Thursday, July 21, 2005

Double oh seventy six

(Everyone feels like James Bond sometime in life. If you haven't, wait on, your moment hasn't arrived yet. Mine happened last week when I had to visit the Tidel Park, a huge common facility for software companies here in Chennai; I think ‘Tech Park’ is the common term for it. So anyway, this was my Bond moment)

As I parked my car in the parking lot I had this disturbing feeling in the pit of my stomach, I knew I looked out of place. Was it my clothes? I glanced down and scratched at the ketchup stain in the tie. I had taken this reconnaissance trip lightly.

I walked down the path to the visitor's entry, I felt that all eyes were on me, my chances of blending in I realized was very slim. I should have got Q to get me one of those dog tags, a T-shirt (one size too small or one size too large), formal trousers, big sneakers and a thick pair of spectacles. Without these I felt vulnerable here in geek land. I told the girl in the counter where I wanted to go, she looked up at me and I winked. After she made sure that I really had an appointment she gave me an entry pass, the twinkle in her eye held promises or was she cross eyed? You can never be too sure.

I walked along the path and passed a few like me, oddly dressed with their formal shirts and ties, none of whom I can recollect having met before. The path went past a swimming pool, I could see half a dozen geeks look at me from their cordoned off pool, like otters in a zoo. I whipped out my to-do list and wrote ‘bring bread crumbs the next time’.

I reached a clearing and found myself staring at two open gates side by side, a big one and a small one. There was a five foot two inch bulldog resembling security guard towered over the area. Being Bond, I walked over to the larger gate and promptly found my path blocked by the bulldog. It was only for vehicles, he said. I pointed out patiently that there were no vehicles around, but this pint sized pain didn't budge. Not wanting to draw more attention to myself I walked over to the smaller gate. If only it had been another day and I was Sean Connery, that guard would have been toast (deep Scottish accent).

I had to blend in. I thought I would have to corner a geek and steal his clothes but the only geek in my size was a large menacing lady. Cold fear ran through my spine and I decided to wing it without the geek costume. I walked into the main building and was promptly searched by the guards, I was clean, I had used a strong soap that morning. As I walked into the lobby, my eyes widened as I saw the sea of activity. There were rows and rows of stores; they had a full fledged mall inside.

This was worse than I had thought, I would have to report to HQ that the geeks have created a living habitat right here in this place. Then it struck me, this was a space ship. They could live here on this ship forever, they had all they wanted, junk food, ATMs, a bookstore with every software book imaginable and loads of internet connections. What could their plans be? Who were their bosses? What do they intend to do with Earth? Why do pretty women like geeks? Will Microsoft bring out another boring version of Windows? Would Saurav Ganguly get his captaincy back? Such thoughts ran in quick succession inside my head. I had to find the answers and quick, a lot depended on it.

These geeks had to be stopped at all costs. I toyed with the idea of finding the ship's power source and disabling it. I immediately discounted such an idea, since I had not carried any gadget to do this. I whipped out my to-do list for the second time and wrote down 'to carry gadget', I would be ready the next time. As I did this, a few beautiful women walk past, completely oblivious of my presence, so I corrected that entry to read ‘to carry a very cool gadget’.

I swiftly moved to the first level and found the office I needed to visit. I was asked to sit in a waiting room. As I walked in I saw a bulky guard shredding paper in a paper shredder. The door slammed shut behind me. I walked over to a chair and sat, keeping my eye on the guard. I was uneasy. I knew then that I shouldn't have bunked my jujitsu classes.

The secretary called me over and I walked into the meeting.

After a while, I walked out a bored man. Meetings bore me. I bore people in meetings, so I had the perfect cover of a boring banker. The exact opposite of my real personality I can assure you.

As I made my way out, I took stock of all the exits and made a specific note of where the toilets were (you don’t know the pain of having search for one of these in a hurry) and was presently checked by the guard again. I walked over to the two gates and saw that the bulldog was distracted. I seized the opportunity and hurried out of the big gate. I could hear the growl of the bulldog. I was gone, long gone.

Relief washed over me as walked over to my car in the parking lot. I looked back at this big monstrous creation I had just left and instantly knew that I would have to go back there sooner than I thought I would.

