Saturday, October 29, 2011

First snowfall of the season

Today it is 29th October 2011.  Time:  9 AM Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  I was watching the only T20 Cricket Match between India and England which was about to start.  It was dull light outside and the Sun has not come out.  Temperature outside is rather a chill 36*F, equal to 2.2 degrees Celsius.  Temperature inside the house is a comfortable 72*F or 22*C.  Heating system is working overtime to maintain the temperature at 72*F.

Everything is very calm outside.  Being a Saturday, it is week end for every working person.  Things are quiet and there is little traffic in the nearby highway.  Suddenly there are white flakes falling from the sky.  It is snowing!  Half an hour later it is regular snowfall and we have the first snow of the season. 

We had a desire to see snowfall here during this visit.  Expectation was that we may see a white Christmas. For those who have seen sunrise many times, a new sunrise may not give that much of a thrill.  But for someone watching the sun rise for the first time, it is a different level of experience altogether. For us in South India, snowfall is unheard of.  May be,  people in Himachal or Kashmir experience it every year.  Snowfall may even bring lot of difficulty and misery for people living in those parts.  Going out may be a problem and saying inside without proper heating system may be even a bigger problem.  Those caught unawares in snowfall or snow storm, especially without proper winter-wear, may even be cursing the weather.  It appears this snowfall is a bit ahead of expectation in these parts of the country, though it is snowing in mid-west since a week and Denver has received heavy snowfall.

Out first tryst with snow was to be when we visited Kufri, near Shimla, some twenty five years ago.  Our visit was in April and it was well past snowing time and it was a disappointment. The next was a visit to Manali which was again in April and there was no snowfall.  We were taken to a place some 50 Kilometers away from Manali called snow point.  We played on some snow which had already fallen to the ground and frozen as ice in most parts.  It was freezing cold and we were not comfortable in hired winter gear.  The actual feel of snow was later in our visit to Sikkim.  We had been to a place called Nathu La on the India-China border about 55 Kilometers from the Sikkimese Capital, Gangtok.  It was snow everywhere - above, below and surroundings, but we could not see any actual snowfall.  It was more of a mist cover than snow.  The nearest snowfall we saw was in Minneapolis three years ago, in October 2008, when for a few minutes we could see snow falling with along light rain.  But today's snowfall is the actual snowfall experienced by us.

भवन्ति नम्रास्तरवः फलोद्गमैः (Bhavanti namrahstaravah phalodgamaihi), the poet says, meaning that the trees bend with the arrival of fruit bearing season.  Bending due the weight of fruits.  Today I can see that it is भवन्ति नम्रास्तरवः हिमगमैः  (Bhavanti namraahstaravah himagamaihi)!  Trees are bending because of the arrival of snow.  Some of the trees have bent by as much as six to eight feet due to the weight of snow on their leaves. If we go to North Karnataka, around Gadag, in cotton season, we can see acres and acres of lands with white cotton flowering in the cotton growing lands.  Just like red everywhere in the nearby chilly growing fields.  Today it appears all the trees here are loaded with cotton and ready for harvesting.  We went out and stood in the snow for a few minutes.  Now it is "Footprints on the grains of snow" where we were standing there,  just like Footprints on the sands of time.  Photographs taken now are a treasure for the future.

It is a sight to see lumps of snow falling from the trees to the ground.  The white carpet of mowed grass fields has a six inch white carpet of snow over it.  Birds appeared to be confused and were flying around for some time.  Some of them even drank the water from melting snow flakes. Now they appear to have settled down in their nests. it could be a hard day for them to find their food today.  But nature has probably its own way of compensating them.

Snowing has intensified.  It is not a time to be with laptop.  It is a time to watch and enjoy.  Watching mother nature in a white Saree is  indeed a pleasure. And a long cherished wish fulfilled.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Coconut Trees and Criminal Case

After the arrival and departure of the "Tomato Inspector", our life continued in Chikka Muduvadi, one mile away from our native village and my birth place, Dodda Muduvadi.  It is said that two brothers, Dodda Mudda and Chikka Mudda, meaning elder Mudda and younger Mudda were small chieftains during the Vijayanagar period and ruled from these two villages on either side of the river Arkavati. I was in Second Standard and I remember the class room in which we used to sit, though the face of the teacher is not that clear.  Probably because it was not a pretty face to remember.

The School had a bigger playground and I remember Flag Hoisting functions there on the two important occasions every year, Republic Day and Independence Day.  There were agricultural fields next to the playground.  There was a small piece of land between the playground and the agricultural fields, say about five feet wide and 100 feet long.  Beyond this land there were agricultural lands belonging to one Eraiah.  The five feet wide stretch of land was used as a  pathway by the villagers for going to the fields behind the school.

The school was closed for Dasara Holidays for two or three weeks.  When the school sessions were resumed after the holidays, students and teachers saw a major change in the surroundings.  Along this five feet stretch of land pits were dug and coconut saplings were planted.  Teachers were talking among themselves that Eraiah had his eyes set on this stretch of land for a long time and desired to take it under his control.  He took advantage of the school holidays and got the coconut saplings planted so that in due course he can fence around them and the land would be deemed to belong to him.  In the local language these activities are called ಜಮೀನು ಒತ್ತುವರಿ (jameenu ottuvari) and many farmers resort to such activity to increase the area of the their land, especially if it is government land.  In course of time they would gain control of the land and everyone assumes it is their own.  Of course, the disease has now spread to towns and cities where any available piece of land is grabbed including land on storm water drains!

The matter was reported to the Head Master, my father.  He had returned from the Army after serving in the Second world War before becoming a School Master, and was young and strong.  He used to carry an army cane with him and came out of his room to survey the area, with the cane in his hand.  The action of planting the saplings during holidays enraged him.  Holding the cane in his hand he instructed the students to pull out the saplings and fill the pits, just like an army commander  directing his troops to accomplish a task.  The students duly obliged and the stronger and well built boys were in the forefront.  Within minutes all the saplings were pulled out and the pits were filled with mud.  School session started after the usual prayer.

We heard some shouting and exchange of hot words before lunch break.  The removal of the saplings by school children on the directions of the Head Master had reached Eraiah and he had come for a showdown with the Head Master.   Later on in the evening I heard our father telling our mother that Eraiah had threatened to file a police complaint against my father for destroying crops in his fields and take the matter to court.  Police enquiries were made and Eraiah wanted my father to apologise and allow him to replant the coconut saplings.  Village leaders tried for a compromise but both the parties stuck to their stands.  The matter reached the court.

In those days there was only one court in Ramanagaram having jurisdiction over three taluks - Ramanagaram, Channapatna and Kanakapura.  Though our village was in Kanakapura taluk, for court issues one had to go to Ramanagaram.  There was only one judge in the Ramanagaram court.  He would sit as a Munsiff and hear civil cases for four days.  On the other two days he would sit as a Magistrate and hear criminal cases.  Eariah was a moneyed man and had his own lawyer representing him.  My father was in no position to engage a lawyer to fight his case.  He used to tell my mother that he would fight his own case.  I was too young to understand the issues involved but I remember that there was an atmosphere of fear in our family in those days about the outcome of the case.

After several adjournments the case finally came up for evidence one day.  Magistrate asked my father to bring his lawyer.  My father told him that he had not engaged a lawyer and would conduct the case himself. Eraiah was examined by his lawyer.  Eraiah testified that the school head master had instigated his students to destroy saplings and it had resulted in loss to him.  The charge was for criminal trespass and causing wrongful loss.   The magistrate then asked my father to cross examine Eraiah as he had no lawyer to represent him.  My father asked three questions and Eraiah replied.  The way in which the questions were asked convinced the Magistrate that my father was not trained to conduct the case and his line of questioning was not of much use.  He asked my father to keep quiet and himself asked Eraiah three questions.  The first question was whether the land in which the saplings were planted belonged to him.  He answered vaguely that it did not belong to the school.  Magistrate curtly asked him whether he had any documents to show that the lands belonged to him and he can produce them the next day.  Eraiah had to say that he did not have any such document.  Then the Magistrate asked him as to why he filed a case against the Head Master for something that happened in a land belonging to someone else or the school.  Eraiah had no answer.  Magistrate dismissed the case.

Several years later, when I was studying Law, I realised why the Magistrate dismissed Eraiah's case.  There is an established principle of law which states that "He who comes to seek justice must come with clean hands".  Eraiah's hands were not clean in as much as he wanted to plant the saplings in someone's land.  His motive was faulty ab initito and his case was liable to be dismissed.

Though the problem was solved, two things bothered my father.  First was that Eraih was telling everybody in the village that the Magistrate severely reprimanded my father while hearing the case. Second was destroying the saplings.  He felt that destroying coconut saplings was not good as fruit bearing trees or saplings should not be destroyed for any reason.  He went to Ramanagaram and obtained a certified copy of the judgement.  He waited for an opportune moment and went to Eraiah's house when there were many villagers during his money lending time.  In the presence of all the people, he took out the judgement copy and told Eraiah that if he did stop his mischief, he would go to the sante (weekly village market) and read out the judgement to every single villager.  Eraiah's tirade stopped from that day.

