Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dinanath Batra's Loony Toons

> http://www.ndtv.com/article/opinion/dinanath-batra-s-loony-toons-567124

Isn't it time we protested more vehemently???
An evening spent in the company of well meaning Rotarians, discussing Achchey Din!!!

This appeared in the Asian Age
                   Let them eat Chapattis…
Let’s be super generous! Let’s be fair to Shiv Sena M.P. Rajan Vichare and give him the benefit of the doubt. He claims he didn’t know the name or religious identity of the man into whose protesting mouth he shoved a chapatti. Does that matter ? Had the catering supervisor at Maharashtra Sadan been a Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist or Atheist, would it have absolved Vichare? The question is redundant. We know the answer. Millions of shell- shocked viewers were left open mouthed when that dreadful footage was telecast ad nauseum across television channels. The belligerence of the act was enough to generate waves of revulsion… regardless of whether Vichare’s victim was a Muslim observing rozas during Ramzan, or not. Such high handedness is pretty common across party lines . It is just Vichare’s bad  luck he was caught on camera indulging in open goondagiri. Some of his illustrious colleagues in Parliament have displayed even worse conduct in public and gotten away with it. But here’s a case that disturbed an entire nation and left Vichare’s patrons not just red faced but resembling stale chapattis themselves.
Assuming Vichare didn’t or couldn’t read the Supervisor’s prominent name tag. Assuming Vichare did not hear the Supervisor’s name being called out by regulars. Assuming Vichare really, really detested the food being served ,can such a vicious attack on an individual be justified?Whatever the explanations in hind sight, given the history of aggressive / uncouth behavior ,one wonders whether this was a stray incident? Attacking those who are not in a position to hit back seems to come very easily to militant members of certain political parties. In this case, an incensed Vichare is seen on video footage, brutally stuffing a chapatti in to the mouth of a vociferously protesting Arshad Zubair. So….  if we are to believe that Vichare cannot see a name tag, does it mean he cannot hear either? Zubair is heard repeating over and over again that he is fasting. Vichare ignores him completely and continues to force- feed the helpless man in the presence of cronies. If this is Vichare’s spontaneous reaction to bad food, it’s worth asking whether he would behave in the same fashion outside his comfort zone ( Maharashtra Sadan),  in which he and the others eat heavily subsidized meals! Given their antecedents, perhaps they would. But I seriously doubt it! Try and picturise Vichare in a posh restaurant overseas, walking up to a snooty maitre d’ with an undercooked chicken leg in his hand and attempting to gag the man with the offensive dish. Within minutes, cops would be summoned and Vichare marched off to the nearest prison.
That doesn’t happen in India. Especially to an M.P. Incidentally, Vichare was also the Mayor of Thane.  Dadagiri comes easily and naturally to our pumped up netas. They obviously believe it is their absolute right to ignore the law and engage in unruly conduct. But the Maharashtra Sadan incident has other ramifications, given the fresh facts that are emerging….  starting with the plot on which it is built, to the substandard construction of the Sadan. Complaints about the poor quality food being served have been registered in the past.  Plus, there have been protests about the presence of M.P. s from other states temporarily sharing the space. Maharashtra Sadan is a tinder box. It is too bad for Vichare that his outburst coincided with Ramzan.
Enemies of the Sena, must be rejoicing secretly, given the turmoil in Maharashtra, with State Elections coming up, and no leadership in sight. At an uncertain time like this, when sensitivities are indeed running high, such an incident is bound to be milked to the hilt by political rivals. Nothing works as powerfully in India as a misdemeanor involving religious intolerance. Even if one were to avoid attempts by mischief mongers to communalise the issue further, the damage has been done. And had the Sena leadership handled the crisis more adroitly when the story broke, perhaps the backlash wouldn’t have been this severe. Since no genuine apology was offered, and no action taken against Vichare , people were justifiably upset.It is to the credit of the affected community that admirable restraint was shown by leaders who could easily have inflamed passions and incited trouble.
