Friday, July 30, 2010

The me-too syndrome

In his column today in Hindustan Times, Ramchandra Guha raises the question of why the HRD ministry has short-listed the following four names for the brand ambassadorship of its adult literacy programme: Nita Ambani, Supriya Sule, Kanimozhi and Priyanka Vadra. He suggests that this should be taken as a slap in the face for women because all four are nobodies in their own right. If they are anybody at all, they are merely wives or daughters of politically or financially powerful men. He proposes instead another short list, honouring the work women themselves have done—Shabana Azmi, Chanda Kochar, Kiran Mazumdar and Ela Bhatt.

I am all for Guha’s list of illustrious women, and, as he says, we could add dozens of more names to it. But the questions he asks at the end of the column are not exactly the questions in my mind. He asks, “What are the origins of this ridiculous proposal? Is it a manifestation of the feudal culture within the allegedly democratic government of India or is the handiwork of a particular individual, seeking to please the richest and the most powerful people in India?” The questions are rhetorical. Everyone knows the answers. Of course we are feudalistic. The HRD ministry can be no different. So whether it’s the whole ministry or an individual member who came up with the “ridiculous suggestion”, it must have had every member’s approval for it to get into the Press.

The question in my mind is something else. I want to know what brand ambassadors do. Since the concept belongs to marketing, a return to origins is important to see how its spin-off is expected to function. In marketing promotional models are hired to drive consumer demand for a product, service or brand. Their single most important qualification is an attractive physical appearance. They must also be literate because they are expected to provide information to prospective customers/clients face-to-face. Finally, they must be some kind of performer because they are supposed to deliver what is described as “a live experience that reflects on the product or service they are representing.” In brief, persuasion by every means is what promotional models do.

Now in adult literacy, the information part is easy. You are telling grown-up men and women the tremendous advantages that will accrue to them if they learn their letters. Nita Ambani is eloquent on the blah-blah aspects of social good. She said in a guest column for Businessworld on 16 May, 2008, “Philanthropy in the Indian context is an extension of our age-old belief in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, wherein we regard the world as a family. All the men and women are thus our brethren. Of course, today we have moved well beyond this philosophical definition. For what we do in the name of philanthropy isn’t born only out of love of humanity. It also stems from our efforts to address the biggest problem humanity has created for itself — the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.” One may rely on her then to produce some equally impressive fluff to sell adult literacy.

But what will she do with the questions that are bound to follow in a face to face encounter? What will she say to Gangamma from Dharavi who asks, “I work the whole day in four houses and come home late evening to cook and take my husband’s beatings. So where’s the time to study letters?”

Will Nita Ambani say, “Oh dear! You work in four houses? I don’t even work in mine so I’m in no position really to answer your question. So sorry.”

What will she say to Sakina from Malvani who says, “The only time I have to myself is when the whole family is asleep. But I’ll need light to learn letters. And that Anil Ambani is charging us so much for electricity, we don’t switch on our lights only.”

Will Nita Ambani sniff up her brand new nose and say, “He’s like that only, that Anil.” Will that bring Savitri anywhere near books?
Let me turn for a moment from this depressing prospect to Dr Madhav Chavan’s NGO Pratham. Chavan left his job to become part of Maharashtra’s adult literacy campaign of the late eighties. Now he concentrates on children’s education. Pratham has also appointed a brand ambassador, Anupam Kher. From him we know clearly what he will do as a brand ambassador. He says he’ll leverage his media image to “augment Pratham’s fund-raising capacity.”
That’s a very useful thing to do and celebrities are extremely useful in doing that kind of thing. But an NGO is in constant need of funds and so needs a celebrity. Does the HRD ministry need funds? Aren’t we paying taxes? And aren’t we also coughing up something called education cess? Where’s all that money going?
No, it’s not money that the HRD ministry is looking for. It’s looking for a with-it image. In marketing, their syndrome is called “me-too”. When your mind is too impoverished to think up a new idea, you just pinch one from the next person, colour it blue or pink and market it as “the new way to a new you”. Brand ambassadors are today’s concept, and an eminently pinchable concept too. Narendra Modi’s got Bachchan (paid ambassador though he is) for Gujarat tourism. Let’s have one for adult literacy. It’ll like make adult literacy like really sexy. Way to go baby!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Private space public eye

The horrendous Jalgaon affair tells us how phoney our moral protests against nudity are. A nude in a painting brings every member of the moral police out onto the street. But when news got around that a real live woman was stripped and paraded through a village in Jalgaon district, villagers were able to take the sight with obvious enjoyment and not a single member of the Sree Ram Sene or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena or the Shiv Sena or the Bajrang Dal protested or even mildly condemned the terrible act. The terrible act is part of our morality. This is how we’ve punished our women since the time the Kauravs attempted to disrobe Draupadi.

