Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Red, White and Blue - Part 3

I am a vegetarian and this can be quite a trouble while traveling. Sometimes, it is hard to find a good place to eat specially when I prefer fresh food over processed food like burgers etc. So, while looking for a restaurant around the area of our hotel, I encountered a place where I observed that there was a big line to order food. I remembered a saying by one of my uncles back in India that while deciding between two places to eat, always go where you see more people. At least the food you get there will be fresh. Thinking of applying that technique I decided to check out that place named Chipotle. It was a Mexican fast food joint but not very high end. I saw the menu on the wall and amongst many other things in the list, I saw Burrito. I knew what it was and always wanted to try it. Since I had always read that there are a lot of Mexicans living in US, so I thought it could be something more authentic than what we find in Germany. The guy standing in front of me ordered a Burrito bowl where one had the option to select from a number of things to be added on top of a bowl of rice. I preferred to have that over a normal Burrito since it looked pretty tempting. I got red beans and other vegetables on my rice and randomly asked to put the mint sauce on top. The quantity was quite a lot compared to the price. I tasted a spoon of the rice with that sauce and it really hit me hard. It was amazing specially the sauce. It was made with mint, a lot of chillies and had a tangy taste to it. I devoured that bowl in no time. I left that place pretty satisfied for a cup of coffee. As they say that the route to a man’s heart is through is stomach, the US was continuously winning his brownie points over me (specially after the shopping streak).

After the work week, on Friday my boss took a flight back home and I had planned to visit my mom’s sister and her family in Houston for the weekend. Unfortunately, I did not had more time to see D.C. since after going back to Germany, I had my flight to India from there on Tuesday. I had already booked them long time back for my vacations before the US trip had finalized. Anyways, I took my flight from D.C to Houston which was via Chicago on Friday afternoon. The plan was to reach Houston on Friday night. But after reaching Chicago, I found out that the flight to Houston was cancelled because unexpectedly it had snowed in Houston and since it is not normal for them, their airport had no means to clear the ice and make it safe for flights to land. So much for technology rich US, I thought to myself. Their airport can’t even handle snow? And to my horror, the next available flight was next morning. I had to spend the night at the airport. It did not made much sense to leave the airport for a hotel for few hours and then go through the security checks again. Moreover, I could not take my luggage since it was still with the airline people. The airline people arranged some make shift beds for us for the night. Incidentally, I met a nice Mexican couple and a pretty American girl (lets call her AG) also in the area from my flight. Since all of us were going through the same plight of spending the night at the airport, we developed a mutual pity for each other which slowly turned into friendship. We had rounds of snacks and drinks all through the night. They were very warm people and I am still in touch with them. I realized after all, US is really not that bad a place as I thought.

The next morning did not came with good news. The first flight was already full so we did not had the chance to board it. Thus, we had to wait for the next and just hope that it had a few free seats. If not, the next flight after that was in the evening. In the meantime, AG told us that we are allowed to take a detour. This means that we could take a flight to a less busy airport and then take a flight from there to Houston rather than waiting the whole day for a free seat. I tried to ask for possible combinations from few officials of my airlines but no one was helpful. AG was pretty clever and knew her way around airports. She then took me with her to take a round and check out all the gates and information counters to spot the right official. I could not believe her precision in spotting the right person. Bang, she went straight to her target and got all the information regarding the possible connections. Unfortunately, there was just one place free on one such connection. I asked her to take it and I would wait for the regular next flight. Who knows, maybe I get lucky to find a free seat on it. So, I wished her good luck in life before saying goodbye to her and then came back to the Mexican couple. We all got lucky to find enough free places on the next flight thus saving us the day. But the experience left me feeling happy to meet such nice people and being so open and friendly to a total stranger like me.

Again on the flight from Chicago to Houston, a guy sitting next to me got quite friendly with me. Usually, in Germany people are not so open sometimes to start up a conversation. I think sometimes it has to do with the culture and lack of English speaking skills that they shy off. But this guy had a nice chit chat with me. He was quite happy and curious to know my experiences both in Germany and in the US since both of them were foreign land for me. He wanted to draw some parallels and contrasts between the two places. So, I had a pretty good conversation with him. At the end, I asked him a question I always wanted to ask an average US citizen. After all that is happening in the world, is he still proud to call himself American? To my surprise he gave a pretty blunt and honest answer. He said he was proud to be an American, no doubts about it and America is a great place to live but at the same time he said he did not liked many of the policies of his government. He gave me many examples and I could not be more impressed and satisfied by his answer.

