulted in largescale migration to other districts and outside Kerala. A large group of village boys from Wayanad is working as bearers, cleaners and male servants in Kochi, Kottayam, Kozhikode, Thrissur and Kannur. Those who are relatively rich have managed to find their way out to the Gulf countries and add to the labour force there. For example, about 50 of a small village, Seetha Mount, with a population of 1500, recently went abroad to take up jobs while around 300 of its youth are working outside the district. You can see very few youngsters in the village presently. In addition to this, people now place great stress on educating children and making them employable despite the difficulties involved in this.

Another encouraging factor is the initiatives for agri-based industries. Some NGOs have launched food processing units. Farmers are slowly switching over to multi-cropping as crop diversification is a time tested way out. Nonconventional items like vanilla, bamboo, flowers and medicinal herbs find their way to the farm fields here. While it is clear that much more is to be done to enhance the production base, the evolving responses of farmers shows a rural community maturing into a social group which is able to withstand economic onslaught. The perseverance of this 'local' community to get over a 'global' challenge holds relevance in a 'neo-liberal economic phase', which is widely perceived in the developing world as a phase of `selective extermination'.

As a native of this hill district I have first hand experience of the life here. My involvement in the social actions and academic field studies – five annual N.S.S. camps, social surveys and a project paper on People's Plan in Mullenkolly Panchayat – have given me also an academic/intellectual perspective on the volatile economic situation here. The backward district of Wayanad continues to be my learning ground.

(Originally written in September 2006, a failed fellowship entry)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

I, Me and My Stories

Almost three months and a different ball game. But things seem to be on track ever since I ushered in economic journalism. In a general newspaper, what is the driving spirit of a reporter? Upon my experience, it is your being sensitive to the happenings around. Lot of passion, sentiments and emotion are involved in general reporting. Whereas, in business reporting it is more about arithmetic sense, adeptness in technical aspects and precision in handling the subject.

One career advantage I have foreseen while shifting to a business paper was the scope of learning and understanding vis-à-vis the dynamics of the economy. In that count, it is productive. But all depend on how well you make use of it.

When covering the garbage-ridden politics of Kochi Corporation, I enjoyed my colleagues calling me ‘garbage reporter’. Interestingly, my first business story was about a municipal waste-based bio-diesel project. On the 21st day in the new paper, when the story saw light, the overwhelming feeling was not delight but was a sort of relief. Because by the time, I had become hostage to an ominous failure fear.

In the initial days of auto reporting, I was apologetic to say that I am covering automobiles. Though, a lot of the industry terminology and nuances remain beyond my grip, this is really an interesting area. And I am particularly happy with a host of auto stories which have a green touch. I started with a story on retrofitting industry. A failed story attempt on CNG/LPG-fitted vehicles in the early Indian Express days had taught me about the environmental relevance of that breed of vehicles. It benefited me now, two years later. The government-move to grade vehicles on the basis of fuel efficiency is a story that I cherish.

When pursuing certain story ideas on electric scooters, I just discovered that my first automobile story was in the City Express, one and a half years back. I did not keep that story on e-bikes which was recently introduced in the city on my personal folder, since I was unhappy with the placement. This time, a big scale e-scooter initiative gave me a New Year story. And I had a feature story too; on Indian student engineers whose rural oriented inventions bagged UN awards.

Two water-shed events in the Indian automobile industry happened in the last fortnight: Ford-Tata deal and the coming of Nano. Thankfully, I got my slice of stories. That too, when I have almost reconciled to a belief that I am not good enough to do them. 12 stories including two page ones, I am happy. One thing that I still do not know is if I am strong enough to face the risk of trumpeting these small joys.

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