Friday, May 24, 2013

Armchair Travel

Ralph Waldo Emerson said -
Traveling is a fool's paradise... I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there besides me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.”
I have recently been wondering why we travel for pleasure. Do we want to travel to escape from something (work, drudgery, boredom, monotony, etc)? If this were true, why do we start comparing everything during the trip with what we have at home? Why do we start looking for the same restaurants or things that we are familiar with at home? Why has traveling been always associated with romanticism? Is it just another 'grass is greener on the other side' phenomenon? Or is there really an innate desire to explore new places, the joy to lose oneself in newer locations, reenergise the mind and body, etc?

"Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe." -Anatole France
Wandering, it must be clarified, is different from travel. Wandering on a 6-month long trip to Northern India without a solid travel plan was my dream trip when I was in India. I never got around to it. My father traveled alone for over a month to Northern and Eastern India during his college holidays in the late 60s. Just a return ticket from Delhi was all he had. So could go essentially anywhere, stay anywhere, not make plans for the next day, extend stay at Konark, skip Agra or anything he chose to. He went to some of the usual sightseeing places, some of the other local places that interested him then, hitched a ride to the next town, took a bus or a train or just walk if you felt like it! Those were also the days when you could find cheap and safe dharmachatras, youth hostels, etc. True places and retreats are meant to be explored on one's own. As Herman Melville rightly said,

It is not down in any map; true places never are.
But everyone who has traveled comes back with several gripes. Something did not go according to plan, or the trains weren't on time or the view at the end was not what was promised in the travel brochure or the way National Geographic showed it! We try to escape from work or the mundane sufferings that we put up with in our daily lives but encounter the exact same problems in the travel. You fall sick, or the food doesn't agree with you or the shower nozzle at the hotel is not to your liking or you start craving for home made food two days into your vacation. The same places that everyone goes to during long weekends, not finding parking, high airfares, etc all work in tandem to spoil the fun. The best place to go to unwind may be the park right behind your house or the hike on a nearby beach, but discovering something that suits you is difficult. So a typical travelogue usually includes several complaints, annoyances, fights and dissatisfaction leading to the conclusion - was the travel worth it in the first place? What puts off traveling? I am stymied by the most mundane activities that it entails—choosing dates, buying maps, checking air or rail fares, and packing a suitcase. These things lead to tensions, frustrations, etc. According to me, traveling should not have a fixed plan; instead it should instead be a journey into the unknown.

Perhaps, the only thing that can beat travel is  Armchair Travel!

Art for art's sake

There is a fantastic article in the NYTimes today by a professor from Notre Dame. Here is an excerpt:

I’ve concluded that the goal of most college courses should not be knowledge but engaging in certain intellectual exercises.   For the last few years I’ve had the privilege of teaching a seminar to first-year Honors students in which we read a wide range of wonderful texts, from Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov.  We have lively discussions that require a thorough knowledge of the text, and the students write excellent papers that give close readings of particular passages.  But the half-life of their detailed knowledge is probably far less than a year.  The goal of the course is simply that they have had close encounters with some great writing.  

What’s the value of such encounters?  They make students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name.  They may not enjoy every book we read, but they enjoy some of them and learn that—and how—this sort of thing (Greek philosophy, modernist literature) can be enjoyable.  They may never again exploit the possibility, but it remains part of their lives, something that may start to bud again when they see a review of a new translation of Homer or a biography of T. S. Eliot, or when “Tartuffe” or “The Seagull” in playing at a local theater.  

College education is a proliferation of such possibilities: the beauty of mathematical discovery, the thrill of scientific understanding, the fascination of historical narrative, the mystery of theological speculation. We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls. 

Ah...if only education was this way!

Article worth a read. 

Friday, April 27, 2012


I guess the debate never ends since each of us think we are frugal while everyone else is stingy. I am no exception and I think I am frugal. And I think everyone else is either stingy or a spendthrift. But so does everyone else! So how do we distinguish the two? Can we even define the two terms?

Classical Indian philosophy has always expounded simplicity in lifestyle. There are aphorisms and sayings in most Indian languages that say 'Economize', 'Do not overspend', 'Lead a frugal life', etc. In fact, thinking about this for a long time, I think each person's definition of frugality is different. I feel compelled to mention Thoreau and his life at Walden Pond here, but that deserves its own article. Going further, we can probably define the whole spectrum as follows:

Austerity --> Necessity --> Frugality --> Spend-thrifty

And it is austerity and necessity that our scriptures tell us to follow. Man should consider that he is only inhabiting the earth for a short duration and not be an unnecessary burden on Mother Nature. A lavish lifestyle is only possible from pillaging and ravaging the natural resources.