So, all in all this trip was a pretty good learning experience for me. I got to see a new land where most of the people of my homeland want to end up one day. I saw the complete contrast that exists between US and Europe. Both the places are quite distinct in their existence and way of life even though both are called Western developed nations. Everything from cars, to houses, to public transport, to food, the people were quite distinct between the two continents. To summarize it all, this trip served as an eye opener for me since I had quite a different perception of this place. In the end all I can say is that it is a great place with great people but its politicians and its media has really dented its image all over the world. I hope this gets changed in the future.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Red, White and Blue - Part 2

So, I was finally on the flight to Washington D.C. from Frankfurt. I was getting goose bumps all through the flight about the fate which awaits me at the airport. I shared my anxiety with my boss and he joked that in case things happen as I was expecting, then he will take the taxi to the hotel and I can come later. It can take pretty long sometimes with the screenings, he said. His joke did not helped at all and finally I was at the D.C. airport. I could see long lines at the security check. People were being asked to even remove their shoes. Usually, that hardly happens at European airports. After getting through the regular patting, I was quite happy that all is well. But then I saw the immigration check. People were getting selected randomly for additional screening. I saw a family of four, father, mother, two kids around 5-6 years of age, being asked to get out of the line for special screening. I even saw an elderly couple being asked to step out of the line. I gave up my hopes after seeing that. How can a weird looking brown guy score over that? Still, trying to convince myself how bad it can be, I went ahead and stood in front of a 7 foot tall officer. He asked me if this was my first trip. I said, yes. He asked me if I was here for a business trip. I said, yes. He then raised his hands and stamped my passport. Expecting a denial of entry, I thought it is time to take back a flight back to where I came from. But all I heard was, Welcome to Washington, Mr. XYZ. Have a nice stay. He said it with a fake smile. He handed over my passport and said, Next! I was puzzled and still not convinced that I was through. What?? Just two questions?? No special screening?? No trouble making?? That quick?? I could not believe my luck and so did my boss standing at the other end. Unfortunately, we will have to take the same taxi, he joked. Unbelievable, I said to him still trying to recover from the fact that I am standing freely on a place which I dreaded the most. Congratulations to me!

As I was slowly getting back to my senses, I observed the place a bit old and dirty comparing it to my city in Germany. My next comparison was cars. Cars with huge hoods. I was surprised that I never noticed it in their movies but the American cars were really huge particularly at the hood. So much for engine design, I said to myself. Moreover in a country where there is speed limits on their highways, what use are those huge engines. It felt nice to think of going without speed limits on the Autobahn in Germany, where I live. We went to our hotel, which was a normal, nothing-fancy-about-it hotel but still I found it to be HUGE comparing it to hotel rooms in Europe. It had 2 TVs, one for the bedroom and one for the lounge. Wowww, I said, no wonder everyone wants to get into US. Everything was SUPER SIZE.

We had planned to reach the States on a weekend as my boss wanted to do some shopping. Now, I must tell you that amongst few things I hate to do, one of them is shopping. I don’t usually have patience to go through it. Moreover, I buy only when I need. But I did not mind to join him for shopping. So, as planned we took our already book rental car and went to an Outlet Center the next day which had every known brand that I could think of. I think it was one of the most memorable days of my life. Never in my life had I shopped to that extent. I simply could not control myself. Everything was so insanely cheap and after calculating the currency exchange from dollars to euros, it came out even cheaper. I shopped like crazy and the only thing which tried to put brakes on me was the weight limit on my flight back to Germany. My boss knew exactly what he had planned and so he had already brought less stuff with him from home. I could not shop as much as him but for my standards it was the biggest purchase ever in my life on a single day, not just for me but also for my near and dear ones. I had already started loving the US of A. I promised myself that the next time I come here; I will only bring a small hand luggage with one pair of extra clothes. I will even buy a new suitcase here and then stuff it with the maximum limit allowed to carry back. A photo of the mad shopping day:

The complete week we were busy with work and hardly got time to see D.C. Since it was November and the days were short, whatever we saw was in the evening, in dark. It was pretty windy in the evenings making it even more cold. What struck me while walking along the streets of Washington when we used to go out of dinner was the poverty. There were many homeless poor people that I could not believe myself. I even saw a van from a charity stopping over to give free food to those poor people. It was odd for me since I never saw so many people sleeping on streets in Germany or even other countries in Europe. Yes, there is poverty in Europe but not as many people sleep on streets. I was surprised that a country which boast of being the superpower and one of the most advanced places could not even take care of its own people? What difference there is there then between the US and India in this respect?

