Saturday, September 30, 2006

Deep thoughts......

Ancient philosophers used to ponder the question, “Let’s assume that you buy a new knife. Six months later you change the wooden handle alone, retaining the same blade. One year later you change the blade alone, retaining the wooden handle that you changed six months back. Are you now holding the same knife that you bought a year back or a different one?”

Or look at this question. Flight IC 945 takes off on Monday, with a set of crew members operating a certain aircraft and with a bunch of passengers. On Tuesday, Flight IC 945 takes off with a different crew operating a different aircraft and with a completely different bunch of passengers. How can both flights be IC 945, just because they are operating on the same route? Nothing else is the same.

None of you know anything about me, except that my name is Raj. I am just a virtual entity as far as you are concerned. Suppose tomorrow, someone starts a blog on another URL, calls it Plus Ultra and signs his name as Raj, will you know the difference? Worse, suppose someone steals my password, uses my URL and posts blogs in the name of Raj, will it matter at all to you?

Or I use the same URL and same blog name Plus Ultra, but start posting in the name of Zabernosky, would you care? Will the virtual entities Raj and Zabernosky mean the same to you, as the content and style will be the same? Will the images of both these characters be the same in your mind? Or Raj will be clean-shaven and Zabernosky will have a long beard?

Profound questions. Profound questions. Must think.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

United, at last

Through a combination of chance and circumstance, the following individuals came to occupy berths 1 to 6 of a II Class compartment of a train that left Chennai Central for New Delhi. These berths, as you are aware, are usually inside a separate, closed cubicle and the occupants found themselves in constant company of each other, right through the 36-hour journey.

‘A” was male, Tamil-speaking, Hindu, belonged to the so-called forward community and was a non-vegetarian (to use that quaint Indian expression)

‘B’ was male, Kannada-speaking, Hindu, came from a backward community and was a vegetarian

‘C’ was male, Marathi-speaking, Hindu of forward community and was a vegetarian

‘D’ was female, Bengali-speaking Muslim (minority community) and a non-vegetarian

‘E’ was female, Hindi-speaking, Catholic (minority community) and a non-vegetarian

‘F’ was male, Hindi-speaking, Muslim (minority community) and a non-vegetarian

Back to the II class compartment. In such long-distance trains, conversation tends to flourish and becomes quite animated at times. Heated arguments and fist blows are not uncommon.

When dinner was served at Sulurpet, B whispered to C, a fellow vegetarian, that he found the smell of non-veg food quite overpowering and wished that the Railways would serve only vegetarian food. Hearing which A, D, E and F exchanged glances that clearly indicated that B and C should keep their abnormal preferences to themselves and not try to pass judgement on the dietary habits of the majority.

When it was time to sleep, D who had been allotted an upper berth requested F if she could take his lower berth, obviously appealing to his sense of chivalry. F gave in reluctantly but commented that when women these days sought equality in all other fields, why did they seek special treatment when it came to queues, lower berths, etc? A, B and C nodded in approval. But E, the other female in the group, came to the support of D and rebuked C, A, B and F for lack of elementary consideration to a person who belonged to the same gender as their mothers and sisters.

When the train reached Kazipet, ‘A’ who knew no Hindi wanted to buy something from a vendor who knew no Tamil or English. This irked A who commented aloud that Hindi zealots were shoving Hindi down the throats of South Indians and wondered what had happened to Nehru’s assurance in Parliament that it would not happen. B and D supported this view, but E and F felt that this was ridiculous and that anybody who called himself an Indian should be proud of the national language which was Hindi.

Near Nagpur, the conversation turned to the over-crowding of Mumbai and C, who was a Shiv Sena supporter, observed that the only practical solution was to ask all non-Marathi people who came in after 1990, to leave Mumbai. A, B. D. E and F pounced on him for his parochial views and reminded him that Mumbai belonged to the whole nation.

At Bhopal, while buying a bottle of mineral water, A accused B of belonging to a state that unreasonably withheld Tamilnadu’s rightful share of the Cauvery water. C intervened and asked both to hold fire, stating that the whole issue was overblown by the politicians and enlightened citizens shouldn’t get carried away. D, E and F nodded approvingly. B, supported by A, then trained his gun on C and asked him to lay off, as the latter came from a state that was making a completely illegitimate demand on a territory (Belgaum) that had been an integral part of Karnataka for ages. D, E and F nodded approvingly, while C argued vehemently that Marathi being the dominant language in Belgaum, it was foolish to keep it in Karnataka.

