Friday, June 26, 2009

Random Thoughts in the Rains

You know when it's the monsoon when you go to Marine Drive and the water comes rushing out of the sea and drenches you completely. Or, you walk into your office building and suddenly find that carpets are laid out in the elevator. Or just when you are about to walk into a building, you find hordes of people without umbrellas waiting at the reception for the rains to subside, and in the meantime, cast envious glances at the few sensible who walk past them armed with umbrellas. Or you walk into a coffee shop and find a bucket lying there with umbrellas in them.

So after a lot of dilly-dallying, after teasing us with is-it-going-to-rain or is-it-not-going-to-rain-instead-only-drizzle sort of showers the past three to four days to a week, the rains have finally arrived in Mumbai. I woke up in the morning amidst the soulful sounds of rustling trees swaying in the crisp morning rainy breeze and raindrops pouring on them and coming down vigorously in the hillock outside my window. And thankfully, it poured cats and dogs. That also meant I had to take out my umbrella on my way to work, probably get wet a lot by the time I reach office since, you know, umbrellas don't really work in Mumbai rains (you get wet pretty much anyways). It was also nice to see students back at Wilson College at Chowpatty; it ain't a pretty picture when it's deserted during holidays; I always prefer schools and colleges buzzing with activity. I, somehow, feel that that is a very pretty sight. It reminds me of my school and college days where we were so carefree and with little or no responsibilities, attending lectures in the morning and making plans for, possibly, every evening of our college lives. Now, I don't even remember the last time I went to a cinema to watch a movie....

Coming back to rains, it subsided here and there during the day-time, but for practically the better half of the day, it poured. But come rain or shine, Mumbai never stops. Buses were crowded, even more so because it was raining, people for short distances prefer to take the bus instead of walking and getting wet. But I always wish I could get off the bus whilst going to office, even momentarily, cross over to the other side of the road on Marine Drive and just sit on the parapets and let the sea water splash itself against me. This is a joy that you can have only in Mumbai. It's a privilege. Nature is at its lushest in Mumbai during monsoons.

But the biggest irony is that people still complain. People complain when it's too hot and doesn't rain. Then, when it rains, people complain because they say they get wet. When it's hot, people complain and say they wait for the winter. Then, when winter comes, people complain, say its too cold and wait for the summer.


I have hopes from our new minister of human resource development, Mr Kabil Sibal. Unlike his predecessor who made a mess of our education system by his populist measures of cast-based reservation, Mr Sibal looks like someone who is determined to bring about a change. Some of his measures look very radical and unheard of, like abolishing the Std X exams. But if I am correct, he wants to make it optional; abolish Std X exams for those who will graduate from the same school after Std XII. I think the proposal needs to be studied carefully and its pros and cons need to be looked into, but its definitely an out-of-the-box suggestion and we can surely study it.

The other thing that he needs to look into is standardising education boards and curriculum across the country. The presence of multiple Boards like SSC, ICSE, CBSE, etc do not much serve any purpose, I feel. They should be merged into one and text books across the country should be standardised. For one, this nonsense of a 90:10 quota system, presently proposed in the state of Maharashtra, would end and all students, irrespective of whichever education board they come from, stand an equal chance of getting into a college of their choice, and secondly, it will make the choice and lives of parents easier when it comes to selecting a particular board to send their children to.

Adequate provision in the curriculum must be given to local languages, even make them compulsory except perhaps for those students who move from one to state to another at a very later level, but there should be one education board and one curriculum, irrespective of whether you are in a school in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or even Guwahati.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Is A Foreign Degree That Important?

In its continuing, more than a week-long, coverage from across Australia reporting on the horrific attacks on Indian students and the implications, Venkatesan Vembu of DNA newspaper, makes a valid point. Cheap labour often gets attracted to foreign destinations in the name of mundane courses by throwing a bait of permanent accommodation, later. I am not saying that because of these unfortunate, but extremely sick, incidents in the land of the Kangaroo (whose kick should hit back at the perpetrators, nice and hard), we should abort our plans to go abroad for further studies or settling down, completely.

