Sunday, 29 January 2012

India Trip 2011-2012 - Ahmedabad

The main reason for our India trip this time was the Silver Jubilee reunion of my class at IIM Ahmedabad. Time has flown, and I cannot believe that it has been 25 years since we left the campus to go our separate ways. Of course, we have a fairly active Yahoo! Group in which at least twenty members are regular contributors and the rest are lurkers, but this is the first time we would be meeting en masse and in the flesh.

About 90 people from a batch of 174 turned up for the reunion, with families. It was quite a fun event. Wives and kids spontaneously formed their own groups, and we had 3 days of relaxed activities. (Some of the photos below were taken by my classmate SM Sundaram.)

The kids didn't need their parents anymore once they found their peers

There was some self-congratulation that IIM Ahmedabad had just made a splash by debuting at no. 11 in the Financial Times ranking of MBA programs worldwide in 2011. (The famed AGSM program in Australia was ranked 35 and Melbourne Business School was 53. No other Australian MBA program figures in the top 100.)

Director Samir Barua (above, delivering the welcome speech)
had been one of my professors in 1985-87,
and he hadn't changed much in appearance.

Alumni and families gather for a group photograph at the Louis Kahn Plaza,
named after the American architect responsible for the distinctive
exposed brick façade of the campus buildings.

Only some of the alumni turned up for the group photograph,
which may have been due to a failure of communication,
or else it was too early in the morning for some...

The alumni and their families

The kids

Wives of some alumni had their own earlier moment for a group photograph

There were lots of activities over the three days.

You can't get a bunch of Indians together without having them
spontaneously form cricket teams

Teatime at the cricket grounds - delicious spring rolls, samosas
and chai were available at tables on the lawn

Many of my classmates are (as can be expected in a group of MBAs with 25 years of experience) highly distinguished in industry with a fair sprinkling of CEOs and other CXOs. Some are distinguished academics at leading universities in the US, Singapore, etc. Mohyna Srinivasan (in the purple dress above) is one of those who can also boast an unconventional achievement - as an author of fiction! Her novel "The House on Mall Road" (cover pictured below) is a gripping read, and it's not just loyalty that makes me say it.

One of the significant innovations that have occurred in the institute since I was there last, is a window cut into the wall facing the main road outside. In our day, we used to wander out to have a glass of tea by the roadside, but now the roadside tea vendor has set up shop outside the window, and students can now be seated on the inside and have their tea served to them through this "hole in the wall".

Enjoy roadside tea in the comfort of your own campus...

In the three days we were there, hole-in-the-wall chai became very popular, even with our families. (Nothing beats the strong and sweet milky tea served in roadside tea stalls throughout North India.)

Hole-in-the-wall chai hits the spot

Among the many events organised was a mock case study, and our families could experience first-hand what an MBA class at IIM-A, modelled on the Harvard pattern, felt like. Some of the kids were enthusiastic participants. At least some of them must be preparing to go to management school themselves.

More nostalgia than insight into the case at hand ;-)

I was impressed by the fact that the group photographs that were taken on the morning of the 30th appeared on the 31st on souvenir mugs that we got to take home.

Mugshots on a mug - who would've guessed?

Yours truly in the dark jacket towards the right

The reunion was over almost as soon as it began. We said goodbye to my old classmates and their families and began our independent journey. From Ahmedabad, we went on to Baroda (Vadodara), Jaipur, Mumbai and then back to Chennai from where we caught our return flight to Sydney.

In Baroda, I would learn that the tongue-in-cheek Gujarati expansion of MBA is "mane badhu aavDe che" ("I know everything"). That probably beats the "Mediocre But Arrogant" expansion that I knew from before.

More on those legs of the trip in future posts...

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Movie Reviews (Sherlock Holmes, Tintin, The Iron Lady)

Since the family is still on vacation, we decided to adopt the philosophy expressed by the title of the movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (You Only Live Once) and to do a movie marathon. We saw 3 movies at the cinemas in a span of less than 24 hours.

Sherlock Holmes (A Game of Shadows)
Verdict: Good, but only just.
Action-packed, but unfortunately violates the spirit of the books even more than the last one. There simply isn't as much violence in the Conan Doyle originals. Holmes, while energetic, is not a streetfighter as the movie makes him out to be. And what's with Mycroft's nudity and the frequent sexual innuendo? Victorian decorum has an innocent charm that shouldn't be cheapened by the irreverence and amorality of our own time. [Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park (1999) suffered from the same treatment.] Thumb rule: If the original author wouldn't have agreed with the picturisation, don't do it. Their fans won't like it. I'm letting director Guy Ritchie off with a stern warning.

