Tale of the God Fish

What’s in a name? Plenty enough to bring a dose of hilarity to something as boring as a conference on marine resources in the middle of nowhere. And thereby hangs this tale:

I was at this international conference about oceanic stuff on one of the Pacific Ocean’s beautiful emerald paradises. One of the speakers was a Japanese fishery expert whose name was Masayoshi. Everyone addressed him as Masa. How appropriate his name would have been in Mumbai, I thought. For in the local Marathi lingo, ‘Masa’ means fish!

At tea between sessions, a photographer was going around getting people to stand together for group shots. Some of the delegates too were clicking away. One of them appeared to be of South Asian stock.

Waiting for a break in my conversation with the Japanese gent he approached me and glancing at my nametag asked if I was Indian. I nodded. “Well Dev has to be Indian. Where from?” From Mumbai, I said. “Me too. You understand Marathi?” I sure do, I said.

Then pointing to Masa’s tag, which he’d obviously noticed before, he let out a loud guffaw. “Dev-Masa” he said. “You know that means whale in Marathi, eh?” Of course, I said. Devmasa is indeed Marathi for whale. (‘Devmasa’ can loosely be translated as “God Fish”).

The session after the tea break was about whaling in the Pacific!

‘But there’s onion in the upma’

You’ve got to be pristine in thought, word and deed when Ganapati Bappa’s visiting. And that goes for the food, too. The fridge is purged of all taamasik stuff a few days ahead. The onion and garlic drawer is out of bounds. So when gen Y pulls out some leftover upma from the fridge for breakfast on chaturthi morning gen X says, “But there’s onion in the upma!”

For decades, our annual family Ganesh in Mumbai used to come from the idol-making Khanvilkar family deep in the innards of Girgaum. They would make murtis big and small all year long from Pen’s famous clay, locally called chikaN maati, for sale on this special day.

Khanvilkar Senior would talk to my uncle and father saying how idol making was “God’s work,” as we waited for him to hand over our murti to us. Their work was worship – for worship. Everything was pristine in and around the workshop, he would say.

I understand there isn’t much demand for chikaN maati these days because they don’t make too many idols in Mumbai. They come from cheap, cheap China, I hear. When a Chinese-made bappa visits a home does gen X stop to think if the worker who put him together had had pork dumplings in his lunch break?

Here in New Zealand an exporter has retrofitted a factory to comply with halal requirements before exporting poultry to the Middle East. I wonder if a consumer there worries that a Kiwi factory worker may have wolfed down a ham sandwich for lunch.

Pristineness can’t hold candle to profit. Bappa knows. If he doesn’t mind a post-chow tamaasik burp while a worker gives him the finishing touches in a faraway land, I’m quite sure he won’t mind onion in the upma.

I don’t know about you but I’m off to help myself to some really pristine modaks.

Suspicious in Singapore

Dev Nadkarni

“If you see a suspicious package or a suspicious person please contact the train officer through the intercom near the exit,” says the electronic voice in my Singapore MRT railcar. It’s 8am on a Saturday and I’m headed downtown from Changi Airport, groggy after an all-night flight.

The alert repeats every once in a while in between announcements of approaching stations and cautioning us to mind the gap, London Underground style. But no one in the packed car is looking for anything – they’re all peering into their handhelds. Neither is anyone listening to the announcements – headphones and buds plugging their ears.

As the stations come and go, I notice there’s no exchange of glances. No acknowledging nods. No smiles. No hellos – humanoid silos of great ethnic diversity. This is the age of social media, you see.

I survey the faces lost wide-eyed in the world that is the brightly lit screen in their palms. Some smile. Some look slightly worried. Some are whispering into their pinhole mikes. Some are playing games as the train cruises on straight stretches when the other hand is no longer needed to hold the handrail.

A young woman facing the door seems to be chewing on her earphone cable. No, she isn’t. She’s perfected the art of holding the wire between her lips as she speaks softly, softly into the wire-embedded mic while blankly staring at the blackness outside, as the rake trundles through the city-state’s bowels.

Left to their devices this MRT ride, their destinations, the world itself may as well not exist.

“If you see a suspicious package or a suspicious person please contact the train officer through the intercom near the exit,” that deadpan electronic voice goes again. A chilling thought crosses my mind: what if someone spots me not peering into a device, instead exchanging a glance with them or simply looking around? I might be reported for suspicious activity.