Racial discrimination happens everywhere. They happen even in India and goes by the name of communal discrimination. Sure, we shouldn't buckle under pressure and abort our plans totally about going abroad for further studies or a job. But one thing is clear. It's time we reassess our priorities. Do we really need to go abroad for studies or are we just attracted, as usual, by something phoren? An education degree that is absolutely not available in India and one that is worth spending all the money, time and effort to go all the way across seven seas is acceptable. But I see many students going abroad to get a foreign MBA degree despite India having some of the best,most reputed, MBA colleges (B-schools) of the world. Give me an IIM or a Jamnalal Bajaj or an S.P.Jain anyday. I see students going abroad for undergraduate studies when clearly India has some of the best undergraduate colleges too.

More than the need to go and study abroad for genuine reasons, I think it's more a craze to go abroad and/or perhaps settle there in the future and even get a foreign degree that's attracting many students. We Indians have always been fascinated by foreign things when clearly there's no dearth of class institutions within this country. As one of the trustees of a trust fund that helps the needy for medical and educational needs and as one who, therefore, gets a lot of application for funds to pay the fees for foreign education, my neighbour rightly terms foreign education as an expensive vacation!

Maybe he's quite right. Someone I know sent his daughter to the US last year amidst global recession because- believe it or not- izzat ka sawal tha. Most of his brother's children had been abroad to study, so his daughter too had to go. Then, September 2008 happened. It's a hand-to-mouth existence with this family now and the daughter still has one more year to go. And going abroad to study hair-care and interior designing? I am no education expert here and I don't mean to begrudge any vocation, but I see this as an expensive vacation and nothing more. So is catering. Yes, Switzerland may be the global leader here, but so what? Some of our catering colleges here are great too.

Wake up and smell the coffee!!! It isn't as green as it looks on the other side. And shame on Australia for calling itself a progressive and developed economy. The law & order seems to be in a mess, out there. Right mate?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Blessed by Buddha

A trip to Lantau was on today's agenda. Ravi and I met at Hong Kong underground station to catch the MTR to Tung Chung (last station on the HK - Tung Chung line). HK's public transport system is as good as it can get. Or atleast, as good as I can imagine. Starting right from their airport- that is nothing short of being world-class-to its public transport like buses, taxis, boats, ferry and underground railway, it's very convinient to get to practically anywhere in the country using its public transport. Not only do they have every conceivable mode of public transport, they are also well-developed and well-maintained. But they also care for the environment I am told; like the place where venky lives, he tells me there are no vehicles allowed in that area. Something like our very own Matheran where vehicles are banned. Also, like in London, there are a few stations here in HK as well where there are layers of railroads under the ground. Further, since HK and Central stations are so close and since, between the two stations, you get a choice of four different lines and the Airport Express, both these underground stations as well as the Airport Express station are interconnected, underground. You don't have to come up the ground and then go under again if you want to interchange between these lines. This is what I call, infrastructure. It's an engineering feat, nonetheless.

After alighting at Tung Chung station, we took the cable-car ride to Lantau island, taking in panoramic views of the Tung Chung township, HK's international airport and a lot of natural beauty surrounding them. I don't remember the last time i sat in a Cable car but the ride was awesome. The views, especially as you are nearing Lantau village and can see the magnificent Buddha statue, are marvellous. The Buddha statue is quite omnipresent; you can see it from almost anywhere from the Lantau village. One of the things to do on this island, apart from shopping for beautiful Chinese and Tibetan artifacts, is to have a vegetarian mean at the PoLing monastery. Notice large incense sticks and pots on the monastery's complex. The Wisdom Park, a short 15-min walk from the monastery, is also a must-do.

Lantau island over, Ravi and I parted ways and I headed back to HK mainland, in search of the Zoroastrian Hong Kong association building that
also houses an Agiary or Dadgeh. God works in mysterious ways I have always felt; despite being a Sunday and all offices of the association closed, I almost missed running into our dasturji Jimmy Sidhwa. But there he was, and he readily obliged me by opening the doors of the Dadgeh for me. Wow!

Later that evening, I met Venky who took us out- yet again, the guy is a gem- to the Foreign Correspondent's Club for drinks and dinner. Don't get mistaken by the name, I was told, for you don't need to be a correspondent nor a foreigner to be this club's member. Rough estimates say that only about 20 per cent of this Club's member are correspondents; rest belong to corporates. But yes, this club was primarily meant for journalists, reporters and correspondents. It's a very upscale, very English club with two large giant screen TVs (we were to watch Roger Federer create history later in the evening on one of those screens, by winning his first French Open final and thereby winning a career Grand Slam; what a moment that was!!!) and a few other flat screen TVs; sports channels always playing on them, a large bar with a very large variety of drinks on offer and a number of bar tenders to offer quick and very efficient service. I had Bailey's Irish Cream, my favourite alcoholic drink that, contrary to the common way of drinking it after food, I prefer to have before food.

