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A smorgasbord of news and views, thoughts and opinions!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Silence of the lambs: The real Radia revelation

Since every journalist worth his/her byline has sounded off on the Radia-media connection, I thought I may as well mark the occasion with my two-anna bit.

What strikes me as most peculiar about these revelations is that we have become obsessed with the complicity of certain well known journalistic names. Big deal. Who cares if one was acting as a courier in politico-corporate manouvring for cabinet posts, another was cravenly asking for inputs for his column and a third was offering broad hints about his son's talents as a fixer?! It's the deeper rot that has to be examined.

As Barkha barked in one of her intemperate moments on her TV grilling, she was not the only journalist Niira Radia called. Precisely.

What gave Radia the gumption to call up a slew of journalists both senior and junior in pursuance of her agendas -- from cabinet formation to gas allocation battles and such -- with nary a thought about being exposed? Her confidence that these so-called top journalists would not spill the beans stinks of collusion. It reeks of cozy cabals, mutual back-scratching, favours taken and rendered. A conspiracy of silence while the game goes on.

So Radia must be smirking when, even with their backs to the wall, journalists end up defending her.

One says she made "an error of judgement" and was "silly" to deal with Radia -- note, not out of line, but simply silly. Another asserts that the similarity between his opinion in his columns is just a remarkable coincidence. And the third? Why, even his name is not taken in vain though the other two's monikers are tossed about with abandon. Wonder why? Well, in this game, it's not only who you know, but what you know about them...

Radia is not the only supposed corporate communications person who doubles as a go-between and fixer as the line blurs between all the pillars of the state. At the parties that all fixers (call them what you like: lobbyists, publicists, image managers) give, there is a happy confluence of politicians and bureaucrats, journalists and corporates, quaffing expensive wines, nibbling on hors d'oeuvres and posing smilingly together for the cameras.

The camaraderie built up at these convivial evenings translates into interlocutions and interventions, and if need be, strategic silences.

Nor is Radia the only one to be tapped, probably. Radia's tapping was 'authorised' you see, so the tapes could be leaked. That does not preclude government snoops eavesdropping on other fixers -- and you and me. The question is: what is the price for their silence (read: non leaking of incriminating tapes) regarding these players?

Consider the fact that out of 5000-odd conversations of Radia that were taped, only some 3000-odd were transcribed. And a mere 104 were leaked. What and who lie hidden still? And why?

The silences are deafening indeed.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Stephanian remembers....

It's hard for me to imagine Boromashi as a college girl. She has always been so serene, gracious and softspoken. At nearly 90 years of age, her hair is still as black as in her youth -- blacker than my own, considerably younger, mother's hair -- and her mind as clear as when she topped Delhi University in Philosophy 70 years ago. That feat catapulted her to fame among the probashi (non resident) Bengalis scattered over urban centres in an India in the throes of the independence movement.
A smile invariably flickers on Boromashi's face when she recalls how her photograph and brief laudatory description of her intellectual prowess caught the eye of her future in-laws, leading to her marriage with a man who seemed to complement her so wonderfully: a tall protective foil to her petite, fragile beauty, his booming baritone a contrast to her low, measured tones.
But that came later. First, those enviable results brought her for her master's degree to the portals of a college that was just beginning to gain a reputation for excellence in Delhi: St Stephen's. Essentially a men's college, it finally allowed in a few women at the post-graduate level for a while. And Boromashi was one of the first five women to be admitted.
It was a mixed blessing for the shy but brilliant girl who was held in such loving esteem by the old and young alike. MA in a college full of men? In a class full of men? In a library full of men? In a cafeteria full of men? She was a bundle of nerves. Mindful of their daughters' welfare, two Bengali fathers -- one of them my maternal grandfather, the other his friend -- decided that their girls would be ferried by car to college and back.
The two classmates' transport problems were sorted out by their fathers , but there was still a college full of men to confront. The five girls stayed as close as their individual college schedules would allow. But there was always that band of boys... You couldn't avoid them. Or they couldn't avoid beautiful Boromashi. She still blushes as she recalls chance encounters, the furtive glances that came her way, the fragments of engineered conversation...
"We decided that we would have our tiffin in the car," she recalls. "In those days there were no boundary walls so we walked across the front lawns to the car parked on the road and climbed inside to eat." But the boys clearly were not going to be deprived of their sparse company that easily. "Imagine my surprise then when one of the girls told me that I was mistaken if I thought I was avoiding the boys by sittting in the car. She told be to look at the verandahs in the front of the building..." To her horror she found several binoculars trained in their direction!
Today I reminded Boromashi about that incident and she recalled another one. "One day I was running down the college stairs in such a hurry that I slipped. My pen, my handkerchief, my bag everything went flying in all directions," she told me over the phone. "I was so distraught that a whole bunch of boys rushed forward to help pick my things up. So imagine my surprise when I found some 10 pens and 10 handkerchiefs in my bag!!"
Seventy years on, my son walks those same college corridors -- as did his father and uncle did a few decades before him -- and I think they would agree that those pens and kerchiefs were more eloquent epistles than anything that is emailed or BBM-ed today....
As for Boromashi, she left those extra pens and hankies in a corner for their ardent but disappointed owners to reclaim at their leisure. But the fact that she still remembers their anonymous gestures, would no doubt make them happy. She left before finishing her MA there as her father got transferred and St Stephens had no facilities for her to board there, and in the thick of the 1942 Quit India Movement she awaited her marriage to a gentle giant of a man she had never met.... But that is another post -- and another memorable conversation with Boromashi.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Corruption Games

