30 December 2009

Give me another chance, I wanna grow up once again

I’m so glad I didn’t take Pratim Gupta seriously.

3 Idiots made me laugh heartily and unexpectedly cry the next moment. Maybe because am not an arty-farty type, thank God for that. But it wasn’t just me. After a long, long time, I saw an entire hall roaring with laughter and then fall suddenly silent.

Why indulge in rat races, let’s leave it to the rats, eh? The subject of Aamir’s movie has long begged representation. Every year, the moment after results of Class X or Class XII are announced, you can brace up for news of kids killing themselves. But, we’re all way too numbed up towards it.

I remember once participating in a seminar for teachers, where my teacher said that a child’s imagination should not be ‘corrected’, or tampered with. And, a teacher simply got up and asked, ‘What’s the main point?

I have met some very different teachers in my life. One of them had a way of teaching through anecdotes and life experiences. I absolutely loved his classes and learned so much about human behaviour from him. But the last time I went to Bangalore, he said his current students had complained about his teaching methods. They didn’t like it that he went ‘off topic’!

I guess a movie has its limitations and it’s difficult to touch all aspects of an issue and, of course, the kind of teachers that I have met are really a minority, outcastes even. But the point is that by the time kids reach college, they have already become part of the system like Chatur, the Silencer. They may not be open to and indeed may find it very difficult to adapt to a system that encourages them to think rather than score.

Anyway, getting back to the movie, yes, there are the usual college scenes like ragging, a Hitler-type principal, but heck, this is a movie about college kids. What did you expect to see? Yogis standing on their heads? I guess not.

But I wouldn’t have defended the movie, if not for the lively, clean, and smart humour weaved into it. The balatkaar speech takes the cake, of course.

The 3 Idiots have done a good job and really can’t say who’s better than whom. All’s well with the songs, they’re very hummable. But I’m surprised that Kareena snuck in some bad acting, given so little time she had in the movie.

All in all, I vote for the movie and urge the janata to go see it. And, after you’re done laughing, don’t get to keeping up with the Joneses all over again.

Aargh, there's more I could write, but have to cook dinner :(

26 October 2009

The new way to work: my new way to live

(Note to Sihikahi regulars: You're already familiar with most of the stuff of this post. This is my entry to Elance's 'The New Way to Work' contest, so you guys can skip it.)

I chose to work on my own from the comfort and distractions of my home a little less than two years ago.

This new way to work, for me, is an affirmation of faith in me, as a writer and editor who can make it on her own. My husband, Lincoln, propelled me towards this way of working. If not for his conviction in my abilities, I’d still be slogging it out for someone else.

I call it an affirmation of faith in myself because when I took the leap, and I must term it so, I had no definite plan, no potential jobs on the horizon… nothing.

Instead, what I did have for certain was a number of EMIs knocking at my door every month, and the reality of living in a city which didn’t have and doesn’t have too many good opportunities for a writer and editor.

I began bidding on Elance last June. I had almost run out of my connects quota and hope, when I got my first break. I actually ran around the house, called my mother, and was pretty much delirious with joy.

Later, I worked as a content manager for a Texas-based medical tourism company and cloud commuted for nearly a year. I am now active on Elance and in the process of setting up my firm. More about that here.

This post is about the way ahead: the new way. And I love it. But as with things/persons you love in life, there is a bit of a compromise, a bit of putting up with things you don’t like, and a lot of struggle. Some of the tough things about working on my own are:

No chatter at the water cooler: I work alone, so I have no colleagues to catch up with on office gossip. So, it gets boring sometimes, but, heck, there is no office politics to put up with either.

No paychecks: Freelancing , especially in India, is not for the weak-hearted. A few friends have told me they envy the fact that I can choose the day and time to go out and do my thing. I don’t have to look over my shoulder in fear of the boss. I can crank up the volume when they play my song on the radio, and so on. But, it’s not all milk and honey. Nothing is. I am working harder now than ever before. Of course, I am also enjoying my work than ever before. But I ask my friends who envy me, if they will venture out into the world of no paychecks. I have, so I get my privileges.

Discrimination, or the other end of being lowballed: On Elance discussion forums, I have come across many providers cribbing about how Indian providers’ lowballing affects their chances. The cost of living is comparatively low in India, hence our bids are going to be lower than, say, that of our American counterparts. You have to accept that. But there are all kinds of Indian providers, just as there are, I am sure, good, bad, and ugly from the First World. So, while there are Indian providers who will work at $2/per article or whatever, I don’t belong to that category. Yet, I regularly get invites for projects with ridiculous budgets and I regularly turn them down. Just because I am an Indian provider, I find it absurd that people accept me to work for a pittance. Obviously, they are not after quality, so, no thanks, I’d rather do without your business.

Back in India, working from home was not a lucrative position till recently. But I think that’s changing slowly. My Indian clients, though I don’t have too many of them, pay me, more or less, on par with my clients from abroad, and are quite easy to work with. I wouldn’t yet say the market for independent providers of content is mature in India. I think that’ll take some time.

And some of the challenges are:

Organizing yourself: This is the biggest challenge for anyone setting out independently. You are your own boss, your time is yours, and your time is your money. So, unless you plan well, stay organized and focused, the day will be gone before you know and you won’t have much done. Which means, a corresponding decrease in revenue. Ouch. The first couple of months, I used to do a little of this and a little of that. I ended up tired, out of breath. Now, if it’s two hours for a certain project, it’s two hours of focused work on that project and not a minute more. This has helped me stay in control.

