Saturday, July 12, 2014

Balle Balle FIFA!

Once every Four years, there is a strange phenomenon that happens in our wonderful country.

Cobblers on the streetside stitch more torn and old footballs than they do shoes.

Sports stores replace all their Cricket paraphernalia with football stuff, and the colors of the storefront change the the Indian Blue to International Greens, Oranges, and Whites.

There is an insane number of requests that Wikipedia and ESPN receive from India with strange queries like 'who are popular players in Italy' and 'how many goals did Messi score'. Some honest folks even ask 'what is the difference between soccer and football' and 'why are Arsenal and Liverpool not playing the world cup'.
Profiles on Twitter sport new display pics, with weird 3 letter shields - like  GER, ARG, ITA, and USA. Yes, USA too - poor folks who probably recognize the acronym and take the known devil's route.

FIFA Time!

Considering that we live in a world where the image we project is much more important than the real personality we possess, this shouldn't come as a surprise! But usually sane folks also falling prey to the overload of tamasha is truly funny. Never have people studied so much on their phones and tabs. In an effort to appear knowledgeable, middle aged men all over the country have been reading up tomes on 'The Beautiful Game', and chanting the names in order to get them by heart. Folks have even been listening to commentary of old games, and learning how to pronounce the foreign names of popular players accurately. Yes, Villa is not read with an 'L', but is pronounced as 'Viyya'. Gyaan!

Red Eyed employees have been found walking into offices and crowding the coffee machines several times a day. The body demands sleep at 3 am, but in order to talk cool about the passes that Costa Rica sent, or the dismal refereeing, they keep themselves awake. Man, this world is tough on us.

Not just men! Women with changed DPs have been found talking football. And their social stature changes instantly! From boring, they become ultra-cool, hip, and suave, just like that! Worth all that preparation, surely. Those who were termed as geeks and nerds have suddenly become the center of conversations all over the country, and those sleepless nights are worth it. Afterall, its only another week or two that the Tamasha will be remembered, before we move on to something better!

There has been a manifold increase in the number of Twitter users in the country in this period. Never have people been so proficient at expressing themselves in under 140 characters! Photoshop artists have become demi-celebrities, by morphing images of RVP and Ochoa onto Indian situations, and have been receiving truckloads of followers and shares. Newspapers began the worldcup with half a page dedicated to it, and thanks to the unreal following that the game has been receiving, they've moved to two or even three full pages dedicated to the game! Folks that did not know that a channel called Sony Six existed, have added it to their favourites. Large screens across the country have been booked up, and hotels and pubs have bought an unprecedented number of giant TV screens to cater to the craziness.

All this for another two days. Tomorrow night the finals is done, and for a couple of more days, the topic will remain among the trends. Cricket, and our team's insult at the hands of Root and Andersen in the first test has already risen to the top of the trends, and we will hopefully go back to abusing our cricket heroes soon. Atleast we can speak knowledgeably about the sport and quote comparisons between aggressive Ganguly (remember the shirt waving?) and strange Dhoni (for not having bowled Binny). Then we can stop pretending and return to something we've lent our lives to long ago. Till the next worldcup, Cricket will rule! And Sunil Chhetri (look him up if you don't know about him, O Shameless Person!)'s stint in the commentator's box will be done :)

And Rediff can go back to finding some other Bollywood-centric Soft-Porn to peddle, since the semi-nude images of the 'Fan of the Day' will have to cease on Monday. But I'm certain they'll run a 'Best of FIFA Fans' slideshow on Tuesday before moving on!!

PS - I started this post over two weeks ago. But owing to staying up late to watch the football matches, I couldn't complete it before now ;)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Thrive - A tangential train of thought

Thrive is one of the most important documentaries to come out in this generation. While there are aspects to it that I don't entirely subscribe to, it is indeed thought altering; make no mistake about it. In case you haven't watched it yet, it'll take 132 mins, and here is the link -

While the video primarily concertrates on giving life to various conspiracy theories, what struck my intellect isn't those. Again, make no mistake - the expounded theories are all totally justified and accurate if you look at it from the producers point of view and take into consideration all the proofs that they share with us. The beauty of Thrive is that it is all immensely logical, and appeals to the section of our mind which loves logical thought flow. And it isn't helmed by a non-entity either! Foster Gamble is a direct heir of the Procter and Gamble empire, and when a man born into spectacular riches leaves his family's calling and spends 35 years on solving some of the world's primary questions, you can't but sit up and take notice.

But like the title of this post says, this is not directly about Thrive and its impact on our thinking. It is a tangential train of thought that stems from one core idea expressed in Thrive. As a part of the video's primary conspiracy - that of Global Dominance by a select few families, the video says one of the channels they use to achieve that is by training us to be dominated right from our birth. By putting similar seeds in all of our minds, and by controlling the education system all over the world, they try to prove that the system is creating robots out of us - those destined to be dominated and pose no threat to the power of the select few.

I don't totally endorse conspiracy theories, since I believe they're counter-productive, and are by default, detrimental to normal thought flow. But what cannot help but strike you is that the result of what we're doing to our people is exactly what they say in the video! Which is why this post is titled 'A Tangential train of thought'.

Lets replace the conspiracy theory of a few families trying to dominate the world, to a system which makes clones of ourselves. We created that system for convenience's sake, so that we wouldn't need to trouble our intellect in trying to understand a new set of thoughts and living with them as a part of our environment. In the movie The Stepford Wives, the men of the community decide they've had enough with free-thinking women, and create robots disguised as lovely wives, and all's well with their lives till Nicole Kidman comes and discovers their secret. In our world, we're so deeply entrenched in the system that we're doing exactly the same thing - albeit at a more dangerous level since we're not creating robots but making humans behave so. From the time a child is born, the society (or the system - they're the same!) starts thinking for it. By the time the child is old enough to think for itself, it is already groomed to think precisely like its predecessors. Like the latest Seagrams Ad puts it, before we realize it, 'we become our parents'. Or rather, we become the society, as our real parents are not just those two people who conceived us, but the society at large. Every thought that has been put in our minds, we pick up from the stream that is the society, and add our own attributes to it, thereby modifying the stream, and whipping up speed of the thought flow. The next person that comes along picks up that modified thought and does precisely the same. We are the system. We created it. We feed it. We are trapped in it.

The so-called radical thinkers of our world too, have a place in the stream, and they act as a counter-balance once in a while. But largely, they know what they're doing is a sham too. And no, we can't beat the system. It is too large, and just by wanting to beat it, we add to the confusion which is already prevalent, thereby strengthening the system itself. 

The only thing we can control is our own involvement in it. The way the system, or our society works, is through involvement. By either joining or rebelling, we add fuel to it. And once that thought gets into our brain, it won't let us stay in peace. We will want to change the system. And that is a myth! By wanting to change the system, we're making it more powerful - Yin and Yan. We pull, the system pulls back stronger. We try to change the system, the system puts more pressure on us to change. The way of the world. And that system is us.

But when we step back and just observe, there's nothing the society can do! It feeds off involvement. When we think about it, we give it energy. When we step back, we're aloof. There's no energy you pass to that system, and while that doesn't change the system, it changes it for us! We're at peace.

And that, precisely, is my take-off from Thrive. Yes, it is an important documentary. But for me, rather than the solutions expressed by The Thrive Movement, this is a much better option. By asserting our independence, we create a little island of sanity in an insane world, and while it may or may not impact the rest of the creation, it certainly is a balm for our troubled minds. There's a lot more to write on the topic, but the more I lecture on it, the more I will be trying to influence the thought flow. So I abstain :)

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Seven Kashis

Varanasi, better known in India as Kashi, is the world's oldest city, and has been the oldest continually habituated place.

