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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Thursday, June 29, 2006


What's race got to do with a roof over my head?

A lot if my last two phone calls to two real estate agents are an indicator.

As if my accent, wasn't a dead giveaway, here's how it all began and ended:

Me: I am calling about renting this apartment you advertised for...
Agent: (before I can even finish) Your race?
Me: Indian
Agent: Cannot
Me: Why?
Agent: I said CANNOT (line goes dead)

I am seething.

Despite all the anger, I can't help but be drawn back to the steely Lakshmi Mittal story. Undeterred by all that came through the Arcelor way, it was amazing to see the tycoon smile his way through his successful take-over bid that along the way took on the collective might of the Europeans. And that determination teaches us so many things, it holds lessons in determination, it teaches us to question, persist, never give up - particularly in the face of criticism. Those are lessons for us all, even for those of us who don't even have a mega-fraction of Mittal's wealth.

Getting back to the tactless agents, who intend to put me through that de-meaning crap again, I promise to make 10 phone calls demanding explanations and my time starts now....


'HSBC man defrauds British clients' - A lot of ink has already been spilt on this one.

Given the sheer nature of outsourcing, more will be in the days to come. True, the nature of the crime calls into question the whole issue of security, checks, balances and fears that if it can happen at such a big bank - what about the smaller ones? That's one part of the debate.

Another part yet again sees those shrill cries against outsourcing rising to fever pitch. But, as one voice - that of Paull McDougall points out 'Account and data theft by India's Outsourcing Workers is rare compared to in-house thievery at US Banks'. Interestingly, all the cases cited in the piece are for June alone. Here's more:

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


And why am I even reading Times Now - not my usual web fare.

That'z coz my wake-me-upper-fill-me-with-gossip-choke-with-disbelief - the one and only Mumbai's Mid-day has decided to bring print on the web!

Can't really tell you what it looked like earlier, coz the latest link only leads to this....

Ouch! it hurts.

Hopefully, soon enough, some marketing whiz somewhere will tell us how little it takes to kill a perfectly readable website. One that brought alive all the moving and shaking news of Bollywood.

The new searches are like trips to nowhere - one insipid format leading to another. I am so missing reading about which starlet confused the star with the stripes, who refused to pay the backstage dancers, which rocking star is a walking fashion disaster....the list goes on.

The hunt for another Mid-day is well and truly on. Should you have suggestions do mail me -


Music.... so you think...
No, says Nusrat Durrani, the head of MTV World. It's all about the baba log or kids.
Read more here...


For those of us who have been in the profession long enough to see tambola distributed with a newspaper, notes from owners telling us 'papers are like soap, it's the packaging that matters', to see Page 3 transform into Page 1, to watch the steady regression of one of the finest professions... this sobering piece couldn't have been more timely. A great read that provokes thoughts for a fine debate, sent to me courtesy Kana Gopal.
This address was given by Philip Knightley to nearly 70 members of The Center's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in London.

By Phillip Knightley

I tried for years to get on to Fleet Street and nearly gave up. Then, with one of those strokes of luck which all journalists need, in 1965 I wiggled my way on to the Sunday Times. I'd done one story for it as a freelance and had been given a spare desk and a telephone.

The next week I went in and sat at the vacant desk. After a day or two, someone noticed me and gave me another story to do. One week led to another and bang, there I was, a reporter on one of the world's great newspapers as it entered its finest years.

The Sunday Times had 350 editorial staff to produce a 48- or 64-page two-section quality broadsheet every week. It was so overstaffed that some journalists went weeks without getting anything published in the paper. In fact, some of them were not even SEEN for weeks. It spent money like water on investigative journalism - two million pounds on legal costs alone fighting for its right to publish the story about the thalidomide scandal. It was scared of no one. It averaged a libel writ a week. The editor, Harold Evans, was unhappy if a libel writ had not arrived by Tuesday, because he felt that the paper had not been doing its job - defending people without power from those who wielded it unfairly, exposing corruption, making a difference to the lives of ordinary citizens. Here was a paper that believed in something, which took enormous pains to get things right, and which fought for its editorial integrity.

One day, the owner of the paper, a Canadian called Lord Thomson, knocked on the editor's door while the morning news conference was in progress, said "hello", and then rather tentatively asked: "Say boys, would it be possible to squeeze in the Canadian ice hockey results each Sunday?" There was a moment of shocked silence. Then the deputy editor, Hugo Young, said, "Lord Thomson, this is an editorial news conference to which you've not been invited. If you'd like to put your suggestion in writing, I'm sure that the sports editor will be willing to consider it." And next morning there was a note to the editor from Lord Thomson apologising for attempting to influence the paper's editorial policy.

So this is my benchmark. It's against this golden age that I plan to measure the performance of the media today, especially newspapers - because I know more about them - and especially in the field of investigative reporting.

Now, everybody who has anything to do with newspapers - either as a producer or a consumer - has been aware for years now that something big has been going on in the industry, a sea change as deep and as radical as the arrival of the new technology in the 1980s. Newspaper circulations are declining all over the Western world. I emphasise "Western". In India, for example, they are soaring. Again, in the West, viewing figures for news and current affairs are down.

There is general public contempt for journalists. In the last five years half a million AB readers - educated top income group readers - have deserted the British quality press. OK, so they just changed papers, found the tabloids a quicker juicer read. I'm afraid not. They disappeared. It is an extraordinary fact that of the 11 million AB adults in Britain, the 11 million educated high-earners, about one-third do not read any daily newspaper whatsoever. All over the English-speaking world, many young people in all socio-economic classes have got out of the habit of reading newspapers.

In any other industry, if customers were vanishing at this rate there would be panic. But in the media industry it is only recently that hard questions are at last being asked. Le Monde, announcing an English-language version of Le Monde Diplomatique, turned on its own. "We all know that the media can no longer be trusted, that their performance is incompetent ... that they broadcast blatant lies as if they were manifest truths."

Is the media, particularly TV, in the business of "the mass production of ignorance"? Is it possible that the more TV news we watch, the less we know? There is a case to answer on both counts. If it is the media's job to interpret the world for us, why has the total output of factual programs on developing countries dropped by 50% in the past ten years - 50%!

