Sunday, December 2, 2012

Smiley

Nervously, the 6 tourists on the airboat scanned the pond in front of us, fringed as it was by the thick mangrove vegetation of the Florida Everglades. The sun shone bright and it was a cozy morning, despite this being the end of November, a luxury of being in the South. But we had a little something on our minds right then. We were on the lookout for the big 'un.
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An airboat is a very low, very flat bottomed and very fast boat with an enclosed aeroplane rotor tagged to its rear end, a machine designed for navigating the swampy shallow terrain of the 'Glades. Trouble was, our captain (pilot?) had killed the motor and we were lazily drifting along in the water. He didn't look like he wanted to get away quick just in case things got hairy.
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If things got... scaly would be a better word, I guess. For if you know of the Everglades, you know of their most infamous residents. We had already seen a momma alligator from a safe distance away basking on the banks and shielding her young ones, 20-25 of them. All of 7 feet in length, she was lethargic enough to provide ample photo opportunities, without giving us cause for worry, by moving towards us. But now we were in open water.
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As if on cue with a communal sixth sense, we turned around to check on the one place beyond our collective scanning eyes and sure enough, a member of a species which had stay unchanged in shape since the day of the dinosaurs was silently sneaking up on us. It was with a mix of fear and awe that we realized such a massive animal could swim perfectly soundlessly. With that peculiarly reptilian crawl often times seen on TV wildlife documentaries, he came cruising right alongside our boat.


At this point, all the 6 non-Floridans on the boat including yours truly shrank towards the centre of the vessel, instinctive self preservation, I guess. The captain was hardly re-assuring in his 'assurances'. Sitting high on his seat in the middle of the boat, the farthest away from the creature, he pronounced "That's Smiley. Almost 11 feet long. If he wanted to, he could leap clear of the water and land on my lap." Having a nickname for a huge alligator might earn our captain some brownie points in the regional macho-man competition but we were not eager to have some particular aspects of Smiley's physical abilities on display.
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11 feet is very much on the lower side of how big crocodilians can get, but 11 feet of scales, teeth and muscle circling our boat with an interested eye was alligator plenty for me. At about 450 menacing pounds in weight, and with 55-60 years of hunting experience (Fast fact: Alligators grow a foot a year for the 6 years of their life and from then on, their length increases only by an inch a year!), Smiley wasn't quite ideal company to have when out boating. A swamp creature of my nightmares was now within biting distance of me and there was no telling what was going on in the pea-shaped brain of his as he evaluated our boat and its passengers.
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We joked and laughed about dangling fingers in front of Smiley and about this being a especially bad place to fall into the water, for the most part, to stifle that queasy feeling generated when a large predator is encircling you quite casually, in his own domain. This was the cliched tourist experience we had come for, wasn't it? The whole "Been to the 'Glades, seen a gator" photo-op deal to boast about when we got back home. Only for that pesky voice inside to pipe up and say that is a real big ALLIGATOR and that we were on WATER and if he wanted to, there really was NOTHING stopping Smiley from making that humans equal to easy meat connection.
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It's been centuries since we have moved out of the food chain which sustains the rest of the natural world. We have devised our own fancy but safe ways of obtaining food for ourselves. A little reminder once in a while does help a lot to appreciate this privilege. Out there in the REAL real world, we are not at the top of the chain. No. Most definitely not.
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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Racist



[Re-worked... to make it a little less of an angry rant] 
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Anger. My only reaction to the comic strip above, published on the Dilbert website for 31st October 2011. How callous and insulting the use of a short line "I grew up in India" at the right (wrong?) place could be, I hadn't realized before this. 
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The comments below the strip weren't helping. Quite a few geniuses had commented to the tune of "I am an Indian and I laughed along with this joke. It needs to be enjoyed in the right spirit."
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Right spirit? Right spirit, my a**. The joke was not only offensive for us who have had the privilege of a very blessed & protected childhood in India but twice as offensive for the unfortunate fellow citizens of our country who have very real issues with drinking water & health. Not a joking matter at all, for whatsoever reason.
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Asok, the intern character from India, is a simpleton targeted for laughs with his nauseating diligence and his eager-to-please attitude, a counterweight to the scheming work-shirking Wally. That much I accept is a necessary aid to keep the story flowing.
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But this wasn't humour or even if it was, it didn't seem like it. Humour presents an opportunity to cross the line of Political Correctness. But it matters, it really does, how it is put across and who does it. I have been a frequent reader of Dilbert myself and though the quality wavers a lot, it had never stooped to the level of racial mud-slinging like this before.
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As a cartoonist, Scott Adams reserves full right to say what he wants to. What I find very unfortunate is that a mainstream and popular artist like him didn't think twice about portraying such an unacceptable point of view, normally the preserve of white supremacist websites and such like. 
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Yes, there are comedians like Russell Peters who consistently make fun of  the cliched Indian qualities, but his Indian origins help him to be a more suitable man to make jokes about Indians. A smart insider's self-criticisms can be superbly funny. An over-smart outsider's unwarranted comments come off as ugly and racist.
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Monday, November 5, 2012

