Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lessons my mother learned me - Part 1

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

Our mothers … and our fathers, are the most beautiful persons in the world to us. They are the kindest and the warmest. They may not be the wisest or the most intelligent, but they are the most caring. We are the only people that matter to them. Our parents think about us and feel for us like no one else. And our mothers are with us … all the time.

I imagine a part of the brain of our mothers is always switched on to their children. We may be at school or college; at work, travelling; in another part of the world; accessible by phone or remote and out of reach. But we, their own children, are held in the fondness of the hearts, cling close in the warmth of the hugs, fondled dear in the minds – of our mothers. We are the most beautiful persons in the world to our mothers … and our fathers.

Forty years after her death, my mother is the most beautiful person in my life. Saturday, the second of May this year, will mark her 40th death anniversary. Many of you who responded to my piece, “Along the line, at railway gate No. 58”, expressed an interest to know something more about my mother, since I had mentioned that she was known as the “Lata Mangeshkar of the Konkani stage”. Most of my relatives, whose parents knew my mother well, would also be happy to read about her, since they too knew her as children.

I was 18 years old and had just finished the second year of my B.Sc. in Chemistry at St Xavier’s College, when she left us on 2 May 1969. We were staying in a first floor flat at the Officers Quarters, along the railway line at Dadar (East), Mumbai. She had not been well for some time, and used to regularly visit a family doctor friend on the sixth floor. That day too, she walked out of our home in front of us like on any other day, telling us sitting there in the front living room that she was going to meet Dr Shrivastava.

A little while later, somebody screamed to tell us that she was lying on the ground below our balcony. It was an accident; she had vertigo, what is called “falling” sickness, I have it too, she must have gone in to the balcony and fallen.

The most beautiful and kindest person in my life had left us.

When I look back after these 40 years, how do I see her? I see her in a kimono dress, sitting by a lighted window with the soft light falling across her face in profile. A book or magazine is in her hands and she is reading, head bent and often glancing around to keep an eye on us, her children. At other times, she is in the kitchen cooking, softly humming to herself some Konkani “cantara” (songs). But mostly she is reading, and sometimes, writing letters.

From stories of her childhood told to us by her and our relatives, Mary Therese D’Cruz, the eldest daughter of Pauline and Joseph D’Cruz, resident of Urva, Mangalore, in South Kanara district of present-day Karnataka went to Lady Hill School and St Agnes College in Mangalore. Born on 6 October 1925, Mary had two brothers, Pius and the late John (who died of typhoid at the age of 14).

My grand-father was a “writer” in a coffee plantation and my grand-mother took care of the house. They were not poor not well off. I recall my mother’s resourcefulness at getting by with whatever we had; not cribbing, whining or moaning; and making do.

Mary passed out from St Agnes College, Mangalore, with History and English. So you can see where my passion for the two subjects comes from. She not only “learned me lessons” in English, but also the history of English literature. But for all her excellence at English, to her it was always and is today for me a “foreign” language.

Her one and only passion in life was Konkani – the language, the songs, the literature, the culture. She knew English well and spoke it fluently; we had been put in English medium schools for my father was a “transferable” railwayman. But she noticed, during 1956-63 when we were at Jabalpur, Nagpur, Solapur and Manmad, all railways towns on the Central Railway section, that we tended or tried to speak in Hindi or English at home.

I remember her swift response with gratitude and reverence today. It was strong, fierce and clear: she would reply to us if and only if we spoke to her in Konkani; otherwise she pretended she was deaf and had not heard us at all. We had no choice but to speak at home in Konkani. Our father too was happy with this rule, for he too was a lover of languages, not only Konkani but as many languages as you could learn.

When she referred to English she called it “porkiyo”, which meant “foreign”. When she referred to other languages like Hindi or Marathi, the languages spoken around us during those days, she called them “thanchi bhas” which meant “their language”.

Only Konkani to her was “amchi bhas” which meant “our language”. To her, the world was simple and divided into two parts, “them” and “us”. Us is Konkani.


The next four parts of these memoirs on my mother will appear on the next four consecutive Sundays, 3, 10, 17, and 24 May. Make your comments here itself before you move to the next part of this column.

Horrifying "un-coverage" of sexual assault

The sensational "un-coverage" of the sexual assault on an international student from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, has generated wide discussion.

