Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Moving to America - 3

7. Money
Yes, it's the part you were so eagerly waiting for: how much money do I need to bring with me? If your university follows the usual convention, you will be paid only after the first month of service, so for the first month you are dependent on your parents. Rent and the deposit will have to be calculated separately. Apart from that, I recommend you carry $200 in hard cash (be very careful with it and deposit it in a bank the second you open a bank account) and put $800 in a prepaid cash card (SBI does this stuff pretty easily, go with your dad to the bank). With $1000 (excluding rent and deposit), you will be able to settle nicely. This is of course higher than your average monthly expenditure, but that's because of the initial, one-time costs. 

You will need to open a Checkings account - that's an account that can be operated with a debit card (a Savings account cannot; both have a;almost the interest rate of the order of 0.01% - not 1%, but 0.01%; this country does not believe in interest). Although every city has its own thing, I would personally recommend Chase, which is a great bank in this Great lakes area, which also has a student account with zero fees; you will need to carry all your documents when you go to them, they're really very nice and will do all the paperwork while you enjoy candy. I also got an ATM card that doubled up as a temporary Debit Card while I waited for them to send me my permanent card, so it was pretty convenient. The only drawback of Chase is that they don't give you checks for free, but to make up they have a great e-check and e-payment gateway and most payments are made electronically anyway. 

Do not carry more than $20 in cash with you - it is too risky otherwise. Almost every place accepts cards and electronic money cannot be stolen, at least not at gunpoint. There are some machines that will exchange notes for coins, you might need them for the laundry machine; otherwise, I can't think of a reason why you would need hard cash.

Be responsible with money - this country does not believe in saving a dime, but you should save for a rainy day. Also, you can take a credit card (Chase offers a Freedom card but needs a few months' credit/debit history; a student Credit Union will give you one without any credit history), for which you will need an SSN, but be careful not to ever max out or be late on a payment. If you intend to live in the US for some time, you should build up good credit history ASAP. 

8. Other things
Golden rule of America: ask. If you are not sure, just ask; there are no silly questions. Be polite, DO NOT use the 'N' word (nigger) under any circumstances. Illinois is not a very safe state, so be careful while walking at night - avoid dark places and try to move in groups after nightfall. You probably already know all this, but while you live a new life, it's easy to forget, which is why I'm repeating all of this. 

For a telephone connection, you will need to team up with people and set up a family plan with a carrier (AT&T works fine for me, some people also have T-mobile). The bill would be around $40/person/mo including data as well as a (free) handset. You could also use your old handset and just get a SIM card. It's pretty easy as long as you have five people. To call India, you can buy a calling card like Vonage. I personally just Skype with parents at a fixed time of the week; you should also get an Internet connection (provider varies by location) at home. 

My experience with roommates has been bad so far, so I have no useful advice to give about how to live with them; but in general, I would say 'mind your own business' is a nice place to start. You will get used to the country very soon, it really is not that hard; One thing I will recommend is that you go to the recreation center or get some exercise, because the food here is mostly unhealthy and you will put on a lot of pounds (yes, they use Imperial units everywhere) quickly. And yes, I also go to the gym regularly - they're pretty sophisticated here (indoor, heated pool!). Life is otherwise very sedate, with sitting in front of a computer taking up most of your time. Be honest with your work: failure is not discouraged or ridiculed here, but lying or plagiarism will kill you forever. 

9. Summary 
Things to get: some warm and light clothing including a light jacket and a towel; your toiletries; optional food packets, some masalas (do declare, put a value ~$10) pillow and bedsheet (optional; discouraged); some spoons; money; all your documentation, kept safely on your person.  

Things to do in India: all administrative hassles; learn cooking; learn driving if you don't know already; say your byes to family. 

Things to do in the US: buy any cutlery you need as well as toilet paper and paper towels; get your i-card and figure out the local public transit system; head to Walmart and buy anything else you need; IMPORTANT: open a bank account; get a telephone connection. 

Things to look forward to: great education, smart people and a chance to live on your own two feet. 

This is all I could think of for now. If you need any specific points, let me know. I'm also sharing this on my blog, because it was so much fun to write! 

Hope that was helpful.


Moving to America - 2

5. Clothes
Illinois is bitterly cold in the winter (mid-November to mid-March in theory, though it's stayed here all the way to end-March and counting this year). Just about nothing that you can buy in India will help you here, so you will need to buy a thick winter jacket, preferably of down feather, as well as snow boots (this might not be necessary; I just wear sneakers) later on.

However, when you arrive, it will be summer and that is extremely hot. But since the state is very windy courtesy of Lake Michigan, you will need to carry a light jacket for the evenings initially (wear it on the flight). Therefore, carry a mix of light clothing and thick clothing for the different seasons; do carry thermals and a towel or two. You can carry shorts or cargoes and wear them to class - nobody cares. T-shirts and casual shirts are fine; I do recommend you to carry a suit (folded in whatever way possible) because that can be expensive here and you will definitely need it some time or the other. Gloves are better purchased here; the woolen ones used in India will be useless when it snows (which is at least 25% of the year). 

Finally, remember that clothes can always be purchased here and they are not too expensive, provided you buy them from the right place. So, don't stuff your suitcase in panic. Most homes have a laundry room to wash clothes, but some have ones right in the apartment (that's the best thing you can get). You will need to buy some liquid detergent (again, Walmart); laundry rooms would be coin-operated, so you will need to get some coins at coin vending machines (more on money later). Typically, people wash clothes once a week, although I do it once in two weeks; it depends entirely on you. Here's a neat tip: clothes come out piping hot from the dryer and you can simply pat the wrinkles out before they cool; this eliminates the need to iron clothes. Of course, formal shirts still need to be ironed, but that's only once in a while. You will probably never have to iron your daily clothes. An electric iron will cost less than $10. 

