Thursday, December 16, 2010

The question

December 8th, 2009
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"So how do you feel? [About returning to India]", asked a friend from the seat row ahead of me as the British Airways flight from Boston to London circled above the bright night lights of England's capital. This was the half-way mark on my return to India after one and a half years in the USA but I lacked the gung-ho optimism which had been my constant companion till the second I had boarded this flight. I replied rather circumspectly "I don't know!" I felt uneasy; like one would feel if every invitee gifted him a deodorant on his birthday. 
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Putting it mildly, I was having a blast in the USA. An ever growing circle of friends; a significant number of well settled and welcoming relatives sprinkled around the country; California one weekend; New York City in the other; U2 live; canoeing in the forests of Maine; sailing on the Atlantic; skydiving; driving for hundreds of miles of spectacular open highway in a variety of vehicles yet I would simply laugh off the suggestion if anyone ever mentioned "settling in the US". Life itself was some sort of adventure, the people were friendly and the work culture was awesome yet...
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Not being able to justify "yet" even to myself was frustrating. The long queues and noise at Heathrow airport added to the gnawing doubt that an objective answer to the question posed was not going to be so comfortable. My parents had come visiting in the wonderful last 2 months of my stay there and our collective luggage handling on the return journey was a chore which kept me busy at Heathrow. Finding my seat on the plane to Bombay, I waited till the plane took off and buried myself in the in-flight movie options just to escape my thoughts.
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In the process, I ended up watching the Pixar Studios animated "Up", a movie about Carl Fredrickson, a retired widower who had filled a lifetime with happy dreams of travels to faraway lands with his beloved wife but never got to fulfill them as the pressing needs of a regular life kept them entangled. With his wife now deceased and old age caretakers knocking on his door, he ties thousands of multi-coloured helium balloons to his house making it float away for a highly entertaining and touching journey. To my relief, the story was such that I was completely engrossed.
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Soon we landed in Bombay, a city that I had always adored blindly, at least before I left the country. But now its airport looked in complete and utter chaos. The luggage conveyer belts were mobbed and it was hard to last 10 seconds without having a marauding trolley crush your feet. Completely spoilt by my brief stay in a more orderly nation, I really shouted at an overenthusiastic luggage bearer who only wanted to transport our suitcases and asked him to move on, cruelly ignoring the fact that all he was trying was to ensure his hard-earned daily bread.
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It was past 3:00 AM when we left the airport and headed to my brother's flat down the empty Western Express highway. I noticed more than ever before how much of a work in progress my country was. There were flyovers and buildings coming up everywhere, a screen of dust in the air, barefooted families walking alongside the highway for an early morning arrival at the Siddhi Vinayak temple as the driver of our vehicle speedily ignored one red signal after the other. As expected, not much had changed in my time away and a deep seated dissatisfaction troubled me.
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Suddenly the quiet of the night was invaded by what sounded like countless buzzing bees. We looked to see a dozen odd motorcycles loaded with whooping and joyful youngsters zoom past us. These were not imported super-fast models, but regular Indian motorcycles doing 55 mph at the most yet the look on their faces said that they were having the time of their lives. The driver angrily blamed "Dhoom picture" for misguiding the youngsters; mom was making her clucking sound of disapproval; dad I suspect was, like me, smiling. I smiled because I realized the very personal nature of happiness.
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The place and the environment that one has grown up in are inextricably entwined with what one needs to be happy. I used to think that this idea was solely based on the romanticized ideals of patriotism and gratitude to the homeland, but now understood that this was also cold fact. All things put together, in a life overburdened with personal wishes and desires, without being compelled to, the tricolour with a wheel in between had become my flag, the cricket team in blue was my team and a chunk of land in the south of Asia was my country.
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I remembered being asked by curious foreigners to discuss Diwali, Eid, Royal Bengal tigers, the Mahabharata, Kalaripayattu etc and my limited but enthusiastic explanation of the same because an Indian was expected to know all of these topics and many more. I recalled hating "Slumdog Milllionaire" and the personal sense of guilt at being unable to deny that many people still did live like this in my country when an American friend asked. I was a fool to objectively compare what was irrevocably mine (both great and not-so-great) to foreign standards and crib about situations which were partly my responsibility.
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So we have our problems of brutally real and politically projected inefficiency, injustice and inequality. "We are like this only" is a philosophy that should not be blindly encouraged. There is much to see, learn and implement from the world outside. I could easily give an arm and a leg to continue visiting foreign places and work there for brief periods of time. But all doubts were quelled and I was finally at peace. It was as clear as if Carl Fredrickson had floated the answer using multi-coloured balloons across the grey of the approaching Mumbai dawn. “Home. Heart. India.” 

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Some important facts of life

Grizzly Bear, LoungingImage via Wikipedia
Here's some really vital, possibly life-saving answers to questions which you always wanted to ask but were too shy to. Like how big would a grizzly bear look if it stood right alongside me? Or do I really need to be afraid if a salt-water crocodile sneaked up on me? The tiger, the king of the jungle, that creature all those conservationists keep shouting about? How big is it anyway?
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The answers are all here in the link below:
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Really! There's a graphic to show a 6 foot man alongside each of these rarely-encountered-by-a-person-in-person-who-lived-to-tell-about-it-creatures. You can hear how they would sound so that you can plan your panicked run beforehand. Then there are the vital stats of height and weight just in case you feel like challenging one of them to a wrestling match and also world maps to show where an appropriate arena might be found. For the purpose of choosing a wrestling match opponent, can I suggest leaving the giant squid out of contention? The nearest thing in size for us to relate to was decided by NGC to be a school bus!
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I won't hold you up any longer now. Try it. It's way too much fun. I spent a significant portion of my young life down there already!


