Rambling on….

about anything under the Sun!

Happy Birthday, Bapuji!

141 and counting – one more year goes by, and the memories continue to fade a little more. The shy, peace-loving barrister that was the architect of India’s independence, now hardly finds mention except in history books, and except on this day, his birthday. Officially, he is still the Father of the nation, a nation that is now a billion-plus people – a fact that even Gandhiji, in his infinite wisdom, didn’t probably anticipate. For if he had, I doubt he’d have invested as much energy as he did on winning our Independence from the British. Surely he’d have known that they’d have left on their own accord by now?

But I digress…the fact remains that Gandhiji was probably the single-biggest influence in shaping our nation’s independent future, back when we were an oppressed colony, an integral part of the Empire on whom the Sun never sets. And he did that in a totally unconventional, radical yet peaceful fashion that he has become the epitome of non-violence the world over. And how do we pay our tributes to this great soul? Well, for one, we give ourselves a holiday..and the kids even get candy. Back in the day, it used to be the sour, orange-colored ball-shaped ones – it was the same every year, and what correlation it had to Gandhi and why that candy was picked, I will never understand. But, truth be told, its not all about just fun and candy. We do make some big sacrifices to celebrate this day, however. Its a dry day for one, so you will absolutely not be able to drink to the Mahatma, no Sir! (Unless of course you are the kind that plans ahead and stocks up the bar for the special occasion). And no meat either! That should count for something?

And oh yeah, the Gandhi statue that stands innocently by the street corner, serving more as a landmark for driving directions than anything else, gets its customary annual ritual. A sculpture that was erected to honor the man spends most of the year as the favorite resting and relieving point for the birds passing through the neighborhood. This one day, the structure bears a true resemblance to what it was meant to be. Washed, decorated and even garlanded by the local politician, its appearance today could almost lull one into thinking we actually care! Then there is the tradition that our friends in the Television world have so religiously adopted. At least a couple of channels will show Gandhi, the movie…and I am glad they do, for I will shamelessly admit that this movie was my biggest source of information on the man’s life. Yes, there was ample coverage in the history books, but all of those lessons largely centered around the Independence struggle and his role in shaping it. There was the odd anecdote or two that I remember reading here and there, but otherwise, what I learned about his life was largely thanks to Ben Kingsley and Richard Attenborough. Lately however, even that seems to be a thing of the past – the real Gandhi has been replaced by a more current practitioner of his philosophy, who goes by the name of Munnabhai and is supposedly better at demonstrating the principles of Gandhigiri even better than the inventor himself. Back in school, there was at least a semblance of homage – there were activities and competitions of various kinds – debates, quizzes, essay-writing, fancy-dress, maybe some social causes that the students participated in etc. that weren’t always the most fun, but certainly helped create awareness on the Mahatma. Sadly, one of that seems to happen these days – schools seem to simply declare a holiday and close, plain and simple. So yeah, quite the celebration for a man who lived such an inspiring life and made such a big impact during his time on Planet Earth! And that begs the question – why do we even deserve a holiday on this occasion? Its not like we did something to earn it, and we definitely aren’t honoring the man like he deserves to be?

What are the odds that the next generation India will even remember the man? I want to say it couldn’t get any worse, but I am pretty sure it will. Wanna place any bets on what Gandhi Jayanthi will look like a few years from now?

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First Day First Show

Its Oct 1, 2010…and if you have any strands in your DNA that remotely connect you to the Chennai area, you’d immediately recognize that today is the worldwide launch of Endhiran, Superstar Rajnikanth’s latest and possibly grandest attempt to date at making history. And the expression “First Day First Show” has been synonymous, for most of us growing up over the years watching Thalaivar perform his magic like only he can, with a release of his latest movie. Today, several years later, was no different – there it was, like clockwork at 7am, a dear friend text-ed me to say she was headed to the First Day, First show and how excited she was about it. Of course I was jealous…but that also brought back some awesome memories.

