Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pax Indica - Still A Long Way Off

Last week, Hillary Clinton achieved a rare but significant milestone. When her US Air Force C-32A touched down at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, after a 13-day journey through France-Afghanistan-Japan-Mongolia-Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia-Egypt-Israel. She, as Secretary of State, has spent 351 days travelling to 102 countries and has flown a whopping 843,839 miles or 1,358,027 kilometers. That's more than 3 times the distance from Earth to the Moon!

That is the importance that the United States gives to its foreign policy. They prefer to hover over and intervene when necessary. 
Closer home, China, too, is far too proactive in diplomacy. A clear pattern is emerging. China would diplomatically engage with countries that can give it energy security, right of access to natural resources, shipping lanes and technology. China makes its clout felt by emerging as a "significant" lender to governments across the globe, including the United States. China has been a big force in Africa and the Pacific. While their African gameplan has emerged clearly, I would imagine they are cultivating relationships with tiny Pacific islands to get access to the mineral-rich seabed, obtain shipping rights and develop military bases within the next 20-30 years.
In contrast, Indian foreign policy follows the classic "Bury your head in the sand" ostrich syndrome. Don't acknowledge any problem till it becomes too big to ignore and when it does, look for an easy face-saver. And when the situation is normal, when there is no crisis, engage in armchair diplomacy.
Numbers clearly show the rot that is setting in - India has less than 700 diplomats spread across the headquarters in New Delhi, 119 resident missions and 49 consulates around the world. This compares very poorly with other nations in the G-20. Brazil has 1,197 diplomats. The biggies in the list are United States has 19,667 diplomats. Germany has 3,250 and the UK has 3,600 diplomats. I suspect China too would have at least 2-3 times the number of diplomats we have.
It's sad that India pays lip service to foreign policy. We have a "rehabilitated" gentleman at the helm of foreign affairs who is more concerned about his own genteel looks rather than the way India is perceived abroad. His former deputy has just completed a book "Pax Indica" on his years in the foreign service, but   sadly in his stunted term he could do little to give us the stature that we deserve in the minds of foreigners as an upcoming superpower. (I am yet to get my copy of Pax Indica.)
A classic failure of India's foreign policy has been the Iran standoff. India should have and could have maneuvered itself into the position of a mediator, for we have good relations with both Iran and the United States. But our heads were buried in the sand, as always.
Come to think of it, India has immense potential for soft power, something that I had written about in July 2010, that can be capitalised on by our foreign office to the benefit of India. The way to a credible and sustainable foreign policy that straddles the world and serves India's long term geopolitical, security and strategic interests is through the hearts of foreigners. To achieve that, Indian foreign service has to reach out - it should have the budgets to expand its numbers and reach. And the foreign minister has to build bridges - he should drive Indian interests abroad. But with the little focus India's polity has on foreign affairs, it is too much to expect our foreign minister to log even a mere 5 percent of what Hillary does.
Asking for a credible foreign policy from such a political structure that is far too self-serving and concerned about mere survival is just too much. We just lack that vision.
I presume the term Pax Indica is akin to Pax Americana, a term that has come to denote the influence that the United States arising out of its military and economic clout in relation to other nations. A quick reality check would reveal we are nowhere close! Pax Indica is still a distant dream.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

By Toutatis, I Love Obelix and Asterix!

Of all the likings that I have developed since I was a kid, the one that endured the test of time is my love affair with the comic characters, Obelix and Asterix!

I was first introduced to these wonderful characters, created by Goscinny and Uderzo, at the age of 7. My friends had about 15 of Asterix's comic books. I borrowed these books two at a time and finished their collection of 15 books in no time. Asterix and Obelix were a good enough reason for me to run back home after school!
That was the beginning of an enduring love affair, that is still going strong after 3 decades.
Obelix, Asterix and their gang of quaint village folk from Armorica in the land of the Gauls enchanted me a great deal. There were all those exciting tales of how the rotund Obelix fell into a cauldron of the magic potion as a baby, which ended up giving him mythical powers. And how the druid Getafix concocts his magic potion that instantly transforms the tiny Asterix into a fierce warrior, good enough to beat an entire Roman legion or a pirate armada. 

