Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Kochi City - Heaven or Hell ??

Kochi no more seems to be the City an ordinary man can afford. Each and every thing that is made available in the markets of Kochi are priced so high that it is beyond logical reason. Having had the privilege of knowing more rapidly developing cities in other South Indian states and living in one of them for a while before returning to the Metro of Kerala, this city sure has gone to dogs when it comes to providing the amenities of day to day life. Clothes, essential commodities, items of low repeatable use, but of fashionable value have all been priced ridiculously high in this city advertised by most tour operators of Kerala to be the most happening place in God’s Own Country. I fail to understand one thing – Whose greed are we, the ordinary citizen on the street, satisfying? Why are most things which sell for half or even one-third the price in other larger cities of India being sold at double or triple the price value they are worth? Even then, you get a quality which is far lower than you would get in malls of other metros which sell similar stuff.

Lately I had an opportunity to visit two of the most well-known malls in the city. The first thing that I was welcomed with was a column in beautifully scripted Malayalam that told me to pay up Rs.100/- as a parking fee, which would be refunded inside the mall. The mall authorities have taken the pains to justify their outrageous demand on another banner that sported a 10-point justification as why they should collect the money. I remembered the fashionable malls of Visakhapatnam which offered much better choice to their costumers that included well-educated men, women and children than both Kochi’s elite malls taken together had on offer. Yet those malls never ever charged a single pie as parking fees. Parking is as tricky a proposition there as much as it is here. Browsing around in the elite malls of MG Road for something that fit my bill and at the same time made an appeal to my mind, I wasted six precious hours of my valuable Sunday in the lifeless interiors of the widely advertised arcades. The shop floor assistant clad in carefully crafted uniform saree seemed to mockingly say: “Do you know where you are standing? Do you think you deserve to shop here? “ Disgusted with the attitude of the floor assistant, who was more interested in me picking up something which need not matter to me at all, I finally had to pick up some make-believe stuff to get my parking fees back as promised at the entry point. I regretted how foolish I was to move out of my previous work place and return to my home state with lots of stars in my eyes. It was a bitter realization that all that glitters is not gold. This city seems to have changed forever. Money is the only thing that seems to bring a smile to the people here. There is no humanitarian touch whatsoever. Even if a shopkeeper has seen you for the umpteenth time, he would be as tight lipped and straight faced as he was the first time one did business with him. And this they say is ‘God’s Own Country’. Dear God! Are you listening??

The way this city and the people have changed, made me compare Kochi with Vizag, the fastest developing city on the east coast where I stayed for four years before returning to Kochi. That city is developing at such a feverish pace that many national and international companies are vying for a place to open shop in its beautiful locales. The amount of money that is in circulation in that city is far far higher than any Kochiite can imagine. There are filthy rich businessmen who own lands as much and more as the size of two or three districts of Kerala and also the ordinary casual labourer who is more respectable about his profession than the union-led monster labourers of Kerala. The rich never show off their riches except for the posh cars they drive around and the poor never bother to conceal their penury. They seem to be equally happy and surprisingly, their youngsters seem to be quite disciplined and humble – incomparable to the wards of similar parents of Kerala. All through my four years of stay in that city, not a single day’s work was affected by something called a ‘bandh’ or a ‘hartal’ which has become a routine affair in the daily life of each Keralite. The VMC busted many buildings and land owned by the rich and the powerful to make way for top-class roads and avenues inside the city prior to the President’s Fleet Review that the city hosted with pride in 2006. Private buses are unheard of in that city which lives on the regular schedule of city buses run by the APSRTC. I never saw a bus that was grossly untidy and unkempt among the city buses. The long distance buses are far more luxurious and less cheaper than the ones our very own KSRTC flouts around with pride. All routes are numbered and it has been like that for a very long time. People, though far less educated – I mean here the ordinary lot – than the extra geniuses of Kerala, show much discipline and social amity on public transports and public places.