Austerity is definitely tough to follow. The dictionary defines it as "Having no comforts or luxuries; harsh or ascetic". This is surely a penance and cannot be expected of everyone.

Necessity is probably a more relaxed form of austerity. This allows you to lead a very simple lifestyle; however only basic needs are met and man should not be greedy to 'want' more than what his basic needs are. In fact, anyone practicing this kind of lifestyle can attain a higher goal, happiness and fulfillment in life.

Frugality is the term that is hazy to define. Frugality is defined as "practicing economy; living without waste; thrifty, Practicing or marked by economy, as in the expenditure of money or the use of material resources" by the dictionary. Now interpreting this is the problem. Everyone claims that they are judiciously spending their resources (money), but later get into debts and other problems! Or they might get into an endless loop of trying to make more money to satiate ever-increasing 'wants' which can eventually become 'needs'. So in my definition, a frugal person is one who 'judiciously' spends money on what he thinks is important. Note the italicized word. This is what makes it hard to interpret. One man's priority is not the same as another's. One may wish to spend all his money on travel and lead a basic lifestyle to save for it while another may consider a lavish house as more worth-his-money than an occasional trip. The truth is that each person's frugality is defined by his own interests. However, we must be careful not to get influenced by others' spending habits and lose sight of our own. Even among friends, I think one should never confuse one's wants with others' needs.

The new social network culture has probably contributed more to this habit without even people realizing it themselves. On Facebook, when people see others' photos of costly trips, buying expensive trinkets, clothes, houses, etc they inadvertently fall a prey by 'wanting' all those. Most people fail to realize that those people who spent on a new car may have saved up on everything else, those who traveled extensively may have given up on cable, eating out, etc (just a trivial example!) and so on and so forth. Indulging in all such unnecessary wants can leave you wanting! But it is altogether a different matter that these days, most people don't give up anything to enjoy a particular luxury! Good jobs, a care-free attitude and an irresponsible streak has provided all comforts and luxuries.

On the other hand, what may appear as 'cheapness' to others may actually be frugality since outsiders can never see the other perspective. Also, it is impossible to justify one's priorities to everyone for its own sake. A frugal/simple lifestyle is an innate belief in a way or life. In fact, a simple lifestyle can even be called the 'Hindu Way of Life' since this is what our Dharmas say. A simpler life automatically leads to a more refined lifestyle, purity of thought, more time for other pursuits that can bring joy and happiness in a way that material comforts just cannot.

If frugality were established in the state, if our expenses were laid out rather in the necessaries than the superfluities of life, there might be fewer wants, and even fewer pleasures, but infinitely more happiness.
Oliver Goldsmith (1728 - 1774)

Simplicity is divine beauty indeed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Your invited to reed this artical

From my younger days, I vividly remember my father and my late grandfather scanning over the newspaper and circling articles with typographical errors, spelling mistakes and grammatical as well. It had become a sort of a religious exercise to discover mistakes in the daily edition. However, it must be said that it was quite a challenge in those days since there were proof readers and copy editors to catch most of the mistakes before they went out in print. I remember being challenged by them to find out the mistake in a given article. I would find one and stop at that. They would help me to discover a half dozen more.

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However, nothing compared to finding mistakes in wedding invitations. Forget the abstruse grammatical mistakes, I can clearly remember mistakes ranging from simple spelling mistakes to glaring errors such as addressing the parents as "Mr and Mr" or printing the wrong day of the wedding (with the right date of course!). What used to strike me was that people who would spend lakhs of rupees and 3-6 months on a wedding could not spend 10 minutes to proof read what was going to be read by hundreds of well wishers, not to mention sending out erroneous information. But the same people who enjoyed being pointed out errors in newspapers became angry when mistakes were pointed out on their wedding cards. Was it anger, displeasure, shame or just ill tempered when cornered with their mistake? So I had to be extra careful to be secretive with these invitation cards and not show them to others for the fear of being labeled overly critical and querulous! But we sure did have some rather funny moments at home with these cards.

