Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The disengagement

This is the 5th story in the Bata Thatha series. The earlier ones are here.

It was a glorious morning at the Marina. The sun was behind a cloud cover, the breeze was gentle and the sea had taken on that magical tinge of silvery blue. The Walkie-Talkies were thoroughly enjoying their leisurely stroll in the lovely weather so unusual for Chennai..

On the beach sands, a bunch of kids was engrossed in a game of rubber-ball cricket. A bowler had just accounted for a batsman, as was evident from his wild gestures, saliva-spitting and fist-pumping.

‘What’s with kids these days?” commented Polo T-shirt. “Why do they need to be so vocal and demonstrative? Why all this posturing and sabre-rattling? Back when we used to play, we would, at the most, clap our hands at the fall of a wicket, no more”.

“The fact is ”, remarked Nike Shorts, “, kids are taught, from kindergarten, to be aggressive and to develop that killer instinct. Absence of these traits is viewed as a sign of serious weakness.”

“I don’t understand the hype, one bit. After all, it is just a game”, chipped in Adidas track-pants.

“For old fossils like you and me,” said Bata Thatha, intervening in the absorbing debate, “cricket may be just a game, but for members of GenNext, it’s war out there. As Nike Shorts commented, the tendency to go for the jugular is instilled in children from an early stage, that when they grow up, they are constantly seen with war-paint on, yelling out blood-curdling battle cries. Those that don’t conform to this prescribed behaviour, fall by the wayside. Take the case of Geeta and Hari……”

“Did they both go around with war paint on”, enquired Nike Shorts.

“Not both. Only she did. That was the problem. But let me start from the beginning.”

My wife’s niece, Geeta, (said Bata Thatha) like many young girls of the current generation, works hard and plays hard. She exudes raw energy and packs in quite a bit of aggression, which she says is necessary if one has to succeed in life in general and sports in particular.

On the other hand, Hari, to whom she got engaged to early this year, is reserved, exasperatingly cool, believes that Life must be absorbed in small doses and that nothing is worth working up a sweat over.

A case of two dissimilar poles attracting each other, but we know that Cupid plays such pranks quite often.

All went well till about a month back or, to be more precise, till the day India won the Twenty20 World Cup. Over dinner, the next evening, Geeta declared, in that authoritative tone of hers, that Yuvraj Singh was the greatest cricketer the world had ever seen or was likely to see. “What aggression, what hitting” she exclaimed. Whereupon, Hari, without removing his eyes from the menu card that he was reading, remarked casually that, surely, that was too effusive a praise and there was no need to go overboard. He also volunteered the opinion that Geeta ought to view these games with some degree of detachment and not get emotionally entangled and, that too, with such fearsome intensity.

Dismissing this as a typical viewpoint of an intellectually- challenged person who was too weak-minded to take a position on any subject and who had no sense of passion, Geeta dared him to state who, in his considered view, was the best cricketer ever. Hari, tried to dilly-dally, but as Geetha wouldn’t let him off the hook, finally stated that, in his judgement, the title of best cricketer ever would rest on the lone Indian to have scored a six off the last ball, to win a match by one-wicket, against England. To wit, Bhuvan of Champaner.

Hearing this, Geetha went ballistic and made it clear to Hari with her characteristic bluntness that she was shocked at his shallowness, his retarded mental capacity and his inability to distinguish between real heroes and reel ones.

Hari, as is his style, chuckled and downplayed this incident, but Geetha was clearly not going to forget or forgive so easily.

The next week, while having dinner with another couple, Hari narrated this incident and laughed uncontrollably when he came to the punch line where he had named Bhuvan as the best cricketer ever. The story was a big hit with the friend’s wife, who found it extremely witty and said so.

This infuriated Geetha further. As they were driving back she accused Hari of trivialising an important argument and publicising a sensitive matter with unwarranted flippancy. For once, Hari’s composed demeanour developed some cracks and he snapped back, calling her a dangerous maniac and a menace to the public at large. Even if he had stopped here, he would have been in trouble, but he aggravated it further by adding that, had they been living in the Middle ages, she would have been burnt at the stake by now.

A heated exchange of such strong words can cause havoc and it did. The upshot being that Geetha broke off the engagement, refusing to waste her life with a weak-kneed, pussy-footed, jelly-boned, bradycardiac ,hypotensive creature and, worse, one who did not possess a rudimentary knowledge of the game of cricket. Hari merely mumbled something that was incoherent to Geetha, but had she listened carefully, she could have picked out stray words such as ‘divine intervention’ and “escape from combined might of bull dozer and steam roller”, etc. And they parted ways.”

