the no-nonsense space

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Media Owned State

In an age when idiot box psephologists and sundry political pundits cry themselves hoarse about the primacy of the BSP factor (bijili, sadak, paani) in any election in New India, DMK in its manifesto for the forthcoming elections in Tamilnadu has done remarkably well to balance the modern with the medieval. Going by the three promises which DMK chief M Karunanidhi chose to highlight while relesasing the manifesto today, the message for the state's electorate is clear: eat more, spend more time watching TV (preferably Sun TV) and, procreate. Everything on the house. Dr. Kalaingar it seems has had some consultations the Swedish Social Democrats (who spend more than 50 per cent of the country's GDP on welfare sops) before setting out the party's agenda for the state.
In this populism slugfest chief minister J. Jayalalithaa had announced a scheme to provide free bicycles to students in the state, and her cash dole of Rs 2,000 for flood each affected family across the state seems to have ensured more votes. Not to be outdone the DMK promises to install a colour television in every home and give a monthly allowance of Rs 1000 for six months to pregnant women besides providing superior quality rice at Rs 2 through the public distribution system. While the Rs 2 rice scheme is a time tested vote harvestor successfully employed by both NT Rama Rao and later his son-in-law N. Chandrababu Naidu, the first two promises have disaster and deceit written all over. By giving women an pregnancy allowance Karunanidhi has made a mockery of family planning campaigns on which the country has invested significant energy and resources. If the DMK comes to power, the septugenarian leader could as well disband TN government’s various family planning departments. Although one can dismiss the proposal as an election-time bout of lunacy, the plans to provide free colour TVs deserve greater attention. While the rest of the world looks at electricity, teledensity, hospitals and doctors per 1000 people, literacy and sex ratio as development indices, in DMK’s lexicon television seems synonymous with development. The only people who bother so much about television penertation so much are media planners at advertising agencies, and television makers themselves. DMK is neither. So why the fuss?

Karl Marx termed religion as the opium of people. Karunanidhi has realised that television is the opium for Tamils. There are nearly a dozen Tamil satellite channels for a state’s population of just over six crore and the Sun TV network run by the Karunanidhi family with a bouquet of five channels. In the TRP ratings for Tamil programmes, Sun Tv shows occupy almost all the top ten spots. Recently media analysts have pegged Sun TV’s valuations at a whopping Rs 3000 crore. You can picture the channel’s vice-like grip over the popular culture and imagination of the state when Vaiko, an erstwhile alliance partner of DMK who has now joined hands with Jayalalithaa cited his “blackout” on Sun News as one of the primary reasons for the fallout. Karunanidhi’s detractors allege that he is more interested in expanding the family’s media business interests. Ergo, his “vision” of increasing the television density would most definitely mean greater revenues, unmatched political and advertising clout for the Sun Network. Just a back of the envelope calculation shows that Karunanidhis latest freebie scheme would cost the exchequer Rs 5000 crore. The average penetration of CTVs in India is around 27 per cent. In the case of TN its higher at 30 per cent. Considering that there are 1.2 crore households in the state, nearly 70 per cent or 8.5 million (10 million are sold in the whole of India annually) of them still don’t own a box. Even if you put the average cost of a CTV at Rs 6,000, TN’s next finance minister could be looking at setting aside Rs 5100 crore.
Chennai is perhaps the only metropolis in 21st century India which relies on sub-saharan handpumps for the supply of drinking water, and it will continue to be that way for the foreseeable future. But what the heck, the state will have more idiot boxes than the rest of India.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

have scorn, will pour

Here's something I wrote for the year-end issue as part of a package on blogs. "Let's stir up things," KP would say each time when we discussed this piece. And he's rather happy with the prospect of bloggers screwing my happiness.

