Vantage point

Thursday, May 20, 2021

My Fossilized Meal

This is a short story. My attempt at a bit of sci-fi. 


It is rare for me to have three burners going when I'm cooking just for myself. But I was feeling a bit more tense than usual and cooking a lot relaxes me. Paying attention to all 3 dishes cooking at the same time helps take my mind off everything else.

So the ringing doorbell was an unnecessary distraction. I was not expecting any deliveries or visitors so this had to be someone selling either a religion or a political candidate. Notice how hardly anyone is selling anything commercial door to door these days? It's either religion or politics.

I thought that just ignoring the bell would make the person go away and kept tossing the ingredients in my wok while keeping an eye on the simmering poaching broth.

But the ringing was persistent and it got too annoying. So I took the four steps from the kitchen to the front door and opened it, ready to slam it shut soon.

It was a young woman, very eager and keen looking.

"Mr. Naik?" 

"Yes?" I said tentatively, also worried about the hot wok.

"May I ask you a few questions for my homework please? I'm what you might call a graduate student."

Huh? This was different from religion or politics or even vacuum cleaners. This was something completely new, right down to the accent. Living in New York, you hear almost all accents possible, but this one seemed strangely alien.

"Listen, could you come back in a while? I'm cooking!"

"Oh so very good!"

And this wiry tall young woman, about 6 ft 4, just stepped inside my apartment and stared at my kitchen fascinated.

"It is truly so good to see this, Mr. Naik. Is that garlic burning?"

It indeed was! I rushed past her towering but lithe figure into our tiny Manhattan kitchen, unsure about what to make of this unexpected visitor. She did not seem dangerous or deranged. She had more of a girls scouts selling cookies type personality. But still, here she was, in my kitchen, staring at me trying to salvage the noodles.

"Are you new to the building?" I asked, sniffing the poaching broth and gently pouring oil in the 4 holes in the thalipeeth.

Our building doormen did a thorough job of enforcing the no soliciting rule. So if she was here, she was either a thief or a resident.

"It's so much fun to see this kind of fire." she stared at my burners with fascination.

"You have an electric coil? Induction?" 

"No." she distractedly replied, while tapping her forehead with her right index finger every couple of seconds.


"Oh I could not possibly explain to you how we cook, Mr. Naik. It's almost impossible in such a short time!"

"Why not? I'm an intelligent man, they tell me. Try me. And also please tell me why you are here. Ah fuck!" I could smell that some garlic was indeed burnt. I opened the window and started the exhaust fan.

"How would you explain..." she tapped her forehead a couple of times "...An iPhone to Queen Victoria?"

That question was bizarrely specific enough for me to ignore my food for a few seconds.

"Are you calling me Queen Victoria?"

"No, I'm saying I'm from the future!" she impatiently crowded into the kitchen with me and started noticing and murmuring the ingredients while tapping her forehead.

"You're from the future? Well that explains the accent, haha." I tried some humor.

"Exactly." was her earnest response.

And then she just kept looking all over the kitchen and making mental notes, literally! I thought she would give some fantastical explanation. But she really was more interested in inventorying my kitchen.

At this point, I thought about turning the stove off and calling building security, maybe even 911. Sure, she seemed harmless enough, but this was a young woman of indeterminate ethnicity and a strange accent claiming to be from the future. In my apartment. Saying she was from the future.

"So when in the future are you from?" I asked.

"What pancake is that? That's the one my assignment is stuck on!" she was pointing at the thalipeeth.

"Bajri.... pearl millet." I was having trouble keeping up with her rapid topic transitions.

She repeated what I said while tapping her forehead. I later told the men from the government that it might have been like an implant for her to look up or note information. Like invoking Siri or Alexa but from the future.

"Oh, thank you. It's a grain native to....Asia, right?" she was staring at the thalipeeth fascinated.

"Could you move a little?" I clicked my tongue in annoyance, because I had to flip the thalipeeth and I didn't want to splatter hot oil on this weird new neighbor.

"Oh, sorry." she said, and kept tapping her forehead. At that time, I thought, someone with a disorder of some kind, but harmless. I now think she was taking pictures for her assignment.

"You didn't answer my question. When in the future are you from?" I tried to get her back on track.

"I could tell you, but it won't work." she said, peering into my box of Indian spices.

"Try me." I said.

"Okay." She said. Then her lips moved but I only heard 


"How did you do that?" I was stunned enough to stand there holding a ramiken with a raw egg in my hand.

"Do what?" I could hear her again.

"The beep sound! It sounded like on TV when something is beeped. But in my ear! How did you do that?" I was barely able to keep my wits about me at this point. It did not feel like a dream. But what was that?

"That's not me, Mr. Naik. That's the Time Travel Censors." she shrugged and stared at a black cardamom pod on the counter.


"I'm so sorry!" she suddenly turned and said. "I have been so distracted by your kitchen. I should have told you this before. I'm a graduate student here for a research approved project through chronal causality proof time travel, regulated by the Time Travel Censors."

I keep a small foot stool in the kitchen. I sat on it as I felt a little light headed.

"Sorry, the first realization of time travel existing can cause that. But please let me finish. I'm working on a research project on ancient meal fossils found in major cities at the time of global crises. This meal you are cooking is one of the fossils assigned to me."

I stared back at her wondering if I should be freaked out more by her imagination or her equanimity. She was telling me all this like it was today's weather.

"Our chemical analyses were inconclusive about the pancake. So I applied for a CCPTT ticket. We can make strictly regulated and censored time travel trips of limited durations for research purposes. And the systems make sure we are staying true to the past and not altering the future. My present."

This made the sci-fi nerd in me come out.

"But by just telling me that you're from the future, haven't you altered it?"

"Nah, that's what the censors are there for."

"I'm sorry, you keep saying censors. Do you mean sensors?"

"No, no, censors. Who will make sure that I can't give you any information that you could use like a..." she tapped her forehead a couple of times "..a Biff Tannen. I don't know what that means. Do you?"

"Back to the Future?"

Tap. Tap.

 "Yes. So anything I say that could alter the timeline is strictly regulated and censored. The information flow can be only one way. Like me learning that this pancake was not actually indigenous to North America, but was something made by an immigrant from across the globe! Thank you! This is going to be big at our presentations!"

"Glad to be of help." 

She suddenly shuddered, frowned, and smiled. 

"Mr. Naik, that's my 2 minute warning. Thank you for your help. If you have any questions, I can answer them. And the censors will decide what you hear."

She tapped her forehead once, held it, and blinked. Was this real? It felt real. I should tweet this!

"What if I tell people about this? Post it on social media?"

"Oh you will. You have to. Or I could not be here!"

"What do you mean?"

"The Time Travel Department only approves travel to instances where historical archaeological social media databases note someone mentioning a visit from someone from the future. The only way my visit here was approved was if you posted...Or will post... Something on social media about this. If historical records have no mention of a time traveler, those moments are off limits."

"So wait, you came here to research this meal which is.... fossilized? So I don't eat any of this?"

"Well, not exactly, it's just that BEEEEEEE..Am I beeping again?"

"Yes!" I put my pinky in my ear to get rid of the ringing.

"I guess they are really thorough about not wanting to tamper with the timeline."

"So what am I supposed to post on social media that will let you know in the future?"

"I don't know. I didn't see your posts. I just said this is the fossil I have, from this person, and the brain searches the databases and if you made a record, it's approved. They also have the chronolinnaeus records."

"The what?"

"Oh right, early 21st century." she blinked hard. "Okay, I'll be going soon. Thank you for this info. Could I maybe get a taste of that bajri pancake? I don't know if it's allowed but it smells so good."

"Sure." I turned around. "OWWW!"

I burnt my finger as I pulled it off the stove. I turned around. She was gone. My door was still locked. The apartment empty.

How do I post on social media about this without sounding like a nutcase? It would be a paradox if I did not. But if I do, how do I get anyone to take me seriously? If I don't, how will there be a record for her to get approval in the future?

Maybe I should write it as a short story on my blog and tweet about it!

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Pointless ATM

Haven't blogged in years. Breaking the silence with a short story from one of the many unfinished novels on my google drive. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Cranked this baby out in half an hour! Though it did mean I don't use any quotes. Blame it on Cormac McCarthy!


This ATM is so pointless! I said to my wife on the phone.

What do you mean? How can an ATM have a point or not?

Haha, no, sorry, I'm a little high.

I figured, she giggled. Anyway, why is the ATM pointless?

I knew she was humoring me for humor. She loved hearing my high ramblings. But I still felt compelled to explain my profound insight to her, like only someone really high would.

Okay, so there's a Chase bank branch across the street. Right across the street! A proper full fledged bank branch! Big parking lot. Lots of cars. Let me count. 22 cars! Across the street!

Okay, she patiently said like only a spouse of over a decade could. And I read it to mean, yeah, honey, I love you, but I'm hungry, so get to the fucking point.

Why do they need to put a drive through ATM here across the street? Why not incorporate it into..... Excuse me? I'm sorry?


No, honey, there's someone here asking me something. 

Do you have some cash on you man, he asked. He was a tall skinny white dude with tattoos, riding a kids' bike. He was in a tattered tank top and jeans, and had sunken cheeks.