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Saturday, December 11, 2010

There will be blood... lots of it

Stamp of AzerbaijanImage via Wikipedia
There's a show that airs on the History Channel called "History's Greatest Warriors" and in its existence as a program can be found irrefutable proof that the world will never know complete peace as imagined by John Lennon, at least as long as it is run by men. There is something about violence especially in its televised or dramatized version that inevitably draws us menfolk to it to like flies to clotting blood. Not that all of us are thirsting to get destructive, but we sure as hell want to find out more about it.
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Coming back to the aforementioned TV show, it pits comparable legendary warriors from different parts of the world and time periods in a showdown which history had unfortunately missed out on setting up. So we have a bunch of computer guys, martial arts experts and doctors coming together to analyze and ooh-aah over the devastating effect of the warriors' special weapons and techniques on a dummy which replicates the exact texture and strength of human flesh and bones. The outcome of a Samurai sword on a neck and a Viking axe on the abdomen is bound to be gory but I watch, transfixed by the spectacle. The icing on the cake is the final computer simulation where the two warriors square off in a spectacular fight to the finish.
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And it's not just passive spectatorship either! Often times, I find myself cheering for a particular side. I was overjoyed when the street smart American Indian warrior, the Apache overcame the Gladiator from Rome in a swift hamstring cutting and then jugular vein slicing knife move! I was delighted when the disciplined Japanese Samurai absorbed the power surges and then clinically dispatched the extremely strong but equally crude Viking. Crushed is how I would describe myself, when the Ninja got his backside handed to him on a platter by the Greek age Spartan. A recent episode when the former USSR commando, the Spetznaz taught a hard lesson in combat to the American Green Beret is one for the pleasant side of the memory bank. All of the preceding combat was of course virtual in every sense of the word but if there is to be such a war, I always would want to know what channel it is on.

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Death in the afternoon

Cut-away cell phoneImage via Wikipedia
Truth as has been repeated over a trillion times already is always stranger than fiction. A conversation over my desk phone at work on a hot day in May was just another example. No one could possibly imagine such a scenario and if you had read it in a story, you'd have dismissed it as just another author indulging in his much-abused right to creative freedom ignoring the requirement for a dialogue to sound real.
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It was post lunchtime and I was in the torturous state between much required wakefulness and all-too-tempting sleepiness typical to that period of the work-day when my desk phone rang and I picked up if only to take my mind off the survival challenge it had taken on. A sombre voice over the phone asked for Colleague 1 with whom I share my desk number. I looked around for him and he wasn't in the vicinity. So I asked Colleague 2, a very close friend and flatmate of his if he wanted to talk to the voice on the phone. Colleague 2 came to my desk and after a brief conversation on the phone said to me laying the phone receiver aside "It's from the Nokia Care Centre where Colleague 1 had just given his cell-phone for repair this morning. Guy won't tell me what he wants to convey and insists on speaking to Colleague 1 in person!"
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Both of us were naturally mystified by this secrecy and just the next moment, Colleague 1 entered the quadrant. We hailed him and he came up to the phone. He too talked very briefly before ending the call and he had a look of amusement mixed with wonder when he was done. He turned to us and went "Never had a call like this before! The guy at the service centre said that they were not able to repair the phone. For that they were sorry!"
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The only rational explanation could be that the Nokia Care people, like most of us, were brought on the most typical of Bollywood fare. Remember the innumerable movies in which the worried family/son/brother/sister/boyfriend/girlfriend waits outside the emergency room with the red light indicating that the operation was on, glowing? Then the doctor would come out, all serious and grim and the person/persons outside would rush to his side with a questioning look on their faces and we as the audience would already know what he was about to say, essentially "I am extremely sorry. I tried my best!" So it was with such appropriate gravity, that the death of a cell-phone was announced.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Arrival

Boston à l'heure bleueImage by Manu_H via Flickr
I so wanted Germany to be the first foreign country that I visited. In a way, it was. My first footstep outside India was at Frankfurt airport, the home base of the Lufthansa flight I had taken from Calcutta. I enquired about a transit visa to step out in the land of Porsche, Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Volkswagen as I was to spend 11 hours there before my connecting flight to Boston took off. But my plans were stone-walled by a tough looking German cop who informed me that there was no such permission available on such short notice. So back I went to the lounge and waited.
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It was night by the time I had cleared customs at Logan International Airport on the 21st of June, 2008, a Saturday. I entered into the Arrivals area and got myself a few dollars in change to use on the Verizon payphone kiosks. I had my aunt's cellphone number written down somewhere and to this day, I can't understand why I couldn't use that payphone to make her a call. It was just a regular payphone kiosk like any other in the world but I struggled to make it work. Seeing my plight, a cop tried to help me out but ended up thinking of me as yet another weird foreigner invading his country as the number I gave him wouldn't go through though it was the right number. I had no option but to hope that either my aunt or my cousin brother would sneak a peek into the waiting area and identify me among the hundreds of passengers biding their time there.
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A group of beautiful Latino girls were also in wait for somebody to arrive so it wasn't exactly a bad time to be hanging around. My attention then wandered to the complicated perpetual machine on display there with the rolling, dropping and leaping balls on a variety of mechanical contraptions reminding me that this was the city of MIT and Harvard. The arrangement kept me engaged long enough for my mildly familiar welcome party to show up. Over the period of the next one and a half years, they were to become family to me but right then I had had only a fleeting acquaintance with them back in Calcutta.
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I hopped into their car and as we drove out on the maze of beautiful, night time streets that is the Logan airport, Big Dig and Tobin bridge area of Boston, my mind was still absorbing the new sensations all around me, a new country, a new life. One thing in particular struck my mind even though later, I would learn that it was just my way of coping up with the wonderful sensation of being in a new place totally unlike any place I had been to before.
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I was looking at the traffic signals on the roads very closely and saw that when the lights went green, they were a solid circle of green even at intersections. In Indian road intersections, I was always used to green arrows pointing in all the legal directions that the driver could take. Here it seemed that everyone already knew where they were going on the road and in life. That was to become the most abiding if somewhat false first image of what the USA was amongst all the new things that caught my attention. A land where when the signal said "Go", everyone somehow knew where they were headed.