Imagine this (maybe you really don’t have to, by the time you read this): Cyclone Maya hits Chennai. Telephone lines are down, and there’s no electricity. Not even in Poes Garden. But Superblogger Subramaniam sitting in his marooned apartment block near Elliot’s beach writes somehow posts a blog (yes, a blog) recounting the dreadful night he and his 30 neighbours spent with flood waters rising up ten metres. And for good measure he has also uploaded pictures of his plight thanks to Google’s Picassa and his mobile phone camera. Hourlyblogger Hari, a resident of an equally marooned Mylapore neighbourhood of the city, too somehow manages to read the piece and decides to ferry food and other essentials to his fellow-blogger and his friends on one of the many rubber dinghies that the Chennai Corporation has promptly pushed into service. A week later when flood waters recede, and another kollywood matinee “idol” makes a grand entry into politics, Superblogger and Hourlyblogger along with 50 other avid bloggers in city decide have a bloggers meet at the tony Amethyst coffee shop. And over some overpriced Ceylone tea (Rs 70 a cuppa, if you must know) they agree that blogs and bloggers were indeed heroes during the disaster.
The blog, a hero? Oh you must be kidding. Maybe elsewhere in the world blogs and bloggers have really made a difference during such natural disasters. But in India over the past one year where we have had a spate of natural calamities and bomb-blasts, across the country, there is very little evidence to suggest that this whole new medium, and its proponents have had any impact. Although a handful of bloggers have tried manfully.

The Collablogs or collaborative blogs during the Mumbai floods and the Kashmir earthquake were little more that an aggregation of related stories that appeared in newspapers and magazines. Generalisations such as thses don’t go down very well with the bloggers, but most posts were on the lines of Mid-Day said this, TOI didn’t report that, Outlook preferred to put Rani Mukherji on its cover rather than the floods, and so on. For Mumbaikars who were stranded without water and electricity for a almost a week it wouldn’t have mattered too much which paper said what. Helpline numbers of electricity and healthcare providers were reproduced on the Collablog from other newspapers. Astronomical web-page hits and search result numbers apart, what citizen reportage are we talking about? Thankfully some of the saner bloggers do agree that it is impossible to empirically prove that blogs save lives or make a difference. But then if you aspire to be a celebrity blogger, its is imperative for you to be seen/quoted/talked about at such forums. For the urban twentysomethings with intellectual pretentions and the hope of being spotted by the commissioning editor of a publishing house, it’s the new P3, or rather the virtual world’s very own India International Centre.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Absolut Bliss

Here's something I've been waiting to write all my life......

Back in 1990 when an aging England team, and Graham Gooch in particular--who scored a record 456 runs in a single test at Lord’s--decimated the Indian bowling attack, the English teacher at school gave us our most interesting summer vacation assignment ever. We were asked to write an essay on why the Indian team was beaten so badly. As naïve ten-year-olds in the pre live telecast, and in-depth Harsha Bhogle style pre and post match analyses, most of us came to a fairly straightforward conclusion: the Indian-made bats that our players used were simply not good enough. A Slazenger or Stuart Surridges in the hands of Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar could have made all the difference. Similar losses in Australia the next year lent further credibility to our desi bat theory.

Fifteen years on, India may only boast of a middling cricket team, but the bats certainly aren’t to be blamed. Nearly 90 per cent of all the bats and cricketing accessories sold around the world by any of the leading global brands is manufactured right here in India. That’s a degree of outsourcing monopoly which even the country’s IT and apparel sectors don’t enjoy.

England’s latest sensations Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen swept the ICC awards this week in Australia and their UK-based equipment maker Woodworm is set to become the fastest growing sports goods firm on the back a cricketing renaissance in England. The weapons the duo used to dismantle the Aussies come from a grimy, antiquated factory in Meerut, some 65-kilometres east of Delhi. But it’s a fact that neither Woodworm nor the Indian company it sources from would confirm. This factory nowadays is working overtime to supply Woodworm’s massive orders. Batmakers are chipping away at the willow edges to give Woodworm’s bats their unique, patented design. But the Indian manufacturer insists, with an impish grin that he doesn’t "make" overseas brands fearing cancellation of orders and expensive law suits.

Interestingly, Woodworm is one of those nimble footed, new age companies that’s using outsourcing to its advantage. The company reportedly has less than a dozen full-time employees and sources all the cricketing paraphernalia it sells from low-cost Indian firms. And as is the case with all the global apparel retailers like GAP and Tommy Hilfiger, Woodworm too is loath to disclose where it sources products from. Queries to Woodworm’s HQ in England about the company’s business model drew a blank.

