Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Boxed up memories

I went for shopping with a friend the other night in Hyderabad, and as we were looking for farewell gifts, we came upon a rack of pencil boxes. They brought up a whole lot of fond memories from the depths of my mind.

Pencil boxes were always special in my childhood days. My first pencil box was a brown coloured one that I won in a fancy dress competition for dressing up as a bride. Everyone told me that it was supposed to look like a “hot shot camera” but I had no idea what a hot shot camera was. Anyway, it was a prized possession and though it was too short for new pencils and as inconvenient as a pencil box could be, I was proud to own it.

My second box was a blue plastic one that I used for several years. About this time, magnetic boxes came into the market. Or it is possible that they were always there, but I had been unaware of their existence. In any case, it soon became a rage in the class. I also got one but it was too shallow. Nevertheless, I loved it. By this time there were other fancy accessories coming with pencil boxes. One such cool add-on was a small hinged slotted piece of white plastic in which pencils could be inserted side by side. The Gulf War was on at the time, and we used to insert two or four pencils in that thing, raised it at an angle using an eraser, and pretended they were scud missiles which we saw on TV everyday.

There was a boy in our class (he later became my best friend) whose parents went abroad and brought him a state-of-the-art pencil box. Now THAT was something: It was two sided, with a set of small piano like keys. Pressing these keys popped out hidden drawers here and there containing erasers and pencil sharpeners (rubbers and cutters, we called them), or caused the lid to spring open, or the pencil rack mentioned before to spring up. As far as I remember, there was even a magnifying glass and a thermometer in it. He soon discovered that he could make a functional missile by putting a light eraser or a piece of chalk on a part that sprang up, and pressing the right key subsequently. It was, as Onida would have put it, “neighbours’ envy, owner’s pride”. My parents had also been to Europe, but alas! They never brought me any pencil box.

There were several variations of the double-decker boxes available in the market. The simplest variety had a tray that had to be lifted out of the box to reveal a lower compartment. The magnetic ones were invariably double sided: you had to turn the box up side down to find that it was again a pencil box from the other side. The most sophisticated variety had a tray hanging from the lid which folded inside when the lid was closed, and came out again when the box was opened (the one I had got stolen). I even had one that had a built-in ruler cum protractor cum stencil as its lid. Some people also used zipped pouches for keeping their stuff, others used boxes shaped like cars or telephones.

As we grew older, somehow pencil boxes became passé. Using a pencil box was childish; keeping your pens scattered in a side pocket of your bag was considered more mature behaviour. However, many people still used pencil boxes when they had to carry a lot of extra stuff during the exams. In college, of course, carrying a pen in one’s shirt pocket was more than enough, and if at all someone wanted to write something they borrowed a pen, sometimes even from the professor. Engineering drawing was an exception where some people carried pencil boxes. During the exams I carried my stuff in a teddy-bear like zipped pouch my aunt had made for me. Other people tried to tease me about it initially, but when they saw that I was actually enjoying all the attention, they thought it was cool.

As I looked through the pencil boxes here in this shop, I felt nostalgic. Today most kids do not have any fascination for simple things like pencil boxes, and yearn for an Xbox as a birthday gift. Maybe that is a good sign for our country: it shows how people’s purchasing power has increased. However, I would still say it takes away a lot from the delight we had in our childhood by finding pleasure from trivial things.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

So Long! Farewell!

Koh-i-Noor. The mountain of light.

As the Boeing 737-800 lifted up from Begumpet airport, it seemed oddly appropriate that a diamond coming from this very city centuries ago would have a name that would describe the city itself so beautifully today. The roads were glowing like lines of fire, the buildings like sparkling jewels. Further to the right, the Hussain Sagar shimmered under the moonless sky, with the Necklace Road's multi coloured reflection along its edge. The Buddha statue was only just visible.

"See how bright this looks? When you reach Kolkata, it will look like a dead city with dim lights", said the elderly gentleman who sat between me and the window. That brought me back to the present, and reminded me once again that it was not a dream. I was really going back to Kolkata. Since I left home on 13th July 2005, I have been waiting for this day, when I will be going back to Kolkata again. Not on a week long vacation but on a transfer. It finally happened now, a year and a half later.

