Thursday, March 23, 2006

South africa - One Week sojourn


Visit to any new country always evokes a curiosity. South Africa was also no exception. This was my first visit to any country in southern hemisphere where summer occurs from December to February and winter from June to August. For me, it was the end of the summar and beginning of winter. Second part of the curiosity was to hear stories about apartheid. A word, not english but come from Africaans meaning ‘separation’.

My visit was to cover cape town and johanneburg. The word ‘ cape of good hope’ brought memories of history school book british/portugese/spanish seafarer’s pictures (sea bandits under royal tutelage !!) on the edge of their wooden warships with single lens telescope in search of an Indian coast but would give up the chase assuming as a dead end of the earth. Other than apartheid, rugby, cricket, mahatma gandhi’s ashram in durban and in recent years mugging stories and cape wines; I had not much of inkling what to expect in this visit.

Arrival at J’burg( that’s what locals call) airport tarmac, cool air filled my lungs . It is so energetic to be in a climate that of 20-25degree. Transfer from international to domestic is much the same manner as of Delhi airport, wherein you walk with luggage trolley. But similarity ends there.Domestic airport is modern, spacious and convenient with parking building adjacent to the airport and wide conveyor belt escalators instead of cramped electric elevators and staircase escalators. It doesn’t take long to notice that 90% of the airborne passengers are whites while 90% airlines staff across the counters are black. Construction workers are all black.The economic gap was evident in stark contrast.

My Park Inn hotel in CapeTown was in down town – next to the green market open square. By morning, local africans would set up shops selling wooden african art and dismantle by the evening. Pebbled streets, rectangular criss cross of roads leading to the green turfed table mountain- this is very much an western eurpoean city. In the evening, walking past deserted streets with closed shops with an exception of multicuisine restaurants filled with foreigners, I felt I was in Germany or Austria. But fear of mugging was always at the back of my mind. Hotel room too resembled european touch, small room with space just to fit suitcase, dressing table, ward robe but with coiled heater along the large rectangular window panes gave me a feeling of being in Nice in France. Most of my two days went in attending conference at Hotel Cape and cocktail parties in the evening. I heard from everyone about waterfront, cable car ride to the table mountain, boat ride to the confluence of atlantic and indian ocean to see sharks, driving past vineyards along the Cape Region Wine route and the list went on. I was disappointed of not sightseeing any of these exotic places in Cape Town in this trip but with the emerging business prospects, it is just matter of time I make another trip to this wonderful place soon.

J’burg – is a huge city and remarkably different than most capital cities. Nowhere, I come across any capital city with huge expansive undulating mountainous landscape as this city. Roads are big, classy and houses are immaculate with courtyard in the front. City is green and grass is well mowed. This place is very American in every way. Seeing black population all around – one feels of being in Louisiana or any other lower American states. I was staying in Sandton- a place that has many restaurants, shopping boulevards and hotels. Visit to Nelson Mandela square was memorable. This square is like Brussels plazza or Pompidou Square in Paris with huge 6 meter Nelson Mandela statue sculpted in bronze. There is a public library on one side, chain of Italian, Thai, Mexican and specialty cuisine restaurants on two sides with adjacent modern mall. The ambience inside is like being in Japanese but devoid of any paintings or murals. A friend of mine mentioned “they would be pilfered the very next day”. Next to the square is tall hotel building “Michael Angelo” that can be noticed across far flung areas of J’burg.

An unexpected public holiday in the form of Human Rights Day gave me an opportunity to see the countryside of South Africa with an opportunity to mingle with South African Indians and observe their lifestyle. I visited the place ‘brits’ a place app. 90min drive from J’burg on way to Pretoria. Journey to ‘brits’ can never be tiring with green tops stretching to the horizon with winding roads along the hilly areas give panoramic view. Most of the tall trees appear along the mountain ridge thereby giving a clear and unrestricted view of the expansive landscape. The greenery is not as lush as in Scotland but its very soothing green with tinge of yellow. Most of the townships are row of houses huddle together with red tile roof.

