Lake Placid Encounter

Today's story is about an interesting encounter in Lake Placid during the opening of the winter skiing season on the day after Thanksgiving. For the uninitiated, there is more to Lake Placid than the 1999 horror film that shares its name. It is, in fact, a quaint town in upstate New York cradled among the Adirondack Mountains, that hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1932 and 1980.

It was at this Olympic Village that I came across David Heim, a member of the organising committee for the 1980 Games, and the de facto curator of the Winter Olympic Museum. He had fascinating tales to tell about the most important public event experienced by the 2,000 odd inhabitants of this sleepy little hamlet at the height of the Cold War. While most Americans associate the 1980 Winter Olympics with the "Miracle on Ice" (the US team winning the gold medal in ice hockey), there are many other moments of human-interest that reflect the true Olympic spirit and make the Games more memorable.

First and foremost was that Lake Placid was caught unprepared by the influx of sportsmen, journalists and fans, and makeshift arrangements were made by the town to host the participants. That was how the brother-sister pair of Andreas and Hanni Wenzel from the tiny European country of Liechtenstein ended up staying in Heim's house. Between the two of them, the Wenzels won 4 medals for their country, at an average of one per 6,250 people! It had been estimated by the Olympic Committee that if the United States had won the same number of medals per-capita, it would have won 36,000 medals (instead of the paltry twelve)!

Another heart-warming incident happened after the Men's Giant Slamon skiing event in which the famous Ingemar Stenmark from Sweden edged past Andreas Wenzel by less than a second to win his second straight gold medal. Despite the traditional animosity between the two countries, Stenmark insisted that the gold medal be shared with Wenzel, and two days later, they welded halves of their gold and silver medals together. Heim claimed that this news was largely ignored by the media (barring a small mention in Sports Illustrated), and try as I might, I could not find any official mention of it.

Heim himself has lived a colourful life. A one-time U.S. spy in the erstwhile German Democratic Republic (East Germany), he has hobnobbed with all kinds of people. In one celebrated incident, he borrowed a jacket from an acquaintance at a bar without realising that he was Prince Albert of Monaco (the jacket now finds a place of pride in the museum!). But his most life-defining event happened about seven years ago when the private plane that he was travelling in crashed during landing at Lake Placid, and he entered into a 39-day coma. When doctors were all but ready to give up on him, his wife brought in their twins to the hospital (who were conceived after years of expensive fertility treatment), and placed them skin-to-skin on each side of his body. This to me is the real miracle on ice-- Heim woke up the next day!

I mentioned in passing that David should put down all his life experiences in a book, and lo and behold, he is actually working on a memoir titled "The Glass is Half Full", which is expected to be promoted by Oprah's Book Club. Besides being a teller of entertaining sports vignettes, the optimism and enjoyment that David Heim exudes as a result of being offered a second chance at life, is infectious and bound to be an inspiration for all.

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, Founder of the Modern Olympics

Ballad of Yoko and John

Who is the real Yoko Ono? Over the years, Yoko has been demonised as an opportunistic businesswoman who broke up The Beatles and prevented their rapprochement, and dominated John Lennon and hijacked his legacy. On the other hand, she has played an instrumental role in the completion of the Lennon Anthology and Beatles Anthology projects, and has been spreading John's message of love and peace around the world.

Yoko was already an established avant-garde artist when John met her at London's Indica Gallery in 1966. In about a couple of years, the pair had become virtually inseparable and started receiving flak not only from Beatles-fans and media (not all of which was free of racism), but also from the band members. As the couple embarked on their bed-in peace movement, the world media came around to ridicule them, a complete reversal from the early 1960s when earnest questions from the Press were met with dead-pan humour by the Fab Four. However, as John conceded in his 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, he was very satisfied with the impact of their commercial for peace: "We're putting the word Peace on the front page of the paper next to all the words about war."

The extensive 237-page interview by David Sheff that concluded two months before Lennon's murder should be required reading for every Beatles-fan, and is guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat or a tear to the eye. When compared with his angry persona in the Rolling Stone interview from a decade earlier, the side of Lennon that leaps out from the pages of this book is more relaxed, optimistic ("I am going to be forty, and life begins at forty") and even vulnerable, although just as passionate. His views on politics and religion are as powerful, and he has no hesitation in declaring that "the idea of leadership is a false god" since "when the good news comes, they worship the messenger and they don't listen to the message."

In the interview (and the companion "Heartplay" LP of unfinished dialogues), John and Yoko come across as modern-day shamans, almost like Richard Bach and Leslie Parrish. Their words are fraught with religious and cultural references that require an occasional browsing of Wikipedia to appreciate (John refers to Yoko's influence on him as similar to the role of Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian teacher). The discussions range from Mahatma Gandhi, pacifism and ways to counter the war lobby (John and Yoko's "War is Over, If You Want It" campaign was meant to be taken in the spirit of self-prophesying wish-fulfillment, an attitude that may yet prove useful today), to his house-husband phase with their son Sean and his support for women's empowerment. Through all this, his wit remains razor sharp, as when he instantly counters Yoko's statement that "people picture God as an old man with a beard" with "They don't know it's an old woman with a beard"!

While John Lennon's views on war and peace remain as relevant today, we must also bow to his opinion of Yoko Ono, instead of wasting print judging her. John, and only John, should be allowed to have the last word: "If somebody is going to impress me, whether it be a Maharishi or a Yoko Ono, there comes a point when the emperor has no clothes. So for all you folks out there who think that I'm having the wool pulled over my eyes-- well, that's an insult to me. Not that you think less of Yoko, because that's your problem; what I think of her is what counts! But if you think you know me or you own some part of me because of the music I've made, and then you think I'm being controlled like a dog on a leash because I do things with her, then screw you. Anybody who claims to have some interest in me as an individual artist, or even as part of The Beatles, has absolutely misunderstood everything I ever said if they can't see why I'm with Yoko."

Wonsaponatime there was two Balloons called Jock and Yono. They were strictly in love-bound to happen in a million years. They were together man. Unfotunatimetable they both seemed to have previous experience-- which kept calling them one way oranother (you know howitis). But they battled on against overwhelming oddities, includo some of their beast friends. Being in love they cloong even the more together man-- but some of the poisonessmonster of outrated buslodedshithrowers did stick slightly and they occasionally had to resort to the drycleaners. Luckily this did not kill them and they weren't banned from the Olympic Games. They lived hopefully ever after, and who could blame them?
John Lennon, Jock and Yono

Romany Empire

One of the pieces of trivia that used to come in handy during school quiz contests was that gypsies had originated in India. Blissfully unaware that the term "gypsy" is considered pejorative in many parts of the world (besides being inaccurate, since it is a corruption of the word Egyptian), I had never bothered to look up the colourful lives of the Romany people, only 15 million of whom are scattered all over the world today.

