My Travel Map

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Heroes

For the past few days, I have realized that there is something amiss. Couldn’t really put my fingers on it till I realized that I had finally lost my innocence, my childhood – I was growing older – I no longer wanted to rush to the nearest cricket screen after office and watch the last 15 crucial overs of the 2nd India-England ODI match even though it promised to be a thriller (that it was not and India won comfortably, I learnt on ndtv.com 3 hours after the match was complete). Cricket, I guess, was the last straw connecting me to that part of my life, when I had few worries, when the people who mean the most to me were always around me – in short, it still brings back so many good memories of time spent at home watching our good men do India proud on the cricket field, that the feeling that those scenes may not repeat ever again, emanates in a slow sinking experience that I am not enjoying at all.

I guess this affliction will affect many of us in the mid to late 20s, who have grown up on a steady diet of the heroics of Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble and Srinath to begin with, and then identified with Dravid and Ganguly in our teenage years to the extent of fistfights to resolve our heroes’ cause. We have been lucky enough to be privy to that magical day at Eden Gardens when the sublime Laxman and the gritty Dravid never played a false shot. And now suddenly, two of them have gracefully retired from the scene and the remaining are counting their days. Our boyhood heroes are growing older. Can we be left far behind? Time for major retrospection, I believe.

Over the course of the 18 uninterrupted years I spent at home, I must have spent at least 12 (assuming I don’t remember much before I was six, though I have hazy images of Border with the ’87 World Cup trophy) avidly following each and every of India’s fixtures around the world. And not only me, my whole family must have been cricket crazy, even the ladies. If my mom could eke out some time from her busy schedule of work in feeding us and doing all the other stuff that moms do to make sure that our lives run smoothly and we have time to watch cricket matches, she would invariably join me, my brother and father in making “watching cricket” the family experience of the decade! And the advent of Day-Night cricket only added to the zing. From Sachin bowling that last over in the Hero Cup Final to Srinath and Kumble doing the heroics with the bat against Australia, and Rajesh Chauhan hitting that last ball six, I can still recall the expressions on all the others who were there in it, cheering with me.

I have woken up early mornings to watch India negotiate the Aussies Down Under before leaving for school, I have stayed up late to watch proceedings in the Caribbean, I have finished my XIIth Board exams early to dash off home and watch the remainder of the day’s proceedings – I have done lots of stupid things for cricket. I have taken sides in Dravid vs. Ganguly discussions, even though I’m a “fan” of both, I have chewed more nails than Sachin ever did on the field (and defended it as something great people do, when my mom protested against this unhealthy habit), I have not moved a single inch for several hours if I felt that position of mine benefited India, but will I ever do it again? With Dada’s retirement opening the floodgates, it just feels like a part of me is no more.

I’d thought I would be visibly sadder on the day Sourav Ganguly retired, but I was not – maybe I ‘d been expecting it all through and that lessened the impact. I think the moment after the NatWest final when he took off his shirt at Lord’s still remains one of the most visibly etched memories in my mind, much like Kapil Dev’s lifting the Cup would be for a somewhat older generation. Dada, though not the ideal “good boy”, that our parents would have wanted us to be (that would be more Sachin or Rahul), has over the years, embodied so much – from ability, determination, courage, leadership, integrity to attitude and resilience – that I guess our parents would have been happier if we had turned out more like him. Though the media makes him out to be a regional hero, one survey of the undergraduate colleges across India, I’m sure, would reveal the fact that Indians are not as parochial and narrow minded as they are made out to be – and the constant chanting of “Dada, dada” at Nagpur brings out that spirit. Dada brought the spirit to the game, and its supporters, and will be sorely missed.

I hope the current crop of players like Sehwag, Dhoni, Yuvraj, Gambhir and Bhajji and those to follow can replace the Fab 5 at some point of time. Maybe they’ll bring me back to the TV screen and I can be a child again. Maybe I’ll have that sparkle in my eye once more. Much like my father does every time he watches a game with me.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Crisis and We

A sneak peek at how things stand, from the point of view of an average Indian MBA graduate working in the financial services industry