The entire Commonwealth Organising Committee seems to be determined to beat us with the patriotism shovel. If we demand answers about corruption in practically every aspect of the Games -- in which there seems to have been a rare unanimity among fixers across the political spectrum -- we are dubbed anti-national.
Never mind if trees are being ruthlessly entombed in concrete in the name of 'streetscaping'. Never mind if metro train tracks are built overhead in residential areas despite the protest by people about noise pollution. Never mind that Delhi is becoming a city of carparks instead of parks. Never mind that pavements and roads are caving in, CP looks like a disaster-zone, and traffic snarls due to mindless and uncoordinated digging.
Never mind if contractors are skimming off allotted monies and con structing substandard facilities. Never mind if equipment and services are being hired at inflated prices with blatant disregard for norms. Never mind if ministers and officials insouciantly brush off allegations -- and evidence -- of poor execution of projects or assure us that shortcomings will be remedied by rebuilding. Talk about pouring good money in after bad....
And if it a matter of national pride, why is Delhi always the 'favoured' city? Two Asian Games and now the Commonwealth Games all held in the same city...Why can't we spread the joy? And dare I say -- the backhanders...?

Clintons cash in on Chelsea

Why is Chelsea Clinton's wedding being called 'royal'? Because she is the daughter of a former US President and a serving secretary of state? Or because the Clintons ensured continuing media interest by imposing a gag order on the minutae of weddings -- guest list, dress designer, cake maker, flower supplier et al? There have been many, many White House weddings -- the last one in 2008 when Jenna Bush got married. No fuss was made about that. Maybe because the Bushes decided to genuinely play it low-key instead of pretending to be media shy.
As it turned out, the Chelsea-Marc wedding was disappointingly low on star power, so the Clintons really need not have made such a big deal about privacy. Who cares about Chelsea and Marc's Stanford classmates and well-heeled friends? So what if the bride wore Vera Wang instead of Oscar de la Renta, only Michelle Obama's sartorial choices influence buying patterns in the US these days... Hang on, is that the real reason why the Obamas were not invited?
In fact, no one who could attract more media interest than the Clintons were on hand any way. Going by our Indian celebrity (read political) weddings, both the setting and the guest list were rather mundane. The house may have belonged to the Astors but it would hardly have evoked a media frenzy had a no fly zone not been imposed. Considering the groom reportedly splashed out on a $1 million diamond engagement ring, a $2 million bill for the whole wedding was peanuts, given what the Clintons are worth.
The real big ticket Indian political weddings are truly private. Most famously, to date only one photo of Priyanka Gandhi's marriage has surfaced. Caterers, flowers, saree, jewellery, guest list.... nothing made it to the public domain but the Gandhi family did not make a public hoo-haa about secrecy either. When Rahul Gandhi went off to London for his 40th birthday -- and as speculation continues about his prolonged bachelorhood -- he is not making a public issue about his privacy.
It is also a telling commentary on realpolitik and the longevity of political 'friendships' that Bill's deputy through both his administrations was not there, but the Indian hotelier who shamelessly flaunted his proximity to the Clintons was... The reason given was that Chelsea wanted only those whom she knew personally. So, presumably, she accompanied her dad to Sant Singh Chatwal's Indian restaurant but never ever bumped into Vice President Al Gore in all her eight years in the White House.
The inescapable conclusion seems to be that her parents wanted to make the most of what Chelsea herself visualised as a private affair.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Formerly beefy Britain revels in its salad days...

