Archive for October, 2009

Yellowstone National Park

Below is an e-mail I sent to friends and family describing the Yellowstone trip. I am not equipped to write about all the beauty I saw. So read the mail and the painfully inadequate descriptions that I have tried to give, but take a look at  the pictures of the place. Those, I believe, are pretty good.

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Hi all

It has taken some time, but finally I have managed to upload the photos from my recent Yellowstone trip. Trust me, selecting and uploading the photos was a hard and time consuming job, as I had to sift through more than 5GB and more than 2000 photos, to make an album which will not bore you to death.  And believe me, 5GB was nothing. If we had clicked for every ah!, wow!, beautiful, mindblowing, breathtaking, amazing, Oh my God! that we uttered during the three days of the trip, the number of photos would have been closer to TB’s. I am uploading the photos as a series of albums, roughly breaking the trip into the different locations that we visited. Oh! and excuse the inordinately high Single poses of me and my friends. Remember that we are bachelors and we need enough Bharat Matrimony pictures 🙂

1. Firehole River: This album contains some extra pictures taken before we left for the trip in a Montana motel and some random highways we drove on to reach the park. The photos are fabulous though. This being the first day, we were not aware that breathtaking beauty is going to follow us on all the three days. Firehole river was our first impressions of Yellowstone and we clicked away to glory. Just a few minutes later, we realized that if Point A was really beautiful, just drive a half a mile away from Point A and you will land up in a much more beautiful place.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/FireholeRiver#

2. Grand Teton Sunrise:
The first evening was at a place called Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The plan was to wake up early next morning and catch the sunrise at the Grand Teton Mountain range, a part of the Rocky mountains. While driving to Jackson Hole, we drove through the road which we would visit the next day to see the sunrise.  The snow-capped mountains rose along the side of the road, and the aptly named Snake river snaked along the mountains. The mountains were on the west, and the next morning , what we were hoping to glimpse was the sun rising from the east and the snow on the mountains reflecting the sunlight, to give the mountains a sparkling look. Although, it was cloudy the next day, the view we got was amazing.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/GrandTetonSunrise#

3. Wrong way into Wyoming
: Our plan was to drive into Yellowstone, but in the hardly inhabited area, our 3G signals were not working, and we took on the wrong path into lower Wyoming through the Mountains. But in my opinion, it was one of the best detours that we took. The roads were through the high mountains, and it had snowed pretty heavily the previous night. The sun, the clouds, the snow, the pine trees and the lonely road, made for awesome photography as we drove along unknowing that we were on the wrong road until we came into the plains. The snow sat on the pine trees, and white and green jostled for space. The snow lied on the ground, and white and brown fought for real estate. The snow capped mountains in the far had given away to the snow. The sun tried to melt the snow, the snow resisted it, and light was diffused everywhere by the clouds, by the trees and the snow glistened. Man was unwelcome on that road that morning.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/WrongWayIntoWyoming#

4. Jackson and Lewis Lake:
On the previous day itself, we had oohed and ah’ed at the beauty of Jackson Lake. A serene lake, surrounded by the Rockies. After tracing our way out of the Wyoming Plains, we stopped at the lake and clicked away.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/JacksonLakeAndLewisLake#

5. Old Faithful Area: An important lesson while in Yellowstone is that pack lunch and take it with you. Hunger changed our plans and we got to the Old Faithful Geyser, the most famous of all the geysers in the Yellowstone area. And we drove into the most thermally active part of the park. Old Faithful was faithful to us, and spurted out hot water feet’s high.That was a site to watch. But even more beautiful was the landscape that the thermally active area had created. The hills were in the distant background, as always, covered with white and green, and closer to the geysers, the thin crust and the heat from below created spectacular colours. Microbial life was active along the corners of the geysers and they added mystic blues and greens to the landscape. The heat wilted away the  leaves of many a tree, and the geysers were spurting hot water here and there. The steam rose into the horizon. All this added up to a mystic, eerie landscape, almost as though you were suddenly in Jupiter.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/OldFaithfulArea#

