Saturday, 29 November 2008

Short Story: Outsourcing

The call centre was located in the most desolate town in northern England. At one time it had been a thriving industrial town, but now all it had was the call centre which employed over two thousand people.

The receptionist gave Ujjwal a cold stare as she printed their visitors’ passes. ‘She usually smiles at me,’ Ujjwal muttered to Venky and Pritam as they walked towards the conference room. It was not just the receptionist. The three men drew angry looks from everyone they passed.

John was already inside the conference room.

‘Hello Ujjwal!’ He mispronounced the name exactly as he had done on the last two occasions.

‘Good to see you again John. Can I introduce my colleagues Pritam and Venky?’

They declined the offer of coffee and tea.

‘We’ll stick with the same story.’ John told Ujjwal blandly.

‘Hmm, I somehow get the feeling that the people here suspect something.’ Ujjwal told John, scanning his face for a lie as he did so.

‘We haven’t told anyone anything and my instructions are to stick with the same story,’ John reiterated, as poker-faced as ever.

Ujjwal didn’t care. Word always got around sooner or later. And it was John’s problem, not his.

‘Shall I call in Peter and James?’

‘Why not? All five hundred seats are under them, right?’

‘Right’

John went over to the telephone and dialed. While he was on the phone, Venky checked his phone once again for messages.

‘Ujjwal, can I make a quick phone call?’

‘They’ll be here any moment.’

‘I’ll be quick. This is important.’ Without waiting for Ujjwal’s consent, Venky ran out of the room, dialing as he went out. His wife did not answer the phone. Either they were still in the hospital or she was still mad at him. He was about to leave a message when he heard footsteps approaching. He rushed inside but the footsteps just went past. It was another five minutes before Peter and James entered the conference room.

The introductions were brief. These men are here to assess our software and propose something better than what we have. Don’t you think its time we replaced the shit systems we are using?

Peter and James laughed easily. Of course, they need to be replaced. They then went about their tasks professionally and systematically. The visitors were introduced to various team leads. This is how we capture data, these are our servers, he does this and she does that. They took copious notes.

Venky’s mobile made a beep. ‘Doctor says no worry. Antibiotics given. No school for a week,’ the sms said. Venky considered calling back, but Ujjwal read his thoughts and frowned at him.

Soon it was time for lunch. They trooped off to the staff canteen which was crowded. On the way, Venky tried calling home, but got no answer.

‘Did John say he would join us?’

‘He said he would try, but we shouldn’t wait for him.’

Venky was a vegetarian. Would he like a cheese sandwich? But Venky couldn’t stomach the taste of cheese. He picked up a hummus sandwich instead.

As they walked in a single file past a group of men sharing a good joke, one of them put his foot out and caught Pritam, who went down with a thud. The culprit got up and helped Pritam to his feet.

‘Sorry mate,’ he solicitously told Pritam as he gathered his box-wrapped tuna sandwich and bottled orange juice from the floor. ‘Too bloody absent-minded. Too many things to think off. Mortgage, school-fees, brushing up my CV …….’

‘Bloody thieves,’ someone muttered. There was a muted giggle from behind. Neither James nor Peter said a word.

They went to their seats and quietly ate their lunch. Venky’s mobile beeped again. ‘Please call me now,’ the message said.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Mumbai Terror Attacks: Rage, Retaliation and Restraint

As images of the Mumbai attacks flooded into my living room yesterday evening, I kept talking aloud over the commentator’s voice.

‘I used to live in a flat just behind Café Leopold.’

‘I’ve walked through the corridors of the Taj Hotel so many times.’

‘I used to work in a building opposite the Oberoi.’

‘Yeah, that’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.’

I was raging inside as I said all that. My rage had me walking up and down the living room in an effort to dissipate energy. I would sit down in front on my PC and surf the internet for news, call up friends, watch some more TV and then go back to the PC.

My rage made me want to retaliate. Retaliate against someone. Anyone. Anything.

I actually managed to doze off for a few hours at around three in the morning. As I took my place among the commuters today morning, I kept thinking, how do we retaliate?

I don’t for a moment buy the argument that this was an attack against Americans and Brits alone. This was an attack against India. Against the best city in India. Against the people of India. Why else would they attack CST, entry point to the common man’s conduit? I’m sure the attackers don’t like Westerners. May be it is easier to attack Westerners in a place like Mumbai where it is impossible to have tight security. The attacks on foreigners were meant to hurt India’s economy as much as the Westerners themselves.

How do we retaliate?

How can three top police officials get killed just like that? Where they targeted or did they just jump into the fight instead of staying in a safe location and coordinating efforts?

The attackers are supposed to have arrived in boats and landed near the Gateway of India and then gone on their rampage. They are supposed to be young men, in all probably very committed to their cause, totally brainwashed and willing to die. Heck, they must have known that they would in all probability not survive their assault. I read a couple of reports describing them as suicide bombers, though they ought to be called suicide attackers.

How do we retaliate?

How could there be such a massive intelligence failure?

Let’s assume it is later proved that the attackers have links to the Al Qaeda, what do we do? Will the Americans let us bomb the North-West Frontier Province? I doubt it. Even if the Americans give us the go-ahead, can we do so? Pakistan has the bomb, remember.

Last week, Pakistan’s new President offered to agree with India that neither country will be the first to use nuclear weapons. In the beginning of October, Zardari described militants in Kashmir as terrorists. Should we do anything to undermine Zardari who appears to be a friend, especially when the Pakistani government has so little control over the militants based in Pakistan?

Manmohan Singh has promised retaliation against the perpetrators, but hey! the perpetrator will be either killed or captured in a day or so. Did he mean retaliation against those who fund and organise such attacks? Did he mean retaliation against moneyed patrons based in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or elsewhere?

I am reminded of the movie Munich, which has an Israeli team hunting down the perpetrators of the Munich Olympics massacre. Should we try and find out who’s responsible for organising and funding this brazen attack and hunt them down? If we do that there is bound to be retaliation against our own intelligence men. Is that a price we are willing to pay? Do we want to escalate this war to such a level? India has more to lose since it has achieved greater economic progress. But maybe it’s time to stop taking such attacks lying down, time to stop going back to work the next day as if its business as usual, time to stop calculating the cost of retaliation and worrying whether escalation will lead to our own ruin.

Even if all the attackers were foreigners (they might not be), they are bound to have had local support. Support from Indians who have lived in Bombay. What on earth can motivate an Indian to support such plans? I don’t think any past grievance or injustice can justify such actions. How do we retaliate against such people? How do we make sure we don’t retaliate against the wrong people and make things worse?

Some of the best times of my life were spent in Mumbai.

Why are our troops and National Security Guards in such a rush to storm the Oberoi and the Taj where the attackers are holed up? Once the attackers are surrounded, should we try and wait for them to weaken before taking them out or should they be taken out before they have time to fortify themselves?

Will the Kandahar restaurant inside the Oberoi ever be the same again?

I wish I had at least half as many answers as questions.

But how do we retaliate?

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Short Story: An Office Incident

Armaan walked up to Kritika as she waited for the lift and tapped her lightly on her posterior with the flat of his palm. Kritika ignored him, though a small hiss did escape her, raised her right shoulder a little in a defensive manner and summoned the lift yet again. Armaan did not bother to hide his lascivious intentions or his smirk when he repeated his action, his body language conveying a sense of anticipation rather than any fear of retaliation. Kritika lifted both her shoulders by an inch and stared straight into the closed lift doors.

Unfortunately for Armaan, the Human Resources Director, a smart and snappy lady who had just moved back to India from Philadelphia, was just a few yards behind him and saw everything. Shocked beyond words, it took her a few moments to express her indignation, by which time Armaan had repeated the outrageous act. Since it was obvious that Kritika was going to be a passive victim, the HR Director took it on herself to protect Kritika.

‘How dare you?’ she shouted, as both Kritika and Armaan spun around in stunned silence. They stood there in silence, which infuriated the HR Director since there was no reason for Kritika to remain silent now that someone had spoken up for her. ‘How dare you?’ the HR Director repeated yet again as the lift arrived and opened soundlessly. This time Kritika’s face actually paled as though she had done something wrong while Armaan’s face had the look of a naughty boy caught with his fingers in the jam jar. This made the HR Director angrier still. In fact, she was a lot more bugged with Kritika’s passivity than with Armaan’s behaviour. She knew that women put up with a lot of shit without complaint in India, but it was nevertheless shocking to see it played out in front of her eyes.

‘Can I have your name please?’ the HR Director demanded of Armaan and immediately felt like a fool. Both Kritika and Armaan dangled around their necks their corporate identity cards which not only gave away their names, but also their employee numbers. The HR Director noted down Armaan’s name and employee number and then decided to take down Kritika’s details as well. If Kritika should decide to disappear in order to avoid the enquiry that would follow, as she might well do, being the timid creature that she appeared to be, she would find that the HR Director had other plans.

The HR Director made Armaan sit in a room all by himself (to stew) whilst she had a word with Kritika.

‘Do you know how important it is to report incidents like this? Why on earth do you take this shit lying down?’ the HR Director asked. Kritika was silent.

‘I just don’t believe it,’ she declared, more to herself than to Kritika.

‘Has this happened before?’ she demanded of Kritika.

‘No,’ Kritika said, speaking for the first time.

‘You are senior to him. Nine years senior!’ Kritika was a team leader despite her youthful looks while Armaan was a puppy, not more than a year old in the company.

‘Even if you don’t make a formal complaint, I intend to take action against that bbbass…...that guy,’ the HR Director grimly added. Kritika did not look particularly happy at that and so the HR Director added softly, ‘don’t worry. He’ll never enter this office again. Today is his last day here.’ It was so tragic; a team leader was scared of reporting a one year old programmer who had the audacity to sexually harass her at her workplace.

