Friday, December 12, 2008

What next?

Two weeks have passed since that terrible week which saw the whole of India gripped in the face of terror. The amount of column inches devoted to news about that is already shrinking. Other topics will soon occupy our minds. Will Sachin score another century? Would the next SRK blockbuster be a hit or a flop? Is the sensex showing signs of recovery? Then Christmas, then New Year Party and we will be all back with our lives.
Or will we? Didn't we say that enough is enough? Some of us went and lit candles. Some of us wrote blogs. Others held peace marches. Is there anything further we can do?
Here's what you can do. Join the Rebuild India mission. Go on, give some of your time. We have spent a lifetime being skeptics in India and hid behind that oft-repeated statement over the fourth peg of whisky - "nothing will ever change in our country"....
Its time to change some things. And change will have to begin with oneself.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Headphones, anyone?

Here is another amazing signboard in Pune.

Often there are one or two mistakes in the brand names, but this guy obviously has no regard for accuracy. ALL brand names but one are wrongly spelt. Or juuuust in case, I wonder now, if this is actually a marketing ploy? Although going by the location of this board in Pune, that would be a rather far-fetched expectation.
As of now, I am surely deferring my plans of buying headphones..... I presume these will come with a statutory warning. Listening to music can cause serious injuries to the ear!

Mr. Rajdeep Sardesai, stop behaving like an ostrich - PLEASE

Rajdeep Sardesai writes in today's DNA, and I quote -
"The situation was changing by the hour, and if you look at the overall picture, our television channels did an excellent job..... There may have been attempts at sensationalising stories, but such instances of not-so-good journalism happen everywhere.....We didn't indulge in irresponsible reporting..... I wouldn't buy the logic that TV coverage compromised security and the rescue operations....."
Exactly under this very piece of nonsensical writing, there is the story by a foolhardy and stupid reporter, who claims to have been very brave and courageous. Ms. Preety Acharya, who I am sure is wanting to become a clone of Barkha Dutt overnight. She says - "By the time I reached the Taj the cops were not allowing the media to go near. But this was an opportunity of a lifetime.....I circled back and tried to enter through the South entrance. Along the way I met Lorenzo - I convinced him to take some photographs for my story - and a youngster who decided to accompany us for a lark".
What???? Come again? You took a youngster with you who wanted to be 'on a lark'?? You didn't even have an iota of common sense to tell him to go back and get home? But wait, there's more, as she then continues -
"...we could see the cops getting ready to enter the hotel. It was like a movie with the cops standing at their marked positions, guns in hand."
Movie? MOVIE??? Preety Acharya, are you out of your mind?
But let me quote further - "We scooted past as they tried to stop us and reached the lobby entrance to observe..... a grenade in the lobby which caused considerable damage. The hotel shook and I saw that a piece of glass had pierced my thigh. I started crying, realizing for the first time the danger that I was in."
First time? FIRST TIME? How many times do you see police surrounding the Taj hotel stopping people from going inside? You thought it was a picnic (sorry, you said movie, I forgot) till the shattered glass left you wounded? You are today alive because of the very policemen and other security forces who tried to stop you.
Stupid sense of bravery, nothing else. So our Ms. Brave Acharya actually added to the total number of people who were held hostages. Does she know that she was making the job of policemen even more difficult?
And you, Rajdeep, are saying that the TV media showed restraint. They in fact went OVERBOARD.
What was the need of screaming "THERE IS MAJ GEN XYZ (guess why I am not taking the name? Although half the world knows it by now?) GENERAL OFFICER COMMANDING, MAHARASHTRA AND GOA AREA. THERE HE IS, TO THE RIGHT OF THE SCREEN WITH HIS HANDS FOLDED BEHIND HIS BACK. HE IS THE MAN WHO HAS BEEN RUNNING FORM TAJ TO OBEROI AND BACK FOR THE PAST SEVERAL HOURS, MASTERMINDING THE OPERATIONS. THAT IS MAJ GEN XYZ." Did the media not realize that in such situations, the masterminds' names should rather not be broadcast? Such coverage can lead to them (and their families) being targeted later on. Rajdeep (and Arnab Goswami too, of Times Now) - did you so easily forget the fate of one of our country's most decorated soldiers, Gen Arun Kumar Vaidya?
One channel was insensitive enough (I feel like throwing up even now) to broadcast a telephone interview with Santanu Saikia (Sabina Sehgal Saikia's husband). Going by his anguished voice, anyone could have imagined his state of mind. But that would be too much to expect from our great TV channels, isn't it?
"So Santanu, what time did you last speak to her? What did she say to you?"
What right do you have? WHAT THE @!%^#$X right do you have to ask a person such an insensitive question? That telephone call could well have been the last one between the husband and wife. And you want to know what she said to him???
Sick. Truly, undeniably sick.
And on top of that, Rajdeep has the gumption to say that TV media were responsible this time around. Please apologize to every dead person's family, Rajdeep. You owe it to them. If you want to read a piece of responsible balanced journalism, read Bachi Karkaria's column today.Maybe you need to go back to the basics. The basic of maintaining human dignity. Which every victim of the terror attack deserves.
I am glad only about one thing. I don't have a TV at my home. And I don't think I want one now.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taj - The hotel that was...

The nightmare is finally over, but it has left behind in its wake a long series of sleepless nights for thousands of us.
Eight years can be a long time, but I still remember the day very clearly. Uday and myself were conducting a series of workshops for Taj employees. The workshops inevitably threw up references of workplace and often both of us would be found wanting in our understanding. Finally after about seven workshops, we were invited to visit Taj and were promised that we will be shown that part of the hotel which guests never see. We got to spend the whole day in Taj, going through its countless service passages, labyrinthine corridors and spiral staircases.
At every corner, some enthusiastic staffer who had been on the workshops would come running to greet us. At every kitchen the chef would want us to wait and taste his fare. Their hospitality was overwhelming, and had we agreed to the chefs' requests, we wouldn't have gotten past more than three kitchens in the whole day. So we kept declining politely and moved on. The stores, the laundry (which finally solved my childhood mystery - how do hotels never run out of washed and ironed bedsheets?), the back offices, everything.
On one of the workshops, I casually asked a young executive - so what is so special about the hotel, how is it different from so many other five-stars? Pat came the reply - "why, it is older than even the Gateway of India! It is not just a hotel, its an icon. For me, its my second home." I don't remember his name, and today I don't even know where he is....
The same holds true for the Oberoi-Trident. I have walked through the doors there countless times to attend meetings to discuss the workshops that we did for them. During any of my visits after the workshops, the story was same like my Taj visit eight years ago.
Stories are trickling through the press as to how the hotel staff time and again took care of the guests even when they themselves faced imminent danger to their lives. Some of these stories will never be told - of unsung heroes who lived and died doing what they always loved doing - looking after the guests they treated as their own personal guests. They lived the old sanskrit saying - अतिथि देवो भव - guest is God.
Some day, I am sure, I will go back to The Taj as well the The Oberoi. It wont be the same ever again. The memories of last week will remain etched in every wall of the two hotels. And yet, I am sure, some things will be exactly as they have always been - the amazing attitude of the staff. Right now, I can only bow to all of them in respect.
I stand corrected - the title of this post should be 'The hotel that was, and will be.'

