Sunday, September 14, 2014

My top 10 books...

So this is the latest trend on Facebook. You get tagged by a friend to list down your top 10 books, or books that have stayed with you long after you have turned over the last page. And then you tag few of your friends to do the same. So I duly got tagged by Vikram last week, and since then I realized that I have hardly read anything lately :). Even then, instead of just listing down those 10 books, I thought it would be nice to write a few lines on each as well. This is just to explain why a particular book was/is one of my favourite. This also provided me with a chance to revive (for the umpteenth time) my blog ! :) So here goes..
1. A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson
       -  Science was never so enjoyable. In his own inimitable style, Bill Bryson touches on virtually every topic (Universe, Geology, Chemistry, Water,  paleontology etc. etc.) and writes in a manner that even someone who just managed grace marks in Science at school would be able to understand and appreciate. Indeed, I would even go as far as to recommend that this be made compulsory reading in schools !!. I was particularly impressed by Bryson's ability to convert those large and incomprehensible numbers (millions of kms, tens of thousands of particles etc.) into something tangible (e.g. the size of fifteen football fields).
2. Mrityunjay - Shivaji Sawant
       - Mahabharat is a personal favourite of mine, and Karna has always been one of my heroes. And this Marathi book (a Hindi and English version is also available) takes you deep into Karna's mind as he battles the injustice that life has always meted out on him. Reading this, one cannot even imagine the pain that he would have gone through. Another book 'Duryodhan' by Kaka Vidhate is also nice.
3. The Goal - Elhiyahu Goldratt
       -  Back in the MBA days, if you were wanting to make a career in Operations/Supply Chain, it was blasphemy not to have read this. A concept (Theory of Constraints) was explained in such a simple way, that you wondered : 'Was this not so obvious ?'
4. Scott and Amundsen - Roland Huntford
       -  If you like geography and adventure stories, then this one is hard to beat. An account of the 'Race to the South Pole' in 1911 between the two gentlemen mentioned in the title, it transports the reader into the cold and icy wilderness of Antartica. The only thing that works against this book is its length (579 pages).
5. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
       -  Normally, a fictional book would not make it here (I hardly read fiction). But this mix of fiction and history (and the hype associated with it at the time) made me pick this up. And once started, this thriller was hard to put down. The reader can almost imagine the streets of Paris as Messrs Langdon and Nevue escape the Louvre that fateful night !
6. The Mathematical Universe - William Dunham
        - A slightly odd book to have in one's top 10 list. And that is because Mathematics is not everyone's cup of tea. But William Dunham simplifies it by having an A-Z of Mathematics (A - Arithmetic, E- Euler, G - Greek Goemetry, P - Prime Number Theory etc.). With a fantastic combination of history and maths, Dunham introduces us to the subject's greatest personalities and problems.
7. Sholay - Anupama Chopra
        -  A short and sweet account of the making of Bollywood's most iconic movie. While most of us know the movie by heart, it is fascinating to hear the many small anecdotes and stories associated with the making of Sholay. Anupama Chopra brings all of it to life. Of particular interest is the bit on how Amjad Khan got his life's first and greatest role.
8. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich - William Shirer
        -  History has always been my favourite subject. And the Second World War is one of history's most defining, and saddest, episodes. And if you have to read only one book on WWII, this is it. However, be warned that this is a magnum opus (1000+ pages : I was emotionally drained when I finished it). It is almost like a daily account of WWII and describes Hitler's rise before that in great detail.
9. Azhar: The biography - Harsha Bhogle
         -  For a cricket buff like me, it was inevitable that one cricketing biography would find a place in the top 10. Picked it up at a Pune bookstore in 1998. Azhar was my favourite cricketer at the time (even after the match-fixing saga, he still remains a favourite for his batting abilities) and hence reading his biography was a no-brainer. And Harsha, being a contemprorary of Azhar since his early Hyderabad days, provides a great account of his early days as a cricketer.
and last, but definitely not the least ...
10. Mahabharat - Ved Vyas / Lord Ganesha
         -  Quite simply, the greatest story ever told and the greatest book ever written. Period.
A few other mentions:  'Barbarians at the Gate' (the RJReynolds take over battle bought to life) and 'Open' (Agassi's autobiography - an honest book if there ever was one).

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Improving Mumbai's lifeline.. Part 2

In this post, I focus more on passenger amenities, some of which, to me, are real low-hanging fruits that can be attempted quite easily. As much as having extra lines, standing coaches, more women's coaches etc. is necessary, it is equally necessary to improve the train-travelling experience for the millions who travel by Mumbai's lifeline every day. Some of things that can be done are:

a. Propagating the use of ATVMs: It remains a big mystery to me as to why the automated ticket vending machine (ATVM) system has not found favour with people. Especially when someone has to spend nearly 10 minutes (more on weekends) in the ticket queue at most stations. I use the ATVM card and have, on more than one occassion, faced the uncomfortable situation of people asking me to punch their tickets on the ATVM (after all, how many people can I help out ?). When it involves paying just 50 bucks as refundable deposit and with a 1-year validity of the recharge (as low as Rs 50 I guess), I cannot understand why people do not opt for it. Even 2 journeys every month is enough to ensure that the recharge is not wasted. Maybe it is due to inadequate propagation of the card's benefits. Railways do need to ensure that the ATVMs are more widely used than today. That would help to cut down the queues (since more ATVMs can be installed).

b. Ensuring that fans in the trains work: It is so frustrating to board a train in peak summer, only to find that the fan in the gangway is not working. And it is not an isolated case. I am sure all travellers would have experienced it multiple times. Is it too much to ask that the fans be functioning at all times ? Surely not.

b. Facilities at stations: It goes without saying that facilities at stations need a face lift. A start has been made with escalators at some stations but it needs to be speeded up. Heights of platforms are a big concern at many stations, and need to be immediately addressed. It may also make sense to have a proper and manned first-aid center at each station just to help out in case of any medical emergency.

And finally, a last word on passenger education. It would help immensely if people have some common sense while travelling. It is so annoying for others when a person boards at Vile Parle during peak evening hours, wanting to get down at Andheri (which is on the opposite side) in a Borivali-bound train (when the next Andheri-bound train is a couple of minutes later). The treatment meted out by Virar-bound passengers to anyone wanting to get down at Borivali is legendary. While I may not always agree with their methods, I sure understand their basic logic. Maybe a bit of passenger education in the form of announcements at stations might work (e.g. announcing that the next train is an Andheri-train and requesting Andheri passengers to wait). Small things like these may go on to make a big difference in the lives of the millions travelling by Mumbai's lifeline.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Improving Mumbai's lifeline... Part 1

