June 16, 2007

Tirupati - The God of the Poor

This is essentially an old post. For some reason I had never been able to upload it. One fine morning I had woken up to see a smiling Abhi-Ash performing some rituals at the temple sanctum; while thousands of devotees waited outside for their turn to have a glimpse at the deity. The media cried foul, some columnist said that Gods were for the rich.

With my unfailing faith in the power of Indian perseverance, I knew this would be soon forgotten. For even though Gods closed their door to the poor at times; it was the poor who gave Gods their divine existence.

There was a time when pilgrimage meant a lot of sacrifice. It meant travelling great distances, facing greater odds and perhaps giving rise to the belief that only those who have been chosen can travel the distance. Hindu Mythology did not allow even the great Pandavas to reach their destination alive. The story of Sravana is known to every child in India where respect for parents and the Indian fascination for the last journey form the building blocks of the story.

All my life I have been lucky to be up, close and personal with the species that we term as Indians in the broad sense of the word. Outside the busy life of the metros; where it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between the challenges of everyday life faced by Wall Street or Dalal Street; there exists an India which even today is traditional to the core.

My visit to Tirupati during the last stage of my life @ IIMB brought me once again face to face with this reality. Things have changed when pilgrims took the journey up to the steep hills on bare feet. Today, we have buses taking us almost to the doorsteps, but not quite. Even Gods have brokers today in the form of travel agent. He who has the necessary ‘setting’ will know how to push his group of pilgrims into the line. For the rest of humanity who could not afford a conducted tour leave alone give the temple authorities their weights in gold like some of our people in power, there was always the Rs. 50/- gateway.

In Tirupati, everyone followed their own practice. My parents, brought up with their traditional rituals refused to even drink a drop of water before they could come face to face with God Almighty. However, the rest of the pilgrims were happily tucking in their dosas and vadas at a highly overpriced roadside hotel to which the tour operator had brought us.

Anyone who has visited Tirupati will know the serpentine lines, the heated temple stones scorching your feet and yet there was a tremendous peace. Everyone was waiting for that ultimate moment. At some point in time, the distinction between lines of the privileged and the not so privileged became one. The last lap before the final round made everyone equal. As we neared the main temple, chants of Govinda filled the air. It was unbelievable. There was somehow a rhythmic motion that ensured that the tranquillity of the place was never disturbed. It was the same chant that the stones had heard for ages beyond our imagination. The actual viewing lasted for minutes, maybe even seconds, but the faces showed a peace of a lifetime. Once again, I felt humbled.

You hear how Tirupati is perhaps the richest temple in the world. Yet, to me it’ll remain a temple of the poor. As I waited, I heard stories all around, learnt why people had come to this place again and again. I heard that no one ever came to Tirupati once. If they had come once, they would have to make the journey back again. Maybe I day I would.

The Gloomy Saturday Afternoon and Nitya

It did not begin as a great day. The mood at work was down and not very conducive to productive work. The rain clouds were all over Muzaffarpur and it kept raining in spurts disrupting our entire plans. As I sat pondering if I had done anything to displease Indra, the rain God, the phone rang. I was little surprised to see Nitya’s number. Wasn’t she supposed to be in induction?

People who know Nitya are aware that under normal circumstances are words come out faster than Rajdhani. So people who have not been privileged enough to know Nitya can still make out how an excited Nitya would sound. By the time she was done I was jumping up and down too, without a care in the world about the people around me. Our paper had been accepted by the Marketing Review.

For any sincere student of Marketing, this is perhaps the final frontier - to see your name in print alongside the likes of Kotler and Aaker. Images rushed past me. Two of us sitting late into the night, falling asleep on our uncomfortable chairs; one too nice to wake another up, conducting our first focus group discussion, mails going back and forth at 4:00 am in the morning ending with “I’ll finish my part by 6. Review it and send it over by 10”, work happening even when I was in Calcutta and she in Mumbai.

Marketing@IIMB has given me memories I’ll always cherish, insights I shall always treasure but most importantly people I’ll never forget - People who wait for a session to end in order to call me and lighten up a gloomy day. Thanks a lot partner :-)

The Monsoons

The Monsoons are still the lifeline of India. In a country where almost 60% of the population is dependent on agriculture, we are yet to develop a system that helps the farmers in year round irrigation of our fields. The term, Jis desh mein Ganga behti hain becomes almost a joke as most of our farmland depends on the monsoons to water their fields. Do you remember Lagan? The expectation and disappointment on the face of the villagers as the dark monsoon clouds pass by them without shedding a drop of its moisture?