Going and watching a Rajni movie on the first day, and especially the first show, is an experience in itself. And funnily enough, it is hardly about the movie itself. Instead, it is about the adulation, the hero-worship, the devotion and the love that is showered on the phenom that’s Rajnikanth. Getting in as a fan is obviously a privilege, a sacred honor, and an opportunity that is not going to come easy. In fact, for a lot of us growing up, it was a lofty goal in life, an aspiration, to someday make it in life to be able to command a First Day First Show invitation to such an event. So, when that day did come, I finally felt like I had arrived. I lost count of the number of times we tried to fight our way into one of those gala events back in those days – taking the money route was just out of the question. Not only was it simply unaffordable back in the student days, there was no guarantee that money would actually get you in. We tried going the influential way, only to quickly realize anyone that we had considered an important personality was a nobody in Thalaivar’s universe. Muthu and Jeba, the friendly custodians at the cycle stand in the theatre complex, who we could always count on to get us in on any other day, would plead complete helplessness on this special day. We put ourself through wretched insults, just abject humiliation, all in the hope of getting that all-powerful ticket, but to no avail…until the glorious Padayappa came to life, this was a mission where I had nothing but complete failure to show for. And somehow, when the title song for Padayappa started playing, it all seemed so apt. I felt like I had finally arrived. One minor detail – I went to the launch at a local theater in Wisconsin, far far away from Albert theater, which is where you really want to be. Even if it was on foreign soil, it felt like an accomplishment worth recognizing. And the desi fans of the Superstar in Wisconsin didn’t disappoint – they put on one terrific show to make it a true celebration. The arathi/puja to kick things off, the deafening whistles when the screen credits for the Superstar in his typical style come on, the shower of dollar bills for the first fight sequence, joining Thalaivar with some nifty dance steps of their own, on stage right in front of the screen, and of course, one can’t forget the thundering applause for the classic “punch” lines – just a complete celebration of the occasion in all its glory. Simply unforgettable!

So what am I doing about Endhiran? Well, I guess I’ve fallen back in the rat race, so I couldn’t qualify for a First Day First Show pass this time around – and had to therefore be content with a Second Day Second Show ticket, so will have to make do with that. I hope His Highness does at least one more movie before he rides off into the sunset, just so I can climb back into that First Day First Show status if not anything else. Call me an optimist, but something tells me I have good reason to hope for another shot at redemption 🙂

Cravings!

You know how you walk past a Coldstone Creamery and the aroma of the freshly baked waffle cone blending with the sweet smell of ice cream and hot chocolate fudge comes wafting thru and your mind just starts pleading with the feet to step inside? Or the really strong urge to call Dominos and order that steaming hot large, double-crusted pizza with a side order of Garlic bread sticks with a tub of rich jalapeno cream cheese thrown in for good measure simply because you thought you smelt cheese melting in the oven? Or, for a more desi flavor, the temptation to stop by the mirchi bhajji store for a late afternoon snack, or for that matter, that sizzling, dripping-in-oil aloo tikki from the local chat wala? Yeah, those are the cravings I am referring to. Boy, aren’t those hard to ignore? And seriously hard if you are in the midst of a resolution to get back in shape – when you are not supposed to have something is precisely when you really, really badly need it.

Which is where I find myself these days. My life has been like a Laurel and Hardy movie over the past few years – sadly, I’ve played both roles! I was Stan for most of the early part of my life, and lately, I think I do ample justice to Mr. Hardy. To be clear, I am referring more to the girth factor here, not as much the mirth. And while the Ollie image has been very helpful from a road rage perspective in heckling and intimidating fellow drivers (clearly they were always in the wrong) on the not-so-friendly Indian roads, it does come at a cost – You no longer fit into clothes that normal people wear. Football is a game that you merely enjoy on TV or at the foosball table – none of that on-the-field stuff; Just looking at a soccer field was tiring! Climbing a single flight of stairs makes you feel like you just completed the Boston marathon. You are no longer sitting next to the fat guy on an airplane, you are that fat guy. And every time you walk, you feel like you were dragging a blue whale behind you, and truth be told, maybe you are! So yeah, life as Stan just seemed a lot easier overall and that’s where the cravings started to take center-stage.

