Friday, April 28, 2006

Live from Chennai - Part 3

Mercury has really been climbing through the roof here at base camp in Chennai. Yesterday, it touched 42 degree celcius, with a good measure of humidity thrown in. Its only going to get worse with the dreaded 'Agni Natchatram' (a period in the tamil calender that signals the onset of thwe hottest month in TN) scheduled to start on May 4th. And by some sado-masochistic coincidence, the elections are scheduled for the 8th. Don't be surprised if the voter turnout is an all-time low.


Some of you might have heard of the proposed 27% reservation in all public and private colleges for OBCs (Other Backward Castes) in India. The wily Arjun Singh announced this proposal days before the election, obviously aimed at the vote bank and without a care about the quality of professionals that this might produce. The last couple of days, students of the 5 major medical schools in Delhi have been protesting on the streets. Things got ugly when they were lathi-charged and female students were mis-treated. Finally, a delegation of 5 students met up with Arjun Singh who apparently was "pained" to find out that these students were not allowed into his home by his security and was also "pained" by the lathi charges. He would make Machiavelli proud and Indra Gandhi take notes form her grave.


Meanwhile, in TN, Mr.Napolean, the movie actor who's running in my Mylapore constituency has given an interview lambasting other movie actors who campaign just for money (I had mentioned this in my last post) and without any understanding of what each party stands for. I would've appreciated his comments if it had come from someone else. But Mr.Napolean himself is a political greenhorn with no grassroots support or social work experience to speak of. I wonder what noble cause (other than power, money and a waning movie career) has brought him to serve the Tamil masses.


Within a day of my blog getting mentioned on DesiPundit, visitor count on my site jumped by a hundred. Just goes to show the readership and following that some of these popular Indian blogs command. In the past, they've led me to some interesting blogs and posts that I continue to frequent.


Am leaving for Tirunelveli tonight on a 3-day trip. Will be meeting up with my uncle Ravi and family, and hopefully get to see some cool places like Kanyakumari and Kutralam. Will write a tour round up blog when I get back. Since my return tickets got bungled, I had to book my return on Air Deccan. Would be a good opportunity to see how low cost airlines in India are run.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Live from Chennai - Part 2

Big news of the week is that Pramod Mahajan, the right hand man of Vajpayee and a pivotal member of the BJP think tank was shot by his own brother Pravin Mahajan. Once this done, Pravin is releasing statements like "I was always ill-treated by my brother", whicle others have suggested that it was over a property dispute (their elder brother disagrees). And still others, like Pravin's wife of all people, have said that Pravin is mentally unstable. Meanwhile, Pramod Mahajan is still in critical condition.


Irrespective of what happens in the rest of the country, the election juggernaut rolls on in Tamil Nadu. This year, election rallies are a virtual extension of tamil cinema, with all kinds of 2-bit actors, actresses, background dancers, their make-up people and even light boys joining in on the campaigning trail. Just check out some of the names running or campaigning this year - 'Cabtun' Vijaykanth, 'ditch pot' Sarath Kumar, S.Ve.Sekar, Napolean, Karthik, Simran, Bhagyaraj etc. Apparently, the stars attract anywhere upward of 1 lakh rupees per day to campaign, and everyone's making hay. I was hoping that this nexus between kollywood and tamil politics would end eventually once people get educated and start realizing that acting and politicking do not necessarily go hand in hand. To my misery, this trend just seems to get worse every year.


Took a couple of my nephews for ice cream and then to the Marina beach yesterday evening. Even on a weekday evening, the place was packed with cars and people. Since my mom advised me not to take the kids near the water, I not only did just that but also left them to fend for themselves while I did some people watching. There's a new addition - Beach patrol. This consists of 2 cops atop horses, patrolling down the shoreline making sure people do not wander too far into the water. A desi version of baywatch I guess.


Just learnt from my parents that the tenant upstairs may be having an affair. The husband travels on weekdays and returns only on the weekends, so the wife has someone come over during his absence. Apparently, its a mutually worked out solution. I tried telling my parents not to jump to conclusions, but when they informed me that both the husband and wife have indirectly talked to them about this arrangement, I had to wave the white towel and give up. I'm not sure how they manage this with a couple of grown up kids though. Anyways, I'm all for open-minded marriages!