6. Food & Cutlery
If you can't cook, you will either go broke or die of hunger. So, learn to cook. You can buy all cutlery (spoons, forks, butter knives, pots, plates, pans etc.) from here, but I do recommend you get a pressure cooker from home (check if you have a gas or electric stove because the cooker type changes; default is electric), because that can be a little hard to get in the US as Americans don't use it too much, while Indians use it a lot. All other cutlery are optional - you might like to get a favorite spoon or something. Your apartment will most probably have a microwave, but you will need to purchase a toaster ($8 if I remember right; a microwave is for $20, a blender $12). As you can see, these basic things are pretty cheap here and with $100 you can setup an entire family! You will also need to buy a sponge and dishwashing liquid; you can use a dishwasher, but that will spike up your electricity bill and honestly, you won't have enough dishes to warrant its need. 

But coming to more specific things: vegetables can be purchased here. Except big stuff like gobi or aloo, I usually buy everything in cans (vegetables, corn, tomato sauce etc.) because they are just so much more convenient, albeit unhealthy (but come to think of it, given how clean the air is here compared to India, it's a zero sum trade-off). From India, I recommend you get some of those ready-to-eat things to last for the first few days while you settle down. I also got myself some Maggi because, well, I love maggi :D All of that can also be purchased at an Indian store, although it is expensive (for Maggi you can buy Ramen noodles, which are cheap). 

It is not all that hard being a vegetarian here - you have plenty of options, you just need to ask. They can usually create a vegetarian version of anything as well. But, if you can't cook, you will eventually run out of options. So, learn to cook. 

Finally, you should get three basic masalas from India: kitchen king, lal mirch and haldi. Almost all cooking can be done with just these three (you can get salt here), I'm sure your mom will corroborate that. Other optional ones are rajma and chole masala. Again, all this is available at an Indian store, but it is expensive. For the first month, before you get paid, I think you should try to work with stuff from home. And learn to love cooking - you have absolutely no choice.


Moving to America - 1

This summer, several of my friends were coming to America and had a bunch of questions to ask. This three-part post is a summary of my discussions.

So, you're moving to the US - congratulations and be ready for the time of your life, in more ways than one (and in more ways than good too)! Here are some things you need to keep in mind:

1. The Flight
Reach the airport in time (3h prior to departure) because lines at immigration can be humongous. When booking a flight, you might want to spend a little extra on the ticket to ensure all your flights are on the same ticket and hence you can use a through check-in, eliminating the need to move your baggage around until you reach Chicago. Make sure to stick your name and contact details on your check-in baggage, because baggage misplacement is far more common than you would imagine. If you are carrying medicines, keep the prescription with them or they can be removed. The US authorities may check your bags at random and they have full authority to do so.

Keep all your important documents (passport, I-20, admission letter, lease etc.) and any money you have with you at all times. If you ever hand your passport to somebody, check to see that the visa is intact when you get it back. Lose anything but DO NOT lose your passport! In addition, make a photocopy of your documents and keep them in your check-in bag. All this is to ensure that your immigration check is smooth - they do assume the worst otherwise. 

At Chicago Airport, keep your documents handy for immigration and answer all questions calmly. The officer will stamp your passport and write 'F-1 D/S' on it - ensure that the D/S (Duration of Status - how long your visa is admissible) is written before you leave. You will not get a paper I-94 any longer; you can download it later from the CBP (Customs and Border Protection) website. You will need this whenever you enter or leave the US again. 

At customs, if they ask you what you have, you would have some Indian spices (more on that later) - declare it with a small amount (<$10) and they'll let you through. Don't lie because if they check, you're in trouble. Finally, find out from people in NWU how they travel to the campus from the airport - in all probability, there will be a bus service.This will probably be booked before you leave India; keep the ticket ready. 

2. Moving In
If you have not found an apartment yet, you should do so ASAP. Once you sign a lease, you will be required to deposit the first month's rent and also pay that rent; the deposit is refundable after you leave, although they always take out a part of it for general repairs and cleaning (this happens in India too). Your apartment will usually have all basic appliances and furniture; however, you will need to buy bed sheets, a pillow and a blanket (you can also get some of this from India, though it is inexpensive at Walmart). The bedsheet size you need is 'Queen size.' 

I would recommend carrying basic toiletries with you: a bar of soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush and your shaving kit. You can of course buy all this in the US, but that might be a little too much to do right after you get 'home.' On your first day, you will need to purchase toilet paper and paper napkins. There will definitely be some supermarkets nearby but even if there aren't, there is definitely a Walmart somewhere and they are open 24x7. 

3. Administrative Fundae
You will need to register with your International office, get your i-card, meet your adviser and all that stuff. The people at your university can tell you everything, just follow the instructions and be very patient with the paperwork. This country is all about paperwork. Again, be very careful with your passport. 

In time, once you have an SSN (Social Security No., you need this to get paid; your university will guide you further on this), you can apply for a state ID or even give a driving test and obtain an Illinois drivers license (which doubles up as a state ID too), which will almost eliminate the need to carry your passport. Do note that the Indian drivers license is valid in Illinois (but not all states) for about a year, so you can practice with that. Purchase of any alcohol requires a valid ID. 

