Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Battle is on!

Maharashtra has just become the hottest political content of the year after the Lok Sabha elections, with all major alliances being called off and thus creating a multi-cornered contest of the likes hitherto seen only in Uttar Pradesh. All gloves are clearly off.

The biggest break was of course, the oldest of all, that of the Shiv Sena-BJP. The reasons for this are many, but the two most prominent ones appear to be Uddhav Thackeray's hurry to be CM and the BJP's confidence post the spectacular victory in May. The MNS is still a factor that may cause a problem to this direct content of saffron parties, despite its rout in the Lok Sabha polls. The real concern is the fact that the BJP is heavily banking on Narendra Modi, going as far as to break with the tried and tested formula of projecting a CM candidate to lead the campaign. This is a major shift in policy and actually indicates that the BJP's confidence might be misplaced, because the only change from the last election is the PM. However, it remains a fact that Modi is wildly popular and has an unparalleled connect with voters and this formula could certainly reap dividends, risky as it may be.

The other break hardly makes a mention in the media. The Congress-NCP alliance, always one of political opportunism draped in secularism, seems to have broken for no better reason that the NCP figures the Congress to be more of a liability than an asset. After the rout in May, the Congress has not changed anything except for keeping Rahul Gandhi out of elections (possibly a smart move!). Coupled with the huge corruption scandals and farmer suicides in Vidarbha, it seems the NCP wants to pile the blame on to an already battered Congress and escape much of the blame. This could be a smart move, unless the voter is too smart to miss it. And that is where the whole election lies - whose bluff does the voter catch? 

Monday, September 29, 2014

An American Tale

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in the US last week, about a decade after he was banned from entering on the basis of a silly law that was observed once and only once. It was a grand moment for those of us who supported him in his campaign and do believe that he is the greatest hope for India since PVN Rao and AB Vajpayee.

I attended an event, co-hosted and sponsored by my organization, to watch his speech at Madison Square Garden, a historic speech to commemorate his self-made destiny. Indeed, if there is anyone who embodies the idea of the American dream, it is Modi, at least at that moment. Son of a chaiwala, an RSS karyakarta, exiled to Delhi, returned to Gandhinagar to become Gujarat's greatest CM in history and finally scripted his own spectacular victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. And by virtue of that, he was given a grand welcome in America. Indeed, watching Modi truly makes us believe that it is possible to get somewhere in life.

Of course, there are many more pressing issues for India than relations with America. But this is also a very important issue that cannot be left to bureaucrats - certainly not after the disastrous events of the Khobragade incident that took ties to the lowest in decades. While the Obama administration doesn't really have much love for India, New York certainly proved that it does. And once again, it was the Indian diaspora here that made us proud.

And in our own little way, so did we. 

A Fabulous Night

Bollywood Night 2014 was a grand success, executed to near-perfection. It started 10 minutes behind schedule and ended exactly ten minutes late - such was the level of planning put into it. Of course, managing 13 different performances, the Multimedia Team, the Event Services team in the Courtyard Cafe and the hopeless battle with food vendors was never going to be easy, even for a medium-sized team. However, as my first large event in the US, I was determined to get the job done with my team.

We faced several challenges. Food was a problem right to the end and eventually we had to give up on it. The rules of the Union indeed make it very hard and there is a need to change them. The Multimedia and Event Services teams were the best to work with - they were even smart enough to give us an Indian-American employee who could make some sense out of the show (I'm amazed by their Hindi skills).

The hardest thing to handle was of course, the performers. Some were quite cooperative and didn't need too much prodding to get the job done - those are the groups that I really enjoyed working with. And then there were a few certain girls who just made life very troublesome for us: I was in a good mood to cancel their dance right to the last minute. Fortunately, even that went well. I suppose one must get used to the idea that there are some self-obsessed idiots that one has to work with every now and then. Largely though, the performers worked well with us.

Last year, I was an MC, unsure of how much to expand my wings in IGSA. This year, I was, as President, the Chief Organizer. One year, a grand transformation! While IITR MUN was still the biggest event I had ever organized, Bollywood Night definitely comes in a close second. 

MOM Made My Day

India's successful Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was indeed a proud moment for all Indians across the world. I was watching it from home, online, and heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi's inspirational speech after the mission was declared successful. Of course, the next day, The New York Times and the like came out with their condemnation for a poor country trying to reach Mars (we already reached the moon). This institutionalized racism was to be expected, more so from a leftist newspaper like that.

