Things that just continue to evade you

I don’t know about most of you, but there are loads of thing that continue to evade me. As much as I try to catch them, they whizz past me making a whooshing sound. If I were to make a list, even a quarter of it would be longer than ‘War and Peace’. (BTW … Peace is another thing that evades the world today. But that’s a topic for the newspapers of the world to write about)
Ok, coming back to my list.

This picture, that I recently saw in a magazine reminded me of one of those things. Actually it is a skill, and the lack of it gas been reaffirmed over the last couple of weekends – An utterly evident inability to get a coal barbecue going! What would I give to get a roaring BBQ like this one going –

Anything at all.

I have tried every trick in the book, on Weber grill company’s website, every type of coal, lighting fluid, kindling and brand of matchsticks available in every supermarket. Every nook and corner in the garden has been experimented with to shade or expose the grill to or from sun, wind, shadows, birds, bees or pollen in the air. I have even tried changing the chemical composition of the air surrounding my house. But nothing has worked. To get a BBQ dinner ready for 7 in the evening, I have to get started at 9 in the morning. But come dinnertime, there is one pathetic little piece of coal weakly glowing in the corner of the grill while I am caked in soot and surrounded by heaps of meat and veggies beautifully marinated with the choices seasonings and a bunch of friends rumbling stomachs standing around grumbling with empty plates in their hands, staring at me.

After a few hours and many beers, one of them will usually come over and yank the tongs out of my hands. And in less than 10 seconds, there will be a roaring fire and that empty grill top will be groaning under the weight of meat and veggies sizzling away to glory.

When the same thing happened last weekend, I quietly slipped away and tried to hide my face in the latest copy of ‘The New Yorker’ (which for the life of me, I still don’t remember why did I subscribe to). There another picture stared at me. This one ….


In one swift stroke, this brutally swept aside every other item on my list and perched itself right on top.

At first I thought this was a joke. But no, this magical thing really exists. Apparently here’s how it works – You can order a big stack of DVDs, run through them on your expensive HD blu-ray player and 4K TV, and a few hours later, you will emerge a connoisseur of fine art! As simple as that.

Really?

It’s mindboggling that there are organisations that spend their time making stuff like this.  And more importantly people are willing to spend their money on this?

As I continue devote every Sunday evening for the rest of my life trying to get that BBQ going, I will stay happy and content in my ignorance of why does Monalisa’s smirk make it the best painting ever made.

Dylan said “Don’t criticise what you don’t understand.” While I fully agree with this philosophy, I will make an exception for this one. I have bigger fish to fry … or rather, grill.

Have a great spring.

Something has been lost

Dear someone of great importance who has lost something of terrible significance. You will be glad to know that all your recruits are immersed diligently in the search for that IT. And they are earnestly following your three commandments.

  1. Be relentlessly dedicated: Any free time one gets must be devoted to this search. And if one ignores the other things might seem of more importance (like your work, interests or family), the reward maybe higher.
  2. Remain Inconspicuous: One must conduct this search in such a way that no one raises as eyebrow should they discover that you are searching for IT.
  3. Focus the search area: Once must search for the IT in one place and that one place only. If you are found searching elsewhere, you will be out of this race.

Somehow the IT seems to have remained elusive so far, but that should not be a cause of concern to you. Anywhere one looks, everyone can be found immersed in the search.

All over the world, a typical day now roughly looks like this. Millions of people start their day and immediately begin the search. They are at it while walking, waiting for their train or the bus, while travelling, while eating, sitting in their office/home or doing any of the mundane things that life demands. When something or someone interrupts them, they look up with a grudging sigh, give that interruption an evil eye, reluctantly abandon their search to quickly deal with that irritating interruption, and get back to the search. This interruption could be any of these things –their train or bus arriving, which is also filled with people also engaged in the search. Or when someone talks to them or while walking, they bump into someone who is also conducting that search unaware of his or her surrounding. Or when they drop the food they are eating while conducting the search. The list of these interruptions is endless, so I will not bore you with the details.

And that one place that you asked everyone to look for IT, is still the same – those little Glowing Rectangular Screens that you have given to everyone.