I had left my car keys inside the meeting room.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A power cut

It was one of those very humid nights, when there was a sudden power cut accompanied by some shouts from outside the house. I walked out of my gate and I could see a congregation of people in the corner of the road. Apparently one of the power lines had broken free from the post and was hanging out in the middle of the road. There was a huge clamor to ensure that no one is less than 10 ft away from the sinister looking cable. Bikes, cycles and aged uncles were placed strategically to block people from treading on the sinister looking cable.

A dozen calls to the local electricity board in a matter of minutes ensured that the power supply for the region was cut till the issue was investigated and resolved. The news percolated among the dozen or so people in the scene of the incident that the power has been cut. Everyone waited around half expecting the cable to suddenly start jumping, spewing sparks (thanks to many wonderful movies we have seen). Nothing happened. Then after a while, the discussion went on as to how could we ascertain if the cable was live or not. Someone suggested that we should get a tester, this was discounted as silly as using a beaker to measure river water. Before they could draw lots on who would touch the cable, which was what the discussion was heading towards, this little boy darted between the elders and grabbed the mangled remains of a kite attached to the cable. The group emitted a collective gasp which could have been heard for miles. The boy was safe, no sparks, the boy walked away. Everyone smiled, relieved, the boy's father, after a kind word and a swift whack, sent the boy on his way home. We edged just a little closer to the cable.

The local corner teashop, ever the entrepreneur, got his stove going despite the late hour and had a brisk business selling tea to the group. The crowd thickened considerably, every new addition to the crowd promptly asking if the line was live, just as soon as he or she walked in. The original attendees to the event, full of solemn self-importance, explained to each new person their version of what happened. After a couple of oohhs and ahhhs, the new person then retired to the teashop to fetch a glass of tea and hence completing joining ritual.

The cable lay there, menacing in its own way, and the occasional brave heart inched a finger or a toe towards it just to check if there was power. Nothing happened much to the chagrin of the crowd.

The silent majority (including the author) hadn't dared to touch the cable and were seated at or hanging around the steps of a closed medical shop, a nice vantage point since it was right opposite to the electric pole.

An Electricity van zoomed in, and out came Batman and his trusty sidekick, Robin. In this case Batman was a portly gentleman who had the look of a telugu movie hero and he spoke only in lazy gestures. Robin, had the flair of true sidekick smartly arranged a ladder for Batman to begin his act. Batman, purposefully picked up the cable walked up the rickety ladder as, certain elements in the crowd guffawed. Bets were laid on when Batman would slip and fall. Much to the collective disappointment, he scaled the ladder, lithe as a cat, well, lithe as an extremely well fed cat in any case, in pitch dark and started attaching the cable to the electric pole. A few of us volunteered to get him a torch but were immediately shushed by Robin, we were interfering with the show.

A wobble here, a muted curse there, and Batman came down the ladder, the cable now firmly attached to the pole. He walked purposefully to the next pole and his next performance. As Robin ran to ensure that the ladder was in place, a truck turned that corner and honked at them, since Batman and the ladder carrying Robin were right in its way.

Batman gave the trucker one glance, very much the way he would have glanced at an errant Joker or a noisy Riddler and with a grunt, moved on to his next task. The trucker had met his match, he switched off his engine and joined the audience.

As this was in progress, a group of boys clamored around the electricity van, mystified by the crackling of the radio but not daring to enter the van. As I learned from one of them, they were afraid that there was a policeman inside, since they associated these radios with only policemen. Till the end they weren't fully convinced about the absence of a khaki clad representative of the force.

Batman's task took him to many other posts, the crowd magically drawn to this performance, followed him in open mouthed awe, talking only in hushed tones. After the job was done, Batman reported to the base through his radio that things were over, in curt tones and obtained instructions on his next port of call. Robin assured us that power would return sometime soon and then got into the van and they sped away. The missing elements probably were that Robin didn't ask us to clap every time Batman walked up that ladder to do his duty nor did he pass a coin bowl for monetary appreciation of a job well done. Like many do-gooders, they vanished in the darkness.

