Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hindsight is 20-20!

The picture to your left is of the Indian cricket team just after winning the inaugaral ICC 20-20 cricket world cup. I think I have brought luck to India. Is it a coincedence that just as I arrive in India, India wins it's first international cricket tournament since 1983? I think not.

So, what is cricket? In US terms, cricket is basically similar to baseball. It's of the 'you hit a ball with a bat' sports family. The basic idea is, if you're on the batting team, to score as many runs as possible. You also need to protect the 'wickets' which are located on 3 stumps. There are 2 sets of these stumps. If the ball hits the stumps, the wickets will fall and you will be out. You have 10 outs before it's the other team's turn to bat. And, in this particular competetion, there are 20 'overs'. An over is comprised of 6 balls / bowls / pitches. So, your turn to bat is over when either you have reached 10 outs or all 20 overs have been complete. You can also get out if you hit a fly ball and it is caught, or if you the wickets fall while you are running between the wickets.

Now, onto scoring runs. You can score runs in 3 ways. If you hit the ball out of the pitch, which is usually shaped in an oval (and you can hit the ball out in any direction, not necessarily forward), you get 6 runs automatically. If you hit the ball and it bounces to the boundary of the pitch, you get 4 runs automatically. Else, if you hit the ball into the field of play, you can run to the other wicket. You have a partner who is standing at the other wicket opposite from yours. He then runs to your wicket. That counts as one run. You can keep on running back and forth between the wickets. Each time the pair reaches the other wicket, it counts as one run. Then, when you are done running, whoever is in the batting position bats (may not be the same batsman as the last bowl). These 2 players keep on playing until one gets out, and then the next batsman comes in.

There are now 3 types of cricket matches: 20-20, ODI, and test match.

  • 20-20 is where each team bats for 20 overs, and the game is over. It's the shortest of the 3, and I think the most exciting. Players here are encouraged for swing for the boundaries because 10 outs are usually not reached before 2o overs.
  • ODI stands for One Day International. This is basically 50-50 cricket. But, usually there is a series between 2 teams. For example, Australia will be starting a 7-game ODI series with India this weekend. Australia will be out for revenge.
  • Test match. This is one match which lasts for up to 5 days. It's 90-90-90-90. So, there are 2 innings. It's meant to be an endurance match.

Each format of match has it's own captain. The captain is a player on the pitch who decides who bowls and who bats. Oh yeah, the fielders don't have any gloves. The catch and field all the balls bare-handed.

I never thought I would become such a cricket fan, but over the last few weeks I've become swept up in cricket fever. Maybe I just like 20-20 cricket. But, in hindsight, I should have followed cricket earlier. The problem is that in the US, you don't get cricket on TV.

The Indian cricket team is being showered in glory right now, much to the dismay of the India hockey team, which is probably more successful than the Indian cricket team. In fact, the Indian hockey team went on a hunger strike to protest the unfair treatment - and it worked. They received some money from the gov't. And, the politicians tried to steal the glory of Indian cricket players during the Mumbai parade. Politicians are despised in India has having no class. In the US, many politicians are distrusted, but most are respected. Not so in India. All of this just goes to show that in India, everything is complex!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Rajdhani Express to Delhi

If given a choice, I would travel by train as much as possible for long distances. Luckily, I had that option when I was planning my move to India and I took full advantage of it. Taking a week off prior to starting work gave me the time I needed to take the train from Mumbai to Delhi. I travelled aboard the Rajdhani Express in the 2nd-class-with-AC compartment.

Let me explain why I like train travel. Unlike a plane, in a train you are aware of the journey you're making. It's not just "today I'm at point A" and "tomorrow I'm at point B" as with a plane. In fact, in a plane, the only way you know where you are is with the flight tracker that's displayed on the TV (which I really like to observe). In a train, you get to really live the journey as it's taking place. You notice the gradual change in scenery, change in the people, change in the climate, etc. So, by the time you get to your destination, you feel that you have experienced more. It's also nice not to have to deal with turbulence, annoying security procedures, uncomfortable seats, stowing your tray table and putting your seat in the upright position, etc. Obviously, train travel takes longer than plane travel, but if you have the time, I enjoy train travel much more.