But can I ask you why is so hard to find that IT? Inspite of everyone continuously staring into these Glowing Rectangular Screens (which we mere humans call smartphones), this IT has still not been found. Do you think this search will ever be successful?

Maybe you have not really lost anything, and are just fooling us. Maybe this IT was something that was ours all along, which you wanted. And with this search that you deceived us into conducting for you, is nothing else but a way for you to take that IT from us.

I think I now know what this IT is – this is our time, our intelligence and our ability to harness it fruitfully elsewhere. And looks like you have succeeded in your venture.

I hope that we can somehow abandon this search, and take back what rightfully belongs to us. It’s going to be hard, but I know we will.

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Are you trying to be smart ?

Surely you have heard this phrase before. Most probably when you are trying to pull a fast one, aiming for those perfect last words to show how witty you are really are, trying to be arrogant, or ‘cool’ … or often when you have just a staggeringly stupid act. Usually when one hears these words, the irony is lost on most people. No you were not trying to be smart – you were just being yourself or you really had to prove a point. The reasons usually don’t matter.

But what if you were actually, really smart? And someone came and told you nonchalantly – ‘It’s ok to be smart!’ What would your reaction be – ‘Are you trying to be smart or are you just a plain old chauvinist?’ And is this comment driven by your jealousy because your grey cells aren’t really as grey as the one who you are trying to put down? (At least this is one situation where a shade of grey is better than being black and white) . Again … the reasons usually don’t matter.

But what matters is that there are millions kids out there who are being told this exact thing – ‘It’s ok to be smart!’ This phrase stopped me in my tracks. It was emblazoned in large friendly letters on an educational toy(called brain quest) that we had picked up for our kids during our summer vacation in USA.

Admittedly, it is a reasonably good educational aid with interesting questions, put together in an easily referenced and digestible format to build up the kids’ general knowledge. We have had fun with it and it has been handy on a few long road trips….. but what a way to advertise it! It’s like telling kids – don’t fret, it’s alright if you are more intelligent than the others. If you know more than your friends, no need to feel the odd one out. Your knowledge will not be considered unnatural. You are not a mutant or a nerd and you will not be persecuted. And to top it all, a picture of a small boy wearing large geeky glasses rounds up the message. The message is really complete.

Isn’t it the whole point of school – to learn, to experiment, to grow your knowledge? Talking to a an american friend, a ratification emerged. It seems like the general level of interest in real knowledge is indeed diminishing among a majority of school students. Kids who know more than others are usually made fun of and considered ‘nerds’. All kinds of euphemisms are drawn up and hurled at them. Regardless of this situation, it does seem a fairly convoluted way to promote intelligence and knowledge.

This holds universal truth that extraordinary ability usually stands out and is most often lauded, or in a minority of cases is scoffed at. (Just thinking of this brings Howard Roark from ‘The Fountainhead’ to mind). Imagine telling Einstein this – ‘It’s ok Albert, we don’t really mind you being so brainy. We know why your hair are always standing up. Just trying being quite when you are around people, and don’t think up answers to the scientific mysteries on a daily basis’ .

But the point is – ‘It is really ok to be Smart!’ … you don’t need to justify it or hide it. While we will continue to use ‘brian quest’, but every time I will pick it up in the future, this question will jump up at me again. And my answer will be .. ‘Oh really. thanks for the tip!’

The death of a giant

 

I saw a giant die today.

Giants have a unique way of their own. They come into the world with a bang. Everyone notices their arrival. People look upto them in awe. When they flex their muscle, others run for cover. They forge their own path. More often than not, they trample over others who stand in their way. Occasionally it is on purpose, as the giant sees the others as a minor obstacle which needs to be brushed aside like a fly. Most often they don’t even notice the ones trampled, for they are not in their line of sight. The hapless ones were merrily going their own way, till they realized too late that the giant had also chosen to take the path they were on. As the giant marches on, it collect accolades and occasionally brickbats. Many a times they can get drunk in their own success, and not even notice that another bigger, stronger giant is on their path.

And then, after a while …. they die.

They get crushed by a bigger, newer giant on the block. Their death is often more spectacular and feted than their birth. It is always like a supernova. A brilliant flash of light, thundering explosions that can be heard and felt light years away. And as they die, they take many others with them.

