Friday, March 22, 2019

Chronicling our time: Reflections on the last 3 decades and the next 3 to come

Last March, I crossed the carefree twenties and hit the tense thirties. Today, I complete my first year of being tense about my thirties. There is a reason I chose to use the adjective tense. If one were to draw his or her life’s parallel to sport- being in your 30s is like batting on a 90s score in cricket, which is often referred to as the nervous nineties.  My generation referred to as the 90s kids in pop culture, would distinctly remember every time Sachin hit the 90s mark- the nation would become nervous. Hitting those last 10 runs mattered to everybody. After all, a century was what was really counted and remembered, which invariably went a long way in making the overall team’s fortunes. Likewise, if there was a nervous decade for the sport called life, I’d argue it would be the 30s. For what one would build in this phase of life (relationships, friendships, career, wealth etc.) would be a defining factor for what one would be remembered for.

It is in this time period most adults get married, get to know their partners strongly, start a family, buy a home, get to define themselves at work with some amount of expertise, move up in the career ladder and in a way truly become independent- financially and emotionally. This decade (2018-2028) is quite scary yet exciting for anybody to hit the 30s age group. Scary and exciting as in taking the world’s fastest roller coaster ride. Let me explain why.

The decade of the 1980s & the 1990s:

The decade of 1980s was when I was born and my father hit his thirties. Doordarshan was the only channel yet and getting to watch the Sunday evening movie without power cuts was like winning a free Netflix subscription. You were lucky. Life was simple and Salman Khan made films with scripts. Things largely seemed under control- you knew where you were heading.

My father’s 30s went in establishing his career as an accountant and saving for his children’s education. The wants were limited and his life goals too, which led to contentment. In the end he made sure he did what he set out to do in his 30s.

Liberalization & the Internet Boom (The decade of 2000 & 2010):

The democratization of internet post the Cold War is by far the most defining moment of humankind’s history. One can hardly find a parallel event which would have such a widespread impact on people’s lives for times to come. The guttenberg printing press made Christianity the most popular religion in the world, the steam engine revolutionalised transport but I’d argue did not have such behavior changing, era defining impact as the internet. Come to think of it, the printing press invented by Guttenberg in c. 1440 has become a 3D printer in 2019, the steam locomotive invented by George Stephenson in c. 1812 has become a bullet train in 2019, but the internet which most people could only start using in the 1990s has become everything that one could possibly imagine- even a virtual human being poised to take over the real human beings.

The decade of 2020 and after:

The internet has made everything seem smaller and doable. This most often makes life seem smaller. You finish a hard day’s work and get a pat on your back from your boss and are ready to leave office with some contentment. Just as you book a cab with surge pricing to go home, you open Facebook to see that a friend whom you met at a weekend party some 6 months ago has been nominated by some magazine’s 30 under 30 list. You feel it is a big deal compared to your desk job. You start feeling small. You feel there is a lot to do. You forget what you were happy about, just a while ago. You go home to do nothing.  Your life seems smaller. This is induced not necessarily by envy but by too much information that the internet constantly brings to us. 

The decades to come next will only aggravate the crisis if you are not looking at the brighter side. Our generation is the richest generation in humankind’s history from a per capita income, access to earth’s resources and collective human knowledge standpoint. The reason why I refer to this phase of our lives as scary yet exciting is because we stand at a crossroad without knowing which way to go. The next 3 decades especially is going to define much of humankind’s future. Will the growth of artificial intelligence prove to be inversely proportional to growth of human intelligence? Will we stop comprehending simple tasks like how to make an entry in a diary, write down a phone number because a virtually intelligent machine will always do it for us? Is there an end to this?

My own study and understanding shows that all growth will one day plateau and humans will find a balance. Will we the 90s kids play a part in finding that balance for our next generation? I believe our legacy will largely be defined by what role we chose to play in these defining times- my yearly birthday reminder. 

