Saturday, February 25, 2006


For many years now I bought "Samakalika Malayalam Varikha" just to read one particular column. Those will be three (and sometimes four) innocuous looking pages somewhere in the middle, "Sahityavaraphalam" by M Krishnan Nair. And for last many months, since he was very unwell, most of the issues won't have the column. And the men who run the magazine very well know that there are a lot of people like me who are buying their weekly just for this particular piece. So after frantically searching through the entire length of the varikha and not finding the column, you return back to the first page, only to see in some corner, in the smallest fonts available, it will be mentioned as, "due to ill-health Krishnan Nair sir hasn't been able to write Sahityavaraphalam, we hope that our esteemed readers won't mind". And from now I can't even hope to see that, for the beloved Krishnan Nair Sir will never write the varaphalam again.

Column writers are very rare in Malayalam. I can't even think of anyone!. Other than the very popular political columns that EMS and Nayanar used to write in Deshabhimani, are there any?. Even in the Indian English Literary world, the only one that comes to my mind (and I follow eagerly), although it is more of current affairs, is the Sashi Taroor column in The Hindu. So under such a backdrop, how to describe 36 years of relentless, passionate "weekly literature forecasting"... amazing, unparalleled in world literature.

Since 1969, through many a weekly, Krishnan Nair englightened malayalis all over the world. Getting them closer to the master-pieces from all around, letting them know about the giants in world literature, whose names they would never have heard if not for Sahityavaraphalam. And at the same time, demolishing all the "budding-talents" and "big-wigs" of Malayalam literature back home.

Has Krishnan Nair ever said good words about malayali authors? Ofcourse!. Changampuzha was his favourite, along with P Kunhiraman Nair. While ONV and Vayalar were relegated to just "mattoli kavikal". Also he kept wondering from time to time, how Takazhi could get such "trash" like Chemmeen to be translated and read in countries where "Anna Karenina" was read :). This uncompromising approach (and language which sometimes bordered obscenity!! Just read Feb 1st week's "Malayalam" for a dose) won him more foes than friends.

But then we the readers were not complaining at all. It was amazing how well recieved this particular column was among all cross sections of people. All those people, many (including me) who never had (and never may) get the opportunity to read all those classics, got all they need from Sahityavaraphalam. It wasn't just literary criticism, it was urging people to read those books. Even the "chodyam-uttaram" part, so hilarious most of the times, and all his experiences with all the different people of Malayalam Literature and Politics (and he knew almost all of them), were all of the highest intellectual quality and showed the humungous amount of knowledge and experience that the person had.

Nobody expects that anything remotely similar will ever happen to Malayalam again. Last two years, we lost many of the truly real greats of Malayalam Literature, OV Vijayan, S Guptan Nair, Mundoor Krishnankutty.... but M Krishnan Nair's demise will be felt the most... Simply because there isn't any replacement available... Simply because there isn't anyone with such vast amounts of knowledge... Simply becuase there isn't anyone who can shred authors to pieces with a single sentence. We'll miss you sir!

(Current Books has published an assortment of "Sahityavaraphalam's". Currently they are showing it as out of stock. Also "Malayalam varikha" is available online.

I should have written "Sahityavarabhalam" rather than "Sahityavaraphalam". One thing Krishnan Nair would never compromise was incorrect grammar and pronunciation )

Friday, February 10, 2006

Hey, go take a walk!

(a beautiful article written by our "Diversity Director". Reproduced here without his permission by a fellow "walker"...)

"He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. For every walk is a crusade!" - Henry David Thoreau

I'm a walker. I do between 20 and 30 miles a week now. Walking is therapeutic, plus there's ample enough evidence of its cardiovascular benefits. It's also a great time for vigorous mental "workouts," soul-searching and nature (and people) watching. When you're out there alone you belong exclusively to yourself, hemmed in by your memories, your imagination, the sounds of the wind, birds chirping and an occasional yapping dog.

