Friday, February 13, 2009

Spiritual Quest - Day 1

My trip to Haridwar and Rishikesh, two of the holiest places for Hindus, made me realize how little I know about Hinduism and its philosophy. I know the stories like Ramayana and the Mahabharata but there is so much more to know. I am not a deeply religious person (I went for years without entering a temple) but I want to be spiritual. I have decided to dig deeper into Hinduism and force myself to share atleast one interesting thing that I learn each day.

Let me start off with knowledge acquired on day 1:
  • A prayer that I have learnt to chant as a kid but I never fully understood

    "asato ma sadgamaya
    tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
    mrtyorma amrtam gamaya"


    Lead me from unreal to the real (or untrue to truth)
    Lead me from darkness to light
    Lead me from death to immortality

    How beautiful!!

  • "Prana" is sanskrit for "breath". (I always thought Prana literally meant life)

    Also came across an interesting parable on this matter. According to the upanishads, the 5 senses were having a discussion about which is the most important. They decide the only way to find out would be if they leave one by one and the others experience life without one sense. First, sight goes off for 1 year and once it is back, it asks the others, "how was life without light?". The other senses say, "the world was plunged in darkness. Life was bad but we got used to it and we began to rely on touch, sound etc to fill the void left. Life went on.". Similarly, hearing, touch, taste go out one by one and realize that life continues in their absence. Finally, it is breath's turn to leave. As it starts making its exit, the other senses realize that they too were disappearing along with breath. They realize their folly and accept that breath is the most important of the 5 senses. This is why prana, the word for breath, is often used to denote life. Infact, "prani" is the word used for "creatures". Interesting.


I love the book "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" because so many of the ideas put forth in the book have made an impact on me and they continue to influence my life. My favorite passage from the book is as follows:

"What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism," Kitto comments, "is not a sense of duty as we understand it...duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself. He strives after that which we translate `virtue' but is in Greek areté, `excellence' -- we shall have much to say about areté. It runs through Greek life."

Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youthat boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing areté.

Areté implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency...or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself."

I read this at a time when I was at crossroads in my life. I was to make important decisions on my interests, career, future plans etc etc. I was expected to choose my area of expertise and work on it like almost everyone else of my age. The idea that I need to excel not at one or two things that will keep me going, but all things life made a huge impact on my life. I started to give my job my everything for the time that I was in office. I tried my best to excel at interpersonal skills and in the process established many relationships that have added a lot of excitement to my life. I joined a gym to be physically fit and took it to the next level with routine participation in many sporting events in addition to the gym. I realized the importance of lifelong learning and made a very conscious effort to keep myself informed of and interested in things I did not know anything about. I am a much better person today for each of these decisions.

Read the book, it is amazing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nadal - Federer

I caught the Australian Open 2009 final between Nadal and Federer on tv last night. What a game! This is probably the best rivalry in all of sports at this current juncture. Although I knew the result, I was sitting with baited breath watching Nadal and Federer hit one incredible shot after another. It is unbelievable how good both of these players are. Granted Fernando Verdasco played an amazing semi-final but it is clear that Federer and Nadal are above and beyond rest of the competition in world tennis. I really wanted Federer to win but more than that, I wanted to see an amazing game of tennis and it exceeded my expectations.

Watching Nadal in the first round was enough for me to annoint him the champion because he looked invincible, even for Federer. I hope Federer improves certain facets of his game to replace Nadal again at the top of the rankings. It is clear that Federer can no longer just rely on his skill level and elegance to get the better of Nadal. He needs to improve his serve (especially the second) because he gets to deuce on his service game way too often for a top player. I think a marginal improvement (one more point in his favor per game on serve) would do wonders for his overall record.

I think it is time Federer gets a coach as well. He can beat anybody (other than Nadal) by relying on his in game adjustments and ground game. To beat Nadal though, he will have to formulate a new strategy because Nadal's quickness and accuracy negates Federer's biggest strengths quite effectively.

