Dirtylinen.com

By Dev Nadkarni

Just exercise some caution when you browse the next red hot, explosive website that claims to expose the evils of our country!

Got a whiff of something that’s hot, spicy and potentially explosive? Snoop around, booby trap your quarry with micro cameras and quick, go online! Don’t forget the accessories and adjuncts too: shady girls, sleazy locations, sleazier language and a great line like national betrayal that’ll have the public gasping for more. In a few mouse clicks, you’ve ensured your fifteen minutes of fame at fibre optic speeds. And with some luck you could laugh all the way to the bank! That’s the Net age mantra for anyone who has any interest in stirring up a hornet’s nest by using that old-fashioned journalistic staple –the investigative expose.

In the new, instant media, the traditional rules of publishing have been rewritten. The Internet has brought a boundary-less, global mass medium within reach of anyone who has access to a computer and an Internet connection. Hitherto, the media was institutionalized. The Net has individualized it.

Who are these scoop-a-day enterprises? Our saviours in shining armour? Or mere pamphleteers with their private agendas –as murky and ulterior as the ones they set out to expose? It would be too simplistic to conclude either way. But given these times, it will be difficult to know the real intentions –whether the exposes are honorably and old-fashionedly in aid of the greatest good of the greatest number or for the very private cause of a not-so-hidden axe to grind: eye-popping valuations.

In the recent instance of the defencegate expose, the men behind the website were almost immediately negotiating mega investment deals from potential investors. How come we have never seen this happen in the case of good ol’ newspapers that have been at the same job for over a century now!

The very individualized nature of publishing on the Net ever blurs the thin line between freedom and license. Terms and ideas like editorial caution, public decorum and decency simply don’t seem to matter (text is reproduced uncensored with all expletives intact). There seems to be consummate awareness on the part of the publisher that there is no authority that can enforce any sort of curbs or even set a standard of decency. Nor is there the fear of reprimand.

Most of all, the widespread disillusionment with public life and the government feeds the individualistic righteous indignation of the publisher, justifying almost any means to the end, all traditional tenets of morality and decency notwithstanding. What’s more, an axe to grind, quite naturally encourages the individual to throw all self-restraint to the winds.

It is the total absence of an institutional structure behind the publishing of such websites and a complete focus on the individual who is behind the stories that undermines their credibility. Explosive content in the online media, unless provable offline and in the real world, will therefore always suffer from a great crisis of credibility. In the long term, the credibility of websites publishing potentially damaging content in the online media will depend on the seriousness, dispassionate tone and provability of such investigative exposes.

The famous adage about Caesar’s wife and suspicion will always be a guiding principle for the publisher and a potent yardstick in the hands of the public. And it is only the complete absence of any axes to grind –both obvious and hidden– that will separate the serious contenders from the soapy, slippery purveyors of dirtylinen.com.

In the meantime, the gullible public, whose disillusionment with public life being exploited so very well by the purveyors of dirtylinen.com will continue to applaud such enterprises, not seeing the well-concealed axes to grind and their own hidden agendas.

Who is speaking?

By Dev Nadkarni

“Who is speaking?” How many times have those three atrocious words been inflicted on you when you’ve picked up your handset? Undoubtedly, it’s the most used telephonic “greeting” that the calling party uses across this country. In some languages it is even shorter: The cryptic Gujarati or Hindi “Kaun?” the nonchalant “Kon Boltay?” in Marathi and the terse Kannada “Yaaru?” are just three examples.

A few years ago when non-working telephones (and wrong numbers whenever they worked) were the norm with Indian telephones, I was spending my summer vacation at a friend’s shop helping sell his wares. His phone would be inundated with wrong calls through the day. On one exasperating occasion, he picked up his handset when the phone rang for the nth time, just shouted, “Tera Baap” and smashed it down in its cradle in a hundred degree celcius rage. Expectedly, the voice at the other end had asked that most wonderful question of Indian telephony, “Kaun?”

