Monday, January 28, 2008

Honour me!

It was yet another republic day, another parade at Rajpath, an expressionless new President saluting the marching soldiers, colourful tableau and a new list of people being awarded highest civil state honours. Of course the state honours lists and the debate on it, did not start on that day. This time people from various political parties started quite early in demanding the honour be conferred on their party leaders. Speculations were ripe whether the government will give in to political pressures or not. The list had some expected names and some surprises, much like every year. Our ‘breaking news’ media started its day’s business by taking exclusive bytes and quotes from those getting felicitated and those who couldn’t. Everyone had an opinion to give .Some wanted their favorites to be in higher categories others ridiculed the entire concept of state honours.

This entire hullabaloo reminded me of a similar occasion, on a much lower scale, which is repeated in Government offices each year when the list for honorarium is to be prepared. As per rules it should be only for work performed which is occasional or intermittent in character and either so laborious or of such merit as to justify a special reward. But this rule is known more for its violation than practice. In government offices, much like our political circles, these honours are ‘demanded’ “rallied for” and are a matter of power balancing. Last year I consciously left out few names from the list and my goodness, what a scene it led to. Someone very senior was sulking that his name is not included; someone else was agitated that I am biased; others expressed their grievances to their colleagues which were dutifully transmitted to me via informal channels. In some cases on my boss’s advice I had to give in. (“You can’t change the world in one go! You have to take work out of these fellows only” ) In others ,I stood firm. People continued cribbing whole year through. After all they were denied their ‘right to be honoured’.

Much like my office , even for award of Padma shri, Padma Bhushan etc –we need to pause and think. Are we honouring only those who are shameless enough to come and demand it …either themselves or through their patrons? And what is the criterion? What is the contribution of these people for the nation? Madhuri Dixit for example….she may be an able actress , a good dancer and a very talented person...but what is her distinguished contribution for film industry? Perhaps it will be fully justified if a film federation honour her for her abilities but why is our state honouring her? Did she ever consciously created opportunities for others ...was her being there beneficial/uplifting /encouraging to others in a great way ? Was she not just concentrating on her career ...much like most of us ? Then there is Vinod Dua who after decades of fearless journalism will get the same honour as Ms.Barkha Dutt….just because of the latter’s good political connections. I don’t think Barkha Dutt by any standard deserve to get Padma Shri so early in her career. I have nothing against her age but what is her contribution? Is it significant enough for such a state honour? Same is the case of Rajdeep Sardesai. I know at least a dozen other newsmen and newswomen who are far more committed to news and public service through news, than these well known vendors of yellow journalism. But what they lack is the political connections of these hi-profile journalists.
Sachin Tendelukar is definitely a hero. A youth icon par excellence. But by playing good cricket for India – for which he was suitably (if not too generously) rewarded, he committed the similar stature of service what Ratan Tata did though his business and charity!...Sorry I disagree.Sachin's success needs to be recognised but his contribution in his field is no way near to Ratan Tata's in his. Excellence in public life and other areas of activity should be recognized, of course. But who is deciding that and how? For me Dhirubhai Ambani is more of a Bharat Ratna than Rajiv Gandhi is. Dhirubhai was the first Indian industrialist to cater to the needs of the small investor. He introduced the equity cult in small towns in India. He also single-handedly revitalized the Indian capital market, by focusing on capital appreciation instead of dividend, which was the norm .His companies are globally admired for their rapid and time-bound implementation methods . Dhirubhai was also the first industrialist in India to build factories comparable to the best in the world. Narayan Murti deserves it much more than many politicians for tuning the young India on the right track of IT revolution . Ratan Tata deserved Bharat Ratna much before the names which were being coined by various political parties. He not only worked for his own profit but also showed a new way for an entire generation of businessmen on how business and ethics can go hand in hand. Today when his companies are in more number of countries than Indian Embassies are- creating employment opportunities for millions of young Indians , why can’t this nation acknowledge that he brought much more wealth to India than one reluctant son who inherited the Prime Ministership from his mother and concentrated more on bribes than his job. O yes, Rajiv Gandhi was killed in terrorist attack…but was it not his foolish decision that killed hundreds of our soldiers at Sri Lanka ? The highest civilian award of the country, the Bharat Ratna, has been trivialized with politicians throwing their weight around and demanding the honour be bestowed on their party leaders. Today all these state honours are simply a reflection of populist choices and not the prudent ones.
State awards today are a hangover of monarchy. Kings gave away titles to various people as recognition of their loyalty to the throne. But, should democracies continue with this tradition that gives fancy titles to a few privileged citizens? Privileged -because either media or their political connections ensured their inclusion in politicians’ good books .
I was writing this post when I saw that all news channels are going gaga about the Bachchan Family’s great contribution for Education of girls .They were going to start construction of a Girls’ College near Lucknow in the name of daughter in law Aishwarya . Oh, what a showoff it was! One college….in one district from a family of country’s two highest tax payers , stars who earn hundreds of crores in a year and our media is impressed. It was a full fledged drama where no one spoke about girl’s education…. not even the sitting MP Jaya Bachchan …it was all about the family – and friends like Amar Singh and their great deeds.The Bachchan parivar, of course, put in a virtuoso performance. Clad in saris and heads draped demurely, Jaya and Aishwarya played UP bahus to the hilt. I quietly remembered the man who is today spending maximum amount of money on education in India –Azim Premji. The one who has humility enough not to climb these podiums and cry out his own greatness. I thought of several other traditional business families who open schools , dharamshalas and old age homes in the memory of family members but never bother to boast of it except for a plaque in front of the institution . Media is not interested in them. They are not interested in media either . Tomorrow if you hear the Bachchan family members being given Padma Bhushan for their contribution in the field of girls’ education …do not bother to get surprised, we live in the country where self marketing is the buzzword of success and well only greatness that matters is what you see on your TV screen .
Talking of office honorarium again , one of my senior at Jaipur was constantly harassed by the inefficiency of her peon. The old bugger will come late, will crib if asked to do even a small job and was not even polite to her. While finalizing the list of honorarium for that year , I was surprised to find the peon’s name recommended by this lady . I asked her why she is recommending his name. She looked at me wide eyed and screamed – “Do you think I will be able to survive one day, if I don’t? This fella will kill me by his 24 hour cribbing .” Now if at this small level ,people can create such pressures, I am sure for Padma awards pressures will be tremendous .The message is clear, honour in public life these days , is demanded not earned. It is political decision and not a rational one.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Chronicler of Calcutta

