Thursday, December 29, 2005

ON A DEVASTATED ISLAND - AN ANCIENT TRIBE SURVIVES

Everything about the Andaman and Nicobar islands can leave the Indian mainlander staring with wide-eyed wonderment. For most journalists it was a similar experience - learning how these remote and largely inaccessible islands function, how their ancient tribes live and of course discover the endless beauty of its shores and what a world away these tiny dots in the ocean are from anything we see on the mainland. Vishnu Som, the Associate Editor (Defence) at NDTV was among the first journalists who landed in Car Nicobar after the December 26th tsunami. Here is his account of what he saw, what moved him and what became of one of the world's oldest tribes – the Shompen.


From Heaven to Hell: The Great Nicobar Story

By Vishnu Som Associate Editor (Defence), NDTV

Ever had the feeling of the ground sinking under your feet? It's a strange feeling, the earth gently quivering, not quite an earthquake, but not quite normal either. On Great Nicobar Island, India's southernmost landmass, nothing was normal. Ever since the magnitude 9 earthquake struck, just 40 kms away from where I was reporting, everything had gone topsy-turvy.

Late one evening, as I prepared for a live standup report from Cambell Bay, a small township on the northeast of the island, the ground started shaking again. Should I run, was this a major aftershock ... was another Tsunami just around the corner? Great Nicobar felt like a sinking ship, except that there were no lifeboats. In fact, there was nothing and no one really knew what to expect next. On the one remaining road which connected Campbell Bay and the tiny airstrip the Japanese had built during the Second World War, there were families of crabs, dozens of them, scurrying around. Inside the nearby Coast Guard headquarters, now partially under water, there was only one resident. A crocodile.

The waters of the Bay of Bengal were now just 20 feet away from us. If the waters rose even one foot more, the road would be under water and the only link to the airstrip would be severed. Not that it really mattered. Planes couldn't operate onto the airstrip at night. Rescue would not be possible. But the most frightening reality of Great Nicobar wasn't the aftershocks, or the crashing waves. It was the fact that there were no dead bodies, no over-filled hospitals, no stench of death and devastation and no illness. Those who had survived were in a handful of relief camps. Those who weren't there were dead, their bodies somewhere out there in the ocean, never to be recovered.

The knowledge of death brings with it a sense of closure. For the first several days after the Tsunami, many of those who made it to the relief camps lived with a sense of hope. Sure, their loved ones were missing but who was to say that they were dead?Thousands of people from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are still missing. They have not survived. It's a reality many survivors on the islands have no choice but to slowly come to accept .

Elsewhere on the island, a remarkable story of surviving the odds. The Shompen, perhaps the most isolated tribe in the world date back between 30,000 and 70,000 years. Unlike some of the other tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar chain, the Shompen have conscientiously avoided any contact with `civilization,' content in living off the thick jungles which form the core of the island.Very little is known of the tribe. They are extremely shy, scurrying into the jungles at the sound of helicopters. Armed with poison-tipped spears, the nomadic Shompen hunt wild boar and fish in rivulets which run through the island.

The Shompen may have survived 70,000 years but had any of the 200 tribals survived the wrath of the Tsunami? I joined commandos of the Indian Navy in trying to find out.A day earlier, the first signs that at least some members of the tribe may have made it. Two naval pilots had spotted a Shompen dwelling in a densely forested area along a narrow rivulet. Today, it was time to verify the survival of the tribe.

With the jungles on the island too thick to land a helicopter, I was winched down into a narrow opening and joined by a young commando, a Lieutenant from the Navy in hiking to the Shompen village."Be careful where you tread. This undergrowth is infested with snakes and scoropns. Stay clear of the rivulet, there may be crocs" I was warned. As I hiked along the slippery, muddy slopes alongside the rivulet, falling to my knees every fifty metres or so, I spotted the Shompen village - 6 small thatched structures built on stilts at least 15 feet high and 3 smaller enclosed pens nearby. Wading across the rivulet and climbing the thick slope on the opposite side, we reached the dwelling.

There were no Shompen.

This was a deserted village. Or was it?"They're here said Lieutenant K U Singh. And they're watching. They're probably a 100 metres away from us looking on at us from somewhere there" he said pointing to the thick forests which ringed one side of the village. And sure enough, the signs of the tribe having survived were all there. Smoke from what looked like a cooking utensil, freshly cut fruit, footprints in the mud and wild boar in bamboo cages under the Shompen huts. Soon, it was time to leave. No one really knew about the behaviour patterns of the Shompen and there was every possibility that they could attack. In any event, our goal was not to disturb the tribe, only verify their survival through a natural disaster of unimaginable proportions.

The next day, my last on Great Nicobar, was perhaps the ultimate reality check, an opportunity to view the island from the air, and gauge the true extent of the topographical damage.The Navy flew me along the coastline. Within minutes we were at Indira Point, the southern-most point of India. The lighthouse at the southern tip of the island was ten feet under water, the 16 people who worked here, presumed dead. They had no chance. The Tsunami waves struck the lighthouse less than 5 minutes after they were triggered by the earthquake.

But it was the Western coastline of the islands where the fury of the Tsunami was most evident. Every few kilometers, there were dagger-like blows into the jungles along the coast, sea water making its way upto three kilometers inland, parts of the island completely cut-off, now islands by themselves. However, there was one silver-lining. The parts of the island worst hit by the Tsunami were also the least populated and that really was the saving grace on Great Nicobar. Only 7,500 people lived on the island. 567 are thought to have died. Only 27 bodies have been found, of which just 10 have been identified.

For me as a journalist, the Great Nicobar story was not just about death and suffering. It was also about survival, courtesy a few good men, soldiers of the Indian Army, a few Coast Guard Officers, transport pilots of the Indian Air Force and helicopter pilots of the Indian Navy.Two stories stands out.

