Saturday, January 14, 2023

India trip 2022 - Thoughts and Reflections

Got a chance to visit India after 3 years. Thanks to COVID, 2020 was almost a year ripped out of history. 2021 was an unfortunate tryst with destiny, where the non-availability of visa appointments postponed meeting family for one more year. But in 2022, it was finally the time to come back.

Along with the eagerness and excitement of meeting friends and family, I was also curious. I had seen India change to great lengths during the Pandemic. In my opinion, India provided an amazing and somewhat unexpected resistance to COVID with a discipline I had not seen in my lifetime (I do acknowledge the mistakes which led to the immigrant population pass through tough times, but still, I had never seen India this united before). But for someone who had not been here in the thick of things, I did have a question. Has India changed? Will life be here the same as before?

Thankfully, the negative changes in people's lifestyles due to COVID seemed to have disappeared in 2022. Everything was operational, tourism was booming, masks weren't the norm anymore and things seemed to be better. Fingers crossed.

Still, a few reflections based on incidents 

1. Me today, discipline tomorrow 

Every time you land in India, it's a ticking time bomb of when you are first hit with the lack of discipline. Over the years, I have thought about it in various ways. Am I getting too "Angrez" expecting discipline and queues everywhere? Are the Americans better than Indians in this? OR is there more to it than it meets the eye?

I have always believed, that discipline is marginally easier to implement in the USA just because of the sheer numbers. A normal queue would be about 10 minutes and at the most 30-40 people long. In India, these numbers are an order of magnitude higher. It is not surprising that people would think of breaking queues. No, I am still not complaining. I am just expressing my surprise and appreciation for the various "jugaadu" ways of breaking the line

It typically starts at the airport. 500 people, having gone through a long flight in super crammed space (long distance trains in India seem such a luxury) and having their ego's thrashed by the air hostesses (Economy class passengers often line up by the kitchen to get a snack ) need a quick release. Their instant source of happiness in the absence of food, drink, family , and air conditioning comes from the satisfaction of oneupmanship in which they defeated their fellow Indians by their canniness. India also seems to be their "cheat space" where breaking of rules is suddenly all kosher.

#smart-ass tip 1: the "dusra line"

And so it starts, a queue of 1000 people trudges forward

Till someone decides to act smart, get out of the line , take 10 odd people and join the line somewhere in the middle. In practice, it takes one Uncle who in the act of being nice to a lady, sacrifices the time of 100s behind him, by allowing 10 people to create a parallel line and merge ahead. If this Old uncle wasn't enough, there's always another one standing right behind you who'll not do anything about it but will curse the young generation (or rather us directly) for not doing anything about it. I have still called out, but before you know the 10 odd people have had their way with 80% of people telling "Hum kya kar sakte hai"

#smart-ass tip 2: the "connecting flight"

Mumbai is undoubtedly the hub for many airlines to take an onward flight to their home city. More often than not, there's tension to catch the connecting flight. As we stand in the line after having a 4 year old endure a 26 hour flight journey, your parents patiently waiting in the cold at 4:30 am, some family comes and says , we have a connecting flight, please let us go. To which, I always feel like questioning - why did you not reserve some time ? It's nothing new to have lines at the airport. It's not as if Modi announced demonization and all the mitron have suddenly congested the line. But while it's annoying to other passengers, I do acknowledge the tradeoff between having a short connection to a rather long one. 

But then, come the smart asses. After 4 families were allowed to go, an uncle in front of me ( a nice "old uncle") got irritated . He asked everyone who asked for this favor to tell him where they were going, flight time and boarding pass. To our surprise (or maybe not), 3 of the 4 people we saw next were lying through their teeth and as soon as they were asked, they immediately retreated. The 4th one had a connecting flight after 6 hours. It is surprising how "Trust other Indians" goes for a toss so fast at the airport itself

#smart-ass tip 3: the bakshis (or not ) zone

Corruption in India has become fairly less in the last decade. Airport workers have been nice, but every now and then , someone sneaks in something to get them ahead. If that wasn't enough, some honest workers can't say No when the aunty says "Bhai sahaab, hum kab see khade hai line me? ". Bakshis or not, interfering with a line in a high pressure zone causes more people to break the rule . For a country that is really trying to fall in line with people following rules, such actions notoriously break the morale of everyone else and create a chaos

