Seeking the significance of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’

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When I was a kid, independence day used to be an occasion to (forcefully) wake up early and get ready to attend a ‘compulsory’ ceremony at school. Little did we children, born in a post-colonial era, understand the significance of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’, two similar yet distinct ideas. The more I read and became aware of the different shades of Indian history, the further I ventured from the safety of my home and ‘the crowd’ to have conviction-driven thoughts of my own, the more I traveled and experienced different cultures, the more I worked and realised that my actions can and will have influences, that notion of ‘freedom’ seemed to become more and more clear. Rather than accept the version of ‘independence’ often preached to us at various levels, it would help immensely if we all ourselves were to seek its true meaning and significance.

This picture was taken at Ladakh, one of the highest battlegrounds that India’s defense forces have fought at time and again, to defend the sovereignty of this country.

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A tale of immorality and a tale of compassion

Two radically different incidences that I witnessed first hand in the last week, both at the very same traffic signal.

Day 1

A conversation between two teenage girls on a bike right to next to mine:

Girl 1 (A reluctant driver of the bike): The signal is red, we should wait.

Girl 2 (An encouraging pillion rider): No need to wait, there’s no traffic policeman around, lets go!

Girl 1 (Hesitating a little): Umm… I don’t know, what if someone catches us?

Girl 2: Why are you so afraid, see that guy there broke the signal too, and no one caught him!

Girl 1 (Convinced by now): Okay, lets go then…..

And they drove off in a hurry. Five seconds later, the signal turned green and everyone drove away, legitimately.

Many times I wish we could use those on-road kicks and punches to throw people off their vehicles, the ones we all had practiced so well in the old computer game ‘Road Rash’.

Day 2

Morning rush hour, around 10:00AM. Our signal went red and everyone stopped. An elderly couple walked across the front of us, the caring grandfather holding the hand of the frail grandmother and guiding her across half of the street. That itself was a sweet picture. Just then the signal at the other end (the oncoming traffic) went green and the cars and bikes launched themselves onto the road. The elderly couple, clearly frightened, retreated and stopped by the side. Just then a Hyundai i10 car stopped in the middle of the road. The driver, probably in his 30s, got out and everyone thought he was about to argue with the auto-rickshaw driver behind him. What happened next took everyone by surprise. This guy walked over to the the elderly couple, caught their hand, and gently walked them over to the other side of the road. The look on the faces of the couple cannot be expressed in words. Presumably, after this the guy got into his car and drove away (I couldn’t see the scene afterwards because our signal had turned green by then).

No relation, no need, yet a sweet gesture. For the sake of that guy’s conscience. It was a sight that I will never, never forget.

Same place, two very different people. Why is the world so strange?

Hope, for a change

Among news of unemployment and financial meltdowns,

Among unsavory scenes of protests and forceful clampdowns,

Among reports of corruption, self-denial and government lethargy,

Among batting failures in Cricket and mismanagement in Athletics and Hockey,

Among wars between nations and fights to decide which is a more peaceful religion,

Among rising costs and declining quality in all domains, from farming to education,

Comes a message, though an advertisement, that provides a glimmer of ‘hope’ to the conscience which is on the brink of extinction.

Hindi (Indian) Version

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English Version

‘Laxman Rekhas’

The celebration of the common man has been, and will always be, an uncommon tale. Fortunately, one person amongst us men has captured this ethos very well over the years. Through his satirical cartoons, legendary artist R.K. Laxman has glorified the bewildering life around a regular working class man, a mere mortal in the vast land that is India. For about five decades, Indians have looked forward to his cartoon strip ‘You Said It‘ in the newspaper every morning only to find a sardonic portrayal of the current affairs, mostly related to the political domain, that can be easily identified with.

Wouldn’t a collection of such portrayals be a prized possession for anyone? Most definitely. However, you tend to value it more when you receive it, quite unexpectedly, as a birthday present!

