Saturday, February 18, 2012

Curb Your Ambition

A year back, I ventured into unchartered territories and made some bold predictions on how world events would be playing out in 2011. The seminal piece was completely ignored by the elitist western media which seemed to prefer ‘experts’ with a penchant for esoteric and speculative musings. Extremely disappointed with this rejection and appalled to see how PhDs and actual knowledge is being passed off as basis for expertise, I refrained from writing any more authoritative treatise on how the Arab Spring would play out. It turns out that was a very wise decision as I got most of my predictions wrong.

Last time when I commented on the Middle East, the Arab Spring had just been underway. Tunisia’s Ben Ali had flown the coop with all the gold he could lay his hand on and Egypt’s Mubarak was flirting with the idea of protesting the protests by unleashing deadly camels on the unsuspecting folks at Tahrir Square. It was business as usual in the rest of the region. Gaddafi was trolling Facebook looking for more pictures of Condoleeza Rice. The only promise Abdullah Saleh of Yemen was making was to his family that the next vacation would definitely not be in Socotra again. The only tanks Syria’s Assad was ordering were while playing Risk with his brother Maher. I had predicted that the Egyptian army would ease Mubarak out and control the country through a puppet president. As the consequent events proved, I was way off. In a stunning nod to the environmental lobby, the Egyptian army decided to take control on their own eliminating all the paperwork usually associated with installing puppet regimes. I had conjectured that Mubarak would be exiled. That almost happened except that it didn’t and he was jailed and made to stand trial while lying on a bed. I have to apologize for not having seen this coming. I come from a country where misuse of power usually makes you eligible to be the president of BCCI or the Congress Party or even the Indian Republic.

It’s a miracle I didn’t bet my money on Gadaffi’s survival. Given the opportunity, I surely would have. But apparently Libyans don’t share my enthusiasm for dictators with great bed-sheets which double up as commanding outfits for state visits. Tyranny and brutal repression is but a small price to pay if your dear leader has great taste in east European nurses. I think the UN played it beautifully by lulling Gadaffi into a false sense of security by being a mute observer to world events for 66 years and just when Brother Leader thought he could remodel Benghazi, down came the gavel on Resolution 1970 . A mandate so generous in its wording that NATO could use it to even block Bieber videos on YouTube saying it would save valuable Libyan lives. That was not the only bad decision he made in 2011. His recruitment policy of hiring half-emaciated mercenaries from Mali and Niger by telling them that all they had to do was gentle target practice on civilians back-fired when the new employees rose in protest pointing out that their contract didn’t include facing bunker busters which the NATO jets had started raining down on them. But all these tactical missteps could have been overlooked if only he had gracefully exited the stage at the appropriate time and spent the rest of his life in the care of his nurses and body-guards in any of the myriad tin pot African states whose dictators were willing to play host. The Greeks would have diverted the world’s attention like they always do every two months and the great dictator could have passed the rest of his days watching Seinfeld re-runs. Instead he chose fame in the viral videos circuit and decided to run into a sewer. Even in the best of times, experts have unanimously concluded that running into sewage has its disadvantages. However Gadaffi’s surprised look after being caught indicated that he perhaps didn’t account for any of them in his plans.

What Gaddafi lacked in luck and expediency, Saleh of Yemen made up for it in more ways than one. Every time it seemed that the game was up for Saleh, he managed to put up an elaborate show on how he would immediately leave only if the over eager mob gave him at least time to pack his essentials. And as soon as everything cooled down, he usually attempted to get back to business as usual as if the whole revolution business was just about a few people venting their disapproval about his dietary habits. Needless to say this incessant flip-flopping only made the population rebel with greater ferocity each time. Even when a bomb went off next to him in his palace and left him recuperating in Saudi Arabia for a few months, he managed to return to Sana’a undeterred and reclaimed power, also winning the Alec Baldwin 2011 Brass Balls Award in the process. However in spite of his swagger and aggressive posturing he knew if he didn’t let go, he too would meet his sewer maker. In politics, timing is everything and Saleh bid Yemen good bye when the state of affairs was just one straw away from inconveniencing the proverbial camel’s back.

