Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Flox, Tulips and the butterfly..

Looks like the HP color printer ad so much at the Washinton Post site. Sarah P. Duke Gardens, NC. Click on the photo to enlarge.Posted by Picasa

More Tulips!

Some nice colors. And good depth. Posted by Picasa

Duke Gardens..

Tulips, Japanese Maple, and a ton of other beautiful flowers and trees. Spring is the season to be in NC! If you can handle the pollen :- Posted by Picasa

Tanya Posing at Duke Garden.

The flower is almost as big as her face! Duke Gardens, Durham, NC. Unfortunately, Durham is in the news for all the wrong reasons these days. Click on the photo to enlarge.Posted by Picasa

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Google, Yahoo and beyond..

Like a breath of fresh air – they keep coming at you. Un-relentlessly, without any remorse, with simple punches, from the right and left. Keep you wanting for more… and more.. Yes you are right – I am talking about Google. Today they released their calendar. Its so simple and elegant – that the only word that came out of my mouth was ‘wow’.

The world of Google started with – of course, Google. Then they hit us with gmail – and then again with Google talk, Google videos, yada yada. One thing that’s common with all these applications is that they are ALL simple to use – but powerful nonetheless.

The calendar is no different. Here is another suggestion to make it even better. Make use of the ‘tab’ phenomena more. In the calendar, on the left hand side, there are some tabs for news, gmail etc – make them open in the same window – not a new one.

BTW I used the phone out feature from yahoo yesterday – ooooooh.. sweet as honey. At 12 cents to India – it’s the best deal yet from any good company. (Reliance comes up to be about 14.4 cents if you do the math). The quality is great considering its VOIP and the ease of setup etc is virtually .. I’m confusing myself now – I should just say – it was easy to set it up.

I think Skype is history.

One thing I cannot get is that it charges all of 1 cent to Canada, 1.5 cents to Australia – but 2 cents to calls made to a phone in the US! Hmm..

Here’s a prediction. In another 6 months – we are going to see google talk do this VOIP thingy as well – I mean PC to phone (they already do VOIP for their talk program), anyway, so they will come up with their own phone out thing – only difference – it will be of course – FREE. Yup. Let me say that again – you can make a call to a phone from your PC for FREE. How they are going to do this – you will no doubt ask? Well - They would provide a ‘premium’ service where users can pay for a phone call – just like what yahoo is doing it – but they will also have a free service – for cheepos like us. All we would have to do before making a call would be to see (or see and listen to) an ad on our computer for maybe 30 sec or so. I think they will get tons of ads for this kinda stuff – don’t you? You can bypass their ads using their premium service.

So there you go – Google stock jumped another 30 bucks :) . If only I had 10 of those.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Here & there: India - metros and trains - Razi Azmi

Here is the second in a series of four articles about a Pakistani writer’s trip to India. The original can be seen here.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

William Dalrymple recently wrote that one ought to visit Bihar if one wished to see India as a failed state, adding that if one wanted to see how India will look if it succeeds, one should go to Bangalore instead. Perhaps, time will tell

Kolkata has an underground metro train line with 17 stations extending over 16 kilometres. Service is cheap, frequent and punctual. In contrast to the city above them, the underground trains and stations are quite clean. The metro, India’s first, used to evoke pride among the people of Kolkata, but now it is no match for the spick and span, ultra-modern and larger metro system of Delhi.

Metro or not, Kolkata’s decline commenced when the British moved the capital to Delhi in 1912. The partition of Bengal in 1947 (resulting in the separation of East Bengal, now Bangladesh) hastened the decline, which was aggravated by decades of Communist rule.

If there is one thing that can definitely make the Bengalis of Kolkata and West Bengal (and, to a lesser extent, Bangladesh) proud, it is their affinity for literature, dance and drama. Many years ago, a special issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review had commented that only in Kolkata were you likely to meet a police officer who could discuss Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

When I mentioned this to a friend, he confirmed its veracity from his personal experience. After the Bangladesh war of 1971 he had been arrested and taken to the police station chief in a border town of West Bengal for illegally crossing the Bangladesh-India border. On seeing that he was reading a novel by Tolstoy, the chief ordered his immediate release! But the captor didn’t let his prisoner go until the two had exchanged a word or two about Tolstoy.

Kolkata has been made famous by Satyajit Ray, one of the best film directors the world has produced. In 1992, on his deathbed, he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Special Oscar.

If their metro train and cultural accomplishments give pride and joy to the people of Kolkata their man-drawn rickshaws are a blight. Not many are left, and they are confined to a small section of the city, but it is a pathetic sight to see a human being, tethered to a two-wheeled rickshaw much like a horse, running on the street pulling passengers seated at the back.

By Indian standards, Kolkata only gets a trickle of Western “backpacker” tourists and most of them arrive only in transit from Bangkok heading for other destinations in India. The many hotels and restaurants in the city thrive on account of visitors from neighbouring Bangladesh — businessmen, tourists and students.

