Tuesday, November 29, 2005

SMS a, b or c

Driving back from office one evening, I tuned in to the FM channel. The DJ was doing his best to spice up the proceedings with his constant chatter and breezy banter and moderating an animated debate on a life-threatening issue that had far-reaching implications on the future of humanity, to wit, “Which of these causes most annoyance when you are eating; a) the camouflaged cardamom in the biriyani or b) the pungent pepper in the Pongal or c) the concealed clove in the laddu?

Listeners were asked to ‘SMS” their responses by keying in a, b or c as they felt appropriate and as their conscience would permit. The topic was too intellectual for me and, moreover, my own pet peeve is the cruel chilly in the uppuma; so I tuned out. But, well-informed sources told me later that the jury had adjudged the cardamom in the biriyani as the chief culprit, it having registered the maximum percentage of votes (48%)

There is something about the ‘SMS” that makes normally reticent people reach out for their mobile phone buttons and type away before you can say, “fastest fingers first”. People, who shy away from talking on the phone or even using the email, find in the “SMS” the right mix of convenience and anonymity and take to it instantly. Long-lost friends of mine who have never bothered to drop a card for decades, have mysteriously emerged from the shadows to send me ‘SMS” greetings on the most insignificant of festivals. Such is the appeal of the SMS that TV viewers respond with alacrity to the most inane of questions. For instance, when Dravid was batting with 38 runs to his credit, a question popped up on screen.” Will he reach his half-century? Please SMS a) he will b) he will not and c) can’t say”. About 1% of the viewers actually responded with the answer “c”. Dilip D’souza in this post wonders why anyone would want to take the trouble of sending a SMS just to convey that he had no opinion on the subject.

Perhaps no other medium enables you to get such instant feedback. If you are a movie director and want to know which scene the audience liked best, all you need to do is to ask them to SMS a, b, c or d depending on whether they liked a) the part where the heroine (dressed in Tight Trousers to accentuate her Thunder Thighs) swings her hips hypnotically and sings seductively b) the climax where the vengeful villain spits saliva on the hapless hero and vomits vitriolic venom, harassingly c) the melodrama of the matriarch meeting her maker movingly or d) the suggestive symbolism of the woodpecker pecking wood just when the hero stares at the heroine longingly.

(Editor’s note: As an aside,our apologies for the author’s adamant attitude and his insistence on being an alliterative alligator. It has its roots in True Tamil Tradition. Look at names like Murasoli Maran, Kalaignar Karunanidhi, Kavignar Kannadasan, Mellisai Mannar MSV, Isaignani Ilayaraja, etc. A Tamil politician or an actor without an alliterative adjunct to his name is practically walking around naked)

Back to the subject. The best thing about these dipstick surveys done through SMS is that the responders need to confine themselves to the choices available and which are explicitly spelt out. The conductor of the survey can take advantage of this feature of finite choices. Say, you are the boss and want to announce a measly 5% increment in pay for the employees. All you need to do is ask them to send you a SMS each, keying in a, b or c if they felt the pay hike should be 2%, 3% or 5% respectively. Like zombies, the unwary juniors will SMS “c” and you can grandly and without any qualms announce that, in response to the unanimous employee opinion, the management is pleased to grant a 5% pay hike.

I intend to put this medium to good use at home – such as in arriving at a family consensus on important questions like “Where do we eat tonight?”. When my wife and two daughters are glued to their book, phone and PC respectively and refuse to pay attention to me, I will send them an SMS and ask for a SMS-in-return, expressing their choice of a) Sangeetha or b) Little Italy or c) Cascade. We will go that restaurant that manages to garner the maximum votes. If each of the options gets one vote and there is a tie, I will let the wife and daughters play rock-paper-scissors to decide the winner.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Patna Olympics

(Dedicated to Lalu who has just fallen, shattering my dreams of India bagging some Olympic medals .Raj)

The Times of Bihar
Patna edition, May 15, 2016

The entire nation is, understandably, euphoric over the rich bounty of four gold medals that India has reaped at the recent Olympics. Thanks to some classified documents made available to The Times of Bihar, the gripping tale of how this unexpected success came about can now be narrated and the complete sequence of events that led to this success can be unfolded to the general public.

