Patriotism: Poles Apart

Ever since a handful of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students shouted anti-India slogans at a campus rally in Delhi, a lot of airtime and pixel space have been devoted to covering all sides of the patriotism debate. In the last forty-eight hours, what changed the dynamic for me was the news from the other side of the planet that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demanded Apple, Inc. to unlock the phone of a terrorist and – lo and behold – Apple refused to unlock it. Here is a company as American as apple pie – patriotic enough to manufacture millions of phones in China every year but etch ‘Designed in California’ on each one of them – refusing to play ball with the FBI in a case of terrorism on American soil. Can you imagine the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) demanding that Micromax unlock Afzal Guru’s phone and Micromax refusing it? If the unfolding events in Delhi are any indication, there would probably be no Micromax by tomorrow. The civilized way in which the patriotism debate is playing out in the United States is a jarring contrast to the immaturity on display from all sides in India. There are many facets to the debate, but there seem to be three important L’s defining it: Liberty, Law-enforcement and Leadership.

At the highest level, this is a question of liberty. The American declaration of independence famously proclaims that liberty is one of the unalienable rights of all human beings and – more importantly – governments are created to protect it. The constitution that is based on this core principle is one of the shortest constitutions in the world and enumerates all aspects of life the government cannot and should not interfere with. The Indian constitution, on the other hand, has the dubious distinction of being the longest constitution of the world and painstakingly lists all the powers vested in the government. Don’t get me wrong. Babasaheb Ambedkar is my hero; more so than Mahatma Gandhi or Pandit Nehru. At the time of gaining independence, his astute legal mind realized that India was an extremely diverse country divided along caste, creed and linguistic lines for centuries. Without the fear of a heavy-handed government, our society might not have had any incentive to reform. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of the constitutionally vested powers in the government, combined with decades of socialist policies, have ensured that most of us grow up with a stunted view of liberty. Instead of doubting the government’s intentions and abilities, we implicitly consider government an unalienable part of our lives. Mai-baap Sarkar! Apple is a free enterprise and places its contract with its customers above its patriotic duty toward the government. JNU is a centrally subsidized institute and the government feels compelled to decide what is patriotic and what is not.

A few notches below liberty is the issue of law enforcement. Barring an occasional O.J. Simpson kind of case, which exposes the loopholes in the system, American police forces, investigative agencies and the judicial system form a well-oiled machine of delivering timely justice. Even the toughest terrorism and mass shooting related cases usually reach their conclusion within two-to-five years of filing charge sheets. On the other hand, the entire law enforcement machinery in India is stuck in a vicious cycle. While they consider Sarkar to be Mai-baap, Indian citizens don’t trust the government enough to pay taxes. Majority of those taxes get siphoned off by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Very little money is left for providing adequate resources and freedom to our police force, investigative agencies or the judiciary. All these branches of government are chronically understaffed (some of the lowest ratios in the world) and none of them have any incentive to defy the almighty government and show its independence. Just like politics hates a vacuum, society hates a vacuum when it comes to law enforcement. When evidence can be tampered with, witnesses can be made to disappear, cops and judges can be bought, and the system takes at least a decade to punish the wrongdoer, what is the harm in taking the law in your own hands, especially when the Mai-baap Sarkar is on your side? To add to that, when the judiciary moves at glacial speed, well-funded media assume the role of judge, jury and executioner. What is the harm? Over there in the United States, Apple may be defying FBI’s order and writing an open letter to its customers defending its stance, but the local representative of Cupertino is well aware of the fact that taking law in his or her own hands will be dealt with swiftly and sternly. Even the American media, mostly polarized, seem to understand the moral hazard in FBI’s demand and is conducting the debate maturely.

The final piece of the puzzle is leadership. On the economic front, Prime Minister Modi has shown some leadership and, after the initial hubris, seems to be willing to work with the opposition to get the economy moving again. But almost every time he has had an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership qualities, he has been missing in action. It is easy to argue that he has too many issues on his plate and cannot be expected to weigh in on every religious skirmish or caste-based crime in the country. Nobody is expecting that from him. However, his astute political mind and amazing oratorical skills seem to betray him every time an issue enters public consciousness and becomes a national conversation about the fundamentals of cultural, social or ideological liberty. Perhaps he has taken the ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ catchphrase to heart and believes that as long as he keeps his head down and delivers on his promises of jobs and prosperity, people will forgive him for his acts of omission and commission. On the other side of the world, President Obama does not comment on each incident of homicide or political dissent, either. But he rarely misses an opportunity to comment on the raging national debate of the day; be it a mass shooting and gun control, a seminal Supreme Court verdict on gay rights, or the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. Such statesmanship becomes all the more important in a country with a muddled understanding of the concept of liberty and a law enforcement vacuum being exploited by overzealous media.

I am not an unabashed admirer of the United States. As they say, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms.’ The American system has its own flaws. A country with more guns than people, a rigged financial system that nearly took the entire world down, a racial divide that is still glaringly big, a foreign policy that preaches one thing and practices another; the list is endless. But the question for us is: Instead of pointing fingers at the Americans, are we willing to notice a few good aspects of the world’s first republic and implement them in the world’s largest republic? As the American presidents keep exhorting at the end of every State of the Union speech, are we willing to move toward a more perfect union?

