Thursday, October 15, 2009


A few days back, my wife , who is in Tanzania doing research on antelopes tried calling me on her cell phone, after a gruelling day in the field. In an attempt to get a cell phone signal, she climbed on top of a nearby hill and made the call. Just as we were speaking she told me that on the other side of the hill, she could see more than 500 elephants grazing ! 500!! After sharing her joy initially I grew a little jealous. The first thought that occured to me after the call was whether I was stuck in a wrong career. How many times would I get a chance to see something like that working away behind a computer? Probably never. How and why did I choose my career? How do most people choose what they do for a living? At any point of time, in the entire workforce of the world, how many people have always wanted to do what they are do for a living?

When I was a child, I wanted to a policeman. More specifically I wanted to be a Sub-Inspector and not an Inspector, because I thought that Sub-Inspectors were higher in the hierarchy. Well, Sub-Inspector has an extra word in front of it and 'Sub' in Hindi meant 'All'. So it was only natural that an All-Inspector was bigger than just a mere Inspector.

The inspector dream faded away soon and my next ambition was to be a cricketer. More specifically a fast bowler. I thought I was a decent fast bowler for my age. But the probability of being successful was next to zero. Imagine a cricket-crazy country with the second highest population in the world and only 11 players play for the country. Well, 14 if you count the substitutes. So you have almost a zero percent chance of making it. In those days, there was no money in the domestic leagues, and if you did not make it to the national team, you were as good as broke. So it was either success or nothing at all. There was no middle ground. And so cricket succumbed, giving way to the higher priority of making a decent living.

And then a close family friend became an engineer and that is what I wanted to become all of a sudden. The next several years were dedicated to that and since it was an achievable target, I graduated with an ngineering degree. I was quite proud of myself. Taking a few computer programming classes in college made me feel that programming was such an exciting field and my dream job would be something to do wiith programming. Lo and behold, after working in the civil engineering sector for 6 months, I switched to software and that is what I have been doing for the last 11 years. But I wonder now if it was something I really wanted or was it just an infatuation? I still love the challenges it throws up and right now, I can't think of anything else I would rather do, except for maybe watch 500 or so elephants from the top of a hill, or listen to lions growling a few hundred metres away as I lie in my tent trying to sleep.

Of course, I am only focussing on the glamourous parts of my wife's stories of seeing lions, hyenas, elephants, antelopes etc. in the wild, while clearly ignoring her daily struggles of doing even the simplest things that we take for granted; ignoring the stress of doing lab work against a deadline, when something as basic as electricity is not guaranteed. The huge amounts of paperwork to do research, the lack of timely funds, the lack of any monetary gain (monetary loss, in fact, inspite of being paid a salary), while ironically being stuck in a place where the common man thinks you have lots of money to spare.

Maybe that is it. The grass always looks greener on the other side. Nothing comes without drawbacks. No matter what you do for a living, there will always be something else which you think you would love to do for a living. Just like me, Usain Bolt wanted to be a fast bowler, when he was young. If not for his cricket coach who suggested sprinting as an alternative, he would or most probably would not ,seeing as the coach suggested a different sport, have made it to the West Indies Cricket team. And Jamaica would never have a son to make it so proud in the 2008 Olympics. And we would never be fortunate to see a man run as fast as the 'Lightning Bolt'. And to think, that his career was shaped just by a suggestion from his cricket coach. Since we are talking about Bolt, here is an amusing video of him playing in a charity cricket match and giving a send-off to the West Indies captain!

Maybe most people end up in their choice of a career just like that. By chance. By just plainly going through life and taking the opportunities that are granted to them and making the most of it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cheating the poor

About seven years ago, back in the days when I was still a bachelor, I was flying back to India from the US for my annual vacation in the motherland. I was going to give my parents a surprise because I was flying in a week before the date I told them I was coming in. I landed at the airport in Bombay at around 2:30 am and since no one knew I was coming in that day, my brother who usually picks me up from the airport was either blissfully asleep or working (depending on the shift he was working). I took a taxi at the airport, put my bags in and off I headed to home, sweet home.

The taxi driver, a man who appeared to be in late 40s, was silent for the first 5 minutes of the ride. But either out of boredom or to keep himself awake at 3 in the morning, he asked me in Hindi where I had flown in from. I answered him in Hindi, that I had flown in from the US, where I worked. He asked me if I was originally from Bombay and I said, 'yes, I was born in Bombay and grew up here.' Before he could ask me anything else, I told him that I knew that he was from Kerala. He was astonished, which is quite strange, because I wondered if he did not know that he had such a strong Malayalam accent while speaking Hindi. So I clarified matters by mentioning that his accent gave his roots away and I told him that I too had roots in kerala. From then on, the entire conversation was in Malayalam.

I asked him how long he had been in Bombay. That is when he proceeded to tell me the story of his arrival in Bombay. He came to Bombay about 16 years ago. But Bombay was not supposed to be his final destination. He had come to Bombay, like countless others before him and after him, to fly out to one of the UAE countries.

He was not doing very well in his native village. He had a part-time job as a driver and he did odd jobs to make ends meet. But he had a young family to take care of. So he decided to do what countless others from India, especially Kerala (where the policies of the communist state government made sure that the state with the highest literacy rate also remained one of the top states in unemployment) were already doing - finding a job in one of the 'Gulf' countries in the Middle-east. He had visited an agent who had taken his papers and a lot of money and promised him a full-time job as a driver in Dubai and a visa. He had mortgaged his house to get the money for the agent. It was after all an investment in his and his young family's future. So the mortgage seemed ok at that time.

The agent had given him the job offer letter and a train ticket to come to Bombay, the closest international airport in those days. He was supposed to stay in a hotel for a week, by which time he would get his passport stamped with his visa. There were a bunch of others like him from different parts of India. A few of them from Kerala too, whom he befriended, because just like him, they spoke only Malayalam and not much Hindi. One thing seemed common amongst everyone - almost all of them had either paid the agent using all of their savings or by taking loans or by selling their property or by some such drastic measure.