As regards the second issue of atonement for destroying the saplings of a fruit bearing tree, he found a solution by getting ten coconut saplings planted along the border of the school playground.  When I last visited the village with him thirty years ago, the trees were fully grown and laden with several bunches of coconuts.  I could see a glint of happiness and contentment in his eyes.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tomato Inspector

Scientists define memory as an organism's ability to store, retain, and recall information and experiences.  Psychologists have been studying this aspect and efforts have been made since a long time to enhance memory in human beings.  A new branch of neurology called "Cognitive Neuroscience" has come into existence and many studies are being conducted to analyze human brain and interpret the concept.

We often hear people telling that somebody has a good memory or someone has a poor memory.  Which is good?  To have a good memory or poor memory?  People with poor memory envy those with good memory. Because poor memory puts them into many awkward situations. People with good memory are envious of people with bad memory. Surprised?  People with bad memory can get away with a lot of things blaming the things on their bad memory.  Persons with good memory do not have this luxury.  They have to bear the burden of their good memory.  Nobody accepts their mini blunders even if it is due to occasional bout of bad memory.

My firm and considered opinion is that memory is like blood pressure.  High blood pressure is a source of concern.  Low blood pressure is even more worrisome. Nil blood pressure is certain death.  Blood Pressure in the required limits is an indication of good health.  What is the required zone for memory?  Difficult to say.  Certain things are better forgotten.   The more you remember them, the more you suffer.  Certain things are better remembered.  If forgotten, they land us in trouble.  And of course, we know many instances where people make a long narration of how somebody ill-treated them  and yet how graciously they have forgiven and forgotten that.  And each time they narrate the issue, they always end it by saying how they have forgotten it!   And of course, conveniently forgetting things is a very fine art.  We can all identify many such veterans around us.  May be, we can even find the names in each others list. 

My earliest memory is of when I was about six years old.  We lived in a place called Singasandra, a small village between Ramanagaram and Kanakapura,  60 Kilometers from Bangalore.  The village was about ten minutes walk from the banks of the river Arkavati.  To catch a bus to either of the two towns one had to cross the river and go to the Ramanagaram-Kanakapura road.  There were only two buses making a total of four trips.  If a bus is missed, you have to wait for 3 or 4 hours.  Bicycle was a luxury and only few people had them.  Walking was the most common mode of transport as everybody had legs, except the few lame fellows.  People were comfortable walking six or eight miles without a murmur.  No surprise, most of the people were healthy and happy with this arrangement.

My father was the head master of the village school.  The school was situate outside the village and had a small area in front of the school building, say 80 feet by 100 feet, and was used by the children as play ground.  Next to the school building was a large area of uneven, rocky land with wild growth of bushes and ant hills.  Snakes were often found in this area.  My father was from an agricultural background and always interested in gardening. He met the local village leaders and impressed on them to clean the adjoining waste land and allow children to use it as a play ground.  This would give them access to a bigger play ground as well as remove the fear of wild growth and snakes in the adjoining land.  The area in front of the school can be converted to a garden and children could also be taught horticulture, in a practical way.  His approach convinced the local people and they agreed to the arrangement.  One Sunday was fixed for the cleaning work.  All the villagers came with pickaxes, crowbars and sickles.  It became a mass program and by evening the new playground was ready.  Decks were cleared for the garden in front of the school building.

My father was often assisting the local farmers in their interaction with government authorities, especially revenue department as there were no educated persons in the village.  He was also conducting evening classes for the illiterate under "Adult Literacy Programme". He was able to procure good quality seeds and manure for the school garden.  Water was arranged from the nearby agriculture fields.  A beautiful garden came up with many short term vegetables crops and papaya trees with in a year. There was good supply of Brinjal, Beans, Radish and Greens.  Pumpkins and Bitter Gourd were also there. This exercise became quite famous in the entire taluk and was quoted as an example of practical and fruitful education to children.

After two years my father was transferred to a bigger school on the main road, about two miles away, and we shifted to the bigger village.  Three days after  our moving to the new place, one evening an Inspector came to our house.  In those days the highest official of the Education department in the taluk or tehsil was called "Inspector of Schools".  It seems he went to inspect the school in Singasandra and reached late.  The school was closed and he could only see the garden. He walked to the main road and was told that the last bus had gone and he has to wait till the next morning.  There was no concept of hotels or lodge in the villages.  He inquired with the villagers and ended up at our house by late evening.  My  mother and father had a quiet discussion about the guest. It was difficult to keep a senior official overnight with us due to lack of amenities in the small village house.  My mother made quick Uppittu (Upma) and served him with slices of large Tomatoes brought from the village school garden which were still available after three days.  He probably did not have anything to eat since morning and relished the Upma and tomatoes very much.  He asked for some more slices of tomato and praised the school garden and tomatoes.

The problem of keeping him overnight remained.  My father thought of an idea.  There was an express bus by name "Rajalakshmi Bus Service" running between Tumkur and Kanakapura passing through our village around 9 PM.  This bus was not stopping in the village.  My father was helping the Bus Owner in tax matters and RTO issues and the Bus owner had issued instructions to all his bus drivers and conductors that my father should be allowed free travel in all his buses and should be given a seat at all times.  He took the Inspector to the main road, waited for the bus and stood in the middle of the road as the bus approached the village.  The driver stopped the bus and shouted at the person standing in the middle of the road.  Then he identified the person and expressed his regrets.  The inspector was put on the bus and proceeded to Kanakapura.

Whenever the Inspector met my father thereafter, he would sing praises of the Uppittu and Tomatoes.  Though he was an "Inspector of Schools", because of his love for Tomatoes and often praising them, he came to be known in our household as "Tomato Inspector".

Damn the cupid....

The word "Centurion" means "The commanding officer of a roman army, of one hundred men". This word is often used now with reference to a cricketer who scores hundred runs in a match.  The terms "Double centurion" and "Triple centurion" are used to describe an achievement of scoring two hundred and three hundred runs respectively.

Poet and philosopher Bhartruhari  is the Original Triple Centurion.  All other centurions are only his followers.  Except that Bhartruhari did not play Cricket.  The game or its name were not known in his time.  In many Indian languages, including Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and Marathi, a hundred is called a "Shataka".  Bhartruhari has scored three hundreds by writing his three famous works "Shringara Shataka", "Vairagya Shataka" and "Neeti Shataka".  He might have even scored many more, but this is what we are left with now.  At least this much, to our good fortune.

Not much is known for sure about Bhartrihari.  He is reckoned as one of the great philosopher and lyrical poets of India, widely read and quoted even today. Some opine that he was the Buddhist grammarian mentioned by the Chinese traveler I-tsing, who visited India in the 7th century AD.  But a study of his celebrated works indicate that Bhartruhari was a worshiper of Shiva and not a follower of Buddha. Some stories say that he was a King of Ujjain, a city in present Madhya Pradesh or Central India, and lived in the 1st century BC.  He is also said to be the elder brother of King Vikramaditya (of Vikram-Betal fame?) after whom Vikrama Shaka (Computing time and years) is reckoned.  It is said that Bhartruhari abdicated the throne in favor of his brother Vikramaaditya after an incident which created disgust in him, after learning about his queen's infidelities. Vikramaditya is said to have two brothers, one of whom was by name Bhartruhari.  But it is also argued by some that Bhartruhari was younger to Vikramaditya.  What he was or who he was is not of importance now. What really matters is the worth of his works and the essence they carry even today.

Bhartrihari is considered as the author three collections or Shatakas of poems. There is also an opinion that he was the author of a Sanskrit Grammar work by name "Vaakyadeepika". Some others feel that the two Bhartruharis are different. The Sringara Shataka gives us little pictures of love. The Vairagya Shataka describes a gradual withdrawal from worldly matters, and the Neeti Shataka deals with ethical conduct. Bhartrihari portrays Sanskrit at its best: a lot is said in a two or four stanza verse on which pages of commentary can be written.  There is a deep sense of maturity displayed in all these creations.

One of the slokas in his "Neeti Shataka" is said to be the result of an event that occurred in his life.  He was engrossed in his life as a King and also enjoyed his domestic life.  He had a beautiful Queen and was deeply loving her.  A sage came to meet the King once and wanted to have an audience with him privately.  When only the two of them were together, the sage took out a fruit from his bag and handed it to the King.  He told the King that it was a divine fruit and should be given by him to the person he loved most in this world.  After the sage left, the King gave the fruit to his queen as she was the person he loved the most.  While giving the fruit to her, he told her about the visit of the sage and his instructions to give the fruit to his most loved one.

Next morning, one of the servant maids of the palace came to him and presented the same fruit!  He was surprised and asked her how she got the fruit.  She very shyly told him that one of the servants of the palace gave it to her as she was his beloved, but she loved the King and hence she was giving it to him.  When he called the servant and inquired from him, the servant reluctantly told the King that the Queen had given him the fruit.  The King realized the futility of worldly love and decided to renounc the throne.  He handed over the reins to his brother Vikramaaditya and went away to lead the life of an ascetic and later on wrote the three Shatakas.