Perhaps this has been due to the death of the old-fashioned foreign correspondent. You remember them, the expert in his or her area who had the language, knowledge and background not only to report on what was happening, but to explain why it was happening. Professor Virgil Hawkins of Osaka University suggests that technology has killed them off. He says that the process goes like this: greater competition among media giants leads to budget cuts, so resources for newsgathering are diverted to buying and maintaining hi-tech equipment. This means foreign correspondents are expected to cover larger areas of the globe, and in the process lose their specialist expertise. "They race from one humanitarian disaster to another, with little time or background knowledge to grasp the issues behind the conflicts they cover". This tends to produce highly emotional firsthand accounts, described by Claudio Monteiro of Leicester University in her analysis of the Portuguese media coverage of East Timor, as "good cause journalism ... journalism of affection", with the journalist as the hero of his or her own story.

Now, while all this has been happening, government interest in the media has intensified. It is as if governments realised, even before the TV and newspaper bosses, that the power, reach and influence of the modern media are enormous. The CNN News group is available to 800 million people across the globe, BBC World can be viewed in more than 167 million homes across 200 countries, al-Jazeera reaches at least 75 million viewers in the Muslim world alone. For any political party, the ability to 'handle the media' is these days seen as an essential element in gaining power and then, once in government, in maintaining it and carrying out policy. The old-fashioned government 'press officer' has gone. Governments now have a 'director of communications and strategy', whose job it is to manage the media and manipulate public perception of government actions.

The United States underpins its "hard" power - its awe-inspiring military capacity - with "soft" power - its ability to achieve its goals through the media; and its practitioners speak of a different world of journalism in which "global media strategy" and "international perception management" use journalists as pawns in the new "great game". In its updated foreign policy, Washington talks of "full-spectrum dominance": the US should aim to be top dog in all spheres - military, economic production, business, culture and, significantly, information.

In an ideal world, a free press and a curious, sceptical army of campaigning journalists should keep democracies and their leaders in line, especially today. And, almost as important, it should act as a check to the increasing power of corporations, especially international ones.

So what's stopping these journalists? What's gone wrong? The list is lengthy. Government propaganda and pressure. Pressure from corporations, including those which own newspapers and television stations. (Why didn't we realise earlier that the corporate world, so often the target for journalists, would one day find ways of fighting back.) Legal pressure. Social pressure. And professional self-pressure, for journalists themselves are not entirely without blame for the state of the media today. Let's deal with these pressures one by one.

Those in power who think about these things, have always been puzzled by this question: "If we can so successfully manage the media in wartime, why can't we do the same in peacetime?" There is no trouble doing so in autocratic regimes. The media tells the public what the government wants it to know. End of story. Newspapers and broadcasting stations that do not toe the line lose their licences, or their editors go to jail, or - in some extreme cases - are shot. This does not happen in democratic countries, but there are nevertheless ways open to governments to exercise some control of the media. The first and most often used is an appeal to 'the national interest'.

In the United States, the events of September 11 have been used as an argument to deter journalists who dared to criticise or question their home country. When three times in July 2002 the New York Times printed excerpts of secret Pentagon plans to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration accused the newspaper of "reckless reporting", "putting American lives at risk" and even "treason". But the distinguished journalist academic, our colleague Bill Kovach, says that it is precisely at times like these that journalists need to be even more diligent in the pursuit of truth: "A journalist is never more true to democracy, is never more engaged as a citizen, is never more patriotic than when aggressively doing the job of independently verifying the news of the day". At other times, the media has been willing to censor itself at the government's request. In 1986 the Washington Post editor, Benjamin C Bradlee, announced that in the first five months of that year the Post had, at the government's request, withheld information from stories a dozen times on the grounds of a risk to national security.

There are other ways of managing the media without using the "risk to national security" approach. The government of India adopts a carrot and stick tactic. The carrot can include subsidised housing in so-called "journalists' colonies", a government-paid trip abroad, a seat on an important government or semi-government committee, and even a posting as an ambassador. As the Pioneer newspaper of New Delhi says, "With rewards like these, who would want to needlessly antagonise the government?" Those who do find that the income tax inspector is suddenly paying close attention to the journalist's tax returns and taxation officers may even raid their homes and offices. All this is calculated to intimidate them.

Now the battle between government and the media is not new - it has gone on since the late 19th century when a rise in literacy created millions of new readers for newspapers and magazines, and made those in power worry whether this could cost them control of the electorate. What is new and worrying is the rise of legal pressure on the media to desist from subjecting both governments and corporations to investigation and public scrutiny.

High defamation damages have a knock-on effect in the way they inhibit investigative reporting. Chuck Lewis has told us the battle that the Center for Public Integrity and the ICIJ has to obtain libel insurance and fight off threat of what could be crippling libel actions. Just to remind you, many American insurance companies have a rule that if the insured media organisation has three libel actions pending against it - irrespective of the merit of those actions - its insurance policy becomes void. Without defamation insurance, the Center could not risk continuing its function - its insurance company has already paid out over US$1m in legal fees defending one case, which its lawyers say will eventually be thrown out of court. Lawyers, of course, know the 'three libel writs and you're out' rule. If they want to stop a story, one of the first things they do is to see how many writs a media organisation has outstanding, and if it is two, then they launch another one themselves knowing that, frivolous or not, this will effectively shut down the story.

American law firms, always keen to push the law to the limits to deter investigative journalists, have come up with new ploys that many consider even more effective than an action for defamation. They offer corporations and individuals 'pre-emptive strikes' against troublesome media. Their advice is along these lines: "when you learn that journalists are making enquiries about you, or when journalists approach you, do not wait until the news item is published or broadcast and then sue for defamation. The damage is already done. Hit back immediately and stop the item before it is published. We know ways of doing this."

The "ways" include examining the financial structure of the media organisation to see if pressure can be applied through a parent or associated company, analysing the advertising revenue of the company to see if a major advertiser can be persuaded to apply pressure, and compiling a dossier on the personal background of the investigating reporter to see if he or she can be intimidated into dropping the story.

Let's move on to professional self-pressure. The new technology drew attention to the cost of gathering news - as distinct from the cost of producing a newspaper or running a TV programme. The accountants - the people who now really run the media industry - moved to slash news-gathering budgets. All over the world, overseas news bureaux were closed, foreign correspondents called home.

