Sunday, August 12, 2018

The problems that maketh Tamland

It has been a long time of vanvaas, but it has been probably worthwhile to remain silent. But then they also say, "don't speak ill of the dead." And if we follow that maxim to the hilt, we would never talk about anyone or life in itself, since we are all eventually dead anyway. So I will ignore such maxims perhaps to my own peril.

1) Mu Ka was a great Tam litterateur and no one can take that away from him (not even Lord Yama!). He also ably contributed to nation-building by putting his foot down for the devolution of what were then Central rights more to the States --- a principle accepted much later by the Sarkaria Commission for the stability of modern India in contrast to a million mutinies in our extended neighborhood. Foremost amongst these was making a common cause with a wide base on issues of Tam pride in times that mattered the most, a much needed succor from the onslaught of the Congress-i/Jan Sangh-i/Samyuktha Socialist Party version of intolerance in the bygone era including those from the Nehru family, Raj Narain, etc.,  as well as many stalwarts from Tamland such as Rajaji, Satyamurti and Bhaktavatsalam. It may have been a mere coincidence that he and the other DK/DMK stalwarts took to protest on behalf of Tamil for what he/they felt, but in ensuring the version of the Official Languages Resolution, 1968 in the way it did (, he/others ensured that there was a lot less misery for a large section of the Indian population over time.

2) More to his credit, following his own misrule from 1989-91 and JJ's misrule from 1991-96, he did not get too bogged down by details in terms of who/what affiliation ran/wanted to run a certain business or how they ran it, as long as he/his family/party got his 5-10% cut (a precursor to the infamous Jayanthi tax or the Mr. 10% jibes at one AA Zardari across the border) letting Tamland march towards industrialization and progress in its own way, independent of whether it was an ADMK front or a DMK front ruling/misruling it. Both ADMK and DMK ensured continuity in terms of policies as long as they got their choicest porterhouses (no pun intended).

3) Much of DK/DMK's rise to fame is/was correlated with the meticulous use of the newly arrived propaganda medium in the form of films to social messaging whether it be caste affirmation in the form of self-respect/suya-mariyaadhai and non-Brahminism, Tam language pride, or social evil eradication. And in that segment, a lot of credit goes to people such as Mu Ka and the atheist-turned-theist of "Arthhamulla Hindhu madham" fame Kannadhaasan as well as brilliant orators such as Sivaji Ganesan, SS Rajendran, KR Ramaswamy (who is conveniently forgotten today), etc. all of whom could sting a bee like no tomorrow, let alone like one Ali. The imprint of the Soviet/Communist revolution on all that propaganda as well as social messaging cannot be ignored, as well as the deep reasons to rename oneself from a Dakshinamoorthy to a Karunanidhi, all the while going for a Muthu, an Azhagiri and then a Stalin instead of a planned Ayyadurai (a morphed version of Periyar 'Ayya' and an Anna'durai'). What that says about what he valued the most is left to one's own imagination!

4) That said, Mu Ka knew which side of the bread was buttered the best and played both BJP and Congress masterfully, as the time of the day demanded it. Like CBN in 2018, he sided with BJP and Vajpayee in 1999 and then dropped out of the coalition when BJP/NDA suited his needs less (that movement began as early as 2002, but nevertheless). He then sided with Congress/UPA and then dropped out of that coalition when he got sucked into inaction over the death of LTTE and more so, the 2G spectrum scam. He had like-minded friends, well-wishers and advisers on both sides of the aisle and kept his rhetoric primarily for the gullible electorate, especially as he aged, mellowing down fast, but not fast enough to witness some beautiful dung droppings such as, "Is Ram a civil engineer?"

5) Mu Ka was also a man of masterful guile in converting pawns to queens on the political checkerboard. If being a No. 3 in CNA's Cabinet to sidelining Naavalar Nedunchezhian with MGR's help first and then planting himself firmly as the CM/Party President face was not enough evidence of this, realizing the gullibility of the electorate that only appreciated the face behind the versatile oratory (and not the playwright) in putting up a Mu Ka Muthu against MGR and when that attempt flopped miserably primarily due to the ineptness of Muthu, to totally removing MGR from the party when MGR demanded the election finances for the 1971 hustings be audited was one too many for even the Frank Underwood's of Tamland.

6) The typical stick to beat Mu Ka is with the epithet bestowed on him by the MGR-demanded Indira-instituted Sarkaria Commission (a different one) report: "the man who institutionalized scientific corruption in Tamil Nadu politics" (not a paraphrase from the report, but the tenor of it). But a more realistic assessment of him is more of a man who institutionalized family politics in Tamil Nadu. All others from that era have mostly fallen wayside except his family. The numerous episodes in which the DMK leadership were sidelined to ensure the pre-eminence of the Mu Ka family starting with the Maaran-Mu Ka tag-team to promote Mu Ka Muthu over MGR in the late 60s and early 70s, followed by the vanvaas as the Ram-loving Mu Ka called it (the 1977-1989 interregnum with three ADMK governments), and the early 90s' sidelining of folks such as VaiKo when he became too big for his boots in being more-Tamil-than-Tamil, or those actions that sidelined K. Anbazhagan, Arcot Veeraswami, and even the scions of the Maaran family and Azhagiri, all in favor of one Stalin.

7) As much as Mu Ka moved away from the literary Brahminical Tamil dialogue delivery that was common during the 40s with a more colloquial and mass understandable Tamil dialogues that could easily reach out to the vast majority of the people, one could also accuse him of failing to move with the times as his screenplays bombed in the 90s. While his 80s renditions such as "Paasapp paravaigal" and "Paalaivana rojakkal" were still reasonably connected to the audience, his final film screenplay for "Ponnar shankar" was one distasteful and badly mangled version of what would be a pre-eminent story of the Gounder community. As expected, the movie miserably bombed at the box office.

8) A lot has been written about Mu Ka not losing a single election from 1957 to his death. But not much has been said about the 1991 scraping in the Harbour constituency (an 890 vote win) coming as it did in the wake of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination and the disrobing of JJ in the State Assembly by Durai Murugan. The other winner in that elections on behalf of DMK was Parithi Elamvazhuthi, someone who was tom-tommed to be one of the DMK greats that defied a sympathy wave in the Egmore constituency in those days. But if one looks 25 years later, Parithi is spending his time in the ADMK vacillating between OPS and TTVD gangs/camps, further bolstering the credentials of Mu Ka for sidelining everyone in the party except Stalin. Stalin, by the way, lost in the Thousand Lights constituency to KA Krishnaswamy (a family member of KA Mathiazhagan, one of the Five Founders or Aimberum Thalaivargal when CNA left DK to form DMK).

9) The other less talked about event is his skipping of the 1984 Assembly elections when he more or less knew that he would be ousted in the aftermath of the sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi's assassination, MGR's reasonably ok governance from 1980-84 despite his kidney failure, the sympathy in Tamland for MGR and the beaming videos from Brooklyn, as well as the charisma of Rajiv Gandhi. In some sense, Mu Ka had a good premonition of the whacking the DMK alliance would take in the polls (195/234 won by ADMK) and quite easily skipped the elections. MK Stalin had again lost to KAK in the same Thousand Lights constituency in 1984 also (in what was his debut fight at the Assembly level).

10) All this said, Tamland's pre-/post-independence electoral period can be neatly delineated into three or four eras depending on one's biases.

The first era from approximately 1940 to the mid-60s witnessed populist Congress governments carrying over from Gandhi's messages, with often incorruptible and clean leaders, only mightily burdened by their philosophical and ideological inclinations as they came from elitist Brahmin/forward caste/well-to-do families. Even the Opposition in this era could not find corruption or personal animosity against the likes of T. Prakasam, Ramasami Reddiar, Kumarasami Raja, Bhaktavatsalam, Rajaji and Kamaraj. In fact, the handing over of the baton from Rajaji to Kamaraj took the sting out of the likes of EV Periyar quite quickly.

The second era began a bit earlier in the mid-50s and continued through the mid-70s with the rise and popularity of the Justice Party/DK, social reform, anti-Hindi agitations, a transformation from a "vengaayam/kattumiraandi" religious/linguistic depictions to one of "ondre kulam, oruvane devan", and the rise of film icons such as Sivaji and then MGR to prop up the DMK to power. A lot has been written about whether the 1967 win of the DMK could be attributed to the shooting of MGR by MR Radha, but most likely even if this event had not happened, the social/linguistic churn would have meant a rise of the DMK at some point in this period.

The mid-70s to mid-2010s (a really long period) is basically the era of bipolar disorder in Tamland (pardon the pun) from sun-rise to son-rise, the demise of ideology and the natural reversion to the mean in the form of compromises, nepotism, money-making/corruption and caste re-affirmations in the form of petty and fissiparous outfits such as PMK, VCK, PT, DMDK, MDMK, IUML, etc., support for pan-Tamil causes across the globe with no heed to Tamil causes and issues in the state (e.g., VaiKo), and basically vindictiveness and melodrama that has often no parallels anywhere else in India (perhaps!). This is the period that completely drove away any space for nationalist/reasonable parties in Tamland, much to their own detriment, but perhaps reaffirming faith in the idea of India (in contrast to what the current Opposition dispensation would have you believe in) that one can start with a demand for a Dravida Naadu and end up with a demand for a Bharat Ratna instead! But then Periyar is in a thidal, Anna in a samaadhi, MGR in a mani-mandapam, may be that explains the trajectory that is Tamland, perhaps!!

With the passing away of both JJ and Mu Ka, we have a giant vaccum that cannot be filled in by the likes of the 4-5 percenters (aka Vijayakanth, Ramadoss, VaiKo, Thirumaa, etc.). Nor can they be filled by the likes of PC and the essential jokers in Satyamurti Bhavan. Completely out of picture are the nationalists in Kamalalayam. Just because that name sounds similar to Arivalayam or Anbagam, the BJP cannot overnight replace the Dravidian front with its own agenda. In fact, what is the agenda of BJP in Tamland, one wonders. May be nothing and that is not too bad in a way! This vacuum that corresponds to the fourth era sees the likes of Rajnikanth and Kamalahassan trying to wade into.

