Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Who let the dog out?

It's a word that's used to express anger, shock, awe, disgust - even joy. It's a word that's extremely commonly used in the everyday language of young people but one rarely appears in the mainstream media.

Yes, even I hesitate to use the F word - both in polite company and in my writing.

But as the publisher of a youth magazine it's a question we have had to grapple with. When rock bands give us interviews, for example, they often use the F word. And we censor the same by printing f***.

That has been the established convention. But does it make sense anymore? The F word is being used as a verb, a noun, an adjective, or merely for effect and attitude. It's lost its original meaning or edge.

Besides, the word commonly appears on the internet. Not cloaked under *** but in its full glory.

Conventional wisdom
There was this one time JAM published the F word minus the ****. It was a sub-editing mistake.

Well, the only person who noticed was a fellow journalist - he didn't think it was a good idea at all. Not a single reader wrote it to say he/ she found it offensive.

Yet, after a heated debate, we decided to stick to journalistic convention. It felt a little wannabe to do otherwise.

But it looks like times may be changing... A recent issue of DNA - a completely mainstream paper with family readership - has taken the liberty of breaking the Rule.

In an interview with film maker Tarsem Singh published in the paper's Brand-Equity type supplement 'Ad Zip' last week, the F word is used in full - not once but twice. (Sorry, no web link - DNA has no online version yet).

Was this a policy decision, or a sub-editing mistake? Would be interesting to know! And was I the only one to notice or have there been a ton of responses - negative and positive - from readers?

My view is that certain lines have to be drawn and maintained. If newspapers started publishing news in sms format bcause that is the lingo of the day - well, that would be a rather sad day!

Which is why I can't really digest this strange bit of news: A high school in England is allowing the f-word to be used in each class, but only five times per class...

Is it an experiment in reverse psychology (allow them say it - then they won't feel like it?). Or one confused, desperate-to-be-hip school! What's next? Teachers lobbying to use the F word 5 times in every lecture, perhaps.

The world is well and truly fucked.

'And we all fall down'!

'End of life as they know it', reports the TOI.

Thousands of residents are being evacuated by MHADA following the 4th collapse of a century-old building in Mumbai. The media has already rushed out and labelled it an epidemic.

I've spent approximately 4 years of my working life in such a building. When JAM started up, it was the only kind of office it could afford. Our first such abode was a 100 sq ft large and located at building no 52, 3rd Marine St in Dhobi Talao.

To reach it one had to climb a rickety flight of stairs. A portion of the building had collapsed some years ago - only the front was still standing. In defiance of the laws of physics, in all probability!

Chawl Chalan
Here, I learnt a few things about residents of condemned buildings - not all of them are really poor. One of our immediate neighbours was a Catholic family - a lady and two young infants. The father - I was surprised to learn! - worked in the merchant navy.

Why would a family that earned enough to move elsewhere choose to stay in a 100 sq ft space? A space where you had to cook your food in a corner of the 'living' room, and queue up for a communal toilet every morning?

The same question bothered me at our second office: 1/23 Bhiku Building, Veer Savarkar Marg ( You might recollect seeing the spiffy 'murti' showroom 'Aakar' while stuck in traffic on that road sometime. First floor of that same building).

Here too, we had a Catholic neighbour - an old lady with her son and daughter-in-law. By this time I'd figured out that chawl furnishing did not vary much. Chiefly, it consists of:
* One really Large Bed which serves 2 purposes: you sleep on it; store your worldly possessions under it!
* One TV - precariously perched on a metal/ wooden shelf
* One stove in the 'cooking corner'.

During the course of our 3 years in that building the daughter and son-in-law managed to create and give birth to a baby girl. I could not help but wonder... kab? kaise??

Maybe the old lady had turned helpfully hard of hearing by then.

Stuck in the past
Another old couple residing in the same building - but in a much smaller size chawl -had 2 sons living in Dubai, and one quite well to do daughter in Thane. Despite pleas from the kids, this couple would not consider moving.

'Yehi hamari life hai', they believed. This was their comfort zone; their extended community.

Yes, the prime location of the building had attracted many builders who promised to convert the mess into a skyrise - along with flats for the original tenants. But doing this required the signatures of all existing tenants and owners and getting that was proving impossible.

Many tenants believed they would be out in the cold - and that was not a fear unfounded. There are horror stories of families stuck in 'transit' camps for years and years. There are horror stories of tenants never receiving their promised flats. And so on and so forth.

But at the heart of the matter lies the unwillingness of most chawl residents to contemplate change. To be happy with whatever they have, and not strive for more - whether individually, or collectively.

Take the merchant navy family. If it did move, yes there would be some initial separation anxiety from the old milieu. But in a few months time the luxury of space, of modern amenities like personal bathrooms, the privacy - all these would make it impossible for them to move back!

Time to pay up
I personally feel the squatter mentality has to go - rents frozen since World War II have to revised upwards. Perhaps not all at once, but a start must be made somewhere!

Many rent-controlled properties are sub-let at handsome prices; others used as commercial space. So it's hardly a case of protecting the poor. A survey can be undertaken to identify those who are really unable to cough up. The rest must start paying up.

Will this pinch? Yes, just like the home loan I've taken to buy a house in distant Vashi pinches me!

Bottomline: There are many possible solutions - none of them easy - but nothing at all can be achieved unless people stop resisting the very idea of change!

Perhaps it's the young people growing up in this sub-standard housing who will be the change agents, persuading their parents to think beyond greed and beyond convenience.

At least, I hope so! If you do not willingly embrace change, it will tip-toe into your life and silently smother you. In the case of these old buildings - quite literally!

Monday, August 29, 2005

Washing maketh woman?

Detergent advertising has reached new highs - or new lows - depending how you look at it. The latest ad for Surf Excel is trying to sell us the idea:"Daag accha hai."

Yeah, right.

This particular ad seems to have been given the following brief: Housewives love cute kids. Find two such specimens and build some story. After all, it worked for Pepsodent ...

So you have a little girl who stains her dress by walking through a puddle. And a little boy 'hitting' the puddle to punish it for spoiling the girl's dress - in the process becoming quite a mess himself. Cho chweet no?

It's the 'daag acccha hai' line at the end that's hard to stomach. It's no fun getting your favourite clothes stained, and never will be!

Are you washsome, tonight?
Of course, it is tough being brand manager of a detergent. You have to produce 30 seconds of brand communication to air in the ad breaks during K serials. Year after year. Even though you have nothing new to communicate...

Everything that could be said about the benefits of cleanliness and daaglessness has been. Husband ka promotion, society mein izzat, bachche ka future - all the demons have already been invoked.

I have a little bit of inside info on the world of detergents, having spent 2 months of my life conducting an elaborate survey on 'wash attributes'. This was part of my MBA summer training at Lintas.

In those days the 'Bombay 1' unit handled all the Lever's business and was regarded simultaneously as the most prestigious and most pakau of assignments. I once spent a day fascinated by an artist making 15 variations of Rin packaging. You had to look very carefully to notice the difference between 'em!

But it was a somewhat interesting time as Ariel had just been launched and Surf had a fight on its hands. Personally, I was an Ariel fan - it had made the washing of clothes in the hostel so much easier than the traditional ragadte raho method.

I have completely forgotten what findings the survey threw up; if any. But I will never forget that there were 17 'wash attributes'. Cleans... Whitens... Keeps clothes bright... Keeps clothes like new... Removes stains easily... Removes tough stains... Gentle on hands... Keeps husband faithful ...

OK, I made that last one up but you never know. Going by the fanatic devotion wives in detergent ads have traditionally had towards whiteness and brightness, I'm thinking there has to be a deeper, primeval reason.

