Saturday, September 27, 2008

Geriatric love

I watched a French movie on TV5 channel last week. Before you conclude that I am one of those high-brow students of serious cinema, let me clarify that I watch French movies only because I can understand them far better than I do English ones. The former provides me with the benefit of English sub-titles, while the latter erroneously assumes that I can follow the accent.

As usual, I don’t recall the title, but the story dealt with the tender love developing between a 75-year old man and a 72-year old woman, with some intimate scenes thrown in.

I was wondering what sort of audience would want to watch such movies, when I realised that most western countries have a demographic profile in which the average age is significantly higher than in the country that Bolly/Kolly/Tolly/Mollywood films cater to. So, the French movie that I saw would strike a cord with such people.

Cinema, with romance as the theme, engages the viewer in one of two ways. In the first, some part of the story or some facet of one of the characters makes the viewer recall and relate to some incident or episode that had happened in his/her own life in the past. In the second, it appeals to the ‘fantasy’ of the viewer and makes him/her wish that such an incident/episode would happen to him/her in the future.

A ‘normal’ love story involving a young couple is a safe formula. You will have the ‘oldies’ reminiscing about their affairs of the past, and the teens wishing for a similar thing to happen to them in the near future. The formula works well when you are assured of a huge audience with an average age that is below 30.

But, when you have a population that has a high geriatric content, as can happen in France, what do you do? If you’ve got to make movies that can send this group on a trip of fantasy, you need to woo them with promise of romance. A 75-year old man watching the movie needs to be sent back home, heart filled with hope. He must be made to ‘voluntarily suspend disbelief” as Coleridge put it, albeit in the context of reading poetry.

France must be full of such lonely old people and to get them into the theatres, French movie directors need to spin fantasises and help infuse some romance into their dreary lives.

Maybe, this is the reasoning behind the “story of tender love developing between a 75-year old painter and a 72-year old woman, with some intimate scenes thrown in.”

But, why did I sit through and watch the entire movie? Wonder which one of my fantasies it pandered to. …

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Watch out.

I have also viewed ‘watches’ from a cold, functional stand-point. So long as the one that I am using, tells me the time with reasonable accuracy, I carry on with it. In the many decades of my existence, I must have owned no more than five or six watches. The last change happened when a fond nephew, disgusted with the antiquated piece that circled my wrist, insisted on replacing it with a more contemporary piece.

In my circle of friends, I have seen the entire spectrum. At one end are guys like me, and at the other are the aficionados. One of my friends has this compulsive need to change his watch once in a few months. He says that certain cyclical physiological and hormonal changes inside his body trigger this impulse. Another keeps half a dozen watches in his wardrobe and chooses one every day to suit his mood, attire or whim.

Yet another one likes his watches loaded with as many features as possible. Once, at the airport in Frankfurt, he was about to shell out 1000 Euros for a fancy watch. I asked him what was special about the watch and he told me that it was certified as water-proof (not just water-resistant, he explained the difference) even at a depth of 200 metres under the sea. It would release some inert gas to balance out the pressure, he pointed out.

I told him not to be an idiot, and hurriedly led him away to the flight which was about to depart. For one thing, he did not even know how to swim and the chances of him reaching 200 metres below sea level was remote, unless he was inside a submarine. For another, I certainly did not want to be an accessory to the crime of shelling out good money on a branded gizmo that reminded me of the series, “The man from U.N.C.L.E” where the agent sported a watch that had a built-in thermo-indicator, compass, laser gun, altimeter, radio, camera, etc. The tag line was, “the man who had a watch that had 99 different uses. 100, if you needed to tell the time”.

At the extreme end of the spectrum of watch lovers, is Pradipta. He is not only passionate about them, he also has an encyclopaedic knowledge on the history behind every brand of watch. The Hindu BusinessLine invited him to write a column on watches, and he has been doing so. The column is published in SmartBuy, a fortnightly supplement to the paper.

On my prompting, he started a blog called the “Keen Watcher” where he has cross-posted the articles. Do drop in there and give him your feedback.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The roots beckon again.

Talking about the ‘call of the roots’ in my previous post brought back memories of another incident that happened 15 years back.

While in Australia for a sales conference, I bumped into one of our dealers from the Fiji Islands. He was of Indian origin and was quite prosperous. In the course of a conversation he mentioned that he was planning a visit to India- his first- later that year. And, would I help him trace his ancestral village?