But if the resolve is strong, that battle shall be won fair and square. Shower enough abuse on that blubber in the gym, and the cravings will start to go away; in fact, they become downright repulsive. It isn’t easy but when you push yourself to the limit and the body is running on just the fumes left in the tank, trust me, that melting Nutty Crunch in a chocolate-dipped waffle cone is the last thing on your mind. And thankfully, that state of mind lasts for several hours thereafter. Of course, I make it sound easy – putting yourself through that kinda physical punishment takes a lot of determination – I find myself constantly playing mind games with the calorie counter until I know I’ve gone far enough and inflicted a crushing defeat on that slimy treadmill, because that’s the only way I can keep the incredibly boring routine going. And no new pearls of wisdom here, but possibly reinforcement of the simple stuff that helps – and yes, this stuff does work:

  • Yeah, the cravings first, of course – need to be able to overcome them to begin with
  • Keep the diet simple. Just a disciplined roti + daal combo for dinner worked wonders
  • Forget about oily foods for a few days, and go easy on the sugar – these are constantly working in collusion with the eveil forces, so you are better off without em
  • Lots and lots of water – easier said than done, I know, but water works magic
  • Try and walk where you’d be driving before. Getting the legs some strength is important, and so is getting the stamina up

The first few days back on the battlefield are particularly painful, but thankfully, it gets progressively easier. And when its all over and done with, if the satisfaction of having vanquished the monster isn’t enough, the sweet sense of victory as you ride back into Stan-vile makes all that effort so totally worthwhile. Cravings, what cravings?

The Oberoi Wildflower Hall in Shimla

And here is the third and final post on the trip to Shimla, after this and this. Given that we spent the bulk of our time at the Wildflower Hall, it is only fair that I devote an entire post to the place. Technically, the resort is not in Shimla – it is about 19 kms north of Shimla, and on the way to Kufri, near a tiny village called Mashobra. And although the distance seems short, it is almost entirely an uphill stretch, and quite a steep and winding climb, and will easily take you about 45 challenging minutes to get there from Shimla. But it is so totally worth the effort, the Wildflower Hall really is special and delightfully pristine.

The Wildflower Hall resort

If your objective is to just have a completely relaxed break up in the mountains, then this is a delightful location to seek out. Oberoi labels it a luxury resort (you know what that means, right? Yes, it is time to break the bank) and rightly so. From the moment you step into the property, the staff will spare no effort to make you feel like your blood is blue. One tradition that I simply love about the Oberoi – they know you before you actually get there (yes, they call you the day before or that morning to find out when you can be expected), receive you very, very warmly and at the same time with a cold welcome drink…and best of all, they don’t make you wait at the reception to check in. Instead, they take you to your room first and then they come to your room to check you in. After a long journey to get there, that is such a blessing. So simple and yet so brilliant, right? Why can’t more hotels follow their lead? As a customer, they certainly get my vote for how they handle this.

The rooms were great, they have a really spacious bathroom and a nice large bathtub to pamper yourself…and some breathtaking views, especially if you get yourself a room that overlooks the magnificent Himalayas. Really, there are few better reasons to wake up in the morning and open your eyes to that sight, in the company of a loved one.

View of the mountains

The hotel pool is outstanding – its indoor and very, very soothing but the jacuzzi is probably their crown jewel. Its outdoors on the terrace, and faces the mountains. The warm water and the cold mountain air make for a terrific combo, and once you get in, you are probably going to stay there. And the food…it was simply fantastic. Chef Mohan, who runs their kitchen is one of the best in the business, I’m sure and he was very nice about customizing and cooking it just the way we wanted – really, every meal was special and delightfully so. And the staff was great too – were eager and ready to provide anything we needed, and yet left us alone to our privacy when it mattered. We had requested a candle-lit dinner on the outside terrace one night, and they made sure it was an unforgettable experience. Everything, and I mean every single detail, was just perfect and extremely well-handled. Their resident sommerlier even called me a few hours in advance to advise me on the various wine options that will go with the menu I had picked. I wanted the dinner to be special and they made sure it was. The Oberoi is a luxury brand, and they certainly demonstrate that class. It was hospitality at its very best!

