Saturday, December 15, 2007

Q&A by Vikas Swarup - book review

I just finished reading Vikas Swarup's Q&A. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read and a complete page-turner.

The winner of the largest prize in a quiz game show is arrested on the grounds of cheating. Nobody believes that Ram Mohammad Thomas - a waiter in a Mumbai restaurant has answered all twelve questions correctly to win one billion rupees. This is how Q&A begins. The book is divided into chapters based on each question which Ram Mohammad Thomas was asked in the game show. I found this somewhat odd in the beginning but it is the only way the novel could have been organized.

Each question in the game show relates to a slice of Ram Mohammad Thomas's past and all these slices are quite enjoyable to read in a first-person narration form. Most of the stories have a suspense towards the end and though, one could guess the suspense as one moves on, they are a pleasure to read nonetheless.

Vikas Swarup is an Indian diplomat and this is his first novel. As I've found in novels about India like Shantaram and City of Joy , Q&A tries to excoticize the Indian poor but thankfully it does not dwell onto that for long periods and given the fast pace of the book, things generally happen quickly. I quite like the author's dry humor and his matter-of-fact style of writing bereft of long boring monologues.

The book has generous references to bollywood and many a times the stories read like a good bollywood movie - full of drama, dashes of thrill and tragedy but entertaining to the core. The small bio on author at the end of the book says that they are going to make a movie based on Q&A. It would be interesting to watch out for this one.

Dus Kahaniyaan
, which came out recently is an anthology of ten completely unrelated stories, each story having a different star cast. Then there are movies like Salaam-e-Ishq and Teen Deewarein in which the stories though seemingly unconnected end up being joined by a common thread in the end. Q&A would be somewhere in between the two - the common thread joining the different tales is revealed in the beginning itself but the stories themselves are all independent.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

What is this happening?

During one of those argumentative conversations with a friend whose opinions I value very much, I realized that I am starting to think about religion more than I should.

That I am trying to see things through a very selective filter which is obscuring the bigger picture to the point of shutting it out completely.

That I am talking about things with the presumption that I have a high moral ground and hence I can discount whatever others have to say because they will never be able to understand.

That I am making enemies in my own head and then trying to prove they exist.

Oh God! Help me see reason.


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Us and Our Films

Recently, there were protests (and subsequent bans) in some North-Indian states against song lyrics from the movie Aaja Nachle. The controversial phrase goes like- "...bole mochi bhi khud to sunaar hai...". The protests by the dalits were justified and Anil Sharma, the director of the movie did the right thing by apologizing. The bans were revoked in most states after this.

This post is not about debating the the ban itself in more detail. I want to write about the huge part that our movies play in defining our culture, entertainment and to an extent our politics and identity too. I recently read Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi and in the last chapter he talks about the forms of entertainment that we Indians have enjoyed and still do. Movies feature prominently among them. The fantasy and the escapism in our films provided just the right kind of entertainment and getting away from the daily troubles and turbulence of life in India- both in rural as well as urban areas.

Guha writes that themes constantly depicted in Indian cinema- the fight between good and evil, a boy and a girl marrying outside their caste, etc came to resonate with the aspirations and hopes of Indians. The heros in these movies- the depiction of good, became very popular among the masses. Rajnikanth, Amitabh Bacchhan, Rajkumar, NTR and MGR have all enjoyed huge fan followings. People have come to venerate their film stars.

Given the emotional attachment of Indians with our cinema, it would then sound very natural that when a film shows or even hints at discrimination between castes, the members of the offended party would not take it lightly. Indians of all castes and religion love their films inspite of all their shortcomings, and they cannot bear the fact that even the films discriminate among them based on their caste and religion. This is why I think the improper reference in Aaja Nachle provoked such a wide and quick response.

In a lighter vein, music is what make our films special. The rich lyrics, so many different musical styles, highly gifted musicians and singers have all contributed in making our film music unique and great in its own right. I cannot imagine my life without film music. More specifically, I cannot imagine what would I sing in the shower.


Friday, December 7, 2007


Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from great personal success, or just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.
- John le Carre
from Gargi Shah.

