Sunday, 29 March 2009

Only English Speakers Please!

In a rare instance of an immigrant taking “Britishness” to an extreme, Deva Kumarasiri, a Sri Lanka born postmaster, refused to serve customers who could not speak English. Kumarasiri used to manage a post office at Sneinton Boulevard, Nottingham, a town with a large immigrant population. A man with political inclinations, Kumarasiri was also a member of the Liberal Democrats and a local councillor. Having migrated to the UK around 18 years ago, Kumarasiri speaks good English and does not have any sympathy for people who refuse to follow his example. Kumarasiri flies the Union Jack at his home and office and runs a website for the promotion of Britishness.

Very soon after Kumarasiri stuck his neck out, the local Muslim community objected. I assume there are many Muslim immigrants in Sneinton who don’t speak English. At his own request, Kumarasiri was soon transferred to another branch at Netherfield, a predominantly white locality where his stance was much more appreciated. However, as the outcry over his actions grew louder, his employer terminated his contract. The liberal democrats disowned him, though the UK Independence Party went to his support.

Unlike say France, the UK does not really force immigrants to learn English. Moreover, it spends a lot of money on interpreters and translators so that immigrants are able to benefit from the National Health Service and various other social services. I am all for changing this state of affairs. However, such a decision should be made by the legislature and not by a postmaster at Sneinton!

What is it that drives immigrants to be more fanatic in matters such as this, than the native born? Why try to be more catholic than the Pope? Despite the outcry over Asian and African immigrants to Europe who don’t integrate, I believe that the majority of immigrants do their best to fit in. Except for a very few, most immigrants do learn English or improve their existing English language skills. I assume that it is the sense of insecurity which immigrants carry with them, that forces them to do whatever it takes to gain acceptance in their new homelands. There is also a feeling of loyalty or gratitude towards the host country for having given entry and a chance to prove oneself. On the flip side, settled immigrants tend to be a bit nasty to relative newcomers. Having earned their spurs, they are very keen that their successors do climb up the hard way.

There is no doubt that Kumarasiri overstepped his limits. As the MP for Nottingham East, John Heppell asked, ‘what do you do with tourists?’ Since Kumarasiri spent the first 22 years of his life in Sri Lanka (where English in taught in schools), one assumes he was at least familiar with the English language, if not fluent in it when he came to the UK. Someone from a country where English is not used at all will not be able to pick up English as fast as Kumarasiri did. If Kumarasiri was so keen that all immigrants should speak English, he could have organised English language classes for new immigrants free of cost!

Do access this link and find out for yourself how well Kumarasiri speaks English. However, his written skills are not as good as a review of his Britishness website will reveal.

Kumarasiri has said that he might start a political party of his own. He has also said that if he can find the money, he will start his own post office and enforce his English only rule. Since Kumarasiri is currently unemployed, I do hope that someone lends him the money to start his own post office.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Short Story: Redemption

Alok switched off his laptop and prepared to leave for the day. It was half past seven, another two hours to go before the summer sun set. Actually he could have stayed on at his desk for another hour, but the bells of St. Clements, which was just across the road, had been ringing away to glory for the last fifteen minutes, giving him a massive headache. In any event the leftover work was not due in for another couple of days. There was no point in prolonging his stay in the office when the blasted church bells were making such a din.

Richard was the only other person left in the office. When Alok tucked his laptop into the high security cabinet in the corner, Richard looked up from his desk and asked, ‘leaving for the day?’


‘Well, that’s a change. For once you’re leaving before I do.’

‘I still have some stuff to finish. But these bloody bells are giving me a headache.’

‘Ummm. You’re damn right. You’d think someone would ban this sort of racket in the city.’

Alok continued with his preparations for departure. He put on his jacket and patted the pockets to check that his wallet, keys and oyster card* were in place.

As he walked out, he stopped for a second and asked Richard, ‘I’m going to stop for a drink on the way. Do you want to come along?’

‘Hmmm. Tempting. But not today. I was out late last night and tomorrow’s going to another late night. I’m taking the Winchester gang out tomorrow. And it’s only Tuesday yet.’

‘Never mind. I’ll just have a quick one and push off.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Never mind.’

As Alok closed the door behind him, Richard said, ‘Listen,……’

Alok came back. ‘Hmmm?’

‘Never mind. I’m sorry. I was just wondering if I should just dump this report and come along. But no. I can’t. Sorry.’

‘Never mind.’

‘You could ask Jamie. He’s always up for a drink.’

‘No. Never mind.’

‘Have you asked him already?’

‘No I didn’t. But I heard him say he’s going somewhere.’

‘You should ask out that pretty one on the tenth floor. Isn’t she from your part of the world?’

‘Sort of. Not really. She’s Sri Lankan. I think so anyway.’

‘Is that a big difference? You could still ask her out. I think she fancies you.’

Alok grunted and walked out. He better restart going to the gym and burn off that excess energy which had a tendency to turn into fat on his five feet eight inches frame. It was a criminal waste to pay eighty pounds a month for membership in a gym in the heart of the city and not use it. He would have a quick drink and then go home. He wouldn’t be able to sleep without a glass of wine inside him. It was dangerous he knew, to be in a state where he needed a drink to fall asleep.

He reached the Counting House and looked inside. It was full of people, city types like him, dressed in suits, pinstripes and ties, talking, smiling and laughing, all at once. It took him a full two minutes to make his way to the bar.

‘A glass of wine please. The house white.’

‘Large or small.’

‘Large. No. Make it small.’

He would have a small glass of wine and go home. Richard was right. It was only Tuesday yet. He still had to get through three more days. And then it would be the weekend. The weekend was a pain, but he could always go away somewhere. Take the Eurostar to Paris or catch a flight to Geneva and come back on Sunday. There was something about a different city which made him feel less lonely.