It all started in the year 2006, when the then President, Dr Abdul Kalam won the prestigious Samson Club award for sporting the “Longest Hair” amongst all Heads of Sovereign States. As was his habit, he immediately summoned the then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to make a Power Point presentation on his Vision 2020 and his pet dream that Indians should win more awards, particularly at the Olympics. When he was transiting to slide 24/328 and just warming to the theme, Manmohan threw up his hands in despair and agreed to constitute a task force under the able leadership of Lalu Prasad Yadav, to make the vision a reality.

Lalu who was tired of the bad press that he had been getting, quickly realized that this was his long-awaited opportunity to prove his detractors wrong and to provide clear evidence that he was not as stupid as he looked.

With his long years of political experience and finely-honed native instinct, Lalu quickly zeroed in on the critical dimensions that needed to be tackled, if India were to have any chance at the Olympic medals. First, home advantage had to be ensured and it was imperative that the Games should be held in India. Second, they needed to play to their own strengths, not that of their competitors. It was necessary to introduce such events that would give Indians a fair chance of success.

The first objective was achieved in a clinical manner. In April 2009, the International Olympic Committee met in their new headquarters in Shanghai, to finalise the venue for the 2016 Olympics. The shortlisted cities, Melbourne, Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur had just presented their respective merits in great detail, when a group of dhoti-clad, turban-headed, paan-chewing, bare-footed youngsters who betrayed traces of their Indian origin, stormed into the conference room. Brushing aside the Aussie, Dutch and Malaysian representatives, they gheraoed the IOC team and threatened to simultaneously expose their armpits and empty the contents of their mouths all over the place, if the IOC did not agree right there to award the Olympic Games to Patna in India. The fastidious Chairman of the IOC, a stickler for cleanliness, succumbed meekly to this combined threat of armpititis and paan-wash, capitulated without a fight and signed on the dotted line. Thus it was that the Olympic Games came to Patna.

The second objective - that of identifying India-favouring events - proved a bigger challenge even for the wily Lalu. It required the requisitioning of the services of people who possessed a broader knowledge of what constituted “quintessential Indian skills.”

It was well recognized that the Olympic motto of “Citius, Altius, Fortius” was too lop-sided in favour of Western or African athletes with their right mix of broad shoulders, strong biceps, well-developed femur muscles, huge hold-up capacity of the lungs, large diameter of the arteries which enabled rich blood supply, and conferred an unfair advantage on them. The Indians were anatomically-challenged in these respects and were not built for speed or height or length.

A highly literate eighth-standard-passed officer and trusted lieutenant of Lalu had in his possession a copy of the Guinness Book of Records purloined from a library. It occurred to him that he could spot the Indian references in the book and select those events where Indians had already made a mark. After getting the Guinness Book translated into Bihari, through the good offices of a tenth-standard-passed friend, he skipped the sections pertaining to space heroes, epic adventurers, circumnavigators, mountaineers, heroes of the deep, speed stars, stunt heroes, strongmen etc and proceeded to the section on “The Body”. Here he hit pay dirt and located the following entries:

1) Amar Bharti has kept his hand raised for 26 years as a gesture of devotion to the Hindu God Shiva.
2) Lotan Baba, an Indian sadhu rolled his body 4000 km, from Rattam to Jammu over eight months in 1994. He rolled an average of 10-12 km per day.
3) “Chutti” is the thickest three-dimensional make-up, unique to the South Indian Kathakali dance-theatre tradition. The make-up takes three hours to apply.
4) The longest fingernails are those of Shridhar Chillal of Pune, India. Measured to have a total length of 1.42 m.
5) Kalyan Ramji Sain of India began growing a moustache in 1976. In July 1998, it had a total span of 3.39 m.

This information was passed on to Lalu, who spat out his paan with a low guttural noise, conveying that he was pleased with the data. He ordered that these events be included in the Patna Olympics:

1) 5000m Floor-rolling
2) Nail-fencing, which required a duel using just the nails
3) Moustache-wrestling, the winner being the one who encircled the opponent with his moustache
4) Face make-up, requiring the demonstration of the thickest make-up in 3 hours.

The services of Amir Bharti of hand-raising fame would be utilized to hold the Olympic torch in his right hand, for the entire duration of the Olympics.

At long last, the day dawned. The Games was all set to commence. The mascot of the Games was Pandu, the paan-da. The official Olympic snack and drink were Ghutka paan and Matka tea respectively.

In his inaugural address, the President of India (who hailed from Kerala), comblimented the organizers and said he was simbly too habby to be part of the Olymbics. The Olympic torch was lit, handed over to Amar Bharti and the Games began.