Umm, no, sorry, I said, I'm talking to my wife. 

He opened his mouth and I felt like he moved his hand towards his waist, but then stopped, and put it back on the handlebar. Cool, he nodded and rode off.

Sorry, it was a guy asking for money.

Ah okay, she said nonchalantly. We live in New York.

Anyway, so what is the point of putting just this one drive-through ATM in this property that could easily fit a convenience store? You have a big-ass property right across the street! Put it there!

You should call David Chase, she said tartly.

Chase bank is not run by David Chase! That's the guy who created The Sopranos!

I know! You sound as deranged as Tony right now. Hahaha. Okay, honey, I love you, but I'm hungry and I can't eat and talk at the same time. So unless there's anything else...

Nope, nothing! You don't stay married to a woman that long without knowing never to keep her away from food, no matter how many more high insights you have.

Bye. See you tomorrow!

During the last few sentences of the conversation, I had noticed that skinny dude circling around near me, almost like he was sizing me up. I didn't want to alarm my wife, because I was just a few feet away from my motel door. Even if the guy was, in the rarest of possibilities, a mugger, I could just run to the door and be safe.

Or maybe I should just give him whatever cash I have. He looks emaciated! Oh, but I need to leave a tip for the motel cleaning staff. At least five bucks. No, maybe ten. Yeah, I could keep ten maybe. Excuse me?

You sure you don't got any cash? His voice definitely had a menace to it as he pulled up between me and the motel door. His hand now swiftly went behind his back, as if to suggest he had a gun there.

I knew he didn't. He had been sizing me up. I had ended up sizing him up without meaning to. When I get high, I observe everything in insane detail. I had noticed his butt-crack over the waist of his jeans as he rode away. There was nothing there.

But I was high, I was in a happy generous mood, practically swimming among the clouds.

How much do you need?

Don't you fucking stall on me, you raghead!

Raghead? Is that really necessary?

Give me everything you have, asshole, he pushed his bike between my legs.

So I don't know if I mentioned this before. But I was high. And I reacted to this mugging in the following order.

First, I was very much amused and excited that holy fuck, after all these years in America, I'm finally on the receiving end of a genuine honest to god mugging! How cool is that? And in a dark motel parking lot too! Almost like something out of Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. He even looks like Jesse Pinkman. No! Skinny Pete!

Who the fuck you calling skinny, asshole?


Suddenly I'm staring at a gun! Where the fuck did that come from? I still have no idea where he had stashed it if I could see his butt-crack a minute ago.

Okay, yeah, just a second. Here, well, I have umm...Hmm.... I'm thinking to myself... Will he kill me anyway? He called me a raghead! But nah, it's not worth it. Here is 38 bucks. I was hoping to leave ten bucks as a tip.

Fuck that, he growled and snatched the cash from my hand. Get your tip from the ATM, he pointed towards it with his head and laughed. And then he suddenly stopped and stared at my wallet. My Chase card was right up front.

Maybe because I was high, it felt like I read his brilliant plan ages before he even thought of it and started cracking up a bit. Not advisable against a gun-toting mugger.

The fuck you laughing at? Get some cash from the ATM for me, dipshit! Walk, or else!

Okay, okay. I raise my hands and start walking towards the ATM. I can't control my laughter. Fuck, I'm high! LOL!

Fucking stop laughing, he half punches me, which amuses me even more. I could have easily taken him if not for the gun.

I'm sorry. We reach the ATM machine. He's holding the gun between us, to hide it from any cars driving by. I'm still giggling.

Put it in!

Title of your sex tape!

You're really starting to get on my nerves, you know that? This time he pokes the gun deep into my side, and for the only time that night, I genuinely fear for my life. 

I'm high, I confess impulsively.

He looks taken aback and unsure of how to process this new information. Just get the cash, he says.

I put the card in. The PIN prompt pops up. I instinctively give him a look that is meant to ask for privacy. He, bizarrely, looks away!

I enter the right pin. The menu shows up. And I started laughing again.

What the fuck do you keep laughing at? He really pushes the gun hard into me. Title of my sex tape?

You see there over that?


Sorry. I'm high. You see that over there? The small camera? Every ATM transaction is recorded. That's what I'm cracking up at. You could have just walked away with 38 bucks. Now you're on candid camera!

He noticed the camera and I saw a look of panic flash across his face. 

Listen, buddy, relax. I have an idea. Listen to me. Sometimes I shock myself with how persuasive I can be. He actually listened!

Just give me ten bucks for the tip, take the 28 bucks and walk away. I won't say anything to anyone. I won't call the cops, I swear to Jesus! I swear to Jesus!

There was a cross tattooed on his shoulder. That's why I tried the Jesus angle.

I continued speaking. To the cameras, it will just look like two friends talking. See, let's look up at the camera and smile.

And he actually did it! He took the 28 bucks, left me with a Hamilton for the tip, and rode away. I was still laughing.

I took my phone out and with great effort, managed to stop laughing. I don't think 911 operators would take a giggler seriously. 

I don't believe in Jesus. And he called me a raghead!


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Home Cooking Tips for Indian Grad Students Abroad: Chapter 1 Using the oven for Indian style vegetables

I decided to start with this topic because it's one learning I am very proud of. And have gotten good responses about on Twitter and even in a podcast.

For a time-strapped young desi abroad, the quick and easy home meal is dal-rice or khichdi or some version of it. Pressure cook in bulk, temper, and done for a few meals. Vegetables are good for you, but making a sabji/bhaaji, standing there, sheesh, so time consuming. You have deadlines to meet.

I am here to share with you a simple and time-saving technique that approximates well the taste of home-cooked desi style dry sabji. Roasting it in the oven. The oven, which is standard in any kitchen in the US, goes mostly un-utilized by desis, unless it's for occasional baking. My own oven gets used regularly for making sabji.

In my personal opinion, oven-roasted dry sabji tastes even better, but more on that later.

You might say, what's so revolutionary or novel about roasting vegetables? We have all had roasted vegetables. Big whoop.

I am saying that go beyond the typical Westernized Food Network-ish roasted vegetable dishes. Go beyond the asparagus, the green beans, the baby potatoes, brussels sprouts, etc. Try it on your other favorite or even daily vegetables. And use your favorite Indian spices. Put mustard seeds and/or cumin seeds in it. And it works perfectly.

But but but what about tempering/tadka/fodni you ask? We will come to that soon.

The broad recipe is very straightforward and adaptable

- Preheat the oven to at least 425F (higher if you like more char).
- Chop your vegetable the way you would to cook it on stovetop (my favorites are cauliflower, okra, eggplant, easily available in non-desi stores).
- Spread as flat and evenly as you can in a roasting pan or baking sheet.
- Add chopped onions and chilies if you cook it that way.
- Add salt, and whatever desi spices you would use on a stovetop. Sprinkle mustard/cumin seeds if you like.
- Drizzle with oil. Not butter or olive oil Western style. Any other oil will do - peanut, coconut, mustard, sunflower, canola, grapeseed, even bacon fat if you prefer.
- Mix well, ideally with your hands so the oil and spices coat all the surfaces of the vegetable.
- Put it in the oven.
- Now relax for about 10 minutes or so. Then take out the mix and stir it.
- Return to the oven
- Most vegetables will be done in 20-30 minutes. Depends on the vegetable and the size of the pieces
- (Optional) End with a 5 minute high broil. I do this because I like the crispy char. But you can skip it if you like.

What you get will be almost exactly like the stove-top stir-fried dry/sukka sabji, if not better. Cuts actual time spent in half. And is particularly brilliant for cooking okra. More on that later..

The Tadka Concern

Whenever I have mentioned this alternative method to desi friends, the most common objection I get is what about tadka? Without tempering, how will we get the same flavor? Tadka is awesome, they say, tadka is irreplaceable, they insist. To which I very politely say, pish posh. If you use the oven, you will get the same, if not better flavor, without the tadka.

To do that, we need to go through a small chemistry lesson. And I am explaining this as an amateur food science enthusiasts, so any experts or scientists reading this, please correct me.

What is tadka exactly? You heat oil until it's very hot, then add some solid stuff (mustard, cumin, chilies, whatever), then add some spices (hingi, haldi, mirchi,....), stir for a minute or two, and then add your vegetable.

Tadka brings out flavor, they say. Correct. But why does it bring out flavor? Because a lot of these spices, whole or powdered, release or transform flavor-imparting chemicals only at very high temperatures. The kinds of temperatures that only oil can reach, not water. And the vegetables we eat are mostly water, so the highest temperature they can reach is roughly the boiling point of water, if that.

So the tadka, at high temperatures (about 400F or higher), extracts the flavors. Then you add the vegetable and mix. And the average temperature of the whole thing in your pot goes down. And then when you keep heating, it goes up slowly as the vegetable cooks. Until it reaches somewhere around 200-212F (the water limit). And that's how you get cooked vegetable with the tadka-extracted flavors.

If you follow the oven roasting method with a temperature of at least 425F, and an oil with a high enough smoking point (which is why I said no butter, no olive oil), you get the same basic effect. The spices, mixed with oil on the surface of the vegetable and around reach the same temperature as in a tadka. And roughly the same flavors come out. The end result is more or less the same as cooking the whole thing on stove-top, unless you have a really particular palate.

