Thursday, March 31, 2011

The One Bag girl!

In the coming days I look forward to several rounds of travelling by train, by road and by air. Even the thought is full of hope and excitement. I mean, I love to much so, I even love the 40 minute drive to office (Just the drive of course...not going to office!) . Travelling is fun and the farther you go the more you learn. About the world and about yourself. The traveling however is not hassle free. Even the planning for it is full of “ifs” and “buts” . I wonder how the always-on-move people manage their travel itineraries. Experience says that the name of the game in frequent travelling is being “fashionably light “. There cannot be a doubt that the amount of load you carry with you is directly proportionate to reduction in the enjoyment of the trip. And yet, it is difficult to be a light traveler. I envy people who just pick up some clean T-shirts and a toothbrush in a bag and are ready to move on anywhere in the world. I would also like to emulate them but I can’t. The reason is simple- I like to carry my world with me… well, almost literally.

So every time I have to go even for two-three days trip, I start making a travel list. The clothes, the gadgets, the cosmetics and the footwear come first. Then of course medicines, books, snacks and the other equally important items. I don’t use most of them but the knowledge that they are available with me is very satisfying. Selection of clothes is not easy either. Thousands of considerations and rounds of thinking goes before I pack clothes - What if I would like to wear casuals while on an official trip. May be I would need a sweater in the evenings …and socks and cap and a cozy shawl may be . What if for some unforeseen reason, I have to extend the trip. Must carry some extra clothes…and so on. Similar reasons go for packing extra shoes, extra books to read etc. With the increasing use of gadgets, the load is increasing even further. I mean I would need my laptop and my Mp3 player for sure. The mobile charger and the camera are of course the essentials. Then , what if I want to watch a movie while travelling. So add the external hard disk too. After all these reasons( and stuff) to fill the bag till it is full, I wonder how I can travel light. After years of carrying around a huge bag loaded with lots of things I “might need,” I have decided to right-size my luggage with minimum of equipment, clothes and other stuff.I intend to seriously try once again this time . I know, my gender is notorious for packing and carrying useless stuff (and adding more through shopping on the way) , but I am determined, I am going to be a one bag girl for most of my travels  from now on .

I will try shedding my luggage load because I see people struggling with their baggage and sweating to keep it safe on train stations and airports, on escalators and buses . The clumsy travelers are most often carrying loads of luggage. The efficient backpackers have so much more fun. And look at the brighter side, in case I do “really” need something which I am not carrying, I can almost always buy a new one. That’s shopping and I love it.

While I may not be the most efficient traveler , believe me I am not the worst . I had a roommate who had a huge human size suitcase ( which could be used to carry corpse easily!) . She would find it impossible to lift it or even push it but would insist on carrying it wherever she would go. While traveling to Africa this year, an airhostess told me her stereotypes of travelers. How East Asians are most efficient travelers and how middle eastern and Indian fuss on luggage. She totally discounted the European tourists also when it came for travelling light. Perhaps it’s human nature everywhere . We feel comfortable with our familiar stuff around us ..specially so in unfamiliar surroundings. 

I must tell you the inspiration for this latest resolution . The last time I was about to board a plane from Kampala, I looked enviously at the one and only small bag my colleague was carrying. It was such a contrast from my about-to explode luggage. I asked him how he managed to pack “everything “in that bag. How could he be so decisive about what he would require on the trip? How can he be sure that he has covered for all eventualities?