That brings us to Syria, previously famous for inspiring the names for movies about fictitious Arab countries. Events in this country have finally answered the age old question, how much damage can someone who looks like a ventriloquist’s doll actually cause? A pertinent question which unfortunately President Assad has answered with vigor usually associated with Bond villains. He made his disdain for peaceful protests known by unleashing his tanks making Tiananmen Square look like Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. The doyens of the global liberal movement have written numerous editorials severely critiquing the double standards of the West for not being as proactive about stopping the Syrian government’s atrocities. Some have gone even so far as to pin down the reason on the fact that Libya received the special attention of Patriot missiles and Euro fighters just because of the abundance of some obscure commodity experts are calling crude oil. And as Syria doesn’t have much to offer to the world market apart from hummus and falafel, the West has allowed the Arab League to try and resolve the morally and ethically complex issue of one megalomaniac trying to hold on to power by killing a lot of people. When I first heard of an organization of Arab countries dedicated to regional peace, I mistakenly assumed it to be about some little known Monty Python sketch and spent a lot of futile hours on YouTube looking for it. But apparently it’s as real as the erstwhile League of Nations and reportedly almost as effective. Unfortunately in spite the League’s best efforts, the crises in Syria continued to take a heavy toll in terms of lives and property. Who knew that battering the Syrian landscape with laser-guided requests for restraint wouldn’t have much effect on the Assad regime. Even when the West tried to scare Assad with a deadly condemnation letter from the Security Council, they got cockblocked by the poster boys of democracy, the Chinese and the Russians. The obviously well-intentioned Chinese & Russians are convinced that Assad is just a misunderstood leader and as soon as he coaxes the disgruntled citizens into death, all will be fine.

Assad has given numerous indications that he has more of Gaddafi’s delusional streak in him rather than Saleh’s pragmatism. In all probability there is a sewer somewhere in Damascus receiving a fresh coat of paint and getting readied to welcome an esteemed guest. I guess it will start in the usual way where some of the influential behind-the-scene players will switch sides and before you know it, the great erstwhile dictator will be scrambling to keep his vital organs in place. This whole Arab spring has brought out a few important lessons for all those people despairing about what they want to do in life. Appearances may suggest that a career in tyranny and despotism is great. The hours are good and the perks usually involve a decent access to the better restaurants in town. But it’s better to aspire for the middle and near-the-top ranks in the regime rather than be a part of the inner circle of the dear leader or be the dear leader himself. Relinquishing the glamorous positions will afford you the opportunity to induce a moral epiphany at an ideal point in any future rebellion and help you choose the winning side before it is too late. If you don’t believe in this train of thought, just ask the poor souls in Egypt and Libya. They are still trying to understand how a post-tyrant life is so eerily more of the same, how the faces have changed but the diktats remain the same and how terribly fickle the attention span of the world is. So all aspiring tyrants who also want a secure career, curb your ambition. Just a little bit.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Houston, We have a problem.

There are just too many things going on around these days. Most of them wouldn’t be called pleasant. Berlusconi stopped getting invitations to his own Bunga Bunga parties. Gadaffi made a terrible error in judgement when he chose as a hiding place a sewer pipe over any where else in the world. Sharad Pawar discovered that walking briskly is always a good idea. But in the midst of all this I read this. It talks about a group of IIT Bombay students who have been working for the last 4 years on a satellite which should soon be ready for launch. Now that I am a bit more qualified to appreciate the complexities associated with such multi-disciplinary endeavours, I can only hope that the project ends successfully and spurs similar groups into action across the country.

However the aim of this post is not to indulge my pontificating self and pen a thunderous denunciation of all those engineering undergraduates who are not building satellites in their free time (that would be the entire day in most cases). The aim of this post is to indulge my exaggerating self and recall how I almost started building a satellite myself.

In circa 2008, a year defined by the brave manner in which my beloved alma mater was coming to terms with my tyrannical regime as the enforcer of all things co-curricular, a bizarre incident took place which few individuals in the institute were privy to. Now that the self imposed statute of limitations has expired, I shall spill the beans before Assange beats me to it. It all began when our director casually mentioned in an internal meeting that its time the students think about building a small satellite. The professors around the table concurred, agreed that it was completely feasible while mentioning that functional support could be obtained from their pals at ISRO. And then they looked at us students with the expression that they would be terribly disappointed if we didn’t have the satellite ready by the next meeting. Confronted by this unexpected directive, my team and I conferred and decided its best that this idea is thrown open to the students to find someone competent enough to pick it up and lead the project. So Shampoo, our head of events, declared in the coordinators meeting that a plan to build a satellite is on the table and all interested individuals should contact him. That’s where the matter rested till two weeks later when a phone call woke me up one late morning.