And in a few days, when there was no sign of the agent or the passport and visa, they knew they had been conned. These were people who had risked almost everything they had for a better job and a better life. Not everyone took it well. Some just resigned themselves to their fate and went back to where they came from. But one of his new friends, who had sold everything he had to come up with the money for the agent, was so devastated that he committed suicide. But the taxi-driver could not do that, because he had a young family to feed and he could not go back either because he had to repay the loan. So after a few days, with some luck, he found a job as a taxi-driver in Bombay. He could not afford to rent a decent home, since he had to pay his loan back as well as send money home to his family. So he just rented a small room in a slum, which he shared with 5 others. He only went there to shower or use the common toilet. He spent most of his time in the cab, even sleeping in it. I asked him if he ever visited his family in that time. He said he went to kerala thrice in 16 years. Not that he did not want to go, but he could not afford more frequent trips. His children had grown up and he barely knew them. A painful thought gnawed at me then that he had basically been given a life-sentence of hardships and forced solitude, when he was actually the victim of the crime.

Soon I reached home and I bid him good-luck and I sincerely meant it. I wish I could have done something to help him, but there was really nothing I could do. There are countless people like him in Bombay and some are even more unfortunate than him. One thing growing up in Bombay does is that it de-sensitizes you to the misfortunes of others. I mean even if you feel sorry, you know that you can't do much for them anyway. You tell yourself that and move on.

I wonder when your average conman cheats somebody of their money, do they realise what kind of an impact they are having on the other person's life? Or is their vision so myopic that the only thing that they can focus on is the victim's money? Maybe they can't or rather don't want to think about anything other than the money. Maybe this refusal to think about the consequences of their actions beyond the money is an extreme form of the indifference shown by the average human (more so in Bombay) to the misfortunes of others.

Some may argue that the taxi-driver was at fault too, since he was too gullible and maybe even foolish to have someone take advantage of him. He should never have taken such a risk. But that is like saying that it is alright for a stronger person to beat up a weaker person just because the weaker person is too weak to defend himself.

Stealing from someone whose life won't be profoundly affected can still be forgivable, but the worst kind of stealing according to me, has to be the one in which the monetary loss itself becomes secondary compared to the loss of hope and spirit. Such crimes break people down and chalk out the way they lead the rest of their lives or in some cases, not live at all. And that is right up there with the worst crime imaginable.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To shut it or not

I cant recollect exactly where I read it. It was a very long time ago in one of those ancient stories. I want to say the Panchatantra, but I am not sure. Anyway the moral of the story was "When you are not sure about something, it is better to keep your mouth shut and let people assume that you are knowledgable rather than open your mouth and remove all doubts of your ignorance."

One of the greatest inventions in our lifetime has been the internet. But unfortunately, it has given a platform for every fool to voice his thoughts (including yours truly) to a mass audience on anything and everything. A decade or so ago, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible to convey your foolishness to the whole world. Only your near and dear ones and maybe your colleagues from work knew what an ignorant fool you were. But not anymore. With the advent of the easily accessible mass-platform of the web and its numerous forums, people have unleashed their verbal diarrhoea (the spelling is correct, just in case you are curious - another one of those British and American spelling words) on every unsuspecting reader who is passing by. So now everyone knows that you have 'clay in your skull' (my Dad's favourite phrase translated into English - sounds much better and funnier in Malayalam) instead of a brain. People who know you and people who don't know you, now know that you are an idiot. So if you have ever posted something online that you were not completely sure of but had to let it out anyway, do carefully notice the snide smile of the next person who walks by you. Maybe he knows.

The worst places have to be forums below news articles or youtube videos or any place which allows you to post comments. Before I proceed, let me say that this blog is not included in the above list and please feel free to post comments. All your comments are very intelligent and I love it because it boosts my ego that someone is actually reading the drivel that I churn out every now and then. Anyway, back to the youtube comments section and other such places - sometimes I cringe when I see some of these comments. I wonder sometimes if people really can be that stupid? Such forums have also given rise to the fastest growing sport in the world (UFC, beware) - 'arguing-like-idiots-on-the-internet'. No qualifications required, no training necessary. If you can type, you qualify. Don't have a brain, but have an opinion? No worries, you are a contender. I wonder if these people ever stop to think how stupid one has to be to come and check if somebody has insulted you and then respond hoping that the other persons comes back to see if his insult has been returned appropriately with another insult?

Although the internet has provided huge garbage dumps for people to express their ignorance, there are some folks who are still nostalgic for the old ways and let their mouths do the talking! I salute those folks because they restore my faith in humankind. They reassure me that maybe things are really not going downhill. They have always been downhill and the web is just making it more noticeable.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Second Chance

Imagine you are working in front of a bunch of your customers. One of your customers heckles you and you get angry. Very angry. So angry that you throw a very hard 5.5 oz. round object in his direction with all your might. But fortunately for your heckler and the other customers around him, it hits no one. You are incensed. So you pick up a metal spike, which is lying conveniently close to you, and try to use it as your next missile. But thankfully, you get taken down by people who think you have gone too far. You are handed a punishment, but life goes on.

A couple of months later, you are not considered for a new project by your biased employer, when you should really have been an automatic shoo-in for the project. So you whip yourself up into a rage again, get into your car, go to the office and burn the bloody office down. That will show your employers not to mess with you.

In a normally functioning world, it would be safe to say that the chances of your ex-employers hiring you back again would be as much as the Taliban hosting a Victoria's Secret fashion show in Kandahar. But if your name is Mark Vermuelen and your employer is the Zimbabwe Cricket Board, you will find yourself opening the batting for Zimbabwe in around 3 years after you destroyed the Zimbabwe Cricket Board's Headquarters and their National Academy building.

And just in case if you are thinking, how did he get away from 25 years of prison for arson? By pleading not guilty due to mental illness. To be precise, "partial complex epilepsy and impulsive behaviour disorder", brought on as a result of having his skull fractured by a cricket ball, during a match against India.

This is really not an attempt to judge the seriousness of his injury or judge how much that had to play a part in his actions thereafter. I do sympathise with him. I mean poor Vermuelen was so unlucky that he got hit by a cricket ball on the same part of his skull twice in a year, even after wearing a helmet. That is more than enough for brain damage. Granted he has had anger management issues even before the injury (uprooting the stumps and locking himself in the dressing room because he was given out), but then maybe the injury just exacerbated the problem. From what I have read about him, apart from his outbursts, he seems like a fairly nice guy.

