Tuesday, December 09, 2008

As the dust settles

All this has been said already. Plus, it's over 2000 words long. If you have something better to do, don't bother reading. I've split the story up under different headings. There's no real flow; you can skip an entire section without missing much.

Reactions to 26/11 in the US

Unless you've been swimming with penguins in Antarctica or have been tied up and blindfolded under the deck of a Somali ship, you probably are neck-deep in reports of the Mumbai attacks. My colleagues, whose knowledge about India spans Gandhi and curry, started asking me about Mumbai everyday. (One of them even doubted the accuracy of my information- "You said Bombay, CNN said Mumbai", he alleged.) The more curious ones with bitten nails and scratched scalps asked me how to pronounce Lashkar-e-Toiba, and went on to try pronouncing it when I coached them with the patience of a Feynman in an LKG classroom. Their best attempt- Lashkar rhymed with Nascar, e was too short to screw-up, and Toiba sounded like Toshiba with the sh silent. It was part amusing, part cute. I could spend all day listening to their renditions of Lashkar-e-Toiba. Still, I really appreciate their concern, and the discussions we've had on terrorism are a pleasant alternative to the debates on TV. They have a simple solution to the menace of terror- "Stop negotiatin', just kill 'em or bomb 'em or some-um."

Aside: A word on some-um: Most Americans don't say 'something'; they either stop at 'some', or follow 'some' with a gulp, like they're swallowing something that flew in when they said 'some'- the net result sounds like some-um. I was so taken up by this, that I’ve started saying it too when I talk to them.*


If there was one thing you wouldn't want to be during the entire Mumbai episode, it must be a politician. The media aimed its mics and the public aimed its Gangaajal at every politician who spoke up. While RR Patil chose the wrong forum to rattle off a DDLJ-style dialogue (the bade bade sheheron mein one), we had Shivraj Patil, the chairman of IPL**, who displayed admirable bravado while cocooned in a nest of commandoes ("They can't scare us"), Manmohan Singh who could've done better with a few hundred cups of coffee (and stop being a Deve Gowda with eyes open), Vilasrao Deshmukh who will never again invite his son's friend to accompany him, and Milind Deora who admitted he was ashamed of being a politican. There were other serious and, in an evil sense, hilarious blunders by our netas. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi lashed out at women wearing lipstick and powder for insulting politicians in western sabhyata, and Achuthanandan showed his contempt for canines when late Major Unnikrishnan's father drove him out complete with his mundu, soda glasses, and sniffer dogs. Poor Achu doesn't know that he went to Major’s house only after the dogs did. The other Patil, the one on Raisina Hill, stayed away from the media and quietly went to visit the victims. Advani, the new moderate in Indian politics condemned the attacks, promised not to make it a poll issue, and went campaigning the next day. As promised, he didn't bring up the Mumbai attacks. All he said was "Afzal Guru agar Anand Mohan hota ya Anand Singh hota to ab tak phaansi pe chadh chuka hota." It's like calling you a sick bastard after promising not to call you stupid.

There was something nostalgic about the resignations of Shivraj Patil, Deshmukh, and RR Patil. It took me back to early 2004, when Sonia Gandhi transported antaraatma from clunky Bollywood into mainstream political vocabulary. Some try to disguise it as 'inner voice' or 'aatma ki aawaaz', but don't be mistaken- it's all from the same reservoir of collective conscience Sonia inaugurated that famous day.

Sena Sena you said it to me

While Mumbai was under siege, two of its greatest self-proclaimed culture chowkidars were conspicuous by their absence. While Udhav Thackeray was probably in some non-descript village marketing his Shiv vada pav, Raj, chairman of the other IPL***, was possibly scouting for FMIs (Foreign Marathi Investors) to invest in Raj Kachorikar. Of course, the VP of MNS, between furtive mouthfuls of Congress's kanda poha, said that Mumbai was too crowded to catch the terrorists. Will somebody please inform him Qasab didn't huddle four Biharis around him and shoot between their legs? As one blogger said, no one expected Raj to pick up a gun and storm the Taj, but he could have helped with relief efforts outside- it would have even made sense as a political stunt.

