Tuesday, March 19, 2019

No more waiting, for anything

FOR BUS

* All my school and college life, I lived in the Sainik School campus. It is near a village called Chandavila, about four km from the small town of Kazhakootam, and 30 km from the city of Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala. If I had to go to the city, I had to rely on just one bus that came from a place called Kattayikkonam and passed through Chandavila. It plied just three times a day: at 7.30 am, 2.30 pm and 5.30 pm. If I had to go to the city, I had to wait for this bus.

Now, no more waiting. There is a public transport of a different kind (called Uber Share or Ola Pool), which picks me up from wherever I am and drops me wherever I want to go.

FOR NEWS

* I was a news freak right from my school days. My portable transistor radio was my friend. Listening to news gave me a picture of the world that we live in. Every day I waited for news thrice a day: in the morning, afternoon and night, to know what's the latest. Listening to the BBC World Service news at 7.30 am, 1.30 pm and 8.30 pm, and the All India Radio news at 8.15 am, 2 pm and 9 pm, was a part of my daily life, for as long as I can remember. Besides this, I had to wait for the morning to read a newspaper.

Now, no more waiting. The newspapers, radio and television are all on the palm. Always there are at least a dozen news apps on my phone. The latest news arrives with a beep, as and when it happens. (Anyway, I can't wait now, since tracking news is a part of my job.)

FOR BOOKS

* I enrolled as a member of the British Library in Thiruvananthapuram in 1980. (It closed down in March 2008.) Members were allowed to borrow four books and three magazines for a period of 4 weeks. So, I had to wait for a month to borrow and read a new set of books, and newspapers and magazines like The Times, The Telegraph, The Economist, The Spectator, and The New Statesman.

Now, no more waiting. There are multiple bookstores (Amazon and Flipkart to name just two) of millions of books on my phone. I can buy any one of them at any time of the day. There is a library of a different kind (called Kindle Unlimited on Amazon) that lets me borrow 10 books at a time for any number of days for a fixed annual fee.

FOR TV SERIALS

* Till the early 1990s, India had just one television broadcaster, called Doordarshan (a government-owned one) for the whole country. It showed movies, but one once a week; later it became one a day; and television serials, but again one a day, at 9 pm. There were great serials like Nukkad, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, and Hum Log. But I had to wait for a week to see the next episode.

Now, no more waiting. Successive episodes of all serials are on the phone and can be watched one after the other on Netflix and Amazon Prime. So much so that we have something called binge watching.

FOR ELECTION RESULTS

* We had to wait for three to four days to know the result of the national election to the Lok Sabha; because it was all paper ballots. Considering the size and population of India, even with round the clock counting of votes, it took that long.

Now, no more waiting. Even before elections, there are many pre-poll surveys which give us an idea of which way the wind is blowing. After all the phases of elections are over, there are exit polls by multiple agencies, giving us an idea of what to expect. Since it is EVMs (Electronic Voting Machines), on the day of counting it is all over in about three to four hours.

FOR GROCERY & HOUSEHOLD ITEMS

* At home, if we ever ran out of any household item or grocery, there was no alternative but to go without it. We went shopping only once a week, it was Friday for a long time. The reason, the closest market was some 5 km away. So I waited for the shopping day to buy anything I wanted.

Now, no more waiting. Open the phone, a few taps on the screen to purchase whatever I want, and it's all delivered at my doorstep. What more, I can even tell the seller when to bring them.

POSTSCRIPT

Now, I have new problems:

* My laptop is taking too long to turn on ... I have to wait ... for like 1 or 2 minutes!

* The website is forever buffering! And the app is forever crashing! It is so frustrating!

* I finally managed to order some food for the night. The delivery boy was supposed to come at 9, and it is already 9.15 and there is no sign of him!

* My call to helpline is just getting passed from one automated answering machine to another. Aren't there any human beings I can talk to?!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Great Indian Festival of Democracy

Among the many features of India that the nation and its people can be truly proud of is how deep-rooted democracy is. 

The nation won Independence from the UK in August 1947. (India was referred to as the Jewel in the British Crown.) Ever since that, the nation has regularly held elections to the national parliament, and to the Assemblies of each State. 

