Tuesday, May 30, 2006

JAM Engineering College Ratings

JAM magazine is in the process of compiling information that will help us publish state wise engineering college ratings.

The idea is to assist those who may not get into the 'best' colleges - which everyone knows about anyways. So, instead of trying to figure if IIT-K is better than IIT-B, we're focusing attention on the vast number of other colleges.

Some of these colleges are good, several are average and a few are really bad. You don't want to end up in the last category and waste 4 years of your life.

Secondly, unlike magazines like India Today we believe that students' feedback, opinions and experiences must be reflected most strongly in rating exercises. However, they seldom are.

So, if you're an engineering college student, or have graduated from one within the last 2 years, please spare 10 minutes to fill out a short questionnaire for JAM.

Drop me an email at rashmi_b@yahoo.com and I'll send it across to you!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

"I hate to come second"

This morning I was playing scrabble with Nivedita. She started bawling after I made a word. I took 'her place', you see. I let her throw a tantrum, thinking she needs to know that you don't always get what you want in life. Sometimes other people get to it first.

Later we counted the points - she got 61, I got 104. She cried some more. 'I hate to come second' she said over and over and over again.

I don't know if all children have a deep competitive instinct. I know nobody likes to lose but is coming second losing? 'You beat papa - he got 57', I pointed out. But that was no consolation.

OK, so now you're thinking we are monster parents who goad our kid to be 'the best' at everything. That's not the case.

We were counting points in scrabble so she could make sense of the 'double letter words' and 'triple word score' markings. Now that she can make words on her own, we wanted her to learn that part of the game as well.

Of course we 'let' her win quite often. Like most parents do. But she has to learn to take defeat in her stride...

Competition ka zamaana
Nivedita attends a school which has no 'exams' till class 5. The students are assessed on the basis of weekly tests and class observation. They are awarded letter grades.

This is a great source of relief - no pressure on kids or parents to cram and vomit out at the end of every term. However, I wonder whether it's simply postponing the inevitable.

Is it any easier to accept the idea of exams at age 10 or 11? Many alternative schools also follow this practice - 'free learning, no exams' till class 7 or 8. After that the child is taken into the regular pattern of schooling. Because, after all one must appear for the board exam.

I would not want my child to be cut-throat competitive but I do want her to aspire for excellence. I want her to try to come first but not cry or feel despondent if she comes in second. Or third, or fourth, or whatever.

This is a very sensitive issue. At least 6 young people have committed suicide in Delhi alone, following the CBSE class 12 result.

18 year old Priyamvada Singh committed suicide by hanging herself from the ceiling fan in her home. She came home and told her parents that she had scored 86% but had, in fact failed. Here's the scary part:

There was little parental pressure on Priyamada... "We never scolded her nor did we ever force her to study," said Ashok Singh, Priyamvaada's father.

Maybe. But more than family is peer pressure. Pressure from external forces - the need to score high to get into a 'decent' college in Delhi University.

In fact there were suicides during the exam itself, back in March. 17 year old Gurjeet Singh Bagga was upset after writing the political science paper in his class XII board exam. He was found hanging from the ceiling fan.

Gurjeet was a student of Modern School, Vasant Vihar while Priyamvada was studying at Delhi Public School, Vasant Kunj. Both are considered to be 'excellent' schools. And well, that may be part of the problem.

According to a report in TOI Delhi, DPS RK Puram produced the highest number of 90%-plus students — 300 out of 1,000 students. At Modern School, Barakhamba Road, 25% of the 376 who appeared for the exams got 90%-plus.

As many as 1,905 city kids have got over 90% marks in the CBSE class XII exams this year, a good 62% more than the number who crossed the magical figure last year... The flip side of the record high marks is that the cut-off for admission to Delhi University would go up by at least 1% in the better colleges.

And from next year, there will be 27% additional reservation. Yes, they say, seats will be increased. But as Mr Arjun Singh clarified today:

The HRD minister... appeared on Friday on TV to say that the 27% quota would be implemented in one go. He ruled out the possibility of the introduction of quota getting delayed in institutions that are not in a position to increase seats for general category students...

So there are trying times ahead. You may not pressure your kid :"Get 90% or else". But that doesn't mean he or she doesn't feel pressured.

And then, some amount of pressure and parental policing is necessary - there isn't the option of Bachelor's in video gaming and Masters in Cartoon Network.

And even as I write this, I know I really should be at home with my daughter... Because this is the time to establish channels of communication, make her feel secure. To temper her 'I hate to come second' with 'It's ok, there will be a next time'...

Gosh, how I hate working Saturdays!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Fanaa - a four star film

Fanaa is Kajol's film. Without her, it would be just another "oops, I fell in love with a terrorist" script shot in exotic foreign locales which pass off as Kashmir. But from the moment she comes on screen - in the first 5 minutes of the film - there's the old magic.

Yes, there are many flaws in the film - starting from the Baig family living in an amazing Alpine cottage in the middle of nowhere to the unlikely idea that a terrorist who masterminds elaborate operations is actually a tourist guide in saddi Dilli. That's how Zooni - who's on a trip to the capital to perform at Rashtrapati Bhavan meets and falls in love with Rehaan (Aamir Khan).

The first hour of the film, full of sher-o-shayari and Aamir doing another 'I'm a good for nothing tapori' act is really fun. The chemistry between Aamir and Kajol is incredible. You have to wonder what kind of chaperone would let a blind girl romp around Delhi with Romeo Rehaan. But this is Bollywood, so we’ll let it pass.

* Spoilers ahead *

All’s well with the world, Zooni has found her shehzada, and even regains her eyesight (I know, sounds cheesy but somehow is not). Then Rehaan 'dies' in a terrrorist attack. You see, he is actually a key operative for the IKF which is fighting for the liberation of Kashmir from both India and Pakistan.

Seven years pass. Now the story shifts into James Bond country for a while, with RAW, Indian Army, anti terrorist squads, bombs which can kill 50 lakh people and so on and so forth. Rehaan, in Indian army uniform, is on the run with a ‘nuclear trigger’. Bleeding and blinded by a snowstorm, he lands on Zooni’s doorstep.

Of course, the love story continues. And ends. In between there’s a very cute kid and some singing in the rain and snow. You know a terrorist must die, so there is no suspense. Still, the story of Zooni, Rehaan and Rehaan jr tugs at your heart.

Genuine emotion and effortless acting are rare in Bollywood – and that’s why this film gets 4 stars from me.

All the actors are superb. Kajol I have oohed and aahed about already. Aamir is also amazing, although he looks old as a young man and young as an older man. The child star is endearing. So are Kirron Kher and Rishi Kapoor (yes, even him!) as Zooni’s parents.

I liked some of the small touches. Zooni and her friends could have been from anywhere in India – they’re shown as modern Kashmiri girls who wear fashionable clothes, make up and even discuss boys. I don’t know whether this is the reality – if not, I bet it reflects latent aspirations.

What’s more both Zooni and her family are shown to be pretty open minded. Her parents are actually thrilled to hear she has found her ‘shehzada’. Of course they might not have been as thrilled had they known Zooni had spent the night with him. Even though he was pretty clear that he could not give her a commitment.

