Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Rann of Kutch

Lately, Amitabh Bachchan has been popping up everywhere, and in his inimitable voice and diction has been constantly telling us “Kutch nahi dekha to kuch nahi dekha”. He has mostly been eulogizing the white sands of the Greater Rann of Kutch which happen to be a fair distance away from Ahmedabad. Since we were nervous about traveling too far with an infant we decided to check out Mr. Bachchan’s claim at the Little Rann of Kutch instead, which is a more convenient hop away from the state capital.

Amitabh hasn’t been kidding; this is a truly magical place. Photos and words will hardly do justice to the endlessness and the flatness of the marshes. Despite the monotony of the landscape the biodiversity is mindboggling. Of course, this region is known for the wild asses - the last breeding population in the wild - but what I hadn’t expected was the richness of the bird populations, both in variety and numbers. The Rann is dotted with little lakes and ponds, all teeming with humongous numbers of avians. Here are a few shots that give you an idea:
This one was a huge flock of Pelicans that seemed like a rain cloud had passed over our head.
Another massive flock, this time of Flamingos
A flock of bar-headed geese

It’s great that Gujarat is promoting this region, but tourism development cuts both ways. It may give the local populations an incentive to preserve what they have here, but increased human activity might take away from the very desolateness that gives this place its character. It will be interesting to see how this one goes.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Female Labor Participation in India

Came across great sets of data maintained by the World Bank, and there are revelations strewn about. Found this one to be interesting:

The Female Labor Participation rate (defined as "the proportion of the population ages 15 and older that is economically active") seems to be dropping for India in the last few years. Look how poorly we do when compared to Bangladesh! This ILO article (ILO happens to be the source of this data) cites increased competition from men, bad monsoons,discrimination, and the global economic crisis as reasons for the drop in India, but doesn't explain why this curve in Pakistan has a healthier trend (despite school girls getting shot in the face!). The article also claims that women in wealthier households tend to have lower participation, which also seems counter-intuitive. Whatever the reason, seems like a serious glitch in the Bharat Nirman narrative.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ladakh - 2013

Highlights from the Ladakh trip

Stok Kangri: The highlight, of course, was Stok Kangri, which I was hoping to summit. Rains, uncharacteristic for this time of the year, weren't making my plans easy. For three days I stayed at the base camp hoping each day that the rain would let up. It did, but in favor of snow! On the third day it looked hopeless but I didn't want to go back without one attempt at the peak. I tagged along with a group from Kolkata who also had run out of spare days. We started at midnight, walking in the light of our head torches, trusting our guide to know where he's going. By the time we reached an altitude of 5650m the snow was falling hard and covering our tracks in minutes. The slope was increasing too, and our guide reminded more than once that the descent would be much harder. Eventually, at around 4:30 we decided to head back. It was disappointing, but when dawn broke the whole landscape had been transformed by the snow. The view at the advanced base camp (at around 5450m amsl) was worth all the trouble.

Hospitality: One family made this trip special for me. Zia, my guide, who hosted me at his beautiful family house in Choglamsar village, and let me stay in a room with a beautiful view of the Stok Kangri. Later, he put me up at a homestay owned by his cousin. At the end of my stay my host there, the hostess, gave me presents for me and my wife (whom she hasn't met) and profusely apologized for not picking something up for my son.

Independence Day at 5km abmsl: August 15th was a cold and wet day at the base camp, apart from portending the disappearance of any prospects of making it to the summit. The only memorable moment from that day was when a bunch of trekkers put up the Indian flag on a tent pole, convinced all the other Indians in the camp to join them in singing the national anthem, and then crawled back into their sleeping bags to wait out the rest of the day.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The scariest thing about Modi 2014 is not Modi himself

I'm deliberately going to avoid 2002 because that horse has been pulped. If you keep that aside, I believe Modi, on achievements alone, is probably the best option available for May 2014. Let me first clarify that I am convinced that Modi's accomplishments are part fiction but mostly brilliant marketing. Read this post for why Gujarat's report card is underwhelming. 8th on GSDP growth, 15th on literacy rate, 18th in infant mortality, 20th in sex ratio; hardly miracle territory, considering a single party has been in power for nearly 2 decades. Yet, I anticipate that he will affect transparency positively and I think he is genuine in his efforts to curb corruption, and both those issues are important to me. What also makes him the best candidate is less about him and more about the woeful lack of alternatives. The leading contender is an intellectual lightweight with an empty trophy cupboard, and is from a party that gave us the most inert PM in our history. The other thing that might actually make Modi effective is the enormous amount of scrutiny every step of his attracts.

