Sunday, December 21, 2008

Poona's winter musings

While Poona may be one of the fastest upcoming cities in Maharashtra, presumably also in India, there is still the old world charm to it. A sort of fusion between the British era and Marathi culture and heritage. There are a few things I have to do whenever I am in Poona. Take a walk on the M.G.Road and East Street, visit the J.J.Agiary -and if time permits, like it did this time, visit the other two Agiaries (Nanapeth Agiary, pictured below, and Kombra, I hope I have spelt it out correctly), visit Bund Garden road, watch a move at Inox and buy Shrwesberry biscuits from Kayani Bakery. 
(pictured: M.G.Road)

Speaking of Kayani Bakery, I have yet to see a more efficient bunch of staff at any other over-crowded shops, than the one at Kayani. How they manage to regain their composure in the middle of total and complete chaos (customers scramble and almost fight it out to reach the counter to ensure they get what they came looking for before the items are sold out), get all the orders right to the 'T', take money, return change, all without losing their cool, I have yet to figure out. Very professional and thorough in their jobs. Try their Shrewsberry biscuits, milk-bread and mawa cakes. Absolutely fabulous! 

This year's winter so far is a bit dissappointing though in Poona. It ought to be much cooler than this, though some nights are more cooler than the rest. 

Monday, December 8, 2008

A rebuttal to Gnani Sankaran's article

Following the Bombay terror attack, last week I received, twice, an email that contained an article titled 'Hotel Taj: Icon of Whose India?' written by some Gnani Sankaran, 'a Tamil writer'. I have issues with that article and find it to be inappropriate and very mis-timed. I think authors should use their positions more carefuly and not try and divide our society more than that it already is. Following is a copy of this article and after that my rebuttal. 

Hotel Taj : icon of whose India ?

Gnani Sankaran- Tamil writer, Chennai.

Watching at least four English news channels surfing from one another during the last 60 hours of terror strike made me feel a terror of another kind. The terror of assaulting one's mind and sensitivity with cameras, sound bites and non-stop blabbers. All these channels have been trying to manufacture my consent for a big lie called - Hotel Taj the icon of India.

Whose India, Whose Icon ? 

It is a matter of great shame that these channels simply did not bother about the other icon that faced the first attack from terrorists - the Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station. CST is the true icon of Mumbai. It is through this railway station hundreds of Indians from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Tamilnadu have poured into Mumbai over the years, transforming themselves into Mumbaikars and built the Mumbai of today along with the Marathis and Kolis

But the channels would not recognise this. Nor would they recognise the thirty odd dead bodies strewn all over the platform of CST. No Barkha dutt went there to tell us who they were. But she was at Taj to show us the damaged furniture and reception lobby braving the guards. And the TV cameras did not go to the government run JJ hospital to find out who those 26 unidentified bodies were. Instead they were again invading the battered Taj to try in vain for a scoop shot of the dead bodies of the page 3 celebrities. 

In all probability, the unidentified bodies could be those of workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh migrating to Mumbai, arriving by train at CST without cell phones and pan cards to identify them. Even after 60 hours after the CST massacre, no channel has bothered to cover in detail what transpired there. 

The channels conveniently failed to acknowledge that the Aam Aadmis of India surviving in Mumbai were not affected by Taj, Oberoi and Trident closing down for a couple of weeks or months. What mattered to them was the stoppage of BEST buses and suburban trains even for one hour. But the channels were not covering that aspect of the terror attack. Such information at best merited a scroll line, while the cameras have to be dedicated for real time thriller unfolding at Taj or Nariman bhavan.

The so called justification for the hype the channels built around heritage site Taj falling down (CST is also a heritage site), is that Hotel Taj is where the rich and the powerful of India and the globe congregate. It is a symbol or icon of power of money and politics, not India. It is the icon of the financiers and swindlers of India. The Mumbai and India were built by the Aam Aadmis who passed through CST and Taj was the oasis of peace and privacy for those who wielded power over these mass of labouring classes. Leopold club and Taj were the haunts of rich spoilt kids who would drive their vehicles over sleeping Aam Aadmis on the pavement, the Mafiosi of Mumbai forever financing the glitterati of Bollywood (and also the terrorists) , Political brokers and industrialists.  