4. Books
Don't bother carrying notebooks or pens/pencils, you can buy them here at extremely cheap prices. They will merely add to your luggage. Moreover, the teaching style minimizes use of paper. Do carry any important textbooks that you think you will need, because they are very expensive in the US. If you can find an International edition, that would be about 10x cheaper! Optimize here though: more books = more baggage weight, so don't panic about books. Put them in last, if you have place left. Also, you usually get a ton of free pens at various events in the beginning, so you don't need to get too many from home. 


Sunday, July 27, 2014

नई कहानी : नेताजी का हत्याकांड

सन उन्नीस सौ उनहत्तर में भारत साम्राज्य के पच्चीसवीं वार्षिकोत्सव में भाग लेने के लिए कलकत्ता आये जर्मनी के सर्वोच्च नेता एडोल्फ हिटलर एवं जापान के बादशाह हीरोहीतो । उनके साथ होंगे भारत के मुख्य प्रशासक नेताजी सुभाष चन्द्र बोस, जिनके नेतृत्व में ठीक पच्चीस साल पहले आज़ाद हिन्द फ़ौज ने भारत माता को अंग्रेज़ों से मुक्ति दिलाई।

आइये हमारे साथ इस ऐतिहासिक दिन में भाग लेने। नेताजी और उनके भारतीय फॉरवर्ड ब्लॉक डल के उपस्थिति में, पेशावर से रंगून तक, काबुल से लंका तक, मनाते है राष्ट्रीय दिवस।

नेताजी का हत्याकांड 
जल्द ही 

विभाग १: प्रवेश
विभाग २: अन्वेषण
विभाग ३: क्रांति 

Code Red: Part 3

It had been a war zone - the entire village has been destroyed as Bobby and Josh fought off the National Guard. They quickly realized that they didn't need food - they just fed off whatever their flames had destroyed, making them stronger. It was a strange existence, a strange feeling as their bodies matured slowly inside the old lady in the bedroom. Poetically, she had been like a mother, absorbing them like a cocoon, nurturing them with her strange disease, until the fire had set them free.

But Josh wasn't happy. He didn't want to live like this. The feeling of immense power had been great at first, but all the destruction has left him numb. Bobby thought differently of course, he was always the fighter, the leader. He had bigger plans - he wanted to take over Texas first, and then DC. He liked the fighting, the new meaning they had in their lives.

They were now living a constant battle, a battle that made them stronger. But Josh had had enough - he wanted it to end. He could feel his body melting away, turning into something else. He wanted it to end. But every time he told Bobby, he would be refuted for being weak. He was the sidekick, the minion. But when Bobby mercilessly burned the Governor of Texas down with his flames, he had had enough. He was a criminal, but not a murderer.


Houston, TX: After a month of being terrorized by two red beings, Texas began its reconstruction efforts under a new Governor, the former Deputy who was hurriedly sworn-in after his predecessor was burned alive by the assailants before they turned on each other, destroying themselves and a large part of Austin.

The scientific community is still divided over where they came from or what they were but the President is understood to have created a team in the US Army to find ways to fight such future acts of terrorism.


Where am I? What am I? What is this strange thing on my arm? Wait, is this my arm - all red, translucent? Where's Martha? I remember coming to feed her chicken soup to help her get better.

And... what's this red dome that I'm in?

(Inspired from a dream)

Code Red: Part 2

You'd think that in this rural part of Texas, Sgt. Fraser would have his hands full with fires for his department to quench. And you'd be right, which is why he didn't think that this fire would be any different from the others. It did look a little different though - the flames were somehow a brighter shade of red. Maybe he just needed some more coffee.

The fire was in an old building on a farm run by a couple who has disappeared months ago. Nobody can come to check on them and there were no neighbors to report anything. The Sheriff has just let it drop. And so would have Sgt. Fraser, if it wasn't for the fact that his men has been unable to douse the fire. It was somehow different, it didn't seem to respond to water at all. Maybe it was a chemical fire, in which case he'd have to make some calls to higher-ups.

And then, almost miraculously, the fire died out. Rather, it just disappeared, as if it had never been there. Behind it was left the ruins of the home... and two well, things. At first, they looked like two men. But how could two men have survived the fire and how did they get there in the first place? But when Sgt. Fraser approached them, he realized that they weren't men at all. Or maybe they were. They were shaped like human beings all right, but they were all red, like they were made of red jello.


Houston, TX: Reports are coming in of a village in southern Texas under attack by two unknown red beings that seem to have the ability to spew fire and leave destruction in their wake. While this newspaper has been unable to confirm the reports, multiple agencies are reporting that these two beings, who seem unstoppable, have already looted banks and stores, killing those who tried to stop them.

Local fire marshal Sgt. Frank Fraser appears to have been their first victim. No one knows where they came from or what they are. The Governor's Office is yet to make a statement on the issue, but sources have told us that they are actively considering deploying the Texas National Guard as the situation continues to go out of hand.


Code Red: Part 1

He nearly broke the door as he ran up the stairs to the bedroom - he had heard her groan from the barn and would have been thankful that the cow had not made a racket, if he had the time to consider it, that is. But for now, with sweat streaking down his face, he opened the bedroom door to find blood rushing through his wife's face.

"Oh, Martha! What's happening to you? If you'd just drink your soup, you'd feel so much better!"

And so it went on yet again. As Bob tried to calm his wife down, he felt absolutely helpless. He would have taken her to a doctor, but they had no health insurance; and in any case, in this godforsaken corner of Texas, the right kind of doctors were just unavailable.

She began to calm down, but the stubborn rash stayed. Ever since the strange fever began to sap Martha of her strength, the rash had been spreading faster and faster - now, her entire flesh was a bright, hideous red. She said it didn't itch, but he didn't believe her because she had seen her rubbing her hands against her flesh. And... it was more than that. It could be because of his bad eyes, but Bob could swear that she was also growing a little... faint. As though you could see right through her. Her red skin.


