22-Nov-2005

Madras Muggers

I blame my upbringing in the city of chennai for my woes today. I am studying (or atleast starring furiously at the pages) for my level 3 of CFA. This is a three-year course where one exam happens every year (You will understand what it means if you have seen 36 chambers of shaolin. In one grueling test they decide whether to let you go to the next level or not). It is highly recommended for every budding investment banker/trader/financial analyst working in the U.S. I am a corporate banker in India. The most advanced financial wizardry I have done so far is calculate the equivalent front ended interest rate from a back ended one. However for the last three years I have been indulging myself in an expensive course with no payback visible in the horizon. The only conclusion I have reached is that I am a closet student.

It is not like I have been a steady topper (I have had my moments, but given the amount of time I had spent writing one exam or the other, probability must have ensured I did alright in a few). But nothing to indicate I derived sustenance from knowing I was studying for something.

I think this phenomenon started quite early in life when I chose to do commerce instead of science. I had already signed up for the course chosen by losers in Tamil Nadu. Now the rest of my life would be an endless endeavour to set this right. Which meant when I was filling my admission forms for B Com, I had already gone through the brochures of ICWA, ACS, CA. So I could fruitfully spend extra time ‘adding value’ to myself. In my first year, I had finished a certified course from NIIT (To this day, I wonder when I will get to use my strong foundation in DOS. So far I see it when my computer starts up and feel happy momentarily that I recognize C:/). In the beginning of my second year, I had passed my C.A. Foundation course. The whole of second year and most of third year was spent in clearing exams for the C.A. Intermediate course. This could have gone on an infinite period of time, had I not started a MBA. There were temptations (do I write my C.A. Intermediate and then maybe finish the final after B-School…?). Luckily since enough people told me that MBA would be tough by itself, after a long time there was only one thing I was doing. After two relatively ‘extra course free’ years, I thought I had finally exorcised the ghost of Madras Muggers (The ‘mug’ as in study, not ‘mug’ as in steal.). Infact joining work seemed to have been a reasonably good indicator that I had been saved from me and there would be no more attempts at trying to string more degrees to my name.

Sadly, I was mistaken. One year went by in peace and harmony and at the end of it had signed for the ‘U.S Recognised’ CFA course. I once again attacked my books with a vengeance. And realized I had signed up for another three years of feeling guilty about spending free time on movies or books or dining out (not that it stopped me from doing all the above). And feeling really noble if I restrained and instead starred at my books while all my worthy compatriots were not utilizing their time in toil. Again I plunged into questions on the sanity of studying given a lot of people in the world got on all right without it. The torment of realizing in the nth hour that you still have 50% of the stuff to cram. The resolve to drop out of the course at the end of 1st year no matter whether I passed or failed. The usual pre-exam melodrama.

I passed the first year and in a happy daze had already paid the USD 500 fee for the second year before I could recollect all the trauma of studying the previous year. Infact, by the time I recollected, it was already finals time for the second year and there was a fresh set of trauma to grapple with. The second year exams finally got over too. Collapsed into a chair outside the exam hall with a worthy co-masochist friend. Who had suffered more than me clearly going by the number of cigarettes he was smoking and the look of hopelessness in his eyes. And listened to some serious soul searching. ‘What is it with us that makes us write more and more exams and collect more degrees even though we are not really getting anything out of it’. Not surprising coming from a guy who was working in Infosys in software and had bid goodbye to finance after just a year in it. I, of course felt smug in comparison since I was alteast in banking which qualified as ‘finance’. And then continued ‘I think it must be the tam in us’. Voila! How right was he! It was not the commerce degree that was propelling me to fall deeper into the pit. After all this guy was an engineer, and really by Indian standards he had nothing more to prove. And in all honesty, after an IIM MBA, I could at least state I had reached a bit of an academic pinnacle in India (never mind people who were in with you know how much of a pinnacle it is). Yet we were both spending hours making notes on heteroskedascity and delta hedging.