In the end, all our stories, they are the same. No matter where you go in the world, there is only one important story : of youth and loss and the yearning for redemption.
-Rohinton Mistry.
from Satyabrat.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

He is THE man

This is hilarious.

The guy goes to Dartmouth too.


Saturday, December 1, 2007

Lakdi ki Kaathi

According to all my past and present roommates and neighbors, I am an intractable bathroom singer. Thanks to youtube, I can brush-up on the lyrics of some of my all-time favorites. Here is one of those gems:

I used to sing dum daba ke instead of dum utha ke. I still wonder what is the difference between the two? And, by the way why did Ram Gopal Varma have to do this to Urmila Matondkar?

And here is our very own William Hung:

Even Himesh Reshammiya would shudder at this brutality.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Both my roommates are away- one to his parents' for thanksgiving and the other one in Canada. So I am by myself for the thanksgiving weekend. After I missed the thanksgiving dinner at school on Tuesday I had given up any hope of eating turkey. But bless my landlord's girlfriend. She brought me a thanksgiving dinner and apple-pie too. Now I can let go of my burnt egg bhurji and eat a better meal.

Thanks M.

and happy thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Underbelly of Dubai's Spectacular(?) Rise

Came across this strong piece on the condition of the construction workers in Dubai. The situation is similar in other GCC countries. The growth of economies in the sub continent will make it less and less attractive for people to go to Dubai. I hope the Arab Imperialists will have a hard time "buying slave labor".


Sunday, October 28, 2007

How Industrialism in England Affected India

I am reading Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India these days. I knew before starting the book that Jawaharlal Nehru was an excellent English writer, what I did not know was that he wrote the entire Discovery of India in five months when he was in Ahmadnagar prison during 1944!

The book is a detailed account of the India, its people, its culture, its philosophy and its values from the time of Indus valley civilization. He has written very passionately about how ancient India and Indians have been one of the leading civilizations in the world. A large portion of the book is devoted in examining how the British occupation of India weakened and drained India socially, economically and even culturally upto an extent.

In chapter seven of the book, Pandit Nehru explains how the rise of Industrialism in England sapped out the Indian economy. The very purpose for which the East Indian company was established was to buy goods and textiles made in India and sell them in England. Indian goods were much in demand in England and Europe during the early period of East India Company.

With the rise of Industrialization and with the availability of cheaper production techniques in England, the pressure at home on the British government grew to promote the cheaper goods made in England. Heavy import duties were levied on the goods coming from India. However, the goods made in England had free entry in India. This double whammy crushed the Indian manufacturers affecting a large number of small scale artisans.

The British made no effort to introduce the modern methods of production in India. In the process, an increasingly large number of artisans, weavers and craftsmen who had been employed in the manufacturing industry started returning to agriculture. However, the land was not sufficient to support all of them. As a result, poverty grew and standard of living fell to very low levels. Agriculture became the sole occupation of a very large proportion of the people in the absence of other profitable vocations.

Pandit Nehru then goes on to say that due to the British policy, the development process in India was reversed as the country became increasingly more ruralized and poor. He gives us a statistic too. In the middle of nineteenth century, about 55 % of the population was dependent on agriculture; this number jumped up to 74 % a century later.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

good and BAD

The good news:

1. BSE Sensex crossed 19,000 points recently.
2. Our economy continues to grow at a 9% rate.
3. We are going to make the nuclear energy deal with America.
4. We are the T20 champions.

The bad news:
1. We are below Ethiopia on the global hunger index.

2. We have the highest maternal mortality rate.

3. The perpetrators of Gujarat and Bombay riots still go scot free. They even have the gall to brag about taking the foetus out of a pregnant woman.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hindi Literaure Links

I've been reading some Hindi short stories and novels recently. It is difficult/expensive to get hard copies of Hindi books but thankfully I've found quite a collection online. I am giving the links with a brief introduction.

This is a CDAC project and has a good collection of short stories. I've read a few by Munshi Premchand and I was awed.

This is a work in progress. At the time of writing it has 13 out of 35 chapters of Shrilal Shukla's Raag Darbari. The book is a milestone of Hindi literature and anyone who understands Hindi will laugh nonstop on the abundant wit and humor on every page. But the book is a Satire. I've read a couple chapters which I enjoyed a lot.

