For Your Weekend Reading

I've written a post on the movies that I watched while on a career break.  Mind you, I didn't just watch movies; I also read a few novels.  It's such a pleasure to simply park your bicycle by the river side and read an engaging novel while sipping on a cup of coffee - there's no room for worries!  In today's cut-throat, highly competitive and materialistic world, it is indeed a luxury to be able to do this.  I consider myself lucky to have done such a thing along Southeast Asia's mighty Mekong River in the summer of 2009.

Here's a brief review on each of the novels that I read during my break:

 By Arthur Hailey
The plot revolves around the intricate workings of an American airport operating in the 1970s and the problems caused by the lax security measures.  Clearly, the author had researched the workings of an airport before writing this novel.  However, in today's post-9/11 world, the details are no longer relevant, but are entertaining to read nonetheless.  It was also interesting to read about the promiscuous lifestyle of airline pilots and air-hostesses.  This, I'm sure, hasn't changed with time!

 By George Orwell
This book is special to me because it's about Burma and I read it while I was in Burma.  I probably wouldn't have read it otherwise.  A lot of patience is required to read this book due to the incredible amount of detail.  The story moves at a slow pace.  Everything is described in minute detail.  Surprisingly, I did not necessarily mind the details or find it boring.  The language is beautiful.  For example, I liked how stars were described as hanging lanterns in the sky.

The story takes place at a time when Burma was still a British colony.  A word of warning to the reader: this book will make you hate the British!  The treatment the British meted out to the "natives" is simply despicable; the British were in the country to rob them.  Orwell wrote this book during his extended stay in Burma and is based on his observations and real events.  I personally observed many of the customs and traditions that were described in this book (e.g. local people bowing their heads while passing by foreigners).

If it wasn't for an Englishman that I was traveling with in Burma (and many others whom I came across), who were the exact opposite of the British people described in the novel, my image of them would forever have been ruined.

 By Arthur Hailey
This novel and Airport are probably the best by this author.  The story describes roughly three and a half days of events in an independently-run New Orleans hotel.  The inner workings of a major hotel are described in detailed and are fun to read.  Everything from the workings of the kitchen, garbage disposal, professional thieves stealing from hotel rooms, managing the whims of VIP guests, prostitution rings operating within the hotel and an impending takeover are described in detail and woven in the plot.

Because the changes in the inner workings of the hospitality industry are less obvious to the casual reader (as opposed to the changes in airport security), I would rate this the best book by Hailey, followed by Airport.

 By Dalton Fury

This book is clearly written with a Hollywood movie adaptation in mind.  The book is about the author's (a retired Commander from the elite Delta Force) experiences in Afghanistan following 9/11.  The mission: to kill Osama Bin Laden.  It's no secret that they don't succeed in killing Bin Laden, but do manage to kill a large multiple of Afghanis than Americans killed in 9/11 attacks.  It seems that the "rules of engagement" allow American soldiers to act like James Bond 007.  They pretty much have a license to kill.

In spite of the rigorous training and high-tech weaponry and gadgets, the reader gets the impression that even America's elite Delta Force guys are cowards.  The Americans always put their Afghan "allies" on the front-lines to fight al qaeda because it is too dangerous for them.  Delta's only job was to radio the enemy co-ordinates to bomber planes who dropped bombs from 20,000 feet.  It's no wonder they couldn't get Bin Laden.

The Afghan culture is also interesting.  It seems everyone in the country has an AK-47!  One thing I didn't like about the book was how the author shamelessly promotes books written by other military guys - book on Delta selection process, book on this Delta mission, book on that Delta mission, book on Navy Seals etc.  It seems these people are only in the military to write books!

Don't waste your money and time on this one as we all know the ending even before the starting.  Bin Laden is in Pakistan.  End of story.

 By C. Rajagopalachari

This is probably as good as an English translation of a great Indian epic, originally written in Sanskrit, gets.  The language is rich and descriptive, yet easy to understand.  The author's analysis of certain events in the epic that may not necessarily make sense to everyone adds meaning and is insightful.  The epic quite cleverly and seamlessly integrates everything - politics, drama, family feuds, suspense, love, adventure and war.  The lessons learned from this epic are relevant even in the 21st century.  It is indeed a masterpiece and should not be seen as a religious text; it is also very entertaining to read.  Forget Harry Potter, and get your children a copy of the Mahabharata today!

I never felt that I was reading a poor translation of the original and enjoyed it thoroughly.  Highly recommended!

 By C. Rajagopalachari
After reading the Mahabharata, I was in love with Rajagopalachari's writing; so I started reading the Ramayana, another great Indian epic.  I read most of it while traveling in Laos and Vietnam.  It was such a pleasure to read this while sitting along the Mekong River in Laos and sipping on a cup of coffee.  Oh, the bygone days...

Like in the Mahabharata, the author's analysis of certain aspects of the story is meaningful and insightful.  The author attempts to answers some questions such as why Rama forces Sita to go through agni-pariksha (fire-test) after he rescues her from the clutches of the evil Ravana, or why it is incorrect to assume that Rama, Laxmana and Sita were vegetarians?

Ramayana is a gripping epic story of love, passion, dedication, friendship and dharma.  Also highly recommended!

 By Arthur Hailey
After Airport and Hotel, I had become a sort of fan of Hailey's books.  My expectations from this author were set high.  Hailey's books are famous for the detailed research on the industry his novels are based upon.  As the name suggests, this book is on Detroit's auto industry, and is not as good as the other two.  In spite of the well-researched details of the workings of an auto manufacturing plant - the monotonous jobs of assembly line workers, the stressful job of a plant manager, the criminal rings operating within plants - it fails to capture the reader's attention as much as the other two books did.  It's not a bad book on its own, but fails to live up to the standards of Airport and Hotel.  Therefore, I would recommend reading this before the other two.

Travel Blogging or Junk Blogging?

I read a lot of travel blogs, and lately it seems that an overwhelming majority of the so-called "travel bloggers" blog at least once a week only to keep their blog "active".

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding, Anil's foXnoMad and Gary Arndt's Everything Everywhere are a few popular (and very commercial) examples.  Not that they don't contain any useful information, but the amount of junk posts on those blogs is too high.

