Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Vagabond

Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
And the byway nigh me.
Bed in the bush with stars to see,
Bread I dip in the river -
There's the life for a man like me,
There's the life for ever.

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around
And the road before me.
Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I seek, the heaven above
And the road below me.

Or let autumn fall on me
Where afield I linger,
Silencing the bird on tree,
Biting the blue finger.
White as meal the frosty field -
Warm the fireside haven -
Not to autumn will I yield,
Not to winter even!

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around,
And the road before me.
Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above
And the road below me. 

Robert Louis Stevenson

Just remembered this poem from a long time ago. :)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

What can we do as human beings?
If anyone of us is pondering over this question, this book might give you the answer. This is the story of Greg Mortenson, an American climber who embarked upon a different mission after his unsuccessful attempt at the world's second highest peak K2. He is the founder director of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which has built schools in Pakistan's and Afghanistan's remote hilly areas. Their emphasis is also on educating more girls as in these areas, girls are more or less likely to stay home than go into the bigger cities in search of jobs like boys. When educated girls stay home, they become community leaders and pass on what they have learned. Moreover, just because the founder is an American these schools do not make "young Americans" in Afghanistan. The curriculum includes a healthy mix of subjects with nothing that could be labeled "anti-Islamic" but far away from any kind of extremism.
When I write down this information, I can sum it up in a paragraph. However "Three Cups of Tea" co-authored by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin is a book that makes you introspect. With every new chapter I read, I realized the potential of just one man to change the lives of so many people.
This is not a story of a rich and famous man who does not know what to do with his money. Greg was almost broke in the early years of the conception and execution of this idea. On his way back from K2, laden with disappointment at himself, he got lost into the small village of Korphe at the foothills in Baltistan,Pakistan. After a speedy recovery from K2 assaults under the care of the village head of Korphe, Greg spent some time understanding their culture. He was shocked to see the little kids of Korphe learning their lessons on the frosty ground with sticks on an open ground. They had no school. The teacher came from another town twice a week and the children were essentially left on their own during his absence.
This led Greg to make a spontaneous promise to the people of Korphe and he came back again and again with whatever money he could gather in America to give them the school that he promised.
To let his mission proceed peacefully, Greg became one with the culture. He learnt Urdu and Pashto. On one of his detours he was held hostage by the Taliban for a week. In a country where Americans are misunderstood with just one look at their passports, Greg had to cross many language and religion barriers to prove that he had peaceful intentions. In the end, his attempts were generously rewarded, even by the members of extremist groups.
This book also gives you a lesson in sustainable development. Local cultures and local people are the biggest agents of bringing about any change in a society. Impatience and hurry have no room in civilizations that have stood the test of tall mountains and hostile weather. This book also gives us an insight into what Greg learned from the Balti people.
All along it is also peppered with the magnificent descriptions of the tall mountains that surround this area of the Earth. Extracts from texts previously written about them and each chapter comes with an old Islamic adage just below the title or even something said to Greg by a common villager that is full of wisdom!
More than anything else, it brings forward the power of "the religion of goodwill" that is understood by followers of all religions.
For me, this book was a lesson in charity. Charity is not something you put off until you earn enough to donate and not be bothered. This man's struggle taught me that the willingness to help less fortunate transcends the boundaries of personal comfort. For months, Greg lived in his car to put together some money for his school. On his way back to Baltistan, he sold his car off and pitched in that money into the school funds. Fortunately he met a wealthy physicist Dr.Jean Hoerni who sent him $12000 with a note saying,"Don't screw up". :)
Dr. Hoerni left a million dollars for CAI but this was when the first school was built and running.
Whatever is written about America as a political force in Afghanistan is wiped away from your mind with every new page of this book. By the end you realize that in this "real world" it is not selfishness and ruthlessness that you need to survive. Kind hearted, sensitive and even outright impulsive attempts at making this world better still work wonders. What you need is just the patience to see them through!

You can help here.
Remember, even $10 is a lot of money for children living in these areas!

Why ponder thus the future to foresee
and jade thy brain to vain perplexity?
Cast off thy care, leave Allah's plans to him
He formed them all without consulting thee
Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat

Monday, May 18, 2009

Congratulations India!

I don't know if all of my readers are happy with the results of the recent Loksabha polls but I am!
Apart from the fact that this win has given India the much needed stability it also says a lot about our leader Dr. Manmohan Singh. Amidst the constant accusations from the opposition for being "the weakest Prime Minister" India has ever had, Dr.Singh has been a silent leader. India's foreign policy showed a significant improvement over the last five years. India has not made a lot of unnecessary "noise" as it did when she was in the hands of the NDA alliance. She has impalpably grown, sometimes even at a GDP of 9% and forged relations with all the world leaders.
The Congress (or now the UPA) may have been accused of dynastic politics but the one good thing about this alliance is their adherence to the "secular" and (almost) "non-aligned" image that India made for herself post independence. Add to that the plethora of "scholar-leaders" that they offer including the PM himself. It is also heartening to know that people like Shashi Tharoor have decided to get their hands dirty by stepping onto the shop-floor with Congress. However, it is a great responsibility and I hope that they shoulder it well.
The biggest task any leader does for his followers, consciously or unconsciously, is giving them an identity. Fortunately (or unfortunately) in India, there are a lot of "two minute noodle" identities available for politicians to stick on the foreheads of their followers. Just being a Brahmin in India has so many variations! You could be a "Chitpavan" from Maharashtra or an "Iyengar" from the south. Every group has hundreds of different rivulets of people joining it from all sides. So it is very easy for politicians who don't do their homework everyday and just want to make some quick scores before the exam to label the people of India on religious grounds.
India is finally casting off her religious labels. In a recent study it was found out that amongst the G20 countries, only two are growing at positive rates. China at 6.5% a year and India following at 5%. Considering that India is still a fully working democracy, this growth rate is speaks volumes about us. So when Indians are making their own "Indian" identity, I don't think there is any need anymore to think "religiously"! :)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Silly Mistakes

How does something that is perfectly plausible in your head end up being so outrageously stupid in reality?
Today I put an overhead stirrer in a carefully acidified solution to collect the precipitate and forgot to check the rpm knob before I started it! I have little holes in my lab coat now and I have to do it all over again. Obviously considering the chain of events, it should not even be stated that it took me two days to make that solution!
I wish I remembered it more often how forgetful I am. In order to minimize my trauma, I have almost reduced myself to a no-woman. I do not have a big hand bag that contains about half the universe in it. I do not wear make-up lest I forget to wear it one day and scare the wits out of my friends. I am even willing to give up my cell phone so that I do not regret forgetting it somewhere!
The good thing about being forgetful is that you forget that you forget and then you don't nag yourself about being forgetful. :)