Monday, December 28, 2009

In Transit: Venu Chitale

Circa 1915. These are turbulent times. With the movement for self-rule gathering pace, Lokmanya Tilak had become the uncrowned leader. Tilak professed social as well as political revolution. Many amongst the orthodox upper-caste people in Pune are dead opposed to the newly emerging social structure. In the midst of all this, live the Sarafs, a Chitpavan Brahmin family, in a typical joint family setup in their ancestral wada. Being educated and socially as well as politically conscious, the family is exposed to all that is happening around them. The head of the family, Aaba, is orthodox enough, but not oblivious to the winds of change. He tries to carefully balance the traditional setup, while welcoming the new changes.

The story begins with Dada and Vahini's wedding ceremony. As was common in those days, Dada's mother, Mai, delivered twins, Bal'Baban(son) and Mohana(daughter) a few days after Dada's marriage. But the pregnancy took its toll on her and Mai dies, leaving the few months old twins in Vahini's care. Being the eldest lady of the house, it is now Vahini's duty to carry on all the duties that are required from the lady of the house. Vahini carries on all the duties without any cribbing. Though educated upto university level, she is devoted to her husband and upholds all the traditional values of the family. Aaba has an unscrupulous brother, the Jahagirdar, who has abandoned the family, but comes back to stake his claim in the family matters.

In Transit covers the life of this Chitpavan Brahmin family when the entire social fabric of the country is undergoing a reforming change. It is a story of how this large family manages to live together, despite having extremely conflicting views about politics and society. Aaba, although ambivalent, isn't oblivious to the changes around him. The Jahagirdar wants to protect all the old traditions of the Hindu society and therefore hates the freedom struggle, its leaders and anybody who professes social reform. Dada, the eldest son, prefers to side with the British system of education and sees it as the only road to prosperity. But Dada does believe in social reform, like his father. Daji, is undecided and he neither favours nor hates the freedom movement. Bhayya is strongly influenced by Tilak, and later by Gandhi. Aaba, sensing Bhayya's strong devotion towards the national cause, takes Bhayya under his wings and trains him to follow the path of his choice. Lopamudra, the daughter of the house, sides with her husband, a staunch Gandhian. Bal'Baban becomes a follower of Bhayya, because that is what he did since his young days. All of them are tied together with the bonds of affection towards each other and especially towards Aaba and Vahini.

Vahini is deceptively strong in her convictions. Although she appears to be the obedient daughter-in-law of the house, upholding its traditions, she is alert to the changing winds and realises the steps that should be taken to preserve the well being of the next generation. She is extremely possessive about the childrens' well being and her husband's pride. She is prepared to sell-off the family silver and gold in order to get good education for the children. She is the one, along with Aaba, who are the sole reason for the family to be tied together. Mohana, the youngest daughter of the house, is an interesting character. Although a delicate mindset, she too is strong about her convictions. As the story progresses, you may get emotionally attached to Mohana and her tryst with her destiny.

The novel beautifully captures the effects and influences of the traditional Pune society on the childrens' mindset. The uneasiness felt by Mohana on first hearing a Bombay bride calling her husband by name, the make-up and sleeve-less bodices worn by Bombay girls is captured very nicely. When she realises that she is in love with Madhav, Vahini's brother, her emotions are worth feeling. Even Madhav's restlessness is typical of the mindset of the people of that era. The uneasiness felt by the love birds in the presence of the other, having little Leelavati for company, even during the little courtships that were possible is wonderful to read.

Apart from this micro details, the story is about how the Saraf family manages the transitional period in their lives, shifting from a spacious wada to a small room in Mumbai and then getting back to the wada, sans their riches. The effect of the political struggle on the family, the family's readiness to allow its members to follow their convictions, as long as they are right and its readiness to stand by each other even in the case of crisis and crack-downs, is worth reading. It also highlights the struggle at individual levels, about many things that we take for granted today. E.g., the opening of school for girls. This causes an uproar in the family, when the old orthodox members vehemently oppose sending the girls to school. Today, grooms require that their wife be educated to the best possible extent, but back then, a university educated girl meant that she would cause havoc in the family. Because, she is more likely to resist traditions and more individualistic. All in all, the story is well paced, although some details may bog you down sometimes. The ending, though, is abrupt and the story doesn't culminate properly.

About Venu Chitale: Venu Chitale was a news announcer with BBC during the second world war. She published this novel in 1950, which carries a foreword by Pune University's first Vice Chancellor, M. R. Jaykar and a special mention by her BBC colleague Mulk Raj Anand. She has also published two more novels that I know of, In Cognito(English) and Bablya(Marathi). She is widely recognised as the first woman of Marathi origin to write an English novel. In Transit has been published by Hind Kitabs. I found this book in IIT Bombay's library.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What is common between Al Gore, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner?

In his world famous and super successful documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore utilises a lot of research and some sensational material that highlights the harm that the present lifestyle of humans can cause to mother Nature. He uses this to encourage and promote lifestyle changes that can atleast slow down, if not prevent, global warming. But, he faces a very steep uphill, because of the kind of opposition he is going to face to induce such lifestyle changes. Lobbyists from the oil industry, who need people to keep consuming oil and petrochemicals, even the automobile and airlines industries and many more people. These industries are easy targets as you can just give some large numbers on the carbon dioxide emissions emitted by them and introduce a guilt in the peoples' minds everytime they travel.

While I am not debating about who is the biggest villain and the best target to knock off first, let us look at how Al Gore has made his documentary. Let us accept that the only research that Gore has done is to collect data that highlights the causes of global warming. This has been done through published literature and talking to experts who have worked in this area for a long time. Gore has himself not performed any of the studies that have been used to build his documentary. Thus, Gore relies on and believes in the studies of the experts.

In their book Superfreakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner argue that while Al Gore's campaign is definitely good, it entails a lot of cost as it involves inducing behavioural changes in the humans. Instead, they suggest an alternate route that is cheaper and yet effective. Economists always attach a cost with any activity. But, what is forgotten, or deliberately avoided, is the fact that while we pay each other for the goods and services obtained, how do we pay back the nature, who is the source of all things living and nonliving? Nature doesn't accept currency. What it is currently accepting, is the burden of waste and emissions created by unmindful human activity.

In the chapter on Global Warming, Levitt and Dubner highlight some innovative(?) solutions that people are working on to reduce global warming. For most of their chapter, they rely on work done by a company called Intellectual Ventures (IV). IV is a company that is "building a portfolio of patents and creating an Invention Capital." It has also recently started its own research labs, where they try to find cost effective solutions to various existing problems. In this lab, IV researchers found out that injecting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere from strategic locations, global warming can be avoided. This has been based on atmospheric studies that followed the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. These studies found that the eruption caused discharge millions of tons of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere, which resulted in lower temperatures all around the world. Now, these studies and conclusions are drawn by scientists who are from prestigious institutes like MIT, Stanford, CalTech, etc. Levitt and Dubner have reported major parts of their conversation with the IV scientists.

But, what IV doesn't mention is that in 1992-93, the Ozone hole over Antarctica also reached an unprecedented size. This is merely six to eight months after the volcano exploded. Ofcourse, this may be because the amount of sulphur discharged in a short period of 1-2 days was unprecedented and staggering. And IV doesn't intend to release such amounts. Detailed arguments to oppose this strategy can lead to an independent posting on the blog.

Now, coming to the title of the post. So, what is common between Al Gore, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. They rely on the information presented by "experts" who may not have an unbiased view about their ideas. They place belief in the experts and report their views without seeming to question them too much. However, each of their experts does have an agenda in propagating his/her ideas. Getting more funding, generating profit through sale of tools and ideas are some such motives. In their first book Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner mention how information asymmetry leads to a bias in making decisions and forming views. Information asymmetry is when one party has access to certain information that it can use to its advantage, when the other party doesn't have any access to it. In this case, both parties, Gore and Levitt & Dubner are victims of information asymmetry.
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Friday, December 04, 2009

Mani's Lunch Home

The arrival of Arun, Dwaipayan and Hari in our lab has brought in some fresh air and enthusiasm to enjoy life outside the lab. They share my desire to go around the city into its streets and enjoy its flavour. After a long time, I got to go out and enjoy with them. With Hari and Arun being new to the city, explaining some of the nuances of the city's ways is interesting. It has also helped me a lot in brushing my (little in quantity) facts of the city. In the course of our discussions of the city, I introduced Hari to Matunga. And he loved the area like anything. Being from Gurvayoor and having studied in Tamil Nadu, Hari felt as if he had come to his hometown when he walked on Matunga's streets. In due course, we went to Ramashraya and A. Rama Nayak Udipi restaurant to savour the South Indian delicacies.

