31 March 2008

City by the sea

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
- A late of two cities (Charles Dickens)

I don’t live in Mumbai anymore; although I was there for a considerable amount of time. But the memories are still fresh and warm. I remember old days sometime and wonder whether those days will ever be back.

There is a saying among the local people: the person who survives Mumbai survives anywhere in the world. It may be bit exaggerated by the people who love the city so much but there is also a little bit of truth in that. Many people don’t survive the city, they go back to the places from where they have come from. Even I got dejected after a few days. I stayed mainly for the reason - I had no where to go.

The Outsider
It took me sometime to adjust to the smaller houses, bigger crowd, faster life and the city that never sleeps.

“You are an outsider “chaiwala concluded at the tapri.
“How do you know?”
“By your accent “he said.
“Does that matter?” I was surprised.
“No I guess, everyone is an outsider here.“ I didn’t know whether it was literal or philosophical.

When I was a kid..
When I was a kid there was a school picnic whose sole purpose was to travel on a train. We went to Mangalore got on the train; and the teacher said – “The bogies of the train look similar; but they are not same. Only one has an engine. It pulls all the other dummy bogies, like a leader. I want every one of you to be a leader!”

“Ravi, are you a leader?” she asked me.
“If everyone becomes engine; who will become the dummy bogie?”. I asked her back.
She was not expecting this. She pondered for a moment. “I am sure you will!” finally she said.

And here I was in Mumbai day to day traveling in the train. I saw some people sitting on the roof; they were very close to the power line and probably very close to death. “Why would they do that?” I wondered.
“This is Mumbai my friend anything is possible here” fellow traveler said. That was my first time. Later I heard that line millions of times from various people.

A fine gentleman
One day while standing on the 5th platform at Andheri, I heard an announcement “The train coming on 5th platform will be redirected to platform number 3”

I was in a hurry; there was really no time for climbing the stairs and reaching platform 3. So I jumped on the tracks, and a fine gentleman with a suit from the other side of the track pulled me up.
“Thank you very much sir!” I said.
“Don’t you know it is against the law to cross the rails?” he asked me.
“I know, I am short of time, I need to attend an interview” I said.
“I am afraid you are going to be late for the interview” he told me.
“Even though you are crossing; you should not do it when the TC is on the platform!”
Then it dawned on me.
“Are you..?”
“Yes. I am “He took me to a small office on platform number 1.

“350 Rs fine with receipt. Or 50 Rs. and no receipt” he said.

“Are you a leader, Ravi?” My teacher’s voice ringed in my ear; got my receipt by paying 350 Rs.

Lady running on the platform
Some days later, I was standing near the door of a train about to leave the station – I saw a lady running, raising her sari, parallel to the train trying to get in. I tried to tell her, not to panic because there is a train every 3 minutes. But she seems to be reluctant to my advice and increased her speed. I extended my hand and pulled her in exactly as Sha-Rukh-Khan pulled Kajol in DDLJ.

While I was holding her, I found she was surprisingly muscular. On close inspection I realized to my horror that she is not a lady, but an eunuch.

He/She came surprisingly near me. I could smell the breath.
“Kya re, Salmaan Khan!” held me at a place no one dared before.
The grip was becoming stronger.
“You are hurting me!” I said.
“Give me five rupees”
“How about one rupee?” I tried to negotiate.
“How about squeezing you more!” made me immobile with the counter offer.
“Please don’t make me sterile like you!” begged him or her or whatever.
I gave five rupees; he jumped out at the next station.

Normal life
Standing by the door of the moving train I used to watch outside world. The moving houses, running AIDS awareness hoardings, people squatting on tracks for morning needs, torn posters of adult movies – it was a different world. It fascinated me.

One day while I was standing by the door, a man, hiding behind a pole hit me hard with a stick. I lost my bag. Later I came to know that this is a NORMAL thing in Mumbai, which was not so normal from where I had come from.

There was nothing significant in the bag except for a relatively obscure book written by an unknown monk – “Love thy neighbor”. Later when I was roaming around FOUNTAIN I saw this book at many road side books sellers. I didn’t buy it.