Contemplating on those thoughts, not being able to understand the world I live in and looking for a nice place to eat, I accidentally discovered a great eating place, Chipotle. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Red, White and Blue - Part 1

Yesterday, I was watching this video, when I thought of writing my experience traveling to The Land of Opportunities, i.e. The United States of Ambrikkkka.

I had never liked the idea of visiting the US of A. I don’t know why but I had always dreaded going there. Maybe because I see a lot of Hollywood movies where people are picked up at airports by some suited officials and then they disappear only later to be found at some government detention center. I had a kind of phobia of that place. My friends tell me that I over react and ask me to look at all those hundreds of Indians making big bucks in the Silicon Valley. Did anything happen to them? The answer is, No! They always insist it is the safest place of earth. I think otherwise. You never know when shit is going to fall on your head after hitting a tall building, if you know what I mean. And not matter how many people argue that this video is fake, I had always been skeptical about the people who live there.

But one fine day, my boss asked me to assist him on a work related trip to the land of Uncle Sam. I tried to find an excuse of being too busy and asked him to take my colleague instead. But he insisted and asked me to prepare for some presentations which he wanted me to deliver there. There was no way out. I had to go. With a heavy heart, I started with the first step of applying for a visa. I had to fill some forms, collect a load of documents and finally had to go for a visa interview in Frankfurt. I picked the first available time of the day at 8 a.m. When I reached the Embassy, there was already a big waiting line outside the main gate. I was pretty surprised since I had picked up the first slot and was before time but still a long queue. I also went and stood in the line only to find out that all these people were also for the first time slot. So much for people management. I waited for my turn to get inside where I entered a huge hall after a thorough security check. The hall was already full of people waiting for their interview. I was amazed at this arrangement. Usually in Germany, an interview at 8 a.m. means IT IS AT 8 A.M. I saw a middle aged German guy who was shocked seeing the same and started arguing with an official that why should he wait when his appointment was at 8 a.m.? Quite furiously he left the hall and the building spitting abuses. Wow, I said to myself and took a seat in the hall. My turn came at 11.45, after waiting for more than 3 hours! The visa officer, after asking me weird questions, told me that she had some problem with my second name. She will have to put me on further processing, which means a special screening which could take anything from 4 weeks to 6 months. I was delighted to hear that because this meant most probably my trip will be cancelled due to delays. What could be more fun than a company paid trip to Frankfurt on a Friday and then visit my friend in the same town to spend the weekend there? Ahhh … complete bliss! On Monday, I gave this delightful news to my boss who did not seemed very impressed. He asked me to prepare the slides and give them to another guy who would go with him instead. Perfect, I thought!

But life does not always go as planned. Three weeks after my interview, my administrative department got back my passport with the stamped visa. All hell broke loose when my boss asked me to prepare again for the trip. This time there was not way out. I started preparing for the trip. I started getting anxious and searched various online Forums on how to behave at US airports. I tried to prepare myself mentally for all the different things that could happen there right from the strip search to being locked in an unknown detention center.

Rest of the story in the next part !

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Stranger

I am a big fan of Persian art and culture. Sometimes, I find it very close to the North Indian style of living. But what fascinates me the most is their literature. There are many well known names in Persian poetry and amongst poets like Hafez, Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Saadi and Rumi, I am the most impressed by the writings of Hafez. The philosophy in his poems is really impressive and at times just pierces through the heart of the reader. After reading a lot of the above writers’ translated versions, I decided one day to learn Farsi myself so that I am not lost in translation. Sometimes the gist of an idea looses its correct force and target during translation. Reading first hand gives you a better understanding and you are not left under the influence of the translator’s interpretation but rather develop your own interpretations. This helps you to better understand the author’s ideas rather than following something totally blindly.

Anyways, this post is not about Persian literature but about an incident which happened few years back. I had moved to a new apartment after I got my first job in Germany and thus had to shop for some furniture. I decided to go to IKEA on a Saturday for the same which was quite out of the city. I picked all what I needed and then asked the IKEA home delivery service to deliver it to my place. There were a few things which I needed urgently so I thought I will carry them myself and the rest could come later by the delivery service since it would take about a week for the delivery. Now, the IKEA center where I went was quite a distance from the tram station. There was a bus service which I had taken to reach from the station to IKEA. Since it was a Saturday, the frequency of the bus service was less. On my way back I found that I would have to wait for the bus for around an hour. I decided to walk to the station instead. I liked walking and was quite used to it so I did not even thought about a Taxi. I started marching towards the station on foot with some pieces of furniture in my hands.