All over the Western world, journalists, who should have been up in arms about the downgrading of foreign news, were seduced. Some became highly-paid columnists, celebrities in their own right, pushing their opinions rather than gathering facts. Or writers about lifestyle, relationships, gossip, travel, beauty, fashion, gardening and do-it-yourself which, although sometimes interesting in themselves, can hardly compare in importance with examining the human condition at the beginning of the 21st century, which is what serious journalists try to do.

One British proprietor has gone so far as to say he doesn't really need journalists on his newspapers. OK he admitted he needed a few to shovel the news into his papers and a celebrity writer or two. But the news itself he would 'buy in' from outside sources. Money spent on journalism, he said, was wasted. There was no way of measuring what difference extra editorial expenditure had on circulation. On the other hand, he boasted, you could measure exactly the difference made by spending more money on promotion. Spend half a million dollars on marketing and give away a free movie DVD with every copy of the paper and you could see how many extra copies you sold. It seems to be working because his last balance sheet revealed he was paying himself nearly $2m a week.

We are not complacent. We are prepared to look at our performance and try to do better. "Reporting the World", a project run by the Conflict and Peace Forums of Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire, has spent a lot of time and effort in getting around a conference table those journalists who have reported major conflicts and crises in recent years, and encouraging them to criticise each other's work in a constructive manner. More than 200 editors, writers, producers, and reporters helped to produce a practical check-list upholding the values of balance, fairness and responsibility in their coverage of international affairs. Most of these meetings were arranged by the European Centre of the Freedom Forum based in London. The centre's parent body, the Freedom Association of Arlington, Virginia, is a non-partisan foundation, a successor to one started in 1935 by publisher Frank E Gannett with the slogan: "a free press, free speech and free spirit for all people".

The London centre was a beacon for journalists of all colours, creeds and political beliefs, united by their concern that journalism should remain more than celebrity lifestyle, trivialisation, confessions and comic book stories. Now for the irony. Six weeks after 9/11, the parent body in the United States closed it down, saying that they needed the money for a news museum in downtown Washington!

So investigative journalism is not dead yet. Let's run through what we should be doing. We have to convince news organisations that there is more to journalism than profits and share price, that slick accountancy, cost cutting and spending money on promotion are not going to win an editor or a proprietor a place in the history books. We need a public interest defence in all legal actions brought against the media. Journalists should be able to defend a story by showing that what it revealed was so important to the public that everything else was irrelevant - something that, thanks to the European Court of Human Rights, the Sunday Times succeeded in doing in the thalidomide case. I mean, if a drug company is aggressively marketing a drug that deforms unborn babies, then how the journalist got the story and whether it defamed drug company executives - and even whether publication would damage that elusive concept, "the national interest" - has just got to take second place to informing the people.

We can support media that does investigative journalism, and stop buying media that does not. We can seek other sources of funding for our own investigations. And, if everything else fails, we can take the Jan Mayman path and somehow finance ourselves. We are not without power.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


:::...szerelem, szerelem...:::: Agra - Summer 2004

Found these fabulous pictures, while blog surfing. Might want to take yet another look at the monument of love, before you get your bags packed.


There's never a bad time to re-visit these. So here are some of my all time favourites:

".... Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

"My fellow members of the press corps, especially the cameramen, tax relief is on the way. Don't spend it all in one place. Save it. Thank you very much, you can now turn off the mike."

"What can we help you with?"
- President Bush asked a woman in Florida who was picking up supplies after a devastating hurricane

"Too many good doctors are getting out of business. Too many OB/gynaecologists aren't able to practice their Love with Women all across this country."
- Bush referring to the increasing lawsuits plaguing the medical fraternity in the US


This one courtesy Newsweek:

"Are you going to ask me that question with shades on?"
- US President George W Bush to Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Wallsten during a White House Press Conference. Bush did not know Wallsten is partially blind and needs sunglasses to protect himself from the glare of lights.


You have seen the pictures (hopefully), now for the story.

Before that, though, here's my take on how not to get to Chiang Mai.

If you are the adventure seeker, like your rail to be grounded to the track then stick to the train. But if you are going by the account that Thailand's trains are better than India's, then take a moment to pause, read and (dis)agree.

Having covered the length and breath of India right from Jammu Tawi to Kanya Kumari, from Guwahati to Deolali thanks to Dad's well-timed military transfers, the best part of my childhood was spent in Bharat's railways. If we weren't moving house, we would be on our vacations to visit the grand-parents or if Dad was posted to the icy climes of Kashmir, then we only got the summer to reach him and make the most of the two months that we got to spend with him annually. Each of those trips involved long train rides, which before the arrival of the air-conditioned coaches, was done in the comfort of the first class coupes with Mum. For days and nights, those wonderful coupes would become semi-homes, complete with our books, toys, the home-baked cakes, mom's sketch book and so much more. We'd hear lovely stories before both my sis and I nodded off to sleep. Of course, when the entire regiment made the move from part of the country, the same first class compartment would come alive with the sounds of all the army brats in tow.

It was a fabulous feeling. Being together, exploring so many parts of the country. Yes, I agree trains are the best way to see a country, but comfort when it comes to travel is now important for me. Gone are my back-packing days. In fact, I bid them adieu to them after that horrendous experience of being caught in the middle of a flood and a landslide enroute to Dalhousie. Never again did I pack my bags the way I did then, after that trip.

So when some pals, mentioned the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai as the best way to travel, we took the gamble. You guessed it - it didn't pay off. For starters, we didn't get the sleeping berths, it was a second class coach, all seating. Which could have been fine, had the chairs been in perfect order. Half of them were off their hinges, others seemed on the verge of falling off. Just when you got seated, one bump and the tray tables came right down on your arm. It didn't help, if all through the journey, you had your three year old going in and between his nap and your back getting knocked thanks to all the twists and turns along the way.

So I'm not about to get on to one of those trains any time soon. Which is why one of the first things we did when we finally reached Chiang Mai was cancel the return journey to Bangkok and get ourselves on a budget flight. Ended up being a smart move since it gave us an extra day to explore Thailand's second-largest city and culturally significant city.

