May 27, 2008

Nothing but a Shadow - C.M.Benny

Here we are walking
yet not talking
silence silence

we've grown apart
yet here we are
walking, but not talking

we are together
yet far apart
silence silence

I watch our shadows
with a sour look
slipping farther apart

This cannot be
what happened to you and me
silence silence

What happened over the summer
you found a job
and we stopped seeing each other

I wish our shadows would be close again
like when you and me were best friends
silence silence

May 26, 2008

When the Going Gets Tough…

… I normally let destiny take its own course. But destiny often acts in ways beyond our understanding, dealing us one lemon after another till we just get sick and tired of the jugs of lemonade we have gulped down. Last few weeks have been a Lemon Rain of sorts. It was almost as if my dreadful essays in school on ‘A day when everything went wrong’ were coming true in graphic detail. It was dreadful but after a certain time it was fun. I mean, in the long run some things matter and some don’t. And if we care enough to understand what does and what doesn’t we might just be wise enough to realize which are the things we can laugh at. And yes, when the going gets tough the tough need not necessarily get going. They might just want to sit down and order a cup of tea.

The Rise of the Tier IIs

In marketing, when we do a geo-demographical segmentation of the Indian Market, we always speak of Tier II Indian towns. None of us have understood them; to be frank we are afraid of them. We do not know which way they will turn. We do not know what they will choose that will confound the most brilliant amongst us. My travels have taken me to quite a few of the Tier II and Tier III towns of India and what I have seen there amazes me. Here are a few of them and about the food I found in them.

GayaGaya is old, decaying and just like any other Indian city has little care or concern for its sewage and garbage removal systems. The streets are narrow with vehicles and men jostling each other for space. In any other Indian city I might not have even noticed it but a pace near Gaya stood in stark contrast. Bodh Gaya is the classic example of the paradox of India. A 30 minute journey from Gaya, one would wonder how the difference between two cities can be so great. Tourism, it does work wonders for the economy of a region. While one would be afraid to venture out of Gaya at night for fear of a naxal abduction, Bodh Gaya is extremely serene and peaceful and serves the most amazing variety of momos. I haven’t had such great momos since I left Calcutta.

Darbhanga – One of the cities I want to go back to again. I had a very short time there but the grandeur of the palace and the broader than normal city roads made me immensely like the city. The palace grounds define the skyline of the city and for a moment you do get transferred to a time when India was an amalgamation of Princely states.

Jhansi – The land of Rani Laxmibai and yet she’s remembered only in the folk songs far away from the city. The only place of prominence where a statue of her was proudly displayed was in the cantonment area, away from civilian domains. In Jhansi, however I got to eat Bandh Makkhan; a really nice tasting bread with oodles of butter flowing out of it.

Bareilley – I did not find the Jhumkas in Bareilley which Nanda had dropped years ago. But I did find Dinanath Ki special lassi. It’s heavenly and pure and above all much healthier than the carbonated options around me. Bareilley also is pretty fashion conscious. It is a town where the fashion closely follows the latest trends without any show of skin of course. The old value systems are still there. Good or bad? Who am I to decide? But if a city can serve amazing Kababs, who’s complaining? And yes, it has its own Oberoi where I stayed. It’s just that it’s spelt a little differently.

Agra & Mathura – Apart from the Taj and Fatehpur Sikri, Agra would not count for much. In fact, its housing complexes and roads pretty much resemble those of any upcoming Noida locality. The other thing Agra should be famous for is its shoes. The quality is just astounding. Agra is good to you for foods. If anyone is eyeing good Rajasthani Thali at a Marwari Basha, Agra has quite a few of them. Of course, you should never forget the Pethas. Mathura on the other hand is almost a fortified city with the army and police guarding the Krishna Janmabhumi. But luckily they are not after the parathas. So if you want to have absolutely brilliant Aloo Parathas, please visit Asli Pappu Di Dhaba on the Agra Mathura Highway.

And mark my words… the Buntys and Bablis will continue rule India for the years to come.