Stopped by at Senthil Softie on Kutcheri Road the other afternoon for some refreshing juice and shake. This was a regular hangout during my school days, and I started chatting up the owner, about the good old days and friends. He informed me that one of my school mates and co-regulars J. Suresh was now settled in Canada, and was part of the Canadian Cricket world cup team. I flashed back to my school days when Suresh and I used to open the batting for our class during the inter-class competitions. Tried searching on the web, but couldn't locate him.


Opened the Hindu newspaper today and was pleasantly surprised to find a column by famous NewYork Times Op Ed writer and noted economist Paul Krugman. He's wondering how America still manages to remain in business and inspire investor confidence even after building up trade deficit over the last few years, and predicts that all's not well. There's also a news item about Rediff launching the first moblog (mobile blogging) enabled site. Now, rediff members can blog anytime anywhere from their mobiles. Blog culture in India has well and truly arrived.


Friday, April 21, 2006

Sathanur Days - Part 3 : The Sathanur Cup

For an introduction to this series, please start here

It would be an understatement to say cricket formed a big part of my Sathanur experience. At the cost of sounding frightfully clichéd, I'm just going to go ahead and say we talked, walked and breathed cricket. We would play a few games in the mornings on the street just outside our house, get some indoor cricket going in the afternoon if it catches our fancy, and then head out to the coconut grove (our official cricket ground for the summer) for a full-fledged no-holds barred version in the evenings. I’m sure all our girl cousins were happy to get rid of the guys and have the house to themselves during these cricket-related absences. We didn’t care – it was male bonding at its best.

We were never short of characters on the cricket field. There was china suruttai and periya suruttai (curly hair junior and curly hair senior), choocha moocha (Sudarshan became choocha and then moocha, slang for pee!), Dujon (our tried and tested man behind the stumps, named after the Windies wicket keeper at the time and the only one wearing gloves on the field), the list goes on. We played with a very hard cork ball, and without any kind of protective wear. Most times, the bowler would be intent on aiming at your body rather than the stumps. The television series about ‘Bodyline’ came around this time. And this definitely did not help our case, since our bowlers seemed to be really taken in by Douglas Jardine’s tactics and were trying to mimic Harold Larwood. Injuries were part of the game, and bloodshed was shrugged aside with a nonchalance that shocks me when I think about it now. I was the youngest, but was shown no favor or mercy. I must’ve been either incredibly stupid or incredibly brave.

After some hard-ass day’s cricket, a few of us would sit around and chat for a while, savoring the moments of individual brilliance that day and discussing the finer aspects of the game(?!). It was during one of those chats that someone came up with the idea of hosting a ‘Sathanur Cup’, along the lines of the World Cup or Asia Cup, involving a few neighboring villages, with a round-robin format and a decent prize money pool (which was acquired by collecting participation fees from the teams - an elementary form of gambling I guess!). The idea gained immediate favor and plans were afoot right away to plan the big event. The dates were set, and invitations were sent to the neighboring villages in person, along with a healthy dose of bravado and scare tactics. The next problem was the issue of team selection – how do you pick only 11 from the huge bunch of dedicated and if I may add, talented, individuals? This was left to a few seniors, not necessarily by experience or talent, but purely by age. Me, being the youngest. to my chagrin, was relegated to the bench as a substitute. Though this saddened me a little initially, the Cup fever and patriotism for my village took over very soon and I was there to back my team all the way.

D-day came, and we were relieved that all the teams kept up their ends of the bargain and actually showed up with their best players, and even a few supporters. One end of the cricket ground was lined with hundreds of bicycles, cricket kits and water jugs. The teams lined up and greeted each other, and supporters, cynics, skeptics and curious onlookers soon crowded around. Acquaintances were made and friendships were renewed. Sathanur Cup kicked off amidst much funfare and hopes of some serious cricket entertainment. The games started off swiftly and with more action than usual (I suspected that the players were showing off in front of all the spectators, and this did more harm than good to their game). It was bang in the middle of summer, and despite all the trees around, it was still incredibly hot. The mercury climbed and was last seen somewhere in the vicinity of 42 C before it decided to jump off the thermometer for lack of options and higher numbers. The games had frequent breaks, when home-made ice-cold rasnas and water packets were provided to the dehydrated players. Despite the heat and the distractions, the teams were fervently cheered and booed by the spectators.