Verdict: Very good.
Absolutely gripping plot with non-stop action. Also largely true to the original comics in its depiction of characters. Animation is getting to be more and more true-to-life, when compared to (say) Toy Story 1. The scenes of the ship at harbour look like actual photos. In a few years, cinema may not need real actors anymore. Looking forward to sequels.

The Iron Lady
Verdict: Very good, but falls short of excellent.
Meryl Streep is absolutely brilliant, and one forgets that one is not actually looking at Margaret Thatcher. Denis Thatcher's constant posthumous presence through the device of Mrs Thatcher's dementia is an interesting one allowing an unconventional angle from which to view her life in retrospect. However, the movie as a whole falls short of greatness because, to someone who isn't already familiar with the life and deeds of Margaret Thatcher, the movie is an incoherent patchwork of events that fails as both biographical narrative and as ideological primer. This is a pity, since with a bit of a narrative voice-over and a visual timeline as backdrop, it might have been possible to educate the new generation about what this extremely influential twentieth century personality was all about. Richard Attenborough managed to do it with Gandhi, an arguably tougher subject.

That's this reviewer signing off.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

India Trip 2011-2012 - Chennai

We visited 5 cities as part of this year's trip, and Chennai was our point of arrival and departure between India and overseas. We spent 3 days there at the beginning and at the end of the trip.

When riding around parts of Chennai, one can't but notice the heavy construction activity going on for the Chennai Metro Rail Project. This should make a major difference to the lives of commuters when it debuts in a couple of years.

Our India trip this year was mainly to attend the Silver Jubilee reunion of my IIM Ahmedabad batchmates (30th Dec - 1st Jan). But when in Chennai, I fortuitously learnt from an email that my earlier alma mater IIT Madras was also hosting an alumni reunion for a junior batch on 28th Dec, and all alumni were invited. So I took the family on a trip down memory lane, and the long-suffering ones came along without a murmur.

The speeches by alumni were fun, but Director Bhaskar Ramamurthi (himself an alumnus and 5 years my senior) should have kept his speech shorter and less boring, especially with so many non-alumni spouses and children in the audience. Lots of people left the auditorium before the end of his hour-long speech.

Walking around the campus, I realised I had almost forgotten one of IIT-M's unique charms. Chital deer and black buck roam freely in the sprawling, wooded campus, and students tend to become blasé about seeing these animals along the way when cycling to class. The male black buck is much darker than the female and has horns, leading many to think they are two different species. A quiz question during my time at IIT asked how many species of deer live on campus, and common answers were either 2 or 3. The correct answer is 1, because only the chital is a deer. The black buck is an antelope. [Interestingly, deer have antlers and antelope have horns. Antlers are shed and regrown, but horns are a permanent fixture.]

I spotted (cough) a herd of chital cross the road a trifle nervously as they spied a break in two-wheeler traffic.

where the nerd, deer and antelope play

The trip down memory lane led all the way to the corner of the campus where Mandakini hostel is located. "Mandak" was where I spent the first year of my 5 year B.Tech. course (Yes, a bachelors degree in engineering took 5 years back then).

[All hostels in IIT Madras are named after rivers (e.g., Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswathi), and the institute's buses are named after mountains (e.g., Nilgiri, Kanchenjunga), which inspired a city quiz question about where in Chennai one can find moving mountains and stationary rivers.]

Room 251 (circled) was my domain from July 1980 to April 1981

In my next post, I'll talk about the second leg of our trip, to Ahmedabad and IIM.

The Weight of Tradition

One of my friends posted on Facebook about a Japanese custom where the host comes out and stands in the cold when taking leave of a departing guest, waves goodbye to them and only goes back into the house when the guest's car is out of sight. We had an interesting discussion about how spontaneous gestures are touching but when these are cast into concrete and become part of a culture or tradition, they could become onerous. In my response, I said the Japanese in particular have a culture of forced politeness that makes them think they're being rude even if they do perfectly reasonable things, like avoid the chillies in a dish that they find too spicy. I said they needed to be kinder to themselves and not let tradition oppress them so much, and this then set off the cultural antibodies that perpetually lurk in my bloodstream. Hence this blog post.

I've been a bit of an iconoclast all my life, much to the exasperation of my extended family. (My immediate family has been much more supportive, possibly because my parents were themselves no admirers of traditional customs.)

Two examples come to mind.

