10.24.2006

Changes

When I run into a friend from my childhood, adolescent or young-adult years, it feels very refreshing if I find them to be as I remember them (not considering weight gain and other unavoidable physical manifestations). This is by and large rare since most of us have changed, anywhere from a little to quiet a bit. I find it hard and frankly, a little tiresome, to adapt to a new facet of a once-familiar personae. This is not a judgemental statement or a complaint. I am sure that many old acquaintances of mine also hurriedly cross over to the other side of the street when they see me approaching. One can condemn negative changes, but it's hard to control who we become.

Anyhow, the odd moments where I find very positive changes in folks from bygone years are quiet an experience. One such occasion happened last Sunday, when I met Arvind Kejriwal, winner of this years Magsaysay Award. Being the recipient of such an honor is in itself a public validation that Kejri, (as we called him) has had some significant achievement in the recent past, I don't need to blog about it. It's just that some other people I know have also had significant achievements while essentially staying the same. A couple of changes in Kejri that struck a chord:
- A tremendous passion for the causes he espouses. Though I remember Kejri being passionate even during drama practices at IIT, his current goal of "better governance through accountability" runs deep in his blood. While walking aimlessly around Harvard Square, our conversation kept meandering back to this thread.
- A transparent and unguarded approach to his life and work. I probably did not have that many long conversations with Kejri in IIT, but it's hard to believe that any or at least the majority of us being so straightforward about our life, our work and results. I picked this up mostly when he was telling a group of us how Parivartan, the group he founded, accidentally chanced upon the Right to Information Act of New Delhi, which largely focused their effort and is the cause for his current fame.

I could end with the hackneyed statement of how deep inside he remains the same man, but that is true for all of us. My other "changed" buddies are still the same inside. It's the outside for which I need to develop more patience, that will be my goal for a positive change.

9.20.2006

The Times they are a changin ?

Deval Patrick won the Democratic Primary for governor. I was pleasantly surprised. The so-called East Coast Liberals have never fully convinced me of any meaningful dedication to change and in New Jersey & Massachusetts (where I have resided), the old boys network and the status quo seemed granite solid. Yesterday's vote showed that the people have spoken. It was also a demonstration of effective grass roots campaigning, and the benefits of having a tech savvy website.

Now to wait and see what prevails in November. I don't wish to sound gloomy, it's just that my scepticism is still rearing it's ugly head.

9.17.2006

Dandelions - Can't Beat 'em ? Eat 'em !

Part of the process of being a Quincy resident for 5 years is becoming informed of, and maybe getting involved in, activities that the local community is doing in areas that generally interest me. Last week, I met an ex-lawyer turned environmental activist at Nick's wedding, who told me about the Quincy Environmental Network. They are a local non-profit with a thrust on preserving and creating more open spaces within the city. Part of their mission is environmental education. I attended an event today which was built on the latter theme.

A lot of us may have spent time wondering how we would survive in the wake of a natural or man-made catastrophe. After nuking the pet cat and stir-frying the leather couch, what will we look towards for our sustenance? Iris Weaver (the tour guide) pursued this line of thought to it's ultimate conclusion and determined that if something grows -- unattended, uncared for -- in our back yard, it's a message saying that we need to connect. Instead of spending money on weeding products and services, and spending a fortune on vitamin/mineral supplements, just connect the dots - eat what you are paying to dispose. Not only are these plants edible, but they may often have medicinal values that have not yet been fully conquered/commercialized.

There is a lot to write about but to keep it short, my deepest impression from the guided tour (through an area adjacent to the salt marshes) was from sumacade - a tart drink that one can make out of sumac (the non-poisonous variety, identified by red berries as opposed to white). It can be sweetened (based on preference) and drunk hot or cold. The very thought of going hiking through beautiful scenic trails foraging for sumac is making me thirsty.

In case one is left with the understanding that it's only about squeezing berries to create fruit juices, I have to add that I went to a cooking demo at the library following the walk. There, Iris conjured up Apple Crisp, Pesto, a stir-fry and sumacade using mostly wild edible plants. I found all of them very tasty. Maybe it was not "fine dining", but both the pet cat and I are relieved to know that when unknown assailants attack us with their WMDs, I can hunker down and just eat all the dandelions in the backyard. I know we have a plentiful supply to keep us happily fed for a long time.

Some pictures of the event can be found here

8.30.2006

A burning bush ?

I get locked out of the house and make an unscheduled trip to the hospital to retrieve the only set of available keys. The visit was good for both me and her. Divine intervention or coincidence (just kidding).

Hope no one was disappointed that this had nothing to do with effigies of the president.....