I-Sheep v/s Fandroid

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase
Screeching my car into a Vassar Street parking slot, I looked around for the McNair Building where I was supposed to have been in around half an hour ago. There was not a pedestrian in sight, a rare scenario on the afternoon streets of Cambridge, in and around the MIT area. There was always someone. Finally there he was, that one person, strolling down the street, who seemed like the type to ask directions from. I hailed him with an "Excuse me!", enough to be greeted with a look of mild irritation of having to look away from the magic of the 3.5 inch I-phone screen in his hands.
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"Yes?" he asked.
"Would you know where the McNair building might be?" I ventured forth.
"Don't you have a phone?" said Mr. Mildly Irritated
"I do." I answered, more than a little puzzled, struggling to bring out my phone from my pocket.
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Seeing an Android phone pop out in my hand was the tipping point for my reluctant guide. "Oh! It's not an I-Phone!" he rationalized aloud, justifying to himself the obvious lack of intelligence and sophistication that he seemed to have pre-sensed in me. I would have told him that my smart phone loyalties were not iron-clad, that I wasn't allied to the 'enemy'. It was only because I was getting the Samsung Galaxy S for free with my plan that I had one. Didn't seem like he would believe me, so I didn't bother either.
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Swift as the wind, he pulled up an app on his piece of technological perfection and punched in 'McNair Building'. What the phone told him, I do not know. All I got was a broad sweep of his arms which I think covered for 50% of the MIT campus in view, as he announced with surety "My phone says this building is somewhere over there."
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"Thanks!" I said, with force-of-habit politeness. Then almost eclipsed by his triumphant face, I saw the stencilled name McNair on the wall of the building about 1o feet behind him. I would have pointed that out to him too, but then who was I to endlessly, hopelessly deny the future. Using them things called eyes would be too much work and accessing that messy gadget called a brain would mean total under-utilization of that monthly 3G data limit.
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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bounce back?



It was quite like being poked in the eye, over and over again. Even the sombre settings of the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan and the quiet introspection that came along with it were not sacred enough for some, it would seem. 
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On an August Sunday morning, hundreds of visitors walked through the area where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood before September 11, 2001, now cleared of debris and open to the public, developed as a memorial to that horrifying day of violence and to bring peace & reconciliation to the limited extent possible. The footprints of the North and South Towers were now fountains pouring into pools on the ground and rising again. The names of the 2983 victims killed in an earlier 1993 bombing of the buildings, the subsequent 2001 plane hijackings, the Pentagon crash and the buildings themselves were engraved on the black marble surrounding them. 
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It was quiet as would befit the location, with people gazing in silence at the pools or sitting on the benches surrounding them, submerged in deep thought. I couldn't have been the only one noticing the odd behaviour of the couple clicking pictures by the North Tower pool. They were busy trying to get an appropriately grey image given the location but it was the fact that they were setting it up to look real that gave me a sick feeling. The female half of the partnership was being directed by the male half to turn this way and that way, to hold 'that thoughtful gaze'. In between the shots, there was laughing and smiling by the gallons, indicating a disgusting mission to look it, rather than to feel it.
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I guess it will stay that way, the simplest of narratives for millions of people. Here they were, the good guys with not a care in the world living in the greatest nation on the planet. Then came these bad guys (from a different religion and region of the world, it'll be whispered) and killed so many innocent folk in their country. The good guys got our own back though, went into their countries and bombed their evil souls to hell and beyond. End of story. The complications and realities of geo-politics and history will permanently be side-stepped by these folk. 
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Who were these people and who got them going on their path to murderous madness? [Hint: Which secret agency first funded Osama bin Laden's radical Islam agenda, back when he was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan?] Were all the innocent lives lost and the irreparable destruction caused in retaliation based solely on the aim of defeating terrorism or were there other factors at play? What, if anything, can be done to prevent future games of international chess using the governments and people of weak countries as pawns?
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It is criminal to justify the murder of nearly 3000 people and the numbing sadness that it caused to a people happily leading their daily lives completely uninvolved in the schemes and ploys of realpolitik by saying that they had it coming. The perpetrators of such an heinous act have, will and should meet the fate that they deserve, a less than pleasant one, I might add. 
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But what is also criminal is to reduce this to a comic book level of simplicity where the bad guys are the bad guys tarred with a paint brush on basis of their ethnicity, the god they worship and their geographic location while the good guys are all sunshine and roses. The need is to keep is keep our eyes and ears open, to understand that in this imperfect world, everything is linked to everything else and that it takes two hands to clap.
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9/11 was a terrible day in the history of humanity, an awful culmination of blind hatred towards a religion/nation/people. It'll be impossible to put behind and in many ways, it should not be. Lives will be re-built, losses will be absorbed in the folds of time but what should stay is a conscious effort to smile a little less (the self-absorbed vacuous variety) and think a little more. What may seem too irrelevant and far away to be of concern should matter to all. Wilful ignorance is too dangerous a disease to let infect our species. We are capable of engaging our thoughts and actions towards issues beyond our immediate environment and we should. 
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9/11 and the dark depths of its tragedy should never be reduced to a mere photo op.
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Monday, July 30, 2012