Unfortunately, I had underestimated the distance and the weight of the stuff I was carrying. I kept juggling the weight of the furniture between both my hands while walking. After about half the way, I decided to stop, put down the weight and catch my breath. After a few minutes, I started again towards my destination. A few steps later, I was struggling to hold the packet I was carrying. It started getting tougher and tougher specially because there was no proper grip and the packet kept slipping from my hands. I thought of calling a Taxi but then felt embarrassed that I have already walked half the way and just to finish the last leg of about 700 meters it does not make sense to call a Taxi. Moreover, my ego started kicking in that a young guy like me can’t carry his stuff? What a looser I am when I am willing to give up half the way. I kept going further but now I was stopping after every few steps to keep the packet down to ease my muscles. The going was really getting tough but I was not willing to give up. Yes, I am stubborn. While stopping and taking regular rest breaks, I started noticing that a lot of people in nice cars passed by me, some even laughing at me. But no one stopped to give a helping hand. I was also not expecting that to happen in a foreign land. Why would anyone in his right senses stop in the middle of nowhere to help a guy who made the wrong decision to carry heavy packets on foot for such a long distance? I deserved it.

500 meters before my destination, I had started to give up. I could not take it any more. I stopped, I was out of breath, my hands were shaking and I was sweating profusely. I started feeling ashamed of myself. Just then when I was about to give all hopes, a small old car passing by me stopped a few steps ahead from where I stood. A middle aged guy came out of the car and asked me, Where are you going, do you need help? I told him I am trying to reach the tram station. He said he could take me there. I was a bit surprised and bit skeptical as to why would a total stranger help me? But I said yes to him and he helped me put my stuff at the back of his car and we drove off. He asked me if I was from India. I said yes and asked him where was he from. He said a small place near Tehran in Iran. I was quite overwhelmed by his modesty and helping nature. I tried to talk with him in my broken Farsi. But after seeing me struggling with Farsi he switched and then we talked in German. After a small chit chat he dropped me off at the tram station. I asked him that why did he stopped to help me. He said he noticed me walking on his way to IKEA and then on his return he saw me struggling with heavy stuff. Seeing that I was not too convinced with his reason he said, he knows how it feels to be in a foreign land. I thanked him from the bottom of my heart. He said Khuda Hafiz to me and left. I was so overwhelmed by the whole situation that I did not even asked his contact details. Maybe I might never see him again in my life but whenever I remember that incident, I always pray to God that bless him with more strength to always keep helping the needy. Whenever I start giving up on humanity, something or the other happens which restores my faith back in humankind. Someone once rightly told me that this world would have been destroyed by bad men long back but just because of the integrity and strength of a few good men that this world is still holding up. I wish that their tribe increase!           

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Movie Confessions contd....

In continuation of the foreign film recommendations which I started last time here, I would like to share two more films very close to me.

Let the Right One In (Lat den r├Ątte comma in - Sweden)
I have always been a big fan of vampires or I would say vampire movies since I was a kid. I must have seen too many of them. The recent Twilight series did not really impressed me since it was too mushy and over dramatic for me. I don’t know how did it managed to build up such a fan following. Anyways, I am not here to discuss that but another vampire movie which just blew me off with its simplicity. I like things simple and straight and not beating around the bush to prove your point thus this movie impressed me beyond expectations. It does not have too many characters and is set in the backdrop of Nordic winters, dark and snowy. The two main characters of the movie are the two teenagers, a boy named Oskar and a girl named Eli. The boy is more of a friendless loner living with his mother in a multi apartment building and if often bullied in the school. The girl is a new neighbour who just moved in. The movie beautifully portrays the feelings and emotions of both these characters. They form a bond between them, a strange one though as the girl turns out to have lived as a blood drinker. She eventually even becomes the guy’s saviour from the bullies. Oskar slowly realises who Eli eventually is but never overreacts. His feelings and emotions do not change for Eli and I think this creates a lot of attraction for Eli towards Oskar. The movie does not have a lot of gore but depicts the emotions of both the characters and even go on proving that they can also exist together in harmony. It is the chemistry between both these characters and the events which unfold with them which make me recommend this movie.       