Nobody had been seen on the farm for months now - the perfect chance to make a quick steal. An old couple supposedly owned the place, their children long gone, probably to find a real job somewhere. Bobby could pick the lock pretty easily, it was so old and rusted anyway. But there wasn't really much to steal, an old candelabra here, some bills lying around there. Joshua made his way to the bedroom, hoping to find something he could sell.

Because he was busy looking at some family pictures the old couple kept on the mantelpiece, Bobby didn't realize that it had been over an hour since Josh had gone up. He made his way up to see what his mate was doing, hoping he had found a treasure chest somewhere. But something was clearly wrong - there wasn't a sound there, except for some strange humming that Bobby couldn't quite put his finger on.

He opened the door to have a look. And then there was red.


Dismiss the SP Government in UP

Yesterday's Saharanpur riots were just another brick in the massive communal wall built by the Akhilesh Yadav-run SP Government in UP that has worked tirelessly to fan communal tensions and polarize the population across much of the state but particularly the prosperous Western wing. The law and order machinery envisioned by the Constitution has completely broken down in the state, with the police force more politicized than ever before and rioters freely able to commit murder and arson as long as they belong to the politically-favored community.
 Since the day Akhilesh Yadav was sworn in, UP has seen hundreds of communal riots, with the state not just standing back and watching but actively supporting it. The so-called secular parties that were entirely discredited in the Lok Sabha elections have repeatedly turned a blind-eye to this blatant communalism.

It is clear that nothing better can come of the SP. The people of UP are in danger, their constitutional right to life cannot be protected by the State Government, which simply does not care. Therefore, it is necessary for the Narendra Modi Government to invoke Art. 356 of the Constitution and immediately dismiss the SP Government in UP.

Watch the Narrative

Even as Israel extends its 24-hour humanitarian ceasefire over the Gaza Strip, the pressure is clearly mounting on it to stop its siege that has already seen over 700 Palestinians killed, many of them in hospitals and even a UN-run school. True, these are deaths caused by Hamas effectively using the civilian population as human shields, but it is necessary for Israel to be more careful. The UNHRC vote, however much a kangaroo court it might be, should serve as a warning to Israel that public opinion is not in its favor and even though America continues to back it unconditionally, the American government too faces opposition from within.

However, none of this should really deter Israel from its ultimate and just goal - to dismantle the terrorist organization, Hamas and its secret tunnels. This is necessary to stop all the rockets launched into Israel to terrorize its citizens. Sadly though, many common Israelis seem to have forgotten this cause and now justify the killing of so many Palestinian children as necessary to prevent them from growing up to be terrorists. As harsh as this may sound, this is eerily similar to the final solution to the Jewish question that the Nazis formulated and executed, an event that shocked the world so much that it led to the birth of Israel.

Ultimately, the moral basis on which Israel's right to exist and defend itself comes are the horrors of the holocaust, which proved the necessity of a well-armed Jewish state that can serve as a permanent homeland (if there is such a thing). It is imperative then that Israel does not justify its aggression by a very Nazi logic. Of course, this is not the official Israeli reason for the current operation and I do not for a moment believe that it is, but as the Nuremberg Trials pointed out, individual citizens too have a responsibility in checking a genocidal regime, something that Bibi is dangerously close to running.

While this blog has and continues to support Israel's right to exist and defend itself against terrorism, the time has come for Israelis to know that they are coming dangerously close to embodying Adolf Hitler himself. They must pull back before it is too late - for the sake of all the Jews murdered by the Nazis, who would never want their own people doing that to another nation. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Update: Set for a PhD?

My adviser agreed to take me on for a PhD after my MS is completed next year. While also giving me the option to scout around for better offers, he did add that ,"You have done very well so far and should definitely pursue a PhD." Kind words of encouragement that do not come very regularly in research.
The project that will fund me for the next two years is approved and I'll be starting it from Aug. 16.
So, that could just be my life for the next five or six years!

The Two-Nation Theory Lives

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections were one of the most polarized in history with every social group except Muslims clearly backing now Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 1947, India was partitioned on the basis of the two-nation theory; but while Pakistan accepted it as the basis for its formation, India rejected it. It is ironic then that while Pakistan actually proves the theory as being wholly incorrect, it is in India that it is being proven true and that too by parties that claim to believe in so-called secularism, a much-maligned term that has come to be synonymous with appeasement.

Arun Shourie probably summed up the situation the best - "Fifty years ago, calling a Muslim a Muslim was considered communal; today, calling a Muslim an Indian is communal." The Congress-led UPA, in the last ten years, has sowed and nurtured the seeds of the two-nation theory once again in the country. From special provisions to separate financial allocations, no stone has been left untouched. Possibly the worst of this has been the rewriting of Indian history, with murderous tyrants like Aurangzeb becoming saints, festivals celebrated by all people of India becoming Hindu festivals and a uniform civil code becoming against the interests of Muslims and not an aim of the state, as the writers of the Constitution had envisioned.

Much damage has been done to India by the rebirth of the Two-Nation Theory. It manifested in the words uttered after the BJP's stupendous victory came with the lowest Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha in recent times. The idea that Muslims alone can represent Muslims and the fact that there are so few of them in this Lok Sabha somehow attests to the death of a secular nation is a classic proposition of separate electorates, an integral component of the Two-Nation Theory. In fact, it was the firm rejection of this proposition by the Congress itself that eventually led to Partition. Now, this demand has once again gained currency despite the fact that the election was free and fair.