Kashi has several other sobriquets - the world's most congested city, the holiest city, the most densely populated city, the city with the worst traffic, and more - depending on the view of the visitor. And each visitor that lands in this amazing city has a different experience. There is something magical about the city that keeps pulling people back again and again - in spite of the ignominy that expects only death-related visits to be associated with this wonderful city.

For me, Kashi isn't one city, but Seven.

The 7 Kashis -

- The Kashi of the Ganges
- The Kashi of the mystic
- The Kashi of the damned
- The Kashi of the foodie
- The Kashi of the citizen
- The Kashi of the artist
- The Kashi of Shiva

The Kashi of the Ganges - Ganges, the holiest of the rivers in India, takes on a whole new persona as soon as it crosses Sangam at Allahabad. At Kashi, The Ganges is not just a river. It is the epitome of the city itself. Ganga is the first thing we look forward to on reaching the city, and the joy one experiences while gazing at the mother is inexpressible. Lifetimes can be spent on the ghats, and the Ganga's majesty is one of Kashi's greatest assets. Or rather, according to mythology, the reason Kashi is where it is, is because of the river! They're intertwined. The pitch of the boat, the swish of the oar, the plonk of the fish, the drift of the diyas, there is nothing like Kashi's Ganga anywhere in the world! Words don't do its majesty justice. From a new born's first bath, to the body's last rites, Ma Ganga is the heartbeat of Kashi, and of millions of its children from all over.

The Kashi of the Mystic - Mysticism is an integral part of Hinduism, and the home of the mystics is at Kashi. For all those people who're taken over by an urge to explore Hinduism, Kashi is their school. The same people who would gawk at a Naga Sadhu elsewhere wouldn't think twice if he is seen in Kashi, and that is quite amazing! From Aghoras to Nagas to Tantrics, Kashi is home for all. Annapurna feeds them all, at any time of the day or night. The banks of the Ganges, the sand bars in the middle of the river, the Temple itself, the forests surrounding the city, there is no dearth of places for the Mystics to practice his Sadhana; and they joyfully do so!

The Kashi of the Damned - From time immemorial, Kashi has always been the place to go and die. Hindu mythology is replete with sayings attributed to various gods and gurus, that when one leaves the body at Kashi, he attains Moksha and is freed of the endless circle of births and deaths. While the number of people taking that sentence at face value has reduced, there still are thousands of people waiting in Kashi for the call to come. While most people who wait are invalid, aged, and homeless, there are people who are still have strength in their limbs and spirit in their hearts, but yet choose to stay on at Kashi - lest the call come when they take a break to some other place! Rajas of erstwhile kingdoms have bestowed buildings on these damned, and since no one goes hungry in Kashi, food for their survival comes by each day without fail. Some of these buildings look right out onto the Manikarnika ghat, and the residents know they will adorn the palanquin shortly.

The Kashi of the Foodie - While Kashi is a Moksha-Sthaana, and most people go there searching for solace and peace, it is also a place for amazing tastes. There are various kinds of solaces people look for, and those seeking solace in food will love Kashi as well :) From the bread smeared with an entire packet of Amul butter in the mornings, to Chats, Marwari Thalis, various cuisines for lunch and dinner, and Rabri, Jalebi, Lassi for dessert, Kashi is a foodie's delight! There are restaurants of operated by people from all parts of the country, and some by foreigners as well! Whether you're a Tamilian, or a Gujarati, a Bengali, or an Italian, you will find food from your region for sure at Kashi. And for those who would rather focus on the spiritual aspect of the city, Annapurna will feed you satvik food every day at her abode - for free. Stay there for a week, and you will only scratch the surface of the number of great food places in this city.

The Kashi of the Citizen - Residents in cities which have a heavy influx of pilgrims and travelers are quite different from those in other places. Their levels of patience and business acumen are of a whole different standard, and Kashi-vaasis are right at the pinnacle! For thousands of years in known history, Kashi has been full of people streaming into the city without a break, and making it their own. And the citizens understand this. Bearing with the eccentricities of the travelers, they go on with their regular work, and that is no mean feat! The number of police on the streets, the rush of the traffic in the lanes, the complete lack of privacy in the city, and the never ending flow of people, can't be easy to bear for a person who lives and works in Kashi. But they bear all this with a smile! You have to experience this firsthand and you will agree!

The Kashi of the Artist - Photographers, Painters, Dancers, Musicians, Actors, Filmmakers, Artisans, everyone has a connect with Kashi. Irrespective of their religion and their belief, they find inspiration in Kashi, and it is no wonder that they keep going back again and again to rejuvenate themselves. The banks of the Ganga, the temple of Vishwanath, the bylanes of this amazing city, and a boat ride at night, make up the absolute antidote for any ill. Artists who especially are influenced by India, stay on at Kashi and work with tremendous passion. It is quite common to see painters and photographers at work, covering every aspect of Kashi's day and night. The hotels right on the banks of the Ganga make for phenomenal stays as well.

The Kashi of Shiva - The different facets of Kashi keep changing through the ages. But what is consistent is the Kashi of Shiva. The oldest city in the world is Shiva's Kashi, and he always keeps his promise of not letting Kashi die away. The other layers of Kashi will engage with a pilgrim's senses for one visit or two, but what keeps calling back again and again to this wondrous city is the presence of Shiva. Every heartbeat of Kashi, every moment, is full of his presence. There is a tingling one experiences when he thinks of Kashi, and that keeps calling him to come back. It is this presence of the lord that brought together some of Hinduism's greatest saints and Gurus at Kashi. Shiva at Kashi is Regal. The Lord. Viswanath.

There are other Kashis one could experience depending on what appeals to their intellect. These are my Seven. And I have to go back soon :)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Shantaram - My Review

For me, books are broadly divided into two simple classifications. One, those which span generations and have a canvas wider than the reader's imagination. Two, those books which only deal with one narrow chunk of the protagonists' lives. The latter are often just mindless reads, and make up most of the books published.

But once in a while, there is a book that is utterly grand in its thought and execution, and engages all the faculties of the readers intellect.Such books usually happen only once in a writer's lifetime. Midnight's Children happened to Salman Rushdie. A Thousand Splendid Suns happened to Khaled Hosseini. One Hundred Years of Solitude happened to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And Shantaram happened to Gregory David Roberts.

The book isn't new; and if you're fond of reading, you probably have already completed this. Or atleast have heard about this. The plot line is quite fantastic. Narrated in first person, Gregory David Roberts tells us his story of escaping from an Australian prison, ending up in India on a fake passport, of making a home in Bombay slums, joining the underworld, rising to a position of prominence, finding love, becoming Indian, ending up in the Afghanistan guerilla war, and through it all, finding himself and the meaning of life.

Every book is a canvas in the hands of its creator. And as an undercurrent, every piece of writing is about finding the meaning of life. Some writers approach it as a subtle lesson, some do through a series of events, and others enthuse their own persona on one of the characters in the story and speak to the reader. Roberts does all three. There are experiences he goes through, people he befriends, through which the fundamental questions (Why, What, and How) are answered for him, even as more complex questions keep cropping up.