It is precisely because Taj is the icon of power and not people, that the terrorists chose to strike. 

The terrorists have understood after several efforts that the Aam Aadmi will never break down even if you bomb her markets and trains. He/she was resilient because that is the only way he/she can even survive.

Resilience was another word that annoyed the pundits of news channels and their patrons this time.  What resilience, enough is enough, said Pranoy Roy's channel on the left side of the channel spectrum. Same sentiments were echoed by Arnab Goswami representing the right wing of the broadcast media whose time is now. Can Rajdeep be far behind in this game of one upmanship over TRPs ? They all attacked resilience this time. They wanted firm action from the government in tackling terror. 

The same channels celebrated resilience when bombs went off in trains and markets killing and maiming the Aam Aadmis.  The resilience of the ordinary worker suited the rich business class of Mumbai since work or manufacture or film shooting did not stop. When it came to them, the rich shamelessly exhibited their lack of nerves and refused to be resilient themselves. They cry for government intervention now to protect their private spas and swimming pools and bars and restaurants, similar to the way in which Citibank, General Motors and the ilk cry for government money when their coffers are emptied by their own ideologies. 

The terrorists have learnt that the ordinary Indian is unperturbed by terror. For one whose daily existence itself is a terror of government sponsored inflation and market sponsored exclusion, pain is something he has learnt to live with. The rich of Mumbai and India Inc are facing the pain for the first time and learning about it just as the middle classes of India learnt about violation of  human rights only during emergency, a cool 28 years after independence. 

And human rights were another favourite issue for the channels to whip at times of terrorism.

Arnab Goswami  in an animated voice wondered where were those champions of human rights now, not to be seen applauding the brave and selfless police officers who gave up their life in fighting terorism. Well, the counter question would be where were you when such officers were violating the human rights of Aam Aadmis. Has there ever been any 24 hour non stop coverage of violence against dalits and adivasis of this country?  

This definitely was not the time to manufacture consent for the extra legal and third degree methods of interrogation of police and army but Arnabs don't miss a single opportunity to serve their class masters, this time the jingoistic patriotism came in handy to whitewash the entire uniformed services. 

The sacrifice of the commandos or the police officers who went down dying at the hands of ruthless terrorists is no doubt heart rending but in vain in a situation which needed not just bran but also brain. Israel has a point when it says the operations were misplanned resulting in the death of its nationals here. 

Khakares and Salaskars would not be dead if they did not commit the mistake of traveling by the same vehicle. It is a basic lesson in management that the top brass should never t ravel together in crisis. The terrorists, if only they had watched the channels, would have laughed their hearts out when the Chief of the Marine commandos, an elite force, masking his face so unprofessionally in a see-through cloth, told the media that the commandos had no idea about the structure of the Hotel Taj which they were trying to liberate. But the terrorists knew the place thoroughly, he acknowledged. 

Is it so difficult to obtain a ground plan of Hotel Taj and discuss operation strategy thoroughly for at least one hour before entering? This is something even an event manager would first ask for, if he had to fix 25 audio systems and 50 CCtvs for a cultural event in a hotel. Would not Ratan Tata have provided a plan of his ancestral hotel to the commandos within one hour considering the mighty apparatus at his and government's disposal?  Are satelite pictures only available for terrorists and not the government agencies ?  In an operation known to consume time, one more hour for preparation would have only improved the efficiency of execution.  

Sacrifices become doubly tragic in unprofessional circumstances. But the Aam Aadmis always believe that terror-shooters do better planning than terrorists. And the gullible media in a jingoistic mood would not raise any question about any of these issues. 

They after all have their favourite whipping boy - the politician the eternal entertainer for the non-voting rich classes of India. 

Arnabs and Rajdeeps would wax eloquent on Nanmohan Singh and Advani visiting Mumbai separately and not together showing solidarity even at this hour of national crisis. What a farce? Why can't these channels pool together all their camera crew and reporters at this time of national calamity and share the sound and visual bites which could mean a wider and deeper coverage of events with such a huge human resource to command?   Why should Arnab and Rajdeep and Barkha keep harping every five minutes that this piece of information was exclusive to their channel, at the time of such a national crisis? Is this the time to promote the channel? If that is valid, the politician promoting his own political constituency is equally valid. And the duty of the politican is to do politics, his politics. It is for the people to evaluate that politics. 