This is a post long in the making.
I have been travelling in Mumbai suburban trains (affectionately called ‘locals’) for nearly 20 odd years now. Starting from my engineering days (Matunga Road to Andheri), then when I was in Patni (again Matunga Road to Andheri for a few months) and then as part of my current job (Goregaon to Santacruz). Over this nearly two-decade period, the Mumbai local has become almost a part of me, so much so that I have not been able to (as yet) get myself to use my car (mostly lying unused now-a-days) for the daily commute to work. And over the past few years, there have been, at various points, a lot of thoughts that have crossed my mind as regards improvement of the suburban train system in general. Hence, when the newspaper DNA this week started a campaign inviting reader’s views on ways to improve the travelling ‘experience’ on the Mumbai suburban train system, I thought of this as the ideal time to gather all my thoughts, crystallize them and then put them across. So what follows are some suggestions to make the railways a better place for the nearly 7 odd million Mumbaikars that use them every day. I will be submitting a summarized version of this to the DNA. Note that I have tried to go beyond the usual stuff (e.g. increasing no. of coaches in every rake, extra services or increasing the no. of lines etc.) since there either involve huge, and possibly improbable, changes in infrastructure or are (in case of increased no. of coaches) not sustainable going forward. Your comments/observations are most welcome.
I have divided my suggestions into two main categories:
a. Basic changes
b. Passenger amenities and education (this I will cover in the 2nd post).
Glossary: ‘Rake’ refers to the entire ‘train’ while coaches are divisions of a rake (i.e. 9-coach rake, 12-coach rake etc.). ‘Rake’ and ‘train’ may be used interchangeably.
Basic changes:
a) All-standing coaches: I will start off with the most radical suggestion of all. I firmly believe that there should be at least two, if not three, all-standing coaches in each rake. This is for the benefit of short-distance travellers. In the space currently occupied by six seats (three facing each other) today only 8 people (6 in first class) can sit.  However, if the seats are removed, that same space can easily accommodate 12-15 standees, straightaway an increase in capacity of 50% at least. It will also be easier to move around in such a compartment. People that are travelling over short-distances (say people like me who travel not more than 4-5 stations) should be encouraged to use such coaches whereas the long-distance travellers can continue using the existing coaches. For a journey not lasting more than 15 minutes or so, I would gladly travel in a coach without seats (which would reduce the crowds in the gangway and near the doors). Incidentally, there were a few coaches some years back which had two, instead of three, seats in a row. It was significantly more comfortable than the normal trains (one of my friends referred to it as the ‘garba gaadi’, implying that it had enough space in the aisle to play ‘garbaJ). I wonder why the railways discontinued it.
b) Extra women’s 2nd class coach in peak hours: While the proportion of women to total no. of passengers would have probably increased over past few years (more women joining workforce etc.), the no. of coaches reserved for them has not increased (in terms of % to overall capacity of the rake). In the evenings, the ladies 2nd class coaches are a horrible sight from the outside, with ladies clinging on for dear life. Hence, there is a need for an additional half (or full) coach for women during peak hours (8 – 10 am and 5 to 8 pm). If need be, one ladies special during this period can be reduced (there is a world of difference in the occupancy levels of a ladies special and that of the ladies coaches in a normal train).
c) First class coaches to be refurbished: Today, as the popular saying goes, the only difference between 1st and 2nd class in Mumbai locals is the odour of those around you. Till recently, first class fares had remained virtually static for many years, which ensured that many more people (as a result of increased income) could afford first-class travel, as a result leading to over-capacity in first class coaches. Case in point, I travel from Goregaon to Santacruz in 2nd class every morning (even though I have a 1st class season ticket) simply because I have no way of getting into the 1st class coach at Goregaon station. Hence, I feel first class coaches should be upgraded in terms of facilities (AC etc. ?) even at the cost of increasing the fares further. Maybe there can be a ‘luxury first class’ coach in each train (along with the two regular 1st class coaches) with a premium being charged on its tickets. I prefer this to the suggestion of having full AC trains, which too me, do not serve much purpose. Maybe having such luxury first class coaches may also take some private cars off the road?
In the next post, I turn towards the balance part (almost as important) viz. passenger amenities and education.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Political theater: AK and the 48-day fling..

Note: Normally I hardly ever voice my opinion as far as politics is concerned (as can be seen from this blog as well as my FB/twitter posts), however over the past couple of months, as I try to make some sense of the political 'theater' in India via newsroom debates, op-eds in various online portals and the likes, I feel a bit compelled to speak out as we in India head towards what is undisputedly the most important general election in the past few decades, maybe since the post-Emergency elections in 1977. And the events of the past couple of days (first in Parliament and then outside it yesterday) have just forced me to put 'pen to paper' (an anachronism if there was ever one !)

So Arvind Kejriwal has resigned as Delhi chief minister. 48 days earlier, he had taken oath at a very public ceremony at the Ramlila maidan. FB and Twitter timelines were abuzz with fervent respect and admiration for the man (I, too, tweeted that he was the real Indian idol). While I was never an AAP fanboy, I had felt that maybe this (swearing-in) was a very real moment in Indian politics, where a party singularly born out of the need to eradicate corruption in this country had actually got into the system to do exactly that (albeit in a small but politically important state). I looked forward to his governance in Delhi and hoped that, if he is able to deliver on at least half the promises that he made before the elections (in an economically sound manner), maybe he will have a great chance at the national level come 2019. Now, as I went back to the newsroom debates and the FB/Twitter timelines yesterday, it was becoming very apparent that those hopes have been shattered. Sure, English channels, Facebook and Twitter can hardly claim to represent the aam aadmi, but it was maybe a sign that Kejriwal is beginning to lose support amongst the urban youth and middle class (atleast outside Delhi).

There are many ways of interpreting his resignation. Two of the most obvious ones which are widely discussed are that a) he realized that he would not be able to make good his promises to the people of Delhi and needed a way out that would also portray him as a martyr and b) he now has his eyes firmly on the Lok Sabha and sees himself as a genuine national contender. I somehow find the first very hard to believe. He may be called an anarchist, rabble-rouser etc etc, but for sure, Kejriwal is a very smart man. He would have known for sure, even before the Delhi assembly elections, of what he was getting into when he offered subsidized power, free water etc as his pre-poll promises. And having been part of the civil service earlier, he surely knew what it takes to run a government. If he believed he could not do it, then why accept the CM's post (especially when you do not have a majority) ?

The second theory seems slightly plausible. After yesterday's episode and the halo of martyrdom, maybe he believes he will get a sympathy wave come May 2014. But even if one were to believe it, what are the AAP's chances, at best, in the Lok Sabha election ? Not many opinion polls are giving them more than 10 seats. Even if you make it 20 or 25, AAP will still be a marginal player at the national level. And, forget the BJP and Modi, even if there is a cobbled up Third front government, they would think a hundred times before even approaching the AAP for any support, such is the reputation that the AAP has now got. So the chance of the AAP being part of any government are next to nil. In which case, do we see AAP continue with their frequent dharnas and press conferences etc ? But then will it serve any purpose ? As someone pointed out correctly yesterday, how will Kejriwal fight Mukesh Ambani and the likes from Ramlila maidan or Jantar Mantar ? Maybe he wants to put his bets on gaining a majority in the re-election in Delhi. But, even if he does so, the very nature of Delhi (part state-hood) means that he will have to work with whoever is there at the center. And if it is the NDA, as widely expected, then it is going to cause fireworks for sure. 

