Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bye, Bye, Microsoft Word

For someone who has written 2 thesis reports in Microsoft word and has spent more time on formatting than on the content, knowing that Microsoft is banned from selling Word is indeed good news to start off the new year with. Oh..well…nothing to be too happy about since Microsoft has apparently violated some patent in using code from another company for one of its features and they will most likely set it right soon.

I only wish people started suing Microsoft for physical and emotional strain in using its OS or office so that they will do more acceptance testing before releasing something full of bugs to the already stressed world. I simply cannot keep track of the number of times I or other people have lost unsaved work or had to restart the system for no apparent reason or have spent sleepless nights in getting a document in the right format. I have even heard of an incident where someone in Berlin threw out his computer out the window in frustration. The neighbors called the cops and they let him off with a warning saying that "we have all wanted to do it at one point"….enna kodumai Saravanan ?! I am willing to bet it was Microsoft related issues that drove to him to that frenzied state.

More testing, Fewer bugs/exceptions - Microsoft, can you make this your new year resolution?

Makkale, idhoda naan indha year joot, so see you all next year. Have a wonderful new year....ensoi maadi :D ! Vazhga, valarga !

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

4 Idiots

I first saw a movie with one idiot - Rocket Singh and then the '3 Idiots'...kooti kazhichu parunga, kanakku seriya varum !

Rocket Singh was a comedy but it had such a serious message - Business with Ethics ! All of us at one point have been frustrated with customer service or the money we have had to spend on parts that we have no clue about especially when dealing with electronic goods. Businesses take undue advantage of the customer's ignorance of technology and only profit margins matter. Can one step over this temptation ? That is more or less the crux of the movie. The message was clearly delivered - Business is about people not numbers. If you get the former right, the latter automatically falls in place. I didn't think anything in the movie was out of place, even the romance was so well integrated that one hardly thought about it separately. Ranbir kapoor plays the role to perfection and the supporting cast gives an equally applaudable performance. In short, a really good movie.

I want to talk about "3 Idiots" now but I can hardly find the words. MUST WATCH - even if you don't know hindi, watch it with subtitles (Hearing to Chatur's speech in the college day made me thank amma again and again for having forced me to learn hindi....ROFL !!). The movie was hilarious, brilliant, thought-provoking,...add a string of good adjectives here. You don't need to read the story or reviews or anything, just go watch it, you just have to !! It is really the Balatkar...oops...Chamatkar of the year !

Sources for merged pictures
- 3 Idiots promo
- for Rocket Singh movie poster

Monday, December 28, 2009

Coffee 'Break'

….yeah, I am taking or rather have taken a break from coffee. Today is my 15th day without coffee (giving myself a pat on the back :D) and I cannot remember when I ever did this !

It all started with a colleague of mine who mentioned his abstinence from alcohol every year for 2 months – Jan and Feb, to make up for all the extra booz that goes in during Christmas and New Year. He usually has someone else do it with him for the sake of motivation and this year he had no one. When I volunteered he said “What is the point ? you don’t drink anyway!” and for some reason I said “I will do it with coffee” and we agreed on it.

Afterwards I got to thinking that I had been pretty hasty in what I had committed myself to since I am used to one cappuccino and one espresso everyday at work and our very own bru coffee at home during the weekend. With travel, it gets only worse since coffee remains the only palatable hot item most of the times, for vegetarians! So I decided to test how well I can resist coffee and surprisingly I didn’t miss it as much, so I decided to continue it until the end of Feb and actually overdo my deal (:D) by starting early.

I can’t really say I have become healthier in 2 weeks but I definitely feel so :D

Tips for taking a break from coffee:
- Have a fruit with breakfast – An apple is supposed to be 3 times more effective than coffee in waking you up (yeah, I understand, eating an apple during a meeting is awkward, that’s why there are other tips :D)
- Try different teas….no, no, not the masala chai with lots of sugar but I am talking about green tea and fruit tea. I used to dread green tea until I found one with a citrus aroma. It smells so good that I forget how bland it tastes :D. In winter, no matter what I drink, as long as its hot, I am happy! Remember, you should never drink green tea with milk and sugar. The fat-burning property of green tea is lost when you add either of these. Fruit teas can also be a welcome change since there are numerous flavours available and some of them can really agree with you
- Choosing another hot drink like bournvita or Ovalmaltine. The problem here though is the number of calories. One cup (around 250 ml) has nearly 300 calories (milk and sugar included)

Girls, Coffee is extremely bad for skin, complexion and can worsen acne problems (Guys, no offence, am assuming girls bother more about these things but you have the right to be equally concerned too).

So do you have one of your new year resolutions now :D? Hopefully its not – indha ponnu tholla thangala, ineme iva blog pakkam vara koodadhu !

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar - The Story of Lord Rama

It was 7pm and I was all set with my huge glasses, a bottle of water and something to snack on. I was waiting for the curtains to part and the first ad to come up (I never feel like I have seen a movie in a theatre if I do not see the ads and trailers before the actual movie). Yup, I was all set to watch Avatar and see what took James Cameron and the crew 10 years to get it to the big screen.

In one phrase – a visual treat! If you haven’t already seen it, you are missing out on something.

This is not a review, but just my interpretation of what I saw. It may have spoilers, so do not read it if you haven’t seen it. At least that’s what I do anytime there is a movie that’s much hyped about.

To me it was too much like the story of Lord Rama (Obviously there is no 100% analogy, so please do not point out what is not similar). The title led me to think about the 10 avatars (Dasavatharam) and I was seeing more and more of Rama and his story in it.

The Blue Color – Ramar (I fondly remembered how paati used to describe silk saris – Ramar bluela then color border, I like using things we know to describe colors instead of the fancy burgundy, beige words ! Yes, Burgundy is a wine and the color is associated with it but how many people who use it actually know what it means?!)
The colorful dragon – Jatayu
The bow and arrow – Each time Jake took the bow and arrow stance, I always thought of the Ramayana Panchathantra comics.
The tree – Karpagavriksham (It is called the tree of life and eternity in Hindu mythology. I have to admit though I don’t know if this appears in Ramayana)
The hanging mountain – Sanjeevani malai (Hanuman brings it to save Lakshman’s life - yeah, yeah, was not a hanging mountain but was a mountain with special powers)
The belief in Death – Neytiri says that there is no death but the beings just go back to where they came from – exactly the belief Hinduism has (that is why the body is cremated, so that it returns to the earth)
The forest, The monkeys, The animals and Neytiri’s fondness for it and obviously the fight against evil (Evil today is indeed destroying nature).

Oh...well…coming back to the real world, the graphics (yeah, yeah, CGI) were unbelievable. Many times I forgot that the avatars are not actual actors and I never realized how lengthy the movie was (It was more than 2.5 hours) until I came out of the theatre and saw the time. Yes, the fight at the end was lengthier than it could/should have been but the rest of the movie more than makes up for it.

Go, go, get your 3D glasses (aka put on a nerdy look) and enjoy the movie!

Picture from the Ramayana animation movie

Friday, December 25, 2009

Good Samaritan or Nosyparker ?

It was 6 pm on Christmas eve. I decided to go jogging to the Theresienwiese (October fest grounds) since the winter festival was over and the place will be deserted - no people and more importantly, no small annoying dogs. As I expected, there was no one in the whole place. If you know the Theresienwiese there is an alley of trees with a path in between (shown in the photo), which runners frequent. As I was going down this path, I spotted someone in a distance standing and looking at something. As I got nearer, I got scared. I was seeing an old man staring at a park bench and on the park bench was a transparent plastic bag and inside it was a man - all weird thriller movies flashed through my mind in a few seconds. But curiosity got the better of me and so I approached the old man. He turned to me and he looked so benign that I felt a little less scared. Then he points to the park bench and says ''es gibt's doch nicht'' (roughly equivalent to ''can you believe it?''). Then my heart rate slowed down and I saw that a man was half-lying half-sitting on the park bench, with a huge plastic cover for warmth. I tried to talk to him but he appeared to be sleeping, so I just murmured ''schade'' to the other old man and continued jogging.

After finishing the 2km stretch of the alley, I was jogging back home and it was getting much colder (It was -2 deg c) and while I crossed the park bench, the fellow was still sitting (still inside the plastic cover) there. This time I decided to find out why he was there.

