Monday, February 28, 2011

Spring is in the air

Spring in India can be fascinating.

I spent many years of my life in the temperate zones and spring would be the time when we would see people thawing out. Literally. People would slowly get more lively after mid-January. The many bizarre rituals around groundhog day would predict how long the winter was going to last. And spring would be all about celebrating the end of a long and dreary season. In some places, it would be the time of a short break, from the hot days of summer that would lazily arrive, like Nat King Cole so famously describes in his song, Roll on Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer.

But, life in the tropics has been fascinatingly different. In India, we don't have a long and dreary winter. In fact, in many parts of the world, people would probably call the Indian winter their summer.So, what do we really celebrate when spring arrives? If I had my pick, I would say, the arrival of mangoes. And right now, that still seems so many months away, even if I can see the trees blossoming everywhere I look.

Did I say the spring in India is fascinating? Yesterday, I was looking at the number of insects around the trees. It seems to have gone up dramatically in the last few weeks as the weather has been warming up. I saw two giant black bumble bees, each the size of a small potato, fighting it out over the rights to the chromosomes of the next generation. And the green mangoes are already in the market. We had some great mango flavored daal a few days ago and now, I am eagerly looking forward to the fresh mango chutney in the next meal. Just fry a few slices of green mango in some vegetable oil, throw in some salt, sugar, turmeric and red chili powder, and a teaspoon of roasted coriander seeds and you will see what spring is all about.

As a kid, to me, spring was all about anticipation. The anticipation of a long summer vacation, which would provide a brief respite from the beatings at school, if I got my multiplication tables wrong. The anticipation of those long summer afternoons, when the adults would be busy enjoying their siestas and I would crawl through the house looking for pigeons and sparrows to catch (and release, of course, once the moustache  was painted on). The anticipation of a nice and ice-cold glass of  pudina-ka-sherbet (cold drink made from fresh mint) when the hot spell of loo (dry summer afternoon wind in North India) would stop in the evening. And, the anticipation of the arrival of the mango, the undisputed king of all fruits, that sends the salivary glands into overdrive, as the sweet smell escapes the straw baskets in the country markets, on those lazy, hazy, crazy summer afternoons in India.

As I keep looking at the green mangoes and the bumble bees, I keep counting the number of days we still have, until we see those glorious shades of red, yellow and orange in the fruit stalls. Till then, spring it is.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Rocket People

Recently, India has seen quite a few scams, and the entire country is extremely unhappy with these instances of corruption in public life. Nothing seems to be sacred. People from the three pillars of our democracy, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary have been found involved in questionable practices. The fourth pillar of the free press was found to be involved in backroom dealings on political appointments. And, top brass in the military have been court marshaled for graft. But, there was one organization that people thought to be above reproach. The Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO is India's equivalent of NASA. And recently, there was a shady spectrum deal in the S-Band, that could have involved some top people with ISRO connections. Although ISRO moved very quickly on making amends, this entire event took a terrible toll on employee morale. Of  engineers and scientists, that have selflessly served the nation for many decades now.

When a much revered organization is criticized, sometimes, people think about its historical achievements. When you compare the glories of the past to the vagaries of the present, you wonder what is happening. And, rather sentimentally, I recalled two photographs that have captured my imagination for decades.

The first one is from the early days of ISRO, when the organization had big dreams for the people of India, but, it had a small wallet to pursue those dreams. So, nose cones of rockets had to be carried on bicycles, and this picture has become rather iconic for many Indians, who are fascinated by their very own space program, and its early days. The second one is from the early eighties, when a satellite was carried on a bullock cart. In a strange irony of sorts, it captures the  the dreams of many Indians on chasing the moon while they went about their daily business riding bullock carts.

Today, ISRO is a world class organization in its own right. It launches satellites for many developed nations. It has launched a spacecraft to the moon and landed the Indian flag on our planet's only natural satellite. It has developed technologies that have helped India's farmers in predicting weather. And, many in India look at this organization with a lot of affection, since according to them, the people who shoot rockets into the blue, are big dreamers. And dreamers, cannot go wrong.