But the greatest character in the book is Bombay. There are several books in which cities are central to the theme. Cities which have permeated the thoughts of the writers so deeply that they take on an identity of their own. Bombay is probably unique in the fact that it has inspired the maximum number of books when counted against other Indian cities. But Roberts, or Lin Baba as he is called in the book, is not just inspired by this great city. He is in love with it, in awe of it, and Bombay is the first city he can truly call home. Often, writers, while writing about India, get carried away by the poverty and the graphic representations of it. Lin lives in a slum beside the Bombay Trade Center, and nowhere does his love of the city get affected by its masses and the poverty. His love for Bombay is unconditional, and that, for me, is one of the most endearing aspects of Shantaram.

All the great books of the world have one thing in common - Words flow effortlessly. In Shantaram, words have that ease. Every page paints a picture for the reader - which only happens when a writer is truly at the top of his game. Or when a greater spirit is guiding him. Whatever be the case, Roberts has that gift of words in Shantaram, and his choice of words is truly outstanding. Look at these gems. Yes, I actually annotated them on my Nook while reading!

'Poverty and Pride are devoted Blood brothers until one, always and inevitably, kills the other'

'I don't know what frightens me more, the power that crushes us or our endless ability to endure it'

'We live on because we can Love. And we love because we can forgive'

'It is impossible to despise someone you honestly pity, and to shun someone you truly love'

'Pity is the one part of love that asks for nothing in return and, because of that, every act of pity is a kind of prayer'

Profound, right? Imagine them interwoven with the story. Each chapter has something profound coming up, and 'profound' is a word that will often jump up from your consciousness while reading Shantaram. Suddenly, from the most innocuous narrative will spring up a sentence that will cause you to re-read it and pause for a little while before going on. This is not a novel you will steam through; and such books are truly rare. Precisely what I meant in my two-bit classification theory :)

Another amazing feat Roberts achieved with Shantaram is that of a satisfying ending. When the canvas is huge, the climax becomes insanely difficult. For all those characters to culminate in an ending that the reader is satiated with, is no mean task. Many books that have taken the 'many years' route suffer from this phenomenon, where the ending isn't really conclusive. Shantaram, however, has a beautiful ending, and one doesn't feel left in the lurch. For a genuine reader, after living with the characters for 950 pages, a botched up ending is a terrible frustration! But that is not the case with Shantaram. Well done, Writer :) Yes, it is obvious that you have fictionalized a part of the story - as it should've been. No, your descriptions of India are not entirely accurate But you're forgiven!

A story is truly successful when the characters remain with you long after the book is complete. Lin Baba, Prabaker, Khaderbhai, Abdullah, Didier, Khaled, Karla, Nazeer, Johnny Cigar, they all stay on with the reader long after the book is put away, and that is no mean achievement!

The book was originally published in 2004. And I got around to reading it only ten years later. But I'm glad I did. Thank you, Sonia, for the recommendation :) After reading a hundred novels which each took two or three days to complete, it was immensely satisfying to read one which took close to three weeks.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Three Sure-Shot ways of writing a Blockbuster Novel!!

Over the last one year, I've read over Eighty novels according to GoodReads (The Widget you see on your right here on this blog); and that sort of qualifies me to become a writer critic! And more importantly, it cracks open the formula to writing *blockbusters*. These books may be good or not, but they're sure to become successful - like many of our formula films which make their producers insanely rich!

There may be a Part II to this post, but for now, here are 3 formulae which make up probably 70-80% of all novels that get written!

1. A single fact

Michael Crichton wrote a novel called 'State of Fear', which I remember reading several years ago. I also remember writing a review of it, but can't seem to find it on my blog now, but anyway, the theme is that Global Warming is a myth, and that we are actually on our way into an ice age!! This single assumed 'fact' has thousands of publications in its support, and that led Crichton to craft a story around the concept.
The problem with writing a novel based on a single fact is that the writer will naturally want to lead his readers to agree with him, and for that to happen, there's quite a bit of lecturing and proof-showing that needs to be done. Through the protagonist, the author takes us deep into the world of climate research, and actually has printed several research findings as parts of the book!
The Da Vinci Code takes pretty much that route. The simple fact of having found a code embedded within Da Vinci's work was the crux of writing the book, and to his credit, the writer manages to craft a story with well-developed characters. While writing Inferno - again with a single-line plot - the writer hasn't been as lucky!
Several authors take that route quite regularly, and because they're based on some semblance of truth, they manage to become talking points - leading to almost-certain commercial success.

2. Make it dark

Contrary to public opinion, books that are all goody and happy don't sell all that much. They get relegated to afternoon reading sessions in rural regions. The real money is in the books which are dark. Psychological problems, Crime driven by poverty, Lunacy, Death of loved ones, Drug-addled violence, it is all in the open in our novels. And they sell. Authors like James Patterson have made a regular factory of these novels - I think he writes one every week or something! And each of them goes on to become a bestseller and reaps profits for the publishers. 
As if dark wasn't enough, there are now 50 Shades of Grey as well! 
In the guise of 'reality', authors can push in as much muck as they want into their pages. One would imagine the world is already at an advanced stage of cancer if all that is written in these novels were true :) Characters get killed suddenly, so that there is a continuation of the series. Children get to be kidnapped, tortured, ah! what not. The darker it is, the better it sells.
No wonder it is an awesome time to be the Bad Guy in our stories. They get to do things which normal people can't even talk about, bowing to societal pressure! Loads of creative evilness in the offings! The same continues in our movies, and that takes us on to Formula 3

3. Write a Movie

Here's a tweet first - 
There are tons of Chetan Bhagat trolls on Twitter, but to give credit where it is due, it doesn't take more than falling down the stairs and its experiences afterward that are needed to craft a Bhagat novel ;)
And since it is based on events, visualizing it into a movie becomes easy, which nowadays runs in the mind of our writers right from the day they begin writing their book. 
Why only Bhagat? There are dozens of writers who write with a movie in mind. Cinema fans can accurately predict what's going to come next in the book (if they read it, that is), because its a potboiler on paper! No wonder many of these books indeed get chosen to be made into films, and surprise - the writers get onto the set as screenplay consultants or get co-credited as writers along with the dialogue folks. The best of two worlds, really. 

Like I mentioned in the beginning of this article, there could be a part II of this book - but that'll probably take time, as most of the novels I lay my hands on have been falling into these three formulae alone :) Or could just be that my book selection is quite rotten! So if you're a wannabe writer, work hard just for your first book, because it won't otherwise be accepted by the good publishing houses. After you have a decent book on your hands, you can just choose a formula from above, and be on your way onto the Jaipur Lit Fest stage :)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Middle of Middle!

About 360 Million years ago, the tadpole-shaped being had to make a decision. Whether it wanted to continue being in water, or if it wanted to move to land. For a while, it dawdled on the cusp, becoming an Amphibian. But a few years later, it took to the land, and evolution has never been the same ever again. Modern Humans appeared on the scene about 200000 years ago, and what has fuelled their evolution to the smart being typing this article today is the ability to take a side and make it work, each time they were faced with two or more options.

We have always celebrated people who've taken a firm path and have made a difference. We have been taught in personality development sessions that those who don't stand for something fall for anything. Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammed Jinnah took firm stands, and they're fathers of their respective nations. 

But after independence, something changed. Through the generations, we've been taught that the skills we must possess are those of taking the middle path and of being diplomatic. We have lost our ability to listen to a forceful opinion - however well it could be presented. Taking the middle path became fashionable. The way we treat thought leaders (unless the rest of the society agrees with them already) is quite rotten!

