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Defending Secularism

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This week’s tehelka magazine carries an essay I wrote about Chinatown buses that burst into flames and Pakistan’s notorious ruler Zia-ul-Haq, among other things. This is a story that took a lot off me, mentally and emotionally. A prelude to this actually appeared on my blog, in October 2010 I wrote a writeup called “Of Chinese buses and tough questions” – it can be read here. The story can be read at tehelka’s website here. Though the headline there might suggest a serious religious angle to it, you will see that I ended up defending secularism. And it has absolutely nothing to do with patriotism as well.

Anyway, below is the unabridged version of the story. Again, I am thankful to Tehelka for publishing me another time (I wrote this for them last January). I am grateful to those who have wished me (and been critical), in person, on email, facebook and everywhere else.

Yours thoughts here and elsewhere, welcome.


The four hour bus journey from NYC to Baltimore hadn’t really lived up to the expectations. Maybe it was the bus, one of those that run from the Chinatown district of the city, that had put me off. Or maybe it was the blandness of the route. Being used to the twists and turns (literally) of a bus journey on Indian highways, I found the Interstate-95 a dull ride. But then, on a 6 month trip to America (which also happened to be the first), you look forward to interstate travel.

Months later, when I found out that the Chinatown buses have a reputation of bursting into flames while in transit, the thought of the bus-ride not living upto expectations occurred again. Only that, this time, I was glad it hadn’t.

So, while coming back from Baltimore to NYC, in the same bus that night with expectations hit rock bottom, I found myself with a middle-aged, South-Asian gentleman sitting on my left. Almost 50, neatly trimmed beard, metal rimmed glasses, fair complexion and grey hair. When he answered a phone call, I was almost certain that he was from Pakistan.

We got talking, as travel-culture in the sub-Continent warrants. My co-passenger, let me call him Bashir, had now stayed in America for more than two decades, owned a 7-Eleven convenience store somewhere in NYC. My recent purchase, Peter Hessler’s acclaimed book, “Oracle Bones”, an account of his experiences as a journalist in mainland China, was our icebreaker. Bashir’s old-fashioned rimmed glasses and a neatly trimmed beard gave him almost a scholarly-like look and so it was no surprise when he started talking, almost authoritatively, about Mao Zedong’s policies and Deng Xiaoping’s vision of China.

Having researched on the subject lately for something I wrote, it came to my mind, to ask Bashir his honest opinion of Zia-ul-haq’s Islamization of Pakistan – a defining moment in the history of our neighbour. The extent of it’s effect is probably better understood keeping in view the religious radicalism brewing in Pakistan today. Among other things, Zia-ul-Haq had gone about formulating an education policy around Islam, nurturing hatred for India and glorification of war. Bashir was quick to be dismissive about it. Instead, he chose to attack Bhutto, who in 1972, had started a drive to nationalize the major industries in Pakistan, resulting in a massive reduction of employment opportunities. Come to think of it, it was the same time Bashir had left Pakistan for America. He later continued to dwell upon how much his country had lost to it’s last tryst with Military rule, this time his object of ire being Pervez Musharraf.

We later spoke of our two nations, the trouble brewing in our own backyards. We spoke of earthquakes and tsunamis, examples of mishandlings by our governments. For someone visiting his country once in two years, Bashir was well aware of things happening in the sub-continent. We could talk on forever: about our countries, our culture, our hatred for politicians and our passion for cricket. A few times, he even advised me on life – his wisdom seamlessly flowing through his aging, bespectacled eyes.

We had little moments of silence but words now, though after much thought, were flowing fluently. This time, Bashir asked me my religion. I gave it my best shot not to appear taken aback and told him that I was a Hindu. I think we both knew we were treading a thin line – words now had to be carefully chosen. After a mini-lecture that endorsed Islam and lasted a little more than ten minutes, Bashir, in his heavily Punjabi accented Urdu, asked me to consider embracing his religion. To be honest, this was not a first. I had just had a mostly insightful conversation with this gentleman – for the little while that I had not, I have long learnt to politely nod my head on talks that revolve around religion. I added two words to the nod: I’ll consider.