The fact remains that MOM is an important technological breakthrough for India, and not just for the space program. The advances made in materials and communication (there was no great expansion in propulsion, though) will certainly seep into the military sector and that will be of immense help for India. Moreover, the biggest gain for the country are the legions of young students, inspired to make a career in science and engineering. MOM will certainly pay itself back! 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Every Last Cliche


Produced By: Tips
Director: Rajkumar Santoshi
Starring: Shahid kapoor, Ileana D'Cruz, Padmini Kolhapure, Mukesh Tiwari and others
Pros: Good acting from Padmini Kolhapure, good music
Cons: Bad story, mostly bad acting and just about everything else
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

Two stars is actually pretty good for this one - I would usually refuse to even rate a movie as pathetic as this one, but for each of its pros, it did deserve some praise. Keyword - some. For, Phata Poster Nikla Hero is quite literally an amalgamation of the very worst in Bollywood, from cheesy dialogue to plain bad acting. Of course, there is no real story, it's an amalgamation of every formula ever applied. Call it the master formula!

But to be fair, there were some good things in the film. Padmini Kolhapure did put up a good show, despite of her extremely shallow character. And the music was quite good, especially the now-famous Main Rang Sharbaton Ka from Arijit Singh. And, in a strange way, the cliches were supposed to be a part of this film centered around someone looking to join Bollywood. In that respect, they weren't all that bad.

But where the movie really fails is the fact that it doesn't really have a story. Even Bollywood cliches can be mocked inside a story - the director (who also wrote the story) just didn't try. And that's where this movie really failed. (OTFS)

Circus of Imagination

The Divine Comedy
By Dante Alighieri

According to classical literature, a comedy is supposed to be a lowly form of writing, meant for the common masses. In this modern age of course, The Divine Comedy stands out as one of the highest works of Western literature. It was then, quite a pleasure reading this acclaimed translation as Dante went through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven with his divine guides, Virgil and Beatrice.

What truly stands out is the depth of imagination of Dante's work - virtually every human trait, sin or otherwise, has been covered in this seminal work. Amazingly, for an engineer, this work holds great potential, such is the scientific detail with which each of the three works has been worked out. Every circle, every level and every emotion have been carefully planned. Indeed, this is not just a random collection of ideas, but a well thought out, coherent poem. 

The UK has changed forever

Last week, Scottish voters voted in a much-awaited referendum to stay with England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. Demographic studies will show that the vote was divided between older voters, whose pensions are Pound Sterling denominated, and younger voters, tired of English rule from London, looking to form a new future for themselves. For now, demographics have spoken. But for how long?

Scotland's sinful marriage to England to jointly plunder wealth from India is now broken, if not severed. For 200 years, this United Kingdom looted other great, prosperous nations in their imperial conquests. A virtually uninhabitable marshland like Scotland became part of a rich and prosperous empire by selling itself. Now, with the the end of colonialism and the economic crisis having eroded all the promise of unity, the Scottish are looking to take back their freedom.

One thing is for certain - the UK has changed forever, irreversibly. While it was saved from the body blow, it Kingdom as it is now will die slowly and steadily. For now, the referendum was defeated by practical necessities. But an entire generation has come so close to Independence, and they will not be stopped. From more devolution to semi-autonomous status to a loose confederation and finally as separate countries, this partition is virtually guaranteed to take place over time.

Perhaps it is poetic justice that the English should have to face this ignominy. For a society that has derided other peoples, other cultures and forced their superiority on the rest of the world, an empire that has has no qualms in partitioning lands and destroying cultures, this near dissolution of the UK is merely karma. 

Hectic Work

Next weekend, IGSA is organizing what used to be its freshers night - Bollywood Night. Used to, because as time has progressed, it has become more of a cultural event with undergraduate participation than a freshers night for new graduate students. I often wonder why, and the only conclusion that I can think of is the massive inferiority complex that every generation of Indians seems to come with. That, together with the fake sense of American 'coolness' they get from (American) movies.

That apart, the work has been quite grueling for the event, with multiple meetings with the Courtyard Cafe, the Multimedia Team, food vendors and a plethora of participants. As President for the year, I've been at the forefront of the effort, backed by an excellent team. Still, the team itself has been a challenge. It is clearly too small to manage so many things; but it is still too big to be very coherent at meetings. I wonder if there is a golden mean in this somewhere.

Bollywood Night is next week at the Courtyard Cafe. I'm sure it will be fun. If there's something I've learned, it's that people here simply want a fun night. They will complain and crib certainly, but they would be very disappointed if they had nothing to complain and crib about. Such is the desi, fresh off the boat. 

Mind your country

Yesterday, Pakistan's crown prince Bilawal Bhutto Zardari fell on the old tried-and-tested formula of rousing up a rally by boldly proclaiming that he will seize Kashmir from India. Far from the Pakistani position that Kashmiris should be given the right of self-determination, he went ahead and did that determination for them, determining that they were as much a Pakistani province as say, Balochistan. His party, bereft of any real form of opposition to Nawaz Sharif and in fact, being forced to side with him by the reckless forces of Imran Khan, is clearly out of ideas.