I personally think this method results in "better" sabji, at least for me. I like my vegetables crispy and with some char. Getting that char in a pot on a stove isn't as easy. It takes time and a lot of stirring. In the oven, spread out over a larger area, bigger proportions of the veggie's surfaces are exposed to the hot oven temperature. And that process happens easily and faster. Especially if you follow that optional broiling step in the end.

If your tastes lean less towards crispy or char and more towards softer and cleaner skin, adjust temperature or time accordingly.

The Okra Bonus

Bhindi is the most annoying sabji to cook on the stove. Because of the gooey sticky thing is releases, so you have to keep stirring forever until it dries. There are some tricks you can find online about how to reduce the mucilage, but none of those completely eliminate it.

The advantage about roasting okra in an oven is that you skip the mucilage phase completely. Even when you stir in 10 minutes, there will be no mucilage. And to understand why, here's another chemistry lesson.

The stickiness comes from a mix of sugar residues and glycoproteins present in the okra. As heat is applied to the okra, the viscosity of these chemicals, mixed with water released from the okra, starts increasing at about 120F. It keeps growing. Remember that pot-heating is not uniform. As you stir, the temperature of the whole thing slowly increased. As does the viscosity of the mucilage.

Until the temperature crosses a certain point, about 180-190F or so. At this point, the mucilage starts hardening. So the chemicals are still there. They just harden and add to the crispy texture. Which is why as you keep cooking and stirring okra, eventually that sliminess will go away.

Enter the oven. Or rather, let the okra enter the oven. Which is already at 425F. Pretty high! Those mucilage inducing chemicals released cross the viscous phase and hit the solidifying phase of 190F within seconds. The slimy phase still happens. Just happens too fast for you to realize.

And what you get is crispy and well-done okra.


So that's my first real "cooking tip" here. Use the oven to cook dry vegetables Indian style. Whoever I have suggested the technique to, among friends, family, and on Twitter, have given universally positive feedback. On the ease of cooking as well as the end taste.

Home Cooking Tips for Indian Grad Students Abroad: An Introduction

A cousin of mine recently came from India for grad school. She was talking to me about the thinking and effort involved in cooking "wholesome" Indian food regularly at home when living in the US. I said, I hear ya sister. I was in, and fresh off the, same boat over a decade ago when I started my PhD. And I started sharing some tips and tricks about cooking I have learned over that period.

And I realized, damn, I have a lot of wisdom to share. Not just cooking, but even shopping for desi ingredients, and suchlike. Instead of leaving it all confined to a whatsapp chat with her, I thought of starting a series of posts summarizing my main learnings.

Most people who come from India to the US, either for grad school or to work, have never cooked at home regularly. Many have never cooked at all, and learn the basics before coming. This is because you either live with your parents and eat from their kitchen. Or you can very easily hire a cook to come home everyday. Or you can subscribe to a tiffin/dabba service.

Then you come to the US and it's a completely different world. And there are many issues. Obviously, you cannot afford a cook here on your income. Except for a couple of rare exceptions like New Jersey, Bay Area, and maybe Dallas, Indian tiffin services are either unavailable, or expensive. And of course, grad students and most professionals have a time crunch. So the time left for cooking is very limited.

Then there is the problem of sourcing or shopping. You may not have easy access to an Indian grocery store at all. Even if you do, its selections might be limited. Even if there are big well-stocked desi stores nearby, maybe you don't have a car. So on and so forth.

Even if you do manage to do the basics at home like dal, rice, veggies, chicken curries etc, sometimes you have hankering for specific dishes that you grew up with. But which you won't get the in the typical Tikka-Masala-Garlic-Naan or Idli-Dosai-Bisibelebath restaurant nearby. For me, coming from Maharashtra, it ranged from vadapav to Marathi fish like surmai/pomfret to matki usal to dadpe pohey to manchow soup.

This series of posts is going to be me describing my learnings and my experiences, as a Maharashtra-raised guy who has spent 13 years in the US and is the primary cook in our household. Some of it will be more general. Some of it might be specific to the Pune-Bombay palate and cravings. It will be very open-ended.

Just so you know where I am coming from, cooking-wise, here is my initial story of dealing with these issues when I moved to the US. It includes details of my background and tastes. It will provide a better context for my posts.

Firstly, I have been cooking since I was something like 11 or 12 years old. My father taught it to me and I had a couple of childhood guy friends who also loved it. From then till age 26, I cooked on and off. Either alone or with friends. But it was mostly like a hobby. It was recreational. And it was usually something "special" or "unusual", the kind of stuff you would think of as a feast - biryani, kheema, paneer makhni, stuffed parathas, pizzas, burgers, get the idea.

I had never really cooked daily "wholesome" food (which in my community means mostly vegetarian and non-heavy meals). I lived at home till I was 22, so it was mostly mom who cooked. 22-24 I was in MBA school so it was the campus mess. 24-26, as a newly earning professional in Bangalore and Bombay, it was a LOT of eating out. And at home, either a cook or a tiffin.

Secondly, I love all kinds of foods and all kinds of meats and other animal proteins. No food restrictions whatsoever plus an adventurous spirit to boot.

So for the first 6-8 months in the US, I was happy to eat out at "budget" type places. It was all new and exotic for me. For a few weeks, my daily lunch was a BLT sandwich in the school cafeteria, because this was my first exposure to quality bacon. Even when I cooked at the home I shared with other grad students, I got all kinds of exotic (for me) meats and seafood from the nearby store and cooked them. So much beef many much tandoori turkey leg....and again so so very much bacon, you won't believe it.

It was only after I had gotten all that exploring and experimenting and bingeing out of my system that I started craving the simple pleasures of what for me was simple daily "wholesome" food. I put that word in quotes because what is wholesome for you might not be wholesome for me. But it will have a lot of commonalities across the pan-Indian palate. 

So, this is my series sharing the lessons I learned as a cash-strapped and time-strapped grad student. Many of these lessons took years to learn. I hope it is useful to people.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Indian-Americans and Spelling Bees: Adding some nuance

It's that time of the year again. The only night of the year when desi people dominate ESPN primetime in the United States. The Scripps National Spelling Bee. Yet again, the winner...or rather co-winners..came from the families of Indian immigrants.

This has been happening for over a decade now, and every year, the aftermath of the Bee in Indian media and Indian and Indian-origin social media follows a similar pattern. There are a few think pieces about why Indian-Americans are so good at spelling bees. Some folks go all uber-patriotic extolling the superior virtues of our intellectual tradition and what not (cue...Bhaaaaarrrraat maaata kiiii.......). And some folks sneer, indulging in a mild form of communal self-loathing. I don't have kids but my close Indian-American friends who do are very emphatic about how they will not make...or even let their kids participate in something as nerdy and inherently uncool as a spelling bee.

Through Twitter I came across this post that quotes Varun Grover's interview in the excellent excellent documentary I Am Offended (do watch if you haven't) which references spelling bees. That blog, and Varun in that documentary, are making a larger point about how the Indian education system is centered around rote learning, stifling creativity and basically preparing "middle managers". And that the success in spelling bees is a symptom of that.

While I agree with Varun and Auctorly on the larger problem, I don't think it is correct to link spelling bees to that problem. I see where they are coming from, and the reason for that is a couple of myths about spelling bees in general which merit some attention.

Myth #1 Spelling Bees are all about memorizing thousands and thousands and thousands of words, and regurgitating them on stage.

I used to think the same way, but it's not really that way. A few years ago, I had a long chat with a student of mine (I am a college professor) who in her school days had participated in the spelling bee. She didn't win, but talked to me about how much fun it was, and ended up giving me a different perspective on this activity that I too once sneered at. Then I read some more about it, watched the documentary Spellbound, talked to some more students over the years, and I think it is necessary to add some nuance to how we view the "sport".

Spelling bee as a contest is more about pattern recognition than just rote memorization. Don't get me wrong. Of course it is important to know and remember many many words to participate in a spelling bee. But the same is true of scrabble. Or crosswords. Or trivia quizzing. Heck, memorization is key even in chess. A serious chess player will have thousands of moves and games memorized.

Just like all those activities/sports, spelling bee is about, yes, having a memory bank of relevant information, but at the top level, it is often about recognizing patterns, working out clues, and then formulating an answer by accessing the relevant information from your brain.

You know how the kids ask for meaning, language of origin, use it in a sentence etc etc? It is not for theater. It has important information, and many times, can even help you make an educated guess at the spelling of a word you've never heard of by using what is basically pattern recognition.

Let me give you an example about how I, without memorizing any words, was able to correctly guess one of the words in the final this year. The word was chremslach. When it was first uttered, I thought it would start with "Kr" and maybe end with "che" or "kh". Then I heard that the word was Yiddish. And the meaning was a kind of passover pastry. Instantly I thought of a pastry that a Jewish deli near my house excels at - rugelach. The end sounded the same. So it had to end in -lach. And the different pronunciations of the starting syllable suggested chr not Kr. The repeated usage by the moderator further confirmed what I had in my mind. A pattern emerged and voila. There the spelling was.