I answered the call, still very sleepy and blurry. A lady with a very polite tone said she is calling from the Bank (name withheld) She mentioned that she read about the satellite we are planning to build in the morning papers and her organization is very keen on sponsoring the project. She also talked about how inspiring this idea was and how excited her colleagues are about it. But I had lost her at ‘read in the morning papers’. In spite of my muddled state, I could sense something was seriously amiss. I asked in my best apologetic tone, usually reserved for my department faculty members, whether I could call her back as I was in the middle of a very important engagement.

I rushed out of my room and tried to get hold of all the different city papers I could find. Hindu, TOI, DC, all three of them.I started with TOI, the pallbearer of sensationalism but surprisingly found zilch. A rapid browse through the Hindu didn’t yield anything either. Finally the first page of the education supplement of DC revealed the entire extent of the crises. The title story with an overtly generous font size screamed, IIT Madras building a satellite, or something to that effect. I don’t recall the exact wording. It referred to my events head by name and how he had proudly announced in true JFK fashion that students at IITM would be putting a small satellite in space with assistance from ISRO. Though the obligatory references to beating the Russians and doing it within the decade were left out, the emotions were eerily similar. The only other person who would have been as perplexed about this whole affair as I was would have been the charge de affaires of the department of student satellite collaborations in ISRO. I am assuming that being a government sponsored organization, the resulting bureaucratic set-up in ISRO would allow the existence of such departments.

But now was not the time to fret over ISRO’s bureaucratic set-up. I had to immediately launch a three-pronged strategy to diffuse the situation. Firstly investigate how this leak took place. Secondly try to calm the excitement at the Bank. And thirdly build a satellite. It looked a bit daunting when put that way. The first part met an early end. All I could do was to call up my events head. I refrained from launching into my version of ‘Et tu Brute’ right at the beginning and asked him if he had spoken to the media.He replied in the negative and his tone betrayed his own bewilderment.Obviously it was going to be an impossible task. There were close to 100 people in the campus who had been aware of this and it could be any of them. So it was time to engage the Bank.

I called up the polite lady and we arranged a meeting at the campus CCD that evening. So I had a couple of hours to prepare for it. Back in those days, I hadn’t yet fully developed the skill of elaborating eloquently and confidently about work which hadn’t been done yet. Hence I was a bit apprehensive on how this meeting would progress. The primary aim was to avoid yet another headline announcing that IITM was shelving their satellite plans as they were not aware they were in the midst of building one. I decided to take no chances and called in the closest thing I had at my disposal which resembled Seal Team 6. The time was to have people at your side who were much better at pretending to know what they were talking about. A few discreet calls were made, the sensitive situation explained and assistance sought. The concerned individuals promised to be present at the meeting.

In spite of the preparations, the start to the meeting wasn’t a very smooth affair. The visible enthusiasm in our counterparts was disconcerting. It seemed the only thing more difficult than raising capital was refusing it. The phrases payload, geo-stationary, thermal control sub-systems and orbital stability were generously deployed to warm the audience. Once technical salvos effectively obfuscated the fact that this was the first meeting ever on the subject, we slowly slid into project planning jargon. We sighed that scheduling was a nightmare as it had to be balanced against competing priorities of the numerous stakeholders, to speak nothing of the endless red tape associated with any procurement of sensitive equipment from the US. Finally we moved in for the kill stating that while we are extremely grateful that the Bank was interested in our project, we were not ready with our cost estimations yet. We were still considering various vendors from both sides of the Atlantic and would of course have to have our final assessments reviewed by competent authorities. We couldn’t of course allow a situation where we are forced to keep revising our capital expenditure estimates midway through the project. That wouldn’t be professional at all. Hence it would be a prudent idea if we could get back to the Bank once we had progressed further and had a well-defined scope and execution plan in place. With that, we closed out the meeting. It had begun on an unsure footing but we had managed find our way in the middle and ended it confidently.When things go well, there is always a tendency to get carried away and it was to our credit that we kept our explanations restrained and realistic. Otherwise we could as well have ended up with yet another headline the next day, “IITian promises to land on Mars by next Diwali”. The day which begun so depressingly was finally looking up.This wasn’t a situation of our making and it was a relief to come out of it without ruffling feathers at the Bank or having a full- fledged PR disaster. All our statements and assertion in that meeting would have been eventual truths once the project actually got off. Procurement would indeed have been a drag and scheduling would undeniably have been a hostage to more conventional concerns during a semester, like classes and labs.

