Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Dimmaar Baari


Coziness. Warmth. Immunity from prosecution by Mom.
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While Dimma fretted about how small her flat must feel for her restless grandchildren, we did not share her opinion. For us, G-5/6 was just right.
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The right size for Dadubhai to open out the folding dinner table for us to have meals and bring in the 'folding khaat', our passport to adventure story nights during load-shedding; just the right size to barge out of, run into Anushua Maashi's next door and play with her Pomeranian; just the right size to go one more door over to Chakraborty Dimma's and look at (for the nth time) the brochure of miniature city Madurodammarvelling at the brilliantly detailed little toy buildings, canals with toy ferries plying and true to real life model trains running between stations carrying the make believe citizens of this make believe world to their make believe work.



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Greater adventures lay beyond. Down the road to Pinaki Dada's house where a treasure trove of Tintin comics awaited; further out to the Mother Dairy outlet where Didi and I would contest to be the one to put the token inside the milk vending machine and watch with amazement the cowless milk delivery. Even the boundary walls of Labony, their three striped walls with peepholes patterned on it like a fort, lent a special quality to the then quiet housing estate peopled with retirees like my maternal grandparents.
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Not to forget, "Nondolal". The grandfather clock in my grandfather's house. The pendulum never ceasing to tick along ever since he made the long journey from Czechoslovakia to G-5/6, a prize for Dadubhai's extraordinary bridge playing skills. The weekly winding that Nondolal got and the unmistakable noise that his springs made were as much of a ritual as Dimma's worship of Krishno Thakur in her little wooden mandir. The pujo had special significance for us as we grandchildren would get the 'remaining' baataashaa offered to the Lord once he had had his fair share of it.
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Dadubhai and Dimma have long gone to the place, where all things, good and bad, must fade but Nondolal marches on. Now on the wall of our Ripon Street home, he marks time, like he always did, partly because it is his mechanical duty, mostly because he represents the continuity that binds us all.
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People often talk, gloomily, of wanting to go back to the past as if it is something we left behind on the trail of time. Walking down Labony's leafy tree lined lanes, up the dimly lit stairs to the first floor and into a familiar flat, I see a flaw in that theory.
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This much is true. Gone are my Dimma's cool-er and tetul-er aachaar in their opaque plastic jars. Gone are the almirah full of crisply pressed white kurta pyjamas that were almost like Dadubhai's post retirement uniform. The rooms, empty and dusty, as late winter afternoon sunlight filters in, look so very different in the absence of those who made this place special.
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But this much is also true. The past is not locked away in a chest somewhere, only to be looked and polished once in a while. It's a real place, a real time that shapes and influences how we experience the present. What was once a happy place does not cease to be a happy place because time has moved on. In a strange twist, it remains forever happy because time has moved on.
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Dimmaar baari lives through everyone - daughter, neighbours, grandchildren touched by its warmth. Dimmaar baari lives through every conversation that fondly recalls a moment of spontaneous laughter within its walls. Dimmaar baari lives because no matter how hard the sands of time try to bury what we call the 'past', it always peeks through, a source of comfort, a reminder of gentler times and carefree abandon. 
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[http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.in/2015/12/dimmaar-baari.html]

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tuned in


Saturday, 19-December-2015, Nicco Park, Kolkata
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The gates will open only an hour later but you and a couple of friends are already in queue. 
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It's not like you haven't heard the songs before. Rupam Islam & the pleading guitar in "Aro Ekbaar"; the soft instant nostalgia of KK going "Arrey yaaron" is already hardwired, note for note, into your brain. Innumerable repetitions on the I-Pod, the radio and re-unions are to blame. If only you had revised your study course material as many times.
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Yet you are excited. Unlike the "too cool for old rockstars"/"too cool for Bollywood songs" juntaa, you still retain a soft corner for memories, for songs that meant the world to you. The times may have passed those songs and their singers by, but you... those songs make you smile.
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The doors finally open and you find yourself not so much of a minority anymore. The Fossils fans are here, the KK fans are here... in their thousands, waving to the drone hovering above, bending over inch by inch the metal barriers that separate the Silver from the Gold class tickets. 
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Then there are the quiet ones, not unlike yourself, here only for the music, overcoming their natural desire to stay out of the limelight, as is evident from their meditative poses as they wait for the stage to be taken over.
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And when it is, everything else ceases to exist. The guitars of the Fossils do the talking, the coaxing, the screaming, the philosophizing. Rupam plays the Pied Piper leading the masses down familiar paths of hope, rage and redemption. "Ekla Ghar", "Bishakto Manush", "Hasnuhana" course through your veins, a common drug injected from the speaker stacks. 
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An hour or so of Fossils' Bong style emotional manipulation later, KK takes over and the tragic power of "Tadap tadap ke" also overpowers. Emotional manipulation, you discover, is just as effective in Hindi. The piano on stage tinkles into "O meri jaan" and the crowd joins in, together but each wrapped deep in their own interpretation of the song.
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The final song you hear before stepping out into a (relatively) cold Kolkata winter night is about the fleeting moment. "Pal", an all time KK classic, nearly 20 years old but always fresh, especially coming from the very man who sang it.
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Live. A word with more than a tinge of magic to it. All the I-Pods and Boses of the world aim to recreate a perfect sound recorded in tomb like studios. What they lose in their quest for purity is the buzz, the hum of the audience as it latches on to the floating melody, the unheard but unmistakable chorus of shared sentiments.
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As KK sings in his divine voice about memory's foggy trails, never to be re-experienced in quite the same manner ever again, you dwell in the moment, thankful to whoever deserves the credit for this nearly supernatural force called music. An ocean of feelings beckons you to explore, all in this little boat called a tune.
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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Song of the open road



