Saturday, July 14, 2012

Culture Surprises: London - 7/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

Part 7...

Most of our guys who go abroad for short term assignments would have a hair cut just before leaving India. And then they would have a hair cut as soon as they are back on day one itself. Because it's expensive to have a hair cut there. They would say that it would cost Rs. 500 or 1000 for a hair cut. So I also planned to have a hair cut before leaving. But where did I get the time for all that? Not only that. I was also thinking that there were possibilities of settling there for years together. So I also thought in those lines for many things. I just told myself, 'You can't come back for a hair cut every month. So it's just one more additional time. That's it!' and left. Within few days of reaching there, I would be tempted to get into the barber shops whenever I saw one. In most of the shops, they had written 10 pounds. Those sitting inside were also other people. There was only shop where I would see a lot of Indian crowd always. It's an Indian shop. The charge was less too. 5 pounds. How can I control myself? I just got in one day.

The first difference that our people show us as soon as they land in a western country is their hair style. They would post their completely changed face on Facebook or some other social media. I always used to wonder if that would be their wish or they would request the barber to change it like that or the barber himself would give them a special advice that that is the best suited hair style for them or anyone who has a hair cut in those places will only end up with that kind of a hair style. I sat there hoping that I would get an answer for that that day. If I would get a new face to post on Facebook that would be a bonus.

Looks like the norm is same in all barber shops all over the world. As per the norm I waited for hours together to get the job done there as well. I was observing the technology being employed by them. They finish most of their work with a machine. It's just the finishing that is done manually. The work also gets done faster. It's not rocket science. It's a simple technology that could be easily brought to India as well. We have seen how even more difficult technologies have been brought here. If this also comes fast it would be good for us. What would be more difficult to bring than the machine and the technology is the operational skill. It may take time.

The procedure was begun with the same question there as well - "Short or medium?". Having a haircut is such a nice thing. So the longer it takes the happier I am. Thanks to the machine it got over in no time. It looked nicer. I don't know if it was a London thing or specific to that shop or just a perception problem I had. I don't think I can tell that clearly without having a few more haircuts there. I get that satisfaction once in a while in our place also. I was happy that I got that the first time itself (it's the only time as well) in London.

Whichever place it is, one of the most important things to be talked about is, the transport facilities of the place. It goes without saying if it is London. It's one of the best things in London. London has one of the best public transport systems in the world. It was good in Singapore as well. London is bigger than Singapore. However it has the same or better quality transport network. When I was there I read an article about it in one of their dailies. Only problem is the charges are exorbitant. It's five to 10 times more than Singapore's. Even taxis are like that. In Singapore, the biggest and the only big expense is the house. In London, everything is expensive. Transportation expenses contribute a great deal. Around 200 pounds are gone for transportation itself. That's for one person. If the family is big? Half the salary will go for that itself. If at all you got into a taxi by mistake, you are gone. It's end of the story. I just boarded once. My goodness... I almost got blood pressure. We know the meters are meant to run but no that fast!

London's transport network includes four different types of vehicles - train, tube, tram and bus. We all know train. What's this tube? Is that your question? The train that runs underground like a tube is called tube. It looks like a train only. But the interior is little different. In trains, there are rows of seats with 3 seats on one side and 2 on another in each row. People move around in the aisle in between. It's the same structure as what we see in the trains and most of the buses in our place. But in tubes, it is long and continuous bench-like seats on both sides. There is more space for people to stand in the middle. Tubes are narrower than the trains. Trains go to outskirts and outstations. Tubes run within London city alone. The place where I stayed, Croydon, was in outskirts. So I used to travel by train half the distance and then change to tube. Train looks like a series of boxes. Tube looks like one long box (though even that is a series of many boxes). Train goes very fast. The tubes also go fast. But it seemed as though they are slower maybe because either they run underground or they have too many stops. Trains have toilets whereas tubes don't. Needless to say what it would be like if there were such toilets in underground tubes!

We already talked about tram. When it runs within the city it seems to be running slow. But when it goes out of the city, they just zip through. Next is bus. You don't need an introduction of it. We have seen enough of them in our place itself. But it's only Volvo buses there. My family and I were so lucky to see people stamping on each others' legs and fighting exchanging bad words there as well. The buses are not as crowded as the trains, tubes and trams.

All vehicles are maintained very clean. Almost everyone gives preference to elderly, disabled, pregnant women and people with young children. Sometimes some people don't get it. Maybe the definition of decency is changing there as well. The taxis there have a peculiar look. It's an antique look like that of Ambassador cars back here. I think I told you already that throughout London I could see a lot of antiquity. I also saw another antique thing while travelling in trains. The television antennas that stayed for just 20-25 years back here are still there. Almost all houses have an antenna on their head. I was wondering what they were still doing with it there when we have gone past that so long back.

The tickets are the same for all four types of transports. The weekly pass that we buy for 50-60 pounds helps to travel for a week. Everything is automated. If you just put the money and tell it what you want, it gives you exactly what you asked for and gives back exact change as well. Unlike the fellow human beings that are fond of our money back here. This machine used to be there only in train stations in Singapore. But here you can see them in every bus stop. There are more than one machine in each bus stop. You just have to show the pass while boarding and get down wherever you want. Mostly people prefer daily and weekly passes to tickets. Buying a ticket for each travel may leave you bankrupt in a day or two.

The transport facilities in London made the city look very small. It's bigger than Chennai - Bangalore. But, I never got that feeling while traveling. If you have to travel the same distance back here or in London itself by road, it wouldn't be that easy. I told you earlier that I had two weeks of work in Croydon and two weeks in the city. The two weeks I had to work in the city, I used to travel from Croydon to Paddington, where we have our office. I never felt the distance I traveled. I would travel this distance in 45 minutes mostly. I used to travel by train from Croydon to Victoria Station and then from there by tube to Paddington. There was some work going on in Paddington station at that time. When I go next time (If I) I think I would see a modified Paddington.

Victoria Station is an unforgettable one. It's a busy place. You would find the place always buzzing with busy people briskly moving from one place to another. When I first went there, it made me think, 'Oh, does it mean the British people are not lazy?!'. Not only that. Every time I alighted in Victoria Station, I was reminded of the Central Station in Chennai. There is some similarity between the two stations. Maybe because both the stations let the train terminate their services there.

I could see a lot of Srilankan Tamils there, be it Victoria Station or in my travels between Victoria Station and Croydon. When I was returning home one evening I saw a young pair speaking something sweetly. I couldn't make out if it was Malayalam or Tamil. I know it isn't a good manner to overhear others' discussion. But I couldn't control myself this time. Finally I figured out it was Srilankan Tamil. Another time, there was a guy who talked so loudly, like in our town buses back here, with some relative back home. Though he was speaking to his relative, it was heard by everyone in the train. He even sang some MGR song during the conversation. Sooo much they feel at home!


Saturday, July 07, 2012

Culture Surprises: London - 6/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

Part 6...

Within few days of our landing there we heard a lot about snow everywhere. Everyone was talking about it with a lot of interest. I saw something like salt on the roads on the second or third day. First I thought it was the remnants of previous night's snow. Then I understood that it's a kind of salt that is sprinkled on roads to melt the snow as a precautionary measure. They call it 'road salt' or 'defrosting salt'. Then on another evening there was a fall of some white small thing from sky. Again I thought it was snow and realized even that was wrong. Even that has a different name, they said. It's called 'flurry'. 'Oh my goodness, how many different varieties within this?!' - I was getting more and more confused and curious about snow.

Another evening, I went out to buy groceries for home. While going itself I saw that they were shedding some sand kind of thing everywhere (it's the same salt I talked about in last paragraph). When I was coming back, I could feel a soft - white thing falling down from sky. Within five minutes, even before I reached home, I could see that the roads had all become white as if someone painted them all white. That beautiful thing now is snow. As I had to wake up early in the morning to go to work, we had dinner quickly and fell asleep. My wife woke me up in the middle of the night with a lot of excitement to show that the nature's painting job was complete. I woke up and saw it in half sleep and went back to sleep immediately.

She explained the whole thing again with the same excitement after getting up in the morning as well. The roads were more beautiful in the morning. Not just the roads, even the buildings, vehicles and parks were all showered with snow white snow. How would you feel if everything around you were white? That's not an ordinary thing, right?! White is such a pleasing color as well. Who doesn't like purity? Even the corrupt and dirty like white, right?! We roamed around and took a few snaps. I have always had difficulty with photography. I was wondering why she was taking so many photos from so many different angles when everything was white! When I sought to clear my doubt I only got a scary stare as an answer! I understand... it's a life time experience and the beauty needs to be captured and cherished for ever. Still...not so much!!!