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mumbai bleeds

Will last night's terrorist attack on Mumbai finally serve as a wake-up call for the government? How much more blood of innocent citizens needs to be shed on the streets of India? Phrases that have become standard lingo for politicians after such an incident - 'we condemn this dastardly attack', 'perpetrators of violence will not be spared', 'people should maintain communal harmony' - all these have started sounding increasingly meaningless. Hypocritical, in fact.
Terrorists can travel in trains, on roads and now even boats to land on our streets and cause irreparable damage. What is the government waiting for? For the next batch of terrorists to come in helicopters and land on the Rajpath, or on the pitch of a cricket stadium?
As for the terrorists who have been arrested, what of them? Going by the past history, I am sure they will spend the next 15 or so years in our jail while our judiciary (which is further shackled by narrow-minded politicians) decides how to deal with them. Court cases will drag on, and these criminals will travel in police security, all the while consuming taxpayers' money.
Such an attack could not have been carried out without weeks, even months, of planning. Which means that while they were planning how to disrupt India, our country was busy dealing with silly matters like the number of Biharis in Maharashtra, blaming Aussies for being poor losers, fashion shows and Mamata Banerjee's tantrums.
Hotels and buildings will be reconstructed over time; what about the dreams, aspirations and hopes of people?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here...

That's a phrase from Dante's Divine Comedy, and my day seems to echo this fully.
I woke up with a splitting headache and cold - thanks to traveling from a sultry sweaty Pune to the chilly Himalayan foothills and and back in a matter of three days, lack of sleep and a terrible movie last night (Dostana).
My sense of gloom got heightened as I opened the newspaper, hoping to read something that would cheer me up. The headlines on the first page go something like this -
1. Alandi's promised facelift has been forgotten by the Govt., and as per the headline, "neglect is state's shame".
2. US incumbent govt promises to save Citibank (but the financial paper headline says this is unlikely to succeed!)
3. 11/7 accused were thrashed in police custody. (What else did we expect?)
4. Then there is this amazing bit about two guys who violated traffic rules. As the traffic constable tried to stop them, they actually assaulted the police! One rickshaw actually knocked down the cop. Both traffic constables are in the hospital, one with a fractured hand, another with an injured eye.
5. In Delhi, two MBA students kidnapped a teenager to recover their losses incurred in the stock market.
6. An Indian man drove all the way across USA to shoot his estranged wife in full public view outside a church.
7. Fresh engineering graduates have to accept salaries about 5 times lower than what they were promised when the companies selected them from campuses. Some of them have to be content with only Rs.5000/-
8. Pune municipal corp objects to changes in developmental plan - so lots of scope for gaining political mileage and adding to the delays in developmental work, no doubt.

So the only news that remains on the first page and which is not depressing (but it is inconsequential to me right now anyway) is - Obama names his economic team.

What a way to begin a day. I hope the rest of it gets better. So far it hasn't....

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fashion - Through Madhur Bhandarkar's Tinted Glasses

Swati keeps telling me that 'half truth is as bad as a lie'. (No prizes for guessing WHY she keeps reminding me of this!) Its a very sound thought, but Madhur Bhandarkar seems to be completely unaware of this. His latest flick - Fashion - is such a half truth about the fashion industry. Worse, its actually not even about fashion industry, its only about the world of modelling and fashion shows, which I think is only a small part of the fashion world. One review (I forget which) was absolutely right in saying that this movie should have been named 'Model' or maybe 'Supermodel' but it makes no sense naming it 'Fashion'.
Watching the movie is quite a pain, honestly. It feels like you are switching channels watching FTV and some silly tear-jerker soap. The inconsistencies are quite a thing, I must say. First of all, Madhur Bhandarkar would do well to go visit Chandigarh and interact with the girls out there. Not that I am an authority on Chandigarh girls, but I know enough about that city to know that the girls there can't be so dumb. Now, the leading lady Meghna Mathur (played by Priyanka Chopra - what a waste. I always thought she was talented!) is supposed to have won a beauty pageant already. How then is she so completely ignorant of some basic rules of a modelling contract ??? Come on Madhur, she is from Chandigarh, a happening city of India, not from Jhumri Talaiya !!
Some sequences don't make any sense at all. What was the need of that little cameo appearance of Konkona Sen and Ranvir, playing themselves? It didn't serve any purpose. Swati commented that Madhur probably wanted to show how dress designers bully their way into movies and impose their own opinions on even film stars. Really? Are we expected to believe THAT?
I have a dress designer friend who once jokingly said, "Yeah, all male fashion designers are gay. What a waste". She was joking. Mr. Bhandarkar - SHE WAS ONLY JOKING, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?
The movie is so full of stereotypes that it becomes all too predictable. The only thing that is not predictable is - when the interval is going to happen! Throughout the first half, you keep praying for the interval (because then you know that half of the movie is thankfully over!) The first half drags so much that you start wishing that the movie should simply end without the second half altogether. Thankfully, there is a break where you can go and get fortified popcorn and coffee and brace yourself for the torture that awaits you in the latter half.
I remarked to Vallarie - when is the wardrobe malfunction going to happen? When will Kangana Ranaut land up as a drug-addicted beggar on the streets, cutting a sorry figure? One could predict EVERYTHING. Why? I think I know why.
Madhur Bhandrakar seems to have perfected the art of picking up the current hot social topic and then make a movie out of it, claiming to show the 'real' picture to the audience whom he thinks are all stupid and gullible. So first Chandni Bar happened, then Page 3, then Corporate, and now Fashion. Unfortunately for us viewers, he is getting worse with every movie. What to expect from him next? Terrorism? Naxal movement? SEZs? Inflation? Global economic crisis? KSaas-Kbahu Kserials?
Madhur is like one of the five blind men trying to figure out what the elephant is like only by touching its tail, or trunk, or whatever. In this case, he seems to have only touched a picture of the elephant, of course blindfolded. His claims of having researched the topic thoroughly are hollow - that's the only thing that this movie proves.
The movie has no entertainment value either. Is there a message then, at least? Is Madhur trying to tell all parents not to let their precious daughters ever enter the world of modelling? Or is he warning the parents of all male fashion designers that their sons WILL become gay and turn effeminate too?
Lastly, his experience of making films for so many years starts becoming questionable. The gimmick of using his own film's reference in the movie is pathetic and amateurish, to say the least. (one model says to the other, 'isn't that Madhur? What's he doing here?' The other one replies - oh, he is researching the fashion field, must be making a movie.) What kind of self-fulfilling prophecy is this?
The saving grace of the movie is Kitu Gidwani, surely. Her portrayal of an impassionate, attached yet detached, professional Anisha Roy is praiseworthy. So is Kangna Ranaut's Shonali Gujral. I wish Kangna is chosen by some Director (not Ashutosh Gowariker or RGV!!! PLEEEEEEZZZZ) for some more substantial roles than what she has been getting like in Gangster, Life in a Metro....
All in all, a completely avoidable film. If you have 3 hours to kill and lots of money to spend - then spend it on anything else - it will be worthwhile.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama - Historic win

So after a hysteric campaign running for a record 21 months, a historic win by Barack Obama is being hailed all over the world. Dark memories of centuries of racial discrimination have been replaced with hope for 'Change'.
Only time will tell whether Obama can really bring in the change that he has promised throughout his campaign or whether four years later it will prove to be mere political rhetoric, but one thing is for sure. Books on American History will have to be rewritten now...
For now, all the Democrats can celebrate and enjoy a well-earned peaceful sleep tonight!
To the Haines family in Contoocook, New Hampshire, we will raise a toast from here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Wednesday