Bata Thatha had an expression of deep melancholy as he concluded the story.

A Nike-shorts remarked, “That was quite a sad ending. But, that’s young blood for you”.

‘True” agreed Adidas track-pants, “Young and hot”.

“Well, I am not sure”, clarified Bata Thatha “if this was such a sad ending for Geetha. Far from being downcast, she continues to be her usual aggressive, go-getting self and has set her sights on winning the hand of Yuvraj Singh, no less. She has been plotting and scheming and who knows what will result from these machinations of hers?

“And what about Hari?” enquired a concerned Reebok Wrist-band, speaking for the first time that morning.

Bata Thatha shook his head sadly. “ Hari, I am sorry to report, is yet to recover, ill-equipped as he is to measure up to the demanding standards of today’s world. When I saw him last, he was muttering some nonsense about the fantastic achievements of Bhuvan and how he had delivered for India when it mattered most and why he deserved to be revered as the best cricketer ever. His family even got Aamir Khan down to their house to explain to Hari that it was all fiction, but Hari reportedly called Aamir an imposter and demanded that they fetch him the real Bhuvan. “

Disclosure : Idea for this story is borrowed from James Thurber’s piece “The break-up of the Winships”, in which the wife would go gaga over Greta Garbo, calling her the greatest actress ever, while her husband would insist that the greatest actor dead or alive was Donald Duck.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The evolution of a ritual

I happened to be in Mumbai on Anant Chaturthi day in September when idols of Ganesh were taken out in grand processions and immersed in the sea/river/pond. I also happened to be in Kolkata last Sunday when Durga was being taken out in grand processions for immersion. I was stuck in traffic jams on both days.

What’s the point in decorating and worshipping the gods and goddesses in the house for 4-5 days and then unceremoniously drowning them in the sea? No, I withdraw the word, ‘unceremoniously’. In fairness, they are dumped in the water, with much pomp and ceremony.

I wonder how this tradition started? All such traditions originated in villages; villages had come up on the banks of rivers; perhaps, one of the idols had fallen down while being carried across the river, made a sensational splash, caught the fancy of the people, and soon this became an annual ritual.

Something like the story of the rishi, yagna and the cat that I had referred to in an earlier post.

I was witness to the evolution of a ritual in our office. Till a few years back, we used to distribute sweets on Ayudha Puja Day to all employees, The sweets along with the puffed rice, jaggery, etc were packed in a plastic cover. Five years back, someone suggested that we could use a jute bag costing Rs 40 each, instead of the plastic cover. Next year, the bag became bigger and the cost was Rs 60/- and kept going up year after year. Soon, the ritual seemed to be associated more with the bag than with the sweets, and preparations for the puja centred on the type of bag to be purchased, rather than how the puja ought to be performed or what sweets to buy.. This year, we cried halt and went back to plastic (alas, not eco-friendly) bags and stepped up the quantity of sweets.

If this simple ritual could evolve and undergo distortion in 5 years, imagine how other rituals that originated in a certain context and time, would have mutated over several centuries. But still clung to unquestioningly, if I may add..

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The sea and the sky beckon

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French aviator and author of “The Little Prince” came up with this metaphor, “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”.

Don’t get into the tedium of teaching a child every step of the way, hoping to make him or her into a great scientist, musician or player. Just create the conducive grounds, inculcate that love for a subject and provide the platform for the child to build on. The rest will follow, was his message.

Did Alexander Bell wake up one fine morning and tell himself that he was going to invent the telephone? No, the seeds for the invention were sown many years back, through certain circumstances in his life.

Graham Bell had a fascination for ‘sound’ right from his childhood. His mother had been unable to hear and so he had grown up in a family where understanding how to communicate sound was central to every task.

His grandfather had been an elocution expert ( George Bernard Shaw had modelled Professor henry Higgins in Pygmalion partly on his example). His father had spent so much time helping his wife communicate that he’d done extensive research on the process of creating sounds. So, two generations of sound-researchers had preceded him.

And, when Alexander grew up, he fell madly in love with a girl called Mabel Hubbard who, due to a bout of scarlet fever when she was five years old, had suffered permanent loss of hearing. Helping her to communicate became an obsession.

