Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Nandi Hills - a Place with Underutilized Tourism Potential

Like one of those places that you don’t visit despite staying close to them, I had never paid much attention to Nandi Hills. My indifference to Nandi Hills is not witout its reason. Nandi Hills is neither far enough from Bangalore to be called a proper outing nor near enough for a quick visit. (It’s roughly two and a half hours’ drive from Bangalore.)

Nor is Nandi Hills a well promoted tourist spot. And this is not because the place doesn’t have any potential but because of government apathy. The place is controlled by Karnataka tourism (govt) which denies entry to private players. So, except a few privately-owned small shops, everything is owned and run by the Government.

The result is restaurants with very limited menu and average food (they don’t accept any card). There are no professional tourist guides despite the place’s history, leaving visitors to the mercy of a sentence or two in Kannada on stone slabs.

Nandi Hills occupies a huge area with the potential for intra-train and bus rides for visitors. There could also be rope ways connecting various hilltops (there are a few). But you get none of them.

As my friend Kram and I left the babble of the city behind us, Nandi Hills came into sight. There are only Panjabi dhabas, coconut water sellers and tea-cigarette shops with make-shift structures on the way to the Hills.

Nandi Hills was a summer retreat of Tipu Sultan, the staunchest southern adversary of the British, and later of British officers. It’s located on a hilltop with several things to see (some dating back to Tipu Sultan and some made by the British in later years) but the most visited are the temples and the suicide spot, a cliff with a stiff drop where offenders sentenced to death were brought and pushed down.

The cliff has been surrounded by a wall with small openings. Beyond the cliff is a stiff fall leading to the bottom of the hill. With a little flight of imagination, you can imagine how the prisoners would have felt before being pushed to death.

A good point about the lack of commercialization is that there is lot of greenery. There are narrow pathways with trees on both sides. Some green assemblages are so thick that hardly any light gets in. There are flights of stairs, unobtrusively located inside grooves of trees, leading two, three floors down. The stairs are generally lonesome and sometimes it could be just you negotiating century-old pathways descending through dense foliage of trees.

For various people, Nandi Hills is various things. For some, it’s a good driving experience. The path that leads to the top of the hills spiraling all the way from the bottom – tests your driving skills when you are on the way up. My friend learnt driving few months back but negotiated the spiraling pathway with the assurance of a professional.

For some, it’s a picnic spot (you could see food cans inside their vehicles). For some, it’s just a casual holiday outing, which is not costly and yet refreshing. For me, it was all of them with a bit of history thrown in.

Wish you a happy new year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What We Missed about Niira Radia

Since the outbreak of the 2G controversy and exposure of the Radia tapes, newspapers and TV channels are busy lambasting the journos, politicians and everybody else found involved in the controversy and heard in the tapes. But amidst this brouhaha, everyone seems to forget what made the scam possible bringing together people from diverse professions - media, politics and industries: Niira Radia's PR skills.

I heard some of the tapes on Youtube where Radia talks to cross sections of society – politicians, journalists and businessmen – and noticed that for each type of person she employs a distinct style of conversation. With media personalities, she is friendly and informal. She mainly speaks in English with occasional Hindi lines and phrases thrown in. She exchanges pleasantries but comes to point very quickly. Generally she is conversational and polite, but she knows when to change gear and be persuasive.

But while talking to Ratan Tata, her client, she follows a totally different style. Her style seems to be attuned to Tata’s personality, which is very reserved. Her tone is not friendly, but strictly formal. She doesn’t lapse into strings of Hindi sentences but sticks to English with polished accent. She explains her points very well and seems to have lot of grasp over the topic.

Any PR guy will tell you that Niira is a dream PR professional. Her networking skills (she seems to have journos at her beck and call), her strong sense of how to deal with whom, her understanding of her clients’ business (evident from her conversation with Tata) are assets for any PR person. No wonder she runs one of the most successful PR agencies in the country whose clientele isn’t just limited to Tata and Mukesh Ambani but includes state governments as well. It’s being said that when Tata was facing stiff resistance at Nandigram over the Nano factory, Radia put him in touch with Narendra Modi and Bengal’s loss became Gujrat’s gain with the factory being moved to the later.

Her network, which spans across multiple professions, would not have come easily and is not easy to maintain either. People with a flair for crudeness will attribute her success to exchange of unsavoury favors (you know what). And some will blame it on absence of integrity among the guys in her network. But painting the whole picture in a broad stroke will only help the essential escape – that there is considerable amount of professional skills involved in her success. Had the 2G scam not come into public glare, someday you would find an article hailing Radia’s success as PR personnel.

I am sure even as whole India heaps derision on Niira Radia, she is being talked about admiringly in the pantries of PR agencies over tea and coffee. No doubt Niira is a fixer but a skilled one. Both the government and media are reeling under her PR impact and I am sure there are many tapes we haven't heard. Sad but true!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Read Arundhati Roy But with a Pinch of Salt

I have been following Arundhati Roy’s writing for sometime. Among her latest offerings are Listening to Grasshoppers, Field notes on Democracy and the occasional columns she writes for Outlook. She also writes articles for foreign magazines but I haven’t got my hands on them as yet. Since her first and only novel, God of Small Things, she never authored another work of fiction, but she has continued to write on the causes she espouses as an activist. Now, she is more of an activist who also writes rather than a writer who is involved in activism.

There is little doubt that she writes really well, but I find her views to be gross exaggerations. She randomly lifts statements and half facts and uses them to support a larger point she is making. Based on remote statements, she reaches extreme conclusions. For example, in a ToI advertisement on TV, Amitabh Bachan says,” There are two Indias: One the assertive India which is on the rise, the “other” (poor India) India is straining at the leashes (trying to break free). The “other” India should come and join the assertive India.” In her essay, Roy interprets the coming and joining of the “other” India as meaning: if they can’t come and join, wipe them out by genocide.

Her criticism has bite, but it’s mostly repetitive. She sometimes borders on insane bitterness with no care for the other person’s point of view. Sometimes facts also become causalities of her rhetorical flourish.

Her views are mostly on these lines:

India is home to an indifferent middle class which doesn’t care a damn about the poor and suffering and are pursuing their conspicuous consumerism even as a section of the society continues to be pushed further and further to the margins. The rich are constantly growing richer at the expense of poor. The Indian government has become a promoter of corporate interests.

The excesses of the erstwhile Soviet Union and other Communist countries are acceptable if compared with what the big Indian political parties have done. India has become a militarized country with military occupations in various parts of the country, including Kashmir and North East.

The scourge of terrorism affecting Afghanistan and surrounding places and the Maoist problem troubling certain parts of India are one and the same: they are a tribal uprising. Maoists are fighting an oppressive corporate state and their only savoir is guns, and so they are justified in aiming to go all their way gunning to toppling the state and replacing it with a Maoist state. (Give me a break, Arundhati!)

