Saturday, May 30, 2009

Is everyone ageing prematurely?

If you look around you, look at the TV ads, and at all the Indian women (and a large percentage of the men) who have gone nuts trying to stop age from showing, you would think that suddenly, everyone has begun to age prematurely. After all, much as I hate the idea of any artificial age hiding product, I can remotely imagine a 20-something with a premature ageing problem wanting to use them.

If a 23 year old starts to show a serious amount of gray hair, there is some little justification for using a hair dye, for example. But could there be anything more ridiculous than a 70 something person, hardly able to walk due to arthritis, clearly showing age in posture, skin, and nature, with completely jet-black hair?? I think not. Yet that is the road most people seem to be on! In any large gathering of Indians these days, parties, theatre, or whatever, you would be hard put to it to find a single natural salt and pepper head. Even if the average age of the gathering is above 50!! One or two of the men might be going the natural way, but chances are you won’t be able to spot a single woman, no matter what her age, with a single strand of gray.

Do these people really think they are fooling anyone? Does a 72 year old grandmother of three really expect people to take her for a 20 year old because she has dyed hair? All she is really doing is making a rich cosmetic company even richer. What on earth can be more dignified, more attractive, or more sexy, than a naturally salt and pepper head? There is nothing more horrible, to me at least than an obviously older person who has the “polyester” hair that regular dyeing gives you. Puts me in mind of Vincent Price and old silent zombie movies. It’s so inhuman! And frankly so disgusting!

Doctors, lawyers, professors, talented actors… why would you demean your position in society and the dignity of your profession in such a cheap way? Does anyone really think Shabana Azmi looks better today, with her dyed hair, overdone make-up, and over the top clothes, than she did even five years ago? I would much rather see her back in her sober, arty cotton sarees, understated make-up, and natural grace. And that goes for everyone, man woman other.

And what’s with this huge thing with anti ageing creams, lotions, slaves, gels, and what have you? Seems to be part of the whole “stay young forever” thing that average humanity is so mad after. Of course what no one seems to be telling these women (and it is largely, almost exclusively women who buy these products) is that none of them work! Any competent dermatologist will tell you that wrinkles are cause by the lower layer of skin, the dermis, shrinking and coming loose from the subcutaneous layer underneath. The slowdown in the production of collagen and elastin at the border areas of the dermis and the subcutaneous layers also adds to the effect. The same doctor would also tell you that no matter how many, and how much of, creams, oils, lotions, etc your apply, nothing can reach deep enough to get to the problem areas, or change anything.

Essentially, all you are really doing is making a lot of money for Ponds and L’Oreal, and that’s all. And what really gets to me, and makes me pity the insecure, spineless seekers after the fountain of youth, is seeing a DOCTOR buy anti ageing cream! How priceless is that!!!! As for me, I am proud of every single day and minute that I have lived here on this planet. I have lived more in my almost 34 years than many do in a lifetime. I have seen, felt, experienced, tested, tasted, been through, and done a huge lot, and every minute of that is precious to me. I am proud of how old I am.

If, 15 years from now, someone told me that I look like an elder sister to my 18-year-old daughter, I would take it as a serious insult!!!!!!! And I am sure she would not be too happy about it either. I am proud to be a mom, shall be equally as proud to be a grandmom, whenever that happy day arrives, and trying to seem younger than I am is something I JUST DON’T GET!!! Hell, I threw a party when I found the first strand of gray in my hair!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Harvesting rainwater may solve some of India’s water problems

Water is going to be the next world crisis. Long before the world runs out of food, or fuel, human beings will run out of clean usable water. With growing consumption, due to increasing penetration and population, the day when the world’s sweet water runs out is fast approaching.

In fact, most experts agree that water is a zero sum game. If you run out, you can only do one of a few things about it. You can reduce your consumption, which is impossible; you can increase your supply, which isn’t realistic either; you can steal some; or you can find new sources. In fact, the third option here is the one most countries are likely to take. As a result, the third world war, if it ever happens, is probably going to be over water.

You can already see that happening on a small scale with water disputes between nations, as well as between states within India. It doesn’t take too much of a leap in imagination to see how this can escalate into a global issue. And with the way people waste water, and the way industries and cities are polluting water sources, rivers, lakes, groundwater, the crisis is closer than you may think.

Makes you wonder why more people, and governments, don’t think about option four, finding new sources. Agreed that it is not as simple as it sounds, it isn’t impossible either. Consider the option of harvesting rainwater. In a tropical country like India, where you have as much as three months of monsoons every year, with amazingly heavy rains during the season, this could be a viable alternative source for water. Even in countries further north, which receive less rains but a lot more snow, catching and storing the snow may be a possible way of augmenting fresh water supplies.

Recently some noises are being made, in the circles where decisions are made, about making it mandatory for a building to have rainwater harvesting facilities before allotting permissions and licenses for new construction. However, no such rules are in place as of now, and every year hundreds of millions of gallons of water are being wasted as runoff. If even a fraction of this water could be caught, filtered and stored, it could make a huge difference. After all, even if you didn’t want to drink the harvested water, it could be used for other needs, in the bathrooms, for washing up, gardening, and so on.

It’s actually surprising that more people don’t harvest. It doesn’t really cost all that much, especially if incorporated at the construction stage. In al older building or house, it might cost a little more to set up the funnel, strainer, tank equipment, but it makes sense in the long run, especially if you consider the water shortages most Indian cities face almost every summer. So, why this resistance to change? Think about the idea, for your own convenience, if not as responsible citizens. It works, it doesn’t cost very much, and it is greatly useful in the long run!

Why not think of alternate power solutions?

The world is teetering on the verge of a massive power and fuel crisis. Fossil fuels are running out faster and faster, as the world gets more and more cars dependent on them. A massive percentage of power production is thermal, and also dependent on fossil fuels like natural gas and other petroleum products. Put all that together, and consider the number of barrels of oil being pumped out of the earth, and its easy to see that the world is soon going to run out of fossil fuels.

Then what happens? Will the world be forced to do without heat, power, transport? Do we go back to fireplaces (if there is any wood left to burn by then), horse drawn carriages and candles? It’s a distinct possibility that we will. And the day is not too far off either. Everyone is talking about it; scientists have been warning people about it for decades; environmentalists are up in arms; and nothing is changing. One of the biggest downsides of fossil fuels, apart from the fact of their limited supply, is the amount of pollution caused by their use. With the planet already groaning under the weight of the effluents put into the earth, air and water by humans everyday, the last thing the human race needs is more pollution.

The world over, and definitely in India, there is precious little attempt being made to find or create alternative sources of energy. Some countries have tried their hand at harnessing renewable sources of energy, like solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal power, but most have been very backward in this regard. In India, the few attempts at moving away from river valley projects and thermal power stations have been towards nuclear power. None of it has been even close to adequate.

Vast tracts of the country are not even on the grid, while the areas which are, are grossly undersupplied. And things look all set to get much worse this summer. There just isn’t enough power to go around. Cities are getting bigger, but supply isn’t. Once power rich states like Maharashtra look forward to 4 hour power cuts a day in urban, and up to 12 hours a day in upcountry areas. And the situation can only get worse unless massive changes are incorporated. And nuclear power does not look like the answer. It’s expensive, dangerous to produce, and creates a lot of pollution, and it hardly ever works as it should!

Why, one wonders, doesn’t a country like India seriously consider alternate sources of power? Tropical country, with endless summers, enormous coastline, bays, constant winds, and huge amounts of sunlight, it’s obvious that India is the perfect candidate for extensive solar, wind and tidal power harnessing projects. There are large tracts of open but infertile ground where nothing grows, and there are deserts, both perfect locations for large solar power harnessing projects. More than half the year is summer, and temperatures often go as high as 45 degrees Celsius, with no end of clear skies and sunny days. In short, this is the ideal land for large scale experimentation with solar power.

Similarly, the long, almost endless coastline is perfect for both wind and tidal power harnessing! The mountain ranges, the ghats, run parallel to the eastern and western coasts, offering innumerable high sites ideal for windmill projects. These alternative sources are cheaper than the traditional sources in the long term, it is possible to produce them on a large scale, they are clean, and endless! A certain amount of initial investment, no larger than that for nuclear power stations, and you have renewable, green and efficient sources of power. Makes sense for a power starved nation I think. Why on earth doesn’t anyone take a serious look at this?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Stand-up or fall down?

For a very long time, comedy in India meant the really awful slapstick that passed for comic relief in Bollywood films. While the odd off-the-beaten-track Hindi film had good, subtle, intelligent comedy, there was really no concept of stand up comedy.