First, let us look at some things that have definitely changed

§ We finally deign to know how much our bank accounts add up to and consider more carefully before opening that salary account in any random bank (read: the bank we work for)
§ We try to remember if we had any balance in the ICICI bank account opened in Bangalore when we worked in Infosys and try withdrawing those savings
§ We call up our parents to know where they have invested their life savings and try to impart some professional advice, for once trying to put 2 years of hard-earned knowledge (sic!) into good use
§ We fish out the train and bus passes from the unknown corner of the wallet and start using public transport again, finally abiding to our long-time favourite slogan “Go Green with SMRT”
§ We cook up sumptuous meals for friends at home instead of taking them out to fancy restaurants for birthday treats
§ We are suddenly massively humble and treat professionals like consultants, marketers, even lawyers and auditors with a tinge of envy bordering on admiration
§ We convince ourselves that this is the best job, this is the best company and this is the best work environment we could have ever hoped for – no cribs, absolutely
§ We listen to whatever the “esteemed” boss has to say and carry out all ridiculous orders assiduously; also, we stop complaining about buying his/her coffee/ lunch every day
§ We become overtly religious and go to temples on all sorts of occasions to pray for prosperity; if that doesn’t suffice, call the priest home for some good ol’ Lakshmi Puja
§ We can now escape calling up friends and relatives with easy refrains on the lines of “hard times are here now you know” and “too busy saving my job”
§ We refrain from introducing ourselves as “investment bankers” when asked by pretty girls in pubs or by those cocky real estate agents
§ We have to read forwards like this, instead of this
§ We accede, at least to ourselves, that we are not the smartest alecs in the whole wide world

And some things that have not:

§ We continue to expect to be retained without making any significant contribution to the organisation as a whole; in other cases, we continue to believe that somehow our exalted contribution will get noticed and we will be spared the axe when others are not
§ We continue to expect bonuses better than what we had expected
§ We continue to believe in market pundits who can predict the price of Brent crude oil 30 years down the line when we don’t know how the market is going to react to a 50 bps Fed cut 3 hours down the line
§ We continue to advise our juniors in B-schools to take up those obscure optional courses in Credit Derivatives and Market Microstructures, without which no one is deemed to be a true blue “Finance” guy
§ We continue to book ourselves on flights, paying 3000 rupees (or more) fuel surcharge each way instead of taking the Janshatabdi home

I'd actually thought of a whole lot of points on both sides of the coin, while contemplating life on my daily walks to and from the MRT station. However, senility is getting the better of me these days. So dear readers, I beseech you to provide witty additions to this list in the form of comments. All selected entries will be added to the above list and credited to the author - so here's your one chance of being immortalized on this blog!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Sarkar Raaz

Being a sucker for diversity, here's something to lighten up the mood after all the ethical and moralistic soul-searching that I led my readers to do, after my previous post.

One fine day, sometime in the month of February 2006, we notice our protagonist, a guy named Suvro Sarkar walking towards the office of a guy (well actually, respected Professor) named Sahadeb Sarkar, then Dean of PGP, IIM Calcutta, accompanied by a certain PGP Representative who later became famous as the private statistics tutor for the damsels in distress of our junior batch - but that's an entirely different story and hopefully, the damsels in question may someday add more colour to the episode. At this point, we stop to ask ourselves - what is our protagonist doing here? He has not been seen much to hobnob with the academic faculty, and today he's headed towards the most feared and viled dungeon of all - the PGP office! We asked him later and we reproduce the contents of his reponse verbatim below:

Top Secret Mission: To secure a fresh date for his STEP (Student Exchange Programme) interview, which he had missed, having been away from campus for a week to attend his brother's wedding.

He goes inside the Dean's room, and the PGP Rep decides to abondon him at this point, having more urgent matters to look into - or so we suppose - and so from here on, its a battle of the Sarkars.

Sahadeb (SDS): Yes? Who are you?

Suvro (SVS): Sir, I am Suvro Sarkar (stressing on the Sarkar part, to emphasize possible kinship), 1st year PGDCM student, Sir.

SDS: So what can I do for you?

SVS: Sir, I have a request. Sir, I missed my STEP interview...I had my brother's wedding to attend, Sir. Is it possible to reschedule my interview to today or tomorrow?

SDS: So you were away to attend your brother's wedding?

SVS: Yes sir.

SDS: Which day to which?

SVS: (calculating fast to reduce the number of days as far as possible) 1st to 5th feb, Sir (feeling pretty sure he can bank on senior Sarkar to feel nostalgic about Bengali weddings and let the point drop)

SDS: So, 5 days.

SVS: Yes sir! (feeling inordinately proud of his institute, now that he is sure his Dean can count).