A few moments of silence went by, this time a longer gap than usual, until Bashir spoke again. He was of the opinion that people of different religions (mazhab) can’t stay together. He said that secularism was a failed concept – a pretension of the larger world we live in. Not only was I disappointed, I was left appalled – that one statement was contradictory of everything I had known of him in the last few hours – his wisdom, his experience and his intellect. And Bashir was not a 20 something from Pakistan, fresh out of the radical and fearful times that the country is living in; Bashir had to be 50 something, who was born a Pakistani citizen and had come to America a young man, sometime in the late 70s. He had aspired to be successful in a foreign land and he had succeeded. He was a muslim who had been given citizenship by America and whatever his religion, America gave him rights that protected him.

Bashir was a direct beneficiary of the secular values that America believed in.

So, I paused. I thought a while. And then I said, attempting my best in clear, concise English:

“Bashir saheb, on the way to office everyday, I come across a street in my colony. It has a temple. A hindu one, with a big statue of our God Hanuman. On the same street, there is a masjid. There is nothing strange about this arrangement but you may be shocked to know that the masjid and the mandir, they share the same wall. I want to tell you that this is how secularism works in India. I am sure this is how secularism works in America. And I am sure this is how it should work anywhere else”.

It was dark outside, but I could see in the faint light, for a second, his mouth open. Bashir stared at me, stunned. I, for once in my bus journey, looked out of the window, on to the otherwise boring I-95.


Written by aditya kumar

August 17th, 2011 at 11:48 pm

My U2 Story

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Few days ago, was introduced to an initiative taken up by Gul Panag about getting U2 to perform in India (Thanks to fellow blogger Shradha Revenkar for that). The website had a comment board setup and for starters, I put a comment there too (here, somewhere below, still online). Then, after being encouraged during a little chat on twitter by Gul herself, I wrote my U2 story.

Basically, I have a ticket for a U2 concert that is supposed to happen today, 14th July 2011, in Philadelphia. I had surrendered to my fate long ago, but this little story (for what it’s worth), Gul Panag said later on email, will eventually make way to U2. I don’t know what happened to it but here it is anyway.


I have a ticket to July 14’s U2 concert that is going to happen in Philadelphia. And yet my story manages to be a bit of a heartbreak.

My first memory of U2 is a picture of the band that appeared in, of all newspapers, The Economic Times, sometime in 2000. It was not the band that attracted me to the picture but it was another artist’s picture that appeared alongside their’s that caught my attention. Sheryl Crow had won the Grammy for her cover version of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and so had U2, for their album “All that you can’t leave behind” (ATYCLB). “So these were the guys who had sung ‘With or Without You'”, I said to myself. I had just been enlightened with that song, thanks to the “Songs of the Millennium” collection that had just been released by Universal Music. The good thing of an album that is an assortment of the best songs is that not only are these albums value for money but they also, in effect, become the best advertisements of music bands they carry, simply because they showcase the best songs.

I bought ATYCLB’s audio tape with much skepticism. My allowance allowed me to spend Rs.125 (in today’s economy, $3 approx) on music, per month so I made sure that the money was well spent. My definition of a good album then was an audio-tape that one could play on and on, without the need to fast-forward. ATYCLB qualified as one.

About 6 months after I had seen U2’s picture, I was in a city called Pune, 4 hours from Bombay. In a new city, with almost no friends, I had 2 years of my education still left. One of those days, I bought U2’s Best of 1980-90 — it made sense because buying a “best of” U2 gave me a chance to look at the best that they had to offer without risking my monthly music allowance. A few hours after buying of that tape, I remember, leaning over the stairs of our old house in Pune, a Gothic like structure in shambles, with “Pride” blaring into my ears. I hit rewind a few times, because I remember telling myself that “Pride” had the kind of music that I could define as perfect. It was just the music I was longing to hear, almost subconsciously, because I had never heard anything like it. That evening, in Pune, I evovled to a different personal age of music.