Picture of the Week #17

A beautiful temple in Konkan.  Konkan is the kind of region anyone can fall in love with.

Picture of the Week #16

The beautiful Tshoka village (Population: 2, Altitude: ~9000 feet) in West Sikkim, India!  This village, nestled in the Himalayas, is primarily used by trekkers as a stop-over point on way to/back from the famous Goecha La pass trek.

What an ideal honeymoon location this would make!  Too bad one has to undertake an ardous 10-12 hour trek to get there... I don't think anyone would have this kind of exercise in mind for their honeymoon.  haha

Test Your Travel IQ

Post your answers as comments. Answers will be posted in a week or two.

(1) Where is the Gobi desert?

(2) Which country has the highest peak that is not part of the Himalayan range?

(3) Which is the only country in the world that does not have a rectangular flag?

(4) Name the highest plateau in the world.

(5) The famous Serengeti National Park is in which country?

(6) Name the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia?

(7) What is the new name of Leningrad city (Hint: it is in Russia)?

(8) Which country is known as the Land of the Rising Sun?

(9) Where is the largest free-standing mountain (i.e. a stand-alone mountain and not part of a range) in the world?

(10) Which African country is known for the cruel dictator Idi Amin? This country is also known as the Horn of Africa.

Picture of the Week #15

A beautiful Shiva temple in Manavali village near Wai, Maharashtra, India.  This is a popular location for filming due to its close proximity to Bombay.  Numerous Bollywood films such as Swades and Gangajal have been filmed here.  In Gangajal, this location was showed to be in Bihar.

Ancient India's Contribution to Science and Technology

** Note: this blog has been moved to ***

If someone asks the question, “What is India’s contribution to the world in the development of science and technology?”, we get various types of answers. Some say ‘Nothing happened in India’ – some western elites are also included in this type of response!

It is true that not much has happened in recent past centuries. But before that, many great scientists and thinkers were born in India and they have given the world the valuable knowledge in science and mathematics. Many western historians conveniently forget this fact! May be as a reaction to this, the educated middle class wants to bask in the glory of past by exaggerating that ‘We had everything here in India before the world knew later!’

We have beautiful stories from Ramayana & Mahabharata. We learn the social structure, their standard of living, their ways of daily life through these stories. From the stories, one may think that we had laser rays, destructive weapons, missiles, drugs that give immortality, airplanes etc. But they were imaginations. Truly speaking, even to think of such imaginations is also phenomenal! You can call them science fictions. Science fiction has no less contribution to the development of science and technology. People created many science fictions which later came to existence. Isaac Asimov first created the concept of machine-man and after a few decades robot came to existence. This happened in many other cases.  To this extent even to think about future implements in itself was a big jump. But that is no reason to claim we had everything here. There is no solid evidence. Jayant Naralikar has written extensively on this issue.

Around 1500 BC, Shalva-Sutra was written. It proposed the principles of measurements. In those times, length was measured with ropes; hence people started identifying rope as Shalva. In Vedic times, there was requirement of platforms to perform yagya. This necessitated system for measurements. Pythagoras theorem is stated in Shalvasutra. However no proof can be found. But the proof is found in Euclid’s ‘Elements’. Similarly our people knew the relationship between radius and circumference of a circle. That was 3.14159. We knew this value but it was not explained why and how. Also in Boudhayana found in Krishna Yajurved and in Aapstambha Sootra, we can find references to Diophantine equations. Although westerners give its credit to Greeks, we can find its roots in Shalvasootra.

The greatest contribution of ancient India to the world is the notion of ‘Zero’. There are six chapters to explain the meanings of Vedas and to comprehend the Vedic Vidhis. They are known as Vedangs. Shalvasootra can be found in one such VedangVendang Kalpa. Geometry was developed around the method of the procedure to build Yagya Vedi. There is some information about astronomy in the fifth Jyotish Vedanga. But not many details are available.

Great sage Kanaad conjectured for the first time some elements of theory of atoms in fifth century BC. His real name was 'Ulook’ (owl). He used to write throughout the day time, and at night he used to pick up particles from jungles for a living. Hence he may have got the name Kanaad (Kan means particle). He put forward the theory that every substance was made of atoms!

A great mathematician was born during 450 BC and 585 BC. His name was Varahmihir. He used to state that there were some attractive forces in the stars of the universe. Due to the sum total of such forces the Vasundhara (the earth) was able to float. This was just a step before the most talked about Gravitational Forces.

When we think about fifth century, there is some written information available. Aryabhat belonged to this period. He thought and used the sine function of geometry. He was aware of roundness of the earth and its rotating around its own axis. He knew exact positions of stars in the sky.

In 'Arybhatiya' poem, for which he worked for about six months, he said, “Even if we feel the sun and the stars are rotating around us, in fact they are fixed and the earth is only rotating around them.” It proves how many centuries he was ahead of others. He mathematically calculated the circumference of the earth as 39,736 KM. It is believed today that to be 39,843 KM. It is amazing to get such near accurate number in that period. He used to say that moon does not have its own light but it gets that from the sun. He recognized that the planets orbit in elliptical shape. It was believed in those times that there is demon known as Rahu in the elliptical orbits. Arybhat had calculated that there are 365 days, 6 hrs, 12 minutes and 30 seconds in one year.

Bhau Daji Laad for the first time published Arybhat’s theories in 1864 AD. After that in 1875, Dr. Ken published this in Holland. That is how the world came to know about this great mathematician and astronomer.

Bhaskaracharya of 12th century was the next great mathematician after Aryabhat. In 1658, there was well known French mathematician Pierre de Firma. He had asked one mathematical question to his friend Bernard Frenicle de Bessy’. If X and Y both are integers, then how do we solve the following equation?

61X**2 + 1 = Y2

This was his question. Nobody could solve this equation for decades. Finally in 1732 a great mathematician called Leonhard Euler had solved it. He was much appreciated too. Later people realized that Bhaskaracharya had solved this problem in the year 1150! As per him, the answer was:

X = 22,61,53,980 and Y = 1,76,63,19,049! He used Chakrawala method to solve the equation. This method is elaborated in Bhaskaracharya’s 'Sidhhant Shiromani. Bhaskaracharya had one daughter, Lilavati, who became widow at a young age. In order to popularize mathematics, Bhaskaracharya wrote a book on mathematics by the same name. This book, Lilavati, became so popular in those days, that people, in lighter vein, used to say that if you read this book, you can look at any tree and tell exactly how many leaves the tree has!