After 2 days of some hard fought cricket, Sathanur managed to pip out their rivals and favorites in the finals. There could not have been a better result. When the last ball was bowled and the final wicket claimed (or was it the final run made? I cannot recall very clearly), we all ran and hugged our players and joined in the noisy celebrations. For the prize distribution ceremony, we had bought a few cheap trophies. But then there was the question of who would be qualified enough to award the trophies to the finalists. Clearly, it had to be someone highly respectable and easily approachable. My grand dad turned out to be the unanimous choice to do the honors and we immediately sent for him. Being the sport he always was, Sambasiva Iyer showed up right away and gave away the awards. I even seem to remember him giving a short speech at the award ceremony while we stood around solemnly trying to hide our giggles, but I wouldn’t want to embellish my story with fuzzy details.

So that was the story of the Sathanur Cup. It was twilight when all the teams left, with thanks and good byes and promises of making this an annual event with everyone taking turns. Unfortunately, like a lot of childhood promises, this never happened. But the first and only edition of the Sathanur Cup was an unqualified success. And it gave us Sathanurians (ok, I just came up with that!) enough material for a lot of chat sessions and bouts of nostalgia.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Live from Chennai - Part 1

The first thing that hits me when I land at Anna International Airport, Chennai is the incredible humidity. You could literally smell the H2O in the air even at midnight, and sweating is a way of life here. One advantage is you don’t have to worry about dry skin and all those different moisturizers. Your skin feels as oily as that of a seal.


Its so great to taste home-made food again. The simple rice with sambhar and rasam with a couple of green sabzis taste like heaven, and my mom finds it amusing that I keep complimenting her cooking at every meal. Some days, I’m surprised I can eat four square meals – a breakfast consisting of idli and pongal, a full meal at noon, a light snack (we call it tiffin here) and coffee (kapi here!) around 4PM and then a full-fledged dinner at night. The food consists of very little oil (except for the papads), and is light, simple and delicious. Yumm…


I’ve been going running on the beach (my house is right by Marina beach) and I was surprised by the incredible amount of activity at 6AM. There are elderly couples and entire families – men in shorts and shoes and women in salwar kameez and shoes – walking briskly and chatting along. Kids play football and cricket on the sand. Hordes of people enjoy various fruits and juices sold by hawkers along the way. I can’t believe this – Madras has finally become health conscious.


Its election time here in Chennai and the fever is palpable. Watching the various politicians jumping parties and affiliations at the last minute is hilarious. Take the case of the actor Sarath Kumar who jumped to AIADMK after having sucked up to Karunanidhi, the opposition leader. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that a bunch of ex-IITians and other foreign returns have formed their own party and are contesting 6 seats. Their party is called Lok Paritran. Unfortunately, they seem to have jumped in late and without much planning, and even in a highly literate constituency like Mylapore, almost no one is aware of their existence.


Slept a little late today and so could go on my usual beach run only at 9AM. BIG mistake. The heat literally fried me, and I must’ve tanned a shade, if that's humanly possible (I'm not the whitest chalk in the box, if you know what I mean). People were looking at me like I were a death sentencee being lead to the altar. By the time I’m finished, I find myself hungry, dehydrated and wanting nothing more than to jump into the shower and follow it up with a nice hot meal. And ofcourse, that's what I did.


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Musings on a flight

As I cruise somewhere between Chicago and Frankfurt in a giant air bird with people packed tightly together like some Intel processor with its millions of tiny transistors, I find myself slowly venturing into philosophy and self-introspection, something that happens every time I travel far and alone. “What is it that has you worried this time around my friend?” you might ask. I really don’t need a reason to self-introspect, just time and a lack of something to do. Since I’m spoilt for both choices right now, I have been unable to control the vagaries of the devil’s workshop slowly taking shape upstairs.

The issue I find musing over, as I write, is naturally the difference between living in India and the USA. I say “naturally” because there is no better setting to analyze this issue than on a plane traveling between two nations that cannot be farther apart in their culture, people or way of life, but that I have come to accept and love in different ways. Where do I see myself in the next 5 or 10 years? Do I identify myself with this country enough to settle down here and raise a family or do I get frequently inspired by movies like 'Rang De Basanti' and consider returning to India and giving something back. All these questions have no easy answers, and I find myself pondering over these over and over again. Then for reason I find myself going back to that letter I wrote on a similar flight a few years ago…