This page has links to more recent works by people like Harishankar Parsai and Kaka Hathrasi among others. I haven't had a chance to look at this one more thoroughly as I found this link just before writing this blog entry.

Happy reading,

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Spice, Smoke and Small Talk

The other day I was at the Jewel of India- the desi restaurant in Hanover with a friend B for lunch.

Though the menu Jewel of India is three pages longs, over time we have established that among those three pages, only a few items are edible. Rest are just there for us look over and retranslate the item description back to Hindi. So limited are our choices at jewel of India is that there really is no choice.We always get the same starter, same main course and mostly the same kind of roti.

However, since Jewel of India primarily caters to the American junta here which likes to "go for an Indian" once every two weeks, the food is flavored accordingly. When decoded, this means that the food, in its normal state is bland. There is absolutely no taste at all. To mitigate this problem, we ask our food to be as "hot" and as spicy as they can make it. Hot is in inverted commas because of the restaurant owner's very punjabi accent which makes one think of a kind of market held once a week.

For the record, B ordered a paneer shahi korma hot and spicy, while I asked for chicken tikka, very hot and very spicy. You cannot imagine what the restaurant waale uncleji told me on hearing this. He was like we cannot make chicken tikka very hot and spicy because it sizzles when it is hot and spicy and we don't want the smoke coming out of your plate to cause any inconvenience to others.

!!! ???

As you can imagine, I was pissed off on hearing this. I was lamenting at this discrimination when uncleji suggested a middle path. He would serve the chicken tikka on a normal plate and not on the iron plate on which it is normally served. That way, it would not sizzle. I happily agreed. Anything for chicken tikka.

Now I am wondering what things other diners can do at a restaurant to cause inconvenience to others. I was at a different restaurant yesterday where there was a big Chinese group- there were about 20 of them. If such a huge group is sitting on a table across yours, your voice is drowned among theirs. It is simply not possible to carry on a conversation without shouting.

Will a restaurant management ask its diners to keep their decibel levels low, so as not to cause inconvenience to other diners? Is hearing loss on the same level as losing your sense of smell?


Friday, October 12, 2007

The Idea of Secularism

It seems heretical to write about secularism on the day of Eid because we must celebrate inspite of what is happening and has happened during the last two days of Ramazan.

However, what I am writing about is this news item which made me laugh at the religious intolerance in the Islamist country of Kuwait:

"KUWAIT: An 18 year old man was arrested for eating in public during the afternoon. Security sources noted that the man was inside a telephone shop and was eating some sweets and drinking some juice. The employee of the shop caught the man eating and then called the police. The man was then arrested and sent to the Jahra police station where he will be jailed until the end of Ramadan."

It sounded so ridiculous to me that I mentioned it to my dad. As always, my dad had a perfect analogy to explain and justify this seemingly high handed rule. He reminded me of the fact that in India, all the slaughterhouses are closed on major Hindu holidays and it is illegal for anyone to buy/sell meat or poultry that day.

Yes, I remember now that on days of Holi or Rakshabandhan or Janamashtmi, we could not go and get fresh meat from the butcher because there used to be none on those days. Nevertheless, it did not deter us from eating meat on those days. It was only that you could not buy/sell on those days.If you had bought it in advance, nobody could stop you from eating it in your house. The idea behind no-slaughter-days is to respect the feelings of other religious groups on their auspicious days

Similarly in Kuwait, the law expects you to respect those who are fasting and therefore it prohibits anyone from eating in public during daytime in Ramazan. However, you can eat as much as you want to in the privacy of your own house or any restaurant any time of the day. They only expect you to do some ehteraam of the fasting populace.

So, to say that India is a secular country and everybody has the freedom his own religion is not entirely true. Nonetheless, it has to be understood that living in a multi-religious environment does introduces some situations where all involved have to give-up something in order to gain from each other.

The sheerkhurma of every Eid reminds me of the ten different types of sweets which I used to stuff myself with on Diwali. And I am sure my feelings are reciprocated.

