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.

Looking at the world from small airplanes

It was in 1977 that I first sat in a small airplane, an Indian Airlines flight from Bombay to Nagpur in an Avro 748 aircraft. I could feel the clouds nudging it from below, or that is what I thought at that time. When it moved from side to side, we would tilt sideways. It was like sitting on a motorbike, only in an enclosed space and high above the ground.
Thirty years later after that first slightly frightful experience in a small airplane, I had a more pleasurable experience. Recently, I sat on commuter aircraft on a Continental Airlines flight – a de Havilland DMC8-200 from Columbus to Cleveland in Ohio. I could see the land below as the white-and-blue plane flew above it. Yep, Ohio is flat. As flat as flat can be. Compared to large aircrafts, we were flying so low that I could say with a little dose of writers’ exaggeration that I could almost read the street signs! What I saw on the ground were toy houses and toy cars followed by rectangular patches of green fields, and brown toy factories emitting thin streaks of grey smoke. Like neat drawings by girls and boys at a drawing class in school. Just before touch-down, I saw from my window the side wheels coming out in a gentle movement like the feet of a ballerina touching the ground.

A memorable flight in a small airplane was the first one that Meryl Streep took on an all yellow de Havilland Gypsy Moth biplane with Robert Redford in the film Out of Africa. “When did you learn to fly” she asks him as she adjusts her head gear while the plane takes off. “Yesterday” he says, startling her. But it is too late to continue that line of conversation as they are already in air. Seconds later, the screen is filled with the sight that they share – herds of zebra, elephants, deer and giraffes running below in uniform parallel rows; a large flock of white birds over a river, opening out their wings in unison like a rush of petals in early spring. Baroness Karen von Blixen played by Streep reaches out to Denys Finch Hatton played by Redford and they hold hands just for a moment. It is the moment that gave me a lump in my throat when I first watched the film with the mixed feeling of happiness they must have shared and the anticipation of tragedy that I feared might follow, as it always does in great films that are beautifully made. They are so much like real life.

Two days after flying into Cleveland, I took a flight to Detroit on Northwest Airlink in an all red plane, a Saab SF340A that felt like a toy plane inside. The flight was more fascinating as we criss-crossed the great lakes. Tiny paper boats sailed below over miniature waves. As we approached Detroit, the airport was visible from a distance, a sight that is not usually possible to see from a larger aircraft. Although there is still a miniscule feeling of danger and risk lurking at the back of my mind when it comes to flying in small aircraft, there is also a reasonable feeling of acceptance of the safety that we take for granted from simply flying often that has created a new craving for flying in small aircraft for the sheer experience of it.

India as a Business Destination

It’s been over two months into this year 2009 and not a single blog post yet .. shame on me.. I promise to write more often. Sensible stuff, not just ramblings.

In November 2008, an article of mine on India/Delhi as a business destination got published in Business Traveler magazine in its US edition. A tragic irony that the Mumbai attacks happened the same month. But we have bounced back, inspite of ourselves: the corruption, the politics, the infrastructure backlog. And inspite of the terrorists. One day, they would have to give up or give in. Give in to global development, peace and general happiness. I don’t know where all this optimism comes from, perhaps from the bottom of my soul. So here’s the link to my article titled:

Playing the India Card

Really glad to be writing about India. Hope you enjoy reading this one!

Mumbai under attack

I have been watching the coverage on television of the horrific attacks on Mumbai in last few days. Shocking is an inadequate word to use. In fact, there are not enough words in my vocabulary or any dictionary that could articulate what I have been feeling. Emotions have moved from anger, horror, fear, sadness and a sense of emptiness at the futility of such violence. While I think of so many things that need to be done to prevent such attacks in future, a question that creeps up again and again is – will anything be ever enough?

Roof over my head – II

Nearly a week is over since my last post on this topic. Those people who sent warnings about breaking down the homes in slums did not come. Probably, the corporator had done the job of keeping them at bay. So said the maid. But yesterday I saw lines of worry on her face. Since it did not happen at the appointed time, it may now happen any time. I guess that is the thought that might be worrying her. I did not ask her. How does one live with this kind of uncertainty?

Roof over my head

Essential to normal living is a roof over our heads. Like most people I know, this is something I have taken for granted. This morning I was looking at an advert about a real estate exhibition and mulled over the idea, expense and exertion of buying and maintaining a second home. It would be nice to have a second home I have often thought but the idea of keeping it in good order when my current is not in perfect order has deterred me from doing anything constructive about this half-expressed desire.

An hour later, my maid rang the doorbell and gave a detailed explanation on why she was delayed to come to work today. She and her family members along with several neighbours had gone to meet their corporater. Two days from today, their homes in a nearby slum area would be broken down. A notice had been put up yesterday to this effect. While I listened to her open mouthed, she had already picked up the broom and went about the daily task with her usual deftness. I asked her where her father lives as I knew he takes care of her two-year old daughter when she comes to work. She said he lived some distance away, not in the same slum area.

After some time I asked her what they would do if and when their homes were broken down. She smiled. Nothing, she said. After they finish breaking, we will make it again and with a flick of her right hand she returned the broom to its place in the corner and took up the swabbing of the floor.

I am still a little dazed thinking about what would happen to her life after two days. But there is no clarity or purpose to my thinking. Except that the idea of buying a second home seems a little redundant and an unnecessary extravagance. Let appreciate the value of what I already have and try to keep it in perfect order is a recurring thought.