But what amazes me is that the Zimbabwe Cricket Board hired him back. Especially with the kind of history the Board has. This is a board run by the cronies of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. A man whom history will definitely hold responsible for reducing Zimbabwe to what it is today. When the life expectancy of a people drops from 60-something to 30-something over a period of just a few years, you know that something is terribly wrong in the country. On one hand, you have a Cricket Board, which is just an extension of the policies of Mugabe's government and on the other hand, you have Vermuelen, who is as stereotypically a white Zimbabwean as they come. Tall, blond and from an affluent family. And he has definitely not endeared himself to the board by his actions. The very fact that somebody like him can get back into the team after what he has done baffles me. Whether it is a sign of desperation on part of the Board or whether it is change in policies, one will never know.

But good for him. I am glad atleast something is going right for him. I hope for his sake and for the sake of others, that his psychological issues are really over. Good luck Vermuelen and more importantly, good luck Zimbabwe.

Monday, August 3, 2009


The recent controversy involving the arrest of a black Harvard professor in Boston made me think about the different kind of policemen out there protecting and serving us. Like in every other field, some are good men, the best you would want on the force, but there are always some who try their best, usually effortlessly, to sully the image that their brethren try so hard to shine. These are the jerks who nurture the general feeling of dislike of any kind of authority in the public to full-blown hatred towards the police.

Since writing good things about good people is anyway not very interesting, this post is dedicated to the jerk cop and not the good one. I have tried to categorize them as best as I can here, but this is by no means an exhaustive list, since my categorizations are based on first-hand experiences and second-hand accounts.

1. The economist
They are of the belief that any money on your person is present because of some mistake in the laws of distribution of money. But fear not, this mistake can be easily corrected. Very soon, you will find yourself taking money out from your pockets and handing it over to them. It does not matter how much the amount is, you should never have had that money in the first place.
I have had a few encounters with these type, but I vividly remember the first one. I must have been 19 or so. I was riding pillion on a motorcycle with my friend SN in Bombay. A 3-day college festival was in session and we were going to pick up something for some event. It was not SN's motorcycle and he was not very good at riding motorcycles anyway. So inevitably, the engine stalled at a traffic light and he just could not start it. Out of nowhere, a middle-aged cop appeared and pulled us to the side. This is how the conversation went:
Cop ordered SN in the local language (Marathi), "Show me your license."
SN replied in Marathi, "Here you go."
The cop looked at the license. "This is a learner's license."
SN smiled in agreement, "Yes."
The Cop turned to me and said in Marathi, "Show me your 'pakki' (meaning not learner's but actual full license) license."
I had no idea why he wanted my license since I was riding pillion. I was not aware that since SN had a learner's license, he was supposed to ride only with someone who had a 'pakki' license. My ignorance transformed into contempt and I replied with a slight hint of sarcasm in Hindi (which I am more comfortable in compared to Marathi), "I don't even have a learner's license let alone a 'pakki' license."
"Ok boys, I am going to have to impound the vehicle," smiled the cop.
We more or less had an idea where this was headed. So we started pleading. SN in Marathi and me in Hindi. We painted a picture as if the survival of civilization depended on our successfully obtaining the thing we were going to get.
The cop suddenly changed subjects and addressed me, "If you understand Marathi, why are you speaking in Hindi? This is Bombay and Bombay is in Maharashtra. This is Marathi-land. Speak in Marathi."
Although I wanted to carry on the fascinating discussion and point out the bigger picture to him that Maharashtra is in India and Hindi is the national language, so Hindi supercedes Marathi, I prudently desisted from it. Also, I had no idea what would happen if the boundaries of our discussion went beyond India. So I grovelled in Marathi, "OK sir. From now on, I will speak only in Marathi. Please let us go." If speaking in Marathi was what it took for us to be let go with the bike, then so be it.
With a sly smile, the cop said, "I can't let you go just like that. You have broken the law. You need to learn a lesson so that you remember not to do this in the future."
"We won't do this again sir. Is there some way we can be let go?"
At this time, all 3 of us knew what everyone was hinting at.
The cop continued, "I will have to fine you. Give me 200 bucks each."
"We don't have that much money."
"How much do you have?"
SN looked at his wallet and said "45 Rupees."
I said, "20 rupees."
The cop was disgusted. All this time had been wasted for 65 rupees when he could easily have spent his time much more effectively. But a man must make compromises. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And he seemed to be one who would not only make the lemonade but also sell the seeds of the lemon to some farmer. He decalred, "65 rupees! OK, I am in a good mood. Hand it over and you can go."
If the cop was so shameless to take a measly 20 rupees from me, I had to one-up him on shamelessness. So I pleaded, "I need some money for the bus home. Can I get 5 back?"
I expected a verbal lashing for sure. Is it not against the protocol to ask for change when you are bribing someone? But surprisingly the cop still had some good in him. Shaking his head and giving me a 5 rupee note, he said, "Here you go. Now both of you scram and don't let me catch you again."

That was my first amongst a few other encounters with this kind of cop. I was suprised that he still took that small amount from us. But I guess it is the principle of the matter. He believed that it was never rightfully ours in the first place, so it must have been easy to take it from us.

I have not found this type of cop in the US yet, mostly because small-time corruption does not seem to be as prevalent amongst cops here as much as it is in India. I must say though that Tanzania, the other place where I have had a couple of encounters with cops and have also heard some stories from people, surpasses India in this matter.

2. The monarch
This kind is much worse than type 1 mentioned above. Type 1 looks like a harmless schoolgirl compared to the monarch. This type of cop belongs to the school of thought that a cop is the closest thing to a king. Unfortunately they also believe that their kingdom is mobile and radiates to about a few 100 feet from them in all directions, no matter where they are. These are the kinds who slap you first, swear at you and then ask you your name. If you are fortunate enough, after the slap, you probably will get a chance to file the complaint for which you had visited the police station in the first place. They look at criminals and non-criminals through the same jaundiced eyes. Readily found in all parts of India, at some point in their lives, I would like to believe that most of these power-trippers have their egos squashed underfoot by criminals as well as non-criminals. I know of atleast 2 or 3 incidents when this has happened. But I also know of many incidents where people were just abused for no reason and I have been present during a few of them. I am sure the power-tripper is also present in the US and I have been fortunate enough not to meet any. Especially since every cop here, unlike India, carries a gun.

