Sunday, August 30, 2009

Fast food tales

Fast food means different things to different people. While today's generation may sink under the onslaught of french fries under the Golden Arches of McD, to most of us, it means something totally diametrically opposite, philosophically speaking, that is.

Fasting, or "keeping fasts", is an integral part of our epicurean life, in my state (Mahrashtra). There are rules on what you can and cannot eat on "fast days". There are people who fast on certain days of the week, because of that days association with a certain deity . Then there are some who fast on certain days, like the fourth day of the Indian calendar(moon based) and eat dinner only after moon-rise. There are some folks who fast on certain special festival days, and prior to conducting certain religious rituals.

And then, there are certain fasts , that unmarried women and girls do, every year, on designated days, to acquire excellent husbands. Though customs vary throughout the country, the custom of girls fasting to ensure a good husband is practiced countrywide.
I have always thought that single chaps undertaking similar simultaneous fasts would enhance the quality of a marriage overall (besides giving the mothers a break from cooking), but have met with pitiful looks , from, surprisingly, older women.

Actually, the food that is consumed during fasts in Maharashtra is delicious. It is not unknown for families to cook both fasting and non fasting food , and have the non-fasting types make a grand meal of both. Sabudana Khichadi ( made from soaked tapioca globules, crushed coriander, coconut, groundnuts, chillies, potato pieces, etc), is an eternal favourite. Potato cooked in a particular style with lots of cumin is another. Grated Yam is also used in another dish. Certain grains and veggies are taboo. Milk, fruits, yogurt , buttermilk, are preferred.

The whole idea of fasting was to restrain your mind from giving in to worldly enticements, and develop discipline , besides giving your stomach a rest. It was not unknown for people to follow a lifelong pattern of fasting on certain days, because of some promise made to a deity, or the fulfillment of a wish.

As long as anyone could remember, she always fasted on Mondays. Monday was associated with Lord Shiva. No one ever remembered "fasting food" being cooked in the house on these days. She always believed that folks today parodied the original idea of fasting, and the original idea was more about control than eating. Although household help always existed, her fasting day saw her personally sweep and mop the entire room, in one corner of which was her House of Gods; she would personally make the flower garlands from the jasmines, and when she emerged after her worship ritual , the room would have the sort of aura and smell you associate with inner sanctums of temples.

She would sit with her family at lunch, and partake of a cup of milk and a banana and sometimes a couple of pieces of dates. When her children were younger, they often wished she would make Sabudana Khichadi. But she frowned upon it as a fasting food, although it was often made as an evening or breakfast item for her family otherwise. Dinner would be a proper normal meal, with the rest of the family.

There were several associations one had with Lord Shiva, whose typical depiction always involved a snake around his neck.

On a trip in the mountains when her children were little, the family was enjoying a particular waterfall, resting on the flowing slopes, while the older son was busy with his friends in the naturally formed water pool, diving in and pulling things from the ground. He had just got in hand a strange weed he pulled, and was holding it out and calling to his folks, when she shouted at him and asked him not to move and stand still, for heaven's sake .

She had been resting , amidst the cascading water, with her eyes closed, and simply woke up to see a water snake coiled around her son's ankle, after he yanked out the weed. (Obedient fellow, that he was, he stood still, and the snake quietly uncoiled and slithered away in the muddy waters. ). She always thought that there was something Shiva inspired about awakening at that time to safeguard her child.

As she grew older, it became more and more difficult to wait for dinner with the family which was often late. And so , her daughter would cook an early dinner for her, and urge her to eat early .

The other option was to give up a lifetime of fasting on Mondays.

Well into her eighties, beset with a few old age problems, her children actually convinced her about giving up these fasts. She reluctantly agreed, more out of consideration for the trouble she would cause the family if she fell sick, than out of belief in the move. The first Monday she tried this, she had an uncomfortable stomach ache. She took this as a signal that the move was wrong, and she continued the usual Monday fasts after that.

Sometimes even God agrees.

She had just returned from visiting her sons in the US for 6 months, and was staying for a few days with her daughter, when one Sunday evening , after a hectic day with the grand kids, she started feeling uneasy, collapsed and was rushed to the ICCU. The trauma of the tubes ensued, and she lay, science aiding her every physical function, dedicated doctors watching every sign. She miraculously regained consciousness 2 hours later, but the tubes remained for another twenty four hours and more , so that she could gradually start relying on her own systems.

In the meanwhile her children and other relatives rushed to her. Tuesday morning , saw her lying down , tubeless, but tired, but in complete control of all her systems, physical and mental. When her doctor niece came to ask what she could get her, she clamoured for a decent cup of tea, and then asked what day it was.

That was Tuesday morning. Her last.

But here she was, smiling, holding out and clutching her daughter's hand, saying, "Oh, Good ! I was even able to do my fast this Monday !"

Sometimes, guess even the Gods fall in line....

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Education ? Learning ?

Twenty five years ago, she worked in what is today called IT. Except there was lots of I and T was just happening. Huge cumbersome lumbering mainframes were getting loaded on to trucks and going, possibly to meet their maker, and workplaces suddenly started looking airy and "with-it" with the PC decor and associated smart furniture.