Me: Ist alles in Ordnung ? Is everything ok ?
Him (peeking out of the cover): Ja
Me: Frieren Sie sich nicht ? Are you not freezing ?
He just grunts, so I continue
Me: Sie werden hier nicht übernachten oder ? You are not going to spend the night here, are you ?
Him: Doch. Yes
The St.Paul's church is a 2 min walk from there. Being Christmas eve, I knew it would be open through the night.
Me: Warum gehen Sie nicht in die Kirche, da ist es bestimmt warm. Why don't you go to the church, it would definitely be warm there.
Him (raises his voice): Ich gehe da nicht hin. I won't go there
Me: Möchten Sie jemanden erreichen ? Do you want to contact someone ?
Him: Nein

Since I didn't know what else to do, I continued home. After coming home, I had to close all the windows and turn on the heater since the temperature had dropped a few degrees and I thought of the old man.

I made up my mind and first called the red cross. I couldn't reach anyone. Then I called 112 assuming I could reach first aid (yes, this is not a first-aid issue but I didn't know who else to call).

Me: In der Theresienwiese liegt ein Mann mit einer Plastiktüte als Decke. Er muss nicht da sein, er wird sich bestimmt frieren. There is a man lying in the park bench in Theresienwiese. I don't think he should be there, he might freeze to death.
112: Ist er bewusstlos oder krank ? Is he unconscious or sick ?
Me: Nein
112: Hat er Sie um Hilfe gebeten ? Did he ask you for help ?
Me: Nein
112: Scheint er so aus dass er Hilfe braucht ? Does he look like he needs help ?
Me: Ich weiß es nicht aber wenn er da übernachtet.....I don't know but if spends the night there....pause
112: Wir können nichts machen wenn er selber keine Hilfe wünscht und bewusstsein ist. Sie können die Polizei anrufen und sie können vorbei schauen. We can do nothing when he wishes to have no help and when he is conscious. You can call the cops and they can check on him.
I am silent and he continues...
112: Sie sind bei der ''....'' ? You are calling from ''....'' (he says my address) ?
Me: Ja
112: Sind Sie Frau Gopal ? Are you Ms.Gopal ?
Me: Ja
112: Also, bei der Polizei melden. Danke. So, call the cops. Thanks.

This time I dial 110. I repeat the whole story again. After hearing me out, he starts talking
110: Ihre Adresse, bitte. Your Address, please
I am thinking - I call from my landline and you do not know my address....dhoda ! Then I give him my address
110: Ihre Name, bitte. Your Name, please
110: Wie sind Sie da gekommen ? How did you get there ?
Me: Ich bin joggen gegangen. I went jogging
110: Wie alt ist er ? ein 50ger, 60ger oder 70ger mann ? how old is he, would you say 50s, 60s or 70s ?
Me: Er wird mindestens 50 sein. He is definitely over a 50 years old
110: Ist er Wohnungslos, was würden Sie sagen ? Is he homeless, what would you say ?
Me: Keine Ahnung. No idea (Since it was dark and he just peeked out of the cover, I couldn't even see his clothes right)
110: Die Theresienwiese ist echt groß. Beschreiben Sie bitte so genau wie möglich wo er sitzt. The Theresienwiese is really huge. Please describe exactly where he is sitting.
I describe the alley, the position as detailed as I can
110: Alles klar, wir schicken jemanden hin. Wenn alles in Ordnung ist und er keine Hilfe wünscht können wir leider nichts mehr machen. Ok, we will send someone to check on him. If he is fine and needs no help, we can do nothing more.
I thank him, hang up the phone and went deep into thought.

He could be there for a number of reasons - homeless, drunk, fight with the family, something against christmas, visiting someone (but has no money for the hotel) etc. But it bothered me so much because it was cold and he was old and I think dying without food or shelter is the worst form of death.

Then I felt horribly guilty as my mind wandered on to when I was in Nainital 4 years ago in November. I was visiting a cousin and we were shopping along the banks of the lake and it was getting chilly by the minute. As we were hurrying home, I noticed a number of huts and a huge number of people sleeping on the platform. We talked about how terrible it would be for them to stay outside in such temperatures and then got on with our work. I didn't think of calling anyone or doing anything about it.

When I am ready to spend so much effort on one man who is lying outside and who assures me he is all right, why did I not think of doing anything then ? Is it because in someway I am more socially responsible now or is it because I knew that my phone call here would make a difference while no amount of phone calls would help those people ? I don't know......

Today I went jogging along the same route and who do you think I saw ?? The same man, with the same plastic cover and he was drinking what looked like a coffee. He has survived the night, the visit from the cops and is braving himself for what looks like another night......this time I just shook my head and went on running. God and people can help only those who help themselves....

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lakshmi irundha dhaan Saraswatiya ?


I read this post and while I am happy for those who got aid for their studies, I think there are 2 issues that I want to address here.

One, the position of the bank – a financial institution and not a charity or a NGO. I know this well because my father is a bank manager while my uncles, grand father, a few of our family friends work in Banks too, so I pretty much know the situation in most cases. Every bank manager who has an authority to sanction loans, also has a limit he can sanction as well as a responsibility to recover the loan. In case of an educational loan, in cases where the candidate gets no employment within a year and cannot repay the loan, he can apply to the bank citing reasons and he will be given an extension. In spite of this, there are many people who neither respond nor repay the loan. I know of numerous times where appa has spent time tracking those people and other times where he has had to go to court for such cases. This gets worse in rural areas. I was completely surprised when I visited appa in one of the rural areas he was working in…I was treated like a queen! Appa had all kinds of visitors and everyone used to be ever ready to satisfy every whim of his! Appa explained to me later that he is seen as the source of income/ready cash (in the form of the loan sanctioning authority) in such areas and many people take it for granted that the Bank is responsible for giving loans without realizing that it’s a loan and they should pay it back. Gold loans fall into that category where people borrow money mostly before a wedding to buy gold and then neither pay the interest nor the loan itself. Obviously not everyone does it on purpose; they simply cannot afford to pay it back. In such cases, Appa has helped many people but there is a limit because he is a salaried employee and not the bank owner. If he does not meet the targets, his job (and in turn his family) would be in trouble.

The second and the most baffling issue to me w.r.t educational loans is ‘Why should education be so expensive?’ and ‘Why is no one discussing this as an issue?’. When I studied engineering, there were I think less than a 100 engineering colleges in Tamilnadu, now there are probably twice that number. It is a known fact that more than half of them are good for nothing colleges with their old students as lecturers, no lab facilities, no campus interviews and absolutely nothing except a building and an affiliation to the Anna University. Why are these colleges allowed to charge so much when institutions like IIT, Anna University charge 10% of that ?! Yes, they are funded by the Govt. while the others are private – understood. But why should people be willing to pay lakhs of rupees to get a namesake engineering degree from one of these colleges ?! It has been statistically established by many companies in India that the employability of graduate engineers is extremely poor and they have to invest a sizeable portion in training these people for the job. When this is the case anyway, why is the Govt. granting permission for opening more colleges ? Why are many universities getting the ‘autonomous’ status where they can charge what they want with no one questioning them? Why are more and more people falling for it ? Why is a B.Sc/M.Sc degree not enough ?

These are the topics that Neeya Naana should be discussing. They should invite Govt. officials and discuss on making education affordable instead of encouraging banks to provide more and more loans. How many people can afford to repay the loan when they probably have a huge family to support? But these TV channels are only capable of echoing their political parties’ thoughts and are completely spineless when it comes to discussing and providing resolutions in issues that really affect the society. I recently heard of one of the neeya nana topics – Penngal thali anivadhu avasiyama !!! Naatuku romba mukiyam !!!! I also heard that one of the ladies actually removed her thali and gave it to the host and was appreciated for being ‘bold’….muttika oru sevuru poradhu !! All these topics would only disrupt communal harmony and induce unnecessary emotions in different groups of people whose sentiments are hurt by these arguments and actions.

I am digressing….coming back to the topic, I have seen numerous such examples where people come to me for tips or advice and in many cases, I have discouraged them from joining one of these useless private engg. colleges and asked them to instead get a better B.Sc/M.Sc degree from a much better/cheaper college. It is sad that I did not realize this when I did my engineering but to be fair, I did learn something at college and I was able to repay my educational loan without much ado.

I originally intended to do my masters in the US but when I realized that the possibility of aid was very slim because of the sept 11 attacks that had happened when I applied, I decided to let go of that since there was no way I could have afforded it. I did my masters in Germany and I paid a semester fee of 120 euro!! When good education can come at such a price, I fail to understand why education is becoming more and more unreachable for people in India when on the other side organizations are discussing literacy campaigns… many say, India is indeed a mysterious land !

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Only in....

I learnt in Istanbul (much to my relief) that buttermilk is their national drink (I actually happily had more sadham for dinner when they had no vegetarian dishes). It is also the only place where I saw that driving was worse than in India. Imagine the same scenario but with much higher speeds. A taxi driver actually went 600m in reverse in a tunnel (where traffic flows only in one direction) just because he missed his exit - the fun part, I was in the taxi. The chance illa part - before he went in reverse, he turned to me and said something in Turkish that I assume was ''Dont be scared''...ROFL !