Categories: Current affairs, India, JNU, Patriotism, Politics, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

When Marriages are Made in Heaven…and Heaven is Called Koramangala!

X: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Guy: I’m just a regular guy with an engineering degree. A decade ago, kids my age used to take their GREs and go to America. These days, everyone around me is moving to Koramangala and starting his own company. I thought I’d try my hand at copying some idea from America and Indianizing it. All of a sudden, my friends started getting married. Maybe it’s the right time for me to get married.

X: Tell me about your team. After all, we invest in the team.

Guy: Me, my degree that gives me the illusion that I can solve any problem, my raging hormones that make me believe that I can sell anything to anyone and the two I’s in my institute’s name that are enough to fool any investor in the world.

X: What if your illusion turns out to be delusional?

Guy: As long as I am painting rosy pictures to the investors and getting them to pay my salary, it’s a nice illusion. It will be a delusion only when the money runs out and we have nothing to show for it. Till then, just enjoying the ride.

X: So, tell me about your product.

Guy: It’s just the fourth question! I wasn’t expecting you to go there so soon. Well, I have a nice package. Once you test-ride it, you would wanna ride it some more!

X: How about market segmentation and product market fitment?

Guy: Till now, I was not too serious about relationships. I used to walk into bars and focus exclusively on the wild and single ones, married but looking ones or those who are divorced and are going through a mid-life crisis. Product market fitment was quite good because I rarely had any complaints. I can give you a few references, if you want. Markets have changed now and my offerings have also changed. So, I am focusing more on ‘homely,’ ‘wheatish complexion,’ ‘nuclear family,’ ‘cooking,’ ‘classical singing or dancing,’ ‘knitting and painting,’ ‘conservative values but liberal outlook’ kind of market. You know, the market where sometimes you see some subtle hints of caste and subcaste. Sometimes it’s all blatant and out in the open. I am looking for the ‘conservative values but liberal outlook,’ though. So, I prefer the subtle hints market.

X: And what about your product differentiation?

Guy: On the personal front, check out my history of clients. It speaks for itself. Plus, I can always give you some references who will gloat about all the different features of my product. Other than that, on the professional front, unwarranted swagger, ignorance about international trends, total lack of awareness about what it takes to build a large company, no vision or patience; the usual entrepreneurial stuff.

X: Tell me a little bit about your KPIs.

Guy: KPIs in marriage? They’ve been the same for ages! Destination wedding, FB photos, honeymoon at some exotic location, FB photos, new home and car, FB photos, kid # 1, FB photos, kid # 2, less FB photos, get stuck in a rut and start cheating, still lovey-dovey FB photos, kids’ graduation, FB photos, their marriages, their kids, hoping that they will keep the endless loop going and then, one fine day, say goodbye to everything. Even your FB photos that nobody cares about.

X: How about traction?

Guy: Solid traction in the married but looking and divorced and going through mid-life crisis markets. Traction in the wild and single market is a bit lower because, at the back of its mind, the market is still worried about mundane things like the ‘future.’ Traction was off the charts when I visited Bangkok a few months ago. A little less when I was in my previous IT job and had to do a few deployment trips to the West. I have heard a lot about the Uzbekistan market lately, but haven’t tested the waters there.

X: And growth plans?

Guy: I’m in the marriage market now. I foresee raging hormones disappearing and boredom setting in. Growth will stunt significantly in the near term, but once I join the married but looking market, I expect growth to pick up again. It’s cyclical. You have to study the ups and downs in the market and cash in when it is your time. Else, you just become a perpetual whiner.

X: Do you have any exit strategy in mind?

Guy: It depends. If there are no kids in the picture, the divorced market is open for you. The growth trends are quite robust in the market. Kids can complicate things a bit. Growth is slightly slower in that market, but the married but looking market is also decent.

X: It’s too early for me to invest. I need to see more traction. Keep me posted and let’s catch up again when you have more traction.

Guy: So, you have just borrowed the Western vocabulary. Not the mentality, right?  You are not intellectually capable enough to have any sensible conversation.

Moral of the story:  A lot (of nonsense) can happen over a coffee!

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Traffic: Indian Death-trap or American Libertarian Utopia?

There are a million differences between India and the United States; people, culture, laws, history, religion. The list can go on and on. But when you return to India after a decade or so in America, one thing you can’t escape from and have to deal with daily is the chaotic traffic. Depending on how you look at it, this phenomenon is either an incredible feat of human imagination or an utterly avoidable, yet worsening death spiral that is taking more and more lives every day. While I personally believe it’s the latter, there are times when, as a bystander, I wonder whether it can serve as Exhibit A for American libertarian philosophy.

Before we get into the specifics, a crash course on libertarianism as a political philosophy is in order. The popularity Ron Paul enjoyed in the last few election cycles has reminded Americans of this school of thought that I believe was pioneered by Austrians a century or two ago. But in India, forget about followers of libertarianism, finding people who are even aware of it is as difficult as find a unicorn. The philosophy is based on a deeply held belief that when it comes to the things governments can or cannot do, personal liberty and freedom trump all other considerations. Almost! The exceptions generally made are national security, law & order and certain infrastructure projects that ease the movement of people and goods around the country.