I felt thrilled at having worked it out before the contestant answered. It was a thrill similar to the one I get as a trivia quizzer when I crack a cleverly framed Final Jeopardy style "workout-able" question. Or the thrill I get when I crack a particularly cryptic clue in crosswords.

The aforementioned student kept stressing about how much fun the whole thing was for her. She said it was a form of solving puzzles. And I saw what she meant. I asked her, isn't it boring to memorize thousands and thousands of words. She said no, she LOVES words (sidenote - she always wrote the most well-crafted and thoughtful term papers in my class). And again, I see her point.

When you enjoy any activity built on pattern recognition so much that you want to seriously compete in it, you don't think of the underlying memorization as a drab chore. I like to play scrabble semi-competitively, and it is fun for me to have those cruel 2 letter words memorized so I can gain advantage on the board despite not having great tiles. And I'm sure poker players don't think of probability calculations as mundane.

Myth #2 These desi spelling be winners will most likely end up as middle managers, code coolies, cogs in the corporate machine....just total drones.

Although it seems like Indian-Americans have been winning the bee for ages, in reality, it's been less than two decades that it has been happening consistently. So the sample of winners is not statistically significant, but from whatever I read in "where are they now" type stories, I saw very few, if any, ending up in those drone type jobs.

A lot of them were in some form of research, which to me, as an academic researcher, makes sense. Research is like the rigorous grown-up impactful form of pattern recognition that is built upon a deep memory bank of knowledge about a subject. A bunch of them were doctors and lawyers. One was a professional poker player (again, pattern recognition and memory). And so on. I even googled a few names of winners and always found that the person was doing something really cool.

Maybe a systematic study will throw up more details.

Myth #3 We Indians are just awesome at English and we are such brainiacs and we have the bestest education-centric culture so we are awesome at Spelling Bees

While the first two myths were in the self-loathing category, this one is in the uber-patriotic category. I have no problem with Indians or Indian-origin feeling proud or elated or whatever at this dominance, although I am personally from the Bill Hicks school of thought when it comes to patriotism.

But let us dispel with this notion that there is something really inherently culturally genetically special about Indians that our kids just go to America, show up at spelling bees, and start winning them left and right. There is actually a pretty strong and well-organized training infrastructure that is making all this possible. Remember that these contestants train with the rigor and discipline of athletes. It is not done in isolation, but requires broader support like with any sport or activity.

What you see on ESPN is the culmination of a year of smaller contests, local spelling bees, practice bees, and other such events on the local circuits. And there's a kind of feedback loop that forms. Successive generations build on the success of previous generations. Legacies and even "dynasties" are created and inspire some to adhere to it. I could keep going, but I came across this article that explains the quasi-institutional reasons behind the dominance in more detail.

If some other community starts taking such a deep interest in the sport and organizes in such a serious grassroots way, other communities could start dominating too.

One thing to note is that the winners have all been kids of Indians who migrated to the United States. Recent Indian immigrants, much like recent immigrants of other communities, tend to socialize more with their compatriots and do so in a very community-based way, with associations and groups and mandals and so on. But second generation Indian-Americans are more assimilated in the American mainstream. So when they grow up and have kids of their own, they are not as plugged into the Indian-American groups and associations as their parents were.

So you don't see many (or even any?) third generation Indian-American children winning the spelling bee or even making it to the national finals, because they don't have automatic access to that community-based infrastructure.

The best way to end this post is to quote a now-grown-up Nupur Lala, the star of the Oscar winning documentary who arguably started this Indian-American phenomenon.

“Having watched Spellbound, I realized that several of my competitors weren’t any worse than me ability-wise, but they didn’t have the same advantages—economic privilege, educational background, family dynamics,” she says. “I know that played a big, big role in my success. As a 14-year-old, I really thought I was one of the best spellers out there. In hindsight, I think, yeah, I was a very good speller, but I also had some of the best preparation and resources out there. I had a mom who had a graduate degree in linguistics. Parents who have literally hundreds of books in the house, and who were very motivated to help me succeed.”

Friday, July 03, 2015

On IIPM "Shutting Down"

Recently a friend pointed out that next month would be 10 years since I made a post titled "The Fraud that is IIPM" on my little-read blog. He asked if I planned to make a 10 year anniversary post of sorts. I said I'd think about it. And now comes the news that IIPM is shutting down their campuses.
When I met Rashmi Bansal (who owned JAM whose post I linked to) in Manhattan earlier this year, she mentioned the possibility of something like this happening. She said the relentless bad press is taking its toll and some campuses were being closed even then.
It is difficult to put into words the full range of emotions I feel hearing this news. But the foremost is that this "victory", if you call it that, belongs primarily to people like Rashmi Bansal, Maheshwar Peri, and Anant Nath. They actually WERE sued by that odious company and they fought the legal battle without choosing to take the easy way out. They paid a lot, monetarily and emotionally, to expose the fraud.
I really didn't do too much. I wrote a post linking to a JAM story by Arjun Ravi on a blog that was read by maybe 2-300 people. When IIPM sent me a standard email they sent to threaten all bloggers who wrote against them, I ridiculed it on my blog. And when IIPM sleazily tried to drag my then employer IBM into it, I quit my job.
The "IIM dude quits IBM" factoid made for a catchy headline and the news went viral. Mainly because IIM and IBM are such huge brands. But the development didn't really "harm" me in the way a cursory reading of the headlines might suggest. Yeah, I quit that job, but within hours, I had two dozen interview calls and a few job offers, all of them unsolicited. Let's be honest. I was (am?) a privileged upper caste English speaking male in India with a prime resume painted as some sort of a hero by the media and the blogosphere. I was bound to land on my feet. And I did, really fast.
Eventually, as Arindam said last year to Shivam Vij on a news show, they chose NOT to follow through on their threat to sue me. If they had, I most certainly would've fought the case. Some reputed lawyers had offered their services pro bono if it came to that. And even if I had to do it on my own, I would've. As my mom and wife will tell you, I am very stubborn. smile emoticon
But it didn't happen. So other than the few hours of mild uncertainty after resigning from IBM, I came out of the experience unscathed and more or less smelling of roses. And with this "giant slayer" reputation that has continued since, and which has always made me very uncomfortable.
I took up a well-paying part-time job with IMS at an office 5 minutes from where I lived, making it clear to them that I'd be leaving for a PhD soon. The PhD plan is something I had made way back in my MBA days (in fact my IIML yearbook even mentions it). The IIPM threat just made me advance it to 2006 instead of 2008 when I had originally scheduled it for.
I got into a great PhD program at Penn State, and moved to the US, starting a new chapter of my life. IIPM became just a thing that I'd get emails and text messages about whenever they were in the news because of their latest PR disaster. Yes, I still got an occasional email threatening a lawsuit or an arrest (the last was in 2010 i think), but I just ignored them all and nothing really materialized.
Meanwhile, Rashmi, Maheshwar, Anant, and many wronged and cheated students fought on. They were made to navigate the complex and sometimes corrupt labyrinth of the Indian judicial system, responding to complaints from remote locations like Silchar! They kept the battle going.
So this news today of IIPM essentially shutting shop is their win. They deserve the credit, the kudos, the accolades, and everything else. In 2015, I'm as much of a bystander as the rest of you.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"The Flight" Chapter 2 of Apurvai, a travelogue by P.L. "PuLa" Deshpande

Many years ago, I translated chapter 1 from the 1960 book. You don't HAVE TO read it to follow this chapter, but it is recommended. Unlike my other translations which were done from audio files of PuLa narrating his work, this one has been done from the actual book. So even Marathis who've never read the book will find something new here. 

To set the stage a little, in this chapter, PuLa describes the experience of his first ever international flight. Based on the references to the Suez Crisis, I'm guessing it happened in 1956 or 1957. So almost 60 years ago! I was surprised to learn of the sheer number of stopovers flights had to make in those days. It is indeed a different era. But so much of what he writes resonated with me in terms of my experiences with international flights. Which is why I chose to translate this although it isn't as ROFLMAO funny as the previous chapter.

Usual caveats - Much of PuLa's humor comes from how he played with the Marathi language, and it can get lost in translation. But his observations and descriptions stay relevant even 55 years later.

Our flight to London from Santa Cruz airport was scheduled for 11 PM on August 20th. It wasn't my first time flying, but it was the first time I was flying to another country, that too on a huge airplane. I had been told to reach the airport about an hour before the flight. Even if I hadn't been told this, I would've gone there two hours before. Because even when I am taking an M.S.M. train (or as you kids today call it, Southern Railway), I go to the station an hour early. Even if I have a reserved seat. 

I find it convenient to allow that buffer for unforeseen but predictable events like getting on the wrong train, not being able to find my compartment, taxi to the station breaking down, heavy rain causing waterlogging, forgetting some important stuff at home and realizing it halfway to the station, forgetting to fill the water bottle, and of course, panicking every few minutes thinking that I have either forgotten the ticket at home or lost it. 

And of course, Indian Railways regularly contributes with unforeseen but predictable events of its own. Just as you've spread out a sheet on your berth and laid down, a railways employee comes and says the compartment has some problems, so we need to shift to another one. It takes about 45 minutes to find a porter, find the replacement compartment, and move all the luggage. It turns out that if you turn the lights on, the fan stops working, and if you turn the fan on, the lights stop working. Finally both are fixed, and when you go to the bathroom, there is no water in the compartment. So you have to stay awake till Lonand to find a guard and complain about it. If you're lucky, it'll get fixed by the time the train reaches Nira. Or then wait till Miraj at 5 AM so you can use the bathroom on the station. 

