Something about me

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review of "India Grows at Night"

Every passing year, I find I am more interested in the Whys and the Hows, the historical context of why we are the way we are. Especially when it comes to India, I am all agog to understand, why this country and its people are, as so many people in Dilli keep saying, so ajeeb-o-gareeb!
So it was a given that I would read Gurcharan Das' latest India grows at Night - a Liberal case for a strong state. It is a rivetting read though I am assured it is not the author's best work. Das starts his argument by presenting several examples of India being a land of tremendous public failure and private success. This is fundamentally true though not all of his examples to prove this point are. For me, the case of Faridabad vs Gurgaon struck close home as a classic case of how Govt mismanagement and apathy contributed to the marginalization of one and private enterprise and infrastructure contributed to the glittering (if messy) success of another. However he also mentions the case of the IT industry in India which grew without Govt intervention which is patently incorrect - if the Govt had not established STPIs, given tax breaks etc the Indian IT industry may have stayed a mere fledgeling.
The basic premise of the book is that traditionally India has always had a weak state and a strong society (several warring kingdoms in ancient times, followed by independent princely states during the Raj that morphed into linguistic divisions post-1947). However the society was always well-organized and powerful. Compare this to China which has always had a tradition of strong central empires and a very weak and non-cohesive society. 
Das points out that India is the only country in the world that embraced democracy before it embraced capitalism. Every other country has done the reverse. Therefore (this I found utterly fascinating) Indians learnt about their rights much before they learnt about their duties! If we take this argument as plausible, then it explains so much about why we are the way we are...why we keep our homes spotless and our streets filthy, why we vehemently protest against a gangrape yet will not step up to take an accident victim to the nearest hospital...
Das blames weak governments for India's massive public failures - I agree. He thinks we need to move away from a tradition of weak states to a strong central state (not dictatorial) - I agree, but is this even possible? He finally links the two and proposes a new political class, largely drawn from the middle-class and a party modelled on Rajaji's Swatantra Party.  His arguments are compelling except for one fatal flaw  - his vote of confidence in the middle class to step up to do something for this country. I personally do not share his confidence but wish I am proved wrong! 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ashok Banker's Ramayana

My first introduction to the Ramayana was through Amar Chitra Katha. I presume it was ACK that brought the epic to life for most children in the 80s. Additionally, in my case, we lived in faraway North India so opportunities for hearing the story from any of my grandparents were few and far between. around  Around the time I was 10-11 years old, I picked up Rajaji's rendition of the epic and was utterly charmed by his flowery prose and narrative style. Through my school years, I read his version too many times to remember while being rather more captivated by the complex plots and infinitely more interesting characters of  the Mahabharata.
Inevitably, as I grew older and especially after watching the cloying Ramanand Sagar series on TV, I began to find the story mildly irritating and even boring, populated by bloodless characters with no life and personality, and the image of the Ideal Man and Woman patronizing and unrealistic. While I knew other versions existed, until recently I didn't have the interest to dig them up and read them. Until someone recommended Ashok Banker's Ramayana.
I ordered the first book through my library and once I started reading, it was impossible to put down!! I fretted and fumed as I realised that the second book was not available from the library. Fortunately, a friend had just finished reading the whole series and he lent me his collection. Since then, I have been furiously reading the books at every opportunity (have just started on Book 4) - in the metro, snatched moments at home and a full hour battling sleep after the kids are in bed.
What a story it is! For the first time, I am reading the Ramayana not just as the story of an avatar of Vishnu dwelling in the mortal world in order to eradicate evil; but as a rollicking adventure, a vastly entertaining tale of good vs evil, a dashing hero, a brave independent-minded heroine, a chilling villain, all meshed together in a book that's as good as the best in its genre.
I'm wondering why I never read it when it first came out a few years ago...I had so much more time! Rama and Sita are a flesh-and-blood couple with real fears, doubts, emotions and yes, a lot of love too. Banker has taken liberties with the plot. For example, Manthara is actually a minion in Ravana's service and Rama's exile is part of a larger strategy by the Asura king to gain power over the Aryan kingdoms. The first time Ravana encounters Rama is actually at Sita's swayamvara where Ravana is also a suitor; in fact he lifts and strings the bow of Siva first! Rama uses the Brahm-astra against Ravana's invading Asura hordes at Mithila and destroys most of the Asura army, leaving Ravana imprisoned within a block of stone for 13 years....Such interesting and fresh twists to an otherwise old and well-known story make the books unputdownable!
In addition, what I really liked was that Sita is not some kind of wilting wallflower. She is a warrior princess who stands shoulder to shoulder with her husband and brother-in-law, fighting the Rakshshas during their long torturous years in exile. Banker is good with action sequences in particular and manages to make the scenes come alive on paper.
I won't add any more spoilers here for people who haven't read the series. Í'm sure I'll have one more post in store once I am done with Books 5 through 7. Looking forward to yet more hours of reading pleasure!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Online shopping