For starters, this concept is alien and even counter-intuitive for a vast majority of Indians of today. Other than a handful of big, well-established business houses and the new wave of entrepreneurs who have to constantly fight the archaic web of Indian bureaucracy, most Indians are brainwashed to think that ‘mai-baap sarkaar’ or, as right-wing Americans would call it, cradle-to-grave government, has an important role to play in everyone’s life and the society’s wellbeing. This has led to an interesting paradox that is modern-day India: A country of a billion+ people that has the fastest growing economy in the world and one of the worst rankings in ease of doing business (140 something out of 180-odd countries).

One can get into the historic reasons behind this implicit faith in government as a force for good. And in the long and illustrious history of India, there are many. There is Kautilya’s (Chanakya) ‘Arthashastra’ from ancient India, which advocated the setting up of a sprawling surveillance state to track and control every aspect of human life. And then, there is the post-independence socialist system set up primarily by Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. After more than 150 years of British rule that left India indigent, illiterate, dying of hunger and hopelessly dependent on foreign imports, one can debate whether the bureaucratic cobwebs left behind by the British and the closed economy have done more harm than good. But the bottom line is that Indians are conditioned to look at the government as the enabler, or snatcher, of practically everything! If the government handles just national security and infrastructure, how can we justify the huge bureaucracy and their fat salaries? They need some work!

And yet, it is one of the biggest ironies that Indian traffic has developed as American libertarian utopia. It starts with getting licenses. In spite of recent attempts at reforming the driver’s license granting system, I can safely say that virtually nobody takes any tests or knows anything about driving rules and regulations. Through a vast network of ‘agents,’ Indians can get driver’s licenses by showing up only when a digital photo needs to be taken. The tests can be ‘managed.’

This leads to certain harmless, amusing spectacles like using the right indicator to let other drivers overtake you. Nobody uses the indicator for its intended purpose, anyway. If you’ve paid for them, might as well invent a new use for those blinkers. On Indian highways, a truck driver turning his right indicator on to ‘indicate’ that you can overtake him is quite common. But the lack of any rules also leads to ‘jungle-raaj’ (jungle rule) in lane observance. At any signal, the largest vehicle is standing in the rightmost lane. Smaller SUVs or sedans are next to them. Rickshaws come after that. And two-wheelers are like gap-fillers. They can fit in wherever there is space.  Plus, there is also an unwritten rule that the leftover space on the extreme left is a two-wheeler lane, which magically forms as soon as the signal turns red.  That’s the pecking order. In India, when deciding which lane you belong to, every driver implicitly agrees that size does matter.

There is also some weird competition to get to the front of the line at every signal, as if those precious 2-3 seconds saved are going to dramatically change your life. Indians may not have the time to ponder where the country is headed and whether obeying rules can help change that direction, but every Indian driver is dying to see what’s going on at the intersection and whether he or she can bump the red light!

To control pollution, Indian authorities have installed countdown clocks at some signals to tell drivers how long it is going to take before the light turns green. Instead of turning off the engine to reduce pollution, Indians have invented a new interpretation of the clock: How long before you can start encroaching on and effectively blocking the intersection. As soon as the countdown to the last 10 seconds starts, Indians think that it’s their moral obligation to start inching toward the middle of the intersection. If your ‘foreign-returned’ self wants to wait till the light turns green, they don’t hesitate to blow the horn and give you the ‘what’s-wrong-with-you?’ look when passing you by.

In cities like Bangalore with perpetually clogged arteries, drivers have taken this behavior to a higher plane. At certain intersections in the city center, to ensure smooth movement of traffic, cops suspend the automatic switching systems and manually control lights during rush hour. In such cases, when traffic from one side has to stop for longer than usual, Indian drivers suddenly get a fit of moral outrage. Even when they can see why they are not being allowed to go, after a few minutes, the horns start blaring in unison, telling the traffic cop that they have waited long enough. If the cop doesn’t budge, they take the law in their own hands, conclude that it’s their turn and hence have a right to proceed. The best part of this moral outrage is that it is felt only when you are the victim. It melts away into the ether, or smog, when the driver is breaking the law.

I am sure the helplessness of the traffic cops in such situations has something to do with the extremely low traffic cops-to-drivers ratio in India. But their lethargy knows no bounds and on several occasions, they can be seen encouraging unlawful behavior. To add to that, it is an everyday sight to see vehicles of government agencies openly flouting the traffic rules. The very people entrusted with law enforcement and performing government duties – traffic police, cops, public transport drivers, bureaucrats, politicians – roam around as if the laws don’t apply to them.

With this state of affairs, you can imagine the plight of pedestrians. It is an open secret in India that pedestrians have no rights. And since they are lowest in the food-chain and cops don’t have the time to help them, they take the law in their own hands. Literally! It is a perfectly normal sight in India to see pedestrians trying to cross streets waving their own hands telling the traffic to stop. Whether the driver will yield depends, naturally, on the speed at which he or she is driving. And while the hapless pedestrians can never find a big-enough and clean-enough footpath to walk on, bikers can occasionally use the footpath – or whatever is left of it – with no compunction; once again, just to get a good view of the intersection. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it hasn’t killed any Indians yet who are curious about the goings-on at the intersection.