3. The over-zealous bureaucrat
These are the kind who fail to see the larger picture and will go to ridiculous lengths to uphold the written word of the law, irrational though it may seem. It somehow seems difficult for them to keep things in perspective. I remember an incident a decade or so back, when a police van full of (sorry to disappoint you) policemen came to a neighbouring building and took away some 10-11 year old children because they were making too much noise while playing cricket. The van must have been filled with atleast a dozen cops. The way they got down from the van was quite dramatic - very commando-like. And when they took the children into 'custody', their mothers and everyone else, except the idiot, who had complained about the noise to the cops, were livid. The women gave an earful to the cops but the cops said they had to do this since someone had filed a complaint. That same month, there had been a spate of burglaries in the neighbourhood, and we had never seen any cops, let alone a police van, anywhere in the vicinity of our neighbourhood. Someone pointed this out to the cops as they were leaving. The cops were too shamefaced to reply. The parents eventually got the chidren released in a couple of hours, but I wonder what the cops were thinking. Was it necessary to take the children away? Were they not children at some point in their lives or did they become grown super-dumb cops right from their mother's womb?

4. The free-loader:
This type is a variation of the economist. Instead of hard currency, they just expect things to be free - right from a taxi ride to the mid-afternoon snack. After all they are protecting and serving you. Since you can't protect them, atleast return the favour half-way and serve them. This kind is usually found in India and very frequently found in Tanzania. I have not had the experience of meeting this type in the US, but if stereotypes are to be believed, they may be seen hanging around donut shops.

5. The blind cop:
A crime may be happening right in front of their eyes. But they don't do anything because they can't see it. Of course they may have some vested interest in letting the crime happen. I am very sure this kind is found everywhere in the world. I was shocked when I first came across this type. I must have been 13 and I was out in the open market with my father, buying vegetables. Open markets in Bombay (India in general) are chaotic. Lots of vendors, lots of people, lots of noise. As my father was buying stuff from a vendor, a few feet away, a local goon was trying to extort protection-money from another vendor. He was threatening the guy quite clearly and I could hear every word of what he was saying. A few feet away from him, there were 2 cops nonchalantly reading the newspaper. If I could see and hear the man, they could definitely see and hear him too. But they chose to do nothing. Maybe their duty was over and they were just chilling. Maybe they were going to get a share of the loot later on. Or maybe, they were actually 2 blind men reading the newspaper.

Like I said before, there are lot of good cops who do the uniform proud. But unfortunately no matter what they do, the bad ones will always be there to wipe out whatever goodwill they create in society. But again, if not for the bad ones, this post would not exist and I would not get to tell my friends that in India the cops swear at you first and then ask your name whereas in the US, they address you as 'Sir' and then ask your name. In either case, after the 'niceties' are over, in the end you are bound to get screwed.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Random thought - Backyard

There is a saying in Hindi - 'अपनी गली में कुत्ता भी शेर बन जाता है.' Literally translated, 'In his own backyard, even a dog becomes a lion'. The same is true for most humans too. I think the leading cause of intolerance in this world is the lack of ability to see the perspective of the other side. No matter how much you read, know or see the other side's perspective via books,TV or some other form of media, unless you experience it yourself, you will never understand it completely.

Everyone likes to be in the comfort of their own backyard. There is something relaxing about knowing where things are and what to expect. But if you truly want to know about yourself and the other side, you have to put yourself in completely unfamiliar situations. Easy to say and hard to do is what most of us would think. But one of the most obvious ways to do this would be travel. It may sound far-fetched, but if Osama Bin Laden had travelled and lived in western countries instead of just being in his comfort zone of Islamic countries, he probably would not have done what he is doing now. If only George Bush had travelled more of the middle-east, he probably would know the difference between Sunni and Shia and may not given the orders for invading Iraq.

Human nature is such that you are most likely to be obnoxious to others in your own backyard than in somebody else's. Everyone is capable of it and everyone has their own version of a backyard. Stepping out of this comfort zone could be the only way to reduce animosity to your fellow beings. Until we do that, the idea of showing someone else down to feel better will seem much more easier than just simply elevating yourself.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Today I received a text message on my cell during lunch. It read and I quote verbatim, "Hey what up sweetie?". I knew that it was not from my wife because of a few reasons:
1) She never says "What up?". Her greeting usually tends to be the equally effective and grammatically correct "How are you?"
2) I have strongly discouraged the use of the word "sweetie" in any reference to me and good soul that she is, she has obliged. Really, what kind of a grown man is called "sweetie". That is something your mother could call you when you were little. In the unlikely case that you are wondering about acceptable terms of endearment in our marriage, there are a few but they are used only in private so that others do not have to suffer.
3) The primary reason, of course, was the cell phone number. It was a number I did not recognize. A quick google search on the area code of the number revealed that it was a New Orleans, Louisiana number.

This message has put me in a dilemma. The other person definitely got the wrong number. But what do I do? It is a text message, so I can't really text her/him back and say "wrong number." I cannot do this because unlike emails, replies to text messages do not hold the original message. I am too lazy to text long messages explaining what they sent me. So they will probably have no idea if I send 'wrong number'.

I can't call them either, because it will take a lot of explaining to do about how they sent a text to the wrong number etc etc. Again I am too lazy and my non-American accent does not help in such out-of-the-ordinary situations.

What if it is a man instead of a woman on the other end. Chances are really high that it is a man. The "What up?" remark leans towards the possibility of the sender being a man. A conversation with a man telling him "Don't text me because I am not your sweetie" will be very wierd, if not uncomfortable. In fact, I think the two words 'man' and 'sweetie' should never be used in a sentence together.

