Swami & Friends

R.K. Narayan has always been one of my favorite Indian authors along with Ruskin Bond. When I tend to casually ask around friends and family if they have heard of him, sadly many simply shake their heads. However, many are very familiar with the fictional town of Malgudi that he created thanks to the TV series Malgudi Days that ran on Doordarshan in the 80s. Several people have also watched the movie Guide starring Dev Anand. Few know that the original novel that the movie was based on was written by R.K Narayan in 1958. The other fascinating fact that I only recently discovered was that R.K Narayan was the brother of none other than R.K. Laxman one of India’s most famous cartoonists, the creator of The Common Man

While I had read several of Narayan’s previous works and novels I only got around to reading his very first novel Swami & Friends over a vacation break. It was this book, where he laid the foundations for the fictional town of Malgudi that was the setting for several of his stories that were to come.

If you read up on the author, one of the things he was sometimes criticized for was the simplicity of his prose. I had read several of his later novels before reading this one and they are extremenly well written. Coming later in his career, one may assume that he got better over the years since his first effort. While this is a subjective opinion, I personally never felt this way about Swami & Friends. A book’s appeal sometimes lies in the quality of it’s prose, at other times in the quality of it’s characters.

Characters is where Narayan excels and Swami the titular character is a fascinating examination of school going boy’s pschye. Other than the fact that Swami is a child in village from a different generation than now, every adventure, every observation, every thought and every action that Swami takes in the book is never less than entertaining, thought provoking and timeless. Through every incident Narayan opens up windows into the mind of a child. A child that everyone of us was at some point in our lives.

While children of today live in a more technologically challenging world than Swami’s they still face the same challenges while growing up. School, examinations, parents, grandparents, friendship and most importantly self discovery. Every tiny chapter examines these challenges in a charming and easy to read manner. Everything is told from Swami’s unique, innocent point of view. Even as an adult in this generation it brought back several memories of school, teachers, examinations, the fear, excitement, anxiety and exhilaration that I ever experienced in my childhood.

More than anything it made me yearn for a time when we lived in simpler world where we weren’t so connected. Perhaps we were more ignorant in that less connected world. But we were a lot more willing to go out there and experience things in the physical world.

For anyone looking for a decent english novel in an Indian setting written by one of our country’s finest authors I highly reccomend Swami & Friends

Firewatch

I recently acquired Firewatch as part of the annual Steam summer sale. It had been on my radar ever since I had stumbled upon their gorgeous website.

The game starts with a lovely text based intro where you make some basic life choices before you emerge into the wilderness, which is the setting for Firewatch. You come here for the job of a fire lookout to get away from your complicated life. What follows is at once a lonely, thrilling and gripping experience all at the same time.

This is not a review of the game but an exploration of the emotions and feelings that the game evokes as you get further into it. The world of Firewatch is a lonely one. Your only human interaction is with your supervisor over a radio walkie talkie. Now you might think that this would make for a boring game. What holds everything together however is the forest, the central story line and the incredible voice acting by both the main characters of the game.

Firewatch is a relatively short experience lasting around 4 hrs. Any longer and it would have probably drawn out the experience unnecessarily. Firewatch can best be described as a exploration narrative. It’s why the game dosen’t offer much of a challenge in the game play area. So players looking for something more, won’t find it here.

What it does have is an incredibly strong sense of place. The unique art style really draws you in. A sense of loneliness pervades throughout the game. Yet the world around you and your simple objectives continually drive you forward. There is a central mystery that kind of strings you along across the world of Firewatch. Your mostly navigating across the world from point to point with the help of a map and compass.

Your only companion on this journey is your supervisor Delilah. Your conversational relationship with her is the central driving force of the game. Every conversation has a set of choices that must be selected within a few moments of them being offered to you. While these choices don’t determine the final denouement what they do is shape the your ongoing relationship with Delilah. It was a very rewarding experience to see how these small but frequent choices affected her responses towards you.

Firewatch takes place over the course of only a few months and during that time you actually experience a relationship over a walkie talkie mature and grow in a way that actually feels real. The most important thing I realised was the game never puts a hard label on the kind of relationship that develops.
In the end it’s all about the connection you as the player make with this place, and the people that traversed it before you. It’s about reconciling a past relationship while exploring the possibility of a new one. It’s about discovering things about oneself in moments of intense solitude.