So even if you go very early to the station, there's no guarantee that your rail journey will be pleasant. I wonder if we are destined to ever get railways that take the responsibility of passenger comfort seriously. Until then, there are only two ways to travel without any problems - on foot like Vinoba Bhave or by air.

Or so I thought.

When I bought my tickets at the Air India office, the lady behind the counter had told me to reach the airport at 9 PM. And then, flashing me a disarming smile, suggested that I call the airline before leaving to make sure the plane wasn't delayed. So just as we were about to leave, I remembered that smile and mentioned this to the huge contingent of friends, family, and neighbors gathered at our house to bid us farewell.

"Haha, don't be an idiot! It's a plane, not an ST bus to be delayed. Airlines operate with second-by-second precision!"

A friend, who had never traveled an inch north of Malad or south of Kala Ghoda, said making me feel like an idiot in front of everyone. This guy has always had this publicly dismissive attitude towards me. I don't know why I am still friends with him. When I told him I was being sent to England by Doordarshan, his first reaction was,

"You??? Why??? Looks like the government has too much money to waste!"

When I first wore the suit mentioned in the previous chapter, he laughed and said I looked like a trumpeter from one of the Dhobi Talao wedding bands. Totally unnecessary snark. But he can't help it. So even though he had no first hand experience on the matter, he stayed true to his nature and ridiculed me for wondering if I should call the airline to check the flight status.

My wife called the airline office anyway. And we came to know that because the incoming plane from Tokyo hadn't reached yet, our flight was delayed by two hours. 

I winced. The idea of sitting in Mumbai's humidity for two more hours wearing a three piece suit, that noose-like tie, those damned expensive Chinese shoes, the nylon socks bought after the Middle East cooled down, and a thick coat meant for England's cold weather, was unbearable. I was tempted to take off all my clothes (except for one) and cal the whole thing off. 

"So....will the plane depart exactly two hours later than scheduled?"

Someone from the annoyingly large farewell contingent asked, and that question suddenly made our house explode into a pointless deliberation that made it resemble a legislative body debating a useless resolution.

"Will the plane leave two hours later or do you go to the airport two hours later?"

"But does two hours really mean two hours?"

"But what does a plane coming from Tokyo have to do with an Air India flight going to London?"

"Let's say the plane reaches earlier than estimated......will it still leave two hours late or earlier than that?"

"Let's say that Tokyo flight is delayed by four hours instead, will your flight leave two hours late or four hours late?"

"Someone told me that last week a flight scheduled for midnight eventually departed after dawn. Is that true?"

"Are you sure it's a plane from Tokyo? Maybe it's Kyoto."

"I just called a friend of mine who works in a restaurant at the airport. He says there is some mechanical problem in this plane, and the Tokyo plane thing is just an excuse."

"So the flight might get cancelled?"

"Do they have a replacement plane? How many planes does All India Radio have anyway?"

"It's Air India, not All India Radio."

"Yeah, same difference."

"Mechanical problems......that's scary!"

"You both have life insurance, right?"

"Remember the plane that crashed at Cairo five years ago? My boss' nephew was on it. His wife got two million as compensation!"

"I've heard you can buy life insurance at the airport."

All this nonsense from people who had nothing to do with our travel whatsoever. I prayed to god to rescue me from this plane chaos by sending the plane he sent for Sant Tukaram. 

"I'm telling you guys. Instead of spending the two hours sitting at home, spend them sitting at the airport. Let's say they repair the plane early and it leaves before time. What are you going to do? It's not like you can catch it on the way. It's not the Barshi-Pandharpur passenger train. Hehehehe!"

So finally, following the over-cautious traditions of my train journeys, we reached the airport at 9:30 PM for a plane that was scheduled to depart at 1:30 AM. Some of my other friends and colleagues were at the airport already to see me off. They either didn't know that the plane was delayed, or even if they knew, they were aware of my over-cautious traditions. 

All my friends at the airport made me feel very awkward and also emotional by showering me with so many garlands and bouquets, that the airport officials thought I was a politician. And I had an epiphany at that moment - the greatest wealth in my life is my friends. If wealth were to be measured in friendships, I am probably richer than Tata-Birla combined. I have so many dear friends in so many walks of life! And so many of them had come late at night and out of the way to the airport to see me off. 

I felt touched but also embarrassed. Firstly, I still wasn't sure I could pull off the suit-boot look. Having such a huge audience for it felt weird. And then there were these garlands and bouquets. I was overwhelmed. I have gotten used to getting such attention at functions and award shows and suchlike. But on this occasion, I was feeling like I had an emotional debt to pay off. Just popping by to say goodbye is one thing, but these guys had come all the way to the airport!

My embarrassment was compounded by the fact that I hadn't really done or achieved anything to deserve all the attention that night. When I get such attention after a successful theater performance, it's okay. At least I gave them some happiness, and they are appreciating it. But that night, my wife and I were just flying to England like thousands of people do everyday. And yet my mob of friends at the airport had made me feel like I was doing something special. With a luggage full of such love and good wishes, I started feeling confident that even if all the engines of the plane failed, I could fly anywhere I wanted. 

The crowd of friends and all the flowers being heaped on me made the press photographers hanging around think that I was some big deal. They suddenly started snapping our pictures like paparazzi. In all this chaos, one of my friends went to the airport officials and convinced them to open a "VIP Lounge" for me. A sturdy fellow in a crisp uniform politely asked us to follow him to the VIP lounge. 

At that moment, my wife looked at me happily with an expression that said - "all these years that I have put up with you are finally paying off!"

As we were led into the imposingly plush VIP lounge, I started feeling even more awkward. Given our colonial history, I know that "England returned" has a certain halo attached to it. But I had no idea that the halo starts appearing even before you leave India. I started feeling worried about the possibility of a real VIP showing up and frowning at how our raucous farewell contingent had made the VIP lounge resemble Khandke's chawl. 

Even in all that chaos, I overheard one of the uniformed guys whispering to the other,

"Nowadays, any random person can become a VIP."

His colleague responded,

"Hoga koi Minister ka baccha nahi toh jamai!"

and walked away.

So I tried to appear and act as VIP-ish as possible. I went around folding my hands and solemnly thanking all the people who had come to see me off. Then I started giving away the garlands and bouquets to kids and being unnecessarily nice to them. Basically, emulating every aspect of VIP behavior that I could remember. 

A few of the professional photographers kept taking pictures of all this, and then offered to send them to me. They helpfully quoted a "professional" rate for it that was ten times what it would cost to get a photo taken in my neighborhood studio. But I was pretending to be a VIP and had to play the part. Once I parted with all the advance payments for the photos, the expression on my face finally came to resemble something that actually deserved to be photographs. I have no idea where those expensive photos are now, by the way.

Eventually there was an announcement that the customs check process had started, and we finally prepared to leave that VIP cell....I mean lounge. While leaving, I handed a generous tip to the uniformed guys standing at the door. The astounded expressions on their faces made me realize that real VIPs probably never hand out any tips. They hand out only two things - promises or threats.

We left the lounge and walked straight to the weighing scales near the customs area. I put our bags on it one by one and felt relieved when each of them were a pound or so less than the 44 pound limit. My wife on the other hand seemed a little disappointed and said,

"Hmpf, I guess we could have taken a few more papads then."

I ignored her and walked to the customs booth, standing in front of the officer with an appropriately guilty expression on my face.

This was the second time in my life that I had faced a customs officer. A few years ago, when returning from Goa (then a Portuguese territory) I stood in front of a customs officer for the first time. Everyone in front of me had been questioned extensively and had their bags checked thoroughly. So I was already terrified. Even though there was no reason to be terrified. In the entire crowd there, we were probably the only ones returning from Goa without as much as a tiny piece of chocolate. But customs booths are one of those weirdly imposing places where I feel nervous by default.

Some people are scared of a dentist's chair. Not me. I have been to dentists many times. One dentist actually turned my simple complaint of an aching tooth into an imperative to extract it with the glee of a professional sadist. It hurt so much, I think I actually saw a few angels waiting to welcome me into heaven. But even then, the next time I went to a (different, obviously) dentist, I went with the ease with which I go to Kulkarni's restaurant to eat bhajiyas. No fear or worries. But put me in front of a custom's officer and my heart starts racing.

There are many random entries in my list of "people I am irrationally scared of". For some reason, I am terrified of every liftman. Not afraid of the actual lift, mind you. It's not like I am scared that the lift will plummet to the basement or anything. I am just scared of the liftmen, at least in Mumbai, where almost all of them seem to have a cold blank expression on their face. I am also terrified of waiters in fancy restaurants. If one is standing next to me, I feel so nervous that I invariably spill something. I was never scared of male teachers, but female teachers always petrified me. And I can slap a doctor on his back and sing songs with him even when he is in the middle of surgery, but when it comes to nurses, my hands start trembling even if I am handing them a note. I have no idea why I carry these bizarre fears in my heart.