Within days of the Tsunami, two Navy pilots flying a tiny Chetak helicopter off the deck of a destroyer rescued a remarkable 170 people from a settlement to the south of Campbell Bay. On each trip, their helicopter could not carry more than 2 survivors but that didn't deter them. They kept flying for more than 5 hours non-stop, landing more than a 100 times in order to bring trapped islanders to safety.

Elsewhere, a young Major of the Indian Army felt that those who survived the disaster may have lost everything, but shouldn't feel that they have lost their dignity. And so, he ordered his soldiers out of their barracks and made them camp outside in the open, while survivors were put into the soldier's barracks and given three proper meals a day.No one knows what is going to happen to Great Nicobar. Most of the settlers who were brought here in the late sixties have lost everything. Most families worked on betel nut and coconut plantations which have been devastated by the giant waves. It takes between 12-14 years for these trees to grow back to their full height. Earning a living off these plantations is just not a possibility.

And then there's the fear factor.

Tremors continue to be felt on the island and the coastline has receded sharply. Sea water levels remain higher than normal. All settlements will have to move further inland, a process of resettlement which may take years.Great Nicobar was a tropical paradise. Warm seas, a stunning coastline, a laid back life. Today, it seems to have gone back a century. A handful of settlers, a handful of soldiers and ofcourse the ever-present Shompen.

(Vishnu Som was the first journalist into Great Nicobar Island and the first to independently corroborate the survival of the Shompen tribe.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

DAUGHTERS OF THE WAVE, WALK ON



This is a piece I wrote for the first anniversary of the tsunami. I was given all of three days to shoot this story and with almost a month of rain and floods, I had little time to research what was really going on in the tsunami-affected areas. I employed three strands in my story to give viewers a big picture – that the men turned lazy, that women are pulling their weight with help from banks and donor agencies and a strong culture of self-help groups, and that the grief for individual families is still very raw and fresh. Its been re-written in parts to make it a print script. Here it is.

Across Tamil Nadu's tsunami-ravaged coast-line some scenes are common – women gathered in groups – some are weaving baskets, some others are making soaps, somewhere else they’re making dolls, yet another group is making slippers…. the list is long and the road has been hard. But many of these women of the tsunami have shown that the path to salvation is through self-help.

When Palamma returns with her large metal carrier – you know shes been at work selling fish. She didn't make much money today but shes grateful that her familiar routine has been restored. This routine has returned after months of struggle. The fishermen were first beset by a fear of the ocean, then they were happy to live off generous NGO and government doles. But their inaction was making Palamma and many fish-sellers like her - desperate. So she and the other women in the hamlet started applying pressure on the men. Palamma says, “We told them not to be scared and to overcome their fears. We said, the tsunami wasn’t going to come again so they should start their regular fishing and then slowly things began.”

The collector of Nagapattinam, Dr. J Radhakrishnan, a man responsible for reducing the turnaround time on restoring livelihood says that Palamma’s hamlet of Nambiar Nagar set off a trend. “'When the catch came and it was so huge the word went around to the other hamlets. The catalystic role played by the women in that hamlet was perhaps very critical for the other hamlets to realise the bounty available in the sea for them to follow suit and then it caught on like fire and people went fishing... this is one area where I am very thankful to the fisherwomen.”

But fishing activity is going through its annual lean season again and today in most villages you’ll find groups of men at street-corners playing cards.

But a once highly insular fishing community has learnt one very hard lesson – the importance of an alternative livelihood – another skill that can sustain them. Women have shown the lead by coming together in these self-help groups to learn new skills and men are now seeing its virtues.



Sister Lily Pushpam from an NGO called the Daughters of Mary Immaculate has been training self-help groups (SHG’s) for the past 12 years. We met her as she was beginning training with a new group of women. She says the burden of the times is shared unequally. She observes, “Men actually have become lazy because after the tsunami NGO's and voluntary organisations have given enough materials....so their mentality today is to ask of whoever comes from outside. They ask for money or materials. The first question is always - what are you going to give?”

But womens groups are also more successful because of their higher credit-worthiness and SHG’s in Nagapattinam have already saved upto 6 crore rupees! It's real empowerment for people like Kavitha. She had been a housewife till the tsunami forced her out, because it killed her husband. After learning printing she makes about 2700 rupees a month – enough to sustain her young son and her. She prints bags that carry the brand name of the products made by the women of Nagapattinam – 'Alai Magal' or 'daughter of the wave'. Then Kavitha's along with the products of hundreds of other groups travels to a specially set up market called ‘Rural Bazaar’ and also to exhibitions in different cities. Through the bazaar one group has even received an order of candles worth 5 million rupees from Netherlands. But the scenario is not entirely optimistic. The difficulty lies in finding and sustaining markets for these products. The district administration has come out with a brochure on all the available products but even they are nervous about the challenges. Dr. J Radhakrishnan says, “What we are worried about is the capacity of these SHG's to manage the requirements of the market once they attain the quality.”

If you want to help you should visit a store called ‘Tsunami ka dukaan’ that has opened recently in Pondicherry. (Its very close to Goubert Avenue. Ask for an art gallery called ‘Aurodhaan’ and they’ll direct you.) The process of the governments disengagement from rehabilitation can only begin once people start patronizing such stores. This enterprise shown by the victims has had both monetary and psychological benefits. Its helped soothe traumatized minds where hope and despair can be easy bedfellows.

I found that the people most desperately searching for a new reason to exist are parents who lost all their little children to the tsunami. One such couple is Selvi and Vijaykumar. The couple lost all their five daughters to the tsunami. But life throbs inside Selvi again. She was one of 50 women who underwent a surgery to reverse an earlier sterilization operation. Only four women have been able to conceive so far and Selvi is one of them. But having this baby will be very different for her. Her husband remains slumped in mourning, a strong smell of alcohol surrounds him, he speaks reluctantly and his face contorts with grief at the mention of his five girls. The name of ‘Sneha’, his favourite daughter, is etched across his heart. He says, “I just drink to forget….i loved Sneha because she was just like a boy. Very boisterous and playful. No matter what time I came home, she’d be awake, waiting for me. She would only go to bed after I bought her a little trifle.’