As everyone slowly dispersed and reached their homes, the power came back.

Monday, July 18, 2005

An evening well spent

I'm back.

Back earlier than I thought I would.

You might ask if I ever was gone. Trust me, I was, for a nanosecond I had even contemplated shutting the blog down, something was amiss and I just couldn't put my finger on it. Fuelled by an insomnia induced restlessness I had decided to give writing a break.

There are certain moments in your life when something becomes all too clear for you, I think its called an epiphany in literate circles, I'd rather refer it as a lightbulb moment. I realised that I liked to write. So, write, I shall. The insomnia and the uneasiness, I shall deal with.

There are so many things to write about. Firstly I should write about meeting Anu Bakshi of Project Why during her visit to Chennai (PWhy is an organisation that sets up small teaching facilities in slums with very little infrastructure and a lot of creativity and heart. You could read about their activities here. I've also written about Anu earlier in this post) . It was a fantastic experience for me to have spent a few hours with her and Mr. DV Sridharan, of Good News India, at his residence, talking about their lives , their work etc. Unfortunately due to Mr. Sridharan's bad health I couldn't get to talk to him so much, I hope this would be soon possible.

The fire in Anu's eyes and words, the drive that she has to do what she does is amazing, whether it be running the day to day activities of ProjectWhy, getting a child the right medical treatment he or she needs, mobilising funds for day to day expenses, dealing with local authorities, trying innovative method of teaching children, being a Mom etc. Anu's mind and words race through, often leaving me behind, speechless. I wish everyone of us had this kind of a passion for something in our lives. I think that would make living more worthwhile.

Her direct way of asking questions and the sheer speed, caught me on the wrong foot a few times. "Whats a good place to eat around here", she asked. I thought for a minute and replied. Pat came the next question, "Whats another good place? What do they serve? Indian, Chinese and Continental? all together?" she asks with a quick laugh, then before I could think of a suitable reply, she is off to another topic another issue and another plane of thought. As I was highlighting a problem that she might face with her latest project, she looked me in the eye and asked with interest, "So, what would you do?". Wrong footed again.

Its almost like she has a lot of such little information written in post its stuck in her mind for later day retrieval.

As the conversation moved on from one thing to another, what struck me was that level of thought process that has gone into its teaching effort at Project Why. For instance, children in Project Why were taught about water conservation and told that they need to look out for any tap that leaks as they went about armed with empty half litre bottles. When they spot a leaky tap they need to fill up the bottle from that leak keeping a track of the time it takes to fill up. Once this is done they take it back to their classroom (or in certain cases a tree under which they are taught) and then calculate how much of water is lost due to that leaky tap. As the kids found this effort a lot of fun, they didn't realise that they were learning a few things like water conservation for starters, mathematics and a bit of physics as well. This is just one of the many things that the children do.

Such practical teaching is sadly absent in many modern schools. A pity.

As we took a walk to get a cup of tea and some provisions the conversation moved to food, books, bio-diesel, economics etc. Anu told me that she attributes her 16-20 hour days to her proper diet. This probably was the one area where we differed, since what I prefer eating usually belongs to the junk food category. Before I could realise, it time for me to go. This four hour conversation ended too early. I wish there had been more time.

This is one super person, a proud mom, a good adminstrator, a great teacher and in all someone worth looking up to. From an Indian Ambassador's daughter born abroad to the lady people say makes school teachers out of street sweepers, she has indeed come a long way.

Please visit her website and blog. There is a lot that you can learn about them. Project Why is a lovely little world that needs all the support that it can get. I have deliberately not written a lot about PWhy because I'd rather you visit their sites and read for yourself.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A letter

Dear Reader,

For the last two months, I have had the absolute pleasure of writing about thoughts or events and have them read by you. I have enjoyed your comments and they have made this a terrific experience. I've made great new friends and have even had the pleasure of catching up with one of them over lunch (you can read about that here). I'm a regular reader of almost close to 15-20 blogs and love leaving a note about what I thought about the post that I had just read, as you must have seen in your own blog.

I would advise everyone to take up the habit of blogging, it's a fantastic way of spending time and to know more about themselves. It hasn't always been an easy experience for me though, considering my background.

