Friday, January 31, 2014

How much do you retain when you watch 'nothing' on TV?

At the end of a very tiring day, I parked myself on the easy chair in front of the TV. I kept flipping channels to find something interesting. I couldn't. After some ten minutes of listlessly pressing the buttons on the remote, a thought came to my head. Was I really watching nothing? Every time I changed the channel, a few shapes, people or words from the previous one stayed with me. I picked up a pencil and paper and started doodling those shapes, figures or words that stayed in my head for the next half hour. I am not much of an artist but it was an interesting experiment on how much you can retain in spite of not really watching anything on TV.



Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How the 'supari dena' phrase came into the Mumbai mafia lingo




I have always wondered how the humble betel nut aka supari came to refer to a hit job in Mumbai. Finally, S Hussain Zaidi, has provided me with an answer in his book, Dongri to Dubai – Six decades of the Mumbai mafia:

According to folklore, the King of Mahim province in Bombay, Bhim, who was also the chieftain of his Mahemi tribe, used an interesting ritual when he was deciding how and who to assign a difficult task. He would call for a general meeting at his Mahim fort and huge pandals were erected. Select warriors and brave men would be asked to participate in the royal feast. Once the feast was over and the warrior tribesmen were satiated, a huge thal (plate) was placed right in the middle of the gathering. The thal had betel leaves, suparis, and some other herbs.


Betel nuts are commonly used in paan

Then the commander-in-chief announced the king's predicament and put forth the challenge. According to this ritual, whoever volunteered to accept the task would rise and partake of a betel leaf and betel nut from the thal. This gesture is considered the giving and accepting of supari. Afterwards, the commander-in-chief would walk over with a small bottle containing surma (eyeliner) in his hands, and applied the eyeliner on the brave man's eyes, declaring him a soorma (gallant man). Much after the king died and the Mahim fort was reduced to ruins, this idea of supari remained in the lingo of the Bombay mafia though for a different reason. Supari now refers to a hit job.

The first ever major supari in the history of the Mumbai mafia was that of Yusuf Patel, announced by Haji Mastan in 1969. It carried a staggering sum of 10,000 rupees and was given to two Pakistanis with Pashtoon origins.  

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Itivritt: My students' journal

Five years ago, I walked into Dr Santosh Kumar Tewari's cabin in the Faculty of Journalism and Communication (FJC) at The M S University of Baroda. I did not know what to expect. In fact, I did not really want to be there. I never imagined myself as a teacher, for I have always been poor at any kind of public speaking and shy of attention. But my husband had insisted that I should at least see the faculty. It would be nice to know what the students were doing. Dr Tewari showed me a copy of a black-and-white edition of Itivritt (the word means, chronicle). It reminded me of a school magazine and not a newspaper. I told him that. He said, "There's is only so much we can do here. We don't have the resources, the software or the technology." I asked him about the  software the students used. "Pagemaker." I was shocked. It was something that was used in the 1990s in colleges. "What about Quark Xpress or Adobe InDesign?" "We don't have it." 

Itivritt 2010


I took this up as a bit of a challenge and fortunately, I had Dr Niti Chopra, the present officiating dean, by my side. She knew the importance of Quark and convinced Dr Tewari to give it a shot.  My first batch of students were excited. Quark meant that they could actually print Itivritt in colour. But before that, they would have to get their stories in. I briefed them, "Write on whatever you want to, as long as you present it as a news feature or a story." They worked very slowly at first. I had to push them to submit their stories, edit them and then look for pictures for them. They downloaded the trial version of Quark Xpress on their laptops and home computers. I demonstrated to them a few tricks of the trade. They learnt quickly and even those who were initially resistant to the idea of technology picked it up. They went crazy with colour, using different hues for every part of their stories. I tried to check them but they said, "It's our paper." I liked that and let them be. Itivritt now had collective ownership. It wasn't merely an assignment but a statement. Of course there were errors, but I choose to overlook them, for my students, with very meagre resources, managed, for the first time, to get advertisements to cover the printing costs. For any publication, no matter how well it is done, it ain't any good unless it is a tangible product in your hands. 

