Sunday, December 21, 2008

I wish Rajiv Gandhi were alive today...

My lasting memory of one of India's most famous sons, Rajiv Gandhi, was the printed acknowledgement that I received via snail mail in the 1980s from the PMO's office in New Delhi. I had sent a greeting card to Rajiv Gandhi wishing him a very Happy Birthday. I was too young then to understand what it meant to receive a thank you & acknowledgement card from the office of the Prime Minister of India.

But, I realise the character of the man very well today, based on that one card I so treasure. It was not just any other card - but a carefully worded thank you note that was sent out to me to MY mailing address with HIS autograph (even if printed & not his actual signature). It showed that the Prime Minister of India then cared for his citizens.

I just wish Rajiv were alive today. He looked every bit like a Prime Minister, spoke such terrific English in international conferences, had the conduct and personality to handle international affairs and people in the global league. The charisma apart, the man, I believe, had the forward-looking vision for India, that the current crop so sadly doesn't have.

He was the first guy to get computers to India. He understood the value and importance of sports for India, and got so many things approved on the sports front. He represented India in so many international conferences and made commitments that were followed up with some action or the other. He was one of the earliest to understand the meaning of a multi-national, long before liberalization hit India in 1991.

I think he was assassinated because he was good. Too good, for the other politicians who are regressive and not at all forward-looking. He was young too, which meant, he could have served the country for a longer time and done justice to his talent and India's potential. He also appeared to be a person, though foreign educated & a pilot, in tune with the realities of the country. I always recall his famous speeches, where one sentence or the other started off with the words, "humein dekhna hai..." (we have to see...), rather than a staid, "hum dekhenge... " ( we will see..."), that today's politicians chant (with no accountability).

The man was ahead of his times for me. And that one act of sending a citizen an acknowledgement for a birthday greeting, was a sign of his individual connect with the citizens of the country.

I just wish he were alive today. I am quite confident that he would have had some measures to root out corrupt politicians from the system, gotten in infrastructure and accountability within the system, and also done something about the inefficacies of the Home Ministry. We can always get a P.hd from Harvard or Oxford to run the Finance Ministry and provide dream budgets; but, we need a far greater visionary to run the affairs of the country. Rajiv Gandhi might have been that person.

I wonder if this blog will go to Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi now...and if I will get another card!:)

Two days for the vacation to begin

It will be the second and third country outside India that I will see. Singapore and Kualalumpur. I have been in vacation mood for the last week or so. And given the lean season of work, the mood of not wanting to get up in the morning and going to office, just gets accentuated.

This is one of those goody-goody trips: free tickets, accommodation taken care of, friends to hang out with, places to see, X'mas and New Year season, shopping time, looking at the development in the neighbouring regions of India and checking out a completely new set of people - Chinkis and Malays!!:). From what I hear from my friends, all Chinki babes look alike, and one can never decipher how young or old they are: a 40 years old Chinki woman will look exactly like a 24 year old Chinki hottie!:).

Let's see what the trip has in store. Am looking forward to the cultural nuances of the trip as well - the similarity to Indian food, Tamil being a second language, tons of Indians in these 2 places, a cusp between the West and the East, shopping delights, concrete jungles and a way of life that is unique to these 2 cities.

More on this, once I get back from the trip.

Bumped into an old neighbour

It felt as if I was transported back in time - a good 15 years, at that. 1989-1993, to be precise, when I bumped into my old neighbour at Sankey Tank today. I was busy on my usual weekend jog and as I made the final lap, I saw this dashing chap with a kid in his hand. I was not sure if he was my neighbour, because the last time I saw him, he was busy with many girlfriends, and I could never have picturised him with a kid in hand! But, that was exactly the situation - the guy is married, runs a music school, and still lives in the same house that we were a part of. And to see him with a kid was a bit amusing and good!

The best part was when he said, "you look just the same; ever since you have grown up, you are still the same". For those of who are wondering or laughing at that statement, he was referring to my height!!:) And in subsequent conversations, I discovered, my frame of mind!:) Not the best thing to be hearing, but well, in the company of an old friend, these things are bound to happen.