I had also heard about Mani's Lunch Home in Matunga, but had never been there. When I searched on the web, I came to know that it is the first and oldest authentic Aiyer restaurant in Mumbai. Of course, it had to be in Matunga. They have come up with branches later, but began in Matunga. And, on one fine Saturday, Hari persuaded all of us to go to Mani's to savour the authentic Aiyer food. And we had a meal of our life. Served on a plantain leaf, in traditional Aiyer style, the food consists of the typical South Indian menu of dry vegetable, curry vegetable, pickle, papad, curd, butter-milk, sambhar, rasam and rice. And it goes without saying, that you can devour in as much quantity as you can. As it is a very busy restaurant, the food served is always hot. The chapatis are served fresh off the pan. The sambhar and rasam have a typical Aiyer taste to it. They source the rice from South India itself. The kind of rice used in the restaurant is not native to Maharashtra. But, it is a nice variety and the rice is well cooked and has a soft, spongy feeling to it.

Having Hari with us, gave us a language advantage. Hari used all his knowledge of Tamil language to get us an express seat and good service. Otherwise, the service standard in Mani's is not as good as Rama Nayak. Of course, we were first timers in the restaurant and patrons must be getting better treatment. But then, they also have to focus on converting first timers into patrons. That they cannot do only by serving good food. Sometimes you are kept waiting for the next serving of vegetables and sometimes you are deluged with the waiters wanting to serve you.

But overall, Mani's was a satisfying experience. We ate so much that it would have been very nice to have an acquaintance in Matunga. We somehow managed to get back to IIT. That to we took a rickshaw from Kanjur to the hostel. And in the hostel, we slept soundly for more than an hour. The evening saw us having very less dinner, as we were still savouring the tastes of Mani's.
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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Google please answer: To which country do Arunachal Pradesh and J&K belong?

In October 2009, what caught my eye was the news of Google Maps showing Arunachal Pradesh as a part of China. This 'anomaly' appears if you access Google's localised version for China. Of course, news says that Beijing considers various swathes of Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, etc. to be its own (as a part of Greater Tibet). But then, so does India claim those very parts and the entire Jammu and Kashmir state to be its own.

Google "clarified" that it is the company's standard practice to depict any country’s official position on Google’s localised domains for that country. A lame excuse, I would say. And in the global versions, it classifies those territories as "disputed territories". In many "international" products of Google, such as Google Analytics, the state of Jammu and Kashmir is depicted wrongly. The part of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is not shown as a part of India. Neither is it shown as disputed territory. But, it is blatantly shown as a part of Pakistan. See the adjoining image and it will be clear to you. The border of PoK and Pakistan is not separated, but PoK is engulfed into Pakistan. Quite contrary to Google's "standard practice". And of course, Google has shown the China-occupied Kashmir too, as a part of China, again, deviating from "standard practice". The entire world knows that Kashmir is still a "disputed territory". And Google being search engine giants, should not be ignorant of this stand.

These double standard shows how various companies and nations have being towing in line with Chinese stances, fearing Chinese wrath if they do not follow. But, they do not seem to care if they incur the wrath of the Indians. Somehow, India doesn't seem to matter to them. At the most, after doing such activities, they will make a statement, "India is an important stake holder for us," and we will feel happy about this. Nothing else after that.

But, what next? Google is blatantly and unabashedly committing these blunders. What can be done about it, is the question. For one, I've abandoned the Google search engine (Google's bread and butter) and switched to Yahoo! Now, many would say, that I should switch to some other blog service, well, I might just do that. But it is search engine that earns Google most of its revenues. If Indians slowly stop using Google's search engine, then there should be some cause of concern for Google.
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Sunday, November 01, 2009

For the love of Khadi

While Khadi existed even before Mahatma Gandhi made it the symbol of India's freedom struggle, Gandhiji brought it to the masses. It was viewed as a tool that would empower rural India by creating jobs in villages and towns and thus lead to the economic improvement of the hinterlands. But with Khadi being associated with politicians and being a hand-made fabric, it didn't catch my attention for a long time. I had an impression that Khadi industries churn out only politician type clothes and the national flag from their factories. And hence, I never ever peeked at Khadi wear. Although, over time, I realised that only cotton wear suits me, because of the Mumbai climate and my body's cooling mechanism dynamics. But, I always bought cotton shirts and trousers from outlets other than Khadi. Until, one day, a friend of mine showed me his Khadi wear.

I was impressed by the make and the look of it. It was a kurta-payjama set and it appeared very nice and elegant. It was then, that I decided to try out Khadi wear. My friend informed me that Khadi outlets offer 20% discount on their products in the week following Gandhi Jayanti. I rushed to their outlet to take advantage of the sale. The Khadi Gramudyog Bhavan in Fort, Mumbai is a huge outlet. They have the advantage of being in a prime location. And they stock everything that is Khadi or from cottage industries. And there I realised, that Khadi is not only from the politicians, but for GenNext too! They are in touch with the times. Apart from the conventional kurtas, I also saw kurtas that were vibrant in colour. These had a contemporary look to them. And the cloth too was light weight. They did have the older heavier kurtas, for people who still like to wear those. They stocked shirts, ties, sarees, all type of silk wear and cotton wear. Apart from that, they also stocked various other cottage industry products like honey, incense sticks, soaps, herbal preparations, etc. I also realised that the sale is not only for a week but for one whole month!

It was a rare occasion when I shopped liked a shopaholic and bought kurtas for myself, my brother and my father. I've bought something for my mother, but have kept it a secret from her. I will be surprising her with that gift. Kurtas ranging from the traditional styles to modern contemporary styles, they were all there. Ties made from Khadi silk, cotton and silk sarees, shirts and a lot more. If you do not like the ready mades, you have an option of buying the cloth and then getting it stitched as per your style. And they don't cost too much. I got a cotton kurta for around Rs. 220/- after discount! And short kurta for daily wear at around Rs. 120/-. That, I would say, is damn cheap. And the comfort level in these clothes is awesome. You have to trust me on this, because I have been very choosy about what I wear. Some of my shirts are just lying around because I don't feel comfortable wearing them.

This trip to the Khadi Gramudyog Bhavan has converted me into a Khadi fan! I have just begun to love Khadi. And, the best part is that it is completely indigenous wear. We are encouraging small and medium entrepreneurs and also sustaining and creating jobs at village and town levels. That is what is more encouraging, apart from having good quality clothes to wear. Yes, Khadi Gramudyog does have good quality control checks. Now, I've planned a revamp of my wardrobe and have decided to slowly stock it up with Khadi! My swadesi movement has begun here.
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Prepaid or Pre-failed cards?

"Yes sir, your documentation is now complete. Here is your SIM card. The connection will be activated within 48 hours." The sales person across the counter assures the customer. "Why 48 hours? Why not in the next few hours?" Asks the customer. "Sir, your documents will be handed over to the company, only then can the connection be activated. Government rule, sir," comes the reply. Since the customer is vaguely aware of such a rule, (s)he resigns to the fact, that nothing can be done about that. "But then, are the documents correct? There will not be any problem about that, right?" A concern expressed by the customer. The sales person once again assures, "No sir, there won't be any problem. If anything happens, give me a call, I will take care of it." And the customer walks out of the shop, waiting for those 48 hours to end, so that (s)he can be reconnected to the rest of the world.

A typical conversation with a sales agent in a shop that sells prepaid phone SIM cards. After 48 hours, the connection is duly activated. And the customer is happy talking and sending SMSes to everybody informing them about the new number, new place, etc. Until one week later, when (s)he receives an SMS from the cell phone company to submit the documents at the nearest customer service centre or else face disconnection.

The subscriber frantically calls the customer care number. After getting through the labyrinth of the IVRS, (s)he finally gets to speak to the customer care "executive". This "executive" is actually the one who only executes orders. They are not allowed to think or deliver practical or long term solutions. "I've submitted my documents in the shop from where I bought this SIM card," says the harried and worried customer. "What documents did you submit, sir?" The executive asks in a voice that sounds as "cool" as ice. "I submitted a copy of my _____ as photo id-proof and _____ as my address proof." "Sir, the documents are fine, but they haven't reached us. Can you submit them once again?" asks the executive, as if it is as easy as drinking a glass of water. "How can it happen that the documents haven't reached you?" The subscriber tries not to lose cool. "Sir, many times the shops take documents and do not submit it," the executive. "But then, I was told that my connection would be activated only after the company receives my documents. So, how did you activate my phone, if you hadn't received the documents?" With a rising anger, the customer poses a tricky question. But the "executive" is trained to bluff the customer. "Sir, sometimes the shops get the connection activated through their contacts in the company."