I quickly reach for my iPhone and power its screen to life.

Pappu’s pizza break

“Mamma Mia, what’s the one thing we need to do to get UPA back on track?”

“Um, let’s see… I think we need to rebuild our base, Pappu.”

“Base? What’s base, Mamma?”

“Um, base… like base, you know… like pizza base… the people who like us, who would give us votes, they are the base…”

“Ah, I get you now… like pizza base… So you can make slices of it…”

“Exactly! That’s my boy. Your vacation has done your brain a load of good! Make slices and have as many pizza slices as you can. That’s building the base…”

“But how exactly do you build this base, Mamma?”

“Well, um, with toppings… throw in some nice toppings.”

“Ah, I get you… like strips of beef. I love beef covered in gooey, melted Italian cheese and maybe anchovies and mushrooms and rosemary and thyme, even caviar maybe?”

“Um… definitely not beef… the opposition cowboys will put us to pasture. Think vegetarian…”

“But cows are vegetarian, Mamma. Carnivores are non-vegetarian. And no one eats carnivores, eh Mamma?”

“No, no! No beef. Don’t even mention it. Think of paneer, tulsi leaves, olives maybe. A different flavour on every wedge.”

“Veg? Mamma, I’m not talking of pizza for cows. It’s pizza for people – like me and you.”

“Pappu… you don’t get it. Maybe the pizza example for building a base is not apt. It’s getting complicated…”

“Why do people think our examples are complicated? The farmers even found my very simple example of escape velocity complicated.”

“Don’t be stressed, Pappu. Let’s take another example of building a base. Um, let’s see… Think of the base as a platform…”

“Like a railway platform?”

“Um… no, just a platform… like a concrete platform. You have to build it.”

“But wouldn’t that be silly, building a concrete platform?”

“Oh dear! Why would it be silly, Pappu?”

“Even if you put the tastiest toppings on the concrete platform, how would anyone eat it? And how would you slice a concrete platform, Mamma Mia?”

“Ohhh! Let’s take a break from this, Pappu!”

“Cool. Mamma Mia. See you in a month or two after my break.”

– Dev Nadkarni

Guru wars, holy cows – and beef sans slaughter!

My friend Sharad Bailur posted a link to Sanskriti Megaguru Devdutt Pattnaik’s long and rather involved piece on Gau Mata and the raging beef ban controversy. It looked at cow slaughter from the perspective of ‘Dharma’.

Cows apparently have four bellies to digest what they ingest. I wished I had four brains in tandem to chew the cud on that piece, which I thought was all over the paddock like an untethered cow, ever vary of a lurking bull in heat nearby.

And a lurking bull there indeed was – in fact a raging one – in the form of an item in the ‘related links’ box in the newsfeed: “Rajiv Malhotra exposes Devdutt Pattnaik for plagiarising and distorting his work.”

Aha! Not wanting to ruminate on Pattnaik’s paddock until the cows come home, I clicked on what looked like a far juicier link to the Sanskriti Gigaguru’s rant. And I wasn’t disappointed. The grass was much greener on the other side of this link.

Gigaguru all but slaughters Megaguru in this four-and-a-half minute YouTube diatribe. Accusations of plagiarism, distortion and what have you fly thicker and faster than arrows in a Ramanand Sagar Pauranic serial.

In a tone and style that’s far from guru-esque, Gigaguru goes on to say that when confronted, Megaguru tamely admitted to grazing on his turf and then regurgitating it elsewhere without so much as even ruminating on it to give it a scholarly spin.

Also, Gigaguru’s big beef is that Megaguru uses the word ‘myth’ as in ‘mythology’ in much of his commentaries on Bharatiyata. Myth, as we know, comes from the Sanskrit ‘Mithya’, meaning much the same. But Gigaguru and much of Bharat’s new political dispensation decree that it would be mythical to describe anything Bharatiya as myth, because much in it is Itihasa or history, according to them.

Why split hairs with such labeling? Our Bharatiyata is unique. It’s fuzzy, like life itself. Nothing is black and white. Its grey – many, many shades of grey. So, while no one can agree on even an approximate date when it might have happened, or if it happened at all, the event when Rama’s foot touched a rock and liberated a petrified Ahalya is still celebrated annually in a village in central India.