Of course, he was not short of advice for me - what with recommendations on how to woo a woman, how never to give up in life and what is life without a girlfriend, et al. All in all, a nice evening with an old pal!:)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fight for your rights, come what may

I have learnt in life to respect elders and people with vast experience with life in general. I have also been brought up to respect Indian traditions and values and am personally a big fan of those things, irrespective of how modern I may be. But, there are times in life, when old people need to be told not to mess with the younger generation.

What would one do when a person who is 2.5 times your age accuses you of things that have no basis? Especially when you have extraordinary counter proof to tell them, that they are wrong. The matter gets accentuated when people such as these are arrogant, have a temper of a lion and an attitude of "only I am right; rest of the world is a bunch of fools". In such a scenario, I firmly believe that such people need to be dealt with head on. They need to be told that they are not as perfect as they consider themselves to be. They need to firmly told that others can also be right. More than anything else, such people need to be firmly dealt with.

In fact, the way to handle these types of people who never value other human beings, is to present hard-hitting, indisputable facts that will make all their allegations against the "so-called, weaker folks", fall flat on its face. That is the only language they understand and will understand.

The chances are that such people will still not buckle down and take the stand, "how dare he talk to me like that? You are half my age?", etc. But, one needs to be extremely strong mentally to take on such people. To fight till the finish; especially when one's very existence is challenged, questioned, insulted and rebuked, with absolutely no basis whatsoever.

Nobody has any business to be accusing anyone else personally; that too, without a single fact in hand. And more so, when the person being accused has enough ammunition in the form of facts, to throw at the accuser, that make all such allegations fall flat on their face.

The matter gets gravitated when one's very own tends to leash out at you, for no fault of yours. That's when, I believe, that content, structure and facts need to be used very carefully, to let the person know not to mess around with you. This is because, emotions have no play when one is dealing with a situation of being accused of flawed personality or character.

Fighting for one’s rights is an extremely big test of a person’s temperament, character, will power and ability to prove to “interested” parties, not to mess with them. It becomes even more critical, when the battle is one-on-one i.e. the person hates YOU the most, and gets along famously with most other human beings (for NO fault of yours).

Its better to live a life of dignity and character fighting for your rights, rather than buckling down under the pressure of elements that are out to question your integrity. At the end of the day, one's name and credibility are far more important and lasting than any designation or money power. Fight, especially when you are 500% right, and can prove it to elements that think otherwise.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The 2 sides of Pakistan that I know...

I have no words to say this. But that feeling of immense sub-continental belonging was at its highest when I went to the Wagah border earlier this year. To see folks from across the border, divided by just a massive gate at the Indian border, was an exhilirating experience.

I will never forget that moment when the gates opened, and soldiers from either country had that regal guard of honour, hoisting flags, singing their respective national anthems, and so on. Most of all, people from either side of the border rose in unision when some famous Bollywood songs were played. There was thus, a classical people-to-people contact that I had only heard about on national television. I will never forget that moment when I saw tall Pakistani pathans, dressed in authentic 'sherwani-types' of attires, with long beards and a smile that was worthy of a model for a toothpaste advertisement!

There is another part of Pakistan I love and admire. That is the set of sporting and political icons that this politically damaged country has churned out over the years. Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, that all-conquering left-handed genius, Wasim Akram who I had the great fortune of seeing up, close & personal in a sports competition in Bangalore. How can I forget the elegant Benazir Bhutto. Hell, she went to Harvard! And had so much grace! And the Pakistan that loves a Shahrukh Khan or produces a Nusraft Fateh Ali that delights and unifies people from both sides of the border. Cultural unification, I guess. Sheer appreciation of art and talent on display. No artificial bifurcations.