6. Mystic Falls Hike: After spending a long time in the eerie landscape of the upper geyser area, we hiked onto the Mystic Falls area. It was a 2.7 mile, tiring hike, but full of wow’s and ah’s!. The first view that astounded us as we trekked up the hill was the panoramic  view of the geyser basin. It was a sight unmatched, as we saw the expanse of the national park, and the numerous geysers there. And as we came  down the hill, we saw the waterfall and the Firehole river that made the falls, and we became one with nature. God’s greatness in making things so beautiful took over us, and for moments on the down-hill trek, we were more than just us, as the discussions moved into the philosophical realm. If God is in the nature, he rests at Yellowstone.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/MysticFalls#

7. Midway Geyser Basin: On Friday, we started early morning to see the Midway Geyser basin. It has the grand prismatic geyser, one of the largest geysers in the world. If the previous day was eerie, the morning in Midway geyser was eerier. The dawn and the sun had colored the sky red and violet. The geysers were spurting lots of hot water, and the cold morning temperature created more steam than the warmer afternoon of the previous day. And all the colors from opal blue, to algae green, to sulphur yellow to muddy gray adorned the landscape.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/MidwayAndWestThumbGeyser#

8. Yellowstone Lake: The lake was supposed to be formed in the crater created by a explosive volcano. One look at the present day lake, and it would be hard to even think that it was the site of an violent volcano. It was all calmness and all serenity. Unlike so many other lakes that I have seen over the past two years, this was left alone. No kayaking, no yachting, fishing. No human activity anywhere. It was just the water reflecting the sun and the hills. All quiet and all beautiful.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/LakeYellowstone#

9. Mud Volcano and Geyser: We had seen a lot of geysers by then to be surprised or overwhelmed by one more. This was also the site of an volcano.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/MudVolcanoGeyser#

10. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone: The grandest view was kept for the last. Midway through a beautiful, clear and balmy Friday afternoon, we reached the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, where the Yellowstone river, after years of weathering, crafted a deep canyon by eating away the soft volcanic rock. The canyon was surrounded by the yellow sulphur rich harder rocks. Blue water flowing in-between hard, rough, yellow rocks gave the place its name. The view was grand. The water-falls majestic and the canyon contained something that even the best photographers could not capture. I saw a lot of photos on google before leaving for Montana, but the view was something beyond that photos that I had seen, something beyond the view that I had imagined I will see.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/GrandCanyonOfYellowstone#

11. Wildlife: The trip would not have been complete with glimpses of wildlife. We were lucky to run into lots of elks and bisons. We captured a famous Yellowstone Bison-jam, in which a herd of bisons attempt to cross the road, and eager tourists stop the cars and jam the road, trying to capture the animal in their cameras. We were very tired and sad by late evening, as we were driving to Tower-Roosevelt area because we could not spot a grizzly bear, or for people interested in Cartoon Network, a Yogi (of Yogi Bear fame). Late in the evening, an enterprising young black bear saved us, and we ran along with it for a few snaps. The bear was unperturbed by the human interest and nonchalantly crossed the road, as a more than 20 tourists clicked away.

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/WildlifeInYellowstone#

(and these are some pictures of the drive to Tower. It had a beautiful waterfall and a hike that would have taken us to the mouth of the falls, but we were tired, the day was almost over and our car’s rear tire was misbehaving).

http://picasaweb.google.com/narasimhan.kaushik/TowerRoosevelt#

Hope you have fun watching them.

Cheers!
Kaushik

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The Grapes of Wrath

I finished the book a couple of days ago, and as I contemplate even writing about this book, I am overwhelmed.


It is by no means an easy book to read, and even though, it will be one which could be re-read, the power with which the story is told, the imagery the story created and the impact it has had on me, will keep the story fresh in my mind for a long time.

