Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the company of strangers:

I recently read Ramanujan’s biography (The man who knew infinity). The book was very well written and focused on Ramanujan as mush as it focused on others with whom Ramanujan interacted with. The book speaks about his isolation in Brittan and his tragic death in India. It has also in a way compared the two cultures in which he lived (Indian and British that is).

It started the comparison, describing how a Hindu temple would have a gopuram (the Temple Gate) which would be the tallest structure of the entire complex, then came the temple building it self which would be a moderate structure full of ornate pillars and beautifully carved statues and finally the main praying area where the deity was kept, would be a small room where only a single individual (or probably two) could stand at a time; Whereas the Churches of Britain were completely different. The gate would be quit normal; the church building itself majestic and the altar with its dome spell binding.

But the section which did catch my fascination was how he described Ramanujan’s isolation in Britain. Indians the author believes are more open and welcoming then the British who keep a stiff upper lip and are very reserved when it came to interacting with others. And to add to it Ramanujan himself was a reclusive individual. He seldom made the effort to familiarize himself even with Hardy who was his mentor. Indians the author says are so communicative that if you chat with them for even half an hour, you could know everything about them. Whether they were married or not? What work they did. What kind of dreams they had? What was their town or village of origin? Practically every thing there is to know about him.

And I wondered……. How true was that in the present day? I myself am an introvert. The only people I can communicate easily and with trust are my parents and my sister. But how about the others? Well just like the Joker (From the Dark Knight), I decided to carry out a small “Social Experiment” of my own and try to communicate with as many unknown Indians as I possibly could. And I had the perfect place for it. I was flying back to India soon and I had a 6 hour stopover at Ataturk Airport.

My first challenge was to understand how to begin a conversation with a complete stranger. I assumed smiling at someone was the easiest way. Of course I did not anticipate much success by this method. But none the less, I had no other Ideas.

My “Experiment” almost immediately began, when I was standing in the queue for getting my boarding pass, I tired smiling at the Indian who was standing ahead of me and it worked. He asked if I was an Indian and was traveling to Bombay. When I answered in the affirmative his instant reaction was “Great… Now we are four of us. We can certainly kill time at Istanbul”. I was a bit surprised by how easily assumed that I be willing to spend time chatting with him. After I got my boarding pass, he introduced me to the others he knew. One of them was his colleague from IBM; the other guy was a fruit exporter from Pune. We all proceeded to the main terminal. We still had 2 hours before boarding and the topic they were discussing was what to shop for in the duty free stores. I already had a list of Dead Sea “Beauty Products” which my friend had asked me to buy. As they went to the Electronics stores, I quietly slipped into the cosmetics store making a small excuse. I wasn’t sure if they would take any kind of offense because of it; but anyway, I proceeded to buy those “beauty” products. Once done I went back to the electronic store, not to meet my new found friends but to actually check out if some new electronic gizmo was available. A one terabyte external hard drive caught my attention. But it was prized at 150$ which I thought was a bit expensive. I moved on and in sometime spotted two of the guys I had met sitting near a coffee shop. They started to wave their hands the moment they saw me. They even pulled out a chair for me to sit and started inquiring as to what I had bought. I showed them the Avaha products I had got for my friend, the fruit exporter (Well sorry, I do not remember any of their names.) was visibly disappointed that he did not know what his wife wanted and the other was analyzing if it would be worth spending so much on his girlfriend, but soon the topic changed to about what they had seen around the airport duty free, and then the IBM guy started discussing the policies in IBM as far as foreign travel was concerned. Next they discussed how the taxi drivers in Israel are constantly taking on speaker phones, when the other IBM guy arrived and suddenly they were back to the discussing the duty free shops. The IBM guy was lamenting about how much he wanted to buy a diamond ring that he saw in one of the stores for his wife, but could not buy as it was priced at around 12000$. At this point something surprising happened. The exporter waved his hand towards someone. And a minute later someone new joined us, pulling one more chair towards the table. I was amused to know that he was actually a diamond merchant, who was in Tel Aviv to buy raw diamonds. And now the topic was diamonds. The new guy actually described in detail how diamonds were valued. He also advised the guy to buy diamonds from India itself as they were much cheaper. I couldn’t help but notice that he was clinging to his hand bag very tightly when discussing. He probably had a few in his bag. I could have made a fortune running away with it, I guess. We all just did not realize how time flew by and the boarding announced for the Istanbul flight.

