Archive for October, 2008

My little friend has got me hooked on to barbies. My first barbie was a school girl barbie, which my mother got for me when I was in the fifth. By the time I was 16, I had to grow out of barbies, as it was considered uncool to be playing with dolls and because barbies were considered the epitome of sexism. I have always had a love and hate relationship with barbies; I don’t like what barbies have come to represent, but I love dolls, all dolls, teddy bears, doll houses, miniature play sets, etc.

I think it was around the time I was 14 that the song, “Barbie Girl” by aqua was released. The music album epitomized the concept of the barbie girl; it was considered derogatory to be clubbed with a barbie as a barbie was a beautiful, but a dumb and shallow girl.

Another major charge against barbie was that barbie’s body measurements were unrealistic. Many critics felt that barbie was promoting the concept of the busty women with the incredibly narrow waist (I think Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett has also contributed more to the idea of the ideal 18-inch waist). The idea being girls might be tempted to go in for breast implants and starve themselves into anorexia to copy barbie. I doubt anyone would do that, but still Mattel was stuck in the controversy. The next line of barbies which came out had wider waists and more believable body measurements.

In line with India’s preoccupation with the brand Fair and Lovely (which I think should be banned), I have only seen fair barbies in India. When we first got the Internet, I was fascinated with the AKA barbie. That barbie had a nice brown complexion with a ultra sleek, chic green and pink evening gown. I could so, so identify with this barbie. But none of the dealers in Chennai, housed AKA barbie or any other dark-skinned barbie doll.

Even now when I occasionally browse through the aisles of Landmark, I can find lots of Indian barbies in different clothes and hairstyles, but not with different complexions. I can’t believe that even the Barbie guys have got clued into the fact that we are a nation, still imbued with the ‘colonial mentality of fairness.’

Even in America, there was some controversy following the launch of the Afro-American barbie dolls. All the Afro-American barbies though they sported a dark complexion, still had only Grecian features and fulfilled European standards of beauty. Afro-American barbies and even Hispanic barbies were launched but all of them were big-eyed, straight-nosed and button-lipped. So being crinkly-eyed, snub-nosed and large-lipped is not considered beautiful?

This brings to my mind, passages from Alex Haley’s Roots. The book’s main protagonist Kunta Kinte as an African kid is curious as to why his mother is blackening herself with the application of some forest herbs. His father says, “Black is beautiful. The blacker the woman is, the more beautiful she is.” Kunta is later captured by slave owners and transported to America. In America, he finds it sickening when fellow Africans, who are mulattoes, are proud of the fact that they are fairer than their black bretheren. He feels, he would be ashamed if white, slave-master, blood ran through his veins. He can’t believe it that his fellow Afro-Americans find pale, scraggly white women beautiful and not their own black womenfolk.

I digress. The point I was trying to make was that barbie dolls still embody the American concept of beauty even in their Indian avatar. Don’t you think it will be nicer if Indian barbies started looking like actress Nandita Das, instead of resembling Angelina Jolie in a saree?

Also, the Indian barbies all come out only in traditional dresses; their dresses would pass the scrutiny of the strictest grooms or grandmothers. Even the ones wearing chudidhar, wear something from the 1970s. No chic or trendy short kurta, tie and dye bandini stuff to be seen on any of the barbies.

Hmmm! So while I still can’t approve of what barbie has come to represent, I still found myself gifting a barbie to one tiny, enthusiastic little friend of mine.

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MDMK Vaiko has got arrested for supporting the LTTE the second time around; opening up great possibilities for the media.

The last time he got arrested he put his jail experience to good use and got a fair amount of political mileage out of it. He even authored a book, “From the portals of prison” and got PM Manmohan Singh to release it.

And since the book trick worked once, he’s now authored another one called “Yes, We Can” on Obama, US presidential candidate. In July, he managed to meet Obama on the strength of it (personally I think he would be playing it extra safe if he waited for the results of the US elections before getting into all the bother of writing a sweetening-up book.)