Eager to know your feedback if you are in the same journey in life as me. Leave a feedback in the comment section below.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Thoughts on Federalism and the Karnataka State Elections of 2018

In 2013 the last time Karnataka went to polls, I was in Hyderabad with no access to Kannada newspapers. The Hindu’s Hyderabad edition which I used to read regularly did not cover the pre-election campaign extensively. Neither did the national (read English/Hindi) news channels. With the Congress government’s enormous scams coming out of the closet and Narendra Modi’s behind the scenes maneuvering to become the Prime Minister, most of the print and electronic media focused on taking sides. Karnataka, going by Rajdeep Sardesai’s ironical phrase, suffered from the “tyranny of distance”. Thus 5 years later, people outside Karnataka still struggle to pronounce S-I-D-D-A-R-A-M-A-I-A-H and Y-E-D-D-Y-U-R-A-P-P-A.

So what has changed now?
National journalists, the likes of Sunetra Choudhury are talking about the new political reality which was quite unthinkable a few years ago. A leader of a southern state holding key to an entire opposition unity and the fortunes of the Congress Party. South India up till now was only seen as a revenue stream, the easy to handle part of the political puzzle. The BIMARU states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) occupied most of the political spectrum, for one being bimaru (economically sick) and two, they sent the most number of MPs to parliament. The language policy of the Indian government meant that a MP from Sitamarhi who could speak Hindi fluently had a natural upper hand than a MP from Mandya or Machilipatnam who had to give prior notices to parliament to speak in their mother tongues. The election of 2018, with a weaker BJP and a resurgent opposition mainly from southern India is being defined as a game changer.

It is in the wake of this reality that Karnataka elections of 2018 gain importance on the national stage. Issues ranging from demands of a separate religion for Lingayats in Kalaburagi to the drinking water problem in Varuna are being discussed on prime time news channels of the “national media”. As a Kannadiga I am happy that the state’s issues are finally getting their due in terms of national awareness and media coverage. Up till now, you couldn’t imagine India Today sending a reporter to Kalaburagi to cover the Lingayat agitation. The things are changing with the change in headwinds in Indian politics. But the road ahead is long to correct the notion of “national” and “regional” in a media created world.  Sample this, in what seems to be a black and white case of fiscal federalism and governance, Siddaramaiah’s social media post has created a storm of cacophony on the national stage.

 The Kannadiga Identity of “Adjust maadi”

 On 17th October 1990, Rajiv Gandhi dismissed the government of Veerendra Patil through Bhanu Pratap Singh who was the governor of Karnataka. A year earlier, he dismissed the government of S.R Bommai using article 356 of the Indian constitution, which later became a landmark case in the Supreme Court. Rajiv Gandhi’s mother Indira Gandhi, dismissed the hugely popular government of Devraj Urs in 1980. For the Congress Party, Karnataka which the high command refers to as “Karnatak”, has remained an easy state. The moment a leader or a rebel emerges, the high command uses all its muscle to quell him. Devraj Urs, Ramakrishna Hegde, Veerendra Patil, SR Bommai, Bangarappa, SM Krishna- all of them sidelined because they grew too big for the party. A clarion call was given to us in each of the elections – ‘swalpa adjust maadi’ and us Kannadigas buckled up and adjusted. That defined our identity to a large extent for the rest of India.

The elections of 2018 are a welcome change. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah having grown up in the Janata School of politics identifies himself as a local “Halli Haida”, and has largely been successful in not becoming a Yes Man like his predecessors. Thanks to his non-congress politics for most of his life and a weakened, desperate Congress high command. He has been able to assert his power. This is good for the state. Siddaramaiah is leading the Congress’s campaign, deciding on the list of candidates to field and strategizing on the rallies to hold. Rahul Gandhi has been largely ceremonious in his presence in the election arena. This is precisely how a state election needs to be fought, with state leaders calling the shot. The BJP with an all-powerful Narendra Modi and Amit Shah will learn the lesson the hard way. Yeddyurappa has been turned into a Yes Man and has been given no real ammunition to fight the local boy Siddaramaiah. For the people of Karnataka, the cycle is all the same again. We haven’t yet come out of the “adjust maadi” stereotype. The high command of BJP, Congress cannot dictate terms to our neighboring states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Each of those states has successfully fought against receiving their order from Delhi.


Is Federalism against Nationalism?