He would have done well in 2019 basis good governance, in Delhi. But, just maybe, he is in a hurry and is eyeing 2014 instead. His style of governance means that he will require a majority to get things done and, surely, 2014 is too early for it. It is going to be interesting to see where AAP and Arvind Kejriwal move from here.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Travelogue: Kerala

Finally, towards the fag end of the year, do I get the time to update my blog, after a prolonged absence of nearly 8 months !!... :)
Reception at Thekkady resort
Anyways, finally got the time late last month to execute our only long vacation in 2013. Trip to God's own country, and on to the Club Mahindra resorts in Thekkady and Munnar ! It was actually a trip not planned much in advance, and I was pleasantly surprised to get the resort reservations in early September (nearly 3 months in advance, but late by Club Mahindra standards !!**). The other reservations followed soon thereafter, and on the last Sunday in November, Aarya, Anjali and me were on the flight to Kochi. From Kochi, it was a nearly five hour drive to Thekkady resort, including a halt for the ubiquitous Kerala lunch on the banana leaf ! Otherwise, the drive itself was pretty uneventful, save for a brief shower in between that made driving quite difficult. At around dinner time, pulled into the ClubM resort there.
ClubM Munnar... from nearly a km away !
The ClubM resort there surprised me pleasantly. Frankly, I was not expecting it to be any great shakes, especially as compared to the next destination viz.  Munnar, but the design and the layout (cottages spread across with undulating paths to lead) were pretty nice. One got the impression of being in the middle of the forest, what with the many trees that surrounded your cottage ! The next morning, did the mandatory ride on the Periyar lake, but it ended in disappointment with only 2 elephant sightings to show for in the 1.5 hr journey. This was followed by the elephant ride in the evening, which Aarya thoroughly enjoyed. Actually, there is not much to do in Thekkady, and in fact most tourists give it only a day. So we got the next day pretty much to ourselves in the resort and Aarya had a ball with the crayons set and the rides in the activity center, while her parents tried their hands at carom and table tennis.
KTDC Flower garden.. must visit !
On Wednesday morning, we set off from Thekkady to Munnar, The 100 km journey is famous for its twists and turns (and not to mention some gorgeous sights of the tea gardens and the hills) and I admit to a couple of bouts of restlessness on the way. But the moment I sighted the Club M resort in between the clouds from afar (see picture taken with maximum zoom), we all felt fresh and invigorated. Literally, the resort took our breath away. I think it can safely lay claim to be the best ClubM resort (though I will confirm it only after visiting Tungi near Lonavala in 2014). Nestled in the mountains, there are 120 rooms and cottages spread across various levels and walking from the highest cottage to the reception is a task in itself. We checked into a 1 BR apartment with views of the tea gardens and a small lake from the balcony. We did the usual sights in and around Munnar (Erivakulam National Park, Mattupetty dam, tea factory tour etc) the next couple of days. But the one that impressed me the most was the KTDC flower garden (which is on the way from Munnar town to Mattupetty dam). Rarely before have I seen such a riot of colours. It was truly magnificent and simply not to be missed on your trip to Munnar !
Boating at Mattupetty dam !
After another day to enjoy the hospitality of the Munnar resort, we came back on Sunday, a refreshed lot !!


** Must compliment Club Mahindra on throwing open the reservation system online. It is very transparent, and you know exactly what room types you are getting and on what dates, rather than waiting for an operator to answer your many questions ! Kudos !!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Pinjra: tragedy like no other.. !

Made in 1972, it is set in a village in Maharashtra...
This is no ordinary village that we are talking about. A model village in its district, this is a place where people have the value systems in place to live happily with each other in harmony. And fostering these values in the vilagers is the village teacher Guruji Sridhar Pant (Dr. Shriram Lagoo). He imbibes the values of simple living in his students, both young and old alike. And of the reasons for this village being a model village is that vices like drinking, gambling and watching street plays (tamashas) are completely banned. And the man enforcing all this is the Guruji. Revered by all the villagers, he occupies a place in their hearts next only to God. Under his gaze, the village is living its own happy existence. Until...
"Aali thumkat,naar lachkat, maan murdat, hirvya raani.... "
Until one day, things take a turn. A troupe that presents the street play (tamashas) arrives in the village, led by the sensous leading lady Chandrakala (Sandhya). She causes an immediate flutter in the villagers, but the troupe is soon confronted by the Guruji and told not to stage the tamashas in the villages. And when they set up camp just outside the village and perform a show, the Guruji, fully supported by the villagers, later confronts them again and demolishes their tents. An enraged Chandrakala vows to cut the Guruji to size and to make him perform in her troupe some day.
"Disala Ga Bai Disala, mala baghun gaalat hasala ga bai hasala.... "
The troupe sets up stall on the other side of the river across the village. Here, the news of their performance reaches the villagers, who slowly start bunking their evening literacy classes with the Guruji to cross the river and see Chandrakala perform. On getting the whiff of it, the Guruji again goes to Chandrakala. In this confrontation, Chandrakala slips and pretends to have injured her leg. The Guruji (also a practising ayurvedic) is duty-bound to heal her and this brings the two adversaries closer to each other. Slowly, the Guruji finds himself falling madly in love with the dancer (who reciprocates) and even starts to neglect his daily teaching duties for her. News of this reaches the son of the village patil (who has a score to settle with the Guruji) and he decides to expose the Guruji for the sham that he is...
"Tumha var keli mi marji bahaal, Naka sodun jaao rang mahaal... "
One night, the Guruji makes another of his now regular trips across the river to Chandrakala, and is seen by the patil's son. However, he hides himself before the patil's son gets the villagers along to try and expose him. Hurt at the double standards that he is now forced to adopt, Guruji leaves Chandrakala and returns to the village. But not for long. Chandrakala visits him one stormy night to reunite. Coincidentally, the patil's son also reaches there, only to be murdered by another villager (personal feud) who, for good measure, also disfigures the victim's face by a stone. Fearing that the Guruji will soon be exposed before the villagers who so revere him, and also fearing that this would end their union, Chandrakala hatches a plan. They dress the patil's dead son as the Guruji and the Guruji flees the village (in disguise) with the troupe. The village mourns the murder of their beloved Guruji....
"Kashi nashibaane thatta aaj maandli... " ("See the joke played by fate... ")
Here onwards, the Guruji quickly descends into a life far removed from his life of ideals. Forced to be a part of troupe, he is treated with contempt by the other members, save Chandrakala. After a point, his ego is unable to bear this and he soon starts chewing tobacco and hits the bottle. The disintegration of the once proud Guruji is complete when he performs (the above song) at one of their shows. Chandrakala thus completes her vow, but not before she has completely transformed the once-proud Guruji to a tobacco-chewing, drinking mess, and has herself fallen madly in love with him in the process. And in a final twist, the police investigating the murder of the 'Guruji' confronts the dance troupe and takes their finger-prints. This nails the Guruji, since he had touched the knife on the night of the murder. The Guruji gets arrested for his OWN murder. He is taken back to his old village as an accused where he now has to face the wrath of the villagers, who promptly humiliate him. Produced in court, the Guruji (completely shattered) now prefers to die in disguise rather than tell the truth and thereby tarnish his hard-earned legacy in the village. Chandrakala thinks otherwise and is determined to tell the truth in the court, but before she can do so, she loses her voice and is taken away from the courtroom. With no one left to defend the Guruji, the court sentences him to death for the murder of the 'Guruji' !! Chandrakala dies on hearing the news and the Guruji is sent to the gallows.... !
A tragedy par excellence, Pinjra is widely considered to be one of the milestones in Marathi cinema. Pinjra (the Cage) is a metaphor for the cages that both the Guruji and Chandrakala are trapped in. Both of them live in their own cages, unable to unite. Until death that is, when both flee their self-imposed cages. Brilliantly directed by V Shantaram. It boasts of powerhouse performances by both the lead actors (and a delightful small cameo by Nilu Phule). It was also made in Hindi in 1973. Truly, a movie not to be missed....