Armaan’s project leader had not sounded too pleased when the HR Director demanded that Armaan be fired, but the HR Director had reminded him that they were a subsidiary of HeptaCorp Inc. which prided itself on the highest standards in matters such as these.

‘Can’t we please drop the matter?’ Kritika asked the HR Director all of a sudden. By that time, the branch manager had joined them.

‘Why are you so scared?’ the HR Director asked Kritika, her voice dropping to a whisper.

‘If my husband hears of this, I won’t be allowed to work again,’ she said, close to tears. To the HR Director’s surprise, the branch manager seemed to be in empathy with Kritika. He looked at the HR Director with sad eyes, as though it was the most obvious thing to happen. As the HR Director racked her brains for a diplomatic response, instead of the ‘for Christ’s sake, which century are you living in?’ the branch manager to his credit said, ‘don’t worry, we’ll make sure not many people get to know of this. We’ll fire Armaan, but I’ll make sure he keeps his trap shut.’

The HR Director was tempted to ask how the branch manager planned to make sure Armaan kept his trap shut, but she decided not to. That was none of her business.

That evening Armaan sat on the sofa in his bachelor’s pad, nursing a glass of whiskey. His mobile rang.

‘Where are you?’ he asked the person at the other end.

‘Almost there. I’ll be there in five minutes.’

Armaan finished his whiskey in two gulps and kept the glass on the mantel piece.

The door bell rang and he opened the door. Kritika ran into his arms.

‘How was it?’ she asked him breathlessly without bothering to disentangle.

‘If only that bitch wasn’t around, this wouldn’t have happened.’

‘I warned you so many times to not to try that in office.’

‘Not my fault. You were irresistible. Your butt, that is.’ Kritika bit Armaan on his neck by way of a response.

They were silent for a minute. Then Kritika said, ‘you’ve been drinking.’

‘Just a small one.’

‘Tell me what happened. Have you been fired?’

‘Yes. Immediate termination! Not even a month’s notice. But I will get a reference, provided I keep my mouth shut.’

‘Thank God for that!’ It must be the branch manager who arranged for that, Kritika thought.

‘Why don’t you ditch your husband and come and live with me?’

‘Especially now that you are jobless,’ Kritika teased Armaan.

‘Of course. I’ll get a job soon, just a matter of time.’

‘Fine, get a job and I’ll come over with both my kids. You will enjoy looking after them, won’t you?’

‘Why don’t you bring over your husband as well? We’ll make him look after the kids while we have fun.’

‘You bastard, you,’ Kritika said as she kissed Armaan and they both laughed out aloud.

Barack Obama's New Secretary of State

After it was confirmed that Hillary Clinton is to be the next Secretary of State, there have been a slew of articles and opinions on whether Obama is making the right choice. Karen Tumulty and Massimo Calabresi at Time take the view that Hillary will make a good Secretary of State. As a example of her diplomacy and timing skills, they explain how in 1998 when Benazir Bhutto was out of favour with the US government, Hillary received her at the White House. Apparently Asif Zardari remembers this favour even now. They go on to say that Obama is making a brilliant move by co-opting a potential adversary who may otherwise want to make a stab at being President in 2012. The biggest hurdle to Hillary doing a good job is that her job may conflict with her husband Bill Clinton’s various activities, making paid speeches, charity work etc.

Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times gives two reasons for choosing Hillary for this job, one of them being that she might be good at it.

Thomas Friedman at the New York Times takes a contrary view. Friedman says that Hillary will not be able to do well if she is made the Secretary of State. This would be because, there cannot be the necessary amount of trust between Clinton and Obama, considering all that that passed between them. To be a successful Secretary of State, Hillary must be able to convince the world that speaking to her is the same as speaking with the President. Colin Powell was not successful since he did not have his President’s backing. James A. Baker III was a successful Secretary of State since he had the full backing of his President, Dubya’s father, the senior Bush.

Clive Crook, the Financial Times’ Washington correspondent agrees with Friedman. Crook also says that that Hillary will not make a good Secretary of State because of the lack of trust between Obama and her. ‘Will Hillary defer to Obama, and carry out his instructions to the best of her ability?’ Crook asks and answers in the negative. Crook adds that he does not think Hillary is a well-qualified candidate or a foreign-policy expert or a born diplomat.

I really liked the hint which Friedman drops in his article. Friedman asks “Or is it something to do with keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?” Obama is relatively new to the world stage. Though we have listened to his speeches and admired his elocution, we don’t know much about Obama the person, the human being. It’s obvious that one reason Obama would want Hillary to be his Secretary of State is to pre-empt the possibility of Hillary challenging him in 2012. What else could be Obama’s motive? I would like to play devil’s advocate and speculate. Will Obama back Hillary entirely and make it easy for her to do a good job? What if Obama wants to show Hillary to be an ineffective Secretary of State? Obama could do to Hillary what Bush did to Colin Powell, undermining him at every stage and finally forcing him to quit. Do you remember, there was a time when Colin Powell was considered President material? By the time he quit as Bush’s Secretary of State on 15 November 2004, there was not even a whisper of the possibility that he might run for President, his credibility had been so dented. Are we likely to see Hillary quit as Secretary of State a couple of years after the Obama administration takes over and disappear from the world stage all together? Only time can tell.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Short Story: My Best Friend Fakhroo

I must have let out a whoop of joy on seeing Fakhroo’s email since Neha dropped her book and hurried over to the computer. It was a cold winter’s evening in Manchester, the curtains were drawn, and the heater turned on at full blast. The smell of fresh paint hung in the air, like the promise of a better tomorrow.

‘Is this your friend Fakhroo?’

‘My best friend Fakhroo,’ I replied enthusiastically. Many years had passed since Fakhroo and I had declared to the world that we were best friends and swore undying loyalty to each other. Those were the days when we skipped classes after lunch to go to the cinema and rounded off the evening with a few kebabs from Fakhroo’s father’s restaurant in Old Delhi. Time had flown by, but I still thought of Fakhroo as my best friend. That is, when I did think of him, which had not been very often in the recent past.

‘What’s he up to?’

‘Let me read the email first,’ I told Neha impatiently as I clicked open the email and started reading. Neha stood behind me and tucked her face into the angle between my neck and shoulder so that she could read as well. I did not mind. Neha and I had been married for over two years now and I still did not mind when she did something like that.

Fakhroo’s email was not very long. He apologised for not having kept in touch for the past many years. He was not even sure my email address would be the same. He had received my wedding invitation and was planning to travel to Gwalior to attend the wedding, but a family emergency had come up at the last minute. And then he had been busy with his new business venture.

‘What’s this business venture he’s talking about?’ Neha asked.

‘I dunno,’ I said not wanting to be distracted from the email. Neha lifted her head from its comfortable perch for a few seconds and looked at me with mock anger before sticking her head back where it had been earlier.

“I am planning to visit the UK since I am trying to find a British travel agent in Manchester or London with whom I can have a tie-up. In order to get a visa to come there, can you send me a letter inviting me to stay with you? An invitation letter from a UK resident will make it easy for me to get a visa. Of course, once I am there, I will not stay with you for more than a day or two since I plan to travel around the UK once I finish my business.”

There were a couple of additional lines about a common friend he had met recently, and the address to which I was to send the letter. Finally, Fakhroo had signed of with his full name. Fakhruddin al-Razi.

‘Are you going to send him an invitation?’ Neha asked flippantly, with a roll of her eyes, having finished the email a few seconds before I did.

‘Of course I am,’ I replied, showing mock anger and surprise. Of course I would send him an invitation. Good old Fakhroo. The things we had done together when we were in school. The scrapes we had got into. Fakhroo always had a million plans and they kept evolving all the time. Fakhroo’s plans to have a tie-up with a British travel agent did not surprise me. He always thought big. And his plan to travel around the UK was only to be expected. Fakhroo was the most inquisitive and restless person I had ever known.

The last time I met Fakhroo was over four years ago at a school reunion. My father had retired from the civil service and my parents had settled down in Gwalior. I was working for a hospital in Bhopal. Fakhroo was in Delhi, trying various schemes – helping his father run their restaurant, starting a courier service of his own, a guide-supplying business that would have ensured every tourist visiting Delhi had the most suitable guide to show them around etc. Fakhroo and I had exchanged a few emails after that reunion and then we had lost all contact. In the meantime, I migrated to the UK, completed my MRCP, got married, and bought a house in Manchester.

‘I wonder why Fakhroo signed with his full name,’ I mused. ‘I have never known him to use his full name, other than for school records. He was always Fakhroo.’

‘Maybe he’s changed. He might be a terrorist now.’ This time Neha was semi-serious, but I burst out laughing.

‘Fakhroo? A terrorist? You haven’t met Fakhroo. He’s the coolest guy I’ve known. Let him come here. When he is in his element, he can out-drink an Irishman. There was a time when he would tell people – My name is Fakhruddin, but please call me Fak.’ Neha burst out laughing at that.

‘I was only joking,’ she said.

‘I better reply to Fakhroo and tell him that I’ll send him the letter in a day’s time.’

‘Didn’t Anil tell us that he gave a letter to his friend to help him get a visa?’

‘Yes, he did. Maybe I should speak to Anil and find out what the formalities are before replying to Fakhroo.’

‘Makes sense,’ Neha agreed as she walked back to the sofa and picked up her book.

At night in bed, my thoughts went back to Fakhroo. He was unlikely to be a successful businessman. He was too restless for that. He had his fingers in too many pies. He liked to try out everything. After school when most of us managed to join engineering and medical colleges or prestigious arts colleges, Fakhroo took a year off to travel around India. If I had the money, I would travel around the world, he had said. And once he got over his wanderlust, he had joined a part-time college so that he could attend accountancy classes in the mornings and help his father with the restaurant in the evenings. There are too many things I could do and too little time to do them. In such a case, how on earth can anyone justify spending a whole day in college? He had asked me rhetorically one day.

Next day morning, I called up Anil before going to the hospital.