Vijaykumar has contemplated suicide very often. But somewhere deep inside he does hope to be holding his sixth child soon. Palamma hopes to be making more money once the lean season gets over and the women who are diligently employing their new skills are hoping their products will continue to inspire clients. For now, if you're looking for hope, you'll find it in Nagapattinam.

THINKING ALOUD

Viewers often accuse the media of jumping from story to story without telling them enough about anything and without doing enough follow-ups. It’s a valid criticism. Then, why I wonder, is the market not dictating terms to news-channels? Why isn’t there a greater need for independent documentary film-makers who can bring in the analysis and follow-ups that the viewers are looking for?

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

WAKE-UP CALL IN TRICHY

One afternoon while covering the floods in Trichy I found myself wading through knee-deep water in the interiors of a residential colony. It was lunch-time but I figured if I tried to get out it will take me half an hour. 45 minutes for lunch (I eat slowly) and then another 30 to get back in. Not worth it. Skip lunch and continue wading.

By the time I got back to my hotel room at 10 pm, I was ragingly ravenous. I decided dinner had to be elaborate and stylish. I opened the menu and went straight for the white meat. I wanted soft, tender chicken, preferably marinated, drenched in a sweet-and-sour sauce with a generous dollop of mashed potatoes.

With such longing in my heart, I searched for the chicken dishes. I found the page but it was titled, (brace yourself) ‘Cock-a-doodle-do’.


All plans of an elaborate dinner were hastily abandoned. I settled for rice.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

ANGREJI - ALL OUR OWN

The English language is a rich source of laughter when employed by those who do not speak it entirely well. Here are two instances of considerable distortion of the correct, beautiful thing. I doubt if the persons who uttered the words will ever visit my blog, but i will spare them the embarrassment by avoiding their names.

"Why did you go for Khushboo's throat like this?", I quizzed a politician. Denying the charge, he replied, "Naw, naw, we did not do any protest... the women were naturally aroused when they heard khushboo." (Then they do pretty strange things when naturally aroused.)

A sweet old man, who is a bit of a "source" wanted me to call him before I went over to his house. He likes to speak my language - the language of the young and trendy, so he said, "Please give me a tune before you come." I am going to meet him now after giving him that tune.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

"SHOPPERS BATTLE TERRORISM", REPORTERS


It’s a post that has been floating around in my head for the last 10 days – ever since the Delhi blasts happened. Perhaps the events of that day have already faded from public memory but I think I need to get it out of head anyway.

This is primarily a rant against television news. I don’t know how many of you felt the same irritation I experienced while watching television the following morning.

The reportage of the blasts was muddled, jingoistic and trivial all at once. I got more information out of watching 5 minutes of BBC World than I did out of watching 20 minutes of various Indian channels.

The first complaint is that this expression ‘Dilhi dilwaalo ki’ (loosely translated….Delhi – city with a heart) suddenly caught the fancy of reporters and interviewees alike. But it is so hopelessly out-of-sync with Delhi as we know it that it sounded only superficial - hardly creating a lump in the throat that it was perhaps expected to. Also, faced with such a unique situation, most people do respond humanely. And then the very next morning they go back to fighting with their neighbours over water and parking space. So were we really expected to buy this ‘dilwalo ki’ business?

The other triviality that was covered ad nauseam was the fact that shop-keepers around the blast sites had opened up the very next day for business. Reporters seemed to want us to believe that it was their resilience and their will to fight the terrorists that made them do so. But it sounded extremely insincere. Shoppers were interviewed and many of them said, “life goes on.” Of course, “life does go on”, but such banal philosophy on the morning of the blasts sounds insensitive not resilient.

To me, it seemed like these people were back on the streets simply because they knew that lightning does not strike in the same place twice or because of that old “It-will-not-happen-to-me” attitude. But, armed with heavy shopping bags, these shoppers were projected as some kind of exalted heroes at the forefront of the battle against terrorism.

The problem with 24-hour TV news is that it is an insatiable monster. So anything you feed it, it will eat. I can shrink the entire mornings coverage of the blasts in a few lines.

Shops around the blast sites have re-opened for business. Shop-keepers here say they are not going to be intimidated by the designs of a few terrorists. But it also happens to be one day before Diwali – the best time for business. And sure enough, the shoppers are back. Meanwhile, the death toll from last evenings blasts has gone up to xyz. A little-known group called so-and-so has claimed responsibility for the attacks and the Delhi police is investigating the organizations various other links. Raids have been conducted in 20 locations and x number of people have been arrested and interrogated.

8 lines. But on television somewhere between the barrage of useless, irrelevant un-information, we had to glean this hard kernel of real news.







Sunday, October 23, 2005

A MEETING WITH GERE



You meet the gorgeous man from ‘Pretty Woman’ and one of the first things he does is show you a tear in his trousers. Just as he was sitting down for the interview Richard Gere said to me, “I’m so jet-lagged and tired… look even my trousers are torn.” I just smiled and said, “Welcome to chennai.” (?? D’Oh!!?)

From then on I was determined to be a better conversationalist. The moments while your cameraman is checking the lights and sound are always extremely awkward. The interviewee is sitting right there in front of you and you’ve got to make easy conversation till you can abruptly start when you hear the word, “rolling”. What easy conversation do you make with Richard Gere? Turned out I didn’t have to worry about that. Gere is a seasoned TV interviewee.

He began to fill the space by beginning with, “Have we met before? You looked so familiar sitting there in the press conference.” (I was meeting him in an ante-room after his presser with Kamal Hassan, Parmeshwar Godrej and Kalanidhi Maran) I told him we hadn’t, although I was flattered for some reason. We started talking about this and that and he enquired about Dr. Prannoy Roy. But even as we talked, I began to get a bit fidgety because I was still not getting the green signal from my cameramen. Richard Gere immediately noticed that and wonderful gentleman that he is, asked me if the other people in the room were making me nervous. I assured him they weren’t and a nice woman from ABC news (cant remember her name now but her handshake is memorable… she was very strong), also chipped in with, “Its her cameramen who are making her nervous.”

