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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When Holland hosted an India-Pak cricket game (Part 3)

I will admit that it is with considerably reduced motivation that I set out here to continue my saga on the events of the 21st of August 2004, headlined here in previous blog posts as “When Holland staged an India-Pak cricket match”.

While I repeatedly tell myself that I do not write for an audience – and when you keep repeating something, you begin to believe in it yourself ;-) – the fact is that if you know somebody is interested in reading what you write, it does serve as additional motivation to do so.

The overall response to parts 1 and 2 of this story has been somewhat “meh” and if I hadn’t felt obligated to do a Magnus Magnusson (“I’ve started so I’ll finish” act - Mastermind), I’d probably not even bother with a part 3. After all, “no feedback” is also feedback.

But here is part 3 – and even if there isn’t ONE person interested, that’s just fine. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d be speaking to myself – and, by the looks of it, it won’t be the last. :-)

So there I was, at the cricket ground in Amstelveen for this India-Pakistan one-day international (ODI).

I have described the atmosphere a little bit in part 1 but I need to talk about it again here because it is central to the story of part 3.

Considering that cricket is a religion in both India and Pakistan, and given that it is often (sadly) used as a proxy for war, the atmosphere for any India-Pakistan cricket match is bound to be charged.

One has only to follow the discussions that take place on forums in cyberspace to gauge the extent of passion that fans of both countries have and the extent of opposition-baiting that they indulge in. As someone who has spent a lot of time in cyberspace on cricket, I can safely say and you have to take my word for it – it is ugly. And certainly not for the overly sensitive.

Now transpose this to a live match situation, where you are right there at the scene of action, in a packed stadium, flanked on all sides by not just supporters of your own team but also supporters of the opposition.

In many stadia, supporters of the two teams are seated separately. There may be many reasons to do this but one of the reasons is quite likely to be to minimize crowd trouble during the game. Fans can just get a bit too caught up in their emotions, and if there is alcohol also flowing, the odd word or wind-up can quickly snowball into a very unpleasant situation. In Holland, everybody is very familiar with this, thanks to the legendary football rivalry between Amsterdam-based Ajax and Rotterdam-based Feyenoord.

And this was India-Pakistan, easily of the same trouble-creating potential, if not more.

I do not know whether grounds in India or Pakistan have country-specific seating arrangements, but at the Amstelveen ground there was nothing of the sort. In fact, it was a very informal setting. A couple of pictures - this was not my seating area though.
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

As it turned out, I occupied a “ring-side” view , very close to the boundary rope. Stretching it a bit, I could have actually even stretched out and touched players fielding on the boundary - well, almost. :-) Here's an example of one such fielder, VVS Laxman, obliging fans with autographs.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

I was flanked on all sides by both Indian and Pakistani supporters.

It might have rained for a good part of the morning but the rain certainly did nothing to dampen the spirits of the fans. Many of them were not even from Holland, they had come many miles, mostly from the UK, but also from other European countries and even from the USA to watch this match.

They had come to have fun – and fun they would have, in any shape or form. There were flags of both countries to be seen all around the stadium, each one trying to outdo the other. There were fans tooting on vuvuzela-equivalents, there was beer flowing freely (as one would expect in Holland). In general, rain or no rain, everybody was having a fun time.

When the match started, the support lines got more clearly defined of course.

The Indians around me were amazingly passionate about the Indian cricket team. Far more than I was, actually. There was even a group that had come all the way from Bombay (Mumbai) – they were part of some sort of tour and were due to attend a Shah Rukh Khan / Preity Zinta concert in Rotterdam later that day. (I saw SRK/PZ sitting in the VIP area).

These Indian fans were somewhat middle-aged and were initially a bit shy (after all, they were not used to Holland) but when I started singing Hindi songs (I am always singing!), they opened up and joined me. There was instant camaraderie – nothing like Bollywood songs for bonding. 

The Pakistani support group around me was different. They were obviously very passionate about Pakistan – but they were far more vocal too. The Indian applause for a good performance by an Indian player would be drowned many times by the Pakistani cheering for a Pakistani player.

Considering the way the match went, considering there was precious little for Indian fans to cheer, you can imagine how one-sided the overall support situation would have been. I can never forget the cries of “Shu-waib, Shu-waib” for Shoiab Akhtar as he came charging in, from his long run-up, to bowl.

Somehow when we Indian supporters tried to scream from the top of our lungs for Balaji, it did not quite sound the same. Or was it just the speed difference between Akhtar and Balaji that was being reflected in our relative screaming levels?

Anyway, we tried our best. There was nothing more we could do than support our team from the sidelines. We screamed, we waved the Indian flag, and on the few occasions that our team gave us something to cheer about, we even gesticulated “thumbs down” to the Pakistani supporters. Needless to mention, we got more than our share of this from their side but that’s how the game was playing out that day. Most importantly, it was all in good spirit and was a lot of fun.

As the match progressed, and it became increasingly clear that India would be losing, the Indian fans began losing their spirit too. They began getting quiet and the flag-waving became less visible as it became almost an embarrassment.

