Monday, September 16, 2013

Game of life

Another attempt at writing fiction.

Yang Chol-pak steeled himself up as he looked into the mirror, his dark black eyes piercing through his taut image. His neatly parted hair seemed to quiver just a tiny bit as he put on his first pair of thin flesh-colored latex gloves. He would put on another pair just to be sure that any fingerprints he had left on the first pair that he had touched with his bare hands  would not betray him. He was about to play the game of his life; victory assured him an uncertain future but loss would mean slow and torturous deaths for him and anyone who shared even a strand of DNA with him.

Yang Chol-pak hailed from an illustrious family with a distinguished track record of patriotism. His grandfather had been a special confidante of Great Leader Kim Il-sung; a gallant commander who had singlehandedly shot down over thirty American fighter jets. The Dear Leader Kim Jong-il had sparred with Yang's father in Taekwondo sessions and had commissioned him to write forewords to thirteen of his treatises on Juche – the Great Leader's fearless development mantra that had spurred the noble workers of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to achieve hitherto unheard-of strides in self-sufficiency, technological prowess and mastery of literature and the fine arts. Twenty nine years ago, when the sparrows had congregated in a heart-shaped formation beneath the rainbow on Paekdu mountain, and little Kim Jong-un had blessed the workers of his great Republic  with his charismatic and cherubic smile for the first time, Yang's father had been bestowed with the greatest honor of them all. In three years, he would move to Geneva as a diplomat, taking little Kim as his own son to study in an elite private school. The Dear Leader wanted his successor to get the best possible education; to be aware of the evils of Capitalism by witnessing the havoc it wreaked on the very people who had foolishly welcomed it with open arms. Seven months later, Yang was born.

Yang of course did not know the true identity of his brother Kim (who used Yang's family name). He always wondered why Kim had the bigger bedroom and his own TV set. He was perplexed when they studied the principles of Juche together, for the private tutor seemed to favor Kim all the time, chiding little Yang for no reason. Yang hated it that he always had to do the dishes after dinner, while Kim got to go to his room with a big bowl of ice cream, playing video games. He wondered why Kim would go for private vacations with the Dear Leader every summer, while he, Yang would have to be content to  take the train with his parents from Pyongyang to Myohyangsan to view the same old gifts the Great Leader had supposedly received from international dignitaries. Kim would always come back from his trips and boast about the game he had nabbed, both in the wilderness and later on in his bedroom at the Dear Leader's summer palace in Wonsan. Little Yang would learn the truth much later, at the ripe old age of nineteen.

With tensions escalating between the two Koreas, and Kim Jong-un threatening to bomb America, the boys at Langley had decided that it was time to neutralize the new despot. Their chief operative for the mission was Jason Lee, a thirty-five year old Korean-American agent, with special training in covert ops, electronic spying and smuggling of arms. Jason had chatted up Yang at a bar in Paris and the two had hit it off. As Yang had gotten drunker and drunker, he had slowly revealed his resentment for his “brother.” Jason had found his hit-man. He made sure that Yang flirted with Eunice Park, a svelte spy and a seventh Dan in Taekwondo, who was sitting a few tables away. She followed him to his room.

Yang and Kim had gone on to study economics, political science and applied physics from the prestigious Kim Il-sung University, where the latter had shattered every academic record, having written stunningly innovative research papers that had given a fresh breath of life to the nation's economic and weapons' programs. Kim Jon-un, now using his real identity, had come into his own. Though he scorned the loose morals and the  hedonism of the West, there was one aspect of their avaricious lifestyle he had fallen in love with – video games. He simply loved video games, and had Play Stations and Game Boys, along with the latest titles sent over to him from Beijing, Moscow or Paris. He had also cultivated another obsession – Laser Quest.