Linguistic and anthropological evidence points towards the Romany having originated in the Punjab and Rajasthan regions of India. Originally musicians in the temples in this area, they began emigrating in the eleventh century after the invasion of their homeland by Mahmud of Ghazni-- some of these displacements were voluntary (better patronage of musicians in Persia) and some involuntary (enslavement or forced to serve in the Afghan army). The pathbreaking connection between Romany and Indo-Aryan languages of northern India was discovered as late as the eighteenth century, and the migration path of the Romany has been estimated by the influence of words from other countries in their language-- Persian, Armenian and Greek.

While many ancient Romany beliefs have adapted with local customs of host countries over the years, the musical and dance skills of this community continue to set them apart, and have influenced art-forms like bolero, jazz and flamenco. Even classical composers like Liszt, Bizet (his most famous opera, Carmen, is based on a colourful gypsy character living in Spain) and Brahms have been inspired by traditional Romany musical elements. To this day, the Romany is romanticised and stereotyped as dancers, fiddlers and fortune-tellers in caravans. Unfortunately, they have also been typecast as felons and law-breakers, a fable even the venerable National Public Radio (NPR) of America helped perpetuate by damning them in a 1997 broadcast.

One of the little known tragedies of the Romany people is the porajmos (literally "devouring", in Romany) programme of persecution they were subject to under the Third Reich. Modern researchers agree that over 5,00,000 Roma were systematically exterminated by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. Ironically, the lineage of the Romany can be traced back to pure Aryan roots, but Nazi propaganda popularised the myth that their nomadic lifestyle and racial mingling was a threat to Aryan homogeneity. Romanies in Germany were sent to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where they were subject to the most inhuman medical experimentation, before being gassed or shot to death. Despite the fact that over 90% of the Romany population of Austria and Germany were wiped out during this mass murder (the same proportion of loss as Jewish people), the Romany genocide remains but a footnote in the history of the holocaust.

The Romany is the perpetual outsider. Without any home to call their own (and even being discriminated against in countries they have tried to call home), they are too few and too dispersed to lobby for acceptance of their heritage and recognition of their courage. As they wander from land to land in search of a better future, it is incumbent upon us, the educated and the educators, to extol the past of this unique group of travellers who have struggled in the face of adversity but refused to accept defeat.

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?
Langston Hughes, Minstrel Man

U-Pick Apples

Do you know what an apple tree looks like? I had always imagined them to resemble enormous banyan trees-- grand enough to orchestrate Isaac Newton's thoughts in the direction of gravity, thick enough to hide the Devil in the guise of a serpent, and tall enough to require ladders to pluck apples from. How surprised and disillusioned I was, therefore, when I went apple-picking at the Hamptons, near the eastern tip of Long Island, with a group of friends last weekend.

The orchard had rows and rows of apple trees with branches well within my arm's reach. As such, they better resembled domesticated trees of the kitchen-garden variety! While this did simplify the task of apple-picking, it robbed us of the serendipitous thrill of spotting a perfect undiscovered apple on an out-of-reach bough. For anyone used to buying apples from the supermarket, a visit to an orchard is indeed an eye-opener. The variety of colours and sizes and textures of apples-- from the omni-present gala, to the cricket ball-like Fuji and the McIntosh (which inspired the name of the first Apple computer)-- is simply astounding. It was also instructive to see over-ripe apples burst open and spread their seeds, jolting back faded memories of pollination and germination from high-school biology books.

For a concrete-jungle dweller like me, exposed only to the greenery of Calcutta's maidan or Manhattan's Central Park, an occasional visit to the orchard is but a poor substitute to actually being surrounded by flora and fauna. I have always envied my friends and family members who have grown up in towns like Durgapur or Jamshedpur, and have developed an intrinsic knowledge to pick the freshest vegetable in a market spread, or identify all the flowers in a garden. To be in close contact with nature is a wonderfully refreshing experience, and for a few delicious hours on that sun-soaked afternoon, the apple trees helped me forget the hustle and madness of the Big Apple only a hundred miles west.

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Genesis, 2:16

Phoney Wars

The Wall Street Journal's technology correspondent recently invoked America's favourite bogeyman, Soviet communism, to describe the American cell-phone industry. And despite (or because of) my association with the wireless business, I have to agree that the stranglehold imposed by network carriers on handset manufacturers is as stifling and outdated as Microsoft's monopoly on the personal computer experience before the advent of the open-source revolution led by Linux.

Friends and family I meet in India or Europe are invariably surprised to see a cell-phone carrier's name on my phone instead of the logo of a Blackberry or a Palm or a Motorola. Indeed, not only does an American carrier dictate a common uniform interface from their wide variety of vendors, but they also call the shots on what applications are allowed on the phone. Their argument that the download of third-party software may cause unpredictable results and increase call volume to to their customer service (the most reviled among all public utilities), is ingenious at best.

Actually, the entire relationship between cell-phone carriers, handset manufacturers and the end-user is archaic and in need of an overhaul in America. At present, the cost of a new handset is subsidised by the carrier, who in exchange binds the customer into a two-year contract guaranteeing a steady source of revenue for the period. The loser is not only the customer (who needs to pay an early termination fee should she want to bail out because of poor service), but the telecommunications market as a whole, since manufacturers have no incentive to innovate and cut production costs like they have done elsewhere in the world. It is ironic that in the absence of subsidies, a mobile handset in the citadel of capitalism is, without exception, more expensive than the same model in communist China!

Apple had a golden opportunity to break through this incestuous relationship when they launched the iPhone earlier this year. In fact, while they appropriated the freedom to design the interface away from the carrier, they introduced their own idiosyncrasies-- their delay in releasing the software development kit (SDK) for the iPhone has prevented programmers from writing applications for it. More importantly, by aligning themselves with a single service provider, they squandered away the prospect of having a subscriber buy an unlocked world-band iPhone at an Apple Store and activating it with the network of her choice.

Google, the other great purveyor of freedom, has kept rumour-mongers busy with hints of their Android operating system which promises to offer the programming capabilities offered by Palm and Windows Mobile, but without their frequent crashes. Having already signed into an agreement with the company rolling out a nationwide WiMAX network in America, it is only natural that they should want to tap the vast 3G market as well. Despite the associated concerns with privacy (don't be surprised to receive targeted text messages based on your location and web-browsing history!), an open standard from Google may be just the catalyst needed to shake up the carriers from their self-imposed stupor.