The First General Election was held in 1951. Now, the 17th one will be held from April 11 in seven phases.

Elections are an inalienable part of democracy and every single time an election is held in India, the results have been accepted graciously and magnanimously by the losers. Of course, there have been many occasions when losers have contested the result, but that is by going to the court. The court's decisions are respected and accepted by all without any reservation.

THE ONLY BLEMISH

The only setback in India's democratic journey was in 1975 when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used a provision in Constitution to declare Emergency, resulting in the suspension of many democratic rights of citizens. It was not only widely considered as an unjustified move but it had led to large-scale misuse of various provisions to target political opponents.

Ironically, it was her belief in the strength of India's democracy that led her to lift the Emergency, which lasted 21 months. In the elections that followed, she and her party, the Congress, was routed massively, once again demonstrating how deep-rooted democracy is in the country.

India has had many occasions of horrible political instability. But it has always got sorted out in the way it should be, and governments formed.

17TH EDITION OF GENERAL ELECTION

The elections in India must be one of the very few in the world where the whole process is electronic. Voting machines were first used in 1982 in the North Paravoor constituency of Kerala Assembly. But the use of EVMs was struck down by the court as the machines had been used without creating a legal provision for it. It was then properly introduced in a select manner from 1999 in state assembly elections. The first time a Lok Sabha election was held using only EVMs was in 2004.

The elections will be held in seven phases on April 11, 18, 23, 29, May 6, 12, 19. 

One reason elections are staggered over many days is because of the large number of voters (900 million), spread across the vast area of the country (3.287 million sq km). It is a great logistic challenge: a large number of polling officials, electronic voting machines, security forces etc.

The previous election in 2014 was the longest ever, it was held over nine days between April 7 and May 12.

THE CONTEST

All the talk in India is whether Narendra Modi and the National Democratic Alliance will retain power. The situation is not the same as in 2014. Then, Modi was a new player on the national political scene, who came in with some fresh ideas to counter the then ruling party Congress which was very unpopular due to a string of corruption allegations. 

Today, Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi are trying hard to regain the lost ground. Some, who voted against them in 2014, might be inclined to give them a chance this time. But though Modi and his government might not have done anything spectacular to assure itself of an assured big win like in 2014, the fact that they haven't done too badly to be voted out will be a great challenge for the Congress and allies.

Election season in India resembles a festival, in the sense of the excitement it causes among people. Right now different parties are finalising their candidates for different constituencies. Soon electioneering will get into full throttle, with public meetings in every nook and corner of the country. Colourful posters, banners and flags, loud music and songs, entertaining street theatre ... the nation will soon be gripped by the intense battle of the ballot.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

India, Pakistan on the edge again

There is only question many Indians and Pakistanis are asking now: Is the tit-for-tat armed combat on the border over, or will we see an escalation? My prayers are two-fold: one, may the conflict not escalate. Two, may the cause of the conflict be resolved once and for all.

The troubles began right on the night the two nations were born in August 1947. The first war broke out just after two months. The second in 1965, and the third 1971. After this, there was low-level warfare in 1999. Then in 2001, there was heavy troop buildup and a fullscale conflict was narrowly averted.

At the centre of it is the status of the border state Kashmir. A part of it is with India and the other is with Pakistan. The unresolved issue is not just an open wound; it's been bleeding, and bleeding badly all these years; a source of great pain for both the nations.

It's extremely sad that when Pakistan leadership (just as the rest of world too) knows very well that Pakistan itself is a victim of terrorism, and that there are many radical organisations with violent ideologies within Pakistan's borders, neither Pakistan itself, nor other nations (US, UK, Russia, China etc.) do anything about it. 

India has been always saying talks and terror can't go together. But still, out of goodwill, in between wars and terror attacks, India has initiated a number of confidence-building measures over many decades, by separating the people-to-people interactions from the larger political and military issues. But all these years, Pakistan has simply not reciprocated them.

Take the latest incident. On February 14, there was a terror attack in Pulwama, when a bomb-laden truck rammed into a convoy of paramilitary soldiers; and Pakistan-based militant organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility. India asked Pakistan to do something about it.