The earliest predecessors to proper standup were the people with the little wedding music bands. Little groups of people with little or no talent who made a living singing and playing at weddings, parties, office functions and so on. They sang the latest Bollywood hit songs, usually quite badly, and had this one guy, it was always a guy, who came on every once in a while to mimic film stars and other known personalities. In fact, one of the biggest names in Bollywood comedy, Johnny Lever, began his career as that guy. This was comic relief and rest time for the singers all rolled into one, and wasn’t usually worth very much, bar a few exceptions like Lever.

Over the last few years, however, things have changed a lot. Whether it is exposure to the west and western styles of comedy, or just the desperate need to fill some of the 24 hour TV time that all the channels have, standup comedy has suddenly arrived, big time! It all began with a show on one of the channels called the “laughter challenge”. It was good, it brought out great comic talent from all over the country, and it held a competition amongst them to choose one winner. Then, before you could blink, or say comedy, every channel had its own version of the show, including regional ones.

Of course, as is usual with most of these things, the more popular it got, the worse it got. From being quite funny and fairly intelligent, with social criticism and comment, it soon disintegrated into farce, double entendre, and sexual innuendo. Quality went rapidly downhill, and the laughter went from easy to forced to absent, as more and more people, with little real talent, jumped into the field to get their fifteen minutes of fame.

Now, any of the spinoffs, competitors, or reruns of the Laughter Challenge, is juts a sheer pain to have to watch. It has all descended again into slapstick, mimicry, and physical comedy, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope for a revival.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Thank God For “different” Hindi films

I’m a movie freak. My love affair with the “moving pictures” started early in life, and my parents fondly recall how I was fascinated by moving images from the time that I could distinguish coherent images. I would apparently stay glued to a screen, any screen, for hours on end, just as long as something was moving on it. Didn’t matter if it was Krishi Darshan or Star Trek, if it moved, I watched it! Most people begin their film watching life, as I did, unguided, and I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of stuff over the years. I did have a slight advantage (not so slight come to think of it) of having parents who recognised good cinema, and cared enough to show it to us kids. Over the years, I also discovered, for myself, what does or does not work for me, cinematically.

I am seriously tired of the kind of routine formula fare that’s produced in the name of commercial cinema in Bollywood. For over a decade now, I have been more and more disappointed by mainstream cinema in India. I am heartily sick of the typical Bollywood masala or family melodrama movie. The K3Gs and the DDLJs, the oft repeated tale, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing make me angry. It seems like a personal insult to me that the producers and directors have no respect for the intelligence and taste of the audience; that they dare to pass off any old thing as popular entertainment, in the name of cinema. Of course, thanks to the great Indian audiences, it has worked well enough for the few big banners which made millions, because they could afford to spend millions in making the films in the first place. But, and this is the saddest part, there wasn’t much on offer for people like me, people who wanted something a little different, something with a little more value.

Way back when, one basically didn’t have a choice, and was forced to watch the latest mindless love triangle, song dance, wet saree thingy, like it or not. The only other option was the dreaded “parallel cinema”. The problem with the parallel or art films, for me at least, was that they were often mere exercises in intellectual snobbery, mostly boring, and so slow that they would shame a snail. They were very ponderous, often pseudo, overly philosophical and dispensed too much gyaan. Some were good of course, Arth, Ardha Satya, Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda, come to mind, but more often than not, they were not ideal for an evening of relaxation, when all I want to do is watch something good, that makes me think and feel yes, but doesn’t try to force any “isms” down my throat! Sadly, they often disappointed as much as the mainstream did. The only choice left to give me the whole movie going experience, cinematic quality married with good storylines, good direction and good acting, offbeat themes, and so on was world cinema.

Things had gotten to a point where I was about to give up Indian cinema altogether, apart from the regional “art” fare, when the so-called multiplex films came along. And I am extremely grateful for them! In spite of the price of the tickets, and the insane tag on soft drinks and samosas, the multiplex has saved modern Indian cinema, and it has rescued me from certain boredom, massive irritation, and serious disgust.

The multiplex film is ideal, although it is not always great cinema. Small to medium budget films, ‘hatke’ themes, irreverent and offbeat handling, often inadvertently funny and usually innovative, they are always refreshingly different from the usual bolly crap. In fact I would much rather watch a Johnny Gaddar, with its tight narration, interesting camera perspectives, good solid acting, and innovative script, than put myself through the latest SRK extravaganza, which is any old script in a slightly new avatar. I will take a Honeymoon Travels Private Limited with all its wackiness, or because of it, over a Kabhi Alvida Na Kehena. I would love to laugh through two hours of Bheja Fry, remake and rip off that it is, than watch yet another mega bucks launch of yet another star kid.

And the biggest blessing of the multiplex syndrome is the effect that it is having on the mainstream. More and more big-budget producers and directors are beginning to wake up to the fact that the good old “family ronadhona” or the “chhora chhori” triangle formulas are losing their thrill (HALLLELLUIJAH!). Mainstream commercial films are beginning to try and provide quality fare for their audiences. They may not be there yet, but at least they have woken up to the fact that they must try!

As far as I am concerned, this is a great state of affairs for little old me – the movie buff! No longer am I doomed to sit through another mindless multistarrer!!

Piracy is a boon

There are appeals on television and full page spreads in the papers. Huge stars are campaigning, begging you not to buy pirated films or music. Microsoft and other software manufacturers repeatedly warn you against buying pirated software. Microsoft goes so far as to neutralize functioning pirated systems that it detects online, causing the pirated SW to stop functioning. The appeals are heartfelt, and you are told all about the millions of rupees lost every year in royalties because of these unscrupulous thieves called pirates.

The question of course is, are they telling you everything? And more importantly, what does piracy mean for you? Well, first of all, let’s be clear about what music and film piracy is. It is the unauthorized copying and sale of music, books, software, films, and other intellectual property. Basically it’s a copyright and intellectual property rights violation. While this is a problem, and unfair to the creator in many ways, there is more than on side to the argument.

A company like Microsoft spends a certain amount of money, time, resources, and energy developing the latest version of Windows. The question of course is whether it isn’t unfair to sell a single original copy of the operating system, to you, for as much as eight or twelve thousand rupees. Does it really cost that much to produce each copy? Even including overheads, profit margins, and so on, isn’t the official price sheer greed?

Consider books. There is hardly anything you can buy these days that costs anything less than five hundred rupees. For an avid reader, the monthly bill for books can be as much as fifty thousand rupees if they indulge themselves. Does each of those books really cost so much to print and publish? And again, even adding the extras, isn’t this price daylight robbery? Isn’t 900 rupees for the latest Harry Potter book, and all the hoopla and security around it, sheer avarice on the part of the author?

As for films and music, the same thing applies. The very stars appealing to you to forget piracy and pay extortionate prices for a movie ticket, DVD or a music CD, are the ones who charge billions of rupees, driving up the cost of the film. And they don’t lose a penny. They get paid in advance, as does everyone else, including the director. The only people losing money are the distributors, and that too not much.

Film exhibitors are whining about how piracy is reducing footfalls at their theatres, while in the same breath they increase the prices on their tickets, and convert their theatres to horribly overpriced multiplexes, and making more off one ticket than they would from 100 before this. Both industries also horribly underpay the lower ranks, the technicians, spot boys, and so on, while the star takes a HUGE amount of money.

Now consider this. How many millions does a company, an author, a star or a singer really need to make? Also, at these prices, what is the message? Poor people have no right to listen to music, watch a movie, own software, or read a book? Anyone with an income below a certain level should just forget about art and entertainment? Must all of these things be forced to become elitist and exclusionary, leaving the less fortunate, the less well heeled, and the less solvent, out in the cold?

If all these stars are really so concerned about piracy, let them charge less. If the companies care so much about intellectual property rights, let them sell software cheaper. If Rowling wants you to buy only originals (giving her all the money) let her sell them for 100 rupees. If anyone gets original quality and guarantee at competitive prices, why would they bother buying pirated stuff, as Moser Baer is proving now? And if the original is prohibitively expensive, it is every human’s right to buy pirated copies at a price they can easily afford. My message to all those people so concerned about piracy is, stop being greedy, and piracy will die a natural death.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Patriotism and the modern Indian

Patriotism, according to the dictionary, is the devoted love, support, defense of one’s country, and a passion and loyalty which inspires one to serve ones county. By any of those descriptions, most modern Indians fall far short of being patriotic. Probably the same applies to most people, anywhere in the world.

No one really has the time or the energy to be overtly patriotic these days. Too many other things occupy peoples’ time now. What with the pressures of modern living, the stresses of the rat race, and the constant high speed living that one is engaged in all the time, who really has time for posturing and nationalistic fervour?