SDS: Have you read the PGP rules book?

SVS: (trying best to appear truthful, unsure where all this is leading) Yes sir.

SDS: Did you miss the point that you have to inform the PGP Office if you are out of campus for more than 2 working days?

SVS: Oh! is there such a point Sir? (oh, that did not come out the way he would have ideally wanted it to - more of a spontaneous reaction he might regret).

SDS: So you did not think it important to read the rule book? (and regret he does)

SVS: (on the backfoot, well and truely) No Sir, I've read it, Sir. This one skipped my mind, Sir.

SDS: So you think you are above all such rules eh? If you good students do like this, what will happen? Eh?

SVS: (taken aback at the assumptions of moral and ethical standards of "good" students) Sir, good student...no sir, I am sorry Sir - I have read the rule book - just missed that point - won't happen again, Sir - I'm very sorry, Sir.

SDS: So you missed 5 days of classes I see.

SVS: Unfortunately, Sir.

SDS: Hmmm...who did you ask to mark ur proxies?

SVS: (aghast - trying to look like someone who has never heard the word proxy before in his whole life) What - me sir? Proxy- sir? No no, I don't believe in proxies, sir.

SDS: Oh is that so? (calls out to one of the clerical staff) Udayyyy (or watever the name was), bring me the - what section are you? - section C - attendance files for 1st to 5th feb...

SVS: (hoping that his over-enthu classmates had not been foolish enough to mark any signatures against his reg number) No problem, Sir...you wont find any proxies, Sir (trying to sound belligerent and brave)

SDS: (flipping through one or two sheets and not finding any proof against our protagonist) Okk I'll ask the PGP Office people to go through all the sheets in detail (proof of how jobless they are, usually)...you can go now - and give me the application you brought - I'll sign it.

SVS: (relieved) Thank you, Sir! and I'm very sorry, Sir about not informing PGP Office.

So our protagonist went on to live another day and sat through the STEP interview and then opted out of it - all this for nothing! - but that again, is another story. There were some other side effects, though, of the above episode. The attendance sheets were indeed checked - no proxies were found against his name (for the benefit of doubting Thomases, he had categorically instructed all his friends not to mark any before he left for his brother's wedding, having calculated that he was reasonably above water in terms of attendance in all the subjects) - but a pattern of regular proxies were found against many other names and as a result, attendances cancelled en masse, students summoned and warned- sparking large scale rows and debates, and putting an end to the mass-scale proxy signature campaigns as had been practised in the previous two semesters at Joka.

Friends, Romans, countrymen - I believe you will herewith bless our revered protagonist for accidentally removing one of the most widespread social evils in Jokaland, which was threatening to erode the very moral fibres of one and all. Hail the protagonist!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Odd one out

The 40” Samsung LCD wall mounted television in our department was turned on a few days ago when news started to filter in about the quake in Sichuan province of China. The official toll started off with 1 killed, 4 injured and 900 students buried but gradually grew to about 10,000 by the time the next day’s newspapers went to press. Our technical analyst, a middle aged bachelor fond of deciphering charts and eating junk food, immediately sprung up and asked around if any company had exposure to the region (before you ask, I am part of an equity research house and we issue recommendations to investors on stocks we follow). Colleagues looked at their coverage and started calling up corporates to enquire about their assets in the region around Chengdu and Chongqing in Sichuan province. Nobody called up to express concern and ask whether their employees or their families were safe, though. Struck me as very odd. I couldn’t bring myself to call up any of my companies to enquire about possible delays in project completions and the like. Guess I am not cut out for this industry. As our technical analyst joked “Your pain, my gain” and issued calls to short any stocks with projects in the affected region, to the accompaniment of quite a few snorts and sneers from other colleagues, I wondered whether the scent of money has indeed, become stronger than the scent of pain, blood and suffering. Or, for that matter, the scent of power, as the military junta in Myanmar has strived to prove.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Your girlfriend must be really beautiful!

This is what a certain Mr. Tony Ho, SVP (Sales & Marketing), Contel Corporation, had to say to me when he had realized the full implication of what I was attempting to do. It was 6:30 in the evening, I was in a car in a perpetually smoggy forbidden provincial town in China called Dongguan and I was attempting to cross the border some 80 km away and reach Hong Kong that night. All this for a 12-14 hour stay, since I'd have to leave HK (assuming I reached there) by 12 PM latest next morning to have any hopes of getting on my return flight to Singapore. Before you ask, the flight was from Shenzhen Int'l Airport. And just half an hour ago, I didn't have a single Yuan on me.