So, the creation of sound had been Bell’s special interest and this ‘love of sound” put him on the path that led to the invention of the telephone. (Source)

Similar to this is the story of Dr. Katy Payne, naturalist and bioacoustics researcher, who after years of studying elephants in the wild, came up with the hypothesis that elephants communicated through infrasonic vibrations that are at frequencies below the audible range for humans. Elephants, according to her, can actually detect underground, seismic vibrations transmitted by a distant herd running away, or even the sound of rain many miles away.

What led Dr. Payne to this insight? “Standing close to some elephants” she says in her book “Silent Thunder’, “I felt that I was listening to a faint sound, that was strangely familiar. As a child, I had loved to be part of the choir in the local church and it struck me that the sound that I heard from the elephants was similar to the sensations I used to feel when the pipe organ struck a low note”. This ‘connection’ led her to explore further and to conduct more experiments which finally led to the discovery. Love of choir-music eventually led her to study elephant sounds.

So, if you want your son to become a Marine engineer, just take him to the beach every morning. Let him be charmed by the sea. He will automatically become a good sailor. Or, if you want your daughter to become an astronaut, take her to the balcony every evening and show her the stars. Not film stars on TV, the real stars in the sky.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The potent chemicals

He lay awake on his bed, thinking about the previous evening.

For some reason, his girl friend had been giving him the cold shoulder. Last evening, things took a turn for the worse. She had, inexplicably and in the middle of dinner, got up and sat on the next table.

Girls are notoriously moody and fickle, he knew, but this standoffishness had lasted too long. He had this grim foreboding that she was going to leave him for good.

A girl ought to, at least, tell the guy where he had erred and give him a sporting chance to correct himself. He felt utterly helpless and completely dejected. The whole future looked bleak and hopeless. There was only one option left. It was time to take some decisive, desperate steps.

By the time he got up from his bed, he had decided what he would do with his life. He walked to the bathroom and pulled out from the cabinet the tubular container that he had carefully preserved for this occasion. It contained a special mixture of potent chemicals such as sodium monofluorophosphate, hydrated silica, propylene glycol, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, not to mention pentasodium triphosphate and sodium lauryl sulphate. A peroxide and a hydroxide were also thrown in for good measure. Yes, he would use this mix and put an end to his misery.

He went out a little later and confronted his girl friend again. Surprise. She didn’t move away from him this time.

Yes, the chemical mix had worked. Just as Colgate had promised it would. He finally knew what his problem had been.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The two-language formula

While driving down from Belapur to the Mumbai airport today, I realized that the driver of the car was a cricket aficionado.

The 7th ODI between India and Australia was on, and he switched on the radio commentary. For the next 1-1/2 hours or so, the commentary alternated between Hindi and English, in 15-minute sessions.

What this meant was that, whenever the commentary was in English, the driver seemed clueless about what was happening, while I couldn’t make out the score, whenever it was in Hindi.

The whole experience left both of us dissatisfied, leading me to conclude that, if only one channel was available, then it might as well be entirely in Hindi. At least, one of us would have been completely satisfied then.

It is like the story about Gandhi losing one of his slippers, while boarding a moving train. He then threw out the other one also, reasoning that some poor soul would benefit by having a pair, instead of two of them holding one slipper each. ( As an aside, if all the stories attributed to Gandhi were true, he should have lived for 500 years, to have played a part in each one of them).

Coming back to the two-language formula. After I boarded the plane today, the safety instructions were, as is the practice, given twice, once in Hindi and the drill repeated with an English voice-over. Which led me to wonder, if the air pressure really dropped, will the oxygen masks drop down in two batches, one for the Hindi speaking and another one for the English speaking?

R.I.P.Series- 13

I am sure all of you would have read about the incident in which, “over 130 passengers on a Jet Airways flight, including the entire Australian cricket team and some members of the Indian squad, had a narrow escape on Monday when the plane carrying them to Mumbai made an emergency landing at Dr Ambedkar international airport in Nagpur after being hit by a bird.”

While you were all offering thanks to whichever gods you pray to and seek favours from, for saving the lives of the cricketers, did you spare a thought for the bird? Not Dickie Bird. I am talking about the poor, little bird that was killed by the plane-hit?

RIP, dear bird. You will be missed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Law of Incremental service

On the Manila-Singapore leg of the journey last week, I decided to take an earlier flight instead of the one that I was booked in.