Anyway, so the interview finally began. My introduction to camera was smooth and I set him talking about his mission of spreading awareness on HIV and AIDS. He has given these interviews many, many times so his sentences flowed like an extension of repeated thought. For an interviewer, that is always disheartening. Its as if your questions are not inspiring your interviewee to think anew about the same things.

However, I felt his body language change a little bit after the third question. I had kept the best questions for later. His reply was more spontaneous and thinking yet clear and concise. But just as I was settling in, his manager warned me that I could ask only one more question. My exclusive time with him had been eaten up by the technical delay.

So I shot my last question to which I think he gave me his most spontaneous answer. I was very pleased but had to wind up, at the point where I thought it was really getting interesting. Imagine my delight when he said, “I wish we had more time.” I could only say, “Me too.”

Incidentally, white hair and torn trousers have never looked more becoming on a man.







Wednesday, October 19, 2005

HELLO-SNARL-GOODBYE

You'd expect the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) to be an approachable, welcoming body, right? You'd expect it to have people who are benign, learned and kind, right? You'd expect it to be headed by persons who truly believe in an egalitarian society, right? And most of all, you'd expect it to have people willing to listen, right? Wrong.

I called the State Human Rights Commission in Chennai and asked to speak to one of its members - Justice S Thangaraj (former judge of the Madras High Court). When he came on the line, I wished him good afternoon, very politely, and introduced myself. Anyone who doesnt wish you back is strange. And he was. Undeterred I proceeded to ask him the status on a particular complaint and enquired when the investigation would be complete.

But instead of answering my questions, he began to yell at me! He ticked me off for nosing around and said I had no business filing such stories. Also, he made the bizarre allegation that I ought not to be calling him, but coming in person. So, if I was to land up at the SHRC office and find the venerable Justice S Thangaraj out of his seat, thats alright. Afterall, I have no business to try and speak with him on the phone before that!! It took me a moment to understand the ludicrous comment he had just made but when I finally recovered, to defend myself, he hung up on me mid-sentence and didnt pick up that line despite many attempts to call back.

My rationate is very simple - if this is how he treats me, this is probably how he treats people who appear before the Commission with complaints. And people who do are generally very poor, politically voiceless and deeply wronged. Upon such people we have unleashed the likes of Justice S Thangaraj.

Friday, October 14, 2005

STORY?!

Apologies to those who tuned in. The story must have been dropped at the last minute. Such are the vagaries of television news. Sigh... It did go on air today though. (14th), but guess what, i missed it too.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

IIPM vs BLOGGERS

Okay.. Yet another update. Though i have the sinking feeling very few people will read this on time. The blogger story will go on air NOW. The latest I know is that its going on air on the 8 and 9 'o' clock bulletins on NDTV 24*7 on 13th October. Thats right - tonight.

But if you miss it - take heart. We are planning to do a longer story on blogging pegged around this issue. Do leave your thoughts here on possible angles to such a story.

The last time we did such a story I think there was some confusion on who the target audience should be. Should it be the vast majority who do not blog and thus run the risk of perhaps not getting them interested in the topic or do we talk to bloggers but run the risk of telling them things they already know. I guess like a good general news feature it should interest anyone - So how do you do that? Will be picking my brain over that.


Saturday, October 01, 2005

PRESS, POLICE AND PRIVACY



Recently a Tamil newspaper called ‘Dina Malar’ did something despicable to increase their sales. Their photographer, invited to cover a fashion show at a club called ‘Pasha’, trained his lens instead on couples on the dance floor. Close-ups of couples smooching and drinking were then splattered all over the newspaper - an utter and complete violation of journalistic ethic because it was a brazen invasion of privacy.

But before the outrage could even begin, the police stepped in and did something even more ridiculous. They arrested two staff members at the hotel where the pictures were taken! The charges against them were that they were permitting obscene behaviour and operating the bar without a license.

A favourite with Chennaiites - 'Pasha' will have to be on mute for the next three months according to court orders.

The police wants us to believe that the photographs of the smooches was the tip of the ice-berg. But hey…we all party and go clubbing. I have never seen anything that descends into something so obscene that people need to be arrested for it. 'Pasha' was made to appear like a den of vice, which it is not.

The buzz for a while was that the police was looking for the couples who were photographed kissing on the dance floor. Is anyone looking for that photographer?

ERROR IN CONNECTION



I called Airport Enquiry at 11:45 pm on the night following the strike called by Left unions all over the country. All I needed was to find out when the Thai Airways flight from Colombo would land. A gruff sounding man answered the phone. I was at the wrong place, he said, but instead of giving me the correct number he hung up.

Dialing another number led to an ‘error in connection’ message. The third line was not in existence either. The fourth line I tried, a lady picked up the phone. She told me I was calling the wrong number and kindly gave me the right one. But that line didn’t exist as well! I called back the number with the same lady at the end of the line. She tried connecting me to Thai Airways – no reply. I tried the last enquiry number she gave me. Dead again.

Dipanker Mukherjee of the CPI(M) was in the NDTV studio, brandishing a document on their alternative to privatization of airports. They would do well to begin with a damn enquiry number that works.

Its difficult to be sympathetic towards government employees who promise to run your airports efficiently, when they can barely tell you whether a flight has landed.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

THE TRAUMA OF SUICIDE SURVIVAL

The number of young women between the age group of 15 to 25 attempting suicide by consuming acid is on the rise. According to hospital records more than 6000 such patients were admitted to various government hospitals in Chennai city last year. Nearly 5700 survived. But that's the problem. It's where the tragedy actually begins.

Dr. S M Chandramohan, Professor of Gastroenterology at the Government Royapettah Hospital says, "When they consume acid, they think they're going to die. But they dont die. Its a myth."

Emotionally vulnerable women reach for the cheapest, most accessible option available to kill themselves - bathroom cleaners at home that contain acid. While an acid concentrate in a chemistry lab is enough to kill, diluted cleaning acids stop short. They are potent enough to burn up your innards but not enough to kill you. So most people live but end up destroying their lives.