Another time, the voice at the other end, neither identifying its owner nor asking for a specific person on this end, hurriedly conveyed the message that his truck had broken down on Tilak Bridge. What was he to do? “Just stand there till another truck arrives,” said my friend, who couldn’t care less who the wrong caller was and put down the handset.

The primary courtesy of a telephone caller is to identify himself or herself and then enquire after the person he/she wishes to talk with. “Kaun?” or “Who is speaking?” is not just impolite –it’s a difficult question to answer and a terrible way to open a telephonic conversation. What if it’s the wrong number? What if the person receiving the phone is not the person the caller wishes to talk with? In any case, at some point, the caller has to identify himself and then ask for the person whom he wishes to talk with. Why not do it at the outset? That would save so much trouble and make the call so much nicer. But most people don’t!

In her younger days, the wife of one of modern Indian cinema’s most celebrated directors, was visiting London. She went to a phone booth and called a number she thought was her cousin’s. “Hello, is that Raj?” she cooed in her soft, mellifluous voice. “How I wish it was,” said the voice at the other end. Hanging up and flustered, she tried the number again. Is that (she spelt out the number). “If that’s the number you dialed, this must be that number,” said the same voice again. The young lady was learning telephone etiquette the expensive way in that London phone booth!

Sense of Tumour!

By Dev Nadkarni

Do we Indians take ourselves too damn seriously? Do we lack a sense of humour particularly when the joke’s on us? Some months ago, a visiting westerner friend, when asked what struck her most about her India visit said that it was our people’s ability to laugh. Despite the poverty, deprivation and bleak circumstances, smiling, laughing faces stared her in the face, said this firang friend. And it intrigued her. She wondered what gives us the strength to smile and laugh at ourselves amidst all the gloom. “You guys have a terrific god-given sense of humour,” she said.

I don’t know if laughing at ourselves in gloomy circumstances is a good thing or a bad thing but I know for certain that we can laugh at ourselves. Indiana jokes that have done the rounds of the Net in recent years and grown so much to encompass virtually every Indian community has long removed the Sardar monopoly. Twelve o’clock jokes are passé. We now have jokes for round the clock laughter! Mallu jokes are enjoyed all over as much as Maharashtrian or Gujju or Tamil or Bengali ones. In fact these jokes, I would say, work effectively as national integrators. Why, the cross-border popularity of Indian and Paki jokes amongst the two peoples could qualify as a potent weapon for defusing all this mindless tension. One of them talks of swapping Laloo and Bihar for Benazir and their fast bowlers!

But our elected representatives and the great big administration in New Delhi have shown completely antipodal behaviour. Comments about our dear prime minister in an American newsmagazine have apparently pulled the rug from under the administration’s feet. The comments on the premier’s health have been seen variously as a slur on his great personage and even an insult to the nation. The administration has gone hammer and tongs at the magazine and the writer of the piece. Why is Babudom so scared about laughing at it itself? Compare this with what happens in other democracies that function better than ours.

When Clinton and Monica were hot, the US media went to town with red-hot Clinton jokes. The Americans laughed. The world laughed. Our own Babudom laughed. Right now, there is a weekly show on American television with a guy who superbly impersonates George Bush and says amazingly stupid things as if the president himself was mouthing those ludicrous statements. Nobody objects. Least of all, the president and his White House staff. Blair is similarly lampooned even in his nation’s “propah” press. We all laugh. So what’s with our administration?

Our bureaucracy suffers from tunnel vision when it comes to matters of national identity. It equates an individual with the entire nation. So what if a few comments were made about our PM’s health? Does that make the whole nation weak-kneed and half-sleepy? Must they make statements that inflame party workers so that they burn copies of the mag? Given such knee-jerk reactions one begins to worry about the administration’s mental health more than the premier’s sleepiness.

Aaiye, kuch record banaaiye!