Incendies (Incendies - Canadian, French)
If you like strong and bold movies, movies which leave a mark on you, movies with a substance, then I would highly recommend you this movie. As the movie ended, I went a little numb in my head. I was overwhelmed by emotions of sorrow and grief but quickly that turned into joy and happiness, that this is called a movie. This is how storytelling should actually be, gripping. I felt very content after finishing the movie. So, the movie is about twins, Jeanne and Simon who are asked to go to Middle East as per the will of their dead mother, Nawal Marwan to find their roots and more importantly their father. Simon gets upset listening to the unconventional points mentioned by their mother in the will and refuses to follow all of them. But Jeanne for some reasons leaves alone to find the truth. The movie then starts moving back and forth between the flash back story of Nawal and the journey of Jeanne. Slowly, things start to unfold and there comes one surprise after the other leaving the audience in awe. The director does a great job of always keeping the characters in his control through all the twists and turns, never letting the story out of context. The movie begins as a journey ends up leaving both the characters and its audience a bit shaken. A must see for movie lovers.  

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Driving License Story, Part 2

So, finally the day arrived for the written exam. I went again to the RTO Office and to my surprise, the exam was in Hindi. And it was not normal spoken Hindi. It was almost similar to Sanskrit since some of the words; I had difficulty in even pronouncing. When I look back now, the quality of the paper for the written test was worst than toilet paper. I remember, I hardly finished all the questions in the stipulated time. But anyways, the exam ended and I headed back home after checking when the results would come out. I had few hopes of passing the exam but somehow I passed the exam. I got to know it when I went to again to the RTO Office, my fourth time. The next step was the practical exam.

I was asked to bring a car with me to give the practical driving exam on a particular date. Now this seemed a bit strange to me. Ideally, since I don’t have a driving license, it should not possible for me to drive my own car from my house to the RTO Office to give the exam. That would mean that I am driving the car in the city without a driving license. So, after thinking what to do, I asked my cousin sister who is even younger than me and also without a driving license but drives very well to take me to the RTO Office in my dad’s car just to make sure that the examiners don’t suspect anything foul. As proposed, we went to the RTO Office and the examiner asked me to drive the car in a circle in the large free space behind the RTO Office. I was expecting him to accompany me in the car. But on the contrary, he asked me to drive by myself and he will watch me driving sitting in his office through his window and then judge me. I was a bit taken aback by his way of taking the exam but I had to do as asked. I did the same, drove in circles in the open field with my cousin sitting in the back seat. This was my practical test. I did not even drove in the city on real streets. After a while, I was asked to stop and park the car and come to meet the examiner. I went to him and he said I passed the test and on this particular date, I must come and collect my license. I was simply overjoyed by the news. I thanked the officer and drove back home.

That evening, I was thumping my chest with pride, that look at me, I proved my point. I showed the world that governmental work can be done without bribes. Of course on has to take some efforts, sweat himself out and make some trips to the Office but finally it can be done. I told my friends and family how people should behave, how educated people should act. Frankly speaking all of them were surprised and amazed since none of them knew that a license can actually be made legally. Even my father was a bit taken aback but he felt proud of me.

On the designated date, I went to the RTO Office to pick my new, legally made driving license. I was told that due to some malfunctioning in some machine which prints the license, the delivery is delayed and I will have to wait another one week. I said no problem and went back home. After about 10 days, I again went back to the RTO Office (this was my seventh time) to collect my license. This was the moment of truth. This was the day, I never forget in my life. This was the day, the world laid naked in front of me. This was the day, I was refused my driving license. I had stood in the line outside the distribution window for more than an hour again in the sun and when my turn came, the guy distributing them said, saab kuch chai paani to do. I said what chai paani? I had already paid the legal fees and cleared the tests and I could see my license lying on the table. But the guy again insisted that I must pay him some money. I refused it bluntly. He said in that case your license has not yet been made and come after another week. I was furious and went inside to complain to his superiors. No one listened or paid any attention to me. I returned to the guy and politely asked him to please hand over my license. He started showering abuses to me and asked me to get lost. Later did I got to know that this chai paani is distributed in the complete system of the RTO Office. I felt dejected and ridiculed. My family made fun of me, my friends made fun of me. A feeling of remorse took over me, that why did I not listened to them in the first place and get the thing done in the luxury of my house by just paying some guy Rs 500. But I did not gave up. I wrote a complaint letter to the local politicians. Nothing was done. I was further ridiculed for not going the “conventional” way by paying some money and getting the job done. But I was stubborn. I refused. My parents asked me to at least take a lesson from this and go and collect the license by paying the chai pani and move on. I refused again. I was not able to accept the fact that this thing happened. That things work like this in the real world. I never went again the RTO Office in my life again.

After a month, I had to leave India to start my post graduation in Germany. The first thing I did after getting a Job here was to make a driving license. I must tell you that it takes around 3-4 months to make it and enough money has to be spent (as much as it would cost for 2 return trips from Germany to India). But finally I got it.

Now when I got to India, I use my German driving license. I still refuse to go to pick up my license from the RTO Office. Yes, I am stubborn.  