In addition, a huge number of young urban Indians are actually the opposite of patriotic. Their biggest dream in life is to leave “this hellhole” and settle permanently in all those countries that are their “heaven on earth”. Most of these people are happy enough to take advantage of the government sanctions, and the cheap education here, waste the Indian government’s money to get their degrees, take advantage of all the resources here, and then wave a permanent goodbye to the land that nurtured them.

This group though, is getting smaller now. With salary structures in both private sector and PSU India getting much more lucrative, and since the grass is no longer as green on the other side as it used to be, a lot of young Indians are finding fulfilling and high paying careers right here at home. But, at the same time, this group doesn’t have much time to think about patriotism either.

Whether or not they love their country, no one knows. What they don’t have is the time or the inclination to make a great show of it. In fact, any kind of overt patriotic displays are seen on only two kinds of occasions; a “day” like independence or republic day, or a sporting event, especially cricket matches. That’s when the patriotism of Indians seems to really break all dams and overflow all banks. From waving flags from every passing car, to dancing on the streets; from firecrackers to celebrate an Indian victory, to shouting from the rooftops; the modern Indian revels in patriotism, on average, about 6 or 7 days a year.

A train journey loses half its charm

Recent travel to Delhi and back brought home to me the sad changes in Indian train travel. I have always loved trains, as I am sure many people do, and the twice yearly pilgrimage to Kolkata have always been the high points of my year. It was an amazing experience which changed as I grew, of course, but never quite lost its magic.

It was a heady mix of many emotions. There was the “thank god!” of vacations; the anticipation of seeing much loved cousins and friends; looking forward to all the “aador”, the typical Bengali feed-her-till-she-bursts brand of love, from the numerous aunts, uncles, grandparents, great uncles, great aunts, and so on. All in all, a trip to Kolkata was great in and of itself. Add to this the kick of train travel, thirty six hours of it at a time, on average, and holidays were a lot of fun.

Trains were exciting and interesting. Normal rules were relaxed and there was much to see and do. We always preferred to travel “sleeper class” or “second class” as it was still called way back when, because it was a lot more interesting. You met more interesting people, people moreover, who were willing to talk and get to know you, from varied backgrounds. All one did on a train was eat junk, listen to the talk, look out the window, and occasionally…sleep. Staying up pretty much all night to see each tiny station the train stopped at, making lists of when it came into and left them, laughing at the most inane jokes that only me and my brother understood, oh it was a grand, grand time.

These days though, things seem to have changed a huge deal. People are less friendly, almost positively unfriendly actually, I’m older, and all the fun food is GONE!!! That’s right….the biggest mos fun part of the train trip… all that junk food, the jhaal muri, the vadas, the pakoras, the puri bhaji, the chana chaat, the kheera chaat….its all GONE!!!!!!!!!!! Curse that Laloo! Grrrrrrrrrrr. In the good old days, even though most long distance trains had a separate pantry car, the pantry was operated by the railways, and every station had a range of food options in the form of railways catering carts, private vendors, and little basket-round-the-neck sales wallahs from the city or village nearby.

It was fun sampling practically everything that one could find on the stations --- puri bhaji, roti sabji, dosa, bread-omelet – and every little vendor who climbed on board, selling as much as they could between one station and the next – roasted peanuts, jhalmuri, cucumbers, mangoes, chanas, pakoras, nd so much more!! In fact, the choices were so many that most people didn’t order their meals from the pantry and just ate at the stations instead. After all, not everyone wants to eat dinner at 7 pm, which is when the pantry would supply it. They would just wait for a large enough station around 10 pm or so, and buy food from the vendors on the platform.

What’s changed now is that the Indian Railways doesn’t do its own catering anymore. It’s all been privatized, and franchised. So the pantry food has become more expensive and worse in quality and taste, while the platform vendors, both railway and private, have been shut down in a bid to eliminate competition, force passengers to buy from the pantry, and thus increase the profits of the franchisee.

So all the way to Delhi and back, I ate pantry doled out cardboard and ditchwater, and paid horribly inflated prices for half size meals that were really difficult to swallow…in more ways than one. Which is all very fine for the railways and the caterer…..but makes for one damnably boring and irritating train journey for MOI!

Thursday, May 21, 2009


a little aside here.....
a theatrical whisper/soliloquy.

Odyssey Kolkata has just closed its doors! YESSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! the universe does provide! there is Justice in the world! dhan ta ta tan dhan ta ta tan dhan ta ta tan dhan ta ta tan! OLE ! and all that JAzz

Readers mystified at this unseemly display of glee at someone else's loss please refer to "
Odyssey Kolkata Disappoints " on this blog for elucidation! YEAS! COWER THOU MORTALS! MATA HAS SPAKE AND SO IT SHALL BE! by isis and by kaali..... (paishachik attahassa.... cackle cackle .... high pitched laughter fading slowly with porentious sounds of thunder in the background) Ahhhhhhh! what relish, what pleasure, what VINDICATION!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Love….. or something like it

Love is a many-splendoured thing. Isn’t it? Or have I got the wrong end of the stick on that one as well? Everyone I meet, especially online, but offline as well, seems to have a totally different view of love than mine. And the more I hear their version, the more I wonder…if 90% of humanity (or the humanity I have met) sees love one way, and I see it exactly the opposite…which one is right? Or is there even a right?

What is love? Possessiveness? Jealousy? Emotional co-dependence? If it is any of these things, I have never been in love. As a matter of fact, many of my relationships have broken up over the fact that I am singularly un-possessive and un-jealous. A lot of my partners saw my lack of clinging, and burning to a crisp at sight of them talking to other women, as a sign of my lack of love for them. Me? I saw it as a sign of my immense love for them that I trusted them, that I wanted them to have their own lives outside of our life together. But then, like everything else, it’s a matter of opinion.

I come from a long line of strong women. And needless to say…I am strong. I find clingy hothouse flower type women irritating, and would rather die than become one of them. Is that such a problem? YES IT IS if you were to believe some of my men. Apparently, no matter what they say about liking independent women, free women, they still really want the little clinging vine. And that…my friend…I am not gonna be…ever!!! Even when men do “fall for” women like me….or what I seem to be on the surface, its ok for the short term. A smoking, drinking, recreational drug using, partying woman is great as a girlfriend! How cool man, what a lucky dog yo, your GF is such a babe man! Come time to commit, and most Indian men at least turn MCP in a hurry. Out comes the list of the good girls. The little bharatiya naris who will serve their men, bow to the opinion of the lord and master in all things important, and never, never try to assert their own will! Well, best luck I say….but leave me out. I am what I am. If you can’t take the heat buddy get the hell out of the kitchen!

Another wall I keep coming up against is what I call the DEVDAS syndrome. “you can only love once, true love happens only once, etc etc.” Can you fall in love with more than one person in your lifetime? I would answer yes, because I have, but the aforementioned 90% seem to answer with a resounding NO!!! Their ideal lover is Devdas… he died for love…they say…how grand!!!! Let’s examine this character, this paragon of Indian love, shall we? First of all we have a rich kid…spoilt, apparently in love with a little girl who worships the ground he walks upon…so far so good? How does he treat her? Cruel is not even the word…he insults her, hits her, is consistently rude to her…until she is married off. At which point…he gets an attack of “oh my God I’ve lost her!” and proceeds to drink himself into a permanent stupor. In this state, he meets a dancing girl, who, having fallen in love with him, gives up her profession, and devotes her life to looking after him. And what does he do in return, you ask? He insults her, ignores her, and pines after the first girl and finally drinks himself to death….. THIS IS LOVE?????

Even if you accept the premise that he died for love… and I don’t for a minute accept that….he is still not my idea of a good lover. Real love…the way I see it…is not about dying for someone…it’s about living with someone. It’s about loving them enough to deal with the daily small irritants, waking up every morning next to them and saying “I will make today work,” of being nice when all you really want to do is slap them silly, of putting hard work and a solid emotional investment into making a life together. THAT’S LOVE, or something like it.

Chat Masala 2009

I am a chatter. It’s true!! On any given day, while I work, the one place I am also likely to be found, is in that wonderful, ephemeral thing called cyberspace; in one of those hundreds of wonderfully imaginary spaces better known as chat rooms. And, what’s more…….. I actually enjoy it! ( there goes my membership of the AANTEL club)

After years of intensive chatting, I have found a few common traits in the average Indian chatter that I find incomprehensible, and sometimes, downright weird. Here’s a list...