At Gwalior, discussions turned to the recent comments made by the Pope on Muslims and D and F expressed their displeasure to E. Butting in, A, B and C felt that both the Pope and the Muslims should apologise to each other and take a few lessons in tolerance from Hinduism. This drew derisive sniggers from D, E and F united in their Abrahamic faiths.

At Agra, A was heard talking on his mobile phone to his son studying at Pilani. He kept down the phone and explained that because of the shameful policy of reservation in Tamilnadu, people belonging to the forward community were forced to admit their sons/daughters in institutions in far-off places. C was quite empathetic but B.D.E and F took umbrage at this statement and argued that unless affirmative action was taken, the minority would remain suppressed for ever.

So many different issues had been dissected during the journey. Each of them, A. B. C. D. E and F had taken up strong positions on each issue and found himself/herself forming part of or pitted against different groups comprising different individuals at different times, demonstrating yet again that India was a fascinating country which could be divided in so many different ways.

As the train neared Delhi, the TTE informed them that the train would be delayed by one more hour, due to a derailment that had happened a few miles ahead.

A. B, C, D, E and F were finally united and unanimous in their criticism of the Indian Railways, the Indian Govt and the Indian bureaucrats. “Will things never change?” they cried in unison.

The feathered visitor

I was with two of my colleagues yesterday at the open-air restaurant of the Taj Garden Retreat, Madurai, when this magnificent creature descended from somewhere, looked in our direction, quickly sized up our potential, ruled us out as prospective mates, decided against a display of its full plumage and majestically settled down on the railing close to us.

One colleague concluded that Lord Muruga was making a pit stop while gallivanting on his ‘ vahana’ to bestow special and customised blessings to his loyal devotees, not to mention devote loyalees. So, the said colleague closed his eyes, folded his hands, and bowed reverentially, chanting “ Muruga, Muruga”, much to the bemusement of some foreigners in the adjoining table.

The other colleague, being of a more practical bent of mind, reached for the bowl of peanuts and threw out a handful to the bird which accepted the offering without too much of a fuss and conveyed through its authoritative body language that it was rightfully entitled to the meal.

And I? I had the presence of mind to go a few steps nearer and take a quick snap on my mobile phone, before the bird took off gracefully, continuing on whatever noble mission it was engaged in.

Same situation, but three different responses from three different people.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The death of the salesman

Different professions boast of different core competencies. Doctors, for example, are extremely proficient in looking busy and walking at a brisk pace without their stethoscopes falling off their necks; they undergo years of training before they get this right. Architects cannot be matched when it comes to rolling tracing-paper and sharpening pencils; lawyers have that special gift of being able to rattle out a volley of inane expressions like “My Lord”, “ Your Honour” and “Prosecution rests its case” without spitting even once.

But, what about the traveling salesman? Yes, the wheeler-dealing, smooth talking, oily salesman? What special skills does he have in his armoury, you ask. Can he hold a candle to these stethoscopic docs, sharpening architects and filibustering, unsalivating lawyers, you snigger and ridicule in a tone dripping with unalloyed sarcasm and unadulterated contempt

Long, long ago, before you techies, nerdies, yuppies and other assorted puppies in the blogosphere were born, envisaged or even dreamt of, Uncle Raj began his illustrious career as a salesman and will therefore proceed to silence you critics.

What marks the traveling salesman from lesser professionals is the amazing ability to track down the best eating joint in any of hundreds of towns and cities in his territory. He alone has the trained nose to locate the roadside joint famous for its biriyani or that shop near the bus stand where the best masala milk is available after 9 pm.

Starting out as a salesman in Tamilnadu, I therefore knew where to pick up the best halwa in Tirunelveli, the cashew macaroons from Tuticorin (local legend had it that only the Fernandos knew the right mix of egg white, cashew, sugar, etc to give the macaroons that magical texture), peanut candies from Virudhunagar, Ooty vegetables from Coimbatore, mangoes from Thathachariar gardens in Srirangam, bananas from Namakkal, and hundreds of such rare delights.

Promoted and in charge of entire South India, the repertoire extended to mango jellies from Rajahmundry, banana chips from Cochin, pickles from Kovvuru, jackfruit papads and cashew supari from Mangalore (not to forget the Gadbad ice creams there), Kundas from Belgaum, the Maddur Railway station vada (such was the brand image that even when an outlet was opened on the highway, 3 km away from the station, the vada was still referred to as Maddur Railway station vada), the large-sized Tatte idlis of Tumkur, the mirchi bajjis from a roadside vendor in Bagalkot, pink sweets ( I have never bothered to ask what its called) from K.C. Das in Bangalore ( Strangely ,when I look for the same sweets in the many K.C.Das outlets in Kolkata, I don’t spot them).