As they fall to the ground, they don’t pass away quickly. They lie there and whimper, struggle and prolong their agony. They attract vultures and on lookers by the truckload. The vultures peck away and the parts that they find the juiciest and the tastiest. As the vultures come and go, they leave behind a giant, which is little smaller, uglier, disfigured, more hapless. The vultures go and pass on the message about the waiting feast to others of their clan. Till the time only a skeleton remains, with some rotting body parts that no one, not even the vultures wish to partake of. Then it’s over. People talk sympathetically about the giant for a while, then it is forgotten, relegated to myths and memories.

I saw a giant die today.

It wasn’t a person. It was a name that many people would have heard of – ‘Borders’. They are, or rather were, 6one of the biggest names in the book selling business, at least in the english speaking part of the world.

And the way I discovered it was as much a shock as the news of them going away. Walking down Broadway in NY, from battery park upto Manhattan downtown, we spotted the familiar black and white sign of Borders from a distance. The pace of the kids quickened, fuelled by the possibility of laying their hands on some more of their favorite books. As we inched closer, it seemed strange that their was no activity around the huge doors. On reaching the front  doors, we were greeted by a dusty porch, peeled carpets and paint and huge signs proclaiming ‘Prime retail space for lease’. We, being tourists in NY with a million things to see and do, raised our eyebrows and carried on.

Later, after spending an afternoon at the iconic Central park, we headed into the Lincoln center. Everyone was cheered by another sight of the Borders sign. As we climbed the escalator and reached the first floor, I was shocked to see huge, ugly black and yellow signs – ‘Going out of business. Everything 20 – 40% off’.

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To see these signs pasted all over the glass walls, which otherwise would be adorned with the posters of books, was like being hit by a heatwave, when you are expecting a gentle, soothing spring breeze. I looked at my wife,  we both stared back at each other puzzled. We gingerly stepped inside to witness signs of chaos. Books piled up in unruly stacks, hundreds of people jostling to get their hands on a bargain. Huge red signs proclaiming the death of a giant. Instead of the nice soothing piped music, the sound system was continually blaring announcements about warning people to not to sit on the ground and read, as it was a fire and safety hazard.

Where one would normally find friendly helpful staff who would go out of their way to suggest books and help you discover new books, there was no one in sight. Every info counter was a deserted mess with strewn papers, packaging and computer screens displaying a blank white screen or a message about no network available. Much like small ghost towns. With great difficulty I was able to track down a staff member to inquire about the whereabouts of a specific kids book. I was greeted by a steely eyed, grim faced girl, who pointed to a far corner and asked me to go search myself. The far corner, the erstwhile kids section was a deserted place. The bright and colourful covers of kids books seemed glaringly out of place among the carnage that surrounded them.

Catching another rare staff member later for her help in searching in the catalog, the explanation emerged. She explained that Borders was now owned by a liquidator. They had no access to the catalog and it was just a matter of time before all this would be gone. There was genuine remorse and tiredness in that face. Whether that feeling came from having repeated that answer to a hundred customers, pain of losing her job or a sense of loss due to passing away of a place where books were respected, I’ll never know. What was clear to see were the remains of the giant. It’s skeleton in the form of empty shelves, the discarded bits in the form of unwanted books, crushed mints and sweets packages near the checkout counter and bargain shoppers rummaging in the piles for a succulent morsel.

While this does reflect on me being not completely in touch with going-ons in the world, but I could sense a wormhole open up in the fabric of space-time. As we walked around the bookshop trying to look for books, I couldn’t help but wonder – Am I nothing more than a vulture, scavanging on juicy bits of a dying giant. Are the discounted books piling up in my basket, small bits of the giant. Did I at some point in time, inadvertentently play a part in it’s demise? Or the giant that I could see dying in front of me, was not Borders, but the printed book.  Will all physical bookshops soon meet the same fate, and did Borders fail to reinvent itself in a world of publishing and book retailing that is or has chaged radically?
Lots of questions, and very little answers. What’s even more ironic is that this piece is being typed on a tablet. One of the reasons for buying it was to being able to occasionally read magazines and books on it. So maybe that was my part in it’s downfall. But does  that mean that one should stop evolving and not foster progress and new approaches?