I made it through the wait-list. Soon after take-off, one of the flight assistants came down to my seat and informed me in a rather solemn tone that they couldn’t organise an Indian vegetarian meal that I had asked for, as I had made the flight change at the last minute. She would see what she could manage, she told me. Changers cannot be choosers; so I accepted the situation.

After 10 more minutes, she came back with a concerned expression and asked if any other vegetarian option (continental, Thai.) was okay with me. I said that would be perfectly fine. In fact, I felt like patting her on the back and telling her not to worry so much, as even men weaker than I am have been known to survive a 3-hour flight without food.

After another 5 minutes or so, she came back and broke the good news that she had located an Indian vegetarian meal, after all. And this was served to me, a little later.

I checked the tray for the meal tag that accompanies such ‘special requests” and sure enough, it was there, with my seat number filled in by the caterer. They had managed to load the meal at short notice. The flight assistant had not pulled it out of thin air, as she had tried to impress.

But, why at all did the flight assistant go through all that tension-building exercise? The charitable explanation would be that she had not located the meal initially but found it later. Or, more likely, she was pulling a fast one on me.

Actually, with my sales training, I appreciated what she did and my respect for that airline went up. The first and cardinal rule of sales is to deliver what you have promised. The second rule is that, if you are delivering more than what had been promised or exceeding the customer’s expectation, make it clear to him or her that something out-of-the-way was being done and take brownie points for it, in some form. That extra bit that you put in has some extra value and it should be perceived so, by the customer. Otherwise, it is lost forever, without you accruing any credit for it. Of course, this process of taking the credit has to be executed with finesse, without the customer feeling that you are being over-demonstrative.

Imagine if the meal of my choice had been brought to me without the drama that preceded it, would I have known or appreciated the fact that the airline managed to act within an hour?

Update 18/10/07 : My favourite barber once taught me a lesson in customer satisfaction. He had just finished cutting my hair and asked if I would like to have an oil massage too. It being a Sunday, there were at least six people waiting outside restlessly. I asked him if he wouldn't incur the wrath of those guys by giving me a 30-minute massage when they were waiting for a more basic need (hair-cut) to be met. He replied that once a customer sat on his chair, he would ensure that he left completely delighted with the experience, even if meant turning away a few others. Rather one totally satisfied customer than many partially-satisfied ones, was his gyan.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ashta and other avadhanis

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution shares his secret fear:

My secret fear is that one day I will find myself working in Starbucks; the cashier will call out orders - double latte frappuccino, no whip, extra hot, tall; iced caramel macchiato grande; pumpkin spice crème with soy... I will become confused and disoriented, was that extra whip or no whip? Tall or grande? Soy or no soy? What am I doing? People will shuffle their feet impatiently, check their watch and stare at me with disdain as I struggle to keep up. I will start to sweat - now people are frowning. Aaarrgghh - take me back to my quiet office.

I don’t know why Starbucks strains the memory of its employees and makes them issue such verbal orders. I accompanied my daughters recently to Pizza Hut and found the waiter not writing down the order. He was committing it to his memory, then rushing to the computer to key it in and transmit to the kitchen. At least Anjappar restaurant, I am told, is sensible. The waiter keys in the details into his wireless whatever-it-is and issues remote orders to the kitchen.

I remember watching an amazing performance on Doordarshan in the ‘80s, when it was the sole channel available for love or money. It featured an Ashtavadani who could do 8 things at the same time. The audience would ask him questions in random sequence- like asking him to add up some numbers, to recite Kural no 785 of 1330, to remember a card taken from a deck, etc. He would commit 64 such questions to his memory. At the end of which, he would give out the answers, one at a time, all from memory. I am told that Ashtavadanis were patronised by Telugu kings and they could be seen performing even in the late twentieth century. I am not sure if this tradition exists any more. Does anyone know?

Did they have Yogic powers? Not quite. Actually, the quintessence of yoga or meditation was to rid the mind of multiple thoughts and get it to focus on just one object. Or to avoid multi-tasking as practised by the Ashtavadanis.

Update 16/10/07 : Bit Hawk has sent in a link to an article on Dr. Ganesh, the Shatavadhani

The guru-sishya paradigm

Soon after the announcement that the Nobel Peace prize had been awarded (jointly) to Mr Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) headed by Mr. R.K.Pachauri, the latter called the former and is reported to have said, “ This is Pachy. I am so delighted and so privileged to have the IPCC share the peace award with you…. I will be your follower, you will be my leader”.