Wonder if Marilyn Monroe's problem might have been not using the right detergent. Maybe gentlemen really prefer whites. With fresh lemony fragrance.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Splogger's Park

The latest in spam trends a while ago was 'spim' (spam on IM). Now it's 'splogs' (spam blogs). What's more these blogs have some kind of automated bot which goes and adds authentic sounding but totally irrelevant comments to genuine blogs.

Samples of this crappy technique can be found on the comments section of my previous post. Sometime in the wee hours, in the space of 20 minutes, 4 'sploggets' made an appearance. (dunno if the word 'sploggets' exists but it sounds apt to describe spam blog comments!)

The intriguing thing is unlike spam mail there is actually an attempt to 'personalise' and make the spam sound like a comment from a real person. Check these samples:

Hi good blog! I'm gonna bookmark for future reference. I have a pet supply chicago site/blog. It pretty much covers pet supply chicago related stuff. Come and check it out if you get time :-)

Well you obviously have not read my blog or you'd know I live 3000 miles from The Windy City!!!

Bloggs are such a wonderful way to plublish ones thoughts. Thanks for letting me visit and leave a comment. Link to Low carb diet store.

I let you visit? That's news! The spelling mistakes are a nice 'bozo' touch.

My boss doesn't want me to surf on company time, but I had to check out your blog and leave my comment. I think you've done a good job on it. I hope you don't mine if I use some of your ideas on my own blog about engine information marketing niche search.

Flattery gets creative - still doesn't work coz anyone who's blogging has the brains to know a real person didn't write that!

What'd'yu do 'bout it
Kaps at Sambharmafia wrote about the attack of the 'splogs' a week ago and suggested users of blogger go to the comments section and add a 'word verification' option. That's a great idea - I shall do it right away.

The moral of the story is that whenever any medium becomes slightly popular you have unwanted marketing intruding on that space. In the case of the internet it's not only unwanted but random and untargeted since it's 'free'.

Spam - even with a .02 % response rate may have worked with email - since every old idiot uses email. But I don't think it will work on blogs because it's still a more elite and IQ driven universe.

Afterthought: Has Google Adsense worked for any of you? I signed up but never actually inserted the code since I couldn't figure out how it might make me money... I have never clicked on an Adsense banner myself.

This is not a matter of principle or anything. It's just that the ads served on Indian blogs - the ones I read more often - are pretty uninteresting. That could change with time, of course.

As of now, the only way I see the cash pouring in is via 'click cartels'. Like I noticed on a popular blog references to MASAT: Mutual Adsense Amukkum treaty...

I'm no Tamil expert but I'm guessing that means "I'll click on your banner, you click on mine". Scratch scratch.

Perhaps there are bots who do this kind of thing... Program how many "splicks" (spam clicks) you want and watch the $ pouring in. But hark, Big Brother Google has probably figured that out - and is watching!

Friday, August 26, 2005

On 'top' of the world

There are two important rituals associated with kiddie birthday parties

a) handing over the gift at the start of the party
b) demanding the return gift at the end of the party

Teaching a six year old to say 'thank you' instead of grabbing the gift from outstretched hands is quite a task. Selecting an appropriate return gift is equally bothersome.

More so if you're in south Bombay, of course, where the gifts are designed more to impress the moms than the birthday child's friends. So you not only have to have jugglers/ magicians/ clowns-on-hire but also 'unique' return presents. Such as handmade caps with the names of all 40 kids invited to the party embroidered on them.

Why 40? Because every child in the birthday boy/ girl's class - along with respective maids/ mothers - must be on the guest list. Never mind the chaos!

Cake n chips
Things are a lot more 'normal' in my part of town. Good old middle class Vashi. We believe in the ekdum regular return gifts such as pencil boxes and lunch boxes.

Magar this year the friendly shopkeeper at 'Anil Plastics', my one-stop 'party supplies' shop whipped out something new: 'Beyblades'.And yes, when those kids ripped open their gifts, suddenly, I was the coolest mom on Planet Earth.

So who or what is a Beyblade? Well, it's just a fancy name for one of the most ancient toys known to mankind: the spinning top. The Beyblade comes with a 'rip cord' which allows you to launch it at a phenomenal speed as well.

I remember playing with something similar when we were kids. Of course, it's a lot more 'exciting' in this new avatar - and backed by a TV series as well. Cartoon Network India has authorised Funskool to retail 'beyblades' based on the show's characters. Priced between Rs 149-349, 100,000 units have already flown off the shelves...

Now of course what I bought was not the 'real' beyblade - it was a Chinese rip-off costing 30 bucks. But it works pretty well.

There are actually a large number of variations - even in the 'official' beyblade series - with names like 'Wolborg', 'Dranzer' and 'Dragoon Fighter'. Successful kid fads are always collectibles. That keeps interest alive - and the cash registers ringing.

Collect All
The most recent such craze was, of course, Pokemon cards. But I remember my brother collecting similar cards for racing cars, and cricketers. And when I was really tiny I had an impressive collection of little animals which came free with Cibaca/ Binaca toothpaste...

The right collectible can hugely drive kiddie product sales. At my chachaji's wedding I recall we were the baraatis who ordered Gold Spot after Gold Spot. The drink lay untouched while we kids fought over the Jungle Book 'crown caps'!

Aside: Some of us even fantasised how nice it would be to work as a waiter ... Uske paas kitne crown caps hote honge!

Coming back to beyblades - one of the potato chip companies is already on the bandwagon. They have a little top you can assemble out of 4 cardboard pieces with excellent spinning capability.

If they're smart, the cornflakes, soft drinks and chocolate companies will soon follow!

Bottomline: Kids aren't inherently couch potatos or mouse potatos. They do enjoy physical sport/ activity. The challenge is to re-package all the classic children's games and sports in a manner that appears modern and cool.

It's all about capturing their imagination. Both Harry Potter - which revived interest in books, and Beyblades - which have made a rage out of the simple spinning top - prove that!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Tere mere beach mein

It seemed like a surefire way to catapult this beach into the ranks of Bali and Waikiki: a 10% discount for anyone in a bikini.

The scheme was cooked up in 2003 when South Korean officials were looking for a way to attract tourists to a stretch of sand on the western coast of the country. So they renamed it Byeonsan "Bikini" Beach.

Alas! A name change + discount offer was not enough to change attitudes. Barely 10% of beachgoers are estimated to have opted for bikinis - and even that number was probably on the inflated side.

So why don't Korean women patronise bikinis? Broadly I would think the same set of reasons that Indian women don't -
a) They feel self-conscious esp. if their bodies are less than perfect
b) They have no interest in getting tanned - fair skin, after all rules in Asia.
c) Add to that possibly the lech factor - don't know about Korea but in India even wearing a one piece swimsuit attracts gawkers. Goa mein bhi!

Itsy bitsy teeny weenie - no thanks

I think it's all about 'safety in numbers'. The standard 'beachwear' for women in India is a hiked up nylon sari or salwar kameez. The more Westernised junta will roll up their jeans or perhaps wade into the water in shorts.

So the tiny minority which does don Speedo automatically attracts eyeballs.

Now as far as feeling awkward in a swimsuit goes - that is a very real problem. But again, it's more about cultural context and not just a body image issue.

Even perfectly endowed Indian women would feel uncomfortable wearing a bikni in public. In our culture it's akin to being 'nanga'.

Are all bikini wearers in phoren countries perfect 10s? Looking at the
the Baywatch beach you might think so but hey - those washboard abs are on hire.

On real beaches in Florida or even Goa you will see plenty of old, freckled and less-than-shapely ladies soaking in the sun in their one or two piece swimmies.

They don't care what anyone thinks! Sun and sand is meant to be enjoyed in this clothing - so why be inhibited and spoil one's fun?

Which is exactly the attitude of Indian men at the beach. Paunchy, extra-hairy, stick-thin - the Indian guy has no qualms about stripping down to his Rupa underwear.

