Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Diligent Flower Lady

This week, heavy rains have lashed Chennai, the city where my parents live. All the reservoirs in the state of Tamil Nadu are overflowing, and rice paddy fields have been submerged in the flood. A lot of other regular activity has been suspended, due to the rains.

Despite the rain, the old lady who delivers flowers showed up in the morning. Each day, my mother buys a small string of marigolds or jasmine from her. (It is common in India to adorn pictures and statues of gods as part of daily prayers.)

The flower seller apologized to my mother and said that she wouldn’t be able to show up tomorrow because of the rains. Before leaving, she gave my mother some extra flowers for the next day.

"I am surprised that she made it in this weather," I told my mother.
"She must have bought the loose flowers yesterday," my mother explained. "If she doesn't deliver them, the flowers will wilt and she won't get paid. That's why even in this pouring rain, she's going from house to house delivering the flowers."

I learned that this lady used her meager capital to buy loose flowers. At night, she wove them into long strands and cut them into small strings. The next day she personally delivered them to each customer's home.

"What do you pay her?" I asked.
"Two rupees daily."

For her efforts in home-delivering fresh flowers seven days a week, this flower lady earned Rs 60 from each customer. That is less than US $1.35 per month.

Friday, November 26, 2010

10 Movies About India that I enjoyed - Part 2

Seeing India through 10 movies about it – Part 2

This is part 2 of my list of 10 movies about/on India that I have enjoyed. The criteria I used can be found in part 1.

6. The Cup (1999, Khyentse Norbu): This movie is actually about the life of young Tibetan novices, but the location is India. This lighthearted movie is about current day life in Dharmashala and Mcleodganj. An endearing movie which uses the backdrop of a soccer world cup to portray the modern-day struggles of novice monks trying to live in an environment full of worldly attractions.

7. Born Into Brothels (2004, Zana Briski & Ross Kaufmann): This is the only documentary in the list, and it won the Oscar for Best documentary that year. The real life story of the lives of a group of children of prostitutes in the Sonagachi district of Calcutta. Zana, the filmmaker goes there as a photographer, sees an opportunity to help the lives of these children and documents it as she goes along. This is an uplifting movie in which we watch the children blossom into pretty decent photographers, and some get to travel to Europe for a showing of their pictures.

8. The Namesake (2006, Mira Nair): This is a movie about the life of one Indian family in the US, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. (As an aside, her book of short stories about the Indians abroad is "The Interpreter of Maladies" is exquisitely penned while also being very readable). Namesake is a very faithful adaptation of Jhumpa's second book by the same name. India forms the backdrop, and we get to see many aspects of the protagonist Gogol's life. Kal Penn and Tabu both give authentic performances. I also remember being impressed with director's version that was included in the DVD extras.

9. Outsourced (2006, John Jeffcoat): I wanted to choose one movie that shows contemporary India. Of course, this is a Hollywood version of a fairly romanticized view of the IT outsourcing phenomenon. Those of us who have worked and lived it know that it is not all fun. This is a very good effort with likable characters and lots of humor. (At present, there is also a Primetime NBC sitcom airing on Thursdays based on this story.)

10. Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle): There is no being neutral about this movie, or so it seems. I haven't yet come across a movie that so decisively divides people. In general, the Indian diaspora (those living outside India) seem to like it, but a huge majority of Indians seem to abhor the way it portrays their country. (Some of my relatives were aghast and just about ready to deny me dinner and turn me away because I had said I liked this movie.) The movie is based on the popular quiz show "Who wants to be a millionaire" based on Vikas Swarup's book Q&A, presented as a series of improbably connected vignettes. You might love it, or hate it, but you must view it.

The following movies probably belong in this list, but I haven't watched them yet.
  • Mr and Mrs Iyer
  • Hyderabad Blues
  • A Train To Pakistan
Hope I didn't miss too many other good movies about India.

Related Posts: The 10 Best Movies about India - Part I

Friday, November 19, 2010

The 10 best movies about India – Part 1

A few weeks ago, a reader Mike asked me for a list of movies about India.

First, a few caveats.

I've intended this list for a Western (non-Indian) audience.

Undertakings like this (listing movies that capture India well) are inherently flawed. India is so vast and diverse that it resists encapsulation. I have spent half my life in the country, I visit it every so often, and yet the country never ceases to amaze me.

In order to limit the scope, I have only included Hollywood movies about India. And I have only included movies that I have seen. (If I included Bollywood and regional Indian movies, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.)

For many of these movies, it has been years since I viewed them, so I am going based on what still lingers in my memory.

Here then are ten movies which, taken together, will give the viewer a good perspective on life in India, its landscape and its people.

I'll post five today, starting with the "classics."

1. Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough) – I still remember the hype around the release of this movie. I also recall that I was surprised that the director had cast someone who wasn’t from India (Ben Kingsley) in the lead role. But the hype was justified, and the movie delivered. There are a few good scenes where we get to see Gandhi growing and becoming the revered leader he ended up as. The following year, the movie won 8 Oscars, including best picture.

2. City of Joy (1992, Rolan Jaffe) – Ten years after 'Gandhi' came the 'City of Joy.' I had just come to the US, and watched it here in my university. It is undeniably a Hollywood-version of the slums and the tough lives of those in Calcutta, and contrasts the lives of a doctor from Texas and a rickshaw puller. Patrick Swayze and Om Puri excel in their performances.

3. Salaam Bombay (1988, Mira Nair) – A realistic movie about the life of the street kids of Bombay. NYC-based director Mira Nair made her name with this movie. She is tough and doesn't pull her punches. The movie ends up being educational for us the audience just as it does for Krishna, the boy hailing from a village learns the scrappy ways of the Bombay underworld.

4. Monsoon Wedding (2001, Mira Nair) – Yes, another film by Mira Nair. (I too am surprised that two of her movies made it into this list.) A very neat idea of making a movie around all the machinations that go into an elaborate Indian wedding. It appealed to the Western audiences as they glimpsed the inner-workings, and the Indian audiences liked it because they could relate to the events. And this being a Mira Nair movie, the plot line does not get diluted down into a syrupy comedy.

5. Fire, Earth, Water: The Deepa Mehta Trilogy. (1996, 1998, 2005) India-born Canadian director Deepa Mehta is comfortable making movies that deal with mature themes. Fire deals with the story of one joint family, with two brothers, their wives and the mother-in-law and a servant all living under one roof, and the ensuing complex interactions. Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das light up the screen, and some of the themes that Deepa touches on had the audiences squirming. I haven't yet watched Earth. The movie Water (2005) is about the lives of destitute widows in the city of Varanasi, and it received a lot of critical acclaim and it was an eye-opener for me.