Depending on one’s viewpoint, that statement can be described as admirably courteous, politically correct or disgustingly obsequious. We won’t get into that.

But, do Indians, by nature, look for a guru in any sphere of activity? In an essay titled. “Authority and Identity in India”, T.G.Vaidyanathan, an English professor and regular columnist in The Hindu in the 80s and 90s, showed that in the Indian ethos, the guru-sishya relationship is the paradigm of all relationships. Whether it is the relationship of a devotee to his creator ( Thyagaraja comes to mind), of a servant to his master, of a friend to friend, of lover to beloved, of parents to children, and even of enemies to each other.

Few principles, he says, are exempt from the influence of the guru principle, including games. Patrons of cricket know the colossal influence that the famous Ranjitsinhji wielded on his nephew Prince Duleepsinhji. P.T.Usha’s career burgeoned under the watchful eye of her guru, Nambiar. How much of the Guru principle can operate even in the field of literature can be gauged by the fact that Mulk Raj Anand, one of the pioneers in the field alongside R.K.Narayan and one with Marxist leanings, took the first draft of his novel, Untouchable, to Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram. Anand desired the approval of his guru.

In fact, to be Indian means to respect authority- all the way down the line. Indians who have flocked to cities since the 50s and the 60s, have suffered disorientation that has created an unprecedented existential dilemma. Most Indians can deal with this crisis and bolster their weakened, wounded identity only by taking recourse to surrogate or suprapersonal figures that serve as modern gurus, of whom the perfect exemplar is the Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi.

It is not surprising, concluded Vaidyanthan, that for many Indians insecurity is nearly always a consequence of the withdrawal of external authority but never of its presence.

So, if even in his most glorious moment, Pachauri instinctively seeks a leader, let us not be judgmental. After all, he is an Indian first and a scientist next. He could not have escaped the clutches of the guru-sishya paradigm..

Friday, October 12, 2007

The other award.

Details of the Ig Nobel awards - for achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK- are as eagerly awaited every year as that of the Nobel prize winners. The prizes are intended to “celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology.”

This year’s awards were announced last month. Among the winners were:

Medicine : Brian Witcombe of Gloucester, UK, and Dan Meyer of Antioch, Tennessee, USA, for their penetrating medical report "Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects;

Biology : Prof. Dr. Johanna E.M.H. van Bronswijk of Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands, for doing a census of all the mites, insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, crustaceans, bacteria, algae, ferns and fungi with whom we share our beds each night.

Linguistics: Juan Manuel Toro, Josep B. Trobalon and Núria Sebastián-Gallés, of Universitat de Barcelona, for showing that rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards;

Chemistry : Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Center of Japan, for developing a way to extract vanillin -- vanilla fragrance and flavoring -- from cow dung.

Physics: L. Mahadevan of Harvard University, USA, and Enrique Cerda Villablanca of Universidad de Santiago de Chile, for studying how sheets become wrinkled.

This year most of the awardees actually attended the ceremony, made acceptance speeches and took home a much-coveted trophy – a hand-made model of a chicken and egg.

I like the spirit behind the awards and the fact that the awardees took it all in good humour. I am also happy to note, with pride, that the name Lakshminarayan Mahadevan stands up there ( albeit with an Ig attached) and shares the glory along with Chandrasekar Venkata Raman and Subramanian Chandrasekar.

Ought we to institute such awards for movies as well, if they don’t exist already? The Un Oscar awards for the silliest, most banal film or story? It will also give Indian movies a sporting chance of bagging a prize, in all categories? Or maybe our own Film-Un Fare award every year in a ceremony attended by the glitterati and the illiterati? There will be an In-Jury to choose the winner from among the Ig-Nominees? Who will get the Lifetime Unachievement award” Duh! I mean, Shobha Duh.

As I am Ig Norant on these matters, can I Ig-nite the mind of some kindly blogger to take on this Ig Noble cause?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Blousy days ahead

Downloading tons of intellectual stuff from “The Hindu’ into my left brain, strains my system severely each morning and I try to neutralise the effect by flipping through the day’s edition of “The Deccan Chronicle”.

This morning, after soaking in intricate details from The Hindu about the trajectory of the Agni missile launched yesterday, I felt a throbbing headache and needed a quick palliative. And I reached for the Deccan Chronicle

It obliged, as it unfailingly does, by carrying an absorbing story. This one was on the wardrobes of leading Kollywood personalities and reported, among other things, that actress Khushboo possessed no less than 325 designer blouses.