I have always loved the rains. While in school, it was the hope of a rainy day, at home it’d be the hot pakodas as the rain kept falling in torrents, in Pilani it’d be the time to go crazy and take out the cycle and roam all around campus drenched and happy while in Bangalore, it’d be the time to run between the shades and optimize the safest route to class.

The monsoons this time have been different. Two days of incessant rains made me come face to face with the hard realities of the Indian way of life. We need the monsoons. A huge customer base is waiting for the same with bated breath as it’ll be the monsoons that will bring in a good harvest resulting in more expendable income. However, everything comes with a fee. The conditions under which the sales field force has to work are harsh. The garbage that was once at the side of the road is now all over the ‘road’ if you can call it so. The drains overflow, the shops are deserted. Everyone’s waiting for the rains to stop so that the customers can come in and in this torrential rain, the field force is out making sure everything that India might need is on the shelves. And all this while, they never curse the rains. They know it is what will bring smiles back on to the face of India after a merciless summer.

June 11, 2007

The Bus Journey

I love long rides on state highways in a bus.
When I was a small kid, I was exposed to one of the greatest cons of transportation. On one of our trips, dad eager to show his son a beautiful sunrise and also eager to see his son rise early, had lured an innocent me with the idea of a video coach. A small TV just behind the driver’s head is all you can expect at any video coach service. Like all disappointed kids I vowed to take a seat near the driver in any video coach I travelled by…ever. As I have travelled across the length and breadth of India on buses, I have figured out two empirical truths.
First, in every bus you’ll get a spurious cold drink seller and a chana/ chole masala seller and NEVER EVER will you watch a complete movie in a bus. Typically a movie starts as soon as the driver is in his seat and you’d miss half the movie by the time you get in. And the movie that starts after it, will never be completed by the time you get down. And just in case, you are lucky enough to be able to stay the entire time of the movie, you’ll fall asleep halfway for some reason or the other.

Though it’s fun to watch movies anywhere, it’s amazing to hear the comments getting passed as the movie progresses in a bus madly rushing on the highways across Bihar. People here ACTUALLY watch the movies being played and kids from behind come across and sit on your lap or squeeze into your seat.

Bus journeys also make you stand face to face with one inevitable truth. Most of us consider these journeys as a necessary evil and we wish for the time when we would be able to hire a car and would book it in advance. A little bit of observation near the door will make you realize that a sizeable population of our country are yet to achieve the affluence to be able to buy even this bus ticket and are forced to travel on rooftops.

The humiliation in their eyes on being refused admission by the driver makes you feel small, really small.

In appreciation of my tashrif – the cow, the rickshaw and the pothole

Cows are sacred.
We might not take good care of our cattle, or even shoo them away from our vegetable bags in the market and not even bother to stop and look how underfed they are, yet to us they are sacred. And so they roam about on our streets hoping for a better future where they might not be revered but be fed. Anyway, in the narrow lanes of my country as I walked one night, I could see the three greatest spectacles on Indian Roads.
A lone rickshaw was coming towards me at supersonic speed, a constant reminder that at times they can service you better than a chauffer driven car. I chose to ignore it. After all, there was no footpath, the road was my kingdom. Unfortunately at that point of time, God in the form of a cow chose to come and contemplate about the deepest philosophies in the middle of the road, a symbol of perfect inertia that plagues so many things around me. The rickshaw was faced with a choice, between a human and God. Obviously choosing to make his journey into the next world safe and prosperous he chose not to clash with God. After all, human sacrifices are often the road to nirvana. My life flashed before my eyes, the bell of the rickshaw was like the hymns at the gates of Heaven, but somehow with the flexibility that saves more Indian pedestrians than following rules could ever do; I managed to jump out of the way, asking about the driver’s parental lineage in the same breath.
But then the third wonder of Indian roads was awaiting me. I landed straight into a pothole, twisted my ankle and fell flat on my tashrif. And though it hurts a little even now, I am thankful to the layers of adipose that absorbed most of the pain.

Around me life went on as usual.

