Feeling the heat

In a land where the amount of sunlight one gets each year is strictly rationed, the question of surplus does not arise. This was a fact until two weeks ago. While the European heat wave may be making waves in the news channels across the globe, people in Germany are meeting – and sometimes beating – the heat in their own ways.

Men in our neighborhood can be seen with nothing on but their underwear. Women turn up with short tops and shorter skirts, though not short enough.

At work, queues at coffee machines have migrated to water coolers, and people who normally yearn for sunlight are seen lowering the blinds each morning.

Fields of corn, once green, are now burnt yellow.

The shelves displaying table fans in departmental stores stand empty.

Ice candy vans have sprung up in places occupied earlier by meat vendors or flower vendors.

Minor traffic jams can be seen near schwimbad, the local swimming club.

A colleague asks my wife “Why are you wearing so many clothes ?!” It takes a while for her to understand that there are no indecent intentions behind the question, only an incredulous mind wondering how we survive with so many clothes on at such times.

At the chess club, I see all my opponents sweating; my game has nothing to do with it.

But the prize goes to the owner of our local South Asian grocery store, who has his own elegant theory explaining the situation when we return a packet of rice infested with worms. “It is the heat.” he says, looking at the little white worms so much like rice grains crawling inside the packet. “It is the heat which is turning the rice grains into these worms. The heat, and nothing else.”

Until that moment, I had thought the heat had affected only the Germans.

An interest rekindled

There was a time during school days when chess was a pastime I frequently indulged in. A rivalry that instantly comes to mind is the one I had with Sai, a friend who beat me convincingly most times and yet left me each time with the feeling that the result could have been otherwise; it made me go back and try again and again. After school we went our ways and my active interest in the game dwindled, surfacing now and then during sporadic encounters with classmates or colleagues.

These days it has come into favor again.

It all began a few weeks back when I took part in a fascinating simultaneous event organized by a local club. After that, I joined the local chess club. The club meets on Friday evenings, when most people informally play against each other and some – who have a tournament match on that day – play official games. The five weeks so far have been full of fun and learning. Some of the members have an ELO rating of around 2100, and playing against players of such strength is a humbling experience for hobbyists like me who think of themselves as ‘above-average’ in their own category.

I also recently bought Fritz 8. One way to describe this piece of chess software would be to mention that it has an ELO rating of over 2600 and that it can beat 99.9 % of chess players on this planet. But that would miss the point. Fritz contains an array of features to help players at different levels improve their game, and it is this feature-set – and not the Herculean strength it boasts of – that would prove most useful to players like me intending to improve their skills. I hope to discuss some of these features in this space sometime in the near future.

On the recommendation of a player in the chess club I bought the book ‘Chess Master Vs Chess Amateur‘ by Max Euwe. I’ve read a few chess books in the past, but none of those went to the depth this book delves into while explaining the basics for amateurs. The approach is novel and effective : by highlighting the contrast between the thinking of the Master and Amateur, Euwe presents a path an amateur could take to bridge that gap. There are twenty five games discussed in the book; I’m currently into the fifth game, and I find that the games are presented in increasing order of complexity and amateur skill, so each new games takes longer to complete ( and the variations discussed also increase ).

I intend to start – as soon as I can make time for it – a chess journal : a section where I could discuss happenings in the club, talk a bit about Fritz and also log some of the games I play ( in the club and with Fritz ). Adding some algebraic notation might bring some variety into these pages.

A Package eagerly awaited

Yesterday morning, I was on my way out when I saw a DHL van, yellow in color like the Deutsche Post ones, come up to our house. The driver of the van jumped down with a small package in his hands, and my eyes lit up in expectation. He walked up to me and read out the name on the package : “Frau S, bitte.”

“Ja.” I nodded, “Ich nehme das”.

The package was from Amazon.com, and the date was the 21st of June. I ran inside, tore open the package and lifted out the hard bound copy of book 5 : The Order of the Phoenix. In size, it was comparable to the previous one, probably larger. The print appeared to be smaller, but I wasn’t too sure.

My wife took up the book almost immediately, sat on a single chair for the next 13 hours ( getting up only to prepare and eat lunch in between ) and completed the book before midnight. No, she wouldn’t tell me anything about it – I had forbidden her to do so.

I cannot read a book like that, non stop. I am a slow reader and I like to take it in parts, like small helpings of a tasty halwa I’d want never to finish. So now I can take my own sweet time and read it at my own pace. Since Rowling has taken around 3 years to complete this book, I should be taking at least 3 months to read it, shouldn’t I ?

A festival par excellence

We were in a queue for a while, after which we were let in. We walked through a passage to reach the center of tower No.41, where, through the enveloping darkness, we heard the mellifluous strains of saxophones in the air. A little further, around a pillar that divided the area into two sections at right angles, we saw the source of the enchanting music : four Mexican saxophone players were playing in a corner, watched by people sitting in perpendicular directions. As we took our seats, the piece being played came to an end and the players stood up, bowed. Applause followed, and we joined in.

