Censusional Lady

Just a while ago, a young lady, pleasant and well-dressed came to my home for the Census-2011. Mrs Jyoti Pokhale is a school teacher at the Maharshi Karve Stree Shikshan Sansthan in Pune. Like over 25 lakh Indians, she is a part of this massive exercise. She stressed on the fact that she was doing this additional duty over and above her work as a school teacher. Earlier this morning, she gave a test-paper to her students before moving out to do the census work. After it is done, she will go back and continue with her duties at the school.
Although a little disgruntled about this work, she did her work well, strictly following all the rules while recording details. Surprised when I asked her to pose for a photograph, she liked that someone was appreciating this extra “unpaid” work that she was doing she said. It took much cajoling from me to get a smile out of her! When I told her she was doing very important work for the nation, she went away happy and smiling.
Here’s to Jyoti Pokhale and the hundreds of thousands of others who are giving their personal time for the Census-2011. Treat them well when they knock on your door!

(photograph not very clear – forgive me!)

Census 2011 official – Jyoti Pokhale, school teacher, Pune


Jaipur Literature Festival – Taking a bow until next year

At the end of five festive days of books, readings, discussion and debate interspersed with crowds rushing between sessions from one hall to the next, I feel satiated from the time spent for five consecutive days listening and sometimes asking questions at the Jaipur Literature Festival. An English girl I’d made friends with last year, asked me on email. “Did anyone mention the literacy rate in India over the course of the festival?” She was really wound up about that last year she added. No, I told her. Inspite of the millions of non-literate people in India, a literature festival could go by without touching on this topic. Elaborating on that would be a subject of another post. As would be other posts focussed completely a particular session, a few of the many that I attended. At this time, let me begin this one with the last event on the last day of the festival.

Right to know is right to live
A debate organized by Intelligence Squared, Asia and moderated by John Gordon on “Society has the Total Right to Know: freedom of Information must be Unrestrained.” Speaking for the motion were Aruna Roy, Ashok Vajpeyi and Tarun Tejpal. The speakers against the motion were Jaishree Misra, Abha Dawesar and Swapan Dasgupta.
Aruna Roy – speaking at the debate

Aruna Roy began the debate stating emphatically – The topic of the debate, Total right to know, according to me should cover only public information that influence democratic rights. We are not talking about private information or privacy issues. Corruption is not an academic issue in this country. It destroys the rights of a nation or a certain kind of development. The slogan on which we won the RTI act. Our money, our accounts. The Right to Know in India is Right to Live.  For the poor, not knowing is loss of liberty.  
The arguments against the motion were weak, mainly due to the lame examples the speakers used like medical records, private letters between individuals and doomsday scenarios of revealing sensitive security information etc that might be revealed if all information were to be made public.  A Rajasthani drummer, time keeper for the debate feastily drummed out the speaker’s voice if  the time limit was exceeded. The two journalists, Tarun Tejpal and Swapan Dasgupta were at the receiving end of the drummers enthusiastic beats.        
The statement that clinched the debate in favour of the motion was – it is better to have too much information rather than too little. Voting was by a show of hands from the audience. 
Boys will be boys

Ruskin Bond (right) and Ravi Singh on Sunday Morning

Of all the events, the most delightful one was on Sunday morning – Boys will be boys – with Ruskin Bond who spoke to Ravi Singh, Editor-in-chief of Penguin India.  Reading  from his book A handful of nuts, the author evoked laughter among the audience as he read the antics of a lady – whose skin he likened to that of a crocodile – trying to seduce a man much younger than her. In deference to the young school going audience, he had to stop short of reading the entire passage! He shared an anecdote about his visit to a book shop and finding his book lying way below in a pile under all the best-sellers. Mr Bond, looking about the make sure the owner wasn’t watching, took his book out from the bottom of the pile and placed it on top. All his care and caution was brought to naught when the book shop owner picked up his book and told him –  unaware that he was speaking to the author –  ye book chalta nahin hain! To refute that, he bought the book, the price of which was a meager Rs 3/-

There was not much of a market for books when he began writing which was about 50 years ago, the author called himself “quite ancient.” There were no festivals or book fairs then. The first book fair was in Delhi in 1968-69.  
J M Coetzee
Readings from Coetzee on Sunday afternoon was unique, as instead of discussions, the Nobel prize and twice Booker winning author J M Coetzee read from his book for the entire session. Patrick French presented the author thus – some writers perform, some writers write and now J M Coetzee will read from his work.