The very act of walking is steeped in historical tradition. For centuries people walked, many for social justice. In her book, Alter Your Life, Kathleen Hall devotes an entire chapter to a few historical anecdotes of great people walking. "Buddha spent his life walking from village to village," Hall writes. "And Susan B. Anthony spent her entire life walking so that women could participate in the democratic process through voting." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was renowned for the marches he led. And pilgrimages are part of many spiritual traditions, Hall points out.

More contemporarily, many people walk as a sign of unity, or to make political or social statements. I recall with lots of pride participating in a "walk against hate" with members of the local Muslim community months after Sept. 11. Many walk to raise funds for Juvenile Diabetes and other worthy causes. In short, walking serves many purposes.

In many ways, walking provides a perfect opportunity to observe "diversity in motion," to peer into the inner sanctums of how people experience and behave in the world we live in. Plus, walking sometimes presents unexpected opportunities to do a bit of good for others.

For example, on last Thanksgiving Day I had an incredible experience while out walking; one that I would have missed had I remained ensconced in my favorite living room chair. You see, I happened across a lost wallet that morning, one stuffed with credit cards, cash and — more important to the owner, I suspect — some irreplaceable family photos.

Later, at the neighborhood Starbucks, I had the exhilarating pleasure of calling the wallet's owner to tell him the good news. He was elated. For me that experience was sweeter than the strawberry cheesecake I had later that day. Thus, walking sometimes offers up unexpected opportunities to do good deeds.

Notice life's contrasts
Walking can bring us face to face with types of social contrasts which may cause us to bump up against our comfort zones. Recently, for example, I observed an immaculate golf course on one side of the road and, on the other, an unkempt pasture, littered with weeks-old newspapers and other trash. A construction crew had just begun work on the latter side. The "temporarily tanned" inhabitants on the golf course swung golf clubs, while the "permanently tanned" ones across the street swung picks and shovels. I was fascinated by how they seemed to render the other invisible by avoiding, unconsciously perhaps, direct eye contact with "those people" across the street. When you walk you notice the little things, the subtleties, the contrasts.

Farther down the road, more litter. Candy and cigarette wrappers and lots of empty beer bottles. Against better judgment, I picked up one of those beer bottles. I couldn't help but form a mental image of the person in whose body the contents of that bottle ended up, and how carelessly they tossed it out the window. My thoughts then shifted to the image and the lives of those who must pick up all that trash, by avocation or for reasons of sheer inconvenience.

How interesting it would be, I thought, for the trash "tossers" and trash "retrievers" to meet face to face over a cup of coffee — not beer — for a rational discussion of their bipolar roles in "litter management." When you walk, you imagine all kinds of possibilities.

With dusk quickly settling in around me, I decided to shortcut it across the nearby Target store parking lot to save a little time. But it didn't take long for me to notice the many empty shopping carts strewn across the lot, not a single one that far from nearby return stations.

I stopped, stared and touched one particular cart while asking myself what manner of man, or woman, would deny that cart its rightful place next to its brethren in the return station less than 20 yards away? And who is this person who cheated himself out of a small opportunity for exercise? When you walk you can't help but question human motives.

Heavy traffic on diversity highway
With a mile to go I came upon an intersection and a buildup of traffic where many different makes and sizes of vehicles converged. I got to thinking about how the diversity "highway" has gotten pretty cluttered as well these days, with the incredible blend of cultures, generations, religions, languages and ethnicities; a sometimes combustible mix leading to a diversity "fender bender" or bout of "road rage" every now and then.

The closer I got to the intersection, my imagination put me in the front seat next to the nameless occupants in those cars, trucks, SUVs and motorcycles. Who are they and what's on their experience "odometers," I wondered. What's locked away in their trunk that's valuable, untapped and underutilized? When you walk, your imagination takes you all over the place.

So the next time someone tells you to "go take a hike," hey, take them up on it. There are no traffic jams. Elevators, escalators and stairwells are nonexistent. A bottle of water will suffice for gasoline at 2 bucks a gallon. You'll think about and notice things you've never thought about or noticed before. Your diversity IQ will expand. And you just may stumble across an opportunity to do something extra special for someone during one of those treks.

And in the end, your family physician, along with those in your organization charged with monitoring benefit costs, will be elated with the new and healthier you. Oops, there it is in preceding line ... the most compelling reason yet supporting the business case for taking a stroll!

