Dear Chennai

Growing up in Coimbatore, I thought little about Chennai, my closest metropolis. The city felt huge, chaotic and perennially hot and humid. I spent many a summer in Chennai under the air conditioner and longing for the milder weather in Coimbatore. I did not have a real connection with the city inspite of having family and friends by the dozen spread across the sprawling and rapidly growing city. All that has changed in the past couple of weeks where the city has seen the worst rains in over a hundred years that has left over 260 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless and from whose waters rose a million superheroes.
Chennai: An aerial photo of flood relief operation by Indian Coast Guard at flood affected areas of Kanchipuram District on the outskirt of Chennai on Tuesday. PTI Photo(PTI11_17_2015_000055B)
Chennai: An aerial photo of flood relief operation by Indian Coast Guard at flood affected areas of Kanchipuram District on the outskirt of Chennai on Tuesday. PTI Photo(PTI11_17_2015_000055B)
Where do I start?
As I see the dark images and videos of an entire city under the siege of water, I also see and listen to the stories of heroic men and women working in the dark, literally and figuratively and saving lives. We talk of saving lives all our life but when the rubber meets the road, we lose the plot. Here in the drowning city, heroes have been born every single minute. In the first world, we whine and cry about losing a few hours of sleep. Here in this water ravaged city with no power for days and water and sewage every where, people are running/ nay swimming to save people and dogs and cats and parrots.
Every minute on social media, I see and read of men and women and children doing things we are used to seeing the Avengers and Justice League do, on the big screen. These are second, third and fourth hand accounts. If these accounts and videos are even partially true, I can only imagine what went down. For all the heroes on the ground, saying hats off is belittling your effort. Words fail the wordsmith.

Yesterday, a new trailer for the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie was released (link, if you so care). As I watched it, it struck me- we are witnessing in real time a million of Batmen and Wonder women and Supermen doing everyday super heroism. They lack the capes and the masks, the x-ray vision and the bat mobile- but they do have their Innovas and boats and buses and Twitter and Facebook. And in the past few days, they have soared farther than Superman could ever do, into the hearts of many in Chennai, Cuddalore and across the world.

Chennai, I am a convert. Your new biggest fan. You, the people of this city are rockstars. And so are all the people you have inspired from around the state and country to dive right into the water to help. This is a story to be told for generations to come of how a city rose to a challenge unlike any other and stood tall, drenched, but strong and resilent.

 

So is it over?
Rain is forecasted for the next few days but in the long term, the city needs help in cleaning out the mess and rebuilding their lives. And lest we forget, it is not just Chennai. Cuddalore and other smaller cities around Chennai have also been hard hit. They need help. Health challenges will be plenty and the biggest need for the coming weeks will be clean water, food, medicines and clothing. So don’t stop supporting efforts in Chennai just because the roads are getting back to normal. The affected areas will take months to get back to normal life.

 

How can we help from far?
A lot of organizations are mobilizing funds and resources to pass on to the right people to buy food, warm blankets and mobile phone chargers for people in Chennai. Some of them you can reach out to are listed below. There are many many more and please seek them out. Chennai needs every little bit of help we can give. It is literally the least we can do from far.
General Resources and funding opportunities:
Google Crisis Response:
Facebook:
Twitter:

Post Script:
When nature unleashes her fury, we tend to blame the Gods and then pray for help and mercy. But not all of it is nature. Much of it is us. Just as real as the men and women saving lives are, as I type this and as you read this. Decades of illegal permits issued to builders in low lying areas and rampant construction where there should really nothing, total lack of urban planning, no disaster preparedness plan to speak of, and so much more. We should not lose perspective nor get lost in blaming one political party or the other. This is failure in many levels that needs to be addressed now. We need to ask the right questions and look to solve them ourselves. Politicians fend for themselves. We need to fend for ourselves too. The government is what we make of it. Let us make it something that matters in times like this. This is not party politics and who did what. This is about how we set policy and enforce it.

This is no longer about taking care of the future of our kids. This is for our survival. Of this generation. Forget the future. We need to figure out a way to live for today.