Yes, sadly you see plenty of those on public beaches - along with guys in proper swimming trunks. Doesn't make for a pretty sight but hey - one must admit this is an area where the bhaarat putras are not lacking in confidence!

They don't even bother to suck in their stomachs while sauntering by...

Hope floats
There is however an interesting new development - Indian women are finally embracing a uniquely desi version of the swimmming costume: Nylon tights with oversize nylon tees.

Visit Esselworld's Water Kingdom - where 'swimming costume' is compulsory to enter the water - and you'll see women short, fat, young and old all togged out in this somewhat strange but socially acceptable adaptation of the swimsuit.

The tights come in ankle and knee length versions; the most popular colour is navy blue.

The suits are available on hire but I'm wondering why doesn't some smart company market the concept? Nike or Adidas could actually sell such costumes - and make a success of it.

This in turn might encourage more Indian women to actually take up swimming instead of the standard sight you see at all but the most upscale holiday resorts: women watching their husbands and kids splashing around in the pool from a safe distance.

Even that would be a big enough revolution... Bikinis? Now that will take another hundred years! Unless some secret ingredient is added to our morning milk which mutates the ogle-ogle gene in mankind.

Ashton Kutcher being voted American President sounds rather more plausible...

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The God of All Things

Visiting a temple has always been an 'outing' for the average Indian. Especially so for housewives.

Long before early morning walks in salwar kameez and Reeboks became socially acceptable, the only excuse bahus had to get some fresh air and 'darshan' of the outside world was to say,"Maaji, main zara mandir ho kar aa rahi hoon".

You could even dress up a bit for the occassion - and get away with it.
What's more, given the number of festivals and fasting days on the Hindu calendar, there was always some God or Godess who would need to be paid a personal visit.

These were the thoughts in my mind as I stepped into Akshardham. The grand Swaminarayan temple in Gandhinagar - now better known as the temple once held hostage by terrorists.

You can't really forget that - given the elaborate, airport-style security at the gate. If yor mobile phone has a camera, even that will have to be surrendered outside.

Kotler would be proud
However the trouble is worth it. It's truly an impressive complex. The gardens are immaculate and lush green. Not a piece of kachra to be seen anywhere. And the temple building itself is grand - by any standard.

Of course, once you are inside the temple you're slightly disoriented. There are no Ram-Sita/ Krishna/ Durga statues. Or the standard shiv-lingam. It is after all a 'Swaminarayan' temple, so you have a giant golden (or is it pure gold?) statue of Swaminarayan maharaj.

No explanation of any kind is given about him. To learn about his claim to sainthood there is of course the 'exhibition hall'. Here, there are giant tableaus of key scenes from the Ramayan, Mahabharat, Upanishads et al. Some of the exhibits are mechanised in "It's a Small World" style.

Welcome to Spiritual Disneyland.

The ultimate objective, of course, is to build the Swaminarayan brand. To associate this relatively new spiritual name with the old and established names in the religious supermarket.

So we're also given an education in the life and times of Swaminarayan. Now whether or not you leave the hall accepting the fact that Swaminarayan is an avatar of God is debatable. But the idea of planting the seed of that thought in this manner is quite brilliant.

Pet + Pooja
What's more, the Akdhardham complex is now a full-fledged 'entertainment' centre. There are amusement park style rides - including a water slide. And a very clean, cheap and cheerful food court offering everything from paranthas to "nuddles". (their spelling, not mine).

In an era of multiplexes and malls, Akshardham is also working hard to retain its place as destination families choose to go to on a Saturday evening. And I think in that objective it has certainly succeeded!

Sky game

If our feathered friends had a news network of their own, this is what one of the top headlines would have read like last night: "Innocent bird killed in hit-and-land accident".

"Aaj shaam chhe baje Ahmedabad airport ke nikat ek pakshi ki Spicejet ke hawaai jahaaz se takra kar achaanak maut ho gayi... "

But was it a mere accident or was it a jehadi bird which decided to propel itself - suicide bomber style - into the engine? The idea being to ground these man-made flying machines marauding the once-peaceful blue skies?

Either way, Spicejet was grounded at Ahmedabad airport. And with no certainty of when the plane would take off - if at all - passengers ended up playing 'musical flights'. Most chose to take the full refund offered and get on to alternate airlines.

Eventually both tempers and temperatures cooled. And Spicejet did manage to take off.

But it got me thinking - flying the friendly skies was never so easy - or so complicated! And not just for us humans...

It's a bird! It's a plane!!! Thank God there is no Superman.

Friday, August 19, 2005

The Ya-Ya Sister-Brotherhood

The peculiar 'paavan parv' of Rakshabandhan is upon us. I use the word peculiar because it is one the few Indian festivals which seems to have no strong 'storyline'. Unlike a Diwali or Holi or Janamashtami, where the myth or legend behind the celebration is widely known.

Google search of course reveals there are several possible origins. But honestly, while the Hindu pantheon of Gods has several heavyweight couples (Ram-Sita, Shiv-Parvati), there is no such brother-sister example.

Whatever the origin, there was something sweet about this sister-tying- thread-to-brother concept due to which it has not only survived but thrived. Even as other, more 'religious' festivals fall by the wayside.

Raksha, my foot!
When I was really young I thought it was very cool that we sisters got to tie the rakhi and get 'maal' from our brothers.

The situation was qute ridiculous, of course. A hundred rupee note would be slipped into the chubby fingers of my little brother as we both smiled into the camera whipped out on such ceremonial occassions.

As time went by I was bemused and then somewhat angered by this concept of brothers 'protecting' sisters. I mean at that time my brother - five years younger to me - was the one more in need of protection than me!

But you know what, rakhi is too sweet a festival to get worked up about for feminist reasons. So we sisters now gloss over the protection bit and treat it like an extortion ritual.

Speaking of which the commercial possibilities of the festival are being exploited to the fullest. I especially like the creativity behind the 'kid rakhis' - Pokemon rakhis, Tweety rakhis, even Harry Potter rakhis!

And of course, there's the new and promising business of 'send a rakhi through our website'. More and more bhais and behens are living in different cities - even continents. And more and more sisters like me wake up 3 days before the festival and realise "post karna bhool gaye". Business can only grow, I tell you!

Another happy trend is Cadbury's launching its special mooh meetha karne ke liye 'gift boxes'. This spares junta from exchanging boxes of ghee laden mithais which lie uneaten in the fridge and are eventually given away to the bai!

Avoid this
Rakhi can however be extremely trying - for those who have no siblings of the opposite sex. And they are inevitably tempted into creating 'rakhi brothers' and 'rakhi sisters'.

This is thoroughly and completely avoidable. Simply because there are too many examples of girls tying rakhis to the boy next door door for 15 years before realising "Arrey! I'm in love with this guy".

And needless and endless complications follow. No one plots for this to happen but nature has its mysterious ways. You can't ensure you will feel brotherly or sisterly except to a real, blood-related brother or sister.

So what do you do? I say we also promote same-sex rakshabandhan. Sisters tie to sisters, brothers to brothers. Only kids to their (same sex) best friends.

I know this sounds strange, and slightly kinky. But it's way less kinky than eventually marrying your rakhi brother or sister!

Bhaiyya mere...
Another important function rakhi serves in India: it's a polite way to refuse unwanted attention from a guy.

You don't even have to actually tie the rakhi, just casually mention what day it is and dangle one in front of the guy in question :)

In a manner of speaking - and strictly tongue in cheek - you could call this manouevre: 'Raakshas bandhan'.

Going by that pheku school pledge, "all Indians are my brothers and sisters". Guess I'll be needing to buy more rakhis.... approximately... half a billion?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Dilwale Dulhania le gaye, aur ab...

It's close to 5 years since Kajol disappeared from Bollywood - one of the few actresses you wish would make a comeback. Well, that's exactly what's happening. Kajol is returning to the silver screen in a Yash Chopra film. Interestingly, it's opposite Aamir Khan - not SRK.

