Thursday, December 31, 2009

Curtains Redux

It so transpires that this year has come to pass. When I wrote my New Year's Eve post last year, I was particularly incensed at the Kappal Antry procedures in most places which basically meant that I was sitting across the road from Cafe Morrison (where happened a 60s rock night, free entry, kappals only), sipping coffee with two of my fellow cronies as the clock struck twelve. This year, things are different. A friend who has never previously organized a party (and therefore) has consented to host a get-together tonight. What better way to start the new year than with a single-malt in hand and a devastating hangover later!

I had planned several things for the year that terminates today. Turns out that nothing went according to plan, and it was by far the best year I've had in the last five! So here's wishing all my readers who keep this blog from dying a pariah's death (that it might truly deserve on some days) a very happy new year. Plan a lot, dream more!

Hippie New Year.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Of Blue People and Metaphor Overdoses

Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen Avatar, read no further.


Avatar had the promise of a great watch. It was the first movie I was going to watch in 3-D after Chhota Chetan for which I had gone as an eleven-year-old and thoroughly enjoyed. Looking back, I strongly recommend the movie for cinematic experience. That, despite the feeling of watching a patchwork collage of other movies, that you get from time to time in the two and half hours. Everyone gets plugged into the Avatar body (quite inexplicably, because the blue blokes know who it is inside the nine-foot behemoth) through a system that is very reminiscent of getting plugged into the Matrix. At other times in the movie, I was distinctly aware of the similarities with other movies like The Day After Tomorrow and on one occasion, even Kingdom of Heaven.

Then there's rich dose of metaphors that the movie churns out. We start with the whole humans teaching the Na'vis to communicate in English which is probably a straight take on the "Civilizing Mission" that most countries of the West undertook before colonizing countries around the world. Then there is a strong critique of American foreign policy, which is a horse that everyone loves to flog. Last of all there is also the "revenge of mother nature" metaphor when the animals come to the support of the people of Pandora and wipe out the attacking army. Another interesting thing emerges from the romantic angle between the two protagonists. The display of affection is distinctly human, even American. A friend suggests that it is important to maintain a sense of connection to the story unfolding on screen. While he might be right, I still find it interesting that one assumes that a hundred and fifty years in the future, people of a different colour on a different planet would express their love in ways characteristically human.

The movie's a good watch otherwise. The very fact that so many of us have written about it or plan to do so is a reflection of the fact that it makes for an interesting two and a half hours.


Monday, December 21, 2009

An Ode to Thee...Delhi

It came as quite a surprise to me when an aunt of mine who had come from abroad to stay with us for a few days, suggested that we take her and her family to old Delhi for a visit. I was surprised because, for the longest time I have held (and continue to hold) her secular credentials under serious doubt. I wasn't sure I had heard the request correctly. Then again, my religious credentials are under serious doubt.

It started with a fairly innocuous suggestion- "let's go and see the light and sound show at the Red Fort". At this point, I am ashamed to admit that in my nearly 23 years of living, I have never been inside the Red Fort. I'm perfectly aware of the fact that a lot of my readers who hail from Delhi and are reading my shameful admission, are also identifying with it (let me not get started on the Lotus temple). Funny as it is, I have been inside the Red Fort's twin at Lahore, some half a thousand kilometers away. This, despite fairly frequent visits to the old city, or scores of drives past the Red Fort. There was a certain level of cautious excitement that was growing inside me as the hour approached. Caution, because the old city is a little bit of an acquired taste for most, especially for those who are used to the open, empty roads of vilayat. I, personally had hated it when I had gone for the first time years ago. Then I started to visit it quite frequently and soon enough I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the chaos; the best experience being that of walking out of the modern Chawri Bazaar Metro station into the cycle-rickshaw-jammed Hauz Qazi Chowk.

We reached the Red Fort just after sunset- a little too soon for the light and sound show, but a little too late to explore the interior. Then came the surprising suggestion- a walk through the by-lanes of Chandni Chowk to Jama Masjid. About half an hour later we had managed to snake our way through the narrow streets and were on our final approach to Jama Masjid. I looked around and realized that the younger fraction of my guests were beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable. I, for one, have always enjoyed the streets around the gate to the mosque and was having a great time trying to avoid getting run over by cycle-rickshaws. We couldn't enter the mosque because we had arrived after sunset but as we stood on the mosque's steps, absorbing the heady mix of people, prayers, walking animals and those being served on plates, I could sense my sister having a change of heart. An "epiphany in life" is what we decided to call this sudden sense of love for old Delhi, that had managed to spring forth from her hatred for the same place. Other sections of our group may not have had the same change of heart.

We finally managed to make our way back to the Red Fort in time for the light and sound show. This is where I make a recommendation to all my friends who have walked the streets of Delhi and never managed to go inside the fort; go. The ambient lighting of the fixtures inside the fort were quite a sight. The light and sound show itself wasn't much to write home about. But as I sat there on the lawns in front of the Diwan-i-khaas bathed in the light shed by a full moon, I was having an epiphany in life of my own:

I love Delhi. I love the fact that this city is in itself such a poetic mix of contradictions. We're far from perfect. And even though I may never win an objective debate on whether this city is better than any other in the world, this is home, and home is where I will always belong. I may complain about it, I may get angry with it; I might even hate it sometimes but I will never be disillusioned with it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Evil Google

Google-Evil.

If you thought the worst disease was AIDS or Cancer, I'd probably grant you that to avoid a whack on the head. The next on that list though, is this disease called random reading. Google is the most potent carrier of this disease. You have the urge to random read, and all you need is to type some word that pops in your head into the search toolbar, and about five million links come flowing out to keep you busy for hours. You click on the first link, and you find something else interesting, and that topic has half a million links more.

Why is it so bad? Because you waste hours, days and weeks reading about everything aside from work. I have been infected with a nasty bout of the random reading disease. You know what else it does? Gets you to daydream about trips you want to take; makes your mind write cheques, you can't possibly cash. The following destinations have been added to my plans (by means of random-reading-induced daydreaming) :

  • Karakoram Pass
  • Karakoram Highway
  • Antarctica

How did I land up here? I randomly thought of the Siachen Glacier in the shower. Join the dots from there.

Now I'd better start looking for a suitable lottery to finance all of them because I sure am getting fired soon if I continue down this road. Then the only Karakoram I'll be visiting is the hostel in IIT Delhi.

Others win the lottery and buy property, I look to win the lottery to find novel ways of killing myself.

Days in the life of Siddharth Krishnamoorthy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Scared To Death

I had intended to write this post soon after I had seen the last episode of How I Met Your Mother (Season 3). Instead, I write this post bored; halfway through my session of (this is where I begin to term-drop) numerical stability analysis. In the episode, Ted and Barney meet with accidents and figure out what happens to you when you think you're going to die. Both of them report seeing only the most important people in their lives when faced with death.

I intend this post to be more than anything else, an interaction with my readers and co-bloggers with interesting experiences. After having narrated mine, I want you, the reader, to tell me if you have had an experience where you thought you were a goner (going to die, wham, kapoot and the like). I don't mean the "Oh my God, it's so hot I could die" moments, but those that really made you think that this was it. I want to know what these incidents were and what went through your head.

Now there's two ways we could do this. The first is to regard this post as a blogger tag. Those of my readers who write blogs of their own can perhaps put up a post in the same vein as this one and leave me a comment with their blog address. If that's too fancy for you (or you're not one for writing blogs), you could perhaps leave a long-ish comment with your story.

On to my stories then. I can distinctly recall three times in my life of twenty two odd years when I was of the opinion that this was the premature end. I divide these three incidents in two categories. The first category, is when the whole incident is a matter of a few seconds. The second, is when it is a more prolonged process of doubt and uncertainty and needless to say, more unpleasant than anything else. On with the first incident then.

The first incident took place one summer evening around south-central Delhi. My father, my sister and I had to cross the road right at the end of a flyover. There was no subway, so we had to risk crossing a fairly busy road at rush hour. At my father's insistence we began to cross the road, but soon found ourselves in a precarious position in the middle of the road where the traffic from the flyover merged with the rest of the road. We knew we had got ourselves into a tangle. No sooner than we had this realization, a truck decided to overtake a vehicle which would soon whiz past our backs. Do the math and you'll realize that as soon as the truck driver overtook the car from the right, he'd have noticed that he was heading right at us at full speed. The truck driver wasn't the only one who was enlightened thus. We saw the truck and realized there was nothing we could do. My father had already thrown his hands in the air, my sister had already let out half a scream and my brain had already got stunned into inaction by the time the truck flew past us, missing us quite literally by a couple of inches. All of this, in a matter of three seconds. Truth be told, that was too little time to even know what was happening, let alone have my life flash in front of me. After all was done, I knew I had drawn a blank and my only concern was to get across to safety.