 

Dispatches from real India (Part 5): Mottai Mama, my first and latest barber

Note: This post was composed in India and published after I got back to the US.

Over the past few weeks, I have featured interesting people who we encounter in our day to day life in India. A tailor, an employee at a soda vending shop, a movie buff who runs an 85 year old beverage store and a virtual character in the form of a new take on sugarcane juice. In this penultimate article in the series, I talk to my very first barber, Mottai Mama Subramaniam over a haircut and a shave.

At the time of my birth, my dad used to go a barbershop not too far from home on Shastri Road, Ramnagar. The shop has no name and is identifiable only by the blue revolving door at the entrance. The shop was originally started by Mottai Mama’s brother and Subramaniam took over in 1971. Since then, he has offered affordable haircuts and shaves for customers of all ages and stripes.

A couple of years after my birth, when I was ready for my first haircut, I am told my dad took me to Mottai Mama. For the next decade, I trusted mama with my head as did my dad. I distinctly remember a couple of calendar posters that adorned the shop as was the pot of water in the corner. The pot offered cool water on a warm day without the need for a refrigerator. In 1989, when we moved to our own place, we discovered a new saloon, Bharath Hairdressers next to home and shifted allegiances. Fast forward to last year and Bharath shuttered leaving us in the lurch. My father knocked at the door of Subramaniam who welcomed him with open arms. When I went home and wanted to have a cut and shave, my dad pointed me in the direction of Mottai Mama.

I dropped by and instantly recognized mama. But for a white beard, he was still the same person I remembered from two decades ago. I reminded him that I was an old customer and while he didnt remember me, he knew my dad and pieced things together. We talked about the changes in our lives all these years and he was visibly thrilled to have me come back. When the next customer, another regular, came in, mama took a few minutes to talk about how an old customer had come back to his roots and what it meant to him.

The shop has not changed much. It has undergone a couple of paint jobs- but in the same color. The posters remain as does the pot. The shop is peppered with pictures of various Hindu deities. The old tape recorder in the corner blared religious music non-stop. The ambiance had not changed one bit.

Mama asked me how I was doing in the US and if I was happy. I paused and said, “I am doing good. Things are fine. I am happy. What about you?” He smiled. He replied, “My life has been the same for as long as I remember. I am very happy with what I have and what my job and life offers. I need nothing more at this point.” His answer blew me away. As someone who belongs to a “want even more” generation, it is hard to find anybody who is happy and content with what they have. One could argue about his lack of motivation to be and do more. But I would think that a contented man today is a very rare commodity. In a world where more money buys more things, here is someone who is happy with everything in life. It must be applauded.

I paid my Rs.100 (~$1.6) for the haircut and shave and dollops of advice on how I can tweak my shaving style to keep my skin smooth (unsolicited and good natured advice is a bonus everywhere in India). I walked away happy – not just with my shave and cut, but also with having met someone who was genuinely happy with life and had no regrets. For that alone, the Rs.100 was worth it.

P.S: Subramaniam insisted that I call him Mottai Mama in this article.

Other Posts in the series:

Dispatches from real India (Part 1)

Dispatches from real India (Part 2)

Dispatches from real India (Part 3)

Dispatches from real India (Part 4)

 

Dispatches from real India (Part 4): Dr.Karumbu

In all the previous posts in this series (1)(2)(3), the focus was on real people who are working hard and making a difference to their families and the country. Lest this is misunderstood to be all about nostalgia, here is something that is at once looking forward but with local underpinnings. This time the character in question is a corporate entity, Mr.Karumbu (Mr.Sugarcane).

As many of you know, sugar cane juice is a popular summer beverage in India, mainly south India. It offers a refreshing dose of natural sugar on a sweltering afternoon. It requires minimum preparation and no additives but for the occasional ginger to give it a kick. The only downside to sugar cane juice is that it is almost always found on the road and mosquitoes and insects occasionally get crushed along with the sugarcane. It does not make for a healthy drink in the dust and grime of the streets and most people stay away from it for just that reason.