Staying positive: That’s the second biggest challenge. Jobs pour in sometimes, and at other times there is a pause. Some clients are absolute dears, others are, well, let’s say they come in all shapes. And you’ve got to stay positive amidst everything. Initially, this was difficult. If a week went past without anything working out, I would start fretting. But with time and my pile-up of experience, I am more patient now and confident that it will work out.

Elance has a huge role to play in shaping up my new way to work, and live. I love its transparency and range of jobs to choose from. Tough as it is to survive on your own, it would be hundred times more difficult without an enabling platform such as Elance.

Till now, I have worked on content writing, editing, page layout, and SEO assignments via Elance. What I am now eager to explore is the fiction and travel domains, be it writing/ghostwriting or editing it.

A world of possibilities has opened up to me, thanks to the new way to work. And I am thankful to my family and Elance for being a part of this in such a positive way.

My Elance profile
Name: Vijayalaxmi Hegde
Mail: vijayalaxmi dot hegde at gmail dot com

08 August 2009

Why do we use cliches?

A programmer friend, who is on a sort of a sabbatical, was wondering if he could code as well as he did despite his long break from work. This prompted me to think if one could ever forget writing, too.

I don't think so. I feel writing is a process that helps you evolve and your writing, too, keeps constantly evolving. Writing exercises and involves the brain, hence it is not a task we can relegate to our reflexes.

In fact, communicating through the written word is quite a complex process. Vague, half-formed thoughts from the recesses of our brain have to be dressed-up and presented in a human language. That is not a skill Nature endowed us with.

Building the connect between the thought and the text does come easy if your thought is strong, full-bodied. At other times, writing something down can clear up fuzzy thoughts and give you direction.

It is the complexity of the writing process that makes people reach out to crutches: second-hand or automatic expressions. I've no argument with people who're happy with someone else doing the talking for them, but they will definitely find it difficult to be heard and understood.

People who use clichés or buzzwords like leverage, bandwidth, paradigm shift, legalese and commercialese like whereas, in receipt of, hereof are usually the most vocal against plain language. Their argument for gobbledygook is that everyone else is using them, and they are only fitting in.

This urge to conform is certainly strong, but the other reason why people are initially resistant to writing in plain language is that it’s actually not easy. We are often so accustomed to using borrowed expressions or conforming to a particular way of writing, that we are not familiar with our own voice.

Of course, not everyone who writes wishes to communicate. Lawyers are one such species of people.

But if you are writing to be understood, guard against use of clichés and gobbledygook. People have heard all the clichés there are to be heard, but they are really keen to know what it is that you have to say. Of course, if you've nothing to say, you better not say it.

25 July 2009

Today’s strangest story

Tucked between all the neatly subbed and written stories of the New Indian Express was this strangest story of all. It was strange from start to finish.

“GULBARGA: It may sound strange. But come Nagapanchami, a three-year-old boy plays with a live scorpion as he would with a toy. He is not the only one. For the entire Kandkoor village in Gulbarga district, Nagapanchami day falling on the fifth day of Shravana masa of Hindu calendar, is set aside for romping with these reptiles.

At this hamlet of around 200 dwellings adjacent to a hillock in Yadgir taluk, all the villagers, including toddlers, scale the hillock of red soil and black boulders and worship an idol of a scorpion called Kondammajji by pouring milk and offering ladus made of jaggery and groundnut powder on this day. They also worship an idol of a cobra. Later, the villagers, children included, begin a search for scorpions in the hillock.

Bhima Shankar, a villager says that as the sun rays emerge, the hill is swarming with the reptiles and by evening, there are thousands of scorpions on its slopes.

The villagers offer puja and entertain themselves with the scorpions without fear.
And by day break the following day, there is no trace of the scorpions, which make their appearance again only on the next Nagapanchami, says Bhima Shankar.

Though this strange custom is being observed for hundreds of years, there has not been a single instance of a scorpion sting, he claims.

The villagers believe that if they worship Kondammajji and play with live scorpions on Nagapanchami, they would have no fear of scorpions and snakes the year ahead. On the evening of Nagapanchami, the men chant bhajans till daybreak.

Thousands of people from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka gather on the hillock to witness the strange spectacle.”

(The print version had a ‘Strange ritual’ slug above the story.)

Definitely strange, but not for the reasons the reporter thinks it is:

1. All rituals seem strange to outsiders, don’t they? (How a certain Mr Edward Said would have loved to tear this story apart.) And even if this custom seemed particularly out-of-the-ordinary to the reporter, he would have done his job best by describing the ritual and keeping the adjectives out. Why, oh why, are Indian reporters still so much in love with adjectives?

2. The first sentence of this story is an opinion, not news.

3. I am not sure to which century I must ascribe the language of this story to: hamlet of around 200 dwellings. Strange indeed. The monologo-phobic reporter must have thought it indeed dull to use the mundane word ‘village’ so many times in his copy. And, he surely hasn’t heard of houses.

3. Am not even commenting about the romping part. Everything's strange already.

21 July 2009

For faith

Shared by a copywriter friend. More of his work is here and here.

My recent conversations among 'friends' and 'family' tell me we are getting more polarized than ever. All this surfeit of information only seems to reinforce stereotypes and close 'us' up against 'them'.

20 July 2009

When you don't do anything, do it in a sari

This graphic adorned The Telegraph’s front page a couple of days ago. In response to protests by women’s organizations, the paper’s reply was:

"For some months now, Bengal has looked like a state without an administration. Friday’s bandh and the unchecked vandalism on its eve further demonstrated the lack of will on the administration’s part to enforce the law.