The task assigned to her had to do with computerising library functions, and when the first PC's were delivered, everyone waited for the engineer to land up and unpack the stuff. He did. And then he stuck some probes into the electric mains, shook his head, raised his eyebrows, and said the electrical situation was unsatisfactory. There was unacceptable difference of voltage between earth and neutral, they'd have to get a proper earthing done, and there would be no installing of machines till then.

She was basically at a non-academic junior level, and getting an earthing involved writing an application to the erstwhile Head. He convened a meeting of a committee whose actual purpose was to sanction budgets in hundreds of thousands for books. She was asked to attend. An inadvertent seating at the same level as the committee, resulted in someone clearing their throat. She was asked to sit a row behind.

The "experts " deliberated . They would write an earthing request to the concerned superintendent engineer. A day later the erstwhile Head walked into her computer room with the engineer, both shaking their heads; albeit for different reasons.

"This involves a serious bit of deep digging outside the window, where a copper plate will be fitted into the hole. We don't have the manpower, ", said the Engineer, displaying one of his facetious smiles. The erstwhile Head, no technical expert, nodded.

Crestfallen. Then she had an idea.

"How many man days do we need ? Can we ask for student volunteers and reward them with extra book quota for a semester ?" she asked . And was rewarded with a look by the Head that said "Know they place" , and a smirk by the Engineer , and they left.

Another committee meeting. This time she knew her place. And from back there, she informed them about the developments.

"The committee will make its displeasure known ", she was told.

And that, was that.

She was simply asking for infrastructure. For the workplace. For their benefit. It wasn't as if she was going to secretly benefit from the earthing. She wouldn't be able to steal and take it home. And she seethed with anger at this total disregard for work facilities. And so she cribbed to all and sundry and anyone who was willing to hear, and soon ended up writing a letter to a high level academic in the field, whose word officially counted, asking to clarify the logic behind this stupefying attitude of the Institute.

The next day, people in suits accompanied by the errant Engineer came to examine the soil outside. Mind you, none was a soil expert. They walked around a rectangular area, fingers were pointed at places, quite possibly at people, maybe even at her, and the group went off.

A few days later she went to meet the senior academic. To find out if things were getting anywhere. They were. She returned back to the library to see a tall bare chested sinewy person, making markings in the soil, and mobilising for a decent digging morning. That evening , he stood wiping his honest sweat, as the Engineer's people installed the copper plate and connected wires to complete the earthing. The gutless Engineer sent his flunkies to oversee. The Head subsequently eyed her as he would a potentially dangerous entity, capable of causing trouble.

The machines finally did get installed, and functioned. So did she.

And this happened in a place where , per square foot of soil, you probably had more educational qualifications , than anywhere else in the country. Looked like education was more about cornering resources and power, and less about empowering and learning. It was all about exulting in the status, and demeaning those with less of it.

Recently she saw a story about OLPC. (One Laptop Per Child project). They had the same problem in their village. And the entire village, including the ladies and the headman, joined in the digging, even offering prayers and flowers before the electrician installed the earthing.

Children chipped in carrying mud around. Someone made tea for everyone. Some just stood around like anyone would, when some important event was unfolding in your family. The average level of education in the village probably goes out of range on the negative side , in comparison with the aforementioned Institute.

But maybe they actually know what education is meant to be.

Its not about making applications in triplicate and fighting about which chairs to sit on. Its not even about being able to write euphemistically deadly letters. Its not at all about doing IT and programming at fancy institutes. Its certainly not about preening in hierarchies. And lastly, its not even about withholding selfishly, what you learn.

Actually, Einstien, (
Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. 1879-1955) had the correct idea when he said :

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

How true.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Nothing Giga about it.....

One way or the other, its all about the top. Or tops.

First they had the desktop. All that bending over table tops and staring up at screens gave way to the age of laptops. You sat with this thing on your lap, and while you convinced yourself that you were changing the destiny of the nation with whatever work you were doing, your poor tired thigh muscles would get an automatic heat wrap. In a fantastic inadvertent display reminiscent of old style gurus imparting knowledge to their disciples while conducting classes under trees , people in suits starting sitting with wi-fi laptops under trees , on benches, spread out on the lawn, and sometimes, actually in classrooms. By and by , I hear that something called palmtop made an appearance. Now of course, people have cell phones with Internet, and it has almost become a "fingertop", and of course, the desperate need to read your email, (as you travel in a crowded bus, 6 people at a helpless tilt across your shoulder, Julio Iglesias soundlessly hitting your ears, and torrential rain outside trickling in through the slit near your feet), cannot be denied.

The education minister of Maharashtra, recently made a startling announcement. All class 9 students (18.00.000) , across the state would be getting a free laptop. And it is a sorry comment on the integrity of the government, when the first thought that comes to mind on hearing this announcement, has to do with wondering, which industrial house is doing a deal with the ruling party, which manufacturer is about to get the windfall order, and how come a government that doesn't have money to provide the Mumbai Police with adequate facilities, municipal schools with repairs, school and college teachers with timely salaries , and so on, suddenly finds itself awash in funds.