When Chief Minister Siddaramaiah launched the newly designed Karnataka flag, all hell broke loose in the TV studios at 9 p.m. The panelists, some journalists unilaterally in the middle of debate termed it “anti-national”, the new buzzword in Indian politics. When Kannadigas protested against rampant Hindi imposition in all walks of life, the panelists who most often are proxies for the men in power, termed it “anti-national”. Any step to assert our federal rights was viewed with suspicion. The time has finally arrived when dedicated groups of conscious Kannada voters are demanding their fundamental right of equality. Apart from fighting for our federal rights, the onus is on us to make the rest of the country aware the federalism is not against nationalism, indeed it complements it. History has it, that rogue nations emerge from consolidation of power. The most significant change in German government after the Nazis took power was the destruction of the power of the states of Germany. While the greatest achievement of America was that the sovereign states were persuaded to allow in the constitution very limited powers to a national government and the states retained a vast amount of governmental power.

The Karnataka flag, or the flag of any other Indian state is a beautiful identity of the vision of our founding fathers of the constitution and the States Reorganization Committee which took the wisest decision in keeping the sub-continent intact. The Unity in Diversity arises from our multi-culturalism and our linguistic heritage. The RSS like any other totalitarian organization believes in a Hindi and Hindu India which helps its cause to gain total foothold in the country. The politician from the Hindi heartland has had it easy till now to win elections by speaking in Hindi and believes Hindi is better for Hindustan. The IAS officer from Tamil Nadu has been taught Hindi in Mussourie and he has now come to believe Hindi is good for the Indian unity. It is time to bust the myth that federalism negates nationalism.

If a student in Bhopal is given an option to learn Kannada or Tamil or Bengali, like how a student in Bagalkot is given to learn Hindi, it would lead to a stronger nation. And politicians coming to campaign to Karnataka needn’t struggle to pronounce the name of Sir M Visveshwaraiah or to utter any of Basavanna’s vachanas.

It is time for the self-aware Kannadiga to Stand Up and vote for Karnataka. ಸಾಕು ಸರ್ ಇನ್ನು adjust ಮಾಡಕ್ಕೆ ಆಗಲ್ಲ!!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Is it time for the Self-Aware Kannadiga to Stand Up?

