Monday, December 31, 2007

Road Rage

Warning: This is a long post. A very long post. I started typing it out and didn't seem to be able to stop. If you are reading this at work, as I strongly suspect you are, this could seriously impact your productivity. As it has mine.

Driving in Gurgaon can be an incredibly frustrating experience. The sheer lawlessness, chaos and the perpetual sense of death and destruction makes for a very emotionally draining experience. There are two ways one could look at it.
1. Positive view: It gives you a renewed appreciation of how good it is to be alive. It makes you feel like a man again (engaging in all those testosterone-driven duels). And when you begin to celebrate reaching home safely each night, you know you've learnt to value life's small victories.
2. Negative view: It's a pain in the ass. It's life threatening and rage-inducing. The world appears to be full of maniacs and idiots with no concern for either their own lives or that of others.
As can be expected from a naturally cynical and angry guy like me, this post deals exclusively with the latter. So here's a guide to some of the phenomena you are likely to encounter on the roads of Gurgaon.

All over the bloody place. And they aren't just the normal kind of cows one finds all over the country. These are very large cows and bulls. Huge bulls with massive humps and dangerously long and sharp horns. Much like the ones depicted on Harappan seals

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It's clear they have been terrorizing travellers in these parts for years but nothing whatsoever has been done about them. They lie around on the roads, protected by the irrational Indian belief in their touch-them-on-pain-of-your-life holiness. They stand in front of your car in the middle of the roads, gazing at you unflinchingly, daring you to use force against them. And, occasionally, their luck runs out and they die on the roads, their deep dark blood seeping across the asphalt as we shake our heads sagely and continue driving.

If there's one thing the Haryana police have learnt, it's that there is no point putting up speed limits on any roads. Simply because the limit is merely a number. Most drivers see it not as a restriction but as a challenge. Not just a 'Can you reach this speed?' challenge but a 'Can you reach twice this speed?' challenge. And, almost invariably, the drivers win. With the result that you have huge masses of people roaring down the roads of Gurgaon with scant control over their movements and scant respect for those of others.

The motorcyclists are worse; young blood pumping ill-advisedly in their hyperactive veins, they zoom in and out of traffic, executing death defying stunts, sharp swerves and risky cross-signal tactics. Thankfully, there aren't very many of them - Gurgaon seems to be extremely unsafe for anyone not protected by something with an airbag or, at the very least, a seat belt.

All these rash drivers (two, three and four wheelers) will cut across lanes, insist on overtaking you on the wrong side, believe it is their god given right to not have to stop at traffic signals, cut wildly into traffic travelling at 100 kmph, drive on the wrong side of the road, ram into the occasional cow and, in general, make life a living hell for everyone else on the roads.

They count among their brethren truck drivers, tanker drivers, motorcyclists, tractor drivers, half the car-owning population of the city and even the occasional daring bullock cart driver. But the king, the absolute baap of them all is...

Not to be confused with Spiderman, Superman, Batman and the like, even though he does perform death defying stunts. He would be a crime fighter, except that he's almost always on the wrong side of the law. And no, he's not an anti-hero, he's pure evil villain.

I refer to those who drive cabs, particularly those employed by BPO companies to ferry their hapless employees. These are all private operators (Gurgaon has little or no reliable and safe public transport) and are, I think, paid on the basis of how quickly they get from point A to point B. Which results in them zooming in and out of traffic, muscling in on the flow of traffic in any and every direction and generally making one hell of a nuisance of themselves. Apart from, of course, being a serious safety hazard on the roads. Not a week goes by without news of someone being mowed down by one of these cabs (or mooed down, if attacked by one of the aforementioned bulls).

They are not averse to giving you a little nudge from the back if they feel you're travelling too slowly. Or, what's worse, socialise from the side by bringing their cabs within a couple of nanometres of one's doors. This is, as you can expect, an extremely frightening and heartwrenching thing for someone with a relatively new car that he would like to see survive for as long as possible without scratches. But where there are mad cab drivers, there are scratches galore. The Viking raiders of old left smoking ruins after every plunder. The villainous robbers in Home Alone left the water running after every robbery. Gurgaon's cabmen leave a wide range of scratches after every interaction.

And nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop them.

Have you, dear reader, driven on city roads? If you have, you might have noticed little white lines on the roads, usually dividing them into roughly equal fractions. These fractions of the road, referred to as lanes, are meant to facilitate orderly flow of traffic in neat lines. Queues, if you will.

Gurgaon, apparently, finds lane driving an alien concept. No one EVER EVER follows them. Which is extremely frustrating for someone who was brought up (in driving terms) in an environment which taught him to respect lane flow.

The Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA, which sounds surprisingly like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman - and some believe is just as blind)... where was I? Oh yes. HUDA, in all earnestness, paints lines all over the roads, only to have them completely and utterly ignored by practically every single member of the driving populace.

Two lanes of traffic are often converted into three, with the ones in the middle not seeming the least bit remorseful about breaking driving etiquette (is it a law?). They merely nudge, cajole and threaten (ever had a tall bearded Jat brandish a heavy stick at you?) their way into any open space to create a lane of their own. The road I take to office morphs from 3 lanes to 5 (sometimes 6!) during rush hour. The National Highway to Delhi miraculously transforms from 8 to 14 lanes, all choc-a-bloc with irate drivers and peaceful cows.

What's more, they often do not stay in their lanes (imaginary or official). Everyone glides, slides and pirouettes across lanes, in and out of traffic with absolutely ZERO regard for the situation of traffic in the lanes they are cutting into. As one who has often been cut off by such insane lane-switchers, I have learnt to control my anger ("I'll kill you, b#$%&@*d!") and become more philosophical about it. ("The way you're driving, you're going to die sooner or later. B#$%&@*d.")

Lanes are a thing of the past, a needless imposition of order and discipline in an environment where order and discipline can get one abused, scratched, beaten up or killed.

I do not know which city/state reports the largest number of suicides (for non-agricultural reasons) and/or accidental deaths each year, but I would be very surprised if Gurgaon is not near the top of the list. The local people seem to be blessed with an innate propensity to take risks, some of which take the form of walking in the middle of a busy road or sprinting across a eight-lane highway, even as rash drivers (especially cabmen) bear down upon them with unflinching bloodlust.

Trust me, driving here is not an exercise for the faint-hearted, given the nature of these pedestrians. They jump onto the roads when you least expect them (you are, of course barrelling down a 80kmph highway at 120 kmph). They play peekaboo with you from behind telephone poles and/or cows, a now-you-see-them-now-you-don't cat-and-mouse game that usually goes "accelerate, turn up the volume, accelerate, press the pedal all the way down, glance up at the man doing a jig in the middle of the road, slam down hard on the brakes, skid on the road, screech to a halt". It wouldn't be out of place in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

What irks me is not so much the fact that they cross the road at all - they can't help it, even chickens have been known to do it - but that they
a. Seem to have no idea that walking at 0.2 kmph across a busy highway puts them at significant risk of dying a gory death; there is NO move on their path to hurry across, even with crazy drivers zooming down on them.
b. Seem to wait for a car to come on the horizon before stepping onto the road, almost flaunting the fact that they, being human, have greater right to be on the road than the machine thundering on it day and night; said machine must necessarily stop before the frail 90 year old, grinning in the middle of the road. It's a power game, I tell you.

The safest thing to do is to never drive on the innermost or outermost lanes. Stick to the middle. Or if there isn't a middle, create one (as described earlier). At least you'll have a little more time to react to your opponent/victim.

It's hard to crib about these guys. Unfair, almost. After all, they do have to make a living. But if there's one thing I pride myself on, it's my ability to rant about anything and everything without conscience.

Rickshaw drivers (RDs, in the interests of time, energy and my not getting Carpel Tunnel Syndrome) are a law unto themselves. They know they're onto a good thing. In the absence of credible public transport, they are the average person's best mode of transport. When the average person's car is at the mechanic's, of course - the average rickshaw-using person, as defined by Gurgaon standards, owns a car. Two, sometimes.

