Monday, December 28, 2009

How 2009 was for Me and for Us

As 2009 recedes into the past making way for 2010, it’s time to recollect the events that marked the outgoing year. I will take a look both at personal and general events because, although our lives are often touched and shaped by events around us, there are certain matters that remain within the contours of the personal, disconnected with the world in general; and when we look back on a slice of time to assess whether it was good or bad, it is these personal matters that define the essence of the time. And yet grand world affairs like terrorism, climate change, elections, floods and riots tell us that we can never be completely insular.

We started the year with the knowledge that 2009 wouldn't mark the end of recession. Companies and financial institutions kept going bankrupt. Some lost their employments and others feared that they might be the next to follow.

On the personal front, the year started on a sad note for my office team, as our favorite team leader left the company to join another one.

But as the year rolled into February, Americans popped the bubbly. The US got a new president in Barack Obama. The coming of Obama created history – Obama being the first black president of the US – and promised to change the future. His coming brought a sudden rush of hopes. He promised to bail out the US from the crippling effects of recession and set it back in its role of global leadership (whatever the leftists make of that). He also set himself the difficult task of improving the global image of the US by mending relations with the Islamic world and solving the Israel Palestine problem.

Although the recession has slightly loosened its grip on America, the olive branch Obama had extended to Iran was snubbed and the Israel Palestine crisis rages on. But it would be fair to assess his performance when he completes his one year as US president in February 2010.

For me, the year marked the loss of a dear friend and colleague, Avishek Basu. One day, after bathing, when I was venturing out for lunch, I got a call from Avishek’s wife informing me that Avishek had passed away early that morning. Benumbed, I paced back and forth trying to make sense of it; I had never heard of him being ill. It was a sudden heart attack the doctors said later.

A few months later, the air became thick with political slanging match and parties running helter skelter to stitch together political alliances for power sharing. It was time for general elections in India. The Congress came to power to serve its second term in a row. Dr. Manmohan Singh became the first Indian prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru to serve two consecutive terms.

We started 2009 with the hang over of Mumbai terrorist attacks and heightened security, but lived through the year in relative peace. Occasional periods of peace notwithstanding, terrorism is beginning to establish a constant connect with our lives: either through direct blood spill or hyper security or a ‘when and where will it strike next’ fear.

As the year further moved on, through the chaos of economic doom, politics and terrorism emerged the relief of literature. Hillary Mantel won the Booker prize for Wolf Hall, a historical novel with Tudor England as its setting. (I have bought the book but haven’t read it yet.)

Wish you all a very happy 2010.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tale of a Naturalist

Among other things, I am currently reading the Crest magazine, a weekly edition from the Times of India house. The Crest is published in a news paper format with articles that give perspectives on current affairs and matters of general interest.

Two editions ago, the Crest commissioned an article on Charles Darwin’s – the naturalist – connection with India to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the writing of Darwin’s famous book the Origin of Species. I found the article most blog worthy.

Though Darwin never visited India, it didn’t prevent him from benefiting from the rich biodiversity available in India – for his thesis on Origin of Species. Darwin never had to come to India to find access to India's natural wealth because there were many collaborators primed to supply the naturalist with information on India; India was a British colony then and Darwin was a British. One such collaborator was Edward Blyth.

Blyth’s story is interesting as it typifies the hurdles naturalists had to face then, especially the ones who were not born to wealth and privilege. They had to earn their livelihood and also pursue their study of nature – because being a naturalist wasn’t a well-paying profession and the professional establishments were so exclusive that they usually didn’t allow the entry of people outside the circle of scholars into the profession. And how, despite the hardships, driven by their abiding love for their work, the naturalists carried on undeterred.

However, unlike many of his ilk, Blyth, who was a self-trained zoologist, worked as a curator at the Asiatic Society.

Edward Blyth was from a poor family who managed to scrape together money for his schooling and educated himself by spending long hours in library.

Darwin who was from a wealthy family of Industrialists was quite the opposite: the Origin originator always had family wealth to fund his pursuit and never had to work to make ends meet.

Blyth found three references in the Origin book for information sent by him to Darwin on Indian cattle, on wild assess of Kutch and cross-breed geese. Darwin and Blyth exchanged correspondence but never met.