For an Indian, the global cricket equipment business today is filled with delicious ironies. When the West Indies ‘blackwashed’ the England cricket team with monotonous consistently in the 1970s and 1980s it was considered the erstwhile colony’s great revenge on its former rulers who taught them the game. Now, the Indians have done one better. There was nothing more quintessentially English than a cricket bat. A bat had to be made from willow that grew in England, and the expert bat makers commonly known as pod-shavers were a tribe that existed only in the Old Blighty. Over 90 per cent of the worlds English willow or roughly four lakh pieces of the holy timber still comes from the JS Wrights & Sons farm in Essex. Indian firms during the last five years have become the largest buyers of this raw material, and England the biggest overseas market for cricket bats. The Indian pod-shavers today are considered the best in business.
“Bat making in England was largely a closely-knit family run business. It came to a standstill as the older generation of entrepreneurs moved out. Today all leading cricket firms and top cricketers recognise that the best bats are made in India,” says Jatin Sareen, the director at Sareen Sports Industries which makes the SS brand of equipment used by some leading players like Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly. SS employs close to 200 people at its three units located in Meerut and gets nearly 70 per cent of its revenues from exports. With sky-high labour costs in countries like UK and Australia, and the catchment market for cricket still fairly small compared to other sports like football or rugby, global brands have no choice but to outsource production to low cost countries like India. Sareen, a portly thirtysomething and a third generation businessman, talks excitedly about more than a dozen players in the current Indian team using SS bats, and how bats are tailor-made for each of them (Laxman uses a 1170 gram bat with double grip, while Ganguly prefers a 1300 grammer, the heaviest one bar Tendulkar’s), but he refuses to talk about specifications that other international players ask for. Disappointed, we move on to the country’s largest cricket company Sanspariels Greenland (SG), a brand endorsed for a long time by Sunil Gavaskar. Even today, SG’s Sunny Tonny range of bats, named after Gavaskar, is its largest selling in the domestic market.
SG’s factory stands out in many ways. Not just because it is the only cricket company in Meerut that has a large vinyl signage making its existence conspicuous. The company’s two-acre campus is a landmark on the Delhi-Meerut highway. Where others are content being cottage enterprises, SG sees itself as the big fish in the business. The company manufactures equipment for all the leading global brands you can think of—Grey Nicholls, Slazenger, GM, and Kookaburra--and doesn’t shy away from talking about it. Its young director Paras Anand has spent the last couple of days meeting up with a contingent of overseas buyers who have come to close a new deal. “We are expecting a big boom in our key market, England. After they’ve won the Ashes we are expecting a more than 50 per cent increase in cricket merchandise sales there,” he says. SG which has a capacity of producing nearly 500 bats a day would shortly shift to a newer office four times bigger.
But what I saw at SG’s production floor crushed my heart. A Grey Nicholls leg guard being made alongside Gunn and Moore; the same pair of hands making Slazenger and Kookaburra gloves; the same pod-shavers using a similar grade of willow to craft an SG bat and a Kookaburra. The raging debates that I sometimes still have with friends about the mythical superiority of Slazenger (remember, ‘King’ Richards wielded one) over Gunn and Moore and Hunt’s County would have to stop. With the Australian cricket season around the corner workers here are busy pasting Kookaburra stickers on the anemic pink surface of newly carved willows. “In the month of March, you’ll find more Grey Nicholls and Slazengers here,” says the production manager who is quite baffled with my sense of disappointment.
According to Paras Anand, Kookaburra, Australia’s largest cricket firm has only retained the production of Test-grade balls in its home country. “They source almost everything from us. Kookaburra is now just a marketing firm,” he says. The cost advantage is so huge in India that most leading manufacturers here operate on margins as high as 80 per cent. “In England and Australia it would cost as much as 20 pounds to fix a new handle to a bat. A new Indian made Kashmir willow bat costs as much or a little less,” says Anil Sareen, CEO Stanford Industries, another large Meerut-based equipment maker. And given the country’s large domestic market and the labour intensive nature of cricket equipment manufacturing (there’s very little mechanisation, and most products are still hand made) it looks like Indian blades would score runs for international teams for the foreseeable future. SG has even acquired the marketing rights from Slazenger and Kookaburra to sell the brands right here in India, starting November.
The large-scale shift towards exports over the last few years is not merely driven by the lure of hefty margins. In India, all the leading manufacturers have been pushed out of consumer conscience thanks to corporates like MRF, Britannia and Hero Honda entering sponsorship agreements with star players. “When it comes to the domestic market we rely heavily on aspirational buyers who are mostly school children who buy kashmir-willow bats priced at less than Rs 1,000. Now when they see their heroes using bats with Britannia and MRF stickers, they too would want to use them,” he explains. As a result India has witnessed spurious equipment flooding the markets. According Jatin Sareen’s estimates fake goods account for nearly 45 per cent of the country’s lower end bat sales. In the multi-crore sponsorship game original equipment manufacturers stand no chance against the corporates. “My last big signing was Vinod Kambli in the early 1990s who was paid Rs 1 lakh a year for using SS bats. Today, to be seen on the bats of Sehwag or Tendulkar, the asking price is more than Rs 3 crore,” he laments.
But surely, unlike my bunch of friends, the future generations of cricket-loving kids would not blame Indian brands when their icons fail.