The Pakistanis were obviously getting more and more animated. Their flags easily began outnumbering the Indian ones. I even saw Chacha Cricket (Pakistan’s most famous cricket fan, who tours all over the world to watch every Pakistani match) doing the rounds around the stadium, with a Pakistani flag.

I tried to lift up the spirits of the Indian supporters around me, but they were just not in a mood.

The moment the match got over – and that was the moment most Pakistanis were waiting for, because they knew they were winning – a whole lot of Pakistanis invaded the ground and began making their way to the presentation area.

The mood was absolutely euphoric for them, there were only Pakistani flags to be seen all over the place. Looking at the Indians around me, it was like a funereal mood.

And then I did something that shocked everybody around me.

I borrowed a flag from one of the Pakistanis around me and began waving it, alongwith the other Pakistanis.

The people sitting around me, who by then knew each person’s allegiance, were stunned. The Indians could just not believe what I was doing. I had been one of the most vocal supporters of India right through the game. And now, instead of feeling bad about India’s defeat, I was waving a Pakistan flag in celebration of Pakistan’s win?

One of the Indians even asked me “Are you really Indian?” When I said “yes”, he said “Are you not ashamed?”

Now I could have had a long debate with him on the subject right there but I did not want to create a scene – that was certainly not the place for it. I just smiled and said “No”. I could sense the Indians around me distancing themselves from me, disgusted with my behavior. One of them even said “Abhi agar ye India mein hota…” (If only this had happened IN India..).

The Pakistanis were also equally stunned. They could not have imagined that an Indian would ever wave a Pakistani flag.

But wave it I did – sharing totally in their moment of celebration.

On some of the occasions (not all), when I’ve narrated this story to my Indian friends, I’ve met with a look of disapproval from them. Some of them have only shaken their heads, some of them have called me a “pseudo-Indian” – and worse.

When I think back on the incident, and wonder, if the situation arose again, whether I’d do the same thing, I find myself saying “yes”.

The thing is, I feel we make too much of a fuss about certain things.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand how symbolic a national flag is. Waving a country’s national flag is an expression of solidarity with, of support for, a country.

So by waving the Pakistan national flag it appeared as if I was supporting Pakistan.

And yes, at that moment, I was. I was celebrating a Pakistan win, hand-in-hand with other Pakistanis there. And what’s wrong with that? Some people have told me “But you don’t need to wave their flag?”. True, I didn’t have to – but if their celebration consisted of waving their flag, I didn’t see anything wrong in joining them in this manner.

Yes, I could have continued to wave an Indian flag – and I would have gladly done so. But it was a celebration moment for Pakistan, not for India. So, other than to continue to show my loyalty to my country (which I didn’t think I needed to), there was no point in waving an India flag. It was Pakistan’s moment, not India’s. And I wanted to congratulate Pakistan.

Besides, I found no need to behave like most of the other Indians there. Yes, I was also not one bit happy that India lost. And lost pretty badly too. But I had come there to enjoy a day out, to enjoy a day of good cricket. Regardless of who’d win and who’d lose. One team had to lose anyway. It was just that Pakistan played the better cricket that day, so my team ended up on the losing side.

But the way most of the other Indians were behaving, you’d think somebody had died. If I’d not wanted to avoid a scene that evening, I’d have told the Indians around me to get perspective. It was just a game. Nobody had died.
I am not claiming that what I did was right. Maybe it is one thing to congratulate a winning side, it is another to celebrate their victory. At the end of a tennis match, the loser and winner shake hands, it does not mean they have a drink together to celebrate the winner.

I don’t know – all I know is that the atmosphere was one of fun and celebration for Pakistan and I saw nothing wrong with joining in. Throughout the match I had been rooting for India – even when they looked totally down and out. I didn’t need to prove my allegiance on this count to anybody. I didn’t then. I don’t now.

Besides, while it is a fierce contest on the cricket field – and the rivalry is great and wonderful – one should not carry this into one’s personal life, in my opinion. It is precisely this overflow, outside the sporting arena, that is disturbing and unhelpful to person-to-person contact between the two countries. Sport is sport and let’s keep it at that.

It is incidents like this that however remain in my mind after all these years.

I’d gone ostensibly to see a cricket match that day.

I returned however with non-cricketing things on my mind, questions about propriety.

Whether I did right or wrong.

By waving the Pakistan flag.

By putting on an act of being a Pakistani with that Pakistani gentleman, to make him feel at ease.

If any reader is interested at all – and has bothered to read through this whole story – I’d love to know his or her point of view. :-)

Friday, February 18, 2011

When Holland hosted an India-Pak cricket game (Part 2)

In the previous (first) instalment of this 3-part story, I had talked about some of my experiences at an India-Pakistan cricket match at Amstelveen, Holland. That was one eventful day and I feel the need to have to split the story into three parts, each with its own story to tell.

Anyway, onto part 2 now. In the 24 hours that have passed since the publishing of the first part, exactly one person has evinced interest in part 2. That’s very encouraging – and already one more than I was expecting! ;-)

To recap, I was in Amstelveen, Holland, on the 21st of August 2004 to watch an India-Pakistan one-day international cricket match.