So finally as per my to-do list, there was only one thing that remained. Build the satellite. I was convinced that now that it was published on the news, we will have to go ahead and build this as soon as possible. There was no time to look for the right people. I would have to get it done myself. A fortunate by-product of the make-up-as-you-go meeting was that I had an overview of how we should progress from here on. Any observer of the events till now would have decided that now was the opportunity to intervene politely and mention that my intentions, though noble, were flirting dangerously with the realms of feasibility. The only thing I had built in my life was a cylinder out of bamboo sticks as a part of my ID110 course. That too was so poorly designed that it buckled under the slightest of loads. A jump from that to conceptualizing the shooting of an object into space would be pushing the definition of ambition. However I have never been known for ruminating on issues for too long. And I always wanted to have a positive answer to that frequently asked question “Who do you think you are? A rocket scientist?” So I set up a meeting with the dean to get the necessary administrative approvals.

One of the few good things about a bad idea is one usually realizes how bad it is within the first few seconds of the onset of the execution. As I passed the door of the dean’s office and took the few steps towards his desk, I began realizing at substantial speed the absurdity of what I was about to say. I couldn’t possibly be proposing that a hastily cobbled up scheme to build a satellite be approved immediately just because a reporter penned yet another ill-conceived article on IIT. I checked myself in time and just mentioned the unsolicited news article to him and how the Bank was very eager to sponsor the project. His response was short and crisp. Dismissing any possible implications of the news article, he asked me not to worry about the Bank’s overtures. Apparently the Bank had been trying to get permission to open an ATM inside the campus for years and this was yet another attempt by them to ingratiate themselves with the campus community. As far as the satellite plans went, I was advised to follow the initial approach of scouting for interested and capable people and have a structured plan in place. I left the room as my dashed rocket scientist career plans became a footnote in the annals of space exploration.

PS: Helpful souls have updated me that our humble beginnings in 2008 have matured into a full-fledged project. Details are here. We may actually beat IITB to this.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The History Channel

While having dinner with an Egyptian friend of mine two weeks back, the conversation veered round to the recent Tunisian crises. I remarked how Foreign Policy was already predicting that Egypt and Libya would be next to see their long-standing rulers fall. My friend Ahmed considered the possibility for a moment and then replied with a reassuring nod of the head that the west doesn’t understand Egypt well enough and Mubarak would continue to rule. We had a chat yet again last week, this time on Facebook. He had just had a talk with his family and they suggested that he withdraw all his money as the banks are being looted rampantly in Cairo. I concurred with this suggestion as the downside to doing that was just the transaction fee. But I refrained from pointing out how he had been wrong the last week. The poor guy was jittery and I assumed, wasn’t in a mood to be mocked for past lapses in judgment.

One of my regrets of living in the twenty first century is that as far as sweeping political events go, the current times pale into to insignificance compared to the heady days of the thirties and the forties. The modern world is all about keeping pace with the latest update to the latest Apple product or finding out why Bruno Mars wants to hold a grenade. My feeble mental capacity finds it difficult to keep up with the obsession for newer electronic gadgets or seemingly endless reality shows churning out super humans who then disappear without a trace. I yearn for less demanding and old fashioned global events like coup-de-tats and assassinations with an economic recession thrown in every now and then.

However every few years we have one of these milestone events where all history buffs can get their bag of popcorn and start flipping between BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera and watch old school reality television. The current imbroglio in Northern Africa is one such rare opportunity. The frustrating dilemma with historical events is that they usually follow a standard template which makes me look up the dictionary to check how déjà vu is spelt. Nevertheless my opinion is still divided about whether the Egypt/Tunisia story will eventually follow a script which will be vaguely familiar to the students of world events. So I have decided to indulge in some Glenn-Beckish speculation.

Anyone with an opinion on this issue is claiming hoarse how all this sudden burst of resentment among the people is so unexpected. No one apparently knew that Tunisia was ruled by an iron-fisted but benignly named dictator, Ben Ali. Selective and biased reporting, an inadvertent hallmark of the western media, means that any unconventional news from nations with west-leaning despots are met with shock and alarm. North Africa today presents us with an outstanding opportunity to see western diplomacy’s hypocrisy at its finest. While I am a firm believer in having an adaptable, self-serving and hypocritical foreign policy, if I take off my tight fitting nationalist cap for a moment, I find the whole charade of sympathy emanating from the foreign offices of all the western governments highly amusing. Till a month ago Ben Ali and Mubarak were the darlings of the western democracies with the Pentagon regularly outsourcing their illegal renditions and interrogations to Mubarak’s delightfully cooperative security agencies. UK and Switzerland never got conscience attacks when the Mubarak family hoarded an estimated 70 billion dollars in terms of real estate and Swiss Francs. The Bush administration invaded Iraq to “bring” democracy as they thought Saddam’s 98% majority election victories were phony. But Mubarak’s continuous electoral victories with over 90% votes polled in his favour hardly raised eyebrows. I am sure there is a US State Department paper somewhere stating 92% majority as the acceptable boundary between the-people-have-spoken elections and he-is-a-tyrant-who-rigs elections.

