Friday, December 30, 2016

Physical activity in 2016 or the benefits of living close to the workplace

I've always acknowledged the theoretical benefits of staying close to one's place of work, and even enjoyed it a little bit during my year in Thanjavur. This was the first time in Bangalore, though, that I've lived at a distance where commute was a negligible portion of my time in a day. This was also the year when it hit me what a difference it makes to the time and energy you have left at the end of a workday, especially in a city as perpetually gridlocked as mine. The short commute is by far the biggest reason  I finally managed to hit my long-pending goal of running a 1000 kms in a calendar year.

It also helped that Koramangala (as opposed to, say, anywhere near the ring road) was the place of both my work and home. I could afford to bike to work on most days without fearing for my life. So, despite not doing as many long rides as in other years I still managed to hit the goal of a 1000 kms this calendar year. The light yellow is all bike commute.   

When the weather is pleasant, which thankfully is still in a lot of days in a year in this city, the tree-lined trees of Koramangala are perfect for a nice walk. The goal of 300kms was met quite easily.
 And I even managed to squeeze in a bit of swimming.
Next year's goal is to replicate this year's for running, walking and cycling, and add 20 km of swimming to it. 

Best run of 2016: It's a toss up between the 47:30 in this year's TCS 10k and a gorgeous waterfront run at Akaroa in New Zealand.
Best bike ride: The 90 km cycling by the pipeline road that runs along Kanakapura road (why hadn't I discovered that before!!)
Best walk: The bird walk in Te Anau in New Zealand. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Gannets of Muriwai

In my family, it’s now an established custom of sorts that most of our travel includes a good share of birding, and my wife has been a good sport about it. The first place we visited in New Zealand was a nesting colony of Australasian Gannets some 40 kms away from Auckland in a beach-side town called Muriwai.

We got our first glimpse of the gannets almost as soon as we stopped the car at the designated area. I’m not proud to admit it but I qualify as someone who is known in birding circles as a “twitcher”, and my first instinct when I see a bird is to get a record shot for my life list. It was a blustery day - we were in the roaring forties after all - and it wasn’t easy to get a respectable photo of the airborne birds as the vortices made them fly unpredictable paths. We walked further up the road, turned a corner, and realised I needn’t have fussed about getting those difficult shots at all. The cliff that was now visible was full of breeding gannets who seemed to scarcely mind the presence of humans.

Birds in New Zealand evolved without the presence of land predators. It’s amusing to see them venture close to humans oblivious to the dangers we could pose them. I’m not sure if that’s the only reason for the Gannets being comfortable with us getting close to them. Taxonomists who classified the Gannets seemed to know about their absurd lack of fear, and put them down in a genus called Morus, which derives its name from the greek word “Moros” meaning “foolish.

We spent a good hour getting a close look at the birds going about their business - preening, mating, flying, frolicking, as I took the occasional photograph, not for the last time in NZ, with my 50mm lens.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Farm Diary - Finding Water. Chapter 1- Science Edition

It’s been said of the area around Ramanagara that the gods played marbles here leading to the dramatic rock formations that you see in this region. Our farm sits nestled among such giant granite rocks. Wherever uncultivated the vegetation is mostly dry-deciduous and these rocks don’t see too much rain. According to the Köppen classification this area falls under the Tropical-Savannah climate which is characterized by pronounced dry seasons. The fully grown mango trees that mostly dot our farm cope with extended dry spells pretty well. In fact, there is a prevailing - but unvalidated - belief that says mangoes turn out sweeter when the pre-summer months are dry. However, the newer saplings that we’ve planted in the last couple of years take a real beating in the dry months. We’ve managed with short term solutions so far, such as bringing in water through tankers but we knew at some point that we had to find a more robust solution. This year we decided to dig a borewell.

For the kind of proliferation of borewells that we’ve seen in these parts there’s surprisingly little organised information available about the process of checking a land for the feasibility of groundwater. With a little asking around we narrowed down on Mr. SCK, an elderly gentleman, now retired, who had served as a geologist in various state departments. We fixed an appointment with him one sunny Sunday morning. When we went to pick him up early in the morning Mr. SCK was at the appointed place and hour and had that countenance that told me that he would have been cross if we were even a minute late. He was neatly dressed, tucked in t-shirt and, like any self-respecting south indian male of that age would, had his trousers begin at the belly. He had some large maps in hand. Despite the voluntary nature of this consultation, he was not going to be cavalier about this task. Something told me this was going to be an interesting day.