And as we often do, we created a new set of words to make ourselves sound cool, and we created an Urban Dictionary to change the usages of other words. Leadership and Diplomatic became synonyms. Liberal meant being accepted, and Taking strong sides meant being shunned. Talking about problems in our area became cynical, and promoting causes in faraway continents made you sociable.

I'm not sure if this is a global epidemic, but in India atleast, no one could possibly have missed this. 

Being Left wing or Right wing is not acceptable to the population at large. You have to be a liberal, and there are stages of liberalism now. 50 Shades of Grey is real, and it is living in India. Neo-Liberal, Ultra-Liberal, Liberal-Classical, no end to our creativity in coining new terms!

From the days of Poorna Swaraj (when nothing else would do), we've stooped down to considering fourth fronts as a viable alternative? What made us so terrified of taking a side?

I think the answer lies in our ability to discern. We are so afraid of our society and its tremendous ability to shun people for the least of faults, that we have trained our intellect to not delve deep. Mediocrity has become the order of the day, and for a whole generation, its become a lifestyle.

To take sides, we have to ask ourselves questions.  To take sides, we need to know their driving philosophies. To know about their philosophies, we need to spend time to read and to understand. That ability is lost in most people. So there is problem number one.

We are so terrified of taking a stand, that we have grown accustomed to bearing with mediocrity. Honestly, there are anyway no staunch Left and Right that exist today. Even in what we have taken to calling Left and Right, we've created a middle path, and the middle is always mediocre. Always. But that's ok with us. Our jobs, our education, our movies, our achievements. Mediocre is the new 'It', and all hail It!

Not just politically; Bureaucracy and Babudom have become so ingrained in our upbringing, we banter words like Diplomacy, Balance, Negotiation, Sensitivity, Win-Win as soft skills in colleges and the corporate. The words are all fine, but what isn't is the intention with which we want our people to learn these. We don't want strong opinions. Right from kindergarten, we keep hammering the edges, and the youngster comes into the market dull edged. Then we tell him that he isn't sharp!

Even editorials, those shining beacons of journalistic excellence, have mostly lost their edges. When titles like 'India Crosses the moral line of no return if Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister' come up as editorials, we know we're in a bad shape. What is wrong with crossing lines? Evolution evolved only because we crossed lines. Why do we want our people to stay within a set of lines? And who drew those lines? 

Amphibians - Turtles, Crocodiles, Snakes - have remained as they were millions of years ago. We humans kept burning lines as we evolved. There are no Neanderthal men anymore. We crossed a line, and became Homo Sapiens. India and Pakistan split; and they grew in their ways. The area in dispute - POK - has been like that for decades.

There is nothing wrong with taking a side. Being in the middle of the middle is where the rot happens.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Subsidy Tamasha

There was once a king. He was known to be very kind, and since he had no dearth of money in his kingdom's coffers, he put up a new policy. For all those who registered themselves as 'Lazy', he opened a free choultry, where the basic needs of Food, Clothing, and Shelter would be taken care of at the King's cost. 
In time, there were too many people who registered for the service, and the capacities were full. The scheme was eating into the kingdom's coffers big time, and the ministers took an SOS to the king one day. They said at this pace, most of the kingdom would call themselves lazy and that the kingdom would run bankrupt in a few months taking care of all those masses. The Chief Minister was a smart man, and he argued with the king that though all those people were enjoying free lunch, not all of them were actually lazy. He pointed out several who left their professions in order to lead a life of laziness; and that caught the king's attention. With the council, he hatched a test to check whether all those people were really lazy.
The next afternoon, after a heavy lunch, while the lazies were all lazing, the King ordered for the Choultry to be set on fire. As soon as shouts of 'Fire!' rang out, most of the people ran away and waited in the fields nearby. Some even ran back to their homes. As the flames got closer, the other stragglers who expected that the fires would be put out also slowly made their way out, and finally only three people were still lying in, preferring death to physical activity!
The king then arranged for soldiers to bodily carry these three people out, and announced that these were the only 'real' lazy people in his kingdom, and made arrangements for them to live on a subsidy. The others were rebuked, and sent back homes to get back on with his lives. And the king learnt a lesson that day.

The Food Security Bill is now almost through, and there's an estimated 81 Crore people who stand to benefit from this bill, being termed as 'Antyodaya'. Probably since I'm among the remaining 30 Crore people, I may I may be seeing this differently, but either way, with my layman economics, I see this breaking the back of our already horrible economy! 
Estimates from last July, when the bill was in talks of being tabled, show that this new subsidy alone could cost the exchequer a whopping ₹1,30,000 Crores!! Here's the Article from Money Control

This article is not just to talk about the Food Security Bill. I've been simmering about the populist measures our politicians have been doling out for decades now - from the Mandal Commission regularizing the infamous reservations policy, to the failed (but masked) PDS, to the sham that is Minimum Guarantee Price for farmers, to the joke that is MNREGA. Yes, there was no social media active when this cascading effect started back then, but why did mainstream media remain silent? Why did the intellectuals allow this house of cards to be built, and built higher each year? Was it because the people who mattered all had a hand in the ever-growing pie? Or did they really think this was going to be beneficial to the country?
The King in our story started out subsidy as a policy because he had an abundance of wealth in his treasury. But in India, we've never had an abundance of anything except for shallow thinking, selfishness, and idiocy! Why did this crime not get nipped at the bud? Or atleast as a flower? Wikipedia has had this article up for long, and the damage is visible as the stats are updated each year. Already, it shows that there's a 3% of GDP for center and 6%+ for states, running into lakhs of crores of rupees! The article says 'leaving the merit subsidies aside, the remaining subsidies amount to 10.7% of GDP'!! And the merit subsidies have a recovery rate of barely 10%, which again is a written-off expense of the remaining 90%!

Now, I'm not an economist. I'm just a common man paying my tax each year, and I don't really enjoy crunching big data. But even with my limited understanding, there is a simple question that pops up constantly - Whose father's money is it??

Will no one bell the cat? Won't anyone dare even speak up about the issue? Ok - if the problem is too big to handle, here's a simple suggestion. Since the political parties are all primarily bothered with their voter base, and they will swap the country's economy for a bunch of votes in a blink of an eyelid, why not get together and talk it out? Yes - if one party suggests reduction in subsidies and a reduction in the doling out of non-worthy grants, the others will tear into it and make the party history! But then, the truth is that even if a party wins on the merit promising an increased subsidy, they can't afford to give a successful budget come March. And the next 5 years are going to be hell to the new parliament! Instead, how about if all parties get together and commit that they won't promise an increase in subsidies. The maths will show that it is not possible anyway. Instead, let them talk about something else! Win on something other than increasing the intake into the free choultry that the government has forced itself into running. Like the jewelry stores, when they all decide that they won't sell at less than 6% or 8% making charge, what option do the people have? They either have to buy at that price, or quit buying gold altogether. With cooking gas and fuel and food, quitting isn't an option really. So have a common agenda of rolling it back over the next 10 or 15 years, and plow those gains back into development. People will be able to afford it themselves once they have confidence and a way to legally earn decent money! And have a really good system of identifying those that are really 'poor' and don't make it a stunt for that one extra vote every five years. This'll do well for the others in the long run, as well as help the incumbent governments funnel better facilities to the people that genuinely deserve them.

The King atleast had a wise council of ministers. We neither have a king, nor a council who can be termed wise. All our wisemen are either dead or pretending to be. Who'll set the fire now?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Why so intolerant??

There is a lot of discussion that happens on Twitter. Common folks take up sides and fight it out with a vehemence which even the principals of the topic under contention wouldn't be able to bring out.