The second incident took place when I was on a family trip, headed to Arunachal Pradesh. We had to cross a mountain pass at 14000 feet to get to Tawang. The weather had been fine all along, but as soon as we reached the pass, we got stranded in a blizzard that nearly blew a couple of cars off the cliff. The blizzard intensified and brought down so much snow that our car could no longer grip the road to carry out the final fifty metre climb to the zero point after which the rest of the journey would have been downhill. We were forced to turn back and make our way back down to the valley floor. Everything had turned white by now. There was no way one could make out where the road ended. On our way down, in an attempt to cross a stationary army truck, our car slipped and slid on the road and there we were, caught in a blizzard with a tyre buried in the snow on the side of the mountain. We surely couldn't spend the night at that altitude inside the car, and the tyre refused to budge. By now every one began to panic. My father and I tried to push and shove the car out of the ditch but the biting cold and the heavy car made it impossible to move it. Thankfully though, after about an hour's pushing and shoving, we managed to intercept an army vehicle that had come to recover the stationary army truck that had got us into all this trouble. Another half an hour of shoving by about ten of us finally got the car out of the hole and we headed back down, thankful for our lives.

About three months after the Arunachal incident had transpired, I found myself at Kangla Jal. Three friends and I were making our way from Manali to Leh on a bus that had snaked through treacherous roads all day long. We came to one of many grinding halts behind a long line of vehicles. There was a river crossing ahead and a bunch of cars had got trapped inside the water, preventing traffic flow from either side. What started off as a short halt, slowly turned into an hour, then two, and as nightfall began to approach, there was talk of spending the night in the bus. It was dangerous to spend the night inside a bus at 16000 feet. Some tried to cross the river on foot but realized that the current was too strong and returned. Then it began to rain, which further raised the water level, and flooded the river with sediment. The end result being that we were trapped inside a bus, having had no food for over 24 hours, no water to drink, little air to breathe and no way of informing anyone of the trouble we were in. We were careful to keep our windows slightly open so as to not choke ourselves, but that too had to be abandoned once it started raining in the middle of the night. My mouth had gone completely dry because of the lack of water and my head was throbbing because I felt like no matter how hard I inhaled, there wasn't enough air getting to my lungs. Throughout that night I constantly thought of what would happen if the road didn't clear up the next day as well. That, thankfully wasn't the case. The water level reduced sharply the next morning and we powered across the river and onward to Leh.

The last two incidents belong to the second category I mentioned above. The long hours of uncertainty were excruciating. None of those times though, did incidents of my life flash past my eyes. The only thing I was obsessed with was getting on the other side of the ordeal. Of course I wondered about things I'd do differently once I got out on the other side; deals I never really respected, come to think of it.

All said and done, being scared to death does leave you with a few stories to tell.

Do you have any?

Friday, November 13, 2009

To Do Before 30...

I recently realized that I work best when I make fairly concrete To-do lists on paper. That somehow seems to crystallize my plans for the day or the week better than trying to keep things in my head. What it probably also does is that it makes me obsessively want to scratch of things off that list, hence rendering me surprisingly more efficient.

I spent all of this morning reading random wikipedia articles which made me realize that there's so much to see and such little time. So while my immediate To-do list read of items such as "Buy Drainex", "Call the electrician to fix the geyser" or even "Write instructional paper for Taylor-Couette experiment", I decided to put down on my blog a list of things to do before I'm thirty. I have just over seven years to complete it, and if I find enough reason to continue writing on this blog till I'm 30, I shall return on the 5th of February 2017 (my 30th birthday) and evaluate how much of it I have been able to accomplish. Most of these plans are travel related, so don't come at me with bamboo sticks for it not being charitable enough.

So here goes- things I wish to do before I'm 30 years old:

  1. Go to Leh by road.
  2. Visit Jerusalem. (Courtesy G's reminder)
  3. Perform a Chadar Trek in Ladakh in winter.
  4. Skydive (preferably start in North Island New Zealand and end up on South Island).
  5. Bungee from the cable car platform near Queenstown.
  6. Go to Lhasa either by Tibetan rail or by road from Nepal.
  7. Do the "Circle Line Pub Crawl" in London and be able to walk in a straight line at the end of it.
  8. Learn a foreign language (preferably Spanish, which I had made a start on years ago).
  9. Pretend like I'm bald on purpose.

Notice how I don't have all the "get married, settle down" nonsense listed there. I'm hoping all that will take care of itself by then. Or else I'll furnish a new list on 5/2/17.

I see that I've already made a head-start, the outlook is good from where I see it!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Vertical Integration

In one of my recent conversations with a friend, I came up with a theory. The theory has its origins in a dream I had the previous night.

The theory goes as follows :


Your brain thinks on different levels, and in your dreams it tries to integrate all these levels into the same plane.

These were the various levels:

  1. I love Google and for long, have propounded that it can answer life's important questions.
  2. At some subconscious level, I fear getting arrested.
  3. I had met a friend (say M) that night and we had sat together and talked about how I had played poker quite well at a recent card party.

This was the "integrated" dream:

M and I go for a cards party. We leave for a short while in between and when we come back, the host has been shot dead by someone at the party. We get scared and run away and hide from the police. How do we find out that the police is hot on our tail?- We put our names into Google Image Search and the "Wanted" poster shows up as the first result.


Vertical integration- just a concept of economics, no more.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Feedback Loops

22 years and 10 months into life, one has probably lived long enough to start noticing certain patterns emerging.

Ever noticed that there are several feedback loops running in life at various levels.Like when you're tense and wound up, you somehow cause your life to throw things at you that wind you up even more.

And that they don't cease to drop from the heavens or grow out of hell till you decide not be wound up anymore?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Baal vs Leviathan

I am now two hours into a journey that thankfully has not lived up to its promise of being god-awful. After having seen a movie and a half on mute on my neighbour's laptop (one of which I recognized as Batman and Robin), and skimmed through a few pages of my copy of Ashis Nandy's 'Alternative Sciences', I feel that the time is nigh to discuss what the last post denied us. I promise to not let the distractions of a rail journey steal from this profound question I seek to answer.

The question, or rather my answer to it, is something that I have philosophized about at length. My father who is in town (otherwise posted out of station) provided a new way to look at it, albeit unwittingly.

Allow me to introduce the title then. As the Canaanite legend goes, Baal (the Canaanite storm god) created the world after he won his battle with the sea monster Leviathan, that threatened to reduce everything back to primordial chaos. Leviathan also finds a mention several times in the Torah and the Bible, and has often been used to depict or describe anything that seeks to bring disorder into God's order. In essence, Leviathan is most likely a metaphor for disorder, while Baal symbolizes the human ability to overcome chaos and lead a settled, 'orderly' life.

The reason why the myth of Baal and Leviathan really came about was probably the Canaanites' desire to establish a social order and a civilization under very harsh conditions (refer to Karen Armstrong's History of God for details). They lived in the desert and any fluctuation from clearly outlined, ordered and demarcated roles in civil society would probably lead to the destruction of the civilization, which would find itself crumbling into the chaos of the desert. In a certain sense, the slight order created would be gobbled up Leviathan. To that effect the Baal vs Leviathan battle was an everyday struggle for survival. Order wasn't just desirable, it was essential.

Now that we have arguably a well ordered society, built on fixed principles, we have on paper achieved that order that our ancestors strove for. Where we haven't achieved it, we strive to be as ordered as possible. But there is also an anti-Utopian chunk of our populace which appreciates deviation from set patterns. Therefore, on the one side we have this obsession with symmetry and whatever it entails and on the other, we tend to appreciate defects in it. Fusion music, for instance.

Before I go on to how my father added new perspective to this age-old paradox, allow me ot describe him (and then myself). My father is an early riser. He is disciplined, has a bath early in the morning, likes his things placed where they should be, and feels a certain joy when things are done in an orderly fashion. I on the other hand, am a fairly late riser and to say that I'm rather stochastic (perhaps even chaotic to a certain extent) in my method of conducting things would not be far from the truth. Safe to say that he's quite the Baal and I, albeit not to the civilization-destroying extent, am the living embodiment of Leviathan. Needless to say, here too Baal vs Leviathan is an everyday battle for survival. Beneath the everyday battle however, there is a strong ideological clash because I think that discipline in personal life is overrated. I don't deny that a basic, life-sustaining level of discipline is necessary. However, I feel that within the personal sphere, the stigma associated with 'being undisciplined' is far beyond what it should be. If the purpose of life is to be happy (which both my father and I are in agreement upon), then I feel that those of us who are anti-Utopian; or even dis-Utopian (call us 'Chomskians', broadly) are much better placed than our 'disciplined' counterparts.