Restaurant bills in Italy contain ‘Table Charges’ – this means if you enter the restaurant, sit at a table, see the menu and leave, you still have to pay for occupying the table (this is usually 3-4 euro). To be fair, all tables usually have bread, olives or olive oil and someone occupying the table even for a little while means loss of business to them. Since menu cards are displayed outside the restaurant (like in most European countries), you would be wise to check it before you enter the place.

I felt like a millionaire in Jakarta - I literally had a million rupees, Indonesian rupees. Tipping is a huge part of life (more or less like in India) there. Everyone, I mean everyone, expects a tip. When my taxi driver took the luggage off the cart and placed it in the boot, there was a guy who was idly chatting with his friends. When one of bags was about to fall, I stretched to save it and we caught it at the same time. I said thanks but he is still standing, yes, waiting for his tip and since I only had 100,000, 50000 and 10000 notes from the exchange counter, I had no idea what to tell him and the driver stepped in to save me and gave the guy a 1000 rupee note !

In Spain, if you attempt speaking in broken Spanish, the Spaniards will start off talking non-stop in Spanish even though you have a ''I am completely clueless'' look on your face. They love to talk and obviously they love their language, so be prudent and confess ''no habla espanol''. Also, dinner is more important than lunch. People hardly have more than a sandwich for lunch. Warm heavy meals are reserved for dinner.

In Malaysia, I saw prayer rooms at the airport for the first time.

In Netherlands, there are 24 hour non-stop bike (bicycle) races where the participants have to cycle around the same track again and again and the one who does the maximum in 24 hours is the winner. You can stop for drinks or a snack but no sleep or long pauses. The winner did 400 kms !!!

In Belgium, much to my delight I found Tintin souvenirs everywhere.

In Egypt, you can look at the pyramids while eating pizza ! Yup, the pyramids are surrounded by restaurants and is not really in the middle of the desert. Everyone there knows Amitabh Bachchan...seriously !

In Malta, there is an island where no cars are allowed. You can reach it via a boat and explore the island only on foot. Also, I was really surprised to learn that there are a number of wealthy Indians who settle down in Malta after retirement.

In Marienbad (Czech), every meal in a restaurant will take 2 hours. The service is really slow and the food is completely bland - healthy living, you can take your time to chew and digest the food and most of it is raw. Cops there love stopping tourists for traffic violations and enjoy insisting that one has to pay only in the Czech Koruna and not in euro.

In the Vatican city, the pope addresses the people in Latin every sunday at noon.

I was very amused to see alpha, beta, gamma as alphabets in Greece (knowing and seeing are 2 different things). My name would most likely be - sigma, teta, omega, myu, upsilon, alpha...I am beginning to sound like Einstein right :D ?!

In Canada, I have never seen anyone yell at anyone in the traffic or fight for parking spots. Everyone always seems patient, easygoing and nice ! The only time I saw a parking spot fight was in a desi parking lot in the Toronto desi market. Lakes in Canada are breathtaking, they make one believe that webshots pictures are actually real.

In France, it is impossible to find good vegetarian food (Bread and cheese do not count as a warm meal) and until today, I have not understood why the French cuisine is so acclaimed.

I always look for cows and sheep with bells around them in Austria and Switzerland (DDLJ effect). Warm bread and the farm-fresh butter and cheese are a boon in these places and make me look forward to breakfast.

I was completely flattered by the customer service at the Denver Residence Inn Marriott. I had a suite with a kitchen and they had a service where if you dropped off a list, they would buy groceries. Besides cereal and milk, I had written 2 vegetarian microwave dinner packages since I knew I will have no time to cook. When I arrive at night, not only are the groceries purchased, but they have been placed in the right shelves and I open to find 2 Indian microwave dinner packages in the freezer !

I have been asked to show my ID (for proof of age) every time I purchased wine in the US. I can be vain and assume that I look younger than 18 but that would be pushing it too far :D. Portland is the only place where I could use the public transport. As a pedestrian, I have had the ''are you crazy'' look quite a few times.

In Ammersee (Munich) during sailing, a motor boat caught up with us and asked us if we had beer to spare !

I had the best hot chocolate in Verona, the best pizza in Venice, the best bed in Berlin, the best milk chocolate in Switzerland, the best icecream in Utrecht, the best cruise in the Nile, the best train ride in Germany, the best flight with Qatar airways........

PS: I intend to update this post from time to time, hopefully.....

Disclaimer: I am just describing my experiences and there is no offense meant. I have nothing against any of these places and/or people and would be more than happy to visit them again.

PPS: Oru kadasi bit bakki irukku.....Sorgame endralum adhu namoora pola varuma.....

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The St.John's Christmas

Dec 1993: Its the school annual Christmas celebration, I am dressed as an angel - 2 white saris borrowed from my Christian neighbour wrapped around me in some weird (apparently angelic) way, amma had already grumbled about seeing me in a white costume without a bindi (If you don't understand why ? see PS). I also have 2 wings attached to me made from cardboard and having numerous white paper strips glued to it, tied and fastened with numerous safety pins to my back and sari (paavam, enna nambi sari kudutha pakka athu aunty). I also have a silver crown, a silver wand with a silver star stuck to it and smelling of fevicol !

Two angels were to hover around baby Jesus while the school choir sang Christmas carols and a star descended from the school mottamadi (terrace) on a long cable towards our podium.

The celebration went on well. The fun came after - the silver crown was stuck in my curly hair and with all its spokes twined with my curls ! My teachers tried in vain to get it out and finally gave up since there were eager to go home. So there I was walking home in a navy blue skirt, white shirt and a silver crown !! Thanks to amma's patience and lots of coconut oil, the thingy finally came out.

PS: In Hinduism, widows generally wear (or wore, not anymore) white saris and had no bindi.

Dec 1994: The teachers prudently decided not to make me an angel this time :D (although I am always one....neenga sollalana naane sollika vendiyadhu dhan)! Instead, they made me Mother Mary much to amma's relief since this time I had white saris but a blue scarf wrapped around my head. My hair thanked me :)

Dec 1995: It was Hindi period, we had Hindi poetry and I had forgotten my textbook. I knew for sure my Hindi teacher, who I never liked since he was too strict, was going to write in my handbook in the ''Notes to parents'' section and until then, I had had a clean record. I was looking for some way out when I heard that they were conducting auditions for the school choir since we had a new music master to lead the choir. Off I went to the auditions although I had no intentions whatsoever of joining the choir and I was selected! Since I liked many of the students in the choir (both juniors and seniors), and I always liked carols, I decided to stay.

The music master had studied in London and he always gave himself airs about his English. It was at this time that I became the English club secretary in the school. When he found that out, he wanted to mess with me and so challenged me to explain the meaning of 2 words he chose. First one was ''rendezvous'' and I got off easy since we had learnt that word and its pronunciation only the previous week (I love saying rohn-de-voo :D). He was slightly taken aback and gave the second word some more thought and I was thinking...sethen....! Second word was ''melancholy'', when he said that I almost laughed while I explained the meaning. He was so impressed that since then I became one of his favorite students. But only I know the truth that I had laughed because I had learnt that word from ''Know your english'' (A section in Hindu every tuesday) that very morning :D !

Rehearsing for Christmas celebration was always extra fun because we could choose to rehearse at any time suitable and we would always choose to skip periods where we knew we would get into trouble :D !

Dec 1996: We had a Christmas skit - My children die in a bomb blast and my husband is affected with leprosy and when I finally pray to the Lord, my husband is miraculously cured, lo ! a Christmas miracle (According to the school skit records, I had 7 husbands and 5 kids :D). Photo shows my ''husband'' thanking the lord after being cured.

Dec 1997: For a change, we decided to have an easter celebration and obviously that meant acting the Crucifixion of Christ. I once again played Mother Mary but this time the role meant more than staring and smiling at a baby in a barn. I had to cry all along and play the emotional mother since it was my son being crucified (while making sure my costume stays in place and that I don't trip on the cross that the guy playing my son was carrying and walking in front of me).

We had all rehearsed really well and on the D-day, it poured and rained and poured. We were dressed and ready to go but there were not even a handful in the audience. So the celebration was postponed and it rained again that day. It was not heavy, so we performed in the rain (although there was a stage, we were getting wet) and instead of fake tears, I had rain drops !

Dec 1998: There was a Christmas tree competition where the class producing the best decorated tree would win a prize. Now, you should know that there are no ''christmas trees'' in India or at least in South India, in singara Chennai. So we brought a tree that resembled one and after hours of struggle, we finally made it stand still and decorated it. We turn around, find that our juniors had purchased a plastic christmas tree with a stand and they finished decorating it in less than an hour and obviously the artificial one always looks better (enakku vayetherichal...grrr...) and pullayar amma appava suthi pazham win panna kadai ayiduthu (Non-tamil readers: Juniors won)

Yeah, every year has its own Christmas story......