In astronomy too, Bhaskaracharya made great strides. His two volumes – Ganitadhyay and Goladhyay are rich with knowledge. Based on these two volumes, it can be said that he was very close to initiating the new branch called Calculus.

India had made great progress in medicines too. We had tradition of medicines since 3000 BC. But we believed that ‘human beings get diseases due to ghosts’. Understanding the body and scientific treatment commenced from Vedic times. This knowledge is known as AyurVed (knowledge of Life).

Our source of ancient medical knowledge is through the four main volumes: ‘Charak-Samhita’, ‘Sushrut-Samhita’, ‘Ashtang-Hriday’ and ‘Ashtang-Sangrah’.

Since Vedic period, we had Gurukul system. The universities of Takshshila, Varanasi and Nalanda were well known all over the world. Which education was not possible in Takshshila at that time? One could acquire education on arts, literature, music, philosophy, religion (Hindu and Buddha), law, chemistry, biology, medicine, astronomy, architecture, sculpture, history and geography. Besides these, they used teach the art of riding horses and elephants, agricultural procedures, writing revenue-expenditures, astrology, archery. You will not believe but they were teaching even black magic. You can graduate in handling serpents, or nullifying effects of ghosts. Takshshila had earned its reputation throughout the world so much so that students used to come there from China, Syria, Arabia, Babylon, Persia etc. Nalanda University started its function in what is present state of Bihar. It was at its peak in reputation and prospered during 4th to 13th century.

This article was originally written by my dad.

Picture of the Week #14

Koleshwar plateau as seen from atop Mt. Kamalgad near Wai, Maharashtra, India.

Developers are lobbying to make a "New Mahabaleshwar" hill-station on Koleshwar.  Can you believe it?  I trekked through the dense forest of Koleshwar and it will indeed be sad to see all the trees cut down for our amusement.  Then again, if I don't intend to do anything about this, then I have no right to complain.

An elderly local (81 years old) by the name of Mr. Gogawale, who was as fit as an 18 year old, told us that Drona from the epic Mahabharata had spent some time on this plateau.

Movies Movies Movies

I had the opportunity to watch several movies from late 2008 to mid-2009 when I took a break from the routine 9-5 work life.  This was the best decision of my life!

I'm posting a brief review on each of the English, Hindi, Marathi and other foreign language movies that I liked at least to some degree.

Perhaps you will find this list useful if you need a movie suggestion for a Friday night.

Feel free to comment about your favourite movies or if you have any good recommendations for me.

English Movies

21 (2008)
- This movie will make you believe you too can cheat/out-smart the casinos of Las Vegas! Based on a true story, it's amazing how a few mathematical geniuses figure out a way to beat the odds with the help of small hand-made computers.

Beyond Rangoon (1995)
- A film on an American lady who gets caught in Burma's political turmoil in the late 1980s. This movie plain and simply inspired me to visit Burma as it quite nicely captures the natural beauty of this country and it's simple people.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
- I watched this one for the action and Africa setting. I found it hard to sympathize with the Americans who get involved in something that's not their business and kill thousands of Somalis in the process.

Body of Lies (2008)
- This movie is on terrorism and the Middle East. After Blood Diamond, I've started to like Leonardo DiCaprio who plays an American spy in Jordon. Other than one scene that is quite Hollywood-ish, the rest of the movie is very realistic and interesting.

Bucket List, The (2007)
- This is a movie with a message: life's too short; don't wait until retirement to do what you really want to do.

Chronicles of Narnia, The - The lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
- This is a children's fantasy movie, but an entertaining watch even for adults.

Collateral (2004)
- This is an engaging movie on a contract killer (Tom Cruise). Quite interesting!

Death Sentence (2007)
- The film is a good example of how one event can change your entire life. This is not the best movie for a family audience given how much gang violence is shown. No typical Hollywood ending here.

Die Hard (1988)
- If you like action movies, then you'll like this one. Classic Bruce Willis stuff.

Die Hard 2 (1990)
- See above.

Gods Must Be Crazy, The (1980)
- A very funny movie about the events that occur after a bottle of coke is dropped from a small plane flying over the Kalahari Desert.  The bottle is found by some primitive tribal people who believe it was an act of God.

Heat (1995)
- The movie is fairly long; however, it's a good watch if you have the patience. It’s a classic crime drama starring Al Pacino (cop) and Robert Di Niro (bad guy) who are playing a cat and mouse game - who gets who in the end?

Hotel Rwanda (2004)
- This movie didn't live up to my expectation. It's based on the genocide that happened in Rwanda; however, not much is shown of that. I watched it for the Africa-setting, which I liked.

Illusionist, The (2006)
- A nice magical thriller movie.

Into the Wild (2007)
- This is an excellent adventure movie, based on a true story, on the life of a bright and young student who gives up all of his material belongings and hitchhikes to Alaska.  Don't expect an Indiana Jones type of adventure movie.  This is a thought-provoking art film.

Italian Job, The (2003)
- It's not as good as I expected, however, you can't go wrong with a heist movie!

Killing Fields, The (1984)
- A film on Cambodia's Khmer Rouge that killed roughly 20% of the population in the 1970s. America’s role in the genocide is quite interesting.  This is not a documentary and it is quite interesting to watch.

Last King of Scotland, The (2006)
- This movie is based on the life of the corrupt and childishly evil Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. The movie follows a young Scottish doctor who becomes the personal physician of the dictator. This is one of the best movies on Africa.

Lord of War (2005)
- This movie gives a good insight into the life of an international arms dealer supplying weapons to foreign governments and African war lords. My favourite dialogue goes something like this - "the President of the United States is the biggest gun-runner in the world." So true. I especially loved the anti-Hollywood ending. Watch this to see Nicholas Cage at his best.

Orphan (2009)
- This is a fairly violent horror movie with a twisted ending, and some may find the plot quite disturbing.

Papillon (1973)
- This is a classic prison escape movie. I can’t believe I hadn’t watched this movie until now!

Prestige, The (2006)
- Like The Illusionist, this is another nice magical thriller movie.