RDs think nothing of driving in exactly the opposite direction to the rest of traffic flow. Perhaps they feel the same sense of power pedestrians do. Perhaps they feel they're giving their customers their money's worth by taking them from Point A to Point B with death-defying thrills thrown in. The same applies to when they randomly cut across four lanes of traffic (officially two) just to get to a nearby U-turn or chat with a fellow RD on the other side of the road. Also, in what infuriates me more than anything else, they ALWAYS occupy the fastest lane. Which is fine in Gurgaon where no one gives a damn which side you overtake on, but it still affects what's left of my road sense.

The best way to avoid hitting a rickshaw is to stick to the National Highways. Or else ride in a rickshaw oneself.

It's ironic that for a city that moves so insanely fast, there are speedbreakers all over the place, seemingly laid out at random. There are several stretches where one would encounter four or five of them within a kilometre. Which is all for the best, I guess - I'm sure they help save lives - but what gets my goat is that many of these are a. horribly formed, making a single hump a bloody roller coaster ride, and b. not marked or coloured in any way. Which means that I often get jolted horribly and have my insides shaken up irrecoverably, with absolutely no warning whatsoever. And this results in me being reduced to a nervous wreck whenever I'm driving in any remotely residential area...

What the HELL is wrong with everyone? WHYOWHYOWHY do people have to travel with headlights at full beam all the time? I have enough things to give me a headache without the random guy ehind me shining full force into my car and my rear view mirror. Does he not realise it is blindingly painful? How would he like it if I was to flash a bright light straight into his pupils, huh?

I can fully understand the use of high beam on the dark highways, but NOT within the city where you have enough glitz and neon to light one's way. Do you really need 500m worth of visibility when there's a car 2m in front of you? Huh? Huh? I spend a significant portion of my night-time driving making flashing symbols at the guys behind me, a desperate plea for him to dip his bloody lights.

Unfortunately, it hardly works. And what I hate most about idiots who drive on full beam all the time are those who drive on full beam all the time with...

This paragraph is addressed directly to the user of halogen lamps, not you, most dear and respected reader.

What the fish is wrong with you? Is the normal headlight that insufficient that you must get yourself this insanely bright, piercing, obscenely white light? If you were in a coastal city, you'd be mistaken for a bloody lighthouse. What madness possessed you to feel that the standard lights are not enough, especially when the car in front of you is never more than 10m ahead (and that's on a good night!)? Do you see the pure white light as some symbol of your purity, or a literal reflection of your mental brightness? Do you think people will be impressed and mentally say, "Damn, I wish I was him!". No, idiot, no. People will be pissed and say "Damn, I wish I could kill him!"

So there you go, ladies and gentlemen. Everything on the roads that irritates me. I've left out a few of the minor irritants - undercar lighting, slow tractors and somewhat incompetent policemen come to mind - but these are the biggies. Do keep a watch out for them. Steer clear of them, and you'll live longer.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Kho na jaaye yeh Taare Zameen Par

If you were to watch only one movie this holiday season, I suggest you make it Taare Zameen Par that released today.



It's a movie about a dyslexic boy who can't seem to do anything right academically and prefers fish and paints to books and sports. It's about how he is misunderstood by all around him (including his parents), and how one special teacher helps him and others around him realise, appreciate and celebrate his inner worth. The beauty of the movie lies in the fact that the movie is less about the dyslexia itself and more about the boy, the relationships he shares with people around him and his feelings... the final 'moral', as it were, being that everyone is different in their own special and unique way; in trying to conform to the world's perception of success, structured thinking, reward/punishment and appropriate behaviour, one loses sight of this uniqueness. And thus, we stand to unknowingly lose these taare zameen par, literally these stars on Earth.

This is easily one of the best movies to have come out of much maligned (and rightly so!) Bollywood this year.

I am not going to review this movie. I do not have the skills to present a compelling review of the movie from a filmmaking standpoint. Nor am I a cinebuff in any sense of the word, to be able to draw academic comparisons between TZP and other great works of the past. I write as a normal member of the audience. And, sitting with a hundred other people in that darkened hall, I lived the life of the troubled protagonist Ishaan through the magnificent narrative of Amole Gupta and the creative lens of the constantly surprising Aamir Khan.