Maharashtra is going through one of its worst periods.  The State Elections are likely to witness bloody fights and gutter level politics as parties scramble to gain control over Mumbai  -  possibly the priciest real estate in the world. It is all about the money. One had hoped that if not Uddhav, his son Aaditya, would have sensed the mood of the public and dealt with the situation in a more upfront manner. There is no shame in apologizing when a community’s feelings are hurt. It is the morally correct thing to do. Leadership is about sending out the right message to party workers, and letting them know when  a line is crossed. But what can even a mild- mannered , well- meaning Uddhav do when 15 out of 18 Shiv Sena M.P.s  face criminal charges  ranging from attempt to murder to using dangerous weapons to cause hurt. Under such ominous circumstances, perhaps Vichare’s act of force-feeding a Muslim during Ramzan, does not appear as serious to the party?

A pity the rest of the country sees it differently.
This appeared in The Week.....
                              Where’s the fire…?
 I’ll tell you where the fire is – it is raging in our society. And chances of dousing the flames are pretty slim… unless you happen to be as gutsy and determined as Subhangi Iwalekar,the young widow of  34- year- old Fireman Nitin Iwalekar , who stood her ground, demanded her rights, and took on the mighty,  after her brave husband died on duty fighting a conflagration. The horrific incident took place when a glittering deathbox ( read: commercial high rise),covered with glass panels, caught fire in Mumbai last week. Even during that devastating hour of grief, Subhangi had the foresight and courage to ask for what she believed is her right. She had the guts to ask for a written assurance from the authorities that her interests would be protected. She insisted on her husband’s body being brought to the fire brigade’s office, where she publicly and vociferously pressed for her demands. Subhagi clearly – and understandably – did not trust the administration . She refused to take verbal promises at face value. What Subhangi wanted was monetary compensation, plus, a job for herself.  This created quite a tricky situation, since the body had started decaying by then and Subhangi was unwilling to relent. Finally, Chief Fire Officer A.N.Ve rma, handed over a letter promising Subhangi a job at the BMC within a month, and offering 15 lakhs by way of compensation. Her demand was for 50lakhs. The deadlock was broken, albeit, reluctantly from Subhangi’s side. Nitin’s last rites were performed by his two little daughters, led by their feisty mother.
What if Subhangi had allowed her personal grief to consume her completely? What if she had followed society’s diktats and conformed to what is deemed ‘acceptable and appropriate’ conduct on such a tragic occasion? I’ll tell you what: Subhangi and her kids would have been screwed (pardon the expression)..  I am pretty sure community leaders, perhaps even her late husband’s colleagues,tried hard to dissuade her from ‘making a scene’.  Even though, what she did was the right and fair thing. For, had she not pressed for it, she would have been made to run around in circles by an indifferent, callous and lazy administration, for years and years. And she would never have seen the money…. or the job. Who then would have looked after her and her daughters? Certainly not those community leaders, neighbours or relatives – the very people who turned up for the funeral?
It is not easy being Subhangi in our society. We have certain conventions and social rules that need to be challenged, questioned, subverted, thrown out of the window. Not every widow in our unambiguously patriarchal structure has the gumption to stand up for her beliefs and do what Subhangi did. Most are subdued by a harsh, judgmental system that prescribes what a young widow can and cannot do at a time like this. Subhagi would have been expected to wipe off her bindi/ sindhoor, break her bangles and mangalsutra, change out of her colourful saree ,drape herself in white, sit in a corner of her home ( a brand new one she had moved into with Nitin and the kids), weep noisily, beat her chest and stick with female family members, while the men took charge of the proceedings. In this case over 200 mourners were present for the delayed funeral. Guess what? The morning after the night before, Subhangi would have been largely alone with two bewildered children asking for their father. Life would have gone on for the others, like nothing had happened. Harsh but true.
