The Insurance

It was around 9 PM, a warm day in September 1976. I was a 12 year old and my brother 16, we were just getting ready to go to bed and that’s when we heard loud, distressed shrieks ‘fire, fire’ from the portion of our house which was rented out.

My brother and I were in the hall and unthinkingly we ran towards the shrieks and were stunned by the sight that was unfolding before our eyes.

Ebrahim who was a heavy weight (fat) was standing outside his room transfixed; his eyes bulging, almost popping out of the sockets, staring ahead at the entrance of the kitchen from where Orange – Red hot flames were shooting out. There was a strange wailing sound coming from his mouth, which sounded more like a prayer. His roommate, the bearded, skinny Yusuf, who was standing next to him immobilized was shrieking, ‘fire, fire’ like a broken record, unable to stop.

The house IMG_0001 (2)that caught fire was my beautiful parental home in Mulky, the sleepy little town of coastal Karnataka. Our house was over a 100 years old, it had solid carved wooden pillars and a wooden ceiling. The staircases in it were also made of wood. The house was in the shape of the English letter T (upper case). While we lived in the base of the T, the horizontal portion was rented out to a couple of Indian origin South African Hindu & Muslim students.

Most households in Mulky those days went to sleep by 8.30 or 9 in the night; the dimly lit, deserted streets gave an eerie look to our town.

That year the holy month of Ramzan had come in September. Now Sudhakar the Malayali cook of the boys was always dressed in a colorful lungi and half sleeved shirts, with a permanently ruffled mop of curly hair. This particular year, he had a tough time as he had to cook for the Hindus during the day and for the Muslims in the evening and early mornings. He was sleepless and dazed most of the time.

He was leisurely regretting his hasty act of chasing his assistant, just a few days earlier in a fit of anger. That particular day, he was in the final stages of dinner preparation for the Hindu boys and was in a hurry to go to sleep. After he lit the Kerosene oil stove to make the last item – Rice, he stepped out to have a shower. Unthinkingly or carelessly he must have flicked the match stick into the dustbin. As he had just that day finished his monthly grocery shopping, the dustbin was full of waste paper, some of which was used to wipe the spilt kerosene oil. Next to the dustbin was the 20 liter plastic can of kerosene oil.

In just 5 minutes the dustbin caught fire, due to the heat the can melted, 20 liters of oil – highly combustible, spread on the floor adding to the fire.

Adjacent to the kitchen was our cow shed, my mother was struggling to shift the panicking cows to a safer place. Her worry was the highly burnable, dry hay stacked in the attic of the shed and she wanted to save the cows.

My dad and a Raghurama, the goldsmith – our neighbor were running to the only house in the vicinity that had a phone, to call the fire brigade from Mangalore – 30 kilometers away! All my dad kept saying was ’Raghurama dada malpuniya’, ‘Raghurama, what shall we do?’ And Raghurama, gave him courage (which he did not feel) saying ‘Shenere Dever ulleru’ which meant ‘don’t worry sir, God is with us’. The fire brigade will reach quickly in the night…

Ignoring Yusuf & Ebrahim, my brother and I rushed (as only children would do) into the blazing kitchen and my brother tried to pick the plastic bucket which originally contained water. As he held the partially melted bucket, he cursed loudly and dropped it.

By then the power went off, as there was a short circuit somewhere, so we could not use the pump to draw water. And the only light was that of the blazing fire. The acrid smell of Kerosene permeated the whole place. Someone trying to pull water from the well, using the rope and pulley dropped the rope into the well. By now the fire was already touching the roof, the tiled roof could have made things even more difficult as the tiles start flying when it catches fire. I had it easy, someone literally pushed me out on to the street to keep me safe in the company of another student who was a nervous wreck! But my brother had a couple of burns, singed hair and eye brows.

Our community saved us that day from losing everything we had. Had it been 30 minutes later, we would have had difficulty in waking up our neighbors. Nearly 50 of them cut their banana plants, coconut fronds and put out the fire by beating it. Not sure how long it took, but it looked like forever to douse the fire.

We had to ensure that the wooden ceiling didn’t have any burning embers left, so we removed the hot tiles and let the light September drizzle into the burnt out kitchen. By the time all this was over, it was well past midnight. My sad but grateful mom served all of us tea and light snacks and heaved a sigh of relief…

Fire Insurance was unheard of in those days, I remember many Diwali’s when, someone or the other used to come to my dad and request help to raise funds to rebuild their home. It is the goodwill earned from this selfless act that saved us.  Our relationship with our community was the only insurance we had.


Gandhi – The master PR practitioner


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who is hailed as the father of our nation in my opinion is one of the most effective PR practitioners. He was a master strategist and understood his target audience very well and crafted the communication accordingly.

Although he held no office, he was able to captivate the minds of India’s millions, and also took control of Congress and its highly educated, sophisticated and cynical leadership. It was his passion, careful consideration and discipline which got him the recognition.