Soon as we stepped out of the train station, Bala and I knew this would turn out to be love at first sight. The city has a striking mountain backdrop, seeps with history and is said to be home to over 300 temples. Considered the gateway to Northern Thailand, the city was founded way back in 1296. That part of this stunning city's history still survives. Doi Suthep, topped by one of Thailand's holiest wats, rises behind the city, providing a dramatic backdrop and fine views of the city. It sits a good 800 kilometres away from Bangkok, seems to lack all its apparent business - which is a great thing, as it frees you up to be one with yourself and nature. The city stands on the Ping river, which is a tributary of the Chao Phraya river and merits a ride on the nice dinner cruise.

This one is a hit with kids and adults alike. What's not to like about seeing elephants paint, engage in a sporting game of soccer, or lift you off your feet with their trunks? Then if you have survived all of that and fed them enough, brace yourself for a two hour jungle safari. There are longer safaris for those who have stronger backs and braver hearts. I was shrieking half the time, with my my six year-old braveheart telling me very Shah Rukh style : "Stop being a scary cow, Main Hoon Na" (I am there). Once you get used to the perpetual swaying, stop looking down and brace yourself for the next elephantine step, you'll be just fine. Never mind what it does to an already weak back.

This could perhaps be one of the finest chances to bring out the Tom Sawyer in you. There are no life jackets, just a bamboo raft, two long bamboo sticks and two friendly boat men, who will give you, your three year old and even your dog a chance to a longish cruise along the river. They will spring to the rescue, the minute you look like you will hit that threatening rock. We lived to survive, so take your chances.

There are real treks, mountain biking, white water rafting, quad driving and so much more. We've saved it all for another day.

This is an absolutely fabulous experience. Despite the summer sun, they are all dressed in their traditional finery, with some absolutely stunning crafts on display.

Speaking of which.... if you happen to be into pottery, arts and crafts, Chiang Mai is a true paradise. We spent a day exploring the silk, silver, bronze, pottery, celadon, lacquer and umbrella factories. What makes a trip to each of these places special is how they take you through the whole process of how the things are made to the final product. So once you are through with seeing the silk worms, the painstaking effort to weave a seemingly simple design to the stunning silk products, there is absolutely no way of walking out of the store without buying a thing or two. The friendly folks even let children give the loom a hand. At the umbrella factory, they even packed lots of left over paper and taught Aneesha how to make her own umbrellas at home. We are not quite close to the finished product yet, but it's a start.

If all of that is not enough, there is always the Night Bazaar, which is totally different from what you see in Bangkok. Lots more arty stuff to be bought here.

I skipped this one, but Bala and Aneesha had a blast doing the market tour, buying the stuff for their dishes, cooking it and eating it too. We got treated to Tom Yam soup soon as we ended the vacation... I'm not complaining....

Other folks who have visited Tamarind Village have said it before, I'm just not in a mood to disagree. It was in one word 'Excellent'. Great breakfast, superb location...
If you are still thinking, Chiang Mai is just a flight away. We'll be back for another trip soon, this one to explore Chiang Rai and Lampang together with more of Chiang Mai.

With that I mark the end of my Thailand diaries, back to some regular blogging now.

Friday, June 23, 2006


We survived the various rides to try some of this as well...


Through pictures which are invariably supposed to speak louder than any words I can pen....

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Trust you've already the posts below. To establish the flow that is....

Thailand, as I mentioned earlier, was a sea of yellow when we arrived. The ride from the airport to the hotel was about an hour long. Though we were saved the grief of the incessant traffic jams, that Bangkok is notorious for.

It was a smooth drive all the way through. Though when the van turned into China Town, I started getting truly anxious.

I have in the past made some absolutely grave mistakes when it comes some of the choicest places to stay. A classic example was the last trip to Amritsar, when I happened to stumble upon Mrs Bhandari's Guest House on the net. Despite Dad's constant reminders "Beta the Army mess will be nice", I decided to have my way, only to be sorely disappointed not just by the what the place turned out to be, but in the inflated bill that I was handed when I checked out.

History looked like, it was about to repeat itself.

The alluring Shanghai Inn, definitely seemed a far cry away when the van made its final stop.

"So this is it?" I asked, mildly bewildered.

The driver simply pulled out our bags. We went a floor up, only be transported into another world. Shanghai Inn, looked even more promising than the pictures that I had seen. The kids were excited seeing the stunning riots of colour, the lamps, the collectible horses that Dhruv decided were meant for riding. The room was grand (even though I had settled for the cheapest), it had all my type of stuff. Once inside you could not for a moment tell you were in Bangkok or for that matter even in China Town. If you still don't believe me, take a look its website.

Quick tip: Book through the internet though, it works out a whole lot cheaper.

Having settled into our room, it was time to do the things that tourists do.

I had a handful of stuff to read thanks to my colleague Joe's Thai wife. She had taken the trouble of going down to the Thai Embassy in Singapore and putting just about everything I could ever need to survive in Thailand. And I haven't even met her! So whatever, some firang folks may have to say about Asia's apparent lack of manners - don't believe it.

Thanks to all the literature that she had painstakingly put together for me, I got going with a quick history lesson, that hopefully will stand the kids in good stead some day.

Bangkok or Krung Thep means the 'City of Angels'. Its antecedents date back to 1782. Today with a population of around 10 million, it is the bustling metropolis that it has been made out to be. Whether you are into art, history, culture, shopping, touring or eating, Bangkok has something for everyone - right from street shopping to air-conditioned mall shopping. Bangkok, in many ways also evokes memories of Bombay. Just like India's rapidly growing city that accepts just about everyone in its fold, Bangkok too draws an increasing number of rural Thais. The best way to see how some of them adapt to the city life is to hop on to the Tuk Tuk - it's absolute fun and get onto the:

Actually, the cruise as we soon discover, is quite a misnomer. It is one rocky ride, but undoubtedly one of the most exciting things to do in Bangkok. You get to see most of the city, the Venetian way. As you stumble along the choppy waves, the contrasts between the grandness of the five star hotels from Shangri-La, Marriott, Orchid Sheraton to the houses (if they can even be called that) on stilts unfolds. The best way to explore the Chao Phraya river is on the long-tail boat. As you roll on you can almost see an old way of life come alive through the 'Bangsai Floating Market', 'Taling Chan' and all the breath-taking temples along the way. While we couldn't visit the Royal Grand Palace due to the celebrations, we did catch a fantastic view of it from the left bank of the river. This one truly was a ride to remember. Watch out for the cameras though, along one rather nasty jump my video-cam was drenched in wonderfully muddy water.

