Saturday, August 20, 2011

Build Bottom-Up, Clean Top-Down

Some problems are inordinately so complex and huge, that it is natural to break them down as a human to be able to comprehend and begin to solve them. There are two major approaches that will immediately settle in your mind once you attempt to comprehend a problem - top-down or bottom-up. Some problems are suited to top-down analysis, whereas others naturally incline themselves to bottom-up perspectives.


When you set out to build something from scratch - let's just say a skyscraper - you start from the bottom. You dig deep into the ground, lay down a firm foundation, and only then start building upwards. How high you can go is directly dependent on how firm and deep your roots are. That's how trees go naturally as well - bottom-up.


Imagine attempting to clean your home - completely, including the ceiling, the ceiling fans, the walls. You don't start with the floor now, do you? You realize that sweeping the ceiling and pulling down cob-webs will pollute the floor anyway, so you decide to do that last. Ceiling, ceiling fittings, walls, wall-hangings, floor. Top-down.

Nation Building

Building a strong nation must indeed follow the same principles, to a layman like me. Firm grassroot institutions that look after the most underprivileged and most populous sections of society - Gram Panchayats, agricultural credit institutions, rural employment schemes - are the foundations on which you build the nation. Are these our strongest organizations today? How long can a nation stand strong with its weakest but most sizable communities being undermined?

Nation Cleaning

Ridding a nation of social evils like corruption is very much akin to cleaning, to a layman like me. Indeed, "cleaning" and "corruption" are often metaphorically used together by most observers. While it is indeed apt to ask people to stop giving bribes to get favors like a driving license or a college seat, we ought as well to notice what holds this culture of corruption up.

Is it really ingrained in our psyche or is it the system that requires cleaning? If it is the latter, does this not require a top-down cleaning then? Once I, as a guard to the manager's office, realize that the manager doesn't accept nor encourage bribes anymore, will I not think twice before harassing someone intending to meet my manager? Are people motivated by morality of peers, or the morality of their leaders? Should not the Prime Minister be open to examination for corruption just as me or you? Should not the cleaning commence from the top and make its way to the bottom?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Other Side of Humility

Humility: the quality or condition of being humble
  1. not proud or arrogant

  2. having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc

  3. low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc

Why is Humility Treated as a Virtue?

Hark back to the Moral Studies classes you were given in school, and there is sure to be a lesson or two about how humility is a very important virtue for a human to possess. Perhaps a story about a modest King who sought to understand the suffering of his subjects disguised as a commoner was in vogue, or perhaps the life-lesson of Mahatma Gandhi who led the freedom struggle inspiring millions without any pride whatsoever. Super-admiration for the ones that are modest in success is almost universal - so universal that it must stem from more than just an inspiring story from childhood.

But, what is it that makes us admire humble achievers more than the pompous ones? Is it because we believe that they appreciate the fact that those who failed also tried just as hard? Society at large does not accept failures, while successful people are immediately put on a pedestal. Yet we still yearn for those "heroes" to be modest.

Perhaps it is because humility shows a lack of pride - a pride that scythes away at the self-esteem of the ones who could not achieve what they aimed for. While that is clearly a noble stance, it would also be plain vanity if one has to try hard to suppress pride. When one hears "Oh, that was nothing really. I didn't have to work hard for it - just happened", one might be tempted to either respond with "Just happened? Why doesn't it just happen with me?" or perhaps "That was NOTHING? How smart does he think he really is?"

Perhaps then, it is because we innately feel a sense of connectedness in each other's achievements. That we are all in this together. That one person's success is really built on circumstances, events, hard work and perseverance of many others. Having a great idea is pointless until you find the right people to bring it to life, and more people to accept it, adapt to it and spread the good word. Maybe that is why most Academy Awards speeches are adorned with gratitude for everyone from family to filming staff to fans. And we lap them up despite them all sounding the same.

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” - Isaac Newton.

Spiritual Humility

Humility as a virtue is defined as a basic necessity for achieving any spiritual realization uniformly by all religions across the world. Pride and Hubris are solemnly criticized as blinding factors that only feed one's ego and bloat it further. To take pride in one's actions and achievements is indeed marginalizing everything else except one's ego, to deny that there is something bigger than one can fathom at play when one succeeds or fails in what they will to do.

