Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Our Home

This is not a review of the best documentary I have ever seen. I will not write a conventional review because a review can never express the range of emotions that I felt while watching this movie. Further, a review should be impartial and objective. I can never be objective about a movie like Yann Arthus-Bertrand's "Home" and weigh its good and bad points, because the overall message of the movie is so strong that it becomes more important than everything else.

Not that there is a lot to weigh. With breathtaking aerial views of the earth from 54 countries, Armand Amar's truly global music and moving narration, Home has depicted our planet in a way that I have never seen being done before. From the Arctic pack-ice to the Australian grasslands, from the Masai village on the savanna to the skyscrapers of Dubai, from the rain forests of Costa Rica to the permafrost covered Siberia, from water-guzzling Las Vegas to the parched villages of Rajasthan, Home may have just created the most complete picture of our planet. It is something that we could proudly send across the universe to other civilizations to tell them about us.

Did I just say “proudly?” Scratch that out. Watching Home made me hang may head in shame. It brought tears to my eyes. Shame for being a specimen of Homo sapiens. Tears of sadness on seeing what our greed has done to our mother planet. And this is where Home is different from many other documentaries on similar topics that I have seen on National Geographic or Discovery Channel. Home is not a neutral narration of events happening on earth. Home has a message to give us, a plea that we have ignored for too long. We, some of the newest creatures to walk the face of this planet have defaced it in such a way that no other creature in history ever dreamt of. If another intelligent species unacquainted with humans were to watch Home, they would surely make sure that none of us ever reached their planet.

Home deals with most of the evils that mankind brought with them – climate change, global warming, deforestation, erosion, droughts, species becoming extinct, ever-widening economic gap between the rich and the poor. As the movie says, “Everything is linked.” It also provides us with beautiful visuals of pristine lands unaltered by our filthy hands. Home directly points a finger towards the developed nations with their wasteful and over-indulgent lifestyles and tells them to mend their ways, or suffer. Watching this movie truly makes us realize that we human beings are like cancer cells on the planet.

Watching Home also made me more proud of being a citizen of a third world country than I have ever been. India ranks among the topmost nations where spending on renewable energy sources are concerned, and Indians (along with the inhabitants of other poor Asian and African nations) have some of the smallest carbon footprints in the world. We still live close to nature, and with nature. That does not mean that we won’t suffer, of course. The ultra-consumerist lifestyle of the West (of which I have been guilty of lately) is killing the planet. When it goes, nobody will be spared. Unfortunately, that seems very likely given the number of abusive comments on the movie’s YouTube page screaming that global warming in a myth.

The movie was released on June 5th this year in theatres, TV and on the Internet simultaneously. I found it on YouTube. Here is the link. (A word of caution to viewers with slow Internet connections: it is over an hour and a half long and high definition video, so it may get stuck. Also, its actual size is around 1 GB. So if you have a limited-download-quota Internet line, be careful.) This kind of release was needed to reach the maximum number of people. Who spends money to go and watch a documentary in a theatre? They might watch it on TV, but then it leaves out people like me who live off the Internet. And the makers of Home wanted to pass on this warning to as many people as possible which they were able to do this way.

But most importantly, Home passes on a message of hope. Along with showing us the mistakes that we made, it also shows us the way forward. It tells us how we have the power, even now, to change things for better. It tells us how people around the world have ignored pessimistic views and made miracles happen. We just need to act and spread the word.

That’s what I am doing. Not writing a review. Just spreading the word.

(Update: The movie was available on YouTube only till 15th July, so the first link will not work anymore.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Eating out in Newark

“We’re visiting Newark tomorrow to see ‘Disney on Ice.’ We want to have lunch with you immediately afterwards. Find a good restaurant in downtown Newark and reach there by 12:30,” said my cousin brother one evening in early December. It was a Saturday and I wasn’t too familiar with places to eat in the downtown area. I called a few friends but nobody could help me.

The next morning was bitterly cold. It had been snowing lightly since the previous night and it was terribly windy too. When I reached Prudential Center it was already 12:45 and my cousin and his family had taken refuge in a small restaurant called “Chinatown Diner.” I, in the meantime, had finally managed to get hold of a friend who knew something about restaurants in Newark. “There’s a good restaurant on the 4th floor of the IDT building on Broad Street,” she said. “I don’t know if it is open on Sundays, but it is worth a try.”