Federer can improve his conditioning as well. It was apparent to anyone who watched the game that Fedex ran out of steam in the pivotal fifth set though Nadal should have been the exhausted one considering he played a thrilling 5 setter with Verdasco just 24 hours earlier. When you are competing against Nadal, who is probably the fittest tennis player ever, you need to be in great shape yourself to have any chance. Federer just wasnt.

Federer is certainly one of the greatest players to ever step on a tennis court and I want to see him return to the #1 ranking and provide more of a challenge to Nadal.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire Effects

This just occurred to me ...

Slumdog Millionaire is coming under criticism in India for showing India's underbelly and profiting from it. Yes, I agree that the movie does not show India in a good light. However, by showing the plight of the slum dwellers and showing the tough conditions that they live in, it is definitely raising the awareness levels internationally. Also, the movie focuses on the hardships faced by children living in such tough environments - children who have lost their parents to riots, children living in poverty without a roof over their head or food to feed themselves, children forced into begging for a living etc.

One of the effects of this should be an increase in charitable contributions coming from outside India to improve the situation in the slums. The donors who are deciding how to dispense their charity dollars will now have a connection that they have not had previously. They may donate to many causes - like orphanages and schools for kids. I think this is a great opportunity for the non-profit organizations working to improve the life in the slums. The movie does a great job of portraying the poverty. At the end of the movie, people feel compelled to help ease the situation in anyway. The fore-mentioned organizations should use this chance to garner more aid and spend it wisely to improve the life in the slums.

Just a thought ...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Oscar for the Best Picture

The Academy Awards are around the corner and entertainment shows are rife with speculation on the would-be winners. Lots of people are complaining that " was obviously the best of 2008 and it did not even get nominated" (Dark Knight, Wrestler, Wall-E ...).

I think the academy awards, and for that matter all movie awards, are bullshit. If you put a gun to my head and asked me to name the best movie that I have seen last week (let alone last year), I would not be able to. How can one compare the incredible Slumdog Millionaire to Milk or to Curious Case of Benjamin Button? What is the criteria that is used to make this comparison?

All the nominees and some that got snubbed are all great movies in their own right. I think one of the pros coming from these award ceremonies is the recognition and the publicity for some of the excellent movies that do not have a Dark Knight-like budget for marketing. At the same time, the ceremonies somehow imply that the best picture winner is somehow better than the nominees or other good films made in the year which is absolutely untrue.

PS: 2008 was a year that provided many excellent movies and I am very happy for that.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama of India

The Obama fever has swept the Indian media as well. Whole talk shows were dedicated to the debate on the topic ... Will India have an Obama-esque leader in the near future?

Let me first set forward the criteria that I think defines Obama-esque:
  1. Not from a family that constitutes the national elite. (Obama was hardly a household name)
  2. Highly educated. (Obama is from the Harvard Law school)
  3. Young. (Obama is 47)
So, will we have such a leader in India - NO! Not in the foreseeable future. The reasons are manifold.

Firstly, in India, it takes many decades of being active in politics before a candidate is recognized as a leader at a national level. This is even more true when it comes to prime ministerial hopefuls. I could not find the average age of the Prime Ministers of India - but I am pretty sure it will be in the late 60s. the average age of the current cabinet ministers is 60. In India, it is inconceivable to even think that a candidate can rise through the ranks nearly as quickly as Obama has in the United States.

Secondly, there is a lot less glory in being actively involved in politics in India compared to USA. The term "politics" itself is used in everyday conversation to denote negative tactics that people sometimes use to rise to the top. As a result, those among the highly educated lot who are inclined towards servicing people prefer to achieve that motive through charitable organizations or private sector rather than jump into the realm of politics.

The message is not all negative. There are many areas in which America should aspire to be more like India. We may not be able to answer the question "Where is Obama of India?", but more barriers have been overcome in the 61 years of Indian independence than 230+ years that America has been independent. We have had a female head of state and heads of states from 3 different religions. To this day, we have not seen an American president who was not a male christian. Obama has broken the race barrier but it has taken 230 years.