Canis lupus



Like most other cliches, the one about the zoo and the wild is grounded in truth. At the zoo, the wildlife are caged visitors in the world of humans and in the wild, the humans are in theirs, caged or otherwise. My first visit to a wildlife sanctuary after decades of devoted wildlife documentary viewing bore hard proof of that [http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.com/2010/11/real-deal.html]. To expect animals to behave like animals was the whole point of entering their natural domains. Unfortunately it does mean reduced chances of seeing them, especially the sly ones.
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But this was Alaska, proving an exception to that rule. I was on a shuttle bus which made its way to the Eielson Visitor Centre at the heart of the Denali National Park and back out again. On my first day, the 7th of June 2012, I had already seen 7 grizzly bears, two moms (sows) with pairs of cubs and a lone male bear (boar), numerous Dall sheep lounging lazily at the edge of sheer cliffs hundreds of feet high, moose and caribou in the 6 odd hours I had spent on the bus. I was already in sixth heaven of my animal besotted life. But only sixth. As I was telling the couple right behind me, "If only..."
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My co-passengers were in a similar state of euphoria. We were all on the 'lucky bus', we insisted. More than a few of us were enthusiastic eagle-eyed lookouts for every minute of the ride and quite often managed to pick out something in the brush that didn't quite look like a rock. That would turn out to be another animal. In the seat just ahead of me were a couple of French speaking teenagers who looked like they had just stepped out of an anime movie with electric blue dyed hair and more piercings than I could care to count. They yapped incessantly, as would be expected of two girl pals irrespective of nationality. I wondered, without making much headway, what might have brought them here. This corner of Alaskan backcountry, decidedly not gritty urban chic, didn't seem like where their scene was at.
We were already winding our way back to the borders of the park to the Wilderness Access Centre from where we had started. Alaska had already made my day, year and life for everything it had shown me on this trip, the breathtaking beauty of its landscapes and the lives of its residents, animal and human. I was simply being greedy when I wished for that one last thing. Everyone knew that 'they' were the ultimate team, smart, tenacious and fearsome - all attributes that would make them really unlikely to come posing in front of a busload of humans.
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In the powerful final chapter of "The Call of the Wild", after the human master he loved with heart and soul is murdered by the Yeehat Indians, Buck the massive sled dog, hero of the story breaks his final bonds with civilization, running out into the forests of Alaska, never to return to the warmth of human protection, turning into a creature of legend, stalking and terrorizing the Indians. He answers the 'call of the wild', becoming the leader of a pack of his wild brothers. It was his brothers that I was on an as-yet-futile lookout for.
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The Alaskan tundra in summer is a feast for the eyes by itself. The many hues of natural colours and the short stubby bushes that stretch out on undulating land before rising into snow clad gigantic mountains in the distance could easily put a paint company's shade card to shame. To know that it also hold such an abundance of wildlife made it twice as scan worthy for my hungry touristy vision. But it was some other excited voice in our bus which shouted "STOP! 3'o'clock! 3'o'clock". The bus stopped abruptly and its passengers looked sharply to the right out of its windows.
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"There they are. Five of them!" said someone else as I scrambled to my knees, scrabbling around in excitement on my seat for my binoculars. I was sure of what I would see because it had indeed been that kind of a glorious day for me so far, yet I wanted to look closer. The anime sisters in front of me went super ballistic with their French chatter in excitement as they planted their faces on the bus window. All I could distinctly hear was "Loup! Loup! Loup!" 
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A smile of intense happiness broke across their faces and one of them went as far to clarify for those who didn't understand French or hadn't spotted the five powerful grey shapes playfully gambolling across the grass yet. One of the brochures for Denali referred to it quite accurately as the 'signature sound of the wild'. Against the backdrop of a large full moon, it would bring a chill down the spine or a smile on your face depending on the kind of person you were or how adventurous you might be feeling right then. Pursing her lips, she howled to no one in particular "Aaaoooo...aaoo...aaoooo" Wolf. Wolf. Wolf.


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Saturday, July 28, 2012

24 spokes



There was an idiot up on stage at the Hatchshell on the banks of the Charles. "People claim that we have abandoned the country. I say we are more patriotic than any of them." He continued "I asked my friends back home if they knew how many spokes the Ashok Chakra on the Indian tricolour had. None of them had the right answer. 24 spokes!" I couldn't decide whether to laugh at his less-than-bright theorem or cry tears of embarassment at being his fellow countryman.
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Thus he rested his shaky case of being more patriotic than the rest of India combined. By his urgent attempts to prove his allegiance to his home nation, he gave away his recent date of arrival to the USA. All this being part of the annual celebration of the Indian Independence Day in faraway Boston, Massachusetts, quite understandably shifted to the nearest Sunday, the 14th of August 2011 (co-incidentally the I-Day of a country whose name starts with a P).
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Maybe I was being a little too harsh in my judgement of him. At least he was here, on a day when rain was predicted and I had myself almost skipped the event but for some guilt inducing statements from a cousin born and brought up in North America. The last time I remembered celebrating Independence Day was when I was in school, a celebration in terms of the joy of having a day off. The Indian Association of Greater Boston had been putting together this event for decades now and getting hundreds to come to it for that many years was no mean feat.
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Down by the sides of the rectangle that comprised Boston's Hatchshell arena, there were NGO stalls by the dozens seeking donations and attention. The causes were plentiful and each of them equally worthy. Manned by second generation Americans, Indian in appearance, American in speech, the so-called ABCDs seemed sincerely worried about what was evidently lacking in the country of their parents' birth. The not-so-pretty truth of hunger, ignorance and lack of opportunity seemed to have affected them more severely than many 'Indian' Indians like me. What they were trying to do, in my opinion, was significantly better than making self-promoting speeches off the dais.
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A little guy, around 10 years old, was darting about amongst the milling crowds of families who had made it out to the grounds on the day. He was ferrying information for a NGO called Akshaya Patra which had partnered with the state governments in quite a few Indian states to run a very efficient school meals programme. He handed me a brochure and was gone in the blink of an eye. Another young 'un, I thought, working in his own way for a land two oceans away which he might visit once in a while but would probably never want to stay in for too long.
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All assumptions of mine, it must be said. Culpable of being too absorbed in the progress of my life than my nation's struggles, I may view any attempt to think beyond oneself with rose-tinted glasses. Yes, I read the news about India like a hound on a scent. Yes, I worry, truly worry about who would and how would the myriad issues be fixed. Do I do anything about it? A feeble no. I want to, like the nameless thousands who were involved in the laborious process of building up or clearing out, long before Hazare sat down in a fog of Facebook 'Likes' and will continue to do so long after the last of his dwindling Twitterati supporters fade away. On the ground, because I belong there. Because I cannot claim, with a clear conscience, to be impossibly addicted to a first world lifestyle in the minute fraction of my life that I have lived it.
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But it is clear that being on the ground is not the only way to contribute. That's confusing because it is also hard to ignore the fact that unless you are living the dusty and grimy reality of a country making chaotic progress, day in and day out, you cannot really be the 'real deal', the much needed agent of change. Is swearing loyalty to the country as important as actually doing something for it? Does accent and place of birth mean more than intent and genuine concern? The questions swirl unanswered as the cultural programme continues on stage. The longest queues are to be found, as expected, outside the stalls selling Indian food.
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Friday, July 20, 2012