The great gambler
When my friend from Mangalore visited me, I took him to Juhu. We roamed for a while on the beach; noticed a curious crowd at one place. They were gambling. It was a primitive sort of gambling; players need to guess the Joker among the 3 cards. Who ever identifies the Joker wins 10 times the money he stakes.

This looked like an interesting game to me; where the chances of winning are always one third which is a high probability in any kind of gambling.

We closely monitored the game for some time. Interestingly, I could guess the Joker each time. “Only a moron could lose in this game”, I told my friend.

So we started playing the game, and like morons we lost 5000 Rs! It was a big amount. My friend needed that money for a job agent. Finally I borrowed the amount from another friend. It took a long time to repay that amount. I could not borrow from mom, she would have killed me for that kind of money. In fact she would have killed me for lot less. Mom never came to know about this incident. (She will come to know now of course, after reading this article; almost a decade later. But she can’t kill me now, my wife won’t allow that! )

Years later I realized that every one among the crowd was a team, even the players! The only outsiders were me and my friend.

Night life
Not all human actions are rational (remember we have evolved from monkeys). During one of these low moments of my life I went to a dance bar with friends. I thought we were late because it was closed from the front. But then we entered from the back door (which was NORMAL of course).

The environment inside was gloomy. There was a stage in the center where few girls were dancing; they were not interested in dance. As a matter of fact they seemed as if they were not interested in life itself. Some of them were wearing garlands made of currency notes.

One fat guy sitting in the corner was throwing cash artistically at the dancing girls. “Why would someone do that?” I asked my friend.
“This is Mumbai my friend, anything is …. “my friend started.
“I know, I know “ I said. “Let’s get out of here”
“Probably you need something refined”. He concluded; so we went to a disc. The atmosphere here was different. The crowd was young; most of them were either software engineers or call center guys.

The atmosphere was more live. Every one was dancing and smoking. It was full of smoke. Almost like heaven. I saw a girl smoking.
“Every day 1200 people die because of smoking” I told her.
“I am not going to die today” she replied.

She was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a person having thick mustache. The person in the picture really intimidated me. “Is that your grandpa?” I asked her.
“No. This is Friedrich Nietzsche moron!”
She was either an intelligent person or trying to look smarter. Anyway she succeeded in her efforts.

Then there were some people drinking from a thin glass tube I had last seen in my chemistry labs. “What is that?” I asked my friend.
“Tequila “ he said.
“How is it?”
“One word” he replied “Heaven!”
“Let me try that”
“Follow the 3 steps” he said “Lick the salt; drink tequila; taste lemon”
“Great” I said, tried tequila and till date I don’t know what happened next. Later when I felt little bit okay, my friend asked me “how was it?”
“One word” I said “Heaven!!”

Cripple at Churchgate
One day at Churchgate, I saw a cripple on a train that was about to start. Some good people offered him change. Most people didn’t offer him anything. This may be a bad day.

It was very difficult for the cripple to move around. He was literally crawling. He looked like a young man, may be my own age. What choices did we make that has resulted in these outcomes? – I wondered. I thanked God silently, felt sad for the cripple. Contrary to my character I took a 10 Rs note from my pocket.

And then suddenly train started moving. What would the cripple do now? Probably he may have to get down at the next station. The incoming crowd at the next station would give him a tough time.

Then an incident happened that changed me for ever.

To my horror the cripple stood erect, almost my height, walked straight towards me as a perfectly normal person, looked straight in my eyes, winked, snatched the 10 RS note jumped out from the running train and vanished in the human crowd.

This is the second biggest shock I ever got! (The first one was the electrical shock I had got some time back trying to remove the insulator of a live wire with teeth.)

Before this incident deep inside me there was a person who believed in every fellow human being and universal brotherhood. This incident killed that person.

Spirit of the city
In those days, no one was listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan except Anu Malik who would promptly copy his songs. These copied songs would become super hits. Some time Anu Malik would copy a song twice! Then some upcoming artist would copy Anu Malik, and Anu Malik would threaten to sue this new artist for copying the already copied songs. Mithun was acting in every other B grade movie. I was sad for this 3 time national film award winner’s decline.