This represents a shift in thinking. A heroine who is willing to give into her passions because there is a man who makes her feel fully alive. Even though she knows it may be just for a day, and not a lifetime. In fact, when Rehaan disappears on the day she is leaving Delhi it is Zooni who seeks him out and baat aagey wahi badaati hai.

Another nice touch was Tabu as Mrs Tyagi - a RAW officer. There is a small conversation she has on the phone with her daughter about eating custard and kheer which is so typical of a working mother’s life. Her male colleagues make snide remarks about it – which is pretty typical as well.

A special mention must be made of the child artist (dunno his name). Looks like Yash Chopra has picked a leaf out of Karan Johar’s book and decided to balance the more grim second half with a cute kid and his cuter dialogues.

Music - good. Photography –very good. Overall – very very good. Do watch.

Update: Ah, so the general view among bloggers on Fanaa is "ugh". Well we are talking 'brand Yashraj' here. This is a brand which believes in the formula - you have to live with that. What they do try is to tweak the formula a bit - sometimes it works, sometimes it does not.

Veer Zaara did not work for me, because I could not accept the basic premise. That a guy will spend 2 decades in prison for the sake of a girl he's spent just 24 hours with.

Frankly, I was not expecting that much from Fanaa because I didn't think a director like Kunal Kohli (who has to his credit flaky stuff like Hum Tum) could pull it off. But surprisingly, he did a good job.

And I do think some thinking went into Fanaa. There has been a shift in public mood, we're over the post-Kargil phase when there was a slew of films depicting Pakistan as enemy # 1. In Fanaa, the IKF is shown to be an independent group, waging a war against both India and Pakistan to liberate Kashmir. There is no mention of the word 'jihad' either.

Now all this may be wishful thinking, perhaps, because Pakistan is still funding insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. A more cynical view, of course, is that the strategy makes sense when you know Pakistan and the Middle East avidly follow Bollywood films.

But then this is a love story where terrorism is just a reason to separate two people in love. Not a film on terrorism where a love story is weaved in to add an emotional dimension to the characters. The way soldiers in war films are shown to have girlfriends and wives, so you feel bad when they die.

For decades, parents were the villains in the boy-meets-girl tale. Now, we need new villains. It's about the guy who can't make a commitment (Hum Tum, Salaam Namaste etc). Or the girl/ guy being married and therefore love being the forbidden fruit (Murder). Or then the guy being involved in some nasty business - either underworld or terrorism (Gangster etc)

So these are themes which will be repeated over and over again. There may not even be new wine in an old bottle but just good, old wine. That's how I would describe Fanaa.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Ad Agencies: Where are the women?!

I take a break from the reservation issue to write on another issue which is related to the under representation of a particular group of people in society - women.

No, I am not advocating quotas for women either. But today's Brand Equity Ad Agency Reckoner 2006 begs asking the old question: Where are the women in advertising? Certainly not in senior or influential positions. And this is despite their very visible and large presence at junior and middle levels.

Among the top 20 Creative Directors in the Brand Equity list there are just 3 women. Two of them happen to be owners in their agencies: No 5 Elsie Nanji (Ambience Publicis) and No 11 Preeti Vyas Gianetti (Vyas Giannetti Creative).

The sole standard bearer for the work-your-way-up-as-an-employee route is Preeti Nair of Lowe Lintas. She is the biggest gainer this year and is described as someone who 'came from nowhetre on the strength of a few big campaigns like Surf Excel 'Daag Acche Hain' and Greenply's 'Savitri'.

Good for her.

Meanwhile, the Most Influential People in Advertising List is even more startling. 19 of the 20 people featured are men. Elsie Nanji is the only woman - at no 11.

Come to think of it, since the demise of Tara Sinha Associates, there is no woman professional at the head of an advertising agency in India. I mean a top 20 player (Vyas Giannetti is a creative hotshop).

Ah, so we get back to the same old explanations - women leave after marriage, women slow down after they have babies, women don't want the top job all that badly.

Sure - some truth in all those things. But we've seen, with the finance and banking industry, that women can and have reached extremely senior positions. Why not in advertising and I dare say, even marketing?

The funny part is it has always been believed women don't have a head for numbers and that is the area where they've actually made an impact.

Even in advertising, the one silver lining is that when it comes to Media Buying/ Planning - women are prominently represented.

Among the 15 'movers and shakers of the media biz' Brand Equity lists:
# 2 Anita Nayyar (Starcom)
# 3 Lynn De Souza (Lintas Media Services)
# 4 Meenakshi Madhvani (Spatial Access)
# 5 Jasmin Sohrabji (Mediacom)
# 9 Punitha Armugam (Madison Media)
# 13 Nandini Dias (Lodestar)
# 14 Ambika Srivastava (Zenith Optimedia).

Is there something I'm missing here? Women make it in media buying which requires number crunching and deal-making but not in creative and client servicing which require far softer skillsets. The stuff we're supposed to be good at.

Or is it that the 'numbers' speak for themselves and power the careers of the women who know how to make them sing?

Neil French resigned from WPP last year after his sexist remarks at a dinner in Toronto kicked up a storm. He reportedly said that there weren't more female creative directors "because they're crap" and that motherhood made them "wimp out" and "go suckle something."

In an interview French later clarified that he did use the word "crap" in reference to women but..

" I didn't say all female creative directors are crap. If you can't commit yourself to any job then, by definition, you're crap at it. If you can't commit 100 percent to your job, don't pretend you can. Nobody deserves a job unless they can commit to it."

Fair enough. But are we saying there are no deserving and committed women in creative but lots of them in media buying? Sounds illogical to me.

There has to be some structural or cultural issue at work here...

Has the French episode had any impact on agencies? I doubt the men reading the Brand Equity Reckoner even wondered why there were so few women. That's just the way it is.

But is it the way it should be?

The 'most influential people' on that list - those 19 men - need to think about this carefully. And then, perhaps, use their influence.

Because advertising, of all industries, should reflect changing social norms. There are more women clad in power suits - in the ads you create. But what about more power for the women creating advertising?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Karan vs Arjun

Have mouth, will speak to TV channel. Last night, Ram Vilas Paswan spoke and this is the new angle he's added to the reservation imbroglio:

The population of SCs at the time of Independence was 15% and STs 7.5%, that's why reservation for them was fixed at 22.5%. Now their population has grown. SCs are 16.8% and STs 8%, so the reservation for SCs/ STs must be enhanced accordingly.

Wow. This reminds me of a recent observation made by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of the two members of the Knowledge Commission who resigned yesterday:

Reservations have become a substitute for “real cultural, educational and economic advance”, a cheap way of displaying your commitment to justice while you connive in every way possible to make sure that the conditions that produce grievous injustice are not really overcome.

Do read the letter Mehta wrote to the PM: I resign from Knowledge Commission as your govt abets a politics of illusion

Quotas for OBCs in central institutions ...violate four cardinal principles that institutions in a knowledge based society will have to follow:
- they are not based on assessment of effectiveness
- they are incompatible with the freedom and diversity of institutions
- they more thoroughly politicise the education process
- they inject an insidious poison that will harm the nation’s long-term interest.