Fast forward 15 years. Today, with all the latest technology such as online dictionaries, thesauruses, word correction algorithms embedded into email and word, people are making more grammatical and other mistakes than ever. And what is ridiculous is that now they just hide behind the excuse "pardon the typo", typo being short for typographical error. But a typographical error according to Wikipedia is
"...a mistake made in, originally, the manual type-setting (typography) of printed material, or more recently, the typing process. The term includes errors due to mechanical failure or slips of the hand or finger,but usually excludes errors of ignorance, such as spelling errors"!
I really cannot imagine how the online authors and computer users are able to commit a 'typographical error'!

Websites and news articles nowadays hardly have any editorial process in place. Writers do not even read the paragraph once it is typed, before posting it online for mass circulation. But if you really want to have fun, visit any online newspaper and read through the online-only articles. They provide more fun that the stupid news that they report.

[Note: Any 'typographical errors' in this piece are intentional. Please do not point them out to me!

Also, this piece was inspired by reading this article by Joseph Epstein]

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


ವನಸುಮ - ಡಿ. ವಿ. ಜಿ

ವನಸುಮದೊಳೆನ್ನ ಜೀವನವು
ಮನವನನುಗೊಳಿಸು ಗುರುವೇ, ಹೇ ದೇವ ||

ಕಾನನದಿ ಮಲ್ಲಿಗೆಯು,
ಮೌನದಿಂ ಬಿರಿದು ನಿಜ-
ಸೌರಭವ ಸೂಸಿ ನಲವಿಂ
ತಾನ್ ಎಲೆಯ ಪಿಂತಿರ್ದು
ದೀನತೆಯ ತೋರಿ ಅಭಿಮಾನವನು ತೊರೆದು
ಕೃತಕೃತ್ಯತೆಯ ಪಡೆವಂತೆ
ಮನವನನುಗೊಳಿಸು ಗುರುವೇ, ಹೇ ದೇವ ||

ಉಪಕಾರಿ ನಾನು ಎನ್-
ಉಪಕೃತಿಯು ಜಗಕೆಂಬ
ವಿಪರೀತ ಮತಿಯನುಳಿದು
ಸುಫಲ ಸುಮಭರಿತ ಪಾದಪದಂತೆ
ನೈಜಮಾದೊಲ್ಪಿನಿಂ ಬಾಲ್ವವೊಲು
ಮನವನನುಗೊಳಿಸು ಗುರುವೇ, ಹೇ ದೇವ ||

Monday, March 07, 2011


I happened to read an interesting article in last Sunday's issue of the Los Angeles Times. It was by Pico Iyer on libraries titled 'Sanctuary amid the Stacks'. I am a huge fan of the US public library system and frequent the local libraries borrowing books as if there is no tomorrow. The Orange County Public Library system has 33 branches and allows you to borrow books from any of its branches for free. Even the Auburn Public Library had a really good collection I think I used to the fullest extent possible. Other public libraries I have frequented include the City Central Library (South End Circle, Bangalore) and the Indian Institute of World Culture in Bangalore. In the LATimes article, the author laments the demise of several public libraries here in America. He says:

Saving money by reducing library services is like trying to save a bleeding man by taking out his heart.
But if the library disappears, then we're really in trouble. A library is much more than a collection of books; it is a sanctuary, a symbol and both a model for community and its encouragement. Even those who make their living by nonverbal means know, as Keith Richards once declared, that "when you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is the great equalizer."

A library is not just a place where many have lost themselves (as it's hard to do in the increasing clamor of a bookstore); it's where countless souls — and surely a good percentage of students — slowly find themselves.

The only alternative to a public library is the personal library, a sanctuary to which you can retreat to on any day, irrespective of the time of day and not worry about a laptop or kindle to read the book wherever you want to. It has been my dream to build a personal library of books that can last a generation, books that you can read again and again and still learn something new every time you read them, books that can educate you, guide you and enlighten you.

Reading this article compounded the grief of my recent loss of over a hundred of my invaluable books, a loss which, according to me, can be equated to possibly very few other sorrows. I lost my entire collection of Kannada books that were shipped here. Aside from the monetary value, there were books that were close to my heart; among others a few Vedic/Upanishadic texts, works by Bhyrappa, Kuvempu and over a dozen works by DVG, a Sandhyavandane book given by a very very close relative during my upanayanam, an anthology of Kannada poems autographed by the author over 40 years ago! Moreover, I had spent several trips to India to get those books to the US hiding them between clothes to prevent my parents from looking at them, lest they force me to exchange them for saarina puDi (ಸಾರಿನ ಪುಡಿ), huLi puDi (ಹುಳಿ ಪುಡಿ), eatables, etc. Also, I lost 3 boxes of technical/miscellaneous books purchased in second hand bookstores, library sales, etc over a period of 5 years.