The events went on expected lines and the Indians languished at the bottom of the pack, even behind the Paks, Bangs and Lanks. But, on the penultimate day, Lalu delivered.

In the floor-rolling event, Srinivas Venkata Parthasarathy of Andhra Pradesh won the race by a wide margin, putting his Tirupati experience to good use. The nail-fencing duel was won by Swami Gajamugananda of Haridwar in a nail-biting finish; the moustache-wrestling gold medal went to Buta Singh of Patiala, who literally had his opponent entwined and finally, in the face make-up contest, Sudhakar Nair of Trivandrum, painted his way to victory.

All the hard work, strategy and preparation had paid off and a Bharat Ratna award was conferred on Laloo. Encomiums were showered on him. One writer even waxed lyrical:

To Lalu, I dedicate this limerick
Saluting him for his Patna Olympic
Despite his disgusting paan
And his nauseating yawn
He silenced many a critic

If, for the first time, truth be told
It was quite a sight to behold
The nail-fencers and the floor-rollers
And the chuttis and the moustache-twirlers
Come home with the gold!
( This appeared as an article in Sulekha.com on Aug 5, 2005)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The birthday party

I just dropped my daughter off at a birthday party. Along the way, obeying my wife’s clear instructions, I picked up a ‘birthday present ‘ from the gift shop, had it wrapped in silver paper, and entrusted it to my daughter to hand over to the birthday girl. It was one of those cute little jewel boxes with musical chimes and cost me Rs, 250/ plus another Rs. 10/- for the special silver wrapper. The entire transaction was completed in 5 minutes.

Now, I am aware that a jewel box, however musical it is and however silvery the paper it is wrapped in, is an entirely useless thing for a ten-year-old to possess, but I suffered no pangs of guilt at having palmed off such a stupid gift on the unsuspecting kid. I have taken my kids to enough birthday parties to know that the recipient of the gift is not unduly concerned about what gift he or she receives. What matters is the ritual of getting a gift and the thrill of unwrapping it. To prove my theory, I intend to plant an empty box wrapped in silver paper as a birthday present, one of these days .I am certain that nobody will notice the difference. .

The parents of the birthday girl had invited 25 other kids to the party and would end up spending Rs. 5000/- on the pizzas, the birthday cake, the festoons and balloons and the return-gifts. If each of the invited kids brought a gift worth Rs. 200 (not everyone is as generous as I am), the total value of the gifts received would be Rs. 5000/-. So, as far as the parents are concerned, it would all square up, right? Wrong. The parents will be stuck with 25 different gifts of questionable or zero value – unless they can monetise the momentary thrill experienced by their kid while unwrapping the parcels – and would be down by Rs. 5000/-, being the expenditure on the cheesy pizzas, the balloons that were pumped with air only to be exploded the next second, and the colas that were consumed and burped away adding to the greenhouse effect.

Remember that each of these 26 kids gets invited to 25 birthday parties in a year and the parents of each of the kids need to spend Rs. 200/- on buying gifts for each of the parties. Simple back-of-the-envelope calculations will show that, to purchase birthday gifts in a year, the parents of all the 25 kids will spend a total of Rs. 1,25,000/-. Another Rs. 1,25,000/- will be spent on the pizzas, the colas and the balloons. A total of Rs. 2,50,000/- will thus be blown-up on “useless’ stuff.

Extrapolating this on a national scale, even if there are just one lakh and one kids in India involved in this birthday circuit, we are talking about an annual national turnover of Rs. 100 crores on jewel boxes with musical chimes (and similar items), junk food and gas-filled colas. This accounts for just one expenditure head- the birthday party. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other influences and marketing campaigns that exercise an irresistible pull on the kids and draw the parents into their fold. These must surely involve a few thousand crore rupees.

As adults, we are caught in myriad rituals that are scaled-up versions of the birthday binge. We produce goods and services which serve no real purpose except that of ego gratification and use the money so earned to buy an assortment of ‘useless” goods and services, in a self-perpetuating cycle involving tens of thousands of crores of rupees.

Mine may be an extremely cynical, even childish viewpoint and most sociologists and economists will passionately defend the above business model.

The sociologist will argue that rituals such as birthday parties, weddings, exchange of gifts during festivals serve the purpose of reinforcing the bond between people. The gesture is what matters; the ritual is secondary, but provides the platform for extending the gesture.