Monday, October 10, 2005

threnody for TN

Tamilnadu's heart is precision engineered at Sundaram Clayton and its mind code-written at CTS. Proof: Reading the chennai-based dinosaurian English language idiot sheet is apparently as addictive a habit as sipping filter coffee in the mornings (i'm sorry it's a cliche, but it's true); a new idiot sheet claims circulation of four lakh within six months of launching in the city; and Sudhish Kamath becomes a journalist, and what he writes is considered literature by the massive army of tamil geeks spread across the world.
Please call Paravai Muniamma (of Sunday Samayal fame) to sing the threnody.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Modernity RIP

The ongoing feud between Greg Chappell and Sourav Ganguly has claimed an unlikely victim. Chappell's website formed during his pre-India coach avatar has ceased to exist for all practical purposes. Chappell's associate Ian Frazer who was virtually running the show all this while, tersely says: "Greg and I were forced to take this action to ensure we keep the integrity of our vision. Over the next period we will investigate better ways of providing leading edge interaction. In the meantime I encourage some reflection on your own learnings. Good time to go back and have a look at some old posts. I'll certainly be taking advantage of the break."

One really wonders how the integrity of vision of a venture which essentially was a discussion forum could possibly be endangered by what's happenning between Chappell and Ganguly. But it is likely that the website’s members, most of them die-hard Indian fans of Chappell flooded its pages with venomous comments against Ganguly. Something that could further embarass the already beleaguered Indian coach. Within a few hours of the Ganguly's fateful press conference in Zimbabwe, there were about 3,000 well articulated comments on the site, supporting Chappell. It is interesting to see how Chappell's public support curve has shown a steep decline in the last one week. Most of the dipstick surveys conducted a week back showed the captain trailing the coach 35 to 65. With the review committee virtually absolving Ganguly of all charges levelled against him by the coach, public opinion too seems to be with him now. But it is still surprising that Chappell, an outsider has been able divide opinions so sharply in country where cricket following is characterised by extreme jingoism. And that tells me that the youngsters in urban India (the set that most of these surveys and SMS polls cover) are watching a hell of a lot of European football on TV, where coaches like Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson call the shots, and are more influential than most of their team members.

If Ganguly had decided to pursue his first love football and acted in the reckless manner that he has as the captain of a team, there would have been no review committees and sms polls. He would simply have been shunted out. The Irish are as passionate about football as we are about cricket, and Roy Keane a more pivotal character for his team than Ganguly. But that didn’t deter the Irish coach from sending the celebrity captain, who refused to play ball, on a long journey back home to Dublin from Yokohama in the midst of the all important 2002 World Cup campaign.
More recently Jose Morinho, the Chelsea boss not only dropped Ricardo Carvalho, star defender, a protégé and fellow Portugese for a couple of games but also asked him to get an IQ test done for making his outrage public over the star-studded team’s rotation policy.

Having watched more hours of football than cricket in the last one year, I would personally like to see a rule framed in Indian cricket whereby a player would be dropped for a two matches if he gets run out on account of failing to slide his bat to the crease while taking a run instead of casually plonking it in, as if he was doing mankind a favour by scoring it. Doesn’t matter if the player in question is a Sehwag who hits a hundred in the match.

But messers Sehwag and Ganguly (the two most frequent plonkers) needn’t worry. Such rules can never come into effect here because we are Indians. Any coach who works here will have to work “within the system”. It is a unique system indeed resting on the pillars of inefficiency, mediocrity, inflated egos and total opacity. And we seem to be guarding it with the same zeal with which countries like Australia and Newzealand protect their unique bio-diversity using the most stringent quarantine laws.