Life makes you start over again and again when you think you are getting somewhere.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Baksheesh (aka The Tip)

I have never been able to understand why you compulsorily need to tip waiters in a restaurant in America. Tipping is somewhat like 'baksheesh'. It is what you leave behind as a mark of appreciating good service. So if the service isn't good, then it makes complete sense to not tip the waiter.

This New Yorker article on tipping is explains that the waiters are paid much less than minimum wages for their job. Hence they have to make up for their time through tips. This is the most absurd thing I have ever heard and a really stupid system! There are obviously all sorts of diners and some of them will definitely NOT tip well. And the waiter cannot get a guarantee from the customer upfront that he/she is going to get a generous tip. So why should the waiter take good care of the customer? The New Yorker puts it succinctly.

People tip even though they don’t have to. Since they tip after they’ve been served, they’re not buying good treatment in advance. Nor are they just buttering up their regular waitresses—studies show that people tip about as well at out-of-town restaurants as they do at their local Bennigan’s. Americans are paying money that they do not have to pay, then, while receiving no obvious benefit as a result.
And being disgruntled, he can take it out on the other customers and lose out on some tips. This will bring a bad name to the restaurant even if it serves good food!

Another recent article in the New York Times has created a lot of angst among the readers (see the comments section). This author asks the right question regarding what happens if tipping proliferates into other professions.
Imagine if everyone did that. As you file out of the airplane, there’s the pilot, standing with his palm outstretched like a doorman who just let you into the hotel: “Hope you enjoyed your flight. Ahem, bit of a rough landing there, ahem. Not too easy to pull off, you know. Oh, why thank you, sir. You shouldn’t have.”
The system 'recommends' a 15% tip for plain service and 20% if it is excellent! Are they kidding?!? In fact, some restaurants help 'Math-challenged' customers by calculating and suggesting the 15% and 20%, not to mention the compulsory 18-20% service fee if you are group of over 6! Now is it my fault that the restaurant owner does not care to pay the waiters the minimum wage, or the government taxes the waiters based on some set income rather than their actual income (which supposedly forces them to ask for tips)?

Suddenly we have waiters writing blogs and books on 'tipping etiquette', giving interviews on television, radio and in newspapers and magazines as to what is an acceptable tip and what is blasphemous (some of them do not accept the concept of a 0% tip for bad service!). Also, the proliferation of 'tipping jars' at coffee shops, buffet places, food pick-up counters is ridiculous! Tipping for an excellent service received is understandable, but just because the system has brainwashed us into doing so is just plain stupid.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chaai.. chaai...

Tea (or Chai as it is known in India) is probably the most popular drink in the world. I always remember tea as a beverage that was meant to be drunk only during the evening hours (tea time as it is known at home). Somehow, tea was never prepared during other times, unless a guest preferred tea to coffee. Its preparation however was something weird (as I understood it later).

The process of making tea at home involved making 'tea decoction' - as if it was something like coffee! Boil water, then add tea powder (never used tea leaves at home, only tea dust), boil for some more time. Then filter it and add milk, sugar and serve. This is the way it has always prepared at home.

I always loved the tea-shop teas, which were thick by constant boiling of tea with milk. The thick tea with the masalas (cardamom and ginger) gave the liquid a whole new dimension making it more exotic and preferred.

However, it turns out that there is a lot of debate regarding the issue of making tea. This has been beautifully chronicled by George Orwell in the Evening Standard titled 'A Nice Cup of Tea' as early as 1946. In this, Orwell lists the method of making a perfect cup of tea, with specific do's and don'ts. The British, who popularised the custom of drinking tea in the West made it fashionable and an exercise of the upper class. Moreover, the subtleties of making tea, the drinking and the serving made it all the more exclusive during the Raj. Some of this has started again in India with increasing affluences and people seeking for something new to do. Tea sipping, tea tasting expeditions and tea-tourism are on the rise. There seems to be a market for Darjeeling teas that fetch $500/lb at auctions and a new breed of tea-tasters and experts similar to wine tasters.

