Archive for the ‘Life etc.’ Category

Reminiscing…

Traveler’s Destiny

Monk to Asoka “You are not an ordinary human being. You seem to have a great destiny.” “What is my destiny? To rule? To be a great king?”, asks Asoka.  “No, even bigger than that”, says the Monk. “Whose destiny is bigger than even kings”, asks Asoka. Monk, “ A traveler’s destiny, when he completes his journey.”  – from the film Asoka.

We are travelers, moving away from the single source we originated from billions of years ago. While we have no or little control over the need to move away, from the one original source, we do have the innate need within us to go back, in our own different ways. The desire to go back to our roots, from the point we started our own min-journeys in this super journey of human kind and life itself, is something that defines us.  How we deal with this basic desire, defines in a great deal, what we make of this life span.

The year was 1985, Indira Gandhi had just died, one of her murderers still being tried in court. Rajeev Gandhi was still the hope of new India and still talked about taking India into 21st century. In the summer of 1985, I set foot on the border of my village catching a bus for the first time. Little I knew that the journey I was starting on, was to continue on and one to longer and longer distances, farther and farther away, to places I hadn’t even heard before. Every step I took, corner I turned, every place I left behind, I it got fainter and fainter but the hope always stayed in my heart with a wish to go back, some day.

I was well into my adult life until I kept seeing the first house I grew up in, in my dreams. The house would be there in very vivid colors and I would be able see and almost touch every bit of detail. The smell, the texture, the trunks, the trash everything would show up. Not only that, I could close my eyes any time and transport myself back inside the house, live there for a minute or two before returning back to present moment. Then suddenly one day, I realize that I was losing those brain cells on which the house of my early years was imprinted upon. I was finding it harder and harder to remember the details; it was slipping away from me. It was not the best house, I would live in bigger and better houses, but this was the house I was born in, this is where I came from and not being able to recall the source as clearly was disconcerting at first.

Now, I remember the house through this poetry of Gulzar sab. I have no idea what Gulzar sab is describing here, but it sounds to me as if he is describing my first house, the house I left far behind, whose sand print is almost gone.

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To be continued…

Ek Hulchul Si

It’s rare that we get a perfect film soundtrack in Hindi film industry. Dev D is one such album. The problem with a perfect album is that there are so many gems in it, not every one of them gets its due. Ek Hulchul si, didn’t quite get the attention it deserves, because there were bigger catchier numbers in the album such as Emotional Atyachaar and Saali Khushi.

Try listening to this golden nugget, in high volume in your car, on a long drive.

Agar dil mein hulchul na jage de to kehna

Enjoy!

Kash Laga!

Zindagi ke kash laga

Hasrataron ke rakh udaa

….

Choodi hui bastuyan jata hun bar bar ghoom ghoom ke

Milte nahi hain nishan, chhode the dehleeze choom choom ke

Only Gulzar saab can write like that!

Only Vishal Bhardwaj can compose like that!

Only Daler Mehdi and Sukhwinder can sing like that!

You’ll have to watch the whole film, if you want to make sense of the video.

Business of Religion

Lord Tirupati opens an offsite campus, for its devotees in Bay Area, California. I couldn’t believe my ears when I first heard it. It exactly sounded like it is, an infomercial about a top tier business school opening a campus right in your neighborhood.  A gruffy man in thick telugu accent was explaining how on very bhaari demand from devotees, Lord Tirupati will make an appearance right here Bay Area where His thousands of less fortunate devotees (from spiritual perspective) will be able to darshanam and offer their prayers and hard earned money to the Lord.

I am always intrigued by the business of religion, but it never hit me in the nose until a few years back. It’s one of those transformations you undergo when you turn from an I into an NRI. Back in India, religion is everywhere, it’s in the air you breathe, the water you drink. The point is you don’t notice the organized business like structur around religion. You fool yourself that you are doing it all voluntarily, nobody is selling you anything. You visit the temple on Tuesday because you want to. You offer prasad simply because your parents always taught you and it gave you a good feeling, not because the temple on the main nukkad and the crowd in it on Tuesdays gave you a guilty feeling that you are not remembering your Gods. You do get a bit uneasy when you get hit by the nosy and obnoxious pandas at Haridwar or any other religious place, but you ignore them as exceptions. But, here in the land of the westerners, where you are trying to retain the last few traces of Hinduism in you, to be able to pass onto your off springs so that they remember who they are when you are long gone, the business aspect of the religion is very hard to ignore. You realize that in the world of super powerful capitalism, everything is business. The Panditji you hire for doing small puja at your place has a day job and tells you his rate list for various rituals you may want to perform. You can ignore the first panditji you meet and go around asking for a more authentic pujari who has slightly bigger portion of the day dedicated to the service of the God, instead of writing Java code, hoping that the puja will be more effective and more authentic Gods will show up. Then you realize that this new panditji who didn’t tell you his price in the first meeting and said, “de dena, jo apka man kare” (Give whatever you feel like) was only better and more suave at his business. You realize that you ended up paying more money to him than the one with the rate list. What more, you realize that he has a way to upsell you to get more money out of your pocket. I once went to one such panditji and asked for advice to calm some grihas (planets for Hinglish), as we were going through some tough time and parents from India advised that we visit a panditji. I was taken aback when I was offered 5 different types of pujas, depending on how much peace I was looking for. I thought I was the one looking for advice here, but it I soon came to terms with the fact that I am in America where there is a choice for everything.