Although Darwin never met his India correspondent, he met Indians in Maurituis who were exiled by the British Government in India for various offences. About them Darwin said: “Before seeing the people I had no idea that the inhabitants of India were such noble looking figures.” Particularly struck by the contrast between their dark skin and white beard of older men, he observed, “this together with the fire of their expression gave them a most imposing aspect.”

Joseph Hooker, a botanist, was also among Darwin’s informers. Joseph travelled extensively in the Himalayas to gather his data and was among closest friends and supporters of Darwin’s.

But, as the article says, no one among his informants stands out like Edward Blyth. Blyth died a forgotten man in a mental asylum in 1873.

And, while the Asiatic Society commemorated the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species last month, Edward Blyth, the Origin’s chief contributor, remained a forgotten man.

Monday, November 16, 2009

More Salt than Pepper - a Collection of Articles

I am reading a compilation of articles - More Salt than Pepper - by Karan Thapar. The articles have been appearing for many years in Hindustan Times under the title Sunday Sentiments.

Although I had read some of the articles, most were unread. The pieces are not about observations on politics and current affairs but reflections on anything you can think of - humour, people, books, trivia, including politics and current affairs.

The book has clubbed together similar articles under different sections and each section starts with a cartoon; each cartoon reflects an aspect of Thapar’s personality and illustrates the common theme of the articles to follow.

Those of you who are familiar with Karan Thapar and his interviews will find the pieces just like him: incisive, witty, sarcastic, and patronizing and grumbling at times. But above all, the pieces are fun to read and also very short.

Here are the nuggets of some of my favorites.

London the most civilized city in the world:

“I have just returned from a weekend in London, the city I consider the most civilized in the world. Civilized is not just a heritage or history, not merely culture and it’s a lot more than manners and behaviour.

London is a microcosm of the world. Oxford Street is witness to almost every nationality, skin colour, sex and dress style known to man, woman and transgender.

London has the best of everything – television, theatre, museums, shopping even news papers and magazines.

However, it’s the third quality that is the most important of all. It’s the Brutishness of the Londoner – and here I mean the natives – that makes the city truly special. I mean two characteristics – the British upper-lip and their sense of privacy. No matter what happens, they don’t make a fuss. If you spill your red wine over a damask table cloth, your hostess won’t get into a tizzy, If you stumble out of a pub and puke, no one will shout at you. They will just step aside and move on.”

I have never been to London. If you have, let me know your views.

Now in his middle or late fifties (I don't know the exact age), Thapar is a widower for over a decade, but people who don’t know that often ask him whether he is married – and he finds it difficult to answer the question. He doesn’t want to say 'no' because it’s untrue (he is married although his wife has passed away) and also because 'no' is a cruel reminder that his wife is no more which is emotionally wrenching.

Nor can he say 'yes' - because it’s only partially true (his wife is dead). However, he finds 'yes' more appropriate, and he settles for it. But at a party – where he is mostly asked this question – it leads to another question – where is she.

See what happened when he once tried to get out of the ‘yes no’ trap – and plainly said his wife is dead.

But once – and only because I was a wee bit tight – I answered with a bald, blunt, brutal truth. This is how it went.

‘Where is your wife?’

‘What do you mean? When did that happen? Oh God, how terrible! You poor, poor chap.’

The person got into a terrible fluster. In fact, he went beetroot red. I knew I was being heartless but who told him to start (the conversation) by assuming I was married and that my must be around? The fault was his. However, after a bit, I decided to soften the blow.

‘Don’t worry. She died thirteen years ago. You weren’t to know.’

It worked. His face broke into a smile. ‘Well,’ he said, his confidence restored. ‘Time for round two. I’d try again if I were you. You need a woman by your side when you head for the grave. Your second wife is bound to outlive you.

And then she can face the question, “Where’s your husband?’”

Check out this video where Thapar is interviewing his guest. Once you know him, you will be able to relate his views and wit with him.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Chennai - Meeting and Knowing People

When Mark told me he was going to travel to Chennai to attend a ‘one-day non-official and self-sponsored’ conference, I sensed it was an opportunity for me to visit the place I had never visited before.

We boarded the train to Chennai on a Thursday. Another friend, Joseph, who had arranged for our stay and knew some locals, would join us the next day.