Rescue Dawn (2006)
- This movie is based on an American prisoner-of-war whose plane gets shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War. The jungle setting is quite nice. Thanks to America, Laos is the most bombed country in the world (to this date) even though war was never officially declared on the country.

Se7en (1995)
- I thought the movie concept was interesting. The movie is about a serial killer whose killings are motivated by the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s quite interesting and good acting by Brad Pitt.

Shoot to Kill (1988)
- A good Sidney Poitier movie on survival in the wild.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
- A well-made British movie on the life of a Mumbai slum dweller. This is not an Indian movie. I don't understand why Indians celebrated the Best Movie Oscar award for this movie that highlights the worst in India, as their win? There were many better Hindi movies on the same subject that should've won Oscars in the past. However, those weren't directed by an Englishman. Now, how about a movie on skinheads in England, Mr. Boyle? I think the Oscars are over-rated anyway and never watch the show.

Sorcerer (1977)
- I discovered a hidden gem when I saw this movie. The second half of the movie is an edge-of-your-seat thriller set in the jungles of Latin America. There are really no good guys in this movie. The title is quite misleading and does not give away anything about the movie.

Taken (2008)
- A story of how a retired CIA father goes to any length to save his kidnapped daughter.  It's somewhat unrealistic, but fun to watch nonetheless.

Three Kings (1999)
- Good action movie set in the Middle East. It's about some US soldiers trying to steal gold that was stolen from Kuwait.

Hindi Movies

3 Deewarein (2003)
- A good prison movie with a twist.

99 (2009)
- A funny and well-made movie on the Cricket match-fixing scandal that hit India in the late 1990s.  I watched it twice and enjoyed it both times.

1971 (2007)
- This is an excellent and realistic movie on the Indian Prisoner's of War (PoW) rotting in Pakistani jails since the 1971 war. The movie is a good example of what happens when the publicity department fails to do its job; most people haven't even heard of this gem of a movie.

A Wednesday (2008)
- The only thing I will say about this excellent movie is that I wish something like this would happen one day...

Aamir (2008)
- This is a story of how an innocent Muslim man is used by Islamic terrorists to do their dirty work. It’s quite interesting and it’s a unique movie coming out of India.

Baazi (1995)
- I watched this in a theatre in Rangoon.  The movie starring Aamir Khan and Mamta Kulkarni is not particularly good - if there was ever a "typical" Bollywood movie, it is this, it is this.  However, I've included it in this list for the fond memories of my Burmese Days it brings out.

Barah Aana (2009)
- A very simple story line and excellent acting. It's about a trio of poor guys who stumble into crime and realize that it's not such a bad business.

Burning Train, The (1980)
- I loved it the first time I saw this and loved it the second time too. The movie title is quite self explanatory.

Chandni Bar (2001)
- This movie quite realistically follows the life of an innocent village girl who becomes a "bar girl" in Mumbai due to some sad turn of events.  This is an excellent and thought-provoking movie by Madhur Bhandarkar.

Dasvidaniya (2008)
- This is the Hindi version of the Hollywood movie, The Bucket List. It's a movie with a very simple message (i.e. do what is really important to you, lest it is too late).

Fashion (2008)
- I was dying to watch this movie after my Kanchendzonga trek and ended up watching the 9:00 AM show in a Pune multiplex by myself - and enjoyed every minute of it.  The soundtrack is especially good.  "Tere ishq mein mar jawaan..."

Gangajal (2003)
- This is about the life of a good cop (Ajay Devgan) who gets transferred to the badlands of Bihar.

Ghajani (2008)
- I watched this movie three times; twice in the theater and once in a bus from Nagpur to Aurangabad.  It's a dark movie based on the Hollywood flick Memento.  Since I've seen both, I wouldn't say it's a copy of the Hollywood movie - the Hindi version is much more coherent and easier to follow for the average viewer.  The soundtrack is also excellent; "Hai guzarish" and "Kaise mujhe tum mil gayee" are two of the more popular songs from the film.

Gheharai (1980)
- This is not your typical Bollywood horror movie. It's actually quite scary with absolutely no gore. I liked it a lot!

Katha (1983)
- In the mood for a light-hearted comedy? Then this movie is for you. I think this is a hundred times better than today's mindless and vulgar "comedies" that don't even make you laugh.

Life ... in a Metro (2007)
- An excellent movie on the complicated modern lives of several people living in a large metropolitan city. It seems everyone in this movie is having an extra-marital affair. This is an all-in-all entertaining and thought-provoking film from start to finish. Great soundtrack, especially In Dino.

Luck by Chance (2009)
- A movie on how a struggling actor becomes a star. Good watch.  "Sapno se bhare naina, na neend hai na chaina..."

Maharathi (2008)
- A suspense thriller with some flaws, but an entertaining watch nonetheless. Decent acting by Neha Dhupia.

Manorama Six Feet Under (2007)
- This suspense thriller will keep you guessing; good acting by Abhay Deol.

Mukhviir (2008)
- An interesting movie on the life of a police informer. It's incredible what lengths they have to go just to "blend in".

Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978)
- Good Amitabh Bachchan movie and great soundtrack, especially "o saathi re... tere bina bhi kya jina..."

Page 3 (2003)
- Another realistic movie by Madhur Bhandarkar on the lives of the rich and famous in Bollywood. It can be quite disturbing to watch, but then again, the truth does hurt.

Pushpak (1988)
- There are absolutely no dialogues in this movie; however, the movie is quite funny and the story keeps the viewer engaged.  Good acting by Kamal Hassan, and the actress, Amala, is very beautiful.

Red Rose (1980)
- The storyline, which can be disturbing to some, is quite different than any other Hindi movie to date. This movie was way ahead of its time.  Warning to viewer: your image of Rajesh Khanna may be ruined forever after watching this film.

Risk (2007)
- A good movie on the underworld activity in Mumbai.  It's not as good as Vaastav, but still watchable.

Shaurya (2008)
- A story on a few "bad apples" in the Indian Army posted in dangerous Kashmir who shoot first and ask questions later. It's too easy to be critical when your life is not on the line. The ending is too politically correct and makes no sense.

