Sunday, July 22, 2018

Prehistoric Halwa

You won't find me singing praises of the "simple" days of childhood anytime soon. I remember, in far too much detail, that phase of my life when the world was a very limited place, buffeted between expectations of those who thought that they had life figured out a.k.a adults and the confused dreams of the one who hadn't seen enough of it to counter them effectively a.k.a me. All the same, it has to be admitted that friend circles were definitely smaller and so was the list of things that you liked - 'simple' if you choose to call it so.

Dinosaurs were on that small list for me. These were days before Jurassic Park brought them to jelly quaking, kitchen stalking cinematic life. Across the street from our little house with a little garden lived Gupta Aunty and her two sons, Pratik and Akshat - the centre and the boundaries of my social sphere then. Dinosaurs roamed their house through the stacks of hard bound, half as tall and twice as heavy as me Encyclopedia of Something or the Other whose colourful photographs and fast facts informed me of fabulous beasts like the palm tree shaming brachiosaurus or the rhino gone wrong stegosaurus. Quite unlike Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes, I found the leaf munching oddities much more fascinating than the toothy T-Rexes and Velociraptors who also stalked those pages. It may also have been something to do with the diet I was on when in the Gupta Brothers' company.

Growing up in a Bengali household, I already had enough deep fried, unhealthy, tasty food items to look forward to but crossing the street meant some vegetarian specials unlikely to be found at home. The fantastic ghee soaked lighter than air rotis with a dry subji were top drawer stuff but as far optimal use of ghee was concerned, the pinnacle was Gupta Aunty's Gajar ka Halwa. Ghee as pure as the driven snow, carrots stolen from the garden of heaven and sugar from unfulfilled childhood fantasies combined to produce this sweet dish par excellence. I did share a lot of common ground with the brothers including blind fandom of Amitabh's superhero movie "Ajooba" and a tendency to challenge each other to "Punjab", a childish mispronunciation of the noble sport of panja a.k.a arm wrestling but I must honestly admit that the Gajar ka Halwa did not hurt the cause of our lifelong friendship.

Childhood, simple or not, did present some interesting possibilities. Beyond a gate and up a flight of stairs past another roared magnificent monsters and confections of my dreams.

Monday, March 19, 2018


B-Team (PC: NDTV)
The opposition was Bangladesh, not Sri Lanka. The occasion was the final of the tri-nation Nidahas Trophy, not the Cricket World Cup.

Even as Dinesh Kartik, DK as his cool moniker goes, hit a six off the last ball of a tremendously exciting match to win it, healing (at least partially) the scar left by Javed Miandad on the Indian cricket fan’s psyche, I couldn’t help being reminded of the parallel stories of the two Indian cricket team wicketkeepers.

M. S. Dhoni, his contemporary and modern-day legend had had such a different trajectory, flat and fast to wicketkeeper batsman greatness. Announcing his radical hairstyle and swashbuckling batting to the world via that mother of all cricket battles, an India tour of Pakistan, he kept moving from honour to honour – Captain of India, 2007 T20 World Cup, Champions Trophy and finally that winning six in the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

During the same time, from around 2004, DK also happened to be in the running. In any other Indian cricket team from any other era, DK would have been a shoo-in. But fate cruelly made him a talented wicketkeeper batsman in the age of Dhoni.

The result was an international career spent waiting on the margins, for injuries and opportunities. In nearly every sporadic chance given to DK, he made a good fist of it. However, as soon as Dhoni returned, fit and available, it was DK’s turn once again to be back-up. With skills and reputation like Dhoni’s available, it was hard to contest this DK-Dhoni swap.

The hard-nosed might say that that’s just professional sport with no room for sentimentality… DK just wasn’t the best option. In opposition, the anti-Dhoni camp would say that Dhoni used his BCCI connections to hang on for much later past his expiry date.

I tend to disagree with both camps.

As a devout supporter of the 90s Indian cricket team and of present day Arsene Wenger guided Arsenal, I feel that this reliance on statistical performances and expiry dates for professional sportsmen is only half the story – the boring mechanical half of the story.