As for stuff to do around the place, there are a few nature trails that you could take – they are fairly easy hikes and will last a couple of hours and you could choose to do a picnic lunch if you like. We tried it a couple of times and were pretty happy. Sandwiches do seem to taste better when you eat them out in the wild, especially after you’ve had a good workout! Then there was the supposed white-water rafting expedition – There was very little water, it was anything but white, and we certainly weren’t rafting. In the end, it turned out to a pleasant ride in the dinghy, the only saving grace being some absolutely stunning views of the mountains from the Sutlej river. To be fair, the hotel did the right thing by refunding our charge for the activity when we complained that it was pretty lame. And there’s plenty of other stuff to keep you busy, but we chose to take it easy – our schedule typically revolved around the pool, the jacuzzi and the restaurants. Also, they have a nice projection TV setup in the bar, so watching the soccer World Cup games on the big screen was very cool.

White-water rafting

Of course, not everything was perfect – for one, a trip here costs a fortune. And the Oberoi lives by a simple policy – air and water are free, but we should be able to make money off everything else, and we are talking some serious money. I think about 30-40% of our bill at the end of the day was extras, and we didn’t do nearly as many things as we could have, so that should give you an idea. The spa was alright – it is apparently rated one of Asia’s top spas, and if that is indeed the case, that is very sad for Asia. And for what seemed like a very ordinary message, the price was anything but. It will probably remain the most expensive massage I have had in life. And they invited us to some lecture about the local arts in the region – you would think that’d be offered as a free service, but like I said, it wasn’t water or air, so the Oberoi sees dollar signs where you and I don’t. Their wireless tariff was another such joke – they wanted us to charge more for a day of wireless access than it costs me for an entire month at home. But that was good in a way because we chose not to take it and that kept us away from the computer, which was great. Their front desk could use a serious upgrade, and I don’t mean the actual desk. Not only did they not give us the special view room I had specifically requested, but their front desk staff reasonably incompetent spend hours fixing a billing error which should have taken no more than 30 seconds. The excuse they gave me for the room was that the hotel was full and they couldn’t move us, but that was such a poorly coordinated lie – it was fairly obvious that the hotel occupancy was no more than 30% when we were there. Lastly, the reservations staff will try to sell you some lame package that throws in a bunch of benefits for a nice price tag – simply refuse it. You can always figure out what “benefits” you actually want once you get to the hotel and pay the real price for those.

All that said, the resort was great and we had a fantastic break. I can’t wait to go back there again and lie in the jacuzzi all day 🙂 And I will probably want to go there in the winter this time around – it is hard to imagine the place more beautiful than it was, but we all know that snowfall can indeed work its magic on any canvas.

Jai Hind!

Its the 15th of August – Happy Independence Day, my dear India! 63 years and counting…And all things considered, it has been one impressive journey. Of course, there is so much untapped potential, so much more to be done, and it is easy to be critical of everything that’s wrong with the country. But I choose to be positive today – and in that spirit, it is so worth looking back and appreciating how far we’ve come as a nation. After all, what was a suppressed British colony not long ago is now a democratic nation of a billion plus people, staking claim to be one of the world’s superpowers. Not bad, not bad at all!

Even as late as 10 years ago, the notion of India as a superpower seemed laughable. There was so much wrong with the country, and to a large extent, there still is. Mired in corruption, saddled with the sad legacy of a divisive caste system, a political establishment that is largely self-serving and a growing rich-poor divide all suggest a seemingly hopeless future. To predict a glorious 2020 vision for India at that point either had to be sheer lunacy, or visionary genius. Thankfully for India, it was the latter, and in the form of one of our most loved Presidents, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam.

From his humble beginnings in a remote town in Tamil Nadu, Dr Kalam’s ascent to the highest office in the land is a remarkable journey – one that was built on integrity, on merit and on his very stellar accomplishments. It was therefore, only natural that he envisioned a similar path of greatness for the country he so dearly loved. When Dr Kalam, an apostle of peace and love, and an epitome of simplicity, shared that vision, it suddenly seemed very believable. And now, having witnessed the terrific growth and progress over the last decade, it is heartening to see how realistic that vision was, and how India is so wonderfully on course to achieving her true potential – this despite all the challenges and the hurdles that continue to plague this nation. Clearly, the journey has only begun and there is a lot more to be done before that goal is accomplished but now there is hope, there is optimism and there is vigor in the pursuit of that goal. That can only bode well for India, and for the rest of the world. Go India!