Come festival season, which is upon us, things get worse. There are huge processions of Gods being carted around town or gurus sitting in high chairs (like the Pope roaming around in Pope-Mobile) being paraded with pride. Since the traffic cops don’t have the time for these events, procession organizers turn into cops. They have the God-given or Godman-given and hence, unchallenged, authority to stop all the traffic at any intersection to ensure smooth passage of the procession. It goes without saying that in secular India, this right is extended to all processions and public displays of all faiths, blocking traffic throughout the year.

Some of the cities have now made helmets mandatory for two-wheeler riders. It is common to see helmets dangling by some hooks or resting on the footrests, only to be whipped out and put in the place they belong – the heads – as the rider approaches an intersection. More importantly, this has also led to the development of some exquisite, non-verbal communication at intersections. Helmets may have robbed us of yelling and cursing at each other, but hasn’t broken our will to break the law. When two two-wheelers approach an unmanned intersection at night, they don’t even need hand gestures. Head-and-neck gestures are enough to decide who goes first. When the intersection is packed and a two-wheeler wants to go in the wrong direction, a combination of head and hand gestures is enough to request others to let you go. If you are trying to ignore the rider at fault, the gestures are followed by a pat on your shoulder, a honk, a bike-to-bike nudge or some combination thereof. Things can get ugly after that. So, ignore the law-breaker at your own peril!

Honking is another integral part of Indian driving that probably deserves its own post. To give you an example, people in the West may be worried about early warning systems for natural disasters like tsunamis and volcanoes. The Indian driver is still preoccupied with using the horn as an early warning system to announce his or her arrival at the intersection. Even if it is 3am with no other vehicle on the horizon, an Indian driver has to honk when approaching an intersection. It goes on and on and on!

Long story short, in a country where no drivers learn any rules and the law enforcement officials are low in numbers and focused on collecting bribes, the system has invented its own rules. It is an accidental libertarian utopia for which mostly pedestrians and bikers – lowest in the food-chain – are paying the price by getting killed by the thousands every year. Nonetheless, in this stream-of-consciousness country and humanity called India, the streams of traffic keep growing exponentially every year with no change in sight.

Categories: Adventure, Driving, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The final promo of Riding on a Sunbeam is out!

Here is the final promo. Enjoy! Share it NOW and let’s make it go viral!

Take the plunge, and swim upstream…
Let your body burn, and let your heart scream…
Embrace your foolish dream…

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We are almost there! Let’s cross the finish line together!

A year ago, 80 of you believed in our dream. With your support, we have finished 80% of the film. This is the final push and it’s an all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign. We have to raise 5 lakh rupees (~$7000) in 45 days to complete the documentary. Please donate (now!) and share. Join us as we go Riding on a Sunbeam!

Here is the crowdfunding link:

I am Riding on a Sunbeam

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We are almost there! Let’s cross the finish line together!

A year ago, 80 of you believed in our dream. With your support, we have finished 80% of the film. This is the final push and it’s an all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign. We have to raise 5 lakh rupees (~$7000) in 45 days to complete the documentary. Please donate (now!) and share. Join us as we go Riding on a Sunbeam!

Here is the crowdfunding link:

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Beyond Ridiculous: Palestinian, Indian, Portuguese, Spainsh

The Mumbai – Abu Dhabi flight was quite uneventful. As usual, it was delayed. When I am traveling, something has to get delayed. The young Indian girl sitting next to me didn’t seem interested in small talk and I was a bit sleepy as well. But the Abu Dhabi – Sao Paulo flight is turning out to be awesome. As soon as I take my seat, the guy next to me asks me ‘Hind?’ From his accent, I can tell that he is from somewhere in the Middle East. Who else in the world calls Indians ‘Hind’ anymore?

But what ensues is a comedy of errors at first and an exhilarating experience as time goes by. This guy barely speaks English. When I say ‘Yes’ to Hind, I ask him where he is from. He says ‘Filistine.’ Alright! That is interesting. How often do you sit next to a Palestinian guy in a flight? And we are gonna be together for 15 hours. But wait, what about the language barrier? He solves it for me in no time. Without even asking for it, he tells me that he is flying to Sao Paulo and then going to Santa Catarina…in Portuguese! As soon as he says ‘Agora, Sao Paulo.’ I feel a little better. I can talk to this guy in Spanish.

Having spent three-four months in Latin America now, I can fake a lot of things. And Spanish is one of them. So, I immediately ask him ‘Por que?’ When an Arabic guy who speaks broken Portuguese is talking to an Indian guy who speaks broken Spanish, it has to be beyond ridiculous, but a lot of fun as well. He points to his ring finger, and says something like ‘Aana…Santa Catarina.’ My interpretation of that is that his fiancée or wife is a Brazilian girl named Aana and he is going there to visit her. Even before saying anything in return, I am jealous of this guy having a Brazilian fiancée! And then, he volunteers some more information. By writing numbers with his hand on the seat-back screen, he tells me that Abu Dhabi to Sao Paulo is 15 hours (‘horas’ in Portuguese and Spanish) and Santa Catarina is 1:30 hours from Sao Paulo. With a flying action by his hand, he also tells me that because of FIFA, ‘no possible.’ So, with a hand gesture of driving a car, he says it would be six hours instead of one and a half hours to go from Sao Paulo to Santa Catarina.
It is a good segway for me to tell him that I am going to Brazil for FIFA. He immediately launches into ‘Sao Paulo, Curitiba, Salvador…’ I get his drift. I tell him ‘Solo Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte y Rio.’ Silence!

