Friday, March 30, 2012

An institution called College Street

I have just returned from Kolkata, my sixth visit in five years. You would think I now know Kolkata like the back of my hand. But that's not the case, sadly. These trips to the City of Joy have been what I call "flying visits" I land at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport on a Saturday and I'm back at the airport to board my flight to Bangalore the following Monday. So, as far as sightseeing is concerned, I have been to Park Street (and eaten there), I have visited the Victoria Memorial, I know my way around Gariahat.

But, because of the paucity of time, I have never been to College Street. Which will come as a surprise to people who know me and my love of books.

By a coincidence, the latest issue of The Week carries a fairly detailed feature on College Street. Titled "The heart of Kolkata", the article by Rabi Banerjee explains why the street continues to be a popular hangout. It also gives us some history relating to the area:

Thanks to its proximity to famous educational institutions, College Street saw major student movements in the '70s. A number of brilliant minds from Bengal, who could have led the country in different spheres, joined the Naxalite movement. Many of them lost their lives in police encounters in the alleys of College Street. Political protests and demonstrations take place here even today. But elders who were witnesses to the bloodbath in the '60s and '70s warn students not to get embroiled in violent movements.

But College Street is not all about books. To know more, and to understand why College Street will definitely be on my itinerary when I next visit Kolkata, read Rabi Banerjee's article in its entirety here.


A tribute to an iconic Bengali actor

It was only five days ago that I was listening in fascination as Commitscions Kaustav Datta and Atreyee Sen talked in awe about the grand old man of Tollywood, Soumitra Chatterjee.

The three of us were having lunch at Zara, the spiffy restaurant in Kolkata's South City Mall, and since both Kaustav and Atreyee are production professionals the discussion veered around to films and television shows and the stars who continue to hold fans in thrall. That was when Kaustav told us about the time he went to interview Soumitra Chatterjee for a television channel and Atreyee chipped in with an anecdote about the iconic Bengali actor with whom she got an opportunity to interact when he came to her studio for a dubbing session.

And what I do see when I open Mint today? A tribute to Soumitra Chatterjee, who received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award this year, by veteran columnist Salil Tripathi.

"Over the years," Tripathi writes, "Chatterjee personified the nuanced angst of the modern educated Indian, bound by traditions and accepting them while being sceptical. When tragedy strikes, he is overwhelmed, but he finds the reserves within him to rise again and faces the future with equanimity."

Tripathi also pays tribute to Bengali cinema:

If quantity equated quality, Hindi cinema would be India’s best. For provocative cinema that stays with you beyond the three hours at a theatre, we turn to films made in other Indian languages, Bengali being the most prominent.

And then he returns to Chatterjee:

In his debut film [Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar], Chatterjee showed a range of emotions that could only come from an actor of exceptional maturity and sensibility. Ray knew how to make his expressive face reveal emotions that words couldn’t depict.

Read the column in its entirety here: "A master of his craft". And if you're not a Bengali, you will understand, as I did, why Kaustav and Atreyee think the world of Soumitra Chatterjee.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games: A "young adult" series that even adults will love

I gave up on Harry Potter halfway through the first book a great series for children, I thought to myself, but not for grown-ups. (I was wrong about that, though many of my students, who were in their twenties when the fifth book came out, were Potter fans. Years ago, I remember, one of them snapped at me in exasperation when I mentioned casually to her that Dumbledore dies in the sixth book. I had no idea at the time that she was mad about Harry & Co.)

As for Twilight, I couldn't get into it at all, probably because I don't get what people see in vampires. (Not since Bram Stoker's Dracula has anyone written a decent vampire novel, not even Anne Rice.)

I came to the conclusion that young adult novels are not for me.

Boy, has Suzanne Collins proved me wrong!

I have just finished reading Mockingjay, the third and final (sigh!) book in Collins's Hunger Games trilogy.

It was only some three weeks ago that I began the first book, The Hunger Games. As I got deeper into it, I couldn't wait to finish it and start on the second one, Catching Fire. And, then, go on to Mockingjay. The plotting throughout the series is superb and the dystopian future is evoked brilliantly. You also rush through the pages because in none of the books is there a single word that you will have to look up in a dictionary. Surely that is the hallmark of a great writer.

There were times when I was reading the books on my Kindle Fire on the bus back from work that I would forget where I was. Once I almost missed my stop. And when I discussed this with my young friend Nastassia Michael, who lives in Toronto, she said that the same thing once happened to her, too, on the subway!

The three books have been billed as young adult novels, but, really, they are for anyone who is passionate about reading, age no bar. You are sure to love, as I did, the old-fashioned story-telling skills on display in all three books.

Suzanne Collins has made her characters so believable — especially the three main protagonists: Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, and Gale Hawthorne and she has told a tale so riveting that, after having completed the series, I am now eagerly looking forward to watching the movie based on the first book next week.


UPDATE (March 28, 2012): The executive editor of Mint, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, writes in his column today that several important economic lessons can be gleaned from the Suzanne Collins trilogy. Read the column here: "The hunger games".

UPDATE (March 29, 2012): Hunger Games, the movie, is well-made and it deserved its blockbuster opening weekend  $150 m. at the U.S. box-office in three days but the book does a much better job of describing the horrors of the savage games in which 24 young men and women are forced to fight to the death in a televised spectacle.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Prakash and Mandakini Amte: The most inspirational story I have read in years

An e-mail I had sent out to my students, friends, and relatives in September 2009 (I did not have my own blog at the time):

Prakash and Mandakini Amte tend to a skeletal inmate at Hemalkasa.