Allow me to elucidate. The beauty of being disorderly is tautologically ingrained in the fact that one is no longer enamoured with the attainment of perfect order. Once this love for order and discipline is lost, we rarely get displeased by the prevalence of disorder. Contrast this with the disciplinarian's constant quest to have everything in a (if not 'its') stipulated place. The quest is not only constant, its also endless. And this brings me to my second argument. Being disorderly is what comes naturally to anyone. You didn't really know that books went into a shelf or that the plates went into a rack when you were born. You were taught those things as you grew up. As a Chomskian, you will not be displeased till someone tries to forcibly set you into crucibles of perfect order, but you can manage to ruin a disciplinarian's day simply by being yourself. If you don't believe me, next time try leaving the remote where it doesn't belong. In that sense, we're also better off at 'coping' with disorder (which is ever so natural). I put the word coping in quotes because disorder is something to cope with only for those who constantly seek to do away with it- the Baals.

Outside the personal sphere, I admit that it might be necessary to engage in a broadly defined social contract within a few well determined principles so that a bare minimum functioning order may be established. But this too, should not be taken to a limit that makes things water tight and uninterpretable.

My theory, in essence is that within your own skin, you decide how much of a Baal you want to be, without being driven by what you've been told. And don't tell my moral science teacher from the 5th grade.

  • Completed at 7:45 pm on 16th October 2009.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Creative Juices

I write this post travelling on what, prima facie, shows great promise of being a rather harrowing train journey in a cramped chair car compartment. I'm travelling to Kota for a family Diwali get together. The one thought that reiterates itself every half hour or so is that the average age of the gathering is well above mine. Having been given one's constraints, one hopes to optimize within the barriers by infusing copious amounts of juvenility (if that's even a word) into the high-average-age gathering. Then again, if one has known my family at close quarters for as long as I have, then one knows that while we may be disparate vis-a-vis our physical ages, we have the amazing ability to achieve a condition of concurrence as far as our mental ages are concerned (given the right conditions).

Talking of constraints then. Allow me to describe the scene around me. I have, time and again, apprised and updated my readers of my dimensions. As the train chugs out of the station, you would find my mother, sister and aunt on the right side of the aisle. My father is in the seat right in front, making small talk with his two neighbours. Me, you will find in the middle seat with a gentleman on the left whose dimensions far exceed mine, even by the most generous of estimates. On the right hand boundary of this ill-fitted sandwich is a lady whose bag (comfortably placed right in front of the seat) far exceeds my dimensions, even by the most generous estimate. Needless to say, the bag whilst luxuriously seated, is rather brazenly making unlawful intrusions into my leg space. Many a men have for long dreamed of a damsel accompanying them on a journey to a distant land, (if not for anything, for the sheer passage of hours) and found themselves seated next to a middle-aged pot. One tends to lose faith in the mechanisms of justice in the universe when the dream does come true, and yet, comes in the form of a short straw that is rather un-damsel-ly. In the sheer absence of a good swear word, 'Cramped' I believe was the word I chose a few lines ago. Let's stick to it; more for the sake of decency rather than brevity.

At this point, I must also graciously acknowledge two deaths that have occurred recently. The first, is the death of the incessant chattering of two children(aged between four and eight) that filled up the airspace behind my seat. That, I daresay, is a more than welcome relief. That incessant, incoherent squeaking had far worn out its welcome. The squeaking, however, recently reincarnated itself into the voice of a gentleman sitting behind me who wishes to make his conversation head to everyone in the bogey. So much for my short-lived relief. The second death, which occurred as soon as the train rolled out, was of something you find aplenty in India- unsolicited advice. Advice on how to sit, where to sit, how to 'adjust', how to cheat the laws of gravity and place luggage in a way that would allow the adviser to fit in that extra piece of redundant luggage on the rack, at the expense of the advisee's space. This was something that half my family rather gladly partook in (thankfully not the 'adjust'-ing bit).

Some food has now begun to do the rounds. Now that all of us find ourselves occupied with our own pedantic occupations (most of us reading, one of us writing), I notice two things. Actually, three. First (what I noted while I wrote the last sentence), is the enormous mess the food is going to create. The second, is how my hand has got used to writing amid the forced horizontal oscillations that a train journey entails. My handwriting is back at its atrocious best, after having made a beyond-illegible beginning. Third, and most importantly, I realize that I had to intended to write about something entirely different when I began this post. That will now have to wait.

I also begin to worry about my return three days hence, when I travel in a non-AC seater without a food tray on which I can put pen to paper. The railways are such a delight to one's creative juices.

  • Completed at 1632 hrs on 16th October, 2009.
  • Punchline of the moment: "A sorry does not make a dead man alive." (Words of wisdom from the loudmouth on the phone)
Await for the next post to emerge from this four hour journey!


(The author, while typing this, had already performed the return journey. While he found a food tray, it was too dirty to put paper on. Not to mention the incessant screaming and crying of practically every infant in North-West India who had invaded his compartment. Of course, the disturbance created at the end by a band of eunuchs was quite the delight.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Recently

I'm not really your quintessential movie critic, or a even a movie reviewer for that matter. In fact the only movie review you'd find on my blog is that of Slumdog Millionaire, that too, not a very positive one. However, recently I have seen some fairly interesting movies, some for the first time and others for the second, third, or even the eighteenth time. Movies that I have been wanting to write about.

So, first up, there's that oh-so-good movie everyone who reads my blog would have (or should have) seen by now- Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. I saw it about two weeks ago; first day second show, and have been wanting to write about it for several days. You know you've seen a good movie when it interests you enough to want to write about it, or for that matter carry out google or wiki searches on related issues. Needless to say, I quite loved the movie. An article I was reading in this Saturday's ToI Crest edition quite rightly calls the movie "a Jew's dream of World War II". For one, Brad Pitt has done quite a fabulous job as Lt. Aldo Raine, a southerner from Tennessee, who leads the band of Basterds. Every time I find myself mouthing that great dialogue from the movie, "You probably heard, we ain't in the prisoner takin' business...We in the Nazi killin' business. And cousin, business is a-boomin'.", I find myself thinking that Brad Pitt has been underrated as an actor. I've formerly been quite a fan of the character Rusty that he plays in the Ocean's series. My friend summarized the movie quite nicely at the end of it all- "Sab haraami hain!" (They're all bastards; or Basterds?). What was quite literally the icing on the cake was the fact that I actually won a free portion of double chocolate cake with ice cream at Ruby Tuesday because of my seat number in the hall. That, of course, was rather cruelly split amongst the four of us.

Up next, is a movie that I had seen long ago, and slept off in between because I found the first person cinematography quite hard to follow. A few years later when I saw The Blair Witch Project again (recently), I quite thoroughly enjoyed it. While the movie may not be very scary, it's precisely the first person cinematography that makes the movie an interesting watch. The climax itself is rather open ended, leaving you to decide for yourself whether the Blair Witch actually exists in the woods where the footage has actually been shot. Another interesting thing that the writers did, was to make the characters in the movie use their real-life names in the movie. So as the closing credits begin, you see as part of the cast, that the actors' names are actually the same in real life. That leaves you wondering whether the movie is really (as claimed at the start of the movie) what was left behind by the students who got lost in those woods. In the reading that I did to satisfy my curiosity about the legend of the Blair Witch, I found that the legend itself was a story promoted by the producers of the movie as a marketing strategy. All in all, I think it's quite a smart movie; one which is likely to draw very extreme reactions. I recommend a watch.

A week ago I also saw Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the story of a game show host in the 60s and 70s who leads a double life as a CIA assassin, and how he mixes up his reel life with his real, and uses the game shows as a cover for his activities. I don't know if the movie was released in Indian cinemas, but I only managed to see it now. I hadn't seen the opening credits, but I could notice that the movie had Stephen Soderbergh stamped all over it. The classic slickness of Ocean's movies was unmistakably there. Sure enough, his name showed up amongst the Executive Producers (even though George Clooney is the director). The movie has quite an interesting climax, one that I don't wish to spoil for those who haven't seen it. Those who haven't, go watch.

The next one's not a movie, but a British comedy series called Blackadder. The series stars Rowan Atkinson as the inscrutable Edmund Blackadder. This incidentally, was his gig before the Mr. Bean series, for which he might be more famous in India. The concept of the show is rather brilliant. In each of the four seasons (apart from the many special episodes), Edmund Blackadder is a witness to a certain period in British history. It starts with him being an obtuse prince in the 16th century, then goes on to Elizabethan times where he nearly marries Queen Elizabeth I, and on to the time of the French Revolution and finally ending in the trenches of World War I. The interesting thing to note is that as the seasons progress, Blackadder becomes more and more intelligent, but keeps sliding down the social ladder. I wonder if the writers intended this as a critique of British society. He starts as a dumb prince, and finishes as an extremely shrewd Captain in the British army. Fans of the TV show 'House' will be pleasantly surprised to find Hugh Laurie playing the dolt George, who appears along with Blackadder in various capacities through the seasons. The comedy itself is characteristically British, witty and dry. Rowan Atkinson is very different from his roles on Mr. Bean. This one is strictly for those who enjoy their comedy with a lot of salt and very little gravy.