The most immoral of the reporting has been in the Mumbai Mirror, one of a family of tabloids published by the Times of India group. As an editor and working journalist since 1983 and a teacher of journalism in Pune since 1987, I am horrified by this reportage, which violates all the ethics of journalism. The reporters who covered the story, the sub-editors who allowed it to pass, and the editor in whose name the paper is published, deserve to be severely censured by the community of professional journalists.

Among the many protests against the sickening coverage is an article entitled, “Who is the Sleaziest of Them All”, written by Shilpa Phadke, a sociologist, researcher and pedagogue; Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar, documentary film makers and academics, who teach and research in the area of media and cultural studies.

The protest features in “Ultra Violet” a superb blog taken out by a community of young feminists blogging on various issues, challenges, and triumphs that affect women in India today. Ultra Violet, in turn, is an initiative of the Hengasara Hakkina Sangha, a women’s rights resource centre. You may write to them at: ultraviolet.editor[at]

I am not actively attached to any publication today and so I am unable to take up this issue as a professional journalist from inside a newspaper. However, through my blog “Against the Tide” I want to raise my voice, instigate and rouse each and every one of my students (past and present), friends and colleagues everywhere, to completely familiarise themselves with the various issues at stake.

We must protest in whatever we can, through professional bodies, signing petitions, and campaigning inside offices and even on the streets, against the scandal-mongering coverage and sensationalism that is becoming rampant today. This is a part of the rotting disease that is destroying the core of journalism in India.

Please keep up the pressure and build a strong movement among journalists for responsible reporting.

Your support is our strength,
- Joe.

Pune, Sunday, 26 April 2009.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

My father-in-law, the public intellectual

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

Thank you all for your warm and uplifting responses and comments to the tribute I paid to my father-in-law. Today, Sunday, 19 April, the late Prof. K.L. Joshi’s family held a condolence meeting at his residence, where members of the family and two of his specially-invited friends paid respects to his dear memory.

Listening to the many who silently wept or wiped away tears, as a few spoke about him, I could sense the enormous impact this simple man had made by the example of his own life to so many lives in so many different ways.

A cousin brother, who was brought up by Prof Joshi, recalled a small incident of how he got one whole rupee to go for a picnic. A cousin sister remembered how carefully Prof Joshi calculated household expenses. Prof Joshi had sent his three cousins (including her) along with their mother, for a one-month holiday to their native place, Anjarle on the Konkan coast. But he warned them that they would have to stay put with life in a village, though they were used to the comforts of Pune, and that they could not, for any reason whatsoever, return before one month had elapsed -- because the Rs 90, the travel fare, was all that he could afford to give them and that the return fare would be paid by their "mama" (maternal uncle).

But it was one of Prof Joshi’s two friends, Prof Shirolkar, who touched me most deeply and profoundly by his narration of the pervasive ideological influence that Prof Joshi exercised on him and others. You will recall I had described my father-in-law as a “public intellectual.” But I could not have known then how accurate I was in my estimation.

Prof. Shirolkar told the gathered family that Prof Joshi was a confidant and guide to eminent political leaders in Maharashtra like Mohan Dharia and N.D. Patil; that the engineering teachers in Pune consulted Prof Joshi regularly regarding their organisational issues; that even as a student leader in the pre-independence days, "K.L." would be concerned about what his friends were reading; that even today he recalled how Prof Joshi gave him a copy of “What is Marxism?” by Emile Burns. Another cousin sister recalled that Prof Joshi gave her a copy of Shyamchi Aai (Shyam's Mother) by Sane Guruji as "bhau-beej" on Raksha Bandhan as a token of his brotherly love.

Not surprising then, that with my own unabashed love for ideology, I should be drawn to this gentle and warm father-in-law of mine! His children and relatives recalled how he practised what he preached and his favourite line, "I say what I mean, and I mean what I say."

You will be glad to know that the reminiscences by his family members and friends were so many, so varied and so detailed in their description, that the project to publish a biography of Prof K.L. Joshi is sure to become a reality.

There is one category of comment that I would like to address. Should I have been so open and candid and honest in this personal memoir about my private relationship with my father-in-law on the public platform of the Internet blog? Some felt I was needlessly submitting to public scrutiny and judgment the story of my relationship that should have been restricted to a small family or friend circle.

I prefer to believe I was correct in what I did; that is why I have continued my memoir in the same vein. I would like to listen to your views too.