If riding the waves is not your kind of thing, then you can take the road to visit Wat Phra Kaeo. Built way back in 1782, it houses the Emerald Buddha. Sitting atop an 11-meter tall gilded altar, he is protected by a nine-tiered umbrella.

The Reclining Buddha which was built to remind people of Lord Buddha's nirvana dates back to 1832, which happened to be the reign of King Rama III.
Beyond the sheer significance, there is lots more in store for history buffs. There is Wat Pho which dates back to 1688. Beyond these, there are a host of other stunning temples, that we will probably re-visit another time.

If you happen to be a fan of Thai silk or Asian artefacts, then your visit can't be complete without a trip to Jim Thompson's House. Located alongside Saen Saeb canal on Soi Kasem San 2, off Rama Road, the house is a journey through the rich arts and crafts of South-East Asia and a perfect way of remembering the life and times of Jim Thompson. An American, he came to Thailand during World War Two, and is widely credited with reviving the country's silk weaving industry. Jim Thompson disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967. In the Jim Thompson House compound visitors will be guided to see many interesting collection of antiques and artworks from all over Southeast Asian region.

If you have kids, a stop at the Dusit Zoo is an absolute must. You can foot paddle your way to discover the child in you or explore the animals amid the lush greenry.

They say smart travellers arrive in Bangkok with their bags empty. A visit to the Night Market and the Chatujak weekend market tells you why. And I didn't even have to step into any of the air-conditioned malls.

My husband is the ulitmate foodie and while we sampled all types of food in Bangkok, I would highly recommend the award-winning Thai restaurant Basil. It's located in the shopping district of Sukhumvit Road at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit. This stylish restaurant brings out the finest in traditional Thai food. It might be a bit of a pinch on the pocket, but oh the aromas, the whiff of spices and basil, makes this one place you absolutely must visit.

We got lucky at Shanghai Inn. It also housed the spanking new 'Yin & Yang Spa' where we took our aching bones day in and out to get the ultimate Thai massage after each long day in the sun. The folks there were so warm and friendly and the sheer price will tempt you to get on board the next flight to Bangkok - a little over $10 (US) for one whole hour. In an environment that was quite spa like. Actually more than the rooms, it was the warmth of the people who there, that did it for more.

Regular visitors say there is no bad time to visit Thailand's capital. Though April is the hottest month, and it pours in October. Tourist numbers usually surge in August and December. While June isn't one of the most popular months, it turned out to be quite alright for us.

Like all good things, Bangkok too isn't perfect. You need to watch out for cabbies or Tuk Tuk drivers who promise to get you to your destination for a lark. They invariably make stops at shops and can turn unbearably nasty if you don't buy stuff at the stops they make. We almost got trapped in one of those. So do read what they say in those handy guide books.

Next, we hop on to the train to Chiang Mai and bring you all the Tamarind Delites. Watch this space, will ya?


Seeing Bangkok had almost been a personal mission. After all, I'd spent a good 10 years in South-East Asia and apart from an entirely forgettable Bangladesh Biman bump off, I hadn't gone beyond the bustling airport. Things sounded a lot worse, since almost all my pals from India had officially done the Bangkok darshan. "What shopping yaar, great massages". Shame on me - for not having been a part of it for 10 long years.

So after, months and years of planning to see this part of Thailand, we are well and truly off.

That's discounting the airport confusion before take-off. Somehow, Bala felt it was Seletar that houses Air Asia. We called a couple of folks, in the process I confused my colleagues at work but there was the cabbie to save the day. We eventually made it to the fair skies via Changi Airport.

Air Asia, was our first official budget flight. Boarding it, brought back memories of that race to the finish to get on to the dreaded Punjab Roadways bus from Chandigarh to Dehra Dun.

If you are a newbie, you will soon realise, on some budget airlines there are no allocated seat numbers. A perfect start to bring out the ugliness in some air borne lads and ladies. It was funny to see that queue, folks absolutely refusing to give way, despite repeated calls for 'parents with small children' to board first. That was just the beginning. Soon as the young ones trooped in, you could hear an army of determined travellers running in hot pursuit for seats that were most certainly theirs.

Now, come on, could the plane really take off without these runners who should really be on a different bridge. In fact, we even bore witness to one truly well endowed Aunty who if she had her way could have almost bit off the poor Air Asia gals ears for trying to "split her family - how can you do that?" she shrieked. If only, it took airline staff to split families!

If a script-writer is well and truly running out of ideas, then a budget flight could turn out to be the perfect idea factory. There is like inspiration - here, there and everywhere. You don't even have to look.

We thought we had found the perfect seat next to those emergency doors. For those of you, who will making the next run to the seat, grab this one, ok.

Then the stewardess walks in "Mam, no children."

We give nice seats with reasonable leg room to a merry looking bunch of Japanese travellers.

Steward strides up "Sir, do you speak English?"
Traveller One: "Little"
Traveller Two: "Little"
Traveller Three: Smiles and Nods

Steward to Traveller Three : "Sir do you speak English?"
More Smiles - no words.

Steward: "Sir this is an emergency exit, we need someone who can speak English."

The nice traveller has to move and Bala, the English speaker is now in total control of the emergency door.

After that fine start, which gave us more than just something to smile about, we reached Bangkok - YEAH and made that determined stride for the immigration counter and the stamp of visa on arrival.

For those of you who have children, have travelled with them, you've seen it all happen before, you know what it means to fill up four forms quick time (they don't give the visa on arrival forms on board the aircraft). Things happen. On the one hand you are juggling that milk bottle, on the other you are try to control those itchy feet from running away.

"This is not your house, Aneesha, you can get lost....
And Dhruv must you bring out that GRRRR in me....
(crying ensues)
Ok, ok, please don't be a baby! PLEASE let me finish this form! Ok no CRYING PLEASE! (More Grrrr!)"

So it went, so we filled the form, so we thought, till we finally stumbled on the immigration counter, that is.

Stern looking immigration officer opens Bala's Passport which is soon going to give Shantaram a run for its money:
First booklet features Bala with lots of hair: "Is this you?"
Bala: "Yes"
Second booklet shows Bala with no hair: "Is this you?"
Bala: "Yes"
Third booklet has Bala with a bit of hair: "Is this you?"
Bala: (sighing) "Yes"
Then officer picks up the form that make or mar our entry into Thailand and goes: "Is this you?"
Bala: (hasn't seen the picture yet and goes) "Yes"...