The life of the moral man is plain, and yet not unattractive; it is simple, and yet full of grace; it is easy, and yet methodical. He knows that accomplishment of great things consists in doing little things well.
He knows that great effects are produced by small causes. He knows the
evidence and reality of what cannot be perceived by the senses. Thus he
is enabled to enter into the world of ideas and morals.
- The Doctrine of the Mean.

A rabbit that a huntsman brings,
They pay for it the proper price;
But none will give a betel nut
For the corpse of a ruler of the land!
A man's body is less worth than a rabbit's.
- Basavanna's Vachanas.

The Other Side

Like a see-saw must swing to the other side without proper balance, the practice of humility can also swing into self-effacement. In fact, many philosophers prescribe self-effacement and subduing of self-esteem as an essential part of humility.

Confucius said, "A gentleman does not grieve that people do not recognize his merits; he grieves at his own incapacities."

"To know when one does not know is best.
To think one knows when one does not know is a dire disease."
- Tao Te Ching.

"The fool who knows that he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man;
the fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed."
- Dhammapada

Yet there is a genuine risk that this self-effacement can sink into self-loathing, which was never the goal of humility. Just as one must deny oneself the pride of success, it is equally important to deny the complete censure of failure. If it is narcissistic to think one is great due to their achievements, it is equally narcissistic to think one is the sole cause of one's failures. Like the other kind of narcissism, this negative narcissism can be equally blinding and misleading.

Mahatma Gandhi captures this best -
“I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.”

Perhaps why humility is regarded as a great virtue is because one who is consumed by the pride of success must then also prepare to be consumed by the despair of failure. Perhaps the best reaction is that of a mother at the success or failure of her child - you get a hug for trying your best no matter what the result. In success and in failure, perhaps the only thing we are required to do is study what we have been through, take what we can learn from the experience, understand the patterns for the result without prejudice, and stow it away for it will come handy once again.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Gift of a Lifetime

This is not a gift to my father on Father's Day, for he never values any gifts. While that might sound like a small quirk to some, it reveals so much about the person he is. Adorably referred to as "Pappa" since we first learned to mumble syllables together, he became, along with "Mummy", the very bulwark our life was built upon. When the papers remind you "It's Father's Day!", your instinct is to indulge him like many Fathers around the world will be today. But, you know him better than that. You are even wary of writing a post about him, lest he disapproves of this unwarranted indulgence as well.

My Daddy Strongest
As tiny little kids, we invariably see our fathers as a symbol of strength in our worlds. He can move furniture around the house and open lids on jam bottles. He never cries when he is hurt. He stands tall so that we have to literally look up to him all the time. Every now and then, he will come down to meet us, reminding us he has a soft side to him. He can play the right kind of music on his Japanese stereo that will put us to sleep in no time. "No" is never an answer for anything we desire and ask for. Things always seem miraculously and meticulously well-planned.

Only when you grow up, do you really start seeing there is more to the strength that a child can perceive. You see a man who has lost his father at a young age and faced abject poverty after his father's demise, and dedicated his working life to ensuring a financial security so that his family never experienced that. You see a man who yearned for schooling, but never had the means or access to one, and yet miraculously who goes on to get a PhD. And then you see this same man strive to save money for the sole aim of ensuring his sons can get the best education at whichever price. All this while, you still don't recollect a single instance of a "No" for something you wanted - a bicycle, a cricket bat, a computer.

From Father to Friend
Apparently, somewhere in the Vedas, there is an advice to fathers that as their children grow up, they value friends more than parents, and so a father must start playing the role of a friend as opposed to what will be perceived as an authoritative father. Pappa firmly believes in these wise words, and now that we look back, we can see the transition very clearly.

As we grow up, we start spending a lot more time with friends than at home. Fathers become peripheral figures, and only involve themselves in matters of extreme importance like arranging for the payment of fees, driving to our favorite restaurant, and signing report cards. When we fell sick, Mummy would be at our side caring and visibly worried, but Pappa would carefully inspect us like a doctor, and either take us to a real one or administer well-known Homeopathic or Ayurvedic medication himself and ask us to rest. When we started learning Mridangam, he joined us so that we would be motivated by his passion and diligence. Instead of always urging us to study harder, he would ask us whether we went out to play this evening.

