Monday, July 31, 2006

Three Movies & One Book

Last week was a bonanza - we saw three great movies – Amadeus, The Aviator and Crash. The book for July has been “The Plague” by Albert Camus.

Over the past two years, ever since Diya was born, our trips to the theatre and movie halls had all but ceased. There was a time when we used to set off on an impulse for a movie or drive to the Mandi House area to catch a play. Now the theatres are out of question – they don't allow children below 10. The rise of multiplexes has made movies much more expensive but we do venture out occasionally, after a lot of careful planning, which includes advance booking of tickets; keeping track of the reviews & awards to avoid vague movies and tweaking Diya’s bio-clock so that she is very, very sleepy by the time we enter the movie hall. This worked wonderfully till Speilberg’s “Munich”. Our last film – “Fanaa” - was a nightmare. All the planning went haywire and we spent most of our time chasing a kid who was all over the dark hall inspecting foot-lights, and scrambling up and down the stairs, calling out, “Amma-Acha aa jao!”,

After the “Fanaa” experience we have become regulars at a DVD-VCD rental joint called Selection Hut in Kalkaji. We’re now discovering the joys of rewind-replay anf of watching movies in installments!

Amadeus – a movie on the life and music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s a portrayal of the genius though the eyes of Antonio Salieri, a court musician who discovers that “the god like gifts he desires for himself have been bestowed on a bawdy, impish jokester”. A jokester who goes on to write down an astounding collection of music, and then, is reduced to poverty and dies an indebted man; whose body is dumped carelessly in an obscure mass grave. It is quite difficult to imagine this description of somebody whom Albert Einstein once described as “the greatest composer of all”.

Crash is about multi-ethnic world of Los Angeles. It picks up threads from the lives of ordinary people – a high-strung Iraqi shopkeeper; a locksmith who nudges his little daughter out of her scary world of ghosts and hidden monsters; a pair of articulate car thieves; a black cop whose ailing mother dotes on the younger son; a white cop who is a tender son, abusive racist and selfless hero, all rolled into one…All these threads tangle, intertwine and ultimately present what could best be described as a rather optimistic patchwork of life evolving in USA.

The Aviator was about another real-life American hero – Howard Huges – billionaire aircraft tycoon, movie producer, bra designer and paranoid perfectionist. His life with Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner; his obsession with cleanliness and “quarantine”; and the incredible ‘Spruce Goose’ – a 2000T amphibious aircraft. Its an amazing story but somehow, Leornardo di Caprio looked like a round peg in a square role…

I had picked it up ‘The Plague’ out of curiosity at a discount book shop and had expected it to be something like Middlemarch – thoroughly enjoyable; but only after you managed to get into the groove. Albert Camus is an acclaimed master of Existentialism, and, in this book, searches the meaning of life in Oran – a small Algerian town on the Mediterranean coast. In this sleepy town, death of rats is followed by the onset of a plague that kills hundred and transforms the life of Dr. Rieux, Cottard, Grand and Rambert – a journalist from Paris who finds himself imprisoned in a city under strict quarantine.

It’s a book that I need to read again, sometime later.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

New Delhi – Money Down The Drain?

During a recent discussion at IIT Kanpur, the Director, Prof. Sanjay G. Dhande cautioned some foreign guests against forming their impressions about India after visiting its capital city. He said, “Delhi could be on another planet as far as the rest of the country is concerned – Its annual budget is more that that of many states combined!”.

Was this true? Absolutely!

Under the 10th five-year plan (2002-2007), the outlay for Delhi was Rs.23,000 crores. For a city with a population of just 13.7 million, residing in an area of 1483, this bounty comes at the cost of the other larger, more populous states. Consider this:

· Delhi keeps for herself a larger share than 24 of the 35 states and Union Territories of India
· Delhi’s budget exceeds that of all states except – Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala (only just), Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
· Bihar, with a population of 82.8 million gets less than Delhi – only Rs.21,000 Crores.
· If you add up the budget allocated to the neighboring states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, the capital city still gets about Rs. 2500 crores extra.

Except for that spacious, beautiful patch in the heart of New Delhi called Lutyens Zone, the rest of the city is a serious embarrassment - a showcase of shallow planning and poor management.

So, where does all this money go?