An hour into the journey, we left the madness of the Mysore highway behind as we took the turn into the country roads that lead to the farm. As man-made constructions thinned out and the rocky features peculiar to this district exposed themselves Mr SCK came into his own. Very soon we realized that this gentleman’s tenure at the various state departments had been no sinecure. He talked about the rocks like they were family. He regaled us with stories of the seismic events that had shaped this land. I learned a great deal about the rocks in our area and it turns out that the gods had not played marbles after all. A granite formation, nearly 400 kms long but only 30km across, known as the Closepet Granites, broke through the deccan plateau nearly 200 million years ago creating the dramatic rocks that you see along the NH4, all the way up to Hospet. As we drove along, he explained how the various alignment of the features in these parts made the river Arkavathy take the course that she does. When we reached the farm he continued the geo-forensics, using the hints on the ground to glean what lay below the soil. Every single thing he noticed - the density of the foliage, the dried up ridges that become streams only during the monsoons, the height of the trees, the nature of the rocks sticking out - served as hints to understand the unseen features below us.

Source: Wikimedia
In the end, he came to the conclusion that our farm is a really a thin layer of top soil sitting on very large rock whose thickness could be hard to determine. He said, rather bluntly, that there would be very little chance of finding water in this place. While pointing out two or three places that may hold some promise, he also cautioned us to get this scientifically tested before we start digging.

Not finding water in this land would severely limit our plans for this farm in the future. At some point we had been planning to live on a little house here, and without a predictable source of water that plan would have to be abandoned. On our drive back there was a pall of gloom in the car as we reconciled with the dashed hopes. Meanwhile, Mr. SCK didn’t help the mood much with his subsequent choice of topics. He was describing all the corruption he had seen during his tenure at the geological society. He attributed our lack of planning, and in cases connivance, to the decline of our storied land. The Arkavathy, for instance, shows up as a blue line on the map not far from our property, but in reality it is a near-dry valley carrying some sewage from the last town it passed through. Stories after stories had the same theme, of how humanity’s short-sightedness was transforming the land faster than is good for us. Yet, it was a strange experience that despite the cynicism in our conversation I was simultaneously fascinated by the intimacy of knowledge and concern that Mr. SCK exuded. We dropped him off at his house, and he signed off with a disclaimer that no person, and not even the most advanced techniques, can guarantee the outcome when it comes to digging a borewell. We can only improve probabilities. Those words didn’t quell my pessimism, but our short time with him had still counted as one of my most memorable experiences. I came off feeling like I understood my own land a little better.

Friday, August 05, 2016


The late 80s, as I recall, was a fairly productive period for Kannada cinema. Every so often there would appear an unmistakable classic - Minchina Ota, Accident, Tabarana Kathe to name a few. Yet, you could already see that, at the time, the film industry was increasingly getting peopled by untalented star kids, and was driven by a sycophantic fandom which had abysmally low standards and zero expectations. The downward spiral into mediocrity was almost too inevitable. There were the odd ones in the industry, like G Kasaravalli, who toiled on and won awards in obscure film festivals, but their work had a perception of inaccessibility that never made them garner mass appeal. The rest of the industry, meanwhile, doled out drivel week after blighted week, in a trend that continues to this day.

Amidst that bleakness comes a movie like Thithi that breaks all the cliches and formulae, both of the commercial and arthouse cinema of this region. It’s about poor people but does not use poverty to invoke pathos. It’s set in a village but does not use the rural setting to imply some imagined purity or innocence. It uses the delightful Mandya and Hubli accents but not just for comic relief. It is realistic (doesn't even employ real actors, for gods' sake) but does not make realism an end in itself. It packs loads of humour but does not need an over-the-top ham actor to invoke cheap laughs. And in Gaddappa it has one truly memorable character. On the surface he is a simple old man addicted to his disposable bottles of cheap liquor. Yet he carries a mysticism of someone who has accessed higher truths. That the director manages that sophistication of character-building with a non-actor is what makes this movie a true master class.