Sport is about the human element for me - the quirky, the stylish and the unpredictable. One bad series, one bad match, one bad decision is all it takes to instantly reduce would-be legends to highly visible public failures. Being someone committedly bad at most sports, who makes at least 2-3 critical errors per rare appearance on a sporting field, I tend to be more forgiving.

If sportsmen were to make zero mistakes, they’d be programmable robots and in effect, we would be watching a simulation. But they are not and that’s what makes watching them so enthralling. The pressure, the emotion and the heartbreak – it is a mind manipulating live drama of a level that no script could ever hope to achieve. No wonder that tens of thousands spend their lives trying to break into to the top levels of sport and billions more hitch their dreams of glory onto their chosen heroes.

Sportsmen like DK or Wriddhiman Saha, both forever second fiddle to Dhoni, occupy a special place.

They are not promising talent who did not make it due to lack of discipline, nor are they guilty of letting things slip once they had a glimpse of the peak. They are destined to be at the most torturous point of all – where they have been judged, by circumstances and in particular opinions, to be very very good, just not the best.

That is what makes nights like yesterday's very special. With the truest of smiles lighting up his face in the post-match interview, DK acknowledged that the Indian cricket team was currently a very tough place to retain a position in and added “I am happy to be where I am”. A team of mostly second choice sportsmen, there only because the big boys needed a break, coming through to win in the grandest of fashions.

Last night was not about the biggest stage and the bad-dest opposition. Last night was about all those sportsmen who would have made it to the big league of fame but for a little twist of fate. Last night was about them declaring “Look. Given the chance, I can do it too.”

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Hardly Insignificant

Hope. Compromise. Failure.

Arvind Kejriwal embodies all three and in 95 minutes of an extraordinary documentary, Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla let the camera tell it like it is.

In retrospect, what Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) managed was nothing novel. In the make-believe world of Indian commercial movies, it happens all the time. Though the real India is one of the most corrupt nations on earth at every level, in our movies it is always a happy ending. The corrupt system chokes the good guy, who then takes on it and after many trials and tribulations, wins.

That someone would be mad enough to attempt this in real life and make it happen was what took us by surprise.

Irrespective of what side of the political spectrum you fall on, do watch this documentary.

“An Insignificant Man” (AIA) will not change your opinion of who Kejriwal is nor does it try to. 

At the same time, you can plunge head-on into the teething problems of a new political outfit in a crazy democracy like India.

The folks at VICE have done us the courtesy of sharing it for free (YouTube link here) while ensuring that at least some income has been generated for its makers.

As Kejriwal and team cross that shaky bridge from activism to active politics, the camera ruthlessly reveals the discomfort and exposes the now-required hypocrisy. Immediately after a combative interview with an Aaj Tak journalist, Kejriwal is shown in deep study of his lowermost shirt button, his on-camera bravado now bogus and his awkwardness very real. In one riveting section, Kejriwal is taken to task by his volunteers for abandoning his ‘volunteers will choose who will get tickets, not me’ stance for a very dictatorial ‘I am the only one without an agenda so I make the final call’.

AIA is strewn with moments of cinematic gold like that where the practical world combats idealism and noble intentions are quietly buried. The impact of the scenes is only doubled when you remind yourself that this is not a story, this is real life!

Also visible in full measure, is the optimism people still leftover in people, despite decades of corruption, oppression and all-round hopelessness. That people still believed in the possibility of an honest political party is a credit to both Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the common man’s naivete, if you want to call it that.

If what I have written so far makes the documentary sound like a hit job on Arvind Kejriwal, my apologies.

Kejriwal is definitely the star of AIA and the deep faith that people have reposed in him has also been given due emphasis. But to not highlight Kejriwal’s and AAP’s deviations from the ‘high ground’ would have been dishonest of this brilliant documentary and it takes special care not to do so.

AIA does a great job of capturing Arvind’s surging popularity, specifically in the 2011-2014 period when for the long-fooled public, he was the messiah. Making issues like corruption, water and power central to his manifesto instead of the usual communal/patriotic pitches of the mainstream parties, he really carves up a special place for himself and his party.

The suspicious death of Santosh Koli, a popular grassroots level MLA candidate for his party and its impact on her co-revolutionaries is also very poignantly captured. It leaves one thinking whether it is really worth the trouble standing up to the powers-that-be. We are lucky that someone somewhere always does, leaving us to enjoy the benefits of their sacrifice.