‘It’s pretty simple,’ Anil said. ‘In order to get a visitor’s visa, your friend must prove that he has sufficient funds to travel to the UK and meet his expenses while he is here. And he must also show a hotel booking for the time he is here. But if you were to send him a letter inviting him to stay with you, he doesn’t have to have a hotel booking. Also, if your invitation letter were to say that you will meet his expenses while he is here, his life becomes easier.

‘You mean, he won’t have to show he has enough money to meet his expenses.’

‘He must show some money, but the burden is a lot less.’

‘What else?’

‘Nothing. It’s just a letter. Make sure you attach a copy of your house deed so that the visa office knows you have a spare room for your friend to stay.’

‘Well, I’m so glad that I bought this house. If we were still in that studio flat…’

‘Sometimes they don’t really check. But you’re right, a studio flat would have made things difficult. This friend of yours, is he looking to join the NHS?’

‘The NHS? No, of course not. Fakhroo is anything but a doctor. He has tried his hand at everything except medicine.’

‘Fakhroo, did you say? Is that his name?’

‘His name is Fakhruddhin. But we called him Fakhroo in school.’

‘You know him very well, I guess. Then it shouldn’t be a problem… I guess.’ A slight hesitation sprang into Anil’s voice. He was guessing too much.

I didn’t say any more, but merely thanked Anil and put the phone down. My thoughts were not very pleasant as I drove to work. What the heck was wrong with Anil? Was it such a risk to invite Fakhroo just because he was a Muslim? I knew Fakhroo better than anyone else in the world, except maybe his parents. There was a better chance of Anil turning into a terrorist than Fakhroo, the most liberal human being I have ever known. Fakhroo was not even a practising Muslim. Not that it mattered. Even if Fakhroo were a practising Muslim, I would still cheerfully send him an invitation letter.

That afternoon, I decided to call up Fakhroo at his old number. A stranger picked up the phone. As I had suspected, Fakhroo and his family had moved out of that house a year ago. I called up a couple of friends in Delhi to get Fakhroo’s number. None of them had it. Apparently, Fakhroo’s father had died and they had sold the restaurant and moved elsewhere. No one seemed to be in touch with Fakhroo. I decided that when I got home, I could email him and ask him for his phone number. And I would also tell him that I would be sending him the invitation without any delay.

That evening it snowed heavily and it took me a while to get home through the blocked roads. And when I finally parked the car and got inside our house, Neha had micro-waved chapattis and warm potato bhaji waiting for me. We watched TV as we ate our dinner. I picked up the remote and started to flip through the channels. Normally I hate watching documentaries, but for some reason BBC’s program about a British national who was now in Guantanamo Bay caught my attention. Apparently this gentleman had been very liberal and all that till he suddenly became religious. I watched the program for a few minutes and then moved on. ‘See,’ I told Neha. ‘This sort of thing will never happen to Fakhroo.’

‘How do you know that for sure?’

‘Because Fakhroo would never do anything unless it made sense, and I can’t ever think of him intentionally harming anyone else.’

Neha got angry. ‘I never said Fakhroo was a bad guy. You’ve started imagining things.’

‘Well, it was Anil who did this to me.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He didn’t say anything, but he…’

‘I think you’re worried that Fakhroo is up to no good. You’re scared of sending him that letter.’

‘Me worried? That’s a laugh.’

When our plates were empty, Neha told me, ‘you go ahead and write that letter. I’ll wash up.’

‘No, I’ll help you. You must be tired as well. Did you have a good day at work?’ Neha worked for a few hours everyday at the local library. It was not very financially rewarding, but Neha enjoyed it.

‘No, I didn’t. I had an argument with Elaine and…’

It took me a while to get to the computer and reply to Fakhroo. I was delighted to get his email, I told him. I would send him the letter in a day’s time. Was there a phone number where I could reach him? And since when did Fakhroo start signing his name in full? I preferred Fakhroo to Fakhruddin al-Razi. It was almost ten when I clicked on Send.

‘What time is it in India?’ I asked aloud as I did the mental math. ‘Three thirty in the morning,’ Neha shouted back before I got there. If I were good at Mathematics I would have been an engineer, not a doctor, I consoled myself. Most probably, I would find a reply waiting for me when I woke up in the morning. I then typed out an invitation to Fakhroo to visit me in Manchester. I promised to meet all his expenses while he was with me. I printed off the letter, signed it, and kept it on the table so that I could take it with me to work the next day.

The next day morning, I woke up fifteen minutes earlier than usual and checked my email. Neha was still asleep. Sure enough, Fakhroo had replied giving me his phone number. I called him up immediately.

‘Fakhruddin here.’

‘Fakhroo, is that you?’

‘Yes, it’s me Fakhruddin. Is that you Govind?’

‘Fakhroo. What’s happening? How are things?’

‘Everything is all right. My father died and…’

‘When was this? When did he die?’

‘Almost two years ago.’ No wonder Fakhroo had not attended my wedding. His father must have died around that time.

‘Was this the family emergency you mentioned in your email?’

‘Yes.’

‘You sold the restaurant, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, I did.’ Fakhroo’s voice sounded wooden, almost as if it were someone else.

‘What’s up man? I’m sure you’re still the same old Fak.’ I hoped to infuse some life into Fakhroo.

‘I’m still the same, but …’

‘Don’t tell me you’ve become religious and starting praying and fasting.’

‘Actually I have.’

It was a bit of a shock, but that explained the signature in full and the wooden lifeless voice. Religion usually took away a lot from a human being.

‘Well, tell me what you’ve been up to.’

Fakhroo launched into a description of his guide-supplying business, which apparently was thriving. His voice became animated. He needed a tie-up with a good western travel agency to send him tourists, if his business were to expand any further. It was so difficult to get a visa to visit the UK these days. Especially if you had a Muslim name and… a beard.’

‘Do you have a beard?’ I asked Fakhroo in shock.

‘Yes, I do.’ The response was calm and unhurried. Fakhroo didn’t care whether I was shocked or not.

‘I’ll send you that letter in a few days time,’ I said as I hung up.

I looked at my watch. I was running late. As I ran out of the house, I realised that I had left the invitation letter behind. I decided not to go back for it. It could wait for another day. That evening as I drove home, I realised that I was being silly. Just because Fakhroo had turned religious did not mean that he was a terrorist. It would be a laugh, to see Fakhroo once more with his beard. I would call him Fak for old time’s sake, his religious sentiments be damned.

‘Have you sent that letter yet?’ Neha asked me in the evening.

‘No, not yet,’ I said. ‘I was just thinking, do you know what will happen to us if Fakhroo turns out to be terrorist? We would have sheltered a terrorist. And they may not believe me if I tell them that I had no clue what Fakhroo was up to.’

‘You are getting paranoid. If you are so worried, don’t invite him.’

‘I wish we still lived in that studio flat. I wouldn’t be able to invite him if we did.’

‘He doesn’t know that we’ve bought a house, does he?’

‘No, he doesn’t but, …’

I don’t care either way. You decide. He’s your friend.’ Neha went back to her book.

‘I do wish you’d stop reading when you get home. Don’t you read enough books in the library?’

‘As a matter of fact I don’t. I never have time to read a thing when I’m working.’

I had a dream that night. My memories of that dream are slightly hazy, but I do remember that it involved being arrested on charges of having abetted a serious terrorist attempt to blow up Big Ben. The attempt had ended in failure, but I ended up behind bars nevertheless. Oh no! No! Fakhroo had nothing to do with the whole thing. Not my Fakhroo! No! A bearded man who bore a distant similarity to my best friend was the brain behind the plot which landed me behind bars. I woke up sweating and panting and went back to sleep only after Neha cuffed me behind my ear for having woken her up.

It took me a week to make up my mind. Finally, I managed to send Fakhruddin an email. I just found out that I cannot invite you. That’s because my studio flat does not have a spare room. I need to attach a copy of the tenancy agreement to my invitation letter. I’m so sorry that I cannot help you. I was upset not because I said No to Fakhruddin. Fakhruddin was an unknown quantity. He had a beard and he most probably prayed five times a day. I was upset because my good old friend Fakhroo was no more.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Book Review: The Enemy at the Gate by Andrew Wheatcroft


In 2004, when Turkey’s admission to the European Union was being debated, Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch member of the European Union's executive committee objected on the grounds that Europe risked becoming "Islamized" and the Battle of Vienna would have been in vain.

The Battle of Vienna took place in 1682. At that time, the Ottoman Empire had crossed the zenith of its power and glory. Almost 600 years ago in 1071, at a place called Manzikert in Turkey, Turkish forces had defeated the Byzantine troops of the Eastern Roman Empire. It was the beginning of the end for the Eastern Roman Empire, which had outlived the Western Roman Empire by almost 6 centuries. The Ottomans considered themselves to be the heirs to the Roman Empire, though other western powers did not share that opinion. The Ottomans moved from one victory to another. Murad I and his Christian vassals defeated Lazar, the Prince of Serbia at Kosovo Polje in 1389. Serbia became a vassal state until 1521 when Belgrade was captured. At the Battle of Mohács in August 1526, Sultan Suleiman I (Suleiman the Magnificent) defeated King Louis II and occupied southern Hungary. Vienna blocked the Ottoman route into the heart of Europe. At the height of its glory in 1529, the Ottoman troops led by Suleiman the Magnificent tried to capture Vienna, but the siege failed.