Ergo, Greg Chappell, Member of the Order of the British Empire must go. His direct Australian methods and the “commitment to excellence” threaten to destroy the edifices of mediocrity that that we have erected with such great care. He is a bloody liar who is out to tarnish the good name of our winningest and angel-like captain who is also in serious contention for the non-playing captaincy of India’s Davis Cup team for his great motivational skills. Move over Leander Paes. He make them train hard, have a “headmasterly” attitude towards players who don’t follow the training routines. We are not natural athletes you see, but when it comes to skills we can beat the Aussies hollow.

A lot of cricket writers and ex-players have asked if we should be treating our heroes like Ganguly in this manner. But what about Chappell? He may not have endorsed as many products as Ganguly but has more Test runs and is probably still a hero Down Under. Imagine what we’d have said if Sunil Gavaskar or Kapil Dev had been called a liar by Cricket Australia. We branded match referee Mike Denness a racist when he accused Tendulkar of ball tampering and stopped short of conferring a similar title on umpire Daryll Harper when he gave Tendulkar out LBW when he was struck on the helmet ducking a short-pitched ball from McGrath.

But soon after Chappell leaves for Adelaide, after a “swadeshi” coach like Mohinder Amarnath (he knows the "system", can regale the team with Punjabi jokes, and inspire them with 1983 stories) is installed we should collectively as a nation resolve not feel envious when Australia wins another major tournament or England stamp their newfound authority on the cricket field. Nor should we ask ourselves stupid questions like why we lost yet another cup final. Sehwag will occasionally make a sparkling hundred, Irfan Pathan would bamboozle Bangladesh with his in-swingers and we’d still have heroes to worship.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Whose Chopper Is It, Anyway

Dear Ms Rumplemeyer,
It was a privilege indeed to read such a finely crafted riposte from an old, weathered yet keen mind to my rather juvenile rants. Ergo, your comments deserve to be posted on my blog rather than unceremoniously consigned to the 'comments' section.

But before I attempt to redeem myself, I must say madam, that your first name reminds me of something that I end up having every once in a while for dinner at an Italian restaurant named Big Chill in Delhi which my fiancee seems very partial to, perhaps the only thing she likes in this big village. I think its called Arrabiatta (I know as a young man my memory should serve me better, but Italian thingies I'm not used to you see..) made using penne, sphagetti or fusilli. I almost always end up ordering Fusilli (you know that cork-screw kinda thing) Arrabiatta, but that's another matter. Your surname though suggests that you are of fine yiddish extraction (if such thing does exist). It is therefore very heartwarming that you, sitting on your Shabbat table should feel so strongly about the city of Bombay than the God-gifted land.
Please find my observations at the end of your delightful letter.
Dear No-Nonsense Votary,

Your impassioned and sprightly attempt ‘to burst a few myths” has been most charming. I’m even convinced that those with resilience piled high enough to fire up a space rocket or two would be a little under the weather after reading your little.. aah...engaging but hopelessly misinformed diatribe against ‘Bombay’ mythmakers.

An old lady such as me shouldn’t pretend to know much about the goings on the world of news reporting or about the peculiar habits of news people. I’m rather inclined to think, however, that the whole lot of them should be consigned to the boondocks for chronic pomposity and apathy towards facts.

They might be nice boys and girls all of them, but their heads seem to be up in the clouds most of the time. But let me not digress my dear Votary, and ask if that skinny lad Srinivasan (Vasu you tell me he’s called - and that’s a jolly good thing too - ‘Srinivasan’ is too big a name for TV) wasn’t flying that big industrialist Gireesh or Gautam something Singhania’s copter? Why would Singhania’s copter have NDTV written in bold all over it? My sight is failing and it is wholly possible that I missed the big- bold-red letters on the chopp.. chopper’s doors, but it does seem a bit odd, don’t you think?

I also have the vaguest memory, Votary dear, that the office of the news house you mentioned is not located on a high-rise some where in Nariman Point, as you’ve breezily noted. It is in the vicinity of Mahindra Towers, in between Worli and Prabhadevi, if my memory or what’s left of it, still serves me well.

Now dear Votary before I go on any further, I must tell you about a conversion I had with my grand niece a few days ago. Yes, I’m sure it was before the rains pounded Bombay, the way all of us who have lived there know it would some day.