Goodbye at Worli Seaface

He stood at Worli sea face. All alone. He had always wanted to live in such a place and today he was. He could see the Bandra Worli Sea link from his window at night, and yet something kept him from being happy. They were leaving one by one. To Bangalore, to Calcutta, to different lives - with promises of staying in touch but the question was will they be able to?

Life turns after every now and then splitting people, separating lives, bringing in uncertainties but even if everything fades away, the goodbyes at Worli won’t.

May 05, 2008

Shakti - The Power

Last couple of weeks have been crazy. I have been travelling all over Western Uttar Pradesh trying to figure out how best we can develop grass root women entrepreneurs in the villages of India. Things have been tough. Often we have faced hostility, indifference and at times even sheer contempt but then at other times I have seen women fighting against all odds to create a new identity for themselves. And for those moments, every pain is worth it.

My travels have taken me to the most interior areas of Agra, Mathura, Jhansi, Lalitpur and Bareilley. Almost everyday, I have travelled more than a hundred kilometres often on the back of a motorcycle. Just an year back I had been in a land ravished by floods. Today I see around me scorched land that has been yearning for rains for the last three years. People have left their villages to cities in order to search for some form of livelihood. In those villages around Bundelkhand, I have stared at blank, expressionless faces, faces that made me cringe inside; faces that asked the simple question – what good is a hungry empowerment? There have been moments when I have wanted to run away from it all. I have sat and stared blankly into the wall when I could not take the abject dance of poverty, illiteracy and exploitation I have seen around me. Yet in the mornings, I have fought my way back to these villages just for the faint glimmer of hope that has never died down. I have realized that most of the people I know are basically cowards. I am perhaps the biggest coward of them all. We all have paid and continue to pay lip service to the realities just a few hundred kilometres from our safe havens.

My respect for the Government and the bureaucracy has increased tenfold. Yes, there are problems. We as a country are great at corrupting something that is good. But yet, the success of the aanganwadi, sarba sikhsha abhiyan and asha programs have started to change the way of life in the villages of India. One of the latest initiatives of the Government has been to keep aside a certain amount of money for every girl child for poor families which she will get when she becomes of marriageable age. In other words, the Government is agreeing to pay a part of the dowry. As disgusting as it may sound, I think this might just be the greatest initiative for saving the girl child and correcting the highly skewed gender ratio in India that is slowly leading to our own destruction.

I have met women who want to break free and yet are tied by gender bias that spreads across religions in Northern India. I have seen them control their urge to speak out their minds in front of the men. I have seen them huddled together in a corner waiting for us to specifically address a question to them. I have met women who still feel that they can contribute much better to their family by staying within the confines of their houses. I have met women who have confidently stepped out and with her sales acumen have put my two years of the best management education to shame. I have been cut short in the middle of my rather lengthy speech with shouts of “Ee lalla, e toh hume malum hain.” I have been surprised at the product knowledge and brand loyalty in the heart of the Cow Belt. I have seen the stubbornness in refusing to encourage healthier activities if it clashed with their beliefs. I have seen the assumptions we make about the Indian women broken and reformed with every conversation. I have been given the respect I do not deserve. I have met ladies who reminded me of my grandmas. Just like them, these ladies whom I were meeting for the first time did not want me to go away without eating at least a little Kadi-Chawal. I have made an innocent face and nodded in agreement when they have blasted my company for sending me out for work in the scorching heat. I have found care and concern from people with whom I had never met and perhaps will never meet again. I have had to forcibly take out the fan from a person’s hand who insisted that her work could wait but fanning a tired me could not.

I have seen an India divided on the lines of gender, religion, community and caste. I have seen people create barriers between themselves when none exist. And as I experience it everyday, I realize that at the root of every discrimination is economic and income disparity. I have seen the poverty cycle at work making the poor poorer and the rich a lot richer. I have seen a disillusioned India which has accepted her fate. I have seen an India that wants to leave and never come back. I have seen an India that wishes for the return of their sons and daughters but more than that wishes for their success.