That’s all, this Sunday.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, Sunday, 19 April 2009.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Life before death, with my father-in-law

We do not choose our parents or our bosses. Our parents we cannot know; our bosses select us. But we may choose our friends and partners. So if I had a choice again to marry, I would choose to marry my wife Kalpana. But this time round, I would have one more reason than that I love her: I knew and loved her father too.

Prof. K.L. Joshi, my father-in-law, died yesterday, Saturday, 11 April 2009, after completing 87 years the day before, on 10 April. A gentle peaceful man, he was a wonderful human being, a political activist to the core and a world-class public intellectual.

Fond of mathematics, Prof Joshi taught science and technology at the College of Engineering, Pune (COEP) from 1955 until his retirement in 1980 as its Head of the Department of Electronics and Telecommunications.

When I first met him in 1981, as Kalpana’s father, I was surprised that he was glad I was a political activist and that too associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)! Himself a socialist and close to the communists, the socialists and the Gandhians, he was concerned that I did not have a full-time job.

One of his first questions to me was, “Will you take up a full-time job, after you get married?” My yes reassured him. And when I joined Maharashtra Herald on 2 May 1983 as a sub-editor, he was happy I kept my word, and was not bothered that my monthly salary of 600 rupees was less than what his daughter earned.

The multi-faceted life and work of Prof. K.L. Joshi, fondly called “K.L.” by his friends, deserves a full-length biography. Here I will describe a few reasons why I grew to love him.

He was a daring freedom-fighter, having served a prison term in Yerawada Jail, Pune, during the 1942 Quit India movement. In his room, there is a picture of the 20 year-old “K.L.” taken just after he got out of jail. He does not face the camera; I like to imagine he is looking into the distance at the India he and his comrades are fighting for.

“Anna”, as we called him in the family, touched the individual lives of many, drawing them close to him. He did this not by words of affection but by the simple example of his own life and kind deeds. Others may tell their own stories of him. I will tell you mine.

When I proposed to Kalpana, it was not easy for her “Brahmin” family to say yes. I went through an astonishing “interview” by her relatives, so that they could get to know the “Catholic” boy. I have put the words Brahmin and Christian in double inverted commas, because neither were they traditional Pune “Brahmins” nor was I the usual “Catholic” boy.

One person who accepted me without reservation was Prof. K. L. Joshi. His only questions were practical and those that any father of any eligible girl has a right to ask. For his unqualified support, I always loved him. We had our differences, especially on ideological issues, but he was most gracious and courteous when he disagreed with me. He respected differences and did not wish to offend and lose a friend.

I recall an interview of Paul Eddington, the actor who played the role of the British Prime Minister in the TV series, “Yes, Minister”. In Face to Face with Jeremy Isaacs, a week before he died of cancer, Paul says he would like to be remembered by the words, “He did very little harm.” This would be a fitting epitaph for Prof. K.L. Joshi.

In a Pune that is hide-bound with the most covert, sophisticated and brazen forms of caste and class prejudice, he was a rare example of honest humanity, refusing to submit to pressure from any quarter. For him, merit always came above all else.

His contributions on various selection panels and boards, ranging from the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) to the college or job interview panel, are outstanding and dearly remembered by thousands for their impartiality, fearlessness and respect for merit – and nothing else.

He did not believe in life after death. He practised his beliefs in his own life, by refusing to have any religious ceremonies for his sons or daughters. He professed his beliefs with his grand-children, prepared to argue, "Does God exist?” For him, there was only this one life to be lived fully on earth – before death. A Gandhian socialist, he believed all people everywhere are good and deserve to be treated so. I like to believe if heaven is real, it is because it is possible to create a heaven on earth.

When he left at eighty-seven,
No life after death.
In us, he left his heaven,
Life before death.

That’s all, this Sunday.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, Sunday, 12 April 2009.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

How Alistair Cooke describes “Six Men”

My dear students, friends, colleagues,

Description is an attitude and technique that is losing ground. Under pressure from news that is "breaking" 24 hours on TV, Indian newspaper editors delude themselves, "Which readers want to read stale reports the next morning.?"

So they abandon the report, filled with crisp facts (checked and re-verified) as well as precise description (based on accurate observation). Instead, opinionated features -- a hotch-potch of news, analysis, photographs and computer graphics, wallowing in the slush of wishy adjectives and slime of washy adverbs -- tell the readers what to think.

I have resisted this silly tide and consistently risen to the defence of the old-fashioned report and the tribe of reporters, who are likely to becoming an endangered species of journalist.