The last time Vaiko got arrested, his arrest was condemned by DMK president M Karunanidhi, S.R. Balasubramaniam of the Congress, PMK S Ramadoss, CPI R Nallakannu & DK Veeramani. This time only PMK Ramadoss & DK Veeramani might actually come around to condemning the arrest….Eagerly awaiting AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa’s take on it as she put him in the coop for the very same reason last time.

MDMK Vaiko has always caught my imagination ever since he changed his name from V Gopalasamy to Vaiko. He provides a lot of colour and fun in an otherwise dull political spectrum with his black shawls (superstition or Periyar leanings?), fiery speeches on “Tamil nationalism” and his frequent shifting of loyalties between the Dravidian parties and national parties.

He fwas groomed DMK chief M Karunanidhi. But once he realized he would have to contend himself with joining the second-power rung of K Anbazhagan, T R Baalu & Co as the top-posts were reserved for MK’s kith and kin, he rebelled….That is of course taking a simplistic view of things, but MK’s curbing his growth in the party was definitely an issue. He was expelled and formed the MDMK in 1993.

But unlike Karunanidhi, Vaiko never knew when to play it safe. Karununaidhi stopped referring to the LTTE chief as thambi Prabhakaran after the PM’s assassination. But Vaiko went ahead with unequivocally supporting the LTTE, which gave AIADMK chief Jaya, who was then the CM, a plum opportunity to get him arrested under POTA.

He then shifted from the BJP to the Congress. The minute he got released, he must have had amnesia, because he conveniently forgot that Jaya got him arrested and joined hands with her.

But poor guy, it turned to be a squib, as he lost the elections and the little amount of respect voters might have had for him.

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I know this post is probably going to put off most people, who deem financial reporting boring and obtuse. Most general reporters feel business journalists are the guys who have it easy; the guys who attend press conferences that are scheduled for lunch, tea, high-tea or dinner; the guys who only re-write press releases and the guys for whom exclusives don’t make or break their careers.

Working for general newspapers for more than three years, I was prejudiced against business reporting. It took a tremendously talented boss and the AIG bailout for me to realise that finance is a wonderful world.

I’m finding words like stocks, repo, reverse-repo, CRR, solvency margins absolutely fascinating!

Also John Grisham books suddenly seem to have taken greater importance in my life. Tales of money laundering, swiss bank accounts and tax havens are proving to be fascinating reads.

Did you know that many of the re-insurance companies in the world are based in Bermuda because of the tax exclusion benefits? I was actually reading a run-of-the-mill press release, when I came upon the line…”reinsurance company based in Bermuda.” I was intrigued by that line and checked up to find that its not just re-insurance companies, but many other companies like banks, insurance companies, assurance companies, fund managers and investment consultants – whose working force is small and geographical locations don’t hamper operations – also opt for tax havens like Bermuda. What was also very interesting was that the very first tax haven was the Vatican City.

Even the nitty-gritties can prove interesting. I didn’t know that tax avoidance, tax evasion and tax fraud are totally different activities until I spoke with a lawyer. India is of course not likely to forget the hawala scam, one of the biggest and most amibitious cases of money laundering that got exposed.

And Wikipedia has become my bible. KYC – Know Your Customer is an anti-money laundering mechanism adopted by banks. Many of the bank regulations and the US Patriots Act are formulated to maitain the checks and balances in the system. But after seeing Farenheit 9/11 and being a regular reader of Counterpunch.org, I am able to see the common man’s point of view and how laws can violate human rights and invade privacy in the name of “national security” and “anti-terrorism measures.”

Even in India laws like POTA and TADA were more misused than used. MDMK Vaiko’s imprisonment was the height of misuse of POTA; political vendetta at its meanest. I was glad when POTA was repealed, but now it looks like it might make a come back in a sterner avatar.