My grand niece, is a nice little thing, you see, very sincere but not at all level-headed, unfortunately. Now this girl is to marry soon and wants to go and live in that very same blighted city you seem to love to hate. She was telling me about a tiff she had with her husband-to-be, who hails from another seaside city, Chennai. That lad, and he’s a fine young man, bright and very committed, just doesn’t understand what it means to live in big cosmopolitan city.

So this girl wants to be in Mumbai and her fiancee would rather be called narrow-minded than live in a city where it is not possible to be at work within in 20 minutes of leaving home and spend not more than Rs 5,000 on living arrangements.

But you dear Votary are wiser, you seem to be all in praise of your colleague who does not complain after traveling 30 kilometers to work. I wonder what encouraging things you will say about those who brave crowded train compartments everyday for anything between 40 to 120 kilometers to get to work in breezy Nariman Point.

Of course, you too might not know what that means, not having lived in Bombay. Well, old lady such as me can bring herself to forgive for that. But my grand niece, she can’t forgive that boy for saying mean things about her city.

I also have some advice for you my dear Votary, next time round don’t go writing things about Bombay that you’re clearly not qualified to do.

In Delhi, I’d like to see a cold wave of unimaginable proportions or a heat wave that fries you straight and simple. I wonder how many people will turn up at their Sarkari offices the next day. The people of Bombay are brave dear Votary because they’ve braved the deluge for days on end in the simple and non-fussy way that most Mumbaikars do. That needs no defense.

Now about the conspiracy that you’ve alleged the rest of the world to be busy hatching, I’d like to point to you a startling similarity between the words ‘conspiracy’ and ‘resilience’. Conspiracy comes from the Latin root ‘conspirare’ which means to breath the spirit together and resilience as you well know, is the ability to survive.

Now the if it’s a conspiracy of hope, that resilience word, then so be it. Otherwise you’ll have to wait for a deluge in Chennai, like that boy whose marrying my grand niece, to appreciate Bombay and its people better.

Thanking You.

Yours Sincerely,

Arabetta Rumplemeyer

Madam, who would have thought that TV channels in India could become powerful and wealthy enough to own flying machines of their own. Gone are the days when Mr Roy would have to request Mr Singhania for a quick ride on his chopper. Mr Roy and his wife in fact own three such toys--all painted in red and white--I'm told. And do forgive me for my poor knowledge of Mumbai's geography. It's true I cant tell breezy Nariman point from Worli. The Queen's Necklace (is that what you call it?) forms a lovely background when Vasu does his nightly 11 'O' clock jig, and I assumed any place in the vicinity of that road to be part of Nariman Point.
Ms Rumplemeyer, you can assure your grand niece (even I think she'd be a nice, smart little girl having chosen a cultured man from the south of Vindhyas), and those who think like her that I do not hate your beloved city. I only hate the mindless use euphemisms, generalisations and cliches. If you read me carefully I do not praise my colleague for travelling a great distance to work. I'm sure there are a million others in this country who do more to earn a living. It's a neccessity. My whole point was that there's nothing celebrate if people did that. "A cold wave of unimaginable proportions, and a heatwave that fries people straight" sounds like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. I concede people, sarkari or otherwise won't turn up for work, not just in delhi but anywhere in the world. I'm not sure how many did in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but by and large, the world considers the Japanese to be highly resilient. Passion for your city it seems has clouded your judgement and dimmed the ability to reason.
But in anycase, please do convey my wishes to your grand niece and the boy she is about to wed. Sounds like a smart guy, that fellow. Anyone who looks for a place 20 minutes driving distance to work and keep the cost of living arrangements reasonable, would have a good head on his shoulders. It would be my pleasure to take you, your grand niece, and her beau for a hearty Fusilli Arrabiatta-and-wine dinner if you happen to visit this wretched city sometime soon.

Yours Truly

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Call me a wimp

A new look blog deserves a fresh post. And in keeping with the spirit of zero tolerance towards non-sense, this post seeks to burst a few myths, and call the bluff of mythmakers who these days seem to be working overtime.

Srinivasan Jain in his white helicopter with NDTV painted in bold, striking red on the doors gives the viewers an arial view of the misery that incessant rains have brought to Mumbai. The chopper ride to survey the floods is no longer the vestige of usual suspects like Shivraj Patil, Manmohan Singh, and Sonia Gandhi. NDTV is infact quicker, and Srinivasan doesn’t fail to remind us of NDTV’s fleetfootedness after every shot of a submerged runway, marooned slum dwellers and endless rows of cars abandoned by their owners on flyovers and main roads. He hops off the chopper, presumably on the terrace of his swanky office somewhere in Nariman Point, and continues to keep us all updated on the record rainfall, this time under the protection of his big red umbrella which has NDTV written on all its four sides in bold white.