And terrorism is not above politics. It is politics by other means.

To come to grips with it and to eventually eliminate it, the practice of politics by proper means needs constant fine tuning and improvement. Decrying all politics and politicians, only helps terrorists and dictators who are the two sides of the same coin. And the rich and powerful always prefer terrorists and dictators to do business with. 

Those caught in this crossfire are always the Aam Aadmis whose deaths are not even mourned - the taxi driver who lost the entire family at CST firing, the numerous waiters and stewards who lost their lives working in Taj for a monthly salary that would be one time bill for their masters. 

Postscript: In a fit of anger and depression, I sent a message to all the channels, 30 hours through the coverage. After all they have been constantly asking the viewers to message them for anything and everything. My message read: I send this with lots of pain. All channels, including yours, must apologise for not covering the victims of CST massacre, the real mumbaikars and aam aadmis of India. Your obsession with five star elite is disgusting. Learn from the print media please.  No channel bothered. Only srinivasan Jain replied: you are right. We are trying to redress balance today. Well, nothing happened till the time of writing this 66 hours after the terror attack.


My rebuttal, that I sent to my friends back, and am now sharing with you is as follows:

We Bombayites are going through a tough time these days coming to terms with the horror that had enveloped us the past week. This is the time to take stock, to decide what we can do or should or should not do. This is not the time to decide whether CST is bigger icon than the Taj or not.

I am not trying to defend the actions of some of the news channels; I have myself questioned some of their actions on my blog. But the reason why the Taj was the epicenter of the terror coverage because it just so happened that it became. The terrorists did their job at the CST within about half an hour and then moved away. Yes, they killed several people there, the aam aadmi and it was indeed terrible. But the Taj siege was the first of its kind in the country. For 3 days, God knows how many terrorists laid siege at the Taj and had taken hostages. At that time, nobody knew how many civilians are trapped inside the Taj, how many are taken hostage, are they tortured, what were they going through (or eventually what hell they went through), how many terrorists were holed up inside (even now there are several conflicting media reports and one doesn't know for sure how many were there, some people say there were four, others say three, and so on). This siege went on for 3 days, the Oberoi siege continued for 2 days. Never has India witnessed a terrorist siege like this that has stretched beyond 24 hours and it needed coverage. terrorism needed a face which it got in Taj. Certain press reports also claim that some of the hostage victims were brutally torturedSankaran has has completely failed to understand the enormity of this episode. If the CST would have been under siege, is he saying that the TV channels would not have given that a 24/7 coverage? What crap! 

It was heart-breaking to see from the streets below, people trapped in the rooms of those hotels and banging the windows of the rooms begging for help from not just bullets and guns, but also the thick smoke and fire from within. They were trying to save their lives,  but were helpless. To say that their grief is less than those who lost their lives in CST is in a way racism by itself. And this is not the time to say all that crap. 

Please understand from the average Bombayite point of view. The Taj Hotel and CST, both are our iconic structures. Ask any Bombaitye, including news channels, as to who is the bigger icon of India. NOBODY will choose. Every Bombaiyite would say that both are equally important. I was born and brought up in Bombay. I have frequented both the Taj and CST. If today, God forbid CST is not around or something, i would be equally pained. But I am also pained to see my, yes MY Taj Hotel, to see burning in flames. We Bombayites are proud of ALL our heritage structures, and not just the Taj or the CST. Obviously Sankaran does not know this.

Sankaran also belittles all those Taj and Oberoi staff who laid their lives saving their guests. These are heroic stories that deserve to be told. And they deserve to be remembered even if it means repeatedly coming across them in the media. Whoever knew of chefs and hotel staff at the Taj named, say, Kaizad Kamdin and Rajan. But now we do. These are just some of the brave hotel staff that looked after their guests at the Taj even in times of adversity. While Kaizad was just 24, there were a few others in their 20s. Another chef, 28, was serving his last week at the Taj and was looking forward to go abroad. Fate got the better of him. There are similar stories circulating about the Oberoi staff. Read up on Google. If brave staff like this do not make an organisation an icon, what does?