As with any great book, there are layers in which I enjoyed the book. The writing was splendid. I have already raved about the brilliant writing of Steinbeck in the novella “Of mice and men”. The grapes of wrath was nothing different. Each page was a gem, every word had its place in the picture, every sentence made the vision clearer, until, about 100 pages into the book, you were every Tom Joad and Ma and Casey and Ruthie. You were everyone in the story. You were in America in 1930, driving a truck to the promised land of California, having left behind everything that you cared about, and you felt every pain that the Joad family had to endure.  The detailing, the word-play, the structuring of the novel, the actual accents in the conversation, the quick references to back stories, the out of the context conversations, everything played its part in making the novel real. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had some ideas about the depression time, from movies or other books, and reading this novel, somehow made me think that the people who wrote the other novels or the people who made the movies got their idea about the depression from this book.

Thrown in-between the travails of the Joad family fleeing west, were shorter stories about the general conditions in America around that time. The story of the dust storms that affected the crops, the conversation of Tom Joad with a truck driver, the story of a US Route 66 gas station man, of a diner on the highway, of immigrant worker camps in California, of their protests, of their hunger, the story of the big bad farmer associations and so on. They were tiny 6-7 page diversions from the main story, but it reinforced the main plot. It gave the reader a perspective of the main plot. It jolted you into a deeper understanding that the story is not about the extraordinary and unusual miseries piled on a single family for story telling purposes, but short stories that said to you, that the main plot is just a sampler of what is happening. Dig deep, and probably you can find the story of a family suffering more miseries.

Repetition was another writing tactic that Steinbeck used to great effect to drive home the point. The capitalistic farmers manipulating demand and supply, the poor people craving for meat and food etc were repeated time and again, subtly, without loss of continuity, without feeling that it was being repeated, to bring the reader closer to the truth, to unfog his eyes so that he could see it.

The main plot was of the Joad family fleeing west. All that they had in Oklahoma was  their farm, and owing to bad crops, the dust storm and the industrialization of the farming land, they were left with a few belongings and a truck. Tom Joad, on parole from prison for murder, meets his family as they are planning to move to California, and leaves with them. The story follows them for over 9 months, as they move towards California, find and lose work there, find temporary happiness in a nice camp, get pushed out by hunger, try to stay together, suffer death, cope with family members leaving them, and finally become homeless destitute, beggars.  Through much of the time, they remain hopeful, in truly miserable conditions, the light symbolic of hope keeps flickering, and finally when it blows out, but not without a final flicker, the last act of the book, which only the masterful writing and the brilliant storytelling of Steinbeck could have pulled off.  Ma and Tom Joad are the back-bone of the family. Somehow they maintain their sanity through all the despair, while the other men in the family, slowly but surely lose hope of ever being happy again.

The deepest layer in the book, was surely the political message that was ingrained in the book. With great skill, Steinbeck brings out the pathos, emotions and travails of the really poor, so much so that, after reading the book, I felt a different feeling regarding the under-privileged, a feeling that something has to be done if there could exist such differences in the world among human beings, much away from my general feeling of I am too small a pawn to do anything about anything. Finally, it was a commentary about mindless Capitalism, about how food was destroyed in front of poor hungry people to keep the prices high, about how advanced technology displaced people and the companies advancing technology cared just for their purses, of how hunger was exploited so that people could just be paid enough to have just a little food.

Socialism does not seem bad, as was depicted in the community camps that was mentioned in the book. The community camp was totally managed by the poor immigrants, and without any government intrusion, and truly by collective responsibility, they made it a home amongst many other unruly camps.  Casey and Tom Joad, too bring up, the ideals of a strong people, of getting together and protesting as a group, of asking and getting their demands met, of wanting a proper share of the profit for the work that they do. Their talks all point towards Socialism, towards a more pro-poor, pro-human, against suffering policies than the pure “just make profit” policies.