Which is why it is important to acknowledge Subhangi’s actions .She isn’t asking for handouts. It is not charity she seeks. If she is qualified and deserves the job, she should get it. The compensation will be as per the rules. Potentially,Subhangi has more than 40 years ahead of her. Nitin, the sole provider, is no more. He needn’t have died. Mumbai  has many more deathboxes, built without required permissions and safety features. While we discuss the precious loss of one fireman , we are overlooking the ghastly possibility that many more firemen could also have sacrificed their lives in Lotus Business Park, where the fire broke out. Several rules had been blatantly flouted. The swanky commercial complex in which investors like Hritik Roshan owned several floors, did not have a second staircase, nor firefighting equipment that’s in working order! This is a fit case for criminal negligence – but will the authorities act and probe further? Hold BMC officials responsible? Question the builders? Nope. When was the last time that happened? Had Subhangi meekly kept quiet and accepted a handout from the authorities, her public image may have been more ‘sanitised’, but in reality, her life would be over! We must support Subhangi for speaking out, when silence was the safer option.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Vaidik is no Amanpour!

This appeared in Sunday Times
                                 Errr… Ved Pratap Vaidik…. Who dat????
 Let’s be honest, Shri Ved Prakash Vaidik is no Christiane Amanpour. For all we know or care, he could well be just another cranky old man looking for instant publicity. Well, in that case, he got it. Ved Pratap Vaidek may fervently desire to position himself as a legend in his own lifetime. He may have pretty grandiose notions about himself. But chances are, the average Indian reader was clueless about this person’s identity or existence, till he shot into notoriety overnight, spewing fire across television channels, clad in a bright tangerine jacket. Perhaps that was the whole objective… the real game plan. And all of us fell for it! The man who recently broke bread with Hafiz Saeed ( one of the world’s most dreaded terrorists) in Pakistan, clearly fancies himself as an ace negotiator, a major international player, an ‘intermediary’… and  a journalist of repute. Let him! But to disrupt parliamentary proceedings because of him, to demand his arrest, and to invest hours and hours on decoding ‘that’ meeting, amounts to a national waste of time, money and energy. Is he a fake, a fraudster, a traitor, a conman, a spy, a double agent? At this point, nobody knows! Who the hell is Vaidik? Does it matter what he says and to whom in Pakistan? Frankly, it doesn’t. The only angle worth pursuing in this case is WHY Vaidik met Saeed? And in what capacity ? Saeed, has a bounty of 10 million US dollars on his head, making him as important a catch to America, as Osama Bin Laden . Vaidik claims it was nothing more than journalistic curiosity that led him to Saeed. Well, any other journo in Vaidik’s place would also have jumped at the chance to interview someone who is up there on the world’s most wanted list -  the  criminal known as the mastermind behind the 26/11Mumbai attacks of 2008. Vaidik himself has been annoyingly vague about  the mysterious ‘Track 2’ mission that kept him in Pakistan for weeks, long after other delegates to a one day seminar had come back. Panelists/ analysts drew their own dramatic conclusions. The important question is not whether Vaidik went to Pakistan as a Congress plant or a BJP emissary. He needs to tell us how the hell he got access to Saeed? And who arranged it for him? The ‘whys’ will become obvious once that is established.
Since India’s self- proclaimed ace journalist is playing coy about what exactly was discussed during his encounter with Saeed ( all we know is Vaidek was served tea and perhaps, sympathy). Two political parties are busy playing ‘passing-the-pillow’ with Vaidik  right now. No matter what tall claims he makes, Vaidik belongs to the Baba Ramdev School of Journalism .This much, however, is known - Vaidek  did not tape this crucial, once in a lifetime interview! Can you believe that? Nor has Vaidik filed this ‘world exclusive’ as any legit journo would have. Unless, there is no story in the first place and the whole thing is a monumental hoax .What we do know is that Vaidek offered the world’s most loathed murderer  some entirely gratuitous, brotherly advice, and aired his own nonsensical views on Kashmir. Frankly, what a waste of an opportunity! Any cub reporter in Vaidek’s place would have asked Saeed a few tough, pointed questions about the horrific Mumbai terror attacks and Saeed’s role in them. Vaidik preferred to lecture him instead (“You’ll be held accountable by Khuda…”) ! Or so he claims. Given the tight security around Saeed, how did Vaidik  manage to crack it, when even America’s top agents  have failed to do so? How?? Why was Vaidik  the Chosen One for this momentous ‘interview’? Who picked him? Anybody who has visited Pakistan will tell you it is impossible to move around  freely and meet  whosoever you wish. Yet,Vaidik managed to meet Pakistan’s most protected man!