O misery, misery, mumble and moan!
Someone invented the telephone,
And interrupted a nation's slumbers,
Ringing wrong but similar numbers.
Ogden Nash, Look What You Did, Christopher!

Pardon My French

Most of us have forgotten how difficult it can be to learn a new language! It is just as well that we pick our first words while our eyes and ears are yearning to explore the world around us, and our little grey cells are not yet saturated with unnecessary facts. Placed in a situation of swim-or-sink, the young child is forced to expand her vocabulary in order to communicate meaningfully with the world around her.

Thoughts of this nature swept through my mind as I began navigating the intricacies of French-- a language I have wanted to learn for pleasure as far back as I can remember. Having finally enrolled in a beginner's course at an evening school, and struggling desperately with vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, I am prepared to drop the words "for pleasure" from this weekly activity! When I explained to my Haitian instructor that I wanted to learn French so I could speak the language when I eventually visit Paris, she looked me squarely in the eye and observed that the French usually revert to English to prevent a foreigner from massacring their beloved language.

It is said that only the Frenchman can make the recital of a grocery list sound romantic! Indeed, when spoken correctly, every French word in a sentence meshes with the next one resulting in a seemingly long musical word. There was an article in the Harper's magazine in the 1930s about an American philologian's attempt to count the number of syllables needed to translate the Gospel of Mark into different Indo-European languages. Despite its reputation for terseness, it took 36,000 French syllables to say what English does in 29,000 (the Indo-Iranian group, by contrast, required 43,100 syllables on average). If different languages sound faster or slower, it is simply because this speed is an indicator of the information content, and ultimately the compression efficiency, of the language. In other words, assuming that every race of people thinks at the same rate, a faster-sounding language has more inherent redundancy as it needs more words or syllables to get the same idea across (one only needs to think about the famous scene with the Japanese director in Lost in Translation to appreciate this!).

However, language is not an exact science. And as any artist will testify, perfection can only be achieved by painful practice. Unfortunately, in our awe of the final result (and our impatience to reach there), we often overlook the dedication and diligence that goes into mastering a skill-- be it an artist's magnum opus, or an infant's first sentence.

Why can't the English
Teach their children how to speak?
Norwegians learn Norwegian,
The Greeks are taught their Greek.
In France, every Frenchman
Knows his language from A to Zed
(The French don't care what they do actually,
As long as they pronounce it properly!).
Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady

Harry Potter and the Order of the Court

After remaining invincible through his seven years of scholarship (the seven ages of manhood?) at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter finally found his nemesis in Goddess Durga. A 394-page case of copyright violation brought in by creator J K Rowling and filmmaker Warner Brothers against a Durga Puja organiser was summarily dismissed by the Delhi High Court. The point of contention was a pandal being built to celebrate the four-day event in Calcutta was modelled after Hogwarts Castle.

For the uninitiated, Durga Puja is the biggest annual festival for Bengalis, when Devi Durga is believed to return to earth for four days accompanied by her children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik. Their arrival and departure are marked by festivities which have long transcended religious boundaries and entered the realm of popular culture. The most common manifestation of this carnival-like celebration is the construction of themed pandals, or temporary tents of bamboo, wood and canvas, in every neighbourhood. Idols of Durga, in the pose of vanquishing a demon, are housed there for the duration of the Puja and are visited by local residents, as well as visitors from different parts of the country.

Despite the winds of commercialism blowing fast and furious, some aspects of this traditional festival have remained faithful to the style popularised by the earliest sarbojonin (meaning "involving all") or barowari (literally, "twelve friends") pujas-- there is no entrance fee, funds are raised by door-to-door subscriptions and corporate donations, and people from all backgrounds are welcomed into the pandals, provided they have the patience to brave the queues! It is estimated that over ten thousand such pandals are erected in Calcutta alone, and normal traffic is brought to a standstill because of road closures (most pandal-hoppers use the underground Metro railway for transportation). Since the mid-1980s, prizes have been announced for different facets of the puja celebrations, including the most innovative pandal design. Once the exclusive prerogative of the Asian Paints Company, today there are as many awards as there are companies that wish to derive PR and profits by association with the gods.

It is in this competitive vein that a Durga Puja organisation committee concluded they would have a sure-shot chance of winning a prize by moulding their pandal along the lines of Harry Potter's school. As the wood and papier mache replica started coming up, it generated enormous local interest, vindicating the organiser's original hypothesis. However, in today's global village, a butterfly flapping its wings in India can trigger off a tornado of sorts in another hemisphere-- in this case, the news of Hogwarts spread quickly from one excited child to another until it reached the ears of a secretive species always on the lookout to make a fast buck, also known as lawyers. Immersed in their own ideas of immortality, the concept of creating a transient structure for a four-day free-for-all celebration eluded them, and they slapped a twenty lakh rupee lawsuit against the organisers for building a theme park without permission. The Court was right in rejecting the lawyers' arguments, given that there is no commercial interest involved in a public purpose such as a puja, and Devi Durga emerged victorious in yet another epic battle against evil.

Colourful ants are running around,
Most moving slowly with friends they have found,
Pause for a breather
Then follow the leader
The whole air is filled with wet sound.

All around you is a riot of paints,
The ant before you suddenly faints,
That stops the motion,
Starts the commotion,
Don’t know for whom the abuse is meant.

You’re trying to swim in an ocean of ants,
Swaying to the tune of the performing bands,
The beautiful breeze
Rocks the protruding trees,
You start to move again towards the land.

Reach the new world after three days,
The Goddess’s face is hidden in haze,
Pray for two seconds,
Another ant beckons,
Now find your way out of the maze.
Ritabrata Roy (17), Of Ants and Paints

Crystal Cookie

Do you believe in fortune cookies? Do you seek out the thin strip of paper that is hidden inside the cookie served with your bill in a Chinese restaurant? And do you then try to interpret your life around the prophecy? I, for one, stopped opening the oyster shell of fortune cookies when I discovered, time and again, that the contents were pearls of fairly-obvious wisdom. However, I made an exception when I visited the birthplace of the fortune cookie.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the modern fortune cookie was invented in California and is almost unknown in China. This is not surprising since dessert is not a part of traditional Chinese cuisine. However, legend has it that fourteenth century Chinese soldiers used to smuggle messages into mooncakes to coordinate the overthrow of Mongolian invaders, which eventually led to the establishment of the Ming dynasty.