Mehta goes on to say that numerically mandated quotas are deeply disappointing because they foreclose any possibility of more intelligent targeting that any sensible programme should require. Secondly, that you can't lump OBCs in the same category as SC/ STs whose historical deprivation is of an altogether different magnitude.

And the government's own figures show that.

Whose numbers are they anyways
Any plan to 'correct' an imbalance must stem from evidence that such an imbalance really exists. Are OBCs truly under represented in industry?

This exchange between CNN IBN's Karan Thapar and Minister of Industry and Commerce, Kamal Nath tells you just how clueless the government is!

Karan Thapar: You have clearly established the government's position. How do you know that corporate India isn't doing what you are asking for? Companies like Hindustan Lever, Ashok Leyland and Bajaj Auto say that even today more than 50 per cent of their staff comes from SCs/STs and OBCs. If that is the case then they are doing what you want.

Kamal Nath: So if they are doing it then they should say please enforce it because they are already doing it. Then why should anybody resist it?

Karan Thapar: It is not just the three companies that I mentioned. The President of CII R Seshasayee says that the majority of companies in the manufacturing sector already employ up to 35 per cent of their work force from backward classes.

Kamal Nath: Problem is solved...If they are saying that we are already doing it then they should in fact come to government and say make it mandatory because they have to do nothing more.

Karan Thapar:... So did you not know the position?

Kamal Nath: We know the position but.... If you see our growth in the last 10 years has been very largely urban centric and let me tell you this for districts, like my own districts in Chhindwara, why the growth. So I am not going to look at the urban centres. I am going to look at the districts of my country.

When you can't answer the question - side step it! Mr Kamal Nath, I too employ close to 25 people but never once have I stopped to ask which caste/ class they are from. If you suit the job profile, you get it.

Now if there are no jobs in rural areas are private sector employers in urban areas to somehow blame for that? And not the government - which can ensure neither 24 hour electricity nor decent roads or other infrastructure crucial to those who may actually wish to set up indsutries in those parts.

There's more ...

Karan Thapar: You say you want facts and figures...The NSSO 1999, which is the most recent of the NSSO studies available, conclusively shows that the share of SCs, STs and OBCs in employment is exactly proportional to their share of the population.

Kamal Nath: So what is the problem. What is the point...?

Karan Thapar: The reason why this issue emerges is because the Prime Minister at the CII conference in April specifically called upon industry to make itself more representative of Society... I am now saying it to you that not only these industries already doing it but your figures NSSO 1999 prove that there are. So there was no need for the Prime Minister to make this call.

Kamal Nath: My context is that growth and development is to be all inclusive. You take one district and you say this is happening. Is it happening everywhere?

Karan Thapar: Yes these NSSO figures are nationwide.

Kamal Nath: Your figures are inaccurate.

Karan Thapar: They are not my figures, they are your figures.

Kamal Nath: That's what you are saying.

Karan Thapar: They are the national sample survey figures 1999. They are available from the government. They are authenticated by the government. They are disseminated by the government.

Kamal Nath: That's what you are saying.

Karan Thapar: That's not what I am saying, that's what the government is saying.

Kamal Nath: That's what you are saying what the government is saying. That's not what I am saying and that's not what NSSO saying.

Normally, I would not just quote on and on on from a single interview but I think this one is priceless.

Karan Thapar: When you distrust the NSSO figures ....

Kamal Nath: I am not distrusting NSSO figures. Do you think the government is off its head? We have been winning elections.

Ah, and that is what this whole reservation business is about in the first place! After more such senseless banter, Kamal Nath finally concedes that the way to get industry to set up shop in the 124 districts with over 40% SC/ ST population is to incentivise them.

And yet, just yesterday, Ms Meira Kumar, Union Minister for Social Justice, reiterated yesterday that reservations must be effected by private sector employers...

Arjun Singh in the Hot Seat
And finally, another brilliant interview on CNN IBN by Karan Thapar - this time with the man himself.

Karan Thapar: ...Do you know what percentage of the Indian population is OBC? Mandal puts it at 52 per cent, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) at 32 per cent, the National Family and Health Survey at 29.8 per cent, which is the correct figure?

Arjun Singh: I think that should be decided by people who are more knowledgeable. But the point is that the OBCs form a fairly sizeable percentage of our population.

Karan Thapar: No doubt, but the reason why it is important to know 'what percentage' they form is that if you are going to have reservations for them, then you must know what percentage of the population they are, otherwise you don't know whether they are already adequately catered to in higher educational institutions or not.

Arjun Singh: That is obvious - they are not.

Karan Thapar: Why is it obvious?

Arjun Singh: Obvious because it is something which we all see.

Karan Thapar: Except for the fact that the NSSO, which is a government appointed body, has actually in its research in 1999 - which is the most latest research shown - that 23.5 per cent of all university seats are already with the OBCs. And that is just 8.5 per cent less than what the NSSO believes is the OBC share of the population. So, for a difference of 8 per cent, would reservations be the right way of making up the difference?

Arjun Singh: I wouldn't like to go behind all this because, as I said, Parliament has taken a view and it has taken a decision, I am a servant of Parliament and I will only implement.

Karan Thapar: Absolutely, Parliament has taken a view, I grant it. But what people question is the simple fact - Is there a need for reservations? If you don't know what percentage of the country is OBC and if, furthermore, the NSSO is correct in pointing out that already 23.5 per cent of the college seats are with the OBC, then you don't have a case in terms of need.

Arjun Singh: What do you mean by college seats?

Karan Thapar: University seats, seats of higher education.

Arjun Singh: Well, I don't know I have not come across that so far.

Jo bhi ho bhai, ek din hum subah uthey, dimaag mein khayaal aaya. And now, we are going to go ahead with our scheme. The decision is final.

Taaliyan, please
For Karan Thapar. Because he asked the tough questions and pushed for answers. Few on Indian television are capable of it. Most are so ill informed, it hurts to watch!

Since Thapar mainly interviews politicians, and I have little interest in politics, I don't tune into his interviews that often. But when I see him in action he reminds me of a barracuda.

In this case he well and truly sunk his teeth into soft political flesh. And gave us a taste of how weak and insipid it is.

Monday, May 22, 2006

"Manmohan Sir's IIT Entrance Classes"

Finally, the first sensible proposal from the government on the reservations issue. The Sunday Express reports:

The PMO has come up with a unique proposal... the government will identify the top 1000 OBC and SC/ ST students from the merit list of the Joint Entrance Exam who did not make it to IITs.

These students will be invited to undergo a one-year 'specialised training' programme to bring them on par with general category students. While the centre will fund the infrastucture of these training colleges, the private sector will pay a cess of Rs 100,000 as vouchers for these institutions...

Even general category students can get training in these specialised colleges but they will have to pay tuition fees...

Point to be noted is that IITs already have a preparatory course . A bit about how this came into being. Reservations for SCs and STs were first introduced in IITs in 1973

When this was done as per the Chandy Committee recommendations (1972), which specified that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes be taken into IITs 'down to the zero mark at the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE)' (31), the results were 'disastrous'. Most of the first batch of dalit and adivasi students found it extremely difficult to cope at the IIT and were failed or forced to drop out.