The second verse of the "Neeti Shataka"sums up this episode thus:

यां चिन्तयामि सततं मयि सा विरक्ता, साप्यन्यमिच्तिजनं सजनोन्यसक्तः |
अस्मत्कृते च परितुष्यति काचिदन्या, धिक् तां च तं च मदनं च इमां च मां च ||

Yaam chintayami satatam mayi saa viraktaa, saapyanyamichhatijanam sajanonyasaktaha,

Asmatkrute cha paritushyati kaachidanya, dhik taam cha tam cha madanam cha imam cha maam cha 

"I am always thinking of her but she is not interested in me.  She is interested in some other man. That other man is not interested in her but he is fond of another woman.  That other woman is fond of me.! (All of us are chasing someone who is not interested in us). Damn her, damn him, damn the Cupid.  Damn her and damn me as well".

Thank God, the sage had only one such fruit with him and did not give similar fruits to others in this world!  Otherwise more than half in the world would have renounced the world ended up as hermits.

Ujjain is a beautiful place. The magnificent Mahakaala temple is a key attraction and the Shivalinga therein is one of the twelve jyotirlingas.  A half a day local sight seeeing trip in beautiful horse carts (Victoria or tongas) takes us to different locations of Ujjain along the banks of the river Shipra.  One such spot is called "Bhartruhari Gufaa" or the cave in which he is said to have lived in the later years of his life.  It is a stone structure and one of the stone slabs in the roof is broken in the middle and standing without support.  The imprint of a palm can be seen below this slab, at the point where the two broken pieces stand.  Legend has it that Lord Indra became scared of the penance by Bhartruhari and used his "Vajrrayudha", a celestial weapon to destroy the structure. But Bhartruhari used his palm to defend himself and keep the structure from falling down.

The three Shatakas are a source of time tested wisdom.  Bhartruhari has been my companion whenever I am traveling and helps me in easily putting up with hours of travel and seemingly endless waiting in airports and railway stations.  Each time one reads and contemplates on his verses, new meaning and insight unfold.  His two line or four line pieces will keep the flame of eternal knowledge burning for generations to come.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Aspects of Love - The musical

We were in the "Walnut Street Theatre" in downtown Philadelphia and a visit to the oldest theatre in America would be incomplete without watching an actual performance on its stage.  We had no confirmed reservation and fell back upon the "Standby" ticketing system, which provides seats in case confirmed seat ticket holders do not show up before the doors to the auditorium close, for whatever reasons.  The show time was 8 PM and we were asked to wait in the lobby.  Just before the show was about to commence, we were allowed entry and advised to take the nearest available seats.  To our luck, we found excellent seats which may not have probably been available had we reserved in advance.

The play for the day was a musical, titled "Aspects of Love", based on a novel by David Garnett.  It is a romantic musical filled with passion, love and loss across three generations of a family and their companions, and is set against the background of 1940's France and Italy. Alex Dillingham, a young student traveling through France, falls in love with the alluring actress Rose Vibert. As the pair embark on a passionate affair, the unexpected arrival of Alex's uncle changes their lives forever. This is a love story spanning twenty years binding six people and three generations as they come to appreciate that "love changes everything." Andrew Lloyd Webber's soaring melodies touch our heart and make this an enjoyable musical evening.

The play unfolds in a total of 38 scenes, 21 before the intermission and 17 thereafter.  The places are Paris, a small theatre and a cafe in Montpelier in Southern France, Pau again in France, Venice, a military camp in Malaya, and in two Railway stations, inside a Railway compartment, a Circus, A Registry Office for Marriages, Back stage of a Grand Theatre in Paris and a Vineyard in Pau, besides inside a house in Pau.  The total impact of the play was highlighted by the use of the stage and arrangement of the sets, in pace with the movement of the story.  The moving stage area was perfectly and fully used to show the change in locations without any loss of time.  Though the action shifted from one place or location to the other, there were no interruptions  and wastage of time.  By the time one scene is completed, arrangement for the next set is completed behind the stage and the rotating movement of the stage brings the other part of the stage to the front,  before the actors move and enter from the other side.  In most of the drama we see, much of the effect is left to the imagination of the audience and the stage does not show the physical evidence of the time and place.  Here the actual items were physically present and together with the light effects and projection of slides took the audience to the time and place of action itself.  A subtle use of the projectors, optimum use stage space and the sets with appropriate lighting provided the total impact as if the action is actually happening in the location being mentioned as well as in the time period in which the action is said to be taking place. 

One of the scenes was in a Cafe in Montpelier immediately after a scene in a small theatre.  Just as the theatre scene ended, the rotating stage moved and there was a cafe ready with a mini bar with all the liquor bottles and glassware of different shapes and sizes, four tables as they use in a bistro, in its original Parisian incarnation of  a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting. As the main players went on with their actions on one of the tables, there was continuous action on the other three tables as well, with guests being given the Menu, waiters taking orders, wine and food being served, guests eating and drinking and bills being presented and paid.  If any spectator is watching the other tables only, ignoring the main characters, it was a bistro at regular and brisk business.  The other players like the customers and  waiters moved in and out unobtrusively and without affecting the movement of the main characters.  There were three bedroom scenes in the play and there were in actual three different full size cots, a wooden double cot with a bed and accessories, a steel double cot with accessories and a bed and a child's bed for the child artiste.  In a Green Room scene, there was a regular big mirror, all the make up material and an actual ten feet tall wardrobe with three to four dozen different dresses in them!  When a person had to enter a room, the entry was through a 15 feet high decorated door as we see in Paris and Europe.  The Circus scene was full with men, women and children holding balloons, a juggler with his hat-trick show,  two artistes making jumping scenes and a full range balloon shooting outfit with rifles for shooting balloons and toys and stuffed rabbits being given away as prizes. A scene for serving breakfast actually consisted of a servant bring in a breakfast tray with regular breakfast items and coffee pots.  The railway station scene brought the full effect of Gare Du Nord station in Paris by a subtle projection of the ceilings of the station and other fittings giving an impression that we are actually revisiting the station.  

The total effect of all the above has a considerable impact on the viewer and enhances the experience.  It is possible to bring any effect in a movie, but considering the limitations of space and time available to a drama troupe, the effort was a display of dramatic excellence at its best.  

Among the forthcoming plays this season are "The King and I" (remember the film by the same name with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr), "The Mousetrap" and two other musicals.  We did enjoy every moment of our visit to the "Walnut Street Theatre" as well as the show "Aspects of Love".

Sunday, October 23, 2011

America's Oldest Theatre

After visiting the small theatre in Newtown, Pensylvania for the Agatha Christie play "Black Coffee" and the record of "Mouse Trap", I was wondering how long back the history of theatre and stage shows would go.  India, Greece and China should be among the oldest theatre savvy countries.  Kavikulaguru Kalidasa refers to the plays of Bhasa, Soumilla and Kaviputra in his "Maalavikaagnimitra" indicating that plays by these writers was well known even before Kaalidasa's times. This takes Indian stage history to even before 4th century BC.  For a country which prided in saying " काव्येषु नाटकं रम्यं"  (Kavyeshu Naatakam Ramyam), there should have been theatres to present these celebrated works, but unfortunately there is not much of recorded history of this rich cultural heritage.  Even then, India’s oldest theatre as recorded is found in the Sitabenga cave at Ramgarh Hill, now in Chhattisgarh state in central India.  It was built during the first half of the Hellenistic Age, between 300 and 200 BC.  This is a small theatre carved into the rock at the mouth of a cave facing out over an uncovered area just large enough for a small temporary scene building and stage.  Its seating is reminiscent of a Greek ode-um. The 46 feet by 24 feet stone theatre can accommodate 50 persons.  The second oldest theatre in India is in the Udayagiri-Khandagiri hills of Orissa state, near Bhubaneswar and the "Haathi Gumpha" in these hills is a place worth visiting and is a part of the glorious Indian history and culture.  I had the privilege of visiting this place some twenty five years ago and the memory is still fresh in my mind.  "Gaiety Theatre" in The Mall Road, Shimla in Himachal Pradesh has the oldest modren theatre, started in 1887 and now 124 years old.

"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a sweet kiss......", said Christopher Marlow in his poem "Was it the face that launched a thousand ships".   The 16th century English poet lived for only 29 years, but is made immortal by this piece of writing.  The story of Helen of Troy evoked such an awe in Christopher Marlow two thousand years later!  Understandably, Greek stage history also dates back to 500 BC.  Chinese theatre history takes us back to Shang dynasty times which is even older than 500 BC.

Which is the oldest theatre in America?  The question was answered when we were in downtown Philadelphia two days ago. America is a relatively young country, but probably has the oldest of the modern theatre buildings in the "Walnut Street Theatre" of Philadelphia.  Philadelphia city itself has an important place in the history of the United states, having been the first capital of the United States and being the host for the celebrated "Liberty Bell".  No wonder, the earliest entertainment history and stage shows started here, on the Walnut Street in the present downtown of Philadelphia. 