By Dev Nadkarni

Population: one billion. Teams that qualify for World Cup soccer: zero; Olympic gold hopes: zero. Teams that compete creditably in any world-level global event: zero. Long on quantity, very, very short on quality –that’s the lot of us Indians when it comes to our international competitiveness. Especially in team games. We are a country of individualists. We’re not known for teams. There is any number of apocryphal tales of Indians working more in individual interest than for their teams. The famous story of the tub of Indian crabs graphically epitomises this trait.

No matter. The natural individualists that we are, Indians show a strong trait to excel in individual sport, often of the self-created variety. So, we hold world records for things like walking backwards the greatest distance balancing a milk bottle on one’s head. Or for the longest (and perhaps the grubbiest) fingernails. Or even the longest locks of hair and moustache! There’s a scramble among Indians to set world records in such pursuits and the Guinness people count India as one of the countries from where it receives most applications.

We should really have an Indian book of trivial records. Records that are impossible to be bettered by any international team or individual worth his salt. Records that other countries dare not, let alone compete, but even contemplate. Not a problem finding entries and entrants. Just look around you. There’s a Mumbai cabbie that cuts more lanes in a day than Lata Mangeshkar has cut records in her entire life. And for the record, he’s never had an accident –all thanks to his record brake!

The longest it has taken an arrow to traverse a distance of twenty metres and yet managed to kill its victim is one whole minute (the victim probably died of waiting). That was in Doordarshan’s Ramayan. Which means the arrow crawled at about 1.2 kmph –slightly faster than South Mumbai’s peak hour traffic. The Indian politician has the unique record of breaking more promises than he makes. This he achieves by breaking all his own promises as well as those made by his colleagues by not cooperating with them (remember, we are individualists).

Game for some more? A few general polls ago I remember having read of a guy who voted under 13 different names in the same poll booth –and it was not even a captured booth. For the record, this happened in Mumbai, not Patna. Patna, of course, holds the record not just for captured poll booths but also carjacked car dealerships. Our very own Maharashtra, the beacon of progress, is not far behind in creating its own dubious world records. It will soon have the record of mass kidnapping elected representatives in the noble interests of the state’s well being.

Try adding to this list of dubious Indian world records –you’ll never find a dull moment compiling it!

Impossible? Think again

By Dev Nadkarni

Recent weeks have clearly belonged to Indians who achieved the impossible. For a country whose psyche seems almost hardwired for underachievement, these three-in-a-billion citizens shine like beacons ever so bright. Giving us a simple message: It can be done –even in India. And nothing in recent times has lifted up the Indian spirit as the doings of these three amazing men.

Late last month, we lost the portly son of a schoolteacher who rewrote the rules of entrepreneurship to be unequivocally acclaimed as India’s greatest entrepreneur ever. That he built the country’s largest business empire almost seems incidental. We have a boatman’s shimmering-haired son whose family pawned its jewels so that he could pursue his higher studies as President of the world’s most populous democracy. And we have a railway ticket collector’s wiry son who led India to a near-impossible one-day victory in the Nat west cricket tri-series.

Fine instances of where a laboriously ground, delectably delicious masala of sheer grit, hard work, charm and timing can take the underdog in an environment as loaded against risk-taking, swashbuckling entrepreneurship and the under-privileged class as India. The stories of these three men have been incredible profiles in courage. They began life like one billion of us Indians: going out there to bat on the field of life with no score to our credit. Just the dream of winning and experiencing the evanescent thrills of life’s fours and sixes whenever we can steal them. The difference between the rest of us and these three is that they won. The odds that they could get to where they are today would have been stupendously Himalayan. They blazed scorching trails. May be it’s a little premature to club the cricketer with the other two given his young age and just a couple of successes; but given the status of cricket in Indian pride, the young man certainly stands up to be counted.