J M Coetzee – reading uninterrupted – simply divine!

The author began by saying – at festivals such as this one, writers get an opportunity to voice their opinions. Like everyone else, I too have opinions but I don’t think my opinions are particularly interesting! Instead, I will read from my work. So for the next 45 minutes you will only hear one uninterrupted voice, my own. 

He read from  – The old woman and the cats – a story that unfolds through a conversation between a middle aged professor and his old mother. Coetzee’s reading was as great as his writing. Without any change of expression or affected body language, he only read, conveying all the force of the story simply through his written words.
Half a Yellow Sun
On Monday, 24th Jan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie the young and vivacious Nigerian author of the novel Half a Yellow Sun (Orange Prize) and Purple Hibiscus spoke with Jasbir Jain. The Thing Around Your Neck, her collection of short stories was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book (Africa) and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.

(R to L) Chimamanda Adichie and Jasbir Jain

The first thing Chimamanda spoke about was how difficult it is to get an Indian visa for someone holding a Nigerian passport. Her husband, a US citizen, got his visa within a week while she had to wait for over three weeks. The first questioner from the audience later in the program apologized to her for the difficulties she faced on India’s behalf! An important point she shared with the audience was that her own life and childhood has been a very happy one.  She lived in a university town and both her parents were faculty at the university. The stories she wrote were imagined and not autobiographical although they were based on the world around her in Nigeria. As a writer, she was very much influenced by the Nigerian Novelist, poet and professor, Chinua Achebe. In fact, she lived in the same house that Achebe once lived in. As a young girl she would have imagined conversations with the spirit of the author.   

The Frog and the Nightingale
On Tuesday, 25th Jan, Vikram Seth in conversation with Somnath Batabyal spoke about his forthcoming book – A suitable girl – which he has not yet started writing.  Seth was one author at the festival who interacted most with the audience. Before answering a question, he sometimes asked counter-questions. He had promised school children at the festival that he would read his poem, The Frog and the Nightingale and kept his promise. The author had asked the children why this particular poem; to which they had replied – they had to learn it in school! 
Vikram Seth – reading poetry 

Talking to students and young reporters
During the lunch break one day, I decided to explore the extent of influence of Hindi Literature at the festival.  A group of Hindi speaking college girls I met, students of English Literature from Venkateshwara College, when asked about their favourite authors, the answers I got were: Jeffrey Archer, Ayn Rand, Amitav Ghosh (especially his Shadow Lines) and Margaret Mitchell.  Among Hindi authors, Munshi Premchand’s Godan was a favourite. One of the girls said her favourite author was Khushwant Singh. Only one girl said she read Hindi newspapers. Most others did not. I asked them if they had liked any of the Hindi sessions and pat came the reply – “Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi was awesome.” 
A young reporter writing for a Hindi newspaper said she had read works of Premchand, Agyeya, Nagarjun, Sharatchandra, Mahadevi Varma and Sumitranandan Pal. Among the contemporary authors who were present at the festival she had read the works of Manglesh Dabral, Ashok Vajpeyi and Ashok Chakradhar.  Any new, young author writing in Hindi drew a blank. Nobody reads Hindi she said, everyone is running after learning English  and reading English books.
Until next year then!

Blowing the conches to signal the end

My favourite among authors whose work I’d already read: Chimamanda Adichie. My favourite new author discovered: James Kelman. The five days at the festival went by swiftly, until next year then, to return for more literature. The provisional list of authors is already out. Some of them are: AS Byatt, Deepak Chopra, Fareed Zakaria, Gita Mehta, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Malcolm Gladwell, Monica Ali, Philip Pullman, Pankaj Mishra, Salman Rushdie and hold your breath – Zadie Smith.

Taking a bow – to go back into the woodwork

The festival directors Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Producers Sheuli Sethi and Sanjoy Roy of Teamworks took a bow at the end, as Sanjoy said “good-bye to all until next year as we fold up the tents and disappear back into the woodwork.” Some people lingered on the lawns as if to extend the pleasure even after it was over.

But hey, there is another literature fest coming up before the year ends –

Hay Festival at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, 18-20 November, 2011. 
Anyone coming to God’s own festival?   

First Day at JLF – authors, poetry, bagpipers, singing and dance

The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) kicked off today with Sanjoy Roy, producer of the event, taking the mike on the front lawns to welcome everyone. But before he could go beyond the first word, a jingle played on thevideo screen.