8.28.2006

Human Gallery

I'll volunteer for most anything, they serve as my avenues for de-compression. It helps me escape mundane reality by doing something I would not normally do and the more mindless the better. Occasionally, it's for a good cause, well, it's never for a bad cause, just how good the cause is varies and depends on your outlook on life.

Sometimes, my volunteering is linked to a hobby. This Saturday, I joined 21 other photographers (amateur and pro) from the Boston Photography Center and became a living breathing gallery wall as part of a project to raise awareness of photographs taken of Boston and to highlight the lack of sufficient number of photo galleries in the city. Part of the hope is that the city will take heed and utilize photos taken by local professionals to adorn subways and other public space. A large number of locals and tourists offered critique (see photo) and words of praise. One interesting gent came right up to my face and informed me that George Washington (in front of whose statue I was coincidentally standing) was known in his native Virginia as "Indian Killer" because of his propensity to let loose his shot gun on local Native Americans (nothing like snippets of American History from the lunatic fringe to enrich your appreciation of the adopted land). Some asked what we were protesting - I usually replied "Tulips" (click here to see the photo I was exhibiting, note that I did not shoot this picture).

A more graphic description of this event can be found here.

8.24.2006

I was wrong, so what's new ...

My hyperactive, cloud-trodding imagination went down the wrong path -- Are we really ready to reach out and gather more into our fold, or do we wish to partition, marginalize, build walls, create multiple states/countries where previously there was one. What happened to my 36 planets - the galaxy that future generations would hitchhike through someday.. Soon we will be the only planet, the rest will constitute the axis of poseurs, as we embark on our crusade of regime, sorry, status change. Einstein, expressing his belief in Spinoza's god, said that HE ".. does not play dice with the cosmos". Little did he realize that the privilege of playing dice lies with the International Astronomical Union. Fare thee well, Pluto !

:-)

See new below from AP, hot off the wire, 30 minutes ago..
"Leading astronomers approved historic new planet guidelines Thursday downsizing Earth's neighborhood from nine principal heavenly bodies to eight by demoting distant Pluto. After a tumultuous week of clashing over the essence of the cosmos, the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of the planetary status it has held since its discovery in 1930."

8.14.2006

You know when I was your age....

.....gasoline was only a penny a gallon. In fact, some stations actually paid you to fill up.

Here's what I'll tell my grandchildren in my old age

"You know, when I was your age, there were only nine planets. 2003 UB13 (Xena) was voted as the tenth planet by a narrow margin in 2006.

It was touch and go for a while. Initially, the USA and France disagreed on mineral discovery-rights and tourism revenue-sharing policies. The then US president, George W. Bush, wanted to add a condition to the vote that his road map for peace take the interstellar highway to Pluto (which was at risk of being demoted to a demi-planet) and create a settlement for the Palestinians so that they could stop that s__t on Planet Earth. The US House of Representatives wanted to make sure that aliens from Xena did not get any short cuts to US citizenship. The European Union wanted to ensure that the solar system had adequate absorption capacity. And on and on..

However, the Russian Space Minister launched a passionate soliloquy and asked that Xena's icy surface be not mistaken for aloofness and that it be considered at least a dwarf planet right away. . This opened the flood gates, and we soon added 2006 UB40 (Buffy), 2020 DMZ (Run) and even revived and named to planethood an older discovery -- 2000 XPSP2 (Windows). Soon, I lost track of the names of the thirty six planets that we have now.

What did you ask. Oh, who were Palestinians? It's a long story..Do you remember the Six Flags Over Dead Sea you visited last summer. Well, .....

4.25.2006

Second - the vacation

We walked the one-mile dyke over to Long Point in Provincetown, which is the very tip of Cape Cod. It was deserted; the only other couple on the beach was leaving as we trekked across the dunes towards the mouth of Plymouth Bay. In the distance, we could see Coast Guard vehicles near the Wood End Lighthouse. It's amazing to think that Long Point was once a fishing village – probably one of the earliest settlements in the New World. Not a trace of humanity remains. The homes were all "rafted" back to the mainland by the early 1800's.

As we napped on the beach, distant spouts indicated presence of whales. We could see a few clearly through binoculars. Then, we gasped – there was a whale about a thousand feet from the shore. The great beast just floated for several seconds and finally dipped and vanished out of sight. Thanks to the wonders of GIS, Chandreyee created a map to illustrate our adventure, click here to see the details.

