Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Travel Diaries Day 4: Tinkering Around the Edges

Train journeys are enjoyable once you resolve the dilemma of whether to concentrate on the book in your hand or on the view outside the window. However, that was not the dilemma I battled onboard the Marudhar Express from Jaipur to Jodhpur on day 4 of the Rajasthan tour.

“We need a broader concept” I said to Il Sognatore, the dreamer who also had the ability to execute his dreams.  While toying with the vague concept of giving people positive news, we stumbled upon many websites (The Better India deserves a mention) that do exactly that, and immediately let go of that idea.

At this point, the talk shifted to content in general –web serieses or videos, spoofs  that offered a unique take on the Indian society, and the like. Here, there was an interesting place for product positioning.

As opposed to the mainstream media, there are no censors on the Internet. As a result, a lot of bold, and sometimes a little offensive content is broadcast. There is content which is provocative, designed to incite fear or satirical content that comments on pressing social issues of the day. The point is better illustrated by Professor Marcia Stepanek of Columbia University in her article “Algorithms of Fear”. She states that media companies are increasingly using provocative content to capture and hold people’s attention. They are stocking people’s fears and this has affected the quality of online discourse. What the Internet needs today is “civility, resiliency, and broader civic engagement”.

“So are we offering things such as motivational posters or videos?” The dreamer’s small bloodshot eyes narrowed in thought.

“No. Don’t give people anything that excites them in any way. Instead, calm them down.” I suddenly knew where we could make a stand and grow.

There are websites and pages that give motivational material. There are sites that give positive news. But what if you get well-researched videos and podcasts (because I make typos while writing) about positive trends? What if there is a humorous web series that talks about values instead of highlighting social issues? And when I say values, I mean values that are relevant to today’s day and age, such as calmness, minimalism, and detachment taught by Buddha. Where others are bold, radicle, and vulgar, we could be calm, down-to-earth, and sankaari! ( at this point, we slipped into a vivid daydream about how appointing Alok Nath as our brand ambassador, but later learned that Babuji is now launching an adult chat show (named Sinskari!) interviewing celebrities about their dirty secrets.)

“We are a firm that “sells” optimism, minimalism, calmness, and detachment.” A shiver of excitement ran through my body. The Dreamer, however remained sober and shifted instead into a pensive mood.

“The plan looks good on the surface, my friend” he whispered, careful not to ruin the happy moment but certainly driving his point home “but how do we monatise it? How do we rake in piles of money while selling the slogan “less is more”?

Upon hearing this question, I was overcome with appreciation and pride for my cunning friend. He was not at all uncomfortable with what could be perceived as hypocrisy – taking your money and telling you to spend less. Instead the shrewd lawyer chose to focus on how best to do it.

Before we could address that issue however, the train had pulled into Jodhpur station and we had to disembark. We stepped out into a terrible, stormy night, and what happened next deserve a story of its own.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Travel Diaries day 3 & 5: Story Within a Story

What? Were you expecting a proper structure? You won’t find that here, because the current order makes the journey more sensible.

The third day of the grand tour begins at Bangaluru’s International Airport where I’m sitting at 7:00 in the morning, cursing the airline company that rescheduled our 4:30 pm flight to 8:30 am. While waiting for the flight, I spot two gentlemen who look like they are from Southeast Asian countries and head over there to eavesdrop on their conversation.  They are having a conversation about major companies.

The first guy, let’s call him Lee, was making a comment about Google. The company, he said is facing high attrition among its employees as they leave to start their own ventures. Employees are sort of using major firms to get good money, knowledge and exposure before they start their own businesses. The second man looked Indian but his accent gave the impression that he was an NRI.
Replying to Lee’s comment, he said that the way people see companies has been changing over the years. Boardrooms are becoming less secretive and opaque than the past as the print as well as social media talks more and more about how companies are being governed.

It was this conversation that foiled all my attempts to resist sleep.

We hit Amber fort straight away after arriving in Jaipur. Jaipur, by the way, is the kingdom of the famed Mirza Raje Jaisingh who cajoled Shivaji into visiting Agra. The guide at Amber fort, Jaisingh’s home, told me that because Jaysingh had promised that he won’t be harmed in Agra, the latter’s son Ramsingh helped Shivaji escape. Marathi people who were there did not agree to this version of the story. Also, according to the sound and light show at the fort, the Kachwaha Rajputs shifted their capital from Amber to Jaipur in 1726 to escape attacks from guess who? The Marathas. That’s right. We are the villains in their story, folks.

We visited the City Palace the next day, and below is the thread for that,

 But what I really want to share with you is an idea I had when I visited Mehrangarh Fort on day 5.