With the headache now gone, I analysed the implications of this extraordinary piece of information.

325, I reasoned, was neither here nor there. What Khusboo ought to do, I felt, was to go to the designer and order 40 more blouses (Or go to the blouser and get 40 more designed- I am not sure how all this works). Which would take the tally to 365. This way, she can wear a different blouse on each day of the year, without ever having to repeat the same one again. She can number them and designate a specific blouse for a specific date of the year.

The next year, assuming she can still fit into the blouses, she can wear the same designated blouse on the same specific date of the year.

If she repeats this for a couple of years more, the public will soon see the pattern and match the blouse with the date. If she is wearing Blouse X, it must be this date. Quick mental association will be formed. Very Pavlovian, if you see the point .

Before the end of the decade the numeral-based calendar as we know it will cease to exist. Days will not be referred by numbers 1-31 any more. It will be Tuesday, the sky-blue-blouse-with-small-pink polka dots, or something like that

There is this oft-told story about an ancient rishi in Kerala who was disturbed by a cat when he was performing a yagna. He ordered the cat to be tied up. The next day the cat disturbed him again. He had it tied up. Soon, every time he performed this yagna, his disciples would find a cat to tie up, believing that this was part of the ritual.. This tradition continued for several centuries, with people unquestioningly introducing the cat into the proceedings.

Same with Khusboo’s blouse.. The cause and effect will be reversed. People would have forgotten that the dates existed first and the blouses next, and not the other way round.

Thousand years from now, people will read about the transition that happened in the 16th century, from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and, in the 21st century from the Gregorian to the Khushbian calendar ( Note author’s clever coinage of adjective term ‘Khushbian” for Khushboo. on the lines of cat-feline, salt-saline, lion-leonine. Editor).

There are no records to corroborate the story of the rishi and the cat. But, thousand years from now, when people are curious to find out where the idea of the Khusbian calendar originated, powerful search engines will lead them to my blogsite in 0.00000001 seconds.

Note to Khusboo : The year 2008 happens to be a Leap Year and one extra blouse will be required.

Note to self : All this analysis again involved the left brain and will give you headaches.. Get out of this habit.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Conversation with daughter-19

Came across this dad-daughter dialogue, in one of Maxim Gorky’s stories called “The Nightingale”:

..Floating from somewhere a good way off, came a strange, husky whistling that resembled a yearning, a long-restrained sigh from some small but powerful, and very passionate breast.

“A nightingale!”, the old man exclaimed with a laugh.

The young lady, his daughter, smiled dreamily. The old man sighed and said,

“ There we have it, the playful and fantastic wisdom of nature! A small, useless bird is endowed with such a wealth of tone….but the cow, though a useful animal is capable of uttering a single, unpleasant, mooing tone. Both in our life and in nature, men find the crude and ugly useful, whereas, what is beautiful and enjoyable…..touching to the soul… finds useless”

“Don’t talk, Papa… I can’t hear”, the daughter exclaimed tartly

The father smiled skeptically and growled again, “But, you must agree that if cows sang like nightingales, it wouldn’t be at all that bad, eh?”

“Do stop it, Papa”, the daughter implored.

I must say that the wisdom and the profound philosophy embedded in that old man’s words appealed to me and I decided to try it out on my daughter.

“ Tell me, whenever I manage to go to Switzerland, would you like me to get you a cuckoo clock? There are two models. In the first one, a cute-looking cuckoo peeps out every hour and lets out a bovine“ Mooooooooo”. In the other, a cow pops its huge head and sings out a divine, “ cuckoo; cuckoo”. Which one would you prefer?

“I’d rather have a box of Toblerone chocolates”, replied my daughter.

I was disappointed. What’s wrong with modern-day kids, I thought to myself, as I walked down to the balcony for some fresh air. How can they prefer these synthetic chocolates to models of animals? Yes, times are changing.

I stood in the balcony for some more time, pondering over the future of the next generation. The moon was out, the stars were hidden in that glow, the air was fresh and the trees quite still. I enjoyed the silence of the night, till my neighbour’s Labrador spotted me, from across the compound wall and started meowing menacingly.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Although I average 80 flights a year, I am still a nervous traveler. It is not the flying, per se, that gives me butterflies in my stomach. It is the process that precedes and follows it. The mad drive to the airport, the terrifying traffic, the serpentine queues for the baggage screening and check-in, the chronically constipated security guards frisking you in the midst of their nose-picking - all these are calculated to make you an agitated wreck by the time you board the aircraft and fasten your seat belts..