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Travelogue.. Part Two !

The second leg of our vacation was the one which was most eagerly awaited. On Sunday night, we boarded the Ranikhet express from Old Delhi station for our journey to Kathgodam, the last railhead and the gateway to explore the eastern Uttaranchal and Kumaon regions. The train was supposed to reach Kathgodam at the unearthly hour of 5 am, and we were always apprehensive about the cold weather at that time (Kathgodam is around 550m above MSL). Thankfully, the train was late by an hour and a half and by the time we pulled into Kathgodam at around 6.30 am, it was slightly better. The taxi I had booked was already waiting for us, though there were plenty of taxis asking if we wanted to get to any of the many destinations that can be reached from Kathgodam – Nainitial, Almora, Ranikhet etc. We got into the taxi and left in the backdrop of the rising sun to our destination – the Club Mahindra Valley Resort in Binsar !

I had heard a lot about the journey from Kathgodam to Binsar (120kms, takes around 4.5 hrs). For the initial part, we had the meandering river Kosi for company (and I could not, still do not, believe that this was the same Kosi river that causes so much havoc further downstream in Bihar). As we moved along with the river, the morning sun rays and the shallow river bed made for some great photo opportunities. The road condition was mostly good, the turns not too sharp and we proceeded at a fair clip (stopping in the way for a wonderful snack of Bhajiya, Aloo Paratha and Tea !). We soon reached the town of Almora, which in itself is a good hill-station. As we entered the second half of the journey, we started gaining in height and soon, the magnificent snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas appeared on the horizon. It was surely a case of so near, yet so far ! (the peaks are about 250kms away in a straight line and yet seem so near !). Finally, at around 11.30 am, we passed the entrance gates of the Club Mahindra Valley resort in Binsar (around 1800m above MSL).

We were greeted not just by the courteous staff at the reception but also by an array of colorful flowers in the resort. After checking into our apartment, we quickly set about exploring the resort and its surroundings. As is well known, the resort is known for its natural beauty. There are also many opportunities available for talking long walks around the resort (though you have to be fit enough since it is all in a hilly area and there are hardly any flat patches available). The first evening was well-spent at the activity center, where a game of Housie kept us all entertained (though without any returns !). For the second day, we had booked a cab for sight-seeing (the no. is 08057245755 for good deals). Now the issue with a place like Binsar is that most of the sightseeing places (apart from the Binsar sanctuary) are a good distance away. We first went to the Bell Temple and from there to the Jageshwar temple complex (around 60km away). Jageshwar is a nice little temple complex consisting of 108 small temples spread over a small area. But because it was so far away, it was almost 4.30pm by the time we reached the Binsar sanctuary on our way back. It was probably the worst time to visit the sanctuary. Firstly, there is a steep entry charge (Rs 150 per person and Rs 250 for your vehicle). The vehicle then has to travel another 15km inside. We were all excited to visit the famed Zero Point, from where you can get a wonderful view of the many Himalayan peaks. The last leg in the approach to Zero Point can only be done on foot and sadly, there is no information displayed in the Park that gives us either the direction to Zero Point or the distance (the estimates we got from people there were in the range of 1 – 4 kms). While me and my wife did set out, we were finally thwarted by a combination of the cold, the setting sun (since it can quickly get dark after sunset), lack of fellow travelers and most importantly, absolute lack of any signs/directions that could have helped us. For a park that we spent almost a thousand bucks visiting, this was the least we expected. Sadly, we returned disappointed (though we got decent views of the Himalayas while on our way – including the Nanda Devi, the highest peak completely in India). TIP: Visit the Binsar sanctuary in the mornings ONLY !

The third and final day of our stay was devoted to just relaxing at the resort, since the whole point of visiting any Club Mahindra resort is to savor the experience of staying there. After a lazy yet tasteful lunch at a small hotel just walking distance from the resort, we had a good afternoon siesta and then we visited the other Club M resort there – the Manipur Villa. It is located about 500 feet or so above the Valley resort and the private road that takes you there makes for a thrilling ride ! Though not as vast as the Valley Resort, it still is a lovely place, with the many log huts giving a different experience altogether. So in case you are not travelling with children, the Manipur Villa might be a very good option. Our last evening there again was spent at the activity center – where we indulged our vocal chords in a wonderful Karaoke session organized by the guys there. My 18-month old daughter also enjoyed the open space in the resort and the steps to our room and towards the hotel (she simply loves climbing stairs !)

And so ended our stay at Binsar as we departed the next morning, filled with sweet memories of a fine resort and a great experience!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Travelogue... Part One !

This trip was coming for a long time.. Hotel bookings were done in May itself, train reservations were completed almost at the start of the 120-day advance reservation period, and after that there was nothing much to do but wait for the trip. My first extended trip with the full family, and much planning and preperation had gone into it. But before we could begin, there were several moments of anxiousness when little Aarya (all of 18 months) fell victim to diaarheoa just a week before we were to depart from Mumbai. On more than one occassion, we were worried that the trip would end even before it started. But thankfully she recovered well in time, and on the afternoon of 25th October, my parents, wife (Anjali), Aarya and me gathered at Mumbai Central station to board the August Kranti Rajdhani to Delhi, everyone in a state of excitement and expectation of a good time in the coming 10 days.
Travel on the AK Rajdhani was largely comfortable (though we felt more than our fair share of jerks). Anyways, in a Rajdhani, most of your non-sleeping time is spent eating ! And it was no different for us as we gulped down the samosas, juices, soups and then the dinner !. Next morning, we ended up at the Nizamuddin Station in Delhi, from there it was quick drive down to the Ginger Hotel outside New Delhi station. A word on the hotel: excellent location and decent facilities (where else would you get an AC room within 2 minutes walk from the railway and Metro stations for just 1700 bucks ?). If you are going to Delhi with the aim of not spending too much time in your hotel, then this is the place for you. That evening, we had our first ride on the Delhi Metro. And I am must say I was impressed (and coming from a Mumbaikar, that IS saying a LOT !! ;). Coaches were well maintained, stations were clean and the connections were quick. In fact the whole set up (travelling in a Metro and the hotel just outside the main station) reminded me of an earlier trip in 2007 to Nuremberg, Germany. The next day (27th October) we hired a cab (got a good deal from EasyCabs) and left for Agra. As I have detailed in an earlier blog post, the experience was not very pleasant. The Taj was overflowing with people and civic sense was largely absent in the general population. Had it been my first trip to the grand monument, it would have been tragic and heart-breaking not to see the granduer of the Taj in liesure. In the evening, we also w the Fatehpur Sikri, another beautiful place to see. Next day, there was a short journey to the Lotus Temple followed by one of the better lunches that I have had (at the Purani Dilli restaurent in the Kalkaji Metro station). In the evening, we all came back to our hotel, ready to say Bye Bye to Delhi and to begin Stage 2 of our trip... a ride up in the mountains and into Uttarakhand !!
Details in the next installment !! :)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why we are so bad as a tourist destination.. !