Can you hear it too, this song quite old?
Its tune too clear for cubicles to hold
Long days at work, evenings stuck to a chair
The music... it's louder now, but at a screen I must stare.
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Swipe... 'cause there are stories yet to be told,
Misty mornings, mystery houses, chaa-singharaa in the cold
Swipe... 'cause of extra duties beware one must be,
Like brooks & birds, for once, glide without a care.
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This song is false, so don't get sold
The 'practical' me whispers
But there's mountains & forests & oceans
The wise man counters
You sure you don't have a weekend to spare?
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If you hear it... by now you do, let restless shoes lead the way
Live and dream and sing forever the song of the open road.
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[http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.in/2015/12/song-of-open-road.html]

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Lights and dreams


Racing down the AJC Bose Road flyover on top of an open truck offers some unique opportunities.
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For example, the chance to produce some very rude noises. Using the long tube balloons freshly bought from Prinsep Ghat, looping them into a U and pinching together just right so that the rushing air in the gap produces some inappropriate soundtracks generally heard after heavy meals. Alongside the ear splitting toots of the dozen odd horns on the trucks and the thrumming of the dhaki's beats, it is a grand/hilarious way to return after our para's Kali Thakur visharjan.
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Having been volunteered, out of the blue, onto the visharjan party while I was busy chomping on a chicken roll, I had no reason to complain. Religion is not my kind of thing but festivals, especially visharjans, are a different matter. Riding, open-top, through the heart of the city, raising a ruckus for no particular reason feels like a prize which I had no part in earning. When requested, by the organizers of our neighbourhood Kali Puja to join in the goodbyes, there was no way I could refuse. Plus, I knew that there was mutton & rice to be served after.
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The city is alive this evening, the annual intersection of Diwali and Kali Puja on full display, even more so from my present mobile vantage point. Tired old houses lining Central Calcutta's roads are decked up in lighting, glittering with their original glory, despite the chipped walls and decaying doors, hidden away by the magic of this night. The teeming pedestrians, dressed to the nines, wander about under a spell of happiness, some in search of the ideal fireworks, others in the more immediate craving for some sort of tasty food. Their movements, chatter and smiles produce a happy hum, clear and distinct and impossible to mistake for anything else. 
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But for a brief moment, I take a step back - tune down the noise of the whistling rockets, gray out the showers of colours in the night skies and mute the turbulent social activity of Diwali - and something even more beautiful shines through. Something far more ancient. Something far more wise.
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It's really basic, the concept of Diwali. At its simplest, it is a diya in the dark, a message that there is no need to fear the unknown that surrounds it. For wherever it goes, the light will show the way. For however far you may be, you cannot ignore that brave little speck of hope. For no matter how cynical and practical and logical you may be, you believe in your heart of hearts that the force of peace and wisdom and goodness will eventually prevail.

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[http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.in/2015/11/lights-and-dreams.html]

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Galiff Street



I felt relieved. My family was not the only crazy one.
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On a morning normally reserved for rest & recuperation, a street in North Kolkata was packed with seekers, from ages 8 to 80. Happiness & companionship by the truckload, occasional irritation and an eventual great sadness - these people had experienced. The Sunday Galiff Street Pet Market, as always, was the answer to their needs.
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Along this narrowish tram-lined street near the Tala Bridge sat and roamed pet sellers of every sort. Transparent water filled pouches with many tints of fishes floated temptingly through the crowds on hands whose owners were unseen in the crowd. A spectacularly happy looking couple passed by, holding the snowy powder puff of a Pom pup in between them.
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Birds - fancy pigeons, parrots, munias, budgerigars, finches - whose shades would shame many an Asian Paints catalogue sat in cages placed just at the eyeline of the milling junta - I took care not to look too long lest I follow up on my wishes. Cuddly baby rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters in all their furriness looked out to their future. Not me, no, no, not me, I had to keep telling myself.
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Especially difficult to get away from, at a personal level, were the puppy stalls. Here an impossibly cute lil' Lab naughtily smiling and there the almost-paid-15K-and-brought-it-home Alsatian baby. A blur of tiny little tails wagging and the irresistible yipping that only puppies are capable of made me consider chucking my plans for the rest of the day and just stand there dazed.