The sad truth is that, while this election possibly pulled India back from the brink of doom, it has clearly shown that we are destined to another Partition in the future. Muslims, a large majority, clearly do not see their future in an India where they are treated as equals. This might sound harsh, but it is apparent that the so-called secular parties have proved that a secular India is no longer possible.

A Nightmare

FUKREY (2013)

Produced By: Excel Entertainment
Director: Mrigdeep Singh Lamba
Starring: Richa Chaddha, Ali Fazal, Pulkit Samrat, Varun Sharma, Manjot Singh and others
Pros: One good song
Cons: Everything else

If there is one genre I really hate, it's mindless comedies. Separate from the usual comedies, mindless ones are special in that, if you happen to use even an ounce of your mind, you will be bored to death. That is exactly what Fukrey was - a comedy so mindless that you don't even have to wait for the lame jokes to begin. The very fact that the director attempted to pull off a man who is clearly in his early twenties as a high school student speaks volumes about what level of intelligence, or the lack thereof, is expected of the audience.

There's really nothing left untouched here - bad story, bad acting, bad cinematography, mostly bad music. The only silver lining was the song Ambarsariya, which was quite good. But otherwise, this was a terrible movie, a complete waste of time. A special message for Ali Fazal - stop stereotyping yourself and learn to act.

Do not watch this, even if you have absolutely nothing better to do. (OTFS)

Four Years On...

The Commonwealth Games have returned in 2014, this time in Glasgow and with a significant Indian contingent looking to make a mark and prove that Delhi 2010 was not merely on account of the home advantage. And so far, out contingent has gone off to a flying start, with the shooting and weightlifting events providing a fitting beginning.

Much water has flown under the bridge since Delhi 2010. Despite the massive corruption scam which still remains open, the event did go smoothly. However, it did ensure that any government will think twice before they bid for another sporting event. While this is sad, it did give good reason for India to invest in better sporting facilities. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's announcement of a Sports University in Manipur is a right step in this direction.

Opinions 24x7 wishes Team India the greatest of glories in Glasgow. Jai Hind!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lost Generation

The Lowland
By Jhumpa Lahiri

There is a certain method to Jhumpa Lahiri's works - ordinary people under ordinary circumstances reacting in extraordinary ways to create their own path. We saw it in The Namesake and now we see that method applied in The Lowland, her latest work. A story that encompasses an entire generation through four lives, gobbled up by the Naxalite movement in West Bengal and self-discovery in distant Rhode Island. Of course, this dual setting is typical of Lahiri's works.

Once again, Lahiri left me mesmerized by her brutally honest discussion of the one thing that Indians love about America - a society that lets you be, one that does not judge you. Perhaps it is a consequence of living in such a sparsely populated land, where you really have only yourself to depend on, but she puts it well when she says, "...in this minute corner of the world, I discovered myself."

The problem with this book however is that it seems to have been written without much thought. The story lurches ahead without direction, at times making it feel that the writer just added to it to make it longer instead of just cutting to the chase. This is a serious issue that undermines the novel, especially given the wonderful ability to express ideas in short stories that the author demonstrated in Unaccustomed Earth. Still, as a story of a generation, The Lowland does well. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Into the Mind

The Picture of Dorian Gray
By Oscar Wilde

It's always a funny feeling to read classic books of yore - the writing style is so very different from the modern style; the characters and setting so different from what we have grown up in, indeed what out parents have grown up in as well. Nonetheless, it is from these books that you learn the true art of story-telling. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a fine example of this.

Set in 19th Century London amid the gossip and scandal-ridden middle class, the book dives into the deepest, darkest desires of the mind: to be young forever, to be able to act with impunity, to escape the consequences of any and all actions. Through the steady development of his characters, Oscar Wilde takes us through the mind of a young man, full of potential, who sells his soul to the devil to partake of untold human pleasures - and destroys himself in the process.

The book, for its time, is certainly scandalous, although modern writers would not think so. Nonetheless, this novel, a sort of precursor to the horror-drama, makes for an excellent read. 

#UnionBudget: A Missed Opportunity

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in his maiden budget, set out some necessary policy changes that would be important to awaken India's economy, which the previous UPA administrations left in the doldrums. The move to raise FDI to 49% in defense is one such move, although whether that will be enough to attract foreign players to India's almost-dead domestic arms industry is another matter - manufacturers have been asking for 75%. In the short span of time, about 40 days, that Jaitley had to prepare this budget, he certainly had a great deal on his hands. While the general policy direction is good for the most part, this budget was sadly a missed opportunity.

The single biggest failure of this budget was to abolish retrospective taxes and instead refer pending cases to a committee - an irony, given how PM Modi is against referring things to committees to buy time. In one fell swoop, the Minister had the chance to undo the damage caused by Pranab Mukherjee and significantly improve business sentiment in India, which has been nothing short of despondent so far. Instead, he chose to leave it at a half-promise to avoid such taxation, which, when he was in Opposition, had described as 'tax terrorism.'

However, there are still some positives to take away. The most significant of these is the outlay to provide credit to 'Own Account Enterprises,' official jargon for informal businesses that employ over 80% of India's non-farm workforce. These businesses have always been unable to get credit from the formal banking system and by opening them to credit through the government, the BJP-Government has made a good, well-informed choice to boost employment, possibly the main issue on which the party won its spectacular victory in May. However, this too will not be enough to boost all-important manufacturing, which will certainly need the RBI to lower rates, indicating a future clash between Raghuram Rajan and Arun Jaitley.