Kim Jong-un had first encountered the game of Laser Quest at the age of fifteen, during a class trip to Zurich.  He had continued his passion throughout his days in Switzerland, roping in his bodyguards and the children of other diplomats to play with him in private sessions. They would always form two teams – Kim leading the noble Koreans and Yang commanding the cowardly Americans. Kim kept the commandos; Yang had to make do with the children.  One of the younger kids once had the temerity to shoot Kim in the back; he and his parents were never heard of again. From then on, the other diplomats had the good sense to make the arena manager  deactivate young Kim's sensors.

The Glock 22 would contain only two bullets – the second one was just in case the first shot failed. It would be cocked and ready for action. Christian missionaries operating at the border in Dandong, China would smuggle the weapon across the Yalu river from where a few defectors would carry it to Pyongyang. It was important to use a foreign pistol; inventory controls were increasingly strict in the cash-strapped North Korean military.

Kim could not bear the thought of giving it up in Pyongyang.  “Wasn't the temporary cycle of death and rebirth espoused in Laser Quest an embodiment of  the Confucian ideals his grandfather Kim Il-sung had so deftly woven into Juche?” The idea of a dark room, with flashing suits of sensor-laden armor and laser guns testing his survival instincts enamored Kim so much that he would have to build his own Laser Quest Arena in Pyongyang. With his acute knowledge of electrical circuits and advanced optics, he had given detailed instructions to a skilled technical crew to build a massive 8000 square-foot Laser Quest arena in downtown Pyongyang. The Koreans would now decimate the Americans every Friday evening. In a flash of inspiration he called it Juche Quest.

The weapon would be located at the northwest corner of the Juche Quest arena, under a loose floorboard. The exact location would not be revealed to Yang – just in case there was a double agent somewhere in the scheme. Jason had been concise in his instructions. “Search for a blob of white paint carelessly spilled on the floor. Then slowly lift up the floorboard there and approach Kim Jong-un from the back if possible. Do this in the last five minutes of the session. Avoid being seen by anyone, least of all your own teammates. The commandos on his side will be too scared to speak out against you. Shoot him twice in the head and drop the weapon. Do NOT aim for the chest – though ineffective, the armor may accidentally protect him. If he survives, all hell will befall you and your family! Continue with the game as if nothing has happened. The gun is ultra-silent; nobody will hear you.” The CIA had promised to engineer a coup that very night, and install Yang Chol-pak as the Supreme Worker of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

They had arrived at the Juche Quest arena. The protocol was the same. Everyone except Kim Jong-un had to go through a thorough strip search. Even Yang.

Yang found this procedure extremely humiliating. “How dare Kim distrust me!” he thought. “Haven't my parents raised him like their own? Haven't we eaten at the same table for almost two decades?” And then he remembered, with a slight pang of guilt, what he was about to accomplish. Should he go on a cruise with Kim's girls or should he find his own? Should he celebrate by personally executing Kim's biggest sycophants? That would probably be unnecessary. They would defect to his side anyway, once the Americans crossed the DMZ. He thought about the irony of the situation. He had played an American every Friday for the last fourteen years of his life. The prophecy was about to fulfill itself.

The room darkened as the thirty minute battle began for the last time. The strobe lights flashed and the music was loud as the gallant Koreans began their final rout of America. Yang walked around slowly, keeping mainly to the northwest. He had found the blob of paint and almost wet his pants as the silhouette of a player passed him by as he bent down to retrieve the weapon. The Glock was with him now.

The fateful moment had arrived. He had found Kim alone. Taking careful aim, he pulled the trigger.Click,” There were no bullets inside the damned weapon! The lights came on, the music stopped and two burly commandos dragged Yang Chol-pak away.