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A week later, I took my mom to the Galiff Street market and realized that the tendency to stand dazed, looking at puppy stalls, refusing to move even when a tram showed up honking (yes, in true Kolkata fashion) was something that runs in the family. I blame my parents.
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I blame my parents for the way I turned out. For talking about dogs, unseen by us children, that passed away 50 years ago but still show up in family discussions ("Tiger! Oh, such a wonderful handsome dog!") more frequently than immediate ancestors; for adopting the turtle Michaelangelo brought in by floods from the river Narmada and eventually with broken hearts returned to it as his increased size required him to be; for being obsessed and observant of a world full of not only people but dogs, cats, birds, donkeys, pigs, cows, langurs, snakes, turtles, peacocks, mongooses - not human by definition but sometimes more human than humans.
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A giant billboard above the Galiff Street market prohibits the sale/purchase of wildlife as pets and promises stern punishment. That is, of course, a matter of vital concern as rapacious industrialization and demand for land push our thumbnail sized wild areas into ever smaller corners. The open is after all is where animals, especially birds, really belong. The wild must be fought for; every last inch of land retained and every species preserved.

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That said, keeping pets, of the non-exotic-not-a-lion-or-a-tiger type, serves a very different and special purpose, one that is at odds with some people's idea of the animal being "imprisoned" by the "human master". For most of us who have ever taken care of a non-human friend, it is not odd to have a conversation with something that clearly cannot reply likewise. Also, it is not very clear who is the actual master when X takes a dump wherever it chooses to and Y has to clean up after.
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The answer may come in the form of a woof or a purr or a chirp. The googly eyes of your goldfish as it swims up near the glass or the budgerigar's chirpiness as you approach has a lot to do with the food in your hand but also a trust that replaces the little critter's natural instinct to run away. That trust, earned by daily routine, does turn into responsibility when you need to get away from the house. 
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The addiction, though, is difficult to get away from. We have moved out of the jungle into brick, stone and concrete nests centuries ago. We moved out only because we wanted to stay "safe", but in the process left something of our selves behind. In the song of a bird and its gymnastics on its perch rod; in the serene glide of fishes in their pretty glass enclosed worlds; in the mad circling dash of the dog, unsure of what to do with the extreme joy it has discovered, merely by your coming home for the day - we find it again.
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Let's call it - an animal connection.
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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Rooftop reverie


Gone. The colours. The crowds. The cheer. All immersed into the Ganga with a subdued splash. Until next year, the dhakis must wait. Until next year, the strings of lights must dim. 
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The storm of activity that was Durga Puja, only 4 days after, is already a fast fading fantasy.
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Post-Puja Kolkata is a very different city from pre-Puja Kolkata. It takes a night like tonight and a rooftop like this one to notice.
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Central Calcutta is not particularly good to seekers of inner peace. There's just too many motorcycles for that (mine included). The roof of the house that my grandfather built, however, is stubbornly resistant to the chaos of the narrow streets 4 floors below. The hullabaloo of the street is not totally absent from this concrete rectangle of respite, but is peripheral enough to be insignificant.
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The very air is different. A delicious chill has descended and the first pleasurable shiver of winter now has everyone's undivided attention. The soul sapping humidity, especially of September, has left for its short annual retreat. Normal conversations seem quieter, more intimate, of easy laughs and of cozy comfort.
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The myriad masjids surrounding have gone quiet, their booming loudspeaker boosted azaan calls for the day fulfilled. The streets have already carried their quota of evening rush hour traffic and now will entertain only the occasional motorcyclist going full tilt. 
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Yellow street lights compete with their newer white cousins to light up these same lanes that have turned in for the night. LED TVs, the 'new' thing to have, display their multi-colour capabilities through distant windows. 
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Packed together as the buildings are in this part of Calcutta, a domestic scene or two of mother & daughter cooking or a family eating dinner are hard to miss, beautiful transient paintings hung, it would seem, on other buildings' dark walls.
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The moon is full, it is Lokkhi Poornima night. Tonight, the goddess of prosperity, aided by the cloudless sky, is casting her benevolence, ethereal silver light on every rooftop and balcony, near and far. The absence of sound is a quiet of the ear. This, its existence surprising in a city of 14 million, is the quiet of the eye.
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Quite disturbing it is, a beautiful night like this, for those given to being affected by such impractical things. Somewhere in the depths of the forest, I imagine, a wolf howls to that strange orb in the sky. A student dawdles in his balcony, ignoring his study books which like the streets, are well lit but abandoned. The moon, after all, affects much more than just the ocean tides.
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From the Salvation Army hostel three buildings away, the faint plucking of a guitar. It's hard to make out the tune but not very difficult to take a guess. Sad or sweet, we do not know, but quite likely to be a love song.
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[http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.in/2015/10/rooftop-reverie.html]

