Update Previous: Hardware, Software and Human Beings

Consider this. You’ve been gifted a new iPad 2 for Christmas last year. Just a couple of months later, Apple comes out with its new iPad model, with a better screen, a better camera and supposedly more oomph under the cover. Feel cheated?

You buy the first edition of a revolutionary car model from your favorite car manufacturer, only to realize in a few months time that the company has recalled all units for a faulty brake pedal wiring. None of the editions of that car model produced after that incident have this fault. What’s more, they even have more goodies packed in with a sleeker design. Feel left out?

That’s the thing with hardware. You buy something and you are stuck with it, for good or for worse. You can’t update hardware, you can just get a new one and forget about the old stuff.

Thankfully, that’s not the stuff with software, or else it would be a real shame if you’d have to throw away a beautifully working solution once there was a new version announced for the machine’s operating system, or the most used app on your Android or iOS phone, your bank’s web application, or your favorite online car racing game. There’s always the specter of compatibility with the existing system though, and its not always smooth sailing on that front.

How does this phenomenon affect us humans personally? It swings both ways, and therein lies the rub.

You break a bone in your hand, or have a heart surgery, and you ideally want the medical update to mend your body in such a way that it feels as if nothing was ever wrong. Just like in the case of hardware, that rarely happens. Scars remain, unless of course you go for some cosmetic surgery. Now consider that you have a splintered relationship with a friend or a family member. Life is strange, and after a few years you bump into this person at a shopping mall or at an airport lounge, get chatting and have a genuine chance to mend ways with him or her. Its up to you whether you want this update to work or not. Compatibility remains an issue, mental scars are tough to wipe off altogether, but you do have a chance to make them less relevant in the new scheme of things.

Some food for thought?

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The Japan Odyssey

The Japan Odyssey

The last couple of days of the year are upon us, and what do we tend to do as we near the end of December? We evaluate how the year has treated us based on our own criteria. When I sit down for this task, among other memories I recall two big events that occurred this year: My wedding and the subsequent tour of Japan in October. This is not a blog post about “What is Japan”, but an account of some of the totally unique experiences me and my wife enjoyed among the people of the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.

The Japanese geography test

Having researched and prepared for the tour for nearly 3 months, you would expect that you’ve left no stone unturned. Its the inherent nature of travel, though, that the unexpected can be definitely expected! We landed at the Narita International Airport near Tokyo late evening on a Thursday and took the train to Shinjuku where our hotel was located. The route to the hotel from the station had been chalked out on Google Maps and had been studied well during the tour preparation stage, so even though we failed to purchase a network data connection for my cellphone there wasn’t much reason for alarm. I’ve been good with geography all my life and people have lauded me sometimes for my sense of direction. Still, there comes a time in life when you’re rendered speechless even while holding a dictionary in your hand. My time had come!

It was about 8:00 PM when we alighted the train and walked up to the road, looked around and….. BLANK. We stood there under the Japanese Anime neon signs flashing all around us, with absolutely no idea which direction to take. We asked around, but when a couple of persons pointed to two opposite directions, it was time to get real serious. There was a Japanese police station, or ‘Koban’ as they are known locally, nearby. My wife’s knowledge of the Japanese language came in handy here. The cop inside got out his maps, fussed over the postal address we were spelling out to him, and later pointed to a street after giving some route instructions. We walked along the street, towing our baggages behind us, with elation in our hearts for being in Japan and trepidation in our minds for our present state of being ‘lost’. The maps along the road were terrific though, and the ‘You are here’ arrows brought down the levels of trepidation slowly.

Japanese Koban

After realizing that we might be walking around in circles, we again enquired with a young couple about the route. The lady brought out her iPhone and after confirming our fears about waking in circles, guided us towards what she thought would take us to the destination. Another round of “Arigatou Gozaimasu”  (“Thank you very much”) with the customary bow ensued and we set out along the new route, with the lady saying “Genki de ne” (“Take care of yourselves”) as we left. We eventually reached the hotel at 10:00 PM. The walk which should have taken us 20 mins, took 2 hours! It wasn’t as if the hotel brand was less popular, it has a worldwide chain of studio-apartment hotels after all, but probably in a big city and a tourist hub like Tokyo not everyone knows every place by heart. Japanese people help a lot though, a fact of life that manifested itself many times during our stay there.