I've always been a savvy online shopper. I'm not savvy anything else in the technology domain though! But right from the time it was possible to shop online, I have. Here's why I love online shopping.
1. I dislike malls and large-format retail stores. They give me a headache. I dislike salespeople hovering nearby. I've never needed a personal shopping assistant and to my knowledge have never asked salespeople for any help at all except to request for a certain size. In any case, atleast in India, my experience is that retail staff is poorly-trained and informed.
2. While I love local markets, I don't particularly like bargaining. The latter is a critical skill unless you are shopping for groceries or medicines or something like that.
3. I'm very hung-up on productivity. Getting into a car, battling traffic, parking, jostling with crowds and finally standing in line at the cash counter - it's all too much of a waste of time according to me :) I'd rather have 10 windows open on my browser and shop to my heart's content.
When we lived in the US, I shopped for clothes, shoes, air tickets and hotels, anound consumer electronics on the web. It was super-convenient, saving me the trouble of dragging one toddler (and later, two) all over the city.
But it's only after we moved to India that our online and phone transactions have sky-rocketed. Soon I won't need to step out to shop for anything other than sarees, expensive clothes, high-ticket home-appliances and a house! In short, anything that needs to be seen, felt and experienced.
Here's a sample of what gets bought over the great worldwide web:
  • Books/movies/music/DVDs - flipkart, amazon/junglee, pratham, tulika
  • Movie tickets/shows - bookmyshow, PVR, DT cinemas etc
  • Clothes and shoes - jabong/myntra
  • Home decor and accessories - shopo/mirraw. This does not even include the several small businesses that market exclusively through facebook and through whom I've ordered custom jewellery and gifts.
  • Home essentials and grocery - foodmandi in Gurgaon. The rest, I do over the phone with our friendly neighbourhood kirana store.
  • Travel bookings - makemytrip, IRCTC, various company websites
  • Payments - All utilities are on auto-debit mode through the bank. School fees, daycare fees, fees for kids' classes, cable get paid through online banking. 
  • Library - My library accepts quarterly membership fees through their website.
  • Electronics - bestbuy
My local pharmacy accepts orders through the web and home-delivers as well. My fruit and veg vendor does likewise but I don't trust him to send me the best produce, so I'm staying in the physical world for now :) When it come to shopping in the US, I have a field day trawling all the drugstores, amazon, bestbuy, oldnavy, REI, crate and barrel (who now ship internationally - woo-hoo!)......and yet I feel India is far more advanced technologically in this space.
This post was prompted by two emails that landed in my inbox today. One was from jabong, reminding me that I have a pair of kids' jeans in my shopping cart. The other one was from homeshop18, asking me when am I going to buy the pressure cooker that I selected many moons ago? :))

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pictures from the blue city

I wasn't able to upload the pictures from our visit to Jodhpur earlier; here they are. Enjoy :)

Our room - a beautiful suite furnished in traditional block-printed raw silk fabrics. The suite was coordinated with paisley and marigold motifs in red and yellow.
The front room of the suite. We were most happy because of the 2 bathrooms!
6 am sunrise time. This is the lake over which the palace-hotel is built.

Entry to Mehrangarh. The flags are those of the princely state of Marwar.

Mehrangarh Fort

The blue city

Ads drawing

The view from Jaswant Thada. This is where the kings are laid to rest.

Another view of the old city and countryside, from Jaswant Thada.

