Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Caning -- the Good or Bad old times

When I read about a schoolboy committing suicide, simply because his `Princi’ (Principal) caned him at La Mart's Calcutta, it saddened me. Another young life snuffed out for something very trivial. But at the same time I felt a bit puzzled, by the young boy’s action. Caning was a regular event like rain or sunshine in our times.
We never thought twice about being caned. In fact, not having been caned in a year, meant you were not exactly a normal schoolboy!
I am not passing a value judgement. Simply stating what was then the norm. Tom Brown, William Brown and Jennings were among literary role models for many of us, young Indian public schoolboys. And all of them lived with canings. Bengali schoolboy stories such as Nonte Phonte, too glorified caning. So caning couldn’t be too bad for us either.
You could be caned for coming late, having bellbots which were an inch wider than regulation, not doing your lessons, some naughty prank, a fist-fight with a classmate, almost anything. There were fixed rates for various `crime', ranging from two or three swishes to 6 of the best to a monster 36!
Boys learnt to hide dairies inside their pants to ward off the cane and teachers to search for them before caning commenced !!
I forget when, but at some stage the school authorities (or was it an education ministry directive?) decided that mere teachers were not to be allowed to wield the cane. Only the headmaster and Princi could pick up that slender instrument of student torture!
That of course did not stop teachers like a Mr Simon we had, from twsiting tufts of our hair in ways which were well, quite innovative, or from using the wooden scale quite liberally on fingers extended. Few, if any would tell their parents about all this.
Parents, in any case in those days had the attitude: if you have been caned then its your fault. You must have been naughty. Not only did teachers have the right to cane or cuff you, but also any relative or neighbour who thought you were out of form!
My parents used to go a step futher and would say if you have fought in school or in the colony's playgrounds, and have been beaten up, then its your business. Just learn to defend yourself better!
(That of course meant, I would often pretend I had a stomach ache, after having picked up a fight with a senior the day before! Not that it helped. Retribution always caught up and the only way out was to toughen oneself up and face life as it came.)
My mom also used to quote Sanskrit slokas which said your first `rhin' (debt) is to your country, then parents and then to your teachers. God, girlfriends etc. could come afterwards! Though frankly at times after smarting from a few canes or from a nasty bit of scaling, I diidn't exactly feel I owed any debt to any of my teachers !!
But then teachers and principals did not merely cane us, they also lavished love on us, which is perhaps not so common nowadays. I still remember a beaming Mrs Phillips, one of my teachers, enveloping me in a bear hug, with the exclamation "my child ... I am so proud of you" after I got my first scholastic prize in school. She meant it. Children understand real feelings better than us adults.
But times are a different now. Child psychologists tell us of the immense damage to the young mind by physical punishment. Even scoldings are frowned upon. Teachers, bogged down by innovative teaching experiments have no time to feel for children they teach.
The cane had better be placed in the museum as a relic of bygone era.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Today's Chanakya

New Delhi, June 17, 2010: Its 10.40 AM and I am  on the airport tarmac with an air force officer waiting for India's finance minister Pranab Mukherjee to arrive. I am supposed to accompany the man who heads more ministerial groups than he can remember, on a trip to diamond city Surat and Gujarat's capital Ahmedabad.
His car screeches to a halt. Petroleum minister Murli Deora has driven down with him, perhaps to brief him on the need to raise petrol prices to save state run oil firms from bankruptcy. A move which their cabinet colleague from Bengal, Mamata Banerjee successfully stalled last week.
Pranab starts walking briskly towards a waiting Embraer jet. I just about manage to catch up with the man who is 75 years old. "Your direct tax code changes are being talked about." The finance minister on Tuesday released a set of changes to a planned direct tax code which saves pension savings from being taxed.
"Yes, people seem to have liked it ... lets see how it goes in Parliament," Pranab says smiling slightly. The man who troubleshoots on almost all issues for the government and the Congress party seems a little tired, despite his surprisingly young gait.
His aides say he works most nights, poring over files. But still manages a grueling 12-hour schedule the next day perked up by about 10 to a dozen cups of black tea and coffee at intervals.
Once inside the aircraft, sure enough Pranab orders hot beverage for all and tries to catch up on his newspaper reading. He has been a newspaper addict since the age of 10.
Surat arrives almost before breakfast is over. We have to rush to catch up with Pranab, He has finished with tarmac greetings, bouquet exchanges and pleasantries and is in a waiting sports utility vehicle, even before his aides can get into their cars.
His hosts are his companion in his vehicle. The idea, someone explains to me, is that in case of a terror attack others who can rally around and get help should not be in the same vehicle!
The cavalcade swings onto a highway and winds through rich sugarcane fields  into a modern conference center. A huge congregation of diamond traders and textile mill owners are waiting for the man who they hope will help give them tax breathers to recoup losses they ran up in the last two years of global downturn.
Eight out of ten diamonds cut and polished in the world are worked upon in the port town of Surat. But the problem is that with western economies spinning into a nightmarish recession over the last two years, diamonds, celebrated in songs and films as a `woman's best friend' have found fewer buyers in the last two years.
Textile and garment mills in Surat too have had to lay off tens of thousands of workers as global orders plummeted. Businessmen say the city which boasts of the highest annual household income in the country - Rs 4.57 lakh - lost out some Rs 3,600 crore of business in 2009 out of the Rs 12,000 crore of garments business it does in a normal year.
The finance minister talks of growth, promises help, assuages hurt by calling Surat a victim of the global downturn and asks entrepreneurs not to lose heart but work to create more wealth and jobs. "We want more growth and more jobs" is met with thunderous applause.
The man who has represented Gujarat for six years in the upper house during the 1980s, has a surprisingly strong fan following here, despite not speaking any Gujarati. Businessmen and women are nodding in agreement with his appraisal. A textile trader who is sitting next to me whispers "He is really running the country, you know after all the economy is the country ... after Manmohan (Singh) he is the best man for this job (Finance Minister)."
A short flight takes us to Ahmedabad. A meeting is slated with Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister, in the city's circuit house. Pranab wants Modi to agree to a nation-wide Goods and Services Tax which will replace the current system of VAT taxes. And the BJP leader has been playing hardball.
Pranab's motorcade is treated like a visiting head of state's. Streets have been cleared of traffic. Saluting policemen dot the route. Even pedestrians aren't allowed on the road.
A beaming Modi comes out to greet Pranab at the circuit house: "instead of a bouquet, I would like to offer my `buk' (heart) to you." Pranab smiles cautiously. After all this is a political rival with whom his party will have to contend in the  years ahead.
Pranab promisses he will take care of any losses states run up in implementing GST, a simpler taxation model which businessmen feel will reduce taxes and the government believes will boost revenues for states. But Modi, a seasoned politician, is ambivalent and wants a test pilot project before agreeing. The Gujarat chief minister is the key to a cabal of BJP chief ministers running Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal, coming on board.
Modi uses the example of a successful bus corridor in Ahmedabad compared to an unpopular bus corridor in Congress ruled Delhi. "I accept new things after testing them out." North Block believes the BJP ruled states will ultimately agree but will try stalling as long as long as possible.
"You are not just the finance minister ... you have a lot of influence in all ministries," Modi says as the meeting is coming to an end, presenting a list which seeks arrears in sales tax rebate, money for a notional `loss' on crude royalty because the royalty formula was changed, lower price for natural gas and more gas among other things.
A Pradesh (State) Congress Committee delegation walks in as Modi strides out towards waiting flashlights and TV cameras. Congressmen want to complain to Pranab about Modi's verbal attacks on the Congress and the central government.
Its 6 O'clock. But the day is not yet over for the finance minister. The last job of the day is to unveil a bust of Third century BC Indian master-statesman Chanakya, at the local income tax office. Its a lovely piece of sculpture in black stone. As Pranab, who is known to have studied Chanakya's treatise on statecraft `Arthshastra' and quote him in budget speeches, pulls the veil of the bust, a young officer whispers to another "It's this century's Chanakya paying homage to an earlier one."