Economists will put forward the argument that consumerism is the quintessence of capitalism, that it will kick in a virtuous spiral of more production and more buying, that this churn in the economy alone can create the critical mass required to progress from the Gandhian framework of frugal living to a higher Maslovian plane, that the threshold or yardstick for defining basic needs will constantly change (today’s luxury = tomorrow’s basic need), that increased consumption leads to capacity build-up and more employment potential, that the ripple effect will result in more scientific and medical breakthroughs, increased life spans and superior quality of life, that a growth in GDP even if through production and consumption of useless goods and services is most desirable. So, the earlier we initiate the kids into the path of consumerism, the better it is for the national economy. Have more birthday parties and splurge on.

As a layman not conversant with such high-fundas and as one belonging to a generation that did not celebrate birthday parties- certainly not on the grand scale that we witness today- and was no worse for it, I am not too sure. What if we cut back on the consumption of useless goods? What if we scale down now? What if we told our kids that there would be no more birthday parties?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Game, sex and drama

When I switch on the TV and accidentally channel-surf my way into one of those soap operas or the mil-dil episodes that cast such a spell over the Indian viewers, I can’t help wondering why people go for such inane and insipid fare when an entire repertoire of action-packed, real-life based films with absorbing plots are available on the National Geographic Channel.

Take this typical story on NGC. For days, the cheetah and her cubs haven’t had anything to eat. After several failed attempts, she had successfully hunted down an antelope yesterday, chasing it at a speed of 100 km/hour – only to be robbed of the catch, within a few minutes, by a pack of hyenas. This morning, she sets out on her hunt, aware that her cubs would die if she returned without food today. It is a desperate kill-or-die situation. After a few hours, she manages to pin down a baby gazelle, separating it from its mother. The last shot shows the mother gazelle walking away dejectedly while the exhausted cheetah watches its hungry cubs devour the baby gazelle to the last bone. The voice-over fades off with the words “ One mother’s loss is another mother’s gain”. Can any scriptwriter come up with anything more packed with tender love, parental care, action and pathos?

Or take this poignant story centered on a small lake, which is the only source of water for miles. The deer, zebras, wildebeest, – all make a beeline for this lake to quench their thirst, with the hot African sun beating down on them relentlessly. The lake is home to several crocodiles that wait patiently to pounce on these mammals at the edge of the lake and pull them into the watery grave. The rains have failed this year, the streams are not re-charged and the lake is gradually drying up. Quite a few of the deer and the zebras that venture deeper into the lake, desperate for water, fall into the waiting jaws of the crocodiles. But, ironically, with the water level shrinking steadily, the crocodiles also perish, one by one. As the film draws to a close, we see a solitary crocodile crawling away from the barren lake towards the shade of a distant tree. It is a tribute to the powerful story-telling technique that, by this time, the viewer gets emotionally drawn to the crocodile and is eager to know if it managed to survive the crisis.

A film on the “King Cobra” shot in the Nilgiris can keep you engrossed for many hours. As the story builds up, the King Cobra is shown constructing its own nest (uncharacteristic of snakes) in a rather elaborate fashion, preparatory to laying its eggs. Then it stays guard over the eggs for days together, not relaxing its vigil even for a second. Just as you start to admire the motherly sacrifices of this reptile, it leaves the nest before the first egg hatches and the baby comes out – because it intuitively knows that if it stays around, its pre-disposition to eat other snakes will take precedence over its maternal instinct. What ethological drama!

But, if you are under the impression that snakes don’t have to fear other predators, watch the “The Eagle and the Snake”. These eagles live on an island in the South China Sea. Their only source of food is the striped snake that inhabits the waters. The striped snakes are excellent swimmers but, once in a few hours, need to come up to the surface of the sea for their oxygen intake. Now, the eagles which hover several hundred feet above the water need to know exactly when and which of the snakes will come up to draw some air, so as to swoop down at the precise moment, grab the six-foot long snake and fly back several miles to the island to feed its young. You would think that, in a vast sea, the statistical probability of a particular snake (which comes up to the surface only once in three hours), being snatched by an eagle is quite low. Yet, this drama unfolds everyday and the eagle has to get its catch of snakes to stay alive and the snake has to keep coming up to the surface to stay alive..