In 2008, Prakash Amte and his wife, Mandakini, were given the Magsaysay award for service to humanity. (Twenty-three years previously, Prakash's father, the legendary Baba Amte, had received the same award.)

Our newspapers (mostly) carried the announcement prominently and the weekly magazines published some positive features. But it's Tehelka that put Prakash Amte and his achievement on the cover (August 23, 2009) and it's Tehelka that has devoted the most space to the Amtes and their super-human efforts to help some of the most under-privileged of India's under-privileged people.

The magazine also has some splendid photographs (the online edition has very few): pictures showing the work done for the Madia Gond tribals of Maharashtra; pictures that speak of the sacrifices that have been made willingly, of the tough lives that have been led, again willingly.

Prakash Amte with an orphaned leopard in his backyard.

In the magazine, there are also photographs of Prakash Amte with his menagerie of orphaned animals, one showing him frolicking with a hyena with his grandson by his side, another showing him holding a baby monkey.

Here is a telling extract:

Ask him [Prakash Amte] what kept him in Hemalkasa through all this, though, and his response is instinctive and quick. "Manda's companionship — and the people's faith. That is what keeps us here. I have never seen such tolerance for pain. They come to us from a radius of 200 kilometres, we try to help them. Sometimes when I cut their wounds, the pus sprays onto my face and body. We never had gloves but it never mattered. When I watch their wounds — black, poisonous, foul-smelling — slowly turning red and healthy, that is my reward."

And here is another:

A severely wheezing bare-breasted woman is slowly stopping to gasp. She had just raced past us at the river, perched on a motorcycle between two men. Now the generator has been put on, a nebuliser is breathing gentle breath into her.

In the open air shed a short distance away, Prakash and Manda dress an amputated foot. The patient — an old man — lies stoically on the hard floor; he does not want a hospital bed. A wood-fire smoulders near him. A few feet away, a ragged skeleton is recovering from tuberculosis next to a toddler with kidney failure. 

All of this would make an urban doctor faint, but in truth, it speaks of daily miracles over three decades. It speaks of lives saved without elaborate investigations or prophylactics. It speaks of urgent operations under torchlight, of emergency deliveries and complicated cataracts executed on the run with a textbook on the side.

And an excerpt that speaks of Prakash Amte's strength of character:

Four years ago, while showing a poisonous Russel's viper to a visitor, Prakash was momentarily distracted and it emptied its fangs into him. But nothing can perturb him, his children vouch: he always exudes a quiet, unflappable dignity in a crisis. He is the shade tree you take for granted, until it is cut down.

Now, instead of flinging the snake from him, he gently extricated it and put it back in its cage before walking towards Manda in the clinic. She, always the fit partner, the shadow he leans on, did not panic either.

On his way back to the house while she got the antidote ready, Prakash collapsed at the threshold and his blood pressure dropped to zero. A long hot drive took him to Nagpur; ten excruciating days followed. His body swelled like a balloon, blistering in a hundred places. Not once did he complain.

Both husband and wife — still visibly and palpably in love — have this understated sturdiness about them. Not for them the glib sentence, the worldly pitch. Instead, you sense the close workings of Nature in them, a kind of wise acceptance born of daily grappling with life and death.

"One good thing came of the snake bite," Gopal Phadnis, headmaster and co-traveller at Hemalkasa, laughs. "Prakash was never a talker, but he began to talk more after the bite."

To read the full story go to "The Quiet Soldiers of Compassion".

Better still, try to get hold of a copy of the magazine so that you can experience what I experienced when I read this awe-inspiring story: My head began spinning, I felt the hairs on my arms rising, and I kept asking myself: Are the Amtes flesh-and-blood like the rest of us?

CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME: Prakash Amte and his family in Hemalkasa.

After reading this article again today, March 21, 2012, I must reiterate that this heartwarming feature by Shoma Chaudhury remains the most inspirational story I have read in years.
  • Photos courtesy: Tehelka
  • Also read: "Fresh ideas, fresh writing" (on the vibrant quality of writing in the incomparable Tehelka. And also in the newish Open and in the relaunched Caravan).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

William Zinsser: My idol, my hero, my guru

In all the time that I have spent scouring the web for articles that will help us Indians improve our English writing skills, I have not come across any ONE piece that does the job satisfactorily. There are many brilliant how-to's covering different aspects of writing (a few of them have been written about on this blog) but ONE article that discusses all the important aspects? Nah, it does not exist.

At least that's what I thought.

Then I stumbled upon "Writing English as a Second Language" by William Zinsser on The American Scholar website.

Both the headline and the byline convinced me I had hit the jackpot. English is, after all, a second language to most (all?) of us and writing in English does not come easy to many (most?) of us. Who better to explain the intricacies of English and smoothen our path to becoming better writers than the Master himself?

William Zinsser has been my idol since I first read On Writing Well, the definitive guide to writing non-fiction that I recommend to all my students. It's a book you cannot afford not to read even if the writing you have to do at work is minimal. If, however, you are a journalist or work in corporate communications or advertising or PR, this is one of the books you should own so that you can grab hold of it to read every now and then, after you have already devoured it whole once.

