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 ).

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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.

Bush and the Bomb

Last week I had been to the Heidelberg castle with a friend of mine who was visiting me. On the way back, I saw this sign hung up on one of the houses we were passing by :

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If you wanted to know what the Germans thought of Mr.Bush, you couldn’t have found a better answer than that.

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.

Reminiscences of a booklover

Years ago when I was in school, I discovered books from the Soviet Union available in select bookstores at unbelievably inexpensive prices. For around 5 Indian Rupees ( a little less than quarter of a US dollar, in those days ) one could buy a collection of short stories by Leo Tolstoy. The bulk of these books came from MIR publishers, and the subjects ranged over a wide array of topics, literature and science being my favorite picks.

I knew little about political science to understand the reason for the difference in prices of books from the western countries ( mainly US ) and the Soviet Union. To me, these books were simply a source of joy since they offered a luxury I never could dream of while still in school : buying books. The little scraps of currency notes I managed to save went into these books, some of which were too advanced for me to read in that stage of mental development. Two of my earliest books were “Entertaining Electronics” and “Diseases of the Ear Nose and Throat”; I bought these when I was only 11 years old, in a book exhibition held at the boarding school I was studying in. The rationale behind the purchase, as I can remember it now, was that these were books from the most likely streams of study I would choose later ( engineering and medicine ), so it was an investment for a future I believed I would be a part of.

With the break up of the Soviet Union, the source of these books ceased to exist. Bookstores which stocked books only from the erstwhile Soviet Union had to shift their product line completely, or face shutdown. The stores that managed to survive went through a phase where they had books from the Soviet Union juxtaposed with their counterparts from the western world. In such a setting, the difference in prices appeared more unreal, especially to someone who was oblivious to the past.

As late as 1997, I was able to visit such a store in Bangalore and pick up a full set of short stories by Chekov – the set of six books cost me around 100 Rupees. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

These thoughts, about a past long gone, came back to me while I was reading The business of books. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in books, since it delves into a matter vital to the future of this medium. The book is compact; it makes its points directly and offers a few anecdotes here and there – it does not go over the same point again and again : a malaise that is so very common in books related to management and business.

I discuss the book at length in my new section.

A Beginning

Well, here’s Yet Another Blog On The Block.

Po Bronson’s next book was released recently – “What should I do with my life ?”. I got to know about Bronson when I picked up one of his earlier books “The Nudist on the late shift and other tales of the silicon valley” sometime in mid 2000. My journal entry – a personal one, not a weblog then – records some initial impressions of that book :

2nd July 2000

I picked the book because the title looked catchy, and it gave the impression that the book was more anecdotal rather than filled with analysis of how things in the silicon valley are or should be or will be in xyz years. And I was not disappointed.

As mentioned in one of the blurbs, Po Bronson does not get judgmental in the book. He puts forward facts the way he sees it, period. There are no long winding analysis and theories, so there is little one can fault him with.

Bronson is at his best when he focuses on a single person. There are a few chapters like that ( where he talks about Sabeer Bhatia the entrepreneur or Hillis the computer scientist….)…

He begins with a problem most people have with the Silicon Valley : the lack of any physical entity which one can associate with the valley. When people come to the valley after hearing so much about it, they are disappointed since there is nothing that signifies the “valley” – it is just another place with its offices and homes. To get a feel of the valley, you have do what Bronson does : meet and talk to people working in different capacities in the valley.

This is the first of Bronson’s work that I have encountered, and I find his method interesting : he arranges for meetings with people working in the valley – programmers, salesmen, entrepreneurs, writers etc – and follows the thread of that part of their lives which has got something to do with the silicon valley ( which, in most cases, is almost their entire lives : there is little else in life these people seem to do ). He meets the same people from time to time and follows up their story. Thus, in the “Newcomers” we get to meet a few newcomers to the valley – few of whom are struggling to establish themselves; in the “Programmers” we are taken into the lives of a few freelance programmers working on a game project; in the “Entrepreneur” we get to meet Sabeer Bhatia, the man behind “HotMail”……

The new book is much more ambitious in scope – Bronson is no longer confined to the Silicon Valley. His method in the new book seems to be similar to the one outlined above : he has spoken to around 900 people all over the US and chosen a few of them to spend more time with for his “case studies”. But the new book is unlikely to have that one characteristic I found pleasing about his previous book : a non-judgmental treatment of his subjects.

The topic addresses a very fundamental question, and a very important one too, for the times we live in. The timing is clearly important for such a book to be relevant – one cannot imagine such a book being of much relevance in the last century, simply because there were not enough choices available for the common man to think about what to do with one’s life. So that is a crucial – and probably unstated – assumption in the book : asking ourselves what we want to do with our lives must rely on the assumption that we do have different alternatives to choose from ( or to create ).

For the audience it addresses – educated people all over the world ? – the assumption mostly holds true today, so for all practical purposes it is not a limiting factor. What could prove to be a limiting factor – and this is only a guess, since I have not yet read the book – is the fact that Bronson’s subjects are mostly Americans. It would be interesting to see to what extent the experience of people living in the US prove to be representative of the issues confronting people asking a similar question in other societies which are very different – culturally, socially and economically – from the US.

I’ve read an extract from the book, and ordered it from Amazon. I’m looking forward to encountering the familiar brown package at my doorstep ( Amazon’s packages are too big for my small postbox ).