Back on terra firma, Vasu (as Arun Jaitley, margaret alva and Jayanthi natarajan call him) started off on the “resilience of the average Mumbaikar”. The public voices captured by NDTV’s celebrity battery of reporters, led by one po faced Supriya Menon said that come rain or shine or another cloudburst they would make the 40 kilometer journey to work the next day. CNBC, Aajtak, Star News, and Sahara (in descending order of their reporters’ celebrity-ness echoed similar resilient voices. Since then the R word has been inescapable. Talk show upon talk show paid tribute to the city’s “character” and resilience to thunderous applause from the audience. True to style Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta, describing what she saw, wrote: . “The street had that blank, washed look that we see after the heaviest rains – leaves not curled and freshly fallen, but flattened by the force of flowing water and pounding feet. A crushed snail. A plastic bag rolling on the road.” The bureaucrat-cum-artcritic-cum-animallover-cum-mumbaimirrorer-cum-avant garde blogger wrote poignantly on her husband’s five-hour bus journey from Church gate to Powai. She hastened to add: This city is resilient – I remember being in my workplace on the day of the Gateway blasts two years ago, and although we were all in shock, work went on as usual, on that very day and the next. People had run helter-skelter in the first few minutes after the blast, but minutes later, they were back there, loading the injured into taxis and rushing them to hospital.”

It now appears that she has teamed up with bloggers non-pareil Amit Varma, Sonia Faliero, and with the blessings of TS Eliot worshippers, watchcats, and some blabberjacks based in Delhi to further the city’s resilience legend.

I spoke to A~, a proud Mumbaikar who thinks of any other city as unlivable, and residents of other cities to be lesser humans, to understand what the R word means. Her argument too was along the lines of life-goes-on-in-Mumbai-no-matter what. “And if calling the city resilient helps keep its citizens’ morale high, why not,” she countered visibly irritated with my questioning this happy, romantic premise.
According to the Mumbaikar worldview life is a cakewalk for residents elsewhere in India, and indeed the world. Crowded suburban trains, crippling rains, bomb blasts, and the fast pace of life have ostensibly made the Mumbaikars a battle-hardened tribe like no other. Big city life is tough. Nobody gets free lunches in Chennai, Delhi or Kolkata. A colleague drives 30 kilometres to work everyday, without making a fuss. It rains here too, perhaps not as much as in the Heaven called Mumbai, and people do make it to the office. It gets pretty cold here. Visibility is near zero, and if you are on a two wheeler it can be harrowing with the fingers virtually refusing to grip the handlebar. The summers are horribly hot. People die of heat stroke. Nobody calls delhi resilient. Life goes on. Ditto for Chennai, Kolkata, Trivandrum, Jhunjhunu, Srinagar or Patna. The resilience that people attribute to Mumbai is purely due to the economic imperatives. Humans endure great hardships to make a living. It’s a fact of life. I can’t understand the romanticism attached to it.

The promotional montage for NDTV’s Mumbai specific show Mumbai Live hosted by the outsider Vasu has a man saying he likes the city because it’s a “living” city. Such mythmaking is sure to make you feel like a corpse.

Calling a place resilient is perhaps the easiest tool available for writers and journalists who are describing it. It suits them perfectly to paint this picture of irony, and it requires very little effort. The phrase too is a cliché quite similar to the cricketing cliches like “that ball travelled like a tracer bullet” or “ultimately, cricket is the winner”. If you go by the generalisations made by journalists and “experts”, Bagdad has shown great resilience in throwing out a dictator, the Afghans have been a resilient people for god knows how many centuries, the resilient Brits first blunted the German blitzkrieg and now are standing fearless in the face of terrorism, resilience is genetically encoded in the New Yorkers, and the Mumbaikars of course are a genetically modified people having the resilience strain of all the aforementioned cities.

PS: A google search for the words London + bombings +resilience fetched 827,000 entries; 718,000 for New York +9/11+resilience; 31,000 for Tsunami+India+R; 19,220 for Mumbai+floods+R.