I received at least a couple of Independence Day messages this morning that were laced with guilt – talking about how much could be done, and how as individuals, we were doing nothing more than complaining, not really helping the nation’s cause to any degree. Sadly, very true! And the pity is that it is not that hard…it is actually very possible to start making a difference. In fact, the only way we are going to accomplish true greatness as a nation is if each of us does our bit. Sure, we take small steps at first but a lot of small steps add up, and nothing is impossible when those steps start to align in the right direction. So, today, this Independence day, as I read my pledge, I solemnly swear to stop languishing in my guilt of not having done anything and instead start acting – by this time next year, I will have made a difference to this wonderful country. No matter how small, it will still be a difference, and one that I am proud of. Jai Hind!

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The flying Oryx

At a business quiz in Hyderabad a few years ago, the question for us was to name the airline that had an Oryx for its logo. We pleaded ignorance and had to pass the question, and I thought that was the end of that…but I realized last week traveling on Qatar Airways that the airline had never really forgiven me for that miss, it was payback time!

You know when you are planning your trip and you just get this sense that it is going to be a horrible experience? That’s the feeling I had, and sadly, my worst fears came true. It all started right from the get go. I wanted to change my dates a few hours before I had to fly and called Customer Service. Apparently, they can only look up booking details and answer questions about my reservation – they are not authorized to make itinerary changes, only Reservations does that. Why someone would bother staffing a Customer Service department that isn’t empowered to Serve the Customer, I will never understand. And Reservations is only open from 9-5 Mon-Fri, so they had already left for the day when I called. A little antiquated, no? I think I’d get better response from an Indian Government agency than I did with this airline, and that’s saying a lot.

So anyways, the Customer Service rep directs me to head to the airport to make the change there for if I don’t show up at the check in counter, they’d consider me a No Show and simply cancel my ticket, without any refund of course. So I religiously head to the airport and request a reschedule – of course, same answer. The check-in clerk is only authorized to check passengers in, not make changes to your ticket. The ground operations for Qatar Airways in Bangalore are managed by an external agency, which in itself is a bad sign. And to make matters worse, this agency’s staff is indifferent, incompetent, and so focused on getting you to do what they want, not the other way around. Its worth pointing out that the single beacon of hope was the lone Qatar Airways employee at the airport, who put in a sincere effort to reschedule my ticket but wasn’t successful because the flights were so full. So I had little choice but to get on that plane.

If the experience leading to the journey was bad, the travel itself was just horrid. Miserable seats that resembled park benches with a sorry excuse for a cushion set the tone. Personal TV screens on every seat – awesome…now if only they can figure out how to put them to good use by having movies that you’d actually want to watch, they’d be put to some use! The sweet-looking stewardess had seemingly signed a pact that barred her from smiling – I don’t blame her though. If I had her job, I probably wouldn’t want to smile either. The food, you ask? Barely edible! I seriously considered eating plastic instead – and if you requested a special meal like I did, you are guaranteed to be missing something or the other in your meal – happened to me every single time. And oh btw, Asian Vegetarians apparently don’t eat dessert? When I asked, they gave me fruit instead – Nice! Thank you for watching my diet, Oryx, but can I decide what I want for dessert please?

And the airport at Doha – what is with that place? Color schemes ignored for a second, it felt like an IKEA store, only smaller. More a shopping mall than airport, the place has all these weird walkways weaving around one another, and no matter which one you take, you always seem to end up in one of the duty-free shopping aisles. If you have struggled to get out of an IKEA store like I have, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Anyways, I walk down to the coffee shop in the food court (again, more IKEA inspiration – the Swedish chain should be proud) and order a tall Americano, and the damn cup of coffee costs me $7! Of course, they served it in a container the size of a drum, but who cares? Seven dollars for a cup of coffee? I am sure it would have been cheaper to buy a barrel of oil. And it would probably have tasted better too. And oh, don’t even get me started on the restrooms. They had 4 for the entire terminal, which only housed about a couple of thousand people during that busy morning hour! And those restrooms make dirty sound like a good thing. I went to every single one of those 4, in the hope that at least one would be remotely usable, but no such luck. It was hard to even enter the place, a grim reminder of how nasty a species mankind is at times. Sad!