In yesterday’s paper, the five top administrators were depicted as men in saris to illustrate the paralysis of government draped in humour.

Some of our readers and others have taken affront, seeing in it an assumption that women are weak. It is possible some may have associated the administrators in the graphic with women, which was not the intention of the visual device at all. We are sorry if the graphic gave that impression.

Some others have, however, expressed appreciation of the political message we sought to communicate and the humour.

The Telegraph practises gender equality. It also believes that women have long grown beyond stereotypes as the weaker sex in saris. Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee are just two examples of women in positions of strength. There are a million other unknown women — in saris or business suits — in whose daily shows of strength we rejoice in the pages of our newspaper. We hope our readers will see the Gang of Five in Saris in that context.

We also hope despite all its divisions, true to 19th century poet Ishwar Gupta’s words — Eto bhanga Bangadesh, tobu range bhara — Bengal still enjoys a good laugh."

As somebody said on Facebook, the explanation is worse than the original deed.

Now, if we assume, for a nano-second, that it was not The Telegraph’s intention to equate saris and thereby women with paralysis/immobility/sickness/weakness, will the paper then enlighten us on what was?

This was on the front page, so a lot of thought must have gone into it. Probably, an entirely editorial meeting or, at least, a discussion between the top editors. So, what exactly were they thinking when they did this? It’d be disgusting to know, but I’d still hear them out on how they’d defend such a primitive mode of thinking.

If not for saris, they’d have shown the five men wearing bangles, perhaps?

And, of course, Bengal will have a good laugh at this incredibly creative, path-breaking, out-of-the-box visual. I, for one, almost fell out of my chair laughing. They are too much man.

After all, this trendy unputdownable paper employs a lot of women, you see, so their gender-sensitive credentials are proven beyond doubt.

Just for curiosity sake, when the venerable editors of this paper were gleefully debating with their designer on whether the Gang of Five should wear this or that sari, and showing shock and surprise at the ruin Bengal has fallen into in the last few months (!!!!!! This is unbeatable, side-splitting humour. Way to go, TT!), did they call the administration a bunch of fatherfuckers, bhaichod, etc?

Am just curious, that’s all.

18 July 2009

Blue Pencil India for plain language, crisp writing, and editing that’ll make text sparkle

I have previously written about my work-from-home/freelance writing ventures. Blue Pencil India now seems to me to be the logical step forward. Of course, this took much convincing and all the persuasive powers of my husband, Lincoln, who is now a co-founder of BPI.

You need to believe a lot in yourself and have an unflagging positive spirit to start off on your own. And, to some extent, the lack of professional growth opportunities in Kolkata for a writer/editor did affect my confidence levels.

But thanks to the wonderful clients I have worked with and the diverse projects I have worked on in the last year or so, I now feel ready to work on my own.

At Blue Pencil India, I hope to get interesting and challenging assignments in the domains of writing, editing, and SEO content.

As a writer, there are some projects I do want to work on and I’ll soon have a wish list ready – they’re one of those ‘things to do before you die’. But, generally speaking, I’d like to work for clients who are keen on quality. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t be able to do the article spinning kind of work. Just not made for that.

As an editor, there’s something I am raring to do: edit fiction. Till now, I have edited newspaper articles, tons of legalese and officialese, website copy, user manuals, and the like. But fiction is something I have not done yet and I look forward to it. It should be a welcome break after all the backbreaking editing I have had to do till date.

BPI will also be a space to campaign for plain language in India and continue the work of Jyoti Sanyal, my teacher and mentor. For now, it’s just me and Lincoln, but soon, we should be able to pull in more people and make ourselves heard to people in the administration and in industries like banking and insurance. They, more than anyone else, need to use plain language.

My years with Sir (Sanyal) have made me passionate about the use of clear, concise language in all communication. I will be using Sihikahi and Blue Pencil India to speak about this as much as possible.

Apart from the campaign part of plain English, I am interested in working with individuals or firms to translate their documents or website copy into plain language and help them communicate clearly and effectively.

Writing in plain language is really not rocket science, but it does require that you have a genuine wish to inform your reader.

I request all readers of Sihikahi to help spread the word about Blue Pencil India. What we have invested in BPI are our professional skills, time, a lot of hope, and positive attitude. My hunch is there’ll be a lot of takers for out-of-the-box writing and professional editing – something that’s not too common in the freelance world. Now, let's prove my hunch right, shall we?

10 July 2009

Vicky Christina Barcelona: one cliche too many

When the credits started rolling, I was surprised that this was a Woody Allen movie. Till now, I hadn’t ever equated predictability and clichés with Allen’s movies, and here was this movie brimming with every romantic cliché you could possibly think of.

Cliché no. 1: Two women – one pragmatic, the other free thinking – go to Barcelona for different reasons but end up falling for the same guy: an edible-looking Spanish artist (If you’ve already had enough, read no further. Believe me, this is just the beginning of cliché hell.) Allen can have his triangles or quadrangles or any geometric fantasy, but what grates is the part about the American women – tourists – falling for a Spanish artist.

Cliché no. 2: The pragmatic of the two – Rebecca Hall – is already engaged but sees in Javier Bardem a life she could have if she chose to. So, is it going to be her conventional (read: boring), American fiancée who represents stability, or is going to be the red-blooded Spaniard who will take her up paths of unknown pleasures? Agh, God, this is the dumbest, really. Women often know how to get the best of both worlds, but such women simply don’t feature in movies or books, it seems.

