Coke controversies

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 31.05.09

The evening began on a wrong note, with Maina Bhagat of Oxford Bookstore calling Mahasveta Debi a poet. The feisty writer-activist issued a strong denial, saying she has never written “a word of poetry” in her life. She added that at this stage in her life she only prized “necessary information”. Perhaps that is why she was present at the launch of The Real Thing: Coke’s Bumpy Ride through India by Nantoo Banerjee, to do the honours. Actor Barun Chanda read excerpts from the book.

Banerjee had left journalism to join Coca-Cola India, where he worked as director, public affairs and communications. The two excerpts that were read were about two well-documented Coke controversies: one about Rajan Pillai, the other about the Coke plant at Plachimada in Palakkad district of Kerala.

Banerjee said Pillai was used by Coke and unceremoniously dumped. He was refused treatment and died in police custody in 1995. His wife Nina is fighting a case, seeking damages from Coke.

The Coke plant in Plachimada had posed a number of problems — the local people claimed the plant pumped away water from the area and toxic chemicals were found in the waste matter of the plant.

Banerjee, who spoke strongly against the usage of water by the company, said the book was more than just a critical look at Coca-Cola India. “The focus is on how large business houses, including MNCs, are able to use their legal resources to circumvent rules and make money.”

So when he walked into Coca-Cola India as an employee, did he know he would write the book? “Absolutely,” he says, “otherwise my 40 years of journalism would have been wasted.”

Has he heard from Coke since the book? “They have bought a lot of copies,” he said.

Tagore tribute

Historian Ranajit Guha, 87, who lives in Austria, visited Calcutta recently for a brief two weeks, which saw the launch of two of his books. One was Chhoy Ritur Gaan, a book on Tagore’s poetry from Guha, an influential voice in subaltern studies, who received this year’s Ananda Puraskar for Kabir Naam O Sarbanaam, which is on Tagore’s poetry too.

Guha the historian always had a deep regard for literature. In both the books on poetry, he closely examines the idea of self. Chhoy Ritur Gaan is about Tagore’s songs, though Guha looks at them as poetry, to delve into the philosophies of self and other, and nature and time. It is an interpretation of Tagore’s ideas that also traces Guha’s thoughts as if they were handwritten notes on the margins of the volume he is reading.

At the launch of Chhoy Ritur Gaan (price Rs 150; 131pages) at publisher Charchapad’s small, neat office off Surya Sen Street recently, Guha was surrounded by friends and admirers: poet Sankha Ghosh, to whom the book is dedicated, Baromas magazine editor Ashoke Sen, historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee and writer and publisher of the book Raghab Bandyopadhyay. And theory— of self, of the other or of the poetic consciousness -- was cast aside in favour of an adda and some excellent food for thought in the shape of Puntiram-er radhaballabhi, followed by Nokur-er mishti.