Last then, and certainly not the least, is my favourite movie of all time- Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. I was extremely thrilled when I found a good VCD version of the movie. Having already seen the movie about fifteen times before I found the VCD, I have managed to go through it another three times. A fantastic satire on Indian society, and the brilliant Mahabharata scene that takes the movie to it's climax, it's a movie that will have you in splits till the very last scene when the strong message hits you in the face. This is one punch to the face you have to take.

Recently, I have been.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Ig-Nobels

So what do you do when you wake from your afternoon siesta to the scroll on the news channel reading "Manmohan Singh: I congratulate President Obama on his Nobel Prize"? You rub your eyes, resign to your Indian emotions (i.e say "hain?!") and wonder if there's a new category outside of deceased Alfred's will.

I then went on facebook, and I saw this status message- "Kanye West at Nobel ceremony: Mr. Obama, I'd let you speak, but Mayawati's the biggest jackass of all time". My friend at Columbia University tells me that there's a party on the streets, where there are free t-shirts on offer. Given that the Nobel has been reduced to this, our primary concern at this point of time is whether there is free food on offer as well.

Nonetheless, I was curious as to what reason on earth would the Nobel foundation would give for their choice. Being notorious for their rather arbitrary nomination process, such as the nomination of George. W. Bush last year, they had to come up with something good. Something better than "We wanted to give it to an American president and we couldn't give it to a man who said things like "They misunderestimated me" in public". The nice thing about the Nobel prizes is that they generate awareness. For a few years now, I have tried to keep myself informed about some of the Nobel prize winners (especially Physics) and their work. In this case, there wasn't really a need for that, since he's visible practically everywhere anyway.

However, I did go to the Nobel prize website to see how they reasoned it. These are the last 5 winners:

2008: Martti Ahtisaari for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts.

2007: International Panel for Climate Change and Al Gore for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.

2006: Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.

2005: IAEA and Mohamed El Baradei for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.

2004: Wangari Mathai for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

This is what this year's description says:

2009: Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.

Swedish for "rhetoric".

The health care plan might just go through now!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Bradley Cooper : Redux

Given the enthusiastic response (which I hope is mostly adulation from the fairer-sexed-readers) that I got to my joining the gym (aka The Bradley Cooper Project), I feel obliged to share with my readers, a quarterly report of progress on that front. Not so much a quarterly report as a 'I just bench pressed 20 kilos' report.

A friend and a co-blogger/gymmer recently said to me,

"The gym I go to has three types of frequent visitors, the first category is yours, the one trying to gain weight with frequently lifting up their shirts or examining their thin arms to see any trace of a muscle sprouting, the second is mine, trying to lose weight and trying to find traces of the muscle between all the fat, and the third is full of bradley coopers and mike tysons. I pray that we reach the third category's former part soon."

The gym I go to also has the same three types of frequent visitors. In fact, I feel that there's a certain universal causality to this frequent gym visiting. I am probably still in category one, hence way past my testosterone-ego induced promise of 45 days. But I'd like to think I'm making steady progress to category three and this is why :

  1. I bench pressed 20 kilos today.
  2. I'm seen wildly flailing my legs, hanging from the cross bar very rarely these days. This is usually after I have suffered from laziness or allied illnesses for over a week. Other days, my arms have enough strength to haul me over. Several times.
  3. I'm somewhere in between the seniors and juniors at the gym. There are a lot of people who've joined after me, hence in the position that I was in when I shared my first report, i.e. hanging from the cross-bar, flailing wildly. We shall term this the "Conservation of Momentum" phase.
  4. Those in the CoM phase can also lift much smaller weights than I can. I don't pass up an opportunity to look down upon and scoff at these hapless CoM-ers. All in my head, of course; I can still get fairly badly beaten up if I express this sentiment (owing largely not to my physique, but to my non-violent stance in life).
  5. Every now and then (like today), you would find a CoM-er (usually belonging to category one) stand in front of the mirror, make faces that he considers macho and aggressive (and others consider constipated, for the lack of a better word) and flex whatever trace of muscle he has built up after lifting his latest two kilos. The CoM-er I saw today did this after every set of exercises he struggled through. I'm quite glad I never made too much of myself in the CoM phase.
  6. Owing to oscillations of health, my weight has stayed pretty much the same. The banana shakes I'm made to drink make very little difference. They taste nice on most days, except those when my mother, for the sake of longevity, brings in slightly raw bananas. Raw bananas with milk stay that way- no mixing occurs. Needless to say how that tastes.
  7. I bench pressed 20 kilos today. Have I already said that? Yes? Well, you've missed the point of the post.

There are, however, certain worrying developments as well. For one, a lot of mirrors ensure that you can see the top of your head from certain angles. Let's just say we might have to rechristen this whole frequently-visiting-gym business as the "Vin Diesel Project". Enough said. There's only so much one can do at the hands of genetics.

That, then is the quarterly-20 kilo-bench-press report. I declare myself a work in progress. No one is allowed to criticize a work in progress.

Ladies, stay tuned.

Men, continue W.A.T.C.H O.U.T-ing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Life in the Days Of...

I think there's certain irony to my blog title. At some point of time, I had changed it from "Travel Travails" to the current title. Not once, however, have I found myself rambling about days in my life. I'm all for rambling, but in the normal course of events, none of it manages to make it to the blog in it's purest form. I usually manage to camouflage it under some garb. In the light of some recent events, each worth reporting, but not deserving of a post by itself, I thought I'd go and talk about some days in my life.

Today:

I woke up from my afternoon nap (a habit from childhood which refuses to desert me) feeling rather disoriented. The primary reason being that it had turned dark by the time I got up. That tells me winter is near. Which means that the weather is going to get better, the food is going to taste better, women will look prettier. Good times ahead! That's once the gods stop having that bachelor party in their basement (an old reference) and the haze subsides.

Yesterday:

I watched Ravana burn from my sixth floor balcony. The fireworks display went on for over an hour. No fire tenders or even extinguishers on standby, but then Ram in all his benevolence shall protect us from any burning embers that reach where they're assumed not to. Everyone around seemed to have fun, so did I. As I watched from the distance, I saw that the applause was relentless even as some of the fireworks detonated well before their designated altitude. It was after a long time that I'd seen the whole evil-burning process. I remember that as a kid, I would accompany my mother to the local park to watch the event and feel depressed. Depressed, not because I was a Satan worshipping kid of some sort, but because at the end of four days of visiting various Durga Puja congregations and filling up my stomach with whatever muck I could lay my hands on, Dussehra had a finality to it. It was like the morning after Diwali, or the day after your birthday. Then again, I think there are so many "it's all over" days in a given year that it's better we don't mope on them for longer than a few hours. This Durga Puja however was one from the years gone by. A little to early in the calendar I feel, but the pandals were where they should be and so was the muck. Good times.

Later in the evening, the newsflash about the Air India pilots' strike appeared on TV. Allow me to put a human face to this side of the story. My mother works for Air India. And it's quite a struggle working there these days. It's almost like being a daily wage employee. For one, an expression of honest opinion at this point of time could be trouble for any employee. But in all the mismanagement of years gone by and measures to control the damage that has been caused and is probably still being caused behind the scenes, there are employees with families who are hanging in the balance. Here's hoping that the crisis gets resolved soon.

Day Before Yesterday:

Some days usually overflow into the next, as far as storytelling goes. Typically, these are days that involve alcohol (hopefully the latter part of the day). Night before last, two friends and I had a little Tequila party. We then made the mistake of going out to dinner to a place right opposite our school. Not just that, we had four others joining us. Simple math would show that the table had an approximate drunk-sober ratio of about 44%. That grey area in between is dangerous. That just means that the remaining 56% will remember what you won't, and your perception of reality (as a headache rips your cranium into pieces the next morning) is what the aforementioned 56% tells you. My advice to all my readers is to ensure that you're as close to 0 or 100 % when you dine with company. All or nothing, black or white. Always a good policy in life. Anyway, should you ask me, I'd tell you that the night went off without incident. Next afternoon, I called up J to ask him if some damage control needed to be done. J belonged the 56% lot last night, and managed to convince me that there was an eve-teasing incident involving me the previous night where I apparently whistled at some girl and M had to do some damage control (which is why I wasn't languishing in the local lock-up). That's funny, because M (who has a penchant for drawing entertainment from my misery) was very slightly less drunk than I was and would need a miracle to prevent me from getting indicted. I killed myself over the incident for about half an hour (for eve-teasing is really not my thing, not even sub-consciously) whilst trying to call M, who was nursing his own little hangover. M confirmed that while this was a rather interesting proposition, he had no memory of it. On my next call to J, frantic swearing ensued and he finally admitted that he should have spoken to M to make the prank work. This is the first time I've been pranked in years, and alcohol is the reason.
Am I going to propound prohibition on my blog? No. But next time, do ensure that everyone else is drunk before you are. It earns you some bad karma, but you can take care of it in your next life.