And all these Christmas celebrations will have our correspondent's address. If it was sunny, he said ''God has blessed has with a beautiful day'' and if it rained he said ''God has blessed us with rain''....the key is always the blessing....we used to almost mouth his address with him :D !

Just in: Amma says that this year there is going to be a live webcast of the St.John's Christmas celebration, I am just waiting for the link....

College: I had a Christian roommate and her mom made the most delicious rose cookies (thats what they were called) and she always used to bring a few especially for me even if we had other roommates fighting for it :D ! I have really fond memories of seeing the well-made crib in their house every Christmas and me getting her decorations for it (I told you right, a gift should match the occasion and be useful ?!)

Truthfully, I have celebrated Christmas with more enthu in India than in Europe. Christmas celebration in Germany, especially in cities, is very subdued. The few indications are the Christmas trees, Christmas markets, Christmas work parties and thousands of people shopping ! Last year, I was in Malta for Christmas and it warmed my heart to see the whole place festively decorated, beautiful cribs everywhere and carols even in restaurants - that's really how Christmas should be.....the night can be silent but the season should be festive, really festive....

Merry Christmas everyone !

(Politically correct greeting) Happy Holidays !

If you think this is too soon then you should know that most European offices will go into slumber mode starting today and will wake up only on 10th Jan.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

I am going south...

...if you thought I was doing badly then that's the whole point of the post ! Why is going south a bad thing ? Just because south indicates going in a downward direction in a traditional compass ?

For someone born in South India and living in South Germany, I take offence when someone uses ''going south'' for bad/declining things ! With the recession we had (yes, had, things are improving already) I have heard careers, companies, people everything going south and it irks me...really does !

I, for one, prefer going south in Italy/Spain - better weather, better places and a lot more fun.

I have also read ''going west'' and this is usually associated with the sun setting in the west and hence this expression is again used in a negative context.

Although I kind of understand the logic behind all these expressions (however twisted it is), I would feel a lot happier if we left the directions out of the nuances in the language !

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mike Mohan

I was listening to Nilavu thoongum neram yesterday and I couldn't help wonder at how lucky Mohan, or popularly known as Mike Mohan, was to get where he stayed for quite a few years.

There are 2 things that I believe took him to the top - one, Ilayaraja's brilliant compositions and two, his very pleasant voice that makes people believe that he is the one that is actually singing all those melodies. He obviously can take no credit for the former and apparently he has nothing to do with the latter either, as I learnt a few years ago, since it was'nt his voice and the dubbing was offered by some poor soul.

He looks decent, nothing special and I cannot remember one movie where his acting skills can be deemed ''excellent''. He was a very normal actor and the only movie where he showed some subtle difference was ''Mouna Raagam''....and yet, he was one of the most popular actors in the 80s and if I remember right, he was called the ''silver jubilee'' hero!

Things like these make one believe in thalaiezhuthu/kismat/fate !

To be fair to him, he always used to express himself as a singer, especially during the songs and he remained fit throught his regime, so maybe there is work behind every thalaiezhuthu/kismat/fate.....

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Crunchy Soya Nuts

I have been experimenting with many soya recipes recently. Soya and soya products are protein rich foods and hence are especially good for vegetarians who are not careful with their regular intakes of plant protein. There are conflicting opinions on how healthy Soya products are – Some believe they are the best while some others believe they are cancer-inducing! To me, the key is if my body gets along with Soya. It cannot really be cancer-inducing if more than a billion people in Asia use it without any issues but then again, they are used to it for generations. I think the best way is to try it out, see if one gets along with it, have no allergic reactions, no drastic changes in bowel movements, etc. In case of women, having no cycle-related issues would be a good indicator. The other thing would be to not over do it and replace all sources of protein purely with Soya for the rest of your life. Alavakku minjinal amudhamum nanju !

What do you need:
- Soya beans
- half a teaspoon of Olive oil/Butter
- Salt
- Baking oven
- Spices (Optional)

Time needed: <5min work, 35 min baking time

Kind: Very healthy, has a protein content of approx. 40%

How to do it:
- Soak soybeans in water at least for 4 hours
- Drain the water, wash the soybeans
- Grease the oven plate with olive oil/butter
- Spread the soybeans on it as a layer
- Bake them at 200 C for 30-40min (until they are dark brown)
- Add salt and spices (chilli powder or chaat masala) and mix well
- If you want to store it, do so in an air-tight container.

Result should be crunchy soya nuts that are ideal (to replace groundnuts) as 'a something to munch on' for a movie or a cricket match and will not push up your calorie intake too much :) !

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Vandutangayya, vandhutaanga !

When I first heard that Google was going to map India using vans, I was surprised…..I mean even mapping a city in India would take for ages given that they have no accurate public data to access and they would have to keep driving forever in the traffic to do the mapping themselves. But Google is smarter than that, they are going to use the best resource from India, millions of Indians, to create the maps for them with the Google Internet Bus initiative.

With people getting educated about internet, maps and map making, it will sure be exciting for them to create maps of their neighbourhood. It brings with it an excitement that is akin to what one experienced when one first created an email id or got exposed to a chat tool or even Orkut. I remember how hooked I was in the first 10 days, I spent most of my time awake glued to my laptop and this is exactly what they are counting on, I guess !

They have first started in Kerala…maybe because of the google team using this as an excuse to get ayurvedic massages and boat-house stays while they are touring :D or maybe because of the browsing stats from Kerala!

I am excited, really excited to see the power of user-generated content from a country with millions of users (yes, yes, we have more than a billion people but not all of them use Google, right ?)...and am keeping my fingers crossed....

Update 1:
The bus has apparently already toured Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Did anyone see it, take a tour ? Let me know !

Update 2, as on 18 Dec:
I read another article on this subject and I find the technique of using landmarks for giving directions simply brilliant especially in a place like India where street names have very less value unless it is a prominent one (like Mount Road, CP Ramaswamy road in Chennai). I thought about the street where my school is located and I think it is 4th trust cross street but I am not sure and I went to this school for 12 years ! But everyone in Mandaveli knows where St.John's is and that will definitely be used for giving directions.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Time is precious, wall clocks aren't !

I attended a wedding last week and I am still in the wedding mood. I usually pride myself on giving good gifts for any occasion. As I had just a week’s notice for the wedding, I was particularly happy with what I had chosen (will come back to that later). But as I was thinking about a gift, I decided that quite a few people are clueless and I should probably write a post with some helpful hints (my good deed for the day :D)

Put some thought into it: Gifts depend on the occasion, people and your relationship with them. Of course the budget one has in mind is also important but I believe that if you are clear about the first three, you can do wonders even with a modest budget. In general, men fair really badly in this category, so guys, be smart and ask your girl or some girl for suggestions.

A Gift should match the occasion: A self-help book as a wedding gift is a bad idea, a really bad idea. A wedding gift should usually serve as a reminder of the happy occasion, so avoid perishables like flowers, chocolates which are probably more suited for a birthday. These perishables can accompany the gift but should not be the gift itself.

A Gift should be usable, not redundant: These days, most people have a wish list and if they do not, there is no harm in asking them. After all, you want your gift to be used rather than be stored in the loft or pawned off on someone else as a gift, right? The latter is what happens to wall clocks, culinary sets and flower vases. Please avoid all these unless they are special or unique in some way. I know of friends who ended up with 7 wall clocks, 8 vases and 4 culinary sets after their wedding!! Even if you had a wall clock in every room, 7 wall clocks are simply too many!! Similarly getting a swamy padam as a gift for house-warming is a very obvious choice ergo everyone does it, remember the people are going to live in a house not in a Madam. So unless you have a special one, like a hand-made Tanjore painting or something from their wish list, skip this option.

Make safe choices and don’t get too personal: If you are getting a gift-certificate, for example, make sure it is from a store that they will use. If you do not know, ask. Unless the person is really close to you, avoid cosmetics, perfumes, jewelery, clothes etc. For one, you do not know the person’s preferences (not just likes and dislikes but even allergies!) and secondly, you might send a wrong message.

Include a wish/message: Your wish is more important than the gift itself. So write a note – doesn’t have to be a fancy card and/or a fancy poem, just a line wishing them well would do. A hand-written note is more personal than a print-out, don’t worry, not everyone is blessed with a good handwriting (experience speaks!). As long as your wish is not in a sealed envelope that you are sure will be opened by the person itself, avoid sarcastic and sexy remarks.