Her views have merit but only partially. Here are the other halves.

a) It’s true that the middle class is largely indifferent and have a ‘for me it’s only me that matters’ mentality but there are exceptions. And then if a middle class guy enjoys his success which he has had to work hard for, what's wrong with it?

b) In it’s zeal for development, governments have sometimes overlooked the interest of the marginalized (Maoist) but the answer is not killing people to avenge marginalization becasue (a) violence won't allow the government to have talks with Maoists as a government can’t turn a blind eye to citizens being killed; it’s responsible for them; (b) there is no alternative to development. In fact, development can be used for the good of the marginalized through diversion of a part of the revenue generated by development for welfare of the people affected by it. You need transparency and proper laws.

c) Some Indian political parties are guilty of human rights excesses (through riots and anti-insurgency activities), but their excesses fade in comparison to what happened (s) in the Soviet Russia and current Communist states.

I guess many would share my views; they are purely commonsensical, if a little naive.

But, in all fairness, probably activism and balance don’t go together. It’s easy to give rounded views when you see problems through TV screens and newspapers, but difficult to be neutral when you are personally involved with people and their plight, as Roy is, being an activist. If you truly feel for an issue, you become lop-sided. I think that’s Roy’s problem. Or is she a publicity hound?

All I know is I will continue to read Roy but take her with a pinch of salt.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Voice for Green

Environment is one of the most talked about issues today. You read about it in newspapers, magazines and hear it debated on television. You see National Geographic–type pictures showing how abuse of environment has left various forms of lives, including humans, affected. You also have people leap at you on road and say, 'Can I talk to you for two minutes – I am from Greenpeace?' Concern for environment has become fashionable. The old divide between the poor and rich is obsolete. Now it’s all about people who care about environment and the ones who expand their wealth at the expense of it. Environment has become a drawing room discussion. Political parties have made it part of their manifestos. Not surprisingly, it also made its way into a humble cyber café I had visited for printouts (I don’t have a printer at home).

While I was at computer, adjusting the configurations of a page to be sent out for a print, a girl stepped in and started a conversation with the shopkeeper. Initially, I dismissed her as a sales girl. But then I realized the conversion wasn’t about sales: it was about environment.

“So they finally had the tree felled?” questioned the girl.

“Yes, yesterday they had a few guys come and do that. I wanted to complain because a branch of the tree used to guard my shop from the sun, but I didn’t. Who will complain about these Reddys of Koramangla; they are very big people here. And I suggest you don’t investigate this case; otherwise, you will get identified,” warned the shop owner somewhat dropping his voice.

“What identified?! I am a journalist and I am doing my job. All I’m doing is creating awareness about trees being felled at will in various parts of Koramangla,” the girl answered indignantly.

“Which paper do you write for?” a boy asked looking away from his computer screen interrupting the conversation. “Hindu,” replied the girl with a trace of pride.

I also wanted to participate in the conversation, but kept quite.

I found the conversation interesting because to me it presented the two sides of the environment concern, the personal and the impersonal. To the shopkeeper, the concern is that the branch being cut has exposed his shop to the sun; to the girl the problem is larger; shrinking greenery. I felt all of us contribute to environmental degradation in our own way, like here I was doing my bit by taking paper printouts. Each time we don’t object to the shopkeeper packing our purchase in a polythene bag, instead of a paper bag, we are guilty of it. My colleagues who have fashionably included 'Print this mail only if you need it; contribute to a safe environment' in their office mail footer smugly walk in with a polythene bag returning from their occasional shopping spree from our office campus (nowadays every IT complex has one).

For next couple of days, I searched for the article on tree felling in Koramangla but didn’t get. Probably I missed the article because I am not a regular subscriber to Hindu  (I just go a grab copy from the stand sometimes). But I appreciated the initiative they have taken up and also how the girl was going about her job.

On a hot day, when I walk on familiar street and suddenly don’t feel the cooling shade of the tree I had felt last time and look up to find an open sky instead of my view obstructed by the foliage which protected me last time from the sun, I realise someone has to stand up so that trees don’t fall. Thankfully, many are doing so and at least they have been able to make us spare a thought for the environment.

It was time for me to leave the cyber café.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Left Politics in Bengal by Monobina Gupta

India is never short of political problems and doomsday theories. One of the political theories that’s doing the rounds is whether the Marxist government in Bengal is on its way out. Monobina Gupta’s book Left Politics in Bengal analyses this issue approaching the Left rule in Bengal through its coming to power, 35 years of stay in power and its slow degeneration from a revolutionary party to a power-grabbing machine.

Monobina’s scanner hardly misses anything taking into account smallest of details and humblest of men and their contributions to Left’s deterioration as a party. She blames Left’s fall from grace mainly on two factors: its reliance on violence as a means of perpetuating power and its intolerance of dissent and dissenters. And attributes Left’s continuity in power despite its lack of performance to two things: a) subversion of the electoral process where elections are either rigged or people coerced to vote for the party; b) jingoistic speeches which always create an enemy to blame Left's failures and problems on. This has helped Left, she alleges, be seen as a pro-poor underdog fighting for the masses against imperialist powers who are constantly conspiring to keep a toiling people down who are led by the Robinhood party. She says they have used the Congress and the CIA alternately as the enemy. This creates a certain emotional bonding between the party and the people it leads where the people develop a sense of victimhood and sees the party as their savior. This has always been a ploy of the communists, she says. Infighting among various Left parties has also been a cause for concern. Being from West Bengal, I agree with her.

 To support her analyses, she cites parallels from history. Instances of Lelin and Stalin and their belief in violence to help a ‘larger’ cause find generous mention in the book.

Although Budhadeb Bhatterjee, the current West Bengal CM, has come in for criticism, Jyoti Basu the Left patriarch of Bengal has been praised for the most part. She interestingly details the hours in 1996 that led to the decision that Left wouldn’t be part of government formation at the center with Basu missing out on his opportunity to be the prime minister. She describes Basu as a pragmatist who mostly found himself in minority in his party.

On the other hand, Monobina doesn’t invest hopes in Mamta Banerjee, the leader of the main opposition party, Trinomool Congress. 

Although the language is a little heavy and impersonal with long sentences and journalistic approach, it doesn’t take away from the readability of the book. The paragraphs are sometimes packed with details that are so local to Kolkata that an outsider may feel a little put off. Initially the book may also read like a catharsis of bitterness about the Left. The overall narrative, however, is very gripping and anybody searching for an answer to why the Left continues to rule Bengal for so long will find it interesting.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Applaud Liu Xiabo

China’s bossiness in international politics is clearly on the rise. The western countries congratulating Liu Xiabo, the 2010 Peace Nobel Price winner for non-voilent struggle for fundamental human rights in China, has again pricked China's allergy for criticism. It has also betrayed China's belief that because of its new-found economic muscle, it can browbeat any nation into toeing its line.