Yesterday when I opened my mailbox I found a copy the book ‘Laxman Rekhas’ with my name on top. It was a present sent to me by my cellular phone service provider, Idea Cellular. What a wonderful gesture! Now I recognize the fact that I wasn’t and won’t be the only person to receive this as a birthday gift, and it might even be a campaign by The Times of India and the cellular service provider to publicize the book as well as themselves, but who cares! I am loving it 🙂

A celebration of the common man, one of my prized birthday gifts this year

Needless to say, the book has some delectably hilarious sketches. On the last page is another sketch, this time that of a crow with a few words next to it, words which I think capture the character of the legendary cartoonist.

Crow

R.K Laxman’s fascination with the crow is well known. He has no patience with “stupid birds like the parrot”, but the crow, with its intelligence and quicksilver movement, has always captivated him. In his autobiography The Tunnel of Time, he wrote: “As I grew up I realized that crows had a temperament close to that of humans – clever, cunning and cautious!” Because the crow is so ubiquitous, found as it is on tree branches, near the garden tap, on the window sill, on top of statues and TV antennas, we tend, says the cartoonist, to take the bird for granted “like a full stop in a sentence”. One of the best compliments paid to him was when a child mistaking one of his framed core sketches for the real thing, flung a stone at it and cracked the glass.

Memories of a Diwali morning 16 years ago: Surprises and smiles

Diwali, in India, is always associated with fun and celebration on a grand scale, but there are some moments of happiness which aren’t probably very dignified yet they stick with you forever because the events felt special when they occurred. This memory relates to one such morning, 16 years ago when I was in the 8th grade.

We (mom, dad and me) decided to spend the 1994 Diwali vacations in the picturesque hamlets and serene beaches of Murudeshwara, near Mangalore in the state of Karnataka. Accompanying us were another family of three, who were old family friends. The entire trip was a wonderful experience. On Diwali day i.e. ‘Lakshmi Pujan‘ day we decided to check out the interiors of the area and especially make a visit to the famous, and extremely scenic ‘Jog Falls‘, the country’s highest untiered waterfalls.

Jog Falls during the monsoon (Image courtesy: Wikipedia)

We purchased a map of the area, and realized immediately that it was a heavily forested space with not much human habitation. There were no direct tours to this place. The locals informed us to look for ‘Gersoppa Falls’ because that is how they referred to it. “Sounds good”, we thought, and took a ride in one of the local transports which took us to Gersoppa, only it was a town named Gersoppa and not the waterfalls named Gersoppa. If this bit of embarrassment isn’t enough, let me also note that there is a distance of several kilometers between the town and the waterfalls. Just perfect, isn’t it?

So all six of us were left to do the journey to the waterfalls on foot, through almost uninhabited and pristine forests. This was a time before GPS handsets and satellite tracking, so the map was our only ally. If only the places were accurately marked on it! The (relatively few) passers by told us that the place is just “a few meters ahead” and that we should “start hearing it” when we got close to it. Well, those few meters never seemed to end and we could hear an echo of the water from all four sides, throughout the brief journey!

En route we came across a small hamlet consisting of about 8-10 huts. Soon we realized that there was a makeshift tea-stall at the side of one of the hutments. It was quite apparent that we weren’t the first ones to be lost, others had ‘been there, done that’. Why else would there be a tea-stall smack in the middle of nowhere?

Being Diwali day, it was also a time for them to clean and repaint the house with whatever meagre resources they had, and I must admit that they were doing a sterling job of it. Now, we weren’t just thirsty, we were hungry too. We casually enquired whether we can get something to eat along with the hot tea. The owner wasn’t going to refuse business on a Laxmi Pujan day for sure. He said that he could prepare egg omelets for us all. Well, something is better than nothing, so we all obliged. Little did we know that he did not have a single egg in his stock. He quietly went around the back of the hut to a couple of his neighbors, borrowed six eggs from them, came back to his kitchen, prepared the omelets and served them hot along with bread slices in 10 minutes flat. Talk about business sense and timing! On a day when Indians traditionally worship the goddess of money, it had even more significance. The little children in the house were so thrilled at having so many customers at a time, that we could see them peeping out from behind their mothers’ and fathers’ protection. Its a sight that I will not, and cannot forget. The smile on the faces of all the dwellers in the hut was something really, really special. 🙂

Here comes the shocker: the total bill for all the omelets and the tea was just Rs. 37. Beat that!