Here is a picture with my uncle, who is accompanying me from Mumbai to Gurgaon as I get settled in the new city. The 2nd-AC compartment essentially seats 6 people per compartment. There are 2 bunk beds facing each other, and on the other side of the aisle, there are 2 bunk beds, making a total of 4 + 2 = 6. On this journey, we were accompanied by a Marawari family (originially from the state of Rajasthan but now living in Mumbai) who were making a day trip to Haridhwar, a holy city in Northern India. They were taking the overnight train to Delhi, hiring a car to take them to Haridhwar and back, and taking another overnight train from Delhi to Mumbai. The son was very curious about me and was eager to practice his English with me. The father was a stock broker whose education stopped at the 10th grade and couldn't speak any English (and who wouldn't stop talking on his cell phone into the late hours of the night). Then there were the mother and grandmother, who didn't speak to us at all. Of course, the father claimed that Rajasthan is the best state in the country. I'll bet that the natives of most of the states in the country have similar pride in their own states.

The other great thing about the train is the abundance of food and snacks. We boarded the train around 4:40pm. Soon after, we were each given a big bottle of water (Rail Neer) followed by tea and biscuits. At this time, some very nice, Hindustani instrumental music was broadcast throughout the 2nd-AC compartment. About an hour after that, we were served a good dinner. Dinner was again followed by tea / coffee. In the morning, we were again served tea / coffee followed by breakfast. After breakfast, we arrived in Delhi.

Of course, the Delhi train station is a madhouse. As I was wondering how we would transport our luggage to the cab, several red-shirted men who worked as porters arrived at our compartment and competed with each other for the job of handling our luggage. In India, I have learned 2 rules:

1) There is someone for every task.

2) Everything can be negotiated.

In the end, after much emotional negotiating, we got our bags into the taxi with the help of two porters. One was fairly old and small (about 5 ft tall) - he was probably around 60 years old. I'm amazed that people like him can carry bags that are 2/3 of their total weight. I guess it's all in the technique.

Below you will find some pictures of our journey from Delhi to Gurgaon:

The minivan in the middle of the picture was our transport. We had to fill gas in Delhi before making it to Gurgaon. Of course, you don't fill your own gas. A gas station wallah does that for you. You also have to get out of the car while this happens. Not sure why...

On the road to Gurgaon.

A typical building in Gurgaon.

September 13, 2007

September 13, 2007 is a day that will not live in infamy (that would be December 7). I celebrated only my second birthday in India on this day (my first was when I was born on 9/13/81) and it was a great feeling - not only to celebrate my birthday in India but to celebrate it with people who I hardly ever see! In keeping with Indian tradition, I took my relatives out for dinner at the new Minidor hotel in Mumbai. Treating others is the opposite of the US tradition, where the person whose birthday it is gets treated by friends and family. The advantage of the US system is that you pay less (actually, you pay nothing) ;) But the advantage of the Indian system is that because you're paying, more people are likely to show up! Now, I'm beginning to understand why my mom always wanted me to take the family out when I got a new job. I always wondered why - shouldn't they be treating me? But, I guess when something good happens, you have to thank other people for helping make it possible and treating them is just one way. I think I'm beginning to like the Indian tradition. You end up feeling good after your act of generosity, whereas I always felt a little guilty after everyone has chipped in for my birthday. On the downside, you have to select a restaurant where you can afford to treat everyone ;)! And, what do you do if you go out multiple times for your birthday with different groups? I think a hybrid of the two traditions makes sense...

The restaurant served food buffet style and the entertainment was karaoke. The classic Indian contradiction that I have seen in India existed here too. Minidor is a very Western looking hotel and restaurant, built to cater to Western guests, yet you have Indian food, Indian servers, and Indian people singing Western songs. And not only that, while the interior was posh, if you looked right outside the window, you could see the people too poor to ever afford this kind of a place. I always found it sad that wherever I travelled, the nicest restaurants and hotels were patronized by Westerners and were served by native people.

The only thing I didn't get to do on this day was visit Chimpolli, the place where I was born. Alas, the Traffic Gods of Mumbai have been in a terrible mood lately and are restricting my movement by charging 2 hours travel time for 2 kms. Who do we need to bribe to get a new national holiday where we can perform an elaborate pooja for the Traffic Gods and lighten their mood?

In & Around Mumbai

Now that I've settled and recovered from the jet lag, it's time to see Mumbai - again, and, for the first time. Again - because I've been to and seen Mumbai a few times before. For the first time - because it has been a long time since I was here and a lot has changed. Here is a picture of me at the Gateway to India. This is one thing that hasn't changed. I and many other tourists braved the heat to see this arch that represented "colonial triumph" as Lonely Planet so eloquently puts it. The arch was built in 1924, by the British, only to be made "redundant" 24 years later when the British quit India.