Support for Liu has mainly come in form of countries demanding his release from prison. China has dismissed the international community's reactions calling them an attempt to subvert China's sovereignty. But  it would be interesting to see how the Chinese government handles the support for Liu growing within China.

China tried to arm-twist Norway to prevent it from awarding Liu, but failed. Severing of ties with Norway followed. Now through its angry outbursts directed at the western countries (including the US) that are applauding Liu, China is threatening them with the same consequence: severance of ties. Is this the behavior of a rising super power?

India along with the other BRIC (Brazil and Russia) countries isn’t risking China’s wrath, though. Apart from the BRIC nations, the Arab countries and some countries in Africa have also followed the wisdom that silence is golden. India, having strained its relations with the Myanmar government for celebrating Aung San Suikyi being awarded with the Peace Nobel Prize in 1991, is reluctant to risk straining its already strained relations with China However, the countries have said their colonial experience has taught them not to interfere with others’ internal matters.  

It's understandable that offending China may hurt economic interests, but shouldn't a country also  stand for certain ideals? If countries refuse to rise above their day-to-day interests in response to higher human concerns,  the world will become a difficult place. Imagine if the world had remained cold to the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. International opinion did a play role, if not the most important, in helping former colonies get their independence.

Through solidarity with the democratic movements and voices inside China, the international community can at least alter, if not reverse, China’s attitude towards fundamental rights of its citizens. Even embarrassment might have a slow effect on the Chinese government. By applauding Liu, the western countries have played a constructive role. And by playing mute spectators, their Asian counterparts have allowed themselves to be bullied by Beijing.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Absolute Kushwant - a collection of essays

I read many authors but the author whose titles I buy most frequently is Kushwant Singh. I have read only one novel by him – Train to Pakistan – but all his short stories, written over last 50 years or so, and majority of his essays. The best thing about a Kushwant Singh essay book is that he keeps you guessing what the next essay is on. Political personalities, large sweep of history, social habits, friends, tittle tattle, nothing goes untouched. He converts everything, however large or complex the matter, into a simple, readable one-page-to-one-and-half page piece. His new collection of essays – Absolute Khushwant – is no different.

It is a collection of essays on anything you can think of – Nehru and Gandhi, the partition of subcontinent, honesty, religion, autobiographical pieces and there are many more. And in typical Khuswant tradition, all the pieces are immensely readable and in a matter of half an hour you will breeze through a bunch of them.

If you have been reading him for a while, you may find some of the articles repetitive and some just reworkings of his past articles but most are new. The book has a generous sprinkling of autobiographical essays dealing with his successes and failures, his marriage, his time in England as a law student, friends etc. The book also has a few pieces on the Nehru-Gandhi family where the author has drawn comparisons between the current scions of the family (mainly Rahul and Varun) with the old generation. He says Sanjay Gandhi was a courteous and warm person but a despot.

Rajeev comes in for heavy criticism and he rubbishes the claim that Rajeev was responsible for bringing computer to India and says such policies had started during Indira Gandhi’s time. He praises Rahul but says most of the things he does are gestures but they have a sound thought behind them. He informs Varun is a good poet but blames BJP for not punishing him for that venomous speech. The book also has some pictures.

Kushwant’s personal brushes with historical moments and personalities bring the events (Partition and 1984 Delhi riots etc) and personalities he talks about nearer to you. Having lived a life spanning almost a century and grown up in a family of high connections and privileges, he has many of them.

When Kushwant Singh was at Modern school, it was once visited by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji sat on a platform and the students in front of him; Singh was in the front row. While talking to the students, Gandhiji suddenly bent, held Singh’s shirt collar and said: “Where is it made?” “Foreign,” Kushwant replied proudly. “Had it been made in India, it would be so much better,” told the Mahatma. Kushwant started wearing Khadi following the incident. During the partition, he fled Lahore, when it became unsafe for non-Muslims to stay, and reached Delhi. Upon reaching Delhi, near Parlaiment House, he heard Nehru’s "tryst with destiny”.

Even at 95, Kushwant continues to bring fun to his readers through the written word.  

Monday, August 30, 2010

Changing Food Landscape of India

I like to try out new things to eat every weekend. And I observed yesterday that everything I have experimented with over one month or so is within the space of European cuisine. There are mainly two reasons why I have grown to like European cuisine: the pleasant post-eating experience – where you feel light yet full - and their varied nature: pasta is very different from, say, a club sandwich. Chinese cuisine also has the same qualities but everything on the Chinese menu has been tried and tested many times over.

European cuisine is comparatively new for the average Indian. It was always available but only at select places and exquisite prices. Now there are countless outlets offering European food at affordable prices. As a result of which, it's gradually grabbing the place that Chinese food used to occupy until few year ago. Now European food stands for what Chinese food stood for once: delicacy and affordability rolled into one. Today a European restaurant is where you want to date.

Mughlai, on the other hand, has retained its position. You may have switched your loyalty from Chinese to continental but you still look forward to Biriyianis and Kababs. Mughlai is very rich and so the occasion has to warrant it. People still prefer Muhglai at weddings. But culinary space in anything that’s a little cosmopolitan – like a birthday bash – was a toss up between pizza and Chinese until few years ago but with Chinese on its way out and European still not having established itself as a favorite of all (European is still something you want to eat with your close friends whose taste you know), there remains a vacuum.

There are few more challenges Euro cuisine faces in India. One of them is lack of awareness. People often mix it up with American food. For the average eater, there is not much difference between pizza (which is basically an American food) and pasta. Both are foreign, both contain lots of cheese, and therefore both are same.

The names of continental dishes are difficult to remember and different outlets have different things on offer, so what is authentic and what is a localized version of its continental counterpart is difficult to work out. That’s why I have remained restricted to a few items despite my penchant for food adventurism. Perhaps the joints and brands offering European fare can educate people about Euro cuisine through the media.

But to become a household favorite, European food has to be more widely available through restaurants in all Indian cities and Indianize itself to convert the people who find it bland. There is space for both authentic and localized varieties. Some Chinese dishes are more Indian than Chinese.

Some of the places I frequent are Casapicola, Friends, Sweet Chariot etc. I also visit Subway outlets, to gorge on sub-sandwiches. There are many more. I have tried out many items by now but my favorites are club sandwiches, penne, pasta (not always since it’s very cheesy). I don’t remember more names.

Monday, July 26, 2010

And the problem refused to go - part 2

Sometime back I had blogged on my burgeoning electricity bill and some of you were kind enough to express your sympathy and profess that the problem would eventually go. But it didn't. So I thought to bring you up-to-date on where it stands now, in case you care to know and still have some sympathy and patience left for me.