Okk...cut...rewind rewind rewind...

The trip I'm talking about is a plant visit organized for Singapore analysts and fund managers by a Singapore-listed Chinese consumer electronics manufacturer called Contel Corp. The plant is in Dongguan, one of the big three cities in the affluent Pearl River Delta region of China, just aft of Hong Kong. And the nearest airport is in Shenzhen, which is the electronics workshop of the world and also the nearest point on the mainland from Hong Kong. Well the airport is strictly not in Shenzhen but lets leave that for later.

So this trip of mine was initially planned to happen in the last week of September but was postponed owing to lack of interest among other participants. Back then, I was a trifle disappointed since I was quite aware of the proximity of Hong Kong and Shenzhen and on paper, a journey to and forth seemed quite do-able. Anyhow, chance presented itself once again 2-3 weeks later and the trip was happening this time on the 17th and 18th of October.

Early morning flight and I head for the airport in an early morning taxi. Finally, I find myself on the flight, next to a kiddish looking guy and a senior looking guy, who I supposed were also on the same analyst visit. The kiddish guy really turned out to be a kid, fresh out of graduate school into one of the local brokerages. The older guy was indeed, an industry veteran, who had retired from professional life to run his personal investment firm with his family's money. Towards the end of the flight, when people start planning how best to spend the night in Dongguan, I deem it imminent to break the news that I won't be there, as I would be going to Hong Kong. "So you are flying back from Hong Kong eh?" "No, I'll meet you guys back at Shenzhen!” I see some dumbfounded faces around me. But being peaceful Singaporeans, they don't press the matter any further apart from assuming that I must be on some kind of illicit mission to make so much effort worth the while.

I let them assume whatever they could and then I made the biggest mistake of the trip. We land in Shenzhen; I come out of the airport with the group, and being the organizer-type, start hunting around for the tour bus assigned to us and conveniently forget about foreign exchange! Halfway on the hour-long bus-ride to Dongguan, I realize this stark truth and my mood gets gloomier while the others sleep it off. The surroundings don't help at all but I'll spare you a description of the journey on the highways of China. Suffice to say that it is not a pretty sight - especially being accustomed to the lush green paddy fields along NH2 (the erstwhile Grand Trunk Road) and NH6 (Bombay Road) of West Bengal. Probably, with modern marvels like the Singur car factory coming up, we'll get to see less of the same, too.

Having reached Dongguan, and having disembarked at the hotel, I wonder aloud if I might find some transportation to Hong Kong from the hotel premises in the hope that some fellow analyst would care to translate and ask the hotel guys. The only female in our group was a pretty friendly one and she takes pains to find out, from various sources, including the doorman, concierge and tourist booklets, that the last bus to HK leaves at 5:30 PM. Realistically, we couldn't be back to the hotel by that time - my plant visit starts at 2 PM! My spirits suitably dampened, I seat myself at the lunch table and nibble at meats of various species while acquainting myself with executives from Contel. The COO, on hearing my HK predicament, immediately rushes off to enquire about options from the hotel management, but in spite of all the blessings I showered on him and his family, he returns with nothing new. Ditching the tasteless desserts and fetching my bag from my room, I saunter confidently towards the reception desk, where I'd hitherto spotted a foreign exchange counter. Woe and dismay, for they only convert HKD and USD. A big jolt for the Singapore Dollar and to the egos of the Singaporean analyst team. I sms my friend in Hong Kong, asking her not to wait up for me.


The gloomy day turns gloomier as we drive deeper into a perpetual haze covered country interspersed with gaunt white buildings. One of them turns out to be our final destination - Contel factory. After a boring presentation, we get to the Q&A session - and I am praying that my fellow analysts keep their interrogation short. However, it seems that they are intent to know all kinds of inane stuff in glorious detail and I am left in the lurches, counting the minutes as time rolls on beyond 4 PM. After what seemed an eternity, Tony, whom I have introduced before, suggests we proceed on the plant tour as the employees' shift would end shortly. I skip along with the Group, not deigning to ask a single question of the management in truly unprofessional analyst style (though I would end up as the only analyst filing in a plant visit note). As dusk envelops the hazy environs, I am itching to make a dash for the hotel or train station or bus station or somewhere. But not having a single Yuan in my pocket, kind of thwarts all my instincts and I wait for the ordeal to finish. When it’s eventually over, and we have seen assembly lines churning out electronic guitars for video games and LCD TVs and VCD recorders and all sorts of other useless stuff at one-tenth the price that Walmart and Circuit City retail them for, we get back to the Boardroom.

