Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Just Saying

Writing is a struggle. It's like pushing your way through a peak-hour fast train on the Bombay suburban network and sweating it out in a bone-crushing two-hour ride home. If you can make that journey every day, you can write every day.

Death, be not proud by John Donne

As far as spiritual or metaphysical poems go, the 14-line sonnet Death, be not proud by John Donne is my favourite. The English poet is saying pretty much what every religion preaches — in death, only the body dies and not the soul. The soul — or the Atman, the Eternal Self, in Hinduism — is the essence of existence and is as free as a soaring eagle under a clear blue sky.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Just Saying

You are your religion only if you practice its sacred teaching in letter and spirit. Otherwise you're just a tag.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Alphabet Quotes: S is for Silence

"If silence is good for the wise, how much better is it for the foolish!"
— Ivan Panin, Thoughts

"Choose silence of all virtues, for by it you hear other men's imperfections, and conceal your own."
— George Bernard Shaw

"There is no need to go to India or anywhere else to find peace. You will find that deep place of silence right in your room, your garden or even your bathtub."
— Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

"That man's silence is wonderful to listen to."
— Thomas Hardy
"Be silent, or say something better than silence."
— Pythagoras

Monday, March 13, 2017

When an ex-journo writes for PR

On my first day at India's largest independent public relations consultancy, I got an unusual piece of advice from a colleague: “Now that you're working for a PR firm, make sure you leave your soul at home.”

I knew what he meant. I wasn't a journalist anymore. I could no longer wear my heart on my sleeve and write stories as I pleased and annoy people. I was a PR man now.

No, technically, that's not correct. I’m not a public relations specialist, just as a teller is not a banker or a compounder doesn't make a doctor. I don't do client-servicing. I write content for people who are into client-servicing. Actually, I ghostwrite.

The transition hasn’t been easy. For several months, I thought and wrote like a journo. I had to change my writer’s perspective on the other side of the print media-public relations divide. And the divide is not a thin line; it’s as thick as a fence.

After nearly thirty years in the penitentiary of newspapers and magazines, you get used to writing in a certain way, you think you have writing privileges, like you own your writing and to hell with everything else.

You own nothing. It’s the PR clients who own everything you write, even the byline that was once your crowning glory. You write in the garb of an invisibility cloak, unseen and unknown to the outside world.

One of the demands of the job is to make the client come out looking good through editorial and influencer based content marketing. This can include a variety of content—pitch notes and press releases, newsletters and authored articles, case studies and white papers, blog and social media posts, internal and corporate communication, events and graphics, audio and video, and so on.

Whichever type you choose, you can’t let negative publicity creep into client content. If you do, it can be construed as a breach of trust, an act of betrayal. That line of writing defeats the purpose of client-servicing, which is protecting and enhancing corporate reputations through brand and image building media campaigns.

So what has been my experience in PR writing so far?

Well, it has been both challenging and satisfying. I realised at the outset that no two clients want the same thing. While the basics of writing are the same, there are many variations in how content is thought out and structured. It teaches you to think and write creatively and imaginatively. For instance, you can adopt a storytelling style for authored articles in the same way as Sunday papers do or you can start a mundane press release with a bang and grab the editor’s attention. PR writing also offers a broad perspective on contemporary issues. The growth of digital payment systems in the wake of demonetisation, last November, is a case in point.

It seems rather odd that I now write for an audience that I once worked closely with—editors and journalists. Without appealing to their news sense first, there’s not a lot you can do to ensure media mileage for a client.

These are early days and I’m still learning. And, I suspect, I’ll be learning for much longer. But this much I can say with a degree of accuracy: If you want to retain your PR client and raise your PR retainer, become the client. That holds as true of content marketing as it does of client-servicing.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Children of a lesser humanity

A devastating air strike did not rob Omran Daqneesh of his childhood and his innocence, and almost his fledgling life. What did was shocking indifference and lack of compassion from a world that doesn't care about Syria's humanitarian crisis and its mounting collateral toll, especially its war-ravaged women and children.

The five-year-old boy, who became just another statistically horrific face of the Syrian conflict, outraged people around the world. But to what end?

© Aleppo Media Centre
After rescuers pulled him out from under the rubble of a bombed-out building in Aleppo that was once his home, he was deposited on a chair inside the ambulance (probably for a photo op) — dazed, alone, scared, and gingerly feeling the blood and dust on his cherubic face.

Rescuers said Omran appeared stunned and in trauma, naturally, but he didn't cry. He just sat there, next to two other wounded children, under the stark white light of the ambulance.

Someday Omran will ask—"Why me? What did I do?" He will get no answers.

Hopefully, someone hugged the kid after doctors attended to his injuries and made sure he was okay. That's what he needed, to be held with tenderness and comforted, and assured that everything was going to be all right. Even if it wasn't.