All he knew was that his grandmother, when a small girl, had been put on board a ship that had set sail for the Fiji Islands, where the British required some cheap labour. As they were Telugu speaking, he suspected that she must have started her journey from Vizag. She never went back to India. His parents had toiled hard, and when he grew up, he had invested a small sum in a hotel, and this eventually grew into a big business.

Like Alex Haley, he wanted to trace his roots now.

He came down to India as promised, and I put him on to my colleague who was located in Vizag. Ads were placed in all Telugu papers seeking information on the ship that had carried the workers off to an unknown destination, sometime around 1920. One tip led to another, and soon, my colleague was accompanying the dealer to the very village his grandmother had been born. More probing resulted in someone pointing out that there lived a 92-year old lady in the village who might remember, and they rushed over to her hut. The old lady, though quite senile, miraculously remembered the tragic event in which most of her kith and kin, were bundled together and shoved aboard. What’s more, the dealer’s grandmother turned out to be the old lady’s cousin. Hearing which, the dealer broke down uncontrollably, hugged the old lady, pulled out a wad of 500-rupee notes and handed it over to her.

Later, while walking away from the place, he pointed out the irony. This old lady who had escaped the deporting, actually thought that a great tragedy had befallen his grandmother’s family, while it was in fact a blessing. The deported lady’s descendant was now wealthy enough to fly down all the way and gift her cousin who had stayed behind, a fat bundle of 500-rupee notes, in her miserable hut. That’s life for you.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"If I forget thee, O India"

On the flight back from Brussels, the passenger sitting next to me was a teenager making his first visit to India. Ajay is a Canadian citizen, but his great-grandparents were born in India and migrated to UK and later to Canada. His grandfather was born in UK and his parents in Canada. His grandmother had been raised in India, though.

The great grandparents used to visit India at least once a year. And his grand-parents, maybe, once in two years. His parents rarely visited India. And, he, never.

So, why was Ajay visiting India now? His grandmother used to constantly sermonize on how they needed to stay in touch with their roots and had tried to convince his parents to make their ‘pilgrimage’ to India, once in a few years. This grandmother had died last year and Ajay took it upon himself to fulfill her wish.

Ajay’s tale reminded me of a lovely short story by Arthur C Clarke, titled, “ If I forget thee, O Earth”. Marvin, a ten-year old boy, lives in a closed lunar colony, cut off from Earth which had been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. On his tenth birthday, his dad takes him out of the Observatory and into a distant edge of the moon to have a glimpse of Earth, with its polar ice, hazy clouds and continents. Marvin understands why his father had brought him to that spot. His father may not be able to go back to Earth, but he needed to keep the memories alive by passing them on to his descendants, so that in a distant generation, when the winds and rivers have swept the radio-active wastes away on Earth, men could return to reclaim their heritage. So, to keep the dream alive, Marvin knew that he would bring his son too to the same spot in a few years.

The grandparents, by choice or by compulsion, may have struck their roots in unaccustomed earth, but the roots on accustomed earth, very often, refuse to let go.

Eppo Calypse?

When the Apocalypse, as predicted by the Book of Revelation, happens, the four horsemen symbolizing Famine, War, Pestilence and Death will ride into town.

The first three will carry, respectively, a weighing scale, a sword and a bow (without arrows).In the first phase, they will first drop subtle hints of their presence. Pestilence would indicate his presence through diseases such as SARS. Famine will cause humans to plant energy crops and thereby eradicate food crops. While War will cause bloodshed in Iraq, Georgia.etc.

In the second phase, they will make themselves visible. And, guess what, I spotted them in Brugge, while on a recent visit to Belgium. I managed to take some quick photographs too.

Remember that I broke the story of their appearance first. Although, if the story is true, what’s the point in remembering to give me that credit, uh?

Now I understand why Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre gave their novel, the title of “Fifth Horseman”. The story was about a threat of nuclear attack on New York by terrorists, with Libyan leader Qaddafi representing the ‘fifth horseman"

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Breaking News : " Ekkattuthangal Encroachment"

To reflect on the BMW case again, not the case per se, but the tag. The reason why TV channels choose to brand an incident in a certain way, apart from the need to keep it catchy, is that the headlines must also fit into the limited space when they flash it as “breaking news” in Font Size 44 or above.That’s why you have the “9/11”, the “Aarushi case”, the “Delhi blasts” and more recently the “Singur controversy”

Conversely, if you want to escape the attention of the media, you need to make sure that the name of the person or place cannot be truncated or made to fit into the TV screen. Tata made a big mistake when they chose Singur.

