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.