And then there's the village chief, Vitalstatistix who is carried on a shield and is always paranoid about the skies falling on his head. Who can forget the village bard, Cacophonix, and the fishmonger, Unhygenix?
Asterix and Obelix have always made a great team bashing up the Romans, protecting Gaul pride and their village in Armorica, with Obelix's little poochie, Dogmatix. Now Dogmatix has an attitude that's disproportionately larger than his little size. No wonder, Dogmatix gets into a big sulk when berated by Obelix or Asterix.
Obelix is the one who thinks with his heart, pretty much straightforward. The little Asterix is smart but prone to getting into a big temper. Both of them complement each other - brawn with brain.
For me, the most interesting bits are the ones when the duo are back victorious, its time for a village feast. Obelix hunts down wild boars, afterall he's a foodie like me! And then when the boars' have been roasted, Obelix deserves a whole one, all for himself. Awww, by Toutatis, how much I envy Obelix!

Asterix and Obelix comic books are absolute stress busters. For the while that I read them, it's as though I am teleported to a different world altogether. Such is the magic of Asterix and Obelix! 
And now as I am browsing through Crossword's collection of Asterix comic books, I so wish I were in Armorica right now! I believe there is an Asterix themepark, Parc Astérix, on the outskirts of Paris, which makes me want to get to Paris right away!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ni Hao (你好), Los Angeles!

Amidst the all pervasive gloom, I came across a real heartwarming story in a recent edition of the Asian Wall Street Journal.
The story spoke of a 3-month old kitten that made its way from Shanghai, China to Los Angeles in the United States as a stowaway in a container. After the container was offloaded at the Los Angeles port, it was delivered to Compton County, where the kitten was discovered. 
As per established convention, the kitten was promptly put into quarantine by Los Angeles County animal control officers, who named the little creature "Ni Hao", or Hello in Mandarin!
Such is the endurance of life that the little kitten survived a journey of over 11,000 kilometers through the Pacific without food or drink.
If Ni Hao had the will to endure, I am sure so do we. 
We only need to rediscover that will within ourselves.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Plane Spotting at HYD

Of all Indian airports, I have found the new airport at Hyderabad the best for a plane spotter. The airside of the terminal building gives an unhindered view of the runway as well as the taxiway.
I was at Hyderabad last week, transiting on the way to Rajahmundry and back. The stopover was for an hour, good enough for me to get trigger-happy!

An IndiGo A320 gets ready to dock with the aerobridge

A Jet Airways Boeing 737 comes in...

An IndiGo A320 taxiing...

It was an Arabian morning at HYD. A Saudi Arabian Boeing 777 had been there all through, while an Emirates Airbus A330 came in a shortwhile later...

On my return from Rajahmundry, thanks to a delay by Jet Airways, I got an extra hour to grab a few more pictures.

An Oman Air Boeing 737 comes in.... 

That's my flight, 9W 2115, delayed by over an hour! Jet Airways, at its very best!

We were made to stand in the aerobridge as "cleaning" was still in progress [sic]!!!! 
That was a good opportunity to grab this magnificent IndiGo A320!

The pushback truck's in place. Did you know that airplanes are virtually helpless when they have to move back. They have no reverse gear!. These trucks despite their small size have sufficient power to pushback a heavy Boeing 747 as well!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Shameless Men in White

I am on my way back from Rajahmundry to Mumbai. Right now I am transiting through Hyderabad but  there's only one thought ringing through my mind since today morning - the incidents that occurred at Rajahmundry airport, that are so symptomatic of the malaise that ails our great nation.
Yesterday, our contingent flew into Rajahmundry at around noon. The airport was swarming with security personnel. We were told that the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Kiran Reddy was to visit the city and the posse of security men were preparing for this visit.
This morning, our contingent was split into two groups for our return. One was scheduled to take the SpiceJet flight back to Hyderabad at 1100 hours while the rest of us were on the JetKonnect flight at 1250 hours.
We were advised that since the Chief Minister's cavalcade is likely to clog roads, we should reach the airport by about 1130 hours. We went as per the advised plan and reached the airport at about 1115 hours.
The airport was full of policemen, firefighters and party workers. It seemed that the entire security force of Rajahmundry city was here. Petty criminals must have had a gala time in the city, I suppose(?).