I have promised to keep the match narrative short and I shall try to do so.

Not that there is much to talk about anyway. It turned out to be a reasonable disaster of a game.

For one, it rained for a good part of the morning, so the game started a couple of hours late. It had to be curtailed to a 33-over game (from a 50-over game).

Pakistan batted first and, except for some exceptional bowling by Balaji, it was one-way traffic as Pakistan dominated the Indian bowling. India’s son-in-law-to-be (by virtue of the Sania Mirza connection), Shoiab Malik, was particularly impressive.

The chase was never going to be easy for India though Sehwag and Ganguly did make a decent effort upfront. But when Rahul Dravid got run out (not grounding his bat, I might add!), as a result of a freak direct hit from Inzamam-ul-Haq (of all fielders) right from the long-on boundary straight to the keeper’s end, it pretty much sums up the cricket for you if you are an Indian cricket fan. Yes, it was just that type of a day.

India got roundly thrashed – and that is all I am going to talk about the cricket. If you are really into checking the scoreboard, you can find it at
http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/match/66374.html

Now, onto the main story for this part.

Like I said, it rained a lot that morning and there was practically no play till almost 1.00 p.m.

While a lot of people were missing the cricket, personally, I did not mind the rain very much because it gave me an opportunity to walk around a bit and meet up with the celebrities. I could always see a cricket match again in my life but when would I get a chance again to talk to Mandira Bedi and Kapil Dev? (not sure I’ve got the order right there, not if I claim to be a cricket fan ;-)).

So I was doing just that when I realized that it was lunch time and I had better grab something to eat before the game finally did start.

What I had not reckoned with was the food arrangements. To be fair to the KNCB (the Dutch cricket Board responsible for the event), they could not have foreseen such a crowd. There was just one covered tent-like structure, housing all the food items available (a lot of them were Indian/Pakistani cuisine of course). It was a buffet system, but since the tent was bursting inside with the crowd, we had to wait outside to get our chance to get in. And boy, that was some queue outside!

I was getting hungry but I had no choice. I just had to wait like everybody else.

In front of me, there was this middle-aged gentleman, with a little boy of about seven clinging to his arm. From the look and dress of this gentleman, I guessed he was of Pakistani origin.

Since there was nothing we could do except wait, he decided to engage in conversation with me. He was really nice and soon he was telling me everything about himself, his family, how he had moved to England from Pakistan, how he missed Pakistan, all that. I listened with a lot of interest – it may surprise some people but I am a reasonably decent listener and I do love listening to such stories.

Anyway this was going on for a while, and you can call me dumb, but it was not until he began saying things like “jaisa hota hai na, hamaare Pakistan mein” and “aakhir hamare Pakistan ki khushboo”, that it struck me that this gentleman was laboring under the impression that I was a fellow-Pakistani.

Now it was not the first time that I had been mistaken to be of a nationality other than Indian. In Europe, I have been mistaken several times to be Turkish. And, in the Middle-East, people have spoken to me in Arabic assuming me to be a local. Even in India, in the immigration queue at the airport in Delhi, I was told years ago to stand in the foreigners queue based purely on my looks.

So being mistaken for a Pakistani was not strange in itself – but it came as a shock at the moment of realization. What’s more, I suddenly realized that such had been the bonhomie created by then between us that springing the news to him, at that reasonably late point in our association, that my origins were from across the border might not have been the best way to proceed, if I wanted the conversation to continue without awkwardness. No, I am not suggesting that he had anything against Indians. But the nature of the conversation until then had given me every reason to feel that his comfort was clearly linked to an assumed common nationality.

Maybe I should have come clean with him then and there and just let things happen. But I could not bring myself to do this. He was SO engrossed in the conversation and I somehow felt that there was no need to rock the boat.

So I went with the flow. Never once did he ask me what my country or place of origin was. So I did not have to lie to him at all. That would have been difficult because I am a hopeless liar. But when I did have to speak (which was thankfully not very often), there was a fair spattering of Urdu thrown in. Although Urdu is my favourite language, my Urdu is pretty pathetic but the other option would have been Punjabi – so Urdu it had to be.

I still remember, after all these years, some of the words I used. I remember throwing in words like “awaam”, “milkiyat”, “tabdeeli”, “maslah”, “lutf” and one of my favourite Urdu words “muqtalif” (I use this word whenever I can!). I remember saying Hindustan instead of Bharat or India. Throughout I was extremely uncomfortable though - I am very surprised he did not notice how much I was squirming. All those years of listening to Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics and to All India Radio’s Urdu Service were finally beginning to pay off.

Finally it was our time to enter the tent – it could not come soon enough for me. And not just because I was really hungry by then. I was glad to say “khuda hafiz” to him and attack the food.

At that point, I thought I had seen the last of him. Not quite. When the match got over, Pakistanis all around the ground (and many on it since they had invaded the pitch) were celebrating. They were in no hurry to leave, they wanted to savor the moment. The Indians, on the other hand, had already starting making a move towards the exit well before the game got over and in any case were in no mood to hang around.