Cliché no. 3: The names of the Spanish characters are ultra-cliché, especially that of Juan Antonio.

Cliché no. 4: Bardem and his ex-wife, Penelope Cruz, are the wild, bohemian spirits and shock the prim, civilized Americans.

Cliché no. 5: It all happens in a faraway place from home – Spain. So, you see, we get hornier abroad or is it just the Barcelona air? And I had this sneaking suspicion when I was watching the movie. The Barcelona in the movie – which competes to be another character - is what tourists want to see it as. In the Barcelona that Marta Bausells Hernanz knows, you can’t walk into a restaurant at 12 in the night and get a table just like that.

Allen’s Barcelona is beautiful, of course. But a little too much out of a travel brochure.

Everyone else in the movie is mouth-watering, too. But just eye-candy quotient cannot make a movie win, though it can definitely save it from total oblivion.

I liked the title song and, strangely enough, the quaint and rather unnecessary narrative.

01 July 2009

Moonwalked to his Neverland

Michael Jackson – his was some of the earliest music to burst out of cable TV in India. School and college annual days were incomplete without a moonwalking feat.

It’d be rare to find someone who wouldn’t tap their feet to his music. More than two decades after he shot to fame, his music, his ghostly white face, his sequined glove, the military jackets – all come to mind without much processing of the brain’s memory.

Particularly, I remember his video Dangerous. Come to think of it, all his videos were a class apart, too. They stand out from the millions of videos that have undistinguishable urbane settings and people lip syncing words with a deadpan face.

And, like with so many gifted people who’ve been blessed with wealth and fame and little else, his death reveals a side we don’t want to associate with someone whose music we grew up with and danced to. With more pills than food in his stomach, what could he have been thinking in his last moments? His music, his fans, his children, his abusive father, his upcoming tour? We’ll never know.

MJ was, truly, a complete entertainer. And he’ll be missed. Let’s hope he finds his Neverland.

Here’s a video from Boing Boing on possible inspirations for MJ’s moonwalking:

Love is a beggar on the streets

Love is a beggar on the streets!
She is not to his need -
Like the have not's creed;
Seeking what's not his,
Dreaming of eternal bliss;
She is a sucker on his wits.

Love is a cur in a deserted ditch!
Howling drearily at midnight's hour,
The Solitary wail of a bond gone sour;
Dribbling wearily for emotions gone by -
Pondering passions that were a colossal lie;
She is but now a bitch.

Love is a bonded slave!
Genuflecting at her master's caprice,
For which she must pay any price;
She can't avenge herself in rage,
She is the serf of an amorous bondage;
Where is the freedom she might crave?

Love is a merchant of pleasure!
Trading her wares in a fleeting transaction -
In the capitalists' dream of free market fruition,
Or the stagnation of the socialist paradise -
Here fidelity is an utopia vice;
Love is a use and throw treasure.

Love is a nuclear device!
She detonates a passionate fallout,
And brings mutually assured destruction about
The dispassionate soldier of the information age -
Awaiting orders for people to ravage.
Will love ever cease strife?

-- Lincoln Roy (1999)

(The magazine in which this poem was published has been lost and found too many times, and I cannot take any more risk with it. So, am recording the poem here. Image source: www.popandpolitics.com)

24 June 2009

A year of striking it out on my own

I have been very busy in the last few months, perhaps the busiest in my life yet. And in the all-consuming daily rush, I never noticed that I completed a year of working on my own this May. Yay!

I took on this new freelance writer-editor avatar of mine after I quit my last conventional job in April ’08. When I quit, I had no friggin idea what to do next, how I would pay the looming EMIs..., heck, I didn’t know from where the food on my plate would turn up.

But quit I did, and never once regretted it. The workplace repulsed me with its mediocrity and cheap, small-time politicking.

When I look back I feel happy about all the anger I have. It keeps me on my toes and from compromising on work ethics.

In my personal and professional life, I have taken risks, calculated or otherwise. And I wouldn’t like to go back and change anything.

I started out as a journalist in Vijay Times, and those were really crazy, fun-filled days. The shifts were endless, and the only respite came from the copy churned out by translators (news reports from Vijay Karnataka – a Kannada daily – would be translated to English). I remember one story that a hapless colleague had to, well, decode. In the copy, it said a train stopped and then did a U-turn. Am not making this up, because this simply is the creation of a mind with far more imagination powers than my humble brain could ever boast.

I took a break from work and completed a distance education course in environmental law. My interest in developmental journalism drove me to do this course. It helped clarify a lot of concepts about environment, conservation, and development.

Then, suddenly, one day I got a call from a recruitment company and asked if I would be interested with a job at AOL. First, I had no idea that AOL had an office other than its call center in Bangalore. They had a very low profile then. Secondly, I didn’t know what a copy editor could do there.

Anyway, I went to the interview, which lasted a whole day, and walked out with a job. That was my first 5-digit salary. I made some lasting friends there and learned a whole lot about the business of search.

But I had to leave as a new life waited in Kolkata, post-marriage.

People considered me lucky to be picked by The Telegraph, but here was where I met my first snobbish, half-wit, bossy boss. I left soon enough, and it was such a relief.