I am a huge fan of the beverage but was hesitant to go to the street side vendor nearby given the surroundings. As if to answer my prayers and that of thousands more, I stumbled upon a nice store in R.S.Puram called Dr.Karumbu.

Dr.Karumbu is an excellent example of innovation on homegrown produce. It takes the production of sugar cane juice and makes it clean and audience pleasing without increasing the price significantly. It also adds flavors to sugarcane juice which gives the drink an extra platform to be more popular.

I happened to drive past the store in R.S.Puram and immediately brought my vehicle to a halt. A karumbu juice shop- I had to try this. I walked in and was pleased to see things nice and orderly with a menu, no less. I ordered a bottle of sugarcane juice with ginger- the operator smilingly wore a pair or disposable gloves, gathered a few chopped and peeled sugarcane pieces from a closed cooler. He then put the sugarcane sticks carefully into a fully closed and well maintained box. The box chugged and then came to a stop. The operator than picked up a clean PET bottle from a pile arranged carefully on a corner. He then turned on a tap to collect the juice. Once filled, he took the bottle to a cap sealing unit which plugged in a cap to the bottle and sealed it. Voila!

I was blown away by the efficient process, the arrangement of things and the cleanliness of the infrastructure. And best of all- the juice was outstanding. And all this for less than a dollar. A cup costs Rs.20. A small bottle, Rs.40 and a full 1 liter bottle worth of sugarcane juice was Rs.70. I was told that the equipment was made in Bangalore and assembled on site. Dr.Karumbu had two outlets in Coimbatore and were looking to grow. The sugarcane juice in a shop concept I am told is also catching on in Chennai and Bangalore.

All in all, I was thrilled. I made multiple trips to the shop before I left town and sampled all the variants. Needless to say sugarcane juice with ginger was the runaway favorite. If you are in Coimbatore, do try their shop. You will not regret it. To me, this is an excellent example of building and refining on one’s own specialties. Something that will benefit India a great deal instead of just aping the culinary habits of the west.

Other Posts in the series:

Dispatches from real India (Part 1)

Dispatches from real India (Part 2)

Dispatches from real India (Part 3)

Dispatches from real India (Part 3): Vasu, the tailor.

In the first two parts of this series (1)(2), I talked to and about common people in the beverage business. For a change, we will now take up a sartorial subject. The man in question here is Mr.Vasu of Vasu Tailors, Kattoor, Coimbatore.

Vasu of Vasu Tailors has been stitching my shirts and pants, mending torn ones and resizing them as needed over the past 20 years. I had been using my dads tailor until then but Vasu worked closer and was more accessible and I decided to shift my allegiance. I have not looked back since. Vasu offers excellent and timely stitching services for a very reasonable price. Added to which, he drops them off at my house when it is done. Talk about free home delivery.

Over the past few years, much of India has been engulfed in the ready-made craze. There are ready made clothing showrooms everywhere. They hawk their prices in dollar equivalents that now puts my wallet to shame. I find it expensive beyond comparison- even by dollar converted currency standards. In the midst this sea change in customer preferences, Vasu offers a way to get well tailored, custom fit clothes for a significantly cheaper price. Even with excellent fabrics, the tailored, custom fit shirts and pants end up being very reasonable. Vasu has added women’s clothing to his repertoire which his tailors stitch all day. This supports the original enterprise of men’s tailoring which is not as robust as it used to be.

As usual, I stopped by Vasu’s this week with some alteration requests. This was a menial job for him and not at all worth his labor time. It is back to school season in India and uniform stitching in full swing. Every tailor worth his skill is in huge demand and swamped with work. But I was leaving town in two days and had no one else to trust my clothing with. Vasu being the good friend that he is, could not say no. As promised, he delivered the altered clothes on time and for much less than the labor was worth.