With the people on the streets for a couple of weeks, the sight of Hillary Clinton and Obama solemnly rebuking Mubarak to take the right decision and step down and give democracy a chance is perhaps a signature moment showcasing the delightful and highly effective duplicity of US foreign policy. Without doubt, while mouthing its commitment to the Egyptian people’s aspirations, the Americans will be working furiously in the background to keep status quo but minus Mubarak. The masses, gullible as always, will have their ego boosted at having removed a hated figure while their life slips back into the clutches of yet another repressive regime.

At this critical juncture where the situation is poised to turn in any direction, I am tempted to make some predictions. I will bet my money on the ex-spymaster and newly appointed Vice-president Omar Suleiman who should take over the reins and brings things under control with the help of the ever compliant army. Mubarak will be given an unceremonious farewell which will be painted as a “dignified exit for a patriot”. Gamal Mubarak will be making late night phone calls to his ex-es and bitch about how if only his dad had handed over power to him a few years earlier, he would have never allowed any of this protest nonsense. And then he would quietly wait for a comeback and turn the tables on Omer. Hosni himself will spend his days in exile, most probably in Europe, and write long letters to a kindred spirit Ben Ali about how the Yankees fucked them both over when the chips were down. El-Baradei will find himself back in Vienna, a city where he has spent almost all his life, agreeing that parachuting oneself into a volatile situation and exploitatively painting oneself as a mass leader is something only the Gandhis can do. He will also get rid of his designer I-am-a-revolutionary stubble. The Israelis will congratulate each other in private on having accomplished yet another clinical behind-the-scenes operation and the Swiss will mail brochures about their outstanding banking services to the new Egyptian president. The Indian government will obviously continue to monitor the situation till kingdom comes. The Chinese will exploit the confusion and try to buy the pyramids.

But then the above scenario happens only if everyone plays their part. What if the powers-that-be start fucking things up? The situation may tread uncharted waters if the Egyptian masses irresponsibly show continued self-respect and a complete lack of expected riot fatigue. What if the Americans misplace their standard operating procedure handbooks on democracy prevention? What if the Israelis just decide to take some time off from worrying about their existence? What if real change happens? Incredible and unconventional though it may sound, I would still like to hazard a few predictions here too. Mubarak and all his cronies would be thrown out. Some of them would be mysteriously found in dark alleys wrapped in white cloth, an old Egyptian tradition. Gamal Mubarak will send his resume to Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan and get recruited immediately.Elections would be held and El-Baradei will realize he cannot pull a Rahul Gandhi-ish con and then retire with a grumpy face to Vienna. The new government with a sizeable representation from the Muslim Brotherhood will show more kindness towards Gaza and indulge in a bit of saber-rattling about Palestinian rights. The Americans will promptly shut them up with military aid to the tune of a billion dollars. The Swiss will mail brochures about their outstanding banking services to the new Egyptian cabinet. The Egyptian people will begin to get used to the change from hating just one man to hating a house full of squabbling and corrupt parliamentarians. Obama will take credit for the victory for democracy and check with the Norwegians if another Nobel can be obtained. The Indian government will obviously continue to monitor the situation.

And I will then regretfully flip back from Al-Jazeera to AXN and get a gin and tonic.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Proust Questionnaire

It is widely acknowledged that adding one’s mom on Facebook can bring nothing but gloom and anxiety. That axiom was momentarily proved wrong when my mother shared the Proust Questionnaire. Needless to say, I didn’t know who Proust was or why we should bother about some questionnaire bearing his name. A quick search on Wiki revealed that Marcel Proust was a French author of great renown who had filled a questionnaire twice in his lifetime (a common trend in those times) and the difference in his answers showed how his thought processes had changed with his life’s experiences.

A quick look at how Proust had answered made me cynically suspect that it was a clever attempt at impressing the ladies. However I have to grudgingly accept that as far as attempts at self-discovery go, there is a point in answering such questions and then look at them some time from now to see how things change. So I have boldly decided to pull a Proust. For some reason there is a mild difference in the two sets answered by Proust and I took the liberty of merging them.