"Writing English as a Second Language" is a transcript of a talk given by Zinsser to the incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism some three years ago. He begins with a question: What is good writing? His short answer: It depends on what country you’re from.

Zinsser explains why, for instance, Arabic, which is decorative and ornamental, and Spanish, with its long sentences and melodious long nouns, would be the ruin of any journalist trying to write good English. And he then launches into the most fascinating discourse on writing in English that I have ever "heard".


Zinsser asks: "So what is good English — the language we’re here today to wrestle with?"

And he answers:

It’s not as musical as Spanish, or Italian, or French, or as ornamental as Arabic, or as vibrant as some of your native languages. But I’m hopelessly in love with English because it’s plain and it’s strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English — if it’s used right. Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong. Those are the damaging habits I want to warn you about today.

Those damaging habits Zinsser is referring to are the habits we have picked up in school and college, habits we may not even be aware of but habits we need to get rid of if we want to become better writers. And the first step in the process involves learning a little bit of the history of English. No, this is not the equivalent of a dull classroom lecture; Zinsser makes it so interesting with modern-day examples and his writing is so fluid that you will read, absorb, and appreciate what he has to say about the Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots of the language.

Zinsser also gives examples of sentences written in bad English and teaches us how to transform them into good English. He provides us with some simple writing tools. And he then outlines, and elaborates on, his four principles of writing good English: Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.

Read the complete text of William Zinsser's extraordinary speech here: "Writing English as a Second Language".

Now you know why I idolise this great man.

UPDATE (May 23, 2015): William Zinsser died in New York City on May 12 at the age of 92. Lavish tributes have been paid to him by a host of newspaper and magazine writers:

Corby Kummer in The Atlantic: Remembering Bill Zinsser

Mark Singer in The New Yorker: Tuesdays with Zinsser

The American Scholar, for whom William Zinsser wrote a popular blog, republished one of his seminal pieces: How to Write a Memoir

Laura Fraser in Al Jazeera America: William Zinsser, the man who taught a nation to write well

Douglas Martin in The New York Times: A book that editors and teachers encouraged writers to reread annually

 THE RIGHT STUFF: Commits student Priya Jain, Class of 2017, right after the university exams ended on May 30, 2016, came to tell me that she had bought On Writing Well on my recommendation because she realised during her recent industry internship that good writing skills will be crucial to her success as a media professional.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Nearly 100 fantastic pieces of journalism

Journalists and media students everywhere owe Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic, a HUGE debt of gratitude.

Friedersdorf, who is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional non-fiction (you can subscribe for $1.99 a month), kept his own running list of exceptional non-fiction throughout 2010 for the newsletter. The result, he says, is his third annual Best Of Journalism Awards — "America's only non-fiction writing prize judged entirely by me."

Friedersdorf says he couldn't read every worthy piece published in 2010, "but everything that follows is worthy of wider attention". And I agree wholeheartedly. Just take a look at his list NEARLY 100 FANTASTIC PIECES OF JOURNALISM — which he has divided into ten categories:

1. The Art of Storytelling
2. Crime & Punishment
3.Sports & Leisure
4. Science, Religion & Human Nature
5. On Birth, Death, & The Afterlife
6. Multimedia Matters
7. The Innovative & Creative
8. Food
9. Profiles
10. This Is A Business

There is also a sub-category: Bloggers of the Year.

I can think of no better way to spend a day productively than by diving deep into this treasure trove.

Here are my favourites (what are yours?):
Inside India's Rent-A-Womb Business by Scott Carney

Wealthy Western couples are flocking to India, where the medical tourism industry is offering the best deal on a vital commodity: wombs.


Letting Go of My Father by Jonathan Rauch

"The author found himself utterly unprepared for one of life's near certainties
the decline of a parent." And then he discovered that he wasn't alone.

Letting Go by Atul Gawande

"Modern medicine is good at staving off death with aggressive interventions
and bad at knowing when to focus, instead, on improving the days that terminal patients have left."

The Art Of Non-Fiction Number 3: John McPhee by Peter Hessler

The aged master, arguably the world's best non-fiction writer, reflects on his career and his method.

Seven Years As A Freelance Writer by Richard Morgan

An insider's look at what it's like to write for glossy magazines. You'll envy and pity the writer by the end.

Roger Ebert: The Essential Man by Chris Jones

The defining portrait of America's most famous movie critic, the cancer that cost him his jaw, and the unexpected turn his career has taken after all these years.
  • Thank you, Nilofer D'Souza (Class of 2009), for sending me the link.
  • In his introduction to the list, Conor Friedersdorf refers to Byliner, "a promising new site dedicated to publishing and sharing feature-length nonfiction", where his annual awards dating back to 2008 are soon going to have a permanent home. I checked it out and my mouth began watering... again. What an amazing site! Byliner's tagline reads "Discover & discuss great reads by great writers". How apt! Check out Byliner today.
UPDATE (July 24, 2016): I discovered just now that last year Conor Friedersdorf had followed up the list discussed above with "Roughly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism", which was published in The Atlantic on July 23, 2015. Read this new list in its entirety here.

Friday, March 16, 2012

If you find writing hard — if you have ever been put off writing — you must read this

Stephen Fry is the impossibly accomplished actor and writer who makes both acting and writing look easy.

