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Archive for January, 2011

Scales of success

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A few days ago, I had posted on this blog a link of an essay I wrote for the tehelka magazine. The online version had missed out on a paragraph which I thought, could not escape the chopping at the Editor’s desk but when I looked at the printed version, I was glad to find out that it was almost unabridged. Sure, publishing in a magazine of the stature of Tehelka was itself the best thing that ever happened to me but to make it’s way to the ink with minimal changes was very confidence boosting. Anyway, I am publishing the essay here now and I am glad and thankful for the good wishes I have got at facebook, email and everywhere else.


It was almost ten years ago on a starry night in Pune, a friend and I had enjoyed coffee at our usual joint and discussed the benchmarks to measure success in life. Though we differed on a set scale, our lowest common denominator seemed to be a position in life where we could “choose” to come to America. It was a one off thing, just two college grads ranting and dreaming while being conveniently oblivious to the harsh realities of life that lay ahead.

Then at the beginning of this year, a trip to America started to seem like a real possibility. I had long forgotten about that talk in Pune. Instead, the last few months, I had started to imagine, how would it be to see America for the first time, from a few thousand feet up in the air. I had replayed the whole sequence in my mind invariably with the same result because it seemed to center around gazing at the Statue of Liberty below, while the plane approached landing. I knew it was not possible for that to happen because there was a good chance I may not land at JFK afterall.

But I made it close, touching down at Newark. I do not know if my plane hovered above the Statue of Liberty because, despite my best efforts, when the moment came, I found myself seated at the aisle seat.

I had gone to America on a 6 month deputation, work was imperative. But I had other aims in mind too. In those 6 months, I aimed to build a perspective of the country that Hollywood could never help me with, that would be balanced in nature just as I wanted it to be: free from prejudice. There is much to learn from what could be said the most successful democracy of our times. I have always believed very strongly in what Bono has to say about America — “It’s like hey, look there’s the moon up there, let’s take a walk on it, bring back a piece of it. That’s the kind of America that I’m a fan of”. My fascination about the country was centered around this quote.

My first glimpse of America eventually turned out to be the view from the immigration queue. It was Newark bay as I would later realize and the tall red cranes of the port standing in sequence, almost guardian like, to the zipping cars on the highway below made a sight to behold.

Almost a month later, we made it to New York City, which was only an hour away by train. Entering through the suburbs of the city, it looked a lot like Mumbai (minus the slums) and just like Mumbai, it had it’s own distinct smell in the air. A few moments after I came out of The New York Penn station, I saw the Empire State building. I knew back in my mind that there’s a memory being formed right now which would stay vivid forever. I was in such awe of the place that later that misty evening, I spent two hours sitting on a bench below the Empire State, writing postcards to my friends and family back home. I went to Times Square, watched people, listened to U2’s “New York” and clicked pictures while sipping Starbucks.

In the months that followed I kept coming back to New York City, visited Central Park and took photos of Empire State Building in various shades, one of them when the building was bathed in Saffron, White and Green, on August 15th. The New Yorkers thought it had something to do with Ireland.

But my ultimate realisation and my “moment” happened a few months later, on a NYC boat ride that started at Seyport and took us from below the Brooklyn Bridge to the Statue of Liberty. There I was, staring at the monument that was the ultimate symbol of America in my mind, as the sun set over Manhattan. During that sunset, it dawned upon me for the first time, that I had subconsciously fulfilled a promise I had made to myself ten years ago on that night in Pune. By those standards, I had arrived somewhere in life. It was, all of a sudden, surreal. I closed my eyes and let it sink in.

A few months after that moment, I was in the plane headed back to India. As the plane approached take-off, I could see the New York Skyline under the evening Sun. I had cut short my trip owing to various reasons and had chosen, happily and unregretfully, returning back to my country over staying in America.

Could I have imagined this, that night in Pune? Maybe in our rush, my friend and I had discounted the possibility of a finale like this. How would the idea of “choosing” to leave America — at our own will, fare in our benchmarks? I didn’t know the answer and maybe at that moment I didn’t care but I kept my gaze at New York’s tallest building, a faint shade of grey with a hint of silver — far away, until I could.

Written by aditya kumar

January 31st, 2011 at 8:56 am

Upgrading WordPress and a new theme

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…and a few words about this too. After a long time sticking to one of the best themes I had ever used, I have decided to give an image makeover to my blog. So, after a new theme and a new wordpress installation later, this is how it looks (RSS/Google reader subscribers should come and have a look at the website, please!).

As always, while choosing the theme, readability was on top of my priorities. Also, the header image is customizable — which means, as before, I will be using my own pictures for the header image (including the present one that you see right now, this was taken in the western ghats, from a train!).

Please let me know what you think of this!

Written by aditya kumar

January 17th, 2011 at 12:53 am

Posted in Personal

Scales of Success

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An essay I wrote about a conversation I had, 10 years ago one night in Pune and the connection it has with my trip to USA that happened last year, has been published by Tehelka Magazine in their latest issue (Jan 22, 2011). This is perhaps my first intended publication in mainstream media and I am glad that it happened. Here is the link to it, valid for at least a week, on tehelka’s website.

I would have called it “Scales of success”.

Many thanks to those who have made this possible. They know who they are.

Soon, I’ll be posting the original, unabridged essay on my website.