"Walnut Street Theatre" is located at the corner of Ninth and Walnut streets of Philadelphia. It is now in its 202nd year having been started in the year 1809.  It may be noted that the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clarke expedition took place between 1804 and 1806 and United States at that time mainly comprised of the eastern areas.  The Theatre has been  declared as a "National Historic Landmark Structure" and enjoys a special status in Philadelphia's as well as American history.  It does not have the luxury of a sprawling space, but every piece of available space has been put to excellent use and the history of the theatre as well as American stage is maintained in minute details.  The theatre has been a centre for Circus, Opera, Lectures, Music, Dance, Motion Pictures and Live Theatre productions.  Presently it is being almost exclusively used for Live Theatre shows and every show runs to full houses.  It is now run as a self-producing non-profit theatre company.

The theatre opened on 2nd February 1809 when horses circled a dirt riding ring.  It was opened as "The New circus" and hosted equestrian events.  The initial report recorded the event thus: "The pounding of hooves mingled with the shrieks of delight from the crowds as teams of horses circled a dirt riding ring".  An 80 feet dome was later added to the theatre building later, making it the tallest building in Philadelphia at that time.  By 1812 the building had been converted as a legitimate theatre with the Circus ring being replaced by a stage.  The opening stage show had the distinction of the presence of the then President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson and The Marquis de Lafayette.  Lafayette was a wealthy Frenchman who came to America in 1777, when he was only 20 years old, as a volunteer to aid the struggle for Independence by the colonies. He was made a Major General and became a friend of George Washington.   He is said to have spent some $200,000 or more of his fortune in support of the colonies in the Revolution.  He eventually was paid by Congress for "services rendered" during the war.  He was given two checks, one for $120,000 and one for $80,000.  The larger check of the two is in the collection of the Valley Forge Historical Society.   He was one of the personalities that shaped French-American friendship.  Hence his presence at the inaugural show at this theatre is considered note worthy.

A major renovation to the interior and exterior of the theatre building was carried out in the year 1828 by the then leading and most prominent architect John Haviland.  Though management of the theatre has changed many hands and renovations done from time to time, the present facade is based on his original design.  The Walnut Theatre back stage still maintains the 200 year old tradition and uses the original grid, rope, pulley and sand bag system.  Photographs of the by gone era are displayed in the theatre premises and one of the items displayed is a handwritten letter by actor Eli Wallach.  A young Philadelphian Edwin Forrest made his stage debut at the age of 14 here and went on to become one of he most famous actors in American stage history.  A huge marble statue of Edwin Forrest in his role as Shakespeare's Coriolanus, donated by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, is kept in the lobby of the theatre. Edwin Forrest was known as "America's first great tragidian" for his portraying of King Lear and other tragic characters.
A visit to the theatre will make us realise that the most noted actors of 19th century and many from the 20th century have appeared on the stage in Walnut Street Theatre and this place has been the launching pad for many successful careers in Hollywood and elsewhere.  Many illustrious actors such as Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, Morlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, George C Scott, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Jack Lemmon and William Shatner of Star Trek fame have acted on the stage of this theatre.  "A street car named Desire" featured Morlon Brando, "A Raisin in the Sun" had Sidney Poitier and   "The Diary of Anne Frank" had Susan Strasberg.  Henry Fonda featured in 1948 play "Mister Roberts" and having been recently discharged from the Navy, used his own uniform in the play.  His daughter Jane fonda appeared in 1960 play "There was a little Girl".

The theatre has many firsts in the American Theatre scene; Gas footlights were fitted in 1837 and the theatre was air conditioned in 1855.  A new stage for more elaborate musical comedies was made in 1880 and the interior was rebuilt with structural steel in 1920.   The Walnut Theatre also has the distinction of hosting the first televised Presidential Debate,  between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter on 23rd September 1976.  The theatre does not hesitate to record that during the event the two contesting candidates had to be standing for half an hour without debate when the sound system accidentally failed.

The theatre now has over 56,000 subscribers making it the most subscribed theatre company in the world.  The subscribers get the best seats at best rates and can enjoy the shows, besides getting discounts in the nearby restaurants,  while contributing to running and growth of the theatre.  Training programs for aspiring stage artistes are conducted in the Theatre School here.  There are special programs for the kids as well to encourage an interest in stage at a tender age.

If you are anywhere near downtown Philadelphia in the evenings, The Walnut Theatre is the place to be in.  Do not worry if you do not have a prior reservation and the show is full.  The theatre has a system of issuing a limited number of  "Stand by" tickets, similar to RAC in Indian railways.  If there are last minute cancellations in the 1100 seat theatre or some patrons do not turn up before closing the doors, you may get a chance to see a show.  We went without a reserved seat and we were just lucky to do so!

Friday, October 21, 2011

PUMPKINS and Pumpkins

Several years ago we had a small function for the "House Warming" of our new house,  "Gruhapravesha" as we call it.  As I understand, in the Western countries it is held within 90 days of occupying a new house.  In our area, it is just before the new house is put to actual use.  The function is incomplete without a dish made of Pumpkin.  I am not aware of the written rule, but there is an unwritten code making the use of Pumpkin mandatory. Of course, one of the cousins, the "Ash Gourd" or "Winter Melon" is a must for pooja in this function.  A small one,  of the size of a football to a big pot, is tied on the top of the front door or entrance of the building with the belief that it will dispel evil forces.  Another Ash Gourd is opened with a small cut in the middle, filled with some coloring agents, and broken in front of the building for similar reasons.  Both pumpkin cousins, sweet variety as well as Ash Gourd are used for preparing the festive meal.

A cook was hired for the occasion at our new house and he had arrived with two assistants.  The junior assistant was a handsome young fellow and looked like he had a stint in the Garadimane, local gymnasium.  He was assigned the work relating to washing  and cutting  vegetables besides other chores.  There were not many houses in the area and the next four plots on the right side of the new house were vacant. A plot adjoining the new house was used as the cooking hall.  When I went to the cooking place to see how things were shaping up, I found this young assistant break the big Pumpkin, make a ball out of the pulp with seeds not used for cooking, and hurl it across the vacant plots. The seed ball flew away and fell in the farthest site.  He saw me and felt a little uncomfortable for what he had done.  I told him he should enter the "Shot put" competition and he would surely win a prize.  He laughed with the others and continued his work.  The pumpkin dish was excellent as were the others and the matter ended there.

One year later we had another get together in the house and all children in the family had assembled at our house.  There were nearly a dozen of them and started playing Cricket in the next plot.  One of my nephews, again a strong young boy of sixteen years hit a six and the ball fell on the last vacant site.  There was a wild growth of bushes there and the boys searched for the ball.  They could not find the ball but the boy who hit the sixer came running to me shouting, "Uncle, there are huge Pumpkins there!"  I wondered how the ball had become Pumpkins and went there with my brothers to see the wonder.  To our surprise we found that there were seven huge Pumpkins which had grown from plants out of seed ball thrown by the assistant cook a year ago.  We harvested the rich crop of seven big Pumpkins.  For the next one week, it was Pumpkin festival in all homes of the relatives.

We had some small kitchen garden area behind our house.  Seeds from a Pumpkin of this group were now deliberately planted and again gave a rich harvest.  This continued for several years and the family of Pumpkins served our family very well.  After some years we still had a pumpkin plant in the back yard and was ready to give a fresh crop.  Three members of our family had gone abroad and were expected to return in the month of November.  We wanted to keep the Pumpkins for them to taste and left three small ones in the plant and named them after the three persons scheduled to return so that each can be used on the day of their arrival.  It appears that at times plants also understand our mind and thinking.  The three Pumpkins grew handsomely and each attained different sizes matching in proportion to the three persons to arrive.  In villages Pumpkins are known to be stolen, especially during the nights and there is a saying in Kannada, "Kumbalakayi kalla andare hegalu mutti noodikonda!", meaning that when someone mentioned of a Pumpkin thief, the other fellow checked his shoulders, for a big pumpkin can be carried on the shoulders only.  We were anxious about these three Pumpkins being stolen and were checking their safety at regular intervals.  Fortunately they were safe till the arrival of the threesome, on two different dates, and were shown to them in the plant and then used for cooking.  The successive harvesting of Pumpkins continued for nearly ten years and stopped when we covered the entire area with cement concrete to avoid pests. Looking back now, that was one of the wrong decisions in our life which deprived us of free supply of Pumpkins in these hard days of inflation and depression.  

There are many varieties of Pumpkins and the two main cousins,  Sweet Pumpkin (refereed to as Pumpkin generally) and the Ash Gourd.  A visit to the agriculture fields around Mysore in the end of September will give a beautiful view of thousands of Ash Gourds lying in the agricultural fields. The non-stop buses on the Bangalore-Mysore highway have a practice of stopping for a brief coffee break near Maddur.  Whenever I traveled on this route during September, when others went for their coffee, I would go behind the hotel for a beautiful view of the Ash gourds.  The crop would be harvested three days before "Mahanavami", when the demand peaks for "Ayudha Pooja".  Ash Gourd  "Majjige Huli" or "Moar Kolambu" is very popular. There is a hilarious scene in Puttanna Kanagal's movie, "Sharapanjara" in which the two characters played by Ashwath and Narasimharaju describe the Majjige Huli in "Mysore Maharaja's Vardhanti (Birthday festival)" An item called Sandige is also made from its bark.  In North India, a sweet made from it called "Petha"  is very popular, and the city of Taj Mahal, Agra being a place known for the Pethas.