Some days in my life are manufactured to add joy to some days in yours.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On Conformity

Inspiration to write has been hard to come by lately. When lethargy wins the battle, perfectly sound writing ideas find themselves in the mental bin, rather than on the blog. This partially has to do with my reading habit which has shown a steady decline in the recent past. Last night, however, I attempted a sudden resuscitation, which I hope gets me back on track. Then again, let's be honest. One likes a creative release every now and then. Creative ramblings that comprise of more than just aimless rambling about food, phone calls, birth, aging, sickness and death: "life", to give it a concrete form (interesting statistic to track, the number of blogs with the word "life" in the title). On to my recently CPR-ed reading habit then.

I have, for the third time, started reading Grimus (Salman Rushdie's first novel). Rushdie, without the slightest doubt, is my favourite author. I can already see that last statement generating strong remarks, pro and con. That precisely I think, is the hallmark of a brilliant author. The absolute inability of a reader or a critic to abstain from a strong reaction is probably the best reward an author can get. That, of course, having made the assumption that there is some sort of a fine balance between the bouquets and brickbats; for the want of a blue eye. Grimus seems like a good book. The only reason I have had to abandon the book twice is because of a general loss of interest in reading at that point of time. Last night, as I slowly made my way through the book, I struck upon a few lines that got me thinking of a few conversations I have shared in the past with friends, colleagues and scholars alike on issues of conformity, absurdity and profundity. There is a certain joy in exchanging ideas with such a motley bunch of men and women. For one, I realize that practically every subject that leaves space for free thought suffers from the above issues. I decided to let the idea out before it fell prey to a sense of all-pervasive lethargy. Allow me then, to introduce the lines, as spoken by a self-proclaimed pedant called Virgil Jones:


"What I'm driving at", said Virgil Jones, "in my rather indirect fashion, is that the limitations we place upon the world are imposed by ourselves rather than the world. And should we meet things which do not conform to our structure of reality, we place them outside it. Ghosts. Unidentified Flying Objects. Visions. We suspect the sanity of those who claim to see or sense them. An interesting point: a man is sane only to the extent that he subscribes to a previously-agreed construction of reality."

An interesting point, really. I remember being very disgruntled last year with branches of Physics dealt with things I couldn't see around me. I spoke of my disgruntlement with a leading scholar in the field soon after. He quite beautifully pointed out that our senses of perception, our concepts of time, space and dimension are at best, many orders less than those on which nature operates. Therefore, it'd be quite unfair to dismiss theories that are not immediately "perceptible" because perception itself is limited first by our restricted understanding of our surroundings, and also our attachment to "previously agreed constructions of reality" as Jones puts it. The same sentence was also my answer to a friend trying to decipher on a sociological scale, the implications of Chaos theory. Rather amused at the emergence of long range order out of short range chaos, and the subsequent breakdown of order (in a conversation that spanned harmonic oscillators and societal order alike), we wondered if the disorder fails to exist; or whether we fail to see it because of a restricted perception which primarily accounts for the majority.

Then again, Virgil Jones brings up another interesting point in his pedantic rambling. Consider two extremes. In the first, what if everyone conformed to the previously agreed constructions of reality. The death of innovation, it is safe to say, would have preceeded its birth. In the second extreme, consider a case where innovation was driven by a deep-seated antagonism to the prevailing order. A deep desire to be different, by any means possible. In this case too, the system would wind down to a moribund state, not very different from the first case. Somewhere in the lack of right-ness or wrong-ness, in the glaring ambiguities in the prevailing order, lie the engines of creation. A vague belief in one's "insanity", rather than a desire to be "insane" is probably what fuels change.

"Go, go, go said the bird", Jones quotes T.S. Eliot, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Spoils of War

NJ: So, so (nudge)...what's your scene?
SK: I don't know yet. Waiting and watching.
NJ: Aha.
SK: To the patient, go the spoils of war.
NJ: Hopefully.
SK: What?
NJ: You know, hopefully, the spoils of war.
"To the patient, go the spoils of war"*




* only hopefully if your initials are SK or NJ.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Death

There are songs that I often hear before I go to sleep. There is a fixed set that I must hear before I finally begin to drift off into the deeper recesses. A time soon comes when I realize that the song in my ear is beginning to blend and bleed into the random impulses that my sub-conscious brain throws up. When my sleep begins with such noisy delirium, the chaos of unintelligible thoughts slowly fading into blankness, I find myself to have slept the best. Death, in a certain sense. Except that, in this case, I have the benefit of hindsight that inspires faith in the fact that I'll wake up the next morning.

On death, then. I can instantly recall three songs from the set that I just described that, for one reason or another, almost make you feel like you'll never return from the chaos ridden oblivion. There is Like a Stone by Audioslave for starters, then there are Amsterdam by Coldplay, and My December by Linkin Park. Like a Stone is a song about an old man whose kin have passed on, and he waits for his release, recounting his life. Therefore, the obvious association with death. The other two songs have their own unique reasons why I associate them as I do.

Last night as I cycled through Amsterdam one last time, I began to 'develop new perspective' as I later put across to a friend of mine. I began to wonder (as may have many of my contemporaries and predecessors) what a person might feel moments before death. To which, I found myself realizing that a person who has lived a life without regret, and awakens to this fact moments before they die, might in fact be experiencing, rather ironically, the most liberating moment of their life.

If there might be a day, when morning doesn't arrive, prepare for your liberation everyday. You wouldn't want to miss what might be the most amazing moment of your life.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Chicken Soup for the Cold

I have been spending a lot of time at home this last week, for reasons inescapable. Status quo is such that I'm unable to do much with 24 hours of free time I get everyday. There is the net, and then there is the idiot box. But when you've been home doing practically nothing for so long, there are many things that you tire of fairly easily. Then there are days like today, when one would find oneself in front of the telly, bored-ly flipping channels. Now, that sounds like every other day. What was different about today is that I chanced upon an old favourite movie of mine : Disco Dancer. Back in the day, when cable tv was an unnecessary luxury, India's government broadcaster Doordarshan took upon itself, the onus of entertaining large sections of the Indian population. As part of the entertainment section of its endeavour, it began to screen movies on Saturday afternoons (a holiday in most schools). Days when we were lucky, they would screen 'new' movies (released between 10 and 20 years from the screening date). Other days, well, you would have to squint at the Technicolor images flashing on your screen and strain your ears to hear the dialogues. Anyhow, it was amongst a series of these lucky days that sprouted in me, a love for Mithun Chakravarty movies as a kid (other favourites include classics such as Gunmaster G9). They were flashy, loud, and amazingly entertaining. As I grew up, this love got obscured by the pretentions that accompany the process of social growth and adaptation.

More about Disco Dancer then, sans pretentions. Jimmy, the protagonist, is left to rot on the streets by the villain. Jimmy somehow manages to grow up and become a "Disco Dancer". Who is a "Disco Dancer"? The answer is complex. A disco dancer must be an accomplished dancer (but obvious), a singer (aha), and (this is the funky bit) be able to play instruments like the guitar and saxophone simply by holding them and dancing with them. He is usually accompanied by four or five blokes who do pretty much what he does, but are too ugly to be classified as "Disco Dancers". Also on the lot, are a bunch of rather well fed ladies, who would be better advised than to wear the black boyshorts they wear in this movie. That said, the music is definitely (as is a lot Bappi Lahiri music) well ahead of its time.

Anyway, Jimmy then manages to rob the villain of all his money, pride and even his daughter with not much more than his sublime pelvic jerks. Infuriated, the villain and his sidekick (a very bald Bob Christo) hatch the plot of the century to kill Jimmy. The plan, in Bob Christo's words (remembering that he is a Hindi speaking British sidekick):

"Kal ki party mein Jimmy ko log electric guitar bajane ko bolega. Hum us electric guitar ke string mein 5000 volt ka electricity bhejega. Jab hamara dushman electric guitar ko haath lagayega, woh ud jayega. Pop!"

Do they manage to kill Jimmy? Or does fate have its own cruel plan up its sleeve?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Bradley Cooper Project

I come bearing good news. After a long, seemingly unending sabbatical from any sort of constructive activity, I am now gainfully employed. It's quite irrelevant what I'm now gainfully employed with, adding value is what one is concerned with at the present moment. Talking of adding value, you know you're not doing any of that when you get a back-ache the moment you get up; or when you can't lift beyond three kilos without breaking into a sweat.

Right then, in the spirit of adding value, I decided to join a gym. Anyone who has had the honour of meeting me personally would realize that I could use some extra weight. And this is exactly what I decided to explain to the gym owner. Unfortunately however, when I reached the gym, I found men whose biceps would be about the same girth as both my thighs put together lifting weights heavier than me. Ashamed at my condition (succinctly described as skinny, to say the least), I pretended like I never intended to go the gym and walked on by, whistling casually for added effect. To be honest, this pattern repeated itself a few times. About three weeks later, however, a friend of mine came over and I had him accompany me to the gym, where I finally got the chance to share my plight with the trainer.