In the Land of Ram

Keh Gaye bhaiya suno Seyane
Ram ki batein Ram hi Jane.

Ram. Maryadapurushottam Sri Ram. The one name that evokes the figure of God in Human form. The one story that forms our great epic. The one story that perhaps also chronicles the Aryan intrusion beyond the Vindhyas. But leaving aside who he was, for the average Indian Ram remains one of the most revered names and for them utopia is still called Ram Rajya, the kingdom of Ram.

It’s said that we mortals barely understand the wills of God. While the old human civilizations attributed our misfortunes to the whims and fancies of their primitive Gods, the Indian Philosophy describes a larger scheme of things, a cosmic design, by the will of the One, which we are yet to understand.

In the Hindi heartland, the name of Ram can be heard even in the breaths of the person who has just passed you on the streets, yet his Godliness comes into question at times. Our old Indus Valley Civilization worshipped the Mother Goddess, the old Vedic texts spoke of the female power as the source of all energy, Shakti. But in our first epic, we see our God asking for a trial by Fire, Agnipariksha from his female counterpart, Sita. I do not know Cosmic Design, I do not also know the will of The Gods, but it seems to me that it is unfair. Ram was the ideal ruler, the greatest son one could hope for, but to me he was never the perfect deity.

If we look closely at our other epic, the Mahabharata, we see much more powerful characters. Starting from Satyavati, to Kunti, to Draupadi and ultimately to my most favourite female character Gandhari, we see a different place for women in the matters of the kingdom and society. Draupadi does not meekly accept the decisions of her husband, she vows to destroy a dynasty, something we do not ever see Sita doing.

Perhaps that is why we never worshipped Draupadi.

The main reason why I wrote all this was simply because of the stark contrast I have seen between the metros and other parts of India. In Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai or even Calcutta, I have seen more women on the streets than I have seen here in Muzffarpur or other parts of interior India that I have visited recently. I do not know the reason behind the same. Maybe it’s a self imposed or society imposed ‘purdah’, maybe it’s just that we are going through a phase like the America of the 70s, where women were mostly confined to the houses.

But as I thought more about it, two not so recent movies came to my mind. The first one Lajja, though suffering from highly clich├ęd themes and dialogues and forced into a Happy Ending as demanded by Bollywood, was one of the most powerful depictions on the atrocities against women by society. The other much much scarier was Matrubhumi. If any one of you have not seen the movie yet I beg you to watch it for the sake of our future.
A nation without women... if steps are not taken immediately, we might become one very very soon.

June 01, 2007

A Month of Worklife

And in a very romantic way this is what can be said...
From a nation of shopkeepers we are transforming into a nation of consumers and I stand at the crossroads as a silent and excited witness to the change that’s sweeping across my country. From the classrooms of IIM Bangalore to the dusty roads of the Hindi Heartland, I see my country changing every day. I walk the streets, feeling the throbbing pulse of a billion strong nation. I see the aspiration in the eyes of the young student who comes in to experience the lifestyle of his hero; I sense the excitement in the heart of the young lady who wants to look as beautiful as the stars; I witness the housewife coming in to make her home a better place and each one of them making the choices that will puzzle the most intelligent of consumer behaviour researchers.
Every day as I hit the markets, unparallel in their complexity, I live the Great Indian Dream

Truth Bytes

A woman never forgets the men she could have had, a man never forgets the women he couldn’t.
Wish I remembered who wrote these lines.

Circling Around

"You old sorcerer," the boy shouted up to the sky. "You knew the whole story. You even left a bit of gold at the monastery so I could get back to this church. The monk laughed when he saw me come back in tatters. Couldn't you have saved me from that?"

"No," he heard a voice on the wind say. "If I had told you, you wouldn't have seen the Pyramids. They're beautiful, aren't they?" – Paulo Coelho

Jashn - e - Dard

Tonight I celebrate my pain. I celebrate the ties that have broken. I celebrate the loneliness I see in the bare ceilings of a desolate hotel room when in the dead of the night I wake up hearing voices in the deep of my head. Laughter that was false; promises that were untrue; lies that we have all lived.