Prayer

The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does it mean if I want to watch a movie on the first day of its release, yet have very low expectations from it? I look forward to it enough to buy a midnight show on the first day of its release but the crass self-promotion of the trailers put me off all the same.
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"The epic conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy"... any movie that refers to itself as epic long before its launch should normally be a dead ringer for its 'un-epicness'. The audience has the right to posthumously deem a film an epic, not some suited honcho in a big Hollywood studio.
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Chris Nolan's movies have been known for letting very few secrets of the plot out through their pre-launch publicity. "Inception", "The Dark Knight", "The Prestige" and "Batman begins" had little more than a collection of mysterious images and ominous sounds in their trailers. One can only hope that this tradition of "The trailer means nothing" continues for "The Dark Knight rises".
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The 'villain in a superhero movie' bar was raised and launched into outer space by the last movie and expecting Bane to outdo Heath Ledger's Joker from the last movie is a lost hope. But at least, there is the stunning Anne Hathaway to look forward to as a semi-heroine Catwoman in this movie, the first time Chris Nolan has managed to get a female lead worthy enough of the great Batman movies he has churned out so far. May she be the icing on the cake on this one.
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The grey world of Gotham City, its guardians and its ill-wishers inspires a steadfast fandom who have to go out and check out what's happening in the latest vision of that universe. Cribbing and complaining aside, it has its captive audience amongst whom yours truly is included. Consider this post to be some kind of a prayer. Prove me wrong about my negative expectations, o demi-god of creativity. Prove me wrong, Christopher Nolan.
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Monday, June 18, 2012

Trust

"Let off the brakes!" says the instructor at certain points on the track sitting calmly in the passenger seat on my very first lap of the racetrack. The huge parking lot P10 North of the Gillette stadium had been set-up on this Saturday morning, the 16th of June 2012 into a twisting loop of 3 straights, 2 long and 1 short; a S section and 3 more turns. "Yeah right!" I think to myself "570 HP engine on a 1500 kg car with my foot on the accelerator all the way down till a second ago and you want me to stop braking? Thank you, sir but I rather like being alive." End of Lap 1.
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Lap 2 begins with a short straight and he shouts "Go! Go! Go!" I put the pedal to the metal and the God awesome roar of a 5.2 litre V-10 engine fills my universe. My head snaps back due to the sheer acceleration. I am in the driving seat of a Lamborghini Gallardo LP 570-4 Spyder Performante and it is already apparent to me why this car costs $2,50,000. For all its faults, only capitalism necessitates the building of such an excess of power or madness as some would call it and the world is a better place because of it (or so say car nuts like me). Slightly easier on the brakes this time and the car squeals just a little on the turn but holds its line, a bull on the charge.
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By the end of Lap 3, this monster under my tutelage seems to not have that much of a mind of its own. The wall of terror and worship that divided us when I first took charge of it is a lot less higher now. We pull off the track for a quick oil check as this Italian beauty in black has been put through the paces quite a few times since the day began and a little medical check-up is on the cards. All OK. "The next 3 laps will be even more fun" says my guru as he hops into the passenger seat again "I like how you use the brakes and make the turns nice and easy." A confidence boosting compliment is welcome, no matter how frequently he may have used them with his other students too. 
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Out onto the track again and gunning the engine through the straight, a slight tap on the brakes and a twist of the steering to the right. A swoop and the car is pointing right. No mishaps. Time to step on it again. Here comes the third straight, the last on this lap. 570 horses and their past generations lurch into motion and time slows down. Here comes the S curve. Should I or should I not? The speedo reads a high number, too high. I ought to slow down. This is impossible. Ever so slightly feel for the brake, tap it but then miraculously stay off it. A quick flick to the left, then to the right and then to the left again. Clean as a whistle, smooth as they come and on to the end of Lap 4.
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"How did that feel?" asks my co-passenger with a smile. There's too much to say. This is what they try to describe on all those Top Gear reviews I grew up watching. The car flows, through the curves, through the turns, at a velocity and with control almost supernatural. She is capable of far more than what my limited personal abilities will be able to put her through. The details of the next and final two laps are vague and dream like. Fast as they are, every second is a golden experience in going with the flow, following an invisible trail of driving ecstasy. The instructor's voice is not registering any more or maybe he isn't even saying anything anymore. He knows that words lose their meaning from here on in. Like in all matters of trust, the beauty lies in what remains unspoken.
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Sunday, May 27, 2012