They are unable to eat, talk or even swallow their own saliva! The entire apparatus from the oesophagus to the stomach is rendered useless. Making these patients eat again, is the first priority for doctors. In fact, Dr. Chandramohan has pioneered a new surgical method to enable patients to do so. He says, "The south Indian stomach is an extremely bulky one because we are traditional rice eaters. This has come in handy - we are able to stretch the stomach right upto the mouth and once they are connected patients can eat again."

I found this solution extremely interesting.

Consuming acid has become such a disturbingly common method of suicide that the Health Secretary of Tamil Nadu is now planning to write to the Drug Controller to request that cleaning acids be made available in soap form.

If ever you're in the presence of someone who has just consumed acid, remember NOT to make them throw it up. That will only re-expose their insides to the corrosive liquid. Give them some water (if they can manage to down it) and rush them to a hospital.

Friday, September 02, 2005

THE INSIGHT INTO A STORY


Sometimes an insight into a story comes from unrelated events.

I was in Pudukottai in southern Tamil Nadu, doing a story on a group of Muslim women who have set up an all-womens jamaat. That is a big deal because traditionally the jamaat has been a male bastion. The jamaat is attached to every mosque and plays the role of conscience-keeper and arbitrator, doling out justice for the people who come before it.

But justice is not always done. To begin with, muslim women are not allowed to appear before the all-male jamaat. (Here, im talking only of Pudukottai. Maybe its different in other parts of the world). So if its a divorce, the husband is present to plead his case but the female is represented by a brother or father.


One of the womens jamaat members said, "The woman is involved in the dispute, but when it comes to the final resolution, she is nowhere in the picture!"

The all-womens jamaat was set up to deal with such and various other discriminatory practices. Sharifa Khanam, a bold, brassy woman set it up so that Muslim women would find a voice. She says, "This is not about religion, this is about power. Islam is a fair religion but these men have appropriated power over the years and dont want to give it up now."

I stored away that comment at the back of my mind and went out in search of these "megalomanical" men. I met some professors at the Arabic College in Pudukottai. All of them said that Sharifa and all the others in the jamaat were immoral. One bearded sage said, "They have a baaad character. They dont even wear the purdah...they come out in their nightie!" These men were genuinely of the opinion that a womans rightful place is at home.

Still i thought - old men stuck in their old thinking. So i searched for more men. More views.

I decided to find them outside a mosque after the evening prayer. Gathering a group around me i asked, "What do you think of the womens jamaat?" Most of them were dismissive of them, some even disdainful. The local cleric said, "Women should obey men. Thats the way it is in the shariat."

I began to believe the womens side of the story more - all the talk of oppression. But i was a bit unsatisfied because i felt i was reporting it in a he-said, she-said kind of way. Anyway, i decided to wrap up and shoot my piece-to-cameras or PTCs (where reporter stands before camera and delivers a few lines) and then head back home.

I planned to do a PTC right outside the mosque where I had met all those men. So the following day i was there again. But this time it was different. They were hostile. They didnt want me around. They thought i was being too nosey and that i should take my camera and leave. But they didnt bother being civil about it. Rude, ungentlemanly and arrogant - that's what they became. That's how they told me to bugger off.

I stood my ground and did the PTC right outside the mosque and indeed in quarreling with me, they had done me a favour. I finally got a real insight into how they must talk to their wives and daughters. The way they tried to bully me, I figured that they dont really treat women as equals. And in trying to collar me out, i felt that they were intolerant of too much questioning.

It didnt make a difference to the way i wrote the story. The "facts" of the case remained the same. I had no additional information - just a deeper insight. That's what I was talking about.



Thursday, August 18, 2005

WILL ABSTINENCE EVER BE SEXY?

The UNICEF recently organised a workshop to create awareness amongst young people on HIV and AIDS. The participants were students, journalists musicians and radio jockeys - essentially people in a postion to spread the message and hopefully influence change.

At the workshop a DJ from Washington D C, George Collinet, said, "The first message we need to send out is abstinence."

"But is that a realistic message in these times?", I asked him.

He replied, "We need to make abstinence sexy. Thats the challenge."

Cyrus Broacha, supremely funny MTV VJ, was there too. I asked him if he agreed with George's point of view. In characteristic Cyrus style, he said, "Whoever said we need to make abstinence sexy has been drinking. Abstinence is good... all the girls I knew practiced it. But nobody is going to listen if you preach to them!"

If George manages to make abstinence sexy someday he would have pulled off the impossible. And that will be great. But for now I think i agree with Cyrus.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

ODE TO GOOGLE

Its a forward going around, but i cant resist mentioning it here. Look no further for testimonials to the greatness of google. Just type the word "failure" and see what you come up with!

CHAPPELL SPEAK

Covered yet another bland cricket story - the Indian cricket teams return from Sri Lanka. An obviously irritable Greg Chappell gave monosyllabic answers even as the press tried hopelessly to eke out a fresh angle to write a story on a team that is nauseatingly over-reported.

Example:

Q: "Mr. Chappell, what is the realistic time table you have set for yourself and this team for a turnaround."
Ans: "Yesterday"


Q: "Mr. Chappell, what are the early lessons learnt from this tour?"
Ans: "Bat better, bowl better, field better."

Some TV channels had this live!!!



Friday, August 05, 2005

HAZARDS OF TV NEWS


One of the hazards of television is that you hear the best quotes when the camera is not rolling. Let me give you one small example. I was waiting for the grand-daddy of blogging, Kiruba, at the reception area in his office. He strode in and we introduced ourselves. The first thing he told me when he heard my name was, "The advantage of having an unusual name is that you can get it as your own domain name." Spoken like a true-blogger, i thought. But where was my camera? On my cameramans lap, with the lens cap on, as he sat there on a sofa, in the lobby of the offices of Sify.