Ethnic cuisine is a rarity on the Cape. There are a few Thai restaurants in Hyannis/Falmouth and Inaho at Yarmouth is said to serve the best sushi in Massachusetts, but that about sums up the diversity. Thus, we were surprised to find a South African restaurant on Commercial Street. I had earlier asked our gentle inn keepers about Portuguese restaurants in the area – in my warped imagination, Provincetown was still an old whaling town. The duo, Steve and Dave, were at a loss for words. They gently stumbled out the statement that the Portuguese had slowly left Provincetown (as the gay population in town reached the "tipping point" -- they did not say it, just my editorial). The re-gentrification is well noted in Karen Krahulik's "Provincetown". More on this on my next blog.

The Cape Cod Light and some other lighthouses in the area have been re-located owing to the sliding cliffs. We did a quick tour of the Cape Cod Light while waiting for our dinner reservations. The lighthouse is surrounded by a golf course, a fitting statement of the Cape's advertised image as a golfing paradise.

First - the realization

Whenever life turns a corner, I experience two contrasting emotions. Let me first explain what turning a corner means to me. It usually means that I experience first hand something that I never knew before or I may have understood to be true, but I had never previously stepped in those shoes. After the experience, the realization becomes complete and meaningful.

The first emotion is happiness, even though sometimes the realization, or the experience that leads to it, is not happy. The realization I am about to describe here is not an unhappy one. It's about a relaxing vacation. All these years, I have perceived vacations as periods of time were one wrung out the last drips of juice from each milli-second, every waking moment was spent in exploring new areas, immersing in different cultures, sight-seeing and so on. I usually need a few days after a vacation to recuperate. The term R&R was not in my dictionary. Then, we made good a plan that we have discussed often over the years. We spent the weekend in Provincetown.
Provincetown is not that far from home, and for me, even closer from work. A day trip there is quiet possible, we have done it often, but spending the weekend there amounted to a relaxing vacation. I will hasten to add that "relaxing vacation" did not mean curling up on a recliner atop a deck, and hopping in and out of the hot-tub (the B&B offered both the hot tub and the deck). While the wife slept in, I went for a 6-odd mile bike ride, mostly through majestic sand dunes, in the early morning hours. After breakfast, we spent the better part of five hours walking around on different beaches (more on that in my next blog). After a relaxed meal, we ambled along Commercial Street, and retired back to the B&B to watch a movie. When the wife fell asleep a little way through the film, I crept in to the afore-mentioned hot-tub with the book du jour. The evening was spent in a little more sightseeing, a cozy dinner and another attempt to watch the movie, though we both fell asleep quickly. The next day, we climbed up to the top of the Pilgrim monument. Several pictures later, we left for home.

My point is that we did a lot, but it all seemed relaxed, we did not maximize our time there, a fair amount of time was spent lying around and watching {gasp} TV ! Yet, we left sated and feeling complete. I am happy, knowing what R&R truly means, and relieved at understanding that it is not a complete vegetative state.

The second emotion is sadness. I have to find some way to bring sadness into everything, it's genetic. My melancholy stems from the deeper realization that I have aged a little more, yet again. What are experiences if not markers of time.

4.03.2006

Cliffs and Beaches

Living in Quincy, Massachusetts, we utilize our extreme proximity to water and hilly terrain to the fullest extent possible. The water part is obvious, the Atlantic, or at least Quincy Bay, Town River Bay and various coves are clear on any map. They are actually too close, so much so that I have to pay a surcharge on my home insurance!! The less obvious is how much of hilly terrain there is -- 7,000 acres stretching from Quincy to Dedham, a.k.a. The Blue Hills.

I hiked there yesterday, a standard practice for me on most non-blizzard Sunday morning/afternoon! The difference is that I did it with a group of strangers (though not strangers for long) through the Boston LinkUp website. It was a great group of people and a good time was had by me, and apparently all.

(R to L: Wayne, Jennifer, Deepak, Melinda,Me @Blue Hills)



(R to L: Wayne, Jennifer, Deepak, David, me, Blue Hills)

The planned hiking morphed into a hike --> lunch at Newcombe farms (an excellent suggestion by Jennifer) --> walk through Webb State Park --> hanging out on, and by, Wollaston Beach. All in all, a great day's work.

Photos above and below were provided by our Romanian friend- Melinda.


(RtoL Deepak, Chandreyee, Wayne, Melinda - Webb State Park)





(RtoL Wayne, me, Melinda, Deepak, - Wollaston)

2.13.2006

The Great Blog That Never Happened

The Northeastern US reeled under a severe "tropical snow-storm" yesterday. NYC received a record amount of snowfall. We logged in a modest 15 odd inches at the homestead in Quincy, Mass.