As my canvas widened and I had the whole of India to cover, unimaginable goodies could be spotted in every nook and corner of the country. India, trust me, is a culinary cornucopia and is truly an epicurean’s paradise.

Later, foreign trips meant the mandatory duty-free shopping for Toblerones, Lindts and the Ferrera Rochers.

The salesman when he returned from a tour was welcomed warmly into the house by members of his family, his baggage quickly ransacked, the ‘eatable’ instantly removed and devoured. The salesman, therefore, was highly valued by society at large and his important role acknowledged and appreciated. He walked with his head held high.

Alas, times have changed, the world is flatter and the planes and trains are faster. Tirunelveli halwas made the previous evening reach Chennai the next morning and are sold out of Maruti vans as fresh stock; jackfruit papads can be procured from Nilgiri’s departmental stores round the corner, banana chips are ubiquitous, Ooty vegetables can be picked up in most vegetable shops, rossogolla tins of reputed brands can be spotted in many shops, and Toblerones and Ferrera Rochers are sold in paan shops.

Sadly, the salesman is therefore an unwanted species today, his skill set having become anachronistic and irrelevant. The notice that one sees today on the gates of apartment complexes ( “Sales people not allowed”) bears grim testimony to the fact of the death of the salesman.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Continuing with my series on the mobile phone……..

A colleague who was on a flight from Delhi and I (on a flight from Chennai) arrived in Mumbai airport at around the same time and were to meet up and take the same car to go to the other end of the city.

To locate him in the crowd, I sent an sms to his mobile phone, which was on ‘roaming’ mode in Mumbai. That meant that radio frequency signals from the transmitter of my phone had to reach the closest base station, get beamed to a satellite through a dish antennae, on to some switching station in Delhi, get re-routed to Mumbai over the satellite again and reach the receiver of his mobile phone through the closest base station. It all happens in a jiffy, but it has to take such a circuitous route. At least, this is how I believe it works.

He then dialed back my Chennai number. As I too was on ‘roaming’ mode, the voice signal from the transmitter of his phone had to be transformed into a code to reach the closest base station, get beamed to a satellite through a dish antennae, log on to a switching station in Chennai, get diverted to Mumbai and reach the receiver of my phone through the closest base station.

It so happened that the said colleague was about twenty feet away , had spotted me and was signaling to me with his right hand,even as he was talking over the mobile phone held in left hand.

Like me and my colleague, there were tens of people in the airport, hundreds in Santa Cruz cell area, thousands in Mumbai and millions of people in the world trying to connect and were jamming all frequencies and bandwidths and generally cluttering the atmosphere with electromagnetic radiation or whatever it is these things work on. If human beings had been provided with an additional sense organ to detect such microwaves, each of our brains would have suffered instantly from information overdose and blown its fuse.

The comedian George Carlin wrote in his book, “Brain Droppings” :

"Think of how much information, in the form of radio energy, there is flying through the air, all around us, all over the world, right now and all the time. AM, FM, UHF, VHF, shortwave radio, television, walkie-talkies, cell phones, telephone, satellites, microwave relays, faxes, pagers, taxi calls, police, sheriff, hospitals, fire departments, telemetry, navigation, radar, military, government, financial, legal. medical, media, etc, etc, etc. Trillions and trillions and trillions and trillions of electronic information flying around the world at all times. Think of that. Think of how busy the air is.

Now think of this. A hundred years ago there was none. None. No radiation at all. There was silence all around.."

Think about it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


How and when did the terrorist attack on September 11th in the USA, come to be referred to as ‘nine-eleven’? I tried to google for information on when the expression was first used and by who, but couldn’t find any leads. Does anybody know?

Terrorist attacks and other human tragedies are usually referred to in terms of the location of the incident- as in Mumbai blasts, Bali killings, London bomb blasts, attack on Indian Parliament, Munich massacre, Bhopal gas tragedy, Godhra train massacre, etc. How many of us remember the exact date on which any of these incidents happened?

An article in Time magazine (sometime in 2002) had reported that the American Dialect Society had voted ‘nine-eleven” as the ‘term of the year”. Linguists felt that there was a kind of aura or mystique to the date, as 911 was also the number for emergency calls in the US. Also, as more than one place was involved in the attack, it was difficult to assign a single geographical name to the incident- such as 'New York building crash'. Another explanation was that ‘9/11’ being a number made it sound as unemotional and impersonal as possible. Referring to the horrific incidents as the ‘events of 9/11’ somehow seemed to help in distancing one from the tragedy.

