Sunday, October 17, 2021

BookMarks #89: Siddhartha

Title: Siddhartha
Author: Hermann Hesse
Genre: Historical Fiction, Self-discovery
Published: 1922 (German)

Siddhartha is the story of the journey of self-discovery of a man who is a contemporary of the Buddha. Siddhartha seeks knowledge and his search leads him to renouncing his home, meditating, then coming back to the world, and stepping away again. He also meets the Buddha but doesn't become a follower. In this journey his paths with those he left behind crosses again completing the circle of life. 

My favorite line from the book - "Knowledge can be conveyed but not wisdom". This line is the essence of the tale. Siddhartha finds his own way and learns through his own experiences and not just by becoming a follower. 

I had been under the impression that the book is the story of Gautam Buddha. Turns out its a parallel to the Buddha.

Previously on BookMarks: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Monday, October 04, 2021

BookMarks #88: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Title: The Picture of Dorian Gray 
Author: Oscar Wilde 
Genre: Fiction 
Published: 1891 

Going back to the Classics era – The Picture of Dorian Gray is a comment on the debauched lifestyle of the elite classes. A man commits all possible sins and nothing leaves a mark on him, while a portrait of his bears all the signs, getting progressively older and uglier with each sin. The central characters all live, not so ideal lifestyles and finally do end up paying for it, but not till quite some time has passed. Overall, quite a lesson in morals, although must not have been taken in good humor by the “classes” of the time. 

There are a few lines which stood out. 
  • "All art is quite useless" – Yet look at the monetary value which people are willing to pay for “art” 
  • "Experience is the name men have to their mistakes" – A nice euphemism 
  • "To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable" – Also true for everyone who wishes to start going to the gym from tomorrow. 
Previously on BookMarks: A Bear, A Dog and A Kangaroo 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

On Nationality

Emma Raducanu’s stupendous and scarcely believable run to becoming US Open Champion triggered off an interesting chain of thoughts. A citizen of UK, born in Canada to parents who are originally from Romania and China respectively. Obviously, every one of these countries immediately staked their claim on her success! Even us Indians, who are far removed from the action managed to find our own little claim – her biggest tournament win before this was the Pune ITF Challenger in 2019! 

With increased movement across borders, nationalities are becoming fluid. Take the case of the Labuschagne brothers – born in South Africa, Marnus is a leading Australian batter, while Frank leads the Japanese rugby side! Sporting world is replete with such examples. The globalization of cricket is currently running on the shoulders of the expatriate South Asian populace. Then the oil rich Middle Eastern countries are importing global talent to boost themselves in the medal tables! 

Then we have the case of India. Having punched below our potential weight over the last century in the global arena, we have found innovative ways of inflating our collective success. No better example here than this list of Indian Nobel Prize winners on Wikipedia. The list contains 12 names of whom only 5 are citizens of India! It also includes people who gave up Indian citizenship, Britishers born in India during the Raj and even the Dalai Lama. And just to round things off has a link to VS Naipaul’s wiki page at the bottom! Basically, providing a perfect analogy to the phrase, success has many fathers! 

But coming back to the question, who should claim an individual’s success? The country of birth, or of citizenship (and what of multiple passport holders), or of ethnicity (mixed inheritances?), or where the actual work was done? IMO seems an irrelevant question. Let the individual decide, what they identify with? Could be single or multiple. Meanwhile, let others bask in the reflected glory of others. And cases like Raducanu can be a bridge across cultures!

Monday, September 13, 2021

BookMarks #87: A Bear, A Dog and A Kangaroo

Title: A Bear, A Dog and A Kangaroo: Three Comedy Memoirs… with Teeth and Claws 
Author: Tony James Slater 
Genre: Travelogue, Memoirs 
Published: 2020 

This is not one but a collection of three books: “That Bear Ate My Pants”, “Don’t need the Whole Dog” and “Kamikaze Kangaroos”. They narrate the adventures of the author Tony Slater, a person who will not be bound by a regular job but rather go around gathering experiences and making money as it comes through volunteering and temporary jobs. The adventures take him across Ecuador, USA, UK, Thailand, Myanmar, Australia and New Zealand and more. 