Pick a dialogue

If you put all our politicians in separate rooms and ask them their favourite Hindi movie dialogue, 90% will say, “Chand khudgarz neta ke kaaran hamaari poori kaum badnaam hoti hai”. The public today is so disenchanted with the political fraternity that the very word politics, as opposed to a few corrupt practitioners of the art, is the rogue we have gagged, draped with a blanket, and beaten to pulp. This is unhealthy- politics is not dispensable, some politicians are, and the sooner our angry junta realizes this, the better. Also, I don’t know why Advani promised to not use terror as a poll issue (though, as I mentioned earlier, he broke it). If your party has to come to power, you have to not only show what you’re good at but also criticize what the opposition is bad at; even though you might have been equally bad at it in the past. The problem with BJP is not that it raised the issue of terror; the problem is that it just said “Say no to terror. Vote for BJP.” Even a rough draft of how it would tackle terror if voted in, would’ve helped immensely. Terror can be handled by a good government. If I am a voter, I will be extremely interested in knowing how a party plans to deal with terror, not just that it will deal with it. In any case, it must be an integral part of all political campaigns.

India’s Skewrty Forces

This is both the average North Indian’s pronunciation of Security Forces, and the nature of distribution of the said Forces. While Ismail, Qasab, and co. had to fight brave but ill-equipped and ill-numbered policemen, Mayawati was snoring under the vigil of the 350 policemen in charge of keeping mosquitoes and assailants away from her. While she might have an excuse being the CM of India’s most lawless state, what about Amar Singh? How many of you know he was upgraded to Z+ status in exchange for his support to the UPA government during the trust vote tamasha? The UPA traded NSG commandoes for votes; the worst case of corruption at the highest level. Read this article for more about the skew in our security forces.

India's 9/11

We love comparing. No sooner did debutant Zaheer Khan york a Kenyan tail-ender than comparisons with Wasim Akram begin. The moment trailers of Refugee were released, Abhishek Bachchan's eyes, smile, and jaw structure were pitted against Amitabh's. I'm sure the day Preity Zinta has a daughter, people will run behind her dimples with Vernier calipers. The Mumbai saga too had its share of match the followings. India's 9/11- somebody (I assume it's the media. Please correct me.) coined this, popularised it, and started drawing comparisons to the 9/11 attacks. People vehemently denied this link, and some reluctantly supported it, without realizing how utterly pointless the whole exercise was. Will Archimedes run out naked from his bathtub in heaven? Will Osama surrender in awe? Will the US finance the repairs to the Taj and Trident? Will Mohamed Atta be brought back to life and sentenced to death?

Tu Tu Main Main

While getting celebs to play panelist-panelist in primetime debates is a sure shot TRP pump, uninformed panelists can make real asses of themselves. A case in point- in a recent debate, Simi Garewal said, "Go to the Four Seasons and look down from the top floor at the slums around you. Do you know what flags you will see? Not the Congress', not the BJP's, not the Shiv Sena's. Pakistan! Pakistani flags fly high!" with the kind of certainty Heisenberg never had. She later apologised when she was informed that those were actually flags of Islam; but the damage was done. I fail to understand why it is so important to know celebrities' views on a topic like this- I mean why would you make Ratna Pathak Shah (Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na), Kunal Kohli (Fanaa, Hum Tum), Luke Kenny (Rob in Rock On), and Simi Garewal debate on national television, that too in the same show? The media was also very concerned when Shahrukh Khan did not give his opinion on the subject. When he finally decided to open up, NDTV and IBN were in raptures. His opinion (video), when it was finally aired, was the most realistic and appropriate coming from a public figure. He said he kept mum because he was scared that something he said might exacerbate an already tense and sensitive situation. Simple and elegant- his views were not essential during the turmoil, and he was sensitive enough to realize that. Hats off, SRK (Zyaada udna mat. I think you totally suck in Rab Ne...trailers).

Saare sabooton ko madde nazar rakhte hue ...

ye electorate Shiela Dikshit ko apna CM chunti hai. BJP really hoped the Mumbai attacks would dent Congress's prospects in the assembly elections, but not only did the latter retain Delhi, it also wrested Rajasthan from Raje. It was good to see the BJP graciously accepting defeat and choosing to introspect rather than to ransack the IIMS****. While the elections announced the arrival of the BSP on the big stage, an ex- saffronian had to eat humble rajma chawal. Uma Bharti vowed to quit active politics if the BJP retained MP, so it's now time to see if her vow was a vow or a bow-wow. The biggest surprise though, was Delhi. Sheila Dikshit has shielded her seat marvelously, amid the mayhem of raped tourists and adventurous remarks (especially considering her name almost scrambles to Shit Ka Shield).