Alok picked up his glass of wine and walked to a corner. He wondered if he ought to pretend he was waiting for someone, but then, he didn’t really care. He sipped his wine and looked around. There was a bloke in his early twenties who looked as if he was genuinely waiting for someone. He would take out his mobile and hold it in front of him to check for messages. Or dial a number, hold the mobile to his ear and then hang up with a shake of his head. Around five minutes later, a young girl came in, looked around and rushed into his arms. Now he was only the only person in the room who was alone.

No, he didn’t mind. Not everyone who was with someone else was happy. There was that blond girl who kept looking at her watch every twenty seconds, waiting for an excuse to leave. The two men and woman she was with were all having a good time, laughing a lot and looking very relaxed. There was a Chinese guy with two tall white men, most probably a visitor from the Beijing or Shanghai branch office being taken out for a drink by his head office colleagues. All three men were smiling all the time, the white men with permanent plastic grins and the Chinese man with a painfully polite smile. I’m sure all three of them would rather be elsewhere, Alok chuckled to himself.

Alok downed the last drops from his glass and walked out. He could do it! Stopping after his first glass was not so difficult. No, he was in no danger of turning into a drunk. He was not one of those men who couldn’t sleep without a few large glasses of liquor in their stomachs. Not someone who binge-drank even without any company.

He reached Bank station and took the Northern Line to Kings Cross St. Pancras from where he switched to the Piccadilly Line. Barely ten minutes later, he got off at Holloway Road. As he left the station and started the ten-minute walk to his flat, a man walked past him and spoilt it all. He was a man in his late thirties, with his mobile phone to his ear.

‘Honey, I’ll home in five minutes,’ the man said. And then he added, ‘Has he slept yet?’ The pain hit Alok with the force of a gale. He had done that so many times before. Honey I’ll be home in an hour’s time. Darling, I’ve just got off the tube. I’ll be home in ten minutes. Has Sagan slept yet? He would ask. And Chaaya would say, No, he’s still waiting up for you. Come home soon.

Alok clutched his stomach and bent down in the middle of the footpath. If only that man hadn’t asked about his child! Just to think that he had almost made it home after a single small glass of wine! He straightened up and, despite the pain, started to walk forward once more. The pain eased in a few minutes and he took a few deep breaths. But he now desperately needed another drink.

He shifted his body slightly so that some additional weight was transferred to his right leg. As he walked forward, he stomped his right leg down with each alternate step he took. If only he had the courage to chop off his right leg! He hated his right leg intensely. If only it had been quicker on the brakes that night when they were all driving back, he would be going back home to Sagan and Chaaya. He definitely ought to chop off his leg. No, not by himself! No! He was a coward, incapable of something like that. But he could go to a doctor and get it amputated. He would then get himself one of those artificial contraptions and get by. It was a really good idea. He had absolutely no use for his right leg. He had sold the BMW after the accident, or what was left of it and not bought another car. God, he would never buy a car or even drive again. The pain returned to his guts and leg with full vigour.

Before long, he found a pub. It was one to which he had never been to. It looked a little rowdy even from outside and when he went inside, he found it to be fully packed. God! He ought to have stayed on at the Counting House with all those safe and boring bankers inside and had a few more drinks before he left. If only he had stayed on for a second drink, he wouldn’t have had to listen to that idiot’s conversation which had now ruined his evening.

He made his way to the bar, a task which took him almost five minutes, even though he only had to cover a few metres. ‘A bottle of white wine,’ he ordered.

‘Any wine?’

‘What’s your house white?’


‘Yes, I’ll go for a bottle of Chardonnay.’

‘One glass? Two glasses?’

‘Just one glass please.’ The bartendress gave him a strange look. She had half a dozen piercings in each ear and her eyes had red highlighting.

Alok looked around him. The men were all focussed on a football game shown on two large TV screens kept in the room. No wonder the pub was packed. Arsenal was playing one of those Spanish clubs, it seemed. Alok was not a football fan, despite having lived in the UK for almost ten years. At one point he had tried to work up some enthusiasm for soccer, even deciding on ManU as his favourite team, but he hadn’t had much success. And after the accident, he had given up his budding passion for soccer all together. And it was not just football, he was not even interested in cricket these days.

Alok took his wine bottle and glass to an empty table which did not have a view of the TV screens. It was clear that he was the only one in the pub who was not an Arsenal fan. He poured himself a drink and took a big gulp. God! He needed the drink. He would have to get drunk tonight before he went home. There was no way on earth he could go home in a sober state. He ought to give up that flat and move elsewhere. It was more than a year now, but he could still smell the smells and hear the sounds as he walked in.

When Alok was half-way through his bottle, he realised that the men were not staring at the screens anymore. Instead, they were talking loudly among themselves. The game must be at half-time, he realised.

‘You, over there, you ain’t one of us, right?’

Alok knew the drill. ‘No,’ he said with a small shake of his head, giving the hooligan the most polite smile possible. He then looked down and sat very still. It was so, so very stupid of him to have walked into a pub of this sort on the day of a big football match.

‘That fancy stuff. It ain’t do you much good,’ a man standing three feet away from said. Someone threw an empty beer can at him, missing him by a few feet. There was some derisory laughter. Alok was not too frightened. There was a security camera pointing vaguely in his direction and in any event, the chances of anyone assaulting him within the pub was not very high. The football fans just wanted to have some fun. However, he ought to leave now, if he had any sense. He could take the bottle of wine with him and go home and drink it there. The men were unlikely to follow him out of the pub till the game got over. No, he would wait till the interval got over and then leave once the men started looking at the TV screens again.

A man walked past him and trod lightly on his right foot, as he walked past. ‘I’m sorry mate,’ he apologised with mock solemnity.

‘Fuck you,’ Alok shouted back as his right leg throbbed with intense pain.

‘We got a brave un ere,’ the man shouted to his friends. ‘Why don’t you come outside and we could settle matters to our satisfaction?’ he asked Alok.

A small crowd gathered around Alok. He quickly finished off his glass and said, ‘I never fight until I finish my second bottle.’