Following that day, every month, tape by tape, I kept bridging the gap between the 1984 hit, Pride and ATYCLB. The sounds of “Achtung Baby”, were discovered. Bono once said that “Achtung Baby” was the sound of 4 guys chopping the Joshua Tree. It fascinated me no end – that a band could completely abandon the music that got them their greatest classic for something completely unconventional and then come back to it as U2 did with ATYCLB. There was a method in U2’s madness, in their contrasting genres while they experimented with Electronica, classic Rock and Pop. To untrained ears this was random but in truth it was anything but that.

For someone born in 1981, to appreciate the rock and roll (and everything else) churned out in 1984, in 2003 was a coming of age.

In Goa, my home, I once saw an advertisement of a U2 concert to be played on HBO. Cable TV didn’t have much choice, power supply was intermittent. And this had to be taped. On audio. It was the infamous Boston Concert, DVDs of which were later gifted to me by my gracious friends. That night, with guests in house wondering what I was upto, I connected my philips music system to the television, taped the whole concert with audio that was interrupted by advertisements and power cuts. This master-tape was then converted to MP3, edited and archived on a Compact Disc. This was my prized possession for years to come.

U2’s concert in Chicago happened. I heard Bono’s speech about his first impressions of America. About the American spirit that found inspiration on landing a man on the moon. My impressions about America were not the exact copy of Bono’s but we touched common ground. With my first article appearing in a major Indian news magazine, months after my first visit to America, I chose this inspiring moment to be a part of my writeup because this was now what Bono meant to me — Much more than a musician but someone who could inspire minds and people. Bono was, by now, an old friend right there in my headphones.

In 2010, I was summoned to be there for work in the US, for six months. I had a vague thought in my mind, that I might be able to attend a U2 concert. I did not know how realistic the idea was because a U2 concert was always a “big deal” for me. I mean, staying in the shadows, even if it was as an audience, I had started to be always in the awe of the band. To see them in real, in the flesh had by now, become a far fetched dream.

I landed in Newark on 1st May 2010. I checked in a traveller’s Inn, that was next to a 7-Eleven convenience store that evening. The next day, Sunday, 2nd May 2010, my first day in America, I fetched a copy of USA today from the store, among other things. Somewhere in the middle of the thick broadsheet, I came across a small, unassuming piece of news – that U2 was about to play a series of concerts on the east coast. NYC and Philadelphia among a few of them. My first morning in America, still jetlagged and it had brought in my life’s dream. I looked at the map and my options. A few phone calls and 16 days later, on 18th of May, I had a ticket to U2’s Philadelphia concert that was supposed to happen on July 12, 2010.

12 years of following their music. My first and possibly only trip to America. U2 at their best, on a tour. I had a ticket to watch them in the flesh. That was my one shot.

On May 21, 3 days after I bought my ticket, it was reported that Bono had undergone an emergency back surgery. On 13 July 2010, sent me an email, conveniently informing me that the concert was now rescheduled to July 14, 2011. I did not expect anyone to appreciate the irony in there but I did not know what to make of that email. Fate kicked my butt. All I could do was take a printout of the e-ticket, frame it and put that on the wall with the caption- “The closest I could get to U2”.

A few weeks back, a friend suggested why not sell the U2 ticket that I have? I could still have my ticket framed and the money back. Not a chance, I said. Bono’s having one less man for audience on 14 July 2011.


Written by aditya kumar

July 14th, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Posted in America,U2

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

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

Back again

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It’s probably one of the longest breaks I have taken from my blog (and blogosphere) but I guess shifting your life from one continent to another can take its toll. So while I won’t be able to roam the streets of New York on free weekends anymore, I am back to India with a few regrets in my heart of my only foreign trip:

1. Could not visit Washington D.C
2. Could not visit California.
3. Not even Philadelphia.

But on the bright side, the city I had heard the most about in life, I was able to visit the most. So I made a little dedication to New York City on youtube. This is a collection of pictures I took in my various visits to the city over a period of 6 months. Of course, the one picture in which I appear is not taken by me. These are from the Subway, Manhattan and Booklyn. I am sure I have missed some great secrets of NYC but at least I didn’t miss the most of it:

In New York

I have shamelessly used Alicia Keys song in the background but that was because I could not find any other song that could fit in so seamlessly.