Always a wise man of few words, he smiled as he said "A journey is like marriage. You go wrong when you try to control it. So don’t. Expect the twists and learn to find solutions on the go. " 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Confessions of a Cricket Challenged Indian

Today is my day of feeling out of place. The season has started sometime back and now there is no escaping. The planetary position is adverse for me for some time to come. It’s a day when rest of my country would be going crazy with excitement about the India-Pakistan Cricket match and I would be somehow ensuring not making a stupid or insensitive comment. Being Indian and not knowing about Cricket is sacrilege. Everyone in my family from my sisters to aunts and from my husband to grand uncle is like a good Indian, interested in cricket. My father was in fact captain of his university team and a very enthusiastic cricket player. Unfortunately I am a Cricket-challenged person. I have watched parts of matches now and then (generally when forced to) but I fail to get into “the cricket mood” unlike my fellow countrymen and women. Even before the world cup started, I had a sinking feeling in my heart. Things are going towards worse since then. Cricketers are suddenly everywhere- selling cars, colas and houses, making guest appearances in the TV shows, and even the newspaper is full of them and their lives. Starlets feel grateful for rumoured affairs with them and politicians brag their connections. The journos are offering deeper and deeper insights about the game and the players and here I am thinking, “Jeez…the madness starts once again”. Even in the midst of finalizing a very crucial report, one of my seniors would have a computer window opened on and would, rather guiltily, take a peek on score every five minutes. People in office started falling ill on match days and leave applications started pouring. The FM radio had nothing but cricket to talk about. I felt like an outsider in my own country.

Cricket is definitely much more than a game in India. It is a bond, a passion, a sudden rush of adrenaline and in its purest form an emotion.Someone once quipped that what holds India together is parliamentary democracy, Bollywood and Cricket- not necesarily in that order.  In India cricket has an accepted protocol. Even a stranger can strike a conversation asking about score. Listening to radio cricket commentary, watching of a match in front of a TV showroom and now web-TV in office is very understandable ….more so when India plays with Pakistan. Believe it or not, even in trains /public buses they tune to cricket commentary on match days. However important is the meeting, it is important to update everyone about the latest in the ongoing match. In brief the entire country waits with baited breath for the match. The cricket fans come in several colours-

The Passionate- they associate cricket with patriotism, cannot think of cheering Pakistan even if they play very good cricket. Capable of breaking TV sets (and someone’s neck), slamming doors and abandoning food when India loses a match, they firmly believe that cricket is like worship- or even more, it’s like your first love- pure and unconditional.

The Cynics: they always predict that India will lose hoping in the heart or their heart that it won’t. With every falling wicket, they sigh and give I-Told-You-So expression and if India wins a match, predict that it was just by luck next one they will surely lose. They believe that every match is fixed and yet for reason unknown watch the match till last ball.

The Rationals: they quote a lot of statistics to predict who is in better form and which team will win…and when the opposite happens can produce even more statistics to support the result

The Superstitious: well, cricket can make even the most rational fans superstitious. A radio channel is running a competition on your favorite TOTAKA (charm) to make India win. People dress up in a particular colour, sit in a particular pose and eat some particular food to make the team victorious. People cancel meetings, trips, offer bribes to gods and perform havan. In effect, the winning and losing is a product of the combined strength of our charms vs the rival charms. The funniest such fan I knew was my friend Manish, who was an ardent cricket fan but would not watch any crucial India matches on TV as he “knew” India, will lose if he watches the match. I wonder if the Indian Cricket Team knows what sacrifices are committed for their victory from a rickshaw puller to a business tycoon (Come to think of it has a very socialist message!).

The Know-alls: they always know who is going to win, which is going to perform how and are never surprised. Usually their favorite team wins or has a noble reason to lose. It’s always a fault of the other team if things do not go as they “knew”. By the way, they know the best cricket anecdotes and jokes.

The Hero worshippers: with a fair representation of fair sex, this category has people who do not look for the game but for the men- or more specifically few men/a man in the game. They cheer only for the hero/ dream lovers and cry when the hero performs badly. Their rooms are usually decorated with this particular cricketer’s posters and they have some crazy trivia ready for whoever cares to listen about their favorite star (his favorite drink, soup, city, his unhappy life, his appearance, clothes etc etc). They buy everything from Cola to instant noodles as per the supposed preference of their star cricketer and participate in Orkut and Facebook fan forums with great enthusiasm.
But then while you can divide almost everybody in Indian population in the above categories, there are some miniscule citizens of this country who do not fall in any. Loosely we can call them the Disinterested. For them cricket days are hard days , they almost feel ashamed of not knowing/not taking interest in this noble game and at times wonder if that makes them bad Indians. Some by peer pressure try to look interested, others like me stay out of any cricket conversation to hide their cricket ignorance. They question why cricketers should tell them which product to buy and which brand to wear; they sneer at people glued to TV sets and sometimes even dare to change channels when a match is going on.