There is a reason why the terrorists not only chose the Taj, but also after initially firing at the lower floors, went up straight to the sixth floor and tried to burn the dome, as per media reports. This is a heritage building and its dome is a symbol by itself. Just like the dome or the top of any other heritage building of the world, like say, CST. When they burn the dome and the top floor of such a building, the terrorists are thought to make a statement that "they have arrived". 

I have visited the Taj myself several times, though may not have spent a lot of money there. But I have dined at the Taj President, another Taj hotel, nearby, at Cuffe Parade ,many times. A restaurant there, Thai Pavilion, has many pleasant memories for me. I cherish it because i go there on special occasions, the last being the Parsi New Year in August. Likewise, there are so many people for whom these places are important and symbols of important events, somebody may have proposed there sitting in a restaurant to his partner, somebody may have shared a good news with his/her partner over wine and dinner, and so on. Marraiges have taken place at these hotels and these occassions hold good memories for them. Are we saying that their griefs, my grief, is any less than those who died in CST? 

I have slogged my ass to earn the kind of money I earn - even though its not great, its sufficient to afford me and my mom a meal twice a year at the Taj - and I have every right to spend it. I am honest and I pay my taxes. Why, then, should I feel guilty? Terrorism hits the hardest when it hits the home. Bombay is my home. So when my home is under attack, shouldn't we feel outraged, insecure and angry? You may say that Bombayites were not as aggrieved when Singur / Nandigram burned. True. But did Singur / Nandigram grieve as much as we did, when Bombay burnt? Are we to say that those who had cars and got killed/injured in the Delhi Khan market blasts are less justified to be heard that those who did not have cars and yet got killed/injured? When I heard that my friend Chumki was there in the Khan market when the blasts there took place, I immediately called her up to inquire about her, without for a second pondering how much money she had vis-a-vis the amount of money other victims at Khan Market had. I called her up because she is my friend and I care for her. Or when my friend Sunita was metres away from the taxi blast outside Santa Cruz airport? She had just alighted from a plane enroute to Delhi the next day, she was staying overnight in Bombay on Wednesday 26 November. I did not bother that she got off a plane, and not a train at CST, and escaped death by a few seconds. 

And this final point of view. Contrary to what this author say, not everyone who goes to Taj or Leopold are spoilt brats who run over pavement dwellers, spend their parents' money and gamble. Many of even the Taj Patrons have come up in their lives the hard way. So what if they want to have a good time and enjoy? Don't we all? We also pay taxes. Just because we work hard, earn and then spend our money, are our griefs any less than those killed at CST? Why should I feel guilty for who I am. For a city that is devastated by this immense loss of grief, and one that needs to unite irrespective of cast, class, creed, religion and social status, this is not the time to divide it based on class. Grow up Sankaran! 

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Do candlelight vigils work?

In light of the recent Bombay terror attack, several citizens and groups have come together in an unprecedented way to show support and solidarity to the victims of this tragic incident, as well as pull up the authorities for severely letting down the citizenry, by holding candle-light vigils, 1/2/3 minute silences, etc. The biggest such meeting was held at the Gateway of India on Sunday, November 30, two days after the deadly siege ended that killed around 200 people and injured around 1,000. But do these candle-light vigils, public show of solidarity/outcry help? 

Yesterday, I was standing at the Nariman Point bus-stop to catch a bus to go home around 19.45 hrs. The roads were quite empty and office goers were waiting to catch the next bus home, on my opposite side where the road goes to VT station, there was a long queue waiting for their BEST buses. Suddenly a large group of citizens, shouting slogans like "Bharat Maata Ki Jai", armed with a loudspeaker playing patriotic songs like "Chhodon kal ki baatein, kal ki baat puraani...." showed up. It was a procession of young children and they were roller-skating their way ahead. Nobody was walking, everybody was roller-skating. It was evident that they were on the streets to protest against the recent terror attack. Within seconds, there was traffic jam and packed buses, waiting to ferry tired working class people home, were caught up in a mile or two long traffic jam. Was it all worth it? 