Looking at the list above, I see that it has turned out to be more somber than I intended it to be. Nor do they add up to give a sense of life in India. (Maybe even 10 movies is too few.) I'll post some of the more contemporary ones in part two of this list.

I am sure I have missed tons of other good movies about India. If you think of others, do add them in the comments section.

Friday, November 12, 2010

This is India #3 -- We, the People

Things I can’t get used to in India

I love most things Indian. In my previous stay there, I had jotted down the following list of things that people in India do, to which I just can’t get used. I really hope some of these things change with time.

1. People playing MP3 songs on their mobile phones without earphones and inflicting loud music on others
2. People buying sweets despite there being dozens of flies on them
3. People throwing all their garbage right outside their own homes or shops
4. People spitting all day long – some silently and incessantly, and others making a noisy production of it
5. People who talk all the time during movies, wisecracking with their friends.
6. People who start walking out minutes before the movie is about to end, opening the doors and ruining the suspension of disbelief for the rest of us
7. Parents not shushing their kids (or taking their kids outside the auditorium) when live performances are in progress, even though they know that their child is being really disruptive.
8. People standing patiently in long lines to use an ATM
9. People in cars who pull up in front of an apartment building and honk loudly to signal their arrival to one person, unmindful of the dozens of other residents that they are disturbing
10. People who saunter along on the railway tracks, as if there is no other place available to walk. And especially people who scurry and cross the track right in front of an oncoming train, and clamber onto the platform seconds before the train comes rushing in.
11. People on power trips, who want to be administrative bottlenecks and delay things, just so that they can flex their muscles and show everyone “who’s boss.”

Related Posts:
This is India #2 - Contrasts
This is India #1

Friday, November 5, 2010

Himalaya by Michael Palin - BBC Video

One way to enjoy the Himalayas is to go there and visit places for weeks at a time, taking in the scenery and the charm. The next best thing is to watch the BBC video series Himalaya. I recently viewed this 3-DVD set which is hosted by Michael Palin of Monty Python fame.

Michael is very down to earth, with his own brand of humor and that makes the viewing all the more enjoyable to me. Having previously watched his "Around the World in 80 Days" program, I knew I was in for a treat. Michael is at times very serious, touching on politically sensitive topics, and at other times he is delightfully irreverent, with his quirky little antics when he jokes with the people he encounters.

This is a 6 part series. The countries he visits are Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tibet, Nepal, China, Bhutan and Bangladesh. He starts in the westernmost parts of the Himalayas (Hindu Kush & Karakoram) and ends his long journey where the river Bramhaputra's delta runs out to the sea.

Along the way, he visits places along the Indo-Pak border where conflicts are a way of life, he gets an audience with the Dalai Lama, he goes to Everest base camp, he gets to circumambulate Mt. Kailash in Tibet, he does the Annapurna trek, he drives the Katmandu to Lhasa highway, goes to monasteries, and to a number of other towns in these 8 countries.

Everything that I come across produced by BBC Video seems to me to be of very good quality. If you are at all fascinated by the Himalayan mountain range, these extremely well produced episodes are a great way to vicariously travel this region.

Friday, October 29, 2010

When You Take Away Hope…

This desert story from India is almost surely apocryphal. I heard it a year ago, but it has stayed with me. I heard it from the venerable Aruna Roy when she was speaking at the Pushkar Literary festival, in Rajasthan. She's given up her life of comfort to live and work among the people in that part of the desert. She shared this story with the audience to illustrate the sustaining power of hope.

In the western Thar desert in Rajasthan, life is hard. Many families face an acute shortage of food and water. One family of five occupied a small hut, among a cluster of similar huts. The father and mother were both itinerant migrant workers, and they barely earned enough to feed their three young children and themselves.

One summer, the drought was so severe that there was no work to be found in the village. So the couple made a tough decision – they decided to let the kids remain in their hut while they went to other villages in the desert to search for work. They knew that their neighbors would look after the kids until they came back.

Before setting out, the couple gathered the children. "You see this mud pot?" asked the dad. "It has laapsi. It is the only thing we have, but we can't have it now." Laapsi is a sweet wheat porridge dessert, and it is prized as a delicacy by those who reside in the desert. "I am going to dangle it from the hut's roof. When your mother and I come back, we will all feast on it."

Then the couple went away to look for work.

The three kids managed by themselves, with the neighbors helping out a little. Even if the neighbors wanted to, they couldn’t give much to these children because they didn't have much for their own family.

On some nights, the eldest brother would tell the other two, "We don’t have anything for dinner. We only have some water left. But look up there! When papa and maa come back, we can feast on that laapsi!"
"What does laapsi taste like?" his little sister asked.
"No dish tastes better than laapsi," her brother told her. "It will be so sweet and filling!" That night, the three kids sipped some water and went to sleep hungry.

This way, the kids managed to scrape by for several months.

Eventually, their parents returned. The kids were so happy in rushing to welcome them that they didn’t read their body language. They hadn't found any work. The parents had no strength left to do anything.

"Papa, let's have the laapsi now!"
"Kids, let's wait a few more days."
"No!" The kids were adamant.

So the father was forced to bring down the pot that had been hanging from the roof. Very reluctantly, he showed it to the kids. The pot was empty.

The laapsi that they had been dreaming about for months wasn’t there. Within a week, one by one, all three kids died.

Sometimes, when I hear someone expressing false hope I have this urge to contradict them. But remember this story and hold my peace. When hope is the only crutch someone has left, we should pause before kicking it away.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stationary Travel

People say that you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you’re going to see just about all you can handle.
Paul Auster, Smoke

Friday, October 22, 2010

All Things Must Fight To Live

Most of this week I spent reading Bryan Mealer's Congo book, "All Things Must Fight to Live." The book's subtitle is "Stories or War and Deliverance in Congo." I picked this book up mainly because I know so little about such a vast country. The definitive contemporary book about Congo -- King Leopold's Ghost, has been languishing on my to-be-read list for years.