At times, we would wake up in the mornings and discover him to be missing. "It isn't 9 yet. Then where is Pappa?". "Oh, he left for a week on an inspection trip to Lucknow early this morning. He didn't want you to wake up early and disturb your sleep." "But, I didn't say goodbye". Mummy would feel worse than we did and would break Pappa's "Do not bother the kids" rule when he returned back from his trip by waking us up to greet him. The memories of the joys of reuniting with a father are still vivid. Silently, in its own way, this would remind us of his importance in our lives lest we forgot as distracted teenagers.

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years." - Mark Twain.

As I grew up and life started becoming more entangled with friends, relationships, careers, competition and morals, there was one source of answers always readily available. When I would worry about petty things like being under-paid despite working hard, I found solace in Pappa's wisdom. When I would be hurt by friends or the actions of those who I spent a lot of time with, there was a soothing balm in his words. He possesses an uncanny knack of visualizing a person's problem from a few words spoken in pain. His response is extremely practical when it is a problem of the real world - career, relations, finance. When practicality is insufficient, like problems of morality or grandiose worries about life, he can readily shift one's perspective by saying something profound.

I now realize he is well-read in ancient Indian writings like the Vedas, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and the philosophical musings of many renowned thinkers including Bertrand Russell, Mahatma Gandhi and Adi Shankaracharya. He has always shown a great appreciation for Science, and sees modern Science as an affirmation, and not an apposite to what we broadly term as Spirituality. Questions about the reality and relativity of Time are met with shlokas and references from the books he has read in the past. Mentions of the basic derivations of Quantum Theory are immediately tied to the conceptualization of the Universe in the Vedas. This from a man who has barely had the chance to study modern Science in school or when growing up, yet who immediately perceives intuitively on mere mention how these theories play out in our world.

It is said that humility can only stem from the experience of something much bigger than oneself. Whether it is a spiritual realization or the experience and understanding of life itself, Pappa is a model of humility and simplicity for all of us. Any attachments and possessions that drive us for more of the same, is only a downward spiral. Any ambitions and desires that wreck our peace of mind, are not worthy of our time. What flows freely through us, without disturbance, is the only thing life intends for us to do. If today you don't seem to get what you deserve, think of the times where you got more than you deserved; those times will come back again. Be proud of the books you author, the positions you hold, as they come with hard work and hard work desires satisfaction; but do not define yourself with this pride. Simple yet profound.

I can now clearly see how he tries to live his life according to what he has gleaned from his readings and his experience. Why would he want a gift to add to his list of possessions, when he is striving to keep the existing list small? Why worry about the expression of love when true love should never need to be expressly expressed? Why give today a special importance when indeed no day should be more special than others? Don't worry Pappa, there will be no Father's Day gift today. You are the gift of a lifetime to us instead.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Searching for Research

The debate has cooled. The media's glare has turned away. Everyone returns to more pressing issues. But, the verdict has long been announced - The IITs and IIMs are not living up to the global standards we expect of them. Why? Because the number of research publications coming out of these places are paltry compared to the MITs and the Ox-Bridges of this world. Heck, even Tianjin produces more publications from China. While we are at it, the teaching faculty sucks as well.

My only association with any of these universities was during a 2-year M.Tech program at IIT, Bombay. I have never set foot in an IIM or for that matter any other IIT. Nor have I checked out the other institutes that are deemed "world-class". I shall therefore focus my point of view only through my brief interaction with IIT Bombay.

Mission IIT

The process of conception of the IITs had started prior to Independence, and as noted on Wikipedia the intention of foresighted leaders was indeed to pursue technological and research prowess for a newly independent nation. The model however was one where a Council of Scientific Research would be at the forefront of the scientific pursuits, while institutes like the IITs would produce a trained workforce to man these laboratories. The Indian Parliament also declared these institutes as "Institutes of National Importance" that would train engineers for the massive infrastructure development and related projects a new-born nation would naturally need to undertake.

The emphasis therefore was on producing engineering graduates primarily through the now famous B.Tech program. The other programs basically mushroomed from this system that was for so long completely funded by the government. To say that the Masters and Doctoral programs were simply step-children to begin with would not be an overstatement.

