Internet is fun, but not on ‘fone’

I thank  IndiBlogger and Vodafone.  For they set me thinking of  god,  saithan,  fun and the Internet,  all  in the same thread.  I think the Internet is  God,  if only because  I don’t understand either.  Moreover ,  the Lord,  they say, works in mysterious ways.  So does the Internet.  Our God,  we believe,  is omnipresent;   so is e-mail network.  And then isn’t  it  a godly attribute to produce miracles ?  By my book,  the dot com can do us  wonders.

It  had me reconnected with a friend I thought I had lost over 50 years back.  The Web facilitated  my  blog-to-blog  dialogue  with T R Kini,   aging  friend ,  ailing,   and living way away on another hemisphere.   In our younger days we  had  spent a couple of years in London of the 60s.   Kini is  now down with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  Bound to wheel chair life can be excruciatingly confining.  Kini’s window to the world around  is his  Net connected computer screen.  We blogged about the years we spent together,  about the Swinging Sixties,  our travels overland when hitching rides  was the youth’s preferred mode of cross-country  travel.  My friend Kini, who hitched rides through Pakistan,  Iran, Turkey to Paris and beyond,  wrote of his vintage experiences in our blog-to-blog.

I re-discovered  Irshad via a blogpost I did after watching a movie on TV.  Featured in this German movie  I recognized a friend I had lost way back in 1960s in New Delhi. We used to meet on a daily basis at Janpath coffee-house.  It was quite a thrill, discovering your coffee-house friend on a TV screen.I wanted to get in touch. Googling Irshad Panchatan produced a Wikipedia entry that didn’t help much.So I blogged –  Irshad  Mia, where are you?   It was my way of sending a message in the bottle, hoping my friend,  Net browsing, might happen by my blog.  He didn’t,  but Irshad’s daughter did –  find my message-in-the-bottle and conveyed it to her father in Berlin. Internet can be fun,  even for those uninitiated into live chat, video games,  web streaming and what-have-you.  I read about a Vizag-based web-casting agency that  streams live a wedding in your family.   Sharing a family event live with out-of-town friends and relatives is fun.

Early earthlings  worshiped  the  Sun, the moon,  rain and wind.  Ancient Greeks had god or goddeses for earth and the sky,  beauty and fertility,  war and violence. If we have a  goddess for fun,  we would call her the Internet. Not an unmixed fun,  perhaps.  For the Internet also serves  miliants as an instrument to promote terrorism . Terrorist training manuals in PDF format in German, English and Arabic,  were among the digital documents  they recovered from Osama bin Laden’s safe house in Abbottabad,  Pakistan. Terror plots relating to Mumbai-style attacks targeting European cities,  and al-Qaeda road map for future operations were found in digital storage device and memory cards.  And mobile phone,  far from being a source of fun,  can be lethal in the hands of terrorists.  Bad guys in movies use cell phone as trigger device to blow up places.

A mobile,  going by promos and Vodafone  commercials,  is no longer used for basic communication  by way of a telephoic talk. Instead,  it is marketed as a fun,  in-thing,  with which you listen to music, take photos, play games,  send  SMS, check mail, and trade missed calls with those you want to avoid talking. Writing on the death of the phone call ,  Clive Thompson reckons this  generation ‘doesn’t make phone calls,  because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways:  texting,  chatting,  and social network messaging’.

Gone are the days when we engaged in conversation the  people we met  at railway platforms  ,  we  made friends on travel.  In buses, during train travel, we find youngsters into their own trip,   meddling with their mobile  to check mail, watch video ,  play games and whatever else they do with that thing in their palms . Even elders on morning walk  nowadays seem to have forgotten the old world  grace of greeting those  walking by,  or  the art of striking a park-bench conversation with strangers.  Instead,  we keep our ears plugged in to mobile music mode.

The internet on mobile  isn’t just a no-fun thing ;  it is unsociable to plug  in  your ears to a  mobile,  utterly unconcerned about the happenings around you.  If  Internet is  fun,  do we need to have it on call,  and round the clock ?  In our addiction to the digital kind we may well be losing out on the fun we  can stumble on,  in real world,  at the park,  on our way to work.    I am all for fun on the Net, but a mobile  shouldn’t be so packed in with  ‘fun’  features that we lose sight of  real  point of a mobile –  to make/take  a call on the move.
The Internet,  in my book,  isn’t fun on any  ‘fone’.   And I wouldn’t fault Vodafone,  if my post is considered off-topic,  for the IndiBlogger contest on  How Internet is fun on your mobile’.

