Monthly Archives: February 2012

Outside in the fading winter in Gurgaon- Feb 19, 2012

I love winter, despite the extreme discomfort in unheated homes during the 2-3 chilliest sunless weeks of the year. The mellow winter sun, birds, flowers and endless possibilities for outdoor fun make up for the shivering many times over.

After yesterday’s stint at the Tau Devi Lal park in Sec-56, Gurgaon, we were back for more today. This time, the rendezvous was a picnic with the families of Aadyaa’s classmates. A younger kid’s group found us doing a different set of activities- walking, playing, eating (a lot!), chatting and really unwinding; forming bonds, some of which we know will turn into lifelong friendships.

Once again, the vital role that public spaces play in urban life, came to the fore. The park charges Rs 5 per adult entry between 9AM and 5PM to build revenue for its maintenance, and maintained it is. Despite a sizable number of picnickers, there was barely any litter. Of course, the crowds are nothing compared to the hordes that descend on Kalindi Kunj or Buddha Jayanti Park in Delhi; Gurgaon is still a suburban setting with manageable densities of people (ironically that isn’t apparent in the sorry state of infrastructure!). Local villagers and Gurgaon’s urban population are sharing this park amicably and this is a great example for many of us who think these are two different worlds, the collision of which usually ends in disaster!

Once again, I thought of how citizen initiatives can significantly change this city, if we could find a way for the government (in this case, Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon or the MCG) and citizen groups to work together. Here are some shots from today’s picnic, which was just the kind of simple, mindless, relaxed fun holidays that Sundays should entail! Of course, we headed back home and topped the fun of with a satisfying snooze under the razai 🙂

Walking with the little ones- imagined games and innocent pranks!


Loads of bonding, sharing, eating...

Kids this age do the darnedest things- roll down a mound of grass, climb trees, form human chains, run around the trees...

Well, the mood was infectious- piggy back rides for the entire class!!

Dekho Ma, gobhi jaisa phool...


Exploring nature in the city: Children’s weekend club outing Feb 18, 2012

Dipanwita, a dear friend, initiated a weekend club for children last month (one more in a growing list of hobby clubs in Gurgaon, which is virtually buzzing with community-building activities like this), starting with a theater workshop on a Saturday in January 2012. This month, another friend Ritu, a nature lover and a lady with a green thumb, led the children and a bunch of tag-along adults into an exploration of nature in the midst of our city. Gurgaon, whatever its ills, has a few excellent green areas in and around it and the Sector 56 Tau Devi Lal Biodiversity Park was the centrally located, urban park chosen for today’s walk.

We assembled at seven- eight children and five adults to walk around the park. Ritu asked the children to observe keenly, ask questions and collect samples of whatever took their fancy in a bag. Cleverly, she praised the kids as responsible citizens who wouldn’t do something as base as plucking flowers and leaves, and it worked! The team walked in reasonable order, discovering a variety of palms, bamboos, flowering trees and bushes, a set of religious trees like peepal and ashoka and finally, a small rose garden.

We took a break for snacks and then, Ritu set out two drawing exercises for us all to do. In the first, we were asked to use the collected samples as stencils, trace shapes in an overlapping sort of composition and then shade it in. The second exercise was to draw a tree, not stylistically as children tend to do, but as close to reality as possible.

The experience brought up in a fun way a whole host of topics like natural propagation, conservation, biodiversity, the different uses of certain plants, the importance of green lungs in a city and many more. I was impressed by how much the kids knew and even more so by their curiosity. The drawing exercises challenged us all in terms of focus and helped us internalize patterns from nature. Here are some pictures from our exploration this morning.

Yes, this is in Gurgaon, a small green haven!

The enthusiastic group; Ritu answers questions on the right, others discuss as they walk

The kids bonded well as they filled their collection bag

Some bizarre stuff as well- Manas swallows a dog's jaw!

The park is frequented by the local villagers, a happy lot!!

My stab at the first exercise-tracing outlines and shading the samples collected

Udai's attempt at drawing a tree from observation

Some of the artwork was brilliant! Nitya, the artist, poses

Implementing quality through self regulation is the only way for developers to gain credibility- Feb 17, 2012

Every time I help someone out with interiors advice, I am aghast at the poor quality of construction developers offer. It is specially galling when the buyer has paid an exorbitant rate and is hoping to achieve a high quality of life in an apartment into which he/she has poured a lifetimes savings and expectations.
Far from being ready to move in, apartment owners have to deal with poorly finished woodwork, peeling paint, tiles without the joints pointed, and much more. This morning I saw a sagging front door that was dragging on the floor and coming off its hinges. The builder had nailed on some shards of wood to fill in the gap above the door caused by the poor installation.
Developers are clearly taking advantage of low awareness among buyers about what quality and aesthetics to expect.
I fail to understand why builders turn a blind eye to quality issues when indeed quality is the most important differentiator, guaranteed to impress and build a credibility that will win customers with much less effort. Organizations like CREDAI, which work towards improving the real estate industry by bringing together private sector developers, must focus on creating awareness of quality standards among customers. Teaching buyers to look out for signs of good quality will place pressure on developers to maintain minimum standards. In fact sample homes must be mandatory, display the promised quality of construction and further, builders should legally promise to match the displayed quality. A quality checklist must be made public and a complaint cell created in builders organizations to address grievances in a professional and technical manner.Unless proactive steps like this are taken by the developers and a progression towards self regulation occurs, buyers are going to continue to brand builders as a bunch of rogues. That the homeowners I meet shrug and sneer at basic quality glitches speak for how low their expectations are from the builder.
At mHS, we are a part of a larger exercise facilitated by the Ashoka Foundation to develop ratings for affordable housing, where quality is an even greater challenge. How do we hope to deliver private sector housing that meets basic standards to the poor when the rich do not yet dare to expect quality?

An obsession for building meaningless structures in the most inefficient way! Asli India- Feb 16, 2012

Coming from the land of Mayawati in the midst of election fever, I cannot help dwelling on this megalomaniac business of commissioning huge parks, statues and buildings. Lucknow has been transformed since I lived there and the elephants hiding under the Election Commission’s drapes made for an entertaining sight. Interestingly, while the main park at Gomti Nagar is open to public, many of the facilities built under Mayawati’s rule are gated and inaccessible. So what purpose do they serve really, I fail to understand.

As we’ve discussed often in our home, generations after us will remember Mayawati for the legacy of buildings and landscaping she will leave behind, while the Mulayam’s of the world will be forgotten except in the Saefais of the world!

It’s not only megalomania that drives this sort of meaningless construction. Erecting structures that serve no particular function is a national obsession and we’re seeing it play out right in front of our office.

Picture this. GK I Enclave. A Posh South Delhi colony, some of the most valued residential real estate in India. A common green area meant to be a park has some derelict swings for children and a lot of unmaintained patchy lawn. And some concrete benches. One day, we observed a small construction crew begin to erect an entrance gate. A completely out of proportion tall and broad gate for a pocket-sized park. First they built this gate brick by excruciating brick, then they plastered it, then they scraped off the plaster to clad it with opulent granite. The whirring and clanking still goes on. The park is now littered with construction material. The debris outside the gate spills out onto the colony road creating a mini traffic jam several times a day. It’s been some two months now and our design team in office cannot stop laughing about the-gate-that-never-gets-done!

The ugly gate amidst the luxury cars and expensive homes

These people obviously take pride in their homes, yet have not objected to the preposterous gate right in front of their gate!

Apologies for the bad pic, but do note the liberal use of granite and the park in the background that is now a heap of debris

Now there are several disturbing things about this gate. Why spend money on an entrance gate, an ugly one at that, when the parks aren’t maintained? Don’t all the rich people living in this posh colony want a park where their children can play, they can walk etc right outside their homes? Who takes this sort of decision and who are they hoping to please by building an unaesthetic flashy gate in an up-market residential colony? Is this something political, perhaps a contractor mafia at work? Do the residents have a say in their surroundings at all? Shouldn’t they? And why built it in this haphazard, wasteful, time consuming manner, inconveniencing residents and creating a nuisance? Most disturbing of all, I discovered there are gates like that one being built in many parks in south Delhi!