After missing it at least five times, I finally saw "A Wednesday" yesterday. The movie has received rave reviews all over and I am not going to repeat all that has been already said.
Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher - its tough to decide who's superior. I am sure the majority will vote for Naseer. But his role is such that it totally 'drives' the character. Anupam Kher on the other hand has to play a role which is itself caught between the person and his formal role. The underplayed tension and frustration of the person and firm purposive actions of his official role is a unique mix and only a Anupam Kher could have carried it off like that.
The editing and cinematography are both just perfect. And the Director (Neeraj Pandey) deserves the credit for staying away from the scourge of a majority of Hindi movies - that of converting a good plot into a three-hour chewing gum! (Ashutosh Gowariker, are you listening?) This movie is just the right length. Even when there are long sequences where nothing 'actually happens', it still retains its crisp edge-of-the-seat feel all through. Oh yes, Thank God there are no songs - item or otherwise!
One thing I was glad about - after many years, there is a movie which portrays our police neither as incompetent fools nor as bumbling pot-bellied comedy artists. Yes, our police are far from perfect, but then. One shouldn't forget that in spite of a multitude of problems, our country of a hundred million people RUNS. Hundreds of trains and aeroplanes carrying millions of passengers leave and reach on time. People go to office and earn money to raise their families. Their children go to school. Elections happen. At least some of the credit for all this goes to the police. One must not forget that behind every failure of the cops which get highlighted by the media, there must be at least a hundred success stories that go unreported. The cops in 'A Wednesday' are shown to be immensely tech savvy (although the hacker who is trying to help them does pity their outdated equipment). I can just hope that our real police are equally, if not more, tech savvy.
Sure, there are glitches in the movie. How does this man coolly leave his large bag right inside the police station loo and get away? That too, in these days of surveillance? How does he calmly rig up a bomb on the Juhu airport tarmac, even if its not a busy airport? Scores of Mumbai-ites will agree with me that Colaba to Malad and back in a Qualis takes a LONG time, and that Jimmy Shergill should be sent to Formula 1 races if he actually makes that journey in the time shown. But then, these questions don't take anything away from the movie.
In the end, while Naseer goes into a moving near-soliloquy, he doesn't fail to make a point and touch many a chord in the viewers. Nevertheless, an essential part of the movie IS very much a fantasy, and one does walk out with a 'but then, come on. This can't happen for real' kind of feeling. In any case, I don't think the Director is suggesting that someone emulates Naseer. He is making another point, which has been made by others too. The list of movies depicting a 'common man' making a difference are on the rise. Rang de Basanti showed this too, albeit in a much more dramatized fashion. Amir (the movie, not the Khan!) and for that matter even Taare Zamin Par have a similar message.
I am no sociologist, but this surely has a connection with the way India and Indians are evolving. Are the days of a Dharmendra or Amitabh-style superhero behind us? They too portrayed common (and angry) men, but their acts were highly uncommon. What's more, they were often highly impossible. The 'common stupid man' portrayed by Naseer may seem impossible, but then, who knows?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Horsing around

Yesterday five of us went to the Pune race course, thanks to a friend who had got passes to the Johnnie Walker Event. It was my first time with horse racing, and most likely, will be the last. Not only because I lost money, but I realized I don't belong to that world.
It was definitely fun, being in a group of five who were all rank amateurs in the world of racing and betting. All around us, the ambience of Page 3 had come alive. We sat looking around, sipping our cocktails and studiously trying to make sense of the cole. This book is far more complicated than a railway time table and we couldn't understand a word of it.
Slowly we got around to understanding about mares, fillies, jockeys, ow
ners, trainers, jackpots, tanala and what all. By the 3rd or 4th race, we were even vehemently arguing amongst ourselves about the next favourite. Of course, any experienced better privy to our conversation would have fainted listening to our 'expert comments'. Our favourites usually got decided like this - "Wow, that black horse looks really nice, I like this one. Yes, but that brown one looked more alert. Really? OK then, lets bet 20 rupees on each of them"...
One of the results was truly hilarious. There were six horses running, and since there were five of us, we decided to single out the one whom we thought would NOT win, and then individually bet on the rest of the five. The idea being - make enough money collectively to have a drink in the evening. So while studying the horses' history, we found that one of them had had an arthroscopy done. Since we had a surgeon amongst us, he was duly called upon to unravel the mysteries of arthroscopy. Hearing him, we were convinced that this horse would be no match for the others. And guess what, THAT VERY HORSE WON THE RACE! So much for our study.
This clearly proved two things. One - we know nothing about horses and racing. Two - the vet who performed that arthroscopy must be damn good!
I am back from the races, 260 rupees minus. Moral of the story - when it comes to gambling I really need to hold my horses !

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hundred percent India!

Here's an interesting notice seen at numerous places in Pune. Translated into English, it would mean - Courses for Spoken English with 100% guarantee. In the event of failure, full money back guarantee ! So what exactly does 100% mean? Typical of India, where we live happily with ambiguity in every aspect of life. Often 100% doesn't really mean "truly 100%" in India. But we understand the sentiment behind the statement and let it pass.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sowhat-itis. A national scourge

It can happen in any city in India these days. On the weekend, a simple middle-class family goes out for some plain fun in the shopping mall. A young executive decides to have a quick bite at the corner before heading home. A student hurries to buy some essential stuff for her college assignment before the shops close. Just as all these people are busy with their own lives, a flash of lightning and a deafening bang. The bomb kept in a nearby dustbin by a mindless, faceless and heartless terrorist explodes. Many unsuspecting innocent lives are shut off forever.... For those who survive, life is never the same again.
It was the same story this week in Delhi. But I experienced something different within myself. The spread of a national disease called sowhat-itis.
Being born and schooled in Delhi, the city is closer to my heart than any other. I have many friends from school days and those whom I have met later in life who currently stay in Delhi. And yet, for a full 24 hours and more, I didn't' bother to find out if they were all ok. Sowhat-itis is dangerous - it plays tricks on your mind. I found the perfect explanation for my behaviour. So? What can I do about this sitting in Pune? If one of them has really suffered in some way in these blasts, can I help in any way? How would calling up and finding out help me? I will be contributing to jamming the cellphone networks even further, isn't it? If any of them is really in trouble and remembers me, s/he will call me.
I slept that night, or rather, I like to believe that I slept. In the deep recesses of my psyche, I kept seeing my friends - tadi, buli, karir, padoo, sushant, ajit, alka, ashwini, rachna, karan, and so many more. Anyone of them or someone from their families could have been at Karol Bagh, CP or GK-I that evening.
Yet, I never bothered to pick up the phone and call anyone.
Finally, the next afternoon, I called up Sanjay Agarwal (better known as Padoo to many) and spoke to him. His nonchalance only aggravated my sowhat-itis. He calmly remarked, "what can people like you and I do, when we have a government that only talks but never acts? Theek hai, ab aisa hi chalega......"
I am sure that ministers are given a standard manual on the day they take oath. It consists of 'things to say on different occasions.' So our minister picks up the manual and thumbs through the by-now-well-rehearsed dialogues. There has been a train accident? I see... hmmmm, yes, its page no. 32. Are the cameras ready? OK, here goes. "I am deeply anguished by this horrible tragedy. The wounded are being treated in the nearby hospital. A sum of 1 lakh rupees will be paid to all the families of those who are dead and 50000 to the injured. An enquiry commission has been instituted which will submit its report soon. The guilty will be punished." Next day a distinguished personality dies of old age. OK, turn to page no. 56. "Mr. XYZ has left behind a void which can never be filled. The best tribute to him would be carry on his great work for the betterment of society." Then the next day, a bomb blast. Page 2. "We condemn this dastardly/cowardly act on our country. We will not buckle under any pressure and deal with the terrorist elements severely. The guilty will soon be brought to the court of law. I appeal to the citizens to keep calm and maintain communal harmony."
Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Jaipur, Varanasi, Hyderabad, the list just goes on. After some time, the names stop mattering. Till the day it happens to YOU. By then, it is too late...... Sowhat-itis has claimed its next victim.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

It WAS scary....