In fact, I did witness a surreal event before Vishwaroopam-II that was played out in the movie hall in the US --- an in-your-face petty propaganda clip for Kamal's party, MNM. Gone are the days when subtlety used to be an art-form with phrases such as "Anna, nee naalai aaluvaai" to "thalaivare" or movie titles such as "Kaanchi Thalaivan", or even Rajnikanth's quasi-political dialogues couched as real movie dialogues in such movies as Padaiyappa and Bhaasha. This in-your-face propaganda and the distancing of the party name itself by calling it a Maiyyam or Maiam (however that is written in English), instead of a Kazhagam or a Katchi (loosely translated as either an Organization, a Grouping, or a Party) + a more South-centric focus rather than a Tamland-centric focus (not quite sure what exactly would come out of it though) just stands quite opposite to what used to be status quo. Not much good is likely to come out of such ventures, especially if one has to see Vishwaroopam-II as the first-post MNM movie to showcase a new-Kamal, if there really was one who indeed needed a rebranding.

The continuing strong anti-Shaivite stand in some form or the other starting with Anbe Shivam and continuing through Dasavatharam and now Vishwaroopam + a world where all establishmentists speak a Brahminical Tamil (laughable even it were only a fraction true) + a confused stand on terrorism (with dialogues such as "religion does not cause terrorism, but people do" quite like the NRA's stand on gun violence) does not portend an intelligent yet unintelligible Kamal who is trolled by all and sundry. This is more of a useless idiot (in contrast to the useful idiots) wanting to be a do-gooder who is probably just the wrong pressure valve in a state filled with an enormity of confrontations, complications and confused histories.

The other side sees Rajnikanth's political fantasy-world with an always ueber-correct hero now having to confront political quagmires where one does have to make a significant compromise, and can and does get trolled ceaselessly in such ventures. This front is also not likely to see a great future ahead even if it presents a mirror to the hypocrisy of the state and its erstwhile/current crop of self-declared leaders (unabashed anti-Brahminism/anti-Hinduism, but with the reality of someone who cannot skip a yellow shawl for decades + need to pull the plug on an Ekadesi and a quick burial on Dwadasi so that one can attain saranagati at the lotus feet of the same venerable God who one can veritably question as if one is a Nakkeeran-lite just because they have read Tamil well + a clamoring for a burial site despite having pretty much a good chunk of Madras in one's possessions + a corrupt regime that is tolerated and accepted as lawful/reasonable/forgivable, let alone a bigamy + countless other accusations). Primary reasons for Rajni's failure would be the strong pulls and conflicts that he has to handle + the unrealistic expectations that he has already projected (real or imaginary) + the poor health he will have to confront in building an organization from the ground up despite the presence of enough of his rasikar mandrams + a changing reality of a significantly aspiring middle-class where there is no unquestioned loyalty to anything ideological/to any person, even if reality seems otherwise, etc.

With a similar age class as Modi and MK Stalin, these two film stars have probably 5-10 years (if at all!) of good/reasonably healthy life before all their vices start taking a real effect on their well-beings. This chasm is not likely to be filled by the different power centers in ADMK and its splinter-ist outfits corrupt as they are, nor is there an alternate hope when the reality of DMK's family-centric agenda comes up to the forefront. Whether such chasms get filled up by pro-leftist anarchist outfits that supposedly emancipate marginalized outfits or worse, pro-Tamil outfits with an axe-to-grind on every Tamil problem in this vast wide world, or whether they get pushed back by caste re-affirmation fronts, or whether there is a space for moderate yet nationalist forces would be an interesting problem to witness, if only one was an outsider peering in. For an insider peering out, these are bound to be eternally uncomfortable events where one lays low, watches the surreality of modern Tamland and its various actors get played out in real-life Big Boss type events, and possibly troll away to one's merriment!

Sadly, we may not have to witness anyone asking for a plot near the Cooum in a long time to come! That may be the only comforting reality in the short while!!

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

New paper draft on terror monitoring

Sometimes, a day can feel like a month. Sometimes, years can feel like pfff. And sometimes, decades cannot be felt :).

In any case, it is time to announce the follow-up to my prior work on terrorism monitoring. Linky to the paper for those who are interested.

This is a long overdue work (as are most things in my life) on non-parametric approaches to terror monitoring. It builds on some reverse majorization theory to generate functionals for monitoring terror signatures. The good part of the deal is that the scheme is "practical," within the confines of keeping things real and simple. The bad part of the deal is it can be used for monitoring all things under the sun, and hence can be easily misused. The ugly part of the deal is whether it will ever be used, anywhere. But in any case, the job is done, well or not!

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Know your Nepalese leaders

A placeholder for all kinds of influentials from Nepal... with more to follow over time.

Maoists camp aka UCPN (Maoist), associates and splinterists 
1) Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda -- Chairman
2) Narayan Kaji Shreshtha -- Vice Chairman
3) Krishna Bahadur Mahara -- General Secretary
4) Matrika Prasad Yadav -- Coordinator and also leads United Madhes National Movement (not to be confused with former PM, Matrika Prasad Koirala)
5) Lila Mani Pokharel, Haribol Gajurel
6) Futuristan (:P): Prakash Dahal (Son of Prachanda)

7) Dr. Baburam Bhattarai -- Ideologue and JNU graduate, formed a splinterist outfit Naya Shakti, to the right of UCPN(M)
8) Hisila Yami-Bhattarai (Wife of Baburam Bhattarai)

9) Mohan Baidya Pokharel 'Kiran' -- Formed a splinterist outfit named Nepal Communist Party (Revolutionary), further to the left of UCPN(M)
10) Ram Bahadur Thapa 'Badal' -- General Secretary
11) C. P. Gajurel
12) Dev Gurung -- Secretary

13) Netra Bikram Chanda 'Biplav' -- Former a splinterist outfit called Nepal Communist Party Maoist out of UCPN(Maoists), further to the left of NCP(R)
14) Kiran Ghimire
15) Kamal Majhi
16) Sabitri Dura
17) Bil Bahadur Gurung
18) Narayan Kunwar
19) Bharat Bam

Congress camp aka NC and associates  
1) Sher Bahadur Deuba
2) Ram Chandra Poudel -- Acting President
3) Arjun Nara Singh KC
4) Krishna Prasad Sitaula -- General Secretary
5) Prakash Man Singh -- General Secretary
6) Mahesh Acharya -- Member of Working Committee
7) Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat -- Former Finance Minister
8) Sujata Koirala -- Former Deputy PM and Former Foreign Minister, Daughter of Girija Prasad Koirala
9) Shekhar Koirala (Son of Keshav Prasad Koirala and cousin of Sujata)
10) Shashank Koirala (Son of Bisheshar Prasad Koirala and cousin of Sujata)
11) Gopal Man Shrestha, Nabindra Raj Joshi -- Central Committee Members
12) Futuristan: Gagan Thapa, Gururaj Ghimire, Pradeep Poudel

Sushil Koirala -- now deceased, Former NC President and Former PM

Marxist-Leninist camp aka CPN(ML) and associates 
1) Khadaga Prasad Sharma Oli -- incumbent PM
2) Subas Nembang -- Deputy Leader of Party
3) Kamal Thapa -- Chairman of Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal), Deputy PM, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Local Development
4) Bijaya Kumar Gachhedhar -- Chairman of Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum (Loktantrik), Deputy PM and only Madhesi in the current government
5) C. P. Mainali -- Deputy PM, Minister for Women, Children and Social Welfare
6) Bhim Rawal -- Deputy PM, Defense Minister
7) Chitra Bahadur K. C. -- Deputy PM, Minister for Poverty Alleviation, Chairman of Rashtriya Janmorcha Nepal

8) Bishnu Poudel -- Finance Minister
9) Bishnu Rimal -- Chief Political Advisor of KP Sharma Oli
10) Radhika Shakya -- Wife of KP Sharma Oli
11) Sher Dhan Rai -- Minister for Information and Communication and Official Nepal government spokesperson
12) Devendra Karki -- Minister of Physical Infrastructure
13) Top Bahadur Rayamaji -- Minister for Energy
14) Shakti Basnet -- Home Minister

15) Jhalanath Khanal -- Former PM of Nepal
16) Madhav Kumar Nepal -- Former PM of Nepal
17) Khil Raj Regmi
18) Mohan Shrestha -- Aide of Kamal Thapa
19) Narayan Man Bijukche Rohit -- Chairman of Nepal Majdoor Kisan Party (Nepal) 
20) Ananda Prasad Pokharel -- Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation
21) Agni Sapkota -- Minister for Forest and Soil Conservation
22) Satya Narayan Mandal -- Minister for Youth and Sports
23) Shankar Pokharel -- Standing Committee Member
24) Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal -- Party Whip
25) Rajan Bhattarai
26) Futuristan: Yogesh Bhattarai, Rajan Karki

Madhesi camp, associates and splinterists 
1) Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum (Loktantrik) -- Bijaya Kumar Gachhedhar (Chairman, Deputy PM and only Madhesi in the current government), Jitendra Dev
2) Sadhbhavana Party, part of the Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha -- Rajendra Mahato (Chairman), Laxman Lal Karna (Co-chairman)
3) Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party, part of SLMM -- Mahantha Thakur (Chairman), Mahendra Rai Yadav (Co-chairman), Hridayesh Tripathi (Vice-chairman), Mahendra Sonal
4) Tarai Madhes Sadhbhavana Party -- Ramnaresh Rai Yadav
5) Federal Socialist Forum (Nepal) aka Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum Nepal, part of SLMM -- Upendra Yadav (Chairman), Rajendra Shreshtha (Vice-chairman), Pradip Yadav
6) Rashtriya Madhes Samajwadi Party -- Satat Singh Bhandari (Chairman)
7) Federal Sadbhavana Party -- Anil Kumar Jha (Chairman)
8) Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum (Republican) -- Raj Kishore Yadav (Chairman)
9) Jay Prakash Gupta -- Head of Federal Inclusive Alliance
10) Jai Krishna Goit
11) C. K. Raut -- supports secession of Madhes