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Driving License Story, Part 1

The current chain of events around the anti corruption drive happening in India reminded me of an incidence. So, I thought of sharing it here.

In the July of 2003, yours truly graduated as an Engineer. Fresh out of college, we had high hopes from the world we were about to face. We knew it would be tough but we had all the energy and the will in the world to give a good fight to achieve our goals. Ethics, morals and the will to change the world kind of emotions were running pretty high inside us. We knew and believed we could change the world. Such novices we were!!

After my graduate studies, I returned to my hometown and the first thing on my mind was to make a driving license. I told my father that I would go to the RTO Office the next day to get started with the “official” procedure. My father gave me a smile and wished me good luck. When other members of my family including my cousins got to know about it, most of them suggested me to take the other route. They casually and bluntly asked me to go meet a particular Juicewala in XYZ market with 2 photos and Rs 500 to get the thing done. I taunted them by saying that if educated people like us take up such ways, then how we can expect things to change in India where one third of us live on less than 2 dollars a day. There was silence for a second and then everyone burst out laughing. I was the butt of many jokes after that.

But next morning with my head held high and my chest beating with pride and honour and the Sun God gracing us with over 40 degrees, I reached the RTO office, sweating, for the first time in my life. It was total chaos. I had not expected it that way. There was no sign board etc to guide people from where to start the process. The reception desk was empty. After waiting for half and hour, I started asking people how and what to do to make a driving license. After running here and there for another half an hour, I finally understood the drill. We had to register first, then appear for a written test and finally take a practical driving test.  

Great, I thought to myself. Immediately, I went to the registration counter which was just a window and the applicants had to stand out of the building under the sun in a line to pay the fees and register. The usual way of breaking the line and getting their work done style was working for many people. I did not loose my calm and waited for my turn patiently. Finally, when my turn arrived, the guy behind the window turned away and prepared to leave the room. I asked him hurriedly with much concern that I wanted to register and pay the fees. The guy again casually said, it is lunch time now and come back tomorrow. I told him that we still have 15 minutes before 12, which is the official closing time. He totally ignored me and left the room. I was still standing there staring at the empty window and trying to understand what had happened. By this time my light blue T-shirt had changed its colour to another shade of blue due to all the sweating. I bit disappointed, I went back home.

The next day, I reached the RTO Office before the official opening time at registration window, thinking that I would be the first person there. I would do my job and go back home in no time. But, I found that things don’t work that way at governmental offices. The guy came half and hour late and there was already a big line behind me with people cursing and swearing at the window. As his majesty arrived casually and totally disinterested, I quickly forwarded my application through the rusted iron grill of the window with the money. I was given an appointment for my written test. I was happy to clear the first stage. Enthusiastically, I asked the guy how can I prepare for the written test. He frowned and said better ask somebody inside the building. I tried to ask few people there but no one actually had my answer. Without wasting much time there, I returned home thinking I would ask my friends or my family. They have been driving cars and bikes since ages, they must surely know. Unfortunately and to my surprise, no one actually knew how to prepare for the written test as it seemed very alien to them, the concept of giving a written test for a driving license. Finally, I thought I will just go there and give the test. How hard could it be since I had been already driving since the age of 15? So, I finally waited for the day of the written test to arrive.

The rest of the story in the next part ....

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stop Pause Think

I am deeply impressed by the solidarity Indians are showing all over the world against the issue of corruption in India. I won’t call myself a cynic but yes I am having my doubts at this stage specially seeing how things are slowly unfolding.

I would totally agree that corruption is a menace for the society in India. I would also agree that someone somewhere has to take a stand and start working towards eradicating it. So, I was initially very pleased to see that this time some people without a political background and motive were trying hard to do something for the cause. I was initially criticizing people who were not coming forward to support the efforts. I was telling them no matter what their personal agenda is, we should at least not discourage their efforts. What if a bunch of people get some credit and more powers in their hand at the end but at least if they are successful, all of us might be benefited from it. Since everything is going peacefully, all is good.

But I see a sudden change in the air. Things are getting hot. People are getting impatient and specially after the leader of the moment put behind bars there is a rage among the public. From law and order point of view this could lead to dangerous circumstances. Some anti social elements could take advantage of the situation and things could go out of control. At the end, I would not be pleased to hear what once the prominent leader of the party now in power in early 80s (also then in power) said after the Delhi riots. The explanation he gave was: jab ek bada ped girta hai to chote mote ghar to toot te hi hain. I don’t want to see that. So things have to be controlled and taken forward in a meaningful way which could be tough as more and more people take to the streets. So I am a little concerned since yesterday a friend of mine had to postpone an urgent surgery because of road blocks in many parts of Delhi.