Yet I'm uncomfortable about Modi 2014 and the reason for that is not just 2002. Every party has been guilty of playing its part in riots (btw, Mukul Kesavan has a brilliant piece on why 2002 is not the same as 1984). The lack of a second line leadership under Modi is scary too. Where, for instance, are the Makens, the Rameshs and the Tharoors in the BJP? The environmental damage that the Development brigade will cause is also not the scary bit. The scariest part about Modi is really the Modi supporter. It's like all commenters on Rediff message-boards have an expedited breeding program and have successfully created a cult of supporters where logical fallacies in argument are celebrated and any healthy irreverence is frowned upon. Having a sense of humor is completely forbidden. The reaction of that group when TOI published an account of Modi rescuing 15000 Gujaratis was instructive. Anybody who showed skepticism was branded a congress sycophant. It's a pattern; look in the "comments" section of any article questioning Modi. There's one guy who will bring up 1984, another will talk about the 2G scam, and one more will recommend bangles to the writer for allowing an Italian woman to control us. The remaining ones,who are not frothing at their mouth, will just say "The country need you Modi sir. Jai Hind". Even the more educated folks (think Pritish Nandy) feel they don't need to exercise empirical skepticism about any of the fairy tales if they are made in Gujarat. If Modi wants to be a fascist dictator, he has all the ingredient he needs.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Bangalore 10K - Edition 6

The trend that I noted last year - speed inflation- continues. I finished at 53:16, 2 seconds faster than last year, and yet at 634, I still ended up around 200 ranks down. I have to run a full 78 seconds faster to stay in the top 500. Sigh!

Monday, May 13, 2013

I'll never be a pundit!

I hate to admit it but my political judgment is depressingly flawed. Out of the four times I've voted in the Karnataka assembly elections I've either voted for the losing party but ended up approving the winner or picked the winning party but regretted it sorely. Let me explain. In 1999, I thought it would be a good idea if the center and the state had the same parties in power, and so I picked BJP for the state, but congress won that year. S M Krishna turned out to be, in my opinion, the best chief minister we've had in the recent past. I voted Congress in 2004, fairly confident that Krishna would come back to a second term with a full majority but instead we were stuck with a listless Dharam Singh for the next two years. In 2006, I voted Congress again, but this time Kumaraswamy was elected CM. I was sure things would go awfully wrong, but he turned out to be a surprisingly efficient leader.

In the next election I was wrong on two fronts. Firstly, I was swayed by the popular sympathy-towards-the-victim sentiment that brought BJP so many seats. More embarrassingly, I forecast Yeddyurappa to be the statesman-like leader that we longed for. Over 5 long years he made us all regret our judgment every single day.

This time I voted for Congress again and they won. I'm actually hopeful about Mr. Siddaramaiah. I'm not sure how he'll deal with the mining lobbies, and I'm certain he won't have the leeway to reverse any of the badly thought-out populist policies, but there's one thing I'm hoping he will do. Yeddy had the audacity to allocate tax-payer funds to religious institutions of his choice and he had let right wingnuts feel protected when they went about imposing their warped moral codes. Siddaramaiah, on the other hand, is vocally atheist - the second one we've had in our state. I hope he will bring back some sanity to the religious discourse around here. On every other front, given how wrong I've been in the past, I'm already prepared to be disillusioned.

Friday, May 03, 2013


My college housed classes in a dilapidated building, exposed us to practical education in impoverished labs, and inflicted on us teachers who would rather be doing something else. I always knew that my schooling was sub-standard, but having ended my education early, I had no real benchmark to compare it with. Until Coursera came along!

