criticalvoices

On issues that matter …

Temples and Toilets – A Stinky Affair October 22, 2012

It cannot even be considered a dubious distinction if your country happens to be the world’s largest open air toilet. Unfortunately India does hold the distinction and although I doubt if anyone is proud of it, not many are bothered about it either.

What bothers me is that far from being ashamed of it, many Indians actually show righteous indignation when someone points it out to them.

So when federal minister Jairam Ramesh recently remarked that India has more temples than toilets, some barefaced right wingers actually made a political issue about hurt religious sentiments.

Desperate to bring home the point, the minister is now asking women not to marry into families that do not have a toilet in their homes.

It is shameful that in this day and age of such technological advances and India boasting of being capable of being a super power, a minister has to issue a slogan that says: ‘No toilet, no bride’. 

Such is the irony of the new slogan that one doesn’t know where a lesson in basic hygiene and a fundamental human sense of modesty and decency need to be taught to those essentially considered as adult men and women in the country.

Five years ago, the Indian government said India would be free of open defecation by 2012. Obviously that hasn’t happened. So now, in 2012, they are promising it would be open defecation free by 2022.

There is no point in wondering why so many Indians are the way they are – without a sense of hygiene. It defies natural logic. So, leaving that apart, I would find fault with consecutive governments over the six decades since the country’s independence have not managed not to prioritize the provision of something as basic a facility as a toilet to millions of people in the country.

And yes, it disgusts me to think the same Indians, those in India and abroad, who would generously pour money into building of temples, would not ever think of writing even a measly check for the construction of a toilet facility in Indian villages or for that matter in urban slums.

Never mind that these are the same people who would take umbrage at a Danny Boyle who filmed an elaborate shot of a toilet in a Mumbai slum, in his Academy award winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Those who saw the film, know what I am talking about and for those who haven’t, you wouldn’t want me to elaborate beyond this.

But get this very open and public statistic into your comprehension – more than half the population of India lacks toilet facilities. That is more than 600 million people. And that indeed, is a lot of crap to be out in the open.

Whoever said India is shining, should know that it is also stinking!

Srirekha Chakravarty

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Thank You, Yash Chopra October 21, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — srirekha @ 8:47 pm
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This is a small tribute to filmmaker Yash Chopra who passed away today in a Mumbai hospital.

As a particularly choosy movie watcher, it was through Yash Chopra’s films that I discovered:

the concept of beauty and aesthetics in cinema;

intellectualization of romance;

celebration of the feminine form without objectifying it;

non-stereotypical and unconventional portrayal of women;

non-judgmental acceptance of complex human relationships;

unapologetic etching out of flaws in human character;

unabashed indulgence of elite lifestyles;

and of course the pristine locales of Switzerland.

I watched 13 of the 22 films that he directed in his lifetime. I loved every one of them.

I will watch his last venture that is set to release next month… just to say Thank you.

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

Flavor of the Day October 20, 2012

The 19,973rd Starbucks coffee store opened to much fanfare in Mumbai today. And as with the advent of anything American, Indians seem excited about it, or may be just Mumbaikars for now. After all in American culture, Starbucks is to the morning cuppa, as denim is to style and rap is to music. It is all about attitude.

So hey, why not, Indians have it too, I mean, the attitude, and plenty of it.

But India being India, American attitudes at Starbucks Mumbai will be served in an Indian shrine like ambience – Indian teak tables, vintage Indian trunks, Indian wooden screens make up the décor, and a menu that includes tandoori paneer rolls and elaichi mawa croissants. That’s Indianisation for you – they have all done it, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut, Subway Sandwich…

Iconic and part of the American landscape though it is, even today, 40 years since it was founded first in Seattle, Washington, Starbucks continues to fizz out some of the most expensive of coffees of any fast food chain in the US.

That kind of pricing, obviously, would have been a deterrent in India – a market reality that the coffee chain was well aware of. So, at 82 rupees (a little over $2 for a tall), it is still better priced than at any of the Starbucks US locations.

Sure Starbucks, like the many Café Coffee Day outlets, will cater to a different segment of coffee drinkers in India – I would think, young, upwardly mobile, urban Indians with money and attitudes to match.

So, the entry of a global brand for the high end consumer is not something that would make much difference in a country like India. There are millions who earn less than those $2 a day.

In an economy that is yet to open up fully, Starbucks is no benign flavor of the day. They may not become as ubiquitous as the Shetty-owned Udupi restaurants that were known for their filter coffee, used to be, but the chain is known for its predatory methods of doing business.