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pujo Pondogol [Part 1 of 4] - Salt Lake


Salt Lake? What's in Salt Lake? The standard Calcuttan's standard response to the suburb in its far north east corner ranges from ignorance to downright disdain. Agreed that the monotonous oneness of all the blocks of Salt Lake make it seem rather sterile after the chaos of the 'city' but the variety of Pujo Pandals on display do indicate that the Salt Lakers may soon be ready to give their 'city' cousins a ghooshi in the eye. A few instances of them actually outdoing 'Kolkata' also caught my eye.
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I must admit that Salt Lake was last on my agenda of pandal photography mania too but a few pictures on an office neighbour's phone made me reconsider. It was already past Dashami, the final day of Puja, when I left office early on Friday to add Salt Lake pandals to my existing stock of 2015 North/South Kolkata pandal photos. Knowing that many bishorjans were planned for Sunday I hoped to catch a little bit of Salt Lake's Puja fever.


I drew blanks on my first two targets, the pandal inside Labony Housing Estate already dismantled and another good one (so I had heard) on the adjacent EC ground on its way down. Got a picture of the empty idol-less structure as seen above indicative of the glory that might have been. Mission Salt Lake wasn't really taking off yet.





Gunning my motorcycle towards FD Block, my belated efforts at finding a Salt Lake pandal finally bore some fruit. The Oriental oriented pandal had an interesting and quite wide geographic mix of Chinese/Japanese/Buddhist/Puri Jagannath influences. 



The crowds were streaming in from all sides. Had to be due to the most important religious purpose of all - solid khawaa daawaa. The rows of snack shops that dished out crowd favourites like fish fries, momos and chicken kebab sticks were mobbed with a spiritual frenzy unseen in front of the actual idol. The mela feel was complete with a carry-in carry-out amusement park set-up.



Every Pujo Pandal worth its salt must add a twist to its idol for the roving crowds to remember it by. FD block's strategy was to frame Ma Durga and her brood in between dragons, keeping the theme of the East Asian pavilion housing them intact. Ma Durga, I am sure, being the super-mom that she is, occasionally cooks up some Indian Chinese for her kids once she is done with her demon slaying duties for the day. Her husband, given his habits, must be hungry all the time anyway.


Street lighting was also especially nice where leading the way to the respective pandals. Salt Lake's planned structure with well spaced out houses did help it use the Pujo aaloshaaj to maximum effect. 



A cake like pink pandal with a rather sober Durga idol inside summed up the contradictions between trying to get the curious pandal hopper's attention while keeping the religious core of the festival intact. 



Chandeliers dangling above the idol seem to be quite the theme for pandals I had seen in Kolkata. No reason then for Salt Lake to feel left out. 


Caught a couple of dances in a toddler dhunuchi dance contest supported by an army of dhakis. Even more than the audience's adoring reaction, the smiles on the faces of the dhakis said it all.





The FE Block Pujo Pandal did a rather grand job of a Lotus temple like set-up with beautiful changing lights.


The GD Block went for a Euro feel to its pandal on the outside and inside.


Inside the castle of GD Block was the most beautiful idol I had seen in all my traipsing around in Kolkata over the past 3 days. This Greek mythology inspired Durga was a real work of art.




Some wise guy on the road to this pandal had told me, with full confidence in his misinformation, that this pandal was already dismantled and I taking his word for it had almost abandoned its search. It was the pictures of this pandal on my colleague's phone that had brought me to Salt Lake and now it was a lost dream.
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Luckily, a casual turn into a lit up alley brought me to the pièce de résistance, the jewel in the crown, the highlight of the evening - the dreamscape of the AE Block 'underwater' pandal. 





Part of the objective, a critical part of the objective of creating a 'themed' pandal is to immerse the audience. The darkened interiors awash in wavering blue light; the magical creatures of the deep, both fear inducing and awe-inspiring; the idol itself set as it was amongst corals and octupusses - AE Block ticked every box on the mood creation checklist.




Part of the reason why the AE Block pandal hit home for me may lie in the animal/nature lover/day-dreamer genes inherited from both sides of my parentage. The contributors of those genes too were blown away when I took them out to the same pandal the next morning. 
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Salt Lake, it must be said, in its parting shot left this cynical and jaded pandal hopper thoroughly convinced of its potential for creativity. On a toe to toe face off with big brother Kolkata, this pandal alone could have said "Bring it on!"












