Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The (Pulitzer-Prize-winning) Goldfinch

Usually I wait to review a book till after I have read it. But here I would like to capture what I feel before finishing the book because somehow apparently the ending is so awesome it is worth the drudgery.

Actually even if the ending wasn't supposed to be awesome. I'm going to finish the book. Because I'm so close. 90% complete.

I read the first 100 pages trying hard to get involved with the characters and the story but could not. It took me about 200 to 300 pages to get into the story even though there isn't any story to be honest. It's just our lady wanting to write a remarkable piece of literature that some told her, is about descriptions and on and on she goes describing. She describes a scene for some 30 pages and some 100 pages later our protagonist will remember that incident and yet again our writer describes it for 5-10 pages more like as though she has set her mind on using a thesaurus exhaustively such that there are no more adjectives, descriptive nouns and similes left to use for the scene. I think she doesn't know much about metaphors, else she might have used those too.

So bored and lost I was in the adjectives that the one important fact of the story was lost on me. In one very very very very long scene right at the beginning, our protagonist, Theo Decker takes away with him (some may say steals) a masterpiece of a painting from the Dutch Renaissance era, The Goldfinch. As you can imagine from the title of the book, this fact is extremely important to the plot. However I don't know whether I dozed off while reading and then resumed skipping a few pages by mistake not realising I haven't read them (unlikely but awful if true) or if I kept reading the words but my mind wandered away through the various more important and interest topics in this world (more likely) but I know this that I didn't realise Theo Decker took away a painting with him till much later when he kept wondering what to do with it or if he should tell someone about it. (Am I going to stop already?) And any how the plot goes round and round with Theo Decker and his lack of a parent to take care of him and his substance abuse and his mad obsessive love for a girl and all that stuff that as a reader I'm aware I'm supposed to follow him around but I can't get myself to do that. I'm only dragging my feet along and feeling slightly and then more vigorously annoyed.

The entire book screams "I want to be an epic". And off she goes trajectory after trajectory for the poor protagonist that you neither relate to or sympathise with much. And many characters have dead loved ones or they keep dying and not in the George RR Martin way (whose A Song of Ice and Fire, I think, is an epic). And the way the stories go that are sort of epics is that it's a long meandering story where the story itself is important and the climax is immaterial and the story can practically end anywhere in between too and it won't matter. Like Khaleed Hussaini's A Thousand Splendid Suns which I didn't like much (because of the story itself seemingly written for the western audiences) and Amitav Ghosh's Circle of Reason which I absolutely adore for his descriptions (which is the kind that our Tartt is trying to achieve but personally felt poorly done). 

Now let me complete reading...

Here, I'm done. I have no idea why the ending is supposedly awesome. When I got to where my kindle said 99% I kept thinking I'm almost done but it kept going on. You see 1% of the book is about 8/9 pages, 8 boring absolutely incredibility pointless string of words that it was hard to go on but I kept trying. So much 'gyaan' she was trying to give you. You see I had already read the Bhagavad Gita in my life and that is an epic, a part of a much larger piece of literature which defines what the word epic means. So when an orphaned swindler with drug problems and obsessive issues with a painting he stole and hurts and dissapoints everyone who cared for him, tries to tell me the point of life, universe and everything else, it sounds annoyingly stupid.

Psst, it may be that it's an epic of a book worth the Pulitzer Prize (now I'm seriously considering the worth of the prize itself though I look back to find remarkable ones like The Interpreter of Maladies, To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Old Man and the Sea) and it may be that I'm a horribly useless reader whose mind is so narrow and cannot understand the greatness of this 'Dickensian' book that took 11 years to complete, but I'm a reader nevertheless and I think it's a complete waste of my precious time. The writer wasted 11 years but she got her time's worth with the award. Can someone give me an award for reading it?

Sigh! I need to read something written by Amitav Ghosh urgently.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sheroes in Hyderabad 2014

I happened upon an event this Saturday and it turned out to be a great one! BlogAdda has some passes to Sheroes in Your City events across the country for members. I registered for the event in Hyderabad at Radisson last Saturday. And to be honest, I wanted to go just because I had not been to a conference as such. I am not an entrepreneur and didn't really consider it an option for myself. But the event was thoroughly inspiring for me! So I can only imagine how anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit would have felt! For all those of you interested, there are some more coming up, check here.

(I only have one picture and the light is bad but here it is anyway)

To begin with we had TiE Hyderabad president (one of the sponsors of the event), Murali Bukkapatnam who spoke on entrepreneurship and why people choose it. A very informative and inspiring speech, he quoted Tagore on freedom, a few Sankrit slokas on women empowerment and even a song by an African woman that asks for nothing but the blockade be removed from her path. He called the path of entrepreneurship an enchantress that seduces you while you make excuses (not reasons) to be seduced. But the reason he says, is immortality. True! But it's not for everyone and only for those with the inner passion or Antah Prerna which he argues is the origin of the very word. Once seduced, these people with the inner passion will go for it even though the success rate is so low because everything else is simply unacceptable. While Murali believes some of them are born to be entrepreneurs, many can also be made and that's where TiE comes in to hold your hand and mentor you, even if it is just to know that you have someone on your side. Mentors are meant to bridge the experience gap. Murali also reduced the cost of TiE membership for an female entrepreneurs who would sign up on the day and gave away a free membership to the first question from the audience. The audience questions ranged from funding to profitability of social enterprises to the lack of resources and accessibility for people with disabilities to become entrepreneurs.