 The whole thing is beginning to sound like a cock and bull story. A set up, intended to distract attention from something bigger… something more ominous. While Vaidik’s next move is worth monitoring, for now we should drop the drama. As a citizen of India, Vaidik is well within his democratic rights to meet anybody in the world – Hafiz Saeed included. Vaidik has not committed a crime. He has merely goofed up. As have Saeed’s handlers. If Hafiz wanted to make a noise in India, he should have picked a more competent journo. Someone with credibility and political astuteness ( no shortage of those here!).  But he picked a megalomaniac who boasts non-stop about his own achievements. Even those who are agitating and asking for Vaidik’s head, should know they are wasting their breath . He really has nothing of any value to share with us. Whether or not he belongs to the RSS , is hardly relevant. He calls himself a journalist. But he blew the biggest scoop of his career! Christiane Amanpour  would never have done that. And she would definitely have worn a different coloured jacket on camera!
                     NDTV Blog 2               
                                     “I am 6… what does RAPE, mean?”
“ Mummy, mummy… I am not feeling well…. something is paining… please take me to doctor uncle…. I don’t want to go to school…. Mummy , pleeeeease… make the pain go! I hate school…”
This could well have been what the traumatized 6 year-old-girl from Bengaluru said to her mother, after her tiny body was brutally violated  by a sex-fiend she trusted in her school.The monster has finally been identified as skating instructor, 30- year-old Mustafa (Munna), married and a father of a 3- year-old daughter. More than 5000 outraged citizens registered their protest at a rally outside the prestigious school and demanded action from the Police Commissioner,Raghavendra Auradkar. Had that demonstration not taken place, Mustafa  would still have been at it with other defenseless victims, given his history (he was sacked from another school for inappropriate conduct). Mustafa’s deviant behavior has been disclosed by the police after seizing his mobile phone and laptop containing evidence of child pornography photos and videos.
Why did a reputed school employ a paedophile in the first place?
Why was this person not thoroughly screened given that he’d been dismissed from another school after questions were raised over his character?
Why did this school take so long to react to such a serious charge by a parent?
Whose responsibility is it to ensure children are safe in schools?
 I would say, the buck stops with the school management. Our children are in their sole care once they enter the school gates. School authorities are obliged to ensure every child on the premises is safe and secure at all times – whatever it takes. Unconditional trust is what parents invest in when they pay those fat fees to get their kids into a ‘good school’. In this case, the 6- year- old allegedly suffered from a learning disability. Which means the school ought to have shown an even higher level of   responsibility/sensitivity towards her safety. If that has not happened, the school must be penalized. In other parts of the world, a school that is seen as being callous and negligent towards those in its care, would risk losing its license. In India, it works differently. Most ‘good’ schools behave like they are doing parents a favour by admitting their kids. Such schools become a law unto themselves and operate in such a high handed fashion, it’s virtually impossible to nail them for all the wrongs they get away with. Parents don’t have the guts to challenge school authorities. And those very authorities mock parents for their legitimate concerns, since very often such schools ‘accommodate’ children of politicians, police officers and bureaucrats.
It is time to demand complete transparency from our pampered private schools. They must disclose the antecedents of teachers and instructors on their payrolls. Background checks of  bus drivers  and other service providers must be made mandatory. The Principal has to be held accountable when a crime takes places on the premises.
Why should parents be compelled to take to the streets before cops respond when a child is abused? How is it possible that nobody but nobody noticed Mustafa’s perverse tendencies, considering there were other victims who have now come forward with similar charges against him ?
Let this be a landmark case. It takes one 6-year-old to break the ominous silence and nail a criminal. Well, this frightened little girl has done just that. Here’s hoping the Benguluru child rape incident opens society’s eyes to all that is abysmally wrong in the system . Schools are our children’s second homes. Principals and teachers, their foster parents. Protect our kids – that is not just your job, but a deep and abiding moral responsibility.