Now, I can understand that we need strict laws and better vigilance but somehow I feel making a new body to perform that might not really solve the complete problem. Human beings are opportunists by nature. Who will govern or keep an eye on the people elected to form the committee if at all the bill is passed? What if they themselves become corrupt? Were agencies like the CBI etc not formed to do the precise things? If they can fail to deliver then it is tough to believe other such institutions will not fall prey to the same disease. Because at the end of the day, it is normal people like us who would be working there. I have yet to see a country and/or its politicians totally devoid of corruption. It would be too idealistic to even imagine that. I personally feel that laws should definitely be strict but we must also take some responsibilities in out own hands.

The long term solution for all this in my opinion is to create a more equal society. Of course it is not easy in a huge country like India but we must force our politicians to work more towards achieving that. I find this a more stable solution. It can not be mere coincidence that the Nordic countries considered to be the best places to live in the world also have the least corruption. The reason is a flat society in which even the poor have the basic amenities of life. The rich are taxed more to pay for the more unfortunate. This automatically leads to a stable society with low crime since people don’t have to struggle.

It is no surprise that the police officer in India who works hard an even in odd hours risking his life and paid less than half of what an IT Engineer gets take bribes. He also wishes to provide the best to his family. The same argument holds for other governmental employees. But this is not the case in the Nordic countries or even in central Europe. In Germany, the starting salary for a police officer is almost same as that of a fresh engineer directly out of university.

I have doubts when I see people blindly following something. Many people I know personally who actually have no morals in life, always acted on the chalta hai attitude and made fun of people who acted honestly and morally, are aggressively showing their support for the bill. Some of them have not even read the proposal of the bill or don’t even know where and how it will end if and when the bill is passed. I find people online and on streets with flags and all but somewhere I feel it is like a hollow effort where the finish line is pretty blurred. It appears to me more like a herd mentality where anyone who questions them is considered being not with them and labelled unpatriotic. I hope it is not like Egypt where now after the uprising; life had gone from bad to worse. I personally know a person there who told me that the media does not report the current situation. At the moment there is no law and order in the country. Kidnappings are on a roll. People are scared and life is not yet back to normal.

I just hope and wish that people should stop, pause and think before deciding on their actions.      

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The "Business" of News

I was born in the early 80s. As a child or maybe as a teenager, my first dose of international news was in the form of a TV program on Doordarshan by Prannoy Roy’s The World This Week. I remember I used to wait eagerly for the weekly program even though it used to air pretty late around 9.30 or 10 in the night. In those times, I think this was the only source of world news (and in English) for me apart from the one page international in The Hindustan Times or Times of India newspapers. I used to be utterly impressed by the news and the way it was presented. It always had the most interesting and knowledgeable pieces of information of the world which I hardly knew anything about. It used to leave me fascinated about the world which existed beyond my surroundings and everyday life in India.      

I think it was a time of purist television for me. Simple, thought provoking and truly entertaining programs aired on television, courtesy the Doordarshan. Who can forget Master Haveliram of Buniyaad, Basesar Ram, Nanhe, Chutki of Nukkad, comedy of Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, the suspense and thrill of Byomkesh Bakshi and Karamchand, the Quiz Show by Siddarth Basu etc. Okay, so before I get lost in the nostalgia of the yesteryears, let me fast forward to the current times. The simplicity and modesty of the Doordarshan was literally stripped and raped by cable/satellite TV. Doordarshan got lost in the dark somewhere and private channels popped up by dozens. I remember when we first got a cable connection, we had around 15-16 channels, maybe even less. Today, we have more TV channels than a TV actually supports. Of course, to some extent it brought us close to the outside world. We started understanding the bigger picture. But I am not sure whether the tradeoffs were balanced enough.

Coming back to where I started, i.e. world news on TV. Now, either the world was a relatively better place a couple of decades back or either the news reporting has changed over all these years. The reason I feel this is because these days all I see is depressing and violent news on TV. Of course there were not so very happy moments around the world being presented by Prannoy Roy back then but in half an hour or so of news, their impact were not so significant. But at the same time we were rightly made aware of what was happening. All this changed over the years. Talking first about the news channels in India, I feel that except a couple of them, most of them are total trash and should be banned asap. They are nothing but a bunch of people trying to tantalize and sensationalize normal things happening around us. And on top of that I sometimes wonder that have we become so dumb to see news like Ravan’s grave found in Sri Lanka or a hill in the shape of Nandi, the bull. How is it possible for such channels to survive if there were no viewers? This simply means that the supply exists because there is a demand. Do we really need such repetitive feed of titillating news? Even the more decent ones trying to deliver sensible news are made to bow to such cheap and low levels in order to compete. These relatively better English speaking but Indian news channels hardly focus on international news. When I visit India these days, sometimes I feel totally cut off from the world if I don’t connect online or see BBC or CNN on TV. The expansion of the news “business” has gone wrong somewhere and at the same time the taste of its viewers.