Few days after the meter guys checked the meter, I met the landlord to give his rent. I again told him the entire episode and he repeated that the problem was that of power theft and the culprit was the jeweler. He informed the jeweler had not been paying his rent and the landlord would soon oust him. The landlord and the jeweler were close friends once and although I had suspected they had fallen apart, I couldn’t work out why.

The landlord fished out his cell phone (an iphone he uses only to make and receive calls; he doesn’t know any other functionalities) and called his electrician with a sense of urgency, asking him to fix the problem without the jeweler getting a whiff of the problem being fixed. He assured me he would also be there (the landlord doesn't stay in the building) with the electrician to make sure that not only was my meter ridded of the problem but all other meters were protected from future power theft with an iron cage put around them and the door locked. But, he added, he would have to find out a time when the jeweler would not be there. He sounded as if he was planning an income tax raid.

I understood the landlord’s presence with the electrician would cause embarrassment in case they were to bump on to the jeweler. But it’s difficult to be there and not find the jeweler because the meter is located next to the jewelry shop and the jeweler remains in his shop the whole day with occasional venture-outs but at no fixed time. I sensed under the pretext of being there in the absence of the jeweler the landlord would procrastinate.

I was not wrong. I neither saw the electrician nor the landlord nor his iron cage. When I called the landlord to check when he would send the electrician, he didn’t receive the call. I decided it was time to look for a new address. Few days later I received my meter bill. Bingo, it was Rs 200 fewer than the last bill, although still much higher than my actual power consumption. It will be interesting to see how much it’s next time and how long I can be patient.

In case you didn't read the earlier blog, click this.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bandh and its Price

As a kid, when I was growing up in Calcutta, I used to equate Bandh (or strike) with holiday. Bandh meant trooping out to the road, putting up stamps 22 yards apart and playing cricket without any concern for traffic. Calcutta, as a city ruled by Bandh-friendly leftists, has a fair share of Bandhs every year.

The Bandh yesterday, which was called for rise in fuel price, took me back to my days in Calcutta sans the cricket. Every shop in the locality was shut. The streets were deserted with only a few souls here and there. Some goons were roaming the streets on bikes to ensure total compliance to the Bandh.

Had it not been for a guy selling tea in flask, I would have gone through the morning without the all-important day starter. For lunch, I had stocked some biscuits and butter the previous day.

The Bandh was successful – and I wondered how a successful Bandh affects local economy. The Internet has minimized the impact of Bandhs as many forms of businesses can be transacted indoors, but businesses that depend on daily cash collections like shops have not become Bandh-proof.

Do Bandhs really manage to force a government to alter an unfavorable policy? Even if they do, it comes at a price: the local economy and the image of the place. It is also not easy to decipher whether the policy was changed due to the Bandh or general protest against the policy.

One might argue that Bandh is the most effective way to take a message to the commonest of common as it directly affects their lives, unlike protests voiced in public offices or via media, which many don’t come to know about.

But: a) by affecting the local economy, a Bandh affects the interest of the very poor that it claims to protect; b) the shopkeeper doesn’t keep is his shop shut to show solidarity but to avoid incurring the wrath of party goons. Bandh is largely an Indian concept that the western democracies today are hardly familiar with. And even in India, some cities see higher number of Bandhs than others.

So next time when there is a successful Bandh, enjoy your day indoors – there is no point fighting party goons trying to defy the Bandh – but also spare a thought for the shop next to your house.

Friday, June 25, 2010

And the Problem Refused to Go

What is bliss today can become a problem tomorrow. Six months ago I was very happy with my electricity bill, which, I thought, was an accurate reflection of my power consumption. Then the problem started. One month suddenly the amount doubled, although my power consumption had remained the same. The next month the bill amount was Rs.100 more than the doubled sum. And since then, every month the bill amount has increased by Rs. 100.

Was someone tapping power from my meter? Or was the meter not functioning properly? I lodged a complaint with the electricity complaint cell. They said they would send an engineer within two days to check the meter and if the meter was found malfunctioning, it would be replaced. Two days became two weeks, but no one came.

In the meantime, I spoke to the landlord and told him that the burgeoning bill was straining my finances as it was shooting up my living cost every month. He understood I was forewarning him that I might leave the place if the problem persisted. Such threats usually swing the landlord into action.

He said probably the jeweler whose shop is just under my room was pilfering power. The landlord asked me to show him the bills and promised that he would have an electrician check the meter and have it fixed. I didn’t tell the landlord I had lodged a complaint with electricity board.

Yesterday, after more than two weeks had lapsed since I had lodged the complaint, an engineer called me and said he would visit my place to run a check on the meter. I was relieved expecting it would end my ordeal.

The engineer came in a van with an entourage of staff. The elaborate arrangement made them look less like electricity people and more like bank robbers.

As they ran their check on the meter using complex gadgets in turns, I kept shuttling between my room and the meter box to switch on and off the lights and gadgets in my room. Meanwhile, the jeweler, who the landlord had suspected of power pilferage, dropped in to take stock of the situation. With a distressed look, he told the engineers: “This poor boy has been getting exorbitantly high bills for last few months. And he only occupies one room.”

After an hour of checking, the meter guys informed that the meter wasn’t defective but even when the lights in my room were switched off, the meter wheel was slowly moving, indicating power theft or ‘grounding’ problem. They also said because the meter wasn’t at fault they couldn’t do anything more. I couldn’t fully understand what the grounding problem was.

Dejected, I returned to my room and arranged the bills in order to show them to the landlord later.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

An Open Letter to Barak Obama

Hi Obama,

We appreciate that you have been sincere in moving the Indo-US relationship to a higher plane of bilateral cooperation in various spheres. We also admire you in India for being the Mr Cool of international politics. But your response to India’s demand to extradite the CEO of Union Carbide has been one of disappointment.

Your refusal to extradite Anderson to India not just makes one suspect your sincerity about Indo-US relations but also brings to focus the inconsistency in your approach in dealing with a similar problem facing the two nations: your response to the Gulf of Maxico gas tragedy is at stark contrast with how you have responded to India’s demand for extradition. How does this inconsistency square up with your claims to promote relations with India? How does it fit in with your reputation as a leader who is above general humdrum of politicians who only care about their constituencies?

The gas leakage in a Union Carbide factory claimed thousands of lives and left many more physically challenged for life. The subsequent generations were born with ailments and handicaps. The toxic gas had so maimed the victims and affected the subsequent generations that in photos they appear like remains of prehistoric humans excavated from a geological site.

The victims and their families are still awaiting justice. They say those who died were lucky as they escaped being humiliated. Do you know how much Union Carbide paid in compensation? $500 per victim! And to add to their indignation comes your smug refusal to extradite the culprit.

There are clear reports indicting Union Carbide for not putting in place any safety measures. The reports also indict the company for not informing the people residing around the factory after the leakage started. If the company officials had done so, then the damage could be minimized. The accident took place just a month before the company’s license to manufacture the toxic gas would expire. One can understand the lackadaisical approach of Union Carbide.