The true origin of the confectionery has been called a mystery shrouded in an enigma wrapped in a cookie! The most commonly accepted version (and the one promoted by the mock Court of Historical Review) is that it was invented by the gardener who built the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. He used to insert tasteful thank-you messages in tasteless flour cookies (modelled after the traditional Japanese senbei rice-wafer) and gift them to his loyal patrons for their role in rallying for his reappointment after being fired by the city's anti-Japanese mayor.

Churning out ten-word maxims can be a thankless job. New Yorker magazine once profiled such a writer in the Long Island plant which is the world's largest manufacturer of fortune cookies. An engineering and business graduate from Columbia University, he had been racking his brains everyday for over twenty years, using inspirations from sources as diverse as the I-Ching and subway graffiti. Some of his aphorisms have made it into the Unix programme fortune, which displays random messages from a database of quotations. One of the "fortunes" in the software collection states cynically, "The fortune cookie programme defuses project tensions."

To return to my open-air experience at the Japanese Tea Garden last month, I was persuaded by my friend to read my fortune. It said, "What you are searching for is right in front of you." I looked up to find a plucky pigeon strutting on the table right in front of me and finishing off the remains of my fortune cookie!

You know that what you eat you are,
But what is sweet now, turns so sour.
George Harrison, Savoy Truffle

Of Hosts and Hostages

There is an apocryphal story of the beautiful American dancer Isadora Duncan propositioning George Bernard Shaw that they should have a child together, because "with your brains and my body what a wonder it would be!" Shaw's repartee was simple but classic: "But what if it had my body and your brains?"

In the context of the American states, a similar case may be made for the welcome combination of southern hospitality and northern tolerance, but with one caveat-- God forbid that one should be exposed to northern hospitality and southern tolerance instead! Unfortunately, New York's reputation for liberal thinking and unfriendliness stooped to a new low when the president of Columbia University invited the democratically elected President of Iran to a debate and then proceeded to publicly humiliate the sitting dignitary during the introduction.

At the very outset, I would like to make it clear that this rant is completely apolitical, and should not be construed as either condoning or criticising the charges that, rightly or wrongly, have been levelled against the President of Iran. Instead, it is meant to condemn the shameful and disgraceful behaviour displayed by an academician, who in denying the commonest courtesy due to an invited guest, not only failed in his duty as the host and moderator of the discussion, but also turned the clock back on countering the global perception about the stereotypical arrogant American.

It is not difficult to understand what prompted the University President to rudely address the Iranian President as "a petty and cruel dictator" and "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated": having invited the wrath of conservative Americans (including benefactors of the University) for providing a platform to the controversial President, he may have wanted to preempt further criticism from the right-wing by isolating himself completely from the speaker's lofty hyperbole. Unfortunately, in doing so he betrayed the responsibilities of a gracious host.

The tale of two presidents boils down to who handled himself with more dignity and decency. One of them said, "I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions, but your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us", while the other responded with the following observation: "Tradition requires that when we invite a person to be a speaker, we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgement, instead of providing a vaccination of sorts before the speech is delivered." The unbiased reader can decide which of the two presidents behaved more like a statesman.

Once one assumes an attitude of intolerance, there is no knowing where it will take one. Intolerance, someone has said, is violence to the intellect and hatred is violence to the heart.
Mohandas Gandhi

Love and Haight

The bohemian spirit of the sixties still survives on Haight Street. Forty years after the Summer of Love brought the epicentre of American counter-culture to San Francisco, the neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury manages to evoke the colours, sounds and sense of freedom that characterised "flower power". In spite of mainstream commerce's attempts to infiltrate the area, a leisurely walk south of the Panhandle reveals many delightful surprises-- ethnic boutiques, used book and record stores, colourful murals, flowing dresses, and elaborately designed Victorian town-houses that survived the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Even though artists like Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane can all trace their roots to Haight-Ashbury, it was the hippie movement that is the district's main claim to fame (or notoriety, depending on your perspective). San Francisco had been a fertile ground for youthful angst and avant-garde creativity since atleast the mid-fifties when the beat generation of poets, led by Allen Ginsberg, began settling in the Haight. The hippie counter-culture was born with their blessings (and the support of The Oracle, the city's underground newspaper) when a Human Be-In event in January 1967 brought together the Bay Area's top bands and a 20,000-strong audience at the Golden Gate Park. The revellers were quick to form a strong sense of fraternity through their common anti-establishment stance (provoked in part by the Vietnam War) and experimentation with mind-expanding drugs (hallucinogens were still legal and freely available). As word got around, like-minded non-conformists started descending onto the Park (galvanised by the war draft introduced in March), which quickly became a haven for communal living, free love and psychedelic journeys that challenged the existing boundaries of music.

Despite their belief in simple living and high thinking, intellectual curiousity and individual rights (often through draft-burning and bra-burning), the contribution of the hippies is usually underestimated (as my friend says, since much of their visions were drug-induced, they are dismissed just as easily as the bravado of a drunkard)-- besides their enduring influence on art and fashion, their political and social awareness have shaped much of the culture that we inherit today. Our acceptance of a woman's right to choose, of questioning the "my-country-right-or-wrong" dogma, of seeking life's answers through eastern mysticism and philosophy, of open-mindedness about sexual preferences, of accepting sartorial choices as personal, of ruling inter-racial marriages as legal, and of popularising environmental activism as a global movement-- all find their roots in the hippie counter-culture movement of the 1960s. This increased tolerance has had the unfortunate side-effect of strongly polarised political beliefs however, a trait that is all too evident among the American electorate today.

For those of us who missed the naïve optimism and promising possibilities prevalent during the era (born too late in a world too old, in the words of Schopenhauer), a walk down Haight Street is the nearest to experiencing a blast from the generation past.

For those who come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there,
In the streets of San Francisco
Gentle people with flowers in their hair.
Scott McKenzie, San Francisco

Bip R.I.P.

As I read Marcel Marceau's obituaries, my mind goes back to the unforgettable night I attended his performance at New Brunswick's State Theatre. His appearance that evening coincided with the launch of the US occupation of Iraq, and given the political climate of the time (France had opposed the invasion), there was nothing worse than being a Frenchman in America. However, the largely student audience cheered him all the way through his act, and I am hopeful that these memories overshadowed the bitterness of his last tour of the United States.