“We are the blackberry boys” from Vodafone played while everyone including Sanjoy Roy waited for it to finish. This was a first at the festival. A commercial break before a session. Fortunately, it did not repeat through the rest of the sessions.
Welcoming everyone from all the continents of the world, Roy threw open the festival platform for a five day feast of debate and dialogue.
The tall brass lamps were lit by Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) President Karan Singh andRajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot in the presence of the festival founders and directors.
Faith Singh spoke about the traditions and languages of India that are in danger of slowly disappearing, some may say rapidly. At the start of her short address she mentioned that she has lived in Jaipur for several years, is married and living here and for good measure added in Hindi, “meiin is jagah se hoon”. So don’t go on about my being a gori. Don’t go on about my colour, she said.
Was this a response to the piece on JLF by Hartosh Singh Bal of Open magazine? It definitely appeared so.
William Dalrymple spoke next saying that the festival has grown considerably over the years. He went over the history of the festival right from its inception till its present day. The number of authors has grown to 222 and this year and the grounds have been further expanded to accommodate more sessions and bigger crowds.
Namita Gokhale said the festival was among other things the creation of a democratic intellectual arena for simultaneous and conflicting worlds to interact . So every year in January the world visits Jaipur and Jaipur visits the world.
Dr Karan Singh spoke next, quoting frequently from the Ram Charitmanas. He said, “India is the only country in the world to have creative literature in 25 languages.” He suggested that all the languages should be included in the festival and stressed the importance of translations and poetry in the literary arena.
Sheldon Pollock, the Sanskrit scholar and professor at the University of Columbia started his keynote address by saying, “A poet writes poems but it is the scholar who understands them.”
Sheldon Pollock delivering the keynote address at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 21, 2011.

Sheldon Pollock delivering the keynote address at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 21, 2011.
Recalling previous keynote speakers of the last two years, Girish Karnad and U R Ananthamurthy, Pollock said that literary festivals were happening in India as early as the end of the 12th century when a multiplicity of literary creative activities took place in Northern Karnataka in the region of Kalyana. There was a need to preserve old classical and all Indian languages including Kannada, Assamese, Gujarathi, Marathi.
When there are problems that need to be tackled seriously, India had managed to tackle them effectively. There was a need for an Indian Institute of Classical Studies to be established on similar lines as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management ( IIMs) and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).
The session with Orhan Pamuk in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhary was interesting from the start. He spoke about his earliest ambition to be a painter and then becoming a writer.
He felt the immediate joys of seeing the world through not only words but also colours that were akin to the joys of looking at 16th century Islamic miniature paintings. The past is not only to be preserved in a museum but to be reinvented to help us in understanding our culture. It was important to rewrite the past in such a way that it lives in history and in the imagination of the people.
He read a passage from his book My name is Red which had been kept open and face down on the table. When Chandrahas Choudhary picked up the book to glance through it, Pamuk snatched it back and placed it on the table evoking laughter from the audience. When the session was thrown open toquestions, Pamuk requested that questions be short.
One man in the audience asked the author which love was deeper, the spiritual one or the sexual one. Pamuk was quick to reply that the one that penetrated more was the deeper love, adding that he used the word penetration since the question mentioned depth of love!
The session titled Emperor of Maladies was a discussion on the experience of cancer patients, their treatment, and books that deal with cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author, Katherine Russell Rich, a cancer patient and author, and Kavery Nambisan, surgeon and author, participated in this very engaging discussion.
Orhan Pamuk (seated right), in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhary at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 21, 2011.