This trip was more about meeting people than visiting places; we met two groups of people, one completely different from the other. But, along the way, we also visited Mahabalipuram, two hours’ drive from Chennai; and Marina beach and an old shopping mall in Chennai, Spencer.

We reached Chennai on Friday morning, and after freshening up Mark went to attend his conference while I decided to check out the places close to the hotel.

I found none that was worth braving the scorching afternoon heat and 15 minutes into the endeavor, I got exhausted and decided to return to the hotel. Although the flyovers, billboards, tall buildings and dust make every big Indian city look the same, each city has its distinct characteristics that it owes to its culture and economy. Chennai lacks the humdrum and outward gloss of Bangalore. Even places that are centrally located are old-world and lack-lusture. But the slow-pace and lack of new-money glitz lend a certain calmness and charm to the city.

The traffic is scantier and vehicles move faster than Bangalore. Traffic rules are enforced stringently; slight violation of rules can attract penalty. The public transport system is sound with buses that are in good condition and sparsely crowded.

The evening wasn’t as disappointing, though. We met a group of Mark’s former colleagues who had come to attend the conference. We went to their hotel to set up an evening soiree.

As two of them got busy receiving calls from home, Mark and I reviewed our plans for the next day. Next day, Joseph would join us in the morning and we would meet his local business contacts who would take us to Mahabalipuram, a city of ancient temples. We would lunch on the way.

As Mark and I were talking, one of Mark’s colleagues, who had ventured out of the room to attend a call, stepped in and announced that we would shortly be joined by Amit; Mark had told me a lot about Amit earlier.

A few minutes later, a short, heavyset and slightly stooped man walked in. It was Amit.

Amit brought fresh energy to our soiree. I found Amit very informed who can hold forth on any topic. Our discussion started veering into multiple directions, from history and science to religion through the medium of books and films Amit had read and seen earlier.

We took up desultory debates on various topics. With Amit spearheading the discussions, questions and views converged on Amit from every direction and Amit, instead of answering or countering them, gave views that were sometimes disconnected and led to a new debate altogether. We reached no conclusion on any of our arguments.

I sensed Amit liked to give his views and not exchange them. While talking, Amit was constantly closing his eyes, looking down and murmuring something as if mumbling a small prayer. I guessed it was a habit.

Joseph arrived at our hotel in the morning. A few hours later, Joseph's local business contacts - Vijay and John - also joined us. Together we were on the way to Mahabalipuram.

We stopped over for lunch at Fisherman’s Cove, a Taj property. Fisherman’s Cove is located on a beach. You have chairs laid out under parasols overseeing the sea. You enjoy your food as your hairs get messy and clothes are held stiff by the strong and pleasant breeze. If you couple your food with drinks, the experience feels more delightful.

The lunch wasn’t good for me, though. Vijay had ordered for a lobster platter and I am allergic to anything coming from the crustacean tribe. I ate a bit of rice with chicken curry, drank beer and munched chips.

Vijay and John are high-end real-estate-deal facilitators, working in a partnership, for last five years. Although they have restricted themselves mainly to the real estate market in and around Chenai, they have made a killing in it.

I found the two very different from the group we had met earlier: not for them the bookish discussions of culture and religion. They are completely philistine.

They frequently travel to various parts of the world but don’t know anything other than 'five-star room' tariffs of the places. John’s interest lies in something else also: erotica.

He told us many things I had never heard of earlier. Some of the details were a little lurid but nonetheless informative. John is also a liquor collector.

By the time we reached Mahabalipuram, dusk was settling down. We managed to see only a few ancient structures, and took photos of some of them.

Although over 1000 years old, the structures in Mahabalipuram (and in South India in general) are in better shape than their Islamic-north-Indian counterparts which, although built barely three to five hundred years ago, appear much more time-worn because of foreign invasions and pillaging they endured over the centuries.

On our way back, while I was arresting a sculpture on the wall of a dilapidated structure, a mendicant leapt before my screen breaking my reverie. His hairs were tied in a tight bun with locks flying apart in defiance; his eyes were glazed and looked as if they would leap out of the sockets and he was flashing his teeth in eternal glee. I froze him in my frame.

Next day, we were invited to John’s place for lunch and then it was time to board our train back to Bangalore.