It was 1977. After a tumultuous iron fisted reign of emergency, Indira Gandhi lost her election to a maverick named Raj Narain in her political bastion of Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh. In desperate need to get back into parliament she had nowhere to go, except for that one state where she knew would experience least resistance from the voters. Proving her expectations right, the sitting MP of Chickmagalur resigned, Indira Gandhi flew in a chopper, waived her hand and won the by election in 1978 from the constituency. The town still remembers the election dearly, but Chickmagalur could never get the political attention of Rae Bareli. It never became worthy enough of Delhi Durbar. In 1999, the Gandhis were still unsure in their family bastion of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh and hence Sonia Gandhi wanted a safer option to contest the general election. Bellary, the mining town played safe house, this time to Indira Gandhi’s daughter in law. The town could never come close to Amethi  in national imagination in getting rail coach factories and universities sanctioned by the government. In 2014, general elections B.S. Yedyurappa, Karnataka’s poster-boy politician promised Narendra Modi that he would send 25 MPs from BJP to parliament out of 28 seats allotted to the state. Indeed, he succeeded to a very large extent. The 17 BJP MPs who belong to the ruling dispensation in the centre, could not make a difference for Karnataka’s most pressing need- Water. First, it was the setback in Mahadayi river dispute with Goa and then with the Cauvery Water dispute with Tamil Nadu. Karanataka was never allowed to become anything other than a safe political house for the National Parties, for they know, Kannadigas would most happily oblige when someone told them- “Swalpa adjust maadi”. It is true that Karnataka has been an ATM for National Parties all these years.
Captured from Vasant Shetty's Facebook Wall
I’ve been troubled by this question for many years now- Why is there no such thing called the Kannadiga identity? For far too long we have lived, falsely under the image of a Madrasi. Malayalees and Telugites too were victims of this stereotype but they were quick and clever to carve their unique identities detaching themselves from the racist Madrasi tag. For far too long, we have laughed at the ignorance of the world outside us thinking they couldn’t tell a Tamilian from a Kannadiga, never making a conscious effort to go out and tell the world that we are all not the same. We never asserted our identity as Kannadigas. When our icons were no longer depicted as Kannadigas but instead were called Bangaloreans, we did not think it mattered. We had made Bangalore our new identity. Kannadigas from Bidar, Gulbarga, Chitradurga and every other town in Karnataka when they traveled outside the state called themselves Bangaloreans. You would notice a stark contrast when you meet a Tamilian from Thanjavur, because he will tell you exactly that. Karnataka became Bangalore and Bangalore became Karnataka for everyone.  No other city was deemed worthy enough to be put on the map. Barring Belagavi, Mysuru and Mangaluru, no other city or town in Karnataka today would be recognized by most non-Kannadigas. We never tried to explore our identity beyond Bangalore! The rampant migration to Bangalore both from within and from outside created a skewed image as well as understanding of the state. I was baffled to read tweets like this coming out of the violence that erupted in the wake of the Cauvery order. 
Bengaluru became ugly in front of Bangalore
Soft Power of the State:
A state can wield as much power as it can portray to possess. Kannadiga politicians have long believed that Bengaluru gives them a lifetime access to unlimited political credit at the power table. One cannot get the genie to sanction an infinite set of wishes. When Bengaluru became unsustainable, when the government wanted to look beyond the usual, it needed all the soft power it could muster to get water for its burgeoning populace, to get its land decongested, to make its cities smart, to get world class educational institutes and to get its fair share of tax in the federal structure. When you see setbacks for Karnataka in matters like these, you wonder how would a Tamil Nadu or a Uttar Pradesh get disproportionate political attention? The answer lies in their cultural identity which leads to unity and political strength.
Is the time ripe for a new regional political party in Karnataka?
The problem with regional parties in India is that they have lost their appeal to the educated middle class due to their involvement in rampant and self-serving corruption and feudalism. Even the ones like Aam Aadmi Party which promised to fight corruption, have been reduced to a laughing stock. A political party without a mass base will remain an ideology and nothing more- Lok Satta, anyone? A Kannadiga centric political party should result out of a political movement of self-aware Kannadigas standing up for their right. A movement which revives the lost Kannada literature treasure of Bendre, Kuvempu, DVG, Narasimhaswamy, Tejaswi, TP Kailasam and a host others. A movement which popularizes the movies of Puttana Kanagal, Shankar Nag and revives the now mediocre Kannada film industry. A movement which doesn’t have to struggle to organize camps on weekends to encourage Kannadigas to speak Kannada. Leaders will have to emerge from such a movement and will have to take the leadership of a new political outfit from Karnataka with a Kannadiga identity.
It is high time for the self-aware Kannadiga to stand up and take charge of the future. It is important to see the setbacks of Cauvery and Mahadayi river water sharing or the share of central taxes that the state gets in this light.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Battle of Ideologies

The trail of human civilisation is dotted with battles fought both within the internal conscience and the external world. The first half of 6000 years of human existence went in figuring out the earth’s ecosystem. The farthest that the hunter gatherer style of living could foresee human future was till its next meal. It was by far the calmest period in human history. After which humans learnt to demarcate territories and the mighty men became Kings and their lineage claimed ownership of vast swathes of land and the resources it encompassed. Men then turned greedy. Kings wanted to expand their empire, conquer the farthest of the lands to which their cavalry could travel. This greed kept the human civilisation busy for the next half. The battle within of human conscience, of right and wrong, of dharma and adharma, of God and the devil were fought after the trivialities of this world became evident to humankind. In this juxtaposition of human greed which leads men to fight other men and the human conscience which leads men to fight their own inner self, mankind has collectively lost its direction.

In the last 150 years of industrial and technological revolution, there has been more material progress in the world than there was in all of human history combined. The Flynn effect states that there has been a linear increase in the human I.Q since 1930 (the year James Flynn took as his base) to present day. Humans are increasingly becoming adept and intelligent to reason. The democratisation of technology has put tremendous powers in every individual’s hands. Technology is no longer complex and is easily accessible to everyone. This has changed the course of human civilisation. It is not often that the entire mankind stands at such a crossroad and feels perplexed. A misstep here could lead to the beginning of the end of human civilisation without anybody realising it.

What has technology done to human behaviour?

The primary role of technology is to reduce human effort and thereby free up time for humans to do more. The battles of human greed and human conscience resurface in this context. With more productive time to fight these external and internal battles, we now turn to the battle of ideology. In the course of progression of human civilisation, this possibly comes at the last. Swami Vivekananda had aptly pointed out- “You cannot preach Bhagvad Gita to a man with a hungry stomach”. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs points to that as well. Technology in the last 50 years has made sure that there is enough food for human need and enough money with most people to buy it. With the needs of food and safety taken care of by technology, the human mind’s last battle is that of the battle of ideology. The battle which divides people between the left and the right, between your side and my side. The battle to turn human mind into a minefield of dogma and beliefs. This is the most treacherous of all the battles.   


