Bye bye, and back to earth

A few years from now, when posterity comes ambling around, I will be known as the guest blogger at Sepia Mutiny that got away. Got away with not visiting the North Dakota headquarters ever, got away with missing the traumatic initiation party (I definitely didnÂ’t want to be paddled by a guy, even a guy with great hair) that the mutineers reportedly throw and got away with maintaining the laziest guest blogging schedule on Sepia Mutiny ever, because I had Siddhartha to cover for me. Not too lazy though – at this rate I could’ve hit Manish’s weekly post count in just under three years, and that’s way more than most bloggers can claim.

But then, like all good things (please, keep the snickering down, it hurts me when you do that) this little stint must come to an end as well, and I must now go back to my own blog, where the sitemeter stats will be much easier to monitor. Thank God for that.

So here it is: Thank you all for a great time, and good bye. Continue reading

Black and White

Believe it or not, the word most frequently heard in cricketing circles today is a perfectly normal English word – not chucking, sledging, googly, fine-leg or doosra. Racism has always been lurking around the fringes of the game – when unapologetically segregationist South Africa was kept away from cricket, several (mostly) white players from Australia and England would sneak in to play a game or two, lured by the money; risking lifetime bans. Each quaintly labeled rebel tour would inspire a few articles condemning apartheid, and (predictably enough) British newspapers would write muted articles about why things weren’t really that bad, and why people shouldn’t get their undergarments into intricate knots over a mere game.

Neighboring Zimbabwe had an all-white cricket team as well, but that didn’t raise too many eyebrows because the team hardly won anything, but mostly because they played for a country ruled by a benign black dictator.

But today, things have changed. The benign dictator is not so benign anymore, and of late, he has been maintaining a punishing schedule – creating food shortages in his country by taking away farms from white farmers. But Robert loves playing games, and he is going to make time for cricket, punishing schedule or not. And how well he plays. First, he cleanses his team of all white players – using other people of course, why would a powerful man get his hands dirty? – and then obviously pleased with how clean the team looked, he is now on another cleaning spree – this time to get rid of all the good players, especially the pesky ones that want to get paid for their services.

Several interesting strategies have been employed in this round, including but not limited to robbing players of their money, death threats, divide and conquer. Meanwhile, the standard of cricket has dipped alarmingly in the country, and most games involving them bear a more than passing resemblance to games involving the Atlanta Hawks. But Mugabe doesn’t know that because he has no time for the NBA. Plus now his team is all black, and isn’t that good enough?

Meanwhile, events in Australia are ensuring that things stay balanced on the racism front. Crowds at cricket matches in Australia are always a bit more, um… boisterous than crowds elsewhere, possibly due to a lot of beer and not too many bathrooms on the grounds, but this year they’ve taken their bad behavior to new depths. People have learnt new words, and are not hesitant to try them out on visiting cricket teams.

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Fun, Frolic and Heavy Lifting

Yesterday was Thai Pusam – the most important festival for the Indian community in Malaysia. The festival is celebrated in honor of the Hindu God Karthikeya – the younger son of Shiva and falls around the full moon day in the Tamil month of Thai. There is some dispute about what Thai Pusam actually commemorates – several versions exist, but the most popular one is that it is the birthday of Karthikeya.

Thai Pusam is a giant carnival – an long stretch of road leading to the local Karthikeya temple is cordoned off, and a large number of people – wearing equally large quantities of jewellery – congregate for a few hours of fun tinted with devotion. In Penang, in spite of the constant drizzle, this year’s celebration was apparently one of the best attended – at least a hundred thousand people showed up. The street leading to the Waterfall Temple was lined with makeshift “water tents” – most sponsored by multinationals – that provided colorful liquids for free to anyone that showed up.

Among the visitors that passed on the refreshments were the Western tourists armed with Sony Handycams and increasingly incredulous expressions – because Thaipusam has another side to it. Belief has it that Karthikeya would grant the wishes of people who visit His temple on Thaipusam bearing burdens (called Kavadis) and over the years people have interpreted the belief as meaning that the more pain you inflict on yourself – increasing the burden – the more the odds are of your wish being granted.