In a country, and in a world that is mostly tending to mindless capitalism, the depression and accurate portrayals of the travails of the poor, such as this book, is very much necessary to develop Capitalism with a face, policies that help the poor, and to some extent redistribute wealth. More importantly, IMO, the need for policies that redistribute Skills, as acquiring skills has also got a lot to do with money. Skills so that everyone can contribute when Technology, Nature or any other circumstance forces changes in how business is done. In the context of India, I feel, Education is the best skill that can be acquired, a skill that cultivates the habit of thinking, the urge to learn new stuff and the tools to learn it quickly and effectively when the need arises. As I see and understand it, Education in India is still not equally distributed. This can be a separate post, and I will write a little more about it when I am confident about writing about it.
The grapes of wrath is a must read. For those who are not used to reading heavy stuff, this book can be quite steep, but the end result is worth the effort.

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This and That

  • What has to be done to get out of an extended Researcher’s block? It was last in August that I put my mind to some meaningful work. That meaningful work (OK, meaningful according to me), was not liked my the adviser, and I was left defending the merits of the idea that I had. In vain. What I did, however, opened up a few questions, the answer to which I feel is already there in the meaningful work that I presented, and mostly which are negative. The adviser thinks otherwise, and I was to work on the otherwise. Sadly, I attacked it with much less conviction, and slowly got bored with it and all the false positives. Later, an industry partner suggested a new problem, and I was asked to toy around with it, which I am doing, but more than 3 weeks of toying around and reading papers have not given me much confidence or direction or idea on the new problem. Lack of implementable ideas has led to a huge loss of enthusiasm and motivation, and I dread every meeting date with the adviser. Tomorrow is one.
  • The countdown is now at 75 days, and I am super excited to go to India. But this leaves me feeling homesick ever so often.  Add that to lack of motivation, and you will get a sad, moody and irritated me, who has been sitting at home for some days, even in midweek, doing nothing but brooding. Such days are wake up, feel sad and sorry and pissed off at getting no ideas during the sleep, decide to sleep in, sleep all day, browse internet in the evening and sleep again. There have been days in which I have skipped food too.
  • I was sleeping soundly. Amma calls me and wakes me up. I wave a hand at her and say let me sleep for a little while more. The heat has made me sweat, and the sweat has made my shirt stick to the bed. I turn over on the bed, and the date strikes me. 12th January. Oh no! Only one more week in India. Why do the holidays have to pass so quickly. I decide to get up, have the filter coffee and breathe in every moment of the remaining holidays. I wake up, and realize that it was just a dream. It is still October, but the apartment people have turned on the heating unnecessarily. The sweat made it more real. I try to sleep a little more, mainly anticipating that the me being at home, enjoying dream will show again. Instead, the show is a pathetic re-run of how unproductive I have been all week, and a reminder that on the other side of the week, there is the meeting. I wake up, watch NFL, eat left-overs (which was very good leftover, of the elaborate dosa, sambhar and pongal cooking that I had done the previous day), watch more NFL, gulp a strong cup of filter coffee (the perfect formula for which I decided was the one I just used), eat a lot of maggi, watch the SNF between Colts and Titans, in the middle of which I decide I was too filthy, take a shower, camp in front of the TV and doze off as the match peters towards a boring one-sided end. Suddenly, I realized that I have lived one of the Sundays in Mumbai. And, I get into a mixed mood of nostalgic happiness and sadness.
  • Spoke with Sashi today for a long time. He has dived into the marriage thingy. Shriram is to get married by December. That leaves me leading me in the bachelor brigade.
  • Leaving for the Yellowstone trip tomorrow. It is really cold there. I am looking forward to the place. The photos from there remind me of Alien planet imaginations that I used to have.  I was looking forward to driving there, but with me, the only time I can be sure of driving happily is when I get my own car. Anshu and Suku would not let me in Oregon, California had too many cars and drivers, I was scared of driving in Chicago downtown, and now, I don’t get a chance in Montana. I am going to buy a car soon.
  • Okay, got to clean up the kitchen and pack, and practice my defense at tomorrow’s meeting.