To be the son of an English Professor is a cross that I will bear all my living years. Don't get me wrong, Mom is an amazing person like all moms are (most of them anyway, I hear Brittney Spears is going to have twins *shudder*). Its just that she has forever been correcting they way I speak or the way I write that I have lost the ability do so myself. Hence , whenever I blog, I re-read the piece a dozen times, make a hundred corrections and still glance at it nervously for days wondering if by chance I've made a glaring error that has escaped my eye. To have mom edit my blog would be, well, not so good for a 31 year old. Majorly uncool, as we would say in college.

Most early posts felt like walk on the main road wearing nothing but a hat on, not a pretty sight I can tell you. If you are someone who knows me in real life and are framing a mental picture, you have just reached the lowest point of the month, cheer up, there is going to be nothing worse that could happen to you here on.

Assuming that you are still reading this piece after the mental trauma that you've just gone through, have you ever had to recheck if you've spelt certain words correctly all your life? My weak points are not tough words but simple ones like 'grammar' or 'coming', see I usually spell the way I pronounce and we South Indians pronounce grammar as gramMER and coming as com-MING, hence the issue. Thankfully, I have gone beyond taLLking (talking) and callage (college). I still haven't figured the advice/advise issue as yet, that one usually has me in knots for days.

If you still would like proof of my spelling skill just check out how the term 'opinionsunlimited' is spelt in my url.

Now you know.

(Thanks to my superior computer skills, I just found out that there was a spell check here too).

I envy anyone who can identify what an adverb or a pronoun when one passes by, I can't. It took me a decade to get comfortable with nouns and verbs as such. But the pleasure of putting up a post makes everything tolerable and fun.

Recently though, I grapple for issues or ideas to write about and end up painting myself in a corner. I feel that blogging is taking it's toll on me, as it occupies too much of mind space, hence I've decided to give this a cooling off period and just write a post on the occasional weekend, when my thoughts are fresh and more heartfelt or when there is something that is really worth writing about. At the request of a dear friend, I do plan to put up some pictures of Chennai sometime in the near future, just as soon as I take them.

Thanks for visiting my blog, I'd still be visiting yours, eager to read your next post. Please do keep writing. Do visit here occasionally, you never know what you might find :-)



Sunday, July 10, 2005

My resume

How do you write about your life in two pages?

I've found that every time I prepare a resume, I always sit back with an unsatisfied feeling that the words don't really convey the journey that my work life has been.

For instance, how could I write about my first and only work crush seven years ago? This girl for whom I would copy a dozen unwanted pages everyday so that I could pass by her cubicle or about the many stolen moments we shared. And not to mention the broken heart that I nursed for a love that went sour only till I found out that it was only my ego that hurt.

The first time I acquired a customer, the sense of elation that made me run 4 blocks to my office, jumping and screaming, being in love with the world at large, are there any formal words that could ever do justice to this moment?

What about Pratap? The best boss I ever will have. The man taught me that there is a life outside work and success is not all about climbing corporate ladders but also about taking time to talking to his little sons in the middle of a busy schedule, just to know that dad was available all the time. He'd fill a good paragraph or two.

Where would I fill in about pain I went through when I was back-stabbed for the first time for reasons I still cannot fathom. And about the friends who helped me through it all as we sat drinking beer in a cheap bar, like countless other days very early in our careers, narrating the day's events and staring ahead into what looked like a bleak future. Being each other's crutch and sharing our thoughts. Wouldn't it be nice to write about such a cameraderie? Or could the pride we have for each other's achievements, small or big, a be testimonial of some kind?

I would just have to mention about the time when a group of people from a religious organisation instantly kneeled down and prayed to God, in my little cubicle, just because I told them that their banking requirements would be met. They had met 6 other banks before and almost had given up. Wouldn't the pride I had that day for my organisation be nice reading?

The long nights spent entering numbers after numbers in a spreadsheet, the countless hours in with thee photocopy machine and the many days of running papers from the bank to the customer's office, all as a fresh trainee, thinking that these very acts would change the world. My mind also wanders to the many thousand cups of coffee that I've drank trying to jump start an idea or start off a day in top gear. These sort of things need a worthy mention too, don't you think?

