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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Road to confidence: The ‘route’ of no return

Road to confidence: The ‘route’ of no return

Think of your worst nightmare. Okay, now read on.

I did not grow up in a ‘car culture’, and life on two wheels, i.e. my bike, seemed good. Last November though, my wife and me planned for a road trip to the colourful state of Rajasthan (India). It was daunting to begin with because it was going to be the first time I would be driving 3000+ km, but being always on the lookout for a vacation with a difference, this trip fit the bill perfectly.

Things went well until we reached the walled city of Udaipur during the first Sunday evening of the tour. The main road to our hotel was closed for traffic (something which Google Maps didn’t update us about), and we were asked to navigate ourselves through the extremely tight and twisty lanes of the market area, only one-car-width wide and carrying two-way traffic. To make matters worse the terrain had a series of slopes and steep inclines, not to mention the 90 degree turns with house walls on each side and people walking in the tiny spaces between the car and those walls. I’m talking about manual transmission here, not automatic. Just add a few impatiently honking bike and scooter riders to the mix, and you have the complete recipe for a nightmare.

About a kilometer inside this mess, I realised that my car driving skills were being really tested and the most coveted attribute at such times – ‘patience’ – was running thin. This is what I had always dreaded, and now I was engulfed in the situation. There was no way I could turn around and go back, because there was just no space to make a u-turn and the bikers behind me would never let me reverse a single inch.

A narrow lane in the heart of Udaipur (India)

A narrow lane in the heart of the city

And then suddenly things became peaceful. No, the chaos around me hadn’t died, but the very fact that there was no way back and the only way to navigate this proverbial ‘hell‘ was to go through it, made me feel calm. It was sort of liberating to know that there was indeed only one way for me to go – ‘forward’.

The entire ordeal lasted for about 4 km, or about 1.5 hours. There were some moments of anxiety and frustration, but the confidence gained through a clear mind helped me to not make any mistakes under pressure and reach the hotel without banging my car against an electricity pole or a parked vehicle on the side, constantly taking care that the car doesn’t roll on the people behind when I lift my foot off the brake.

Thinking back, I am still amazed at what I drove through that evening. It was no super-hero stuff, but actually was a testament to how much a mere mortal can achieve if that person puts his mind to it without having the demon of failure clogging the thinking process. That ‘route of no return’, as I call it since, taught me a lot about navigating through life.

Hiding doesn’t work. Overcoming your nightmares can only happen when you place yourself on the spot and learn to survive those moments.

“The lights go out, and its just the three of us. You, me, and all that stuff we’re so scared of.”

Bruce Springsteen

Background Importance

Try this.

Visit your favorite restaurant and pick a table that’s next to a corner. Sit with your back against the wall so that you have a clear view of the entire restaurant, or at least the part you’re sitting in. Order your favorite dish from the menu and… bon appétit! Repeat the exercise the next day, again picking the same corner table, but this time seat yourself facing the wall instead of having your back against it. Try having the same dish and note your experience.

It’ll almost always be different.

Nothing wrong with the menu though, nor with the company of friends, but the food will feel insipid and the talk over the table will seem drab in the latter instance. The difference? The inflexible and monotonous wall, even when its got a pleasant wallpaper on it.

The difference is in the background.

When user experience is one of the pillars that your business or your life stands on, the background gains unmistakable importance. Ask the travel and hotel management industry for example, or your photographer friend, or even your local bank. Its something that graphic designers think a lot about when they display their craft on internet websites and in television advertisements. Even modern day TV news broadcasts for that matter, and eager journalists reporting from the front-line or the crime scene. The more inviting and sensational the background behind the product you’re trying to sell, higher the chances that it’ll actually sell. Or as a cynic might put it, higher the chances that you might get fooled into buying it.

This phenomenon doesn’t quite apply to some areas, your dentist for example. It takes a lot more than just a soothing background behind the man holding the tiny but dreadful sounding drill in order to make a root canal or a routine filling hurt less. That is, if you are courageous enough to walk the last mile to his clinic.

Earth Day 2012: An eye for awareness, an eye for nature

Its often said that our eyes are the windows to our mind and our conscience. What we observe makes us who we are. Or does it?

When we are young, our eyes try and capture every facet of the nature around us, its rivers and its mountains, its forests and its oceans, much like we do through a camera. These images make an indelible impression on our hearts and aid our understanding of the world. As the years roll on we travel far and wide, capture even more such images and try and build a ‘big picture’. Someday, though, we return to our roots and find that the natural elements which held us in awe in our childhood have been corrupted by people just like us and the pollutants that are a byproduct of our existence. Not a pretty thought, is it?

Its rather ironic that we try and preserve the ‘passive’ images we click using our cameras so that we can showcase them for our future generations, yet we fall short of applying the same procedure to the ‘active’ images of the nature captured by our eyes since childhood. Our efforts never seem to co-ordinate when it comes to saving the rivers and the forests which gave us life in the first place. We find it convenient to point fingers at each other, yet fail to gather enough courage to stand up for a social cause or spare some time to lend a helping hand towards preserving our surroundings. ‘Charity begins at home’, they say, so does cleanliness and awareness. If we decide to stand by the purity of the values that nature has taught us over the years, would taking the first step towards a cleaner and healthier environment be so difficult?

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:

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. 🙂