The boy survived and apparently so did his parents and siblings. But will other kids be as lucky?

"No one and nowhere is safe. Shell-fire is constant, with houses, schools and hospitals all in the line of fire. People live in a state of fear. Children have been traumatised. The scale of the suffering is immense. For four years, the people of Aleppo have been devastated by brutal war, and it is only getting worse for them. This is beyond doubt one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times," said Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He described the battle for the Syrian city as "one of the most devastating conflicts in modern times."

Dr Zaher Sahloul, a critical care physician from Chicago who has worked in Aleppo and seen the horrific effects of airstrikes, pricked the world's collective conscience when he told The Guardian, "They are not dolls to cry over and then move on. That is the worst thing, everyone is looking at these pictures, but who will do anything?"

Shedding tears for the wounded and traumatised children of Syria is not enough. "All of us can help by advocating on behalf of the doctors and their patients, refusing to accept their suffering is normal, even if the world can sometimes seem inured to Syria's pain. Every life is precious. Omran has reminded us all of the terrible suffering of the children caught up in this war. Let us not forget them again," Dr Sahloul said.

For the children of Syria, survival and lifelong scars could be a fate worse than death.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Alphabet Quotes: R is for Relationships

"Then clasp my hand with closer hold. True hearts are never unconsoled. They fear not care, nor cloud, nor cold. And smile at growing old."
— Elizabeth Chase Akers Allen, American poet and journalist

"I mean, if the relationship can't survive the long term, why on earth would it be worth my time and energy for the short term?"
— Nicholas Sparks, The Last Song

"Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships...the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world, at peace."
— Franklin D. Roosevelt

"Science may have found a cure for most evils: but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all — the apathy of human beings."
— Helen Keller

"Truth is, I'll never know all there is to know about you just as you will never know all there is to know about me. Humans are by nature too complicated to be understood fully. So, we can choose either to approach our fellow human beings with suspicion or to approach them with an open mind, a dash of optimism and a great deal of candour."
— Tom Hanks

Think carefully, speak wisely

Thinking too much about everything we see, hear and experience often results in our overreaction to problems which are sometimes imaginary. It gets us nowhere and leaves us fretting and fuming for no reason. Overthinking drains our mental and physical capacity to deal with situations and make sound decisions and proper judgements. It tempers our power of reasoning. Just as we look before we leap, we need to think before we speak. When we think too much, we are more likely to say something insignificant or hurtful or say things that should best have been left unsaid.

Renowned spiritual teacher and founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation Eknath Easwaran compares our continuous stream of thoughts to bumper-to-bumper traffic. He says, "We can learn not to let one thought tailgate another. Tailgating thoughts are a danger signal. People who are prone to anger—or to fear, or greed, or hostility—allow no distance between one thought and another, between one emotional reaction and the next. Their anger seems continuous—just one anger car after another, bumping into each other on a fast, crowded highway."

Slowing down in thought and word, as Easwaran advises, helps us say the right thing at the right time, and in a measured tone. When we think less, we speak less, and when we speak less, we become more sensitive and receptive to others. We also learn to listen more. It allows us to channel our thoughts into meaningful words and actions, and build harmonious relations with people we interact with.

Takeaway: A mind in overdrive is an accident waiting to happen.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Take the demon out of demonetisation

“I haven’t wooed a woman with such unconcealed affection as I’m courting ATMs.”

On the evening of November 8, I was watching television when an acquaintance informed me, “Did you know that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes are being withdrawn from the market?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Everyone’s talking about it,” he said.

My antenna went up immediately. I switched over to the news channels, and sure enough, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was announcing the scrapping of the high-value currency effective midnight, and their gradual replacement with new redesigned Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes. The unprecedented move, shrouded in secrecy, was being taken ostensibly to crack down on black money, terrorism financing, corruption—and improve our lives. Days later, the government added cashless economy to its demonetisation narrative.

The sudden withdrawal of banknotes we’d got used to created shock and awe across communities and geographies. That same evening, people rushed out of their homes to queue up at the nearest ATMs and withdraw as many hundred rupee notes as they could.

Nearly a month later, people everywhere are still lining up outside banks and ATMs to draw the new currency from their own piffling accounts. And it hasn’t been easy for anyone, not ordinary citizens, poor farmers and villagers, daily wage labourers, traders and shopkeepers, institutions, and not even bank employees who have been at the receiving end of public ire.

The physical and mental strain caused by this unexpected social change is palpable. The loss of manpower and productivity has been incalculable. Many people have died waiting in queues. Others are having sleeping nights. Will I be able to withdraw from my account? Will the ATM dry up before my turn comes? Is my hard-earned money really safe in the bank? And this all-important question—what next? The anxiety and uncertainty is understandable, especially when none other than Finance Minister Arun Jaitley warned that monetary hardships
could last one or two quarters.