Of course, it's not like there's any shortage of problems in Pakistan. Last week saw the unimaginable attempt by some Pakistani Navy officers and crew to hijack the PNS Zulfiqar, certainly a new low for a force that has been long infiltrated by the likes of Al Qaeda and is stopped in its tracks by only its fear of being sunk by Washington, as it was once sunk by Delhi. But while jihadists might be just now showing their prowess in the Navy, the Army has long been the fountainhead of radicalization in the country, covertly through their support for madarsas and militant camps in PoK, or overtly through programs such as Zia-ul Haq's restructuring of Pakistani textbooks, which are still very much in use.

Clearly, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is the future leader of a failed state, a state which is slowly moving towards the abyss and which could self-destruct anytime. In Iraq and Syria, it was ISIS which overthrew the military and civilian leadership; but in Pakistan, it might just be the militants who simply marry the army - the civilians are already subdued. Pakistani politicians might have failed to steer the nation to a better future, but the truth is that Pakistan itself has never gotten over Partition first, despite what happened in 1971, still believing that they can somehow overcome a country so far more superior than them as India. The falsehoods of Partition, of some ancient divine right of Muslims to rule India, still linger in the Pakistani psyche.

Mr. Bhutto-Zardari had better think of keeping whatever provinces his country has together before he tries to get more. In his great zeal to take back every last inch of Kashmir, he may just have the last inch of Pakistan taken away from under his feet. Not by India, but by the Army's own militants. 

Good Start, Can do more

The Road Transport & Safety Bill 2014 (Draft)

New Transportation Minister Nitin Gadkari has made it a priority to overhaul India's archaic road safety rules and procedures, which have proven to be nothing but paper tigers in the face of millions of road accidents and fatalities each year, particularly on highways. This draft bill is the outcome of a series of discussions on the topic.

Overall, the bill is very good and goes a long way in embracing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision of a 'digital India,' incorporating ICT-enabled solutions to control India's abysmal traffic safety record. But it goes a step further and proposes such solutions for licensing, thus ending several illegal and unethical practices that go on in just about every RTA in the country.

Where the Bill falls short is in private sector involvement. While it is certainly a good idea to put higher crash safety standards on industry, they should have a say in determining those standards as well. Moreover, instead of PSUs, the private sector should be involved in developing ICT solutions for traffic safety to help build capacity and improve efficiency.

Thus, the Draft Bill, while a good first try, definitely needs some improvement, because it can go much higher. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Welcome Weekend

It's been about 13 months since I came to America, far away from my past, far away from just about all of my friends. New friendships have been forged, powerful enemies have been made and life in general has gone on. If I met someone from just one year back, I would probably have little in common with them, except possibly a small group of people who shared my journey to this Land. Then, to meet someone from a life five years ago is an experience that I am not accustomed too - I have scarcely met anyone from that far back at any stage in my life.

But then, these are times of novelty, when new things are happening. And spending the weekend with an old friend, one of only two who stayed in touched through those years after the fifth previous, was a truly wonderful experience. Chicago was, of course, the Promised Land, a marvel for Civil engineers and an inspiration for those who value human progress. Evanston, home of Northwester University, was a great albeit extraordinarily expensive city. My first American football game was exhilarating. But above all, the feeling of meeting an old friend in such an alien land was warming - a welcome change from the long grind of research.

In all my life, I have learned not to depend on friends - not just for physical aid but for emotional. I have known well that friends come and go and I do not hold any hopes of making any for too long. The past is the past - enshrined in memories and Facebook albums, but physically, far away. That is how it has always been for me. But sometimes, when the past returns, strange things can happen. What they are, I am not quite sure. Perhaps it is this lesson for which I came to America to learn.

Picture: Kartikey & I at Millennium Park, Chicago, IL

The News Media is For Sale

One of the key findings from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections is related to the role of the media. India has made a fundamental shift in this regard in the last two decades - from being a state monopoly, there are now hundreds of private media outlets in a variety of formats. And they are all up for sale.

But this was known well-before: the corporate news media depends on advertising and equity, so their reporting is bound to be colored by it. However, what 2014 taught us is that politicians too can get into that game, not just through Paid News or fixing interviews, but by being the media itself: the BJP's successful campaign was built on the back of a powerful social media strategy and a system of planted stories (which were not necessarily untrue).

Indeed, one of the reasons for the Congress' defeat was its pathetic management of the media of all forms. The media is a powerful instrument today, with a majority of Indian households having access to one, but it is a pliable instrument. Every election hence will certainly be played out there.  