Pak Su-gil had found the golden escape route when the defectors approached him with the Glock. A brilliant engineering mind who had graduated summa cum laude from Kim Il-sung University, he had been frustrated in his role as the Chief Engineer of the Juche Quest arena. He now had the perfect opportunity to prove his loyalty to his Leader. Pak had informed the authorities about the assassination plan and had spearheaded a vicious counter strategy. The gun would remain under the floorboard, but the bullets would be removed. He had also set up a network of infrared surveillance cameras to catch the perpetrator red-handed. Now watching from his control desk, Pak heaved a contented sigh of relief. He would be rewarded with a spacious new apartment in Downtown Pyongyang. He hoped to be transferred to the weapons' program soon.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Some data from the Indian Railways

Without comment, I present this chart that I plotted based on railway employment data  (from and railway mishap data (from Data for railway mishaps are available only from 2002 - 2009. Nitish Kumar was the Railway Minister up to 2004, and was succeeded by Laloo Prasad Yadav up to 2009.

I have not presented railway employment numbers post 2009 (when Mamata Banerjee took over from Mr. Yadav, but the employment numbers continued to reduce).

Update: Here are some correlations (in case you think that the figure can be misconstrued)

Between death and employment: -0.90
Between injury and employment:  -0.91
Between (death + injury) and employment: -0.93

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Chess Player

It is a gloomy day in Manhattan, and it shows on Nashon’s face. Business is slow, and his throaty challenges to passers-by do not elicit  many opponents. There is a light drizzle, and any tourist willing to play this withered old hustler is either comfortably ensconced inside one of New York's many caf├ęs or busy lining up to scale the Empire State Building or another one of humankind’s unending attempts to defy gravity. I am watching him from a few tables across, smoking one of New York’s highly priced cigarettes in clear violation of the umpteen no-smoking signs that I have somehow missed.

Washington Square Park symbolizes the diversity and quirks of New York’s residents like no other place. One can find rich NYU students and bankers sipping lattes from Starbucks, clowns performing for mesmerized children, kippah-clad men reading mothballed texts, gamblers playing cards with money from yesterday’s crack sale, and of course the umpteen chess hustlers commandeering the chequered tables in the southwest corner.

Nashon is a wily old cat. He immediately sizes up his opponent, playing him rather than the board. He employs tactical anomalies that serious players would scoff at. And to make sure the mark gets full bang for his buck, he intersperses his game with trash talk, expert analysis and sometimes lessons on life as well. He charges extra for photos. His alert eye misses none; he beckons to me after relieving some poor sod from Canada of his ten dollars. “Come here man,” he says, “let’s play a game.” I demur, knowing full well what the outcome will be. “Sorry, I can barely play, man.” He is a veteran of persuasion. “Brother, you are from a land of warriors. Warriors of the mind and warriors of the body. Your ancestors invented this game!” His voice is hypnotic. His eyes are gleaming from behind his cello-taped glasses. “Haven’t you heard of Anand?” He is referring to the Indian chess legend Viswanathan Anand, gentlemanly conquistador of the sixty-four squares. “Yes, I have heard of him,” I find myself stammering. “But I can barely play,” I insist again. “Be a man, be a warrior!” he bellows. “Unless you dare to do battle, you will remain meek and submissive as you are now.”

His words have found their mark. My entire life flashes by me. Of the time the school bully had made off with my ping pong ball. Of the time the union president threatened me, being displeased with an article I wrote for the college paper. Of the unscrupulous professor who had appropriated my hard work. Of worse things – where I had shied away from confrontation. I had seen it all, and had never put up a fight. Nashon is right. I am meek and submissive. Submissive enough to play Nashon?

A petite young girl walks by, with a surprisingly large bosom. Nashon smiles at her, gesturing at me to wait.  She unzips her coat in front of my bewildered eyes. Out comes a little dove, specks of red blood dotting its immaculate white exterior. “Poor thing flew into a window pane,” she explains. Nashon takes charge. He is clearly the lord of Washington Square Park. He gives her detailed instructions on what kind of bandages and ointments to buy, how to prepare a sling for its broken leg and how to keep it warm and dry. I try to smile but manage only a feeble grin.

