Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stranger to history by Aatish Taseer : Book review

Being born to an Indian mother and a Pakistani father, puts ex-Time magazine journo and first time author, Aatish Taseer in a unique situation. As Indians or Pakistanis, one normally assumes one clear identity, one culture and one kind of relatedness. Aatish, unenviably, needs to straddle two very different worlds and cultures, which were, ironically, the same at one point in history. Truly, midnight's chosen son.

When the author published an article on British Muslim, Hassan Butt, the suspected 7/7 bomber, his philosophy of a 'literal Islam' and his efforts to recruit other young Muslims to fight in Afghanistan, he received an angry letter from his father in Pakistan, politician and businessman Salmaan Taseer, about how he had failed to understand the 'the ethos of Islam and Pakistan'. Not wanting to meet his father without an understanding of 'being Muslim' and the current moods in the Islamic world, he sets out travelling in search of a grounding, right from fiercely secular Turkey through to Syria, Oman, Iran and Yemen, with the final port of call being his father's Pakistan. The deeper and more personal question being, how his father, a non-practising Muslim could feel so strongly about his article, without actually being a 'believer' in the conventional sense. The question I kept asking myself," Taseer writes, "was how my father, a professed disbeliever in Islam's founding tenets, was even a Muslim. What made him Muslim despite his lack of faith?"

The book is clearly divided into two parts, which run parallel to each other, merging at the end. One part is the travelogue through 'Islamic lands' as the larger title of the book suggests, and the second is the author's telling of his estranged relationship with his father. And it is here that Taseer's writing really shines through. Elegant and mature, his prose allows us an embarrassingly front-row view of a poignant tale of a home broken by the redrawing of a map. While father and son never do make their peace, there is hope that they at least understand each others' motivations and purposes.

The journey itself is unremarkable and provides no deeper insight into already existing notions or knowledge of the countries he visits. There is the secular Turkey, where a more traditional and literal expression of Islam is almost abhorred . Then comes Syria, the current hot bed of radical Islamic thought, where interestingly he witnesses the burning of the Danish assembly on the Prophet-cartoon issue. He then travels to Iran, where trivialities of the Holy Book and its arbitrary interpretations are used to police the State into an almost schizophrenic straight-jacket. His journey remains a personal one, and while we wait for something fantastic to happen, our hopes built up in the initial pages, nothing really does. We will him on to meet some fascinating characters, but sadly, all we have to make do with is a bunch of Iranian Hare-Krishnas, a telling result of the hardline Islamic stance of the State and its corrupt and powerful moral police.
Things tend to get a bit of a move-on in Pakistan, and Taseer is back to what he writes best about, the subcontinent and the pain of partition. He makes an interesting observation in Pakistan - as the nations get younger, he says, they drift more and more apart, as the younger generation shares none of the hybridity that the older generation had about them. This was an interesting takeaway, as I would have thought that the baggage of old would have stopped weighing down the populations of today. Taseer gets a feeling that this is not the case with the youths of both countries charting entirely different paths, making them even more difficult to find common ground. It is in Pakistan where we meet another interesting character, the wealthy and feudal mango exporter, whose life is the telling of another kind of dichotomy in Pakistan.

Overall, a fine first book, heartfelt and poignant. It might not go down well with his father nor indeed in the Islamic world as well, but every attempt is made to be genuinely objective and his effort is praiseworthy. It challenges notions of identity, belonging and cultural roots. I would be very keen to see him write about India as well, in all its white, black and grey. I hear he's working on it.

In the meanwhile, 'Stranger to history' will do just fine.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Having a money philosophy

What is your money philosophy? What is that, you ask? Well, according to Alla Sheptun, "The philosophy of money is the mode of the intellectual inquiry of the essence of money as a social phenomenon and its influence on the world of things, the world of people and the inner world of the individual."