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A bad day for dreaming

A sinusoidal wave (3 cycles).Image via Wikipedia
My job is way too mundane. For whom exactly am I putting up with all this pressure for? If I were putting in so much effort on something my heart lies in, what a wonderful life and a wonderfully happy me, it would have led to! Do I really see myself doing this job or something of this sort till I reach the age of 70, sometime in 2054? Home to office and office to home, is there something more to life than this dreary routine? When exactly will the compensation I receive for spending the majority of my life sitting in a cubicle be just right? Can the value of my life be estimated by an annual package or should it even allowed to be measured in so gross a manner?
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All right, so who pays for the petrol in my beloved motorcycle? And the growing stacks of unread books that I keep ordering online? Year 2010 has already seen me do major trips to Himachal Pradesh, Goathe Sunderbans and  a cross-India road trip, so wherefore did the money come from? Well, what about the Airtel broadband connection where I spend learning and writing about things in our infinitely interesting world? Remember the time when I had get back to work even though a week was left on my official leave just to while away the time and get back momentum in my life again? Do I not get to do all the things I want to anyway, without having to put the most basic of my expenditure requirements at risk by choosing an alternative career? Honestly, if this isn't the good life, then what is?
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It's a sinusoidal wave of questions with crests and troughs on my personal happiness index. Is it fair to expect it to flatline on the happier side of things? Who on earth is perfectly happy? Is there someone else I'd rather be? If life is a compromise and acceptance is the only way forward, then there is that one day when this truth shines out like a diamond in the dirt. End of the month. Pay day.

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Rules of the road

Road TripImage by !borghetti via Flickr
In case, you are planning to take a 2300 kilometre road-trip through the case study of unpredictability that is India in the company of your beyond-retirement-age parents and a permanently immature dog, here are a few handy pointers towards what to expect:
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1. You should accept for a fact that your dad has never been a fan of your driving and thinks that anything above 40 kilometres per hour even on the emptiest and widest of superhighways is 'dangerous driving' when you are at the wheel. However when he himself takes over the driving seat then the speed limits can be doubled or tripled because you see "He has been driving for close to 40 years now!".
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2. The roads of India have a tendency to literally shake up things every once in a while by putting in a huge pothole in the midst of kilometres of smooth road. Too much of a good thing is bad, thinks the Government of India. But when you are at the wheel and hit that pothole with a not-so-pretty clunk from the car's underside, an immediate reaction from your dad will be "You'll break the axle! What are you doing? You'll break the axle!" followed by further tirades about how you were totally insensitive to how a car needs to be protected from the vagaries of the road. A similar pothole when driven over by dad at the same speed and producing exactly the same sound leads to a loud clearing of throats, giggles on the part of the co-passengers and studied long silences on the part of the driver.
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3. Your mom will be the most cheerful of companions as long as the sun is bright outside and the scenery is something to remember. All calls on your never-out-of-tower-range cell phones will be greeted enthusiastically by her, telling everyone and their grandmothers about how much she was enjoying the adventure of this trip. But the moment, the engine starts overheating or the sun is on the wane or there are bad traffic/road conditions (as is a quite common occurrence on an Indian road trip), boy, will she give the male occupants of the car a hard time. "I told you we should have taken the train. My life is so full of people so who just can't behave normally!" will be an oft-repeated refrain which you learn to accept without retorting (that'd be suicidal on your part) for the period of time it takes to find a mechanic/find a hotel/find a clear stretch of road.
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4. You are not allowed to get angry and complain about the wayward human beings who invariably jump out onto the road when least expected and when the slowest of tempos, overloaded and blocking the road ahead, refuses to let you overtake. Any expressions of disgust will invoke a wise "This is not 'your America'! This is how India is and you have to adjust your driving likewise." from your dad ignoring the completely natural expression of bewilderment on your face on hearing the words 'your America'. So now in the eyes of your dad, not only are you a bad driver but also a traitor to your country!
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5. Hotels as a rule are not very eager to allow dogs into their rooms even if it is a tiny miniature dachshund like yours. When you finally convince a hotel clerk, after talking to his manager and the manager's manager about how well-behaved your dog is and about how she would not cause any trouble to other people in the hotel, as proof the dog will step out and pee right on a ground-level board where the hotel's name is displayed. You may hurriedly throw a fistful of sand to cover up this instance of misbehaviour but then later your normally quiet dog will bark her heart out and chase the room service staff out of the room when they show up. Good behaviour at home does not readily translate to good behaviour on a road-trip.
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This is only a sampling of expectations to have and there's of course the more memorable parts of making such a trip. These are times when you really forget that the whole purpose of making this trip was fun.
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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dark Water