Just like that. Like no one was asking or agitating for it. You never saw any debates on television or newspapers about this. No one formed human chains and stood in the searing midday sun with banners saying , "Give us this day our daily email", or whatever. And the choice of class 9 was puzzling. Most class nine students today, spend almost all their time going for special tuitions in subjects, slogging for tests in school, travelling to school in what resembles an obstacle race . That is, when they are not busy playing games on their cell phones, talking to some real and other surreptitious folks, sending and forwarding entertaining messages with double meanings, taking pictures of unknown interesting folks on their camera phones, posting on social networking sites, and listening to FM radio on the side. They are stuffed up to there, with physical sciences, biological sciences, algebra, geometry, 3 different languages, most of it learned by rote. The minister says that making the family "computer literate" was another side benefit.

I wish the powers that be clarify what prompted this largesse. And whether computer literacy is all about zipping through MSWord, Powerpoint, and surfing the Internet.

And if at all someone has studied how little children learn, and how to tickle their active minds into a questioning learning mode, using a laptop.

And how this has happened in a small hamlet (not big enough to be a village, 20 houses, 200 people) called Khairat, near Mumbai, thanks to the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project. Nothing Giga about it. These are small educational laptops, with certain bells and whistles, and a one room elementary school, and a single enthusiastic teacher. The cost is about 100-150$, and these are distributed through a worldwide project under the guidance of Prof Nicholas Negroponte and Prof Calestous Juma of The Harvard Kennedy School. Its not just teaching, but ensuring that the parents feel motivated to send the children to school, and arranging to bring those who have to walk 6 kilometres to do so. Its about igniting the light of discovery in the minds of the little ones, who go home to a dark house at night, because electricity has not reached them. And getting them to enjoy their learning so that they yearn for more, because it is fun.

It's all about parents feeling interested enough to take time off from their daily earning activities in the fields, and coming to watch their children learn, and discuss how they could help, with the teacher. It's about a child wanting to learn more. And doing it in a way that jells well without disturbing the lifestyle of the family.

Learning about the Sun as energy, and how it empowers your laptop, actually convinces those who have been worshipping the Sun all along, every morning, because your parents taught you that. Using a magical drawing program to write your Marathi alphabet, and do things to it. A recording facility that lets you hear your own voice, and wonder about it. And an inbuilt camera that allows you to take pictures, of the dog who sits on the schoolroom steps, as well as yourself singing . And sometimes the Internet shows you so many real pictures about festivals, sun, moon, rivers, great personalities, actors, songs , and so many interesting things. You can create virtual toys on the machine, and all you need is creativity. And so sometimes you create a toy cow based on Paru, your own household cow, and inadvertently give something called Barbie a run for her money.

An excellent report about this here..... A must read.

I hope and wish the minister reads this. And does something for the younger children . So that their learning is not a chore. So that it is fun. So that their young brains are excited, and the various learning mappings develop as they should by the age of 9.

At the end of the day, its all about Tops. Not Desks, Laps, or Palms.

But your own. Your Brain, up there at the Top.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Caste : Humanity ?

She lives in 1.5 rooms, the 0.5 being a kitchen.

Ever since her parents rescued her from an abusive tormented marriage in one of the internal rural areas, and brought her back to their own home, along with her 3 children, about 28 years ago, she has slogged at several household jobs, raising her children, trying to educate them as best as possible. Some years ago, a whole bunch of people who she worked for, chipped in and helped her raise a loan for buying the house she lives in now.

"House" is a euphemism, for a bunch of walls. But what she has made is a home.

Her 2 married sons, with wives , two grandsons, her daughter and she , live there. With a lot of understanding, consideration and concern for each other. A very difficult thing, when at the end of the day, there is someone always there a foot away from , whether playing, awake or sleeping. And privacy, is just that. A seven letter word.

She belongs to a community which is supposed to get special allowances in education and jobs. And for that she needs what is called a "caste certificate"****. Actually, she has one in her own name, but is now looking to get similar ones for her children and grandchildren.

The trouble is, she is still listed as married to the monster of a husband. Once she was away and back in her family's fold, no one thought in terms of a divorce or any legal recourse. Maybe it was a concern about being looked down upon by folks, maybe it was a need to keep the children's father very much in their scheme of things; who knew if one of the children would want to look him up ?

The application for the caste certificate lists her as married, with a name for a husband. The children's application asks for the caste certificate of their father to be presented. The certificate of the mother who gave birth to and nurtured these children through extreme hardships and difficult times, is not acceptable.

The husband, unconcerned , is almost an invalid now, thanks to his excessive drinking, and his own house is run by a live in lady, a pseudo wife, if you will. If at all he has a certificate, then this is the lady who knows where it is. And no one wants to tangle with her. Besides, it possible that her own children , father unknown, have possibly used it to get ahead in their own world.

