Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Audacity of Hope - A Review

Obama in this book written in 2006 when he was senator, has managed to weave together the personal with the political experiences beautifully and engagingly. Though the references are largely to the American politics, some of the issues that he speaks of and the concerns he says, unite Americans across “race, region, religion and class” transcend geographies and seem to be the same in our country too. Therein lies the beauty of this book; one doesn’t have to be an American to be able to gauge Mr. Obama’s sincerity. It shines throughout palpably and is one of the biggest reasons why the book has become very popular. Since it offers glimpses of what Roosevelt, Kennedy, Lincoln, Reagan, Johnson, Clinton and Bush stood for during their reign at the helm of America in a broad fashion, it is highly educating and informative to read each and every page.


What struck me quite clearly, as very different, was a whole chapter devoted to Values; a politician talking about values in such a fashion as Obama has did is quite astonishing. As in all the other chapters, he uses the book to express his stand on various issues. In the chapter devoted to values, for example, he talks about executive pay among others.

The language of the book is rich with intricately woven sentences; in their every curve and bend are nuggets of wisdom to be cherished, and revelations abound about the functioning of a sharp, intensely observant, shrewd and empathetic mind. At various points in the narrative, he stresses on the need to find common ground; to find in people the common value that everyone shares. How aptly it applies to the Indian context where we see politicians competing against one another in finding grounds to divide the electorate in pursuit of votes.


In the chapter on “Our constitution”, Mr. Obama throws light on the judiciary’s interpretation of the constitution as lifestyle changes sometimes make the Government’s role in a large democracy debatable. Ultimately, the conclusion drawn merits appreciation for who can rightly discern what the intent of the founders was!


Obama candidly observes that the more time one spends in the limelight of politics, the farther it takes the person from the problems of ordinary people. Talking about the amounts of money required for funding, suffering defeat, living by stereotypes, he convincingly gives an insider view of the traps and pitfalls that a Politician has to traverse. He is at his very best when he describes how complicated it is to decide either on an aye or a nay vote when both sides have some merit. He is also critical of the media who always want a “yes” or a “no” for an answer to complicated questions thereby always putting politicians in a spot in an attempt to trap them. In this particular aspect, the Indian media excel and our politicians either sadly don’t recognize their traps or are naive enough to fall into them and pay the price.


Obama talks about his meeting with the founders of Google – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – when he doesn’t meet any black or Latino in the group of new recruits. He realizes the potential trouble for the US economy as more companies hire non US employees to get their work done. As juxtaposition, he describes the meeting with a group of union leaders of a plant on the verge of laying off American workers. Now as we know that he has announced large stimulus packages to kick start economic activity, it comes as no surprise to read “…in each and every period of great economic upheaval and transition we’ve depended on Government action to open up opportunity, encourage competition, and make the market work better”. Some of these give broad outlines on how the president may act on grave issues that need American action.

He proceeds to suggest three investments to make America “more competitive in the global economy” – investments in education with reforms of high impact on student achievement, in science and technology with focus on R&D, in energy infrastructure to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels. One of my favorite chapters, Obama ends with an explanation of his vote against Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), as a “means of registering protest against White House’s inattention to the losers from free trade”.


Tackling the issues of abortion and gay marriage which we know dominated the discourse of debates in the run up to the Presidential elections, Mr. Obama feels his pro-choice stance and stand on homosexuality makes him “human and limited in the understandings of God’s purpose”.


Obama clearly acknowledges on the issue of race that, there is a need to “acknowledge the sins of the past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism and despair”. There is optimism and subtlety employed judiciously to defend affirmative action and placing some responsibilities on the minorities. In his earnestness to address the nexus of unemployment and crime, there is the urge to tackle the root causes impeding progress. Will any Indian Politician boldly address the pathetic infrastructure of the public school system and wean the focus away from just quantity to a combination of quality and quantity?

The Outer World:

Titled “The World beyond our borders”, Obama traces the rise and fall of the land he grew up in – Indonesia. After reading this, what stays with the reader is the trajectory of US foreign policy from isolationist sentiment in the world war era to the interference of today. How successive US Presidents felt the pressure to sound “hard” on communism, how certain resultant policies led to a loss of credibility – there is a touch of candid and critical self introspection.