The next day after snow, there was ruckus across the city with the news about snow in all media. This is damaged, that is damaged, there were accidents... and so on and on. That is when I realized what is so beautiful to see could be so problematic to handle. This is why our forefathers have told, "Beauty is dangerous". Are you wondering, "Does it include this beauty as well?"! Yes, that's our style. We would say something first and include everything that comes our way later within that and claim, "That's what I meant!". Who can question us?! That's not new for us. The same ice that we buy for money as a commodity back home was available free of cost everywhere there. Nobody even cared that so much ice was getting wasted. I was so upset about it. But what could I have done for that? There were many things that I used to get free of cost in my childhood for which I need to pay an unbelievable price now. Nobody is upset about that, right?! So I should learnt to live with these things! :)

It took two to three days to lose all the snow from sight. That was okay. They said that it's even worse in many other European countries. On the other hand, some were saying, if it was in US, everything would have been back to normal within few hours. So it's only those can bear the pain get so much pain. Imagine the same thing was happening in our place. Not even 5% of this effort would be put. Our leaders would plan all their overseas travels during that time of the year only every time. The servants of the public would take bribe from those who have the power and money and serve only for them. But the leaders there try to calm down the public by constantly appearing before media and explaining various steps they took to control the effects of snow. The government and corporation staff take all the pain to restore normalcy as quickly as possible throughout the city. Even after all that those people complain so much about the quality of service provided. "You collect so much tax. What the heck are you doing with it?" is the question that everyone raises. That shows how far ahead their democracy is.

Daughter and me!
It's like being in Kodaikanal when the Kurinji flower blossoms, like being in Mumbai during Ganesh Chathurthi, and in Kolkata during Durga Pooja. We could see snow two-three times during our one month stay there. We must say we were so lucky in one way. All these wouldn't have mattered if I had alone. It's because I went with a four-and-a-half year old daughter, I have allocated so much space for a thing like this. If you look at it, otherwise nothing has changed in my life after seeing the snow. Nothing changed after I saw the train for the first time. Nothing changed after I saw airplane for the first time. Nothing changed after I crossed the seas for the first time. Nothing changed after I saw the sea for the first time. Nothing changed after I saw a mountain for the first time. Nothing changed after I saw a waterfalls for the first time. Nothing has changed after seeing snow also. So it's just proved again that just seeing something will never change anything in your life. That's it!

The experience of snow is one and the killing cold is another. Even that got better after first few days. Rather we got used to it. We did discuss earlier about how they have designed everything around them to safeguard themselves from cold. I missed two important things in it. One, our habit of cleaning with water (I hope you wouldn't ask cleaning what!). They wipe off with tissues. The main reason is that the water will always be ice there. They can't wash like how our people do in ponds here. Even in their ponds it will only be ice. Hence they have reduced their reliance on water as much as possible.

The next one is, I heard that they mix lead or something with the tap water to prevent it from becoming ice. So someone told me not to drink hot water that comes from tap even if I wanted to drink hot water. It was suggested to take cold water, boil it and drink even if I wanted to drink hot water. I didn't know this before. So on the first few days I was drinking the hot water straight from tap. I was thinking I was too smart to save time by using the hot water from tap even for making coffee. Then I realized how smart it really meant!

After the first few days I felt a kind of itching throughout the body. I was thinking maybe if it was because of my drinking of hot water from tap. Then I heard that it was common for those go to cold places for the first time. Some said it was due to the cold itself and others said it was due to the lead mixed in hot water in which we took bath. I was even told that there is a cream that I could buy from shops for that but I managed without it.

There is a button below the traffic signals in all places. If the pedestrians pressed it the signal immediately turns red for the vehicles and the pedestrians get a green signal to cross the road. This change happens immediately. I saw this in Singapore as well. But it wasn't this quick in Singapore. Sometimes it happens immediately. Sometimes it takes longer. But in London, it's immediate. It's almost like, 'you press and cross'. I don't think I have seen this anywhere in India. Their logic is like this - If it is a crowded place they can wait till all the vehicles stop but in less crowded places why should the pedestrians be kept waiting for so long?! But where is the less crowded place in India? So that proves why it's not required here!

I also saw another interesting thing. The moment they see pedestrians standing near zebra crossing in the sides the vehicles stop immediately and let the pedestrians cross first. In fact, the pedestrians don't even have to look around if it is a zebra crossing. They can just cross with closed eyes. If you are driving a vehicle, it is your responsibility to slow down, look around and stop if required wherever you see lines on the road. As an Indian, I couldn't digest the way the pedestrians crossing the road so slowly like a duck with the least worry about all the vehicles waiting for them to cross as if it was only them and their road. Can you imagine that kind of a scene in our place? You will be cursed to death. We see every day how even people of our grandparents' age get cursed when they cause even the slightest of inconvenience to moving traffic here. Even their parents and grandparents are not spared when it comes to scolding. So the pedestrians are the kings and queens there. It's the drivers who have to be more careful. If you drive like how you do in India I am sure within few days you will end up behind bars. Now imagine this - Let's say someone who is so used to their traffic rules came to our place and crossed the zebra crossing like the way they do there. Especially the children who come here have to be instructed properly on all these. Otherwise, it may lead to unimaginable consequences.

What may be the reason for giving so much respect to the pedestrians? Maybe the population, I thought. If it is only once in a while that someone would cross the road like that then there is no problem for the drivers to slow down, look around and then go. If we did that so patiently to every pedestrian in our place, someone who is starting to office in the morning will reach his office only by 6 o'clock in the evening.

The trains are packed in peak hours. The central places of the city are always crowded. Someone said, "It's only few specific places that are crowded here. But if you walk around our streets, some times you won't even find one person unlike in India!". Their empty streets were really scary to me - someone like me who mostly likes empty roads and once in a while crowded places for a change. They made me realize, 'It's better to be safe in noisy places like here than to be in seemingly peaceful but unsafe place like there'. :)


Thursday, June 07, 2012

Culture Surprises: London - 5/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

Part 5...

The security guard standing in front of the client office received me without a smile. 'Yet another frown face?!' - I was disappointed. We provide special training to our security guards here to receive the clients who come from other countries with a smile. Seeing all that I was always thinking that all these were western etiquette. Then why is it that the security guard there didn't receive me with that kind of a smile?! This smile thing was haunting me throughout my stay there. I would check if they smile or not whenever I met someone, whoever it was. I entered the building thinking, 'Maybe there is a norm that the security guards shouldn't smile too much for a reason. Who knows?!'.

There was a senior lady in the reception. I said "good morning" with a big smile. Disappointment again. She did say "good morning" but without a smile. Even after that for the next 10 days I was consistently greeting her with my pleasant "good morning". When I say 'pleasant' it's the smile that I am referring to. 'Maybe they don't like us!', I thought. But she was pleasant with the lady colleague (she is Indian too) who was with me. What was going wrong? I couldn't understand. Was it because she is a lady too or was it because she looked more westernized or was she more pleasant to her than I was? Whatever! I couldn't understand that. I concluded that there was something wrong with my face or my language. Maybe the 'please, thanks, sorry's weren't sufficient.

It's a problem for all our guys who go there. I never used to like those who are overly-nice with people in my childhood (maybe because those who behaved like that were not really nice). Then I realized that it was okay to be so if it was sincere and it's not okay only if it was done with a hidden agenda. However, I couldn't say as many 'thanks' and 'please's as 'sorry's. I was prepared to say them more liberally once I was there. Still what they do seemed too much to me!

The way we think is like this - "Even those who do life-changing helps don't even expect a 'thank you' in our culture. We just do it as the duty of a fellow human being and move on. Why so many 'thanks', 'sorry's and 'excuse me's for silly things like giving way, sneezing, hiccup, etc.?" That's right too. But that is our 'right'. Do you know what their 'right' is? "Try being nice with people for even small things like these. You will realize that the world around is becoming better. It's for the overall good of the humanity!". That sounds right too, right?! It makes more sense when I think about those people back home who bang on me due to their own mistake or carelessness and then go onto shout at me as if it was my mistake to be on their way. If we had learnt to say as many 'sorry's and 'thanks' like them, maybe we would have had a more humane society. What say? Had I spent more time there, I would have definitely learnt more such good things from them. What to do? Life had its own plans.