My mom passed away when I was pretty young, and my dad and I have never been the best of communicators. I guess its true for a lot of sons and fathers at some level. I could probably count, to this day, the number of meaningful conversations we’ve had. But I’ve always been given the freedom to make my own decisions at every stage in my life. When it came to life after school and choosing a college, I gave up the Anna Universities and RECs to go to BITS, Pilani. I’m not sure if it was my independent streak striving to get away from the confines of home and see the outside world, or my desire to know what people from other parts of the country looked and sounded like - probably a little of both. I think my stay in Pilani, more than anything else, probably defines who I am now as a person. For someone who’s never been particularly close to his family, atleast in outward appearance, I was taught some important lessons during my stay in Pilani. It taught me the skills to survive anywhere, but reinforced that there’s nothing like home. Ofcourse, I could never imagine going back and living with my parents in the same house, or even probably in the same town. But distance, as they say, does make the heart grow fonder. And I found myself looking forward to going back home at the end of every semester, and I started making a conscious effort to communicate with my family.

Maybe all this came a little too late, or maybe I still appeared to be detached when I visited home. I don't know what it was that forced my grand dad to write me a letter when I was in Pilani expressing his concerns over how I was slowly leaving my moorings and appeared to have become what he termed as a “rudderless boat”. He went on to praise my dad (“A gentleman, if I’ve seen one”) and told me that family was the most important thing. All this surprised me, since I really thought I had improved my relationship with my father.

Eventually, I came to the US, finished my higher education and made a life for myself. It was probably the “follow the herd” mentality that originally brought me here. But now after spending a few years, I find myself going back to the question – “Do I want to spend the rest of my life here or in India?”. I still haven’t been able to answer this conclusively, but I do seem to increasingly prefer going back to my roots and my country.

A few years ago, I was on a flight from Kansas (where I was consulting for a few months) to Chicago for the weekend, and I suddenly thought of that letter from my grand dad. The previous few months had been tough for me since I had gotten laid off and had just managed to get back on my feet. I had not been in touch with my grand dad or most of my family for a long time. So impulsively, I took out my pen and a few papers and started writing a long personal letter to my grand dad, describing to him what’s been happening in my life, and convincing him that far from being a “rudderless boat”, I’ve always appreciated the value of my family and assuring him that I would always be there for them. It was probably the most personal letter I’ve ever written to anyone. It’s been 3 years since I wrote that letter, and its still lying somewhere in one of my boxes among some old family photos and memorabilia. I’m not sure why I wrote that letter if I did not mean to post it. Maybe it was just an attempt to convince myself that I was not drifting away from my family.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Travelling to India

That's right, ladies and gentlemen. Me off to India for a little R & R - 3 weeks of home-cooked meals, walks down Marina beach, reacquainting with good ol' Chennai and hobnobbing with long lost relatives and friends. The weather this time of the year would be approaching the levels of heat and humdity that would test the endurance of Lance Armstrong and make a grown man cry. Obviously, my plan is to sleep during the day near the AC and venture out after dusk, although the night life probably still sucks as ever.

While there, I'll try to write something interesting about the sights, sounds and changes I see in my Madtown (a la Motown. Cool no?). In the meantime, do check out my new 'Funniest Videos' section on the sidebar. Adios!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Bug

I finally found a book that seemed to perfectly blend technology with philosophy and great story-telling. The Bug is one of those rare fictional works that is not afraid to take a long hard look at the technology industry and the people that make it happen. Written by Ellen Ullman, supposed to be a computer industry pioneer and famous for her other book 'Close to the Machine', the events in the book take place in 1984, when the first of the silicon valley pioneers were entering the picture.

The story revolves around three characters. Ethan Levin - the nerdy programmer, UI1017 - the user interface bug (for non-programmers, a bug is a software error/glitch) that causes screens to crash unexpectedly, and Berta Walton - the tester who finds the bug. UI1017 starts of as an innocuous 'just another bug'. However, it's knack of making random appearances at the most inopportune of moments and the difficulty in recreating it earns it the name 'The Jester' within the company. As the story unfolds, we find that Ethan's life somehow seems to be inexplicably intertwined with that of the bug. His personal life starts to unravel, and his quirky personality becomes more and more eccentric. The author provides a realistic, and surprisingly touching, look into the mind of a programmer. The descriptions of the tools, software and hardware of the era give the book an authentic feel and will leave current programmers thanking their stars for living in an era with interfaces pioneered by Apple and Microsoft and evolved software platforms like Java.

Since i'm into software myself, I can testify to how irritating and hard to find a bug can get. Infact, somewhere in the book, Ethan tells himself to stop looking for the bug and let it find him. The harder you look for it, the more it will evade you. The action, if you could call it that, thickens towards the end leading to a whopper of a climax. The bug, when it is finally discovered, gives you one of those "ommigosh" moments. But by then, 'The Jester' has changed everyone's life irrevocably, with disastrous effects.