At land's end

Cover of "The Call of the Wild (Kingfishe...
Cover via Amazon

In Aleut, one of the languages of the natives, the land's incredibly resourceful and ingenious original human inhabitants for nearly 10,000 years, its name means "The Great Land". A little larger in area than the combined size of California, Montana and Texas, the next 3 biggest states in the USA, that is hardly a misnomer. To the Western/European world, it was and still frequently referred to as the Last Frontier, an unmapped vastness that carried the age of explorers well into the 20th century calling out to the brave and the greedy, the curious and the desperate.
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Roads cover only about 15-20% of the available land and need substantial repair work after every brutal Arctic- sub Arctic winter, which in places to its north lasts 8 months. The rest is accessible only by extreme foot torture, waterways or air-taxi. Yes, air-taxi. Did I mention that these air taxis change their footgear to be able to land with skis or pontoon floats or wheels depending on the season and their 'bush pilots' are held in reverence for their everyday daredevilry in flying and landing in the most challenging circumstances? A New York City cab ride is most definitely the proverbial walk in the park in comparison. 
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The so-called 'modern' world stumbled upon it in the 18th century via fur seeking Russians who went on to claim it as a Russian colony. A number of towns, rivers and spots retain their Russian names and ways till date. Sold to the US in 1867 for $7.2 million, it seemed like a steep asking price, back in the day, for unforgiving unfriendly land but later it must be the Russians who were wringing their hands in disappointment when unprecedentedly massive deposits of crude oil were discovered in the mid 1950s near its Arctic Ocean coast. The oil boom was termed the second Gold Rush
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The first one was back in the late 1800s and early 1900s for real gold as men poured in by the thousands from easier climes to try and snap up the gold which tabloids proclaimed was lying on the ground waiting to be scooped up. But of course, the only thing lying were the tabloids themselves. Though a handful of men did find enough gold to make it big, it was mostly a tragi-comic human story of foolish hopes as they were dashed or modified by the inhospitable terrain. Two things it did do though. Provide material for one of my favourite novels, Jack London's "The call of the wild" and put the mysterious allure of this region of the world on the minds of men and boys of the type whose eyes go wide when they heard of wild and wonderful places. 
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The terrain? It is not just polar bears and frozen arctic ice fields as seems to be the commonly held pre-conceived notion. Polar bears and arctic ice fields there are in plenty further up north, but also lush green taiga forests, miles of multi coloured tundra flatlands, snow covered craggy mountain ranges, a million lakes, vast rivers, rushing glacial streams and icy white glacier filled crystal blue oceans. Wolves, massive grizzly and brown bears roam the land; giant silvery salmon and other fish swim through the streams; pods of whales swim fearlessly in the bays, moose and elf tramp about unrestricted - all in an environment that the influence of man has had very little effect on. It goes without saying that people who live and thrive in such a world are a different breed by themselves.
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Come wintertime, the real hardiness of these people is put to test as the awestruck tourists quickly make a run back to the safety of their favourable weather systems. Bordered on the north by the Arctic Ocean and in the north-west by the icy Bering Sea, the 20-22 hours of daylight in the summer are replaced by a corresponding time period of darkness and frostbite friendly cold. Roads are cut off by snow and ice. Larders need to be stocked with food to last 7-8 months before it is safe and comfortable to travel again. Man's best friend, the ever reliable dog, now also serves as a beast of burden as the wolf-like but loyal packs of huskies drag loads and supplies to places when called upon. I am sure machines these days do a better job than a dozen eager-to-please canines but there's something irreplacable about the engine of a car if it wags its tail and leaps up in joy when it sees you. Sometimes efficiency can take a back seat.
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There is much more to be said in favour of a place where survival was once the height of sophistication but romanticism needs a cuff on the head once in a while. Modern technology and comforts have filtered in as the people there strive to be in sync with the rest of the world, rightly so, causing the olden days to be looked upon with a loony nostalgia. It wasn't pretty, the life of those early pioneers but what was definitely inspiring was the willingness to push the boundaries. To step out of their comfort zones, abandoning the company of the structured and organized teeming millions who were at least guaranteed survival and a shot at justice in court if not. Give it all up and come to a land where Nature undoubtedly had the upper hand. So many questions would be asked of them, some of them expected, the majority of them unexpected. To back themselves to be able to answer them with the innate intelligence that drives our success as a species.
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Adventure's home ground. Alaska.
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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Initiation

Who were/are the Red Hot Chili Peppers? They were/are a Southern California based rap-rock alternative band. With their heavily tattooed members who seemed to have a tendency of vigorous jumping about in nothing but their capris as seen on their brilliant role-playing video-game based (then recent) music video "Californification". They were as far apart from me in every way possible.