At around 11 AM, we lost power. Sometimes, it's hard to tell when you lose power in the daylight. No lights were on ; the laptop flickered and switched over to battery in the wink of an eye. The phone display glowed green and showed some text. I took me a few seconds to realize that the caller on the other end had vanished into the ether. The text said "Check Phone Line" -- our VOIP phone line was down. We were stuck at home during a blizzard with no music, no TV and no Internet !

I remember hearing about people who lose power during large storms -- usually out somewhere in Pennsylvania or Michigan or Western Mass. "About a 100,000 homes remain without power" says the voice on NPR. Poor souls, I think, and switch stations.

Various scenarios started unfolding in my brain. I visualized the hours ticking on, as we put on additional layers, maybe even caps and gloves, to stay warm at home. The perishables in the fridge are put in a box and kept on the front steps (it's about 7F outside, colder than the fridge). "Honey" I could hear myself say, "we need to grill the cajun-spiced catfish in the fireplace tonight cause it's not going to keep". Last summer, the chimney sweep recommended that we re-build the fireplace prior to lighting any more fires. Throwing caution to the wind, we would continue to keep a raging fire going all afternoon, evening and night -- initially for warmth and later for illumination. I saw myself braving the intolerable elements, the near zero visibility, the howling winds and the swirling snow flakes as I made my way across the vast expanse of 50 feet between the house and the shed for more firewood (dressed in layers per REI recommendations - techwick, insulation, shell) .

I could foresee that with the passage of the day, my sympathy with the homeless would rise ten times. After all, I would be almost in their shoes, well, save that I would be inside of a non-heated but fairly well insulated house. All the taps would be left dripping in order to avoid pipes bursting. We would pull out the down comforters and create a makeshift bed by the fireplace. I would keep the rifle by the bed, and a golden toddy on the mantle. The firewood ring would be in easy reach, as would the poker. Hmmm, with the poker at hand, maybe I could skip the rifle. What if I accidentally shot someone's cat if it nuzzled against our front door, smelling the aforementioned catfish. My picture would be broadcast alongside the great white hunter Cheney, a visual that would haunt me for the rest of my life !

My first instinct after the power cut was to start cooking, mainly because I was hungry. Also, it fascinated me that I would have to light our burners with a flint, since the electric starter would not work. I also theorized that it would help warm the house. I proceeded to churn out one my quickfix meals, a hamburger helper clone but not out of a box. As I squinted to see if the onions had fried, my wife offered to light a candle. Wow, I thought, aromatherapy while you cook.

The moment the meal was ready, the power was back on -- 1 PM EST, roughly 2 hrs later. The temperature had barely dipped a few degrees in the house. The wife was in a T-shirt. "The power's back" she said. "Just in time for TV with lunch", I replied

2.01.2006

Sweet and Sour Meals

Amitav Ghosh provides a poetic narration of a little-known folk tale in the opening chapter of The Hungry Tide. Lord Shiva has halted the mighty river Ganga's descent onto the Earth using his thick matted hair. This is not the "little known" part of the tale. I remember this picture vividly from thousands of calendars hanging under thousands of fluorescent tube lights, with geckos occasionally darting across the face of the Lord in pursuit of a meal. The Lords pale blue face sports a beatific smile and half closed eyes, both induced no doubt by a mellow marijuana trip. From the top right corner of the calendar, a somewhat skimpily clad Ganga is flowing straight into his hair.

The little known portion is the sequel to this tale – Ganga washes herself free of Shiva's locks and (forgetting Bhagirath and Kapil Muni's ashram) "the river throws of its bindings and breaks into hundred, maybe thousands, of tangled strands". The map on the left illustrates this tale. The great pleasure I derived from reading this came from being able to close my eyes and visualizing my trip from less than a month ago to this same beautiful place – the Sunderbans.


It started with us boarding a launch from Basanti and making our way over to the Sajnekhali visitor’s center. The visitor center has a crocodile pond, and is teeming with monkeys. Two of our traveling companions parted ways with us here; they were volunteers who were going into training for the tiger census survey that was to begin the next day.

I should first declare that we did not see any tigers despite spending a little amount of time at the watering-hole watchtowers at Sudhanyakhali and Netidhopani. I understand that part of the Project Tiger program has been to provide increased access to sweet water for the local wildlife. However, I have also heard and read that the tigers are used to drinking the saltwater, it's what gives them their taste for human flesh and blood (frankly, I think of this factoid as folklore, akin to Bonbibi, the forest goddess). So what is their incentive for coming to the watering hole? A sweet and sour meal!