Don't ask me why I was awake at this time. The point is, I was - fully wide awake. And there was this earthquake a few minutes ago. It went on and on - the cupboard shaking, the glass pane going thud thud thud. It continued in this fashion for so long - I almost decided to get up and run down the stairs to stand out on the road. Just then - it stopped. I dont have a TV so can't watch any 'breaking news' (sorry - pun not intended, really) so am now going to sleep in a tense state. I hope this wasn't a big one somewhere else, and I felt only its remote tremors out here in Pune.....
I checked CNN and some other news channels on the net - there is nothing on them so far.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is it a bird...Is it a plane....No, Its a Cat !!!

A few days back, Vallarie rescued an orphaned kitten on the way back from college. Not surprising, because history has to repeat itself. Swati did the same thing 25 years ago, when she had brought home an injured black kitten, small enough to fit into your palm. He went on to be known as Shakun (marathi for Omen) and his adventurous pursuits (gastronomic ones in the kitchen and amorous ones in the nearby alley) have become part of the family folklore. And now more than two decades later, there arrives this frisky little kitten. The usual protests from grandmother followed, but the kitten miraculously found the bathroom to go and mark its territory! The grandma had no option but to get convinced of its well-behaved manners, and very soon it occupied a little basket and the cozy warmth of Vallarie's jacket. It has now been named Whisky, for its fine whiskers. The name suits me just fine, because now I can say without worrying, 'there's always whisky at home'! Plus, not always will you get to see a cocktail of whisky and milk!
Vallarie is convinced that Whisky suffers from dissociated identity disorder (rather, Whisky is endowed with it). Very often, it climbs on top of anything nearby (that 'anything' could be you) and surveys her kingdom around, much like an eagle would sit atop a high perch.
Then the other day, we saw her hang upside down from a curtain and crawl along in that state, much like a monkey or a three-toed sloth. Whisky also believes that she turns into an owl in the night and becomes a lion-cum-eagle by the day. I am ok with that too, as long as she doesn't start believing she is Pushkaraj Apte....

Poetry in Motion

A few days back, I had the good fortune of seeing a Kathak peformance by Shilpa Datar and her disciples. Honestly, till a few years ago, I never went to see any dance. Amongst the fine arts, I liked music, I could appreciate painting and sculpture, but dance? Not really. Thankfully, Vallarie started learning Kathak under the watchful eyes of Guru Maneesha Sathe (who is also Shilpa's Guru) and I have slowly started appreciating this form of expression too. My real teacher in this area is in fact Vallarie herself.
Shilpa Datar (Shilpa-tai, as all her students call her) first gave a solo performance that must remain an inspiration to all her students. I am amazed how she could alternate between so many forms in a matter of seconds. (Milliseconds, actually). At times, she would be blurred motion personified. Before you could bat an eyelid, she would be motionless like a statue, then revert to pirouetting around again. What enabled her to anchor firmly when she would swirl around herself is best known to her only. I know that much physics to understand that a gyroscope stays steady on its end only when it moves and would fall off if it stops - but then Shilpatai is not a gyroscope. If I turn around myself with that speed even ten times, the semicircular canals inside my ears would order my body to collapse to the ground. She didn't, even after countless turns.
If the opening performance was breathtaking, what followed blew my mind apart. Shilpatai also teaches Kathak to hearing-impaired children. And what a performance they gave! Soul-stirring, to say the least. She sat in front of the stage (in the 'pit') and kept giving them directions, much like an opera conductor. But I don't think the children needed it really. They were rehearsed perfectly. There was a spontaneous standing ovation at the end. We all just kept applauding. The joy of being appreciated by a large crowd when standing under the stage lights was writ large on their beaming faces. What must be going on in their silent worlds at that moment? I wish I knew.
But this was not all. At the end of the performance, Shilpatai was back on stage with seven others, and put up a brilliant 'tarana'. I have heard that composition at least a hundred times, but seeing it in Kathak form was something else. I waited with baited breath to see how the climax was going to be done. And it was exactly what it should have been. A crescendo, a fitting finale, the grand climax.
Thank you - Shilpatai and all your students - for giving this unforgettable experience to all of us there in the hall.

Friday, August 15, 2008

60 Years of Indian Independence - A journey of contradictions

As I stood in attention to the anthem today, my mind flashed back to this very day, 22 or 23 years ago. About 10 of us, all college-going then, were on a trek to Raireshwar, a plateau which holds a special place in Shivaji's life. As a teenager, he is said to have taken a pledge in the temple here along with his friends, to dedicate his life to 'Swarajya'. There is no proof that this actually happened, but whether it did or not, it has continued to inspire generations of Marathi people.
So there we were, walking through ankle deep slush, rain pelting down, reaching the temple on the night of 14th August. There is a little village school next to it, typical kind that you see in any small hamlet in Maharashtra (or anywhere in India for that matter.) Just one room with a faded blackboard and few pieces of chalk, that's it. The room would be occupied by 10-15 children of varying ages and thus studying in various grades, while a single teacher would go around teaching 3 or 4 'classes' simultaneously. We camped out in the school for the night and got talking to the teacher. The next morning, as some of us struggled to get breakfast done, the teacher asked us if we could delay our departure by another 45 minutes or so. The flag hoisting ceremony was due in some time, so would we please attend it with the school kids? We of course readily agreed.
And then they came, 10-15 of them, clad in soiled shorts and frocks, trudging barefoot through the fields. As the teacher prepared to get the flag up, Abhijit Kale asked one of the kids, 'so, what happens in school on 15th August?" "We get to eat sweets", pat came the reply. That was it - that's all that the kids knew about 15th August.
All of dutifully saluted the flag and sang Jana Gana Mana. As promised to the children, they got boiled sweets and a piece of bundi laddoo to enjoy. For them, independence day was over. The teacher asked me if I cold speak to the kid for a while and tell them the importance of 15th August. Giving an extempore speech on such an easy topic in front of 15 kids? Simple task - I thought. So there I was. standing right under the tricolour, all ready to talk about the great freedom struggle, the long line of revolutionaries who led several million people against the mighty British empire, the selfless sacrifice, and so on. As I began confidently, I said, "this is the day when the British finally left our country and OUR rule began here."
And then it dawned upon me - 'the British left..... OUR country. ...... OUR rule began. It all made no sense to the kids. They must all be wondering. what's this fellow talking about? WE means who? They means who? Who left? From where? To where?
They had never seen anything beyond their little hamlet, all of about 20 temporary huts on top of this plateau. For them, the world ended at the plateau's edges. So there - I was in a fix. How was I going to explain to them the why and because of 15th August? I was in a place not more than 100 km from Pune (a city well known for its educational facilities, also known as 'Oxford of the East') and here was a school where I was groping for words trying to explain something that I had assumed would be simple for any Indian.
I blabbered for some more time - did try to give them analogy of someone telling their father what to grow, when to grow and how much to grow in HIS field. and that this was exactly what British rule was like. So the British going away was like the farmer having the freedom to decide this for himself, so on. But I don't think they really understood. I was not sure then, I am still not sure today. The day and its memory has continued to haunt me for the last two decades.
Twenty independence days later, India marches on towards prosperity. As the rich become richer and the poor are left wondering why, I am still wondering whether things have changed in Raireshwar.