drinking waterImage via Wikipedia
Sometime in early 2007, the smiling technicians from Eureka Forbes (Yes, the "Friends for life" people from TV) came smiling into my house and set up a water purifier system, the drilled-into-our-heads-through-incessant-ads Aquaguard system in one corner of my house. This was the second Aquaguard system being installed in our house, adding on to the one already installed in my uncle's kitchen. It just goes to show that if you run your publicity campaign before the advent of attention splintering multi-channel satellite TV in any country, you have your loyal customers booked for life.
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I have no complaints with the service that the machine gives. It's as close to perfection as any machine can get. Litres and kilolitres of potable water have poured out of its tiny nozzle and it has never even hiccuped (fingers crossed/touch-wood). What I do have an issue with it is the tremendously ominous music that plays along while the purified water is pouring out.
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The aforementioned first Aquaguard of our house was installed by my uncle a long long time and the music it plays is a tinny monophonic version of "Sochna Kya Jo Bhi Hoga Dekhaa Jayegaa [Why worry too much, we'll take life as it comes]" from the movie Ghayal (Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYCguKQnTm8 if you want to relive your inexplicably weirdly dressed early 1990s Bollywood memories) while the water pours out. It was a song whose lyrics are positive to say the least. Like so many other Bollywood movie songs, this song was a direct lift, this time from a Spanish song "Llorando se Fue" by Los Kjarkas (Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mT4T5GyGqRQ if you want another good laugh). "Llorando se Fue" apparently in Spanish means "Crying... one went away"(so says my favourite translator http://babelfish.yahoo.com) but I don't understand Spanish all that well and for me that tune was permanently associated with the cheery spirit of the Hindi version than its morose Spanish one.
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With the passage of time, like monophonic ringtone technology on cellphones had morphed into polyphonic grandness, the new Aquaguard, my Aquaguard has spectacular polyphonic speakers. So what does it choose to play? A musical piece which combines the sentiments of the words "gloomy", "depressing", "foreboding", "menacing" and a few hundred more of that nature from the English dictionary. I don't know what the name of this new tune is and neither do I want to find out. There is just that one tune and although I understand it made business sense not to include an in-built MP3 player, but couldn't it have been a more cheery one. Cheery tunes I would imagine sound so much better on polyphonic speakers.
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Early in the morning groggy with sleep or late at night drained by the day's work, standing in front of the purifier to fill up rows of waiting PET bottles is almost an ordeal. A quick press of a button quickly mutes the awful tune in the real world but it keeps on playing like a funeral song at the back of your mind all the while it takes to achieve the drinking water supply targets. Someone at Eureka Forbes seems intent on teaching us about the true tragic nature of life while we get our day's quota of water. There are days when you can't help but agree with the infernal machine's outlook towards life. But on days when the sun is full and bright outside and you realize how much worse things could have been, you feel like getting into The Joker mode and ask the forever depressed Aquaguard "Why so serious?"
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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It happens

Barre chord notation in classical music uses r...Image via Wikipedia
A couple of months ago (even after which I find my acoustic guitar playing abilities tending to zero) a junior colleague called me on my cell on a sunny Sunday. He had started learning the guitar just then and had too optimistic an expectation of my progress, begun as I had in the January of this year. He told me how difficult it was even to get the most basic finger positions right for the chords and asked me whether it was this tough an endeavour for everyone.
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I could have told him that I had struggled just to play the seven notes of a octave for two whole months. I should have told him that my guitar teacher, a very patient man by any standards was compelled to chastise me for my dismal lack of progress despite being quietly appreciative of my tireless but frequently fruitless efforts. If I had said that it looks like it'd take me 10 years to generate any kind of sound from the B and F barre chords before I could look any further, I wouldn't be telling a lie. The progress in guitar playing capability that some guys and gals had made starting at the same time and batch as me put me to shame and put my physical co-ordination abilities firmly at par with the abilities of a whale having to run a complete marathon on dry land. If I were a truly honest man, I would have said that if I can be so bad at it and still keep at it, anyone should be able to achieve much more satisfaction and success than I had in the past 10 months.
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What I did instead was to make a patronizing clucking sound and make this sagacious statement "Just relax, man! It happens with beginners!"
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Sunday, November 28, 2010

The real deal


When the Gujarati grandmom, a fellow tourist on the Sunderban Tiger Reserve launch, the MV Chitrarekha which was both our Tiger Reserve hotel and Tiger Reserve vehicle, yelled a shrill "Tiger!" at 7:05 AM on the morning of the 14th of November, 2010, I had very good reasons not to feel excited. The previous day had already seen overexcited eyes identifying a herd of Chital deer and a sauntering, casual wild boar as the big sighting, a dream which I unfortunately had to puncture via the 10X optical zoom digital camera borrowed from a friend for this trip. The feeling of being inside a jungle was tremendous in itself but hallucinations were not to be encouraged. Nonetheless I moved quickly to the starboard (right) side of the vessel and looked in the direction her shaking finger was pointing to because like everyone else who was making this trip or had done so in the past, a question loomed large over my head. What if?
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I was lucky not to be completely pessimistic on this occasion because what I saw was too far away to tell how big it was, but it doesn't take too much to tell the distinctive coat coloured in a combination of black and gold. At the edge of the water in one of the many narrow water channels that we had seen in this thick jungle leading off from the main channel through which our big launch was plowing, stood the top predator of the jungle casually looking at us. The top deck was nearly empty but for about 10 odd people as the few people who had groggily woken up for the sunrise had gone back down to their beds. The launch was well past the channel where the animal stood and I got only a 5 second look at it before we lost sight of it.
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The launch was too big to brake to a sudden halt and turning it around would generate so much engine noise that the creature would be scared off anyway. So the pleas to the launch's Captain to turn around by those who had missed it fell on deaf ears and the vessel chugged on. That would be the only glimpse of the Royal Bengal tiger that we would get on this vessel in this trip, rare as it is to spot a tiger from a launch in the Sunderbans.
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All of the mystery, all of the fear, all of the awe of being in a jungle stemmed out of the presence of this one creature and the fervent hope of seeing it in its full wild glory. I hardly saw it for those few seconds with concentration as my heart was working overtime and my eyes analyzed the possibilities before agreeing on the obvious. By the time my brain was ready to make a decision, the visual link was lost.
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It was there. Like a ghost, like a myth, like a legend - its existence believable and valuable to only those who had set eyes on it and those young at heart. Everyone knows that the Sunderbans are teeming with tigers; everyone knows that the terrain is the most unsuitable for viewing a tiger and the chances of seeing one are close to nil yet so many are still willing to take that slimmest of chances. I took that chance and fate favoured me. I almost felt happy that I did not find time enough to take a picture to show the world and thankfully neither did the few who spotted it. Having all its mystique reduced to a piddly concrete JPEG image on my desktop is not how I would like to remember my first encounter with a tiger in the wild. It still stalks the jungles of my imagination, elusive, powerful and majestic. It was no coincidence that the date was the 14th of November, the day that India celebrates as Children's Day. Save the tiger not just for the environment, not just for the future generations and not just for the integral place it holds in our culture. Save the tiger because it keeps that child of adventure and wonder inside us all alive.
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Friday, November 12, 2010

