Friday, April 22, 2011

Importance of Time

They say Life and Death are not in anyone's hands.

They are things that just happen every time and with everyone. Same is the case with time. Most of the times we take it for granted that there is always plenty of time. Due to this perhaps we indulge in various activities, which are a wholesale waste of time.

The clock is always ticking. The seconds keep on ticking just like busy ants. The ants keep themselves always busy by always hunting for food everywhere. Similarly the seconds always keep on ticking to attain short-term goals of making a minute with 60 ticks. After reaching a milestone of a minute the second's hand of a clock don't take a break, but start afresh for another round of 60 ticks. The take it minute by minute and inadvertently reach a quarter of an hour, and hour and then a day. They always focus on the smaller targets- that is a minute and the bigger aim of the clock itself gets fulfilled. That's why the minutes hand have to work less, as the seconds hand does most of the running around. The minute hand just has to make 60 movements on a clock dial. The hours hand is the luckiest of the lot. It just moves for 12 times in an hour. But the seconds hand movies for 3600 times around the dial for the same hour!

Parallel to this, in our life to we never realizes that we have lots to do. Between every big task we can always find enough time to fit in a plethora of smaller tasks. If you are waiting for a train at the station, you can always read a magazine or rather chalk out your study timetable for exams. While traveling in the bus too one can find enough time to at least skim through the previous days notes.

Be like the clock. Always keep on ticking by involving yourself in various things and learning new things. These small knowledge and experience modules will perhaps one day take you to your bigger goal some day. They say "Time and Tide waits for no man". If so, now stop staring at the screen and utilize your time effectively!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stranger from Faroe Islands

Staying away from home can be a delightful experience for the first few months. As the days fly by, the burden of a dreary and lonely life piles onto everything you do. At times you ask some thought provoking questions to the almighty – “Why me? Why is it that I need to go through this ordeal?” which further pushes you down the abyss of self pity. To restore sanity from this ordeal, it is essential to have new ways to entertain yourself, to keep the momentum going. The momentum is to be maintained till your day of redemption – of going back to your home, family and country comes good. 

Having friends around is surely a way to keep you safe from your own thoughts and influence. It helps you defocus from your mundane life and delve into topics of conversation and images in the mind that you couldn’t conjure in your loneliness. This Saturday evening, I had a friend down to my place for dinner. I had cooked a light meal of mixed vegetables – sauted in a backdrop of onions, tomato and some Indian spices.  My laptop conspired with the Bose speakers and youtube to fill in the room with some light music – typically old Hindi movie songs from the 70’s and 80’s.  The smell of freshly cooked curry, background music in the air – the stage was all set for us to catch up on our lives as we downed two swift pegs of Bacardi white rum with Sprite.  The conversations varied from personal to professional, life back home to life in this place and the lives of other common friends around. The background music also became a conversation topic and we exchanged notes on our views of the music and the movie it was from. As we exchanged those notes, each one of us in our own thoughts imagined how our life was, when we had first heard that song or seen that movie. Take for example the old hindi song “Aaye Meherbaan” from Madhubala. I have never liked such old songs from the black and white movie era as a rebellious teenager. With the 30’s kicking in and having seen life from different shades, I have succumbed to enjoying melody with meaning than noise with head banging.  The other song that further drowns me in the well of human existence, especially with a peg on my side is “Musafir hoon yaaron, na ghar hai na thikana”. With age, the idea of finding true meaning to life and our existence becomes an interesting thought which can keep your engrossed for lifelong and still not produce any tangible result. Coming back to ur present state and downing that last peg of Bacardi white rum, we headed to the kitchen and shared a Nan bread with the curry.  Through with dinner, the clock struck 12.40 am and we decided to go down to “Cardinals” – one of the pub where a common friend was part timing. 

We broke through the chilly breeze on a Saturday evening in Stavanger, marching through cobbler stoned pavements. There was an air of authority in the background – stamped by kids who are about to graduate from school to college. It’s a famous tradition during the months of April- May in Norway. This is the time when tenth graders march through the city on late nights –especially Friday and Saturday, blowing whistles in the air and march wearing similar red pants. Its almost like they are comrades in arms and have just come back from a hard fought war. It is a sign of throwing caution to the wind and announcing to the city and people that “Hey guys, we are graduating to go to college. Take us seriously in life from here on. We are no longer kids!” and there goes a whistle that pierces through the air and making your ears cringe in faint approval. 