Orhan Pamuk (seated right), in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhary at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 21, 2011.
James Kelman, winner of the Booker prize in 1994 for his novel “How late it was, how late,” and a resident of Glasgow, Scotland spoke about the need for writers to write in the language other than the standard English used in most Anglo/ American novels and books. It was important to get the right syntax and punctuation to give the correct rhythm of the spoken language.
One of the evening sessions on Bulle Shah with singing of his poetry by Ali Sethi and Madan Gopal Singh in Punjabi was outstanding.
Highlights of the next four days:
The Eye of Memory Annie Griffiths & Karen Chase in conversation with Alka Pande
Helter Skelter Jim Crace, Introduced by Nilanjana Roy
Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi Mrinal Pande, Prasoon Joshi, Ravish Kumar & Sudhish Pachauri in conversation with S.Nirupam
Imaginary Homelands: Junot Diaz, Kamila Shamsie & Manjushree Thapa with Chandrahas Choudhury
The Inheritance of Books: Kiran Desai in conversation with Jai Arjun Singh
Boys will be Boys: Ruskin Bond in conversation with Ravi Singh
AfPak: Ahmed Rashid, Atiq Rahimi, Jayanta Prasad, Jon Lee Anderson & Rory Stewart in conversation with William Dalrymple
Readings from Coetzee: J.M.Coetzee Introduced by Patrick French
Marathi Theatre: Mahesh Elkunchwar & Makrand Sathe in conversation with Vaiju Naravane
Half a Yellow Sun: Chimamanda Adichie, Introduced by Jasbir Jain
A Suitable Book: Vikram Seth in Conversation with Somnath Batabyal
A discernible difference at the festival this year is that it has more sponsorships than ever before. Not only events, but the halls are now prefixed with sponsors’ names. So you have The Economist Durbar Hall, Vodafone Front Lawns, Kingfisher Airlines Baithak and Merrill Lynch Mughal Tent.
The evening music events and the bar have been moved to another part of the Diggi Palace grounds separating it from the rest of the venues. This has allowed the organizers to have an additional session at 6 pm while the light and sound checks for the entertainment evenings goes on in parallel at the new Coca Cola sponsored venue.
Every evening, the speakers enjoy the party along with the rest of the audience. On Friday, the evening began with the bagpipers and drums. This was followed by a 16-person orchestra of Been players, drummers and cymbal players. The concluding session of Rajasthani musicians ended like every year in the audience taking to the dance floor and some of them even going onstage to join the folk artistes and dancers. A day spent listening and reading, and an evening of music and dance!

Curtain Raiser – Jaipur Literature Festival 2011

In January last year, the Delhi fog decided to play festival pooper and kept some authors from reaching Jaipur in time for the literary mela. What with flight delays and bad roads, those who were to make it for the very first sessions did not reach Jaipur. It took some juggling by the organizers and directors to start the festival on time with careful and swift changes in the program, noticeable only to diehard festival regulars like yours truly who had studied the schedule, marked it with choices and followed it like a project plan.  A very visible black board (or was it a white one?) kept the attendees abreast of the changes in schedules.  Hopefully the fog will behave itself this time.
Now its that time of the year again, soon I will be packing my bag to go and spend five wonderful days at the Jaipur Literature Festival, henceforth referred to as JLF. Let me see what we have in store this time ….
At 10am on the Front Lawns of Diggi Palace will be the keynote address by Sheldon Pollock, professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at the Columbia University. The JLF website provides a longer bio of the esteemed professor. At the same venue an hour later, Orhan Pamuk the Turkish author of Istanbul, Snow and other books will be in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhary, the avid book reviewer, essayist of literature of The Middle Stage and author of Arzee the dwarf, his first novel. Now here’s the tricky part. At the time of listening to this conversation, there are three other sessions that I will be missing. What are those? 
Mathematics and Football: Alex Bellos at the Darbar Hall
Kuch Shehar, Kuch Ped, Kuch Nazmon Ka Khayal: Gulzar and Pavan Varma in The Mughal Tent
Fugitive Histories: Geetha Hariharan and Manju Kapur at The Baithak
For every session I attend, there would be atleast 2 or atmost 3 other sessions going on concurrently at the other halls that I will be missing. Get used to it, I’ve learned to tell myself. That is what life is like isn’t it? You can’t have everything.  Not at the same time anyway.
So what do we have lined up this time at Jaipur?
There are over 200 speakers, a majority of them authors. Others in conversations with them are editors, publishers and academics from literary spheres. 
You can find the complete list with bio of all the speakers  on the JLF website.
Authors to make a debut are Amrita Tripathi and Sangeeta Bahadur.  Among the authors  who will be there are Ruskin Bond, Patrick French, Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai,  Martin Amis, Amitava Kumar, Rachel Polonsky, Ali Sethi, Tishani Doshi, Annie Griffiths, Kamila Shamsie, Gurcharan Das, Kavery Nambisan, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Meena Kandaswamy, Bettany Hughes,  Junot Diaz, Basharat Peer, Ahmed Rashid, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and many more.
The topics for discussion range from current affairs like Afpak, to importance of books,  to the Crisis of the American fiction.
You can buy as many books as you can pack in your bags from the bookshop or the publishers’ stalls on the Diggi Palace grounds.  But attending the sessions is completely free of charge. The kullad-wali chai with a dash of cinnamon or pepper poured out by a turbaned gentleman is also free. 