As one would expect, there are no right or wrong answers here. And an issue like these can be argued equally passionately both ways. All i know is that I watched a giant die, and it certainly wasn’t pretty.

Do you speak English?

Q: “Do you speak English?”

Probable Answer : “Yes i do, but I rather not”

How often have you heard or asked this now ubiquitous question? So many times that you do not raise an eyebrow when you are asked this question, you just come out with a pre-programmed, polite ‘Yes, of course’ and shoot away. I have been living in Switzerland for more than 5 years, and during the first couple of years (thanks to my non-existent German knowledge) unabashedly used this question thousands of times. But after two years, the Swiss took out a referendum with the topic ‘Brijesh should learn German’. All the supermarket & railway employees working in my hometown (whom i had tormented with this question) approved it in a blink of an eyelid. Thus I was went down the path of taking a crash course in German, after which my propensity to ask this question has reduced by the same factor that the Indian cricket teams ability to play well in overseas matches has increased (which, given our respective past ineptness in both these situations is quite an achievement)

But today, I was asked this question (almost like a celestial plotted revenge) and it literally stopped me in my tracks. It came from such an unexpected source that irony of the situation was staggering. I had the pleasure of calling up the Indian embassy in Switzerland to clarify some details about a passport renewal question. Now, they have copious amounts of information on their sometimes quite helpful, sometimes infuriating website. So whether i really needed to call them to clarify is opens up a debate about the web designer’s ability to present all the information logically or my inability to comprehend that information. Anyway … so I call them, after navigating through a million options, i manage to convince the recorded voice on the telephone that she cannot answer my queries and I really need to talk to a human being. The phone rings (for what seems like an eternity to me), and a lady picks up the phone with a polite, slightly Indian accented “Good afternoon Indian Embassy”.

On hearing these words, a sudden wave of nationalism floods over me, and i break out in Hindi trying to explain what i want to know. As I finish my sentence, there is silence on the phone. Puzzled, I say “Hello” … the same voice answers back “Hello sir, Do you speak English?” I instinctively start to repeat my question in English, but something tells me to stop. Hang on a minute … I am calling the Indian Embassy here. They represent India in this country. The least that I can expect is to be able to talk in my national language … is that asking for too much? The critics among you will immediately retort back that there are close to 16 officially recognized languages in India. But for crying out loud, you expect to be able to converse in the official language of your country when dealing with your country’s embassy. A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to deal with the Turkish embassy to apply for a visa. You will be damned to find any other language spoken or written there except Turkish.

But of course, as I noted in a post a few days back, we Indians are different and (i think) almost take pride in not communicating in Hindi. Ok, maybe I am being too hard here, that lady could have been from anywhere in Eastern or Southern India, where Hindi is not that prevalent. But for god’s sake, as the first contact point for anyone calling the embassy … is this acceptable?

Thanks to experiences like this, i can completely empathize with people in India, who bemoan the passing away of out national image & culture. Do we show our nationalism only by observing the national holidays as a day off, dressing up in an Indian dress for a phot opp on a festival or by getting worked up over the India-Pakistan issue? Isn’t the ability to communicate in a common official language the lowest common denominator of nationalism?

Maybe I am just plain wrong or brewing up a storm in a chai-cup. Though I hope I can make my case again on Saturday after India has won the Cricket world cup. At that time, when a wave of euphoria and nationalism is sweeping over the nation, the time might be right to take up this issue again. But chances are no-one will be listening then, as everyone will be busy celebrating . (…… by drinking Aussie beer???)

What if news media only reported good news?

Pick up a newspaper, a current affairs magazine, watch a TV news bulletin or listen to the news on radio (does anyone still listen to radio news?), there is one omnipresent thread … majority of the news coverage is about disasters, mishaps, accidents, economic busts, wrongdoings, scandals : basically all that’s wrong with the world. If the media is to be believed, everything is going south. Here’s a case in point : the annual round-up of 2010 as published by ‘The Economist’ : Out of 40 odd events they mention, only 2 refer to ‘positive’ news! … see for yourself.