Got into the workplace and the work started. Another common practice there is holding the door for others when you open it before them. This is something that was taught by colleagues who came back from onsite trips more than a decade back. So it wan't that difficult to follow. What was surprising was the fact that 'everyone' around you was doing it now. That's called culture, right?! It's not only that everyone does it, everyone who receives it also acknowledges it with a big smile and a loud 'thanks'. I even used to think, 'These guys say so many thanks and sorry. Won't their mouth pain?!'. But these behaviors are encouraged only when they are acknowledged like this. Otherwise the culture of unfriendly staring will only flourish. So, there are both types of people there - those who don't smile back when you smile as well as those who respond with a bigger smile than yours when you smile at them. What's difficult to understand for outsiders like us is, who is where!

I went to London with plans to see many things. But after sometime the only thing that I wanted to see was the sunlight. On the whole of first day I didn't get an opportunity for that. It was all cloudy. When we saw from 8th or 9th floor the city looked beautiful. Still once you have seen something you lose all the interest immediately, right?! It becomes nothing suddenly irrespective of all the imaginary admiration you had. The next day we could see a ray of sunlight from only one direction somewhere far away in the city. It was such a nice feeling when I saw that. That's the relationship we have with nature, especially sunlight!

Mid noon we came out to have lunch. It was piercing cold even at that time. There was a Punjabi restaurant nearby. We went in and sat there. The waiter (a Sardarji youngster) exchanged pleasantries and started engaging us in a chit-chat. He asked, "Which company?". We told him. He was surprised, "How come you guys here? Your office is there, right?!". Looked like he knew our history and geography better than us. That was an unbelievable surprise. That too on day one itself! Even before we asked him, "How come you know so much about us?", he started answering our question, "I did my MBA thesis in your company!". "What? You? MBA? Working in a restaurant?", we would have asked such questions if it was in India. It's not so there. We have all heard this many times, right? In every successful western leader's biography they would talk about their experience working in some restaurant or coffee shop in their student days. All such stories that we heard back home came to my mind then. Still, there is something more interesting about seeing the same thing in person what you have heard about before, right?!

I love this culture. We should also pick it up. It will have a lot of good changes in our society if we do that. We are so spoiled by the hierarchies that our forefathers taught us that we find some jobs superior over others. There are many jobs that are still seen as cheap. But there is one problem if this comes to India. There is already unemployment here. After this, if even the educated kids take up this kind of jobs then the uneducated will have nowhere to go. Then we will only end up with the 'tiger-deer' stories again.

When I had to come back home in the evening it was all the more colder. It gets dark by 5 PM. I tried to manage with just blazer for two-three days. But I couldn't. Legs were freezing. Body was shivering. Hands were getting numb. The face was hardening. First I thought I would get used to it after two-three days. But then after three days I realized that nothing had changed. I started setting things right one by one. First I bought a winter coat. Then I bought a winter cap to protect my ears and face. Then I bought gloves for hands. Only after buying all these did I realize that it was not that difficult to live there!

Since it gets dark early, people leave office also early. They start their work also early in the morning accordingly. Nobody works till midnight like in our place. There are security issues as well working beyond a point. As they reach home early in the evening they get some time for family as well. One can also go for shopping on week days with family. We went for shopping almost three-four days a week. If I came back before dark we would go to West Croydon, which is supposed to be the 'not so safe' area. If I came back after dark we would restrict ourselves to Eastern part of it itself.

I am always scared of streets with no people movement. That too, the stories I heard about London were not very encouraging. Especially the stories about Croydon. When I would come back from office, I would always be walking very fast, extra-cautious, looking around with suspicion of everyone and everything. Maybe if I had ended up elsewhere instead of Croydon I might not have gone this mad.

The High Street in Croydon was always busy. Every time we went there I was reminded of M.G. Road in Bangalore. I would think M.G. Road would have been like this if it were little more cleaner. It was clean with cement-mosaic floor. There were cement benches here and there for the passers-by to sit and relax between their shopping. There would always be young boys and girls sitting on them, drinking something or doing things that we won't do in public back home. You would see bear cans and cigarette butts thrown all around (I still call the place clean because you know how clean our places back home are!). But I am sure the other neighborhoods in London won't be like this. This must be a very Croydon-thing.

Though most of the countries where Indians go to are richer than India, it's not necessary that we need to carry everything from here. You can buy most of the groceries and things needed for daily use for almost the same price there. We shouldn't convert everything into Rupee and compare though. If you just look at it from the perspective of purchasing power in that particular country it won't be much different. Even there you could find all types of shops. Expensive shops, inexpensive shops, shops for locals, shops for immigrants and so on! So we don't really have to damage our suitcases by dumping them with stuff beyond their capacity. We should just take from here what we can't buy there.

I observed another interesting thing about my spending behavior. I calculate every Rupee that I spend back home. But I didn't waste my time converting every expense into Indian Rupee there. Maybe because I was so lazy to even calculate! Another thing is, their one Pound is equal to our 80 Rupees. So when you can buy something that costs 100 Rupees in India for less than 10 Pounds there, you tend to feel that it's cheaper there. 10 is smaller than 100, right?!

I am not sure if you are getting what I mean. Since our currency is weak, we don't value even our bigger denominations that much. For example, 1000 is huge number for them. Because they can even buy a used car for 1000 Pounds. But 1000 Rupees? It's an amount for a family dinner here. That's the reason. When I buy anything, I always ask myself this question, "Is it absolutely necessary?". I asked this question every time I bought something there also. But I never calculated how much it would have costed if I had bought it in India.

We could get most of the Indian stuff there. Some things were little more difficult to get. We had heard about some of those things and hence taken them all with us. Especially the stuff like cooking powder, coriander powder, etc. Even those things are available in Indian-Pakistani shops. Mixer is one thing that you don't get there so most people carry it from here. But we didn't take it from India. But, since the service apartment we stayed is an Indian one, they had it so we had no problem.

All shops (especially the small shops) have glass doors, which are always closed (not locked). They are not always open like in our place. We find them so receptive when they are always open, right?! So they didn't seem like shops for me. Same is the case with the houses as well. You can't find people moving around unless they are going out or coming back in. So even this culture of keeping the doors closed always must have come from there, where they kept their doors closed for a reason, i.e. cold, to places like ours where there is no cold at all.


Monday, May 07, 2012

Culture Surprises: London - 4/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

Part 4...

Every room had a heater. Still it was piercing cold. My daughter didn't have any problem. She slept well immediately. My wife was shivering. 'Oh my goodness, have I made a mistake like everyone said?!', my head was spinning. Nobody leaves with the family right in the first time. Only after settling in and being able to breathe does everyone take their family. But we? With the confirmation of just one month's stay, the entire family went thinking, 'Whatever is the experience, let's have it together!'. No other go then. We had to manage it. As we had to leave on short notice there was no sleep on the previous night and as this was the first night in a new place there was no sleep this night as well. I slept late and woke up early.

When I woke up in the morning I realized that one problem was resolved. There was no cold. The heaters had done their job well after some time. Because of the few days of gap the residual cold had its effect. Also, I had gone there imagining that there would be the kind of modern Air Conditioners that we see in India, whose temperatures could be easily controlled with a remote control. But I was disappointed when I saw those box-type room heaters, which took time to heat. Putting it simply, the expectation that a developed country would have 'everything' better than us was the biggest mistake I made. It's mostly correct. But one can't expect 'everything' there to be better than 'everything' here. I should just have understood this simple thing.

Even at 7 AM in the morning it didn't look like morning. No people movement on the roads. Once in a while someone would walk past. But we could see the cleanliness and orderliness that we generally expect in the western countries. We came to another window and saw the trees and plants. There was a fluffy squirrel playing on one of the trees. It's not only the squirrels, not just the people, everything is fluffy there. Even the vegetables are fluffy. We got all vegetables that we get in India. But they looked much better and bigger. Radish was as big as a feet. Ridge gourd was bigger than that. Bitter gourd was big too. Tomato looked like apple. One potato is sufficient for one time meal. Brinjals (They don't call them 'brinjals' there; it's all 'egg plants'!) were so beautiful. Everything must be hybrid. Everyone says nature is beauty and natural is beautiful. But science and technology seem to add more beauty to them and make them more beautiful.

When I got ready and opened the door to leave for office the cold breeze hit the face. My wife shut the door immediately in reflex. There was another pending job to be done before leaving for work. Having gone that far, when you go to work on day one leaving your family with not even a phone number to reach for emergency, can a man focus on work peacefully (I can hear you murmur, 'that's the most peaceful thing, man!')? Got down and went one full round walking. There was a small shop. There was a lady with a Tamil face there. She was speaking to her husband in Tamil. It sounded like the Srilankan Tamil. Many shops in that area were run by Srilankan Tamils. It reminded me of how I felt on my first day in Bangalore when I heard Tamil. A kind of relief feeling that I was not in a totally alien land. I bought two sim cards, came back home, gave one to my wife and left for work.