They sat down immediately, and began their next piece. The ambience, dimly lit, brick walled, and narrow-spaced, seemed perfect for the instruments being played, and we were drawn into a trance by the magic of the pipers. Sitting there, feeling the music seep in, one felt this was how life ought to be – a dreamlike existence filled with music. It was a moment in a million, a moment one would cherish for eternity, a moment, the mere thought of which would be enough to relive its ecstasy.

The saxophone quartet programme was the perfect ending to an amazing Saturday at FIMU, Belfort. This music festival, spanning over three days of a long weekend, is held each year in this quaint little fortress town in France, with groups from all over the world coming to play music of different varieties and styles.

None of the concerts had any entrance fees, and the venue for each concert was either an open stage erected for this festival, or indoors, inside regular or makeshift concert halls, and all of these venues were located within a radius of around 2 to 3 kilometers. Where ever one went, there was music in the air, and with so much choice available there were times when one couldn’t make up one’s mind about which concert to attend. For a lover of music, there was only one word for this setting : paradise.

We were introduced to this festival by Stefan & Uta, who have been participating in this event since the last six years, and this time they suggested that we come along. It turned out to be an unforgettable weekend; we’re already looking forward to FIMU 2004.

Some pictures of our trip have been collected in the photo album FIMU 2003.

To India and Back

We recently returned from India, after a three and half week vacation. It was after two and half years we were setting foot on our ‘motherland’, and on our way in I was assailed by doubts about how my perception of India may have been altered by our stay abroad.

It turned out that India was just as it always had been… like India. Back in the familiar surroundings of Bangalore, one felt there really was no gap at all – it was as if I had always been there. Then, the thought that I had even nurtured the possibility of things being otherwise made me feel foolish.

There were changes, yes, but nothing that was out of India’s character. India was growing, progressing, struggling with issues that come with growth and progress, and finding its own unique ways of resolving these issues.

Among of the different complaints I had heard from expatriates returning to the country for a brief vacation, the ones most frequently encountered were related to traffic and pollution. It appeared to me a case of misplaced comparison – these people were probably comparing the traffic and pollutions levels in India with those in the west and concluding that these had increased to unbearable levels back home ( at least in Bangalore, they said ).

trafficx.jpg

I found that traffic congestion and pollution levels were more or less what they were around 2 and half years back, when I had seen Bangalore last. What was new in Bangalore was an initiative from the Bangalore Development Authority to construct flyovers in select areas – something that should have started a few years earlier, but clearly welcome at least now. These constructions had, in places, made the traffic situation worse, and BDA had erected boards displaying the reassurance “Bear with temporary inconvenience now, and reap permanent benefits later”. ‘Temporary’, of course, conveyed no definite timeframe.

A welcome addition to the city : Baristas. These coffee houses offered a concept common in Europe but unique back home : a cup of coffee for unlimited time at the cafe. The Baristas on St.Marks Road – introduced to us by Ashwin – turned out to be a place frequented by the younger generation of the city : some were chatting away as usual, a couple of girls were playing scrabble, a group of boys and girls were slouched on the sofa – almost on top of each other, it seemed – and treating the place like the drawing room of their house, another girl was writing something into her notebook…. you get the picture. They also served coffee, and the Cappuccino I had was among the better ones I had tasted. Ashwin said he came to the place – which was a 10 min walk from his office and next to his music school where he took Piano lessons – a few times every week, and at times did his music homework, which included composing pieces, sipping a cup of coffee or an ice tea there. I now have a nice story ready for the day Ash becomes a famous composer : “Making music at Baristas” goes the heading. I envy Ashwin and all those who have access to a place like that.

Shopping was fun. Everything was clearly more expensive than it had been back when were there, but we couldn’t help dividing the amount on the tags by a factor of 50 and feeling good about the price in Euros we were shelling down. Clothes and books were our main items, and we picked these in plenty. ( Among the books purchased were a few collections of R.K.Narayan’s works, an anthology of Indian literature edited by Amit Choudhury, a new translation of The Ramayana published by Penguin, the complete set of Tintin comics, “White Mughals” a work on 18th century India by William Darymple and a couple of others I cannot remember offhand. So I now have a handful more of books on the ever-increasing ‘to be read’ list ).

Travel in India was…Oh ! Wife’s calling. Must stop here. Will continue in my next entry….

Pneumonia or … ?

Since the last couple of days I’ve been down with a throat infection and a mild fever. When my sister-in-law heard this from my wife, she asked if there was a chance that it could be SARS. We laughed out loud.

Then today, when I went to the local doctor for a brief consultation, he asked me if I’d visited Hong Kong or China in the recent past. He was doing his job, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking that what we were witnessing was not a rapid spread of pneumonia, but paranoia.

On a more serious note, when I read in the WHO press briefing that the medical facilities in Hong Kong were being pushed to a limit, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if there was such an outbreak in India. Given its high population densities and not so high medical infrastructure base ( the latter in comparison to Hong Kong ), controlling the spread of SARS in India would prove to be much more challenging, and the fatalities could turn out to be much higher than what we are seeing at the present. Efforts in the direction of preventing the virus from entering the country seems to be of paramount importance, but we are seeing very little of that at the moment.