An audience with the king

Tiger Attack!Image by Douglas Brown via Flickr
Tomorrow I set out for a trip into the most heavily populated tiger sanctuary in the world... both in terms of people and in terms of tigers. 274 odd Royal Bengal tigers inhabit the Indian portion of the forests of Sundarbans but oddly enough, it is the place where all around the year the chances of spotting a tiger are the least. The thick mangrove vegetation of the Sundarbans (the picture above is of the Siberian tiger not the Royal Bengal tiger, hence all that snow) with narrow channels of water where the tourist launches cannot go (Too swampy for jeeps and elephants the terrain happens to be) is just one of the reasons why it's so difficult to spot them. The other reason is that the tigers of the Sundarbans have a knack for wilyness and carry a nasty reputation of being scientifically acknowledged man-hunters! Nowhere else, does the tiger have to come across so many human beings in his domain and likewise nowhere else is a tiger attack more common.
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Then there's the mystique of the animal. The powerful, graceful top of the food chain predator commands respect even in our imagination, let alone when it growls imperiously in its own domain of the wild. To be able to see it very frequently would ruin its powerful grip on our thoughts as we cruise wide-eyed through the water channels in search of a fleeting glimpse of the yellow and black coat. In the midst of his vast kingdom, we would be praying that the king will grant us audience.
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This, being November, is not at all the season for tiger-spotting, our tour operators have already told us. In the summers, when the heat brings out the tiger for a drink to the water's edge is our slim but best chance of spotting one. But I am going now in the off-season so to speak and they say there are lots of other creatures to see including a personal favourite monster of mine, the estuarine crocodile (the salt water crocodile) which regularly grows 20 feet long and is also a known man-eater. To add to that there is the hair-standing-on-end thrill of being in a jungle, with the safety and security of urban civilization only distant dreams. 
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If we do not come across a tiger, as is the most likely outcome, it will only be a re-affirmation that out in the depths of the forest, we are his subjects, and subject to his powers and not vice versa. Will I be happy if I spot a tiger in the Sundarbans? Will I be unhappy if I spot a tiger in the Sundarbans? The answer to both those questions (subject to the master hunter not coming too close for comfort as in this video from Kazirangahttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4SqXl9Zj6k) is a paradoxical yes.
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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Doomed to gloom

