Saturday, November 26, 2011

Invictus And The Madiba

One great leader who had always fascinated me is the Madiba, Nelson Mandela.
The reasons for the fascination are many. For one it is the Africa connection - I had known of Mr. Mandela since 1984 or so, when the anti-Apartheid struggle was at its peak. At that time I was barely 8. Newspapers in Zambia were full of news on the anti-Apartheid struggle and Mandela. One just just could not miss that.
The second was the way Mr. Mandela maintained his dignity and guarded his sanity despite 27 years of his incarceration, which is in no way a small achievement. He came out of the Robben Island prison and literally took his nation from isolation to the center stage of the world.
Thirdly, and certainly, not lesser in importance, Mr. Mandela passed on the baton after a single term as president of the Rainbow Nation. How many world leaders have actually had the guts to do that? Our own stalwarts, in India, desperately clung on to power till they died, little did they concentrate on building systems and structures to serve the country. However, Mandela created a system that was independent of him, that lives on, despite his not being active on the political front.
Fourthly, the Madiba envisioned a nation of unity, not a nation divided by sectarianism. He walked the talk, when he supported the Springbok rugby team in the face of severe opposition. He selected the Day of the Vow, which was celebrated to commemorate the victory of the Boers over the local Zulus in 1838, in the Battle of Blood River, where over 3000 Zulus were massacred. The majority had long viewed the Day of the Vow as an oppressive celebration. However, the Madiba prevailed, and today, the Day of the Vow is celebrated as the Day of Reconciliation to foster national unity.
A few years back I read the Madiba's autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. More recently I saw Invictus that captured the journey of the Springbok rugby team - a symbol of Apartheid from the lows of ignominy to the heights of winning the World Cup. That was all because the Madiba rallied the Rainbow Nation's support for the Springboks. The Springboks, thanks to their skipper, Francois Pienaar on the other hand, matched the trust the nation, and the Madiba had reposed in them. Imagine how well can Indian politicians leverage use cricket to harmonize India, but I can trust them for never doing it. It's rather sad we, in India, never had a Madiba.
The Madiba's nature came out very well in an interview Francois Pienaar gave on Invictus, on how he developed a deep bond with the family.

The Madiba has had his style-statement - the Madiba shirt - shirts printed with African motifs, in the pan-African colour combination of black or green or yellow or red. He broke out of the mould - the conventional, stiff dressing style of world leaders.
The movie Invictus, as well as his autobiography did allude to the fact that Madiba drew the strength of his character from a poem, Invictus, written by William Ernest Henley, an English poet, way back in 1875. That shaped his attitude in the years after he left Robben Island.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

If such powerful words could steer the Madiba to greatness, imagine what they can do to all of us!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Chessboard Is Set!

As I had been predicting for long, today, Asia looks like a stage perfectly set for another version of the great game.
The last two months have been peppered with small developments all over Asia that signal a significant undertones of the evolving great game.
China has been threatening Indian vessels - both naval and exploratory vessels operating in the South China Sea, off the Vietnamese coast, which is claimed by China as its own fiefdom, ignoring the rights of the littoral states that abut the sea. Vietnam and Philippines have also faced the brunt of Chinese aggression in the region. By that logic, the entire Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal is our area, and wouldn't it be sane to boot the Chinese from its upcoming bases and listening posts in Myanmar (Coco Islands) and Sri Lanka.
Another signal of capitulation was the American denial of advanced F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan - that is despite the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 which obligates the United States to provide weaponry for defence of Taiwan against the obvious aggressor. Instead the Americans dangled an offer to upgrade Taiwan's aging F-16 fleet. It appeared that the United States capitulated under Chinese pressure. Was there a quid-pro-quo - the United States gives up in return for Chinese economic support?
But then Japan, the United States, Australia and India revived the idea of a dialogue on regional security. It is understood from the press that India expressed its discomfort in participating in the dialogue given the mistrust that Australia had shown towards India by denying us uranium supplies. The Rudd doctrine seems to have been given the boot by Julia Gillard, in an unprecedented, but pragmatic move.
Australia because of its strong regional presence has an important role to play, India knows that and would be willing work alongside the Australians. The major irritant, uranium, would hopefully be dealt with, but public opinion in India could be a deciding factor, for there has been simmering anger over continued racist attacks against Indian diaspora in Australia.
But then baby steps are being taken and some military exercises are being planned.
Within India, not only in the north, but also in the south, there is a great public anxiety over the Chinese military build-up on the northern borders. The government has to get its act together to equip the forces in the north with infrastructure and armaments. We need fighter squadrons and mountain battalions in these regions. India, according to the defence journalist, Shiv Aroor, is likely to test fire the Agni V missile, with a range that covers the whole of China and beyond.
India off late has given the Chinese more than enough signals that we would not capitulate. Deepening ties with Vietnam have led to speculate that it emerge as "India's Pakistan" vis-a-vis China. I doubt that personally, but certainly we can work together in an alliance.
Defence buys from the United States are increasing. That without question, as history has proved, lays the foundation for military alliances.
The Chinese will certainly be irritated with the Americans and the Australians with the opening of the Darwin military base, one of America's biggest bases in the region. The first brick of the alliance has been laid.
China has economic and military might, but at the same time its conduct has made it appear demonic in the region, laying to rest all that talk about the "peaceful rise". If such conduct continues, Asian powers with the United States will coalesce into an Asian NATO. India should not shy away from partnering the United States, Australia, Japan, Vietnam and other powers here in the region, as Chinese provocation would not abate any time now. That was obvious when the Chinese Ambassador to New Delhi, Zhang Yan, asked an Indian journalist to shut up when being questioned about an inaccurate depiction of the Indo-Tibetan border. If the Chinese provocation continues, we do have the Tibetan card to play.
The next 15 years will, undoubtedly, be very interesting. The strategies will play out on this vast chessboard that stretches from the Red Sea to the Pacific. Its a big question as to who would checkmate whom!
But the big questions today are quite a few. Is the ostrich is finally taking its head out of the sand? Is finally India finally playing a strategic game or is it still making unconnected tactical moves?