So, after such a delightful experience, I don’t think I ever want to fly the Oryx again – if I had to choose between flying Qatar and canceling my trip, I think I’d take the latter. I would recommend you do the same, but if you must travel, at least insist that you won’t use the airport for transit 🙂 I heard somewhere that Qatar was competing with and aspiring to be like Emirates – if my trip was anything to go by, Emirates has nothing to worry about, those aspirations will remain just that.

Facebook to Face-the-Book?

We are proud of our roads in India and of how chaos rules those roads. As an ardent believer in gross generalization of anything and everything, I put Indian road users into three broad categories: Those that honestly don’t know or believe that road rules exist in the country, those that know that rules exist but believe they are meant for the Others and finally the Rest, or as I like to refer to this last group, the Idiots. (And yes, I count myself in that group)

In an ideal world, here is what an Indian driving license test would look like if it were to reflect the skills that one needs to survive here:

Please answer Yes/No to the questions below. Can you:

1. Go hurtling down the wrong side of a one-way street with no hesitation, concern or guilt?

2. Drive right through a traffic light that is clearly blazing red, with scant regard for other vehicles crossing the intersection?

3. Halt for the light in what is quite clearly a Left-only lane and block traffic when you intend to go straight? Of course, you should only do this when you know there is a cop waiting on the other side to catch you jumping the light as in #2 above, right?
(Hint: 2 points if you answer Yes to both questions)

4. Brake suddenly while driving on the left lane in rush-hour traffic, make what looks like a natural right turn right through flowing traffic and deftly execute a U-turn maneuver because you realized you should be heading the other way? And 1 bonus point if you manage to do this while still staying upright.

5. Park your vehicle in the geometric center of a No Parking zone blocking at least one lane of traffic behind you?

6. Honk really, really loudly for no apparent reason, and with no real purpose? The intent should be to simply convey that the light is Red, traffic is stopped and you are not happy.

7. Do your best to block an ambulance with wailing sirens from passing through, thereby helping to contain our country’s growing population?

8. Weave a complex helical pattern within a span of 25 ft on a crowded street with at least 3 completely needless lane changes? Yes, in case you are wondering, this replaces the infamous “Can you weave a number 8?” part of the Driving test. I had always wondered why they make you do that, now after driving in Bangalore, I know better.

9. Insist that you will only drive with the high-beam lights on even on a well-lit highway so you can successfully blind every vehicle that’s coming in the opposite direction?

Every question that you answered with a Yes fetches you 1 point. If you manage to score at least 3 out of 9, you are eligible to appear for the driving test and prove your mettle at the wheel. Score over 5, and the driving test is waived and your license granted. You clearly have far too much skill that is going waste every minute you are not on the road and driving. And if you scored less than 3, please go get yourself a bus pass, you are clearly not qualified to drive your own vehicle.

Yeah, that sadly is the state of affairs – road rules and etiquette have indeed become a joke as we so passionately embrace Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest theory on the streets of Bangalore. Thankfully, there was always hope – there are folks that religiously follow these rules and try to set an example. Yes, they are very much in the minority and easily look like the fools that don’t know better . And as someone that belongs in that group, I have always been super frustrated. I am at a huge disadvantage simply because I take the high road, pun intended? And it irked me no end that there was seemingly nothing one could do to counter – the only option to fight the battle seemed to be stoop down to those same deplorable levels. Until now that is…Our good friend, Mark Zuckerberg and his pals @ Facebook are giving us a break? New Delhi’s finest might have found us just the weapon we need, taking advantage of Facebook and the explosive growth of camera phones in India to give us a fighting chance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your engines, whip your cameras out and start shooting! I only ask that you stick to capturing just traffic violations and do so without putting yourself at risk on the street, and without holding up traffic yourself 🙂

Auto upgrade?

So, effective yesterday, the Auto rickshaw fares in Bangalore went up…again. Possibly the first time in history that one was subject to two consecutive days of taxation, albeit in different forms?