The tiger census is a source of great debate. In India, the tragedy of Sariska has brought this issue back to the forefront. The Sunderban tiger census has been criticized as having a lack of transparency and being generally backward compared to standard practices. It is no doubt difficult and dangerous to implement a good process for counting tigers in a hostile environment such as the Sunderbans. Counting and measuring fresh pug marks means probably being on your hands and feet in the immediate vicinity of a tiger – being part of the same sweet and sour meal again. The new method attempts to dart radio collars on tigers to help with the counting and tracking process. Stay tuned for results.

During the 2004 census, the tiger population in the Sundarbans was recorded at 274 as against 271 in 2001 and 284 in 1999. These figures have been labeled as approximate even by official sources. My personal take is this: Statistics/Damn Lies, what's the difference, what matters is how you spin it. Here are a pair of headlines, twenty days apart, from the Deccan Herald and the Hindu (May 2005) :
"Tiger, tiger burning bright in the Sunderbans"
&
"Royal Bengal tiger faces extinction threat."

Mr. Pradip Vyas is the director of the Sunderban Tiger Project. His sharp professional approach to the problem is impressive. There definitely have been certain improvements in the area – nets and fences help keep tigers from straying into villages, and more stringent guards appear to have reduced the infringement of illegal fisherman, woodcutters and honey-collectors in the "buffer" and "core" zones. This reduces the tiger-human conflict which, perhaps contrary to what you would think, is overall worse for the tiger. Every additional tiger that dies out of the (approximately) 274 is another nail in the coffin. I do not intend to devalue the worth of human life, but note that there are about 4 million people in the Sunderban area.

Additionally, Mr Vyas stated that stricter policing and greater involvement of the local population have helped in reporting cases of tiger sightings, and provided a safeguard against poaching. I have no means of confirming or repudiating this. A Times of India report stated:"A tiger requires 9 sq km area for living. As human intervention is growing in the protected 2,585 sq km area of the Tiger Reserve, space is not enough to sustain 250 plus tigers. Figures are fudged. Poacher Naimuddin is active and is helped by forest officials. Everybody has some kind of interests in tiger poaching. Villagers, who don't have a standard source of income, are the basic killers, for money. They trap tigers and kill by poisoning or shooting at close range, for only Rs 100 per tiger."

The above report is quiet credible. The stick approach will work in the short run, but unless a sustainable alternate income generating scheme is put in place for the locals, cold cash for a dead tiger is going to be impossible to resist for people struggling to eke out a living. The project tiger website cites alternate income generation schemes, but no details are provided, nor are figures showing any degree of success of these schemes. We were accompanied by members of an NGO called NEWS. Their main mission is ecology, but they have been involved with some social schemes in the Sunderbans centered in the village of Pakhirala. I enquired about the results of their alternate income generation schemes, and got the same response. What good are batik clothes unless a marketing process is developed for their distribution and sale?

Getting back to our trip -- we first spent some time at the watchtower in Sudhanyakhali. It was dusk and several deer were drinking. The only incident of note is that someone from our group fell into the river while getting back to the launch. What could have been a bad incident was quickly resolved as the staff on board jumped in and retrieved her. She knew how to swim and during the few minutes she spent in the river, she enquired every once in a while if anyone could see a crocodile.

Luckily, we did not see any crocodiles till the next day – big ugly monsters lazing by the side of the river. One particular 15 feet garden variety slithered quickly into the water on our approach, preventing us from deciphering if the bloated stomach was pregnancy or a fresh meal! The one pictured above did not seem to be too concerned by us watching from 50 feet away.

Fishermen were few and far between – a result of the new protocols or just special precautions during the census. Part of our plans had been to buy and eat some fresh fish and the lack of fishermen was frustrating. We finally met a group of anyaykari (outlaws, as they are called) inside a very large mohona. Out of fear that we would turn them in, they amost gave us free fish, and ulimatly accepted about Rs. 50 for a bucketload. The fish was delicious !


The only other point of interest was Netidhopani, located at the edge of the buffer zone. We did not see any tigers but I was very eager to look inside the Ma Monosha temple. This is where Behula had met the washerwoman who would ultimately guide her to her goal. The temple has been reduced to a pile of rubble and is located on the "wrong" side of the fence, next to the watering hole. I missed being a course on the sweet and sour meal.

One last point - I want to mention an NGO called Mukti. Started by a Sunderban native, this group has undertaken as it's mission the emancipation of the Sunderban natives from their problems of illiteracy, lack of sanitation/hygiene and other ills that plague overpopulated developing areas. They are a young organization and need everybody's help. Please visit them at www.muktiweb.org