Sheroes is an inspiration in itself. The short presentation by Sairee on what they do can wake you up to the possibilities or the lack thereof that your have taken for granted until now (which you should not have). The world has changed a lot even if we don't notice it. As Sairee put it, a few years ago you couldn't even imagine there would be a job called gender communication consultant (Bhavna in the audience). What started as a focus on young mothers to help them back in their jobs with their Fleximom and other Mompreneur programmes, Sheroes is now rebranded to focus on all urban women at all levels. They even have the Big Sister programme for starting a difference conversation at the campus level where students question which direction to take in their career, catching them young before the world can tell them that their career is secondary.
Sheroes worked with Principal Adivisors who now have an entire female sales force with flexible working. What would that be called? Feminisation of Workforce! And Sairee threw some light on redesigning today's workforce for empathy and collaboration. While we grow up in a competitive environment, the true future lies in collaboration with the emergence of a sharing economy. True, very true. All our new companies are aggregators or collaborators! Sheroes has branded itself to help urban women and surprisingly there are abysmally low number of initiatives to help the urban women get back on her feet after a career break. On the other hand, rural self-help groups and government and NGO initiatives for rural women are a dime a dozen!

The event invited and introduced us to some interesting stories and the interestingly extraordinary lives of people.

Tavleen Mehendiratta, once an auto journalist reviewing cars and explaining to us the 0to60 acceleration of the high end cars, has had a reality check that cars are heavy contributors to the slowing traffic and the increasing carbon footprints. So now she is busy deconstructing the new buzzword "Smart City". Smart cities need smart cars and she is working with the automobile industry in creating and re-positioning small and green cars for mobility. But smart cities also need smart citizens who don't need a large car for a large ego,and be happy with a cool new smart little car. So Tavleen is helping build a new era of smart citizens by educating them and introducing them to the world of opportunities in the internet of things revolution. Her institute i-Mobility.org conducts workshops for smart city professional certification and internet of things certification. She also introduced us to some of the latest entrepreneurship opportunities stemming out of the internet of things like Flexeye and Traffline.
Ruchika Kar, a Shero, spoke of her start-up groupshoppy with her husband who during the event was taking care of their infant child so that Ruchika could attend the event. A supporting ecosystem, one we all need. Ruchika's groupshoppy had received support and mentorship from Sheroes.
Priya Badshah, with her never give up attitude talked for a length of time on women having a career for life and how she managed to make a comeback in her career after a break every time. Her first career break came when she met with a serious accident, the second when her daughter was diagnosed with learning disability and needed attention, and the third more recently when she was diagnosed with a non-malignant tumor. She came back with a bang every single time and leads a successful corporate life. To begin with, the multitasking was difficult, but soon she began to love it and adore the diversity in her life solving tiny little problems of motherhood like helping her daughter with homework and then go to work and solve the bigger problems of the world like clean energy.

An afternoon well spent! A two-line summary for the event? Tavleen put it well, borrowing Emma Watson's words: If not me then who. If not now then when. Kudos to Sairee and Srishti and the Sheroes team for a successful event and thanks for all the effort that went into making it!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Lego Art

It's about time someone made things out of Lego, no? When I was growing up I didn't have Lego blocks exactly but a friend had them and they give these infield possibilities to build anything you like. It's extremely interesting and inspiring for young.
Or so I thought. Recently when I was trying to buy something for some kid and thought of Legos, I found out that all the infinite possibilities have been reduced to only one single possibility per box you buy. And it's Lego that retains are the infinite possibilities that it sells as infinite sets of boxes, and deprives the parents of infinite money and children of their imagination which was what in the first place made Lego blocks so fantastic. I digress, but I think it's important to point out.
Anyway, now that I explained how Lego lost its intrinsic brand value let's move on to the originally envisaged infinite possibilities of the generation that grew up with regular Lego. And it made me wonder how awesome it would be to make things out of Lego like as though it was real stuff, real material for making things. But I'm gifted with neither an artistic talent nor  capacity for patience so I never even attempted it. Of course someone had to do it and so did Nathan Sawaya.
We went to the Old Truman Brewery on a weekend to view the Art of Brick. It was truly inspiring. And a long exhibition that one. The path through the exhibition starts off by replicating the masters. Here is David by Michaelangelo and Van Gogh's Starry night.

There were more! Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo, Rembrandt selfie and many more.

Then comes the fun part - his own creations. Some fun, like the man inside a man and the solar system. And some profound like the split man, the swimmer.

The exhibition goes on and on and then ends up in sort of an activity centre for kids. I would have moved to stay but it was too crowded and all of them were children.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

BlogAdda and Akshaya Patra fighting hunger !

The possibilities:

I am going to #BlogToFeedAChild with Akshaya Patra and BlogAdda.

Across India you hear a similar theme in every class of people (except the rich): I work hard to provide a good education for my children so they gave a better life. A better life is what we all want for our next generation. And a better life they get, through education. 
Now imagine a classroom full of children eager and willing to learn giving that extra something to make that extra distance. Now imagine this classroom full of children dull and bored and cannot hear a word you say because they are hungry. Now imagine this classroom full of students half empty because they prefer cleaning cars and serving tea for some food. Now imagine the entire class empty and the kids working here and there earning a few rupees, falling into crime, a generation lost!
Why would the children clean cars if it didn't give them a means for satisfying their hunger? It's not like they love cleaning cars. Do you know anyone who loves cleaning cars (except may be someone who loves the car a bit much)? What if the children had a means to satisfy their hunger and revive their chances for a better life? Akshaya Patra does just that. 

How do you eliminate classroom hunger? First you need to find some children enough to fill a classroom. And ensure they go to school instead of work by not only giving them a place to gain knowledge to work but also you feed them with the help of Akshaya Patra. Then you give them a different kind of hunger, a hunger for knowledge and education. 
After the Supreme Court passed a rule in 2008 to feed every child at least one meal a day, what was a right to education became a right to a meal that Akshaya Patra continues to live up to. The world's largest NGO, it is operational in 10 states in India and feeds 1.4mn school children a day. They prepare food in a centralised manner and distribute and where they cannot, they prepare the food closer to the site with the help of women self help groups.