One set of people to commend here are the immigration officers. In 19 years of travelling, they have always been straightforward, nice and (my personal favorite) they stamp the passport correctly so the stamp is well visible and falls within one quadrant of the page - thus allowing reuse and not leaving any ambiguity . In the chaos however, they always isolate themselves from the queue ruckus and if things get too hot, they simply go out for a lunch break :)

But , little inconvenience apart, the arrival airport is always an emotional place to be (and the arrival time is a particularly happy spot). It is always heartwarming to see grandparents hug their grandkids, young men and women bowing down after a seemingly long flight in the coolest part of Mumbai's day (which is still warmer than the warmest part of SF). Indian parents will stand hours in the cold waiting area, old eyes scanning every arrival and the police there always have a tough time balancing rules and emotions

2. Mob mentality

 A lot of people might disagree with this , but hear me out. This is surprisingly very disturbing

I was on the way to catch a train on a crowded railway station when a man came running behind me. I am not sure what he was trying to do, but in a flash, he pushed me and another lady, and both me and the lady fell on the ground. The running man, managed to run and catch his train. 

While this was unfortunate enough, what followed was worse. Within seconds a crowd gathered, and help us stand up. But while people asked the lady if she was OK, someone had caught my collar, someone had grabbed my wrist and insults were being hurled about how I wasn't walking properly. The crowd then decided that the woman needed medical attention, so I was obviously "pulled" in that direction. In a timely stroke of luck the woman said "Inka fault nahin hai!" , and I was let go. In a brain fade moment, I simply caught the first train out of the situation

But a number of questions crossed my mind:

1. Why did no one think the woman could have accidentally caused the problem? Why was the guy targeted?

2. What would have been my plight had the woman been unconscious or more gravely injured. without a shred of evidence, the crowd had already caught my hand and collar , and a thrashing did not seem to be completely out of the possibility list

3. It reminded me of the classic Munnabhai MBBS scene where Sunil Dutt reminds a young that everyone is going to take their frustration on wife, son, father, sister, and husband on this person.The notion that "we can't depend on law enforcement, so it is our job to enforce the law" can't be more dangerous. Mob violence is not acceptable. Even if someone does something wrong, handing over someone to the police is the most people should be allowed to do. It's sometimes sad that we treat mob leaders as good samaritans. 

4. Thinking that this is in a cosmopolitan city consisting of some of the most educated people in the country, imagine the plight of young men in remote areas where caste and religion would also play a stronger role.

Controversial as it may sound, it is just wrong, and anyone being part of it should be punished for society to function well.

3. A corruption-free India

No, this is not sarcastic

While corruption might exist in various quarters , for someone who lived through the nineties, the present day India (or at least Bombay) is a huge leap

An aadhaar card application can be so smooth - who knew?

At another appointment, the lady at the desk guided me through the form , and carefully checked the form and gave me a token to wait.

Throwback to the 90s where , a friend was considered to be the ultimate James Bond for getting a learners permit from RTO for just Rs. 15 (which was the actual legal cost of getting it). Most people paid anywhere from Rs .50 to Rs. 500 through different agents

Receipts from grocery stores. Throwback to the 90s again, where a shopkeeper used to simply rip off a wholesale box and sell packets of biscuits (clearly marked "not for individual sale" ) at the same price with "Lena hai to lo, varna raasta naapo" 

4. Krupaya Sutte paise Digital payment dya

When you are away from India for huge chunks of time, sometimes India just surprises you like anything

In 2005-6, I was surprised how mobile phones took off in India , and how (till the Iphone arrived) India had such amazing multi functional phones

Bandwidth in India grew from being super expensive in the late nineties to being dirt-dirt-cheap and continues to grow.

In a similar vein, digital payments in the form of Google Pay , Paytm and the likes have seen such a sharp spike. It was a couple of days when I did not have google pay setup on my phone . When I told the cab driver, he asked me "Sir aap to padhe likhe lagte ho? Kahaan see aaye ho?" 

A step in the right direction, towards the elimination of black money and laying the foundation for a strong transactional economy, it is indeed impressive how everyone from taxiwala to bhajiwala, from maids to chai ki tapris, all have adapted to this

5. A business digging it's own grave

Growing up in India, the auto and taxi wallahs were a unique business. It was the profession of most immigrants, wannabe actors, sometimes even people with advanced degrees who held onto it for a strady income till they made it. 