The Shibuya road crossing

Its odd to include a simple road crossing in the list of must-see places in a city, but that’s just what Japan is about. Its astonishing. Nearly all the clips available in various TV documentaries about the Japanese people walking on the road (Tokyo being one of the most densely populated cities in the world) have been shot at this place in Shibuya. This video will tell you why (note the sheer amount of people crossing the streets at a time):

Tales of the people, by the people

Being an Indian I am fairly used to westerners often mentioning about the welcoming nature of the people of my motherland. When you go to Japan and interact with the local populace for any amount of time, you know you’re dealing with a level. The warmth of the Japanese will floor you. Almost all the people we met knew about India and many had visited parts of the country, Taj Mahal in Agra, Qutb Minar in Delhi and other major tourist places in Mumbai and Rajasthan being the most popular.

Everywhere we went the Japanese themselves came forward to strike a conversation. Of the incidences I remember fondly is one where a young lady went out of her way to help us with a public telephone at the Utsunomiya train station, another one where a lady at a bus stop in Kyoto checked on us if everything was fine (“Daijoubu desu ka?”) when she saw us fidgeting with some coins for the bus fare, an elderly lady we met on an elevator at the Kyoto train station who after enquiring which country we originated from wished us good luck during our stay in Japan, and another one in a Hiroshima tram who chatted with us for a long time and even knocked on the window after she got down at her stop to wish us goodbye. Then there was this elderly lady at the Nijo Castle in Kyoto, whom we just cannot forget. After conversing with my wife for a while and finding out that she was an Indian, she was so pleased that she gave my wife a tight hug!

Perhaps the best experience was that of an attendant at the main Tokyo train (JR) station. This was during our last final train journey there, from Tokyo to Narita International Airport. My wife purchased the tickets and we started making our way through the crowd towards the platform, when suddenly this attendant scampered towards us, again through some fairly heavy crowd, and caught us just in time. Panting heavily, she explained that she had made a mistake with the original tickets and exchanged them with the correct ones. The mistake, as it turned out, was a tiny one, and it would’ve in no way affected our journey to Narita Airport. However, to the Japanese it wasn’t the ‘right thing’ and this lady took all the trouble to run this 200m sprint to rectify her mistake. Both me and my wife were absolutely speechless and while she was apologizing by saying “Gomennasai” (“Sorry”) about a million times, we couldn’t thank her enough! It was the most sincere bow I had done while saying “Arigatou Gozaimasu” (“Thank You”) during the entire tour.

Practicing English

Japanese people are a proud and hardworking lot, that’s what I had heard from childhood and can now personally attest to it. Their urge to learn English and be proficient in it is something that stands out. During a visit to the Kyoto train station we came across a few groups of school kids who had taken up speaking English to visiting foreigners as an assignment. Starting with questions like “What is your name?” and “What game do you like?”, the interaction would quickly switch to a round of ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors‘. The little paper cranes they used to give us at the end of the interview would feel like prizes!

School children at Kyoto JR station, practicing their English language skills

We encountered similarly enthusiastic individuals at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where a volunteer explained us the entire history related to the place and the A-bomb dropped there during WWII with the passion to rival that of a fanatic and the knowledge to rival that of a National Geographic Channel documentary. On the sidelines, I must admit that the Japanese make wonderful museums.

With our volunteer-guide Akemi Kitagawa san at the A-Bomb Dome inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Train travel

Even though the people of Japan ensured that our tour remained unforgettable, the real highlight for me personally was their travel system, especially the network of trains, whether intra-city or inter-city. Home to the world-renowned Shinkansen (Bullet Train), their efficiency, punctuality, range, frequency and the sheer quantity of the trains will hold you in awe. They aren’t cheap, mind you, but the infrastructure is in place. It makes traveling to a city 200km away as easy as going to your local convenience store. The Japan Rail (JR) Pass proved to be one of the most important documents during the length of the tour.