Train, Drain

Under-graduate students are typically not motivated to pursue painstaking research, and pursue problems that require patience and endeavour. The IITs sought only the smartest young students to join their B.Tech program, and these were funneled through the rigorous and well-renowned Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). One can bump into some of the brightest minds, a few of whom are indeed even over-achieving for their age, on a casual stroll through the campus. Yet, mysteriously for some, these bright minds do not result in an over-arching number of research publications and innovation coming out of these famed institutes.

The reasons are varied, but sometimes plain to see. So many of these brilliant kids hail from the remotest parts of the country and come from families that are barely middle-class. These kids are highly ambitious, but their priorities are naturally more inclined toward stepping out into a financially secure way of life. They are well aware that the "IIT stamp" is a game-changer, and one of the single biggest influences in their careers. This career pursuit might involve a job right out of B.Tech or moving on to an MBA from an IIM. A few will undoubtedly yearn to move into advanced research, but they quickly conclude that this is not what the IITs were primed to help them do, and fly westward. I personally know some bright prospects, who even landed medals at Physics and Math Olympiads, that settled for plum jobs right after B.Tech. I do not blame them, but the fact of the matter is that in our country a career of research is not yet perceived as a financially stable choice.

In a way, the B.Tech program is indeed delivering what it was designed for - brilliant engineers. Whether we truly reaped all the benefits is debatable.

Shouldering the burden

The burden of research in the IITs then falls to Post-Graduates and more importantly to those who decide to further carry their work into a PhD. Most Post-Graduates can primarily be defined by the attitude - "I wished I could crack the JEE, but I will get into an IIT through the GATE anyway". The IIT stamp is simply irresistible. You cannot test for an inclination toward research in a candidate. You can only hope to entice or motivate them to pursue greater goals.

While some M.Techs will publish a paper or two on the way to a cushy technical job, a handful will actually be motivated to take their research forward and ensure it bears fruit through a PhD program. The professors are not incompetent, and many have previously taught in prestigious universities in the US. They work through pressures of having to meet stringent research goals set by the administration while simultaneously dealing with the problems of landing dedicated, research-minded students to work with.

Remember, that all this while, these researchers are working with barely any investment from the industry. In my 2 years, I only saw one keen investor in the research pursued by our Computer Vision and Graphics lab - Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The Indian industry has only just moved on to innovation, and we should see more technology tie-ups with the IITs in the future that pump money behind research. Until then, the research carried out at the IITs is mostly driven by the faculty and students' individual interests and can very often be fruitless.

Research is an attitude

While it helps to have brilliant minds to solve difficult problems and innovate, innovation, especially one that requires a lot of research, is often more about discipline and perseverance. You will require flashes of brilliance to leap over what seems improbable, but you will also need the will and rigor to help you through the rough patches where you seem to have run into a wall. Most B.Techs, and many of the M.Techs, do not possess this rigor. Their minds are already set on the IIT-degree-fueled career path (which is not wrong in itself). Why do we expect them to contribute to academic innovation?

Yet, there are shining examples that I had the pleasure of working with myself, who have contributed handsomely to that meager research and journal publication count that Jairam Ramesh is using to conk the IITs. Biswarup Choudhury has published in the world's leading computer graphic and animation journals - something that has never been achieved before in this lab. Where are the opportunities to fund further innovation? Not here. He has had to continue his work at ETRI, Korea. Aniruddha Joshi took up the problem of reviving the ancient Indian diagnostic system of "Naadi Nidaan" - studying the pulse to diagnose ailments - when he was still doing his Bachelors in Engineering. He converted this passion to develop a digital system based on the ancient methods into a full doctoral research problem, and went on to present his work in a number of internationally acclaimed conferences. His research is supported by CSIR, Pune, in the true spirit of how scientific innovation was first envisaged by the founding leaders of our nation.

Give it time

The IITs are barely 50 years old (except for the first of them - Kharagpur). It is not fair to compare them to the MITs, Harvards, Stanfords, Ox-Bridges of the world that have watched centuries switch on the calendar. Not yet. These institutes also have the unique co-location of innovative industries ready to fund all interesting research. India is only warming up to innovation after a nationalistic surge of freedom after independence, followed by the lull of the socialist policy era. It may not even be wise to compare this to the Chinese universities, where an autocratic iron will can force nationalist agendas through without opposition. Yet, it is inevitable that the Chinese output will indeed be the first benchmark we will aim to achieve, in due course of time.