I was never really a fan of Starbucks in all the years that I lived in the US. My main grouse was that, with cream and sugar, their coffees invariably turn tepid. And, for better or worse, I like my coffee hot.

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

The Unbearable Loudness of Religion October 19, 2012

So call me a heretic because I really, really hate noise, not noise of any kind, but in the Indian context, the noise of festivals. I mean, the kind of noise that invades the air all around during the very publicly celebrated festivals in India. The ear shattering cacophony of the synthesizer-drum-dhol-whistle-fire cracker mix combined with chanting of prayers and singing of bhajans on really loud loudspeakers played out by the “devout and faithful” worshippers whether to welcome the gods or bid them farewell after their temporary earthly visits, is insanely distracting.

Trying to keep simple thought processes intact and ordinary speech coherent under the canopy of that noise, is a struggle what with the heartbeat going way erratic than considered healthy.

You think I am exaggerating? Then check this out: Last month, during the Ganesh festival, at least 20 locations in Pune city had experienced sounds that shattered the permissible decibel levels. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board found that decibel levels in certain parts were way over 100 where the permissible limit was only 65 decibels.

Last year, the Central Pollution Control Board had declared Mumbai the noisiest city in the world.

Sounds take on a different connotation in the Indian context and you have to be away from the country for a while to begin to hear them when you come back. Everything from the rudely assertive cawing and cooing of crows and pigeons outside your window, to the competing-with-people-in-numbers population of dogs that seem to bark with no apparent provocation, to the constant blaring of vehicular horns, the non-stop plying of rickety auto-rickshaws, and even the television in the living room affects you.

The volume button on a television remote has no meaning here. Because, the programming itself is loud. And by that I mean, everyone from the newscasters, show hosts, panel guests, comedians, reality show judges, participants, you name them, and they all seem like they have been trained to vocally reach – without mikes – the last man in the last seat in the last row of a 1000-seat auditorium. And I am not even talking about the high decibel posturing by the so called ‘experts’ on news channels.

I remember when I took driving lessons here… the first thing the driving instructor taught me, even before showing me where the brakes were, how never to take the thumb off  the horn button on the steering. And to think in the US it is not only considered rude to honk but in many areas honking can incur you more than $100 in fines. I think those American policy makers should come to India to understand the pure physical joy of honking.

But I am digressing. Even if I am on a slippery slope here, let me not veer off from the subject of religious celebrations. Either Indians think their gods are deaf and so make so much noise to catch their attention; or considering the kind of money that is spent on these public celebrations of festivals, denoting wealth at least in the hands of those patronizing these celebrations, they perhaps think the gods are actually enjoying the noise.

I am being facetious of course, but it is a serious issue. Not because there are people who realize it’s noise, but because they all seem to think it is music – music of the gods, no less.

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

The business of journalism October 18, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — srirekha @ 11:08 pm
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It was early ‘90s… I was still a rookie reporter at the local eveninger, Mid Day Publications. The editorial offices were shared by the group’s older weekly publication – Sports Week. Week after week I would see how the entire team worked hard, while not necessarily compromising on fun, to bring out the magazine. It was known the magazine was struggling against competition, but not many in the editorial foresaw its demise. So, after 25 years of publication, the management decided to close it. I remember the day it was announced… although still new in the field, I learnt a hard truth – the best of journalistic talent was of no value without the patronage of advertisers.

Years later, working with India Post, an Indian American publication in New York, I saw how a single incident – the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – changed overnight the fortunes of the well circulated weekly newspaper. A drastic fall in advertisements that followed the uncertainty in the days that followed, never managed to pick up again and some ten years of desperate struggle to keep the paper in print later, the management dropped the hard copy and went digital.

It wasn’t easy telling people that we had stopped printing. It wasn’t easy, accepting the fact that print journalism could be dying.

Gradually, however, in the last year or so, perceptions began changing with the proliferation of online publications and more importantly, major national American newspapers bringing out digital editions themselves. Suddenly it wasn’t embarrassing anymore to say we are only an online edition.

Still, it wasn’t without a twinge of shock and pain that I read the news this evening that the iconic News Week, after more than 80 years of being in circulation will not be printed anymore. Beginning 2013, it will be available only in its digital avatar.

The reason for News Week’s demise is the same old story – fallen advertisement revenues.

So, as one who has in the last five years seen some of the biggest American newspapers desperately hanging on to their printed versions against the onslaught of virtual media, it is beyond irony for me to find print media thriving in India.

An old school, die hard print journalist that I am, I should be happy, right? Wrong. And that’s where the irony thickens. Yes, print media in India is thriving, not because good journalism is catalyzing a more literate society, but because advertising is booming in an open economy.