Around 4 years back when NDA lost the Lok Sabha Elections despite the much hyped India Shining campaign, everyone had a different opinion. When Chadra Babu Naidu or S.M. Krishna lost the elections, everyone was surprised. But my experiences during my travels in villages around Pilani had told me to expect such results that would confound all the poll pundits. Every village in India today is more aware than ever before. Every single villager I have asked in supposedly one of the most backward states in India have been able to tell me the exact number of votes they have as a village. Never ever have I been happier with the grassroots democracy that has helped this crazy nation of ours to survive through every problem. And just to assure me again that the paradox called India will continue to amaze me, I have seen them allow a local politician stop our meeting and make an impromptu poll speech that they very well knew was of no use to them. This is the India that will send a dynasty back to power again and again, because of the loyalty they had for a matriarch ages ago. This is the India that will choose a proven goon if he is from their community or caste. This is also the India that will silently bring about a change that they feel is necessary for them. This is my India that even today thinks with her heart.

I have always respected the power of women. Even before the Aryans came, Indians worshipped the Mother Goddess and not without reason. The more I see the women in the villages of India; I realize that they are perhaps the sole reasons for the survival of our species. I have seen women keep the family together without even a little help from the men. I have seen her aggression when she has fought tooth and nail for her family. I have seen the steely determination when she quietly vowed to make her young son successful in life at all costs after her husband and her elder son passed away. I have seen Annapurna, the kind provider for everyone, I have seen the glimpses of Kali who will one day destroy every evil around her, I have seen Lakshmi saving every penny for the house, I have seen the dormant Sarawati who laments her lack of education but will not let the same happen to her children, I have seen Durga, the embodiment of Shakti – The Woman Power.

May 02, 2008

Bareilley ki Highway Mein

Overheard on some highway between the village Chunnilal and Sendal off the highway leading from Bareilley:

Characters – A thin UPite riding a motorcycle on the highway. A well nourished Bong sitting at the back praying to all the three hundred and thirty three crore Hindu Gods and Goddesses for a safe return.

UP: Toh Sir, ek sher sunate hain.

B: Irshaad. Irshaad

UP: Suraj usse mohabbat karta tha, isliye toh Chand pe daag hain;

Chand ne zaroor ki hogi beyimani, is liye toh suraj mein itni aag hain.

B: Speechless

It was a 120 km bike ride that day, one of the shortest B has undertaken. B is said to be have survived a severe nervous breakdown after being subjected to such brilliant poetry one after the other. It seemed there were enough shers to fill 2 note books. All is not well. As I write this, he has been watching 4 Rishi Kapoor movies in a row – Damini, Yaarana, Bol Radha Bol and Bade Dilwale. He had told me once that he loved two out of these 4 movies. But even that does not explain it.

The Pepsi and Airtel Letdowns and Other Ads

Everyone who knows me and my craziness about brands, know fully well that I have always been a die hard Pepsi fan. I have rooted for them every time a new ad has come. I have reluctantly accepted the brilliance of the Thanda matlab Coca Cola campaign and yet have maintained that Pepsi connected better with its Target Segment. However, the last ad from Pepsi has disappointed me to no end. The introduction of the Youngistan Concept was a typical Pepsi execution. Funny, clever and witty with Shahrukh as the adoring elder brother, the ad was a winner. But when left alone by themselves, Ranbir and Deepika just fail to sizzle and the line that translates as “I wanted to drink your Pepsi that’s why I gave a speech.” I ave always maintained that Pepsi knows its Youth. And yet, if this is the youth of today, I am not sure if the time for my generation has come to migrate to Coke. For the first time Coke stole my heart with Gazab ki shaam hai yaaron, mile jo hum matwale... waqt na ye rukta hai, aaj tu jashn mana le...!

Speaking of Letdowns, the other company that made me crib incessantly to friends was Airtel and Nokia with their “Garb Se bolo Hallo” ad. And to think Nokia was giving us such gems as the Shahrukh ad that celebrates being in India and the N82-Story telling redefined ads. According to me it is one of the best I have seen for a mobile handset.

Of the ads I liked recently has been Havell’s fan. “Bizli ko bachati hain” was unbelievably raw and yet lovable. And however bad Vodafone Customer Care might be in reality, who will not adore the dog that runs behind a bus with the tie in its mouth?

PS: Recent reports however do show that some people do not like the ad :)