Dear reader, I confess that I belong to this last category. The category of the damned – as my cricket crazy hubby would put. He would not have minded my being a vampire as much as he regrets my being a cricket challenged Indian. Over the years, while my father, my sisters and now my husband is eating and breathing cricket- I just try to leave them with their game of glorious uncertainties and look at the cricket crazy world around me with a very knowing philosopher’s gaze. Well, let me confess when the entire country is at halt, there is nothing much to do anyways.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Where words come out from the depth of truth!

“Privacy is for individuals, the governments try and use secrecy sometimes for legitimate reasons, sometimes for legitimate period of time and most often, for illegitimate reasons. The problem with secrecy is that how do you know it is not be abused.”

Julian Assange (EnC of Wikileaks ) in an interview to The Hindu

Mr. Assange is my latest hero. I have always been a great admirer of Google and its two founders because they showed the way for free flow of information, information about anyone and anything available to everyone. Even the thought is so liberating. I know it is clichéd to say that Information is power, but I also know that it is very true. Free flow of information – availability of it in public domain is however not easy to ensure. Of course, at times it leads to disasters – personal, professional, political and even global; but still the power of information came flooding us with Google. At least it opened the world before frogs-in-the pond like me. Almost everything you want to learn/know/check is just a click away. Good, bad and ugly- world at its naked best is in front of us….but then there is a catch. Google’s world is the cyber world and there was still a big bad world of non-cyber nature which was behind the curtain. An iron curtain one should say. There was hardly any way a commoner can peek behind the curtain. In most countries there are legislations, privileges, rules ensuring “official secrecy”.

There is usually miniscule information in the public domain on political decision making, diplomatic push and pull and the way destinies are written for millions of us. Some years back India adopted a Right to Information law. The idea was to make the governance transparent. All public offices are now open for the common man. This however, happened only in letter, the intent part has been missing badly. The law is today more abused than used. In every public office bureaucrats consider it a big victory if by quoting some or the other clause, or by some clever word play they can refuse the information being asked or at least maintain some level of ambiguity. People are taught to write notes and opinions in a way that it cannot be “caught under RTI”. How very often, my flustered subordinates would complain that I am not being a true “PIO” (Public Information Officer) as I am always in favor of giving all information. Somehow in the Government, we love to conceal information, even if there is nothing wrong in our papers. Let alone RTI, official try their level best to deny and delay documents and information to even statutory audit. Giving information to the clients (common public) in public offices is a taboo. Even giving acknowledgement of papers/application received is often grudged. I guess in our hearts we know that we may not be doing the right thing right way and also, we do not mind the wrong way to ensure never getting caught. The fear applies to politicians, businessmen and diplomats too.
The way Mr. Assange and his organization have opened the floodgate for this concealed information that may be illegal in some countries but surely unstoppable. Of course the Governments of the world are reacting in a very predictable way – therefore, attempts at personal defamation, arrest warrants and discrediting the information. Recently on a couple of occasions our top leaders were found “lying “ publicly and when caught, quoting the technical and legal details tried to get away. First the Radia tapes, then CVC appointment controversy, then ISRO-Devas deal and now the wikileaks. Times are tough for the people who were safely hidden behind the iron curtain. As usual, in my weekly phone call I discussed the issue of Mr. Thomas’s appointment as CVC with my grand Uncle and we got into very philosophical mood. He, as usual told me tales of his times. The stories reach to the core of concept of justice and fair play, so I am tempted to re-tell them here. In British India, an aggrieved employee filed a case against his office (i.e. the crown). In the court he gave details of a file which if produced before court would prove his point. The office was asked to produce the file. A newly recruited babu put up a note to the head of his office urging him to use the privilege of the Crown and not to give that file as in all likelihood- government would lose the case, if the file is given. The head, a seasoned British bureaucrat, replied that the file may be produced before the court immediately. He added that the purpose of having courts is to correct the wrongdoing and dispense justice and if the Government is wrong, it must lose the case. There was of course no “right to information” in those days and if the privilege of the crown was claimed, even the court could not get the information. The employee won the case against the Government in the next hearing. Of course, we do not believe in things like justice, fair play and honesty in those puritan ways any longer. Very recently, one of country’s highest public offices did everything from pressurizing to lying to deny information asked by a scrutinizing agency. I watch such happenings every other day and they no longer shock us. But then there are exceptions, in one of his previous offices my husband had a subordinate who was a proven trouble maker. He had messed up his personal and professional life and was generally disliked by everybody. As head of that office, hubby had his share of problems with this person and was not at all sympathetic when he heard that this person had won a court case against the Government. The case was related to his promotion which this person felt was wrongly denied to him. It was a complicated case and hubby along with most others in the office felt that the government should appeal against the verdict. His arguments went for vetting at his HQ. Except for his Director (Admn) everyone was for appeal even in the headquarters. So the Director - convinced that justice demands this trouble maker should be promoted – referred it for legal opinion. Office lawyer said they should appeal. Next it was sent to the Ministry, they also felt the government should appeal. Undeterred Director decided to refer the case to Ministry of Law. My hubby was flustered with this sympathy. He narrated in detail about the conduct of this person and how he has created many embarrassments for the office. The HQ senior was unperturbed, his argument was that the person’s conduct otherwise should not affect his case and even a troublemaker, deserves justice. The Ministry of Law opined in favour of the petitioner and the case was dropped by the Government. I often ask the question, how I would have behaved if I was in place of his senior. Would I have allowed my opinion to be coloured by the employee’s behavior? Can I see justice is such pure terms?