More India-centric innovation, more IITs, more industries sprouting around the IITs, and a larger aspiring middle-class to contribute innovative researchers to these institutes - the stage is quickly getting set. How far can the future be?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

IP Quell

"How long will this circus go on?", I ask for the umpteenth time.

"Another week", comes the reply.


"Who would name their club team Indians?", I try to amuse myself again.

"Franchise team....."

"Whatever. It is akin to a football club in my mind. I don't know a football club named 'Versaille Francaise' or 'Dartmouth Brits'. Yet, here it is - Mumbai Indians."

"Dude, Sachin picked that name. He is obviously deeply patriotic. He always plays with the love for this country in his heart. Didn't you see his emotions overflow on winning the World Cup? What would you know....foreign returnee. Football fan."

"Sachin might be God when it comes to batting. But, I am now almost certain he didn't name his kids. Or else they'd be named Bharat and Indu. Are all the players in his team Indian? Malinga sounds much like Kalinga, but I have my doubts about Symonds and Pollard."

"They can play upto 4 foreigners in each game".

"Ok, so they are NOT Indians".

"Stop being an idiot. You think Sehwag is a Daredevil? a way, he really is. Ok, here's another think Yuvraj is a Warrior? Wait....he does sound like a warrior. Ok, this one think Gambhir is a Knight Rider?"

"Haha, that is most definitely the most imaginative name I've ever come across. Knight Riders! That totally killed the buzz I had stowed away in the back of my head about the cool 80s show - crime buster in a dark black car. One dark black car. One and only crime buster. Now suddenly there are 20. And they wear purple and gold. Buzz-kill."

"There is no buzz killing with Shah Rukh at the helm of their affairs. I have no doubt his creative self picked that uber-cool name."

"Please, it's not like Kolkata is to Knight Rider, what Gotham City was to Batman. I thought this was the INDIAN Premier League. Whatever happened to picking names and themes that go with the culture? How about Kolkata Rossogullas? Or just Kolkata Gullas? Ok, I know I suck at this, but there surely is a more Bengali-sounding name? It doesn't need to be Bengali either. Like I appreciate the choice of the name Tuskers - one of the things you associate with Kerala is the Elephant, thanks to the 'Mile Sur Mera Tumhara' video that was bludgeoned into our young heads."

"Enjoy the game. What's in a name?"

"A name is meant for me to tell things apart and to set a context in my head before I appreciate the object that the name belongs to. I can't believe 2 teams are 'Royal' and 2 others are 'Kings' in a league of 10 teams. Seriously, who pays these people for creativity?"

"The creativity is in the stroke-play. In the field setting. In the master class bowling efforts in these torrid situations. I know you can't appreciate that. You are probably still looking for the goal behind long leg and wondering why there are 11 goalkeepers."

"Please, I know my cricket! I used to day-dream for years that I was the Indian Shane Warne, except I was also a hard-hitting middle order batsman. And I basically played the role Yuvraj did when India won the World Cup. In my dreams of course. But, even so, don't insult my cricket-crazy past! I simply bring new perspective."

"Did you just compare Shane Warne to Yuvraj?"

"No, I compared myself to them both. Thank God there is only one Yuvraj!"

"Yes, there is only one. India could do with another for the next world cup."

"Apparently, all it takes to become a Yuvraj-like Warrior is Revital. Which reminds me...when Pune won a franchise for 2011, I was so sure they'd pick the name Pune Peshwas. It just sounds so fresh and revitalizing. Also, so culturally appropriate."

"Peshwas used to live there in the old days. You think there are still Peshwas around?"

"Old is the new new man. Everyone wants Indianized Sanskritized names, except Indians! Seriously, if one team calls itself Kings, and another says 'Kings ah? We are Super Kings!' doesn't it remind you of yourself when you were 3 years old?"

"How do you know the names were picked in serial order and not disclosed simultaneously? You are from Chennai. You should know that there is only one affirmative qualifier used there - Super. It fits perfectly."