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Whip it

1 cup Overbearing mother making her daughter live her dreams

1 cup Rebellious teen who wants to find out her dreams

1 large portion of underdog sports team coming from behind

A few chunks of girl fights

2 tablespoons of best friend lost and found

1  teaspoon of teenage romance

and a pinch of Loving, understanding father

Whip it! together for a wonderful, fun time pass masala movie 🙂

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A Thousand Splendid Suns

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We have all discussed Indian authors selling their stories to western audience demands. We have talked about Arundathi Ray and Arvind Adiga packaging India’s poverty, the sufferings of the poor into a story to win Literary prizes. I have participated in many of these debates, and I have found it hard to take a stance for these books, especially God of Small Things. Even, The White Tiger started out to be “Oh, look we are so poor, look at the disgusting conditions we live in” etc, but turned out to be a good story and a well written one at that too.

But now, I have found a book that I can show around and tell, this is how you sell your poverty and pity in a book. Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. It is a thousand times worse than the worst Hindi Family drama movie/mega-serial that you have seen (Ya, Okay, this may be exaggeration, but that’s how much I am pissed that this book got good reviews, what were the reviewers thinking)

If you have read his first book, The Kite Runner, then many among you will agree that Hosseini can write well. But all through this book, he has told a mediocre story poorly.  There are some punch lines in the book, lines that were meant to touch your raw emotion kind of lines, and it was as though, Hosseini had concocted the story, just so that he could stuff those lines in there somewhere (Let me make a character called Mariam, and put her through 300 pages of trouble, so that I can write this super emotional line which will get my readers thinking).

The book does not start badly. It opens with a young illegitimate girl, waiting for her father. Pretty quickly, like how hindi movies fast-forward after the prologue about the Angry young man’s father being killed by the villain in front of the kid angry young man’s eyes through a song that backs up for dual purpose scenes of showing a hard working unlucky kid growing up with a sad widowed mother and the credits in the movie, the story shifts through embarrassment, death, rejection and marriage for the illegitimate girl, Mariam. The editor said to Hosseini, you have 50 pages for this story, stuff as much misery as you can.

As suddenly as the story moved from Herat to Kabul, we are stuck with the fact that Mariam cannot bear a child, her grumpy old husband is angry because he cannot have a son, and that, since Mariam is the main character so far, we should feel sorry for her, the character Mariam is forgotten for 100 pages, and we are introduced to Laila.

Everything about Laila is circumstantial. Everything. She had to have brothers killed in war, so that her mother would not love her (longing for her brothers instead), and had to have a liberal dad and a non-existent friend, so that the non-existent friend could be blown up in a bomb to teach Laila the sadness of her mother, her liberal dad to show her the life she could have had, if not for the war, and the mother who would not love her, so that they all could not escape from Afganisthan. Oh! and she had a one legged lover boy too, and the teenage love and the love making scenes are the worst that I have read in a long time.

Ya, so the war kills everyone except Laila, Mariam and her husband, and then Mariam’s husband marries Laila and the two ladies come together to form a thick friendship that helps them survive the bad times. A mediocre plot at best, but the writing after he gets the two main ladies together was appalling. They fight for no reason in the beginning, and for no reason, they are best friends for ever. And, if you thought the misery does had lightened, you were wrong there too.

And to make it even more bollywoodish, Yash Chopra types unbelievable, more unbelievable than the side stories invented to bring the dead alive in hindi mega-serials, was when teenage lover boy resurfaces. I tortured myself for a few more places, and stopped at the most logical place I could finish this most stupid story at. Hosseini rambles on for 40 more pages, but I am sure that it is not worth it.

Some time back, I had written this raving good review for The Kite Runner, and now I am beginning to think if all the praise was mis-placed, that somehow I misunderstood the book to be so great, but after this experience, I have no mind of re-reading that one.

But, I remember predicting that he would be a one-book-wonder anyway. My reply to a comment on the earlier post

FC: thanks. anyway, you can read this book. i kinda think tht this author will be a one-book-wonder. have a feeling he used all his imagination on this one story.

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