What?? How is that possible? Company employees breaking rules and regulations, not only of the company, but those of the government of India. What the customer care "executive" is also telling, is that the shop that sells pre-paid cards is not submitting the documents to the company. So, what do they do with it? They have my photo-id, phone number and my address. They can easily sell it to some tele-marketing people for a few hundred rupees.

In the meanwhile, the "executive" offers the subscriber a solution. "Sir, why don't you go to our company store and submit your documents there? We will activate the phone immediately after you submit those there." "But then, what about the documents that I have already submitted?" The subscribers anger is slowly increasing. "Sir, they haven't reached us, so you will have to re-submit the documents. It is a government rule, sir." "Yes, but then it is a government rule not to activate phones without verifying documents." The subscriber is justifiably annoyed at the dumb answers of the "executive". "I'll report this to the consumer courts. That you disconnect phones, even after all the documents have been submitted," thunders the customer. "Sir, one moment please. I'll transfer the call to my supervisor, who will try to address your concern."

And after a few moments, the supervisor comes on phone, who has to do nothing but just supervise whether the "executive" below him has given the correct answers. "Correct" as per their manual, not whether answers are actually correct. And this person, who is supposedly in a position above the "executive" and hence empowered with some more decision making powers, replays the same answers that the "executive" had given. With, a sweetener added, "Sir, next time this won't happen again." "Hell", says the customer,"next time I am not going to buy a card from your company." And the poor customer repeats the process of documentation, just for the sake of having the number that was painstakingly conveyed to all the acquaintances.

This is where the failure of these mobile phone companies lies. It cannot ensure a smooth service for its customer from the point its SIM card is bought. Why should the customer be penalised for the sloppiness of the phone-shop? The mobile company has a record of which SIM card was given to which shop. So, can't it warn the shop and bar it from selling its products? The company won't do so because the more number of shops that stock its products, the more will the sales be. One consumer is insignificant in terms of revenue. And since, once the subscriber has a number, (s)he has to stick with it, to avoid all the efforts of updating records everywhere, it is advantage the phone company. And it cannot (and will not) regulate its own employees who illegally activate phone numbers. Since it gets revenue as soon as and as much as a customer uses the phone. And it also cannot answer what happened to the documents that the subscriber had submitted earlier. They have no respect for the sanctity of the data that was handed over to their agent. Their common answer is that they are third party persons, and we have no control over them. How is this possible? You cannot control your own contractors? Then what kind of a company are you running?

All in all, mobile phone companies are more interested in earning revenue, more than providing a good experience to the customer. As they say, caveat emptor! That's the only thing we can do.

Prepaid or Pre-failed cards?SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Leopold Cafe

Yes, it is the same Cafe that was attacked by terrorists on 26th November 2008. I'd gone to this cafe along with Sushant, just because, long time back I had promised him , that I would accompany him to the place. Accordingly, we managed to achieve that last week. It is a famous landmark in Mumbai and has been in existence since 1871. Cafe Leopold is located on Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, the road that takes you to Navy Nagar. A more convenient description is that it is in the lane behind the Taj Mahal hotel. The restaurant is owned by an Irani, whose name I don't know. And so, like all Irani restaurants, this one too has a feeling of the past to it. All the furniture, light fittings, appliances appear to be out of the old era. But, the atmosphere is homely enough and not like the Udipi run restaurants, where they would be on your head asking you for the next order.

The restaurant has two levels. On the ground floor (the photo of which is shown above) they serve food and only beer. Whereas a full fledged bar is located on the first floor. We were on the ground floor enjoying the beer. They serve various kinds of beer, ranging from draught ones to foreign brands. And, they serve beer in a glass which bears the beer company's label. E.g., a Kingfisher beer, is served in a glass with a Kingfisher label. It is priced reasonably, considering the location of the restaurant. The food, is priced slightly on the higher side. But is compensated by the quantity served. And needless to say, like all Irani hotels, the taste is awesome!

Expect a crowd at any given time, and also expect to see a large number of foreign nationals in the restaurant. You might feel as if you are in a bar on Heathrow airport, where a large of of people of various nationalities converge. On the service side, it is good, but not good enough. The waiter has to attend so many tables and so many orders, that he might get stretched. So, you might find yourself waiting to place your order or waiting for your order to be served. The beer is served chilled, so absolutely no problems about it. And the waiter does give his suggestions to make our experience better. All in all, a wonderful place to be. Not without reason, that Leopold is popular amongst the people of Mumbai.
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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Nostalgia.... again

Nostalgia: An activity that allows us to recollect the events of the past and extract all that was good, enjoyable or peculiar about them. It takes me away from the realities of the present into a world that was simple and enjoyable. Where pressures didn't seem to matter and failure was just another part of life. Where facilities were premium and the efforts taken to access those form part of folk lore today.

It was just yesterday, that I slipped into dreaming about the yester-years, while travelling in the local train. I was lucky to get a comfortable seat, facing the direction of travel. If you sit facing the direction of travel, no matter how packed the local train is, a cool wind always manages to go past you, thus keeping you comfortable. Coming back to the nostalgia part. While I was enjoying the cool breeze caused by a combination of rain and the local's motion, my cell phone began to ring incessantly. It jolted me out from the meanderings of my mind. It was my cousin, who wanted to know where I am. After I answered her call, I started wondering about what all losses has the cell-phone revolution caused?

First and foremost, that came to my mind was the STD/ISD booths. I am not even going back to the days of trunk-calls, because the STD facility killed the need for trunk calls. Thank Sam Pitroda for that. Making an STD call was a group event. I do not remember a single instance, when I've gone to make a call alone. In those days, we used to queue outside the STD booth to make calls at home. The half, one-third and one-fourth rate rules meant that calls would be made and received at unearthly hours. And in small towns, the STD shop would close by 11 PM, meaning we couldn't utilise the one-fourth rate facility. We used to decide a time with parents and then call them up. As a student, I couldn't spend too much at that time. So, calling parents was restricted to once or twice a week. Sunday used to be the day, as it used to be half-rate through the day, with one-third, one-fourth rules applied as usual. There used to be these stuffy phone-booths, in which, there used to be a useless exhaust fan and the basic DTMF telephone. Somewhere in the late 90s and early 2000s, atleast in Pune, there was an experiment with what ever called as "ZIP Phones". These phones, installed in STD booths, had some electronics into them. They had an on-board LCD screen. So, the number and the time would be displayed on a part of the LCD screen. The rest of the screen would display advertisements of various kinds. The advertisements were changed on a frequent basis. Now, STD booths have become a rare sight.

Secondly, the anonymity of our location has gone. Of course, it could scare the parents, especially in case of an emergency, but then there was no way they could force you to change plans. I remember, once I'd gone to the British Library, without informing anybody. And they were all worried when I returned back home, almost two hours after my usual returning time. But, as I mentioned in the opening of this post, today anybody can call us anytime and the chances of lying are low.

Third, it has taken the adventure out of searching addresses. If you get lost, just pick the mobile, call your host, tell the location and get your way to the destination. But it wasn't easy back then. You had to find a PCO phone, then dial the number and get instructions within two minutes. Or talk to irksome shopkeepers or strangers to get the required directions. Or, just deduce the directions on your own.

Of course, cell-phone revolution has brought a sea of change in the communication sphere. Today, even the very remote parts of the country can be reached on phone. As BSNL and Deepika Padukone would like us to believe, "Hindustan bol raha hai!!" But then, along with bringing a lot of good things, it has suppressed a few good things of the past and brought in a few bad things too.
Nostalgia.... againSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dear Shri Sibal Sahab

Dear Shri Kapil Sibal Sahab,

Namaskar! From a student who is studying in an IIT. It does not matter which IIT I am in, but it is a matter of concern to see my institute in the news for some very saddening reasons. That the professors are feeling short-changed due to the pay structure announced by the sixth-pay commission and the huge controversy it is snow-balling into, is not good for the institutes' academic health.

Sibal sahab, I do not know whether you have personally interacted with the IIT faculty or any of their representatives over this issue. I am getting to know things only through the newspapers I read. But, the manner in which rules have been framed and announced, defy logic to a large extent. E.g., you said that only 40% of the Professors will be eligible for special grade pay. This, according to you is to increase the quality and to ensure that only those who meet benchmarks are eligible. How are we going to evaluate two different professors who work in different areas? The use of research output as a benchmark is not good, as some research work has a longer gestation time, before it can show results. What is the 40% figure? Is it 40% of the entire faculty of IIT or 40% of the professors in every department? This will at some point boil down to the number of papers published by a faculty or the number of patents filed. But Sibal sahab, this might actually cause a loss in focus of the faculty, as they begin focussing more on papers, rather than quality work.