Bryan Mealer is a Texas-born UT Austin graduate, and an AP staff correspondent covering central Africa and focusing on Congo. This book covers a four year period in Congo's history, roughly from 2003 to 2007. Bryan is based mostly in Kinshasa, and goes to the front-lines of the war-zones just as the conflicts are erupting, and he reports what he sees. That makes up first half the book. The second half of the book, the deliverance part, consists of two epic journeys that Bryan sets out on. One on the Congo river and the other on a long train journey, once the railway finally starts operating.

By necessity, the book deals with a lot of violence and pillage. Bryan writes in a very even-handed way, no melodrama, no sensationalism. I guess when the subject matter is so harrowing there is no need for those devices. The book makes good reading, though it is definitely not light reading. All Things Must Fight has gravitas.

In many ways, this is not a travel book. It is really a journalist's take on a country that many of us won't probably visit anytime soon. Journalists like Bryans spend months and years in these places, so that they can bring us these stories and it is up to us to draw whatever conclusions we may.

Bryan writes with understated humor, and it provided much needed relief.
I found myself having the same conversations I'd had in every African election I'd covered.
"What kinds of changes will you demand from the winner?"
Silence. "Hmmm."
"So you're demanding peace, electricity, and better schools for your kids?"
"Oh, yes, yes….peace. Peace and schools."
But those sections are few and far between. Throughout the week, as I worked my way through this haunting book, I would repeatedly get dispirited about the bleakness of the events and the situation there. I had to put the book away, read other books on more "positive" topics, and come back to All Things Must Fight.

Very early on, I noticed that more than the description of the brutal killings, it was the overall hopelessness of the situation that really got me down. It was Bryan's descriptions of the rampant lawlessness, the cops' corruption (partly because the government owes them months of back-pay), the abject poverty in the interior where people's clothes rot and fall off from repeated use. Hordes of citizens of one of the world's richest countries in terms of minerals are resorting to illegal mining in the scorching heat, and getting paid a mere $5 for a week's worth of work while giving away 1000's of dollars of minerals. Railway workers living in camps, who barely have enough to eat, are still showing up to work every day even though they haven’t been paid in two years.

Normally, after reading a good book, I get evangelical about it, recommending it to everyone I come across. But this book is not for everyone. It is very good reading, but it is not pleasant reading. If you are up to reading the realities of a gruesome street war fought by machete-wielding and stoned 12-year olds, you should pick this book up.

I waffled for a few weeks about whether or not to read this book once I learned of the topics it covered. Ultimately, I think I read it in order to punch a small hole into my cozy suburban existence, to let a little bit of raw reality seep in.


Excerpts: Listed below are a few sentences from Mealer's book that I jotted down when reading.

[Bryan Mealer taking stock of the situation after he's been in Congo for around a year.]
All we really had time to do was make some record of the killing and the dying and hope to tell it the right way. I'd been there maybe a year, covered a war and followed it through. It wasn’t a long time by any stretch, but long enough to understand that total comprehension was impossible, no matter how long you stayed. No one really understood how twenty-five thousand people could walk twenty kilometers, meet in the same remote valley, and start dying there immediately. No one really understood what drove someone to behead a five-year-old girl with a farm tool, or to wipe out an entire village for the sake of a few dollars in gold or loot. It was too abstract, even as I think of it now.

[A pastor is serving as the journalists' translator to earn himself much-needed money. The pastor has just been approached by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who want him to join them and help their efforts.]
It touched [the pastor] that MSF doctors left six-figure salaries in Europe and America to be frontiline medics in places most people didn't even bother pronouncing right; that in places where all hope and sanity were lost, these people were always the first to arrive, blood up to their elbows and never asking thanks. And in Congo, their staff had been kidnapped and held hostage for doing it.
"If it is God's will for us to live a healthy life, to escape the bondage of death and poverty, then MSF is doing the work of God. There are doing a kind of sacrifice. I respect you journalists because you give me money, but I respect MSF because they are saving the lives of us, they are doing great work, God's work! In the name of God, I will join MSF, even if they will pay me nothing!"

[Sometimes, for the river traders who paddle in small boats up to the barges to trade, their entire inventory ends up in the unforgiving river. I liked this paragraph because of how the Congolese react to this misfortune.]
The pirogue [traders' boat] might catch a bad wake after releasing from the barge and spin like an oil drum, spilling [the traders] into the river, vegetables and racks of smoked fist slowly vanishing beneath the water. But no one ever seemed worried. Instead, crowds would gather along the side of the barge and cheer. The dumped passengers would give an embarrassed wave and swim ashore.

[On his river journey, the tugboat that is pulling the barges simply detaches itself and turns back. It might be two days until it returns, and it has left all the passengers in the barges stranded in the Congo River, with forests all around for miles and miles.]
Instead of panicking, the Congolese only amped up the party. The saucy soukous of Werrason now roared behind an arsenal of fresh batteries, and jugs of palm wine sloshed from camp to camp. Stranded on a remote stretch of river in the middle of Congo, they reacted by dancing as if it were the last night on earth.

[Reporting from a polling station when a much awaited election finally takes place.]
I stood and watched the voters enter the Catholic mission and drop their ballots, and when they emerged into the bright morning sunshine, each had the strangest look on their face, one of deep abatement, as if every muscle had relaxed for the first time in years. It was then, while staring across this place so overrun with death only days before, that the significance of the day finally set in.

Related Post: Somebody's Heart Is Burning: Tanya Shaffer's Book

Friday, October 15, 2010

Somebody's Heart is Burning - Tanya Shaffer's book

Sitting on buses and tro-tros, I find myself repeatedly telling strangers the story of my life… Some need seems to drive my narration, as if through the telling I'm constructing a self-image that I can anchor myself to and believe in. I want the events to be linear and the lessons cumulative, building on each other like Legos: this led me here, and I learned this, and then I was here, and I was lost, and I found this. Life, of course, was never so orderly. It was more like my hair after a ride in the back of a truck: an ungovernable tangle... Growth happened when I wasn't looking. It happened later, after I'd given up hope. And love wasn't like that: so transparent and unequivocal, a balance sheet of pros and cons. Life was life and love was love. All the explanations came later.
From Tanya Shaffer's "Somebody's Heart Is Burning"
Tanya Shaffer's book Somebody's Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa is different from many of the other travel books that I have read.

Her real-life stories do not at all adhere to the typical arc of it-was-so-difficult-then-but-seems-funny-in-retrospect travel writing narratives. Tanya's stories don’t end the way we might expect them to, and this being non-fiction, they don't end the way we want them to end.