That customs officer I encountered when returning from Goa had insulted me rather painfully! I still shudder and shed a tear when I think about it.

When it was my turn, he asked me my name, address, and profession. Those days, I earned my living in a college fostering deep hatred for literature among the students. As soon as I told the officer that I was a Professor, and that too of Marathi, he just looked straight into my eyes, and with an expression conveying immense pity, said,

"You can go."

He didn't ask to search my luggage, didn't ask me if I was carrying any contraband, didn't even ask me if I had anything to declare. With utter conviction that I lacked the ability or the means to smuggle in alcohol, gold, cigarettes, or anything like that, he sent me on my way. I have never felt more humiliated. I would've preferred it if he had instead put me through a two hour long interrogation under a bright lamp.

So that day in Mumbai airport, I was wondering if the customs officer in charge of examining departing passengers would be more respectful. He looked at my bags, then glanced at my face, and then wordlessly made some chalk markings on the bags and waved me through. Rude, isn't it?

Next my wife and I went to Passport Control. Our passports had been issued two years ago and were valid for three more years. But one of my friends in the farewell party had authoritatively said, 

"Ohhhh.....just three years validity left? That might create problems. Good luck!"

I nervously handed over the passports to the officer. He glanced at them for a nanosecond and returned them to me. I was less worried about the validity and more worried about the passport photo. But the officer had evidently discovered some similarity between my passport photo and the way I actually look. Once we were done with that, a health officer quickly made sure we had taken the necessary vaccinations and we were done.

Once we got the "worthy of traveling abroad" certification from Pandit Nehru's people, all we could do was wait for the plane to leave. It was past midnight. The departure area at Santa Cruz is decorated and furnished in a very modern way. There are lots of comfortable couches and chairs for passengers to relax in. But my wife and I were sitting there uncomfortably, feeling out of place.

There was a European couple sitting in front of us. They seemed confused by Indian currency. These were the days when paisa coins co-existed with anna coins and the poor visitors had no idea if the many coins they had were worth five rupees or five annas. Hoping to give them a happy memory of Indian hospitality, I jumped in to offer unsolicited advice and ended up compounding their confusion even more. Finally my better half stepped in, sorted the whole thing out, and informed them that Indian women have a much better understanding of money than Indian men. 

The European couple left for their flight and I started looking around at other fellow-passengers. With a parochial mindset, I went around to see if there were other Marathi folk there, and soon met a man named Patil and a student named Joshi. I was there representing the Deshpande name. All we were missing was a Kulkarni. If we had found one, we would have had Patil-Joshi-Deshpande-Kulkarni, the four pillars of the ancient Marathi administrative set-up. Sadly there was no Kulkarni on that flight, but it did end up having a pilot named Nadkarni. Nadkarni is essentially the South Kannada version of Kulkarni, so I guess we ended up with the full set eventually.

 Around 1 AM, the plane's wings must have fluttered because suddenly, there was a lot of activity around us. The crowd started walking in one direction, and we went along. I looked at the glass barrier at the customs desk and saw our contingent was still patiently waiting. The elders had tears in their eyes and the younger lot looked like they were cracking stale jokes at our expense and passing them off as new. 

When we eventually reached the gate, I confirmed three times that it was the right plane. Or else we'd wake up the next morning in Cochin instead of Cairo. I still carried emotional scars from the night at Pune station that I got on a train to go to Kolhapur and woke up the next morning to find I was in a compartment parked in the Pune railway yard. I have always had the kind of luck where I take a girlfriend to watch a movie on the sly and run into a nosy old relative who decided to come watch the same movie. And I couldn't afford to let that luck mess up international travel. 

There was an air hostess standing at the door, welcoming us with an unnaturally wide smile. The rest of the crew, dressed in crisp dark trousers and skirts and blindingly white shirts, sporting wing shaped lapel pins and painstakingly groomed mustaches, was darting about doing their work. We reached our seats and stared out the tiny oblong window at the terminal, wondering if our friends and family were still there. 

Once I was in the seat, I assured myself that despite all apparent obstacles, it now seemed like I would definitely go to England, and fastened the seat belt around my stomach. The engines started humming and the fans started rotating one by one.   The plane got going. After zooming along the ground for a mile or so, it slowed down and stopped at the other end of the runway. 

As soon as it stopped, I started fearing the worst. The plane had already been delayed by mechanical problems. I wasn't sure if they had fixed the problems completely or had postponed some repairs. Maybe now they'd discover more problems. I also carried emotional scars from bus drivers who'd make passengers board on a scorching hot day, bake them in that tin box for an hour while they waited, and then open the bonnet of the bus to examine what's wrong with the engine. 

Luckily, nothing like that happened. In a couple of minutes, the plane started moving again, then sped up, and eventually left terra firma in a graceful glide. I watched the airport rapidly disappear from my view and before I knew it, Mumbai started resembling a gem-laden ornament below us. In that ornament, four million people were probably dreaming as they slept, while I sat with wide open eyes, realizing my childhood dream of foreign travel. 

And next to me was my soul mate and my life partner accompanying me on this adventure. Over the previous twelve years, we had built many castles in the air together, while never feeling tempted to build a house on the ground. We never stayed in one place for more than 2-3 years anyway. We had in common a huge appetite for new challenges and new experiences. And the latest one was to be living in England for 5-6 months.

Our flight had been in the air for a while, and the plane was completely dark as was the sky outside, but I still couldn't sleep. The plane was completely packed and experienced travelers were already snoring. Our air-hostess was Japanese. She was promptly and efficiently offering candy and nuts to travelers with a studied smile straight out of the training syllabus. Her walk was brisk and her voice had the crispness of springtime. 

I was feeling really hot. That damned suit on my body started feeling like clunky armor and I again cursed myself for wearing it on the plane. I looked around and was taken aback when I noticed at an Englishman sitting in front of me. Here I was, wearing a brand new three piece suit because I was going to his snooty country. And this dude was sitting there looking very relaxed in khaki shorts, a flannel shirt with some twenty five pockets, and a flimsy felt hat that did not match.

So I discreetly looked around at the other white people on the flight. Not a single one of them was dressed even as remotely formally as I was. Sitting there overdressed in that damned suit in the middle of the night, I started feeling like even more of a neophyte than I already was. 

Suddenly the Japanese air-hostess appeared with a small wet towel on a plate. I eyed the towel suspiciously for a second. I had no idea what purpose a wet towel was supposed to serve at two in the morning. But I was brought up never to turn a plate away, so I picked up the towel and thanked her. I looked at my wife to see if she had any suggestions, but she was fast asleep. I slowly glanced across the aisle and saw that the guy there was gently rubbing the towel on his face. I did the same, and the cool cologne scented fabric gave me some relief from the intense heat I was experiencing. 

Our massive jumbo jet was slicing through the darkness leaving cities and mountains behind. I was finally feeling a little drowsy. Almost everyone around me, including my wife, was already asleep. That Englishman with the khaki shorts was in fact trying to drown out the noise of the engine with his own booming multi-octave snores with his mouth open. The ex-subject of Her Majesty's realm inside me felt relieved to observe first-hand that even the English can snore with their mouths open. Because once our travel plans were made, I was a bit worried about that. 

You see, I am one of "those" too. But over the course of my life, I have come across some impressively loud snorers. My grandma says that people with big hearts and minds snore the most. I don't know if there is any correlation between big bodies and big hearts and minds - I won't mind if there is. I started thinking a lot about snoring and hearts and minds. I do remember that I spent a lot of time thinking about it. But I don't know for how long, because the next thing I knew, I was waking up to the dawn's early light.

Our plane was flying over a huge desert. I noted how different this dawn was from any other dawn I had experienced in my life, thousands of miles over a limitless desert. This experience, coming right after I had experienced a darkness so different from any other darkness I had experienced in my life, spurred some philosophical and metaphorical thoughts. It felt like I was witness to the dawn of a new phase of my life. I thought about my recent years and realized that I hadn't really experienced real dawn in years. In Mumbai's fast-paced hectic life, by the time my day ended, it was usually well past midnight. So by the time I usually woke up, dawn would have given up on waiting for me and slid away, making way for harsh sunlight. 

Our Japanese air-hostess, still looking as fresh as a dew-kissed flower, was making the rounds with hot fortifying beverages for the morning. I have never found those beverages particularly fortifying immediately after waking up, so I politely declined her offer of tea or coffee. Instead, I got up and headed to the bathroom. Taking care not to wake up or bump into any of the other passengers, I tiptoed my way to the front, and slowly opened the door to what I thought was the bathroom. Instead I found myself face-to-face with the fine gentlemen flying the plane. It was the cockpit door! I guess the expression on my face gave away what my need was because the co-pilot, without saying anything, pointed me to the correct door. 

I finished my morning ablutions and returned to the seat to find the "fasten seatbelts" sign flashing. By the time I was able to find the belt and buckle it up, the plane had started its rapid descent. I looked out the window and saw that we were headed to a desert island surrounded by more desert. I assumed it was Cairo, our first stopover. I started looking around the landscape in the hopes of spotting some pyramids. By the time I spotted a bump that I thought was a pyramid and was about to point it out to my wife, the plane was touching down, and before I knew it, it was standing stationary in a foreign land.