Hence, 'the system of a two-thirds cut-off point at the JEE as the more reasonable alternative' was suggested in 1977. 'In 1978 all the IITs adopted the system which continues to be used till today' (32).

A preparatory course was introduced in 1983...

As the seats for the SC/ST students are often unfilled because adequate number of students from these categories do not qualify JEE with relaxed norms, a further relaxation of JEE norm is made to select students for a one year Preparatory Course. On passing the course successfully, the students are admitted to the First year of B.Tech./M.Sc... All students in the Preparatory Course are eligible for free messing in the hostels and receive a pocket allowance of Rs 70/- per month.

IIT Madras takes 30-40 students under this scheme every year , while IIT Bombay had about 53 students (29 SC and 24 SC) in preparatory courses in the year 2002.

In fact at the 2002 convocation, it was noted that for the first time in the history of IIT Bombay, a Preparatory Course Student - Mr. Chinmay Karsandas Patel who joined the course in 1997, had been awarded the silver medal on graduating from the Department of Aerospace Engineering.

That says something about what a preparatory course, combined with the individual's willpower and desire to excel can achieve.

Sadly, some who speak on behalf of dalits choose to see this differently.

In 1983, the Preparatory Course was conceived, thus further blocking the prospects of dalits/adivasis.

Ambedkar.org quote a study "Equality Through Reservations", by Viney Kirpal and Meenakshi Gupta based on data collected from IIT students belonging to batches beginning 1989 to 1992.

Students who score below the two-third JEE cut-off point and "x" marks are assigned to the Preparatory Course where they are given one year's rigorous training. On obtaining a certain percentage of marks in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and English at the end of the year, they are registered for the First year of BTech, failing which they are asked to leave so that they may join some other college.

The SC/ST students may pass the programme with a reduced number of credits, i.e., 22 credits per semester as compared to 28 credits for the GE students. Nonetheless, to earn the BTech degree, they have to complete the total number of credits common for all (categories of students).

The unique aspect of reservations in IITs is the total absence of compromised standards (such as grace marks awarded to SC and ST students). The concessions offered end with the reduced cut-off point at entry, the reduced course load during the semester and the six years (against the five for GE students) to complete the four-year BTech programme. The degree awarded is on a par with the GE students...

Ambedkar.org conclude:"The authors, while admittedly concerned with how best the disprivileged students can 'integrate' with the 'mainstream' at IIT, are not even alive to the inherent discrimination wrought into the idea of a prep course..."

A strange, very strange attitude.

The "Equality through Reservations" study found that 75% of students in the preparatory course found it to be helpful. However, I could not find statistics on how many students actually passed the course and got admitted to IIT.

Despite these efforts, 50% of seats reserved for SCs/STs remain empty.

Is a scale-up possible?
So now, the government wishes to give 1000 OBC/ SC/ ST students intensive training for one year. The objective is laudable. But the real achievement would be if these students are actually able to enter IIT at par with the others.

ie. After one year, they take JEE again and get in through their own merit. Without fulfilling a numerical quota or reservation of any kind.

Challenging? Like hell. But that should be the ultimate goal.

At the end of the day, what is merit?
a) Strong basic foundation
b) Conducive environment
c) Will to succeed

Of course, one year may certainly not be enough. A better way would be to take very bright backward students - identified through some scheme similar to National Talent Search. Then, given the right learning environment over 2-4 years and their own desire to succeed, there is no reason they should require a relaxation in norms at entry or exit level.

In the longer run, of course, there is no substitute to raising the standard of government schooling as well as access to private education. As a stark statistic from NGO Pratham's rural study in 28 states and UTs reveals.

93.4 % of children between age 6-14 are enrolled in school. 41% in 7-14 age group cannot do either 2 digit subtraction or division (3 digit by 1 digit)

In this scenario, finding students who have been able to build a strong foundation -despite the school system - is like searching for an investor making money in the current stock market. Of course, such dudes exist. But they're the exceptions, strong enough to swim against the tide!

Back to basics
Now all of the above makes sense if the people for whom extra efforts and/ or concessions are being made are truly backward. Reality Check India however tells us otherwise. This blog has really delved deep into the 'OBC' tangle. I quote here a few of the facts presented which speak for themselves. (quotes in brackets are mine)

Even 16 years after the Mandal Commissions recommendations, Tamil Nadu has not even taken steps to identify the creamy layer.(So why should we believe it will happen at a national level?)

Reservation has taken a totally new meaning here, it is no longer (was it ever) about social justice... It is now about demanding as a birthright a cut of medical seats based on caste. (I just learnt that even Vaishyas - or banias - are considered backward in TN!)

A very significant percentage of medical students are second or third generation doctors from OBC communities.

A totally broken system is currently in place. The current system is totally political in nature, for example ALL Christians and Muslims in TN, AP are considered backward.

So we should not be surprised by this Asian Age report

Dr Ramadoss (Union Health Minister) opposed the introduction of a "creamy layer" in reservation for OBCs in elite educational institutions. "There is no mention of creamy layer in the Constitution and we follow the law of the land," he told a private TV channel.

Dr Anbumani himself is the son of a doctor and in Tamil Nadu his son too will be eligible for the quota.

Reality Check goes on to note:
This is the problem with the system ! Different people have different views about the quota system. For many the quota system has nothing to do with social justice at all, it is just a mechanism of preferential treatment. They cannot understand why a high economic and living standard should be a basis for losing that preferential treatment.

Ah, but the rest of India can't understand how anyone can justify something like that! What the striking doctors are demanding is absolutely right. A non-political panel must be set up to review the idea of reservations. Who is 'deserving', who has benefitted so far and how the problem it set out to address can be tackled through alternative solutions.

There must be a time frame to phase out reservations... first for specific communities and then for the country as a whole.

And to actually clamour for reservation - even if you're not backward?That should be as socially unacceptable and sick as asking to be admitted under the physically handicapped category because you got a shoebite from a state of the art Nike sneaker.

Friday, May 19, 2006

New hunk on the block

Bollywood is full of babes. Every Miss India winner these days has a fair shot at making it in tinseltown if she keeps off the potato chips. Nahin to there is enough demand from makers of music videos.

But where are the young hunks? The Khans are all pushing 40. Leave aside Saif Ali Khan and the newly cool Abhishek Bachchan. In the minor league, John Abraham alone holds some swoon value. But as we ask ourselves at JAM, how many times can we publish the fella's poster?

The thing is, there are small fry male stars in Bollywood - Riteish Deshmukh types - but they are not the kind girls would ooh and aah over. The time was just right, for a hot new hunk to be born. And he was.


Upen Patel


Yes, a male model who's actually made a smashing debut with 36 China Town. The kind of debut models like Milind Soman or Arjun Rampal must have dreamt of but never managed. John Abraham did make an impact with Jism but Bipasha realy stole the show in that one.

In 36 China Town, Upen looks awesome, fits the role to a T and carries it off with flair. Believe me, playing a Casanova with lines like "Is your father a terrorist? Because you are a bomb" is not easy!

The surprising bit is that the guy is very relaxed and natural, unlike most models in their debut films. I still remember Aishwarya Rai in Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya - her expressions would have put the finest Burmese teakwood a complex...