At its simplest [the kavadi] may entail carrying a pot of milk, but mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common. The most spectacular practice is the vel kavadi, essentially a portable altar up to two meters tall, decorated with peacock feathers and attached to the devotee through 108 vels pierced into the skin on the chest and back. Fire walking and flagellation may also be practiced. It is claimed that devotees are able to enter a trance, feel no pain, do not bleed from their wounds and have no scars left behind. However, some of the more extreme masochistic practices have been criticized as dangerous and contrary to the spirit and intention of Hinduism.

The largest Thaipusam celebrations take place in Malaysia and Singapore. The temple at the Batu Caves, near Kuala Lumpur, often attracts over one million devotees and tens of thousands of tourists. The procession to the caves starts at the MahaMariamman Temple in the heart of the city and proceeds for 15 kilometers to the caves, an 8-hour journey culminating in a flight of 272 steps to the top. In Malaysia, although rare, scenes of people from different ethnic groups and faiths bearing “kavadi” can also be seen. Interestingly, Thaipusam is also increasingly being celebrated by the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. [Link]

An elaborate refreshment tent; there must’ve been several hundreds of these along the street.

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Double baggin’ it

Shiladitya Sengupta was on the subway in Boston when he saw someone selling balloons that contained smaller balloons inside them. If you’ve seen one of those things, you’ll know what a hideous racket they can make when some young swine with a sharp object gets close to them. But instead of exhibiting the normal adult human reflex of covering up both ears in anticipation, Shiladitya dug into his roots and exhibited the normal desi reflex: He started thinking about work.

Sengupta, luckily for us, was a postdoctoral associate at one of the biology labs at MIT, and was part of a team that was working on a treatment for cancer. The double balloon thing eventually led his team to develop something called nanocell cancer treatment.

The January edition of India New England carries a profile of Sengupta, who was one of the five desis on TR35 – the list of top young technology innovators last year.

Sengupta, an assistant professor for Harvard Medical School and MIT, came to the United States in 2001 after receiving his doctorate in pharmacology from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He is originally from New Delhi, India, and he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. Sengupta now lives in Waltham, Mass., with his wife, Shivani, who also teaches at MIT.

What Sengupta developed for cancer treatment stems from the idea of a balloon within a balloon. One balloon carries a drug to shut down the blood supply, and the second, smaller balloon carries a drug to kill the cancer. [Link]

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Anatomy of a List

Every year, the men’s website releases a list of the 99 hottest celebrities on this planet. Millions of people vote to pick their favorite celebrity, and men the world over are more interested in the results of this poll than ones that pick the majority leader in the House of Representatives. I know, men are shallow. However, I am not one of those men. I care. I am also against the crass commercialization of women. But sometimes, one has to make sacrifices for the sake of an audience, and so this year, I am setting aside my usual apathy to take on the unpleasant task of scouring the list for hot desi women.

There is something in this post for everyone, though: the righties can be indignant about the clothes these women wear; the lefties can fume about the list being predominantly white. The others can gawk.

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Air Strikes from the Left

It has been said and said again several times over, but here is something that bears repeating: India has the worst airports in the world. Our escalators open up unexpectedly and swallow kids; our toilets are horribly bad; our conveyor belts are too small to hold all the bags from a single plane (leave alone the 3 that arrive at one time); sleeping is impossible and even if you escape the airport in one piece, you still haven’t escaped the airport mafia.

And it is only going to get worse – the rapid growth in the Indian economy and the mushrooming of budget carriers in the country means that in a couple of decades from now, Delhi and Mumbai will be as busy as Chicago or Atlanta are today. Imagine. The solution to the problem is quite simple of course: A lot more money, which the Government does not have. As early as 1997, the Government of India released an “airport modernization policy” that said among other things that:

Looking at the quantum of investment required the answer to all the problems lies in the infusion of private — including foreign — investment in this sector. [Link]

Meaning, we don’t have the money. And we think the way to fix these airports is by handing them off to someone else. After a lot of hemming and hawing, the policy finally looked set to take off this year with the Government inviting competitive bids to privatize the management of the two biggest airports in the country: Delhi and Mumbai.