First of all, what’s with the English? We, as a nation, have been learning English for… what? … 160 years? Today’s urban Indian watches English movies, goes to English medium schools and sits glued to English channels on TV. So how come most of us are still saying things like “will you do/make friendship with me?” and “I am proposing you for friendship”? Why, when I say my work is writing, do I get “means?” Not “what kind of writing”, mind you, not, “beg your pardon”, nor “what do you mean writing?”… Just “means?” or, even better “mean…” why do we still ask “what do your age?” or “what is yours good name?” is there something in our nature that makes us resistant to picking up correct grammar? Or is it just the system? None of these people are either uneducated, or from vernacular institutions. I am talking about engineers, MBAs and doctors who have done these courses after spending a good part of their life in English medium schools!!!!!! Even if terrible English is not nearly the worst thing I keep running into on chat, it does leave a really bad taste in my mouth. I enjoy language; love the nuances, the delicacies, and the intricacies of new tongues. And frankly it jars to see the state of English in modern, urban, educated, 21st century India.

And then, of course, we have the major opener “caste?” Now, as I have discovered, this can mean one of two things. They are either trying to find out your mother tongue, or your actual caste (God! The English!) Both of which, in my view, are unimportant even for one-on-one real-time-space acquaintance, let alone a casual chat on the net. What does it matter to some nameless, faceless entity on the net whether I am a Maharashtrian or a Gujarati or a Bangali? Even if it seems nice to know, from the point of view of say… finding a fellow Bengali on the net and speaking Bangla to them, should this be one of the first few questions to be asked? Why this intense need to label, mark and cubbyhole people? I have found, in my interpersonal relationships, that I may not even be aware of a person’s last name as much as 6 or 8 months into a friendship or acquaintance; let alone caste, or community. Not a problem, as far as I can see. In fact I think it helps me see the person better as an individual rather than a Marwari or Tamilian or something, which would, at some level, bring in all the stereotypes about that community that I may have received from media, movies, and common lore.

Also, why “religion?” This again is something that I would prefer not to interfere with my perception of someone. Or someone’s of me. And… what is worse… when I say I am an agnostic, or an atheist (I tend to say both coz I haven’t really made up my own mind yet) I get either another “means?” Or, even worse, “but what is your religion?” this latter flabbergasted me for quite sometime before I realised that the concept of personal belief is either non-existent or unimportant in this context. What I am being asked is what religious community I was born into. This too puts my hackles up. Again, being seen as belonging to a community, regardless of whether I believe myself a part of it, has too many stereotypes and received ideas associated with it that I would rather avoid. Most of us today, in my opinion at least, are not very religious anyway. Lack of time, lack of inclination or lack of faith… call it what you will. So, for someone who is a self avowed atheist/agnostic to be badgered about what religion they, or barring that - their parents, belong to, seems a bit excessive. Should this really be such an important factor in either life or chat?

Oh! And lets not forget that wonderfully subtle (not!) way of trying to find out the above things if a straight answer is not forthcoming. NAME! Yep. Big deal. I may say “Mickey mouse” three or four times in answer to successive, obsessive questions about name, and I still get “tell me your name” at which point I proceed to put the person on ignore and wonder if they are really so dumb as to not understand that I do not want to tell them my name. Another category of chatter will seem to take my non-disclosure stance in stride only to come up with “any problem?” This group seems unable to comprehend that one may wish to remain anonymous simply because… If you do not tell them a name (any name will do, coz a made up one is just as good in the e-world) they behave as if you have insulted them horribly and start to say really stupid things like “you don’t trust me?” (Duh… I don’t know you from Adam, why the hell should I trust you? Not that that is an issue here) or “I am so bad that you can’t tell me your name also?” (Two things buddy; where the hell did that come from and where the hell did you learn your English?) If, surprise surprise, I do tell them that my name is Jia, we have an immediate “surname?” (Of course this question may come as any one of the following -- sirname, sarname, title etc)

Another major problem for my fellow chatter arises when I say that Jia is my full name, that I do not use a last name. At this point we have a repeat performance of the religion thing with either incomprehension, or insistence. It is not only incomprehensible, but seemingly impossible, in the Indian chatters mind that one may choose to give up one’s last name (coz how can anyone not have a last name!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). They insist on knowing what one’s parents’ last name is, again in an attempt presumably to categorize one into religious, caste, and language/community cubbyholes. Or better still, they start to sympathise. With what? With the massive family tragedy that has driven such a rift between me and my father. WHATTTTT?? WHAT bloody rift? What tragedy? Well, since I have dropped “my father’s surname” I must have either been disowned by them or disowned them myself…obviously! Of course why my DAD has to be identified only by his surname I have no idea…he is DEBASIS as far as I am concerned. The surname he still carries is just a tag that tells people his language, religion, community and caste. I don’t believe in tags…its as simple as that.

Well. Identity out of the way, what do we talk about? Hobbies of course! So, what are my hobbies…. Lets see now, writing, I suppose, although that’s more like a calling than a hobby…. And, I suppose, books, music, movies, people, art, cooking, photography, etc, etc, etc. “people?” comes the question immediately. “Means?” If I was to be my own bitchy self I would say that PEOPLE means, persons in general; men, women, and children; human individuals collectively. A usual word for a group of human beings, considered collectively and without differentiation (according to the Reader’s Digest Universal Dictionary). However, at this point I am already despairing of this person’s grasp of the English language and do not wish to burden their puny minds. Conversation can now be brought to an end, as it would take too much time, money and effort to explain to them how “people” can be a hobby.

So shall we talk about books? “Do you read?” I ask. Hoping against hope to hear a yes. BANG! I am hit by “I have finished my college” … hold on a minute. Back up the cart a little bit. What do you mean you have finished college? Do you mean to say that the only reading you ever did was curricular books? No! That’s not what they mean! They have just shown more evidence of that wonderful English that I was talking about, and equated my “do you read?” with “are you a student?” If you are lucky enough to find someone who actually understands the question, as well as gives a positive answer, you send up a prayer of thanks and ask “what do you read?” pat comes the answer, “newspapers and magazines” or, if you are really, really lucky “comics” or “Hadley chase”(spelt any which way except the correct one). To try and explain that that is not exactly what you consider a reading habit-- is, of course, a complete waste of time and energy. Camus, Kafka and Sartre? Greek and Latin. Even Patricia Cornwell and Arthur Hailey are usually unheard of; let alone Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Move on my friend.

Music? Everyone listens to music right? Yep they do. “What kind?” comes the question. “Everything,” I say “except boy-bands and bubblegum pop.” Instead of starting a discussion about what I do like at this point, 90% will just ask, “why do you hate boy-bands?” and some actually say “They are sooo good. You should love them. Such lovely songs!” I didn’t ask you to hate them did I? So why are you trying to foist your love of them on me? I happen to have a different set of expectations from my artistes and my music. That’s all. And anyway, I have never been very fond of gender-identity-crisised young men singing soppy songs in irritating falsettos. Songs, moreover, which sound pretty much the same across albums as well as bands, and worse, are mostly covers of older much loved numbers by better artistes. Songs that do not speak to me of anything else that is important, except love, love, and love-- ad nauseum. More to life than just love, I have always thought.

And that brings us to another cracker. The third question, usually (after “how are you” and “ASL please”) is “any boyfriend/are you married?” now I completely fail to see how this has any bearing on chat, unless you are in the room only to search for a suitable mate or a quick anonymous lay. Yet, they seem obsessed with marital or romantic status. Refusal to comment just isn’t enough. It is seen as a result of you being single which in turn is seen as a result of someone having given you a hard time and having made you go through bad experience. I love men. My closest, most valued friends, my dad, and my wonderful bro are all men. I’ve always gotten along well with them and always had good memories of my relationships. This however may not be something that I want to share with a complete stranger, about 45 seconds into a chat. On the other hand I do not enjoy the automatic assumption that if I do not bare my innermost soul, it means that I am a bitter, betrayed, cast-off spinster. I wish someone would please explain to me why this question is so important.

And then, there’s “do u have pic?” or in worse cases “do u have cam?” Try as you might, you cannot explain to them that you have neither and don’t want them either. “How can this be?” they wonder, “How can anyone come to chat without a pic or cam?” no is not a good enough answer. Then they want u to see their cams or pics. If u say you r not interested they take umbrage. It is useless to try to explain that you actually like the anonymity of chat. That looks are completely immaterial as you are not there to look for a groom, only to find another human being with half a brain that you can talk to. That all you are there for is a conversation. Maybe a little mental stimulation if you are lucky.