That was quite some blah..blah….so let me move on to some suggestions (I am sure this is the part that will be most interesting for exasperated male readers :D!)

Money would be one of my top suggestions. Cash is too blunt, so gift certificates would be a great gift. It is usable and the item they buy serves as a reminder as well. You can personalize it your own way with sweets or fancy decoration. That’s exactly what I did. I gave the wedding couple 2 gift certificates (each carrying a personalized wish) that I know they will use along with a photo frame that has a photo taken on their first weekend together, 2 years ago (Oh…I love my email archive) and everything nicely gift wrapped with all the fancy stuff I could lay my hands on :D!

I have listed only a few. I would keep updating this post regularly depending on what I buy or get...hopefully (makkale, take the hint :D)

Informal gifts (for near and dear ones): Assuming you know the person well, there is actually a wide range of choices. You only have to decide which one of the three following options you want to go for. Obviously something that falls into all 3 categories is a super-duper gift !

A gift based on their needs – Things they are most likely to buy
- lamp shades, book on interior decoration or a gift certificate to a furniture store are all really useful house-warming presents one can get.
- In case of a wedding, some gift based on their honeymoon - if you know the place chosen for the honeymoon, getting them tickets to a local show, a romantic boat ride or something similar
- If the bride/groom is moving to a foreign country after the wedding, travel-related gifts like luggage, passport holders, aircraft pillows or something very ‘Indian’ to remind them of home (swades music here…)
- Gift certificates to their favorite stores (Globus, Westside, the list is endless) are always useful
- If it is a b’day party or a celebration at home, you can help the host cook before the party and clean up afterwards. This is a gift for which you will be thanked a million times ! This would actually fall under things they desperately need!

A gift based on their preferences - Things they like but would probably never spend for.
- Pedicure/Manicure gift certificate for someone who shys away from grooming or something similar (like a massage)
- Membership to a fitness program (even for a week or a month) for someone who talks a lot about fitness but does nothing ;)
- Electronic items or accessories (Laptop speakers/portable batteries, iPod accessories etc.)
- Books/DVDs for collectors
- Movie/concert/live shows tickets
Here again men should be careful while going for jewelery, clothes and/or cosmetics.

A personalized gift – Here are a few examples:
- Create a collection of the person’s favorite songs or videos – for example, in keeping with technology, you can create a youtube or iTunes playlist and send/share it (I retain copyright for this idea and demand acknowledgement as and when it is used)
- If you can paint, draw a sketch and frame it
- I love photos and anything to do with it. So I have given people photo frames with special photos, custom-made photo calendars with a personalized message for every month, custom-made wall clock with photos in it, digital photo frames, custom-made photo albums, articles with photos (clothing, coffee cups etc.) and so far, everyone has loved it.

Formal gifts (for colleagues, neighbours and other friends) : One great option here would be for many people to chip in in-order to get a good gift without stretching the purse strings too much. Usually at work, we have a box that is passed around for the collection. This way, no needs to know what the other has contributed and all that matters is the final sum and what we get to do with it.

Most people like to get articles unique to a certain country. Here in Germany, all my colleagues like Indian spices, certain kinds of sweets, clothes, jewelry etc. So anytime I come home, I choose some articles to take back to them. In India, I assume, it is the other way around, people like to get stuff from Germany (even Lindt chocolates from Germany are special because everything on the wrapper is German unlike the Lindt chocolates in India with English on it….and I don’t think it’s a question of authenticity :D)

If you are a man or if you think like one and say – ‘It’s the thought that matters’…..then I would have to say, ‘yes’. But what is the thought, that’s the question – you probably say ‘I thought about showing up and remembered to buy something’ while for me it is ‘I am here to celebrate with you and here is something to make the day all the more special for you’….enna panradhu, its all in the genes !

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Want to invest in carbon ?

Can you actually believe that there is a market price for carbon ?!

Carbon credits are an attempt to save the world by monetizing the reduction of carbondioxide and green house gas emissions since people never listen unless it is about money. Gist - Emit green house gases and pay a fine; Reduce emission and get paid for it. For purposes of measurement, one carbon credit is equivalent to a ton of carbon.

To explain it in very simple terms, if I own an industry that is legally allowed to emit only 100 units of carbon when it actually emits 200 units (this is called a carbon source), then either I have to invest in reducing this emission or I invest in afforestation (trees consume CO2, remember ? This acts as a carbon sink) such that the 100 units of carbon are ''absorbed''. This would be applicable to all carbon sources - be it an industry, a car or a house. This concept was discussed and it took shape way back in 2006 but implementing it hasn't been quite easy.

And in the meanwhile, international trading of carbon is already gaining momentum....mainly because there are certain areas that are industrialized and certain that are purely vegetated. So the idea is for those who have excess carbon credits to sell it to those who have few or none.

The other side of this issue is knowing and determining the usability of an area as a carbon sink with a certain accuracy. This depends on the amount of vegetation or what is known as biomass. In simple terms, it is plant matter. Determining the biomass in a region would mean knowing the density as well as type of vegetation - types of trees, their height etc. This is one of the objectives globe monitoring satellites are trying to accomplish today, for the sake of the earth, let's hope they soon succeed.

Water has a market price, carbon has one now, wonder when we would start paying for oxygen too....

Friday, December 11, 2009

At the register office...

....a very close friend of mine got married today. He sent me an invitation last week (!!) but I somehow managed to take the day off, make sure Ashok's travel plans were right and purchase a good gift.

The day began with a -2 deg C temperature and rain and as the day progressed, it started snowing too. Such weather calls for warm clothes, pullovers, jackets, scarves and whatnots....all in sober colors and I was thinking 'But its a wedding....' and that deserves bright colors, fancy clothes with a festive touch. The weather lost the battle and we got dressed in style, the wedding style - me in a bright salwar that you can spot from a mile away and Ashok in a suit.

After a train and taxi ride, when we reached the Rathaus (city hall), it was all so quiet that I suspected that we were at the wrong place...although I knew it was going to be a simple affair, I think I was expecting some sort of 'wedding indication' like flowers in the entrance or people waiting or some form of hulchul. On looking for the register office, we found a room and we finally heard voices and were greeted by a room with 18 people, with the bride and groom sitting in the front row and the registrar sitting at a table with a flower bouquet on it.

The wedding lasted 10 minutes (the shortest wedding I have ever been to!) - 5 minutes of oration by the registrar, 5 min for saying 'I do', exchanging rings and kissing the bride. Afterwards, champagne was offered to everyone and then we moved to a restaurant in the neighbourhood for lunch. Since this was the first time we were meeting the friend's family, time was spent in introductions and the rest discussing the usual questions about India (cuisine, yoga, bollywood, Indian weddings, clothes, languages) and about our stay in Germany/ was fun since every time at least one of them comes up with an unusual/awkward/embarassing question that always ends up being funny.

After some excellent ravioli, came out the dessert....9 different cakes !! The groom's mother, sister and cousin had all baked cakes. Although I am not fond of cakes and I rarely take more than a bite (just for being polite), I had 2 pieces and they were absolutely sumptuous ! If you click on the photo, you will see what I mean.

Espresso followed the cakes and then came the hugs, wishes and the goodbye.

Here are some things I saw, that I know would completely shock/astonish anyone back home....maybe this will change....well..who knows...
- The whole celebration lasted 4 hours.
- 20 people were invited to the wedding.
- The groom offered to pick us up for the wedding (and I vehemently denied it!)
- The bride's mother was not there (She lives in another country and does not have a passport to travel).
- The bride was wearing a simple black dress.
- No official photographer was present.
- There was no music.

but....there were big smiles on everyone's face, tears in the mother's eyes, the bride turned red when she was kissed, the siblings dutifully arranged all the cakes that they had painstakingly baked the previous day, another was running around with a digicam and a handycam, friends had traveled without giving a second thought to weather or work....Yes, a wedding is always a Wedding :)!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Uyirullavarai Upma !

To me, there is something infinitely comforting about Upma......the earliest memories I have are of my Seetha Paati bringing steaming hot Upma with sugar and a bowl of curd on the side for me as soon as she hears me take off my shoes....if I close my eyes I can see her smiling, walking towards me from the kitchen saying ‘seekaram poi kai kal alambindu va'.....on certain days, when I am too tired, Paati would feed me even if amma says neenga avalukku romba chellam kudukarel ! Paati kaila oru urundai upma eduthundu, adhula oru china kuzhi panni, adhula konjoondu thayir vittu ooti viduva……am getting goose pimples just describing it.

Paati would also get creative and add carrots, peas, beans etc. to it and there have been times when I have been absolutely delighted to open my tiffin box during lunch and be greeted with the tri-color Upma.