Finding Irshad: A Google-yuga saga

My search for Irshad Panchatan started a couple of years back,  with a blog-post – Irshad Mia, where are you ? –  about a long-lost coffee-house comrade.  We were regulars at New Delhi Janpath coffee house in early 1960s.  It has been so long ago that  Irshad  had remained in my fading memory cells  a forgotten folder , waiting to be retrieved.

This was till a couple of years ago when I happened by on TV a familiar face  in the telecast of  this German movie – Reclaim Your Brain.  The face was that of  Irshad Panchatan,  my coffee-house  friend.  I couldn’t contain my excitement. Of course,  Irshad wasn’t a close pal,  but  sharing a coffee-house table tied us into a biradari (brotherhood).   And then,  it has been over 50 years – time lapse of a yuga,  after which a re-connect triggers excitement of its own. During our lost decades  we   drifted away from New Delhi,  into our separate work life,  and into marriage,  family,  retirement, and now,  ageing .  He must be 80 ;  I am 73.

We now have the Internet,  Facebook,  Linked-in and other social networking tools.  They weren’t of any help in finding Irshad.  Wikipedia entry on him is in German.    I blogged about him – Irshad Mia, where are you ? – in the hope that if Irshad or someone who knew of his current whereabouts were to read my piece in DadiNani ,  he or she would know where to find me.  This was my way of sending a message-in-the-bottle,  tossed out  into cyberspace.

After doing the blog-post I sent the link to  another coffee-house friend S P Dutt  (NDTV Barkha’s dad),  and  he forwarded it to his friends.  Speedy’s (is how friends call S P Dutt) networking  produced a Berlin phone number.  As part of the Janpath coffee-house brotherhood  Speedy got involved in the search for Irshad.  For the next few days the three of us –  Speedy (in New Delhi), Sushil Nangia (in London),  and I (from Mysore) called Berlin. No response.

Stonewalled by unanswering ringtone from the Berlin phone line, we gave up our search.  My wife and I moved base from Mysore to Chennai – this was an  year back.  Irshad lapsed out of mind, till the other day when DadiNani  editor Subodh Mathur    e-mailed, saying,  your message in the bottle made it to Irshad Mia’s daughter.  Rita Sonal Panjatan had left a  comment in my blog post – The message in the bottle has reached, I will forward this to my father.

And within the next two days I get a mail from the man himself –   ‘Your bottle must have touched so many shores of different planets before it was fished by Rita in a German space shore’.  Irshad quoted Firaq to convey his feelings at  hearing from someone he didn’t ever think  he could –   Urdu poets  have a couplet for  every thing,  don’t they.

And then,  added Irshad: I was stunned…your message took me back into the 60s, to beautiful days of our meetings at Delhi Coffee House …. Those meetings played a very important role in my life,….am thankful to my Coffee House friends. Their critique helped me become a Pantomime. You,  RG Anand and Balraj Komal were my main critical guides.  M S Mudder who put me on stage on and on (with whom I’m still in contact) and O P Kohli  (died decades ago) who used to do the lights for me…Two years back,  moderator of German TV show  ‘Weltspiegel’ (World mirror)  Navina Sudarum,  niece of painter Amrita Sher-Gil, sent me the newspaper cutting relating to Dr.Charles Fabri (The Statesman dance critic), who loved and encouraged me as you also know.  It was a lovely and very important time for us all,  that we can never forget.

I left India again in 1971….for Europe, where I stayed, as you know, with Ingrid in Berlin, and later, opened a Pantomime School also. But that I closed in 1995 and after some time also stopped performing. Now from time to time I get offers to act in small roles in German TV and Films.

I am eighty and Ingrid is still beautiful and active. Rita, who did her MA from London School of Economics,lives close to us.

A childhood with grandpa

When you grew up, or raised your own kids, did you have an experience which felt 100% real to you? So said the IndiBlogger e-mail announcing the Kissanpur contest.