The Club has a correspondent workstation chamber, complete with all equipments for them to file their stories. There are also few Internet browsing work stations for guests, members and visitors on the main floor. Apart from the main restaurant and bar, there is also- what they call it- a Silent Room. It's like a closed-door restaurant, but the television in there is always on mute. Only BBC channel runs in here and if you want to listen to it, you've got to use the headphones. One of this Silent Rooms' and the Club's most famous members is Ms Claire Hollingworth, the lady who I am told was the first journalist who broke the story of World War II. All that, simply, as she was returning home late in the night in Poland and saw German tanks lined up. She reported the story next day that the World War II was about to break. And to top it all, those were her first days in journalism and she was in her very early 20s. I am told she is well into her late 90s now and comes with here with a helper. Every day, at around 4 pm,the corner table, the table next to the place where I had dinner, is reserved for her. I am not much of an autograph-seeking person, but I would have loved to get her autograph; that would have been some honour.

So after a delicious dinner- and surprisingly Foriegn Correspondent's Club excels at Indian cuisine and I had a wonderful lamb roghan ghost with rice and paratha- it was time to say bye-bye to Venky and hope to meet up again sometime soon...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ocean's Park, Venky, Shopping, etc

Conferences over, today was the first of the two full days that I was going to spend in Hong Kong. And I wasn't in the mood to waste it on shopping. It's not like I do not like shopping; I love it. I am bit selfish here actually; whenever mom and I go out for shopping, I usually shop first for myself and am all so interested in snooping around, painstakingly checking out varieties till I find the right match. But once done- and when it's my mom's turn to buy stuff for herself- I somehow suddenly loose interest! But anyways, when I have just about one or two or very handful days and I get this chance to be at a touristy place, I hate spending time in shopping. Moreover, I feel I have done shopping to my heart's content when I went to US last year. Plus, with the way Rachna was shopping around in HK, I wonder whether she left anything for others to buy. Besides, I was forewarned by several people back home; when shopping in HK, be careful of rip-offs. So my philosophy was quite simple; no cheap goods, shop only from genuine shops and pay a little extra if I have to, but better be safe than sorry.

And Hong Kong isn't cheap, by any standards. I mean, come to think, my hosts joked with visitors and thanked us to "helping the HK economy" by spending there. After checking out items in the pricey IFC (International Finance Centre) Mall, I felt like it was me who needed help and not the HK economy!!! Every conceivable top brand had an outlet there with prices reaching the top floor of the IFC- HK's tallest building! Oh, and another thing. Ask the average HK working executive where you'll find good chocolates. "Buy Godiva", s/he will promptly say, with eyes closed, as a matter of factly. As if I asked a silly question, as if Godiva chocolates are those that you can have everyday. Dude, Godiva to chocolates is what I'd say Armani is to clothes!!!!! But to tell you honestly; anyone who recommends Godiva chocolates is a class by himself / herself. They are really premium chocolates (I love Patchi too) and a piece of heaven; they're one of the best chocolates I've ever had. So did I buy Godiva, then? Yes, but in limited quantity.

Anyways, bits of shopping here and there will keep happening oveer the cou
rse of the trip; for now I went to Ocean's Park. It's an amusement park-cum-conservation centre for Ocean creatures. I took an MTR (Mass Transit Railway) or the Metro from Central to Admiralty, then took a bus from there to Ocean's Park. Ocean's Park is huge, did not check out the roller-coasters; they're boring if you're alone though I'd have loved to check out one of the two, checked out the various ocean's creatures like Sea Lions, Jelly Fish, Goldfish, etc. Also the beautiful birds' Aviary housing rare species as also the Red Panda and the Giant Panda in seperate enclosures. Later in the day when I met Venky, he tells me that there is a 24-hr channel in Hong Kong that only tracks the movements of the Giant Pandas that are living in this Ocean's park. Amazing or crazy? I don't know, you tell me.