I struck up a conversation with Vasu as he was working through a couple of school uniform pants. He talked about his background where he moved to Coimbatore from a small village close to Palghat at the age of 18 to open his own tailoring shop. His current shop has been his haunt for the past 35 years. He has been stitching clothes since 1970. In that time, he has gotten married, had 3 kids, put them through college and gotten all of them married, all while he was toiling in his shop on clothes like mine. His kids are now settled and he is relieved of all that worry. I asked him if he is happy now. He said yes. He then paused for a few moments and then remarked, “All my life has been spent within these four wall toiling away that I know nothing else. I wish I had the time and wherewithal to explore the world and see things. But now, it is too late.”

As India shifts rapidly towards a consumption economy driven by brands and glitz, it helps to cultivate and support local small businesses like Vasu Tailors. They offer much better value for money, a personal experience and a long lasting relationship built on trust, unlike any other.

Other Posts in the series:

Dispatches from real India (Part 1)

Dispatches from real India (Part 2)

Dispatches from real India (Part 2): Mrs.Lakshmi and Mr.Soda

I kicked off a short series on some interesting people I met during my recent (and ongoing) India trip. In the first post on the topic, I wrote about Mr.Rajan, MGR fan extraordinaire and owner of a 85 year old sukku kaapi shop in the outskirts of Coimbatore. In this second brief post, I turn my attention to a simple and enterprising lady at the local Mr.Soda franchise shop, Ms.Lakshmi.

Not too far from my house, in a bustling intersection where buses and autos make their evening resting stop, is a local Mr.Soda franchise shop. For the uninitiated, Mr.Soda is a burgeoning chain of shops/kiosks around the city where made to order flavored sodas are concocted and sold. These shops are bustling at this time of the year when 100F is bosom buddy of the thermometer. The shop offers everything from mint flavored soda to ginger lime (fabulous), jeera masala (pretty awesome), guava (OK), butterscotch (too sweet) to cocktails of various flavors made to the customer’s desire. Most of these range from Rs.10 (about 17c) to Rs.30 (about 50c) and is a lifesaver on warm summer days.

Over a cup of Kalakhatta flavored soda, I struck a conversation with her. My father and brother are regulars here. So she knows all about me already. She is an enthusiastic lady, chatting away inspite of the crowd on a warm 98F afternoon. She has two daughters in college and she works here until they get back home. She is employed in Mr.Soda for the past three years but interestingly enough, her wage is tied to how much soda she sells every day. Warm afternoon and big sales translates to a decent income. She says, they make up to Rs.4000 a day on sales when the going is good. But then on rainy and breezy afternoons, they barely sell 15-20 cups making less than Rs.400. This is important because, her wages kick in after the daily rent for the shop which is Rs.450.

To make the Rs.450, she needs to make good friends with everyone in the neighborhood, myself included. The auto stand close by is a good source of income. As is the Tasmac liquor shop next door. Apparently the sweet and sour sodas work well to dispel the smell and occasionally the effects of hard local liquor. The enterprising lady is all smiles on a good or a bad day and is slowly becoming a part of the local area. They thrive and she thrives.

In a nation of Rs.70 coffees and Rs.150 cakes, Mrs.Lakshmi of Mr.Soda is surviving with her skills and instinct. The nation was and will continue to be build on the shoulders of such people.

Other posts in this series:

Dispatches from real India (Part 1)

Dispatches from real India (Part 1) – The 85 year old Rajan Kaapi (dried ginger coffee) shop

We arrived in India two weeks ago to attend two big family weddings. My initial plan was to take a break from writing in that time. As much as I enjoy writing about stuff, taking a break helps clean the pipeline and gives me fresh ideas to work on. But India being India is indefatigable. It offers myriad experiences and a diverse array of characters that refuse to be ignored or forgotten. So, here I am succumbing to the lure and writing a series of articles on some interesting characters I have met over the past two weeks.

The first person I would like to write about is Mr.Rajan, proprietor of the Rajan Sukku Kaapi shp. The shop is located next to the Anaikatti checkpost on Thadagam Road outside Coimbatore. It stands right at the intersection of the road to Anaikatti and the one to Mangarai and Ayurveda college. This place is a favorite haunt of mine everytime I come home. This time was no different. During my last trip, due to unforseen circumstances, I had to skip my trip to Anaikatti. Not this time. We finished our meeting with Swami Dayananda Saraswathi at the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam and on our way back, sukku kaapi beckoned.