If Pakistan had been sincere in its desire to end violence and ring in peace, it would have done something, at least now, with a new Prime Minister Imran Khan at the helm who promised a 'New Pakistan'. It didn't do anything. Not even a condemnation of the incident.

And India was forced to act yesterday -- a terror camp in Pakistan was hit by Indian Air Force jets. It provoked Pakistan which retaliated today by targeting Indian military assets. Luckily, the Pak jet was brought down. India lost a fighter jet in this first air-to-air combat between the two nations after 1971. The pilot of the Indian fighter is in the custody of Pakistan.

A military route will not be the end solution. So, India must explore all other avenues -- diplomatic, political, social, economic and cultural -- to make Pakistan realise that it has to put an end to harbouring and encouraging radical and militant ideologies that threaten peace not just in India and its neighbourhood but the world at large. I hope and pray we all will see that day sooner than later.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Goa trip - Day 3 - Bird Sanctuary, Basilica of Bom Jesus, Archaeological Museum, Russians, and flea market at Arpora

(This post continues from Goa trip - Day 2 and Goa trip - Day 1)

The Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary
On the third day of our Goa tour, December 1, we went to Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. It is on the island of Chorao, which is about 7 km from the State's capital Panaji, along the Mandovi River, mid-north of Goa.

Salim Ali, who passed away in 1987 at the age of 91, was India's most renowned ornithologist and naturalist. He was the first Indian to undertake a systematic survey of birds in the country. He wrote a number of books and popularised the study of birds and amateur bird-watching. He, along with the famous American ornithologist, Sidney Ripley, wrote the 10-volume Handbook of Birds of India and Pakistan.

View of Mandovi River from the sanctuary
It is a mangrove forest that spans over 178 ha (440 acres) housing a variety of birds. Not all of the densely wooded premises is accessible, more so during the rainy season when the water level rises. We went on a nature trail, around 900 metres one-way.

The sanctuary is of relatively recent origin. According to the literature available here, the place where the sanctuary stands now, was until the 1970s privately owned rice fields. When the fields were neglected, for various reasons like people moving to cities, the embankments started to collapse and the area began to get flooded with saltwater from the Mandovi River. Soon, mangroves began to grow and also various forms of aquatic organisms.

The mangroves -- which are highly specialised ecosystems with salt-resistant plants -- house a number of fish and other marine species. There are ducks, waders, raptors, kingfishers, seabirds,  herons etc.

FERRY SERVICE

The island is accessed by ferry, wherein vehicles and people are transported between Ribander and Chorao island, free of cost, except for cars that are charged a nominal fee. Ferries used to be very common in Goa, but now in many places bridges have replaced them. For those who haven't seen people and vehicles being transported like this, it's quite a sight. Watch the video below.



We could spot only three or four birds, since it was around 11 am when we reached. If you want to see birds, make sure you are there very early in the morning, maybe as early as 7 am when the sanctuary opens. But we enjoyed the walk of around 1 km into the forest and back. The thick foliage and tranquillity of the surroundings are undoubtedly soothing.

Here I got to learn about 'Roots that Breathe'. Red Mangrove has, what is called, 'prop roots' that not only support the tree but also filter out the salt from the sea water so that it gets the water it needs without the harmful salt. They also have small holes through which it takes in air. In the case of White Mangroves, there are pencil-like tubes that transport oxygen to the roots below the ground.

OLD GOA, BODY OF ST FRANCIS XAVIER

From here, we went to what is called Old Goa, about 6 km from the sanctuary. This area used to be the capital of Portuguese India and a thriving business centre from the 16th to the 18th century during Portuguese reign. Most of the remains of those times are now preserved as part of Unesco's World Heritage Site.

The Basilica of Bom Jesus
Old Goa has many churches, but the most important of them is the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which has the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier. He was one of the missionaries who spread the teachings of Christ in Asia, with a lot of success in India. When he was on his way to China, he passed away on December 3, 1552.

It was found that his body was incorrupt, and a year after his death, the body was brought to Goa, where the mortal remains are preserved at the Basilica in a silver casket. Once in 10 years, the body is lowered to ground level for devotees to pay respects. The last time this was done was in December 2014. We also went to the nearby Church of St. Francis of Assisi.