I couldn’t recall right away any anecdote or childhood incident that fit the bill. It is easier to think of episodes in life that made you ‘feel good’, but are they necessarily the ones that give you the feel that they are real,100 percent ? The real-feel episode I share in this post wasn’t a feel-good one while I went through the phase. But as I look back on it, I feel it was as real as they come.

If it wasn’t for IndiBlogger e-mail, I wouldn’t have strayed so far down the memory lane, some 65 years back, to dredge up a childhood that I spent with  thatha (grandpa). This was in mid-1940s when I was less than 10 years old, living away from parents, with my grand-parents. When my parents moved to New Delhi – father being in a govt. job – they left me behind under the charge of grand parents in Coimbatore, Tamilnadu.
The primary school I went to,  in Telugu Brahmin St., was across the road from my grandparents’ place. Periappa – father’s elder brother – was the school head-master. Which wasn’t such a good arrangement. My uncle, a stern disciplinarian, was  a terror in the school. What was worse, besides being the school head, he took Class IV.  And, as his nephew, I wasn’t shown any favour, though they counted me among his favorites, off school. He made me stand up on the bench (a standard punishment) even for minor lapses such as talking to someone across bench,  trading match-box labels or cigarette-pack fronts  with classmates during school-hours.

At home grandpa, a retired cop,  ran our household of three – that is, grandma and me – a bit like a police training establishment. I had a time-table for meals, play, study, and sleep. The only grace-time (when I could do whatever I felt like) was when grandpa had his afternoon snooze. But then I was away in school, on week days, returning home at 4.30 p m. By which time grandpa would be up and about.
Grandmother, subject to her time-table, occasionally flouted it.  She would simply disappear next door – like they do for water-cooler breaks in offices –  for a mid-day gossip with neighbour; or she would linger longer than  warranted, at our door front chatting thayirkari (lady selling buttermilk door to door).

Grandma got away with it,  but I wouldn’t dare flout the routine, set for study and play. Regulation play-time started at 5 p m, when I escorted thatha to the neighbourhood Gandhi park. He took a designated park bench for listening the evening radio programme relayed all over the park through a public address system. I wasn’t obliged to listen to radio, though. Grandpa would let me try the swings, slides and things in the play area. An hour and quarter later, 6.30 pm,  we headed home.

Study time, under thatha’s watchful guidance, started at 7 p m. An hour later,  he retired for 15 mins.  to the kitchen for evening meals. On his return, 8.15 p m, ,thatha made his own bed  on a cement slab embedded in a corner of his room. What followed was 15 minutes of question time, when thatha would ask me something, anything,  from class lessons, lying in bed.  At 8.30 p m, as if on cue, patti (grandma) showed up at thatha’s door to summon me for meals. That was the signal to which I looked forward the whole evening; the signal that my day was done.

Such small delights made my day. Grandma, as most of the clan are,  was considerate. She would even let me sit in at after-dinner gossip session grandma held with neighbours at the door-front thinnai ( a cement platform to seat a gossip group).

I hate to admit this, my feelings were mixed – sad, if somewhat relieved –  when thatha passed away . At the age of 11  I rejoined  my parents in New Delhi

The Dr Raj I knew

There are numerous others,  with better credentials,  to write about the  Dr K N Raj they knew as an economist. I have been his student at the Delhi School of Economics (1958-60).  He took our post-graduate  class in monetary economics.  But it was outside the class-room that  I had occasion to interact with him,  not on  IMF or IBRD ,  but on our school annual day play  – ‘She Stoops to Conquer’.

Not many may know of the interest Dr Raj  took in   extra-curricular activities of his students. He guided us  in the choice of the play, did the audition,  and sat through the rehearsals after the School hours.  As head of the students Fraternity I was  in charge,  if only notionally,  of production of the School play to be staged on our Annual Day. As such, I tagged along with Dr Raj during several evenings of rehearsals.  We gladly let  him  call the shots. Looking back, I cherish memories of the DSE days spent with Dr Raj,  Putul Nag (who bet most of us in carrams played at the Fraternity room), and Dr M V Pylee, who was students advisor.  I remember a couple other faculty members such as Dr Padma Desai dropping in at the rehearsals of our play , if only to watch Dr Raj wearing a  director’s cap.