John and Vijay were great hosts. Check out the photos below.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Bolted Door

Surprisingly, some incidents have a way of surviving the ravages of time. However dated they might get, they still manage to bristle with humour.

Last year, my parents were with me in Bangalore for one month. Mostly, they were indoors as this was their second visit and on the first one they had visited most of the spots that attract tourists in Bangalore.

One day, my father had briefly ventured out while my mother and I were at home. I was talking to my mother while it occurred to me that I had to go out on a personal errand. I walked to the door, unbolted (we have old-fashioned bolts) it and gently pushed the door. The door refused to open; someone had bolted the door from outside.

There was nobody within shouting distance I could call and have the door unbolted. It was not very long since my father had left for market, so he would take sometime to return.

Who would open the door? Who had bolted the door locking us inside? Was it a mischief of the building kids?

Although I was not venturing out on an extremely important chore, being disallowed to go out when I wanted to felt stifling. It was like being denied freedom.

I started pacing about in the room. I had told the landlord to replace the bolt outside with the one whose latch could be arrested with a lock, preventing a mischief monger from bolting the door from outside locking us inside. The owner procrastinated replacing the bolt, and here we were…locked inside.

My mother’s concern wasn’t so much about the present predicament as about a distant possibility: what if I was alone, famished (I don’t cook at home), wanting to venture out to eat and found myself locked without any one within earshot to come to my rescue. “We have to get it changed today,” as my mother said this, we heard a gnashing sound: someone was unbolting the door. My father was back from market.

“Who bolted the door,” my father asked as he stepped inside. “The do-gooder didn’t tell his name,” my mother replied.

My father was as perturbed about someone having bolted the door mischievously as my mother. He started deconstructing the mystery, but couldn’t figure out who did it. As his analysis failed to yield any plausible culprit, he turned his wrath to the landlord.

“When you introduced me to that guy, I understood he was an ‘all promise no service’ type,” he told me.

I told him that during my last one-year stay, this had happened for the first time; but failed to calm him.

Few hours later, while we – my parents and I - were lunching together, my father suddenly intoned, “ohhh..." “What happened?” my mother and I looked up and asked.

My father had loosely recalled that he had unmindfully bolted the door while going to market (my father is sometimes forgetful - like me - and always in haste – unlike me).

After my parents left for Calcutta, I reminded the landlord of the offending bolt, but somehow he never replaced it (he has fixed costlier things, though). I never forgot the bolt because my parents didn’t let me.

Though since then the bolt has never caused me trouble, it has sometimes reminded me of the incident and given me light-hearted moments.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wet Luck

I like to think of myself as a rationalist and usually dismiss the beliefs and arguments that are not supported by logic. Luck is one of them. Although I feel tempted to blame my failures and disappointments on things like luck (or lack of it) and destiny, I usually find out a logical reason later and discard my earlier assumptions. But sometimes no matter how hard I try, the irrational luck prevails over hard-headed logic.

Today was one such day. We had scheduled a team lunch. We had decided to meet at office and go to the venue together.

Before getting ready, I looked at the sky and it looked like it might rain any moment. I thought I would carry my umbrella and once I would step into an auto, the challenge of rain would be reined.

By the time I finished my bathing, it was raining noisily. When I looked out the rain met my expectation. The road was deserted and the vehicles were splattering away with the logged water around them swelling up and collapsing again.

Only a few hours ago it was a bright morning, I thought.

As I stepped out of my building, I held the umbrella up and pressed the switch. As the umbrella unfurled with defiance, I stepped into the puddle gently causing ripples but no splash. I waved at an auto and shouted out my destination to the driver. The auto went and stood a little ahead.

As I got into the vehicle, I thought I had trumped over the challenge. I started craving for the lunch.

The main road was submerged in rain water. The auto waded thorough the logged water and then suddenly came to a halt. The water had sipped into the engine.

I gave my umbrella to the driver and asked him to check if he could revive the engine. The driver went out and came back again. He pulled the gear up forming a semi circle but the engine refused to rev.

We sat in the auto and the poor auto stood with its wheels sunk in the brown water. Heavy vehicles passed by sending sheets of water dashing against us.

The driver said until the rain stopped and the machine dried up, it would not start. We tried flagging down autos so that I could go, but not a single one obliged.