Obama ends the book by ravishing praise on his wife and commenting on the increasing role of women as breadwinners. It is a fitting end by a man who loves his family as much as his nation.

In its sweeping look at history, broad and honest examination of grave issues, it is an engrossing read and one that is strongly recommended.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

My tryst with the ballot

The Lok Sabha elections going on in our country is undoubtedly a spectacle; people from all classes and walks of life are queuing up and in a sense surrendering a small part of their destinies to the numerous political parties and independent candidates. In doing so, they reaffirm their commitment to a democratic system where elected representatives decide policies and shape a nations' future.

On April 23, I joined the queue next street in Jayanagar, Bangalore to vote. Thankfully, the personnel outside the polling booth found my name on the electoral rolls and I was saved the ignominy of having to return empty handed without the indelible ink mark that has come to be reckoned as a mark of pride. Three cheers to Jaago Re, it was their hassle free and smooth process that had awakened me to the importance of voting and made the whole effort easier.

Having done by duty, I felt an immense sense of satisfaction though the road I was walking on showed every sign of the rain, the day before - the glaring lack of infrastructure serving to bring me back to reality.

This year, the election results might not be clearly favoring either of the two national parties as they have been for quite a few times now. It is all the more exciting to wait for the results and know who will be leading this country out of the harsh effects of the current economic recession. I can only hope that the mandate of the people is taken in the right spirit by all the parties and respected, though I know that it is a pretty tall ask in the current scenario!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Mission Kumara Parvatha - Sweet fruits of endurance

'If this is the stuff that adventures are made of, then what a dull life we are leading', this is how I felt after the trekking experience last weekend. At times, we tend to take certain things for granted - we feel that our bodies can take only so much. It is very heartening to be deceived by the levels of one's own endurance. When all it takes is a power of the will and the ability to think for the next 500 meters to 1 kilometer, then, it is amazing how far we can walk...

Santosh asked me if I could join for a trek to Kumara Parvatha (also called as Pushpagiri, as we realized later). If I agreed, then we were starting in the next two days. Considering that I had nothing great planned over the weekend (the inescapable question on every Monday morning - "How was your weekend?" - was already playing across my mind; of course some people use it as the ideal conversation opener on Mondays including yours truly), I agreed and we booked the tickets to Somvarpet at the KSRTC travel house.

The next day, some of us (Santosh, me, Amith, Shashank, Sandeep) met to decide on the logistics. We decided that apples, oranges, bread, bananas and sundry other snacks would be our food during the climb up and down. Santosh agreed to rent the tents and the sleeping bags necessary for the night atop the peak. I was a little anxious about how it would all play out as this was my first "proper" trek. In hindsight, I am delighted that I relied on my instincts!

On Friday night, I reached Banashankari bus terminus and waited for Santosh and Vinay to join. Together, we reached KBS at around 10 PM to find Shashank, Amith, Sandeep, Gilson and Krishna Prasad already waiting for us. The bus was scheduled to depart at 11. After checking if we had got all the necessary things for the journey ahead, we got into the KSRTC Rajahamsa. Once inside, Gilson and Shashank took out their cameras and took some trial snaps. Comments on how the cameras should be set flew thick and fast.

Occasionally in life, one comes across people who are united by a common bond that threads them together and not always it happens that, people hit off with each other, with a sincerity and warmth, that is genuinely true. I am thankful that the folks I got to know through the course of the next 2 days were not only avid adventurers but also great companions. At 5 in the morning, we alighted at Somvarpet. It was a pleasant morning that greeted us after a good night's sleep despite the shockingly poor roads.

The primitive facilities in the bus terminus helped us refresh. A breakfast of Idlis followed. On inquiry, we were told that Bhagya Lakshmi would be the first to leave for Bidalli. Make no mistake, that was the name of the bus. As an aside, the fairer sex has an unfair advantage when it comes to names. Everything that is life giving, majestic and awe-inspiring gets the feminine gender... Bhagya Lakshmi was simple and comfortable enough for Shashank to sleep through the small journey. The greenery started to unfold before our eyes as the Sun found its way slowly and surely.