"I also lived in Hyderabad. I do remember seeing buffaloes in the Dairy Farm next to our home. I can see how "Chargers" fits Hyderabad now."

"You lived next to a Dairy Farm?"

"It was in the 80s man. Don't read anything into it."

"OK. The 8PM match is starting now. So, stop filling my ears and let me enjoy this encounter."

"A 2nd game? 2 games every day?"

"There are 10 teams now. More games. Now hush."

"When does this circus end again?"

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Chance for Chennai

Ever since I decided to move back to Homeland and give a career in Chennai a chance, I have been assessing that decision every now and then - not the moving back part, but the choosing Chennai part. Chennai was the obvious choice given my parents decided to retire here. What better place to return to than Home?

However, as I started settling down, I started picking holes with everything around me - the people, the services, the weather, the surroundings - everything except my mom's food! It turned out to be one of those "better than thou" ranting phases every returnee from a foreign land goes through when settling down back at home. I mistook it for a personal vendetta against Chennai (yes, I often "mistake" myself), which it was not. But, it forced me to look closer at the observations I had been collecting in the back of my head about this city and the feedback of other folk about this city. At the risk of annoying a few people, I hereby declare that what follows is the personal opinion of the author, and has deep ties with this blog, but not with Blogger in general.

Another disclaimer - I have lived 17 years of my life in Mumbai, making me Mumbaikar at heart. 7 years were spent in Hyderabad and 2 in Pune. Having warned you, I will now attempt to throw some perspective into some of the more common reasons I have stumbled upon regarding why folks seem to dislike Chennai.

Too Hot!

How hot is too hot anyway? Isn't it all relative? Some find Tikka Masala "tikka", while some others call Mirchi ka Saalan bland. When the mercury hit 40C last week, I was grumbling aloud. That was until I visited Delhi (42C with a Loo) and Varanasi (45C with Loo++). For reference, every degree beyond 40, feels like 10. The Loo in Varanasi was more like "Waterloo" - sucked out all the water you gulped 5 minutes ago.

No Speak Hindi (aka Tamizh TeriMa)

Ever been to Russia? Me neither. But I wish to generalize. They "No Speak English" there as well. Yes, they might understand when you speak to them in English. But, they don't have to respond back in English. It is the same with some Tamizhians and Tamizh - they are proud of their language. Yes, this pride has no place in a sovereign, secular, united country like India. Ever try telling that to the strictly Marathi speaking bus conductor in Pune? "Pudhe chalaa...Aikat naahi kaay tula?" Or is that because Marathi is accidentally closer to Hindi?

If one were to really argue for this pride, you don't need to look beyond a Wikipedia page on the language - Tamizh dates back to an age earlier than even Sanskrit, let alone Hindi or Marathi or English. If the world were ending tomorrow and one had to choose to preserve 2 ancient Indian languages over all else today, the linguist's choice would be Tamizh and Sanskrit. Thankfully, the world only ends in December 2012.

I agree that this blind pride in the mother tongue seems to sometimes slam doors shut on non-Tamizh-speaking people willing to blend into Chennai. It is often seen as prejudice against "naarthies", and at other times interpreted as expressing a lack of friendliness in the people in general. While the former can be explained by following the dynamics of the political movements (read Dravidian Self-Respect Movement) of the region since independence, the latter simply is way too simplistic. Humans in one region of the world cannot be more or less friendly compared to another region. That argument is a non-starter. I tried it against Strangelandians myself, and it failed to stand the test of time.

We visit Germany for a short working stay and strive to learn German. We indulge in English from kindergarten so we can work with the English speaking world (UK+US+Australia?). (Also, so that we can write blog posts in English when we grow up). But ask me to pick up some Tamizh in Tamilnadu or Telugu in Andhra Pradesh and I shall call it blasphemy! "YOU need to adapt to ME and not the other way round". We are better to aliens than to our own countrymen.

Rice is NOT a food group

Neither is corn a food group in Mexico. Nor is fish a food group in Thailand. Geography - one of those subjects in school we never cared for - will explain to you why some regions are more inclined to making some staple food item centric to their diet. When in the US, vegetarians struggle to find meat-free diets on a daily basis, and resort to cooking for oneself. That is too far to go when in another region of your own country. In fact, scratch that. There are simply too many restaurants in Chennai that serve decent non-Rice fare to make this argument relevant. More decent than the fare served in desi restaurants abroad.