The days were bad. One time a political leader died in the hospital. His followers destroyed the whole hospital. Subsequently the followers promised the hospital authorities that they will rebuild the hospital free of cost with one condition that hospital would bring back the dead guy!!

This kind of reasoning made me crazy. I was slowly losing my mind.

“Where are you?” my aunt called on my cell.
“I am at Andheri station” I said.
“Come home straight; there was a bomb blast near Dadar” she said.

I took an auto and went home straight. Next day I was scared to board the train; to my surprise trains were running normal as if nothing had happened. Tiffin careers were there along with the beggars, office people, flower vendors, small time crooks, singing babas, TCs, news paper distributors - it was a regular crowd.

And then I realized: No amount of bombing could kill the spirit of this city.

A new man
One time I was in a crowded train. The moment I said I will be getting down at Andheri, four guys held me tight, made me immobile. It was a Virar train. They didn’t allow me to get down at Andheri.

This is a kind of crowd management trick, not from the railways but from general public. I learned this later.Only people travelling long distance catch the Virar train, rest of us would take either Andheri or Borivali train.

I got down at Borivali; and TC promptly caught me for not having ticket till Borivali. I told him I was not allowed to get down at Andheri.

“I hear this story every day;” he said “Why, I heard this one today morning itself.” He was indifferent my pleadings.

“What now?” I asked him subsequently.
“350 Rs fine; and I will give you a receipt” he said.

Long time back when Gandhi was a kid, a British inspector gave a surprise visit to his school. He gave a dictation to the class. All the kids wrote the answer properly, except Gandhi who could not spell the word – “kettle” correctly. The school teacher hinted him to copy from the neighboring student. But Gandhi would not do it. Later this incident influenced him a lot to define his character.

I don’t know why I am telling this story, but I wonder sometime - Are we all that great?

“Listen my friend” I told the TC “you can keep this 20 Rs, and…and..” words were not coming out.
“..and what?” he asked me curiously.
“..and I don’t need a receipt!” I finally said.
He gave me a long look; pocketed the money with a remarkable speed. “Now, aren’t you a smart boy? Why did you lie to me earlier?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Run along boy, before I catch you for not having ticket!” he winked at me and disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

I waited for sometime. Something unusual to happen - but nothing happened. I heard the announcement for the next train. The train was full. There was a curious looking boy on the roof, he gave an inquisitive look.

“Can you give me a hand?” - I offered my hand.
This article was first published at Daiji.

I have mentioned that I lost 5000 in gambling. The actual amount lost was 8000. I felt that would be too much for the readers to digest.

19 March 2008

Pardon me, monsieur.

This one is my first article for http://www.mangalorean.com/. You can read it here. It didn’t receive much attention compared to my earlier articles, even though it had some interesting material. I guess it lacked a central theme. I leave that to my readers. – RL

“Pardon me, monsieur” – last words of Marie Antoinette, said to the executioner after she accidentally stepping upon his foot.

I was once working for a financial organization which had a mid-level bomb threat. I sure someone had triggered a false alarm. Because of which there was a bomb training; kind of top 10 things to do or not to do if there ever was a bomb detonation. I was bit skeptic about this training.

“In case of a bomb, you can’t do anything” the trainer said. “If you are lucky enough you will be dead before you know; this training is for the unlucky ones who survive.” This moron wanted to make a grand opening, which he did and impressed other morons like himself.

I had a feeling that all this hoopla was worthless. I didn’t learn anything new in the training except for – “Social Engineering”. It is a concept, where you use your social etiquettes to gain access secure unauthorized zones.

Social engineering is where you meet a neatly combed nice guy with a suite and laptop in the parking lot. “Can I disturb you for a lighter?” he would politely request. You look at the guy; he looks like an executive with his suit, neatly combed hair and a laptop bag. Only there is no laptop in the bag! Instead there will be a bomb.