One could have said that it all goes down the drain, but we realized (yet again!)after yesterday’s heavy downpour, the subsequent water logging and traffic jams, that the drains too are choked with empty promises and platitudes.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Cataglyphis Family!

Cataglyphis. That could be the family name of the little bugger who has been eluding me for more than a year now!

My chase started sometime last year in Jahanpanah City Forest – a wild green belt that stretches about 4km, from Greater Kailash to Tughlakabad in Delhi. One day, as I was cooling off after my morning run, I noticed a little mound teeming with hyperactive ants. These fellows looked like a bunch of turbocharged Ferraris in a world of Maruti-800s.

I don’t know much about ants. My notions are limited to the many bits and bites that have come my way since childhood. I knew, for instance, that if you disturb the little black ones, they give out a smell; the big, shiny black ants in Hyderabad come with a lot of spunk and deliver painful bites but the very same fellows are quite amicable in Kerala and Delhi. The little reds are experts at finding their way into sealed packets of jam and biscuits. I knew that the red fire ants in Kerala look spectacular when they catch the morning sunlight on mossy boundary walls and overhead telephone lines. And that you should never ever mess with their leafy nests while pelting stones at mango trees.

These ants in Jahanpanah Forest were different. Reddish brown in color, the most distinct thing about them was their long legs and a dark abdomen that always pointing skywards. You never saw them go about in groups, to bring home a dead grasshopper, for instance. Always in a tearing hurry, they never stopped by to say hello to comrades, and, when they reached home, they just dived into the darkness.

If curiosity is a disease I seemed to be the only one who got infected in the forest. The sight of a fellow bending over an ant hole attracts curious glances first and then concern (“did you lose something there?”), amusement (“ Hey, look - that anty-guy again!”), before people learn to just leave you alone.

An old villager once came over and said that that the soil excavated by these ants had medicinal properties – it cures children of bedwetting and other ailments. I wonder how. This reminded me of my father’s description of how traditional doctors in Kerala used ants for suturing wounds. They would get black ants to bite torn skin – much like staplers - and once their mandibles clamped down, the bodies would be pinched off.

There is so little information on Indian Ants! The bookshops have lots of stuff on birds and trees, a few books on insects (Europe/America) but nothing on ants. Nothing. If you search the internet for something on Indian Ants, you get vague things like “gold digging ants of India”. Perhaps all the stuff we have is all locked up in the dusty libraries of Zoological Survey of India.

Anyway, hope was rekindled last week when an article in the Hindu featured Ajay Narendra, an ant enthusiast who was about to launch a book to fill that gaping hole in India’s ant consciousness. A couple of quick, cheery emails later, I got this diagnosis from Dr. Ajay –

"Nothing spectacular is available on indian ants, infact nothing except a 1903 publication by the fauna of british india."
"the ant you have belongs to a genus called Cataglyphis. its primarily a desert ant. The legs are exceptionally long which raises the ants body slightly above the ground to keep itself cool. its active during the hot periods of the day and primarily a scavenger. And as you mentioned they are extremely quick in walking...>30 cm per second. its distribution ranges from north india, middlle east, to North Africa. Incidentally this is one of the ants that I am currently doing my research on (see attached)."


The internet now opened up like Alibaba’s cave. According to a BBC report, scientists have recently figured out that these ants use an internal pedometer to measure exact marching distances. Wow.

Interesting Ant Sites -

Amazing stuff on Japanese ants:

Recent BBC report on Cataglyphis:

Friday, July 14, 2006

Mumbai Blasts: Only 200 dead?

The suburban section of Western Railway in Mumbai, from Churchgate to Virar, extends over 60km and comprises 28 stations. On any given day, this section handles about 1007 suburban trains that carry 3 million passengers and 154 Mail & Express trains.

During peak hours (8:30-11:30AM and 17:30-20:30PM) train are spaced at 3 minute intervals, which is uncomfortably close to the available headway of 3’12”.

The blasts took place during peak hours when trains carry between 6000 to 7000 passengers – more than 500 passengers tightly packed into each of its 12 coaches. In railway parlance this is called “super dense peak load”. A single bomb in a single coach would have been enough to kill more than 200 people.

It is amazing that so many people actually survived seven blasts that had enough power to rip apart steel sidings and roof-plates as though they were made of tin foil!

Or are we missing something here?