I looked at the dinky terminal outside the window and was a little disappointed that a city as renowned as Cairo should have an airport that looks more like an ST bus stand. But once we got off the plane, I learned that we were not in Cairo, but in some place called "Bahrain" instead. I felt a bit like Columbus who reached land confident that he was in India but then discovered that he was instead in some strange land he did not know anything about. And I felt relieved that I had not pointed out those supposed pyramids to my wife.

I had never heard of Bahrain before and had no idea where the hell it exactly was or why we were there instead of Cairo. But we walked into the terminal and headed for the restaurant. I learned that there were oilfields nearby and that Bahrain is a small island nation that is known for its oilfields. That was pretty much all we learned about the place. 

We sat in the restaurant, ordered tea, and waited while the plane was refueled. The tea arrived after a long time. One sip of that concoction and I was convinced that in Bahrain, they used dried date palm leaves in lieu of tea leaves and the milk probably came from a camel instead of a cow. Over the course of my life, I have tasted many different kinds of tea......except of course the spilled tea from Mongini's mentioned in the previous chapter. Tea served in small glass tumblers in Mumbai, tea served in mud bowls on the banks of the Narmada, tea served in metallic cups in Madras, masala milk tea, railway station tea flavored with charcoal, tea without milk, tea without sugar, and even Chinese tea made from jasmine flowers. But I will never EVER forget that horrible tea from Bahrain airport. I will happily drink the bitterest castor potion than drink that tea again.

Well, at least the tea was free, because it was paid for by the airline.

Pretty soon, the plane was ready and we all climbed back into its belly. The plane took off soon and headed for Cairo. The flight from Bahrain to Cairo was essentially just desert after desert after desert. Once in a while, just as a change of scenery, there would be a small strip of water. But otherwise, totally barren. Not a single glimpse of green. 

And that's when I really understood why the green flag of Islam came was hoisted in these deserts first. The prophet was very clever in choosing the color green for his flag. It is obvious why millions of Arabs enthusiastically followed that rare pleasant colored flag. I'm sure that the green flag was as instrumental in the spread of Islam as the Koran was. Add to it the moon that the desert dwellers probably equated with the relief provided by night, and I felt I had to applaud the prophet for his grasp of semiotics. 

It was about 8:30 in the morning. I was staring at the desert out the window hoping to spot a camel train. But in vain. I did spot a lot of dry river beds though. Soon the sun got really bright and the glare made it difficult to keep looking outside. Soon our plane moved from the sea of sand to a sea of water. Being geographically challenged, I first decided it was the Red Sea, then the Caspian Sea, then the Black Sea, and then the Dead Sea. I still have no idea which one it was.

A while later, there were murmurs all around that we were flying over the Suez Canal. All passengers looked out the windows, identified the first strip of water they could find, and assured themselves that it was the Suez Canal. Again, no idea if any of those were actually the Suez Canal. From the height we were flying at, every strip of water looked as tiny as the Fergusson College canal in Pune. But in one strip, I spied some dots that seemed like boats and I silently convinced myself that it was indeed the Suez Canal. It was hard to believe that this tiny strip of water was responsible for almost starting World War 3 and almost sinking my travel plans.  

When your plane is flying so high that you can only see the sky and clouds above you as well as below you, you can't help but get philosophical. You forget any fears you have about the plane crashing. Looking at creation from a height that makes even seas look like saucers of water makes you realize how insignificant you are in the whole scheme of things. As our plane flew towards Cairo, I couldn't help but realize that I was looking at the cradle of civilization. These deserts were where the Babylonian, Sumerian, and Assyrian civilizations had once bloomed. Where the library of Alexandria was once home to millions of of books that were burned. I'm assuming some Big Four or Big Five must have had a summit even then and decided that burning books was in the best interests of the world.

As impressive as the sights of great oceans, great skies, and great lands is while flying, one look at the great space when flying above clouds make them all pale in comparison. And you start wondering what the whole point of creation is, and whether you make any difference to it whatsoever. 

Our plane was about to reach Cairo soon and I started thinking about it. Egypt is an ancient civilization, much like India. Historians have discovered that trade and cultural links between Egypt and India date back millenia. This is the land that saw rich culture flourish for millenia even before Christ was born. And when Christ was born, the bright star that shone was above these lands too. This is the land where Jews, Christians, and Muslims found their faiths and then unfurled the blood-soaked flags of those faiths.

I was in the middle of these thoughts and didn't even realize when I dozed off. The next thing I knew, someone was yelling "KAHIRO!!!!", waking me up.

The first sight I saw at Cairo airport was of battle-ready fighter jets. Next to them were imposing anti-aircraft guns with their barrels pointed to the sky. The stage seemed to be set for the next big war. The only question seemed to be which actors would enter the stage first and who the director would be. Actors from dozens of countries seemed to be ready, with war-paint on, or make-up on. Who knew when the final act would start and when it would end.

When I read a big sign that said, "WE WELCOME YOU TO EGYPT", I felt like someone had sprayed a stream of cold water on my face on an oppressively hot day. Why shouldn't all human beings be welcomed heartily all over this little planet of ours? Although as long as there exist things like passports and visas, built on an assumption of distrust of fellow human beings, can we really expect true expressions of such humanity? The sign that said "WE WELCOME YOU TO EGYPT" any "you" who reached there, regardless of race, religion, gender, creed.....why shouldn't such signs and more importantly sentiments, be displayed everywhere?

The funny thing is, this "WE WELCOME YOU TO EGYPT" sign was right next to the massive anti-aircraft guns and the irony endemic to human existence tickled me and troubled me in equal amounts.

We headed to the restaurant inside the terminal. The waiters there were very friendly and polite, and served us some divine Egyptian coffee. Compared to Mumbai airport, I thought Cairo airport was small. There was a lot of new construction happening around us though. Egypt is currently in the midst of writing a new chapter in its history. Everybody is watching carefully to see which way their new statesman (Nasser) takes them.

It was in Cairo airport that I first encountered Egyptian people. And as I examined their appearance carefully, I wondered how many Egyptians there might be in Mumbai too. Because in terms of appearance, I didn't really see any major differences between Egyptians and Indians. Beyond the facts I had memorized in my childhood to score 2 marks in the history exam, such as pyramids, mummies, pharaohs, and the Nile river, my knowledge about Egypt was as barren as their desert. I had never even thought about anyone living in Egypt other than Cleopatra, General Najeeb, and now this Nasser fellow.

Suddenly, I was overcome by a profound sense of ignorance and curiosity as a foreigner in a foreign land. And sitting there in the Cairo airport, I started thinking about how day-to-day life in Egypt must be and how I knew nothing about it. How do school teachers, lawyers, and bureaucrats here dress? Is it similar to how those folks dress in India? What is the most popular item in a typical restaurant in Egypt? Do wives here refer to their husbands by name or is there some tactful pronoun that has been coined for the purpose like in India? With each passing second, the expanse of my ignorance about this fascinating culture seemed to exceed the expanse of the desert.

Then I started thinking about the people who worked at that airport. For them, a typical day consisted of interacting with travelers from dozens of different countries, for maybe an hour or two at a time, before they went on their way and were replaced by a different set of foreigners. Do they feel the same sense of curiosity and note their ignorance about other cultures? Or has it become just a mundane feature of their lives by now? Do they actively notice the multi-colored lattice of different races and nationalities or does it just pass by in the blink of an eye like a frame from a cinema reel?

I spent the rest of the time in Cairo thinking about all this before we were called back to the plane. The next stopover was Geneva in Switzerland. As our plane surged through the clouds, we gradually left the desert behind and were soon traveling over Europe. Specifically, Italy, as the pilot informed us.

While I was almost entirely ignorant about Egypt except for its ancient history and contemporary politics, I at least knew more about Italy thanks to all the books I had read. Names like Rome, Venice, and Naples started swimming around in my head. I decided that if the plane had to crash right now, I would want it to do so near Naples. I had read that Naples was home to some of the most awe-inspiring sculptures in the world. So if my plane crashed in Naples, I could drag myself to those sculptures, see them first hand, and then die happy.

Yes, I know it is morbid to keep pondering the possibility of the plane crashing but that's how I am and be honest, aren't you too?

But the plane kept going. I kept looking at the Italian landscape underneath and we didn't see Naples or Venice. But we did fly over Rome. It was hard to miss. As I looked at the distant but clear images of various buildings and cathedrals in Rome, I first felt a great sense of satisfaction at seeing them first hand. Then I compensated for the unfamiliar bliss by berating myself for still not having read Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" even after buying it years ago. I made a mental note to read it as soon as I returned home.

When you're flying over different countries of the world, you think more about what you haven't read about those lands than what you have read. In another hour or so, our plane was flying over the gorgeous alps and I realized we were in Europe's Eden.

Soon the plane touched down in Geneva. I had heard a lot of cautionary tales about how the cold in Europe is way worse than anything I might have experienced in India. I experienced it first hand as I walked into the Geneva airport and felt like I had walked into a massive refrigerator. And this was just August! So I shivered a little and prepared for six more months of this inhumanly cold weather. No wonder these white folks ran away and captured our warmer lands.