For the uninitiated, sukku kaapi (dried ginger coffee) has no coffee. It looks like coffee and is a warm beverage. It is sometimes referred to as sukku tea also. And yes, there is no real tea in it. The preparation is quite simple if you have the right ingredients. The two key components are dried ginger extract with some local spices which is available as a powder and to sweeten things up, palm jaggery. Local sukku kaapi shops tend to make their own dried ginger powder with secret spice ingredients. The two components are brought to a boil and then served hot. The suggested accompaniment to the sukku kaapi is sundal (garbanzo beans boiled with spices). The combination is spectacular on a nice evening as the Sun is going down.

Rajan Sukku Kaapi shop is a local fixture. One that has lasted for 85 years. It was originally started by the senior Rajan who passed away a few years ago. His son, the current owner made his chops helping his dad from an early age. Whenever the shop is not serving kaapi, you can find Rajan catching up with old M.G.Ramachandran (MGR) movies. To call him an MGR buff would be a huge understatement. Every inch of the shop is filled with posters of MGR. Rajan himself proudly bears a MGR lapel pin. He can talk for hours about the original superstar as he will about the intricacies of the ginger he uses for his sukku kaapi. The shop itself is small and filled with baubles and trinkets in addition to local candy, chips, sundal and sukku kaapi making apparatus. Rajan’s house is right behind the shop which allows him a lot of flexibility in running the store.

For the travel weary, the shop offers a mental and physical respite. At a time when India is changing rapidly in so many ways, shops like these are true establishments of the old guard. It has withstood over 8 decades of change and growth which includes India getting its independence from the British. In all these years, the passion for concocting a heady brew of ginger and jaggery and the love for a long dead superstar continues to define Rajan Sukku kaapi shop. When you are in the neighborhood the next time, do stop by for a sip. Dont miss the sundal that goes with it. You will definitely thank me later.

A memorable journey with friends, old and new

The PSG Tech Alumni Association of North America had its largest gathering of alumni outside India, Music4Museum (M4M) on the 8th of February, 2014 at India Community Center in Milpitas, CA. I was privileged to be part of the event organizing team and wanted to share my experiences about it here.

Today, the 9th of February is the day after the event. There has been a huge void in the past 16 hours since I got back home from ICC. As one of our team members aptly put it, we are all going through major withdrawal symptoms. After months of emails and phone calls and visits and practice, there is a huge vacuum. We are relieved, thrilled and thankful for all that happened yesterday. But now that its all over, it feels like it should have never ended.

M4M event at ICC Milpitas- image courtesy NizhalPadam.
M4M event at ICC Milpitas- image courtesy NizhalPadam.

Last summer, our local alumni association called for a picnic in a local State park and after a lot of thought, I agreed to go. I have very fond memories of my time in college and figured it might be a good idea to meet some folks from other batches. Going to the picnic was one of the best things that happened to me in hindsight. I got to meet a bunch of folks some of whom I had never met before and had graduated years before or after I did and others who I had met briefly in past occasions. The idea for the Feb 8th event had been hatched prior to the picnic and some of the leaders of the organizing committee were looking for event team members to help pull it off. I signed up for it, hoping to make new friends. Boy, was that a smart decision or what.

Over the past four months, I have gotten to know the dozen odd event team members very well. We have worked through challenges big and small. We did not always agree on everything. But we did not quarrel. In fact, I learn some big life lessons from putting this event together with this fantastic team.

— It is not always about you. It is about something much bigger. The moment you commit to a cause, it is the cause and the team that really matters. So many folks worked hours together in making M4M what it was yesterday. And they did not ask or in some cases receive public recognition for it. They did it because they wanted to. And that was such a humbling experience to see and learn from.

— The entire event was put together in a very professional manner. At the risk of sounding biased, it felt like it was engineered to succeed. Yesterday, when someone who flew into town specifically for the event asked me if things could go wrong, I simply said No. After all the preparation that went into every minor detail, almost obsessively so, it felt like it was meant to go well. I am not saying this to come across as over-confident. But when solid planning goes into something, the results show. And having a ringside view of that professional thinking and planning was a great lesson.