I really enjoyed the book not only because it was both knowledgeable and well-written but also because Ullman handles the subject with sensitivity and a deep understanding of the technology industry, a skill that probably only comes out of being a techie herself. If you are a programmer or a tester or a software vendor or a project manager or hold one of the hundreds of titles in the software industry, you should consider reading this book. If your girlfriend/boyfriend or spouse is in the software industry or if you're considering attending a party thrown by some software guys, you should definitely read this book.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Marriages are made in heaven? Think again

There's a very interesting web-site called that I came across a while ago. It consists of a single brilliantly written article that opened my eyes to the pitfalls of marriage and the various Doomsday conspiracies surrounding it. So whether you're a bachelor or a fool (they're both mutually exclusive, didn't you know?), this site makes for a great read. I know this is mainly targeted at bachelors in the western world, but a part of it is applicable to desis and NRIs as well.

Some of the arguments that the author makes against marriage are:

1. The cost of proclaiming your undying love: This includes the cost of the now customary diamond ring (will come to this soon!) and then the lavish wedding expenses.

2. Marriage can mean career slavery: How men are forced to labor like dogs, while the wives convert their temporary pregnancy breaks into lifelong never-leave-house-for-work vacations.

3. Even more unfair double standards that favor wives: This includes society's take on things like cheating, prenups and job losses as well as a general predisposition to consider men as "stupid" and "irresponsible" who are just sitting there waiting to be straightened by women.

4. Divorce: Alimony is unfairly loaded against men. It states that the earning partners should continue to provide for the same sort of lifestyle for their spouses after marriage. This unfortunately means that if you pamper your wife, this will be used aginst you later!

The author completes his essay debunking all the "classic" reasons why a man gets married myth. I know I sound totally like a male chauvinist (Can't I be the same to men that feminists are to women? I've never come across a word to indicate that!), so you're all welcome to take your potshots at me. I will still maintain that marriages in the western world are loaded heavily in favor of women.

What zapped me out most was the reference to the so-called "tradition" of diamond rings for engagements. Unfortunately, some of the links from the web-site do not work anymore, however, here's what wikipedia had to say on how De Beers has manipulated the "romance market" for its own good and also artificially fixed diamond prices. For the lazy ones, I'm going to quote from this:

Using its monopoly, De Beers has created an artificial scarcity of diamonds, thus keeping prices high. The modern tradition of diamonds as a part of engamenent in many cultures has been largely created by De Beers through an amazingly effective advertising campaign started in 1938. The "A Diamond is Forever" campaign not only convinced the public that the only suitable gift for engagement is a diamond, but also served to limit the market in used diamonds.

I was pretty terrified, and at the same time impressed, with how a single corporate entity can manipulate the collective psyche of the public at large and create a new pseudo tradition that we follow without question. Did you know that Macy's and similar department stores promoted the "custom" and the "joys" of everyone in the family exchanging christmas gifts with everyone else?

So I sat down to think about how else Corporate America could manipulate the public and introduce new 'customs' and 'cultures' in the future that would make them richer and lead us gullible public to contemplate bankruptcy and/or suicide. Here's my list, feel free to add to it:

1. A large tank of pepsi will become the traditional drink at Thanksgiving, along with the now customory turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.

2. The year you turn 30, the Super Bowl game needs to be watched in a big screen TV (preferably a plasma 45 inches or bigger).

3. All church goers need to wear Nike shoes.

4. New Year calls can only be made on the AT&T telephone network or, in the worst case scenario, on Cingular wireless.

5. All gifts for a kid's one-year birthday should come from Babies r' Us or Toys r' Us.

6. Honeymoons should include a customary platinum navel piercing for the bride.

Will keep updating this list from your comments as well as from random sparks of genius I might get.

PS/Disclaimer: For those aunties that might consider giving me the hands of their daughters in the future, this article does not constitute my general opinion on women or marriage, and I was misled, nay manipulated, by the American media to take a stance against marriage.

PS to PS: I was forced to write this article by Budwiser (everyone knows bachelors are their best customers), Auto Insurance companies (single men pay higher insurance premiums inspite of being better drivers!), Mcdonalds (bachelors don't cook at home) and the Association of House Cleaning Ladies and Laundry service (self-explanatory).