“Stimulation? Ok good. What is your figure/vital statistics?” whoa! Hold on there! Where did that come from? Then, one realises that to these twerps, stimulation and titillation are synonymous. The idea of non-sexual stimulation is non-existent. Hence, at this point, it is wise to use the ignore function (thank god for small mercies!) again unless you want this to disintegrate into what is called “hot-chat” which is what they all seem to be after anyway. And if it is not hot chat then it is “can we meet?” Now, the thing is…… I’ve only known this person for something like 10 min (if that). How the hell am I supposed to decide if I want to meet them? Based on what? They could be a serial killer or a mass murderer for all I know! If you say you are undecided, a repeat of the whole emotional “am I such a bad person/ don’t u trust me” rigmarole recurs.

And, this is a new trend, seems like at least 80% of the people in any chat room these days is looking for “sex chat/ hotchat/ roleplay/ cyber”. Wonder what THAT says about the Indian “culture” that our netas make so much noise about. Repressed, sex starved, and taboo ridden as we are, it is hardly surprising that the anonymity of a chat room brings all the perverts crawling out of the woodwork. I have taken to replying to a “hi ASL pls” with a “clean chat only pls”. This usually makes the more “sorted out” sort of hot chatters leave immediately, thank god for small mercies! However there are the persistent pervs…who will spend a lot of time trying to convince you to engage in sex chat. And being a mother and a “non virgin” automatically makes you an automatic target for daft dialogues like “since you are not a virgin why cant we engage in adult chat?” what’s the state of my hymen got to do with chat anyway? Sex is a communication of love between me and my man and I see no need to either discuss the details of my sex life with a complete stranger, nor to pretend to have sex with one!
Why, after all this, do I bother to continue chatting, one may ask? Simple. For every 30 twerps I meet, and ignore, I end up running into one person who has half a brain and maybe some taste and (miracle of miracles) decent or good English. And of 30 of these, one or two may even challenge or interest me. Not bad for a basic destressing activity that I engage in while I work!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Opting out of the rat race

“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat” said Lily Tomlin, American actress and comedian. That’s an acute and deep analysis of the modern lifestyle that most people seem doomed to live over and over, all their lives! A blind race after the so-called finer things in life; for money and power and social position and accepted definitions of success; all these factors have combined to make the modern Indian a driven creature running, running, till the day they die.

But is this the only way to live? Isn’t there any other way to have a full, and fulfilling, life? Is the stress and daily angst of the rat race; the associated physical, emotional, and mental health problems; the inescapable evils of a modern life? Not necessarily, as a lot of people in urban India are discovering. Opting out of the rat race is becoming a distinct possibility in the age of information, technology and outsourcing.

There are numerous stories of people seizing control of their own lives and changing direction in mid-stream. From sales professionals giving up lucrative jobs with MNCs in order to teach MBA, to engineers turning restaurateurs; young people are choosing to walk away from the high stress, high speed, insane run up the ladder, to do something they enjoy. It’s huge! It’s a risk! But most of them agree, it’s worth every minute of it! They may make less money, at least for a while, but what they gain instead more than makes up for the financial loss.

First of all, there’s a huge fall in stress and angst levels. That brings with it massive health and lifestyle benefits. Occurrence of diabetes and hypertension are sky high in many professions. Younger and younger people are being afflicted, and most of them have no family history of either disease. Experts agree that this is caused by the high levels of stress these people function under, everyday. Get rid of the stress, and voila! Problems are reduced significantly, sometimes even totally disappear!

Less time spent running after money means more time on your hand for doing things you love and spending quality time with family and friends. Creative pursuits, hobbies, and social interaction, all reduce stress further, not to mention make life a joy, and give an immense amount of meaning and fulfillment. And the really fun thing is that you don’t even have to give up on the money! Consultants make good money these days, as can freelancers and business owners. Maybe it wouldn’t be as much as your executive salary package, but the advantages as many too.

So take a serious look at your life, and consider opting out of the rat race. Even thinking about it helps. Feeling like you have an out, anytime you want it, makes the here and now less like a jail.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Medical Tourism brings hope

An Australian businessman gets a heart transplant in Chennai. A high level executive from the UK comes to Kolkata for a knee transplant. Welcome to the age of medical tourism. Many parts of the so-called third world are suddenly the preferred destinations for people from developed country looking for good, bu cheap, medical care.

With healthcare costs shooting through the roof in the US and the UK, and most of the other “developed” nations, it has become difficult for people belonging to the middle to semi affluent class to afford the best medical care, or difficult and expensive medical procedures. On the other hand, a number of countries in the “developing” world now have first rate, world class medical facilities, and doctors, many of whom were trained in those very developed nations! Plus, the recession has made things harder for everyone, even well-off Americans or Europeans.

A combination of the first two factors had already begun to drive a considerable number of foreigners to Asia, and specifically to India, in search of affordable but quality medical care. Add the economic downturn to the mix, and a place like India, where the dollar goes much further than it can back home, suddenly becomes even more attractive. State of the art equipment, world class hospitals, highly qualified doctors, and great medical care, all for a fraction of the cost, attracts, and will continue to attract people from around the world!

Also, on the plus side, travel, stay, and getting around, have gotten much easier for foreigners, especially in urban India. Better and more frequent flights, internationally and inter-city, better budget hotels that provide three star comfort, and better tourist and taxi services have made life easier for the visitor. All in all, everything seems to be geared perfectly to the visitor here for a purpose. As a result, medical tourism is not one of the biggest and fastest growing, sectors of tourism. Especially since conventional “lets go and see the place” tourism is on the decline post economic crash.

Medical tourism is all set to grow manifold in the coming years, and mitigate some of the loss from the decline in conventional tourism. It also puts India on the map for world class services! Not a mean achievement at all!

Does literacy really work?

Elections were approaching fast in India, and suddenly you were being inundated by all kinds of rhetoric, propaganda and analysis. Among the many issues being discussed to death, one of the noisiest is literacy. Governments are being judged on how much of it they have managed to achieve, it is being touted as the sole hope for progress, others who are more understated still consider it a major factor in the overall development of India.

What no one seems to be asking is how literacy is defined here, and whether that’s level and kind of literacy achieves anything. In most cases, in India, literacy is defined as the ability of a person to sign his or her name. Now while this might be a great improvement for someone who basically didn’t know what reading or writing was all about, the question is how much of a difference does just being able to sign your name make in your life? Unless you also learn to read and write properly, learn basic arithmetic, and learn to think and apply what you know, just signing your name is merely an exercise in avoiding humiliation.

While having to put your thumbprint on everything requiring documentation is now a really embarrassing and humiliating experience, just the ego lift of not having to put your “angutha” to things does not make a huge difference to your life on a reality based, day to day basis. Governments of many states make a huge noise about the levels of literacy they have managed to achieve. We keep hearing about what percentage of this or that state is now “literate”. In most cases this is basic literacy. Adult literacy programs give up after the person has learnt the alphabet, that too just in their own regional language, and have learnt to write their name.

So, basically, how does that help? It does not prevent the person from being cheated out of their wages. It does not make them more aware of their rights or more capable of fighting for them. This is merely another example of aiming too low. Where the aim should be basic primary education for each and every citizen, child or adult, states are happy with literacy. If they aimed for primary education for all, they may achieve a certain percentage of it at least, and make up the rest with literacy. As things stand, they don’t even manage to achieve literacy for all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Year: 2009

Grand Occasion: Lok Sabha Elections

Polling Booth Alotted: 175A

THE STORY SO FAR: Before I begin the new episode of the comedy of errors that is the Indian Democracy, let me run you through a RECAP, a la the saas bahu serials on TV. 2004 elections, we are unable to vote, in spite of being among the tiny minority that actually wants to, because of a royal screw up in the system (the uninitiated please refer to my post THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING POLL BHOOTH on this blog).

Raaz – The Mystery Continues: moving forward. Because of the tragic-comic experience of last time, we take special precautions this year. Four months before the elections, we give a conscientious repeat performance of the standing in line in the hot sun and sweating buckets to make sure names are included in the voters’ list. I provide, yet again, reams of documentary evidence that I am indeed alive, and Indian. I give proof that I am who I say I am, live where I say I live, and look like the image in my mirror. All done, there is some more running around to confirm that the process is done, and that the names are ON THE LIST!!! HALLELUIJAH!!

Come Election Day, this habitual morning hater wakes again at 6.30 am to go and discharge her democratic duty. Pitiful, ignorant, cretin. The allotted booth is 175A this year, and there is a street camp of party workers right outside the gate to guide and help. How nice! Check the lists, fill the chits, yes! We exist! Numbers are given, booth is walking distance away, the day is bright and clear, the birds are singing in the trees, god is presumably in his heaven and everything certainly seems all right with the world!

