Tuesday, January 20, 2009

When history was made

I was part of the crowd that gathered in front of the large screen put up in the ballroom in my university as Barack Hussein Obama became the first African American president of the United States. Come to think of it, I have witnessed a lot of historical events in my short life, like breaking of the Berlin Wall and the WTC attacks. However, this one beats all others as I am currently staying in the USA. This small blog post and photo are just to record that memorable moment.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Travelling in the United States

"I need to know a bus schedule."

"Where do you want to go?"


"Which place in Parsippanny?"

"The intersection of Route 46 and Route 202."

"Oh dear! Not on a Saturday!"

"I beg your pardon..?"

I was talking to the lady at the NJTransit information counter at the Newark Penn Station. After getting up early on a holiday and leaving home when the mercury showed 15 degrees below zero, naturally I was not in the mood for jokes. I was visiting a friend in Parsippanny. I couldn't go on a weekday obviously, and both of us had some work on Sunday. Now this lady was advising me what day I was supposed to travel on. One has to be tactful at time like this, however, and although I wanted to scream "Keno sokkal sokkal iyarki marchhen didi?" on her face, I just uttered a polite, "I beg your pardon..?"

"You can't go there on Saturdays." Her reply was also polite.

"No buses?"

"None on Saturdays."

"Maybe I could change a bus somewhere and make a break journey?"

"Give me the exact house address of where you want to go."

Again, I wanted to ask "Ato khabore tomar dorkaar ki baapu?" That would have been an appropriate reaction back in Kolkata. Here, I just called my friend and found the address. She entered the address into her computer. The computer said something. She printed it out and gave it to me.

"Take the light rail to Newark Broad Street Station. From there take the Dover train to Morristown. From there take a bus to Parsippany Rd on Landix Plaza East. Then walk a block." She said. I saw all the timings were written on that paper. I thanked her and left.

The light rail came on time. It reached Broad Street on time. After a 15 minute wait in the deathly cold, the Dover train came on time too. I settled down with an Agatha Christie and dozed on and off throughout the nearly one hour journey. As I got down at Morristown, I realised I had a problem. The train was supposed to arrive at 12:24 but it was a few minutes late. Now my bus was due to leave at 12:33 and I had to find the bus stop before that. There were no signs, and nobody whom I could ask as nobody around seemed to understand English. Eventually a man very confidently showed me the way to the bus stop. I ran to that place only to understand that it was a different bus stop. I found the correct bus stop at about 12:35. Needless to say, my bus had already left.

I had no option but to wait for the next bus whose timing I did not know. I settled down on the little wooden bench sheltered from the wind on three sides and submerged myself into the book again.

It started with a slow burning sensation at my fingertips. My gloved fingertips felt as if I had eaten a very hot spicy curry with my hands. Soon there was that same feeling in my toes. I understood it was due to the cold. My body was under five layers of insulation, but my hands and feet seemed vulnurable. I slipped my fingers out of their slots and folded them back to touch my palm making a fist inside the glove, and was immediately shocked by how cold they felt. I removed my gloves to investigate and was surprised to see my palms a bright red. I unzipped my down jacket a bit and put my hand inside to warm it. My toes were in a dull throbbing pain by now.

A few minutes of warming the hands like this and occasionally rubbing them together seemed to warm them a bit. It was 1:00 pm and no bus had come to the stop yet. My face was the only exposed part of my body and it was starting to burn now. I was shivering a little. The pain in my toes... my toes...

Then I realised I couldn't feel my toes.

I got up in a hurry, wondering what frostbite looked and felt like. I clenched and unclenched my toes for some time and started pacing on the snow-covered pavement. Slowly, the dull pain came back to them, only ten times worse than before. The time was 1:35. I was already outside in this temperature for an hour. I wondered if there were any more buses on Saturday.

I called my friend and told him to find out. I found my words slurring as my jaw would not move properly. He said the next bus was due at 2:03 which meant I would have to wait another half hour. That half-hour was probably the longest half-hour of my life. Though it seemed impossible, the pain in my toes increased steadily. Similar pain started in my fingertips. My face grew numb, my lips became dry and blistered and I started feeling cold in my body too. It seemed the cold was increasing though I knew it was unlikely on such a sunny day - the temperature was probably around -9 degrees by the time. I felt colder probably because my body was growing tired. Yet, I was scared to sit down lest I lost my toes again.