How about the wonderful friendships developed as I traveled across our beautiful country, the people I've met, the conversations I've had or the many acts of kindness that poeple often do to me. Or about those amazing people who have come and gone in my life and the ones that have stayed. These do crave a word or two.

The collective triumphs, the major losses or the mundane days that filled my life, sadly, there is no column to write about them in my resume. The complex business negotiations, the sweet taste of a winning a deal, the salary days, the many embarrassing birthdays, the days when the boss is not in town, the rainy days, I just could go on! These are wonderful moments but they too find no place in this piece of document.

I would love to write about Srikumar, my dear friend, colleague and smoking buddy, he passed away at the age of 33 on 27th January 2000, due to a severe heart attack, just days after he had seen our organisation through safely after the Y2K problem. He left behind a young wife and a five year old daughter.

Srikumar's unique brand of wisdom and strong point of view always clashed with mine, as we smoked in front of our office everyday. He would explain the benefits of Amway and I would bait him, this became our daily discussion point, often one trying to out wit the other. He was also the second youngest Ham radio licensee in India. He had led a full life and was a very good man, one chilled out dude till the last and a nice friend. Could I write about how my fingers could never light another cigarette at work after he died?

I would rather write about these in my resume, than some boring details about where I worked and what I did.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Wedding

It's been more than 24 hours since my sister got married. The past two days almost feels like a dream. They went so fast that before I could realise their passing, here I am, in an empty but trashed house writing this post. The marriage was held at the St. George's Cathedral and the reception in the Cathedral lawns, an old, historic and beautiful venue.

The wedding and the reception were a huge success, everything started off on time, at 5:15 pm on the dot. The bride, my sister, was radiant and glowing in a way that only the best beauty parlour could make. The groom looked nervous and the best man, me, looked incredibly smashing in a grey suit (errm, someone has to say it, I might as well do it!). The event had 1900 plus guests, perfect weather and a plan that got executed to perfection, a tribute to Dad's 2 weeks of careful planning. To be honest, only 1600 odd were invited guests, the rest were local goons, passersby and poor people, there was food for everyone.

What struck me the most was how much of a packaged deal the entire marriage was. Gone are the days when one had to work hard at the venue of the marriage or the reception to ensure that it was arranged well, hustle the cooks to do their jobs , ensure the flowers were delivered and then do the decoration oneself. Now, there are contractors for everything, so we had, an interior and exterior decorator, a vegetarian caterer, a non vegetarian caterer, security contractor, stage contractor, lighting contractor etc. We just had to reach the venue at the appointed time and everything was set and ready. One couldn't help feeling like a bit part player in Steven Spielberg's latest Magnum Opus.

These contractors create an aura of a magical evening that surrounds you everywhere. Everything looks bright and beautiful. There is a look of opulence and class in everything you see. But the problem with these magical evenings is that they come to a rapid end with a calculated professional coldness. Very much like Cinderella and her pumpkin. The minute the last guest is greeted, the chairs are efficiently stacked and when the bride and groom step off the stage, the stage starts getting dismantled. Piece by piece the reception hall is cleaned up even before you realise that it's over. Then come bloated up bills, heated arguments and the final payments, within minutes after the last guest was walking out. After handling hundreds (and that's not an exaggeration) of tip hunters, the families retired to their respective homes, tired, yet happy. Realisation that this was the very end of a rather large and long project not striking them as yet.

For me, it was a bitter sweet night. The professionalism, though impressive made the event too perfect and impersonal. The still and video cameramen seem to be firmly in control of everything. Everyone were jostled around, made to stand in a line up or a particular awkward pose and everything looked like one giant photo shoot. These guys get paid by the number of photographs or length of video footage they take, hence they stretch everything to the maximum they can. And we are so caught up on recording the moment that we forget live the moment to its fullest or to have fun and instead end up letting these money-crazed photographers control us till the end. Something worth thinking about, isn't it?