The work place was just in walking distance from home. We don't have many problems that our earlier generations had when they went abroad. You don't have to search for people to help you with address in places where you hardly find any people. There is Google Maps for everything now. I saw the place very well on the maps before leaving home itself on my laptop. Even then once I hit the road I couldn't make out the head or tail. However much technology helps us, it's only natural to get lost in a new place on day one, right? If I had GPS in my phone it would have been better. But I had planned to buy it after reaching there. Even if I had taken a phone with GPS, on day one itself... as soon as buying sim card... how can it help so much? We should understand their (technology's) difficulties also, right?!

I started walking, with the conscious feeling that I was walking on the streets of London. But it didn't give a kick beyond a point. It was not as high as how I felt before landing there. Everything is like that, right? I wanted to go everywhere just to feel like this everywhere. Everything is cleaner, more orderly and more gigantic than in our place. Gradually everything will come here also ('Gigantic' will surely come. But cleanliness and orderliness... will they come so soon?!). Within few minutes hand was getting numb in cold. Face hardened. Everyone except me was wearing winter coat for cold. I was wearing blazer. So I thought I might not need it. I realized how foolish I was within few minutes.

Not just winter coats. They were all wearing caps covering their ears, scarfs covering the neck and gloves for hands. Most of them were keeping their hands inside the coat pocket or pant pocket (This is an important thing to be noted. See, this is what has become style in India later. Whatever they did for a reason became style to us for no reason!). All these including the shoes fully covering the foot made perfect sense for them. But why are we following them all so religiously here? I had a long discussion about it within myself. If they designed their clothes to survive in that freezing cold, our forefathers have also designed our clothes to be in sync with the weather and conditions of our land, right?! Aren't we supposed to stick to our own open slippers for foot, open clothing like dhoti for lower half of the body, even the thread we wear around the waist to hold the dhoti, simple cotton clothes and the towel to wipe off sweat every now and then? Why are we then struggling with the sweating shoes, pants, belt, coat and tie (Tie is another winter-specific thing!)? We have been subjected to a 'Whether you like it or not, you have to do it' kind of conditioning. That has then become a thing of choice for everyone.

Like the politicians who want our votes sticking to the clothes of the land, we who want the western world's money stick to the clothes of their land. Whom are you dependent on for your livelihood, you better please them is the unwritten rule, right (In fact, they have become written rules now in companies!)? Wearing their own clothes is an important part of that adherence. Most of us have started wearing pants more than dhotis and shorts more than lungi without anyone compelling us to do so now. Even those who do cultural policing come in the western outfit only while they come out to do their duty. Another reason why these clothes were accepted so well is that they are more comfortable. So if it is making us comfortable it's okay to copy something from some other culture. But the blind following is what needs to be watched out for.

I have even heard that the companies in Middle East don't appreciate people going in multiple layers of coat-suit clothing these days. It's a good change. One doesn't have to be adamant about keeping his culture alive despite its irrelevance to the day. Doing what makes sense for the time is a smart thing to do. Even I used to like dhoti a lot earlier. I used to wear it often just for the love of wearing it. I used to prefer lungi more than shorts. Just because I used to think I had a moral responsibility to preserve these things! It sounds so funny when I think about it now. But it was a forced marriage. After shifting to shorts fully at some point in time I don't think I miss lungi now so much. But even now I don't like wearing suffocating shoes, strangulating tie, the third layer of coat on top of the inner wear and shirt in summer. I can't say I will ever like them even if I get used to them over time. We are wearing these just because we have to wear them. But I may never say I like them.

Let's get back to the streets where I was walking. I had to check with people for the address I was looking for. It was all white faces mostly. Here and there I could find some 'our' faces as well ('our' means it includes all 'our'!). The consciousness of walking on the English streets kept popping up. Everyone around was walking briskly blowing smoke out of their mouth. Like I said earlier, some are 'this' smoke and others are 'that' smoke. The street that I was supposed to go was right there. Still nobody there knew it. It's a problem that I have had even in Bangalore and Chennai. So, this is not a culture surprise. It's a global problem. Unlike in our place, the name boards on shops don't have the address mentioned in it. I used to wonder why people write everything including the pin code on the name board of commercial buildings. That too, in my place, I have even seen boards that have taluk, district and all as if it is some Government record and everyone going past will note down the details and write them a letter later! Now that we are used to it I missed it so much while struggling to find the address on a foreign soil.

Within few minutes of walk, I could see a few trams as well. When I saw that in Calcutta 10 years back it looked like one of the seven wonders. What is a tram? Railway lines in the middle of the road; a mini train with just two coaches (like a long bus) on it... That's tram. It's a combination of both bus and train. When I saw that in Calcutta, I was told, "It was one of the many good things that the Britishers did for India. But the trams were introduced only in Calcutta!". This time I was happier to see that in their own place. There is a difference though - It was black and dusty and moving like a tortoise in Calcutta; but in London it was green and beautiful and was zipping through (By the way, I didn't mean black is dusty and green is beautiful. Color and the other description are two different things!). On the left extreme of the roads (next to the platform), they have left 4 - 5 feet for bicycles with clear demarcation. I could see this separate track for bicycles throughout London. Equal respect for everyone! That's nice, right?

Observing all these and with many other meaningless stray thoughts I was straying up and down in the same area for a few times. Finally I caught hold of an Indian face after a long struggle. Another disappointment when he opened his mouth. He spoke in the British accent. Must be a guy born and brought up there. He tapped his phone and thanks to GPS, he said, "This is the street that you are looking for. So the place you are looking for is somewhere here only!". It looked as if he wouldn't leave me until I found the place. He was so keen to help me. But I thanked him and saw him off. Poor guy, he would have his own headaches to handle, right? Within next few minutes I found the place that I was looking for. Even there I had a lot of interesting observations. Wait for some time. We will discuss them as well.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Journalist - A Blog Novel by Mr. Hariharan Valady (3/3)

Once again it has been a long break... I don't think I would be able to do justice to this review in three posts but I am also worried if my review would become longer than the novel itself. So, let me try to condense my comments in this post and start with a fourth part if required later.

A fiction cannot be a photocopy of reality. The author has realized it well and thus also deviated from reality in some cases. The real Durai from Tamil Nadu is not as educated as he is portrayed in the novel. We don't even know if he ever went to college. He never fell in love with any TV anchor from a 'national' channel though there were talks of some stuff with a local newsreader two decades back. On the other hand, this Durai's education and his affair with the TV anchor reminds me of Kashmir. Not sure how many more states' stories are going to come in the chapters in line. :)

Knowing most of the parallels in reality, I couldn't resist comparing every paragraph in the story with reality. Not sure if it is good or bad for the novel. Having known almost everything about Durais and Rathinams I even felt like cautioning Vidya at times. I did that also while commenting on chapter 3.

All the criticism by opposition parties and media that we see with our bare eyes is one thing. There is another 'behind the scene' relationship that these people share with one another that we don't get to see. If the opposition  prince (only in democracy could you see prince and princess in opposition as well) is caught in an American airport with millions of black money why does the prime minister back home takes it up at the diplomatic level and resolves it? The media doesn't criticize parties that pay them huge money in the form of advertisements or in other forms. Most of the successful politicians always pretend to be friendly to media people. If you are in media you can directly call any politician any time for any help. You don't even have to ask. Their cronies will always be waiting by your gates to provide you with whatever facilities you are in need of. They would just read it on your face and do it for you. Why? Simply because you wouldn't be able to criticize them so hard after enjoying all those benefits. You also become party to their corruption now, right? This is why some of our media weirdly support some individuals even when they are at fault and some of their criticism doesn't sound like true criticism.

It was a good idea to come out with an Index after the third chapter. It would help the new comers to the blog in long term perspective. It would be much more helpful if it is brought up to top after posting every chapter. Likewise, the idea of listing all characters in the story and giving an introduction about each of them in a separate post is very good too. It's like salt and pepper on the table. Then, after the tenth chapter, he gives a quick summary of the story so far. All these are innovative ideas that aspiring online novelists could make use of.