Although I stayed for much longer than most Indians (more on that in part 3), when the crowd began to dwindle, I too began making a move towards my car.

Just as I was nearing it, I saw him again. This time he came running towards me “Mubarakaan, mubarakaan” (congratulations!), grabbing my outstretched hand (meant for a handshake) with both hands. “Itni jaldi tashreef le ja rahe hain aap?” (You are leaving so soon?).

I said “Haan ji, kuchh zaroori kaam aan padaa hai” (Yes, some important work has come up). And I beat the hell out of that place. At that stage in the evening, though he came across as a really nice guy, I just did not have the energy to go through another exhausting play-act performance.

When I think about it now, it is not an experience I am particularly proud of. Technically I did not lie but I did contribute to his wrong impression and to that extent it does not feel very right. Although it is such a silly thing that it is not worth thinking about. In fact it was one of those experiences that you would typically see on Seinfeld (most probably happening to George).

In any case, it made for a memorable experience and the fact that I still remember it, to a fair degree of detail after all these years, just shows how strongly it has taken bed in my subconscious. And to think that I usually cannot remember what I had for dinner last night! Talk about selective memory!

So that was another interesting experience on the day that Holland hosted an India-Pakistan cricket game. Far more interesting than the game itself, for sure.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

When Holland hosted an India-Pak cricket game (Part 1)

The cricket World Cup starts within the next 48 hours. Similar to the football World Cup and the Olympics, this event also comes around only once in four years. So you can imagine the excitement in the cricketing fraternity right now.

As if this once-in-four-years anticipation is not enough, this time it is being hosted in the Indian sub-continent. For security reasons, Pakistan is not a hosting country, so it is going to be India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh who will have the honours of hosting the tournament.

The excitement and the hype right now, at least on internet sites and forums, have reached crescendo level. Although I am not physically in India right now, I can only imagine how the mood must be in that cricket-crazy country, especially as it is hosting the tournament and is one of the hot favorites to win it.

But I am not going to write about the World Cup here. There is SO much being written about it, it has reached saturation point. Everybody is suddenly a cricket “expert” making predictions, everybody is going nostalgic about his/her World Cup experiences. And while it all makes for a reasonable read – and I do have my share of World Cup memories - I do not want to add more noise to what is already out there. At least not on my blog.

What the cricket World Cup has however done is to rekindle certain memories in my mind about some personal experiences I’ve had at a cricket ground, here in Holland. These memories have less to do with cricket and more to do with me being the guy who somehow gets himself into situations that either nobody else gets into or other people easily get out of. :-)

I will keep the cricket-related aspects of the narrative to a minimum because I think it may not interest many here. (not that the non-cricket related aspects will interest many but, as is my wont, I will ramble on anyway).

It was the 21st of August 2004. India and Pakistan were scheduled to play a one-day international game. Not in their home countries but at a neutral venue.

Amstelveen, Holland.

Now, anybody who knows anything about India-Pakistan rivalry and cricket as a religion in both countries will know that no game between these two countries is “just another game”. The passion of fans, and players too, reaches a different level altogether and the bragging rights are more cherished than many other trophies in the game.

Besides, normal cricketing ties between the two countries had only just resumed a few months earlier, after a hiatus of almost five years, following the war in Kargil, Kashmir in May 1999. So cricket fans were even more eager than ever to lap up any cricket between these two countries.

Fans had come from as far off as the US. As one of them, who got friendly with me, told me, where else would he get a chance to see an India-Pakistan game? Not in the US (maybe in the future, but not at that time). There were fans from all over Europe, from Spain to France to Poland. Almost all Indian or Pakistani-origin, of course.

It was quite a sell-out that day in Amstelveen, much to the surprise of the KNCB, the Dutch organization that runs cricket in the country and responsible for running this event. I could see them struggling at times to cope with the crowds – I am sure they had not anticipated this level of popularity for a cricket event in Holland. I read later that they were very happy with the event because it had made them a lot of money. Good for them.

As for me, I was so excited, I took the day off from work – I just had to be there at the game. I had booked a ticket online, making sure I got one of the best seats in the house, in line with the stumps and almost at touching distance of a player if he were to cross over the rope. It also happened to be right next to the media box. Although I did not realize it at the time, this would turn out to be a hugely “strategic” seating arrangement for me. Though the ticket did cost me an arm and a leg, I did not think twice about it then.

And it turned out to be totally worth it. I suddenly found that being next to the media box meant that I had access to various celebrities who would pop in and out of the media box for a break or for a snack or so. In India it would have been unthinkable but in Holland, the security was not strict at all. The entire atmosphere was very casual and festive. The Dutch are basically fun people and, I think, though they were outnumbered 9 to 1 on that day, those who were there were just happy to soak in the atmosphere very unlike a football match that they must be so much more used to.

Anyway, I got to meet and chat with the media team, including Farokh Engineer, Kapil Dev, Barry Richards, Sanjay Manjrekar, Arun Lal, Sivaramakrishnan, Rameez Raja, Michael Slater and even Mandira Bedi. It was a lot of fun, especially because they were also extremely relaxed.