You just remember that you didn’t have your morning smoke either. You start smoking along with the stranger - talk this and that, stock market, weather etc. After finishing the smoke you head towards the office entrance, the guy follows you. At the door he politely says – “after you sir”. You appreciate his demeanor, swipe the card and enter the office. Before the door closes even the guy enters, once inside he will leave the bag in a remote place and vanishes. After half hour – boom!

This is what the trainer told us about social engineering. I strongly doubt, these things happen in real life.

The closest I ever came to a bomb is in Bollywood movies; a small box like device with running decreasing numbers. This is not a bomb but a 555 timer, I know because I have designed few of them during my engineering labs. In some other movies though I had seen multi colored wires - need to be cut in a particular sequence in order to defuse the bomb!

“Do you think all that thing happens in real life?” my friend asked me.
“I doubt. It is so filmy” I said.
“I think it is possible!” the whole thing fascinated him.
“Why would someone bomb our bank when world’s top bank is just across the street?” I reasoned.
“Exactly for the same reason! Think like a terrorist, if you are the bomber would you try to trespass a highly secured number one bank?”
Before I could say anything he only answered for me. “No! Of course not! You would bomb the least expected second best, which is of course our bank!” This line of thought really freaked me out.

After this, for a few days I always carried a hard copy of emergency exit plan for our building. I also mugged the fire extinguishing procedures.

Then a really interesting thing happened. My friend, one morning while about to enter the office building found a stranger wearing a suite, neatly combed hair, and a laptop bag!
He even said "After you sir!" before my friend said anything.
My friend who was kind of expecting this said “Do you really think I will fall for that? Why don’t you swipe first?”
“I don’t have a swipe card!” stranger said.
“Wow! And probably you don’t have a laptop in the bag either!”
"What?! What do you mean? Do you know who I am?"
"I don't know who you are" and to give a dramatic effect he added- "I don't care, who you are!"
This continued for sometime; till security guards interfered to sort the issue. It turned out the stranger was - Country Head. Management got in a Catch-22 situation, they didn’t do anything to my friend, although they would have loved to do something nasty. They could not fire the guy for doing the right thing!

All this mania has started after the 9/11- WTC affair, the distructions we used to see in video games and Hollywood are now possible in real life.

Talking about WTC – author Tom Clancy gave the idea of crashing a plane into a building in his book DEBT OF HONOUR. This was 1994, much before Osama actually implemented it. Earlier in another book - SOME OF ALL FEARS Clancy gave a detailed description of creating a hydrogen bomb, for which FBI gave him a real tough time. Clancy fought back saying the information is easily available for general public – if one really interested to find it.

Some times simple mistakes are harmless. They will make you chuckle when you remember them later on.

Moral of the story
Most of you have heard this story, in which four sons of an old man fight all the time. They don’t like each other. To teach them a lesson, old man calls all the four boys to his death bed, gives each one a stick and asks them to break it. They do it without much effort. Next, the old man gives four sticks tied with a thread to one son and asks him to break; this time the son is not able to break the sticks. Finally the sons realize strength in unity!

When I was in school, some students were enacting this fable. 5 guys on the stage, old man (he is an actor, not really old) in the corner on a bed; 4 sons fight on the center stage.

“My sons – come here, I have something important for you “old man calls his sons.

He gave each one a stick. “Please break them” Now I don’t know who had the onus of fetching the sticks, who ever it was, the sticks were real strong ones. None of them could break the individual sticks. The old man stood up from the death bed, tried himself to break the sticks and failed.

All along the audience was dull. They knew the story. They were kind of waiting this dull play to end and something more interesting to start. But the unexpected events on the stage really charged the audience. There were wild cheers, claps, whistles and uproar from the audience.

In desperation 4 sons along with the old man, tried to break a single stick and failed; thus ruining the moral of the story!

Age of innocence
This happened long time back; I was probably in 6th or 7th standard. There was a children’s festival. Children from various schools all over Karnataka were to be there. I was nominated from my class.