The above is a scene right outside my aunt's flat. I'm not completely sure, but this looks like a daily (?) religious parade conducted by the Jains. Jainism is an Indian religion which is separate from Hinduism and has no god. Instead, Jains believe that everything has it's own nature and firmly adhere to non-violent practices in all aspects of life.

Here are some photos of Mumbai. The second picture is of Chowpatty Beach, taken from the Ferozeshah Mehta Gardens which are described below. You'll notice that the sky is not very blue, and it probably won't come as a surprise to you that smog is the cause of the grayness. Many of the skyscrapers in the first picture did not exist 15 years ago, so even Mumbai has developed, though not as much as cities like Banglore and Gurgaon.

The Parsis are a close-knit group of Zoroastrians (members of the Zoroastrian relgion) who migrated to India, mainly Gujarat, from Iran / Persia about 1,000 years ago. I found the Ferozeshah Mehta Gardens, created by a Parsi, also known as the Hanging Gardens, to be very interesting. In fact, I took the pictures of Chowpatty beach from these gardens. The gardens themselves are fairly standard - a relatively quiet place where one can escape the hustle and bustle of Mumbai. But, adjacent to the gardens is a structure known as the Tower of Silence (first picture). In the Zoroastrian tradition, the dead are left in this tower and are eaten by vultures. Earth, fire, and water are all considered sacred elements by the Parsis and are not to be used to decompose the dead. In addition, offering the body to vultures is considered to be the final sacrifice of the deceased. However, Mumbai's vulture population has severely diminished so the Parsis are considering other strategies including captive breeding of vultures and use of a large mirror to aid in decomposition.

On to happier topics, here are pictures of the New Taj and Old Taj hotels. New or Old, both are 5 star bastions of luxury. After circling the Gateway to India and baking in the process, my uncle and I took refuge in the old Taj hotel. The first thing I noticed was the large number of staff in the lobby of the hotel. Even in the US, premier hotels employ a greater number of staff than more common, cheaper hotels. However, in India, labor is very cheap and readily available. Thus a hotel like the Taj can hire numerous staff to keep the hotel running. If you want anything, there is more than likely someone not 20 feet away who can help you. As with the rest of society, managers can force laborers to develop very specific skills so that the laborer becomes very adept at performing a certain task. The end result is a fantastic experience for the hotel guest.

Last but not least, Samrat restaurant. I came here in 1992 to eat and it's still here today. Like the Taj hotel, staffing is not a problem at Samrat. Waiting more than 5 minutes for a server or for your food apparently gives you justification for yelling at the server! Wait, I think this rule applies to all of service-based India. Anyways, the food here is very good but a little spicy.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Arrival in India

After 17 long years away, I'm back in India. And, I got there in economical but pleasant style. I travelled via Eva Air, a fantastic yet affordable Taiwanese airlines, from San Francisco to Taipei to Mumbai. The entire journey was a short 22 hours. Eva offers Economy, Deluxe Economy, Business Class, and 1st Class. I travelled Deluxe Economy, which is is basically Business Class (seats that recline almost all the way, spacious leg room, good food and good service) but at Economy class prices. If you need to travel to Asia, I strongly recommend Eva Deluxe Economy.

Given the countless warnings I received from relatives regarding safety at Mumbai airport, I was on red alert as I deplaned in Mumbai. But, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. The airport had been recently renovated, there was almost no queue at Immigration & Customs (granted this was at 4am), I got both of my checked-in bags, and no one tried to rob me! Maybe India won't be such a challenge after all...
I met my uncle and we drove home through the mostly deserted Mumbai streets to my aunt's house in Malad East. Little did I know that I would never again experience driving through Mumbai's uncrowded streets (everytime we drove in Mumbai after this, we were locked in a gridlock that no other city in the world can match). We swerved by packs of stray dogs, sleeping business owners, and early-rising milk-selling bicyclers as we drove home in a record 20 minutes. As expected, I saw a mixture of new buildings and old slums. Still, there were not as many slums as I remembered. Moreover, the slums / hutments were contained (they did not stretch endlessly) and were bordered by modern buildings. I asked my uncle how long it would take for the slums to be completely transformed into modern buildings, and he replied "20 to 50 years if at all". I think it will happen, one day - as long as India's economy continues to grow at a healthy rate. Most people in India, however, think that day is a long ways away.