The question is, why should a lady, who is the biological mother of these kids, and the head of her own household for the last 28 years, have to show the caste certificate , if it exists, of a more or less defunct husband , instead of her own , in order that the kids acquire their own certificates ? The application form asks that the caste certificate of a father, uncle, cousin, grandfather etc, may be shown as proof. The caste certificate issuing office refuses to accept the mothers caste certificate.

Using some basic logic, I asked her to submit court affidavits stating her life circumstances, with statements from , say 5-6 people who knew her, like her neighbors and /or people she has been working with, indicating that hers is a female-head-of-household situation, and that her caste certificate be considered enough to grant the same to her children.

Not acceptable.

Then I heard that the State government has now decided to do away with individual caste certificates and sensibly issue family caste certificates, which will be useful to the entire family unit. This has caused great concern amongst those who stand to make a lot of bribe money, withholding the caste certificates from people, as the number of applications will now reduce.

While this doesn't appear to have been implemented yet, and could just be a populist announcement in view of the impending legislative elections in the state, the lady is in a quandary .

Strangely enough, there are other entities such as the SNDT Womens University , and the National Institute of Open Schooling , that insist on the mothers name along side the fathers, on all diploma and degree certificates they issue. (It most communities in my state , the middle name of a person is the father's first name. If the person is married, then the middle name is the husbands first name. So Michelle Obama would have been Mrs Michelle Barrack Obama in India. ). And one applauds the initiative shown, in this grossly patriarchal society.

There is no dearth of people advising her to pay someone a hefty sum to get it , possibly in spurious ways. There are avaricious lawyers, offering to get things done for outlandish prices. Known to us, there are monetarily prosperous people who have obtained these certificates by such methods, simply because they bear a certain valid caste name, and a certificate guarantees them a jump to the front of the queue, as a specially granted facility, and priority admissions in educational institutions etc.

She wants her grandson to get properly educated. Her own children struggled through a traumatic childhood and tough monetary circumstances.

The caste certificate was meant to help people like her. At some point, she will give in to the system, and pay someone , to get it. Who in turn, will pay someone else , to not look in certain rows and columns of the application, and a put a quick signature somewhere.

One more person giving in to the system, possibly rotten to the core.

And so while we preen with the knowledge that our Head of state is a woman, the most powerful person behind the throne is a woman, our foreign secretary is a woman, and women shine bright amidst the stars in the corporate world, this lady, possibly equally capable in her own right, is at her wits end, running from pillar to post , trying to get advice on how best to handle this problem of getting the caste certificate for her kids....

Any advice or suggestions welcome.....

****A Caste Certificate is the proof of one’s belonging to a particular caste, especially in case one belongs to any of the ‘Scheduled Castes’, as specified in the Indian Constitution. The Government felt that the Scheduled Castes and Tribes need special encouragement and opportunities to progress at the same pace as the rest of the citizenry. As a result, as part of the Indian system of Protective Discrimination, there exist certain special privileges granted to this category of citizens, such as reservation of seats in the Legislatures and in the Government Service, waiving off a part or the whole of the fees for admission to schools and colleges, quotas in educational institutions, relaxation of upper age limits for applying to certain jobs, etc. To be able to avail these privileges, a citizen belonging to a Scheduled Caste must be in possession of a valid Caste Certificate.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Flu questions

One's entry back in the homeland is greeted with a line of doctors with masks seated behind the immigration desks. You are directed to go up and present a form you filled up in the plane, about the countries you visited and whether you have certain symptoms.

Its a 5 second meeting, and you go off to collect your baggage, in a chaotic area populated by some in masks, many without, a maze of carts and bags, and a few helpful staff , asking if you wanted help, with swinging your bags of the circulating belt and loading the cart, all , for a price.

With the amount of news trickling in about the closure of markets, schools, colleges , here and there, and rumors about masks disappearing from shops (to enhance illegal profit), thanks to a government making them available only on prescription, I expected some kind of heat sensing probes that someone would track the passengers with, as they came in. I half expected stuff to beep and maybe weed out the "hotter" ones for further investigations.

None observed.

Amidst the massive lethargic flow of traffic , stranded next to a rush hour bus for several minutes, one wonders at the level of protection available to a few masked types, all standees in the bus aisle, about 50 people crushed in an area meant for 22. Like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces have curves, and they fit in tight against each other. Most without masks. Just worried about their own square foot of floor and the possibility of reaching the exit door in time. The kind of crowd that would have made even the H1N1 virus stare.

Come the monsoon, every year, folks in Mumbai go through a viral scare. Chest experts give interviews and advice in newspapers, statistics are flashed around, water contamination is highlighted, students miss more school than usual. There is talk of water borne diseases and mosquito diseases. Typhoid cholera, leptospirosis, malaria, faliciparum malaria, and various gastroenteric upsets do the rounds. Incidences of these recede with the monsoon, the city cools a bit , and the world carries on.

Just a few questions.

Given our population, our crowds, our levels of city sanitation thanks to homelessness of the worst type, and the little pleasures afforded by vices like tobacco, Tuberculosis (TB) in India currently kills 2 people every 3 minutes. It is spread through the air by a person suffering from TB. A single patient can infect 10 or more people in a year. Every year, 1.8 million persons develop the disease, of which about 800,000 are infectious; and, until recently, 370,000 died of it annually —1,000 every day.