What I don't understand however is the sudden rash of endorsements she's taken up. And that too in 'hum saath saath hain' style with hubby Ajay Devgan.

First, there was the Whirlpool deal. Then came Kotak Mahindra. Now, Tata Indicom.

To be fair, the Indicom ad is actually very entertaining. Ajay plays a country bumpkin accompanied by his ghunghat mein dhaki hui bride.

The salesman at the cellphone shop tries to take them for a ride before Kajol lifts her pallu and in crystal-clear English demands the phone with 'maximum talktime'. Because that's what phones are for - talking. Humein bewakoof na samajhna!

It's a good ad because it's built around a consumer insight. Yet, it's interesting - and the celebrity couple have been used well.

Ek ya do bas!
However, if I were Kajol I would stop accepting any more ads... And believe me there will be many more offers. Because the laws of me-too inevitably operate when it comes to celeb endorsements.

The brand manager for some brand of biscuit or chai-patti is gonna see the Indicom ad and go "eureka"! That's what I need to add zing to my boring old brand... Kajol and Ajay Devgan.

And of course this ad will just show the celebs eating or drinking the product and saying "acchha hai". No insight, no effort, no story, no glory.

After a dozen such ads the viewer no longer remembers WHICH brand the celeb is endorsing anymore. I lost track of Amitabh somewhere after Dabur Chywanprash.

There's a reason why Hollywood stars act in any old Japanese commercial, but not for American dog-food. At least not in their prime... Listen up, Bollywood!

And Kajol, remember, your fans want to see more of YOU. Not as one half of a couple but as an independent entity! The memory of the Bhagyashree-Himalay fiasco still gives us nightmares...

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Beauty... or brains?

"If she weren't a model... She would probably have been employed with a software company, ingeniously developing code for a software package!"

That's not a statement one hears too often... but there it is. 21 year old Mashoom Singha is a first class engineering graduate from Mumbai who has just hit the glamour scene. That's her pic and soundbyte from a recent issue of Midday.

Mashoom follows in the footsteps of Shefali Zariwala, the babe whose claim to fame - besides the 'Kaanta Laga' video - was the fact that she was a student of Sardar Patel College of Engineering. One of the 'most wanted' tech schools in Mumbai.

So what's the big deal? Don't tons of engineers usually end up doing something quite different from their original course of study anyways? The Elex gold medallist may eventually market credit cards while the mechanical or civil dudes chooses to write software. Why does the odd grad entering the glamour world cause a collective ripple in the engineering student community?

Books vs looks
It all boils down to well-established stereotype: Beauty and brains do not co- exist.

As in people are either beautiful, or they are brainy (in conventional, IQ terms) Rarely, if ever, do both qualities converge in a single human being.

Folks who clear intense entrance exams to 'most wanted' professional courses are like Pentium 4 PCs. Considering the chip on their shoulders, they ought to bear the same blue sticker: 'intel inside'.

Intel junta are endowed with faster processing speeds and can handle a lot more data than the average bloke. But if there's one thing they generally lack it's drop dead gorgeous good looks.

Why, I wonder? Is it God's way of balancing the universe? Kabhi khushi, kabhi gham. Brains zyaada, toh beauty kam?

As one IITian puts it, tongue firmly in cheek: “There is nothing wrong with the intelligence of girls in our country. It's just the fact that the government does not want us to get distracted so they intentionally select very few average looking girls in IITs (based on the photo they send for JEE) irrespective of their performances.”

Well, well, well. The striking thing is how most discussions on looks - or lack of them - centre on the female of the species. The average female IITian may not be Miss India material - neither is the average male IITian likely to be a finalist at the Gladrags supermodel contest!

But then again, different standards apply. Take a profession where looks are extremely important, such as airline cabin crew. The air hostesses - bar Indian Airlines - will invariably have twinkling eyes, near-perfect teeth and flawless complexions. The stewards will fulfil the height and weight criteria but rarely outstanding in the attractiveness department.

Nothing even half as dishy as the average waiter in Kashmir. Sigh!

Blondes prefer gentlemen

There are a multitude of theories that come to mind.

Firstly, it could be that those who are born beautiful - especially girls - have less incentive to slog and make it through entrance exams. They have enough opportunities, enough self-esteem and enough admiration from the world already.

Conversely, those who are lacking in the looks department would compensate by trying to gain coveted qualifications.

This works especially well for men. Because women generally look for 'high status' when choosing mates. As researchers Satoshi Kanazawa and Jody Kovar of the London School of Economics point out," More intelligent men are more likely to attain higher social and economic status than less intelligent men".

So even though they may be unappealing looks-wise, an IIT/ IIM/ H1 B visa holder who's 'doing well' in life will have tipped the scales adequately in his favour.

On the other hand, conclude the researchers, "Brains are a plus for beautiful women, but they aren't the main attraction.".

In fact women who are beautiful and brainy often try to play down their intelligence. Watch Aishwarya Rai giggling and you’ll know what I mean… How do I conclude she has brains in the first place? Well, I’m guessing she didn’t into architecture school by fluttering her blue-green eyes!

A bonafide career path
Besides, women have to contend with what Dan Ondrack - a professor at the University of Toronto - calls the "Boopsey" effect: If women are too gorgeous, people assume they are airheads.

So why battle these prejudices? Had Mashoom and Shefali decided to go join Infosys or TCS, can you imagine how much harder they’d have had to work at:
a)Proving they were as smart and capable as anyone else
b)Fending off unwanted admirers.

Whatever their reasons for getting into engineering in the first place, it makes perfect sense for them to garb this chance to opt out. And get paid simply for looking good.

Although I must add, ‘looking good’ on a sustained basis is no mean task. It’s not just genius that’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Much the same applies to beauty.

Va va voom involves spending hours in curlers and under blow driers. Painting on make up, panting in gyms. Constantly worrying what to wear and what not to eat. All of which sounds like harder work than using your brains, to some of us…

But given that you’re ok with that kind of thing – and you get the right break – it is possible to have a ‘career’ based on looks. Not just a few years of timepass.

You can begin with modelling, easily get into television and if lucky - Bollywood. And a few years down the line - if you play your cards right – no more do you necessarily fade away.

Former stars – both major and minor – have plenty of earning opportunities. From starting up choreography and grooming schools to cutting ribbons for designer sari showrooms. They make guest appearances in films and much touted 'comebacks' on K soaps. And at the very least, rake in the bucks hawking miraclulous products on late night television.

Which means that the conventional wisdom, which says ‘get a degree, get a qualification’ is not necessarily any good. After a decade as a model and minor actress, can Aditi Govitrikar expect to ever ‘fall back on’ her MBBS degree?

No, because it’s experience – and not mere degrees – that count. The doctors who graduated with Aditi would have racked up

Marriage as a career
And let’s face it, marrying and ‘settling down’ is also a valid career choice for women. Even those with the fanciest of degrees.

So, beautiful girls who intrinsically know they are ‘in demand’ in the marriage market may choose – and even be encouraged – not to be overly intellectually qualified.

High status (intelligent) men + Beautiful (not completely dumb) women = Offspring with both beauty and brains.

And there you have the question once again – especially relevant if you are a woman: Should you cash in on your dimaag or your derriere?

It’s a beautiful dilemma...

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

'Dirty' dancing

So, Mumbai's dance bars are history. Not sure what moral angle it will serve with most of the affected girls saying the only alternative for them is prostitution. But I guess Mr R R Patil knows better.

What's even more confounding however is this report in the Indian Express dt Aug 13: "Don't dance, this is Bangalore".

It’s being called the ‘Talibanisation of Bangalore.’ Dharam Singh’s capital has gone a step ahead of R.R. Patil’s Mumbai as moral police have brought night life in India’s most international city to a grinding halt.