Written by aditya kumar

January 17th, 2011 at 12:46 am


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Today, in Bangalore, Tejas is set to join the Indian Air Force in it’s own first squadron. This may appear a “typical” defence news story to many of us, but it is a very significant milestone for a project that was first conceived in 1983. An aircraft, from it’s first prototype till the time it gets inducted into the armed forces, has to pass through rigorous tests to confirm that it can withstand extreme conditions should there be a need for such operations during war. For example, here is a news story when LCA had to pass the flying tests after taking off from Leh. They froze the aircraft overnight in sub-zero temperature to test how it flies the subsequent morning.

Also, the whole project had come to a virtual standstill at least on two occasions — The failure of India’s ambitious aircraft engine program, “Kaveri” and a little before that, the sanctions imposed by the US Government after the Pokhran blasts. Much has been said about this project and many have termed it as a failure primarily because of cost overruns — but the truth is that despite the cost overruns, LCA is still a cheaper and at-par alternative with the best of it’s class in the world.

Moreover, the faith an airborne Tejas will instill in scientists and technicians for aiming higher, despite everything, is a priceless thing to achieve.

Anyway. Back in 2005, when I was a frequent visitor to the India Coffee House at MG Road, in Bangalore, I came across an elderly gentleman who used to work with the HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited). He was closely associated with the LCA program (later, known as ‘Tejas’). Over my next few visits, I had many conversations with Mr Vasudevan at the coffee house. Those were random meetings as we were both regular visitors to the place.

This post below was published on my old blog, in 2005 (pardon the quality of prose). I believe this is a significant day for many people who have been closely associated with the LCA project. I am not in touch with Mr. Vasudevan anymore but I am sure he is one happy, content man today.

In the Coffee House, with Mr. Vasudevan

The coffee house, as I expected was half full. With old furniture, its wooden benches and tabletops which had developed cracks of all lengths and depths, just like the wrinkles which were as common in almost every attendant, spelled the longevity of time this coffee house had witnessed.

As I said, the coffee house was half full, but no where was a complete empty table in sight. Next to its glass window, I chose to sit, on a table whose lone occupant was an elderly gentleman completely immersed in his reading. By the time I satisfied my hunger I thought of striking a conversation with the gentleman, who at that time, could be my only company.

As it was revealed, Mr Vasudevan, was a retired Aviation Quality Inspector. I knew his white hair suggested wisdom, but possession of wisdom of the aviation kind was not only a surprise but a pleasing one too. I could smell the prospects of an exciting conversation right there.

The mention of India’s latest indigenous combat aircraft, LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) struck the right chord. Excitement is inevitable, once LCA is mentioned to any Indian Aviation Enthusiast.

“I retired in 1992. When the LCA entered advanced stage of development in 1995, they needed people with experience. As it so happened, I was re-called and was a part of the LCA team. I was one of the four quality Inspectors. I was a part of the team when LCA took its first flight in 2001. I worked till 2003. Eight more years”, he said with a hint of excitement in his voice.

And what did he have to say about the first flight?

“Everyone was nervous. Our creation was touching the sky for the first time. During those moments, I went to a corner of viewing area, alone. I was too nervous. There are so many things that can go wrong in the first flight. My responsibility was to ensure the safety of the pilot. I was the quality inspector for Seat Safety/Ejection. But the take off went fine and people rejoiced. Obviously, I could not afford that joy.”

And why so? If the take-off was fine, why was he more nervous when the bird was in the air? I knew what he was coming to but I wanted him to say it himself. And so he did.

“Landing!!” he exclaimed with a new burst of excitement. “How can you miss that my friend! Touchdown is the most important aspect of the whole flight! That is when most things can mess up. Things can go haywire.”

“I remember”, he continued, “It was an 18 minute flight. The longest 18 minutes of my life. The machine we built was up there, and so was my heart.”

And how was touchdown?

“I cried. People came and shook hands and I had to hide my emotions. There were sweets distributed, accolades given. And after that, I tested 137 flights of LCA. In my career, I gave the quality thumbs-up for 138 of LCA flights. Nothing can match that.”

And on the current trends of aviation which are embedded in the LCA?

“1.6 Mach, I think should be the top speed of LCA. You have to understand, in our Air-Force, LCA has to play the role of a major force in Air-to-Air combat. Air-to-Air combat doesn’t go beyond 1.6 Mach. We have to suite those requirements. Plus the microprocessor handling of LCA is such that it lets the pilot concentrate on what he should- Combat”.

And on the wing-design? I remarked, that I had noticed LCA’s wings are the Delta-designed ones, similar to Mirage-2000.

“Ah, yes. They are critical to achieve a high lift for supersonic flights. Talking about wings, do you know how many flaps per second does a housefly make? 200. Imagine. And a dragon-fly? 600. These are god created miracles that most of us oversee in everyday life. The cobra manoeuvre that we talk so highly about in Sukhoi aircrafts, is performed by the housefly all the time. These facts inspire me.”

Here was someone, in his late 60’s or early seventies, who had dedicated his life to Aviation. And where did his inspiration came from? Houseflies and mosquitoes.

“I have the knowledge to tell you the most technical aspects of flight without quoting scientific principles. I was only a quality inspector, but I played a part in this achievement.”

“I like cricket, I like car-racing and I like books. But at my time I could not afford it simply because I did not have the time. Sometimes I regret this fact. But soon I am overwhelmed to realise that I have been one of the privileged few who have been able to realise the kind of dreams like I had.”

So true, Mr. Vasudevan. Ask those who couldn’t.

Written by aditya kumar

January 10th, 2011 at 11:03 am

Posted in Aviation,Bangalore