The entire area was decked up, getting ready for the annual Feast of St Francis Xavier, which is held on the 3rd of December.

COLLECTION OF HISTORICAL ARTEFACTS

Opposite to the Basilica and adjascent to the Church of St Francis of Assisi is the Archaeological Museum. (This is different from the Goa State Museum in Panaji, and the Museum of Goa in Pilerne.) Here there are various historical artefacts like sculptures, pillars, stones, postage stamps, lamps etc. There are also portraits of Governors and Viceroys of colonial Goa.

LUNCH AT CASA DA CHA

It was around 2 pm, and we were really hungry. We thought we must try out typical Goan lunch. On the way back from Old Goa, at Ribander, we saw a small, traditional restaurant, named Casa De Cha, which claimed to serve 'authentic traditional Goan food.

Casa Da Cha restaurant at Ribander
We enjoyed the fare. Unlike typical north Indian food items which tend to have masala, this instead had coconut. The course had rice, a couple of curries, including one of fish, apart from fried fish. In the end, they served water with Kokum syrup. Kokum is a fruit-bearing tree, commonly found in Asia and Africa. The juice/syrup made from the fruit is said to have a number of health benefits.

The owners of the restaurant are original Goans who still speak Portuguese. The gentleman at the cash counter explained to us what the name of the restaurant meant. Casa is house and cha is tea, and Casa de cha means a cafeteria

AN ELDERLY GOAN'S REMINISCENCES 

We then went around a bit of Panaji, and headed to Arpora, to see the night market. Though there was some time to kill, we didn't want to go back to the hotel, since we would have felt so lazy to stir out again. So, at a small village on the way called Parra, we halted, and sat on the bench on the pavement, stretched our legs and relaxed, comforted by the gentle breeze.

There we got talking to an elderly man, who was sitting on the bench beside us. On seeing a motorcyclist who hadn't put on the indicator before taking a turn and narrowly missed brushing against a car, the man on the bench, who evidently was someone who has been a long-time resident of the place, launched himself into a lament-filled diatribe on how the youngsters nowadays have no discipline and how value systems have all plummeted in today's world. Least interested in getting into either a debate or an intellectual conversation, we agreed with everything he had to share, and we took leave after some time.

Near the Arpora Junction, we saw the Benz Celebrity Wax Museum. The general online reviews of the wax statues there, some 200 in total, was that they weren't worth the ticket price, we decided to give it a miss; and instead had a good cup of tea from the restaurant nearby. By then, it was around 6 pm, and it was time to head to the night market.

RUSSIAN INFLUENCE 

One can make out that a large number of Russian tourists visit Goa from the signboards on streets, especially outside shops displaying the products available there and the prices. Not quite clear why Goa is a favourite of Russians. Shops play Russian songs and many shopkeepers are fluent in Russian. There is an increase in the inflow of tourists when it's winter in Russia. As someone said some tourists even continue to work from here, thanks to the fast and cheap internet connection.

ARPORA NIGHT FLEA MARKET

At the market, there were at least 200 stalls on the wide open ground selling mostly clothes, besides consumer durables, and interesting curios. It's a flea market, and there is no fixed price for anything on sale. You need to bargain. So, unless you have a very good idea of what the product is and what the usual pricing is, there is a high risk of getting cheated. Though we don't like shopping in such places, we ended up buying a few clothes and convinced ourselves that they were a good bargain.

A food court -- having a wide variety of dishes and drinks, including south Indian, north Indian and western besides alcohol -- and entertaining English and Hindi pop songs being belted out from a stage, this flea market is a good place for an outing. After dinner there, we headed back to the hotel.

(Goa trip - Day 4 follows)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Goa trip - Day 2 - Mario Gallery, Museum of Goa, Anjuna Beach

(This post continues from Goa Trip - Day 1)

Mario Gallery
On the second day, November 30, we set off for the Mario Gallery in Calangute. It has a delectable collection of illustrations by India's well-known cartoonist late Mario Miranda. Mario Gallery is not an imposing structure; it is a small store on the side of a busy road, and can be missed, but for the statues of some of the characters in front of the store.