I did not have much of a conversation in the flight itself. The flight to Istanbul was just about three hours. After alighting from the plane, I made a conscious effort to avoid my new friends for sometime. I had planned to read a book on my precious Iliad. I quietly started reading my book away from them for another 4 hours or so. But I soon joined them again to spend my remaining time. They had already discussed a plethora of subjects by the time I joined in. But the moment I arrived the IBM guy who had joined us a little later at the coffee table immediately started inquiring about the Avaha products I had bought. His wife and mother were suffering from joint pains and wanted to know if some product would be useful to them.

However now they possibly realized that I was not very comfortable around them. They asked me as to what I did and the company I worked for. The moment said I was a telecomm engineer; they started discussing mobile phones and other related stuff. Probably, just to involve me in their discussion. When I mentioned about the 1 terabyte Hard disk which I liked, the exporter offered to help me buy it in India at much lower price through his son, who knew a few shops in Delhi which sold them.

A little later the exporter started explaining how fruits were exported from India to Europe and Israel. He spoke of the different packaging systems used in it. He even spoke of how exports of exotic fruits like Pomegranates were increasing and how recent awareness in health foods, had driven the sales in Europe. He also joked how lazy the Europeans were as they had to literally export only peeled pomegranates. Unpeeled pomegranates had no market over there. The discussion never seemed to end and we literally “killed” time as my friend wanted to.

The flight was delayed by around 40 minutes and that much time was enough for them to make one more friend. This Indian was some sort of a big short in aviation. He had come to Istanbul to understand the functioning of huge airports. Like the others he was also more than willing to share his experiences. When the Diamond merchant asked him as to why Mukesh Ambani was not allowed to have a new helipad in his new house (Actually he almost sounded as if he had been denied the permission and wanted an explanation for it). The guy coolly explained how messy the whole process of giving permission for new helipads were. He went on to give a detailed analysis of what problems might occur if helipads started cropping up unchecked all around the city. When my exporter friend asked him if they were anytime lines for the new Bombay airport, the guy stated in a matter of fact way that the Land mafia over there would ensure that the project would never takeoff. He went on to list areas which were bought by builders at a cost of around sixteen lacks per hectare and were demanding about a core for selling their land for the airport. I actually have many friends who actually believe that new Bombay is the next hep and happening place and how the new airport was going to shift the focus from Bombay to new Bombay. Guess this will be news for them.

Soon boarding was announced. The two IBM guys had got a seat behind me. And it did not take much time for them to befriend the Indian who was sitting next to me. They guy was actually traveling from Skopje. I had never heard of a city by that name in Europe. He explained that it was the capital of Macedonia. The only city I knew in Macedonia was Pella; Or so I thought. He explained that Pella, the birthplace of Alexander was now in Greece.

As the flight took off, my neighbor (who was a charted accountant) spoke of everything, right from his family his work and his experiences meting different people across Europe. He also very humorously disclosed that the flight was delayed because of him as it was snowing very heavily in Skopje and all flights were delayed there.

I had always believed that Wikipedia and goggle were the two tools enough to gain all knowledge. I still believe the same, but I have come to realize one other thing. There is only one way of gaining insight into people and that is though direct contact. No social networking site will help us with that. No amount of bogging will connect us to others. We need to reach out to them in person. That is one thing technology cannot change. My “Social Experiment” was certainly an eye opener for me. It has in a way changed how I look at things. I came back a little enlightened that day.