Oops, what have we? Dhruv's picture on Bala's form.
I am tickled, officer is not, form comes flying back, with a dire look that says get the damn pictures right or else....

I look at the two forms in my hand to ensure Aneesha and my mugs aren't mixed up.

Tell Bala to take a seat so I can work my lady charm. But braces don't get you too far these days.

So we sit and pray, we haven't messed anything else up.

The passports come back, visas all stamped, we are well truly on our way to discovering Bangkok. Yes, the updates and more pictures are on the way. I know you have heard that line before. As always, I truly mean it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Yes, the updates will be up soon, as will the pictures. Here are a couple of quick thoughts.

We couldn't have chosen a more opportune moment to visit the famed 'Land of Smiles'. It was a special occasion, a sea of yellow, greeted us. Bangkok with its line of flowers, people dressed in yellow, the fireworks, the palace - all of that made it a sight to behold.

We landed right in the middle of celebrations marking King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 60th anniversary of the ascension to the throne.

He is the longest reigning monarch in Thai history and the celebrations were being rolled out on scale, that I haven't seen before.

For the past six decades, King Bhumibol, has been revered. And you could feel that in almost every street corner of Bangkok that we visited.

Thais will tell you about his innovative projects that have touched the lives of thousands of rural poor. There are over 3,000 Royal projects that focus on schooling, water conservation, drug rehabilitation, health care and agriculture. A Foundation set up by the King has also helped at times of natural disasters including the deadly tsunami that wrecked havoc on Asian shores.

Truly, the King's efforts have touched the lives of so many who simply feel 'blessed to born' at this time.

For us it was truly an honour to have been a witness to that significant part of Thai history, even though we got to watch some of that truly stunning light up on our train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.


It took me 10 days to watch this film. Not that it isn't gripping. Fact is it's so gripping, you don't want to miss a single dialogue. Finding time for a single sitting to watch it though remained the big challenge. I was determined to do that before the short-lived chutti ended. Boy, was I glad I did it.

Being Cyrus is another one of those movie that will make you justifiably proud of the new wave of Indian cinema. Not that I'm making comparisons, but if the likes of Iqbal, Page 3, Hazaroin Khawaishen Aisi have been part of your viewing pleasure of late, then this one will fit the bill perfectly.

It is on the surface a story of a Parsi family - that of six people to be precise. There are the Sethnas. Blissfully unhappy, with their own set of family melodramas and dysfunctions. Into their lives walks in the mysterious Cyrus - a role played to perfection by Saif Ali Khan.

You've heard that before, you hear it again - 'Beware who you let into your house'. If there was ever a need for a 'Stranger Alert' it should have been somewhere, sometime for the Sethna family.

Fact that it doesn't makes it the intriguing dark comedy that skillfully unravels through a fragile web of family relationships. Imperfect pasts making for even more imperfect presents.

Helping do that is the stellar cast that includes Honey Chhaya who plays Fardoonjee Sethna - an aging man, his two sons Dinshaw (Naseeruddin Shah) and Farokh (Boman Irani) and their wives Katy (Dimple Kapadia) and Tina (Simone Singh).

The movie is a stunning addition to modern Indian cinema, a work that makes its first time director Homi Adajania, a name to watch out for. No surprise it has walked away more than just critical acclaim on the international film circuit.

And I haven't even got to their cool website - the download time could have been a lot shorter though - browsing.


Been meaning to write about this since the time I saw this - which of course happens to be many moons ago.

I know a lot of folks would want to make it their personal mission to strangle me, especially some of those who watched the show with us. I actually enjoyed parts of this mindless drivel.

Reason being post Rang de Basanti, I had already lowered the bar for Aamir Khan, expected a sort of lame ending, the talented actor being reduced to what he is allowing film makers to reduce him to. The Indian Armed Forces being shown in the sad light that they were. Didn't the Generals actually watch this stuff? What about our intelligence forces who are supposedly better than the CIA, KGB, James Bond, XXX and whatever have you? In the face of a disaster, they calmly say they'll show up a day later, 'but please stay calm.'

I've got to stop the analysis, I promised myself so. Kajol is back. First slim (in the first half), then fat, all that with her starry charm intact. Hopefully, her comeback will give tired cine viewers a break from the likes of Ms Zinta. Kajol, as expected, is a delight to watch. So is the superbly maintained Lillete Dubey.

If for nothing else watch it for them or for Poland passing off as Kashmir and for the dependable Rahul Dravid in his new avataar as somebody's Papa or for talk of a referendum in Kashmir. Or if you happen to be in South-East Asia and places happen to be a draw for you - the KL International Airport is there!
- if places

Yes, Fanaa, has its moments. Pity they are far and few between.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


To the trilling sound of not one, but three chattering alarms - one real alarm, two phone ones is the hardest part about ending a vacation. Usually, I ditch my weekday mode for a propah sleep pattern on weekends, anything longer than two days already sounds and sure does feel like sheer bliss.

On holidays, I remove all signs of clocks, alarms and watches - unless there is a flight to catch. This invariably means I stumble out of bed at 10am, pretty much the time when the morning show ends. It's not that I'm always asleep, it's just that sense of lazing in bed, watching the sun rise, hearing the chirping of birds, snuggling with my book - all those things that normal folks who sleep normal hours normally do - so I presume.

The feeling is unmatched. I don't know about the rest, but the fact that I can awaken my senses to my body's rhythms puts my spirit at ease.

Ten days on, the alarm rings, I am back to jump starting the morning. The cabbie is in a chat mode. Then there are the wires, the thought of that 50 cent wake me upper coffee, the bright lights, the deadlines, the bulletins, the shootings - I am back, truly awake, looks like haven't even missed a blink....and it still feels good. Never mind that alarm.


This may sound hard to believe and I'm not saying it.

Reader's Digest has ranked New Yorkers as the politest people in the world. Yes, you read it right - fast-moving, tough talking, New York is the most polite metropolis, so RD would have us believe.

It has apparently outscored large cities in 35 countries in three tests of courtesy.