Newspapers here are now weaving news around advertisements and advertisements take precedence over the front pages. Journalists are mere space fillers while space sellers are editorial policy makers.

Undeniably, publishers in India have realized with a visionary philosophy, the mantra for running a successful newspaper. The mantra? It’s business, idiot, not journalism.

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dishonoring the brave October 14, 2012

 

Mumbai City has come to signify why this country may never build a war memorial for its soldiers (yes, hard to believe, but it’s true that India does not have a dedicated war memorial, considering this country has officially been at war at least three times in the last six decades since Independence).

The City’s administration that seems to perpetually work at cross purposes to its citizens is all set to demolish a modest memorial erected by its police department to honor the memory of its men who died in the line of duty during the worst ever terrorist attack the country has seen – on 26/11, 2008.

The Mumbai Municipal Corporation in probably one of its most insensitive moves, has apparently sent notice to the police department asking why the memorial should not be demolished because it is not convinced the relevant permissions were taken before building it.

Now, even a casual visitor to Mumbai cannot miss the multitudes of illegal encroachments across the city that not only devour pedestrian sidewalks, obstruct traffic, and make planned expansion of roads impossible but also actually make the city look ugly; and to think that the municipal corporation, which turns a blind eye to all of them, wants to raze a memorial to heroic police officers is preposterous.

It’s not to compare but in terms of its shock value, the 26/11 attacks are to Mumbai what the 9/11 attacks were to New York.

Just as the world had helplessly watched the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in New York in 2001, many relived those horrific moments as they watched live on TV the siege laid by a bunch of terrorists on Mumbai over three days in November 2008.

It was not without the heroes among the Mumbai police force – those that laid down their lives in the line of duty and those that managed to nab one of the attackers alive – that Mumbai city managed to hold its head with pride for having salvaged a calamity that was fraught with some of the most glaring of systemic and administrative lacunae.

The modest memorial to honor Mumbai’s bravest outside the Mumbai Police Gymkhana on Marine Drive is innocuous enough without the city administration wanting to erase even that memory off people’s memory. It just speaks volumes of the utter callousness of bureaucrats.

No wonder, world over one sees memorials honoring men in uniform but never a bureaucrat.

 

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

Sporting imperfection October 13, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — srirekha @ 11:33 pm
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Genuine sports lovers must be ruing their passion over the latest revelations about Lance Armstrong. The seven-time tour-de-France cycling champion’s history of doping to enhance his performance over the years is now beyond every benefit of the doubt that his fans have accorded him for so long.

Many had considered Armstrong a hero, what with his ‘successful’ battle over cancer and all that… but now I am sure they feel foolish, if not betrayed, having looked up to someone who didn’t really deserve the elevation.

But Armstrong is only one example, albeit a high profile one. We all know the epidemic scale of performance enhancing drugs use by athletes big and small, the world over.

Just check out the kind of substances that are abused by athletes, and one wonders how so many chemicals in one’s system can actually help anyone without eventually killing the user. There are what they call ergogenic aids, stimulants, amphetamines, caffeine, sympathomimetic drugs, anabolic steroids, human growth hormones, erythropoietin, narcotic analgesics, beta-blocking agents, diuretics, probenecid and a variety of nutritional supplements.

How do all of these substances help a body? I really don’t want to know.

But the question more important to me is, why do they have to use such drugs?

Let me take a deep breath and ventilate: Since time immemorial, sports have been the single most unifying past time for populations across geographies and cultures. Sports have always been about testing of endurance and more importantly, about excellence in human physicality.

But, I don’t think it was ever meant to be about performing humanly impossible feats. Sporting excellence is about besting what is humanly possible and not about doing what is beyond.

Why do athletes have to keep breaking records? Why do they have keep bettering their own previous performance? With each performance, why do they have to be stronger, faster or quicker? I mean, how much faster can a sprinter run or a swimmer swim? After all, they are only human.

Obviously, the illogical pressure to push athletes beyond their capacity by parents, coaches, trainers, sporting associations and even governments comes from extreme corporatization and the ridiculous monetary value that sponsors and product endorsement companies put on athletes.

So, today if someone were to tell me that sportsmen, even those representing their nation at international sporting events, push themselves purely for the prestige and pride, I would take it with a pinch of salt.

It is sad that I should feel this way, but I think competing athletes need to think for themselves and not let their sponsors speak for them. What they should know is that competitions are always about the best of the lot and never really about the best of the best. And that is because, there is, as yet, no measure for perfection.

Srirekha Chakravarty