The Maxico gas disaster has wreaked lower scale of human tragedy and your government has promised adequate compensation to every affected family. We appreciate your concern for them. We don't need compensation from your government. (In fact, given our current friendship, we could give you some.) But don’t you think the least you could do for the victims of Bhupal gas tragedy was help India bring Anderson to justice under Indian laws and in the land where he perpetrated the crime?

In the meantime, some of us have to answer for a few things as well.

Take care, and hope to see you in India this November.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ascent of Money - by Niall Ferguson

I am always a little skeptical to pick up a book on finance or economy because I fear that I might not understand most things. Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson confirms the fear but it also suggests that a readable book can be arresting regardless of its topic.

The Ascent of Money traces the evolution of financial system – through the growth of banks, bonds, etc. – and how they influenced course of events (if not always the final outcome) of apparently non-financial matters. The book explains how difficult it is to understand the causes that influenced the turn of great historical events without visiting the backwaters of financial dealings and the men who did them.

The book, however, will sometimes put you off with chunks of intricate financial details. The author could have tried a little harder to simply matters for the uninitiated reader.

Among the interesting facts the book brings to light, I want to share this one with you. Shylock, the Jew money lender from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, reflects the condition of Venetian Jews of his times, the community that invented loan sharking, lending small amount of loans at high interest rates. Hounded from other places, a sizable population of Jews had flocked in Venice, Italy. The Venetian authority had demarcated a place in the town for the Jews to stay and banned them from all forms of businesses, leaving them the option of money lending.

This professional choice had met with religious sanction in the Old Testament, the religious book of Judaism, albeit in a round-about way. The Old Testament forbids the Jew from Usering (lending money) but also presents an exit clause. The Jew shouldn't lend money to his brethren, the book ordains. Taken in another way, it can mean the Jew is free to participate in money-lending as long as he his lending money to a person outside the Jewish community.

According to the author, the Merchant of Venice perfectly establishes the ground rules of loan sharking. The judge’s ruling that Shylock cloud insist on his claim - a pound of flesh from Antonio’s chest - but without shedding a drop of blood – shows how loan sharking works:

a)The lender’s right to claim his money
b) The importance of court in settling financial disputes without recourse to violence
c)Linkage of interest rates with risks: when Antonio had agreed to become the guarantor of the loan, Shylock had forecasted – although Antonio was wealthy and so a good guarantor, his source of wealth was fleet of ships going to various parts of the world – a business which is always fraught with risks.

The book has many such interesting trivia.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Saturday Rains and Wisdom Tooth

Of the seven days in a week, I await Saturdays the most. And when a Saturday goes wrong, it leaves me sulking until another arrives. This Saturday was one such Saturday.

This Saturday I had an appointment with a dentist whose chamber is located very far from where I stay. The appointment was at 6:30 in the evening and a few hours before that, he SMSed me postponing it by one hour – at 7:30. A little before I was to start for his chamber, it began to drizzle with an overcast sky promising heavy downpour later.

Undeterred, I walked out into the road and stepped into an auto. A few minutes into the auto ride, and the rain got steadier. It didn’t take very long for the roads to get wet and the potholes to be filled with water. I could also hear a storm piercing the noise of the rain.

The auto entered the neighborhood of Frazer Town, where the dental chamber was located, and found a traffic jam awaiting it. The rain eased and the storm passed after sometime leaving the air thick and humid.

The lane that connects Frazor Town with the area was blocked, and a flock of men stood around something. “What’s the matter,” I asked a person. “The storm felled a tree blocking the lane, “he replied.

I decided to leave the auto and walk to the clinic. I approached an elderly man to ask the direction. He said walking would take a long time, but it was the only option as the buses and autos going that way had got stranded in the jam.

I was in an old part of Bangalore with decrepit houses, cheap restaurants and dark narrow lanes. And the rain had made it worse. The pavements were dirty and narrow; I had to pick my way through stranded vehicles.

After around an hour, well past the scheduled time, I was at the clinic. About three years ago I had a root canal therapy done on one of my teeth – and had a porcelain crown mounted on it. The crown, being an artificial structure, had not fitted in properly with the other teeth around it forming small crevices that attracted food deposits. The tooth is located on the upper side in front of a wisdom tooth. If the wisdom tooth was extracted, it would solve the problem, Dr Donald said.

A wisdom tooth doesn't participate in any important activity like chewing, for example. And many people either don’t have them naturaly or have them plucked, he assured. I’m yet to make up my mind whether I want to part with mine.

I left the chamber at 10 PM, and by the time I reached home, it was 11, only an hour short of the end of Saturday. Many in Mumbai would say 11 in the evening is when a day starts - but Bangalore is forced to go to bed earlier by law-enforcement agencies.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Million Mutinies Now - A Book on Cities and People

Currently I am reading a travel book and ever since I started reading the book, my hands were itching to write a short take on it. The book is A Million Mutinies Now by VS Naipaul. This is my first Naipaul book – and although I had read travel articles and essays both in books and magazines, this is the first time I am reading a book solely dedicated to travel.

There is nothing new to say about Naipaul as a writer because, as a Nobel Prize winner, he is among the most written about. But, when you read a book, you develop your own views about the writer and some of them can be distinct from commonly held ones. So I decided to put mine here.

The book is on India and it gives glimpses of various facets of Indian life through the lives of people staying in Indian metropolis. The book shows how very ordinary things - ordinary people, their lives and struggle - can be your window to a city, its character, politics, economy and history. There is also a little about the rural India that the writer sees as he travels through various parts of the country. Naipaul interviews people and narrates their lives in a story-telling manner. Every person he interviews throws up a distinct side of a city.

The picture of Naipaul that emerges through his writing is very different from how the media paint him – a literary snob with no patience for others opinions. There is no snobbery in how he deals with his characters except when their occasional English (they mostly speak in native language and there is a person translating it into English for Naipaul) doesn’t meet his approval. But he likes to call a spade a spade: a vegetable market that's dirty and smelly is a vegetable market that's dirty and smelly. While narrating his characters' lives, his thrust is on storytelling and he tells the stories with empathy and understanding without being judgmental. At the same time, he captures minute details of how his characters live and behave bringing their worlds alive.

I have not finished the book but sensed that Naipaul’s writing is addictive. Once you take a dip, he pulls you deeper and deeper, disallowing you to keep the book shut for too long.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Makes a Bookstore Work

The other day, while I was on my way back home, a hoarding drew my attention: Sapna Book Store – the largest book store of India. I stepped in to check the veracity of the claim.

The store is a three-storied affair which offers many things apart from books: CDs, gift items etc. They have a floor dedicated to each type of things on offer. A part of the third floor is apportioned for books. There are different sections for different genres of books – and, although the book section is not very large, the collection is quite impressive.