Our political saviour

First, he uttered it in the US. It swept across the Atlantic, whispered over the Sahara, gained speed over the Persian Gulf, and finally hit Mumbai 3 days after Qasab and his comrades did. If it had reached a week earlier it would have been echoed back to where it came from, but the timing was perfect. Yes, Indians too want change now. And we're not talking about policies this time; we're talking people. We were tolerant till as recently as November 24th when Mulayam Singh distributed kadak sau rupay notes to everybody listening to his campaign speech. But now, we're going the BCCI way- get the young blood in. Though Krantiveer-II would have Nana Patekar smashing nails (video) and mixing old and young blood to prove us wrong, it's unlikely the demand for younger netas is going to die down soon. We have a few star kids in politics- Milind Deora, Navin Jindal, Sachin Pilot, Supriya Sule, Priyanka Gandhi, and of course, Rahul Gandhi. Of all these, Rahul seems to be taking the longest strides and he's doing it the hard way. From what I read and see on NDTV, I think he has his heart in the right place, and is sending out the right signals to the youth. But no; the media will not let him develop into a leader. They will coin him India's poitical saviour and raise the bar before he even stands on his feet. The article, as you might have seen, just asks people who should be in power. The headline is a really cheap trick -with or without the question mark- and puts undue pressure on a promising novice, much like (as I said earlier about comparisons) Ambati Rayudu was hailed the next Sachin even before he played his first Ranji match.

Beating history projects

I know, I know; this post is longer than ICSE History projects and I don't even have erotic paintings and sculptures for relief. There's so much more I want to say, but I realize all good things must come to an end, and all bad things must be brought to one, depending on whether you're nodding your head in agreement or jerking it in inertia after reading this. Most of what I want to say is already being said- stuff about diplomacy with Pakistan, bombing terrorist camps, going to war, etc.; so I have very little incentive to write. For now, please keep the comments flowing :)

*A note to my friends in India- if you ever hear me swallow a syllable, lacerate my tongue when you meet me (or say main tumhaari zabaan kheench doonga in Sarfarosh style. See video near 3:20), or send me spam mail if you don't.

**Ineffective Politicians’ League

***Intimidating Politicians’ League

****Infinite Inventory for Mud Slingers

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Andar Ki Baat

News piece 1: A BBC radio presenter is sacked for making racist remarks on the phone when off-duty.

News piece 2: Homosexuality is declared a criminal offence in India, and weeks later Dostana is released.

Thought: I continue to be terrified of eunuchs

Observation: Matrimonials still maintain separate sections for Tamil brahmins and Telugu brahmins.

Realization: My blog is no different

News pieces 1 and 2, though different in every possible way, made me think along the same lines. When I tried to articulate my thoughts, Thought, Observation, and Realization struck. Let me try to explain.

Can any of us deny the fact that two truths exist- one inside us or inside a group of people, and the other in an environment that demands a certain extent of political correctness? Take for example the issue of gays. I will admit, and so will many of you reading this post, that I(you) have cracked jokes that would really hurt gay men/lesbian women if they heard it. Yet when we see debates about homosexual marriages, we generally advocate the right to choose one's partner and the right to freely express one's sexual orientation and all that blah. We were not wrong when we cracked the jokes, because we were, after all, just kidding. We are also not wrong in springing to the defence of homosexuals' rights. If any of our lewd jokes were to be leaked to the media, we would immediately be condemned as parochial or even inhuman. We even realize this when we crack these jokes. But we still continue to indulge in base humour because NDTV is unlikely to spy outside our homes waiting for an anti-gay soundbite. We are, in a sense, being hypocrites, but our inherent self-justice mechanism kicks in and tells us that it's okay as long as it's not discovered.