Memories were mostly pleasant. There would be stories of honest autowallahs who would come back in case you left something in there, or that taxi wallah who would make sure that they would escort elders all the way home. 

Of course, their market share has been eaten by the evil business run by Uber and Ola 

Or is it?

The truth is - it's a business community that has stopped respecting it's customers and have got a similar reaction back. I found it surprising, shocking in fact that in the middle of a busy road, an empty taxi or rickshaw would prefer to go 30 minutes without business than listen to my plea of helping my sick dad (we were standing outside a hospital) get home or at least to a place where he could get another taxi. 

An unofficial "Double rate" at night because they have to drive back alone? A "my rate" when demand is high ? Or a just "I don't care what the rules say"

I am not saying that Uber and Ola (or any service) are flawless. They are profit making companies at the end and someday consumers will feel the pinch for them as well. 

But if there are rules put in place, people are expected to abide. The government rules state that any auto or taxi is expected to ply the passenger to the requested destination and charge as per meter.  But if you survey a 100 people who have lived in Bombay and ask them if they have never seen an auto break this rule, I bet you won't find more than 5 people. 

It's not just technology, but a clear "gap" in the current system that is leading to Ola and Uber take up the market. What's sad is that the taxi and rickshaw drivers seem to ignore the gap and dig their own grave. If technology was the sole driver to closing businesses, dabbawallahs, the local buses , the local trains would have probably been replaced as well. It is always a deep mistrust that drives people to other channels and unfortunately this business is doing just that .

6.And a business that keep's getting better

It is no secret that I am a big fan of Indian trains. Every India trip starts with buying a first class pass which I believe is the best (unless you are travelling with small kids or aged parents) . It provides you with something that is very rarely available in Bombay - a guarantee of reaching someplace on time !

But while the local trains improve their infrastructure with escalators, AC trains, ticket vending apps and much more, what impressed me more is the long distance trains. Super polite staff , super clean toilets (an NRI's biggest pain / pleasure point) , charging points , great infrastructure . Railway booking can do better but I guess they do reasonably well with the constraints they have. What would be interesting if they lease out some tickets to an orbitz kind of price model for long distance booking instead of Tatkal - but in the balance of providing good service to the masses - given the challenges (high population and limited land to build infrastructure), I think they do pretty well. Accessibility for physically challenged people has also improved. Long distance train travel is also amazing. There are always going to be smaller issues, but at the scale of population supported, it's pretty good. I did not get a chance to try food delivery apps - but the combination of technology and a grassroots infrastructure has made railways a great force !

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The cricketing paradox of not playing for records


 As is every Indian, I grew up watching and obsessing over cricket. From Kapil Dev to Sachin to Dhoni to Kohli, from Richards to Warne to Murali to Stokes, cricket has been an indelible part of life. Over different periods I have obviously been exposed and obsessed with other sports - be it Tennis, Badminton, Hockey, Soccer, American Football, Chess , Formula 1 , but it would be fair to admit that cricket has been a constant part of life. 

              Growing up, my dad bought me a book which had all ODI stats will around 1987. It was like cricinfo statsguru in paperback format and a dream of a 6 year old who loved maths. Unsurprisingly, West Indies, the then-dominant force in ODI cricket with a set of powerful cricketers across all dimensions - Richards , Greenidge and Haynes sharing all possible batting records, Garner , Holding and W. Davies with bowling and Dujon completing the circle with powerful wicketkeeping. 

                 Over the years, Pakistan, SL , Australia have had their share but the dominance of that era has been great. Records deemed impossible once in the past (the first time India ever scored 300 in a 60-over, 55 -over or 50 over match was in 1996 , being the last regular country - even after SL and Zimbabwe did it) now became the new normal. Haynes' once secure record of 17 centuries is now just a "special  mention".  300 became cricket's new 200, an individual score of 150 became a century and a once impossible 200 became common. 

                 But of course, cricket has been subject to an intense debate - one of the most memorable events of them being Tendulkar stranded on 194, just to make sure India left no stone unturned in getting a win. On the other hand, Lara's 400 has been called an extremely selfish innings, and while Sachin has been spared the flak most times, his 100th 100 did come under scrutiny after India lost the match against Bangladesh.

               So then, as all players are trained to say - "We don't play for records" OR more subtly "I am not as happy about the double hundred as I am happy that it made India win it's zillionth match against Sri Lanka , is it really the truth?