Finally, I waved at an auto going in the reverse direction towards my house – and it stopped. I went to the other side of the road, got into it and headed home.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Belated Post

After a long and futile job search in Calcutta, when I planned to go to Mumbai to resume my job hunt, my father asked me to once try my luck in Delhi.

The choice of Delhi was based more on our familiarity with the place, as we had spent a few years in the city some years back, than any analysis of its job market.

And that my father has many friends in Delhi made the capital city all the more preferable to Mumbai.

After some deliberation, I agreed to go to Delhi, although I was more interested in the city of films, slums and local trains, Mumbai.

My father telephoned Pande uncle, one of his closest friends in Delhi, and uncle readily invited to stay at his place in Karol Bagh, Delhi.

Delhi and Punde uncle conjured up childhood memories for me.

Those days Pande uncle used to stay in Golmarket, roughly 10 minutes’ walk from where we resided.

Uncle’s family wasn’t without its woes: his wife had poor eyesight, for which she had undergone a few operations without much success. Puja, uncle’s eldest daughter, would look after the kitchen balancing it perfectly with her studies. Puja was a bright student.

Uncle also had a younger son.

After staying for four years in Delhi, my father was transferred, and we returned to our home town, Calcutta.

Following our return to Calcutta, I didn’t hear much of Punde uncle and his family, or maybe didn’t pay much attention, although my father kept in touch with uncle through phone calls and letters.

The last I heard of uncle’s wife, Pande Anty (as I called her), was that her vision had deteriorated further, further restricting her activities.

For my job hunt, I decided to stay for seven days in Delhi. My father asked me to stay at uncle’s place for half the duration and move to a hotel for rest of the time.

My train reached the capital city on a wintry morning of December. The thick fog, the Punjabized Hindi, the chilling cold together greeted me to the city I had left almost fourteen years ago.

By the time I reached uncle’s home it was afternoon, and the warmth of the sun had somewhat tamed the unrelenting cold.

As Puja, uncle’s daughter, ushered me into the home, I found Pande Anty sitting in a chair. “Train me kui taktliv to nei hui,” Anty gushed with excitement and warmth. I suspected the genuineness of the warmth but the suspicion was short lived.

She enquired about my parents and said they should visit Delhi once.

Meanwhile, I set down my luggage in a corner following the instructions of Anty. She seemed familiar with every nook and cranny of the house despite her visual impairment.

After freshening up, when I sank into the sofa opposite her, she embarked on a variety of topics ranging from the climate of Delhi to its people and changing trends.

She was curiously informed about the world she could hardly see!

I had spoken to Anty in bits and pieces as a kid but this time our conversation was by far the longest.

Puja was training to be a teacher and the little boy had grown into an eighteen-year old teenager who would soon be back from college.

I luckily got a job offer on my second day in Delhi and spent the rest of the time visiting the places I was familiar with as a kid.

The locality I had stayed in – Golmarket – had considerably changed and so had many other things.

Finally, it was time to return to Calcutta; I would meet my parents and come back to Delhi to join my job.

I spent around two years in Delhi and moved to Bangalore to join a new company. All the while in Delhi I was in touch with uncle’s family but, while in Bangalore, eager to get on with a new city and priorities, I lost touch with Pande uncle and his family again although my mother filled me in on them from time to time.

But for Pande Anty’s deteriorating health and eyesight, they were generally doing well as a family.

Early last year, as we were preparing to take on the challenges of a new year, I was told that Anty passed away of a heart attack.

PS: I had written this last year, a few days after Aunty passed away. I had left the piece incomplete; today I thought to complete the piece and post it.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Do They Happen to You?

I struggle to do certain things although apparently they appear very simple. However much I resolve to get them right or avoid them next time, I fail and repeat them.

And, as there are no clear guidelines available on what is the right approach to take, it becomes all the more difficult to decide what to do.

I am sure many among you, like me, find them difficult, too.

Socializing is perhaps the most difficult thing to do, especially with people whom you are neither fully familiar nor completely unfamiliar with. In office, on road or in any such neutral venue, when I run into a person I’m partially familiar with, I struggle to decide what to do. I don’t know the person enough to engage in a conversation; yet, I have to acknowledge my familiarity with the person.