Something interesting to ponder over - Would Obama win the Indian parliamentary elections if he were to contest? - Lets say for the upcoming Indian elections, we have an candidate who is under 5o years of age, armed with a message of hope, having the best education, short but sound legislation history, no political pedigree and has been in the parliament for only 4 years - would we even consider that candidate for the highest office in the country? Would he stand a chance against Gandhis and Advanis of India? I think we would tell him - "We like you, but wait for another 20 years and we might consider you. We are too busy electing 80 year olds to lead a country where more than half the population is under 25."

Nadal will win 2009 Australian Open

Prediction: Australian Open 2009 Winner - Rafael Nadal

Reasons: Nadal has played 1 set in the Australian Open 2009 and he played it well enough to convince me that he is going to win the tournament.

  • Skill: His forehand and backhand have been nothing short of spectacular. His serve is quite solid too.
  • Movement: He is moving extremely well and hasn't been out of position for a single point.
  • Challengers: The other contenders are Federer, Djokovic and Tsonga. The way Nadal is playing, none of them have a chance.
7 games into the match, Nadal is 7-0 and his opponent looks defeated already.

Uttarakhand Trip

Some time ago, I had made a resolution that I would go on at least 2 vacations every year. I kept that up in 2008 with visits to Goa, Kashmir, Sikkim and Nepal. However, 2009 does not look very promising because once I enroll in ISB in April, I am going to have 1 day off (diwali) for the rest of the year. That is a scary thought! I decided to get a head start by taking my first trip in February.

I will be going to Uttarakhand. To be precise, I will be going to Delhi-Agra-Haridwar-Rishikesh-Joshimath-Auli.

Things I plan to do on this trip:
- Ski. ski. ski.
- Ski downhill while recording the journey through a camcorder.
- Take a dip in the near freezing Ganga.
- Finally see the Taj Mahal.
- Take a lot of pictures.

I am at a point where the names on the map of Uttarakhand are starting to sound familiar which means I have done enough research. Wish me a good trip!

Some pictures of the places that I mentioned above:

<-- No explanation necessary I hope.

<-- Har Ki Pauri - Prayer on the bank of Ganga in Haridwar

<-- Ski. ski. ski. Auli, Uttarakhand.

<-- Mountain on the left with cloud on it is Mt. Nanda Devi (7800mts +). Tallest mountain that is completely within India.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Visitor

Since I moved to India, I have missed quite a lot of the small budget movies that Hollywood churns out every year. In the last couple of weeks, I have started watching the best of those that I missed in the last year and a half. One of those is "The Visitor" and this is a great movie.

The Visitor highlights the plight of illegal immigrants in the USA. Walt, a professor in Connecticut goes to New York (where he owns an apartment) for a few days to attend a conference. He is surprised to find a young immigrant couple (Tareek and Zainab) staying there. The couple offer to move out immediately but they realize their friends are not too willing to accommodate them on that short a notice. Walt lets the couple stay in his apartment with him for a little while, till they find a new place for themselves. Tareek is a musician who plays the african drums (djembe) and Zainab makes jewelry that she sells on the street. Walt and Tareek connect through the universal language of music and Tareek teaches Walt how to play the drums. The scenes between Tarek and Walt at this juncture are truly heartening to watch. Walt and Tareek become good friends and play the drums in central park in the evenings.

On their way back one evening, Tareek gets stuck in a subway turnstop and jumps it. The NYPD arrest him immediately and send him to a detention center (broken windows policy in action). His immigration status is then realized and he is shceduled for deportation (to Syria). Tareek, who has been leading a happy life for the last several years in the USA, finds his life shattered in a matter of seconds. He cannot even meet his girlfriend, Zainab, because their meeting would mean Zainab would be deported too. Meanwhile, Tareek's worried mother, Mouna also makes it to New York to check on her son. She is devastated to find out that Tareek is being held by immigration. Walt tries to speak with immigration attorneys but to no avail. He remains the only connection between Tareek and his loved ones (Mouna and Zainab). The scenes where Walt holds up letters from Mouna and Zainab for Tareek to read in the detention center are gut wrenching.