Stoneman Murders, The (2009)
- A relatively unknown suspense thriller about a serial killer in Mumbai - apparently based on actual events. For a change, the movie is well-made from start-to-finish and doesn't fall apart at any point.

Summer 2007 (2008)
- The first half is pure Bollywood masala, and the second half is about loan sharks in small villages that prey on desperate and poor farmers. Good message in the end.

Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008)
- It's nice to see some unique ideas coming out of Bollywood; this is one of them. It's a good watch and it's something different than the usual.

Yeh Mera India (2009)
- One of the best and original movies to come out of India. Good message and excellent editing.  I've watched it twice without getting bored.  "Meri aankhon mein ansoo, tujhse hamdan kya kahoon kya hai?  Thair jaye toh angara hai, bahe jaye to dariya hai."

Marathi Movies

Adla Badli (2008)
- This is a comedy starring Ashok Saraf and Sachin movie. The duos teach a lesson to a couple of rich guys who often make bets with each other on other people’s expense.

Anaahat (2003)
- An interesting concept and good performance by Sonali Bendre.  It's a very short movie.

Chhadi Lage Chham Chham (2005)
- This movie shows how a good person at the top can bring about positive change in the entire system. The movie is about how a new principal turns a bad school into a good one.

De Dhakka (2008)
- This movie has just the right amount of comedy and drama. Good watch with some classic Makrand Anaspure lines. "ugdhya samor nagda gala ani raat bhar heuvani maila!"

Divasen Divas (2006)
- Good movie on the life of a young couple who go against their family and get married right after college.  The movie is on the financial struggles that follow.

Goshta Choti Dongraevadhi (2009)
- An excellent and highly-recommended movie depicting the life of draught-affected and debt-ridden farmers of Maharashtra, and how government corruption affects the people at the very bottom of the pyramid (farmers in this case). The movie also offers viewers a chance to see Makrand Anaspure in a non-comic role for a change.

Goshta Dhamal Namyachi (1984)
- A classic Ashok Saraf movie. Need I say more?

Maskari (1991)
- This is a comedy movie starring Laxmikant Berde, who often gets himself into trouble with his lies.

Mi Shivaji Raje Bhosale Boltoy (2009)
- The movie starts off good showing the poor plight of “helpless” Marathi manoos in Mumbai. Towards the end, the movie is more preaching than entertaining.

Sail (2006)
- I can't believe I watched this movie. One has to be in a certain state of mind to bear this one. The movie has nothing but 2 characters interacting with each other in their poorly-lit porch at night.  It's about politics and is quite good.

Sanai Choughade (2008)
- An interesting movie on the process of modern arranged marriages and the complications arising out of being truly honest and forthcoming in the process.

Topi Var Topi (1995)
- Classic Ashok Saraf and Laxmikant Berde comedy movie. Ashok Saraf takes up a life of crime and Laxmikant Berde goes one up on him and teaches him a lesson.

- This excellent movie is very entertaining and it has a good message. It's about superstition; the rural setting (Gadchiroli district) is pleasing to the eye.

Foreign-language Movies

Apocalypto (2006, Maya language)
- Set in the Mayan civilization, this is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. The entire movie is in the Maya language. In spite of that, I loved this movie. The foot chase scene after the first half of the movie is one of the best I've ever seen.

Motorcycle Diaries, The (2004, Spanish language)
- Follow Che Guevara as he undertakes an epic journey through South America with his buddy on a motorcycle in the early 1950s. The movie is thought-provoking and full of adventure. Che undertakes a journey that changes him ... and then he changes the world.

Also see: For Your Weekend Reading

Picture of the Week #13

Gateway to Heaven?  Jagged peaks in between Mt. Kulang (L) and Mt. Madangad (R) near Igatpuri in Maharashtra, India.

I almost lost my life on this 3-day trek after I pulled a stupid stunt after getting lost... Rule #1 in trekking - think before climbing up!  Ask yourself, can I climb back down the same route?  If the answer is no, then do not keep climbing.

Picture of the Week #12

The huge rocky terrain of Mt. Kulang, falling steeply to the Konkan presents a grand sight.  Oh, what an experience that was!  [Picture taken near Igatpuri in Maharashtra, India]

Picture of the Week #11

A typical petrol (gas) station in Burma.  Oil, petroleum and diesel are stored in alcohol bottles.

Picture of the Week #10

A typical village in Laos.

Picture of the Week #9

Patuxai monument in Vientiane, Laos.

Picture of the Week #8

Temples of Bagan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Myanmar (Burma).

Picture of the Week #7

View from cable car in Gangtok, Sikkim, India.

Picture of the Week #6

A monk walking past the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma.

Picture of the Week #5

The Huc bridge in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Nominate Me

Dear Readers,

DesiPundit is seeking nominations for new Community Members. Community Members get to choose selected posts from their blog to appear on DesiPundit.

I have written a couple of articles on Baba Amte's projects, Anandwan and Hemalkasa, which needs a wider audience to spread awareness on his work. I believe I can reach more people via DesiPundit.

So, please nominate me by filling out this form (takes less than 1 minute):

Thank you,


Picture of the Week #4

An early morning view from the Rangoon-Mandalay express train in Burma.

Report on Hemalkasa

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Baba Amte

"After my tour in the tribal belt of the Madias, I feel the intensity of injustice right down to my toe-nails." - Baba Amte


I read somewhere: "Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God's handwriting."

I've an obsession for seeing beautiful and unusual places.  Hence my trip to Hemalkasa.

Many thought I had lost my mind to go to the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra - an economically backward and under-developed region plagued by Naxalite (Maoist) violence.  The same people don't have a good opinion on the other activity that I frequently engage in either - mountain climbing.  As far as they are concerned, it is a useless and risky activity.  However, just like mountain climbing, they have no idea how rewarding this journey was for me and I hope that this article helps them to understand.


Click here to continue reading this article.

Picture of the Week #3

A mother and her children en route to Dhawale village in Maharashtra, India.

Picture of the Week #2

A villager overlooking the imposing Mt. Napta, Maharashtra, India.

Picture of the Week #1

Picturesque Muong Khoa village in Laos.

Reminiscences of Southeast Asia

"Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe." -Anatole France

It's back to square one after a long journey in Southeast Asia. A boundless journey which I embarked on all alone. A journey, the rewards of which cannot be measured in monetary terms. A journey, the experiences from which will stay with me for a life time. A journey, which has shaped me into a better person today.