Now Upen has been smart enough to dub his voice . That's where once upon a hunk Deepak Malhotra tripped badly. Poor man, when he opened his mouth and squeaked "Pallo" in Yash Chopra's Lamhe, the man's life was ruined forever. For Godssake, he even changed his name!

An interesting sidelight is that Dr Neeraj Dubey, a pathologist, has been plagued by fans of Upen ever since the film's release. That's because the duh filmmakers gave Upen aka Rocky the number 9820420420 in the film. The number actually exists - it belongs to Dr Dubey.

"If I don’t switch off my phone, I get at least a 1,000 calls every day, till 4 am.... While the guys ask for tips on physique, the girls beg for a date. I’m sick and tired of having to explain the situation to every caller. I’m also bombarded by lovey-dovey messages from women."

There are apparently girls who would like to go for 'long drives' as well ...

Since Da Vinci Code has not released and there's hardly anything else worth watching in the theatres I suggest you see 36, China Town. It's not as bad as many of the critics have made it out to be.

Sure, it has little merit as a suspense thriller but it's fun nevertheless. I give it 2.5 stars (half extra only for Upen :)

You can read my review of the film here.

pic 1: credits - Midday
pic 2: credits - Telegraph

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The right to a ‘good’ school

Scarier than a performance appraisal.

More stressful than a root canal.

It's a absurd, it's insane…

It's your 4 year old's nursery school interview.

But what to do? Mere bachche ka admission is every urban parent's fondest dream and festering nightmare. “Seats are few, kids too many”. So schools do what they have to, and parents, what they deem fit. Like sending your toddler to the right Montessori, so she can tell the difference between herbivore' and 'carnivore' in the interview.

Although it's the parents who need the coaching. Because, clearly, they're the ones really being ‘interviewed'.

So what's new? Why even write about a problem which seems to be endemic and intractable... Like policemen taking hafta. Like electricity gul in summer. Like Himesh on every radio station.

What’s new is the ban by the Delhi High Court on nursery interviews. But even as parents sigh in relief, bigger questions arise. How is a school with 500 seats to deal with 3000 applicants?

Ashok Agarwal, the counsel who fought this landmark case believes banning interviews is just one of the many system corrections required. The next step is the concept of neighbourhood schools. Meaning a school admits children residing within a 3 km radius only.

Such a school would take in, by draw of lots, a far wider spectrum of children. Not just people who drive the same cars as us, but the kids of drivers.

It’s not that radical an idea – I attended exactly that kind of school.

The mixed bag
Today, south Bombay parents will literally sell their souls, to get their child into a Campion, Cathedral, J B Petit, St Mary’s or Bombay International.

I too grew up in south Bombay but attended an ‘ordinary’ school. Because it was a good school, and the one most conveniently located.

The definition of ‘good’ - for my parents - was a sense of discipline, good teachers, good results. St Joseph’s High School, Colaba had all of that. And something more. St Joseph’s had a mixed bunch of students.

There were children of naval officers, and children from servant’s quarters. A busload of scientists’ kids and a busload from chi chi Cuffe Parade. From rich to middle class to poor – we had children from across the social spectrum. And that’s just the way it was, no one felt awkward about it.

Twenty years to the day I passed out of school, I reconnected with a guy from my class.. This chap has really fond memories of his schooldays - I don’t. He was one of the cool kids, I was the nerd with thick glasses.

Faizal gets pretty emotional when he speaks of St Joseph’s. Yet, he is not sending his two daughters to his alma mater. “It’s not the same anymore,” he says sadly.

The definition of ‘good’ has changed. Brand names matter. Even the board your kid’s school is affiliated to is a concern. ICSE is in demand, so schools are bowing out of the State Board. St Joseph’s gets government funding and hence, valiantly struggles on.

St Joseph’s still wishes to cater to the poor and underprivileged. But doing so without the presence of children from the educated and upper class puts the school at a disadvantage. St Joseph’s cannot attract the same caliber of teachers – after all teachers too care about brand names!

The parent as consumer
The paradigm shift in the parent’s thinking is the idea that education too is a consumer product. I am no exception.

The first school I selected for my daughter was a neighbourhood school. It is not the ‘best’ school in the area it was chosen because of proximity to the crèche my daughter attended . And because she was eligible despite being born in August.

When I first visited St XXX high school in Vashi, the clean and airy building impressed me. There was a very short and friendly admission interview. My daughter was accepted.

But over a period of time, several things about the school started bothering me. In theory, I had no problem with a school which admitted students from a cross-section of society. In practice, I found that there was a compromise in that amorphous but all-important variable known as 'standards'.

The nursery class had 60 plus students. What’s more, there were two shifts in a day, so teachers were clearly over worked. ‘Miss’ snapped and scolded rather too often. And she spoke English with a thick Keralite accent.

The following year we yanked Nivedita out of St XXX and put her in another school.

This school is 8 kms away (though only a 15 minute bus ride). It is affiliated to the CBSE board and boasts really amazing results. Plus, the kids are mainly from 'professional' and middle class families. To be honest, I do feel more comfortable in a school with more ‘People Like Us’.

I tried the neighbourhood approach – it failed me. Perhaps because I, as an educated, aware and exposed parent, expected more from the school than the majority. Who seemed happy enough to be sending their kids to a ‘convent’.

I could have stuck it out and my child would probably not be any worse for the wear. The new school does not fulfils all my expectations either. (43 students in a class is still way too many). But I feel like I ‘did something’, that I did the best I could for my child.

It’s this kind of thinking that has created the ghettos. Schools for the haves and schools for the have nots.

And now, schools for those who have more than most. The IB (International Baccalaureate) school.

Everyone wants a Headstart
In theory, my child will blossom because she is a rosebud and that is her destiny. But as a parent I worry about whether she is getting enough sunshine, water and fresh air. The question is, is the soil in certain schools more fertile? Are the gardeners in these schools more skilful, more sensitive?

The answer is – I don’t know. The teaching methods, the facilities, the more one-on-one approach in the IB schools surely has its benefits. But, there’s a downside, depending on which philosophy of life you espouse.

As author Po Bronson writes, “There are two schools of thought over what role a family plays in preparing a child for the world…Rousseau believed that early humans’ experience was idyllic before it became corrupted by modern stresses. Hobbes believed that early humans’ experience was nasty, brutish and short…”

“A family adhering to the Rousseau philosophy prepares its children for the outside world by creating a safe haven from judgement and antagonism. A family adhering to the Hobbes philosophy prepares its children for the outside world by being a representative microcosm of what is to come…”

“You can expose your children to too much,” concludes Bronson. “But you can also shield them too much”.

The same applies to schooling. Children who attend carefully selected schools with air conditioned classrooms where learning is always a pleasure and teachers only kind and understanding, may be underprepared for the real world.

The case for diversity
But that’s just a point of view. What’s more important, in my opinion, is the effort which all schools must make to become more inclusive. Whether they are IB or ICSE, CBSE or SSC, all schools must take in a percentage of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The burden of their fees can be cross-subsidised by those who can afford to pay. Education 'cess' is all well and good. But charity can and must begin in our children's schools.