I am usually very sympathetic towards the genial auto guy. Yes, they are a rare species and it takes some effort and a lot of luck to find one of those, but they do exist. And for their sake, I support this hike. If you think about it, it is not easy earning one’s livelihood having to spend the entire workday in Bangalore traffic – no one deserves that kinda punishment. So yes, please try and cut them some slack. As salaried folks, we expect the double-digit merit increases that are our birthright, every year. Sometimes, more often than once a year, and we think we are being completely rational and reasonable in our expectations. Of course! I always deserve to be paid more than they pay me! And yet, when these poor guys get their “salary” increases via a fare hike, we are all up in arms against the entire community. You should have seen the number of protest letters to the Editor in today’s newspaper. That doesn’t seem very fair?

It is not like their demand for a fare hike was without basis – there was a substantial increase in the price of fuel by about 20% very recently, and someone’s going to have to pay for that fuel. So it just seems a tad unfair that we label them all sorts of things for wanting better compensation. Yes, there are the bad apples in the lot but more often than not, they are just trying to earn a living like you and me? It is hard to argue that their jobs are at least as stressful as ours, if not more? And the risk element? Surely they deserve some respect (and compensation?) for putting themselves through all of that? So, I don’t care what anyone says, I am happy that they got the increase they deserved, and one that was long pending.

When I first paid the new fare out this morning, I realized the increase was about 30% – now that’s a hike that even an Infosys would be proud of. So maybe this should have been done in phases, but in any case, the government finally woke up and acted. And that got me thinking – would the increase in auto fares over the years be a fair indicator of inflation? When I was in college, the fare per km was Rs 2 – almost one-fifth what it is today. And I know it seems like it, but I am not that old. We are talking less than 15 years here, and that’s quite a change for that short a period of time. However, that change is also very reflective of the “real” inflation we’ve had to negotiate as a country? I mean, there is sufficient reason to believe auto fares would keep pace with inflation – after all, most of the autos in Chennai are owned by the honorable politicians that uphold the law, and their even more respectable cronies? Surely they are going to take advantage of every opportunity they get to make sure the fares keep pace with the rest of the economy? And if I compare what a respectable IT company (which is considered the de facto benchmark for our economy – no clue why) paid a fresh college grad back in 1995 to what they pay today, the ratio seems very comparable to how much auto fares have gone up.

So it just seems like a fair (fare?) distribution from both perspectives. So quit complaining people and pay up! And I hope this increase will at least temporarily encourage my dear, friendly, neighborhood auto dudes to desist from tampering with their meters, asking for a ridiculous “extra” charge for no rational reason, or trying any of the other rotten tricks they typically resort to. Maybe they should try being honest and polite for a change, and they might just pleasantly surprise themselves with how well people respond!

I p(r)ay to thee, my country….

Jul 31…that’s like the Income Tax department’s Valentine’s Day in India. I am sure it is the only day most of us are forced to think about them and acknowledge how “special” they are. Of course, given that efficiency is my middle name, I don’t believe in filing my taxes even a day earlier than it absolutely needs to get done. So there I was, queuing up at my Chartered Accountant’s office this morning to make sure I got my returns filed on time. Needless to say, this is the one day that the Chartered Accountant’s office has a semblance of a cool place to hang out in. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to get done with my paperwork as quickly as possible and get the hell out of there. But today was the first time I saw more than visitors there than employees. And I am sure the accountants felt like superheroes today – mine even had a mask and cape on!

But all jokes apart, I am thankful for the service that these wonderful folks provide. I can’t imagine their jobs being fun – every single individual that comes along waits till the deadline is minutes away like yours truly, they usually have a good bit of their paperwork missing and they ask the dumbest possible questions – here are a few choice ones that I overheard today while I was there…

Oh, I am supposed to bring my Form-16? You didn’t tell me that when I called you (The Form-16 is the Indian version of the W-2)
No, you genius. The CA will magically figure out your Income statement and file.