Everyone loves a real-life rags-to-riches story, a real-life fairy tale. Much has been and will be written about these three men, their humble beginnings and the way they charted their own personal courses to success. The way they did India proud against seemingly impossible odds, to become legends in their own lifetimes. Such stories are far more common in countries that have always encouraged capitalistic free enterprise. Not in regimes like India. Which is what makes their achievements so much more cherished.

Sure, there will be those who will not be impressed by these success stories. There will also be those who will attribute unfair methods, underhand deals, clever politicking, playing the religious card and the benign smile of lady luck to their great success. No matter. None of these detractions can take away anything from these super-achievers. As for luck, we have always known that god helps them who help themselves. Irrespective of that god’s denomination.

Sure, you can make miracles happen!

By Dev Nadkarni

Years ago my job regularly took me to the swank offices of an ad agency that were housed on the third floor of one of those nondescript industrial estates in the smelly underbelly of Mumbai. The painfully slow industrial lifts and the long queues to get into them were avoidable and I had long opted for the crummy flights of the fast crumbling staircase.

It always struck me: the offices I visited were so well appointed, veneered, carpeted and richly upholstered –you could be in any of the business capitals of the world. But to say that the approach to this well-groomed microcosm was stark in contrast would be an understatement. Chipping concrete, falling plaster, discoloured walls, broken steps, cobwebbed grills, not to mention the one, universal hallmark of our ethos –paan-stained wall-corners on the landings.

After a hiatus of a few months, I visited the building again. Much remained unchanged. The chipping concrete, the broken steps and the cobwebbed grills were still intact. But there was one overwhelming change. The walls were whitewashed and the paan stains were gone. The wall-corners, instead, had tiled pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses fixed about knee height. The society running this industrial estate had hit upon this plan, my friend at the ad agency told me.

Gods’ pictures had successfully prevented people from spitting on the wall-corners. The idea was borrowed from the Prince of Wales Museum authorities, I was told, who had done the same thing with their perimeter wall that people used for spewing out more than just paan fluid! The next time you find the picture of a god in an innocuous place, you know why its there.

There’s a celebrity I know who’s wrought a miracle on his personal life so very ingeniously. Smothered by autograph hunters every time he appears in public, he found that there was no convincing reason he could use to ward them off. They would use every trick to get him to sign –cajole, humour, evoke sympathy, even self-pity. Then he hit up this tremendous excuse. He would simply say, “Today is my vrat –I don’t sign on my vrat days.” And the crowd would melt away without any fuss. “Next time, god willing,” would be their apologetic, fatalistic refrain, to his great delight.

Who says you can’t get god to work miracles –whether civic or personal– even in these times?

International licence to kill

By Dev Nadkarni

A while ago I needed an international driving licence. I was told that you could get one in Pune without much of a problem. I enquired at the local driving school. “International licence? No problem. Enroll for our fast track course, and you get it in seven days,” said the counter person.

“Fast Track?” I hesitated. “I’m not looking for a race car licence, just a plain international one.”

“We’ve changed the name of our course to Fast Track –earlier we called it Crash Course and it didn’t go down well,” said the man. “It covers international safety like fastening seat belts, not putting your arm out of the window or dropping cigarette ash outside, right of way…”

“But aren’t those taught in your regular courses?” I asked.

“No. Because it’s impossible to drive here with something that restrains movement like a seatbelt. As for limbs outside the windows –mostly the taillights don’t work and we advise learners to hand-signal. We’ve stopped instructing about right of way because this is decided by the size and speed of the vehicle,” said the man. “When a PMT bus storms into a roundabout, you simply don’t stand a chance, even if you have right of way. Better not to know the rules.”

“Where do we begin?” I asked, cranking up.

“Mulshi or lonely places like that,” said the man.

“Why not Tilak or Laxmi or even M.G. Road?” I asked.

“You’ve driven on those roads, na?” he replied. “No point practicing there if you want to get an international licence.”

“Why?” I countered.

“If you drive abroad like you do on those roads, you’ll have trouble. You need practice holding the wheel straight over longer distances so you don’t cut lanes  –you must stay in lane always,” said my learned instructor. “In Mulshi, there is no traffic, so you get good practice.”