Someone spat on his face from a distance of three feet. There were giggles. ‘Why don’t you bastards go watch your miserable game? When it’s over, we’ll all go outside.’ Alok told the crowd in general.

‘Deal. It’s a deal. Oh! You be one big, brawny brave un, I swear.’ Someone came over and patted him on his back with genuine affection.

Alok was scared, but the pain in his right leg gave him courage. But he might as well get properly drunk before he went out. He poured the last bit of wine into his glass and started drinking.

‘Ten quid says he will not stay on his feet for more than a minute.’ The men started placing bets on him. By now Alok was really scared, but it was too late to do anything much. He could try and call the police, but if the crowd saw him take out his mobile, they’d tear him to pieces. He wondered if any of the bartenders would do anything. Very unlikely! He ought to have stayed at the Counting House!

Thankfully the match started and the men stopped paying him much attention. Alok finished his glass and went up to the bar for another bottle of Chardonnay.

‘The bastard’ll get too drunk,’ some one yelled, but no one did anything to him. In fact, they actually made way for him to get to the bar and go back to his seat. What was that story he had read many years ago when he was in college from Steinbeck’s Long Valley collection? The Raid? Two labour organisers were about to be lynched by a mob. It won’t hurt. Not one bit, the senior one amongst the two men had told the other. It must be true. He desperately hoped that it wouldn’t hurt.

A collective aaaagghh went up. The other side must have scored against Arsenal, Alok thought. He realised that he wanted to, or rather ought to, take a leak. Maybe he could call the police emergency number from the loo. As he got up someone noticed and said, ‘the wog’s a-leavin.’

‘Just to the gents,’ Alok pointed to the sign saying Toilets and gave the mob a big smile. A tall and clean shaven man walked up to him and roughly shoved him back to his seat. Alok stood up once more, but now he was feeling very light-headed. He was pushed back into his seat once more.

‘Fuck you bastard,’ he screamed at the man.

‘Just wait you monkey, I’m gonna tear you up inna tiny lil pieces.’

There was nothing much to do other than to sit back and drink. After a few minutes, Alok felt warm piss dribbling out of him to the seat. Soon it became a torrent. It didn’t matter, did it? Soon, nothing would matter.

There was one more collective exclamation and a few seconds of stunned silence. ‘Two down and just ten more minutes to go,’ he heard a commentator say on TV. Alok considered dashing to the door and making good his escape. He stood up and realised that he was reasonably drunk, but the place was still jam packed and unless they made way for him, he was going nowhere.

‘Why don’t we go out now?’ a man turned around and suggested to him.

‘That’ll be more fun than watching this shit,’ his neighbour agreed.

Alok quickly drank the last of his wine and picked up his bag. He was quite drunk, but he was very scared too. Should he put up the pretence of a fight? No, it would be best to go down quickly. No, he would stay on his feet, for if he went down, they might kick him to death.

‘Ready mate?’ a man asked him with the sort of kindness and affection one would show to a prize bull being sent into a bull fighting ring .

‘Giv’im an ‘ed start,’ someone suggested and they quickly made way for him to leave. There was not much to do, but to start running. Alok wanted to laugh. Sagan and Chaaya must have suffered a lot more when they crashed. If only Sagan hadn’t made a big fuss and insisted on sitting in front, he might have been saved. No, if Sagan had not insisted on sitting in front, Chaaya would have sat where Sagan sat. If only his right leg had pressed the brakes two seconds earlier, if only…

As the cold air hit him, Alok realised that he was now out of the pub. He started to run along the pavement, back to the tube station rather than towards his home, his heart thudding with fear and his head throbbing. If only he could get to the station, there would be people and security cameras around! The summer sun had disappeared and the footpath was deserted and dark. If only he had waited till the game was over, there would have been a lot of people on the streets and somebody might have saved him from the mob. He was such a fool. He should have had two or three more drinks at the Counting House, got slightly drunk and then gone home. He might not even have paid much attention to the man with the mobile phone.

There was no other sound for a few moments after which he heard a howl as ten or eleven men rushed after him.

The glancing blow to his head was not meant to drop him to the ground, but Alok did go down. He lay on the ground and waited for them to kick him, hoping they would kick his right leg. Instead, they solicitously helped him to his feet and then someone punched on his nose. He went down again, only to be propped up once more. This time it was a fist in his stomach. The dull pain he felt was more because he was scared and breathless, rather than from the blows.

‘You dirty Paki,’ someone said and laughed aloud. He was cuffed on the head by someone. Alok staggered around like a headless chicken. They were having fun with him. Why didn’t they get over with it?

‘Kick his sweet brown arse!’ And someone obligingly kicked him from behind.

‘You bloody bastards,’ Alok shouted through his bleeding mouth and rushed at the man closest to him, swinging his bag which he still held in his hand. The man he rushed at, a short squat man with a crew cut, neatly sidestepped him and punched him on his jaw. This time Alok went down with a heavy thud.

Someone kicked him in his stomach. There was some laughter. An African man came up to him and asked, ‘where next?’ There were more hoots of laughter. He felt a kick to his ribs, there were more kicks on his back and shoulders and then he lost consciousness.

When he came to, he was in the hospital. A nurse was standing next to him. He lips were swollen and he could barely speak.

‘How do you feel, m’dear?’ she asked him.

Alok regarded the nurse for a moment. There was something very important that he wanted to know. What was it? He wracked his brains for the answer.

‘Are you in pain?’ the nurse asked him.

‘What are the damages?’ Alok replied.

The nurse was a young woman with a very kind face. She took a deep breath and said, ‘two broken ribs, a broken nose, two front teeth broken, your collar bone is cracked and …. and … your knee cap is busted. It’ll be a while before you can walk again.’

‘Which knee cap?’ Alok earnestly asked.

The nurse did not understand him.

‘Which knee cap?’ he asked again. ‘Right or left?’ There was no sensation in either of his legs.