I started the next Monday. As a testimony of fitness to myself, I decided to jog to the gym (barely 200 metres away) on the first day. I was puffing billy by the 101st metre, after which I decided to amble my way to the gym, whistling casually for added effect. After having reached, I was assigned my work-out for the day. I started off with a bang. The cycling was fun for the whole three minutes. The first set of pull-ups went by quite well and by the time the first set of push-ups ended, I was almost getting cocky. Soon after the second set however, my world began to spin. Realizing I was near collapse, I made a hand signal to the trainer which usually indicates "I'm dead." and staggered back home. It took three glasses of very sweet lemonade and a shower to get me to stand on my two feet. Of course, the unused muscles in my body cried for freedom from this painful life for the next few days. It was almost a week before I could even straighten out my arms completely.

Things are getting better, nonetheless. I can now bench-press the whole 2 kilos. As far as the pull-ups and chin-ups I use my brain to compensate for the brawn. You see, there is this little theory in physics called conservation of momentum. Stated in lay man's terms. If you're hanging of a cross bar in thin air, and you flay your legs wildly, kicking the air underneath, the rest of the body might have a shot at getting your chin over the bar to compensate for that gain in momentum.

This post has proceeded in reverse in a certain sense. That's because I will now explain the title. A dear friend went and saw "The Hangover" (great movie, I recommend it) and came back drooling over the aforementioned gentleman. In a fit of testosterone (slight excesses of which are known to flow through your body when you exercise : case in point, the Williams sisters), I claimed that I could chisel myself into his shape in the next 45 days.

To all the ladies reading this blog: be nice to the next man you see hanging from the cross-bar, wildly flailing his legs to get his chin up over the bar. He could be a good looking blog author who is also intelligent and takes great photographs, all that aside from having a body like Bradley Cooper's. Imagine the possibilities.

To all the men reading this blog: W.A.T.C.H O.U.T.

I'll go and bench press two and a half kilos now.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Memories Like Fingerprints...

...are slowly fading. I borrow from Pearl Jam's "Elderly woman behind the counter in a small town" to start my post.

It has just begun to rain in Delhi. For someone who refused to share the same physical space as the Sun for almost a month, whilst contending with a general feeling of uselessness and ennui, I can't begin to describe how much of a relief the arrival of the monsoon is.

For the last few days, I have tried to avoid the news as much as possible. And I will give you no reason for it other than the fact that it scares me to death. Aside from all the regular bad news one seems to be getting these days, I tend to amplify it manifold by somehow finding a domino-toppling connection to my being able to fund my graduate study next year. What was particularly worrying in the last week of June especially, was the extreme power and water shortage that was plaguing more than half the country because of imminent failure of monsoon. Water levels at three of our major reservoirs were running dangerously low. The city of Pune would lose its water supply if it didn't rain in the next 48 hours. Then, almost miraculously, the monsoon revived and advanced. We had a narrow miss, and not many of us realized, especially those of us who stayed hidden behind our green curtains in rooms cooled by generator driven ACs.

As happy as I am that the monsoon has arrived, I also begin to muse on the nature of human memory. We might have a near normal monsoon, maybe a deficient one. Then there will come a winter, where the demand for power and water will be lower and it is quite likely a large number of us will not face a severe shortage. Somewhere in the course of this winter that intervenes between two summers, we tend to forget the mistakes we made in summers past. Each summer gets progressively worse, and each winter makes us forget the previous one. The whole process, as a result gives us this illusion of being very gradual. We adapt every summer, and are oblivious every winter. To make a rather gratuitous generalization, this sort of behaviour extends to a very large part of our lives. I had written after the Mumbai terror attacks that things tend to get time-averaged. In fact, most of the times we are on a crest, we forget the lessons learned we should have ideally retained from the last trough. As a result, the highs keep getting lower, and the lows keep getting deeper.

I find myself in a dilemma. I don't know whether to applaud the ability of human beings to shut their eyes and adapt, or to be incensed at the extreme sense of callousness which seems to drive that ability most of the time.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

In Loving Memory

I just received news that Dr. Anil Wilson, former principal of St. Stephen's College, Delhi passed away this morning. Even while suffering from cancer of the pancreas for the last year or so, he had offered his body for medical research as a live subject.

This post is in loving memory of a great educator and a man I deeply admired. May you rest in peace Dr. Wilson.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Click

Champion wandered aimlessly, one dark street after another. Over time, his path would begin to resemble a circle, going over the same spot again and again and again. He had no expression on his face. This wasn't something unusual. There were days when he would catch himself staring blankly into nowhere. Sometimes he was thinking happy thoughts, those related to his glorious past; other times his blank stare would hide the day dreams that were swirling in his brain. Futile day dreams of a future as glorious as his past. Dreams that were so impossible to morph into reality, that it gave him a sort of perverse pleasure when he lost himself. Then there were days such as today, where he had no thoughts of his own. Music blared in his ears as he walked, hoping that some answers would come to him off their own volition.

Champion was not the name his parents had given him. Earlier in life, he had earned himself many laurels. Along with the laurels, came the friends; some genuine, others not. The friends gave him many names, some out of affection, some out of spite. Champion was the one that stood the test of time, quite fittingly. He was the monarch of all there was to survey back then. The years, however, had not been kind to him. The laurels left first, the fair weathered fraction of his friends followed. The rest, he somehow managed to push further and further away into oblivion, getting sucked into the worsening vacuum in his life, day after painful day. Every day brought with itself, more thoughts of the past, and more despair for the future. Despair often turns into a helpless, debilitating rage. In his case, however, all he had to shout at, were the walls he had painstakingly constructed day by day, brick by painful brick. One doubts whether even he knew why he had built that wall. One thought the wall was to keep people out, while another reckoned that it was to keep himself in.

On this particular day, he had sensed in himself, a growing rage. The fire wasn't warm enough to cause him to explode, consuming the emptiness around him with it, but was enough to slowly eat up his insides. For a change, he had no answers. He tried to shrug it off, but he couldn't. He tried to reason out the whys and the why nots, to no avail. Finally, in a bout of utter helplessness, he threw on his shoes, carried his music and walked off to wherever his feet would take him. Such was his state of blindness that he couldn't realise the cruel trick his own legs were playing on him, taking him round and round in circles. They were perhaps implying the underlying truth of his life; that there was no escape from it. Stay and fight. If you dare run, you'll return where you are some day.

The angry words blaring into his ear seemed strangely soothing. It was if they were a reflection, or rather a regurgitation of those cupfuls of anger he had swallowed every single day for the last few years. These words too, were screaming at nothing but his own ears, but somehow he felt that they were being echoed in his life. He imagined saying all of this to everyone who deserved it and had somehow escaped; sometimes guarding themselves behind propriety while plotting their escape, and other times behind that pariah called love.

Then, in a moment, something possessed him. Something, or someone in his life wanted him to have the answers tonight. Inexplicably, his hands began to click the button marked "Next" on his shuffle in a pattern that few would call controlled. What emerged was his answer:

"Listen now and let me speak..." (click)

"You're always saying that there's something wrong..." (click)

"Life it seems, will fade away..." (click)

"On a cobweb afternoon, in a room full of emptiness..." (click)

"I walk the streets without regret..." (click)

"Nothing seems to break me, no matter how far I fall..." (click)

"If this isn't what you see, it doesn't make you blind..." (click)


On a hot summer night, alone in a crowd, Champion froze. When he came to his senses, he found himself at home, the first rays of the sun streaking through the window. And almost as if to prove a point, in his ears blared,

"How could he know this new dawn's light would change his life forever..."

click.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Large Hadron Rap

As a student of physics, I know this post is going to attract a lot of visitors from my community. I mean the physics community, not the Tam Brahm one, although one has to concede that there is a massive overlap. However, if you're from neither of the above two communities, fear not. This is going to be as entertaining for you (albeit in a disparaging sort of way) as anyone else. If you're a bully who would pick on geeks in school, now is the time to skip the next paragraph, because at the end of this post, lies true joy for you.

I was browsing through Youtube (again, in the absence of any constructive work) when I ran into this particular video. For the uninitiated, there is a particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Switzerland. The LHC was in the news a few months back when it was inaugurated. It is the single largest collider in the world and billions of dollars of taxpayer money were spent on it. The experiment became an object of both scientific and social speculation and questions were raised on whether we really needed to spend so much to discover what is called the Higgs boson when more than half the world really cared more about getting matter into their stomachs for the next meal rather than what it was made of at the sub-nuclear level.