Our bus was stopped a kilometer away from the terminal on the pretext of security. It was sad to see people with little kids, the elderly and the invalid people lugging their bags to the terminal, while the securitymen and Congress party workers we're busy - gaily chatting away and some were shamelessly ogling female passengers. Imagine, these are the guys whom our politicians rely on for their power!
The entry into the terminal was chaotic, it was clogged by party workers waiting to meet their "Dear Leader" - for a moment I thought I had been teleported to North Korea.
After a smooth check-in and a rather fast security check, we were surprised to see members of our group who were scheduled to fly on the SpiceJet flight were still waiting in the security hold area, as their incoming aircraft, from Hyderabad, hadn't yet come in. It was delayed by over an hour presumably because the Dear Leader had turned up late to catch his SpiceJet flight from Hyderabad!
Imagine the plight of the passengers on board - the Q400s like the ATR72s do not turn on the airconditioning till the engines. The passengers would have been drowned in their own sweat, all because of some insensitive and uncaring politician. Would SpiceJet have ever waited for you (or me, or anyone like us) even if we were 5 minutes late?
In some time, the SpiceJet Q400 turboprop made a smooth touchdown. The excitement of the Congress partymen was audible with loud squeals of joy being heard at regular intervals.

A few politicians, clad in spotless white from head to toe entered the security hold area and insisted on boarding the SpiceJet passenger bus, much like a hijack - they wanted to drive down to the parking bay to welcome their "Dear Leader" as he alighted. They were carrying bouquets and angavastrams to welcome the incoming VIP.

After the welcoming festivities were over, the CM and posse of at least 15 securitymen, a few bureaucrats and number of white-clad Congress exited the SpiceJet bus at the terminal. Again there was another round of garlanding and what not.
I was aghast at the lack of sensitivity to the public. The entire state machinery was put at the disposal of a politician, who in all likelihood would be detached from the public.
Such is the crap that these politicians throw at us - a self-serving system that thrives on crony-capitalism, has been created depriving us, ordinary citizens, of our very basic rights, without any accountability to anyone. All this while giving an outward impression of purity by donning spotless white! 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Conquering Fear!

Conquering fear is the most daunting task that a human faces. Like everyone else, I too have had my share of fears. 
I came face to face with one such fear about 5 years back, in September 2007. My colleagues and I traveled to Panchgani for an outbound outdoor team building programme. The programme was enjoyable - insightful lectures were interspersed with outdoor games and activities. The weather was also great, it was misty all throughout with frequent showers.
One morning during, we all woke up early and headed out at 7 AM on the Panchgani - Mahabaleshwar road. We stopped at a scenic spot and our trainers, Atul Mathur and Vinita Saxena, led us through a pretty meadow. There was a slight drizzle and as the Monsoon was retreating, the clouds were pretty low and almost touched ground level giving the impression that we were walking through dense mist. The meadow itself was quite pretty - lush green with lots of wild flowers in full bloom.

Soon we reached our destination - the edge of a cliff, from where our entire team was to absail down - absailing is the controlled descent down a rock face using a rope. This technique is used by mountaineers to descend when a cliff or slope is too steep. (Absailing is also commonly known as as rappelling.)
Since the weather wasn't too conducive - it was far too misty up on the cliff - we chose to wait and instead went in for breakfast - sandwiches and steaming hot tea.