Chinatown Diner proved to be a very strange diner, because they did not have anything on their menu, not even water. They also said they accept only cash. So soon, all five of us were out in the wind and flurries walking towards the IDT building.

IDT is a telecom company. That’s all I knew about it. They own two buildings on Newark’s Broad Street. My friend had told me which building to enter, so we walked smartly into it. There was a guard at the gate. We asked him if there was a restaurant inside. He promptly told us to go to the 4th floor. Once inside, there was a turnstile-style security check post where the security guards were putting wrist bands onto anyone who entered. Now this was odd for a restaurant, but we thought since this is part of an office building, maybe they have to follow these procedures. We asked the guards here once more, just to be sure, and received the same directions. We walked to the elevator. There was an operator. We told him we wanted to go to the restaurant, and he smiled and hit the “4”.

Fourth floor of the IDT building was pretty crowded. As soon as we got out of the elevator, someone ushered us towards the dining area, then someone else handed us paper plates and told us that the buffet started there. Before we could understand what was going on, or even ask, we found ourselves in a buffet queue. My cousin managed to ask someone, “We want to dine a-la-carte…” The person smiled patiently and said they only had a buffet.

So that was that. Now we turned to the food on the buffet.

The first item was macaroni cheese. Then there was jell-o. Then there was macaroni cheese again. It was a mystery all right. We had never been to such a restaurant before. I do not know what the others were thinking, but I was too surprised to look around. I took macaroni cheese on my plate, skipped the jell-o, dodged a Santa Claus and headed towards the sitting area with holiday decoration which was nearly full. Somehow we managed to find some empty seats and sat down. It was only then that I had a chance to look around me.

And then it hit me.

The people who sat around us in that large room were poor or homeless people. The IDT management was serving them free lunch this Sunday. We had walked into it without realizing.

A girl came offering glasses of soda, offering us a choice between Coke and Fanta. We managed to grunt something which she interpreted as Fanta and served us accordingly.

None of us looked at each other. We ate in silence. We, the adults, I mean. The kids were only too happy with the meal. My older nephew asked for a glass of Coke the next time the drinks came around, and then tried mixing the drinks. His parents were not in a state to reprimand him.

Another girl came with ice cream. The holiday music stopped momentarily and there was a reminder to collect the free phone cards that were being given to all departing guests downstairs.

After what seemed too long a time, we somehow finished the food on our plates. We never went back for a second helping. While leaving, my cousin brother asked someone from the organizers if there was a place where he could make a donation. The man stared at him as if he was seeing an alien. Then he said there wasn’t.

Downstairs, I collected the free phone card, being technically the only “poor” guy. I never got around to using it though. As we passed through the revolving doors onto the sidewalk once more, all of us found our voices again. My cousin brother and sister-in-law accused each other for this gaffe while I thought it was best to put the blame on my friend who was not present there. The kids never understood what the big deal was, when we had got all that good food for free.

Since that day, whenever my cousin and his family visit Newark, they either plan to go back home and eat, or choose a “safe” restaurant like McDonalds or Burger King. As for me, I have vowed not to take people to restaurants where I have not eaten already.

The only saving grace is that my nephews’ respect for me has increased ten-fold. To live and study in a place where you get free food, and that too the coolest food in the world, one must be very, very high up in some kind of hierarchy. That’s Uncle Joy for them. They aspire to grow up and come to Newark to study. I’d rather not explain the truth to them right now.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Last night I watched "Up", Disney-Pixar's latest presentation. I have been hearing about this movie from my friends for the last couple of weeks, and what they said seemed to be a bit odd for a children's animated movie. Two of the ladies said they cried through the movie, and the third didn't cry, but she heard sobs in the theatre. So even before the movie started, I was somewhat apprehensive about it. After watching the movie, my verdict is that this is one animated movie that is different from all others because it is not funny at all.