And then the announcements that accost your ear drums from all sides and with such relentlessness! There’s no escape from this Dante’s Inferno. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

The other day, I got past security a full 45 minutes before departure and thought I couldl steal a wink while waiting for the boarding call. Within a minute I was bombarded by this announcement in bold, capital letters, “ LAST AND FINAL CALL FOR AIR DECCAN FLIGHT XXX TO BANGALORE. REPEAT THIS IS THE LAST AND FINAL CALL. REPEAT LAST AND FINAL CALL. REPEAT LAST AND FINAL CALL FOR AIR DECCAN FLIGHT XXX TO BANGALORE”.

I jumped out of my chair, doing a neat imitation of Mr.Bean. For the rest of the journey, my heart kept pounding LUB DUB LUB DUB instead of the normal lub dub lub dub that doctors recommend.

As Seth Godin mentioned in his blog once :

In a crowded terminal, when the folks making gate announcements start yelling or talking fast or acting panicked about a full flight, it makes everybody uptight. Even the little computerized voice that tells you which gate agent to talk to sounds a little annoyed.

What if the airlines realized that the product that they sell isn’t the plane, it’s the idea of a safe and comfortable (maybe even fun) trip. What if every announcement was pre-recorded by Clint Eastwood or J. Lo? Or if all the flight announcements were as funny as the one I heard today (your snacks are being handed out by Tom, who’s single and looking for love. Hey, if you marry him, you can fly free!)

Even simpler, what if every announcement was calm, slow and easy to understand? That’s free, but it’s worth noticing.

Now, unlike Seth Godin, I am a simple soul and will not expect pre-recorded announcements of J.Lo. All I want are announcements of V.Lo or Volume Low. Maybe, they ought to distribute the cotton buds at the check-in counter, instead of inside the aircraft.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dear Diary-9

Dear Diary,

The whole of today, I had this claustrophobic feeling that I was slowly being enclosed by walls on all sides.

When I logged on to the computer, the first news item that greeted me was the one in the Wall Street Journal, which talked of how Wall-Mart was sourcing so much of stuff from across the Great Wall of China.

Switched on the TV. Turned on the wallume. The ODI was on and who was batting? None other than Dravid, the Wall. Changed channel. Big Fight on NDTV on Sethusamudram project and if it would damage the ancient bridge mentioned in Wall-miki’s Ramayana.

Picked up a book and, sure enough, there was this story written by a French author, about this ordinary character who suddenly realizes that he can walk through walls. Using this ability he frightens his boss ( by peeping through a wall), robs banks and when, finally imprisoned, keeps walking up to the Warden’s room every morning. He finally loses his power when walking through a wall one day and gets trapped inside for ever. Ending didn’t help my claustrophobia one bit.

Was this idea borrowed by Harry Potter to ram into the wall at the railway station, to get to Platform 9-3/4? Or to tackle his enemy, the dark wizard, Walldemort? Did Pink Floyd have Hogwart’s in mind when they sang, “Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!All in all it's just another brick in the wall. All in all you're just another brick in the wall.”

What a stupid song! As the French satirist Walltaire remarked, "Anything too stupid to be said is sung".

So, the net result was that today was a complete washout. Nothing accomplished. But, wall's well that ends well. As Sir Wall-ter Scott said, " To all, to each, a fair good night; And pleasing dreams and slumbers light”.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Conversation with daughter- 18

(In our car, driving back after shopping at the departmental stores)

Daughter (checking the bill): Oh, oh. The shop has billed us for only three bars of Dairy Milk chocolates. I bought four.

Me: Maybe they have packed only three

Daughter (checking again): No, all four are there.

Me: What do you want to do? Go back and pay for the fourth one?

Daughter: You decide. You are the one who is driving the car.

Me: But, what do you think we should do?

Daughter: Well, the right thing to do would be to go back, point out the mistake and pay the difference.

Me: So, should we turn back? ?

Daughter: Well, that would be the right thing to do.

Me: So, do you want to do the right thing or not? And search for parking space all over again? And then go in and have them check the complete bill, repack the items. And, if the manager comes to know that the salesgirl had missed out an item in the billing, maybe she will lose her job. You still want to go back?