Fry, who played the brainy Jeeves in the Jeeves & Wooster television series and who has also written some very funny books, says, however, that writing is hard work; he always heaves a sigh of relief when he has managed to meet a deadline. He also quotes Thomas Mann on the subject: “A writer,” said Mann, “is a person for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”

Fry began writing seriously poetry, stories, and novels when he was about thirteen. But the novels were always abandoned, usually half way through the second chapter. Fry writes: "It took my friend Douglas Adams [author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy] to encourage me to go further and he did this by pointing out that the reason I had never managed to finish a novel was that I had never properly understood how difficult, how ragingly and absurdly difficult, it is to do. 'It is almost impossibly hard,' he told me. 'It is supposed to be. But once you truly understand how difficult it is,' he added, with signature paradoxicality, 'it all becomes a lot easier.'"

Fry then offers encouragement to aspiring writers:

If any of you out there have ever been put off writing it might well be because you found it so insanely hard and therefore, like me, gave up and abandoned your masterworks early, regretfully assuming that you weren’t cut from the right cloth, that it must come more easily to true, natural-born writers. Perhaps you can start again now, in the knowledge that since the whole experience was so grindingly horrible you might be the real thing after all.

Of course finding it difficult and managing to complete are just the first stages. They are what earn you the uniform and the brass buttons, as it were. They don’t guarantee that what you complete is any good, or even readable. That is quite a different kettle of wax, a whole other ball of fish.

Read the instructive post in its entirety here: "Emerging into the Light".
  • Time magazine commissioned Stephen Fry to go to Apple headquarters and write about the iPad back in April 2010 when the iPad was about to make its debut. Reading the article Fry turned in provides a unique insight into why Apple is today the world's most valuable company in the world by market capitalisation:
When I eventually got my hands on [an iPad], I discovered that one doesn't relate to it as a "tool"; the experience is closer to one's relationship with a person or an animal.

I know how weird that sounds. But consider for a moment. We are human beings; our first responses to anything are dominated not by calculations but by feelings. What Ive and his team understand is that if you have an object in your pocket or hand for hours every day, then your relationship with it is profound, human and emotional. Apple's success has been founded on consumer products that address this side of us: their products make users smile as they reach forward to manipulate, touch, fondle, slide, tweak, pinch, prod and stroke.

Read the cover story here.

The fraud that was "Sybil"

Who hasn't read or heard of "Sybil"? When I was in college back in Mumbai (this was in the late Seventies), the book had many avid fans who were apparently fascinated by this harrowing story of a young woman with 16 that's right, 16 different personalities.

There was also a 1976 drama film, based on the book, which starred Sally Field as "Sybil". It was aired that year as a made-for-television miniseries.

And there was a remake in 2007.

Two years later, in September 2009, Commitscion Madhura Chakravarty wrote a feature about the book in the college newspaper (see below).

Under the rubric "Books You Should've Read", Madhura discussed a few aspects of the book that made it a compelling read. "Sybil's ... dismantled identity is a result of severe mental and child sexual abuse by her schizophrenic mother," Madhura wrote. "... her narrow-minded, bigoted, religious family won't let her see a doctor."

And then Madhura paid tribute to author Flora Rheta Schreiber's skill in narrating Sybil's story: " is Schreiber's gripping style of narrative, complex plot, and exploration of human vulnerability that makes this book such a compelling read."

Little did Madhura, or I or anyone else for that matter, know that the whole "Sybil" tale was an elaborate fraud committed by three women: the psychiatrist who was treating "Sybil, "Sybil" herself, and a writer who appeared to be only too willing to believe everything she was told by the duo.

I was stunned at what I discovered in Sybil Exposed. If you have read or heard of "Sybil", you will be aghast, too.
  • Want to know more? Read "Memory, lies and therapy (How three women fabricated the most famous case of multiple personality disorder and damaged thousands of lives)" by Laura Miller on Salon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A poet-activist's horrific, first-person account of domestic violence

I don't know why some women continue to stay in an abusive relationship.

My advice to women, if they ask for it: If your man hits you even once, walk out. He is going to do it again. And again.

My advice to men, if they ask for it: Never ever raise your hand against a woman. No situation or circumstance can justify violence against women. I have no respect for wife- or girlfriend-beaters.

Why am I talking about this now? It's because I have just finished reading Meena Kandasamy's horrific tale her own story of domestic violence in the latest issue of Outlook.

Here's a chilling excerpt:

The first time he hits me, I remember I hit him back. Retaliation can work between well-matched rivals, but experience teaches me that a woman who weighs less than a hundred pounds should think of other options. It also teaches me other things. I learn that anything can become an instrument of punishment: twisted computer power-cords, leather belts, his bare hands that I once held with all the love in the world. His words sharpen his strikes. If I deliver a quick blow, your brains will spill out, he says. His every slap shatters me. Once, when he strangulates me, I imbibe the silence of a choked throat.

And when I tell him that I want to walk out of the marriage, he wishes me success in a career as a prostitute, asks me to specialise in fellating, advices me to use condoms. I shrink and shrivel and shout back and shed a steady stream of tears. He smiles at his success.

Kandasamy, a poet, writer, activist, and translator, walks out of the marriage ultimately and moves back to her parents' home in Chennai. But she suffers, and suffers terribly, because she is reluctant to call it quits. And why is she reluctant? She explains at the beginning of her article:

In the early days, his words win me back: I don’t have anything if I don’t have you. In this honeymoon period, every quarrel follows a predictable pattern: we make up, we make love, we move on. It becomes a bargain, a barter system. For the sake of survival, I surrender my space.