Given that this disease, to mention just one, is so rampant, one never hears of a similar hype regarding it. The The Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme (RNTCP) based on WHO recommendations, continues to administer, treat, followup and research all aspects of the disease.

No one, including foreign visitors to the worst slum areas in Mumbai wears masks and stuff on an ongoing basis. Our trains carrying several times the number of people they are supposed to, are used everyday by thousands of people of all ages, during epidemics, monsoons, and other crowded occasions. You can actually get lost in a major vegetable market near railway stations at rush hour.

Why is no fuss made about this ? Why are Swine flu fear scenarios being enacted by keeping schools, colleges, and markets closed , in a city like Pune ? Does it behove the Health minister to micromanage and advise schools to stop their morning assemblies and sports (but keep the school classes going), and forget that the same students will sit together in classrooms, which are not exactly sterile ? While we hear of path labs being overburdened by the onslaught of cases that land up more because of fear than actual symptoms, is any thought being given to more staff being sanctioned for the already overburdened government path labs who are testing patients for the disease ?

While Tamiflu has now attained star status, thanks to unscrupulous types hiking the unofficial price consequent to demand outstripping supply, is a strict vigil being maintained on the quality assurance aspect of the medicine , which often appears in rural markets in its counterfeit avatar , to the detriment of a patient?

There is talk of a Swine Flu vaccine . There is also a recent report from Britain about the likelihood of of people using this vaccine developing the Guillaine Barre Syndrome , a paralysing disease . We read about the National Institute of Virology getting this vaccine ready by October 2009 etc . Has the Guillaine Barre aspect of it been verified ?

How come, in a so called pandemic of major proportions, we hear a Health Minister making populist general statements, but there is no authoritative scholarly medical official statement made, by those who are experts, at, say, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, (hitherto known for disagreements between its erstwhile Head and the former Health Minister) ?

Rumors abound about certain worldly powerful folks on the Boards of pharmaceuticals making a killing in this pandemic ; like they did during the Bird flu/Avian flu earlier . Are there any connections here?

What do we believe ? What do we discard ?

In the meanwhile, it seems that the most sensible thing to do is to avoid contact with a "T" area on the face (across the eyes, and down the nose), with anybody, and wash your hands and feet , thoroughly when you come in from outside.

Colder temperatures supposedly make these virii thrive. We are experiencing a hot non-existent monsoon this year , with drought conditions, with cities having to declare water cuts for the populations. Sanitary conditions in say Mumbai , remain unchanged. Contrast this with the drastic changes effected in Surat, Gujarat, after Plague was supposed to have made an appearance a few years ago. The entire face of Surat changed.

In the meanwhile, Mumbai's always-optimistic entrepreneurs continue to make profits in innovative ways.

A friend who travels daily to work, by suburban train to South Mumbai, mentioned seeing hawkers selling cloth masks in trains.

And you could even bargain .....

Friday, August 14, 2009

The case of the desolate dollars.....

It was the last leg of the trip from Hong Kong to Mumbai. One had been up for 36 hours straight, partly packing, chatting with folks you were about to bid goodbye to, and partly due to the lack of decent leg space in the plane, thanks to the economy of class.

The 8 hour stopover wasn't much of a help, as most of it was spent searching and looking for resting lounges and stuff folks said was there, but not obvious to us. We even landed suddenly at a train station in the middle of all this, and promptly returned back , as we didn't want to be out somewhere in the city suddenly, without the immigration formalities etc.

Back on the flight, it also didn't help, that every time you tried to nod off, the prevailing tumultuous atmospheric conditions, would make the captain issue seat belt signs, and the stewardesses would start off on a bunch of sing song announcements in English.Hindi, and Chinese.

Throughout the trip, to and fro , some of the stewardesses were wearing these masks across their mouth and nose.

Just before our flight was boarding a gentleman rushed up to the desk asking about masks, and asked where to get them. Then he rushed back to the shops, and returned, the last man to board, with an entire box of , maybe, 500 masks. Which had me calculating desperately.

I was already carrying a few masks , in single digits, with me, from the US, just to have them on hand. The airport here in Hong Kong, had quoted 5 HK $'s a mask, and the Chinese lady offered me 3 for 10 HK $'s, in her best , possibly, Mumbai bargaining style. In my even better Mumbai bargaining style, I refused.

Suddenly , at 34,000 feet in the sky, something just shattered my onset of sleep for the nth time. There were two grown men, 4 rows ahead of me, glaring at each other, eye to eye. The masks chap had got up, opened the overhead bin, and managed to drop down some longish, bubble wrapped item, belonging the guy sitting behind.

Accusations, mutterings , higher decibel levels, and one of the guys shouted "Get lost" to the other at which point I was shattered into wakefulness instantly.

Suddenly a guy stood up. Looked at the masks chap, eye to eye .