Arrive at the booth, find your section, stand in line….miracle of miracles!!! There are only three people ahead of me! This is going too smoothly, my mind begins to mutter with misgivings. And my presentiments are soon proved correct. There are four, count them, four officers sitting with polling lists inside the booth. Three of these are apparently merely representatives of the major parties contesting. One, o great and mighty small god of the election, is the SARKARI man, the government official in charge of overseeing things. The three party reps easily locate our names on their lists, which are merely copies of the election roll published by the EC and the government. I am just starting to think that THIS TIME things might just go well, when we come up against the wall!

The SARKARI man does not have us on his list! Now since these lists are supposed to be identical, and all originated from the election commission and the local government, one wonders how that can be. Be that as it may, what is the solution now? Here I am, willing, and eager, to cast my vote. So let me! Nope….no can do. Where is your number? Here it is! On three separate lists! Not good enough madam, it is not on the SARKARI list you see….therefore you do not exist. Please to leave.

On our way out, we run into a contingent of the press come to cover the polling. Major names of TV channels flash from PRESS cars. Good! I think. Some noise can be made about this issue!

Wrong again! All of the reporters we approach, including a well dressed lady from ETV, don’t even bother to listen. Shrug shrug, what do you expect us to do, we are not government officers, we cannot change the rolls! DUH! Did I say I want you to? You are the press. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t it your JOB and your RESPONSIBILITY to cover such screw ups, raise these issues, and demand explanations from the incumbents? Not from their behaviour. From their callousness, it is quite clear that they r merely there to do a cosmetic “to apko kaisa lag raha hai” piece of people exiting the polling booth with smile wreathed faces. Grumbles and problems are your problems, not theirs.

As I walk back home I curse myself, yet again for being fool enough to try every time. When will I understand that no one wants me to vote, no matter what Aamir Khan may say on TV?! I am educated, I can think, I am middle class, I don’t have 13 kids, and I don’t vote for the candidate who gives me chicken biryani and a paowa on the eve of battle! I am disqualified in every way from being the ideal Indian voter. The smart thing would be to give up the attempt altogether. However, I AM educated, and I DO have a conscience. So I try, every time, and fail. Then I can peacefully go back home, with no self recrimination, to enjoy a free holiday as 70% of India does on Election Day! “Tell them I came…. And no one answered….that I kept my word….”


POLL BULL Year: 2004 Grand Occasion: Lok Sabha Elections Location: Aundh, Pune Polling Booth Allotted: 81

This morning I realised yet again how much of a farce Indian democracy really is. Today was the voting for Maharashtra for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, and no doubt we have all been watching and hearing inspirational messages “issued in public interest” by various organizations, encouraging people to come out and vote. Good thing, I say, being one of those people who have insisted on using my suffrage at every election since I was of legal voting age. However, it was not to be. Here is my story.

A habitual late riser, I woke up at 6.30 this morning (!!!) in order to be among the first voters from my area. The day began well. I discovered that the polling centre that was allotted for my area is very close to my home. Two days ago, some party workers had kindly come home and handed me my voter list number and the number of my polling station. So it would be a simple, easy and painless job to cast my vote. Right? Wrong. After all, this is India!!

So here we are, four precious votes for the Indian democratic system, early in the morning, going to the booth.

We realised the error of our ways very quickly after we got there. The usual screw up is the absence of ones name from the voter list. We have realised it after having lived in over five Indian states in the past 20 something years. But this was different. This was great. I had, last month applied for inclusion in the voters list for my entire family and me. A process, mind you, that involved waiting in lines, for hours, in the hot summer sun and providing proof, yet again, that I was an Indian. So I was quite amazed and extremely pleased with the efficiency of this government when I found our names on the list so easily. 1907, onwards.

That's simple enough I thought. We made our way to the booth, which is when our troubles began. The little chit we had said our booth number was 81. Booth number 81 said voting for numbers 1 to 990. We asked. They said go to booth 84. Booth 84 said only up to number 1635. Please check in the other school three blocks away. So we tramped to the other school three blocks away. They only had numbers in the 1500 range? Sorry madam. Please try the other school… But we just came from the other school!! Can't help it madam? We only have these numbers. So we trudged back to the original school. No dice there, of course. We, being the misguided, wannabe, DEMOCRATIC, CITIZENS, decided we wanted to pursue this.

I must mention at this point that my entire family is choc-full of conscientious voters, Responsible citizens who are eager to exercise our democratic rights. So we went along in the increasingly hot day to the booth of volunteers outside. They looked at the voters list and told us we were on it. But we already knew that, didn't we? So now what? They were very helpful, bless them. They gave us a volunteer who took us around all of the area, to the four polling stations, trying to find us our booth. To no avail. The numbers from 1635 to 1910 have all been included in the voters list, but have no booth allotted to them. We even spoke to the mayor and all the polling officers in the area no one knew what was going on. No one could solve the mystery of the missing polling booth.

Strange? Not really. After all this is India. These things happen. Right? After All we should be grateful that our names were on the list at least… The fact that our booth exists in some time warped parallel dimension is not the election commission’s fault right? After all, the officer who was responsible for allocating a booth to the new names in the list is also human. He can make mistakes! So what if you didn't get to vote? This is India. Anyways only about 35% people turn out to vote, what’s a handful less?

Please remember that you belong to the least important demographic. You are educated, middle class (meaning one or two offspring per family, not worth bothering about, plus you tend to think before you vote…horror!), and an outsider to boot. A non-maharashtrian! You are lucky enough to be allowed to live here. How dare you aspire to vote? So, finally, at 10.30, 3 hours and a lot of irritation later, we finally gave up. I just wish somebody had told me that my vote was not needed. I would have spent the day at home and enjoyed a nice holiday like so many irresponsible Indian citizens!

Death by coaching

Coaching classes are big business in India. Urban Indians have gone completely obsessive compulsive about all the coaching their kids supposedly need, over and above the schooling and the dance classes, and the swimming classes, and the art classes, and the music classes. Go to the bookstore to buy the year’s worth of school books for your three year old, and you will be handed flyers for coaching classes! Is this insane or what?

Five, six, seven year olds, these days, are going to tuitions after school. These are not graduate, or masters, level students. These are barely first, second or third standard kids. They shouldn’t even need any extra coaching if they are in school and attending classes. Homework is given to students as practice, so the kid can revise what was taught in class, and get the fundamentals right. So, the kid should not need any major help with the homework, and a kid who goes to school regularly and does the homework regularly should have no need for coaching classes! At least not until they are in the 9th!

And suppose the seven year old does need a little help with his homework. In most cases, the parents are at least graduates, and in most cases have higher levels of education themselves. So why is it that they cannot help the kid? Okay, double income families might at least have an issue of time. When both parents get home late at night, helping junior with the homework may not seem too feasible. But, what about single income families? And there are still a lot of those in India! In many cases, the mother is at home all day, has 3 or 4 servants who do all the housework, has a cook for the food, so why can’t she take a look at her kid’s educational needs?

Not so long ago, the idiots, duffers, and stupid kids, who could not study or understand on heir own, were sent to tutors. It was a matter of shame in the peer group, for both kids and parents. Now, the situation has turned 180 degrees. It is “in” to have seven different tutors for a 10 or 13 year old. Seems to be another way for parents to show off their money and for the kids to shirk really learning or applying anything. They don’t have to think about what they have learnt, if anything, and definitely don’t have to apply the first principles to anything before they move on to mugging up the next.

But that’s what the system wants. Kids who don’t understand, who simply mug and vomit, do well. And that drives the movement towards more coaching classes. As a result, the kids have no free time, no real study time, no childhood and no fun. They get shuttled from one coaching class to another, learning less and less, and becoming the prime candidates for intellectual death by coaching. No wonder so few people really think these days. And be warned, the next generation will have even fewer.

Changing patterns of banking and spending

Not so long ago, withdrawing a hundred rupees from the bank meant going to the branch, filling out the withdrawal slip, waiting in line to get a token, and waiting your turn at the teller for someone to give you your money.

Just the process was so boring, and irritating, that one would do pretty much anything to avoid having to go there too much. As a result, most people made their rupee stretch a little bit further before they were forced to make the next trip to the bank. All other banking activity too was equally cumbersome and time consuming. And to top it all, you had to deal with the supercilious and rude behaviour of the staff. They behaved, and some still behave, as if they were doing you a great favour. Never mind that you were dealing with your money, and that your custom paid their salaries, you were still made to feel like the beggar.