Arundhati RoyImage by TW Collins via Flickr
Long-due sympathy for a certain Ms. Roy
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The link below leads to an statement by Arundhati Roy only 3 paragraphs long so even if your concentration span has been reduced to one of a demented puppy thanks to guaranteed IQ evaporators like Twitter, this is something you should be able to plow through. This is as close to Twitter that Arundhati Roy is ever going to get. Thankfully no 160 character rants from her yet!
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"I write this from Srinagar, Kashmir. This morning's papers say that I may be arrested on charges of sedition for what I have said at recent public meetings on Kashmir..."
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Thereby begins Arundhati's 'post' from Srinagar. Look at me and worship my courage, it says in not so many words. Me the tragic heroine in yet another underdog's cause, abandoning all concern for personal safety and comfort, fighting for what is the 'one and true certified inarguable whole-and-soul, white as white comes, no greys, browns or blacks' version of right, the voluntary 'Take me, I am here' martyr a-la the new Che Guevara under the constant glare and sniper focus of Big Government, Big Corporation and Loony Right Wingers. No wonder Sergei Nechaev from Hamilton, Bahamas comments on the same article "in homage to a fearless & heroic writer of staggering talent and insight. If there were ten others like her the world would be a very different place. But there aren't." Like him, there are way too many people completely sold on the legend.
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What title can I possibly attach to her name which someone else has not already? 'Defender of the weak', 'Secret agent of the Vatican', 'The last hope of humanity and feminism', 'Anti-national', 'The most articulate voice of dissent', 'Pathological attention seeker' are just a sampling of the thousands of nominations/accusations being bandied around. I think I'll add another... 'Clinically depressed', for her life is so full of sadness and only sadness.
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Come to think of it, there is so much real injustice in this world that no one has any right to be happy before they are all solved. I had a Che Guevara poster in my college hostel room which said "Always be capable of feeling any injustice committed against anybody anywhere in the world." Arundhati Roy, I believe, may have taken this directive too much to heart. Which issue of injustice is more important than the other is a very very tough call to make. So many issues, so little time. No wonder this lady is quite so bonkers.
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The issues which she takes up are all very real and so it is difficult to resist reading her immaculately composed articles. But in the middle of a few good paragraphs of what is wrong with my country, while I am finding myself in mild agreement, she wrecks it all by going [Faking a quote here but read any of her articles and you'll find one version of this quote of her's in all her articles] "India is a failed nation meant only for the Hindu, upper-caste and class. Period... shobbie doobie doo" or while touching upon some truly ridiculous sections of the Indian Constitution, she ruins it by going [Fake quote again] "All said and done, the Indian Constitution is a document that has never worked for anybody... rum te tum!" And from her standard bag of literary tricks, she will also hoarsely whisper to the reader [Fake but real quote number 3] "Read my article for this may be my last. The CM/PM/capitalist monsters/powers-that-be have marked me for destruction. Ooooh!" and you can almost see her smiling when she says [Fake but real quote number 4] "In a weird kind of way, the Maoists/tribals/militants/protestors are the upholders of the Constitution while the powers-that-be trample the ideals enshrined in this all-of-a-sudden-highly-valued document. Take that!"
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The essential difference between speaking for a subjugated people and speaking like a subjugated people eludes her. As a visiting observer, you cannot claim to have felt as outraged as the victims themselves and if you make such a claim, your double standards will be exposed for all that are sane to see. The benefits of voicing their opinion to the outside world are completely lost if you speak the same warped language of one-sidedness and rhetoric as in their case, they may have valid reasons for feeling so but not you. It's the same India and largely capitalistic world that gave you a childhood, an education and a thinking mind to analyze the world as it is the same India that gives you a national platform to air these views. No one is asking you to sugar-coat the truth but is it too much to acknowledge that the matter is much more than a simple case of black-and-white. But Ms. Roy insists on being vehemently sad and making others feel likewise too. All she ends up doing is pooling a general mistrust, cynicism and bigoted hatred not only for herself but also the causes she espouses almost dooming them to failure.
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The ultra-nationalistic (read extremely stupid, extremely intolerant, extremely violent, fundamentalist and corrupt) elements that keep promising to bring her to 'appropriate out-of-court' justice need to take a hike. Neither do we really need to jail her. Arresting her under the Sedition Act would only make her and her followers swell up in pride as the Act used by the Brits against the likes of Tilak and Gandhi at their peaks is being used to silence her. Instead in keeping with her fondness for conspiracy theories, I have one proposed by my dad, quite easily the most cynical person yet strangely optimistic person I have known (His theory should throw light on the unique category that I bracket him in). He says that the reason why Arundhati Roy will never be arrested or harmed is that by keeping her out of jail and letting her voice her staunchly anti-government opinions openly, the Indian government is making an international advertisement of how free speech is encouraged in this country unlike our Communist neighbour, and the more she flourishes, the more in international circles, the fame and reputation of India's historical claim to tolerance grow. In panning pretty much everything under the sun, Ms. Roy is doing us a world of good. I hope someone lets her know that. In her subsequent gloom, lies her redemption.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

High hopes

A typical road in Goa, India.Image via Wikipedia
Will having too high an expectation of a place ruin the experience when I actually get there? When I think Goa, I am reminded of palm fringed beaches, silver sands and the blue ocean. When I think Goa, I see old colonial mansions painted in exuberant colours and crumbling old churches clinging on to the present. When I think Goa, I dwell on lazy days lounging on a hammock in the sun as the sea breeze plays your nanny swinging you to sleep. When I think Goa, I hear the steady thump of a mighty Enfield which has given me the honour of riding it as it grandly cruises its way on a road hugging the crashing waves and spectacular cliffs. When I think Goa, I imagine a never-ending party with the strumming of guitars and banjos, beautiful faces greeting strangers with the most familiar of smiles. Maybe I am setting myself up for disappointment on all of these counts, but what the heck, dreaming don't cost no money! In exactly a couple of days, for better or for worse, I am going to find out for myself if the legends are true.
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Saturday, October 2, 2010

"Take it easy policy"