This post isn't entertaining yet. This is the fun bit. As geeks, I think we've hit a new low. This why you should've stayed if you weren't from the community. Check out the video. Comments encouraged.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Of Laddoos and Their Dynamics

I have obsessed for a while now, over how not to sound vexed with life in this post. Truth be told, I'm not. I was on the phone with a friend this afternoon, and we hit upon what we call the "Laddoo Theory". We state the theory as follows: Life throws you laddoos when you've made up your mind to eat no more. Alternatively, when you want laddoos, they're either unavailable; or if the divine powers wish to entertain themselves, a laddoo lands in your mouth and is yanked away before you can bite into it.

The origins of this theory vary over a large number of areas of life. This complete generality is what makes the theory so brilliant. Allow me to demystify it with some examples. Their coincidence with my life or the lives of any of my friends is purely coincidental.

A friend called this afternoon. I've seen him struggle with his career for a while. For the past six months, he has studied hard for various entrance exams and interviews and rather inexplicably, managed to bomb all of them. Very recently, he gave up on this project of taking entrance exams (with one more insignificant one to go) and embark on a different route. As a result, he didn't do much more than walk in, take test, walk out. The result came in today. Qualified.

A friend called in yesterday. Every woman he could have dated (in essence, every laddoo he failed to catch, or every laddoo that failed to catch him) in the last six months seems to want to make amends suddenly. Why is he full already? You know why.

It was the month of February, and I got an admission call from Stanford University. I relished my laddoo for a whole 24 hours. That's when they decided to send me an email saying they wouldn't give me any money to go. I should refer to this one colloquially as a kela, but for the sake of simplicity, let me refer to only one edible item per post.

I wonder, however, if my theory is a reason to be depressed with life (especially in the light of the third example). And I figure, no. Perhaps life has a better sense of timing than us, or than we can ever hope to achieve. Maybe everyone has their reserve of laddoos, each arriving at its own stipulated time. Better still, maybe what we see as laddoos are really something we would be better off not ingesting. And they arrive, apparently out of turn, because decisions are better made without distractions.

Just some food for thought.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Apollo 13 - The Bhutan Chronicles Part II

It's the morning of the 27th of May, and my family and I have just been informed that the road leading to Thimphu will be blocked for another three days at the very least. We have to be back in Guwahati by the 31st and things look bleak.

We sat in our hotels wondering what our options were. I must admit that at this point I felt hopeless. All I wanted to do was to head straight back home and sulk. It was then that an employee of the hotel we were staying at suggested that we try entering from Gelephu - an entry-exit point in Assam. The weather had cleared up and we decided that it was worth a shot. We wouldn't be able to cover all of Bhutan as per our original plan, but at least we could visit Thimphu and return. We drove for about four hours and then took a left turn into a narrow road just before Bongaigaon. All along the way we saw that the muddy waters of the Brahmaputra had breached the banks and caused flooding.

(Below: Flooded Brahmaputra, the Gelephu border gate)




On our way we had crossed the troubled district of Kokrajhar in Assam and now we were in the Chirang district. Both these district have a severe Bodo insurgency issue. The Bodo insurgents are fighting for a separate state of Bodoland. It was interesting that we passed a banner for a hotel and the address stated "Kokrajhar, Bodoland" instead of "Kokrajhar, Assam" which would have been more accurate on paper. I wonder whether it was fear psychosis or a genuine look of hostility that I noticed in people's faces as our car drove by. The 40 kilometer stretch in Bodo heartland is a patchy road and passes through some fairly underdeveloped areas. The road has significantly larger army cover and lesser traffic than the one leading to Phuentsholing. After about an hour and a half's drive, we found ourselves at the border check-post where we were made to alight and walk across the border. The sense of discontinuity that I had observed at the Phuentsholing border prevailed at this border as well. Our permits issued at Phuentsholing thankfully worked and we were spared of any more paper work.


Bhutan Travel Advisory #5: Don't try to enter from Gelephu first up. Route permits are not issued there. The only reason we were allowed to enter was because we already had permits and the other road was blocked.


A quick visit to the road transport office made sure we had our vehicle permit ready, and we could finally claim that the vacation had begun. By now it was almost 5 pm and nightfall was approaching. We began driving towards the town of Damphu, carefully traversing the hilly terrain. On our way we crossed three of the five immigration checkpoints.


Bhutan Travel Advisory #6: The Royal Government of Bhutan keeps strict checks on the number of tourists in the country. Along the road, there are a number of check points where all papers must presented. Keep the papers handy and a few photocopies ready at all times while traveling from city to city.


The Gelephu-Damphu road (whatever we could see of it till daylight vanished) is quite beautiful. The road is well surfaced and clean, with a large number of small waterfalls dotting the hill side. Along the way one finds a large number of Buddhist prayer flags (my love for which has been well documented) and stupas. Three hours of careful and precarious driving in the dark brought us to the small town of Damphu. All we could think of by now was to eat and retire for the night. Fortunately, we found a decent hotel where we could rest for the night. When Damphu greeted me early next morning, I found it to be very reminiscent of small towns in old Western movies. One could almost imagine two duellers walking down the main street, lined on both sides by small shops. Only that here you might run into a John Wangchuk rather than John Wayne.




(Clockwise from top left: Waterfall on the Gelephu-Damphu road, Stupa on the Gelephu-Damphu road, the raging Wang Chhu river, Damphu Town)

After having a light breakfast we started for Thimphu, about 180 kms away. About an hour after we started from Damphu, we began to straddle the Wang Chhu river, which was roaring with all the extra mud and water that the rain had caused it to carry. Two hours later we stopped at Wangdue-Phodrang for tea. The "Dzong" (fortress) at Wangdue is the dominant feature in the down. It sits at the head of the Swiss-Bhutanese arch bridge and the confluence of the Gay-Chhu and Nakay-Chhu rivers. The road forks out after Wangdue. The right turn would take us to Eastern Bhutan (a plan that we had dropped now) and the left took us to Thimphu. We crossed the Dochu La pass (alt. 3050 m) on the way to Thimphu. This is where I realized that India had a significantly larger number of issues than Bhutan to deal with. The Dochu La zero point is a standing war memorial for Bhutanese soldiers. There is a temple and a victory "Chorten" (memorial) at Dochu La in memory of soldiers who lost their lives fighting ULFA terrorists. It's quite a beautiful structure apart from the fact that it puts a few things in perspective for the Indian tourist. After Dochu La, we crossed our last immigration check point, where we were advised to take an additional permit at Thimphu to be able to return via Gelephu.

(Below left to right : The Wangdue-Phodrang Dzong, The Dochu La victory Chorten)



Before we knew it, we were approaching Thimphu, and our driver, who until now was driving was like Pocahontas on cocaine (a new standard of free spiritedness), began to have disciplined driving pangs as the city approached. This time however, I was armed with a map of the city and with a little help from a cop, I was able to direct him to Norzin Lam, the main street of the city. Thimphu is quite a lovely town. Apart from being endowed with beautiful surroundings, the city is also quite clean (as other Bhutanese towns) and is sprinkled with eateries. The food is delightfully tasty, not to mention cheap (a vegetarian meal for four at a very good restaurant costs approximately 600 Ngultrum, 1 Ngultrum = 1 Rupee and can be used interchangeably), and so is the liquor (imagine a 45 rupee pint of Carlsberg or a 120 rupee peg of Johnnie Walker Black Label) and a lot of hotels on Norzin Lam offer very nice rooms at very reasonable rates. Local cuisine is also quite a delight, albeit spicy, I especially recommend the Datsi (cheese) series. The beauty of course is only broken in bits and pieces by tiny hordes of very loud Indian tourists who quarrel with parking attendants over how much they must pay for parking in certain marked spot.




(Above: Clockwise from top left: Norzin Lam by night, Clocktower square, prayer wheel at Changangkha temple, the Thimphu stadium)

Bhutan Travel Advisory #7: The local currency, Ngultrum is at par with the Indian rupee and can be used interchangeably. However, denominations of 500 INR and 1000 INR are not accepted at most places in Thimphu. Make sure you either change them to 500 or 1000 Ngultrum or break them down into smaller denominations before coming to Thimphu.


I was later told upon return that it also has good night-clubs, which I was unable to sample because of obvious reasons. At this point we gave our driver a two day off and took the local transport for two reasons. One, because he had managed to pluck fever out of thin air, and two, because he was quite panicked about breaking the local traffic rules.

So, one might ask, where does my father decide to eat three thousand kilometers from home? But of course, he chose to find a place called "The Grand" which (much to his Tam Brahm delight) served dosas and idlis. My mother, called his bet and raised it further by order Papdi Chat. Soon enough, I had my head in my hands while they ordered a portion of gol gappas and rhapsodized over it. I shouldn't say that it tasted bad. I think it tasted great, but it beat the purpose of the 3000 kms in an instant. Following this, we walked around the main town for a while. We visited the little Swiss bakery serving "zam tarts" and then the clocktower square. As a standing rule in Bhutan, all buildings must have ornate wood art on the exterior, which means that all buildings look extremely ornate and regal on the outside. We were about to retire for the night when the dogs started barking. I remembered reading somewhere that one must carry earplugs when in Bhutan, because the dogs don't stop barking. Sure enough, they started barking and barked till the cows went out to graze. I(on the fifth floor of the building) learnt to make my peace with it and slept off.