As a nation, Britain has been known for stodge. Huge chunks of meat or fish, surrounded by roast or chipped potatoes, mushy peas and perhaps carrots on a good day. That has been changing for a while. Fish n chips are hardly to be seen (and certainly never wrapped in a newspaper, thanks to the Euro health and safety hawks), meat dishes are more European too – read smaller portions albeit artistically arranged and framed by an equally artistic sauce. Junk food like chicken kievs, baked beans, sausages and mash, the evocative toad-inthe-hole and bubble-and-squeak are to be seen more on the menu of tony gastropubs than the wayside cafĂ© .

London on a summer’s day abounds with Parisian-style bistros and Italian trattorias and the average regular visitors such as yours truly is left wondering where Brit food has disappeared. Yes, there are ‘afternoon teas’ complete with thin sandwiches and scones, but the eaters seem to be more earnest Japanese and voluble Americans. Burgers and barbeques are being passed off as British, and the numerous sandwich bars have such a hotch-potch of nationalities that it is impossible to discern who’s eating what.

But a 10 day sojourn showed me the great strides that one particular dish has made in Britain – or London at the very least: salads. No matter where my husband and I went – trendy restaurant or modest department store eatery – huge white platters arrived on tables, loaded up with mountains of herbage, speckled with trendy morsels of goat’s cheese, chicken, anchovies, prosciutto, olives, cherry tomatoes , dusted with shavings of parmesan and pecorino cheese. While I have nothing against these vegetarian delights, the sight of beefy British executives with necks straining their 17-inch collars digging into mounds of ghaas-phoos was scary, not side-splittingly funny.

In fact, more men seemed to be downing these plates of shrubbery than women, though the latter looked more the part, in their in-season sleeveless shift dresses. The men resolutely pitchforked a variety of leaves into their mouths with incredible composure , I thought, even as they exchanged stock market news or sifted through content on their laptops. Ten years ago, the average redblooded Brit male would have thought twice before doing this. The ladies who lunched at San Lorenzo did it with panache, not the lads who lunched at John Lewis.

At supermarkets, I was amazed at the sheer range of greens now available to the Brit hoi-polloi , not just the poncy Notting Hill types. For us – a country with a huge repertoire and preference for veggies – salads are still a side dish, an addon . But Britain has ‘apnaoed’ this appendage as a mainstream food source! Maybe it’s the easiest veg option for them since they don’t have much in that department, but still, an entire meal that is cold and crunchy militates against even my not-too-Indian inclinations . I can do with a great quail’s egg and asparagus ‘salad’ for instance, but not something that arrives looking like a cabbage patch.

I pondered over this fact as my Londonbased colleague Sudeshna Sen sagely warned me against rare steaks or ‘pink’ lamb chops, telling me that our Indian constitutions cannot handle that underdone meat overload. That’s traditionally the preserve of hardy, agrressive Caucasians, not mild, philosophical Asians, after all... By that same logic, could this sudden preference for green leaves of kinds, from rocket (arugula to those more US-inclined ) to radicchio, endives to chicory, dandelion to god-knows-what be a consequence or a cause of a Britain gone soft? The nation that once conquered continents with meat on the hoof or encased in intestines, now talks of welfare benefits and lives on handouts.