Tanya Shaffer is an American (Bay-area based) woman who spends a year going to western Africa to volunteer in various projects. She travels mostly in Ghana, with side trips to Burkina Faso and Mali. The stories (15 of them make up the book) are mostly about the people that she meets, their lives and ways of thinking, and about how the Western volunteers interact with the locals. She writes with vividness, choosing many small anecdotes and details that bring the many facets of Ghana's daily life alive for us.

Every writer strives to portray themselves in a good light. Tanya resists this impulse and chooses to include aspects of herself that many other writers would have rather left out of the stories. And this makes the writing very authentic. In particular, I enjoyed the story titled "Sand Angel" which is about her eventful boat trip up the Niger.

To me, good travel writing has to do at least one of two things: 1) I should feel that reading about the place is just as good (if not better) than going there and 2) it should make me want to go there to experience things first-hand. Somebody's Heart is Burning does both.

Those who like travel books might want to check out the book.


There is one paragraph towards the very end of Sand Angel that I really liked, even though it is quite possible that the sentiments she writes about were developed much later than when the events unfold in that story.
It struck me, then, that the only changes we humans are capable of are small ones. You can beat yourself up for years, wishing you could be kinder, happier, more decisive and secure. And then one day you realize you've made a slight shift, moved your inner lens a fraction of an inch to this side or that. Not a whole new self, a remade identity, just a little change in perspective. A loosening, really, an out-breath, a drop of acceptance in the salty ocean of the soul. You haven't solved everything, maybe you haven't solved anything, but if you're lucky, that small shift will be the difference between holding your life in grace and simply holding on.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tanya Shaffer on Why She Travels

In the book that I am reading, Tanya Shaffer's Somebody's Heart is Burning: A woman wanderer in Africa, the author encounters an old man in a ferry boat during her arduous ride up the Niger. The man wants to know why she is in that over-crowded pinasse going to Timbuktu.

I am always interested in the various responses to this question of why we travel, and I particularly liked Tanya's musings about her inability to respond adequately to the old man's question. Perhaps because it mirrors our own sentiments.

She writes:
How could I tell yet another person here that with everything that had been given to me, I was still restless and unsatisfied? That I felt driven to wander the earth in search of some elusive key that would unlock the chamber of my own happiness? How could I explain that I chose physical hardship: dysentery, heat rash, dizzying rides in crowded vehicles down bumpy, potholed roads – that I chose all of this, because it was the only thing that made me feel truly alive?
I will post more about this book soon.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Things Husband Tell their Wives

Here are a couple of things I overheard when walking the reasonably crowded trails in Utah's Arches NP this summer.

A young husband to his wife who refused to accompany him up the rocks in the Double Arch trail because she was afraid of vertigo: "Yes, but it's not the fear of heights. It is not even the fear of falling. It is the fear of landing."

An elderly husband, laughing at himself while pointing to his (I assume) new tiny digital camera and telling his wife, "No wonder I couldn’t find the button to press. I was trying to take the picture holding it upside down."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Q&A with Elizabeth Gilbert : Budget Travel Interview

Here's an interview in Budget Travel with writer Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she shares her travel philosophy.
"I only take pictures of the people I become friends with. Also, I never sit down to write anything unless I have one person in mind to whom I am telling the story. It helps focus the piece."

Elzabeth Gilbert shot to fame after her book "Eat, Pray, Love" became a runaway bestseller. She was invited to TED for a talk on the creative process. The movie version of Eat, Pray, Love is coming out soon (on August 13) starring Julia Roberts. I am looking forward to catching this movie, especially the India part. In Hollywood films, India always shows up in vibrant colors.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Incremental Innovations

In this trip within the US, I saw a couple of incremental innovations that were pleasing. (When you live in a country for 20 years, you start to take things for granted and stop noticing the improvements.)

Used to be that in museums, we'd pay around $6-$8 to rent an "audio guide" – a long black hand-held device which would narrate once we pressed the exhibit's number. This time, I saw that in several places, they asked us to use our cell phones instead. No renting or paying anything. You dial the number and the displayed extension, and a voice recording tells you about what you are looking at, with options for more details if you are interested. I saw this in the OKC memorial, in art galleries in Taos, and also in a botanical garden in Lincoln, NE. This is a great way to increase the usage of a device that all of us carry around -- the cell phone.

In the Wal-Mart in Durango in Colorado, I noticed that the receipt was unusually small. Then I saw why. Both sides of the paper had been used to print our purchases! It may not sound like much, but I am sure eventually the savings in paper used adds up to something significant.

"Most of the innovations that matter are the tiny changes we constantly make to the millions of procedures and methods we use."
Robin Hanson, Innovations and Economic Growth

Friday, June 25, 2010

Harley Pride

In this road trip through several of the southern states in central U.S., the sheer number of motorcyclists surprised me. They are a proud bunch, typically traveling in small groups. Two or three or four motorcycles per group, driving through national parks and scenic byways.

They seem to be really enjoying the summer, sauntering along in no big rush. At every vista point or overlook, they stop and get off their bikes. Then they pull out their cameras, take a quick peek at the view, then they turn around and photograph their shiny bikes from different angles. Then they get on, and drive off to the next scenic spot.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Highway Quotes

Perhaps because I am on the road these days, these quotes resonated:

No matter what road I'm traveling, I'm going home. – Shinshio

"The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway." – Emerson.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Product Endorsements

It is not as hypocritical for an aspiring anti-materialist like me to be endorsing products as it initially seems. If you are going to own only a few things, they must be of very good quality so that they can last.

Here then are a few products that have really helped us in our travels, and I thought it might be worth recommending to others when they travel.

Teva footwear: This will be no big surprise to those who have owned Tevas before. These are open footwear with Velcro straps. Each pair lasts for years, and no traveler should be without one. (I wore mine daily for a full year in India, so much so that many people assumed I didn’t own any other footwear. I didn't want to wear my black shoes (too formal) or rubber flip-flops (too informal), so Teva it was.

REI Cargo Pants: Just before heading out to India, I happened to pick up two sets of cargo pants from the local REI store. These are ideal for travel, with lots of side zips and pockets to stash away tickets, passport and cash. It has lasted through numerous wash cycles, and only now is beginning to show signs of wear. I'd recommend buying one pair first to see if it works for you.

Kelty Backpacks: Ours is over a dozen years old. The credit for researching this before we made our purchase goes to my wife. Mine has gone on dozens of trips. Sometimes, I think I'd like to upgrade to a new backpack, but my current one still looks good.