So what do I do? Snap a quick smile, a ‘hi’ and walk past? Or keep quite and pretend I didn’t notice the person, and go?

The problem with the first approach is if the person doesn’t acknowledge you in return, you might feel bad. The problem with the second approach is the person might feel you tried to ignore him/her.

Stamping out angry thoughts in the morning
In the morning until I leave my bed, my mind is cluttered with snippets of bitter memories - like snubs, minor betrayals, letdowns, etc. - rising from the inner recesses of the mind and gushing forth. Maybe this happens with many of us because our mind, I have read, remains at its sharpest in the morning.

As these unpleasant experiences tumble forth, I counter them with retorts but my angry flashes hit the bed sheet covering my face and return to me again. Strangely, once I leave the bed and get involved in other activities the mind becomes calm.

Making a choice
When I have to make a choice and the options are marginally different from each other, indecision sets in. When I settle on a choice, the other options look better and a series of negatives come to mind about the option I had chosen. When I drop the option, the negatives somehow fade into the background and the option starts looking better again.

I know it is indecision and I have heard advices on how to be decisive, but they feel effective only until I have to make a choice again.

I am sure these things happen to most of us (although some don’t want to admit they happento them) and we try to counter them as we think best, but the problems linger. I have been living with these for very long and don’t remember a day I didn’t think they were silly and that the next day I wouldn’t let them bother me. But I did.

What about you?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chinese Peculiarities

I have an interest in China and things Chinese for sometime now. Although I take interest in countries, people and cultures in general, my interest in China seems to have an obsessive character to it.

I have read articles on Chinese culture, history, politics and, of course, China's rise to global prominence. But, I guess, fictions provide the best view of people and societies.

I am reading a Chinese fiction, The Eye of Jade, a detective thriller where the protagonist is trying to unravel a complex plot to trace a missing antique piece – an eye of jade – which dates back to the Han dynasty.

I don’t know whether or not the search will be successful as I haven’t finished the novel, but the novel has provided me with some interesting insights on how China and Chinese society work. Some of the things are common place and some unique.

The society is cleaved into two broad classes: first, people who stay in the cities and second, the provincial population.

For example, if you are an eligible bachelor but hail from provinces, your provincial upbringing is enough to disqualify you as a groom of a girl who comes from a city. Provincial peculiarities are looked down upon by the by urbanites.

There is a premium on staying in Beijing.

Arranged marriage is an established practice. The prospects are generally put in touch with each other by common social contacts.

Some resent the Communist party for its miserable human-right records while others are thankful to the party due to personal stability acquired through loyal service in government positions.

There is no press freedom; the media, used as a propaganda tool, is part of the Communist party and completely controlled by it. The people working in the media are party loyalists.

There are noodle bars everywhere and of different varieties - small, large, up-market and dingy. The noodle bars sometimes double up as sex parlors.

Going through this maze, the protagonist is trying to find her way to the eye of jade. The story is interesting and the language is very simple.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Qualities of the Crow

Photography is a new-found hobby for me. I owe it to two friends who helped me buy a Cannon ‘point and shoot’ camera at a discounted price one and half years ago.

Since then I have looked for photo-worthy things and clicked them. Of all things I find nature most interesting to photograph.

And of all things natural I find birds most fascinating to capture.

While with other gifts of nature there are swathes of monotonous sameness in their looks, personalities, habitations and food habits - one type of bird is always refreshingly different from another on various counts.

It isn’t easy to find good avian variety in cities, though. Their numbers are dwindling steadily due to pollution and expanding concrete jungles.

But, despite the shrinking population, there is no dearth of the bird I find most intriguing – the crow. The crow is most clever of all birds.

With its wit and flair for improvisation, the crow somehow manages to outwit other birds and grab its morsel.

The crow is aggressive but clever enough to know who to pick up a shindy with. It never engages itself in a full-scale battle with a big kite; instead, it descends, hits the kite with its claws and goes.

While with its measured aggression it holds its own among biggies like kites, its pedestrian appeal finds it a place among harmless and unassuming birds like pigeons and sparrows.

A crow rules in a flock and also is effective enough alone.

Another virtue of this bird is its observation. The crow almost always manages to spot its food – be it a scuttling mouse or a piece of bread – and once the prey has been spotted, it seldom fails to savour it.