I noted with interest that the Pakistani taxi driver on the airport beat dines frugally on kebabs and naan and works 18 hour days including Sundays , and his white Brit counterpart nibbles Caesar salad – and perhaps hummous, falafel and tabbouleh – has four day weekends funded by unemployment benefits! Could this be an indication of where the future of that nation lies?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Shame, shame La Martiniere

OK so it's my husband's old school and has a building that I've always admired when I visit Calcutta. But it is both a commentary on the school and the adults associated with it -- teachers and parents -- that the Victorian, if not medieval practice of caning continues within the hallowed portals of La Martiniere for Boys. At a time when we have dumped so many of the mores of parenting and teaching, that this sadistic ritual is allowed is a downright indictment of all those associated with it.
Who is surprised that an internal inquiry of the school exonerated the perpetrators, considering that the men -- the prefix 'gentle' cannot be affixed to these creatures -- are their own colleagues and boss? It seems highly unlikely that young Rouvanjit Rawla was the only obstreperous boy who was chastised in a manner that should have gone out with Tom Brown's Schooldays. This unfortunate teenager has merely become the tragic symbol of this barbarism-in-the-garb-of-d
iscipline as I am sure he was not the last boy to be caned thus in that school.
Why did the other teachers not protest that this practice was against the law -- besides being barbaric and of no use when it comes to instilling 'discipline'? Why were there no whistle blowers in La Martiniere? What message does the teaching faculty then send out to the student body about moral, upright behaviour? What lessons are young impressionable minds supposed to draw from the spectacle of an older man caning a young boy? Are there the values we want our youngsters to imbibe and perpetuate?
Even sadder is the fact that no other parents came forward to say 'J'accuse' either. No doubt because their sons are still students of the school and they fear reprisals. Only Ajay Rawla has nothing -- not even his son -- to lose any more so he has taken up the cudgels. Is this what parents want their children to learn from them: cow down to injustice, don't challenge autocracy, turn a blind eye if it doesn't affect us..... Is this the Indian of tomorrow we want to nurture?
It is also an indictment of the media and the authorities too that until a young, tormented boy actually took the ultimate step, no one acted to pull up the school. Now, there is a national level inquiry, a snivelling mea culpa from the principal -- who certainly does not deserve that office given his mindset -- a battery of media attention, and a glimmer of hope that an era of torture has ended in a so called premier school. But will the practice really stop or will the relentless glare of the media merely send these cowards -- what other kind of person would inflict pain on one who cannot retaliate? -- back into their ghastly little holes to wonder how their perverted behaviour can be explained away for the time being, to be resumed when the hubbub has died down?
And will anyone spare a thought for the children in other school the rod is not being spared too? Why should the inquiry committee only look at La Martiniere? There are countless schools where corporal punishment is practised even as it is banned on paper. Will justice be denied to other Rouvanjit Rawlas simply because it has not come to the notice of the media -- and hence the authorities and the world?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Amorous Indians

The case of David Davidar reiterates my belief that there is a fundamental disconnect between what we say or do and what others read it to mean, especially if cultural and racial differences kick in.
We all know that the stereotypical image of a white woman (or even a 'westernised' Indian woman) is that she is flirty and 'available'. And we know that the average Indian male is thought of as lecherous and pushy. If that is not a crucial disconnect, what is? Add to that positions of power and competing ambitions and the signals get crossed even further.
This is not to say that victims and perpetrators are always clearly distinguishable. Some women can take advantage of the lecherous male as much as men can take advantage of an 'available' woman. The problem is that there's always a payday -- or a comeuppance. At some point the women want more for the 'advantage' they gave, or the men want more for the patronage they showered. Then things come unstuck.
That's when an iconic IT boss has to hightail it back from the US, when an Indian designer finds himself in the dock and when an MNC advertising boss has to make a hurried exit. All this, of course, applies to the interactions between consenting adults, not minors (which is both illegal and immoral) even though there is a skew in the power equation.
Things can also go disastrously wrong if there are cultural differences, for then the parties remain unaware of crossed signals. Is a peck on the cheek just an informal greeting (or even a formal one, as in some European cultures) or a mark of interest? Is a hug a gesture of affection or a suggestion? Is a meal after office a simple convivial evening or a prelude to a romantic relationship? Is a risque text message a friendly, comradely exchange or an overture?
All too often, two people can progress along this path in parallel lanes, quite oblivious to the fact that the signals are being read wrongly all along. Till the unthinkable happens.... One decides to change lanes and come closer to the other. And then there is a crash.
Whether Davidar is guilty of a midlife crisis or something more serious may hinge on just this.