Another proposal from your ministry (and probably yourself too) is that IITs should start increasing the fees and reduce subsidies. This, would be the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Today, IIT education being affordable attracts a lot of meritorious students, irrespective of their economic backgrounds. At the Masters' and Doctoral level, many of them manage to sustain themselves through their stipends alone. No good institute can function without the generous support of the government. If you go back in history, the best universities of their era, the Takshashila and Patliputra Universities, were supported by the kings and the wealthy of their time. They attracted scholars from all over the world at that time. So, if you force the IITs to increase fees and reduce subsidies, then you might end up restricting their access only to those who can afford IITs not who actually deserve them. Look at Germany. Their entire higher education is sponsored by the federal government. And they have one of the finest research institutes in the world. So, government support is not a lost cause.

Sibal sahab, those who compete for and get through IITs are mostly students of the middle class families. Students of bank clerks, managers, a babu working in your department strive to get through the JEE or GATE exams, so that they can develop themselves by gaining access to the best resources in India. Even the children of the lower middle class aspire to get into an IIT. The rich or super-rich manage to send their children to universities abroad, paying thousands of dollars as fees. This, is simply not possible in India and you know it very well.

Over the years, especially after independence, many universities and colleges have declined in the quality of the work and services that they provide. Many colleges haven't recruited permanent teaching staff for more than 10 years. But, IITs have consistently managed to raise the bar and improve the quality of the output. You cannot allow IITs to go downhill. This has been possible because of a careful selection process that every IIT has for selecting faculty.

Your ministry has also written to the IITs to reduce expenditure on travelling, supplies and library procurements. Already, laboratories are forced to procure sundry stuff, such as glassware, regular chemicals, etc. through the contingency funds of the Ph.D. students. Contingency funds were supposed to help students deal with their research contingencies. Instead, they are forgoing it for sundry supplies. From where else should a laboratory cut corners? A Ph.D. student gets to travel to an international conference only once during his/her tenure as a research scholar. These conferences help a student to network, seek good post-doctoral opportunities and also job offers. They offer a place to dissect research work and see if it can be improved upon. Do you want to cut this down too? The funding, as it is, is not even enough to purchase a return ticket of the economy class for the cheapest flying route. The students have to apply to atleast two-three organisations, before they have sufficient money to travel to the conference and get back to India. Sibal sahab, if you managed to rent out your Luytens' Road residence at market rate, you may manage to fund the travel of atleast five students every year.

Finally, you have said in various interviews that since the government is providing 100% funding, it is the government's right to put in place rules and regulations as it is answerable to the Parliament. Isn't the same true with DRDO? Doesn't the government fund DRDO completely? Isn't the government answerable to the Parliament for the work of the DRDO? Yet, no one seems to be asking DRDO to cut down its expenditure. Nor putting stricter norms in place to maintain the "quality" of DRDO officers and scientists. Almost 30 years have passed, Sibal sahab, since the Arjun tank projected commenced. Yet, the DRDO is not able to meet the Army's specifications. Don't you think that the DRDO should be evaluated in a similar manner that the IITs are? The CAG has several times castigated the DRDO in regard to its way of handling projects. Yet, no one ever put such caps on grade pay in DRDO. Then, why is the restriction being enforced on IIT? If the government is answerable to the Parliament, then why has the ministry issued directions to hire M.Techs. at lecturer position and reserved 10% of the sanctioned positions for lecturers? I heard that this order was subsequently withdrawn, but why was such an order was given in the first place? Do you increase the bar, or bring it down. On one hand you want to ensure quality by restricting grade pay. On the other hand you want Masters' students to take care of teaching students. Are these two activities not conflicting with your goal of nurturing future Nobel Prize winners?

Sibal sahab, no one at IIT is asking for the sky. All people want is to be treated with dignity and a set of processes that allow a researcher to focus on his/her work. Did you ever think of introducing procedures and enforcing them in the various administrative departments of IITs? Do you know, how much time and energy a student loses every year if he/she ever gets into dealing with the administrative staff of IIT? Please try to look into that too. If you are able to improve the functioning of the administration, you will end up providing a much favourable ambience in the institute. Then, you may not even need to look at cutting funds, as they will be utilised efficiently.

I may have argued on the surface and not touched upon things in great detail. But still, I would urge you to re-think on the decisions that you have made, and in future, keep IITs in the news for what they are best known for- education and research.

Thank You,

A student at an IIT
Dear Shri Sibal SahabSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, September 21, 2009

A. Ramanayak Udipi

Matunga station on the Central Railway line, has a number of restaurants serving various types of South Indian cuisines. Infact, in Matunga, you should eat only in restaurants that serve South Indian cuisines. They are the ones that have been running ever since Matunga came into existence. And till date, they've been running it in a very nice manner.

A. Ramanayak Udipi restaurant is one such restaurant in Matunga. It is situated right next to the station, on the eastern side, thus giving it a crucial location advantage. The restaurant serves only lunch and dinner, and the cuisine is authentic Udipi cuisine, with a touch of Maharashtrian habits. So popular is the restaurant that on Sundays and holidays, the waiting time at the restaurant exceeds one hour. The food is served on a banana leaf, giving it a traditional outlook. The meal consists of three vegetables (two gravy-based and one dry), curd, butter milk, chapati or puri, sambhar, rasam, papad and most importantly rice. And except for the curd, everything else is unlimited in amount. You can eat as much as you want. The waiters who serve there do not stand on your head pushing you to eat fast. You can eat at your own pace. The waiter serves you whatever you need at your call. Thus, you don't keep staring at an empty plate (or empty banana leaf) before you are served. The food has a distinct coastal flavour. The vegetable preparations are in coconut oil (though they are not too oily) and are not spicy, but neither bland.
The chapatis and puris served are hot and fresh off pan. Never have I been served anything that is off the stove more than 10 minutes ago. After you have filled yourself to the heart with chapatis, you should definitely have sambhar/rasam rice. No South-Indian meal is complete without this. And if you still have space in your stomach, top it up with curd-rice.

The restaurant has been functioning since 1942. They have now opened other sister concerns, for e.g. Idli House on King's Circle. But this restaurant remains their flagship. The service here is prompt, but there is no rush in serving. Neither do they want you to rush through your meal. As of September 2009, this meal costs you Rs. 90/- only. The prices are bound to be revised, considering the changes in the costs of eatables. The only problem is how do you carry yourself home, through the Mumbai local, after such a hearty meal?
A. Ramanayak UdipiSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Do we still respect our teachers?

The last few weeks had a sad series of events, which went unnoticed in the mayhem of the swine flu scare, the euphoria of the Ganesh Utsav. Faculty from all the IITs resorted to an unprecedented action which, till now, has been attributed only to unionised employees and many government employees only. In order to get a fair deal in terms of pay and career benefits from the Sixth Pay Commission, they first went on a mass casual leave. This was a huge event in itself. Never in the history of IITs have classes been cancelled except under extreme emergencies, like the swine flu scare. In IIT Bombay, classes were running even in the immediate aftermath of 26th July 2005. Such has been the dedication of faculty towards maintaining the teaching schedule.

Considering the wealth of knowledge and understanding of a subject that a IIT faculty has, he/she can get a corporate job easily, which would pay much more than IIT does. But, they have taken it onto themselves to work for the advancement of their field and develop the next generation of engineers, researchers and scientists. They are not those people who couldn't get any other job and hence took the IIT job. While they are not demanding astronomical salaries, like IIM-A faculty, they should be treated with dignity. The Sixth Pay Commission has inflicted huge blows to their career path in terms of growth and monetary compensation, as well as robbed them of their status of "national importance". More details of how the Pay Commission has degraded the IIT faculty's position can be found here.

The Ministry of HRD is on a path that would lead to sequential erosion of quality of faculty at IIT. Suddenly, out of the blue, they have accepted a report which states that Assistant Professors should have a work experience of atleast 3 years, which does not include the experience gained during their Ph.D. Now, how many would want to join IIT after 3 years of working elsewhere? If that was not enough, IITs have been asked to hire people with Masters' degree at Lecturer positions. IITs have long ago scrapped the Lecturer position and have hired only Ph.D. holders directly at Assistant Professor level. Instead of raising the bar to improve quality, why is the government hell bent on lowering it? In a knee-jerk reaction, it has already ordered to increase the number of students (through reservations), without caring to improve the infrastructure in the IITs. Even the basic facilities like hostel and messes are already overloaded due to lack of construction of new ones.