I also liked how they handle their customers. They have salesmen loitering in the book section but they help you only if you approach for help, unlike some other places where there is a person trailing you whichever part of the store you walk to, soliciting unsolicited help.

It irritates because you don’t always visit a store with the intention buying books but just to browse. It also denies you the privacy and escape you expect a bookstore to provide. It causes the suspicion: “Do they think I’m going to flick a book and walk out?” Exasperated, you walk out after a while. I had a similar experience with Oxford bookstore in Calcuta.

Over time, you get addicted to a bookstore. The atmosphere, how books are arranged, everything seems distinct and makes you feel at home. If it plays a light music, it can add to the atmospherics (readers mostly have very refined musical sensibilities, so you have to be discreet with what music you play). A visit to the place becomes an experience and a must. And, if the store is sprawling, it’s merrier. Landmark in Bangalore gives me this feeling.

It is sometimes difficult to pin down what makes a bookstore special, though. Gangarams, the oldest bookstore in Bangalore located on MG Road, doesn’t have any of the attributes of Landmark. Gangarams is shabbily maintained, cramped for space, disorganized, dusty. But these work out to its advantage, giving it a warm old-world charm.

A very well-maintained bookstore may appear too mechanical to be comfortable. When I visit a Crosswords outlet anywhere, I find it a little distant. A disheveled look of Landmark and Gangarams makes me feel at home when it comes to books.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Just Read - A Network of Libraries

Just Read, a network of libraries, has set up an outlet in our office campus. They have several schemes for membership and book hiring on offer. There are periodic membership fees and apart from that, the reader has to pay a deposit which is returnable. I am not fond of libraries because, being a slow reader, I fail to finish a book within the permitted time and attract late fees. With Just Read, I don’t have to do that. The reader can keep a book for as long as he/she wants. The deposit protects the library against unreturned books.

I was not so impressed with their collection. They mostly have American best sellers for fiction. There are no Amitava Ghoshs, Naipauls, Rushdis, RK Narayans etc. Nor did I find a section dedicated to classics. The non-fiction collection is also limited. The grand old man of Indian English writing – Kushwant Singh – looked at me from several book covers, but the books were only his non-fiction ones.

My colleague, reluctant to betray his ignorance about books, walked to the shelf dedicated to management books. Holding a book in hand – something like 10 Points on Success – he said, “It’s simply best.” Which means the book is so good that its superlative merit is beyond any shred of doubt. The book jacket didn’t look so promising at least.

The problem with Just Read is its lack of space. The outlet occupies a slim slice of space with just three rows. With so little space you can’t house a sizable body of collection; you have to keep small measures of many types. And that’s what you get there.

I don’t know how big their other shops are, though.

I like the concept of chain libraries; I didn't know they existed. You get to read books without having to pay too much for them and without the books eating into your living space.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lucky Holi

Sometimes the most daunting problems resolve themselves surprisingly easily.

Yesterday was Holi, the festival of colors, and a holiday for the India part of our company. I usually don’t keep track of holidays and a week earlier, when I had scheduled a meeting with our US counterparts, not surprisingly I didn’t know I had scheduled the meeting on the holiday. A colleague informed me a few days later, but by that time the invitation had been accepted by all the invitees and I was reluctant to reschedule the meeting. (We use a software application which sends out invitations in form of mail and when the invitee accepts the invitation, the sender is sent an intimation of the same.)

The meeting was from 10PM to 11PM, the time when my area experiences a sustained power cut. While even without power, I would be able to join the meeting from my personal phone, the power cut wouldn’t allow me to access office network from my laptop, disallowing me to share information with the other participants. (I work in an IT outsourcing environment where you are allowed to work at home sometimes.)

So avoiding the risk of power cut, I decided to attend the call from office. I called up the office cab helpdesk and booked a cab for me. The cab would pick me from my home around 40 minutes before the meeting; that is just as long it takes you to go to office from my place.

It was around 9PM and the cab was expected in another 40 minutes – which meant 40 minutes were all I had to get ready and finish dinner. I got ready, rushed through dinner and started waiting for the cab. 20 minutes later, I was still waiting; the cab hadn’t arrived. I dropped the plan of going to the office and decided to attend the meeting from home - there were only a few minutes to go for the meeting to start, after all.

Thankfully, when I walked back home, there was no power cut. But how long would the power relent? What if the power went out the moment I started talking on the call? What an embarrassment would that be – with seven participants and all dependent on me! I knew I didn’t have myself to blame; I had tried my best to reach the office.

The call started. Everyone joined at the other end. Hoping for the best, I started my demonstration. I had to share an idea with the participants and develop a consensus in favour of the idea. When I finished the demonstration, someone at the other end said, “This is what I expected.” And others followed suit.

Finally, we agreed to conclude the meeting.

The meeting lasted for 15 minutes instead of the scheduled one hour, and the power was still there.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Women in Power - an Article on Power of Women to Lead

Women enjoy various positions of power and prominence in our society – teachers, corporate leaders, politicians, etc., but they are seldom seen as heads of states. If you try to count, you will surely find a few women who are heading states or look likely to head, but they are by far outnumbered by men. And it is not a current trend but a historical fact.

I read an article recently which didn’t refute the fact – that few women have led nations - but regretted it – because women, it said, when given an opportunity to lead, have not just proved equal to men but even better.

Queen Elizabeth I of England, Catherine II of Russia and Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of Britain are points in case, the article informed.

The article, titled Women in Power, presented snippets of many women leaders but profiled Elizabeth, Catherine and Thatcher elaborately giving various facets of their personalities and leadership.

These women beat crude generalizations that attribute the ‘lack of women in leadership’ scenario to biological reasons, like men are inclined to competition and women, cooperation, compassion and similar soft characteristics which make them unsuited to the brutal game of power.

I think also the fact that the modern day female corporate leaders, who combine both the extremes – competitive instinct as also compassion - refute the generalization.

Or does a combination of the strong and soft traits help women understand their subjects as humans and lead them more effectively?

The article, published by the Geo magazine and authored by Mathias Mesenhollle, also informed that the feminine trio becoming leaders had less to do with biological inclinations (or lack of it) and more to do with circumstances: absence of male heir, political compulsion, etc. However, once in power they proved to be formidable leaders, although they made mistakes during their rule; they grew intolerant of dissent, incurred unpopularity and stifled rebellion. However, they became icons during their times.

The article detected another interesting trait of times. Slicing history between pre and post French Revolution, the article says after French Revolution, although class difference narrowed, gender difference widened. The number of women in state leadership declined after the revolution.

I would slightly differ with the author. Today, business is also a big avenue of leadership and women have proved very successful in various spheres of business leadership.