The traffic sense of the average Gulte youngster is atrocious but much balanced when compared to the murderous monster drivers of the Red Killer buses of Kochi. But I must confess that the auto drivers in all cities are a common breed. I wonder whether they undergo organized cross-training sessions!! They behave the same everywhere. The smarter you are with them, the better they behave with you. But, unlike in God’s Own Kochi, no auto driver was heard of taking his passengers on a joy ride before dropping them off at the location which was actually only a few hundred meters ahead of the hiring spot. Ladies and children can safely walk on the roads even past midnight in Vizag city without fear of mugging and rape. All this would seem unbelievable when you would recollect that the city is pretty much close to the highly active Agency area which teems with Naxalites. The city boasts of huge as well as small Spencer’s outlets, Magna shopping plazas, the cheap and best choice called Big Bazaar all co-existing cosily with the city’s very own small grocery shops which are patronized by the public that also shop at the big names. I never saw any small time shopkeeper shut shop because of the large number of hi-tech shopping malls that came up in that city in a very short span of two years. There are places near the beach where people could safely spend the whole night without any thug daring to touch them. There is a beautifully maintained Submarine museum right on the beach – the only one in India and probably in the whole of Asia. People have ample places to just sit and while away a holiday afternoon in the cosy locales of VUDA park, Kailasagiri, RK Beach, MGM Park or just stroll along the aesthetically maintained beach side walkways. The only comparable site in Kochi is the cozy walkways along the residential accommodation of Port Trust Captains on Wellington Island, which now-a-days have many barricades in between.

Coming to daily life : Vegetables and groceries are one of the cheapest I have ever seen. Cheaper even than Bombay, Delhi and Goa. The reason, the farm produce is first distributed to feed Andhra before it is allocated for sale outside the State. Clothes – although branded clothes come at the same price tag as is elsewhere, there are equally good materials manufactured and marketed by small industries in and around Vizag which excel in quality but compete less in terms of pricing. These allow the normal man to choose from a wide variety. I experimented many times by picking up sarees for my good lady from Vizag and then comparing the price of the same item in the elite malls of Kochi through my friends. The difference was mind-boggling. There is at least a difference of 50% on all fashionable clothing stuff that is sold in more organized malls of Vizag and their far cousins of Kochi. Vizag turned out to be cheaper buy always and in every aspect. Coming to education : I would have an army of parents lined up behind me to say ‘Aye Aye’ when I make the statement that school education in Vizag is a far better bet than that of Kochi or anywhere else in Kerala. The statistics itself is proof. Take the number of toppers in ITT-JEE and All India Medical and Engineering Entrance tests that +2 students appear for every year. Take the results of the Civil Services Mains and Interviews that select the best administrators of the country. Most of them are from Andhra. The need to study hard and excel is driven into the brains of children across financial classes very early in their childhood. The teachers excel in their profession, so do the students. The fees are high, of course. But one can afford to pay a higher fee for his or her child’s education when he or she need not pay exorbitantly high prices for filling up their stomachs each day or to provide a roof over their head. Vizag has the cheapest rates of house rents in most of South India.

All this doesn’t mean that the politicians and administrators are the first cousins of the legendary upright kings of our famous epics. They hog quite a bit of taxpayers money in the name of development. But, then, they are able to showcase development and bring them to the benefit of the masses. As long as the common man is taken care of, there are no cribs. The government agencies do their best to make life in the city as comfortable as possible for the citizens. No protest marches or 'dharnas' are required to achieve this aim. They seem to be counting them as part of the crowd even when they were eating a chunk of bread behind their backs. The few upright souls in the political and administrative fibre were able to move the machinery with their single-minded and unflinching efforts. That probably is the success of Vizag. There is much to emulate. But are our white cotton dhoti-clad revolutionaries and babus listening ??

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Is Nalini's Repentence Genuine ?