I got to take pictures with them (thanks to a digital camera I had borrowed a day earlier from a friend of mine – am SO thankful to him for lending it to me). A couple of days later I got to take some pictures with some then-current cricketers, including Tendulkar, Dravid, Yuvraj, Kaif, Balaji, McGrath, Gillespie and others but that is another, less interesting, story because it was just pictures and nothing else. I’d rather have a chat with somebody than have just a picture taken.

Anyway, a funny thing happened at the ground. Probably as a result of my “strategic” positioning AND my grey hair (lending a totally misleading impression of wisdom) AND the fact that I had a laptop with me (yes, I had to drop in at work first to finish something before heading for the game), I was mistaken for a knowledgeable person (and possibly even a media-person) myself.

So I found myself being interviewed by NRC Handelsblad, a reputed, somewhat “high-brow”, newspaper in Holland. They carried a half-page story on the cricket match the next day and, typical of NRC, “positioned” the match in the context of India-Pakistan relations.

I was also interviewed by the national Dutch TV channel. It was not planned, I was just picked out of the crowd (the grey hair may have helped ;-) ) and a mike thrust in my face. It was about 2-3 minutes (longer than I thought!).I was mainly asked about what an India-Pakistan game meant to me.

I remember saying that it meant a lot to me in the context of furthering relations between the two countries and was therefore more than just a cricket match to me. I intentionally wanted to underplay the enmity/rivalry side of the relationship that Western hawks are so keen to project about India-Pakistan. I did say that, though there is intense rivalry between the two countries, there is a lot in common too and cricket, as one of those common elements, is an excellent medium to build a relationship from.

I was also interviewed by a BBC radio channel representative – maybe their Asian network, I am not sure. The guy, typically (BBC after all!), asked me questions about the Dutch cricket structure, the clubs and league system (similar questions to what Anil Kumble had asked me way back in 1996 when I’d met him in Holland). I don’t think this particular interview went too well – anyway I never got to listen to it though the guy did tell me when it would air.

This was all a load of fun – I would never have had these experiences in India, for sure. It is these things more than what actually happens on the cricket field itself that make a visit to a ground worthwhile.

And this was just at the start of the day. As the day progressed, I had other experiences, whether trying to get something for lunch or celebrating during and after the match.

To prevent this post from becoming one long, unreadable post I am going to split this story into three parts so that I can then have three, relatively short, unreadable posts. :-)

So here was the first of those, with two more to come. Watch this space.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Thoughts about Valentine's Day

I think I can already visualise some eyebrows going up. :-)

Raja talking about Valentine's Day? Hmmm...

I am not even going to try to understand what people are making out of this but it is a fact that tomorrow IS 14th February.

In other words, Valentine’s Day.

Once again a certain section of the world’s population will be warming to the occasion.

And another, a vastly larger section, will go about its business, completely indifferent and, most likely, unaware of the occasion.

It is a fact that, though awareness about Valentine’s Day has, over the years, increased around the world, it still has a long way to go, to get anywhere close to even Easter, let alone Christmas, in terms of awareness and celebration.

I quite like Valentine's Day. There, I've said it! :-) Yes, I quite like it.

When I was growing up in India, all I knew about Valentine's Day was that it was on the 14th of February and it vaguely had something to do with love. That was it! I know it sounds hugely unromantic but that was the level of awareness for me in the 1970s and early 80s about this occasion. Maybe it would have been different if I'd been growing up in a city but I think, in general, India was not particularly valentined in those days. (Oh, what have I missed! ;-) ).

As with any other occasion, there is a history attached to Valentine’s Day too. But over the years – and certainly with the spread of the concept around the world – the history has taken a backseat and the symbolism of the day has taken centerstage in people’s minds.

I think it is safe to say that today, when one thinks of Valentine’s Day, it means one thing in most people’s minds. A day when their love for their nearest and dearest one(s) is supposed to overflow. Explicitly.

That explains the numerous manifestations of love that can be seen on Valentine’s Day. It could be as big a deal as a marriage proposal (often colloquially referred to as “popping the big question”). Or something less relationship-redefining as a box of chocolates or flowers or jewellery or cards or poetry. It could be just about anything that indicates a special bond of love or caring between two persons.

I may be wrong but I think that, in the past, Valentine’s Day was specifically meant to be about lovers or couples expressing their love for each other. Over the years, however, this seems to have been expanded to a broader, more “generic” concept of love and nowadays it is not at all uncommon to see Valentine’s Day greetings between persons who are just extremely close to each other, without having a lover or partner relationship.

To be honest, I quite like the broader concept although many critics of Valentine’s Day (and there are many out there) argue that this is entirely in keeping with commercialization of every occasion nowadays to make more people spend more money. The more people who get into the Valentine’s Day scheme of things, the better it is for commerce and business, they argue.

I personally see nothing wrong with this. Yes, so there could well be a commercial aspect to all this. But at the end of the day it is about feelings. About warm feelings towards another person. And that can never be a bad thing, in my opinion.