That’s just one example. India’s landscape is strewn with places with mythohistorical flavour (for want of a better word). It’s like no other culture anywhere else. So why hair-split over labeling elements of it as either history or mythology? Bharatiyata defies such classification. Why not simply celebrate that uniqueness!

This week, Sharad Bailur also posted a link about an affordable lab-grown beef patty in the early stages of readiness for the commercial market. Wonder what the Gaurakshaks, Halalists and Kosherists will think about it. But as any neo-Shastri will tell you, cloning and stem cell technology were well known in Prachin Bharat – the Kaurava siblings were raised in a hundred petri dishes.

Thanks, Sharad Bailur. What would I do without you posting all those interesting links? Someday, I’d like to treat you to a lab grown beef burger. I know you’d gau for it!

©2015 Dev Nadkarni

Island products must leverage their backstory

At a major international trade show last year, the representative of one Pacific Island company that was displaying and sampling its wares for the first time at such a level was ‘gobsmacked’ at the overwhelming response to their product. I clearly recall their words: “If even if a fraction of these enquiries turn into orders, we will have to scale up our production at least tenfold.”

This company was not alone. At least two others from different island nations expressed similar surprise. For all of them it was the first time that they had exposed their products at an international platform. They had modest expectations of finding an interested potential buyer or two – not businesspeople who would offer them an advance and ask them if they could supply many times more than what they imagined they could ever supply.

One of the participants said they didn’t know whether to celebrate or become worried. Their predicament is completely understandable: how does one deal with a situation like this, where the potential demand for what one is producing appears to be far higher than the production or growing capacity (as some of these items were natural products). These are questions with no easy answers and each company will have to find different answers going by what they produce and how they do it.

But then there are a few factors that are common to most small Pacific Island businesses. One of these is scale. It is difficult for these businesses to scale up in the face of a potential increase in orders. This may be because of a variety of reasons from limited available raw material or growing capacity, limited manufacturing capacity, inadequate skilled human capacity, financial constraints, environmental and seasonal reasons besides others.

While some of these like manufacturing and financial constraints can be addressed fairly easily, other factors are relatively difficult to deal with. For instance, the company that was surprised with a flood of orders at last year’s show is limited by growing constraints around its natural products. If it tries to expand without the right approach to producing the quality product it already grows, it runs the risk of greatly compromising on quality. If it takes that tack, its business will go nowhere. There is no merit in expanding for the sake of expanding.

Scale will always be a problem for Pacific Island producers, especially when it comes to global markets. There is no point in going after volumes, especially for niche, natural products that might be greatly valued in specific, well-identified markets. ‘Niche’ and ‘natural’ are two of a few other attributes that Pacific Island producers must use to their great advantage. Pacific Island businesses need to generate more bang for their buck from these attributes. Revenue and profit must come from quality and uniqueness rather than volumes. Leave the volumes to businesses in cutthroat markets where price sensitivity is valued much more than quality and uniqueness.

Pacific Island producers need to better leverage the range of the region’s well-known attributes. Uniqueness, pristine, natural environments, traditions, people and so on need to be better packaged into their value propositions. In a world of mass produced tat, these attributes have increasing value. They stand out. Customers are paying more attention to this and valuing it more. Products that can demonstrate these attributes, therefore, have the potential to deliver more bang for the buck, if promoted astutely.

Niche product marketing is all about the backstory. The Pacific Islands and peoples of the Pacific have plenty going for them in terms of building neat backstories for their products. Actually, it’s a marketer’s dream: there are huge dollops of exotica, there are enduring pictures of pristinely pure environments in consumers’ collective mind’s eye, there is the knowledge of natural traditions of an ancient people – and so much more. These are powerful elements in any backstory and have been used to great effect by businesses in other parts of the world. No reason why more Pacific businesses should not put this rather successful formula to better use.

In fact, the Pacific Islands tourism industry has used these elements well. Fiji, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu have all successfully used these elements to promote themselves while at the same time differentiating themselves from one another. Small Pacific Island producers with big export ambitions need to emulate these instances. Niche, if portrayed well, can not only sell better, but also deliver much better value and generate demand. A few Pacific products have achieved this with great success. Bottled water and vanilla are two that come to mind immediately.