I then joined Clear English India where I worked for nearly two and a half years. Jyoti Sanyal was its founder and the sole reason for me taking up this job. He cautioned me against leaving a big name as The Telegraph and joining a start-up. Thank god, I didn’t listen to him. As his student, I had never thought I would get to work with him. The time at CEI was, in a sense, an extension of my education. But after he died in April last year, I saw the same mediocrity and politicking, I was so wary of in newspapers, creep into CEI. If I stayed, that’d mean a violation his memory and I felt I’d become a part of the mire. So, that was that, and I left.
The first couple of months as a work-from-home writer/editor were nightmarish. But, slowly, magically, things changed and I am grateful for that.

In the last year, I have worked with diverse clients and all of them have been positive experiences. The major part of my work was for a medical tourism company, which involved viral marketing and SEO. It’s a lot of hard work, patience, and persistence, but you do get a teeny-weeny high when you see an article you wrote show up on the first page of Google.
My journalism background does place me at an advantage over most others. I have worked with publishing software like QuarkXPress, Adobe InDesign, Dreamweaver; I have edited some of the toughest texts on earth, namely, Indian legalese; and I respect the sanctity of a deadline. This is a unique combination.

I have had happy clients till date and their feedback has made up for the lack of a security blanket. And I’m hoping I’ll never have to take up a job again. I’d like to rely on my skills and resources to grow independently, even if things take some time to shape up.

10 June 2009

FYI for the Government of West Bengal: One high tide over, many more coming

I wrote this on Sunday in my diary, and wanted to post it the same day. I am hopelessly late, but here it is:

Today, the high tide will finish what Cyclone Aila left unfinished a fortnight ago.

About 900 km of the Sunderbans’ 3,500 km-long embankment was breached by Aila. The water that will surge through today will determine the fate of the people of Sunderban for the next couple of years. Saline water will make the land un-cultivable. More people will slip below the poverty line.

It would be expecting too much from the state government to have had some sort of preparation for the cyclone. (This document that I found after a very brief search says, “A simple frequency distribution of all observed cyclonic activities in the Bengal delta suggests that these events usually occur twice per annum: in late May and in early November.” It also adds that climate change will cause more storm-like surges in the Sunderban in the 21st century.)

But the high tide does not come all of a sudden. Between the cyclone and the high tide, villagers toiled all by themselves to re-build as much as they could. Thousands fled, but I cannot fathom the strength and courage of those who stayed and put brick on top of brick and hoped they could save their land. They ignored the plight of their own families and worked on the embankment for up to 12 hours a day on some chire (parched rice) and gud (jaggery).

The CM on his visit to the cyclone-hit villages requested people to sort this out on their own. And, if they did, he would pay them Rs 81 per day for work done on rebuilding the embankment. (It turns out they were paid not more than Rs 26 or so per day.)

Why was the army not called in to work on the embankment? How can villagers be left on their own to deal with a problem that is not local at all? Does the CPM government even realize the implications of Sunderban drowning?

Even after the high tide came and caused fresh misery, the army has still not been called in. There will be many high tides, and there is the monsoon yet to come in its full fury. In reaction, the government will do the same thing it has been doing over the years: nothing.

Forget Sunderban, uprooted trees are still lying on the main roads of Kolkata. The civic administration said it doesn’t have enough axes to cut the trees up. (Somebody should nominate these people for Lying Through Their Teeth award, or for The Best Excuses to Skip Work award.) For once, they may be telling the truth. The axes have all been sent to the suburbs for some cleaning up work.

Oh, and in the meantime, the mayor of Kolkata came up with an interesting idea. He was so touched with what the CM did for the cyclone-hit, that he nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. (This one gets me, and I am at a serious shortfall of words for this.)

I am amazed at this apathy. And I shiver when I realize that all it took to show us the government’s impotence is a cyclone that never really hit with all its force. It kind of swept past and ravaged south Bengal on its way out. But what if the eye of the cyclone was Kolkata?

At least, after we saw the state government’s relief efforts (?), we know that we are on our own. At least, we have places to run to, and buses, cars, trains, and planes to go there. Not so, for the people of Sunderban.

30 May 2009

The dilemmas of American journalism, and my tiny role in it

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a few music articles for the Advocate Weeklies, part of an American newspaper group. It was interesting to interview the musicians and the money was good. And what the heck, I got bylines.

I learned this week that this was sort of an outsourcing experiment. Here's their explanation for why they outsourced their issue.

And here are my articles:

Licking it clean (Interview with Cake)

Living up to The Dead. (Interview with Dark Star Orchestra)

A lot of people, Indians and Americans, are upset with the New Haven Advocate staff for this experiment and the debate is getting nastier on their site.

I presented my views to Peter Applebome of the New York Times in an email interview. Read the story here: Made in India, but published in New Haven

Read below selected parts of the email interview:

PA: First, as someone who loves writing on music, I really liked both your pieces. I'd hate to see what would happen if American journalists tried to write for Indian publications on Indian culture. It certainly would not have been half as good as the work you all did.

Were you happy with the result and did you think it was displayed and handled properly?

Me: I agreed to do the stories on Cake and Dark Star Orchestra because it sounded interesting, and it was.

If the New Haven Advocate staff was trying to prove that local journalism cannot be outsourced, I'd say they're laboring the obvious. A city is best reported by people who live in it. Period.

That said, they did not mention the quality work some of us did. At least, I have the NHA editor's word on it.

Anyways, I wouldnt hold this outsourcing experiment against them. I somehow feel this is a defensive reaction against the pressures the NHA staff, and US journalists in general, must be feeling in these hard times.

PA: I think they thought of it as an aesthetic experiment -- how would this work out? -- and, for the most part, the work was interesting and good.