Of all the characters, I found Elizabeth most intriguing. She came to power against popular will and because there was no male heir to the throne. She asserted the prominence of England by severing ties with Rome. She snubbed the expansive plans of the ruler of Spain, who, underestimating the fact that England only had a woman to defend herself, had been pilling up army at its shores. This helped Elizabeth 1 to establish herself as a leader with her subjects. She was a spinster who turned down marriage proposals saying she was already married to her people. I will read up her biography.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Some Quotes by a Cerebral Celebrity

A few days ago I read the phrase cerebral celebrity and drew up a list of criteria that one needs to meet to qualify for the distinction. One has to be informed, of course opinionated, public service spirited, articulate and has to have contributed to something that has an impact on people at large. I removed journalists and writers from my list of contenders because these criteria are part of their job descriptions. When I looked at the film world, I found a few (very few). Mahesh Bhatt, the film director producer, was one of them. Mahesh Bhatt is many things rolled into one; a successful filmmaker, social activist, writer, opinion maker, etc. Also, he is a man who always has something interesting to say.

Mahesh Bhatt is on Tweeter and he hasn’t disappointed me and his other fans.

Here are some of Mahesh Bhatt’s Tweets:

"There is an awe making mechanism hardwired in humankind. This need to be (in) awe of someone or something shadows us all our life.”

“Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking!”

“I joined the world of movies when I was just 19.Having spent 40 yrs in it one thing I know for sure is that I don't know anything for sure.”

“If you pray for rain, you gotta deal with the muck too.”

“Cinema is the means through which a nation can forge a common identity, a common purpose, and a common resolve.”
“Unless you stake all you have for what you believe in you can't possibly win!”

“As long as you want something from someone, there will always be someone out there to control you.”

“To survive in the show business you need guts and the ability to constantly resurrect and reinvent yourself.”

“Art, religion & the zeal to improve the lives of the human lot, spring from the frustration and impossibility of making any sense out of life.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Psychopathic Qualities You Need to be Corporate Leader

I have an interest in psychology. I read up anything on the subject I can lay my hands on. Recently the Hindu published an article that dealt with a psychic disorder which has spawned both novels and movies – the psychopathic syndrome.

The article approaches the problem taking Vito Corleaone, the famous Godfather character crafted by Mario Puzo, as an example to explain a special branch of psychic disorder: socially-enabled psychopath(y).

The article says a socially-enabled psychopath is very different from a conventional psychopath. A socially-enabled psychopath possesses many traits that make the person desirable.

An ordinary psychopath, the articles observes, suffers from social and emotional deficiencies. He fails to understand others’ mood and social cues in their correct context and acts in an inappropriate way. The psychopath also shows poor understanding of others’ emotions, and although he doesn’t lack emotions himself, he feels emotions so fleetingly that they fail to have any impact on how he perceives others.

The inability to gauge others’ emotions leads to the failure to understand how much aggression is required to coerce a subject into submission to achieve the desired goal; which results in display of excessive aggression by the psychopath.

A psychopath also has other personality traits like lack of sense of responsibility, a tendency to unnecessarily lie and propensity to attribute wrongs committed by him to a goal without any feeling of remorse, and judge right and wrong from an unconventional standpoint. (Honestly, I have some of these characteristics – expect I don’t lie unnecessarily.)

But how the socially-enabled psychopath is different from a prototype psychopath?

The article says both are same – they are psychopaths (to be a socially-enabled psychopath, you have to be a psychopath first) - and then talks about the differences.

First, citing Godfather Vito Corleaone as a case in point, the author looks at the Don’s actions in the book to deduce common psychopathic signs (not the socially-enabled ones).

The author says, “The primary (psychopathic) quality the Godfather possesses is the ability to be ruthless in achieving his own ends. The second psychopathic quality the Godfather exudes is a distorted reality of the impact of his actions; not in line with traditional views and beliefs, nor particularly empathetic. The third and the most striking trait the Godfather possesses is his ability to manipulate people and situations.”

But it’s not the similarities but the differences that make the Godfather, or the socially enabled psychopath, a successful leader in the world of corporations.

The Godfather seldom looses control over his emotions (not for him the psychotic hysteria so commonly seen in Hindi movies). He is a sensitive person who takes offence very easily and is perceptive of others’ mood. His ability to sense social and environmental cues is very advanced, unlike the usual psychopath.

A cool head, the ability to understand people (which helps manipulate them if necessary) and the intensity to chase a goal with psychopathic zeal make a socially-enabled psychopath a perfect leader, the article argues.

After all, isn’t effective leadership in a corporation about helping people and organizations achieve goals they set for themselves – placing the goals above concerns of ethics and morals?

I only have one question to ask the author – Dr Ennapadam S. Krisnamoorthy. Isn’t the socially-enabled psychopath too good to be true? Or did Mario Puzo know a thing or two about psychiatry?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Digital Books Versus Conventional Books

After the advent of e-book and technologies like the Kindle, pundits have started doubting the future of conventional books.

The Jaipur Literary Festival hosted a discussion on whether books will survive the digital age. There were many luminaries from the world of literature and film writing.

The discussion was a cordial one which involved exchanging of views and not contesting them. The panel was mainly divided on two lines, adoptation and spurning of technology in general. The consensus was in favor of technology.
But some differed.

Gulzar, the Bollywood lyricist, said he has a nostalgic bonding with books and authors and that the digital format is too artificial for him. He said his thoughts flow only when he writes on a piece of paper, not the computer screen.

I have heard many old timers say this, but have often found them extreme in their dislike for technology regardless of form. I think moving from paper to screen is a matter of mental adjustment. Technology makes life very easy once you know how to use something and if anything it helps you present a more polished creative output.

Refuting Gulzar, another panelist said, use of technology doesn’t hinder creativity. What you create is important and not what you create with, he added.

But, like any old timer, when it comes to reading, I am more for books than the Kindle kinds.

However, I drew up a list of benefits e-reading offers:

• Books are a costly affair and a person of modest means sometimes doesn’t have any option but to buy a pirated copy if he/she wants to read a good book: spawning notorious piracy. E-books are cheaper and sometimes available for free and so can take books to greater number of people.

• If you are an inveterate book buyer, books tend to pile up taking up lot of space; the pile keeps growing until the books spill out of the shelf, then another shelf, then another shelf. Not so with e-books.

• Although lot of page markers are littered on your table, the page marker you page-marked your book with the last time you put it down somehow makes its way out of your book with you having to painstakingly find your way back again. With digital books, you page-mark electronically and unless you have really goofed up somewhere which is very unlikely, nothing goes wrong.

For all my e-evangelizing, I have never read an e-book (although I read online papers and magazines) and don’t think, as the host of the literary discussion had once tweeted, will ever like to give up the tactile pleasure of turning pages for the e-format.