“I’m beginning to experience withdrawal symptoms if I don’t wait in ATM queues. I think I’ll sign up for ATMs Anonymous.”

For these and other reasons, here are ways to deal with the stress of demonetisation and the fear that though you have enough cash in the bank, you may not have enough in hand.

Switch off and switch over: Yes, stop reading about new developments on demonetisation in newspapers, on your smartphone and office desktop, and definitely stay off news channels. There’s a lot of fascinating and more pleasant stuff to read and watch. Don’t worry, even if you don’t read about demonetisation, you’ll still hear about it. The less you obsess over it, the less stressed you’ll be.

Swami Kriyananda, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda and founder of Ananda, a worldwide movement of spiritual intentional communities, has rightly said: “You go through enough decades of this, and you see that it’s all just nothing. I never watch television, read newspapers, or listen to the radio anymore. People ask me, ‘How do you keep up with news?’ I answer them, ‘If there’s anything of importance that happens, people will tell me.’ I just don’t find it interesting because it all seems like gossip.”

Although he said this in another context, his advice is relevant in any situation where a public event causes individual and collective mental or physical stress, including depression, and affects work and family life. The shock election of Donald Trump is a case in point because nobody expected the racist, sexist, and neo-isolationist Republican candidate to win.

Get back to your normal routine: Remember the Mumbai terror attacks? In less than 48 hours, people were back on their feet and going about their personal and professional lives, even as commandos were flushing out terrorists from the Taj Mahal Hotel and Oberoi Trident. The key is to get back to your routine, even if it means you have to wait in the bank or ATM line. However frustrating, and I know just how frustrating it can be, don’t let it ruin your day. After all, we’re used to standing in all sorts of queues. And this one isn’t going to last very long. Very soon there will be sufficient cash going around.

Don’t be swayed by rumours: The pro- and anti-demonetisation lobbies are fuelling all kinds of stories while politicians of all stripes are adding their two-bits—rousing public opinion and anger, and often pitting one against the other. Both sides have vested interests in keeping the narrative alive. Through all this, the only sufferers are ordinary and law-abiding citizens who have enough troubles already.

For example, the rumour that the government would go after our gold next got people so worked up that many rushed to their banks and withdrew inherited and legally-owned jewellery from their lockers. The government’s clarification that it had no plans to impose restrictions on gold holding failed to convince people who invest in the yellow metal. So think before you act. Don't let your paranoia get the better of you.

Be vary of social media: In my opinion, social media is the biggest cause of anxiety, stress, and burnout. Like the relentless beat of the drums, the 24/7 updates, tweets and messages play on our minds, attack our beliefs, and cause a disconnect with reality. As a result, our overdependence on this porous medium is proving to be more disruptive and less informative and entertaining. And when it comes to politically sensitive and controversial issues, such as demonetisation, for instance, social media can be ruthless in pulling you down—in what often seems like a reenactment of George W. Bush’s famous remark, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” It can all be very upsetting.

Moral: Get off social media every now and then. It’s a lot of hot air and posturing, and doesn’t do any good to anyone. If you must use the medium, use it for constructive and meaningful purposes. That way you keep your peace and connectivity.

Today, it is demonetisation. Tomorrow, it could be something else—manmade or natural. Whatever the hardship or calamity, it’s important to stay calm and focused, and keep moving forward. And, more importantly, don’t overreact; instead, try and get a grip on the situation. It'll help you put things into perspective. Things are usually much better than we think.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

'There's no point in talking to you'

Sometimes, life teaches you a valuable lesson in unexpected ways.

A few months after I took up my first newspaper job, in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1986, I was asked if I'd like to interview a famous artist. Naturally, I was elated. I was young and eager to prove myself. I said yes without giving the matter a second thought. I went to Jehangir Art Gallery, where my subject was holding an exhibition, and introduced myself. He wore a white bushshirt and stood with his hands behind his back. But before I could start, he asked me, rather curtly, "What do you know about art?" 

Well, my mother's side, they're all professional artists, you know. I used to sketch and paint myself. And I once appeared for the state Elementary Drawing Exam and failed. Of course, I didn't tell him that. Instead, I said, "Not much." 

To which he replied, even more curtly, "Then there's no point in talking to you" and walked away. 

I smarted under his unintended insult. Lucky for him I picked up the pen instead of the brush. I could've showed him a stroke or two and beat him at his own canvas!

Since that day, however, I never wrote more than I knew. But I'd learnt my first lesson as a reporter—stick to your brief. In today's world, it's called domain knowledge. Of course, thanks to the internet and social media, people seem to have an opinion on everything, and then again, nothing.