Read the article in its entirety here: "I singe the body electric".
  • Photography courtesy: Outlook
  • UPDATE (March 14, 2012): As I expected, Meena Kandasamy's heart-rending account of her violent marriage has drawn a flood of responses from readers. Read their comments here.

Brutal. We've done so many features on abuse and when we started, I used to wonder why the women took it. Why didn't they just get up and leave? And then, in telling their stories and speaking to victims, shelter workers and those who counsel abused women, I learned how very difficult it is to break the cycle of abuse. 

It follows a pattern, as though there were a manual for abusers. They isolate the women, make them feel worthless, abuse them and threaten them with worse if they dare to leave. There's the fear of not being accepted by one's own family. As one woman who has written a book on her own experience says, when a Western woman leaves a marriage, she leaves a man. When a South Asian woman leaves a marriage, she is often excommunicated by disapproving parents, siblings and the extended family for having stepped out of her role. I can't give you the name of the book as it is yet to be published, I read the manuscript as she wanted a blurb for the cover. But she describes the situation a majority of the victims find themselves in when she says the women who choose individual freedom over cultural practices are among the loneliest creatures in the world.

"WHEN KIDS ARE INVOLVED": If there are children involved, it's even more complicated. One women told me she was beaten viciously and often but took it because her husband threatened to keep the kids away from her if she left she was a stay-at-home mom and with no money, felt she had little chances of being able to look after them on her anyway. One day, when her daughter screamed at her to leave before she got killed, she did go, but came back after sleeping for two days in her car. It broke my heart when she said she would have gone back to the same abuse if he hadn't changed the locks. 

Meena Kandasamy's experience is nightmarish. And yet, horrible as it sounds, she is one of the fortunate ones in that she managed to escape and her family welcomed her back, supported her. She could pour out her anguish in her writing. Countless others are silenced, pushed right back into their abusive homes. That's their lot in life, they are told, deal with it. 

"MEN GET BEATEN UP, TOO": After we did a cover on spousal abuse, I actually had someone call and say it was one-sided, that men get beaten up too. Of course they do. But not in such numbers, not in such horrific ways. But even if for the sake of argument we said they did, that still does not take away the women's rights to tell their stories. And the more I hear/read such stories, the more angry and frustrated I get. The more helpless I feel.
  • ALSO READ: Journalist Nita Bhalla, who covers women's issues in South Asia for the BBC, recounts the lingering scars physical and mental from an assault on her and draws a wider lesson about violence against women in India: "Becoming an abuse statistic in patriarchal India".

About to begin your first job? Or first internship? Here are 20 tips:

On June 1 last year Atul Chitnis, one of India's best-known technologists, posted a list of 20 tips on Twitter for people starting their first job that day. He wrote on his blog some months later that the list was partly or fully re-posted all across the web, but "people keep asking me for a link to the tips. So I guess I should post them here on my own blog as well".

Of the 20 tips, here are my favourites:
  • This is not school/college. You won’t lose marks because you don’t know something. You WILL if you don’t say so!
  • Don’t be afraid of stating an opinion — be afraid of NOT stating one. You could be wrong, but won’t know if you don’t pipe up!
  • Employers aren’t really looking for a bunch of yes-(wo)men. But they aren’t looking for a bunch of revolutionaries, either.
  • Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially if you are young. You will thank me for this advice.
  • Dare to look beyond your given assignment. “Good enough” never is. 
And I wholeheartedly endorse what Chitnis says at the end:
  • While you may ignore all my tips for your first job don’t ever skip breakfast.
I have lost count of the number of times I have told my students that they should NEVER give breakfast a miss.

If you're about to begin your first job or your first internship even you should read all 20 of Chitnis's tips and then attempt to put them into practice.
  • Thanks to Commitscion Jalaja Ramanunni (Class of 2009) for the link. 

"Mr Editor, your slips are showing!"

How does a film reviewer and national cultural editor of a leading newspaper react when he is accused — by a blogger, no less of not knowing how to write in English?

If he is Mayank Shekhar of Hindustan Times, he waffles. Here's an excerpt from a Q&A with Shekhar on the Mumbai Boss website:

Have you have seen this (the critical blog post by Chetna Prakash)?
I’ve heard about it, not seen it. I’m flattered. This particular one I’ve glanced through because it was all over the place and guys in my team showed it to me, but it was a long time back. It comes with the job, especially because I’ve been a columnist and a critic so you have to take a stand, you can’t be sitting on the fence.

But her contention wasn’t that. It was that your English was incorrect.
Yeah, so when [my team] brought it to me, I explained to them what I meant and what this is and that’s very important because you don’t want your team thinking that you don’t know the language for god’s sake. There were a whole lot of things that were puns. Whole lot of stuff, which one could explain pretty easily.

So what did Chetna Prakash write actually? She took Shekhar to task for mangling the English language in his film reviews and she cited examples from his critiques of Peepli Live, We Are Family, and Kites. Study her blow-by-blow job here: The rise and rise of Mayank Shekhar: Or has Sarah Palin found her literary match?