— PSG Tech gave me the foundation for a good career. It is where I first met my wife. Inspite of that, I had never felt compelled to give anything back or that I owed something to the college. I took my association and benefits of being a part of a privileged community for granted. To me, the event was an eye opener in that regard. I saw very many people putting their alma mater on a much higher pedestal. And how much they did and continue to do for that PSG family. What I did for the event and for the PSG alumni community was but a little of what I can and should do over the next few decades of my life. I found that calling working side by side with the event team.

— The event team leadership defined the concept of commitment to me. For every task I stepped up to do, they did four. And at no point did I feel that I was doing more. I always got the feeling that I could do even more. The leadership team led by example and I am proud of being associated with them. Logu, Aras and Akila are leaders worth emulating in every way possible. They brought different skillsets to the table and made all the difference. And the entire event team took ownership to a new level. Every team member completely embraced their responsibility and drove it to completion. There were folks who helped organize the event who were from out of town. With them, the geographical distance between us was insignificant when it stood up against the ties that bound us together.

— I learnt through this event that PSG Tech is not just about its alumni, but also its extended community of the families of the alumni. I am fortunate to be married to a PSG Tech alumni who understood my commitment to the effort. But to see the families of others in the event team, TekMusic and so many others who stepped up to help us in so many different ways was a revelation. It has made the PSG family so much bigger and richer.

— An alumni organization is nothing without the support of the alma mater. To that effect, it was a truly great gesture for the PSG leadership to fly in from India specifically for the event. For them to fly for 20 hours to attend an event and then fly back speaks volumes of the relationship we share. My respect for them grew phenomenally after this.

— The camaraderie and sheer talent that our TekMusic put on display was utterly remarkable. The artists who came in from all over the country just for this event put on a show for the ages. And their chemistry was a joy to behold. One of those rare times when I wish I had the talent to be part of such a cool set of folks who are truly blessed and have put those blessings to the best use possible.

Image courtesy Malai.
Image courtesy – Malai.

There is so much more that I want to write about the experiences of the past four months in putting this event together. But I will stop with this one last acknowledgement. We owe the event’s success to the PSG alumni family. They stepped up in a way that zoomed past my wildest dreams. They are why we put together this event and they made it worth all the effort and so much more. What an awesome group of people to be a part of. You rock folks. Totally!

What is in a name, you ask?

A few weeks ago, as I was driving back from work, the topic of conversation on the Michael Smerconish show (XM 124) was names. More specifically, how long and complex names get butchered in the US. Be it over the phone, with customer service, over the counter at fast food restaurants, and everywhere else, the long name has its own challenges. I sympathized very much with the callers. I mean, Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy is not really a simple name. Even by Indian standards. Toss it in the cornucopia that is America, and it gets butchered in every way possible. Every single day. If you can think of a way to pronounce 24 characters – it has been done. Trust me.

nametag

Soon after I landed in the US I realized that my name was going to be an issue. I just did not fathom how big an issue it would be. In a month, Rangaprabhu became just Prabhu. Then “Prabhu rhymes with trouble. Not proble, prabhu.” Calls to customer service were a nightmare. “P for Peter, R for Robert…U for Umbrella. Thats just my first name.” Some politely laughed, others audibly sighed over the phone. And then some just gave up and said,”I just cannot pronounce this name.”.

What frustrated me the most was that very few even tried. Most of them would start to pronounce my name and midway through the first name, realize it was going to be an effort and bail out. The common excuse, “Sorry if I got your name wrong” happened all too often. My wife who has a much simple name made all of 7 character that ended with an “i” often got mispronounced as ending with an “a”. What part of the “i” are you not reading dear friend, I felt like asking. Is it verbal diarrhea or just a simple lack of interest in trying to pronounce a name?. Either way, it was frustrating for her to have to correct the last syllable of her name, all the time.