Vacuum Storage Bags: We hesitated before buying these. It seemed a waste to pay around $20 for what was essentially a set of 3 big-sized Ziplock bags. But I am a convert now. We put our "good clothes" in one and stuffed our winter wear in another of these giant bags and then vacuumed the air out. For one whole year, the bags sat in storage, and the clothes are just as we left them. (Upon my return, when moving things around, one bag fell to the ground and instantly "exploded." So they should be handled carefully.)

Obviously, I am not affiliated with any of the products above. I am just a satisfied customer.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Your Radio or Your CD Player?

I was at the auto mechanic's, getting the car we had just purchased ready for a long road trip in the US. The radio was only able to receive one or two stations, and neither of them was NPR. I wanted that fixed.

The mechanic spent nearly 20 minutes pulling out everything. He conferred with his boss, and then they both came to discuss with me. "The antenna can go either to the CD player or to the radio, but not to both. Which one do you want?"

I had to decide on the spot, and since we had paid an extra $300 for the luxury of having a 12-disc CD player, I told them to leave it the way it was. Sensing my disappointment, the head mechanic only charged me half the quoted price.

On the evening before our departure my friend Kalyan said, "Part of the fun of a long road trip is being able to listen to random radio stations in the places you are driving through." I then wished that I had opted for the radio.

The next day we set out, with a few favorite CD's in the player. That evening, in Bloomington IL, when my wife was out of the car somewhere, I decided to fiddle with the radio again. And to my surprise, NPR came on loud and clear. Earlier, sometime during the drive, my wife had pushed a couple of buttons to shut off the CD player. (Later on, we figured it out. The radio would come on only if the player was fully shut off, something that both the mechanics had missed.)

So now I can listen to my CD's or to NPR in the car as much as I want. Happiness, it seems, is in having small choices.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

NYT: Seeing the world on a budget

Here's an NYT article about Frugal Travel (though it is really rumination about travel itself) that really resonated. Tip hat to my brother Mukund for sending it to me.

Matt Gross, in the NY Times writes:
Six years ago, I had a regular job, in an office. I was there 9 or 10 hours a day, made a decent living and even found the work occasionally interesting. But I was also bored. More than bored — I was restless.
Read the full article.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Stay a little longer

My excuse for not posting here is that I am on the road, traveling the western US. But I decided that I could write quick posts from time to time. So here's one.

When we used to travel before, we used to fly into a country (say in Europe) and try to cover as many places as possible. So typically, we'd fly out of Chicago, land in City A, travel to B, C, and D, come in to city E and fly back to Chicago from there. We'd be switching cities most nights, and would hardly ever stay in one hotel for more than 2 nights. This is the mode of traveling that Lonely Planet derisively calls "sand bagging" but we had to conserve vacation days, didn’t have much choice.

Back home, when we reflected on the trips though, we found that we enjoyed most the ones where we had stayed put and taken our time. I know the quality versus quantity argument is really an old one, but sometimes even obvious things take time to sink in.

So now, finally, we are meandering at a much slower pace. Recently, we spent 2 days in Oklahoma City (a place I had overlooked before) and 2 more in White Sands, NM and both were richly rewarding.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Bird in Hand

I met R. Sri Kumar when he received the Distinguished Alumni award from IIT Madras. He is the recently retired head of Karnataka police, who's taken up social transformation through e-Governance, and he believes that a lot can be achieved by combining simple project management principles with crowdsourcing.

His address to the audience was a call to action to each and everyone to do their part, for self-motivation. Towards the end of his address, he narrated the story of the Boy with the Bird In Hand.

He said he had picked up the story several years back, when he was sent on deputation to KSRTC, Karnatka's state bus corporation. In his four years with the corporation, he slowly steered it from huge losses towards profitability. And in order to achieve that, he had to visit as many employees as he could, and engage them in discussions.

Mr. Srikumar adapted the story for his purposes. When he was called upon to address groups, he used this story to drive home the point that it was up to each employee to turn the bus company (KSRTC) around.

Soon, he became known as the guy who narrated the bird story. Apparently, bus conductors and drivers would come up and request that he narrate the story to their colleagues, even though they had themselves heard it before.

Indeed, it is a story that bears repetition, even if you have heard it before. Here then, is the story that Sri Kumar narrated to the audience at IIT Madras:

Once, in a village, there lived a wise swamiji (ascetic) who always spoke the truth. Not only that, everything he said also came out to be true. The villages had enormous respect for the swamiji and revered him for his wisdom.

In the same village, there also lived two boys, brothers, who loved to play truant and stay away from school under any pretext possible. Their mother, who saw through their lies and excuses, kept telling them that they should be more like the swamiji.

This constant nagging by his mother got to the elder boy. He decided that when he got the chance, he'd show up the swamiji. And sure enough, one day the two boys found an injured sparrow by a tree. The elder boy got an idea. He was going to put the swamiji in a situation from which he couldn’t get out by speaking the truth.

"Here's what I will do," he told his brother. "I will place this bird in my hand, and cover it with my other hand. Then I will ask the swamiji whether it is alive or dead. If he says it is dead, I will open my hand and show that it is alive and that he had not spoken the truth."
"And what if he says it is alive?" asked his younger brother.
"Then I will simply crush the bird dead first, then open my hand and show that he was wrong!"

The two boys ran to the swamiji's place taking the injured bird with them.
"Swamiji, we have a question for you."
"Yes, son."
The elder boy had the bird in one hand and covered it with his other hand.
"What is in my hand, Swamiji?"
The swami took a closer look and said "It's a frightened sparrow, son."
"And swamiji," asked the boy, "is the sparrow dead or alive?"
Right away, the swamiji sensed that the boy was trying to trap him.
"Son," said the swamiji, "it's in your hands."

And that, Mr. Sri Kumar feels is ultimately the message everyone should take away. Whether it is the Karnataka State Bus Corporation, or our own company, our school, or our neighborhood or any part of our society, how things turn out is in our hands.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why are you crying?

Late one evening in Haridwar, my wife and I were enjoying a walk on a bridge over the Ganges. There were no crowds at that time, and we got to enjoy the fast-flowing river in peace. There was a food vendor in a trolley preparing Indian and Chinese items, and the aroma was rekindling hunger. It had been 3 hours since dinner.