What’s not to like about Coursera. As a phenomenon, I find it uplifting to know that there are scholars willing to expend considerable energy in making courses for no easily quantifiable benefits. There’s a certain kick in doing courses with 60000 other people, a majority of them studying them not because they are investing in themselves, but because they were mildly curious about the topic. You don’t have entrance tests or heartbreaking rejections. There’s no opportunity cost to pay or penalty for deciding you don’t want to continue. Best of all, it has given me a reason not to hate my commute anymore. 

Students in my college, now, must be better off knowing they can use resources other than the ones we relied on, low-cost photocopies of notes from a marginally better-run university in our neighbourhood.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Civilization isn't nigh

The water fountains in our office dispense at a stingy trickle and in the time needed to fill an entire bottle you usually find another person waiting to get a drink; some wait to fill a cup, others to top their bottle up. In my mind the social contract dictates that cups trump bottles so I usually yield access to the tap even if I’m in the middle of filling my bottle. Most often people nod, smile, say thanks, or on the rare occasion insist on waiting. However, many others, in numbers larger than I would have guessed, don’t even acknowledge the gesture and reach for the tap with a sense of entitlement. I had promised myself to wait till I encounter at least 5 people who lack the courtesy to thank before I made this post. I hit my target in the first week.

Denizens of a crowded country are probably habituated to seizing an opportunity and moving on. You see disregard for fellow humans in traffic or at any ticket counter. Maybe I am unfairly wearing the firang goggles that people of my generation pick up on their travels abroad, but I feel disheartened. If you don’t mind being a jerk at office where you’ll meet your colleagues repeatedly, why would you be civil to strangers?

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Backyard Bat

I've tried a few tricks to attract birds into the little backyard garden we have at our home. I put up this bird nest on one of the trees but all that managed was just one inspection by an unimpressed squirrel.

I also put up this bird feeder to a neighboring tree but that went unused as well.

My next strategy had long-term focus. I planted a Muntingia tree, commonly called the Singapore Cherry in these parts. Although this is not an endemic species (and makes me feel guilty) it's a favorite of the sunbirds and the flowerpeckers that already visit us. The sapling has taken a liking to its home and is thriving. Yet I haven't been able to coax any of these birds to make this garden a permanent home.

A couple of weeks ago we had a surprise resident; this lone bat that has been regularly roosting on a branch of the gooseberry tree.

I'm not sure what species he is or why he seems to be alone (I always thought bats live only in colonies), but he's been coming back regularly. He had a difficult settling-in period because our gardener believes he will bring us bad luck and was bent on chasing him out. After explaining that the bat might be helping him by eating the bugs here he reluctantly dropped his animosity. Although he wasn't the kind of wings I was hoping to attract this guy has made the garden a little more interesting.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

You know you are in Japan...

...when a toilet seat puts a gaming console to shame.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Third evening in Beijing

Nobody told me that Google maps is unreliable in China. On this blustery cold evening in Beijing I decided to ditch the cab and walk back home, guided by Google maps. Three times after the map had insisted that the fountain in front of a mall was my hotel I decided to give up and ask for help. I steeled up for all the translation issues that I was sure would ensue. The very first person I stopped on the street surprised me when he spoke fairly good English. He had no idea where Marriott was, though. This is when he surprised me again. Instead of just walking away he fished out his cellphone from his coat pocket, looked up the number for that hotel and was in conversation with the front desk person, asking for directions. "Come with me, he said" already walking purposefully while still orienting himself to the landmarks that he must have just learned about. While I followed him I apologized if this was taking him away from his destination. He decided that that didn't merit a response and instead asked me where I was from. When I told him he mentioned that there are not too many Indians who come to Beijing during winter. I explained why I was there and he heard me out passively.

Meanwhile we probably approached the last landmark that he was familiar with so he picked up the phone and was on the call with the hotel personnel again. He again gestured me to follow him and went on his way, seemingly more eager to get there than I was. I trundled along still looking for the best way to express my gratitude. He finally stopped when we spotted the Marriott logo and he nodded as if to say "my job here is done". I told him how much I appreciated his help and then added "Xièxiè". By now, I had said that greeting enough times to know that my pronunciation was horrible. He still didn't break into a smile. He nodded again turned around and left. I said thanks one more time, in English this time to make up for the botched mandarin one but he was busy running away.