I do not know the answer. But every time I get an RTI petition, even if I know that the person is seeking the information to defame the Government, to settle some petty score or creating trouble, I find it difficult to refuse or delay. I cannot take abuse of a law as an excuse for denying use of it. Think about it – how good it feels if you know you are being treated fairly. How satisfactory one feels if one knows that he got his due. Then why do we want to keep the public information private – hiding it from the very people it is meant for.

Friday, March 25, 2011

My Gypsy streaks in the Concrete City

How do you survive a city where everyone is hell-bent on buying a house but you are not interested?…Where friends greet you with an offer to form a housing cooperative more frequently than they comment on your new dress?…Where the most practiced form of romantic outing is searching for a perfect flat to buy in the suburbs? Delhi is a real estate crazy city. Here people love to talk, walk, and eat buying and selling of properties. However unreal it may sound to everybody else, I fail to appreciate the point.

For almost all my life I loved travelling, specially by road. Reading road signs, posters, and hoardings is almost a habit with me. But nowadays while travelling to work or in and around Delhi, I usually avoid looking at hoardings. In this strange place called NCR, you find only two kinds of hoardings-

1. Unknown political wannabes wishing you Eid/Holi and New year (or even worse, the birthdays of their almost-in-grave leaders) or

2. Real -esatewallas advertising for some new housing project promising you a Jannat on earth

“Elegant and stylish living!” “Cosmo living – just a few minutes from city centre” “Give your family an exotic lifestyle” “ A house you’d like to boast” and so on…. I dread these ads for housing projects like plague. In Delhi alas, there is no way you can escape them. A polite conversation in Delhi starts with “Did you hear about that housing project coming up….” or “You know that XYZ builders are selling flats like hotcakes?” It seems even in this scam and pollution filled capital city, people no longer talk about politics and weather. I am sure with my colleagues; Japan’s tsunami would have evinced less interest than selling of forms for DDA’s latest project. Even every second radio ad is about these real-estate projects in NOIDA-Faridabad-Gurgaon. Try to avoid that, and there comes unwanted SMSs promoting some housing project or the other. I wonder what happened to the good old times when people used to sell toothpaste and shampoos, soaps and mosquito repellent through radio, print and mobile ads. So much so, hoardings claim that some cricketer or singer has also booked a house in the project- no one tells me why should I follow suit ? I wonder why I need property advice from MS Dhoni, Kailash Kher or Bipasha Basu. Believe it or not- I broke out of my office lunch club, largely because it was impossible for me to tolerate the real estate talk every afternoon. To top it all there is always free advice – “Double income no kids…and not yet buying a house, how can you?” “Arre…so and so, got a house in such-n-such sector- 2BHK plus study , go have a look at least.” “If for nothing else, just for investment, may be”. Uncles and aunts, friends and colleagues, bosses and neighbours – they all seem to be convinced that one must buy a house. And that is precisely the problem.