When we are kids, our mummy-daddy teach us not to say the wrong things at the wrong place and wrong time, and teach us where to draw the line. In most cases, the line is fairly clear. I would never call an Aaj Tak correspondent and share a gay or lesbian joke. That would be a recipe for primetime slander a.k.a Vishesh in Aaj Tak parlance.

Sometimes, though, the line is not so clear. Sam Mason, the BBC employee, will vouch for this. When she called to book a cab for her daughter, she asked the operator to not send an Asian driver as "A guy with a turban is going to freak her out". In the same breath she also insisted she wasn't racist, and went on to make a needless remark about the operator's intelligence. The operator leaked the phone call to the media, BBC was embarrassed, and duly fired the employee. Was the woman wrong in avoiding a sardar driver? Was the operator wrong in leaking it to the media? Was BBC wrong in firing their employee? Taken in isolation, all three parties were justified in their actions. If Sam Mason realized that the phone call had the potential to be leaked, she would have never said what she did. She might have had a bad experience with a sardar driver earlier, and by asking the operator to not send a sardar driver, she was not painting an entire community with one brush, but merely trying to ensure her daughter's safety. She saw no bravado or virtue in hiding her inhibitions. She also knew that calling a sardar driver was not going to earn her the Nobel Peace Prize. If British taxi drivers started coming to India and, for some reason, made us uncomfortable, would we be very wrong in telling the cab operator "Yaar ek desi driver bhejna"? The moment Sam Mason's call was netted by the media, what could have at worst been called imprudent, was immediately dubbed racist (and ironically painted the entire British community as anti-sardar!). BBC, being the globally recognized organization that it is, really had no choice. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the woman, because it is something every single one of us have said (about different groups of people), albeit in fora less accessible to the prying media.

Colour-discrimination & caste-discrimination are high on the list no-nos. As a society, we are expected to accommodate people irrespective of caste, creed, religion, or sex (remember seeing this in every second line of your Civics textbook?). In a group where we cannot pick our noses at will, we will take the moral Mt. Everest and advocate equal opportunities for all, while two hours earlier we would have sent our matrimonial to The Hindu saying "Seeking beautiful, fair, Koundinya girl" under the section of Tamil Brahmins. We sincerely mean it when we talk about not discriminating on the basis of c-c-r-s, but we also have personal preferences that might be biased towards or against a particular group of people. Both these attitudes can co-exist; what is good for society might not be good for us, and we'd rather be biased and be happy, than be over-righteous and apprehensive. (Terrorists are different- they consider their personal preferences and ideologies more important than civilized society's and do what it takes to assert them.)This is exactly what Sam Mason did, but her personal preference became a public statement, and was thus put in a context entirely different from what was intended.

One case in which each one of us is a little less shameless in expressing our inhibitions is regarding eunuchs. Though we might never say it on camera, we might admit even in a large gathering that eunuchs make us uncomfortable because of their provocative methods of asking for money. We are terrified and disgusted when they break into marriage ceremonies or when they catch us in trains. Still, we rejoice their emancipation when one of them is elected to the assembly, even though we would think a million times before employing one as, say, a domestic help in our house. We're able to express our discomfiture with eunuchs more freely because the majority agrees with, and thus in a sense vindicates, us.

Finally, my blog. I am, by nature, politically correct. I can admit as much. All the filmmakers, actors, and politicians I've mercilessly thrashed in my blog wouldn't think so. Filmmakers would be terribly offended if they read my reviews, but if I knew they're going to read them, I wouldn't write them at all, fearing being sued for defamation. Even if I did write reviews, they would be moderate or mildly critical. You might say I don't have the spine to speak my mind; I just say the cause is not worth falling in trouble for. So the acerbic me and the moderate me function together, and know when to take charge and when to step back.