While at first glance the questions seemed to border on the trivial, they were surprisingly difficult to answer. At the end I was left with a depressing feeling of a complete lack of depth on what I know about myself and the world. It’s obvious that more effort needs to be invested in the right pursuits.

It is highly advisable not to read Proust’s own elegant replies before one attempts the questionnaire as it is bound to influence how one may answer. So here are my own answers.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Inability to communicate.

Where would you like to live?
A country with no little guys.

What is your idea of earthly happiness?
Happiness is hypothetical.

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?
Faults which make life more amusing.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?
Edmond Dantes, Howard Roark and Bertie Wooster. Anyone who knows exactly what he wants.

Who are your favorite characters in history?
Alexander for setting the benchmark so high on what one man can achieve.
Ashoka for symbolizing everything my country should be about.
Che for walking the talk.
Gandhi for his utterly brilliant and sometimes exceedingly cunning politics.
FDR for showing how anything is possible.

Who are your favorite heroines in real life?
All single mothers.

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?
Any character which forces me to imagine in painstaking detail how they may have looked like.

Your favorite painter?

Your favorite musician?
Hans Zimmer and The Beatles

The quality you most admire in a man?
Loyalty, courage, zeal

The quality you most admire in a woman?
Patience, tenderness, spirited

Your favorite virtue?

Your favorite occupation?

Who would you have liked to be?
Who but me again. But perhaps a bit leaner and more aware would be good.

What do you most value in your friends?
Loyalty and frankness

What is your principle defect?

What is your favorite color?
Anything which occurs in nature.

What is your favorite flower?
Depends whom I am getting it for.

What is your favorite bird?
The eagle

Who are your favorite prose writers?
Wodehouse and Dickens

Who are your favorite poets?
I have read too little to decide but I always liked Tagore.

What are your favorite names?
The one which is whispered.

What is it you most dislike?
Arrogance and disloyalty.

What historical figures do you most despise?
Churchill, Mir Jafar and General Dwyer.

What event in military history do you most admire?
War of 1971.

What natural gift would you most like to possess?
Discipline and charisma

How would you like to die?
Without pain and with a smug look.

What is your present state of mind?
Lazy and disorganized.

What is your motto?
Failure is acceptable but not regrets.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2010 - The Year That Was.

January: Big boys don’t cry. I am not a big boy then. Wait, is this an apartment or is this The Apartment? A bath tub and well stocked fridge means all of life’s wishes are fulfilled. Shall I retire? The infamous trip to Hampi and all those things we can’t talk about.

February: A few good men sit down and try to define power. Chaos ensues . Crazy road trip in a crazier car. Sach ka Samna in the Wing of Fire. How to resign in a kick-ass manner? Watch and learn.

March: Luck strikes. Apparently naval architecture is yet another discipline I am not good at. Master Shifu makes a dramatic entry and changes everything forever. Is it possible that El Dorado actually exists? How do I become a member? Khrushchev makes a quiet entry. As a side note, finally a very cool office address.

April: F1. Wrote a treatise on how to make a fool of oneself. Wept.

May: Called back to the eastern front for the next sordid chapter of the long con. Started impersonating Ian Wright in my free time. The affair with Khrushchev gathers steam in more ways than one.

June: I love fishing. I would have loved it even more if I caught anything. Estonia needs to be quarantined. MBS is born and my career in international crime takes off. Master Shifu continues to destroy my ego with effortless ease. I consider conversion.

July: The con continues destroying all logic and reason in its path. Impersonating Wright yields great benefits. I propose marriage to travelling and she accepts. I swim with sharks. Literally. Khrushchev continues to mesmerize.

August: Conversations, deep introspection and a lot of food home delivered. The sales pitch is finally made. Subservience pays, the pitch is accepted. Exit Khrushchev.

September: (Disappointing) Road show at IITM. Deaths and good byes. Change of perspectives and promises to self. Leave for the much awaited magical mystery tour. Hate aircrafts. Realized how much I missed the classroom.

October: Questions, tests, ghosts, mild flirtations, humiliations, beaches, parties and pranks. Sign off from The Apartment. Solemn goodbyes. A pat on the back.

November: Madness. Sheer madness.I consciously decide to bite off more than I can chew. Chan marries and I miss the show.El Dorado comes closer. Camping is redefined. Do I know how to dance? No. Do I know how to dress? No. Do I know how to kiss? I used to. Not anymore. Do I know how to talk? No. Do I know how to give up? No.