Tonight even the mirror betrays me. There is no one in it. A blank face devoid of emotions stares back at me. There’s no light anymore. The wonderer turns wanderer and carries on the sojourn. A tune lost in the dusty pages of the days gone by keeps ringing in my head. The music we weaved is lost, perhaps forever. The days keep running, seasons change, people do so too and I face the change trying to hold on to the memories. The other day I opened my palms, blood ran out of the gashes left behind by the memories. Like Lady Macbeth, the blood no longer goes. It stays on reminding me every moment of things that could have been.

Things that in reality; never were.

Dil Se

There are very few instances when a movie stays on in some hidden corner of your memory and a sudden screening in the late night TV conjures up memories of a school in the heart of Calcutta, discussions in the Tiffin breaks and the uncontrollable Soumadri Sengupta and Surodeep Mukherjee pointing their fingers at an unsuspecting me, “You can never appreciate the passion of Dil Se.”

We have travelled a long way since then, but I still feel that this is one movie which deserves its own place in the Hindi Cinema history. But even if everything fades, the haunting melodies of “Aye ajnabi” will play on.

Still in Search of the Litchies

Every detective in this world has a sidekick. I have none. But that does not deter me from finding the truth behind Muzaffarpur’s Missing Litchis. After a lot of search and research I found two possible suspects. There is a gentleman in Bihar who sends Sachin Tendulkar litchis every year. (Source: Hindustan Times) Secondly and more importantly the Bihar government has decided to gift the famous Shahi Litchis to the powers that be in Delhi. (Source: TOI) As the Litchi diplomacy continues, we search for more information. Btw, one interesting fact, here in Muzaffarpur litchis sell by hundreds i.e. series, not by their weight.

Ten things I miss about the Good Old Days of Hindi Movies

1. The lost and found formula. The Kumbh Mela is an alien concept in today’s movies. No brothers get lost in the Kumbh Mela any more. Worse still, the children are no longer named as Munna and Munni.
2. Nirupa Roy and Helen – While one was the quintessential Mother India the other was the Dream Girl for men of every age and class. (Forget Nargis and Hema Malini for a while) If you remember a scene from Gol-maal where a middle aged man tells Amol Palekar how important it is for him not to miss Helen in the movie. Those were the times when the film did not depend on just a Khan.
3. There was a time when Dharmendra was a romantic hero. Those were the days when he did not cry “Ma muzhe chorke mat jaa ma” and then search for dogs to drink their blood. Luckily for him PETA was not so active when he mouthed the famous, “kutte main tera khun pee jaunga.” Those were the times when a certain long legged Illahabadi had not burst into the Hindi Movie domain. Those were the times when deshprem was the domain of a certain Mr. Bharat.
4. Hrishikesh Mukherjee – he made family movies; movies you could watch with everyone without getting embarrassed. A film maker who defined Romantic Comedy with humour that generated with ease. Zindagi ek rangmanch hain and he was the master director.

5. Kanoon ke lambe haath – We all thought that when Sanjeev Kumar used his studded shoes to capture the baap of all dacoits, Gabber Singh, all goons were in the grasp of kanoon ke lambe haath. And then of course there was Shashi Kapoor who, because uske pass maa tha, could ensure that his own brother saw the light at the end of the tunnel. All was going well when in the nineties a Bazigaar changed everything.
6. Kaali Goofa and the Dacoits – Only Kanti Shah makes them like the old times. The horses, the canyons, the tilaks and the imaandar police officer who would always get shot in his arm if he was the hero and on his chest if he was the hero’s father. All dacoit headquarters was called the kaali goofa. And yes when the drug deals happened or the kidnappers wanted money they always met under Kaali Pahari.

7. And then the music died… I miss poetry and chaste urdu poetry even more. I miss words that rang with music and lyrics that spoke of a pain deep within.
8. In the male dominated Hindi film industry, there were superstars who could pull off a movie by their own charisma. I miss the Pakeezas, the Umrao Zaans, the Mother Indias. Of the recent movies, only Kajol and Dushman come to mind.

9. The birthday party of the rich girl where she introduces the guy to her dad. This is one formula that has been modified across the ages but the essence remains the same. The dad will smile and take the guy to his study where his salary will be asked and the cost of the shoes of the heroine will be informed. At times blank cheques would be issued. In fact, I think we should start a course at IIMB to analyse the stats so as to understand the inflation.
10. But I never feel sad. All good things in this world evolve to become better and the rest just remain happy memories like the dialogues of yesteryear. After all, “Pushpa, I hate tears”.