              My opinion is - that is the paradox of cricketing records. And at the risk of sounding callous, I'll say that the "I only want my team to win and not care about breaking the record" is just diplomatic lies.  Every player wants their team to win, of course, but if I had taken 9 wickets in an India - Sri Lanka test match, would I still wish someone else would take the 10th and race India to a forgettable test victory or would I wish that I take the 10th, even if it means risking a draw in a series that would be forgotten within weeks if not days? 

            Of course, the other extreme is also not justified .  If everyone simply played for records, the non-striker would never run with passion for his or her partner. People would not push the pace of a game risking their own wickets. Prabhakar's super slow selfish play  is certainly not correct. Just as Lara's 400 wasn't . But then , we saw a glimpse of it in Ajaz' 10-for, where he set a memorable record but the team lost 

            Which brings me to the actual moral of this article. Different entities in cricket, broadcasters, statisticians, portals like cricinfo have somehow managed to bring records to the foray in an otherwise team-oriented game. And they are not to blame, it is eventually their consumers - which span various ages and social classes who are fascinated by records. And unlike other spots where the records are always in line with the goals of winning (eg: soccer where the more goals someone scores, the better it is, OR tennis, which is an individual sport to begin with), cricket can be played with 2 different approaches of either winning the game or setting individual records. And while international matches , where one plays for the country might be some exception, the 664 run partnership is a great example where kambli and tendulkar were able to create the record only because their coach was not on the ground and they continued to go against the "set" principles 

            The paradox of whether records are important or winning is important has evolved unintentionally but certainly will be the talk for at least a few decades. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Indian Standard Time

      Well, this isn't a discussion on why a country of more than a billion people follows one time zone , or why the US has 11 , which of course is inflated by some states choosing to follow daylight savings and some states don't . It also , makes up for a great ice-breaker conversation especially when someone calls in from India and they ask "What time is it there?". Unrelated to this post, people in India seem to think that the most interesting thing in calling someone in the USA is to demonstrate their understanding of the circularity of the globe in addition to suddenly switching to speaking in English when they realise someone has been in the US for a long time.

       Actually, this post is about the rather universally distributed nature of people, who always think that birthday invite times always have an associated factor. Similar to Max Planck , Newton  and Avogradro, people always feel that there's a constant , which defines , sometimes in minutes or hours, the amount of time you should arrive to a party after the scheduled time. 

       Many years back, I was invited to a colleague's daughter's birthday party. The invite said 11 am, but unfortunately, something went wrong with my car and I got super late. I stretched the tensile power of my corolla and the flexibility of California speeding laws to barely make it at 11:40 am. Shamefully, I rung the doorbell, and was about to apologize to my heart's content, when someone opened the door in tracks, t-shirt and unkempt hair. It took me a few seconds to realise, that I still had to apologize, but for different reasons . I had reached the party way too soon .

         As I sat around and helped the host clean the house, organize their food, and wait for the rest of the guests (who promptly and correctly showed up after 1 pm), it dawned upon me that I should have realised what Jaspal Bhatti did years ago . And that's when I realised how rude I had been to not understand people's feelings and associate the "IST constant" with the party invite.     

          Growing up, I was actually the person who would always be late. Engineering days at VESIT meant a strict regiment in which we had to get into college by 8:30 am or else stay out for an hour (which I thought was for good reason, that a late coming student should not disturb the decorum of those who showed up on time). It was also sometimes nice to socialize right at the start of the day and simulate your brain for the rest of the day. But still, there was an attempt to get in the door by 8:40 (which was the allowed time), and catch the last possible train which could possible get you there. I was often late to play cricket, to return back home, and sometimes waste my parents' hard earned money on autorickshaws than buses just because I was late.

           But as age has progressed, I have realised that in the universe of latecomers, I was just a Hemang Badani of cricket or Avinash Wadhvan of Bollywood. In the course of the last few years, I have been blown away by the Amitabhs and Tendulkars of this sport. What is further notable is that there's a strange bit of pride in being the last one, since in the group of people, you technically optimized for your time in the best possible way. And to top it all, if the majority is composed of latecomers, you are the odd man out and taunted for coming in too early. Not too much respect for Socrates , really.