Eid Mubarak!!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Shehrullah Mubarak

Wikipedia tells me that the word Ramazan derives from an Arabic word meaning intense heat and scorched ground. I had not thought about the origin of the word till recently and I am a little surprised at its literal meaning. We pay so much attention to the fact that Ramazan is the holiest of the months in the calendar year that sometimes this simple meaning and its significance is lost.

The weather in all the Arab land is more or less dry and very hot throughout the year and I can see the difficulty of keeping rozas for thirty days in such hostile conditions. But may be that physical pain is a part of the larger purification process which all rozdars invariably go through during the month. Calm and serenity and a feeling of oneness pervades all of us for the whole month. I wish that could be the case for the rest of eleven months too.

Shehrullah Mubarak!

Notice the Mubarak? I am happy that Ramazan are beginning in a couple of days.


Did you know that the author of this blog was born on the night of Lailatul Kadr during Ramazan? :-)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Holy Cow!

Cow is a sacred animal in hinduism and hence is considered holy (no pun intended). But there is a totally different emotion which is conveyed by the phrase Holy Cow! in the English speaking world. I won't go in to explain that because the nerves in my spinal cord are very tired to be surprised by anything these days.

I've been going to driver's education classes since past couple of weeks and trying to learn driving the way it is supposed to be learned. Not like the way I learned to drive a motorcycle where I got the hang of gears and brakes two years, three accidents and four permanent scars later after I got the bike.

So today in class, we were talking about identifying sources of potential conflict (read collision) when one is driving a car. The correct way here would be to see things on the road, process the acquired image in the brain and try to figure out a conflict. But with lazy and unskilled drivers (read me), it happens that even though one sees something on the road, he is not able to process that image and extract from it the sources of a potential collision with another car or a pedestrian. In other words, dimag ki batti gul ho jati hai. The brain cannot make sense of what the eyes are seeing and as a result one is not able to take proper measures to prevent a collision.

!!! I did not realise when I enrolled in the drivers education class that there would be lectures on neuroscience too.

To illustrate his point, the intructor showed us an image and asked us to identify it. I am attaching the picture below. Can you identify what is there in this picture? I've already given you a clue.

O.k. Stare at the image for 5...4...3...2...1...0. Got it? Good! No? Here is the answer.

The more interesting part in the whole episode was when the instructor told as to imagine a real cow on the road while we are driving. A cow? On a road in America? I don't know how it easy or difficult it was for American kids in the class to imagine a cow in the middle of the road. But for me, it reminded me of matrabhumi. No pun intended here as well. Here is some help for my American classmates at drivers ed classes if they actually comes across this blog.

Holy Cow!

On a not so unrelated note, I got this message from a friend which says a lot about multiculturalism and the associated feelings of chauvinistic nationalism:

"Being British is about driving in German cars to Irish pubs for Belgian beer, going home, getting Indian curry or Turkish kebab to sit on Swedish furniture to watch American shows on Japanese TV.
And the most British thing of all? Suspicion of anything foreign"


Sunday, September 2, 2007

Drinking from the fire hose

I recently watched Satyajit Ray's Shatranj ke Khilari. A friend had recommended this one to me a long time ago and I was finally able to get the movie. A little googling told me that this movie is one of the only two hindi movies by Satyajit Ray.

One of the reasons I liked the movie was the chaste urdu spoken throughout the film. Urdu is such a beautiful language that even wtf in urdu would sound like a compliment. There are a few instances in the film which would prove my point. It is a sad realization of my lingual incapabilities that I can think of no better way to express the beauty of this fast fading language.

Besides that, the narration in the movie is by Amitabh Bachchan. It was refreshing to hear Big B's young voice as the movie was made in 1977. Probably, Ashutosh Gowarikar got the idea of having Amitabh's voiceover in Lagaan from Shatranj ke Khilari. Though by the time Lagaan was made, Amitabh was much older and his voice had become much heavier. It is serendipity that Lagaan portrays the year 1893 while Shatranj ke Khilari is set in the year 1856.

As much as I have enjoyed Shatranj ke Khilari, I cannot help but feel sad that I can't understand Bengali. Judging by a Bengali friend's adoration of Satyajit Ray movies, I think I am missing out on a treasure trove. Though subtitles are there, but subtitles can rarely come close to the essence of a movie. A case of lost in translation. May be someday, I'll learn to understand Bengali (and eat fish curry 8 times a week too which would come naturally then).