Would there be no future terrorist attacks because these little children got on streets and caused a massive traffic jam during peak hours? Will our politicians be moved by this emotional show of solidarity and suddenly change their ways? They inconvenienced everyone else who were not a part of that procession.  This is what my uncle, Rusi Tavadia, an Indian-born settled in USA says and his sentiments are reflected by many Indians who have left India to settle abroad, fed-up of our country's corruption: "Holding Morchas with the slogans is not going to bring any radical results.  Indian politicians are such thick pig skinned people that the morchas mean nothing to them.  At this point, people should rise against the government, stop paying taxes and elect fresh blood.  It is easy to say than done, but until the political thugs are exposed for their illegal actions, nothing is going to happen and I am afraid things will continue status-quo."

There have been lot of candlelight vigils that Bombay and India has seen. I remember there was one in - I think - Azad Maidan when the holy well of Bhikha-Behram in Fountain, opposite the telegraph and VSNL offices, was vandalised and its precious stained glass was stolen. The Bhikha-Behram well is a very holy site for Parsees. 2,000 Zoroastrians turned up, including Pheroza Godrej. Former police commissioner Julio Rebeiro also turned up to show his support. What happened? People came, talked, protested, lamented, grieved and then went back home. More than four years have passed and the thieves are still at large, they were never caught. I am not much in favour of these candle-lit vigils and I have never attended one. 

However, there is something unique happening these days I am noticing. The recent Bombay terror attack has resulted in a public outcry I have never seen before. Not even a single (non-political) soul sympathises with the government and thinks that they are not at fault. Everyone is unanimous and firmly believe that the government and politicians have let us down. Such is the public outcry this time, that the media is shouting (not literally though like Rajdeep Sardesai, but in a way that do not require ear-plugs) about how the machinery is a big let-down and several such key issues. Citizens are finding courage and will to name politicians and remind of their attitude. Nobody is spared. The Deshmukhs, Patils, Advanis, Gandhis, Thackerys, Modis and even the Karats of the world, all of them are getting their just dues. Nasty and sarcastic SMSs are forwarded with vigour reminding us of how they have let us down. Newspapers have covered, on their front pages, the Gateway of India candlelight vigil where people are shown holding up placards with severe criticism of how the political machinery has let us down. This newspaper report claims that former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh almost survived despite taking Ram Gopal Verma on the Taj Terror Tourism package, but the Gateway of India candle-lit vigil did him in. Amazing what a citizen's movement can do. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Shatabdi Express In Ruins

I just returned back, after a 2-day pilgrimage trip to Udwada, by the Ahmadabad-Bombay Shatabdi Express. I boarded the train from Vapi. This is a premier and completely air-conditioned train; seats in this train are more costly than similar seats in other trains because Shatabdi gives you extra services like meals and bottled water, just like a full-fledged airline. As against a regular chair-car ticket from Vapi to Bombay Central would cost Rs 251, a Shatabdi train ticket costs Rs 375.  However, apart from the speed and convenient timings, the Ahmadabad Shatabdi is junk and a crappy train. The entire train looks like junk-yard material from the moment you set foot inside.

Poor maintenance: Compartments are very dirty and not well-maintained. My neighbour's seat was broken and I am almost sure that by the time he would got off at Borivali, he would have had a bad back. Other seats were hardly better, the one in front of me was perpetually in a pushed-back motion and was almost falling all over my lap. Bottle holders seemed like they were hastily attached to seats. My holder were dangling by a thread and was swinging wildly to the gyrations of the fast moving train and so was hitting my legs constantly; it was most irritating. Finally, it broke and both the bottle as well as the bottle-holder fell on the ground. I felt like throwing the piece of crap out of the window. The ticket-collector, all suited and booted and typically in Indian fashion all cosmetics but hardly substance, had no explanation about the pathetic condition of the compartment. 