Go play Firewatch. Or rather go experience Firewatch. It’s a prime example of the magic of video game storytelling.

Onwards to Bhutan

As we settled ourselves into the airplane the first leg of our journey to Bhutan I recollected the TED talk given by the President of Bhutan about what they as a country hope to achieve over the next few years. He spoke about concepts like Gross National Happiness, being carbon negative and several other things. It was a coincidence that I happened to come across the video just a week before my planned trip to Bhutan. I guess all I could say was I would get to experience all this first hand. In the overly cynical world of today, we need to see with our own eyes before we believe.

While I took the tourists route for my trip to Bhutan, the crowds were very bearable and I actually ended up having a very pleasant and relaxed time. From it’s amazing culture to it’s raw natural beauty it’s a place that will take your breath away.

Getting into Bhutan

We began our journey from Pune and a couple of flights later ended up at Bagdogra in the state of West Bengal. From there it’s a 4 hour drive to get to Phuentsholing which was the first town on our journey into Bhutan. The drive was quite nice for the most part which also takes you through some tea plantations but also some chaotic areas. One of the strangest things I noticed here was crossing several bridges that looked like they were over vast expanses of water. When we got close though, what looked like water turned out actually be vast stretches of silt or sand. Whether things have always been this way or it’s a result of the current rainfall situation was hard to say.

 

Jaigaon was the last town in India before you cross over into Phuentsholing in Bhutan. The border between the two is just a simple gate with no security check of any sort. You can simply pass through between the 2 cities by driving across the gate. The most striking thing about it is the utter contrast between the two cities as soon as you drive through the gate. It’s almost complete chaos versus calmness. The difference is striking considering that both the towns are literally a stone’s throw away from each other.

Phuentsholing

Phuentsholing is the town where you need to secure a permit to be allowed to travel further into Bhutan. So we stayed overnight at the lovely Park hotel. One of the things my tour guy had mentioned and that I noticed from the very first hotel to the last was that most of the hotel staff comprises of women. It wasn’t just cooking or housekeeping that they took care of. They were also the ones to carry your bags up to the room. Which as a gentleman can be a slightly embarassing revelation.

After that overnight halt we spent almost 3 -4 hrs of the next day in getting our travel permits. This despite a local travel agent helping us out. In retrospect it was probably the most stressful part of the entire trip. Though we spent most of our time in the office just waiting our turn it was a tiny room with too many people and a general feeling of chaos.

DSCN0383.jpeg

To Thimpu

Once we were on our way to our first destination Thimpu is when Bhutan’s beauty really opened up to us. It’s a 6 hour journey through stunning mountains and valleys but it’s all winding roads and those prone to motion sickness might have a tough time. The temperatures dropped drastically and even we who aren’t usually prone to motion sickness struggled a bit.

We stopped for lunch at Hotel Dam view a much needed pitstop. It was the only restaurant on the way to our destination but it offered a wonderful view and great food. It’s where we tried both dosa and Keva Datsi which is a traditional Bhutanese dish. Both were amazing and we highly recommend this restaurant to any of you who pass this way. To cope with the motion sickness the restaurant owner also recommended something called butter tea which I loved despite not being a tea drinker.

After lunch we felt a lot better and could really begin to appreciate the scenic beauty of the country. The traditional buddhist prayer flags also started appearing at several points along the way.

Th roads weren’t crowded and it was incredibly peaceful. This bridge that we crossed along the way felt like an antidote to all the chaos of India we had left behind and we had to stop for a few moments to let it sink in.

DSCN0396.jpeg

More about the next part of our trip to Bhutan will come in a series of subsequent posts.

 

 

 

Boyhood

You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kinda thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like the moment seizes us.