Shinkansen (Bullet Train) at Tokyo station

Another little touch that I liked was the way the timers on the traffic signals for pedestrians were marked. There were two bars on the top of the ‘walking-man’ which got shorter and shorter as time progressed. In a country where computer and handheld gaming is a religion in itself, this might have symbolized the ‘life’ becoming lesser and lesser as the playtime goes on.

Pedestrian crossing timer bars on a traffic signal in Tokyo

Learning to cook

Even a tepid traveler would acknowledge the variety and the uniqueness of the Japanese cuisine. Though there are other factors involved, its not for nothing that the Michelin Guide has awarded Japanese cities more Michelin stars than the rest of the world combined. Our fascination with it led us to do a cooking class in Kyoto with Taro Saeki san at his home in Kyoto. It was also an opportunity for us to see a traditional Japanese home from inside and converse with the family. Preparing the dishes was fun, and even today a simple mention of the cooking class reminds us of their delicious taste. Not surprisingly, Taro san with his wife, Yoshiko san and his sweet little daughter Haruko san were charming hosts. At the end of the class it felt as if I had made a permanent friend in Japan.

Cooking class in Kyoto with Taro san

Dinner at Ginza

Pleasant encounters with locals didn’t end there. We also had a dinner at the Sony Building in Ginza (Tokyo) with Hiroko Miyata san, a former student of my wife during some of her French language classes. We were joined by another of my wife’s friends who is on a scholarship in Japan, and together we had a great time. The chocolate cookies that Hiroko had brought with her were toothsome to say the least.

Dinner at Ginza

Shinto, Buddhism, Technology

If you say that Japan has only two main religions viz. Shinto and Buddhism, you would be doing a great injustice to the country, for it has another religion: Technology. Perhaps this third religion is one that transgresses the boundaries of the earlier two main traditional religions and unites everyone.

Buddhism: Gate at the entrance of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Kyoto)

In one sweeping view you can capture a beautifully adorned Shinto shrine or a Buddhist pagoda made of wood as well as a spectacularly lit modern tower or a state-of-the-art railway station made from iron and steel.

Technology: Kyoto JR Station

Japan’s accomplishments in the realm of electronics are already phenomenal, and the effect can be seen in the hi-tech cellular phones in the hands almost every person walking on the street. The quality of the services offered on them has been miles ahead of the rest of the world for some time now. Places like ‘The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation’ (Miraikan) at Odaiba in Tokyo, housing Honda’s humanoid robot ASIMO, and areas like Akihabara and Ginza are a ‘must-visit’ for science and technology buffs.

Kobe’s surprises

Being a port city, and a huge one at that, you would expect Kobe to have a good maritime infrastructure. It also has a huge open space in Meriken Park which looks spectacular at night. However, it was visiting the Earthquake Memorial Museum that was a one of a kind experience. The recreations of the Great Hanshin Earthquake on that horrific morning in January 1995, made using a light and sound show, were amazingly lifelike and quite scary. Practical explanations of why and how earthquakes occur were very informative. To top it all, they even had a 3-D theatre in there. It was easily the best 3-D movie viewing experience we’ve had till date.

Earthquake Museum in Kobe

Now, would normal fire hydrant covers ever grab your attention? Probably not. But when they are adorned by designs depicting the city’s history and culture, they certainly would, won’t they?

Man-hole covers in Kobe

It must be said here that in the past Japan has been on the receiving end of many devastating earthquakes and resulting tidal waves along its long coastline. No wonder they are called ‘Tsunamis’, a Japanese name. Our trip was just seven months after the massive earthquake in March off the Tōhoku region and the deadly Tsunami which wiped out much of the city of Sendai and almost caused a nuclear fallout at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Still there was absolutely no amount of anxiety or fear amongst the Japanese people, probably because over the years they’ve perfected the art of starting from scratch and rebounding to the no. 1 spot among contemporaries in almost all sectors.

Breathtaking beauty

Visiting at the start of the fall season meant that we were able to witness the changing color of the leaves, and the sights that greeted us at places like Hakone and Nikko were magnificent.

Tree leaves changing their color at Nikko

The sight of Mount Fuji (‘Fuji san’) was the icing on the cake as far as the Hakone trip went.

