Friday, May 28, 2010

Where's Your Body, Woman?

As a raw, completely wet behind the ears 22 year old, I had joined the big bad world of advertising. Man, was it a shock to my system? There was no respect for age, gender, race, creed, religion or whatever. People used four letter words as punctuations. They came in late and worked till early mornings. Men talked about various body parts without any shame or inhibition and women did the same. To top it all, I was the only female in my creative team. And I loved it.

I loved the energy, the fun, the excitement. I loved the challenges and the camaraderie. I loved the whole creative process and most of all, I loved my team and my creative head. It was another story that my copies always ended up in the garbage bin. My boss would often scream at me, "Aparna, don't write a press release, write a copy. Write better, shorter, crisper.Write sexier."

Derik, my boss, was always trying to teach me to write better ads. Write an attention grabbing, riveting headline. Write a mind boggling, jaw dropping body copy. Most important, write a hard hitting punch line. The ad should make the readers salivate. It should make the poor guys or gals want to jump up and buy the product then and there. Unfortunately, my attempts were almost always the non-salivating types and ended up as paper planes flying towards the bin.

The first product I handled was a lingerie brand. Lacy and sinful looking underthings used to be strewn all over the office. The creative and the client servicing team discussed the merits of the straps, the hooks, the designs of the inner wear so clinically that soon my initial embarrassment disappeared. I felt absolutely no hesitation in discussing the product with the boys. The final ad had no eye ball grabbing headline. It had no body copy describing  the various merits of the undergarment. There was no tag line urging the reader to buy the brand. It had a visual of a beautiful woman sitting on a beach, looking at the sea. A four line poetry described the inner beauty of the woman. The result was a beautiful, subtle ad that our entire agency fell in love with. The client promptly rejected our effort. He wanted a woman posing half naked looking lasciviously at the camera. All efforts at trying to tell him this kind of ad may appeal to the baser instincts of a man but would put women off completely, went down the drain. He just would not accept the ad. Derik lambasted the client, raged against such sexist behaviour and tried his best to convince him. Nothing worked. He finally accepted his wish and asked us to create a crass and tasteless ad for him. We were heart broken but finally got around to accept that not all clients were as intelligent as us. And the fact that Derik loved our ad meant more than the client's approval.

Our team of four, 3 boys and 1 girl, loved him fiercely. He was our mentor, our support. He was a father figure to all of us and we went to him for advice even when the problems were personal. He shaped our thinking and helped us to hone our raw talent. He was the best boss I've ever worked for.

Our superiors influence us for lives. When you work for a boss you love, the results show.The work becomes  more exciting. It is not a chore to go to work every day and slave over tough projects. The men and women who mentor budding talents, I wonder if they realise that how important their roles are. Their mentoring ultimately affects the whole industry.

Even now, when I write a blog post, I keep thinking, would Derik approve? Would he find my head line captivating? Would he like the body? The last line? Or would he say, "What happened to your head woman? And where's your body?"

I would love to know. Unfortunately my all time favourite boss, Derik Fernandes Prabhu, an award winning advertising guru,died suddenly around fifteen years ago. He was in his fifties. And I never got to tell him how much his mentoring meant to me.

But if he is up there somewhere, drinking wine with the angels and looking at my head or body, then "Thank you Derik, you were the best and I loved you. Now, how's that for a punchline?"

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Aap Ka Naam? Baap Ka Naam?

I have been officially counted as a citizen of India.

Yesterday a lady came for census at my house. Like all courier boys, plumbers and electricians, she also came in the afternoon, when most people in India take a siesta. Though I was not taking a nap, I was engrossed in a thriller and resented the interruption. But remember those good old Doordarshan days? How the government ads urged us to never lie to the census officials and give them the right facts and figures? I was suddenly bombarded with those long forgotten images.
"Jan ganana," she said and I invited her in.
" Aap ka naam? " Was her first query. And then the whole conversation went  like this.