Young Marcel had experienced the horrors and futility of war first-hand-- his family went into hiding when France entered the Second World War, but his father was captured and killed at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Inspired by the silent movies of the time, he prepared for the stage as a mime artist, and in 1947 created the character of Bip, the sad white-faced clown with a beflowered opera hat-- a tribute to Charlie Chaplin's tramp. Bip's bravery and misadventures have captured the hearts of audiences worldwide, reducing entire auditoriums to hysterical laughter and cathartic tears. As he matured, Marceau developed more complex routines, including the "Creation of the World", that blended themes from religion, politics and popular culture. His "Walking Against the Wind" act was said to be the inspiration for Michael Jackson's famous Moonwalk dance. Most importantly, by establishing mime schools in Paris and the Marceau Foundation in the United States, Marcel Marceau has been instrumental in encouraging enthusiasts to pursue the almost lost art of pantomime.

The two minutes of silence held globally in his honour was a fitting tribute to an artist who taught the world that sometimes silence speaks more eloquently than words.

Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls

New York Times They Are A-Changin'

There was a surprising email from The New York Times this morning: the newspaper was discontinuing TimesSelect, the paid-access section of their website which features op-ed commentary by powerful voices like Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman. Lured by the success of the subscription-based online model of The Wall Street Journal, the Times had decided to create a gated community within their portal exactly two years ago, but with mixed returns (disclaimer: as a student, I have enjoyed free access to TimesSelect).

The Grey Lady's decision to erect this subscription-firewall proved controversial among the web-community: critics saw this move as limiting access to the newspaper's most influential analysts and opinionators, but charitable subscribers accepted it as a fair contribution to the columnists' pay-packet. While the Times may not have been overly concerned about the former camp's insistence on the right to "free-dom" (many young bloggers of the Internet age may not have seen a newspaper outside their front-door), the damage done to the hitherto unhindered reach of the TimesSelect commentators was considerable: they quickly dropped off from the daily list of top emailed articles, and Friedman even went on record criticising the model, "It pains me enormously because it's cut me off from a lot of people, especially because I have a lot of people reading me overseas, like in India." Moreover, the newspaper may not have anticipated the growth and popularity of news aggregators like Google News, which often linked to TimesSelect articles that were not accessible to the casual reader.

At the same time, the aura surrounding the famous "All the News That's Fit to Print" masthead had somewhat diminished, as a result of two high-profile public scandals involving their staff. Jayson Blair, a reporter at the newspaper's national desk, was forced to resign after it was discovered that he had been fabricating and plagiarising elements of his news stories on a regular basis. More critically, the controversy surrounding senior reporter Judith Miller's drumbeat for war, at the concealed behest of the government, tarnished the reputation of the Times as an independent and trustworthy voice in world affairs.

Ultimately, as with anything else in business, the TimesSelect euthanasia was a financial decision. The meagre revenue earned from subscription could not offset the revenue lost from potential advertising, and Management admitted that the growth projection of their paid subscriber base (numbering 227,000 versus over a million for The Wall Street Journal) paled in comparison to the growth of online advertising. TimesSelect's failed experiment also raises questions about the market-value of elite commentators in the brave new blogosphere, where opinions are a dime a dozen. With Rupert Murdoch, the new proprietor of the Dow Jones Company, reportedly in favour of making online access to the Journal free-of-cost, readers may end up being forced to forego one evil for another: the subscription model for bombardment by advertisements.

No American newspaper will print anything contrary to its own interests.

George Bernard Shaw

The Rape of Singur

The village of Singur, and subsequently Nandigram, in West Bengal recently witnessed a level of solidarity and civil activism rarely seen since India's struggle for independence. In fact, what set this movement apart was that thousands of protesters, ranging from local farmers to grassroots activists, assembled to oppose an elected government's decision to acquire 997 acres of prime agricultural land for industrial use by invoking an antiquated British Land Acquisition Act of 1894.

It is customary for the chattering classes to dismiss these conflicts as rites of passage on the road to development, and for politicians to point to the wealthy west's successful transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society. Indeed, while the government's brutal might ultimately prevailed in Singur, the skirmish raises uncomfortable talking points about a nation's right to dispossess peasants of their livelihood in the name of industrial progress. What is also overlooked is that the great powers of the nineteenth century could afford to subsidise their industrial development through colonial spoils from overseas, a luxury that developing countries today do not possess (with the possible exception of oil-rich nations).

The state government has since claimed that consent had been received to acquire 960 acres of the agricultural land from their respective owners (predominantly absentee landlords and share-croppers), and it was its prerogative to use the land as it saw fit (in this case, hand it over to Tata Motors at a massive public subsidy). However, this begs a couple of questions: can a government be absolved of responsibility as long as the majority is appeased, and should society disregard the plight of a powerless minority who lose not only their ancestral land, but their very way of living? Rather disappointingly, Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen took the establishment's stand that trickle-down economics would benefit all parties.

The controversy also saw a fall from grace of the legendary Tata Group, who rejected five other non-arable plots of land offered by the government (including one in Kharagpur, home to the oldest Indian Institute of Technology, and located between Calcutta and Tata's headquarters in Jamshedpur), before selecting the fertile agricultural tract of Singur because of its existing infrastructure (water, roads, etc.). Through this act, the company finally cast off all pretences to owning a socialist conscience, and their long-standing tradition of participating in, and even catalysing, the nation's progress. Other private corporations also silently lauded the government's hollow victory over democracy as a precedent for more illegal land acquisitions for "special economic zones".

While policy-makers prepare to auction off the country for narrow political profits, every responsible citizen should ask themselves if a nation really benefits if she gains the whole world of commerce, but loses her soul.

When the organisation of politics and commerce, whose other name is the Nation, becomes all powerful at the cost of the harmony of the higher social life, then it is an evil day for humanity.

Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism in the West

Kramer vs Karma

The Complete Seinfeld, a 33-disc box set of every episode of the iconic nineties' show-about-nothing is now available for pre-order. As the owner of the complete Monty Python's Flying Circus, Yes Minister, Yes Prime Minister and Fawlty Towers, I would have been the first to place an order for a comedy whose reruns have provided me hours of entertainment, and whose laughtracks supplemented my dinner for years.

However, what is holding me back is the racist outburst by Michael Richards, ingrained in popular culture as Cosmo Kramer, at a comedy club last year. I don't mean this to be a platform for ranting against racism, as race is a very complex issue, especially in the United States where it is conveniently swept under the rug of political correctness. However, Richards' tirade of taunting epithets revealed a soul that was darker than the colour of his heckler's skin.