It was not that I hated Hyderabad or even Chennai. On the contrary I loved both these cities. Yet somehow I felt I did not belong there. Everyone saw that the poster on my cubicle wall said "Focus on your goal". Nobody knew that every day, every night, every moment of my existence in Hyderabad was aimed at only one goal: getting transferred to Kolkata, the City of Joy.

Twice it loomed within reach, and twice it evaded me. I was scared to believe it was true this time, lest I had to face disappointment again, but it has finally happened.

And yet, as I left this city, didn't I feel a slight pang of sorrow somewhere? Over the last few days in Hyderabad, I have been reminiscing about some of the great moments that I have spent in this city, and some of the things that I did. It was an eventful time. There was a lot that I would have liked to do, but couldn’t do due to lack of time and companions.

Hyderabad was a milestone in my life. This was my first posting location on my first job; I did my first project here, learnt to stay alone, started cooking, took up blogging and digital photography, and became familiar with the dark side of the corporate world the hard way. I also had a lot of good moments, about which I wrote here from time to time. The first view of the ocean (Chennai), the first view of the Buddha on the Hussain Sagar, close encounters with the Veiled Rebecca and the Jacob diamond, coming face to face with a 3-dimensional Superman in the IMAX, watching night fall over the Golkonda Fort as history was recreated with light and sound were only some of them. I wanted to visit Ajanta-Ellora from here, and tour some places in South India. These remained unfinished tasks, to be completed at a later time.

But I am glad to leave. I hope Kolkata will be at least as welcoming for me as Chennai and Hyderabad were. I know the first few days will pass in a whirlwind of activities as I settle down in a new place. Or to be precise, an old place alienated by 18 months of unfamiliarity. Then I will start enjoying the next chapter of my life.

And "A Joyful Experience" will also enter a new chapter: the chapter beyond Hyderabad.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Mummy's Recipe

Believe it or not, I found the following entry while turning the pages of an old diary that I used as a rough notebook. It's written in my handwriting. I remember watching a programme on Discovery Channel about this, but I really don't remember writing it down.

Recipe for making a mummy (Egyptian Style)
  1. Wash well
  2. Remove organs
  3. Pat dry
  4. Cover with baking soda and salt
  5. Change mixture thrice a week
  6. Wrap in plastic packs (stinks!)
  7. When mummy dries up, wrap in bandages and put in coffin.

I can't say what made me write down this macabre procedure. Or was it written by my Mr. Hyde-like alter ego about whom I don't know? In any case, my enemies better beware, or they may find themselves gift-wrapped inside a mile of bandage.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Playthings of the rich

When I first thought of buying a digital camera a year and a half ago, I did a market survey to find out the options that I had. The camera I ultimately bought was a Sony CyberShot DSC-W5 and I wrote about it in my blog too.

My choice of this model was not because of its looks, though it was one of the best looking cameras in the market. The factors that influenced my choice included, among other things, a Carl-Zeiss lens, a manual shooting mode with shutter speeds from 1/1000 seconds to 30 seconds, and a limited amount of manual focusing option.

In the last one year, Sony digital cameras have become immensely popular in India, and especially among the young IT professionals. But when I accompanied my friend to Sony world to buy a digital camera for him last week, I was saddened by what I saw.

The DSC-W5 is no more. The models that have replaced it are fancier looking slimmer models which are priced much higher. They have incorporated fancier features like image stabilization, internal zoom and a bigger LCD display. But a closer look revealed that the manual mode was gone, and many cameras were fitted with Sony lenses. Which means the photographer now has less control over his photos and has to choose from one of the many preset shooting modes available. People are paying more for less while the cost of electronic goods is actually decreasing. Sony CyberShot cameras have become playthings of the rich.

But the thing that was most disturbing to me was not that Sony had increased the prices and decreased the features. It was the fact that in spite of this more and more people are buying Sony now. Young IT professionals like my friend have the money to spend. They want a cool looking gadget (no wonder James bond used all Sony equipment in Casino Royale) and they don’t care about the features. More preset modes means the focus will shift from skill to technology, and there will be no difference between the photos taken by two people using the same camera under the same conditions. Of course, even I use the presets for most of my shots, but then most of my shots are not good; only the few that I shoot with extra care are. And those are all shot in the manual mode.

However, this blog post is not only about Sony digicams. Sony is only banking on a growing trend seen in the cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad where a large portion of the population is made up of young IT professionals. The trend is: people spend money without thinking. When they pay for a product or a service, they never stop to ask themselves or the shopkeeper/ service provider whether the price they are paying is justified. Be it the cost of movie tickets or house rents or auto fares, everything seems to grow at an alarming rate. And there is nothing to stop this growth.