There are a few encouraging examples of success in the making, too. A boutique New Zealand chocolate manufacturer is creating an engaging backstory around chocolate that it is making from naturally organic cocoa grown on the island of Bougainville. It has successfully built similar stories from several faraway exotic places in Africa, South America and Asia. Quite naturally, the product sells on the basis of its backstory and delivers better prices than famous factory made brands. If successful, this backstory has the potential to build a whole cocoa growing initiative in Bougainville, bringing much needed incomes to local people.

This niche product will never ever match the volumes of branded, mass produced chocolate. But it will deliver better profit per unit sold, while creating warm fuzzies in the hearts and minds of the customer who buys into its backstory. That feel good factor is what growing numbers of discerning customers are after.

But then the backstory is only half the story. While it will create a platform for the a sought after niche product, the backstory will have to be backed up by consistent quality and production volumes, timely deliveries, alluring packaging and requisite technology to seamlessly blend in with global supply chain requirements such as barcoding. These can all be put in place by following sound business practices with the right kind of mentoring.

It is time Pacific Island producers and manufacturers seriously took on board the growing importance customers are according to ‘country of origin’ and exotic but credible backstories while making their buying choices, relegating the price factor to the background. Never underestimate what great stuff a good backstory can deliver – as long as it is credible and the product around which it is built delivers on its promise. The proof of the pudding is in the eating – backstory or not.

Dev Nadkarni is Stakeholder Relationships Advisor at Pacific Islands Trade & Invest based in Auckland, New Zealand.

First appeared in Islands Business Magazine, March 2015 

 

Farewell, Uncommon Man

Dev Nadkarni

It has been my good fortune to have known two R.K. Laxmans: the unspeaking Common Man on Times of India’s front page, who legions of readers like me adored, and the uncommon man who made me wonder whether he was indeed the creator of the balding, bespectacled, dhoti-clad gent, generating a zillion laughs a day, every day for six decades.

I was introduced to the first Laxman when I was about 10 years old. My dad, Mohan Nadkarni, was a longtime Times columnist and on one of my visits to the Times with him, we ran into Laxman on the long third floor corridor. Dad and he chatted a bit and then we trooped into his cabin on the far side of the building. It felt great to meet the man who actually drew the cartoon on the Times’ front page. Sifting through his pile of sketches next to his drawing board, he picked an inked sketch of a street urchin and gifted it to me, which to this day is among my most prized possessions.

CommonOver the years he knew me as ‘Mohan’s boy’ and seemed quite fond of me stopping by to chat with me if I ran into him while running dad’s errands in the Times building. Then, in 1984, when my first cartoon strip appeared in the Sunday Magazine of the Indian Express, I asked my father if I should mention it to Laxman. He hesitatingly assented. A few days later I was in the building again, saw Laxman and showed him a copy of my first published work. He looked at it for all of five seconds, handed it back, said nothing and went his way. That was my brief introduction to the second Laxman. We never discussed my cartoons ever again. Neither did he like to say anything about any other cartoonist’s work.

In 1987, when, as part of the Festival of India, some 10 Indian cartoonists were invited to exhibit their work at the Bande Dessinee festival in Switzerland, he declined to join our contingent. Because of my acquaintance with him, I was asked to persuade him but he had made up his mind. So we had Mario Miranda, Sudhir Dar (Hindustan Times), Ram Waeerkar (Amar Chitra Katha/Tinkle), noted freelance cartoonist Vins (Vijay N Seth), a few others and me, but India’s greatest wasn’t there. We were hard put to explain to the show’s visitors why his work wasn’t there.

My associates in the business of communications and media knew about our friendship. I was therefore able to drum up quite a few lucrative special assignments for Laxman, including a diary for a leading international bank and a calendar for a major Indian IT outfit, besides many smaller assignments like traffic and law and order education booklets for Mumbai Police. It was also great to have facilitated his meeting with over 1000 adoring software professionals of my friend Anand Deshpande’s company, Persistent Systems, in Pune. My encounters with Laxman grew few and far between over a number of years until my family moved to Pune.