The sheer disregard and disrespect that the BJP and the Congress had for AAP, which gradually turns into fear and very soon sets up them for spectacular electoral defeat - is the most rousing arc of the story. The reality of electoral promises and processes cause AAP to re-calibrate their mission in ways they had vehemently opposed in the past, right down to allying with the same party they had thrown out of power.

It is possible to do the impossible but as it turns out, impossible is only a variant of the possible, not the polar opposite of it.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Eaters of the Old

It’s not like we haven’t been insulted before. Yet some insults sting more than most.

It appears that some folks in China, says the Guardian, call us ken lao zu which loosely translates to “the generation that eats their parents”.

As a card-carrying member of that generation otherwise known as Millenials — I quit my standard secure job as an engineer to pursue my passion and am presently writing this from home… my parents’ home to be precise — that insult really hit home.

Lazy, self-indulgent, ambitious beyond our talents — all the perceived failings of our generation tied together in one grand put-down. One which must be replied to.

In the classic tradition of a debate, dear Chinese Millennial bashers, let me begin with what the prior generations are right about.

Right about the Internet in general and social media in particular flooding Millenial lives with generic 'night sky background, inspirational quote foreground' images.

Right about the fact that being different is such a fad in our generation now that even different is another form of mainstream by now.

Right about the You Live Only Once (YOLO) philosophy, that you accuse us of inventing and implementing, causing a noticeable ripple on the surface of surety.

Now for what may not be exactly right.

Beginning with the origins of YOLO. Making the most of the moment, be it the risky thrill of a skydive or the LOL hilarity of a cat meme are shallow, short term stimulations which suggest classic Millenial, don’t they? Say hello to Horace, a real toga wearing Roman poet from 2000 years ago. He first asked humanity to “Carpe diem” i.e. seize the day. Here we are, finally following up, on his wise old words albeit with a funkier interpretation.

Classic Latin and classic Millenial are not as far apart as you would think.

Then there’s our constant urge to be different, which may seem faddish to those who came before, but it is only because at this point, it is quite feasible to be so. Ideas spring lightning quick and near instant advice is easy to get. So, it is entirely possible for more engineers to make a living as full time artists and that more illustrators digitally design their wildest dreams. 

Millenials are not out to promote anarchy and instability. It’s just that it is a relatively good time to be chasing unconventional dreams and therefore more YOLO-ness.

This chase in itself is a common reason to be dismissive of the Millenials. Who do they think they are? Art, engineering or any other skill take at least a lifetime of effort to master, if not two or three. What would 140-character authors and filter-ish photographers know of the struggle and sacrifice required to get there?

This is where, dear Chinese Millenial denouncers, it is necessary to separate the hidden from the hyped.

Remember how Millenials are supposed to be careless mavericks? A 2017 Deloitte survey of Millenials revealed that 70% of them preferred secure full-time employment. Don’t go merely by the grand boasts of our social media personality.

The real us is someone fairly reasonable and quite sensible.

How about me then? Am I not the quintessential vampiric Millenial feeding off my parents?

Well, I must clarify that I put in 11 years of 11-hour workdays at my steady engineering job before taking up an interest of mine and in which no doubt, I will have to put in a lot more. I continue paying the bills around here, especially the Internet, as my home also happens to be my office.

Just because I am chasing my dream, it don’t mean that I am doing it with my eyes closed or at someone else’s expense.

Lumping Millennials into one pre-defined template is another fallacy. The earliest Millenials are already 37. On the other end, there are Millenials who just touched 23. Older Millenials like me clearly remember childhood sans the Internet and prefer that the camera be used for purposes other than taking pictures of one’s own face. Within the supposedly same generation, experiences and memories changed drastically.

But I do think that I speak for all Millenials when I say that we, the core consumers and producers of memes and viral videos and cheap celebrity antics, are very cynically aware of how virtual life differs from the real — of the time sucked away from important tasks, of the desperate tactics employed for Likes and of the fakeness of projected perfection.