At the road leading to Kumara Parvatha, we got down and contemplated the journey ahead. Our watches showed 8.30 AM. One other group of trekkers accompanied us a little ahead throughout. Initially, till the forest check post to be precise, it was all plains with a scattering of villages. A winding road took us up to a point where if we had not observed, we would have missed the shorter route to the check post. Guided by villagers, we crossed paddy fields and were struck by the bemused gazes that the sleeping bags got. Firewood-hunting-women, men walking with an air of calm determination, kids running around and young girls carrying water gave the impression of a place at peace and harmony with itself and its beautiful surroundings...

After a walk of around an hour and a half we spotted the forest office. We paid 115 per head to continue. It was decided that a second breakfast of fruits would do us no harm. The area was scenic with a swinging bridge and a stream that ran underneath. Gilson's water can was much appreciated for its potential utility. At a few minutes to 11, we resumed. A forest of tall tress that filtered the sunlight provided good cover for the walk shielding us from the heat. For all its density, the only sounds that we could hear were our own footsteps disturbing the slightly wet leaves.

The picture that comes to mind, when we think of travelers, is that of men with backpacks marching in a line towards a hazily defined destination (perhaps to emphasize the significance of रास्ते over मंजिल?) with the sun shining overhead. We were potentially fodder for such a picture with the sleeping bags adding a comic touch. Though the day ahead loomed large, it was alluring with its rare possibilities fit to be preserved for posterity. Leeches - literally, those blood sucking insects - started to show their presence very strongly. We had to stop often to take the much required breaks to quench our thirst buds and attend to them.

Yellow boards and the red and yellow arrows served as our guides. They were motivating and egged us on. At half past twelve, we had a lunch of bread. Amith had green chutney that tasted divine with the bread slices. The dry fruits Shashank had brought was also widely appreciated. When too much of rest threatened to loosen the limbs, we felt prudent to continue. The terrain was becoming more expansive with the Sun getting a wider berth.

The beauty of a trek is that it offers little respite for dreamers. When you are climbing, it is imperative for the climber to stay focused on the present and enjoy the moment. There is a choice less awareness that is at once natural and beautiful enough to be ignored. Sensory pleasures are transient; it is the camera that preserves a moment in all its glory and candor. The journey provided ample opportunities for Gilson and Shashank to see nature through the lens of technology; shape it, alter it, bring it closer and above all take pleasure in following its every twist and turn!

As the climb got tedious with the rocks seeming insurmountable as they always are, when the end is near, glucose helped us going. Vinay with his sharp wit, Santosh with his "never say die" spirit, Shashank with his booming laugh, KP with his tone and manner, Amith with his elegance and style, Sandeep with a restrained charm and Gilson in his manner of addressing us with the water can - I would be very pithy if I say, the group was drawing energy from itself. The sight of Pushpagiri - 0 KM sent us into waves of sheer joy and relief.

For some time, we were confused if Kumara Parvatha and Pushpagiri were one and the same. Thankfully, we decided against trekking to the next peak on our side though 2 young people waved at us from there. At nearly 1800 meters from the sea level, the view grew on us. At first, we were oblivious in our tiredness. Our limbs needed rest; the sleeping bags were unwound and spread in the 4 o clock Sunshine.

Before it got dark, we had to pitch the tents. Doing it the first time, with Shashank's guidance, we somehow managed to make them appear like tents in the end with a lot of funny consequences. Once they threatened to fly despite our best efforts for the wind was gathering speed. Chillness spread and we had to take out the warmer clothing. Some of us found an amazing view of the depths below. There was nothing but a brown spread with trees interspersed. We were dwarfed by the sight.

Unexpectedly, clouds began to gather around us. We realized that we had left the tents quite open to the winds and hence shifted them. The clouds so close to us, as they came together to shake hands and departed quickly in a forced farewell was quite a sight to behold. Rain drops grazed our clothes and we moved inside the tents much earlier than we would have wanted to. Inside, we soon realized that 2 tents, of the size that we had got, were not enough for 8 guys to sleep comfortably. Rain seeped inside thanks to a most inappropriate hole in the roof of the tent; we tried to cover it with partial success.