One of the best moments for me was when I met the man who got me interested in banking, Mr. Rau. This senior gentleman gladly took me in as a project trainee 10 years ago when he was a Deputy Manager in a leading Public Sector Bank. Those were fantastic days spent in conversation about stuff most people found boring like currencies, economics, foreign exchange, trading, risk management etc. The difference was that with him everything was interesting, lively and even at times funny. We also did talk about music, women and sports, hardly common topics for a 50 year old and a 20 year old. He was one of the most straight forward, intelligent, and decisive officers I have ever seen in any organisation. Since he belongs to a forward caste, he never got the promotion opportunities that he would have in a private company. The people, who worked under him, learnt from his experience and were from a backward or a scheduled caste community had gone to senior roles in the bank, thanks to our country's caste reservation policies. Mr. Rau retired in the same post that he had held for more than ten years. Unheralded. Another point that makes you think. We can't keep doing this if we want to progress as a nation.

I cherish his friendship and I've promised myself that I would visit him more often.

The toast that was proposed that by this uncle of mine was pretty interesting too. Apart from the usual flowery stuff, he said something that stuck to my mind. He said that a good marriage is like an interesting conversation, it always ends too soon even if it lasts for 50 years or more. He then concluded by saying that this was the reason that every moment has to be cherished and enjoyed. So true!

There were certain moments of mirth though, the sitar player (and his accompaniment) were originally supposed to play Christian music but ended up playing movie songs (Hindi/Tamil, old/new), due to a song book malfunction. The icing on the cake was the rendition of 'Manmatha Rasa' a raunchy Tamil number (just the music, thank goodness), never before heard in any church premises (and never after, I presume). Another such moments was when a famous radio personality and a distant cousin of mine, cajoled by my father to be the MC, ended up fumbling with everyone's names, quotes and just about everything else. It looked like a live super bloopers show. The boy was just not used to talking in front of a large audience.

There was a surprising lack of emotions from anyone in the family during the entire day; I guess it was due to all the hectic work, no one had the time to even think. It was all about smiling, making pleasant conversation and then moving on to the next guest.

We all visited my sister's new apartment, with tons of essential items to for the house yesterday (the day after the wedding). As she went through everything, my sister picked up a coffee filter looked at it strangely and was holding it nervously for awile. Then she blurted that she had no clue what this was for. I think that was the only time that everyone went misty eyed for a few minutes. There was still a lot of the little girl we remembered fondly in this newly married lady after all.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Love Actually

3 days to my sister's wedding.

Deciding on a quiet evening after a long day of running around, I picked up a random video from our collection and settled down to watch it with my sister. It turned out to be one of our all-time favourites, Love Actually. It's a movie with not just a single story but many little stories loosely bound to each other and it deals with love in its many forms. Not just the running-around-trees or boy-meets-girl-next-door types of love mind you, but all kinds of love.

It was the perfect setting for the both of us, unplanned and quiet. We sat there laughing as we watched this funny yet strangely thought provoking movie. We really aren’t very sentimental people but this evening was very special for the both of us. It was a brief moment in time for us to celebrate our bond since we don’t know what the future holds for us, whether we would have the such quality time to watch movies or fight or just talk. During this movie I began realising that whatever happens after today, we’d be there for each other and so everything was going to be ok.

If you haven't seen the movie, I strongly advise you see it. If have seen it before then don't you think it’s about time that you saw it again? I'm not very good at narrating movie stories, so I shall not impose that on you. Instead I will let you watch it and enjoy it in your own time. Try and watch it with someone you care, if you can. It just might be as special for you as it was for us.

I believe that it’s the individual bonds that we create with our environment that make us human. There are many examples in our daily lives, like the bond that exists between a brother and a sister, a parent and a child, a man and his wife, a citizen and his/her country, between lovers, between friends and sometimes even between an aging wrinkled rock star and his chubby manager, well I could go on, but I’m sure by now you get the point. Whatever forms these bonds are, they all give us a sense of belonging, a sense of being cared for and thought of, in their own little ways. In short, these bonds of love and care are our roots.

Life is complete only when it's shared. Isn't it?

We seek love, far and long, waiting for it to arrive and somehow magically change our lives. But the moral here is that love actually, is all around.