Richard Linklater is a very different kind of director. If you have seen and liked the Before series of movies you know how heavily focused on dialog they are. Boyhood is different from the those movies because even though it has romantic elements and deals with relationships between people, it is first and foremost a coming of age movie. It also took 12 years to make the film. The reason being that the director wanted to make the movie feel as authentic as possible by using the same actor across the 12 years shown in the movie. To his credit actor Ellar Coltraine who was just 5 when the movie began shooting has done a remarkable job of portraying a boy who is growing up before our eyes over the course of slightly around 3 hrs of film.

The film doesn’t move like a standard drama film like you might expect from it’s premise. It flows naturally from dialog to dialog from one year to the next at a gentle meandering pace. The supporting cast also does a great job and when it reaches it’s conclusion you feel like you have really understood how this particular boy has grown up and all the choices he faced along the way.

While I personally loved the movie it’s also a a difficult movie to recommend. It can be hard to describe what exactly the movie is all about. With the absence of any sort of a traditional plot it might not appeal to those looking for pure entertainment. Then again I had never quite seen a movie like Before Sunrise either and it was one of the most absorbing and unique movies I had the pleasure of watching. Give Boyhood a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.

The movie also let me discover the song Hero by Family of the Year and it has now become one of my favorites

The Journey of the Olive Ridley

Every year Olive Ridley turtles make the journey to beaches around the world to nest. I had the opportunity to witness what happens after the little ones are born.
Countless times on nature channels I had watched footage of Olive Ridley turtles emerging from their nest and making their way to the sea. This was a long time ago and somehow I assumed that this occurred in a country other India. So when a friend called me and mentioned that there was a weekend excursion to watch this very phenomenon I signed up for it with little deliberation. I needed to get a break from the city life in any case.

A midnight departure and a bus journey of around 6 hrs was supposed to to get us in time to watch the morning session for the hatch lings. Unfortunately the bus took a wrong turn somewhere and recovering from that mistake costs us enough time to miss the morning session. We did spend some time at the Velas beach before returning to our home-stay for breakfast and a little rest. The nice thing about the beach is that it is explicitly allowed only for turtle watching. No other water activities occur there and the waves are not recommended for wading into. This is why the beach continues to remain clean and beautiful.

Other than the hyacinth the beach is thankfully free of trash. One of the other reasons for keeping humans off the beach during the nesting season is the nature of the mother Olive Ridley. Once she digs a nest, lays her eggs and covers it up her responsibility as a mother ends. So she does the best to lay her eggs on the beach she perceives as the safest and gives her babies the best possible chances of survival. These facts we learnt on short visit to the local forest official’s house where we were shown a very interesting documentary on the turtles. He was an earnest guy who we could see was genuinely motivated and wanted to make people understand the importance of conservation.

DSCN0188.JPG

The Olive Ridleys have many threats both natural and man made. This has made it necessary for conservationists to build an enclosure on thehe beach that you can see above. The sticks placed in the sands indicate the location of a nest. The ones with a cane tokri and jute sack cover indicate eggs which are almost at the end of their nesting period.

Since we missed the morning session we would have to wait until the evening for a chance to spot the turtles again. So we killed time by walking up to a small fort nearby called Bankot. It offered up some gorgeous views of the ocean and since it wasn’t too crowded with tourists also made sitting there a relaxing peaceful experience. The interesting thing about the fort is that a lot of it’s actual history is shrouded in mystery. So even though it was discovered in the 1700s it’s actual date of origin continues to remain undetermined.

One of the nicest things about getting away from the city and visiting a village are the variety of rustic houses that you get to see. Sloping roofs are the most common aspect of the houses and are a real treat to the eyes

When we went back to Velas Beach for the evening session uncovering the nests showed us no hatchlings had emerged. So we just spent some time enjoying the sunset and the beautiful sand.

When we went back to the beach the next morning we got lucky as 3 baby turtles had emerged from the sand. The thing to understand was that for some people who had come there expecting hundreds of baby turtles emerging from their nests and making their way to the sea it would turn out to be a disappointment. It was sad to hear some people muttering that since only 3 turtles were seen it wasn’t their money’s worth. It was a sad line of thinking that really annoyed me. It is important to understand that this wasn’t some kind of a show or spectacle that you paid an entry ticket to. The presence of only 3 turtles actually indicated a very sad state of affairs and truly showed how much the turtle population had gone down over the years. That aside the watching these tiny creatures flip and flap their way towards the sea is a wonderful sight. When one them finally makes their way into the waters there it evokes several emotions in the mind. The feeling of triumph knowing that the baby turtle has completed it’s first and most important journey of it’s life. The fact that only 1 in a 1000 baby turtles makes it’s way to adulthood makes one wonder, pray and hope that the baby has a bright future in store.