‘Why do you ask? Oh! It’s the right one,’ the nurse informed Alok.

It took Alok a few second to digest the information after which, to the nurse’s shock and astonishment, a slow smile spread across his bruised, swollen lips.

*A prepaid electronic card used to travel on the London underground.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Book Review: Starfishing by Nicola Monaghan

Starfishing is the story of Frankie Cavanagh, an ambitious, smart and pretty girl from Ilford (a working class district in the north east of Greater London) who manages to get away from her father and go to the City, as the square mile in east-central London where banks, insurance companies and stock brokers are crammed in, is called. Frankie’s dad wants her to marry a man who drives a white van and have kids. When an Ilford girl or an Essex girl (Frankie tells us that there is a difference between the two) goes to the City, it is usually to work as a secretary and find a husband. Instead Frankie gets a derivatives trader’s job.

Starfishing is also the story of a girl who craves for excitement and lives life to the fullest. Frankie drinks like a fish, does drugs of all kinds and has an affair with her married boss Tom Philips. Frankie doesn’t do ‘love’ however. Or does she?

Starfishing is a thriller since Frankie and Tom take all sorts of risks, ranging from doing a ‘runner’ after a meal in a restaurant to stealing liquor from a store. You keep wondering if Frankie and Tom will get ever caught since the risks they take keep getting more and more dangerous.

The year is 1997 and the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (“LIFFE”) still follows the open outcry system whereby trading is done in pits by traders wearing colourful jackets (which identify their employer). All the traders are men, very chauvinistic men and Frankie is sexually harassed almost every minute. Once in a while Frankie goes to the toilet and breaks down, but most of the time she holds her own and even gives back in equal measure. Granted that an open pit for derivatives trading in the City is likely to be one of the most chauvinistic places in London, it’s still difficult to believe how different and difficult things were for women until less than ten years ago. Monaghan, the author of this novel, used to be a trader in the City and I assume her description of such a harsh working environment is generally accurate.

Starfishing is the story of a bunch of hedonistic traders who live in an amoral world, where gambling is a way of life. Gambling goes on not only in the open pits during trading hours, but also after work in pubs and restaurants and elsewhere. The open pit traders at LIFFE ought to have known that with the advent of electronic exchanges, in particular the German exchange, the Deutsche Termin Boerse, their way of life is about to come to an end, but they don’t, so wrapped up they are in themselves and so staunch is their faith in the efficiency and superiority of the open outcry system.

The best part of Starfishing is the ending, which is rather unexpected but you’ll have to read this book to find out.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Short Story: The Henpecked CEO

I heard a senior manager, I think it was Tushar, refer to Sandeep as a “poor henpecked chappie” a day after I joined Meevar Financial Consultants. I dismissed Tushar’s comment as a joke and thought no more about it till that evening when Sandeep took us out to Geoffrey’s at the Marine Plaza for a drink. There were twelve of us management trainees and Sandeep, the big boss, the CEO. I think Sandeep was around fifty-five at that time, more than twice as old as most of us. He was a small-built man with a large paunch and a jovial air, which made him eerily similar to one of my uncles.

But unlike my uncle, Sandeep Nayyar was a legend in Mumbai. Everyone who had anything to do with stock and shares or the stock exchange had heard of him. Meevar’s shareholders worshipped him for the obscenely high dividends it routinely declared and journalists praised him almost everyday in the financial press. Sandeep was reputed to be the man with the Midas touch. Every business venture he launched so far had been successful. Naturally, all of us were in awe of him.

Barely had we started sipping our drinks when Sandeep’s mobile rang.

‘I’m at Geoffrey’s,’ Sandeep told the person at the other end. ‘With the current batch of trainees. You know, the ones who started this week.’

‘No, I won’t be staying for long.’

‘Okay, I’ll call you when I am ready to leave.’

‘I mean, I won’t take too long.’

Sandeep put his mobile phone, a Motorola L2000 Tri-band, one of the hippest phones in those days, back in his pocket and continued chatting with us. He had a large fund of stories which were very entertaining, stories of the great deals he had cut and the stuff he had done to drum up business in his initial days. Everyone listened to him with rapt attention. We laughed uproariously at each of his jokes. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we were out to insincerely flatter Sandeep. Our laughter was entirely genuine, since all of us hoped to emulate Sandeep at some point in our careers and in such a case, it was very easy to enjoy his stories and laugh at his jokes. I do remember that one of my fellow trainees, a girl with a monkey cut, kept gushing every time she spoke to Sandeep.

‘Ooooohhh, no sir, no sir, I don’t drink sir,’ she would say.

‘But you’re already drinking,’ Sandeep pointed to the orange juice in her glass.

The girl giggled in reply. ‘Yessir, I am.’

‘Are you sure you won’t try a little bit of vodka and lime cordial?’

‘Yes sir, I mean, no sir, I’m sure sir. Can I have a lemonade sir?’

‘Young lady, you shouldn’t mix your drinks,’ Sandeep told her to the accompaniment of guffaws and loud laughter from all around.

Just like Sandeep, all the men had vodka with lime cordial. There was only one other woman in the group and I think she too ordered a vodka, took a sip or two and drank nothing else for the rest of the evening. Sandeep was very chivalrous to the two women. He made sure the circulating canapés and peanut bowls reached them occasionally and would smile and nod at them a lot more than he did at anyone else. I think I was a little jealous of the two women.

And then Sandeep’s mobile rang again.

‘Yes, I’m still here.’

‘When are you coming home?’ Sandeep’s wife’s stern voice was so loud all of us could hear her very well.

‘Another twenty minutes?’

Sandeep gave all of us a weak smile. ‘My wife gets very nervous when she is alone in the house after it’s dark,’ he told us. None of us questioned that statement. No one asked him, ‘don’t you have servants in your house?’ Has anyone heard of a Sensex* company’s CEO whose household doesn’t have at least two full-time servants? But no, we did not challenge Sandeep.