A new law ‘Licensing and Controlling of Public Entertainment (Bangalore City) Order, 2005,’ originally introduced to curb the unregulated growth of dance bars/cabarets, or ‘live-band joints’ as they are known in Bangalore, has pulled the shutters on night life in the city.

The law which came into force on June 24 is seeing owners of not just cabarets but also lounge bars, restaurants and discotheques struggling to meet stringent licensing conditions.

As many as 49 establishments, falling into different brackets, have sought licenses for entertainment under the new rule but none has been granted since the police have not been satisfied with compliance.

So the work-hard, party-hard city is now being tucked into bed by 11:30 pm.

Don't know whether to laugh or cry at this bit:

At restaurants and lounge bars—with or without dance floors—owners these days get into a nervous tizzy even if clients tap their feet or nod too vigourously to the music. Over 150 plainclothed policemen are on the prowl to book anybody, dancer or owner, for dancing without a license.

"You can be arrested for dancing. You also cannot play music that provokes dancing. We have had to put sofas and fill spaces to prevent customers from dancing," says Amardipta Biswas, owner of Taika and Cosmo Village, two of the city’s in-vogue lounge bars and restaurants.

Apparently, night clubs are now playing 'classical music' to ensure patrons are not 'incited' to dance. Bangaloreans - confirm! - is this REALLY true??

What your problem is?
I've never been a party animal - discos aren't quite my scene. But that's my problem. I feel claustrophobic in small spaces populated with sweaty bodies, extra-loud music and smoke.

Besides, I am just not a 'natural' - my body doesn't 'move to the music'. But like I said that is my own predisposition.

There are tons of people who like to let their hair down on a Saturday night - and they should be free to do so. Yet this is what Deputy Commissioner of Police (admn) B Shivakumar has to say, "The new law is for the good of the people. Why should people stay out late and spoil their own health..."

Shivakumar is free to police his own sons and daughters - not all of Bangalore city!

As long as the patrons at nightclubs are over 18 or 21 or whatever the prescribed legal age where is the problem?

We can choose to stay up late.

We can choose to dance.

We can choose to consume alcohol.

Whether in a nightclub or in the privacy of our homes... None of these activities is illegal!

Meanwhile every Bollywood film has five numbers where girls and boys are gyrating to music - disco and otherwise... Is dancing so dangerous that it needs to be reduced to a spectator sport?

Friday, August 12, 2005

The 'Mathematics' of Dating

Applied mathematicians studying dating is about as likely to deliver credible results as gorillas solving quadratic equations.

That's what I conclude at least after reading about this mathematical model created by researchers at University College London to explore the role of gift-giving in courtship.

A team of applied mathematicians created a sequential calculation as a model of dating... The researchers assigned points to an array of courtship behaviors, including gift-giving. The computer considered the hypothetical facts, mulled over a few variables and calculated which behaviors would result in the highest score for the imaginary male or female dater.

The researchers varied the type of gift the man could give. (Political correctness aside, it was a given that the man was the pursuer and gift-giver.)

So you had a choice of worthless, valuable or extravagant gifts.

Valuable gifts = diamonds for example. Items with usefulness or resale value

Extravagant gifts = dinner at a fancy restaurant, tickets to a Broadway show or a moonlit serenade. The value of these gifts was just in the experience.

The model showed that extravagant gifts had the highest score for both men and women. This was interpreted to mean: women feel confident that they have found a strong and committed mate when they receive an extravagant gift. And men avoid gold-diggers by giving only gifts that have no intrinsic value.

Hmm. I can see a whole lot of guys go bingo! We knew it. Women want rich guys who can spoil them, no wonder we never make any progress..

But let me just point out a few problems with this mathematical model. Especially if you're in one of those common (for Indian men especially!) situations where you've been secretly infatuated with this girl who barely knows you exist on the planet. Or perhaps knows you, but only as an acquaintance or friend.

Extravagant will not only NOT work in this situation it will have the poor girl running off in the opposite direction. Getting 100 red roses from someone you barely know on Valentine's Day is flattering to a girl only if SHE also has some feelings for you. Just the roses or the dinner won't trigger those feelings.

So an extravagant gift will work fine if you're IN a relationship. Otherwise, if you ask me, the 'worthless' gift variety which the researchers simply overlook could be more potent.

The best kind of worthless gifts are those which involve effort, not money. They indicate you care about the other person, that "I'm there for you".

Sometimes just being emotionally available is a gift. Helping someone with a difficult decision or problem can be a gift (though you should offer advice only if you're asked to). Offering to drop her home if it's late is a gift (she may not accept but your offering to do so will be noted).

But again NONE of this matters if she does not have a basic attraction for you.

Should I tell/ should I not?
Now take this common situation almost every girl (and a few guys) have encountered in their school days.

* Someone who you don't know at all comes up to you, turns red, thrusts a mushy card/ flowers/ other lame gift in your hands. And waits for a response.

If you're a kind hearted soul you just smile and say "So sweet" and somehow squirm out of the situation gracefully.

If you're a mean one you may laugh on his/ her face and walk away. Next thing you know the whole school knows about the incident and the red-faced one is standing in a corner, purple-faced and alone.

Of course he/she eventually gets over it but what I mean is the success rate of this 'cold call I love you' is so negligible that it makes no sense to even try it.

Then there's the second situation which takes place more around college time.
* There is a girl/ guy who is a friend - maybe even a pretty good friend - and you have developed feelings for her/ him. Now you wonder, should I tell/ not tell.

Now this is definitely tricky and while girls do take the initiative these days let's just say more often than not the 'who will bell the cat' question still has to be answered by the guys.

I guess here you have to trust your instinct. Although you may think the girl does not know you like her - she does. And if she likes you back, there will be some subtle signs of it - though she may not actually say it.

If you are getting those vibes - go ahead and take a chance. But if you're not, just keep mum because telling her "I have feelings for you" when there's a 99.9% chance she will reply "I like you as a friend" is a recipe for disaster.

Here's what is likely to happen. And this not my 'feminist' opinion. These are insights from a very interesting guy called David deAngelo who's written an ebook called 'Double your Dating'.

DeAngelo is an amazing writer and I think what he says has cross-cultural relevance. (No I haven't bought the book but the guy has written a bunch of articles to promote his book - this is an longish excerpt from one of them)

A Secret Women Know but Men Don't

Here's the deal: If you do something to "let a woman know how you feel"... but she isn't ATTRACTED to you, then it's going to backfire.

It's going to trigger a feeling that like to call the "Instant Ewww".

The Instant Ewww is just as powerful as the physical and emotional response of ATTRACTION.

Once a woman feels it, YOU'RE DONE.

It's over.

It's like hammering a RAILROAD SPIKE into the coffin.

Once a woman feels the Instant Ewww, she will start behaving differently.

In short, she'll disappear.

So where did I get the concept of the "Instant Ewww"?

I got it from WOMEN.

I have actually heard SEVERAL women use the word "Ewww" when describing how they felt about a guy that was "confessing his love"... of course, these were guys that weren't loved in return.

So what causes the Instant Ewww?

And why would a woman feel it towards a man who was trying to be nice... a guy who was giving her a gift or telling her how he feels?

Because if you think about it from HER perspective, you'll realize that the moment a you do something to "confess", you have created a TURNING POINT in the relationship.

Up until that point, you were harmless.

I mean, women always know how men feel.

She already knew you wanted her.

She knew it from the beginning.

But now that you've started pursuing her and talking about how you feel, you've created a NEGATIVE TENSION that is VERY uncomfortable.

You've triggered an emotion that is repulsive to women. And it does repel them.

In summary...

You can't "make a woman like you" or "change how she feels about you" by doing nice things for her...

Guys think that they need to communicate when they like a woman... as if that's part of the necessary process of getting a girl.