On the other hand, if the person does not know that his text went to a wrong number, he/she may spend a lot of time fretting over the fact that he/she never got a response from his/her sweetie. What if my act of not doing anything breaks up a potential relationship. Is my inaction nipping a potential love story in the bud?

I have told myself not to worry about it. If it was a love meant to be, it will be. I have also been telling myself that I am being too egotistical by thinking that I could have an effect on someone's love-life. But really, the cell phone companies should come up with a solution for something like this. It should not be that hard to attach the original text along with your reply. Maybe I will do nothing this time, but if I ever get a 'sweetie' text again, something will definitely have to be done.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


A couple of days back, I along with my friend LM, went to a sports bar in San Jose, which I must say on a side note, has urinals designed to either torment claustrophobic men or to discourage horizontally larger men from using it. But lest our minds linger in the toilet for too long, let me move on to the actual story.

There was a live band playing and people were dancing. Just in case you are wondering why the live band was playing in the toilet, it was not. I am done with the toilet. We are outside now, in the bar. As LM and I were sipping our drinks, he pointed out to me a woman dancing in white shorts (henceforth referred to as White Shorts). To put it quite mildly, he expressed to me an interest in her. I think White Shorts may have also had a similar interest in him, because very soon I found her next to where we were standing. But of course with clearly bad timing, LM somehow disappeared when she came by. So as a good friend, I had to stall her there somehow until LM came back. So I started talking to White Shorts and in the middle of the conversation, which actually should more aptly be described as shouting into each others ears due to the loud music, I realised that I had not introduced myself. So I told her, "By the way, I am Jai." Her response was a baffling "That's ok." Her tone was a consolatory tone. After a few moments of staring at her with a puzzled expression, my brain deciphered her response. She had heard, "By the way, I am gay." The next few minutes I went into great lengths clarifying her misunderstanding of my name and my sexual orientation.

I used to think that Jai was a simpler version of my name, especially for people who were unfamiliar with Indian names. Many Indians have also addressed me by Jai because it is shorter, easier and does the job just as well. I am also partial to the name because my wife addresses me as Jai too. I was slightly relieved when the music composer for Slumdog Millionaire, A.R. Rehman got an Oscar and the song 'Jai ho' became somewhat popular (or so I thought). I had hoped this song would make 'Jai' be easily recognized around the world. But alas, not in the bar. Jai, which actually means victory was converted to homosexuality. I have nothing against gay people, but like most of us, I don't want to be known as something I am not.

Since we are on the subject of names, my last name has also been mispronounced by almost every non-Indian. My last name is as common in India as Smith is in the English world. My last name is actually more of a community name rather than a last name. It is so common that it even has a long wikipedia entry. The correct pronunciation of my last name rhymes with 'buyer'. The 'a' is like the 'a' in 'car' and 'ir' is pronounced like 'ear'. I have no idea why the original word was never spelt clear enough in English for proper pronunciation. And then fate dealt a cruel blow to my last name when some bright chap in the beauty business came up with the word 'Nair' for their hair-removal product. 'No Hair = Nair' and it rhymes with hair. And that is how many people pronounce my last name. The souls of my Nair ancestors must be writhing in agony every time our supposedly warrior community is reduced to a hair-remover.

I must say though that the same logic goes for most names. Every name can be mistreated and every name has an equal opportunity to be funny or offensive in some other language. You can rest assured that the chances of your name meaning something you don't want it to mean is quite high. I know of a fairly common Swedish name which is the word for male gentalia in Hindi.

But the good thing about the US is that it is a melting pot. Here we have the largest variety of names. No matter how different your name, people get used to it. There is no bigger testimony to this than the name of the US President. Barrack Obama - a first and last name, very very few people in this country can claim to have ever heard of before but now sounds so natural. Never will there be another Barrack or another Obama whose name will be considered wierd. Since I have the utmost confidence that I will never be famous, I am waiting for a Jai or Jaideep or Nair to take the world by storm so that the likes of me can reap the small benefits of sharing his name anywhere we live.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


A month or so ago, I had my worst haircut in a decade or so. Supercuts was the culprit. Ever since I have moved to the US, I have always gone to these generic chain-type haircut places to get my hair cut. Mostly Supercuts since they seem to be everywhere. Every time I come back home from Supercuts with a sheepish grin on my face, my wife just shakes her head in disbelief that I keep going there again and again inspite of all the disasters they have wrought upon my hair in the last several years. Her theory is that people who come fresh out of hair-cutting school (or whatever they call it) go to work at places like Supercuts to gain experience. My counter-argument to this theory is that if people like me don't go to Supercuts, the people working there will never get enough practice to improve at their jobs and will never get out of there to work at a better place. My sacrifices and the sacrifices of people like me go a long way to ensure good haircuts for the rest of the population.

I must say though that one thing that I fail to understand is how the same instructions can be subject to different interpretations at different locations of the same chain and even different barbers at the same location. 'Number 3 on the sides and Number 4 on the top' is as easy as instructions go. 50% of the time I have walked out of the salon with my dignity intact but the rest of the time, the results have been catastrophic. But thankfully my hair, resilient that it is, grows out in a few days and masks the injustice borne upon it by the butchers masquerading as hair-stylists. This is also one of the reasons why I keep going to Supercuts, because no matter how bad the hair-cut, the results are only temporary. But paying $14 plus a $3 tip for a bad haircut somehow seems wrong on many fronts. It especially becomes a moral issue when you have paid that much for the worst haircut of your life in the past decade. No matter what anyone says, it is the principle of the matter and the bad haircut is just a secondary issue. Why would you want to pay someone a lot of money for doing a bad job ?

This mood of defiance led me to defect from Supercuts to a small independent hair salon which boasted a $8 haircut in bold green letters outside its window. I figured that even if they messed up my hair, I would only be paying almost half the money which I usually pay for the same service. My gamble paid off. The $8 haircut (plus $3 tip) was one of the best haircuts I have had in the US in a long time.