Take the case of phone bills. In the last one year, Hutch has charged me an excess amount on my mobile phone bill wrongly on at least three occasions. I can accept a mistake once, but three times in a year? It is true that they accept their fault if pointed out and adjust the excess amount in the next month’s bill, but here’s the catch: usually people don’t point out the mistake. Nobody is bothered if they are overcharged Rs.50 on a Rs.1000 phone bill. Most people don’t even read the detailed phone bill. They just ask the due amount via SMS or a call to customer care, and then pay it. Even if we accept the story that it is a genuine mistake on Hutch’s part, just imagine the amount of money Hutch must be making through these mistakes. Why will they ever correct it? There’s more. They will suddenly start giving you a service that you never asked for, like hourly news on your phone. At the end of the month they will charge you for it. Again, people don’t even notice the extra amount in their bills.

The distance from my office to my home is such that the auto fare, if we pay by the meter, will be somewhere around Rs.50. Try catching an auto in front of the office, and you’ll realize that either they don’t have meters, or they won’t use them. If I take an auto home, the fare is fixed- Rs.80. They are charging this extra Rs.30 just because the people from my office and other IT companies nearby don’t mind paying this amount. Most of them won’t be able to walk to the main road about 2km away to catch a cheaper auto, one that will go by the meter.

In and around the HITEC City here, everybody is looting the IT professionals. I am saying this because, though the other people are also being looted, they are very few in number, say 25-30% of the total population. And I feel the IT people are themselves to be blamed for this looting. Go to any shop and buy a loaf of bread. The shopkeeper will say it costs Rs.15. On being shown that the marked MRP is Rs.14, he will say, “Is it? Pay Rs.14 then.” You go and buy a cold drink, and you’ll be charged a few rupees extra as ‘chilling cost’ which, by the way, they are not supposed to charge. Then, they will serve you a non chilled drink and say that their fridge is out of order or something. And believe me, even after this I have seen people paying them the full amount, chilling cost and all.

Another thing which I had to study recently was the house rents around the HITEC City, and I came to know this: people are ready to pay obscenely high rents for incredibly tiny flats. My new flat has got a large bedroom, a small drawing room, a miniscule kitchen and probably the tiniest bathroom in the world and I pay Rs.5000 for it which I consider too high. I know people who pay more than this amount for a flat which does not have the drawing room, and the kitchen is even smaller than mine. Thankfully I never looked into their bathrooms. But until everybody stands up together and refuses to pay unfair prices for things, individuals have to suffer. If I say I’ll pay Rs.3000 for such a flat, I’ll have to sleep under the sky.

As far as Sony is concerned, they have an advantage over their competitors. Among the people who never had anything to do with photography, Sony is a better known and more trusted name in electronic goods than say, Canon or Nikon. They have their outlets all over the country and their after sales service is excellent. They do a lot of pioneering research (they invented the audio cassette, the walkman and the micro floppy disc) and so they price their goods higher. All this is fine with me. In fact I have no complaints regarding the performance of my own camera. But they should realize that bringing out five different models with slightly different features and pricing them way above competitors’ cameras with far better features is not going to work very long. For example I, despite being a satisfied Sony user, chose to buy Canon on the last two occasions when people told me to buy cameras for them. If Sony wants to make playthings for the rich then they can continue like this, but if they want to regain their position as the maker of the best digital cameras, they need to revise their marketing strategy. Just sleek looks won’t do.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Welcoming the New Year Hyderabad Style

Spent the last day of 2006 away at the Ramoji Film City. Here’s a picture of the sun going down for the last time in the old year.
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Was busy working on my PC last night when I was informed of the hour by the sound of people shouting and crackers going off outside. I hurriedly opened the window and saw a brilliant fireworks display in the corner of sky visible from my new room. Most of it was over by the time I could set up my camera.
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I wanted to capture the first sunrise of 2007, so I woke up at 6:45 and went to the roof terrace. I did catch a late rising sun over a foggy city skyline, but it was too dim and dull for my liking.
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However, on looking down towards the house opposite mine, I got the picture that really made that early waking up worthwhile.
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Wish you all a very happy and prosperous 2007.