Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What's Happening in Greece?

 I like the Greeks. Yeah, I like them because of their attitude. That handsome dude Prime Minister Tsipras is always smiling as if nothing is wrong. He is even enjoying the publicity, not bothered that his country is a broke nation. His hair is neatly combed and not a strand of grey is visible anywhere. He is clean shaven all the time, no stubble like his Indian counterpart. The other dude is his finance minister Varoufakis, he is handsome and has a cool walk, too, shoulders squared, swaggering like a rock star. Adonis, sort of. He rides a bike as an austerity measure, but who knows where his stash is?

So what’s happening in Greece? They have brought a continent and the world on its knees and have the gumption to smile. “Now you take care of us, give us more money, or, you go down with us.” Isn’t that hilarious? Hahaha! Another global financial crisis will cripple us. Meanwhile let’s make the most of it, hahaha!

The 2004 Athens Olympics started the slide. The country spent $ 9 billion hoping that tourism will get a boost after that. But the tourists stayed away because of the high cost of everything. The real problem started in 2011 and nobody bothered to check it. Greece went on spending without care. They were part of Eurozone now so let Europe take care of them.

Sure Angela Merkel can do something? Can she? Surely Obama can help this country which is as old as civilisation itself? No? Then what really is wrong with the handsome Greeks? Oh I get it. It’s their inability to impress western women with their cool demeanour that’s bothering them. No longer are they being lionised as God’s gift to mankind.

Well who needs them when they have enough cool dudery in the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Last heard they were in negotiations for buying a Greek island on the Ionian Sea.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ajith Pillai's Book "Off the Record"

Right from the time I knew him when we worked together in Malayala Manorama, I knew Ajith Pillai would write a book and it would be something to look forward to. Ever since I purchased the book on Amazon I couldn’t put it down, his sparse – Hemingway-ian – narrative kept me going impatiently from page to page. He is witty, ironic, and cynical and often would make me laugh with the stories he had written and the experience he had had. He was friend and fellow conspirator who helped me when I was in a dark period in my life. If I was dark and moody he would crack a joke and my spirits would lift. When we were short of money he would say, “Let’s rob a bank.” Of course, he didn’t mean it. He was correspondent of The Week and I was Manorama’s marketing supervisor. Though we were in conflicting departments our friendship was devoid of any rivalry. Being a foodie, he led me on a discovery of the restaurants in the Fort area: City Kitchen, Gokul, Martin’s, Mahesh and many more. He loved his food as he did his drink. But most of all he loved his job, wherever he worked.

The book I am referring to is Off the Record by Ajith Pillai a collection of his stories – on record – most of which I have heard from him in person. A good raconteur, a good writer, a good human being is how I would describe him. He was incorruptible and told me of the blank cheque handed to him by a tycoon to write a story favourable to him. Of course, he didn’t accept it. These are stories which are not part of the present collection. Likewise, he had submitted a two-word resignation letter at Observer which consisted of only “I resign.” That points to the humour of the man.

He and the late Vinod Mehta had a good personal chemistry. Under Mehta his writing and career took off, first at Sunday Observer and then at Pioneer and Outlook. Mehta trusted him and knew of his inherent sincerity and dedication. The legendary editor passed away without handing his baton to someone worthy of the mantle of the leader of the fourth estate and I feel the worthy inheritor would have been Ajith Pillai. Well, it’s cruel fate that Ajith didn’t get what he was due. He should have been an editor now, motivating a younger crop of journalists cutting their teeth on the burning problems of the day.

Ajith Pillai's Off the Record
Particularly gripping is his account of the Kargil war which he covered for Outlook. His dad was a high-ranking army officer and, I guess, that gave him the insight to report on the war in depth. Speaking of which it reminds me that he studied at one of the premier institutions – La Martinere – in Lucknow where, I presume, Vinod Mehta also studied. Yes, he did. (This I find after a Wikipedia search.) What’s about that institution that inspires creativity and good moral standards in a morally corrupt world, I don’t know?

Off the Record is a must read for all journalism students. Not only read it, but keep it on your desk to refer to it, re-read it and digest what he has to say. Treat it as your Bible and Bhagwad Gita. Particularly because mostly Ajith worked in an era when laptop computers, cell phones, and social media didn’t exist. I have seen him sitting in his cabin writing his dispatches in long hand and having them sent by teleprinter to our head office. When I told him my work in marketing was not working out and that actually I wanted to be a journalist he arranged an appointment with an editor, but the job didn’t materialise. No worry. At least, he helped, that’s the kindness of man I am writing about. Now, on hindsight, I think I would have made a miserable reporter.

Here’s what I think journalism schools should do. They should buy the book in bulk and distribute it to their students. The indefatigability of the man who took his reporting seriously will come shining through. We will hopefully have a new crop of journalists as dedicated to their jobs as he was.

Do read Off the Record even if it deprives you of your last vada-pao in McDonald’s. You will hunger for more, which is actually the purpose of this book.