My Route.  Click to enlarge.

I was traveling in Southeast Asia's Indochina region. Indochina is another name for mainland Southeast Asia, which comprises of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and peninsular Malaysia.

I planned this trip while the world was deep in one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression of 1930s. I looked at the map of Southeast Asia and simply pointed at the places that I've always wanted to visit. Only my air tickets to Bangkok and out of Hanoi were booked in advance. This gave me the maximum flexibility to travel as I wished in the region. My original plan changed considerably once I was on the road.

The trip was funded entirely by my 2008 income tax refund. Excluding the airfare to the region, it is not very expensive to travel in Southeast Asia. My average spending over six weeks was less than US$20/day (or Rs.1000/day), including accommodation, food and transportation.

A common question for locals and other travelers to ask when you're traveling is 'where are you from?’ This seemingly simple question is not as straightforward as it sounds. For many people, 'where are you from?' is not the same as 'where do you live?’ I found that this is particularly true with Europeans, but not so with Americans and Canadians. Depending on whom I was speaking to, I mostly said India, and if the conversation went further, then the part of me living in Canada was revealed.

When I was in Southeast Asia I was the self-declared Brand Ambassador of India. I think I did a good job as most people appeared to like me. I was quite the celebrity in Southeast Asia as many people wanted to get their pictures taken with me or just talk to me! I want people in the countries that I visit to think of me whenever they think of Indian people. This is relatively easy to do because, except for Thailand and peninsular Malaysia, not many Indian people visit the Indochina region.

I was affectionately called "Mr. India" in Laos by the locals and a taxi driver in Myanmar asked me where I was from and said he was very happy to see me after having refused a ride from him. In Vietnam, the owner of a hotel in which I was staying invited me for lunch with her family who treated me like I was a part of their family. Little things like these made a good trip even better. I tried to learn, at least, how to say 'hello', 'how are you' and 'thank you' in their language; be polite to everyone; have a winning smile; not litter etc. All of these things, collectively, helped retain goodwill for me among others and will hopefully retain a lasting good impression on Indians, in general, in their minds.

Speaking of lasting impressions, I still remember a Ukrainian couple that I traveled with for a few days in Myanmar. They had purchased a bottle of wine for around US$1.00 and it was kept unsecured and in the open while in a long-distance overnight bus. Not surprisingly, the bottle was missing by the time we reached our destination in the morning. The guy took out his anger on the poor manager of our guesthouse by arrogantly cursing and calling all Burmese thieves. I'm sure his remarks must have left a bad impression on Ukrainians in his mind and others, including myself, who heard his abuses. Because really, when you're in a foreign country, you're representing the country of your origin and naturally become its ambassador - whether you're up for the task or not.

Thailand: Land of Smiles

Landing in Bangkok, the City of Angels, all alone at midnight is no smiling matter. I took a taxi around thirty minutes past midnight to Saphan Khwai. The taxi driver over-charged me; I hadn't been in Thailand for more than an hour and I was already ripped off! Not a good start to my trip, but I brushed off the incident as 'part of the traveling package'. Taxi drivers are notorious over-chargers any where.

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok
Most visitors to Bangkok make a beeline for the Khao San road - a haven for backpackers. For some reason I chose to stay in Saphan Khwai. I stayed here for three nights even though it was a bit pricey. For the last two nights I moved to Khao San road and wondered that if this is how it is the low season in the middle of a recession, then what must this place look like in the high season? I had never seen so many foreigners (Westerners) in my life before - almost all of them armed with a copy of the "Lonely Planet" guide! The place was crowded and there were more Westerners (backpackers) here than Thais, and more Thai prostitutes than other Thais. I felt more out of place here than I did in Saphan Khwai, a Thai, non-touristy neighbourhood. It was absolutely crazy. Love it or hate it, one cannot ignore the Khao San area - it is an experience in itself.

Khao San road is a place where the party goes on all night. It is a place with many bars and clubs whose patrons are all foreigners and where Thai prostitutes make a good living. Since the Khao San area is not connected to the Skytrain or the subway, it is difficult to venture out of this area without hiring an expensive taxi. Most people come here to party and are not too keen on venturing out anyway.

I am happy I did not stay in Khao San the entire time. I loved Saphan Khwai as it was connected by the Skytrain, which I thought was one of the coolest ways of getting around in Bangkok. The only reason I moved to Khao San was because I had met a few people at the embassy of the Union of Myanmar, who were staying in that area. We had decided to fly together for an exciting adventure in the mysterious and unknown Myanmar.

Skytrain near Victory Monument, Bangkok
Walking around in Bangkok, it is not difficult to see that their economy is heavily dependant on tourism. Thailand gets over one million visitors every month. It is also one of the most tourist friendly countries I've ever been to. It makes absolutely no sense to be a package tourist here as it is very easy to arrange things on your own.

I did a bit of sightseeing in Bangkok, but my main aim of coming to Thailand was to secure a visa to Myanmar, which I did with relative ease.  See A Day in Bangkok for more on the City of Angels.

Golden Land of Myanmar (Burma)

A wise person once said that "to travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries." I found that this is especially true in case of Myanmar.

An Intha one-leg-rower fisherman, Inle lake, Shan state
The Union of Myanmar is the largest country in the Indochina region and is governed by an oppressive military junta (supported by China). It also has the dubious distinction of being the most corrupt nation in Southeast Asia.

The government of Myanmar and the people of Myanmar can be thought of as two separate entities. The government can be described as corrupt-to-the-bone and oblivious to the needs of its citizens. These facts are sufficiently confirmed after spending some time in the country and talking to the local people.

The people of Myanmar, on the other hand, are very simple and deeply religious. It is a predominantly Buddhist nation with a sizable Muslim minority and smaller Hindu and Christian communities.

Devotees at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Despite what one might hear in the media, Myanmar is a safe place to travel to. There is almost no crime, even in big cities. Why would there be when the disparity between the "haves" and "have nots" is negligible? When everyone is poor, there is no motivation to commit crimes. The only rich people are the all-too-powerful government officials who literally live in fortress-like homes. In fact, in 2005, the government changed its capital from Yangon (Rangoon) to Naypyidaw, which is a city built specially for all the government officials, away from everyone else. Naypyidaw is about 320km north of Yangon.