This curious coexistence of two truths is a marvelous ambassador for the human mind. While opinions and inhibitions are not primal instincts like sex, they are pretty rigid unless logic forces them to change. Society compels us to mask them sometimes, and we are so successful in the art of masking that we might side with the masked mind even when nobody's watching. But in that small, wondrous, near mystical, portion of our brain called the subconscious, our true opinions are pickled and preserved by cranial juices, ready to spring into action whenever the conscious mind gives it the all-clear.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Notes on America

America- The Great Polluter

Everybody casually says that all Americans drive cars, and statistically, they're almost vindicated. There are more than 270 million cars on the roads, and the population is just 300 million. The only reason the cities are not as polluted as Indian cities is that the former are a lot less dense than the latter. And the US being a huge country, driving distances are large, which means an insane amount of gasoline is burnt every day. To compound the problem, the absence of public transport in most cities means you have twenty cars plying instead of one bus. What is also stunning is the careless use of plastic bags. Unlike in India, where the supermarket wallah will stuff all your saamaan into two or three big plastic bags, the counter waalis here put only 1 or 2 items in a bag, and on average, you come home with 8-10 plastic bags. I've already accumulated more plastic bags in 3 months than mom has in 27 years!

Why do people shop like there's no tomorrow?

For the simple reason that there is no tomorrow. If you finish your gallon of water on Wednesday, it means you have to go to Walmart, park your car, walk all the way to the relevant aisle, and stand in line for anything between 10 minutes and an hour- all for a gallon of water! So people take a deep breath on weekends, and ransack the racks, pick up more than their immediate needs warrant; just to escape the ordeal of shopping on weekdays. I'm not attempting to generalize here- it's just something I've been observing. I'm sorely missing kirana stores.

Why Indians don't have lane discipline

You have to hand it to the Americans. The road network and quality is excellent. You can drive at 120 kmph without being on steroids. The signals on the roads are very helpful, and people new to the city can also navigate fairly easily. The facilities for interstate travel are excellent- there are small exits from the main interstate roads, that have gas stations, supermarkets, and food outlets. But even if India manages to build good quality, wide roads, it's impossible to inculcate lane discipline along the lines of the US or Europe. The only reason is the number of 2-wheelers on Indian roads. Out of a 90-page driving rule book here, there were only 2 pages devoted to motorcycles- and reading it made me realize that if the roads here had half as many motorcycles as India does, all hell would break loose. The lack of lane discipline in India has less to do with Indians' 'driving sense' and more to do with the nature of roads and kind of vehicles driven.

Dignity of labour

One of the favourite tea-time discussions in urban India is how people in the US work as waiters or taxi drivers without any stigma, and how it would be unthinkable to have your son work part time in the neighbourhood dhaba in India (though, thanks to CCD, the idea is catching on). This difference is not because of the famous 'dignity of labour' argument. It's a more blatant and in-your-face reason. The US is a consumption-driven economy and private saving is very less, unlike India which has a much higher savings rate. Parents are understandably keen to see their children fend for themselves when they are old enough. Also, parents can't spend on their kids' indulgences beyond a certain point, which is why you see teenagers working in restaurants. And they are paid well, and tipped very well (15% of the bill). They use the money they earn either to support or to indulge themselves, unlike in India where parents take care of you till you actually start taking care of yourself, and not just till you're physically capable of doing so. Once the trend catches on in India, I'm sure parents won't mind their children earning that extra buck.

Why American parents are reluctant to spend on their kids' college education

Another famous Indians-are-better discussion revolves around American parents not sponsoring their kids' college education. There is a very valid reason for this. College education is offensively expensive here. It generally exceeds the annual income of the family. It's very much like the MBA colleges in India, whose fees too generally exceeds the average middle class annual income. Just like Indian students take loans and pay them off after their MBA, students here do it after high school. It's a combination of unaffordable fees, low savings, and a general encouragement to earn your own living as early as possible.

A word on college education. The fact that many high school students in the US do not go to college might surprise many Indians. In India, the concept of 'at least a degree' is so deeply entrenched that it may seem unthinkable that you can lead a comfortable and fulfilling life without a degree, unless you're the heir to a business or you're Sachin Tendulkar. This notion leads many parents to force a B.Tech down their kids' throats. In the US, vocational courses and diplomas (stuff you find printed on dirty yellow paper and stuck inside RTC buses) are pretty popular, which means you can focus your energies on acquiring a particular skill, and live off that skill for the rest of your life. If you want to build on that skill or move on from it, you can always join college at the age of 30; which brings me to another must-reform area for India. The idea of finishing all your education in one go and then settling down into grihasta, vanaprastha, and sanyasa sounds perfect, but makes our education system extremely inflexible. My mentor in office started his career by building swimming pools, then became a welder, and when he got more curious about welding, joined college at the age of 28 to learn metallurgy. He's now a very successful materials engineer. This is when I resent the decision of the IITs to admit students till only one year after their Class 12. College education is not the norm here, and the citizens are better off for it. By opening up colleges to students of all ages, and encouraging vocational education, we can not only give our adults the opportunity to enhance their learning, but also give a cushion of comfort to 17 year-olds who can't afford / are not interested in college. There are constraints like the limited number of college seats, but it's not a problem that cannot be tackled.