I will most definitely be there to enjoy it all. And write about it. So are you coming to Jaipur?  Yes? Then I’ll see you there. Can’t make it this time you say? Well, in that case, watch this space for my daily JLF posts and pictures.
For now, here are some excerpts from the 5-day schedule for English and Indian languages:
A snapshot of some of the sessions in English:
21 January:
Two Nations, Two Narratives: Muneeza Shamsie in conversation with Urvashi Butalia
The Bankers Who Broke the World: Liaquat Ahamed in conversation with Gurcharan Das
22 January:
Why Books Matter: Javed Akhtar, John Makinson, Patrick French & Sunil Sethi in conversation with Sonia Singh
Strangers in the Mist P.C.Sharma, Sanjoy Hazarika & Temsula Ao in conversation with Ravi Singh
Reporting the Occupation: David Finkel, Jon Lee Anderson & Rory Stewart
Moderated by Antony Loewenstein
Hall of Shame: Caste & its Exclusions Chandra Bhan Prasad, Meena Kandasamy & Patrick French in conversation with S.Anand
The Inheritance of Books: Kiran Desai in conversation with Jai Arjun Singh
23 January:
Boys will be Boys: Ruskin Bond in conversation with Ravi Singh
Now that I am 50…In Praise of Older Women Bulbul Sharma & Namita Gokhale
AfPAK: Ahmed Rashid, Atiq Rahimi, Jayanta Prasad, Jon Lee Anderson & Rory Stewart in conversation with William Dalrymple
India: A Potrait Patrick French in conversation with Amitava Kumar
The Crisis of the American Fiction Jay McInerney, Junot Diaz & Richard Ford in conversation with Martin Amis

24 January:
Half a Yellow Sun Chimamanda Adichie Introduced by Jasbir Jain
2×2 Readings by Namita Devidayal Introduced by Amrita Tripathi
The Alchemy of Writing: Truth, Fiction & the Challenge of India
Tarun Tejpal in conversation with Manu Joseph
Narcopolis: C.P.Surendran & Jeet Thayil in conversation with Jai Arjun Singh
25 January:
Stranger than Fiction

Arthur Miller & Eric Haseltine in conversation with Abha Dawesar
China Dialogues
Hong Ying & Isabel Hilton in conversation with Stephen McCarty
Writings the 1980s
Martin Amis & Jay McInerney in conversation with Nilanjana Roy
Live Scores: Manu Joseph & Shehan Karunatilaka in conversation with
                      Somnath Batabyal
Trainspotting: Irvine Welsh Introduced by Jeet Thayil

Notable among the literary sessions in Indian languages are:
21 January:
Urdu Jubaan with Javed Akhtar and Neeta Gupta 
Na Tshay Na Aks – Voices from Kashmir with Naseem Shafaie and Neerja Matoo;  Rajasthali with Aidan Singh Bhati, Ambikadutt Chaturvedi & Suman Bissa.
22 January:
Aisi Hindi, Kaisi Hindi with Prasoon Joshi, Mrinal Pande and others;  ;
Gata Rahe Mera Dil/ The songs we loved with Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi.
Katha Samvad (Rajasthani Prose) with Habib Kaifi, Lata Sharma & Shyam Jangid

23 January:
Marathi Theatre with Mahesh Elkunchwar and Makarand Sathe in conversation with Vaiju Naravane.
Nayi Bhasha Naye Teevar – Avinash, Giriraj Kiradoo & Manisha Pandey in conversation with Ravish Kumar

24 January:
Kuye Bawri Talab
Anupam Misra, Rajender Singh & Shubhu Patwa in conversation with Om Thanvi

25 January:
Smaran: Agyeya, Nagarjun, Shamsher Bahadur Singh
Avinash, Mangalesh Dabral & Om Thanvi in conversation with S.Nirupam

From a recent news report in the Times of India, it seems that J K Rowling will also be there at the festival. I already have requests from a few Harry Potter fans to get her autograph for them. There were rumours in the past too about her attending the festival. Remains to be seen if she really makes it this year. 
The news has also reached MuggleNet and fans are ecstatic, even though most of them cannot make it to Jaipur. What a treat for fans who will be at the festival! Are we ready then?