Kramer is best remembered as Jerry Seinfeld's wacky neighbor with an absurdish inventive streak (oil tanker bladder system to contain maritime oil spills, a coffee-table book about coffee-tables that becomes a coffee-table) as well as for donning different colourful persona (Dr Martin Van Nostrand the proctologist, and H E Pennypacker, "a wealthy industrialist, philanthropist and bicyclist"). Despite his clownish antics and outlandish schemes, Kramer was often portrayed as the group's moral compass in a sitcom that did not hesitate to confront cultural tensions and stereotypes.

Unfortunately, unlike Kramer-the-character's apology to a monkey in the Central Park Zoo ("I lost my temper and I probably shouldn't have. I took it out on you and, look, if I've caused you any problems as a result of my behavior, well then, I'm sorry."), real life is not so forgiving. His public apologies on various talk-show programmes, probably done in an attempt to salvage DVD sales, do not endear his character, nor do they remove the bitter after-taste of his remarks. In my mind, it is very difficult to reconcile the image of Kramer the loveable "hipster doofus", with the expletive-laden talk of an ageing performer who, despite his years of experience in the comedy circuit, fell prey to the oldest challenge faced by any public speaker-- learning to accept criticism, especially when it hits home.

Look to the black and white cookie! Two races of flavour living side by side in harmony. Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate. And yet, still, somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved.

Jerry Seinfeld, The Dinner Party

Blessed Teresa?

Calcuttans share an ambiguous relationship with Mother Teresa. On the one hand, nobody denies her selfless work for the destitute and dying through her Missionaries of Charity. On the other, nobody denies that her selfless work helped nurture an unhealthy image of Calcutta as a city of poverty in the Western mind.

Although Mother Teresa established Nirmal Hriday, a hospital for the poor, after receiving her calling during a visit to Darjeeling in 1946, she shot to international fame courtesy of BBC correspondent Malcolm Muggeridge's documentary "Something Beautiful for God" in 1969, and was recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Over the years she has had her shares of awards and brickbats, with detractors often accusing her of proselyting the poor and putting faith before aid.

On the eve of her tenth death anniversary, a new crisis looms over Mother Teresa's legacy, with the publication of a compilation of her private letters and confessions. Although I haven't read the book, "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light", extracts reprinted in Time magazine reveal a soul in turmoil, and give voice to the anguish of a woman involved in charity that she does not believe in. While the less spiritual among us may harbour feelings of being deserted in moments of crisis, it is singularly depressing to read the beatified Teresa question her faith and wonder, "Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?".

The media have been having a field day over these revelations, with critics speculating whether she is worthy of being canonized. While these correspondences, which incidentally were preserved against her wishes, might change the way future generations judge Mother Teresa's bequest, in my mind the controversy should not cast a shadow on her actual contributions, performed in the true Christian spirit. If anything, it demonstrates that even Saints are fallible.

The evil that men do lives after them
The good is oft interred with their bones.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Think Outside the Bottle

Bottled water is the new fad. Unlike developing countries where mineral water is sometimes the only source of pure and clean water, in the West it is hyped as a fashionable lifestyle choice. So much so that the annual bottled water business is estimated to be worth US$ 11 billion in the United States alone.

This is ironic because the regulations governing the quality of public water supplies in the US are far stricter than those governing bottled-water plants. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of public water supplies, it has no authority over bottled water. Bottled water is considered a food product and is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which simply mandates that it be bottled in sanitary conditions.

It is true that some industrial belts of the United States have had the groundwater contaminated by irresponsible and unethical companies-- my town, for instance, is still paying for the greed of the Ford Motor Company and the DuPont Chemical Company-- but atleast I am mailed the Annual Water Quality Report with ppm (parts per million) values of regulated and unregulated substances, allowing me to make an informed decision of whether I need to filter or boil my tap water before drinking.

Bottled water, on the other hand, merely masks itself behind images of glaciers and waterfalls, and the generous abuse of words like "pure", "pristine" and "natural". After a U.S. News and World Report article revealed that Pepsi's Aquafina is actually municipal water from Wichita, Kansas, PepsiCo decided to regulate itself by adding the words "Public water source" to the label. However, Coca Cola has not been so contrite-- seven million pounds of marketing for Dasani as the pure alternative to tap water in England went down the drain when the company admitted in early 2004 that the water comes out of the London public supply. Despite this negative publicity in Europe, Dasani's advertising budget has helped establish itself as one of the top brands worldwide.

The environmental impact of bottled water cannot be overstated. Besides the fact that oil-derived polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles end up in landfills where they need hundreds of years to biodegrade, the act of transporting trucks loaded with bottles, along with costs involved in refrigeration, makes the model extremely energy inefficient. Moreover, perpetuation of the myth about the purity of bottled water is ultimately self-defeating as politicians and policy-makers might be tempted to cut the budget for municipal water filtration plants, making tap water (and bottled water) less safe.

UNICEF's Tap Project is a much-needed counter-movement to popularize the truth about tap water in developed countries, and raise money for pure water in others. It requests diners to donate $1 to the project on World Water Day (22nd March) every year, which is enough money to provide forty litres of safe drinking water. This, along with the marketing of the newly rechristened New York Tap, makes it conceivable that an informed public might just be able to kick the bottled water habit.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Hergé at Hundred

Any journalist would kill to have a job like Tintin's-- as an investigative reporter, Tintin travels the world (England, Russia, America, Congo, Japan, Belgium, Egypt, India, Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, England, Peru, Tibet and China at last count) and even the Moon, without ever having to file a report!

Tintin debuted in the most unlikely of places-- in the pages of a Catholic newspaper in Belgium, where he was serialised by Georges Remi (known to the world with his initials reversed, "RG" or Hergé) as being dispatched to the Soviet Union to discover the ills of Bolshevism. This first book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was out of print for many years and is strikingly different from the other Tintin adventures that generations have grown up with. Besides the fact that it was never colourised, it does not do justice to Hergé's eventual artistic talents, especially because of his awkward use of perspective. Born in this work, however, is Tintin's trademark tuft of hair as a result of racing in an open-air convertible in Germany, making his silhouette one of the most recognisable in the world.