I spent the next few days at my aunt's house and uncle's house, where I saw relatives I hadn't seen in many years. Both flats had been renovated nicely with smoothe granite and western style bathrooms (much to my satisfaction!). It was nice to catch up with everyone, eat good food, and take lots of rest over these days in Mumbai. No one does hospitality and makes you feel welcome like my family!

Enjoy some pictures from my aunt's house at good ol' Flat 22 in Malad East:

My aunt on the phone in the living room.

The living room couch. It located right under a fan and is a very comfortable place to sit and relax.

The famous terrace. A great place to relax, dry clothes, store extra items, wash big items, etc. Just watch out for the mosquitos at dawn and dusk!

The view from the terrace to the street below. In the morning and evening rush hours, this street will be packed.

The view from the other side of the terrace.

My aunt, grandmother, and uncle in the kitchen making some delicious snacks.

Friday, September 7, 2007

What Unites India?

I recently read a series of essays in the Independence Day Special issue of India Today. I'm not normally a reader of this magazine (I usually go for the Economist) but my dad handed me this issue and told me that I ought to check out these essays in preparation for my trip to India. There are 9 essays in the issue and each author attempts to answer the question "What Unites India?" On the 60th anniversary of independence, this seems like an excellent question to ask.

Now, if you were to ask me the question "What Unites India?" I would stare back blankly.

On the other hand, if you were to ask me "What unites the United States?" I would have no problem formulating my answer. The USA has its own cultures in the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast - but I think the USA is united by a couple of things: 1) it is the land of immigrants (though the immigrants in the different parts of the country got here at different times) 2) it is the land where the people (usually) vigorously defends ideals such as freedom and equality and 3) it is the land of opportunity. Until recently, if you had big dreams, you came to the USA to realize them. Things have started to change, however - immigrants are returning to their own countries to make their fortunes at home.

I was impressed by many of the observations in the essays about what unites India. Here are some excerpts:

"India has its share of historical hurt. Still, we have not let those who picnic in the past to take complete copyright of the national conscience." (S. Prasannarajan)

I think it's important not to define yourself by the wrongs that you have endured. That would be like John McCain always introducing himself as follows: "I'm John McCain and I was tortured in Vietnam." Yes, McCain was tortured in Vietnam - but there is much more to the man than this. The author argues that Indian unity transcends the wrongdoings it has endured. I think this has become true only recently now that optimism and opportunity has replaced self-pity.

"...Much of this national glee comes from an accurate conviction that neighbouring countries are in a worse state, and make India look good by comparison" (Patrick French)

I don't think you'll get much argument here. The socio-economic situation in India is generally better than socio-economic situations in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, or Pakistan.

"...When there is trouble in Bengal...the rest of the country just gets on as with life as usual..." (Indira Ghandi, Mark Tully)

An interesting point about the compartmentalized nature of the Indian states. A problem in one part of the country generally doesn't affect the rest of the country - similar to most big countries, including the USA.

"Ideology is dead. Long live the ideology of opportunism, which keeps India united." (Prabhu Chawla)

Basically, there are too many political problems and factions for Indian leaders to have an 'ideology'. Their terms are generally concerned with how to consolidate and maintain power. This focus on consolidation and not ideology keeps the country together.

"My fantasy of Finn vs. Finn never came to fruition-they were much too homogeneous a group. An entire nation of five million bound together with essentially the same beliefs, customs, culture, language-they even look the same. What unites Finland? Everything does." (Manil Suri)

What does this mean? Essentially, Finland is different from India in almost every possible way. But I disagree that all Finns look alike. I don't know where the author is getting that from!

He goes on to make one of the best points of any of the essays:

"...the danger of fragmentation for a highly diverse society is so acute that it is forced to develop a heightened sense of tolerance to internal differences to survive. In other words, it is the threat of our country breaking apart that keeps us united." (Manil Suri)

A country on the brink, it seems. And constantly being on the brink is what keeps it together.

Several good quotes from William Dalrymple in his essay Enchantment of Riches:

"Now, along with DLF, Gurgaon had suddenly grown to a glossy high-rise city of several million-some said two million, some said more: the speed of growth was so enormous, it was difficult to obtain accurate figures."

"What was farmland and a pool for water buffaloes when we moved in, is now a mass of cranes flanked by billboards advertising the latest laptops and iPods."

"As in the days of the Great Mughal, barely a week goes by without some diplomatic delegation arrivin in Delhi, cap in hand, begging for trading privileges just as once William Hawkins and Sir Thomas Roe bowed before the musnud of Jahangir."

Hopefully, when I'm back from India, I'll be able to give my own opinion on this subject.