Feature on Delhi in Business Traveler Nov 2010

My feature article on Delhi – in Business Traveler, November 2010 issue can be read here!
Wrote it with some misgivings as the cwg scam was unfolding while I worked on it. This is my third feature article for the magazine. Besides these, I also write the monthly ‘India Update’ which unfortunately is not yet available on the web archives.. Will send another reminder to them. In the meantime, the feature will have to suffice. I’ve been wanting to do one on Mumbai, waiting for the right opportunity.

Jaipur Literature Festival – 2011

I’ve been tracking it on the website for JaiLitFest . Yes! Now the schedule for Jaipur Literature Festival is out. Starting from 21 January to 25 January, it will be a celebration of books, authors, culture, life, society, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, Languages English and Indian. Most of all, readers and lovers of books and reading.
Excited to be there again, my third time at the festival, I still remember my first visit in Jan 2009, the first moment I stepped on the grounds of the hotel Diggi Palace and looked at the welcome counter, festooned in festive colours.

Young volunteers busy at the counter, arranging badges, brochures, getting registrations done. On the other side, there were groups of men and women from publishing houses setting up their stalls.

Sanjay Roy stood there welcoming the early walkins like me. I did not know what to expect on that first day. But it was off to a great start. After two years there already, this year I will be reporting on the daily events on NetIndian as well as posting it here.  Watch this space for more updates! Let the Shehnai begin its lilting notes, let the drums roll!!

Can we dare to laugh now?

A post, a tweet doing the rounds of social media and drawing rings of laughter from everyone:
New words: 1Crore = 1 Khoka; 500Cr = 1 Koda; 1000Cr = 1 Radia;
                    10000Cr = 1 Kalmadi; 100000Cr = 1Raja; 100Raja = 1 Pawar;

I laughed too and circulated it to my friends. They liked it and laughed in return.

Its incredible how in less than a decade what was termed a Khoka in underworld lingo and seemed huge, the amount of Rs 1Crore, possible to be acquired by ordinary mortals by only winning the final round of a television reality show hosted by the Big B, now stands looking shamefully small against the sheer amounts that corruption and scams have thrown up. The amounts are all relative to each other on a scale of numbers from zero to trillions. But what do these numbers mean?

That crores of rupees set aside for a definite purpose like development of a sector to reach the most vulnerable people of our society are swindled. The money dwindling all the way down until it reaches the hands of the deserving in amounts not adequate enough to buy food, to keep shelter, to pay for health or education. For every crore that reaches undeserving pockets, there are tens of crores of rupees that are not made available for developing our infrastructure, for building hospitals and providing electricity in remote rural areas, for providing much needed public transport systems in our emerging and expanding cities. For every crore that exchanges hands without being accounted for, women in villages and city slums walk long distances or spent long hours to fill up drinking water for the day for their families. For every hundred crore that was given secretly in exchange of favourable outcomes in business, generations of children will grow without proper nutrition or healthcare or education.

For every obscene amount of public money that the country has lost in corruption, every rain-fed farm is waiting for irrigation systems and farm ponds to get rid of the unpredictable outcomes of every crop season, driving farmers out of their centuries old occupation to leave in search of work as labourers to cities. For every unthinkable amount that is yet to reveal itself in yet another scam, for every such terrifyingly monstrous amount, the freedom we so proudly proclaim every August by unfurling the tricolour in all its glory, that freedom is rapidly eroding, the colours of the flag are slowly fading. The injustice of living under a foreign power is replaced by the worse imposition of living under the power of a monster of our own creation, that only we can get rid of. Should we remain calm and go about our daily routines? Can we watch the issues debated on television and read in newspapers over dinner and breakfast only to leave it aside and put up our blinkers?

Are we doing enough to keep this monster from growing? Are we knowingly or unknowingly feeding this monster with our own corrupt ways? Where are our fingers pointing, at those laughable figures or at ourselves? Can we dare to laugh now?

What you need is not what you get! (WYNINWYG)

A group of upper middle-class women gathered for a kitty party were discussing the amounts they pay their domestic help. One of them talked about her maid asking for a raise since the last four months. She told the maid to wait till January of next year for a raise. Four months is not too long she added. Switching to a more interesting topic, she asked if any one was interested in starting another kitty – a bigger one of Rs 5000/- Didn’t take long for some other women to join in. The amount was not that big. The amount for the current kitty was just Rs 1500/-. That is like loose change. The maid can wait for another month for the princely raise of Rs 100. Her take home monthly salary at present for those wanting to know such things is Rs 1200 for spending an hour each day sweeping and cleaning floors, bathrooms and washing utensils. Everyday, no holidays.