I do not know why large LCD (TV) screens are fitted above all seats. They do not air the news or any meaningful program. Som re-run of a pre-televised show was going on of a song-and-dance reality show courtesy Zee TV. The show was useless and participants were dancing like junglis with no choreography whatsoever. It was one of the most boring things to be seen on TV and just as I had thought, nobody was interested.

Half-eaten food: But the worst of all was this. When the dinner trays came, my neighbour found much to his horror that the sweet which looked neatly packed in a small box was half-eaten! The attendant quickly replaced it, but the Indian railways are now giving half-eaten food to its customers? Is this why Shatabdi is charging us extra? Instead of launching 1,000 trains every year from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Minister of Railways, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav should concentrate on improving the services of the Indian Railway's existing fleet. Further, I did not know this before, but the Ahmadabad Shatadbi gives us a choice of a snack and a dinner, at night on the way to Bombay. You have to choose one and not both. The attendant did not bother of telling me this and thrusted me a place of 'snack'. Then, when I asked him about the choice, he said I could choose dinner instead, I preferred for the latter.  Also, the dinner choice has vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Without bothering to check with me, he gave me vegetarian. I gave it back to him and demanded non-vegetarian. And then, after all meals are over, they come with begging bowls in their hands expecting tips. Sloppy and pathetic service. 

Hypocritic government: Despite collecting around 40 per cent tax from Bombay, the Delhi power brass is always hypocritical and partial when it comes to improving the infrastructure of Bombay. I have travelled by the Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi and the ride is extremely pleasant. That train looks like an international one, its compartments are completely modern, clean and redesigned (large windows, plush seats, sliding window shades) to offer maximum comfort. They look beautiful and are esthetically superior to the Ahmadabad Shatadbi, despite - and I am reasonably sure about this - the Ahmadabad Shatabdi being much more patronised. Still the government does nothing to extend similar benefits to other parts of the country. And if the railway minister happens to be from UP or Bihar, then all they are interested in launching a thousand trains every year from their own constituencies. One more example of government's apathy, as if the other examples were not enough! 

Monday, December 1, 2008

Heads roll or cosmetic measures?

So heads have started to roll. Shivraj Patil's resignation was overdue, but it was nice to see our Maharashtra's incompetent due of Deshmukh and RR Patil also leave. If after the recent anti-north Indian violence,  Deshmukh and RR Patil hardly did anything to arrest the violence and the goons and bring them to book properly and instead kept on harping "the-law-will-take-its-own-course" cliche, this should be a lesson to them. This is how heads should roll and action needs to be taken or infact can be taken if there's a will, if you don't look after your people well. In any case, they have hardly done anything for Maharashtra, they were inefficient and inadequate, could not control domestic violence leave aside professionally and well-orchestrated terrorism from across international borders, it was a miracle that they survived in their seats for so long.

And as if all the lows that Deshmukh had sunk to uptill now were not enough, he also took along his actor-son Ritiesh Deshmukh and Bollywood director Ram Gopal Verma (RGV) in tow on his tour of war-ravaged sites of the Taj and Oberoi hotels. Those of us who had watched RGV's movie Sarkar-II would remember that the plot gave enough scope to make a sequel of that movie. Was RGV doing research for this sequel or some other terrorism/gangwar/government/politics story/movie? How sick of the CM to bring him in tow and how sick of RGV to tag along in a moment like this. 

Our finance minister P.Chidambaram's (PC) appointment as the Home Minister is a bit of a surprise. A finance minister will now look after our security? What is PC planning to do? Increase Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in arms and ammunition industry? Ask Sebi to allow mutual funds (MF) to launch commodity funds that can invest in arms & ammunition as commodities? Although I am not sure whether such weaponry would classify as commodities. My point is what is PC's experience in such matters? Does he understand the dynamics of the job? A man who till yesterday was monitoring interest rates, gross domestic product, foreign capital inflows, stock markets, Sebi, etc will now look after India's security concerns. Such things can happen only in India. It remains to be seen whether these changes are just cosmetic or whether these replacements would make things better. God save us. 

Meher Mahino, Ava Mahino and Adar Mahino: The holy trinity of Zoroastrian calender

Zoroastrians- or better knows as Parsis and Iranis of India- have a separate calendar. We look at the English calendar of course, but we al...