Are there other ways to end classroom hunger ?
Could the schools get all the excess food from private boarding schools? Could private boarding schools pledge to prepare 20% more food and distribute to the nearby government schools? Could weddings and other festivals pledge to distribute a % of the food prepared for the government school children next door ? Could temples pledge to feed a full school every other week ?

BlogAdda has pledged to feed one child for one year for every blogpost you publish. Are you ready to do that ? Time is running out. Check this out:

Help to solve classroom hunger. To find out more click here.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

4/5 rating
Behind the Beautiful Forevers | National Theatre

Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist went to a slum in Mumbai next to the airport called Annawadi and spent three years there living and learning with the slum-dwellers who are mostly rag-pickers. After her return to New York, she wrote a book, a non-fiction narrative about the lives of the people. I haven't read it.

The book was adapted into a play by David Hare who spent time with Katherine and then in Annawadi. It's playing in London at the National Theatre,  Nov-Apr. I went to it this weekend. The audience was largely non-Indian (not even of origin) and also for some reason the average age was much higher as well, say 50. So the people sitting next to us got an interesting perspective I guess.

The first half was very well done. The choice of music was the highlight. The sets were used beautifully to create various effects like a flight landing close by and at one point it literally rains plastic bottles. Every character was so full in spite of only a few dialogues for some of the smaller ones. Most of them managed to maintain an Indian accent and those who could not were largely cast in the roles of the so-called keepers of the law which sort of makes sense but gives it a pre-Independence era feel. The story itself is hard hitting showing how people live in the slums and their little fights all the time. And corruption was shown at every level which I believe is how it happens.

During the interval the lady to next to me, a much older British woman, said that it's really upsetting that the corruption is so deep-rooted and that the police are so powerful. And another older British man asked K if isn't a bit too exaggerated. Well it is upsetting if you didn't know about it all your life and suddenly find out all at once in the span of an hour and it wasn't really exaggerated. But the play struggled to balance the truth because it tried to address and show case too many issued and it became either too much to take that you don't want any more of it or too unbelievable that you could write off. A girl who is not allowed education, a girl who has to stay married to a man with a another woman, a woman who makes a living sleeping with men while her husband drinks himself to slumber, the rag pickers who get beaten up by the police every time they have a run-in.

The second half was much darker. The story takes a turn for the worse and the characters get deeper into trouble, all of them. Unfortunately, there are no more special effects left to show us and no more awe factors. There are a few scenes still that show the creativity of the director like the busy roads of Mumbai. However, details for the same characters that the first half spent so much time investing in building them up did not find any time later on. When the Hussains give away their only and good quilt for their dead neighbour it is neither heart-warming nor even noted properly by the audience. Final scene when the Hussains walk home with Abdul was not impactful due to a melodramatic and rather poor choice of words. While, it was a happy story at the end of it, it wasn't really a happy story at all. The story played up all the hardships but none of the little happy moments. It played up all the jugaad attitude where everyone is out to get everyone else to survive but none of the dependencies on each other that every community needs to survive in India.

I argued with K that it was pretty much like any Indian movie, at least any Tollywood movie - protagonist and family suffer due to societal issues and the ending is always happy with the protagonist coming out successfully. But K had a point, we take one issue out of the plethora of issues that the play showcased and actually find the story solving it and you end up a happy person.

The play was dark with only a very small pinch of hope. And it had absolutely nothing endearing, the lack of which I think, makes it an English play and not an Indian movie.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fighting classroom hunger - Akshaya Patra

The possibilities:

I am going to #BlogToFeedAChild with Akshaya Patra and BlogAdda.

In ancient India, the gurukula system of education was the most prominent. Most people associate gurukula system with a residential education system and we do have a few now. At school level they are considered expensive because you need to pay for food and boarding as well. But the other thing about a gurukula was that it was a self-sustained unit. It taught children not just science and arts but basic survival skills, including cutting fire wood, cooking food and sharing with everyone. The self-sufficiency comes from their own work. Each student shares responsibility to grow grains, vegetables and to cook and clean. The gurukula makes its owns pots and pans out of clay and they work and live together.
I do understand that it is difficult to transfer all those operational features from a forested area abundant with natural resources into today's urban land. But some of it can still be. Almost all government schools have grounds. There could be an area taken for growing a garden for vegetables and spices. These are easier to grow than cereals and pulses, and are generally more expensive in the market. If each class or section of students above a certain class, say class 5, are responsible for certain type of vegetables seasonally,there could be significant burden sharing and variety to eat all year round. The school will still have to buy grains and pulses and may be invest in some basic manure and seeds for the vegetable garden but the students also learn skills of agriculture on a smaller and less task-oriented life style. This gardening time can also be used to translate some of their textbook learning into real life like the shapes of leaves, the types of vegetables, learn more about little insects. This can ensure the parents feel their kids are being educated and not just being used as manual agricultural labour. The kids can also help the teachers in cooking and clean so that it helps maintain a balance of labour and the teachers are not compelled to feel they have an additional burden. 

All this and more and all other suggestions can only work if the students admire their teachers. We need dedicated teachers who really want to teach and change a child's life. Luckily, we do have many. Unluckily, we don't have enough. We need more. 
I think advertisements and campaigns should be more directed to the teachers than to the students. Students are children who may or may not access to these campaigns and many not want to be told what to do or even know what's best for them. The teachers are easier to reach out to, at least we know where they are. If the campaigns give them a sense of purpose and motivate them to help their students, all the ideas can easily be implemented.

Help to solve classroom hunger. To find out more click here.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Going to school...

I might seem like I am just saying this because I don't like change, but I feel that schools today are a bit over the top, trying to give information to children rather than educating them.
I loved school as a child ! I loved it that I could meet all my friends and hang out with them. Classes weren't very difficult and teachers wanted to teach you and guide you and be part of your lives as people. I was trying to remember how I fell in love with school and I remembered I wasn't always like this. I hated school once upon a time.

Just as any child made to go somewhere and be told to do things made me hate school to begin with. Well, hate is a strong word, may be more like dislike. So one morning when I was six years old, it was pouring like crazy. My autowalla did not come to pick me up. And surprisingly I was very upset that I was getting late to school and I just had to go to school! My dad got dressed but he said it's raining so badly may be it's not a great idea to go in this weather. Any kid's dream, right? But no, I insisted I had to go. So my dad took me to school in the pouring rain, me in my rubbery raincoat. And when we reached there, we found out that the school is closed for the day because of the rain. I heard the watchman say it to my dad, but I refused to believe it. I kept saying I came to school, I should be able to attend it. Finally, my dad dragged me back home and for whatever reason, I burst into tears saying I really want to go to school. And my dad and mom laughed while I sat there crying. And when I stopped my mom asked me why I cried. And I said I love school. I don't want to sit at home. I want to go to school!
Now that I think about it, it does feel silly but it was a moment of realisation for me. I wish could be six again, so I could relive my realisation of my love for school and I didn't even know it!

I so wish all the six-year-olds fall in love with their schools too. It would be sad if they grew up resenting school.

This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda.

Update: I can now flaunt my WOW Badge !!!

Alone is Berlin

By Hans Fallada

I've never heard of this book before I noticed someone read it when I was travelling back from Berlin, this summer. Later I realised it's one of the classics to describe Hitler's Germany and how people lived in fear of him. It was the first anti-Nazi book after the world war written by a German. So I read it.

It is a very strong story. It starts very innocently. And describes slowly but surely how everyone takes sides, and everyone has to, at some point choose a side. Those that feel they can gain an advantage using open support of the führer use it like the Persickes. Those who are cowards are used. Those who can leach onto other people's fears use it to their advantage even if they are not in any way linked to the party, like Enno Kluge and Borkhausen. And then there comes a time where everyone is snitching on everyone else because everyone is afraid. So afraid, even high ranking inspectors of the Gestapo are not safe. Everyone is it someone else's mercy. And finally there are either supporters or silent observers who pretend to be supporters lest they are sent to concentration camps for being traitors.
Until of course, some people wake up and realise this that being silent is also a form of agreement. Some then decide to leave the party and Berlin, like Eva Kluge, a diligent postwoman who feels betrayed by her son. Some decide to quietly rebel by leaving enraging postcards across Berlin at public places instigating hatred against their führer, like Otto and Anna Quangel whose only son dies at war. And some decide that they have sinned too much in the name of the führer delivering good decent people as prisoners into the hands of drunken Gestapo officers and leave, like Inspector Escherich.
In the end, many die, through a sentence or murder or suicide or war. Those that are left pick of the pieces, forgetting the past yet remembering that this is a second chance at life to start afresh, building from scratch, like Kuno. Hans Fallada leaves you with some hope.
The book is slow but gives you a deep insight into how people think and goes though the brains of every type of German that lived during the times of the second world war, not those persecuted for being unGerman but those that were supposed to be the führer's people and how they accepted him in fear.
There is an afterword that's a short story taking us through the real life of Hans Fallada and his real name. How he was in despair of alcoholism when he was given the case of the Hemps who were sentenced for leaving post cards all around Berlin after a close kin died in war. He died soon after, before the book was published. He did however say that he wrote a great novel. And a great novel it is.
Fallada's style of writing is so matter of fact that it scares you the most. Like as though the never ending fear of a friendly neighbour snitching on you to the Gestapo is the most obvious thing.

PS: Today is also the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (though this book is not about it).

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Long Song

Miss July, my dear readers, was a mischievous soul who made the mistress scream till she was so tired that when Miss July finally turned up she would be enraged but in no position to punish Miss July. The mistress, Caroline Mortimer wasn't always so easy to provoke. She used to be a happy soul who loved the idea of going around the plantation under the beautiful summer sun. Soon enough the heat of sun, which is harsh unlike in England, and the dust of the land got into her and settled within never leaving. It had made her annoying.
The way Miss July narrates her story, like how there were so many different versions of just her birth, and her condensing voice against all those condensing voices, is an interestingly meandering way of telling a light story.
You see, Miss July was born a slave. Though she didn't look it, she had a white father who was an overseer of her slave mother. She was separated from her mother at a very young age and came into her mistress's care (figuratively speaking). She made the most of it, by controlling her mistress without her mistress really understanding it. She fell in love with an ugly black man who bought his freedom, for that reason. He gave her an uglier baby dark as night and she left him on the steps of a church, because he was black and ugly of course.
She fell in love with a white man who had the bluest eyes and was the rich overseer and could give her a mulatto child, equally for all these reasons. To her pleasant surprise, he loved her too. But he couldn't marry a slave! So he married her white mistress (who was much older but equally enchanted by him) and gave Miss July her mulatto baby girl who was Miss July's pride and her mistresses envy.
And our Miss July, now an old woman is in the care (this time, literally) of her abandoned son who is now a gentleman and a publisher. He insists his mother write her experiences as a slave (now she is free) to be published. The thought itself was appalling and yet she wrote. Not her story, no. But a story which was hers to own, with bits of imagination and reality intertwined. And so comes together The Long Song.
Andrea Levy is the actual author of the book and she uses Miss July's voice so very convincingly based on years of research. I say convincingly like I knew how slaves in the early 1900s talked and lived in the British controlled Jamaica! But definitely convincingly, apparently she had to live in Jamaica for a while just to get an idea of how oppressive the sun and humidity could get.
Slavery of the Africans, their fight for freedom and their freedom are all topics often discussed in the American context but I've never really come across an English perspective. I hear it's a rare one.
The story is not about the slavery, the ill treatment of slaves or their fight for freedom. It is about these people who believed they were better and taught civilisation to other people and the other people who believed they can have a better life if they go up the ladder towards those civilised people. Sounds similar? 
So anyway, continuing with the story, slavery gets abolished in the course of the book even though no one Miss July knows had participated in the struggle for it. One of her colleagues turns drastically against her mistress but apart from that it was all business as usual.
When slavery was abolished all the slaves were told they were free to do whatever and go wherever they please. If they wanted they could continue working on the plantation for a small wage and if they decided to stay in their houses they would have to pay a small rent because the plantation belongs to the owner, the white people. I wonder who did these white people buy the land from?
It's a good read. The voice is beautifully honest, open and completely unhindered. The story is endearing and Andrea Levy captures it all seamlessly. So if you wish to read about slavery, especially the English perspective, you should read this one.
I read it simply because of the narrative, and the blurb on the back cover. You see, I love it when the writer (even if fictional) converses with the reader.
(My favourite reader-author interaction is Ruth Ozeki in A Tale for the Time Being.)

PS: my dear reader, if you remember, this is how I first referred to you in my account of Berlin. It was because this is the style Miss July adopts and I had just begun reading this book.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Freeze your eggs for your company ?

A couple of days ago in the morning news I picked up that Facebook (and soon Apple) provide a core benefit that allows you to freeze your eggs for free. I think the article was called freeze your eggs free your career, or something catchy like that. Of course, there was some outrage around this. My Facebook feed is full of outrage and re-sharing of this news. Well at least some good news that we now know Facebook is not reading our posts then. 

Now my knowledge is only as good as what's reported and we all know news is always sensationalised. Any how here is what I think: 
The issue is that it's a core benefit. If you have a core benefit it implies that it's something you need for a comfortable life. For example, medical cover is needed for you in case you fall sick and you of course want to get better. On the other hand, it's in your company's best interests  to make sure you get better soon and get back to work. But at the same time, you are not expected to use your medical until you need it. Now do you use your benefit and freeze your eggs only if you need to? There is no particular point at which it turns into a need because it's always a choice. But then, it raises the logical question that whether or not you want to postpone your pregnancy why don't you just freeze your eggs anyway, it's free. Well there may be many reasons why personally someone would not want to do that. So even though it's always a choice it creates the air of a non choice. What's in it for the company? If women postponed their pregnancy, company has to find replacements during maternity, ensure continuity of work hours, longer work hours, and hence the freeze-your-eggs option which probably is even economical if the company thinks the maternity pay might actually be around the same expense for it, especially if a women had two children. If that's true, they got their policy right. But on the other hand if they wanted to make it a more conducive work environment for women and ensure they have more control on their careers and pregnancy so that the overall productivity for the company increases, they need to make it optional and broader. I dunno Facebook's policy but most private medical insurance doesn't include maternity cover. Understandably, because it's an assured expense in most cases.
What they could have is an optional benefit of fertility cover at a reduced premium. This is again an assured expense but given the wider variety, the company could possibly provide benefits for everyone. It could include maternity expenses for those having children, fertility enhancing treatment and IVF for those who are trying to have children, adoption and surrogacy expenses for those who want to but can't have children, freezing eggs and IVF for those who don't want to have children right now and any sterilisation surgeries for those who do not want to have children any more.  It need not be only for female employees, male employees will also need to share expenses at most times and men might need treatment as well. It could cover the employee or spouse or both and could be useful for same sex partners as well.

Update: Turns out they do have a decent maternity pay, they do have policies that help with adoption and surrogacy, and they also help you freeze your sperm. Now that's a holistic package, won't you agree! Again, **disclaimer** I got this information from other news media. I guess it's some of the random banter that media people have over in their pass time.
Also, it's a proper surgery. And there are always risks with surgery.
I'm sure there could have been more discussion on the unlimited holiday policy that some companies are bringing on these days.

Anne Frank's Diary

I'm disappointed with myself for not having read this before and I believe I should have read it at school. It should be part of school syllabus or at least flagged and encouraged at school to young teens and preteens. It is across Europe and even in India, it was in school curriculum for my mother. I wonder what happened in my case. Anyhow I began reading it upon my return from Berlin.

While I'm in no way qualified to review this book, neither it's contents nor its author, I can talk about how it made me feel. Like a million others, for all these decades, at the end of it, I wanted to hug myself and cry. That was the effect mostly of the epilogue rather than her diary. The epilogue tells you that this energetic optimistic opinionated teenager that you spent days with, discussing her innermost thoughts including her plans for the future, had had that future snatched from her and from you. You, Kitty, lost your dearest friend.

She is smart, funny, intelligent and in every way I can relate to her. Not to the holocaust or specific subjects or specific incidents, but to the way she feels and thinks and analyses and draws conclusion and occasionally is wrong and how she reacts when she realises she is wrong, the way she is her worst critic and takes in everyone else's criticism. The extroverted introvert. At moments when I read something significantly describing her feelings, I wondered how her father would have felt when he read it for the first time. The pang of pain I felt just thinking about it, I cannot fathom his emotions. I think the reason why this diary became so popular is because it doesn't describe the holocaust or discrimination or the pain of war but it describes a real person going through all of these and reacts not dramatically but really. The emotions are raw and unmasked and absolutely real. You are her trusted friend and she is pouring her heart out to you.
The diary also gives you some solace that her wish to be a writer and a journalist are fulfilled.

Now reading Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Heathrow Minute

In love with airports I must be. But not usually. They are not destinations and they are not places where you want to spend time, unless I hear of it's the Dubai airport. Killing time doesn't put me off, but people watching is certainly boring at airports unlike railway stations. Railway stations, I love!
Heathrow airport is a beauty and I didn't know it till today. Till today I thought it was a chaotic mass of people and flights. Today I witnessed the Heathrow Minute!
While an aeroplane is evidence of amazing engineering, Heathrow is evidence of incredible logistics. And today I think I witnessed it. My flight was in queue and I could see flights in front of it, and flights cutting the queue from other fringes of the fishbone sort of network this was, and the flights in front of us were cutting others in other fringes. They all went one by one on to this long long runway. And when one flight starts moving very quickly on the runway, another already takes its place sometimes even moving along almost behind it. And between one flight going into air and another, it was a few seconds, may not be 45 but certainly not more than 60, definitely not a minute.
Let me explain my dear readers that all over the world flights usually give a gap of roughly 2 minutes between any two flights to take off from the same runway. Heathrow, with all its enormous traffic and large terminals, has only two runways - one to take off and one to land. It would be impossible for all the flights scheduled to land and take off if the gap between any of them is 2 minutes, apparently. Hence, Heathrow logistics devised a method. Each taking off flight would use two separate helical paths - one to the right of the runway and one to the left. And two different helical paths would be used by those landing but those taking off and those landing will overlay the same two helixes, ie same radius and same length between two coils but at slightly different heights hence all together avoiding collision. This gives efficiency and flights don't have to wait too long between each landing or each take off. They optimised this so efficiently that they managed to reduce the time between any two take offs to a minimum of 45secs. This 45 seconds is called the Heathrow Minute. You see what they did there!
And shortly we took off and I could see flights and flights and flights, the entire fishbone network, terminals with flights and more flights. It was night time so our runway looked bejewelled with bright white lights. The whole place was lit up in all colours on the ground, green purple, yellow, blue.
As our flight struggled and flew beyond the cloud cover that had been depressing London for a few days now, in the night I clearly saw the lights and the shadow of another flight and then in the far distance another and then again in the horizon yet another!
How come flights don't drag the clouds along? Or cause rain?
Soon we were high above in the night sky and I could see Venus (I think that's what it is since pole star should be behind me, flying south west). I tried to look higher up in the sky with the limited window view and there limited manoeuvring you could do with your seatbelt, and I saw clearest I could, the big dipper. I must admit, I felt I had moved closer to the night sky, even though I know in the grander scheme of things, this distance decreased is infinitesimally small. I wish my flight had a see through ceiling. Please can we make one? [ update: looks like they are making one]

Night time landing is special too. It gives you a completely different view of the city. The city feels like a thriving, breathing organism and you can see these fibres alive and ripping through it like arteries carrying the life force of electricity.
PS: all written on the flight, using flight safe mode of course. Err, I tried to double check my information on Heathrow Minute but couldn't. So, please feel free to contradict me if you have evidence otherwise. I watched it in an NGC documentary. Else please accept what I write as the supreme truth and nothing but the supreme truth.
PPS: all this talk of airports makes me sad. Visakhapatnam Airport lost it's roof to Hudhud, the cyclone.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ten Days of Travel: Venice

Pretty and pretty busy. As I mentioned earlier K and I ended up in Venice on a weekend. At least thankfully it was two weekends before Clooney and Amal decided to get married. (I heard they shut the grand canal for their wedding, I would have been royally photography hollywoodly pissed with them. Imagine planning ahead and spending so much money just to know that the biggest attraction in Venice is closed.)

We reached Venice late evening on Friday but by the time we stood in the queue and another and got waterbus tickets, it was an hour and the water bus itself took an hour to take us to our bnb because we stayed in Lido, an island off the Venice islands at we reached there at 10pm. We took a Rolling Venice card by the way. It's an under-29 card that gives you discounts etc.
The one hour water bus journey from the train station through the Grand Canal under the Rialto bridge and the Bridge of Sighs, out into the sea near San Marco and stopping every 3 minutes, was actually very pretty giving us a tour of Venice by night. Here is a picture from the scenic trip.

And then generally a few:

Once we reached the bnb, which was a super cute villa with the owner living in an annex (out was it the other way around?), we headed out to have dinner but it was a little too late and we were worried that things will shut down. We needn't have worried though, Lido is village-like but still happening. We went to an Indian restaurant for dinner and made small talk with an older Canadian Pakistani couple at the next table. Venice is full of couples and honeymooners!

By the time we got to Venice we had been walking everyday for hours, for the last 7 days. And after Florence and Rome, there isn't much to see in Venice; it's just a pretty town with its interesting waterways instead of roads or even tiny alleyways. So we pretty much had no agenda and woke up late and took the next water bus to San Marco.
San Marco is like any famous south Indian temple (I say south Indian because I haven't seen many north Indian temples). It's internal walls are all gilded. The difference however is our ancestors used thin gold leaves to cover up all walls and then engrave the stories from our epics while this one used thin gold leaves infused on glass and created mosaics on all walls depicting the stories from the bible. Something like this:

While the church is very pretty, it's hard to see the detail of the gilded glass from far. There is roof top or a mezzanine floor of sorts which you can gain access to. From up there we could see the ceiling and walls in much better detail. There was a museum too of a few artifacts from the church that were preserved including four horses. These horses are made of bronze with lots of ugly scratchings on the polished bronze. Apparently that was intentional because the bronze shone so brilliant in the summer sun that people had difficulty looking at the horses!

The only other thing that was on our agenda was the Florence-missed Leonardo da Vinci museum. But on our way we saw a museum on making violins and violas and all kinds of magical things with the background score of a Vivaldi composition.

 Now as I've mentioned before in the previous post, it's not a museum of da Vinci's works but a tribute museum to his works. It contains wooden models, most of them working models of the sketches that Leonardo da Vinci provided for various inventions.
He was an incredible mind and his reach so far and wide, from architecture to machine guns and defence strategies to engineering. He studied transmission of motion and energy vividly. Here is a model (not working) of a flying man and another walking on water. 

Now that we are done with everything on the agenda we just mostly walked, only stopping by to have some OK food in the overpriced restaurants. There was this restaurant with a terrace seating with great views of the city but the reviews on TripAdvisor were really bad for the food and for the pricing too. So we decided to go before dinner at around 5pm and generally have some snacks or not. Because otherwise they would charge you a cover charge. We noticed that a lot of other people were doing the same thing. We got done beautiful views. We also captured some cruise ships ( honestly I think K never saw a ship before!!!! hope he doesn't read this).

But the views didn't include most of the city but just one sided and that too towards the sea. So we went up the bell tower. But it was nearly night by the time we got up there because we first spent a lot of time finding the public loo and upon realising it was closed, spent a lot more time going into a random restaurant and finding a socially-not-so-awkward time to use their loo and leaving without eating there or buying anything. K thinks I'm a sentimental fool to worry so much. He would have just gone to the restaurant in the first place and wouldn't have bothered with small talk. Anyway it was night. We got some great views but would have been better in the day.

We walked all the way to Rialto bridge to see the market and realised it's closed because it past 5pm. So we ate some decent pizza and walked around some more. We reached Lido quite late. And we were expecting to see shops closed, restaurants empty and generally like what we saw the previous day. But we saw a bustling centre very much alive and happening. Not as crowded as Venice which is a good thing. There was an open orchestra on a bridge and lots of people around it dressed for all occasions; the cyclists who stopped by to listen, the midnight strollers like ourselves just hanging around, fancy restaurant diners at their tables in flowing clothes and dribbling champagne, kids running around the water fountains. The orchestra was wonderful and the night was magical.

The next day. Our final day of our 10 day trip was only a half day. To make the most of it, we went to Cannaregio as early as we could, sat like 11am! It's supposedly the non-touristy area of Venice, off Grand Canal and close to the station. It was not touristy at all. It was just canals and alley ways of canals. A large square in the middle of the Jewish ghetto with a museum for the victims of Nazis did attract a few walking tour groups but largely it was a local area. We didn't go into the museum - we didn't have time and I wasn't about to get sad.

We strolled through the narrow footpaths next to canals and walked up and down bridges. We looked for TripAdvisor's most amazing cafe around and unfortunately the food was so horrible we ate two bites and left the rest. And then we were on our way to the airport.

To get to the airport we took a waterbus from Cannaregio to Piazzala Roma. From Pizzala Roma we took a PeopleMover (honestly that's what it's called and it's like a large cable car except it's cables are below on rails and not above; it's called a fennicular) to a island called Treviato. It's a parking island. It is created so that the residents of Venice may still buy vehicles and park them here. This island is connected to the mainland by a long road bridge. And then we took a bus to the airport, all because we were taking the flight from another Treviso airport. If it were Marco Polo we could take a waterbus all the way.

And we reached home after 10 days of travel.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ten Days of Travel: Florence

On a 'fine' Wednesday morning K and I took a fast train from Rome to Florence. It rained a lot during the journey and on our way to find our little airbnb-booked guest house. Cute it was. And raining the morning was. And sleepy we were. And nothing to do till 11am to go for the renaissance tour by the Florence Free tours. (So you can imagine how early we woke up).

The renaissance tour introduced us to some of the beauty of Florence with the sculptures and paintings of the great renaissance artists including of course, our favourite Michaelangelo. The tour started at Piazza San Marta Novella and walked through to the Florence cathedral, and the church of Santa Croce. The Florence cathedral is a different kind of beauty, a renaissance church in all its glory. It had a dome that is at odds with the rest of the structure because the calculations were slightly off and the dome had to be constructed differently with an octagonal base.

The guide also pointed out Florence as the fashion capital with Ferragamo museum and the new Gucci museum. Right next to our stay was a massive leather market. Now that I'm writing about it I wonder why I didn't shop!

I wanted to visit Florence because it was the city that Leonardo Da Vinci spent his interesting life in and the Medici's were the first bankers to rule. And I not so long ago read Dan Brown's Inferno (now now, Dan Brown may not be right or amazing but he did describe Florence beautifully). So I was delighted to walk on the cobblestones of Florence listening to the stories of the wonderful art that flourished. We grabbed some food in a little local shop and had some lemoncello before coming back for another tour by the Florence free tours, the Medici tour. 

The Medici tour was more fun simply because the Medici's were insane. The place where the Medici's are buried has a big hole in the middle because they wanted to bring the body of Jesus from Jerusalem to their tomb so that they all can be buried next to the Son of God, the audacity of it is hilarious. But the Medicis did rule successfully for many years were patrons of art and science which flourished. The guide took us along the Vassari corridor, except from the outside (if you want to go inside you would need to go into the Uffizi and should have booked a guided tour of the corridor). The corridor is another example of the eccentricities, built so that the Medici family can walk between their palaces and attend church without ever having to be seen by outsiders so as to protect themselves from potential assassins. The tour ended at the end of the corridor at Pitti Palace which has the famous Boboli gardens. We didn't go in though.

We spent the evening and night, until we got tired at the Piazza della Signoria, the biggest example of the endorsement of art by the Medicis. It is a piazza where some sculptures, really amazing masterpieces, were generally displayed for the public. Michaelangelo's David was here until it was taken inside the Gallerie Accademia to protect it and was replaced with a replica. The piazza also hosts the originals of the Rape of the Sabine, a master piece in its depiction, the Hercules and Cacus, and the Perseus with Medusa's head. 

The next morning we went to the Gallerie to see David. The replica does not do justice. Honestly, no picture does justice to the original sculpture. Michaelangelo's master piece captures such determination in his eyes, in his taut body, in the veins of his hands and tightened muscles. This is David, not the shepherd victorious over Goliath, but the classical hero ready and waiting to strike Goliath at the right moment. Looking at the sculpture makes you want to have that sense of purpose in life. See what are art did there? 
I have some pictures here but as a said, it's impossible to capture the perfection.

See the veins?:

This was originally placed in the piazza I mentioned, right in front of the Medici offices, Palazzo Vecchio. It was said that Michaelangelo had intended to place David looking at the goliaths of Medicis, challenging them as a common man.

Time was running out for us in Florence and we had many more things to do but we could only pick a few. For the next we picked the Galileo museum. It actually turned out to be the museum of science, time, astronomy, cartography, navigation, etc. It starts off when earth was at the centre of our universe and moves through history all the way to electricity and electric machinery. This is an astronomy model of time, sun, moon, earth, heavenly bodies and zodiacs.

