Tuesday, January 24, 2006

London Is Cool,But Very Pricey, Man!

Travel guide,"Lonely Planet" has recently reported that London is one of the coolest capitals of the world but horrendously overpriced. I entirely subscribe to this view.

My first visit to London was in 1979 more than 25 years ago.I stayed in a hotel in downtown and one night's tariff was just 10 pounds. It had cost me almost that much for a cab drive from Heathrow airport to the hotel then. Last October when I was in London, I decided to stay at the Zetter,a swanky hotel in the heart of London and it cost me a bomb. I went to Sheffield by British Rail and a second class return fare for a 150 mile journey was about 75 pounds.The tube used to be very cheap those days.But now it has become very expensive.Averagely,bus fares are cheaper by almost 50% but then they do not have the coverage of the underground network and the speed. Taxi fares are prohibitive and then if you are not lucky you might be driven by a drunken and foulmouthed cabbie.I had a bad experience one early morning at Heathrow when I wanted to go from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2. It was not a very long ride and I tried to negotiate the rate with the taxidriver.He was annoyed that I wasn't accepting his fare offer and asked me to ****off. Racial feelings are strong particularly with the lower strata of society.Price of a cinema ticket is about 6 pounds and you will be minus by about 45pounds if you decide to dine in a fine restaurant! A friend of mine told me that an ecstasy pill costs 4 pounds,a gram of cocaine for 50 pounds and about 20 pounds for an eighth of marijuana.! Isn't that one hell of a sum for getting those fancy trips!

Like New York,London is a pot-pourri of multilingual cultures.That gives it a definite character.No more the old days when there were only Mom and Pop pubs offering beer and fish-n-chips.There are a plethora of restaurants offering international cuisine and London is an epicure's delight. Though London has a population of about 7.5 million it is certainly not bursting on its seams. It has a huge floating population and the Government's earnings from tourism are very substantial.The annual Nottingham Hill carnival drew 1.2 million visitors last year. Grime music is making inroads into the mainstream. Hooded sweatshirts(deemed to be the source of all evil) and male anorexia are in fashion. Antisocial behaviour and youth violence engaged the British parliamentarians in long debates.British writer Zadie Smith has this to say about her homeland: "When I think of England now I just think about the England that I loved,and it's just gone.It's the way that people look at each other on the train: just general stupidity,madness,vulgarity,stupid TV shows,aspirational arseholes,money everywhere.It's just a disgusting place,it's terrifying. Maybe I am just getting old." Perhaps she has a point.

For the Indian diaspora,London is like a second home. Many have amassed a fortune by dint of hard work and oozes of luck. They are mostly Punjabis,Sindhis and Gujeratis. And no visit to London is complete without a shopping binge at Oxford Street.

Come June and that will usher in the Wimbledon Annual tennis tournament. Held in 'very British' style. I am not going to miss it out. The tennis and the strawberries with cream. And with a little bit of luck a place in the 'box'. All the thanks must go to l and h for shifting residence to London.

Friday, January 20, 2006


Many many years ago,Nirad Chaudhuri,in an article in The Statesman of Kolkata had declared that Kolkata sandesh was peerless and that savouring the best Simulia sandesh was like imbibing vintage champagne.How very true!

Last week when I was in Kolkata,I realised that it was the season for "notun guder mishti"(mishti made out of new jaggery). Promptly,I commissioned my guy to get me a reasonable quantity.I was shuttling between meetings and could not do a hands-on purchase.Before I left for Mumbai, the packet arrived and I kept it carefully in my briefcase.When I opened it in Mumbai and tasted one sandesh it was nothing short of heavenly. S who is not a great sandesh buff(she sticks to mishti doi) went gaga. And my cobrother(that is a term I learned in Bangaluru) who is visiting us for a few days almost swooned after consuming just one piece. Connosiuer's of sandesh may know that before sandesh became popular,kanchagolla was ruling the roost. Abanindranath Tagore sang its praise. Pantua,ledikeni and chumchum have now lost their popularity.There are other sweets like,sarpuria,sarbhaja and sar-er nadu .I think sar-er nadu is still avaibale in Shyambazar/Bowbazar.Of course the plethora of Benagali sweets that is available is mindboggling. Manohara,kshirkadamba,nikhuti and channar jilipi are also there prominently in the hierarchy.Interestingly,even China has started making Indian sweets for the fast growing Indian community .The food chain is based in Zhuai.