Me: If this was a purely aesthetic experiment, why do they talk of losing jobs? Why do they quote the local theater employee saying, "Outsourcing stories to reporters living abroad is only hurting our wonderful local reporters, who desperately need the work right now."

Are they trying to use the aesthetic point to serve a personal purpose, that is, to hold on to their jobs?

PA: Were you told of the idea of the Outsourced Issue concept and what did you think of it? Did you think it was appropriate, harmless or in any way demeaning?

Me: No, I wasn’t told of the concept. Not telling me was harmless, I’d say. But, I’ll repeat, in not acknowledging the quality work some of us did and in implying that it couldn’t match up to theirs, they’ve been unfair. They say, “We hope this issue will provide insight as well as a strong note of caution.” Caution against what? Losing local flavor, or not matching up to American journalism standards? They’re not clear on that.

Also, this issue cannot be a benchmark on Indian journalism because among the contributors, there are very few journalists. I, for one, am a trained journalist.

PA: Do Indian journalists have the same level of fear about the future of journalism as Americans do?

Me: Well, we don’t have the same fears, that is, I don’t think any Indian journalist thinks her job can be outsourced. India is too intricate for that.
The media industry had been booming in India till the slowdown happened. So, am not sure we have the same level of fears.

PA: What advice would you have for American journalists and media executives afraid of seeing jobs continue to wither away? What should they be doing?

Me: Journalism cannot be outsourced. It is aesthetically and politically important that local journalists retain their jobs. Yes, American newspapers are going through tough times, but outsourcing is not the answer. And, unlike banks and car companies, newspapers cannot go to the government with a begging bowl for ethical reasons.

Will increasing their cover price help? I don’t know. There are no easy answers here.

PA: To be honest, I'm still trying to figure out what I think of this experiment. For the most part, it seems to me a pretty benign one -- you guys put out a really interesting issue, it's absurd to think you're going to take jobs from people in New Haven.

-- End of interview --

Others have been talking about the Advocate's outsourced issue, too:

So Here's What Happens When Alt-Weeklies Start Outsourcing Their Phoners With the Guy Who Plays Trumpet for Cake to India

Will Glide Outsource Hidden Track to India?

16 May 2009

Left Out!!

Ok, I have the flu as an excuse this time, yay!

The importance of Mamata's victory cannot be entirely clear to people who have not lived in Bengal or have followed its politics closely. (If you live outisde Bengal, what you think you know is not true. The English media do a very good job of not reporting things as they are.)

Some people within the state, too, are sitting up and taking notice of the 'rabble-rouser' (who's now being called 'the fiesty lady' by TOI!). She can no longer be laughed off, you see, and that is becoming inconvenient.

Linc's aunt from the US called and was ecstatic to hear about the election results. As I went on to give her more details, she quickly added, "Don't say that too loud. You never know."

I am hoping my children (to come) and I will not have to shush ourselves up like their generation did. That is really the whole point of all this.

04 May 2009

We are always asking for it. Men, beware!

This comes about 2-3 weeks late; no excuses for the delay. I simply have to catch up on my blogging. I had written down some thoughts when I heard of the American student's rape in Mumbai:

Going by what some people had to say on prime time TV about the TISS American student rape, and going by everything that I have come across till date, we women folk always seem to be asking for IT.

We wear a chudidar, we ask for it.

We wear a saree-blouse, we ask for it.

We wear figure-hugging jeans and low cut t-shirt, yeah, we are craving for it.

We wear clothes that show more than hide, you bet, we are most definitely asking for it.

‘It’ can range from men leching their brains out, being groped, whistled at, elbow-to-breast bumped, being told downright insulting things, molested, and being plain raped.

This American student went out with a friend at 10.30 in the night. (When I was in Mumbai for a short time, I saw that this was a pretty common thing: I’d see families coming back from Juhu beach with sand in their slippers and colourful balloons in their hands at 1 or 2 in the night.)

After some pubbing, she went to the flat of a person, who was friends with her friend. There were other men, too, by this time. According to a girl on TV today, she should not have done this, that is, going to the flat. Another aunty said that she should not have gone out at all at that hour.

Yeah, of course, she shouldn’t have. She went to the flat, perhaps because her friend was one of the men; perhaps because she was tipsy, sloshed, and wanted to cool it off; perhaps because she didn’t know she was about to be gang-raped.

But she should have known better, shouldn’t she, than to be the only woman – that too white – around 5 or 6 depraved Indian men, for whom a drinking, pub-going woman who then accompanies them to a flat in the middle of the night can only send out one message: am here for the taking, the raping, murdering, etc.

Am not even talking here about what some men may have to say about why they think they can rape women. No time for that shit.

But what enrages me is the attitude of those women on TV. I don’t expect them to side with the American student just because they are women. For the same reason, I cannot accept them laying down rules for another woman.

If you wish to live your life wrapped up in a saree, or believe that distrust of men is a woman’s best weapon, that’s your prerogative. Don’t dump it on another woman.

I find this attitude very sick: these women do not see themselves as individual beings, independent existences. They have fallen in line, and expect others to. It’s a sad thing when the oppressed becomes the oppressor and doesn’t even realize it. I wish I had more time to write about this, but I must stop here.

Some related interesting links I found:

Sleepwalking no excuse for rape (Now, Indian men don’t need such lame excuses, do they? Women are asking for it all the time, you know.)

A feminist theory of rape defense

18 April 2009

To vote, to vote! (But first to get my name on that List!!)