At DSE those days there was no students union.  We had the Fraternity,  a forum  comprising both students and the DSE faculty. The then director of the school,  Dr B N Ganguli,  was the president of DSE Fraternity; and I (then in MA Final year) was elected vice-president. Dr Ganguli, though friendly with students , was remote from student activities. It was Dr Raj who took active interest in the affairs of the School Fraternity. He was so pleased with the students performance at our Annual Day  that Dr Raj hosted a dinner to the cast of the play  at a Kashmere Gate restaurant,  Khybar Pass .

After graduation I met Dr Raj just twice,  as a newspaper reporter  –  once,  when,  as  Delhi  University vice-chancellor,  he was gheraoed in his chamber  by a section of students ; and, a couple of years later , on the corridors of New Dehi’s Connaught Circus, when  Dr Raj had quit VC’s post and  shifted base to Trivandrum.

Heard this word ?

I hadn’t heard of this word , till I read it in The Hindu this morning . Which doesn’t mean that the word doesn’t exist.  In fact,  ‘incentivise’  is a word coined in 1968  and is recognised  in OED and Merriam-Webster.  But then a Google search showed up this entry under Urban Dictionary , which said the only respectable form of the word was the noun “incentive.”  And it added that those who say  “incentivize”  ought to know they  ‘come across as a jargon-spewing a-hole’.

Satyan, T S, no more

Heard about Satyan’s  demise from  his  neighbourhood  friend Mr Bapu Satyanarayana ;  shared an auto-ride with  Satyam’s long-time media colleague  Mr Krishna Vattam to his Saraswathipuram residence, Mysore , for the last glimpse of Satyan. His  mortal remains were placed for public homage on his frontyard.  Within  half hour after our arrival  he was carried away to the crematerium.

A graduate from the Maharaja’s,  of 1944  vintage,  Mr Satyan took to photography at a time when most others in his profession were not even schooled  enough to write a photo caption in grammatical English. Satyan  rose to represent Life magazine,  an odd sized and picture-filled weekly founded by Henry Luce in 1936.  As someone accredited to Life , Satyan enjoyed the status of an aristocrat among the Delhi press corps those days.  But this  photo-man from Mysore retained his common touch.

To quote him ,  “My people are not the rich and the famous; they are simple ordinary folk…..(who) were there when I picked up the camera six decades ago, and they have been there every time I have gone back to capture the interesting moments in their lives” So wrote Satyan in 2002, when his In Love with Life –  a photo journey through life –  was released.

Among numerous historic events he covered for Life,  if I remember right , was the flight of Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1959.  Among the chapters in his subsequent work – Alive and Clicking – that still sticks in my mind is  Satyan’s  account of a meeting with  Satyajit Ray  for a photo assignment ,  when Ray,  a coffee house regular, took Satyan along for meeting friends at the Calcutta Coffee House.

My association with Satyan dated back to early 60s when I was a sarkari journalist with the Press Information Bureau (PIB) in New Delhi. Despite  our gap in the pecking order in the media, Satyan always found time for a chat whenever he dropped in at my office to collect photographs of government functions and other official events handed out by the PIB photo publicity unit. He had an affinity with reporters and writers in the media.  Being a photographer with a flair for writing  Satyan practised  photo-journalism at a time when they had not invented the term – photo-journalist.
Earlier this evening as I lingered for a while  in front of his residence,  after he was gone, memories of my Satyan connection flashed through  mind.  This photo of his deserted residence may well symbolize  the end of the  Satyan chapter in the book of my life.

Bhopal, before 24×7 media

Todays’ media people,  fed on 24×7 news channels,   may find it hard  to imagine that there was a  24-hour delay in the Bhopal gas tragedy  making media headlines.   TV those days was limited to a few hours  of evening telecast.  Bhopal 1984 was in B G era (Before Google) ;  and the gas leak that killed over 2000 overnight  happened on a  Sunday night,  well past the  newspaper  deadline (time at which an edition  goes to print) .

I was then The Times of India (TOI) correspondent;  and the English  print media of  that time  meant a  handful of dailies –  Hindustan Times Indian Express and The StatesmanPatriot of Delhi, and  The  Hindu ,  Madras ,  didn’t even post full-time correspondents in Bhopal in the 80s ;  a media outpost,  to which no senior TOI reporter from New Delhi  was happy  to be  posted.  I went to Bhopal, as staff correspondent,  from the Delhi news service desk.