We tried making our way through a group of neighbors gathered to witness the ‘spectacle’. The word had got around to the only ‘wealthy’ person in town; wealthy because he had a brick-house and a Maruti 800 car parked outside, which by local standards made him something close to a billionaire. He came to the hut looking for us and invited us to his house. He seemed a good natured person. We later learned that he had a small business of selling packaged bottles of fruit juice made from the abundance of fruit nearby. We purchased a few. After a brief chat bordering on some valuable instructions on finding the right way and information on how far we still had to walk, we took his leave.

That was the last of the human interactions we had until we reached the spot of the waterfalls. The final leg of the journey wasn’t long, about a kilometer, and the sight and sound that greeted us was… breathtaking to say the least. We climbed all the way down to the base, spent some priceless moments there and came back up. After we returned that evening to the hotel at Murudeshwara, the manager told us “aaj aap itne ghoome ho.. ab aap kal subah 12 baje se pehle nahi uthane wale..” (you’ve walked so much today.. I don’t think you’ll wake up before 12pm tomorrow..”). Well, call it exuberance, but we did get up at first light the next morning! The trip was a long way from over and there were many things still to be seen, but the surprises and smiles of the previous morning had made a permanent home in each one of us. 🙂

Avoiding being hysterical about Sachin Tendulkar

Before I start writing this article in all seriousness, let me say that I am (and always will be) an ardent fan of Sachin Tendulkar. I have put up a huge poster of the Master Blaster in my room and probably it’s the first thing that comes in my line of vision every morning as I wake up. There should be no doubt whatsoever in anybody’s mind that he is a ‘phenomenon’ and a cricketing ‘legend’. But to the notion of glorifying him as ‘GOD‘, I have some huge doubts!

Sachin savours reaching his ODI double-century at Gwalior on Feb 24, 2010 (Image courtesy: Associated Press, Cricinfo.com)

Much has been said and written about Sachin in the days since his unbeaten 200 in and One-Day International (ODI) against South Africa. A lot more has been conferred on him in terms of awards, mementos, plaques and trophies by almost every Cricket club he has visited. With due respect to the man himself and the organizations rewarding him for his achievements, was all this exhibition really necessary? Instead of increasing the number of contents of his trophy cabinet, could these very organizations have donated money to charity in the name of Sachin? Wouldn’t that have made the ‘real’ difference? Sachin himself has always been involved in many goodwill tasks and charities. Wouldn’t this have recognized ‘Sachin, the person’ better?

It’s not surprising, though, for a country which is obsessed with making demigods out of living people. Cricket, like Football and Hockey, is a team sport. The contribution of one player can make a difference, but often it is not enough to secure a positive result. I wonder if Sachin would have made all those runs if he hadn’t had support from the other end of the 22-yard Cricket pitch. Shouldn’t they be credited too for his numerous batting records, and in turn the contribution to the team’s success? For an answer to this question, one should read the scoresheet at the end of the epic Test in Chennai in 1999 against Pakistan, where Sachin single handedly took India within reach of victory, and still the team lost by 12 runs after he got out. The same story repeated 10 years later, this time in an ODI against Australia at Hyderabad.

What if nobody was willing to stand his ground so that Sachin could reach his century in a particular match? What if the political situation in our country wasn’t as free for the growth of the sport as it is? A brief look at the career of another incredible batting genius, Andy Flower from Zimbabwe, and you’ll know the answer to that question as well.

The comparison of Sachin with some greats of the yesteryears is another thing which irks me. The environment, be it social or political or financial, in which former champions like Sir Don Bradman and Sir Garry Sobers played was very different than the current one. Even comparisons with the original Mumbai wonder Sunil Gavaskar aren’t warranted. The laws, interest in the game, notions of player safety, coaching methods, and fitness regimes have undergone a sea of change. Each one was, and is, a legend of his time. This is why distinguished sports personalities are inducted in a ‘Hall of Fame’, and not given the title of the ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of a particular sport.

Sachin has always been a very good ambassador not just for the game of Cricket but for India too, but to call him as the country’s ‘greatest sports personality’ would undoubtedly be too harsh on other sports which traditionally have not had the massive fan following which Cricket has enjoyed, especially when the number of countries having a national Cricket team are so few. The name of Indian legend Major Dhyan ‘Chand’ Singh is spoken on Hockey fields worldwide with the same fervor, even 50 years after he stopped playing the game.