Bangalored Again!!!!

There are a few places that one loves to visit. Bangalore is one such place for me.
I landed in Bangalore early yesterday morning, en route to Maddur on the Bangalore Mysore Highway.
One of the worst things about traveling on early morning flights is the way the sleep pattern gets screwed. But the cool weather of Bangalore city that I experienced on landing had a magical effect of instantly invigorating my sleep deprived mind and soul.
In a few moments we were on the road headed towards Maddur. The sad part about cities here is the painful commute one has to endure. It took us a painful 90 minutes to get to the outskirts of Bangalore city. Once we were out of the city, we almost flew! The highway is pretty smooth and we cruised along at speed of over 100 kilometers an hour.
In about an hours time, we touched Janalokpada. That is where Heaven truly is, Heaven on earth!!! I meant Kamat's Lokaruchi. I had written about the lovely time we had at Kamat's Lokaruchi a few months back and this opportunity of being here at Kamat's Lokaruchi again was like Godsend!
It was nearly 11 am, a good time for coffee. We landed up at Kamat's and ordered coffees and some snacks - rava dosai, mude idlis (a Mangalorean variant of the idli, steamed in banana leaves) and vadais.

The rava dosai was unique and flavourful. Ginger and whole peppercorns had been mixed in the batter and the flavours of these spices blended into the crêpe really well! I bet these kinds of dosais are never to be found in cities like Mumbai or Delhi. The ambiance was very traditional and rustic - a throwback to yesteryears!
I was tempted to have a vadai with the filter coffee. The vadai was crisp on the outside but really soft on the inside, which made devouring the vadai an absolutely divine experience. The filter coffee was strong and steaming, an absolute nirvana for the sleep deprived soul!
The coffee did the magic - we were awake for the 30 minute drive into Maddur! The detour from the highway took us deep into the countryside. Green paddy fields, flowering sugarcanes and coconut groves made for an idyllic picture postcard backdrop. We stopped to have sugarcane juice. It was ages since I had the green nectar. This variety was unique, it was spiced with ginger, mint and rock salt. As we stood under the shade of coconut palms sipping on the juice, there was a cool breeze blowing, but the sun was warm! It was a pretty enchanting sight!