A step in this direction was taken in an April 2004 judgement in the Supreme Court (case: Modern School vs Govt of India and others). The court ruled that all recognised unaided private schools in Delhi, which had availed of land at concessional rates, must admit 25 % of the total intake of students from the economically weaker sections.

A significant verdict in light of the fact that 1200 of the 1500 'private unaided schools' in Delhi had, in fact, availed of such concessions.

However, both schools and parents cried foul. The list of ‘problems’ cited by school managements in implementing the order are many. The switch from Hindi-medium to English, the question of who will bear the expenses (even if we waive tuition fees). Lack of conducive home environment and parental support.

All true - but problems which can be tackled.

“Moreover children are very sensitive and dealing with the psychological stress of being in the same class with other, financially better-off students can be very difficult,” said Mr S L Jain, Principal, Mahavir Senior Model School in an interview to India Together.

But is that really the case? A study titled ‘Poor’ Children in ‘Rich’ Schools looked into the implementation of the 20% freeships to economically marginalized children in private, unaided schools in East Delhi. The study, published by the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) in October 2005, also documents the difficulties and challenges faced by the Trust while assisting BPL families in getting their kids admitted to such schools.

The study concluded that the children themselves did not have trouble adjusting to the new socio-cultural environment . Says Amita Joshi, a field officer with ISST, “The slum children are accepted by their peers. It is the teachers and the principals who segregate and discriminate.”

The study notes: “ISST personnel had to make repeated visits to schools in the neighbourhood (with parents not even being allowed to enter school premises) to request the school authorities to admit children belonging to BPL familes… What was particularly shocking was the prejudiced mindset of school principals towards children of slum dwellers”.

One principal went so as far as stating that ‘ slum children are ‘criminals’ and ‘use abusive language’.

ISST has succeeded in securing admissions for 50 children, using weapons such as the Right to Information Act. Two years after the Supreme Court verdict, ISST estimates less than 10% of the seats in private unaided schools have been filled by economically weaker sections of society.

The study finds these lucky few are grateful to be in a school where ‘teacher dande se nahin maarti’ and toilets are clean. ‘Jahan teacher gaaliyan nahin dete, homework dete hain’. And most importantly, ‘padaai hoti hai’.

Things that our children take for granted...

We must begin somewhere
As I write this, medical students are out on the streets, protesting against OBC reservations. Like most thinking people in this country, I too am against further caste-based quotas. Let the basis of affirmative action be economics. And let it be at primary school level, we say.

In which case the time has come to ask: "Can we accept the idea of quotas in our children's schools?"

I think we must.

This post originally appeared as a column on rediff.com - May 17, 2005

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Chic Lit

Ha ha ha ha ha. If the story weren’t so tragic, one would be tempted to say Kaavya Vishwanathan was having the last laugh.

You know a book is 'selling' when you see it at traffic signals across Mumbai. And Opal Mehta is right there - on top of the pirate's pile yesterday.

The list of books being sold thus is actually quite amazing. The pirates definitely do 'market research' at Crossword. The new hot-seller is the voluminous Shantaram but non-fiction titles seem to be more to the car-public's tastes.

It started with the success of Tipping Point. Freakonomics was pirated very soon after its release and now even the 'Undercover Economist' is available. Looks like 'economics' is more viable than the Sidney Sheldons and Jeffrey Archers who once did brisk business.

At a different stage in my life I happily bought pirated editions. Now, I prefer the originals because I like their look and feel. And I feel happier buying them at a fancy bookshop where the aroma of ideas printed on paper hangs heavy in the air.

Diya Mirza confessed on [V]Goddess that she had 1500 pairs of shoes. or was it 15,000? I am OK with 6 pairs of shoes but 1500 books. Maybe, someday, 15,000!

This 15,000 would include all kinds of books. Including chick-lit - a term that constantly came up during the Kavya Vishwanathan controversy.

What is chicklit anyways?

Here's what one website dedicated to the genre has to say:
There is much speculation that chick lit is nothing more than "trash", "fluffy, mind-numbing garbage", "formulaic vapid prose"... That said, chick lit is a genre comprised of books that are mainly written by women for women... There is usually a personal, light, and humorous tone to the books.

I like chick-lit. And I think good chick-lit is very, very difficult to write. Because being breezy without being cheesy is an art. The same as producing a popular, entertaining film.

The experts agree that it all started with Bridget Jones. And the story of how Bridget came into being is, itself fascinating.

Bridget was born as a weekly column in The Independent in October 1995, the brainchild of Charles Leadbeater, then the paper's features editor.

"I was desperate to find a column that appealed to young women," he recalled in 2001. "I wanted something that reflected the eclectic mix of topics women in the office seemed to talk about when they arrived in the morning, as I strained to overhear them without appearing to eavesdrop. I wanted something that covered the topics men assume women talk about when they visit the toilet in groups: make-up, men, food, the outrage of global poverty."

The crucial thing was that Bridget had to be a feisty charcter, and single, appealing to a younger audience.

Enter Helen Fielding, 37, a Leeds-born, Oxford-educated TV presenter ... who was writing for The Independent on Sunday. Charles had read Fielding's first novel, Cause Celeb, a spoof about smug celebrities and African aid, and admired the sardonic but funny voice of the hack narrator.

Fielding was shown a two-page outline of Leadbeater's ideas for the column and its dramatis personae. The two agreed that the heroine should have a very ordinary name. "Like Bridget Jones," said Fielding at once. In the next 30 minutes, she came up with the daily recital of alcohol units, fags, scratch cards and calories that became part of Bridget's unique selling point. You'd have thought she'd nursed the character inside her for years...

In that sense Bridget was not original - she was 'commissioned'. But Helen Fielding added the flesh and bones to that skeleton and created a whole unique character and characteristics.

The column was an instant hit. Women readers detected a wholly sympathetic voice - friendly, confiding and aspirational while simultaneously aghast with self-doubt.

Another very successful chick-lit novel was born out of a column in a British newspaper.

In November 2000, Allison began writing a fictional column in the Daily Telegraph about the attempts of a hedge fund manager to juggle a demanding career and motherhood. The column provoked a huge response from women readers.

I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother, a novel which drew on material from the columns, was published in 2002 and has now sold over a million and a half copies in 20 different countries. Allison Pearson was named Newcomer of the Year at the British Book Awards.

Kate Reddy happens to be someone I like and identify with far more than Bridget. I reviewed the book for Business Today when it first came out and recommended it to half a dozen friends. Although Kate was British, her problems and concerns were something a working mother anywhere could connect to.

I know people like Kate, who buys Sainsbury pies and then mushes them so they appear home-made, so as to impress the teacher's in her kid's school. Though personally (I believe) I'm not that neurotic.

The beauty about I Don't Know How She Does It is that it reflects the boring, the mundane and the stressful reality with wit and more than a tinge of irony.

Another book in this genre which I really liked was 'The Nanny Diaries' - a 'modern day Mary Poppins with attitude'. The book was written by a girl who worked as a nanny for a self-obsessed, wealthy New York couple. In the words of USA Today

A perfect size 2, Mrs. X devotes herself to maintaining her good looks, the pristine elegance of her lavish apartment (there's a full-time housekeeper, of course) and making sure that Grayer does not muss up her Prada togs. She does have serious concerns: Which tony private school will he get into? Mr. X is always at the office, generating the millions that keep the family in splendor. Both parents see their child as a prestige accessory, not as a little boy with enormous unmet emotional needs.