Myanmar is not a country to go to without conducting some research beforehand. For example, there are no ATMs or traveler's cheque cashing facilities. Credit cards cannot be used either. All visitors to this country need to bring enough US dollars with them to last the duration of their stay. This could be $500-1000 per person for a month's stay. Everyone in Myanmar must know that tourists carry a lot of cash on them. Still, I never felt unsafe in the country - even while walking alone at night in Yangon. A tourist being robbed is almost unheard of in a country where foreigners are practically revered.

Another interesting thing about Myanmar is that it is better to convert US dollars to the local currency in the black market, rather than in the official market (e.g. airport or bank). The official rate is US$1.00 = ~6.50 Kyats. The black market rate in June 2009 was US$1.00 = 1,080 Kyats. What a significant difference! This is another reason why it pays to do research before coming to this country.

A kid on a water buffalo watching his fields
During my entire trip, I did not see a single person defecate or urinate in the open. Basic toilets are found everywhere. That's how it should be everywhere. See this post for more on my observations, facts and tidbits on Myanmar.

I did not meet a single person who was happy with the government (junta). So who is supporting the government? China. Why? The governments of both China and Myanmar have partnered up to exploit Myanmar's natural resources. Electricity from dams built in Myanmar goes to China (and Thailand); none of it goes to Myanmar! The government of Myanmar is also over-exploiting its forests at an alarming rate for the benefit of Chinese firms (who need timber to make furniture that is shipped to the Western world).

This is how I traveled in Burma!
How else is the government making money? By controlling the production of opium. There are many regional contenders for this, who often fight with the government for its control. This is the reason why many of Myanmar's bordering regions are out-of-bounds for foreign travelers - they are just too dangerous. Opium from Myanmar is exported to all over the world.

I was lucky to have the company of people from various walks of life while traveling in Myanmar. JJ, an American, was a former drug dealer and an ex-con. He was the son of a retired millionaire merchant ship captain and was planning to spend 6 months in Southeast Asia (or until his US$6,000 run out). It was always interesting to talk to him about world politics and religion. He was very intelligent and held a Masters in Education degree. AG, a British guy, was a "shop fitter" in the UK, and nobody knew what that meant. He had taken a break from work and had been traveling for 7 months. His previous work experience included working in a beef processing factory where his job was to mop blood off the floor and to lift cut-off heads of cows with his bare hands. He shared many fascinating stories from his work with us. IZ and JT were friends of AG, and both were French. IZ had worked in an import/export company and JT was a "social worker" (not sure what exactly she did). Both were best friends, had quit their jobs, and planned on traveling for 2 years. In our routine life we only tend to meet people who are, more or less, like us and do similar things as us. So, it was very interesting for me to travel with such a group.  A lesson I've learnt is: not to judge a book by its cover.

Travel mates
To me, Myanmar is a country of monks. I've never seen more monks anywhere else in the world. It was fascinating to see the early morning ritual of small groups of monks walking in a line to collect alms from the villagers. The monk at the front of the line used a bell to alert people of their arrival. When the monks arrive, the lady of the house, who is waiting for them, takes off her footwear and puts food (usually some rice and curry) in a basket carried by each of the monks as they come to her in an orderly fashion.

A monk walking past Shwedagon Pagoda
I consider myself blessed to have seen the age old Buddhist tradition of this wonderful country.

Lao People's Democratic Republic or Lao PDR (also known as Laos)

Among the Southeast Asian capital cities, I've seen Yangon (Myanmar), Bangkok (Thailand), Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Hanoi (Vietnam) and Vientiane (Laos). By far, Vientiane has to be the quietest capital city in Southeast Asia. Situated along the banks of the mighty Mekong river, the city is small, traffic is light and the atmosphere is laid back. I spent about four days here just taking it easy.

My most memorable experience in Vientiane was when I went to visit Wat Sisaket, the oldest temple in the city (built in 1818 AD). While strolling in the temple grounds, I was asked by a monk, who was with two of his friends, if I would chat with them for a while. They wanted to practice speaking in English. So we walked to the monastery and sat on the floor of their room. It immediately started raining heavily. The rain lasted for two hours and I ended up talking to them for that long - much longer than I had anticipated.

Khamdy monk, left, and the two novices with whom I spent 2 hours chatting
I learned quite a few things about their daily routine, their culture and the history of the temple and of Laos. A monk named Khamdy did most of the talking; the other two who were novices did not speak much English. Monks start off as a 'novice' before attaining the status of a 'monk', which takes about two years. Monks have to adhere to a much longer list of "restrictions" than novices. Their first meal is early in the morning and lunch is normally the last meal the monks and novices get to eat; after that they're only allowed to drink water.

Khamdy does not want to be a monk for ever. He said he hopes to finish his "monk education" at the temple and, if his parents help him out, he would like to attend university to get a bachelor's degree in English. He wants to be an English teacher. I think he will be an excellent teacher. He has added me on Facebook and still keeps in touch via e-mail (to practice his written English).

He said monk education, which concentrates on the teachings of Buddha, is good if one wishes to be a monk forever. However, this education is of little or no value in today's modern and highly competitive world.

Because of our preconceived notions on monks, it was always amusing to see them talking on their cell phones (Thailand), smoking cigarettes (Thailand), chewing tobacco/betel (Myanmar), browsing through the latest music and movie CDs/DVDs (Myanmar), listening to music on their iPods (Thailand and Laos) or even checking out toy guns (Myanmar). While it is easy for us to be critical and make jokes of what they do, let us not forget that they are people too with likes, dislikes and habits just like us.

It is also important to note that many monks, particularly in Myanmar, become monks not because that's their life's calling, but because there is no other alternative. Myanmar's education system is in shambles. Therefore, it is better to send your children to a monastery where they will be provided with food and shelter, and learn the teachings of Buddha along with discipline.

I was looking forward to going to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage City along the Mekong river. However, I was somewhat disappointed by this place, which is flooded with foreign tourists. In spite of that, I spent four days taking it easy; one can't help but take it easy in Laos! I spent time riding' my rented bicycle around town and reading the great Indian epic, Ramayana, while sippin' on Lao coffee along the Mekong river - life was good.