The movie is an experience, but it’s not flawless. The visual finesse (the one thing that Indian cinema seems to be getting right lately) is missing. The subtitles are horrendous. The casting of ordinary people as actors makes some of the performances stilted, but yet the movie gets most other things right. The social commentary is spot on. For instance, it accurately captures how my people are least concerned about the living, but every person and his uncle makes it his business to have a say in how the rites of a dead man have to be conducted. My favourite part, though, were the last few frames. The final scene melts the fourth wall in the most delightful way. Are we watching the movie or are the characters in that movie watching us back?

As the lights came back on in the movie hall, I admit I felt a wee bit of parochial pride as I reminded myself that this was a kannada movie in its fourth week still being watched by a sellout crowd in an upmarket multiplex. The movie was even reviewed by The Economist. I don’t believe that’s ever happened before to a movie from this state! Every slightly watchable movie sparks off talks of a renaissance among us, but it has usually turned out to be a false dawn. This time, though, I'm daring to hope.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

TCS 10K: Edition 9

Couldn't hit the targeted 46, but still recorded a personal best 47:29.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Farm Diary: 1. First Big Summer of Mangoes

Under a blazing afternoon sun, three of us are picking mangoes off the ground, discarding the ones that seem damaged or unfresh, and making a heap out of the others, to be collected later. Every now and then, we skin one of the mangoes we have picked, and take a bite of the pulp. We discard the ones that don’t meet the very highest standard we have set for our collection today. We devour the ones that make the cut. One of the pickers is my dad, who in an unusual eschewal of grace and dignity, has mango juice dripping down his forearms, and has pieces of the fruit sticking to his chin. The other companion is my cousin, who is relishing both the fruit and the abandon with which we are attacking them. At that moment, I can’t help feel that this is the way food has to be eaten.

That yearning of the primitive is one of the factors that made me buy this farm, located off a village called Kavanapura, in the district of Ramanagara. I come from a family of farmers. In fact, my father is one of the few non-farmers in a lineage that goes back several generations on both the maternal and paternal branches of the family tree. Even people who pursued white-collar careers - and that includes both my grandfathers, and several of my uncles- returned to the farmland for their retirements. Having idolised them through childhood, that path now seems like the natural progression of life. The romanticism aside, I do have a dystopian view of the future both for my city, and for the globe. At some point I would like to lead a carbon-neutral existence and I do want to have a place to move to before the whole of Bangalore starts to look like the Outer ring road (which is not far away). Along with those other reasons, my friends, rather uncharitably, also accuse me of picking this sport because I don’t know how else to spend my money.

For the nearly three years that I’ve owned the land, I’ve only involved myself passively. This year I started to participate a little more closely. The picture that you see above is an effort to maintain a log of every tree in the farm and to track their growth and progress. (Hypocrisy alert: for all the “yearning of the primitive” I’m a sucker for data capture, gadgets and tech.) I now know that we have five distinct cultivars growing in this land. Raspuri, my favorite variety, is well represented. Badami, the most profitable of them, grows on a couple of dozen trees too. The third variety is Sindura which is the staple of the Ganesh juice centers that you see around every corner in Bangalore. The fourth variety, used mostly for pickles, is oddly named Omelette. This season I discovered a fifth variety that our lessee calls “Shiri”. I did a little research and can only conclude that this is actually the Dasheri, which is popular in the north of the country. Dasheri is a real juicy treat inside the unappetising cover, which is green and thick even on ripe mangoes. We happen to have just one tree of this kind, and that’s where we spent most of our time this afternoon. Over the last few weeks we’ve repeated the savagery of our picking routines. And for the first time in three years I feel intimately connected with every tree in the property. Since this season was a good one for mangos, the next year is likely to be slim pickings. But we do have plans for this monsoon and I’m hoping to document my experiences religiously. Watch this space.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Vultures of Corbett

Vultures belonging to three separate species - Himalayan, Red-headed & Egyptian - converge on a spotted deer carcass, presumably killed by a tiger the previous night, in Corbett National Park. There used to be a time when this congregation wouldn't have been an unusual sight but in the recent couple of decades a combination of habitat loss and indiscriminate use of diclofenac has driven vultures close to extinction. The Himalayan Vulture is classified as "Near Threatened", the Red-headed Vulture as "Critically Endangered" and the Egyptian as "Endangered". My son may never see scenes as sublime as this. What a shame that would be.