When he started the novel, I was wondering how he would manage the images part. He managed it successfully by camouflaging some real pictures. Even then one of the readers pointed out who it was on the picture. Though the picture has nothing to do with the story, I personally think it is a 'very small' failure from author's perspective (I am supposed to do a 'critical' review. By nature, I am not good at being critical so this is the maximum I could do to be critical!). :)

As a writer, the author is successful in making the readers impatient about 'what next?' at the end of every post. Considering the size of each post, it's really very good to be able to convey some part of the story in every post and ending it with some curiosity.

In chapter-6, he talks about how Durai changes the topic depending on the audience. This is one thing that I have found in most of the successful politicians. You have to be a rabble-rouser. You have to speak for applause. If you do that well nobody would care whether you really work for their cause. Mr. Rathinam is so good at it. I have been seeing from my childhood how he has been doing it successfully.

The kind of relationship such leaders have with their party men at grassroots level is highlighted well in some places. Increasing the salaries of government employees with the elections in mind is such an innovative thing that it has been working in their favor for decades now. It's not just government employees, they do this to all groups of people. They have understood the pitfalls of democracy so well. Doing big short term favors to groups is more effective than smaller things for all people collectively. It actually helps in long term. Pleasing all is an impossible task. Instead, if you just do that to smaller groups of people, you would be able to make bigger impact and the beneficiaries would become your ambassadors forever. Even their children will like you just because their parents liked you and talked good about you to them.

Politics is not about pleasing all. It's about pleasing the right people who would do it for you with the rest. This combo knows it well. The author has understood it very well too. :)

Chapter-7 looks at things from their perspective as well. The author looks at things that make them corrupt even if they were not corrupt by nature. I know of many leaders who became the victim of the situation. They had to become corrupt to survive among the beasts. But, I personally feel that our politicians who are in question (Durais and Rathinams) are all corrupt by birth.Crookedness is in their veins.

The author says that politics and media are two fascinating things for him. Chapter-9 adds one more to the list, i.e. romance. The scenes that follow the bomb blast are very romantic. 

There comes an actress-turned-spokesperson in the eleventh chapter. It surely would have reminded everyone of some 'big-shot' in reality. There are so many actresses who want to join politics today. I don't know how many more actress-turned-spokespersons we are going to produce.

There is a time when Vidya gets confused with Durai's argument. She wonders on whose case he is arguing. I have seen this many times in reality. First few times I was confused like mad too. Then practice made me better. I started understanding what they mean when they say something. It's good if the author comes out with the dictionary of such stuff, too. What they say versus what they mean! Like the modern dictionaries to understand what women mean when they say something else (for example, if they say 'nothing', it means there is 'something' seriously wrong, they say!).

I liked two subtle things in chapter-12. The narration of Vidya losing all the excitement of the long drive with Durai when Uma slams the door explains a very subtle thing about the ability of slamming doors. It's these minute things that make or break relationships. Then, how Vidya skips telling Uma the overnight experience she had with Durai also is an interesting piece. It may sound obvious but it deserves the emphasis the author gives. Another such thing comes in chapter-13. When Durai wants to vent out his frustrations with his wife Meera, she remains locked with the TV and says, "Shhshh…we’ll do during the break...". Meera wouldn't have done it if she knew that that's what is going to be the game changer for Durai and Vidya. "The pressure cooker blew the fifth whistle when ultimately there was a commercial break" is another such thing. It's these minute things that need emphasis in stories. The author has understood that well and done a great job.

If the last forty years are so important in our history, the color TV thing is one of the most important one in the last forty years of our Dravidian politics. In 2006, I was betting with people saying so and so party won't win that time. But, the moment I got to know that their election manifesto had color television on top of their list, I ate my words. I know very well how mad our people are about movies and televisions. No other part of India is so mad on these things - except for Andhra Pradesh to some extent probably. But, I think, people have come out of it now. It won't work anymore. Because, there is nothing more exciting than movies and televisions for our people. Nothing means nothing... houses, jobs, money, nothing can do the trick. Even if you promise a second life they wouldn't fall for it. Money did work once but now everyone gives money so it doesn't work anymore.

Overall, every post has a good number of comments. That tells how many people are reading this novel. I have not been able to read some of the recent posts. I am sure it would have become all the more interesting by now. Need to find some time to read them all - at least once a week!

@Hariharan: Sir, thanks for giving an opportunity to review your brilliant piece of work. I am not sure if I have done justice. However, my best wishes for the successful completion of the first ever online novel that I have come across. :)

Please click here to get started with the novel...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Culture Surprises: London - 3/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

Part 3...

The place we were supposed to go for accommodation was Croydon. First we had to go to the High Street in Croydon, collect the keys and then go to another place in Croydon itself. Every neighborhood has a High Street in London. It's a very English thing. It's similar to what is called 'Main Street' in many countries or the 'bazaar' in ours. Like the Hallis (Bommanahalli, Kammanahalli, Marathahalli, etc.) in Bangalore or the Pets (Saidapet, Teynampet, Kannammapet, etc.) in Chennai, the place names in London all end with a 'don' or 'ton', like Croydon, Kingston, Kensington, Wimbledon, Addington, Paddington, etc. London itself is a 'don', right?

We reached Croydon High Street by 8.30 PM. We went with high expectations about the 'hotel'. But what awaited us was a shock. It was a cramped reception where not even four or five people could stand. The stairs were so narrow that if the guy is little fat he can't even use it or if there are two people coming opposite to each other one of them has to go back up or down fully leaving way to another. The good news is, we didn't have to stay there. We just went there to collect the keys. We were supposed to stay in a service apartment that is run by the same hotel guys. Service apartment is an apartment where you get everything like kitchen, stove, utensils, etc. It would have been just impossible to stay in a hotel room with the family. The hotel guys themselves suggested to stay in service apartment. The difference in rent for between a single hotel room and a service apartment with multiple rooms was so less that I also agreed to that suggestion.

When I travel within India on duty the kind of hotels I get are of such a high quality that I never imagined that I would ever land in a place of that quality, that too in a place like London. Even the hotel that I stayed in Singapore was of great quality. I just couldn't digest that the hotels in London were worse than that. Then I consoled myself saying, 'It may not be the case with all hotels in London. It may be because this one is an Indian hotel'. Maybe this was a wrong sample.

All the shops in High Street were closed. The Indian young man who was in the hotel took us to the nearby Tesco shop and asked us to buy the most important things needed for the night as no other shops would be open at that time. He spoke in British accent. Can you imagine someone with that kind of an accent doing that kind of work in India? Impossible, right? It's a very common thing there. All the students work part-time somewhere like this for pocket money or in most cases manage all their expenses with this income. I have heard a lot about it when I was in India itself. But it was a different feeling witnessing it in person. In Tesco also, there were a lot of Indian staff, mostly north Indians. We just bought rice, lentils, milk, etc. and headed for the apartment.

The hotel guys arranged for a car, came till the apartment, helped with the luggage and left only after we were safely inside the apartment. It wasn't an easy task carrying the luggage till third floor. Yes, we were in third floor and we didn't have a lift. They had told me about it earlier. But again when you see it in person it's more disgusting, right? You built an apartment with three floors and didn't think of having a lift in it?! Funny! We don't have such buildings even in India these days. With all the luggage and the difficulty of carrying them all the way up to the third floor through those narrow stairs, I was haunted with many questions. At least if the stairs had been little wider I would have been okay. In India itself while looking for rented house we used to judge the quality of the house by the width of the stairs. In India itself I don't find such narrow stairs these days at least in those areas where I move around. All the new houses that are being built now are built with wider stairs. Then how come in a country like UK, that too in a city like London??? I was really confused.

I had a mental picture about the houses in London. When we entered into the apartment all those imaginations collapsed in disappointment. I blamed India for that also. I said it's run by Indians, right?! I know it was value for money. That was the value possible for the money paid by my company. Some of my colleagues who visited the place later even said, "You must be happy that you have got such a good apartment in London. I have stayed in worse places!". I was clueless. I just couldn't understand what was going on. It's not that I grew up in palaces. Five of us have stayed in a 10x10' room in bachelorhood days. But that's not the point. After that I have seen a much better quality of life in our own land, which is supposed to be a 'developing' country still. Even today I count every rupee that I spend. But I have certain criteria for a good house. That apartment unfortunately didn't meet those criteria. That's the reason I couldn't understand how so many people said that was a good apartment.

When I think about it, the biggest problem with that apartment was it had wooden floor. When I understood that it's all wooden floors only in all western countries I was trying to come to terms with it. I have seen wooden floors on the first floor in old village houses in my childhood. But after people became affluent they got rid of them and built concrete floors. 25 years later, when I had to see the same thing (though this is different from that) in what is called a developed country, I felt different. Another problem was, it's a very old apartment. Even the biggest and best houses will have their own problems once they get old. It's those problems that I had to deal with. The carpets were old and faded. Most of the things in the apartment reminded of how old they were. But otherwise I would say there was no major problem.