I then met a panditji whose holy attire convinced me that this is the Godman I was looking for. He was always dressed up only in a white dhoti, any time of the day you meet him. And, his house in Sunnyvale spelled religion. The auspicious atmosphere, the smell of agarbatti burning all the time and the cleanliness made you conscious of even your own breadth. I invited panditji couple of times to my place and he was perfect, did everything per the procedure, sang shlokas in pure Sanskrita and he even sang Om Jai Jagdish Hare perfectly, which I was a bit surprised about as he was a typical South Indian Brahmin, with limited knowledge of Hindi. I thought, what the heck, may be  Om Jai Jagdish became popular in South India too, after Rani Mukherjee sang it in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. My wife was a bit more skeptical; she thought he was adapting his marketing skills to be more appealing to his North Indian clientele.  I had one of those moments with wife, where you feel like saying, “Oh honey, you know nothing and I know what I am doing, so don’t worry”. Overtime pandtiji cajoled us for regular visit to the mini-temple in his house on Friday nights. On couple of the occasions I went, I was amazed to see the crowd in his small house and the garage that had been converted into a temple. There was puja, there was aarati and of course there was food. Before long, I learned that Panditji had now built his own full blown temple and was the defacto head of this new temple and wasn’t available for house calls as he was too busy. I used to keep getting chain emails and occasional cold calls from his devotees, after the full blown temple was set up. And then we had another one of those moments where wife says, “see, i told you in advance and i was right”.

Have you ever seen a better business strategy? Build early customer successes, convert them into references, spread through the word of mouth, leverage your early customers to scale up, grow and expand and before you know you are a large corporation, listed on Nasdaq.

When we came to Bay Area in 2000, there were two major Hindi temples. One was a church converted into temple and the other a brand new construction from scratch. Being the naïve, Hindu Indian, it made perfect sense to me and I felt like saying , “Amreeka is great”. After all, people need religion as a way of life and two temples made a lot of sense, keeping in mind the size of the Hindu population. Overtime, we saw new temples creeping up in every corner of Bay Area. If demand exists, supply would show up, says basic principle of market economics and in this case, we were seeing almost a glut of supply. And yet, every temple was doing thriving business. Even in the midst of the recession, when restaurants started going empty even on weekend nights, temples would always be full and of course their demands for extra donation wouldn’t slow down.  Gods are not easy to please and their service costs money. The temple in the church, ran a long running fund raising campaign for further construction and raised humongous amount of money. We paid our share too, it just felt good and all of a sudden we felt grown up and mature because we were contributing to a temple construction, first time in our lives. The temple committee ran hard to resist offers. For mere $11, you could offer a brick. Now isn’t that better than even the Godfather offer, the one that you can’t refuse. In fact if I remember, so impressed I was by the sincerity and commitment of the temple committee that I sold the plan to many of my friends and appealed to the guilt in their minds and forced them to donate.

Construction did take place, we got a new façade, that made the temple look more like temple and less like church. Of course, the original walls were kept intact, the carpet from church days stayed and so did the benches in the halls. The bathrooms also remained intact as they were too scared to be remodeled, after all they were blessed by Gods of two religions. But a lot of construction did take place in the back side of the temple, the side you cannot see and the side where the temple houses its priests and other staff. Some of the atheists may find faults with that, but hey people serving God also need places to live, don’t they? And, what’s your problem, you did get your receipt and claimed tax exemption it, didn’t you?

Hinduism is not the only religion run as an organized business. Christianity and Islam have been doing it for centuries. Even though Hinduism is supposed to be the oldest religion, Christianity developed most of the business principles that then got adopted by other religions over time. But unlike Hinduism, Chritianity is run like a monopolistic, all powerful business empire, with big money and strong lobbyists in every part of the world. Any slight bit of resistance is quashed easily by all means, mostly bought by money in this day and time. Hinduism is a little less control freak and anybody and everybody is allowed to set up a shop, associate themselves with any of the hundreds of big brands from Shiva, Vishnu and Lord Hanuman to countless others. Hinduism is like Indian democracy, anybody with slight bit of ambition and entrepreneurial skills can start a part or set up a temple and secure the future of the next 7 generations of his family.

There is a positive side to organized Hindusim too. Even big brands like Tirupati or Vaishnodevi have a big volunteer side to them. Big business houses or people who believe that the almighty has been generous to them, donate lot of money and offer services to young and old, rich and poor who visit the place from far and wide. On the positive side, they don’t try to control anyone or advertize to anyone to come and visit them. The brands exist and keep growing stronger every year because of the faith in people’s heart.