The first book is set in Ecuador where he has a volunteering gig at a animal shelter. The main sources of hilarity are Tony’s attempts at proving himself to be “a man” and his inability to speak the Spanish language, leading to often deadly situations for himself. 

The second book, while mainly about his adventures in Thailand, where he volunteers at a animals clinic and has a job as a diving trainer, also throws more light on his family. It starts in USA, where he is on a holiday with his mother and sister and friends. Then there is an attempt to flip a house in his country Wales, which is also a part of a reality show on real estate business. Throw in some paid volunteering for medical purposes (to earn money), a trip on a sailboat and even a stint in the Territorial Army. Life in Thailand comprises mostly about partying, getting drunk, and losing stuff and making regular trips to Burma for visa renewal. 

The third book are the adventures in the great Australian outback, where he along with his sister and a friend make journeys by van and hiking. In between, they also do temporary jobs to make a living. Finally they end up in New Zealand, where they are working on a ski resort. 

The books are long (1700+ pages combined), there is the regular comedy although some of it gets a tad boring. We barely see the touristy side of the places he stays, but its more of the actual stay which is described. And across the pages Tony, his quirks and the friendships he forges keep growing on the reader, as we vicariously live the adventures though him. Not exactly a life most people would be interested in, but it does grow on you. 

Previously on BookMarks: Three Men in a Boat

Monday, September 06, 2021

LearnNBlog #19: The Hydrogen Rainbow

Climate change concerns have propelled the shift from fossil fuels to alternates in the quest for cleaner energy resources. 

In high school chemistry, Hydrogen was described as a colourless gas. Yet today when we hear talk of a green economy, it is the various shades of Hydrogen hogging the headlines. But what exactly do the different colours signify? The colours indicate the source of Hydrogen and how it has been produced. The primary ones are as follows (and it is an ever expanding spectrum) 
  • White: Naturally occurring but of limited commercial value. 
  • Brown/Black: Produced by transforming coal into gas. 
  • Grey: Produced from Natural Gas through Steam Forming. The most common process currently 
  • Blue: Same as grey. However the emissions are captured and stored. 
  • Turquoise: Extracted from Natural gas but leaving Solid Carbon as a by-product 
  • Pink: Electrolysis using Nuclear Energy 
  • Green: Electrolysis using Renewable energy 
For a really clean economy, green hydrogen is "The One" as the others still release carbon emissions! Thus not fully suitable for a Net Zero emissions ambitions being articulated. 

How will this all pan out? Well, the answer is not easy but at least the world is trying before its too late!


Previously on Learn N Blog: Ubuntu 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

India @74

Well, last year I was wrong!

Things took a turn for the worse in India’s 74th year, a lot worse. We nearly sailed over the Covid wave, celebrated early, even declared victory and then got hit hard by the variant. Those terrible weeks of April & May, where the nation was living through a collective trauma have been one of the most painful ones of recent times. People running around for oxygen cylinders and essential medicines. Queues for hospitals and even for cremations. Existing systems and the people manning them completely overwhelmed, yet carrying on. Even the crematoriums were malfunctioning due to excess use! Almost everyone was either affected themselves or had near and dear ones impacted. We were living in a dystopian reality. 

Amidst all this the key stakeholders in the Central government had gone incognito. There was an eerie silence, no words of reassurance or even acknowledgment of the grim situation came forth, and as it came out later no data as well. In fact, they were more in a denial mode. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens tried to help each other out. However, amidst the good Samaritans were the rotten apples as well, selling making a killing with exorbitant rates or worse providing fake medicines. Some finding their “aapda me avsar” while most citizens got a brutal lesson in becoming aatm-nirbhar

The government can’t even take full blame though, as the citizens kept flocking to potential hotspots – election rallies, sporting events, religious festivals and tourist spots, while not following even the basic mask and social distancing protocols. It has been a long year, but some more restraint would help. 

Then the Farmer Protests which have been going on for a while with no resolution in sight. Simply, because, it is in nobody’s interest to resolve it. The longer an issue runs, the longer it can be milked for various political purposes. 