Talking about major international news providers like BBC or CNN who offer much less biased information are reasonably good but still not perfect. One must be open to read from different resources to get a fair piece of news. But the point I am trying to make is that has the world changed so much in just a couple of decades that there is hardly any positive news available anymore? Pick up any news website and check its front page for the last 7 days. I am sure that 99% of it would be negative and depressing news. So, has the world changed itself and is really deteriorating itself or are the news people changed their style of reporting? Does it really help knowing every bit of detail around you? Should we really be so concerned about things which are beyond our controls? Should we really get influenced by it? Is the society becoming too voyeuristic in nature? Have we started mixing entertainment with things which are more serious in nature? There are hell lot of questions popping in my head right now and I am still trying to find my answers.  

Monday, August 1, 2011

Honesty is for Losers

Most of us would agree that honesty is a virtue which we try to search in every person with whom we want any relation, personal or professional. Yet, there are times when we ourselves twist things around just to get some petty gains from certain situations. We ourselves don’t stick to those virtues but still expect it from others to maintain all the time. I would call it double standards. I thought of sharing an incidence along the same lines.

A few years back when I was studying in Germany, I took up an internship for a semester. So, I had to move to a place which was close to the countryside. Sometimes on weekends when the weather was good, my German colleagues and I used to plan for cycling trips to the mountains. To start the hike we had to pass through a village.  I often used to notice there some open garages with a shelves facing the road. It used to have few selected vegetables and fruits on it but no one actually was present there. I used to find it funny that why someone would decorate his garage with vegetables and fruits. Then this one time, I also noticed a small weight balance with a small box kept there and no other soul in sight except us who were just passing by. Out of curiosity I asked one of my colleagues that what is all this. He explained me that it is a small shop to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. I was a bit surprised and asked back that where the shopkeeper is then. He further explained that it is not supposed to work like that. Here a person can pick himself what he wants to buy, then weigh it on the balance himself, then calculate the price according with the price tags kept there and finally put the money in that box all by himself. I laughed at him and said Yeah Right!

My colleague said in a serious tone that he was not joking. I was a bit stunned and shocked that he was really serious and that shop really worked that way. Instantly I bombarded him with my questions that how is this possible, why is anyone not stealing the vegetables since no one is looking, why is that money box still there and why is that weight balance also there? It was tough for me to accept the fact that such a kind of system can actually exist. Can I imagine this working in India? Of course it’s a small village where this is working but still my brain was rejecting any argument I was throwing at it. It was hard to believe that honesty at such levels still exist in today’s times.     

Fast forward a few years and this colleague with his wife came to visit India for the first time. Amongst other touristic places in Delhi, I also went with them to Jama Masjid, Birla Temple etc. But, it was at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib while sitting outside on the marble floor my colleague seemed a bit puzzled. I asked him what was troubling him. He politely asked me all these are holy places? I said, yes. He asked me that all the people who come here, come with pure heart and mind and to pray? I said, yes. He asked that all the money collected here is for the poor? I had to finally ask him what his point was. He confusedly asked that why do all these places have locks on their donation boxes? It hit me quite hard since I did not had a convincing reply for him and immediately the incidence of that German village came to my mind. Of course, I could have said that there are all kind of people in this world but I was not convinced myself whether any person in his sane mind steal from the house of God. I used to brag about, feeling proud about India rich with all its cultures, religions and spirituality but at that moment I was dumbfounded. Because a straight answer would be that if there were no locks there, those big boxes of money would be empty at the end of each day not because people would not donate but because people would not mind sneaking out a few currency notes from there. But how could I have told him the straight answer since then all my bragging about India being a land of spirituality and all would have hit the wall, and pretty hard.

So, my point is that if we cannot have enough honesty at places of worship then how we can expect honesty in our everyday life. Something, somewhere in all this is not going right and maybe over these years in India we have lost the essence and the main virtue by which we stood apart from others. I feel we have rooted ourselves out and are drifting away in the wrong direction. And all this India shining would not last long if things continue to happen in the way they are happening.