Prakash also poses the question no journalist writing in English wants to be asked:

How can you be one of the most popular film reviewers of India, the national cultural editor of one of the country’s largest selling dailies, and a winner of the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism — when you have no concept of the English language, your primary tool of trade?

Whoa! That must have hurt. But if you're a senior English-newspaper journalist with a national readership, your writing skills better be up to par. Otherwise, you are just asking for it. As Mayank Shekhar did.

To give credit to Shekhar, though, his responses to questions about the influence of PR professionals on editorial content and about the vexed issue of plagiarism would resonate strongly with any good media professional, especially a journalist.

Here are his views on how to deal with plagiarism:

Would you fire someone whom you knew plagiarised something?
Would I fire someone if it was absolutely proven? Yes.

Has that happened?

In my current job, not a single case of proven plagiarism has been brought to my notice, for which I may have had to fire someone. Which isn’t to suggest that it doesn’t happen, surely it does, and perhaps is even rampant across the board, especially on the Internet, where all information is shared, and is rarely considered sacrosanct enough to merit credit, unfortunately. In my past jobs, whether I have directly fired anyone or not, I have come across instances where an entire interview has been made up and published, without the reporter ever having met or spoken to the person concerned. In such a circumstance, quite obviously, the said reporter has been asked to leave.
  • The interview with Mayank Shekhar is part of a series on Mumbai Boss called "Editor's Notes". Read the Q&A with Open magazine's Manu Joseph here. Pay attention especially to Joseph's views on Open's code of ethics.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

When furniture get nightmares

What is my television's worst fear? What might my sofa dread? And what is my centre table's worst nightmare?

These are the questions cartoonist Dan Piraro asked himself before setting out to answer them in his own unparalleled style:

Piraro, the creator of the syndicated newspaper cartoon Bizarro, explains on his blog the origins of this particular cartoon:

We’ve all felt sorry for a small chair as an extremely heavy person sits on it, and that empathy for inanimate objects was what led me to muse about things common household furniture might fear or dread. Of course, I know that inanimate objects are not sentient and have no feelings but by “chair,” I mean “child,” and who hasn’t felt sorry for a child being sat upon by a large adult? Perhaps my sensitivity in this area comes from personal experience; my parents were very poor when my siblings and I were young and could not afford furniture, so they sat on us. They couldn’t afford children, either, but until they figured out where we were coming from, they just kept having them. It was painful at times, yes, but it also brought us closer together as a family. 

How can you not admire a man whose genius for cartooning matches his flair for wit?

Take a look at some of the other Bizarro cartoons:

What does that last cartoon mean? Piraro explains, again tongue firmly in cheek:

One reader wrote to me this week asking me what this cartoon meant. If you are that reader, then you already know the answer because I responded promptly and politely, which is my habit. If you are not that reader and have wondered for yourself what this cartoon means, wonder no more for the next sentence will explain it. The devil likes bad things to happen to people so if someone came through surgery quite well, he would be disappointed by the “good” news.  If you are now wondering if I actually believe in the devil since I draw so many cartoons featuring him, the answer is yes, he is Karl Rove.

You will get this cartoon only if you are a huge comics fan and have been one for a long time (Hint: That's Elmer Fudd fleeing for his life):

Visit Dan Piraro's website to get your regular dose of wry make that bizarre gags: "Bizarro Blog!".

Also read:

Do you find this magazine cover offensive?

Or do you think it is a clever way to tell a story about the merger of two major airline companies in the US?

When Bloomberg Businessweek used this composite image on the cover of its February 6 issue with the headline "Let's Get It On", it probably did not figure on the virulent reaction from some readers.

Here are some of the "negative" letters the magazine printed in the February 16 issue:
  • Offensive … displeasing … distasteful … indecent … abominable … obscene … objectionable … that’s what I have to say about your Feb. 6-12 cover. You should be ashamed.
  • I think you have a sharp magazine with good writing, making what is (for me) a boring subject — business — actually interesting and understandable. But I object to your Feb. 6-12 cover, the one with a Continental plane “getting it on” with a United plane. Couldn’t you have made a point about an airline merger without descending into base sexual imagery?
  • Your Feb. 6-12 cover page was in extremely poor taste. You made it even worse with the headline “Let’s Get It On.” Surely you could have described the business events going on between Continental and United in a better fashion, and not by showing two planes having sex with each other on the cover of an important business magazine.
  • Get It On, Love Built to Last, Friends with Benefits, Exchange Vows, Home Run: Your cover page is so subtle it should have a condom over the dominant top plane (should be United) and a diaphragm shield inside the tail of the submissive bottom one (should be Continental). You will lose several subscriptions over portraying the sacred marriage of two companies as just a long mile-high f – – k. Who was the genius who sent this around legal without thinking? For April 1, maybe, but not right after the holy days!

Of course, there was some positive reaction, too:
  • Got to love last week’s cover: A Continental plane mounting a United plane with the caption, “Let’s Get It On”! On the same page, you talk about Facebook having “friends with benefits.” It shows that business has great humor. LMAO! Framing this cover. Thanks.
For the record, I did not even think this cover had anything to do with sexual imagery. One reason for that might be because I did not get the significance of the headline accompanying the image (did you?). "Let's Get It On" seemed to indicate to me that it was time to party, now that the world's largest airline had been formed. And without a second thought I turned the cover page and began reading the magazine. It's only when I read the letters in the February 16 issue that I did the mental equivalent of a double take.