As soon as I stepped into the chilly Geneva airport, my brain initiated a flashback from 20 years ago from my college days in Pune. I had grown up in Mumbai, where it never gets even remotely chilly. Then in Pune in the winters, every so often, I would wake up to such a chilly morning. It felt more bracing than oppressive, making me feel like running all the way across the world. I had always thought cold weather would make me feel like a shriveled old man, but instead, it made me feel like a daring young man, ready to achieve anything!

Anyway, we walked into the restaurant at the Geneva airport and it looked more like a flower shop than a restaurant. The faces of all the staff members were fresh and enthusiastic like recently bloomed lilies. There was a spring in their step. It didn't look like anyone could ever age, and everyone looked like they were in their 20s even though they probably weren't. We were served coffee in a very elegantly crafted glass cup. And it tasted divine and almost intoxicating. I wondered that if even the coffee here gets my pulse racing so much, what will stronger beverages do? I had heard that Switzerland is a place where extreme beauty and extreme pleasure is the default and my experiences at their airport confirmed it.

I didn't even realize when that stopover at Geneva ended. It was cold, but I was surrounded by beauty, human and non-human, and I felt more alive than I ever had. Before I got back on the plane, I turned around and took a 360 degree mental picture of all I could see of Switzerland from that terminal. The tall trees sheltering cute little houses, the snow-covered peaks of the Alps kissing the deep blue sky. I promised myself to return for a more leisurely visit. When the plane took off, I was looking at a meandering little river as it flowed through the verdant Swiss countryside, when suddenly, our plane ascended above the clouds. And those fluffy white things that a few hours earlier had seemed gorgeous, now seemed like villains for blocking my view of the Swiss landscape. Our journey continued.

The next stop was to be at Dusseldorf in Germany, It had been over 20 hours since we took off from Mumbai. The hands of my watch had already been rotated many times by then. Every hour, the pilot made announcements about how high we were flying, what the temperature outside was, what the local time was, and so on. Passengers around us were saying random things in response to those announcements like, "Oh! 18,000 feet? That's nice! Very high!"

We were flying through clouds at that moment, so I personally couldn't tell the difference between 18,000 feet and 18 million feet. Honestly, this whole thing of estimating distances has been a challenge for me, whether I am in the air or on the ground. Whenever I read about some witness in court say stuff like "the accused was 19 feet away from me", I feel jealous of his ability to express distance so precisely. Because I absolutely suck at it. I can't even remember the inches in my own measurements for shoes, hats, collars, socks, and so on. When a shoe salesman asks what size I want, I just give him the chappals I am wearing then and ask him to figure it out. I have immense respect for people who go shoe shopping and say stuff like "Bring me Number 8 pairs".

And when someone remembers the precise date on which something happened, I feel overcome enough with admiration to go hug them. When I hear someone say stuff like, "I remember it was July 17th...", I am amazed. I suck at dates too. Which is why I always sucked at history in school. Even now, I remember only three dates - Shivaji Maharaj died in 1680, the 1857 uprising happened in 1857, and using multiple reminder mnemonics, my wife's birthday. Other than these three, I have no idea of any other dates. You can ask me when India gained independence and I will try to hedge between 1947 and 1950.

Anyway, the point is, I am horrible with anything that is expressed numerically. So even before I could figure out how high 18,000 feet exactly is, our plane was touching down in Dusseldorf. Before I knew it, we were surrounded by cries of "Achtung! Achtung!" and "Gut! Gut!". My wife and I walked to the terminal, now sick of this sequence of stopovers. Yes. I was in Germany with its rich history and culture and intriguing contemporary split between East and West, but I didn't give a damn. The aforementioned Joshi and Patil left us here and we sat there hoping that we'd reach London before we died of boredom.

Why does the final stretch of the journey always seem to last the longest? Even when I am traveling from Pune to Mumbai by train, it is the same. The time from Pune to Thane or Kalyan seems to breeze by in a happy procession of vada, omelets, chikki, etc. But from there, Mulund, Bhandup, Vikroli, Dadar, etc seem to take an eternity to pass by. Very annoying! It's the same with other trips too. When you're taking a train from Mumbai to Delhi, everything seems great until you reach Mathura, and then after that, things seem to slow down. If you're going from Mumbai to Nagpur. it is Wardha that is the tipping point after which it is all yawns and polite curses.

The flight from Dusseldorf to London seemed similarly annoying and yawn-inducing. Finally, after about the hundredth yawn, the plane started barreling downwards. All the passengers around us seemed to have perked up as the plane continued descending. Finally there was a bump and the plane started slowing down. And a few passengers around me echoed my thoughts,

"Ah! London!"

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What Jon Stewart Means To Me

August 2006, I wrapped up my life in India and moved to the United States for a PhD in Marketing.

I left the country I really knew and moved to a strange new land, with its strange new customs, and strange people, and strange grocery aisles! I had a tough time fitting in!

Okay, no I didn't.

The thing is, I moved when I was 26 years old, as opposed to most other Indian grad students who move here right out of college, having not seen any of the "real world". Thanks to blogs and internet forums and American TV shows and second hand stories from close friends who moved there four years before, I more or less knew what to expect from America. To me, almost everything ranging from grocery aisles to the way the people talked and behaved to the local "customs" seemed familiar.

The one thing that wasn't as familiar was the news cycle. I have always been a huge news junkie, especially interested in politics. Although I followed the basics of American politics even when I lived in India, I did not really "know" the scene too well. Sure, I had followed the 2004 primaries, seen Howard Dean's howl, slept through John Kerry's speeches, and more or less knew why Florida or Ohio are so much more crucial in the Presidential race than Tennessee or Indiana.

And I knew America's comedy scene well enough, having been a big fan of Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, and of course, George Carlin.

And yes, I was vaguely aware of this funny guy called Jon Stewart who combined politics and comedy. When I was in India, CNN used to air a half hour compilation of the best bits of his show once a week. Not quite the "Daily" show but whenever I came across it on TV, I watched it and chuckled. To me, it seemed like a funny enough show with a political context.

And then in August 2006, I moved to America. I fit in quite easily in most ways, ranging from food to socializing to academics to day to day chores. One aspect where I felt lost was the politics. I realized that I knew about American politics only peripherally. So I started reading more blogs, watching the big three cable news channels, reading newspapers, etc.

The first time I watched The Daily Show was due to jet lag a couple of days after I arrived. I had slept through most of the afternoon and evening and in the wee hours of the night, I found myself as alert as a watchdog. While my roommates slept, I plonked myself in front of the TV and started flipping channels. And I came across the slightly familiar face of Jon Stewart. It was 1 or 2 AM so obviously, it was the repeat telecast.

As I watched, I found myself drawn in instantly, maybe because of the Indian connection. The segment was about how Republican senate candidate George Allen had referred to an Indian-American staffer of his opponent Jim Webb as "macaca". What I loved about that segment was that it combined facts, opinion, and humor perfectly without taking cheap shots at anyone. I made a mental note to watch the show again the next night.

And I loved the show again. And then I watched it again. And I kept watching every night. It taught me about aspects of the US "midterm" elections that I had never really fully understood sitting in India. It contextualized the red-v-blue battle in terms more nuanced and pithy than I had ever read on any blog. And of course, it made me laugh, especially with the hilariously quirky George W Bush impression.

I still remember that hilarious song about the midterms

"So just remember this November that your vote will count,
A very very very very very small amount!"

Jon Stewart helped me seamlessly blend into the American political discourse the way thousands of hours of reading blogs and news sites never had. He has that uncanny ability to zero in on the most consequential news items of the day and in 22 short minutes....14 if you omit the interview...present a perfect blend of analysis and irony.

Within a few days, the 11 PM time slot on my daily calendar....or at least Monday-Thursday calendar was earmarked for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He chuckled, he made faces, he did impressions, but above all, he managed to be that guy inside us all who is just utterly baffled with the absurdity and sometimes cruelty of the world around us, but tries to cope with it using humor.

Jon Stewart helped me through American political milestones from the 2006 midterms to the 2014 midterms, not ignoring other events worldwide. One of his and his show's greatest qualities has been the ability to strike the right balance in expressing resentment about something. Many comedians have gotten in trouble for crossing the "line" of tastefulness. Which is why many comedians steer clear of troublesome topics.

But Jon has somehow always been able to address tricky and even tragic topics with the right balance of sensitivity and respectful humor. And occasionally, just straight talk. His post 9/11 speech is the stuff of legend, so I won't talk about it here.

But as a former Bombayite now living in the US, my most memorable and personally relevant example of this uncanny knack of addressing tragedies tastefully is the segment he and John Oliver did after the 2008 Bombay attacks

It was just so perfect!

Watching Jon Stewart has been a part of my life from the very first week I moved to this country 9 years ago. He's been an integral part of my life.

I have attended two of his show's tapings in person and was blown away by how nice he was even off-camera. I went to DC with 250,000 other people for the Rally to Restore Sanity that he and Stephen Colbert organized.

And now he's announced that he's leaving The Daily Show. Given what a permanent fixture he's been in my life in this country, this is a BIG change. But I understand why he needs to do what he needs to do. Rosewater has shown that he's capable of much more and who can fault him for wanting to spread his wings?

I'll miss you Jon, and 11 PM Monday to Thursday just won't be the same after you leave.