Another hazard is that unless you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you lose your best visuals. A mob stoning police vehicles makes for gripping television. But its a spontaneous act again. So the visuals you'll probably have to settle for are shots of shards of glass lying around on the road, smashed wind-screens and people standing around. Which is why, a film-maker recently remarked, "watching television news is like watching faces in my window." And shes right! Just a lot of mid-shots with people, people, people, people, people. The television is on mute all the time in front of me in the newsroom at work. Very, very, very rarely does what im seeing make me sit up and take notice.

Friday, July 22, 2005

TOTAL INJUSTICE WITHOUT THE JUSTICE


The Madras High Court is one of the oldest in India, but today it has other dubious distinctions to its credit. One of them is that it has the highest number of pending cases. Every year nearly one lakh cases are filed but bizarrely there are not enough judges to settle disputes!

(Ever noticed how the burgeoning population of the country never seems to spill into government vacancies!)

But getting back to the Madras High Court... it has a sanctioned strength of 49 judges but the system groans, stumbles and totters along at half strength with only 24 judges.

Now, you must be wondering - is it that difficult to find somebody to play judge?! No, its not very difficult. Its not very difficult to find someone qualified and erudite to arbitrate. But what is difficult is to find men and women who will not be partisan, who will be fair and who will uphold the loftiest ideals in the Indian constitution.

It would be stating the obvious to say that the independence of the judiciary is a myth. But what is less trite is the disturbing extent to which political parties are now able to extend their sphere of influence. That is why it has taken so long to fill these vacancies. Most lawyers in the Madras High Court will tell you that the public is suffering while the political parties play ping-pong.

This is how it works - any lawyer with a practice of 10 years behind him/her is eligible to become a judge. A collegium of three high court judges draws up a list of nominees. That list is then sent to the Law Ministry. The Intelligence Bureau gets into the act and does a background check on these men and women. If a stench has not started to emanate, the list is forwarded to a collegium of five supreme Court judges. They finalise the list and then it goes back to the law ministry and lastly onto the president after which the judges are finally appointed.
Political parties can throw a spanner into the works at any time during this process. Right now, both the DMK and the AIADMK are unhappy with some of the names on that list. Both sides want names of people on that list, who will toe their line. So they've been stalling it by raising objections.


Meanwhile, the system of justice delivery is slowing down drastically. It is groaning under the heavy burden of cases that are filed everyday. It is proving redundant. Jail sentences finish before bail applications are taken up for hearing. People move out of their homes before a property dispute can be settled with the landlord. More crimes are committed before a conviction can be given for the first one.

K R Tamizhmani, President of the Madras Bar Association, acknowledges that an already weak system has been made weaker. He says of the present crisis, "The system functions on the faith a common man has in it...that faith is now shaken...it may be ruined shortly."

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

QUIET PLEASE... THANK YOU


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was recently awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Civil Law by the Oxford University. In his acceptance speech, he spoke in glowing terms about the legacies of the Raj and the blossoming Indo-British partnership.

Here is an excerpt.

Of all the legacies of the Raj, none is more important than the English language and the modern school system. That is, if you leave out cricket! Of course, people here may not recognise the language we speak, but let me assure you that it is English. In indigenising English, as so many people have done in so many nations across the world, we have made the language our own. Our choice of prepositions may not always be the Queen's English; we might occasionally split the infinitive; and we may drop an article here and add an extra one there. I am sure everyone will agree however, that English has been enriched by Indian creativity as well and we have given you R K Narayan and Salaman Rushdie. Today, English in India is seen as just another Indian language.


We have given the world R K Narayan and Salman Rushdie, as the Prime Minister rightly pointed out. But what do we do with our Venkiah Naidu and the BJP? We would love to give them to someone... anyone. When it comes to slaying with the jaw bone Venkiah Naidu has no equal. A few reporters caught him at the airport for a sound bite on the issues the BJP plans to raise in the next Parliament session. I was cuing the tape in the office but not really paying attention till he said that one of the issues would be the the PM's speech at Oxford. He said, "What does the Prime Minister mean by praising the British? We want an explanation on this!"

This gripe came out in exactly the sort of english the Prime Minister was referring to - an english entirely our own. In fact, now so much our own, that Venkiah Naidu has forgotten why and how he came to be speaking it in the first place. The BJP flounders again.

Friday, July 08, 2005

ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE

On the 6 month anniversary of the tsunami, a friend and me found ourselves in Cuddalore. He bought a packet of sweets and started handing them out to kids we saw along our stroll through one of the temporary shelter colonies. The kids were happy at the sudden appearance of this gift.

But the elders were a slightly different kettle of fish. One old lady scoffed at the little toffee and asked what it was expected to do for her empty stomach. She took it nonetheless. A couple of men sitting around in the sun raised their hands asking for some. Old ladies were directing kids to approach us and demand their share of the goodies.

Something about all this asking, for a small, insignificant toffee was vulgar and despicable. And not one thank you…just a lot of grabbing because it was free.

As we were leaving one woman raised a child up to the car window so that we would bestow our largesse on him as well. But by then we were too disgusted to display any.

I have read reports glorifying the fishing community as one that is resilient and proud. Resilient yes, proud… definitely not. The community in this village struck me as an idle bunch of freeloaders. Its probably what their kids might learn too.

Is dignity and pride a preserve of those who have enough? I really dont know.














Thursday, July 07, 2005

GOLDEN GOOSE RESEMBLES WHITE ELEPHANT










When they played the national anthem at the end of the inaugural ceremony of the Sethusamudram project, i felt cynical... unlike most other times, when i have to liquidate that lump in my throat. Union Minister T R Baalu and his friends, have set the wheels in motion for a project that could be environmentally disastrous and economically unviable. Yet, they (the politicians) all stood on that stage, indifferent, ignorant and silent.

The Sethusamudram Ship canal project envisages the dredging of a 167 kilometre long, 12 metre deep, 300 metres wide channel in the sea. This channel will connect the shallow waters between the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Straits. The Gulf of Mannar is a bio-reserve with some very rare species of marine life and corals. With the churning of the ocean bed, biologists fear the marine park will die. But the environment was never on any political partys agenda so its hardly surprising that the MoEF has given the project the green signal.