And every day I wonder about the level of intolerance - Religious, especially - that is festered on these platforms. We call ourselves educated, and we say that we're the future of a 'new' India. But each day, there is further proof that the New India isn't all that new. Yes, there's technology. Yes, our disposable incomes are going up. But at the same time, so are our levels of intolerance. So are our levels of idiocy.
Here is what i'm speaking specifically about. Read through the tweets first. @vizagobelix is me, the rest are strangers. I never spoke to them before today. 

I'm fairly certain the conversation isn't over. There will be a response to that, and it goes on - as it does in millions of conversations on these platforms every single day!

But coming back to the title of this post, this tweet-exchange is just a case in point. Why have our levels of tolerance gone so low? And here's the cherry on top - the guy's profile says that he's a Gandhian, and a student of Conflict analysis and Peace building :)

This chap isn't even serious. Poor guy. Got caught in a conversation when I was incensed on the subject, and he got up here! The real issue is that the biggies are no different. Folks that command a great following and influence thousands of people with every tweet. Those are the real danger. Whether it is Godhra, Snoopgate, Muzaffarnagar, NIA giving clean chit to the so-called Saffron Terror, or opinions on the Communal Violence Bill, on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, opinion from well-heeled people often is misconstrued as fact! And with retweets and shares happening in real-time, the damage to thought processes is done before we even realize it! It has often happened that people like the much-followed Jaaved Akhtar have said stuff they did not read into, and have later apologized and removed their opinions on it. But by then, it's touched thousands of thought processes, and there's no Ctrl+Z for that!!

When did we get so intolerant? Babri Masjid happened, Mumbai riots happened, Gujarat 2002 happened, 26/11 happened. But through it all, we've been stoic! We've lived our lives as we've had for hundreds of years. We've all risen up and become stronger. But someplace along the way, we got caught up in the glare of fame. And we started taking ourselves too seriously. The fine line between opinion and fact blurred, and our lives changed. We started wearing our religions on our sleeve, and politics seeped into our daily lives. In a way, we've all become politicians, echoing the upper strata of the wing we consider ourselves a part of. New terms came into being, meanings of existing terms changed. Perception became stronger than the truth, and the sad thing is that we all seem happy with it!! Is this how the future is going to be? If so, 'New India' is going to be way unhappier than the Old India was. And I would rather be a part of the old.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The Shutdown Hullabaloo!

Yes, for the first time in 17 years the US Government is going into a partial shutdown. And yes, it is being splashed the world over, on every channel, and experts are discussing it on Social Media. The world is talking about almost nothing else.
But 10 crore people are wondering about why this is garnering so much attention! Afterall, the shutdown is hardly a few hours old!!

In Andhra Pradesh, we are on Day 63 of the Seemandhra agitation, and people have gotten used to an alternate pace of life. Yes, public transport hasn't been plying for 2 months and people complained in the initial days about the high fares, but now we're enjoying the quicker pace of transport and roads without buses! Schools are out, and the first couple of weeks were worrisome; but now, the good thing is that no student dare be failed by the state government in the exams next year! Land and Home registrations are out, and the only ones worrying are the banks, since there're no home loan applications! Government offices are not functioning, and honestly, people have realized that there's not much difference anyway. If given an option, I guess a lot of people would anyway vote to keep several departments permanently on strike. No difference, you see; and a lower state deficit!
Rediff has written a huge article about How the US Government Shutdown will affect services. The article says that across the country, close to a million workers could be put on unpaid leave. Then it says the National Parks would be shut down. National Parks???? Courts would function as usual, the IRS would function with delays, and so on the article rambles.

Lawyers, Teachers, Government officers, the entire bureaucracy, State-owned Public Transport, the entire legislature, have all been shutdown for 60 days now. National Parks?? Sorry if that doesn't catch our attention :)
Banks haven't worked for a lot of days in between, every other junction has a blockade by some or the other department, emergency response time has gone through the roof, power and water supply has become even more erratic than before. And we take it in our stride.
Many million people have been put on unpaid leave, and many many more million have been affected by the shutdown - and its been two months!!

So, apologies, US Government, if this chunk of population doesn't pay too much attention to the shutdown you seem to have on hand. If you'd like, we can form a Joint Action Committee (or two) and send it over, so they can bring all their 'shutdown experience' into play. We might even be able to find you a sponsor for this media coverage, so you can offset some of the Obamacare expense with these earnings.
Do remind us when you get to 60 days, and we'll tune in! (if we're not then at 120 days!)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My contribution to the Samaikyandhra struggle

I'm a proud resident of Andhra Pradesh too. Was born here, and paid most of my taxes here. Helped create a bit of employment in the region too.
For the last month, I've been a party to all the anguish my brothers and sisters have been going through by trying to keep the state united, and I feel guilty for not participating in their struggle.

So here is what i'm doing to do. For the month of August, I choose to withhold my taxes. 

I will not declare income I earned in this month, and won't pay taxes for it. 

 If you're a Samaikya-vadi, just skip this section and go to the end of the article. If you're a rationalist, here's some logic. Honestly, I think all of us have anyway spent more than what we would normally pay as tax for these 30 days - because of the repercussions of 'our' struggle. Here are a few samples in case you doubt my statement - 

  • Public transport hasn't been plying, and private transport is charging an arm and a kidney to get us to anyplace.
  • Schools were out for 2 weeks and to placate my daughter's pent-up energy, I had to take her to movies, outings, the beach, and more. That costed me probably 10 times of the normal school fees - which I had anyway paid in advance.
  • Unknown number of hours spent waiting at traffic jams owing to the ubiquitous human chains at major junctions, several hours wasted waiting in lines the day before the petrol pumps went on a strike, several more hours wasted because we could not open our office till the 'protesters' finally went home, days wasted because the banks would not allow us to transact, and I'm sure there are more!!
  • Increased prices of almost everything in the state - because of non-availability of transport options.
  • And the sheer mental anguish of worrying about our state - fuelled constantly by our ultra-responsible media.
There are more, but i'm sure you get the gist. If you're a rationalist, i'm sure this logic should make sense.

If you're on the Samaikyandhra side, people protest in all novel ways - there are mass-feeding programs happening at cross-roads, half-naked marches on the beach, thousands of effigies being burnt all over the state (no wonder the smoke got to Mrs. Gandhi and she got sick yesterday), and today there were boats protesting the bifurcation on the beach. I can't do any of those. So I choose to protest in the way of my choosing, and in my heart, I'm with you guys! 

And yes, do take this till the election. I won't declare income at all. Small price, considering all the angst we're going through!!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

An open letter to Dr. Chiranjeevi

Dear Dr. Chiranjeevi,

Happy Birthday!

My whole generation has grown up watching your films, and for us, you are the undisputed superstar. Every dialogue you spoke on the screen went into our vocabulary, and every dance move you made (and there were quite a few brilliant ones) were practiced for hours in front of mirrors. Almost every actor who came into the industry over the last few decades wanted to become a Chiranjeevi, and even today, your fan base remains legendary.

And not just in movies, your success story inspired millions to follow their dreams, and hundreds of them landed up in Hyderabad every week wanting to walk in your footsteps. You set a precedent by doing them all - negative roles, comedy films (which I think were your best), pot-boiler actions, and of course, evergreen romances. We stood for hours in queues to get tickets for your films, and if we were lucky enough to get a first-day seat, we were heroes in our own circles!