The Battle of Ideology in today’s India

An India which is increasingly aping the west, which is chasing western prosperity, which has seen the miracles of democratisation of technology is today entangled to fight the battle of ideology. Notwithstanding its poverty and blind beliefs the battle of ideology in India is reaching far corners one wouldn’t immediately fathom. For generations people of different faiths, ways of living, different tongues, different customs co-existed in India peacefully.  They only had one enemy to face- hunger. They only had one common objective, by far- prosperity. With that achieved, more or less and with the technology tsunami washing everyone to the shore of self-aggrandisement, today’s India is at the cusp of this battle of ideology. For today’s Indian the battles and objectives differ. It is no longer hunger and poverty. It is his self-image and opinion.  The first step towards that is the increasing politicization of issues in the country. It is a healthy sign of democracy that every citizen becomes politically aware. But is that what is happening in India today? Propaganda is usurping intent. And propaganda is the misstep to fight the battle of ideologies. Mobile phones and internet have turned virtually every Indian into a political reporter. With increasing mean income levels, the people have had the opportunity to experience prosperity in their own lifetime. There was a time when people saved money for their grandchildren, saved money in old trunks to build a house after their retirement so that their sons could live happily. But that was a battle of yesteryears. With globalisation and easier access to travel and information, the average Indian is increasingly getting opinionated and dogmatic. He wants to prove that it his opinion that matters over everybody else's. Today, he increasingly wants to win the battle of ideology.

The average opinionated Indian

I was awestruck by what had happened at JNU with a set of students and their ideology which they called left-wing. I was perplexed with the government’s reaction which due to its upbringing had a different ideology which they called right-wing. I was angry at the seemingly neutral media for its propaganda disguised as news.  Like everybody else I had a theory which I was not too comfortable to propose. I felt there is something more to it. Of course, the incident at JNU, the slogan shouting which the national media blew out of proportion is not to be seen in isolation. It did not happen due to Narendra Modi’s policies, seen as the torch bearer of right wing politics. JNU always was a minefield of anti-establishment activities. The students who call themselves liberals in the university fashion the idea of anti-establishment, anti-religion, questioning the status quo. In an interesting Huff Post article titled “Why are so many humanities students activists?” Shevtal Vyas Pare points out- “You begin to understand that the idea of meritocracy is a sham once you think about how privilege works…Meritocracy is a deeply seductive idea, especially when you are successful.” A student in liberal arts studies societal inequalities and rightfully questions them thus joining a side in this battle of ideology. While a student of sciences and technology learns that the capitalistic model of work hard for yourself, create wonders and make money by selling it to others. He doesn’t appreciate the inequality in society as he is disillusioned by the meritocratic society, thus joining the other side in the battle of ideology.


As a child my mother had advised me that the world out there was tough and competitive. Everybody wants to outdo the other, outshine the other. Only the best survive, she told and cautioned you need to be the best. I ran the rat race only to find that the race ultimately culminates not in personal achievement and making a difference to the world, but in shouting out loud one’s opinions. Getting the fellow runners to side you and building a movement to strengthen what you think is right.

I fear for our children. If they aren’t taught how to deal with a person who doesn’t share your own beliefs and opinions, the battle of ideology will blow up in the face of humanity and nobody will know why because everyone will be busy live tweeting the event. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Tales from the Sands of Dubai

Days after the formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, Port Rashid in Dubai became operational. Named after the ruling Monarch of Dubai Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the port was one of the largest in the Middle East attracting sailors and traders from India, China and Iran. 2 years down the line, Sheikh Rashid wanted to build another port at Jebel Ali, 35 kilo meters away from the town of Dubai!
It was shocking for everyone who came to know of it because there was no water in Jebel Ali. It was a dry barren land. Sheikh Mohammed, the current ruler of Dubai was the crown prince then. A merchant delegation met him and requested him to convince his father against constructing another port at Jebel Ali when the present one was still finding its feet. The British advised against it. With sound advice, Sheikh Mohammed decided to talk to his father. He knew the only place where he could meet him was at the construction site early in the morning. 