Luckily, we did not have to wait longer to get inside the pub.  “Cardinals” is supposedly the second best pub in Norway and 35th best in the World. The music is not loud, there is no dance floor and the entry is restricted to ages 24 and above with a huge seating area spread across two floors. Its almost a perfect setting to keep away people who are yet not serious with their lives from ones who are and are ahead along the maturity curve. The traditional serving area of the bar is impressive with the bar counter arching across a corner of the room there by separating the demand and supply side – the customers and the bartenders. The bartenders and their armor of shining glasses, bottles and gallons of golden and transparent colored potions on the supply side indeed looks mesmerizing.  In the surroundings of the dimly lit lampshades, the yellow light striking on their faces makes them look like the Messiahs being specially sent by the Almighty to pacify us earthly human beings with their magic potions. Seated on high stools on the opposite side, the customers are all willing to gulp down their choice of potions in between conversations with others or with themselves. After me and my friend got settled into a similar high stool and were comforted by our friend who was working part time, we settled in for a Newcastle beer. It was one out of the 400 different choices of beer available at Cardinals. Ain’t that a cardinal sin in life to have limited your options to Ringnes, Kingfisher, Chakra, Tuborg, Carlsberg, Budlight and Corona?

Finally me and my friend were into that space of time where we didn’t have much to converse. To add to it, the background noise of other conversations was overpowering any attempts we would have wanted to make to strike a conversation. A gentleman seated to my left hand side then gently tapped my shoulders to strike a conversation. He started to exchange pleasantries in Norwegian.  Once I politely requested if he could speak English, we had an amazing conversation for the next few minutes. I have always only imagined this in my life – being in a pub, seated on the high stool and striking conversations with a perfect stranger. It was all happening on this Saturday night in the April I spent in Stavanger. 

The gentleman was a citizen of Faroe Islands, which is somewhere near Iceland. It’s an island country of not more than 50,000 people and apparently is under the control of Denmark. People in Faroe island speak Faroese, apart from Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Norwegian. The gentleman was in this city for the same reason as I was – for work. What was similar is that we both were not directly from the oil and gas industry, which makes us more exotic in one of the worlds most famous Oil and Gas hubs. He was a “Roof layer” by profession, thereby laying roofs for various houses and buildings in Stavanger.  Working ten hours a day for six days a week – he surely rubbished any first impressions my mind formed about another blessed individual with a relaxed work pressure, which is very common in the Nordic countries. 

The very struggle of him being in Stavanger and working long hours was a testimony to the limited opportunities that a small island like Faroe could provide to its residents. Still, the ability to go beyond the confines of the shipbuilding and fishing industry in Faroe Islands to make fortune in the nearby country of Norway was testimony to his ambitions in life. If the long hours laying roofs were a way of fulfilling his ambitions, so was being worldly aware and socially intelligent. We exchanged conversations on a variety of topics. Topics such as the top five countries in the world by GDP , the invasion of the Mongolians and the impact of the same on the world and his intelligence about India as a nation with nuclear and IT capabilities and the gift of freedom from Gandhi. He had never been to India, but was appreciative of Indians and thankful to an Indian teacher he had. Yes they had Indians in Faroe Islands too. We Indians are everywhere and we did not leave even a tiny island in the North Sea, which almost looks like ink droplets (No offence to Faroe Islands or other small places on earth) on a map of the world placed on the table!  Conversations revealed that Faroe Islands had close to 50-100 Indians and they also had some Indian restaurants. Not bad for an island where the total population was 50,000? 

Though he was apologetic for his English, I never felt he struggled to speak English. He knew India was literally the biggest English speaking nation on earth – thanks to the British. After the India adulation from a complete stranger that humbled me, one of the last few conversations we had was about the races. The fact that Europeans and Asians were a part of the Aryan race and further on we spoke about Genghis Khan and his pet projects which resulted in 1/16th of the world being his descendants – directly or indirectly! As we spoke more of the Mongolians, he began describing about a book he had read which talks about two sects of people – Mongolians with the flat eyes and flat noses and non Mongolians. The book was based in Afghanistan and had a character name “Hasan”. I immediately knew he was talking about Khaled Hossneni’s “Kite Runner” that even I had read about a month back. He was excited and glad to know that even I had read that book. After exchanging appreciations for the way the author had written the book, we overheard the bartenders politely requesting all folks to step out as they were closing .We wished each other good luck and decided to part ways. I got back to my two friends who were almost forgotten for the past few minutes since I was talking to the Faroese guy. After exchanging a few notes and hugs, me and my friend bade farewell to our friend who was part timing – thanking him for the hospitality, discounted beer and more important for the lovely time. 