In his post-budget media interactions, the Minister did give valid explanations for his '100 crore' schemes, which in themselves are quite ambitious, particularly the Metro and IIT/IIM projects. His move to allot INR 7060 cr for 100 smart cities also sets a good start for the BJP to fulfill its manifesto promises. However, his explanation for the slow pace of reforms on the need to make reforms politically palpable is simply unacceptable - if political acceptability was going to decide the pace of reforms, then it would have been better for the UPA coalition to return, because coalition dharma, another form of political acceptability, was their defense for their failures. The BJP was given such a resounding mandate, a full majority no less, so that it can take politically-difficult decisions without fear of losing their government. Jaitley has clearly failed in this regard.

Overall, the #UnionBudget sets out a tone of optimism. True to his right-wing economics, Jaitley has put his bets on higher infrastructure spending to boost GDP and offset the debt-GDP ratio and hence the fiscal deficit, for which he has accepted Chidambaram's ambitious targets. This is not a new formula - it has been used around the world and also by the Vajpayee-led NDA Government, which also brought India out of recession. This is a tried and tested formula and, if executed properly, does work. Unlike his predecessor, who cut capital spending to keep Sonia Gandhi's doles afloat, Jaitley has put his bets on the strength of Indian enterprise.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

In Support of Israel

Israel is being attacked by the liberal media across the world for its offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which forms the western flank of Palestine. Yesterday in particular was a deadly day, when the IDF was forced to bomb a mosque, which also housed a disability center, which was identified as being a storehouse for weapons used to rain rockets upon Israel, making life impossible for citizens of Israeli towns. This is not the first time that Israel has used force to stop Hamas from launching its rockets, but clearly the terrorist organization, committed to wiping out Israel from the map through force, does not understand that when it comes to brute force, it does not stand a chance against the IDF.

The entire blame for the innocent lives lost in Gaza falls squarely on Hamas, which is effectively using the urbanized area's residents as human shields to carry on their deadly and ultimately self-defeating war on Tel Aviv. So brazen and foolhardy are they that they announced a fresh set of attacks on Tel Aviv hours after an IDF offensive, clearly indicating that they do not care for the loss of Palestinian lives. If this terrorist force had any concern for the lives of young children and women, it would be fighting Israel up front, not hiding among civilians.
Peace between Israel and Palestine based on a two-state solution is imperative; there is simply no other option and Bejnamin Netanyahu has to accept this whether he likes it or not. Israel has to stop its illegal settlements in the West Bank, which are unfortunately akin to the German occupation of Jewish homes after the Jews were shipped off to their death in Nazi Germany. However, in this instance, Hamas is making it virtually impossible for Israel to even consider any solution at all. An armed terrorist state, complete with foreign backing and International recognition, living on either side of the world's only Jewish state is an unacceptable nightmare for Israel and all her well-wishers, which includes this blog. Therefore, the elimination of Hamas either voluntarily or by force is an imperative pre-requisite for any peace agreement.

The death of so many Palestinian lives is indeed very unfortunate as is the fact that they remain a stateless people. This entire tragedy could have been avoided had Hamas accepted Israel's right to exist, renounced violence and come to the negotiating table. That would embolden the majority of Israelis who want peace to push their government, however far-right, towards a settlement once and for all. However, it is clear that Hamas has no intention of giving up its cowardly terrorist activities. In such a situation, this blog fully supports Israel's air strikes on Gaza and any future ground offensive - whatever it takes to end terrorism and protect the Jewish state. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

#RailBudget: Where's the Plan Holiday?

Last week, Railways Minister Sadananda Gowda presented the BJP Government's maiden Rail Budget. In India, it is a legacy of colonial rule that allows the Railways Ministry to present its own budget, while the Union Budget covers the rest of the government. This is because, back in the colonial days and for several decades after Independence, the Railways controlled a large part of GDP, towering over other ministries. That is no longer the case, with the Railways contributing to less than 1% of GDP. Thus, there is an excellent case for abolishing this system and simply including the Railways Ministry in the general budget.

Anyway, that's wishful thinking. For now, we have the Indian Railways, the fourth largest in the world, a government-run monopoly that everybody hates and loves simultaneously, and which is in deep trouble. As the Minister rightly pointed out, it has become commonplace to make announcements and never implement them. Both UPA Governments combined announced 99 new schemes and implemented just 1 of them - no statistic better sums up why the UPA lost so miserably in May. Particularly under Mamata Banerjee, the Railways has been in steep decline, with virtually no new lines, train derailments, falling revenues and increasing subsidies. This was unsustainable and that is what this budget, thankfully, pointed out.

A great positive point about this budget is that it was not region-centric, as the Railways had become under Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav, CP Joshi and in particular Mamata Banerjee. By equally distributing its resources and showing special interest in developing the neglected Northeast, this is truly a national budget, a great beginning. Overall, the budget rightly used its few resources as well as it could, declaring FDI in Railways and laying the ground for the next stage of High Speed Rail in India, starting with the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor.

However, while the Minister proposed a Plan Holiday to get down to implementing broken promises made by his predecessor, he could not resist announcing as many as 58 new trains in addition to the ones his predecessors left behind for him. Some Holiday! This inherent contradiction was a major let-down but overall, this budget was a decent beginning for this Government, which has a guaranteed five years in power with an absolute majority of its own. 

On Sacking Governors

The controversy over sacking UPA-appointed Governors across India continues, with the BJP government having succeeded in pushing out the Governor of West Bengal and Karnataka and transferring the Governor of Gujarat, who made headlines by taking on the then Modi government in the state. In addition, the Governor of Mizoram resigned after being transferred to Nagaland, for no apparent reason. Clearly, the pressure on UPA-appointed governors is large to resign and make way for the new dispensation.