If I had to pick my favorite person from amongst the many rocket people of India, I would pick Dr. Satish Dhawan without any hesitation. In 1951, he completed a Ph.D. from Caltech in Aerospace Engineering, and while most of the fresh Ph.Ds were  making a beeline for NASA to be involved with the Apollo program, he came back home to pursue a dream, which involved carrying nose-cones on bicycles. He was an extremely talented person, who became the first engineer ever to become the director of India's flagship research institution, the Indian Institute of Science. And, after Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India's space program passed away, he became the chairman of ISRO. Dr. Dhawan was a master administrator as well, and I found a really interesting anecdote of those times at ISRO in an article by Mr. Manoranjan Rao.

The early days saw many failures. Through all those difficult times, Dhawan never lost faith in ISRO’s capabilities. He took personal responsibility for failure but when success came, he always attributed it to ISRO and his colleagues. Thus, when the first flight of SLV-3 in 1979 failed, Dhawan faced the press. When the second flight succeeded, Dhawan kept himself in the background while Kalam spoke to the press. With this kind of leadership, engineers and scientists in ISRO were never afraid to face honest failures. 

We all know that the Dr. Kalam mentioned in this article, went on to become India's missile man, and eventually, a much respected and much loved president of India.  We have come a long way from the days of bicycles carrying nose cones for rockets. The bigger challenge today is to keep our institutions free of corruption and political interference, because, we still have people like Dr. Dhawan. They just need a chance to prove themselves.

Friday, February 18, 2011

An open letter to Ms. Arundhati Roy

Dear Ms. Roy,

Let me start by saying that I really admire your writing skills. Your book, "The God of small things" is a very compelling work of literature, and even if I have read only parts of it, I believe that you have a tremendous gift with words. And, how those can be used for maximum impact, for any cause that you are pursuing. But, you already know that, because of the various accolades you have received by writing that book, and perhaps, my admiration is a drop in the proverbial bucket, of many such comments you have received from others over the years.

I am also aware of your desire to take up causes, for the poor and the downtrodden. You have drawn the attention of the media and the public towards environmental and human rights issues. From the hinterland of middle India to the mountains of Kashmir, you have repeatedly spoken, of the need for the government to be more sensitive to the needs of the people. And often, you have spoken of the Maoists with admiration, which has been received in various ways by the people of India, both positive and negative.

Today, I am writing to you to talk about a person, you may have never heard of. Mr. R. Vineel Krishna, is the district collector of Malkangiri in the state of Orissa. He is an alumnus of IIT-Madras, which as you know, is a top engineering school in India, and produces a lot of really accomplished graduates. Every year, thousands of IIT-graduates leave the Indian shores to pursue a foreign degree. Many of them end up becoming rich bankers, and managers in the corporate sector, earning seven or eight figure salaries, and never come back to serve their country. A small number of them, do decide to serve their country, in the smallest possible way they can. Mr.Krishna, is one such God of small things. He could have treated his job like any other Indian civil servant does, and had a good time with the frills of the public office he holds. But, he chose to bring development to the poor people in one of the poorest districts of India, doing a job that the government has miserably failed at, in many other parts of the country. And for this, he was kidnapped by the Maoists, with a 48 hour sword hanging over his neck.

I know of your contempt for the Indian government. Believe me, like you, I am utterly frustrated with corruption, inefficiency and complacency in the government. But, in India, we still have a civil society and a functional democracy. And that is so, because a small percentage of dedicated people in the government, is trying to make a difference. They constitute less than ten percent of the government payroll, but, it is because of them that the country still runs. And, Mr. Krishna, is one such person.

You have spoken for the Maoists and their cause. And, I have reason to believe that they might listen to you and your good reasons. May I request you to speak publicly and implore upon them to choose a path of non-violence. May I request you to ask them to free Mr. Krishna without any harm.

Swami Agnivesh, another public figure in India, who has spoken for the Maoists in the past, has come out in the open, requesting the Maoists to not cause any harm to Mr. Krishna. The villagers in the district Mr. Krishna serves, have taken out processions requesting the Maoists to immediately release Mr. Krishna. But, I am really surprised that we have not heard anything from you in this matter. 