Assorted set of people 
1) Bidya Devi Bhandari -- President of Nepal
2) Nanda Bahadur Kishore Pun -- Vice President of Nepal
3) Deep Kumar Upadhyay -- Ambassador to India
4) Tirtha Wagley -- Counselor at Nepal's embassy in New Delhi
5) Rajendra Chhetri -- Army Chief
6) Tulasi Dangi -- Personal Joint Secretary of VP Pun

7) Ranjit Rae -- Current Ambassador of India to Nepal
8) Jayant Prasad, Rakesh Sood -- Former Ambassador of India to Nepal
9) Arun Kumar Sinha, Akhilesh Misra, Abhay Thakur

10) Wang Yi -- Foreign Minister of China
11) Wu Chuntai -- Ambassador of China to Nepal
12) Chang Fang -- Deputy Minister for International Affairs of China

13) Laxman Tharu and Lahu Ram Tharu -- Part of the Tharuhat/Tharuwan Joint Struggle Committee for the formation of a Tharu state in Nepal
14) Ramesh Nath Pandey -- Former Foreign Minister

Journalists, Litterateurs, Activists and Others  
1) Rishi Dhamala -- Journalist
2) Basant Basnet
3) Prashant Jha
4) Subina Shreshtha
5) Kanak Mani Dixit

6) Manjushree Thapa -- Writer
7) Khagendra Sangraula
8) C. K. Lal
9) Kishore Nepal

10) Subin Mulmi -- Activist
11) Anubhav Ajeet

12) Prashant Tamang -- Winner of Indian Idol Season 3

Monarchists, pseudo-monarchists and the like  
1) Gyanendra Shah -- Former King
2) Sagar Timilsena -- Personal Aide of Gyanendra
3) Paras Shah and Himani Shah -- Son and Daughter-in-Law
4) Devyani Rana (Daughter of Usha Raje Scindia and purported bride of Dipendra before his killing spree)
5) Kunwar Aishwarya Singh (Spouse of Devyani Rana and grandson of Arjun Singh)
6) Karan Singh (Son of Hari Singh of J&K and spouse of Yashodhara Rajya Lakshmi, granddaughter of Mohan Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana)

7) Rashtriya Prajatantra Party --  Kamal Thapa (Chairman), Lokendra Bahadur Chand (Co-chairman), Buddhiman Tamang (General Secretary), Rajeev Parajuli (Vice President), Prakash Chandra Lohani

Track 2 people aka "intellectuals" 
1) Sukh Dev/Deo Muni -- From JNU and purported mentor of Baburam Bhattarai
2) Sridhar Khatri
3) Ananda Swarup Verma
4) Nishchal Nath Pandey
5) Kul Chandra Gautam -- Former UN Representative
6) Dinesh Bhattarai -- Former Ambassador of Nepal to India

7) Ram Madhav -- BJP General Secretary

Eminent Persons Group (reviews the 1950 treaty among other tasks) 
1) Bhekh Bahadur Thapa -- Former Foreign Minister, also a royalist
2) Rajan Bhattarai
3) Surya Nath Upadhyaya -- Former Chief of CIAA
4) Nilamber Acharya

5) Bharat Singh Koshyari -- BJP Vice President
6) Mahendra Lama
7) Jayant Prasad -- Former Ambassador of India to Nepal
8) B. C. Upreti

Blast from the past 
1) Former PMs -- Manmohan Adhikari, Kirti Nidhi Bista, Girija Prasad Koirala, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, Surya Bahadur Thapa
2) Former Kings -- Prithvi Narayan Shah (first King), Mahendra, Birendra, Dipendra (committed suicide), Gyanendra

And here is an older version: India, its peoples and its neighbors: Nepal update (July 2, 2010)


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Nepal update

Sorry for the long absence, but life is a-churning, as is Nepal....  Please excuse the lack of complete sentences aka social media-type rambling. Take it for what its worth... 

... the passing away of SuKo aka Sushil Koirala (the vanguard of the Koirala dynasty) has opened the flood gates of a rapprochement... of sorts.... Seems like the IB had intel on his impending demise. Plus the fact that the UDMF was splitting away and folks like Rajendra Mahato of the Sadhbhavana party were saying "get the hell out" to the threesome in UDMF (that is, Mahendra Thakur, Upendra Yadav and Mahendra Raya Yadav). Looks like despite the blockade, illegal trade/smuggling was going on (which would always be the case --- happens anywhere there is a border crossing) and Rajendra Mahato might have been pissed or not making enough cash relative to the threesome. So Rajendra babu loosened his hold of Birgunj and he was the one holding the forte at the Birgunj-Raxaul border crossing (70% of Indian imports go through this route, not Biratnagar, not Sunauli, definitely not Nepalgunj, not nothing)...  

So the Indians/IB must have been seeing all this tamasha and forced the UDMF to call off the blockade... And of course nothing moves in the Raxaul-Birgunj sector without the South Block saying ok... This is reality, however one would like to deny it. 

So here is my story, rumor-mill sourced or otherwise... SuKo bulldozed through a Constitution as a mission that cannot wait for the next hour, let alone tomorrow... Why I dont know... Was it the fact that he knew of his near/impending-death... wanting to be the Messiah of a new Nepal, a republican Nepal, a 21st century Nepal?... No idea, but this tamasha was easily bought in by the CPN(ML) and CPN(M) cabal... Was it just a case of entrenched Pahadi elites holding forte for eternity?.. I dont know... but does not smell right to me... 

But there was/is a vertical divide inside the CPN(M) camp.. with the ideologicals (aka useful idiots) led by Baburam Bhattarai saying, "what, what, why so urgent?".. and the Prachanda gang sitting opposite to the ideologicals.. There was already a split with the now not-so-healthy Mohan Baidya Kiran camp going wolf on "People's war is not over yet, we need to torch more buses, torch more thanas, recruit more thugs, fight more battles, till then laal salaam, laal salaam"... Now that Baburam-da has quit CPN(M) and started his useless party of sorts (which had been long time coming btw), Prachanda and MBK are making up... They will make up given that MBK is nearing his saranagati days and he needs the army of Prachanda cabal to sing along, lest he be consigned to the trashcan of history... Prachanda too needs MBK to shore up his wing as the real CPN(M) given that Guru Dronacharya is out of the ranch now :))... 

But still... how did CPN(ML) and CPN(M) buy this SuKo drama all along?.. This is something I dont see a good answer to.. its not just the anti-Indian of sorts, Jhalanath Khanal, but also the old aspiring PM-lot (aka Madhav Kumar Nepal) and that dreg who is the PM now, KP Sharma Oli... All were seeking bread crumbs??.. Makes little sense... the Indians/IB/South block/MEA/foreign office seem to have been caught up in surprise given the quick movement of things... and the quick sabaash-waa-rewa (1-2-3) from the Chinese, the Americans and the Pakistanis meant that Indians said "Start the moosik, pronto." Of course, the Nepali establishment had to retort with "We will seek the warmth and embrace of our birathers up north," but even an IQ-deficient person knows that this is just claptrap. The Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Dhivehis do this too, but in the case of Nepalese, it is utter claptrap. China cannot supply beyond a certain point to Nepal and only the poor will suffer (as it is the case now). Even the Nepali establishment (visceral in its hatred of the Indian establishment is) knows it. All they want is for the Chinese to supply their party offices so that they are not using firewood to light up their offices, aamchi Gorkhali be damned. Anyway.... 

One major thing was a few amendments were made to please the Madhesis.. the kicking of the bucket of SuKo + wanting a face saver + things quickly spiraling out of control and losing the face of not holding the border to ransom meant that Indians called things off at that stage... now people (aka Singha Durbarians) will forget the remaining Madhesi demand for re-drawing provinces... none will happen, yes you heard that right. If they did not happen for so long after 4 1/2 mths of crippling blockade, none will happen with 4 1/2 yrs of People's war... So we have 6 provinces now, or was that 7?.. I lost count already. Also, plus, the person who is going to run riot in NC now (Sher Bahadur Deuba - the other pole of the NC) does not want to split one of the provinces despite the Tharu demand or inspite of it. So status quo it is. Each province shares a border entrypoint with India (is that good or bad, even that Pashupathinath will not know!)... the Madhesis get their amendments... the Nepalese get their fuel and supplies.. India gets its face saving withdrawal... now does it mean that the Nepalese will go back to normal or will people remember this blockade for far longer?... Of course, time will tell... but most likely people will remember.. they remember the 1990 blockade.. Why wont they remember this given its so immediate pain?... This is also a yug where every dog and his uncle needs to have an opinion, so yes, the blockade stings/stang/whatever. 

Now what can they do if they remember?.. Nothing... Nepal is landlocked, period... You can euphemistically call it any way you want, go to the UN or even a bigger body, sing dongfang hong or pak sar zameen, but that is what it is.. But did it (the blockade) help for India?.. Probably not... So I am confused... What is the grand strategy to all these tactics?.. What am I missing?.. It is idiotic to assume that the South Block decided to blockade because they woke up on the wrong side of the bed one fine day... South Block is legendary in its deep elephantine memory and things do not move up quickly unless they are serious, important and worse, painful. 

Did the SuKo Messiah mission ruin a carefully built decade of work, albeit moving at a glacial pace??.. the Constitution work was going on from 2004 since the 8-point agreement was signed. There was one 6 year mis-rule of CPN(M) followed by another elections (which was long time coming when I was waiting for that) and Constitution writing was going nowhere... and within a few days/weeks they promulgated one.. Even for miracles, its weird... how.. what.. wtf.. This is exactly what must have happened at South Block... So here are a few questions that make no sense (at least to me) now: 
1) How did the Constitution come up overnight? 
2) Who orchestrated it?
3) How did all the three parties buy into it? How did the greasing/convincing happen?  
4) Why did the Indians get surprised? 
5) Why did they blockade? 
6) What do they want as a face saver? 
7) Did they get one? 
8) If so, is all well now? 
9) If not, what can be done? 
10) What is being to address the colossal intel failure that was? 