Dear Millenial rebukers, as it was for every generation including yours, our behaviour has only been shaped by their times. Just because we didn’t prioritize stability and settling down as much as you, it don’t mean that those things are irrelevant. It so happened that we were dazzled by alternatives and continue to pursue them. Sure, it may seem that 30 is the deadline to turn ‘serious’ but recall that once upon a time, that age was 20.

Believe me, we too worry and care. We worry about the epidemic of fake news, the vitriol of online hate and what the neighbours would think.

In fact, today I ran into a senior neighbour of mine, for the first time since I quit my regular job. When he asked “How’s the job?”, being entirely truthful about my new 'job' would take some explaining. I went with “You know… just the usual!” instead.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Politics? Who? Me?

PC: Mohamed Hasan @ Pixabay

Kyunki main politics nahin kartaa!” [Because I don’t engage in politics]

In any office environment, this happens to be the standard conspiracy theory when denied a pay raise, a promotion or a day off. The insinuation is that because the sufferer was not currying favour with the higher-ups, richly deserved rewards were withheld.

While bitterness is understandable as every employee in the world, including yours truly, thinks that he is doing his best, the claim of not being political is tough to digest.

Everyone is political. Politics does not only mean standing in queue every 5 years to vote for distant people who will cheat, lie and thieve for the next 5 years. Politics is in every human interaction.

The people you have lunch with, the people you smoke a cigarette with and the people with whom you would rather do neither with – all are clear ways of defining your group. By having a group or by being part of all groups or even by choosing to go it alone, you are being political. You may not care for power or prestige but declaring that you don’t is only another sort of politics.

Life and especially the monotonous routine of office life would be ridiculously tough to survive if it were not for the interactions with fellow sufferers. The grander objectives are most often set by people and powers beyond the daily sphere of activity and all that is left is the bit of work to be handled by the individual.

It should really come as no surprise that folks want to work on that bit alongside like minded or at least united in dislike colleagues. The best bosses do appreciate efficiency and output above compatibility but despite their best attempts at neutrality, they are human too.

This is not to advocate mindless dancing to the boss’ tunes. 

This is only a gentle reminder that good rapport is good practice.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

You’re plain weird

PC: Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Yes, you. Why else would you want to travel solo? 

Don’t you have a-n-y-o-n-e who will join you? It’s just not normal, I tell you. Is there something that you are hiding, some sadness which you couldn’t share with anyone else? Wandering bustling bazaars, ancient ruins and glitzy metropolises all alone is asking for trouble, if you ask me. You seem to think that solo travel is all about doing your own thing at your own pace. It appears very simple. But simple is not easy. Have you even considered the following?

  1. It’s plain boring = How strange… don’t you need someone familiar to talk to during the journey? Of course, you’ll never meet interesting people and opinions on your solo traverse. Surely you cannot get local with locals and find strange common grounds with fellow travellers who only start out strangers. The time and freedom to do so, afforded by being on your own, mean nothing. You already knew all the interesting people and all the interesting things before you started on this trip, right? Ignore all the beaches and the mountains that await the impatient solo traveller. Making new friends to get there is no fun.

  2. It’s actually scary = What if you are solo travelling to a place where no one speaks ‘your’ language? New places and new faces. Unfamiliar names and sounds all around. Does that sound like a fun time for normal people? You surely don’t want to explore a new side of you where you use sign languages and broken grammar that might mightily embarrass your language teachers but get the job done. You wouldn’t want to experience how your worst fears do not come true. In fact, never mind the fact most people would rather help. Like Momma said, it’s a scary world out there and you wouldn’t want to risk your presumptions.

  3. You’re just not that sort of person = Even if after all that I have told you, striking out on your own to lands afar, forging unlikely friendships and having insane adventures still sounds like fun to you, you are just not that sort of a person. The smooth James Bond-type who can chat up a stranger or trust in his/her abilities to figure it out whatever be the situation, that’s not you. While real life solo travel involves embarrassing faux-pas, trial and mostly error besides stumbling through the scenario a la Mr. Bean, please don’t let reality ruin your worst misconceptions. The key to not being weird is to stay well within your comfort zones.
After all, why bother with paths mysterious & conversations unknown? It’s almost like you are in search of the true meaning and real joy of travel at the risk of uncertainty. Like you want to open a world map, look at names others have seen only on world maps and recall, with a secret inward smile, how you negotiated those places on your very own terms.