The way you came back after a false start to your second innings is a lesson to all actors. You moved effortlessly into characters which respected your age, without losing the sheen of a hero, and we all love you for it. There were a few bad film decisions you took before coming back strongly, but you did not lose it there.

Your entry into politics was well timed too, and I was part of the vote bank that thought you could repeat what NTR did in the 80s. In fact, we wished that with all our heart. And you even spoke about a Fourth Front at the center! But that was not to happen. It is painfully obvious that you did not have the best of counsel, and even I did not vote for your candidate when the elections came around. You've always set an example, and in politics also, you showed people how to throw it all away. Even the most politically unlettered would know that you've sort of lost your way after winning only those 18. Throughout your career, you've come back after being written off. You played bit roles in large films and large roles in bit films before taking the Telugu film industry to new heights. You've never given up; but then politics was probably a different ballgame. 

Losing the elections and throwing all our dreams away (which you gave wings to in your election speeches and through your manifesto) is pardonable. What is unforgivable is your giving in to temptation and power.

Somewhere along the way, you've lost sight of what you planned to accomplish - provided you were given the reins of the state. Or you probably never had a vision and were just reading out a speech. When a normal politician, who's made politics his career, changes allegiances and joins the same people he was mercilessly flaying till yesterday, we take it in our stride, and laugh it away as 'politics'. But then when you floated a party, we did not want another politician! We have too many of those. The state wanted someone like NTR who would change the entire playing field, and work genuinely for the good of the people atleast for a few years. How did you miss that? And thanks to your joining your erstwhile enemy, all those poor fellas who betted their all on your party became proper politicians too. 

But then that isn't the crux of this letter. It is to invite you back into what you do best. The biscuit you've been thrown will expire in a few years, and it is obvious that there's no more coming. Come back into films and look to serve the society through it! The industry always has place for Chiranjeevi. It gave you a Padma Bhushan, it gave you a Doctorate, it rewarded you with 9 Filmfare awards and 4 Nandis. Your fans are loyal. They'll all come flocking back. And you anyway have a few careers to mould. Leave politics, sir. You tried, but it is evident that you did not fit in. And don't contest the next elections - on any banner. Instead, float a different banner this time, and make a few good films! There are many voices waiting to be heard - great storytellers that are waiting to be discovered. Put them up on the screen. There is three decades of experience you've got in this - you can't lose! And come back to entertaining people. Give us another Chantabbai. Make another Rudraveena. Do another Indra.

You've come back several times in your career. Do it once again - it is time to leave that non-starter behind. We're sure there's a few good years left in you yet. Put it to good use. We're absolutely not interested in seeing you wave from a tricolored touring van. Give us back the Chiru we all love and respect. Please accept that this political journey of yours is a flop. Don't look to re-release it with new screenplay. This year's birthday has been a real damp squib. Let the next one bring us greater joy.

Jai Hind.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Heroes are made!

Recently, CNN-IBN ran a marathon campaign to identify and recognize the Greatest Indian since Mahatma Gandhi. There were a lot of names in the fray, most of them ones we expected to be on the list. Cutting a long story short, the finale decided that the Greatest Indian since 1947 had to be Dr B R Ambedkar, and that is where this article starts.

How many of us really know Dr Ambedkar? I'm not passing judgement on whether he's deserving of the sobriquet in this article. But then really, what I know of the man is only what I heard or read of him, and from the speeches people give each year on his birthday and gave a while ago for his centenary. The same is true of most people who were on that list. How many of us really know Sam Manekshaw, or for that matter, the real Sunil Gavaskar? The show had about 2 crore votes cast, and considering the stats that about 50% of our country is below the age of 35, at least half those votes would have been cast by people who did not really know the above mentioned people, including the winner. Honestly, we don't even really 'know' Lata Mangeshkar, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Milkha Singh, DhyanChand. What we know of the political class (which make up the bulk of the list obviously) is only what we studies in the Civics text books of school. Most of the voters in the fray wouldn't have gained any direct inspiration from these people. Yet they voted!

Ok, i'm getting ahead of myself here. Coming back to what I wanted to say, this brings to the fore an issue which is quite contradicting in itself. Most of the 'heroes' we've had growing up are ones who've been fostered on us by our earlier generation. We've got our own generation's heroes, and i'm sure we'll feed them to our next gen. This cycle will continue, and the world will live happily ever after. 

So does that mean i'm right in saying that heroes are made? And not consciously either! There is a game played by communication skill trainers the world over, called Chinese Whispers. The game involves a passing of messages from person to person, and the end result is often hilarious and the message they start with is entirely different by the time it reaches the last guy in line. The same is probably true of hero-making too. A great-grandfather, who probably did nothing more than to stand among thousands at a train station while the Mahatma waved from a passing train, becomes a close associate of Gandhiji by the time the story reaches today's kids as a bed-time story, and yet another anecdote becomes a legend. And a hero is born - much after the real person has left this world!

It is logical, right? And there is nothing wrong in it either. Just a way to ascertain our position in the world of today, as we are what we perceive ourselves to be. Malcolm Gladwell would probably have a thought point and a term for this phenomenon. Our past is our identity, and our future stems from the inspiration we derive of our bygone eras. Legends are what hold our past together, and there is always space for heroes in our past.

Meanwhile, we've crowned a legend from our grandparents' generation as the greatest Indian. I'm certain that when this same exercise is repeated for India's centenary of independence, some icon from our generation - probably a Sachin Tendulkar or an Amitabh Bachchan, or god forbid, some politician from today - will be crowned as the next legend. And the story goes on :)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The curious case of the Greek Aid

In the immensely popular cartoon series Chhota Bheem, there is an episode in which the Greek strongman Hercules comes to India to challenge our mighty Bheem in a contest. Dr Manmohan Singh probably watched that episode (thanks to Pogo's relentless telecasts), and he would have thought that the Greek and us have been friends since eternity!

This could have given rise to the munificence shown by MMS and our government.

Otherwise, how can we imagine giving out 55000 Crores to bail out Greece, at a stage when the Rupee is at its lowest, the GDP is debilitating, half the country is hit by drought (and the other half is reeling under floods), the government is in shambles, and we're not far away from an Egypt-style uprising against the inefficiencies of the rulers! 55000 Crores - wow!!

I've been trying to think of a few Greeks who've played some part in our history, and I can't seem to recollect anyone in the modern era! Yes, there's Plato and Aristotle who've given us various schools of thought, there's Megasthenes who's documented a part of our Indian history, and of course, Pythagorus, who is responsible for a third of the Maths torture which all Indian students are subjected to. If there were any good left in the world, Greece should have sent in a few thousand crores to try and make up for inventing Trigonometry.

Every single state in the country has a file pending with the center, requesting for special funds to either rescue them from some disaster or to support them in some pending project. While the 20000 Crore write-off which Mamata Banerjee asked the government may seem unjustified, most other requests deserve merit. There's no power in the country, there's no water, agriculture is at its ebb, and infrastructure is completely stalled. Yes, scoring brownie points with the European Union may bring in good tidings in the future, but not at a situation when the whole country is reeling from an economy in shambles! 55000 Crores, to be put into perspective, is more than the budget of most of our states, is more than the revised scam figure of 2G spectrum, is more than what Delhi spent for hosting the CommonWealth Games! A more relatable stat would be that each of our 790 esteemed members of parliament (Lok Sabha + Rajya Sabha) could siphon off 70 crores each, and the country would be none too worse! I wonder why they did not think of that fact.