Andrew Wheatcroft’s book The Enemy at the Gate chronicles the second attempt by the Ottomans to capture Vienna, this time in 1683. Wheatcroft is uniquely positioned to describe this conflict since he is an expert on both the Habsburgs, the then most powerful ruling power in Europe with control over Vienna, and the Ottomans. Wheatcroft’s previous works include books on both the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. In clear, lucid style using limpid prose, Wheatcroft builds up the battle settings, giving us an inside view of the players and politics involved. The Thirty Years War had got over just a few decades earlier and there was not much warmth between the Habsburgs and the Protestant powers. It was even said that Protestants living in Ottoman Europe were treated better than Protestants under the Habsburgs. Even Catholic France was not very supportive of the Habsburgs. The Ottomans too had a major enemy in the form of the Persian Empire with whom they were constantly fighting The main difference between the European wars fought by the Habsburgs and the Persian wars fought by the Ottomans was that the Habsburgs learned a lot from their experiences. Their armies had an organisation and chain of command which the Ottoman armies lacked. The art of generalship was well developed. The Ottomans relied on individual bravery and skills, while the European forces relied on teamwork, organisation and methodical preparation.

There were so many areas where the Ottomans were much superior to the Habsburg forces. Their supply chains were much better, with Ottoman soldiers on the battlefield put up in much more comfort than the average Habsburg soldier, though the Ottomans were so far away from home. The biggest advantage which the Ottomans had was that there was a central authority in command, usually the Grand Vizier, who acted in the Sultan’s name. In the case of the European forces, the soldiers were supplied by many nation states, some of whom were reluctant to do so and all of whom required payment or other rewards.

The Ottomans lost the battle for Vienna, one of the most intense battles ever fought. There were various reasons for this loss, the main one being the incompetence of the Turkish Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa. Do read the book to find out the various mistakes which the Ottomans committed. Both sides were charged with zeal, religious and nationalistic. Wheatcroft cites quite a few examples of bravery, but I don’t want to describe them here and spoil the fun. Wheatcroft’s descriptions of battles and troops are second to none. For example, when Wheatcroft describes the Polish hussars who arrived just in time to relieve the siege, he says:

The Polish hussars were heavy cavalry par excellence and they had no equivalent in 17th century Europe, In effect a holdover from the great age of medieval chivalry, man and horse together were a missile with their lance or wielding their long spear like triangular swords more than four foot long – they existed only for the charge. Facing the disciplined volley fire of western armies, they had largely become a liability, but against the Janissary infantry of the Ottomans or their loose flowing formations of sipahis, they could be as devastating as artillery fire.

Wheatcroft does not stop after the Battle of Vienna. He goes on to describe how the Europeans capitalised on their victory and went on to win more battles. Hungary was freed from Ottoman power, though the initial attempt to take Budapest was a failure. As the Ottomans became weaker and weaker, they began to be regarded as just another European power. The Habsburgs and the Ottomans discovered various mutual interests. After Napoleon was defeated by Czar Alexander I, the Russians became stronger and this led to the Austrians and the Ottomans growing closer. During the Crimean war, the Turks fought on the side of France and Britain against Russia. Finally, in the First World War which resulted in the destruction of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires, the Habsburgs and the Ottomans were on the same side.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Short Story: A Few Reasons to Return Home

Sreejit’s face has a look of intense concentration as his fat index finger glides over his blackberry's scroller. No, Tim hasn't replied to his angry email yet. To be honest, Sreejit isn't expecting a reply from that bastard. Tim's last email had made it clear that the next round of discussions would take place only after three months.

The man sitting to Sreejit's left has a respectful look on his face. A blackberry is not a very common sight in Kerala, not even in the first class waiting room at the Ernakulam Junction railway station. The man wants to tell Sreejit something, but Sreejit refuses to make eye contact. Instead, he opens old emails on his blackberry and reads them, his eyes focussing on the blackberry's screen intensely as if he is reading something very important, as if they are unread emails.

An announcement is made over the loudspeaker. The Netravati express is 'shortly expected to arrive on platform number 3.' Sreejit rolls his eyes in exasperation and puts the blackberry into the travel pouch around his waist. 'I don't believe this,' he says loud enough for his neighbour to hear.

Sreejit’s neighbour does not let go of the opportunity. 'This train is always late. Today it is late by only forty minutes. Usually it is late by at least four hours.'

Sreejit exhales and tells his neighbour, 'before leaving for the station, I called up Railway Enquiries and asked them if this train was on time. And they said it was.'

'IST stands for Indian Stretchable Time. Forty minutes late ... that's not late at all!’ the neighbour guffaws. ‘Once this Netravati Express was twenty four hours late. It came exactly on time, the next day!'

'I guess I've got used to seeing things done in a different way. I've been away from all this for almost five years now.'

The opening is not wasted. 'Are you from the States?'

'No, from the UK. I mean, things are not perfect over there. Trains do run late once in a while. But, this ...’ here Sreejit stops for emphasis. ‘This is incredible. They don't even apologise for the train being late. And of course, there is no need to explain to us why the train is late.'

Sreejit's neighbour becomes an apologist for Indian Railways. 'Netravati is coming all the way from Bombay. A journey of over 24 hours. So it can be a little bit late.'

'I ought to have taken a taxi to Trivandrum. I was told the train will be more comfortable. Now I'm not too sure.'

'My name is Babu. What's your good name?'

Sreejit is trapped. As a rule, he does not talk to strangers when travelling on trains. A habit inculcated over five years cannot be ignored. But he does not have a choice. He is forced to admit that he answers to Sreejit.

The train enters the station majestically. There is a rush of activity. People rush to the doors and mill around. Some people start getting inside even before the passengers have got off the train. Sreejit and Babu are travelling first class and so they don't have to fight their way into the train. They settle in a section of the compartment which has only two other people, an old man sleeping in a corner and a woman in her thirties.

The first class seats are reasonably comfortable, but there's dirt on the windows. Sreejit takes care to ensure that he doesn't touch the window sill.

The train has been at the station for fourteen minutes now. Sreejit looks at his watch and gives Babu an enquiring look. Why not? Babu is more than happy to explain matters. 'This train has come all the way from Bombay. At this stage, it won't be very punctual.'

'Makes a lot of sense to me. It's a 28 hour journey to Trivandrum, isn't it? Why be punctual for the last leg from Ernakulam?' Sreejit does not hide his scorn.

'It's scheduled to stop for ten minutes. Since it is late...'

'Since it is running late, I would expect it to leave as early as possible. It's been here for almost fifteen minutes now.'

Babu changes the topic. 'Are trains very punctual in England?'

Sreejit sighs and gives Babu a happy smile. He takes his time in replying. 'You know, I have a rather long commute to my place of work. I live in Reigate, that's in Surrey and I catch a train to London Bridge from Reigate everyday. Once every ten days or so, a train will be late, by a couple of minutes. And once a month or so, a train will be held up for say, ten minutes.'

'Is that all? In India we are used to trains running late all the time....'

'When a train is late by a few minutes, we start cribbing. In the UK, people complain about minor things. Out here people are passive. People don't care if the trains run late.'

'There's not much point in cribbing in India. We have too many people and not enough ...'

'I don't think so. It's also a question of attitude. If a train is late, there will an announcement every few minutes explaining the reason for the absence. They'll tell us the train is held up at such and such a place due to such and such a reason.'

'You must find it so difficult here after living in England.'

'I hate to say this, but after living in the UK, it's so difficult to adjust to the way things are done here.'

The train moves off and Sreejit heaves a sigh of relief. 'Finally,' he exhales. Babu sighs in relief as well, as if he is too embarrassed at having been let down by Indian Railways in front of a foreigner.

Sreejit decides to re-read the email he received from Tim a few days before he went on leave. It doesn't matter how many times he has read it before, Sreejit feels a fresh pang of rejection each time. Tim's email was very blunt and to the point. As discussed at the review meeting held the previous day, Sreejit's performance was not satisfactory. They didn't think he was capable of fulfilling the requirements of his role. They realised that Sreejit had a demanding role, but if Sreejit could not improve his performance and meet the five objective parameters set out below in the next three months, they would ask him to leave.

A vendor arrives with lunch boxes – there's chicken biriyani, sambhar rice, curd rice, fish curry rice etc. Sreejit buys a chicken biriyani while Babu settles for some curd rice. They start eating.

'I heard that food in England is very bad. Is that true?'

'Not at all. It is very hygienic and clean. You won't fall ill if you eat food from a vendor on a train.'

'Oh! Do you have people selling food items like this?'

'No, but each train, especially the long distance ones, will have a buffet trolley with an assortment of sandwiches and beverages.'

'Sandwiches! Is that all you get? It must be very difficult to live on such things?'

'I am used to that now. Actually, these days, I don't like spicy food. Come to think of it, why add spices to food? They don't have any nutritional value. In fact, they deflect the real taste of food. If you eat spicy food all your life, your taste buds will slowly die. You won't be able to appreciate subtle flavours. In fact, Indian food doesn't have subtle flavours.'

They go back to their foil packed food. Sreejit chuckles to himself. At the pub the day before he went on leave, he had nicknamed Tim Dr. No and everyone had laughed. Hopefully the name would stick. Tim had a habit of starting every sentence with a No. They all hated Tim and his joke had made him very popular. But Sreejit was the first of Tim's victims. Why had Tim picked on Sreejit?

Sreejit finishes his lunch first, because he doesn't eat half of it. He looks around for a bin to dump his foil pack, but doesn't find one. 'Just throw it out of the window,' Babu tells him. Sreejit is disgusted beyond words, but he reluctantly opens a window and throws out the wrapper. He then goes to the end of the compartment to wash his fingers in the tap. When he comes back, Babu is the process of disposing his lunch wrapper through the window.

'I just don't understand why there can't be a few bins in every compartment? Labour is cheap in this country. It won't cost too much to have the bins emptied at every other station!'

'We are used to all this,' Babu put in mildly.

'I guess I shouldn't be shocked, but I am. Each time I return to India, I get a jolt when I see the way things are done here.'

They are silent for a while. The train reaches Allepey, but no one enters the first class compartment.