As Murphy's Law would predict, the 2:03 bus came ten minutes late. The inside was refreshingly warm and the handles were a delight to hold (in hindsight I realise the inside of the bus was stifling hot). However, my relief was short lived as I saw that the driver and I did not understand each other's accents. Soon the inevitable happened: I passed my stop and had to get off at the next one. After several more adventures like crossing a highway, walking through ten six four inches of snow for quarter of a mile and crossing a small frozen river (over a culvert, of course) I met my friend and accompanied him to his house. When I saw myself in the mirror, I found the complexion of my face like that of the "white" people here: very pale with patches of pink. Everything was nearly back to normal soon, although my fingernails and toenails still feel sensitive twelve hours after the ordeal.

Of course, the wonderful lunch that followed deserves a mention, but my post is not about that. As I sat nursing my painful digits, it gave me a smug feeling and intense satisfaction to know that as far as public transport was concerned, India was probably not years but decades ahead of the so called "most powerful nation on earth." The automobile companies here are the biggest culprits --- they influenced the government and people for decades to systematically ruin the public transport system. The oil companies helped them. India may be a poor third world country, but I cannot imagine being told that I cannot travel to a particular place because it was a Saturday. Also, I have never waited an hour and a half for a bus in India. Ironically, now the auto companies are ruined themselves.

Contrary to what most people believe, USA is not the best place in the world. Certainly not when it comes to public transport. And if you are travelling traveling on a holiday without your own car, you better say your prayers before you leave; for you may not be able to reach your destination at all.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

End of the holidays

Gosh! It is already ten days since I wrote my last post here. Ten days! And to think that I planned to write more posts during the winter break as I would have more time. Seems having more time only leads to wasting more time.

A lot of things have happened in these ten days. Just over a month after I wrote that the Indian IT industry was built on lies, Satyam's cat went out of the bag stunning even people like me. There was always a rumour that Satyam's management was a bunch of crooks, but I never thought it would be so true. I know two managers who were kicked out of my previous company. One was my boss: his self-proclaimed 16 years of experience seemed to have added only to his tummy and he gave golden pieces of advice like "Do not find too many bugs, the developers will get upset." to the testing team. No wonder he found the work at our company uncomfortable; we had our faults, but we were very particular about bugs and testing. So he left and joined Satyam. Another big manager was caught taking money from junior resources to send them onsite and was fired without notice. His destination? Satyam again! If a company gathers such scum in the lower management, no wonder their upper management will be even worse.

My sister got a job in Satyam last winter from her campus. She was interested in higher studies, but when her offer letter did not arrive on time, she decided to pursue the matter. Her initial mails were ignored; phone calls went unanswered or were in vain. The HR guy even threatened to "reconsider their offer" if she didn't stop pestering them. Then I used my contacts in Satyam to find the guy's manager's mail ID and phone, and her manager's mail ID and phone. One long mail and a couple of phone calls later, the guy was calling up my sister and asking what her problem was and how he could help. He also asked, "How can you not trust such a big company? If we have told you we are recruiting you, you can rest assured we will send you the letter." Now I feel like calling him up and asking whether he understands "how can one not trust" such a great company as his. Of course, with World Bank blacklisting Wipro and Megasoft, one can only wonder how honest these other companies are.

Anyway, coming back to my holidays, it is a well known fact in academia that grad students are not supposed to have any holidays. Nevertheless, I took about ten days off around Christmas and New Year. I have been going to the college every day ever since and it hardly matters that the holidays are about to end. Today was the first time when I stayed at home due to some snowfall in the morning.
Click to EnlargeThis reminds me, the weather department here isn't much better than the one back home. Last Saturday they forecasted heavy snowstorm with 6-9 inches of snow. I cancelled all my travel plans. Then all that occurs is a mere 1.3 inches of snow with no storm. I had planned to go to the park and make a full sized snowman with a friend. That plan went down the drain. Later that night my sister suggested that I could have made a small snowman on my attic window sill as enough snow accumulates there. That day the snow had already become ice, but I got the chance today. So when enough snow had collected on my window and I had finally made up my mind to skip school, I raised the window and started working with the snow. First I tried with my bare hands but it was too painful. Then I used my gloved hands to make this:

The hat, button and eyes were made from paper, the nose from a carrot tip, the scarf from an old torn bed sheet and the hands and broom from bits of stick. The whole thing is about 6-8 inches tall. As soon as it was complete, the sun came out and its eyes sunk in as they were black. The rest is pretty much intact thanks to the extremely low temperatures whole day today (-6 or lower).