Exactly twenty minutes later Sandeep’s phone rang once more. ‘Haven’t you left yet?’ his wife demanded even before he could say hello!’

‘I’m leaving. We’re all leaving,’ Sandeep told her and looked at the only guy who was yet to finish his drink, forcing him to down it in a gulp.

I was very soon immersed in the world of stock-broking and making investments on behalf of clients. I practically forgot all about the hard time Sandeep’s wife gave him that evening, till around a month later I was reminded of it. I was having lunch with a colleague, our lunches having been delivered by one of Mumbai’s ubiquitous dabbawallahs.

‘Do you get along with Lalita?’ he asked me.

‘Yeah, sort of,’ I laughed. Lalita was Sandeep’s secretary and all minions at Meevar did their best to make friends with her. No, I wouldn’t say it was de rigueur for survival, but it was one of those things which made our lives a little bit easier.

‘Funny, isn’t it? Sandeep has got Lalita and everyone else has got …. well you know.’

I did know. Lalita was old. She was almost as old as Sandeep, the oldest secretary in the office, whilst every other senior manager had a reasonably young and attractive secretary.

‘It’s a disgrace,’ my friend. ‘And on top of all that, she is so slow.’

‘Is she that bad?’ I asked.

‘The other day I wanted her to tell me if Sandeep will be free to meet a client for lunch next Tuesday, and she took ages to open up outlook and give me the info.’

I was silent at this bit of information. So far, other than trying to chat up Lalita, I had never tested her professionally.

Then my friend dropped his bombshell. ‘Apparently, Sandeep’s wife will not let him hire a younger secretary.’

‘You don’t say! I can’t believe it. What’s her problem in life?’

‘I don’t know. But this is what I’ve heard.’

I laughed. It was such a joke. Sandeep Nayyar, one of the most prominent men in the Mumbai financial market, was in mortal fear of his wife.

‘He is henpecked, isn’t he?’ I asked my colleague.

‘There’s no other word for it.’

I could imagine Sandeep’s wife sitting at home, full of pimples and grey hair, throwing tantrums, occasionally sobbing her heart out, insisting that he should not have a pretty secretary. Poor Sandeep, full of pity for his life-long companion, unable to be firm with her, giving in to all her stupid demands, just to keep her quiet and to get some peace of mind.

Soon over a period of time, further stories of how Sandeep suffered at the hands of his wife reached my ears. Apparently she never allowed him to travel outside Mumbai on work. And if he did, she would go with him. There was another story of how Sandeep’s wife went to a restaurant where Sandeep was having dinner with a senior lady journalist and insisted that he go home with her without even finishing his dinner.

All this didn’t make sense to me. Why on earth did Sandeep put up with it? Why didn’t he tell his wife to take a hike? I knew by now that Sandeep had a ruthless streak in him. Non-performers at Meevar were summarily sacked without mercy. The jovial and friendly exterior was reserved for clients and new beginners at Meevar.

Soon, I reached the end of my management training. Two weeks before it officially ended, I received an envelope from the HR department informing me that I would be starting as an assistant manager in the non-discretionary portfolio management services division. Of the twelve management trainees taken on that year, two guys failed to make the cut. The rest of us went out to the Opium Den at the Oberoi to celebrate.

‘We ought to have invited Sandeep to join us,’ someone said.

‘And we should have paid for his drink,’ another suggested. ‘He took us out when he started our training.’

‘If we invited him here and offered to pay for his drink, he might have ended up paying for ours.’

‘A bit too late for all that now,’ I said.

‘I’m glad Sandeep isn’t here,’ one of my fellow trainees whispered to me. This was the girl who had refused to drink vodka at Geoffrey’s, despite Sandeep doing his best to persuade her. I noticed that she now had a single malt whiskey in her hand.

‘Why do you say that,’ I asked shocked beyond words.

‘Well, he is quite nice, but you know, he does ..’

‘He does what?’ I asked. I was mildly annoyed.

‘He has his weaknesses.’

‘What weaknesses?’

‘He is up to his tricks all the time.’

‘What tricks?’

‘Well, you know, he does not miss an opportunity to place his arm on my shoulder or to pat me on the back or to .. well, nothing really bad, but you know, these are things one can do without.’

It was funny how I had missed this stuff. Or maybe I had and I had glossed over it. ‘Oh! I hadn’t noticed,’ I said with a shrug of my shoulders. ‘Maybe he is driven to do all this because of his wife,’ I added.

‘But, it’s the other way around,’ my colleague interjected. ‘Sandeep used to have affairs all the time till one day his wife found out. At that time, he was going on with his secretary, a pretty young thing. She forced him to fire her and hire Lalita, and from then on she keeps tabs on him. She makes a fuss if he is late, never lets him travel or even go out with female colleagues, unless he can convince her that it is absolutely necessary.’

‘This just shows that he is a nice guy. Any other person in his place would have divorced his wife and gone his own sweet way.’

‘Ah! But Sandeep Nayyar can’t do that. You see, in order to avoid paying tax, he kept most of his shares and other properties in his wife’s name. Now if he were to ditch her, he’ll lose half his wealth. Do you get the picture?’

‘I see. So he is stuck, isn’t he?’

‘Yes. He will be henpecked all his life.’

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Is the Fabled Asian Hospitality Racism in Disguise?

Recently, an Indian I know suffered verbal abuse of a racist nature at a public place in the UK. Commiserations from friends and well-wishers flowed in. Amidst all the support and handholding, which were all on the usual lines (not every Brit is racist, it’s the recession which makes people so nasty, don’t let a sicko disrupt your life), one comment stood out and set me thinking: ‘We (Indians) treat these people so well when they come to India.’ My initial reaction was to agree with that comment. I could think of so many instances when I used to work in Mumbai or study in Bangalore when I have gone out of my way to help foreign visitors. I have taken detours so that I could walk visitors to destinations they had trouble finding. I have spent valuable minutes answering questions in painstaking detail, questions on everything ranging from why Indians defecate in public to why Indian trains are usually late.