It figures. Any good Tamilian is told that the only way to come up in life is to study hard. A constant background noise throughout childhood on the importance of education had left a deep unerasable scar in our heads. Now there was nothing to do but to study more. Possibly through the rest of our lives (shudder). My friend took a last drag and said ‘so let me know by when we have to pay the fees for our third level’ I nodded in understanding.
It is not almost time for level 3. A sense of déjà vu fills me again as I open the portfolio management book. My friend called to say he is definitely going to flunk this year and he cant understand why he threw away good money on a stupid course etc etc. I listen and agree wholeheartedly and add some good criticism of my own. He is also planning to write his GMAT in October. God save us.

p.s. Two years have passed since this was written. I am happy to announce that I am yet to start another course.

21-Nov-2005

Dance classes 1

I have always wanted to learn dancing. Even as a child I used to put up programmes during family vacations, which involved a bunch of cousins dancing to the latest hit song. This allowed me to indulge in two of my favourite activities – dancing and bossing over everyone. Unfortunately this enthusiasm never translated into actually going for a class as a kid. The blame for this of course lies entirely with my parents (as also the blame for my lack of cooking skills, swimming skills, inability to do origami, play the piano and any other life saving skill which they should have equipped me with).
So when I finally graduated, got a job and settled in the heart of a south Indian locality in the midst of Mumbai, it was time to give the sleeping dancer in me a chance to bloom and blossom. Being a good south Indian my first and obvious choice was to enroll in a Bharatnatyam classes. Without much ado I made enquiries and found out that the South Indian Education Society (SIES) conduced classes every Saturday and Sunday.
Bharatnatyam is a dance where you start of by learning the basic steps, and then you learn Alaripu, and finally move on to more complicated sequences involving intricate footwork and vivid expressions. After about 6 – 8 years or so of dancing, you are more or less ready to perform in public. I knew all of this at some level. But I forgot to account for the fact that people my age would have obviously passed through the 8 years of training and would be pros. So if I had to start with the basics, I may have a much junior set of people to contend with.
The first hint of this occurred me to me when I called up the SIES office and I asked when the next session would start. The gentleman on the other side said it would be soon and then proceeded to inquire how old my daughter was. I muttered that actually it was I who was interested in learning. I don’t know if it was embarrassment or merriment which made him gulp a bit and forcefully regain his composure before proceeding to tell me stories of people who started late but became pros. Encouraged, I hung up and started looking forward to the first class on Saturday afternoon.
The room was filled with little six year olds running to and fro and chasing each other. A couple of them stopped and looked a bit frightened when I passed by them and made my way to the teacher. I humbly did a Namaskaran and then as the teacher called the class to attention, took my place at the very last row (‘tallest girls please stand at the back’) of the bunch of six year olds. My classmates looked at me through the corner of their eyes, less frightened and the class began.
The first few classes were difficult. My thighs were hurting like mad but I could not confide in to my co-classmates because they seemed to spend all their breaks playing some running game. Obviously their thighs did not ache as much. All my breaks went in catching my breath. So I really did not miss the conversation. But gradually I started enjoying the idea of being let loose among kids on Saturdays and Sundays. After a week of ‘real’ world at the office, suddenly I could look forward to singing happy birthday if it was some kid’s birthday and waiting with anticipation as she distributed chocolates. My classmates treated me as a likeable but possibly slightly demented adult (why else would anyone this huge be learning dance with them) who could be admitted into their world. I got glimpses of first fallen tooth, new bangles and extra chocolates on birthdays.
The highlight of my dancing life really was the annual dance at Vijayadasami. This was a performance, which everyone in class had to participate in. Each batch of students had a dance to do and since within six months I had gained enough expertise, I was included in the batch of ten year olds. All the younger kids would have to wear the standard white salwar kameez uniform and the older ones would have to wear splendid silk sarees, jewellery and good make up. I was not sure if I could handle getting into such elaborate dancer costume all by myself and managed to get one of my dancer friends, Leo, to help.
The day of the performance dawned bright and sunny. Leo enthusiastically applied the make up pro style (which meant lots of it), wrapped the saree beautifully, arranged the jewellery and even managed to remove imaginary lint from somewhere. Then satisfied with the results settled to watch me perform. I had already warned her that elaborate costume aside, I was still a bit junior in the scheme of things. How much junior, she had not guessed. She watched open-eyed as I joined the row of 4ft something kids. I think this was the moment when she decided to play ‘mom’. With gusto Leo began to click various snaps of me along with my classmates. She beat every aggressive go-getter mom over there to hover right in front of the audience with the camera. When the performance got over I could hear her cheer me loudly. Much as I was proud of my accomplishment (and the loud moral support), suddenly I was wishing I had come alone.
The classes went on for a year after that. I was not really regular. After all I could blame work if I slept instead of going to the classes. And then just when I had finished Alaripu and had started on a slightly more complicated piece, I moved back to Chennai. I considered taking up classes again in Chennai but realized the kids here were way too ambitious, the teachers much more strict and the whole thing too serious. Dancing with ten year olds was OK on my ego. But dancing with snooty ten year olds would have been too difficult.
I still have the 12 photos Leo took of me in the 8-minute dance. A bunch of 10 year olds in white salwar kameezes, with me rising like a shining beacon in a bright saree somewhere at the back. I am not sure if I remember too many of the steps. But finally I have stopped blaming my parents for not enrolling me in dance classes.