Then the bidding process ran into trouble, and so they appointed a technical committee (but of course) that evaluated the bidding process and okayed it, and then another committee was appointed to make sure the technical committee knew what it was doing. And finally, a decision was made: The bidding process produced a couple of winners. Nice.

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Wrist friendly reads

Now that some kind soul has reopened Anna’s post on “A Suitable Boy”, I’ll use it as a segue to write a post about a few lightweight Indian books published recently.

Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut is an edgy, cynical take on the life of Ritwik Ray, a young journalist in Patna. Patna Roughcut uses a fractured narrative to trace the events and people that shape Ritwik’s life – from his childhood in Patna, to Delhi where he goes to college, and then his return to Patna with dreams of writing a book. It “is a story of love, idealism and sexual awakening” – a refreshingly different theme for a desi book. Chowdhury’s prose is delightfully unadorned – the rough, untrammelled writing is just what a book like this requires. This is by far the best book out of India I’ve read in a long, long, long time.

Chandrahas Choudhury, in his review at The Middle Stage says

… the last section of the book, “Waiting for Godard”, is one of the very best pieces of extended prose I’ve read this year. [...] Patna Roughcut is worth your money just for this section alone. [Link]

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Spit, don’t swallow

Chennai these days is littered with hoardings.The large ones have all been taken up by advertisements for saree stores and cell phones, and so the quirky ads have been relegated to occupying the small amount of space on top of bus shelters. Once such advertisement that is all over the city is for a brand of cooking oil, featuring a rather healthy looking film actress suggesting mysteriously that for a healthy life, people should practise oil-pulling. I was consumed by questions. Pulling oil? From where? Is it fun?

Unable to bear the anxiety, I asked my dad what in the world oil-pulling was and he handed me a magazine that featured a six page advertisement on the benefits of oil-pulling therapy. That’s right, therapy. And it is not fun.

The advertisement was not really an advertisement. It was a study on the benefits of oil-pulling commissioned by the oil manufacturer and conducted by a doctor who was featured on the front page of the spread. The results of the study can be summarized thus:

A group of people were asked to take a couple of teaspoons of pure, unadulterated sesame oil, and pour into into their respective mouths. After this, they were asked to swirl the oil in their mouths for a period of fifteen to twenty minutes. Care had to be taken to suck the oil through their teeth.

Eww. The ad continues.

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The Truth About Sets and Props

Late last week, just as Manish was zeroing in on me after scouring the entire blogosphere to find a guest blogger who could make the rest of the Sepia Mutiny gang look good, a friend approached me with a plan. I was on my first visit to Hyderabad – the rapidly growing capital of Andhra Pradesh – and the friend was trying to convince me to go to Ramoji Film City, a Universal Studios type setup on the outskirts of the city.

“But this is not like Universal Studios at all. It is a functioning studio, not a theme park. No trip to Hyderabad is ever complete without a visit to the film city. It is a happening place. We should go.”

“Happening place? I see you’ve never been to K-Mart.”

“No, but this is happens to be largest movie studio in the world. Sometimes you can even see live movie shootings. Imagine seeing Nagarajuna in action. We are going.” This from the increasingly hysteric friend, who was starting to drool.

So we went. And it was a very disturbing experience. I might have grown up building elaborate temples for film actresses, but I know as well as you that not everything I see in movies is true. Like the blood spurting out of people is tomato ketchup. That the vamps are all drinking Sprite, not vodka. That there is a small possibility the email Aishwarya Rai wrote to me asking me to go check out her topless pictures on the internet may not be from her. All this I know. But then, this trip proved to me, there is so much more to add to that list. Such as the Taj.

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