Thursday, October 12, 2017

On Owls and Idioms

This is one of the most intriguing idioms I have come across.

Translated from Hindi to English, it means, "To straighten one's owl", and the common understanding of the idiom in North India is "get one's work done", in a sneaky kind of way.

For instance, when you are in a meeting that has been called to discuss, say, a cleanliness drive. If you see some participants holding forth on an issue that has little to do with cleanliness but more to do with settling an old grudge with somebody specific, it could be said that he is  'straightening his owl'. He is using the meeting as a means to achieve a goal that is narrow and personal.

It is similar to 'Shooting off somebody's shoulder' but it goes beyond taking advantage of a person or a friend, to achieve you own purposes.

While this idiom is pretty apt in a lot of situations - especially at a workplace, or in politics - it origins remain mysterious. The owl (Uluka in Sanskrit, and Ullu in Hindi), despite being the vahana of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is considered a stupid bird in North India. So if you do something idiotic, you might be called an Ullu in Delhi, or an Ullu da Pattha (son of an owl!), in Punjab.

Perhaps this is because the bird looks quite lost and disoriented during daytime. However, unlike bats, it never perches upside down. So how on earth did this idiom originate?

Also, are there similar idioms in other languages?


  • Hindi Idioms -
  • 25 Hindi idioms inspired by food -
  • Vahana - (Sanskrit - "that which carries, that which pulls" -

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Nature Watch on the Kugti Trek

Its amazing how the flora and fauna changes in the Chamba Valley, as you ascend from 10,000 ft to 16,500 ft. It starts with compulsive greenery, a riot of colorful flowers and the chirping of unseen birds in the pine forests, then, as you climb, the vegetation first thins down to the bare minimum, and then to none at all.

Here are some of the scenes we managed to capture along the way.

A Monitor Lizard basks in the sun. As you cross Kugti village and trek towards the Kaylong Kartik Temple, they seem to be all over the place - basking in the sun, staring at you warily atop boulders, or just slinking out of the way quietly. 
Why are they so numerous in the vicinity of the village? Is it because of insects that are attracted to the terrace crops? 

Wagtails of all kinds! 
When you are driving from Bharmour towards Kugti you can see them swooping and diving in front of the vehicles. These are mostly Citrine Wagtails with their distinct pale yellow undersides. Beyong Kugti, you see two others: White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) with- white wedges around their eyes, and 
the White-brown Wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis), the ones with slick white 'eyebrows'.

Tiny glossy leaves, red berries, cushiony on rocks - Cotoneaster microphyllus (Bhedda)

 And the ones that are yet to be identified:

Yellow flower with a hundred needle like petals - Inula grandiflora (Daisy family)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Dam Good!

One thing that strikes you as you travel to Kugti is the number of hydro-electric projects that have sprung up all over the Chamba Valley.

From the moment you leave the Punjab plains and enter Himachal Pradesh, you see power projects of assorted shapes and sizes all along the route. Many of them are the conventional, small-scale run-of-the-river projects where you have a small dam blocking the river and the resulting resorvoir being used to generate electricity. Others are a lot more complex, and the only sign of their existence is the tunnels that have been bored through the mountains, to divert waters into long pipes that feed hidden turbines.

It may not make the river look cleaner or prettier but it certainly helps the local population access one thing that makes the winter months more bearable: electricity. Thanks to projects like these, Himachal Pradesh is able to generate more than 8500MW of electricity which it is able sell to states located downstream.

Perhaps the largest player in this valley is the National Hydro Power Corp (NHPC), a central public-sector enterprise that has set up some of the largest power plants on the Ravi river, such as the Chamera-I and Chamera-II projects. Having decided to settle down for a long haul, NHPC has numerous office/staff/residential complexes all along the Chamba valley, commanding some of the best views in this district!

Private players are not too far behind. GMR and Lanco too have a growing presence here with the former represented by deep green container-box offices set up all along the road up to Holi.

Now, which are the small HEPs located along the road to Kugti? 


* NHPC --
- presently has an installation base of 6667 MW from 21 hydropower stations on ownership basis including projects taken up in Joint Venture.