You can read the other letters here: Feedback.

Also read: "Good ideas and good writing need to be backed up by good design".

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The things that drive editors crazy

For some time now I have been visiting The Blood-Red Pencil, a blog that offers "sharp and pointed observations about good writing". The blog is run by 10 editors and writers whose goal, they say, is to help writers by blogging about what they know best: editing.

If you are a writer or an editor, or even a media student, you will find plenty of relevant and enlightening material here presented in an interesting way.

Take, for instance, a January 2010 post on the things that drive editors crazy. Author and freelance editor Maryann Miller gets straight to the point in her intro:

I’ve been editing for a long time and am still amazed at how often I see common mistakes repeated over and over again.

And then she gives us examples of the common mistakes:

Fred walked out, taking the file with him. You don’t need ‘with him’. If he took the file, it’s with him, DUH!! Or the sentence could be rewritten to make it a little more visual. Fred grabbed the file and walked out.

Those gray eyes of his stared right at her.
This is an incredibly popular phraseology used in romance novels, and I wince every time I read it. As if he would be looking at her with anyone else’s eyes.

Sally shrugged her shoulders. What else would she shrug?

Harry nodded his head.
As opposed to his elbow?

Sam found himself standing in the middle of…
Was Sam lost? Much stronger to write: Sam stood in the middle of….

It was a picture of Madeline Smith, herself.
Could it not just be a picture of Madeline Smith, period? Even my husband asked if the use of the reflexive pronoun was necessary, and he’s not an editor.

As I noted earlier, there's so much to learn here. Read the post in its entirety: "Things That Drive An Editor Crazy".
  • The latest post, published today, on The Blood-Red Pencil is also, coincidentally, by Maryann Miller. Titled "Time Out for A Little Fun", the piece focuses on comic strips that, she says, feature jokes that connect loosely to writing and promoting. Read it here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Your Facebook profile may be a fairly accurate reflection of how good you will be at your job

I have always known that companies have been checking out the Facebook profiles of prospective employees. Now here is confirmation of that fact in the form of a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology last month.

Writing about the study on the Forbes magazine website, Kashmir Hill says that employers already know it’s a good idea to check job candidates’ Facebook pages "to make sure there aren’t any horrible red flags there".

She continues:

The reddest flags for most employers seem to be drugs, drinking, badmouthing former employers, and lying about one’s qualifications.

But there’s another good reason for checking out a candidate’s Facebook page before inviting them in for an interview: it may be a fairly accurate reflection of how good they’ll be at the job.

The Facebook page is the first interview, Hill writes, because if you don’t like a person there, you probably won’t like working with them.

Read the feature in its entirety here: "Facebook Can Tell You If A Person Is Worth Hiring".

Monday, March 5, 2012

Thou shalt follow these 10 commandments to be effective — and successful — at work

The best advice on workplace behaviour that I have ever read comes from Mary M. Mitchell, who heads an executive training consultancy, The Mitchell Organization. The company, which is based in Seattle, is dedicated to the credo that good manners create good relationships, and good relationships create good business.

Last month, Mitchell wrote a feature for Reuters, which was titled "The 10 Commandments of Business Behaviour".

Mitchell opens her article with an appropriate quote from the late American tycoon, John D. Rockefeller: "I will pay more for the ability to deal with people than any other skill under the sun."

And then she explains, while outlining her 10 Commandments, the impact your interpersonal skills have on your ability to do your job.

Here are Mitchell's 10 Commandments:

1. Thou shalt have a positive attitude.
2. Thou shalt be on time.
3. Thou shalt praise in public and criticise in private.
4. Thou shalt get names straight.
5. Thou shalt speak slowly and clearly on the telephone.
6. Thou shalt not use foul language.
7. Thou shalt dress appropriately.
8. Thou shalt take clear messages.
9. Thou shalt honour social courtesies at business functions.
10. Thou shalt be accountable.

The point about having a positive attitude (I have to say here that I have problems on this score sometimes) is deservingly No. 1. Everybody has bad days, Mitchell writes, but...

... nobody has the right to take it out on others. Rudeness, impoliteness, surliness, ugly moods, unprovoked displays of anger, and general unpleasantness can be costly to your career and your company's bottom line.

I am glad, too, that Mitchell has made it clear with Commandment No. 6 that there is no place for foul language in the workplace. Back in January last year, I had written about this issue on The Reading Room (What is the need to turn the air blue?). Now, in her article, Mitchell points out that vulgarity, poor grammar, and use of slang are three of the top reasons people don't get hired. That should give many people out there, especially freshers on the threshold of employment, some serious pause for thought.

Mitchell also discusses another issue that I consider to be very important dressing appropriately:

Don't enter your workplace without knowing its dress code. If you must, call the human resources department and ask. Good grooming is at least 10 times more important than making a fashion statement. Good taste and fashion are not always synonymous.

There's lots of good advice here. Read the article in its entirety "The 10 Commandments of Business Behaviour" — and think hard about how you will apply these guidelines.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What impression do you create when you use "SMS lingo"?

Here are snatches from a conversation thread I was privileged to read on Facebook some time ago (actually you can see similar posts and comments written in similar inelegant language on Facebook and on Twitter every day):

cos thedy r idiot



who is sayng xctly! som1 coming frm d same list..

What balderdash is this?