Now readers may say, "But you wrote the same thing about WALL-E a few weeks ago! You said it is different and scary." I agree. WALL-E is different. WALL-E is scary too, because of the message it carries. But each and every scene of WALL-E is funny in itself - a quality that can be found in any other Disney movie like Aladdin, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, A Bug's Life or Jungle Book. All these movies are essentially based in a children's world, with incidents that a child can understand and find humour in. Even WALL-E, with its bleak futuristic setting, uses humour in every scene to be "funny" to children. And this is something which Up isn't. It's just not a funny movie.

True, it does try to be funny in some of the scenes, like when Alpha speaks with a high pitched voice or when Russel climbs over Carl's face (sorry Crys, I used the same examples as you did but then I read your review first, and it's difficult not to internalize!), but the overall situation in the story was so serious at these moments that the humour is completely overshadowed. The first ten minutes of the movie are probably its funniest - the next wordless sequence between Carl and Ellie is probably the saddest and most depressing sequence I have ever seen in a children's movie. Without revealing anything about the storyline, I can only say that whatever happens to Carl starting ten minutes into the movie and almost up to the end would have probably made this movie a tragedy if not for the forced happy ending (which is a must in children's movies). Again, one must understand that the death of Mufasa in The Lion King, or the poisoning of Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were frightening or depressing sequences in themselves, but with respect to the story they were small temporary misfortunes that were only a part of a bigger story of triumph. Here, however, the losses are so permanent and crushing that it keeps lingering at the back of the mind even during the happier moments. Although I did not cry, I do not blame someone who did. Interestingly, an injured man bled in a scene here - I cannot remember any Disney movie scene in the past where blood has been shown so explicitly, but I may be mistaken.

But is the movie good? The story is relatively simple, with fewer incidents happening. The music by Michael Giacchino is hauntingly beautiful. The animation is good, though I felt it is not as good as WALL-E. There are again a few plot holes, but if you can believe the basic premise of a house flying away with helium balloons, you really should not bother about plot holes. Overall, the movie is definitely good and children may even find it funny and cheerful to a certain extent. But if you are an adult and want to watch this movie to spend a couple of hours laughing, stay away. Adults should approach Up with an expectation to see a good serious movie. If that's what you are looking for, you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Two Sculptures

I went to the Natural History Museum again this Sunday, and while coming back I decided to take a walk through Central Park. It was a warm and sunny evening and Central Park was pretty crowded, with children running about and adults either walking for exercise or just sitting in the sun. As I walked about with my camera, I saw two bronze sculptures. The first one was a large statue of Alice sitting on a giant Mushroom playing with a kitten while the Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, Dormouse and Cheshire Cat surrounded her (See picture on left). An immortal literary creation immortalized in bronze. The statue is large enough for people to climb over it and pose for pictures. It is also safe enough so that children can easily climb up and down, and play on it without falling down. As soon as I saw this sculpture, I imagined a large bronze statue of Tyansh Goru, or of Gomratherium, or the king of Bombagarh (all are characters created by Bengali writer Sukumar Ray) in some park in Kolkata. Couldn't we have them?

Then a little distance away, I came across this second statue. A man reading a book and a duck listening to him. The man is Hans Christian Andersen. This statue is also larger than life size and strong enough for people to climb all over and pose for photos. A look at the open book revealed that he is reading "The Ugly Duckling" which explained his audience. In India, statue of a famous person is usually the 3-D equivalent of a passport photograph: as formal as possible. Most of them are too crude to be called sculptures, and they end up on some important traffic intersections of our cities, to be pooped upon by pigeons and garlanded on their birthdays. Rest of the year, few people even notice those statues. Do we have a shortage of great men? Not the last time I checked. Do we have a shortage of famous fictitious characters? No way! Even if we don't consider mythology (people climbing on a Ganesha statue to pose for photos may hurt the religious sentiments of some people), we still have the characters of regional literature and those from works of authors like R. K. Narayan. We could easily create such informal looking statues and place them in parks. Are "pub culture" and eating junk food the only "good things" that we want to learn from the West?