What keeps an educated, well-off, upper middle-class, apparently sensible woman in India from realising that if she can spend thousands on kitty parties, she can very well give a raise of a few hundred rupees to her maid when she needs it. It doesnot require any complex arithmetic or lessons in labour laws to realise the importance of paying service providers adequately. Especially those service providers who give her essential services like keeping the Italian marble squeaky clean for her to put her pedicured feet on every morning she wakes up.

This is the story of India everyday, everywhere. Needs of the deserving millions are ignored in the overpowering greed of those who already have it and are in a position to use their clout and proximity to power.

In a hard-hitting column on the rise in farmer suicides through 2009, (The Hindu 27-Dec-2010 read the column here), P.Sainath talks about how bank loans at low interest rates have been made available for those wanting to buy luxury cars like Mercedes Benz and BMW. But poor and marginal farmers, the ones who need loans at low interest rates have a hard time getting it. Is is not the primary function of banks, particularly public-sector banks to provide banking and credit services to those who need it to carry out their livelihood activities and daily subsistence? Or is it to dole out monstrous amounts in loan to people acquiring luxury items that they do not really need except to make a show of obscene one-upmanship? These people are actually rich enough to pay for the luxury cars from their own pots of money. They don’t need a bank loan. Should there be some scientific thinking and logic behind who needs a bank loan and who should get how much at what interest rate? For the person low on resources shouldn’t the interest rate be lower?

These and such issues never make it into the mainstream media, print or electronic. Rare exceptions are like the one cited above. Electronic media use the prime time slots to cover stories that would maximise their TRPs. Whatever those are. Considering that at prime time a television news channel can give maximum exposure to stories that really matter, one would think that issues that are important to the nation in the long term would be addressed atleast once a week. But day in and day out, we get the same sensationalization of Breaking News … A minimum of four persons available on each news channel for panel discussions that are heavy on rhetoric and light on content. What we need is for the high-profile media to use their resources to study the real issues, analyse them and present a new, fresh perspective to enlighten the viewer. But instead,
we get the same, lazy treatment – a cacophony of voices from people, some of whom seem to have made a career out of appearing on news channels at dinner time.

Onions please!

A steaming cup of hot adrak-ki chaye slipped off my hand and the tea spilled, half on the kitchen platform, half on the floor and splattered everything in the vicinity including myself with drops of tea. Oh what a mess! But happy to note that the cup was intact. The Schipol airport mug with the smiling cow and chubby windmill was unbroken. Great! Now all I had to do was make some more tea quickly and I was setup for an evening of blogging and surfing. Now why can’t feeding the millions of our country be managed as simply? Why do onion prices shoot up uncontrollably? What, we don’t have enough agriculturists, economists, engineers and management graduates in India to figure out how to maintain the balance of production, demand and supply? I mean, hey, we write software that will manage zillion volumes of transactions through payment gateways, stock exchanges and banks without a hitch. Ok, we have power outages & software glitches and human errors that bugger up the systems once in a while but we manage to get back on track quickly. Even a mind-boggling event like bombs exploding on Mumbai local trains does not stop us from jumping back to normal within a few hours. Heathrow airport in London may be facing the flak for not clearing up the snow fast enough to avoid flight-freeze every Christmas season for the last three years. But we manage pretty well each year through Mumbai rains, Bengal floods, cyclones in the south and excruciating heat in summers throughout the country. Then why can’t we manage food for all at reasonable prices? Is that like asking for too much?

Does the man incharge not have enough time after the additional burdens of the BCCI, IPL, Lavasa and party meets in New York?  The man is Incharge of Agriculture and Food Procurement is he not?

Take a woman in this country. Any simple woman, a housewife for starters. She will not rest until she has fed her family well within her capacity. If the earning member does not provide enough income, she will work. If one job is not sufficient, she will work two jobs and work at home to feed her family. No one will go hungry except perhaps herself at times. She will sell her jewellery and herself even to ensure each and every person sleeps at night without going hungry. This has happened since time immemorial. Whether the woman is educated or not, literate or not. It does not take economics or engineering or management or any other college degree to figure out how to feed all those who are in your charge. If she has ten guests at home, she will still manage to feed them all. Is she not incharge of food procurement in her house? How many such women do we have in our country? Millions and millions. Maybe they should be given a chance to manage this better. Maybe one of them will keep the onion prices from shooting up every other half-year. She will know how to calibrate the exports and imports well in advance to avoid shortages, she will know how to store stocks to make-up for loss due to rain. Hell, she is ingenious enough to bring out an alternative to onion in the days of shortages!