12-Nov-2005

Good things about being 20 and earning

1. Money - No more hoping pocket money goes up or guilt pangs at spending Dad’s money on restaurants instead of tuition. I can splurge.
2. Looks – No more experimenting with make-up of all sorts hoping to eventually look like Sushmita Sen. You know exactly what suits your face and you are OK with not looking like Sen.
3. Curfew – No long explanations to anyone on why I am out late instead of studying
4. Education – No more worries on will I make it to this IIT or that B-School or this medical college. Your education, whatever it is, is done.
5. Parents – More adult-adult interactions than parent-child ones. Heck, you discover their flaws but at least you start appreciating that they really like you.

On the whole, you are old enough to be surer of yourself now than you were before and young enough to make a new start if you want to.

Beat that.

01-Nov-2005

Rustic Retreat

Homestay as a concept is fairly alien to India. At any rate, it was to me. When Sonal, Uma and myself were doing our research on a holiday plan, it was Sonal who first mentioned homestays. Not having heard the word before, I assumed that she had decided to call it off and wanted to stay at home. That’s when she explained that it meant staying with a family in their house and paying for it. A thorough net search had yielded a place next to Coorg. We all agreed that this seemed an interesting, non-touristy and inexpensive alternative.

That’s how we found ourselves outside the Mysore railway station waiting for our taxi to pick us up. Sunticoppa, our destination, was about a 100 kms from here. The road, however, looked like a cross-country trainer’s dream and the journey would take 3 hours. Darkness falls rather soon in these parts and the road creeps through the forest – a beautiful sight in the daytime but spooky by night. Especially if you have been stupid enough to discuss your cash positions in front of the driver just before starting off and then worrying if he will actually relieve you of the dough. Luckily we reached Sunticoppa at eight in the night with no incidents. The estate we were staying in was about half an hour away to be reached through an even more poorly lit, deserted, winding road surrounded on both sides by trees and bushes. In short, the exact setting where one can expect the spirits of the dead to come rushing. We turned into the dark, silent estate and true to expectation, there stood a cottage with no one around but a small boy staring calmly into the headlights.

As it turned out, fairly sane (and alive) people stayed there. That was our destination and our host, Giri, was waiting for us. Giri’s little son (the small boy) and Giri’s dad were introduced to us. Giri’s psychologist wife, Suja, was expected back from Mysore after conducting a soft skills seminar. Infact, the whole place felt like we had come to a well-to-do cousin’s house with none of the obligation to make polite small talk about the family.

The house was visibly old fashioned with railings running on the ceiling, wooden doors and windows. The family had added some welcome amenities like big modern bathrooms. It was also a fairly self-sufficient place. The family grew it’s own supply of fruits, vegetables and rice. They used bio-gas instead of LPG and solar lamps in addition to the State Electricity Board’s supply. Their cows gave them milk, and of course all around them was their coffee estate. Possibly this is when I realised a home stay is the closest you can get to experience a community firsthand if you have only three days to spare. Giri and Suja made an effort to feed us the local cuisine and chatted about their wedding rituals, family history and the local circles.

We had reached without any game plan on hand. I wanted to do a trek, Uma wanted to shop and Sonal was torn between the two of us. Finally we made the arrangements for a trek when Uma was busy lazing around and could not protest. Uma took it rather well when we told her about the trek, especially when we omitted the fact it would be 12 kms totally.