Ho hum... and those tests happened to be:
1) A 'Door Test' to see who would hold open a door
2) A 'Document Drop' to see who would help pick up dropped papers
3) And a 'Service Test' to measure if sales clerks said thank you for a purchase.

Four out of five New Yorkers passed the courtesy tests with flying colours.

Coming in a close second was Zurich followed by Toronto, Berlin, Sao Paulo and Zagreb.

Aamchi Mumbai ranks last in the politeness poll.

Not surprisingly, the rudest continent has turned out to be Asia - well the same continent where we greet our neighbours with Salaam Namastes, Sawadee, Sat Sri Akal, Smiles and more.

All because we couldn't pass three silly tests which are in no way a reflection of the Asian spirit.

Why is it that the courtesy test didn't include responses to human disasters? One merely had to look at the Hurricane Katrina aftermath and the way Mumbai wallahs responded to the floods to see where is it that the human spirit truly triumphed.

Sure, we may not be holding the document or the door right. We may forget to let the ladies enter the lift first, we may forget the 'excuse me's' and 'thank you's', we may superficially seem to be lacking in social graces, but when it comes to the crunch, we Asians get it right. The adversities have spoken for themselves in the past and they will in the future too - despite what the seemingly polite surveys have to say.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


By Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal has been hailed by a certain Julie Birchill as "The best debut I have ever read." Yes, I am doing the back of the book stuff, since just about everyone seems to be doing it these days. It only gets better if you turn to the front of the book "Sexy...shocking and touched with genius."

Ok, I'll agree with the sex part - doesn't the cover say it all anyways?

Shocking? If someone has already read it, please tell me which part(s).

And genius - 245 pages later I was none the wiser. Obviously Ms Birchill hasn't been reading enough debuts. Coz if she had she could have rattled off so many other memorable ones, including some of my favourites - Shantaram, Tokyo Cancelled or Q & A, the list is extensive and touches of genius sure are there.

Getting back to Tourism, I had given up on it 20 pages down the line. Over dinner, a pal told me beyond all that trash it does get better (Tarun I hope you are reading this!). So on my second try I persevered. But the story is hardly the gripping sorts.

There is the male lead, a certain 'Puppy' (we can't even get more original than that!), engaged to another Sophie, lusting after a certain Sarupa. Need I even wax eloquent about what happens next?

If you are still guessing.... together with the Two S's there is also a lot of sex, tons of dope, drink and drifting.

And somewhere along the line you are supposed to be feel the angst of a marginalised youth growing up on the mean streets of London.

I am so sorry Puppy, but I just can't feel your pain.

Since this about fiction, about letting imaginations sour, for a moment put the intoxicated prose aside and try transporting yourself onto the streets of Punjab in the time of Blue Star. See your Dad who has given his life and soul for the Army searched right from his I/D card to his boots to ensure he is not another terrorist on the run. Try seeing The Golden Temple reduced from its former glory by a group of ill-timed strategists hoping to get the militants out in the day.

Try, just for a moment for a moment, to see your own kind surrounded by a mob dying for a kill when you are on a harmless road trip from Dehra Dun to Chandigarh. Or go beyond all of that to see the pain of an entire generation of young girls wasted by the marauding mobs in the aftermath of a riot.

If you can see the blood, at some point you will feel the pain and then there might be some shred of genius - somewhere.

PS: In light of the feedback...
Yes, I agree that debuts don't quite deserve the harshest cuts. But as another writer whose work I greatly respect pointed out, "if something's being sold as 'the best thing since buttered paratha', then I think it has to stand up on that level and be counted and if it doesn't match up, then I think it should be said."
Well, I've said what I have to about this debut, you as always are free to disagree. Look forward to the volleys.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


By David Mitchell is one of those books that you never stop thinking about, long after you have read it, that is.

Even if you are not into coming of age tales, you would do well to pick this up. It is a literary master piece, handled so much differently from Mitchell's earlier work - 'Ghostwritten', 'number9dream' and the spell-binding 'Cloud Atlas'.

Through the life of 13 year old Jason Taylor you are transported to a little village in Worcestershire. The year is 1982 - around the time of the Falklands war. The story is that of a boy coming to grips with his adolescence and his family that is on the cusp of collapse.

Through one year in Jason's life, you realise that while the setting is that of a seemingly sleepy town, the unfolding events are anything but.

On the political front, there is England in the time of the dying Cold War. On the personal front, there is Jason - whose days in this year are marked by many firsts - first smoke, first kiss, first deaths, meeting the first Gypsies and a whole lot more.

Then there are the expected bullies who compound Jason's stammer. Despite these setbacks, the poet in him emerges slowly but surely:

"Mum warned me to stop being a Clever Little Schoolboy. I should've shut up but I pointed out that Dad never makes her eat melon (which she hates) and Mum never makes Dad eat garlic (which he hates). She went ape and sent me to my room. When Dad got back I got a lecture about my arrogance. No pocket money that week, either."

Another part about Hemingway's 'Old Man and the Sea' is bound to bring that reluctant smile on even the harshest readers faces:

"But it's just about an old guy catching a monster sardine. If Americans cry at that they'll cry at anything."

Beyond family, school, books, bullies, poems, politics - 'Black Swan Green' is so much of everything that each one of us has dealt with at some point in our lives. Though it needs a genius narrator like Mitchell to tell it all in one book.

Right from start to end, this was one ride, I wished would go on forever.

Now if that's inspired you to pen your next tome, David Mitchell style, here are five quick tips from the master himself:
1. Take your time.
2. Write your characters' autobiographies.
3. Remember: It's about people.
4. A quote from Stephen King: "adverbs are not your friends."
5. Write something every single day, even if it's just three lines. And it doesn't matter if it's any good - just write something every day.

Monday, June 05, 2006


There was a time, long long ago, when holidays meant packing your bags an hour before the bus, train or flight was to take off. Head to the destination with breathless excitement. Reach point A, dump your bags, then head out to explore whatever lay beyond.

Since my Dad was in the Army, the ritual of discovering unknown parts of the country, was almost second nature to the two of us - my sister and me. I remember the heady days of jumping into the army jeep or the jonga to drive into the eastern recesses of India. Gingerly stepping on all those monkey jhulas that passed off as bridges to find places of stunning beauty beyond Rajouri, Poonch and Bimbar Galli. Taking the train for a long distance adventure all the way from Gaya to Dehra Dun with the entire 7 Field in tow. Or surviving another long hot distance transfer from Cuttack in Orissa to the burning hot spot - Ahmedabad in Gujarat.