So forget the environment, lets talk money. Maritime specialists warn that this project could be one big white elephant. Ships are getting bigger and 60 to 70% of the traffic coming to the region is still likely to go around Sri Lanka because the channel is too small to accomodate them.
But, sources say, T R Baalu is not in the mood to listen. Within the system, orders have been sent down the line for everyone to shut up. If you're wondering why, the answer is not far to seek -- Votes. Elections. Politics. Environmental activist, T Mohan says, "Such a huge project means contracts and kickbacks....politicians just get to expand their sphere of influence."

Through a sucessful media campaign political parties over the years have established the Sethusamudram project in peoples minds as something of a goose that lays golden eggs. They have been told it will provide jobs, industrialise southern TN and galvanise the economy. And since the turnaround time on the project is so vast, even if it flops miserably, the people who were in power and had once made tall promises will not be around to provide any answers.

Wonder what the politicians on stage were thinking of when the national anthem played.



Thursday, June 02, 2005

IS IT THE BEGINNING OF THE END?


I have been flirting with the Andaman and Nicobar islands for about two years now. I thought the chemistry would never die and that I'd always leave the islands longing for more. But the affair has ended. The romance is over. The islands are drowning in a morass of corruption
and red-tapism of a particularly depressing kind. And this corruption unfortunately spells disaster for the Nicobari tribals - the indigenous, mongoloid natives of the southern group of islands.


The Nicobarese today are a traumatised people. All their plantation land has been destroyed and half their community wiped out by the tsunami. But instead of nurturing whats left , the government is further tearing apart their social fabric. For instance, the Nicobarese have for centuries lived in large, extended joint families called 'tuhet'. But the government, in its mainland wisdom, has built nuclear units for them. A majority of them have not yet been given tools. A Nicobari without tools is like a programmer without a computer. So with so much time on hand and absolutely nothing to do, the Nicobarese, natural lovers of drink, are boozing themselves silly. Their coconut plantations are not going to regenerate for the next 6 years atleast. The government will try to teach them something new, but it might be as futile as teaching an old dog new tricks. The next few years will test the resilience and survival instincts of the Nicobarese. If we let them make their own choices, they might survive, but if the administration continues its intrusion into whats left of their way of life, we'll probably end up destroying a centuries old tribe, forever.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

LOVE FROM TOKYO

Its a story i didn't/don't understand. Why is a dark, ordinary-looking, OLD, scanty-haired, Tamil-speaking man popular in Japan??!!! Meeting a group of denizens from the above mentioned country didnt provide any insights.
Young Meura, in his early 20s, says a bit simplistically, "Rejni meuvie is vedy, vedy fahn... ". Englightening.



Moments later he does the moves from 'Baba' and shows off Rajni ring-tones on his mobile along with four of his mates with whom he'd come down to try and catch the first day, first show of 'Chandramukhi'.
Rajni mania went through the roof in Japan when an initiative of the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) to launch 'Muthu' there turned out to be a roaring success. Ever since vast legions of Japanese fans have been gyrating to the tunes of Rajni "meuvies".

There are some sober ones too, like Buddhist monk, Hase Kawa. He's been to Chennai 8 times to try and catch a glimpse of the super-star but failed every single time. He accepts that with a Zen-like calm. His latest trip has also been unsuccessful and he will soon go back to his monastery. He may have a prayer on his lip, but he's likely to have a Rajni song in his heart.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

WHY DID VIVEK OBEROI DO IT?


Vivek Oberoi was like an excited child when I met him in early January at Thevanampattinam in Cuddalore. Thevavnampattinam is one of the largest fishing hamlets in Tamil Nadu and Vivek Oberoi had announced that he was going to adopt the tsunami-hit village and turn it into a 21st century colony. “Nothing could prepare me for the death and devastation I saw and I really felt I should do something”, said Vivek.

He gave me lengthy, detailed answers for every question, praising the government in each one of them. “From the chief Minister’s office to the Collector’s office, everyone has been very supportive and co-operative and have given us the go-ahead for everything.”, he had said.



But three months on, Vivek Oberoi has moved out of Thevanampattinam. Jayalalithaa has insulted him in the Assembly and many people in Thevanampattinam snigger at the mention of his name.

But it must be said that his efforts “to do good”, although na├»ve in their eagerness did seem sincere. However, the actor has only invited the current scathing criticism upon himself by unceremoniously taking his ‘Project Hope’ to another village in Pondicherrry.

Vivek Oberoi says that he had to shift out of Tamil Nadu because the government was taking too long to finalise locations for permanent housing. “My donors were threatening to pull out. They would have put their money in Banda Aceh or Sri Lanka, if I didn’t show them something concrete soon. The Pondicherry governor called me and after just a few discussions he gave me the green signal. So the choice before me was clear – either I could help nobody or move out of Tamil Nadu and at least help somebody,” said Vivek at a press conference, explaining his exit.

Many in the administration however don’t buy that. One of them said, “All the others donors in so many other villages were ready to wait. How come his weren’t?”

It’s been difficult to catch Vivek Oberoi since his controversial exit from TN. So I cant tell you what the real reasons are but sources in the administration say that Vivek Oberoi didn’t feel like working for the people of Thevanampattinam anymore. The atmosphere had become vitiated, the people had turned against him and he didn’t want to work in that hostile environment. Vivek has often spoken of “fundamentalist elements” approaching him to milk the situation. Maybe those are the forces that ultimately forced him to leave as well.

Machcekaandi is one of the spunkiest old ladies in Thevanampattinam. She remembers Vivek fondly saying he was like “her son”. She belongs to the pro-Vivek camp because the mention of Vivek Oberoi always divides any group into two opposing camps.