If you like this, please leave comments. If you do not, please leave comments.

Written by aditya kumar

November 11th, 2010 at 8:44 am

Posted in America,Personal,Travel

Software Economics

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“What I don’t understand is”, Steve asked me, “How do you guys leave (jobs) like that”.

We were at the waterfront on the Jersey shore. What started as a warm summer morning hid in itself an unplanned visit to the beach and an unexpected meeting with Steve. I worked with Steve when I joined the company I work for now, back in 2007. We were in two different parts of the world. Steve was (and still is) the Primary contact for a group of applications that I was too a part of. Being constantly at the helm of managing these applications and not a big fan of the job he was handling made Steve lose his temper very often, over the phone, with the team in India. I had worked closely with Steve for more than a year before I changed my project. At times, I had cursed him silently and was astonished at his insensitivity and insanity that I thought he possessed.

And I had never met him.

Then at the waterfront the other day, in a company get-together, out of nowhere, I thought I saw him, eating a hamburger and corn, alone. The self-made name tag on his shirt confirmed my finding and I was stuck somewhat in disbelief.

“How do you guys leave like that? The same year, I think it was 2007, three guys came to US and we trained them for 3 months. They went back to India and they quit! We had two guys replacing them and we had to train those two guys again — this time from India of course!”, Steve complained, getting down to business as if we were never out of it.

Oh, I know what it is. I did not know who those three guys were but I know why they left. And why the management let them leave.

Those three guys left because they came back from US and they knew they won’t get to go to US anymore. They left because most likely another company offered them a good pay package and they needed the money. Why did the management let them leave? Because theoretically, you can’t ask them to stay if the responsibilities they carry could be transferred to another bunch of people. But could those job roles be transferred just like that? Again, theoretically yes. Knowledge Transfer (KT) allows you to do that. Just like they were KT’ed by their American counterparts, these fellows KT’ed to the new guys. Maybe they spent 3 days imparting education that originally came to them in 3 months, but they did it anyway.

Practically, is it possible that one is even eligible to give a KT session on some enterprise application that he has hardly even worked upon? No. Would the management understand this concept? Absolutely not. So they left.

So, in the end, we have:

1. Those three guys, who came back happy and dandy after a trip to America and left happier and dandier to another job, grabbing their fatter pay packages.

2. The two guys who must have recently joined the organization and would be flourishing under the relatively fatter paychecks, KT’ed apps notwithstanding.

3. The management who would be patting its own back for a job well done (organizing KT and all).

4. Steve, in front of the Atlantic shore, whining about it all, 3 years after it happened.

The sad part is that within all this, the management does not question itself. That it is believed that jobs and responsibilities can be transferred like that. In the long run, those two guys would have struggled getting hold of that application and after being subjected to late night calls and Steve’s wrath, would have looked for new jobs. In between all this, there would have been a phase when the production issues of that application would have hit sky high and these guys would not have delivered, so Steve’s anger is justified. The Software Managers do not understand that part. They are unable to map this problem to the anomaly occurred during the 3 day KT. Good programmers develop a need for clarity as they grow in their profession and they are expected to carry that trait while they manage teams later in their career. But what percentage of today’s managers would have been good programmers? Forget that — what percentage of today’s managers would have even had careers as programmers?

As Brooks’s law goes, “Nine women can’t deliver a baby in a month”. You see, code delivery is something similar. But they still expect that. And they continue to think that a KT Session is a magic wand that can work wonders even in the hands of the most mediocre software guys. Management in Software can never be thought as a offshoot branch of traditional shop-floor management. And exactly the opposite is happening – even with software companies in the west. But its a different topic altogether.