But don't always believe everything you hear when someone is singing praises about a hair salon. In fact don't believe everything you see either. I recall a particularly unpleasant experience in Bombay at a barber shop. My friend MP and I went to a barber's shop at the same time and he had a haircut before me and he also got a head massage. Over a period of time, I have seen a lot of people getting head massages and they looked liked they enjoyed it. But I had never tried it because the 'massage' techniques that the barbers followed did not look so pleasant. One of the moves involved squeezing your head with their palms as if it was a giant lemon. They also had this move of cupping their palms and hitting the back of your head lightly so that it made a clapping sound. This was standard procedure across barber shops in India. Some of them even used fists and lightly drummed your head. Our barber had done all three moves and more on MP and MP actually looked refreshed. So when it was my turn, I asked for a head massage as well. After all I had to know what I was missing. But the next 5 minutes or so can be termed as the only time in my life when I have paid somebody to hit me. I remember gripping the arms of the chair under the cloak so tight because I was afraid I would lose my self-control and attack the barber for the physical abuse he was subjecting my head to. And the irony or comedy, however you look at it, was that I was paying him for it. Never again have I had a head massage. I have been scarred for life because even when the Supercuts people offer something as harmless as a shampoo, I refuse. No thank you, I just want a simple haircut, nothing more.

Every month or so, I face the dilemma of choosing which barber shop to go to, although 90% of the time, it does not seem to matter because the results are not what I expect. But I must count my blessings; at least I have still retained a full head of hair which causes this pesky dilemma. As I grow older, I do hope I will still have the option of discovering the worst barber shops of the world.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Stupidity and Invincibility

A few years ago, a friend declared that the most confident people in the world as a group are young children, because they don't know what failure is. Even if they have tasted failure, they may not be able to comprehend it as failure. Approaching a task without fear of failure is by definition, confidence and so younger children are the most confident amongst all human beings, he concluded. My friend was quite drunk when he said this and so was I and even though he promptly threw up after mouthing these words (thereby slightly jarring the wisdom of his observations), I think there may be some amount of truth in what he said.

My corollary to this theory, based purely on non-scientific methods, chief amongst them being wild guesses, is that alcohol dulls the failure-recording part of the brain giving you the feeling of invincibility and supreme confidence. Which is why people, when drunk, do stupid things doomed for failure. It is also the reason why a couple of years ago, when my old classmates NB, SB and I formed a plan of running in 3 different directions on Juhu beach (in Bombay) to confuse a police jeep headed in our direction, the plan seemed perfect. As the jeep came in our direction slowly, we had realised that the police could potentially detain us for
(a) drinking in a public place at 3 am
(b) Having bought alcohol illegally from a shady side-alley after the bar we were in had shutdown for the night and we were kicked out.
(c) loitering in a public place at unearthly hours

Anyway, the plan to not open our mouths thereby betraying any smell of alcohol and to start running in 3 different directions at the first sign of trouble seemed so flawless that we failed to notice that
(i) even though our mouths were shut tight to safeguard our little secret ,we were holding bottles of liquor in our hands.
(ii) we could barely stand up let alone run
(iii) any vehicle can catch up with a drunk running man especially on sand
(iv) the jeep was not a police jeep - it was just a bunch of people who had come to the beach for a late night drive.

However doomed for failure our plan was, at that moment it gave us a sense of invincibility only the completely plastered can feel. I am sure many of you understand what I am talking about because many of you have experienced that feeling before. Many of you have also experienced the very familiar feeling of incredible stupidity that follows after the effects of the alcohol have worn off.

We should all be thankful that most of us can depend on this feeling of stupidity to eventually wash over the temporary feeling of invincibility, otherwise we would believe all the time that wearing a towel over your neck like a cape gave you abilities to fly and fight crime. And if you were like some friends of mine, you would even believe that you could attract women by your animal magnetism - all you had to do to make them swoon was go stand near them and stare.

I also have a theory as to why there is a legal age set for drinking in every country (or atleast every country where drinking is legal). As children grow older, they slowly start to understand the concept of failure, but they still have not grasped it at the same level as adults. Which means their confidence levels are still high and their sense of stupidity is still low. So if they were to consume alcohol before attaining the legal age, the results of the imbalance generated between invincibility and stupidity would be catastrophic. So for the sake of the children, hide away the alcohol so that you don't disturb the balance of the universe and also so that there is more left for us adults to consume and eventually regale ourselves and others with tales of invincibility and stupidity.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tanzania Part 2

Continued from Tanzania Part 1:

4. In the movie 'The Last King of Scotland', there is a scene where the not-so-lovable Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (played by Forest Whitaker) has just seized power over Uganda by a military coup and he is just about to give a speech to some villagers in an attempt to reach out to them. All he does is raise his hands and say 'Habari' (meaning "What's up" for the Swahili-challenged folks including me)and the villagers go into raptures and give him the most rousing welcome ever known to any mass-murdering dictator. I tried the same thing in Tanzania (Swahili being spoken there too) - mouthing a confident 'Habari', but not for me the cries of joy. All I got was a smile and then a long answer which I barely understood. I usually had to slink away smiling stupidly as if my smile made up for my complete lack of Swahili skills. Some morals of the story that I wrenched out of this: (a) Forest Whitaker had the director to say 'cut' as soon as he said 'Habari' and I did not. (b) If all you know in a language is one word, don't try to act too confident and say it, because a hello can be equally conveyed with a smile and a wave of the hand. (c) If you want people to go crazy with joy when you say Hello, become a ruthless dictator. Forest Whitaker/Idi Amin might just have given a new meaning to the Jerry Maguire line, 'You had me at Hello'.

5. Definitely go to a national park. Seeing a lion in the wild may be one of the most thrilling things you can experience.

6. Always carry a photocopy of your passport and visa. Do not take out your passport, if you can get by with the photocopy. The people of Tanzania may be friendly but the police may be not. Worse yet some of them are not in uniform, so it is difficult to find out if you are dealing with a genuine policeman or a con-man. I was stopped by 2 policmen on different days and asked for my passport. Both had identity cards, one in Swahili and the other in English. The Swahili one could have been a con job, I am not sure. But the English one was definitely not. Corruption runs so rampant in the police, that even the Indian police would be put to shame.

7. Expect to see a lot of Indians. Most of them have lived in Tanzania for generations and are mostly business people. Since there were all these Indians around, it does make me wonder how both the times the police knew that I was not a local. Just in case you have any doubt, let me make it clear that I was not exactly dressed like Michael Jackson out on a concert.