But, there is the other side of Pakistan. The Pakistan, that bombs innocent parts of the world. The Pakistan that has no democracy. The Pakistan that has such severe military interference that the average citizen possibly does not know who real Government is - the civilian, 'elected' folks or the men with the guns and uniforms in the military. Not to mention, the famous terrorist training camps that the world keep reiterating as being housed in Pakistan. Of the immense access to underworld dons that these terror outfits enjoy. Or, the unforgettable and sadly, indefatiguable connections with (though unproven, I guess) Al-Qaeda and the likes. Or the Taliban. And so on...

These are the two sides of Pakistan that I know. And given a choice, I would clearly opt for the first one that I have described here. Its a far greater option in this generation of terrorism.

I just hope that we are able to unite in this grief (Mumbai), such that we are able to root out the part of Pakistan that nobody likes (or wants).

Time for introspection, for both countries, as to what future do we want to leave the sub-continent to contend with.

Why India is angry today?

Most corridor-conversations in recent weeks revolve around the recent Bombay terror attacks. Old-timers talk about the lack of resolve in the political world. The US is putting pressure on Pakistan. World opinion stacks up against the terrorists who arbitrated this henious crime. The whole country is furious. And about time too.

Never before in the history of the country has there been such public outcry against the politicians. These people in positions of power, running policy matters and saving their own fiefdom have never been bombarded by the wrath of public opinion. People hate politicians. People are asking answers from the powers-that-be. People in India are demanding accountability. There are public marches being staged in the heart of Mumbai city with people telling politicians never to come to Bombay city ever again. Indians are questioning politicians about where the tax money eventually goes? People are asking politicians about the merit of their z-security.

Adding fuel to fire, is the ridiculous and insensitive remarks made by the politicians. Some nerds had the nerve to say, "these sorts of bomb attacks happen in big cities". Good thing is, he was fired from his exalted position of Deputy Chief Minister & State Home Minister of Maharashtra, the next day. Another politician, a Chief Minister of a state at that, had the gall to tell the father of a martyr, who laid down his life in the fight against terror, that "even a dog would not come to your house". Good thing is, this Chief Minister faced public wrath and was summarily dismissed from the residence of the martyr's residence; hope he is fired soon, as well.

In all this, people are asking questions and taking things into their own hands. The phenomenal success of makes a lot more sense in the current times of terror. There are scores of people-driven initiatives happening in the country, such as assembling people in different localities together, getting things such as car pooling to beat traffic congestion and so on. Things which the politicians are supposed to provide the average citizen of India, is now slowly getting away from them, as poeple are taking things into their own hands.

Jaago India, jaago, indeed. To hell with politicians. I am more than confident that the Indian public is going to summarily screw political careers built over many decades, in the democratic elections in March 2009. What is refreshing in these times is that the new crop of politicians - the educated, well-travelled, forward-looking and extremely global set of intellectuals - are talking about a revolt against their seniors. Maybe, just maybe, these are the kinds of politicians that the youth of India will work for. And throw away the forts built by the 70 and 80 year olds, who can barely make a contribution anymore to the country.

There is hope, in this crisis too.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Oh, Calcutta - day 2

Day 2 was not so eventful. But, it showed me that part of Calcutta that is cut off from reality. I went to the Ramakrishna Mission (Belur Math), Howrah, Hooghly, and most other parts of the old city.

What struck me the most was the abject poverty there. The utter disconnect that people in this half of the city had with the rest of the world. Old, old, old buildings, that nearly looked like they would fall off any minute. Clothes hanging from balconies. I saw potters, barbers, carpenters, cobblers, and the like. I even saw masons yelling at their workers who were lifting cement bags and other commodities onto carts.

There was a certain silence in these parts. As if, they were asking, "what wrong have we done, to be summarily dismissed and not included in India?" Some of the buildings I saw really scared me - they had flags of a few political parties hanging out of the windows. I was left wondering whether these politicians knew about these citizens and were doing nothing about their upliftment, or had people just given up and had no chance of revolting against these politicians. Sad, sad, sad.