The polarization of opinion on social media is near absolute. Every single issue is seen as either for or against with people picking sides based on their confirmation bias. Balance and logic in debates has simply gone for a toss. 

But enough of the negativity. It is said, read the newspaper back to front. The sports pages at the last register the human achievements while the rest of the pages are simply chronicling our failures.

Success in the sporting arena provided some succor. India had their best Olympics haul ever including a second Gold medalist in Neeraj Chopra and a potential resurgence in Hockey. What a moment it was to hear Jana Gana Mana played out in Tokyo! Hopefully the other Indian sports (i.e. non-cricket ones) build on from these Games. After all, our one billion plus populace should be able to easily accommodate all sports in the World. 

Cricket provided epic rearguard moment as the Aussie bastion of Gabba was finally breached. Yet, it was also in news for hosting the IPL amidst a pandemic. The argument of IPL providing a welcome distraction in the covid times began to ring hollow. And finally had to be suspended. The virus breaches even the most secure bio-bubbles. 

So, after a harrowing year, where do we stand? Dare we hope again for normalcy, as the vaccine roll-out gathers a bit of momentum while simultaneously bracing ourselves for further waves? Will there ever be a normal again? Or we keep adapting to the “new normal”? If the covid ravaged days have given one positive, it is the fact that one is not totally alone. Just ask for help. It might not necessarily come on time. But there will be people who will try (as per their might) to help out. And that to me is the silver lining amidst all the dark clouds. 

On that tiny note of positivity, a Very Happy Birthday to India! 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Talking Tokyo

Why do we follow sports? I read somewhere that Emotional investment in sports is just weird. You have absolutely no control on the result and are dependent on the efforts of some random people who currently have the allegiance to the same flag as your passport! And who most likely have no idea you exist. Yet, we somehow share the collective joy and disappointments! 

The Tokyo Olympics actually happened. And India achieved its best medal tally. After two weeks of action all that is left is an Olympics sized void in its aftermath! And lots of memories and interesting factoids for future sports quizzes! Here is what the Tokyo Games would be remembered from an Indian perspective (or maybe not). 

  • 2021 – The bizarre answer to the question, “In which year were the Tokyo 2020 Olympics held?” There were Covid cases (thankfully very few), some bio-bubble breaches (dealt with severely), Russians masquerading as ROC (what is even the point of that ban then!), a missing Ugandan weightlifter, a nearly kidnapped Belarussian runner, and a coach who punched a horse! In all not too many off-field distractions. 
  • 1988 – That was the last Olympics in which Leander Paes - the man who got India back to medal winning ways - was not part of the Indian contingent. 
  • 126 – Final count of Indian athletes at the Olympics, with Diksha Dagar sneaking in after the Games started. And whatever the armchair critics might say, they were all there on merit, making through the long drawn Qualifying cycle disrupted by a global pandemic. 
  • 87.58 – metres, that’s how far Neeraj Chopra’s javelin flew earning India’s first ever Athletics Gold. In one of the most dominant displays by an Indian athlete, Neeraj Chopra’s throws would have placed him 1st, 2nd & 4th and all this despite not even meeting his Personal Best! Just to give a perspective, Avinash Sable broke his own Steeplechase National Record, while the Men’s 4x400m relay broke the Asian Record and yet failed to reach the respective Finals. 
  • 41 – Years since we last got a Hockey medal. It had been a while coming. We waited nearly half a century for the Indian team to reach the semi-finals and then in a matter of 24 hours we had two Hockey teams in the last 4! And somehow PR Sreejesh ended up on top of the goal-posts!
  • 7 – Medals won by India - 1 Gold, 2 Silvers & 4 Bronze Medals. one more than the 6 at London 2012. Also improved the total medal tally by a whopping 25%. Remember the Names - Neeraj Chopra, Mirabai Chanu, Ravi Dahiya, PV Sindhu, Lovlina Borgohain, Bajrang Punia & the Hockey team (Dilpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Surender Kumar, Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, Gurjant Singh, Simranjeet Singh, Mandeep Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Lalit Upadhyay, P. R. Sreejesh, Sumit, Nilakanta Sharma, Shamsher Singh, Varun Kumar, Birendra Lakra, Amit Rohidas and Vivek Prasad).
  • 7 – medals won by Indian wrestlers till date. The Gold still eludes but we are getting closer. 
  • 4 – India has a long history of 4th Place finishes. In some instances, they are more celebrated than some medalists even. In this edition, we added a few more chapters. Aditi Ashok in Golf (where India got a quick lesson in bogeys and birdies), the women’s Hockey team (where real life nearly imitated reel) and Deepak Punia. Aditi missed birdies by an inch or so, while Deepak was leading for most of his bout. 
  • 2 PV Sindhu added a Bronze to her Silver at Rio, joining Sushil Kumar as the most decorated Indian individual athletes. Still 2 short of Hockey Legends Leslie Claudius and Udham Singh. 
  • 1 Billion – Number of armchair experts who popped up during the Games, giving a detailed critique of every athlete’s sporting technique, physical fitness and mental toughness, while themselves having zero idea of (a) the rules of the game, (b) the qualifying process and previous competitions, and (c) even the names of the athletes. And then there are the abusive trolls, channeling all their misplaced anger and frustrations at the athletes! 