This appeared in the Mumbai Mirror
We  really are the rudest people on earth!
Dateline: July 14th. Occasion : Bastille Day Celebrations. Venue: The Crystal Room at the Taj Palace Hotel. Guest list : Well-heeled invitees. Host : Monsieur Jean-Raphael Peytregnet, Consul General of France, and his wife, Madame Zhun. The invitation card carried the exact time of the formalities for the evening. These are an essential part of such celebrations. It said the two National anthems (India and France) will be played at 8 45 pm. And as is the standard drill during National Day celebrations of any country, short speeches by the host are mandatory, followed by the traditional toast. This protocol  is strictly adhered to not just in India, but across the world.  It doesn’t require more than  fifteen minutes to complete. Surely, invitees are aware of this before they accept? But the shenanigans that took place on the 14th night were so shameful, I am sure not just our hosts that night, but several other  diplomats present were left wondering about our complete lack of respect for the occasion and the shocking absence of basic etiquette we displayed. What an awful impression we created!And how brazenly we ruined the  brief ceremony . It was perhaps for the very first time that a foreign host ( the refined and erudite Consul General himself) had to repeatedly ask for silence, before finally losing his cool and reminding guests it was “not polite” to keep chattering loudly while the speeches were on. Even this direct slap on the face did not stop boisterous invitees  from carrying on with their noisy conversations! The poor woman in charge of announcements, kept ssssshhhing people over the microphone, and beseeching them to keep quiet for a few minutes. Nothing worked. Shri Sumit  Malik, the  Chief Protocol Officer, Government of Maharashtra, also tried valiantly ( but in vain!) to shut up the loudmouths in the audience. His appeals were not just ignored, but someone lustily booed him .
 What on earth is the matter with us?
I’ll tell you what the problem is. Our mentality still hasn’t changed from those distant days when access to imported alcohol was difficult and frightfully expensive. Invitations to diplomatic functions were most coveted as lucky ( and thirsty!) guests flocked to these events attracted by the bottles on the bar. They glugged glasses and glasses of fine Champagne ( Mumm, in this case), decent wines, and of course, good whiskey, vodka and beer, with the sole aim of doing full ‘paisa vasool’. Except, they weren’t paying! The main attraction was free and unlimited booze! Phoren ki daaru!  This cheap attitude has not changed, even though the best alcohol in the world is easily available in India today. But of course,it is not moofat! And our mindset is still in moofat mode…  this cuts across the income divide, let me tell you! After all, guests at these events can well afford to buy their own booze. But something  happens to them at the sight of a well stocked bar. Ditto for food. Invitees virtually hijack and attack passing serving staff to grab cocktail snacks off the trays.  We still behave like bhookey-pyaasey refugees.
 The only way to get around future disasters is for the hosts to fine tune and hone their guest list  so as to keep out ruffians who land up and spoil the evening for others. Bar service should also be suspended during the speeches and unruly guests can definitely be escorted out politely by alert security personnel. Mumbai’s notorious free loaders are known to all.Why invite these pests in the first place? Screening is a pre- requisite if  basic decorum is to be followed. It was shameful to note how disgusted other foreign diplomats  also were  by our atrocious behavior. Despite repeated requests to  maintain silence during the formal part of the evening, despite reminders  that this was a solemn occasion commemorating the Bastille Day that is celebrated by French citizens, wherever they are in the world, we rudely ignored the host and in the bargain, disgraced ourselves thoroughly. Such bad behavior in public shows the degeneration  that is taking place in our society. Conduct Unbecoming, whether in Parliament or at  private parties, has become the national norm. Hooliganism rules. People who ought to know better, behave like louts caught in bar brawls. I don’t know whether Monsieur Peytregnet and his wife have gotten over the fiasco on the 14th.  But, it certainly left me feeling awful and ashamed. If there’s one thing that never goes out of style, it’s good manners. It’s worth reminding those junglees that crass is crass – and has nothing to do with how much money you possess or which car you drive.Par  sikhaaneywalla kaun hai?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The saga of the missing suitcase...