We got there just as the fort was closing. The audio guide stall was closed, and we just had to roam the fort on our own. It is an intimidating structure which has about 4 floors, three levels of high walls, and seven gates. The walls form dark, narrow lanes which open into beautiful little courtyards surrounded by intricately carved buildings. The fort witnessed a major siege by the forces of Jaipur in 1806, but held out to the end, crippling the enemy.

Mehrangarh is a true testament to the Rajput culture of war, and that brings me to the core idea: story within a story.

Visiting Mehrangarh brought back an old story idea I had. It had originally come to me when I once stumbled upon an interesting Wikipedia entry about an abandoned African town called Kolmanskop.

Here’s the idea: A magician suddenly appears in a desert and starts building a city.
Who is he? Why is he building the city?

Mehrangarh unlocked some of these answers, and the story just took off.

It is still a developing idea, but who says a story has to be complete or structured? Why not try to enjoy some weird incomplete ideas?

So here goes:

The magician (inspired by Dr Strange) is building the city (which looks exactly like Mehrangarh)  for a secret society of warrior-assassins called “Shantidoot” (meaning messengers of peace; inspired by the Assassin’s Creed). What people do not know is that the society is led by the country’s crown prince who is a shrewd and practical as a fox despite his noble goals. The prince, let’s call him Chakradwaj, (after Lord Vishnu)  does not agree with the policies of his father and the conventional values of his nation’s society which values war, sacrifice, and honour to a fault (like the Rajputs). The country is at war with its neighbour as their ancestral books say that a city deep inside the territory of that neighbouring country is sacred land promised to their people (Israel-Palestine). This has led the army led by the king’s cousin to become powerful and thrown the country’s economy into ruins (think Pakistan)

The prince wants to give up the claim on that city, establish trade with the other country, and bring peace and prosperity. Also, he wants to change the ways of his people, making them value knowledge and logic over foolish notions of bravery and honour. To that end, he has a two-fold plan:

1. Assassinate major arms traders, politicians, and military suppliers from both sides and disrupt arms trade.
2. Facilitate research that will make food and scientific technology cheaper,reducing prices and encouraging innovation that would drive people away from war and towards prosperity.

The secret city in the desert is his base operations.

So, how does Prince Chakradhwaj achieve his goals? What challenges does he face?

These two questions remain unsolved. Maybe they will be solved later or maybe they won't. But who said a story has to be complete in order for you to enjoy it? Instead, why not celebrate an incomplete idea? It's a curious and exciting point to stop, don't you think?

FAQs and forgotten threads:

Q: Where is day 4?
A: Day 4 and 6 were spent in train journey from Jaipur to Jodhpur and Jodhpur to Jaipur respectively and it will be dealt with in a separate post later.

Forgotten thread:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Travel Diaries Day 1 & 2: Striving To Do Nothing

Bangaluru. The most dynamic city in the world.  If you speak to a traveller who has visited the city, he will tell you of futuristic buildings, beautiful gardens, and vibrant culture of the city. Bangaluru has all that, and more, I agree, but the story of my first day in the city begins with a garrulous, pesky auto driver.

We met this autowallah outside Blossom bookstore (more about that in this Twitter thread) and rather than drop us to the location we wanted, he insisted we go check out a jewelry store so he may earn his commission. Ultimately, since he quoted a fare far less than the metered rate, we agreed to visit the shop. When the time came to do this however, we went in through the front door, walked out of the back door, and waited for some time before making our way back to the auto driver. To our chagrin, he now insisted that he would show us significant sights around the city for a fixed amount of money. Although we surrendered before his pestering then, I am now exacting revenge by giving his phone number to all the dubious websites on the internet that I can think of.

Anyway, we returned to the hotel after the irritating pest scooted us around some tourist sites, and got busy downloading pictures and writing blog posts till late night.
The second day dawned with a brilliant plan, and much hope of perfectly executing it.

However, some of my Goan friends in the city had learned of my presence here from the social media updates, and an old school friend of mine called to meet up. This was the second best, most rewarding meeting of my life because I found out that the aforementioned friend now works with a firm which provides data tracking software to the government of India. He is one of the many ‘digital spies’ who are the eyes and years of governments around the world in the digital realm.  We spent half the day talking about old times and new dreams and he departed for duty after lunch, leaving ‘S’ and me to figure out what to do next.

The lawyer then spent considerable time in different bookstores looking for a book titled “The Art of Cross-Examination” by Francis Wellman, but could not find it anywhere, and I ended up impulsively buying “The Pigeon Tunnel” by John Le Carre.  After that, we just hung out in a mall that I can’t remember the name of before returning to the hotel for a simple south Indian dinner and retired for the night.

We actually had plans to visit some nice rooftop cafes in Bangaluru but the plan could not materialize because of a little airline company called Air Costa. It was the only company that offered a cheap direct flight from Bangaluru to Jaipur at the very convenient time of 4:30 pm.Unfortunately, the 4:30 flight was suddenly rescheduled to 8:30 am, which is 8 hours early! Receiving this info on our first day in Bangaluru also played a part in ruining that day, but the leathery autowalla still takes the prize.