The entire process speaks of the apathy private property owners have for their public spaces, even among the well-to-do. This is what translates into spitting on the roadside and dug up sidewalks, stinking toilets and open manholes that people fall into and die. Why blame the government when we sanction this sort of meaningless nonsense inside our neighborhoods?

Each day at a time! My mantra in the face of no logical solutions- Feb 15, 2012

So much to do and so little time! I’ve been wondering the past few days about why I always feel like this. I don’t work full time and yet I manage to fill every minute of my day with deadlines and tasks. The good part of this is that life is constantly exciting; the fallout is that I get the feeling of being a Jack of all trades and Master of none. And that isn’t a super nice feeling, I can tell you.

As of now, I work 2-3 days a week, learn dance for 2 hours every week, which sort of takes up one half of the day, learn music on Saturday and Sunday mornings for an hour each, write a blog that takes an hour every day, besides households chores, kiddie rendezvous etc.

I’m reading ‘The Music Room’ by Namita Devidayal in which she describes her bonding with her aging music teacher and the conflicts between her modern life and learning music in the format of the traditional guru-shishya parampara. I have felt terribly guilty, while reading the book, for not giving my music more time and attention. And while I tell myself that I sing and dance to indulge my interests and not with the intention of performing or competing with anyone, I still regret that I do not find time to hone my skill and reach that sublime place of knowledge and achievement that I have experienced fleetingly when I learnt music as a child and young adult.

And then, besides the need to reach certain skill levels in the arts, there are so many other areas where focused attention and time make all the difference: work that might require extra reading, reading that may open your mind, physical exercise for fitness and to feel good, social life, family time and so much more!

The answer, it seems, lies in being able to prioritize; but here’s the deal: To prioritize would mean to make choices, to decide what stays and what goes. In this scenario, I cannot give up on any element since they all play a significant role in contributing to the quality of my life. In fact, I can think of about ten more things (like painting, travel, photography and more dedicated writing time) that I would want to add to this list!

Other solutions? 48-hour days? Lower expectations from myself? Rotate activities every quarter so you get to try everything? Give up work altogether for a year to soak up all the wonderful experiences and then decide if I ever want to work again? None of them sound convincing or possible… I continue to hang in the balance, taking each day at a time and squeezing as much out of each day as I possibly can.

Do we need Valentine’s Day and all those other Days to remind us to be loving, affectionate, human? Feb 14, 2012

I have no opinion about Valentine’s Day and am terribly amused at the brouhaha around it every year. When we were young, at the age when romance was always in the air, V-Day was no big deal except for a few guy vaguely carrying some cards and flowers around for a special someone.

In SPA (alma mater, School of Planning and Architecture), we thought of V-Day as a distinctly DU (Delhi University) affair and therefore we looked down on it with disdain and sniggered at newspaper reports and stories that filtered through via siblings and friends who went to regular university. One year, I think it was 2nd year (when our batch saw the most number of romances), we went around college shouting out “Valentino Baba Ki Jai” in the manner of a crowd praising a Hindu God-man, with garlands etc. The slogan was doubly funny because one of our classmates was called Valentino (many of us would remember him as Valte).

Aside: Many decriers of Valentine’s Day claim it wasn’t about romantic love. Apparently, that’s not true. Originally a mere feast to early Christian martyrs, Valentine’s Day has been about romantic love since the 15th Century, traditionally celebrated by giving personalized, hand written poems and notes to your beloved. In recent times, these have been commercialized by the greeting card industry and then the Internet e-card and gift industry! I remember family members reading out Valentine notes to each other in Louisa May Alcott’s quaint book ‘The Little Women’ and that may have contributed to my personal notion of associating V-Day with familial and filial bonds and friendship in general!

In the years since, as the hype around this day has grown, Rahul and me have an unspoken understanding that we aren’t going to jostle with the young ones to catch a movie or candlelight dinner on V-Day. We celebrate it in our own low-key way, some years, when we happen to be in the same city and sometimes not at all. After all, any day is good for romance, isn’t it?