And doesn’t the crow look elegant while gliding from one windowsill to another?

PS: What drew my attention to the crow is an interview by RK Laxman, the famous Times of India cartoonist, on his recently published biography. In the interview, Laxman likened the crow with the “common man” of his cartoons.

For the uninitiated reader, RK Laxman is an Indian cartoonist who is famous for his satirical takes on Indian politics and the “common man” is a theme that runs across almost all of Laxman’s cartoons: while the political dramas play themselves out, the common man stands by and observes. The common man is a silent observer in a noisy democracy.

The crow, Laxman says, has the qualities of the common man in that the bird is witty and is a survivor.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Vignette of a Corporate Success

Our US director is here and we went out for a lunch today sponsored by our team.

We went to a European restaurant. The whole team couldn’t join because a part of our team is based in Hydrabad; the rest is in Bangalore.

Even among the Bangalore ones some dropped out giving flimsy excuses.

The one-hour lunch revealed the other side of her personality. Our director is a petite lady with short and pointed features (she is around 55). This was the second time I saw her in person. The first time was a few days ago when we had a general meeting; the earlier evening she had arrived in India.

In the meeting, she looked just like a corporate boss: no-frills and business-like.

The purpose of the meeting was to know her team members well. The majority of her team is based in India and she is first time in India. So she wanted to check every aspect of every member’s personality.

We gathered in a big conference hall and she kicked-off the meeting with a presentation, explaining why we shouldn’t leave the company. Then we stood up one-by-one and introduced ourselves. You had to tell your name, how long you were with the company, your passions, etc.

You couldn’t say an odd or pompous-sounding passion – like I want to change the world, for example - because the crowd sitting at the back would immediately boo you. Imagine how embarrassing it can be.

And as we went through this embarrassment, she paced up and down, stooped and her hands clasped behind her, looking like an intellectual appraising her audience with disdain.

But today, during the lunch, she was a different person. The swagger had been replaced by diffidence. The grandeur had been replaced by friendliness. And the distant cautiousness had made way for warmth.

She talked about herself, her family and how she made it. I asked her about her educational background and she got a little embarrassed.

She didn’t graduate and started working very early in life. She worked in bank counter, manufacturing, software, IT process where she currently is. She revealed she is a slow learner.

She said her strength lay in the fact that she took up things that others refused to do. She prides herself on having struck the right balance between profession and family. She has a large family with a brood of grandchildren, and she is very fond of them.

Taking about current problems of the US, she said the US is suffering from a dearth of good engineers because the standard of math and science has fallen due to women liberation movement.

American women had been moving away from science and math because they found them difficult. And the women liberation movement whose purpose was to create equal opportunity for men and women in every spare of life, including education, insisted that science and maths be made easy so that women could take to them, thus bringing down the standard.

Meanwhile, I finished my chicken steak and she finished her beef steak. The other two members had ordered for pizza and a fish-based item (whose name I don’t remember).

We sipped iced tea and she drank diet coke; then it was time to leave.

Which side of her you think is real - the commandeering corporate boss or the caring and modest granny?

I think they are just different shades of the same personality.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Ridiculous Retribution

Sometimes a sudden anger leads us to an action we don’t approve of later. But, unable to lid our emotions, we perform it anyway.

Our company provides us with ‘pick-up and drop’ cab service because of our unconventional working hours aligned to US time zone as they are. Ours is an outsourcing company.

Although we spend a few hours in cabs during commuting, the cab becomes a world of its own with its characteristics and uniqueness.

You make new cab mates, a mix of employees from various departments, and the cab becomes a host to a mini social unit.

A part of this small and mobile social circle is the cab drivers. Some drivers participate in small talks with employees and become a part of the circle while others just stick to driving.

But travelling in office cab isn’t always about camaraderie.

There are two types of vehicles in service, Tata Sumo and Tavera. The latter is a heavier one, and because of its studier built one needs to be very careful while shutting its doors.

While closing a door, you have to bring it close to the vehicle’s body and then give a gentle push; otherwise, the door will shut with a bang, shaking the whole body of the vehicle.

Unmindful, I forgot to follow the door-shutting ritual twice. And each time the driver snapped at me. Although I apologized each time, the driver’s insolent bursts left me feeling a little uneasy.