No wonder people hated banks, and having to go to the bank was such a huge chore. On the other hand, things have changed so much these days that banking is almost a pleasure. With the ATMs that have sprung up all over the place withdrawing money is fast, easy, and hassle free. No more endless queues, no ill mannered tellers, no more waiting. All other kinds of transactions have been simplified too. You can drop checks in the drop boxes at all the ATMs, instead of having to deposit them at the branch yourself. From paying bills to making payments for your credit cards, ATMs, and phone and internet banking are easy ways to accomplish most banking chores.

You don’t even have to move out of your home anymore. Pick up the phone and call in your need, log in to the bank website and click your way to your banking solutions. Even things like loans have become so much easier! You no longer have to feel like you are the supplicant come to beg the mai baap to give you a little piece of their jagir. Customer is no longer the beggar now, and while he/she may not yet be king, they are at least in a position of some advantage. In addition, with private and international banks entering the arena in India, banks, old and new, have finally realized that they are in the service industry. Unless they teach their employees to smile, and be nice to customers, the customer will take their business elsewhere.

However, all the pluses are not without a few minuses in tow. Banking has become a lot more impersonal now, and one no longer builds up a relationship with a particular bank, branch or employee. While phone and net banking have made life easier, they have also increased your security risk, and phishing and other kinds of scams are on the increase. And, worst of all from the point of view of the younger generation, the easy access provided by ATMs has made it a lot easier to overspend. Credit cards are dangerous in the hands of the undisciplined, and overall, the traps have multiplied.

Violence on the increase in Indian schools

Aping the west seems to be the in thing for most Indians. From fashions to films, from language to governance, from the constitution to the education system, this country is becoming more and more unidentifiable from most western nations. And sadly, one of those things is the number of cases of violence in school that you see when you open a newspaper.

When Indians used to spend time watching or reading about violence in American schools, they did get a nice, warm, fuzzy, feeling about their own superiority. After all, “our Culture is so much better. India will never have kids shooting each other in school”, we are different. Well, turns out, we are not so very different after all. There have been an increasing number of incidents recently of kids bringing violence to other kids in their school. From the Delhi school kid who shot his classmates with his father’s gun, to bullying, beating up, and all kinds of violence which is on the increase, Indian schools are no longer a really safe place for kids.

Even apart from the number of teachers and administrators who are getting violent with kids, children themselves are the major new cause of violence in schools. The question, of course, is why. Well, there are probably a huge number of psychological, and social, reasons why kids have suddenly lost their innocence and turned violent. Some of those reasons are quite obvious even to a layperson. First of all, there seems to be a complete absence, in most of the violent kids’ lives, of parental guidance or discipline of any sort. If you don’t learn at home that rules have to be followed; people’s rights must be respected, even when they don’t agree with you; and that violence or loss of control does not solve anything, then you don’t learn these really important social lessons at all!

Most kids grow up these days on a diet of violent films, violent video games, even more violent news, and parents who are constantly losing control at home. Add to this the fact that with the number of double income families, and the number of working hours for each parent, on the increase, and kids have practically no adult supervision, or quality time. This makes them disconnected and angry. Stress levels too, are higher than ever before, even for school age kids. Insane pressure at school and home, constant pushing and prodding, and a number of other factors combine to make these kids like walking time bombs, just waiting to explode.

Give any of these kids access to a weapon, like a callous and irresponsible father who leaves guns lying around, and chances are that any little extra angst will set them off. Then eleven year olds will go on shooting sprees, and fifteen year olds will plan and execute the kidnap and murder of a classmate or a rival. Everyone, including parents, needs to think hard about what can be done to prevent this. If a little time, attention and the right ethical and value system can make a difference, we owe it to them to provide it.

Café culture

The funnest, most interesting cities around the world are characterised by their cafes and their café culture. Paris is famous for its sidewalk cafés, as are most other “happening” cities the world over. And now, with globalization and changing lifestyles, the café culture has arrived in India, and looks all set to stay.

It was not that long ago that going out with friends meant having to sit at the nearest Udipi joint, and ordering one dosa at a time to increase the length of time that you could sit there without getting dirty looks from the management and the waiters. Even that didn’t work for very long, and soon a bill was, very pointedly, left at your elbow. The message was clear. Time to go. So if you wanted to sit around for hours of gappe, there wasn’t really a place for you back then.

Then cable TV arrived and people became a lot more familiar with the concept of “hanging out” through shows like F.R.I.E.N.D.S. the concept of the coffee shop also crept into the collective Indian subconscious, especially of the young, cool and hip set. As public awareness and interest increased, so did investor interest. It began as bakery cafes, with bake shops putting in a few tables and serving basic coffee, with inbuilt milk and sugar, as long as you ate some of their bakery and confectionary products.

These soon expanded their menus, and the kinds of coffees they served, to include some snacky fast food items and cappuccinos. And then the market exploded. Barista opened the first real Café or Coffee Bar in India, in Delhi in February 2000, and it was an instant hit. In fact, the combination of chill-out space, good coffee, and not-so-bad food became such a phenomenon that many others, large and small, rushed into the fray. Pretty soon, most cities sprouted cafes, on the sidewalk or otherwise, like mushrooms in the rains.

These places gave the youth, and others, the one thing India had lacked before. These cafes provided a comfortable place to hang out, with good music, where no one asked you to leave, and where you could eat and drink interesting things, without having to spend as much money as a meal in a restaurant would cost you. The idea took off, and pretty soon everything from office and support group meetings, to birthday and kitty parties were happening at the nearest café.

Now, cafes have ventured into merchandising – you can pick up a Barista coffee mug, a Café Coffee Day placemat set, or a Mocha hookah – and events – Mocha for example holds shows for film clubs. They’ve also discovered the efficacy of product placement in films as an advertising avenue. So now a scene in a Hindi film can easily have the characters sitting in, getting in and out of, or talking about any of these café chains. In short, café culture is really here to stay!

If you are in India, don’t follow traffic rules

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, goes age old wisdom. And that’s a wise course of action to follow in pretty much any situation. So, when you are in India, it makes sense to completely ignore any written or unwritten rules of traffic, road safety, or road behaviour.

In upcountry or rural areas, there are few cars, and the ones that exist practically own the road. The highways belong to the heavy vehicles, the buses, trucks and trailers, and woe be to anyone who takes panga with them. The cities though, are a different story. Urban Indian roads are a free for all where anything goes and the rules don’t matter. In fact, in some cities like Hyderabad, you will actually be honked at, and cursed out, for stopping at a red traffic light! That’s right! It happens only in India, as a Bollywood song says. So, don’t stop! God gave you the car to be a sort of juggernaut. Drive straight through, the destination awaits!

Traffic rules are things that happen to other people. Unless there is imminent danger of being stopped by a traffic cop, and having to shell out some money, ignore all of them. Lanes are meaningless, and the white or yellow line painted on the road is actually to remind you where the exact center of your car is, so make sure you drive on it, with right wheels and left wheels at the exact same distance from it, on either side.

When you want to go right at the coming intersection, make sure you drive on the extreme left of the road, and then make a sharp cut to the right about two meters before the turn. Never, never, under any circumstances, use your indicator signal; you don’t want the weirdoes out there to know what you are thinking! Let them wonder! Keep them guessing until the last possible second, and then change lanes or turn very, very quickly.

If you live on the wrong side of the road, don’t even bother to drive down the right side of traffic to the next gap in the divider and then taking a u-turn. Wimps do that. Just drive down the wrong side, into oncoming traffic, and let the other drivers fend for themselves! Who do they think they are going down the correct lane? Who gave them a license anyway? This road is your father’s ancestral property. After all it’s a public road, and you are the public! Don’t be cowed down…. Take them on!!

Wanna admire the shop window? In the middle of traffic? So what? Just slam on your brakes and stop! Let the bugger at the wheel behind you figure out what he is going to do. It’s not your problem. Are you holding up traffic? Well, so what? What president Obama is stuck behind you? These small worthless people don’t deserve any consideration. What the hell is their time worth anyway? Swerve when you like, speed up when you like. It’s your car, your rules. If one of those idiots so much as touches their car to yours, don’t forget to get out and create a scene, in the middle of traffic if possible, blocking and delaying as many people as you can for as long as you can. They have boring lives…they deserve some drama!

There are no such things as one way streets. All streets are two-way, no matter what the notice says. Drive straight down and never mind all the idiots honking at you. You have a horn too; use it as often, and as creatively as you can. Its like music to drive with, make full use of it. Park wherever you like. It’s all public property and you are the public. The no parking signs are just for show. Don’t pay any attention to them. Ignore all rules! Welcome to India!

Does Passing the IAS forgive rape?