Some vegetables are used when they are tender, some when they are medium ripe and some others when they are quite ripe.  Pumpkin belongs to the last category.  There is a saying in Sanskrit, "Kooshmandam (Pumpkin) komalam visham", meaning that tender pumpkins are equal to poison as it has an adverse effect on the health.  In the days when refrigerators were not around, Pumpkins were the homemaker's dream vegetable as ripe Pumpkins can be kept for several months and could be used when other vegetables were not available. No household that breaks a Pumpkin would use it entirely, a part of it was always shared with the neighbours. May be because of the size and a full pumpkin not being needed for a day's cooking.  "When I have I give you and when you have you give me", was the sound co-operation principle and took care of the storing problem.   In rural areas, tender leaves of the Pumpkin creep is used for making curriers, but not tender Pumpkins.  I also remember my mother giving us Pumpkin seeds fried and mixed with Menasinapudi, chilli powder mix.

Pumpkins are probably closest among vegetables to human beings, because they come in all sizes and nearly in all shapes.  There is a variety called "Chittagumbala", the size of a cricket ball and very tasty, of course, depending on who has cooked.  Ooty Pumpkins are also small in size.  Pumpkins of various sizes can be seen in thousands when you drive around the countryside in USA, during Halloween times.  Pumpkin festivals there have "Pumpkin pies"and sweets made of Pumpkins.  In one of the festivals I have also seen a "Pumpkin pie eating competition"!

Pumpkins have also caught the imagination of poets and story tellers. Cinderella's chariot was made of Pumpkin. I have heard of a story about Destiny smiling on two quarreling friends in the form of a Pumpkin. There can be many such stories about Pumpkins.  In rural India, whenever someone starts discussion with old anecdotes, someone else among the group would say, "Oh, he started his Kooshmanda Puraana"!.  By the way, this is only the first adhyaya (first chapter) of Kooshmaanda Puraana.

Today a Pumpkin weighed in a contest in New York has measured 1818 Pounds or 825 Kilograms and earned the record for the heaviest Pumpkin in recorded history.  It has also beaten the weight record of the heaviest man in the history held by Jon Bower Minnoch whose peak weight was a mere 1400 pounds or 635 kilograms.  People like me can derive a lot of comfort from this fact; we are only a tenth of this Pumpkin's weight. 

Bidding for the seeds of the "Great Pumpkins" is now on and you can compete and buy seeds of the two biggest Pumpkins - 1818.5 Pound Bryson and 1807.50 Pound Stelts.  May be next season you can grow a 2000 Pound PUMPKIN. Not just 2 pound Pumpkins.  If you want to grow the biggest pumpkin and earn a record visit  Hurry, auction closes shortly!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Agatha Christie's Black Coffee

George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish playwright and one of the founders of London School of Economics, once sent two complimentary tickets for the first show of his stage play to Winston Churchill. Shaw was known to be very bitter and sarcastic in his criticism and though many prominent personalities admired him, they also disliked him. A note attached to the tickets said, "Please bring along a friend, if you have one". Winston Churchill returned the tickets with a note "Unable to attend the first show due to other engagements. But I will definitely come to the second show, if there is one".

It was certainly not for the play "The Mousetrap". The Mousetrap, written by Agatha Christie opened at the  Ambassador Theater in West Street, Near Charing Cross Road in London on 25th November 1952, before many of us were born, and is still running! It ran till its 21st anniversary in 1973 at this theater and, due to higher demand for tickets, moved to the bigger next door St. Martins Theater thereafter. A visitor to London can see the play even now by buying a ticket for 45 to 60 Pounds. The play has been staged over an astounding  24,000 times and still attracts houseful shows. Three generation of actors have acted in the play and David Raven holds the Guinness world record for appearing in 4575 shows as Major Metcalf and  earned the title of  "Most Durable Actor".  

Agatha Christie, who lived between 1890-1976 wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections besides stage plays. She also wrote lesser known romances under the name Mary Westmacott.  Her novels have been translated to over 100 languages and claim over a billion readers all over the world. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, two characters created by her have been very popular with crime story readers. Her stories always ring with authenticity as she has used the familiar surroundings and places she actually visited in her life time, as a setting for her books and plays. Many of her novels have been enacted on stage as well as made into movies. Some of the stories like "Death on the Nile", "Murder on the Orient Express" and "4.50 From Paddington" have been made into movies many times over. 

When our host informed us that the play "Black coffee" was being enacted by the neighborhood Newtown Arts Company during this week and we can see if we are interested, we jumped at the offer. The offer was made at 6 PM for a show to start at 8 PM.  Tickets were available and booked over phone. When the actual place of the show was located on Google, it turned out that the place was not so neighborly and 60 miles away.  Just for orientation, it is like traveling from Mandya to Bangalore. After an early supper we stated at 6.45 PM and our journey itself was a suspense adventure, considering the evening traffic. Theater officials are very strict here and close the doors of the hall two minutes before the start of the show. We had only an hour to travel, find a parking place and go over to the theater for collecting the tickets. When delayed for catching a flight or train we hope that the plane or train is also late. Here there was no such hope. When we parked the car it was exactly 8 PM and we had no hopes of getting in. The theater manager realized that we had traveled far and made us an offer. He would allow us inside but we will not get the original seats allotted to us, but the nearest to aisle so that other guests were not disturbed. We accepted the offer and in the bargain got probably better seats. Total seating capacity of the theater was about 300 and well maintained. The play had just begun and probably only three minutes were lost. Only the first three characters had entered the stage.

"Black Coffee" is the first play written by Agatha Christie and produced initially in 1930. This first piece  launched a successful second career for her as a playwright.  Hercule Poirot and his friend Arthur Hastings are summoned to visit a famous physicist, Sir Claud Amory, but they discover on their arrival that he has been murdered. The plot revolves around a stolen formula for manufacture of explosives, with Poirot deducing which of Sir Claud's house guests/family members is the killer.  The action unfolds in the library of Sir Claude Amory's estate at Abbot's Cleve, about twenty-five miles from London, less than half the distance we traveled to see the show. 

I came to know some interesting facts about Agatha Christie at the theater :
  • She worked as a Nurse during the First World War at a hospital in her home town. She liked the profession and called it one of the most rewarding professions that anyone can follow".  The job influenced   her much and many of the murders in her books and plays, including "Black Coffee", are carried out with poison.
  • In 1930 she wrote in her diary that "Poirot was insufferable and an egocentric creep", about a character created by herself.
  • She wrote her autobiography and it was published after her death because Christie told the Publishers, "If anybody writes about my life in future, I'd rather they got the facts right!"
  • Her tombstone reads: "Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas. Ease after war, death after life, does greatly please".   
The show lasted for two and a half hours and was well acted and conveyed the heart of the plot in clear terms. The trade mark mustache of Hercule Poirot was there and we thoroughly enjoyed the show. The artistes and the Director received standing ovation at the conclusion of the play.

"Mousetrap" did not get  fit into our calendar.  We at least got Black Coffee!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Who is a happy man?

Every human being wants to be happy. We do not know about animals. But we can make out by their behavioral pattern that even animals want to be happy. The way they respond to our love or anger do indicate that they also want to be happy. Is there any human being who wants to be unhappy? Perhaps there is none. Any human being who wants other human beings to be unhappy? There are plenty. In fact many people are miserable not because of their own unhappiness. They are unhappy because others are happy! Some people do not mind even if they lose one eye if their enemy loses both the eyes. Of course, there are some great people who are prepared to lose both their eyes if their enemy loses at least one eye!  People do every thing in their control to be happy. They even attempt to do things not in their control also to attain their perceived state of happiness.  

"साधन में सुख होता नहीं है, सुख जीवन की एक कला है", says the movie song "कितने अटल थे तेरे इरादे"  written by Indeevar and composed by O P Nayyar for the 1982 film "Ek Baar Muskura do" meaning that happiness does not depend on physical things, but it is an art of life. Even if one agrees that happiness is an art of life and depends on the state of mind, there should be some elements or components of happiness for there should be some measure and understanding of even abstract things.

Who is a happy man? What is the measure of happiness? What are the components to be assessed to measure happiness? Has anybody attempted to measure this before? What are the answers? Is there any lesson for us from such efforts? These are questions that beg for an answers. These questions appears to have been answered by Vidura several centuries ago. Yes, Vidura of Mahabharata. He is never refereed as just Vidura. He is always referred to as Mahatma Vidur. He was one of the finest thinkers and philosophers of his time. And of course, his thinking is relevant even today. While advising King Dhritarashtra,  he says:

अर्थागमो नित्यमरोगिता च  प्रियास्च भार्या प्रियवादिनी च |
वश्यश्च पुत्रः अर्थकरी च विद्या षड्जीवालोकस्य   सुखानि राजन  ||

arthAgamo nityamarogitA cha priyashcha bhAryA priya-vAdinI cha |
vashyashcha putro'rthakarI cha vidyA ShaD jIvalokasya sukhAni rAjan ||

Vidura identifies six components or sources of happiness in this mortal world. ArthAgama (Cash flows). Health. Friends. Sweet (pleasant) speaking wife (spouse). Obedient Children.  Fruitful knowledge. Each of these can be discussed at length. But let us see them briefly.