Why don't American households have maid servants?

The biggest dread for any bachelor / single girl moving to the US is the prospect of having to cook, clean, and dispose trash themselves without having recourse to a servant. The main reason for this is, whether a person works as a servant or a CEO, they need a car (how else will your servant commute?) and they have to pay insurance premiums for their car, their home, their health, their life, and everything else imaginable. Can you, or four people together, afford to pay for these 'basic necessities'? The minimum amount you need to earn to live comfortably is so high that it rules out odd jobs like istriwala, naukrani, or kachrawala. The absence of cheap public transport is a handicap the American government must take more seriously than it is. If there was no public transport in India, can you imagine your maid driving a Maruti 800 to your house every day?

Sue, sue, everywhere

I mentioned insurance in the previous paragraph. One reason people are able to save so little here is insurance. Apart from insuring their homes, vehicles, and self, people insure their property like laptops, appliances, etc. People have to get health insurance because healthcare is insanely expensive (a routine consultation can cost more than $100). Healthcare costs are high because doctors have to insure themselves against their patients' wrath. I heard doctors can end up paying $100,000 per year towards malpractice insurance (an insurance that covers the doctor's damages if a patient decides to sue them). Obviously, they have to charge obnoxious consultation fees to recover this. Apart from this, America is, in general, a very sue-happy country- and this is not my observation, it's what almost all my colleagues told me. A woman, who in a moment of extreme negligence spilled coffee on herself thereby burning her skin, sued McDonald's for not informing her that the coffee was hot. In another case, Heinz was sued for $180,000 for not filling a ketchup bottle completely. The long and short of it is, people and corporations spend thousands and millions of dollars respectively in insuring against possible damages. As a result, the real winners in this tamasha are lawyers and insurance companies.

Scarcity of diversity

You can get an idea about how diverse the country is when the people of the North and South differentiate themselves by the way they pronounce the word 'ask'. When everybody in your country speaks the same language, celebrates the same festivals, and eats more or less the same food (though some diversity exists), you are missing the diversity only a country like India has. There's another trivial point I'd nonetheless like to mention. Throughout the country, addresses have the same format: Building no., Street name, Apartment no., City, State- Zip Code. Though there's not much scope for diversity here, addresses in India are a lot more romantic because you'll have a Near Indira Park, or Opposite Gandhi Statue, or Behind Purana Masjid in some addresses. Then you have the Nagars, Baghs, Galis, Vihars, Estates, Bazaars, Puris, and other pointers to the locality you live in. You might live in Sector C, or Pocket A, or Plot no.27, depending on the whims of the developer. When all addresses are in the format 1234, XYZ Street, Apt. 123, New Orleans, LA- 12345, it can get boring.

Being a politician

I might be jumping the gun, sidestepping various issues, and being naive when I say that being a politician in the US is a lot easier than being one in India, but I can't help feeling that way. It's so much easier to reach out to the public here and keep a tab on their pulse. 99% of the American households watch television. Therefore, publicity campaigns, presidential debates, smear campaigns, etc. have such tremendous penetration that you can address the entire electorate in an 8 p.m. show. Also, most of the people here speak the same language, i.e. the President can crack a joke about, say, football, and 300 million people will laugh; he can praise Jesus and not raise eyebrows. This is a huge advantage, because it eliminates the effects of his place of birth and his upbringing. Contrast this to India where you have to travel by foot to address lakhs of people, communicate in a language that a majority can understand but you might not be comfortable with, and know what's music and what's Greek to the public's ears.