A few days ago I came across this quote, and it struck a chord with me instantly:

“By idolizing those whom we honor we do disservice both to them and to ourselves, we fail to recognize the fact that we could go and do likewise.”Charles V. Willie (Professor of Education, Emeritus at Harward University)

For me, Sachin’s real legacy will never be scoring all those runs in the Test and ODI arenas or breaking almost every batting record you could think of. His most enduring legacy will be the fact that his style of play popularized the game of Cricket in the small towns and cities of India, and maybe in other countries too. Over the years youngsters have looked up to him as a role-model, not just for his on-field magic but also for his off-field composure in the midst of a Cricket-crazy populace. Present Indian superstars like Yuvraj Singh and current team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni were inspired to be what they are right now because they saw him playing on TV. They wanted to bat like him ever since they were kids. These people come from relatively lesser known cities, places which were not short on talent but on good role-models and infrastructure, and therefore were often overlooked while selecting candidates for the national team.

In his early days as a budding cricketer in Mumbai, Sachin was asked in an interview, whom he would liked to be known when he grows up. He replied, tersely, “I would be liked to be known as Sachin Tendulkar”. That says a lot not just about the man’s confidence but also about his maturity, vision and practicality. Here’s another one of his early interviews –

As he went about making a mockery of the bowling attacks of other teams worldwide, he had his feet firmly rooted on the ground. He might have gained magnanimous amounts of money through awards and product sponsorship deals, but his approach to the game never changed, even when he was going though a rough patch a few years ago. Whenever he’s queried on how he feels to be called as one the game’s greats, he replies by saying that he doesn’t get overawed by the praise and is just thankful that he’s got the talent to see the ball a little bit better and earlier than other contemporaries which makes him able to hit all those stunning shots. In fact, this feeling is shared by one of Sachin’s favorite sports personalities, Michael Schumacher, who says that he just happens to be a person who can drive the Formula One race car faster than anyone else, and is similarly thankful for the talent but not overawed by the success he’s received over the years.

Sachin still ‘enjoys‘ being on the cricketing field. He still ‘enjoys‘ batting. He still ‘enjoys‘ being a part of a team which had just won a Cricket match. He prefers being out on the field under the hot sun with the temperature reading 50 degrees Celsius, instead of sitting at home in the comfort of his air-conditioner. The fact that personal accolades never interest him over a team cause can be gauged by his body-language while accepting the Player-of-the-Series award after the 2003 Cricket World Cup final match in South Africa, in which India lost to Australia. This is what we should learn from him – the passion and the enjoyment in doing what interests us.

Obviously, Sachin is as human as you and me, and is liable to making errors in judgement from time to time. I think he should be revered and remembered not as a ‘GOD‘, but as a sportsman who did his best with the talent he had; and that in itself is something most of us rarely achieve in our lives!

The 40-day telephone downtime

A few days ago there was a blog post by the WordPress team (see WP.com Downtime Summary) where they had updated the WordPress community about the website outage on Feb 19, 2010, highlighting the technical reasons why the website did not recover on it’s own (automatic failover recovery) and the remedy they planned to prevent this from happening again. Having worked in this field before, I personally felt that their team did a very professional job in handling the crisis and the fact that they admitted it upfront was all the more commendable.

They said that it was their worst downtime in four years – and how long was it? 110 minutes. Now that’s a narrow blip if you ask me. It means that during the last 4 years, the WordPress.com website was up 99.99% of the time. As one reader (Dave) commented, that is a better percentage than what Lysol disinfectant claims for killing germs!

Right, so lets climb down from cloud nine and back to reality here in Pune, India. I recently experienced a similar ‘downtime’ for our home landline telephone which is provided by the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), a Government of India undertaking. This downtime wasn’t in minutes. It wasn’t in hours. It was in days (more like months). It was – 40 days.