Let’s look at it this way. A lot of people struggle to express their feelings towards another person. Ironically, for most people, positive feelings seem to be even more difficult to bring across than negative feelings. Often the body language goes into overdrive in a negative setting, or, one just vents one’s feelings without holding back.

It is somehow different when you want to express love or affection towards another person. Not everybody is comfortable doing this. I tend to think a lot of misunderstandings arise between two persons, not because of their being negative towards each other, but purely because of their inability to communicate their positive feelings towards each other.

And that is a real pity because most people, deep down, love to be loved. Or at least liked. And they are. It is just that people haven’t worked out yet a method to work past their inhibitions. Besides, for a lot of people, especially men, this seems to be even more difficult because, for some reason, it is considered a weakness or even “unmanly” in some societies to show a softer side to your personality. Even hugging somebody (now better known as “jaadu ki jhappi” in many parts of India, thanks to the blockbuster film Munnabhai MBBS) seems to be something not many are easily comfortable with.

Considering all this, I personally think Valentine’s day, in its broadest application, is a very good thing. It allows people to open up a bit, it gives them an opportunity to share their feelings with another person.

Yes, it can be argued that this feeling should be present throughout the year and not on just one day alone. True, but then the same argument could be put forth for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, World Peace Day, World Anti-Corruption Day and every other such occasion we try to commemorate on a single day every year. It is not about expressing the feeling only on THAT day, it is about marking a particular day of the year to remind all of us of the importance of that sentiment.

Besides, I am sure nobody will argue that we live in a world where we could do with more love, affection and caring between people. And surely if more people buy into this, it cannot be a bad thing. And if that means setting aside a particular day of the year to remind people of this, so be it! And if it means commerce flourishes with the sale of more flowers or chocolates or jewellery or other gifts, so be it! When this is money spent on somebody you love, surely it’s got to be money well-spent?

Which brings me to another point. The problem that a lot of people have with Valentine’s Day is the “gift” side of it. Just figuring out what gift to give can be a major cause of stress. Some people even jokingly say that Valentine’s Day is when a relationship is most likely to break because the gift becomes the deal-breaker. All I can say to that is, if the GIFT is what has been keeping the relationship going in the first place, then it is probably best that the deal does get broken.

In a sense, this is a smaller version of the bigger Christmas issue where people get extremely stressed out over Christmas presents. You’ve got to get something for everybody in the family, everybody’s doing it, you are not even sure who likes what, maybe you are getting something the person already has – oh, it is one hell of a nightmare!

It is. The post-Christmas returns at any store are a good testimony to the fact that the process of giving gifts at Christmas has more to do with obligation between two parties than ANY understanding of each other’s likes and dislikes. :-) It is all very well-intentioned of course but it still goes all horribly wrong.

Ideally Christmas should be about the spirit and not about the gifts. And it is the same with Valentine’s Day. It is about the feeling and not about the gift per se. I think I speak for most people when I say this but I really couldn’t care less if anybody did not ever give me any material gift on any occasion – a genuine, felt-from-the-heart “thinking about you today” message would mean more to me than a material gift given as an obligation.

So that’s how simple it is. I think it is a WONDERFUL occasion to mark a WONDERFUL emotion. And, importantly, it does NOT have to cause stress.

So, here’s wishing all those close to my heart, a very happy Valentine’s Day!

Am thinking about you – you should be knowing who you are! :-)

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Enriching experiences, thanks to family and friends

As I type this out, I am acutely aware of the fact that the last post on my blog is dated July last year. That’s over six months ago – and in the blogosphere, that means unofficial blog RIP. There are plenty of blogs out there which have met with this fate, so my blog would have been in pretty good company.

It may still be. Yes, even as I am typing this out, I am not sure I will be posting it to the blog. I did make a start with a new post a few months back but it proved to be a false start The post was in an advanced stage of completion but, inexplicably, I stopped at the eight-yard mark. I could just not bring myself to go that ninth yard. What’s more, I just deleted it immediately, so it is lost forever. So be it!

I probably owe my readers (all three of them, if you allow me to inflate the numbers a bit!) an explanation.

The main reason for this blog being inactive for so long is not for want of material. Given my reasonably eclectic interests (ok, I know they are not really eclectic but I wanted to use this word at least once on my blog :-)) AND my penchant for expressing my opinion without reservation AND my travel to India (which is ALWAYS content-candy for any writer with or without pedigree), I should have churned out at least ONE post in the last six months.

But no, I could just not bring myself to do it. No, it was not lack of material, it was just lack of motivation. Plain and simple as that. I have just not been able to muster the motivation required to put my thoughts down and post them on this blog.

Today, I am making another attempt at this. Let’s hope this post goes the whole nine yards.

Like I said, there’s no dearth of material once I get into the mood, so I need to think of what to pick for this particular post. And I cannot help feeling it is only fair (if for continuity reasons) that I talk a bit about what’s been happening in my life since I last posted here. (Sort of "poochho na kaise maine rain bitaayi"). :-)

I am under no illusions that anybody’s particularly interested – and it does seem oh-so-narcissistic – but I did get feedback once from one of my friends/readers that he (yes, it was a he, *sigh*) got an update about my well-being only from my blog. So at least for his sake, assuming he hasn’t given up yet on me or my blog, I’m going to talk a bit about what I’ve been upto.