The Supreme Court of India has taken a stand. And it is the right one! That’s a rarity in the current atmosphere of weird judgments, and large scale corruption allegations against the judiciary. This time though, the lower courts were dead wrong, and the Supreme Court has upheld not just justice, but common sense!

Imagine this. A man is convicted of rape, and abetting in a rape, and sentenced to fifteen years of rigorous imprisonment. He goes to jail, as he deserves to do, and while there, puts his energies into studying for the Indian Administrative Services. Whether he has the brains, or can cram really well, whatever the reason, he manages to pass the IAS entrance exam. Well, good. But then comes the funny thing. The Delhi high court suddenly decides that he has atoned for his sins by passing the IAS, and reduces his sentence from fifteen years to a mere five and a half years!

There are a number of problems with the high court decision. First and foremost, according to the Supreme Court, the high court does not have the discretionary powers to take it upon itself to reduce a sentence. There are proper procedures that have to be followed, which were bypassed in this case. Also, extreme and special circumstances have to be cited as the rationale behind a decision for clemency for a convicted inmate. The passing of the IAS exam, while certainly a bit of an achievement, does not qualify as special circumstances.

The other issue here is that the sentence cannot be reduced to below the minimum prescribed sentence for the crime, as put down in the Indian Penal Code. In this case, the minimum sentence for someone convicted of rape is seven years. So the High Court is overstepping its bounds in reducing it to five and a half years, which is considerably below the minimum prescribed punishment.

One also needs to think about the social and ethical implications of such a decision by one of the highest courts in the country. Letting a rapist loose, into the community that is supposed to be protected from him, so much earlier than the end of his sentence is problematic in itself, but when you consider the reasons being cited for such a move, the issue becomes even more problematic. What is the high court saying here? That such a heinous crime becomes nothing when compared to the great achievement of passing the IAS exam, something thousands of responsible citizens do every year? How are the two things even brought into comparison at all? What is the connection of passing an exam, which is a matter of cramming, and memorizing, seen as a mitigating factor for a crime that is among the most horrible ever thought up by a human being?

If you manage to learn a lot of facts and numbers, and answer an exam paper correctly, does that mean that somehow, magically, you have become a better human being and a more ethical person? That’s woolly thinking in the best of cases, by the most ordinary of people. When such woolly thinking is indulged in by one of the highest branches of the judiciary, in conjunction to such a heinous crime, it is cause for major concern for all the citizens of India! What is next? Serial killers being let off for passing the GRE? Thank god the Supreme Court stepped in when it did to uphold the law, and to protect ordinary citizens from the dregs of society!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Odyssey Kolkata Disappoints

It’s rare to find a really good bookstore chain in the cities these days. Most large chains, like Crossword for example, have become “populist”. They stock very limited kinds of books, and titles, mainly sticking to the popular and chart topping books only. Anyone looking for anything out of the ordinary, or a little offbeat, is likely to be sorely disappointed at these stores. The south Indian bookstore chains on the other hand have a much better and wider selection. As a result, south Indian chains like Walden, Higgin Bothams, Landmark and Odyssey are a true haven for bibliophiles. Landmark and Odyssey are the only ones among these chains that have made the effort to go truly national. With stores in most of the big cities, these two chains bring new hope to the booklover.

No longer will the bibliophile be forced to read only the popular stuff pushed at them by callous stores like Crossword. One can choose to buy books one likes, rather than be forced to buy the books the store forces you to. So when these stores arrived at Kolkata, this city of book lovers sat up and took notice! Glad to have got new book venues, apart from College Street, kolkata welcomed the stores with open arms, and wallets! However, some recent incidents have shaken my faith in Odyssey Kolkata at least.

It seems that Odyssey Kolkata is but a stepchild of the larger all India Odyssey chain, and the same standards of business practice and customer service do not apply at the Prince Anwar Shah Road store that apply to the other stores all over India. Recently, I, a regular customer of Odyssey all over India, had a very bad experience at Odyssey Kolkata. The incident shows the appalling state of customer service at the outlet, and makes it clear that this store at least has not heard of the idea of earning goodwill. It is an internationally accepted rule of business that if customers are happy with you they keep coming back. If you don’t treat customers well, no matter how great you are, they won’t come back. However, this store does not seem to have heard of the concept.

When I, on one of my many trips to Kolkata, arrived at the store recently, in the horrible summer heat, at around two pm on a weekday, and got out of the cab, I realized I didn’t have enough change to pay the cab. Well, not a problem, I had a large shopping list of books and music to pick up from odyssey, surely as a regular customer they would be happy to give me the requisite change! Well, apparently not! I walked into the store, after checking in my bags and such at the bags counter outside, and walked to the cash counter to ask for two 50 rupee notes instead of the hundred I had. The sullen store employee at the cash counter told me they didn’t have any change.

Huge store, three floors, hundreds of thousands of rupees turnover a day, and they don’t have two fifties?!! Sounded and looked like they didn’t want to “give away” change. A lot of Indian stores have this mentality, and don’t give you change unless you buy something from them first. Well, I said, could they give me one fifty then? Since I was going to be buying quite a lot of stuff there anyway, surely they could adjust the rest along with the bill. I was even willing to give them the hundred, and take only a fifty, for now. They still refused, claiming that they didn’t have any change in the till, because the change GUY didn’t come in the morning. When I pointed out that it was after two pm, all I got in return were blank stares. Then I said does an employee on this floor, one of the twenty I could see there, have two fifties? Or even one? They stared at me as if I had demanded that they all dance the hula in the nude.

By this time, the cab meter had gone up at least another twenty rupees, and I had seen that these people were just rude, so I turned around, got my bags, and left. Without buying a single thing! This was an unprecedented and totally unexpected incident. I had never faced anything like it when I shopped at Odyssey stores in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai.

Now this is where the stupidity of the employees loses business for the store. This particular customer is obviously never going to go back to the store. Neither are my family members. Plus, I am going to grab every chance to badmouth the store to my friends and acquaintances. On the contrary, if I had been given a fifty, with a smile, which would have been repaid half an hour later anyway, I would have a feel-good association with the store, keeping my thousands of rupees a month budget for books and music all to them!! Prime example of stupid sales behaviour, and very disappointing in a store which has set benchmarks in customer service and satisfaction around India!

Why do people blog?

Blogs are huge these days, and not just in India. It’s actually a rarity today to find a person, who is net savvy, regularly online, well versed with the information superhighway, but does not blog. The question is what s the charm? Why this huge epidemic of blogging?

What is a blog anyway? Well, the word itself is a shortening of “web log”. This is a concept kind of like the personal blog, or the journal, a diary of sorts that one keeps to record their most intimate secrets and their deepest darkest thoughts. Of course, that just begs the question of why anyone would want to publish their deepest darkest thoughts and secrets on the World Wide Web for all to see. After all, the very basic principle of the personal journal or diary is that it is …Personal.

That’s the reason why diaries come with locks, and journals are hidden, even written in code sometimes! What you cannot share with anyone else, but don’t want to keep bottled up inside, is what goes into the log. This is the mundane, the horrific, the nightmarish, the blah, realties of your day to day life. From the head cold you had last week, to the major tragedy you are dealing with, your personal diary is where you store things that are either too boring or too horrible to pour into anyone else’s ears.

So what has changed with the advent of the internet? What makes anyone think that the world is interested in how many times a day they sneeze, or how much of what they ate today? And what on earth would make you put your deepest secrets, darkest desires, and worst tragedies, “out there” for anyone and everyone to see? There seem to be two distinct sides to the whole thing. First of all, there’s the basic human impulse that looks for validation. Everyone likes to think that the most mundane, uninteresting, boring details of their life are as interesting, gripping, and fascinating to others as a John Grisham novel.

So you write blogs about every teensie weensie little thing, and the miracle of the internet is such that there are actually people out there who will read it! And when these readers, who probably also blog about the boring details of Their lives, leave comments on your blog, it doesn’t only massage your ego and make you feel interesting, but also set up a kind of “mutual admiration society” of bloggers, which perpetuates the whole cycle, making everyone feel good in the process.

The other impulse is the impulse to unburden. Telling someone you know about something horrible isn’t always easy. That’s why counselors and shrinks were invented, because it’s easier to talk to a stranger about some things. If what you need to talk about is horrible, traumatic, or personal enough, even a shrink or a counselor might be too much. After all, you have to face them, see them, look at them before, while or after you talk. And that’s where the internet Really scores. After all, everyone is just a name…or a nick. Total anonymity. You nevr have to reveal who you are or know who your readers are, to unburden. You get the full benefit of the catharsis of telling someone, without any of the associated “knowing and facing” issues. That’s probably why blogs are so popular with so many millions of people worldwide!