A friend recently observed that Tintin reinforces cultural stereotypes with reference to his visit to India as a guest of the Maharaja of Gaipajama, where he meets an Indian fakir who is a snake-charmer, a palm-reader and prefers lying on a bed of nails. While this is true in the first few albums (Tintin in Congo, in particular, faces flak for popularising the existing prejudice that the white colonial had the inalienable right to rule over a poor black nation), Hergé soon wisened up to his responsibility as a popular story-teller and conducted meticulous research before putting anything down in print. By the time Tintin was to visit India again, en route to Tibet, Hergé had Indian street scenes down to the last detail, including a Nepalese porter shouting back at the white sahib in chaste Hindi in the Devanagari script. Last year, the Dalai Lama awarded Tintin in Tibet the "Truth of Light" award for Hergé's sensitive and authentic portrayal of Tibet and her monasteries.

Hergé's eye for detail and use of photographic reference helped him create a parallel universe for Tintin where imaginary countries like Syldavia (King Ottokar's Scepte) are complete with national dresses, cuisines and even travel brochures. In fact, Hergé visualised the landing on the moon over a decade before President John F Kennedy even made it a priority for America, and did it with such uncanny accuracy (with the exception of the presence of ice) that New Scientist magazine admitted "the considerable research undertaken by Hergé enabled him to come very close to the type of space suit that would be used in future Moon exploration".

Getting hands on a new Tintin, with its colourful cast of characters comprising his faithful dog Snowy, and friends Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thomson and Thompson (the twins also make a cameo in Asterix in Belgium) among others, is a thrill that cannot be explained to the uninitiated. I distinctly remember the amount of cajoling that led to my parents gifting me my first Tintin, The Blue Lotus, for my tenth birthday. The hardcover edition, or albums as they are called, provided the additional pleasure of trying to identify all the Tintin characters from the collage of frames in the endplates!

That is why I envy the Americans today-- having grown on a homemade brew of comic superheroes with superhuman powers, they have summarily dismissed the androgynous man-boy from their national ethos--who now have a rare second chance to revel in Tintin's magical world. On the eve of Hergé's hundredth birthday, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) announced a three-film series based on Tintin's adventures. If this doesn't make Tintin accessible to an entire country that have deprived themselves of his charms, then not even ten thousand thundering typhoons can.

And the two grieve
That that bright world, so just and splendid,
Of Haddock, Gorgonzola, Wagg,
Moon rockets, grog, Red Rackham's swag,
And foul-mouthed parrots could have ended
In adulthood, where truth and light
Do not win out as if by right.
Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate

Jewel in the Crown

Unlike modern occupiers, the British were honest and unapologetic about their intentions in India. The geographic entity that was yet to be defined as India was a fertile ground of spices, textile and priceless stones, waiting to be plundered. And over the 190-year occupation, she was plundered repeatedly and mercilessly, first by the East India Company Limited and then by the British Empire (no less!) when Queen Victoria placed the stolen Koh-i-Noor diamond in her crown and declared herself the Empress of India.

The contributions of the British in India, from industrialization (the Indian Railways network, for instance, was established to facilitate the movement of goods from villages to important ports like Calcutta and Bombay) to education (Lord Macaulay's aim was to build an army of English-speaking clerks that would remain subservient to their English political masters) were not acts of philanthropy, but shrewd business moves to reap long-term commercial benefits. However, the real legacy of the British Raj continues to be a deeply divided society, split along religious lines, as a consequence of their disastrous Divide and Conquer policy.

The first step in this direction was the Government of India Act of 1935 that proposed separate electorates along religious lines. Although most proposals of the Act were not implemented, the seeds of communalism had been successfully sowed and with gentle stoking and ruthless exploitation culminated in the eventual independence of a weakened and partitioned India.

As pointed out in this week's New Yorker magazine, this was no mean "achievement" given that a Babelish diversity of languages, cultures and traditions existed in British India cutting across religious communities, and few people identified themselves exclusively through their ancestral faith. The Pashton tribesmen in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), for instance, had absolutely nothing in common with the jute farmer in the far eastern province of Bengal, barring their religion. Yet the British policy of defining communities based on religious identity had the effect of radically altering Indian self-perceptions, and began to raise the awareness of their religious roots over societal bonds that had existed among neighbours for years.

This was perfected almost to an art-form when Sir Winston Churchill, the self-professed hater of Indians, was elected Prime Minister of England during World War II. Alex von Tunzelmann's thesis in his new book "Indian Summer" is that by encouraging Hindu-Muslim antagonism and opportunistically supporting Muslim separatism, Churchill became “instrumental in creating the world’s first modern Islamic state” and this cynical pandering to political Islam has had far-reaching consequences.

Cyril Radcliffe was given the unenviable task of carving out a Muslim Pakistan from the Indian subcontinent, and he did so without taking the pain of visiting either of the two states, Punjab and Bengal, that his pen doomed to the horrors of partition. That such an arbitrary division was unrealistic was proved in 1971 when the Bengali-speaking citizens of East Pakistan rebelled against Islamabad's political and linguistic domination to form the independent Republic of Bangladesh, the first country to be born over a language dispute.

India has come a long way since 15th August 1947 when Jawaharlal Nehru declared, "A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance". Although India's soul has indeed found utterance in her powerful democratic ideals and unwavering faith in secularism, as well as intellectual contributions in today's Information Age; at the societal level, the scars of the Raj's misguided policy remain indelible.

Why the pink blackguards bothered to tax Indians I will never understand, for they had successfully stolen everything they needed for centuries, from the jewelled inlays of the Taj Mahal to the Kohinoor on their queen's crown, and one would have thought they could have done without the laborious extraction of the Indian working-man's pittance. But there has always been something perversely precise about British oppression: the legal edifice of the Raj was built on the premise that anything resulting from the filling of forms in quadruplicate could not possibly be an injustice.
Shashi Tharoor, The Great Indian Novel

Day the Music Died

Tucked away in a corner of this week's Rolling Stone magazine is the following news item: "British private equity firm Terra Firma purchased EMI, home to the Beatles, Radiohead and Coldplay, for US$ 4.9 billion, taking the company off the London Stock Exchange and making it the only one of the four major labels to be privately owned."

While a merger (Warner Music had expressed interest in EMI before backing out) or takeover appeared imminent for a while, given the continued lack-lustre performance of London-based Electrical and Musical Industries Ltd, it is shocking that a tragedy of this magnitude went largely unreported by the media. To have what was once the venerable Gramophone Company pass into private hands, specifically to an investor with a diverse portfolio but no music industry experience, means the consolidation of labels in the interest of profit (Angel, Blue Note, Capitol, GramCo, Harvest, HMV, Hollywood, Odeon, Parlophone, Real World and Virgin are among a handful of EMI labels catering to a wide palette of tastes), and the inevitable loss of patronage for non-mainstream music. Would a music company run by accountants have allowed an unknown beat group from Liverpool to audition, especially when rival Decca had dismissed them as "we don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out"?