I have never felt the need to use so-called SMS lingo... not even when I am writing an SMS (why do you think our mobiles come with a T9, or dictionary, feature?). For one, I am never so pressed for time that I cannot give some thought to articulating my thoughts. And second, I get the heebie-jeebies when I have to read an illiterate text message or Facebook post or comment.

That is why I was pleased to see a short piece titled "Inelegant language illiterate impression" by Srijana Mitra Das on the the edit page of The Times of India yesterday. "A clear connection," Mitra Das writes, "certainly exists between poor vocabulary used in text messaging and poor linguistic skills overall not to mention a poor impression accompanying messages from such writers."

If these people do not even have time to spell words correctly, argues Mitra Das, if they are so "terrifically busy", how will they ever make time for books? "Obviously, their grammatical growth and literary vibrancy will be stunted," she says.

And then she delivers the coup de grĂ¢ce:

Texts that say "hv snt rpt" instead of "I have sent you my report" make you think of someone coming to work wearing crumpled clothes and a bad attitude — sloppy, unconcerned.... Even between friends, poorly worded texts — "hw abt tht flm" — don't sound cool. They sound illiterate.

My sentiments exactly.

PS: My tolerance levels for illiterate posts on Facebook are dangerously low nowadays. So low that I have begun unsubscribing from activity stories, comments and likes, and even status updates of people whose inelegant language drives me nuts. Does that make me a bad person?

Friday, March 2, 2012

A marketing whiz and the lessons she learned from journalism

Good journalists make good media professionals. Meaning, if they want to, they can do well in most other jobs in the media industry be it PR (as many of my former colleagues have proved), marketing, advertising... even teaching. :-)

That is what I believe. And that is what I tell every new batch of students at Commits.

Now here's a former journalist turned marketing whiz reinforcing my belief that journalism training and experience can be a great asset in other media fields. Nancy Friedman, who styles herself as Chief Wordworker at Wordworking, an unusual communications company in California, says she has been able to apply to marketing some of the lessons she learned from journalism and she explains them in detail on her blog, Fritinancy.

Here are the 10 points she discusses:

1. Get to the point.
2. Take notes.
3. Ask and anticipate questions.
4. Spell the names right.
5. Nouns and verbs are your best friends.
6. Hello sweetheart, get me rewrite.
7. Omit needless words.
8. Grab attention with a great headline.
9. If you make a mistake, issue a correction.
10. There's no writer's block on deadline.

To let you revel in the strength of Friedman's argument and to give you a flavour of her uncluttered, persuasive writing style let me reproduce what she has to say about her first point, "Get to the point".

All journalists learn the inverted pyramid format: putting the most important news in the first paragraph, or lead, and the least newsworthy information at the end. Readers of ads, web content, and white papers are no different. Give them the information they need up front; don't waste time with throat-clearing and other verbal filigrees.

And because I really like what she has to say about Point No. 3, let me give that to you as well:

Ask and anticipate questions. When you're digging for information, there are no better digging tools than the five W's — who, what, when, where, why — plus H for how. I use them all the time when I'm interviewing clients. Who are your competitors? What are your products? When do you expect to launch? Where are your target markets? Why are you in business? How do you expect to achieve your goals? And like the journalist I once was, I'm ready with follow-up questions when I get the answers.

Friedman elaborates on the other points just as brilliantly. Read her column in its entirety here: "What Journalism Taught Me".
  • Also visit Nancy Friedman's Wordworking website here (Slogan: "Announce. Convince. Describe. Define. Celebrate. Sell. Tell your story.") and learn how she helps companies tell their story.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Imagine — NDTV does not know the difference between "byte" and "bite"

For ten years I have been telling my students at Commits that a "quote" on television is referred to as a "sound bite" or "bite". But I have noticed many journalists both print and television — writing it as "byte".

A few months ago I sent an email about "bite vs bite" to CNN-IBN editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai and he replied, "It should be sound bite. But you are right, several of us, myself included, use sound byte. Am not sure why."

Now here's a dictionary definition of sound bite: 

a brief, striking remark or statement excerpted from an audiotape or videotape for insertion in a broadcast news story.

And this is what byte means:

noun Computers 
1. adjacent bits, usually eight, processed by a computer as a unit. 
2. the combination of bits used to represent a particular letter, number, or special character.

So how did NDTV air this graphic today with "BYTE of the DAY" leaping out at you from the screen?


I am indebted to Commitscion Dipankar Paul (Class of 2009) for sending me this image via e-mail with the subject line: "What do you think of this?"

Subsequently I wrote to the NDTV bureau chief in Bangalore, Darius Taraporvala; the news editor of CNN-IBN in New Delhi, Dipika Kaura; and also Imran Qureshi, the Bangalore bureau chief of Aaj Tak and Headlines Today to ask about the house style rule on byte vs bite.

Here is the relevant sentence from Taraporvala's e-mail to me:

To me 'byte' is computer terminology, and 'soundbite' refers to the reactions we get in the field.

This is what Kaura had to say in her e-mail:

Should be bite that’s how the Oxford dictionary defines it. But it's more a matter of nomenclature. We’ve shifted to SOT Sound on Tape. That at least is clearly defined.

Imran Qureshi also wrote to say that it should be "bite" and not "byte".

Byte is the language of computers.

I'm glad that's been sorted out. But has it? Watch television news closely and let me know.