* GMR -
- Bajoli-Holi 180MW project on Ravi - to be commissioned in 2018

* Lanco Budhil Project --
- 70 MW plant commissioned in 2012
- Village Thalla, P.O. Ghared, Tehsil Bharmour, District Chamba 

* Hydro-Electric Power in Himachal Pradesh -
- 8,418 MW is harnessed so far

* Hydro Electric Projects in HP -
* Himachal Pradesh Power Corp -

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Trek to Kaylong Kartik Temple and Kugti Pass

I'm sitting at my desk, with my eyes on a glowing laptop screen, but my mind is still in the Himalayan mountains.

Having spent the whole of last week trekking through the stunning Chamba valley, attempting my first Cross-Over trek through the Kugti Pass to Lahaul-Spiti in Ladakh, I realize that this trip has been an eye-opener is more ways than one.

I did not know, for instance, that affordable trekking was possible for a small group of five, with the support of two guides, one porter and a cook! Since much of the grunt work of setting up camp, cooking food and foraging for fuel is outsourced, it leaves you with enough and more time to take in the scenery, observe the birds and insects, and enjoy the journey.

This trek passed through the Manikaran Kailash area, an ancient pilgrimage circuit. It was therefore not surprising to see the route dotted with tiny roadside shrines and larger temples. What was intriguing, however, was the set of beliefs and traditions that blended so well with that of the nomadic shepherds who form the economic lifeline of this remote district.

The Keylang Kartik Temple is an excellent example. It is open only from 13 April to 30 November every year - the time when the shepherds are taking their flock from their summer grazing grounds in Lahaul-Spiti down the green meadows and fields of the Chamba valley and the plains, to escape the harsh winters in the mountains.

The temple itself is at multiple levels, blending with the steep slope on which it is located. At the lowest area are the toilets, a little further up, attached to the main building is a shop selling votive's and offerings. This shop is run by the same family that takes care of the temple - priests from the Kugti Village. At the next level you have the temple with a large courtyard, attached to a cooking shed and a little spring-water pool purported to contain the footprints of the presiding deity.

The main temple is a wooden structure divided into two areas - a prayer hall with a window on each of its three walls, facing the towering snow-peaks, and the sanctum containing three idols, one each of silver, panchadhatu (?) and marble. As in most North Indian temples, devotees can walk right into the sanctum and touch the idols before going around the narrow passageway surrounding the sanctum.

The evening Aarti takes place at 7 PM. The priest corrals whoever is around to help with the puja. I was handed a Yak-hair fly-whisk while our guide took charge of the cymbals as we walked around clanging numerous bells hanging overhead. We all then stepped out to offer prayers to two more deities in the courtyard area - Ganesha and Kartik again represented by his vaahana, the peacock.

One thing you will not miss at the temple is the iron chains and tridents along the temple walls. While most of the tridents / trishuls are offerings from the pilgrims on the Manikaran Kailash circuit, the chains are more than just symbolic. They are used by soothsayers from the nearby villages to flagellate themselves as they go into a frenzy while "talking" to the mountain spirits. They become the medium through which the Gods speak to the villagers, and vice versa.

According to the temple priest, the older chains are considered more potent by the villagers. If they need to borrow the older chains to be used in the village temples, they have to deposit two new ones as security. Also, a chain borrowed from the temple is to be carried "without touching the ground", even if it is tucked away inside a bag.

Animal sacrifice is the most accepted form of thanksgiving here. Villagers and shepherds come here to offer animals in gratitude for a successful crossing, or after surviving another winter in the mountains. Perhaps quite appropriately, the main prasad here is mutton-curry and rice. While this may not be to the liking of many Hindu purists in the plains, its best to leave those who survive in the mountains to frame their own rules!

Unanswered Qs:

* Is there any other temple in India where Kartik is considered the protective diety of nomads and shepherds?
* Mythology says that Kartik lost a bet to his brother, Ganesha, and destroyed himself. Does it talk of a sister named Matala-Devi who sits atop a craggy peak on the opposite side of the river?


Manimahesh Parikrama -
Kaylong Kartik Temple - Mythology -

Thursday, September 07, 2017

All That Gas

At Sector-105, Noida, this is quite a regular sight on any given day - vehicles waiting for their turn at the CNG filling station.

Cars, buses, mini-vans all stretch out for more than 500 mts crawling bumper to bumper, twiddling their thumbs, wasting precious time, until they finally reach the fuel nozzles.

What is it that makes the transfer of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) from the fuel station to vehicles, such a time consuming process? How much CNG is being wasted while waiting to get CNG?