I, like many others, question this new trend of having designated days to celebrate everything—Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Daughter’s Day, Womens’ Day, days to step up the fight against specific diseases, Doctor’s Day, Teacher’s Day, Science Day, etc. The last two, commemorating S Radhakrishnan and CV Raman, I at least know the origins of; the rest, I haven’t a clue where they came from! Why do we need a day to remember to be nice to mom, buy a gift for dad, give an extra kiss to your daughter, make a card for your teacher, thank God for being healthy? Is it really a conspiracy started by the greeting card companies of the world to make a quick buck? Or is it a sign of deteriorating relationships in the modern world, where we really do need reminders to carry out ordinary gestures of kindness and love. That is a horrifying thought indeed!

Honestly, I don’t actually know anyone who keeps track of and does anything about any of these days (except V-Day perhaps, which now officially un-ignorable!). Only the media endlessly publishes articles reminding us about these occasions and even telling us what various celebs (usually persona non-grata for most of us) do for these occasions! And since I don’t believe a word of what the celebs say to the press (we don’t even know if they actually did say it!), I can safely assume that the media only prints this stuff to fill space, people don’t really need a Mother’s Day to love their mother, and all’s well with the world!

Airport diaries: IGI T3 in Delhi vs Amausi in Lucknow- Feb 13, 2012

We landed at the T3 terminal of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi yesterday. The luggage was already on the conveyor belt when we got there (that’s the real reason to build an airport so large that the walk time is more than enough for the handlers to get the baggage out!). Soon enough, people had picked up their stuff and gone. Nupur’s bag hadn’t come yet and a suspiciously similar bag was still on the belt. We got the Jet staff to figure things out and sure enough, a certain Ms Pooja Bajpai had walked off with Ms N Chaturvedi’s suitcase, completely ignoring the bright green ribbon Nupur had tied over the handle just to avoid incidents like this!

As the two of us waited for Ms Bajpai to return to the airport, we spoke about how hugely things have changed in the customer service attitudes since just a few years ago. The Jet Airways ground staff person was fairly prompt, unruffled by the situation and very polite yet firm with Ms Bajpai. He explained the situation patiently to her and insisted she turn around to return the bag immediately. Through all this, her bag stayed sort of unattended somewhere near but not inside the Jet Airways counter! We wondered who was taking responsibility for the bag! The guy’s composure stayed intact through the process of locating her as they scurried back and forth the three lanes of traffic outside the terminal, till finally the bags were exchanged and Nupur returned triumphant.

Meanwhile, I was admiring the T3 airport, its sense of busy orderliness as compared to the chaos we normally associate with airports in India. The post-paid radio cab counters operated efficiently (we were lucky to be there on a Sunday evening) and we were home bound soon!

The organized hustle bustle outside T3

A triumphant Nupur returns with her green-ribboned suitcase and an apology from Ms Bajpai 🙂

The entire experience was quite a contrast from the crowded Lucknow airport, where instead of making loudspeaker announcements, airline ground staff shouted at passengers to wait, board or hurry! Nobody really knew what is happening. Long lines for the security check and insufficient seating at the departure lounge ensured frayed nerves and rising tempers. But most people did not look annoyed, simply resigned and impatient to get on board and away!

Clearly, traffic at airports in India’s Tier-2 cities is far more than these airports can handle. The current terminal at Lucknow airport was built in 1986. The new 3-storey building was to be inaugurated in November 2011 way before the election, but what we used yesterday appears to be the same terminal I have used for several years now! Media reports that the new 20,000 sq ft terminal will be able to handle 750 passengers at one go. I’m hoping this will be enough. I’m also hoping they’ve found a way to manage the UP Govt white ambassadors outside the terminal to whom no rules apply!

Look, Camera, Pose!! The travails of a novice photographer at the Great Indian Wedding!- Feb 12, 2012

No one can resist the camera and least of all at weddings. At a friend’s wedding in Lucknow yesterday, I hoped to get some nice shots on my camera. There was an army of official wedding photographers doing their job, but the minute I took out my camera, someone would ask me to take their picture and pose! For about half an hour, I took random shots of relatives and guests, many of whom I didn’t even know. Nobody asked me what would happen to those images or who I was (I’m pretty sure I didn’t look like anyone from the photography studio); they simply put on the (sometimes fake) smiles and posed!