There is so much to see, so much to read, so much to explore, so much to discover that the water invariably falls out of the fire hose. I cannot drink fast enough.

I am trying though.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Reverse outsourcing

I was talking to a friend who is in India. She was trying to conjure up an excel sheet and word document out of a pdf file. No points for guessing that she is studying for a management degree. I don't mean any offense or ill-will towards my dost log enrolled in management programs, but it seems that Microsoft office is the most complicated software they can use. The degree of complexity in order of the components of MS-office is excel, powerpoint and word assuming wo log html MS access mein databases nahi banaya karte. A database sounds too techie.

Gosh! I am taking such an evil joy in describing the computing (dis)abilities of management students. After all, I am supposed to be the techie guy. Its a different matter that I always have the MS office for dummies by my side whenever I am trying to write a report. I have realized that my mind has only so much memory. If I learn to work with the neural network toolbox in MATLAB, I most definitely will forget how to put proper line spacing in a MS-word document.

Since I have not yet learned to use the neural network toolbox, I still know how to work with MS-office. This friend which I mentioned in the beginning was having some trouble with her pdf reader and was unable to transfer images. I knew an alternate way (Mr. know all!) And hence I ended up assisting her in a step-by-step process to do what she was trying to do.

I could not stop laughing my mind of at the irony of it all. A guy in US, assisting a girl in India on some technical issue. Given the current scene with outsourcing it is the people in India who are the providers of help and the Americans, the beneficiaries. Figuratively speaking I managed to sher ke muh mein se maans kheechkar khaana. Not that I have become a complete American in my short stay here but this one is definitely for the keeping.

For a few seconds, imagine what would happen when all the technical assistance for Indians is outsourced to US. A guy by the real name of Michael taking the call and greeting the caller in a very fake Indian accent: "Namaste, Mikrosaft aafice ke ujer support center mein aapka swagat hai. Mein Mukesh aapki kaise madad kar sakta hu?". If this happens in my lifetime, I would be the first one to make a movie by the name of Chicago Blues both part I and part II. There is an irony in that too, bole to Hollywood lifting ideas from Bollywood and Americanizing it.

Rewind to reality. The firefox browser's spell checker is so American that it won't understand that offence is the same as offense, realised is the same as realized and Americanising is the same as Americanizing.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

You are My Sonia

I was delighted by a devotional song in the movie Blue Umbrella. The song's tune is lifted from kabhie khushi kabhi gham's you are my sonia.

You are my sonia on Youtube

Kalyan kar de maa from Blue Umbrella on Youtube

Though the tune of the song is lifted from our very own K3G, instead of making the prayer sound cheap, it gives it an apnapan waali feeling to it. I don't know whether such lifting of tunes and retrofitting it with religious lyrics is o.k. or not for many of my friends. They might be offended but the manner in which the people were chanting the prayer in the movie sounded so bhola bhaala to me. This prayer is so Indian.


P.S.- If you know an open source or free software for video editing, please let me know. The video editors which I found from googling are a pain. I had to create the kalyan kar de maa video by recording content from on my computer on my cell phone and then uploading the clip on youtube.

Friday, August 17, 2007

What is the Female Equivalent of Having Balls?

O.K., so in the last post, I wrote about playing tennis. You need balls to play tennis. I mean tennis balls which reminds me of the fact that tennis balls are one of the most abused sporting equipment in India. Poor things are berehmi se smashed all over the cricket field when they are only meant to be played between the two baselines of a tennis court. Baseball bats and hockey sticks come a close second and third on the most abused sporting equipment list. (A cricket bat is too unwieldy)

But this post is about the other kind of balls which has got nothing to do with sports. On second thoughts, you need these balls in every sport to be a good sport. They tell me that the lack of balls was the reason why Roddick lost to Djokovic in the masters cup recently. Oh my! I am mixing the two kinds of balls. I should stop doing that. It will make my serves inconsistent.