P.S. - Miraculously, just as I was about to post this, my nephew Viraaj walks in. He went for trek to Raireshwar last year and yes, he has a couple of pics. Yes, not much has changed. Tonight I will try to unearth my own old photo albums and post one of those pics tomorrow. Till then, here's a look at ancient plateau of Raireshwar.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Now, try beating this.....

This amazing road sign exists on one of the busiest bridges in Pune. OK, so we are supposed to understand that the top bolt has come off and that's why the sign has turned upside down. In any case, this bridge has so much traffic that taking a U-turn is next to impossible. But that's besides the point. Surely, everyday morning and evening, there must be several people belonging to the administration who pass by this bridge. Corporators, traffic cops, officers in the municipal corporation, and so on. In all these days, not one of them has taken notice and done anything about it. Mind you, this board exists about 200 mt. away from the building which houses the Pune Municipal Corporation. If that's the state of road signs in the heart of the city, one can only guess how neglected the far-flung areas must be. And there are those in power who want us to believe that this city, with its infrastructure in the most pathetic state in the last several years, is going to host the Commonwealth Youth Games in a few weeks from now. If they really pull it off, it will only prove one thing. God exists.....

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What's Beyond ?

It's been exactly four weeks since I quit my job and set out to be on my own. I had tried the same gamble 10 years ago too, and miserably failed then. This time around I am more confident to making it.
One of the best things that have happened in this period is having time for myself. I have got back to reading and have devoured 'Train to Pakistan', 'The Google Story', 'We Are Like That Only'; and a marathi/sanskrit book, Leelakamalpatrani. The last one is a collection of writings by Prof. Leela Arjunwadkar. Every time I have needed anything about Sanskrit, I have always run to her. (Like the post on Palas tree earlier in this blog). Her mastery on Sanskrit language and literature is quite astounding. What's more, her writings are lucid. I suppose the touch of humility and sensitivity in her writing comes from her initial moorings in fine arts as a singer and stage actor. This aspect of her writing makes even a layman like me get attracted towards Sanskrit language. I have made a lofty promise to myself that I would now read the Bhagwad Gita and then the works of Kalidas. If I actually fulfill this promise, much of its credit would go to Prof. Arjunwadkar.
And yes, right now I am reading Sunil Khilnani's 'The Idea of India'.
Another benefit (and risk too) of being on one's own that I am enjoying is to avail of that rare commodity - SLEEP !!
When I was clearing up the clutter on my desk before moving out of the office, I bumped into a paper where I had scribbled few lines from a poem by Robert Service. I couldn't remember the context at all, but the poem did make perfect sense for the state of my mind then. One month down the line, it is still very relevant. Born and educated in Scotland, Robert decided at the age of 21 to 'Go West' in search for the elusive golden dream. In 1895, he traveled to Canada with dreams of becoming a cowboy. He instead became a banker and later an author.
So here's a poem by Robert Service that mirrors my own thoughts curently.

The Land of Beyond
Have you ever heard of the Land of Beyond,
That dream at the gates of the day?
Alluring it lies at the skirts of the skies,
And ever so far away;
Alluring it calls: O ye yoke of galls,
And ye of the trails overfond,
With saddle and pack, by paddle and track,
Let’s go to the Land of Beyond!

Have ever you stood where the silences brood,
And vast the horizons begin,
At the dawn of the day to behold far away
The goal you would strive for and win?
Yet ah! in the night when you gain to the height,
With the vast pool of heaven star-spawned,
Afar and agleam, like a valley of dream,
Still mocks you the Land of Beyond.

Thank God! there is always the Land of Beyond
For us who are true to the trail;
A vision to seek, a beckoning peak,
A fairness that never will fail;
A proud in our soul that mocks at a goal,
A manhood that irks at a bond,
And try how we will, unattainable still,
Behold it, our Land of Beyond!
- Robert Service

Monday, August 11, 2008


The DVD for Amu, a movie by Shonali Bose, was released yesterday.

This is great news. I saw the movie on the day of its release four years ago in Mumbai. I had no clue about what the movie was about and I must confess that I bought the ticket ONLY because there was Konkona on the poster. I am glad I made that decision, else I would have missed a great movie.

It was a bitter-sweet experience being inside the hall that night. On one level, there was happiness that the advent of multiplexes was providing a platform for new and lesser known directors. On another, it was sad to see only about 10-15 people in the hall. Shonali Bose was there too and I was trying to imagine her state of mind. After incubating the idea of this film for several years and then taking the trouble to actually make it, she had to see a sparse audience on the day of its release. Imagine, 1st day, last show, 15 people to watch.

The movie itself is a deeply moving experience. In spite of the violent backdrop of the story, Shonali has dealt with the subject with subtlety and sensitivity. Konkona as always is outstanding. The movie is not just about the '84 riots of Delhi. The terrible riot and its aftermath on the common man become a character in the movie (like in Jack London stories, the cold climate becomes a character rather than remaining just the canvas.) And then the story becomes an interplay of a young girl's inquisitive mind and this character, which is her past, and hence a part of herself.

It brings to the surface some existential questions that all of us carry in our souls – Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I now? Where will I go from here?

Don't miss it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sarkar Raj - aur nahi bas, aur nahi

There are some existential questions that people struggle with throughout their lives. Here are a few of them (readers please add)
  1. Why can't airport trolleys move in a straight line?
  2. Why cant you find an ATM when you need it most, when otherwise you keep seeing them everywhere?
  3. Where do all the frogs go for the rest of the year when its not raining?
  4. Having kept a careful eye on milk on the gas for ten full minutes, why does it boil over EXACTLY when you look away for precisely 15 seconds?
And so on.... Now a new question has got added to this enduring list - why can't Ram Gopal Varma resist the temptation of making a sequel ? RGV should consider himself lucky that MAD magazine doesn't bother about Indian movies, else the MAD Sarkar Raj special issue would have been a collector's item. Not to mention that the issue would have been infinitely more engrossing than the movie. Why so? Well, thats simple. Anything would be more engrossing than Sarkar Raj.
To be fair to RGV, the plot is actually good. Very relevant too; smart of him to think of this politico-industrial plot in today's times. But Alas! What could have been a compelling keeps-you-on-edge-of-the-seat movie, this one has become a damp squib.
Fortunately, the second half is tolerable for may reasons. First and foremost, the story actually moves. It helps you to come out of a yawning first half. But wait, you don't actually yawn through the first half, but thats only because of the jarring background score, thanks to Baapi-Tutul. I think they have redefined the term 'background music' - essentially by forgetting that it is supposed to be, well, in the background. There are times when the music score tries to become the lead character in the movie. Other times, the music has nothing to do whatsoever with what's on the screen. And not to forget, there is the constant hammering overdose of Govinda Govinda Govindaaaaaaa. It has been overdone so much that it has completely negated the effect it had in Sarkar. Remember how it was used when Shankar was running for his life through the fishermen's village? Well, this time it is all pervading and loses its impact entirely, becomes a distracting element, in fact. There is another reason for the second half becoming watchable. During the interval, some kind soul skipped the popcorn and coffee and went and told the cameraman to stand steady!! The only way I can describe the camera work in the first half is 'epileptic'. Less said the better. The dialogues are not dialogues really. The characters don't talk as you and I do. All of them, with only one exception. Shankar's new bodyguard - who doesn't have a single line in the movie! The people in Sarkar Raj converse by way of an exchange of 'quotable quotes' that often amounts to a lot of gobbledegook . I need to find out who was the screenplay writer's English grammar teacher in school. She must have been unduly strict with him and must have surely given him punishing homework like "write the sentence in active and passive voice both at least 500 times". I mean, how would you react if you heard two people constantly talking like this?