They gift us an E-Bible (if anyone is interested, I can forward it) and people take a lot of time to move out. I place my pleading eyes on Tony and Lip Kee (the CFO) and Tony (good man!) asks around for the best way to get to HK. 6 PM already. I had done extensive research on the Internet, which had informed me of trains at 7 40 PM and 8 40 PM, direct to some station in HK, but they seemed to have no knowledge of it. As I keep getting more despondent, the guy says there is a train to Shenzhen at 6:30 - do I want to try that? It seems people can cross the border there to HK. Of course, what are we waiting for? Our car, the CFO offers, rather apologetically. Some hope, at last, but there remains one last barrier to cross. Currency. And no bank will be open at 6 PM. I turn to the CFO. " Excuse me, do you have some extra Yuan on you? Can I pay you in SGD now...say 500 Yuan or so?" Flustered for a while, the guy fishes out five 100-Yuan notes as we settle on a willing buyer-willing seller exchange rate of 5 Yuan to a Singapore Dollar. "You might use it when you go down to Singapore once in a while", I offer helpfully. Phew! I had currency. Confidence back, I steel myself for a lonesome journey from nowhere to anywhere.

On the journey from the factory to the hotel where the management guys got off, the CEO, CFO and COO of Contel Corp offered me valuable advice on the dos and don'ts of travelling in China. "As long as you have your passport and your money with you, you are safe." "Keep my number. Any problem and you call me. Even if you lose your money, don't lose your mobile". "You know, if you get off and walk on this road, there is no guarantee you will not be robbed right now." Very helpful, all, but it left me feeling much less confident than I initially was. "So how many times you have been to China?” First time, Tony, first time. "So you can speak Mandarin?” NO. "You have been to Hong Kong before, right?" NO. "This is your first time in China, you can't speak the language, and it will be your first time in Hong Kong. And you are travelling across the border, in the evening. BOY, your girlfriend must be REALLY beautiful!!!" And, content in their assumption, they all had a hearty laugh about it. Not really wishing to contest their theory or interrupt their mirth, I joined in. "Oh yes, she is. Good guess, Tony!”

So they get down and the driver takes me to the train station. He gets down, locks the car and comes with me to the train station. Oh no, I can't read a single thing anywhere. It’s all Chinese (no, not Greek). I look on gratefully as the driver-chappie goes to the ticket counter, buys 2 tickets and hands me one. Without a murmur, I follow him as he rushes off towards the platform, and I'm relieved when a train rolls in 2 minutes later, which has a "Shenzhen" sign in English. As I try to push a 100-Yuan note into the helpful chappie's hand for the ticket, he refuses to have to do anything with it and instead motions me on to the train. An empty compartment beckons and I'm about to be in for a shock as the train covers the entire 90km stretch at an average speed of 160km/hr and in some stretches 180km/hr. If you are wondering how I calculated the speed, there was a LCD panel above the door of the compartment, which indicated as much. It took me about 45 minutes I think to cover the stretch. Whoa - China rocking!

As I get down at Shenzhen and follow the direction signs reading Hong Kong, I am reminded of what Tony had earlier told me - "When you exit the train station, you will see the Shangri-La Hotel. Don't go towards it. Go to the building in the opposite direction. You will find the immigration counters on the first or second floor. Be very careful!" - so I follow the signboards and eventually exit the train station at street level. I can see the Shangri-La at some distance but the signboards saying HK have petered out. So I walk all the way to the Shangri-La, click a few photos of night-time Shenzhen and discover that the only building that could be opposite it was the point where I had started walking. No problemos. I am way ahead of time, anyway, thanks to that super fast train. I meander back to the building and find the Chinese immigration counters on the first level. Forms filled out and they happily let me leave China. Oh did I forget to mention that my visa was a double entry visa. I had to re-enter PRC again the next afternoon for my flight back to Singapore.