Since the news about SARS is currently being eclipsed by war related broadcasts, public awareness about the seriousness of the disease seems to be lower than what it would have been under normal circumstances. This is probably a blessing for the airline industry, which did not need this outbreak at a time when the war itself is taking a big toll on its revenues.

Middle East month

When I entered the American library in Heidelberg this morning, I saw a stack of books on a stand that had a label stuck on it which read “Topic of the month : War & the Middle East”. This was a new practice – there had not been any ‘topics of the month’ earlier – and it was clearly welcome since it brought under one shelf books relating to a specific theme, but not necessarily pertaining to a specific category in the library. ( I wonder if library search catalogues offer methods to search the title database along such orthogonal directions ).

I recognized a few titles I had seen earlier in the library. Most others were new, and one among these was a book by Bernard Lewis, an author whose books on the Middle East I had come across before. This book was about a change, and looked into what brought about the change. The change the book talked about was the decline of the Islamic empire from the heights it had reached in the medieval ages, from the perspective of the impact western civilizations ( armies, societies and cultures ) had upon the Middle East.

The preface of the book contained the following text :

“This book was already in page proof when the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington took place on September 11 2001. It does not therefore deal with them, nor with their immediate causes and after-effects. It is however related to these attacks, examining not what happened and what followed, but what went before – the longer sequence and larger pattern of events, ideas, and attitudes that preceded and in some measure produced them.”

I picked up the title “What went wrong ( Western impact and Middle Eastern response )”. It now appears on the Currently Reading list.

The Voyeur in me

Some days ago I was lying in bed reading J.K.Rowling’s biography by Sean Smith, while my wife was trying to catch my attention – something that is next to impossible when I have my nose sticking between the pages of an interesting book.

After a few unsuccessful nudges, she exclaimed : “Voyeur !”

“What ?” I didn’t quite understand her.

“I said you’re a Voyeur.”

“What did I do now ?!”

“Well, you don’t pay attention to your wife, and instead involve yourself in the pursuit of knowing the details of another woman’s life.” she replied, plainly.

My initial reaction was laughter. I had never heard anyone equate the pursuit of reading a biography to voyeurism, and it seemed rather amusing to do so. My wife, however, was not amused at all. I kept the book aside, for the time being at least….

Much later, I thought about that seemingly innocuous statement again. There was an interest in knowing the personal details of another person’s life, yes, and I realized that this had always been the case with the people whom I admired. Richard Feynman, J.Krishnamurti, M.K.Gandhi, S.Ramanujam and Garry Kasparov were some people whose biographies ( or autobiographies ) that I could recollect reading. The statement struck home more in the case of J.K.Rowling, since she had resented the large amount of public attention and interest in her personal life that her phenomenal success had generated, and it resulted her in withdrawing into a shell.

It seemed to me that it was debatable whether such an interest in the personal affairs of another human being was tantamount to an intellectual type of voyeurism. One could not, as I did earlier, dismiss it lightly ( it had indirectly lead to the death of Princess Diana ), and one could not take it too seriously either ( there is a lot to be learned from the lives of others ). What was needed was a balance between curiosity and obsession. Easier said than done, clearly.

The book itself turned out to be an engrossing read ( and I could not find anything which the celebrity author would possibly object to ). It is not as authoritative and fascinating as a good biography should be, but it is still the best single source we have yet about J.K.Rowling – I would recommend it to anyone who loves Harry Potter and has some desire to get to know the person behind the creation of the world of Magic and Muggles.

Democracy at work

Some days back I saw an interview with Tony Blair on the BBC. There were about a dozen people in the audience, who, along with the interviewer had one element in common : an anti-war stance. So we had Mr. Blair on one side, trying his best to defend his stance against Iraq, and a handful of fierce opponents to that stance on the other side.

It was a gripping hour – we were glued to our seats throughout – and Mr.Blair, with his lightning responses detailing the reasons behind every decision that was made, conveyed a sense of belief in his actions that was incomprehensible to some members of the audience. To them, logic and reason seemed unimportant – any act of war was unjustifiable.

What emerged out of the interview was Mr. Blair’s firm belief in the urgency of the moment to take some preemptive action against Mr. Hussein – if Iraq did not co-operate with the inspectors – before the rest of the world faced the consequences of not doing so. While the audience held the view that war was not the solution to the current crisis, the Prime Minister seemed convinced that the world must get rid of this potential threat as early as possible, and avoiding war now would only be a postponement of the inevitable.

Although some important questions – like the long term consequences of the war, the post-war image of the UK & the US in the eyes of Muslim communities all over world – were not probed much, the interview was still significant from a symbolic point of view, as an example of democracy at work. The premier of a democratic country was ‘grilled’ by a group of citizens on an important decision that mattered to everyone in the country, and even though this did not represent a ballot for making the decision, it played a role in the ongoing debate on the war by bringing the Prime Minister in direct contact with the thoughts and feelings of the common man of his country.

Later, I found more examples of such interviews with Mr. Blair – one was the BBC Breakfast With Frost interview, and another was a transcript of an interview where Mr. Blair answered questions sent by BBC News Online users and BBC World Service listeners. I could not find anything similar involving George Bush, however.