The chauffeurs keep changing every two days or so, and there is an army of them. So each time a chauffeur replaces an old one, you don’t see the earlier chauffeur for sometime. The moody driver was withdrawn from our cab and I didn’t see him for a while and somewhat forgot the incident.

Yesterday it was his turn to drive us back home again. As I was stepping into the cab, I heard a blast of brazen laughter behind me. There was a cluster of drivers sharing a joke.

After a while, in the cab, it occurred to me that maybe the driver was bragging about the snubs he administered to me; I tried dismissing the thought as petty concern about something whose veracity I wasn’t sure of.

But, strangely, the more I tried to wriggle out of the grip of the thought, the more firmly it gripped me, until it led to a dull anger, seeking an outlet.

As the cab stopped in front of my house, I swung the door wide open. I got down, but held the door at a distance. Then I slammed it into its frame. Bang! As the driver burst into a garrulous roar, I coolly walked to my house’s main gate.

Even as I walked out of the scene, his loud verbal onslaught continued, and reluctant to be outdone, I first asked him to shut up and then dared him to come and stand before me.

He rushed to the spot and a full-blown remonstration followed. I used harsh words in English and Hindi, he used some in Kannada. We didn’t follow each other.

PS: Probably my ridiculous retribution, clumsy outburst - or whatever you may like to call it – had to do with the fact that I tried too hard to divert my attention from the incident and the harder I tried, the more focused I became. Maybe sometimes we should just relax and let a concern die its own death and not try hard to stamp it out.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The English Language

I recently finished “the mother tongue” by Bill Bryson. I am both delighted and disappointed by the book. The book is on the history of the English language: how English developed into a language, the historical crosscurrents that contributed to the development of English, the founding fathers of the language, the languages that English has absorbed words and phrases from. The list is quite long.

The book informs you not just about the English language but also the history of the country that gave birth to it, England. It takes you through different historical phases of England charting the growth, which occurred through many ups and downs, of the English language. Through the ebbs and flows of British history, the English language often lost its supremacy as the primary language of England to other languages brought by conquerors.

After the Normans, who came from France, conquered England driving out the Celts, the English society got divided into two halves – the commoners (the English-speaking populace) and the aristocracy (the Normans who spoke French). English remained the language of the common man, and French came to be spoken by the aristocracy, who didn’t try to embrace English until the fourteenth century. This bipolar- linguistic pattern of the society determined the coinage of words; for example, while cow has an Anglican origin (spoken by commoners), its meat – beef – is of French provenance (spoken by aristocracy). English later absorbed words coming from both the layers into its lexicon.

If the word ‘Anglican' surprised you, probably this bit of history will help. Angelics had come from a part of Germany and occupied England driving out the Celts. The Anglics contributed numerous words to English. The Anglic language sounds very much like English to this day. English is a Germanic language.

The book is replete with such trivia and serves them in a very arresting manner. The writing is engaging and informs the reader of the quirks and nuances of English – there are many – in a very absorbing way. Maybe English honours students already know most of the things, but they would have read them in a solemn format. Here Bryson narrates the history of English in a way William Dalrymple tells the past of India.

But the book is also very limited. It doesn’t mention the role played by the commonwealth nations – India, for example – in the growth of English as a global language. In the chapter entitled ‘Future of English,’ the book has largely dealt with US concerns about English. The book is completely silent on the role that British colonization played in the spread of the English language.

Bryson brings to light many interesting trinkets from the English speaking world – mainly the US and UK (the small English-speaking world for him).

Did you know, for example, that there is a community in America that does not speak English; its language is Pennsylvania Dutch? But that is the least strangeness of the community. The community is as insulated from rest of America as it is from the world of technology; so much that it lives without even the most elementary technological amenity like electricity. Their clothes and way of living are completely medieval. Which form of OK is right – ‘ok’ or ‘okay’; there is an elaborate history behind it? The book has much more than this, but I don’t remember all of them.

After reading the book, I wrote a mail to Bill Bryson calling his book ‘good but parochial’. I got an ‘out of office’ reply. The mail said if you don’t hear from me at all, please accept my apologies.

If you find any factual error, please mention it in your comments.
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