Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Tabloidization of Indian Media

I read this speech Prannoy Roy gave when he accepted the award for lifetime achievement at the Bombay Press Club. Essentially what Roy bemoans is the tabloidization of Indian media which lowers journalistic standards across media platforms: print and electronic. And, I agree. Bravo Roy!

Last month I went to author CP Surendran’s book launch. The media was there in full force. I attended CP’s last book launch and the media was absent. Well, a few stragglers, not many. So I wondered if it was the booze, or, something else that made them come in such force. There were cameras of all types, jousting to get better positions, a general hullaballoo.

No, it wasn’t the booze but a chap named Anurag Kashyap that made them come. I don’t know the reason why Kashyap was invited. He confessed he rarely read Indian fiction, and was openly sarcastic about Indian Writing in English. But forget that, and forgive all that, he was asked to be a panel member in the discussion about the book. Holy of holies!

The media was there because Kashyap with a few hits to his credit is a celebrity and the next best thing that is happening to Bollywood. I haven’t seen any of his films so I can’t comment on its quality. But his disdain for Indian Writing in English was quite clear.

When the floor opened for questioning the media started questioning Kashyap about Bombay Velvet and other projects. Poor CP and his book were ignored, passed on, for the more saucy gossip of Bollywood. Tabloidization had begun. The scribes wanted some cheeky quote from Kashyap which they could print in the next day’s paper. They got them too. Kashyap is a hunk, a proper muscled Bollywood-type hunk, and was married to another starlet, now divorced.

Kashyap was dismissive and said Indian Writer’s in English wrote tripe and Indian filmmakers made crap. Both were lapped up and reported on. Roy said that tabloidization leads to lowering the standards of journalism and I agree, with all my heart and soul.

In another launch I attended, this time it was my own launch. Actually, my short story was featured in an anthology and the publisher called us authors to take the dais and talk about our stories. This is the only launch I have ever had, so far, at least. The media came. The publisher, I don’t know for what reason, had invited a Bollywood starlet to be present. She smiled a lot, a nervous, self-conscious smile. The media focussed on the starlet and ignored us authors. I was chagrined. The next day’s papers showed pictures of the starlet with the publisher and not a word, not a word – I emphasize – about us poor authors, who slinked to the far corners of the hall to weep bitter tears.

That’s tabloidization for you, and it’s a bad thing. The earlier our media gets out of it the better it would be for them.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Writing a Novel Is Like Putting a Universe Together

This appeared in my novel Mr. Bandookwala's dedicated blog yesterday. Reproducing it here for the benefit of readers of this blog:

Writing a novel is like putting a universe together: constructing its foundations first, living in it for days, acquainting with the people, and then letting it go. It’s a very slow process that requires immense patience. But once you are good at it, there’s a lot going for you. Recently I completed my novel and now, horrors, I am submitting to those whom I trust for a first look.

But then why do writers take this arduous journey to nowhere. Half the time – when you are writing - you are wondering what the critics will say. You are in turmoil, you don’t think straight, your narrative may falter, in which case – God forbid – you go back and rewrite. All along, you are not being compensated for your time. You are in constant dilemma: will my character say this; will he behave thus? Yes, in western countries you have grants, which you can avail while writing a novel. Yann Martel was on a grant when he wrote Life of Pi. But in India you have nothing. Zilch!

Yes, there is something. Aha! You get a lot of shit thrown at you if you read a chapter at a writer’s community. You sink into perdition once again. People in Indian write in their own language plus English (own language + English). I mean, Malayalis write in their English, Tamilians write in their English, you get the drift, right?

My effort has been to steer away from stereotype to portray a stereotype. In Mr. Bandookwala I have written about different communities and the different ways they talk English, without identifying the community. It becomes obvious which community I am talking about, and at the same time, a foreigner can laugh at the quaint way we talk. It was a tough task. But, now that it is done, I have the jitters again.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

My Morning Walk

Every day I go for a walk in the morning, in the valley where I live, part of the routine now. I have a cane, which I use not because I need it, but because of the dogs that inhabit my route. They have become friendly, however, the odd one still barks at me. I go around 10 a.m., which is when I finish my yoga and breakfast.