This appeared in Mumbai Mirror today....it tells its own story. Do look out for other, more positive stories about my recent trip. Am still figuring out how to upload pictures from my smartphone onto the blog! If some of you smart people know how, do let me know....TiE Retreat at Tenerife was super fun. And I have great pics to go with that narrative...
                         The saga of the missing suitcase…
I am back. And so is the missing bag! This is nothing short of a mini-miracle. Here’s why: Instead of losing my cool, throwing purple fits and creating a hungama when there was no trace of my bag at the end of five days in London, I decided to channel my inner Gandhi and stage a peaceful satyagraha at the British Airways check-in counter, Terminal 5, Heathrow before taking the flight home. I calmly told William at counter D2, that I was not leaving the airport till my missing bag was located. My voice was calm and my gaze, steady. I  had tried everything but with zero success. Then, I said to myself, if Gandhiji could have chased the British out of India armed with nothing more than patience and a firm resolve, I would adopt the same tactic…and win. Well, it worked! William helpfully suggested a strategy that he said was a ‘little unusual’. Was I game for it? I was! I had nothing to lose  and everything to gain after hitting my head against a stone wall. I was willing to try any trick in the book. To cut a long story short, I was asked to go three levels down to where lost baggage is stored. It’s like a graveyard of abandoned suitcases from across the world.   In that gigantic pile of orphaned bags, I actually managed to spot mine! Bingo. Gandhiji had scored again.
There is a moral attached to this story: I discovered a lot about myself and more about life in general when I found out my bag had disappeared. I mentally kissed the contents of the suitcase goodbye -  my clothes, shoes, toiletries and a few sentimental items of jewellery. Once I did that, I was free! It really didn’t matter a damn after a point whether I was walking around London in flip flops and travel gear. It was such a liberating feeling . And to those I met who stared strangely at me, well, if they were going to judge me by my casual footwear and super casual clothes, it was their loss, not mine! I also knew there was no personal conspiracy against me. Thousands of  BA passengers were in the same boat and a massive technical glitch had led to this sorry situation. But here’s what BA could have done, should have done, but didn’t…
1.     Clearly there was a systems breakdown that had led to one of the worst failures in baggage delivery across time zones and continents. Whatever the nature of the technical glitch, BA should have been more forthright, apologized for the enormous inconvenience caused and immediately offered some relief to affected passengers. That didn’t happen. Worse, calls went unanswered, or entirely misleading assurances were jauntily given (“ the luggage courier is on the way to deliver your bag”). With zero transparency and no explanations, passengers were left frustrated and fuming, cursing BA all the way.Were the bags  in London at all, or were they floating around some distant airport at the other end of the world? A word of advice to BA : All it takes is one phone call, one sincere apology, one truthful statement to pacify distraught passengers. Systems do break down. We get it. But please have the basic courtesy to explain the problem, and then set it right.
2.     From a passenger’s point of view, here is what I learned : Keep your phone charger in your handbag for those emergency calls you may have to make and can’t because the battery  has died on you. Keep personal jewellery in a small pouch in your handbag. Better still, travel without the real thing. Faux is better than lost !
3.     Travel light. Stick to basics. Mix and match. Don’t pack too many options. Five days without my ‘things’ – stuff, I thought I couldn’t live without, made me realize how much junk I was lugging around.
4.     Keep all shopping receipts carefully. You’ll need them when you claim compensation on your return. I had to buy virtually everything from scratch…it was tedious, time consuming and expensive.
5.     Hang on to boarding cards, baggage tags and any paperwork that could help track the missing bag. Make sure to have your name and address prominently displayed on the bag, or else you may have to wade through a sea of identical looking bags before you find yours.
6.     Get to the airport well in advance leaving sufficient time to double check whether the bags have made it on the same flight. Maintain a comfortable two hour gap between connecting flights. Keep extra copies of all travel documents on your person.

7.     Happy travels. Remember : Mental baggage stays home. Asli baggage stays with you.