Now, go take a hike!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

MAVOOR: Oru Deshathinte Kadha - Vol. III

Mavoorinte Bhaavi?:

So the giant chimneys no longer spit toxic gases, the sirens will no longer be heard thrice a day and Mavoor will never see those long serpentine queues of bamboo laden trucks. Maybe we all managed to prevent a disaster from happening, another tragedy in the lines of Union Carbide and Bhopal. And for now the waters of Chaliyar won't be black...

But may be we should spare a thought for the more than 3000 people who lost their jobs, and for their families too. Many who spent their entire lives in Mavoor, and many who didn't have a skill set to fetch them jobs outside of Grasim. All those families who had no places to go when they were evicted from their quarters. All those shops and merchandise which mushroomed and survived along with Grasim. Well, many survived ,many didn't. The situation of some people are grim, especially those who were attached to the school, those who were conveniently forgotten by the unions during the compensation talks. But people will find a way to survive. After all these years, when I went back to Mavoor, I was quite surprised to see that most of the shops were still open and functioning as were most of the buses. As Ian Malcom famously says in "Jurassic Park" , "life finds a way (to survive)".

Discussions are going around on what will be Mavoor's future. What to do with those vast swathes of industrial wasteland. Unfortunately, I don't see anything happening in near future. Mavoor can only be useful for those heavily polluting , water guzzling behemoths. And given the experience of Grasim, people will not prefer them anymore. And to expect that IT/ITES concerns can be accommodated here is nothing short of day-dreaming, Mavoor (and for that matter Calicut) is no Kochi!. Let me hope that I'll be proved wrong, and something good will indeed come to Mavoor soon. But all those newcomers will now have to start it all over again, for some of the old inhabitants of Mavoor have slowly but surely made their way back ... SNAKES!

(the end...) PART I, PART II, Recent Photos

Anubandam: Thanks for all the comments. It is a great feeling to know that so many people still remember and love Mavoor.

MAVOOR: Oru Deshathinte Kadha - Vol. II

The Bad Times:

When Mavoor GRASIM planned to start its operations, the government had agreed to provide it with all the necessary raw-materials. This was done considering all the employments and revenue the company will help generate. But the employment generation came to a stand-still towards the end of 60's. While the demand for raw-materials was ever growing up, so much so that large tracks of virgin forests in Nilambur and elsewhere were laid to waste. The government could no longer satisfy the demand, forcing the company to export most of the stuff from neighbouring states. The company tried to counter the increased costs by passing over them to the employees. People were now getting no hikes nor bonuses for years on end. Those who joined with much better salaries compared to elsewhere, found that their pays just stagnated. The labour unrest arising out of this and the mounting costs made the company to close down the operations for the first time in 1985.

And so it remained closed for a long time. These were the hardest of times!. Some wise men managed to move to Gulf and escaped forever. But for some there was no future outside Grasim. The next three years saw numerous suicides in Mavoor. And finally when the Nayanar Ministry came in, the government went down on its knees to appease the Birlas, promising more and more concessions, and finally managed to re-open the company in 1988.

But by then things had changed irrevocably. Protests were growing from all around on the pollution caused. But the company went ahead, blatantly refusing to accept any pollution control norms. I remember my Dad saying this about the Effluent(waste) water treatment. Whatever, pollution control system that was in place was used only during the summer months, when there was little water in the river, and so it wasn't easy to hide the pollutants. During the monsoons, when Chaliyar roars down, nothing was done and the effluents were just flushed down, hoping that nobody will notice them by the time they reached the sea.

Also, pulp production here was becoming more and more costlier. Lack of Bamboo meant the company had to use many other varieties of wood (like eucalyptus), which inturn affected the quality of the pulp produced. By then, Grasim had another similar factory in Harihar near Bangalore, where they were able to get raw-materials much cheaper. Also, falling prices globally meant that it was more easy and economical for Grasim to export pulp rather than produce here. But still the Mavoor unit was not in red, it was making handsome profits, mainly because of CS2 (Carbon -disulphide) and Ammonia plants (which were also the killer ones as far as pollution was concerned) and because the employees were all so underpaid. But the final blow to Mavoor Grasim, came with the death of Aditya Vikram Birla in 1995.