The breadth of issues to be tackled by politicians here is minuscule in comparison to what our netas have to handle. Here, there a few very broad issues, and very few local ones, which is the exact opposite of what we see in India. The President here has to mainly tackle public healthcare, defence, external affairs, national debt, education, and the environment- and each citizen understands the implication of each. In contrast, our Prime Minister has to deal with all this, and in addition, tackle coalition politics, communalism, agriculture, casteism, poverty, malnutrition, cross-border tension, infrastructure woes, cottage industries, unemployment, 'inclusive growth', and a lot lot more. If you step back and think about the variety and depth of issues in India, you'll realize how difficult it is to be a good politician. When the economy is doing fine, they have to deal with farmer suicides; when agriculture is doing ok, they have to worry about shortage of power; when industries are flourishing, they have to worry about giving schedule castes their due; when everything is ok, they have NGOs clamouring for the protection of tigers; when they too are quiet, homosexual groups are out on the streets. Hats off to the PM for having the sheer courage to face up to all this! When Manmohan Singh talks about the credit crisis, less than 1/10th of the population knows what he's talking about; when he discusses tax cuts, only half the country understands; when he talks about nuclear power, less than 5% can figure out what he's saying; in other words, the number of issues he has to address in order to ensure there's something for everyone, is much much more than what his American counterpart does.

In Conclusion

I do not intend to compare India and the US per se, but these being the only two countries I've stayed in for reasonable lengths of time, comparisons are inevitable. I've made these observations and assertions from an eye that is only 3 months old in the US, so I may be inaccurate or blatantly wrong in many places. I invite my readers to contest / correct any of my points in the comments' section.

Friday, October 24, 2008

100 days

As I complete 100 days in this country, I sit and reflect on the number of times I've sat and reflected in the last 3-and-a-half months. Most of my sit-and-reflect sessions ended in two-line posts that never saw the light of day. There were so many things I wanted to write about, that I ended up writing nothing. A couple of posts did go beyond two lines -they actually grossed more than 1000 words each- but were directionless and seemed to never end. It's very likely this post will meet the same fate. If we were still in the 70s or the Bollywood of the Barjatyas, I'd have a thousand dustbins filled with crumpled pages. It's in times like these that I stand up and applaud all authors and film-makers; all of them- including Bazmee and TLV Prasad, for their sheer determination and will to take their ideas to completion. Both writing and film-making are notoriously difficult tasks, and successfully completing them are victories in themselves.

There's so much happening in the world these days that it's impossible to not have an opinion about at least some of the issues, and the fact that I seem to have an opinion about all of them is more a pain-in-the-brain than yay-I'm-up-to-date. My day isn't complete without visiting 3 websites- www.ndtv.com, www.ibnlive.com, and www.cricinfo.com. While Cricinfo is a joyous read -some of the best, most unadulterated, most unbiased cricket reports- NDTV and IBN are continuing to paint the world in whichever colour they want to. When I thus lay my brain open to the manipulative forces of NDTV and IBN, they spice, dice, dress, caress, drape, rape, arrest and molest it at will. So while my brain is bursting at its seams (damn! that's a tongue twister) with honest and unwanted opinions on everything from Lehman Brothers to Hindu fundamentalism to Anil Kumble, I'd rather not jump onto the bandwagon of second-hand reporters.

What news channels around the world will not tell you, and what you need to know if you ever plan to dine in my kitchen, is that a middle-aged cockroach was not-so-stealthily climbing up the kitchen cabinet and heading straight for whatever was putrefying on the counter. This is only the 2nd time I've been alone with a cockroach, with no physical support in the form of broom-wielding-grandma, slipper-wielding-mom, or HIT-wielding-dad, or moral support in the form of similarly paranoid hostelmates. The first time was also in this house, where 1 hour into a movie I realised I had company. But the need to exterminate this 2nd crawler was more urgent as failure to do so would lead to contamination of food, leading to the need to visit an American doctor, which implies going in with a bad stomach and coming out with a bad debt. I thought quickly and sentenced the creep to a violent death.

But before this incident, and since it, my kitchen has been a sporting witness to my deeds with the dishes (or kartoots with the kadhaais for the maligned North Indian community). From the highs of semiya payasam to the lows of pulikaachal; from the serendipitous pulao to the wrecked moong daal halwa; from the aroma of simmering spices to the stench of the capsicum that I forgot to put in the fridge; and from the ecstasy of making bhindi raita to the oh-shit of melting a plastic container in the process, my kitchen has experienced a gamut of emotions it could write a novel about if it wasn't just a lifeless kitchen. Technology has infiltrated my kitchen in a big way- apart from the regular stuff like a microwave, and a food processor, it is home to online cooking lessons by Ketaki, the latest being rotis and aloo parathas.