To put it simply, having a money philosophy is to know the 'how' (much money is enough), the 'why' (is money important to you) and the 'where' (will you spend it). It should ideally work like this. We all have our goals, both short term and long term, and in most cases, we need money to realise them. In that sense, money is just a means to an end and not the end itself as a lot of us make it out to be. Money, according to well known personal finance writer, Dave Ramsey, is only good for 3 things - creating wealth, having fun with and giving away. I'd largely agree with him. Therefore all we need to do is figure out what our goals are, and then allocate our spending patterns accordingly in the 3 categories above mentioned, the composite result being our money philosophy.

For example, my long term goals involve retiring from active corporate life latest by 50 to pursue interests in the arts, a house in the suburbs of Kolkata and a small independent business of my own. To achieve this over the next 20 years or so, I would therefore need to use most of my disposable income to create as much wealth as possible to take care of my family's future needs as well as to invest in my business idea. Using my money to have fun would therefore sadly have to occupy a much smaller piece of the pie. How this pans out is, of course, open to conjecture and only time will tell of its success or failure.

But having a philosophy of money, and importantly, internalising it, egenders a clear thinking and an internal peace. It helps to filter out all the money noise we hear all around us everyday. " Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like" said Will Smith, very sagaciously, I might add. Having a philosophy in place helps us take a step back from spending money in unproductive areas, areas that will get us no further to our goals, and help to keep us grounded.

Its hard not keeping up with the Banerjees, but the philosophy of money can make a certain contribution to educating us all and helping us remember that the measure of all things must always be human values and not 'stuff'.



Sunday, August 09, 2009

Amul in Bollywood

An article on the start of the most enduring chapter in Indian advertising.

From the The Asian Age (1996)

"The moppet who put Amul on India's breakfast table

50 years after it was first launched, Amul's sale figures have jumped from 1000 tonnes a year in 1966 to over 25,000 tonnes a year in 1997. No other brand comes even close to it. All because a thumb-sized girl climbed on to the hoardings and put a spell on the masses.

Bombay: Summer of 1967. A Charni Road flat. Mrs. Sheela Mane, a 28-year-old housewife is out in the balcony drying clothes. From her second floor flat she can see her neighbours on the road. There are other people too. The crowd seems to be growing larger by the minute. Unable to curb her curiosity Sheela Mane hurries down to see what all the commotion is about. She expects the worst but can see no signs of an accident. It is her four-year-old who draws her attention to the hoarding that has come up overnight. "It was the first Amul hoarding that was put up in Mumbai," recalls Sheela Mane. "People loved it. I remember it was our favourite topic of discussion for the next one week! Everywhere we went somehow or the other the campaign always seemed to crop up in our conversation."

Call her the Friday to Friday star. Round eyed, chubby cheeked, winking at you, from strategically placed hoardings at many traffic lights. She is the Amul moppet everyone loves to love (including prickly votaries of the Shiv Sena and BJP). How often have we stopped, looked, chuckled at the Amul hoarding that casts her sometime as the coy, shy Madhuri, a bold sensuous Urmila or simply as herself, dressed in her little polka dotted dress and a red and white bow, holding out her favourite packet of butter.

For 30 odd years the Utterly Butterly girl has managed to keep her fan following intact. So much so that the ads are now ready to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest running campaign ever. The ultimate compliment to the butter came when a British company launched a butter and called it Utterly Butterly, last year.

It all began in 1966 when Sylvester daCunha, then the managing director of the advertising agency, ASP, clinched the account for Amul butter. The butter, which had been launched in 1945, had a staid, boring image, primarily because the earlier advertising agency which was in charge of the account preferred to stick to routine, corporate ads. In India, food was something one couldn't afford to fool around with. It had been taken too seriously, for too long. Sylvester daCunha decided it was time for a change of image. The year Sylvester daCunha took over the account, the country saw the birth of a campaign whose charm has endured fickle public opinion, gimmickry and all else. The Amul girl who lends herself so completely to Amul butter, created as a rival to the Polson butter girl. This one was sexy, village belle, clothed in a tantalising choli all but covering her upper regions. "Eustace Fernandez (the art director) and I decided that we needed a girl who would worm her way into a housewife's heart. And who better than a little girl?" says Sylvester daCunha. And so it came about that the famous Amul Moppet was born.