Pune days

One weekend, as we strolled through our quiet, leafy street, Laxman spotted me and called out. We knew the Laxmans had a flat somewhere hereabouts but had no idea that it was a mere stone’s throw away, just about 50 metres from where we lived. We clambered up to his commodious flat and were warmly welcomed by his ever-affable wife Kamala and treated to idlis and some superb filter coffee. He told me he was contemplating living and working in Pune and that the Times was setting up some scanning equipment so that he could send his cartoons electronically.

MVC-032S_2We were delighted to have him live so close by. Our meetings grew more regular – the couple would visit us and we would visit them. On many evenings he would insist I join him for his customary regimen of Black Label. He would simply call and say, “Come over for a drink.” I’ve lost count how many Johnny Walkers we’ve downed between us. He would often invite me to walks around the area, which were almost always interrupted by wide-eyed fans and autograph seekers.

We talked of many things – his love of black, why he liked to paint crows, his favourite comic strips, illustrators and artists, his huge collection of twigs and stones, his fascination for Lord Ganesh’s iconography even though he openly claimed to be an atheist, at least in those days. He also told me why he refused excellent offers to work in the UK, how he went about planning his cartoon for the next day and so much more. He related fascinating personal anecdotes of his travels around the world and his encounters with famous people – from the Shankaracharya to Indira Gandhi.

Someday, perhaps soon, I’ll put them to paper. But I can see it will be a rather long piece…

The uncommon creator of the common man that I came to know better was typically critical and brooding. There hardly was any humour in most of our conversations, though there was the odd joke or funny gesture. It made me wonder if this was indeed the man who would produce a rip-roaring comment with an economy of brush strokes and a less-is-more approach to captioning, the next day. But then again, maybe that sullenness was actually the fuel that propelled his creative genius to produce such incredible work: Drawing his ‘You Said It’ daily pocket cartoon was like trying to “fill your tummy now by thinking of yesterday’s meal,” he once said.

Photo (337)On the morning of my fortieth birthday Laxman and Kamala turned up at our home quite unexpectedly with a box of sweets for our girls (he didn’t know it was my birthday). We were to host a party that night and had a few friends over, helping out. Laxman asked what the preparations were all about. The couple wished me, had a cup of coffee and left. Later that day, Laxman came back with a most gorgeous drawing of Ganesh as a birthday gift to me. “Specially for you, my friend,” he said. That framed masterpiece has had pride of place in all the homes I have lived in since.

Over the past decade, I met Laxman only a few times – whenever I visited Pune. His health declined steadily. Then, a stroke paralysed him and took away his speech. His last years have been spent quite like his unspeaking common man who indeed has immortalised him. He would speak in gestures, lovingly interpreted by Kamala. When it was possible, he would write what he wanted to say. He mainly stayed at home, confined to a wheelchair but every evening, a longtime faithful friend took him on a drive around parts of Pune for about an hour. Visiting a Ganesh temple was part of the routine.

Image 5I last met him just over a month ago in December 2014. I told him about dad’s passing. He remembered they were of the same age, he gestured (dad was a year younger). He then insisted I join him on his evening ride (I had to reschedule an appointment, which I am so glad I did). We visited a Ganesh temple in Aundh. An attendant brought forth a red hibiscus, which Laxman touched and was then placed at the feet of the God of Creativity. The rest of the trip was spent in silence, my left hand gripping his right forearm. I glanced at him as we passed by the statue of his Common Man at the Symbiosis Institute Complex on Senapati Bapat Road. He didn’t seem to notice.

Back home, we sat around for a while as Kamala chatted with the unending stream of evening visitors. Not long after that, I said my final goodbye. It felt like the final flourish with which the great master crossed the ‘x’ in his ‘Laxman’ signature before handing in the picture that would launch a million laughs the next morning.

R.I.P. Laxman.

What does a regional seat at the top table bring?

Dev Nadkarni

New Zealand’s long campaign to get itself a seat on the coveted United Nations Security Council came to fruition last month, when it quite comfortably won votes from 145 of 193 UN member states. It needed just 129 on the day. Turkey and Spain were the two other contenders. Spain won the second of the two seats up for grabs this year, with Turkey losing out. Both Spain and Turkey have each held seats only a few years ago but New Zealand has regained a seat after two long decades.

The Security Council is made up of 15 seats, with five of them being permanent seats. These are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China. These were the five of the biggest nations on the Allied side in World War-II, immediately after the conclusion of which the United Nations was formed.