We lived in the 50s in Kolkata in the corner of Loudon Street and Moira Street.I learnt recently that chefs making these delicasies are called 'moiras'.Now I know how I picked up this weakness for sweets.During Makar Sankranti many Bengali families make special sweets called pithe.Something like a pancake.You have the ashkey pithe(melted palm jaggery),ranga aaloor pithe(sweet potato) and pati shapta the most popular of all.It is a flat pancake filled with khoa(reduced and solidified milk) and grated cocconut.

Apart from the above sweets another very popular item sold in Kolkata is the lal doi.It is sweetened curd(mishti doi) but red in colour.No visit to Kolkata is complete without returning with a handi of mishti doi.Though i would love to buy it from Shyambazar,logistics compel me to buy it from Gangurams.And I have never regretted that decision.During the last visit I bought it from Mishti on the way to the airport and I was very disappointed. No mistake this time around. It was spoton.The familiar salesman remarked "bhalo kore pack kare debo,aapni bombay niye jhacchen to"! And the familiar security guys at the airport smile when they see me with the mishti doi handa.Like Lord Chesterton and his ubiquitious umbrella.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

L'Affaire Swami Ramdevji Maharaj

He has been very much in the news for more than a year now.He rose to fame with his much- seen Aastha channel on TV. The asanas he taught to a large receptive audience seemed to have made him a cult figure.For millions of his followers every morning,Swami Ramdev is the 5am family physician.He taught his shisyas pranayam too,meditation and other techniques to improve the quality of life.He guaranteed cure of ailments like asthma,high blood pressure,diabetes,migraine,cervical spondylitis,bronchitis,constipation etc. And many were really cured.That increased his credibility and popularity and fame exponentially.He is a proud Indian,with strong belief in our traditional medicines and value system,He started the Divya Yoga Mandir at Hardwar and in a span of 10 years he has created a huge organisation and a terrific brand equity for himself. His followers swear by him and are prepared to give up their lives,if required. Indeed,he is a Messiah to his disciples.

Then what went wrong. Firebrand Brinda Karat,CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP took him on. She accused him of using human and animal matter in his preparations advertised as Ayurvedic and herbal.She had his medicines bought and analysed by Ayush,the wing of the Union Health Ministry which deals with indigenous medicine.The initial findings indicated that human and animal bones have been used in the so-called herbal preparations.The mud slinging started.

Brinda also accused Swami Ramdev of unfair labour practices in his factory at Hardwar and wanted the Ministry to take action. She even paraded the sacked workers who gave testimony that human and animal bones were indeed being used for preparation of the herbal medicines .Swamiji accused her of instigation at the instance of the MNCs to bring about a bad name to him in particular and Ayurveda in general. Swami Ramdev regularly speaks out against fast food and MNCs. One of his favourite lines is: "Cola matlab toilet cleaner." His supporters burnt her effigy and indulged in earsplitting hullabaloo.His big followers from his 'circle of influence' rushed to give him a clean chit and have called Brinda and company as traitors and denigrators of Ayurveda,yoga and even Hinduism.Why are millions queuing up in his support? Simple. Most owe their improved health to the breathtaking art of pranayama.By simplifying pranayama he has made it accessible even for the aging and obese.I don't think Brinda had bargained for this. And not even his friendly b-i-l Prannoy whose NDTV gave her huge publicity.

There is a school of thought that thinks that Swami Ramdev's desi aphrodisiac is giving stiff competition to Viagra which has recently started sales in India and that this is a MNC conspiracy to discredit him.