* (2016) - BS - 72 new IGL stations -

When History Repeats Itself

Each time I read a book by William Dalrymple, I wonder why our country does not produce such engaging scholar-storytellers. The book, "Return of a King" is no exception. It is meticulously researched and weaves a story that blends the contrasting versions of the victorious and the vanquished, into one 500-page, eminently readable tome.

In this book, the author also has is also a personal angle tucked away in the story. Dalrymple's great-great-grand uncle was an active participant in the Afghan wars, first as a bureaucrat in Punjab, and then as a soldier and prisoner-of-war in Afghanistan. So it also serves, to some extent, as the family history of a Scottish Highlander.

The book describes a period is spread across three centuries, from the time of Nadir Shah's invasion and plunder of Delhi in 1739 to the entry of British and US forces in the 1980s,  with the proclaimed intent of "fighting terror" and "restoring democracy" in what had become the stronghold of Osama bin Laden and his band of Arab fighters.

At the time of Nadir Shah, it was his Shiite Persian followers - the Qizilbash - along with his former soldiers, who formed the ruling elite of Afghanistan. The Sadozai clan was formed by a soldier named Ahmad Shah Abdali/Durrani who was to defeat the Maratha forces in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, while the Barakzai clan arose from a gunner is Nadir's army named, Haji Jamal Khan.

While the central theme is politics, intrigue and power-struggles between these two clans, the book makes you wonder about the Afghanistan that would have existed long before it was taken over by Islamic soldiers of fortune, and of the times when fighting "Jihad" against "Infidels" was not the rousing war-cry that destroyed a rich cultural heritage.

It offers glimpses of economic linkages cultural traditions that persisted even until the last century -- of Shikarpuri merchants whom kings approached to fund their war-efforts; of Nepali pilgrims visiting the remains of Hindu holy sites in the mountains; of regular raids that took place across the Khyber Pass into the plains; slave traders who flourished in the markets of Kabul, Khulm and Balkh, all the way to Bukhara.

You wonder what a different world it would have been a few thousand years ago, when Princess Gandhari of Mahabharata moved out of Khandahar to marry a king in the Gangetic plains, and then went on to blindfold herself and listen to a courtier's commentary of the internecine war that destroyed her dynasty.

Later, did Alexander's army too wreak vengeance on villages just as the British army did in the early 1840s? Did they also plunder and rape, torch villages and cut down all fruiting trees, just as the British did in the Jalalabad valley and in villages like Istalif, the Shomali plains (which is today home to the USAF base at Baghram)?

What thoughts would have crossed the minds of the thousands of people who were taken away as slaves - so many that an entire mountain range is now called the Hindukush ("Hindu Killer") where most perished? In this context, some of the narratives make you cringe, such as the one by Josiah Harlan that describes how Uzbek slave-traders sewed their captives to their horse-saddles:
"To oblige the prisoner to keep up, a strand of coarse horse-hair is passed by means of a crooked needle, under around the collar-bone. a few inches from its junction with the sternum; with the hair a loop is formed which they attach a rope that may be fastened to the saddle. The captive is constrained to keep near the retreating horse-man, with his hands tied behind his person, is altogether helpless" 
This story revolves around the return of a king, and yet, it reads like a play that has been performed many times over on the same stage. The costumes change, religious leanings change from Hindu and Buddhist to Islam; languages switch from maybe Kharoshti/Prakrit, Pali, and Sanskrit to Persian, Pashto, Dari and English, but the same tragedy gets repeated over and over again.


* GoodReads - "Return of a King" -
* Istalif village -

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Promising the Skyscrapers: Jaypee's Corporate Debt Burden

There was a showdown yesterday in our neighborhood yesterday. About 4000 homebuyers staged a protest against the Jaypee Group for its failure to deliver their apartments on time.

The anger and rustration of homebuyers is undertandable. Having been promising a "Wish Town" with sprawling lawns, gold courses, playgrounds and various other amenities , and having invested  their life savings to buy a home of their own, they are now being left in the lurch. Apartments that were to be handed over in 2011 are still undelivered. Across the expressway, a vast array of unfinished apartment complexes can be seen on the horizon -- empty shells of brick, cement and concrete, with no sign of life, or work-in-progress.

A number of protests have been taking place from time to time. The last one led to a blokage on the expressway, and this one was aparently triggered by a decision in the High Court. The Allahabad bench of the National Compaly Law Tribunal (NCLT) admitted IDBI bank's insolvency plea pertaining to Jaaypee Infratech. The company had failed to repay a loan of INR 8500 Crores (USD 1.3 billion).