While at it, she’ll solve other problems too that you, Mr. Minister of Agriculture and Food Procurement have not been able to solve. Like the agrarian crisis causing farmers’ suicides, insufficient supply of water to unirrigated farms, shortage of storage options for grains without letting them rot while millions go hungry.   
Move over Mr. Agriculture Minister and give someone more efficient a chance to keep everyone well-fed at reasonable prices.

Now on to relish hot pav-bhaji. Someone pass me that plate of chopped onions please!

This is New York

The last time I was there, it was in June 1999. As I looked out of the window of my rented apartment, the lights from the Manhattan skyline could be seen far away in the distance. Yes, this is it I thought. I am in New York.
Twelve years later on 25th June 2010, it was the same feeling. Only this time I was looking out of the window of a hotel room at Newark Penn Station. Its sprawling greyish brown expanse eating up the entire stretch of the road. A clock stood up in the centre of the building. But far away in the distance was the Manhattan skyline again. I wondered why it seemed less brighter than it did
the last time or was it just my imagination. The next day I stepped out early in the morning, map in hand, determined to reach the Newyork Metropolitan Museum by subway. It wasn’t easy. But I decided to behave like a complete newcomer and started with the enquiry counter. Newark Penn Station to 33rd Street on PATH, Crossover from 33rd Street PATH to 34th Street Herald
Square Yellow Line and take the train to 14th Street Union Square. Crossover to Green Line and take the train to 77th Street. It was the easiest thing to do! The trick was to do the reverse in the correct order. But I managed to do even that. At the Union Square station I waited a while to listen to a South American band. They had a decent collection of green notes in the upturned hat kept for the purpose.
At 77th Street as I looked about trying to decide which way to go, I was acousted by a woman with three teenagers – two boys and a girl. From the quiet friendliness of the group, I concluded the woman to be their aunt not mother. They asked me the way to Central Park. I told them I was a visitor like them and trying to find my way to the same destination. A man walked by and they
asked him. “I am a tourist” he said. So map in hand, the teenagers and aunt decided on a way and walked ahead. I went on too after crossing over to the other side of the road. As we approached Central Park, we realised we had found the way and waved to each other across the street. Walking along the park, I reached the Met Museum. Had someone told me I would spend four hours there alone, I would not have believed it. I did spend four hours. But I was never alone. I skipped the Asian and Medieval sections and went on to the American section. The complete sets of furniture from 18th and 19th century America were a treat to watch, especially the tiny chairs with bright yellow tapestry crafted for children.
Among the European painters Picasso was the favourite with everyone and such a great collection spanning an entire lifetime. The Man with the Lollipop was my favourite.At the museum shop I bought five postcards with painting prints. 4 Picasso of which one is a portrait of writer Gertrude Stein and a self-portrait. 1 each of Van Gogh and Monet. The sixth postcard was free. Walking back from the museum I stopped at the artists displaying their works on the street along
Central Park. From a glass sculptor I bought two tiny red beetles and a white and blue turtle to go with it. A cartoonist had his creations titled “Manhattan Cocktails”. None of the artists allowed photography but when I told this one I wanted only his Signboard and would put it up on Facebook and Twitter, he let me take a photo. “This price has already been pre-haggled” it said.
It reminded me of Puneri Patya!

On the way back in the train, a woman stood in the centre of the two rows of seated people facing each other. Her dark glasses made it difficult to see her eyes. She was pregnant and attired in a way that would make it impossible for her to sit. A red t-shirt covered her slim torso and stomach. A pair of denim shorts were slipped on somehow, the front zip fully open gaping at the
swollen stomach. The woman said something about her baby being happy while she stood up. No one was looking at her except probably me. After a while she proclaimed loudly, “I’m sorry all you people. I apologize for my appearance and my clothes. But I’m homeless.” I could only imagine the expression in her eyes. There was complete silence from everyone. After a while, the woman walked away to the other side. Yes, I thought to myself. This is it. This is New York.