Raja - So shall we open the lock with this key?
Rani - No, I think you should rather use the key to open the lock.
Raja - Thanks, thats really a good idea.
Rani - No, I think the idea is really good.
Raja - OK, now I have opened the door too.
Rani - Yes, I think the door too has been opened by you.....
It just goes on and on like this.... with the occasional smattering of Govindaaaaaa

In terms of casting, RGV didn't have much choice as many characters are back in their roles after Sarkar. A new one appearing (Somji, Raosaheb's grandson) is a shining example of casting errors. He doesn't look at all like someone hailing from rural Maharashtra. I suspect RGV got carried away in his need to show a Sanjay Gandhi look-alike there because of the character's brash, new generation political identity.

The other new entrant of course is our new bahu on the block, Ms. Aishwarya Rai Bacchan. Her best role so far, surely. Not because she has acted well, but because how beautifully the role matches her persona. You don't need to be a Stanislavsky to know that one has to get under the skin of the character that you are playing. In this case, Ash has had to take no efforts to do the same, simply because how she IS. Throughout the movie she goes around asking completely inane questions. The best one is when she asks Shankar "bomb kisne lagaya"? Aishwarya is well known for the perpetual I-dont-understand-this-so-someone-tell-me-how-the-world-works look on her face. So this movie makes her do what she does well anyway!

Mr. RGV, here are some ideas for making Sarkar Raj better. In any case, you have already left the scope for making Sarkar Part III at the end. (Sarkar thunders, "Pushpa, mujhe Cheekoo chahiye." Camera pans to Ash...."Ek chai lana". What dialogues!) So if you actually decide to torture us any further with yet another sequel, then maybe you could get some inspiration from these ideas.

  1. Just when Shankar and Anita are about to declare their love for each other (when barely some time has passed after his pregnant wife has been blown to smithereens by a bomb, dont forget that!) Pooja appears on the screen. Pooja who? Katrina of course, who dumped Shankar in Part-I and went off to USA. So she appears (out of the lake in the background, so that also gives some scope for special effects) and says to a benumbed Shankar, "main tumhari moorat dil mein liye ab tak tumhara intezaar kar rahi hoon". Then to solve this new love triangle, a dance competition happens between Katrina and Ash. Long live Nasir Hussain and Hum Kisise Kam Nahi !!
  2. At the beginning of Sarkar Part III, Cheekoo's car enters the palatial bungalow and guess how many people step out? You said Two? Wrong . Three ! Cheekoo, Amruta and lo and behold, its Vishnu ! He says to Sarkar, "Shankar ne aapse jhooth bola. Usne mujhe marne ki bajay yahaan se nikal jaane ko kaha tha. Uske dil mein bade bhai ke liye bahut pyaar tha." Just to ensure that Sarkar doesn't miss Shankar much, Vishnu has also grown a beard. This twist would also fulfill the priest's wish mentioned in Sarkar Raj about bringing Vishnu back in some way.
  3. All settle down to live happily ever after, but wait. The story only begins now. Ash orders for a cappuccino (decaf, and no sugar please) for herself and for Sarkar too. Now, that's a clear departure from 'Ek chai laana'. She tells the doyen, "Shankar hamesha chai peeta tha, uski yaadein mujhe bahut sataati hain, isliye main hamesha coffee order karti hoon." Just when Sarkar begins to get dewy-eyed, Amruta appears with tea and proclaims, "baba ki sehat ke liye coffee nahi, chai hi theek hai." Now do you see the immense scope for an epic struggle in the plot? Its not just Coffee vs Tea. It's West vs East. Foreign vs Swades. Adopted daughter vs Bahu. Capitalism vs Socialism. New vs Old........

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A silent walk through history

I was in Oman a few months back for an Outdoor Training Program with High Places. In spite of having done some research (Wikipedia, what else) about the country, I still expected it to be all a sandy desert. So much for being an aware tourist! I had no time to settle and before I knew, I was out of immigration, into a Land rover and was speeding off towards our destination, Jebel al Akhdar. Having got accustomed to Indian roads and the art of driving on the same, I looked wide eyed at the 8-lane road like a child would in a toy shop. With temperatures soaring above 40 C, the windows shut and the silent engine, it was difficult to believe that we were constantly cruising at 100 kmph or more. (That we were going at 'more' could be realized only when the speed control radar started beeping, unless your eyes were fixed on the speedometer.) Soon we reached Barkat-al-Mouz, where the road departs from the main highway and starts climbing steeply towards Jebel Akhdar. Only 4WD vehicles are allowed to go past the check post here. Why this should be so becomes clear within a km. when the gradient rises sharply from the plains to the jagged wind swept mountains. Jebel Akhdar means 'Green Mountain'. I must confess that at first sight, I couldn't spot even a dot of green colour for miles around. Spectacular mountains the kind of which I had seen before, but certainly not green by any stretch of imagination. Jebel Akhdar witnessed a battle (1957-59) between the forces of the Imam and Sultan (who was backed by the British Army and Royal Air Force) and its signs can be seen everywhere. There was a sprawling flat plateau right opposite our hotel. If you take even a casual 5 minute walk there, you are sure to find spent bullet shells, fragments of machine gun belts, flares and so on. Not far away from there we saw the mangled remains of some large war machine. These ostensibly belong to a helicopter that was shot down, although I found the story rather doubtful.
During one of our short excursions, we visited the ancient little village of Wadi bin Habib. In spite of lot of efforts, I couldn't find out exactly how old this settlement is. The village nestles on the slopes of a narrow valley. One look at this valley tells you why Jebel Akhdar is called so. These valleys (wadis in the local dialect) invariably have a stream and are quite densely wooded. Green mountains, finally !
As we walked down the path into the valley, we crossed plantations of pomegranate (in full bloom). This area has an ancient irrigation system called 'falaj', which is a lesson in groundwater harvesting. As I walked down the wooded path, a chill went up my spine when I looked up at the approaching village. It was all so silent.... The inhabitants of Wadi bin Habib have left and settled elsewhere long ago. The pomegranate and fig plantations are still attended to, of course.