Ms. Roy, your silence is deafening. Please, speak up and use your way with words to secure the safe release of Mr. Krishna. We are waiting.

Yours sincerely
Desi Babu
(A concerned Indian)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The monkey and the fez hat

It was a beautiful summer evening. In a city that could be anywhere in Europe, with its sidewalk cafes and restaurants, and live music in the background. There were loud laughs in languages sweet and sour. And the aroma of fresh baked bread wafting through the air. There were handsome waiters and pretty waitresses ferrying glasses full of beer to the tables. People who were not eating or drinking, were engrossed in conversations, books, or the people around them.

And then, there were the honeymooners. There were plenty of them at this time of the year. And you could tell them apart from the rest of the crowd, since they didn't care much for the things around them. Most of them were so absorbed in each other, that they could hardly care about the beer, the fresh-baked bread, or the live music.

There was one such couple sitting on a table close to the edge of the wide sidewalk. They made a handsome pair. But they were a very accomplished couple as well. He was a budding cardiac surgeon. She was on her way to take over the world with her Harvard business degree. And, at that moment, neither cared about their careers. Or, their lives ahead. They had a bottle of champagne on the table. And they were having a good laugh about something. Suddenly, they heard some beautiful music. It was so mellifluous, that even they looked up from each other's eyes. They saw a young gypsy boy approaching them. He was dressed in colorful clothes and was playing a haunting tune on the accordion. But, what made it stranger was that he had a monkey with him, dressed in a colorful orange jacket. It was wearing a red fez hat.

The gypsy boy and the monkey came close to the table. He played for a few more minutes and finished the tune. There was a round of applause. The boy bowed. The monkey made a face at the young couple, and oddly enough, it seemed like it flashed them a smile. Then, it took its fez off and put it on the young man's head. They both laughed. The young man took off the hat, stuffed a few dollar bills in it and put it on his wife's head. The monkey reclaimed its hat from the woman and winked at them. The gypsy boy started another tune. They walked off to the end of the long street. And disappeared behind a tall building, where the evening came a little before it came elsewhere. It was the nicest thing to remember their honeymoon by, on the last day of the most wonderful week of their life.

They went back to their lives. First, their careers took their lives over, and then, the kids. The years became decades. He had become a very successful surgeon. People came to him from all over the world, to extend their leases on life. She bought and sold companies like peanuts, and was a businesswoman to be reckoned with. They had all the money in the world. And very little time. Specially, for each other.

Often, he would dream a dream. About a beautiful summer evening in Europe. He would be sitting with her, enjoying his glass of champagne. And then, he would see the gypsy boy with the monkey. As the beautiful music stopped, and the monkey placed his hat on his head, he would hear his wife's sweet laugh. And, just when he was about to place the hat on her head, either his phone would ring or hers. Sometimes, he would have to run to perform an emergency procedure. Sometimes, she would run to renegotiate a failing deal. And then, he would wake up.

He never told his wife about his dreams. Over the years, he didn't dream those dreams much. And when he did, they would be short. But, he wanted to go back to those beautiful streets with her one day. Now that the kids were grown up and he was looking at retiring next year, they could perhaps go and search for the monkey with the fez. Perhaps.

She had to miss his retirement party. He was planning to surprise her with a trip to Europe, which he had planned for months. But, she had something important come up and had to fly out at the last moment. At least, she wouldn't have to feel guilty about letting him down, since the whole thing was planned as a surprise for her. When he came back home that night, the place never looked emptier. It was perhaps very empty for a long time, but he was just beginning to notice. He had a lot of plans. When his wife came back, they would explore the Sahara desert on a camel's back. And swim with the fishes around the great barrier reef. And of course, they had to go back and look for their friend, the monkey. With the red fez hat.

That night, the dream came back to him. He was sitting in an ocean-side cafe in Los Angeles. He could hear the waves crashing on the shore. He could feel the salty air on his face. And he could hear the beautiful melody on the accordion, as his friends, the gypsy boy and the monkey, approached him. The monkey put the hat on his head. He looked across the table. For the first time in his dreams, there was no one sitting on the opposite side! He put the hat on the table, and gave the monkey a lot of money. They both bowed and walked away. The gypsy boy was still playing the accordion. As the music faded away in the distance, he looked at the hat. He was smiling.