"What did you say ? You need to actually pay for the careless damage. Get lost yourself ."

And they glared.

The masks fellow started down at the other. Took out his wallet. Grabbed a bunch of notes , dollar bills. And disdainfully threw them at the other fellow.

" You want money ? 100 dollars ? Is that it ? Take this. And this."

Green paper wistfully floating down.

Now a supporter of the aggrieved fellow gets up.

"You think you can just throw money ? And get away with it ? You think thats what I want ? Take this yourself. " And he threw wads of bills at the other.

Hundreds of desolate, dollars floating to the floor, 32,000 feet up in the air.

Suddenly a guy from the window side gets up. Kind of stands between both.

Brokering a peace.

"Please. Be seated. You guys need to cool it. There has to be a better way. I saw it all. It was a mistake. But nothing done on purpose. "

They both talk at the same time with this guy. Deliberately ignoring and running down each other. It doesn't help that one of them said something in Hindi which the other did not understand. There are touches of regionalism in this, trying to spice the whole thing up. Lots of soliloquies and muttering on both sides. The peacemaker manages the fight. The stewardess comes by, and gives them a piece of her mind, in a fairly polite school marm manner.

Maybe its the swine flu scare. Maybe the masks chap hails from a place where the swine flu has maximum fatalities. Then there is the obsession of the other about this expensive thing which has fallen, which should have been kept someplace else in the first place.

Maybe, like me, everyone is very tired, and tempers fray easily.

But that money throwing bothers me. The amount of money , converted into local currency, flung around in those few minutes, would have been so useful to someone I know, who has to work four households, to pay her sons' tuition fees, as she is a wife , left to fend on her own, by a drunkard husband.

And here, high up in the air, their noses at similar elevations, drunk on the thickness of their wallets and thinness of their regional skins, with super inflated egos, the two fellows had just shown the young ones in the plane, a fine example of how NOT to behave.

I almost got up. To interfere and tell them off. But fate conspired otherwise. The crush of pillows, blankets, seat belts, reading material and purses , not to mention an unfortunate central enclosed seat, made it impossible.

I should have collected the thrown money and passed a hat around, with extra compulsory contributions from the warring parties. It would have made an excellent contribution to the emergency medical fund for the children at the Orphanage close to where I stay. They use that when special life saving expensive meds and procedures are required for the young children.

Like my late mother used to always say, money is not always about quantity. It has the most value when it has quality.

And these guys were just completely clueless.

I guess some folks never learn.

My plane lands, untypically, in the evening. Most international flights land here at unearthly hours like 3 am. Traffic isn't bad then.

I am in the thick of the traffic, jammed, on the road back home. What takes 20 minutes at 3 am, took me 75 minutes, at 7 pm.

The anger is slowly dissipating. Maybe through the familiar potholes, as we avoid swerving aggressive 3 wheelers.

There is a sense of relief.


And despite the chaos, strangely, peace.

I am home.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Another view.....

"Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better. " ...(Peter Drucker)

Actually, I didnt realize I had proved the Rt Honorable Mr Peter Drucker of "management" fame wrong.

Our blogger meeting in the Bay Area was actually supremely well organized, more so, as the participating folks had not set eyes on each other before. The younger one drove up on the dot, at the appointed time; we reached the dinner venue just before the tables filled up and the waiting list started filling up, and we left and returned home at what would universally be considered a decent approved time. Both wishing it could have been a longer meeting....

One needs to be grateful for these delightful opportunities to meet fellow bloggers. Actually , with a slight modification, even the Atharva Veda could be seen to agree

"In the villages and in the wilderness, in the assembly-halls, that are upon the earth; in the gatherings, and in the meetings, (possibly in the Bay Area), may we hold forth agreeably to thee.....

I wrote my impressions earlier. I just came across the post by the younger one....

Enjoy her post....

(This post written at HongKong Airport , on my way back home. Several folks like me standing and shuffling from foot to foot as they check out stuff on the free terminals provided. There is an 8 hour wait for me before my flight to Mumbai. . And I just saw how "login" looks in Chinese . Or is it Mandarin ? .....:-)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Weddings : E and O

Back in the days when Net still meant a badminton net, and we did not know what a buffet dinner was, it was the done thing for entire families to be invited to weddings. "Mr and Mrs (only)" type invitations did not imply nice things about the hosts, and if you had guests at home at that time, you were expected to bring your guests along. (There was a typical phrase in the invitation card to that effect).

The reception consisted of the bride and groom dressed in their gilt-edged finest, sitting in two throne like decorative chairs with carvings that would make Buckingham Palace squirm with jealousy. All this happened on a stage , on to which folks climbed, to wish the couple, give them presents, get photographed, after which they descended and watched the proceedings from the sitting area which had chairs set up. Alongside the bride and the groom sat some "responsible" folks from either side, whose job was to collect the envelopes/gifts/presents, kind of nonchalantly passed to them by the couple, and document it, and store the stuff . Inventory management in action.