Anyone familiar with the workings of government agencies here in India would agree that such a long downtime isn’t unheard of. But what shocked me and my family was the response given by the authorities concerned. We filed a complaint with their automated complaint registration service the day after the phone went dead. Generally this is transferred down to the local linesman who checks the problem in about 2-3 days and reports the results back to the main center, after which a call is made to the complainant to confirm the proper operation of the telephone. Now, this 2-3 days time itself is quite large when you consider that nowadays the ‘telephone’ is an essential service. But sometimes you have to give them the benefit of the doubt because of the lack of manpower in the department and the relatively large number of outages they have to attend to every day. Plus, everyone in the family had their cellphones with them, so it wasn’t as if the sky was going to fall. We patiently waited for 15 days.

On the 16th day, my mother called up the telephone exchange to which our number is associated and asked what was causing the delay. They replied – “Yes, we know where the problem is. In fact, more than 20 telephones are down in your area (Kothrud) because of a fault in the underground cabling. But the problem is that since there is a lot of traffic on that street, we can’t start digging.”

I wonder if there had been an IED explosive (bomb) planted under the same street, would they have given the same response?

Another 15 days passed, and presumably the ‘traffic’ on the concerned street hadn’t halted or reduced for even a second. Again, I wonder why they don’t call Pune the ‘busiest city in the world’! Move over New York, move over Mumbai, here comes Pune!

A few more calls and visits to the telephone exchange met with the same lukewarm response. Eventually, yesterday (i.e. 39th day) my mother called the exchange again and demanded to speak with the supervising zonal officer. When the call was transferred to his office, a person there said – “Oh, what can we do. For the last 2 years, 200 people are working to fix a few hundred telephones on Paud Road (a nearby locality). Once they are done with that, they’ll attend to your complaint.”

Inference 1 – A few support engineers cannot fix a couple hundred telephone lines in over 2 years. So, are they really qualified to do the job or have the BSNL mandarins contracted local barbers to fix the faults?

Inference 2 – For a population of over 30 lakhs, there are only 200 support engineers in the ‘entire’ of Pune. Isn’t this a serious misallocation of personnel?

On being appalled after hearing this reply, my mother somehow obtained the personal cellphone number of the zonal officer and contacted him immediately. His reply was even more wonderful – “Ma’am, I didn’t know your telephone was out of order.” I wonder if he ‘knows’ that he works for the telephone department in the first place.

He went on to say – “Oh ma’am what can we do now? It’s already 6 O’Clock, people in the office must have already left for home a long time ago!” Oh well, then what was he doing there? Playing cards with the watchman?

As was bound to happen, my mother finally lost her cool and threatened to go public with this story and the replies that she was getting from the department. She said that she would call up the leading newspaper (she did in fact call a ‘Sakal‘ newspaper reporter) and also place a call with the local TV news channels. Without doubt, they would have pounced on this story like a Tiger who’s been kept hungry for a fortnight.

It was then that the cogs started to turn. The zonal officer pulled up the person who had given the ‘200 people – 2 years’ reply. We were ‘assured’ that our telephone line will be up and running in a day’s time. I wonder what suddenly happened to the ever-flowing street and also to the 200 men who’s hands were already tied!

What happened later, can happen only in India. Our phone was back online this morning. The ‘200 people – 2 years’ guy called up and told my mother that he had – “specially set up a special line from the exchange for our number”. When my mother replied that we weren’t the family of the President of the country and that if a fix is to be applied it should be applied to all the phone lines affected in our locality, he replied – “Ma’am, be contended that we have restored your line. Why are you worrying about others?”

Don’t you think that this person should be considered for the Bharat Ratna (India’s highest civilian award) next year? With the way the recent winners of Padma Shri (another Indian civilian award) have been selected, he stands a very good chance!

Bottom-line is that the answer to when the other phone lines in the vicinity will be fixed is still buried somewhere under the apathy prevalent in almost all Indian government undertakings. I don’t know why most Indians proud themselves on being a part of one of the world’s largest service-oriented industry, when half of them don’t even know what ‘uninterrupted service’ or ‘zero downtime’ means!

Since then, our home has been inundated by calls from almost every desk in the telephone exchange and the telephone department. We have answered over 12 confirmation calls today, right from the senior officers to the local linesmen.

At this rate I’m curious where the next call would come from. Alexander Graham Bell himself, perhaps!