They found him the day after. When the papers weren't picked up and the milk was unclaimed. He looked very peaceful in his sleep. He was smiling.

She was walking into her meeting when the phone rang. She froze for a moment but didn't let her emotions show. Her presentation would decide the fate of millions of people around the world. And, she couldn't let them down. When the presentation was over, one of her rivals walked over to her and congratulated her for her victory. He couldn't figure out why she looked so defeated. And morose.

It was a long flight back home, but she couldn't eat. She kept staring at the television screen in front of her, and then, she felt asleep. She had a strange dream. It reminded her of  something from the past, but she couldn't quite place it. She was sitting on the sidewalk of a beautiful European town, with music in the air. Her husband was sitting with her, and they were enjoying a glass of champagne. Suddenly, a gypsy boy with a monkey on his shoulder walked over. The monkey grimaced at her and pointed to the table. There was a beautiful red fez hat on it, next to the bottle of champagne. She picked it up.

As she looked up, she saw that her husband was not in his chair any more. The music had stopped. And, as the gypsy boy and the monkey walked away, she woke up. She was crying.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dictators and Dominoes

If you have been following the news in the last week or so, you probably haven't missed the story about Egypt. It seems that the people of Egypt have had enough. And, they want their dictator Hosni Mubarak to leave.

Dictators are interesting people. In fact, we have quite a few of them still around, even if this is the century of democracy. And freedom. If you look at how dictators start off, you will see that it is very seldom that they start off without popular support. And, little by little, they chip off at the institutions of freedom and democracy in the country they rule. So much, that in a couple of decades, they can convert a free country into an authoritarian dictatorship, and that is when most people realize what a mess they got into. Which is why, it is very important that people guard their democratic rights zealously, and keep hero and family worship under control, even in so called mature democracies like India.

A friend once educated me about the people's right to choose. Psychologically, it seems that human beings don't care about the right to choose their leaders that much. Which probably explains the low voter turnouts, specially in mature democracies. But, people do care about their right to fire the rulers they don't like. And that should explain why the voter turnouts are massive when an established leader is thrown out, even in a democracy. So, "I have had enough and you need to leave", seems to be the catch phrase in all popular revolts, including those, that happen in democracies.

And this round of  the "I have had enough" revolutions seems to be in the Arab world.  It started in Tunisia. It is affecting Egypt right now, and it is showing signs of continuing for a while in places like Yemen and Jordan. And who knows, Saudi Arabia may not be that far. This string of toppling dominoes reminds me so much of another series of revolutions I remember closely following, about two decades ago. That is when the iron curtain came down, and a lot of eastern European communist dictatorships fell. Of all those dominoes, the one that I remember watching with admiration was the one in Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu, was an absolute dictator and no one ever imagined that he would go down with the rest of the toppling dominoes in eastern Europe. But, after I saw the Romanian revolution, I came to the conclusion that when thousands of people are out on the streets, and they believe that history is changing, absolutely nothing can stop them. After the revolution, Ceausescu, was tried and executed very quickly, and to this day, I remember the gory pictures of his dead body on television, which was an attempt to dissuade his forces from continuing on. Apparently, it worked.

I think it is very clever of Hosni Mobarak to try and buy time. If you can succeed in doing that, you can calm people down, and retain your grip on power. Revolutions work because you have people on the streets, willing to give up their lives. Delay them a little, and it can all fail. Which is why, I will be curious to see how it all ends.

During the chaos of all revolutions, you come across funny stories about dictators. Apparently, when Ceausescu would go hunting in the villages of Romania, the village chief would fire a shot in the air to gather everyone, to pay their respects. On one such occasion, after the chief fired a shot, someone shouted from the fields, "What is it?". "It's Ceausescu" was the response. No one came out for about ten minutes, so the chief fired another shot in the air. "What is it?" someone shouted again. "It's Ceausescu", shouted the chief sounding rather irritated.

"Didn't you get him the first time?" shouted someone from the fields.