In their minds, it goes like this:

Like her>Tell her you like her>She likes you

Well remember... if you follow this pattern yourself with women who aren't ATTRACTED to you, then it's going to BACKFIRE.

If she's not into you, then it goes like THIS:

She thinks of you as a friend>You tell her you like her>She gets the "Instant Ewwws" and never wants to be around you again...

Now of course this DeAngelo guy advises at this point: "Buy my book to learn the secrets of how to succeed with women". And you know what - it may be a sales pitch and the book may not actually work for you - but he certainly knows more about dating than those lame mathematicians.

Sorry, guys! Courtship is highly complex and can't be distilled into a few sterile numbers and equations. Or there wouldn't be so many mopey single engineers and IITians!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Expectations 'Rising'

So, Mangal Pandey finally releases. Being an Aamir Khan film junta has high hopes, and expectations.

Films based on historical characters, however, can be tricky. Remember Asoka? Not only did Shahrukh and Santosh Sivan fool around with the spelling of his name, they screwed around with the basic story and character.

Ashoka is known to us all as the Emperor who was so repelled by the death and destruction caused at the historic battle of Kalinga that he renounced war and embraced Buddhism.

But that portion never got its due prominence in the film as reel after reel was wasted in unfolding the love story between Asoka and some imaginary princess played by Kareena Kapoor. (I went back home and dug up an ancient Amar Chitra Katha to confirm that fact - the princess never actually existed!).

As Oscar Wilde once said: Any fool can make history, but it takes a genius to write it. To that I would add, it takes an even bigger genius to film it.

The only truly watchable and yet authentic biopic I've seen is 'Gandhi', whose life and thoughts were very well documented both in his own writings and those of his contemporaries.

While staying true to the key events in Gandhiji's life, Attenborough managed to add drama, emotional depth and cinematic sizzle to produce a moving and memorable motion picture.

Fact vs fiction
The point I'm making is that historical films work when they somehow manage to fit our pre-conceived notions of how the character actually existed. And yet add some elements which raise the effort above documentary, to the level of a film.

In the case of Mangal Pandey, the beauty is that while the name of the character is familiar to every schoolkid, no one knows much about the guy. So you can embroider all the fiction you want onto the facts and probably get away with it.

As director Ketan Mehta himself admits: "There is not much historical data available about the life of Mangal Pandey except for the episode when he sparked off the revolt. However, a lot has been written about the life of the cantonment and the cultural atmosphere of those days. Besides lots of legends involving him have been passed over the generations. So Mangal Pandey is the mix of this written and oral tradition of history.'

History as you like it
Of course there are many versions of the 'truth'. A book by Oxford educated historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee asks: Mangal Pandey: Brave Martyr or Accidental Hero?

The author claimed Pandey was an ordinary sepoy who, under the influence of bhang, committed a reckless act for which he was hanged. Mukherjee's analysis examined whether Pandey really was the heroic figure history had made him out to be, or just a soldier who happened to get lucky.

The book had its share of controversial statements such as: 'Nationalism creates its own myths. Mangal Pandey is part of that imagination of historians. He had no notion of patriotism or even of India. For him, mulk was a small village, Awadh.'

It also went on to claim that Pandey's action was contrary to the spirit of insurgency: 'A rebellion is a collective will to overthrow an oppressive order. Pandey acted alone; he was a rebel without a rebellion. The name Mangal Pandey meant nothing to the sepoys who raised the revolt in 1857.'

And that too, is quite believable although hardly inspiring...

We've already internalised Mangal Pandey 'the hero' through school history textbooks. Now, with the release of this film the legend has been sealed.

Mr Mukherjee may well be right but it hardly makes a difference!

More than a Mutiny?
Besides the curiosity generated by the Aamir Khan factor, the producers are cleverly playing the patriotic card:

"India. 1857. The British called it the Sepoy Mutiny but for Indians it was the First War of Independence", says the official website.

Of course there was no concept of 'India' as we know it then... We were just a rag-tag collection of princely states.

The primary trigger for the uprising was the belief that pig and beef tallow was being used to grease cartridges. So it was more about protecting one's religion than fighting for your country.

The question is, had the British been more sensitive to such cultural issues - as multinationals are today - would they have been spared the events of 1857?

I'm waiting to see how Mangal Pandey - the film - tackles these issues. Will his rebellion be accompanied by patriotic exhortations - the kind which we associate with the freedom struggle that followed?

Or will the film stick more closely to the facts: that he unwittingly set off a chain of events (Bahadur Shah Zafar, Rani Laxmibai, Tatya Tope etc) which came to acquire some semblance of a 'war of independence'.

Personally, I hope the film makers err on the side of subtlety and don't make it a 'Bharat Mata ki jai' kind of film!

We'll know which way the biskoot crumbles - tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Open invitation to Delhi-ites

It's taken a while but JAM magazine is finally, formally launching in Delhi. Join us for a rocking show featuring Parikrama, Silk Route and Them Clones tomorrow.

Venue: Ramjas college ground, DU north campus
Date: Thu, Aug 11
Time: 12 noon to 5 pm.

Free passes are being given out from the JAM vans in and around the venue. So land up, befikar. Bring your friends if u like!

And yes, we are looking for writers and reporters from colleges across Delhi to contribute to JAM's Delhi supplement - and the magazine as a whole.

If u are interested, do drop me a line at

End of self-promotion. Beginning of a whole new and fun chapter for JAM!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Rail tale

"Testing .. testing... if you are reading this I've just succeeded in blogging via gprs!"

Well, it wasn't to be. As I hurtled towards New Delhi in the August Kranti express, I tried that little experiment in mobile blogging and failed.

However my co passengers succeeded in putting the very same technology to a completely different and irritating use. Every few minutes a cellphone would go off - each with its own characteristic, cacophonic ringtone - and the following kind of inane conversation would follow:

"Chai naasta ho gaya hai"....

"Abhi abhi Surat cross kiya hai"...

"Tum log kya kar rahe ho? Aaj khaane mein kya banaa hai"?

You wish the railways starts providing a pair of earplugs along with those bedrolls and towels. And thank God that mobile phones have to be switched off on board airplanes!

But well, this is 'progress'. A few years ago there was a satellite phone on board for the use of passengers. Not that anyone used the facility. It cost - if I remember correctly - Rs 180 per minute!

Then came mobiles. And roaming. And now, dirt-cheap roaming.

Out went the satphone. Instead, electrical plug points have been helpfully provided in every compartment. So no, you don't even have to worry about your battery running out right after you've discussed the flavour of ice cream served after dinner...

It's not the technology that's to blame of course, but lack of manners and sensitivity among those that use it!

Up grade
On a more positive note, I must say that the Indian Railways is once again doing a great job with its 'prima donna' trains.

I used to be a great fan of the Rajdhani/ August Kranti express - in the pre-budget airline era these were the best options available to a middle class Indian. An Indian whose needs and aspirations have changed over the years - a fact that the Rajdhani did notice and act upon.

My first ever trip by Rajdhani was in the a/c chair car. 16 hours on board a train is as long and cramped as a trans-continental flight, but yet a memorable experience. Because in those days it was a great novelty to travel in an a/c train where they served you food and gave you blankets!

Gradually the chaircar was abolished and Rajdhani became an all-sleeper train. A new 3rd a/c class was introduced which was more expensive. But still considered economical for the kind of comfort it provided.

However, for a long time after that, there was no major innovation or improvement. Until now. The new coaches introduced for the Rajdhani/ August Kranti some time ago -which I experienced for the first time - are amazing.

The windows are now huge and clear, the kind you see in Eurail. The old, noisy fans and ancient clunky light switches are gone. And most importantly, the loos are very clean and never run out of water. Thanks to better design as well as maintenance.