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Who was I? I was a geeky teenager growing up in a small town in southern Gujarat, (on the West Coast of India, for the record) absorbed in a world of reading and terrace cricket. My only exposure upto this point to any kind of rock music were a couple of songs of Queen, Aerosmith's "Hole in my soul" video which I did like for many reasons, some non-musical and then watching the video of "Smells like teen spirit" on MTV Select. The last mentioned caused in me a distinct head-spinning sensation, not one of appreciation, but one of overpowering nausea. Who'd really want to listen to anything like that? If rock music was an acquired taste, I just wasn't there yet.
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Then came along "Roadtrippin' ", a simple and stark video corresponding to its song, as far removed from the preceding "Californification" one as I was from RHCP.
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Haunted. That was how I felt. Haunted by the strange melody of the guitar, the wandering spirit vocals and the complete absence of any drums/percussion. The lyrics which did not make any sense and yet made a lot of sense at the same time. I saw potential. If a quartet of guys who had seemed so totally beyond redemption only a video ago as far as normal human behaviour was concerned, could sit around and make such beautiful music, maybe the choices that this genre of music offered were worth investigating. My geek meter was pinged by curiosity. I was drawn inside a world which I would have never thought of stepping into otherwise. It is a choice I am eternally grateful for having made.
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Watching them live on a Monday evening, the 7th of May, 2012 at the TD Garden in Boston was an appropriately monumental occasion for me. Anthony Kiedis was there with his magically deep voice sporting a Freddie Mercury-ish moustache, in a blazer at first before chucking it all off to end up in the trademark RHCP capri only look. 'The Flea' plugging away on the bass guitar, with an on-hands-only entry on stage and the insanely fit stage antics that earned him his nickname. 
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Both Kiedis and the Flea are 50 years old, super hyper-active on stage and a real example of how all rockstars don't have to look like dried Inca mummies (cue Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards) despite having lived the rockstar life. Longtime drummer Chad Smith was beating away at his set. John Frusciante, their genius grade lead guitarist was missing, having quit the band last year, for the second time in his life, causing hopeful speculation that he would return after a few years' break like the last time. In Josh Klinghoffer, the band had an able replacement but John made his presence felt through the tunes that he had left behind.
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"Under the bridge" was played, 20 years on, their break-out song and still as mesmerizing. So were some other favourites like "Can't stop", "Give it away", "Dani California" and "Californification". "Snow", "The zephyr song", "Desecration smile", "Tell me baby" and some other spectacular tunes though couldn't find their way onto the stage playlist. Also as significant as the song is to me, "Roadtrippin' " is probably not concert material. Looking back, this particular song may have had an even bigger impact on my life, more than just inducing me to explore rock. It is hard to miss the connection between my primary passion of wandering, the locations, countries and names immaterial as long it requires being on the move and the words I first heard then...
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"Road trippin' with my two favorite allies 
Fully loaded we got snacks and supplies 
It's time to leave this town 
It's time to steal away 
Let's go get lost 
Anywhere in the U.S.A. 
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Let's go get lost 
Let's go get lost"
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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Living with differences