That’s why I admire the foresight of the Tamilnadu Govt. When Hyundai and Ford wanted to put up their plants in the state, the Govt allotted them land in Ekkattuthangal and Maraimalai Adigalar Nagar respectively. So, even if some land acquisition issue had arisen ( not that there were any), there would have been no chance of these nosey TV channels flashing the news all over. Try fitting in the letters “Ekkattuthangal land grab” in Font size 44, within the width of the TV screen.

Of course, you can argue that they could call it the “Ford Fiasco” or the “Hyundai Horror” but it will not carry that ring of conviction.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Brahmastra ver 2.0

I had brought to you the inside story on how the Indo-US nuclear deal was clinched on that eventful day in Delhi in March 2006. The Brahmastra that we unleashed at a critical point in the negotations proved crucial.

When the NSG waiver was slipping out of our hands in Vienna last week, Indian diplomats did not have access to the same Brahmastra and had to rely on a different one. A quick call was made to Pranob Mukherjee to tell him that the waiver was hanging precariously and that his intervention was necessary to pull it back from the brink.

The official story was that Mr Mukherjee issued a letter promising unilateral moratorium on testing, but I suspect that what really must have made the difference were his phone calls in rapid succession to the heads of the Govts of Austria , New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland, Norway and his long one-to-one conversations with them in his thick Bengali accent. If he had gone on and on in that fashion and refused to disconnect till they signed on the dotted line, what option did the poor guys have than to relent?

If I had been in charge of strategy, I would have kept a back-up plan ready. I would have asked Dr Kalam to standby with his laptop, to be rushed to the capital cities of these countries, by a special aircraft, at short notice, and subject the heads to his 594-slide PowerPoint presentation titled “Vision 2025” and how he felt each of these countries ought to conduct its affairs. A combination of Benglish and Tamglish would have been lethal but luckily Plan A itself did the trick.

On such delicate manoeuvres and subtle diplomatic moves behind the scenes are major deals between countries struck

Monday, September 08, 2008

The curious case of the BMW

The BMW case has attracted lot of attention in the media. What I found curious was why it came to be referred to as the BMW case. India Today, whose report I have linked to, explains helpfully that the BMW case came to be known as the BMW case, because the rich businessman who mowed down the poor victims was driving a BMW car. Reasonable.

But, why is that the case involving Alistair Pereira convicted for killing seven sleeping labourers is not referred to as the Toyota Corolla case, because that was the car he was driving? Or the case of the equally rich Manish Khatau as the Ford Ikon case? If you say these cars are not in the same league as the BMW to merit a mention, what about the case of Neel Chatterjee who knocked down a cop while driving his Mercedes Benz? Why isn’t it the Benz case?

Why single out BMW?

Face north when eating.

Have you ever noticed that herds of grazing animals all face the same way? (source) (via)

Images from Google Earth have confirmed that cattle tend to align their bodies in a north-south direction. The scientists were unable to distinguish between the head and rear of the cattle, but could tell that the animals tended to face either north or south. Probably something to do with the earth’s magnetic field.

This magnetic field has been used to explain several things, from pigeons returning home to the underlying principles of Vaastu Shastra. Speaking of the latter, maybe cattle understand the fundas better than we do. I just checked up the site of a construction company which provides useful tips on Vaastu and it recommends that the occupants should face north or east while dining ( euphemism for grazing).

North or east? Some confusion here. The poles of the earth’s magnetic field cannot be at right angles to one another. Nor can the mouth and the rear of the person who is dining, unless he/she assumes a rather awkward position.

On billiards

While following the news that Pankaj Advani had beaten Geet Sethi to become the new World Champion in Billiards, I noticed that the players ( at least Sethi) were in extremely formal attire. Cricket is often criticized for its ‘flannelled fools”, but billiards players wear waist-coats and bow-ties! Probably because it is an indoor sport and was extensively played in exclusive clubs that had stringent dress codes for gentlemen.

But, Geet Sethi’s attire was of his own choice. The World Pool-Billiards Association dress code merely says:

Men may wear a regular collared shirt or polo shirt of any color. Shirt or polo shirt must be tucked in. It must be in a good condition and clean. No T-shirts are allowed. The shirt must have at least a short sleeve. Dress pants will be clean and in good condition and may be of any color. Denim/blue jeans of any color are forbidden even though a jeans design is allowed. Shoes must be elegant dress shoes that fit in the outfit. Sneakers and sandals are not allowed.

No mention of jackets and bow-ties.