The government's continuous negligence of this matter forced the IIT staff to go on a one-day fast, that too on Teacher's Day! What appalled me is that this is the same government and Parliament which passed an enormous increase in the salaries and facilities of its MPs in a jiffy. But is reluctant to give the IIT professors their due. The previous Speaker Mr. Somnath Chatterejee had correctly mentioned that it is not correct for MPs to appraise themselves about their salaries. Is this the way we treat our teachers? And that too, in the country's advanced and coveted places of learning and development. IITs have been one of the most impartial institutes when it comes to admitting and grading students. That is the reason for their ability to produce technology greats who have proved their talent not only in India, but around the world too! If this is the way IIT teachers are treated, I shudder to think of the treatment meted out to primary and secondary school teachers.

People ask what have the IITs done for the nation, so that the government should extend and continue its largesse towards them. Well, there can be counter questions to this. What has the DRDO done till date, that the government should continue supporting it? For the past 25 years, they couldn't build an effective tank. Time and again, their tank has been rejected by the army. None of DRDO's projects have been completed without a huge time and cost overrun. So, is the case with the GTRE. They haven't been able to develop the engine for the LCA since the inception of the LCA project. Same with BARC and AERB. Where are those fast breeder reactors that use thorium and could free India from dependence on foreign technology? Nobody asks the effectiveness of these organisations. But still, the government has increased the grade of scientists in these organisations as compared to IIT professors. The only successful organisation that comes to my mind is the ISRO, which has fulfilled India's programme of space technology.

When will this country give the teachers their due? They are the true builders of society. When our parents are at their work place or mothers take care of our homes, these teachers are the ones who develop and blend our personalities. They are the ones who can ignite our interests in various subjects. They have the greatest impact on the development of our thought process. A teacher with highest regard for ethics and greatest interest in teaching is an asset which needs to be nurtured with care, so that he/she can positively influence the lives of generations to come. Why did the situation come to such a level where IIT teachers had to protest? Even before that, there were protests by college teachers in Maharashtra, demanding implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission for them too. Why can't they get their dues, without having to resort to such protests?

We always recite the prayer
गुरु: ब्रम्हा, गुरुर्विष्णु, गुरुर्देवो महेश्वरः|
गुरुः साक्षात परब्रम्ह: तस्मै श्री गुरवे नमः ||
But, do we realise the disservice we are doing to these teachers, who will be shaping the future of this country? How many times, do we look back to our school or college days and say, "Yes, it was because of these teachers, that I am what I am!" And when we realise this, will we force the government not to rob the teachers of their dignity.
Do we still respect our teachers?SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Anil Ambani, fight your own war

People fond of the limelight can never stay away from it. Anil Ambani was always Reliance's media man. He is very comfortable with the media and for very long, people didn't know how Mukesh looks like. All the while, Mukesh stayed back in the field quietly building the Reliance businesses. Of course, Anil too contributed, otherwise Dhirubhai would have booted him out. But Anil was very comfortable and fond of the limelight.

Even during the split of the Reliance empire in 2005, it was Anil who was ranting off statements in the media, while Mukesh kept silent all through out. Of course, it was a casual statement by Mukesh that triggered the entire chain of events. Even now, both Mukesh's and Anil's companies are taking pot-shots at each other. Things like blocking Reliance Communications' MTN bid, or Anil's infrastructure company disputing the allotment of the Sewri-Navi Mumbai sea link have been happening. At the receiving end has been the customer, the shareholder and in some cases, the general public. But while Mukesh's companies have stuck to legal arguments, Anil, the lime-light seeker has tried all weapons in his armour. He has used emotional arguments, allegations, and now, he has begun to play with public emotions. Check the latest series of advertisements that his company is issuing in newspapers, albeit on behalf of its shareholders. Well, the largest of all shareholders happens to be Anil himself. The company is trying to do a Ram Jethmalani on the Government of India. During the Bofors' scandal, Ram Jethmalani sent a similar series of questions, published through newspapers, that he wanted the government to answer. But, while Ram Jethmalani didn't have any business interests, ADAG certainly stands to benefit if the government forces RIL to change its decision.

While the advertisement shown here doesn't mention NTPC directly, tDAG is definitely using it for its purpose. That is because like ADAG, RIL is charging higher gas prices to NTPC too. The question is formulated to strike an emotional appeal with the readers. Who would want a higher power tariff? Readers are bound to react against RIL. But, why is ADAG using NTPC as a proxy to fight its war? Like Arjun used Shikhandi to defeat Bhishma in the Mahabharat war. But, ADAG is not Arjun, neither is NTPC Shikhandi, nor is RIL like Bhishma.

But here is another side of the coin, which might not see the light of the day, given the poor circulation of my blog. If gas prices had fallen to below $2.5 per mmBTU, which was promised to ADAG and NTPC, Anil would again have cried the same way, asking prices to be lowered and brought in sync with the global prices. At that time, RIL would have fought to maintain the sanctity of the contract. Then too, ADAG would have come out with advertisements, asking people to vote in national interest. Then Anil would have said that family MoU should not come in the way of national interest. All arguments that ADAG is making can be turned around to suit their interests if gas prices fall below $2.5. To sum it up, this isn't a case of national interest at all. If ADAG were to import the gas, they would pay the price that was asked for. It all boils down to economics and profits that companies stand to lose or gain depending on the pricing of the gas. The common man is again a pawn in the hands of the power-players.

But Anil can surely be man enough to fight his war, not relying on NTPC, which along with profits also has social objectives, because of it being a PSU. Nor should he play with human emotions and manipulate them to get them on his side.
Anil Ambani, fight your own warSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, August 10, 2009

Acts and Penal Codes in India

The Indian Constitution and legal administration is one of the most comprehensive collections in the world. Legislative acts and the IPC cover almost every aspect of life in India. And they are planning to cover more. But, apart from the seriousness of these acts, and penal codes they have a funny side too. Their names sound funny, the aspect they cover sometimes sounds funny and sometimes, their existence itself sounds funny. Here is a list of a few acts and IPC sections, which might tickle your funny bone

  1. COFEPOSA: Does this sound like your neighbourhood coffee shop? Not your fault entirely. It stands for Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act. Enacted in 1974.
  2. MISA: Maintenance of Internal Security Act. Enacted in 1973, by Indira Gandhi. It was then repealed by the Janata government in 1977. Lalu Prasad Yadav named his daughter Misa Bharti, after this act, as she was born when he was in jail under this act.
  3. Sarais Act, 1867: Enacted to regulate the sarais or inns in India. It has peculiar provisions. Under this act, it is compulsory for any inn-keeper or provider of food in his premises, to serve water free of cost. Sometime back, a five-star hotel was pulled in the Supreme Court for violation of this act. Also, the inn-keeper has to make provisions of space and amenities to bullocks, camels and horses. So, if anybody refuses to park your animal, you can take them to court.
  4. Bengal Districts Act, 1836: In short, this act gives the Bengal government the power to create as many districts as it wants in its state. It is still in place.
  5. Sections 44, 45 and 46: These sections of the IPC define the words injury, life and death respectively. The word "death" as per section 46 applies to the death of a human, unless the contrary appears from the context.
  6. Section 375: This section defines the word "rape". However, under this section, only a man can rape a woman and not vice-versa.
  7. Fort William Act, 1881: An act that makes provisions to provide for the better governence of Fort William, Calcutta. Covers lot of peculiar things, such as soil removal in unauthorised hours, beating drums or tom-toms, servants smoking hookahs in their masters' house, etc.
  8. Hackney-carriage Act, 1879: It was formulated to regulate the hackney-carriages in some areas of British India. Wonder, where are hackney-carriages used anymore?
  9. Kazis Act, 1880: It sets the rules for the government to appoint any person to the post of Kazi.
  10. Sheriffs' Fees Act, 1850: An act for deciding the clauses for remuneration of the sheriffs of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.
  11. Sir Dinshaw Maneckji Petit Act, 1893 and Sir Jamshetji Jejeebhoy Baronetcy Act, 1915: Tried to find information on these, but couldn't get any. These are probably the only two acts in India, named after two persons.
  12. MCOCA: Does this also sound like your neighbourhood hookah-serving joint? Again, not your fault totally. This stands for the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crimes Act. A very stringent act and can be used in extreme conditions only.
Acts and Penal Codes in IndiaSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The perennial dilemma

I often wonder, when membership to an organisation is voluntary and there are apparently no tangible benefits at the end of the volunteering period, what do most people think about the organisation and volunteering for it? My answer is that people are apathetic or indifferent. But, they still expect the organisation to keep working for their benefit. On top of that, their expectations from that organisation is as if they are paying it to see that the organisation represents them effectively.