As one approach ‘Brits’ one gets strong feeling of colonial presence. I was told that this place was a nerve center of white regime and center of apartheid. Mountains here appear to have been cut and sculpted in perfection. Crocodile reservoir with a monument similar to ‘arc de triumph’ along the bridge of sluice gate of dam is very picturesque. Indian ness among Indian origin descendents is preserved everywhere in the world but current south African Indian community who are past their fourth generation and with no link whatsoever with India have nurtured cultural and religious beliefs despite being adapted modern lifestyle. I was touched when a teenage boy carrying the key chain with an emblem of ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ and referring him as’ Gandhi Bapu’. The word ‘Gandhi Bapu’ somehow evoked more filial feeling than ‘Mahatma Gandhi’, an overused term by Indian corrupt politicians. A ride around Brits Township gave me a glimpse of lifestyle prevailing during apartheid regime. White, Black and Indian townships were clearly separated across railway lines. White on one side and others on the opposite. A school in Indian township resembled my very own school in bandra, with faded yellow plastered walls and wooden beams supported by red (now become crimson- black) colored tiles. White township has a layout with bigger shops, parking lots. Road along the railway line of the black community, had shops under one story row of cement blocks that sold anything from automobile parts to indian garments. It brought images of “cry the beloved country”. What I liked about the South African young generation – be it white or others is a mindset to address the issue of apartheid without an inhibition but with an objective insight. It’s a good sign to bury the past by getting out of one’s system of prejudices and hatred that was ingrained over the generations. I wish Indian’s do the same about ‘casteism’ that is deep rooted in our society.

I was relieved when I returned from brits before the sunset. As soon as I arrived in the room, I took away my wallet, mobile and watch. Just took little local currency and sped across the street to reach ‘select’ store of ‘shell ‘petrol pump to buy stuff for my next day breakfast. Hardly have I ever been so conscious of anyone around me waiting to get me mugged!!. This fear was nurtured by everyone in my one week stay in South Africa. It’s no news to get mugged at traffic signal by some lunatic holding a gun against your head only to attempt to rob a mobile phone or pull the trigger if he is unable to do so.

What a pity !! Such a beautiful country and people with democratic norms, yet one can’t venture out freely after dusk. In my weeklong stay in South Africa, two events occupied print space. First was accusation of rape by former South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma on a woman – an HIV carrier and an unbelievable one day cricket victory. One that showed degenerative ugly face of south Africa and the other resurging, vivacious future of south Africa. I believe this country is torn between the two. I hope bridging the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is the answer to the economic prosperity of this wonderful country and people.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

arrival in cape town

I had arrived just previous day in Cape Town and today was my first working day. When I arrived at Hotel Cape, his face looked familiar. This was despite, him wearing a cap. Cornrow style golden hair braiding on a blond skin. It took me just few seconds, to remember Andrew Symonds. As I was admiring his similarity to Symonds, another tall man figured in. This time, I knew , he was Kasporovitz. Suddenly it dawned upon me that I could be at the place where Australian team is around. Just few days ago, a marathon cricket match had culminated that turned out a world record. It was possible that Australia team be in Cape Town.