If we had to help someone out to gain good karma, why not look closer to home? Nepal recycles the trash we drop on Mt. Everest, Sri Lanka entertains us with good cricket, and Pakistan keeps our Security forces employed. Afghanistan provides us with a chief guest for Republic Day, Thailand takes care of our travelers' kinkiness, and even Bhutan deserves some help by virtue of being our silent-est neighbor. But Greece?

Strange are the ways of our poor excuse of a government. My logic would be that since Greece and Italy are neighbors (the are separated by just 150 miles of the ocean), the woman at the helm would have wanted to 'Help Thy Neighbor'. We can only thank god that a crisis hasn't befallen Italy - or our whole country (or what is left of it) would have been pawned off to bail Italy out!!

And meanwhile on Pogo, Chhota Bheem defeats Hercules, and makes friends with him, with promises that Hercules will come to Bheem's aid when needed. I can only pray that Pogo changes to some other cartoon, for next up is Bheem's trip to China!!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rising from the Sands!

It is quite amazing, really. In fact, it is more than amazing - it is disconcerting. 
The flight is skimming over the desert with nothing but hundreds of miles of sand in all directions, and suddenly we see a huge set of skyscrapers jut out of nowhere! There are beautifully paved black roads that crisscross the sands, and even frightening - there suddenly appears a large traffic island with lush green manicured lawns!!
Welcome to Doha. 
Or rather, welcome to the Middle East, where make-believe is the reality. 
Travelers have always said that nothing can quite prepare you for the flood of oil prosperity that is visible all over the region. And they are right! Though we know that petro dollars buy prosperity like nothing else, it is still quite astonishing to see the creation sprout up right under your plane's wings! 
Honestly, this area was never meant by god to be this lush. But in modern times, God can always be convinced to change his intentions! When we think about it, it suddenly strikes us that not one thing in this my-building-highest world of showmanship would have been procured locally - save the sandstone which is available in plenty in the deserts. Every other thing would have been shipped from elsewhere, and that one realization itself is enough for us to understand why this is by far the world's most prosperous marketplace. The manager of the hotel i'm staying at tells me that each morning two plane loads of veggies are unloaded at Doha, in addition to all those hundreds of trucks which plow through the desert all night; and it is perfectly logical. What will people eat otherwise? Construction is happening like crazy. Almost every building in the city has a crane mounted on top, proving that there are greater heights to be scaled. 
Man's resourcefulness knows no bounds. Any mere mortal, looking at the spread of the desert, would have been frightened away to take up farming or sheep-rearing in their homeland. But then, these are no mere mortals! These are white-clad-super-humans fortified with petroleum! And when there is oil, everything else will follow suit! America provides Air Defence. The world's leading airlines joust for space and are willing to pay top dollar for a couple more parking slots. The port is choc-a-bloc with ships taking oil out and bringing everything else in, and there are hundreds more waiting out there to get a berth. No where else in the world does money have so much power - so blatantly!
But then that isn't a bad thing. We all love our money, and hoard it secretly! Here, it is openly put for display, and the world gawks.
Philosophically, the desert will claim all of this back sometime. There have been feudal lords that ruled over these sands hundreds of years ago, and most of their footprint has been lost in the movement of the dunes. The same is bound to happen again, and this time, the desert will have a tougher time, since Larsen and Toubro is at the helm of things, but take back it will! And in spite of that knowledge, there is so much money flowing around, it is fabulous!
You can't but love the Middle East. Flaunting is an art, and these people are its best known ambassadors.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Too intelligent for their own good

We often talk about Indian advertising being among the best in the world - and it is true too. Some of the world's most creative ads have come out of the Indian advertising agencies, and we continue to churn out some mind-boggling stuff each year!
But then, once in a while, our people become too intelligent for their own good, and the ad goes bouncer to the watching millions! The latest campaign of Vodafone is a classic such case.

Usually, Vodafone comes up with some amazing pieces of advertising - Zoozoos and The Pug campaigns have hit off brilliantly! The last one with the children wasn't up there, but the latest one - featuring the Chicken Vs Penguin Fun Fair campaign is quite strange! Really.

If you haven't watched it yet (which is possible only if you haven't been watching IPL at all), here it is again - 

Now, the purpose of this ad is to say that Internet is Fun on Vodafone. If you watched this for the first time, you may wonder what this has to do with the concept at all. Ogilvy is a smart company and hence they made sure that the ad comes up at least once every few minutes - allowing viewers to assimilate the information, and hopefully, catch on to what they wanted to convey in this strange roundabout campaign. If you watch closely, you'll see that the rollers on which the Chicken and Penguin have a race are attached to a scroll within the television set between them, and as they run, the scroll runs along, and up comes a trophy for the Chicken - when the morose anchor says that 'Chicken Wins'. Wow! Now why does another team have to blast them with jets of water is anyone's guess.

Why do internet ads all have to be so immensely confusing? Reliance takes us to a whole new level by getting a guy to open his knots and rush out of a car stranded on the way of a speeding train - all while watching a how-to video using the Dongle. Amazing, huh!

The TVC of Vodafone for IPL5 says that this is a series of 8 advertisements which will come up as the tournament progresses. We only hope that the next ones aren't as 'intelligent'. Go, folks - take a tip from the people who make ads for Pidilite - especially the chap that made the Fevikwik ad with five fish stuck to a little piece of wood. 
Bring 'em back!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Water for Elephants - My Review

I absolutely love Circuses. Not just going to them, but reading about them. One of my all time nostalgic memories remains Mr Galliano's Circus from the spectacular Enid Blyton.
Not just for me, for most people, circuses trigger nostalgic memories, with views of the big top, trumpets, the wooden sleeper benches, and of the ring, spread over with saw dust. With circuses going bust all the time, the nostalgia factor only becomes larger!
Water for Elephants is an amazing piece of writing; for it is not set in circuses of our time. Instead, Sara Gruen chose to head back to the days of the Great Depression in the United States, and weaves a story about a train circus. There is a short interview with the author as an add-on to the book, and she says that the story came to her while reading a little news article about a train circus back then. Kudos to her for having the guts to write such a poignant story!
Another factor which makes the book extra special is that it is one of the few successfully published novels from the Na-No-Wri-Mo program (The National Novel Writing Month), which is an amazing idea for all aspiring writers. Some day hopefully, I'll work out the discipline to become a part of the program!
Coming to the book, Water for Elephants is centered around the life of Jacob Jankowski, a student of Veterinary medicine, whose life takes a strange turn and he lands up on the train of The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth!

Every page of the book is filled with research. Sara must have spent thousands of hours to make sure she's creating an accurate image of America in the 1930s, and she does a phenomenal job. By the time we're halfway through the book, we are all experts in the socio-economic situation of the country in that era - and that is no small achievement!

The real magic of the book is the way the writer oscillates between the present and the past. The story actually starts with Jacob being a man in his nineties, living in an assisted-living facility. Throughout the book, the writer jerks us back to the present into the eccentricities of old people in the home. And in a few minutes, we are again thrown into the circus ring of the 1930s. Beautiful piece of writing!

All good books have a strong plot, and this one is no different. The plot of the book takes us through the day to day struggles of a circus trying its best to stay afloat in different times, and the crux is a love story! Each time we're brought back to the present, the story moves along to its next phase. Sara has made sure that the book doesn't lose pace anywhere, and every single character gets its due - from Uncle Al - who owns the circus, to August - who has the most complex character in the book. All the facets of human life - love, laughter, friendship, rage, fear, and victory, are etched throughout the story - making it a rich read.

This is a book you must get your hands on. Water for Elephants was also made into a movie, and that is next on my to-watch list.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Litigators - My Review

It comes as no wonder that John Grisham's new book has quickly gone on to the top of the charts. Grisham has been the master of the Legal genre for so many years now, and he's inspired a whole new generation of writers in his chosen genre.
But then it must be tough with those astronomical expectations! You can only come up trumps with a certain plot so many times. And Grisham has done it a dozen times already - the plot of the underdog lawyer (usually a rookie with no trial experience) taking on a giant corporation with millions in legal fees, and coming up on top, has been badgered to death. We all love the underdog. Stories with underdogs coming up on top have been on bestseller lists for centuries now, and the trend will be around for the rest of time.
Grisham has a similar story here yet again, and as is his trademark, does justice to it. But a certain storyline can only be beaten to death so many times! In spite of a different 'treatment' the plot is so transparent that you know exactly what happens at the end of the book.
In the plot, there's David Zinc (yes, strange name!) who's completed 5 years pushing paper at a multi billion dollar law firm, and cracks one day with the pressure. After some very unique happenings, he stumbles on into the firm of Figg and Finley, who must be the two most incompetent lawyers in the greater Chicago area. The rest is history - Zinc stumbles into court, leads his firm into some money, and the book ends with him setting up on his own and becoming a champion for the under-privileged.

But then, all is not lost. Grisham is back to writing legal thrillers after a while now - he's written two Youth Fiction books in between (The Theodore Boone series), and one legal book which followed a real story (The Innocent Man). So it is nice to see the master back in his flow. There is nothing wrong with the book - it is a great read. The problem probably is with me - i've read too many novelists in this genre - Michael Connelly, Steve Martini, and many more. So I've become a cynic now!
Another good thing about the novel is the way Grisham takes us through the motions. It is good to see the champion of the legal genre back in the driver's seat once again, and if you're new to reading Grisham, you'll love this book - much like aficionados will remember staying riveted while reading The Firm, The Rainmaker, and The Client.

Go on, Grisham! Don't move away from mainstream legal thrillers just yet. Keep dishing them out, and we'll keep lapping them up :)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Passport 2.0

Getting a passport was a nightmare! 
Anyone who's applied for a Passport from Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, knows the terrific experience one goes through :)
But then, last month, when I went for a renewal of my passport, I encountered something different! (or I was probably drunk beyond approach)

  • After applying online and submitting details of the original documents, I was given a time slot and a number online itself. 
  • I was asked to go at 9 am, but I went at 1 pm, but was politely asked to rush in! All it took was a form (available over the counter at payment of Re. 1/-) citing the reason for delay.
  • At the counter, all documents were verified by smartly dressed young people (with badges of The Tata Consultancy Services - who are the outsourcing partners of the Passport process) who spoke flawless English, and were polite!!!
  • The number I was allotted was already flashing on the screen, and I was asked to head over to the next section (took about 5 mins at the verification department)
  • There were a row of cubicles, each with a smart young lady (!) - again bearing the TCS logo, and my number was already up on one of these cubicles. There was a split screen computer - so we can see what's happening on the service associate's screen, and a Camera popped up on a stand on the table.
  • After running all documents, making me go through all details carefully, and taking a photo (she even asked if I liked the photo or she'd take another!), and scanning all documents, she gave me a file, a few more printouts and sent me over to the next section. There was a challan of 1000/- charged at the counter and receipt duly issued.
  • When I was short of a few photocopies, the lady at the desk even scanned and copied them out for me on her machine! (I then realized that this is all a dream.)
  • A wait of about 10 mins in a comfortable, air-conditioned area with music (!) playing in the background, and I finally saw the man - an employee of the Ministry - beckoning me over for verification. But strangely, even he wasn't rude! (There must be something wrong!!) And Blimey - he called me 'sir'!
  • Another 5 mins, and the Passport Officer called me in for a final check-over, and sent me out to the exit desk
  • At the exit desk, my file was taken in, and an acknowledgement was being generated. While I waited, the young man in the counter gave me a feedback form to fill (I've run out of emotions by now).
  • He then gave me an acknowledgement and wished me a good day (phew!)
But that's not all!

Two weeks after this dream, I get a call from the police asking for a time when he can come home for verification. He even says that he can come back the next morning if I can't come home now (By now, i'm certain I'm hallucinating). To avoid spoiling the dream run, I rushed home, and a formally dressed man was already waiting for me. After documentation and verification, he said - hold your horses - 'Thank you Sir'! There's more - he refused my offer of water, tea, juice, and shook my hand and left. If you're an Indian, you would have noticed already that there's an event that I missed out. But no - he neither hinted nor asked for any 'formality'! Spectacular, huh?

And last night - 5 days after verification, I received an SMS (!) from the Ministry of External Affairs with my new passport number, and the fact that it had already been despatched by Speed Post, and the message even gave the docket number of Speed Post if I'd like to track it.

Ok, enough of poking fun. Honestly, the experience has been delightful - to say the least. All through, there is a website and a helpline (toll-free) which can be used to track the status of the passport and to raise any grievances. The system ran like greased lightning, and in under a month, a new passport is on its way home (hopefully the Postal department won't spoil the party). 
If this is what can be achieved through a Public-Private partnership, I just pray for the day when all of our rotten systems will head that way. But for now, Ministry of External Affairs and Tata Consultancy Services, Take a bow! You've brought us a vision of what it's like to live in a 'developed' country!

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The wane of Social Networking

Everything in life waxes and wanes. And Social Networking is no exception too. But strangely, the hype created isn't really over, and the wane has begun already. While there is no doubt that the phoenix will rise once again, it is surely a surprise that people have started moving away so soon.
It is a fact that FaceBook has virtually taken over our lives. Everything we do has to be informed to whoever is waiting in real time, and we reached a stage when we keep refreshing the screen to see whether there are any new likes and comments on what we had for breakfast today.
There are people who I know who've already taken their profiles off Facebook (and everything else too), and that was when I realized that there is a feature on FB, which allows you to hide your profile for a while, and then whenever we wish to come back into the world, we just need to click and confirm.
So it is a thought out move from FB too - they've expected that people will come and go, and they're bang on target - intelligent R&D! Social Networking has an uncanny ability of dragging the most introverted individual into its charms, and their lives are never the same ever again.
After a couple of years of being in a Big Boss house, people are bound to get fed up! Privacy suddenly rears its head and announces with a vengeance that it is time to shut up and sit tight for a while, and that probably is what's happening right now. 
For many people, being on FaceBook and Twitter means it is mandatory that they voice their opinion, though they don't really have one. That is why we see so many tweets from eccentric people like Ram Gopal Varma (#RGVZoomin)! Being silent online is even more difficult than being silent in real life :)
The good thing about getting away from Social websites is the time will be spent pursuing other interests - reading books (the real ones), playing games, getting out of the house, or even watching TV! 
But then, this change is cyclic too - a few people will reclaim their lives - albeit temporarily - and others will step in, and then they'll interchange positions after a while. The gap is bound to make the people miss online interaction, and they'll find it to be even more rewarding the next time they come along.
Anyway, the face of Social Networking is changing. Anna Hazare will bear testimony to that, as will the Egyptian revolution - both of which are unthinkable without FaceBook and Twitter. 
So the next time you feel your online social life is taking over your real one, just step back, deactivate your account temporarily, and enjoy the calm! It is absolutely acceptable to do so, and when you come back, your coolness factor will only rise ;)
Follow me on Twitter @vizagobelix
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