Monday, June 22, 2015


Sometimes I wonder if the aggregate of the problems of this world is because of greed. This realisation has troubled me no end. Now greed pervades everything: sports, entertainment, publishing, broadcasting, software programming, etc. When I was starting in content writing for websites I was told by my manager that “everything is available on the net, you just have to copy and paste.” I followed his instructions and did likewise. Perversely it might seem, now, he is the manager of some company in the US and doing well. His instructions to his programmers were, “don’t try to invent the wheel, take the code from the source, paste it.” (Source code was available online from every website.) His motive was greed and how to make millions. He didn’t know then that his stilted philosophy would result in job loss for twenty people working under him. In those days from a poky little office in the Millennium Business Park our company made five million dollars a year by copying things from others san any fear of copyright infringement. Then, one fine day, the company shut down rendering us jobless. The reason was Google can easily detect copied content and can punish the site by giving low exposure and a low ranking in web searches. So greed didn’t pay and I had to find another job.

Earlier in my career I was general manager of a small publishing firm. I had risen from the ranks by sheer hard work. I had invested a lot of time and energy to build up that organisation: invented new systems, streamlined billing, dirty-ed my hands learning about how to run a publishing company. The company was doing well and there was considerable goodwill among the advertisers. The owner would greedily extend his deadline for ads that came in late so that he could earn a good profit for that month.  I became worried as the issues started coming late. The January issue would come in March and so on. The effect was that the magazine got so delayed that there came a day when we couldn’t catch up. I told the publisher to miss a few issues but he wouldn’t do that. Advertisers saw the foolishness of their ads appearing after a few months and stopped releasing ads. The magazine died a natural death and with it ended whatever small dreams I had nurtured.

That’s the predicament of most greedy organisations of today. They think their greed can substitute for enterprise and energy. They – like Gordon Gekko - think being greedy is good. But the thing about greed is that it gives rise to more greed. More greed then leads to confusion among the ranks, the foot soldiers get disoriented. Then the company, the enterprise starts dying and nobody can stop the decline in the company’s health because the top people are still thinking in terms of greed. Once the decline starts it is unstoppable, the end result is a lot of fights in the office, recriminations, finger pointing and death of a viable business.

Watch this space. More of this to come. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Vacation to Kerala

The vacation in Kerala was eventful, a revelation of sorts, as it always is. So, here I am with a bag of tales from God’s favourite country. I don’t know who all will read this and benefit, but here it is, my impressions.

Firstly, uneducated Malayali men are mostly wild and impulsive. They revel in being wild and uncontrollable, ingesting a bottle of whisky a day without any qualm and badmouthing everybody in the process. They destroy their own lives and that of their family members without thinking. All they can think about is liquor and sex. There is one such specimen in the house opposite my brother-in-law’s (BIL’s) house. He drinks, lazes around home, uses the worst profanities with his wife and children, and does no work. He is a pathetic sight, slouching his tall figure and walking on the street, trying to act dignified. He has had no education and was a waiter in a tea shop before he was kicked out. His wife is the breadwinner of the house. She tolerates him to some extent but loses her cool sometimes calling him the worst profanities when offended. She works as a domestic help and earns a good salary which can keep a family alive. But he goe s to her employer and borrows money, which is then deducted from her salary. These are people who get rice at Rs 2 and have health insurance and a pension when they are old. Yet, they can’t manage and depends on what is being doled out by the church and other charities.
River Periyar: though it starts in Tamil Nadu flows into the Arabian Sea close to Kochi

Leave this specimen of depredation and move along to the services. A malayali craves for a government job as a thirsty animal seeks water in the Sahara. Once inside the job, he knows he is lord and master over his domain. He behaves like a satrap newly appointed in his august post. I wanted the schedule of a new air-conditioned bus services from Tiruvalla to Kochi. On three occasions I was given three different timings. How could I know which one was true? I was disconnected after the most perfunctory information. “That’s all you get,” must have been the understanding among them.

Then I try the Tiruvalla railway station. Here the inquiry desk doesn’t bother to answer the phone. Dang! After ten tries, I give up, in frustration. Since I have a smartphone with internet I could get the train schedule online. Thank God!

The countryside is incredibly beautiful. There are lush palms and rubber trees waving in the somnolent air, punctured by the call of exotic birds. There are the backwaters which add to the mystique of a tropical paradise. Many times I have been tempted to get down from the car I was travelling to walk along the bunds that separate the fields and have a bath in crystal clear water. Kerala doesn’t have industries so the water is pure.

There are also unsightly sights along the way. This is to be expected in all towns in India. In Ernakulam where I stay with my brother there isn’t proper garbage disposal. They have to pay for garbage to be collected. So what happens if they don’t have money to pay? They dump the garbage on street corners. Stern warnings have been put at street corners, to no avail. People still dump. This is a problem with all towns in Kerala. Development has brought with it many problems, and the towns are struggling to adapt.

With talk of development, there isn’t licence enough to develop infrastructure. The Aranmula airport project is one such. After a series of see-saw tilts and nudging, the project seems finally to have met an ignoble end with the civil aviation ministry too having withdrawn its consent. It would have meant good development, jobs, visibility to a small village to which I belong, where I was born. Yes, I belong to Aranmula village. It’s sad that this dream didn’t materialise.

The Kochi Metro is another development project that is limping. Land acquisition along parts of its route has been held up due to court cases. The work is going on, but progress is slow. It will take more than a year to resolve all these and the project will go into further delay.

On the way back I take a flight, ticket for which has been booked six months in advance. At the check-in counter I insist on a window seat and am given an upgrade to a SpicejetMax seat. It gives me pleasure to see people who have paid tens of thousands in cramped seats when I enjoy complete legroom freedom in the Max seats. Hehe! Ask and ye shall receive what?