Sreejit opens Tim's email once again. He goes through the five parameters they have set for him. They appear objective but they are not. His technical knowledge apparently is not good enough. How the heck can such an allegation be called objective? Before Tim arrived on the scene with a mandate to 'trim' the company, no one had complained about his technical knowledge. If at the end of three months, Tim ‘objectively’ decides that his technical knowledge is still not good enough, they can fire him and there is precious little he can do about it. He has consulted an employment lawyer. His company is entitled to fire him as long as it follows all the procedures, he has been told. He can take his company to the employment tribunal claiming unfair dismissal, but unless he can prove that his termination is on account of race or religion, he is unlikely to win. No, he can prove nothing of that sort. All his colleagues are polite to him outwardly. No one has assailed him on account of his religion or skin colour. He isn't a homosexual or anything is he? his lawyer had asked him wistfully. If he is and is being harassed about it by his boss, he might sustain a claim that he is being terminated on account of his sexual orientation. No, I am not gay, Sreejit had politely replied though he wanted to scream at the lawyer who charged him 300 pounds an hour.

It is actually the last of the five parameters which hurts the most. He can live with an allegation of inadequate technical knowledge since he knows that it is a lie. But he cannot live down the allegation that his client handling skills need to be improved. He has been asked to work on his verbal skills so that clients can understand him better. It was the last parameter which forced him to shoot off an angry reply to Tim just before he caught the flight to India. Yes, I do speak with an accent. However, I've never had trouble communicating with anyone. That idiot who complained about my accent last month is prejudiced. He is biased. He is a racist. You don't have to believe him. Surely you know me better than that. I have been in the UK for 5 years now and my accent had always been legible. It was not as if I spend all my time talking to clients. Not more than ten percent of my time is spent with clients. I have been with the company for three years now and there has been only one complaint so far.

He knows that Tim won’t reply to his email. The Human Resources department has prepared Tim's email and any response will also be prepared by HR. They have done it many times before. The UK has some of the most employee friendly laws in the world, but if an employer wants to fire an employee, he can do so, provided he is patient and is willing to pay lip service to all the rules.

'So you don't see yourself ever returning to India, do you?' Babu asks him.

'Actually, I might. There are so many things about India I don't like, but India is still home. I will come back to Kerala one day and settle down here.'

'Really! That's very good. I thought you are....' Babu hesitates and then continues, '..you are one of those who hate India so much that they will never return.'

'Ha! Ha! Of course not! I have gained so much from my experience in the UK and when I return, I will have a lot to contribute.'

'I'm sure of that. When are you likely to return for good? Anytime soon?'

'I don't know. I may come back in a year's time, I may return after ten years. It all depends.'

Babu is too polite to ask what it depends on and merely gives Sreejit a smile as he goes back to his blackberry.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

An Open Letter to the Dalai Lama

Your Holiness,

I hope this letter finds you in good health. You must be very busy right now, Your Holiness, preparing to attend the six day meet you have convened for members of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in Dharamshala from 17 November 2008 to discuss the future course of action for Tibet. I assume you are not in the best of spirits, Your Holiness. You underwent a surgery for removal of a gall bladder stone last month. You have publicly stated that you have lost hope of reaching a settlement with China through dialogue. Ever since March 1959 when you left Tibet and went to India, you have been trying to obtain a better deal for Tibet and its people. You have not only always stuck to the path of non-violence, but you have also insisted that your followers do the same. All of this is admirable until one realises that, as you recently admitted, you have not managed to wring a single compromise out of China.

Your Holiness, are you worried that history will judge you harshly for not having achieved anything much for the people of Tibet, despite struggling for almost 50 years? I don’t have an answer to that, Your Holiness. Before we respond to that question, why don’t we take a quick look at Tibet’s history?

The Tibetan language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Tibetan is as much distinct from Mandarin as Burmese is. Tibet has always been an independent country. In the early 9th century, Buddhism reached Tibet after a Tibetan king invited Buddhist preachers and artisans from India. There have been occasions when Tibetan kings have defeated Chinese rulers in battle. From the 13th century onwards, Tibet was under the control of the Mongols who also controlled vast stretches of China. It was when the Mongols controlled Tibet that Buddhism spread to Mongolia. In the seventeenth century, the fifth Dalai Lama became the spiritual and temporal head of the whole of Tibet. Tibet has had wars with the kingdoms of Ladakh, Bhutan and Nepal, losing many battles and winning a few.

Since the early eighteen century, the Manchu rulers of China have made claims on Tibet. However, China went into a period of decline after that and Tibet managed to assert its independence. In the early 20th century, the British led a few expeditions into Tibet in order to prevent any Russian influence in the region. The British forced the Tibetans to sign a trade treaty which opened Tibet’s borders to British India. In 1907, Britain also entered into a treaty with Russia which recognised Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.

After China was defeated by Japan in a series of battles in the early twentieth century, Chinese control over Tibet waned. Britain, Tibet and China held negotiations in Simla in 1913 and 1914 to resolve the boundaries between India, China and Tibet. The negotiations broke down and Henry McMahon, the then British Indian foreign secretary and the chief British negotiator, unilaterally demarcated the Indo-Tibetan border. Approximately 9,000 square kilometres of traditional Tibetan territory in southern Tibet (the Tawang region) was given to India (which now forms the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh). McMahon also recognised Chinese suzerainty over Tibet and affirmed that Tibet was a part of China. China did not agree to this Simla convention and hence, this treaty became a bilateral agreement between India and Tibet.

Immediately after the communist takeover of China, the communists took over parts of eastern Tibet and initiated a process of land reforms. Landlords were publicly humiliated and at times executed. However, the traditional Tibetan aristocracy was allowed to remain in place till public unrest in eastern Tibet led to a military crackdown, which in turn led to the Lhasa uprising. It was at that time, Your Holiness, that you fled to India.

Your Holiness, at the time of the communist takeover of Tibet, Tibet was a corrupt and undemocratic theocracy. Monks held all the powers and abused them. The peasants were oppressed and lived in extreme poverty. One of the reasons the Chinese were able to takeover Tibet so easily was because it was a backward, feudal and theocratic state. The blame for this should lie primarily on the Buddhist clergy which kept Tibet in the dark ages. Your Holiness and your predecessors were always at the helm of such a state of affairs.

After Your Holiness came over to India, you set up a Government-in-Exile consisting of a legislative assembly (the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies), an executive (the Kashag), and a judiciary (the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission). You have categorised the Government-in-Exile as a constitutional monarchy. Elections were held and exiled Tibetans voted. You have gone into semi-retirement and if rumours are correct, you would like to retire permanently. Considering the fact that prior to the Chinese take-over Tibet was a full-fledged theocracy, I feel that you have done an admirable job in injecting a decent dose of democracy into the Tibetan community. Since almost all Tibetans are Buddhists, not many Tibetans have objected to having you, the Dalai Lama, a living incarnation of the Lord Buddha, as the head of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. This would mean there is a shade of theocracy in the Government-in-Exile, but I feel this was inevitable.

Your Holiness, your emphasis on non-violence and peaceful negotiations won you not only many admirers all over the world, but also the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Until you threw in the towel last week, you have always stated that you would be happy with greater autonomy under Chinese authority (on par with what Hong Kong has) and would not press for independence. However, it cannot be said Your Holiness, that all Tibetans have been happy with your approach. Organisations such as the Tibetan Independence Movement, the Students For a Free Tibet led by exiled Tibetans and supported by celebrities like Richard Gere have insisted that Tibet should be independent. They have rightly said that China has been diluting Tibetan culture by flooding Tibet with Han Chinese. Tibet’s natural wealth, especially its forest wealth, has been eviscerated. Most importantly, they say that Tibet has historically been an independent state.

Your Holiness, it must not be forgotten that Chinese rule has brought some benefits for Tibet. There are a lot more roads and railways and industries, though it can be argued that all these developments further Chinese exploitation of Tibet and facilitate Han Chinese expansion into Tibet. We all know that sadly, in Tibet, the Han Chinese outnumber the Tibetans.

Your Holiness, even though you have won international acclaim and admiration, you have not been able to persuade a single country to take concrete measures for Tibet’s independence. Measures such as imposing sanctions against China and not trading with China. Please don’t laugh at me, Your Holiness. I do realise that the mere thought of not trading with China sounds silly. Who can afford to not trade with China? It is not only nation states who can’t afford to antagonise China. A few months ago, the London Metropolitan University awarded Your Holiness a doctorate in recognition of your outstanding achievements in promoting global peace. The threat of a boycott by Chinese students forced this British university to express regret for any offence caused to the Chinese government.

Were things always like this Your Holiness? No, Your Holiness. It is only in the last ten years that China became so powerful. Twenty five years ago, China was an unknown country, tolerated because it was a counterweight to the Soviet Union. Your Holiness, for a couple of decade after you went over to India, there were many armed groups of Tibetans carrying out guerrilla operations against China. These were not on a very large scale and were funded by the CIA. However, they slowly died down due to various reasons. One of the reasons was that India slowly distanced itself from the USA and became friendly with the USSR, which meant that the CIA could no longer use India as a base for attacks on China. Your Holiness, I wonder if your insistence on non-violence as the only option has been mainly because you’ve known that neither the USA nor India would provide the quantum of commitment and support that would make it feasible for Tibetans to fight China.

Your Holiness, even during the period when China was yet to become an economic powerhouse, you could not persuade Buddhist majority countries like Thailand or Sri Lanka to boycott China. Even though Buddhists believe that you are a living incarnation of Lord Buddha, you have not been able to build up any following within the Buddhists among the Han Chinese.

Your Holiness, would things have been different if you have played a less key role right from the time you went over to India? I doubt it Your Holiness. Your personality and charisma gave the Tibetan cause the sort of publicity and respectability that no secular leader could have obtained. It is tempting to speculate on what could have been achieved if a secular person who believed in using all options had headed the Tibetan Government-in-Exile right from day one. At a time when China was fighting the USSR, could such a person have obtained independence for Tibet through armed action? I doubt it, Your Holiness, but we will never know.