Itivritt 2011

If the first batch of students was enterprising the second batch mainly comprised safe-players. There were exceptions. Two of them travelled to Kutch to do a story. But most of the class didn't think much of the journal other than as an assignment. We went back to Pagemaker, getting it printed at the University Press within the budget the faculty had allotted. It may look like a step backward, but it gave me an important insight into how different sets of people view a paper. To some, it can be a revenue-earner, a channel to express themselves, a means to show off their creativity. To others, it may be too perishable to bother with. I did not push them beyond a point. They presented a black-and-white paper with some good stories and some nice ideas which could have been developed better.

Itivritt 2012

By the time I came back to teach the third batch at FJC, I had revamped my outlook towards design. I had the experience of working with some of the country's best designers on their publications at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. I shared the insights with my students. They geared up to bring an all-colour issue with Quark. The faculty had a licensed copy of the software. Those who did not have the language skills, managed to get a lot of advertising. Others focussed on design. In order to make things simpler for the students, Dr Chopra and I came up with the idea of making Itivritt a university newspaper. There had been many developments on campus. Dr Tewari had resigned and MSU had a new Vice Chancellor, Prof Yogesh Singh. It would be nice to track those changes, we thought. Most of the students were receptive and we had the first Itivritt that focussed primarily on the university.

Through the process of making the journal, I noticed significant changes in the attitude of students towards media. One of the students hated print media. Her English was good. But she did not want to go out in the field to interview people or report stories. She had good software and design skills. I suggested to her to become a sub-editor. That way, she would have to deal with only a few people within the organisation and could still put her skills to use. She was hesitant. Today, she works as a sub-editor in The Times of India. The day she got her first job, she sent me an SMS, "Ma'am, can you believe it?"

Itivritt 2013

In 2012, I was bogged down by UNICEF's assignments. I came to the FJC in late December, when the process of designing Itivritt was already underway. Siddharth Maniyar from Sandesh, a Gujarati newspaper, had guided the students though the writing and pagemaking process. I came in to help them give finishing touches to the product. It was an interesting mix of students. Some were very good, some did not even show up. Some had worked on films or in theatre before, some had no idea why they were there. I remember missing an important talk by mountaineer Mark Inglis because I was getting a student to do those pages. I regret missing the talk, I don't regret giving my time to her. She told me she wanted to become a model. I wondered what she was doing in a journalism course. She had worked as a freelance journalist before but she wanted to make a name for herself in the modelling industry. This course had allowed her the flexibility to contact and network with people in the field and even do a few photoshoots. It wasn't the best use of her time, but she really didn't know any better.

For the first time in its history, Itivritt was going to be glossy. It was a huge step forward for it allowed a lot of play with design and layout. It was quite a tribute to Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary.  

Itivritt 2014

This year, I was again at FJC. To understand what students look for in a journal, I asked them to review the previous Itivritt. They tore it down, like critics do. Itivritt 2014 would focus on innovation on the MSU campus. Siddharth guided the students through reporting, giving them updates about the latest trends on campus. Once again the students wrote, edited and designed the pages on Quark. I sat with some of them when they were near-completion. We laughed more often than we did not, even when we were neck-deep in work. That's how journalism is. It's always stressful but there are those moments that make you feel why it's worth the stress. For every problem that cropped up, the students found the solution. The pages were made again and again. Stories were added, cropped and rewritten. It was tiring and frustrating but there were flashes of brilliance in between. They got a lot of advertisements, including a full-page from ONGC and managed to get a whopping 1,530 copies printed. I felt very happy when I watched veteran journalists scan the headlines of every page of the paper, today. For me, it's the best gift I have got from the faculty. 

I have learnt a lot more from my students than I would have even with a set of colleagues in a job. Sometimes, I have been very aggressive and bullied them into doing a lot of things to get the paper going but then I have also become a lot more patient. I am now a better judge of people and their skills and know the importance of managing them well. Today, I stood before a hall full of students, of different shapes, sizes, ages, communities, natures and temperament. They have contributed so much more to my life, than I could have given theirs. Teaching has made me a better person, a better manager and a better journalist.