In this little village, a widow was rumoured to be having an affair with a village official. This was ostensibly unacceptable to the village. A conspiracy was hatched and a large group of villagers barged into her home, found the couple together, dragged them out, stripped them, beat them up and paraded them naked through the village.

The case was discussed on a Marathi news channel. Abrogating the right to decide what is moral and immoral and the right to punish the allegedly immoral has become common practice in the country. A retired member of the judiciary called upon by the channel to comment, pointed out that there were enough cultural-political formations in the country who had demonstrated the impunity with which you could take law into your hands as long as the cause was religion, culture or morality. A mob is never punished, however heinous the offence. Who has been punished for crimes committed during the post Babri Masjid demolition riots and the Gujarat pogrom? Why then would ordinary people not feel tempted to experience the heady sense of power that comes with judging and punishing your fellows?

Ironically one of the panelists on the discussion was a prominent leader of the Shiv Sena, Ms Neelam Gorhe. It was strange to hear her speak in an even voice about how wrong it was for people to take the law into their hands. But she had done her work as a political leader. She had made inquiries in the village and discovered an unsuspected angle of the case that the anchor knew nothing about. She revealed that the men who led the action against the couple were not the usual moral police types. They only wore that garb for the impunity it gave them. They were angry with the woman because she had refused to give them what she was giving her paramour. They wanted a piece of the pie so to say.

At frequent intervals during the discussion, a picture popped up on the screen which showed two people, blurred to hide their identities, sitting on the ground trussed up, surrounded by sniggering villagers enjoying the show. Somebody took that picture while they were being humiliated and mercilessly beaten. The ethical problem that news photographers once faced, is never discussed in this age of 24X7 news channels. Somebody took that picture. He was there. The only difference between him and the laughing, sniggering villagers was that they were looking at the scene with the naked eye while he was looking at it through a lens.

Did the picture add to our understanding of what had happened? No. Did it add to our sense of shame? It did, because it implicated us in the passive watching of this horrifying incident along with the villagers and the photographer.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Deities on Dalal Street

The extent to which we turn our gods into materialistic human beings, came home to me with a news item I came across on page 1 of the most widely read Marathi daily in Pune, “Sakal”. This is how it went:

“Mumbai, 16 July:

The Ganapati Panchayatan Sansthan Trust, set up by the Raja of Sangli, administers five deities—Ganapati, Chintamaneshwari Dev, Chintamaneshwari Devi, Suryanarayan Dev and Laxminaryayan Dev. The income-tax department has issued pan cards in the names of all five deities. The Trust believed that since the law permitted deities to acquire property and the income-tax department had issued pan-cards to all five deities administered by the Trust, the law would also allow them to invest in shares. With this in mind, the Trust applied to the Karur Vaishya Bank to open demat accounts in their names. But the Bank turned down the request. In pursuance of their request, the Trust then filed a plea in the High Court. However, the NSDL, which governs demat accounts, submitted that according to the law, only Trusts that were registered as Public had the right to acquire shares in the name of deities. Private Trusts could acquire shares only in the name of Trustees and not the deities.

The case was heard today by Justice P. B. Muzumdar and Justice Rajendra Sawant. The question that bothered the bench was this. Since anybody could open a demat account in the name of deities and commit fraud, who was to be held responsible for it? The Bench therefore suggested that some responsible member of the Trust should be nominated to accept responsibility for managing the deities’ demat accounts.

The suggestion of the bench was vetoed in toto by the NSDL which stuck to its stand that deities could not be allowed to have demat accounts in their names. Explaining their stand to the Trust, the bench pointed out that the buying and selling of shares required a particular kind of skill which deities did not and could not be expected to possess. Consequently, the bench regretfully rejected the plea filed by the Trust.”