Roads are dignified spittoons

Yes they are. I have no clue what makes people spit on the road and then urge others to walk on the same roads. While the spit here down South is white in color and vanilla flavored (disclaimer - I haven't tasted any but my own), move further north and the color turns orange or bright red, is paan-flavored (see previous disclaimer) and leaves a bigger spit-print on the roads. You prefer.

Rude Auto Rickshaw Drivers

Auto Rickshaws don't use the meter in this city, and the price is fixed before you board the vehicle like dowry is agreed upon before a girl gets married. Smartly dressed and looking affluent? Haggling starts at double the normal rate. Speaking anything but Tamizh? Rs.25 foreign language surcharge to communicate with you. Yes, you need immense negotiating skills if you are to ride in an auto at a fair price here.

The awesome side-effect though is that now you get to Save The World. Go Green. Use public transport. This is the secret agenda behind the state government promoting rude auto drivers.

In a hurry and really, really need to take an auto? Use a "Call Taxi" instead. Rude auto-drivers are exactly the kind of extreme adversity that leads to brilliant innovation. We have "Call Taxis" thanks to someone being really keen on solving (making money) off this problem.


Pan-India problem. Next.

Big moustaches

Sign of a hero warrior. Next.

Moustachioed heroes

Bhagat Singh anyone? Anil Kapoor? I know, I give up.


Dei! Don't make this personal!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Where To Indian Football?

The Indian team bus for the AFC Cup 2011

Last month, there was the small matter of the AFC Asian Cup held in Qatar, where the best of Asian football compete with each other to be heralded the best in Asia. We know very well that the world is watching keenly to see how Asians emerge after decades of slumber from the shadow of the West, in all fields of global interest including sports. I was personally very excited because the Indian football team had qualified for the AFC Cup for the first time since 1984. To my dismay however, the Indian media largely ignored this great achievement, to underline how far behind football has fallen to the alluring plague of cricket and the unstoppable financial might of the BCCI.

Forgotten History
Lest we forget, Indian footballers, and football in general, weren't always the pushovers they are today. Like cricket, football was one of the popular sporting cultures imported by the British during their reign over this country. Indeed, if anything, football has a longer history in India compared to cricket, with the Durand Cup being one of the oldest football tournaments in the world - third only to the English and Scottish FA Cups. The Mohun Bagan - East Bengal derby games can be traced to as far back as 1925. The Salt Lake City football stadium in Kolkata which plays host to this historic derby is the 2nd largest such stadium in the world in terms of capacity.

The Golden Decade
The period from 1951-1962 is widely regarded as the finest few years Indian football has ever witnessed, under the watchful eyes of the legendary coach Syed Abdul Rahim. This was a team known widely around the world not only for their raw talent, but also for the fact that they mostly played bare-footed. India won 2 Asian Games golds, besides finishing 2nd and 4th in the other two Asian Games during this period. But, the highlight really was finishing 4th in the 1956 Olympics after becoming the first Asian team to make it to the semi-finals. By the time they came runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup, Indian football had begun its decline.

Inept Babus Missing the Professional Leap
As with most other sports in the country, football fell victim to unwarranted political clout. People with no association with the sport, or for that matter any sport whatsoever, suddenly grasped power in the highest echelons of the AIFF. Instead of promoting professional football leagues, they kicked off a series of power and money struggles that saw a spinning Roulette of coaches and a lack of investment in youth academies for the next generation of stars to arise. Politicians like Priya Ranjan Das Munshi held president positions for 20 years without contest. Alongside his many distractions, Praful Patel today controls the strings of the AIFF.

I lay claim to his success

Underdogs Win Hearts
The final nail in the football coffin was hammered in when an Indian cricket team carried an underdog team to triumph in a remarkable 1983 World Cup against a seemingly invincible West Indies team. A depressed nation desperately seeking succor readily embraced these overnight heroes and cricket has never looked back since. Unlike football, even though the BCCI attracts a number of politicians like bees to a honey-pot, there has been little government interference and it has been run like a private company sincerely interested in ensuring the commercial success of the sport. Without the BCCI, cricket as a sport that attracts a billion viewers is simply unimaginable.