           Parties aside, gatherings, movies, picnics have all had this problem. Which brings me to the main point. The IST factor. Over the last several years, I have mentally modelled the IST factor with most of my friends. While for some Subodhs, the number tends to zero, for most people it tends towards infinity. The IST factor is calculated by a complicated, dynamic and slightly biased equation which involves the number of minutes they arrived late, the stupidity of their reason , the plausibility of their lie  the promptness of their informing that they would be late, and often the sheer shamelessness (or pride, as they like to call it) of their actions.  It is also a self-training model, meaning your good actions can quickly wipe out your sins of the past, but the converse is also true .

             And oh, does not go to say that my late factor is similar to Subodhs, but I certainly don't take pride in it. Back to work in US Pacific time. 



Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Indian airport emotion

A few weeks from when I was going to depart to the US for my Master's program, I had come to Bombay's Sahar airport (since renamed CST international airport) to drop someone . That's when I realized something.

This was the last time I was coming to the airport without much emotion. Growing up in India, flying was not as frequent and easy as it is today. Every time someone took a flight, the entire family came to drop. Everytime someone took an international flight, the entire town seemed to come to drop them. Earlier, sitting inside the airport was also available. Security was much less , people were few, systems were archaic, but still even the thought of someone else flying seemed to be a big deal for the entire family to make an airport run. Couple with the fact that India has adapted well to the "leave at night" international flights. The ordeal is simple. Most flights leave after midnight. It is said that this system originated because in the initial days of flying , when flights were mostly through frankfurt or london, it was difficult to get airport staff in those cities at odd hours, so all flights were timed in such a way that Bombay would take the hit. But what seemed to be an uncomfortable time to fly somehow became the highly preferred time to fly - for multiple reasons.

First among them - traffic , it is so much comfortable driving to the airport at midnight, enjoy the cool breeze on the empty highway, rather than trying to reach at 7 , for which even a lead time of 4 hours was no guarantee. 

Second, for the person departing, it was perfect, spend time with family, have dinner, joke around a little over tea and recharge. Then spend the night at the airport , and start adapting to US time zones to get rid of the jet lag. Finally, board the flight, eat like you've been hungry for days, drink like a dog , and sleep off at 8 am India time. About 9:30 US Pacific time, and your body has already become 'angrez' 

Lastly, the inconvenience caused to the people dropping at the airport. Somehow growing up, the excitement of going to the airport trumped all such things . Seeing people wear suits and ties on a 24 hour long flight seemed perfectly normal. After all , they were going to Amrika , where everyone expects them to show up in suits on day 1 (On a rather interesting note , when I first flew , I wore a suit and a leather jacket, since at the last minute that was the only way to fit all luggage)

But then on, I was the passenger and the emotion changed so much. I almost felt jealous of the people dropping me, since I knew they would go home whereas I was to take the rather cattle class flight and after spending 24 hours sitting in crammed seat and eating limited tasteless food , and watching movies over and over again, I would be greeted by the friendly immigration officer, who , if my luck was good scribble something on my passport and let me go, and if my luck was bad, I might be subject to the ultimate Software engineering torture

Over the years a number of things have changed. Flights have become smaller, food has become worse, premium economy is what used to be called economy, and economy is like travelling ticketless . Of course , I have seen an increase in various dimensions including age, weight, circumference etc. all making this flight even more interesting.  Things have also moved on from the time when you would give up your mobile phone at the airport and then talk with parents over a glass wall , which almost seemed like being in prison , to having smarter mobile phones to still simulate the same stupid behavior . I have also become a dad, and the two times I flew, I have been sad that my daughter was so well behaved, and I could not take my revenge of the 10 odd years that I was constantly troubled by babies crying , and parents pushing them closer to my ear and looking at me as if I was obliged to care for them just because they had a baby. The presence of Ipads, offline videos and smart headsets has meant that I can now look forward to some more interesting movies.

However, at the core, some emotions remain the same. It's still the middle of the night, parents are still there. There's always a crowd, someone always breaks a queue, and an old uncle comes out of nowhere to curse you for not doing anything about it. But surprisingly, I have always and still long for the time when i sit on the flight and I am asked to switch off my phone. I think of this as the time, when I can't communicate with the world , and hence have zero control to do anything. It surprisingly puts me in a state of great bliss, where all I can do is eat, sleep or watch movies. In this modern , ever-connected world, that serenity has been always very precious, and while I know sooner or later technology will get there, for this one time, I am hoping it takes some more time.