And now since elections are round the corner or because they don’t have any issue to rake up, Tamil nationalism or jingoism has again become the trump card for Tamil Nadu politicians. I think Tamil is a great language. I also have great sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils, who are the victims of both the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE. But I don’t see why I should suddenly become proud of being a Tamilian, just because DMK MPs are suddenly overcome with grief at the atrocities being pepetrated against Sri Lankan Tamils. Karunanidhi of course has not said anything about his “thambi Prabhakaran” after the PM’s assasination.

But, I digress. Anyway resolution of the week is to finish reading the Business Standard, Economic Times and the Business Line, back-to-back between 6-8 in the morning; provided I’m able to get up at 5 and finish the cooking. I’m also reading the Malhotra Committee report on the insurance reforms needed post-1993 liberalisation. Planning a post on it once I get through reading this labour-intensive (hard on my eyes, which have a tendency to droop when faced with non-fiction) report.

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Well, my birthday is over and I’m reeling under a fever. I’m now officially 24! And am starting to feel ancient and over the hills.

I am yet to finish reading all the books I got as presents. Currently, reading Malcolm X and finding it fascinating. Its so much better than Alex Haley’s Roots. In Roots, you can only identify with the first few chapters describing life in the vast, immense, beautiful, Sub-saharan Africa. Life as a black slave in America is painful, but still wanting “integration with the whites” and “compromises at every stage.” Malcolm X is better by far, as it forthright, hard-hitting without being apologetic.

While I cannot subscribe to many of Malcolm’s views on what should be done to address overt and covert discrimination of blacks in America, I can easily empathise with his anger and hatred for white supremacists.

My birthday was grand…And I must thank everyone of my friends for the gifts and the kind words accompanying them. Even, people I had marked down as acquaintances called up, thrilling me no end.

My cousins as usual sung those infamous lines from Dunston Checks In:

“Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday to you,

You look like a monkey,

And you act like one too..”

As an anti-climax, I was down with a fever, by afternoon and had to leave office early. Feeling a little more upbeat with the fever going down today.

So thank you once again everybody for all the best wishes and the sweet thoughts!

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Pomeranians are such wonderful, friendly, generous and lovable creatures. Yet, I don’t why there is so much bad press about them that they are mean, little dogs, who shed truckloads of hair, bark, snap, bite and have bad tempers.

I have had one Pomeranian and associated with many of these creatures and have never once been bitten by these dogs or found them any less lovable.

Shedding hair

Pomeranians do have long hair and shed copious amounts of it during the summer. Since the breed is imported, it has never really got acclimatized to the Indian heat. I have known Pomeranians that have shed hair all round the year in India; because here the seasons are really not distinct and even during the monsoon the temperature is quite high and humid.

We had a Spitz named Achu, which was also long-haired so experience speaks. If you don’t want the dog’s hair all over the place and circulating in the air every time you switch on the fan then you should groom it well. A good grooming every morning with a rough, big toothed comb and then another fine brushing with a smaller-toothed comb will ensure that you don’t have hair all over the place. Also the regular brushing increases the blood flow under the skin and keeps Ur dog’s hair shining and glossy. During the periods of high hair fall, you must brush the dog twice a day and try giving it a bath once a week to weed out dead hair.

Poms bark all the time

I grant it to you Pomeranians are high spirited creatures, but that is one of the characteristics of the breed. You wouldn’t want a sheep herding collie to suddenly start imitating a blood hound, would you? Alsations are versatile dogs; they can be guide dogs for the blind, deaf, therapy dogs, police dogs, sniffer dogs, army dogs and companion dogs. But not every dog can be a multi-tasker like the GSD. Dogs are bred for certain distinct purposes and there are inherent characteristics of the breed. Some dogs are one-man dogs or loners like the Afghan hound. Others like the Siberian Husky, the Alaskan Malamute or the Samoyed excel in team work and are working dogs.