Friday, September 5, 2014

Transformers meets AVP


Producers: Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures and others
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, CJ Adams, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston and others
Pros: Excellent SFX, good ending
Cons: Bad cinematography
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

Are we at the end of creativity? Has humanity exhausted all its gifts and is now forced to recycle old ones? Well, it certainly seems so. Not because of the fact that this is yet another movie of the same name as its previous edition, not because it is another unnecessary sequel, but because this movie is essentially a blend of Transformers and AVP - that's where we have gotten, merging two movies and naming it after a third.

Still, Godzilla was not all that bad - the story was quite interesting, at least in the beginning, and although it became unbearable in the middle, the ending somewhat redeemed it. After all, I never imagined a room full of people cheering for Godzilla! The real strength of the movie was the special effects, much like Transformers in that sense, and not merely because most of the Bay Area and Honolulu were torn apart and bombed to rubble. The MUTOs and Godzilla were well-envisioned, while the human component was just about good enough.

The real problem with this movie is in the cinematography - with two MUTOs around, it is extremely difficult to make any sense of who is fighting whom (what?). Even the fact that only one of the MUTOs can fly dawns quite close to the ending. For some reason, the fighting only seems to be at night, while the gigantic creatures seem to evade all detection in the bright sunlight during the day. Clearly, this was a director who was a little too enthusiastic to up the ante for his audience and that is precisely where the movie fails. In fact, in that respect, it is closest of all to Transformers 4: too many things happening at the same time!

Not greatly recommended, but not that bad either. (OTFS)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

My First Credit Card

After waiting for a year to get a Social Security Number, I finally became an RA and got it. And I quickly applied for a credit card. There are two reasons for this - first, of course, is to build a good credit score, which is absolutely necessary to survive in the US. I haven't made any large purchases yet, but I will need to buy a car soon, in which case a good FICO score will be helpful.

The second reason is more philosophical - it's about growing up and not just earning your own money, but learning to manage credit too. It's an important lesson that school does not teach you and which you can only learn hands-on.

So, with my new credit card, I'm ready to purchase, responsibly. To that effect, I don't intend to get another until I earn my PhD.

World of My Own

This post was written for the inaugural set of posts in SDSLabs' new webapp, Experiences@IITR. Thanks to +Shashank Mehta for the request.

I still remember that hot, sunny day in the July of 2009, in Saharanpur. New students, still basking in the limelight of JEE, look forward to entering the hallowed portals of IIT Roorkee, to click that must-have profile picture in front of the Main Building, as it was called till recently. Then there are the small group of people who make due with the football/hockey/cricket/anything else ground in the Saharanpur Campus. But I was happy - this was going to be my new home for the next five years, ending with an Integrated M.Tech degree in Polymer Science and Technology, and I could either love it or crib about it. I chose to love it and never regretted it. 

Of course, destiny had something else in store. Actually, I don't believe in destiny. I had other plans for myself. Four years later, as I sat on the back of a rickshaw, laden with bags, pulling out of the Main Gate, satisfied with the knowledge that my name would be on the roll of honor of the nation's best school for Civil Engineering, I was convinced that the world had come to an end. After all, what else did life have to offer? It was just going to be about work, money and family now. What can life offer after the golden years at Roorkee? 

One year after the world ended for me, I can now see how wrong I was. For, it was not that the world had come to an end, but rather, my world had come to an end - a world of my creating, a world that I defined. Looking back to those years in Roorkee, it seemed so funny, comical even, how seriously I took myself. Having to call seniors 'sir' and 'ma'am'? Outrageous! Being treated like a first year in second year? Unjust! Juniors in Kshitij not writing stories on time? Atrocious! Nobody showing up for a debate? Blasphemous! Every little event - from the gujju next door's goodies-from-home to the politics of SAC and its subservient bodies to the egregious BTP and finally to Jawahar Bhawan's canteen discontinuing momos, everything was big, everything mattered. Not because it did, but because I wanted it to. That was Roorkee - whatever I wanted it to be. 

And then came real life, where you cannot simply turn away from difficult truths, where you do have to take responsibility for your actions and where you cannot crib about the bad food that someone else happened to make for you (and did the dishes too). But alas, no matter how far away you go from Roorkee, the ghost of Sir James Thomason follows you in your dreams. Hindu pholosophy would have it that I was but a drop of water in the infinite Ganga (canal) that flows through Roorkee - there were many before me and there will be many after. But a good Civil Engineer knows that the river too takes something from the land. In my four years in Saharanpur and Roorkee, I took away much more than a degree and some medals. 

Sometimes, I want to go back and pretend it never ended. How hard could it be? Just a rather long flight from halfway across the world, a train from NDLS and a mad rush to get off the train at Roorkee station before it left in two minutes. A journey halfway across the world. Destination - a world of my own.