Here are more questions that can be asked, but wont be: 
1) Did the INC ruin the India-Nepal relationship by cosying up with the Pahadi elites for so long, across party affiliation? 
2) Is the change from embracing the Pahadi elites and ignoring the Madhesis for so long get a U-turn with the arrival of Modi? All this roti-beti tamasha make no sense with the Pahadis, it started with Modi. Innit?! 
3) Why did India let the mudslinging at the "Indian-origin" Madhesi take traction when the Madhesis are Nepalis? 
4) Are we preparing for a demographic shift in favor of the Madhesis? 
5) Are we seeing a Pahadi (which is euphemism for the upper class partisans of the Brahmin-Kshatriya varna) vs. Madhesi (which is euphemism for OBC/more comfortable in Hindi than Nepali) fistfight in the name of something else? Or is this a regular fight of the entrenched vs. usurpers? How much of this is caste, class and status?  
6) All policies get the imprint of the man in-charge, but does the current change in policy have an imprint from Nagpur? 

Of course, remote controlling happens across party-lines and not that one can do much if Nagpur does frame policies. But one is indeed curious as to if there is a grand strategy and if so, have all things been considered properly? 

In general, I am more confused with time than not... 

Did that non-partisan line-up (of Anand Sharma, Sitaram Yechuri, Sharad Yadav, Sushma Swaraj + Ajit Doval) cremate a SuKo type Messianic effort for good?? Did it?? I will always doubt such certitudes... Will KP Sharma Oli stop barking at the wrong tree now? While the Burnol will take a few days/months to heal, I dont expect the visceral garbage to go down any time soon. Nepal establishment is not a bosom friend of the Indian establishment, period. It never was, it never will be, and one should not even expect anything close to that. Period... 

So what is our strategy now? How exactly is a strategy supposed to be defined? What are the parameters, what are the contours of the optimization? "Do nothing" is loser-talk and I dont buy grand visions and strategies hinged on inaction ... So what exactly is going on in Nepal?! 


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Impressions from watching Leander's 17th Major win

We went to the US open yesterday and watched Leander and Martina win the US open mixed doubles title. This was Leander's 17th win in a doubles event at Grand Slam events. Some of my observations from yesterday. 

1) The best access to Flushing Meadows from Central Jersey is to get to NY Penn and then take the Long Island Railroad to the Mets-Willets station and walk from there. It is worth buying the LIRR tickets from a ticketing station (one has to stand in the queue to do this as the stations dont automatically show Mets-Willets) than to buy it in the train (a steal usually of $6 per ticket). The alternate possibility of taking MTA-7 subway from Times Sq and 42nd Street (or elsewhere) is not the best access from NY Penn. Plus, MTA subways while cheaper than LIRR ($2.75 vs $6) end up being less cleaner, longer with more stops (but more frequent at less than a 30 min wait) and more crowded. 

2) Before the mixed doubles event began, there was an ongoing women's doubles semi-final match. This match ended up being a close call, but a good chunk of the people (including us) were egging on the match to finish up faster. That was because of the coming Leander-Martina match-up. 

3) The mixed doubles' final was initially scheduled for the much bigger Arthur Ashe stadium, and as luck would have it, got pushed to the much smaller Louis Armstrong* stadium. Unlike AA, a good view of everything (including the grunts, the moans, the whines, the screams and the chest thumps when they do happen) can be had from even the far corners of LA. We sat 3-4 rows behind the reserved seating area (which in itself is pretty small), so that gave us a pretty darn good view of Leander and Martina as well as Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Sam Querrey (the runner-up).

4) While Bethanie and Sam are Americans, and the match itself was on 9/11, the Indian/Indian-American crowd was far more behind Leander. For every "Go Bethanie" or "Go Sam" crowing, a "Go Paes", "Go Leander", "Go Martina" cry crowded it out. While noone was disrespectful of/to the Americans, surely the Indian crowd was behind Leander. Why not? After all, Leander has been the most nationalist** of all tennis players ever seen on the Indian circuit, far more than anyone else I have ever seen or watched or read about.

5) Leander is really old, at 43. And it shows. Every serve of his is accompanied with grunts leaving everyone with a sad reminder that age catches up with everyone, even good people. Leander's super-quick reflexes are all but a distant past. He actually made a number of errors going the opposite way of the ball many times (I counted 4), calling balls that were in long (2-3 times), and catching the net on a weak second serve a few times. This is not the Leander I have seen before, nor the one I expected to see. (That amazing acrobatic 6-3, 4-0 lead against Agassi in the 1996 US open seems a distant past.) His still decent serves took him to hold the game many times here though and therein lies the rub.

6) But it was Martina's day and she kept it going. She took a majority of the return serves (inspired or conspired). The number of points Leander pulled out could have been counted, no disrespect that. But when it mattered the most, at 7-all in the match tie-break, he pulled a clutch shot on the line. With 2 serves to close out the match, and after one "dam lagaa ke aisha" (yes, it happened), we had a winner. Martina and Leander had closed out the match 6-4, 3-6, [10-7].

7) That brings us to the scoring system. The USTA uses one of the most non-puritanical scoring systems in doubles events. At deuce, the first point winner wins the game (the no-Ad rule). If it is 1-set-all, the system moves to a "first to win 10 points with a 2 point gap" tie-break scoring scheme (the super tie-break rule). These belong to the class of innovations introduced by the Hall of Fame founder, James van Alen, primarily with TV scheduling in mind. Unlike the other three majors as well as Davis/Fed/Hopman Cups that employ a tie-breaker only in the non-final sets and an Advantage set (remember the Isner-Mahut scoreline of 70-68 in Wimbledon 2010) in the final set, the USTA prefers a tie-break set in all the five/three sets of men's/women's events. In the mixed doubles, pushed by an aggressive TV schedule, only the Wimbledon runs the best of three set event with the other three following a super tie-break. However one debates it, a super tie-break is a super cop-out, as is a no-Ad rule. If I am paying to see the match, I would rather have a fighting game bringing me value for the cash I am spending than a quick cop-out, esp. if I have a good view of the match. Why not? If I am watching the game on the telly, I would rather have a quick game with who I like as the winner. These two benchmarks are potentially conflicting and the USTA in its grand wisdom of who brings the most profits for them has decided on optimizing over one goal than the other. While this is always the reality with anyone, it is worth noting that.

8) All that said, of all the 4 players speaking after the match was over, Leander was the most gracious. He was gracious to Martina, Bethanie as well as Sam (with whom he played in the World Team Tennis event). He was the most jovial and most articulate. And at the World Team event, he had given hints to Sam on playing doubles. While Leander did not give explicit credit to his horde of "Indian" supporters, that is understandable in this time of having to wear an American flag on one's lapels or empathizing with one doing such raucous stuff even if that statement/act is undeserved and unnecessarily in-your-face. After all, either one is with Americans or against them with no middle ground in place and life is all black or white (did not MJ say that?).

9) On the other hand, Bethanie and Sam had put up a team like 30 minutes before the sign-up deadline for the mixed doubles event. That speaks volumes on how disorganized this whole doubles scene is and how "easy" it is to come up trumps relative to the singles scene. Leander and Martina were richer by $150k, and compare that with the women's singles winner Flavia Pennetta's paycheck ($3.3 million). So Leander's take home of $75k, after due diligence to Uncle Sam and his set of trainers/coaches/physios and travel budget, etc. etc., comes to around $25k (for two weeks of hard work). Surely, singles is a more physical game, but the 40 times mark-up is deserved? For pure interesting-ness, doubles games are far more capable candidates than the walkovers we saw in the men's singles scene (an injured Cilic winning three games against Djokovic, or another cakewalk by Stan Wawrinka against Federer). That also explains why Leander is still playing at 43. In addition to his interest in the game, he has a grave need to win more events to retire peacefully and in economic safety. Whatever the case is, it makes for a sad little side story on prize money. And all that equal prize money etc. etc. is perhaps only for singles events, one assumes. Looking at the official prize money list (see pic below) shows how skewed this whole charade really is.

10) In any case, after the match was over, Leander went around the stadium (small as it is) twice to sign autographs on any damn thing (cap, ball, t-shirt, paper, anything). I must have seen him up close for a long enough time to see no airs, the banter and all. Sad that I forgot to wish him good luck to get India into the world group stage at the Davis Cup in a week's time. He needs all the luck, as does India given that the Czech Republic (even minus Tomas Berdych) are a strong team. But the match-up is in Delhi and all seedings calculations are off. As far as the Indian crowd that missed the Davis Cup thing entirely, I dont know what to make of the brave "Go Leanders".

11) This win makes Leander a winner of three major mixed doubles event this year barring the French, where he and Martina lost in the second round. At age 43, winning 3 on 4 is not just great, it makes for some fun scenes where you make up a majority of your team age (43/78). That said, the last time Leander won at Flushing was in 2013, when he and Radek Stepanek (who will be in Delhi the coming week) stopped the Bryan-Slam (another time when the Queens' crowd was as maddening as it was yesterday waiting, hoping and praying -- mostly braying -- for the Serena Slam). The guilt of a prior racist history that runs amok at the neo-liberal USTA is hard to miss as well as the in-your-face patriotism (wanting minority singers rendition 'America the Beautiful' or 'God Bless America' and illustrating the melting pot that it would nt be otherwise), what with James Blake getting a serious round of applause when he came on the jumbotron at AA later in the evening. Surely, some of that guilt could be fired at the mistrial in Alabama, or better yet, to actually help the African-Americans get ahead in life without institutional blocks rather than do lip service to them by honoring Arthur Ashe, Louis Armstrong, Serena Williams, etc.

* I really never understood why the LA stadium was named after Louis Armstrong. Sure, LA was a great jazz figure (perhaps the greatest) and he lived right next to the NTC, but other than that, what are his connections to tennis? If this is meant to appease the predominant African-American residents of Queens, well, that is a point worth noting.