And then it was time to return to Bangalore city. It was 3PM, we were famished. We had to stop again at Kamat's Lokaruchi for a north Karnataka thali! Again that was an astounding meal, with baby aubergines in a spicy gravy, assorted greens, chutneys, pickles, sambhars and rasams!
Soon we were back in Bangalore and there was work to attend to. After finishing off my meetings, it was time to catch-up with old friends.
I met one of our friends who have a baby girl. This was the first time I was meeting the little one. What a pretty little kid she is! In the beginning she was quite cranky. But then I gave her two brightly coloured boxes of toys that I had bought for her earlier that evening. Her eyes lit up, her lips curved into the sweetest smile I had ever seen. The smile revealed one tooth on the upper jaw and two on the lower, much like stalactites and stalagmites in cave!
She looked at her mom for approval - the nod transformed her crankiness into squeals of pure unadulterated joy! What a sight that was! Kids are somehow like clean new slates - minds with clear and clean emotion. As one grows older, experiences cloud the slate, that is the way of this world!
The next port of call was at an old friend's place. We both studied together, for two years, in higher secondary, at DAV College, Chandigarh. We became friends and he was a vital part of my support system in Chandigarh. At that time, way back in 1992, long distance calls were exorbitant. Calling home was a luxury. My hostel had just one phone for the 1000 of us, that too for a limited 2-3 hours in the afternoon. So my folks used to leave urgent messages at my friend's place, who incidentally was a day scholar. The next day, I would promptly get the message. Sometimes when I was homesick, I used to visit his home in Sector 44 to have lunch! What a welcome relief that used to be from the watery, tasteless hostel food - round fluffy chapattis, nice thick dal and vegetables.
After we graduated from DAV College, my pal and his family shifted to Delhi while I stayed on, joined PEC in Chandigarh. We stayed in touch for 2 years after that - he went on to do a hotel management course at Jaipur. Then we lost touch.
But then a few years back, I joined Facebook and soon realised that this kind of social networking was a wonderful way to reconnect with long-lost old pals. I finally tracked him on Facebook last Diwali. We spoke a couple of times and did try to meet when I was in Bangalore or he was in Mumbai, but the meeting was elusive.
This was the chance - meeting an old pal after something like 17-18 years. He invited me home for a Biryani dinner! And then we met - my friend had not changed a bit. He is just the same. It was nice hear his stories of how he moved from hotel management to the airline industry to the Indian Army and then to a corporate role. All I could do is admire his hardiness and adaptability to varied roles!
We had a few Breezers followed by the amazing chicken Biryani and just went on talking late into the night about DAV, Chandigarh city, life in Delhi and stuff of that sort!
I must say it was quite an eventful day. It's always invigorating catching up with old friends and spending time with babies - that's what I call a heady cocktail of nostalgia and envisioning the tomorrow that the little ones of today will create when they grow up!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Celebrate Gender Equality!

There have been two interesting developments or events as you may call them, in the recent past and today. These events could give a new and a positive direction to the Indian society.
For a little over a month now, Colors, a Hindi entertainment channel, has been telecasting a reality show, Bigg Boss, which has been modeled on UK's Big Brother. While the show this year treads on the fine line dividing decency and indecency, the channel did a good thing by getting in a transgender activist, Laxmi Tripathi, as a contestant on the show.
In Indian society, transgenders are looked with a heightened sense of fear, disgust and contempt. Little do we realise that transgenders are as much as humans as we are, they are as much as God's children as we are and are as much as Indian citizens as we all are. They are the way the are for no fault of theirs but they too have the same rights that we do. So what makes us discriminate against them? It is high time we think about it.
Another big issue facing India, or rather looming large over India is the declining sex-ratio, which could derail India's economic success. Today the brouhaha in the media and amongst the Twitterati on birth of a girl child in the Bachchan family gives me hope that we could arrest this sad practice.
Personally I have never been a fan of the family. I got quite a shock, when 2 years back, we were at Aamby Valley for an offsite. Mr. Amitabh Bachchan happened to be there, shooting for a television show. A colleague, who is normally quite reserved and serious, caught a glimpse of the star. And the transformation was instant - this guy kept beaming for the next 3 days, as though he had achieved all that he had to. This is the way people idolise this family.
Frankly I don't think too highly of the family at all - they are far too snooty. We once met and got photographed with the Junior B, Abhishek. As he was speaking to our group, his phone rang. The guy disconnected the call. We obviously didn't ask him who called.
But out of the blue, the guy exclaimed with glee "Oh, it was my wife!" Good, heavens, we all know that the ex-Miss World, Aishwarya Rai, is his wife. It seemed that he wanted us all to realise, realise all over again, that he was married to the ex-Miss World! Should we have said "Wow!!!"?
(Then came the best part, when one of us in the group said this in fairly audible tone - "Bugger, if he didn't want to speak to Aish, he could have given me the phone.")
All this trivia is okay, but the fact is that the whole country idolises the first family of Bollywood, the B Family. And today, Baby B, a girl child has entered the B Family. The whole family is rejoicing, so are the rest of Bollywood and their fanatic fans.
This should be a good signal for the rest of India that the birth of a girl is reason to celebrate. In fact the B Family could do well as symbols in the anti-female-infanticide campaign, which is critical especially since the sex-ratio in the prosperous parts of India, South Mumbai, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab, is abysmal.
I am not homo-phobic, but then if the sex-ratio continues to fall, what option would the males of India have? Save the girl child today, else your son will be forced to be a gay tomorrow!
So celebrate gender equality!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hope Kingfisher Lives!