I want to tell my own little election story today, though it might already be somewhat late for that.

About a week or so ago, I put in an application to include my name in the electoral roll for the fourth time in about eight years. The last two attempts were in Kolkata, the first one was in Hubli.

This time we set out from the house, determined to get my name on the electoral roll, or well, perish trying. We may not have perished, but wilt we did (it was about 39 degrees C, and a woman died that day of heat stroke). We hunted down the right office and the right person – no mean task in a government of West Bengal office – and put in the application.

We had to go up and down four buildings (Shaw Wallace House at Bankshall Street, Jessop Building, a nameless one, and New Secretariat) over about five hours to achieve this. It was quite like a treasure hunt, a clue here and a hint there.

Our misery was because of the Great De-limitation that had made our constituency – Burtolla – non-existent. Though it made sense for us to be part of Manicktala, we weren’t. It turned out that we were now part of Jorasanko – where Mr Tagore’s house is situated. We didn’t know which constituency we were part of, and that was disconcerting. It was as if, electorally, we didn’t exist. Our identity was at stake now.

But we wouldn’t even have known we didn’t exist, if not for the last-minute check by the very helpful officer in charge of Manicktala constituency. We had almost submitted my application there, when he discovered that our street didn’t exist in his constituency. Ananda Babu helped us out here and told us we were in Jorasanko now.

In between these buildings somewhere, a group of leching government officers tried their best to make us give up. (They were a bit put off that they had to stop leching at me to talk to us.) They plainly told us roll revision was not on and we were trying in vain. But, fearless voter (Linc) and voter-to-be (me) as we were, we strode on.

It ended at the rather old New Secretariat building, Or, at least, that’s what we’d like to believe. Election day will tell.

Oh, and that’s not the end of it. It was still eating Linc that he couldn’t find his street in the Manicktala list, so he got on the net and made the bloomin discovery that our street didn’t exist even in Jorasanko. Well, actually, it did, but under a changed name.

Now, though he called and faxed about this mistake to the election office, and they said they would look into it (! – as they always do), our entire para (street) might just get disqualified from voting because our street doesn’t exist on their list. Aah, the suspense is eating me up.

03 March 2009

Mridangam – as defined by Umayalpuram K Sivaraman

Not everyone gets to learn from the master. But today, thanks to technology, one of the greatest living mridangam vidwans, Sangita Kalanidhi Umayalpuram K Sivaraman, is accessible to all people passionate about Carnatic music.

The incredible genius of Umayalpuram has been distilled into Mridanga Cintamanih, a pack of 7 DVDs, with the intention of preserving something invaluable for the generations to come. The DVDs, divided into four levels, are instructional and cover the entire spectrum of playing the mridangam - from the beginner level to the nuances of accompaniment to vocal music. This DVD pack has great value as reference material to students at universities and the like.

The Level I DVD, begins from the beginning and instructs the novice mridangam player on the placement of fingers, posture, and introduces him/her to Adhi, Roopaka Chappu, Misra Chappu and Kanda Chappu talas.

The rest of the levels are broken up into two DVDs each. The Level II DVD showcases advanced sequences along with demonstrations of Gathi Bedham (change of speed), aruthis (short endings), moras, and korvais. They seem easy and simple when Umayalpuram handles them masterfully, but can be a challenge to learners.

The undeterred student of percussion music will find more treasures waiting to be explored in Levels 3 and 4. The former hands out more insider knowledge, normally acquired only after years of learning from the master, like intricate patterns and techniques like Pecking, Gumki, Arai Chapu followed by detailed Taniavarthanams in the 4 basic talas. The art of tuning the Mridangam is a bonus with this DVD.

In Level 4, the student learns about what it takes to play mridangam for concerts, both vocal and instrumental, where the mridangam player has to not only hold his/her own, but also play in harmony with the vocalist or other instrument players and contribute to the unified beauty of the music. Light classical music, from folk to bhajans, is also packed in.

The mridangam lessons enunciated in the DVDs are also available in .pdf format and includes an excerpt from Umayalpuram’s book, too.
The total length of the 7-pack instructional music series is 22 hours at the end of which, the mridangam learner is many musical miles ahead from where he/she started. Of course, the journey is never complete but one is definitely well equipped for it.

And, it’s not just the mridangam enthusiast, but the world of classical music at large, that profits from this presentation, which can rightly be called Umayalpuram Sivaraman’s magnum opus. This marriage of musical genius and the best of technology is to be treasured.

23 February 2009

Annana Nenapu

Annana Nenapu is a delightful book written by Purnachandra Tejaswi about his father, Kuvempu. The book begins from the beginning, albeit that of the son, and not the father. And the many stories that Tejaswi tells us about his childhood not only reveal less-known quirks of the poet, but also are such fun to read, thanks to his cheery narrative.

For me, it was even more of a pleasure to read such springy and lively Kannada sitting in Kolkata. At times, the writer does get somewhat involved with experiences and events that are strictly not related to Kuvempu and he acknowledges such digressions. But memory is such a strange thing, isn’t it? You can’t train your mind to sterilize and compartmentalize what it sees, analyzes, and stores. Like the canvas cot that Tejaswi associates with Kuvempu in an inexplicable way.

The book also reveals Kuvempu’s views on languages, mainly Kannada and to some extent English, and his heart-warming love and respect for both. Such an attitude is hard to be found these days.

This book has been with me for quite a few years now and had become one of those books I wanted to read someday. I am glad I read it at last. I absolutely loved Tejaswi’s style. Ah, wish I could lay my hand on more of his books.