Again, the book provided insight and social commentary in an amusing manner. And from a unique point of view – that of the nanny. You know there are such parents in India as well – the moms you see in shops with gym-toned bodies, Kaaya-visit faces and perfect nails. The kind who never ever take their kids out without ayahs in tow.

So what am I trying to say? There are good books and bad books in every genre. Chick-lit is no exception. When something ‘sells’, many folks will try their hand at it. Most are terrible. And Kaavya was no exception to that rule.

Maybe the novel she wanted to or set our to write was something different but ‘unsaleable’. Or, maybe she didn’t have a novel in her at all.

Whether she cheated or her packagers did the deed, the fact is her novel was just another piece of chick lit. Not chic lit. Not a Bridget or a Kate. Not a New and Original Voice.

Opal Mehta was a thin layer of exotica on the usual chick-lit cheesecake. That’s why it needed the hype of a half-million advance. Much before the controversy broke, I figured that – based on a review by blogger Jinal Shah who had written the following review on April 6th:

How Opal Mehta got kissed.. blah blah, is probably, the worst book I've EVER read by far. Factually incorrect,( when she writes about high school students who wear Jimmy Choos and use La Mer face creams and buy 17 bags worth of clothes at Bergdorf Goodman, makeup at Henri Bendel AND haircuts from Frederric Fekkai himself-- who is she talking about exactly?) culturally incorrect (apparently a typical gujju Mehta family meets for diwali to reminicse past times in Madras) and it lost me somewhere in the first 50 pages...

Jesus. I am appalled by this novel. Even if I were to grant it to fictitious licsense, the writing is so flawed , the characters are so rigid and the plot is so predictable that you need major guts to get beyond the first couple chapters.

Yikes, I said to myself. No way I am gonna be reading this book. Except maybe to see how bad it is, and warn off readers of JAM magazine. www.jammag.com. In the event, Kaavyagate happened before I got around to doing that.

Wimping Out
Nilanjana Roy put an interesting spin to the subject in a column for Business Standard

Along with every other reader in the world caught between publishing hype and authorial reality, I think it’s time we had a stock exchange for authors. Call it the Writers Index of Marketing Performance (WIMP).

WIMP would take these factors into consideration: the amount of hype generated before the publication of the New Original Volume of Entertaining Literature (the NOVEL, for short), plus the size of the advance, along with a weighting for special factors, which would cover the author’s age, pulchritude, ethnicity, awards won and general blurbability.

This would be balanced against not just book sales and media coverage generated, but also against a special reader’s index measuring any Feelings of Extreme Disappointment Upon Perusal. To put it simply: the more Fed-Up the reader, the more the writer will have Wimped out.

As in every field of life, including personal career growth, marketing has its merits. But, in the case of books at least, a slow and steady word of mouth is what often works wonders.

take the case of Shantaram – a book which was not overtly marketed but now has a permanent position on the best seller list in India. Jinal provides another example:

The Kite Runner was such a beautiful book and obviously wasn't marketed well, and years later solely on word-of-mouth, it emerged as one of best-selling fiction books and is still on Barnes and Noble's best selling list.

Something to think about!

A final point
I guess a better word for all those badly written books with pink or orange covers is junk-lit or even McLit. Easily digestable, unmemorable, for-the-train-journey novels. Successors to the once-popular Mills & Boons.

Meanwhile, aspiring writers can take note of another young lady who wrote her first book in seven weeks while studying for her A-levels. By the time she got her results, she had signed a two-book, £400,000 deal.

At the age of 18, Helen Oyeyemi signed the contract for her first novel, "The Icarus Girl," the same August day two years ago that she was accepted at Cambridge University.

The book, about an 8-year-old girl with an eerie imaginary friend, attracted gleaming reviews and buzz in Britain after its initial publication in January (2005). Ms. Oyeyemi was called "astonishing" in a review in The London Sunday Telegraph and "extraordinary" by The Financial Times, which said she could claim a place among Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri, all English-language Nigerian-born writers.

I haven’t read the book … but plan to soon.

I think the world will always be hungry for new talent. Kaavyagate is a reminder that the definition of what constitutes talent is something new and original.

Why, even poor Bridget Jones – who was brought back to life in the form of a column in The Independent last year – is now getting slammed.

The return of Bridget Jones, the iconic single woman who sprang to life a decade ago in The Independent newspaper as a column written by creator Helen Fielding, has produced a fiery debate among female newspaper columnists in Britain.

The question at hand: sure, she's amusing, but is this sad-sack singleton as relevant anymore as a societal touchstone?

Looks like there’s room for a whole new kind of heroine. She’s out there, waiting to jump out from somebody’s imagination…. Or, an editor to commission it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Dhoni goes 'exclusive'

This is bizarre. A leading cricketer signing a contract to "give his views and interviews exclusively to NDTV for a period of one year"!

Agencyfaqs reports: Announcing the contract, Prannoy Roy, chairman, NDTV, said, "We hope to bring quality content and attract the cricket viewers of the country by featuring Dhoni’s exclusive views on the sport...."

Roy adds, "The deal with Dhoni does not restrict him from presenting his views on other media."

Now I have heard of cricketers endorsing colas, and shirts and energy drinks. And of course we can never be sure that these fellows actually use or drink any of these products. All that the guy handing over a few crores asks is that the star is never spotted using other brands in public.

But this NDTV-Dhoni tie up is a first. And it remains to be seen how it actually works. Whether it will be a 'symbiotic relationship', as Dr Roy calls it. Or an incestuous one.

Dhoni himself clarified that he would be present at BCCI interviews and it's not like he won't speak to other media at all. But surely he will be less enthusiastic about speaking to the 'competition'.

Jeet Banerjee, CEO, GamePlan Sports, clarifies, "The plan that NDTV has laid out for Dhoni, the way they will use his views, was very balanced and substantial. That is why we agreed to the contract. " However, NDTV refused to reveal the kind of shows it will air with Dhoni.

Since Dhoni makes as much news every time he changes the colour of his hair, as when he's out on field, the possibilities are limitless.

But seriously, the 'war for news' has hotted up to an extent where I think such 'initiatives' have become inevitable. The bigger question is - does it make sense for a reigning star to align himself with one or the other media house in an non-exclusively exclusive manner? Whatever that means?!!

Well, here's the upside. Instead of giving soundbytes to a number of reporters to after every match, Dhoni can now give one, more substantial soundbyte to a single channel. What's more - he's getting paid for it. Uske upar yeh, the channel will actively promote and showcase Dhoni on other shows.

Now if Dhoni remains as big a performer on field as he is today, other channels will not be able to 'ignore' him. They will have to grudgingly accept whatever chhota-mota interview he gives them.

However, the moment his performance slips, there is nothing to stop the other channels from baying for his blood. And the support of an NDTV alone at such a time would appear hollow and self-serving.

Given that Dhoni seems unstoppable at the moment, it's a calculated risk taken by NDTV. Would not be surprised if rival channels are in talks with the likes of Yuvraj Singh or Irfan Pathan...