Here, both the statues are beautifully sculpted (as are all the others in Central Park) and the use of bronze makes them stand out from the surrounding stone and concrete, along with providing the strength needed to withstand the torture they endure. It is highly unlikely that anybody in any position of power in India reads my blog, but if they do, it is my sincere request to them to consider this idea the next time they want to have a monument built. I don't believe we spend any less money on these things than the Americans do. We only need to look beyond our age-old ideas and notions about art. And we need the will to create something good. Maybe that way we will manage just one really good statue instead of five hideous ones (to appease five different communities), but I still think that would lead to a more beautiful India in the long run.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Barriers break when people talk

That's Airtel's new marketing mantra. Airtel is one company that takes its brand philosophy very seriously, and so as their customer, I am living proof that their philosophy is true.

Soon after I arrived in the US in August 2008, I was in need of a calling card to call home. Having been an Airtel customer for the last few years, I chose Airtel's Call Home Service. Now I did not have a debit/credit card yet to make an online purchase, and so I had to ask my cousin to buy the card for me. Also, since I was tired of my cousins not letting me pay for anything, I insisted that I pay him the amount in cash. Ultimately the deal was struck - my cell phone was charged with $25 of call time, and I paid that amount in cash to my cousin.

About a week later, when I had used up a couple of dollars of that money, one day the card stopped working. "Your account has been blocked," was the most that I could get out of it. I called customer care. Now customer care wanted my cousin's name, his mail ID, his SSN, his credit card number and a complaint from his mail ID before they would start working. Since my cousin stayed in Ithaca and I in Newark, this took some time. Then finally, after another week or so, they registered a complaint.

Then started a series of follow up calls. Every night I would call their support and ask about the status of my call. Initially they tried to fool me saying there was some system error, and someone was looking into it and so on. However, having worked with a call center system for three years, I knew just how to handle them. So after a couple of weeks of this, I started logging a fresh complaint every night. Soon the agents discovered that their ticket queue was full of only one complaint repeated n times. Now they stopped receiving any complaint from me altogether.

The next phase was full of more follow up calls. Again every night. As Airtel's previous advertising tagline would put it, I expressed myself in all kinds of ways possible to the call center agents in India. I spoke in a businesslike manner first, then pleaded, made emotional appeals asking them how they would feel stranded in a strange country without a phone card (I was actually using's card by this time as I had my own plastic money), then voiced my displeasure as much as I could within the limits of decency. All in vain. Whoever received the call, male or female, repeated the same lines, "Your card was blocked due to a system error sir. We do not know why and how, and we have no idea when it will be fixed. Do you want a refund?" But I did not want a refund, for the refund would have gone to my cousin's account. I had already paid the money. It was past mid September by this time.

Then one night it happened. I was returning home and I made the regular call to Airtel support, and an agent called Shiv received my call. In retrospect I feel sorry for the guy, for any man can only perform within his intelligence level, and he is simply not well endowed in that area. I must have been irritated for some reason, and when he started his standard dialogue about the system error, it broke some barriers. I chose every four-or-more-letter word that I have learnt in 27 years of my life but never used, and very accurately targeted them at him, his family members living or dead, all other Airtel employees male or female, and their family members and ancestors as well for good measure (they later told me they had recorded that speech - I wonder how I can get a copy).

I'll have to say one thing about that agent Shiv - he takes his job pretty seriously, probably because that's the only job that he is capable of doing. All this while as I was calling him names and assuring him that I would keep calling all Airtel agents names until my card was unblocked, he kept repeating, "Please use professional language sir. Your card was blocked due to a system error. Would you like a refund?" But I did not want a refund, so the call went on and on. There's a saying in Hindi which can be loosely translated as "People who work by kicks cannot be convinced by words." The average Airtel helpdesk agent seems to be in this category, for however impassively Shiv may have behaved, my verbal kicks touched a chord somewhere in his brain which all my pleadings and "professional language" had failed to achieve for over a month and a half. Now it is a different matter altogether that due to his extraordinary powers of comprehension (probably because all his brain power was being used up by trying to maintain an "American" accent) he interpreted my instructions as "I do not want a refund. I do not want to unlock my account. Airtel may steal my money and keep it forever." But more of that later. On that night, he offered no solution.