Constitutionally, the Governor of a state is supposed to be its First Citizen and a respected figure, much like the President. However, since the days of Indira Gandhi, governors have been agents of the Central government, often meddling in the affairs of the state government, especially if they are not of the same party as the Central government. The Congress party is the primary actor in this area. Moreover, the last decade has also seen Raj Bhawans across India being converted into retirement houses for politicians well beyond their shelf life. As of May 2014, a majority of governors were former members of the Congress party. In 2004, the UPA Government sacked all NDA-appointed governors, forcing the Supreme Court to frame guidelines. Today, those very guidelines are being tested, ironically, on the BJP Government.

What is clear that the office of the State Governor has been eroded in terms of credibility. Not only have governors been used to interfere in States or as retirement houses, the case of Sheila Dixit proves that they are also being used to exploit the immunity given to them in criminal proceedings. Such a clause also exists for the President, but in case of proven misconduct in that office, Parliament has the power of impeachment. States have no such powers over the Governor, a clear inheritance from Nehru's unitary bias in government.

Because of these developments over the last few decades, all UPA-appointed governors should resign out of sheer moral preponderance. Those like Dixit, who will clearly not resign for fear of criminal charges being slapped, should be sacked with the justification that their office is impending justice, something that even the Supreme Court will not dispute if it comes to that. These are things that the current government would certainly do. However, because the office has been so badly eroded, it must be overhauled once and for all.

States should elect their own governors like the President, through an electoral college, and must have the power to impeach them on proper grounds. At most, the President should have the power to only recommend that a certain name not be included on the nomination list, for proper reasons to be given in writing. India is no longer a weak union of states that needs a strong Central government to keep it united. India has matured for the most part into a large federation and states have a right to their autonomy, not compromising the integrity of the union. The Modi Government talks a lot about empowering states, with Modi himself having faced the onslaught of a hostile Congress-agent in Raj Bhawan, Gandhinagar. It is time it did something about it for good. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Another Riot Coming?

In Moradabad, UP, tensions are high. The SP-controlled local administration ordered a local temple to stop using its speakers. Why? Because, according to them, Moradabad is a Muslim-majority area and a temple blaring out bhajans will cause communal tensions in the area. So, it seems, according to the sagacious opinion of Akhilesh Yadav and his netaji father, UP must emulate Saudi Arabia in order to be secular and socialist. For, where Muslims are in a minority, they must get special treatment; but where they are in a majority, an Islamic state must be formed, for that alone is the way forward for secularism.

This is a blatant attempt to create communal tensions where none exist, a hallmark of the SP whenever they are in government. How does a temple or a mosque create communal tensions? How do people privately practicing their own religious faith lead to communal tensions? And, even if it does, is it the duty of the state to ghettoize its people on communal lines or to stand up for the rights of individuals to profess their own faith? It is precisely this sort of communal governance that led to the horrific riots in Muzaffarnagar last year, which ultimately saw a huge backlash against the SP in the Lok Sabha elections. And now it seems that the SP, like always, has failed to learn a lesson and is up to its old tricks again.
 While BJP workers did protest against this dangerous move to manufacture communal tension, their protest turned violent, injuring the local DM. While this is a sad development, the protest per se was absolutely justified, if not a civic duty. If nobody protests against this blatant attempt to pit Hindus against Muslims, people can forget about any acche din in UP. Of course, the liberal media did report that the protests turned violent - but just 'forgot' to report why the protest took place there in the first place. Clearly, the pseudo-secular machinery that kept the UPA alive for 10 long years is back to business after the setback in May.

India's secularism is not a product of the Constitution, with all due respect to the document that defines modern India, but of the diversity of the subcontinent over thousands of years. It does not need so-called socialists to defend it. If anything, it is these pseudo-secular parties, led by their godfather the Indian National Congress, which have thoroughly discredited it.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

In the Land of the Free - 2014

Today was my first Fourth of July inside American territory, possibly the first of many. Of course, not being an American citizen, I don't really have much emotional attachment to it. Why should I? It's not my army or my government, so what do I have to be proud about? But then, this logo was made years before. Why? Why does American Independence day matter for the 6.7 billion people who are not American?

The answer comes, like so much else, from the ideas of Ayn Rand. For America is not a nation in the classical sense of nationhood: there is no common culture (Hollywood is only in California), there is no kind or dictator who binds the people together. There are huge divisions - on race, on political affiliations, even on geography (ask a New Yorker to live in Alabama). But what keeps the country together is an underlying logic - the logic that the individual matters, that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right of each individual. It is this idea, this respect for the individual that keeps this country together.

Of course, that does not mean that America lives up to its own ideal. This month, a new law in Illinois comes into force, requiring waiters to be licensed. If you thought capitalism means the end of a government license-raj, Illinois is certainly proving it wrong. This state has so many mindless laws, pointless licenses and complex laws that it is really no surprise that The Economist rated it as one of the worst states in this country for small businesses, which have to bare the brunt of these laws more than anyone else. On foreign policy, America is beating a hasty retreat from Afghanistan and has given up on trying to compete with China for leadership of the future. No, America is not living up to its ideals. But that is why you Independence Day matters - for in a democracy, once people realize that there is a problem, they can fix it. It's a question of thinking about it. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

On the Edge of your Seat

ZODIAC (2007)

Produced By: Paramount, Warner Bros and others
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Candy Clark and others
Pros: Gripping suspense, good acting, good (true?) story
Cons: The ending was an anti-climax
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

Ah, serial killers, the staple diet of thriller-enthusiasts the world over! Add to that the typical mix of bad policing and the underdog and you have a story. of course, the fact that it is (supposedly) based on a true story makes is all the better - such is the recipe for Zodiac, a thrilling story based in California that has some nail-biting moments when you want to hide your face, swearing never to sleep with the lights off!