But technology has a way of overcoming mental blocks and making itself acceptable and then indispensible. Think about e-mails.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jyoti Basu's Death, End of an Era

Jyoti Basu’s demise has brought politicians of all hues together in agreement that India has lost a great leader with Basu walking into sunset. To cynics the reaction would have come as a customary PR exercise politicians do upon the death of a leader, but people familiar with Bengal politics would know better.

With Mamta Banerjee inching closer to Chief Ministership, I don’t know how long the Communist government will be able to continue its stint in power unbroken since 1977, but Basu will always be remembered as being among the founders of Communist rule in Bengal and also parts of India.

Though the Communist party came to power in Bengal with Jyoti Basu as Chief Minister after the Emergency got over, the Communist movement had found its footing in the state long before the Emergency was imposed. The Communist party - which had boycotted elections before the Emergency to protest rigging of elections by the Congress and majority of whose leaders including Basu were underground during the Emergency - came to power with a thumping victory after the Emergency was withdrawn in 1977.

When I was a kid growing up in Calcutta, we used to blame Basu for everything: frequent powercuts, potholed roads, a rigid educational system, etc. I think it was so because Basu had become the face of Bengal - good or bad - and there was no political alternative. Mamta Banerji changed the situation later.

During the mid 90s, when Basu’s 23-year-long Chief Ministership was coming to an end (he stepped down in 2000), I got interested in current affairs and started forming an informed world view. And my views about Basu and his Bengal started to change.

I understood Basu’s Bengal had among the highest literacy rates in India; that it didn’t have any communal tensions and political outfits feeding on regional chauvinism like MNS (Ramachandra Guha has recently praised how during 1984 riots Basu ensured that the Sikhs in Bengal weren’t persecuted); and that development is not only about glamorous IT industry (although IT is very important and Calcutta has some big names now), it's also about inclusive growth.

I also came to know Basu wasn’t the stubborn ideologue I knew him to be. He went to the US (Left's ideological foe) to attract investments for the state, braving alienation within the party. Last year, when the Left was threatening the UPA about withdrawal of support if the latter went ahead with the nuclear deal with the US, Basu had said a withdrawal of support would only unite the opposition. The Left was trounced in the elections that followed.

Later in his life, after his Chief Ministership was long over, he understood tradeunionism, which was a creation of the Left, had kept industrial development away from Bengal - and admitted that. But it was too late by then.

When Basu got admitted in hospital few weeks back, the papers reminded me that Basu would have become India's Prime Minister in 1996 had his party not pulled out from government formation. Later, Basu had called the party’s decision a historical blunder.

I hope my analysis of Jyoti Basu was not an emotional one. Even if it was, you can’t blame me: Basu was a politician I grew up knowing, like any other guy who grew up in Bengal.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Is Your Neighborhood as Unique as Mine?

During my last five years of stay away from home, I have changed neighborhoods many times and realized that every neighborhood has its unique characteristics and although they feel disturbingly novel initially, as time goes on, the unique traits become part of your small world, giving a flavor of earthy familiarity – that you fondly miss when you have made a new locality your home.

I moved into my current residence one and half years ago. As time went on, the unique features of the place started emerging. The neighborhood is host to commercial and residential establishments. You have modern apartments and even villas coexisting with shops of varied sizes and interests. You can also find people of all stations – the rich, the poor and the ones between them.

The locality is home to a thick population of street dogs. They have divided the area into spheres of influence and each time a canine strays into a foreign territory, quarrels break out with ear-splitting howls. They bare their teeth menacingly and leap onto the transgressors digging their nails into the fleece. But, as a well-fed domesticated dog strays out on the road with its manicured fleece bouncing up and down, the street canines keeping their territorial conflicts aside gang up and bark from a distance. There are many ways in which dogs are similar to humans.

There is more to my neighborhood – a homeless man you can spot every now and then. He earns his leaving cleaning shops and also doubles up as rag picker. His real duality lies else where, though. While sweeping the porch of the shop opposite my building, he suddenly stands straight, lifts the broom and starts hitting the air angrily, shouting profanities vigorously. Then with his other hand positioned at waist height, he indicates an imaginary kid and his face breaks into a mock piteous bawl.

Repeating these actions, he goes across the road. A little further up, he stops, turns about, walks to the porch and resumes sweeping. As if the intervening moments didn’t exist. The other workers of the shop, tired as they are seeing this everyday, see in boredom and return to their work.

Completely oblivious to the goings on in the area, there is a miniscule flock of bovines seen grazing the weeds and small patches of green here and there. The absolute laidbackness with which they go about their lives makes me envious.

In a few months, I might leave Bangalore to return to Calcutta for good. I will miss my neighborhood.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Avatar - the 3D Way

After watching Aamir, a suspense thriller on terrorism, last year I had taken a hiatus from movie watching, not a deliberate one but because no movie really stirred my interest since. I decided to break my film fast with Avatar, the new movie made in 3D technology.

Avatar deals with a problem the world is currently grappling with: a huge corporation trying to displace a tribe to get access to natural wealth. In India, how a handful of mining barons hand in glove with governments are exploiting areas rich in natural resources upsetting environmental balance and displacing and dispossessing the inhabitants of the places – is reported by the media everyday. So it is elsewhere. My friend tells me the Amazon basin, being a delta, is a repository of natural resources with natural wealth from multiple directions flowing into it, and so shares the same plight of encroachment and exploitation.

The story of Avatar goes like this. A large corporation sets its eyes on a slice of land which is brimming with natural bounty and splendor. The only hurdle is a group of tribes, humanoids, inhabiting the place for ages. The corporation has to force their cooperation or submission to find unobstructed access to the natural bounty.

A highly trained marine recruit is found to have identical DNA with the tribes and sent there in disguise to learn their ways, win their trust and then either persuade them to cooperate or coerce them into submission. He succeeds in his mission but oversteps the line: he emotionally identifies with the tribes and switches loyalty. Trouble follows.

It was my first 3D experience, and I was a little skeptical to start with. I had expected every action-oriented event, like trading of blows or firing of a bullet, would give me the tactile feeling of being at the receiving end of the action, and I, mistaking the virtual for the real, would move away from the trajectory of the action. But I didn’t.

Although the 3D technology makes you feel that the characters and props in a scene are touchable, it doesn’t induce a feeling of fear – that you might be hit or hurt. An object hurled at you travels in your direction for a while and before it becomes too close for comfort for you, it disappears. The idea is to make the 3D experience pleasant and not scary.

The members of the humanoids tribe are a cross between humans and monkeys with long stout tails behind them. When the marine recruit (the imposter) in his new avatar as a member of the tribe was appraising the place with his back facing the audience and the tail swishing gleefully – a person sitting behind me told the person next to him: “I expected the tail to come and hit us.” The other person replied: “For those sitting in the balcony of the theatre, the effect is only virtual; the hitting-hurting part is for the people sitting below – because they have paid less for their tickets!”
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