The food cart on the bridge was well lit and looked clean, so we ordered a plate each. The food was great, but I couldn’t enjoy it because standing just 5 feet from the cart, in the dark, there was a woman in her twenties who was sobbing visibly.
"Why is she crying?" I eventually asked the food vendor.
He was dismissive. "Oh, her. People like her come to Haridwar all the time and are crying." His body language and tone indicated that I should simply ignore it.

But it was difficult to ignore her. After we had eaten, I asked my wife to check on her.
"Miss, what happened? Why are you crying?" my wife asked the young woman in Hindi.
"I am hungry," she said, and continued to cry.
In India, we have been hit up for food a few times, so we had a routine of sorts. Our rule was to not give out money, opting to buy them food instead.
"Okay, I will buy you a loaf of bread," my wife told her.
"Nahin Chahiye." I don't want that.
We also had a Plan B.
"Will you have fruit? We will buy you bananas." A dozen bananas costs the same as a loaf of bread.
"Nahin Chahiye." The tears continued streaming.
Now we were out of options.
"What do you want?" my wife asked her.
"That," she said, pointing to the food cart.
"Chow mein?!"
"Yes," she said nodding.

My wife looked at me. The request was a bit unusual, but understandable. The aroma of Chinese cooking would have been torturous to the woman. We had both just finished a plate each, and it didn’t seem right to refuse her.

I pulled out a few rupees and walked back to the vendor. "Please make her a plate of chow mein," I told him.
He looked at me, but didn’t say anything. When he accepted my money there was an almost imperceptible shake of his head. I know what the shake meant -- You-guys-will-fall-for-this-every­-time is what he wanted to say.

Maybe so. But he made great chow mein, and she was hungry.
"He will now make a plate for you," my wife told the woman.

I was slightly surprised because the woman didn’t thank us, or even look at us. She walked over and stood next to the cart. But she had stopped crying.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

This is India #2 - Contrasts

In an interior village in rural Tamil Nadu, a large house had been converted into a vocational school to teach welding to teenage boys. We were visiting the school which was run by an NGO. The students attended a 4 week course, and if the boys passed a professional welding test at the end of the duration, they were guaranteed employment by auto manufacturers nearby.

We were talking to the principal and he repeatedly stressed that the school admits only those who are BPL (Below the Poverty Line, an economic term that gets used often by the media in India.) He was telling us that the boys came from the poorest of the poor families. They couldn't afford to pay the fees for the welding course. Therefore, from the salaries that the boys earned in the first six months, a percentage was deducted and sent back to the NGO to cover its training expenses. This way, the NGO was trying to become financially self-sustaining.

The principal told us that because this was the first time in their lives for the boys to be away from their families for weeks at a stretch they got very homesick.
"How do these boys keep in touch with their families?" I asked.
"By cell phone. They all have mobile phones"
Then he noticed my questioning look. "Yes, they are all BPL. But these days even the BPL boys have mobile phones. They use it for SMS," he said.

That evening, on our return our vehicle came on the Bangalore-Chennai Highway. It is an impressive tolled freeway with 2-3 lanes on each side. At the toll booths, you get receipts with a computerized time and date stamp. Just as we were driving past the toll booth, I noticed one man sitting in a folding chair with a notebook and pen in hand. As each vehicle passed him, he was frantically jotting something down. From what I could make out, he was jotting down the license plate number of each vehicle.

I then saw that this was happening in all the lanes, each lane had a man with a notebook. I have no idea why they were noting it down, and that too by hand. They could have used a simple surveillance camera, or even a digital camera or they could have at least keyed it in somewhere. In their way, the records wouldn’t even be searchable. But they were at it diligently, all day long. (Since that visit, I have also seen this furious jotting down in other toll booths in TN as well.)

Just another reminder that India will never cease to surprise me. People living below the poverty line who have cell phones for SMS; and fancy automated toll booths where employees also jot down license plate numbers by hand.

Friday, March 26, 2010

My Top 10 Things to See and Do while in Istanbul

A friend who is visiting Istanbul asked me to send him a list of must-see and must-do while in Istanbul. Thought I'd share it here as well.

My Top 10 Things to See and Do while in Istanbul

1. Suleiman mosque/Blue Mosque
2. Aya Sophia
3. Topkapi Palace
4. Just wandering the Sultanahmet area – the Hippodrome and the Obelisk are nearby.
5. Visit Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, even if you are not interested in shopping.
6. The Orient Express Railway station (esp.for rail and novel buffs). There is a museum inside.
7. Be sure to walk across the Galata Bridge, watching the fishermen and looking back the mosque-filled skyline of the grand city.
8. Take a boat up the Bosphorous all the way to the Black sea. Keep a watch out for dolphins. (Climb up to the fort there to see the cargo ships plying). Or, take one of the dinner cruises on the Bosphorous.
9. Walk up and down Istikklal street – up to Taksim square. Sample some of the Turkish sweets and the local food there. There are also a couple of vegetarian restaurants in the area.
10. Go to a Turkish Bath

There is much, much more of course. There are some really good art galleries in the Beyoglu area that one can browse. You can catch live gypsy music performances in the Istiklal/Taksim area and also watch a dervish show that are performed just for the tourists.

Did I forget anything important that is there in your list?

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Married Man in Thiruvannamalai

I heard this story from the district collector of Thiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu whom we met on a visit to the town. The collector is the highest administrative post in a district. Anyone visiting Thiruvannamalai is sure to hear stories about the powers of lord Arunachala, and about the imposing hill there that dominates the town and is attributed mystical powers, and about the foreign devotees who throng to the place. I am narrating the following as I heard it from the district collector, without embellishment.

After living in the district for nearly a year, and hearing so much about Arunachala hill, the collector decided that he'd walk up the hill himself. One day, he hired a local young man to be his guide and porter and they walked up, with the young man carrying the collector's bag.

They reached the top, looked around and started descending. The collector was happy that he'd done the hike. He was also very impressed with the polite young man. The collector was paying him Rs 50 for his services, but he wanted to do more for this helpful porter.

The district collector had the discretion to offer low level janitorial jobs as sweepers to women in need. Hoping that he could help out this man, the collector asked, "Are you married?"
"Yes sir, I am."
"Would your wife like a job?"
"She has a job, sir."
The collector was curious.
"What does your wife do?"
"Sir, she is a doctor. She is an M.D. in America."