There were some good things as well. All the switches are kept low to be accessible for children. Isn't the idea of making them independent and not being dependent on elders for even silly things like this a thing to be appreciated? Not only in this. In general, western countries are known for bringing up their children to be independent from childhood.Why is it so? Maybe because they are not sure when their parents will decide to part ways?! They are particular about not passing on their problems to their children. It's good, right? I have even heard that they have laws to ensure their kids sleep in a separate room right from their childhood. They even say that when you look for a house you need to ensure that each child has a separate room in it.

The house that we stayed is right behind the Home Office in Croydon. The Home Office is their government department responsible for immigration, security, passport, etc. All our visas go there for approval. So we ended up in the place where they made the decision to let me in. It was well past 9 PM and there was nobody on the roads. The first feeling that I got as soon as I landed in Singapore was the feeling of safety. Likewise, the first feeling that I got as soon as I landed in London is the feeling of insecurity. From the day one we landed every day we heard some story. The main reason for that was the place where we ended up. I said it's called Croydon, right? Let me tell you now what kind of place it is.

Croydon is an English-minority neighborhood like many such neighborhoods in London. It's filled with Africans, Srilankans and Indians. A friend who is staying in Croydon told me last year itself, "Hey, all the rowdies in the area where I stay in London are all 'your' people only. Only others will find it difficult. You won't have any problem if you come to stay there!" and smiled (I hope you got what that 'your' meant!). As soon as I landed there, on the second day itself, another friend said, "The London riots that you would have heard about last year... it all happened in your area only. So be careful!". Isn't that enough for us?! I started inquiring about it with everyone that I met after that. "It's not that the whole of Croydon is like that. Only the West Croydon is little unsafe. Just avoid that part after the dark", said two - three people almost in the same style. Hell with Croydon! Every now and then I could also see the signs of whatever I heard. Every second or third day there would be a story about some mugging or crime in the neighborhood.

Maybe this is what is making the local whites unhappy. Who will tolerate their own place where they were born and grew up being spoiled by outsiders? An English man I met in Coimbatore 7 - 8 years back was cribbing a lot about this. "We have a culture that absorbs everyone that comes in. But we are not able to tolerate when those who come try to spoil our culture itself", he said with a worried face. I had no answer when he asked, "What's this arranged marriage? How can you arrange a marriage?" (It sounded similar to a comment made by a Telugu friend about food - "What is limit meals? Why do you have limits in eating? It's called meals only when you eat with full satisfaction, right?!"). They are shocked by our culture as much as we are shocked by their question!

Already they were not very happy with the way their city was being taken for a ride. Looks like it worsened after the London blasts. A colleague who was in London during those days of blasts said that the locals showed their anger even on Indians. Just like how north Indians call all south Indians 'Madrasi' here, it seems the Londoners call anyone with the subcontinent face a "Paki". 'Paki' is a short form of 'Pakistani'. It's supposed to be a discriminating - racial abuse there. It's like how Malayalis call Tamils 'Pandi' in Kerala and Tamils call Telugus 'Gulti' in Chennai. It's cheap. But this culture is there everywhere. All it says is, when it comes to hatred there is no difference between the so called civilized societies and the rest.

Since all shops were closed by 8 PM itself, I couldn't even a buy a sim card to inform home about our safe arrival. Whichever country you go, this is always a problem. That too, if you reach in late night it will be a major problem. You can't even do those important things that you are supposed to do as soon as you reach. There was no phone in apartment also. Luckily there was internet. So I could send a few emails. Next day morning I had to go to work. So I had to do all the preparations for that also in the previous night itself. So I unpacked the suitcases, ensured the important things were in place and went to bed.

How is this? The end of the first day itself comes in the third part only. We were there for a month. Then how many more parts???!!! Calculate it yourself! :)


Friday, March 02, 2012

Culture Surprises: London - 2/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!


As it was dark before landing itself we could see how the city looks in lights. It wasn't that amazing in fact. It wasn't even as bright as Singapore. But there is much more to London than its lights. London has its own history, right? This used to be the capital of our rulers at some point in time. It is the capital of English people as well as the English language. It was a different feeling when I thought about it - that everyone around us would speak only in English (as opposed to India where English is reserved as an identity for few - the educated upper and upper middle class). It was around 6.30 PM. We landed. We set our foot with a great feeling that we were setting foot in a great city called London. It was all white people around us as expected. All of them spoke English as expected. But there was no dearth of Indians too inside the airport. I saw a lot of Indians working in the airport in Singapore. Likewise, I could see a lot of them in London as well.

Throughout the journey, I was trying to imagine London. It reached the peak when we landed. It was this place that sent people to control the rebels like my grandfather who were fighting against the British rule. It was this place that acted like the second capital for the Tamils who fled the war-torn Srilanka. It was this place that changed the outlook of my uncle Konangi (a distinguished writer in Tamil) after his visit here 5-6 years back. All the stories told by friends who visited London in recent times ran through my mind. I also thought about how I used to think that UK would be a better place for me than US at this point in time because I could learn to speak 'proper' English here. With all those thoughts running past, we came to the area where immigration formalities were being done.

It was little crowded. The queue was big enough to question the great Indian foreign craze. We Indians don't like queues, right? We find it below our dignity to stand in queues. Some of us tolerate it for once or twice thinking that that will get us rid of queues forever and life will become heaven after that. The queue that we were in led us to an officer who had a Pakistani / Middle East face and name (London has a huge Pakistani and Middle East population). He must be less than 40. He had a sharp nose and good features. I had heard that the immigration in UK is not as stringent as in US and they wouldn't ask as many questions. But this strict officer had a grim face and asked many questions in an interrogating style. I don't know what he thought about us!

I have this habit of ending interactions with a smile in India itself. I gave that trademark smile to him as well and thanked him aloud as they like. But he didn't smile back. It was little pricking in fact. It reminded of the conversation I had with a Spanish colleague who was in India one and a half years back. He was saying that Indians are more pleasant than the Europeans. I was shocked to hear that then. I just told him, "It's only with you guys!". Even now I don't think they are worse than us. It's just that it looks odd when someone doesn't smile in a place where everyone smiles.

The formalities were not over yet. The first time travelers are supposed to submit their medical report and chest x-ray. It's a very specific thing to UK. Looks like they don't want to encourage free medical tourism. That's because it is one of those countries that provides absolute free healthcare to everyone irrespective of whether it's a citizen or outsider. If everyone comes for free treatment what will they do? There is no dearth of people that are fond of free anything in this world, right?! We had taken all necessary certificates. There were three white ladies in the area where this examination was being done. All of them looked to be above 40. Two of them were looking unpleasant about something in life. One of them looked pleasant. Luckily we went to the third one. We finished the work and came out. When were coming out we saw a 'big' Pakistani or Middle Eastern family that was stuck because of inadequate certificates. Luckily they wouldn't be deported back. There is a provision to do the tests there itself for an additional charge if what you bring are not adequate enough. Poor guys! They looked very tired of the travel. I don't know how many more hours they spent there.

My family was tired and out too. Long journey in plane is more painful than that in bus. The economy seats in planes are worse than the semi sleeper seats we have in our private buses. You can manage up to 5-6 hours. Not more than that for average bodies. I was wondering how on earth people come back and show off so much after going through all this harassment. It must be past 7.30 PM when we came out of airport.

"Going to London? Don't worry. You will find a lot of Indians there as soon as you land in the airport. Most of the taxi drivers are our people only. Indians or Pakistanis (even they are our people only, no!). You can speak in Hindi itself!", had told my friends last year itself. Though my Hindi is not good enough, I was praying that an Indian taxi drive came to receive us. It's a great feeling when you get out of an airport where you don't find 20 people surrounding you with "Taxi?", "Taxi?" questions with a kidnapping hurry, you know! An old man came close asking, "Taxi?". He was wearing a tie as well. The Indian inside me was reminding me, 'See, those who come your way and offer are the dangerous ones. Beware!'. I just ignored that inner voice saying 'No, it's not applicable in this country!'. He helped us with the luggage. He had a face that is between African and Tamil. 'Maybe he is a Tamil', followed him with this thought.