The food, as always, is far better than the cardboard served on airlines. My personal favourite is the dahi served in earthern 'kullads'. The taste of which is truly something else.

Even the menu has improved - there is finally an alternative to 'veg cutlet' in breakfast. You can opt for upma - which is made rather well!

All in all - cell phone commentary aside - a pleasant journey.

Now if only they could shave off about 4 hours and make it a 12 hour ride... Hop on at 8 pm and reach Delhi at 8 am. That is the day I'm waiting for!

A day the budget airlines should be dreading!!

Friday, August 05, 2005

Call me a cynic

Have you smsed your name and 'jaag' to 8558 yet in support of the 'public interest litigation' being filed against "the govt, BMC, mtnl, railways, police etc for the blatant apathy & civic admn 2wrds our city"?

Of course you have. By Thursday night 15,000 smses had been received. By this evening it would surely have crossed the 100,000 mark.

Not that this would be any kind of record considering the numbers Indian Idol and KBC generated from Mumbai alone.

My point is - an SMS involves no pain. And as we all know - no pain, no gain. If solutions were just about smsing our outrage Mumbai would already be Shanghai...

The next step
The people who have filed the PIL are to be commended, of course. But tell me, if you were to be asked to show your support by turning up at court hearings - which may stretch on for the next 1 year - would you be as willing?

Would you take a casual leave to physically take up PIL related work?

Would you actually get involved with an NGO by donating your time and expertise? If not on a working day, on your precious weekend??

The answer to these questions, I suspect, is going to be a whispered "no".

In this city of dreams, "me" and "my work" always comes first.

And so, much as I am amused by Mahesh Bhatt's endless quest for soundbytes and self-publicity - if that's the psychic earning he's getting which motivates him to spend his time on initiating a PIL - we need to applaud his effort.

If there is a lawyer willing to take up this work for free, we must applaud that effort.

And, in our own small way, we must try and make some kind of physical effort.

For example, in 'normal' times, we must prevail upon our local corporators to do their jobs. It may involve 'wasting' time, dealing with red tape etc. But it has to be done... And not just by grey haired senior citizens.

Otherwise we will remain armchair (with mobile in hand) critics. And having vent our anger by 'thumb support' to the cause, get on with life as usual. Until the next time.

And yes, all of the above applies to me - as much as anyone of you reading this!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

'Rush' hour

Ending weeks of speculation, the Mumbai Police today arrested Salil Chaturvedi, managing director of Provogue, and claimed that they ‘‘had clinching evidence’’ against him in the cocaine case.

The police alleged that Chaturvedi had conspired with the other accused in the case to smuggle in cocaine... They then raided his house in Andheri, where they claimed they seized three vials of cocaine.

- Indian Express, Aug 2

Why would a man who knew he was under the police scanner for some time now keep 3 vials of cocaine in his home? There are only two possible explanations:
a) The police planted the evidence, as the Chaturvedis claim
b) The guy is an addict and hence took the risk

The latter may well be true except that the guy doesn't look like a 'druggie' to me. I mean he is rather too hatta-katta ie well-fed. Fardeen Khan, on the other hand did - remember those bloodshot eyes.

But then I have rather antiquated ideas of what druggies look like. Filled in my head in my more impressionable years by serials like Subah which ran in the mid'80s. Where the characters on drugs looked sad, completely wasted, cowering in a corner somewhere. Living from fix to fix.

These days 'drugs' does not mean heroin or brown sugar. Cocaine is the poison of choice and I'm told it's possible to be a merely recreational user...

Psychedelia City
Actually, I have no idea what a cocaine user looks like. Neither have I ever tried it myself.

I have wondered though what the experience might feel like. But, I haven't indulged my curiosity - I subscribe to the school of thought which says 'stay away from drugs coz you never know just how much you might like it'.

There are many who say they have strong enough willpower to use drugs but 'stay in control'. Stay unaddicted.

But I am not convinced. Is it really possible to be an occassional user - devoid of any cravings? Or, does it slowly but inevitably turn into a steep downward spiral... of dil maange more . And more?

Of course, the 'drug' of choice on campuses - which most users don't even consider to be a drug - is grass. And yes, it is legal to smoke pot in Amsterdam and it's fairly common, especially at engineering college campuses in this country. The sickly sweet smell is inescapable at local rock shows...

But again I have never been tempted enough to 'try it'.

Towards a more beautiful mind
However there is a new class of 'mind-enhancing' drugs which I am in two minds about. Dr Anjan Chatterjee of U Penn dubs the new generation of performance enhancing drugs now available as 'cosmetic neurology' or 'nip and tuck' for the mind.

No, I am not referring to viagra when I say performance. One of the drugs in question is called modafinil (sold under the brand name Provigil. It was developed to treat patients with narcolepsy or excessive daytime sleepiness.

However it also works - and apparently without side effects - to keep normal people awake and alert. Meaning the night before an important exam it would allow you to stay up and study till 6 am and then write the paper - still feeling fresh.

I learnt about the existence of this drug when I was researching a story on 'Time poverty' for Businessworld. I came across an article written by a journalist from the Washington Post who'd tried the drug and written a glowing account of his '40 hour day'.

``When this stuff takes over, it takes over,'' wrote Joel Garreau. ``Gently, not violently. No apparent loss of acuity. But you have definitely kicked into a gear you didn't know you had.''

Apparently soldiers in the US have used it too. Would be tempting for apna call centre workers on the night shift - wouldn't it?

However, although the FDA says Provigil is a low-risk drug, and doctors are saying it's safe for short-term medical use no one is sure of the long-term consequences. After all, you are tricking Mother Nature by depriving your body of sleep.

So I guess whether off the street or off the prescription counter recreational use of drugs can never be 'safe'. It's up to each individual to decide how much risk is too much risk.

Though some would say life with no risk, is no life at all...

The Provogue Millions - now tainted?
Coming back to where I began - the arrest of Salil Chaturvedi. The saddest part, in my opinion, is that doubts are being raised on the meteoric rise of Provogue. After all, in just 6 short years since its launch the company known for its colourful polynosic shirts has managed an IPO which was subscribed 8.1 times.

"Coke, not clothes made him millions" alleges the headline in Mumbai Mirror

If Salil is indeed found guilty of selling cocaine one would have to wonder how much that revenue stream has been contributing to the Provogue bottomline... Tainting the whole we-are-young-and-hard-working-and-look-how-far-we-have-come story.

Remember Wintech and Hometrade ?
Hope Provogue is not the next sad chapter in that series.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Star Attraction, Orr not?

An IIM-Calcutta alumnus who "currently works for Business Standard in Mumbai" wrote an unsigned - and extremely funny - article on the poaching of journalists. A phenomenon which has been making news for a while now...

Pre-DNA: Jan 3, 2005: Terrible day. I was rudely woken up by a phone call from Boss complaining loudly that I had missed several stories. Boss warned me that I wouldn't get an increment this year. I decided to send my family to our native village because I can't afford to pay the rent.

Post-DNA: July 3, 2005: Great day. I was woken up by a call from DNA offering me a job as Principal Correspondent with a 100 per cent rise in salary. I immediately told my Boss about the offer. He made a counter-offer on the spot, making me Special Correspondent with a 120 per cent rise in salary!

May a hundred DNAs bloom is a fun read, especially if you happen to work in the media. Or plan to. My only question is: why describe yourself in a manner which makes it obvious who you are... May as well have claimed authorship!

The Bigger Story

Poaching journalists is fine but does what they write really 'sell' the paper? To be on the safe side, DNA has gone and kidnapped Marjorie Orr.

There is this theory that she is half the reason for Mid-day's popularity. The other half being the 'page 3' mate.

Well, DNA at least is hoping that's true. Marjorie ben's 'bhavishyavaani' takes up a whole HALF page (of a broadsheet newspaper!). Every zodiac sign is accompanied by a Bollywood star born under it. And Marjorie gets a colour photograph too.