Sometimes the helplessness of a 24 hour flight (Mumbai and San Francisco are really the most extreme when it comes to air travel) sounds very overwhelming, it sometimes dawns that life would be so simple if we just called one place an eternal home. The airport emotion is hard to fathom. It'll always be.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

A sad yet deep thought !

         This is a post I want to write for a long time. The events of last year have taught us the importance of health and how vulnerable we are against the forces of nature. Who would have thought that a micro-organism would disrupt our lives in such a way.

        But frankly, the motivation goes beyond the last year of COVID. It's about a constant realization of how tricky and unpredictable death is, and how life has it's own plans and how helpless you can be ! It is also a rather deeper realization of how tiny and powerless we are in the Universe, and that we should be grateful to nature for giving us what we have (most of all - a human life) and that we should strive to give back (by making sure we are being conscious about environmental issues)

        We all know that death will come one day . Yet, we have different philosophies around it. At 19, I was Hrithik Roshan in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (of course sans his body and looks). I wanted to earn all the money and retire as early as possible and then "live life to the fullest" . His number was 40, mine was 35 . The fallacy of that approach hit me pretty soon (fortunately) , but not before I said no to a number of fun events and trips with friends. I once had an opportunity to drive to Vegas on a hunch, but decided that 8 hours of time could be utilized in doing the one school project which could propel my grade from A- to A (which it did not :D ) . I missed some fun games because I was doing that "extra project to get a reco from a professor" . I took up a saturday job and missed a bunch of fun trips because I could make "21 dollars more every week" . But fortunately, the moment came early enough and I realised that I had to make every moment count. While I do believe balance is necessary ( you can't live paycheck to paycheck your entire life), enjoying every moment is certainly something to live for.I do believe that most of the people whom I know either believe in the prior point , or have had some point in their life which led them to believe it. 

       The second philosophy is to have a "bucket-list". All of us have it in some form or the other. Some day, I want to become CEO of a company. Some day, I want to see my daughter graduate from a great place. Some day, I want to tour the world. Some day, I want to start an orphanage.  Some day, I want to be as great as my Dad. A combination of adventure, love, noble and sometimes funny yet heartwarming wishes. As with most people, I believe that it helps in life if you have a list and work towards it. Some people also have an extension of it like "Places to visit " or " things to do before you are 30,40,50 and so on...." . In my opinion, it is one of the healthy things to do. Planning helps you align your actions, keep your focus and gain satisfaction when you check it off. After all, Farhan Qureshi did not want to be 70, dying in a hospital and thinking "Only if I had convinced Dad to allow me to pursue wildlife photography". 

        The third philosophy is - to have something in your heart, good or bad - that you'll tell people one day. One day I'll show my boss that inspite of what he thought, I worked really hard for his success and wshes him well. One day, I'll thank my parents for what I am in life. One day, I'll tell the friend that inspite of not talking for many years over a small issue, I remember his SRK imitation everytime SRK says "kkkk". One day, I'll meet the old uncle who used to help me jump puddles and watch over me as I went home int he dark. We all have a secret list of mostly good, some maybe brutally honest things, we want to tell people. Or do - for example, I'll donate a bunch of money to charity . I'll sponsor a kids' education. At the very least , we all have a speech prepared to say when we are successful, rich or old - like "I would like to thank ...."

        Except that most likely you won't ever say it . Which brings me to the fourth and rather most important realization - something that hit me int he last year or so. Someone close to me passed away, his last words being "my heart hurts". I heard of someone who went scuba diving and never returned back. Someone who was sitting on a beach and was eaten away by a wave, to be never found. Someone who could only manage to say "I can't breathe". And which is the truth of life - that unlike SRK and Rajesh Khanna movies, when it happens, you won't have the time or the opportunity to say what you wanted to . Achieving everything in life is not in our control - and living each day as if it is your last will probably make it the last one day - but telling people you love them in advance, mending relationships and getting together does not take too much effort. If you haven't heard this, please listen to this very interesting perspective from Steve Jobs 



Sunday, April 25, 2021

A year of COVID ...and a year of realizations !

<Started writing around March 5th 2020 , lazily completed > 
      It was March 5th. 2020.  Our CEO, sent out a message that given COVID-19 has started to create some impact on global health, we should be prepared for a scenario when we are forced to work from home. We had an award function that night , and we all went to a nice party in San Francisco. It was Thursday and it was announced that the next day , would be a "game day" where all of us would work from home just to work out the kinks in case there came an emergency that we would "temporarily" need to work from home "for a few days". Very very thankfully, my parents who wanted to spend some time with their granddaughter narrowly made it to the USA on that very day.