Perhaps what Vivek Oberoi should have done is quietly exited from Thevanampattinam, done his work in the new village silently and avoided the media like the plague. Instead he participated in a press conference where he droned on and on about plans for his new village… this after he had just dumped Thevanampattinam.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

TRIBAL WISDOM FROM THE MYSTERIOUS NICOBAR


It is an irony of politics that the Andaman and Nicobar islands have ended up with India. They sit on the Burma plate and the people of Nicobar look and speak more like their mongoloid neighbours in Indonesia and Thailand.


These lovely islands though are governed from Delhi through the local administration - an administration that is so lazy, even a tsunami couldnt stir it to action. Atleast thats the chorus coming out of the enigmatic Nicobar archipelago, a region that is off-limits for visitors.

On a recent (and rare) junket organised by the Coast Guard, journalists were taken to Katchal, Kamorta and Campbell Bay so that the work done by the defense forces could be "showcased". It was planned in such a way that the journalists would have little time to really interact with the local people. My understanding of this attitude was only partial. I still dont see why the military was so nervous about the trip, why they insisted on herding us into buses and taking us exactly where they wanted us to go, why an army man called a poor tribal prince, a "bloody bastard" because he was speaking up for his community.

There is no doubt about the fact that without the services of the armed forces, getting help across to these remote islands would have been impossible. That said, it seems now that decisions taken in Delhi are being forced upon the islanders, and that their immediate concerns are of no consequence because there is a plan to follow.

For instance, the pre-monsoon showers are due end of March, so all over the little islands work is on to build temporary shelters. These are houses made of tin sheets, with a tin roof and mostly no windows. They absorb heat like a sponge absorbs water. The tribals are being forced to live in these ovens, when all the time they have been demanding tools so that they can build their own traditional homes on stilts, called 'machan', But there has been no sign of the tools.
Lieutenant General Aditya Singh, the second in command for the relief work, pre-empts too much cross-examination on this point by saying, "We may have compromised because of the urgency of the situation but during the final rehabilitation plan things will be done according to the peoples demands."

One hopes that is true because the tribal people really believe that this is the best time to make their voice heard.

Meanwhile, they hope to get around their immediate problem as well. The pig is intrinsic to the culture of the tribal Nicobari. The area of the traditional 'machan' house under the stilts is reserved for the animals and the family lives above. So the tribals have decided that if they are given tools and are able to build their own homes before the rains, they're just going to put their pigs into the tin houses. Don't know if the pigs will really like that, but it will be the most expensive pig sty in this part of the world.


Friday, February 25, 2005

THE BOARD AND ITS BABUS

When the air was cleared about the Pakistani team going ahead to play a one-dayer in Ahmedabad and when it became clear that Chennai would not be on the venue menu, the strength of the sigh of relief heaved by the TV journalists here was enough to power a largish village. Cricket's cool.... its great... its fun... but only if you're a fan. Because get close to the game, especially as a journalist and it starts to smell really bad. I speak of course only of Indian cricket. I haven't covered cricket abroad. The administrative side of the game (ie. the various boards and the various busybodies in them) is unprofessional, unfriendly and their decisions sometimes, downright ridiculous. The machinations of the Board of course, have been laid bare by the television rights controversy but heres another example that bolsters the earlier thought.

I arrived at the Chepauk stadium during the India-Australia test match in '04 only to find that despite my pass they wouldnt let me in. The TNCA (Tamil Nadu cricket association) had received an e-mail from some BCCI babu in Delhi saying 'Do not allow NDTV and Star News into the stadium'. Providing a reason as part of the mail was obviously considered a waste of time.

The next step was to call my office in Delhi to tell them about this warm reception. They in turn called the BCCI and flexed some journalistic muscle. The ban stood cancelled. You cant keep the channels with the eyeballs out and expect everything to be right with the world. To date I dont know what inspired the mail. The growth of cricket in the sub-continent shares a deep relationship with the growth of television, and media relations is a huge big deal although as a concept the Board knows that. But in India, what the Board also knows is that you can treat the media like shit, and they'll still come back. Not because they want to, but because they have to. Not because various editors like to have their reporters insulted and humiliated but because the cricket nut with war paint dictates it. So the Board which is supposed to be the 'promoter' of cricket doesn't need media relations. I hope the picture is becoming clearer...

Whenever I read an article or a quote about how most sports in India are floundering because of the heavy accent on cricket, it doesnt sound like an old crib to me. It's true and with overuse has become a cliche. So i really hope that Sania Mirza lifts tennis to a mass sport and other sports throw up their enduring heroines and heroes, because if for nothing else and although in a small dose, i've had enough of covering cricket.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

WE DESERVE INEFFICIENCY


My tsunami jottings are the product of a rusty memory... but here they will be anyway.

I had just about wrapped up the shoot at the Government Hospital in Nagapattinam when I ran into two young men wandering about with a box of syringes in their hands. Relief workers, they were. They came up to me and in conspiratorial tones said, they had just seen some dead bodies being buried on the hospital premises and requested I bring this to the notice of the hospital authorities. Since I hadn’t seen anything of the sort, I certainly wasn’t going to take these two strangers for their word. So I told them, I’d introduce them to the Regional Medical Officer (RMO) and they could make the complaint themselves. That way, id be assured that they weren’t lying and would then be able to confidently ask the RMO what the blazes was going on. But my two young friends didn’t seem to like the idea, saying they feared persecution. “You are in the press, so if you say it, nobody can harm you”, was their refrain. And a common refrain it is too. In this instance it struck me as being rather lily-livered. It gave me pleasure then to force the two into doing the job themselves.

The RMO, who, just a few minutes before, had been eagerly showing me the devastation in the hospital in the hope that it would draw the kind attention of wealthy donors, happened to be passing by. I flagged him down saying two young people wanted to make a complaint. Two things shocked me. First, the complete lack of spine displayed by the young chap… because all he could manage was some garbled account of what he had seen which ended with him asking the RMO if there was anything wrong in his disclosing it to me! And the second was the attitude employed by the officer. His first reaction was to rubbish the complaint, second was to stoutly say “nothing of the sort is happening” and the third was to simply turn around and march off. Sometimes we deserve such officers.