But dogs never bark unless they want your attention, are upset about something or want to alert you. With its high spirits and intelligence, your average Pomeranian does get bored cooped up in the house. It will not lazily sink to complacency and fatness like the Labrador. When it doesn’t get any other avenue of expending its energy or when not properly socialized, it does bark a lot. That’s the owner’s fault, not the dog’s or the breed’s.

Poms being meanies

Pomeranians are not irritable, unless you irritate them. How would you like it if some stranger on the street suddenly patted ur head? You will snap. And so will the dog.

Never touch a dog because its wagging its tail at you. Dogs wag their tails when they are excited, curious and a little afraid. You must first let the dog sniff you and then place your hand on its chest or shoulders. Directly putting ur hand on its head, makes it fear ur trying to subdue it and it will retaliate or shy away. Its also seen as an act of dominance by the dog.

The dog will also feel more comfortable, if you bend down to its level and pat it.

Most people seeing a nice, cute, pretty, little Pomeranian, forget its a live thing with feelings. They try squeezing it, carrying it and molly-coddling to its great displeasure. And when it snaps, they label all poms “small and mean.” Shucks! Su unfair!

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There are many patriarchal things in practice in my circuit; among which the thing that irks me the most is women having to sit on the floor, while men lord it over them by sitting on chairs.

If you have witnessed many lower-middle class functions, you will note that when then there is a scarcity of seats women sit on the floor, while men (even little boys) sit on chairs. A former landlord once was defending this practice of women sitting on the floor. He said, “Women will sweep the floor and keep the house spic and span, only if they have to sit on the ground. If they start wearing slippers inside the house and sit on chairs, they won’t care if the floor is dirty.”

Even today in many Indian households, the neatness of the house is considered a direct reflection of the moral standards of the women. I have heard people gossiping, “She has no sense of responsibility. Her kids always have running noses and lice. She never sweeps the floor. She thinks too much of herself just because she has a job. Her poor husband doesn’t get any decent food to eat.” To which another nosy neighbour will reply, “She wears high heels. It will probably break her back to sweep the floor.” I myself have come under criticism many a time for my laissez-faire attitude towards housework, though our house is tolerably clean.

In the Christian prayer meetings we used to attend, most of the women folk (except the elderly) sat on the floor, while the masters of the house reclined in chairs. It used to irritate me no end. What I found very suprising was seeing the same trend in a fringe Left party meeting also.

When I raised the issue at the next Left party meeting, I was suprised when one comrade replied, “Most of the women attend the meeting because their husbands want them to. They don’t have a higher level of social consiousness. They feel uncomfortable sitting on chairs in the presence of their elders and husbands. Since, the purpose of the meeting is to address social issues, why make them uncomfortable by insisting they sit on chairs.”

I was furious with the reply and gave a strong rebuttal. So women feeling intimidated by their menfolk and sitting on floors is not a social issue? Christians or Communists; I feel people should respect women and accept them as equals. If there are not enough chairs for all the women, then everyone , male or female should sit on the floor. If a widow is made to shave her head and wear a white sari, will we not object? Making women sit on the floor is an accepted social norm; we should break that! Be more progressive! I found his argument ridiculous and his not making any move to change such regressive social norms unacceptable.

As a kid, I out of sheer perversity sometimes used to sit on the chairs and cross my legs (knowing fully well that I’ll get it from my grandma later). Now I’m less brave and sometimes not wishing to make a scene at a family functions like a betrothal join the common herd by sitting on the floor.

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Greeting cards

I want to start sending out greeting cards again to people, because its a lovely tradition that my mom followed for more than 30 years. Me and mom used to diligently send greeting cards to all our friends for Diwali, Christmas, New Year and Pongal. Christmas and New Year were the really back-breaking seasons as far as greeting cards were concerned. On an average we used to send out some 300 cards a year, give or take a few. My mother, being a bit of an introvert and a little shy socially, felt it was the perfect way to reach out to all the people we wanted to.