The movie has several things going for it. First things first - the star of the show. No, not Aamir Khan but Darsheel Safary, the young boy who carries the entire movie completely on his frail shoulders. His expressions, his body language, his voice... all draw the viewer into his little make believe world where the letters of the alphabet dance and Captain Bindaas solves math problems in unique ways. Throw in a brilliant supporting cast - particularly Tisca Chopra as the mother and Aamir Khan as, of course, the teacher - and you have an ensemble cast that hits the perfect notes in practically each and every scene.

All this backed by a beautiful story and a strong script, that treads the fine line between sensitivity and mawkish sentimentality to perfection. It involves you in the life and problems of the protagonist, while not drowning one in an overdose of preachiness and melodrama (please tone it down just a little, Mr Sanjay Leela 'Black' Bhansali). The school scenes were imaginatively written and wonderfully shot, evoking deep empathy with Ishaan but also providing a solid sense of nostalgia for one's own school days.

The direction was good - I know nothing of the finer technical aspects to be able to make any sensible comment on them - but full credit is due to Aamir, for ensuring that his star presence does not in any way come remotely close to overshadowing the primary character. And do NOT miss out on the montage of videos played during the closing credits; they're an extremely beautiful collection - moving, cute, touching, disturbing, hopeful...

And last but definitely not the least, the music. Mindblowing. Just the right touches and soft flourishes in the right places to make each song meld beautifully into the story, enabling the filmmakers to stick to Bollywood convention of songs every ten minutes yet use unconventional melodies (Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy) and simple lyrics (Good show, Prasoon Joshi!) to perfectly capture the characters' state of mind. I would strongly recommend the infectious 'Bum Bum Bole' (much better on the screen than on audio), the beautiful, lilting title song and the starkly simple yet meltingly moving 'Maa', which evocatively expresses the boy's loneliness and longing when separated from his mother.

This is one movie you must not miss.

This is one movie that I did not come out of cribbing that I hadn't got value for the insanely expensive movie ticket.

This is one movie that I would love to see succeed commercially, if only to prove the point that modern India stills values and appreciates fine filmmaking, and is willing to pay for it and not consign it to the deathly spiral of film festivals and special screenings. It would really anger me if this movie were to crash and burn (as several trade analysts predicted before its release, given its storyline) even as a leave-your-brain-at-home-to-watch-a-marketing-genius-with-six-packs Om Shanti Om rakes in over a hundred crores.

This is now the best Bollywood movie I've seen all year, beating out the astonishingly well made sports movie Chak De! India and the poetically shot, controversial commercial dud (and India's entry to the Oscars!) Eklavya.

So do yourself a favour this holiday season, folks. Watch Taare Zameen Par. If it makes you think about children differently for even a few minutes, it will have achieved its purpose. It will have had the impact and response it aimed for and deserves.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Advice of the Year

It's that time of the year when anybody and everybody with access to any medium creates 'Best of 2007' lists. Newspapers, Websites and TV Channels knock themselves silly trying to come up with innovative 'Best Of's.

Best Movie/Song of the Year.
Best Advertisement of the Year.
Best News Story of the Year.
Best Photograph of the Year.
Best Blog Post of the Year.
Best Fashion Faux-Pas of the Year.
Best Cricketer Unceremoniously Dumped by the BCCI of the Year.
Best Cosmetic Surgery of the Year.
Best Rich Fame-obsessed Degenerate Hollywood Star of the Year.
Best Traffic Control Mechanism of the Year (this should go to Gurgaon's cows)
Best Mobile Phone That's Actually a Phone and Not a Bloody Life-Controlling Supercomputer of the Year.
Best 'Best of' category of the year.

I normally do not give a flying fish about these things... but wait up, bandwagon. I'm clambering on.

So why 'Advice of the Year'? I don't really know. I've never given advice on this blog before. For one very good reason - giving advice typically requires some level of wisdom about the topic one is advising the world about. And wisdom is something, as several people have pointed out to me throughout my life, that I am in very short supply of. I'm still in short supply of wisdom, but the difference now is that I've ceased to give a damn about it.

So here's my pearl:

When send an SMS using your mobile phone's predictive text/dictionary, check the message before you press send.

As always, there's a story behind this.