I so desperately wanted to go on a boat ride on the Hooghly river, but lack of time did not allow me to do that. There is a certain melancholy about the Howrah and surrounds that is hard to capture in words. There is dirt on the roads, there is pollution in the locality, there is acute poverty around, there are dilapidated buildings that look close to run-down, people seem to get on with their lives with no great ambition but to ensure that they make their two ends meet. Two square meals a day seemed to be a luxury in this locality. I suffocated in the 2-3 hours that I was there and I can only imagine the health of these citizens in this sort of a very, very unhealthy locality -sure place for an epidemic to break out.

The irony is that, as soon as I came out of the Howrah bridge, I noticed that the main road leads into the Chief Minister's office - the Writer's Buildings, as they are famously called. I was left wondering whether these power centres were even bothered about doing something to provide a basic livelihood for these parts of neglected Calcutta.

I had rented a cab for day 2 of my trip in Calcutta. And I had a Bihari driver for company. His Hindi was so classical and different from the Hindi that the average Bengali spoke. He gathered pretty quickly that I was not from these parts and took me right around the city, showing me famous buildings and other locations of import. Very helpful chap, who validated a lot of the stuff that I had read up on the internet. And it also added to my knowledge of the city.

I spent the afternoon of my second day in Calcutta at the Science Museum. Fantastic place and a must-see for everyone who visits this metropolitan city. It has 3-D shows, a space show that talks about the solar system and how the sun impacts things in life, rockets, information about all the planets in the universe, GSLV, PSLV etc. Big domes that have graphics of science and definitions of scientific terms. Good place for kids too and to expose them to the world of science.

Now to the last bit. The Calcutta cops. These guys essentially adorn a white uniform and a white helmet. What stood out for me was that this uniform and helmet stays white, despite the heat and dust that the city throws up. I could sight cops from a distance, merely because of their attires. Phenomenally maintained! Or, for lack of better explanation, they use detergents well in the Calcutta police force!

The trip was also my first glimpse of a yellow cab in Indian roads. The only other place that I had seen them was in New York city. However, I felt these Calcutta cabs were far more reasonable than their Big Apple counterparts! I remember, that cabbie who asked me for an extra ten rupees, just because it was late at night and he had to drop me to the other end of the city. Forget, New York, any other Indian city would have fleeced me at that time of the night. That, in itself is a measure of the city - simple, uncomplicated, and living life on their own terms to a degree. What with extensive opinion on everything that happens in this country and the interest that people have for art, science, law and other finer nuances of life.

Oh, Calcutta - Day 1!

I had heard a lot about this city. About how laidback it was. About, how it almost lived in another era, while the rest of the country raced ahead. About the famous sweets and the chaats that the city offered. And how fish is vegetarian in Calcutta!

Well, my recent trip to Calcutta, rounded off the only metropolitan city that I had not been to, in India. And it lived up to its reputation. Staying at Salt Lake City, going in the famous yellow taxis and the underground metro train and into the new and old city, was an experience in itself.

The city is very crowded though. But the difference between the rush in Calcutta and the rush I find in other Indian cities lies in the pressure that people place on themselves to have a life outside of office. People have time here, or, ensure that they create time for themselves and their loved ones. Of course, during winter the sun sets at 5 p.m., so that helps matters, as people get home really early. There did not seem to be a concept of long hours here and extensive high-pressure life. During the day, I found many people sitting along the maidan area and watching club cricket. This form and league of cricket is taken very seriously here, and many a punter is debated, discussed and disputed at these clubs. The grounds are massive too, much bigger than I am accustomed to seeing back home in Bangalore.

Perhaps the star attraction of the city is the Victoria Memorial (VM). A phenomenal architectural wonder that has a museum with flavours of sculpture, paintings, photographs, Indian freedom fighters, evolution of Calcutta. There is a tremendous amount of history in this building too - frames and sculptures of British rulers, kings, viceroys, etc don the ramparts of this museum at different spots. Some names I remember are Lord Curzon, Lord Dalhousie. The highlight of them all, is the fantastic sculpture of Queen Victoria - standing tall, with a bright smile and overlooking the entire museum, right from the centre of the main hall. Great sight. It almost made me wonder, how could such a good-looking woman, be part of such a brutal agenda to rule us for 180 years!