Thousands of Bangladeshi students pursue higher studies in India and many Bangladeshi colleges and universities take their students on “study trips” to India. Kolkata is not only a point of entry into India for Bangladeshis, but it is for Bengalis everywhere what Lahore is to Punjabis. It is their cultural Mecca.

Motorways and roads are being constructed throughout India at a frenetic pace. Their centrepiece is the oddly named Golden Quadrilateral connecting the four so-called mega-cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

There are many private airlines operating in India, Jet Airways, Air Sahara, Deccan Air, Spicejet and Kingfisher being the major ones with large fleets of modern planes. The traffic at Delhi airport (India’s second busiest, after Mumbai) is comparable to some Western airports: a steady stream of planes landing and taking off. Thirty-five airlines fly to Delhi. There are over two dozen flights daily between Delhi and Mumbai alone.

Most Indians can’t afford to fly and, owing to the huge distances, trains remain by far the principal mode of long-distance transportation. Given the high demand for railway tickets, buying one usually entails standing in long queues and well in advance of the travel date. Ticketing is fully computerised and tickets may be bought anywhere in India from any point of origin to any destination.

The Indian railway system as a whole is a wonder. It is a massive network, the world’s largest, inherited from the British but hugely expanded and improved in the last 50 years. Single tracks have been turned into double tracks, lines have been electrified and many metre gauge lines have been converted to broad gauge.

The number of trains that run on the tracks is just unbelievable. Excellent long-distance overnight trains named Rajdhani Express connect the national capital with virtually every distant state capital. Comfortable daytime short-haul trains called Shatabdi Express connect the capital with nearer destinations such as Lucknow, Agra, Jaipur, Amritsar and Chandigarh.

Trains may run late, they may be overcrowded, but they run with a frequency and cover distances that are mind-boggling. But derailments and accidents are rather frequent and the human toll is often high. Ignorance and human error are to blame as much as technical failure, ageing equipment and infrastructure problems.

I will be less than frank if I did not tell readers that my first railway journey in India 15 years ago was a disaster. As I was sleeping on an upper birth in an express train from Hyderabad to Chennai, I woke up in shock in the middle of a very dark and wet night about halfway through my journey. A thunderous roar and shaking confirmed my worst fears: my train had derailed.

Slowly but surely my coach overturned and fell on its side. Although a total of eight coaches overturned injuring many passengers, fortunately no one died. I escaped without a scratch and arrived at my destination safe and well, though a bit shaken, about 14 hours late. As reported in the next day’s newspaper, the derailment was caused by “metal fatigue” of the track when the train was travelling at a speed of 80 kilometres per hour.

The accident had occurred at about 2:45am. The relief train arrived nearly three hours later. By then all passengers, some screaming from pain, had been pulled out of the overturned coaches by villagers. When the relief train did arrive, the “rescuers” had little to do except transport the passengers to the nearest station.

Other than this “minor inconvenience”, my experience of the Indian railways has been pleasant. I have travelled from Mumbai to Delhi, Kolkata to Varanasi, Allahabad to Delhi via Lucknow and Jaipur to Delhi via Agra, in addition to Hyderabad-Chennai.

Indeed, a journey on the Indian railway is likely to be an educative experience in multiculturalism, human camaraderie and plain efficiency at a low cost. I must admit, though, that I travelled first class most of the time, with the added privilege of booking my place on the trains through the special facility for foreigners.

Indian trains are India in microcosm, both for better and worse. If the state of the state of Bihar is any guide, the decision to make Laloo Prasad Yadav the minister of railways doesn’t bode well. During the 15 years that Yadav ruled Bihar directly or through his wife and cronies, it descended into violence and lawlessness.

The well-known writer on India, William Dalrymple, recently wrote that one ought to visit Bihar if one wished to see India as a failed state, adding that if one wanted to see how India will look if it succeeds, one should go to Bangalore instead.

Perhaps, time will tell. But the Indian railways are too serious a business to be left in the hands of any politician, let alone one with Yadav’s reputation.

This is the second part of a series of articles. The writer can be contacted at raziazmi@hotmail.com


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Here & there : Incredible India - Razi Azmi

A well written, interesting and very readable account of a trip to India by a journalist from Pakistan.

Here is the first in a series of four articles. Also available here


Thursday, March 16, 2006

India’s central, state and local governments have not even bothered to clean up the towns that attract tourists, such as Varanasi (Benaras), Jaipur, or even Agra, for that matter. No cleanup or window-dressing for tourists. Take it as it is or leave it. Such is India’s allure that Western tourists keep coming nevertheless, some of them on their second and third visits

The title of this column is borrowed from the buzzword of India’s official campaign to attract more Western tourists to the country. On my first trip to India, 15 years ago, I had visited Hyderabad, Madras (Chennai) and Bangalore in south India, as well as Mumbai (Bombay) in the west. Having just returned from another trip that took me to Kolkata (Calcutta), Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan, in the east, north and west, I have to agree. Incredible India!

India takes one’s breath away, both metaphorically and literally. Metaphorically, because one is simply awestruck by the number and majesty of her monuments, by the size of the country, by its cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, and by the many signs of economic and social progress. India, it seems, has more world-class historical monuments than the rest of the world put together. Speaking of first-rate monuments of Muslim heritage, I wonder if India may not have more of them than the rest of the Muslim world combined.