I can’t help feeling a little cynical as I pen this down. After all, the only people who would want to read an essay on “Living with differences” would be the ones who are already aware that there is no viable alternative to it. For those who are convinced that standardization-be it on the lines of religion, caste or class is the way out of the entire world’s ills wouldn’t bother making the effort. But in times when a moderate opinion on any issue is panned and reviled by both warring camps, this is an important exercise in self-motivation.
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It’s been over a year since I passed out of Regional Engineering College (REC), Kurukshetra (Now that’s a real place in Haryana, in case you thought it is something on the lines of Rama’s Bridge). It’s been grandly re-christened National Institute of Technology (NIT), Kurukshetra, but we alumni persist with the REC short form rather than the new fangled NIT. RECs represent a unique kind of Institutions where people so markedly different are put together in some kind of weird social experiment. Students from every state have just got to be there, unlike the IITs where only the ‘cream’ shows up (more often than not resulting in states with great competitive environments dominating the numbers). But in RECs, it was a case of state boards, Delhi boards, vernacular medium, English medium, competitive exam based selections and board marks based selections, all tossed together in a mixed salad of sorts. And to the great surprise of everyone involved, manage to function quite well in their own hopelessly complicated sort of way.
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As one would expect, stereotyping was everyone’s favourite pastime. Guys from the North are bruising and crude, the people from the East are pseudo-intellectual snobs, the fellows from Western India- oh, ready to sell their souls if there was any money involved, students from the South never looking beyond syllabus books and their ‘own’ kind and finally the North-east- drunk druggies! And this was just stereotype level 1, the data and pre-conditioning for which our upbringing in our respective domicile states had already groomed us to believe. The next level would crop up when passionate as the youth must be, battle lines would be drawn over a minor argument or scuffle. Regions would blend into temporary coalitions and you would discover that:
# UP-ites were all scheming politicians
# Biharis were vicious fighters ready to plunge into battle at the drop of a hat
# Telugus were basically spineless and wouldn’t ever take a stand
# Tamils were out on a mission to subjugate all other South Indian cultures
# Bengalis were so full of themselves that it was impossible to stand them for more than a minute
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and a million more such previously unstated accusations that were always hiding in a dark corner of the mind waiting for an oppurtune moment to spring out.
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All prejudices and pet hates now out in the open, a tangible bitterness in the air and one would be forgiven for thinking that national integration was a lost cause even after 60 years of Independence. Tense and difficult, moments like these were indeed but in retrospect they bring a smile to my face.
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I smile because there is a fact that drifters like me knew. Being a Bengali schooled in Gujarat, and thereby gaining admission through the Gujarat quota, my domicile state was just one identity. We call them State GTs (Get Togethers) and Gujarat GT was something like a degree which was affixed to my name as and when the situation required. I had the good fortune/misfortune of being termed too Bengali or not Bengali enough by different groups at different times. I knew that despite all the cribbing and finger pointing some things would remain unchanged.
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When mess food in its vile form was served on our plates, all hands would stretch to that extra large jar of spicy South Indian pickle carried by a benevolent soul. When the Telugu guy next room would be really sick, it would be his Haryanvi classmates who would rush him to the hospital. That the common room would be packed to the rafters with every eye on the TV screen whenever “The Matrix” was on or when Australia was on the verge of losing a cricket match, whether the opponent be India or not. That the precious matchbox doing the rounds to light cigarettes had no regional loyalties and neither did a freshly filled bottle of cold water from the cooler, the furious look on its owner’s face notwithstanding. Xeroxed notes on the night before the exam would have a geographical distribution worthy of a thesis and that the look of shock after a particularly tough exam hardly varied from face to face. The dissimilarities between us were far too many to note down, but it was the most unlikely similarities that invited bemused contemplation.
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But of course, not everything was hunky-dory in life at an REC. Some of my fellow students by way of being in the wrong place at the wrong time walked away from 4 years of engineering with regional stereotypes further re-inforced. Some of them gave up the fight to defy the labels of their region, finding it much more convenient to behave the way certain people expected them to, helped in no small measure by constant heckling and jeering. The 50% local strength of the Haryanvi students in our REC frequently saw ‘Us and them’ situations crop up with Haryana-non Haryana tensions simmering. This feeling of insecurity against the majority populace seemed to be a common feature in most RECs if reports from friends in other RECs are anything to go by. Any kind of majority always exerts an unseen and mostly unintentional pressure on the others, and in an atmosphere of distrust, it only requires the proverbial spark to burst into flames.
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This is where I realized the sincere need for just inane conversation. By virtue of my network of friends, I always knew that the rumours and whispers about the ‘rival’ group had minimum basis in truth. Some of the people I talked with hardly had anything in common with me, but just by interacting with them I knew they couldn’t be half as bad as the alarm raisers claimed them to be. Sadly for others who were completely out of touch with them, anything anyone ever said about them was as good as true.
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Having grown up in Gujarat, I wondered even more how much a little mindless banter could have made a difference. During the 2002 riots in Gujarat, a Muslim classmate and I laughed over the fact that identical stories about a Muslim girl/Hindu girl being abducted were doing the rounds simultaneously in the respective communities. But when put in context of the horrifying violence that rumours like these generated, it hardly seems funny any longer. The fact that virtual LOCs between the two communities in most cities still persist, its sadly evident that peace achieved in such conditions is just a makeshift arrangement.
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At the end of the day we are all flawed, emotional beings who have a set of prejudices and dislikes which have evolved out of our immediate environment. Some of these prejudices cannot be shaken off in a lifetime but we can surely do better at preventing them from hardening. Every time one makes a sweeping statement about a community or a caste or a class, its important to rein that in. Situations may yet force them out but keeping those words in for a few seconds more robs them of their sting and in many cases makes one realize the purposelessness of it all.
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It is only human nature that we turn to a group that is closest to our way of living whenever we feel the need for security and identity. But reaching out is so much more important even though mutual agreement may be a distant dream. Just by knowing a person with a set of values which we find odd, comes a revelation that we are similar in some ways however few they may be. This similarity is a surprise and lessens to a great extent all our apprehensions about something completely unknown. And of course the all important fact that for any correction of supposed ‘flaws’ in the other, the kind word of a friend is so much more effective than the hate filled invective of a stranger.
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It’s a strange world that we live in. The rich/privileged seem to hate the poor for not being able to fend for themselves and the poor/disadvantaged hate the rich for purposefully keeping all opportunities to themselves. The religious hate the ‘modern’ for being too flippant about their God, while the ‘modern’ hate the religious for being book-bound bigots. And so on and forth, rage a variety of differences. I am not idealistic enough to see the world join together in a celebration of our differences in the near future, indeed coming together has its fair share of acrimony. But just knowing our differences and accepting them, before pushing for any kind of compromise is the first and inevitable step in the long, arduous path towards a world which is a saner, more livable version of its present sorry self.
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Written by me but originally published on 30th January 2008 at 
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Friday, April 6, 2012