Sage advice flowed copiously as I tried keeping a straight course in my imaginary lane. “You cannot spit in those countries; but if you must, be careful. In a left hand drive car, spit out on the left. Or you may end up spitting inside the car by sheer force of habit,” he said.

Suddenly, there was a thump and the car shuddered to a halt. “You went over a pothole –you should have swerved,” moaned the instructor. “But that would’ve amounted to lane cutting,” I said.

The instructor examined the broken axle. “If you face a situation like this abroad, go to those solar-powered phones by the side and call for help,” he said, desperately flailing his arms to hail a passing truck for our ride back to Pune.

Humko AIDS Maangta!

By Dev Nadkarni

Acronyms are all over the place. It’s amazing how many you can find in newspapers, signs, ads and even everyday speech! Between themselves, two English dailies published from the city mention MP, MLA, AP, VSNL, BSNL, BATATA, VRS and TRP in their news reports on a single day!

“My friend from the FTII told me that the GSD show is at the SSPMS grounds and not at the AFMC premises as you told me when we were eating SBDP on FC Road,” I overheard a friend talking to another on the phone. Look any which way –and you will see acronyms flying thick and fast. Truly, WAANATA (We Are A Nation Addicted To Acronyms).

We have acronyms or what most Indians call “short forms” for everything everywhere: from R. K. Puram in New Delhi through GTB Nagar in Mumbai to NIBM Road in Pune. Along the way, you’ll run into the whole gamut from AASU to TDZ with MSRDC, PCMC, SIDBI and TNTDC in between. We have so many of them that often they lead to hilarious mix-ups.

A few years ago, our cricket fans brimmed with joy when the headlines announced that strict action would be taken against the BCCI. What fun! At least, we’d get a new crop of selectors who’d rise above petty regionalism (AP, MP, UP) when they put a team together. But unfortunately for Indian cricket and its die-hard fans, the BCCI that was brought to book was the famous international bank of the same initials –not the Board of Control for Cricket in India!

Then again, a few days ago there was a report, which said that India still had a huge BPL population. Now that, I thought, was tremendous progress. Imagine such a big population with white goods from BPL –fridges, cell phones, boom boxes, the works! I was quite disappointed, though, when reading between the lines revealed quite the opposite: BPL in this context meant “Below the Poverty Line”! I won’t be surprised if someone was to coin another acronym for the nation’s poverty-stricken floating population: “BPL mobile”!!

And avoid talking about VDIS (Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme) and TDS in the same breath –at least in Pune. While “Tax Deducted at Source” is what the latter stands for in the rest of India, in Pune it stands for the favourite watering hole, which you may head towards after finishing your VDIS paperwork (if you still have some moolah leftover after taxes!).

Acronyms indica, if ever published, would be voluminous. But we desperately need an aid to find our way through the mega-jumble of Indian acronyms. Like AIDS, for instance. All India Directory of Shortforms, that is.

Desi English Zindabad

By Dev Nadkarni

There is little doubt that English it is that linguistically binds this country together, much as the anti-English lobby would want to disagree. Even the Maharashtra government has decided to introduce the language in the lowest classes in non-English schools and is running intensive English courses for teachers. English is the language of technology, is the government’s sudden realisation, and students shouldn’t be disadvantaged by the lack of its knowledge.

The government is right. You ignore a language that adds thousands of new words –a whole lot of them technical– to its dictionaries every year at your own peril. I’m glad the government is being practical in accepting (though not officially) English as an Indian language and steering clear of jingoistic reasoning against the instruction of English. It’s not hard to see for anyone who’s been about town that the “Queen’s language” has taken on die-hard Desi hues and is as much Indian as pappadum and pav bhaji. Besides, India’s stake in the English language is steadily growing, what with more than a thousand words of Indian origin in the Oxford dictionary.