In those days I was crazy about cricket. I had a book with posters of great players and statistics. (Later these so called great players, paper tigers, disappointed me so many times, I stopped watching the game. I don’t watch cricket any more. Instead I spend my valuable time with the young kids steering them away from cricket mania.)

The carnival was huge. It was there for more than a week. One time, I entered an exhibition hall. It was so big that one whole floor was dedicated for sports!

I entered a room dedicated for football, saw the sporting equipments with dull curiosity, followed by hockey, and passed one sport after other. And then in front of me there was a room dedicated solely for Cricket! It was like entering heaven. First time I saw the cork ball, it was heavier than the rubber ball I used to play. First time I saw the real bat (Till then, I used to play with the one made of coconut tree branches). I played some imaginary shots with the real bat.

Then I saw a thing which I had never seen before in cricket. The object is misplaced, I thought. Still I wondered, may be there is really something exists in cricket which I don’t know. This ignorance about my favorite game made me sad.

There was a volunteer, I took the object to her and asked – “Where do you use this in Cricket?”

She gave me a startling look. She didn’t say anything for a while, just measured me from top to bottom. Later, I guess she either recognized my innocence or the passion for the game. Which ever it is, “This is an abdominal guard” she said and gracefully explained the use of guard in cricket. I blushed, whispered a greatful “Thank you” vacated the room immediately.

Later when I was playing serious cricket - abdominal guard saved my life one time!

Not all the simple mistakes are innocent and harmless. Some kept us in darkness for years, like the one in the case of Popeye.

Spinach and the wrongly placed dot
I have grown up watching Popeye beating the hell out of Bluto-the-terrible after having a dash of spinach. Like me, kids all over the world have consumed more spinach than they actually need. But like me they have failed miserably to build muscles anywhere near Popeye.

This may be because spinach is not especially high in iron! Probably it has less iron than many of the easily available day to day vegetables. In 1870, a Dr. E. von Wolf made a decimal transposition error and reported spinach's iron content as being ten times the actual content. The error was popularized by Popeye, starting in 1929, widely cementing this "fact."

The popularity of the Popeye helped boost sales of the leafy vegetable and the spinach-growing community of Crystal City, Texas erected a statue of the character in gratitude.

Popeye successfully fooled me along with millions of kids all over the world; subsequently I stopped watching Popeye and switched to more entertaining and sophisticated – Tom and Jerry.

What is the magnitude of these simple mistakes? How strongly they can affect us? Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?

Butterfly effect
The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly's wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.

The theory says that even the smallest inconsequential actions of the past gain momentum over the period and have radical effects on the present.

This is a fascinating theory; but I wonder how far it is practical. There are rumors of whether conditions changing drastically because of small initial changes. The best example would be a ball placed at the crest of a hill. It might roll into any of several valleys depending on slight differences in initial position.

There are two interesting movies on this concept - Run Lola Run and Butterfly effect. They either convince or confuse you about the concept. I have seen both. I am equally convinced and confused.

Rarely foolishness of an act can cause a life, but then one can bag a Darwin award if he is sufficiently foolish!

Darwin awards
Darwin awards - are named after the same guy who gave us the concept of: survival of the fittest. And the idea of Humans are from monkeys; although I don't buy the latter. I feel there are still a large number of monkeys in the world. Why they don't become humans? – I ask myself and this has made me skeptic.

This is a tongue-in-cheek honor, "Awards" have been given for people who "do a service to Humanity by removing themselves from the Gene pool". It is for people who kill, or in rare cases, sterilize themselves accidentally by attempting to do stupid feats.

The winner of Darwin award in year 2001 is a Croatian college student, who tried to demonstrate juggling with hand grenades at a party. He got the award by dropping one of the grenades!!

In another interesting turn of events a local crook was summoned in front of the judge for the procession of hand grenades. The crook denied the charges saying that the grenades are not real, instead toys.

“Please, sir” he pleaded “If you don’t believe me check it out yourself.”

Judge decided to test the thing himself; ordered the custodian to present the evidence. Hand grenades were presented to the judge. He took one, observed carefully and removed the pin. Soon he won the Darwin Award.