The information on the possible value of these gifts and things was often relayed to the mother of the bride/groom, through assorted mobile aunts and gestures like nodding, shaking the head and raising the eyebrows. When the guest came to bid the hosts goodbye and tell them what a wonderful reception it was, someone would emerge with a return gift, and the hosts would smilingly present it to the guest, with much questioning by the guest on the necessity of it all , etc etc.

One of the interesting outcomes of this was that the couple soon became the proud owners of 8 lemon sets, and 15 pressure cookers. None of these were returnable, as you never knew from where they were bought, and such discussions about purchases and money were simply not held with the donors.

Money was never discussed though value was predominant in the minds.

Why does all this spring to mind ?

Because, in these times-of-recycled-electrons, hitherto called the Internet, weddings have taken on an E-flavour. Particularly, in the US of A.

The minute a wedding is fixed, besides the bride and groom, the venue, the timings, the directions to the venue, special group rates at hotels for the wedding, and several other things, loom on the horizon.

So we have the couple's wedding website. A Main page which has some impressive background graphics, with some really nice casual pictures of the bride and groom , not necessarily bedecked . It tells the date, location and time of the wedding ceremony, with pictures of the venue. There is the inevitable Google Map nonchalantly sitting on one side, and people click that to find out how much time it will take them to reach there from wherever.

There is a another web section with snippets of how the couple met, where "the question" was popped , and so on.

Then there is something called a section pertaining to gifts, basically telling about a "gift registry". Typical of a society which honors order, common logic, and citizens who follow rules, the couple go to shops and choose patterns of crockery, items of interest, sets of china or whatever, and register these against their name. They then inform their guests , either on their web page , or on their invitation card, where the registry has been done. Those interested in gifting things to the couple, then go to these places , sometimes even online, choose from the preselected items , and gift according to their own wishes,capacity to spend, and audacity of mind. While this avoids the perils of acquiring 34 vases and bowls in 15 different designs and sizes, the element of surprise , sometimes seems to be gone.....

Sometimes things take an innovative turn; some might term it blatantly opportunistic, others may admire the nifty thinking of the couple, but a recent wedding website had an additional section of gifts. Something like presenting envelopes of cash with the usage mentioned on the cover. Enabling all this are sites like Honeyfund , a Honeymoon Registry !

The couple can request people to gift funds for, things like, say, the airfare to Hawaii, divided into , maybe ten parts, so that ten people gifting that would enable your ticketing. Ten invited people could over a period of time , before the wedding, "buy" up the ten parts, by using their credit cards and or Paypal. The gifting of cash, in eminently giftable amounts, and varying degrees of largesse, can also include, paying for the couple's flights between Hawaiian islands, snorkeling adventures, daily cocktails, fancy candlelight dinners, ocean front lunches, sightseeing trips, visits to ship museums, and many other things.

In keeping with today's emphasis on things like corporate social responsibility, the sites that host these wedding websites , arrange with the vendors figuring on their gift registry, to donate a part of every purchase to a charity chosen by the couple; which could be something like UNICEF.

When Google Maps says that it will take you 47 minutes to reach the venue from point A, notice that it also mentions that in rush hour traffic it will be an hour an 10 minutes. The bride and groom do their "green" bit, by mentioning that parking is available and that "carpooling is encouraged". They even mention what type of food and seating arrangements will be in effect at the reception.

It seems to be customary to have sit down dinners at the reception with predecided seating arrangements, with a seating chart. There is a Master of ceremonies who orchestrates the events, as the immediate relatives of the bride and groom walk in, in a certain order, each announced to thunderous ovations and sometimes even whistles, from the seated folks. Cake cutting, the first dance of the groom with the bride. There are speeches and toasts by friends and relatives, all predecided. No extempore surprises. And the fun continues, as the tempo of the music increases, and the DJ starts spinning tracks that spell Hindi Film Music.

This particular wedding had the couples friends putting up a dance performance choreographed to the latest Hindi film hits, and this
suddenly seemed to inspire, many older folks (who would otherwise qualify as parents of immediately eligible brides and grooms) to take the floor and shake to "maujja hi maujja" and "shavaa, shavaa" , dressed in traditional paithanees and rich silks.

The slickness of it all , overwhelms.

Somehow, in all this smart e-fication , one harks back indulgently, to presumably imperfect, innocently serious, non standard, old ,frequently observed celebrations and memories, from one's culture, each unique in itself,

A major part of my mind revels in the very natural semichaotic situations that prevail in our native weddings. The free flowing of tears on the bride's mother's face as the Sanskrit wedding verses by the priests reach the last stanza , the mother of the groom trying hard not to overpreen with pride, an elderly aunt, watching and counting ,with a hawkeye, as the caterer's fellow hands out plates, to ensure he doesnt overbill you; the groom's elder sister moving around
holding a bunch of important keys tucked in at her waist amidst jingling silver stuff. A bunch of young kids, eyeing the throne like chairs on the stage, and slowly slipping on to them , legs too small to bend at the knees, grinning away in delight, as the bride and groom get up to take a refreshment break, after touching umpteen feet and overexercising the smile muscles. And someone's greataunt in her nineties, sitting, wrapped in a shawl, in the front row chairs, wearing antique heirloom jewellery, bending at the ear of another greataunt , telling how things were so different in "our time", and did she see the totally shocking outfit worn by so and so ?