Dartmouth is a very elite undergraduate college. Alas! This is not true anymore for gradute schools because they let me in. The undergraduate students here are all very competitive and intent on proving themselves from the rest. So they are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves from the crowd. (Crowd is only a figure of speech, the population density here is very less compared to Bangladesh)

One of the ways for a guy to put himself out of the crowd (again!) is to wear feminist stickers. Now, I confess that feminist is not a word I know a lot about. I use it nevertheless because the lack of concrete proof of WMDs being present in Iraq did not stop the American government from attacking that nation. In my komal dimaag a feminist is the female equivalent of a male chauvinistic pig. (You now know why I disowned the word earlier). But think of it, what you would call a guy who is wearing a badge which says "US feminist army" on his shirt. I called him weird. For once, I was right. The guy agreed that it was weird, so point proven. He WAS different from the crowd (third time)

I stuck up a conversation with the guy and he said something about feminism being a taboo topic to be talked about on the campus. Nobody would come out and talk about it. So, even though 50% junta on the campus is female, all the women are expected to behave as women. In other words, the IITian concept of a non-male is discouraged. If you've got it, flaunt it is the order of the day. As a result, it is becoming very difficult for real courageous female students on campus to come forth and assert their individuality. I would love to see that. There is nothing more in a woman I like more than assertiveness as long as she is asserting the same points as me.

The feminism badges which this guy was wearing were not the real brass badges (those are very expensive) but rather they were paper cuttings taped on his back and side-arms. As the paper was not laminated, I think it was destroyed by the brief spell of downpour yesterday. If I were the guy promoting feminism on campus, I would make sure my stickers are laminated or better still buy the brass ones. To be honest, I cannot still make sense of why would a guy want to encourage feminism and feministic self-expression on campus. Blame it on my one-and-a-half-pound-two-weeks-refrigated-bheja which won't fry before 400 degrees celsius.

By the way, if you were still wondering about the answer to the title question, it is.... you guessed it... ovaries. Woh kehte hain na... ke...common sense is very uncommon in common people.


Thursday, August 16, 2007


I bought a pair of swimming shorts at the beginning of this summer term. The plan was to enroll in a swimming class and learn some hath pair marna. It seems that Indians are probably the only people at Dartmouth who can't swim. How else can you explain that there were only two enrollments in the beginners swimming class? The first was me and the second was- you guessed it- another Indian. So, no wonder that the class was "canceled due to lack of participation". The poor folks at the physical education department did not know that two mote taaze Indians in a beginner’s swimming class is not a lack of participation. Aapke liye to hum do hi kaafi hai.

As I wanted to play some sport in the summer so that I could wear my 32" jeans for at least a few more months before I have to throw them away*, I joined beginner's tennis class. Luckily, the shorts which I had bought were loose enough to be worn in tennis classes without attracting undue attention of the large number of females present in the class. It is a different matter that these shorts did not have side pockets or any pockets. This severely hampered by ability to keep balls with me while serving.
* The reason for throwing is that I have no younger brother and all my cousins play at least two hours a day.

Tennis is not a water sport, so the swimming shorts which I worn in the tennis classes had no chance of getting wet unless my hairy Indian skin was very upset due to the acute deficiency of Indori food in my body. Thankfully, my skin did not get upset and I enjoyed "playing" tennis in my swimming shorts as much as I could. In fact, I will risk stating that my game "improved" to such an extent that by the time the class ended, I was serving an average of only three double faults per game. Lao ab Djokovic ko mere saamne.

All this while, my inability to put my swimming shorts to a proper water test was constantly nagging me. I wanted to see the water droplets on the inside and outside fabric of the shorts simultaneously.

Today was the last tennis class. I was expecting the instructor to shake our hands and pat our backs for being such good "sports" throughout the term. But he just kept pointing out the mistakes in my serves. May be I expect too much or may be the instructor was more interested in the females in the class. I think it is the second one.

Bhagwan ke ghar main der hain, lekin andher to bilkul nahin. Aaj is truism main mera yakeen double ho gaya. As I was coming back from the tennis class today, it started raining very heavily. Just like monsoons. And hence, each and every thread on the inside and outside fabric of my swimming shorts got wet. I have individually checked them.

The good part is that the shorts are still intact. I hope there will be another beginner's swimming class in fall and I also hope for a lot of new Indian students starting school in fall.