It was a day just like any other pre-exam night for a student preparing for his University exams. I had just finished for the night and was preparing to go to sleep when I heard a faint chorus that appeared to be that usual night time 'jaatha' the politically active working men of my neighbourhood used to take out at regular intervals in the darkness of the power-cut ridden nights. This used to be their way of showcasing their allegiance to their political beliefs of the time after they get home from their work places. The subject matters of these nocturnal 'jaathas' were aimed to 'sensitise' the neighbourhood of the 'deeds' or 'misdeeds' of the Ruling or the Opposition fronts.

Tonight as the chorus drew close, I easily recognised the familiar voices of neighbourhood men shouting out slogans which, I noticed, was some way different from the usual aggressive tone. I casually glanced at the wall clock and saw that the time was just past midnight. The date had just rolled over to 22 May . The time was unusual for such a demonstration. I decided to listen intently to the far cries which now obviously had a tone of grief - it appeared the leader of the 'jaatha' was struggling to fight back tears as he shouted the slogans. Then it slowly dawned on me as I deciphered word after broken word that flowed clear through the stillness of the night - They were announcing the unbelievable fact of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. I couldn't believe my ears. Barely a week before had Rajiv Gandhi visited our City and made his typical speech punctuated with the familiar '.. Desh ke kone kone mein .. ' and '.. Bhaiyon or Behno ..' statements, which was attended by a multitude of men, women and children from across party lines. Across the borders of our property, I could see lights popping up from households that were waking up in the middle of the night to hear the news. Shaking, I tip-toed to the bedroom of my parents and woke them up and told the news. I remember tuning the radio to the BBC to get a confirmation on the horrifying news. The major part of that night, my family spent discussing the ghastly act wondering who could have have had the guts to go to such lengths as to take out leaders of a country through such inhuman acts.

The rest is history. The gory images of the dead that flashed in the newspapers and on the screens, the images of Jayanthi Natarajan weeping like a school kid, the images of the photographs that were developed from the camera that was recovered from the site of the assassination, the stories that filled up tonnes of newsprint, the mysterious delay in taking Commando action to catch the suspects alive in a colony at Bangalore a few weeks later, the photographs of the bodies of the suspected masterminds of the assassination that were published in the newspapers - all flow into my memory like a fresh monsoon stream gushing down the green hills of Wynad.

I never had any particular affinity to any political party ever in my days in school as well as college, and I am proud that I am able to carry on without any, even today. However, I believed, that there was something in Rajiv Gandhi which most other politicians of our country lacked in those days and are still lacking. He had some kind of fire in him that could carry the crowd along. He was bold enough to take stern action in Sri Lanka as well as in Maldives. He had an international appeal which no other minister or PM of the governments of our immediate past and of the present could ever think of. He definitely had a vision, though highly debatable for a vibrant future for India, for which he had the guts to put in practice. Later on, when I started reading about the political setup of our nation I came to know of the cock-eyed advisors he kept, which undoubtedly made him fall from power, never to return and in a way spell the end of the much debated dynastic politics.

Over one-and-a-half decades later, today we have news that the last and only active link to the case - Nalini - who is in prison with a commuted life sentence, is repentant about the whole ghastly act she aided and abetted fully aware of what the ultimate aim was, of her husband (lover) and his friends. I sincerely believe that this is a ploy coming out of the brains of a highly intelligent, highly motivated and adequately trained agent as a prelude to larger plan of action, the first step of which is to break free from prison and from the hands of the Indian people. If one can see, this woman has had her way out in each and every thing that she wanted ever since she was caught on suspicion and later sent to jail on a death warrant. These include the marriage that she performed with her lover and one of the prime accused in the case, the baby that she delivered, the studies that she pursued and now, her ultimate goal is to break free from the soft hands of the Indian public and for that she has started a different kind of drama in which she knows - and she has already intelligently roped in flamboyant Indian media too - the need for garnering the emotions and support of the women of the Indian nation; a ploy that is bound to fetch her far-reaching results; the ultimate being to convince the unyielding men through their wives, girlfriends, daughters and even mistresses to take the decision to set her free.