After about an hour the mist started thinning out and we all got into our protective gear - helmets, harnesses and gloves. There were a few of us who were genuinely scared as the cliff was about 30-40 meters high. In sometime the activity started. After keenly observing a couple of colleagues rappell down, it was my turn to go. 
I was given my final instructions by the guides, but I kind of chickened out on reaching the edge of the cliff, after seeing how high the cliff was. Then Atul and Vinita came in with their persuasive best, with all kinds of motivational statements to egg me to go down. That did not help - I was trembling with fear, for my dear life. 
After about 10 minutes of encouragement from the absailing team, I decided to give it a shot. But I could not compartmentalise the fear. I took two steps and looked down. Man that was scary. The loss of concentration made me lose my balance and I slipped. And I was caught on camera to add salt to the injury!

After hanging for a couple of seconds, with a zillion glances down below, I decided I had had enough of this activity and shouted out for me to be lowered down. I was relieved when I reached terra firma.
But then all my colleagues successfully completed the task despite all the fear they had. That made me think where I went wrong. All these years, I lived with that embarrassment and hurt, somewhere deep inside, that I could not do it.
But as fate would have it, the chance came again last Friday, when again I alongwith some colleagues were at Lonavala for a training programme. I was in two minds - should I or shouldn't I give it a try.
It wasn't the same me - a freakish accident in 2010 had left me with a weak right knee. And then I had that old crazy fear of being on the edge! So when we started for the location the old Mumbai-Pune Highway from where we were to absail down, I said to myself, "Oh man! Not again!" and I was thinking of all kinds of alibis to get out of this exercise.
But then as we reached the site, as though a devil had instantaneously possessed me, a force inside me said "Just Do It!". The activity started. In sometime, I put on the gear and requested for knee supports, just in case. I told the activity co-ordinator, Bipin and his team, that I had failed once and I didn't want to fail again. I looked around from the cliff - the view was pretty, but I consciously avoided looking straight down.

Somewhere inside me, the fear was lurking around. But an unknown force was telling me to move on and ignore the fear. So it was - I memorised all the instructions and lowered myself down gently, but with a greater degree of confidence that I couldn't muster way back in 2007. Half-way down, I was asked to pause and pose for photographs. That's when it dawned upon me that it wasn't so tough afterall!

I completed the descent in about 5 minutes and was speechless for a while. I was all smiles and wanted to pat myself that I had done it, done it successfully this time. It felt incredibly light!

I thanked Bipin and his teammates for their support, but I knew - if that inner force did not prevail upon my fear I would have never made it this time.
This has been one of the biggest lessons I have learnt so far - tell yourself that you can do it, moderate the fear, calm the nerves and just take the first step -- there are high chances you'll be through! That's key to conquering fear!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Chase The Inner Beauty

On short early morning hike at Lonavala last week, I headed to a vantage point near the expressway exit, overlooking a deep gorge. The Monsoons had triggered seasonal waterfalls, which when falling in the midst of the lush green foliage looked absolutely stunning. Clouds were floating in and out. The whole atmosphere was quite misty and magical.
As it was getting late for my training, unwilling I forced myself to head back. That's when I stumbled upon an unusual boulder, about 8 centimeters across and 5 centimeters wide. I picked it up - it was obviously a volcanic rock. I picked it up out of curiousity and examined it. 

This piece appeared to be a part of a larger rock, which was sliced through. While on the the exterior, the rock was ugly, craggy, very rough - yellow-pale brown, with the characteristic holes that the cooling lava left behind, the cross-section was glassy and crystalline, with patterns running through which looked quite stunning. 
I stood still appreciating this beautiful creation of Nature thinking had it not been for the interior, I would have dismissed this rock as ugly and ordinary. It was only for the exposed inner cross-section that I picked it up. 
Isn't it obvious that a rough exterior hides a lot? Don't we need to see the inner beauty too? 
It is indeed tragic that we miss the internal beauty of each personality and go straight ahead with the impressions that the superficial exterior creates. That's our own loss.
Rather, our lives would be more rewarding if we chase the inner beauty!