The term may have been coined by TV journalists, because it was catchy and fitted in easily in headlines and ticker tape crawlers. But not all terms and words coined by journalists become popular or find ready and universal acceptance. CNN had tried to create a buzz around the words, “War on Terror’, but it didn’t catch on .

A better explanation is that the term appealed to the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ and stayed on. It is the ‘crowd’ that intuitively seems to know which expression describes the incident best; should it be called a ‘tragedy’, ‘massacre’, ‘ killing’, ‘carnage’, ‘blasts’ or simply by the date ?

One Sunday morning, when the doorbell rang.....

I was absorbed in a nice juicy chitchat with a friend on my mobile phone, when the doorbell rang. Continuing with the conversation and holding the phone between my ears and shoulder in the manner guaranteed to give one a sprained neck, I opened the door.

It was the Cable TV guy who had come to collect his monthly subscription. He too had a mobile phone in his hand and was carrying on quite an animated dialogue with some other customer of his. Tilting his head as I had done, parking his mobile phone on his shoulder and barely making eye contact with me, he continued to talk on the phone, while pulling out a card from a folder, with his right hand.

I signed the card, took out my wallet from my trousers and handed him a five-hundred rupee note, while laughing over something my friend told me on the phone.

Now, the monthly subscription, for some reason, comes to Rs 355/- . So, the cable TV guy signaled to me with the five fingers of his left hand that he would like to have five more rupees from me, so that he could return Rs 150/-. All this while, his irate customer on the mobile phone continued to engage his attention.

He collected the five-rupee coin, handed over Rs 150/- to me and walked across to the next house to ring the bell – still mumbling something on his mobile.

I closed the door, returned to my sofa and carried on the conversation with my friend.

Much later I realized that the two of us had been talking continuously, yet not exchanged a word between us, while a transaction worth Rs 355/- had taken place.

A metaphor for our techno-obsessed times? Or a tribute to our multi-tasking capabilities?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The confessions of a cured hypochondriac

In the opening page of his classic, “Three Men in a Boat”, the author Jerome K Jerome, describes the turmoil he had to go through whenever he read anything relating to diseases.

“It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch--hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into-- some fearful, devastating scourge, I know--and, before I had glanced half down the list of "premonitory symptoms," it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever--read the symptoms--discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it--wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus's Dance--found, as I expected, that I had that too,--began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically--read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright's disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid's knee.”

Exactly the kind of thoughts that race through my hypochondriac mind whenever my attention is drawn to one of the many articles that appear in newspapers and magazines, describing, in painstaking detail, the symptoms of the latest virus fever raging in the city or some other ailments affecting the heart, brain or the liver of the upwardly mobile. I need to pause and check out if the symptoms described do not correspond exactly with some of the sensations that I had felt in the recent past. The thing about hypochondria is that you cannot treat it; once you acknowledge that it is a disease that merits treatment, you validate and reinforce the hypochondriac’s belief that he is ill and start a self-perpetuating doom loop.

I therefore steer clear of these articles and make sure that I don’t even make any eye contact with them. Far better to stick to the cartoons, trust me. I may be guilty of escapism, but at least I can be assured of good health.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The uncaring world.

The humble crow. Black all over. Doomed to this achromatic existence, when every other creature on earth is resplendent in multiple colours. Did its early ancestor fall into a cauldron of ink or tar and pass on the darkened genes to its descendants in a Lamarckian manner? Does this shade of minimum light and maximum darkness infuse the species with a higher survival value? Or was it just a case of selective and black comedy perpetrated by the Maker?

The elevator in my building. All day long it goes up and down. Hundreds of people get in and get out and move on. But the elevator? Imprisoned in that lonely shaft for its entire lifetime. Condemned to its vertical movement. Horizontally challenged. Quietly serving. Up. Down. Up. Down. And yet uncomplaining.

The perfume bottle. 200 ml capacity. Each day I use it, the drop in level inside the bottle is hardly noticeable. Even after a month. Will the perfume last for ever? Is the bottle like the Kamadhenu, I wonder? Alas, no. In three months, the perfume is completely used up. Evaporated. Gone. Never to come back. For ever. Vanished into thin air while spreading its sweet fragrance. Like the candle which self-destructs while providing light.

This keyboard. Quickly converts finger strokes to bytes and words. Is this ability only unidirectional? Can it convert words and bytes from the monitor into finger strokes and push them intra-nervously from my hands into my brain? So, that I can instantly download volumes of data and imprint in my memory? Or can it, with the Backspace key remove memories of unsavory incidents of my life. No, it can’t.

What a cruel, nasty, brutal, uncaring world!