" Aapka naam? " (Your name?)
" Aparna "
" Pita ka naam? " (Father's name?)
" Arun Dasgupta "
" Do you own this flat? "
" My husband and I jointly own the house "
" Whats his name? Whats his qualification? "
I mumbled he was a B.Tech. She looked unhappy.
" What's that? "
" It means he is a graduate engineer. "
" And what else? "
" Pardon? "
" I mean what happened after he became an engineer. MBA? CA? LLB? "
I had to apologetically murmur that he was only an engineer and nothing else.
She looked at me with pity. Already I'm sure the government has classified me under the category Women Married To Lesser Mortals.
After duly noting down my children's and my educational background (she did not raise her eye-brow, thank god) she pounced on my poor mother in law.
" What's her education? "
" She was a B.Ed."
" WHAT? "
" She had done her teacher's training after her graduation."
" What? How old is she? "
" 75 "
" WHAT? 75 and she was so well educated? Can't be possible "
I felt apologetic once more.
" Sorry she studied so much. I hear she was rather good at it so her parents encouraged her to be a teacher."
" OK. Now tell me, where was your husband born? "
" Patna."
" No, no tell me the village."
" Well I know decades of misrule has ruined the place but last time I checked, Patna was still a city. He was not born in any village."
The woman looked suspicious again.
" Which state is Patna in?"
" Er, Bihar?" (Will she get angry and tell us leave Maha Land and go back to 'North India?' These days I have become a bit anxious.). She thankfully let that pass.
" And where were you born?"
" Kolkata."
No geography lessons this time. She knew where Kolkata was.
" And your mother-in law?"
" Dhaka" I mumbled, waiting for the 'WHAT?" I knew was coming my way.
" WHAT?" (See, I told you.)
" Dhaka where? Which state?"
" Dhaka as in the capital of Bangladesh. When she was born, India was undivided."
"OK, OK. But are you sure none of you were born in any villages? Where were your daughters born?"
I apologized once again. "Both my daughters were born in New Delhi. We all are rather suave and urbane Indians. Our families ceased to have the right to go back to the family village the day our country was partitioned.
She was disgusted to know we had no village connections. Rightfully so, the real India lives in its villages.
"But tell me then what should I write as your native place?"
Now that's a dilemma. Mumbai, where we own a place surely can not be a 'native place'. Neither can be Patna or Kolkata where we do not own any property. Apparently she had to write down the address of the house in the  'native place'. After almost 15 minutes of trying to convince her that we were rootless Indians without any native place, she finally gave up.
When she started winding up I became a bit rattled. What happened to the question of my 'caste'? The whole of India was debating that issue and the lady here did not even ask me about this. I felt rather cheated.
" Wait a minute ma'am. You did not ask me about my caste."
" WHAT?" She seemed to have an apoplectic fit. "But you do not live in the jhopad-patti.(slums). You live in a building!"
It was my turn to say WHAT this time. I obviously did not get the connection between slums and caste.
" But the government wants to know our caste. It came in the papers". I was sure it would soon be incorporated in our Fundamental Duties. The Government of India hereby directs all the citizens to reveal their castes to the census officials, or else...
" Madam, are you a SC/ST? Building people can not be SC/ST. We have been instructed to take down the castes of those residing in slums only."
That left me a little confused. Certainly some' Building people' can be members of a schedule caste. And not all jhopad-patti dwellers would be dalits. So what exactly was the purpose of this caste based census then? For whose benefit? I asked the lady about this. She ranted and raved about the ill-effects of reservation, job quota, caste politics and the corrupt politicians exploiting the caste issue. I almost felt sorry for asking the question. I had touched a raw nerve.
After she ran out of steam, she prepared to leave.
" Don't you have to mark my house door or something? "
" Sorry madam, I forgot to get the special ink. But why worry? You have been counted, right? "

So I had. A family of 5, counted and accounted for in the city of Mumbai. What about you? Have you been asked,'Aap ka nam? Baap ka naam?' yet?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Surviving Mother's Day

Another Mother's Day came and went. There was no breakfast in bed. No 'Happy Mother's Day, mom!' shriek in unison. No cards. No gifts. No flowers. Not even a damn 'Happy Mother's Day' sms from Airtel. Instead,the habitual chaos prevailed. The usual grumbling before every meal, "Why can't we have anything different, ever?" One daughter had to be forced to do her home work. The other had to be literally pushed into the bathroom to take a shower. The hubby had to be gently reminded that it was NOT Mother Teresa's birthday the world was celebrating. The menu had to be planned, the laundry had to be done, the clothes had to be folded. Well, life is unfair to start with. And then you become a mother.

I have two daughters, and let me tell you, every time I see my friends with sons, I feel envious. No, it has nothing to do with my archaic Indian mentality. Just that mothering sons seems to be so easy. They eat without counting calories. They have short hair that need no combing. They do not spend hours on the phone talking. They do not have to be told to go down and play instead of watching TV. They never look at  gangly, gawky 16 year old boys and burst into giggles and most important, they never talk about waxing their legs or plucking their eyebrows. The mothers only have to cook enough food to feed an army and the boys seem rather happy. The sons also seem to dote on their mothers. My elder daughter on the other hand thinks I'm her public enemy number one. In a few years,the younger one I am sure will start feeling the same. Though I would never exchange my daughters for sons, I really could do with some doting.