That should actually make this a very brief post – because I haven’t been upto much. :-)

The month of August is already a distant memory and come (mid) September, I was off to India. I returned late-November and, within a couple of weeks, was off to the US. Got back on New Year’s day and am now thinking in terms of what next. Probably another trip to India?

I could end my post here with just this but I would like to talk about my trips too.

No, I am not going to talk about how fantastic the Grand Canyon was (and it WAS awesome!) or how cosy a city Boston is (and it IS cosy!) but about what I liked the MOST about my trips.

I have long held the view that there are loads and loads of beautiful places on this earth. Whether created by nature or by mankind, there’s beauty everywhere. You’ve just got to look at pictures that people upload onto the net after their travels, or read travelogues, to get a sense of amazing places to visit on this planet.

Like most people, I do like travelling to new places to get a feel for what that place’s sights and sounds are like, what its culture or history or people have to offer.

But I will admit that there is one thing I place higher than travel in my priorities – and that is spending time with family and friends.

Now if I could combine both, meaning I get to meet family and/or friends AND we travel together someplace, THAT, to me would be my best combination. But short of that, if I HAD to pick between family/friends on one hand and travel on another, I’d go with family/friends.

Having said that, I can fully understand another person having a different priority than me (especially in today’s skyped-world where you do get to “see” and “meet” family/friends online so easily). But to me, I REALLY treasure the time I spend “physically” with my family/friends.

The reason I’ve gone to great lengths to talk about this is because THIS was the highlight of both my recent trips – to India and to the US.

Usually when I fly to India, I land directly in my home city, Bangalore. There is no direct Amsterdam-Bangalore flight yet, so I need to make one stop somewhere enroute anyway. This is usually Paris or London or Frankfurt or Dubai (all of which have direct flights to Bangalore). The alternative is to fly into Mumbai or Delhi and take a connecting domestic flight to Bangalore. I have done ALL of these combinations (yes, I’ve travelled to India SO many times over the years!) but I soon settled on the “change flight outside India and land straight in Bangalore” as my preferred option. It takes less time overall (the flight connections in Europe are very decently scheduled), plus, you just check in your luggage in Amsterdam (Schiphol) and collect it in Bangalore.

This time, I flew into Mumbai instead. The reason was that I wanted to meet a schoolmate friend of mine who happens to live in Mumbai now. We’d lost contact with each other and, as fate (or a Bollywood script) would have it, just a few days before I booked my flight to India he suddenly got into contact with me, totally out of the blue, leaving a comment on my blog! (So my blog has been of SOME value at least!).

Anyway, the moment I learnt that he was based in Mumbai, I booked my flight to Mumbai, making sure I’d land on a Sunday (a holiday for him) and that too at a not-inconvenient hour (about 11.00 in the morning). I know he wouldn’t mind if I’d landed at 2.00 a.m at his place but I hate putting other people (however close they are) to any sort of inconvenience, so Sunday morning 11.00 a.m it was.

My flight to Bangalore was at about 7.00 p.m that evening, so we got a few hours together to catch up. You never have enough time on such occasions but I am glad for whatever time we did get together because it was absolutely fantastic. I also got to meet his wife for the first time and had an excellent lunch at his place.

In Bangalore, I got to catch up with another friend of mine who had moved to Bangalore only recently from Pune. He is an extremely interesting guy, with very wide-ranging interests that he can talk about (and one can listen to) for hours.

We had not met for about 6 years and only recently re-established contact
through social networking. It was another very memorable experience, what with meeting his wife and two kids too. Again here I got the feeling that
time just flies when you are having a great time.

Then, on this India trip of mine, I went to Nagpur. Yes, Nagpur. In Central India. Now even hardcore Nagpuris (is that how people of Nagpur are called?) will admit that Nagpur would rarely find its place on any tourist’s itinerary. Having visited the place now, I do think this is a bit unfair because it does have a certain charm that could appeal to a certain type of person. Me.

Nagpur reminded me a lot of the town close to where I grew up in Eastern India. The same laidback attitude, the same friendly people, the same type of railway station and downtown atmosphere – and I daresay, without meaning to offend Nagpuris, the same type of potholes in roads too in many places.

Well, I went to Nagpur for one reason and one reason alone. To meet a couple of my friends. One of them, A, lives in Nagpur, the other, R , lives in the UK but happened to be in Nagpur at that time to spend time with his and his wife’s family (both Nagpur-based).

The three of us had never met each other though we’d known each other for over five years! What had brought us together was our biggest common interest – cricket. All of us display varying degrees of madness when it comes to cricket – and our forum has seen countless discussions between us as we’ve lived the topsy-turvy life of an Indian cricket fan.

Additionally all of us are very much into old Hindi songs – A has his own blog where he posts gems of yesteryear (many forgotten with the passage of time) every single day.