** I dont know how long Leander will play, but having watched him from 1989 or so, from his winning the Junior Wimbledon in 1990 to slaying the French at the Frejus clay in 1993 (aye-aye sir to the Ramesh Krishnan ambling to win the 2 games on the 4th day to finish the miracle against who was that Rodolphe Gilbert) to the Indian Express thing that was still-born to the assorted set of partners from a Martina he idolized to a Martina who was named after her to having the sort of respect on the Tour that he is seen as a good bloke to be with, and to actually have nice words from everyone else except the touring club of Indians (ouch!), it will be sad to see him go, whenever that is. Sure, there will be Grounds Admission next year on, and I hope to catch him still, again, hopefully winning more major events. Yea, sure, Leander is no saint, no god, no vodka, no turn-on that you get when you finish up that badass paper, but he sure will always be the most Indian of Indian tennis players on the circuit. That gets him something more than the bronze he won at Atlanta beating who was that Fernando Meligeni. And that something does nt come from wearing your two-bit Stars and Stripes on your lapel, but comes with knowing and acknowledging that you are neither with them nor against them. After all, Galatians 6:7 rescues us all, amen to that.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

2011 religion census and comparisons with 2001

I broke down the data into 35 States and Union Territories (AP and Telengana treated as one state as was the case in 2011) to parse the trends in each State/UT separately between 2001 census and 2011 census. All numbers in the above table are percentages of each religious denomination in the State/UT's population.

Main conclusions: 
1) Most states appear to have reasonably stable religion figures, modulo small fertility differentials between Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Muslims.
2) Two major states (Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh) saw the Hindu percentage drop below 80% for the first time, even though Buddhists' numbers have been historically high in Maharashtra courtesy of Ambedkar. It is indeed surprising that the land of Mayawati has barely any Buddhist numbers.
3) Kerala, Assam, West Bengal and Jharkhand seem to be slowly in the path of religion-driven turmoil of an existentialist kind that comes with instability and differentials across religions.
4) Goa appears to have stabilized due to constant migration from Maharashtra.
5) Northeastern states are a seething cauldron of changing affinities, often quite dramatically as in the case of Arunachal Pradesh. Almost always, Hindus appear to be losing out to Christianity. This does not lead to any form of transactional stability and soon Arunachal Pr. could have its own religion-driven terrorist outfit apart from NSCN(K).

6) Evangelical money networks could only keep the Christian numbers stable in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Delhi, Maharashtra, it could not prop these numbers up dramatically. One could argue that the very fact that their numbers have held stable is because of the moneys pumped in. In any case, someone who is pumping the cash from foreign shores has to wonder about the value for his/her money.
7) Modulo conversions to Christianity, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Christians are decimating themselves proportionately via family planning.
8) Bangladeshi immigration seems to have had a major impact on Assam alone, but not on West Bengal or Tripura like I would have expected. Either this must mean that the West Bengali Muslims do not enjoy a fertility differential that their counterparts elsewhere in the country do not enjoy (more unlikely) or that West Bengal must be seeing Bangladeshi Hindu immigration in proportionate numbers to compensate for the fertility differential.
9) The rise of tribal affinities in Chattisgarh is probably a direct effect of the Maoist menace.
10) Of course, all of this is based on gross numbers and not based on localized data. So the reality could be far different on a microscopic scale, across districts and tehsils.

Approximately stable states in terms of religious figures modulo small religion-based fertility differentials 
1) Andaman & Nicobar Islands
2) Bihar
3) Dadra and Nagar Haveli, 1.2% Christians down, 1.2% Muslims up
4) Daman & Diu, 1.2% Christians down, 1.2% Hindus up
5) Delhi, 0.5% Hindus down, 0.5% Sikhs down, 1% Muslims up
6) Goa, 0.4% Hindus up, 1.5% Muslims up, 1.6% Christians down
7) Gujarat
8) Haryana, 0.7% Hindus down, 0.5% Sikhs down, 1.2% Muslims up
9) Himachal Pradesh
10) Jammu & Kashmir, 1.2% Hindus down, 1.3% Muslims up
11) Jharkhand, 0.7% Hindus down, 0.7% Muslims up, small changes from tribal affinities to Christianity

12) Karnataka, 0.5% Buddhists down, 0.5% Muslims up
13) Lakshadweep, 1% Hindus down, 1% Muslims up, small base
14) Madhya Pradesh
15) Maharashtra, 0.5% Hindus down to less than 80%, 0.5% down from Christians, Buddhists and Jains put together, 1% Muslims up
16) Orissa
17) Pondicherry
18) Rajasthan, 0.6% Muslims up, 0,45% Sikhs and Jains down
19) Tamil Nadu
20) Uttar Pradesh, 0.8% Hindus down to fall below 80%, 0.7% Muslims up
21) Uttarakhand, 2% Hindus down, 2% Muslims up
22) West Bengal, 2% Hindus down, 1.7% Muslims up

Unstable/Outlier regions: Part I 
1) Assam, 3.5% Hindus down, 3.5% Muslims up -- most likely due to Hindu-Muslim differential and Bangladeshi immigration
2) Chandigarh, 3% Sikhs down, 2% Hindus up, 1% Muslims up -- Hindu-Muslim vs. Sikh fertility differential
3) Kerala, 1.5% Hindus down, 0.9% Christians up, 0.6% Muslims up -- Christian-Muslim vs. Hindu fertility differential
4) Punjab, 1.5% Hindus up, 2.2% Sikhs down -- Hindu vs. Sikh fertility differential

Unstable/Outlier regions: Part II 
1) Arunachal Pradesh, 4.5% Sanamahi down, 5.5% Hindus down, 1.5% Buddhists down, 11.5% Christians up 
2) Chattisgarh, 1.5% Hindus down, 1.5% tribal affinities up -- probably propped by the Maoists
3) Manipur, 4.5% Hindus down, 2.5% Others down, 7% Christians up
4) Meghalaya, 1.7% Hindus down, 2.8% Others down, 4.5% Christians up
5) Mizoram, 0.75% Hindus down, 0.5% Buddhists up
6) Nagaland, 1% Hindus up, 0.7% Muslims up, 2% Christians down
7) Sikkim, 3.1% Hindus down, 3.2% Christians up, 0.7% Buddhists down
8) Tripura, 2.2% Hindus down, 1% Christians up, 0.3% Buddhists up, 0.6% Muslims up

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Reflections from the hockey field

Now that the Hockey World League semi-finals have concluded at Antwerp, it is time for some reflections and stock-taking.

1) The initial Indian men's practice matches saw a 1-0 win against France, a 1-2 loss against Belgium, a 4-0 win against the US and a 2-1 win against England. Most teams take these matches kinda easy and reserve it primarily to fine-tune certain set-pieces without revealing too much about themselves, learning as much about the opposition, and getting a hang of the bounce in the field and other shenanigans of the umpires. Thus, while they reflect very little about the overall state-of-affairs of each team, they do provide general indications about the trajectories of different teams. Setting up four practice matches before the main event also speaks immense proportions about the HI administrative machinery, a congratulatory note deserved to them given the ramshackle nonsense one has witnessed in the bygone era. The Indian team actually arrived ten days before the event (surprise), and an Indian umpire ran the ground in many matches, surprise surprise.

2) Anyway, from these score-lines, it augurs well that we have caught up with the English a bit (to whom we lost in the ill-fated Santiago qualification match for the 2008 Olympics as well as later in the 3rd place playoff), while we have fallen beside Belgium a bit. But it must also be pointed out that much of the "spectacular" (ably assisted snidely by the Euro-centric FIH) English climb in the 2005-10 period was built on the backs of people such as Barry Middleton, Ashley Jackson and Simon Mantell. While an official Project India was going on at FIH, an unofficial Project "Heil Europe/the white man" has been in the works over the last four decades, with a lot of backroom parleying in terms of voting/rule changes/policy changes to suit the European teams primarily. Similarly, much of the Belgian climb has been on the back of people such as Tom Boon (the costliest flop in the HIL that concluded earlier in the year) and Florent van Aubel. While it can be argued that every team climbs on the back of a few star players, it is more so the case with European teams than is the case with India. Lone superstars in the Indian team annals is a bygone era, and therein lies the rub, despite humongous noise made about the case of Sardara Singh and his lonely presence in the best-11 team of many a year. To break the Indian team and its rhythm, in general, one needs to see many injuries, like in this event.

3) The performance of the Indian men's team at the event has not been abysmal, but has not been spectacular either. While one can discount for the fact that the pre-knock out matches were only useful for discarding the 5th team (4 out of 5 teams enter the quarterfinal stage), it could also be useful for steering an easier path to the finals. In that sense, a 3-2 win against France, a 2-2 draw against Pakistan and a 3-2 win against Malaysia in the quarterfinal stage did not showcase Indian capabilities in any sense. Both the 3-2 wins against France and Malaysia were wins pulled out of nowhere-land, with goals in the last-5 minute period from Ramandeep Singh and Jasjit Singh Kular, respectively. Sadly, these were the instances in the past, where India would have demitted the opportunity to the opponents, however crappy they are/were, however lowly they stood in terms of history or the more recent FIH rankings eke-ing out draws from victories and losses from draws. These are opportunities on which we capitalize these days. This says a lot about the fitness of the core bunch --- a notch or two upwards from the good old days.

4) The other side of this performance coin was the series of massive losses --- a 2-6 loss to the Australians, a 0-4 loss to the Belgians in the semi-finals and a 1-5 loss to the English in the 3rd place playoff. Not much can be said except that our rhythm has been too wrecked by one or two initial bad happenstances in the first quarter. An early goal conceded in the first quarter has led to a meltdown, especially against strong opponents who can pounce on silly mistakes in the D. A number of such goals were scored by the Belgians and the Australians. The lack of defensive depth that could couple with penalty corner strength was sorely lacking in the event (Raghunath with an injury prior to the event and Rupinderpal's continual presence in the field dogged by his injury in the practice matches). Our penalty corner conversion rate in the league matches was beyond abysmal. Jasjit Singh Kular donned the mantle of a drag flicker for the first time in the match against Malaysia and he came up with two spectacular strikes to the top of the goal box especially when it mattered the most. The last goal, coming 5 minutes before the final hooter, was more than perfect exquisitely targeted in a way that even Kumar Subramaniam (the no. 1 custodian of Malaysia who had to return due to his son's death) could have saved.