My mother perhaps would not have agreed with me on this one. The moment my brother turned 16, she turned into a deranged woman. She regularly checked his bag to find out if  there was a love letter hidden somewhere. She sniffed for cigarette smoke every time he entered the house. She kept a check of how he was spending his pocket money and constantly worried about him getting into bad company. From a perfectly normal happy woman, she turned int a spy with an obsessive compulsive disorder. This went on till he finally married at the ripe old age of 33. Honestly, I do not know how my brother survived those maddening years.

I think this motherhood thing does not come easy to me. I wish along with the babies, God had also sent me an instruction manual to handle them. I would not have stumbled so many times on the way then. This Mother's Day, when I saw some lovely e-mails that my friends sent me, I started thinking, what was the fuss all about? Wasn't it like any other day? We cooked, we fed, we cleaned, we took care, we loved fiercely and we tumbled into beds that night too tired to even straighten out the bed sheets. That has been my routine for the last 14 years. That day was no different. And I know I was not the only one who felt like this. A lot of mothers all over the globe dealt with tears and sicknesses, tempers and tantrums, scraped knees and heart breaks on Mother's Day. And they all survived.

So why just celebrate it on a second Sunday of May each year? Why not every day? After all every day we are mothers, and every day we survive.

Some days with difficulty and the others with some cuss words...

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Young And The Wise

Once a week I go to a nearby commercial complex and wait.

My daughter attends a coaching class there and has a class till 9 pm. Sometimes the class goes on almost till 9.30.  Although the complex is pretty close to home there is a slum in the area and I do not feel very comfortable letting her walk home alone.

 The complex has a few eateries. There are some coaching centres. There are also some other shops and the place is generally very vibrant and alive at that time. It is a nice place to watch people. Last week when I was waiting for my daughter to finish her class a very interesting episode happened. A street urchin, a boy of nine or ten, started begging people for some money. He said he was hungry and had not eaten anything that day. He said he wanted some money to buy food. He looked unkempt, though he wore rather decent clothes. He also wore shoes. For some reason, shoes are important to me. In my mind, that is a measure of poverty. A completely shoe less boy or girl always evoke greater sympathy. Perhaps because he noticed I did not carry any purse, the boy did not approach me. And even if he had, I doubt I would have given him any money. But he did ask a well dressed man who alighted from a swanky car. The man did not even spare a second glance at the boy and moved away. And that set me thinking. Are our rich less sensitive? Are they completely immune to other people's pain? And am I also slowly losing my empathetic side?

India has a thriving middle class. There are quite a few people in the country who are capable of giving a lot to the needy. But for some reason, we do not have the culture of sharing our wealth. We are so focussed on making our own lives comfortable that we have forgotten the joy of sharing. When I had gone to the United States for a visit, I was amazed at their culture of giving back to the society. Every where I went, the museums and the parks, the libraries and the community centres, I saw people willingly and happily sharing their time, their money and their energy to make things better. Here, looking at the man shunning the little boy, I wondered what kind of future my own country had. A country that has forgotten to share joy with others has no place amongst other great nations.

Just then, a young boy and his girl friend, perhaps in their late teens spotted the urchin and called him. They took him to a tea stall and bought him a vada-pav, Mumbai's favourite all time snack. Looking at the young couple, my heart filled with joy. I forgot all about my earlier ruminations. See the young people of India! How different they are from the earlier generation! The youth of our country indeed have their hearts in the right place. They have plenty of empathy, and they do care about their poor fellow country men. In just a few minutes, my dark thoughts had changed colours. My India was on the right track and I was upbeat and optimistic once again.

What do you think happened next? The moment the young couple turned away, the small boy without any hesitation, fed the vada pav to a street dog. He was not hungry, he just wanted some money... perhaps to gamble, perhaps to smoke. May be even to buy drugs. He definitely was not impressed with the young couple's generosity. A few minutes later, he started begging again.

So tell me, was the man in the swanky car heartless or was he just wise? Were the teenage boy and the girl naive? If they knew the young boy made a fool of them, would they ever give anything to any body again? And what about the boy? Did he even care? 

The incident upset me, I do not know why. May be because it reminded me that I live in a metro where a lot of people do not care how the other half lives. That I live in a metro where a lot of people tend to think it is all right to con others. Or may be because I was reminded that I live in a metro where a lot of caring people stop giving just because they can not tell whether they are being taken for a ride...