Upma was my first culinary experiment, alone. Although I had started cooking at 10, I had never done anything without amma’s supervision. Then one day, someone passed away, the school declared a holiday and I was home in the afternoon. Since amma was not due to arrive until the evening, I was getting both hungry and restless. Although there were other food items to eat, I somehow missed Paati and her Upma and made the audacious decision to cook some myself.

You know the order right – kadugu vedichu ulutham paruppu, then onions/vegetables, then water and finally rava/semia to the boiling mixture. I slightly messed it up and added paruppu first and while I was waiting for the kadugu to vedichify, paruppu turned black :D ! I added rava first and then carrots (and you know how infinitely long carrots take to cook), so I ended up with a tri-color porridge, this time the three colors being white, red and black! But that did not deter me, I ate it with a feeling of triumph and described it later, to a really-amused amma too :D !

For my 10th board exams hols, we had gone on a trip to Kulu and Manali. Appa was in Chandigarh then and since we had relatives in Delhi, we had also visited them. In short, it was a lot of north Indian food and I was slowly getting tired of it. The feeling reached a crescendo in Manali where we had lived on Naan and roti for quite a while. It was then that we saw a dosa corner in the market place and gladly barged in for a much needed south Indian meal. While everyone had ordered dosas, I was scanning the menu with a faint hope of seeing my favorite Upma listed was’nt. But what I had not counted on was a friendly south Indian Chef who would cook something especially for me at appa’s request. The first spoon of Upma (is a figurative expression by the way, enakku kaila sapta dhan nimmadhi) nearly made me cry with happiness.

Even today, Upma is my favorite Sunday or holiday breakfast. Irrespective of the quantity, it always leaves me content.

Amma always tells others ‘chowmeekku samaikardhu romba easy, Upma illa thayir sadham irundha podhum avalukku’....its totally true. I have an even longer list of stories for thayir sadham, maybe some other day, in some other post....

PS: Non-tamil speakers, sorry about the thanglish, the effect would be lost in translation.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

PerMutations and Combinations

Today I have this overwhelming urge to write about Genetics. I don’t know who/what triggered this line of thought but I dreamt of dominant and recessive genes and my biology teacher, Mrs.Pramila Francis. I can never forget her – her neatly pressed cotton sari, her one-rupee coin sized bindi, her perfect enunciation and her involvement in the subject; one of my favorite teachers from school.

Coming back to Genetics, we have heard of/seen irrational (and at times funny) arguments about the how the child has a fair complexion when both the parents are dark skinned. To understand this, one simply has to go the level of Genes and Chromosomes.

Genes are arranged as long chains of DNA sequences, called chromosomes. Although DNA strands are extremely long and super computers apparently work for hours or days to decode a gene sequence, we can still get to the simple basics. XX chromosome indicates a girl and XY chromosome indicates a boy. While the female body produces only X chromosome, the male can produce both X and Y. So essentially it is the chromosome from the male that determines the sex of the foetus. I am tempted to say, en iniya gramathu/nagarathu makkale, note this point and stop blaming mothers for the sex of the children but why should anyone worry about the sex of a new-born child anyway? I like to believe we have grown beyond that stage (Note: Comments with female infanticide stats will not be published, like I said let me believe in the goodness of people!)

Dominant genes, as the name states, are more common than recessive genes. For example, w.r.t Asians straight hair is a dominant gene while curly hair is recessive.Lets take the scenario of a desi guy (D) married to a Chinese girl (C), both with straight hair. Capitals indicate dominant genes, and small recessive. DD and Dd will show the same trait in a person since the dominant gene suppresses the recessive trait. So for the recessive quality to be exhibited, the structure has to dd or cc in this example. The desi guy and Chinese girl have a girl (Cd) and a boy (CD) both with beautiful black straight hair.

The girl marries a desi guy (Dd) and they end up having two baby girls but one with confusing black curls ! Result: Everyone is surprised about the curls since no one has had such hair in generations....Yes, the world of Genes is a wonderful mystery and you unravel it at your own risk. So, lesson learnt: Recessive genes can skip generations before the trait shows up in an offspring. Coming back to the age-old complexion discussion, in case of Dravidians, fair skin is a recessive trait. So the child can have a fair complexion (dd) even if both parents are dark skinned (Cd) but the converse is not true (Fair skinned parents producing a dark skinned offspring is a very rare or exceptional case).

A permanent change can occur in the DNA sequence and the extent of the change can vary. These changes or gene mutations have baffled geneticists for generations because not all of them are hereditary. They can be caused by exposure to UV radiation (now you know why pregnant women are asked to be extra careful when working with radiation or asked to avoid an eclipse) or even during cell division itself....till date, there are only probabilities as to what can occur, but no pre-defined cases. Add to this mix, evolution, the natural change in the DNA sequence as the environment changes, to complete the puzzle....err...did I say complete ?!

In case of hereditary mutations, the off-spring inherits the defective gene but it can remain recessive, say, Dd - d is the mutated gene; the offspring is unaffected but is a carrier. In such a case, marrying someone from the same family, who is a carrier (say, Cd - d is the mutated gene) would increase the chances of the recessive genes showing up in the next generation (dd - trait or disorder shows up). This is why it is generally advisable not to marry someone in the immediate family. Namoorla maman magal, ponnumani madhri padam edukaravanga kitta idha yaaravadhu poi sollungappa....tholla thanga mudiyala....!

Then there are the gender-related or sex-linked genetic disorders. Lets say a particular mutation, affects only the X chromosome but not the Y. This would mean that for a woman to possess this trait, both the chromosomes should be affected but for a man, there is a 50% more likelihood since one affected chromosome would do the trick. A good example is the red-green color blindness that is more common in men than in women. In this case, women act as carriers and are rarely affected.

Genetic diseases or Chromosome Disorders are however characterized differently, by possession of more copies of chromosomes in place of just XX or XY. For example, a XYY is an alpha-male, someone who is very built, aggressive but is probably mentally retarded. Now you know why directors portray Gundas in movies as unbelievably dumb, you see, they understand Genetics ! A XXY male is usually sterile and has more female-like features, again, thanks to movies, everyone has hopelessly made fun of people with this genetic disease as well.

While genes explain how we are what we are, mutations raise numerous questions as to why we are what we are - is this the fine line between Science and God ?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Idhu epdi irukku ?

When there are people and countries creating controversies with their privacy violation arguments against Google Street View created by Google Mapping Van by taking panoramic pictures, there is someone who voluntarily tracks the van movement and makes sure he is captured in the photo as well....ennanu partha....Marketing gimmick for his music band.....adapaavi !

And while we are on the topic of privacy, here is something I came across - Top 50 places to See Celebrities in NYC...I cannot believe there is a map like this and its actually used and rated as well...ada rama !! What's next - Maps for Stalkers?!

Yes, technology is growing, so is information availability, but what is not funny is how its actually put to use....God save technology and information from us !!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Go, Kiss the World !

Welcome Address by Subroto Bagchi, Chief Operating Officer, MindTree Consulting to the Class of 2006 on July 2, 2004 at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, India on defining success.

I was the last child of a small-time government servant, in a family of five brothers. My earliest memory of my father is as that of a District Employment Officer in Koraput, Orissa. It was and remains as back of beyond as you can imagine. There was no electricity; no primary school nearby and water did not flow out of a tap. As a result, I did not go to school until the age of eight; I was home-schooled. My father used to get transferred every year. The family belongings fit into the back of a jeep - so the family moved from place to place and, without any trouble, my Mother would set up an establishment and get us going. Raised by a widow who had come as a refugee from the then East Bengal, she was a matriculate when she married my Father. My parents set the foundation of my life and the value system which makes me what I am today and largely defines what success means to me today.

As District Employment Officer, my father was given a jeep by the government. There was no garage in the Office, so the jeep was parked in our house. My father refused to use it to commute to the office. He told us that the jeep is an expensive resource given by the government - he reiterated to us that it was not 'his jeep' but the government's jeep. Insisting that he would use it only to tour the interiors, he would walk to his office on normal days. He also made sure that we never sat in the government jeep - we could sit in it only when it was stationary. That was our early childhood lesson in governance - a lesson that corporate managers learn the hard way, some never do.

The driver of the jeep was treated with respect due to any other member of my Father's office. As small children, we were taught not to call him by his name. We had to use the suffix 'dada' whenever we were to refer to him in public or private. When I grew up to own a car and a driver by the name of Raju was appointed - I repeated the lesson to my two small daughters. They have, as a result, grown up to call Raju, 'Raju Uncle' - very different from many of their friends who refer to their family drivers as 'my driver'. When I hear that term from a school- or college-going person, I cringe. To me, the lesson was significant - you treat small people with more respect than how you treat big people. It is more important to respect your subordinates than your superiors.