Stretching from Burma to Pakistan, from Sri Lanka to China, India’s diversity is stupefying. Imagine a Naga alongside a Sikh, a Tamil next to a Kashmiri. With 15 official languages and countless dialects, there is more diversity in India than entire continents can boast.

Although it is a Hindu-majority country, there are as many Muslims in India than in Pakistan or Bangladesh, more Christians than in Australia, as well as millions of Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, animists and others. Predominantly Indo-Aryan in terms of racial origin, a quarter of India’s population is Dravidian and three percent are a mixture of Mongoloid and others. And it’s not mere statistics, India’s diversity is evident everywhere, in colour, cuisine and costume.

India also takes one’s breath away quite literally, for there are streets, lanes and bazaars where one can hardly breathe — so strong is the stench from the strewn, rotting garbage and human and animal excrement. Incredible India!

India’s central, state and local governments have not even bothered to clean up the towns that attract tourists, such as Varanasi (Benaras), Jaipur, or even Agra, for that matter. No cleanup or window-dressing for tourists. Take it as it is or leave it. Such is India’s allure that Western tourists keep coming nevertheless, some of them on their second and third visits. Not the stench, not “Delhi belly”, not even the bomb blasts, nothing will stop them. There is something magical about India. In fact, India is full of magic, superstition and surprises.

If first impressions are last impressions, then I arrived at the wrong place. I flew into Kolkata, which has little to show by way of modern development, except a new bridge across the river Hooghly. Its finest buildings were built during the British Raj, but most are in various stages of decay or disrepair.

Kolkata makes one wonder why the people of West Bengal continue to vote for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has delivered little except, possibly, subsidised food and cheap public transport. Enough reason to vote, some might say. Compared to Delhi or Mumbai, not to mention Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai, Kolkata seems like another world, in a kind of time warp, forgotten by time — and by the central government in Delhi.

The ride into town from Kolkata airport introduced me to that side of India which Pakistanis would much rather not know about, for they prefer tales of Muslim persecution in that country. The day of my arrival happened to be a public holiday throughout the country on account of Muharram. My taxi driver feared a traffic jam on the main road because of the Muharram tazya procession. And although we took the back streets, we still ran into a smaller procession, complete with chest beating and all.

My first acquaintance with Kolkata’s bureaucracy was a trifle amusing, if a bit frustrating. It was typically Bengali, in terms of the tardiness, as well as the verbosity and sentimentalism on display. At a quarter to ten, I joined a line of mostly Westerners outside the locked doors of the railway reservation office for foreigners. The door opened a few minutes after ten. We were allowed in and made to sit in a waiting hall with numbered forms. The counter was equipped with four computer terminals, but only one of them was operating. Work didn’t commence until a quarter of an hour after opening time.

With just one official at work, progress was slow anyway. But within about twenty minutes, it ground to a near-halt when he got into an acrimonious argument with a colleague in a mixture of Bengali and Hindi. On arrival, the colleague in question had been accused of being a habitual latecomer. As everyone watched, the two exchanged sharp words mixed with irony, with the accused saying that the accuser’s attitude confirmed what he had always suspected, that his life and welfare did not matter to the latter at all, for he had not even cared to ask the reason for his coming late.

I was reminded of the comment of the American journalist, PJ O’Rourke, about his experience in Kolkata in 1998 in his book The CEO of the Sofa: “I spent the next four days trying to accomplish something in India again... This would take twenty minutes. Adjusting the clock to Indian Daylight Wasting Time, that’s four days.”

The people of Kolkata vote for the Communists, but religion and superstition pervade their lives in a way that I have not seen elsewhere. Most taxis in the city are adorned with a miniature deity, or a picture of one, on the dashboard. That, of course, is not much different from the religious verses and incantations that are suspended from the rear-view mirrors of motor vehicles in Pakistan. What was different was that a driver would alternately touch the deity and his forehead two or three times with the fare to bless his income.

On one occasion, I climbed the raised soil around a pipal (fig) tree on the footpath in order to better position myself to take a picture. But before I could take one, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A man had drawn my attention to something where I stood. Quickly, I retreated with an apology, for I had desecrated a sacred tree. I had failed to notice the two or three stones, along with few flowers and some vermilion, signifying something sacred. Every tenth tree or so had the aura of holiness attached to it in this manner.

Later, in another incident that educated me in the social intricacies and religious nuances of India, I slipped my foot into a slipper (chappal), which I intended to buy, to make sure it was the right size. It happened to be on the top of a stack of slippers and miscellaneous footwear for sale on the footpath. Their owner furiously demanded that I withdraw my foot, which, I surmised, had the effect of defiling his stock.

True, his stock consisted of footwear but, until sold, they were his capital, his asset, his means of livelihood, and therefore, clean and sacred, not to be trampled underfoot. Incredible India!

This is the first part of a series of articles. The writer can be contacted at raziazmi@hotmail.com