It was a perfect place and day to trek. Nishanidotta, the mountain we were gunning for was not too tall or challenging. It was 4600 ft. There was a two-km trek to a village house from the road. And a further eight kms up and down from the village house/‘base camp’. And then back to the road. The countryside was perfect. The first two kilometers were a mixture of loud buzzing trees and green paddy fields. The rest of the trek went through a muddy track with a bit of forest and a lot of breathtaking views tossed in.

Our hired guide, Puneet, had taken the son of our village house along for company and as a substitute for a GPRS. We were a bit skeptical about the rather young age of this supplementary guide – around seven. In the event, he proved to know his way better than Puneet and kept running ahead. We were panting to catch up with him and were rather sour about it till Puneet mentioned that we stood a better of chance of escaping leeches if we moved too fast for them to climb on. After that even Uma bucked up considerably.

After two hours of climbing, we finally started approaching the top. This was the only steep part, but there is something to be said about running to the summit of a hill with gentle raindrops hitting your face and the wind rushing past your ears. We took triumphant snaps complete with a flagpole left behind by previous enthusiasts. After that it was a quick descent back to the village house for lunch.

The pre-lunch ritual consisted of checking for leech bites – something all of us were nervous about since leeches have a tendency to cling on, suck your blood and look gross. Uma gently undid her shoes and discovered one well-fed specimen entangled in her socks. Sonal checked and got a zero. I began to slowly roll up the leg of my track pants and saw a black mark above my ankle. Losing no time, I went into hysterics. This prompted everyone in the house to come and watch bemused. I was hoping they would have sympathised if not called the paramedics. But apparently it is a daily phenomenon in their lives and I was left to my own devices to cope. Luckily a leech bite is not lethal or even harmful. Local remedies like squeezing lemon on the leech till it falls off followed by Soframycin on the wound helps.

After the trek, we were too tired to take in any of Coorg’s tourist delights. Which it seemed to have quite a few of going by the brochure Puneet waved in front of our faces for the tenth time that day. We humoured him and decided to stop at Rajah’s Seat - one of those panoramic views of the hillside you get at all hill stations in front of which families with huffing grandparents and fidgeting children cluster to pose for a snap. We skipped Dubare, an elephant camp around 40 kms away, a 200-year-old Shiva temple, a dam and other such treats. Puneet, being a loyal local, was quite upset that we could resist traveling 40 kms up and down Coorg to visit all these places. Possibly being a local was why he did not understand that Coorg’s beauty lay in the sparsely populated countryside, mountains, backwaters and such other places we could visit only from the estate we were staying in.

Giri and Suja proved to be brilliant hosts and had hot food, hot tea and hot water ready for us to use upon our return. We also happily borrowed from their wonderful collection of trashy and intelligent novels. The only blot on the spot was Giri’s tendency to chat incessantly. Mostly interesting, at times it could have a dramatic climax, leaving the listeners a bit nonplussed. During dinner one day, he ended a happy trekking story with someone falling off the hillside. I quickly left before he could tell the story of someone who died of a leech bite.

On our final day, we found ourselves back on the road to Mysore – this time in the daylight where we could admire Coorg’s lush forests. On the way we stopped at the Tibetan settlement in Kushal Nagar. The place is colourful, to say the least. The main temple has lovely golden statues of Buddha, Buddha Amistava and Guru Padmanabha. There are murals all over the place with gory pictures of people suffering in hell. We assumed it was the senior monks’ way of enforcing discipline among the juniors. One quick peek by a believer into the picture of a monk being roasted in a frying pan would keep all minor transgressions under control.

From there we proceeded to Mysore and to see the famed Mysore Palace. The ruling dynasty seemed to have had considerable wealth. Perhaps too much wealth, because every previous owner of the throne had added the style of his era to the décor, giving it a look of complete overkill. Delicate marble arches would be superimposed on wooden frames and surrounded by garish green paint. There are some lovely pieces though if you watch out for them – a lovely threshold, an intricately carved door, random glimpses into good taste.

With that, we boarded the train back home and bade good-bye to the lush forests, fresh air and endless greenery. The leech mark on my leg still glowed red, but what is a trip if you don’t have a souvenir to show the people back home?