Thursday, March 17, 2011

How Newspapers are Just Like You and I

I don't know how many of you still read newspapers, not the online version but the broad sheet. But I’m still a newspaper fan. The relationship started when I was probably in sixth or seventh standard in school – and it continues to this day.

Staying in three states of India (or two states and a union territory, Delhi), I have been exposed to various English dailies at various times. I read the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta; the Hindustan Times and the Times of India in Delhi; again the Times of India, the Deccan Herald, the Hindu and occasionally The Indian Express in Bangalore.

What I have always found interesting is that no two newspapers are same in character and personality. In fact, they are as different as two people and as human as they are. Their personality traits are based on use of language, style of reporting and their chief editors’ personalities.

The Statesman, whose market is mainly limited to Calcutta, for example, is like a retired man from an old-world British firm for whom an inaccurate English pronunciation is the most inexcusable form of sacrilege. Another Calcutta paper, the Telegraph, on the other hand, is like an above-40-youthful uncle who has a regard for the status quo but is also reluctant to be out of step with changing times.

Calcutta market is now flooded with other newspapers, but around 20 or so years back there weren’t more than two to three major English dailies. The Statesman had a prominent presence until Ananda Bazar, a leading Bengali daily, launched its English avatar, The the Telegraph, in the early 90s, and it became an instant hit with the young, with whom Statesman hadn’t cut the ice.

The post-90s’ ‘liberalized Calcutta newspaper market’ introduced me to the Hindustan Times, and the paper instantly scored my loyalty. It had fewer pages than the Telegraph, so you could run through it sooner. Its language was friendlier (or according to Statesman types, pedestrian) than theTelegraph and the other dailies. And it had Vir Sanghvi’s (its chief editor) Counterpoint (which ran into controversy few months back). Vir also started a food column in Brunch, an HT lifestyle Sunday magazine - Rude Food - during the time and it became an instant hit; he still writes the column.

Hindustan Times, for me, was just like Vir: easy going, unpretentious and friendly. The paper also introduced me to the columns of Khushwant Singh, whose works (short stories and essays) I later read extensively.

I continued reading the Hindustan Times when I moved to Delhi for work but also took up the Times of India. However, after coming to Bangalore, I broke up with the HT as it isn’t available here, but stuck to the TOI, which is among the leading English dailies in Bangalore.

The TOI was among the first newspapers to introduce the concept of ‘news you can use’. It dedicates a shelf of pages everyday to classified advertisements and carries news items that keep its readers informed about things that directly affect their lives, like board exam results, call center numbers for government services etc.

It runs innovative public-interest initiatives and when required, it vehemently criticizes the powers that be. In short, the TOI is everything that a corporate boss wants a worker to be: efficient, innovative, interactive and utilitarian. Additionally, it’s also chaotic and raucous. Or vibrant, depending on how you want to put it.

The Hindu, whose market is mostly in south India, is the opposite. It’s staid, sober, deep and analytical. And some would also say, humourless. It’s not speculative and colourful like TOI; it’s restraint, scholarly, idealistic and also Leftist. It’s a mirror image of its editor in chief, N Ram. In his autobiography, Nehru had written about the Hindu’s sobriety and its propensity to stay away controversies. Like the Hindustan Times inroduced me to Khushwant Singh, in the Hindu I read Shashi Tharoor for the first time.

The Deccan Herald is somewhere between the TOI and the Hindu. It mixes serious reporting with a pinch of frivolity (you will get street side food and Bollywood gossip) and presents the right balance. It also gives generous doses of literature through book reviews and pieces on literary trends and interviews. It wants to keep everyone happy.

Reading newspapers is no different from knowing people. If I had been writing about friends and colleagues, it wouldn’t be very different from this.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Landlord Mystery Busted


This month, when I called up the landlord to check when and where he would meet me for rent, he as usual didn’t pick up the call. He called me up next morning and said he was half an hour away from where he would like to meet me. Having learnt my lessons and grown wiser, this time, I told him to call me upon reaching the spot and I would be there within 10 minutes. He never called up. Next morning, he again called me and said I would receive a call once he was at the place of meeting. But he didn’t call.

That day in the evening, I SMSed him asking for his account number so that I could transfer the rent online, sparing myself the ordeal of having to go through so much. He didn’t respond to the SMS.

This reluctance to receive money was something new. Earlier, although he used to keep me waiting, he answered phone calls and turned up for the rent. I knew he needed the money. What then was stopping him from coming?

I told my neighbour about the whole rent episode. He said the ownership of the house has changed and the current owner is the jeweller, whose jewellry shop is below my room on the ground floor. The neighbour, who is on good terms with the jeweller, said he would talk to the jeweler and get back to me on this.