He will not make a great impression at the first sight. There is nothing extraordinary about his appearance and if someday you find him walking down on a street, you may not even bother a second glance. But if you know what he did for last 40 odd years you will realize how extraordinary a man he is. He is very special in his nature of work. In the ordinary appearance of that unassuming, simple old man there lies a very beautiful mind. A mind of a genius, who dedicated his life to a very difficult task of documenting a city for the benefit of the coming generations. It’s because of him that Calcutta knows about its past with such authenticity. No , he is not the only one who fell in love with this city . There are many foreigners and sons and daughters of the soil who wrote about Bengal and Calcutta ….but in the recent times, his work is the most well researched work about the history and culture of Calcutta . A quintessential storyteller,he loves to talk and talk about calcutta. He can give you as many stories about streets of Kolkata as you care to listen. Each one better than the earlier one.

Many old cities have had chroniclers of their own. People who dedicated their lives writing about the city and its history in great details for the benefit of all. I read about some medieval chroniclers for Istanbul , I have read books by Abdul Halim Sharar on Lucknow and today I met the most well known contemporary chronicler of Calcutta P.Thankkapan Nair. This charming gentleman, who will complete 75 this year, has spent four decades at National Library researching about Calcutta. He probably knows much more about the city than anyone else and no wonder even the Governor of West Bengal accepts that he is not a walking encyclopedia but a complete University about Calcutta . Mr. Nair has written 40 books about Calcutta and he intends to write many more.
I met him at National Library where my team is doing a Performance audit. In fact, we hunt him out as we were not getting some basic information about the Library from the official channels. I was surprised to know that even today every morning he will dutifully turn up at National Library and research through the dusty volumes till late afternoon. His work is often disrupted by other readers who seek his assistance about the library , as he is undoubtedly the most knowledgeable person about the Library also. He knows better about the location of the books that most librarians and their assistants …as unlike them, he loved each and every volume stored over there, in those dusty racks . I found the old adage on simplicity as the biggest characteristic of a genius ,true in Mr. Nair’s persona. First thing that strike me was his sparking eyes. Very candidly he informed me that he has to do this to this city which gave him refuge for his entire life( he was born and brought up at Travancore, Kerala) .. “After all, this much I owe to this great city” he stated in a matter of fact tone . He told me his simple philosophy of life . “I do not take favours . Do not take royalties and do not care for any honour etc…that is why I am so fearless. I do not need political patronage, bureaucrat’s approval or scholarly sanction for my work. I call a spade a spade and no wonder, I do not feature in most people’s good books.” “They don’t like me but they know they need me for some of their works…so I guess the endure me for that.” He chuckled. In true calcuttan adda tradition, he is always game for a chat and ever ready to help. I asked for 10 minutes and he happily chatted for 2 hours with my team. I learnt that though he has written extensively about the city and its life over the centuries , he started his research when he decided to write about simple things of national importance. National symbols, peacock and mango for example. Do you know Mr.Nair wrote two volumes on The Mango in Indian Life and Culture? Today after penning 48 books, he is much sought after by various people for various reasons. A TV channel want him to feature for their series on 100 haunted houses of Kolkata , the Police Commissioner persuaded him to write about the History of Kolkata Police, tomorrow he will lecture the students of IIT Kharagpur enlightening them about the history of their Alma Mater which was a prison in the British period for freedom fighters, state PWD consult him for the original designs of heritage buildings and Governor of the state call for him whenever in doubt about some monument or event related to Calcutta.