Who says Caste is dead?

As an atheist, hanging around mostly in upper middle class crowds in urban India, it's easy for me to believe that the idea of "caste" is irrelevant and on its way out. But a quick scan on the roads of Bangalore tells me there is still a large section of society for which this identity is important enough to announce it through stickers on their vehicles. Sadly, the caste system is far from its death. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Nicholas Stargardt's The German War

There's a scene in Roman Polanski's The Pianist in which the protagonist, Władysław Szpilman, gets discovered by a Nazi captain, Wilm Hosenfeld, in the ruins of a house in Warsaw in which the former is hiding. After a tense pause in which the viewer is left guessing about the outcome of that encounter the German officer decides to hide the pianist and later even starts to regularly bring him food. Hosenfeld's actions have a certain quality that you don't normally associate with heroism, sneakiness. I remember wondering about what drove him to take such enormous risks keeping the pianist alive through the war. Did he save other jews too? For someone with a conscience how conflicting was it to dispense his duties to such a monstrous regime? I've wondered what it would be like to get into the heads of everyday Germans as they waddled through a war that they had thrust upon the world.

Nicholas Stargardt's "The German War" tries to do that. Quoting letters and diaries written by ordinary Germans through the war, the book offers a glimpse of how everyday citizens interpreted the goings-on. It's easy to think of the second world war as an episode involving wily generals, scheming mad-men, marauding war machines, and ruthless strategies, but underneath it all were a billion little human dramas being played out. The letters chosen in the book provide fascinating answers to questions I have often chewed on. What did the ordinary Germans think about their role in the war? Or about the holocaust? What did the soldiers think about invading Poland? Or later, Russia? What did liberal Germans think about the racial discourse of the time? What was the church's role in all of it? Where were the conscientious objectors?

There are people of all shades who turn up in the book. There are a few who live in denial, continuing to believe till the end that Germany was the true victim, first of Versailles, then of "World Jewry and Bolshevism" and later of the Allies' attacks. There are those that are downright evil (Goebbel's diary is quoted liberally). There are other willing folks of varying degrees of complicity who approve of the conduct of their country. There are the mere pawns of a vile system who get driven into being hapless accomplices, or as Wiesenthal called them, "desk murderers". There are the supremely lucky ones, such as one Jewish man who manages to take on an Aryan identity through the entire duration of the war. And then there are the understated heroes like Hosenfeld. None of these stories make it easier to understand the war, though. Hosenfeld, the rare hero in a messed up time, for example, lands up in a Soviet PoW camp and dies a dishonorable death, probably during the course of torture by the "good" guys of the war. Reading this book was a strange experience. It made history seem richer. It didn't make the war seem any less absurd. It convinces me that civilization is such a thin veneer, waiting for the next perfect storm or the next great manipulator to peel it off.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Reading in 2015

Top picks for 2015 would be 
  • This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein: COP-21 happened a few weeks after I finished reading this book, and it was truly depressing how far we are from really dealing with climate change with the urgency that it deserves. "History knocked on your door, did you answer?" asks one of the author's friends who appears in the book. The answer for our generation, and I'm as guilty as the next person, is a sad 'No'. 
  • Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition - Nisid Hajari: When it comes to the Indo-pak partition, you can't really trust our history textbooks because the narratives are too busy trying to flatter our side of the story. I suspect that that's the case in Pakistan too. This books is refreshing in that its written by someone who is far enough removed to list down events without taking sides, but close enough that he feels for the subject.
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan: My obligatory WW-II indulgence. An earlier post about the book.  
  • In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto - Michael Pollan: As someone who tries to optimize his eating patterns for both a smaller carbon footprint and better long-term health, the pop-sci literature can be confusing as hell. This book was of help. I loved the 7-word thumb-rule that Pollan offers "Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much". 
  • Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy - Mihir Sharma: I almost gave up the book on account of its overly sardonic tone, but I'm glad I didn't. This book makes some good recommendations for an under-performing economy. Also reminds you of the opportunity that Manmohan Singh and PVN missed in 1991. 
Honorable mentions
These two were letdowns
Volume-wise, I managed just about a book a month in 2015 and that was largely due to the books that I abandoned mid-way for various reasons.