After a pretty long walk through corridors and bridges of no-man's land, I somehow reach the HK immigration counter and after the guy had taken a look at my Indian passport, and heard my story about landing in Shenzhen, going to Dongguan, returning to Shenzhen, crossing over to HK, then back again and on to Singapore, he must have assumed I'm part of some currency racket on some quick errand. So I'm promptly shipped to the senior immigration officer's office to be interviewed. Frustrating wait and then I shove down the visiting cards of CEOs, CFOs and the like down the interviewer's throat in a brave attempt at intimidation. Bored with my version of events, he lets me continue on my journey of discovery. Dignity restored, I find a restroom, change out of my formals and fork out my maps of the Hong Kong public transport system. Having worked out my destination, I reach the ticket counter, only to realize the currency of business has changed. Bang opposite was a money exchanger, probably offering the worst rates in town, having set up shop to cater to morons like me. HKD in hand, I now had a ticket to East Tsim Sha Tsui (ETST). It was 7 30 when I had reached Shenzhen - it was past 9 PM now.

Anyhow, I reached ETST and then found the interchange to Tsim Sha Tsui - the subway/train system is way too complicated compared to Singapore - and here I met up with my friend AJ. I'll leave out the details of the remainder of the night except for the fact that the time between 2 AM and 4 AM found me having a few drinks with a banker friend of mine in Hong Kong's famed Lan Kwai Fong district and the remainder of the night till 8 AM found me sleeping it off on some other unsuspecting friend's sofa. The next morning brought with it my first glimpse of the great city in natural light and it was quite awesome and much beyond my expectations. There is a certain life in the people and a vibrant all-pervading spirit, quite reminiscent of Calcutta. I guess having a planned city takes the fun out of it. The narrow roads, congested alleys, British styled architecture, street side vendors, and modern high-rises jostling for space all lend to the unique aura the Hong Kong emanates. Singapore, by comparison, is sterile and lifeless.

So having taken in the sights and sounds, I now turn my attention to my return journey. I had gathered from various sources that the ferry from HK across the Pearl River Delta to Shenzhen is the quickest and most convenient way of getting to the airport. Smugly complacent in this knowledge, AJ and I call up the ferry companies but as luck would have it, all are fully booked. 11 AM in Hong Kong and I still have no transportation. Flight back at 4 PM. Will I make it? Tension tension. Train would take one hour to the border. God knows how much time at immigration. And then no clue how to reach the airport from Shenzhen train station and I had a fair idea it was 30 km away. No Tony and no driver-chappie to help me out this time around. I am pretty much royally screwed.

We make our way to the nearest ferry terminal in the hope of some ferry company we had missed out on but we can't even make out which boat is headed where, far less, when. Just when I'm beginning to think that I have to risk the train journey, we find ourselves standing in front of a bus terminal with colourful buses sporting Shenzhen/
Guangzhou signs. After some painful attempts at communication, we discern that a bus for Shenzhen airport will be leaving in about 10 minutes, but I'll have to change buses in between. Still not convinced that I am on the right bus, I try to ask the driver when we would be reaching the destination, but he remained unconvinced too. Running out of options and having already purchased a 100 HKD ticket, I decide to risk it and wave goodbye to AJ and Hong Kong.

A Good Samaritan on the bus decides to be my interpreter for the rest of the bus trip and safely guides me through all the formalities on either sides of the border. Finally, some pretty girls in traditional costumes notice a pink bus company sticker on my shirt as I come out of Shenzhen bus terminal and take me to a mini-bus and a short bus journey later, I'm inside Shenzhen Int'l Airport within one and a half hours of leaving Hong Kong. Wow! A fitting finale to a whale of an adventure. I'm damn pleased as I make my way home and promise to write about it someday. That day is finally here!

P.S. Took me about 6 months to pen this down. Apologies to all concerned :)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Kabuliwallah to Charlie Wilson's War


Lately have had a lot of Afghanistan thrust into all the creative media entertainment that I have been indulging myself in. All = 4 instances, at last count. Well, I accept that to say that the latest Subhash Ghai offering “Black & White” had something to do with Afghanistan would not be correct in spirit, but would be very much correct in letter. So there.