I have rarely met Palestinian travelers and I am now curious to know whether he is half Brazilian or something like that. But how do I ask that complicated question? I try to ask him whether he is going to Brazil for the first time. ‘Primera ves a Brazil?’ I try to use my basic Spanish, hoping that it would sound something similar in Portuguese and he would get it. But it falls flat. I even use my index finger to ask whether it is his first time. But he says ‘No’ and draws 15 again on the screen to indicate that it is going to take 15 hours. Hmmm…so I change my tack and ask him ‘Antes…visitaste Brazil?’ I discover that ‘Antes’ (or before) translates well from Spanish to Portuguese. He immediately gets it and says ‘No, no. Brazil…’ and makes the same gesture I made, indicating that it is his first time. It is followed by laughter from both sides. If someone sitting behind us is listening, he is probably wondering what is so funny about it. But we are just enjoying the fact that we can communicate to each other in a bizarre, twisted way!

However, his answer deepens the mystery. If he has never been to Brazil, he perhaps has no Brazilian roots. Is his mom or dad Brazilian and moved to Palestine? Are they activist types? Those questions are way too complicated. But when I ask him where in Palestine he is from, he says ‘Ramallah.’ I guess he understands ‘where.’ He keeps dropping the word ‘Aana’ all the time, which makes me think that he really loves this Brazilian girl. Once again, he volunteers more information about himself. He starts describing what he does. He does the car gesture again and I ask him ‘Mechanic?’ He says ‘No.’ He makes a headphone gesture for sound, makes some more gestures that indicate speakers on the roof and on the window of the flight. He also mentions other electronic systems in the car. I get it. He handles car electronics. Good going. So, I ask him ‘Brazil visa?’ ‘Ahhhh…..’ he says immediately and pulls out his passport. He flips to the page on which he has the Brazilian visa and makes me read the lines that say that the Brazilian girl is his wife (‘esposa’ on his visa) and that is how he got the visa. It is so much easier to pull out passports to describe things.

I want to tell him that I have been to his part of the world. So, I pull out my passport and flip to the pages that have stamps for Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. I also mention to him that I have been to Burj al Barajna, one of the earliest Palestinian refugee camps in the heart of Beirut that was set up in 1948. He responds with a long ‘Ahhhhh,’ but still points to the Israeli stamp and asks ‘Why?’ I tell him ‘Old Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa.’ He understands it right away.

But by pulling out my passport, I have dug myself a grave. He points to the main page of the passport and asks me again ‘Hind?’ He is wondering why I have a US passport if I am from India. Holy cow! How am I going to explain that to him? Luckily, he gives me a start. He asks me ‘Baba Amriki? Mother Amriki?’ Negative, but it’s good to know that he understands Baba and mama. In fact, it is strange that the Marathi language has borrowed the word ‘baba’ directly from Arabic! But let us not dwell on that. I try hard to explain to him that I was born in the US, but my parents are Indian. I fail…miserably. So, I pull out my cellphone, start drafting an email and write down that in 1979, baba and mama were in the US. And blah blah blah. He gets it right away.

And then, he asks me what I do. Can it get any worse? Getting the term ‘neuroscience’ across when both are speaking their third – or fourth – languages is like your worst nightmare coming true. I have now drifted so far away from neuroscience that I should probably choose a profession that is simpler to explain. But neuroscience is still the first thing that comes to my mind when someone asks me what I do.

With a series of hand gestures pointing to my head, I once again fail spectacularly to convey that I study the brain. Then I use the word ‘doctor’ and he gets it. I immediately tell him that it is one level lower. He asks ‘nurse?’ and I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. How the hell do I explain research? I say x-ray, MRI machine and he asks ‘Macina?’ I just nod. I do something related to brain machines. That is good enough. Then he starts telling me how his brother, who is 34 years of age, has had a head injury and is not doing well. I ask him how old he is and he says he is only 23. With a big gap between my hands, I ask him 34? 23? Grande! (Big gap). He gets it right away. He says that his dad has two wives and he has six brothers. In Islam, he tells me, they are allowed to have four. To pull his leg, I ask him ‘So, what about you? Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela?’ And he laughs out loud. He starts with ‘Aana’ again, points to his ring and says ‘Mi amore. Wahid (or one in Arabic).’

I do the customary one to ten in Arabic that I learned while traveling and that makes him happy. He then points to the passport and says ‘US passport…good’ and tells me that with the Palestinian passport, he is only allowed to enter Jordania or Jordan. He also says that he is going to Brazil now to get a Brazilian passport. With that passport, he is free to go anywhere in the world! USA, France, Switzerland, Hindustan.

He tries to explain how he met the Brazilian girl. If I understand it right, she visited Palestine a few years ago through an NGO. They then kept in touch through email for 5 years. She then came back to marry him and, in a way, gave him his ticket to freedom!