Something tells me things will come full circle. We in India will slowly take to the e-wedding stuff. Those in the west, will look again in wonder at the o-wedding (where o could be "old" or "organic" :-)..).

But the honeymoon registry just may not work. In Mumbai, that is.

I am thinking of someone paying for the couple's trip to the airport, say, in a fancy limouzine. But before that someone will have to pay for filling those terrible potholes, and dug up ditches, possible flat tyres, and other down to earth things ....

System Design, anyone ?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

An Enchanted Evening

A cool night in the Bay Area.

Two bloggers planned to meet for dinner. One, a so-called "veteran" of blogger lunches. :-) ....The other was someone who was simply enchanted with the idea of blogging, and of course , meeting another fellow blogger.

The former, at the end of her sixth decade of life, visiting the Bay area from Mumbai to attend some family function. Several blog comments, and a little bit of sitemeter and feedjit research over a decent period of time had identified the younger one as someone who lived in this area. Initial tentative emails had resulted in plans to meet.

Chuckles over the phone, slipping into Marathi(the mother tongue for both of them) as folks from Mumbai often do, she promises to come by and pick the older one up. And myriad thoughts bubble over in both minds. Neither knows how the other looks. But both have a mental image of the other....

She drives up in an SUV, and slows down at the house. The older one waits at the curb. They meet. Go in to meet the older one's family, who are all totally entertained by this concept of these two meeting.

Introductions. Smiles. Excitement. And the two leave. Both are vegetarians, and they go to a place that reminds the younger one of home, an the older one of her younger days .

An Idli Dosa place. South Indian Cuisine. In the middle of the Bay Area. Totally packed on a weekday evening.

The two order and start chatting. The menu brings up so many familiar items. Rawa Masala Dosa, Medu Vadas, Sada Dosas, Sambar, 3 types of chutney. You could be in any Udupi place in Mumbai.

All it needed is a fellow with a towel flung over a shoulder, lungi hitched up, scribbling something on a writing pad, and shouting something over his shoulder towards the kitchen window informing them about the order, while simultaneously gesturing to the "water " chap to land up forthwith and replenish the water glasses.

But this is Silicon valley, and most of the patrons actually "live" most of the time at Yahoo, Google, Oracle, TCS, Infy and the like, so the idli -dosa fellows have " IT-fied " and advanced in the world. The waiter scribbles on some kind of electronic pad, and the order is directly gulped into the innards of the system, probably informing the kitchen as well as the cashier.....

The food arrives with a speed that would warm the hearts of diehard Udupi food lovers. And the two get talking. About their families. The younger one's work. How her husband couldnt join them, he was held up in a meeting. They talk about common bloggers they "know". Folks whose sites they have lurked on. It amazing how they have the same take on some bloggers who they both enjoy. They talk about the younger one's school, and the older one is fairly familiar with that area of Mumbai. The younger one is also familiar with the place the older one comes from. Twelve thousand miles away from home, two women of disparate generations, meeting each other with only a previously imagined persona of the other in mind, suddenly find common names to talk about.

The delicious repast over, they leave. Interestingly, the bill is carried by them, to the counter near the sweets display and paid at the cashiers counter; something we have always done in the high turn-around Udipi places in Mumbai.

A nice touch, that.

There is a lurking feeling of home as they both leave. The older one is delighted at how well the younger one has settled into her life here; she is just a few years older than her own daughter. The younger one is possibly amused at the attitudes and stories she hears from someone old enough to be her mother. They walk out into the darkened cool evening, towards her car, which seems to wink through the headlights as they approach, as she unlocks it remotely. They both want a keepsake, and they ask a lady , in English, if she could click a photograph on the older one's camera. Appearances are deceptive and they think she speaks Hindi, another Indian language. She smiles, and gladly obliges. Then she shows us the picture, and asks in Marathi, "Is that OK ?" ..... and there are amused delighted smiles all around.

It is a short drive back and they are at the older one's place. It has been a lovely evening. The older one has brought something for the younger one. Mango Panha concentrate. A little gift of some Indian stuff, made at home, with American ingredients (applesauce), for the busy young woman; something a mother would possibly make and keep for a daughter to enjoy later on at leisure, something which would not require too much work to prepare.

She comes out of the car to bid the older one goodbye. There are hugs and promises to meet up in Mumbai when the younger one comes again on a visit. Somewhere the eyes well up a bit. Gulp. They wave goodbye. And she is gone.

There is a mild breeze , The branches of the tree above, move in symphony with breeze. The older one looks up and peering through the trees, it feels like the moon is shaking its head from side to side, indulgently exasperated at the way these bloggers from Mumbai keep having these meets..... and so it keeps going on its path, to its assigned duty over Mumbai , twelve hours later.

Back at home, everyone is excited about the visit. No one else blogs. And the older one sems to be making so many wonderful friends,

Like the younger one.

An Enchanted evening, that.