Having had opportunity to tour the interiors of Tamil Nadu and more intensely, the sensitive neighbourhoods of Rameshwaram and Nagapattinam, I have had occasions in which I could interact directly with the local population on issues related to essential survival. I can tell with confidence that each and every fisher-man's hut along the sea coast that borders the BoB and the SE Arabian Sea on the Tamil Nadu coast is totally aware of what is going on in the background, which always remain opaque to our eyes. They know very well what is going to happen and when. It is we, who do not have direct access to them, who have to depend upon the powerful Indian media of today to hear and see what the media wants you to see and know. One must remember that the media is not always honest. Gone are the days when the good old Doordarshan and Aakashvani were tuned into by the nation to seek reliable information on issues of National Security and of National importance. They still remain so in perfectly judging what amount of news need to be telecast or broadcast and when. Unfortunately, there is no proper guidance to harness the power they actually wield, in an intelligent manner. The development of the privately owned news channels have eclipsed the existence of the good old friends. These new comers are into the business of money making and do not owe much of social responsibility. They talk too much about social responsibility as it needs to be kept that way as a USP for their own survival in today's fast world. The ordinary Indian would have to brand himself as the most foolish and idiotic of all species on earth if he or she is ready to believe that an educated, intelligent and sharp woman like Nalini did not know what was happening behind her back or in front of her. Her eyes tell it all, if not her words.

Jails are designed to psychologically crush a criminal by their high walls, dark cells and strict regimen supplemented in adequate measure by physical torture meted out to the more dreaded ones. However, experienced jailors would admit that it is the apparently dumb, but actually smart, scheming and intelligent criminals that give them the hardest of all times. Even the ruthless British jailors of the mother of all jails - the Cellular Jail at Port Blair - were brought to their knees by them. The very fact that Nalini could complete degree after degree sitting beneath the 'protection' that the jail walls provided unmindful of the scathe and disgust she generated for herself outside the walls and most of all commendably overcoming the overwhelming psychological pressure that the physical environment inside the jail is bound to affect an ordinary woman, speak for itself in support of my premise in this direction. Only a disciplined and psychologically trained professional can out bear such mental pressure. But here, we see a quasi-mastermind planning to walk free and most of our 'Proud and Independent' media supporting her intention in more ways than one. There are discussions, panel discussions and video conferences complete with news breaks, coffee breaks and ad breaks that are aired by the 'professional newsmen' to kill time and gain cheap popularity among the people of India on an issue that ought not be discussed in public at such regular intervals. Each time these channels show the deftly chosen pictures; their editors, production floor managers and high profile reporters and news readers - superbly educated and fashionably intelligent as they may seem - are knowingly or unknowingly becoming part of a cunning game plan that been fabricated and has been put into action by some nasty rat who resides inside or outside our own ship : that is our homeland - India.

It is high time we take cognizance of this multi-factored game that is being played on us as a nation. I saw in disbelief the reports of the visit of Mrs. Priyanka Vadra, the daughter of the slain leader to the quasi-mastermind behind the killing of her father. The reason for the visit and what transpired between the visitor and the visited is best known to them both and God above. I would not like to dwell upon this any further. I just wondered, and many of my friends also wondered with me, if the families of those policemen and the poor, ordinary villagers who were blasted into pieces along with Rajiv Gandhi would ever forgive Nalini and her comrades - both dead and alive - in any of their re-births, let alone now? Has anyone ever thought of the numerous officers and men of our Armed Forces who have given up their lives in Sri Lanka fighting her like-minded brethren a long time ago? Here we are, facing shameless, droning, lip-sticked, fashionably bespectacled faces of the media babbling away at us and proudly announcing the progress of the carefully scripted game that cursed woman is playing deftly on each one of our minds. She should have been buried long back.