December: Amarda gets hitched. I fly solo for the first time and ruffle feathers. The price of insubordination is paid. El Dorado is dangerously close. The wardrobe slowly begins to transform. The delight from Istanbul and the silly line about the hair. The clients arrive and Operation Vacation is launched with much fanfare. Busses, visas, resorts, shopping, crabs. Operation declared a success and clients leave. Master Shifu wishes me the best and exits.

January 1st, 2011, 11:59pm: A scratch on the bucket list. An incomplete draft of a thank you note. Jazz and Mr Daniels. What a difference a year can make.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Brunei for Dummies.

In 2007 I had written a highly acclaimed post for people who may want to travel to Germany and avoid rookie mistakes. It’s time for the much delayed next installment which will guide the ignorant traveler intending to visit the tiny Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam.

Quite a few on finding out that I spent a little over a month in Brunei, sheepishly asked where is Brunei? (Some used ‘what’ instead of ‘where’) I envy them. I believe that most of us are better off being unaware of the existence of a country where tax is just a word used on Scrabble boards and driving any car from the last century is considered taboo. But in keeping with the Lonely Planetish spirit of the post, I shall be kind with the trivia dispensing. Brunei is a monarchy, sultanate to be more precise, on the island of Borneo in South East Asia. The two hallmarks of the nation are its particularly loaded Sultan and its astounding luck with hydrocarbons. As far as what you can do as a tourist there kindly refer here. For the more adventurous who want a true ‘feel’ of the place read on.

1. The first thing which one observes in Brunei Darussalam is that people are happy. So obviously I was pissed off the moment I landed. I can make a leeway for lot of things but definitely not contentment.

2. There is just one major road in Brunei running from the east to west. The locals obsequiously refer to it as ‘The Highway’. The time to traverse the whole length of this 120km lifeline is what one would take to travel from Indira Nagar to Marathahalli in Bangalore at peak traffic hour. So unsurprisingly quite a few Bruneians commute daily from the capital Bandar in the eastern corner of the country to Seria in the western corner, where The Corporation which shall not be named has its premises.

3. Anyone living in the small towns in India is aware of the horrible practice of everyone knowing everything about everybody. I had a tough time growing up in a town where every move was noted and quietly reported back to the puppet masters. Brunei citizens experience the same misery but on a national scale. The rare upside to such a close knit country is that when one gets hauled up for speeding on ‘The Highway’ by the police, it is highly probable that the erring driver and the policeman may be distantly related. So the old Indian excuse of,’Sirjee, chota bhai samajhke isbaar ke liye chhor do’ will hold a lot of water in this part of the planet.

4. One of the most striking features of the country is the overwhelming presence of The Corporation at every corner. Never before have I seen just one company have such a remarkable role in a nation’s history and weave itself so firmly into the social fabric. It felt a bit surreal at times.

5. Brunei is a teetotaler’s wet dream. The restaurants bizarrely stay open late and yet after a long day, when one instinctively utters ‘A pint of Guinness please …’, the waitress clears her throat with a disapproving look. You may naively ask ‘But Sayan, you must be having some bootleggers around? Perfect dryness is just a Gandhian theory right?’ I will have to sadly shake my head and say no. Brunei is truly dry, just like the Mahatma intended. My fellow Malaysian brethren and I invested significant time and effort in searching for a ‘source’ including staking out the Army's canteen but all clues merely gave way to wild booze chases. However the problem was finally solved by hopping over the border every weekend. (One can bring in limited amount of alcohol to Brunei but they will need to register it at customs.)

6. This absence of spirits hasn’t dampened the night life of Brunei in any way. All bets are off in Gadong (pronounced emphatically as Gadooooonnnngggggggg) which happens to be where the young gather for phenomenally wild nights. Watching someone throw up in the late hours of Friday nights after having one water-melon juice too many or jostling with people crowding around a flaming carrot juice shots competition, one will be left gasping for breath trying to catch up with the madness all around. When one finally drives through the saucy green light districts in the wee hours, the only thought which resonates is how too much fruit juice can get someone as high as a few pegs of JD. (Disclaimer: I am not advocating fruit juice fuelled intoxication. I disapprove of the use of fruits for any form of self-gratification.)

Statutory Warning: The following statements may induce you to raise an army and invade Brunei. Conventional wisdom suggests it is advisable not to go beyond sabre-rattling as the Bruneian national security has been cunningly outsourced to the Gurkha Regiment of the British Army.