First, some statistics. The number of foreign tourist arriving in India stands at around 5 million every year. Though it is growing at around 15 odd percent every year, India's share in world tourist arrivals stands at a lowly 0.7 %. In fact, the stated objective of the government is to increase this figure marginally to around 1% by 2016. Both these figures are dismal for a country like India which has umpteen tourist spots (apart from the usual suspects like Goa, the Taj and Kashmir, there are still plenty of sights on offer in a nation as vast and diverse as ours). And what is even worse, there are many reports that suggest that Indians prefer to travel abroad (with the Gulf, South-East Asia becoming cheap destinations) rather than spend time and money on seeing what their own land has to offer ! On a recent trip up North, I came across two instances (on the same day no less !!) that offered a glimpse on why we are so bad at attracting tourists.
On Saturday the 27th October, I visited the Taj Mahal. When I reached there around 11.30 am, it was a choc-a-bloc with people (I was told that the long weekend and Bakri Id were the cause). Whatever the reason, it was packed with tourists (see the huge numbers in the attached snap) and we had to stand in the queue no less than 3 times (purchasing tickets, entering the main compound and then entering the actual Taj structure). Now I have no issues in respecting the queue, but many of the people around seemed oblivous to people spending time in standing in a queue. Touts and guides were freely injecting their customers in the queue, and nobody seemed to mind. As is to be expected, there was no security around to mind the crowds and that made things even worse. It was especially bad at the entrance to the main Taj structure, where I, with my temper running high, almost had a physical altercation with people who were jumping the queue ! Off the two-odd hours that I spent there, nearly 1.5 hours was spent in queues and arguing with people. Thankfully, it was my second visit to the Taj. Had it been my first, I would have been gutted to see the experience of visiting a beautiful monument spoilt by people who do not have the civic sense of queing up (The next day, I was at the Lotus Temple in Delhi, and the same scene played out there as well !).
From the Taj, we drove on to Fatehpur Sikri around 40km to the west. About 4km short of the monument, as we pulled away from the highway onto the service road, our cab was stopped by a couple of people claiming to be guides. They pointed to a spot about 200m away and said that outside cars were permitted to go only till that point. Thereafter, there was a cab shuttle to take visitors to Fatehpur Sikri (a couple of hundred bucks to cover around 3-4 kms !). To add to it were their guide fees of around Rs 100. Their USP was, of course, to give us a discount of Rs 50 !! With our mood already fouled by the events at the Taj, we simply ignored them and moved on. And found that our cab could go freely till almost the end (with only the last 0.5 km being covered in a government shuttle bus that cost a princely sum of Rs 5 each !). It was then I discovered the meaning of the word highway robbery. God alone knows how many people have fallen to this fraud ! (We were again stopped - with people almost jumping in front of our moving cab - about a kilometer from the monument, but this time we knew better). Another example of the experience of visting a beautiful place like the Fatehpur Sikri being spoilt.
As long as instances like this happen, there is no reason why we should spent our time and money getting ripped off by anti-social elements out to make a quick buck in the name of tourism. It is something that the government needs to address quickly. They need to look at what is happening around the tourist places, not just inside. Till that happens, and visiting tourist spots is made a comfortable experience (I am not even getting into the state of the infrastructure at many of the places), we will continue to lag at the bottom of the heap when it comes to attracting tourists. Dear Mr. Chiranjeevi (who was recently appointed MoS with independent charge of tourism), I hope you use your learnings from your various movie shoots abroad and implement them so that we learn how to take care of our tourists.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Account of my most memorable trek .... after 11 years !!!


Finally got my hands on an old mail describing my first, and my most memorable trek to date, to Bhimashankar way back in June 2001 !!!.. It was simply the most breathtaking, not to mention the toughest trek I have ever done. But each minute of those near-4 hours of trekking was worth it when we reached the top. Unfortunately, those were the pre-smartphone days and digicams were not that much in vogue then, hence could not take snaps.

So below is a verbatim account of the trek (written in good old MS Word the Monday after our trek) that we (me and my good friends Prashant Upasani and Nikhil Dalvi) had jointly put up and mailed to our other friends in Patni (where I was working then). Excuse the slightly amaeturish writing and the repeated emphasis on one word in caps (there was a meaning to that back then) !!

Thanks to Prashant for digging this document back after 11 long years... :)