DSCN0270.JPG

 

The Price of Travel

Puno was the last part of my trip to Peru and was the perhaps the place where I had my longest conversations with people. It’s was an hour or so long boat ride to the island and I overheard someone saying that the group of people on that boat ride were from 11 different nationalities which was pretty cool.

On the walk up to the island I got talking to 2 British girls who I noticed had brought their own packed lunch even when food was offered as part of the tour. I got to know that one of them was lactose and gluten intolerant and her friend was just keeping her company. It also turned out that were actually students who had taken a year off so that they could go on a super long vacation of 3 -4 months to several places over the world. They were planning to go to to New Zealand and other places quite a distance away after they were done here. I asked them how they were managing things planning wise and financially.

Turned out they worked jobs full time for a few months before this vacation to be able to pay for everything with no financial help from their parents. One, I was instantly jealous that they were going to be on such a long vacation and secondly it was both fascinating and and a revelation that at their age, just working for a few months could earn them enough money to go on such a long a vacation. I was on vacation for just 8 days in a single country and it took a sizable chunk of my savings. I probably would not have been able to extend my stay any longer due to financial reasons. It really gave me perspective of how the economics of life are so different in countries.

Oscars 2016 Nominees : The one’s I’ve seen

I’ve always loved watching the Oscar awards. From the moment the nominations are announced up until the final show it’s undeniably an exciting and fun time for movie buffs. It’s a good feeling to have watched some of the stuff on the list. It’s also a chance to catch up on stuff you may have missed during the year. That being said in most cases Oscar worthy films don’t always have blockbuster appeal but you can be assured that all of them do possess a certain degree of quality. Most people go to the movies for different reasons. For some, it’s a great way to pass time and they care little about the entertainment value. For some like me we do take our movie watching experience rather seriously.

Talking during a movie will not be tolerated.

Despite my hope I didn’t have the time and resources to watch many of nominated movies. These are ones that I did get to see.

Bridge of Spies

Infossible_Bridge-of-Spies

This was one of those, what should we do on a Sunday afternoon, let’s go watch a movie thing. I knew little of the movie going in. All we did was check out what’s was playing nearby and book the tickets. Bridge of Spies is about the cold war and spies but it’s not an action movie per se. It still manages to keep you on the edge of the seat throughout. It’s more emotional and resonant than you might think with another star turn by Tom Hanks. By the end of the movie you are left with what can best be described as a warm feeling inside. The revelation for me as the credits began to roll was that the movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, proving once again that he still remains one of Hollywood’s best directors.

The Martian

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet.

The Martian is the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and about the efforts of both his crew and the people back on earth attempting to save him. It’s a familiar tale with strong echoes of the movie Gravity. Something of a return to form for director Ridley Scott it’s a movie that rests squarely on the performance of the central character played by Matt Damon. Thankfully he does a remarkable job playing a character who is both smart, funny and emotional in equal ways. The comparisons with Gravity will be there just because it’s a space movie. But at the end even though I thought Gravity was stronger on a purely technical level The Martian is still an incredible journey into space and back.

Mad Max: Fury Road

hekhd7g1ddmnboxclncm

I had never watched a single Mad Max movie before this one. All I really knew was Mel Gibson was the star of the previous movies and the setting was a post apocalyptic desert wasteland. I went for this one only because I saw the race reviews it was getting from the critics. When the movie starts out it’s a little hard to figure out what’s happening and why, especially if your not familiar with the world of Mad Max. Once the movie starts firing on all cylinders, all that really remains to comprehend is that the entire movie is an extended vehicular, combat chase and escape sequence. The movie contains without doubt some of the most exhilarating, inventive and incredibly shot action sequences I have ever witnessed. Combined with music that blends so well everything you are witnessing on screen I was on the edge of my seat throughout. A rush that stayed with me long after the credits rolled.