My connection with EMI is through GramCo, the stock ticker for Calcutta-based Gramophone Company of India, which (in 1901) became the first overseas operation unit of EMI London. I grew up with Francis Barraud's painting of Nipper on our family records, since the His Master's Voice label monopolised the classical and popular music scene in almost all Indian languages. This poignant picture partly contributed to the love for long-playing records that I maintain to this day. Again, it was an accident of fate that the Parlophone label from the EMI stable was easily available in India and led to my discovering The Beatles-- over the years, I would scour the employee-only inventory at the HMV factory in Dum Dum for rare and lost vinyl recordings. For this and other reasons (including the facts that the company was briefly chaired by the famous statistician, P. C. Mahalanobis; and that their original factory at 139 Beliaghata Road was near our family's old rented house), HMV has always held a very special place in my heart.

Today I mourn the loss of this eminent behemoth, whose early research pioneered stereophonic sound recording and radar equipment, who revolutionized coloured television broadcasting in the 1970s (the Monty Python series was shot using EMI 2001 colour cameras), and most importantly, who touched the lives and hearts of music-lovers everywhere by encouraging artists of all genres in the furthest corners of the world. It is little wonder that one of their smaller labels is called Music For Pleasure.

A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies.
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
R.E.M., And I Feel Fine

Gym Jam

Remember that episode of Friends where one of them accompanies another to the gym to stop the recurring charge for the former's unused membership, and ends up getting one himself? Finally realising that another visit to the gym's cancellation department would be unrewarding, they decide to close their bank accounts instead to "cut them off at the source"! While not quite in such a situation yet, I am increasingly feeling the pressure of renewing my health club membership although I haven't been there in almost a month.

My summer began with the best of intentions-- to get myself in shape for the New York Marathon. With that in mind, I drove down to my local spa and health centre to sign up for the summer programme that they had been advertising heavily. After being given a detailed tour of the facilities, I was almost brainwashed into signing up a one-year commitment, but managed to extract myself in the nick of time.

The following couple of weeks saw me driving to the fitness centre as much as three times a week. I consulted with my personal trainer about preparing for the marathon, and the best way to maintain my form. However, something funny happened on the way to the form-- even as the length of the days increased, the action of going to the gym started resembling a chore, an unpleasant duty that could be put off without much effort. Even as my plans to kick off the running season with a 5K warm-up fell apart at the last moment, I was able to convince myself (without much guilt) that I could keep myself in shape by running around the neighborhood lake. Inspiration hit a new low when I did not qualify in the lottery drawings for the NYC Marathon.

My summer membership ends in August and already I am being bombarded with mails hyping the investment being made to modernise the fitness equipment and how the special renewal rates are offered to select members with discerning taste like yours truly. Even though it is unlikely that I shall have much motivation to visit the gym during the short cold evenings of winter, the knowledge that I would have the freedom to exercise that option (even if I don't exercise my body!) is indeed a comforting thought.

If I end up signing the contract for a year, it will be the ultimate triumph of mind over muscle, and marketing over mind!

I can't sit still and see another man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk round with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can't help it.
Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

To Bee or Not To Bee

CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, is the new buzzword. Beekeepers across America are discovering, to their chagrin, that adult western honeybees have abruptly disappeared from their hives, leaving behind their brood, pollen and honey. It is almost the modern equivalent of Prince Siddhartha Gautama deciding to leave the royal palace in the middle of the night in search of Enlightenment. Except that nobody knows where the bees have vanished.

Conspiracy theories abound, from the absurd to the mundane, although none of them account for the sudden mass exodus of honeybees in the last one year. Explanations include the increased use of pesticides and antibiotics in or near their colonies, the side-effects of bees being exposed to genetically modified (GM) crops, global warming, and even RF exposure from cell towers (the last, in fact, was a misinterpretation of a pilot study by University of Koblenz-Landau scholars on the effect of digital cordless phones on honeybees).

While scientists and politicians are now equally distressed by this phenomenon (the former at the cause, and the latter at the effect-- the honeybee is the predominant cross-pollinator for crops valued at US$ 15 billion annually), its effect is more pronounced in today's America because the western honeybee was imported from Europe to take the place of the native wild bees which did the same job, but at a slower rate. Resiliency, in this case, was the victim in the pursuit of efficiency.

It is being said that since colony collapses have occurred in the past and the bee population has recovered every time, there is nothing to worry about. That is only partly true because of two reasons: the magnitude of the current CCD is unprecedented, and the habitat of the honeybee in the "industrialised west" has indeed been destroyed considerably (if not irrevocably). So even while we hold on to the forlorn hope of the honeybee's resurrection, a lesson for all us (Darwinist and Creationist alike) should be that Nature knows best.

I don't much mind if it rains or snows,
'Cos I've got a lot of honey on my nice new nose!
I don't care if it snows or thaws,
'Cos I've got a lot of honey on my nice clean paws!
A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Isn't Blogging Passé?

Some may scoff at the idea of a blog in the age of podcasts (give me a microphone and I shall move the world) and orkut (brave new world of the public inbox). Isn't blogging the ultimate ego-trip-- the outrageous fantasy that denizens of the Internet would mill by the millions to read your words of wisdom? Isn't it akin to delivering a sermon from a mount, nay an ivory tower, to subjects who are not deaf but indifferent? Isn't it an insular concept that is obsolete in this era of connection with anybody, anywhere, anytime?

All of the above accusations may be true, but isn't it also true that we are blogging mentally at every moment of every day? Of course, not every gedankenblog is worth remembering, let alone recording, but the occasional profundity of thought makes the exercise thoroughly worthwhile. At worst, a blog is a public diary that forces accountability on the man (or woman) who ever exclaimed, "My life is an open book!".

A friend once said that I should enjoy blogging since editorializing comes naturally to me. Although it was probably meant as a veiled criticism, I chose to accept it as a broader recognition of my latent journalistic talents, and my desire to become an editor. Unfortunately, I never recovered from the shock of learning that the daily task of writing three editorials was usually delegated to one of the sub-editors, and abandoned the dream by the time I joined college.

I hope these pages will give me a second chance to put down my thoughts and opinions, and share my joys and disappointments (with untold millions!), without resorting to the royal pronoun of a sanctimonious sub-editor.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax,
Of cabbages, and kings,
And why the sea is boiling hot,
And whether pigs have wings."
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass