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Posts tagged ‘World’

Incredible India: A social experiment in travel.

Update: Thanks everyone for getting in touch. Keep up the enthusiasm! I’m working with a small bunch of you to refine the idea. If you’ve indicated your interest, I’ll keep you in the loop of developments. If you’re interested to join the initiative, feel free to drop me an email or a comment :)

India is a beautiful country. It’s richness of culture, natural wonders, people, traditions, festivals, landscapes, history, art, food, languages and wildlife, is as stunning as it is overwhelming. Even for an Indian, it’s impossible to explain in detail the diversity of India’s travel offerings or the riches in its every nook and corner.

Himalayas in India.

Himalayas in India. Photo credit: Wikitravel

So here I am, excited at the thought of a social experiment, aching to make my contribution to India’s economy, with an idea to facilitate tourism in India through social & social media collaboration. Here I am, inviting you to join me in this social experiment, because I know you’re aching to be that spark for India too.

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Remembering August 6th

Today marks the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and continues to send shivers down the spines of those that dare to reminisce. 64 years later, the world is still a cradle of hatred, cruelty and destruction.

Although we probably had our first tryst with World War II in 6th grade history textbooks, I deeply encountered the implications of war, weapons & death only in 9th grade literature. It tragically transformed historical numbers, facts and figures into real people, emotions and scars.
A doctor’s journal entry for August 6, 1945

The morning stretched calm, beautiful, and warm.
Sprawling half clad, I gazed out at the form
Of shimmering leaves and shadows. Suddenly
A strong flash, then another, startled me.
I saw the old stone lantern brightly lit.
Magnesium flares? While I debated it,
The roof, the walls and, as it seemed, the world
Collapsed in timber and debris, dust swirled
Around me – in the garden now – and, weird,
My drawers and undershirt disappeared.
A splinter jutted from my mangled thigh.
My right side bled, my cheek was torn, and I
Dislodged, detachedly, a piece of glass,
All the time wondering what had come to pass.
Where was my wife? Alarmed, I gave a shout,
‘Where are you, Yecko-san?’ My blood gushed out.
The artery in my neck? Scared for my life,
I called out, panic-stricken, to my wife.
Pale, bloodstained, frightened, Yecko-san emerged,
Holding her elbow. ‘We’ll be fine,’ I urged –
‘Let’s get out quickly.’ Stumbling to the street
We fell, tripped by something at our feet.
I gasped out, when I saw it was a head:
‘Excuse me, please excuse me –‘ He was dead:
A gate had crushed him. There we stood, afraid.
A house standing before us tilted, swayed,
Toppled, and crashed. Fire sprang up in the dust,
Spread by the wind. It dawned on us we must
Get to the hospital: we needed aid –
And I should help my staff too. (Though this made
Sense to me then, I wonder how I could)
My legs gave way. I sat down on the ground.
Thirst seized me, but no water could be found.
My breath was short, but bit by bit my strength
Seemed to revive, and I got up at length.
I was still naked, but I felt no shame.
This thought disturbed me somewhat, till I came
Upon a soldier, standing silently,
Who gave the towel round his neck to me
My legs, stiff with dried blood, rebelled. I said
To Yecko-san she must go on ahead.
She did not wish to, but in our distress
What choice had we? A dreadful loneliness
Came over me when she had gone. My mind
Ran at high speed, my body crept behind.
I saw the shadowy forms of people, some
Were ghosts, some scarecrows, all were wordless dumb –
Arms stretched straight out, shoulder to dangling hand;
It took some time for me to understand
The friction on their burns caused so much pain
They feared to chafe flesh against flesh again.
Those who could, shuffled in a blank parade
Towards the hospital. I saw, dismayed,
A woman with a child stand in my path –
Both naked. Had they come back from the bath?
I turned my gaze, but was at a loss
That she should stand thus, till I came across
A naked man – and now the thought arose
That some strange thing had stripped us of our clothes.
The face of an old woman on the ground
Was marred with suffering, but she made no sound.
Silence was common to us all. I heard
No cries of anguish, or a single word.

The moral microscope

Life is filled with contradictions, cliches, constants and conflicts. There are no absolutes, no black & whites. We tend to govern our lives with fundamental principles, but the rate at which these principles evolve is also the rate at which we mature. And with maturity comes a sense of incredulity at the things we have believed in,  prioritised and valued.

Personally, whenever I muse about moralities, and more now than ever, my arguments scatter on uneven grounds. On the one hand, life is way too short to assess each situation under the moral microscope and do what seems “right”, than simply embrace a moment and flow with it. This is particularly true when you purely believe in science, or disbelieve in any form of rebirth. Karma, I suppose, comes into play only in matters which exert an influence, good or bad, on others. On the other hand, however, a society devoid of morals will undoubtedly become a chaos fest, and the guilt does bear a certain inexplicable weight on the mind. I guess my dilemma is whether it is really worth contemplating, assessing and judging a situation based on its moral implications when its impact is, in all likelihood, negligible in even the smaller scheme of things.

There are so many issues which on face value are presumed to be right or wrong, prey to the fallacy of tradition. It is only when we open ourselves to re-evaluating them in context of our evolved values that we can find a perspective that was obvious all along. Take anything from abortion to suicide to mercy-killing, it fits. Modern-thinking might be tainted by just that, but it is our generation that will shade the blacks, whites and greys of tomorrow.

Advertising bites, 2009

Creativity can never be drained out of advertising. I don’t know if sales will increase post these ads, but smiles definitely will.

An incredible Incredible India TV commercial by Nirvana films.

A wonderfully executed TV commercial by TATA Communications for its foreign markets (hence not featured on Indian TV).

A glocalized Intel ad for an Indian audience.

An Amul billboard I spotted in Bombay, targeting the 90% reservation proposal for SSC students by the Maharashra government. Never doubt the power of the freedom of speech in a democracy!

Amul billboard ad

What are your favorites this year?

Education reforms in India

The Congress came to power with big promises this year (as all governments post all elections), and much to the credit of the academic party that it is, I am proud to say that I see hope for India, believing, rather optimistically, that Kapil Sibal’s proposed education reforms will be implemented.

I must confess that I am an Indian news channels’ addict, despite the trash that they feature and hype, and have followed all day, the vision of Kapil Sibal, India’s HRD minister and a Harvard alumni. My rants on education finally find some relief, at least in acceptance of the fact that our education system is a breeding ground for stress, due to its superficial emphasis on results. The man who led India’s first expedition to the Arctic and represented the country at the Davos economic forum, has now become the harbinger of relief in the Indian student life.

In an NDTV exclusive with Barkha Dutt, Kapil Sibal proposed the following:

  • Scrap the compulsory class 10 board exam, for it is merely a source of unneeded pressure for both students and parents. For a student studying within the same institution, an internal assessment is sufficient to determine the subjects he must pursue further. However, a provision will be made for an optional all-India exam for students entering pre-university / junior college after class 10.
  • Invite FDI in the education sector as India becomes an attractive economy. However, even big names like Harvard and Wharton must adhere to Indian norms, both in terms of fee, and reservations, strategically termed affirmative action by Mr Sibal. The latter is an argument I must reserve for a post which shall be featured soon.
  • Improve the quality and standard of primary education in government schools, which by the Right to Education bill is meant to be free for all.

I am already smiling. When a learned man hits the nail right on its head and promises to bring about change, we know that the future of a nation is in safe hands. I am tempted to forget all the empty assurances ever given to us by our various governments, and watch in pride as our country is steered upon this new path.

This is only the beginning.

Justice shining?

I am trying to stifle the fan within me as I write this post, because objectivity is important. There is a 4-letter word doing the rounds on Indian news channels and I cannot hold my silence any more. My intention here is merely to weigh the arguments I have been constructing in my head since June 16, rant about the media, and assess the state of affairs in my dear country.

If you haven’t figured out yet, I am talking about Shiney Ahuja. The 4-letter word is rape.

I quote from Wikipedia (which I am way more tempted to trust as a source than everything that appears as breaking news on CNN IBN, NDTV, Headlines Today and the like):

On the evening of Sunday, June 14 2009, a household maid working at Ahuja’s house lodged a compliant with the Mumbai Police alleging that Ahuja raped her when they were alone that same afternoon. She further claimed that he threatened her life to prevent her from disclosing the incident.

At first glance, or if you have already been victimized by the media’s daily rants during the initial days of his arrest, the case might sound straightforward. He’s a celebrity and a guy, she’s female and she’s poor. He HAS to be wrong.

Before you cringe at where this post might lead, remember that I belong to the weaker sex, and I am very aware of the extent to which mankind is capable of stooping. I know that everyday, our country witnesses a shameful number of rape cases, in the Capital, in The Valley, even in our City of dreams.

In a country so frequented by this heinous crime therefore, an accused person is deemed guilty until proven otherwise. And of course, our media ensured it stands by that.

1. He is a celebrity: Weakest argument. Think about it; given his status and physical appearance, he could, forgive my candor, indeed get paid for the act that he allegedly forcibly performed on his victim.  In fact, the very celebrity status makes it that much easier and tempting to frame him.

2. The victim’s testimony: Gone are the days when a woman’s dignity, her pride in her sanctity, could be taken at face value and her word accepted as evidence. The greed for money has darkened even the virtue of innocence our society once hailed as sacred; undoubtedly we have progressed, and going by the case made for The White Tiger, it may even be justified. A conspiracy theory about the victim’s boyfriend being in huge debt is already breaking the news.

3. He confessed: So says the media, as tipped by the police. I hate to say it, but if the prevalence of corruption among our safe-keeping force is to be believed, my best guess is that it couldn’t find a better source of income than demanding bribe of a celebrity. According to his lawyer though, he has made no such confession. Either way, any confession made out of court is not accepted by the law as evidence.

4. His marital relationship: This is when the media retracted its endless accusations and began considering the possibility of Shiney being framed. So far, he was also being accused of a failed marriage, by you know who. But in what I can only describe as a brave press conference, his wife gracefully stepped into the limelight and vouched for her husband.

I would love to hear your take if you have been following this case as closely as me.

I must agree and admit that in an accusation as sensitive and private as rape, evidence is hard to accumulate, and therefore justice hard to administer to either of the involved parties. I sure hope that the truth will surface in this, and in all such cases.

May justice prevail.

PS: On a lighter note & like my friend aptly said, Bollywood is fast!

Of Rural India & The Aasha Build

The soul of an Indian is incomplete without a journey into the heart of rural India. The 2 weeks I spent in the slum region of Hegdenagar / Kamanahalli (to which I partly owe my long absence from the blogosphere) has transformed my perspective on India’s development, and my own ambitions and issues.

Hegdenagar is an ignored little village, about an hour’s distance from Bangalore city, and a few decades’ development. Honestly though, I had imagined a replica of the Dharavi slums, and Hegnenagar’s cemented, albiet small and dilapidated houses, alleviated, if only for the shortest time, my anticipation of the living standards of our rural countrymen. I learnt later that most Dharavi-styled slums stand on illegal land, and Habitat India has fought its fair battle to abide by the law and take Hegdenagar through its first stage of development. The same houses which teased us with a heartening peek into rural life, home 8-10 families in their 300-350 sq-ft boundaries, math that left me bewildered. Constructing new homes for such families that could afford to move out formed the bulk of the physical aspect of our project. Unfortunately, sanitation, largely government terrain, is still ignored and untouched, and the stench of uncovered drains and waste threatens to curb any real progress.

We got our hands dirty and covered in cement and sand, shovelled and sifted sand and stones, lifted and transported stone bricks weighing 22 kgs, tore down and built and plastered walls, and experienced the hardships of construction workers while toiling under the scorching summer sun. But construction, even though a 9 to 4 task, was only a filler in our interaction with the residents of Hegdenagar, whose swarms of children breathed life into each sweaty afternoon, and whose women defined new levels of endurance in their heart-wrenching stories. However, what began as a construction project became, in no time, an immersion into what Aravind Adiga describes as the darkness in The White Tiger.


The Aasha Build joins Habitat's India Builds

Construction site I

Construction site I

Construction in progress

Construction in progress

The Aasha Build team with the kids of Hegdenagar & the half-built house

The Aasha Build team with the kids of Hegdenagar & the half-built house

Hegdenagar proved, among other things, that all children, irrespective of religion, upbringing and family income, dream the same dreams. Everyone wants to fly on a plane, devour chocolates and become a doctor. And everyone is united in spirit by cricket, which never failed to transform the narrow lanes of the village into a festival of cheering, hooting and fighting. The kids, with their innocent smiles and sparkling eyes, and their excitement and curiosity in befriending new people, evoked in us something more than sympathy in their vulnerable living conditions; a desire to inspire them so that someday, they too could see the world that lies beyond the borders of Hegdenagar, a sense of gratitude because unfair as it may be, the odds at birth were only slightly tilted in our favor, and a conviction that by virtue of those odds, we have the chance to impact the future of our country.

Sameena, nicknamed Taiba, wants to become the Prime Minister of India someday

Sameena, nicknamed Taiba, wants to become the Prime Minister of India someday

Sumera, The Aasha Build's official poster girl!

Sumera, The Aasha Build's official poster girl!



Bindu Aunty, affectionately named Rasna Aunty, a home owner whose Rasna rejuvenated us during all the building, with her kid

Bindu Aunty, affectionately named Rasna Aunty, a home owner whose Rasna rejuvenated us during all the building, with her kid

While The Aasha Build has altered my impression of rural India, Habitat India has strengthened my faith in the non-profit sector. Although Habitat For Humanity’s cause is projected purely as housing, Habitat India is involved in the lives of its beneficiaries to a commendable extent. In Hegdenagar, for instance, Habitat works with a smaller NGO called Birds, which directly oversees self-help groups in the region (a concept which demands a dedicated blog post). Birds runs a joint bank account for these women-only groups, supports microentrepreneurs, encourages savings, and ensures timely repayments of home loans for homes approved and built by Habitat; in short, Habitat and Birds together try to create some semblance of fair opportunity for all. Over the course of 14 days, I met some really inspiring, incredible people, who have dedicated their entire lives to causes they believe in. I hope to document their stories on The Aasha Build blog.

Tangibly, our team completed 2.5 houses, and contributed the cost price of 5 houses, which have been added to Habitat’s revolving housing fund. Intangibly though, the people of Hegdenagar showed me a face of India that I have sparingly dared to imagine. The hospitality and warmth demonstrated by the residents despite their modest living conditions was both suprising and touching. The hope that glows in the faces of its children tugged at our hearts, the innocence of their youth stirred an affection that I know will draw us back to the world that is rural India.

I’m entering this post into the Too busy to care syndrome contest. I am too busy to care, but want to do something. Jaago Re and are helping me do my bit for the society.

*Photos courtesy Deep & Aditya, The Aasha Build’s official photographers.

Tagaytay City, Philippines

Somewhere among the clouds lie the highlands of Tagaytay, green and misty, 2 hours away from the busy city life of Manila, the capital. It is here that I spent the weekend, treated to a gorgeous view of the Taal lake, and among people so warm and friendly that it almost felt like home.

View of the Taal volcano from the hotel

View from the hotel, overlooking the Taal volcano - A volcano within a lake within a volcano within another lake!

The clouds kissing the Taal volcano

The clouds kissing the Taal volcano

The trip was sponsored by Accenture, for a 3-day Student Leadership Conference (SLC), during which all of Taal Vista was filled with what I believe to be some of the brightest minds in the Philippines. It never ceases to amaze me that despite our geographical remoteness, the journey we undertake as students tends to bind us in no time at all, like we were always in it together. The SLC was styled with seminars conducted by senior Accenture executives, and intersparsed with team activities that made me feel like a college freshie again!

The highlight of the stay was the post-conference bonding with students from different parts of the Philippines, including Baguio, Cebu and Manila. It took me less than a day to become a fan of the Filipino culture, and it took them less than a day to appear as though they’ve all known each other forever! I admire how Filipinos are so supportive of each other, so full of life, so hospitable, and despite the language barrier, so welcoming.

I spent my last day sightseeing around Tagaytay. Low visibility due to the mist and clouds made a boat-ride to the Taal Volcano too unsafe, so we had to settle for People’s Park in the Sky, apparently the highest point in Tagaytay. It is the unfinished mansion of a former Filipino president, and offers a captivating view of the city and the volcano. The Picnic Grove, our second sight-seeing destination, is a family hangout, much like a mini park. I’m still thrilled by our Zip Liner ride there, a non-automated ride over the forest; it’s the closest I’ll probably ever get to flying!

View of the city from People's park

View of the city from People's park

Jeepney, a popular mode of transport

Jeepney, a popular mode of transport

On another note, this trip made me realize how Slumdog Millionaire has shaped people’s perceptions of India. Everyone seems to have watched the movie, some have memorized the lyrics to Jai Ho, and largely, most imagine India entirely as depicted in the movie. I even got asked if kids in India really jump into poop! If you’ve ever wondered, I’d like to direct you to this Slumdog review by my friend Pranav, or this one, by another friend, Varun.

Anyway, it was a quite a weekend, with my first gambling visit to a casino and my first encounter with San Miguel. I’m still beating myself about not staying longer and travelling, but hopefully, there will be a next time.

Till then, Sige!

Off the beaten track

College degrees are analogous to fashion trends. The ones that manage to attain critical mass sell like hot cakes, albiet periodically. The 80s were for med schools, the 90s saw students flock to engineering, the early 2000s started the fad of computer wizards, the last 4-5 years have generated an inordinate number of bankers, and the next few, I predict, will see the masses revert back to the doctors and engineers. In fact, fancy foreign banking experience, which once scored points for eligible bachelors (particularly Indian, since the arranged marriage concept is almost alien to other nationalities), has become quite the tabboo this season.

During my own time in college, I have seen many a talent wasted in the race for the most popular college degree. Off beat degrees, it seems, are still only for the daredevils, the rich & hence financially secure, and those who can’t make the academic cutoff of mainstream courses. Of course, there are those who discover only midway through college that they are not cut out for the rat race. However, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance after 4 years of (mindless) slogging, many continue to embark on the path that ignorance chose for them, getting sucked further into the conventional belief that off beat (non med, non engineering, non finance) talent is purely meant for hobbies.

It’s hard to foresee the future of a system that facilitates the decay of tremendous talent in the name of a ‘respectable’ profession. I earlier wrote a post contemplating if college education is overrated. Now, I think the mass-following of mainstream degrees is more to blame. Perhaps, post high-school, students need more time to discover real talent through exposure to off-beat fields. Perhaps, parents need to be more receptive and appreciative of their children’s abilities in alternate areas. Perhaps, we need to re-evaluate our system and re-examine whether it is the most efficient way of cultivating the generation of tomorrow. 

If you’re not sure about the kind of off-beat education I’ve been harping here about, this is a start.

“Of course there’s a lot of knowledge in universities: the freshmen bring a little in; the seniors don’t take much away, so knowledge sort of accumulates….” - Anonymous

Saturn & Stargazing

2009 is a special year in the night sky. The Earth is exactly at the same level as Saturn in space, allowing us Earthlings to catch a vertical view of the second largest planet in our solar system, a one in 15 years phenomenon. To celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, the Science Center in Singapore has opened up its Observatory for free stargazing sessions every Friday night. This week, the main telescope was aligned to focus on Saturn and its moons, and it made for a spectacular sight.

In the magnified view of the telescope, Saturn appears exactly like it was depicted in secondary school geography textbooks, complete with the rings. The rings, which are really pieces of dust and ice moving at tremendous speeds, look gorgeous! Of the 62 moons of Saturn, only 4 of the brighter ones were visible through the telescope, and appeared as though they were protecting the rings of Saturn. To the naked eye, or through a pair of binoculars, Saturn only appears as a bright star in the sky. It makes you realize the power of science. Galileo Galilei must have been quite a scientist to invent something as far-sighted as a telescope!

Saturn will shine in the night sky all the way till July. Meanwhile, Mars and Jupiter will be visible during the next couple of months only during the wee hours of the morning, at least in this southern half of the world (Singapore). 

During my stargazing session, it was also a delight to see Orion, the constellation with the 3 stars in a straight line (Orion’s belt). Sirius, from the Big Dipper constellation, was the brightest star in the sky and one of the easier ones to spot with the naked eye. The moon, despite being blinding in its waxing phase, revealed its inconspicuous craters under the inspection of binoculars. If this 8th grade geography sounds greek to you, refresh your memory here in an interactive version of the night sky.

The stargazing session has spiralled my interest in Astronomy. There’s so much we still don’t know about the night sky; perhaps we are just one discovery away from finding an alternate world.

Random fact of the day: Astronauts cannot cry in space because there is no gravity, so the tears can’t fall.


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