There’s a curious mix of people I meet on my walk. One is a neighbour, the wrecker of the hills where I live, the local rich man. He owns a stone crushing business and has denuded the hills around my house with his industriousness. Through the night and day he mines the granite in these hills and sells it to the railways. He owns half a dozen cars and says he is doing well. Whenever I pass his house, I hear the loud admonitions of his wife, a dowdy, querulous lady. His is a joint family, which means his sons and wives and grandchildren live with him.

Sometimes he waves me good morning. Sometimes he doesn’t. That may be because he is planning his next business move to take notice of me. Gujjus being quite admirably money minded they always think about business. He bought another plot of land and is building a huge bungalow there complete with lift and lots of glass. He is the uncouth kind of man, rough of character, who, though he owns several cars, wouldn’t spend money to have them washed.

Then there is Ramu, the ironing man whose job is to iron all clothes in the locality. He is a resident of the valley for a long time, having been born here. He didn’t study beyond fifth standard preferring to loaf around with friends. Now his father has gone to his village and he looks after his ironing business. He and the eunuch, sorry, transgender, about whom I wrote a story (Lalla: the Eunuch), live in adjacent shacks.

Then there is this distinguished gentleman from Kerala, who tells me stories about VK Krishna Menon and KPRS Menon, because he himself is a Menon. He worked in a corporation for a long time and is in his eighties. He has maintained his health very well though he has a back problem, which he is bearing with admirable fortitude. He reads a lot and we discuss some writers and their works.

Then there is this gentleman who is a Bengali. We greet each other, in strict cordiality. He has never asked me about my background, nor have I about his. From general appearance he looks like a government servant, a babu, the sort who pushes files in government offices. He speaks with great care, mincing each word, cautiously avoiding any unpleasantness. He also is quite well off and has a big car and lives in a big house near the gymnasium. We only say “how hot it is,” or “how cold it is,” to each other, after our morning greetings.

I rest myself after my walk on a garden seat near the gymnasium. There is a steady stream of people in cars and bikes who visit the gymnasium to work on their bodies. I look at them and marvel their rippling muscles. I wish I was like them. One lady, a nicely muscled one, comes with a packet of biscuits which she distributes to the dogs, who, not being hungry in the morning, grudgingly hover around her gift. The dogs brawl over the food, but don’t eat it, leaving the biscuits on the street. I guess they are learning to hoard food from us.

Then there are two Malayali friends who always walk together. One is known to me, therefore he greets me. They talk all the while about politics, Kerala politics. Now, to be honest, I don’t know much about Kerala politics except that Oommen Chandy is the chief minister and Sarita Nair is somebody involved in a scam.

The dogs bark at me even though they know me. I wave my stick at them, a sturdy Wildcraft climbing stick. They seem unfazed. It’s their privilege to bark, let them enjoy their entitlement. I am not bothered.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Launch of CP Surendran's Novel Hadal at Palladium

Was at friend CP Surendran’s novel launch yesterday. His novel Hadal was being launched at the tony Palladium in upper Worli. Upper worli for those who don’t know it is Lower Parel, the mill district. They have cleverly manipulated the name to upper Worli to save them from the blushes of saying they live in Lower Parel. So you live in Lower Parel, does your father work in the cotton mill, eh? What could be more insulting than that?
It was an evening of drinks and discussion as the author interacted with film maker Anurag Kashyap and Ravi Subramaniam. Ravi had read the book overnight, he said. Earlier actors Suchitra Pillai and Denzil Smith had done a dramatic reading of a chapter from the novel. The banter was pleasant and the paparazzi were present in great numbers sensing some great story was up. But the news never got the coverage it could have. I scanned the papers today and found nothing. Surely, DNA will not carry it because CP – I call him that – had just left it. The Times didn’t carry it also. Some media shenanigan behind this? Then why was the paparazzi so strongly and intrusively present? They were all over the place. They were building their photo portfolio on CP and Anurag, or, so it seems. Nothing succeeds like success.
Ravi Subramaniam, CP Surendran, and Anurag Kashyap
CP said that these days people go by phonetics of language and not by their etymological origin. So you becomes “u” and we becomes “v.” Ravi also read out a passage from the novel which states that Indian men are over-sexed and underfucked. Yes, agree with that. What else would make drivers and bus attendants so horny that they would abuse small children? We are an underscrewed nation. Where do we have the time or the place? In a one room kitchen flat, in which most of Bombay lives, where’s the place for decent conjugal bliss? Even married people have to look for a vacation or a room in a seedy hotel to consummate.

Hm. I don’t know; this must be the way launches are done these days. The paparazzi, the drinks, the verbal jousts, the humour, the fun. CP shone with his intelligent asides. You are doing great man! A good evening of intellectual stimulation was had by all. 

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Some Cogitations on Vishu

The Konna, Cassia Fistula

On my morning walk today I saw this regularity, rather, miracle, of nature. The Konna (Cassia Fistula), a flower like dappled sunlight, a profusion of them looking like the sun glittering on a placid lake, is blooming again. That means the Malayalam new year Vishu is here. Vishu is on April 15, in case you would like to know. It’s the day on which farmers begin their farming activities in Kerala ending in the harvest season during Onam. So it’s a time for Vishukani and Vishusadya.

Sunlight when it falls on the Konna makes it even more beautiful. It’s like heaven on heaven, a two-fold blessing to sore eyes that missed many a bloom this spring. The mango tree which should have been full of blossoms is dry and devoid these days, the jackfruit tree in the courtyard is forlorn and a few jackfruits in its branches have turned black and fallen down.

This spring I didn’t see the gulmohurs blossoming in my locality. I don’t know why. Even some of the plants in my garden have wilted. The heat is harsh, the wind is dry, a few days of rain hasn’t mitigated the heat. So global warming is a reality isn’t it? How do we cope with it? Are we prepared?

Yesterday, out in the sun to do a few things I was putting off, I visited Vashi. The heat was so intense that I had to escape to somewhere in the shade, probably with air-conditioning. So I went to Inorbit mall, Vashi, and did some shopping. Bought a large-size green shorts and a size XL tee-shirt. I would have never done that in my earlier days. Nowadays, with a bulging tummy those are the things I wear at home.

Came out at 3 p.m. and the heat was still intense. My skin seemed to scald, the tender organs of the body seemed to shrink, I was feeling dehydrated. That’s when I decided to hire a taxi, though I usually take a train. The heat seemed to have exhausted me. I had a butter milk after reaching home, as I am not in favour of aerated drinks.

There’s about Vishu much more than meets the eye. It’s Bikhu in the Kumaon area, Baisakhi in Punjab, Bisu in Mangalore, Rongali Bisu in Assam, Maha Vishuva Sankranti in Orissa, Naba Barsha in Bengal, Navreh in Kashmir, Sinhalese New Year in Sri Lanka, Official Nepalese New Year in Nepal, Songkran in Thailand, Tamil Puthandu in Tamil Nadu. All these point to the unified legacy and anthropological origin of the people of the sub-continent, which should make for an excellent anthropological study. Anyone?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Miracles Happen, with Yoga and Exercise

The doctor went through the reports I gave him and smiled, “your reports are good, come let’s examine you.” Usually he has a grim expression on his face and rarely smiles, and, therefore, this must be good news. I lie down, he examines me. “You have made good progress; your problem is under remission, so we are taking you off the surgery list.”

Warmed the cockles, ventricles, the aorta, and whatever else there is. I thanked my Lord and saviour then and there. I was praying for a breakthrough, and now that I got it, I will keep working for it. For a doctor recovery of the patient is his ultimate reward and I could give him that, I am proud to think. My wife would be happy with the news. She has been through a lot since my last illness. I would have to continue with medicines though. I agree. He fills out a new list of medicines.

For the past few months I have been maintaining a strict regimen of meditation, yoga, weights, and walking. It’s not easy and is a tough regimen, which I followed because of the seriousness I felt about my situation. I have many more things to find closure to and the thought was troubling me. Even if it took my entire morning hours I didn’t deviate from the schedule. First comes meditation, which brings my mind and body together and prepares my body to tune up, as musicians do on their instruments. The body, according to me, is like a machine that needs tuning so that it can work continuously. Then I do pranayama, deep breathing, for about 45 minutes to one hour. This is essential to get oxygen and blood to the unreachable parts of the body, ergo, I have the abovementioned tuning effect. Then the ultimate of all yoga postures, the Surya Namaskars, which is a combination of several asanas in one. I can do only five of them, because it is difficult. It involves every muscle groups in my body and it has given me a lot of flexibility. It gives my body a lightness which is needed to prevent arthritis and falls.

I don’t put the fan on, because sweating is what I want to do. By the end of this routine I start sweating. Then it is to weights, two four-kilo weights in either hands, so that blood thumps through the arteries and I feel the abdominal muscles move. The skeletal system is better controlled by muscles than fat. Then it is breakfast and the newspapers before I go for my morning walk. I walk, in sunlight, may be, two or two-and-a-half kilometres, on an undulating road swinging my arms. Here also I sweat a lot. I hear the chirp of birds, I look at the greenery, I listen to music on my ipod, and I feel the freedom. I have made progress, which I have been praying for all these days.

It’s a lot better than being in an ICU which should be re-named Intensive Carelessness Unit. All the outside world is screened off, you can only talk to the nurses, the wardboys, and your own wife. ICUs are dull places, where there is no sunlight, you are fixed to machines that go, “blip, blip, twing, twing, twing,” those machines have a life of their own. Though you are spending a ton of money, you aren’t getting any humane treatment back. This must be the only industry where they are careless towards a high-paying customer. You are treated with callousness, you are just another patient about to conk off. The machines keep you awake in the night, and, therefore, you get no sleep. Then how will you recover?

I am writing a longer piece on my experience. Something called, “Would you trust your life to the medical professional?” Or, something such. India needs good doctors of which there is a shortage, especially general practitioners. The country needs good trained nurses who have a holistic and humane touch for treatment, and not a big attitude problem. The new lot of nurses can’t even give an injection properly. They aren’t paid much because hospitals are money making businesses.  Well, most of them are Mallus, from my native place.

My advice to all of you dear readers. Exercise your bodies, do yoga anything that stretches those idle muscles. Medicines can’t cure everything.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

R.I.P. Max Babi

Max Babi, R.I.P.

Max was a friend. He promised to visit me “darken your door” as he said, many times, but, unfortunately he is no more, will not darken my door, ever. He died this week. The Facebook was full of tributes to him one day, and the next day there was nothing. So, I am writing this to keep his memory alive, to list some of his talents, so that Max is not forgotten. However, I forgive him for not darkening my door.

Max was a multi-faceted person. Plasma technologist, engineer, professor, poet, writer of humourous prose, jazz enthusiast, translator, sufi poet, much more. I don’t know how to classify his varied interests and preoccupations. Only God, with whom he is now, knows how he managed to keep doing all these.

During the early days of the online writer’s forum caferati, he would organise meetings in Pune, and visit meetings in Bombay. He had keen interest in building communities and succeeded in his attempts to some extent. It was during these meetings that our acquaintance grew into friendship. He said my talent was underestimated. (I was flattered by this and many more kind comments he made on my poems, short stories, and other literary output.)

It’s a big loss to me. He would take pains to comment on Facebook and I would reciprocate. Though he lived in Pune, we kept in touch. We called each other “word warriors.” I heard he had a bypass surgery and things weren’t too good after that. I also had my health problems. I am managing to keep alive with yoga, meditation, and long walks. I don’t know how Max didn’t resort to any of these remedies, let alone succumb to his illness.

We had many things in common. We discussed them. His writing was humourous in the extreme, and were it not for the services of a good editor who could put it in a semblance of order, he would have been published. I was too busy with my own work to help him out. Despite his overweening talent, all he has published is a collection of poetry. That’s a sad reflection of the literary community’s loss. I love Jazz but I am not as much proficient as him in its appreciation. Only now have I seen a TEDx talk by him about serendipity and realise what a good talker he is. He has a natural style, all his own.

Many facets about him were not known. He was cousin of yesteryear’s film star Parveen Babi, whose death devastated him. He belonged to the royal family of the Babis of Junagadh, the pathans who came to India as vassals of Humayun.

I have drawn the above sketch, my tribute to my friend. Friend, wherever you are be the kind soul you are, be yourself and spread love and kindness around you. R.I.P. Max Babi.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Do We Need This Progress?

“The project in question is a “smart city,” a concept that is very dear to Mr. Modi and unclear to Indians who have tried to find out what exactly it does. A smart city, it appears from the government’s sketches, is a cluster of high-rise buildings that shine in daylight and glow at night, and loom over waterways and handsome trains that have automatic doors. A smart city would be run and managed by software that would, among other things, suck human waste from buildings and send it at high speed to some other place.

“Mr. Modi plans to build scores of smart cities and hundreds of other cities that are only marginally dumber. He also wants to develop many industries.”

This is what is being dreamed by an individual who thinks Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) crops are safe, as also is nuclear energy. (For a better understanding of GMO crops see the links on top left of this blog.) Because they are modern and somebody has told him that they are modern. He thinks acquiring farmers’ land is easy because they are destined to be destitute and vagabonds without much education. Believe me, the individual in question hasn’t read a book in his life, and I doubt if he has read an article on the above subjects in his life time. 

The world is trying to phase out nuclear energy. Germany is closing its last nuclear energy plant and substituting it with wind and solar energy. We have 365 days of sunlight and wind and do we need nuclear energy that bad? Despite what happened in Fukushima and Chernobyl we seem to think nuclear energy is safe. The soil around Fukushima is contaminated for around 40 kms and the residents of the town have not returned to their homes. It is estimated that many more years would be required to clear the area of contamination. Nuclear energy is not safe, in any circumstance.

I despair about the intellectual vacuum that is around the current government. There is nobody who is sort of well-read or aware of what the world is going through. The UPA had people like Jairam Ramesh and Mani Shankar Iyer who, at least, knew something. AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal lacks the temperament to be a national leader. So what have we? A totalitarian theocratic state in the making?

Would you follow this man in the path to progress? Chauvinism, and by this I mean, religious and other development-oriented chauvinism, can destroy a civilisation and plunge it into darkness like that of Pakistan. Our fears are coming true much earlier than we imagined they could become reality.

Are smart cities and high speed trains the answer? China is groaning under the onslaught of the fallback of rapid industrialisation. It’s cities are virtually unliveable. We don’t need that type of development, do we?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

RIP Vinod Mehta

I didn't know Vinod Mehta personally. My greatest regret. I have seen him from a distance and have heard a lot of stories about him from friends. There has been a body of legends around him, as with all celebrities. The stories that created the myth of Vinod Mehta are many, in fact, young journalists worshiped him. To be discovered by him meant that you have arrived. You could follow him from publication to publication, because you knew him, the God, or, at least, the prophet of modern long-form journalism.
The fact that he launched magazines and made them profitable was notable. Those were the days of magazines. It had a good readership and there was space for a short story and some poems too. These magazines provided you with enough reading materials throughout the week. The short stories and poems were part of the mix of good journalism then. Alas, no more.
I used to pounce upon the Debonair and Illustrated Weekly that my neighbour brought from office. Pritish Nandy used to edit poems for Illustrated weekly and Imtiaz Dharker used to edit poems in Debonair. My initial interest in literature and reading arose from these magazines. Also, my ambition of working in magazines started with these periodicals. 
Vinod Mehta was a bold journalist who stood for ethical journalistic values. One instance particularly stands out in my mind, narrated by a friend. It seems he was doing a story and a wealthy industrialists was trying to kill it. He called Mehta in the newsroom and, there, in front of his staff, in calmest of voices, he said, "Don't fuck with me, okay." Such bold irreverence cannot be found in today's journalism, at least, to my knowledge.
I am grateful to think such journalists existed. RIP Vinod Mehta. In a country where journalists shun publicity and coming out in the open, he was a rarity. There were other great journalists: Sadanand of Free Press being one. Sadanand is the one who was boss of RK Laxman, Bal Thackeray, MV Kamath, etc. in Free Press. He was a tough editor and during his time Free Press was the number one newspaper. In these days of self-censorship and the so-called "scissors in the mind" where will you find another Vinod Mehta? Arguably, nowhere.
There were others too. But they are all dead. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was a great editor and edited the Kesari. JP deSousa was a great editor, and a pioneer in technical journalism. Desmond Doig was a good editor and edited Junior Statesman and then Youth Times. Doig was a Sri Lankan. Indian journalism will never be the same again having lost these veterans.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Victim of Globalisation