09 February 2009

MIndless googling

When work numbs my mind, I numb it further by typing in senseless stuff. For 'write something' I got this. Quite schizophrenic.

05 February 2009

All credit goes to... !!!

I dont understand this. And, if you do, am sure there's something wrong inside your head.

The Supreme Court today upheld an appeal by a bunch of foreign banks to remove the cap on 30 percent annual interest rate on default payments by their credit card subscribers That is, the Supreme Court agreed with the fat cats that its okay to clobber us with 49% interest if we committed the sin of not paying the MAD!!! Yeah, that's mad.

The foreign banks had more than 24 reasons to justify such theivery, some of them being: cost of courier and embossing the card, cost of providing phone banking and internet banking services, cost of sending monthly statements, cost of waiving charges for service reasons, cost of marketing and promotional offers, and cost of rewards and loyalty programmes.

Err, sorry, am no economics pundit. So, let me just think it out in my head.

This means that unless I default on a payment, I dont need to pay for these expenses? Or, to put it another way, if these are expenses that need to be paid for by defaulters, why the heck am I paying something like 33% annually?

First, they rip us off with rotating interest, and then we miss a friggin due date, and you come down on us with a 49% hammer. And, you have the Supreme Court as your best buddy.

Truly, what can I say?!

23 January 2009

Google Chrome Review

After you use Firefox, your expectations from a browser are high. And, frankly, I had expected Google Chrome to be at least similar to, if not better than, Firefox.

Yet, I will say that I like the clean look of Chrome and the search functionality of the address bar (Omnibox) is handy. And, it hasn't crashed once. Also, I like the fact that related tabs are kept together. Neat.

But, apart from that, I find quite a few things missing, and I find them more disappointing because this is a Google product.

Like, for instance, if I want to see all the pages I visited, there is no drop-down button on the address bar, or on the back button of the browser. Do they assume, that I will always open a new tab to see the screenshots of the pages I visited or that I will open the 'history' folder?! Ridiculous.

Also, the back button on the browser sometimes refuses to work if I click it just once. It takes at least two clicks to get it moving.

Plus, how do I bookmark a page in just a click or two on Chrome? No idea.

And, new mail on Gmail is slightly slower to show up on Chrome!!! I have actually seen this with both Firefox and Chrome open.

Again, it is very irritating to have to download the Google toolbar for their own browser. I mean, you didnt have to make it this lean.

Maybe I am not fully aware of the solutions to these issues listed below, but am an above average internet user. If things are not obvious to me, something is wrong.

21 January 2009

Slumdog, colonial legacy, etc.

The other day I was chatting with a friend about Slumdog Millionaire. He said it was one more of those unbelievably un-ending attempts to sell India's poverty. (Really! If only India's poor knew how valuable they were. They must know, of course.)

Anyway, from Slumdog we went on to talk about contemporary literature and how I felt we lacked one, one which is truly representative (though I don't see how one text can ever be representative of India). He disagreed and said we did have contemporary literature, only it needed to be translated into English (from Bengali, he meant. My friend is a Bong.)

Then, I clarified that I was talking about stuff written by Indians in English. To which, he said, “But why should we write in English? What's the need?”

It seems so clichéd to talk about all this, but here's my bit for what it's worth:

Anyone who loves to write will not mull over which language to write in. We write in the language that comes naturally to us, the language in which we think.

Now, this should logically be the mother tongue, right? Mostly, it is. But because many Indian children are educated in English right from the first day of school, they may use English + mother tongue equally well.

I think in English a lot: this could be because of my profession, my education, or just my inclination. But, as long as I know and love my mother tongue equally well, I don't see why I have to shy away from the fact that I would prefer to write in English.

English wields a lot of political power over Indian languages, it's true. But, after more than 3 centuries after colonial rule, cant we get over the hangover and see it as a language, and not as something we grudgingly use because we were forced to use it 300 years ago? I mean, learning or speaking English shouldn't automatically mean you despise or refuse to learn any other language, be it Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, etc. If you choose to do so, [that is, look down on your mother tongue or Indian languages], that is your choice.

I do not like to look down or hate a language. I, for one, absolutely love to learn new languages, and love to discover the whole new worlds, new cultures, sub-texts buried deep in the womb of each language.

It is sad that most kids today cant read or speak a complete sentence in their mother tongue without faltering. And parents are hardly bothered with that. I had once read somewhere that the less you use a language, the more you lose in terms of the knowledge that comes with the language, like the different people who speak it, their occupations, knowledge about their bio-diversity...

For instance, there could be herbs or spices that grow only in a particular place and only people who live there know about it. They have a name for it in their language, possibly a whole culture built around that local uniqueness. But it remains outside your awareness and if the language perishes, all such knowledge, will, too. (My grandma can look at a herb and say what remedial powers it has. This language will die with her -- Of course, we'll always have our KAPLs and Daburs, but at the household level it will be lost. – Neither my mother nor I have bothered to learn this from her. Of course, this is not really about language politics. It's more of post-colonial India's suspension between the knowledgeable past and the liberating present. Aah, there we go again... making India's colonial past a reference point.)

Well, to sum it up: I don't see a contradiction or a dichotomy in myself if I say I love my mother tongue and English, and choose to write in English. I sometimes write in Kannada, too, for my own consumption. I frankly don't think it is worthy of putting it out in public. If I could give enough time to it, I think I could write as well in Kannada as in English, but, time... that is the one thing I don't have.