Where does the truth lie? As in such cases, somewhere in between. I am currently reading a book titled" Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery" by Kenneth Zysk.In one chapter he writes that sick monks required fats as medicines.The Buddha allowed five types of animal fat to be used as medicines and consumed as oil before meals.Fats from bears,from fish,from alligators,from swine and from donkeys.Oil of the permitted fats were used as medicine.I have also read that Ayurveda prescribes the powder of deer horns for preparation of medicine for certain ailments.Buddha permitted it and Ayurveda has been using it for thousands of years.Then why all this tamasha now.We should not just get carried away by sensationalism.

What needs to be done is to ensure that all ayurvedic products exhibit the ingredients of the product. Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940,stipulates that.Unfortunately because of some unscrupulous manufacturers,sale of Ayurvedic products is being banned in some countries.We all know that Ayurvedic medicines also contain lead, mercury and arsenic.What need to be ensured by the regulatory mechanism is that they are all within safe limits for human consumption.Pharmaceutical procedures must be regulated.And Ayurveda needs to integrate more organically with modern medicine.These important issues should not get missed out in the mudslinging battle.We need to address the key question whether the ayurvedic and herbal products of the Divya Yoga Mandir conform to the requirments of law and public health or not.If not,what corrective actions are required to be taken by the Government to ensure that these medicines are fit for human consumption.

If Swami Ramdev emerges unscathed out of this Agnipariksha, his reputation will soar. If he doesn't, the folk hero's downfall would be imminent.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

From USA With Love,Fresh Air And A Tap Dance

As many would know,tapping of phones is not a new phenomenon.Therefore, when I read about the criticism of President Bush for unauthorised phone tapping,I wasn't very surprised.Of course, he defended his action saying that it was required to keep a watch(or lend a ear) on terrorist activities; but that did not cut much ice. He continues to be severely reprimanded by the Press and freedom-loving people for what they call "warrantless eavesdropping".

Our Congress Government seems to have caught the same infection. Amar Singh,the Samajwadi Party and sidekick of Mulayam Singh Yadav is fretting and fuming that his phone was tapped and 20 hours of his conversations have been taped.He has named Rajiv Shukla,a journalist turned MP as the main culprit who,according to him, in consort with an industrialist has done this job.Reliance Infocomm,his best friend Anil Ambani's company,ironically has been the service provider. It has been caught in the crossfire. Amar Singh has met the PM and laid the blame squarely on 10 Janpath. He said that he is getting threatening phonecalls for implicating Sonia Gandhi and that should anything happen to him, Sonia Gandhi will be entirely responsible. And he has named Ambika Soni as the hatchet woman. Amar Singh has also met Jayalalitha and Chandrababu Naidu who also have complained of their phones being tapped and is garnering their support to add teeth to his charges.He even had a private hush-hush meeting with Subramanian Swamy. Maneka Gandhi has also joined Amar Singh's club. The winter season in India has changed to a Tap and Tape season.

The grapevine says that the conversations,some of them, are with Bollywood bombshells. Flirtatious talk. And Amar Singh is livid. He has threatened to sue the people he has named; besides creating a ruckus in Parliament aimed at the Government for intruding on his privacy.

It is deja vu! I remember many years ago when the late Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party was in the Central Cabinet,a similar scandal broke out in Karnataka and the poor man lost his job because when he was the CM, it was established that he had authorised the tapping of some specific phone numbers. Also when young turk Chandrashekhar was the Prime minister,leader of the Congress party Rajiv Gandhi decided to withdraw support because he said his phone was being tapped and the Goverment collapsed. Whether big heads will roll this time is anybody's guess.

How does one deal with this penchant for eavesdropping that parties in power have.We have the National Security Act under which phone tapping can be legally done in certain cases, say the well-informed.I have not read the Act and I therefore cannot really comment.