There are many such examples. Students' bodies, co-operative societies, housing society committees, and many more. Despite of hundreds of request, very few students turn up for volunteering and staying with the organisation for a year. But then, if some problem crops up, there will be hundreds of them hounding this organisation to get the problem resolved. Here comes the dilemma. When people look at the organisation with not too much interest, do not participate in its activities and still expect the organisation to take care of them, what should the organisation's stand be? Show the same apathy to the people? Tell them that since none from your group are participating, your group doesn't deserve our support? Teach them a lesson, once and for all. Or keep persuading people to participate and reap the likely benefits? And still work for them, stating that see, you don't participate, but we are still there to help you! The dilemma continues...
The perennial dilemmaSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Thursday, July 09, 2009

International Bloggers' Community Award

Radhika, writer of the Rads Blog-a-Zine has awarded me the International Bloggers' Community Award. I don't know why, but I have received it. Thanks, Radhika for considering me for that award. What I have to do now, is award this to atleast seven (7) people on my blogroll. Seven people? It is difficult, don't know if I can ever find those many. Let me try. But before that, those who get the award, have to do the following-

  1. Link the person who tagged you
  2. Copy the image above, the rules and the questionnaire in this post.
  3. Post this in one or all of your blogs
  4. Answer the four questions following these Rules
  5. Recruit at least seven (7) friends on your Blog Roll by sharing this with them
  6. Come back to BLoGGiSTa iNFo CoRNeR (PLEASE DO NOT CHANGE THIS LINK) at and leave the URL of your Post in order for you/your Blog to be added to the Master List
  7. Have Fun!
Here are the questions, and besides them, my answers-

  • The person who tagged you: Radhika
  • His/her site's title and url: Rads Blog-a-Zine some info on stuff you might like... @
  • Date when you were tagged: July 8, 2009
  • Persons you tagged: I tag the following (note: The order of appearance has nothing to do with the importance I ascertain to the blog)-
Preposterous girl
Sandhya Iyer
Virtual Crossroads
Kaushik Narsimhan
Vikas Vinze
Sandeep Deshmukh

Okay, for those who are tagged, do as has been said in the post!! For those who I haven't, sorry, it is just an oversight! No bad air between us!

P.S. By the time I posted this, Preposterous girl too had tagged me. I thank her for that!
International Bloggers' Community AwardSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, July 06, 2009

Amritraj is tennis's Arun Lal

Vijay Amritraj and Arun Lal have two things in common. Both are commentators, and both decide the person/team they are going to support during the course of the match. Why does Star Sports have Amritraj as a commentator? He isn't as famous as John McEnroe. He hasn't won a Grand Slam at any level. Ramesh Krishnan is better than him. He atleast has won the French and Wimbledon juniors' titles. In India, people would know more about McEnroe's achievements rather than Amritraj's. And why doesn't Amritraj stick to giving balanced views of the play, rather than gettting hyper about every stroke that his favourite player plays.

I was watching the epic Wimbledon final. The match was awesome and is fit to go into the annals as one of the best matches ever played on grass court. No player was relaxing for any moment, giving their hundred percent for every point. But, our Amritraj had planned to support Andy Roddick. Every bit of his commentary was brazenly pro-Roddick. About Federer, he was completely unenthusiastic. If Roddick barely managed to take a point, Amritraj was touting it to be a master stroke, whereas difficult shots and beautiful returns by Federer were mentioned as if they were ordinary shots. Even Alan Wilkins, who was Amritraj's partner, was giving a balanced view, though Wilkins too was inclined towards Roddick.

In the fifth set, Amritraj even went on to say- "If Federer hasn't broken Roddick even once in the past three hours, where is this match going?" If it wasn't enough to say it once, Amritraj repeated his statement once the set went past 6-6. Well, eventually Federer did break Roddick's serve. He broke it once and that's what mattered to be crowned as Wimbledon Champion.

In cricket too, Arun Lal does the same thing. Sometimes, he himself doesn't understand what he is talking about. After the T20 World Cup, Arun Lal demanded that Dhoni should resign from the captaincy. Two weeks back, the same Arun Lal was praising Dhoni's 'coolness' in the IPL games.

Why are we supposed to hear to such mediocre commentary? As cricket has its Sunil Gavaskar, tennis too might have someone. I'm not sure who, but probably McEnroe would be a better commentator than Amritraj. We viewers should write to Star Sports and force them to remove Amritraj. After all, customer is the king!
Amritraj is tennis's Arun LalSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Leaderless India?

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link has been thrown open to use for the general public. On 30th June 2009, Sonia Gandhi found time to do the honours. A good question to be asked is, what post does Sonia Gandhi hold? She is free of all constitutional responsibilities (except those that are thrust upon her while she is an M.P.) and hence not liable to any actions in case of government failure. But, the Congress likes to give her the credit of every "success" that either the central government or a Congress-ruled state government achieves.

An engineering marvel like the Sea Link should have been inaugurated by someone who holds a Constitutional post. The President was in Mumbai two days ago, she could have done the honours. Or the Prime Minister, who is the captain of the team that shapes the nation's future. But no, the government of Maharashtra felt that Sonia Gandhi has a standing that is higher than the President or Prime Minister. But, we have not protested against this. We are silently accepting all this. Why is there no protest? Why aren't there any protests visible? If the BJP would have called the RSS chief to inaugurate such a facility like this, imagine the uproar that would have taken place. But then, Congress is secular, while BJP is communal.

And the old wily fox, Sharad Pawar, also an off-shoot of the Congress culture sucked up to Sonia Gandhi and requested Chief Minister Ashok Chavan to name the bridge after Rajiv Gandhi. The CM, being a second generation Congressman, promptly agreed to the suggestion, in a bid to please his 'high-command'. The arguments put forward by Sharad Pawar to support his request were equally ridiculous. He said that Rajiv Gandhi was a 'son-of-the-soil' as he was born in Mumbai. Rubbish!! Mr. Pawar, are you forgetting the other leaders who have worked tirelessly for the benefit of the state of Maharashtra. Those 105 people who were killed when this very Congress wanted a bilingual state of Gujarat and Maharashtra have contributed more than Rajiv Gandhi. The only thing that I agree about Rajiv Gandhi was that he ushered in a technological revolution and had recognised the necessity of modern technology. But, he is the same Rajiv Gandhi who infamously agreed to amend the constitution to annul the Supreme Court's judgement in the Shah Bano case. He is the one who made the statement 'when a big tree falls, the earth shakes', thus backing those Congressmen involved in the anti-Sikh riots.

I would say, there were more worthy leaders than Rajiv Gandhi after whom the bridge could be named. Going back in history, there is Kanhoji Angre, the famous commander of the Maratha fleet. He tormented the English and Portuguese with his attacks on their ships. Since this bridge crosses the sea, his name should have been a favourite. Then there were Lokmanya Tilak, Acharya Atre, Shankarrao Chavan, Yashwantrao Chavan, Ahilyabai Rangekar, C.D. Deshmukh, and many more from politics. J.R.D. Tata from business. Homi Bhabha from science. Tata and Bhabha have been pioneers in their fields. Air India was Tata's baby. Homi Bhabha kick started atomic energy research. Both were Mumbaikars. There are many more social activists, famous cricket personalities, litterateurs who have contributed to the well-being of the people of Maharshtra. Anyone of them could be chosen. But no, the Congress doesn't know anybody beyond Nerhu and Gandhi. Thankfully, they aren't naming anything after Sanjay Gandhi now-a-days.

An India that dreams of becoming a super power, doesn't look at leaders apart from the Nehru-Gandhi family as worthy to be remembered through engineering and technology marvels. This picture doesn't look good. Though, it would have been nice if the sea-link was simply called Bandra-Worli Sea Link.
Leaderless India?SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Test Match or T20?

This debate seems to be happening everywhere. Newspapers, websites, cricket forums, columns, news channels, debating shows, on the tea-stalls near offices, canteens, messes, buses, trains, airplanes, and even on the cricket field. The latest format of cricket seems to have taken the world by storm. Reducing the five-day game to mere 3 hours of action packed hitting around the park. Of course, bowlers too have their say, and fielders have to be athletes of the highest quality to prevent runs from being scored.