>From Amit, Nikhil and Prashant -

Dear Friends(Unfortunate souls),

I know you all haven’t experienced what heaven is. So we thought that we shall share our experience with you all.  At least you all can enjoy it virtually.
Last weekend we three had been to HEAVEN i.e. Bhimashankar.  The experience was of lifetime. It was unbelievable. No words can describe what we had experienced. Here it is in short.....
The journey from Mumbai itself was exciting. Here, in Mumbai itself, it was raining so heavily, we were never sure what will happen next moment. This kind of uncertainty added thrill to our journey and working here at office for months together and just putting our valuable time only in travelling between office and home, we were really desperate to have such excitement.  What we got was certainly above our expectations. The real enjoyment was onward Karjat. The journey from Karjat to Khandas(from where we trekked) was very pleasant. The journey was through ghats with fields surrounding. It was lush green and raining. The view was very beautiful.
We reached Khandas at around 8.40 and started our trek at 9.15. The weather at that time was unbelievable. It was something that we all haven’t experienced, staying here in city. Each and every moment was unique. Each and every moment was exciting and an experience we never had before, an experience to remember forever.
We had to cross almost two mountains to reach Bhimashankar. When we started our trek, the view we had was, lush green mountains with water falls all over them. The mountains were covered by clouds, was raining and absolutely beautiful. The start of the trek itself was through a forest. As we continued, the trek took us through a variety of surroundings. At times through lush green plains, at times over steep rocks and then through the famous Bhimashankar wildlife sanctuary (which boasts of animals like leopards, sambars and of course The Great Indian Squirrel)
As we were climbing we were nearing to something that could only be felt and not said, and that was HEAVEN. It was the combination of Rains, Green fields, Mountains, Water falls, Clouds and Forest that made it so beautiful.  At one point of time we were walking amidst clouds. It was raining very very heavily. The wind was very strong and what we felt was, it can’t be anything except HEAVEN. Each and every moment in our trek was an experience.
One particularily magical moment was when took a little break right in the middle of the forest. Initially it was clear but in exactly five minutes we were surrounded by clouds from all sides with heavy rains and visibilty less than 20 feet.
When, after 4 hours of trekking, we finally reached the top, the feeling which we experienced was once in a lifetime. It was 1.30 in the afternoon, admist heavy rains and thick clouds there was a small lake to greet us .We refreshed ourselves with the cold water of the lake and simply stared open-mouthed at the beauty of nature around us. Surely Lord Shiva could not have chosen a better place to have his temple in.
Memories of our trek are very sweet and we would cherish those for whole of our life. Sometimes we went through such thick forest that though it was raining heavily, we hardly got water spilled on us. It was pitch dark and getting all sorts of sounds of wild animals from the jungle of Tungi.  We were passing through clouds and at some moments were not able to see the view 10 feet far due to thick clouds. That too at 12.30 in the afternoon.
Those who missed it are very unfortunate.......we would have enjoyed if somebody could have shared  such experience, so we didn’t miss anybody (except few) in such a romantic, lively atmosphere and breath taking trek.  Though we couldn’t catch the moments in camera, we have them deep in our mind and heart for years to come.
There are many things to say, and many more things that can be felt and I wish you all should experience those and if possible in rainy season.
So all of you guys ,whatever you do, simply do not miss the thrill of a trek to GOD’s OWN PLACE - THE HEAVEN ON EARTH - BHIMASHANKAR....
Amit, Nikhil and Prashant.

P.S. While coming back, we had another trek in “MALSHEJ” ghat(11 kms).



Sunday, August 26, 2012

'Eka Lagnachi Doosri Goshta'... not your usual soap opera...!!

Now this is probably my first post regarding any television series. And with good reason. I hardly watch any television serial. In fact, my active TV viewing is restricted to sports, business shows, the news and the odd show on National Geographic or Discovery. However, with my parents tuning in to regional (i.e. Marathi) TV shows in the evenings, I invariably used to catch some episodes of a few TV serials. Over the past few months, one TV show has gradually managed to garner my attention and involvement. And when that show ended yesterday, there was more than a tinge of sadness. The show is the extremely successful and popular show on Zee Marathi : "Eka Lagnachi Doosri Goshta".

Translated literally as 'The other story of a marriage'. this serial, which started in January this year, is the story of two youngsters: Ghanashyam and Radha. These are like any other young men you would find around you. Smart, ambitious (Ghana's dream is a job in the US) and sure of what they want they want from life. But both having to face constant questions from their families regarding marriage. Marriage is, of course, the last thing on their minds. But when these two meet and realize they are sailing in the same boat, they hit upon an idea: get into a 'contract' marriage for a year just to appease their families, survive that time period, then get a divorce and live happily ever after. What follows over the show is, predictably, the story of how they realize that such an arrangement is not so simple as it seems and how love blossoms out of this contract arrangement.

The plot is fairly straight forward and the viewers are aware of the end the moment Ghana and Radha begin their 'married' life. But the director (Satish Rajwade) has handled this journey towards the end moment admirably. For starters, this show has a large dash of humour, but at the same time, never loses sight of the serious issues underpinning it. Secondly, the show is blessed with numerous but very sharply defined supporting characters. Whether they are Ghana's two uncles, Radha's father or the very lovable Maai (grandmother) in Ghana's household, each character brings to the table its own unique identity. As a result you tend to remember all of them and not just the two main protagonists. Applaud the team for investing time and effort spent in developing each character. 

Finally, the performances. The supporting cast comprises numerous well-known names in Marathi TV and theater. The veteran Vinay Apte is brilliant as Radha's father (and the bond between them - he is a widower - is moving). Sukanya Kulkarni plays Radha's aunt and does a fine job of it. Rekha Kamat is delightful as Maai Aaji and Spruha Joshi as Ghanashyam's poetically inclined cousin sister brings the right amount of innocence to the proceedings. But finally, the show is about Ghana and Radha. And Swapnil Joshi and Mukta Barve bring the two characters to life. Admittedly, I was no great fan of Swapnil, and even now I am still not, but his performance stands out. Mukta, in my opinion is the star of the show. She starts off as an independent young woman who hates the idea of marital life. But once she starts living with Ghanashyam's family, she slowly realizes the value of marriage. This transition has been perfectly depicted by Mukta. Definitely one of my favorite actress ! :)

To end, the fact that there was a well-defined script definitely worked in the show's favour. Right from the start, you knew how the serial would close (i.e. Ghana and Radha starting their real marital life together) hence there was no scope for the makers to drag it on a like a saas-bahu opera !. And therein lies the serials biggest plus point. Here's hoping for more such serials along the way !!


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A decade passes by.. !!

It was the last week of June 2002. A decade has gone since, but that week is still vivid in memory. The week in which me, and many more like me (who were used to living a cozy life with the security of a family around them), really stepped into the outside world. A week in which me, and many more like me, made their entry into IIM Bangalore. At the time, I can assure you, not many amongst them would have known the turn that life was to take then. Speaking for myself, I did not have the faintest clue.

The euphoria of clearing the CAT and then, getting that coveted final call lasted for not more than a few days. Talking of getting that final call, I remember that day too. I was at my desk writing, what else, but code (working for Patni Computers those days) when a call on my landline from home (those were the days where cellphones were in their infancy) confirmed the news ! But any misconceptions of having cleared the biggest hurdle in the quest for an IIM tag slowly evaporated when one contemplated the road ahead. The thought of living a hostel life for the first time, and the stories of the super-crammed schedules and night-outs quickly bought me back to earth. And thus it was that I, with parents in tow and with mixed emotions, boarded the Udyan Express from CST Mumbai on Saturday, 22nd  June 2002, not exactly ready to face the world.

In the train, I could make out people with similar predicaments. Later on, I came to know that quite a few of my future batch-mates (amongst them Bhushan Lele, Dhananjay Redkar and Ketan Kulkarni to name a few) were on that very train. We rolled into Bangalore the next morning and in the afternoon, I had my first glimpse of the 100-acre grey-stone campus that IIM Bangalore is housed in. I also distinctly remember the butterflies in the stomach, not to mention the awe accompanying it, when the institute bus that ferried us took that small left turn from the main Bannerghatta road and entered the gates of IIM Bangalore (later made famous in 3 Idiots !!). It was truly, an unforgettable moment. Following that were the room allotments and the first taste of hostel life, and of course, that first sleepless night away from home.

Thereafter, things became much better. On Monday the 24th began our orientation session, where the first bonds of friendships between batch mates were formed. Within the next couple of days, the first beer party at the nearby Guru Garden restaurant followed and slowly, life-time friends were found. And that gradually led to the two most memorable years of my life. A journey, of many ups and downs, but one heck of a journey nevertheless !!