I was right. The test match was being played here. Seeing these two players getting out of hotel made me stop and look around. I saw big white bus standing to ferry the team. Just few souls were there waiting for taxi. I was wondering about scenario at Indian hotel. I looked at the bus. Gilchrist at the end of the bus was conspicuous with his nail biting. As I was figuring out the new faces in the bus, Bret Lee ushered in with his rapid strides. He is truly handsome. Wiry, lean flat stomach with cherubic skin. Standing there was making me embarrassed I started heading towards escalator, I saw Rickey Ponting, with his customary cap and teeth chewing gums – brushing past me. He was being escorted by security man. I guess, having a security is one of the fringe benefits of being captain. While on escalator, climbing up, I crossed Justin Langer who was coming down. In fact, I didn’t notice him if I had not seen him glaring at me. I wonder why? Perhaps, my face must have reminded him of Hershel Gibbs – whose epic innings of 174 out of 114 balls must be still haunting them. As I reached first floor, huge, behemoth of personality crossed me. Mathew Hayden. He is big man!!! He is strong. I could imagine his big strides to smother spin of Kumble with his pet sweep shot. Looking at him and Kasporovitz, my sympathies went to Sachin, Sehwag whose pygmy physical appearance can only be matched by sheer inborn talent. Where was Shane warne? He could be sitting on the other side of the bus.

My first working day at Cape Town – began on a nice note!!!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

boss

A junior manager, a senior manager and their boss are on their way to a meeting. On their way through a park, they come across a wonder lamp.

They rub the lamp and a ghost appears. The ghost says, "Normally, one is granted three wishes but as you are three, I will allow one wish each"

So the eager senior manager shouted, I want the first wish. I want to be in the Bahamas, on a fast boat and have no worries. "Pfufffff, and he was gone.

Now the junior manager could not keep quiet and shouted "I want to be in Florida with beautiful girls, plenty of food and cocktails. "Pfufffff, and he was also gone .

The boss calmly said," I want these two idiots back in the office after lunch at 12.35pm"
Moral of the story is: "Always allow the bosses to speak first"

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Chiang Mai - An Elephant carrying Lord Buddha's relics


Almost a decade ago, while in Oman. I had heard about Chiang Mai. Since then, I must have made at least ten trips to Bangkok but every time Chiang Mai and Phuket remained out of my reach. Pictures of elephant rides amidst the exotic greenery of Chiang Mai made yearning for this place more acute. It was coincidence that on my way to this place, I happen to see a Japanese movie shot in Chiang Mai.

Reaching one day prior to business meeting can be a good excuse to avoid jet lag but it also gives an opportunity to do some sightseeing. In my previous meeting, I spent a day at Mekong Delta after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City and then seeing Ku Chi caves as a part of ‘beating retreat’. I was hoping to see something spectacular next day and therefore immediately started rummaging through travel magazines as soon as I arrived past midnight. It became evident, most of the exotic places were out of the city limits and most day tours would start only by early morning to extend till late hours. I was in no condition to undertake grueling sightseeing after Eight hours of travel time from Dubai with stop over of two hours at Bangkok and three hours time gap. I knew I had to settle for something in the city that didn’t appear to go beyond Thai Massage and shopping.

My first impression of the city was a bit disappointing. Sheraton Chiang Mai hotel room was spacious with window across the ping river- a tributary of Chao Phraya River but it had sparse water flow and whatever it had, it was dusty brown. Next day, after my b’fast, I wandered aimlessly in the nearby marketplace only to get overheated and drenched by the sun and humid weather. After cooling my body in the company of “shantaram – a journey of Australian prisoner from mumbai to Kabul”, I decided to head for ‘Night Bazaar’ – the only place in the city that comes alive after the dusk descends. Night Bazaar is similar to Pampong in Bangkok. Both sides of the street are filled with shops, restaurants that would delight any compulsive shopper. The exception was absence of nude bars. It takes 20 minutes to walk from one end of the Night Bazaar to other but can take hours if one stops and wanders the side streets or browse the shops that sell anything from trinkets, purses, sports shoes to pirated CD’s and Thai food selections adjacent to open foot massage chairs. Most of the big hotels are along this street and so are the restaurants. I visited Taj- Indian restaurant and felt cheated by the misuse of the name ‘Taj’ that had nothing in common with the Indian cuisine, Moreover it didn’t even accept credit card. A visit to the pagoda at the end of the road was welcome change to end chaotic bustle with a tranquil serenity.