Actually, wait a minute.


Before I get into the story, let me make my stand on predictive text/dictionary (which I shall henceforth refer to as PTD to avoid wearing out my fingers) very clear.

I'm a HUGE fan of Nokia's T9 PTD. I find it extremely convenient when typing an SMS, and believe it helps save me a LOT of energy that would otherwise go into hammering out messages on the tiny keys on the phone. This energy can then be directed towards critical tasks like flipping a channel on TV, opening a bag of chips, or scratching the itchy parts of one's body. The PTD rocks... but recent events have caused me to learn a very important lesson the hard way.

Aha! Piqued your interest, haven't I? "Recent events"... Hmmm... the suspense builds... The promise of a twist in the tale! This is like one of those passages at the end of a chapter in a novel that goes

She looked at him longingly as he opened the door and stepped out.
"Do you really have to go?"
He smiled.
"You know I have to, darling. But I'll be back in two hours. I promise."
"Love you."
"Love you too."
She shut the door softly, already going over the lovely evening she had planned for him.
Little did she know she would never see him again.
(Cue to brooding percussion score)

I'm sorry, I tend to digress. More on the recent events and the story in a bit.

Like I said, I'm a huge fan of this feature. I have, however, often come across people who are avowed haters of this function, and much prefer to spell out the words themselves.

Being a man of science, I decided to conduct a comprehensive and conclusive study to evaluate the benefits of predictive text. Here's the highly scientific and rigorous procedure I followed:
1. Approach five people at random and ask them to give me their five to ten most commonly SMSed words
2. Count and compare the number of key presses required with and without T9
3. That's about it

And here, ladies and gentlemen are the results. The format followed below is word (key presses with T9, key presses without T9)

Respondent 1:
post (4, 9)
stupidity (9, 19)
urinal (6, 14)
inhospitable (12, 27)
chocolate (9, 21)
movies (7, 16)

Respondent 2:
Kaka (8, 6)
Mia (5, 5)
television (10, 26)
man (3, 4)
she's (5, 18)
smoking (7, 16)
hot (4, 6)

Respondent 3:
adaptor (7, 11)
strategy (8, 16)
market (6, 10)
paper (5, 8)
place (5, 10)
sunlight (8, 18)
there (5, 10)

Respondent 4:
meet (4, 6)
call (4, 10)
please (6, 13)
me (3, 3)
ok (2, 5)
girl (4, 10)

Respondent 5:
no (3, 5)
are (3, 6)
you (3, 8)
f***ing (11, 16)
nuts? (8, 13)
get (3, 4)
lost (4, 11)
freak (5, 11)

Net result: On average, with-PTD words are 50.13% as long as without-PTD words.

There you go. QED. I rest my case, and all that jazz.

We have now established that PTD rocks, Nokia's T9 in particular. As a result of my fervent belief in the usefulness and infallibility of this feature, I have of late become just a leeetle lax in terms of assuming it will always throw up the word that I intend to use in my SMS.

Back to the story now.


A few days ago. After a long hard day at work, I came home tired and looking forward to a few hours of destressing. I kicked off my smelly socks and settled down in front of the TV. I flipped channels... Survivor China - bleah. Discussions about the Gujarat elections - yawn. Reruns of the World Female Naked Mud Wrestling Championships - not again. And then I happened upon Pink Panther, the movie.

The movie itself is no great shakes, but I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Steve Martin (even post Pink Panther). And so I settled down to two hours of simple entertainment that wouldn't be too taxing for my severely constrained mental faculties.

In the midst of the movie, a friend SMSed me: "Hey, what's up? What are you doing?"

I sent her a reply saying I was watching Pink Panther. I got a reply before I could say "Inspector Clouseau" (Not that I was trying to, of course.) "You're what? Freak!"

Naturally, I was taken aback. People insult me all the time, and to be fair I usually give them ample reason to do so. But this sort of completely unprovoked attack took even a man of steel like myself by surprise.

To make my stand clear, I decided to send my earlier message again. "I'm watching Pink -"

And that's when I realised that T9's default for P-A-N-T-H-E-R is P-A-N-T-I-E-S.

One lives and learns.