Cramped inside, we cracked jokes, called out to each other like little children, listened to pleasant music and all the while enjoyed the delicate rain. In the darkness later, we stepped out for quick bites of bread in the artificial light of the torches and a natural but weak moonlight. Before I realized, I was sleeping only to be woken up by Sandeep who came in at 2.30 AM as rain had started again. Sandeep and Gilson had been quite literally braving the dark by sleeping just outside the tent till then.

The night drag on with the rain stopping abruptly just when we were getting a little worried. Dawn was crystal clear and we stepped out to catch the sun rise. From looking like a bright red round ball, it slowly shed its brightness to emerge lighter finally. The land below was catching light as eagerly as a thirsty man would take to water. The whole aspect of it lent a glow of surreal quality that it was hard to believe that dreams were, well and truly, shaken.

We gathered the tents and sleeping bags, looked at the spot for one last time and with a lighter load on our backs, but with relatively heavier hearts started our way back. This was a different path leading to Subramanya. 14 kms looked daunting but the day before was enough encouragement. The initial steep climb down scared us a little and we were markedly cautious. To abandon oneself to the instincts, to shift the weight of the body from one limb to the other fairly quickly during the climb down, was more challenging.

There was one advantage however. As we had started quite early, we were able to cover sufficient ground before the sun grew menacing. The views were also increasingly breathtaking making for some enviable camera angles. At one point in time, Gilson and Shashank grew so click-eager and thanks to them for the beautiful pictures that we have now. Vinay even remarked that growing too engrossed in looking for the next safe step down, we should not be missing all the great views around.

This path down was very open to the sunlight with barely any trees. We were walking along the circumference of the peaks, climbing one partially now, only to be descending again on its other side. Carrying less weight on our backs helped us cover ground quickly. We sighted the Mandapam and close to it was a fresh water tank where we washed our faces and stopped for breakfast. It was apples, oranges and biscuits with water to wash them down. With a resolve to stop only at the forest post, we resumed.

From there, it required a huge resolve to navigate the terrain. It was unforgiving with its surprises and it demanded that we be equal to the task. We fixed our sights on a set of chairs that were attractive only to later realize with some gravity that they were really quite far. When we did manage to reach them, Vinay had communicated his desire to have hot Sambar rice at 'Bhattar Mane' where we were head.

Guided by the only person manning the forest check post on this path, we entered 'Bhattar Mane', tired and exhausted. We were told to wait for an hour for food. We spent it chatting away pointlessly and discussing the house's location in the midst of nature with a cow and a young calf adding to the attraction. The lunch was most welcome with a tasty pickle and butter milk. The Bhattar though hesitant in the beginning, on repeated request posed for a picture with us. He found it hard to fathom why its always the "IT" folks from Bangalore choose this trek. Perhaps out of an inclination to stay in touch with the ever dwindling presence of nature in the concrete jungles?

Immediately after lunch, with the hope of catching the 3 o clock direct bus to Bangalore, we resumed the climb down. It was most grueling to find that the last part of the journey is always the toughest or at least it seems so. We were sweating badly in the afternoon Sun and hence the frequency of breaks increased together with the consumption of water. At the same time, we felt thankful to Santosh for such an experience. Eventually we reached Subramanya and took an auto to the bus stand. From there, we took a bus to Gundya cross in the hope of catching a Bangalore bus.

If Gilson and Krisha had not jumped out through the windows of that bus, I can't imagine how we would have got out thanks to the whims of the driver who stopped the engine whenever he saw a hand wave. Another red KSRTC bus to Bangalore meant no respite for the tired limbs...Sleeping through the journey, I half listened to Santosh recounting his experiences during the Sankleshpur trek and Gilson and Krishna, their Ooty adventures. I won't forget the next day at office when every muscle in the leg cried but the heart brimmed with pride and joy at having conquered the peak of Karnataka's toughest trekking terrain!