Cenotaphs built for the royals.

View of Umaid Bhawan Palace from Jaswant Thada.

View of the fort from Jaswant Thada.

Pristine lake.

Our hotel, as seen from the sunset point.

Clear still waters.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer are the cities we have visited in Rajasthan and S and I were keen to complete our tour of the state by visiting Jodhpur. Sure, there are lots of other places worth visiting in Rajasthan - we haven't done Bikaner, Ranthambore, Sekhawati, Pushkar etc. But to be very honest, I'm kind of done with the state. There's only so much royalty and architecture and heritage that one can digest and I guess I've had my fill of it. Plus keeping the various royal families, clans and dates straight in my head was not happening! I always tell friends and relatives who are planing to visit Rajasthan to try to avoid going the whole nine yards and visiting all the cities in one go. It gets extremely overwhelming and at the end of the week or 10 days, one is exhausted to say the least.
In any case, we had Jodhpur to see and a nice ITC hotels free night voucher to be used! So we went ahead and booked ourselves into one of Jodhpur's swankiest properties. The only advantage of having a travelling husband :) Jodhpur is a convenient overnight journey from Delhi. We boarded the train at 6.30 pm from Gurgaon, and reached Jodhpur at the unearthly hours of 4.45 am! It was cold...brrrr.....and the hotel pickup failed to arrive. It was not a pleasant experience haggling with the taxi-wallahs who on hearing the name of the hotel, promptly charged us at triple rates! We reached our hotel around 5.30 am and were happy to warm ourselves with some warm cocoa (for the kids) and hot chai (for the adults).
Our room was actually a suite with 2 TVs, 2 bathrooms and so on. The restaurant on the same floor had a superb view of the Balsamand lake over which the palace-hotel had been built. Hurray for private lakes that don't have boating facilities, food vendors and trash - this was my only thought. The large lake was pristine and clean, enclosed by stony hillocks and really, it could have been anywhere in the world but India; it was that clean, calm and unspoilt.
Having failed to get the kids to make up for lost sleep, we decided to set off as early as we could to see what there was to see in Jodhpur. Mehrangarh Fort, Jaswant Thada (cenotaphs of the Jodha Marwars), Umaid Bhavan palace (the part that has not been turned into a Taj Hotel) and Mandore Gardens are part of the standard itinerary. Mehrangarh Fort was quite impressive, and not just because it made for a majestic sight on a cold crisp winter's day, the golden yellow sandstone looking even warmer by sunlight and countless flags of the princely state of Marwar fluttering in the brisk breeze. It was impressive because it had good signage everywhere for visitors, clean loos, audio guides and was generally extremely well-maintained by the Trust that runs it. In addition, there was a standard guide fee to be paid at the entrance kiosk itself which was a relief as one did not have to haggle over a guide's services.
The fort also was the first place in so many years that my kids were scolded in public by someone other than family! They had been behaving in a pretty pesky manner and I am afraid both S and I have to take the blame. They were tired, sleep-deprived and then we bring them to a boring old fort! I broke several of my own cardinal rules about travelling with kids! The minimum I could have done (and in our defence, this is something we would in the normal course have done - well, we were sleep-deprived and tired as well!) was for one of us to have taken them outside the museum and entertained them while the other person walked around and listened to the guide. Since we did not do so, they were mightily scolded by another guide who said "Main tumhe choohon ke kamre mein lock kar doonga!" The white lady next to him looked shocked - probably she was wondering how to reach Child Services!
We stopped for lunch at this place which served an awesome Rajasthani thali. While the kids stuck to boring and safe paneer and naan, S and I indulged in gastronomic delights like Gatte ki sabji, Ker-sangri, Kadhi and Bajre ki roti. Bliss!
Back at the hotel, we watched the sun setting over the lake and hillocks before turning in early. It had been a long day.
We didn't do much the next day except for a fruitless trip all the way to Guda Bishnoi Lake to see migratory birds. There were more birds back at our hotel grounds! Ads was quite disappointed, as was I. But the silver lining is that we are going to Bharatpur next weekend and hopefully that will make up for lost time! Ads is super-excited at the prospect of seeing the many birds of his dreams :)