We woke up next morning to take a local sightseeing tour. At breakfast (at where else but "The Grand", we were joined by a large (loud) Indian contingent of twenty, all whom seemed to concur with my father about the idlis and the dosas). To be very honest, there aren't too many local sights to see in Thimphu. It's more of the kind of town you'd relax in and visit other places from. We first had the matter of the so called exit permit to sort out.


Bhutan Travel Advisory #8: Try and exit from the same place that you entered/got a permit from. Even though we never needed the exit permit, we took one that said we could exit from Gelephu. In either case, should you decide to visit (very scenic) Eastern Bhutan and exit from Samdrup Jongkhar, you will require an additional permit from the immigration office in Thimphu.


After having sorted out the exit permit issue, we embarked on a two hour tour of the city (that's all it takes to cover all of it). We visited the Changangkha temple, and then the Takin reserve. A brief note about the Takin here. This is the national animal of Bhutan. It has the head of a goat and the body of a cow. I must admit that it's the ugliest national animal I have ever seen. At the Takin reserve we were informed that it is illegal to kill animals in Bhutan. All the meat to feed the largely non-vegetarian population is imported from India (so is the petrol, which is cheaper in Bhutan than anywhere in India). Apparently the people had had a field day with all the dead fish washing up after the flood. Following the Takin reserve, we visited the BBS tower from where we got a panoramic view of Thimphu. On our way down, we caught a distant glimpse of the Trashichhodzong, which serves as the Parliament and the seat of the Chief Abbot. Our last place of visit within the city was the Memorial Chorten and then the local trip ended, sooner than it had started.




(Above: Clockwise from top left : Thimphu from the BBS tower, the Trashichhodzong, Memorial Chorten, the Takin)


We had the rest of the afternoon and evening to spend by ourselves, in which we went about roaming around Norzin Lam and surrounding areas. On the shopping list were (the very smart) national costumes of Bhutan. However, they turned out to be rather expensive. At dinner (for once, not at "The Grand"), I sampled a local (very potent) cocktail called the Fiery Dragon. I recommend the drink. Have one, two at the most.

We were glad to find our driver in the mauve (not pink yet) of health the next morning as we headed back towards the border. A long drive along (a much more docile) Wang Chhu saw us arrive at the border post at Gelephu at around five in the evening. After we crossed into India, we were warned by the local guides to not stop anywhere along the way till we reached the main road lest we be kidnapped and become their headache. A nice touch to end one's vacation, one thought. We spent the night at Bongaigaon and were in Guwahati by early afternoon next day. We hadn't really seen Bhutan in all its glory. For one I was disappointed at having given Eastern Bhutan a miss, especially when I saw some of the postcards. But atleast we hadn't come back home looking sorry. Due credit to my parents for that. This is where I sign off and gloat at how beautifully the title fits the story (secretly happy that I didn't have to name it "Aila Re").


Bhutan Travel Advisory #9: Misinformation abounds. Refer to the right source always.


"Houston, this is Honesty. It's good be back."

Apollo 13 - The Bhutan Chronicles Part I

On April 11, 1970 at 1313 hrs, NASA launched the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. While on its way to the moon, there was an explosion in one of the service module's oxygen tanks which blew out most of the spacecraft's systems. At this point, the mission changed. The mission was no longer to get the astronauts on the moon, but to bring them back alive. NASA succeeded at this new mission and achieved what has been called one of the greatest rescues ever. Some people also called this mission a "successful failure" because they were never able to land on the moon and yet, all the astronauts were back home, safe and sound, despite the overwhelming odds.

What the above story has to do with a recent family trip to Bhutan, is something that will evolve over the next few lines. When I was cycling through the possible titles I would give this post, I also considered naming it "Aila Re", and that would have been the title if we hadn't succeeded in surmounting the glitch thrown at us by a cyclone with the same name. On to my travelogue then...

On 24th May, my mother, my sister and I flew to Guwahati to join my father. As I always do, I had checked online, the weather forecast for Bhutan for the next week. The outlook didn't look good. "Heavy rain and thundershowers" is not what you want to stare at you from your computer screen just hours before you leave for a vacation (of which, one may contend, I have had a sumptuous number of in this year). We had grand plans of touring the country from west to east by road, Eastern Bhutan with its mountainous terrain being my primary area of interest. Nevertheless, I kept this disappointing bit of information to myself and prayed hard that some freak wind mind blow and the rain would drift to some other parched parts of the world.

We set out from Guwahati for the Jaigaon-Phuentsholing border in West Bengal (the only road-entry point into Bhutan) on the morning of the 25th. The weather seemed to behave itself and while it was cloudy, there was no water being showered at us from above. All that changed, however, as we crossed the Bongaigaon oil refinery around noon. The first drops appeared on our windshields, and it would be safe to say that my face lost about two-thirds of its colour which translated into another three faces losing two-thirds of their colour once I shared the information I had read two nights ago. It was about six in the evening when we reached Jaigaon, the Indian side of the Indo-Bhutan border. It was too late to complete the paper work, so we had no choice but to stay at the Indian side of the border for the night. I say "no choice" because the Indian side of the border is as chaotic a border town there is. The roads are filled potholes and lined with garbage on the side. There are no great hotels to stay at either. It's crowded and depressing, manic; almost(below).



It started to pour that night, like it had never poured before. I switched on the TV in my room at night, to find that a cyclone named "Aila" had hit the West Bengal coast, and it's tail was lashing, of all places, my place. My family and I have had a fair amount of bad luck when touring the north-east. We were greeted by landslides in Sikkim, nearly got killed (still alive, all four of us) in Arunachal last year, and now this.

The next morning, then, I woke up to a dull grey morning, and underwear-clad Bengali uncles and aunties chattering loudly in the wide hallway about a range of topics (the Communist Party mainly). Funnily enough, the harder I prayed for the rain to stop, the harder it rained. Nevertheless, we gathered the courage to get ready and cross over. I have crossed a few borders by road in my life (Pakistan and Nepal being the previous one). When you cross over by road, you expect to observe a certain degree of continuity across the border before the actual country materializes. This however, was not the case with the Phuentsholing border. The moment we crossed, the noise died away, the dirt vanished, the roads were broader, potholes fewer, the rain(however); still pouring down (below).



Drenched as my father and I were, we somehow made it to the immigration office on the other side of the border to obtain our route permit. This is where we were informed that the documents for my sister and our driver were insufficient and we would have to visit the Indian consulate for identification papers in order to enter. This leads me to my first travel advisory for Bhutan:

Bhutan Travel Advisory #1: While Indians don't require a visa for Bhutan, the only identification accepted are valid passports and voter ID cards. That includes your driver. Any other ID will land you at the consulate, looking for them to issue identification papers, which is grossly painful (decent euphimism).

My sister had her board exam admit card and my driver only had his driving licence. What followed was a very painful search for the Indian consulate at Phuentsholing. Most roads were one-way, and our driver was suddenly having epiphanies about how his driving licence was really farce, and was needless to say rather nervous about breaking any local driving laws. I don't blame him. Thirteen years of indisciplined driving on Indian roads needed to be unlearned. At the Indian consulate, we had a rendezvous with a man we would not classify in the "jovial" category. After giving our driver a dressing down for not possessing adequate identification, he insisted that my mother (being a government servant) produce a no-objection certificate from her office. This sent us into a tizzy and we hurriedly returned to the Indian side to obtain the remaining documents by fax. Rather (very rare) efficient handling from my mother's office ensured that we had the documents ready in about two hours and soon enough, we were issued our permits to stay and travel till Thimphu. The rain stopped and it finally seemed like everything was alright. It was too late to start for Thimphu, so we decided to spend a night at Phuentsholing. A separate permit was required for the vehicle and we took a short trip to the Inter State Bus Terminus (which looked nothing short of a palace from the outside (below)). Here we were informed that two days of incessant rain had caused massive landslides and road-blocks.



Bhutan Travel Advisory #2 : Carry atleast 5 passport size photographs. If you take a vehicle into Bhutan, make sure you carry drivers' licences the registration and insurance certificates.

Bhutan Travel Advisory #3: If you should stay over at the border, stay on the Bhutanese side. No permits are required to stay overnight. The place is cleaner, the hotels are much better and charge very nearly the same. Bhutan Standard Time runs half an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time.

Bhutan Travel Advisory #4: Always carry an umbrella or a raincoat. It rains out of nowhere and it comes down hard, even when cyclone Aila is not ruining your vacation.


The next morning, local news channels carried images of the river Wang Chhu breaching its barriers and washing away truckloads of land with it. We were informed by the road authorities that the road from Phuentsholing to Thimphu was blocked and would only be cleared in three days at the very least. This was our Apollo 13 moment.