Thursday, September 24, 2015

Being 31 / That incident with the elephant in the night time

Monday, 08-Jun-2015
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So this is how it ends. A dark ghat road on the Kerala-Karnataka border. A speeding car. A huge elephant looms up right in front of my car's windshield. Death by a magnificent lone tusker is a spectacular way to go. 
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31. The age by which one would have everything figured out. Career. Ambition. Direction. Or so I thought when I was 21. Today at the doorstep of that number, I am not so sure and quite happy for the fact. Knowing everything would be a little bit scary. No such problems here.
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31 undeniably feels 'old'. But then 41 will feel even older. Much to my surprise, 'old' is not a bad feeling at all. It's rather fun to look at the young 'uns and all their plans with a "Tumhein kyaa pataa" smugness. This, however, does not extend into forgiveness to Yo Yo Honey Singh for what he did to "Dheere Dheere Se". On a side note - Hrithik, seriously dude, what is your problem - do you really have to d-a-n-c-e t-o e-v-e-r-y s-o-n-g?
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31 has been quite the journey, especially post the 18 years of incubation in a little town by the banks of the Narmada. A different life I do not wish for. Getting here via Bharuch, Kurukshetra, Kolkata and Taunton has given so much food for thought and so much variety of company that any more would just go unutilized.
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Books. Maps. Motorcycles. Family. Friends. Freedom. Pets. NGC/Discovery/Animal Planet/BBC/History. A generic Ph.D in Geekery. Space and time have intersected in the most fortuitous manner to make the preceding the dominant themes of my life. A lot of lives, due to various circumstances, have been driven by other people's "You should"s. I can't complain about any such compulsions.
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As it happened, the driver of my car that night in Kerala swerved, like Alladin on his magic carpet.... swerved just enough to avoid the charging elephant, half dangling the car out onto a chasm hundreds of feet deep. As surprised as us when we turned around the hairpin bend at speed, it had decided to do something about the puny little Tata Indigo that dared challenge him. We of course had no such intentions and made our escape. 
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One of the reasons that I am agnostic and not yet a committed atheist is in memory of incidents like that night's. I don't know how I am still here but I am here. Maybe, just maybe, someone is watching [in a non-creepy way].
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That thing about your life flashing before your eyes... it's for real. In the couple of seconds that it took for me to see the elephant towering over the windscreen of my rushing car (it will redefine your definition of big), realize that it was all over and then realize that it was not all over, I saw a teaser. 
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A teaser which ended with ... "You lucky bas***d"
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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Kirmich Road

NIT-Kurukshetra Main Building
NIT-Kurukshetra Main Building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Bangor. Maine. USA. A radio ad. A surprising radio ad. I let my attention drift from the speeding traffic coursing down I-95 S towards Boston. Dangerous. I grip the steering wheel tighter and look to the road again. Memories.
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"Mahindra Tractors... now in New England!" the ad said. I grew up in an industrialized small town in south Gujarat. I have no childhood memories of farms and farm machinery. That name though... has special resonance.
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Kurukshetra. Haryana. India. Land of the Mahabharata and not much else after. Scratch that. Everything. It was everything and a little bit more. For 4 years. Tucked away in a corner of a sprawling university campus, bordered by wheat fields is an engineering college. Or as it seemed to us then, a universe... our universe.
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A narrow road. Used only occasionally by tempos and Mahindra tractors. The borderline between our world and theirs. Offering easy access to two critical facilities - khokhas for rescue from the tyranny of hostel mess food and thekas for the times when the food wasn't enough of an escape.
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Kirmich Road. Home to khokhaas Akloo, Harish, Meghnath and the only so called 'restaurant', the James Bond inspired Golden Eye. Not for the culinary aesthete, it must be said, given the buffaloes tied alongside their shed like structures and the buzzing flies around them but for a certain group of young adults, the best in the world. Host also to the entrepreneur from Kerala who set up his roadside idli-dosa stall, here in rural Haryana, as far away from home as he could possibly be, brave and undeterred in his mission of serving quality South Indian fare. 
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The road of terror and darkness in the first year. Beyond which lay the naked yellow bulbs under which seniors were free to do, in their own ominous words, 'whatever they want' after they had spirited away the freshers from the stifling confines of their hostel/jail in the middle of the night. The jokes and the humour were crude but the anda chow-mein on some nights was compensation enough.
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 The road of freedom thereafter. Birthday and job treats, recuperating cultural/technical fest committees, farewells, reunion parties - all had a way spilling onto Kirmich Road, a bone chilling walk on a winter night and respite from baking hostel rooms in the summer. Akloo's half-fry Maggi and a steaming glass of patti at midnight was a treat hunter's 'mission complete'. Meghnath's parathas too with their mysterious green chutney, which gave salvation to some and jaundice to others, warmed many a soul in a Haryana winter. 
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Unlikely friendships - making a mockery of the conventional ideas of common ground and background - were formed here, unrequited love - the most common ailment of any young boy's life - was analyzed and criticized here i.e. until it struck the criticizers themselves and understanding silences - over shared cigarettes - covered those golden periods when words seemed superfluous, here in this nondescript road by the wheat fields. 
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A cancelled lecture's magnificent happy hour saw the tides of students wash over Kirmich Road's shores. Late night debates, whose origins could never be traced beyond the vast lands of a country called Boredom fed by the river called Alcohol, reached their garbled crescendo here. This narrow rectangular strip of pitch and tar was a stage... a canvas for all those emotions inseparable from the adventure called student life.
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No wonder then, that half a world away, 8 years since I had even thought about it, Kirmich Road sprung back to life in an instant. Nostalgia tends to smoothen the edges of reality and even to periods of darkness provides a noir like cool. 
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In an idealized tableau, I can always see it, my feet propped up on an empty chair and a glass of patti in my hand, accompanied by a changeable cast of friends - a noisy tractor bouncing past leaving behind a trail of the faint but unmistakable tinny notes of a Punjabi song's ektara
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Just another ordinary... but never quite ordinary day on Kirmich Road.
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[http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.in/2015/09/kirmich-road.html]