He drove after fajr, to Jebel Ali where he found his father standing against the desert winds supervising the construction. It was a humongous project, one that involved dredging of the sand to make way for the sea. He conveyed the concerns of the merchants to his father, to which he received no response. After a brief pause the Sheikh said, “If you cannot bring the port to the sea, let’s bring the sea to the port”. On the ride back, Sheikh Rashid told his son- "If you do not do this now, you cannot afford to do this later when you'd need it! No engineering or consulting firm would have dared to do a feasibility study of the port at Jebel Ali when it was planned to be built in the late 70s, writes Sheikh Mohammed the present ruler of Dubai in his memoir “My Vision- Challenges in the Race of Excellence”, a book I haven’t been able to put down since my return from Dubai 2 days ago. Today, Jebel Ali port is the largest man-made port in the world, an architectural wonder handling more than half of Dubai’s exports. It has 35 berths and can accommodate the largest ships known to mankind. 

A large ship docked at the Jebel Ali Port
It is this audacity that is evident in everything that Dubai has accomplished in the last 4 decades. It has raced past the human growth story setting the trend in everything that it has done. 

For everybody who visits Dubai, it gives a sense of optimism, a hope that everything that can be dreamed, can be achieved. The way a barren land has been transformed by the rulers of Dubai as one of the best cities in the world to live in, inspires the doer in you. It has created the largest number of jobs, cumulatively in the last 3 decades. Even when the world economy experienced slumbers and downgrades Dubai never stopped dreaming. 

In a meeting with an executive of the Dubai International Financial Centre, he explained that even though the foundation of the centre was laid in 2002, the real growth happened between 2007-2012, right when the world economy experienced a horrific recession. He said if Dubai hadn't pulled up it's socks and assured investors to put in their money, Singapore would have done it, Hong Kong, London or any other Financial Centre would have done it. The mantra is to never miss an opportunity! 

In the very nature of Dubai, it is ingrained, it never misses an opportunity to rise. 

Shiekh Rashid realised that for Dubai to grow with negligible oil revenues, unlike the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi, he has to get foreign investments into the country. The UAE was a very traditional economy which was administered mostly through the Sharia law. Modern Dubai’s seeds were sown with creation of Free Trade Zones which mirrored western economies in their functioning.  What Sheikh Rashid started, his son Sheikh Mohammed, the current ruler of Dubai continued with a feverish pace. Dubai is known for its free zones where foreign nationals can set up their businesses with lightning speeds and have the flexibility to repatriate all earnings to their home countries with 0% taxation involved. Dubai gains by getting the confidence of wealthy businessmen and from the rents  businesses pay. The government understands that not all wealth will be sent back. People have to spend locally for their needs thus adding to the country’s GDP. Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City, Dubai Healthcare City are all free zones set up by the Government of Dubai. I being a part of the IIFT delegation was fortunate enough to visit most of the free zones and understand their working during. It is an extraordinary example of how governments can rise from their own shackles and create prosperity for their people. How governments can utilise their geostrategic location and build wealth. 2/3rd of the world's population lives in a 6 hour distance away from Dubai. The Government of Dubai has built on that advantage and has facilitated Dubai to become a hub for multinationals like FEDEx, Citibank, JW Mariott, Maersk to name a few. Our team was extremely lucky to visit the Middle East hub of FEDEx in the Dubai International Airport, Terminal 2.  

Team IIFT at the FEDEx hub in Dubai International Airport
On my first visit to UAE, I was fortunate enough to represent IIFT, in hosting its 3rd International Trade Conclave. It was inaugurated by the Ambassador of India to UAE H.E. Mr. T.P Seetharam on 19th September 2015. It is difficult to come across a brutally honest, tongue in cheek Diplomat who can speak his mind undeterred. He asked- "Why has the India- UAE trade come down from USD 75b to USD 60b in 1 year?" and later went on to reply- "Don't ask me, ask the Finance Minister. Ask him to sign a piece of paper stating the duty on Gold will be removed." Perhaps, the government could listen to the advice and ease the duty on gold by making gold an asset which can be utilized for creating more wealth and not just for its ornamental value.