The actual meaning of Arthaagama is Cash flows and not just Income. It is to be noted that Vidura did not use the word Sampatti which means Wealth. Wealth alone does not make a man happy. Imagine a man who owns a palace worth say 100 crore rupees or 100 million dollars. If he has no liabilities, a banker will put his net worth at a whopping 100 crores or ten million dollars. If he does not have any cash flows, how will he sustain himself? Another person who has a salary of 10000 per month but no other assets is happier since he can meet his daily needs. The palace owner cannot even maintain the palace without cash flows and in due course it will become Bhoot bangla or a haunted house. If he sells the palace and invests the money in fixed deposits (as for stock markets, better read "Stock Markets or Monkey business") the position drastically changes. His net worth would remain high, he will also have a regular income and he can live a comfortable or even a luxurious life. Liquidity is often a better indication of financial health than net worth. Hence bankers place a high value on Current Ratio. A person can lead a comfortable life as long as receipts on any day is equal to or more than the outgo of cash for that day. Cash flow may be comprising of Income, Capital Receipts or even borrowed funds. That is why Liquidity Management has assumed high importance now in Financial Management as well. Mahatma Vidur has rightly identified this as the first of the six sources of happiness.

The second source or component is good health. Vidura refers to daily health. Any human being may have an occasional cold or fever. Or headache and body ache. That is not sickness.  But there should not be any regular ailment or permanent disease. Something that requires frequent hospitalisation and surgery etc. Even if all other sources of happiness are available, an unhealthy person cannot be happy as his mind and body always suffer. We have to again agree with Vidura.

The third source of happiness is good friends. Volumes can be written or spoken about the happiness derived from good friends. This is something we all know from experience.

The fourth source of happiness identified by Vidura is a pleasant speaking spouse. He refers to a sweet speaking wife since he is addressing King Dhritarashtra. He may have used the word भर्ता  (husband) if he were addressing Queen Gandhari. Importance is usually given to facial beauty while fixing alliance for marriage. An advertisement for wrist watches once said  "The face you see often while waiting for somebody should not be a bore!". The voice you hear for the rest of your life (assuming that divorce is not on the agenda). Voice used  should also not be harsh, both in content and delivery. We know many men and women who have golden hearts but are very bitter in their talk. The voice should be sweet as well as the words used. Some spouses meet all the requirements of a good spouse, but there is an unnecessary bitterness in their words when they talk to the spouse.  Some spouses do not know giving a straight answer to any question of the other and the answer is always in the form of a counter question. A harsh spouse will make life miserable even if other five sources or components are available. Of course, a person without a spouse is compared to a blind man. Unmarried persons are denied the pleasure as well as pain of having a spouse and can be ignored for this analysis.We have to perforce agree with Vidura's statement.

The fifth source or component of happiness is Obedient children. This is something that Dhritarashtra did not have. And he was not happy even for a day of his life after his children were born, due to this problem. Instead of being under his control, he had the misfortune of surrendering to the wishes of his eldest son all his life. Definition of obedience may vary from time to time during the life time of a person. Children do need independence and should be allowed to lead their own lives. But parents find life miserable if they are to lead a life obedient to their own children. But as Vidur meant, a good relation with children and children who show deference to the parents is a vital component of happiness in life.

The sixth and last source or component identified by Mahatma Vidura is Fruitful knowledge.  The knowledge acquired by a person during his life time should be useful to himself as well as to the society. Considerable time and resources are spent in educating a man or woman. If the knowledge so acquired with much effort is not used for the benefit of the person concerned and the society, it is a colossal waste as well as can be a source of unhappiness in life for that person. Vidura is again right in his identification.

Thus when we consider the six sources or components identified by Mahatma Vidura, we can see that they are truly representative of the real happiness of a human being in this world. Not for nothing Vidura is recognised as a scholar and Philosopher for a long time.

Now that we know the six components or sources of happiness, we can evaluate ourselves against these yardsticks and decide where we stand; whether we are happy or unhappy or somewhere in between!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tale of two more couples

"The tale of two couples" has received a lot of appreciation and made many friends remember the stories they grew up with.  That reminds me of a story of two more couples. 

This time it is the tale of two city couples. Educated and relatively better off than the poor uneducated village farmers. to live in harmony is somewhat simple for rural folks as their means and needs are both limited.  Being educated and economically better off bring their own complex problems. City people have to find out their own ways and struggle harder to maintain domestic peace.

In a city, there were a couple who were always quarreling on some thing or the other. They were a perfect example of a married pair with perfect misunderstanding.  In a democracy, they say Opposition should have their say and the Treasury Benches should have their way.  Problems arise when either Opposition does not have its say or Treasury benches do not have their way.  Or when both want to have their say and way as well.  These couple were in that category where both wanted their own way in everything.  No wonder, almost even non-issues ended up in quarrel. 

The couple owned a twin house and lived in one part of the building. The other part of the building was rented out and the rent received was one of the sources of income. The tenant couple also quarreled often but came nowhere the standards set by the owner couple. For their own reasons they had to move out and the rented part of the building became vacant.  A good friend of the owners approached them for renting out the house for his sister and brother-in-law who were moving into the city.  Other issues like rent and rental advance were settled to mutual satisfaction and  the owner couple handed over the keys to the friend as they were going out of the city for a few days. They had no contact with the incoming tenants till they returned to the city.

The atmosphere in the tenanted portion was now so calm that the owner couple felt very uncomfortable.  There was not even the occasional quarrel or fight between the tenanted couple.  Owner couple came to the conclusion that the tenant couple were deaf and dumb and hence there was no shouting and fighting.  Even there the owner wife differed from her husband.  If  they are deaf and dumb there may not be any exchange of words.  But there should be at least throwing of utensils and other objects.  They agreed on one thing. things were not normal in the tenant house and the matter required further probing.  One of their rare agreement on any issue.

One day the owner husband saw the tenant husband buying vegetables from the road side vendor and talking to him. He realised that at least the tenant husband is not deaf and dumb. He engaged him in some conversation and probed the matter further. He was keen to know why there was no quarrel in the tenant house.

"Oh, that is a simple matter. Me and my wife have a perfect understanding",  tenant husband said.  "How is it possible?  We seem to have a perfect misunderstanding between us", owner husband asked.  "We have an understanding.  We accept what the other says on alternative issues. As soon as we get up in the morning, I accept the first thing my wife says. Next, my wife accepts whatever I say. This continues the whole day,  Hence we have no quarrels", the tenant husband replied.

Owner husband was not convinced. Such a simple formula would not work, he was sure. "Give me an example of how it works", he asked.

"That is very simple again.  When we get up in the morning, my wife asks me to make coffee. I comply and prepare coffee.  As soon as the coffee is ready I ask her to drink it.  She complies and we both have our morning coffee.  Then she asks me to prepare breakfast. I comply and prepare it. Then it is her turn to agree to what I say. I tell her to eat breakfast and she unhesitatingly compiles with. Then comes my turn to agree to what she says. She asks me to prepare lunch and I comply.  Then I ask her to eat lunch which she does........She asks me to do the laundry............I ask her to get dressed to go out...........and so on. We have no problems at all. We have peace at home and  we are happy".

The owner husband now understood the secret of peace in the tenanted home.

The story I heard ended there. What the owner husband did thereafter was not told and left to the listeners imagination.

There can be two alternatives. Either he told his wife or did not. Or three. He waited till she herself found out. Or four - he made every effort to prevent his wife from finding out. Or more,  if you can make it out.  It is left entirely to your imagination and versatility.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The tale of two couples

This is a very old story, told to me in my childhood by my grand mother.  I will not be surprised if you suddenly remember that you had also heard the same story from your mother or grandmother. Or grandfather or uncle or auntie.  These  stories are ever green and can be enjoyed at any time, especially if children are around. Those who had properties and assets passed on them to their next generation.  Even those who did not have any properties passed on at least these stories to the next generation.  I am not sure about those who had lot of properties.  They probably spent all their time in either making those properties or protecting and increasing them. Or at least spending them.  They may not have had time to pass on the stories. But the ayahs or nurses would have done the job of passing on the stories.  However, the stories have stood the test of times and are still enjoyable.  The details may change depending on the ingenuity of the narrator and the imagination at work at the time of telling the story.  Like this story itself.  The story told by my grand mother had only one couple. I have added the second couple to add variety, as we see in real life. Just change the names, items and situations according to local conditions. You have a perfect story for anywhere in the world.

In a small village there were two husbands and wives. Or should we say two couples for clarity?  They lived in opposite houses.  The husbands were farmers and worked very hard in their fields.  The wives took care of the household work and looked after the children. Besides assisting the husbands in the agricultural lands whenever the need arose.  The husbands were friends as were the wives.  Being a small village everybody knew everybody.