I stayed with R and his family and we met up with A one evening. I know I am repeating my adjectives here but I will stay with “memorable” to describe that evening.

While in Nagpur, I also made new friends because R’s wife had invited her closest friend over from Mumbai to Nagpur that same extended weekend. So she, her husband and kid also landed up.

It was one big party! We had SO much fun, it can only be experienced, it cannot be described. I believe, in order to have fun in a group, you need like-minded people. Even one person can spoil the fun if he/she does not feel comfortable in the group (this could lead to other group members ending up feeling uncomfortable too).

In our case, we were all the masti type, so there were no inhibitions or formalities. We did lots of sightseeing in and around Nagpur, we had a picnic at a lovely lake, we played antakshari, we played lots of housie, we gorged on food and ice creams. I had a lovely time with the kids too – all I can say is that we spent 3-4 days together but it all went way too soon for everybody.

These will remain among the best moments of my India trip this time, of course in addition to all the time I spent with family. I will always cherish every minute that I get to spend with my family - just having them around is a blessing in itself.

I now realize that I missed out on meeting some friends that I wish I had met. I most certainly have to correct that the next time I am in India.

Coming to the US trip, it was to me also all about meeting family and friends. If I’d see anything of the US, it would be nice – but if I’d just meet people I want to meet and see NOTHING of the country, that would be just fine with me too.

I started on the East Coast. In Boston, to be precise. I have a couple of friends there, G and B, and, although my plans had to change due to unexpected developments when I was there, I had a really lovely time with them.

This was my first visit to Boston and I fell instantly in love with the place. It is a very cosy city, one of the oldest in the US and has a lot of European charm about it. It is also not very crowded - and I quite like that (says the guy who comes from Bangalore!). Boston also happens to have an excellent metro network called the “T”. I loved travelling by it.

The weather in Boston was, for a large part, pleasant - certainly considering the time of year and the comparable weather conditions in Europe, where flights were being cancelled at that time due to excessively snowy conditions.

But, inspite of all the fun I had walking the streets of Boston, I would still say the best time I had was the time I spent with my friends. One of them has the cutest dog on earth, the other has the cutest two-year old kid on earth. :-)

I got to meet B’s wife for the first time – she is also from Bangalore and is really nice. Although it was not planned as such, I ended up staying at their place – and felt really comfortable. I know B also from the same cricket forum referred to earlier – he is another of those crazy “muppets” there, supporting BCCI all the time. (Btw, we always refer to the Indian cricket team as BCCI, the organization that runs cricket in India, and never as the Indian cricket team. There is history behind this).

Anyway I got to watch some cricket at B’s place (India-SA Test series, the Ashes series), I got to watch some movies of a more modern generation ;-) (like “Life in a Metro”) and did some other fun stuff too.

Then onto the West Coast, in LA where I met my two nieces and a nephew, who’d come together to spend the Christmas holidays. It was awesome meeting them, especially because this was the first time I was meeting them outside their “home” environment in India. I will keep this narrative short because if I start describing this, it will take me all night. Let me just say we had a fantastic time, doing an LA-Vegas -Grand Canyon road trip. My nephew and one of the nieces were both very keen on driving, so I did not even get to touch the steering wheel.

My main job on the trip turned out to be responsibility for arranging the music. That greatly suited me because it gave me a chance to play my Bollywood all-time classics of the 1950s and 1960s in the car – something that the rest gamely went along with, albeit occasionally with gritted teeth.

We also made a trip northwards, close to San Francisco, where I met up with one of my cousins. She’s been married more than fifteen years and this was the first time I got to meet her husband! Somehow their visits to India never coincided with mine, so it just turned out to be this way. I’d heard a lot of good things about him before I met him – and I can safely say that they are all true. They also have the most lovely kids you can imagine.

We had loads of fun at their place, playing a whole lot of games and eating a lot of food too. Not to forget the coffee, considering my cousin’s husband is quite a coffee buff.

I also got to meet a very close friend of mine who lives just about 30 min from my cousin’s place. I was meeting her and her family after exactly 14 years – and it was like “yesterday” when we were catching up. We had a lovely dinner at their place, their son has grown into a tall (if typically shy) teenager. I did not get to meet her daughter that evening (she was at a sleepover) but I did get to talk to her the next day on the phone. Again, when I said goodbye that evening to my friend, I felt that time had just flown by and we’d hardly had much time with each other.

But that’s how it felt all the time, throughout my trips to India and the US. The time I spent with my family and friends always seemed to go by too quickly. That is obviously just an illusion and I must say I am extremely thankful and glad for the time I DID get to spend with all of them.

Maybe I am just growing old (my nieces and nephew will nod readily in agreement) but I am beginning to miss people I love and care for, a lot.

Which probably also explains why my best memories of the last few months are not what I saw or did but WHO I spent time with. Considering I spend a lot of time just by myself (and I really do not have a problem with that - it is a matter of choice!), when I DO meet family and friends, it feels really good.

I now need to catch up with my friends back here in Holland. And maybe soon start planning my next trip to India (story of my life! :-) ).

And hey, I DID manage to complete and post this. The whole nine yards – yaaay!