Considering that the principal function of language is to get a message across with a fair amount of accuracy in a given milieu, Indian English, Hinglish and their various doses in other Indian languages fits the bill extremely well –and colourfully so. Locally flavoured malapropisms may come in the way of grasping a sentence quite often, but its great fun. I once overheard somewhere, “That boy has completely gone outline. If you don’t take care, he may even become a druggist.” Get it? Well, replace “outline” with “out of hand” and “druggist” with “drug addict”!

Such sparkling examples are to be seen and heard everywhere. In Chennai there is a cold storage shop that is called “Sizzlers Cold Storage” and in rural Tamil Nadu I have seen a huge billboard that advertises a hotel that has baths with attached rooms! When in a southern semi-urban “hotel”, which was not much more than a roadside café, I enquired if they had a chicken dish that was served boneless, the waiter replied, “No boneless saar, but we can give you less bones.” A restaurant in Mangalore describes itself as a “Scandinavian style restaurant serving Moghlai, Chinese, Punjabi and Continental dishes.” Of course it serves the very very Manglorean idli sambar and dosas too!

Then there is that growing genre of delightful desi-English wisecracks that does the rounds of the Net, adding so much more Indian spice to life online. What do you call a ghost with syphilis? STD Bhooth! Stranded at an airport for several hours because of a delayed flight, one co-passenger said, “Now we know why traveling is called ‘suffer’ in Hindi.” And then there are the Mallu, Gujju, Tamil, Bong and Maharashtrian jokes that we have all heard. Where would all these jokes be if it weren’t for Indian English?

Condom Kab Kab?

One of the few pleasures of driving on Indian roads is reading the rich variety of homegrown graffiti scrawled on the back of vehicles, particularly trucks. Those decrepit, hunky, slow-moving smoke machines may often ply without taillights and even licence plates; but you’ll scarcely find one without graffiti on their backs. Nothing peppers long distance driving like the verbal and graphical gems that adorn the backs of vehicles. The slogans range from stark profanities to words with deep philosophical import.

Probably the most enduring of slogans on Indian trucks is the one comprising those three almost mandatory words “Horn OK Please”. You’ll find them on the backs of trucks and light commercial vehicles across the length and breadth of the country. What on earth do those words mean? I, for one, have been confounded all my life. A couple of years ago I posted a topic on ‘Horn OK Please’ on a forum on one the popular India-centric websites. The response was tremendous but no two explanations tallied. Horn OK Please is like the enigma of Mona Lisa’s celebrated smile –it remains one of the great mysteries of all time. Answers anybody?

The other class of vehicular graffiti varies from using plebeian ‘Sher-Shayari’ like “Buri Nazar Wale Tera Mooh Kala” and “Amiron Ki Zindagi Biscuit Aur Cake Mein; Driver Ki Zindagi Steering Aur Brake Mein” to simply stating ownership like “Pappu Te Piddi Di Gaddi” or counting blessings like “Kaka Kaki Cha Ashirwad”. Still others have humbling fatalisms like “Jaane Waala Kya Le Jaayega?” and purely instructional ones like “Horn And Wait For Side” or “Use Dipper At Night”. Then there is the variety that strings together the names of all family members!

For long have governments used truck backs to successfully convey the flavour of their regimes. We’ve had the 20-point programme during the infamous Emergency; “Hum Do Hamare Do”, which was amended to “Hum Do Hamara Ek”, when population control came tops on the agenda and “Grow more trees” when it was important to save the environment. The back of a truck sure is very effective media in getting messages across –the government knows that.

The current flavour of the season rides the AIDS wave. “Condom Kab Kab? Yown Sambandh Jab Jab!” exhorts us all to use condoms on every conceivable occasion. In fact, “Condom Kab Kab…” is really threatening the mysterious “Horn OK Please” in the visibility stakes. Say, are we getting any closer to solving the “Horn…” mystery? Horns and condoms –there is a tenuous link somewhere, isn’t there?