There should be a name for this moment during a travel to a new city when, after receiving kindness from a random stranger, you abruptly stop judging said place.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Class Apartheid

If you keep your eyes open you'll see instances of class apartheid in India at every other step. Take my neighbor for example, who never bothered to learn the name of her gardener of 15 yrs because it is so much easier to just call him "Mali". Brochures of real estate companies sell you the dream house where the service lift is so well concealed that the cleaning staff will be virtually invisible. The houses are "3.5 bhk", the half-bedroom referring, of course, to the servant quarters. 

The other day our team drove to a resort called Bluemoon retreat (Sue me guys, I'm about to defame you) just outside Bangalore. After the usual shebang- paintball, cricket, volleyball etc- we settled down for lunch and called our driver, Shiva, to join us. Five minutes later we got a call back from Shiva telling us that he was denied entry into the lunch area. We confronted the manager about this, and he seemed surprised that we were even bringing it up. He even had the Colonel Jessup scowl that said "I don't have the inclination to explain myself to a group that enjoys its manufactured experiences in the sanity that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it". His actual words, though, were, "Drivers are not allowed here, sir. It doesn't look nice".  We eventually sorted it out but not before the conversation had reached newer levels of absurdity. 

If there is a nice thing about class apartheid it is that you can never take your status for granted (except if you are, say, Siddharth Mallya). There's always a level above you and the tables can turn in very little time. 24hrs in my case! The very next day, it was my turn to be denied lunch. I attended a christening at The Bangalore Club dressed in a Kurta and, horror of horrors, sandals. They ignored me initially because they thought I was the cameraman. When they realized I was a guest, they came over to warn me. But when they came close they caught sight of the chappals. That was the deal breaker. In fact, they hate chappals so much there that they won't even deign to say its name, referring to it instead by a euphemism, "open footwear". They promptly threw me out. Luckily there were two other schoolmates of mine that were in similar outfits. We left without protest, and plotted our revenge over fish-curry-rice at Koshy's. Watch this space for an announcement about a club that will have a zero-tolerance approach towards any formal attire

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Reading in 2012

Here's my reading list from 2012. While I probably didn't match the volumes of previous years, I feel a greater percentage of the books I read this year made it to my tier recommendations.

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman: Do you know those books that affect you in a way that you can never look at the world the same way again? This book was in that category.
  • Foundation - Isaac Asimov: Now I know what the fuss about Asimov is all about.
  • Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut: I've not had a list in the last three years that didn't feature Vonnegut.
  • The Meadow - Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark: I already blogged about this one.
  • The Longest Day - Cornelius Ryan: I'm not sure if it's the quality of the work or the momentousness of its subject - Normandy Landings - that elevates this book. We were driving through the Normandy coast visiting the beaches, coincidentally during the anniversary of the landings, while I was reading this book and that probably left a strong impression.
  • The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach: I went from being an obsessive sports fan in my teens to one who came to view it as a big waste. This novel about a prodigal baseball player reminded me once again why sports viewing, in its chasing of the fleeting moments of magic and beauty, is so compelling. I almost forgave myself for all the wasted hours in front of the TV.
  • Born to Run- Christopher McDougall: This one's a witty read even if you are not addicted to running.    Reading about ultra runners made my pursuits of middle distances and half marathons look trivial. Meanwhile it also articulated why it's ok to surrender to the highs of long distance running. I shaved 4 minutes off my 10km timing just days after finishing the book. 
  • The Shining - Stephen King.

The second tier of recommendations

  • Nudge - Richard Thaler
  • Poor Economics - Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo
  • American Pastoral - Philip Roth
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid
  • Magic of Reality - Richard Dawkins
  • My Man Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

There was only one book this year that I started but didn't finish: 'Change by Design' by Tim Brown. Another blog post on why I gave up on it.