A decade has passed by… since it all began !!.. J

Cheers to the batch of 2004
Amit Gokhale

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The 'Say-No-To-Technology' day.. !!

The Sunday gone by was different from a normal Sunday for me. The previous night, based on nothing more than a sudden whim - no doubt partly resulting from the cribs of my better half -, I decided to abstain from browsing the Net either on my mobile or from the desktop at home. This, of course, was not a new idea entirely. A few weekends ago, I was at a small home-stay at a village near Alibaug, where there was no television in the room and the mobile network was, at best, decent in terms of speed. And I quite loved the idea not having a TV or a PC around me. I decided to further extend this idea to not accessing the benefits of television and the Internet even while at home. And I must say it was a very refreshing experience. It meant, of course, that I :

a. Did not switch on the TV the entire day
b. Did not switch on the PC the entire day (which I guess can count as a even bigger achievement in today's digital age)
c. Used the cellphone only for calls and SMSses (no chatting, no browsing on 3G)

As mentioned, I loved the idea so much that I am planning to make it a regular habit (say once a month) and I would heartily recommend it to everyone. The question that would arise is : How do I then spend my Sunday ? Well, some of the things that can be done is:

a. Go for a morning walk or jog. Even if you are one of those that likes to get that extra couple of hours of sleep on Sunday mornings, going out a little late is not a bad idea. I went out for a walk after 8 am with my wife and the weather was still pleasant outside.
b. Try your hand at cooking (as I wish to do someday) or help your spouse/parents in the kitchen (which I managed to do).
c. Do some cleaning around in the house, do not leave everything to the maid. Clean the dust off those old boxes in the attic once in a while. If you are more enterprising, you can even try washing your own clothes. There are few things more satisfiying than taking care of your own washing.
d. Meet up with friends and relatives for brunch
e. And last, but definitely not the least, catch up on a good book. This brings me to the main idea in this post, especially relevant for those, like me, who are parents to babies in the 0-2 years age group. You commonly hear parents bemoan the fact that their children spend more time watching Doreamon on TV and neglect their school homework. And with space around the building being occupied more by cars than children, playing outdoors has become a luxury. But to those parents, I would like to ask a simple question: How much time did you spend in front of the TV when your kid was younger ? How much time did you spend reading a book ? The answer might be plainly obvious. The fact is that kids are very good imitators. They pick up those habits and activities which they see people around the house doing. Today, as a father to a 15-month old daughter, the main thought tormenting me is : how do I ensure that I inculcate good habits in her ? The simple answer (which, like all simple things, is difficult to implement), to that is: I do what I want her to do. So, if I want her to pick up the habit of reading, it is important she sees me reading books and newspapers.  Hence the focus on reading as much as possible when you are around the kid on a Sunday. Hopefully, the habit will rub off on them. I had neglected my reading the past few months but I hope to get back to it with a vengenance.

Thus, I would readily recommend saying NO to technology once in a while. I loved it immensely, I hope others try it out and I would be eager to learn about your experiences.

PS: This is not meant to preach anything. Just thought would share something that seems to be working well for me.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Sasawane : An ideal weekend getaway...

As summer reaches its unbearable zenith and the gaze slowly turns towards the heavens in search of those black clouds, there is always the urge to get away from it all: the energy-sapping humidity, the maddening crowds of the city and the other distractions of day-day life: work, TV etc etc. To get away from it all and be in some place where time passes by slowly and where you have nothing to do but just sit around and watch the world go by (or maybe just read a book in the midst of nature). And last week, I managed to do just that (though for a mere day and a half) and simply had the most amazing experience !!

Zoom view of Stock Exchange from
Sasawane beach
The place that I chose to go was a small village called Sasawane near Alibaug (see the bottom center in the map). For me, the best part about this place is its very close proximity to Mumbai. From the moment I left my doorstep in the distant suburb of Goregaon, I landed at the resort in Sasawane in 2 1/2 hours flat !! (1 hr to go the Gateway of India, another 1 hr to get to Mandwa via the catamaran and then a final 30 minutes to reach Sasawane). And this close proximity to Mumbai is pretty evident from the fact that the towering skyline of South Mumbai is distinctly visible from the Saswaane beach (see attached pictures - including a zoom view of the Stock Exchange building !!). But yet, even though South Mumbai might hardly be just 25-30 kms away (straight-line basis), Sasawane is, quite simply, a world apart, and therein is the next best part of the place. I could see Mumbai and yet feel so far away from it !. And Saswane has a good old-fashioned charm about it. The small beach there is empty, no fast-food restaurents around and only a couple of resorts/holiday homes. Its not like Alibaug, which has almost been transformed into a mini-Mumbai (atleast over the weekends). Talking about the Saswane beach, it is the first beach south of Mumbai along the long Konkan coast-line and hence enjoys a unique distinction. 

Map showing Sasawne right at bottom
The place we chose to stay was a wonderful home-stay called Sagar Darshan. Situated just besides the beach, it is maintained by the Apte family for last 20 years or so. And they are quite courteous and hospitable. The rooms are neat and decent (do not expect five-star standards), the food was home-made and wonderful and there was plenty of space just to laze around and do nothing. There is no TV in the rooms and while that meant I did not see the IPL final (not that I missed it), it also meant that I got so much more time to do everything else. Its quite amazing how the absence of TV and the Internet suddenly gives you so much time in life !!. But being a home-stay there are certain ground rules one must follow: its open only for families, lunch and dinner is the standard rice-dal-sabji-roti fare one gets at home (but highly tasty though :) and it needs to be ordered well in advance (there are no eating options outside, in a place which almost goes to sleep after sunset !!). So be careful of these if you plan to go out there and if its OK with you, I can assure you will have the most wonderful time. Alibaug is about an hour's drive away by regular ST buses, which too, I travelled after many years and I really salute these ST services that connect every nook and corner of the state together and are virtually the lifeline of thousands of far-flung villages. Just besides the home-stay is a museum housing the works of the renowned sculptor Late Shri Nanasaheb Karmarkar, which is definitely worth a visit.
Quite and secluded Saswane beach

So whether you have a long weekend coming up or just need a place to relax with your family, Saswaane (and there are many such places along the rich Konkan Coast - check out the website Hotels in Konkan) is definitely recommended. So go ahead and enjoy that break !!
View of the Sagar Darshan
home stay

Unfortunately, this might be the wrong time to post this since once the monsoon arrives, the Gateway-Mandwa catamaran service closes down and these places becomg quite inaccessible (not to mention the heavy rains lashing the coast). But October and thereafter is a great time to visit.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