While in my generation, people start dreaming about buying a house the moment they get their appointment letter, and here I am, even after a decade , I have absolutely no interest in owning a place. No no…don’t get me wrong. I do want to live in big, beautiful houses all through my life but I see no reason why I should own one. It is difficult for me to commit myself to one house. I still love and cherish memories of all the houses I lived in…but when it comes to owning a house, I don’t see the point. It seems no one other than me subscribe to this kind of disinterest in buying of properties. …..not even my better half. For most it seems so unreal to believe that they start pitying my naiveté. All my contemporaries are either in the process of buying a house or have already bought one.(interestingly, in Delhi people do not stop after buying one house, they simply graduate to either bigger /better house or get into commercial property talk.)
 For most people, buying a house is the costliest financial bet of their life and they desperately want it to go right. The “successful” seniors brag of building one house for each child before they retire. Even the juniors declare with such pride that they asked parents of both sides to help them buying a house as wedding present . People somehow, just love the thought of – a roof of my own. Getting a house and talking about it is a passion with this city. At least for the salaried class 30 something, it is nothing less than a hobby. I know several couples who love to spend weekends scouting for a house. Romantic, some would believe. Someone even tried to portray a very emotion-tinted picture of “one mortgage –two kids” theory of modern life. For the life of me, I do not subscribe to it. While in good old world people used to brag their children’s report card, in Delhi people brag about the appreciation in housing prices of their locality. The disease is contagious and is spreading fast in all cities.  Most however, get cheated in the way and spent a considerable time justifying their decision or reversing it by finding a buyer. The real-estate enthusiasm , however, does not fade .
           Hubby informs me very authoritatively while reading the Economist, that in last 100 years property prices ( inflation adjusted ) have not actually risen at all in USA. I am not so sure about India but leave aside the price inflation ,  buying of property is hardly hassle free.It is one sector which can make even the most honest person, dishonest . But most people doesn’t mind that . I tried hard to understand the emotion/logic .
To my credit for the last few days, I really researched on the argument, but I know, when it comes to brass tacks, I am what I am- a gypsy in my mind. I read all housing project ads on my way to office (even the one which claims that the tower would be so tall that the moon will look bigger!)…..I suppressed my amusement at the “Holi Dhamaka” offers and did not frown at the lousy radio ads promising everything from swimming pool to Golf course with the flat. I came to the conclusion, which I already knew; I can’t make myself get into the let-us-buy-a-house mode.

The interesting part is that even the sensible ones fail to see the fallacy in the tall claims of these projects and go for it. Most young couples are ready to compromise comfort and luxury in their youth in order to get an assured place to live later. One of the most sensitive take on this issue was in a movie titled “Grihapravesh” . A couple saving each cent to build a house but only end up distancing themselves from living a life. Many real life couples experience that but can not resist the urge to buy a house of their own- specially when it is kind of accepted landmark event of middle class Indian life . I do not doubt the intention with which people in this city invest their time, hopes and energies in buying properties but then it escapes me by miles. I just accept the fact that happiness comes to different people in different packaging . Whether I will change my mind ever in life , whether there will be a house tempting enough that I yearn to own it ……… I just wait and watch.