8. You will see a lot of Maasai and they are hard to miss because they usually are in their traditional attire - a toga like sheet wrapped around their shoulder and many of them have a long wooden stick/staff in one hand. The Maasai are also much taller than the rest of the locals. The shortest Maasai man I saw was 6 feet tall. I now understand why in the 1994 B-grade Hollywood film 'The Air Up There' , Kevin Bacon had to go to a Maasai village to recruit a basketball player.
One of the professors from the university told us that many of the Maasai we saw in traditional attire could very well be college graduates or even people with masters degrees. They are fiercely proud of their tradition and no amount of modernisation or education would make them leave their traditions behind. Once I was checking my email in an internet cafe and in walked a Maasai warrior in a red flaming toga. He leaned his stick against the wall and sat down at the computer next to me. He checked his email, surfed the net and left. I still smile when I think about it.

9. As you would expect in a poor country, there are lots of street vendors and tourists are approached with a lot of 'zeal'. You just have to learn to deal with it. Growing up in India gave me a really good training for this. Also, if you travel by taxi, always settle on the fare first. Even after you settle on a fare, you are bound to get asked for more during the ride. As I was headed to the Dar-Es-Salaam airport, the cab driver was complaining constantly about how the fare we had agreed on was so little (although I knew it was more than the normal fare). Back home in Bombay there is a term in Hindi for this complaining - 'R.... R...' - a term that I cannot use on this family-friendly blog, but a term that will be recognized by many of my friends, most of all by SB, who uses this all the time whenever some one complains. Just when I could take no more of the taxi driver's yapping, I told him that if he was a man, he should learn to honour his word. That surprisingly shut him up. So maybe this is something you could try in a similar situation.

11. You may go through culture shock when you reach Tanzania or even reverse culture shock when you come back. For me, it was largely the latter one. The places in Tanzania that I visited could have been any rural place in India except that the people looked different, so I had absolutely no culture shock. But when I was flying back, I had a long stopover in Zurich. Just looking at the swanky Swarovski, Dolce and Gabbana shops at the airport made me want to throw up with disgust at the excesses they symbolised compared to the bare-necessity shops I had gotten used to. The reverse culture shock got better by the time I was back in the US and it also helped that I have not gone to any place which houses any kind of luxury stores ever since I came back.

12. If you are an American citizen, this may be the best time to go to Tanzania. Only time will tell whether Barack Obama can resuscitate the economy but he may be the best thing that has happened to American tourists in Africa.

There are many more things I can pen down here but it would be best if you just pack your bags, take a few weeks off and discover this beautiful country for yourself.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tanzania -part 1

Here is a trivia question that you will never hear anywhere else except this blog: What do Freddie Mercury (from the band Queen)and Jaideep Nair (from this blog) have in common? Before you answer that question, let me squash with brute force, any wild guesses that might be forming in your fertile imaginative mind by emphatically stating that 'sexual orientation' is definitely not the right answer. The correct answer to the question is - (i) Both are Indian (ii) Both grew up in Bombay and (iii) Both spent some time of their life in Tanzania. Well, I am stretching the Tanzania part a bit. Freddie Mercury (or Farrokh Bulsara) was born in Tanzania and he must have spent a few years there, whereas I just happened to spend 3 weeks in Tanzania recently. Now that you have realized that the true intent of my trivia question was just a shameless attempt to mention the fact that I had visited Tanzania recently, let us all move along and you can waste your time by reading my post.

I went to Tanzania for 3 weeks in the middle of December, returning back to the US at the end of the first week of January. Tanzania is a beautiful country with a lot of friendly people and I recommend it. With apologies to my friend TK for misusing an abbreviation usually meant for cakes and cookies, let me just say that Tanzania is a JCC (Jaideep Certified Country). If any of you ever plan to visit it, here are some words of wisdom gathered from my experiences in the country. Whether my pointers are useful or not is a separate matter, but I hope they are interesting enough for a good time-wasting read.

1. Only one foreign currency is the King. Although the state of the current economy may lead you to think otherwise, the US Dollar still rules. It is the only currency which, you can be sure, will be accepted anywhere in Tanzania. In fact to enter any national park, foreign citizens have to pay the fees only in USD. No other currency is accepted. Only Tanzanian citizens pay in Tanzanian shillings (Tsh). Everyone else pays in USD. The exchange rate is about 1000 Tsh to 1 USD for notes of denomination 20 USD and lower. Anything above that is about 1200 to 1300 Tsh. So carrying higher denomination notes will give you more bang for the buck. Travelers' cheques are not accepted even at Banks unless you have the proof of purchase (the receipt), which Bank of America in the US clearly tells you not to keep along with the Travelers' cheques. So if you are like me, you will take BoA's advice to a higher level and keep the receipts at home in the US and walk around in Tanzania with some completely useless travelers' cheques. By the way, if you are in a decent sized town, there will be ATMs to solve your problems since as long as your debit card is a visa card, you can withdraw money from your home bank account.

2. When you meet someone for the first time, try not to fall asleep during a conversation. Definitely don't lurch your head violently falling sideways, when somebody you met 15 minutes ago is talking, especially when you are going to rent a place in that person's property and run into them almost daily. But in my defense I must say that jetlag and 48 hours of continous travel can overcome the best of us and I had mastered the art of sleeping when someone is talking, way back in college during Geology and Construction Engineering lectures. But having put forth all the excuses that I can think of, I confess that I have not felt as embarassed as this in a long long time.

3. When you stay at any place, do check if there are any roosters close by. We (the wife and I) stayed in a picturesque town called Morogoro
which is at the foot of the Uluguru Mountains. We were put up in a nice little place built inside the property of a professor teaching at the University where my wife is doing research (see point 2 above).
The first night we fell asleep at 9 pm and at about 4 am, I woke up with a start when I heard a loud screaming sound right next to my ear. My wife is not a morning person, so I knew it was not her. I woke up and there it was again - It was a rooster and it was so close that it felt like the bloody bird was sharing our bed. He was screaming his lungs out in a long-drawn out 'kukdoo-koooooooooo'. I have heard roosters before and this was not a normal rooster's call. It had a sort of mischief in its call and the last part of the call - the long drawn-out 'koooooooo' felt like he was enjoying the fact that he was disturbing everyone's sleep. And of course, his other rooster friends in the neighbourhood joined him very soon. When the sun came out and I ventured out, I realised that right outside our window, hardly 10 feet away, there was a chicken coop and that is where the offending bird operated out of.