A note on Pottery Town

Our first day in the city actually began with a visit to pottery town, Bangaluru. According to the Internet, it is one of the best locations for photography, and Il Sognatore wanted to explore it. We thought it would be a posh area full of handicraft emporiums et al, but it turned out to be a humble settlement of potters. The Dreamer spent many hours studying the activity there before taking just 4-5 pictures. For me it was a royal waste of time. But it was still less irritating than the autowllah.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Travel Diaries Day 0: An Idea is Born

Picture courtesy: Adv. Soumitra Kundaikar
The first day of a multi-city trip has ended in Bangaluru.  Despite doing a lot of things and having some weird writing ideas, I am stuck at the beginning of the blog post. I don’t want a typical travelogue describing places, or a plain chronicle of activities. Instead, I will tell you the story of my intrepid travel-buddy whose emotional quotient is close to zero (a fact that he is proud of) and who often gives yours truly a run for his money in coming up with radical and ridiculous ideas.

“I have been thinking a lot about the concept of time and space lately” said the travel buddy as our plane took off. (He made very little sense to me and I am struggling to put his thoughts in words, so please bear with me.) “Time and space are related. Time is a measure of how fast ‘space’ moves a certain distance- space-as in a particular point of reference to which the mass moves. So, if you travel faster, and approach closer to the speed of light, time will slow down for you.” (If this felt a little heavy to digest, I apologise.)

I however, was in no mood to process such things. There was something else I wanted from this brilliant man. I had an idea; a solution to a pressing problem. It is still being worked on and this man in the key in the solution because he is blessed with high degree of emotional insensitivity and thus can ‘play’ with ideas without succumbing to pressure. But for that, he must first fall in love with the idea. And because he lives in the realm of path-breaking ideas, I call this man Il Sognatore, Italian for The Dreamer. (The Italian word is an inside joke among friends; I will explain later. Also, the man will be referred to as the Dreamer, or simply as ‘S’, which is short for Sognatore )

Here’s my idea:

After spending seven years working in the media, I had felt that negativity has become mainstream in industry. Mass media began as a mechanism to expose the flaws of our society but it has done nothing more than to spread fear and insensitivity in the society. People need encouragement and solutions to problems; we just give them a frightening description. Journalism needs to change.

Now, if I get this man excited about the idea, he will see to it that it is executed.

“This is an excellent idea!” the man wallowed like a baby elephant upon hearing the proposal. ““I think negativity has become mainstream because no one sells optimism in the kind of attractive packaging they have for the thrilling and disturbing content.”

As we deliberated on how best to make positive content look cool, the plane landed on Bangaluru’s Kempegowda International airport. It was a posh modern space sprawling with sophisticated people rushing to various destinations around the world. Branded outlets selling overpriced wears, neon signs, beaming faces in advertisements; all designed to make you very happy. But there is something else that makes me love big international airports. You get to overhear many intriguing conversations in the check-up lines and waiting lounges. In fact I have a very weird memory associated with Kempegowda airport in that regard.

I was waiting for a connecting flight on my way to Goa from Calcutta, and a few paces away from me sat two engineers on their way to the US. Their conversation told me that one of them was just back from Afghanistan! He worked for an American firm that supplied medical machinery to hospitals and the company had sent him to Afghanistan to supervise the setup of a new hospital there. He was given a bulletproof car with a driver, a nice bungalow, and two personal security guards who had become his good friends. This could provide juicy material for a story but who has patience to research on life in the Middle East?

A tap on the shoulder by ‘S’ brought me out of the reverie. “I have an idea.” He was staring at a large board displaying a face cream advertisement. “You could start a blog, a website, or a Youtube channel to start giving positive content, but it will take a lot of time till your message is heard. We need to ‘sell’ optimism, and that is a job for a business entity. A firm.”

“What are you trying to suggest?” oblivious to the brick that was about to hit me in the face, I walked calmly to the Ola Zone outside airport. “What if…” ‘S’ spit out the gum he had been chewing on board the plane. “What if we start our own partnership firm?”

I did not, could not immediately respond to that. ‘S’ is a criminal lawyer who is tired of the dark and brutal legal world and wants to try something new.  Starting a firm was his long cherished dream, but he did not know what exactly he wanted to do. Now I realised I might have just given him the answer.

The Dreamer is an honest man and a good friend, but I have some concerns about entering into business with him.

He and I have been friends for a decade, but we disagree on several issues. He is atheist libertarian; I am right-winged liberal. I am deeply influenced by the Slow Movement and Essentialism, and a bout of serious hyperacidity from overwork and overthinking has made me completely averse to stress. The Sognatore on the other hand loves high-pressure environment, chases uber life and pursues fast financial growth. We have remained friends despite all this because he does not impose his beliefs on others. He lives his life, you live yours. But in case we become business partners, he could drag me down a path of speed, risk, and pressure, and our disagreements could have catastrophic effect on our relations as well as the business (if we set one up).