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Almost

Nagarahole Wildlife Sanctuary
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Early evening in the forests of southern Karnataka sees our safari vehicle enter through the Dammannakatte gate. I am the only entry level DSLR on this jeep, with a minor zoom lens that I can hand-hold. My four co-passengers are armed with massive wildlife photography focused lenses that need bean bags to rest on. Not only are they dressed in complete camouflage gear, they have camouflage covers for their camera lenses too. I feel woefully under-prepared. 
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That fear is soon put to rest. My jeep mates are very friendly with the noob on their team today. They talk of wildlife trips taken in the Brazilian Pantanal to photograph jaguars and of having seen dozens of brown bears congregate in a narrow stream in the Russian Kamchatka salmon fishing. I too have my handful of Alaska yarns to share, enough for this one time meeting. All in all, it's a happy partnership.
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Then there's the jungle. Oh, what a jungle! The monsoon has arrived in Nagarahole the day before. I don't know if there is a scientific method to measure a tree's happiness. If there is, it would get some chart topping numbers in that forest that evening. The grey of the clouds has only amped up the greenness of the green and the animals wandered about in a dazed crazed sort of happiness. It's not for nothing that nature documentaries use those uplifting melodies as background score when showing the monsoon's arrival. The whole darn place feels... uplifted.
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 Chital, often ignored for their sheer numbers and the ease with which they can be sighted, are one of the beautiful deer on earth. In their spotted grace, they roam these forests by the scores, giving our noisy vehicle the startled doe eye. A pair of mongoose hurry on by, too busy to pose for pictures and the brilliant colour of a Malayan giant squirrel clambering from tree to tree is hard to miss. A rather lazy leopard (more on that in a later post), imperious crested hawk eagles, the strikingly blue Indian roller, a restless dhole pack, elephant herds bathing in the Kabini and massive muscled gaur, all feature in the star cast of this matinee show.
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Up and down the bumpy forest trails we go, the forest department guide assigned to our vehicle half suspended out of the driver's cab scanning, searching, seeking - finding an unusual pattern where we see only green or hearing a tell-tale sound when all we hear is a generic insect buzz and motioning the driver to stop. A little more effort on our part and we finally see what he is expecting to see.
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On this particular occasion, there seems to be a strange urgency to his indications. Looking back to the tourists in his vehicle, he brings his finger to his lips. We aren't talking anyway; our mouths have gone dry with anticipation. 
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Only because on the trail in front of us, dozens of very scared looking chitals are falling over themselves to crowd onto one side of the trail giving short shrill barks of warning. Up in the trees, the langurs are raising an almighty racket shaking branches and hooting at their loudest. You don't have to be a naturalist to tell the reason for all this commotion and tension. Someone wearing a golden striped suit, it seems, is coming.
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The engine of our vehicle goes dead, choked by a quick turn of the key. All banter and chat and smiles are now on hold. I feel a quick jab of the elbow to my chest. One of my co-passengers points towards the direction in which I am already looking and silently mouths the words "Be ready. 100% sighting."
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The wait lasts interminably. The focus and intensity required for 8 men to zero in one point in space & time with one common objective is mentally taxing. Even as we watch, we detect signs of the dissipation of the state of high alert. The body language of the deer still crowded together takes a turn towards the casual and the langurs go quiet. The king, for today, has decided to take an alternate route, not crossing our line of sight.
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The disappointment is apparent in our vehicle as shoulders collectively slouch. Men who have seen wildlife in all its glory in every remote location in the world multiple times over still feel a pang of regret at missing this particular chance to glimpse the magnificent animal that chose not to make an appearance. That the tiger has such a deep hold on human imagination and excites us so is reason enough for us to fight for its preservation and that of its world. 
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With a shudder, the engine comes back to life, ready to go exploring again in this natural temple of plenty. Our guard shakes his head in disappointment at this turn of events and smiles wryly. Looks around to us and says "Sir.... missed call!"
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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Oversmart algorithms