The husbands were both fond of Onion and Potato curry.  It is called Huli or Sambar in different areas.  Both farmers were growing Onions and Potatoes in their lands.  On one particular occasion they also had grown some brinjal in the lands.  Onion or Potato sambar itself is tasty. When both are mixed it is even more tasty.  One need not describe the taste if brinjal is also added.  In many villages it is the main item made when important guests visit the village.  Naturally all the four (two couples) were fond of the item.

With the brinjal crop being harvested, the first farmer one day told his wife to make Onion-Potato-Brinjal curry for the evenings supper and went to the fields in the morning.  His wife dutifully prepared the curry by evening and kept it ready.  The farmer used to have his supper everyday in a bronze plate.  But he would like to have his meal served on a banana leaf  whenever such curry was prepared.  The wife was well aware of this but on this day she could not get banana  leaves due to her being busy with other domestic work.  What difference would it make for one day, she thought and waited for husband to arrive.  

The farmer had a very tough day at the lands and returned very tired in the evening. The aroma of the curry was reaching him even before he entered the house.  His hunger was doubled now.  He washed his hands and feet, freshened up we can say for he present generation, and sat down for supper.  The wife had kept everything ready to serve the meal.  She took out the bronze plate and kept before him.  The husband's temper rose.  He shouted at his wife and asked her why the meal was not being served on a banana leaf.  The wife tried to explain her difficulties but he was in no mood to listen.  He shouted some more, pushed the plate away and went to sleep.  The wife was very disappointed and she also went to sleep.

The couple were no strangers to hunger and living on half meal.  But the harvest times were the days when they could afford a decent full meal.  It is difficult to sleep on an empty stomach. Anyone who has faced this for whatever reason knows it.  It is even more difficult to sleep on an empty stomach when excellent food is kept next to you.  The farmer got up in the middle of the night and went to the kitchen.  He served himself a sumptuous meal in the bronze plate.  No need to say he enjoyed the meal. He was about to clean the plate and cover the remaining food when he heard his wife's voice behind him, telling him  "Just leave it as it is. I will clean it after I have eaten".  Then the farmer realised that his wife had also gone to sleep without food.  He realised his folly and learnt his lesson.  He started loving his wife even more thereafter.

Two days later the same thing happened in the opposite house.  All details were identical.  The same sambar, the same missing banana leaf, the same shouting and up to farmer going to sleep. Only some things changed slightly thereafter.  The wife had her sumptuous supper and went to sleep.  The farmer got up in the midnight and served himself a meal in the bronze plate.  Everything was fine including the aroma.  But he could not take even a bite.  The curry had three times salt in it than usual.  When he was about to get up he heard his wife's voice behind him.  "I thought I will bring the banana leaf in the morning and  serve the meal to you.  Since you are more interested in the leaf than the curry, I have added extra salt in the curry. It should not really matter. Does it?".  The farmer did not know what to say.  The wife asked him to sit and served him the meals with a curry kept separately, with normal dose of salt.  The farmer realised his folly and learnt his lesson.  He started fearing his wife even more thereafter.

All grand mother's stories had some moral in the end.  What is the moral of this story?  One lesson can be that the contents are more important than the packaging.   Marketing wizards may not agree with this.  They may say packaging is as important as the contents.  Marketing MBAs may even argue that Packaging is more important than the contents.
There can be another lesson. The wives and husbands can draw their own lessons from this story in accordance with their identity with the four characters.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Stock Markets or Monkey Business?

The are many and oft repeated stories about stock markets.  This is one of them:

Once upon a time a man appeared in a village and announced that he would buy monkeys by paying Rs.10 for each monkey.  Make it ten cents for a monkey if you want to make it an International story.  The villagers seeing that there were so many monkeys around the village and in nearby forests went around and started catching them.  The man bought thousands at Rs.10 or ten cents as per the choice of the sellers.  As supply started to diminish and villagers started to stop their efforts, he announced  that now he would buy monkeys at 20 rupees or twenty cents each. This renewed the efforts of the villagers and they started catching monkeys again.  Even the farmers left their farming activities and took up monkey catching.  Soon the supply diminished even further and people started going back to their farms. The offer rate increased to 25 and the supply of monkeys became so thin that it was an effort to even see a monkey let alone catch it.

The man now announced that he would buy monkeys at 50!  However, since he had to go to the city on some business, his assistant would now buy on behalf of the man.  In the absence of the man, the assistant gave an option to the villagers. "Look at all these monkeys in the big cages that the man has collected.  I will sell them to you at 35 and when the man comes back you can sell it to him for 50. You will make a profit of 15 on each monkey with no efforts.  The villagers queued up with all their saving to buy the monkeys.  The assistant sold all the monkeys and converted the rupees into dollars and made a remittance abroad from the local bank. He went back with a promise that he would certainly return with his master after finding out the present demand for monkeys or other animals.

Then they never saw the man or his assistant again.  It was only monkeys everywhere!

There is another golden saying. It is very easy to become a millionaire in a stock market.  Just start as a billionaire.

An average small investor looks at the stock markets and is encouraged when he sees the indices and individual company shares are going up.  Foreign Institutional Investors are investing as the prices are attractive. He also starts buying.  He can only buy small quantities.  A small fish in the ocean of  big fish, very big fish and whales. When samll investors enter the market, the index raises even further. Individually he is small but collectively it is considerable investments. But he will discover shortly that the stocks he purchased have started falling even if others are rising. Rising was in units but fall is in tens.  Then suddenly FIIs start selling.  Before he realises and reacts, the shares have fallen steeply and the index has collapsed.  At a time when he exits the market he has already lost a large part of his money. When the small investor is exiting FIIs are again buying  cheap. The cycle repeats. Monkey business continues.

There are many reasons  for stock market crashes. As well as for runaway upward movement. For crash there is earthquake in Japan.  Deficit in Greece. Downgrading by rating agencies. Higher inflation.  Even fear of inflation going higher.  there are no more drivers of growth.  Or simply that the rise was too fast to sustain!  None of them are in our control.  Only thing in our control is losing money. Or sometimes one wonders, Whether it is in our control?

We have wonderful stock market experts who go on appearing on TV channels one after the other.  One expert after the other on the same channel.  Again, the same expert on different channels.  And have their analysis for what went wrong. and advise for where to invest. They are like GPS.  Or in one way better than GPS.  GPS gives you advise on what route to take.  If you take a wrong turn because road signs are not clear or get into a wrong exit, it immediately stats recalculating and gives a fresh direction. Does not hesitate one bit or waste a minute.  The experts are also like that. They predict a market upsurge. You invest. Market drops. They have an immediate fresh advise.  Before the markets open on the next day.  Just like GPS.  They had good arguments and reasons for the previous advise.  They have better arguments and reasons why the  advice went wrong.  They have even better reasons why their advice is sound now. Sounder than before. They are even better than GPS. GPS gives an advice, you make a mistake, it gives a fresh advice.  These experts gave an advice, you followed it; their advice was wrong and things went wrong.  Now they have a fresh advice against their earlier one which went wrong. Is it not better than GPS?  Don't ask any more questions. Have they not given the first advice?  That they are only giving an advice and you should invest only after satisfying the correctness of their advice by independent research?  Don't tell them that if you were capable of making independent research, you would yourself  be an adviser.  In fact they are preparing you for becoming a better adviser in future.  Probably because all of them lost a lot of money in the markets, gained a lot of experience while doing so and now they are making up the losses and even making a profit by becoming advisers.  Don't worry if you lose money. Nothing to worry if you lose money. Money is not everything in life. You are gaining something even more valuable for leading a good life - which is experience.  You can always become an adviser due to the richness of experience though money-wise you have become poor.

It is not that stock markets always produce losses.  There are many who have made fortunes in there. But for every one such lucky person, there are ten who have lost.  An investor has to ask himself some questions before investing:  Is he investing the surplus he has or is it money on which he depends for the daily bread?  Is he willing to wait for long or looking for a quick profit?  Does he regret if he loses a substantial part of it or is it fine with him?   Does he have other sources of income to depend on in case of severe losses?  Does he have the will to sell at a loss to avoid further losses?  Above all what does his doctor say about the condition of the heart?

Sensex is again climbing to 17000.  Dow is nearing 12000.  Come let us not lose time in silly discussions. Take my advise.  It is time to invest and lose!  There is nothing to lose, except money!!  That too your money!!!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Faster than a speeding Bullet

After our flight on the Air Force One, the next flight was on an aircraft which traveled faster than a speeding bullet, a British Airways Concorde No. 214 with registration number G-BOAG. This was an aircraft that had seen history at its weirdest and best and a witness to the costliest hair-cut in the world.