In America, you also have the NSA but it is not an act;it is an agency. The National Security Agency, a low-profile organisation,more powerful and with far greater resources than CIA,but less visible.It is the largest US government intelligence agency.It is the single largest employer of Ph.d. mathemeticians,it has the single largest group of supercomputers and a budget much greater than that of the CIA. It spends about 21 $ million per year on electricity and has 18,000 parking spaces in its headquarters at Fort George,Maryland. It has even a computer chip manufacturing plant. It seems that NSA has been doing the phonetapping for the US Government for quite some time now. New York Times was the first to report it.It refers to phone tapping as a violation of the citizen's constitutional rights. "We have a President,not a King above law".

It is an ethical issue.It has to be secretive and is sensitive.Who should decide and what should be the criteria? Both the US and Indian Governments can learn important and useful lessons if they take the trouble to put politics behind and address the issue objectively. A clear framework can be drawn,with a set of guidelines, which will allow the concerned authority to undertake phonetapping with a proper justification.The National Security Act can be suitably modified to prevent misuse.Or,an altogether new Act can be passed by the legislature.Phone tapping should not be done at the whims and fancies of people in power.There must be a regulating mechanism.

Phonetapping is a double-edged sword. Used correctly, it can serve its specific purpose. Used wrongly, it can do incalculable harm.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Mera Naam Hai Chin Chin Chu

I immediately remembered this old Bollywood song when I recently read an article about how you could get a Chinese name for yourself.I think it was veteran actor Helen who enacted the role of a vamp when she sang this song.I forget the name of the old Hindi movie but that is irrelevant.

What fascinates me is our sudden found enthusisam for China and Chinese.
I lived my early years in Kolkata which in those days had a sizeable Chinese population.They lived as a community together and carried out most of their activities from Chinatown or Kangra as it is called.Till today,a Chinese daily is being published for a readership of about 3000 Chinese reading people.Marxism has deep roots in West Bengal like in Kerala.And at one time Mao and Ho Chi Min were deified.Chinese noodles and Schzwan food are a great hit in the streets of Kolkata and Mumbai too. There are many dialects in China and I am told that Mandarin is more widely used and easier to learn.There is an expression called 'guo cui'.It is not easily translatable as it conveys a whole lot of meanings.For example,mumbaimanoos or bangali bhadralok.When such expressions are used the distinct characteristics of a Mumbaikar or a Kolkattan flashes your mind.

The fascination for names among the Chinese goes back to five milleniums.Emperor Fu Xi set the ball rolling when he assigned names to 100 families of his time.They had three names in one like say Chou En Lai or Mao Tse Tung..The surname,the hereditary name and then the given name.And thanks to their becoming a member of WTO,those who are interacting with the world outside, are also having an English name in addition to their Chinese names.And if you want to take on a Chinese name log on to www.mandarintools.com.I am considering making a visiting card with Chinese letters showing my name as Go Paal Soon.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Many urbane people look at the habit of chewing paan with dismay and askance. However,it is a very popular custom among rural and many urban Indians as well. Chewing paan-supari or beetel-leaves with chuna and arcanut is an addiction with some and an obsession with many. It is considered to be one of the keys to good health,wealth and prosperity. On any auspicious occasion,the function remains incomplete without distributuion of paan and supari among the invitees. Perhaps this practice has been in existence from Vedic times.

Our physicians of yore had discovered paan and found it to be useful for sharpening of appetite and digestion of food. Paan also acts as a germicide in a small way and helps human beings to keep their alimentary canal clean. Beetel chewing not only arrests the fermentation and formation of gases;it also helps to conceal the bad smell in the mouth formed by residual food particles.Consumed in moderation,the use of paan in the morning checks the formation of phlegm and helps in clearing the bowels.

And paan is a great leveller. Whether rich or poor,upper caste or lower caste,educated or uneducated,employed or unemployed,he or she gets attracted to paan like bees to a flower. Paan is associated with Goddess Lakshmi. Men and women are supposed to please Her by chewing paan and receive her blessings. "Thaambula dhaaranam karishye",says the worshipper.