5) The rise of Jasjit, a product of Sansarpur, hopefully opens up the now defunct assembly line of Sansarpurian hockey players. Jasjit made his debut last year and it is remarkable what a bit of trust can do to a player who was/is not in his best elements in his debut series. But the empty cupboard beyond Raghu and Rupinder is how the state of affairs is in India, let alone most teams. Take away one or two linchpins and every team falls crashing down. The losses against Australia and Belgium clearly demonstrate that the young Indian team (very different from the one that won the series 3-1 in Australia) is still fresh on its knees and experience. The Indian team will go back to the drawing board to lick its wounds and fix the mess that left them without a medal in this event. But more than cleaning up the mess, the bigger questions that need attention are: who after Sreejesh?, who is filling the D-line when Raghu/Rupinder/Birendra are out?, who are the PC-exponents?, who can double or treble up their jobs at the front, the middle and the D?, etc. and more. When the margins are wafer-thin, the pipeline needs to be hot. Despite the massive improvement over the last decade, dil maange more in terms of the lower rungs of hockey. This is a sad case of work eternally in progress. It also looks like Roelant Oltmans has stepped aside leaving the job to Paul van Ass, but the substitution charts seem to indicate that we did nt exploit this capability like we did in the Walsh era. Is this a case of one step forward, two back, or is it a transition to the good old era of "a man should last the 70 minutes?"

6) Despite all the fiasco, the order of the day was that India could end up on the podium with a win over England in the 3rd place playoff. This is how every tournament is. Pakistan finished runner-up in the Champions Trophy at Bhubaneshwar recently after squeaking through the knock out stages. Many other teams just up their ante only during these stages rather than go for the kill in the league matches. All this means nothing as knock out matches essentially capture a path to the finals and eventual hockey performance depends on the side of the bed one wakes up on. There are no rewards for "consistency" in the FIH rankings, except for consistent finishing on the podium, which is rather indirectly reflected by the strength of the team. In contrast, in most other sports, every match counts in some form or another. Take that, FIH! There is no incentive for a bilateral series in the FIH rankings chart. Thus, a win here and there against Australia or Belgium or Germany does not mean much to India, but what is needed are consistent top-few finishes and wins that matter in the knock out matches.

7) It is a fact that the FIH has skewed its rankings for Asia with a massive inertia to the past rather than the recent current. For example, the Asian Games gold won by India in 2014 will not count for the top-dog in Asia mark-up (a 750 point boost over the current 700 points we have for being the 2nd top-dog based on past calculations) till 2016 has begun. This means that South Korea will continue to be ranked the no. 1 team in Asia till the end of 2015, even though the FIH rankings get updated often enough to see the impact of the Asian Games gold medal. The obvious justification for the FIH actions is that the continental events for the other four continents do not happen till 2015, but with the next Asian Games initially scheduled for Hanoi in 2019 and the Asia cup happening in 2017 and in regularity every four years, the two-year regularity between the Asian Games and the Asia Cup was to have brought back Asia to the same page as Oceania and Europe. Now with Hanoi withdrawing from running the Asian Games, and with Jakarta stepping in but with 2018 as the host date, things are again back at a flux. It is time for the Asian Hockey Federation to step in and run the Asia Cup event at a regularity of every two years. Four years is too long a time in hockey and a weighted average of the Asian Games could only help. Given the lethargy that dominates AHF, nice try at that revolution.

8) Nevertheless, despite the inertia, India's chart is only going to go up in the oncoming future. With South Korea failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics from the other Hockey World League semi-finals at Buenos Aires (So Korea finished 7th), Pakistan failing from Antwerp (finishing 8th) and Malaysia with a thin chance (finishing 6th at Antwerp), India is perhaps the only entrant at the Rio Games from Asia. That brings us to the likely qualifiers for the Rio Games: As the top-3 finishers at Buenos Aires, Germany, Argentina and Netherlands have made it. So have Australia, Belgium and England from Antwerp. India has made it as the Asian Games gold medallist. The other four continental events are to unfold in the next few months with likely winners being Argentina/Canada, South Africa, Germany/Netherlands/Belgium, and Australia/New Zealand. I am more biased towards Argentina, Australia and Germany/Netherlands as continental champions. With Brazil with a very faint hope of qualifying as the host (it has already finished beyond the 30th overall rank set by FIH for the end of 2014 and it looks likely to finish past 6th in the Pan-Am games), that leaves 7 spots to be filled from the two HWL semi-finals stage. With this set of likelihoods, three/four spots open up for Buenos Aires and Antwerp each with the 4/3 switch depending on the head-to-head FIH ranking of the 7th team from each list. Since 3 spots are assured from each event and with two spots vacated from Buenos Aires, Canada and Spain are going to make it. With 1 spot vacated from Antwerp and India already qualified, Ireland are going to make it. The 7th spot is a head-to-head between New Zealand and Malaysia, which Malaysia will lose leaving Asia with India as the lone entry. In the remote possibility that Brazil qualifies, New Zealand is out, which would be sweet comeuppance for being the darling cinderellas of FIH, a la Belgium and England.

9) The less talked about tale is the remarkable "success" story of the women. The women have all but qualified (just the official list yet to be printed) for Rio, finishing 5th beating Japan 1-0. India has now consistently beaten Japan in the recent past (including the bronze playoff at the Asian Games last year and Asia Cup in 2013) making us the 3rd best women's team in Asia behind South Korea and China. Again, this is not reflected in the FIH rankings chart. If one discounts the boycott-ridden Moscow Games in 1980, which most sensible people do, this is the first real qualification for the women's team. The entry to the World Cup in 2006 on the back of the Asia Cup win in 2004 in New Delhi and the subsequent 11th finish was ok, but not something to crow about given the massive hosting help the Asia Cup did to us. Not blaming India for hosting that event, but this qualification, on the other hand, has happened despite adversity and essentially foreign/hostile conditions.

10) The tidings towards the qualification did not look prosperous at all. With a no-name Mathias Ahrens being appointed the head Coach in May 2015, after the Australian Neil Hawgood departed from the women's team in a show of support to the ousted men's coach Terry Walsh, things looked ominous from the start. The gap from the expiry of Hawgood's contract (Dec. 31, 2014) to Ahrens' eventual appointment/first pay-date (May 4, 2015) says a lot about the lethargy that runs rife at HI, SAI and MSYA, notwithstanding their other claims to change, mobility and dynamism. Despite the women's qualification for the Rio games, Ahrens' CV and claim to coach the women's team is a bit untested. Much will depend on the team's performance in subsequent events. Is Ahrens the lucky bellweather of change initiated by Hawgood AND HI, or is Ahrens going to take a leap from Hawgood's book and jump out of the sky? Time will tell.

11) In any case, the women had earlier traveled to Hastings, NZ for the Hawke's Bay Cup and performed reasonably well, even if they lost all the matches except the 7th-8th playoff against Japan (won 3-2). That performance left one with the feeling that the climb is far and high to the top echelons of women's hockey. Given our rather wayward performance even in this event, that feeling has only been re-emphasized. The 1-0 loss to Belgium (ranked just above us in the FIH ranking list) must have hurted the most with the 5-0 and 4-2 losses to New Zealand and Australia looking like usual business. The 3-1 win against Poland (a repeat of the HWL Round 2 finals win) set us to the quarterfinal stage against Netherlands, which we lost comfortably 7-0. But the subsequent penalty shoot out win over Italy (a team ranked considerably lower than us) and Japan set us up for the 5th place finish. Our victories, like the men's, were not comfortable and does not give us a great feeling of satisfaction despite the end result.

12) As far as the Rio games are concerned, England, China and Germany make it from Valencia (the first of the two semi-finals) and Netherlands, South Korea and Australia make it from Antwerp. With South Korea already qualified as the Asian winner, New Zealand make it too. And with one of Australia/New Zealand bound to be the Oceania Cup winner, India will definitely make it. South Africa will make it as the African continental champion and Brazil wont make it as the host. With Netherlands and Argentina/US as the other likely continental champions, the list is heavily skewed for the Antwerp half of the semi-finals, with the loser of New Zealand/Australia, India, Japan likely to make it from this half. The loser of Argentina/US in the continental event is likely to make it from Valencia on account of head-to-head against Belgium. Thus, in contrast to the men's outing, all the four major Asian teams will make it to Rio.

13) That brings me to the ugly 13th point, that of Pakistan. There is a lot of hand wringing going on in Pakistani media about the non-qualification/departure from the Olympic movement. Following up with the absence at the World Cup at the Hague in 2014, there is a lot of clamor for the heads of Akhtar Rasool (the PHF president), Shahnaz Sheikh (the coach) and Muhammad Imran (the captain, who has already resigned along with the selection panel). Sadly, none of these goals will get any job accomplished. What Pakistan needs to do is to observe the climb of the Irish (who also beat them at cricket not long ago). Or closer to home, India since missing the boat at the 2008 Beijing games. What the Irish and the Indians have going for them is exposure and more exposure. Given the dearth of exposure to hyper-running teams, what did the Pakistanis do on their first foreign visit (even missing the Sultan Azlan Shah cup for want of travel moneys) to India for the Champions Trophy in ages: show a middle finger to the crowd. What did they do in South Korea, where they had gone for an exposure trip before the HWL semi-finals: walk out of the game after a yellow card. Whether the crowd was hostile or not, whether the yellow card was undeserved or not, great going that, where one loses focus on one's strategic goals and thinks with their backsides.

With Narinder Batra still hostile to any Pakistani player in HIL (and get over it, HIL is a money spinner just like IPL is and where the money grows, one goes), the ball is entirely in the Pakistani court to fix the mess amidst them. The Pakistani team is not a bad team yet, but they could well on their way to be one, given the desert that is the PHF calendar in the subsequent years. It is not India's responsibility or obligation to lift Pakistan out of its morass by hosting a rivalry now, but perhaps a business dealing, much like cricket is. What does India stand to gain by hosting a match/series/badlaa? Nothing tangible so far. And India will only host an event if it sees net benefits to itself, get over it. I am no fan of India-Pakistan matches (rioting with or without tanks and bullets), but I am an even lesser fan of a cross-border pissing contest when the Indian team has a task ahead and with diversions galore that could knock it down from its path.

That medal-winning London-bound team post could still be alive and kicking, for all one knows. Aye Gorkhali to that!