Bhopal  was a city of  ‘stringers’,  in media parlance.  Stringers are locally influential reporters retained by major dailies to file news reports for them.  And then we had carbon-copy hacks, reporting for several media outlets.  They are paid by the column inches they get published. The  complaint some outstation newspapers had was that they got from their stringers  fourth or the fifth carbon-copy  that was barely visible to the naked eye.

Bhopal reporters on media junket to Sagar. The face under the strawhat is Tarun Bhadhuri of The Statesman

This was the media scene in Bhopal 1984.   There was  camaraderie among reporters of major outstation dailies.  We moved together on assignments,  often pooling information,  while respecting  the right to ‘exclusives’  a reporter was obliged to put out now and  then to please their editors.

Reporter at work in back-seat of a car

Barring a few major newspapers that maintained an office with teleprinter connection,  reporters  relied on Post Office telex to send  news reports.  I have once sent a report to New Delhi from a post  office in remote area that still used Morse Code telegraph.

Our teleprinter operator in Bhopal worked four hours daily, from 4 p m ; and stayed beyond 8 p m on request, but rarely more than an  hour or two.  I could phone in  brief reports,  but  you can’t expect to  get too popular with the steno at the news desk  in New Delhi,  if you  phone in your reports too often. Besides, there was STD cost to be
considered.  The phone bills you submit to New Delhi for  reimbursement were liable to be sent back with query as to why and what-for certain phone calls were made,  and if they were  necessary.

Bhopal gas leak happened late on a Sunday night. I was woken up from sleep by a phone call from N Rajan, a media colleague and neighbour who edited local daily Hitavada, and also filed news  reports for Patriot, New Delhi. He had heard from a contact about a  major gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticides factory. The gas  had already drifted our way, though our  Professor Colony residence  was about 5 km from the factory.

As I looked out  from our first-floor balcony I saw residents in our  neighbourhood out on the street, fleeing from the gas spread.  Rajan  and I  – with my wife, son and our dog –  joined the crowd.  It ddidn’t  require a reporter’s nose for news for one to realise that we were amidst a major developing story. Our frustration was we couldn’t report it to our New Delhi offices at that late hour.  No cell phones then.

Our priority was  survival ;  making it  somewhere away from the gas,   which had by then spread to much of Bhopal . We spent the night  with Narasimhan in Arera Colony.  He is a relative and was then a  Bhopal bank official whose house was on  higher ground and unaffected.  On our way up to Narasimhan’s  place we found several gas victims  who collapsed on the street after inhaling the toxic gas  methyl isocyanate.

The morning after the gas leak I started phoning colleagues and contacts, but found them equally in the dark on details. The 8 a m  radio news wasn’t much of a help, by way of hard news. Meanwhile our colleague in The Statesman Tarun Bhadhuri (Jaya Bachchan’s  father) phoned to say he heard from a Union Carbide factory official  that the gas leak was under control and the casualty figure was five deaths.  This was what a Union Carbide official would have us believe that  morning .Anyway we still had the entire day to work on the news report.  That night TOI news desk kept open the Page One lead slot till 11 p m.

At Bhopal, when Rajan and I went to the government hospital – Hamedia – around 10 a m we found a spill-over of gas victims from hospital wards,  to the corridors and scores more were being brought in to the casualty in vans,  three-wheelers and even push-carts. Many of the victims collapsed right on the drive way.

Driving through the town later that day we found dead cattle with bloated belly lying on the street,  waiting to be disposed of.  The army had moved in  and their trucks helped disposal of the dead.  We still  had places to  visit, and contacts to be tapped – at the railway  station (where gas victims, dead and dying, were being taken out of  platforms and waiting halls), at  the police headquarters,  the P R  office,  and the hospitals.  I made a final round of phone calls to other  reporters to exchange notes before filing my news report for the day.

In the absence of an officially declared tally of the gas victims, reporters  worked out a consensus on a figure  –  500 dead .  But then the  headline writers sitting in Delhi  had other   calculations. Upshot was that no two newspaper headlines carried the same figure. We in Bhopal based our guesswork on a  report that all nine cremation grounds in town worked  round the  clock during the  24 hours after the calamity struck.

This was how the Sunday night gas leak in Bhopal made it to  print  on Tuesday morning.

Related write-up –  The night Bhopal turned into a gas chamber