It was freezing cold as expected. But after seeing worse colds in the next few days, that became nothing. 12 degree is something that we get in Bangalore itself in the night in winters. What is special about London cold is that the smoke that comes out of your mouth when you blow. If you just look around it would look as though everyone around is smoking. It's not that smoking is less there. Women also smoke a lot there. The rest satisfy their urge to smoke by blowing like this I guess.

The parking place in the airport looked more congested than the ones in our place. He had to go back and forth five times to take out his taxi from the parking place. That kind of gave an indication of the kind of population density in the city. Let's see what the reality is in a while.

Once we all got into the vehicle he asked for the postal code. He tapped the GPS. It said the distance immediately (One surprise was that they also use miles only here like in US. I was expecting them to use Kilometers like in India!). I thought it was nearer when I checked in Google Maps during my pre-travel research. But again I told myself that it wouldn't be possible. After few days of extensive research and validation and I found that it was me who had made a mistake. It looked like he also took a longer route around the city. But maybe because it was in peak hours he would have done so. As the distance was too much, I started engaging him in a conversation. But I understood that he is not a Tamil. I was hesitant to even ask where he was from as I was not sure if even that would be inappropriate. He was fully driven by the GPS. It reminded him about every left and right. It's a wonderful technology. When I went to Singapore itself I wanted to buy a mobile phone with GPS. It hasn't happened yet though. In Singapore, I saw that everyone had it in their phones. But I don't remember seeing it in car. It has come to India also. But the usage hasn't reached the masses yet.

As it was a ring road, most of the journey was smooth with no traffic jams. Like in India and Singapore, here also there are a lot of small cars. I was so excited to see a Vagon-R car as my car back in India is a Vagon-R too. 'So, this place is not completely different from ours!' - I felt a sigh of meaningless relief. If my daughter was awake, she would have shouted, "Dad, Vagon-R!". But she was sleeping in tiredness. The road was good. But it wasn't much different from the ones in India. Maybe those who came here 20-30 years back would have found these roads stunning. But these days there are a lot of such roads in our place also. So it wasn't so stunning. But there was discipline on road as expected. This, I am not sure, if we would have in our place even after 200 years.

Many place names that I saw on the way were sounding like those in our place. There were names like Broadway, Richmond and Red Hill, which we have heard in Chennai and Bangalore. Throughout the four weeks of our stay there, we could hear many such names that reminded the master-slave relationship that we had with them. Names like St. Mary's, St. James, St. Joseph, etc. made us feel at home. I won't be surprised if they said it's the same people who founded these institutions there did it in our place as well. Both were their place only, right!

After the long journey, there was a ray of hope. We could see some houses. The British houses that we have seen in pictures. They look so beautiful. All houses have sloped roofs as we see in the houses of those times (the 'British' times) in India. We have forgotten. But they haven't. Why would they? It's their own style. There is another specialty about British houses. It's the uniformity in design. If there are 50 houses in a row, all 50 of them will look the same. It's so fantastic. Many buildings in London reminded me of Bangalore and the Anglo-Indian localities in Bangalore. Especially I was reminded of M.G. Road too often.

See, as feared, we haven't reached home yet. But the second part is coming to an end. Let's see. We should be reaching home soon.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Journalist - A Blog Novel by Mr. Hariharan Valady (2/3)

Now that all autobiography is over, it's time to get started with the actual review of the novel...

First, as the first thing in the new year, the author posted an introduction explaining why he was missing in action for sometime (I was one of them who was wondering what he was doing so silently after such a striking start!), and what he was planning to do in the next few months (his plan to write his first novel online) and the structure he had in his mind for that (how many words and how many chapters, etc.). He talked about what he was getting into as well. As he said, blog novel is indeed a not-so-tested idea in Indian context. Not many people have tried it in our part of the world though I am not sure about others. Like all other things, writing in India is way different from that in any other part of the world - including the English writing. Today, we have our own version of Indianized English. For that matter, we have Indianized almost everything western. Others can't relate to many of our writings. Likewise, we have a huge subset of English readership that doesn't like reading anything other than Indian stuff in English. That is the reason we have so many English blogger networks specific to India today.

He also revealed the story line briefly and explained why he chose politics and media for his novel. That did remind us of some real life characters in our politics and media, which immediately made us interested in the novel as well. Though the story is that of Tamil Nadu politics, the important characters in the story could be seen in many of our other states as well as our national media. That is the reason he has been able to impress so many readers across the country.

I liked his upfront communication of the structure of his novel. It is the 'corporate way' of doing things. This is what people like us (who are so used to structured way of working) do when we take up anything - even if it is in a creative field like writing. Creativity is killed when you are restricted by structures, they say. But, I think, it is this hybrid approach that is working these days. There is no clear demarcation of arts and science (black or white) these days. It's the marriage of both (grey) that works now. Writing is both. It involves a lot of calculation, which is a science. It involves a lot of psychology, which is again a science though there is a bit of art when it comes to understanding it. So, in my opinion, that introduction was a good start because it communicated his planning. He prepared his readers by telling them how much time they would have to commit. It was required because he was getting into a new area. He has to keep his readers interested throughout - for months - from start to end. He can't afford to bore them. Otherwise, it would result in not just loss of readership but that of his own confidence as a writer as well.

He had to strike a balance between too less and too much. I always get a feedback that my posts are too long. That way, I thought, his sizing was appropriate - not too small nor too big. The dynamics of blogsphere is slightly different from that of the print media. You can't write long posts if you are interested in good readership. Most of your followers are bloggers themselves. They wouldn't like to follow your blog if you expect them to spend too much time on your blog. Most of them are not full-time writers or readers so they have limited time when they hit home and open their boxes every evening. This sizing of 600-700 words per post in my opinion was one of the many best things in this novel. The continued support and appreciation that he is getting till date is a testimony to that.

Within days, he posted the first chapter. Writer Sujatha used to say, the story should start right in the first line. Even Manirathnam's movies start like that right from the first scene. Journalist's story also started in the first paragraph in the first chapter itself. Then followed the background (flashback) stories. The introduction about both Durai and Vidya were good. In fact, the first few paragraphs about Durai were enough for us. We could have written pages about him ourselves with that. We have been seeing him and his father in flesh and blood in real life for so many years, of course, with different names. I am sure this line would have reminded each one of us at least one politician we have been seeing - "A trained politician that Durai was, he suppressed his disappointment in no time and regained his calm."! This is one common trait that most of our populist politicians possess. Agree?

How about this - "The restaurant would not like to lose a chance to please him, even if it meant foregoing the week end crowd."? I am not sure if it was a phenomenon all over the country. I think, it all started off in Tamil Nadu and was picked up by others later. For last few decades, this has been the case in Tamil Nadu. If you can't please the ruling class, you would be nowhere in no time. I think, it is our chief ministers who showed to others how powerful a chief minister could become or how much power could be misused maximum by them. The first statue of a living politician was unveiled in Tamil Nadu. Fortunately, that was the last as well. But, Mayawati is doing the same thing in large numbers in UP today.

The introduction about Vidya and her parents were all perfect. His choice of names was all superb. It was so easy to relate each name to their counterpart in reality. Even the party names were interesting. The way he shortened some names also indicated who he was talking about. For example, when he said, Selvaraj was fondly called Selva by his followers, we easily understood who Selvaraj was. The channel name 'India Times' sounds very close to a real name. I think, the author should have been more careful on this. He is very comfortable with the geography in which the story is set. It's one silly area where writers make mistakes often. He has done a good job on this part. He has even given the maps of places in discussion wherever it would help.  :)

Any actress who comes to Tamil movie industry with high political aspirations could use this novel as a quick reference guide to understand the dynamics of Tamil politics. This is one such line from chapter-2 that gives a good introduction about our politics - "However TN politicians were a different lot compared to the Delhi ones- members of opposing parties do not see eye to eye; participating in TV debates is simply not done."! By the way, wondering why someone with political aspirations should join movie industry first? That is how it works in our place. That is the easiest way to have a lateral entry into our politics. Like joining polytechnic to join engineering as lateral. :)

This paragraph is another gem that explains the state of affairs in the state of Tamil Nadu: 
"Every party in Tamilnadu had its own TV channel which showered undiluted praise on its leaders. When their own channels could reach the people in rural areas in Tamil with positive news about them, why would they want a journalist from a national TV sitting on their neck throughout the day and asking uncomfortable questions? Also most of the leaders were not comfortable with English. So her request to cover their campaign was turned down by virtually all parties and all leaders."