           The day was weirdly memorable. The awards function was great with some amazing performances and some deserving award winners. There was an after party but soon we were on our way home. I had a long walk to the BART station, and as I was eager to get home to my parents and daughter, I was passing through a pretty lonely street when a middle-aged woman approached me. I initially felt that she was asking for money, but she asked 

        "Sir , this is a pretty lonely street, I am waiting for my bus to go the BART station. Do you mind waiting with me?"  . Well, I did not admit, but I was frankly scared to walk on the street myself. But the thought of waiting there was a little scary too. The security that my parents were home with my wife and daughter and reaching late would be OK, coupled with just the instinctive reaction, I waited at the bus stop. Any case, I really doubt if I would have turned down such a request unless things were absolutely out-of-hand. A bus arrived 15 minutes later and we took it to the BART station and we both managed to catch out respective trains.  In those 15 minutes, I was thinking of a lot of things. Some around just routinely planning my next week, some about calculating how much I was delayed, but more so, being grateful that I was in the position of "helping" rather than "being helped". Also in my mind was the emotion (both positive and negative) of having to work from home for a few weeks. 

        Would not commuting be good? Of course. Having taken the train for 8-9 months, it was draining. The frantic search for parking in the morning , the hope to get a seat (and not having to give it up in "being a gentleman"), the uphill climb on 2nd street on an empty stomach , plus the scare of COVID due to packed trains (BART was particularly crowded in the rush hours)

        But barring that, I had loved coming to the city. The office was almost always full, there was always chatter, the food (and especially the chocolates and desserts ) were nice, our CEO would greet everyone like they were family and in the evening, I would love the pace of the city as people scrambled to get home , reminding me of some of the office trips I did with my Mom and Dad to VT in Bombay (yeah, VT and Bombay ! )

           The bus arrived soon, and I was able to escort the lady all the way to a public place on the Bart station where she (and I also) felt relieved and went on with our day.  I was feeling happy that I was able to get her and also wasn't too delayed . Now, I was a train ride away from "home" given my parents, wife and daughter were all there.

         The next day, we went to a grocery store to "stock up". A store where normally you would not see 3 customers at one time, had a line which stretched 50 yards out of the store. The owner was so slow in billing, that I almost felt like volunteering for some time to relieve everyone of the stress . In the line, a few young Indian kids were behind me (yeah, I am now at an age where I can use that term). One hour into the line, and the guy had managed to get the girl's name and add her on LinkedIn . I was patiently waiting and this thought had brought some humor / positivity to the otherwise looming stress that everyone was  anticipating. 
        There were so many funny things we did. For example, I went to Safeway a day before the county's stay at home order took place. The crowd there was more than I had ever seen. An elderly staffer there told me that the store was going to open as normal tomorrow at 6 am and she assured that everything would be available. But still, no one was willing to wait , no one knew what was coming. I remember buying things like "powdered milk creamers" - just in case things reached a point where a curfew-like atmosphere ensued.

        The next few weeks were different. As everyone adopted to the new lifestyle, they were happy than sad . People played games, played music with plates, adopted a "enjoy these days", "respect the healthcare workers" . Soon enough, the plight of those affected economically by this saddened us. The plight of migrants, business owners, restauranters drowned the early cheer .  Some images made the world stand up and pay attention to the seriousness behind this.

         But still, by and large, everyone expected this to be a temporary phase. A month, two at most and then things will return to normal. After all, Mumbai local trains have never shut down for more than a few days (even during heavy rains) , either ways, we'll get there. 
         Except that it did not. Numbers started growing, emotions became murkier. Businesses started shutting down. People started struggling with life. Children were losing their active life. Doctors were working overtime . A year down the line , while life has moderately returned to "some" normalcy, it looks like the thought of living life as it was before 2020 seems like a far fetched dream. It almost always feels like, some day , I'll tell Kavya. Yeah, those things, yes, we used to do them before 2020 . 