I wonder about Nashon. He could be anywhere between fifty and seventy years old. All his possessions seem to be with him; one large backpack, a chess set and a worn out timer that had probably been rewired to keep time in his favour. He also owns a rickety old bicycle. Where does he live? Probably in one of the low cost projects nearby if he wasn’t homeless. Has he fought in Vietnam? 

What if Nashon had not been Black? Would he be a suit in Wall Street? A professor of anthropology? Bobby Fischer? Maybe not. Nashon’s rapid Queen thrusts and tactical artifices qualify him as a patzer – a derogatory term used by chess experts for players like him.

“Hey Anand, give me one of your cigarettes man!” his command shatters my reverie. I part with sixty cents of my hard-earned money. “Let’s play for ten dollars. You win, I pay you. I win, you pay me.” I check my wallet. We sit down. A few tourists gather by. “This is so cool,” I hear a middle-aged lady tell her husband. She takes a photo, and then looks surprised when Nashon asks for his dollar. She pays up. I hand her my phone and ask for a photo. My picture is free. The crowd swells; it’s not often that one gets to see an Indian twenty-something play an old Black man. I play White.

I do not know any strategy. I cannot centre my pieces. I know nothing of point values, gambits, castling or defences. My moves are sloppy and unsure. Nashon, on the other hand, is a showman. He pretends to be flustered by my meaningless checks and foolhardy pawn sacrifices. An old man titters; I may have set myself up for a brutal decimation, but Nashon wants to play to the gallery. His moves grow bolder and bolder, as he picks up his pieces and lays them down with audible thumps. He flips the switch on his pocket radio, treating us to some good old jazz music. At one point I think I have his Queen; excitedly I take it with my Knight. The crowd jeers. I have not noticed that it is preventing his Rook from taking my King.

Concentration has always been my problem, making me a sitting duck for games of any kind. I would score a few points in ping pong before my smashes went all awry. After an eighty point bingo in Scrabble, I would inevitably settle for low-scoring three letter words. I would beat the batsman with a screamer of an outswinger before bowling three half volleys at his eager bat. In chess too, I would start off with a flourish and then give up my Queen in an oversight that I would immediately rue.

The sun begins to peek out of the clouds. The drizzle has stopped; I observe a cellist playing a beautiful melody somewhere in the distance. I have never seen a cello before, and the sight fascinates me. “Yo Anand, watch your clock!” I snap out of my daydream once more and see that I have two minutes left. I am down to my King, two Pawns and a Rook. Nashon has lost only two Pawns, and still has his Queen, both Rooks and a Bishop. He is close to promoting a Pawn. It’s a lost cause, but I soldier on. The crowd has mostly dispersed, disgusted with my utter ineptitude at the game of my forefathers. The inevitable happens. “Checkmate!” I verify his claim. He has a sad smile on his face as he reaches out for my money. The cellist reaches a crescendo.

“You are a promising player, Anand,” says Nashon. “But you made some crucial mistakes.” He proceeds to deconstruct the game move by move, pointing out the various times I had committed hara-kiri. I had moved too many pawns, made too many losing exchanges, been too greedy early on, and dropped my Queen as usual. I nod sheepishly. He offers to give me lessons for just forty dollars an hour. I tell him it’s my last day in the US. He nods his head ruefully. “I could have transformed you into a warrior fit to conquer the world, man.”

I slowly begin to walk away, when I hear him call out. “Hey Anand! How about one of them cigarettes man?”

Friday, February 08, 2013

Being Multilingual

This is an essay that I wrote for the Prof. Barbra Naidu Personal Essay Contest conducted by the English Department of St. Josephs College, Bangalore as part of its literature festival Meta 2013. It won the first prize in the Open category. I have rectified some typos, redundant words and grammar mistakes that I discovered after I submitted it.