We stepped out into the cold breeze of Saturday night in Stavanger. In the midst of teenagers and adults heading back from various pubs with a background of roadside guitar players strumming light notes into thin air, I was happy to have met the Faroese guy. Hope he does well in what he does. We never exchanged names, but he had pretty much defined his personality. He was a roof layer but could converse like any of the intellects on a range of topics, which were a delightful surprise. He will do well in life for sure.  As i head yet another day closer to my day of redemption - of leaving this beautiful city and country back to my homeland or Mother India, i can be rest assured that Stavanger city definitely has more to it than oil and gas professionals.  The Faroese guy and i testify that.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Subway Sandwich of Cricket, Politics and Bollywood

Last few months, the Indian economy has been like a long Subway Sandwich which has a lot of filling in it. The bread on either sides signifying the period between which you want to access what happened in India. The filling in between the bread being signified by Cricket, Politics and Bollywood and all seem to be intermingled.

Especially Cricket and Politics have added a lot of weight and meat to the thickness of the Subway Sandwich (India’s economy). The Indian cricket team’s tour to South Africa, followed by the 40 days of the journey to win the World Cup had already drained Indians of their craze for the game. If this was not enough, it was followed by IPL for another 40 days which is more like having twice the tomato filling in a normal subway causing the subway to explode. Thankfully the Indian economy won’t explode due to cricket in the real sense of the term. It would rather implode by the wavering levels of productivity that too much of cricket brings into the nation. Too much cricket means increased advertisements spends by various multinationals there by leading to a unwanted inflation in prices of items you are made to consume. The coffers of BCCI, cricketers are filled up from these advertisements and all that a spectator like you and me are left is heartache if India loose the match and future loss of hard earned money irrespective of their win or loss. The future loss is due to the potential increase in prices of things we consume from Car Batteries to Chyawanprash, caused by the money that a Yuvraj or Sachin needs to be paid to say a one liner to sell that product. Too much of tomato kills the taste of other ingredients in  a Subway sandwich. Similarly, too much of cricket kills the purchasing power capacity of the country as we pay more for the same products and also are less productive when matches are being played, leading to small setbacks in personal and professional life.

The story will now become more complicated. While you thought your Subway only had cricket in between, you never felt the taste of the black olives or politics as you munched the subway with your teeth. These black olives are way too much and signify the black mark the Indian politicians have left on our democracy. The black mark due to their unending corruption scandals which just keep getting better. If the Commonwealth Games farce was not enough, we were further brought to our knees by the telecom scam which is potentially the biggest scam of Independent India, masterminded by ex minister A Raja.   Raja became lion hearted by giving away telecom spectrum at throwaway prices in 2008, thereby causing potential loss to the Indian ex chequer by over INR 1700 Crores or INR 170 Bn. In return he did receive kickbacks, which are themselves to the tunes of money one can never imagine. So while we slog out and pay 30% of our income as taxes to the government, people like Raja and Kalmadi have figured out the best way to spend your blood and sweat. A few more scams and people like them, will ensure that we are without “Roti”, “Kapda”, “Mobile”, “Bijli”, “Sadak” and “Pani”. I do not wish to mention about “Makaan” as the real estate prices are already exorbitantly high – thanks to the builders lobby supported by politicians entering real estate business. Ironically the mantra of the Congress government had Roti, Kapda, Makaan, Mobile, Bijli, Sadak, Pani in all its political manifestos, speeches and message for the people when it was fighting for re-elections. The message just sunk amongst us innocent citizens that they promised to loot us of these comforts and not enhance these for better!