In a city like Lucknow, digital cameras are still a rarity, especially for older people and I suppose its exciting to be the object of someone’s attention for a few moments. Wedding albums are still a big thing for us Indians in general (people actually come and ask to see ours after nearly 11 years of being married!), so I suppose being photographed is all part of being on record as well.

At long last, I stowed the camera away. Only when the wedding was underway and people were distracted by the loveliness of the bride and the rituals, did I dare to shoot again!

Guds, Gops and Mel, we had a great time! Thanks a ton!

Fallen off the tourist map: Ruing Lucknow’s lost potential Feb 11, 2012

After spending the last two days in Lucknow at a wedding, I am apalled at how low its touristic value seems to be. Of the 20 odd people who visited Lucknow for the wedding (and some from as far as Dubai and the UK), only a handful ventured out of the resort. The few who did made it to Hazrat Ganj, the city’s infamous shopping street to shop for ‘chikankari’ fabrics and saris that are what Lucknow is best known for.
Maybe I was in the wrong crowd, maybe my parents were unusual in their tastes, but I have many fond memories of showing scores of visitors the ‘sights’ in Lucknow as a high school kid. The sights were the bada imambara (that boasts of a labyrinth on its upper floors), roomi darwaza, chhota imambara and the residency. We usually stopped at Ganj on the way back to give visitors some shopping time.
Noone I spoke to at the wedding even acknowledged Lucknows enormous historic and cultural significance; its legacy as the capital of Avadh, which was one of the principle kingdoms in North India and a bastion of the Shia Muslims. One of the visitors from abroad had someone at Delhi airport ask them why they were visiting Lucknow at all? Clearly and I know this from other experiences as well, this lovely city has dropped off the tourist map.
I see the lack of awareness as a result of extremely poor marketing. There is no desire to develop the city from a tourism perspective and bring in revenue. For a city that is (or at least was once upon a time) famed for its culture hospitality, etiquette and art this is a sad come down. And another reminder that governments can destroy by sheer sloth in a few decades what it took centuries to create!

Musings on a train: Reflecting on the urban-rural relationship Feb 10, 2012

What is it about train journeys that makes you think about life, goals, ambition and experience? Especially a daytime journey. Watching the fields whizz past. Wondering if rural life is even half as idyllic as it looks from a speeding train. And then inevitably thinking of your life, where its going and where you are taking it.
People around me, who probably travel often, are snoring and chattering. For me, travel will always be linked to introspection.

The flat landscape of the Gangetic plain evokes images of contentment and plenty as God intended it to be when he created a land of fertile soil, sunshine and a natural irrigation system of beautiful rivers and seasonal streams. In reality, the flatness represents the dull sameness of each day as it passes, each sunrise bringing little hope of change, let alone positive change.

As I glide through the Uttar Pradesh I grew up in, the UP that is right now going to vote, I think back at childhood journeys. Today most villages we pass are made of brick and mortar homes whereas the village of my childhood was a collection of thatch and semi pakka huts. (Ironically they looked better finished, had a certain aesthetic as compared the straggly brick dwellings I see today.)

Anyhow the point I’m making is that change has come, albeit very slowly. From our urban perspective where we change phones every other year and shop at nearly every end of season sale, the pace of change in rural life is negligible. Yet the new economy brings the awareness of choices and that’s what makes life frustrating for rural youth. To know that there is the possibility of a whole new life even as you stare anxiously at the sky, knowing that one good rain is what stands between you and a pakka roof!

An article in Mint today says that Jaimesh Ramesh is claiming that the MNREGA has reduced the incidence of distress migration. If that is true, I am heartened. Passing by mofussil towns, garbage overflowing their open drains, I find myself in a cynical mood. How do politicians dare to ask for votes when even the most basic needs of people are not met? How will migration mean better opportunities if our mofussil towns see no investment and growth? Its obvious our metros are sinking and migration adds to the stress. And is stemming distress migration via government dole outs sustainable when there is inadequate commitment to creating a real and sustainable rural economy?

We city dwellers would do well to constantly remind ourselves of how closely our lives are interlinked with the rural. It isn’t someone else’s problem what happens in India’s villages. It’s ours too!

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