I met Ali, a Pakistani vendor of pornographic DVDs on a beach in Mykonos. He was a profound man, even though he was a radical and functionally illiterate. After unsuccessfully trying to make me buy “Sexy Time in the Parthenon – IV” for only five euros, he decided to wax eloquent about life and philosophy (not before berating me for eating a pork souvlaki). He claimed that he had traveled on foot from Pakistan to Turkey via Afghanistan and Iran before landing up in Greece. His next destination was Italy, where he would “…smuggle himself across the border to Canada.” I did not have the heart to correct him. “I am a perpetual traveler,” he said, quoting some Sufi mystic I had never heard of. “I will keep discovering new lands, and be buried wherever I drop dead.” At that moment I was grateful that I did not have to face sweltering heat or icy blizzards to fulfill my wanderlust. Apart from his native Punjabi and Urdu, I was impressed that Ali could at least speak a smattering of Greek and English.

Throughout my life, I have grappled with new languages. Born to Bengali parents in mofussil Howrah district of West Bengal, I started speaking well past my third birthday. That was Bengali. I was admitted to an English-medium, supposedly ICSE school; Playway Nursery (fondly referred to by alumni as “St. Playway”), though I had never heard a single teacher there ever utter a word of English. Howrah was like that; the Principal of St. Thomas School in Dasnagar had proudly declared to my parents that all his teachers were “Cathelete” nuns.

When I was five, my father was transferred to Bombay. I would later learn that he was also suffering from an advanced stage of leukemia. He would live only three years more. Bombay was a total culture shock. We lived in tony Pali Hill, where everyone else had stashes of black money, drove around in Mercs and spoke English and pidgin rich-Sindhi Hindi. The kindly Father at St. Stanislaus asked me several questions, none of which made any sense to me. Finally, smiling exasperatedly, he said, “sing a song.” My father translated. I jumped off his lap, flashed a broad smile and broke into “EK DO TEEN…” while humping the air inside the clergyman’s somber trophy-filled office. I was accepted at another school that interviewed only my mother.

I do not remember when it happened, but one sunny day I woke up, went to the playground and found myself confidently speaking English. Soon I could read Enid Blyton as well. I was not that lucky with Hindi. I could barely understand the language, let alone speak it. To make matters worse, I had to learn Marathi at school too, though nobody in my vicinity spoke it. Then my father died. Our world came apart. We moved to Bangalore. School principals discreetly started suggesting that they needed funds for benches and stationery, money which my distraught mother could ill afford. After some strings were pulled, I was temporarily admitted to a school I hated. Nobody spoke English, and even I spoke better Hindi than the Hindi teacher. Classes were informally taught in an alien language – Kannada. I did not stay there for even a year.

People at my new school spoke English in class, but preferred Kannada in the alleys. It was a struggle picking up this new “idli-dosa” tongue (as expat Bengalis loved to call it – some had stayed in Bangalore for over four decades without learning a single word). Teachers made concessions, but even then I had to memorize entire passages from the Kannada textbooks just to get by. Most of the time, I had no idea what they meant. It was about three years later that I realized that I could actually speak Kannada. I chose to hide it, getting away with murder in Kannada class, by making seemingly innocent but outrageous utterances to the teacher, and getting more marks than I really deserved. Thanks to a workshop for spoken Sanskrit, I had gained some fluency there as well. Our Sanskrit teacher swore at us (in Kannada) when we asked him how people cussed each other in the language of the Vedas. Some of us then made a spirited effort to amend the apparent absence of abuse in the argot of Adi Sankara.

With my erratic academic record, I was lucky to land a seat in the pristine beachside campus of the Karnataka Regional Engineering College at Surathkal. Alas, the hostels were anything but pristine. That is where I learnt Bengali. “Wait,” you say? “Wasn’t that your first language and mother tongue?” Yes sir. I see you have been paying attention. However, I spoke Bengali only with people much older than me, or my sister. I did not even know that slangs existed in its pristine parlance. That was until I met Maharaj, my roommate who blasted Anu Malik on loop, and like me, rarely soaked his clothes in a bucket inside our room for less than three days. We also made sure never to bathe on the same day. Maharaj quickly became my mentor in rectifying in one day, the debilitating effects that eighteen years of Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray and Kazi Nazrul Islam had inflicted on my brain. And I learnt Hindi yet again.