Bollywood is more like a sauce. A sauce that can mingle with tomato’s and olive and yet maintain its own flavor. Through the concept of IPL all the Bollywood stars – Priety Zinta, Shilpa Shetty, Shah Rukh Khan and host of other saucy pretty young entertainers mingle with the tomato’s or cricket. The only sources of mass adulation known to the sauce / bollywood is mixing with cricket / tomato or flirting with black olives/ politics. Power, popularity and money (PPM) attract themselves. No wonder the upper echelons in all three fields – Cricket, Politics and Bollywood always mingle with each other as the magnetic effect of PPM never wanes off. Income tax apparently is a non existent word in the dictionary of many a Bollywood personalities. They are able to evade this through connections to politics, smart chartered accountants and finally invest the saved tax in the largest and unofficial Section 80 C scheme for black money makers in India - the IPL! And this unofficial 80C surely does not have the Rs. One Lakh (INR 100,000) limit that us lowly nine to fivers struggle to invest for a financial year to save some taxes!

And as you think about the Indian economy and take that last bite of your subway sandwich almost in anger, you cant help but feel a bad taste in your mouth left by too much of tomato and black olives. The stain on your t-shirt caused by the sauce spilt on it almost underlines the fact that you can never escape the populism of the three forces in India that rule your life directly or indirectly - Cricket, Politics and Bollywood. You almost shrug your shoulders in despair and give into an accepted sense of defeat against the entire system.

And as you are given into the Goliath’s of the world,  it takes a 72 year old man from a non descript village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra to start removing the black olives from your subway sandwich. Well, lets just save the story of the David called “Anna Hazare” for another day!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Global Haircut Experience - Part 3

Price: NOK 100 ($ 18, excluding tip) in Oslo and NOK 200 ($36, excluding tip) in Stavanger. These are the minimum in these two cities for Gents. The rates otherwise can go upto NOK 400 ($72, excluding tip) for men and start from NOK 300 ($54, excluding tip) for women.

Norway is one of the most expensive places on earth. It’s a fact well articulated by the various surveys available on the internet.  If you come to Norway and stay here for some time, you realize the gravity of things being expensive. For example, take the case of the haircut. Haircuts are really expensive here and its no surprise that a lot of Norwegian men don’t have much hair or are close to bald. Is cold weather not conducive for hair growth on scalp? Or are the genes of the current generation Norwegians aware of the sky high prices for haircut, hence decide not to allow hair growth? I would though not like to generalize that Norwegian men are bald – but nevertheless was told about this by an Eastern European lady who was giving me a haircut in Oslo. In my 18 months in this beautiful country, I have had haircut only thrice – twice in Oslo and once in Stavanger. In between these, I had an opportunity to travel and hence the hairdressers in India and in UK shared the responsibility of trimming my tresses! It was more by accident than by design!

I was recommended this place for a haircut by my friend, who has been in Oslo for long.  On a Saturday morning, just a day before my wife joined me in Oslo I went to Gronland, the official residence for a lot of the Asian and African migrant population.  Gronland is very crowded on Saturdays and week days in the evening. This is because, all the different vegetables, groceries, food items , clothes are easily available here. Walking through the narrow allies can be scary and spooky at times, but will make you feel you are walking through three different continents at the same time – Africa, Europe and Asia. Gronland is also the place where we get all the Asian Groceries in Pakistani shops and have good Indian, Sri Lankan restaurants.

I waited for sometime for my turn at the hair saloon and was ushered in by a guy from Iraq. He could speak fluent Norwegian and some broken English. He had other customers in various other chairs so he pointed me to a lady in the corner who would cut my hair. Maybe she was the one who could speak the most fluent English. The lady hairdresser was nice. While she cut my hair, over conversations I got to know that she was from Eastern Europe and had worked earlier in Sweden. In Norway, she was working and saving money to fund a hair dressing professional course in UK. She already had an Apple iPhone and a Mac book laptop! Voila! This place is so different. Norway is one of the most die-hard fans of Apple’s products. Even hairdressers and the commonest of commons had an iPhone / Mac Book. Hope i live to see this day in India in the next 40 years.I decided not to talk about my Dell laptop of the past 8 years after i heard of her Mac Book! She was aware of the Indian diaspora doing well in the field of computers and then amongst other conversations, my hair was finally down to about half to three fourths of an inch from the scalp. A little close to being a Norwegian?