However, there is nothing to beat the experiences of having a hot cup of chai with pakodas sitting on the veranda and reading the newspaper on a lazy Sunday; or standing under the tin sheet of a tea shop, drinking piping hot tea and eating buns.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What exactly is Indian Cinema?

Recently, I happened to attend a Japanese movie screening by the Asian Film Studies (Dept of Foreign Languages and Literature) called Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows). The movie was fantastic, with a very sensitive portrayal of children and how they fend for themselves when their single parent flees with her boyfriend. This movie will make Taare Zameen Par look like an amateur effort both in the acting categories and predictable story lines. This post is not about that movie but what happened after the screening.

The Professor in charge of the series was interested in screening an Indian movie every month. The themes are Romance, Musical and Comedy for February, March and April respectively. The problem is that all Indian movies think that they are musicals and romances rolled into one! Also, the subtitling and captioning is so terrible that they seem to be an afterthought rather than having been thought out carefully by the scriptwriter. Also, the nuances in dialogues and expressions, customs and traditions are invariable lost in translation.

Also, do the Shah Rukh - Aamir Khan films such as Rab Ne, Om Shanti Om, KKHH, and Dil Chahta Hai portray the real India? Or is it then starkly realistic films such as Ray's trilogy? Or Deepa Mehta's movies which we Indians consider a blemish on our culture?

I am not saying that there exist no such movies but I will leave you to think about movies adhering to these themes that you would like shown to an international audience without making fools of ourselves. I dread to think what can be shown for a war movie? Border? Gadar? Lakshya? Huh... Is that all we can manage after continuous fighting for 60 years?

(P.S: After a lot of brainstorming, my roommate and I chose Dor, Parineeta and Munnabhai MBBS for the 3 slots. Dor for its richness in portrayal of India and the nice storyline, Parineeta for the portrayal of Indian customs and color associated in the film, and Munnabhai for its comedy, though I have a feeling that the subtitles will not send anyone to fits of laughter. What movies would you have chosen?)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

To HGW XX/7, with gratitude

Only seldom do we see a movie where we 'ooh' and 'aah' at the end and walk out of the movie hall pleased. And only once in a blue moon come those movies which leaves you mesmerized; no words can express the feeling you experience - exhilaration? happiness? bliss? I don't know!

The last time a movie's climactic scene left me in such a state was probably 'The Prestige' and the last such book was 'Vamshavrikhsa'. Yesterday, it was the outstanding movie 'The Lives of Others' (German:Das Leben der Anderen, starring Ulrich Mühe and Martina Gedeck) that left me failing for words.

The setting is in the Cold War days of totalitarian East Germany (GDR). The scene begins in 1984 (I thought this was a fantastic tribute to George Orwell's novel 1984!). Without revealing too much about the nitty gritty details, the plot revolves around the surveillence in GDR, how no one, not even the elite and trusted were spared. The Stasi (secret police) captain in charge of the covert surveillence of the pro-party writer Georg Dreyman (codenamed Lazlo) is Gerd Wiesler(played by the brilliant Ulrich Mühe). A pivotal role is played by Dreyman's girlfriend Crista-Maria Sieland (codenamed CMS played by Martina Gedeck of 'Mostly Martha' fame).

The loyal Stasi officer, in the course of the surveilance, experiences a complete change in his belief in the state. He understands that there is a devious motive behind the spying rather than 'state security' as announced. He becomes disillusioned in his nature of work, the The change in his character is one of the best parts of the movie.

I thought the movie was ending with the death of a principal character. No. It continues. Then I thought it was going to end at the Fall of the Berlin Wall. An ending here would have made it a great movie. But it is what continues after this that elevates this movie to a new level. The last few minutes of the movie are fascinating and truly marvelous! This is what is a truly rewarding movie watching experience according to me.

There are innumerable other small things that make this movie what it is. The surveillance equipment is all genuine - from collectors who have preserved it as it was. Ulrich Mühe himself was a subject of spying in the GDR. He recounts that he found out only later about his friends and colleagues who were spying on him. In fact, my belief that great movies can still win the Oscar has been revived since this movie won it in 2006 in the Foreign Film category. We can stop sending entries from India if they have to compete at this level!

Oh...and the title of this post is one of the most beautiful things about this movie. To understand its significance, watch the movie. I just can't praise it enough.