Signature of Mahatma Gandhi.Image via Wikipedia
A few mornings ago, my box radio was blaring out music beaming from a Calcutta station, the usual mix of good, bad and ugly. In a stark reminder of how fast time moves on, they played one of the big A.R. Rahman Bollywood hits from back when we were kids, "Urvashi Urvashi" from "Hum Se Hai Muqabala" [As it was dubbed in Hindi] under the Retro section! Besides conjuring up images of Prabhudeva and his troupe's incredibly flexible but incredibly weird dance moves atop a moving glass roofed bus, a line in the the song's lyrics of convenience seemed oddly relevant in the present context. 
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"Billiyaan naa shaakaahari, har koi Ram nahin hotaa..." [Loosely translates to "Cats aren't vegetarians and not everyone is Ram..."] was what drew attention when the day for the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case judgement was near. Not everyone is Ram, because Lord Ram is one of the most straightforward and just Gods of our pantheon, free from any grey areas, never compromising on what is right for the need of the hour, unlike most other heroes who have featured in our mythology and the Mahabharata. Not everyone is Ram, because when Mahatma Gandhi began his mission of truth and peace, he chose to call the ideal world based on these standards "Ram-rajya" [The kingdom of Ram], the reason being Lord Ram did live his life by these standards.
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Concrete evidence of whether Ram existed as a person is bound to be a long-drawn meaningless debate between faith, history and science, but irrespective of the outcome, it still is a royal shame that his name has been hijacked by those who rape, loot and destroy. The essence of his legend is lost when instead of talking about a kingdom of justice and happiness, the extremist Hindu right-wing movement forces all non-Hindus to accept their essential "Hinduness" in a horribly warped version of Ram-rajya, one of their own making. Raking up hatred for what Muslim conquerors did hundreds of years ago, and directing it towards the innocent Muslim on the streets is about as far away from Ram's ideals as anyone can get. Their present loutish behaviour, disrespect for other religions and the destruction of symbols of faith puts them squarely in the same category as Mohammad Ghazni, Timur the Lame, Aurangzeb or any other historical maruder that they claim to hate. Far from being the so-called 'protectors of the Hindus' and the people who 'set things right', they are the mega-sized warts on the face of Hinduism which draw all the attention and who alongwith fellow loonies like extremist Muslims, war loving corporate-government conglomerates and revolutionary Lefties make the world an increasingly dangerous place for live in, for Hindus and all others.
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Disagreements are unavoidable in a world where cultures are so radically different and in times of strife, it is very very difficult to find common ground but what choice do we really have except to put up with each other, thereby saving ourselves a whole lot of bloodshed and tragedy. The 'developed' world is reeling under what it calls 'immigration issues' but it should stop freaking out and take its cues from this country which has been handling 'immigrants' for thousands of years now, rapidly digesting the immigrant label in its cast-iron stomach. Falling back on good ol' Prabhudeva and A.R. Rahman's one-stop solution "Jeet kaa mantra hai [The magic spell to victory is]... take it easy policy!" Considering that it is after all a policy, I should add "Conditions apply! Please read the offer document carefully before investing." but in the long run and the short, I hope it becomes evident that this is the only worthwhile policy on the market.
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[Due apologies to Gautam Buddha, the Sufi saints, Mahatma Gandhi, Peter Fonda + Dennis Hopper, The Eagles, TVS Scooty and everyone else who have espoused the "Take it easy" cause throughout history and who also have been consistently ignored. I did not intend in any way to make light of the importance of their message.]
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

While you were Facebooking

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...Image via CrunchBase

While you were Facebooking, the rain came down,
While you plunged in a stream of pictures, the sea sighed aloud
Lost in the web of viral videos, as the jungle lies unexplored
Ancient ruins have no visitors, yet statuses have 'likes' galore
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Your regular job may be boring, but hey, it pays the bills
Once you are done with the necessary, you still need a rethink
Friends are friends, let's not forget, it's good to keep in touch
But adventure awaits beyond the virtual, at the cost of being 'social'.
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[This is more of a reminder to myself that I should not be spending too much time on FB. But all of you FB addicts out there, feel free to take it personally and act as if insulted]
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Saturday, September 4, 2010

The simple truth

It's not easy to publicly admit, but the simple truth is that I am a thief, albeit a rather guilt-ridden one. And to be stealing from the very person I idolize, both for his creative output and for his principled and happy existence often times projected through his creations is even more unforgivable. Bill Watterson spent a lifetime fighting off the pressures of his comic book syndicate; refusing to lend his brilliant Calvin and Hobbes characters for any kind of commercial promotion and here I was knowing everything about all that, yet using a panel from one of his Sunday strips as a header for my blog, in a rather obvious and lame attempt to pull in readers already familiar with his brilliant work, even though my writing had absolutely nothing to do with the comic strip or its themes. Since then I have even tried to change my blog header a number of times but for some inexplicable technical reasons, I seem unable to do so. For now it seems that I am condemned to have my conscience pricked every time I open my blog's home page. The panel of the strip which I have as a background for my blog's title will hopefully disappear at some point in the near future if I put my head to it but it'll still be impossible to see a snow covered slope, and not be reminded of a tiny kid talking to his stuffed tiger as he drags his toboggan up the slope of Rigor Mortis Cliff.
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A lot of logic and rationalization is pumped out by the gallon about how downloading bootleg version of music MP3s, TV shows, movies and books is actually not 'stealing', rather it is essential to 'popularizing' the artist and helping 'more' people appreciate the content but I will skip all that nonsense. Though I have been guilty of the aforementioned acts myself multiple times over, I'll never console myself by saying that it is perfectly acceptable. It may be the smart thing to do but it certainly is never the right thing to do! More so in the case of Calvin and Hobbes, and for those to whom these things matter, here's throwing some light on the exemplary artist that is Bill Watterson and the most famous products of his imagination.
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Bill Watterson's speech for the commencement ceremony of his alma mater Kenyon College (http://web.mit.edu/jmorzins/www/C-H-speech.html) is a masterpiece and a very precise encapsulation of everything that he wanted to convey through the delightful 10 year existence of Calvin and Hobbes. Achieving the roaring popularity which the strip saw was far from easy and the only thing that kept him going before his strip made it big was in his own words was "self-belief bordering on delusion" But when the peak of success did arrive, he stopped short of what could have added on millions of dollars to his bank account. That Calvin and Hobbes would never sell T-shirts; that they would not line toy store shelves as soft toys; that they would not sell insurance and that they would not keep running forever in newspapers scripted and drawn by ghost artists while Bill Watterson holidayed in some exotic Pacific resort is a testament to the guy's deep attachment to his protagonists and to his repeated stress on the higher purpose of art, disguised as a entertaining comic strip though it may be. Watterson wanted them to exist solely as comic strip characters true to the intentions he had created them with and he managed to keep them that way. My recent purchase of the "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes" is a minor attempt by me at damage control because I believe that an artist as dedicated as him deserves every single cent or paisa of what is due to him.
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Not that any amount of money could ever come close to repaying the debt of laughter and food for thought that I and millions of other fans owe to the story of an imaginative 6 year old and his philosophical talking pet tiger. The painstaking artwork whether it be a stretch of imagination as ridiculous as T-Rexes flying F-16s or a scene as sublime as the pair jaunting through the woods in the beautiful season of fall speaks for itself. The humourous dialogue laced with sharp observations about the follies of people manages to establish a unexpected common boundary between deep wisdom and all-out entertainment magically retaining the essence of both. The man himself is candid enough to admit that the struggles of life that he had to face on the way were essential so that when Calvin and Hobbes finally came out, the content was just right for it to find the right audience at the right time snowballing into the world-wide phenomenon that it became. All I can say that I feel lucky that I was the part of the right audience, the supposed right group whose fancy Mr. Watterson's incredible work caught. Because whenever I think of life, philosophy, happiness, childhood, friendship, adventure, imagination and the incredible satisfaction gained out of just being yourself, the first thing I think of is Calvin and Hobbes.
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'Busa fever