The remaining two haircuts were spread between Oslo and Stavanger. The guys who cut the hair were from Iraq / Iran and were total professionals. They took not more than 20 minutes to shape my long tresses the way they thought I had instructed them to shape. It was silence and some background English music all along. 

Over conversations with my colleague Kim today, i got to know that the reason why women are hairdressers for both men and women in these countries is only because hairdressing was considered pre-dominantly a feminine profession or pastime. If men are into this business, it means they are gay. Anyways, I believe for folks from Middle East and Asia this principle may not apply as our folks look at it as a profession and they necessarily may not be gay!

Psst psst..hairdressers make tones of money in Norway. I have seen so many saloons in Stavanger that I have lost count. A typical saloon is called “Frisor” in here and I hear its tough job to open one as one has to go through rigorous training, approvals etc. to be qualified to have a haircutting shop. But once they are established, there is no stopping the money from coming in as the hair tresses fall along!

The Frisor below my house is charging NOK 400 (USD 72) for a haircut for men. Can anyone please adopt me and gift me a haircut in there? Kidding... I will wait till i head back to India or go to UK to get it done at 1/6th to 1/7th of the cost!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Global Haircut Experience - Part 2

Unites States Of America
Price: $16-$20 including a tip (2004-07 prices)

Between 2004 and 2007, I spent more than 3 years in Connecticut, US. Thanks to the nomadic life that we all IT professionals so eagerly look forward to! During this period, I was coming to terms with the different way of doing things in a different part of the world. Be it transitioning from water to tissues or smiling at strangers and uttering “Hi. How you doing”, at the speed of light! I had my share of haircuts as well.

A lot of my colleagues in my previous organization wanted to cut cost on all fronts and definitely wanted to save on haircuts which were almost 13-15 times the hair cut cost in India. Some folks brought a hairdresser kit and did it themselves at home, while others used plain $2 scissors and criss crossed the mop of the hair on their head in the directions they wanted to. Its almost like a kid gone crazy with a pair of scissors in his hands! Others looked for cheaper alternatives like the Chinese/ Asian hairdressers who typically were less expensive than the US hairdressers.

I was of the firm belief of not taking this route and decided to do it the “American Way”. I started regularly going to “Cost Cutters” a chain of hair dressing shops in the US, which was located not more than 700 meters from my house.  The name misleads one to think that the cost of haircut may be less. Its actually no cutting on costs! Had it been India, I would have walked to have my haircut. But it was USA, so there comes my car. From the time I pushed the ignition, till the time I reached the saloon, it took no more than three minutes – phew maybe my car engine may not even have woken up from its slumber since the drive last day! Cost Cutters had chirpy hairdressers – all ladies. I never thought it was  common to have lady hairdressers in US.  Had it been India, people would have gone to a hair cutting saloon with lady hairdressers, with all the wrong thoughts in their head!

I soon realized that the parameters of giving my requirements for haircut changed in this new country. Gone were the days when Rajesh Khanna and I had an unsaid understanding or common language. Now I had to decide how long or short I wanted my hair in terms of levels of hair cutting where a scale of 1 to 5 indicated how long or short you wanted your hair to be cut. It is important to know which is the lower and the higher end of the scale, else the look of “Freshly Peeled Chicken” can haunt you in just half an hour of miscommunication! 

The hairdressers in US are chatty with their customers and peers around. They however want to spend less time or effort on your hair.  So they use more of automation – a machine like a grass mower which weeds of those long tresses of hair in a jiffy, than the clickety scissors which the Indian hairdressers love to use. Thankfully, I have never slept off during a haircut, but always kept my eyes closed – almost in a state of meditation. In this state, I think of the lives these hairdressers would be leading, while listening to their conversations. It definitely gives insights into their way of life, their struggles, their humane side. 

During special occasions, like Halloween, all the hairdressers dressed into funny costumes. It added a lot of variety and color to an otherwise boring experience for the customers. I was once attended to by a dresser wearing the costume of a “Witch”. The other time it was a buxom fairy tale princess.   Customers had an opportunity to vote for the best dressed hairdresser and finally she won some small cash prize. I heard the “Witch” did win once, so guess my vote was bang on the money. At the end of the haircut as you pay for it, its polite to pay a tip in the US as the hourly wages are low and tips bring in added revenues to the hourly workers. Dishing a decent tip also  makes you feel nice and brings a delight onto their faces.