Lake Ashi with Mount Fuji in the background (Hakone, Japan)

I think the best way to round of this article is a four minute video of some of the pictures captured during the tour. So here goes:

Love of music, intent of search, blessing of technology

Indian mobile service and internet provider, Airtel, recently launched their new advertisement –

I came across this advertisement today while watching TV and was instantly drawn in by its concept, as well as the haunting piano notes in the background. No sooner than I began wondering who could have written such a beautiful piece of music, I thought of the Shazam application on my new Android phone, which listens to a particular song, discovers its roots and then tags it with the original album name, song / music writer and the genre (lyrics too in case of songs). I just couldn’t wait to find out! I turned ON the application and waited for it to show me the results. About 10 seconds later, it told me that the solo piano piece was written by Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi, and features in his album ‘I Giorni’ (The Days).

Now, I could hardly wait to hear the full song. I logged on to YouTube and searched for the album. As expected, YouTube’s search engine didn’t disappoint and provided me with the video I was looking for –

As you’ll probably agree, its one of the most beautiful pieces of music one can ever compose and play on the piano. It tends to bring out all the wonderful memories and true emotions in your heart, and makes you want to cry every time you listen to it.

For me this was an ode not just to the charming world of instrumental music, but also to ‘search technology’ which, within a matter of seconds found me the original song and took me to another realm altogether!

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. 🙂

Calling out..

These are two songs I absolutely love. Music-wise and lyrics-wise they are gems in their own right. I must have seen and listened to them many times over the years, on TV, on the computer, or on the iPod, but as I listened to them yesterday I couldn’t help but sense a connection between the feelings and emotions in both of them…. calling out to the ‘one’.

Both these songs are generations apart, and have been used to portray relatively different scenarios in the respective films, the 1969 classic ‘Khamoshi‘ (IMDb link) and the 1998 movie ‘Dil Se..‘ (IMDb link), one of my favorites.

Why I felt the connection only yesterday, or has anyone else felt it up till now, I do not know. I have always believed that as you go about in life having different experiences, from different people, and at different places, you tend to find new meanings to the world and the media around you and sort of re-evaluate your feelings about the articles you’ve read before, the songs you’ve listened to earlier, the movies you’ve seen in the years gone by, or the words of advise given by a friend or a family-member. Perhaps due to certain happenings in my life in the past few months, I could sense that connection yesterday.

“तुम पुकार लो, तुम्हारा इंतज़ार है, तुम पुकार लो,

ख्वाब चुन रही है रात बेक़रार है,

तुम्हारा इंतज़ार है, तुम पुकार लो.

होंठ पे लिए हुए दिल की बात हम,

जागते रहेंगे और कितनी रात हम,

मुक्तसर सी बात है, तुमसे प्यार है,

तुम्हारा इंतज़ार है, तुम पुकार लो.

दिल बहल तो जायेगा इस ख़याल से,

हाल मिल गया तुम्हारा अपने हाल से,

रात ये क़रार की, बेक़रार है,

तुम्हारा इंतज़ार है, तुम पुकार लो.”

“हो पाखी पाखी परदेसी, पाखी पाखी परदेसी,

पाखी पाखी परदेसी, पाखी पाखी परदेसी,

ऐ अजनबी तू भी कभी आवाज दे कहीं से,

ऐ अजनबी तू भी कभी आवाज दे कहीं से,

मैं यहाँ टुकडो में जी रहा हूँ,

मैं यहाँ टुकडो में जी रहा हूँ,

तू कहीं टुकडो में जी रही है,

ऐ अजनबी तू भी कभी आवाज दे कहीं से,

ऐ अजनबी तू भी कभी आवाज दे कहीं से.

रोज रोज रेशम सी हवा आते जाते कहती है बता,

रेशम सी हवा कहती है बता,

वो जो दूध-धुली मासूम कली,

वो है कहाँ कहाँ है,

वो रौशनी कहाँ है,

वो जानसी कहा है,

मैं अधूरा तू अधूरी जी रहे है,

ऐ अजनबी तू भी कभी आवाज दे कहीं से,

ऐ अजनबी तू भी कभी आवाज दे कहीं से.