The undergraduate days presented another linguistic tussle for me. Fulfilling my dream of being a thoroughbred Brahmin IT professional (who enjoyed the occasional beef roll whenever he passed Johnson Market) meant that I had to learn programming too. So I decided to learn the C programming language, a herculean task for someone who barely knew how to use a computer for anything else other than shooting bullets onto black and white pixelated UFOs. I could barely locate the characters on the QWERTY keyboard. And I was majoring in Chemical Engineering, whose syllabus was such that my programming skills would be useless until three years later, when a few companies chose to interview students from “core” engineering branches. The gamble paid off – I landed a job with a Fortune 500 company that made commercial applications that helped other companies manage their data. This meant that I had to grapple with a whole new set of exotic languages – SQL, PL/SQL and Java. Then I complicated my life further – by leaving a cushy job and enrolling in a master’s program, again in Chemical Engineering. This time I had to pick up MATLAB, TCL and LaTeX as well. My second job added Visual Basic and VB++ to my resume. I have forgotten most of these. But I can type pretty fast now.

SRK was my French teacher in college. I had joined his course hoping that it would attract the girls – but alas, I had paid up for the class only to realize that there would be none. I was soon to realize why. There was something pathetically repulsive about SRK – he was a foulmouthed pervert in his early fifties who thought he was a standup comic. He would offer to loan us his porn collection (provided we returned each DVD within a week), talk about his daughter’s friend’s curvy posterior (she was a final-year student at the same college) and brag about how he had banged his maidservant a few months ago (he had to increase her monthly pay by a hundred rupees after that). His proudest boast was that he had made up a dirty joke that was “…appreciated even in IIT Bombay!” To make matters worse, he barely knew French and spoke it with a strong North Karnataka accent. Thus, when I found myself in graduate school in France eight years later, it was an unwelcome shock to me that I understood nothing. In fact, I think I would have been better off without SRK’s pedagogy than with. 

I was struggling with a new language once again. After successful conquests of Bengali, English, Kannada, Hindi and even a smattering of Tamil and Sanskrit, my brain seemed to be saturated once again. Few people outside the school spoke English in France. The pronunciations were bizarre – the R’s sounded like sputum-laden coughs and syllables were arbitrarily silent. Commas served as decimal points and every noun had an arbitrary gender. The few Indian-looking people around were actually Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who spoke no English and whose Tamil was absolutely alien to what I was familiar with back in Bangalore. I was truly in a strange land. I resorted to my old modus operandi once again. I made friends who taught me slangs and swearwords. I watched English movies with French subtitles. I joined a French course but dropped out as I did not want to know useless things like “The weather is fine today, Madame Garnier. Are you having a good day?” Finally I got it. I needed to join courses where the instructors knew no English! I signed up for Salsa and Taekwondo lessons (I still suck at both). Harry and Jean-Noel knew absolutely no English. Now I can comprehend strange phrases like “hold her hips and turn her!” and “kick his face while maintaining your center of gravity!” Other than once mistakenly picking up “langue de boeuf” (almost-raw cow’s tongue – yes, it tastes just like your own) in the school cafeteria, I must say I have managed to survive quite well in France. And the little knowledge of French that I have, affords me all kinds of street cred on the boulevards of New York, Lisbon, Tallinn and Bangalore.

I realized that I was not too different from Ali. True, I had acquired several degrees on paper and never had to face a blizzard or sandstorm unprotected. I never had to resort to paying bribes to border patrol officers to look the other way. Unlike him, I did want to go back home someday, something that he can probably never afford to do. But we shared the same wanderlust. We shared the same travel sores as we traipsed ceaselessly across continents. And in the process, without realizing it, we had both become multilingual.