Hosted the 3rd International Trade Conclave of IIFT
In 1962, the present Dubai International Airport was commissioned by Sheikh Rashid against the advice of the western governments, that it would be a loss maker. Today it is the busiest airport in the world in terms of International passenger traffic, has the biggest terminal in the world (T-3) and contributes 35% to Dubai’s GDP. There is something that the Sheikhs of Dubai are very adept in, that makes their emirate a land of dreams. They just don’t dream, like everything that they have created in Dubai, they dream big and dream against the odds.

That is the spirit, the businesses in Dubai thrive on. It lies in the core of every message, every tale emanating from the sands of Dubai. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bodh Gaya and Banaras: Of Travel Tales and Chronicles

Part 1:
“Arey O Babua! Barabar pahad ke liye yehi roadwa jahat hain ka?” asked the driver of the auto rickshaw to the man clad in a soiled dhoti peacefully smoking his chillum. He nodded in agreement. After traveling for some 30 kilometers in what seemed like a roller coaster ride, which could have even put the one in Disneyworld to shame, we were left wondering whether the man nodded approving the awesomeness of his chillum or to the rickshaw driver’s pointed question? Welcome to Bihar, said a distant board erected by Bihar Tourism. 

It is not every day that one develops an interest to visit Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Arguably two of the most densely populated states in the world, they live up to their reputation. While Hampi in Karnataka sees over a million visitors each year, Barabar in Bihar would hardly see about 10,000. Bihar, known as the land of Viharas had a colourful and glorious past but the present is equally dull and beaten. The state has a long and an interesting story to tell- Bihar in recent history came under the Bengal province. Since Bengalis for God knows why, substitute B for V, Vihara became Bihar.  Bihar has always interested me. Its people, sharp enough to crack IIT and IAS spend to watch Ravi Kishan chewing paan on the big screen. So this year Bihar topped my list of places to visit for my annual March trip. The photograph of Buddha on my study table said Bodh Gaya and minutes later after a quick search on the IRCTC website, I had booked 2 seats to Gaya on the Mahabodhi Express.

In what seemed like an endless routine of work, the excitement for the trip had taken a backseat. Finally when the day arrived, the sight of sheer amount of people waiting for the train at the New Delhi railway station brought the feeling of adventure back. Yogi, my friend who agreed to accompany me on this journey, wasn’t impressed seeing a sea of humanity. But then, we were going to Bihar in a train. We braced ourselves for the reality. Aboard the train, we saw people carrying bricks to chemicals to TV sets. Yes, we were in a reserved compartment. “Thoda adjust keejiye na”, came as a reply for any and all of the questions asked. Mid way through the journey, we buy a packet of chips and are struggling to tear open the packet. The old man next to our seat, who probably couldn’t withstand the combined show of 2 adults struggling to open a chips packet, pulls out a Rampuri knife from under his shirt and hands it to us. In a moment of shock and disbelief, I take the knife and tear open the packet to save ourselves from further embarrassment. I look around to see if anybody else is surprised and clearly there was none. It was an interesting lesson for us- Rampuri knives sometimes help you to add good karma points too.

The train took us to Gaya 4 hours late, which is on time by the standards of Indian Railways. Gaya being the second largest city in Bihar doesn’t live up to its name. We hired an auto rickshaw to take us to Bodh Gaya and decided to stay there. Bodh Gaya has been developed into a satellite town and provides visitors with all the required amenities. The Mahabodhi temple, dedicated to the enlightenment of Buddha is the primary attraction of the town. The temple itself has had its share of ups and downs over the past 2500 years. Bihar tourism is celebrating that milestone this year. The temple houses the Bodhi tree under which the Sakhya Muni became ‘The Buddha’. The temple at the site was first built by emperor Ashoka who took to Buddhism after he oversaw large scale death and destruction in Kalinga, present day Odisha. He also donated his diamond throne (Vajrasana) to the temple. As the cycle of time turned, the temple fell into disregard and disrepair. A certain king Shashanka, cut the Bodhi tree into half. Later, the Turkish invaders brought upon further blows to the temple. It was only in the recent history, with the generous support of the Burmese and the Thai governments the temple is restored to its glory. When Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitra and son Mahindra went to Lanka to preach Buddhism, they took along essence of the Bodhi tree and planted it there, in what came to be known as Ashoka Van. Later the same tree was brought back to Bodh Gaya and planted it there. The Bodhi tree that we see today is in fact a reincarnation of the original Bodhi tree under which Siddharta Gautama became The Buddha. 