I want to know a lot more about him, but I am also exhausted and need to catch up on sleep. Trying to have a conversation in your fourth language is a ‘brain drain.’ As I close my eyes, it makes me wonder: This guy is on a one-way, 15 hour journey to Brazil and won’t be back until he gets his Brazilian citizenship. I am on this long flight just to go see how countries I have nothing to do with play football, a game I am not particularly good at. Two journeys that are beyond ridiculous lead to a twisted, humorous conversation that is beyond ridiculous. But we manage to talk. We manage to satisfy that innate human urge to communicate. To exchange information!

Toward the end of our conversation, I realize that ‘Aana’ cannot be his wife’s name. He has been using it for things totally unrelated to her. It means something like ‘me’ or ‘mine’ in Arabic. That means that for most of the time that I was talking to him, I was making some assumptions about his wife that were also beyond ridiculous!

To top it all, I am writing this article sitting right next to him, confident that he cannot read a word of what I am writing. This, my friends, is life on the road!

For the football fans, here is another article on

Categories: Brazil, English, Language, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

What if Cricket Married Football?

Commentators are as much a part of the sport as the players and coaches. In the pre-television era, they used to paint the whole picture for the listener. With the advent of live TV and endless slow motion replays, their task is not as daunting anymore. Still, they are the ones that build the excitement before the match, analyze plays, break down strategies and spoon feed them to us viewers. Die-hard fans of sports might feel like they do not need the commentators to understand the game, but imagine how boring a football match would be if the only thing you could hear is the screaming crowd or the annoying vuvuzelas.

When it comes to football commentary, nobody even comes close to the Latin Americans. Certain emotions have no language barrier. There are times when I switch to Spanish commentary just to feel the passion of the commentators. When their home team is on a counter attack, it is fun sometimes to close your eyes and just listen to the commentator’s pitch rising progressively to hit a crescendo of a ‘Gooooooooooool.’ It sounds as if the person screaming at the top of his lungs has found a pot of gold.

Since football is not as popular in India as some of the other sports, Indian broadcasters have a hard time attracting the best and the brightest of football commentators. For the 2014 World Cup, they started with a handful of disastrous ‘experts’ before settling for some former players and analysts who know a thing or two about football. They seem to be doing a reasonable job of analyzing the goals, offensive moves, defensive blunders and, overall, helping spectators understand the intricacies of the game. They may not have their distinctive style or the experience to make the match come alive. That is probably why the broadcaster is sticking to the European commentators during the action. However, Sunil Chhetri and Co. are doing a respectable job at half-time and after the match.

Imagine how football would be with our legendary cricket analysts sitting in the commentary box or Café Rio! Our cricket crazy nation has the ability to make or break a commentator’s career. We were so enamoued by Geoff Boycott’s accent and schoolteacher’s penchant for admonishing players that we gave him a second career. We all cleared our throats with Tony Greig when Tendulkar unleashed his Desert Storm on Australia. We fell in love with Harsha Bhogle – a guy who has never played cricket professionally – and made him a commentary superstar. Every time we have felt like getting some technical insights, Richie Benaud, Sunil Gavaskar and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan have helped us out.

But we have not been kind to everyone. The successful commentators have had to earn their stripes. Kapil Dev’s deliveries on the field were a treat to watch, but his delivery from the commentary box was quickly taken out of the attack. The less we say about Navjot Singh Sidhu, the better it is. But there is one person who has gone way past his shelf life and somehow still manages to survive in the commentary box. Not just survive, but thrive. If John Abraham can become a football expert by making the film Goal and Gaurav Kapoor can call himself an analyst for, well, being able to speak English, this person deserves a chance to try his hand at football commentary. A shot at it, if you will.

During the pitch report before the football match, he would have said “This is a great football track. Don’t be surprised if you see a few goals scored today. Get ready for a humdinger.”
As the Brazilians and Mexicans were playing out a pulsating draw, he would have said “Brazil needs Neymar to score.”

When the Swiss were down 0-5 against the French, he would have said “What the Swiss need now is goals at regular intervals.”

As Messi hit the 91st minute blinder against Iran to win them the match, he would have screamed “That came off his left foot like a tracer bullet!”

When Messi hit two goals against Nigeria, he would have said “Messi is playing the role of a sheet anchor.”

As Christiano Ronaldo was waging a lonely battle upfront against the United States, he would have said “What Portugal needs now is a partnership.”

When Philip Lahm and Co. was struggling to find a winner against Ghana, he would have said “Germany needs a captain’s knock from him.”

Watching the Portuguese score the equalizer in the last minute against the United States, he would have said “The match is equally poised.”

Cricket weds football? That sort of commentary sounds like a marriage from hell. If that ever happens, it might be worth giving Suarez a second career. Now that he is staring at a ban for at least 10 to 20 matches, if not for life, perhaps he can share the commentary box with our legend and add some ‘bite’ to such banalities.