There is a very fine line between fame and anonymity. Nowhere is this adage truer than the Olympics. Take the case of Chirag Shetty & Satwik Rankireddy – they beat the eventual gold medallists in the first match but ended up finishing 3rd in the group despite winning two matches and were eliminated in the first round itself. 

And then there are the other heroic stories:
  • Bhavani Devi – a true trailblazer, becoming the first Indian fencer to not only qualify but also win a round at the Olympics. 
  • Fouaad Mirza and Signeur marking India’s return to the Equestrian arena after 2 decades. And making it to the very last stage, quite a commendable feat. 
  • Kamalpreet Kaur making us watch the Discus Throw Final and finishing a creditable 6th 
  • Satish Kumar boxing through stitches on the face for a chance for a medal 
  • Vishnu Sarvanan registering a 3rd place in one of the legs 
  • Saurabh Chaudhary – the only shooter who did not disappoint, he had a bad start in his Finals, but did well overall. 
And then there were the bizarre stories 
  • Mary Kom thinking she had won the bout. Well, Boxing judging is weird to say the least so can't blame her. 
  • The journos who spread rumors of dope testing for Chinese Gold winner in Mirabai’s event! 
And finally the disappointments 
  • Sony Sports Network – where navigating through its myriad channels was an Olympian task in itself. Toggling between their various channels and invariably landing into ads rather than the real action. And they did not exactly cover themselves in glory by reducing the Indian contingent marching in at the Opening Ceremony to a small box on the screen 
  • Then there is the rush to take credit for every success and was the blame game for every other result. 
  • The Jinxers - small progress by an Indian athlete and they start updating the medal table. Wonder why the need to always jump the gun!
That was it for Tokyo (the Paralympics are still to take place). In Eminem's words - "If you had one shot or one opportunity, to seize everything that you wanted, Would You take it or let it go?" Quite a few of the Indian contingent took the first option thus leading to the best ever tally and yet there is that nagging feeling that we could easily have got many more! 

And now we begin the Road To Paris. It is a shorter one this time (hopefully)!

Saturday, July 24, 2021

BookMarks #86: Three Men In A Boat

Title: Three Men in a Boat 
Author: Jerome K Jerome 
Genre: Fiction, Humour, Travelogue 
Published: 1889 

It had been a while since I read one of the Classics of English Literature. “Three men in a Boat” became a fantastic choice to revisit the era because of (a) the fantastically named author with the same first and last names, and (b) being mentioned in the writings of Mr. Bond which I read a few months back. 

I had read the book quite some years back and yet it still seemed fresh on re-reading. I guess that’s why these are classics – one can revisit them at intervals! 

It’s a tale of adventure, and quite a bit of it is not even real adventure. It’s the account of three men and a dog undertaking a fortnight long trip on Thames by boat. From planning, to packing, to setting out, then encountering myriad things as they row their boat up the river, and finally abandoning the trip! Every step is full of anecdotes and further anecdotes. Also, it serves as a travelogue with histories of the sights along the way.

Why the book clicks – because of many passages which are still so relatable even though more than a century has passed since its first publication. Passages like 
  • "Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need—a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, enough to eat and enough to wear" - No better explanation of life and wants & needs!
  • Also reading about ailments and discovering you have the same - not much different from googling diseases and wondering how you are a medical miracle to be still alive! 
  • "Will it be the same in the future? Will the prized treasures of to-day always be the cheap trifles of the day before?" - Our tendency to hold on to things assuming they have value!
  • "What the eye does not see, the stomach does not get upset over" - Thats why don't peek into the kitchen of any restaurant!
  • "I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me" - the epitome of being busy and lazy!
And a major learning: Pub is shortened form of public house 

Overall, quite fun to revisit that era. 

Previously on BookMarks: Let Me Say it Now 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Road To Tokyo: Episode 21 - The Bearers of a Billion Hopes

With less than a week to go, it seems the Games may finally happen after all. The contingents have started trickling into Tokyo. The Covid screening is on at full swing making global headlines whenever they catch even one case (without ever giving the total numbers tested). 

Now if it’s a sporting extravaganza, then its also time to make predictions. I am no octopus (given how my predictions were way off for Rio). Predicting is an inherently risky business, but this time there is added uncertainty. Many warm-up & test events were either cancelled or poorly attended. Differing travel restrictions and ever-changing quarantine guidelines have further complicated the process. And then there is the chance of athletes testing positive and being barred from the competition at the very last moment. But all this uncertainty just adds to the fun (of making predictions, not the Games itself). 

"The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."  - Baron Pierre de Coubertin

For years, Indian contingents at Olympics fully endorsed this line. However, there has been a marked change with many of them becoming world champions and medallists. Here are my sport-by-sport expectations from the Indian contingent, who bear the expectations of a Billion plus people.