These thought were running through my mind as the cab rolled ahead with the speed of a snail. Bangaluru looks posh and modern but is notorious for traffic jams. According to GPS, it would take us an hour and half to cover the 30-kilometer distance to the hotel. The cab driver was even more pessimistic than the GPS and pegged his estimate at two-and-a-half hours. Two hours after landing, we were still 15 kilometres away from our hotel, and we had avoided the Subway sandwiches available at the airport in the hope of catching an authentic South-Indian Dosa when we got to the hotel.We arrived after three hours, half dead from hunger.

The hotel stood close to the famous Snow World in Bangaluru, and true to its pictures on the Internet, the room was a clean, tidy place with free wifi. Unfortunately, we discovered that the hotel did not have its own restaurant. So, now we were back on the road fiddling with GPS on the phone, trying to search restaurants. The closest comparatively decent eatery was two kilometres away, and our plan to hire an auto thwarted by traffic congestion, we walked the whole distance.
Then we had a Dosa, hired an auto back to the hotel, and fell flat as soon as we were in our room.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Writer's Life in Six Haikus

Friday, November 11, 2016

Let it Flow!

I have been thinking for the past few months about why I have been unable to make any progress with part II of my book ‘Cool but Confused” (which I intend to re-launch under new title when it catches my fancy again). Problem-solving is fun (my own problems; not those of others). I mull over issue for months, even years, and at times it seems that the trail has gone cold. The solutions often come just as other people have forgotten the issue; circumstances have changed, and I have developed a new perspective over the long period of time that has passed. Also, you become detached with things after long period of time and that makes it easy to swiftly implement solutions that seemed brutal before.

So, here’s what came up after the little thinking exercise.

The characters in my previous book are based on friends who have been by my side since the last 20 years. The stories in it were based on the experiences they shared with me at various points during those long years of bonding. Even though it was written in just a year, I might have been unconsciously researching for a long time for that book.

Two years on, many interesting things have happened, but I need time to process information, dilute the facts and fuse multiple experiences so their origins become untraceable. That can only happen with passage of time.

I never take notes because of this. I don’t like to cling to memories and people, and re-reading old diaries just makes you realise how stupid you were in the past. You do not need a diary to remember forever the memories that impact you deeply. The colours of pain and joy mix over the years and the story unfolds in layers as you write. I only write a story about an experience if it stays with me for a long time. If it is trivial, I am not going to waste my time and that of the reader by noting it down and writing about it –and therein lies the impediment in the path of Project X (tentative name for my next book).

I have had many experiences but very few of them are worth remembering. It is not writer’s block. It is a drawback of my creative process and I must live with it. I am also working on improving that process. I spent a lot of time overthinking whether or not to feature my imaginary friends in my book, and ultimately decided I should leave it to the readers to decide (please see the poll). I will continue to spend a long time over ideas and write slowly but consistently; only, I will mull over more meaningful ideas and stop pushing myself to write.

I am letting it flow when it wishes to, and yes, it is flowing!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Of Roots and Wings

People migrate from place to place in search of good life. They seek better employment opportunities, more opulent houses and what not, and thus go from Goa to Delhi to Washington.

In my opinion, if you want a good life, stay in one place. Take roots. That gives you a chance to cultivate people. Building networks and staying with them is perhaps more important than just running where the money takes you. Ten years down the line, you suddenly discover that your bench-mate in school has now become a police inspector; that girl who always lended you notes has become a teacher, and the conductor of that bus you take to office every day is none other than that back-bencher who pretended to be the cool dude of the class.

Moving places prevents you from strengthening these networks. One might say Whatsapp and social media help maintain friendships. True, but they do not strengthen them. Nothing equals the joy of pouring out your mind after the day’s work to that old friend who has been by your side for ten years. And the satisfaction of actually sharing the load of repairing the house with your father , and watching the pride and relief in his eyes matters a lot more than sending him lots of money and an “I am there for you” message on Whatsapp from some faraway metro city.

Sharing our joy and sorrow gives us strength, and when we have deep connections and understanding built over long years, these networks help share and solve our problems quicker, and give us a happier life in the long run. Also, when you stay at one place, you do not have to waste time learning about the culture and society of the place. There are no shocks. You can concentrate on things that really matter. Absence of culture shocks helps save tremendous mental and physical strength, and old and strong networks, as I said before help one rejuvenate quickly after setbacks.

Staying in one place may not get you the fast life or the ├╝ber life, but it gives you a sound life that develops and blossoms at a slow and steady pace, like a beautiful flowering plant.