Calcutta New Market in 1940s

Mr Nair lives alone at Kolkata as his family is now settled in his native Kerala town. He purposely lives without a Car, TV, computer etc (“ If I collect all these things to looks after..when will I do my research”?) . When I showed my amazement at his ascetic lifestyle, he simply laughed and confided that he enjoys all these luxuries when he is back at Kerala but Calcutta is his workplace, meant only for work . “Why should I indulge in such luxuries over here at the cost of precious time ?”

After meeting Mr. Nair , I was thinking how much discipline it takes to bring out well researched chronicles…even on very simple things. At times I do wonder, how many people in the coming generations would like to know the fact and fiction about Job Charnock or the ghost of Hastings house ? Probably most people living in Alipur area of Calcutta would not care to know about the Belvedere , the magnificent building that once housed the high and mighty of British Raj and today stores the invaluable collection of books as National Library , still standing tall in their neighbourhood . But there was something very touching , very puritan and yet very symbolic in Mr. Nair’s style of working….his quest for trivia, his eagerness to hunt out old books and periodicals and above all his austere lifestyle to ensure the unbiased, unpoliticized research. In Sanskrit books, I have read about search for knowledge for your own happiness( ‘swantah sukhay’) but after a very long time I saw someone who is still perusing that in this age of tabloid journalism and reality shows.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Of Candles and the cake ....

"I mean, what is an un-birthday present?"
"A present given when it isn't your birthday, of course."

Alice considered a little. "I like birthday presents best,"

she said at last.

"You don't know what you're talking about!" cried Humpty Dumpty.

"How many days are there in a year?"

"Three hundred and sixty-five," said Alice.

"And how many birthdays have you?"

“………..and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents --'’’

-- Alice in Wonderland

Well may be…..on the other 364 days I may be getting many un-birthday presents but they can never give me the joy and happiness of getting one on Birthday .My birthday …..which happens to be on first of January. I know I you will be exclaiming " what a day to be born!" All I can say is that it was hardly my choice and then 1st January is a wonderful day . Imagine the whole world is celebrating the beginning of another year . So, three decades of existence on the planet...and here I am ready for another birthday .

Now, if you ask me why an old hag like me who has already joined the not-so-Thrilling Thirties , is still talking about birthdays and that too so happily ….well well well, take it from me , age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. During my college days, once I was reading an interview of Molly Keane who very rightly quipped about getting old that :
“Once I was looking through the kitchen window at dusk and I saw an old woman looking in. Suddenly the light changed and I realized that the old woman was myself. You see, it all happens on the outside; inside one doesn't change …”

So should I tell you what I am planning to do on my birthday? I will do exactly what I advised a friend few months back on his birthday --one must celebrate a birthday by being a child. I will hang balloons outside my door. Announce to random strangers that it's my birthday. One should even eat the artery clogging, blood sugar elevating, thigh thickening cake on this day. But for me this will immediately nullify my New Year resolution of shedding few kilos ….on second thoughts, it's sad that my birthday coincides with the new year day .I hate to break the resolution on the very first day …but then, aren't promises and pie crusts made to be broken ? So I will be a good birthday girl, I will eat the frosting. Make a goood wish. Rip the wrapping paper in a celebratory frenzy... and wear a big smile whole evening .

And since there aren't any random strangers around, let me announce it on my blog: Hey, it's my birthday today ! Aren't I cool? Come on, don’t give me that funny look of –when-will-you-grow-up . You know there is a saying that a person is getting old when he walks around a puddle instead of through it….and let me confirm, I love jumping in the puddle specially if someone well dressed is standing nearby ….that adds music to the visual effects after all.

So wish me a wonderful birthday and here is wishing you all a very happy and eventful New Year 2008.