Talks have been doing the round that Test cricket is on its way to death, T20 is the 'in'-thing. To justify their arguments, people talk of the huge response to IPL and the T20 world cup. What also provided fillip to T20 in India was the Indian team's victory in the inaugural edition of the T20 WC. And then IPL took T20 a step further and tried (with some success) to become like the footballs leagues in England. Building loyalties around cities and franchises, rather than states. Critics point out to the decreasing popularity of Test cricket by pointing out to the empty stands in the Nagpur test between India and England in 2008. They point that Test cricket is unsuited for the fast lifestyle of today and T20 cricket allows us to enjoy the game in under 3 hours and then get on with our work. Yes, we have changed. Our lifestyles have changed. Quick value for money is the mantra for today.

But then, really, does T20 provide all the excitement that we desire in a sport? As Sachin Tendulkar said, in T20 a batsman is 'good' if he can hit the ball around the park for three or four overs. So, a Yuvraj Singh is a must in T20. When he hit Stuart Broad for six sixes in the WC match in South Africa, it was considered a great display of batting. A bowler with bowling figures of 4-0-20-0 (O-M-R-W), is considered 'good'. The bowler's main activity is to stop flow of runs. The bowler doesn't need to trap a batsman into committing mistakes to get him out. So, we see spinners of the highest quality relying more on line and length, rather than flight and turn. Imagine Harbhajan Singh bowling yorkers, straighter and flat through the air deliveries. Where is his craft as a spinner put to display? In very very few situations, I would say.

The other end of the spectrum is Test cricket. Spread over five days, it requires a team to bowl its opposition out twice over. Or, if batting second, score more runs that the other team's combined first and second innings total. Only then can it be declared a winner. It tests the grit and determination of batsmen and bowlers alike, their skill to endure onslaughts. Batsmen have to face swinging deliveries, bouncers, four slips, and a point. A slight nudge outside the off stump and the batsman may loose his wicket. Sachin faced this problem in the 1999 and 2004 tour of Australia. But in the third test match, he was determined to get back the flow of runs. So determined that he didn't touch any ball bowled outside his off-stump. Such was his judgment that he knew exactly where his off-stump was, and left everything that was outside it. Almost all of Sachin's runs came off the leg side. People may call this defeatist mentality, but Sachin managed to frustrate the Australian bowlers and simultaneously get back the flow of runs. In the 2007 tour, he was seen teasing Brett Lee by hitting him over the slip cordon and scoring runs easily.

The grit and determination of V.V.S. Laxman, in the third test during India's tour to Australia in 1999 is also an innings to remember. Though Laxman's century was played in a lost cause, the sheer determination and cricketing shots displayed in the 167 runs that he scored is amazing. Australia didn't have it easily. Not to forget, the second test match of the India-Australia series in 2001. Where he and Rahul Dravid stitched together a record-breaking partnership and India went to score a victory over Australia after being asked to follow on, the third instance that such a thing happened in Test cricket's history.

I am not a very good cricket historian. So spotting anecdotes from cricket history is difficult for me. But, Maharashtra's famous cricket historian and writer Shireesh Kanekar has a thing or two for Test cricket. He says that while in one-day cricket (or T20 for that matter) how the runs are scored do not matter. But in Test cricket, it is very important for the batsman not to play rash shots. In Test cricket, bowlers always have a chance of coming back, not so in ODIs or T20s. It is actually appalling to see bowlers bowling flat trajectory balls or yorkers in T20s. In a test match, the bowler would have to bowl a mix of flighted deliveries, straight, flat and yorkers. Add to the fact that there would be a slip, a short-leg, silly mid-off and possibly a leg-slip, all waiting to pounce upon the nick that the bat might produce. A few runs given wouldn't matter if they could bring a wicket. In swinging conditions, bowlers would bowl with three slips and a point maintaining a line just around the off-stump. If the batsman manages to hit a few strokes through the off-side, it didn't matter, because the bowler could always try what he wanted.

On the other hand, for a batsman, it is essential to play strokes as correctly as possible. Test cricket can have a lot of scenarios in which batsmen would be required to change their batting style. There could be periods when attacking is possible, periods when wickets need to be conserved and periods where the run rate needs to be maintained. All these situations require a different skill set from the batsman. Not all batsman can be good Test players. Scoring runs in any possible manner isn't the name of the game in Test matches. Scoring them according to the situation is much more important. Sometimes conserving the wickets itself helps save a Test match. Remember England 2007? India couldn't win the third Test because they couldn't bowl England out in the second innings. Although India had the upper hand all through out the match.

Overall, I feel that a Test match is like our life. It goes through periods of highs and lows and we have to fight it out and overcome our adversaries to score a victory. There is no victory if the opposition is not vanquished. Remember Chennai 1999? Sachin Tendulkar, nursing an injured back played a brilliant knock of 136 to bring India close to the target. While India lost the test match by 12 runs, Sachin's knock was a display about how Test cricket should be played. About T20, my feeling is that it is like drugs, which give a temporary high, but then leave us with a vacuum.

So, let T20 remain for those who like to enjoy the temporary highs, but let Test cricket flourish for fans like us, who want a wholesome game.

P.S. Did anyone mention the empty stands during IPL-2? Well, it seems that T20 cricket can't attract enough crowds either
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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cafe Britannia & Co.

Warning: If you detest non-vegetarian food, or its sight, do not read this post.

Tucked in the business district of South Mumbai, is this very old and famous restaurant called Cafe Britannia & Co. As is the case with the early restaurants of the city, this too is owned by a Parsi family. Established in 1923, Cafe Britannia is located at Ballard Pier, a walking distance from Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST).

The restaurant is famous for its Parsi/Irani style of non-vegetarian food. I happened to read about it in a newspaper. Although, what I read was sad. The restaurant owner, an old Parsi uncle (surname Kohinoor), has decided to close down the restaurant in due time. His sons, are not interested in running the place as both have settled abroad. They wanted him to shut down the place, but he coaxed them into keeping it running till he is alive.

One limitation of this restaurant is that it is open only 12:00 PM-4:00 PM Monday-Saturday. So, it is a disadvantage for those who cannot make it for lunch to this restaurant. What I do not understand is why did they not change with time and keep it open for dinner as well. With Ballard Pier being an business area, it probably might not have been feasible. Whatever the reasons, I went to this place, so that I can peek into their cuisine before they shut down. Since traveling alone to CST all the way from Powai is too boring, I tagged Sushant along with me. Sushant thinks that I am a person who has nothing to do, except taste food at various restaurants and then blog about it. But then, he is a sincere companion and gives sincere reviews. Sometimes, he manages to suggest some very good restaurants. If you manage to reach CST comfortably, then reaching this place is a breeze. It is located in the lane next to the New Customs' Office. You cannot miss the huge board of Cafe Britannia & Co.

They serve non-vegetarian food only. And it is classical Parsi/Irani style of food. This place is a delight for those who love non-veg food. The restaurant seating arrangement is spartan, like most Irani restaurants across Mumbai. Even the table fans are so old, you suspect whether they've been ever changed after being first installed. The food, is not spicy at all, so you can enjoy it without worrying about the after effects.

Here, I had the chicken dhansak for the first time and I loved it. Served along with brown rice, the dhansak tastes awesome. But, Cafe Britannia is known for its famed Berry Pulao. You can see it in the picture to the right (Picture courtesy, Sushant). In the far end, is the rice. I couldn't get a pic of the dhansak, as I was hungrily tearing into it. The berry pulao is awesome. We had ordered chicken berry pulao. The chicken was soft and properly cooked. The speciality of the pulao is the tangy tasting berries, with a few dry-fruits (like cashew). Of course, chicken is the main stay, but the berries add a unique taste to the pulao. These berries, they say, are specially imported from Iran.

At the end of the meal, I told the restaurant owner that we had come all the Powai to taste his food. He was the son of the old Parsi uncle, and was overwhelmed by the fact that we had taken the efforts to come this far. This guy has good PR skills. Every customer going out was greeted with thanks and come again, the more familiar ones were asked about their and their family's well being. And the patrons of the restaurant actually took time out to chat with him on any possible topic on earth.

Now, about the service. If the waiter takes too long to take your order, old Kohinoor uncle rushes down to note it. The time taken to serve you is not too much and you can eat at your will. No waiters overlooking you and asking you every five minutes, "aur kuch chahiye, sir?" The quantity is good enough and the taste is typical of Parsi/Irani cooking styles. The charges are a little bit on the higher side, but then, it is fine, once in a while. The chicken berry pulao cost us Rs. 240, while the chicken dhansak was Rs 200. Each dish serves good enough for one person. So, you can order two-three dishes and share between yourselves.