Sir, this is my first year in a job. Do I have to count my entire salary as income?
There is something to be said about the Desi discount mentality – it is a core part of our DNA

I got married last year and spent quite a bit on my wedding. Am I allowed to deduct that? After all, I am taking up more responsibility, you know?
Yeah buddy, know the feeling. Pretty soon, paying taxes will be the least of your worries

So yeah, I didn’t know whether I was more amused or amazed, but I certainly don’t envy those poor CAs – superheroes or not, am sure they can’t wait for Aug 1 to show up so they won’t have to deal with these clowns for a while. And thank you once again, my dear CA for bailing me out at the eleventh hour, like you always do. We only meet once a year, and I never cease to be amazed at how well we are able to pick up from where we left off (and finish the next year’s returns). I can’t say the same for some of my best friends even.

All that aside, there is something to be said about some perspectives that one is privy to on this day though – for one, it is probably the only time of the year that you closely examine a compounded statement of everything you earned the previous year. And like it or not, it is a direct quantification of the work that you did. And you thought nothing would depress you more than just the thought of having to pay taxes? Think again.

As I was looking at my filing, I also realized how much money I pay the government, and with virtually no expectations for how that money will get spent. It is easily the single biggest expense of the year and yet I expect nothing in return? How sad is that? It is amazing how well our Netas have trained me to just donate that money away and not question it. If I had the freedom of putting that money to use, I know it will probably support a 100 families for the year. And if I extrapolate that to all the tax payers in the country, that could seriously bridge the rich-poor divide that our politicians so fondly speak of on every podium that’ll take their weight. Of course, the only class that pays Income taxes in India is the salaried class, so we can’t really count in the hundreds of millions here. But even then, this should add up to a serious chunk of money and will most certainly be put to better use than it currently is if smarter, more honest people were at the helm? I believe in paying my dues, and I am happy to do that – I really am, and always have been, but I only wish there was more accountability in the system and that the hard-earned money that people pay as taxes gets its due by being spent on better causes.

I will continue to hope and pray, but until a brighter day dawns, I guess the taxes I pay will sadly remain a write(right)-off!

Curiosity spared the Dog?

We all know why the Cat died, right? Curiosity killed it, of course. That seems a little unfair though, no? I mean, its not just the Cat that’s curious? For reasons that’ll become obvious in a bit, this proverb has piqued my interest in recent times. So I decided it was time for some extensive research on the subject, which these days amounts to running about four queries on a Search engine of choice. And if that research is anything to go by, the experts tell me that the true origins of the proverb aren’t traceable. Go figure!

I guess it helps that the Cat has nine lives? I’d like to think that they get killed a few times, say 3 or 4, and eventually learn their lesson and stop being curious so they can live happily ever after? Maybe that’s why Cats were chosen as the victims here? Really, after having seen dogs and cats up close, it is quite obvious to me that Dogs are way more curious. If there was anyone that need to be taught a lesson for being curious, it would have to be man’s loyal canine companion. Anytime you walk in the door, Z will absolutely want to know everything you are carrying. It could be a bag, a box or even a ticking time bomb – does not matter, we will want to sniff it to death. And if the said subject is moving, then we will practically go crazy trying to figure out what it is, why it is where it is, how many different angles can we approach it from, will it attack, can I eat it etc – just an endless list of questions. It is why I think God gave Dogs their long snouts, don’t you? They really were meant to be probes that help to satisfy their curiosity. When was the last time you saw a Cat with a Snout? Good, so we agree?

If you don’t, I am sure a walk with Z will put any doubts to rest. She will stick her nose in every possible bush and want to explore it inside out – I’ve actually followed her into some of these bushes myself, and I kid you not, there is absolutely nothing there. Yet, we could pass the exact same bush tomorrow, and I know we’ll go thru the whole ritual all over again, and with the same excitement and passion as our very first trip to that bush.

And don’t even get me started on any wet spots on the road. The rain is bad enough, but if the spots were left behind by another four-legged friend, then I might as well get a chair and sit down. The walk is about to come to a grinding half, and we aren’t leaving anytime soon. We will need to thoroughly analyze every single whiff and trace the family tree of the dog that had dared to relieve itself on the street. Yes, in a weird sense it is a tad repulsive but when she’s your own, its also somewhat endearing because you realize this is one of the few effective ways they have to relate to each other.

Yeah, so curious or not, Dogs are adorable after all! I am glad Curiosity decided to go after the Cat instead 🙂