The collector was taken aback at this. How could this young local porter have a wife in the US? So, while they continued walking down the hill he asked for the full story. Here's what the local porter told the collector:

In the same Arunachala hill that they had ascended, there lived an ascetic, a swamiji. He didn’t speak much and tried to avoid people. But lots of devotees believed that he had spiritual powers and sought him out, including numerous foreign devotees. The ascetic didn’t care for any followers and would in fact hurl stones hoping to deter them. But the more he shunned his followers, the more followers he had. However, the ascetic liked this porter.

One day, there was a white lady who was following the ascetic.
"Swamiji, whatever you tell me to do, I will," the lady told the ascetic.
The ascetic decided to test her. "You have to marry whomever I tell you to," he told her. She agreed without hesitation.
Then the ascetic turned to the young porter who happened to be around. "Hey boy, how would you like to marry this lady?" he asked.
The porter looked at the while woman and said he would be happy to.
And so the ascetic instructed the white lady to marry the porter. She agreed and went ahead and married him.

It turned out that she was an M.D in the USA, and a staunch follower of lord Arunachala of Thiruvannamalai. The porter and the lady had a child, whom she was bringing up in the US.

Every year, for 3-4 months, she came to Thiruvannamalai and stayed with her husband, the porter. The rest of the time, she practiced medicine in America and brought up their child.

When the wife was in the US, the young man earned his living by working as a porter and guide for those who wanted to go up Arunachala hill. That's how the collector had met him.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

This is India #1

One fun aspect of being in India is that you never know what you will find yourself discussing where.

We were visiting a couple in their 80's in a very small town called Mhow in interior central India. The talk came around to the kind of work I'd done in the past. While talking about airlines, I said that pilots are well compensated. The elderly gentleman, who'd been mostly quiet suddenly came alive. Turns out that he had been a commercial pilot, and my remark had rankled.

He started to make a case for pilots and suddenly I was on the defensive. I braced myself and heard the many familiar arguments I'd heard before. I was surprised to find myself in a small agricultural town in Madhya Pradesh, discussing crew deadheading, good and bad pairings and the assorted pilot quality of life issues.

After I managed to extricate myself reasonably, I mentioned to him that in India, I could never anticipate what I'd be discussing with whom. "Let me tell you something about India," said the ex-pilot who had warmed up by then. He went ahead and narrated the following story. It is almost surely an apocryphal tale, but it still has a lot of truth in it which is why I am sharing it here.

The ex-pilot told us about a German lady who was returning home after living in India for many years. On her last day she was asked, "Madam, after all these years, what have you learned about India?"
"I can tell you 4 things about India," she apparently said.
"Every stone is sacred." (More shrines and temples per square mile than anywhere else.)
"Everyone is a doctor." (People will always suggest home remedies no matter what the ailment.)
"Any time is tea time." (Numerous cups a day is not at all unusual.)
"And every place is the toilet." (You can see men going everywhere.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

An Ashram Stay at Rishikesh

For many many years now, I've wanted to experience staying at an ashram. It sounded like a great way to escape from the daily drudgery and to get some time to think. Maybe the desire started when I read that the Beatles had stayed in an ashram back in the 60's.

In Rishikesh, we had our chance. Rishikesh is less than 25 kms from Haridwar, which is only a few hours out of Delhi. After the bustle, the noise and the frenzy of Haridwar, Rishikesh is a refreshing change. Lots of people have noticed this, for I later learned that Rishikesh has become an extremely popular retirement community.

There are lots of ashrams catering to curious visitors like us, but they weren’t easy to find initially. And everyone we asked was directing us to regular hotels. The guidebook referred to an area 3 kms up the river and across the Ganges called the "Swarag Ashram" area and that was the place we should have come to right away. (The Beatles stayed in Mahesh Yogi's ashram, but we are not sure if it is still around.)

With our backpacks, we took a ferry ride across the river. In the place we wished to stay – Paramarth Niketan, there was one small problem. The receptionist wouldn't let us see the room before we paid. In India, we have been to too many places where the reception lobby is beautifully done, but the rooms are quite bad. In Parmarth, we were worried about the cleanliness, but the receptionist assured us that it would be fine.

It was past 2pm and we really wanted to experience an ashram stay, and so we decided to take the chance. If the room turned out to be really bad, we'd walk away and treat it as a donation to the ashram.

Once we paid up, we were taken to a separate area meant for foreigners and NRI's (Indians living abroad). The room was simply decorated but very clean, with hot water and there was an air cooler instead of an A/C. It was definitely adequate.

We would be given 3 meals a day, could participate in all the ashram activities as we chose to. For those who were interested, there was Yoga, evening meditation, early morning prayer and another meditation assembly. We were also free to wander in and out of the ashram to take in Rishikesh's sights.

Daily, at 5pm there was a daily Yoga/guided meditation class for the ashram residents. So we went. Around 20 people showed up, wearing mostly white clothes. Mats were provided and it was a very relaxing type of yoga, not the strenuous kind. The lady who guided us had a very soothing voice and I fell asleep trying to follow her directions.

Up and down the Ganges, the evening aarthi is performed in a grand manner right around sunset. The residents of Paramarth Niketan are given preferred seating for the Ganga Aarthi.

After the aarthi, we noticed the others residents practically rushing to the dining area. The meal times are fixed and there is only 45 minutes given for dinner, hence the rush. A few foreigners struggled with sitting cross-legged on the mats. For lunch and dinner, the food was hearty and wholesome- chappatis, rice, dal and veggies. Toasts, fruit and tea and coffee were included for breakfast, which the westerners enjoyed quite a bit.

This particular ashram has clearly adapted things to cater to the foreign visitors. The ambience is very good, with careful landscaping and places to walk by the fast-flowing river. Once we paid the room rent, there was never any pressure to give money anywhere else. We were free to donate more if we so desired, or to leave our email addresses if we wanted to be part of their distribution list.

Overall, our ashram stay was a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of days, though it might get repetitive beyond say two days. I would unhesitatingly recommend this to anyone visiting Rishikesh.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Day Laborers in Jodhpur

I was out wandering in Jodhpur one morning. It was just past eight in the morning when I crossed Sanjin Gate and entered the old city. The big square there that was full of men, standing and waiting. There were no women only men waiting. It was easy to see that these were day laborers waiting for work, and I decided to stay and watch since I had time.

Seeing me standing there, one man came over.
“Where are you from?” he asked, making conversation. He spoke in a mix of Rajasthani and Hindi and I could only follow him partially. Another man, his hair tinged with orange due to henna, also walked over.
“You are not looking for laborers, are you?” he asked. Before I could respond, the first man said, “Maybe he too is looking for work!” and they both laughed good naturedly at the idea of me doing physical labor.