The rooster continued his sadistic calls every day at an ungodly hour and we soon realised that we had to go to bed at 8 pm so in order to get a decent night's sleep.
But one night I thought I would pay the rooster back in his own coin. My wife would not let me crow like a rooster at 10:30 pm outside the chicken coop and I am thankful for her judgement. Sleep-deprivation had diminished my faculties. So I got a flashlight and shone it inside the chicken coop on the rooster for some time. It did wake him up and he fluttered his wings sleepily and I felt a sense of satisfaction that one only gets from sweet revenge. I don't know whether it was a coincidence or whether it was my "light-treatment", but the next morning the rooster crowed at 6 am instead of 4 am. This may be a solution for anyone who is faced with a similar problem. Do try it out and let me know the results.

This is turning out to be a very long post so I will break it up into parts

To be continued.............

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


When was the last time you filled up a page writing down stuff instead of using a keyboard? Most probably in college? Writing using a pen or pencil has almost become obsolete these days. Which brings us to the topic of handwriting. As it is, not everyone has good legible handwriting. And fewer people writing fewer things means handwriting in general is only going to get worse in the future. Which is fine as long as your handwriting is not something that is critical to your job.

Please observe the 3 lines in the following picture from a package that was addressed to my wife:

If you observe the words 'Documents', 'Stagecoach Rd' or 'Dublin', you will come to the conclusion that the person who wrote this has a chronic disability to write the letter 'D' properly. His 'D' has low self-esteem and strongly wants to be a 'B'. But sadly, it is in reality a D trying to pass off as a B. We know this because there are no words called 'Bocuments' or 'Rb' in English. Niether is there a place called 'Bublin' in California. So almost all the attempts of D trying to mislead us into believing that it is a B fail miserably, except in one place - that is right after the word 'Apt'. If you were not to take a look at the other words carefully, you would be easily led to believe that the package was addressed to Apt. B and not Apt. D. Which is what happened to our poor DHL delivery guy. Instead of delivering the package to Apt. D where we live, he delivered it to Apt. B, which is a foreclosed unit and no one has been living there for many months. And thus began our African adventure, a little too early in America instead of Africa.

My wife had applied for funding to do research in a national park in Tanzania, studying some antelope species. The competition for funding is fierce and the process is very long drawn-out. It can take upto a year or more for your proposal to be reviewed, weighed against the competition and then finally funded. I am not even counting the time and energy for preparing the proposal. So anyway, her proposal got funded, but in order to do research in Tanzania, you need to get research permits from different government bodies over there. Just getting the permits takes about 6 to 8 months. We had finally got the necessary permits and those precious permits were shipped to us from Tanzania via DHL. But unfortunately, the person working in the DHL shipping outlet in Tanzania, who wrote down our address on the ship-to section of the package was the one whose 'D'- writing abilities I have tried to describe above.

So the permits made it all the way to Dublin without problems but they went to Apt. B instead of D. My wife was wondering why the document had not appeared yet when it should have been delivered a couple of days back. So she got the tracking number and checked it online on Thursday evening, where it said that it had been delivered to the front door of Apt. B on Monday. We rushed to Apt. B, but there was nothing there except a locked door and a photograph and phone number of the real-estate agent who was selling the place. We were planning to fly out on Monday. Without the permits, we could as well have stayed home. So began our tryst with DHL's customer service. My wife and I interacted with them a few times on Thursday night and Friday morning, and I have reached the conclusion that they must selectively choose their most disgruntled employees to be in their customer service.

Both of us spent a sleepless thursday night. If she had to re-apply for permits, it would set her back by another 6-8 months plus probably a loss of a few thousand dollars (permits are expensive). More than the money, it was the loss of time that bothered us. On Friday morning, I decided that I had had my fill of DHL customer service and I went to the DHL shipment processing unit in Dublin to see if our package had gone through them and sure enough it had. The lady there was very helpful and she paged the driver who had delivered it. She took my phone number and told me that she would have the driver contact me as soon as she heard from him. Sure enough the driver called me in an hour apologising profusely. He said he was not sure where he delivered it, but it was definitely not D. I was at work in Cupertino. So the poor guy went back to our apartment complex and knocked on each door asking if there was a package delivered to them. He stuck notes on the doors with his phone number etc. He told me that he would wait for me to come back and even if he was off-duty he would knock on all the doors and try to see if we could get the package back. He even gave me his personal cell-phone number. I appreciated his concern.

In the meanwhile my wife had left a message with the real-estate agent of Apt. B on early Friday morning, before she went to the University. In the afternoon, she got a call from him saying that one of his men had gone there a couple of days back to show the apartment to some prospective buyers and he had seen a package at the door. So without looking at what it was, he had just thrown the package inside the apartment. So the real-estate agent went to the property on Friday at around 12 noon and he called my wife saying that there was something from DHL addressed to her and he was going to leave it at our front-door. At that time, my wife was 110 miles way in UC Davis collecting some equipment for her trip. She gave me a call and I rushed home from Cupertino. Sure enough there was our package. I called up the DHL guy who was as relieved as us.

We felt so grateful to the real-estate agent that he had taken out time to come to the property for us. I decided right then that I would not let Cooper (our dog) pee in front of his photograph again. For some reason, that spot has always been one of Coopie's favourites. I felt guilty for the many times that I have chuckled before at the thought of what the guy must feel if he ever knew that our dog wants to pee as soon he sees his photograph.

So that was the beginning of our African adventure in the US and I must say that it was not a very pleasant beginning, although the ending was good. I sincerely hope people in jobs like the DHL shipping guy's job realise what implications their handwriting can have on other people's lives. If you know of any children who write their alphabets ambiguously, please stop them now and correct them or they may grow up and work in a courier facility some day and control your lives inadvertently.