The VM is quite spectacular at dusk, and even better at night. It overlooks the horizon of downtown Calcutta in a manner of royalty, that I have possibly only seen in New Delhi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Fantastic! And white marble, well-lit, in the evening, is a great sight!

Of course, my trip had its fair share of drama. I lost my cellphone! As I stood at the main gate of the VM and was busy clicking photographs, I guess my phone fell somewhere. Only after I got to the nearest railway station to get back to my guest house, did I realise that I had lost my 15 day old phone! So much for loving something so dearly in life - more often than not, it goes away from me. Sigh!

The drama didn't end with the lost phone. Given the recent coverage on the Bombay terror attacks, the last thing I ever wanted was my phone getting into the hands of some untoward elements in an alien city. So, I went up to the cops and reported the loss of my phone. They hardly spoke Hindi, and I didn't know a word of Bengali! It was quite amusing for me to speak Hindi slowly and try to get my point across to the cops. I have an observation about the cops, which I will write about later. Finally, I hopped onto the police van and went to the nearest police station and lodged an FIR, about the loss of my phone. It was such an old building, with even older furniture and files. No information technology in the Calcutta police forces, for sure!

In between all this, I must say that I had a good glimpse of modern Calcutta. I went around the maidan region, saw the famous Eden Gardens from the outside, the B.C.Roy Club House, and the Cricket Association of Bengal. Names that I had seen on television for years and which I had associated with the likes of Jagmohan Dalmiya and Saurav Ganguly. It was refreshing to see so many upcoming cricketers playing in the vicinity in the massive maidan region, trying to follow their heroes and make it to the top. I got the sincere feeling that this modern part of Calcutta strongly encouraged sports and had so many facilities for the club cricketers to display their wares, right outside the Eden Gardens. What was disappointing for me was the fact that I was not permitted into the Eden Gardens for the tourist visit. Of course, courtesy, the recent Bombay terror attacks. Anyway, just another one of those long-cherished things in my life, that didn't happen.

This part of Calcutta had corporate offices, five star hotels, small malls, restaurants, lounge bars, and a number of foreigners. My next stop was Park Street, which I felt was a striking replica of some of the main downtown areas in Bombay, like the Fort area. Old historical British buildings, head offices of famous companies, host of people running from pillar to post in the regular rush of their lives, roadside juice bars, famous landmarks such as St. Xaviers' College, Archbishop's Residence and so on. A mix of the old British life and the modern Calcutta, trying to put its best foot forward in a competitive world. I also felt that this was the only part of Calcutta that was possibly not affected so much by the crony socialism that the entire state of West Bengal is famous for. Maybe, I had the forward-looking eyes of the Indian youth, that this struck me. But, I am pretty sure that, this would be the observation that anyone makes about Park Street.

As I finally got back to Salt Lake City, trying to balance the rush on the metro and my need to be on time for a wedding reception at the Lake Club, I was greeted by the Calcutta traffic. Scores and scores of vehicles going from the expensive part of the city (Park Street & the like), to their respective homes. What was good about this traffic though was that it was free-flowing. The roads are quite wide in the main streets of Calcutta. Any average main road could accommodate 3-4 lanes at least.

On my return to the guest house, I quickly changed into my new red kurta and headed out to the Rowing Club, apparently, a famous landmark in the city. Took some time to get there, but, eventually did. Sprawling lake, and a fantastic setting to host a wedding reception. Thankfully, my friend had invited very few people, so it was not very crowded. I ended up being a topic of conversation, as nobody around had come in all the way from Bangalore! That made a few heads (read, Bengali girls!) bob towards me. I wasn't complaining, given that they were all looking so good! Enough number of them came over to me and mentioned that they were particularly appreciative of my trip all the way from Bangalore to Calcutta. I should thank my close friend for inviting me over, I guess!!:)

One thing I must say is that Bengalis are very proud people and their women take pains to look beautiful. The difference between the Calcutta version of beauty and the Delhi type of beauty is the natural flavour of these Bengalis. I never found even a single Bengali girl over-dressed, or smacked with a few litres of lipstick. They just seemed to be adept at carrying themselves very well, and their grace just added to the beauty. Maybe, just maybe, the fact that I found Bengali women more intellectual and possessing a good ability to carry on a conversation well, made them appeal to me a lot more!