If Martians or other sensible beings out there in the universe are tracking the events of planets around them looking for new worlds to invade and colonize, thanks to all this disaster (& in equal measure disastrous) reporting, they will surely leave Earth to its miseries. While avoiding Earth’s alien domination is certainly a good thing, but i wonder if our current road is the best route to that goal. In Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy’ after many years of meticulous research and beer drinking,  Ford Prefect – the friendly earth reporter from the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor, described earth simply as “Mostly harmless”. If he were to be around today, inspired by the current news coverage, he will surely change the listing to “Mostly harmful”.

Before we begin to answer or argue the validity of the question “What if news media only reported good news?“, credit must be given where it is due. This question was put forward by my lovely wife. Now this was no minor, passable conversation – This was a customary ‘after movie discussion’ –  a type that often occurs between adults across the world just when they have finished watching a movie at home on a friday evening, when the kids are sleeping, the credits of the movie are rolling accompanied to a muted indescribable song, both of them are nestled comfortably in the large leather couch, too lazy to clear the wine glasses or find the remote to switch off the TV. Such discussions, which often meander around critiques, praise, questions about the story, actors’/director’s abilities are indispensable triggers which keep the Bollywood machinery humming (and ensuring guaranteed jobs for cleaners).

The movie in question was ‘ Peepli Live‘. One of the new breed of ‘Intelligent Bollywood movies’ that are in vogue these days – a dark comedy regarding a nationally televised live coverage of an attempted (rather threatened) suicide by a poor farmer set in an obscure Indian village. While this story is nothing new in India – thousands of such suicides have happened – but the movie depicts how this (non)event captures the imagination of the country fuelled by the media houses looking to boost their popularity ratings.

Anyway, this muse is not about the movie, it is about the news which was being covered – a rather unpleasant event about the possible loss of a human life. But since the world is more interested in hearing about vice rather than virtue, it is expected that such events are the ones which will continue to make headlines round the world. If newspapers were to do otherwise, people will get bored to death, seeing happy faces, only news about accomplishments and successes on the front page. But since I am too chicken to start a newspaper, magazine or a website dedicated only to success stories, i will remain happy without my daily newspaper subscription and agree with Earl Warren (an ex chief justice of America) who once famously said – “I always turn to the sports section first.  The sports section records people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failures”

Here’s to a 2011 that beings a world filled with more success and happiness rather than disasters.

Were they ever enemies?

This was the first phrase that popped into my head when I saw this now ubiquitous message proclaiming to the world on facebook that ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are now friends. Chances are most of you reading this have a facebook account (who doesn’t these days … huh?) and seen this super-friendly message a trillion times. So why is there a need to write about it? Since the question is purely rhetorical, we will let it pass for now.

I cannot help but wonder that thanks to facebook, before they became ‘friends’, were they ever enemies? And why is this important for me to know that someone whose existence I am only reminded of when I read of his/her latest exploits like ‘just had 3 tequila shots straight up…yohooo!‘ and I see a grainy, barely recognizable picture taken in a dimly lit bar and uploaded from his/her uber-cool mobile gadget, has now become friends with another person, whose existence i was blissfully unaware of before now and of whom I will probably never hear again? … and to top it all what is there to ‘like’ about it? (I wish some of these sites have an ‘unlike’ button)

Now don’t get me wrong and report me to Mark Zuckerberg. I do love this modern day invention from the bottom of my heart (okay this was a little over the top). I have been able to find some folks with whom I had been out of touch for a long time, and I have even been guilty of sharing some photos occasionally. As with all of these modern day social media inventions, this one also comes with it’s own set of ironies. The best one I have heard of recently is about someone who ‘tricked’ her friends into wishing her a happy birthday on FB second time in 3 months, by just changing her birthday in her profile. The same people who had wished her 3 months back, got a reminder and robotically went to her wall (what a cool name for something that does not even exist in real life) and promptly posted a heartfelt birthday greetings message.

I wonder sometimes if we are pushing the envelope a bit too far at times? Why is it so important for us to be perennially socially-connected with a tool whose name, even my dumb Microsoft word processor does not recognize and shows as spelling mistake? Is there anyone readying this who does not have a facebook account and still has real friends?…. and why am I bothered about this, its late and I should be in bed!