Inside Out

insideout

This was the year Pixar released 2 movies in a year. The Good Dinosaur wasn’t the worst movie to come from the studio but it was rather forgettable in comparison to Inside Out.
Inside Out, Pixar’s latest was a brilliantly imaginative movie about the working of the human mind. The one thing they have proven time and again is how good they are at using the power of animation to explore extremely heady concepts that continue to remain relevant and entertaining for years to come. Representing human emotions as characters with their own personalities is an amazing concept to begin with. What Pixar managed to do with that will go down in history as one of the most imaginative and original movies of all time. When the credits rolled I was in awe of how they had managed to pull all this off. Without spoiling too much Inside Out is best described as a journey of a child growing up and dealing with all the complex emotions that it brings to fore. The twist is that majority of the journey is experienced from inside the mind rather than the outside.

Master of None

Unlike a lot of people who may previously have watched Parks and Recreation I started watching Master of None with only the knowledge that Aziz Ansari who was one of the stars of that show also wrote this one. There was a decent bit of buzz around the quality of the show in addition to the fact that it was Netflix exclusive. Netflix finally launched in India last week and I immediately signed up for the free trial to find out what a streaming video subscription service is all about.

That is basically how I got around to watching Master of None. The first season consisting of 10 episodes was available to watch in it’s entirety so I finished the whole thing up over a span of 3–4 days. Now having never watched Parks and Recreation before I had no preconceived notions as to what sort of character would be played by Aziz Ansari. He plays a 30 something American of Indian descent. An upcoming actor trying to make his way in the world. Straight of the bat Aziz is a very likeable actor from the way he talks and portrays himself. Most importantly he seems very real and relatable. The same goes for the supporting cast that also includes his real life parents. They are extremely sweet and their voices posses and endearing quality to them. It doesn’t take more than an episode to feel like you’ve known Dev the character played by Aziz and his gang of friends for years.

maste_s1_005_h.jpg

In 10 episodes the show covers a wide range of topics, from what it means to be a struggling actor, sexuality, relationships both with lovers and parents, feminism, racism, the intricate complexities of marriage, old age, death and everything in between. Everything is portrayed with exceptional wit, humor and an abundance of love. The situations in the show can make you smile, laugh or deliver a gut punch in equal measure. If you’re looking for something both funny and meaningful at the same time the show is a must watch.

 

San Francisco August 2015 Trip

I visited San Francisco again this year for a conference called Casual Connect. It was a 10 day trip that began with a flight from Pune to Delhi and from there to Hong Kong. The thing that struck me as the flight was landing into Hong Kong airport was, how beautiful it was because the landing strip is right beside water. The airport itself seems surrounded by mountains from one side.

Honk Kong Airport

Once the novelty had worn off I quickly remembered that I had an 18 hour layover here and would have to find every possible way to kill so much time. I am not the kind of person who can sleep anywhere, anytime and falling asleep at any place that doesn’t have a bed is tough.

Cathay Pacific Lounge

Luckily my boss had access to the Cathay Pacific Lounge and I was able to get some rest, shower and eat. The shower temple in the lounge was without doubt, the most luxurious one I have ever used in my life.

Casual Connect

The conference was held at The Hilton, Union Square. This was the view from the room window.

This was our table at the conference

One of the event sponsors had organized a party at City Hall. I had not been to this place on my last trip and I was quite impressed with this structure. It was a magnificent and imposing and entering the building made me feel like I was entering the kind of place that would host art shows or opera performances or something like that. In short anything but a party, that too a casino themed party.

A short visit to Google

Nasscom a governing body in India had organized a short visit to the Google Campus for all the Indian delegates. While I wasn’t sure which part of Google we would be visiting I was hoping to get a glimpse of the crazy awesome Google office that you have seen on the internet. Well it wasn’t quite that part but we did have lunch at one of their famous cafeterias.

This looked like one of their cars which does the Google Street Views

Inside the visitors building where we were issued our guest badges

A dino in the campus

One of the cafeterias where we had a nice lunch

Walking around the streets

On one of the days my boss was off for a meeting and I had some time to kill. So I spent my time walking around the streets of San Francisco with no general target in mind. While I was initially interested in visiting MOMA, it turned out that the museum is undergoing some major renovation and was months away from opening up to the public again.