The sad part is, this restaurant may close any time, that is what the owners have declared. The only hope is that they franchise this out to somebody, with conditions that the same menu and ambience be maintained, but with extended timings, so that those millions of Irani food fans can savour the berry pulao for years to come.
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Thursday, June 04, 2009

The silent arrival

It is the first week of June and the weather, warm and humid. The temperature is not much of a problem, but the humidity is. Add to that, the winds have almost come to a standstill. And as the days progress, the humidity makes conditions even more worse. But, there is a silver lining to all this. The increase in humidity, winds not blowing anymore, and a steady temperature are an indication of an impending monsoon. As we enter the month of June, the question on everybody's mind is- "when will it rain?" Get up in the morning, with humidity circling your body, that is the first thing that comes to your mind. Air-conditioners are running to the fullest and their exhaust lines are draining more water than recirculating air.

Nature too, tries to play hide-'n'-seek with man. It teases us with a cloudy weather in the morning followed by an extremely sunny afternoon and a warm night. Every morning, looking up in the sky, there are prayers for it to rain today or get postponed till the time one is prepared for rains. I have to still buy an umbrella. So, while I pray for the rains to come on time, I pray that it rains only in the night, so that I am spared till the time I buy one.

In this part of the country, generally, pre-monsoon showers are accompanied with thunder and lightning. The clouds hover in the sky for the entire day and by evening, they start roaring and sometimes scare the hell out of people. But, they serve as a warning sign. It is akin to the monsoon saying- "Ding Dong! Next four-five months, it is my music and my song". Ever since Lagaan was released, everytime these thunder showers occur, I am reminded of the song "Ghanan ghan ghan ghir aaye badaraa". And it is this warning sign that keeps many ready for the monsson.

But, Nature again wants to tease. Probably trying to show who's the boss. With no looming clouds and an almost clear evening sky yesterday, I was sure that it will take atleast a day or two to for rains to begin. This would give me enough time to purchase my umbrella and ready my rain-sheeter for this season. And in night, while I was returning from the lab, there were silent drops. No thunderstorms, no lightning, nothing. The drops started pouring in sliently, evaporating almost instantly as the hit the hot parched earth. There was an aroma of freshly wet earth all around. The drizzle continued silently for some more time, enough to send people running helter-skelter. Clothes hanging in the terrace were taken off, windows facing the west were closed to prevent rain water from entering the rooms. Slowly, the rain water was cooling the parched earth. The monsoon season was on track! But then, Nature had a few tricks up its sleeve left.

The drizzling, as silently as it had started raining, the end was more silent. The clouds quietly drifted away, the sky cleared up, with the bright moon shining into my room. The next morning, I woke up to find the sky cloudy again, just to see bright sun-shine two hours later. Ghanan ghan ghan ghir aaye badaraa....

P.S. The monsoon is set to arrive in Mumbai on 7th June, as predicted by the Meterology Department.
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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Movie producers'-Multiplex owners row: A conspiracy theory

The ongoing strike by Bollywood producers against multiplex owners has definitely affected everybody. For those unaware, the producers decided to go on strike because the multiplex owners refused to agree to the producers' demands for greater share in profits from ticket sales at multiplexes. From movie watchers, to the producers, to the parking lot contractors, beverage stall owners in the multiplex, everyone stands to lose a lot of revenue. With movies not being released, their pirated versions too are not available. Hence many movie watchers (those who cannot afford multiplex tickets) are starved for movies.

But this strike is not without conspiracy theories. The beginning of the strike coincided with the IPL 2009 season. IPL began on 18th April (the kickoff began a few days earlier), while the movie producers began their strike on 3rd April. Well before the IPL, many producers had decided not to release movies when the IPL is going on as it affects their revenues. Hence, even without the strike, very few movies would have been released during the IPL. The tiff with multiplex owners gave the producers a very good reason for not releasing their movies. With this year's IPL producing much more drama, the bickering between producers and multiplex owners too started increasing as the tournament progressed. The IPL will be followed by the T20 World Cup in England. The T20 WC will be held between 6th and 21st June 2009. That IPL causes a drop in movie ticket sales is well known from previous year's experience.

According to this article (dated 5th May 2009), any movie requires 2-3 weeks of promotion prior to its release. And on 30th May, there were reports that the producers are willing to end the strike and have presented a compromise formula on the profits. Apparently, there have been claims that both sides are under pressure because of the financial losses they are facing. The ball now is in the multiplex owners' court. It is for the multiplex owners to now respond to the situation.

So, if the strike ends, we should see movies coming to multiplexes in two weeks from the date of truce. Assuming that the strike ends by 10th June, movies should be released on screens by 20th June. And 21st June is the T20 World Cup final. So, the multi-crore rupee question is
Was this strike actually called by the producers so as to extract a greater profit share from multiplex owners or was it just a means to avoid releases during IPL and T20 World Cup?
Movie producers'-Multiplex owners row: A conspiracy theorySocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Thursday, May 21, 2009

India's election methods: Is there an alternate method?

All through our life, we have to make choices. We make these choices based on certain needs and desires that we have. From small things like buying a toothpaste to larger things like picking up a job or buying a house for ourselves. But everytime we set out to exercise our choice, we have a backup plan, an alternative. With the toothpaste, it can be choice of brand or size of the tube, etc. With jobs, it can be choice of location, variation in job profile, salary, etc. The bottom line is that we always have a plan laid out- if this isn't available, then I'll settle for that.

In my previous post, I mentioned how candidates who have secured around 33% votes have been declared winners. Despite the fact that around 67% of the people who cast their votes, have done so against the winning candidate. This scenario should actually call for a tweak in the election system that is being followed currently. There are suggestions of a US-style run-off, but this would mean conducting two elections and it would happen across many constituencies. This, would further increase the expenditure towards elections and the already low turnout, would reduce further if there are back-to-back elections.

Another option, that is being used in Australia and in some cities in the US, is called the instant run-off. This option is similar to the scenario I mentioned in the first paragraph. In this scenario, people would indicate a preference of candidates in decreasing order. Instead of having to indicate preferences for all candidates, it can be restricted to indicating three preferences. In some constituencies of India, there are more than forty candidates contesting, which would turn off people from voting as they would have to indicate those many preferences. Suppose there are four candidates in the fray for a particular seat. This indication of preferences can be optional if needed. So, if a voter need not indicate his/her 2nd or 3rd preference. A voter's voting preference can be as seen in the table below.

CandidateChoice 1Choice 2Choice 3

Thus, the voter indicates that A is his 1st choice, B his 2nd and D his 3rd.

When the results are being processed, it can be done in the following manner. First look at the number of votes, each candidate has received as first preference. If any candidate has received more than 50% of the votes polled, he/she can be straight away declared as the winner. If any candidate does not secure more than 50% votes, then the top three candidates are taken and then count the number of votes each received as 2nd preference. Now, add the votes each of these received as 1st preference and 2nd preference in the following manner-

votes for a candidate = (votes as 1st choice) + m*(votes as 2nd choice)

where, 0.5<m<1. A reasonable choice can be m=0.75.

total votes = total votes as 1st choice + m*(total votes as 2nd choice)

Total votes as 2nd choice imply the number of voters who have polled for a candidate as their 2nd choice. This candidate need not be amongst the top three. This choice would eliminate those voters who haven't indicated a 2nd or 3rd choice of candidates. Fractional votes, if any, should be rounded off to the next highest integer.

At the end of this round, if a candidate secures more than 50% votes, he/she should be declared winner. If not, again take the first two and add the votes each secured as 3rd choice in the following manner-

votes for a candidate = (votes as 1st choice) + m*(votes as 2nd choice) + n*(votes as 3rd choice)

where, n=0.5. At this point, the person with the maximum number of votes will have to be declared winner. No matter if he/she has secured more than 50% votes. This is one of the flaws of the system. But, this would still reduce the instances where the winner is the person who has secured just 33% of the votes. There would be more people who would have the winning candidate as one of their preferred choice, rather than having nothing more than a yes/no to say.

A question that may arise here is the difficulty in asking people to do so. Many people may frown at the need to indicate three choices. In every system, a change from status-quo meets some resistance. But, educating the masses can certainly help us overcome this hurdle. It happened when EVMs were introduced. It will happen again if a new system is introduced. But, if the benefits exceed the troubles taken, then time and efforts should definitely be involved in this. As for the technology, we have a large pool of engineers who can be employed on developing systems that can handle such algorithms. Like the EVMs, this to can be developed with indigenous technology and manpower.

Caution: This is a proposed system or process. Like every man-made system or process, this too may have its faults. And like every other system or process, it can be improved till the point it is replaced by a better one.
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