70


[6th April 2012 - For my Dad's 70th birthday. Happy Birthday, Baba!]
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On the rooftop of an apartment building in a small town in southern Gujarat, two kids, a brother and a sister, both not 10 yet, looked up towards the sky expectantly. We knew, my sister and I, what we were looking for because we had already been shown many a times. A long drawn summer evening was coming to an end and the breeze from the nearby Narmada river was picking up now, chasing out the daytime heat from where it hid. And we waited.
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It is impossible to be objective about the influence of Dad on my life. I am up at 5 in the morning to write this. That's very much Baba. As a child, I had never seen him asleep at the time I woke up in the morning, no matter how early. I nearly started doing the dishes at 5:00 in the morning as I couldn't bear the sight of the stacks of dirty utensils piled up in the kitchen sink from last night's dinner. That's the neat and fastidious side of Baba showing up in me, sometimes to the extreme aggravation of Mom who would much rather have him focus on other things instead. In fact, the only time I have seen unshaven stubble on his face was when my Dadu passed away, a stark indication of how upset he was at the loss of his father. My obsession with cars, engineering, maps and travel? Baba. Baba. Baba. Baba.
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While my friends' fathers discussed competition, careers and finances with their sons, my Dad discussed world history, dogs and his childhood travels. It wasn't surprising that I was the only one in my friend circle who actually looked forward to my Dad coming back from work. While my friends would scurry away to keep out of their Dads' eyesight, my Dad would sit and watch Scooby Doo cartoons on TV alongside me, sometimes laughing harder than I did. A disciplinarian he never was, despite the omnipresent "Baba office thekey aashley Baba ke boley debo [Let Dad come home, I'll let him know]" threat regularly brandished by Mom when the situations were getting out of hand. We kids knew that it would take crossing a lot of lines to get Baba angry and in a way, we ensured that we never crossed those lines in the fear of encountering something totally alien like Angry Baba.
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All this unconventionality with regard to life and parenting had to be made up for with an extra effort to keep the boat from tipping over completely, a role perfectly essayed by a woman who has stood by this unconventional man for 40 years now. At various points in his life, Baba ignored the significance of things like landline telephones, colour TV, washing machines and vacuum cleaners. He has an inexplicable tendency, especially post retirement, to take hot noon-time walks to the bazaar and back as if this were a luxurious outing second to none. If it hadn't been for Mom the importance of NOT being ridiculously unconventional wouldn't have been drilled into us. Maa, while being a very unconventional woman herself, had and still has (most of the times, she is very vocal about that wish too) conventional expectations of how a husband should be. Baba being Baba refuses to conform. Needless to say, there are a lot of fireworks. All that we children, the three siblings can say that it worked out great for us despite the frequent bursts of emotional light & sound.
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There it was! Riding the wind, yet magically stationary, this bird which hovered high above us and we kids pointed excitedly. "Helicopter paakhi! Helicopter paakhi! [Helicopter bird! Helicopter bird!]" We were beside ourselves with joy as we ran around in crazy circles. Baba had first seen the bird on one of the evenings we spent on the roof and he had named it too. I don't know if anyone else in the town we were growing up in and the world we were growing up in even knew of this daily avian visitor of ours or cared for it. But my Dad did. He made us realize the beauty of little things tucked into the corners, often missed in the rush to keep up with everything everyone else was doing. To most people, life's purpose means the pursuit of happiness. The most important of all the lessons that Baba taught me, always relevant, not in so many words, but through his attitude to life, is that essentially happiness cannot be pursued. It is already here, all around us, for those who choose to see it.
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Monday, January 30, 2012

Ideally



Ideally, I wouldn't even be writing this. I would be living in a little hill-top house overlooking a tropical sea. Having already written about everything I wanted to give my opinion on, having travelled the world & having done my best to save it, having learnt (the current list) Spanish, Mandarin & playing the guitar, I would have rid myself of the restlessness that comes with having unrealized ideas and wishes jostling to come out, on paper, on screen, wherever. 
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My old motorcycle parked outside my door would be a worthy enough chariot whenever I felt the need for human company, taking me on an half hour ride to the nearest town, cutting through swooping roads and the sea breeze. Financially, if my writing past could pay the rent for my house and the running costs of my motorcycle, I would consider myself a success. Being as egocentric that most authors usually are, I would still want people to read and appreciate my work long after I have stopped writing but please readers, stay away from my isolated house. 
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Actually, I will head to work in an hour's time. Working on engineering assignments which on good days do inspire, on bad days cause despair and on most days are an interesting unpredictable mix. Don't get me wrong, I am not the "I am here for the money. If you want loyalty, get yourself a dog" kind of an office person. Quite the opposite. Nothing makes me happier than a busy day because everything in the world feels equally important. The design which I am supposed to be finishing ASAP, every article on Google News, all casual conversations at the water cooler, the temptation to take a post-lunch walk outside on a nice afternoon, the friend who calls me on my cellphone because he is having an low intensity workday - all so critical simultaneously and I have time enough for none. 
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The universe, I remind myself over and over again, is a cakewalk for the disciplined and organized. If only I could stop daydreaming and focus on getting my 'work' work done at the right time, my life would be so much more fulfilling. My G-Mail Inbox is filled with snippets of ideas I e-mail myself as reminders for future blog posts; my fingers and hands are possibly the most sworn at ones in the entire world as once again I fail to produce any publicly displayable tune out of my guitar and my list of must-go travel destinations continues to balloon without the addition of any check marks. Past Spanish and Mandarin efforts are very soon going to be reduced to 'Hola' and 'Ni hao' inside my fickle memory.
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Here's the deal. My version of the ideal life may seem like an uninspiring one to most people but hey, it's MY PERSONALIZED VERSION so shut up! As much as I want that life, the actual life with its twists and its turns, its risks and its burns is fertile ground for wild ideas and happy accidents to sprout up, unexpectedly and irreverently. Wise men have said, very correctly, that the grass is always greener on the other side. So I stand, on this bridge between the actual to the ideal. I look left, I look right, then I look left again. I know... I know that this is from where the view is best.
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