Your Holiness, I believe that the head of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile must not be the Dalai Lama. It must be headed by a secular individual. If you are to head this Government-in-Exile, it becomes a theocracy and there is no place in the modern world for a theocracy. However, the Tibetan movement still needs your help. You must not retire completely, though you have expressed your wish to do so. You must work with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in order to keep the Tibetan cause in the limelight. History has been unkind to Tibet and its people. You have, in my opinion, performed a stellar role in fighting for their rights. I don’t think history will judge you harshly.

Where do we go from here, Your Holiness? I don’t believe that there is a magic solution to the Tibetan issue. I wonder what advice you will give your fellow delegates at the forthcoming conference.

There will be some hotheads who will want armed action against China. Around eight months ago, in March 2008 there were orchestrated riots in Tibet. Nothing much was achieved, but it did scare the Chinese government a lot, since it was so close to the Olympics. Next time your followers try something like that, the Chinese government might not be as restrained, since the Olympics are now over and the Chinese couldn’t give two hoots about public opinion.

I assume muscular lobbying is an option. The Tibetan cause has supporters and well-wishers all over the world. Your Holiness, things can change very quickly. If the current economic recession were to continue, China will not be able to provide employment for many of its restless millions. If economic unrest were to spread in China, which now has a vast rich-poor divide, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile might be able to bargain a certain degree of autonomy for itself. There might even be a fortuitous turn of events which enables Tibetans to get their country back.

I wish Your Holiness and the people of Tibet all the best for the future.

With warm and sincere regards

Winnowed, A blogger from the World Wide Web

Friday, 14 November 2008

Bye, Bye Mr. Bush, Welcome Mr. Obama

A couple of weeks ago when I was in India, I had a chat with a friend who is a software engineer. The conversation was on the following lines:

Friend: ‘I hope Obama will win. I am sure Obama will win. I can’t imagine Obama not winning.’

Me: ‘You mean you want Obama to win?’

Friend: ‘Of course I do. Don’t you want Obama to win?’

At the risk of being hit on the head, I said, ‘Actually I don’t care. I don’t mind if Obama wins. But I can’t say I will be terribly disappointed if Obama doesn’t win.’

Friend, his voice rising to a scream: ‘How can you say that? We all want Obama to win. After George Bush, we need Obama. We desperately need Obama.’

Me, trying to sound unruffled: ‘You sound as if you hate George Bush. What did he do to you?’

Friend: ‘If you like Bush after all that he has done, you must be an idiot.’

Me: ‘Bush did nothing to restrict outsourcing. He agreed to the nuclear deal. And he has not done you or your country any harm. Why do you still hate him?’

‘Friend: ‘He invaded Iraq. He messed up so many things.’

Me: ‘What makes you think Obama is going to be any smarter? Obama plans to take a tough stand against Pakistan. Do you know what will happen if Pakistan is destabilised?

Friend: ‘Obama will never do anything so stupid.’

Me: ‘Don’t be too sure. Obama may clamp down on outsourcing. How’d you like that?

Friend: ‘Let’s talk about something else.’

My friend works for a software firm that depends on work outsourced from the US. If there is a decline in the flow of work, there is a good chance that he will be jobless. It is not that my friend was not aware of this, but he had placed the symbolism of Obama’s victory above his own narrow interests. However, I wonder, a few months down the line, if Obama were to actually clamp down on outsourcing and my friend loses his job, would he continue to feel the same?

In domestic elections, every citizen is expected to vote for the good of his country. If an Indian votes for a candidate solely because he or she is of a particular caste or religion, the voter is labelled parochial or casteist. However, in the world of international relations, there are supposed to be no permanent friends or enemies. Every country is expected to look out for itself and its interests. It is perfectly acceptable to support or oppose an individual or country in order to further your interests. If Indians are to judge Bush by this yardstick, he has been a good President for India. Bush, a true capitalist, did not discourage outsourcing. Despite a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric, he did not try to reduce the number of H1B visas issued to Indian companies. The Iraq war did not harm India. The crackdown on militants based in Pakistan has actually helped curb militancy in Kashmir.

However, Obama has managed to garner support from so many groups all over the world, including groups and individuals (such as my software engineer friend) which or who may not benefit from his presidency. For example, Obama has received massive support in the Arab world, even though he had appeared in front of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and promised to be as much pro-Israeli as any other candidate. I assume many Arabs expected that Obama, after doing what it takes to win the elections, would show his true colours and crack down on Israel. Instead, we find that just a few days after his election, Obama has chosen Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff. For those not familiar with Rahm Emanuel, the gentleman in question is an ardent Israel supporter who has in the past volunteered to serve in the Israeli army. Rahm Emanuel’s father Benjamin Emanuel used to be a member of the Irgun (a pre-1947 armed group which has been accused of many atrocities against Arabs). Rahm Emanuel’s appointment has elated Israelis and made many Arabs despondent. In a matter of a few days, ardent friends have ceased to be so friendly.

I wonder how Indian supporters of Obama will react if Obama were to insist on India holding a referendum in Kashmir. After all, if one has to name a live dispute other than the Israeli-Palestinian dispute which causes so much heartburn in the Islamic world, it’s Kashmir. If Obama, having chosen to stay pro-Israeli, decides to score brownie points with the Islamic world by pressing India to compromise over Kashmir, will Obama’s Indian supporters turn into foes overnight?

I am happy that Obama won the elections. I am happy that a half-black man is in the white house. It would have been better if the winner actually had ancestors who had been slaves, but putting a half-black man in the White House is still a big step towards the atonement long overdue from mainstream America. If it hadn’t been for the symbolism involved in an Obama victory, McCain might have won many more votes than he actually did. McCain is no friend of George Bush. Until this election campaign, McCain has actually been in favour of immigration law reform. A maverick and a contrarian, McCain made a few mistakes in his campaign, such as choosing Sarah Palin to be his running mate. However, if elected, McCain would have been as much pro-India as Bush has been. I can’t imagine McCain ever going back on the nuclear deal, but Obama might.

Is this support for Obama the beginning of a trend where people support the common good at the international level rather than looking after their own selfish national interests? I doubt it. Bush’s policies in matters such as the Kyoto protocol and Iraq had created a huge wave of revulsion (both within America and outside it) against the Republican Party. Obama benefitted from that wave and McCain, by association, paid the price for it. Many of Obama’s supporters are not liberals. Fundamentalist Muslims, Hindus and Jews, right-wing Asians, Africans who can’t tolerate homosexuality, they all voted for or supported Obama in the hope that he is one of them or will be on their side. It is only a matter of time before more of his supporters become disappointed with him.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Bengaluru International Airport - A Few Rants

Very recently I was in Bangalore after a gap of almost four years. My Bangalore break was very brief, less than two days, and I hardly had the time to do even one-tenth of all that I wanted to do. In the limited time I had, what struck me most about Bengaluru was its new airport. A beautiful and reasonably clean airport, easily accessible through a world class road, it has replaced the much reviled HAL airport which clearly wasn’t sufficient to meet Bengaluru’s growing needs. I have a read a few reviews criticising the inadequacy of the luggage conveyor belts at the new airport, but we collected our luggage in record time. The Meru cabs outside the airport were unbelievably good and took us to our destination in comfort and at a reasonable rate.

However, there were a few things about the new airport which struck a discordant note.

On our way out, after clearing immigration, we had a good two hours to kill before catching our flight. It was eight in the morning and we were hungry. I looked around and found just two restaurants – a pizza hut and an Italian restaurant – and a Kingfisher Sports Bar. I don’t know about you people out there, but I don’t fancy pizza for breakfast. Nor do I like to start drinking at eight in the morning, even if it is at a branded sports bar. Ever wondered what the connection is between sports and drinking?

This left the Italian restaurant. It was very clean and very empty, though there were quite a number of people at various gates nearby waiting for their flights. The menu listed only Italian bread, coffee and pastries. The waiter confirmed my worst fears. ‘Yes, we serve only Italian items,’ he told me proudly. They didn’t have ciabatta bread and I had to settle for a ham sandwich made out of focaccia bread. I wanted to scream. Why on earth can’t Bengaluru airport have a restaurant that serves Indian food?

No, I am no chauvinist and am all for diversity everywhere, including in cuisine. I enjoy western food much more than the average Indian does. However, I find it intolerable that Bengaluru, home to ragi mudde, bisi belle bath and masala dosa, should have a world class airport without a single Indian restaurant inside the airport. Our bill for the focaccia sandwich, a croissant, a caffe latte and a chocolate chip muffin came to around five hundred rupees, which I think is decent for an international airport. At least 90% of the people at the airport at that time of the day were Indians. I am sure that most of them would have shelled out this amount for a warm Indian meal before catching a flight that would take them away from home.

The second irritant, which is more serious than the first one, was the inadequacy of baby changing facilities at the airport. The toilets outside immigration control didn’t have any baby changing area, but we were told that we would find one after clearing immigration. And as promised, we did find a set of toilets which claimed to provide for ‘baby change’. My wife took our infant daughter into the women’s toilet and came out looking very irritated after ten minutes. ‘The baby changing facility consists of a sofa,’ I was told. ‘That’s it?’ I asked. ‘Yes, that’s it.’

What made things worse was that there were no wipes or paper covers for the changing surface on the sofa. A previous user had soiled the sofa, which had been cleaned in a very unsatisfactory way. I hate to sound snobbish and uppity, but the mid-size shopping mall in the small British town we live in has better baby changing facilities! If Bengaluru Airport is to be of international standard, this is something which ought to be taken care of. Also, I don’t understand why the baby changing area should be tucked inside the women’s toilet? What if a man is travelling alone with an infant?

The third irritant (not a serious one, but I may as well get it out of my system) was that the men’s toilet did not have double doors. This may not sound like a big deal, but the toilet I used was right next to a couple of gates and all those sitting there could have had a clear view of the urinals every time the door was opened.

Bengaluru is growing. Bengaluru has a million needs, a zillion demands and very finite resources. However, the lacunae of the type mentioned above can be avoided by a bit of extra care and thought.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Short Story: Suicide Attack

The two fighters said their final goodbyes. Almost the entire tribe was there to see them off on their last journey. One of the attacker’s brothers was in tears. However they were used to doing things without displaying a surplus of emotions and so most eyes were dry. The decision to launch the attack had been taken less than an hour ago.

Not surprisingly, there were no prayers being said. They didn’t believe in God or in any higher being. Rationalists to an extreme degree, even the two fighters about to carry out the attack would have scoffed if someone had offered to pray for them. There were no explosives to be used. They would use their traditional weapons for the attack, weapons they had used almost from the time they were born. The massive retaliation that was expected would almost certainly kill the two fighters in a matter of seconds after the attack was launched.

They had the reputation of being the most disciplined soldiers on earth. No order was ever disobeyed, though the foot soldiers did at times think their commanders were being batty. This was one of those times. There was absolutely no strategic advantage to be gained by this attack. The enemy would be displaced for less than a few minutes before he returned to his original position. What was more relevant was that the enemy's presence so close to their camp was not doing them any damage. None of their supply routes had been blocked. They even had enough stocks to last them for a week. Nor did the enemy show any signs of planning to reinforce his position. If not attacked, the chances were that the enemy would leave on his own sooner than later. In all probability one of the commanders at the top was trying to score a few brownie points with the Chief by launching this attack.

The order was given and the two fighters moved off. They carried nothing with them, except their light weapons. They reached the enemy's base and started their ascent. The smooth polished black surface offered no fingerholds and was not particularly easy to climb. The older of the two fighters, a grizzled veteran of many wars, found the going slightly tougher than his younger mate who actually skipped along, as though he were on a picnic. Once they crossed the black heath, the ascent became entirely vertical. They would have found the going impossible if they had not be so lightly armed. Their feet kept getting entangled in the black netting which succeeded the smooth black surfalce. The younger fighter was at times tempted to lend a hand to his older mate, but he knew it would not be appreciated and so he did not make such an offer.

It had taken them ten minutes to reach the top of the black netting from the time they started their ascent at the base. They were now ready to attack. At this stage, the older fighter moved slightly ahead. He was a lot more experienced and would pick out the best place to make the initial contact. It took him a few seconds to make up his mind. By this time, the enemy most probably felt their presence. The fighters could sense the enemy forces searching for them, moving towards them. Without further delay, the older fighter launched his attack, taking care not to get entangled in the outgrowth.
He bit into the fleshy leg and his victim howled in pain. The younger fighter immediately followed suit, but as he tasted human hair, he realised that he had made the mistake he had been warned against.

'Eeks Ants!'

The enemy moved his leg a bit and the ants standing around the feet cheered. Their immediate objective had been achieved. It remained to be seen if the enemy would move away from that area entirely.

A heavy hand slapped against the trouser leg and crushed both fighters, but they continued to hold their positions, their teeth firmly clamped into the enemy's leg. The younger fighter wanted to open his jaw and take another bite that didn't include human hair, but decided against it. His current bite was not too bad, there was a decent chunk of human flesh involved, though it would have been grand if he could have avoided the hairs altogether. It was not as if he hadn't been warned. Intelligence had reported that the enemy was particularly hairy.

They felt a warm current against their back and knew their end would be coming soon. They would be dying for the benefit of their brothers, who would cease to remember them in a few hours time. Sure enough, a plump hand hit them both at the same time, killing the older fighter immediately and breaking the younger fighter's back. The trouser leg was now fully rolled up and the enemy searched out the remaining source of his pain. An index finger was used to crush the younger fighter to death.

'Bloody ants,' the victim repeated.

The two brave fighters did not die entirely in vain. May be the commander who had ordered the attack was not so stupid after all. Seeing so many of the dead fighters' comrades milling around, the enemy made a strategic decision to retreat. It remained to be seen how long the enemy would stay away.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Please sir, may I wear a dhoti?

The other day I met up with a school friend with whom I had been out of touch for many years. My friend is a senior executive at a reputed company in Kochi and I met him during the lunch hour, on his way back to his office from a meeting. Dressed in a well-cut suit and tie, his feet clad in Gucci shoes, my friend was sweating profusely by the time he got to the restaurant where we had arranged to meet. The restaurant was air conditioned and quite cool, but my friend nevertheless asked a waiter to turn up the a/c.

‘I wish I hadn't walked,’ he told me as he sat down. 'My driver was on his way to pick me up from Katcheripady and bring me here, but he was held up in the traffic and instead of taking an auto, I stupidly decided to walk here.'

‘I guess your driver will pick you up from here and take you back to the office,’ I said. My friend's office was a ten-minute walk along M.G. Road

‘Well yes,’ he admitted with a laugh as he enviously looked at me in my holiday shirt, slacks and sandals.

‘Tell me,’ I asked him. ‘Are you really required to wear a suit everyday?’

‘There is no hard and fast rule,’ he told me. ‘But everyone wears a suit these days.’

And you don't have the guts to be different. Not, I didn' tell him that or I would have lost a friend.

I remember a time when people hardly wore suits in Kerala. Even in Mumbai where I used to work (from 1998-2002), suits were the exception rather than the rule. You wore a tie if you had to meet with a client, and that was it. Suits were reserved for conferences, though the moment you were about to sit down, you took off your suit and hung it on the back of your chair. The economic boom seems to have triggered a desire among professionals in India to be as western in appearance as possible. There are a lot more people wearing suits (and sweating profusely) than there were a few years ago. Air conditioners are therefore a necessity rather than a luxury. I’m not sure if many people have noticed the absurdity of wearing a suit and turning up the a/c.

My job in London requires me to wear a suit and tie everyday, and I don’t have a problem with it. For one, a suit keeps me comfortably warm. I’ve always believed the neck tie to be the most useless of all appendages, but when it’s really cold, even the tie contributes to the feeling of warmth. The first thing I did when I reached Kerala a couple of weeks ago was to change into a lungi (a colourful local version of the dhoti) and discard my shoes. And it was so comfortable! However, it is no longer socially acceptable in Kerala to go out in a lungi. One usually wears trousers, though once in a while you do see a brave soul wearing the double mundu, a formal version of the lungi. As long as I don’t have to wear a tie or shoes, I don’t really mind wearing trousers even though a simple lungi is actually a lot more comfortable than wearing trousers.

When I was in school, I had to wear shoes, socks and a tie as part of my uniform. When I look back, I'm not sure why I was made to wear all that. It goes without saying that the classrooms were not air conditioned. Even now I don't think there are many schools with air conditioned classrooms, though I think a lot more school students these days wear a tie. Is it meant to instill in students a sense of discipline? Or is it mean to add to a 'western education'?

The other day I was talking to a software engineer who recently finished his MCA from a reputed college in Bangalore. When I asked him what he liked most about his new job, he told me without hesitation, 'the informal dress code.' Then he added, 'I had to wear a tie every day for three years during my MCA course'. I couldn't believe my ears. Why on earth should post-graduate students studying computer engineering have to wear a tie? 'It makes them take their studies seriously,' I was told. Do you really need to half-choke students to make them take their studies seriously? And these are not students who receive a subsidised education that will lead to permanent unemployment, the fate of the bulk of India's college students, but students shelling out a lot of money for an education that despite the recession, guarantees a job at the end.

In a warm climate, the only joy one can get out of wearing shoes and socks is to anticipate the pleasure of taking them off. No, I don't wear chappals when I am in Kerala except when I go to church where we are required to leave our footwear outside for the benefit of thieves who nick them. Instead, I don a pair of leather sandals which allow my feet to remain fresh. Come to think of it, why on earth should feet be enclosed in shoes unless cold weather requires it?

This has set me thinking. Why don't Indian office workers wear Indian clothes at work? I am not saying this because I am anti-West or anti-MNC. I’m saying this simply because Indian clothes – dhotis, kurtas, mundus, lungis etc. – are so much more comfortable in the Indian heat. What’s more, with global warming and the need to save energy, we’d save a shit-load of money if everyone went to work in short sleeved shirts, a dhoti or trousers and sandals and switched off the air conditioners.

Last year Shashi Tharoor set off a controversy when he wondered aloud in his Times of India column why Indian women have stopped wearing the saree. Tharoor cited tradition and elegance as reasons for wearing the saree. ‘Comfort’ was not one of the reasons mentioned in his article, though many of those who attacked him did specifically say that they didn’t wear a saree because it was so inconvenient or uncomfortable. ‘Try catching a bus in a sari,’ someone is supposed to have said. I have never worn a saree in life and so I am not in a position to comment on how comfortable or uncomfortable it is. I have a feeling it is not particulary comfortable and I have no clue as to what would be the most comfortable dress for women to wear in warm weather. For this reason alone, I am going to restrict my piece to men’s wear.

I don't really know what could be done to promote Indian clothes among Indian office goers. Don’t forget, it has to be promoted to a generation which associates attire such as the dhoti, the kurta, the veshti and the mundu with backwardness and ignorance. A suit is always associated with intelligence and more to the point, (western) knowledge. Our politicians have always worn Indian clothes, but then, our politicians are not exactly role models, are they?

Maybe I am asking for too much when I say we should go back to traditional attire like the dhoti or the mundu or the veshti. Maybe we should just start wearing clothes appropriate for the weather - short sleeved shirts and slack trousers and sandals – when it is warm and sweaters for northern India when it does get cold during winter. Hold on a minute. What about the safari suit? Yes, I am talking about that very interesting attire (half-sleeved suit-like shirt with trousers of an identical colour) which used to be de rigeur for bureaucrats all over India. I don't see many safari suits these days, though I am told that some of our bureaucrats still wear it. No, I don't think the safari suit will become popular with the private sector crowd. It is associated with old-style Indian bureaucracy and inefficiency and red tapism, even though it is actually perfect for warm weather.