The five can also be seen to represent each of the post-war but now anachronistic classification of first, second and third worlds (though many ‘first’ worlders still use ‘third world’ in mostly a disparaging way, while the almost never-used ‘second world’ has completely vanished behind an imaginary iron curtain, as it were).

The ten non-permanent seats are rotated every two years, across groupings of countries – so New Zealand will hold the seat for 2015-16 (Angola, Malaysia and Venezuela were elected unopposed in their respective groupings last month). New Zealand belongs to the ‘Western Europe and Other States seats’ grouping, and is the smallest among the three countries that contested in that grouping.

Countries are known to splurge millions of dollars to garner votes from UN member states to get themselves on the powerful council. The New Zealand Government, though, has been at pains to stress that it has run its own campaign on a shoestring, throwing in a junket or two for a few leaders from around the world in its salubrious destinations around the country. It has also been actively canvassing its most trusted friends in its very own neck of the woods – the Pacific. Over the past few years it has worked hard in the Pacific Islands region, where so many tiny UN member states make up a neat bunch of votes.

Pacific Island support

Evidently, these Pacific Island friends did not let New Zealand down. The handsome margin of the win underscores that. New Zealand has good reason to be grateful to the Pacific Islands. In celebrating New Zealand’s win, Prime Minister John Key said it was as much a win for the small countries of the world. He said New Zealand would be the voice of the small countries on the Security Council. No small country can really muster the resources to run a campaign for a seat. In the Pacific Islands region, perhaps Papua New Guinea is the only country that could possibly make a bid at some future stage. The rest are too small and would lack the resources to even contemplate making a bid.

But can the small nations of the Pacific take a vicarious delight in New Zealand’s win? Because of its proximity and long and deep historical relationships with many of the countries, especially in Polynesia, and by virtue of being a small nation itself, the Pacific Islands states can well see a bit of themselves being represented by New Zealand on the UN’s top table.

New Zealand undoubtedly understands and appreciates the islands’ collective concerns: the tyranny of distance, the growing effects of climate change, the need for sustainable energy solutions and the need to put in place strategies for survival in the face of natural disasters. In that sense, New Zealand is the best bet of the UN’s member states in the Pacific Islands region. In fact, New Zealand could take on board concerns even of non-UN regional members like the Cook Islands and Niue.

But is the UN Security Council as a platform relevant to these real concerns of the Pacific Islands? The powerful body essentially concerns itself with the maintenance of international security and peace. It tries to mediate between warring nations and factions in the world’s security hotspots. It works hard with stakeholders to try to put an end to conflicts that invariably cost hundreds of thousands of lives every year and cause injury and misery to many times more. By its very nomenclature, it is involved almost solely in the business of security.

Fortunately for Pacific Islanders security is not a concern in the same sense as it would be for Syrians, Iraqis or the citizens of several other troubled nations in the Middle East and parts of Africa. In fact, a visiting Middle East leader recently asked the Prime Minister of a Pacific Island country if he could export peace to the trouble torn regions of the world. If at all, the Pacific could teach a thing or two to the bigger nations only if they had the willingness to listen. But that is an opportunity that will never come to pass.

Risk of displeasing big boys

Over the next two years, New Zealand will have the eyes and ears of the world’s most influential powers as it helps guide security policy in the world’s worst security hotspots. In the process it also risks incurring the wrath of the permanent members, the big boys who more often than not disagree on the most important issues. Policy paralysis due to disagreements has come in for well-deserved criticism in the recent past and countries have been forced to act in conflicts even without consultations with the Security Council.

For New Zealand itself, there is little more than prestige that this new seat on the UN Security Council brings. As one commentator said, it will not help the country export even a kilo more of cheese or beef. But neither is that the point of acquiring the coveted seat for just two years, as it happens to be. Rather, the stakes are long term. A couple of years on the top table will potentially bring tremendous influence to New Zealand. Its leaders will have the opportunity to rub shoulders with the world’s most powerful political elite in that short time frame – something that would have been impossible without the coveted seat.

That is the real opportunity: to build future influence for the benefit of its own economy and the wider region – assuming it feels grateful to the little Pacific Island nations, which helped it get there in no small measure.