Overall, "The Visitor" is about USA's policies towards illegal immigrants. In the wake of 911, thousands of American dreams are being shattered every day by the immigration department. A passport, which was the license to travel, has now become a means to restrict travel. Millions of stories of heart break part of the price that America pays for increased security. It is a touching movie laced with brilliant performances. Watch it!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

The following post is a collection of all of my thoughts on the amazing movie that is "Slumdog Millionaire":

The movie is being released in India next week and along with the english version, it is being dubbed into Hindi with the title "Slumdog Crorepati". Wouldn't "Jhopadpatti Crorepati" make for a much better title? It even rhymes!

The Indian media has been quick to eat up the success of the movie and they keep reminding the people that we need to take pride in the movie because it is the first "Indian movie" which has tasted such international success. That is bullshit. The actors and technicians may be Indian, but the screenplay and direction, which control the way story unfolds, were in the hands of Britishers. I think Slumdog is no more an Indian movie than Gandhi is - and Gandhi even won an Oscar. Having said that, the work that the actors have put in and the music by A.R. Rehman are awesome. The praise that is being heaped on them is very well deserved indeed.

There is a section of people who are not happy about the way India is depicted in the movie. They are afraid that the western audience watch the movie and come away with the opinion that the whole of India is the way it is shown. I think that the intelligence of the audience is being greatly underestimated in making this argument. Slumdog Millionaire depicts an extreme section of the Indian society - the ground realities that are faced by the poorest of the poor. It is not showing India in a bad light, it is raising awareness. The solution is not to stop showing it, it is doing something about it. Besides, this movie is just the latest in a long list of movies that show the dark side of India. Salaam Bombay, Parzania etc come to mind. If anything, I believe there is a shortage of movies like Slumdog Millionaire that hold a mirror up and show us the terrible side of our society that we ignore. Besides, I do not think this movie exaggerates the reality. The scenes from the slums are extremely real which is mind blowing considering that the movie is directed by a non-Indian. Kudos to Danny Boyle.

Last I checked, Slumdog Millionaire is not a documentary about India shining, so stop expecting it to showcase India. Slumdog Millionaire is an amazingly inspiring story of a poor orphan who overcomes insurmountable hurdles on his way to riches, that just happens to be set in India. The movie celebrates Jamal and his qualities - honesty, innocence and compassion. In the end, Jamal triumphs over all of the evil forces (his semi-evil brother, mafia, communal riots) that are to derail him.

In the end, the fact remains that everything shown in the movie is real and accurately depicts the plight of kids in the poorest neighborhoods of the country. Sadly, the one part that is a fantasy is of the kid escaping poverty by winning the crorepati show.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Benjamin Button

I got to watch "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" yesterday. I have been waiting for this movie ever since I heard about it, and the wait was worth it. Benjamin Button ages forward mentally, but backwards physically. The movie has good performances from Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The story is extremely creative and the film is well directed. Its 2.5 hour length might be a problem to some people but it did not bother me at all. In fact, I did not want the movie to end - but it is tough to continue the story after the protagonist is dead. Another thing that I was impressed by are the dialogues in the movie. Few of the ones I love (more or less accurate):

  • For what it’s worth, it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit ... start whenever you want … you can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that stop you. I hope you feel things that you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life that you’re proud of and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again. - Benjamin Button
  • I know the circumstances and I've accepted that. Loving you is worth all of it. -Daisy
  • We are defined by opportunities even the ones we miss.
  • We were meant to lose people we love. How else would we know how important they are?
  • I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is
  • Life can only be understood looking backward. It must be lived forward.
  • It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed, is you.
  • Along the way you bump into people who make a dent on your life. Some people get struck by lightning. Some are born to sit by a river. Some have an ear for music. Some are artists. Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons. Some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers. And some people can dance.
Watch this movie!