Speaking of low temperatures, can you imagine what one will feel like if they have to dive into the river fully clothed and then come out and stand in the wind in their soaked clothes? It seems fate had scheduled this unimaginable activity for some people today. Just about the time when I finished my lunch and prepared for my afternoon nap, an Airbus A320 took off from LaGuardia airport in New York City and probably immediately collided with a flock of geese. Both its engines lost power and displaying amazingly swift decision making capabilities and remarkable skill, the pilot brought the plane down for a "controlled descent" on the Hudson River beside midtown Manhattan. He cleared the George Washington Bridge by just 900 feet and missed the numerous ferries and helicopters on the Hudson in that area by a fantastic stroke of luck. The plane hit the water barely seven minutes after the passengers had been routinely instructed about the evacuation procedures in case of a water landing. Passengers had walked out over the wings within a minute and some had jumped out into the river wearing life vests or holding the floating seat cushions. Even before the police or fire departments could respond, the ferries surrounded the plane and rescued all 150 passengers and five crew members. Some people sustained some minor injuries and some are being treated for hypothermia. All this was happening just a few miles from my house. More details, photos and videos here.

With that, I end this post here. A new culinary experiment forced me to stay in the kitchen late and I am finishing this post at 2:40 a.m. I must go to sleep now as I have to go to school tomorrow. Hopefully my normal posting frequency will return as the holidays end coming Monday.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Ballantine House

A week ago, my friend who blogs under the name Dashu Pagla wrote about the Marble Palace in Kolkata. It is an old palace which could be a great tourist attraction but thanks to our government, it is a deserted old house where there are only two ways of entering: either get a permit from the tourism office or bribe the guard.

Since his write-up was a very thought provoking one, I could not help compare Marble Palace with a house that I visited last Friday. It is the Ballantine House adjoining the Newark Museum.

This house (photo on the right) was built in 1885. Please note that this is not a palace. It is just a large Victorian house that  sits in the middle of a medium sized garden in downtown Newark. The Ballantines bought it and refurbished it in 1891. They were brewery owners and quite rich people. This house has 27 rooms and there were 15 servants living in the house at that time.

Later the house came into the possession of an insurance company who, fortunately, didn't destroy anything other than the kitchen. They covered the walls, floors and ceilings and used it for some time. Since this was next to the Newark Museum, the museum bought this house as a storage place and used it as a godown for a few years. Then they decided to demolish it to make way for new construction.

But the demolition process could not be started due to a lack of funds. So a detailed assessment was made of how big the building was, what its construction was like and how much money was needed to demolish it. Only then did they realize that they were sitting on an absolute treasure without realizing it.

Now the house is like a time capsule from the Victorian era, with authentic pieces of furniture, many of which are original to the house. So are many of the candlebras, light fixtures, curtains, upholstry and wallpapers. There are lovely fireplaces (although the house was centrally heated) and stained glass windows in all rooms. The large window seen at the bottom of this post is a magnificent piece of work on the stairwell landing.

Last month the house was decorated for Christmas, the way it would have been decorated a hundred and twenty years ago. The hallways were adorned with holly. The tables were set for a Christmas dinner (above right) as if the family would enter any moment. Notice the lamp at the top. Some shades face downwards: they were for electric bulbs. The ones facing upwards were for gas lamps. The living room (below) was decorated with stockings for Santa to leave gifts in. There are also some costumes in one of the rooms (above left) that the visitors can try on to see what people from that era looked like.

All of this is part of the Newark Museum now. There are guided tours to the first two floors, and the third floor is a large hall that is rented out for conferences and lunch parties. Some of the rooms contain galleries for the museum. While we are deciding on how to demolish our old zamindar houses and palaces to build matchbox-like flats (or letting them fall apart by themselves), the Americans are earning money with them, while preserving works of art and a valuable piece of history.

Before I end, I would like to say something about the photographs. The house is pretty dimly lit (to prevent damage to old fabrics and wallpapers), so photography was difficult. I am not very sure whether it was allowed, but I did not take them secretly. There was no sign stating that photography was prohibited. After I had taken all these photographs, one of the museum employees told me that I was not supposed to take pictures. I didn't take any after that.