October 19, 2011

A visit to Yale

Summer, 1980

Class 12 exams done from St Xavier's School. I'm all set to join St Xavier's College.

Same address. Same green gate on Kolkata's Park Street. Same soccer field. Same Arunda's canteen. Same basketball court. All set!

Why apply to any other college? After all, here was the soccer and basketball  school team captain. Elocution and debating school team member. Quiz team reserve. School wicketkeeper. Below average in all things remotely scientific or mathematical (as all my batch mates would vouch for). However, when it came to writing essays or crafting teenage poems, I was up there with the front benchers. Take my word for it. Oh, and I must add: good Catholic, O'Brien family.

All set for three more years in one of Kolkata's great institutions.

Form collected... entrance essay written... final list of names up. This is easy!

Until... "No, Derek", my buddy Ranjan breaks the news, "I am standing here next to the main Notice Board bro, your name is not on the admission list". I went numb.

Thirty years on, I still know every frame of that telephone call.

Scottish Church College were kind enough to give me 'late' admission. Thank You.

To St. Xavier's College, a sincere Thank You as well. For teaching me life's second big F word: Fail.

October, 2011

There is a tear in my eye as I drive into New Haven.

Yale University has invited me to present two guest lectures. The first to a class of Ivy League under-grads studying the politics of south Asia, and then an 'open lecture' for all students/post doctorates and faculty. That and a Q&A session done, they are mightily impressed I am told.

My friend Ranjan  would have been impressed and delighted too. "Bro, you the same guy whose name was missing...?" Yes, Ranjan. Yes.

(Sadly, Ranjan 'Bundle' Mukherjee was killed in the tragic Patna plane crash in July 2000 - exactly twenty years after he made that telephone call standing next to the Notice Board. Miss you, bugger.)

September 23, 2011

Champion of class & decency

‘The Great Bowler in the Sky eventually clean bowls all of us’

This piece is a tribute from me, but well might be from any one of us who have had the privilege of working with Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Tiger to all of us, at Sportsworld — David McMohan, my brothers Andy & Barry, Mudar Patherya, Pradeep Paul, Rohit Brijnath, Subhash Sarkar, Suprakash Ghoshal, Sarajit Deb and the full team.

Most of us are now settled in different parts of the world, and doing something special in life. That’s incredible!

But we share a different kind of love and respect for Tiger. We were a bunch of ten guys, just out of college, in the early Eighties. Tiger was the editor, based in Delhi, and we would bring out the magazine from the second floor in the ABP office at Prafulla Sarkar Street in Calcutta.

People who initially met Tiger thought he was a snob. Nothing was further from the truth. Once you got to know him, he would absolutely put you at ease. Of course, David and Andy knew him better than any of us since they were the Associate Editors of the magazine.

This afternoon I tweeted, “My first boss was Tiger Pataudi. He was editor of Sportsworld where I started my career. His condition is serious. Fight, Tiger.”

A few hours later it was all over. “Dear Tiger, The Great Bowler in the Sky eventually clean bowls all of us. Thanks for teaching us so much in Sportsworld. Andy, David & the team,” was all that I could tweet.

On Wednesday, I was in Delhi for a parliamentary standing committee meeting and enquired about his health but was told that visitors were strictly not allowed. I didn’t meet him one last time.

Tiger was an extremely private person, who didn’t like to travel. He was mortally scared of flying (so was one of my other gurus, David Ogilvy). Many of us would still remember dropping him off to Howrah Station for the Rajdhani Express.

Invariably, it was after a late lunch preceded by much guzzling of beer which Tiger always paid for (he preferred Gin and tonic). On one particular trip to Howrah, he almost missed his train and it was Andy’s gallant sprint down the platform that managed to land the boss’ handbag in the AC1 compartment.

India’s greatest cricket captain and champion of class and decency was a great player of practical jokes and pranks during his visits to Calcutta. I can’t forget two such instances when we played a prank on him. He always took it very sportingly even when at the receiving end.

On one such muggy afternoon at a five-star hotel, we played a massive prank on our editor (too naughty to print!).

He instantly turned serious and shouted at us. We froze! Had our jobs gone? And then he burst into laughter: “You guys played one on me and I just played one on you”.

The Sportsworld gang hero-worshiped Tiger. Perhaps he was too regal to bother about the nitty-gritties.

He would edit the magazine conceptually. He gave us the freedom and courage to fly.

“Take a look at sport from people who’ve played the game,” was Sportworld’s ad slogan when the magazine was launched. He turned a catchy tag line into a reality long before the days when cricket commentators slipped on lapel mikes in fibre-glass boxes.

Tiger, no doubt, gave a new feel to sports journalism. He would brilliantly craft his 400-word edit piece. It is another story that he would invariably be late in sending it across to us on the teleprinter from Delhi. But he would never allow even David, the associate editor, to ghost it.

Andy now lives in Australia and his two sons are great fans of Saif Ali Khan.

He promised to introduce them to Saif’s father when they would be here for Christmas this year. Sadly, that meeting will never take place.

September 06, 2011

Let private players buy land directly

The Trinamool Congress was the first party to articulate a policy on land acquisition. We did this as far back as 2006, because we saw a huge problem coming in the absence of a well-defined, modern land acquisition mechanism. The issue here is not just about who should buy land — whether the state or industry. There is a larger context to it, including concerns of food security.

The Trinamool policy is based on a fair and just reading of the Doctrine of Eminent Domain. When the state recognises private property, the private owner is the absolute title holder. However, the state is the paramount title holder. Should it need a piece of land for a clear and apparent public purpose — building a highway, for instance — it can resort to land acquisition. Of course, this should be done with generous compensation and not just a textual interpretation of 'market rate'.

The Doctrine of Eminent Domain cannot be misused to acquire land for favoured industrialists or real estate companies. That would be a gross misuse. As we saw in West Bengal in the Left Front years, it would lead to crony capitalism and sweetheart deals. If private players want to build factories or condominiums, they must buy from the farmer directly.

However, it is not as if private companies should be free to buy agricultural land at will. As a pre-requisite to a new land acquisition law, India needs a proper, digital and easily available (it must be online, for instance) map of its entire land area. This map must establish exactly which tracts of land are fertile and suitable for multi-crop cultivation. Such land is a national asset. It is critical to growing food for our 1.2 billion people and serves as a bulwark for food security.

Therefore, it must be a 'no go' area for industry. There are some concerns about whether farmers have the necessary skills to negotiate directly with corporate buyers. There may be a role here for education and oversight by a facilitative authority. Overall, however, we need to trust the sagacity of the Indian farmer. He knows what's best for him, and for his country.

August 07, 2011

Success is a four-letter word

“Remember, the arrow that hits the bullseye is the result of a hundred previous misses.”

Show me a person who has not failed and I will find you Santa Claus on the moon.

It is one of life's simple rules: we all have to fail.

Even the seemingly most successful people do not walk the journey of life without tripping on at least  one or two big failures. The question is, when. With most successful people, failures happen within the first 30 years of their lives. Then, of course, there are some who reach the age 50 with no failures – and then Boom!

Like my friend who was brilliant throughout his academic years. He always stood first in everything, also winning every inter-school and college competition he participated in, by big margins. He was a PhD by the age of 26, and had gained international recognition while still on the right side of forty – never tasting failure even once. And then, after his 50th birthday came a flurry of failure.

I have failed miserably too. I failed in Class VIII and did deplorably in math, science and French. Five years later, I was refused admission to a premier college in Calcutta because they told me I flunked the admission test.

These failures are the cornerstones of all I am today.

“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I have missed. I have failed over and over in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan