Wednesday, May 31, 2006

If I could I would...

......but can't.

Blogging daily, that is.

I try to follow a disciplined blogging schedule, writing about twice a week. But the next two or three months are likely to be very busy, and it's already become hard for me to keep up with my blogging schedules.

I'd rather write one good article a week, than put up two or three so-so ones. I also enjoy the process of writing, after a relaxing evening. So, for the next couple of months, till work gets lighter, I'll keep to a post a week.

Hopefully, the quality of the posts will go up, as the frequency goes down!

So.....I'll try to make all your visits worth your time!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Participatory democracy

Seattle, where I live, is a medium sized city, only the twentieth largest city in the country. The greater Seattle area though is much bigger than the half a million population of Seattle, and the central Puget Sound area encompasses the populous technology hubs of Bellevue and Redmond, and the Boing dominated areas like Kent and Renton. The “greater Seattle area” has approximately 1.5-1.75 million people.

Not too large, by Indian standards, yet fairly large.

Not surprisingly, the area is having it’s own infrastructure problems, with pressures on (a currently good) public bus transport system, and highways clogged with cars inching along during rush hour.

The growing pressures of population demanded new infrastructure, and an increasing demand on efficient public transport. So the past five years (at least) have had heated debates on what would serve the city best: a greater network and fleet of buses, a monorail, or a light-rail. Interestingly, the regional transit system of the entire central Puget Sound area is managed by a single entity, Sound Transit.

For a while, it looked like the monorail would win this race. But finally, the decision fell on light rail, and the progress since work started a few months ago has been very speedy and systematic. The process was frustrating, and debates raged endlessly. People made glib jokes on the bureaucracy and lack of efficiency, and said “nothing would ever happen”. But, in this whole process, a few key features stood out (to me).

1) There was a commissioned study on the three modes of transport, with their pros and cons. The results of these studies were made available publicly (and were linked on sites such as this one.
2) Sound Transit held a number of public meetings, where the public were asked to come and participate (there were some ten in January), and the public were allowed to voice their opinions.
3) The transit system (eg. the monorail) were put to vote, and were part of the local elections.
4) There has been extensive coverage by the local media, that’s largely been very responsible, and has always announced public meetings/hearings in local headline news.

Nothing special, you might think.

But I look back to my home “town” of Bangalore (should I say mega village?). With around 6-7 million people, it’s bursting at the seams, and the efforts to improve public transportation are perhaps starting 3 million people too late (but starting, none the less).
Every day one reads a report saying “metro on its way”, but what’s on its way is usually shrouded in complete secrecy.

I do not know if any study was ever carried out on what mode of public transport would be best for the city (metro, monorail, feeder bus systems, whatever else), where the details have been made publicly available (even after the Right to Information act that came about recently).

As far as I know, there were no public meetings held to ask the people of the city to participate in the creation of a system that would adversely affect them during its creation, and they are the ones supposed to benefit from it after it is made.

Local media coverage by the big newspapers (TOI, Deccan Herald, the Kannada dailies) has largely been devoid of any useful information, and contain only some announcements made by the incumbent chief minister (starting with Krishna, through Dharam Singh and now Kumaraswamy).

The point of this post really is to highlight the fact that democracy is alive and kicking at the national or perhaps even state level. People, especially the poor, go out in droves and vote during elections. Media gleefully report 60% turnouts, and snigger at the 25% turnouts (on good days) in America and other countries of the west. But the concept of local democracy, and people having a say in what affects their daily lives, remain alien to most people.

This is partly why the Right to Information Act, passed recently, which can be such a powerful empowering tool, is yet to even begin making a difference. The key to a vibrant, efficient democracy (and even the US is far from being one) is participatory local democracy. When the CM touts “Public-private” initiative, the public, meaning citizens, need to know what they are being involved in. And if they’ve been taxed for a metro (yes, petrol in Bangalore has a metro tax on it), the darn well deserve to know where the metro is, or where the money is.

In this regard, I’d like to also point you towards a fantastic initiative in Bangalore for people’s participation for better quality governance, collective ownership, and greater government accountability, Janaagraha. I heard about it from some friends, and from what I see and have heard, these are the kind of efforts that citizens need to take. If you live in Bangalore, and are reading this, go get involved.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Movie review: The warrior

A couple of years ago, there was a little buzz about a film by a British filmmaker of Indian origin, Asif Kapadia. It was called The warrior, and went on to do rather well in the indie film circuit. But it took a long time to release on DVD here in the States. It finally was released last month, and I finally watched it a week ago.

As the titles rolled out on screen, in a stark desert backdrop, a warrior appeared, practicing his swordcraft. And soon, we plunged right in to the story. The DVD cover described this as “a timeless epic tale, of a warrior’s change of path, and quest for meaning in life.” Those words of course are used by marketing wizards to describe just about all movies, so don’t count for much.

But the tale is set in India, in the desert climes of Rajasthan, in feudal days gone by. It’s the story of Lacfadia (played by Irfan Khan), a yodha, a warrior-enforcer of a small-time local warlord. A normal day at work for Lacfadia would be to ride out on horseback with his band of fellow warriors, and raid and pillage a village or five on the behest of his bloodthirsty lord. But then, he would return from work to a home where his teenage son Katiba lives. A boy still dreaming of one day becoming a warrior, but currently busy in play, and visiting village markets.

On one routine raid-and-pillage act in a village, Lacfadia has “a moment”. One moment of blinding vision, just as he’s about to hack the head off a little girl. It’s his moment of nirvana. He drops his sword, and walks away from the battleground, abandoning his band of warriors. He then vows never to take up arms again, and tries to escape with his son.

But his lord is enraged at his abandonment, and sends out his warriors (Lacfadia’s own former mates) for Lacfadia’s head. If you’ve seen any more than five movies in your life, you will guess that along the way, tragedy will happen, and there’s little chance for Lacfadia’s son Katiba to survive. You’ll be right. But then, to keep the movie going, Lacfadia will have to escape, and he does, and he makes his way up north to the Himalayas.

Where else does an Indian go in search of peace and enlightenment?

Along the way, he makes the unlikeliest of friends, and meets simple, normal village folk, from whom he’ll learn much.

But this movie is not only about the story. There’s little hidden here, and the director, Kapadia, draws rather obvious inspiration from the classic “man with no name” Westerns, and much more so from the classic Samurai movies that made legends out of directors like Kurosawa and actors like Toshiro Mifune. This movie pretty well might be the first Indian Samurai film, made in Hindi.

Of course, it turns out that it’s not an Indian movie, but a British one, but why split hairs?

Like all good Samurai movies, this movie too builds slowly, and you are drawn to Lacfadia’s character as he wanders along the countryside. There are plenty of moments of subtle humor, as events seem to pass us by, just like all good Samurai movies must have. It remains, to the very end, a very earthy story, not a fantasy about great warriors with spectacular armies and magical powers, but a simple soldier-warrior, encountering peasants, and armed with a rusty old sword (which he renounces anyway).

And of course, he’s being pursued by his former-friends turned enemies. Which obviously means he’ll be forced to lift up the sword again. And the story slowly builds towards this inevitable, inescapable end.

In reality, the story is just average. Kapadia is so much in awe of the greats who made the Samurai flicks that he misses out on fleshing out the story well enough. There aren’t too many sub-plots that add to storylines. The buildup to the final confrontation leaves much to be desired. The final confrontation of Lacfadia with the other warriors, and his revenge (over his son’s death) is rather tame. His final enlightenment has a little twist, but nothing unpredictable.

But why am I complaining? Even simple, mediocre stories when made well can rise towards excellence. And Kapadia’s movie does that, through its moments and performances. The cinematography is absolutely spectacular. The arid desert landscapes of rural, medieval Rajasthan are captured beautifully, from the sand-dunes to the mud huts and forts, to the colorful people and camels. A far better job than any tourism website can boast of. And as Lacfadia goes towards the Himalayas, the transition from desert sand to rock to green and water, and finally snow is just breathtaking. There is obvious symbolism too, and the stark harshness of the desert to the calm serenity of the Himalayas accompany the transformation of Lacfadia himself and the completion of his quest.

Most of all, Irfan Khan underplays Lacfadia’s role to perfection. I’ve always been very impressed by the man, who consistently impressed in roles as varied as the menacing Ranvijay Singh in the excellent commercial flick Haasil, or the brilliant Indian Macbeth, Maqbool. Here, it’s his show from start to finish. Lacfadia’s little teaser games with his son, or his confrontation moments are all performed perfectly by Khan.

Dash it. The marketing buzzwords of “poetic, timeless, beautiful” work just fine for this movie.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

From Bollywood to Hollywood

A couple of days back I was watching a DVD of the recent Nicholas Cage flick, Lord of War. It turned out to be an average thriller about weapons sales across the world, with a rather cynical (but perhaps reasonably accurate) portrayal of how weapons are stolen to anyone who can pay, and where the weapons come from. The highlight of the movie (to me) was Eamonn Walker’s portrayal of Andre Baptise, an African warlord, and dictator of Liberia (based on the real life former tyrant of that poor African country, Charles Taylor).

But there’s one scene that caught me completely by surprise. Cage is flying in some serious weaponry to Liberia, and his plane is tailed by Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hunt...yikes, Hawke (thanks Patrix)), who forces him to land, and then cuffs him and leaves him stranded in the wilderness.

The soundtrack starts playing as Cage sits silently on a box. It sounds uncannily familiar, but only for a moment.

I realize I’m listening to a tune I know very, very well, from an old favorite movie of mine.

It’s the theme music from Mani Rathnam’s Bombay.

Then, at the end of the movie where the credits appear, I see A.R. Rahman’s name, and a clear statement of permission from Universal Music.

Excellent.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Simply South Part II

Living in the West coast, one is far, far away even from memories of the American Civil War. But when you visit Charleston, South Carolina, you cannot walk three downtown blocks without being reminded of the war that shaped and changed America forever. Charleston was the city where the Confederate states signed to secede from the Union. The first shot of the civil war was (according to one story) fired here. The longest siege in American history took place right across Charleston, in the Bay, at Fort Sumter. That war truly is still remembered in every corner of this city.

The civil war changed many things for ever, and I was reminded of one of it’s greatest impacts, when we drove by a large, very old market (now selling sea food, curios and sweet grass baskets. This was, over a hundred years ago, the local slave market. It’s the same walls, but a world of difference inside.

The civil war also resulted in some major technical innovations that changed warfare forever. The machine gun was invented and first used during the civil war. Repeating rifles were perfected, and iron-clads, those lumbering, steam-powered, armored ships that were the forerunners of modern battleships, were first made and used during the civil war. There are too many stories about great naval ironclad battles, and I was quite hoping to find one, preserved beautifully (as most historical artifacts are here in the States) around these parts. Alas, I couldn’t find any.

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We did find some other kinds of naval ships though. The US military presence is everywhere in these parts. The South remains the largest recruiting region for all the armed forces in the States. Almost every one has friends or family who are serving or have served in the armed forces. There are a number of naval bases all around. So, we were hardly surprised to find the historic USS Yorktown decommissioned and resting as a museum in Charleston harbor. This aircraft carrier is perhaps the most well known of all US ships, with a glorious combat record from World War II (more here). Harbored adjacent to it are two other decommissioned ships, USS Laffey, a WWII destroyer, and USS Clamagore, a diesel attack submarine. It was fascinating, walking through the submarine, in little torpedo rooms which were claustrophobic for a handful of tourists, but which held eighteen sailors in just that little room, while in service. The aircraft carrier Yorktown now houses a little museum of flight, holding fighters and bombers from World War II, and some more modern planes as well. It was fascinating walking through the ship, and learning about the great wars.

Perhaps India’s own recently decommissioned first aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, with it’s own glorious past, will find a suitable permanent home as a museum, for generations to remember.

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Charleston city itself is architecturally unlike any US city I’ve been to. The city has strived to maintain it’s historic character. So, there are NO high rise buildings in the entire downtown (the tallest building seemed to be some 6-7 stories high). Most buildings are a few decades old at least. Newer houses are built strictly according to old colonial style houses, that rich plantation owners once lived in. The downtown itself reminded me of some older European cities (though Charleston is a bit run down). The oldest house we passed by (which perhaps was the oldest house in the city) was built in 1690 (or thereabouts). A nice feeling of history all around. Interestingly, many of the older houses had interesting styles. Most houses these days have a large fa├žade facing the street. But the older houses here seemed to run from front to back, with long balconies or porches on the side, but very little area out in front, with just a little door to the house. The more ornate door to enter the house was on the right side. This seemed rather odd, until I found out that in the old days, property tax for houses was based directly on how much front area the house had! So, all one had to do to save some tax money, would be to build the houses with balconies and entrances on the side. The houses themselves were gorgeous (the plantation owners must have been glad to have slaves, if not the expenses in keeping paid servants would have driven them bankrupt), and the postcard pretty rainbow row of houses was beautiful, with each house painted a different color or shade. Architects, urban planners, designers and civil engineers would just love to visit this city.

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The nicest thing about the South Atlantic coast is that the water is warm. The Pacific Ocean on the west coast is so darn cold (even in California, leave alone Washington) that even getting the feet wet is hard. So when I got in to the water there, for a few moments I felt like I was back in Madras, enjoying the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal. No wonder Hilton head and Myrtle beach are so popular.

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Travel has plenty of little highlights. Ours was finding a little fridge magnet, with a recipe for the nasty Okra gumbo on it.

Truly, only in the south.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Simply South Part I

This last week(end) we went down to the south, to visit the Carolinas, the very heartland of Southern charm and culture. While waiting for the connecting flight to SC in the airport, I was staring at the departure board, when a really elderly lady, who was knitting something next to me, let out a gasp, and said;

“Can you wear those shoes on a kayak?”.

I turned to see her staring at my sandals. I wear these nice, rugged sandals that are perfect for hiking for two little reasons. They’ve got fantastic soles, and so you can walk on hills even while letting your feet breathe, and the nicest thing about them are that their toes are capped, so you cannot stub your toes.

The lady (who, a little later, told me that she was 87 years old) was rather chatty. She called herself a “curious Southern girl”, but really was just an old lady who loved to talk. She was from North Carolina, but now lived in a retirement/old age home in Maine. I felt a little sad on hearing her story. She lived alone out there, but had some (old) friends in the same apartment. Her great source of entertainment was taking out her little plastic kayak on the lake close to which she lived. It really seemed like a very lonely life, far away from family. She told me of one story, of a neighbor dying in his sleep. No one found out he was dead for a whole week. By then, the hallway started smelling, so they finally entered his apartment to find him rotting.

She’d lived an interesting life, first out in the country (where she had her own Appaloosa horse as a girl), and then as a nurse in various towns in the south. She’d had two hopeless marriages to two drunks, the first of whom she kicked out (and was proud of it), and the other she left (and was proud of it too). Her little joy was visiting her sons and their kids, once every year or two. Her other great joy seemed to be her new dentures (which I said looked perfectly real, and that made her very happy too).

She hadn’t visited her sons for two full years now. While she asked me where I was from, she started talking about how much she missed the south.

“It’s the food you miss most of all”, she said (while I shuddered thinking of Southern food).

Then she suddenly regained her chirpiness, and excitedly exclaimed (in a typical Southern drawl);

“Ya know what? I’m going to have the time of my life the next two weeks, eatin’ all the food I’m not allowed to eat. Ah told ma boy he’s to let me eat what I want now. And I told him to come and git me at the airport, and have with him a big cup of chilli, and some rice and barbecue.”

And (as I tried not to gag), she gave one of the happiest smiles I’ve seen on any one in a long time.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Vacation for a few days

I will be offline for the next week. Hopefully posting will resume on Tuesday, and I will have some travel writing up then. So, till then, be safe, and come back next week.