That October, lamp kiosks and the bus sites of the city were splashed with the moppet on a horse. The baseline simply said, Thoroughbread, Utterly Butterly Delicious Amul,. It was a matter of just a few hours before the daCunha office was ringing with calls. Not just adults, even children were calling up to say how much they had liked the ads. "The response was phenomenal," recalls Sylvester daCunha. "We knew our campaign was going to be successful."For the first one year the ads made statements of some kind or the other but they had not yet acquired the topical tone. In 1967, Sylvester decided that giving the ads a solid concept would give them extra mileage, more dum, so to say. It was a decision that would stand the daCunhas in good stead in the years to come.

In 1969, when the city first saw the beginning of the Hare Rama Hare Krishna movement, Sylvester daCunha, Mohammad Khan and Usha Bandarkar, then the creative team working on the Amul account came up with a clincher -- 'Hurry Amul, Hurry Hurry'. Bombay reacted to the ad with a fervour that was almost as devout as the Iskon fever.

That was the first of the many topical ads that were in the offing. From then on Amul began playing the role of a social observer. Over the years the campaign acquired that all important Amul touch.

India looked forward to Amul's evocative humour. If the Naxalite movement was the happening thing in Calcutta, Amul would be up there on the hoardings saying, "Bread without Amul Butter, cholbe na cholbe na (won't do, won't do). If there was an Indian Airlines strike Amul would be there again saying, Indian Airlines Won't Fly Without Amul.

There are stories about the butter that people like to relate over cups of tea. "For over 10 years I have been collecting Amul ads. I especially like the ads on the backs of the butter packets, "says Mrs. Sumona Varma. What does she do with these ads? "I have made an album of them to amuse my grandchildren," she laughs. "They are almost part of our culture, aren't they? My grandchildren are already beginning to realise that these ads are not just a source of amusement. They make them aware of what is happening around them."

Despite some of the negative reactions that the ads have got, DaCunhas have made it a policy not to play it safe. There are numerous ads that are risque in tone.

"We had the option of being sweet and playing it safe, or making an impact. A fine balance had to be struck. We have a campaign that is strong enough to make a statement. I didn't want the hoardings to be pleasant or tame. They have to say something," says Rahul daCunha.

"We ran a couple of ads that created quite a furore," says Sylvester daCunha. "The Indian Airlines one really angered the authorities. They said if they didn't take down the ads they would stop supplying Amul butter on the plane. So ultimately we discontinued the ad," he says laughing. Then there was the time when the Amul girl was shown wearing the Gandhi cap. The high command came down heavy on that one. The Gandhi cap was a symbol of independence, they couldn't have anyone not taking that seriously. So despite their reluctance the hoardings were wiped clean. "Then there was an ad during the Ganpati festival which said, Ganpati Bappa More Ghya (Ganpati Bappa take more). The Shiv Sena people said that if we didn't do something about removing the ad they would come and destroy our office. It is surprising how vigilant the political forces are in this country. Even when the Enron ads (Enr On Or Off) were running, Rebecca Mark wrote to us saying how much she liked them." There were other instances too. Heroine Addiction, Amul's little joke on Hussain had the artist ringing the daCunhas up to request them for a blow up of the ad. "He said that he had seen the hoarding while passing through a small district in UP. He said he had asked his assistant to take a photograph of himself with the ad because he had found it so funny," says Rahul daCunha in amused tones. Indians do have a sense of humour, afterall.

From the Sixties to the Nineties, the Amul ads have come a long way. While most people agree that the Amul ads were at their peak in the Eighties they still maintain that the Amul ads continue to tease a laughter out of them.

Where does Amul's magic actually lie? Many believe that the charm lies in the catchy lines. That we laugh because the humour is what anybody would enjoy. They don't pander to your nationality or certain sentiments. It is pure and simple, everyday fun."

Amul has often had a special connection with the film industry. A collection of some of the brilliant Amul adverts over the years -