Behind the anger and frustration of the homebuyers is the larger picture of Corporate Debt in India. Thanks to poor internal controls, bad debts in Indian banks has shot up to INR 7,00,000 Crores (USD 109 billion) over the last two years. In order to defaults companies have been on fire sale of assets: Reliance Communications (RCom), which had debts of over Rs 47,000 crore sold its tower business to escape default default, the Ruias have sold their oil refining business to Rosneft, GMR and GVK parts of their airports and power businesses, and Vijay Mallya parts of his liquor businesses that were mortgaged to fund Kingfisher Airlines.

Jaypee group’s debt is over Rs 75,000 crore (USD 11b). So, according a report in the Hindu:
"... the group has agreed to sell its 20mtpa of cement assets to Kumar Birla-led Ultratech for Rs 15,900 crore. This will leave its listed entities with about 6mtpa of cement capacity, three thermal power plants, one hydropower plant, an expressway project and land parcels. It is looking to sell most of these assets at the right price, but buyers are not easy to come by. Aside from selling stake in its land parcels and the Yamuna Express Highway, the group is looking to sell its remaining cement plants for Rs 4,000 crore and its Bina thermal power plant for Rs 3,500 crore. In the last year, the group has defaulted on payment obligations worth $350 million. Analysts say its capacity to service its debt has not improved."

No wonder there are few takers when the Jaypee Group boss, Manoj Gaur, tries to tell the homebuyers that their "investment is safe".


* (2017) -

Jaggi on the slowdown (30may17)

(2017, May) Financial Express -
- They now constitute 11 per cent of of the gross advances of Public Sector Unit (PSU) banks. In all, the total NPAs including both the public and private sector banks were Rs 697,409cr in December 2016. These figures were compiled by Care Ratings.

 - 31 May - Reliance Defaults -
Andy / Bloomberg -

The Hindu-

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

USB Vulnerability

Ever so often, whenever I pick up a USB memory stick, a certain train of thought crosses my mind.
"Here is a miracle device", I remind myself, "which one of the 6 billion+ across the world, one that has made data-transfer and battery charging so amazingly simple, and yet, contains within it the power to destroy nuclear plants, water and power supply grids and to unleash starvation, misery and death across the world!"

A few years ago, the Economist highlighted positive features of the 'thumb-drive' in an article very aptly titled. "In Praise of the Humble USB". While reading this piece, I was delighted to know that a computer architect of Indian origin,  Ajay Bhatt, had a key role to play in creating this amazing interface, which his parent company, Intel, decided to make 'the cheap USB plug and socket an open standard, available to manufacturers everywhere free of all royalty charges and licensing fees'. This one move destroyed the Firewire standard that had been patronised by Apple, and made USB a de facto standard across the world.

The ease with which the USB drive could be used also made it a handy tool in the hands of spies, spooks and saboteurs. The most famous example of this is the Stuxnet virus which CIA and Mossad used to destroy a thousand centrifuges in Iran. Ever since I heard of this cyber-attack, I have been awed by the sheer scale of destruction that can be unleashed through the USB drives. It also led me to the mistaken belief that the Iranian nuclear program had been irreparably damaged because of Stuxnet.

A recent documentary by Alex Gibney - "Zero Days" - suggests that in the real world, things are not what they seem. In their eagerness and impatience to destroy the Iranian nuclear centrifuges, Mossad apparently changed the codes created by their CIA/NSA collaborators, and released a version that was a lot less subtle, and left behind an electronic trail that was being used against the USA. It seems Iran has now built up one of the largest cyber-armies in the world, one that was behind two major warning attacks: one on the largest oil company in the world, SaudiAramco, destroyed every line of code on 30,000 computers, and then a surge attack on banks in the USA that crippled commercial operations.

As a friend recently pointed out, our biggest vulnerability is that new technology is being built on old systems that were not intended to be on a network. So, by default, we have gaping holes in just about all the things that now run our lives - utility supplies, banking & finance.

Even the ubiquitous USB works on FAT-32 system which has since evolved into exFAT and NTFS. However, the base continues to be FAT32, and as long as this is the case, our systems will continue to be inefficient - and utterly vulnerable.


Stuxnet - Alex Gibney's Zero Days -
* FAT32, exFAT and NTFS