Gourmet Sunday Breakfasts Continue!

Last week, Neeti came up with a brilliant idea of pickling mushrooms. After a bit of trial and error, we prepared a vinaigrette with olive oil, garlic, peppercorns and a mix of herbs, alongwith some sugar and salt. We soaked a full packet of mushrooms in our vinaigrette and left it for a couple of days in the refrigerator to pickle. 
In two days, our concoction had achieved a heavenly status, the vinaigrette had oozed into the mushrooms, which surprisingly had retained their texture and it all tasted great - an amazing blend of garlic and mushroominess, subtle flavour of the herbs with a sourish tinge contributed by the vinegar!

Today, in quest for something different, for another round of a gourmet breakfast, we retrieved our pickled mushrooms and stuffed them inside absolutely fresh pãos (or what we call pavs in Mumbai) alongwith butter,  and generous drops of our vinaigrette. 
We had our pickled mushroom pão with omelettes and baked beans, the next in our series of gourmet Sunday breakfasts!

A Walk Down The Mall...

A walk down Mussoorie's Mall Road can be quite interesting, as you can observe life in its myriad forms.

Basic street food - eggs, Maggi, momos, tea.... I am sure these would be lip-smacking 

The palace of the former Maharaja of Rajpipla, right here on the Mall, Mussoorie. This was the norm, the rulers of the small states used to spend their vacations in the hills.
Rajpipla is located in the Narmada district of Gujarat and the place came in the limelight when a scion of the royal family, Manvendra Singh Gohil, came out of the closet and disclosed that he is a gay!

Another palace, this one built by the royal family of Kasmanda, Orissa now lives on as a hotel!

Roasted corn on the cob ... 

The happy faces tell that school's over, it's time to get back home. 
Kids in the hills have ruddy cheeks, which make them look extremely adorable....

The flea market waits for business...

A pit stop overlooking the valley...

Juice for anyone?

Anaardaana goli, hing goli, jeera goli, aampapad - traditional appetisers and digestives on sale...

Ber or jujube berry on sale... 

Target practice time....

The wrinkles of these sturdy hill-men have a story to tell - a story of hardship of life in these areas, the daily struggle, the struggle with the elements and much more...

A relic from the past, Mussoorie Library... 

Candy floss... I used to love it as a kid!

Images from Dev Bhoomi

About a month back, I visited Mussoorie, on the foothills of the Himalayas. Despite being a very short trip, the beauty of the place enthralled me. 
But Uttarakhand, the 'Dev Bhoomi' or Abode of the Gods, has many other attractions, that are beautiful creations of Nature. I hope I can visit them soon!
Till that time comes, I am living with memories of this short trip to Mussoorie!

The pine stood tall and looks quite imposing!

An old colonial bungalow with a long winding road!

The air was fresh, the view pretty!

Oh, what a beauty!

The warmth of afternoon sunlight filters in!

Imposing silhouettes...

Reminds me of Kenny Rogers' Evening Star:

..... You can see the loneliness I mean and if I gotta fight
I will never play somebody else's game
I can follow the evening star
Starlight, you never need somebody else's name
If you follow the evening star...

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ubuntu - "I Am Because We Are"

I picked this up from Neeti's newsfeed on Facebook. The piece goes as follows:
An anthropologist proposed a game to the kids in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the kids that who ever got there first won the sweet fruits. 
When he told them to run they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. 
When he asked them why they had run like that as one could have had all the fruits for himself they said: ''Ubuntu, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?'' ('Ubuntu' in the Xhosa culture means: "I Am Because We Are")

This is so true, "I" is defined by the people around me, my surroundings and my environment. Ironically, there would be no "I" without them.
An interesting fact is that Nelson Mandela belongs to the Xhosa tribe. Perhaps it was this Ubuntu spirit that has laid the foundation of the post-Apartheid South Africa!
Such is the spirit of my homeland, Africa!
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