This country is not without its share of complex immigrant names. The Polish have names that took me some time to figure out. So too for the Russians and the Chinese. But here is what I did- I made an effort. When I couldn’t figure it out, I politely asked. I would love it if people asked me how to pronounce my name. I can give you the essay type answer, the one pager or the one liner. Based on how much time you have to kill. I am always willing to tell you how to pronounce my name.

About 6 or so years ago, I figured out a way to make everyone’s life easier. I started coming up with creative names whenever I went out. Sometimes I was “Batman” if I was wearing a Batman t-shirt. Sometimes it was “Boston” or “Redsox” from my hat. I have been “Panera” at Panera- figured they would be able to call out their own employer’s name easily. I have been the creator of the Ark at Noah’s bagels and Buzz Lightyear at a Disney restaurant in Florida. And somewhere along the way, it became an obsession to come up with a smart and cool name. It has finally allowed me to break free from the shackles of name butchering and actually have fun with it.

So the next time you are in the Bay Area and hear the name “Optimus Prime” being called out, chances are, I am around. Do say hello!

India Journal 05- The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Our India trip of 2013 came to an end earlier this week. This was my last journal entry for this trip written just before I left town. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I could not publish it earlier. An early warning- expect this post to be a tad disconnected. I am trying to squeeze in all my unsaid thoughts into one catch-all post. My earlier journal entries are here- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

It has as always been too short a trip. Home warrants more time- something that never seems to be available. That said, it was a fantastic trip- fun, relaxing and rejuvenating. Work beckons and I am ready for it. India has changed a lot in the last 30 months since my last trip but the one thing that strikes me is how little it has changed in so many ways.

Let us start with what is around me. There are new shops by the hundreds. Malls, eateries are everywhere. But around me, things are still the same. I had a haircut today at the same place I have had it since I was about 10. It cost me less than $2. I have used autos and taxis for many trips around town. The guys who drive them are the same ones who we have used for a couple of decades now. For a very long time, I used to go to this makeshift playground to play cricket and later badminton. The wonderful gentleman who started this local playing group is now old. But Somu Sir as we call him continues to drive 45 minutes on a two wheeler to watch young boys play, every evening. He does not play anymore. But he is there goading 10 and 12 year old kids to play harder- just as he did to me when I was that age.

I had the opportunity to go to my old school 10 days ago. I was fortunate enough to participate in the morning assembly. The school building has changed. The school uniform has changed. But for the most part, the sleepy eyed yet prayer reciting kids at 7 am manage to elicit the same reaction from me- one of respect and dedication to education.

I had food in all sorts of places. And juice and tea and snacks. I liked most of them and thankfully all of them agreed with my veliyoor vayaru (outsider’s stomach). But the one that gave me the most pleasure was the tea at the roadside stall and the piping hot bondas on a rainy evening. Fast foods and fancy names are common these days. But nothing to take away the original and still unbeatable simple charm of chai and bonda.

Finally, the one thing that always remains the same to me is my house. It is my refuge. The only place that is more personal to me than anything else. It offers me a sense of comfort and security that nothing else does. Our TV has changed as have the curtains and the bed spreads. But the warmth and comfort of the house is always the same. I still miss it as much as I miss my family and friends. It has a life of its own and something that communicates to me. It is to me, the ultimate manifestation of everything that I love about my country.

Until my next trip to India and the accompanying journal entries, I sign off with some interesting photos from the trip. Enjoy.

 

 

India Journal 04- Movie theater experience and Isha

This is part 4 of my India journal. For earlier entries, see Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. This will be my penultimate post. I will write a catch-all post in the next few days to cover all the smaller topics in one shot. Before I go any further with this post, just to let you know, there is no connection between the movie theater experience and Isha as referred to in the title.

In my time at home, I have seen two movies in the theater. Both of them were at The Cinema multiplex in Brookefields Mall, Coimbatore. I wanted to dedicate a few lines to the overall experience with these two movies. The mall complex is new to Coimbatore. It was being built when I first saw it in 2010 and this time I was blown away by the size and experience, given that it is in Coimbatore. Within Brookefields Mall lies the Satyam owned multiplex, The Cinema. I have been to Satyam complex once in my life and that was over a decade ago. I have heard a lot about how Satyam has revolutionized the movie going experience in India and I was keen to experience it first hand. I was not disappointed.