  1. Archery: A discipline which has consistently disappointed since the days of Limba Ram. Recent form in the World Cups has been good, but a couple of caveats here – many countries skipped these events. Then the Indian women’s team got Gold at both World Cup stages but lost in the first round of Qualifiers in between! Hopefully this could be a redemption of sorts for Deepika Kumari. India has a good chance for a medal in all the 4 disciplines 
  2. Athletics: The Qualification cut-offs were tougher this time around. Most Indian athletes had to break National records just to meet the qualifying standards. And some of them broke them multiple times. However, Neeraj Chopra is the only one who could be considered a strong contender for a Top 3 finish. A special mention of the race-walking disciplines, which has seen a steady rise in direct qualifiers. A Few National Records and Personal Bests are the best hopes for most of the contingent
  3. Badminton: Badminton qualification were severely hit by the virus with tournaments getting cancelled everywhere and scuttling the chances of Srikanth & Saina and the doubles teams. PV Sindhu enters the Games as the defending world champion but hasn’t played for quite a while now. Same for Praneeth and the doubles duo of Satwik & Chirag. They can certainly bring in the medals but there is no idea of their or the rivals’ forms. 
  4. Boxing:After the low of Rio, the boxing team is getting back on track with 9 quota places. Amit Panghal is the top ranked boxer in his category and then there is Mary Kom who can never be counted out. The likes of Manish Kaushik have a decent chance of getting to the sem-finals as well. 
  5. Equestrian: Fouaad Mirza is India’s first qualifier in over 2 decades. Let’s see how he and Seigneur perform at the big stage 
  6. Fencing: Bhavani Devi created history by becoming the first Indian to qualify in the Fencing sport. Can she do a Dipa Karmakar now? 
  7. Hockey:  It has been 4 decades since our last hockey medal. But Hockey is our National Sport. The Mens team is currently ranked 4th in the World & the Women have qualified again after the disappointment of the last place finish at Rio. We certainly can hope for the elusive medal. 
  8. Golf: Anirban Lahiri, Udayan Mane & Aditi Ashok will be representing India at Tokyo. Aditi could spring a surprise with her recent performance in the European LPGA tour. 
  9. Gymnastics: After Dipa Karmakar, it is the turn of Pranati Nayak to qualify for the Games. No one had heard of an Indian Gymanst till Dipa nearly vaulted to a medal. Let’s see what Pranati has in store. 
  10. Judo: Sushila Devi is India’s sole representative at the Games 
  11. Rowing: Arjun Lal & Arvind Singh will be participating in the Lightweight Double Sculls category. India couldn’t participate in the Final Qualifiers due to covid restrictions. 
  12. Sailing: Nethra Kumanan is all set to India’s first ever female sailor at the Olympics. Also, these are the first Games in which India will be represented in more than one sailing event 
  13. Shooting: India is sending its largest ever shooting contingent. Rio was a disaster for the Indian shooting team. Since then, there has been a big change in the personnel with quite a few young guns coming into the fray. As for the medal hopes, on their day all of them could bring in the medals especially the likes of Saurabh Chaudhary (who is named in Time’s athletes to watch out for) and Manu Bhaker. Or they could bring in no medals – that is how unpredictable the sport of Shooting is!
  14. Swimming: For the first time Indian swimmers achieved the A Qualifying mark. Thus, there are 2 entrants in the Mens, Sajan Prakash & Srihari Nataraj, while Maana Patel got the Universality Place for women. Best case scenario will be bettering the National Records 
  15. Table Tennis: With the arrival of Manika Batra, Indian table Tennis has seen a rise in popularity. While they haven’t yet broken the East Asian grasp on the medals, they are starting to get there. There is certainly an outside chance for the Mixed Doubles pair of Sharath Kamal & Manika, who also got a Bronze at the 2018 Asiad. 
  16. Tennis: India’s best bet would have been the Mixed Doubles but they couldn’t qualify (as yet due to the extremely complex ITF qualifying scenarios). Don’t see either Sumit Nagal or the Doubles pair of Sania & Ankita Raina progressing much further. 
  17. Weightlifting: Mirabai Chanu should get at least the Silver Medal and bury the demons of Rio for good 
  18. Wrestling: India lost one Quota due to Doping. None of their previous medalists qualified for these Games. Yet Wrestling could certainly bring in 2-3 medals with Bajrang Punia, Deepa Punia & Vinesh Phogat starting favourites in their respective categories. 
So overall, this could be India’s best ever Games with a potential double-digit medal count and with some luck in favour could surpass the combined medal count of the last 4 decades! Or we end up with no medals at all. After all these are the strangest Olympics of all times!

And Now let the Games Begin! (Also fingers crossed that the Games proceed with minimal Covid impact) 


Thursday, July 08, 2021

BookMarks #85: Let Me Say it Now

Title: Let Me Say It Now 
Author: Rakesh Maria 
Genre: Non-fiction, Memoirs 
Published: 2020 

“Let Me Say It Now” is the autobiography of Rakesh Maria, the former Commissioner of Police of Mumbai. While featuring his own personal life, it is also a sort of criminal history of Mumbai of the last three decades! Featuring local gangs, international gangs, terrorist attacks, shootouts, serial criminals, diabolical murderers, filmstars, business people, politicians and what not. 

While going through the narrative, got reminded of the adage “Everyone is the hero in their own story”. And why not? Given the high-profile nature of the job that Mr. Maria had. 

Key message - Policing is not easy, especially in a megapolis like Mumbai, and with the resource crunch faced by those in charge. And it’s a job which is filled with brickbats coming from everywhere – politicians, media (& now social media) and even their own internal politics! So it does take a different level of commitment to carry on in the face of all this. 

Recently had read another similar memoir, “Biting the Bullet”. There is stark difference. While Mr. Ajai Raj Sharma’s stories are from rural UP, Mr. Maria’s is from urban Mumbai, making them more in-the-news. But in essence they are same – fighting crimes & criminals. 

Funniest tale from the book – Mr. Maria trying to make his bachelor’s pad presentable to his to-be father-in-law. 

Overall, quite a pacy and interesting read! Less of an autobiography and more of a crime thriller at times.

Previously on Bookmarks: The Vault of Vishnu