I couldn't believe my eyes. This was insane. This was amazing. This was unprecedented. On a pleasant August Sunday afternoon (last Sunday in fact), a Suzuki Hayabusa, the fastest road-legal motorcycle in the world as of today was slowly growling past my very own garage down the narrow lane in front of my very own house in central Calcutta. All in black, with those huge twin exhausts and the massive rear tyre, this wasn't the first 'Busa that I had seen. In fact I had seen many of them on the freeways of the USA and the occasional one in Bombay and Delhi. But describing the visual impact and contrast of seeing a motorcycle which can touch 320 kmph, inching along in my home lane, where hand-pulled rickshaws and cycle-rickshaws form the major chunk of regular traffic is beyond my current writing capabilities. My eyes followed the bike and its lucky rider till the 4 way intersection a little after my front gate, where it turned left and glided on to wherever it was headed. Luckily I had just returned from a 120 km riding adventure of my own and was still outside my house about to roll my Pulsar into my garage. On most other Sunday afternoons, I would be found fast asleep after breaking personal pledge no. 99968 of not falling asleep on a weekend aternoon. This was a clear case of divine intervention, for me to present on the road at that exact moment in time and to add another pleasant memory to my car/bike/engineering marvels obsessed life.
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Even those who are not really as big as a car/bike/engineering fan-boys like me would find the legend of Hayabusa's creation totally irresistible. It's part of modern manufacturing folklore, something you might want to tell your grandkids as a bedtime story. OK, just kidding about that part, but it's still a very cool story. Towards the late 1990s, the four Japanese motorcycle biggies namely Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda and Suzuki were engaged in a tussle to consistently outdo each other in the top speed figures of their production (i.e road-legal) motorcycles pushing the limits of motorcycle and aerodynamic design with every new model that they launched. As the year 1999 arrived, at the top of the high speed hill was the Honda CBR1100 Super Blackbird with the speedometer capable of touching nearly 300 kmph. The Blackbird motorcycle was in turn named after the SR-71 Blackbird, an US Air Force (USAF) fighter plane which had for decades held the title of the fastest plane in the world consistently cruising at speeds above Mach 3 and had to be eventually retired because no fighter plane really needs that kind of speed under existing combat conditions. The natural world also has a bird family called blackbirds, inspiration for the plane's name but they are not really remarkable in any way except that they are found all around the world in one form or the other. The only reason the plane might have been named the Blackbird was not its record-breaking speed but probably its stealthy dark looks. Whatever logic there might have been behind the naming, the folks at the USAF and subsequently Honda were quite lazy when it came to choosing a name for their top-end machine. A point which folks at Suzuki, Honda's rival must have noted.
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The avian natural world has a very real speedster though. The peregrine falcon - with it sharp eyes, and even sharper talons is capable of reaching speeds of 200 mph (320 kmph) during a dive to catch their prey. The migratory ones fly 15500 miles (24800 km) a year from the Arctic circle to South America and back. The word 'peregrine' means wanderer and with all the bird's talents, calling it a superfast wanderer wouldn't be inappropriate. And amongst many other smaller birds that form the peregrine falcon's food, there is a certain bird called the blackbird which shares the same habitat as its predator. When the Hayabusa was launched by Suzuki in 1999, it beat the Honda Blackbird's top speed by a good 10-12 mph (16-19 kmph) reaching nearly 200 mph, thereby making it the new fastest motorcycle in the world, a challenge which Suzuki engineers had taken up very seriously and completed. Soon after that, Kawasaki tried to top that speed with the Ninja ZX-12R but failed and then for the sake of rider safety and government regulations around the world, the 4 Japanese motorcycle rivals reached an unwritten agreement that they would not try to outdo each other on the speed front any longer and concentrate on the comfort of the ride instead. Therefore, the Hayabusa has remained for a long time (frome 1999 till date) on the top of the velocity charts for a bike you can buy from a showroom and straightaway zip out onto a road. As for the name chosen by Suzuki, the Japanese kanji symbol for Hayabusa, in the language's beautiful pictographic way of depicting objects, gives a big clue (See image above) as to what it means. Look carefully and it's hard to miss the shape of a bird of prey descending on a hapless smaller bird, a graphic which can be found on the sides of all Hayabusas and is also a very popular motorbike sticker in India, without most people knowing its significance. The Japanese word for the peregrine falcon, if you haven't guessed it already, is hayabusa. Hence was born the legendary motorcycle's name - Hayabusa, the hunter of Blackbirds!
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