The movie going experience at The Cinema in Coimbatore is better than any I have had in most of the US. The only exception being the IMAX 3D experience at the Metreon in SFO and IMAX at King of Prussia, PA. The first thing to marvel at is the state controlled ticket prices of Rs.120 (Rs.140 for IMAX). This is a steal. Tickets are easily available at the counter or by online reservations. When I first entered the complex (only to use the restroom, really), I was blown away by the modern white, black and red upholstery, urban contemporary furniture and swanky LCD displays all over. The restrooms I am used to in Indian theaters stink and reek or smoke. This one is sparkling clean and smells decent. The refreshments counter offers everything from vegetable puffs to chaat to ice cream. Inside the cinema hall, chairs and floors are clean and the theater is overall nice. The sound is excellent.

The first movie I watched was Lootera which was average but featured some good music by Amit Trivedi. The sound system did full justice to his music. The second movie was a 3D experience of Pacific Rim. The theater, 3D experience and sound did full justice to the Guillermo Del Toro epic. Given the proximity of the theater to most residential neighborhoods in the city and the excellent movie watching experience, no wonder that Satyam has earned so much praise for their pioneering efforts. Color me very impressed.

On a completely different note, we made a trip to the now popular Isha Yoga center near siruvani in the outskirts of Coimbatore. This organization started by Jaggi Vasudev has become a religious behemoth in recent years attracting huge crowds to their Dhyanalinga temple. We drove to the temple on a wonderful Sunday afternoon with a nice and gentle breeze. The temple complex is a huge campus nestled at the foothills of the Vellingiri mountains. The first thing I observed was the total prohibition of electronic devices in the center- this includes cell phones, cameras, tablets, etc. We surrendered all of this at the entrance (thus the lack of good pictures) along with our shoes and walked in. The campus is surrounded by the Nilgiris and on that Sunday evening with a mild drizzle, looked spectacular.

Upon entrance, there is a beautiful mini-waterfall which is sunk below the ground level and people can wade in the pool. There are three panchaloha (composed of 5 elements) Lingams in the pool which supposedly purify the body and the spirit. The mens pool (Suryakund) is kept separate from the one for women. I took a wade in the icy waters and found it refreshing. We then walked over to the temple area. The center is constructed keeping the environment in mind. The entire area is populated with beautiful trees and flowers. There is an artificial pool with a small bridge over it. The pool is filled with water lilies and lotus. There is a Trimurti rock carving and then a small sanctum for Devi. The Devi sanctum was closed when we went there but we got a peek through a window in the door. It looked fantastic.

The main attraction was of course the Dhyanalinga. Outside the Dhyanalinga building was a massive Nandi statue. Volunteers hushed us before entering the antechamber. We were asked to silently sit and wait for our batch to get inside. The waiting area has rock carvings of great devotees of Shiva like Kannappa Nayanar. The main chamber is a huge dome shaped building with a massive Linga in the middle. People silently streamed into the main room and took their place all around and silently meditated. It was a calm and peaceful few minutes. We walked out to the campus cafe and had piping hot bondas and sukku kapi to finish the day off.

Two things struck me on my trip to the Isha Center. The first thing is how well thought out everything is. From the design of the place to keeping the font of all the signs consistent, a lot of effort has gone into the overall experience of the Yoga center. It was polished and sophisticated- a rarity for the genre. The other aspect that I found intriguing was how much the entire experience is controlled. From the time visitors are asked to surrender their mobile phones and cameras to how volunteers nudge people to specific spots and to keep silent and what not, the entire Isha experience is controlled. It is like having an iOS device. For the benefit of the visitors, the entire experience is curated and controlled to a T. Make what you will of it.

Overall, the Isha Yoga Center is well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. It is very interesting.

My next post will be my last journal entry for this India trip.