Forget demat accounts. One didn’t even know deities were issued pan cards. The idea has set off a whole chain of puerile posers in my head, beginning with how deities would answer mandatory questions about their names, middle names, surnames and fathers’ names without which nothing can be opened or closed in banks?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In defence of the brinjal

I notice that Genetically Modified Foods have made a comeback on the news front. It is reported that the European Commission which had blanket banned the stuff is now toying with the idea of allowing its member states to decide what they want to do about it. It appears that scientific evidence is piling up in favour of these technologically interfered with foods and who are we, the non-scientific community, to question such evidence?

Jairam Ramesh will again be in a quandary. Because newspaper editors are saying we can’t lag behind Europe. We mustn’t appear to be anti-science. The last time he was put in a spot, he got away by h’mming first and hawing later, which gave television newscasters and talk show anchors much scope for debate.

I was never personally involved with the debate. Brinjals are not a hot favorite in my family so their future shape, colour, taste and side-effects are things not likely to exercise its mind. But in a distant kind of way, I was on the side of the non-interference with Nature brigade. It was an instinctive, uninformed reaction but there it is. This is not to say that I am not open to being convinced that stuff like BT brinjals will be the best thing that happened to our poor suicide-prone farmers.

However, when this great debate was on I did get caught in a verbal imbroglio that had to do with the electronic media’s ignorance about an important part of the issue, viz, the pronunciation of the veggie’s name. I reproduce here the situation in which the debate took place and the twists and turns that it took in the hope that it will reach the ears of TV newscasters and help them mend their mistake in future discussions.

The debate began in the middle of a small lunch of old and new retired members of the department of English, Elphinstone College. One side of the dining table was engaged in a discussion about whether they got Rs 260 or Rs 288.30 per month as salary (when they got it at all) in those misty old days of yore, and about which year it was when the gap between this and the Rs 450 that the much envied lecturers at private colleges used to get closed with a bang and government college salaries galloped way ahead of the field. It was a low-volume discussion into which a voice from the other end of the table made indignant ingress. "Will someone please tell me how "brinjal" is pronounced?"

I shall have to resort to dramatic dialogue from this point on to give readers a sense of the quick, razor sharp exchanges that followed. In keeping with much modern playwriting, debaters will be named after their states of mind or as plain numbers.

Indignant: I mean how have we always pronounced brinjal?

Everybody together: Brinjol of course!

Voice one: Except when it is preceded by BT on television. Then it is "brinjle"

Indignant: That’s just what I’m angry about. Why? I mean why? If it's always been brinjol and I've always pronounced it brinjol, why should it suddenly become this thing called brinjle?

Everybody: Absolutely.

Indignant: So then?

(Stumped silence)

Voice two: It's Anglo-Indian

Voice three: It comes from the Portuguese.

Voice four: That's not Anglo-Indian.

Voice five: When did the Portuguese eat enough brinjols to influence the Brits with their pronunciation?

Voice one: They lived in Bombay. Bassein and all.

Voice two: The French call it aubergine, you know. Never never brinjol.

Voice four: Exactly.

Indignant: Never mind the French. And never mind the Portuguese. Have we not always called it brinjol?

Everybody: We have.

Voice five: But the Americans never say brinjol. For them it is....


Voice five: You've taken the very word out of my mouth. Eggplant.

Indignant: So where is binjle coming from is what I want to know. It’s not in any of my dictionaries.

Voice three: I told you it’s from the Portuguese.

Voice four: What's with you and the Portuguese? Why are you promoting them here?

Voice one: Perhaps we should look it up.

Indignant: I’m telling you I did. I was so disturbed. All my life I've called the darned things brinjols and suddenly they're brinjles. But imagine, they are not in Daniel Jones nor in Websters!

Voice five: You should have looked in Hobson Jobson

Voice four: (to Six who has been silent) You know the origin of that don't you?

Voice six: Of brinjols?

Voice four: Of Hobson Jobson.

Voice six: (Vaguely) Yes. Ya Hasan! Ya Husain!

(Stumped silence)

Three voices together: What's the connection?

Voice One: With brinjols?

Voice Two: With Hobson Jobson. I mean where's the connection between Ya Hasan Ya Hussain and Hobson Jobson?