Big Apple

New York, Feb 12, 2009: Its 1.00 A.M and Times Square , that magical junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue is throbbing with life, in this city, which they say, never sleeps.
Gigantic neon lit hoardings stare down from Skyscrapers to create a towering illusion for visitors and New Yorkers alike. Down below on the street, a coloured sax player is playing away, with eyes shut, deep in concentration, oblivious of the appreciative audience who surround him.
A Bangladeshi streetside vendor is hawking bagels, burgers and cokes, the staple fare here. An Iraqi waiter is serving drinks at the Hard Rock café where NY's Yuppies meet to gyrate and gossip away the night.
Deep below the ground, the 104 year-old subway which is the lifeline of the city rattles on. Leaks from underground pipes carrying steam to heat New York apartments and offices, comes out as smoke to envelope the entire place, making it all look like a modern impressionist painting.
With over 8.2 million residents, living in an area of 830 square km, New York City or the Big Apple as it is affectionately called by New Yorkers, is possibly the most densely populated city in the world. This giant megapolis is divided into a number of different districts. The 12 miles long by 3 miles wide, Mannhattan Island, the commercial and business heart of New York City, however is what is called the `City' by New Yorkers.
But if Manhattan is the heartland of NYC, then within it, Times Square , is the city's nerve centre. The world's biggest news organisations' offices, the fashion district which dictates what the world's garment industry churns out, the mega stock exchange Nasdaq, the global ad agencies which hardsell Coke, Burger Kings and WalMarts to the world and the Broadway musicals to which the world throngs to, are all within a stone's throw from the square.
Crowds throng here from dawn till late into the night. For work, theatre auditions, show tickets, a good time or just for the heck of it. New York , as New Yorkers love saying, is a city of immigrants. East Europeans, West Asians, Africans, Latinos from South America , South Asians, Chinese, all jostle for space in this city and heighten the myriad colours that colour the Square.
And colourful it is. Calvin Klein jostles for space with underwear brands, splashed over several stories. The departmental chain Target has a huge 23,000 sqft ad with its logo in red all over one wall of a huge building, which is reputed to cost it $10 million a year. Air India has an Yellow-Red-Black four story high and quarter of a block long billboard which says `Non-stop Comfort JFK-Mumbai'. In all, Times Square is believed to generate more than $ 100 million in billboard advertising a year.
But the `Big Apple's' soul lies in the numerous districts which criss cross the huge mega-city each with its distinct community flavour. Two square miles of houses and shops, located on the lower east side of Manhattan with Broadway bounding it on the west, comprises the largest Chinatown outside Asia. Home to some over 2 lakh Chinese immigrants, the colourful district with its Chinese language signboards has also become home to Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos among others.
A subway ride away lies Jackson heights, NYC's own little India -- a South Asian neighborhood which Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis call home, and come to, to shop and eat, if not to live in. Indian food, masalas, Bollywood films, saris and jewellery all vie for space in the neon lit suburb, a part of the Queens district home to diverse immigrant communities.
Little Italy, which at one time sprawled over most of lower Manhattan, has shrunk as propserous immigrants moved out of their "ghetto" to buy houses in more prosperous parts of the city and as newer immigrants especially the Chinese and East Asians bought up their properties. Today, only a section of Mulberry Street within the China Town, lined with Italian restaurants popular with tourists, remains distinctly recognizable as Little Italy. As Tarun Basu, a frequent visitor to the city says "Its a city which grows on you ... its a city like none other." .... (unfinished)