Next few days went in hotel meeting room followed by sumptuous dining at exotic Thai restaurants. Last day, we went to ''Wat Phra That Doi Suthep'' a symbol of Chiang Mai at 3,250 ft above sea level, amidst wild forest bordering Myanmar. ''Wat'' means ''Temple'' in Thai, this temple has special place among Buddhist as it has relics of Lord Buddha. Story says that “relics of the Lord Buddha was placed on elephant's back and he was let to roam until he came across a place where he circled before lying down. The believers took this as auspicious place to build a commemorative place”. The temple was built in 1383 and since then, many buddhist people spread all over the world chose to house their’s/loved ones relics at this temple premises by donating money to the temple. The temple's location on top of the hill gives a all around view over the city on a clear day. Once we reach this place, one can climb either through ropeway or staircase comprising about 300 steps on foot. I chose later to test my lungs. These stairs are flanked on both sides by an elongated, wavy, dragon with multiple mouth. At the center, a large golden ''Chedi'' (''Chedi'' means ''stupa'' in Thai.) contains Holy Buddha relics. There is a popular saying that those who go to Chiang Mai without visiting Doi Suthep are no better than those who have never been to Chiang Mai at all. After reading this, I was glad that I made to this place.

One of Chiang Mai's main attraction is trekking. Numerous trekking packages of two-day/one night trek starts about an hours drive from Doi Inthanon National Park. The trek begins with 1-1/2 hours of elephant riding, followed by hike over a two day period (about three hours a day) which includes one night's stay in a White (Skor) Karen hill tribe village, and ends with a one-hour bamboo raft trip. Places like Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle, and Laos across the Mekong River are within a day’s tour from Chiang Mai.

All in all, Chiang Mai did let me carry fascinating memories of Night Bazaar, Doi Suthep and an experience of buying with a bit of skepticism, pirated DVD’s of Beautiful Mind, Munich, De Vinci Code, and Memoirs of Geisha for 80 baht each. When I reached Bangkok and tried these with DVD player in my Amari Watergate hotel. I was in store for pleasant surprise. They were as crisp as original!!!.

Friday, March 10, 2006

one eyed justice : By Khushwant Singh

All over the world the goddess of Justice is shown blind-folded holding evenly balanced scales in one hand and a sword in the other. The meaning is quite clear: Justice does not discriminate between people according to their status in society or wealth and is even-handed in using the sword of punishment to those who break the law. It is time we made this figure conform to the reality of justice as it exists in our country.

We should take off her blind-fold to let every Indian see she is blind in only one eye and one side of her scales is lower than the other, and the sword smites only the poor and the helpless. Pick your own examples: Jessica Lall was shot in the head in view of dozens of people. The murderers were identified but these persons resiled from their statements. Without doubt they had been bought over by the prime accused whose family had money and political clout. All the accused went free. It was a disgraceful miscarriage of justice. But it has many precedents.

Zahira Sheikh of Baroda saw nearly a dozen of her relatives being murdered in front of her eyes. She swore she would not marry till she saw all the murderers hanged. Then a paunchy pistol-toting MLA, a follower of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, arrived on the scene, gave her wads of currency notes and told her to go back on her statement. Poor Zahira who seldom had Rs 18 in her pocket must have argued with herself: “My dead relatives will never come back to life; so why shouldn’t I take the money and live comfortably.” She lied on oath and betrayed the trust of the one person who had staked her safety to get justice for Zahira — Teesta Setalvad. Teesta had the acquittal orders set aside and Zahira hauled up for perjury. Teesta should be a role model for all Indians.

Go back a few more years. A young son of rich parents ran over six men sleeping on the pavement under his car and killed them. He fled but the police tracked him down. He should have been jailed, his licence confiscated and made to compensate the dependents of the men he killed. Instead of going through the rigmarole of endless hearings in a criminal court, the family squared the police (ever-ready to accept bribes) and relatives of the dead.