The best part of Ocean's Park though is the cable car ride that takes you from one end of the park to another, offering spectacular views of the island and the park en route. The park has several restaurants and off
er great food. It helps if you know how to use chopsticks; for those of us who don't use chopsticks, plastic forks and spoons are quite inadequate to cut the chicken and devour it. One of the things that I now want to learn is to use chopsticks. I feel it's a task eating your food by chopsticks, but I feel there is a certain charm in it. It's graceful and elegant and sort of looks like your fingers are doing a little dance with the food.

After a terribly hot day, I joined Venky, his wife, Ravi (who seemed to be on his own trip- but very content if I may add- right from day one) for a western classic
al show. Now this was a first for me. Bombay has a classical music culture, but I have never bothered to going for one; most of them are held at the NCPA centre and tickets are costly, or so I believe. Anyways, the HK Philharmonic concert, as it turned out, was my first western classical music concert.

The concert was at the City Hall, at Central. Much to my surprise, the audience was quite casually dressed. I saw people wearing floaters, tee-shirts, three-fourth (short pants) or whatever it is that they are called and all such casual wardrobe. In Bombay if you attend a western classical concert dressed in such loose casuals, you'd be frowned upon. And kids and little children; I saw a lot of them too at the concert.

But once the concert started, there was pin-drop silence. All the casualness got swept aside as the audience listened to the orchestra dole out one stunnin
g performance after another. I am not much of a classical music man; give me Madonna or Coldplay anyday and though I am terrible at remembering lyrics, I can still mouth a few of their lyrics at remarkable ease. Yes I have heard of Mozart, but western classical compositions, even the names of instruments, the wind instruments or the other type what's-it-called; I can't tell the difference. But I am a fan of music. Any soulful music. I judge music not by its language, but whether or not I can connect with it. I have to feel music in my heart. Music has to either make me want to dance or make me want to sing alongwith it or transport to another world, even if temporarily. And I think that's where this concert, ably led by conductor Edo de Waart, scored in my books. One composition after another, I felt like I was transported to Salzburg mountains running alongside the Von Trapp family or watching the Gladiator take on man-eaters and cannibals inside the massive coliseums of Greece or to riding on a broom around Hogwarts Castle taking in the scenic beauty of nature or even inside the mind of John Nash as he gets closer to solving the magnificent puzzle that were to turn a new chapter in the study of Economics...

The concert also had a special appearance by Lin Jiang who is only 22 years old and is one of the most sought-after French horn soloists. The guy is mighty talented. After his performance, the conductor escorted him off-stage, came again to a rousing applause, took a bow, went inside again, then came back took a bow, then went inside.....
he kept doing going in & out several times after a few of his compositions. I found that most amusing. I am told that is protocol. What I would really like to know is, why.

We rounded up the day with a lovely Indian dinner at a Indian/Pan-Asian cuisine restaurant at the Lan Kwoi Fang area, HK's pub district that gets very loud in the night and is most famous for its expat clientele. Pubs are so full in this area that people almost spill over on the streets. But great lunch and thanks to Venky and his lovely wife. May God bless their tribe.

Symphony of Lights

Day Three was the last day of the conferences. Most of the speakers were quite good and it was nice to know what they thought of the global economy, especially India and China. But the organisation of the presentations were cleverly done so as to accommodate many speakers with clearly defined areas on which they'll comment. As if more proof was required on hosts' organisational skills, we were treated to yet another sumptuous, but an extremely appetizing lunch of Dim-Sums. Hong Kong, I am told, is famous for Dim-sums as that is a Cantonese delicacy and the place to have the best Cantonese food is HK. The venue was a very upper crust 'The Banker's Club' at the Landmark Building. As we took in the nice view of the Harbour, we savoured multiple varieties of dim-sums, carefully prepared to suit our taste palettes. Never knew dim-sums could taste that good and they just kept coming.

Once the conference got over in the evening, we were pretty much on our own. The group dispersed, but Rachna and I stuck to our plan to catch the boat (Hong Kong's Star Ferry) across the harbour to Tsim Sha Sui, to watch the Symphony of Lights show. Although buildings on both the Hong Kong island and Kowloon / Tsim Sha Sui participate in this sound & light extravaganza, it's best to watch it from either Kowloon or Tsim Sha Sui side, towards the island city. The show starts at eight sharp and goes on for about 15 to 20 minutes. This is a must-watch in Hong-Kong, as the entire island city comes alive with multiple skyscrapers come alive in this spectacular laser lights show. Words are not enough to describe it, so enjoy the videos.