Maybe that's what convinced her to switch loyalties :)

Wonder if this was DNA's 'big idea'? Or was it the choice of purple and yellow for the masthead?? Because it's 4 days since the paper has been out. I've seen two issues and like the rest of Mumbai, I am less than impressed.

Take today's page 1 DNA headline:
Banks flooded, Husains saved, city acts

I really thought the Husain reference could have been avoided. It gives the whole headline a frivolous feeling. He can paint a few more canvasses! 420 people have DIED in Mumbai alone.

The police commissioner in a boat is a picture we've seen on every TV channel yesterday - so it didn't make much impact either.

The Times of India's "Still in Deep Water" was a far better front page. It captured the seriousness of the situation.

Mumbai Mirror put the Hussain story on page 1 (looks like Mirror and TOI at least check with each other to ensure there is no repetition coz I could not see a Hussain mention in TOI at all)

I don't know what the HT headline reads like coz the vendor in Vashi did not have a copy. But the best coverage of 'July 26 and after' - day after day - has been the Indian Express.

Why you should support Express
Yesterday their front page story was on how the chief of the high powered relief committee set up by the CM is actually holidaying in Spain.

Today, they have done a follow-up on the government's relief efforts: On Day 1, state’s food-relief drive falters

The state government’s plan was simple: Transport foodgrains from the four Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns at Bhiwandi, Panvel, Reay Road and Borivali to the 40 ration centres across Mumbai.

But even as thousands waited inside flooded bylanes for the promised relief, the drive faltered—leading to an 18-hour delay—mainly due to last-minute coordination between unreasonable transporters, the FCI and the Rationing Department.

This is what is known as 'reporting'. You go and physically get information instead of asking for it on the phone or compiling TV reports.

IE readers would also be the first to know that what happened on July 26 was a very unusual meteorological phenomenon called Offshore Vortex.

Today's edition also featured an op-ed by Milind Deora 'City as Hero no 1' where the young MP writes about structural changes required. Coming from a person who may be in a position to effect change at some point in time - it was a valuable 900 words.

I for one am going to continue my Express subscription, despite the fact that it's a bit thin and raggedy in appearance, compared to the new kids on the block. And suggest you do too.

Mid-day fights back
Meanwhile, Midday has got itself a new astrologer - Ofer Cohen - who I think should be able to fill Orr's shoes. The brand is always bigger than any one individual or columnist. Mid-day still has a pick-me-up quality about it. Check today's page 1 story: Mumbai's missing,

It features pictures and details of 28 Mumbaikars 'missing' since last Tuesday. A few appear to be unrelated to the rain, but many are definitely "26th July" cases.

I sincerely hope they are in a hospital somewhere, but both you and I know that some of these people are probably dead, their bodies washed away by the sea.

Reading this story is a chilling reminder of just how bad 26/7 was. Maybe Hussain will be inspired and paint a whole new series of Rs 100 crore paintings.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Beauty gets "real"

"Washing machines with 'silver-nano' technology".
"Shampoos with 'fruitamins'"
"Water with 300% more oxygen".

Buy our products - it's good for your health, home and general well-being. But what about our sanity?

In the general clutter produced by here's-a-great-product-for-you advertising, consumer connect is hard to achieve. Loyalty is elusive - price wars and special offers the only way open to brand managers desperate to move stocks.

But very occassionally, brand managers manage to touch a raw nerve. To make a statement that's relevant to the brand and yet resonates with the audience at a deeper, even primeval level.

That's what Dove appears to have done by featuring 'real' women - not superthin supermodels - in a new ad campaign for a cellulite-control cream. The women appeared - wearing just their bras, underwears and big smiles - on giant billboards, buses and trains in Chicago and other major US markets.

"Our mission is to make more women feel beautiful every day by broadening the definition of beauty," said Philippe Harousseau, Dove's marketing director. The company cleverly launched a 'Campaign for Real Beauty' which addresses the issue of basic female self-esteem .

"How long have we been chasing someone else's idea of beauty?", it asks. Adding, "Real women have real curves'.

This brilliant creative stemmed out of a global study of 3200 women in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Britain and America.

"The Real Truth About Beauty" study noted that, "Just 2% of the women in the study considered themselves beautiful. Only 5% feel comfortable describing themselves as pretty and 9% feel comfortable describing themselves as attractive".

Research also showed women were concerned models in beauty adverts did not actually use the products they were promoting. 68% percent agreed that "the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve."

The hidden message
Just like coffee shops aren't so much about coffee as about being a warm and welcoming meeting place, cosmetics are more about boosting one's self-esteem than actually making you thinner or whiter.

And that is what this campaign does. As the gently ironic taglines point out : "Let's face it, firming the thighs of a size 2 supermodel is no challenge." Instead of making you stare at someone thin (who makes you feel fat), you look at someone more real and feel "normal". Whether the cream actually reduces cellulite in 6 weeks or not, it's made you feel good!

Secondly, the campaign has great PR value. Le's face it, the launch of yet another cosmetic lotion is rarely newsworthy. Which is why Indian PR executives who keep hounding editors like me to feature XYZ company's 'oil control cream' have so much trouble getting a mention.

The Dove campaign made a story which didn't require hard-sell because it had a 'more than a cellulite cream' halo around it. Not only did their 'real models' get covered as "news" in repectable newspapers, it made it to the "Today Show" and "CNN".

What's more, when Chicago Sun Times columnist Richard Roeper called the Dove women 'chunky' he was bombarded with hate mail. Marketer's dream come true.. to have the public come out and defend your campaign! was a bit more cyncial as it asked: "Real beauty" - or really smart marketing? Well, of course it's the latter and yes, the models featured are not so overweight as to be completely unattractive. But I still think it's a breakthrough.

Because in the age of FTV and Miss India, it touches a chord even with women here, on the opposite end of the globe.

The desi story
Would the results of a "real beauty" study throw up equally abysmal results in India? Well, among the new generation of young women - I think yes. Not just in metros, the 'Miss India effect' has percolated 'modern ideas of beauty' down to the smallest of towns.

However, I do believe that girls from small town India would be a little hung up on 'face' and 'hair' and less on figure as regards definition of beauty. Fairness and long black hair would still be more desirable than losing a few extra pounds to achieve one's ideal weight.

While here in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore a girl may not be goti-chitti or have ghane reshmi baal. But if she can slip into a slinky dress or size 26 jeans, she will not feel 'average'. She will feel - and even be regarded as - attractive.

The older generation of Indian women believed: "shaadi ke baad shareer bhaari ho hi jaata hai". That's why they always left several inches of 'margin' in the blouses made along with wedding sarees! Well, that attitude is slowly changing.

Women in their 40s and 50s are also becoming a little more weight conscious- although more for 'health' reasons than beauty!

So is India ready for a 'real beauty' campaign? I think so, although for a product less exotic than a 'thigh firming' lotion. We don't even know we have a cellulite problem.

And of course, it would be unreal to expect 'real women' willing to be featured in their bras and undies on billboards! That too, smiling!!

Home sweet home

The decision wasn't hard. It wasn't pitter-patter raindrop. The Rain Gods pounded down all night and continue to do so, making it idiotic to venture out. Unless you're an essential service like a doctor or fireman.

So far there is electricity here in Vashi, so the rain is feeling more like a 'reality show'. TV coverage is far better today - there are specific details available. Of what is working, and what is not. Rediff has an update time-stamped 10.30 am on areas to avoid.

The Met dept vindicates itself as the prediction of 'heavy to very heavy rainfall' comes true. There's been 200 mm of rain in Santacruz and 150 mm in Colaba.

Nothing to do but sit and wait it out... And hope things get back to 'normal' soon. Normal is boring but just what the tired Mumbaikar longs for right now!

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