Paan industry is a huge multicrore industry in India. And even in Pakistan,Bangladesh and Nepal,paanchewing is a popular pastime. Sophisticated people though,prefer paan masala a la 'paan paraag' to the basic paan and chuna and beetelnut. Companies manufacturing these products have massive advertising budgets and splash their products over newspapers and televison. They rake in huge profits. Some of them even get mixed up with the underworld mafia.

My father was a great afficianado. In his youth, he suffered from severe tonsilitis. He would lose his voice often,albeit temporarily. And those days surgery was considered to be very risky. Doctors advised him to cultivate the habit of chewing paan with some tobacco in it. He continued this habit for 70 years almost till his last days. When he went abroad,and he travelled extensively,he would take his quota for a few days with him. Replenishment would follow courtesy the pilots of Air India.In one of the cocktail parties,his foreign guests were amused at his habit of paanchewing and the host wanted to taste a paan.When he was offered one,he immediately ejected it out of his mouth saying "how horrible". And later when wine was offered to my father he spit it out in front of his host.They had a hearty laugh.Such was his loyalty to his paan.I too got slowly attracted to this habit and have enjoyed my paanchewing though I have never been able to match him in his consumption rates. He preferred to chew only madrasi paan though other varieties like poona paan,banarsi paan and kolkata paan are also available.

Paan making is an art in itself. Each heartshaped paan is given a layer of chuna and filled with perfumed supari or just broken arcanut and folded with silver foil before placing it in the mouth. Then comes the period of ecstacy when you chew it to your heart's content and after completion spit the reddish liquid out.Government offices are famous for the red colour melange in their walls which bear mute witnesses to the indulgences of the babumoshais. In some cases the paan is split into two down the middle.The two halves are placed together.The fingers are then dipped in a pot containing thick lime & water solution and the top half-leaf is coated with the white paste. It is the alkaline substancce that protects the mouth from the sharp pungency of paan juice. Then a brown liquid would be applied over the white paste and then the green,brown and white tones of the paan form a perfect foil to the spices that are to follow. Finely grated supari,cardamom.fennel seeds,gulkan etc are then added and then the paan is wrapped to form a small cone and held together with a clove stuck through the edges.

Particularly after a hot and spicy meal,the cardamom,fennel and cloves act as chasers. Some paanlovers even have it with jarda or perfumed tobacco. Paan is considered to be an aphrodisiac,an inexpensive substitute for the modern Viagra.Not always though.There are paans which can cost a king's ransom.

The Oriyas refer to their paan as gundi paan.The 'beeda' is popular in the South.It has coconut shavings added to the paan.The Banarsi and Kalkatta meetha and theeka varieties, I suspect, are the most popular,at least in Mumbai. When I have a heavy meal paan is a must. My favourite paan shop is about 10 minutes walking distance from our house. Rammurat and Shriram run a thriving business.It is called Ram paan Parlour. The gliterrati of Mumbai come driving down in hordes in their imported cars to pick up their favourite banarsi or kalkatta meethas. Late Dhirubhai Ambani used to drive down in his Mercedes,chat with the Ram brothers and take back with him about 2 dozen paans. Kokilaben, Tina,Anil and Mukesh and the family continue to patronise the Ram Pan parlour after Dhirubhai's demise though they prefer to have their paans collected by their liveried chauffers who drive down in a Maybach or an Audio. The Ram brothers often fondly recapitulate their conversations with the late Dhirubhai.

Prices vary from Rs 10 to Rs 1500 per paan.They are other paanwallahs who sell even more expensive paans. What they contain is anybody's guess. Like Deve Gowda our ex-PM who likes to call himself a 'humble farmer',I like to remain as a 'humble paanchewer'. I stick to the Rs 10 variety.The Ram brothers make it to my specs and I get the bang for the bucks.