The Mahabodhi temple Gopura (Central tower)

The Buddha sitting in Bhumisparsha Mudra

Ratna Chakrama- Jewel Walk of The Buddha

The Mahabodhi Tree, truly breathtaking!

Animesha Lochana

Buddha's meditative posture in the lake situated in the temple complex

Bauddha Bhikkus in evening prayer at the temple complex

It is said in the Jataka tales that the site of the Bodhi tree represents the navel of mother Earth. Nowhere else could the Sakhya Muni become Tathagatha, because of the sheer weight of the tree when the Buddha attained enightenment. It could have split the earth into 2. The Bodhi tree sprang up in the year of Buddha’s birth, 623 B.C. and waited for him to come there. When the world goes into apocalypse, the site would be the last to get destroyed and when the world takes a rebirth again, it would be the first to come to life. Such is the magnificence of this place. When we entered the temple complex, it was a hot afternoon. We met an ascetic who was lost in meditation until the point we reached his place and offered our pranams. He was kind enough to tell us the history of the temple and walk us through the Buddha’s life. The temple houses the statue of the Buddha in the Bhumisparsha mudra (the fingers of his right hand touching the ground). He is believed to have attained enlightenment sitting in that posture. 

The evenings in the temple are serene and peaceful. There are monks who sit and sing in the verandah. There are devotees tucked in their mosquito nets meditating and reading. There are groups of visitors who silently go and join the prayer groups and are lost in their divine charm. It is an awe-inspiring scene. The temple complex is huge and adorned with various stupas and a lake, each one of it, if you are patient enough tell you a story. The town of Bodh Gaya is filled with monasteries of various countries where Buddhism is prevalent. All of them are an architectural wonder in themselves. An 80 feet statue of Buddha is another major attraction situated near the Japanese monastery. Everything in this town is named after The Buddha. Buddha Market, Buddha Hotel, Buddha Restaurant and even Buddha "Sailoon". 

Get a hair cut here for free enlightenment
The next morning we set out for the caves in Barabar, in hope of some adventure. Oh! What adventure was it?! In an auto rickshaw where the driver probably sold the shock absorbers in the Sunday market in return for a DVD of Pepsi Peeke Lagelu Sexy, heading to Barabar pahad, as the driver called it was one hell of a ride. The nearest railway station is called ‘Barabar Halt’. What a nicely coined name for a place as esoteric as this, I thought. The caves are scattered in a large land area. That is why our auto rickshaw driver lost the way and had to depend on and disturb people happily smoking their chillum.

There are 4 caves which have inscriptions of the early Buddhist period- Karan Chaupar, Lomas Rishi, Sudama and Visva Zopri. These have an amazing echo effect and can be fun ground of experiments for any sound engineer. Some of the locals call them with different names. It is nearly impossible to visit all of them without a guide who has the requisite knowledge and experience in showing around people. 


In search of Sudama Kund- Took a photo break :)

The rock-cut, quite literally.

Entrance of the Karan Chaupar cave
The guard who showed us around the gave posing at the backdrop of rock inscriptions dating back to 3rd Century B.C

If you want to cover all of them, it needs a lot of stamina plus a lot of free time. Not every cave is safe enough to be visited. Such a waste of tourism treasure! The rock cut caves, if properly developed and marketed to tourists can compete with the ones in Ajanta and Ellora. The longish route which goes along the Gaya- Patna National Highway 281, is a better roadwa to travel to Barabar. The next time you visit, insist on your driver to take this routewa (in the local lingo). Your spine and lower back will love you, in return.

The visit to Vishnupad Mandir in Gaya, on our way back was another uphill task due to an ongoing Bihar Bandh. Somebody killed somebody and somebody else called for a Bandh. End of story. We finally made way to the temple after a lot of hardships and an unexpected drizzle. A monk narrated the story of river Phalgu, a dried river which once flowed near the temple. Bowing down to the temple deity, Lord Vishnu and the Vata Vriksha, we went back to our hotel rooms and called it a day.

Early next morning, the Jallianwala Bagh Express took us to the ancient city of Varanasi...

(To be continued in Part 2 of the Travel Tales and Chronicles)