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, November 2014

M V Kamath – some fond personal memories

Dev Nadkarni

M V Kamath was a close family friend. He and my father went back a long time – right back to the days when they both began their writing careers with Bharat Jyoti, now called the Free Press Journal. That was also the time when veteran cartoonist R K Laxman and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray shared office space drawing cartoons for the same paper. I think it was the late 1940s.

MN-Kamath
They loved their single malts and were a riot with their often raunchy jokes.

MVK, as he was known among friends (or Madhav maam, as I called him), and my father began writing for the Times of India around the same time, during Frank Moraes’ (celebrated writer Dom Moraes’ father) news editorship. Interestingly, MVK trained as a chemist and worked as one in a pharmaceutical company before he came to work for Bharat Jyoti. My father often recounted their old times – cups of tea, sandwiches and lunches at the Wayside Inn on Rampart Row and the Parisian in Mumbai’s Fort area.

My earliest memories of MVK were his visits to our home during his periodic trips to India when he was the Times of India’s Washington correspondent for about a decade. On finishing that stint, he became the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India and promptly got my father to write a column on Hindustani music and other cultural subjects for the prestigious weekly. His visits to our home grew more regular. I remember he lived in an airy Times of India flat on Napean Sea Road then.

Photo (218)
At home celebrating my father’s 30 years of writing for the Times of India. From left, Rauf Ahmed (then editor of Filmfare), E R Ramkumar (news editor TOI), MV Kamath, Mohan Nadkarni, Suniti, myself and Veena.

On the first day of my Public Relations course at the Xavier Institute of Mass Communications, MVK had been invited to address us students. He spotted me and asked in Konkani “Haanga Kassa Karta Re?” (What are you doing here?). I said I had enrolled. In his address I clearly remember him asking, “How many of you have read Palgrave’s Treasury?” No hands went up from the crowd of about 100. “How many of you have heardof Palgrave’s Treasury?” No hands again. He roundly scolded us for not reading what mattered and wasting too much time on television.

That weekend he was at our home for dinner again. Browsing through our bookshelf he pulled out a copy of Palgrave’s Treasury and said to me, “You have a copy. Why didn’t you put up your hand?” I blamed it on my shyness (besides, he had already spoken to me in Konkani, making me the cynosure of so many eyes, even if briefly – very awkward when you’re a nervous twenty year old!). He gave me a wee lecture on why I needed to shed my shyness and just be myself and get out there, do things.

MN-Bhim3
Declaring published my father’s biography of Bhimsen Joshi in 1983.

A few weeks later I did just that. I typed out a piece (can’t remember what it was about) and shot it off to him at his Illustrated Weekly office. A week later I got it back in the mail with a rejection slip and a note from MVK, saying not to ever stop writing and trying again. That was my first ever rejection slip. And to my memory, the only one I’ve ever received. A year or so later, having graduated, I was working with another genius from South Kanara – Anant Pai, better known as Uncle Pai, who was also a close friend of MVK’s.

Many years later, when Pritish Nandy became the editor of the Weekly, his deputy Nikhil Lakshman offered me a weekly, back-of-the-book style column that ran for close to two years. During one of his visits, MVK made a mention of it and remembered having rejected my first attempt. He said he was glad I had taken his advice and hadn’t given up. I must say he introduced me to Dina Vakil, then the editor of The Indian Express Magazine, which is where I began my cartooning career with a weekly strip.

One of the more memorable evenings with MVK was when my father celebrated 30 years of writing in the Times of India with the who’s who of the paper’s editorial staff our house for dinner. We have several pictures of that night. MVK was in his spirits cracking joke after joke in English and Konkani – much to the puzzlement of the others, though Filmfare’s Rauf Ahmed, does understand Konkani (pics at the end of the piece).

MN-editors2
US Rau, news editor TOI, Mohan Nadkarni and MV Kamath.

MVK was always around for the big family functions. He declared published two of my father’s books, felicitated him at the public function on his sixtieth birthday – and attended my wedding. After he had finished with the Weekly, he was desperately looking for a home. That’s when my father introduced him to Anand Kalyanpur who had just redeveloped his building, Kalyanpur House, near Khar railway station and had a spare flat on the first floor. Anand was delighted to have such an illustrious neighbour.