We also got to see Galileo's telescopes, the ones with which he proved that the sun is after all in the centre (though now we know it's an inconspicuous little star in the universe). And for some random reason they also displayed some mummified body parts of his, like fingers or something.

The next thing in our agenda was the museum of Leonardo da Vinci which is not really a museum since it doesn't curate old paintings or anything and we were running out of time and there's one in Venice, so we gave it a miss. Instead we went to Piazza del Michaelangelo. It's a piazza on top a hill from where you can get glorious views of the city like this one:

The piazza is named after Michaelangelo because his disciples decided to pay tribute to him by making his replicas and displaying them there. So there was yet another David. We also went there because a gelato festival was happening that weekend. The gelato was invented in Florence when one of the women of the Medici family was married to the prince of France and a sorbet was invented for the wedding as dessert. So this festival is apparently big but it was actually very small. We tasted some: a cheesecake gelato, of course a 'David' gelato, a strongly tumeric flavoured gelato, and a slightly regular type of gelato.

And then we hurried back down to the bnb, picked up our bags and went on our way to the train. We got on the wrong train and kept searching for our seats until we realised it was the wrong train. Got on the right one just in time.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ten Days of Travel: Vatican

On Wednesday, we spent most of the day at the Vatican. Not really. You can go to the Vatican museum (including the Sistine Chapel) and Saint Peter's Basilica without issue even though they are within the Vatican border. But we can't go beyond that without permission.
The museum is really vast and it's recommended to take a guided tour. The only one that was available was at 8.30 in the morning. We took it anyway, assuming we can also do the basilica before lunch. As it turns out, the basilica is closed on Wednesday mornings. The Pope gives audience and gives sermon at 11 am and it doesn't have a scheduled end time. So we ended up spending a good 4.5 hours in the museum. The guide said Wednesday mornings were the best time to visit the museum because of less crowds with the basilica closed, but we didn't understand that until after an hour after the tour ended.

The guided tour lasted for about two hours. The guide showed us some amazing sculptures of people and gods from the 1st and 2nd centuries. We saw elaborately decorated bath tubs, and a collection of tapestries and paintings. Most of these possessions have either been curated or been gifted to the pope, Pope Julius II, who had the likes of Raphael and Michaelangelo as friends. Interestingly, in this Vatican museum that was curated by the Popes, there were a large amount of pagan references in sculptures and other objects. There was even a vast room modelled on the pantheon! 

The guide then took us to the Raphael rooms which were four rooms with massive paintings by Raphael depicting various ideas in renaissance style. There were two painting facing each other one showing the virtues of religion and one the scholarly virtues. The painting of the scholarly virtues is interesting. Raphael painted Aristotle with Leonardo da Vinci's head, Plato with a famous architect's head, a self portrait as an enthusiastic teacher with kids, and Michaelangelo's gloomy faced head on a writer. Here is it:

The guide finally left us outside the Sistine chapel having described all the eccentricities captured by Michaelangelo. Sistine Chapel is considered as Michaelangelo's masterpiece. He painted marvellously the entire ceiling in his early 30s, including the birth of Adam that I have not been able to photograph due to restrictions on photography (which I followed) but have lifted off wikipedia:

Since he painted the genesis, after Adam, Eve was created as well. However, Michaelangelo is bad with women figures. She looks weird, no wonder it's not famous. Here it is in any case:

He also painted the altar wall with the judgement day at the age of 61. Turns out Michaelangelo had a sense of humour. He painted an annoying clergy as a man in hell getting is private parts bitten by a snake, possibly biblical? More interestingly he painted Jesus at the centre as a strong classical hero! I didn't realise it was Jesus at all, not the lanky man with a beard. And he painted everyone nude (and for all these reasons the clergy man was pretty upset) but Michaelangelo being who he was, no one questioned him. Funnily, as soon as he died, the Pope got another painter in, to lightly paint clothes over these people.

If you are on a guided tour, you can go out of the Sistine chapel taking the door to the right and going into the premises of Saint Peter's Basilica. But since it was not open, we took the door to the left and went back into the museum. We went to the picture gallery that the guide recommended. There are so many amazing renaissance painters that we never heard of and this picture gallery was an adobe to that. After that we had some more time left and we decided to go in search of the Van Gogh paintings which are nearer to the Sistine chapel and we made our way back towards it.
As we began walking we realised we merged into a crowd and became a part of a massive sea of humans, all moving through the museum in a single direction to the Sistine chapel. It didn't matter that some of these people were taking a guided tour because there was no time or space to stop, admire, listen to your guide or ponder. You simply could not go against the current. And then we realised why we were lucky this morning.
After some tired nudging and pushing, we saw a small side alley into an Egyptian section and we slipped in for since fresh air. What a beautiful section it was, putting the British Museum to shame.

But we soon found out it took us all the way back to the main entrance so we retraced our steps instead and joined the section of the sea where we broke off and made it to the Sistine chapel once more (forget the Van Gogh, no time or energy). This time we took the door to the right entering the basilica's area by the back door and cutting through the long queues at the main door.
Saint Peter's Basilica is massive.

In every corner is a masterpiece. In one such corner, cordoned off and glassed up (I have no idea why) was Pieta by Michaelangelo.

In the middle is a papal dias where the Pope had sat an hour ago giving his sermon. Behind St longivis is small door taking you into the crypts below where the popes were buried and one princess and some Roman remains. Pope Julius II is buried here. On our exit we found we were where we started, at the back door. Next to it was a queue, a long one, to go up the dome but we were positively tired by then. So we exited from the main entrance and walked all the way up to the front of the piazza to have a look at the grandeur of the basilica. I have a picture here but unfortunately the chairs put up for the papal audience spoil the view.

And we went back to Rome on foot.