Stepping gingerly into a lane in the village, I peeped into a dilapidated home. I almost expected an Omani version of Rip van Winkle to step out from around the corner. I would have loved to sit down and talk to him about the days when Wadi bin Habib was alive with human activity. What exactly happened to this place? I ventured cautiously into a dark corridor (my friend had warned me that the floor was a little shaky!) and found a probable answer. An empty ammunition box hiding many an untold tale lay silently in the dark corridor. As I peeped into a door opening out of corridor, I could see countless footprints on the mud floor. How many of these were ancient? How many belonged to modern tourists like me? I walked aimlessly up and down the haunting by lanes of this village. I was reminded of Kharsoli, a tiny hamlet high up in Garhwal Himalay. The residents of this village migrate to lower reaches every winter. The feeling of 'someone is following me constantly' was unmistakable when walking through the empty lanes of Kharsoli, way back in 1990. Many later years, the feeling came to grip me again. The urge to look back over the shoulder was overwhelming. What human drama unfolded in Wadi bin Habib? What happened to all the people who were part of that drama? Before I could be consumed by the delusions of being Sherlock Holmes, my friend called out to me. It was already time to leave.

If you are going to walk around this area, keep a lookout for fossils. Actually you don't need to really look out because they are ALL OVER THE PLACE. literally. The rock formations here are eye-catching, to say the least. But don't make the mistake of taking the rock surfaces lightly. A simple slip will leave you quite badly bruised, thanks to the extremely sharp edges. This close up photograph should be enough to prove my point.

Happy Exploring !!!

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Unknown Dubai

Dubai offers all the glitz and glamour that a tourist is looking for. More than anything else, it has come to be known for its shopping festival and every year, thousands of shopping-hungry tourists flock to Dubai. I was there recently and was quite bowled over by what I saw. My wonderment was compounded by it being my first trip abroad. The infrastructure, disciplined traffic (although its currently chaotic due to metro work going on), sprawling malls jam-packed with goods waiting to be picked up, wide eyed tourists roaming everywhere...
No tourist will miss seeing the tallest building in the world being constructed (Burj Dubai), by now already more than 600 mt. high. Almost everyone will go and watch in awe the amazing structure of Burj-al-Arab, labeled as "World's best hotel". Some more enthusiastic ones will go and experience the thrill of riding up and down the crazy slopes of the sand dunes.
If there is a list of 'seven tourist wonders of the world' I am sure the mall that harbours the crazy place called "Ski Dubai" would safely secure a place in the list. Seeing all this, I thought Dubai was a monochrome city. As if it reflects only one colour - that of money. But then I was wrong.
Prakash Kelkar, my friend from college days has been in Dubai for more than a decade now.
It was not surprising that he took me around to see the 'standard Dubai sights and lights'. On the last evening, he said 'let me show you the Dubai that nobody cares too much about'. I was puzzled as to what was in store for me. Surely, he can't take me to a casino or a nightclub ? (As that's what many tourists care about anyway!) So we drove to the waterfront of 'old Dubai' and walked towards the creek. Water taxis were plying people across the creek, agents of luxurious dhows and yachts were trying to rope in customers, but ignoring them we walked right to the end. This is the old port of Dubai, and closing my eyes I could see dhows loaded with goods from India landing, traders shouting orders to deck hands, precious cargo being unloaded and carried to the port office. I thought the old port office has been illuminated rather garishly with too many coloured lights. But it looked pretty nevertheless. Then Prakash led me into a lane which was wide enough only for two people to walk side by side and then up an even narrower staircase. There I was, standing in a Shiva temple !! The narrow lane outside had all the usual shops that you can see outside any temple in India, selling the necessary prayer goodies. I couldn't believe my eyes - I almost expected an old lady in a typical 9-yard Marathi sari to walk up to a shop and haggle with the man there.... "what ? Two dirhams for this garland? You must be mad...." Thats not all, there is even a Krishna temple and a Gurdwara nearby. According to the information I could gather on the net. these are the only Hindu Temples in the entire UAE. Likewise, there is a Shiva temple in Muscat too. Anyone who says that most gulf countries are only occupied by hardcore Muslim fundamentalists should go and take a look at the temples in Dubai please.
Another thing that is a must see in Dubai are the numerous fountains and artificial waterfalls that are omnipresent in all the malls and hotels there. Each one more creative than the other. Just look at the sheer size of this one.....

Thursday, June 12, 2008

100 city HSC students get kiss of life-Mumbai-Cities-The Times of India

100 city HSC students get kiss of life-Mumbai-Cities-The Times of India

Let's get practical

Students appearing for XII board exam in Maharashtra Board also need to pass the course called Environmental Studies. The assessment for this course is done internally and the students need to pass the theory as well as practical test SEPARATELY. Now, about 100 students cleared the theory but failed the practical. As a result, they were declared failed in the overall board exam. This mean that they effectively lose one year, and at best, they can attempt to clear the practical in the next attempt. The story does not end here. As a special case, the Board convened a meeting of college Principals and they all agreed that the failed students could resubmit their projects and get assessed again.
The students will clear it, no doubt. But this episode throws up a deeper question about our education system. What is its purpose - to become aware and learned about the world or to clear exams? It is ironical that the students cleared only the theoretical component on environment studies. The argument being offered is that the colleges did not inform the students and parents properly that it was necessary to pass the two components separately. (Read the article about this in Times of India above or here.) I feel that getting PRACTICAL hands-on knowledge is not seen as as important. I myself remember how in college I passed some practicals that we thought were not important. We had a subject called 'Physical Education' and it was necessary to pass its practical exam for being allowed to take the bigger University exam. (Thankfully, the University did not think of theory tests for this subject!) Now, if you represented the college at inter-collegiate level in any sport, you were exempted from this test. One year, all the boys in our class went and enrolled ourselves for selection to the hockey team and ALL got selected. This, in spite of the fact that more than half us had never held a hockey stick in our lives, but we got in because there were only about 14 boys who appeared for selection. Next year it was basketball. Believe it or not, on the first day, we discovered that two of the "first five" on the court did not know that in basketball you are not supposed to run holding the ball!!! Be that as it may, this loophole in the rules let us sail through the physical education exam.
A generation later, not much seems to have changed in our outlook towards practical learning. Here is something that makes the irony stark. My daughter Vallarie is currently in USA as a cultural exchange student (in XIth std.) through AFS. Her Physics exam is something which a lot of our teachers and education policy makers can learn from. Her teacher based the entire final exam on the various rides in the nearby amusement park ! So she had to figure out the principles of centrifugal forces, circular motion, gravitational acceleration, etc. that she had learnt in the theory class and apply them to the way the rides moved and THEN give her answers. Thank you Hopkinton High School, Contoocook, NH, USA and in particular Mr. Welch, for giving my daughter this insight. She might not pursue Physics later in her life, but I am sure she will never forget the nuances of high school physics.
I would say my daughter is fortunate (in addition to being talented) that she got a chance to study in US for an year. What about millions of children in India who mug up answers to pass their exams?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Waiter, there is something in my soup.....

Mistakes in English spelling appearing on signboards and such places are a continuous source of entertainment to all. There is even a website, that is wholly dedicated to just this. Menu cards are a great source of such gaffes and there are some words that are spelled wrong more often than right. (Schezwan is an apt example - there must be at least 20 different spellings of this word existing in various Chinese food joints across the country). But here is a completely new and original one I saw the other day in a resort and just couldn't resist the temptation of capturing it in my camera.
With the elections around the corner, is this a way of the cook expressing his resentment towards the honourable men and women who are supposed to run our country? It's a moot question whether anybody would really be ready to partake of this delicacy. Ministers beware.....