"Please wipe that expression off
your face; people might think
we're married!"
This place was of particular interest to me because I grew up laughing my heart out over Mario's cartoons (with characters like Miss Fonseca, Bundaldass, and Rajani Nimbupani) that used to appear in The Illustrated Weekly. He brought out not only the subtle ironies and humour that punctuate the fast-paced lives of upwardly mobile Indians caught in the urban maze but also the tranquillity of the traditional Goan culture.

At the gallery, the cartoons are kept alive are on multiple fancy stuff like figurines, key chains, t-shirts, cups, wall-hangings, etc. I bought a few framed illustrations and refrigerator magnets, some as gifts for my friends and some for myself. They can be bought online too from the gallery website.

Museum of Goa
If you are riding around Goa in a motorbike (like we were), or in a car, then keep an eye on the fuel level. There aren't many petrol stations so it will be a good idea to have your tank topped up. That's what we did after the visit to Mario Gallery.

With a full fuel tank, we headed to the Museum of Goa, at Pilerne. This is a three-storied art gallery, that spreads over an area of 1,500 square meters, curated by artist Subodh Kerkar. The best thing is about this place is that you can enjoy looking at the works of art, even if you are not such a great art fan. Not a surprise, considering that one of the Kerkar's aims is to take art and local history to the larger audiences.

Each of the works has a historical context to it, and there is an informative write-up beside each of them that makes understanding the art easy. The art gallery is a sort of confluence of the historical legacy as well as the innate culture of Goa.

The section on chillies, a major component of
Indian recipes, but a foreign import  
There is one section on chillies, which is a major component of many Indian recipes. But chillies are not originally Indian. They came to India for the first time in the 16th century on a Portuguese ship at Goa from South America. Now, India the world's largest producer and consumer of chillies.

Read more on the museum website and on Wikipedia

It was almost 3 pm, and after lunch, headed back to the hotel. Changed our dress, and left for Anjuna beach.

Anjuna beach
This is arguably the most well-known beach in Goa. More than natural beauty, it is known for the wild trance parties youngsters have here. If there is a loose equivalent to Las Vegas in India, it is along the beaches here. One can sense the "no one cares" attitude hanging heavily in the air.

The culture goes back to the 1960s when foreign tourists, especially of the hippies of the flower generation, started flocking to the beach. Now you won't find so many of them. The place is actually swarming with crowds of young Indians who are looking for some fun. There are also plenty of shops from where you can buy anything from clothes to curios.

Sunset from Anjuna beach
Anjuna is also famous for the Wednesday flea market. We missed that as we arrived on Thursday, and would be leaving on Monday.

We watched the sunset from the Anjuna beach and headed back to the hotel.

(Goa Trip - Day 3)

Monday, December 10, 2018

Goa trip - Day 1 - Assagao, Vagator beach, Mapusa Hanuman temple

On way to Goa, somewhere in north
Karnataka, as seen from the train.
Goa is the smallest state (by area) and the richest state (by per capita GDP) in India. It is globally renowned for its beaches and natural beauty. It was a Portuguese colony for over 450 years, from 1510.

On way to the hotel from Margao railway station, in a cab
Not many, including Indians, know that Goa continued to be under Portuguese rule, for as many as 14 years after India won Independence in 1947. After Portugal repeatedly rejected Indian demand to leave, India had to send the military and annexed the State in a 36-hour battle called Operation Vijay, in December 1961.

Vagator Beach
Though the Portuguese left, the State continues
to have their influence, which makes it culturally a bit different from the rest of the country. Wild parties are common, and a carefree ambience generally pervades the coastal belt. In a sense, it's the Vegas of India. What happens in Goa, stays in Goa!

Vagator Beach
A trip to Goa has been long-pending. And finally, it was happening. On November 29, we, my wife and I, alighted at the Margao station around 6.15 am.

We had breakfast at a restaurant in the railway station and booked a cab from the pre-paid taxi counter. We reached our hotel (which was around 40 km away) in Assagao, Bardez sub-district, around 8 am.

The lush green landscape and the undulating roads and the quiet streets reminded me of the small towns in my home state of Kerala. This was a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle (even early in the day) in Bengaluru.