The Concorde aircraft was truly faster than a speeding bullet. Cricket commentators are still using the old cliche when they say "the ball went to the boundary like a bullet". In the era of T-20 Cricket they should rather say that the ball fled to the boundary like a Concorde.  May be they should use it for sixer going for over 120 meters. This is more so in case of a lofted shot from some one like Chris Gayle which takes off at a steep angle and sails over the stands, reminding us of a Concorde.  The Concorde had the distinction of taking off from the runway at a speed of over 250 miles an hour, a steep climb and then flying at a height of 60,000 feet over the ground or sea at an astounding speed of Mach-2 or 1400 miles per hour!  Mach number is the number obtained by dividing the speed of an object by the speed of sound.  The name Mach for denoting this speed comes from the name of a scientist Ernst Mach, a late 19th century Physicist who studied gas dynamics.  Speed of sound is about 760 miles per hour at ground level.  Actually at 60,000 above the ground or sea, speed of sound is about 660 miles per hour and hence the actual speed of a Concorde was 2.12 Mach.  It used to cover the distance between London or Paris to New York in three and half hours.

We always hear of a  Cycle race  or Motor Cycle race or a Car raceRecall Tour De France or Formula 1 car races.  Ever heard of an plane race?  Indeed there was one on 17th June 1974.  Concorde marketing  officials wanted to show the airline companies about the capacity of the Concorde to fly with commercial viability.  They arranged a race between the Concorde and a Boeing 747. The route chosen was a transatlantic one - between Paris and Boston. To make the comparison interesting, the two aircraft were flown in opposite directions, as against a conventional race in which both the competitors start from the same point.  The Boeing 747 took off from Orly Airport in Paris, France and the Concorde took off from the Logan airport in Boston at the same time.  The Concorde crossed the Boeing when the Boeing 747 had traveled only 600 miles by traveling 2400 miles, and at an altitude of 60000 feet about twice of the 747.  The Concorde landed in Paris, spent an hour on the ground, again took off for Boston and landed at Boston 11 minutes before the Boeing 747.  Round trip was completed by the Concorde before the competitor completed half the race!  It is a different matter that the airline companies were not interested for reason that the 747 carries 300 more passengers and consumes 20% less fuel than the Concorde.

The speed and efficiency of the Concorde was put to great use in tracking the total Solar eclipse on 30th June, 1973.  A group of scientists flew on a Concorde, which was still a prototype then, at a height of 55,000 feet above the ground level, on the same path and in the same direction as the moon's shadow. the total solar eclipse on that day was visible for a period of  a little over seven minutes from the best location on the ground.  By flying on the Concorde the scientists were able to literally chase the eclipse for a period of 74 minutes from Canary Islands in the North-west coast of Africa to Chad in Central Africa.  The ten times more visibility span provided the scientists an opportunity to conduct many tests and collect data to understand the solar phenomenon better.  The Concorde flew at 1300 miles per hour, but  the eclipse was even faster at 25000 miles per hour.

Concorde was a witness to many historic and romantic moments. It is said Posh spice Victoria Beckham flew on Concorde three times from London to New York, for checking wedding dress fittings before her marriage to Football star David Beckham.  On August 6, 1985 Queen Mother flew on the Concorde to celebrate her 85th  birthday.  Paul McCartney enjoyed the traveling on the Concorde so much that he picked up his Guitar and played for fellow passengers on board the Concorde. Phil Collins performed on the world wide televised concert in London, hopped on to the Concorde for a flight to New York, took a helicopter from New York to Philadelphia and was playing drums for Eric Clapton after four hours (plus time difference, of course) on the same day for a similar Live Aid Charity concert.  But what stole the cup was the journey of Rod Stewart's hair stylist.  The famous British singer, song-writer, composer and musician is known to be very concerned for his hair style and the blond locks and gets them groomed in a London saloon every three weeks. It is said that he spends 6000 Pounds annually on hair dressing.  One day while in New York he felt that he needed a hair dressing before a concert and ordered his London hair stylist to fly to New York on a Concorde for an emergency hair cut before the concert for the day. With fares on a round trip on the Concorde at  9,000 US Dollars, it is perhaps the costliest hair cut in the history of mankind, even assuming that the hair dresser took an ordinary flight back home due to lack of urgency on the return  journey. 

The Concorde had its shortcomings too. The fares were high at 9,000 US dollars (year 2000 prices) for a London-New York or Paris -New York round trip. The plane could carry only 100 passengers. There was no luxury seating of a first class or business class as in other planes and the seating was just like club or economy class. The windows were very small and one passenger described the windows as of the size of a slice of American Cheese!  But he had no complaints as the food was fine and wine was great and there was no turbulence worries while dining .  Above all he had lunch in New York and was at his home in London for an important dinner. We may feel the fares were high at 9,000 US Dollars for a London-New York round trip (we can make three round trips from India itself by other aircraft) but not for Super Models charging 10,000 US Dollars for an hours work or executives earning over a million dollars a month. Time is money they say, but for these people it is "Minutes is Money" and Concorde helped them save time and earn much more.

The production of Concorde itself is a piece to ponder.  History is replete with the legendary rivalry between the British and the French.  They fought each other for acquisition and controls of colonies almost everywhere in the world.  The Russians and Americans were trying to build supersonic jets in the 1960s. Boeing's 707 along with the short haul 720 and 727 coupled with Douglas DC-8 had stolen the lead in the skies. In 1962 Charles De Gaulle called the American superiority of building aircraft as "American colonization of the skies".  The old veterans of colonies, British and the French had lost most of the colonies on the earth, but joined together in a rare example of Anglo-French co-operation to try the skies and curtail American leadership in the skies.  On 29th November, 1962 the two Governments announced the signing of a treaty to jointly build a Supersonic Transporter paving the way for the birth of the Concorde. there are claims that there was espionage as well and the Russians tried get hold of the blue prints of the Concorde.  The expensive project was funded by the two governments as well and the Concorde was extremely elegant and incredibly expensive.  Its drooping nose and wide wing spans attracted criticism. It has a long duel with environmentalists and economic crisis due to OPEC oil embargo in 1973.  PanAm,  TWA, Quantas and Japan Airlines cancelled their orders. Ultimately only 20 Concorde were produced and 16 were used for commercial flights. Inaugural flight was from Paris to Rio de Janeiro on January 21, 1976. Though both British Airways and Air France claim that the operations were profitable, no official figures are available. The Americans blocked landing of the Concorde in USA by administrative and judicial intervention. On 18th December 1975, US House of Representative voted 199-198 against allowing landing of Concorde in the USA.  Concorde lost by one vote.  With New York not being one of the destinations, Concorde was severely handicapped. Concorde had to wait till 19th July, 1977 when the United States Supreme Court overruled the objection of New York Port Authority, paving for its flights to New York from London and Paris.  But it was late for Concorde as a viable commercial venture.

The French called the plane Le Concorde (meaning "the"Concorde) and the British called it Concord. The difference was the e at the end of the word.  Both wanted to keep it that way to show it as their own. The controversy was resolved when the British Technology Minister, Tony Benn, stated that it will be called Concorde, the e in the end of the word standing for "Excellence, Europe and Entente".  Dictionary meaning of entente is "an arrangement or understanding between two or more nations agreeing to follow a particular policy with regard to affairs of international concern".  Though there were no buyers for the content of the statement, that is how probably Anglo-French co-operation evolved further, with construction of Channel Tunnel (50 KM long railway tunnel between England and France under the sea at Strait of Dover) and formation of EADS, present parent company of Airbus Industries.

Despite all its success and fame, Concorde was destined for disaster from an unexpected source. On 25th July a Continental Airlines DC-10 took off from Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris to Newark, USA. While taking off a piece of titanium strip,  barely one and a half feet long and one feet wide fell down on the runway. Ten minutes later a Concorde  operated by Air France with Flight number 4590 took off with 100 passengers and 9 crew members on the way to New York JFK air port. The flight was chartered by a German company Peter Deilmann Cruises and all the passengers were traveling to New York for boarding cruise ship MS Duetschland there for a 16 day cruise of South America.  The titanium sheet lying on the runway hit the tyres of the Concorde taking off the runway at 250 miles an hour speed and the tyres burst and the pieces were hurled by centrifugal force.  The debris did not hit the fuel tanks directly, but the pressure shock waves ruptured one of the fuel tanks located just above the under carriage.  The plane burst into flames as the aviation fuel caught fire. All the 100 passengers and 9 crew members died and the tragedy also claimed four other persons on the ground. The tragedy received wide coverage and was all the more gruesome due to the passengers being those proceeding a holiday cruise. This was a classic example of an accident due to an extraneous factor and the impeccable safety record of the Concorde got a big hit. The already growing criticism of the plane increased and the planes were grounded. Though flights resumed later, the Concord was retired from active operations with the last flight on 24th October 2003 from New York to London. A glorious chapter in Aviation history came to an end.

We were here in Museum of Flight in Seattle, looking at the Concorde, parked at the air park of the museum. This was the aircraft that held the record for a transatlantic haul, crossing the Atlantic and travelling from New York to London in 2 Hours 52 minutes and 59 seconds on 7th February 1996, counting take off to touch down time. We were allowed entry through the rear entrance and passed through the aisle of the plane looking at the interior and  display of its history and flights. After looking at the cockpit and controls we exited from the front door.  An aircraft that carried many dignitaries and legends and witnessed many rare moments of history had itself become history.  We could not take a flight in Concorde and I would have loved to be on a flight, at least one way, though it would cost several months earning. One can only hope that a time will come when a similar aircraft would fly again to give us an opportunity.  During our life time, that is.