For those who are following the FIFA World Cup closely, here are some articles I have written recently for, an Indian news portal:

1) The Spain-Netherlands match:

2) Resurgence of Colombia:

3) Review of football action so far:

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The Beautiful Game

Football, footy, fútbol, footer, soccer. Call it whatever you want. This game truly lives up to its description of being The Beautiful Game. Compared to some other sports, it may not promise a lot of ‘action.’ You will rarely watch a match in which more than five goals are scored. But that is besides the point. The beauty of the game doesn’t come from the score line. It comes from the simplicity of the sport and the elegance with which it is played. It is so simple that it probably has the least amount of rules of any organized sport. You can practically explain everything about the sport on a piece of paper or the back of an envelope. Two 45-minute halves, the game does not stop, you can’t use your hands, goalkeepers can use their hands if it is kicked by an opponent, off-side rule, only 3 substitutions allowed, penalty kicks to decide the game after extra time, no rough play; let’s play! And spectators don’t go there to watch a flurry of goals. They go there to appreciate the extreme physical fitness of the players, their peripheral vision, their teamwork, their superior ball handling abilities and, above all, their ability to fall, rise from the ashes and compete again.

It doesn’t even require any fancy equipment or protective gear, which is the real secret of its popularity around the world. Four stones, a ball and you are good to go! The origins of the game are hotly disputed, but there is the European style, based on discipline, short passes and dominating possession. There is the African style, which is based on lightning speed, flair and counter attacks. And then, there is the Latin American style. Often called the Mecca or the spiritual home of this beautiful game, Latin America holds most of the world cups played till now. The dribbling skills, trick plays, sharp angles, long-winded screams of ‘Goooooooool’ by the commentators; it is a heavenly spectacle to watch Latin Americans play football. Like Federer playing tennis, Tendulkar mauling bowling attacks or Lin Dan squashing opponents in badminton, Latin Americans own football.

Within Latin America, it goes without saying that Brazil is the Big Daddy of the sport. It has given the game legends like Pele, Socrates, Romario, Ronaldino, Rivaldo and Ronaldo, with Neymar already knocking on the door. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, my generation was baptized in the church of Maradona. But even the most die-hard fans of the blue stripes will admit, albeit grudgingly, that there is some magic in those yellow and green jerseys. Brazilian football is ballet, samba, salsa and tango – all happening at the same time. So, if the world cup is being held in Brazil and you are a die-hard fan of football, how can you miss it?

European leagues are great to follow. Like the American football in the U.S., European football leagues keep you engaged in the sport and give people something to talk about every week. It is a great system to groom new talent. But ask Beckenbauer or Beckham or Ibrahimovic or Bale and they will all agree that the world cup is the real deal. Over the years, it has provided scripts that even Bollywood – with all its action and melodrama – would call surreal. Maradona scored a goal with ‘The Hand of God’ against England, only to follow it up with the best goal of the century. And Argentina won the world cup in 1986, only to lose the opening match of the next world cup to the unheralded Cameroon. After a dominant performance to reach the finals, when Brazil was tipped to add another trophy to their cabinet, mercurial Zidane came out of nowhere to score two goals in the 1998 final to stun the entire world. And then, as if the football gods wanted to balance out that virtuoso performance, Zidane indulged in the infamous head-butt in the 2002 final to end the French dream of back-to-back world cups. Even the best photographer couldn’t have come up with that million-dollar photograph of Zidane leaving the field – burying his head in his shoulders – walking past the shining world cup trophy.

For most of the world cups, there has always been a favorite that has dominated the airwaves during the build-up. The 2014 edition seems to be quite different. The defending champions and Spanish superstars still command a lot of respect and money. Iniesta, Xavi and Fabregas controlling the midfield, Pique and Busquets handling defense and Torres and Costa as finishers still sound extremely intimidating. But can they defy age to win another trophy for Spain? Germany, the team that has made it to the last four of the world cup every time since 1966, has Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Ozil and Khedira on their rosters. But can they break the jinx this year? Or would they go down as chokers once again? With van Persie and Robben, can the Dutch redeem themselves after the shameful final performance of the 2010 finals? Will the Argentinean ‘fantastic four’ of Messi, de Maria, Aguaro and Higuain score enough goals to compensate for a weak defense? Or will the defensive powerhouse of Italy ride on the flashy forward Balotelli’s fortunes to beat the odds? Will the host country manage to pull out another trick from its hat with Silva, Paulino, Dani Alves and Neymar? Or would it be a Dark Horse team like Belgium, Colombia or Uruguay?

There are charismatic individuals that might inspire their teams to overachieve as well. Everyone wants to see Christiano Ronaldo, arguably the best player in the world, take Portugal out of the Group of Death and deep into the tournament. Can Didier Drogba take Ivory Coast on a Cinderella run? Or is Eto’o going to bring Cameroon back to the limelight? Ghana broke everyone’s heart last time around when luck deserted them in the quarter final. Will we see an African team in the last four this time?

No matter who wins the ultimate prize, there is an intriguing Indian subplot to the Brazil world cup. In 1950, the last time Brazil hosted the world cup, India qualified for the tournament, only to be disqualified because they insisted on playing barefoot. Would this Brazil world cup generate enough buzz in India and inspire the youth to throw away their cricket bats and pump up that football gathering dust behind the door? Well, waking up at 1:30 in the night and watching the matches live would be a good start! Grab your coffee mug and VAMOS!

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From the Promised Land to La-La Land

Since I landed here in June last year, everything in India has been in ‘calm before the storm’ mode.  All the ideas in the social, economic, educational or any other sphere of life have been put on hold due to the impending Central Government elections.  Everyone wants to see which way India is headed after the elections before they make their next move.