Our day used to start with the family huddling around my Mother's chulha - an earthen fire place she would build at each place of posting where she would cook for the family. There was no gas, nor electrical stoves. The morning routine started with tea. As the brew was served, Father would ask us to read aloud the editorial page of The Statesman's 'muffosil' edition - delivered one day late. We did not understand much of what we were reading. But the ritual was meant for us to know that the world was larger than Koraput district and the English I speak today, despite having studied in an Oriya medium school, has to do with that routine. After reading the newspaper aloud, we were told to fold it neatly. Father taught us a simple lesson. He used to say, "You should leave your newspaper and your toilet, the way you expect to find it".

That lesson was about showing consideration to others. Business begins and ends with that simple precept.

Being small children, we were always enamored with advertisements in the newspaper for transistor radios - we did not have one. We saw other people having radios in their homes and each time there was an advertisement of Philips, Murphy or Bush radios, we would ask Father when we could get one. Each time, my Father would reply that we did not need one because he already had five radios - alluding to his five sons. We also did not have a house of our own and would occasionally ask Father as to when, like others, we would live in our own house. He would give a similar reply, "We do not need a house of our own. I already own five houses". His replies did not gladden our hearts in that instant. Nonetheless, we learnt that it is important not to measure personal success and sense of well being through material possessions.

Government houses seldom came with fences. Mother and I collected twigs and built a small fence. After lunch, my Mother would never sleep. She would take her kitchen utensils and with those she and I would dig the rocky, white ant infested surrounding. We planted flowering bushes. The white ants destroyed them. My mother brought ash from her chulha and mixed it in the earth and we planted the seedlings all over again. This time, they bloomed. At that time, my father's transfer order came. A few neighbors told my mother why she was taking so much pain to beautify a government house, why she was planting seeds that would only benefit the next occupant. My mother replied that it did not matter to her that she would not see the flowers in full bloom. She said, "I have to create a bloom in a desert and whenever I am given a new place, I must leave it more beautiful than what I had inherited". That was my first lesson in success. It is not about what you create for yourself, it is what you leave behind that defines success.

My mother began developing a cataract in her eyes when I was very small. At that time, the eldest among my brothers got a teaching job at the University in Bhubaneswar and had to prepare for the civil services examination. So, it was decided that my Mother would move to cook for him and, as her appendage, I had to move too. For the first time in my life, I saw electricity in homes and water coming out of a tap. It was around 1965 and the country was going to war with Pakistan. My mother was having problems reading and in any case, being Bengali, she did not know the Oriya script. So, in addition to my daily chores, my job was to read her the local newspaper - end to end. That created in me a sense of connectedness with a larger world. I began taking interest in many different things. While reading out news about the war, I felt that I was fighting the war myself. She and I discussed the daily news and built a bond with the larger universe. In it, we became part of a larger reality. Till date, I measure my success in terms of that sense of larger connectedness.

Meanwhile, the war raged and India was fighting on both fronts. Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then Prime Minster, coined the term "Jai Jawan, Jai Kishan" and galvanized the nation in to patriotic fervor. Other than reading out the newspaper to my mother, I had no clue about how I could be part of the action. So, after reading her the newspaper, every day I would land up near the University's water tank, which served the community. I would spend hours under it, imagining that there could be spies who would come to poison the water and I had to watch for them. I would daydream about catching one and how the next day, I would be featured in the newspaper. Unfortunately for me, the spies at war ignored the sleepy town of Bhubaneswar and I never got a chance to catch one in action. Yet, that act unlocked my imagination. Imagination is everything. If we can imagine a future, we can create it, if we can create that future, others will live in it. That is the essence of success.

Over the next few years, my mother's eyesight dimmed but in me she created a larger vision, a vision with which I continue to see the world and, I sense, through my eyes, she was seeing too. As the next few years unfolded, her vision deteriorated and she was operated for cataract. I remember, when she returned after her operation and she saw my face clearly for the first time, she was astonished. She said, "Oh my God, I did not know you were so fair". I remain mighty pleased with that adulation even till date. Within weeks of getting her sight back, she developed a corneal ulcer and, overnight, became blind in both eyes.

That was 1969. She died in 2002. In all those 32 years of living with blindness, she never complained about her fate even once. Curious to know what she saw with blind eyes, I asked her once if she sees darkness. She replied, "No, I do not see darkness. I only see light even with my eyes closed". Until she was eighty years of age, she did her morning yoga everyday, swept her own room and washed her own clothes. To me, success is about the sense of independence; it is about not seeing the world but seeing the light.

Over the many intervening years, I grew up, studied, joined the industry and began to carve my life's own journey. I began my life as a clerk in a government office, went on to become a Management Trainee with the DCM group and eventually found my life's calling with the IT industry when fourth generation computers came to India in 1981. Life took me places - I worked with outstanding people, challenging assignments and traveled all over the world. In 1992, while I was posted in the US, I learnt that my father, living a retired life with my eldest brother, had suffered a third degree burn injury and was admitted in the Safderjung Hospital in Delhi. I flew back to attend to him - he remained for a few days in critical stage, bandaged from neck to toe. The Safderjung Hospital is a cockroach infested, dirty, inhuman place. The overworked, under-resourced sisters in the burn ward are both victims and perpetrators of dehumanized life at its worst. One morning, while attending to my Father, I realized that the blood bottle was empty and fearing that air would go into his vein, I asked the attending nurse to change it. She bluntly told me to do it myself. In that horrible theater of death, I was in pain and frustration and anger. Finally when she relented and came, my Father opened his eyes and murmured to her, "Why have you not gone home yet?" Here was a man on his deathbed but more concerned about the overworked nurse than his own state. I was stunned at his stoic self. There I learnt that there is no limit to how concerned you can be for another human being and what is the limit of inclusion you can create. My father died the next day.

He was a man whose success was defined by his principles, his frugality, his universalism and his sense of inclusion. Above all, he taught me that success is your ability to rise above your discomfort, whatever may be your current state. You can, if you want, raise your consciousness above your immediate surroundings. Success is not about building material comforts - the transistor that he never could buy or the house that he never owned. His success was about the legacy he left, the mimetic continuity of his ideals that grew beyond the smallness of a ill-paid, unrecognized government servant's world.

My father was a fervent believer in the British Raj. He sincerely doubted the capability of the post-independence Indian political parties to govern the country. To him, the lowering of the Union Jack was a sad event. My Mother was the exact opposite. When Subhash Bose quit the Indian National Congress and came to Dacca, my mother, then a schoolgirl, garlanded him. She learnt to spin khadi and joined an underground movement that trained her in using daggers and swords. Consequently, our household saw diversity in the political outlook of the two. On major issues concerning the world, the Old Man and the Old Lady had differing opinions. In them, we learnt the power of disagreements, of dialogue and the essence of living with diversity in thinking. Success is not about the ability to create a definitive dogmatic end state; it is about the unfolding of thought processes, of dialogue and continuum.

Two years back, at the age of eighty-two, Mother had a paralytic stroke and was lying in a government hospital in Bhubaneswar. I flew down from the US where I was serving my second stint, to see her. I spent two weeks with her in the hospital as she remained in a paralytic state. She was neither getting better nor moving on. Eventually I had to return to work. While leaving her behind, I kissed her face. In that paralytic state and a garbled voice, she said, "Why are you kissing me, go kiss the world." Her river was nearing its journey, at the confluence of life and death, this woman who came to India as a refugee, raised by a widowed Mother, no more educated than high school, married to an anonymous government servant whose last salary was Rupees Three Hundred, robbed of her eyesight by fate and crowned by adversity - was telling me to go and kiss the world!

Success to me is about Vision. It is the ability to rise above the immediacy of pain. It is about imagination. It is about sensitivity to small people. It is about building inclusion. It is about connectedness to a larger world existence. It is about personal tenacity. It is about giving back more to life than you take out of it. It is about creating extra-ordinary success with ordinary lives.

Thank you very much; I wish you good luck and Godspeed. Go, kiss the world.

My 2 cents:
- Last year when I was in India, I saw a advertisement that said ''Tuitions for classes I to VIII'', I was baffled....why do you need tuitions ?! With kids spending 8 hours at school, and at least 3 hours watching TV, when would they do something else if they had tuitions for 2 hours ?! And why does one need tuitions after those 8 hours in school ?? why cannot they simply do their homework and be ''normal'' ?? Parents, yes, its a competitive world but remember childhood is precious and your kids remain innocent, care-free kids only for a few years, please do not rob them of those. This is why homeschooling is music to my ears. If you want your kids to read, don't ask them to, take a newspaper and sit next to them and read.

