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Archive for October, 2008

Email fwd; Pick of the week

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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 Scarlett has 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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Happy Diwali!

I hope everyone has a wonderful Diwali with lots and lots of sweets & crackers. I think I have grown out of bursting crackers, but I can still be convinced to light a few sparklers.

I will be spending Diwali at my in-laws place. Here’s wishing everyone a bright and happy Diwali.

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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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The insurance industry is getting mighty creative with its promotional campaigns.

Music has no barriers. So, HDFC Standard Life Insurance Company has released a music album Sar Utha Ke Jiyo to hook the younger insurance prospects out there. Insurance and music are worlds apart, but still the company bravely went ahead and got two tracks composed on the need for self-respect, self-reliance and HDFC Standard Life products. But the album may not be a total write-off as it has songs like Rubaroo from Rang De Basanti, Yeh Honsla from Dor, Aashayein from Iqbal and Aa Rahan Hoon Main by Bombay Viking.

In another stunner, Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance Company got Vijender Singh as its brand ambassador close on the heels of his winning an Oylmpic medal. Now, if Vijender proves to be a one trick pony Bajaj Allianz Life might not be so hasty in getting celebrity endorsement.

The Indian Insurance Industry seems to have caught the Nike-fever of hiring sports stars as brand ambassadors. Aviva Life Insurance Company’s brand ambassador is Sachin Tendulkar. Sanmar AMP Life Insurance Company, which has now been taken over by Reliance Life Insurance Company, earlier had Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh as its brand ambassador. In 2006, while Birla SunLife Insurance Company hired Kapil Dev for promotions, Max New York Life Insurance Company roped in Rahul Dravid.

Brand re-make seems to be the hottest word in the insurance industry. Max New York Life has come with a new tagline “Karo Zyaada Ka Iraada” for its brand name. And when insurance companies go for brand makeovers they don’t contact any old ad agency, they instead go the whole hog and get research done by people like McKinsey Global Institute and Demographic Research to find out what Indian youths want.

Tata AIG Life Insurance Company has joined the bandwagon by changing its tagline to “A New look at life.” Tata AIG had also earlier roped in Naseerudin Shah to promote its personal lines. And its not just the private sector which has become image conscious, The National Insurance Company’s new tagline goes for “a bright and better tommorrow.”

ICICI Lombard General Insurance Company is going for an image makeover of a different kind after the recent spate of negative news: “ICICI Lombard to pay up Rs 50 k for misleading forum,” “Insurance firm penalized for turning down claim,” “ICICI Lombard told to pay up Rs 1 lakh for punitive damages,” “Maharashtra Government takes ICICI Lombard to consumer court,” & “Maha Agri Dept blacklists ICICI Lombard.”

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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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