Football Today
Indian players today are starved of quality opposition due to a combination of a poor league setup and a low FIFA ranking. They end up playing a number of friendlies with clubs in Europe simply to gain much needed exposure. I remember watching a friendly between then Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven and India 10 years ago. It was a bitter lesson for the defence that day, as twice the whole back-line stepped up as one to play the offside trap, but left 4 attackers free to pick who will tap in the goal. Fast-forward to the AFC Cup 2011, and I saw a shocking repeat of the same against Bahrain as Abulatif gleefully tapped in past a hapless goalkeeper in a game where he scored 3 other goals as Bahrain won 5-2.

The AFC Cup qualification itself was a wild-card entry. India won the AFC Challenge Cup, which is a tournament for emerging nations, similar to the ones that are organised by the ICC in cricket, giving them a direct entry to the AFC Cup finals. Think of Indian football in the AFC Cup as the Dutch cricket team in the ICC World Cup. While any draw would have been tough, Group C in the AFC Cup was the worst India could hope for, with recent World Cup participants Australia and South Korea, besides Middle-East powerhouse Bahrain for company. It predictably ended in 3 defeats, with scores reading a dismal 4-0 (Aus), 5-2 (Bah), and 4-1 (Kor). Nevertheless, there was no lack of spirit, and a few notable young stars hold much promise.

Young Stars
The most notable performer is the outstanding custodian in goal - Subrata Pal. Athletic, agile, and brave, he single-handedly ensured the scores weren't more humiliating than they already look. Clearly the only one close to being world-class, one hopes he gets the chance to ply his trade in stronger leagues. Sunil Chhetri is however the only one currently registered with a foreign team. I say registered because the Kansas City Wizards don't seem to want to play him in the MLS in the USA. However, this diminutive striker is a wizard by Indian standards and has pace and trickery to go with neat finishing skills. 21 goals in 43 appearances for the national team are proof that he should easily surpass Baichung Bhutia as the top goal-poacher in Indian history.

Oops - this one got away. Slippery customer Baichung.

The only other notable performers are center-back Gouramangi Singh who won the AIFF player of the year 2010, and the aging left-winger Renedy Singh, who scored the stunner against Bahrain that was awarded to Chhetri. The pressure of being labeled "The Indian Beckham" clearly told on Steven Dias as he followed one disappointing delivery with another.

The Future
The future really is not in the hands of these players above, nor in those of the perspiring and inspirational manager Bob Houghton. Each defeat in the AFC Cup was followed by an interview in which Houghton desperately called for the Indian authorities to notice the hardwork the players are putting in and to invest in infrastructure - stadiums, competitive leagues, youth academies. It is not as if we can't find fans amongst a billion people. The English Premier League has witnessed a remarkable growth in the number of Indian viewers in recent years. What the fans want is a competitive league with quality players and quality stadiums to watch them in.

No dearth of crazy fans

The league has been restructured, but the only thing that stands out is its cool new name - I-League. The noteworthy addition to this league however is that of the Indian Arrows - a team meant to breed young talent. It was formed when it was noted that most teams in the league sign up youngsters but are wary of blooding them too young.

The only way I can see fans flocking back to the stadiums is if the style of play switches from the archaic hoof-ball English tactics to the style that Syed Abdul Rahim pursued during the Golden Decade - possession football with neat passing and switch of play. It is the most attractive style of play that even spectators who are new to the sport instantly enjoy, and is followed like a religion by top European clubs like Barcelona and Arsenal. Spain's World Cup triumph and the recent World Cup runs of South Korea and Japan are completely down to an investment in this kind of football.

It needs a lot of skill, not just to complete passes, but to keep possession under
pressure. The players can develop that. What they cannot develop are stadiums with lush green fields that are conducive to this kind of play. If the organisers give them rough, shoddy lawns to play in where the ball won't roll past a few meters, who wouldn't be tempted to lump it forward hopefully?

As more fans are attracted to the global allure of football, one can only wonder how long will it be before someone pumps in the money BCCI style to tap into the one enviable wealth we hold as a country - a huge bulging middle-class population with money to spend on entertainment.