Voice Six: Muslims chant Ya Hasan Ya Husain during Mohurram.

Three voices together: So? What's the connection?

Voice Four: The Brits heard Ya Hasan Ya Husain as Hobson Jobson.

Voice three: See? The Brits have defective ears and defective tongues. They must have misheard and mispronounced the Portuguese original as brinjols.

Indignant: Well we took our pronunciations, for better or worse, from those defective tongues. Where does going back to originals get us?

Everybody (more or less): Nowhere in particular.

Voice One: Perhaps I could help. You say you consulted Daniel Jones and Websters. What about Oxford?

Everybody: Ah Oxford.

The debate petered out inconclusively. But since I was Voice One, I felt obliged to follow up on my suggestion. I came home and looked up my Concise Oxford. And this is what I turned up.

Brinjal: (Pronounced brinjol as in "saw". Alternatively brinjol as in "hot"). The word comes from Portuguese "berinjela" which comes from the Arabic "al-badinjan".

“Brinjle” doesn’t even get a look in. I hope TV newscasters will do a dumb vegetable the favour of calling it by its right name when they next discuss the pros and cons of Genetically Modified Foods.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Of wet shoes and daft journalists

Morning walks during the monsoon are exhilarating for two reasons. The air has been washed clean of smells and pollutants so you can actually breathe without thinking you’re killing yourself. And you meet fewer of your species along the way. Some don’t want to risk slipping; some don’t want to get wet; some simply don’t want to get out of bed (I presume). The result is, you’re walking peacefully along deserted paths humming a jaunty ditty while the rain beats down on your umbrella. You are in a state of bliss.

But. Yes, there’s always a but to spoil life’s pleasures. Water is collecting in your shoes which are now going squelch-squelch instead of tic-toc. Back home, you stand them up against a wall under the fan hoping they will be dry for the following morning’s walk. They aren’t, not the next day nor the next nor the next.

On the third day last week, my friend Nandu dropped in. He looked at my wet shoes propped soggily up against the wall and said that’s no way to dry shoes. You must stuff them with balls of paper to absorb the water. I promptly did what he said and it worked.

But the story doesn’t end there. One discovery always leads to another. My second discovery was that Bombay Times which otherwise lies around the house in its pristine folds, makes excellent stuffing paper. I figure the secret’s not just the newsprint, because that’s common to all papers. It’s the extra porous fluff that goes into BT that makes it doubly absorbent.

Now, when I picked up a copy of BT to stuff my shoes, I noticed my young friend Durga Jasraj hugging her mother Madhura on the back page. Durga and I were together in an old Marathi television series called “Paul Khuna” directed by Amol Palekar and we’ve been fond of each other ever since. Not wanting to stuff her into my shoes, I tore her out to catch up with her later.

This is what the copy said. It said that there was this unnamed musical event at which Jagjit Singh, Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma and a whole lot of other luminaries from the music world were present along with Madhura, Pt Jasraj’s “wonderful wife” and Durga their “beautiful daughter”. So? Normally there’s no “so?” to gossip snippets. These people were there and here’s the pic is all there is to it.

But this story had more. The dissembling reporter goes on to say “So taken aback were we by this confluence of talent that in our reportage of the event we wrongly mentioned Madhura as Jagjit Singh’s wife and Durga as his daughter.” So? That kind of booboo is wholly and utterly expected from the ingĂ©nue reporters who don’t know the top of a tabla from the back end of an elephant but charge into musical events, pencils at the ready.

What’s amusing is the phrasing of the apology that follows all the buttery piffle. It goes “We sincerely apologise to the two illustrious musical families for the confusion caused.” Confusion? Caused by you? Like Jagjit Singh’s wife said to him, rolling pin in hand, “When did all this happen, hanh?” And friends called up Durga demanding that she reveal forthwith who her real father was?

Dear BT chumps, you’re like Francis Bacon’s little fly which sat on a mighty carriage wheel and said, “What a dust do I raise”. Believe me, the Jagjit Singhs and Jasrajs know who is who. All you needed to say was, “We regret our error”. But if habit compelled you to add colour, here’s what you could have said: “What we have long suspected, has now been conclusively proved. We are irrevocably daft. We apologise sincerely for this error and for all future errors that we will inevitably make in our long and eventful careers as journalists.”