Are you looking for the sex motif? Take this story about the male warthog which has to demonstrate its loyalty and intentions by courting the female of the species determinedly for three full days, following it wherever it goes, before the latter relents and allows the ‘mating” to take place. Happy ending? Not yet. The male warthog has to continue to keep watch over the female for the next few days to ensure that she doesn’t fool around with other males and deprive him of the opportunity of multiplying his own genes. For sheer perseverance and amorous wooing, this cannot be matched or bettered in any man-made love-story.

Spare a thought for the photographer from National Geographic following the particular warthog for days together in the wild and capturing the whole sequence and drama. Or keeping tab on the King Cobra as it builds its nest, hatches its eggs and moves away just when its young ones come into the world? Or setting up his camera next to the lake for several weeks till the solitary crocodile moves away. Or waiting for that split second when the eagle will swoop down and grab the snake. Not in controlled conditions that prevail in a movie studio, but in hostile terrains such as a marshy swamp or a remote island.

That is why when I feel the need for moving melodrama, pulsating action and gripping story line, I turn to these animal films. They never disappoint me.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Don't dwell on the past, don't worry about the future

The sight of my ten-year old daughter comfortably settled on the sofa, a bowl of potato chips in one hand and the TV- remote-control device in the other and surfing her way through 30 channels in 15 minutes - was more than I could bear. It was time, I thought, that I should deliver a fatherly sermon on how lucky she was in having so many good things which, we of the earlier generation did not even dream of. Every parent in every generation has preached thus and I did not want to miss this opportunity.

So I stared her squarely in the eye and asked, "Do you realize, you techno-savvy brat, that you are thoroughly spoilt? Do you know that even when I was twice your age, I had just one channel to watch, that too black and white ?”

“ Just one channel to watch , the whole day?" she asked in amazement.

I had to correct her. “ Not the whole day. Doordarshan used to begin transmission only at 6.30 p.m and would wind up at 10.30 p.m. And they used to screen movies only on Saturdays”

“ What ! Just one channel and just for 4 hours. And just one movie a week. How did you manage to survive ? Surf the net?", she enquired, not unlike Marie Antionette wondering why the proletariat could not eat cake, if there was no bread.

“ There were no computers then, let alone the Internet.” I had to tick her off sharply.

“ Then just what did you do to spend your time ? Play games on your mobile phone ?”

“ There were no mobile phones then" I responded "and for good measure, no cordless phones. Not even phones with buttons. Phones those days came with a round dial. If you had to dial a number like 72345 you had to put your finger in the hole with the number 7 and turn the dial, wait for it to come back, then put your finger in the hole with the number 2 and so on. If the number was engaged you started all over again. “

“ And”, I continued, pre-empting the next question, “ there was only one type of car. The Ambassador. No Marutis, Hyundais or the Hondas. And no air-conditioning in the car. Not even music systems”

“ Appa, stop “ my daughter screamed out loud “ Don’t talk to me about the past. It makes me very sad. You people had nothing then. You had such a miserable life”.

At this point, I felt it prudent to inject a more cheerful note into the proceedings.

“ You know,” I told her, “25 years from now, you are going to have a similar conversation with your daughter. You are going to show her some of the photographs that we took last week and she is going to stare at them disbelievingly. She is going to find your dress bizarre and your hairstyle incredibly funny. She will ask you why you needed to wear this thingy called spectacles, as nobody in her generation would be using them. As a matter of fact, she would want to know why one needed to have photos printed on paper, as kids of that era will be living in a paperless world.”

I went on, “ She will stare in wonder if you described to her the TV set, the computer and the mobile phone that you have today. She will be shocked that people living in the past had to struggle with such primitive and bulky stuff. In her time, all these functions would be integrated in a single compact device attached to the wrist .

“ She will ask you why you had to go to school. She will want you to explain why you did not have the automated self-learning studios then. Were you so poor when you were a child that you could not afford these basic necessities ?”

“But, not everything that you have today will look bad to her. She will long for the fast cars that we have today. By the time she is old enough to drive, the world would have run out of oil and she would be going around in a slow, solar-powered vehicle….”

I would have continued in this vein for some more time, but at this point, my daughter interrupted me, “ Appa, stop. Don’t talk to me about the future. It is too scary”.

That was the end of the conversation.

“The past is dead. No point in dwelling on it. The future is unborn. No point in worrying about it. The present is a gift. Make the most of it”, I muttered to myself philosophically, mulling over the lesson that my daughter had just taught me.