Sometimes I worry. Most times, being a nerd takes precedence.
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Google does know everything about me. At least, it tries to. Only old school nerdery, like book reading, the real made from dead trees deal, is somewhat safe from Google's grasp.
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Letting a company go through the contents of my entire (virtual) life, only for the sake of a free e-mail account  makes me one of the biggest sell-outs in human history. 
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Yet I am resigned to this life of computer controlled intrusion because like any addict, I crave my fix. If information is a drug, then Google is my syringe.
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It is interesting to see the detail down to which a customer is profiled. 
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Take for example, the marketing e-mails and Google ads that I get.
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Hence. new motorcycle/car launches, travelogue websites and camera lens deals hardly skip me by. Google knows and lets me know.
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That I am not married is also public domain information, no thanks to Facebook and thereby some spam master list must have me squarely in Shaadi.com's target zone. Hence the non-stop e-mails from XYZ matrimonial sites assuring me of the best match.
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A problem easily resolved, only a matter of setting my Spam filter to weed out matrimonial website e-mails. If you don't know what that is, sorry for wasting your time thus far, please stop reading now.
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This is where things get intriguing.
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In the true tradition of a trunerd, I actually check the subject lines of even my spam e-mails before deleting them. What if there was an e-mail from 'QMed Daily' that I actually wanted to read?
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The initial e-mails were all dating site 101 types with subjects like "Find your dream partner", "Find your opening partner" (a cricket World Cup special inadvertently suggesting 9 more options to come), "Find that connection" etc.
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Later, as they-who-track-all-my-online-activity noticed, the e-mails were going to my Trash folder unopened and then onto oblivion, there came a slight twist to the approach. The e-mail subject lines took the tone of "Let your dream partner find you"/"God's planned something for you" shifting the onus of the search to the other half.
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On one hand, I find it hilarious that a computer algorithm has probably tagged "lazy" against my name in some mega database, not an inaccurate tagging at all. On the other hand, a slight frown is warranted too. So far I have been able to keep up with the tricks of the teams in Palo Alto or Poland. But what happens if  they figure out something about me before I do?
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Sunday, March 15, 2015

India's Daughters

Yes. I watched BBC's "India's daughter" documentary. It came to my attention only due to the Indian government's ill conceived insistence on banning it. I probably wouldn't have known of its existence otherwise.
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As someone who has actually seen the full documentary as opposed to the "Modiji ne usko kharaab bolaa toh kharaab hi hogaa" camp, let me address the most ridiculous accusation made against it - that it is 'pro-rapist'. BULLSHIT. 
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Watch the nearly hour long documentary where the proud but devastated parents of Nirbhaya discuss the great tragedy that December 16th brought into their lives and the horrifying opinions on women held by one of the accused & his two lawyers are recorded. Watch it and tell me that you came up on the side of the rapists. Tell me that you thought the monsters had some valid points. Tell me that Nirbhaya "deserved it". I challenge you to. I dare you to. 
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The other, trickier to defend accusation against the documentary is that it is 'anti India'. Rape is not a crime restricted to India nor is subjugation of women. So why pick on India? Why not make a documentary on the rape happening in all the 'developed' countries? Why the holier-than-thou attitude towards our country?
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Unfortunately, that accusation again has its roots in the Vedic age space planes and plastic surgery BS peddled by the chaddi-wallahs. We can do no wrong. There can be nothing wrong about our country, no scope for improvement (in the perfect culture of our perfect religion), an opinion very proudly echoed by one of the lawyers in the documentary sitting in front of rows of books which I suppose he never read. If anything bad happened, it was the girl's fault.
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The facts state that the horror story of December 16th happened on the streets of our nation's capital. The incessant ads for fairness creams on primetime TV re-inforce that the value of a woman is only in her beauty, that too a certain fair-skinned version of it. Our women are expected to be home when the sun goes down, because that is the only way to ensure their 'protection'. 
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As awareness grows, gender discrimination is indeed being talked about in certain privileged circles but to claim that it is no longer an issue is laughable. Even more so is the bogus claim by the Asaram Bapus and Mohan Bhagwats that it wasn't even a problem in our society, before foreigners (read Muslims, Christians et al) brought that concept in. 
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Agreed that India is far from the worst culprit in the list of medieval attitudes towards women but Saudi Arabia really should not be a benchmark in this context. The only chance for improvement can come if the faults are accepted, not if we continue to deny their existence. 
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Yes, terribly racist cases like the German professor who refused to guide male Indian students because of India's "rape culture" will crop up from time to time inspite of all the efforts that we as a society put in, but that doesn't mean that we should not see the problem for what it is. Proud for India we must be but not to the extent of making every criticism a foreign conspiracy.
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Poverty, ignorance, economic power sharing are all societal factors which play into aggravating India's issues with women's equality. Discussing the issues and their solutions is not anti-India, it is a baby step forward into a bright and equal future. "But it happens in the US too" should not be cause enough for inaction here. India is our country and we want it to improve. What other countries do or do not do should not be of any concern to our situation.
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Watch the documentary and feel ashamed. But not too ashamed. That watching the documentary made you angry is a positive sign. Channel that anger into something productive, into changing long ingrained attitudes, into launching a revolution for India's daughters.
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Monday, March 2, 2015