My initial reaction was buttressed by this blog post by Peter Foster, one-time Telegraph reporter based in Delhi who has very recently moved to Beijing with his family. In his post Foster tells us of a recent experience in Beijing where an old man saved his life (from his kids) by doing some carpentry work for free. Foster goes on to wonder if he would be just as helpful to a newly arrived Chinese immigrant in London asking him for help in broken English.

So, on the fact of it, one gets the impression that Indians and other Asians and possibly even Africans are very helpful and friendly towards foreign visitors whilst nasty westerners are not. But is this true? Is this the full story, the whole truth?

How do Indians treat illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India ? You might well say that an illegal immigrant does not deserve any respect or warmth. Fine (though throwing them out of the country without even the semblance of a trial is not, in my opinion, the right thing to do), let’s look at the case of Nepalis in India . How do we treat them? I have known restaurants in Colaba (Mumbai) which has a small floating population of working class Africans, treat poor African customers shabbily (the treatment Indians reserve for servants) and at peak times, even turn them away. African students in India are frequent targets of racist abuse as are people from India ’s north-east.

Arabs are legendary for their hospitality, (force) feeding their guests even after they say No, even when they don’t have enough food for themselves. Hospitality is supposed to be a duty and a matter of honour. However, this hospitality rarely extended towards the hundreds of thousands of Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Filipino and African workers in Arab lands.

In short, the fabled Indian or Arab hospitality is restricted to prosperous, white western visitors. Racism, rather than goodness of the heart, is what makes Asians treat White people so well! This phenomenon can be seen throughout Asia.

Bhutan is a country which strives for Gross National Happiness rather than GDP. However, it has always treated its Nepali speaking population as second class citizens even though Nepali migration to Bhutan started in the beginning of the 20th century at the invitation of Bhutan’s rulers. Many Nepalese have been forced to leave Bhutan for refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

After the Chinese revolution, the Chinese government gave scholarships to African students to study in China. As elaborated in this article, the Chinese government’s enthusiasm for Chinese students was not shared by the Chinese populace. African students in China were frequent targets of racist abuse. Hatred towards African students was the focal point which helped galvanise Chinese students into organising themselves, which ultimately led to the student demonstration at Tiananmen Square .

Foster is right in saying that if a Chinese immigrant speaking broken English looks for help in London , he is unlikely to receive the sort of assistance which Foster (speaking broken Mandarin) received in Beijing . However, an African immigrant in China is unlikely to get more any help than a Chinese or Indian immigrant in London.

Prosperous Singapore, Dynamic Hong Kong or First World Japan are no better than their poorer Asian neighbours in this regard.

I am not for a moment saying that a coloured person in the West who is the victim of racism doesn’t have the right to protest. However, Asians treating White people so well and treating other Asian minorities and Africans so shabbily, is a manifestation of the racism that is so deeply entrenched in the Asian psyche. In my opinion, if Asians can learn to treat all their visitors with respect and dignity, (rather than treating a few select ones as Gods and feeding them till they burst), if Asians can bury their prejudices and work with poor African countries in improving their common lot, they will be able to deal a death blow to racism.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Short Story: Second Thoughts

Rajat could not believe his eyes as his taxi sped along Yari Road, less than half a mile away from his destination. However, there could be no mistaking the signature page boy hairstyle of the woman who was purposefully striding forward on the footpath to his left. The extra large pair of red-rimmed glasses which she wore, the red handbag she carried, this definitely had to be Nandita Altoo, Rajat was sure, even though he had met her only once before. The chances of another woman in Bombay matching Nandita's appearance was almost zero. It was a year ago that a friend had pointed out Nandita to him at a restaurant. The same friend who persuaded him to apply for a job at Bolly-Would You? Since the traffic was particularly bad that morning, the taxi's pace matched Nandita's. Rajat toyed with the idea of getting out of the taxi and introducing himself to Nandita as she walked to Bolly-Would You?'s offices. No, it wouldn't do. What was he to tell Nandita? Nandita was a woman of immense energy who formed strong opinions very quickly, his friend had told him. Rajat dismissed his crazy idea. He was much more likely to irritate her than gain brownie points.

As Nandita walked around a bulky red post box which occupied a large cross-section of the pavement, a teenager on a rickety bicycle, most probably working for one of the shopkeepers in that area, came up at great speed and collided with Nandita. The red handbag in Nandita's right hand and the plastic folder in her left went flying, while the great Nandita Altoo herself fell down. The cyclist was forced to dismount, but within a few seconds, he took flight from the scene of disaster.

'Stop the car,' Rajat ordered the taxi driver immediately as befitted a film journalist who prided himself on his ability to size up a situation and take quick action.

The taxi screeched to a halt twenty metres away from the fallen Nandita who was slowly gathering herself.

'Wait for me. I'll be back in a minute.'

Rajat rushed towards Nandita hoping that no one else would beat him to it. For all he knew, some other candidate who was also to be interviewed by Nandita today was rushing towards Nandita to help her. Who wouldn't want to work for "Bolly-Would You?" and Nandita Altoo, one of the greatest film journalists ever?

'Madam, are you alright?'

'Do I look like I am?' Rajat was thrilled at the biting rejoinder which was so like Nandita's weekly gossip column, which made liberal use of the word 'darling' and spewed venom on all and sundry.

'Let me help you madam.' Rajat offered his hand to Nandita who ignored it and got up on her own.

As soon as Nandita was safely on her feet, Rajat picked up the red hand bag and gave it to her. He then picked up the plastic folder which was lying two feet away. Fortunately for Rajat, the plastic folder had been open and half the papers inside had fallen out. Rajat scurried around and picked up the various pieces of paper, put them inside the folder and gave it to a still shell-shocked Nandita. Rajat considered introducing himself to Nandita, but then decided against it. No, he was a just helping a fellow human-being in distress. He would do it for anyone in the same situation, wouldn't he?