7. There are no taxes in Brunei. No income tax, no service tax, no sales tax, no deduction at any source whatsoever, no surcharges, no education cess, no infrastructure duty. Excise is just exercise spelt hurriedly and Tariff is the nickname of Haji Muhammed T Ariff. Everyone’s education is paid for and it will usually involve a fully supported scholarship to one of the top universities in UK. There are no JEE or AIEEE equivalents. Hospitals are cheap and the police efficient. I find all this unacceptable and a gross violation of my right to see other people crib about their country. In short, we need to raise an army and invade them and bring about some chaos. (Refer statutory warning)

8. If Brunei is about anything at the end of the day, it is about cars. The message was pretty clear on the first day when my recently graduated colleagues drove in on their VW Beetles, Honda Civics, BMWs, Mercs, Mini Coopers, Mazda and the range of SUVs which make you feel like turning into a Naxal and fight for justice. When asked what I used, to go to my office in Bangalore, I had to meekly say Volvo without daring to elaborate further on the make of the vehicle. But thank god for Bruneians and their love for sleek cars for I now know how it feels to be in a two-seater open hatch Honda S2000 flying at 225 km/hr. Divine.

My Volvo doesn't look too bad against their array of BMWs and VWs.

With their close knit society and fascination for cars , Brunei is easily one of the most marvelous places I have had a chance to visit. The people are very friendly and as already mentioned more happy than any community I have encountered. It was their sense of contentment which I found utterly fascinating and at the same time difficult to relate to.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Inquilab Zindabad!

Last week there was an all India strike at some parts of the country. Having grown up in a town which unfailingly saw a shutdown every fortnight, I have always missed the joy of unexpected holidays due to bandhs in the big cities. When these rare strikes do happen, I always get reminded of the only instance when I had participated in a full fledged industrial action.

This incident took place back when I was in DPS Rkpuram. The hostel food was terribly unexciting and monotonous. But it was the maddeningly drab breakfast which got everyone in a really rebellious mood. There was hardly anything to look forward to at the usual 9am breakfast apart from the fact that the girls dined on a mezzanine above where the guys had their meals. And if one looked up long enough, he would be rewarded with a glimpse of one of the prettier faces or more. Very Dachau-ish but without the killings and the labour. The dissatisfaction with the dull bread, butter and boiled egg menu usually got a voice through sudden pointless thumping of tables. But as protests involving sudden pointless thumping of tables go, it didn’t coerce the administration into corrective action.

One fine evening it was decided that each of us would boycott the next morning’s breakfast and hence by force the administration into making changes. The news of the fatwa spread among the rooms and a consensus was quickly achieved ratifying this decision. One individual however eked out a compromise from the Politburo, where he was permitted to go and have a glass of tea. The reason given was of a medical nature.

So the next morning we all went to the mess gate but refused to go any further. So while there was a crowd of students hovering resolutely around the mess entrance, the wardens and the kitchen staff stood inside with large mounds of boiled eggs and pakodas feeling very stupid with every passing minute. When the lone guy went in and just had a glass of tea, it seemed we inadvertently rubbed the message in pretty harshly. And so the strike was a complete success. Comrades from Bengal would have termed it spontaneous. We were ecstatic. Some of the more naive guys started drawing up prospective menus which we expected our united stand would force the administration to accept. Once the break was over we went back to our classes with a sense of pride and achievement. Some of us started contemplating a career in politics.

The wardens taken aback by this unexpected turn of events conferred among themselves and thought it best to report the matter to the vice-principal. This was our Stalingrad moment and the tide of the battle began moving irreversibly in the opposite direction from hence on. Our vice-principal was a straight talking Jat who had little patience for student uprisings due to culinary issues. What he lacked in way of communication skills, he failed to make up for it by having a sympathetic heart. He felt this act was completely unwarranted and as a penalty, issued clear orders to the wardens that no lunch and dinner should be served to us. This decision was summarily communicated to us by the wardens.

The Politburo discussed the limited options at hand and began to sense the sprouting of dissent among the masses. Whispers referring to the nutritional goodness of boiled eggs started doing the rounds. We also discovered that we were getting very hungry and the prospect of missing out on the otherwise dour rajma-chawal at lunch seemed heart wrenching. In view of the changed circumstances a tactical surrender was wisely recommended. Two hours later we submitted a written apology to the vice principal regretting our rashness and requesting a retraction of his order outlawing the other meals. The vice principal, magnanimous in his comprehensive and crushing victory, promised sweeping changes in the breakfast menu. He kept his promise in a way only he could. From the next day we started getting tomato ketchup with the boiled eggs and pakodas.

I haven’t been a part of a strike since.