100 Years ago... !

So today marks the centenary of the most famous natural disaster in all of human history. At 23.40 local time on 14th April (8.08 am IST on 15th April), the front of the starboard hit an iceberg, resulting in the sinking of the ship that was thought to be unsinkable and the loss of more than 1500 lives, a motley crew ranging from some of the wealthiest people in the world at the time (a first class suite on the Titanic cost the equivalent of $ 100,000 today !!) and hundreds of emigrants eager to start a new life in the land of hope and opportunity.
Over the past century, no other accident has been so closely examined. Dozens of documentaries have been made that feature various aspects of the Titanic : her design, her pomp and splendour, her maiden voyage and of course, her sinking. There are many theories as to why the biggest passenger ship in the world sank including one, by Robin Gardiner that, controversially, claims that it was, in fact, not the Titanic that sank but her older and sister ship the Olympic and that it did not sink naturally but was actually sunk purposely as part of a big insurance scam (though hopefully, the brains behind this did not mean to see over 1500 people die). This bizzare theory notwithstanding, there are endless debates on what caused the sinking: human error or design flaws. Was the ship too fast ? Could the sinking, so to speak, have been managed better in order to save more lives ? These, and many other questions, have not been conclusively answered to this day. To be fair, it was a confluence of many once-in-a-while factors that played their part in the tragedy'. It is now know that the winter of 1911-12 was one of the mildest in many years, causing significantly more ice to break off from Greenland and the Arctic and drift off, only to come right in the path of the busy Trans-Atlantic shipping routes (even though Titanic took the less dangerous southern route). The sea was exceptionally calm that night (its significance is in the observation that, had the seas been rough, the waves striking the iceberg could have been better visible to the people on the crow's nest). There was also the fact the the Earth and Moon were the closest in hundreds of years in January 1912, causing strong tides that took the icebergs much faster right onto the shipping lanes.  Then, of course, is the whole commerical angle to this fateful tale. The genesis of the Titanic was in the big race between the two premier shipping lines of the time, the White Star Line and the Cunard Line, with each trying to outdo the other in building ever more bigger liners. And, in part, this rivalry had to do with the decision to reduce, fatally in hindsight, the number of lifeboats on the Titanic. From the 64 proposed by the ship's designers, finally only 20 found their way on the ship, ostensibly to free up space and take in more passengers. There are many such stories and coincidences that have their part to play in the legend of the Titanic. Finally, there is the role of the Titanic as part of the larger geo-political picture. Some historians have speculated that the sinking of the Titanic actually started the 21st century as we know it, setting a chain of events that led to a century of World Wars. 

It is 100 years today, but the legend still lives on. And it will for the next 100 years, and even thereafter. There have been other natural tragedies, some that have taken more lives than the Titanic (the 1987 sinking of the MV Dona Paz in the Phillipines is supposed to have claimed about 3000-4000 lives !!) it is the story of the 'largest moving object ever built' that endures through generations. Perhaps, it is because the sinking of the Titanic reminds us that no matter, how grandiose and large we get in our design and engineering, we cannot conquer the forces of nature. Or perhaps it was the assertion that the ship was thought to be 'unsinkable' and that such a man-made structure should be overwhelmed by nature on her very first voyage (maybe if the Titanic had sank say, five years and ten journeys later, the legend would not have been the same).

Whatever the reason might be, the Titanic legend lives on forever !!
Read about Gardiner's theory here.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Steve Jobs

Finally finished reading 'Steve Jobs', the only authorized biography of "the greatest business executive of our era". Written by Walter Issacson, a person with pedigree (former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine and who has earlier written about Einstien, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger), the biography is an up close and personal look into the life of a person who, most people agree, has shaped much of the digital era that we live in today. Indeed, the loss of Steve Jobs to cancer on October 5th last year triggered an outpouring of grief, even here in India, that is generally reserved only for the odd sportsperson or movie star. The book, which I believe hit the bookstores just after his death, therefore had to deal with very strong sentiments and high expectations. Besides, Issacson probably had the closest relationship with his subject that a biographer can ever hope to get: long conversations with Jobs (while on walks, Jobs' favourite style) and innumerable interviews with almost all the people of any importance in his life: family, friends and foes alike (and he did make a lot of foes !). And the book does very well in delivering on all these expectations.

Jobs: A great read..
Through the book, Isaccson gives a neat account of not just Steve Jobs' life but also, by extension, of the evolution of the digital age right from the first Apple computer in the mid 1970s. Starting from his early life, his views on being put up for adoption after birth, his flirtations with Eastern philosophy and India (he stayed in India for seven months in 1974), followed by his successful partnership with Steve Wozniak to set up what is today the world's valuable organization, the book charts everything in great detail. And even though the book has the blessings of Jobs himself, it is by no means a loaded account of how great Steve Jobs was. It is inevitable that a person who was such a creative visionary would be lousy at relationships with others. And Isaacson does not sugar-coat or temper any criticism towards Jobs expressed by many of the people who Jobs might have turned the wrong way. His obsession with having full control over what was happening around him (that caused many a rift in Apple, including Jobs himself being booted out of the company in 1985), his tendency to view everything (people or products) in binary terms (either they were 'perfect' or they 'were shit' - and a person could move from one group to the other on the same day !!!) and his insistence on ignoring reality when it was not in his favour (his cancer diagnosis or his daughter born out of wedlock), all of these are described in great detail. In fact, reading through the book, one almost feels terrified at the prospect of having to work with him. Inspite of all these faults, Jobs went to create products that successfully married technology and the arts because 'he was right there, at their intersection'. The book also talks at length about Jobs' famous 'reality distortion field', whereby he was able to inspire, or scare, people around him by distorting reality into something that he thought was achievable.

Some of the passages that are quite engaging are the ones that narrate how Jobs was told to leave Apple in 1985 after his dominating style of work did not go down with the board and also his frequent spars with Bill Gates. In fact, the book gives a good insight by delving, at various points, on the relationship between them (who were right at opposite ends of the open and closed technology spectrum). It is quite refreshing to see their frank comments about each other, underpinned by a layer of respect below it. And while the book does not intend to either glorify, or question, Jobs's greatness as a product visionary (I do not quite agree with the first line calling Jobs as the greatest 'business executive'), there is one small paragraph in the book, that, in my mind, best describes Jobs' legacy. It is from Micheal Noer of Noer was reading a sci-fi novel on his iPad in a rural dairy farm north of Bogota, Colombia. A poor six-year old illiterate boy who was cleaning his stables came up to him. Noer handed over his iPad to the boy. With no instruction manual, and never having seen a computer before in his life, that six-year old began using it intuitively. He began swiping the screen, launching apps and playing a pinball game. Noer wrote : "Steve Jobs has designed a powerful computer that an illiterate six-year old can use without instruction. If that is not magical, I do not know what is !!". While Apple products might not have (yet) changed the world, the passage encapsulates the great beauty of making things simple and intuitive. And no one did this better than Steve Jobs.

Finally, for all Apple devotees (is there any who hasn't yet read the book ? :), it is simply not to be missed. And, like me, if you do not know much about Jobs (or even hates him and his products - there are quite a few of those), this book is still a great read. It offers a wonderful insight into the man, both personally and professionally. And if you end the book with mixed feelings, I think the book would have done its job.