Daughter: Not that I feel very strongly about it……..

Me: But, you said that was the right thing to do…..

Daughter: Appa, why can’t we have simple conversations for a change? Must every conversation be so complicated?


Something in this report, which was published in all newspapers, last week, aroused my curiosity.

Indian hockey coach Joaquim Carvalho on Wednesday lashed out at the "stepmotherly treatment" being meted out to players of his Asia Cup-winning side after Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s Twenty20 world champions were given a heroes’ welcome in Mumbai. “"Hockey is our national game and we have won a big tournament like the Asia Cup. Why don’t the governments and politicians recognise our achievement?”, he asked.

I am not getting into the controversy of ‘promoting cricket to the detriment of all other games”. We will leave that to worthier people to sort out.

My simple question is, “How or when did hockey acquire the status of being our national game?”. Similarly, we keep dinning into every school kid’s head that our national animal is the tiger, our national bird is the peacock (the Great Indian Bustard is another claimant to this title), our national fruit is the mango, our national tree is the banyan tree, etc. Why, even The Hindu proudly calls itself India’s National Newspaper and, to the best of my knowledge, has never been challenged.

National Anthem, I can understand. National flag,of course, makes sense. But who confers the honorific of ‘national’ to games, birds, animals, fruits, trees, etc? Does it just arise out of popular beliefs, or does it require an Act of Parliament or a gazette notification?

Can someone clarify? Meanwhile, can I make a claim that mine is India’s National Blog?

Monday, October 01, 2007

A genuine World Champion

If there is one sportsman whose career and fortunes I have followed with considerable interest, it is Anand (see note below). I am glad that he is now the undisputed world chess champion. And, 'world' here is truly the 'world' and not the eight countries that make up the 'world' in cricket, or what passes off as a World Series in baseball.

For this stupendous feat, he gets a prize of 390000 dollars, which is about Rs 1.6 crores. Although irrelevant to this context, I couldn’t help thinking that this was Rs 20 lakhs less than what Yuvraj Singh got from the BCCI for being part of the winning cricket team and for his six sixes in an over.

Players such as Anand, Vijay Amritraj in tennis, Prakash Padukone in Badminton, and Narain Karthikeyan in racing have met varying degrees of success in their respective sport, but each of them has had to blaze a lonely trail in the professional circuit, without the might of an association backing them up. Apart from the fact that they needed to train themselves to raise the standard of their game to global level, they have had to make their own travel arrangements, tackle various administrative barriers, and handle the other pressures all by themselves, at least in the early part of their careers. The journey to the top (in the case of Prakash and Anand) was, to that extent, more difficult and their achievement that much more creditable.

Alas, chess can never be a spectator sport, and doesn’t lend itself so readily to televising. The commentary, if at all, is scholarly and professorial. No Ravi-Shastri-types to tell you that “Even if Anand is unable to grab a queen or a rook, he needs to go for some quick pawns and put pressure on the opposition. He mustn’t lower his guard.” No cheerleaders to swing their hips, when Anand does manage to grab the opponent’s queen or rook. No Sidhuisms such as, " you may be the Bishop of Canterbury, but you have to wait for the lowly pawn in front to move aside, my friend".

Incidentally, I happened to see the World Carrom Series on Star Sports. What they have done is amazing. The game has been given a complete face lift to make it television friendly. The white coins have become blue, the black ones red, and the red one yellow. While replaying the shot, numbers are superimposed on the coin, so that the viewer can understand what was going on in the player’s mind. The whole effect keeps you engaged and thoroughly absorbed.

Can they do the same thing to chess? I have heard stories of Indian kings in the past who, just for kicks, loved to play chess using real animals and people as ‘’coins’. And, that episode in Alice in Wonderland, where Alice is told by the Red Queen that she must reach the eighth square and become a queen, if she wants to go home. Maybe, if we are placed in such reality shows, that would act like a booster dose of adrenalin and we would develop new admiration for the game.

Note (1): Those outside Tamilnadu, please note that the guy’s name is Anand. He is not to be referred to as Vishy, because Vishwanathan is his father’s name. Calling him Vishy is as absurd as calling Sachin Tendulkar by the name of “Ramy’ – a shortened version of Ramesh, his father’s first name.

Note (2): Those from Tamilnadu, why don’t you conform to the practice in the rest of the world and have a clear first name and a surname.