With celebrities, it doesn't make sense to say a single unnecessary word, Rajat knew from experience. They never listened to you. And Nandita Altoo was a celebrity for the likes of him. With a 'I hope you are not hurt' and a 'Goodbye', Rajat went back to his taxi which took him to Bolly-Would You?'s offices.

'Thank you young man,' Nandita called after him. Rajat managed to control himself and did not turn around to acknowledge Nandita's thanks.

Thirty minutes later, Rajat was ushered into a spacious room where he was to be interviewed. The interviewer was a deputy editor at Bolly-Would You? The interview was a breeze. Rajat had five years of solid experience with India's second best movie magazine and he handled all questions with aplomb. After that, they made him wait for two hours before Nandita interviewed him in her office. Unlike the earlier conference room, Nandita's study was crammed with books, journals, papers and other clutter. Five minutes after the interview started, Nandita asked him, 'aren't you the one who helped me this morning?'

'Well yes, I am.'

'Did you know it was me when you helped me?'

'No Nandita, I did not.' Nandita had started the interview by insisting that he call her Nandita. Everyone at Bolly-Would You? called her by her name. She hated being called madam. As if she ran one of those bawdy establishments, she told Rajat.

'You had no idea it was me when you got out of that taxi to help me?'

'No Nandita, I was only doing what I would do for any one in such a situation. It was only when I met you five minutes ago that I realised that it was you that I had helped. I hope you were not hurt by the fall. Did you ….'

'You are in a taxi on your way to an interview, you see a woman on a sidewalk being knocked down by a bicycle, you get off your taxi and go to help her. You say that you do that sort of thing all the time?'

Rajat was tempted to smile and admit he had lied. But for some reason he struck to his guns. After all, there was no reason why Nandita should think he had recognised her when he came out to help her. She was well-known known amongst journalists by reputation but her photographs never appeared anywhere and she never attended press conferences.

'Oh yes I do. I get teased by my friends all the time because of such things I do.'

'So if you are on your way to an important assignment, and you see someone in trouble, you will stop by to help that person?'

Now this was getting to be a nuisance. Rajat had expected profuse gratitude as soon as Nandita recognised him.

'No, of course not. My work is all-important. But if I am on a personal errand, then I usually stop.' There, that ought to satisfy the great Nandita Altoo, Rajat felt.

'Get Out,' Nandita told him. She got up from her chair to do so. 'And don't ever apply to Bolly-Would You? as long as I am the editor here. Get Out'

Rajat was shocked. Was it too late for him to admit that he was not really the altruistic guy that he claimed to be? The angry expression on Nandita's face said it was. There was nothing to be done, but to leave.

As Rajat walked out dejected, Nandita came forward to shut the door behind him. As she did so, she brushed against a tall pile of papers perched perilously on top of a drawer. The papers fell down with a thud and scattered all over the room.

Rajat turned around. No, it was not his doing. No reason for him to waste any more time in that crazy establishment run by that nutty woman.

'Can you please help me pick these up?' Nandita asked him sweetly.

'I'm sorry Nandita. I must be back at my office soon. Nice to have met you. Good bye.' Rajat slammed the door shut behind him and walked out.

Nandita came running after him, down the carpeted corridor. 'Rajat! Rajat! Stop! Come back Rajat! Come back! After she caught up with Rajat, Nandini said, 'Rajat, on second thoughts, I think there is still some hope for you. Come back to my room. Let's continue with the interview.'

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Bloggers’ Duties and Liabilities – Implications of the Supreme Court’s Ruling in the Matter of Ajith

Recently a young blogger from Kerala named Ajith got into some serious trouble after having started an anti-Shiv Sena community on Orkut. Anonymous commentators posted nasty and vile comments on Ajith’s ‘I Hate Shiv Sena’ community website. The Shiv Sena’s youth wing filed a complaint with the Thane (a city on the outskirts of Mumbai) police station against Ajith following which charges were brought against Ajith under sections Sections 295A and 506 of the Indian Penal Code 1860. Fearing arrest, the young blogger approach the Kerala High Court and obtained anticipatory bail. Later, Ajith approached the Supreme Court for an order quashing the criminal complaint filed against him. The Supreme Court ruled against Ajith and directed him to travel to Thane and face the charges filed against him.

My initial reaction on hearing of this was that the Supreme Court had got it all wrong, that the ruling was a blow to the exception freedom of expression one gets on the internet. However, on reflection, I have come to conclusion that the Supreme Court of India was absolutely right in its ruling. My reasons are as follows:

Section 295A of the IPC says as follows:

Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”

Section 506 of the IPC says as follows:

Whoever commits, the offence of criminal intimidation shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both;

If threat be to cause death or grievous hurt, etc.: -And if the threat be to cause death or grievous hurt, or to cause the destruction of any property by fire, or to cause an offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years, or to impute, unchastity to a woman, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, or with fine, or with both.

Though Sections 295A and 506 sound reasonable, they can be (and are) interpreted to cover a wide variety of sins. It is interesting to note that the Indian Penal code of 1860 was created by the British Parliament for its Jewel in the Crown which had mutinied in an unprecedented manner just three years ago (in 1857). Over sixty years after independence, the IPC has not seen many amendments. As we all know very well, it is not the Supreme Court’s job to make the law. It only interprets the laws that are made by the representatives of the people in the legislature.

Let’s assume that Ajith were a journalist who writes a regular column in a newspaper. Also, let’s substitute the Shiv Sena for an individual Mr. X who is mild and meek and has difficulty melting cheese in his mouth. What would be your reaction if Ajith were to write an article in the newspaper saying that he hates Mr. X, who is the scum of the earth and should ideally be lynched. Would Mr. X have a cause of action against Ajith? You bet he would! Ajith would be liable for both criminal intimidation and defamation.