1. One of the cultural differences between North Indians and South Indians is the practice of touching the feet of elders. South Indians have a practice of not just bending to touch the feet but of prostrating full-length before elders to receive their blessings. However, this is typically done on special occasions only, such as when taking leave of one's grandparents after a month-long stay, or at weddings when the bride and groom seek the blessings of the elders present.

With North Indians, this is more of a "quickie", and is accomplished by just bending down from the waist instead of prostrating themselves on the floor. Since this is a much more "lightweight" action, they can afford to do it more often and they do. One could say they do it at the drop of a hat (almost as if they were bending to pick up said hat ;-). See someone with grey hair, dip and touch! To South Indians, this is amusing to watch. Also very emotionally touching if you're not used to it. I know of a Telugu girl whose family's objections to her marrying a Rajasthani dissolved when he visited their home and executed a machine-gun touching of everyone's feet as soon as he entered. After that, all the elderly ladies would vie with each other to cook dishes for him and wouldn't hear a negative word about him. It helped that he was also a nice guy, but that's the secret weapon North Indians can use to disarm their Southern neighbours.

The dark side of this tradition is of course when it's forced. I know of girls from liberal and westernised families marrying into more conservative ones, who are expected to touch their parents-in-laws' feet every morning when they first see them. Quite a few of them chafe at this because they consider it demeaning.

On a lighter note, the daughter of my cousin (who married a North Indian) refused to touch the feet of her paternal grandmother, saying, "We South Indians don't do this." And this from a girl who spoke no Tamil at all! Identity can be donned and shed as convenient, it would seem.

2. One of the arguments of the neo-conservative Hindu is that if one only takes the trouble to understand "our great rituals", one will understand the wisdom of our forefathers. I call this bullshit, akin to treating scriptures as sacred just because they're in Sanskrit. After all, one can find some pretty bawdy stuff masquerading as ancient Sanskrit literature.

Marriage rituals are believed to belong to this set of misunderstood cultural treasures. I was surprised to learn that the term "decent marriage" as a requirement in Indian matrimonial ads was a code-word for elaborate rituals. Perhaps simple weddings seem indecent to some people. I recognise that every such ritual had an original purpose and meaning, but since Indian society has been traditionally agrarian, these rituals have a lot to do with land, harvests and fertility (fertility both of humans and the soil). Many of these practices are therefore outdated in a modern, urban context. Many practices also have a feudal basis, and I would reject them out of hand. Hindu rituals are riven with casteism and sexism, and the baggage needs to be discarded and the entire culture given a complete and thorough overhaul.

My mother pointed out one such example at a cousin's wedding. There was a ceremony where the bride was seated on the ground and the yoke of a bullock-cart was placed (lightly) on her head. This would of course be trumpeted by the neo-conservatives as rich in meaning, because it is meant to symbolise the responsibility of a wife. I guess my mother's feminist sensibilities were offended at this, because she wondered aloud to me why they didn't seat the bride and groom side by side and place the yoke over both their shoulders. It would have symbolised the fact that they would now have to bear the responsibilities of a household together and share the burden equally.

In short, I am a student of culture but not a blind fan. I hate it when cultural traditions oppress the individual.

And now I've got that off my chest :-).

Saturday, 21 January 2012

India Trip 2011-2012 - The Amazing and the Amusing

I had a good trip to India during the Dec 2011 - Jan 2012 period. Let me record some of the interesting things I saw.

1. English serials on TV have English subtitles, which isn't as laughable as it sounds. While it's just a minor convenience to folks like me who sometimes miss a word here or there, this is probably a godsend for the millions of aspiring youngsters, many in smaller towns, who are trying to learn English to improve their chances of success. As the popular local ad says, "What an idea, Sir ji!"

Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon in Friends,
who might be excused for feeling a bit like that Iraqi guy.

2. I've heard it said that India is the best country in the world to be a vegetarian, but this may be taking things a bit too far:

It comes from a manufacturing plant, get it?

3. We've all seen the Johnnie Walker ad.

Only in India would you see a T-shirt parodying the brand using Mahatma Gandhi.

1930 - a good year

4. Nike has had an unsavoury reputation as a sweatshop, but as George Costanza would say, "suddenly, a new contender has emerged".

Written in the Devanaagari script and interpreted in Hindi
or Sanskrit,"Aadi daas" means "original slave".
Even your sole is not your own...

That isn't the last of my pics. I've been clicking away like a Japanese tourist, and there's plenty more to share. Stay tuned.