I came across this church and didn’t plan on going in initially. When I went up to the entrance I thought it was closed because I didn’t see a single person go in or out for almost 5 mins. I finally decided to try the door and seeing it open I went in. There were only 2 -3 people inside and the moment I stepped inside the calm that enveloped me was instant. All the hustle and bustle of the street outside was gone. It was so quiet inside that when I switched on my camera to take a pic the sound made as the camera starts up also seemed way too loud.

Contemporary Jewish Museum

I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to visit MOMA so I made up my to go visit something else after having come so far. The Contemporary Jewish Museum was right next to the church and looked inviting enough from the outside.

While I wasn’t able to take any pictures of the main museum sections there was an art installation on the ground floor, where photography was allowed.

California’s Great America

One of the things that I miss back home in India is good amusement parks. I had a Sunday free so I looked out for the nearest and least expensive amusement park that I could go to. Though I would have preferred to go to Six Flags I eventually decided against it as it was too far from where I was staying.

This was a performance they had put up celebrating I think 40 years of the park’s existence

The good thing about going there alone was sometimes there was a much shorter wait for single riders

The water section of the park that I mostly avoided because I didn’t have any extra clothes

I hadn’t heard of this stadium before but I assume it’s famous and could be seen just outside the park

Overall it was a good day spent at the park. It had some great rides and it wasn’t so big and crowded that I spent too much time waiting in lines. I also got to ride the ones I really liked multiple times.

Mountainview

After I left Great America I went to Mountainview where I was supposed to meetup with my boss to have dinner before we headed back home. I took the VTA light train to get there.

The station itself was rather neat and after all the chaos and excitement of the park it felt quite relaxing there.

The train felt rather nice as compared to the bigger more crowded Caltrain ones. They even had free Wifi on board the train.

I spent a little time lounging around in a garden that was just behind the City Hall.

You can understand how creative I had to get to kill time from this beauty shot of my phone

Our Airbnb in Redwood City

While we stayed at Hilton Hotel itself during the conference we stayed at this lovely home booked via Airbnb for the remainder of our stay. It was quite beautiful and compared to our hotel felt completely relaxing and almost like home.

The dining area with a nice view of the backyard

The backyard complete with a barbeque

The Driveway

I could easily settle down in a house like this

Other random sightings

Seabiscuit

AT&T Park

Towards Machu Picchu

The road upto Machu Picchu from the town below happens on a fairly dangerous looking bus ride that always made me feel like a driver error would send me plummeting downwards. I got talking to an old lady in the seat next to me and it turned out it was her 8th time to Machu Picchu. While she initially visited as a tourist she now brought groups of people there. I was lucky enough to make it just once.

I went up to Machu Picchu a couple of times and on the first day I was part of a guided tour. While I took the train to the town below Machu Pichu some people prefer to take the 4 day Inca trail. I got talking to a guy in the group who was supposed to do the trail but ended up missing the trek group when they set off.

I talked to him quite a bit about it during the tour. When the guided tour ended we all went our separate ways. As part of my tour package I had a coupon to have lunch at a restaurant at the top itself. So I went and sat myself down to lunch there. A little while later the same guy came up to my table and shook hands with me and said goodbye. Turned out he was about to leave Machu Picchu and he happened to spot me in the restaurant while passing by and thought he should just shake to our travel friendship before he left.

On my 2nd day in Machu Picchu I just didn’t wish to get away from it. I spent almost 3 hrs at a vantage point from where I could look down below upon that magnificent city. While sitting there, I noticed a Japanese girl who was also sitting nearby for a very long time. At that moment I could only imagine that as a traveler she must have been experiencing the very same thing that I felt there at that moment. Machu Picchu overwhelms you in that way. She didn’t speak English but she was very eager to get a picture of herself and it was only after me clicking 3 -4 times and being satisfied with it that she finally let it go. Since we were the only 2 people sitting there I got her to click a few pics for me too and in my opinion it I got one of the best pictures from my trip.