We hadn’t been in touch with MVK over the past decade or so, particularly after my parents moved to live with us here in New Zealand. He and my father were born almost exactly a year apart and passed away less than three months apart. They were friends for life. Though I knew very little of his personal life, I suspect he confided a lot in my father.

He was a terrific person to have around. Always smiling, joking, full of wit and wisdom – and like many men of his time, a repository of knowledge.We will miss you greatly, Madhav maam.

Farm to table – the Tao of Kai

Having raised the profile of Samoan cuisine to dizzying heights, chef Robert Oliver is transforming traditional foods at the grassroots.

Dev Nadkarni

Award winning chef and author Robert Oliver is not one to rest on his laurels. The two-time winner of the world’s most prestigious cookbook awards for his Pacific-themed cookbooks (see box), the celebrity chef who grew up in Samoa and Fiji is passionate about leveraging this success for Samoa and other islands of the Pacific.

Robert Oliver with volunteers sorting organically grown veggies to be delivered to participating hotels of the farm to
Robert Oliver with volunteers sorting organically grown veggies to be delivered to participating hotels of the farm to table programme in Samoa. Pic: Dev Nadkarni

“The awards have sparked a genuine global interest in Pacific cuisines,” says Mr Oliver, who will be showcasing some of these at a major event on the margins of the SIDS conference. “Cultures around the world take pride in their cuisines. Take French cuisine, for instance. People travel all the way there to try it out. That’s what we need to do in the Pacific – make cuisine a sought after part of our tourist offering.”

Oliver is not just a chef and author. He is also a thinker and philosopher. While talking of the importance of packaging Pacific cuisines as a part of the general allure of Pacific destinations, he also values the role of local produce, smallholding growers and their traditional methods of farming, which are inherently natural and organic. He is also deeply concerned with the alarming incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Samoa and the Pacific.

“Cuisine is about people, identity, health, nutrition, livelihoods, the economy and of course the well being of the community,” he says passionately. “Many foods have deep traditional significance, which is also related to specific stages in the life of men and women. There is a whole of list of foods that facilitate lactation, rejuvenation and so on. We are in danger of losing that knowledge.”

The chef is working intensely on a project that touches all these aspects of food and cuisine. Along with the well-known Samoan NGO Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI), he is working with a range of organic farmers to grow and supply produce to popular hotels and restaurants around Samoa. He is also working with chefs of five of these establishments to develop unique recipes inspired by traditional Pacific cuisines. “The idea is to get tourists to taste local, organic produce prepared traditionally with a twist that appeals to international palates,” he says.

The ‘Farm to Table’ project is gathering steam. More establishments are joining in the run up to the SIDS events. “It’s about building enduring relationships through the value chain,” he says. “From communities, to farmers, to chefs, right through to the consumer. Ultimately it is the whole country that benefits – not just in terms of realising tourism potential but also healthy eating and cultural pride.”

‘Samoa arrives on world cuisine stage’

“I didn’t win the award. Samoa won the award,” Oliver said when his second book based on the cuisines of the Pacific islands, ‘Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes from the Heart of Polynesia’, won one of the world’s most prestigious awards earlier this year.

The book, along with its associated television cooking show, Real Pasifik won the Gourmand Award for Best TV Chef Cookbook In The World 2013 at an award ceremony in Beijing. The globally sought after accolade is considered the Oscars of cookbooks, coming from the well-regarded house of Cointreau, the family that brought to the world the famous Cointreau liqueur, as well us the Cognacs Frapin and Rémy Martin. “It signals Samoa’s arrival on the world cuisine stage,” he says.

For Oliver and the Pacific, winning this award was a bit of de ja vu. For in 2010 his earlier tome titled Me’a Kai, the Pacific Island Cookbook was named the Best Cookbook of the Year at the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris. The European media called it the gastronomic upset of the year. “We’d won the big one before so this year’s award was wholly unexpected,” says the passionate chef.

The book beat 187 participating countries. Of a shortlist of 94, 61 made it to the top three. Finalists were from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Winning the award a second time in such a short period of time only means there is something special about Pacific Island cuisine.

Natural ingredients, simplicity of preparation and cooking processes and a range of clean, subtle flavours directly reminiscent of the origins of the ingredients – the ocean and the pristine land – have proved a winning combination for the chef and Pacific cuisine.

– DN

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, September 2014