When co-expatriate Rajat told me in no uncertain terms that my passion for cooking would wane with time, I laughed it off like I was a dedicated homemaker for whom cooking was as much a routine as watching Bigg Boss is. But with time, the stock of vegetables in my fridge has reduced, and the stock of ready-to-eat parathas, tamarind rice, roti wraps, pizzas, and curries in the freezer has shot up. While in my first two months I emulated my mother by carefully picking tomatoes and bhindi, I've since been emulating the cult of the lazy bachelor whose world starts at the freezer and ends at the microwave. I still cook, but with less frequency and more passion than before. I can dedicate a whole post to my recipes, but I suggest you read it with a full stomach lest you be tempted to try some of them.

When I'm not busy cooking or eating the outcome of the activity, I play tennis and watch some of my favourite movies and Hindi sitcoms. We stopped playing tennis sometime back with a collective decision to grow fat. Let me preempt amma's enna-da-Akshay by saying that we've decided to take the court again. I spent my first 2 months in realising the American dream of living in a nice house and driving a nice car; it's now time to realise the American nightmare of a continuously bulging waistline- and it's all-round growth, so if you care to overlap snapshots of my waistline over time, you'll actually get concentric ovals. It's not as tough to gain weight here as it is in India; you just need to follow the following strict weekend regimen- sit all day in bed with a laptop on the lap, a bag of chips on the left, and a gallon of orange juice on the right. The size of the packet of chips and the gallon of juice (3.8 litres) will ensure you never need to budge from your place- not even for a refill. And given that there are no mosquitoes around in my house, I'm deprived of even the basic exercise I had in India.

It's not tough to find obese people in this part of the world. In fact you don't have to look very far. You look in any direction around you in your nearest Walmart (that's the only place you realise humans don't end at the chest), and you'll find a gigantic auntie or a humungous uncle moving their overflowing cart with enviable ease. And when I say obese, I don't mean Indian style obese people behind whom you can crouch and win hide-and-seek; I mean OBESE people who can substitute lead in nuclear reactors, who tie their shoe laces by trial-and-error. But the good thing is, they can walk around normally without having people stare at them (apart from the odd shameless ones like me), unlike in India where they would be potential Aaj Tak fodder.

I've come across two kinds of Indian strangers here. One kind consciously ignores you- It's almost like they're scared you're going to ask them for food, lodging, and a mug. The other kind starts chatting up immediately and makes you wonder about your father's trip to Kumbh Mela in 1987. But the most memorable Indian I've met thus far is a Gujju auntie in a subway outlet. While she goes about her business of fixing sandwiches with the enthusiasm of a corpse, she sports a wide grin from "What kind of cheej?" to "Salt and paper?" when she's fixing mine. Right from my first visit there she's been offering me free chips, free cookies, and free drinks, prompting me to rethink the now canonical adage about no free lunches. Just last week, I went in at 2 p.m. and saw nobody else at the counter. She took the opportunity for a casual chat, talking about her apartmaint, her husband's bijnes, her kajin's subway, how she manages to stay vegetarian while handling meat, her children in India, how she's yearning to go back to India, and finally asked if I was interested in a job in subway. Now where did that come from! When I politely turned down the offer, she offered me a job at a liquor store in California.

All said and done, I'm growing to like this place. The people are nice and it's fun to drive fast on good roads. My interactions, strictly non-technical, with my colleagues, and my general bad habit of thinking have given me an insight into the American mind, but I'll stack up my observations in my next post. Just one thing though- while we curse the Americans for writing dates as mm/dd/yyyy, it's not altogether crazy. Like us, they too write the date the way they say it. We use dd/mm/yyyy because we're accustomed to saying 5th October, 2008, where as the Americans say October 5th, 2008. It's as simple as that; nothing non-conformist about it.

I'll sign off now then. This is actually not the end of the post; I've written a lot more, but it makes the post too long for even me to read. I'll post the next instalment soon.