The cab driver was a deeply religious person but was driving at a very high speed. I was at times a bit worried and was tempted to tell him to drive slowly. I could see he was drawing a cross and saying a prayer every time we passed a church.

Vagator Beach
The check-in time at the hotel is 2 pm. So we kept our luggage in the cloakroom; freshened up and had breakfast.

One good thing about Goa is that you get cars and motorbikes on rent. That makes moving from one place to another easy and inexpensive. I checked the rates: Rs 400 a day for a
motorbike; if it's for more than a day, then it's Rs 300 a day. It's Rs 1,500 a day for a car. I hired a motorbike for four days. We were to leave on the fifth day.

Fountain in the park in Mapusa
It was 10 am. It wasn't difficult to decide where to head first. A beach, where else?! We chose to begin our tour with the Vagator beach, which is the northernmost beach in the Bardez region of the state. Being early in the day there wasn't much crowd. Clear waters. Gentle waves. Spent about an hour and a half there. Had some snacks in one of the beachside restaurants, and later lunch on way back to our hotel.

Rajasthani folk songs at hotel's poolside restaurant
At the resort, we had a single bedroom house all to ourselves. It was on the ground floor. We would have been happier if it was on one of the upper floors. But, that was okay, since the overall ambience and the environment of the hotel premises was so quiet, peaceful, and refreshing.

The day was the second death anniversary of my father. Traditionally, we go to a temple to pray for his soul. In the evening around 6 pm, we went to a Hanuman temple in Mapusa, about 5 km from the hotel. This is a very old temple, built in 1843. It has a very impressive architecture with marble floors.

A Rajasthani dance at hotel's
poolside restaurant
There is a park nearby, where we spent some time. There were about 20 people, young and old. Some chatting away, others on a brisk walk around the park. Some children were running around. A small illuminated water fountain kept the children entertained.

The ride back to the hotel through narrow and quiet roads (some of them dark with no streetlights) was an experience in itself.

We were back in the hotel around 8 pm. At the poolside restaurant, there was folk music and folk dance performance by artists from the state of Rajasthan. That was really good.

(Goa Trip - Day 2)

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Claire Nelson's miraculous survival from the depths of despair

We Are The World Blogfest
This is an amazing story of hope triumphing over despair.

Thirty-five-year-old travel writer Claire Nelson from New Zealand was hiking in Joshua Tree National Park in California, in May this year, when she accidentally strayed off the trail. She hadn't checked the GPS and she had no idea that she was on a wrong track.

She climbed on a rock, which she thought was steady but actually wasn't. To her horror, she slipped and came hurtling down into a canyon 15 ft below.

It took awhile for her to realise what had happened -- she fallen into a place where she couldn't be heard by anyone nor anyone could see her.  Worse, she had badly broken her pelvis, and she couldn't move.

There was no mobile connectivity; so she couldn't call anyone nor she could text. She survived a scary first night, amidst fears of being bitten by rattlesnakes.

With the sun shining bright. She made use of the material available with her to make a contraption that would shield her from sunlight.

She was getting dehydrated as time went by. She was running out of the 3 liters of water she had carried; and was left with no option but to drink her urine to keep herself hydrated.

She was desperate and fears of not being able to survive was threatening to overpower her. She needed to talk to someone. So she videographed updates, so that in case she didn't make it, her family and friends would know what had happened.

But in the midst of all this, she didn't lose hope.  After nearly four days she heard the sound of a helicopter, and she stretched herself as much as she could and waved the umbrella-like contraption she had made to protect herself from the sun.

The authorities had been alerted by a friend of Claire, who hadn't heard from her for a while and began panicking as to what might have happened.

Claire was rescued and after surgery and  prolonged medical treatment, she is finally learnt to walk again.

BBC's Outlook Weekend, last week, featured Claire Nelson, in which she spoke to presenter Emily Webb narrating the entire sequence of events. The 25-minute programme is worth a listen.

References:

Kiwi hiker Claire Nelson's incredible survival after three nights in US desert

Missing Kiwi woman Claire Nelson found injured in US national park

(This post is part of the We Are The World Blogfest, wherein participants share positive stories of hope and success.)