- I really liked the example with the car driver being addressed as Raju Uncle. Kids keep watching you parents all the time, they are what you do. I hear of schools in India that offer horse riding, piano lessons, summer camps but do they teach the meaning of Namaste or how to respect fellow beings ? (A friend of mine once explained to me the meaning - the divinity in me salutes the divinity in you, and ever since anytime I say namaste/namaskaram, I feel good). If schools are not doing it, at least parents should. I once heard a teenage kid complain that all her father's friends sweat and stink !! I was completely shocked, yes, I was not really fond of all my parents' friends either when I was a teenager but the worst that I have thought of them is that they were boring...who among our parents have grown up with deos and perfumes ? Why do you need those in a country where people shower everyday or even twice a day ?! I am not saying that personal hygiene is trivial but kids need to be taught where to draw the line; to respect people and see them beyond fancy clothes and cosmetics.

- During my first month in Germany, I saw another student in the common kitchen area adjusting one of the ventilators. When I noticed that he was standing on a stack of books, that gave him the height to reach the ventilator, I squirmed in my place. I couldn't take it after a few seconds, so I rushed out, got him a chair and asked him to use it instead. He gave me a puzzled look when I went to on to explain that books represent knowledge and more or less Godliness. After all these years, he still remembers that and mentioned it to me when I met him in one of the social networks.

- ''Oh my God, I did not know you were so fair": hehehe, I think it will be generations before desis get the importance of fair complexion out of their heads. Everytime I go on a vacation to a warm place and come back tanned, all my colleagues are jealous of my ''beautiful tan'' as they call it while amma tells me on the phone with a sigh ''ennadi ipdi karuthu poita....''......hehehe......

Something that keeps/kept nagging me:
Why were both his parents in a Govt. Hospital ? The reason I ask this Q is because everyone from India knows that you cannot trust a Govt. Hospital for treatment especially, in case of life or death situations - bitter truth. I personally know of no family member who has been in a Govt. hospital for treatment and I come from an average middle-class family. So why are his parents, with 5 sons, probably at least a couple with income, in a cockroach ridden hospital ? Did they insist on going there themselves ? Were there no other choices available in the vicinity ? I don't know but I would really like to know.

On another note, Govt. hospital staff being overworked and Govt. insurance lagging behind private medical facilities is becoming an issue not just in developing countries but also in developed countries; both encouraging medical tourism for those who can afford it while the others are left to their destiny. I have been reading a lot on this topic, will bring them together to publish a post.

Anyway, I did not intend to ramble on so much but once I start, its always difficult to stop. Take all the good values from his speech, spread them, implement kiss the world, you should first imbibe the world as yours :) !

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A rainy week in Frascati

Traveling to Italy is always something I look forward to, be it work or vacation. As soon as I landed in Rome, I had a great cappuccino for just 1 euro when I would have paid almost thrice as much for something that mildly tasted like one, in Germany. I was struggling with my laptop, rucksack and a huge suitcase while climbing some stairs and in a span of 5 minutes, 2 people offered to carry it for me (Although I refused, I still like being asked :D!) and again I struggled the same way in Munich with no one even giving me a second look (To be fair to Germans, its more a question of independence than chivalry).

This time I was going to Frascati, a small town, about 20 km away from Rome (No wonder it took me almost the same time to get from Rome to Frascati as from Munich to Rome !) and it is a science town since it houses the European Space Agency.

Being back in Rome after 4 years brought back lots of memories. The metro was, as always, unbelievably crowded and I had to cling to my items since pick pockets in the Rome metro are quite skilled! Then when I got into a taxi, there is the Italian driver talking non-stop although he knows I don't have a clue of what he is talking about ! Whenever I understand a word, I will nod and say ''Si'' and he will break into a huge grin :D ! And all this while he is driving, paying no attention whatsoever, to the speed limits and doing things that could get his license banned for 2000 yrs had he tried that in Germany !

Then there is the really warm welcome at the hotel reception, where not only questions are answered with a lot of patience but you also get a load of extra information that you know you will never use :) ! I got in at 3:30 pm and was starving since I had neither had a decent breakfast nor lunch. The guy at the reception says the hotel restaurant is closed and so are the others in the vicinity but he will call the chef and get him to make something for me - that's Italian hospitality combined with the importance they attach to food, very similar to desis and quite hard to come by anywhere else in Europe!

Frascati boasts of a number of villas that were built in the 16th century by the noble men and aristocrats from Rome. Even today, it is a popular destination for a weekend get-away from Rome, even for the Italians or for a day-trip, in case of tourists. Since I was neither, and was stuck with work, I just got a few glimpses from the car. But on the day I was to leave, I resolved to start early (and since I hate getting to the airport a few minutes earlier than the when the flight begins boarding !) and spend an hour looking around.

The weather refused to cooperate, it had rained all week and on the last day, it rained even more....oh...well, I walked around in the city centre, wrapped in my jacket and with a sturdy umbrella ! I enjoyed it and all along kept wondering how much more beautiful everything would look on a bright and sunny day....I was told it has carnivals, wine festivals and is a very good place to visit, in summer and spring. So, if you are in Rome, take a break from the queues in front of the Colosseum or from the crowded Fontana di Trevi area and visit Frascati. I know I would....

Monday, November 30, 2009

Power of User Generated Content

Wikipedia, to me, is the power of user-generated content and contribution. It is for the users, by the users.

Do you remember Wikipedia when it first started ? I still remember writing and editing articles back in 2005, when almost anyone could create/edit a page. The content grew, exponentially, not surprising given the increased internet reach and the number of people using/contributing. A simple example would be a retired journalist (wonder if they really have retirement though!). He/she would have learnt, experienced and researched 100s of topics that many of us have probably not even heard about. That knowledge should not die with him/her - Wikipedia is probably one of the easiest ways to ensure that.

Another favorite example of mine is Openstreetmap. I have referred to it before in one of my posts. It is an initiative to create a world-wide editable map, and ofcourse its free. The logic behind it is simple - I know where my house is better than any map in the world. I know my area and my favorite places better than anyone else. So why not use that knowledge to create a map or correct a wrong map ? Any user can upload GPS tracks, edit them and what's more, changes can be updated instantly, i.e. if I know my street name has changed, I can correct it. The animated .gif shows how the network has grown over the last few years (If blogger messes with .gif, check Geofabrik).

To support the Openstreetmap initiative, many government sources have also donated data. Today, I can even see RA puram in Openstreetmap and I am just waiting for the OSM community to kick in, in India too. In fact, depending on the interest of the user, even information about pavements, biker paths, handicapped-friendly areas etc. are marked. In spite of all this, there is a pre-established convention to keep the maps consistent as they grow.

Another example along the same lines is the Google mapmaker and I really like the tag line - Become a citizen cartographer and help map your world !

When you map the world, you can also create 3D models using Google Sketchup....after all the world is 3D ! You would be amazed at how many wonderful 3D models have been created this way. Here is a sample.

Well, this idea has been there for quite a while...remember the annoying window that always pops up asking if you want to send an error report ? Well, that's user contribution helping a software provider fix the bugs, only there you do not get any credit for patiently sending in those bug reports but just the satisfaction that they finally managed to fix at least half the bugs !

Then there is another level, where software providers release a beta version, like Google wave and ask users for suggestions. Obviously you get neither royalty nor credit for doing so but its a time-killer and you give yourself a pat on the back for doing your good deed for the day !

I think this idea of harnessing user-generated content for the sake of the community is exactly the direction we should be going in. I also think it will continue to grow, because people need recognition and praise and when there is a podium to showcase talent, they will start exploring the talents that they never knew they had and for once, money is not the only motivation ! For example, Google claims that it would replace any source of photo-textured 3D models by the user-provided data as long as its more accurate. This could be the chance that small start-up companies or hard working individuals had been waiting for; a place to showcase what they are capable of and by doing it in an app that has such a wide reach, is definitely alluring !

Not only is the user-generated content used for free applications but also by commercial businesses - be it map updates for navigation devices, or real-time traffic updates. In these cases though, there is a further stringent step of validating the user-provided content since the customer who paid for the product/service is not going to tolerate mistakes made by some person he/she doesn't know or care about.

Well, we all know about the global village and now we all seem to be heading towards a global team where its not just bad news that is traveling fast ! There is one thing though - doesn't one always know too much about one's own team members ?!

Update as on 1 Dec 2009

Google does what it does best - understanding and using user-generated content with yet another way - model your own town competition !

Copyright for pictures
1. Geofabrik
2. Openstreetmap
3. Google Sketchup
Hit Counter
Website Hit Counter I had decided to have a counter only after I hit a 1000 views and since it happened last week (as on 14 Dec 2009), now is the time to see some stats :)