Spotting me talking to the two of them, some thought that I was looking to hire people. Many laborers rushed over. Suddenly, I was surrounded by over a dozen men, desperate for work. They hurled questions at me in Hindi, and it was a little scary.
“What kind of work do you have?”
“Tell. What is it that you want?”
“How many people do you need?”
No, I am a tourist and I am just watching, I explained. Most of the men lost interest and walked away.

Every few minutes, someone in a motorcycle would come up to the square. Men rushed towards these motorbike hirers. There would be a quick conference that lasted just a few seconds, and a few men would be selected and they’d start walking away from the square. The actual mechanics of the selection was never clear to me.

The man with the orange henna hair stayed with me. He was in his late twenties, wearing a short pant and a shirt, both of which were very dirty. He was walking around bare feet, no shoes or sandals when he worked.
“Is there work in Bombay?” he asked me. (I had told him that I had come from Mumbai.)
I told him that from what I knew, it was very difficult to get work there as well.

There were about 200 men in the square. “Will all of them get work?” I asked.
The man, surprised by my naivety looked up as if to see if I was joking. “Not even half of them will get work today.”
“What will the rest of them do?”
“They will go home. What else can they do?” It was a simple case of over-supply and thus a hirer's market. Those who hired the laborers got to pick and choose. Though I have never been a fan of labor unions, it occurred to me that a little bit of organization among the men would help them all.

I then asked the man what the daily pay was.
“200 rupees per day.”
“Has it been 200 for many years?” I was curious if laborers also got an inflation adjustment.
“No, it was increased recently. Five years ago, it was 150 Rupees. Then it became 180 and now it is 200. Sometimes, we can even get 250 a day. And this is for the common mazdoors. If you are a skilled worker, you can get 400 or more per day.”
“Is it for 8 hours of work?”
“Yes, 8 hours. We get tea at 11 o'clock, then 1 hour for lunch, a few minutes in the afternoon and work till 6pm. It is tough, but we are happy to get work.”
“Why don’t you look for regular employment? Maybe in a shop somewhere.”
“They won’t pay us well. If you don’t get at least 3000 a month, it is very difficult. Even if they pay 2800 a month, it is not enough. That’s why we look for daily work.”

“Is 200 rupees enough to get by?” I asked him a leading question.
In reply, he pointed towards a woman in a colorful dress was walking by with a big bundle of wood balanced on her head. “Even firewood costs five rupees a kilo. Just to get the stove going! And you know what the prices of dal and atta and vegetables are.”
He was silent for a few seconds. “Actually, 200 rupees can be quite enough," he said. "There are some men who are even able to save some money daily after all expenses.”

Gesturing towards the laborers in the square he said, “But most of the men here, they drink it away. Me, I have 4 children at home. So I give a little money to feed the children.” He then laughed. “The rest, I drink away.” He emphasized that by taking his thumb towards his mouth.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Daily Roti Guaranteed

Traveling in Rajasthan and looking at the sights, at the good roads, all the mobile phone shops and the unending mineral water stalls, it is difficult to believe that there is very much poverty in the state.

One afternoon, we were wandering around the small town of Kolayat with its lotus-filled lake ringed by temples in the scorching sun, when I saw a big yellow sign painted on a wall.

The sign on the wall was actually an advertisement for the government’s Rural Employment Guaranteed Act - NREGA. (Note: I have since heard a lot of drawbacks about the scheme, but this post is not about that.) For anyone who's willing to do physical work, the scheme guarantees a daily wage.

The yellow sign listed out in tables, the quanta of physical work that had to be performed each day, and the pay for that amount of work.

People were required to dig the earth and create ditches. Per day, each person was required to dig a ditch 10 ft by 5 ft by 1 ft deep. For this work, they would be paid a total of 100 Rs. ($2). 30% would be deducted as tax at the source. So each person ended up earning Rs 70 for the whole day.

Women laborers were expected to do the same amount of work and they were paid the same as men. When it came to hard physical labor, there was no gender discrimination.

For us, just staying in comfortable hotels and eating three meals a day with a little bit of sightseeing itself seemed very tiring. During the day, the dry desert heat was enervating. I couldn’t even imagine the hardship of digging a ditch in this heat. And for removing 50 cubic feet of hard packed earth, they got 100 Rupees. This translates to a rate of 2 Rupees (4 cents) for each cubic foot that they cleared.

And I had been naively wondering if poverty was still around in Rajasthan.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Desert Train

In Rajasthan, we discovered that one very good way to view the desert was to take the morning train from Bikaner to Jaisalmer. From the comfort of our compartment seats, we were able to watch the train cut through the Thar desert. This is a relatively new line and was completed only a couple of years ago.

The train travels right along the desert shrubs and the sand. If you stare out long enough, you’ll see all the animals that you are likely to encounter in the desert – camels, dikdiks and all types of cattle.

There was just one drawback though. The blowing sand. No matter how much we tried, we couldn’t avoid the fine sand dust that got into our bags and clothes.

The Jaisalmer Express (Train 4704) at 7am from the Lalgarh station, which is a sister station to Bikaner. Perhaps due to a small bug in the railway reservations system, this train doesn’t show up when you search for trains departing Bikaner. You have to know enough to put in Lalgarh as the originating station, and I doubt that many try that.

Consequently, our train was practically empty. We had pretty much the whole compartment to ourselves, which is quite a luxury in a crowded country like India.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Many paths to the same goal

There is a lot of talk of New Year’s resolutions lately and on how to make them effective. Reading them reminded me of the following incident.

I was waiting in line for a movie screening at the Max Mueller bhawan in the Kala Goda area in downtown Mumbai. The man standing in front of me was telling his friend the story of how he gave up smoking, and since I was standing right next to them I heard it too.

Apparently the man was a heavy smoker. He used to smoke around 20 cigarettes a day, buying them one at a time from the small kiosk right in front of his office. This was many years ago, when each cigarette cost one rupee.

One day, he went to the kiosk and the boy said the cost was Rs. 1.25 per cigarette.
Abhey, I have been buying for years from this shop. Even yesterday I paid just one rupee. So give it to me for one rupee,” the man said.
But the boy at the kiosk wouldn’t budge and wanted Rs. 1.25. The man refused to pay that, and right there he stopped and had never smoked a single cigarette after that.