The strongest point of the movie is its ability to build suspense and let the steam off progressively, although never too much. Full points to the director for that. The entire cast puts up a good show, although it is Jake Gyllenhaal who deserves top credits for his performance as a cartoonist-turned-detective who might have possibly solved the case of the Zodiac serial killer, who haunted the streets of Sacramento and adjacent counties for over a decade and was never caught for want of clinching evidence.

The only downside to this movie is the ending. True, it is based on a true story, but I just don't like ti when the director leaves you hanging in the air while the credits are showing, wondering what just happened. A movie must be complete and leave the viewer with a satisfying story, not a deep mystery. Together with the fact that it was unnecessarily long, coming in at about 150 minutes, put a dent in its armor. Nonetheless, a good watch. (OTFS)

Gripping and Heartbreaking

By Robert Harris

Well, I had decided to lay off Harris for a few months, but given how Fatherland is widely considered his best work, how could I resist? And indeed, it certainly lived up to its reputation. Under the genre of alternative history, this novel tells the tale of the life of an SS Office in the Greater German Reich, a full 20 years after Nazi Germany emerged victorious in World War II and soon entered a Cold War with America (which still managed to defeat Japan though). The sheer courage needed to write a novel with this interpretation makes it difficult - but surely Harris was cut out for that?

Unlike many of his other works, this novel singularly follows one character and is written from his eyes throughout. This is actually important for a novel such as this because Harris not only presents facts but also seeks to build perspective on what common German citizens knew, or pretended not to know, about the most tragic aspect of the War - the Jewish Holocaust.

In terms of sheer breadth, the novel takes your breath away. Indeed, just getting used to seeing 'Heil Hitler!' written with every greeting was a task in itself. Overall, an excellent novel and certainly the finest work from this author. Now, I really will lay off him for sometime (till I can get a hold of Imperium, that is!).

A Double Birthday

Well, I nearly forgot to mention this! Last Sunday, I turned 23, still considered very young for research. It marked my second birthday abroad, the first being the very special one in Munich in 2012. Given how my social life has mostly not worked for me in this past year, I was quite prepared to enjoy a quiet day alone, perhaps watching a movie (I had Transformers 4 in mind). But, as always, I tend to be very pessimistic!

I had a wonderful birthday party with friends I made in IGSA (whose Presidency I will soon be assuming). There is the fact that I had never attended any of their birthday parties; indeed, the people whose birthdays I had attended and even helped organize were not even present there. But perhaps this is good, for is tells me who my real friends in this country are. A lesson well-learned, I should think. That's probably my biggest gift this year.

But it didn't end there for I had another birthday party the next day, with my International friends. This one was a second momo-night, where we made the delicious Tibetan dish together with a great sauce - in this case, a peanut-based one. This was accompanied by a great movie, Zodiac (review coming soon!) and much gossip about everything under the sun.

Overall, I'd say this was a wonderful birthday, quite on par with the wonderful one I had by the Isar (although that stands a notch higher because of the first-mover advantage). I'm glad to have known such wonderful people here as well as all the people who wished me, either by phone or through social media. 

Journey to my First Paper

Come July 1 and the much-delayed results of the 2014 International Symposium on Pavement LCA came out and, as my adviser had predicted, it was a thumbs up to my paper, with some minor revisions requested by the reviewers, thus marking my first successful conference publication since coming to the US from my graduate studies. Of course, this is not my first experience with writing papers, since I had submitted one in my final year of B.Tech. However, that does not count because I could not present my work and hence, it was not published in the proceedings. In this case however, if all goes well, I should be flying to Davis, CA in October to officially present my work.

What makes this paper special for me, apart from the fact that it is my first as a graduate student, is that it was borne of a topic that was, less than a year ago, completely alien to me and largely unknown within my research group. Although my adviser did have some knowledge in the area, it was my work that set a solid foundation in the group in the area. And of that, I am very proud. This is, of course, a more exploratory style of research that I have been conducting, enabled by a kind Fellowship that comes without unnecessary conditions, as opposed to what has become commonplace in graduate schools, where advisers have a set theory or research plan and the student simply has to execute it.

This paper, I admit, was very simple and was even aborted at one point of time when it seemed that there was something amiss with the results (this was rectified later and that is possibly the topic of another paper). It took four months and six reviews to write. I wish I could have done an external review of it before submitting it, but that would require better networking, which my participation in this conference enables. The blind reviews I did receive were encouraging, as the reviewers felt that the work was useful and provided insight into the study. One reviewer did seem less impressed though, although the scores were average even there. What made me happy was that all the reviewers were happy at the writing style and felt it was a well-written paper. From a long-term perspective, this paper was intended o tell the world a little about what I am working on and what to expect and seek feedback for the same.

Of course, this is just the first step (isn't every success the first step?). I now have to incorporate the reviewers' comments, proof-read the paper, ensure that everything I say is defended by data and then submit it. In addition, there is also the matter of paying the conference fee, booking a flight, shuttles and a hotel. All or most of this is, of course, reimbursed later by the department but there is a temporary financial burden on the student. Thankfully, I've saved up enough to get over that. I also need to check in to LinkdIn and start networking (finally!)... and there's much more to do that I can't even think of yet.

And the most exciting thing is that this is just a first - there will be many more and I look forward to them.