I could possibly go on writing about what all I discussed with the different people I met. But to cut the long story short, I realized that we Indians are different and unique. Not because of the distinct culture we have, that is something that every civilization has. But because there is something that binds us all; something which breaks the barriers of Caste, creed, status and region. I now firmly believe that it is not just the love we show to our fellow citizens but also the trust that we show to each other which makes us different and it is this trust, above all that defines our Indian ness. Trusting others is something I still need to learn.
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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

And the war rages on ….

As a kid I have heard stories from my mother about the 3 great wars that India faced (before I was born that is). She used to talk about the disastrous Indo China war, which not only left the Indian economy in shambles but also dented the sprit of Indians to large extent. She used to describe how they were trained in school to hide under desks in the event of an aerial attack on her city. How they faced an acute shortage of essential commodities after it and how the government rationed it. She often spoke of the death of Lal bahadur Shastri, one of India most loved Prime ministers after the 63 war and the crushing defeat the Pakistanis faced in the 71 war.

And I wonder … What kind of stories will I tell my kids.. What will be the legacy of my generation? What is the single most important event that I would recall when I grow Old?

Of course the first thing that strikes me is the collapse of the twin towers and the subsequent declaration of war by the United States. The attack on the twin towers was touted as the 21st century Pearl Harbor by the Indian media.

But that was not always the case. I remember believing that the babri masjid demolition would be the darkest chapter in the history India. I was proved wrong within 6 months when there was a serial blast in Bombay. The 93 blasts bought terrorism from the Kashmir valley to our doorstep. The incident was recalled with horror for a long time by all Indians. The next significant incident for me was the Kargil war. The Indian Media covered every bit of it (almost live) and reporters like barkha Dutt become role models for many. Kargil was seen as a huge victory over pak sponsored terrorism and the vajpayee government was re elected on those grounds. The war also triggered the fall of a democratically elected government in Pakistan and the rise of general Pravez Musharaff. I can still recollect very clearly images of Pakistani army men taking over all the Television stations in Pakistan and general Parvez Musharaff giving his first speech as the new leader (well I must actually say “Dictator”) of Pakistan.

I am sure these incidents would have made very good stories for my children and grand children, But they were not nearly as horrific as the incidents which followed it. The attack on the twin towers proved without doubt that even the most powerful nation was not immune to this new plague called terrorism. No nation could claim to be safe from its affects. I was hopeful that this will lead to a conclusive war on terror which will prompt all modern nations to unite and at least at a bare minimum restrict nations like Pakistan from supporting terrorist outfits. But nothing positive came out of it. We are now living in a much more dangerous world.

The London bombing was the first of its kind for Brittan. The Madrid bombings were as horrific as the 93 blasts in Bombay. Bombay also suffered two more terror attacks after the 93 blasts. The attack on the Taj was probably the worst kind of terrorism we have seen in recent days. The kind which destroys the way of life of a city; the kind which arouses all sorts of suspicions and tries to divide communities.

The Lankan Cricket team was attacked in Lahore today .The media is reporting that one of the Lankan an players has been hit on his chest. Rumors are all afloat. Today’s audacious attack on the Sri Lankan players goes on to prove that terror is far from over. In fact we have greater challenges ahead of us. India borders are burning. The surrender of the Pak armed forces in Swat , the attempted military coup in Bangladesh, the aerial attack by the LTTE on Colombo are just pre cursors of something more disastrous we are about to face.

In Jaffa when French army fell prey to an unknown kind of plague, Napoleon boldly entered the tent where the sick soldieries were being treated and declared that the cause of the plague was nothing but fear and the remedy was moral courage. Terrorism is surely the plague of the 21st century. One which has consumed many and is forever spreading to new parts. And the only remedy for it is moral courage which has to be shown by us.

I hope by the time I am old this war on Terror is nothing more than history, just like World War II is to me. I hope the generations after us do not have to face this kind of war ever again.
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