Coming back to Tirupati, I didn’t mean to disrespect or hurt the feelings of the believers. I visited Tirupati once and like any other big shrine in India, Tirupati was full of devotees from far and wide who had come there on their own, without anyone telling them or advertising to them. The temple is obviously very rich, keeping in mind how much money gets offered by rich and poor and the management does an excellent job of keeping order. When I went there, I stood in a line that took 4-5 hours after which I found myself locked inside a big hall. I enquired around after finding someone who could speak Hindi and was told I was in hall number 26. There were 25 halls before me, full of people in them and our turn would come after they were done. It was almost like going to a ball game or IPL game, whichever one you like. There were vendors selling idlis and other snacks. After waiting for another 2-3 hours, I panicked, climbed the netty wall and jumped on the other side of the hall way. Two security personnel came and I requested them to just escort me out as I was no longer interested in darshanam and had to get back to Chennai, then Madras for my job next day. The security personnel showed pity on me and I was asked to get in another line that took only 3 more hours to reach the deity. I got my 3 seconds in front of the deity before I got ushered away, politely yet forcefully. Later I learned that I could have completed the whole process if I had paid some extra money and got into a different line, instead of the line for common men.

My experience of going to Vaishnodevi, was equally full of heroic tales. The hero was my newly married wife back then, because of whom I was visiting the temple for the first time in my life. She was heroic for tolerating me for the entire duration of 14 mile hike while I cribbed and whined the whole way. There it was not the wait, probably because we had gone in off season, but the sheer length of the hike to get there that made me panic.

I do not have any personal problems with religions being run as organized business, as long as they don’t turn into an organized mafia like business or try to control or kill people. I try to stay conscious of the fact that I came to the temple for a specific purpose and should not get distracted by the rampant commercialism around me. After all, they are not forcing me. They are appealing to the guilt inside me, but making the whole act very dramatic so that you end up offering more than you came planned for. But hey, that’s still better than some religions that turn people into killing machines or try to overtake people’s daily lives. Besides, organized business nature of the religion makes it accountable to the clientale in some direct or indirect form. But still, the idea of bringing Tirupati maharaj to Bay Area is a bit too ludicrous. Leave Lord Tirupati alone, please! Let people come to Him, they way always have.

Radio, 1170 AM

1170  AM, Desi Radio in Bay Area

Back in 2000 when I was waiting for my H1 visa to arrive, I used to have long-distance conversations with the HR head of the company I was about to join (this is for you Sampath Sir). One of his key selling points to me used to be about the quality of life for a Desis living in California, particularly in San Francisco Bay Area. He used to talk about how everything that a Desi needs is now available in a nearby desi store. The example he gave that excited me the most was about Bidi. Not that I used to smoke Bidi when I was in India, but the idea that even bidi was available in the far away land called America, made me feel so excited at that time.

Despite all the reassurances from Sampath sir, we still brought dals, spices and Maggie packets in our suitcase when arrived. Wife was following her cousin’s prophetic advice who lived in Minneapolis, a land of primarily white people, very different from sunny California. A year or two later when we were returning from our second trip back home, the custom officer at San Francisco airport asked “Do you any jeera in your suitcase sir?” It was so creepy, I tell you.

Anyway, here we are, 10 years later, in the land of opportunity, with our hits and misses and still surviving. The latest addition to our desi life in bay area is a radio channel, our own radio mirchi. We first learned about it from our nanny and I dismissed it immediately as my previous experience with Desi radio wasn’t as exciting. There was a Hindi radio that used to run on weekends at 1450 am and it was pathetic. The quality of programming was really bad, the RJs were horrible and most of the programs were filled with ads of Naaz cinema. But I gave 1170 am a try anyway and was pleasantly surprised.

It was sweet to hear old Hindi songs on Radio again, kind of reminded me of those days when power used to go out and we used to listen to radio in the dark, Vividh Bharti and all. And, surprise, surprise, the quality of programming was quite good. So far, I have mostly listened to Morning Masti with some Mitra as the RJ and Sham ka safar with Seema Mahajan, both very good at RJ’ing. Both of them do a professional job, have good voice quality and their impromptu comments are very good.

It’s also quite interesting to hear real desis calling into the station and making random comments. The other day some old uncle called in and was telling stories of the day when they had to book a long distance call, once a month to call India and how the call used to go through trunk calls booked through New York-Bombay, Bombay Nagpur and all. He the ended the story with how he used to cry every time he used to make that call every month. It was quite heartfelt.

The only downside of the radio station 1170 am is the prominence of dentists as the advertisers. There is Pannu dental giving his comments on air (or Panny real estate, which I believe is the same guy, who changes profession depending on the day of the week).  There is Dr. Uppal on some days and Dr. Dhuppal on other days, all of them dentists, and they do take the liberty of connecting everything from heart disease and depression to teeth problems. I hope they will keep the ads limited and mainatain the quality of the programs.

If they even maintain the current quality of the programming and Mitraji and Seema Mahajan are kept on air, 1170 am is here to stay.