          And that brings me to the main thought I wanted to express. That of gratitude. To be, to live, to exist. To have the technology that at least made life livable - imagine it happening in 1990 . Gratitude t have doctors and researches who have been racing to get to a vaccine. To have a smartphone and the internet to make medical co-ordination easier. If someone told me that I would spend an entire year without traveling 40 miles away from my house, I would have laughed like crazy.  It someone told me that I would not visit a movie theater for an entire year, or not sit down in a restaurant for an entire year, I would have said "I'll go mad". If I did not meet friends or co-workers for a year, I thought I would have a nervous breakdown.

           Yet, here we are. One year down. A realization that when life gives you problems, it gives you enough strength to face them.  Of course, it is easy for me to say, but I am sure some people have suffered much more economic hardships and my heart goes out to them. 

And for one, this time we are united in the fight. All of you reading it. All 7,854,896,896 of us. Needless to say , this speech is more important in today's time than ever before 


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Good old days?

           In the late 1990s , I was preparing for the final stage of the NTS exams, and had taken a short course.One of the professors at the DG Ruparel college, who was teaching us, was discussing about the internet and how protocols were developed.

        Mind you, this was a time when internet was limited to email via a pine client and chat via irc, all done through a command line interface, and the cost of internet was about Rs.25 per hour which was pretty expensive given the standards of living then.

        The professor explained to us the structure of the internet, a bit about internet protocols , but then he went into the various applications that existed then , the ability to send emails instantaneously across the globe, being able to read news from around the world, and a cheaper , faster way of two-way communication (then chat) to any part of the world (some of it mentioned in this old post ). Of course, in the light of the iphone, the social networks, the broadband speed and the decreasing costs of 3g/4g internet, this might seemed small, but in the late 90s, being able to send a message to the USA free of cost seemed like a dream.

         But at the end of the technical discussion, the professor said something philosophical which resonates with me a number of times, and especially relevant now. He said , next time your old uncle speaks of the "good old days", explain to him the struggle of not having a search engine, not able to get news and updates regularly, and the pain of one way communication using letters.

         Which brings me to the main point. Imagine if the same pandemic had hit us in 1990. How different would life be?

         " You take the train home , as you reach your house, you wait patiently for the 8:40 news in Hindi. There is some mention of the pandemic , the entire family listens attentively and wonders what is in store for us. You call up your doctor on his landline but it is continually engaged as he is receiving calls from his various patients. The news at 10 in English confirms what has happened in Italy could happen to you.

          You step out for work the next day, newspapers are carrying reports of the pandemic. The reports are bringing in only little information that the editor was able to procure over the bad quality, super expensive ISD call with his US friend. The information still does not speak of the extent of the crisis and how it is going to affect you. You go to the STD booth and speak to your brother in another city in India . There's a line of people and you get to your turn after half an hour.

           You leave from work and head back home, rumors of a shutdown are already doing the rounds. You pick up grocery for a few days and go back home. The prime minister announces the shutdown that night. For the next 30 days ,you are at home. No going out. No playing. No gathering.

           Money aside, imagine spending 30 days without communication, the phone being the only source of communication which is expensive , and will probably be unreliable given the load. Doordarshan will put some movies , which you probably won't like. Kids will play inside the house, getting bored to the hilt . You have a limited supply of books you can read .

          There's a lot of confusion about how to use masks. The kirana store guy sells masks at 20 times the original price. He becomes the "I-know-it-all" guy about masks, forcing you to buy multiple when you might need one. He also starts off with the "Drink the cow urine" and "KEM ke hospital ne bola hai" With no way to verify information, confusion hits an all time high .

       Five days on, the world is hell. The books are done. Newspapers are not coming. Your curry still does not taste good even after trying 5 times from the partly torn recipe book with masala stains all over it. Doordarshan is showing it's true colors  all day long.

       Businesses have come to a standstill. Factories have stopped production since they need manual intervention in everything. Food, medicines, everything is in shortage. Lack of awareness is leading to more deaths. Rumors are doing the rounds. Cash has dried up completly."

      The Coronavirus pandemic is one of the most extraordinary global situations I have seen in my lifetime. I do imagine the world wars to be worse , and maybe even the great depression, but still a global pandemic has shown us that while we have made strides in science, nature reminds us that we are it's creation and we should respect it (or 'aukaat mein rehne ka')

        But, there is no better time to thank technology strides made in the last 30 years, thank Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn and all the technical visionaries who have got us to a state where our life is not impacted.

       The old days were certainly good, but thank you technology for making these days better. Hope this will pass soon.