This line spoke volumes about our politics in Tamil Nadu too - "In Tamilnadu politics recent corruption is more unpardonable than old corruption!". Yes. We have always been ruled by corrupt rogues. We have never had a third option. Even if we are provided with a third option, we don't care. We find a reason to ridicule them. At the same time, I also think that it is better than allowing the same fellow to loot forever. We at least punish someone for his/her misdeeds. We make them feel insecure and remind them that they are dispensable, we are superior to them and their fate is in our hands - literally and otherwise. I think it is because of that fear factor we have been getting good administration despite all these. So, with this approach, by now, we should have been completely corruption-free, right? That hasn't been the case. Why? What went wrong in between then? The answer is - we wasted a few decades by shifting our focus to punishing 'arrogance' as well in addition to corruption.

-Cont. in 3/3...

Please click here to get started with the novel...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Culture Surprises: London - 1/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!


It's one and a half years since I wrote about travelling westwards. My desire to travel and the work towards that started a year before that. It's not that I was particular about going to the west only. I was so desperate to travel that I was okay with any place (If you haven't read all my travelogues please don't jump to a quick conclusion and reduce it to just 'foreign craze'. It's a long story and it has many sub-stories around it. This series of blog posts is to talk about all of them.). When I was losing hope in life for not being able to do things that I wanted to do, the Singapore opportunity came. The last series of travelogues was about that. Someone posted the Tamil version of it on a popular Tamil magazine website ( in the 'Good Blogs' section. That remains my most read blog post till date. That also motivated a lot to write travelogues. I think when I wrote about Singapore I would have compared everything there with India. Now that I have seen two countries, needless to say, everything that I write about London will be written by comparing with two countries, both India and Singapore. This is what travels do to people, right? They expand the horizon for us.

When I started to Singapore, I was not sure how many days I was going to stay there or in how many days I would have to pack up to travel back home. I left alone thinking that I could take my family later if my stay became a long term one. But I came back within a fortnight. This travel also had the same confusion and lack of clarity about duration of stay. But I decided to bring my family with me this time. On my own cost. I thought let it be like a family vacation if we had to go back. In case I would have to stay back, they wouldn't have to travel without me. Also, it's not that easy for them to travel without me such a long distance unlike Singapore. No pain of separation as well.

The travel was confirmed after 4 PM. I booked the tickets for family at 8 PM only. The departure was at 10 AM on the next day. As you know, there are many things that we have to buy for an overseas travel. But we couldn't do all that. We just bought what we could buy after 8 PM and started packing up as quickly as possible. We could have bought a few things earlier. But we didn't want to waste money by buying things before getting a confirmation on the travel. We have heard many stories of last minute changes in travels by their companies and clients from many people. So we were not ready to believe anything until it happened. We have to inform at least the closest relatives and friends, right? But that itself was around 20-30 people. We called everyone as quickly as possible and spent the rest of the night packing up. We couldn't even inform the daughter's school properly. We called the next morning from airport and informed.

After a short nap, we woke up in the early morning, got ready in no time and reached the airport on time leaving a lot of time for check-in and security check. It was the first air travel for the family. My wife was not ready to believe anything till the last minute. My daughter didn't believe that we were going to London. More than believing, she didn't like going there. Why? Fear. What fear? That's again a story. I will tell you that later. It's that fear and dislike that she expressed as disbelief. Then there was another fear. That was the fear of flying. Convincing her was another big task in itself. Until we reached London, she kept saying that were traveling to Singapore only and not London and she wanted us also to believe so. We also had no problem listening to her. But we kept telling her, "We are going to London...", "We are going to London...", whenever we got an opportunity and tried to prepare her as much as possible.

It was Emirates Airlines. Once we boarded the flight, after seeing all the beautiful air hostesses she was getting little comfortable. Once they started speaking to her nicely, she became happier. They gave a few toys to the children on board. After collecting them, she was all the more happy. So, one problem is solved finally! We had to change flight in Dubai. The only condition she had there was, "If it is a fat plane I won't come. It should be a slim plane." So the fear of flying is almost gone now. After boarding the flight in Dubai, they gave another toy. Now the fear of flying is completely gone. Now there was only one fear. That was, the fear of London. That, as I said, we shall talk about later.

The travel between Bangalore and Dubai was good. It was a hassle-free travel as it was only 3 to 3.5 hours in total. There are many ways to London from Bangalore. One, landing straight in London. Two, via Dubai. Three, via Delhi. There must be many more as well. Via Dubai must be one of the preferred options for Bangalore to London travelers. It was not very crowded in the flight between Bangalore and Dubai. The travel was mostly over sea only. While nearing Dubai, the landscape was beautiful. I don't think I saw such good scenes when I traveled to Singapore.

All that comes to our mind about deserts is the dry useless land. But they are so beautiful when you see from top. You don't have to fight for a window seat to have a look at these beautiful scenes these days. Every seat has a video screen, which shows the front view, bottom view and back-side view from flight. In fact, one doesn't even have to take a flight to see all these. We can just see all these sitting in our place using Google Maps. You would love it. But I should say that I had some fantastic views, which may not be available in Google Maps. But most of them should be available. Just try. I was wondering if there was so much beauty in this world, which I hadn't seen till then. If someone like me who is so bad in appreciating nature and beauty was so excited looking at them, I am sure it will be much more beautiful for people like you.

When we changed over in Dubai, I tried to look at one important thing, that is, how many Malayali brothers I could see there. Maybe they were all in the city, not necessarily in airport. Still I could see some of them. But not as much as I thought I would. They were roaming around as casually as they would in Trivandrum or Cochin, with the same trademark coconut oil-applied Mammooty-Mohanlal mustaches!

I have always wanted to experience the Dubai weather (rather, the Middle East weather). But I couldn't do that as we were inside the airport itself. My belief is that whether it is cold or hot if there are people living there already I should also be able to do that. So, it's okay. I can experience it some other time. I still think that it may not be so different from the weather that I grew up with.

My understanding is that those who live in cold weather get fair and those in hot weather dark. Going by that logic, the whites being white, the Africans being black and we Indians being brown make sense. But how is it that the people in Middle East are fairer than us? I know, it's not a sensitive thing to talk about colors of people but please look at it purely from an anthropology perspective. This is my biggest question of the century.

The mankind has always had a problem with other cultures. Anything foreign is scary to us. It's a global phenomenon and not specific to any particular community. I realize that I am not an exception too. I spent all of my childhood in a Muslim neighborhood. But we never had any difference with them. The way we ate, dressed, looked and everything was the same. None of them was like how they are stereotyped these days. I should admit here that when I was walking around in Dubai airport and looked at few faces I did feel that fear. A particular face with a particular type of beard scares me. Please don't get me wrong. You should understand this right - I never felt this fear when I was with Abdul Rahman uncle or my friend Syed in my street. Likewise, there is a different kind of fear while speaking to the whites, which we don't feel while speaking to the Arabs. It's the colonial inferiority in this case. At the end of the day, it's the result of many unknowns. I can't be blamed completely. I could have avoided talking about this. But I didn't want to hide an experience that I had. Everyone talks about freedom of expression these days and the same everyone then goes the extra miles to teach a lesson to those who practice it. That's the reason I had to explain myself so much! So please don't use this opportunity to cause any damage to the world peace.

The travel from Dubai to London was nice too. The same kind of beautiful air hostesses. Needless to say, my daughter liked them as well (Did I too?!). They gave another toy and exchanged smiles and pleasantries with her every time they passed by. So while getting down she went after everyone of them to say, "Bye!!!". Like the travel from Bangalore to Dubai was mostly over sea and little bit over land, this one from Dubai to London was the other way around. It was mostly over land and little bit over sea. The journey over land was unbelievably beautiful. This is the travel that changed my opinion about deserts. This is the travel that taught me that the deserts are beautiful too. What is earth's beauty? It is the ups and downs. The hills and valleys. Has anyone ever told that the plains are beautiful? The sand dunes and mountains are so beautiful. I haven't seen much of earth's beauty in my life yet. The scenes that I saw in this travel will surely be the best or one of the best in my life. I am sure those who have traveled on this route will agree with me. Otherwise maybe there is something wrong with my taste. In case you have traveled on this route many times but haven't seen this yet, please don't miss it next time when you travel on this route.

It was mostly the Dubai faces on board so we didn't feel out of place. They are closer to London than we are so I told myself maybe London has a lot of Middle Eastern people as well. There were only a few whites. The sunlight and plane were travelling almost in the same speed. Finally the nature won. When we landed in London it was dark. Are you wondering, "OMG, landing itself is happening now only?"? Unfortunately, that's my style of writing. Don't worry. In the next part, we will enter the city. Or, let me not be so optimistic - Let's try our best to enter the city at least in the next part! :)



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