Going back, it begs us the question — why this run for the fat paycheck? For that, I had to dwell in some basic economics to Steve. The answer would be in two parts.

When I buy an iPod nano in India, I end up spending 1/3rd of my monthly salary. When I buy that here in USA, I end up spending 1/20th of my monthly paycheck. You could do that calculations for a pair of Reebok shoes, a bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo or a McDonald’s burger and find the same disparity. Believe me, I have done the math. That is the first part.

If the Indian economy had an inflation rate that most economists would term as ideal, it would be around 2-3%. Sadly, that is not the case. As of June 2010, Indian economy was inflating at 13%. It gets worse – Since 2008, the cooking gas price has increased by 20% in India. A rise in the price of cooking gas shows a similar upward trend for Petroleum. So, While the Americans have experienced a 2-3% inflation for the most part of the last two decades, their Indian counterparts have seen (and continue to experience) much worse. The Americans should not find much to complain about when their employer gives a 5% annual raise but the Indians choose to look away and search for higher paying jobs. And why shouldn’t they? That is the second part.

And somewhere there, with Steve looking convinced and mumbling, “makes sense, makes sense”, ended my lecture on Software Economics.

Written by aditya kumar

August 19th, 2010 at 9:57 am

Cementing Bonds

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The Shore point Inn motel stands just the way I would have imagined a motel to be, thanks to Hollywood. They don’t have motel like these anymore, Nick, the motel owner, told me later. It has a sort of, mini tower for a sign board full of neon. They don’t allow it anymore — the signs to be this big and the rooms to be in the layout that they are. Wide, spread across in a “U”, with ample parking in between. In fact, there’s a term for this — Its “Grandfathered”. The rules are exempted for certain situations and Nick’s motel qualifies for it. Well, looking at Nick, he qualifies for it too. At an ideal age for Grandfatherhood, he takes care of this place like a baby.

Sloppy planning and bad luck worked out together for me to land here, at the Shore point Inn. Some guy at American Express messed up my hotel reservation and the usual place here that accommodates people from my office in India was full so a colleague had to do this reservation for me here. He chose this place because he drove by it everyday to work. At a little past midnight, as I returned back to my room after my first meal in a foreign land, I met Nick outside his office, cherishing the misty cool midnight breeze. We ended up talking for about half an hour, subjects ranging from Jinnah to Secularism.

3 days and a few more insightful conversations later, Nick knocked on my door at almost 8, one evening. It was a sight I won’t ever forget and it was one of the most pleasant surprises ever — He stood there holding a what turned out to be a big slice of Fillet fish, sautéed with garlic and lemon in Olive oil on a Styrofoam plate. Trying his best to be unintrusive, Nick handed it over to me and told me that he had thought maybe I’d want to try something American (well, Greek actually, but now American since the cuisine here is multicultural anyway). He owed it to his roots in Greece, his parents who came here and made a life. So, a fisherman friend got him a good catch, one of the best of the season and a prized possession — A Striped Bass. Classic New York Fish, made up by a Greek gentleman and served a generous part of it to an Indian, who was probably a couple of generations younger to him but nevertheless, someone who’d appreciate the gesture.

A couple of days later, one of Nick’s helpers who happens to be a young man from Mexico, Nick himself and I — we got our hands dirty while doing cement work. The wooden fence’s bonds along the Motel boundary had to be strengthened, as the days to come could be very windy. He told me how important this seemingly simple activity was. There he was at it again, taking care of his Motel like his own baby, with his own hands.

When I left Shore Point, I told him that I would keep dropping by. He told me he could tell me the places to visit around here and what lanes to avoid in New York. Honestly, I don’t think I would be using that information much. Visiting places around here could just remain a dream. Especially for someone like me who doesn’t know driving and a pathetic public transport system like in here. But Sunday morning cement bonding work and Striped Bass, in any form, could be enough incentive for another visit.

My first few days in America. And bonds were built.

Written by aditya kumar

May 13th, 2010 at 10:44 am