Being a gentleman, if the neighbour told so much then there must be an iota of truth, I thought. But I wasn’t comfortable with him talking to the jeweller on my behalf, although I was reluctant to talk to the jeweller myself. If the house was the jeweller’s property, then it’s for him to approach me for rent, I reasoned.

All this happened over a weekend and once the following week started, I stopped being so concerned, but not for long. On Tuesday night, I found an SMS from the landlord asking me to call him up the next day. I decided as long as I wasn’t sure that he was the continuing owner of the building, I wouldn’t give him the rent. And the landlord would never reveal the true story. He had told me earlier about a possible sale of his property but hadn’t told it was the building in question.

I also reasoned that while both the landlord and the jeweller were crooks, the jeweller was the better of the two in that he was visible staying in the same building and unlike the landlord, I at least don’t know him to run away from anyone. Additionally, he is also financially healthier than the landlord, so I would be happier with him taking responsibility of returning my security deposit, a tidy sum. I made up my mind to talk to the jeweller next morning.

He said what my friend had predicted sometime back. The landlord had borrowed money from a bank mortgaging the house papers. When the landlord defaulted on the payment, the bank decided to auction the house. Upon coming to know that the house was going under the hammer, the jeweller together with a builder friend of his went and paid 10 lakhs to the bank to stop them from auctioning the property. Couple of weeks later, he garnered some more money and paid another 30 lakhs to the bank. The worth of the house has been assessed to be 1.5 crore. And that leaves 75 lakhs more for the jeweller to pay the bank.

I understood this development had been unfolding over quite sometime and the landlord had kept me in the dark. I asked the jeweller about who should I pay the rent to. He said to him.

I went back to my room and phoned the landlord to tell him the jeweller’s version of the story and informed him that I wouldn’t give him the rent this month onwards. I had expected some resistance from him, but I was in for a surprise. After hearing me out, he submissively said, “Oh, ok, no problem.” And I cut the call.

The submission confirmed the jeweller’s version.

So, according to me, this is how it stands. The building’s official owner is still the old landlord, but the ownership is disputed as the property has been forfeited by the bank. When the jeweller pays the remaining part of property worth, the ownership will go to him. A property dispute lawyer will be able to deduce it better.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Perils of Homecoming

Yesterday, I was reflecting that the road that takes people away from their hometowns and countries in search of better career opportunities is a one-way path that seldom returns home, and even if it does, it’s not usually a happy homecoming.

A distant uncle of mine who spent a considerable time in the US, initially as a student and then worker, had a tough time when he returned to India.

For a decade or so, he hopped from one job to another and then gave up on jobs and started his business which didn’t work either. Unable to adjust with professional disappointments, he became bitterly dismissive of India and everything Indian. Few years back, he returned to the US for good.

A friend, who had gone to Mumbai for jobs after his MBA, said the other day that he dropped his plan to return to Calcutta (his hometown) last year as his search for jobs in Calcutta turned futile with either unsatisfactory roles or salaries way lower than his current pay being offered to him.

But generally people want to return home even if it means a compromise in salary and position. What they remain cynical about, however, is whether they would be able to adjust to another work culture, especially one where the job market is not very good. Job markets shape workers’ attitudes towards their work and coworkers. You find politics and groupism everywhere, but they are more active in ailing economies where there are fewer jobs to around. An acquaintance who had a decent job in Kerela (a not so good job market and Leftist bastion) left it suddenly one day fed up of office politics.

Companies, in weaker markets, are also slow in taking decisions. Two months ago, I went through a selection process for a Calcutta position and cleared it. They said they would roll out the offer in a week or two but kept delaying it under some pretext or the other. Finally, I was dropped – and I still don’t know why. (I have written a mail to their HR detailing the experience I was put through, and will publish it in this blog after sometime.)

Partly, people migrating from advanced economies are also to blame - they suffer from a superiority complex which makes them reluctant to adjust. My US uncle’s pet complaint through his years in India was, “Everything is wrong with this country.” Nowadays, I find myself feeling guilty of taking similar gloomy views of everything about Calcutta. My friends snub me for doing so and immediately leap to the defense of the city.

Calcutta was among the strongest economies in the country until it started sliding back with the coming of Leftists to power in 1977 (a year after I was born). People, however, are expecting it to change in a year or two with assembly elections couple of months away and a non-Left party expected to dislodge the Leftist government that’s responsible for this economic stalemate. Bengalis staying outside Bengal and wanting to return home have their eyes set on this election.

So will a political change, if that’s followed by economic betterment, bring about change in work culture in Calcutta? I am keeping my fingers crossed.

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