Go back still further in time to the most heinous crime of recent times which triggered off violence and bloodshed in many parts of our country and abroad. I refer to the destruction of Babri masjid in Ayodhya. Everyone in the world who watched the event on television saw who was seated on the dais, goondas armed with pick-axes hacking the domes of the mosque; heard the exultant cries of victory when it came down; Uma Bharati embracing Murli Manohar Joshi, with the prime perpetrator of crime L.K. Advani and Kalyan Singh looking on. The next day Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena and leaders of the Bajrang Dal issued statements taking credit for pulling down the mosque. Anyone punished? Don’t be silly. On one side was the future prime minister, deputy prime minister, education minister, chief ministers of UP and Madhya Pradesh and many powerful politicians. The scales of justice were heavily loaded on their side. So no one has been brought to justice to this day.

Is there anything we can do to mend this sorry state of affairs? A few changes in the law would help. First is to ensure that criminal cases are concluded within a specified period; I think two years should be the maximum limit. Second, no one charged with homicide should be let out on bail, particularly if he is wealthy or influential. The third is to see that witnesses to a crime who change their statements are not merely declared hostile and allowed to be cross-examined by the prosecution but immediately charged with perjury by the trial court and if unable to reconcile their conflicting statements, sentenced to imprisonment. If any good is to come out of the public indignation over the unpunished murder of Jessica Lall, the perjury of Zahira Shaikh and the other cases, the law must be changed, sooner the better.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

on way to chiang mai with Tetsu

My introduction to entertaining Hindi Cinema began in 1971 with Haathi Mere Saathi. My parents, graciously would grant us one movie in a school vacation as a tribute to our endurance throughout the year of drudgery and suffocation at school. The movie that was bestowed with great fanfare would go through stringent scrutiny of my father for its contents. No wonder, movies that came in our lap either had animals or strong social or religious overtones. Haathi Mere Saathi –with Elephant, Janwar aur Insaan –Tiger were those early entertainers.

After almost three decades, in emirates flight on my way to Chiang Mai, elephants arrived in a similar grandeur through Japanese movie ‘shining boy and little randy ‘. Raju– Rajesh Khanna was replaced by Yagira-Tetsu Susumu. Background shifted from south India to Japan and chiang mai – Thailand. Haathi Mere Saathi portrayed fierce loyalty of elephant towards his master while ‘shining boy and little randy’ displayed commitment by innocent child towards elephant.

Tetsu , a teenage boy is raised in animal ranch by his mother Saori (Takako Tokiwa) and his docile stepfather (Katsumi Takahashi). One day, Saori decides to buy her dream animal - an elephant! Tetsu realizes that he has knack of listening low frequency signals that elephants emanate but no one believes him. At school too, he gets increasingly isolated by bullying mates who shun him for his foul animal body smell . All by himself, he turns to his buddy - new elephant and decide to be his teacher. He bargains hard to get permission to go to special school in Thailand for "Mahouts" (elephant trainers). Here at Chiang Mai- Thailand, he was given wild little elephant named Farr to prove his mettle. The training part of the movie is predictable but it does generate an interest in Chiang Mai . When Testsu returns to Japan, movie takes a new twist with unexpected events.

Shunsaku Kawage, director has done amazing job in bringing emotions of human beings and animals on same canvas.Tetsu played by Yuya Yagira evokes tremendous sympathy, so is the character of Tetsu's Mother by Takako Tokiwa. Other characters like Tetsu's Stepfather Katsumi Takahashi, Tetsu's Grandmother Mitsuko Baisho and Emi-his girl friend Yu Aoi fill up the script. This is not a fast paced movie yet it sustains interest due to animated actions of various animals and portryal of rustic japanese family life.

Haathi Mere Saathi showed life sacrifice by an elephant to protect his master. In this movie, no one sacrifices for each other but they do part each other only be reunited again. Script writer has adroitly used the prank played by Tetsu’s mates to reach culmination that numbs the viewers with misty eyes and choked throat.