Sometime during the next week, Airtel woke up to my problems and woke my cousin up in the middle of the night. By this time I must have been famous all over the call center and their ticket queue was full of pending tickets from me, so I was too big a problem to be ignored. My cousin gave them a strong dose of "professional language" upon which they apologized and promised to fix the problem soon. And lo! During the Durga Puja in the first week of October, my phone was working again!

This situation continued for about a week, I made a few calls with that card, and then it was blocked again. Repeated all procedures mentioned above. Only difference is, to speed up the process I went into the four-letter-word mode directly this time. It worked better, for my phone was unlocked within a week or so this time. I made a few calls again, and the last call that I made was on the 20th or 22nd of October. After that my card got blocked again but with a different message this time, "Your account is empty. Please recharge your account to continue calling." I knew there were nineteen dollars and some change in that card, so I called Airtel again (I remembered their number by heart now). They said as per my instruction to agent Shiv (!) on the 22nd of September, they have refunded my money on the 17th of October.

Now this was funny. Firstly because I had definitely made calls after 17th October, and all the process of unlocking my account and relocking and re-unlocking it had taken place after my call to agent Shiv. Secondly as I verified from my cousin, the money had not been refunded. But in the subsequent calls, if I asked these things, they directed me to their supervisor. This, by the way, is the standard Airtel procedure to drop the call. They would put me on hold for the supervisor, and then never come back again. This time, after I explained that I had caught them in this act too many times to believe in coincidence, they agreed to call me back if the call got dropped. And sure enough, the call did not get dropped this time.

The supervisor turned out to be a super-moron though. His logic was, "We deal in phone calls - if you have a problem with phone calls, contact us. The bank deals with money. If you have not received the refund, go and ask the bank for it." What can one say when faced with such irrefutable logic? I could have started my standard procedure of "expressing myself" to my heart's content, but then I thought the guy must be having too much on his plate already as he has to manage the likes of that agent Shiv every day, and let him go. Although I am a poor grad student here, I still put a value on my time and energy and I have a fair idea of how much of time and energy to spend for $19. I had already overspent it. I had bought that card in August and it was already November. I was a full time Raza customer now, and I had spent more than $25 worth of talk time (out of my free minutes, of course!) on that Airtel card. I decided to call it quits.

But Airtel was reluctant to let me go even if I wanted to leave in peace. They were thick-skinned enough to dig up my phone number from their database even after this and try to sell me their new products. If that is not the height of optimism, I wonder what is. Once again, a heartfelt thanks to these telemarketing agents, who have no idea whatsoever of the customer service department and its workings but are forced to listen to my complete story each time they call. I thank them for providing some comic relief in an otherwise boring day, for what can be more entertaining than being able to bash up a telemarketing agent's company with actual experiences, and then involve them in a discussion about how good the competitors' products are. One poor guy got so frustrated that he started asking me about the rates Raza and Reliance were giving and then started fumbling for words when I proved that the Airtel rates were higher than both.

Latest status: in February they called my cousin asking why this account was kept inactive, and if we don't refill it would get expired. On hearing the story yet again, the agent had looked up the records and accepted that there had been some problem in giving the refund. Can you believe it? He actually had the nerve to imply "Yes, we are sorry we stole your $19 this time. But it won't happen again, please refill our card." That is the kind of attitude that a company wants when they hire a marketing agent. This guy deserves some kind of an award from Airtel. As a gesture of goodwill, they actually refilled my card with 30 minutes of talk time ("We are sorry for stealing your $19.75, but here's $0.75 that you can keep as a gift from us.").

This brings the theft down to $19. For Airtel, an India-based company, it makes perfect sense. They earn in rupees. $19 is actually higher than any monthly bill I have ever paid on my Airtel mobile phone back in India. For one earning in US dollars, it is not much. When you have an army of cheap punching bags available who are ready get cursed and abused over phone for money, you can afford to swindle a few hundred NRI's this way each month and walk away with a neat profit. Besides, they have to pay A. R. Rahman. Now that he has won two Oscars, probably his fee will increase. As for me, I at least managed a few hours of toll free entertainment (I can still find some willing target if I wish after a particularly stressful day) and this long blog post. Not really a bad deal for $19. What do you say?