Looking for Alaska : A photostory

1. Landing in:
Visiting Alaska had been a lifelong dream. When I saw this scene from my plane seat as Anchorage drew near, it still felt like one. This is taken at 23:30 hours on the 30th of May, 2012. Yes, nearly 24 hours of daylight in Alaska at this time of the year.


2. A train ride to remember:
On my first day there, I took the Alaskan Railroad's Coastal Classic train down to Seward to visit the Kenai Fjords National Park and what a journey it was! Lush meadows (pictured), technicolour tunnels and snowy passes where a cannon shot was fired prior to the train arriving through so as to let any loose snow come down if it needed to.


3. The wildlife show begins:
If you were wondering about the reason behind my Alaska obsession, let me give you three. Wildlife, wildlife and wildlife. A person obsessed with all creatures great and small, my first day in Alaska was spectacular with sightings of moose, black bear, mountain goats, Dall porpoises, humpback whales (pictured) and killer whales (or orcas as wildlife nerds like me call them). Need I mention the spectacular landscape?


4. Just another day in Anchorage:
The planes you see parked are in a grassy backyard which serves as a common runway for all of the neighbourhood houses. Just in front of these houses is a regular road for cars to run on. 1 in 30 Alaskans has a flying license. Driver’s license age limit is 16, pilot’s is 14! Some regions of this vast state (country?) are too remote to access by anything except a plane. So, need to get some groceries? Hop out of the front door and take the car. Need to visit Uncle Jeffrey for Easter? Hop out of the back door and fly out to his cabin in the woods.


5. An icy world:
National Geographic might have already informed you that Alaska has some pretty extreme weather conditions. Yet it doesn’t get more extreme than in the neighbourhoood of Mt. Denali (the Great One in the local Athabascan language). The mountain is 6,168 m tall (not much by Himalayan standards) but being so near to the Arctic Circle makes it one of the most brutal & dangerous climbs in the world. I managed to hitch a ride in a sea plane to take a look around. I could see brave climbers far below like tiny ants making their painful way up.


6. Not so icy most of the time:
Lest you think Alaska was all Eskimos and polar bears, I present you to you some proof of greenery. Actually lots of greenery and beautiful, verdant forests range through all of the lower half of Alaska (which is HUGE). Winter wouldn’t be the time to roam around in shorts but summers are wonderful there. This picture is from the Glenn Highway which connects the towns of Wasilla and Tok.


7. Ah yes, the dogs...
I lied. Wildlife wasn’t the only reason I was drawn to Alaska. In a summer long past, I read a wonderful story, Jack London’s “The call of the wild”, about a sled dog named Buck, who after many a adventure discovered the wild spirit within him and guess where he roamed? Alaska. It was one of the stories which featured high up on my dog-crazy family’s reading list. Seeing these brave and loyal Alaskan huskies in person was a landmark event in my life.


8. and the wolves...
As I said before, animals are my passion. The wolf and its legendary outlaw status make it a superstar in my world. To see a wolf pack run and play and do whats wolves do best i.e. be free made my day, actually my week and my year and my century. For more details on my wolf obsession, please refer http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.in/2012/07/canis-lupis.html


9. and the bears...
7 grizzly bears on a single half-day trip in Denali National Park. Only in Alaska! And due to budget constraints, I was there BEFORE the regular bear viewing season actually started! The first grizzly mom and cubs group we saw was actually clearly playing. A snowy bank was their theme park as they ran up it and skidded down it. Wildlife documentary stuff, a mere daily occurrence in the Great Land (Alaska’s meaning in native Athabhascan)


10. A 10 photo limit is tough:
A vast, untouched, outrageously beautiful landscape where magnificent animals rule; where the native tribes have survived the "modern" world quite well and settlers still live the frontier life; a sense of adventure around every corner - all of this and more. A cliche done to death, but I will say it, Alaska “needs to be seen to be believed”. 


For more pictures, visit the Alaska albums @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/aroy1984/sets