तू तो नहीं है लेकिन तेरी मुस्कुराहटें है,

चेहरा नहीं है पर तेरी आहटें है,

तू है कहाँ कहाँ है,

तेरा निशां कहाँ है,

मेरा जहाँ कहाँ है,

मैं अधूरा तू अधूरी जी रहे है,

ऐ अजनबी तू भी कभी आवाज दे कहीं से,

ऐ अजनबी तू भी कभी आवाज दे कहीं से.”

Music conquering enmity: A touching tale

My personal experiences with the enchanting world of music have been that of calming influences, much like spending time with an understanding friend. Instrumental themes have always been my favorite. Rhythm or not, its tough to ignore music, especially when it is embellished with some nice lyrics in terms of songs.

Over the years I’ve heard or read about many anecdotes where music got the better of a harsh feeling or hatred or hurt between two individuals. Being of varying degrees, some tales seemed too good to be true. This little story here which I came across a couple of days ago on YouTube through Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop channel, really takes the cake if you ask me. I tweeted about it then, but I think it also deserves a separate mention on a blog post. You too might agree that its really strong and touching.

Its an anecdote shared by a 90-year-old World War II veteran, whose musical notes on his Trumpet on a soggy, lonesome night in France after D-Day, conquered and “humanized” a deadly adversary in the form of a German army sniper who was trained to kill him without any further thought. Do watch –

P.S. – This man could play the Trumpet so well even at the age of 90, that’s saying something!

‘Lamhe..’ (Moments)

Sometimes it is good policy to use lyrical songs rather than mere words to present a situation or project a state-of-mind; and when the song is as good as the one mentioned, it is bound to paint a perfect picture.

This song is from the critically acclaimed 1991 movie Lamhe (IMDb link) directed by the highly successful Yash Chopra. The music has been composed by legendary Santoor maestro Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma and Flute genius Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia (known together as Shiv-Hari), so undoubtedly, it has got to be melodious. Combine that with lyrics from Anand Bakshi, and you have one of the best songs ever recorded in the history of the Hindi film industry.

Full lyrics:

“ये लम्हें, ये पल हम बरसों याद करेंगे,

ये मौसम चले गए तो हम फ़र्याद करेंगे.. (1)

इन सपनो की तस्वीरों से,

इन यादों की जंजीरों से,

अपने दिल को कैसे हम आज़ाद करेंगे,

ये मौसम चले गए तो हम फ़र्याद करेंगे,

ये लम्हें, ये पल हम बरसों याद करेंगे.. (2)

ये लम्हें तो है बहुत हसीं,

इन लम्हों पर कुछ लिखा नहीं,

ये आबाद करेंगे या बर्बाद करेंगे,

ये मौसम चले गए तो हम फ़र्याद करेंगे,

ये लम्हें, ये पल हम बरसों याद करेंगे.. (3)

ये लम्हें, ये पल हम बरसों याद करेंगे,

ये मौसम चले गए तो हम फ़र्याद करेंगे.. (4)”

Some moments are so beautiful and unique that we cherish them for a lifetime. Memories of trips and vacations, a sweet little prank during school, an hour of solitude with a loved one, a few conversations which lifted your spirits.. are just a few examples I can think of at this instant. Generally, attempts to free ourselves from these moments always come to a naught; obviously we’ve got to be honest enough to realize that.

Sometimes the people involved in these memories have long drifted away from our lives, but that doesn’t dilute their sweetness. There is neither an upper limit to how many of these experiences we can have during our lifetime; experiences which are automatically crystalized into ‘indelible impressions’. Whether they actually help us grow or drag us down by their sheer weight, is a matter of personality; but as they say, “when you can’t loose them, use them”, and that is where perhaps lies their real beauty combined with practicality.

A few lines from another one of my favorite songs.. ‘Beetein lamhe..’

“आज भी जब वह पल मुझको याद आते है,

दिल से सारे गमों को भुला जातें है..

आज भी जब वह मंज़र नज़र आते है,

दिल की वीरानीयों को मिटा जातें है..

दर्द में भी यह लब मुस्कुरा जातें है,

बीते लम्हे हमे जब भी याद आते है..”

I always pray and hope that such lovely moments are somehow rekindled one day!