The crisis which had been brewing in Indian aviation for some time now, has come to what seems to be a climax.
Kingfisher Airlines has reported record accumulated losses and has had to curtail flights to minimise operational losses. Kingfisher did not start off this way. The airline was a breath of fresh air in Indian aviation.
The day Kingfisher was launched, I happened to be at CSI Airport's Terminal 2B in May 2005. The Air-India hanger next to the terminal was the venue for the launch party. The new Airbus A320, with its Kingfisher emblazoned red tail, was looking smart.
Then, a few months later, in August 2005, Neeti was the first, in our family, to travel on the new airline on the Delhi-Bangalore-Delhi sector. She kept raving about the service and the IFE, in-flight entertainment, a first in Indian aviation. She was not wrong.
I took my first Kingfisher flight on the Bombay-Delhi-Bombay sector in October 2005 and I too was blown over. The aircraft were new Airbus A320s, clean, spic and span and smelt fresh. The decor was warm, very much unlike Air-India or Jet Airways.
Despite the titillation onboard, suggestively skirted flight attendants, the launch of the airline was an epochal event in Indian aviation. Service was good, food was great, the IFE was a first - no I am not referring the red-skirted two-legged kind of IFE, but the in-flight entertainment programmes. They pioneered the concept of web check ins and seat selection. I dumped Air-India Flying Returns frequent flier membership and took to joining King Club with gusto.
In all, Kingfisher was a breath of fresh air. They forced Jet Airways, which by then had become quite a haughty brand, with staff having an arrogant and "holier than thou attitude", to change.
The credit for this went to Mr. Vijay Mallya, who claimed we, the passengers on board, were like guests in his home. I truly did feel so, felt like a king on board.
But Mr. Mallya wanted to grow, grow fast and target profitable international routes. To get to fly abroad, he acquired Air Deccan (which was about to complete the required 5 years before international operations could commence).
The airline announced orders for a number of widebodies - A330s, A340s, A350s and A380s. It was widely believed that Mr. Mallya wanted to fly the A340s non-stop between the world's greatest Silicon Valleys - Bangalore and San Francisco. That made a lot of sense.
By the global credit crisis struck. The already loss-making Air Deccan lived on as the low cost variant of the airline. That certainly come naturally to Mr. Mallya and Kingfisher, which by then was known for its flamboyance.
Payments for the widebodies became due. The airline took deliveries of the A330s, five in all, and launched them on select international routes - London and Hong Kong only, while the other international destinations were served by the A320 family.

While the A340s were ready at the Airbus facilities at Toulouse and had already been painted in Kingfisher colours, Kingfisher was forced to cancel the order, and these aircraft went to Arik Air of Nigeria. The dreams of Kingfisher flying non-stop to San Francisco went straight into the trash can.

An aviation blog says: "Clearly, Arik saw a good thing in the tremendous effort put in by Dr. Mallya and the team at Kingfisher, in designing the interior of their A340-500, and plans to use the same aircraft configuration, for long-haul services to London, New York and Houston."
After the Air Deccan acquisition and the credit crisis, Kingfisher service deteriorated prompting me to shift loyalties to Jet Airways. But when I recently traveled on Kingfisher on the Bombay-Hyderabad sector, I was shocked to discover that they don't serve butter anymore with breakfast. That spoke of the impending disaster.
But today, the airline which dreamt of new horizons and forced arrogant incumbents, like Jet Airways, to change is on the verge of a saddening closure.
It is even more painful to see Twitterati joking about the impending collapse. Truly speaking, had Mr. Mallya succeeded, he would have been feted as an avatar of the legendary JRD Tata. But the sad fact of this world is that success is a bastard, and no one loves people who failed.
It has to be emphasised that the role the government has played has left a lot to be desired. They need to recognise that a healthy vibrant aviation sector is essential for a growing economy, but they chose to overtax the sector and pad up the costs artificially, which has been counterproductive. Look the support the Gulf airlines get, or even what the African carriers get. The Indian government has done zilch in comparison.
In such a scenario, a one-time bailout, for all airlines, would the best atonement, for allowing airlines to fail would be counterproductive for India, which should one of the top five economies in the next 20 years.
And as an aviation enthusiast, it would be sad to see Kingfisher Airlines die.
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