The intense concentration on Sethi’s face when he plays his shots! Like Arjuna taking a shot at the model of the bird on the tree.

I remember a short story ( I found the link) where a marshall and a captain would be engaged in a game of billiards, while their army, benumbed by fatigue and facing a dangerous enemy would be tensely awaiting orders from them. No orders come and the army is wiped out, for “when the marshall had begun his game, the heavens might fall, but nothing in the world could prevent him from finishing it.”

The self-conscious Web

“When will the Internet become aware of itself?” was a question posed by Terrence Sejnowski in in the 2006 edition of the Edge- The World Question Centre, moving the speculation from the realm of science fiction and philosophy to the fields of neuroscience and biology. He argued that the bandwidth and the memory power of the Internet were growing exponentially, and its architecture and communication ability would closely resemble that of the human brain by the year 2015. So, functionally, there was no reason why the Internet could not make the leap to acquire consciousness and become self-aware.

Elsewhere in the same issue, Alun Anderson, argued that while the Internet could have a ‘brain’, it could not have a ‘mind”. Brains cannot become minds without bodies because two-way interactions between brain and body are crucial to create and keep alive the ‘mind’. An example is the effect of ‘placebos’ that tend to release pain-relieving endorphins and, in turn, affect neuronal firing rates in people with Parkinson’s disease.

Another example of the body-mind interaction is the effect of two hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin that are released as a result of the tactile pleasures of mating. These hit pleasure centres in the brain and addict partners to each other. So, no body, no mind. In other words, Internet cannot have a mind, without tactile sensations, or until the computers start mating with each other.

In his absorbing story, “The Bicentennial man”, Asimov explored the theme, “when does a robot become human?”. Andrew, the robot, had many of the human characteristics, a far higher brain capacity, but he desperately wants to be acknowledged as ‘human’. He acquires the sapient features of human beings, and even a few real organs, and yet fails in his mission. He finally realises that what distinguishes the human from the robot was ‘mortality” and chooses to die.

Let’s hope that the Internet doesn’t get such ideas.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Conversation with daughter-25

Me: An old lady, I have never met in my life, came up to me today at the airport, and asked me if we could check in our luggage together.

Daughter: Why did she want that?

Me: Because she had three heavy suitcases and wanted to combine hers with mine to avoid the charges for excess baggage, the cheapskate.

Daughter: Why do you call her a cheapskate?

Me: Because she was obviously wealthy; she had 2-3 shopping bags filled with goodies too.

Daughter: So, what did you tell her?

Me: I told her that it wasn’t right and I wouldn’t oblige her.

Daughter: Why not?

Me: Because I don’t want to cheat the airline that is entitled to the extra money from her. I am a loyal, frequent flier.

Daughter: What did the old woman say?

Me: She gave me a sob story of how she was returning home after spending 3 months with her aged sister who had had a hip fracture. That’s why she had accumulated so much stuff to carry back.

Daughter: Too bad…about her sister

Me: Tell me what you would have done. Would you have agreed to check in your luggage along with hers?

Daughter: No, I don’t think so.

Me: You wouldn’t have helped her even if she told you that her sister had had a hip fracture?

Daughter: No. I would have liked to, but I wouldn’t have.

Me:What if the old lady herself, and not her sister, had a fractured hip?

Daughter: Then she wouldn't be visiting her sister and accumulating the excess luggage.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


I remember watching a Hindi movie (I forget the title) where the story would keep jumping from the ‘80s to the ‘50s and back to the ‘80s. This would happen several times, but during each flashback, the scene would be in black and white or some kind of dull brown. It would turn into brilliant colour when the ‘present’ came on. Perhaps, this technique has been used in several movies, but I only remember the one that I am talking about.

If I had to imagine the times my parents grew up in, I would conjure the mental picture in black and white. That’s because my entire knowledge of their past, in visual terms, comes from the black-and-white photographs from their childhood. So, the cinematic technique to depict the past in black-and-white is quite appropriate.

But, are the photographs black-and-white because they had only black-and-white films or was it because the world itself was black and white then? Calvin and dad have this brilliant conversation ( source):

Calvin: How come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have color film back then?

Dad: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs are in color. It’s just that the world was black and white then. The world didn’t turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.

Calvin: But then why are old paintings in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn’t artists have painted it that way?

Dad: Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane.

Calvin: But… But how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn’t their paints have been shades of gray back then?

Dad: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else did in the ’30s.

Calvin: So why didn’t old black and white photos turn color too?

Dad: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?