His son, Kumar Mangalam take over. Like any other Harvard/Stanford MBA, the first thing he did was to put some of the latest management principles into practice. Nothing more than CK Prahlad's memo to "concentrate on one's core competencies" . Many businesses were sold off and dismantled. And the first one on the chopping block was the "problem-ridden" and "obsolete" Mavoor unit. Many people still believe that if AV Birla was there, the factory would still be up and running in Mavoor.

The late 1990's saw large scale agitations from the environmentalist groups, and so the demand for more investment in pollution control systems. And GRASIM wasn't willing to invest even a penny more. The end when it came, came very swiftly. In 1999, the Birlas informed BSE that they were winding up operations in Mavoor. The reasons given: Inability of the government in providing the promised quantity and quality of raw-materials and the availability of quality pulp at more cheaper rates in the international market. Thus came the end of an era, with more than 3000 employees losing their job and left to fend for themselves.

Many people still believe that it was a victory of the environmental groups, that it was due to their agitations that Mavoor Grasim finally closed down. No way... If Grasim could make substantial profits it would still be running there, grossly violating all pollution norms, and the industry starved governments of Kerala would have just kept their eyes shut. It was just a case of a corporate focusing into areas which gave it much higher profits, ruthlessly leaving behind stuff that it felt were no longer viable, no longer its "core -competence"...

(go to ... PART I, PART III )

MAVOOR: Oru Deshathinte Kadha - Vol. I

This is version One-Dot-One, added some essential links. As always whenever you read something that you have written long back, you always get the feeling that "how can I write so stupidly". But then I didn't make any modifications to the original post.

Rewind back to the end of 1950's... a time when the world saw that communism can indeed come to power through ballot. A great visionary became the chief minister and some path breaking decisions were made. One among them was to invite some of India's corporate big-wigs to invest in Kerala. And, perhaps the only time in the history of "united" Kerala, some of them actually came forward and invested some big money. And the biggest by far was the Birlas and their GRASIM.

Tucked away in the banks of the most beautiful Chaliyar, 20km away from the heart of Calicut city, bordering Malappuram, was a small hillock called Mavoor. This was the place that the Birlas chose for their Pulp and Fibre factory. Mainly, because of the plentiness of water, closeness to Nilambur - from where the facory will get all its wood and bamboo, and lots of uninhabited free land. Work started towards the end of 50's continuing through the early 60's. Being the first pulp and fibre factory (technically speaking, first Rayon grade pulp and viscose staple fibre (VSF) factory) in the country, Birlas got world class engineers from Sweden and Norway to supervise the construction. The earliest employees where Keralites who were working in the steel plants of north (Bhilai, Durgapur, Rourkela etc), lured here by the handsome salary and a chance to work so close to their homes.

As my Valiachan(one of the earliest employees), often recounts, it was a tough task. First there was no proper road connecting Calicut city and Mavoor. So the Birlas had to first built that road. And thus came into being, which is still, Calicut's most important and busiest road... the Mavoor Road. Next, there were something else to take care of... Snakes!. There were lots of them, if the ones on the ground were not enough, snakes of all sizes and shapes flowed in through the river. I remember, my Valiachan telling how they all had to wear huge boots to avoid snake bites!

Production started in 1963. By then, Grasim was one of the most important firms in Kerala. These were the best paid jobs. Best technicians and engineers of the land were here. Everything went very well for the first 20 years. There was a saying that, the merchants in SM Street will wait for the day when Grasim will pay out the bonus. Not only the pay, the employees got some excellent perks as well. State of the art clubs-houses and play grounds. Free water and electricity (so much so that every household used only electric heaters for cooking ... Nobody cared for gas). Bus sevices to fetch their children to the colleges in the town and back. And not to ever forget, one of the best schools in the entire district. I believe we were one of the first people in the entire state who watched cable TV!. Mavoorians were one privileged lot...And arrogant too in that. Maybe god was watching this arrogance!...

go to ... PART II, PART III