In all this en masse posting, we got to know the people in our local post office very well. The post office guys at Sembakkam, Vandalur and Mandaveli (back in the 1980s) sometimes picked up our mail from our home. We also got a lot of mail in return. One Christmas, when I wanted to decorate the house with old greeting cards, I couldn’t put all up and the house resembled Landmark.

I was always amazed at the amount of care she used to take selecting and sending each card.

For one of our cousins, who was blind, she always picked out the costliest and the most-deeply embossed card as she wanted him to be able to trace and feel the card pattern with his hands. For her older friends and relatives, she always picked out bright, cheerful cards with huge font sizes, so that reading the card was not difficult. Picking cards for kids were the most fun – I used to send out birthday greetings for a few of my select friends and cousins (Her friends were old enough to resent any mention of their birthday or their age). Nice, big, glittery cards, some of which had ring tones in them. And for other normal happy families like ours she used to select the cheaper Rs 3 (I doubt u get cards at such rates now) variety; justifying it by saying that its the “thought that counts and they don’t need much cheering up.”

When I offered my help, I had to have my senses about me; because cards could get wasted when addressed to the wrong people or with the wrong message. Once, I had addressed a “Happy Christmas to you and your family” to an orphan girl, who had became a nun with the Salesian order. My mother was annoyed and told me “every card was special,” and my addressing a card meant for a large family to a nun on Christmas eve was bound to upset her.

For people recently bereaved, she used to get those blank cards – cards with pretty pictures, saying Seasons Greetings but with no message – and write a personal note to the family. She is the only one I know who had a supply of those lovely monogrammed, black-edged cards to be sent as condolences. These days, I don’t see such mourning cards in Archies or Shopper’s Stop.

For cousins, who stay abroad, she used to get those light, glitter on tissue cards with the fragile covers so that the weight stayed below 20 gms and we didn’t have to pay more than Rs 25 on the postage. But what I found a little strange was the cards for Diwali. Being secular and with a wide circle of Hindu friends, she used to send Diwali greetings to her friends, but some inner inhibition (being a Christian) always made her choose cards without pictures of Hindu Gods like ones with pictures of children, lamps, sweets and fireworks.

One week before Christmas, the marathon of making lists, updating the address book with phone calls, getting stamps, selecting cards, writing messages and posting them would begin. We always used to finish our Christmas and New Year packaging at one stretch and post them at different dates. Since our family was unclear as to whether you could greet people on Ramzan, my mom used to send New Year greetings to all my dad’s Muslim friends (My dad used to work in a Muslim minority institution as a professor).

Only when I grew much older did I realise how much other people looked forward to our cards. One of my dad’s relatives, who was mentally disturbed, always used to greet my mother when we visited her though she would fail to recognise her nephew, my dad. The last time we visited her in Madurai, before she died, she showed us that she had saved all the cards we had sent. She had tied up our cards with a velvet ribbon. She said she always knew when I had written to her or my mom (No great science there as I scribble and my mother has an elegant long hand).

Another time, we were able to find out that a long-time family acquaintance had died only because of my mother’s cards. My mother unfailing used to visit her father’s friend once or twice a year and send seasons greetings. Being an Indian refugee from Burma, he didn’t have any family members here and as he grew older his friends’ circle had largely diminished. When our greeting card returned to us, we started making enquiries. When we didn’t get any news, we went there only to find out he had died and the municipal authorities had buried his body a week ago. It was a bit pathetic, that we were the only family who knew and the only people who had cared to find out; considering that he was such a nice, generous-hearted man.

In her own way, my mother managed to keep in touch with everyone she knew through her letters and correspondence – me (when she was transferred), her school headmistress, her PWD colleagues, her engg college friends, our relatives (my dad’s relatives are more familiar with my mom than with him).

I hope to carry on the tradition by first sending the season’s greetings to my own little circle of friends.

Happy Diwali to everyone out in the blogosphere!

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