This brings us to the nub of the problem. It's all about image. I have no doubt that most of us wouldn’t have any problem running to catch a bus in a double mundu or a dhoti or with sandals on. But if you wear a double mundu and want to sell a cutting edge banking software to an MNC bank, you are not going to get far. I'm sure that the woman who asked Shashi Tharoor to try catching a bus whilst wearing a saree will don a saree in no time if a saree is what's needed to project the right image. People are very much willing to wear the most uncomfortable clothes possible in order to show themselves in the right light. Western clothes are reasonably comfortable in a cold climate. They are not suitable for a warm country like India. Israel is a warm country which has a reputation for informal clothes. When I visited Israel, I didn't see anyone wear a suit except the haredim whose religious beliefs require them to wear long black suits.

Arabs wear their traditional clothes even when doing business, but then, Arabs usually hold the purse strings and when you do that, you can wear pajamas and still get away with it. I wish I could say that as India's economy grows, Indian businessmen and executives will start asserting themselves and wear traditional Indian clothes while doing business in India, but I'm not too sure of that. Look at Japan. You almost never see Japanese businessmen or executives wearing traditional clothes when doing business. We all have a tendency to imitate the sucessful and the West has been succesful in doing business and generating wealth to an unbelievable extent. We Indians want to copy their success and we make no bones about it. I just wish we could do so wearing the right clothes for India's climate.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Short Story: A Delightful Old Lady

Mark saw the old woman wave at them and ignored her. She must be waving at someone else he told himself as he struggled with little Anna in his arms and the big rucksack on his back. When the old woman waved for the second time, John spotted her and said, 'Look Mummy, she's waving at us.'

Karen turned around to look in the direction John was pointing and was rewarded with a few more waves. There was no doubt about it. The old woman standing behind the wicket gate was indeed waving at them or rather beckoning them to her.

'Mark, she's waving at us,' Karen needlessly told Mark who was by then looking in the old lady's direction.

Mark hesitated and said, 'she looks harmless. Shall we go take a look?'

'Why not?' Karen said rather crossly because she knew that John would be upset if they didn't. She was quite tired after trekking through the tea covered hills that loomed all around them. If she had a choice, she would have rather they continued their trek back to their hotel at Peermade, which was at least 30 minutes away.

As John led the way, Karen said doubtfully, 'may be she wants to ask us for money!' There had been no scarcity of beggars ever since they had landed in India two weeks ago.

'Doesn't look like it,' Mark muttered, more to himself than to Karen, as he continued to lead the way to the small cottage, which had peeling cream paint and a red roof.

'Hi!' Mark told the old woman much before he was within her hearing range. But he nodded as well and so she smiled in reply and opened the wicket gate a little bit.

She had a squeaky high pitched voice. 'I saw you people walking with the big bags and the baby and I thought you must be very, very, tired. Why don't you come in and have some tea?'

Mark was perplexed. Where he came from, people didn't invite you for tea just like that. He gaped at the old woman who was wearing a faded red pullover that came up to her knees and a skirt with some funky pleats. Karen must have been really tired because from behind she said, 'That's so nice of you. I'd like some tea. Thank you so much.'

The old woman opened the gate fully wide and walked back to the cottage, halting after every few steps so that she could turn around to see if they were following her. Mark realised that what she wore underneath her red-pullover was a saree and not a skirt.

The cottage's veranda had an assortment of potted plants, some of which definitely needed trimming. The veranda led to a small drawing room furnished with a set of three plush settees covered in red. The walls were lined with cupboards crammed with books and toys. 'Do please sit down,' the woman said. Without losing the permanent wide grin plastered on her face, the woman rang a bell. Mark and Karen sat on the edges of the largest settee wondering what was coming next. John sat in between them. Karen had Anna on her lap. The bell was rung once more. A young woman in a dirty saree materialised with a smile and a pair of enquiring eyes. A five year old child had been clinging to her saree till a moment ago, but now the child was waiting for her mother just beyond eyeshot of the guests.

'Kavitha, some tea for these fine people,' the old woman told the maid and was rewarded with a perplexed look. The order was repeated in Malayalam.

'Actually I would like a Four X,' Mark declared, only to get a sharp dig in his side from Karen.

'I beg your pardon. I don't understand,' the old woman told them. 'What would you like?'

'Oh never mind him,' Karen waved gaily at the old woman.

'I was just joking. Four X is the amber fluid we drink in Queensland,' Mark clarified.

'Never mind him,' Karen repeated yet again.

'Bring us three cups of tea,' the maid was ordered. She left the room for the kitchen, picking up her waiting daughter on the way.

'It's so good to see someone from England,' the old woman told them. 'My husband was the first Indian hired by the Beckley's Estate.'

'Actually we are Aussies, not Pommies,' Mark said. The old woman gave him a blank look.

'I have never been to England, but my husband went there once, just after the war.'

'My name is _______.' The old woman said a name which neither Mark, nor Karen caught.

'I'm sorry....I didn't get your name,' Karen said politely, her voice trailing off towards the end and waited for the old woman to repeat her name. She did not. Instead she waited for them to introduce themselves.

'I'm Mark. This is my partner Karen, my son John and my daughter Anna.'

'I'm so glad you decided to stop by for tea.'

They were all silent for a while. 'Things have changed so much, not necessarily for the better, you know..'

A sudden thought occurred to the old woman. 'Let me make sure Kavitha does not add milk and sugar to the tea,' she told them and disappeared through a door which led to the kitchen.

'Ma, can I have a lolly?' John asked as soon as the old woman left.

Instead of answering, Karen pointed at a cupboard filled with toys. 'John, oh look at that elephant! Isn't it beaut?'

'Ma, I want a lolly!' John insisted.

Mark got up and walked around, stretching himself.

'Ma, a lolly!'

'Mark, can you please take out that elephant for John?'

'I don't think we should. It looks dirty enough. The whole place is full of dust.' He walked over to a cupboard filled with books, peered inside and said, 'these books. They are so dusty and falling apart. I don't think anyone has read them in ages.'

'I want a lolly!' John said even louder. Mark quickly opened the toys cupboard and took out the elephant. For good measure, he took out a duck as well. The elephant was given to John and the duck to Anna.

John sat down on the carpeted floor and started to bounce the elephant up and down. Anna dropped the duck to the floor from where she sat on Karen's lap. Karen picked up the duck and gave it back to Anna who held on to it.

The old woman appeared with Kavitha behind her carrying a tea tray. Kavitha's daughter had tagged alongside her mother, but once again stopped just behind the curtains. 'I'm so glad I checked on Kavitha. I've told her so many times that English people like to be served tea without milk and sugar mixed in it, but she had forgotten!'

Kavitha put the tray on the table in front of Mark and Karen and went back to the kitchen.

The old woman poured out the tea.

'Milk?'

'Yes please.' 'Yes please.'

'Sugar?'

'Yes please.' 'Yes please.'

'What would your children like? Shall I get them some biscuits?'

Before Mark or Karen could reply, the old woman said, 'Kavitha can go to the shop and buy some biscuits, but it will take some time.'

'Oh! No drama. Please don't bother.'

'I was planning to buy some biscuits, but ...'

'How is you tea?'

'Ace,' Mark said.

'Pardon me?'

'It's very good.

'Do you have a lot of English visitors?'

'No, not really. Not many people come this way!'

'Don't you like the elephant?' the old woman asked John who had abandoned the elephant and was planning to renew his demand for a sweet.

John did not reply, but looked around wildly, his eyes darting from the toys cupboard to his mother.

'Would you like another toy little boy?'

The old woman walked over to the cupboard and picked out a soldier and handed it over to John.

'John, say thank you,' Karen reminded John who mumbled his thanks.

'He is such a sweet little boy. How long are you in India for?'

'Three weeks. We've done two already. Up north. Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and now we have a week in Kerala.'

'What do you do in England? Do you work for a bank or a company?'

'I manage a station. In Australia. We're Aussies you know.'

'A station? Is that a station for trains? A railway station?'

'No, for sheep. A large sheep farm.'

'You must be joking. You are not a shepherd. You must be a station manager at King's Cross or Charing Cross or Paddington.'

'It doesn't matter, does it? How long have you lived in this cottage?'

'For the last sixty years. After my husband retired, Beckley's gave him this cottage. When my husband was alive, we used to have a lot of visitors. We...

'We ought to be going,' Mark said as he put down his cup.

'John, let's put the toys back.' Mark tried to take the elephant and the soldier from John who held on to both of them.'

'Oh, let the little boy keep the toys.' The old woman turned to Anna and said, 'you can keep the duck.'

'But we can't do that,' Karen objected. 'I'm sure they are exy!'

'Please take them. There's nobody to play with them. I rarely get any visitors these days.'

'You could always give them to someone else.'

'There is no one else.'

The old woman rang the bell once again and Kavitha came in, picked up the tea tray and left, collecting her daughter from behind the curtains on the way back.

Mark and Karen continued to look hesitant.

'Would you like a plastic bag for the toys?'

'A bag would be good.'

The old woman shouted something at Kavitha's retreating back. Within a minute, Kavitha came back with a polythene bag and gave it to Mark.

'Can't do without plastic, though we call ourselves greenies.'

'I beg your pardon?' The old woman had the most politely puzzled look on her face.

'Never mind. Never mind. We got to be going. Thanks so much for the lovely tea.'

As they walked out, Karen said, 'she was such a delightful old lady, wasn't she?'

'Yup, but she was starting to yabber and she thought we were Pommies!'

'I didn't understand half of what she said.'

'Nether did I. And I doubt if she understood more than one-fourth of what we said.'

Karen giggled. 'Still, she was such a sweet, delightful old thing.'

'I guess John and Anna are the only children she has seen in a very long time!'

As they walked away, Kavitha and her daughter watched them for a while through a window. Then Kavitha went the sink and started to wash the tea cups and saucers. After she washed the cups and saucers, she kept them on the floor and told her daughter, 'here, you take this towel and wipe these cups and saucers dry.'