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Castaway like a Hobbit

This is a travelogue on New Zealand based on our (my wife and I) trip over the holiday break. We spent close to 10 days (4 nights in the South Island and 6 nights in the North Island). This has been a long time overdue just like the trip was and would have been better off written right away, but god knows why I did not (most definitely not for the lack of time). Anyway, better late than never... 

Intro: New Zealand is a postcard-sized country, much like its cricket stadia, split into two halves. Nevertheless, a cursory search of the Internet throws up beautiful vistas in its broad diversity and lots of advise on must-not-miss places somuchso that an expa(e)nsive itinerary is always the first draft. When the rubber hit the road (literally and figuratively), we pruned the itinerary so much that a postcard would have been the best epithet for our plan. Our real trip took us to Christchurch, Mt. Cook-Aoraki, Queenstown and Doubtful Sound in the South Island, and Auckland, Tauranga, Rotorua, Waitomo and Hamilton in the North Island with multiple stops in between. We skipped places such as Wellington, Taupo, Nelson, Dunedin, Invercargill, Whanganui and Napier, reasons for which are very easy to figure (it is impossible to drive a large circuit in either the North or the South Island within a short time-frame and still see enough places). In hindsight, we would have spent more time on specific spots in the North (Bay of Plenty region and Wellington) and South Islands (Franz Josef glacier and Dunedin may be), cut short a few (Queenstown) and skipped a few altogether (Hamilton and Doubtful Sound). 

Broad Impressions: 
1) Our visit coincided with the Christmas-Boxing Day-New Year break, a peak time for tourism in New Zealand as it is summer time in the Southern hemisphere and coincides with the holiday season in the Northern hemisphere. In hindsight, we were lucky to find dinner on Dec. 24, a timely and well thought out booking at an Indian restaurant in Christchurch saved the day. We were extremely lucky to find ANY food on Dec. 25, a drive to Mt. Cook where a crowded Chinese-run sit-down place was still serving some food and some hoarding from a local Supervalue chain in Christchurch did help. That should reinforce the point that immigrants work harder in the so-called developed world, whereas the long-bygone-immigrants chill out and sport around whenever they can -- a point reinforced from my personal observations in Australia (cry me a river on the essential shutdown of most things from approx. Dec. 1 through Jan. 26, only the 7-11s run by Indian immigrants are/were open on Dec. 31 when some choose to work -- a blasphemy that, right in the heart of Melbourne CBD). Boxing day was nt too bad, but Dec. 31 in Hamilton was a disaster with the whole city essentially shutting down for god knows what reason. 

2) Boxing day in Australia is an even bigger disaster than it is in New Zealand. The trans-Tasman cousins are conjoined in many ways, yet different in many other ways. Love for and crowding at the beaches is a common theme in both places, but in-your-face-sporting culture is almost absent in New Zealand, as much as I saw it and people are more chilled out to be in all kindsa shapes and sizes without having to worry about that. That probably reflects on the cricket field too where the Kiwis are the last ones expected to stand in your face with aggression, while their Australian counterparts would be expected to be number 1 (make it number 0, if you can) in that list. Yet for all this, my understanding on counterfactual history is that the course of New Zealand as a nation independent of the Australian Commonwealth was just only a bit more than an accident in ~1895-96. 

That said, the Kiwis are more British than the British in many aspects and this facet of the Kiwis has been noted by many a cricket commentator-turned-sociologist (or vice versa), whereas the Australians love to love and embrace their British past when things matter (war, intel cooperation, politics, policies on handling China or India or even the US, visa issues, pom beanies and other Kangaroo route-type shenanigans, different education-sphere boondoggles) and yet disown it when it does nt matter (on the sporting arena). The Australians are broadly more racist (clarification: I believe that everyone is a racist, they just differ relatively speaking from each other) than the Kiwis and a good exhibit of this fact is that the aboriginals have been completely wiped out of Australia (except perhaps for Northern Territory) unlike the Maoris who reside prominently in the North Island (even if that is just an uneasy truce going by the considerably many Maori narratives and renditions of the Treaty of Waitangi that I found in a Whitcoulls in Auckland). That commentary also extends to many Kiwi names, which carry a hoary Maori attribution (even if in just name) including that for New Zealand itself (some long white cloud somehow embracing a hitherto unnamed South Island), unlike the Alberts, the Elizabeths, the Georges, and the Prince and Dame charmings of bygone-England. It was indeed fun to see a Bombay on the drive to Auckland, but funnier to see the expression that "New Zealand stops at Bombay Hills" (a contemptuous description of Aucklanders by non-Aucklanders). As a big city boy, I have seen and heard that before (Madras does indeed stop at Tambaram). 

3) It is common for Indians to be fooled into believing that every Australian and Kiwi must love their cricket and to pick a random conversation with a random Australian or a Kiwi, only to be rebuffed by their slight indifference and lack of a joie de vivre Indian style. Reality is far from that sentiment. A vast majority of the long-bygone-immigrant people who love their dose of cricket in Australia and New Zealand are the old, the white and the men -- those that can probably sip their tea with a stiff upper lip perhaps. As much as NFL is a water cooler conversation at work in the US, that role is played by Aussie Rules Football (which I must also admit is a more artsy, athletic, suspenseful and a fun game if not for the rampant racism by its fanatic fanbois like with European football) in Australia and Rugby Union in New Zealand. I myself am an All-Black fanatic with a craving for the Haka (not surpassed by many other war-cries barring the Gorkha), a deep love to bash both the Wallabies and the 'Boks in the Tri-Nations and beyond, and an ardent belief that black/gray is the best manly color ever, so I will not be surprised to see such a feeling from the aam aadmi Kiwi around. And trust me that the Kiwis (both the Maoris and the whites) love the All Blacks more than you can figure out. It is as embracing as cricket is in India and if not for the Gallipoli bruising, New Zealand identity formation would have had much to do with the Invincible tour of 1924. The point being, the Indian subcontinent and its expat population drives the love for cricket on a global scale and make no mistake about that. If it were not for the subcontinentals, cricket would have been cremated literally and figuratively and saved in the Ashes urn. 

4) Kia Ora is just a hallowed Bula! Just as Fiji has oversold and overmilked Modriki island (the "false" island location for the shooting of the Tom Hanks-starrer Castaway somuchso that the mere mention of Wilson, the volleyball that kept company with Tom Hanks, made us cringe), New Zealand has oversold its Lord of the Rings sceneries (making us cringe everytime we heard either Hobbiton or a LOTR/middle earth theme somewhere). Our personal impressions of Fiji were of a place with not much to do except support tourism, sugarcane plantations, and a bit of this and that. Relatively speaking, our impressions of New Zealand were pretty similar. There is really not much to do in New Zealand (beyond Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch perhaps) except support tourism in exotic locales and the businesses associated with tourism (tour-day operations, selling cheap memorabilia, restaurants on the way-side, supermarkets, ferries, skywalks, hotels/BnBs, etc.), sheep and woolen industry, and dairy farming. In contrast, Australia seems to have a more varied economic profile (some form of educational infrastructure, mining industry, etc.) and it reflects in the University profiles in Australia, things to do, and more. That is, there is a good reason why New Zealand and Australia do not fare well with the US economically speaking. It is not just the lack of a scale or a population, it is also that things are far more chilled out outside the US with only the people in the US basically killing themselves with work (take it from my 1 1/2 years in Australia and far more in the US). 

5) In my stay in Australia, I had an uneasy peace with the "Hai Maite" English not following many things spoken and heard. But the Kiwi English seemed more at home with the Indian and the US English, a lot straighter than Australian, a lot easier on the ear and a lot simpler. In fact, I found the "mate" stuff peddled only when the Kiwis met the Australians, and things did get a bit hairy then unlike what one would assume. Call it friendly competition or needling or banter or chit-chat, whatever suits you. 

6) Enough sociologizing. In terms of travel planning, plan the itinerary well ahead and book hotels far in advance, especially in the tourism season. Fiji is far better in its touristy credentials with visa-on-arrival for Indian citizens, but that is that. Unless one is a citizen of a predominantly white country or barring a few other exceptions like Singapore, Japan or South Korea, one needs a visa to enter New Zealand. Just as the case with Australian visas, the Kiwis are fairly well-organized and an email/phone call will push the status of the visa application in case the visa is not issued on their declared/advertised timeline (which is often the case). I did notice that the immigration desk at the airport seemed to be quite nosy on arrivals that had booked their accommodations in a hostel or a backpacker alley and there is the usual noise on fruits and food items (as in Australia), but in general, things are as expected. We did have the mistaken rush in transferring from the international terminal to the domestic terminal in Auckland due to change in time-zones, but New Zealand has a common time-zone, so no worries like the US. 

7) The domestic terminal in Auckland is quite a mess relative to the international one and people do look at you weirdly when you carry more than a small piece through the security line. The car rentals are randomly located relative to the baggage claim area, but right next to each other, and Christchurch seemed such a breeze relatively speaking. And since New Zealand is in the middle of nowhere (yes, it is), it is important to book inbound and outbound flights as well as all the connections on the same carrier. This helps with a uniform baggage allowance policy also. We had the most retarded scenario of an outbound connecting flight in Singapore pre-poned by an hour or so with no notice to us till the last few hours by either the carrier or Orbitz. Since the flights were on different carriers with noone clearly speaking (in English despite being in New Zealand, in facts or in details), it was indeed a horrid few hours that should have ideally been spent relaxing before the flight rather than Skype-ing to people and asking them to call and figure things out for us because you get only 30 minutes of free Wi-fi in the terminal per device. Indeed, Changi and its Wi-fi seemed to be far sophisticated relative to Auckland but deja vu again in Madras (which is another story, but Madras is still Madras -- you can talk in reasonably pure Tamil and you get a lot of help right from the policemen to the shop assistants to the security people roaming around, than if otherwise). In most of these places such as Auckland, its a chicken and egg where you need a phone connected to a local carrier to get a passcode before you can start accessing the Internet and you need Internet to pay for the local carrier because they are nowhere around. And this is in the international terminal, not the domestic one. In any case, a standard overnight stay in most places in New Zealand should be < 70-80 USD and most reasonable accommodations have free parking and wireless, but expect less and less of that in Auckland unless you choose to stay far away from the city center. Wireless internet speeds are as shoddy as in Australia, perhaps a little better, so do not go with too much hope. 