Please avoid experiencing the sheer thrill of stepping out, alone, towards the unscripted. 

Do you really want to waste time explaining to that doubting uncle back home that you are in fact perfectly normal and that solo travel has changed the way you look at yourself and the world? Why, what’s wrong with you?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Quiet Please

08-June-2015, Dammannakatte, Nagarhole National Park

The first evening safari had begun auspiciously enough.

The narcissist

A purple rumped sunbird had decided to check out its rival hiding inside the rear-view mirror of our safari canter and we were all enthralled. The green head, yellow body and purple rump of this outrageously coloured bird & its antics brought a smile to everyone's faces and a hope of even better things to come. The canter hadn't even started its engine yet.

In a few minutes, it did and just as it was about to roll out of the booking office area, three gentlemen, one of them with a professional TV camera came running up to the bus. The guide opened the bus door to let them in and they occupied the front most seats which were kept empty so far.

As soon as we started towards the Park entrance, the guide turned around to say that maintaining silence helped in better spotting of the animals and in keeping them undisturbed. One of the 3 gentlemen who had boarded last, turned around and repeated to everyone "Quiet please!"

As the gate lifted to let the vehicle in, this aforementioned gentleman Mr. Quiet-Please immediately set about ignoring his own instructions. With a vengeance. As it happened to be, Mr. Quiet-Please was the producer of a Malayali TV news show and was committed to shooting video of their trip into the National Park… with a running commentary!

Could tolerate Mr. Quiet-Please only briefly

The guide tried, I tried, a visibly irritated co-passenger tried but none of us could do anything to make this 'dedicated' team trying to get their ‘takes' to keep the peace. The forest, freshly revived from the first rains, was green and beautiful, but was particularly grumpy about revealing itself. Aside from a fleeing Malabar giant squirrel and really distant (luckily for the animals) elephants bathing in the Kabini river, we spotted absolutely nothing in the entire safari.

Mr. Quiet-Please was now, after all being central to all the problems, making protesting noises about how he felt cheated out of the money that he had paid for the safari.

“There is nothing in this forest!”, he said, as he and his team disembarked at the booking office.

The follow-up safari, the second of the evening had some seats empty so I had already booked myself into the next. The same drill again as the guide told all passengers to maintain silence.

The big difference on this trip? The passengers actually obeyed.

And what a difference it made! Even entering the forest was an adventure when human voices were silenced. The buzz of the insects, the calls of the birds, the drip drop of raindrops – all audio enhancements which we had missed on the preceding safari. The jungle felt so much more mysterious, almost holy, and the atmosphere thick with anticipation.

There it was! The reason I had wanted to come to the banks of the Kabini in the first place. In full view of our safari canter, the master of the night… a massive male leopard. He stalked by in front of the vehicle.

Rewards Program

Apart from an initial involuntary squeal of surprise from the back of the canter, our entire crew of watchers remained particularly silent. As a reward, the leopard decided to give us even more of a memorable experience. He circled our canter thrice within 20 feet or so and then clambered up & down neighbouring trees making the leopard’s typical sawing call.

We humans held our silence, only the sound of our thrilled breathing was to be heard. It got to the point that we had to let the leopard be and move on. For him, we didn’t seem to exist and we wanted to keep it that way.

The silent attitude was to pay further dividends. Further ahead, we arrived within seconds of a pack of dhole having hunted a chital down and were privy to a hurried feeding by them. One by one, each of the senior dogs took turns to keep an out for other predators in the area while the others fed. With a group of like-minded and rule abiding people, the jungle was indeed a gracious host.

Fresh action for the noiseless

It’s sad when due to the behaviour of a handful of boorish people, a wilderness as splendid as Nagarhole gets a thumbs down from Mr. I-visited-a-jungle-one-time-and-I-was-bored. Sure, not every safari is guaranteed spectacular animal sightings but that’s the way of the jungle and the charm of the jungle.

But from my back to back safari experiences of the same place, I can surely vouch for the value of silence. There is everything in this forest but for that you really need to be quiet please.

Good things come to those who wait...

... in relative silence