Let me discuss briefly the reasons why I think he was the ultimate PR personality:

The Salt march:

The Salt march was probably one of his most powerful campaigns which had a wide spread support. The Salt Acts imposed on Indians prohibited them from collecting or selling salt. Indians were forced to buy salt which was a natural resource and a staple in the Indian diet. The British, who, in addition to exercising a monopoly over the manufacture and sale of salt, also exerted a heavy salt tax.

Gandhi the brilliant strategist thought that a Mass civil disobedience was the best way to tackle this issue. In March 1930 Gandhi and 78 of his close associates marched from Sabarmati ashram, some 240 miles to the Arabian sea to take a pinch of salt. He informed the government well in advance about his intention to break the law to make salt. The British government threw people in jail for violating the law and censored the press. Despite that, the Media covered the event in great detail and  people across the nation followed suit even though Gandhi was already in prison. Jails in India were filled with 60,000 Satyagrahis whom the British imprisoned.

Effective use of media:

Gandhi was probably one of the greatest journalist of all  time, and the publications he ran and edited were probably the greatest ones the world has known. In 1904 in South Africa, he had taken over the editorship of the ‘Indian Opinion’ and published it in English, Tamil and Gujarati, sometimes running the press himself.

He is known to have written on all subjects; he wrote simply, clearly and forcefully. His writing was passionate and burning indignation. He believed that the objective of a newspaper, is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it; to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments, and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects. He took up journalism more as a service to public and he was devoid of any personal ambitions. He used his writing as a vehicle to present his various experiments to the public.

Signature style:

He believed in powerful symbols and designed a headgear as a symbol of Indian unity which later came to be known as the Gandhi Topi. His own dress was one of the foremost and most visible symbols he adopted–the loincloth and shawl of homespun fabric –which he deliberately chose, after careful consideration, to show solidarity with India ’ s grinding poverty.

This eventually got him a name of ‘half naked fakir’ from Sir Winston Churchill. This way of dressing was Gandhi’s rebuke to the pretensions of the imperialists and became his trademark attire.

By the time that India’s independence was won, the homespun cloath or Khadi was inextricably woven into the fabric of India’s life. Even today Khadi is the unofficial uniform of India’s political leaders.

Powerful Orator:

Gandhi is seen as one of the world’s great inspiring public speakers. He could inspire all classes of people whether they were freedom fighters, thinkers or even the farmers. He was very articulate and considerate in expressing his thoughts. His talk was authentic and could move the whole nation into action.

He created influencers who believed him and championed on his behalf. The way Gandhi worked was to identify the Sarpanch or the administrative head of a village, influence him to practice the simple, ideal ways of the Gandhian philosophy, after which the whole village followed suit.

Campaigns for social justice:

Gandhi launched himself into campaigns for social justice; especially the two movements where he actively participated – the Champaran movement to save the indigo plantations and the Kheda Satyagrha – mill workers union in Gujarat. Gandhi supported the causes by resorting to satyagraha and wrote letters to the various editors of publications informing them about the development of the movement that he was participating in.   The government finally relented and relief was provided to the aggrieved.



My younger kid is in town for Diwali vacation. He wanted to clear his wardrobe of stuff he had outgrown. He had pulled out a whole lot of very good (expensive) stuff that he could no longer wear. My natural instinct made me go through the pile to pick a few that I could send to his younger cousin. My son was scandalized and protested vehemently that I should do no such thing! His reason was that ‘Kids today don’t like hand-me-downs’. He insisted that I give it all to ‘kids who have no parents to buy them stuff that they needed’! I heeded his advice and packed it off to an orphanage.

I remember getting many cloths from my first cousins living in Metros, never once had I felt that way! In fact I remember one of my favourite skirts made out of Black velvet with bright little orange stars on it; It was a knee length A-Line skirt.     

My mother used her creativity and made it from a Bell bottom trouser handed down to me by my cousin who lived in the USA. I used to wear it with an Orange round necked T Shirt and thought I looked quite good in it. Never once did I feel bad or care that  it was made from a discarded garment !

Bell bottoms were a rage in those days, these were trousers which flared out back and front from the bottom of the calf down and the hems, the bottom could flare up to 18 inches. The other variation – the Flares, these flared out massively from the knee down and could be up to 26 inches. Now they are worn for Halloween parties!

Soap Saver

During my visit to Mangalore this week, I had gone to Nilgiris – a Super market, to pick a couple of things for the kids. As I was going through the various racks I saw a product that took me back down the memory lane a couple of years back. In a box were quite a few colourful ‘Soap Savers’, costing Rs. 2/- per piece. My son was pleasantly surprised and picked a few of them.



The Soap saver is an oval shaped plastic with spikes on one side. Sticking it to the Soap elevates the soap above any water that may get accumulated in the soap dish and keeps it from melting. It adds to the longevity of the Soap.

I grew up in a small town and I remember my mom used to either stick the left over silver of the soap to the new bar. She also used to collect all the pieces into one multi-coloured ball and use it. Those days we used to buy bar soaps to wash clothes with. I still remember my mother cutting the bar soap with a knife into small pieces before melting it using warm water. Sometimes she added the left over silvers of toilet soap in this gooey mixture to add some fragrance.

These were days before the recycling concepts gained popularity.