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

And now we all wait......

I began this blog by writing about a short film (One Square) that was made by three of my friends. Swati, Prasad and Swapnil have done it again. Their new short film, 'Kya aam aadmi surakshit hai' has been shortlisted in the 3rd ICE film festival. It was screened today morning at City Pride, Kothrud. The joy of seeing one's creation on the big screen was writ large on their faces. I could share all the excitement as I also played a little part in the making of the film. After a month of hectic running around, shooting, post-production, editing and endless long nights of working, the film is now in the hands of viewers. It feels like we have just come out of a major exam. And now, we are also awaiting the results - today evening - 7 to 9 pm. I myself find it difficult to suppress the excitement.....
Something about the three of them and this film. After the shooting was over, they found that a HUGE portion the footage had got damaged and there was no way they could have completed the film with whatever was left. Refusing to give up, they decided to shoot it all over again. And their perseverance shows in the quality of the film. Salaam !!!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The winds of change

We recently conducted a program for one functional team from this organization, lets call them XYZ. Now this XYZ is being acquired by a larger organization (lets call them ABC). These are my impressions from the program. When I say 'we' conducted the program, I mean my company, High Places.

'The future has a way of arriving unannounced' - George Will

The Head of this Division formally opened the program by saying that “Life is what happens to us when we are busy planning other things.” There could have been no better way to start the program than this. XYZ is on the threshold of a big change, probably the biggest it has faced in its path of growth and expansion. It could well be the last change it will face, as it will soon merge with ABC. (Interestingly, more than seven years ago, the erstwhile Director of XYZ had to give a press release stating that "we have no plans for a merger with ABC or anyone else, its only market rumours”.) Seven years and one merger later, it is no more 'market rumours'. XYZ now squarely faces the crossroads of corporate growth. Further, the change has come upon them rather rapidly. The merger was announced in February and the formalities towards the merger have already started taking place since April, 2008.
The program was initially planned as a team-building event coupled with celebration of a good year gone by. Later the flavour of 'managing change' was added to it.
Henry David Thoreau has said “things do not change, we change.” The stark reality naturally follows, that you really cannot manage change. It will happen inexorably at its own pace. The only part you can manage is yourself. As another wise man has said, "you can't alter the wind, but you can definitely adjust your sails".
Given the limited time at hand, we planned to devote the first half-day event to team-building. The activity used a Scrabble board and multiple options of doing various activities, which give each team a chance to maximize their points. It is a complicated game that requires quick thinking, time management, resource allocation and goal-orientation. Majority of the participants used the time available to enjoy themselves (and did it to the hilt!). As a result, some teams got so busy with the merrymaking that they forgot the overall objective of the activity. The activity ended with a short but terse debrief that brought to surface the aspects of getting caught with micro-management and ignoring the larger picture. In other words, missing the trees for the woods.
This was followed by the activity that made the participants draw their conclusions on basis of highly ambiguous data. This sobered many a participant. The inability to admit that 'I am not sure, cant say' to oneself and others was too stark to be ignored. It also highlighted the need to be open about one's doubts and assumptions. The realization that someone else might know more than I do was a bitter pill to swallow to some. Given the nature of work in their function, this was not in the least surprising.
As spirits flowed freely and the dance floor came alive in the evening, it helped lighten the mood, but only just so. The undercurrent of a tinge of sadness was more than palpable. (People did say 'cheers to the last get-together of this team.')

The second day was devoted to the more pressing matter of the impending change and people's response to it. The first activity was 'Roman Catapult – Design Transfer Version'. The teams were asked to design a 'machine' out of the given resources. Half way through the project, they were asked to exchange their design with another team. The spirit of celebration pervaded this activity too, but to a lesser extent than the previous afternoon. In fact, three out of four teams took it very seriously. The change that came at the half way point threw many of the plans out of gear. It was interesting to note during the debriefing how teams had responded to the change differently. The team that was doing rather well (according to themselves) in the first half found it difficult to accept change. On the contrary, the team that was floundering in the woods during the first half eagerly looked forward to it, hoping that it will give them success after 25 minutes of frustration. This clearly reflects the overall sentiment accompanying the merger and change. XYZ has been doing very well in business and has grown from a modest beginning over the last few years. Naturally, one would resist giving up something that one has nurtured so carefully and painstakingly over years.
The next activity saw the whole team blindfolded, getting thrown in the metaphorical deep end. There was complete lack of coherence, leadership and focus; and the ambiguity of the situation simply paralysed most of the individuals. The debriefing touched upon the points related to the inevitability of change. The message was loud and clear – you can either be a silent passenger who gets swept off by the forces of change, or you can be proactive and actually participate in the change. 'Be the change that you want to be'. And in this process, it won't help to be half-hearted. As an old American proverb reminds us, “It doesn't work to leap a twenty-foot chasm in two ten-foot jumps.”

The second half of the day saw an open house session, where people articulated their perceptions about XYZ and ABC. It was interesting that they came up with a long list of points that they thought were the cultural strengths of XYZ. When it came to talking about ABC, they could think of only system-related strengths. While they tried to defend this collated data by saying that they knew very little about the culture of ABC, but this defense was rather insipid. It is more than amply clear that the greatest concerns that people carried were not about the systems and procedures in ABC that they will have to master very soon, but the kind of work culture that they would have to be a part of in the coming days and. Once again, the fact that change is inevitable and that people will have to gear up for the days to come was in sharp focus. The group would do well to learn from Anais Nin, the famous French journalist who once said, “There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” The session ended with a dialogue about how people develop their individual perceptions about the world around them and how differences in perceptions can lead to friction.
The final activity 'Form a Company' illustrated the need to share information and resources for achieving a larger common goal.
In retrospect, I can think of three areas of concern that people carry before and during any major change. These are not entirely my thoughts, of course. I have learned a great deal about this from my mentor, Dr. Zahid Gangjee. a well known OD practitioner who has helped many organizations find a way ahead through the dark forests of uncertainty and change.

1. Fear of losing the relevance of their current knowledge
2. Fear of losing their salience and importance after the change

3. Fear of not adjusting to a new set of values

The 1st two are comparatively easy to resolve. Any upright manager will soon find that the knowledge gained in the past does not really go waste in spite of changes happening around. The realization dawns when they begin to differentiate between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge can get stale when it is not applied; it turns into wisdom when applied at the right time. The second area of concern is also not an unsurmountable task. At the risk of sounding slightly dismissive, I would say that if the person deserves it, the importance will come to him anyway and anywhere. In case of a corporate acquisition, the question is really about how people perceive it, whether they see the larger pie or not, whether they see it as a threat or as an opportunity. Its the 3rd area of fear that can become the proverbial monkey on the back. I have seen enough managers complain (or actually quit) after a change giving completely flimsy reasons for quitting. "I had a cabin that had a lovely view of the sea. Now my cabin faces the sales department." The real reason is the person could not adjust to the new set of values that the organization wants to follow.
The wheels of change are in motion, and I am waiting with bated breath to see how many people catch the upward rise of the wheel's rear end to get on top, and how many get frozen and allow themselves to be crushed under the descent of the front end. The 10th card in a Tarot deck is the 'Wheel of Fortune' It occupies the exact middle position in the 'Fool's Journey', thereby reminding us that any change is not final, it is just another milestone in a long journey.

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." - Unknown quote, sometimes attributed to Charles Darwin.