The line between 'news' and entertainment is already blurred. With 'tie-ups' like this, it may soon be completely invisible.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Paanch sau ka note

Every generation has its benchmark when it comes to the 'value of money'. Half a century ago the kid in the naani teri morni song asked his grandmother for 'ek paisa'. Those were the days when a single rupee had its value.

My mom recalls a time when desi ghee cost Rs 5 a kg. Her wedding saree - a Benaras silk - cost a princely Rs 210.

I remember, most vividly, the price of Modern bread. My mom would give me a 2 rupee note to fetch it. The bread cost one rupee and eighty paise. From the change, I would buy 4 mints for 5 paise each.

Yes, there is something called inflation. Obviously we all earned far less in the 'good old days'. Still, I didn't think we would so rapidly reach a stage where it is commonplace - merely ordinary - to reach for a 500 rupee note

Less than a decade ago, the 500 rupee hundred rupee - or Gandhi note - was a rare and precious thing to have in your purse. For a while, they were even 'dangerous' to have because forged notes were making the rounds. Shopkeepers would glare at the watermark and the silver strip, just to make sure.

Then came the ATM era, with machines casually spewing out 500 rupee notes to whomsoever desired them. Soon you had the retail monsters which would willingly swallow up these notes whole.

This morning I took daughter to see Ice Age 2 at Inox. We had a great time. That time (barely 1.5 hours) saw one 500 rupee note vanish into thin air. The tickets cost Rs 180 each. Two popcorns and a Coke cost Rs 120. Poof!

Later, we checked out some of the shops on the ground floor of the multiplex. There was a clothing store called 'Aftershock' with strappy little tops and tight shiny shoes. The kind Vjs get to wear for free on television and rarely look good on anyone else. The price tag for a skirt - Rs 3495.

Opposite this, a confectionary shop called 'Bateel'. A brand I have never heard of. Here, a small box of chocolates - or dates - in a pretty golden box is on sale. For Rs 1100.

Poverty is a relative thing. Today, I felt relatively poor. But it's not about money per se, it's about values.

Once in a while, we all like to splurge. And we've earned the right to that pleasure. But I want my daughter to grow up, realising the value of money. I want her to think twice before buying something she may not really need.

And so we looked at a lot of pretty clothes and shoes but ultimately went to a cute little shop and bought pens, pencils, ruler and gumstick. Yes, in a mall even that can add up to two hundred bucks.

So much temptation in a 'pen and pencilon ka superbazar'. And the 4 rupee pencil is not all that different from the 20 rupee pencil. Even a rational adult finds it difficult to choose...

The irony is that Gandhiji, whose picture is printed on that currency note, once observed,"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed."

For that, I guess there's Mastercard.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Pramod Mahajan - the man I never knew

In life, they called him a 'fixer'.
In death, he is a networker.

In life, they called him a manipulator.
In death, he is a master strategist.

In life, the focus was on his lavish lifestyle.
In death, it's on his humble roots.

I never knew much about the man called Pramod Mahajan while he was alive. But from all that I have seen and heard in the last 12 days, he seems to be a politician with a difference.

And here are a few things that struck me in particular.

From an Indian Express report:
Mahajan's Pune moorings began at the University of Pune's Department of Communication and Journalism from where he graduated in 1971. Faculty member Prasannakumar Aklujkar remembers Mahajan was the first student of the department to attend a course conducted in English and answer his exam papers in Marathi.

And yet he got a first class.

Classmate Sudha Godbole says that as a student Pramod performed very well in essay writing competitions but was always in the background because of his shy demeanour.

"Which is why all of us were extremely surprised when Mahajan became the fiery speaker and aggressive leader he now is".

Hard to believe, isn't it? This simply shows that 'leadership' is a skill which can be cultivated - if you have the right attitude.

Another classmate recalls: "Pramod was always shy and not very articulate. But he read a lot, passionately absorbing Sartre and others... "

Clearly, he was a man who believed in absorbing as much as possible from any and every source. As a young man, Mahajan was impressed by the oratory skills of Atal Behari Vajpayee. But he did not remain merely an admirer, he made it a personal goal to become a powerful speaker himself.

The capacity to keep learning and growing is a very fine quality. And one rarely found among our fossilised politicians.

For all these reasons - and of course the bizarre circumstances of his shooting - like millions of other Indians, I felt sad on hearing of Pramod Mahajan's demise.

I'd rather not comment on his politics or his legacy - there are people far more knowledgable than me to do that. No doubt he was a politician - not a modern day saint.

All I can say is, it is admirable that Mahajan reached this stature purely on the basis of his personal talent. Even in the dirty world of politics, there appears to be something called 'merit' at work.

And that, is a comforting thought.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Koi aam baat nahin

There is a new ad for Maaza which I find rather sweet. It features Satish Shah as the chowkidaar of an aam ka baag, reminiscing about the good old days when kids tried to sneak in and steal the fruit. And couples would romance each other under the trees.

Now, it seems he has no work because everyone is happy drinking new Maaza with Alphonso. So that's what he does now - sell Maaza instead of mangoes! In fact the trees itself are now laden with Maazas...A bit of a creative leap but well, that's advertising for you.

This ad actually brought back memories of the summer I spent in a small town which was then more like a village, where the chief attraction was - eating mangoes. Now people in Bombay swear by Alphonso, in UP they swear by langda and there are a hundred other varieties in between.

But the mangoes at this place - Seoni in Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh - were the original 'maaza'. A breed of mangoes - called Chausa - which were something quite unique.

As in all mango-eating rituals, first comes the science of selection. You have to keep a watch over the fruit to know which is 'ripe enough'. These were then dumped into bucketsful of water, to "reduce the heat". The difference with Chausa is that you don't cut it. Simply mash up the fruit between your palms, make a small hole on the top and then drink up.

It is a most amazing mango experience. The kind that makes you quite sticky and orange. The after-effects of one too many were some distressing heat boils. But, well, worth the inconvenience!

I have never seen this mango in Bombay. I'm told Chausa is kind of dying out - that it's not a variety which is in much demand for export. Hence, no new trees are being planted. Sad, I say! I have a good mind to pay a visit to Seoni one summer and taste another bucketful.

On a related note, there was a piece in DNA last week on what certainly looks like a trend that may take off. A Thane couple gives children a feel of old Maharastrian customs by taking them to a village to spend a week.

Nitin Karkare, a Thanekar, and his wife Shilpa are taking children from the city to their roots. Their summer camp called Mamacha Gavi Jauya ('Let's visit uncle's village') takes kids to their 200 year old wada (home) at Tural village in Konkan.

Among the many 'activities': Children are thrown into the village pond, play games like Lagori,"Aatya Phatya" and even ride on a bullock cart. There are camps for adults and senior citizens as well. Check out their pretty neat website.

Yup, the "native place" we all once took for granted is fast disappearing. I, for one, have no relatives left in what you would call a true-blue village. Even those in small towns lead lives not very different from mine, with all modern conveniences.

But no point crying over packaged milk. Cows, ponds and mango orchards still exist. You'll just have to pay to enjoy them now...

(mango pic courtesy Kyle's travel site)

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