I think I am a victim of globalisation. The same “tion” that shut the small trading shops, small magazines, small banks, small hotels and gave it away to the big corporations. I used to work in a small magazine which could pay a salary every month and I was their general manager. It was heady times. Vinod Mehta was editing Debonair, Pritish Nandy was editing Illustrated Weekly, Gulshan Ewing was editing Eves Weekly, RV Pandit was editing Onlooker, Desmond Doig was editing Youth Times, some editor was editing Mirror, Vishwanath was editing Caravan and there was hope eternal for small magazines. I was too shy to try and work in a newspaper so I stuck to magazines.

But along came the crunch in advertising. Those days there were small ad agencies like Frank Simoes Advertising, Sylvester D’Cunha advertising, Chaitra Advertising, Everest Advertising, Interpub, Trikaya, etc. who would give us advertisements. However, the situation drastically changed as all these agencies became part of conglomerates. The flow of advertising stopped and the small magazines started folding up one by one.

My boss had entered politics at that time. He realised there was more money to be made in politics than in publishing. And, he was right. So he decided to close his magazine. I was left bereft, without a job. I then joined the Bombay Management Association as its editor. I had proved that I could bring out a magazine and here, too, I brought out a monthly magazine all on my own. I was: ad manager, subscription manager, sub editor, editor, publisher, and what have you. Moreover, they could pay me only a measly sum as salary, which was something like Rs 1800 in those days. This sufficed for me. I was sort of happy.

The coming of the big corporation signalled the end of that small dream, that small happiness. The age of outsourcing and corporate reengineering had begun. Why do we need ten people to type invoices and collect payments when that can be done by five? Why do we need stenographers and typists when all the work can be done by the executive himself on his computer? Why send typed letters by post when you can send it by email and get a confirmation that he/she has read it?

It is said that the cruel East India Company who ruled over India had only eight people in its rolls in London. The west wanted to implement the same policy in their corporate offices. Their headquarters would sprawl in several floors but that would be as a space to show off their paintings, sculptures, and their projects. The real work will be done in India, China and the Philippines.

This idea appealed to Indian bosses also. “Why are we paying him so much when his work can be done by another employee?” In fact, greed had entered the lexicon of managers, unmitigated greed. That’s when companies began downsizing. My dad who had worked in Larsen & Toubro for twenty-seven years retired but I couldn’t get in. The company I loved, and had ambition of working in one day, had changed and moved on. I could do nothing.

Then I decided I would join the devils themselves. I joined outsourcing unit after another, still, I found myself a fugitive from my real calling. These units were looking for younger people to whom they can give more and more responsibilities, make them work harder, hardening their arteries in the process. I stuck with them for some time and then called it quits.

Now that I am retired and doing what I wanted to do, I think I am a victim of globalisation. It’s a time when the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer. There is unrest and unreasonable demands everywhere and not the wherewithal to address them. Those in power shut themselves from reality with their security apparatus. I feel alone, tragically alone, as I type this. But that’s how I see myself: a victim of globalisation.