One of the fundamental principles of law is that every one is equal before the law. Though the intention behind such a principle is to ensure that the weak and the meek do not lose out to the strong and the dominant, the law cannot discriminate against the strong and the powerful either. This would mean that even a nasty piece of work such as the Shiv Sena should have equal protection of the law from criminal intimidation and defamation.

If Ajith were to write a newspaper article against the Shiv Sena defaming it and criminally intimidating it, he would be liable under the IPC. The publisher of the newspaper would also be liable.

In this instant case, it was not Ajith who wrote those nasty comments, but some anonymous individual. However, Ajith is in the position of the publisher of a newspaper who is responsible for whatever is written in his newspaper. It is true that the internet is a free medium where everyone has the freedom to express himself or herself. However, there is no reason to take the view that rules regarding defamation or intimidation shouldn’t apply to the internet.

Bloggers and website owners should ensure that no one publish comments on their blogs or websites unless the blog-owner or website owner has approved the comment.

Finally, let me add this. It seems unbelievable that the Shiv Sena, a party that has specialised in intimidating and harassing minorities in Mumbai should file a complaint against a teenager in a faraway state merely on the basis of comments published on his Orkut community website. I’m sure that the Shiv Sena has not been intimidated by Ajith’s orkut community. It has surely been defamed, but one of the defences to a charge of defamation is that the alleged statement or writing that caused the defamation is ‘true’.

I’m sure that there will be hundreds of lawyers in Mumbai who are happy to defend Blogger Ajith (now a cause celebré). However, travel to Thane Ajith must, as directed by the Supreme Court of India, and answer those ridiculous charges.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Is the World Ready for Prabhakaran’s Death and its Aftermath?

31 March 2009

The Sri Lankan army has finally captured the last few square kilometres of jungle in Mullaitivu controlled by the LTTE. Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the all-powerful head of the LTTE, has been found dead in his bunker, pink froth around his lips, an empty potassium cyanide capsule on the floor near him. Dozens of surviving LTTE cadres have thrown down their weapons and melted into the civilian population that has been streaming out of the jungle, after having been kept hostage and used as human shields by the LTTE for many months. Some of the LTTE fighters who couldn’t take off their uniforms fast enough have been taken prisoner by the Sri Lankan army. A few die-hard LTTE men and women seem to have escaped from the dragnet with the intention of continuing their fight. It is believed that both Pottu Amman and Prabhakaran’s eldest son Charles Anthony Seelan have survived, but it is not clear who will be the numero uno in the Prabhakaran-less LTTE.

There is pandemonium among LTTE supporters in Sri Lankan Tamil enclaves in London, Toronto, Paris and various other parts of the world. Many Sri Lankan Tamils who had till then been coerced into making regular contributions to the LTTE’s coffers have stopped making those payments. Fighting has broken out among gangs of LTTE supporters for control of the many millions of dollars, pounds and euros stashed away in multiple bank accounts. More importantly, a tussle is going on for control of the many corner shops, petrol stations, motels and restaurants owned by LTTE front men all over the world. Open street fights have broken out among LTTE supporters in places like East Ham in London, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis and Metro Gard du Nord in Paris and Scarborough in Toronto.

The scale and magnitude of the fighting and theft has taken western law enforcement agencies by surprise. Even though the crackdown on LTTE’s fund raising activities started some years ago following the branding of the LTTE as a terrorist group, and has picked up speed in recent times, western police forces have never been too keen to dig deep into the Sri Lankan Tamil community for fear of hurting cultural sentiments, though it’s well known that LTTE supporters within the Sri Lankan Tamil community have forced members of this community in the UK, France and elsewhere to donate money to the LTTE’s coffers. LTTE supporters have also been involved in various other money making scams.

31 December 2009

The Sri Lankan government is yet to make good its promise to devolve power. Even though Prabhakaran is no more, small groups of LTTE have continued to resist from their jungle hideouts. Since the devolution of power is yet to take place, Sri Lankan Tamils continue to sympathise with the LTTE and its off shoots.
So far there have been three suicide attacks in Colombo and tourists continue to stay away from Sri Lanka.

30 June 2010

Shanmugalingam Sivashanker, also known as Pottu Amman, former head of the LTTE’s intelligence wing has broken off from the LTTE which is now led by Charles Anthony Seelan, Prabhakaran’s eldest son and formed his own group, which he said will be true to the ideals promoted by V. Prabhakaran. Pottu Amman has denounced Charles Anthony Seelan as a traitor who is not committed to Tamil Eelam and is misusing donations made by overseas Sri Lankan Tamils. There have been minor skirmishes between the two groups.

20 February 2011

Following intense pressure from various western countries and India, the Sri Lankan government agreed to convert itself to a federal system where Tamil dominated areas will have considerable autonomy. However, Tamils in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka have demanded that the East be kept separate from the North since Tamils from Northern Sri Lanka ‘discriminate’ against Tamils from the East. Colonel Karuna, the ex-LTTE leader from the Eastern Province, has threatened to take up arms once again if Tamils from the East are forced to be subservient to those from the North.

Back to the Present

I’m sure none of us would want to see the possibilities detailed above to materialise. It is not too late to take remedial action. Western law enforcement agencies ought to prepare themselves for the infighting that is bound to break out immediately if Prabhakaran were to die or be captured and the iron discipline he wields over the LTTE disappears. LTTE supporters in the west have accumulated vast amounts of money and control many businesses and properties. A detailed dossier of LTTE front men and front organisations and LTTE controlled businesses must be prepared. Any property of business or bank account that is derived from terrorism or terrorist activity can be confiscated by the government. However, I would call upon the governments of Western European countries, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and any other country where LTTE front men hold assets, to donate the proceeds of those properties for the rebuilding of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.

India and all western governments ought to insist that the devolution of power to Tamil dominated provinces of Sri Lanka take place immediately rather than later. Both financial aid and military assistance to the Sri Lankan government should be tied to such devolution of power. If the Sri Lankan government fails to make good its promise in this respect, peace will continue to elude Sri Lanka.