Anyway, coming back to the reception, I made a couple of new friends there and we were talking about the recession and the politicians and the Bombay terror attacks. A couple of them were busy marketing the modernity of Calcutta in the form of a few interesting malls in the city, as a close competitor to Bangalore's growth story! Made for interesting conversation though.

I did not forget to have the famous rosagollas and sandesh sweets at the reception. Slurp! Simply terrific!

Move on to day 2 of my trip, in my next piece!

Good suggestion - get some youngsters into the Indian Parliament

It was refreshing to hear 2 young Bombay politicians admit that the political class in this country is nothing more than a shame. One of them even stuck his neck out and told politicians to "shut up", if they do not have anything constructive to state or do. Perhaps the defining line in this interview with these 2 young Bombay politicians was, "I find it better to be a Mumbaikar, rather than the BJP spokesperson for Maharashtra".

Fantastic words. Refreshing words. And words that echo the thoughts of teeming millions in the country. There has been incredible angst and curses hurled at the senior parliamentarians in New Delhi. The average citizen has become tired of the same old names doing the rounds in the Indian political system for so many years. The worst situation is that these politicians are on the other sie of 60 or 70, and are still power-hungry. They will do anything to get their votes, hold on to their seat and boss around, with nil accountability.

To see these 2 young, vibrant, ambitious, pragmatic and well-educated Bombay politicians this evening prompted a thought on national television. A thought, that perhaps, it would do the country a world of good, if we manage to elect these sorts of forward-looking and constructive youngsters, who are not thawed by the experience of dirty politics, and may yet be our best hope of reconstructing India, from the debris that it finds itself in.

Enough, again, is enough.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Government of India - you don't deserve my taxes

In all the time that television channels covered the recent Mumbai terror attacks non-stop over the last week, there was one particular opinion by an expert that stuck in my mind. This was by a famous chartered accountant who said in a very matter-of-fact way, "what if we stop paying our advance taxes that are due on Dec 15 of every year?". That statement, which may have been in rhetoric and anger, summarised the sentiment of the people.

There was one more comment - by a veteran Mumbaikar, who frequents the Taj hotel often. She asked all politicians to stay away from Mumbai and went on to add that they should be stripped of their security and that the Government does not deserve the taxes that she pays(and so do millions of others in India).

I couldn't agree more with these extreme suggestions made in the unprecedented times that we find ourselves in. If the politician is stripped of his own security for some time and is exposed to the "normal"situation that all of us face every day, there MIGHT be some hope of the realisation dawning on them. Moreover, if these politicians do not get their money from the public in the form of taxes for a short-term, say, a quarter, it will choke the government machinery. Sure ways of letting these ridiculous powers-that-be are elected by us to know that they are accountable and answerable to the public. If not, like in the private sector, if you don't perform, go home.

The worst of them all was the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, R.R. Patil. The man had the insensitive nerve to state that "these sorts of attacks happen in big cities". I silently thought to myself, "how I wish he had lost someone near and dear to him, had his house burgled, not to mention, been denied his security cover". Moron! Thank God, he was asked to leave by his bosses. About time too!

In all this, I am convinced that the Government does not deserve my taxes. I mean, here I am slogging 15-18 hours a day for super demanding clients and then paying taxes every month when my salary comes. So do many companies that produce goods; so do millions of other people like me. And I am sure, that almost all of us in India, expect some basics - roads, lesser traffic jams, a police force that works, security and so on. Just the basics.

Forget about GDP growth of 8% - we as individuals are smart enough to work hard and make our country grow. But, if my taxes do not even give me the basic things in my life, this sort of a government does not deserve my taxes.

Enough is indeed, enough.