8) Do not take tour buses in New Zealand ever (especially if you can drive) for there are a plenty of them on a cursory Internet search. They are all safe, but they are all expensive, they go on the same beaten tracks that they irritate you seeing them when you drive alone, they follow a strict schedule with no control on anything in the bus, and they do not provide a good bang for the buck. If the lazy-me had to make a choice, it would have been a tour bus (99 out of 100 times), but I was correctly dissuaded by my wife. And thank goodness for that decision. The only times we actually regretted the whole trip was when we went on an organized tour of the Doubtful Sound, from out of Queenstown (a total disaster). The only forms of organized touring that I would recommend are things that require a motor/speed boat to either look at glacier spinoffs or high speed spin maneuvers or sophisticated equipment like hand glides, paraglides, sails, etc. 

9) Driving on the left is no different than driving on the right and it might be a small problem getting used to things as one heads out of the airport car rental, but once one heads out of the city center, you are pretty much lonely on the road with more leeway. This is true more so in Australia -- my prior drive from Sydney to Adelaide and back in 2005 was pretty much a lonely drive (not even a kangaroo or a wallaby in sight -- not even dead ones on the road, but with road trains, yes) except for a big speeding ticket in a village running short of resources to make their ends meet. In any case, it is always worth getting a liability insurance and unlike the US, the liability does not cover all of the damage(s) (if any). Depending on the daily rates, there is a certain uncovered amount of liability (could be 300$ or 3000$). We did not have any accident (good fortune that), but we did have a bird hit on the way to Waitomo (a disturbing incident even for someone well exposed to birds on the plate), which damaged the front grill. It could well have been far more than a damaged grill. 

10) New Zealand may seem like a postcard-sized country, but the moment you start driving, that impression comes to bite you back. Our drive took us around ~600 kms in the South Island and ~750 kms in the North Island (because of the circuit). Now that may seem short compared with the US roads and ridiculous to be nothing when one does that over 10 days, but being essentially lonely on the road is no fun thing. And doing that over ten days tires you out, even if it is the drive of a piddly distance. More so, enter a village and the speed drops from a coasting 100 kmph to a 40 kmph lest you want to share your savings in the form of a ticket (which you will get). In general, the South Island is more sprawled out than the North Island and that is seen in terms of the traffic patterns, the distance to destinations, the number of people as well as sheep density. It is clear that there are enough beautiful vistas in New Zealand, just getting to such vistas takes forever. Our oft-repeated statement over the whole trip was: miles and miles of nothingness leading to something pretty at the end. Things sure were pretty at the end with some blue lakes, glaciers, underground caves, geothermal outpourings, small mountain tops and some city views being the destinations. Initially strange are one-way bridges on the way to Mt. Cook with right-of-way for one side. The US-based GPS units do not work well (or at all) in New Zealand, and it is worth renting out a Navman or buying one outright (good luck with that chicken and egg problem). The Navman one rents is a crappy unit but does the job, except for one weird incident when it drove us into a closed road (locked with a grill and nowhere to go but backwards) near Tekapo, the Tekapo Twizel road, with water on both sides, noone in sight (not even a bird or an insect let alone people), and having to retrace the last 6-7 kms to the main road with an eerie feeling about the whole thing.

Other tidbits: 
1) Christchurch was knocked over by a few earthquakes in the recent past and it continues to be a place of seismic activity. We felt a minor tremor right after landing in Christchurch making us wanting to get the hell out asap. 

2) Gas is far more expensive than in the US and sometimes you have people helping with gas (much like in New Jersey). I have seen 100 and 110 kmph in Australia, but 100 kmph seems to be the universal maximum in New Zealand. Thats a piddly 62 mph for folks who drive at 70 or more in the US. Right after we landed, cops pulled us over for a customary pre-Christmas day alcohol test in Christchurch. Weird was that we were pulled over by the same cops on both directions even though we had to go through that point and turn back because we had come there by mistake. There are enough cops floating around and they come in different colors, sizes and shapes depending on where you drive, so it is pointless speeding past the 100 kmph mark anywhere any time. The speed limits make sense often because most of the roads do not have more banking. 

3) The long and lonely ride into Mt. Cook/Aoraki leads one to Lake Tekapo on the way. Lake Tekapo is beautiful with its brilliant azure blue waters, but after awhile it does get boring to see the same blue color sandstone from different directions and vantage points. Sad that we had to miss the North Island counterpart, Lake Taupo. 

4) After Tekapo, one sees the outline of Mt. Cook, but it does nt appear as majestic and before you as it is until you get super close. That said, Mt. Cook is even more awesome when you wake up to see the low hanging clouds right outside your hotel window. The glacier exploring at Mt. Cook was boring since I have seen far better glacier walks at Seward, Alaska. 

5) The long drive to Queenstown can be safely said to be one of the most unpleasant ones. Narrow roads winding up and down hillocks and valleys with big trucks and cars often tailing and goading you as the frontsman to hit way past the speed limit. Except for the Roaring Meg vantage point on the Kawarau Gorge, pretty much everything is a blur including the drive through Frankton into Queenstown. Queenstown downtown in itself is a messy mess with buildings packed like sardines on a death-wish and hotels are hard if not impossible to find that you end up with the least messy ones. 

6) That is because Queenstown is stated to be a good spot to take off into different directions: trekking, watching penguins and whales (penguins are easy to locate but for whales, one needs lady luck on one's side), coniferous trees (who cares?), just laying prostrate on the beachside, gliding, you name it. We tried to beat the beaten track (which is going to Milford Sound) and take a tour bus first into Te Anau, a boat on Lake Manopouri and then a bus ride into the accessible point in the Sound and a boat ride into the far reaches of the Sound. The rains did help bring out extinct waterfalls into action out of the hilltops, but spending the whole day (6 hour ride either way) and a whole lot of money with really pointless food on the bus on seeing this is taxing at best. It grates your senses after a few minutes and is a waste of time. Much ado about essentially nothing, but we did see a lot of locations that have been VFXed into Tamil movie songs and what not :). 

7) We returned the rental car at the Queenstown airport and took a flight to Auckland. Arriving after the sun had set (9ish), the most sensible thing we did in Auckland was to find a hotel very close to the airport. After the meandering drives in Christchurch and beyond, Auckland driving does shake you up a bit, especially late night. 

8) From Auckland, we headed to Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty region. We did a hike up Mt. Manganui (a small hillock) and it was a pleasant view from the top including watching someone trying to air glide himself into the seaside. The whole trip was ok except that we ended up picking a BnB without realizing it (excellent person hosting the BnB with spotless accommodation etc., just that it was odd in terms of privacy because it came as an unplanned surprise/shock). 

9) Happy to leave Tauranga, we did find the most brilliant fruit servings at Woodturners Cafe in Ngatea. Rotorua is just the stopping point to explore the geothermal wonders of this region. We were at Hell's Gate and Wai-O-Tapu. Both were brilliant beyond words, in color, activity as well as awe. If Hell's Gate was small and cool, Wai-O-Tapu was cooler. Skip the hot pool cooked food and the tinker bells. The only downside to these two places is the sulphur-rotten egg fumes and the heat that can potentially screw up one's contact lens. Even in Rotorua where we stayed, the restroom commode kept releasing gas endlessly (no pun intended) as did the mildly racist behavior from some Maoris. Of all the things in New Zealand, this short visit at the geothermal spots was really worth the cash spent. 

10) From there on to Waitomo Caves, we did the three cave Blackwater Company tour (Aranui, Ruakuri and the main cave). Aranui and Ruakuri are ok and they allow cameras inside, and after awhile one does get bored. How long can one watch stalactites and stalagmites? The most beautiful part of the whole cave thing is the boat ride in the main cave where you see a gazillion glowworms on the cave roof, which does wake you up if not anything else. Unfortunately, no cameras allowed at this point and even if they are, its almost impossible to get good shots unless one is a non-shaker with an SLR. The uneasy peace between the Maoris and the whites is visible at both Rotorua and Waitomo, but noone expressed it in so many words. 

11) On the way to Waitomo, we had the bird hit, which only re-emphasizes the point that the introduction of certain mammals has led to the extinction of certain predators and hence many birds have become flightless (with no fear of predators that are absent) and stay close to the ground. This point gets repeated so often on the boring bus ride into Doubtful Sound that it seems eerie when you face a consequence of this flightlessness. Australia and New Zealand, where nature has been skewed by man, seem to repent their innocent past with signs such as "dont bring fruits and food into New Zealand." That said, the whole ride into Waitomo caves seems like an endless series of deserted roads going from nowhere to nowhere, with only Navman to assure you that you are heading in the right direction and perhaps on time for your appointment. 

12) Hamilton seemed to be a short ride away from Waitomo, but except for the Waikato river (which we did not see and which seemed to be too close yet too far), nothing was great here at all. We did see the signs for the India-Ireland WC clash, but this place is so close to Auckland (2 hours and hence with no other way to access it than by bus), it must have been a pain ride into Hamilton for the Indian team. There is really nothing to do in Hamilton other than claim that one stopped here. 

13) The ride back into Auckland brought back civilization, so to speak, and with it all the parking and driving woes of being in a new country. Auckland downtown in itself is more livelier than much else that we had seen in New Zealand (even Christchurch) with even a book shop around. Our trip to Nadi in Fiji showed us that the main city bringing international flights into the country can be without a major/any book shop (perhaps there is something in Suva -- which we never visited -- given that the University of South Pacific is based there). I also did see the University of Auckland campus buildings right next to the CBD, which also assured me that there is indeed some life there. In general, Auckland mirrors Sydney -- the ferries to nowhere (at least ferries take one to nice beaches in Sydney), the bridges, Sky tower, the CBD layout, some reasonably questionable areas, the same George-Elizabeth-Victoria-Queen-Princes street names (the Swanson street reminds one of the Swanston in Melbourne, but yeah), high-end fashionista boutiques, and reminding one that New Zealand is as expensive as Australia is/was. 

With that uneasy number, let's close this travelogue. 

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