That calm before the storm was disturbed one December evening when the results of the Delhi state assembly started pouring in.  Nobody had given the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Arvind Kejriwal a chance.  But the party came in a close second in the 70-member assembly.  Kejriwal, who had gone from being a formidable force in the India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign in 2011/12 to being a daily mud-slinger, had managed to resurrect himself.  All of a sudden, media were highlighting the vibrancy of the Indian democracy by gloating over the fact that a one-year-old political ‘start-up’ had managed to virtually wipe out Congress, the oldest political party of India, from the Delhi state assembly.

Everyday Indians, who are by equal measures politically shrewd and jaded, suddenly found a messiah in Kejriwal.  Even cynics like me started hoping against hope that this experiment might succeed.  After all, in a loud, boisterous and hopelessly fragmented electorate of India that runs on corruption, money and deeply entrenched interests, how often does an upstart like AAP even get a chance to demonstrate its governance skills?  I would have liked it if they had gone straight back to the Delhi voters and asked for a clear majority.  However, in spite of their late decision to shake hands with the Devil they had vanquished, I was willing to be the optimistic bystander and see how far they go.

And then, all hell broke loose.  Other than a handful of populist measures and giving power back in the hands of people through ‘Mohalla Sabhas,’ AAP hadn’t articulated any consistent philosophy of governance.  Lofty idealism and wishful thinking.  It was a bit of both.  There is the American constitution, which puts almost all of its trust in its presumably rational citizenry.  And then there is AAP, which tried to combine that with extremely intrusive social and economic measures without realizing the irony inherent in the approach.  Even before they could trumpet the benefits of their water and power policies to the thousands of Delhi residents, Somnath Bharti and Rakhi Birla, two of AAPs ministers, tried to take the law in their own hands by barging into the homes of alleged lawbreakers.  Mr. Bharti is a lawyer and Ms. Birla has a Masters in Mass Communication, but apparently nobody had told them the difference between a lawmaker and a law enforcement agent.

The fact that one of the raids was based on neighbors’ complaints against an alleged sex-and-drugs racket run by Ugandans (and other Africans) was already proving to be a foreign relations headache for the Central Government.  As if that was not enough, Kejriwal went on a reputed news show and claimed (paraphrasing him) ‘These people (meaning Africans) consume drugs and rape others’ and ‘The women who were forced to go to the hospital (without a warrant) only underwent urine tests, but they didn’t undergo a blood test.’  Shouldn’t the well-educated supporters of AAP be shocked by the fact that the Chief Minister was spreading lies and implicitly condoning the act of forcing the women to take urine tests without a warrant?  Somnath Bharti went a step further.  In his vigilante zeal, he released a handful of videos to ‘prove’ that Africans indulge in drug trading.  I am no expert on illegal drug trading in India, but did anyone in the AAP government tell him that such acts smack of racism?  What was he trying to suggest?  That Africans are the only people in India indulging in drug trafficking? Or that all the Africans living in India are drug dealers? Either way, it was appaling, to say the least.

Kejriwal was lucky that he got a face-saver from Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung in the ensuing street protests.  But he didn’t learn his lesson.  Instead of reading the rulebook and trying to fight the system from within by following the rules, he decided to go for broke in trying to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill.  I am no constitutional expert.  However, a quick reading of opinions of legal luminaries would have told Kejriwal that Delhi was established as a different kind of state for several reasons.  Nobody was arguing that it was the best possible way to establish that state and several of the provisions can be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court.  In a way, the status of the state of Delhi is akin to Washington D.C., the capital region of the United States of America, where D.C. residents openly lament ‘taxation without representation.’  But that doesn’t mean that D.C. residents disrupt daily life on a regular basis or that the D.C. administration resigns over every single issue.  They are still fighting the cause of D.C. residents by being well within the boundaries of the constitution.

On the other hand, without even trying the constitutional channels to challenge the unique status of Delhi, Kejriwal started blaming all and sundry for the possibility that he may not get what he wants.  He might have gotten addicted to power already and might have started dreaming about a bigger role on the national stage.  And hence, it was probably a convenient way for him to get himself out of the daily grind of running a government to focus exclusively on the national election campaign.  Whatever his motives, it makes me ask him ‘How old are you?’

As a democracy, India is perplexing as well as awe-inspiring.  Through the tremendous hard work of some visionaries and a few strokes of sheer luck, India has come a long way in making sure that the most critical democratic institutions are fairly deep rooted in this mind bogglingly diverse country.  No matter what your views are about Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Ambedkar and a few others, these people would go toe-to-toe with the Founding Fathers of the United States in terms of their vision for India.  Arvind Kejriwal probably had a shot at being named alongside these luminaries.  After seeing his antics for 49 days, I am not so sure anymore. 

If state elections in Delhi are held tomorrow, AAP might win with a clear majority. But I hope Arvind Kejriwal doesn’t become the next Prime Minister of India. Not with his current frame of mind and understanding of the Indian constitution. Greece was the first country to experiment with direct democracy.  If Kejriwal doesn’t learn to respect Indian democratic institutions and the constitution, his demise will probably be the greatest Greek tragedy in the world’s largest democracy.

Categories: Arvind Kejriwal, India, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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