The journey of a thousand miles invariably began on a train. Then it morphed into more adventures in a car, jeep, sometimes even the Shaktiman or through the treks that Dad took us on in Dalhousie. As he always said, "if you must travel, travel light because there are so many ways of seeing the world."

But then that is Fauji speak. Of course, during our early years, he kept a tight reign on us, never letting us head out if we had more than a pithhu on our backs. "Men have fought wars on a lot less", he constantly reminded us.

Along the way, those were lessons I had happily forgotten. Of course, when the kids came along, the bachchas became a good excuse.

"You know I need the pampers, the medicine, the doodh ka dabba, the clothes - I don't want to be washing on our holiday."

Then the kids themselves started adding on their own little bags to the existing ones.

"Mamma can I just take one colouring book and the colours and that small monkey and one doll and what about my bracelet," goes Aneesha till her Barbie bursts at its seams.

Then there is Dhruv happily sneaking his car, helicopter, motorcycle into his Bob the Builder bag which is only supposed to hold his water bottle.

So it is that Bala almost every time collapses under the collective weight of all our bags.

It's going to be different this time round - I hope, I believe.

We head to Thailand, to discover parts of it, just the way I did when I was a kid. Doing the great rail journey across the River Kwai and more.

Hopping from place to place with mega bags in tow will be no fun, so before we even get packing, I'm gonna sit back and recall all of Dad's famous words.

Travelling light will be a must as we'll take in the sights of Bangkok via Shanghai Inn and Chang Mai via Tamarind Village.

Whether these places will live up to their pictures, the next week alone shall tell.

Though one thing is for sure, our adventure on wheels will definitely give me new insights into the art of packing. Lessons I should never really have forgotten.


Having started reviewing at the age of 18. Getting bad reviews shredded to pieces, with a couple of pieces flung right at my face, I got the best training I could from the Tribune Book Editor - the late T K Ramasamy.

It may sound like a cliche, but they really don't make Eds like him any more. After all, can you count the number who can deliberate with you on the content or even the angle of your story? More often than not, as some of them clearly demonstrate there is no life beyond commas and full stops. PERIOD!

I was blessed (though I didn't think that way) each time Ramasamy handed me a book to review. It always came with this cryptic note "Read it first. Write what you read. If it doesn't make sense to you, it won't to anyone else."

Which is why when I see reviews right off the book jacket, it never ceases to anger me. If I want to know what Julie Birchill has to say about Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal's book, dear critic, I can do it myself.

In fact, authors themselves respect reviewers who can take them on. As Rana Dasgupta had rightly said during an interview I did with him many many moons ago (when 'Tokyo Cancelled' was being launched) "I'd rather see a bad review that has engaged with my book, than a good one that has not."

Which is also partly why, when I read stuff like this, I really think Paul Theroux's rather unflattering term about critics rings true. If you missed it, he happily dismissed them as 'eunuchs' - I disagree of course, coz there are a couple of good ones out there, though the bad ones are more than far and few between. Here's proof:

"Members of the fashion and fashion publishing industry - will read it with a chortle. Editors will read it with a wince, civilians will read it with mouths open... (I'll save you rest - it ends thus) My! Oh My! What a fun read!"- A freelance writer on 'The Devil Wears Prada' in Femina
Another one:
"I am chary of uncertainty"- In The Straits Times
Then can you please not go on?


Thank you all for your warm words about Captain Elmo's tribute to Nihal de Silva. Thanks also for taking a moment to pause and reflect.

For those of you who asked why there were no new posts last week. Yes, it was deliberate. I wanted you to read about Nihal and his death. Often as it happens with a lot of the online stuff, the minute there is another update, what came before it is soon forgotten.

There have a lot of questions about the post though. Some of you wanted to know how it all happened, others asked Nihal's work and still others about the rather mysterious sounding Captain Elmo. To answer one of the mails that asked me - "Is he for real?" Read on to figure that out for yourself. But first, I'll give you the details about the incident and Nihal's work:

Nihal De Silva, was among eight people killed in a landmine explosion in the Wilpattu National Park in Sri Lanka (May 2006). They were tracking wild elephants in the park.

The location of the explosion, about 50 kilometres from the main gates to the Park, is close to the northern border of the park, the geographical beginning of rebel Tigers held stronghold of Vanni. The area saw intense fighting before the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement.

While officials say the Tamil Tigers laid the landmines, the rebels have denied any hand in the incident.

The Director General of Sri Lanka's Wildlife Department believes the mines were newly laid, because they were on a main
road through the park that has been used regularly since it re-opened in 2003.

He is the author of 'The Road From Elephant Pass', 'The Far Spent Day' and 'The Ginirella Conspiracy'.

'The Road From Elephant Pass' which won De Silva the Gratiaen award in 2003, is largely about the Wilpattu National Park. The book tracks the journey of Captain Wasantha Ratnayake of the Sri Lanka Army and female LTTE cadre Kamala Velaithan from the Elephant Pass to Colombo. The LTTE's 1999/2000 attack on the Elephant Pass base forces the two to make their journey on foot across the National Park.

This one should hopefully address all those curious mails about the author of that moving tribute.

If you happen to be in Singapore, the man needs no introduction. He has been in and out of the news and on our show, first talking about his remarkable award-winning book 'Sam's Story'. The book was awarded the prestigious Gratiaen Award in 2001 for the best literary work in English in Sri Lanka. This award is given by a Trust, set up on the initiative of the Booker Prize winning author Michael Ondaatje to promote writing in Sri Lanka.

Then when the tsunami struck, he took a break of sorts from his full-time Singapore Airlines job to turn to his other mission in life. That of running his charity - The Association for Lighting a Candle or AFLAC in Sri Lanka.

Lending his able shoulders to the cause was his son Mevan, who took a year off from his full time job to simultaneously work on several projects - all of which have borne fruit. Take a look at their web-page - for details.

While Captain spends a lot of time in what he calls his 'blue skies', his true mission in life seems him grounded in Sri Lanka when he is not flying inter-continental jets or flying.

The picture posted above represents one of the many projects that AFLAC is currently running in Sri Lanka.