The Peak

Day two was mostly work and attending day-long conferences. In the evening, it was time to go to The Peak; a scenic place right on top of the Hong Kong main island, for a sumptuous dinner and beautiful night-time views of HK city and the harbour. The dinner was so elaborate that I felt that I was going to eat my whole share of the full week's food in about two hours or so. Even the vegetarians had a lot to eat; one would think if this is the food available for vegetarians in a place like HK, why should they complain? But then again, if you're willing to spend money, you can get anything. But that also spoke a lot about the host's elaborate arrangements and the attention to detail that they paid to. Ultimately, if one is vegetarian in countries of the far-east and the East, it's a bit of a tragedy.

The views from The Peak are absolutely spectacular. The pains of carrying a tripod all the way on my shoulders finally paid off when I could click pictures I never thought I could. HK, it seems, just comes magnificently alive in the night, especially between 7.30 PM and 10.30 PM- the pre- and post- hours of the marvellous Symphony of Lights show. It seems like the entire city is a big disco club with lights on buildings on the main island coming on and going out, moving up and down, with their colours changing.....We went up to the peak by bus but came down by the Peak Tram. The Peak Tram is the best and the fastest way to go up to the Peak and then come down.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Happy Valley Racecourse

Flying Jet Airways is always a pleasant experience, be it within the country or abroad. I said it last year when I flew to US and I will say it again...over a period of time, Jet Airways will emerge as a world-class competition. Though I feel they have some more precious miles to go. Overall their service was nice, food was great as always but they could still build up on that and as I were to observe during the course of the next five-odd hours, they have certain areas to work upon.

I landed in Hong Kong on a wet Wednesday morning at the beautiful Hong Kong International airport. Immigration was a breeze, but we could see that the Swine flu has scared the shit of everyone there with almost everyone wearing a mask over their mouths and noses. And I thought only the Americans were paranoid!!! But no, I can understand why they won't like any chances. Infact it's a good thing. This is one of the many things that differentiates proactive nations like Hong Kong and US to the rest of the world; they just don't take unnecessary chances. Anyways, taking the airport express train, we were quickly zipping past Hong Kong's scenic suburbs and within 20 minutes covering a distance of 35 kms, disappeared underground and through the harbour, into Hong Kong's Central area. You can tell you are in a developed country when after landing into what seems like a city within a city of an airport, you take a superfast bullet train to get transported into the mainland within minutes.

We checked into the LKF hotel. After about an hour or so of bath and freshening up, we decided to start our HK exploration. So a quick but very elaborate lunch at Jimmy's kitchen was followed by a trip to the Stanley Market. Taxis are expensive in HK and it took us HK$105 to reach the place. Stanley Market residential area is one of the poshest places to live in HK and homes are vert costly here. The area is scenic and has the ocean for a view on one side and green mountains and water bodies on the other side. We took a quick stroll through the market, very Chinese with items like clothes, bags, toys, home furnishings on sale in a long and narrow row of small to very small shops. It's a great place if you want to buy gift items to give away to your loved ones once you return back home or souvenirs or even house-hold items like, say, bed-sheets, table-cloths, etc.

The official activities kick-started in the evening with a visit to the Happy Valley Race Cource; Hong Kong Horse Racing Jockey club followed by a dinner there. Now, just so that you know, this is an elite club and they have a very strict dress code. We were forewarned about it, so we knew just exactly what to wear and what not to wear. Denims and round tees are a strict no-no. Smart casuals or formals are allowed. I am told that if one does not follow the dress code, one will not be allowed to enter the club. I was dying to see how the person at the entrance would observe us to check our dress-code sounds comical as I think of it. Anyways,nobody was in a mood to experiment; its always better to be safe than sorry.

Once in, the festivities started. Drinks were served and the Indian group mixed with the Taiwanese group, at the same time engaging in talk with our lovely hosts. Few guys also indulged in betting; the rock star won a few dollars, so did a few others, rest lost. Dinner was elaborate and it was an evening well-spent, though at the end of the day, we were all very, very tired. The hosts were very gracious and as it would turn out over the next two or three days, we could all learn from them how arrangements are to be made and what it takes to become a magnificent host than being just a good host.

Meher Mahino, Ava Mahino and Adar Mahino: The holy trinity of Zoroastrian calender

Zoroastrians- or better knows as Parsis and Iranis of India- have a separate calendar. We look at the English calendar of course, but we al...