If you are wondering where all this is going, let me say at the onset this is going nowhere. Just had to write about something before all my creative juices dried up in utmost entirety. So why Afghanistan? Well, ask Khaled Hosseini – for he’s the one to blame for my falling in love with the rugged country and its rugged people. The canvas that he painted through his masterpiece “The Kite Runner” – which incidentally I recently saw on celluloid – made, to put it mildly, a deep impression on my impressionable psyche. The snow capped Hindu Kush in the distance and the rugged brown mountainscape in the forefront, the smell of the kebabs roasting in tandoors and the mysterious beauty in the twinkling eyes of the women – I can conjure all that up in the batting of an eyelid, thanks to Mr. Hosseini. In fact, the film doesn’t do full justice to the geography at all, being shot somewhere in Inner Mongolia or thereabouts.

The British, the Russians and the Americans have all played their part in ravishing this beauty for their own petty gains over the last 300 years, and particularly so since the 70’s, when the country became a pawn in the Cold War endgame. The hot-blooded tribes that inhabit the unforgiving landscape have played their part too, falling prey to bloody infighting incited by scheming Cold War powers, that has wiped away entire villages, families, clans and generations. Power hungry warlords have ruled the mountains and fought for control of the Kabuls, Herats and Kandahars – even as foreign invaders were vanquished with the help of other foreign invaders. Why did the US military intelligence wait 10 bloody years before they realized that the only way to win the war was to supply the Mujahideen with anti-aircraft missiles, something that was known on the ground for at least 2-3 years before that? It seems they wanted to exhaust the Soviet Union’s resources in killing the Afghans, so that they could watch the disintegration of the Soviet empire later in gleeful mirth. And then they make films with Tom Hanks to glorify the fact that some Congressman wallowing in drugs and women found it worth his while to convince the CIA to send in those very anti-aircraft guns. And end the movie saying that US didn’t play the endgame very well. Ah, well…didn’t we know that?

As soon as the Soviet army left the land of the Afghans (originally Pashtuns, but also Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and others), the US conveniently forgot about them until they found a scapegoat in a bearded guy named Osama Bin Laden who reportedly owned responsibility (unproven?) for driving two passenger jets through the World Trade Centre in New York. Till then, the fact that the Taliban existed hadn’t bothered them – the fact that the Taliban exercised capital punishment in the form of stoning innocent men and women to death for adultery during half-times of football matches in Kabul’s national stadium and barred women from education and jobs hadn’t stirred their curiosity (as the global guardians of morality and human rights and such similar crap) – but the fact that they had had the gall to provide shelter to some small time operatives known as Al Qaeda (Arab Afghans) propelled them into a full blown war. Did you hear you saying its all a gimmick to gain strategic military position in Central Asia? You know the global political landscape well then, I must admit! A country, which had not yet picked up all the landmines that the Russians had planted in their land, (some of which were deliberately shaped like candies so that children would pick them up, lose limbs and their parents wouldn’t be able to take part in the war effort) has ever since been embroiled in another war. Some 2-3 million of them still live as refugees, mainly in the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan and in Iran.

The most hilarious part in all this is that the US might have actually sponsored the holy war of terror against itself. Along with Pakistan’s ISI, the US invested heavily in the training and arming the Mujahideen who were fighting the Russians, and some of these same facilities were then used to nurture the young Talebsmadrasahs and militant training camps which came up all along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has ever since, provided a steady stream of Talebs and suicide bombers to the world at large. The ISI and the CIA (and possibly all the world’s secret services, since it is rumoured all of them work hand-in-hand anyways) have washed their dirty hands off the issue but the fact remains that they are now fighting an enemy that they helped create themselves. Well they are not actually fighting an enemy – that’s just a ruse for getting closer and closer to dominating the oil reserves in Central Asia.

Well, some food for thought – definitely, at least, its fodder for authors and film directors who in recent and not-so-recent memory have churned out novels like The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns (again by Hosseini), Shantaram (by the Australian convict Gregory David Roberts who fought part of the Afghan war against the Russians on behalf of a Bombay mafia don) and movies like Kabul Express, Kite Runner (again) and Charlie Wilson’s War – that have kept us captivated. Thanks at least for bringing this beautiful country into the limelight – for those who have been to the upper echelons of the Himalayas where the snow capped mountains co-exist with harsh brown terrain like those in Leh, Ladakh in Kashmir and also north of Lachen in Sikkim, I’m sure they will appreciate the feeling of humbleness in their souls that the awe-inspiring, unforgiving, beauty awakens in us – such environs can only produce the most big-hearted of men for only they can match up to what the unrelenting vastness of nature demands. Will the Kabuliwallah ever return???