Mekong river
Arguably, the best part of going to Luang Prabang is the 10-hour bus journey from Vientiane. The jagged limestone mountain scenery is breathtaking to say the least.

Scenery on way to Luang Prabang from Vientiane

Socialist Republic of Vietnam

My journey from Luang Prabang (Laos) to Sapa (Vietnam) was longer than I had anticipated. The distance as-the-crow-flies on the map is misleading. Both, northern Laos and northern Vietnam are mountainous, and the winding roads make any trip into an epic journey. It took me 3 days to reach Sapa, with 10 hours of bus rides on each of the three days. I thought I would reach Sapa in 2 days. As I figured out later, it does take a minimum of 3 days to reach Sapa from Luang Prabang, however, the bus journeys were long due to breakdowns, several road blocks and a lot of road construction along the way.

I spent the first night in the picturesque Muong Khoa village nestled in the hills. It would've been very nice to spend time in this charming and quaint little village. However, Mt. Fansipan in Sapa was calling me and I had to move on.

Picturesque Muong Khoa village
I stayed in a family run hotel (Ban Mai Hotel, opposite lake) in the hill-town of Sapa. I had the best room in the hotel with the view of a beautiful lake and mountains from the balcony. Since it was the low season, I was the only one staying there. The owner of the hotel treated me like I was part of her family; she even invited me for lunch with her family and they were gracious hosts. It also gave me a chance to eat traditional Vietnamese food and experience Vietnamese hospitality.

My balcony
Hotel owner, in red & white, and her family
I'm very proud of what I accomplished in Sapa - summiting the highest peak of Vietnam, Mt. Fansipan (3,143m or 10,312 ft.), in 1 day. Most people take 2 or 3 days to climb. There are two camps on the way where it is possible to spend the night. I should have probably done it in 2 days as I had underestimated the difficulty and my knees were hurting even before I reached the top. However, it would've been a cold and miserable night had I stayed in the mountains.

On summit of Mt. Fansipan
The trek was long and arduous. I'm happy I had the stamina to complete the trek in 1 day; it was a sort of personal challenge for me. It took me 12 hours to complete the trek in a continuous heavy downpour. Because this was the rainy season, there were absolutely no views at any time during my trek. However, the beautiful waterfalls and mountain streams, replenished by the heavy rains, more than compensated me for missing the views.

"It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves - in finding themselves." -Andre Gide

The rains had picked up in intensity on my return trip. The trails were entirely submerged in water and it was getting difficult to find the way. In some places water was flowing out of the ground! Even my guide, who makes the trip here 4 times a month, had not seen so much water. The waterfalls were so pleasing to the eye and soothing to the mind.

The route up is via that ladder!
The last 45 minutes or so of my trek before reaching the base was in complete darkness. Visibility was practically zero and I couldn't even see my own hands let alone the trail. Luckily, I had a Maglite (flash light) in my bag pack since my 22 year old guide only had the light from his Nokia cell phone to guide us. I had to cross several streams whose level had increased significantly since the morning. The current was so strong that it was difficult to keep my balance. At that point in time the only thing I had in my mind was to get back to my room, take a hot shower and sleep.

The next day (July 1st) I felt very good and felt like I had earned the right to have a large Margarita pizza for lunch. The pizza was made with fresh cheese and freshly crushed tomatoes and cooked on wood fire - it was topped with basil and a peeled tomato skin in the shape of a rose was in the center. It was the most delicious pizza I ever had. I also had the most magnificent view of the valley and mountains from my window seat in the restaurant.

After spending a few days in Sapa, I took an overnight train to Hanoi for my flight back home. Since it was an overnight train, I had booked a 2-tier A/C sleeper ticket. The four berths, two on each side, were inside a private cabin. Before entering my cabin, I saw what I thought were two pretty girls. They turned out to be lady boys! There was also a guy with them who was clearly gay. It was going to be an interesting journey indeed locked inside a cabin with two lady boys and a gay man! At first I was a bit nervous, but I was able to relax after some small talk with them.

The lady boys are different than the hijras of India in that the lady boys were born as normal males, but undergo surgeries to look like a woman. The hijras, on the other hand, are hermaphrodites.

I only had 1 day in Hanoi before taking a flight back home. So I decided to live it up on my last day and checked into a nice hotel. For the first time, I had A/C, cable TV and hot water in my room (all at the same time) - it was nice.

A sculpture in Hanoi - this is what life's all about

You can do it too!

Many people say to me that they too wish to travel like me and experience some of the greatest, wildest and strangest things this world has to offer. My reply is this: with the right motivation, you can do it too! It just depends on what your priorities are. For some it’s buying a house or a BMW, for others it’s their career, and yet for others its starting a family - for me, it was traveling (for the time being). Don't get me wrong, I'm not a new-age hippie. I do want a relatively "normal" life and make lots of money and be rich - and god willing, I will be one day! :)

From my pictures it might look like it was all fun and good times, but I had to give up, sacrifice, put on hold and risk a lot of things to make it happen. Things like my job, career, buying a house, making G's (opportunity cost)!

Now that I'm back, I have nothing to show for what I've gained and what I've become. Nevertheless, it was very rewarding in a non-tangible way.

Most people I met along the way were traveling for at least six months, and some for as long as two years. I met a newly married American couple (in their early to mid 30s) who quit their corporate jobs in Seattle, rented out their house, and went traveling for two years. I met them while trekking in Burma and they only had a few more weeks left before heading back home (to reality). People lead such interesting lives.

There aren't many things that can bring two people as close as traveling together. It can also have the opposite effect since even married people are not used to spending 24 hours together. I think traveling is the true test of compatibility between two people.

Where to next?

People often ask me where my next trip will be. At this point in time, my next trip will be to the office! I don't see myself traveling for a long stretch any time soon, but I do hope to do it again in the distant future... my dream is to see this beautiful world - it's worth seeing!

My marital status notwithstanding, I have already chosen my honeymoon destination (and a few backup ones just in case) - guaranteed not to disappoint anyone! It is one of the most exotic and beautiful places in the world and is called the "last Shangri-la". However, how much sightseeing we will get done will be another story. ha ha