Alistair Cooke belongs to that “good and great” tradition of British journalists, who excelled at facts and description. Born in 1908 and settling down in America in 1937, a few years after the Great Depression and a few years before World War II, Alistair Cooke broadcast his “Letter from America” over the BBC for 58 years. Cooke died in 2004 at the age of 95.

In this column, I reproduce an extract from his book, “Six Men” (Bodley Head, 1977), in which Cooke wrote “character studies” of six men. To illustrate my point about the need for description, my extract is of Cooke’s meeting with H.L. Mencken (page 96 of the 1980 Penguin paperback edition):

“I met him first in the back room of Schellhase’s restaurant and when I arrived he was sitting there behind a stein of beer with A.D. Emart of the Baltimore Sunpapers. For some reason, having to do with my preconception of a scourge calling sinners to repentance, I suppose I expected to see a florid giant, the local Balzac swivelling his bulk to bark at lackadaisical waiters. But he was no more conspicuous than any local shopkeeper.”

In this paragraph, please note Cooke’s three sketches of Mencken: his preconception of “a scourge calling sinners to repentance” and expectation to see “a florid giant, the local Balzac swivelling his bulk to bark at lackadaisical waiters”, dispelled by the reality of a man “no more conspicuous than any local shopkeeper.” Cooke continues to observe meticulously:

“What I saw was a small man so short in the thighs that when he stood up he seemed smaller than when he was sitting down. He had a plum pudding of a body and a square head stuck on it with no intervening neck. His brown hair was parted exactly in the middle, and the two cowlicks touched his eyebrows.

“He had very light blue eyes small enough to show the whites above the irises; which gave him the earnestness of a gas jet when he talked, an air of resigned incredulity when he listened, and a merry acceptance of the human race and all its foibles when he grinned.

“He was dressed like the owner of a country hardware store. (On ceremonial occasions, I saw later, he dressed like a plumber got up for church.) For all his seeming squatness, his movements were precise and his hands in particular were small and sinewy.”

Within 232 words, Cooke describes “the private face of a most public man whom few people could stop to look at for the fire and smoke of his old reputation of a scourge calling sinners to repentance”.

We are lucky there was no TV in Mencken's "under-whelming" days, or else a free-marketeering editor would have chopped off Cooke's description, arguing that a few close-up camera shots had already caught Mencken on the small screen in an interview the previous day!!!

The 207-page paperback “Six Men” has Cooke's memoirs on:

1. Charles Chaplin – The One and Only
2. King Edward VIII – The Golden Boy
3. H.L. Mencken – The Public and the Private Face
4. Humphrey Bogart – Epitaph for a Tough Guy
5. Adlai Stevenson – The Failed Saint
6. Bertrand Russell – The Lord of Reason.

I urge you to grab anything by Alistair Cooke that you can lay your hands, eyes or ears on.

Please comment on this post, before you proceed to the rest of my column.

As you wrestle, watch your words

One of my school-mates from Mumbai and now in Tokyo, Vivek Pinto, regularly sends me links that may be useful to my students. Henceforth, I will include themin my column. Here are two articles about John Hope Franklin, the black historian, who died on 25 March 2009 at the age of 94, having reshaped the scholarship of the Jim Crow South and given birth to African-American history with books such as “From Slavery to Freedom,” “The Militant South, 1800-1860” and his ground-breaking work on free Negroes.

See Editorial “John Hope Franklin,” The New York Times, Brent Staples, 26 March 2009 and “John Hope Franklin, Scholar and Witness ," Peter Applebome, The New York Times, 28 March 2009.

In our search for excellence as professionals, we “wrestle” with troublesome problems. Here is a helpful article: “Words to Watch," by Philip B. Corbett, The New York Times, 1 April 2009. I am including this link at Vivek Pinto’s suggestion because my students may also benefit.

“After Deadline” examines questions of grammar, usage and style encountered by writers and editors at the NYT. It is adapted from a weekly newsroom critique, overseen by Philip B. Corbett, the deputy news editor who is also in charge of the NYT style manual. Corbett says, “The goal is not to chastise, but to point out recurring problems and suggest solutions.”

Please respond with your suggestions, questions and doubts. Above all, I welcome disagreements with the words of Voltaire: “I disagree with every word you say. But I shall defend to my death your right to say it.” Last week’s column, “No! No!” to Nano” stirred strong emotions and stronger language. Keep it coming.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, Sunday, 5 April 2009.