Monday, July 17, 2017

The Old School Tie

The Old School is, of course, St. Xavier’s School Jawalakhel and Godavari where we had the fortune to receive our primary and secondary school education. Established in the 1950s by American Jesuits as the first English medium school in the country, the education we received there was second to none, world-wide.

It has been almost 47 years since we graduated from STX. We gather periodically to reminisce and talk about current events, history, books, our children and grandchildren and so on, assisted by generous helpings of libations of our choice, tasty snacks and a traditional Nepali meal of dal, bhat, tarkari (lentil soup, rice, curried vegetables and meat) with spicy pickles. These glorious evenings with friends I have known since 5th grade and earlier remind me why I have come home after retirement.

A case in point was this past weekend when classmate Buddha and I went over to another classmate, Govind’s, house for an overnight stay. Being with two friends with godlike names (Govind is another name for Krishna) and both of them being medical doctors, I felt secure spiritually and physically! Govind lives in the southern extremes of the city beyond the ring road. The peace, quiet, greenery and the fresh air were nothing but rejuvenating. We went up to the balcony to enjoy the dusk view of the Chandagiri Hills, Hattiban, and Swayambhunath and the airport further away. Scotch for them, beer for me, accentuated by ham from Flat Iron Grill with green olives, we had a merry time discussing medical issues and more.

Then it was time to watch Roger Federer at the Wimbledon semifinals. We descended to the living room and watched the grace of the great man while Govind prepped the dinner. Dinner was traditional Nepali with a ‘masala’ pickle kindly donated by one of our spouses. Post-sumptuous dinner, we settled down to watch tennis again with organic home-grown cucumber and tomatoes for snacks. It was getting late, Roger was way ahead, so time to turn in; the next morning was the hike starting at 6 am.

Morning dawned fresh and cool with a few sprinkles of rain. The sturdy doctors headed out while I, not as fit as them, slept in. I woke up to find myself trapped in the house. The front door was latched from outside by a super-efficient house help after seeing the docs leave, and there was no back door; well, apparently there was but I didn’t see it! I curled up with my novel awaiting the docs’ arrival. Almost three hours later, after a scintillating hike passing many temples, they arrived and released me from my comfortable bondage! A quick coffee and Buddha and I headed home leaving Govind to his splendorous solitude.

Besides the above excursion, meeting school classmates, health allowing, at home, restaurants or the alumni association premises are the events that add spice to a rather reclusive retired existence. We have had a number of class get-togethers, usually stag and especially when classmates living abroad return for a visit. From the 36 in our high school graduating class, 20+ are in Kathmandu, some live abroad and a few have sadly passed away. The camaraderie that exists among a group who have been at school together surpasses any bonding that is acclaimed these days by psycho-experts. There is no barrier to what we can talk about, share or confide. Whether it be school reminiscences, randy jokes, political discussions, business talk or just bantering volleys, everything and anything goes. It is almost a catharsis of the soul!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

How much longer must they wait?

After the previous blog on being a sports fan, time to talk about something more serious. Most chiya pasals (tea shops) don’t have television anyway.

Nepal’s Great Earthquake struck in April/May 2015. It killed 8,790 people, injured 22,300 and affected more than 9 million. 490,000 houses were destroyed, 265,000 houses were left uninhabitable and 3.5 million people were left homeless.

It is July 2017 now – two years and four months later! The current monsoon is the third after the earthquake. Of the 755,000 houses destroyed or made uninhabitable by the earthquake, construction of only 32,195 houses have been completed. 102,986 houses are under construction and are to be completed before the Dashain festival which begins on 21 September. In effect, 18% of all destroyed and uninhabitable houses are expected to be completed by this September, not a figure to be proud of.

The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA, not to be confused with the (in)famous US organization with the same acronym) harps on new houses not being in compliance with the government standard. It is apparently extending additional grants of Rupees 20,000-50,000 (about USD 190-490) to bring houses in remote areas up to the standard. Engineers are also apparently being trained to renovate structures to make them earthquake-resilient. The term “apparently” has been liberally used because this information has been culled from newspapers, and I cannot stand guarantee for the information. In any case, if engineers are still under training, what has the NRA been doing for over two years?

The 82% of houses still to be constructed means that the former occupants of those destroyed or uninhabitable houses are facing a third monsoon under makeshift structures, hard put to keep the heavy rains out. Of course, when winter comes in November, they have to suffer the cold for a third year again.

The Donors’ Conference for the earthquake garnered pledges of $4.1 billion, not a paltry sum. The housing and reconstruction needs cost over $6 billion. But the results above indicate a slow-moving bureaucratic approach which is not what disaster management ought to be. The construction of new houses must be speeded immensely without further delay. The excuse of new houses not meeting government standards is no excuse: (a) people may have been forced to build them because government assistance was so slow in delivery; and (b) it is the NRA’s duty to ensure adequate monitoring of new houses so that they meet the standards. That it has to doll out additional funds clearly indicates that the original funds were inadequate. The political delay in constituting the NRA itself, two years ago, speaks volumes about the approach to alleviating the circumstances of those affected by the earthquake.

Not much more to say. The situation is clear from the above diatribe. Housing the homeless created by the earthquake must be the foremost national objective. Let us hope the new government is listening.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Reflections of a Sports Fan

Now that tennis, football (soccer) and track and field days are over, one is relegated to watching sports on TV avidly. Well, my tennis racquets are still around somewhere and perhaps I shall get out on the courts again. Maybe hit a few balls when the grandkids get a little older. Football, played for the school alumni association and later at the United Nations, is out of the question now. Track and field ended with high school.

Currently, it’s the strawberry and cream on grass season, Wimbledon tennis. The last match on centre court, usually the most attractive, ends at 12.30 a.m. local time. A longish siesta, one of the privileges of being retired, usually does the trick of staying up late. The Gang of Four – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, a cosmopolitan group of Swiss, Spanish, Serbian and British (Scottish) respectively – have had a stranglehold on the Wimbledon men’s title in recent history. Though Murray is ranked #1 as the defending champion and is the hometown favourite, Nadal is full of confidence after winning the French Open at Roland Garros in May, Djokovic is always dangerous though he slipped down from #1  this year but has won Wimbledon three times in the past, and Federer wants his 8th Wimbledon title and is coming off a grass court win in Germany. At 35, the Swiss would be the oldest Wimbledon champion and would break Pete Sampras’ record of seven Wimbledon titles, which he has already tied. I identify with and root for the “old man” of tennis, and many experts, including Boris Becker who won Wimbledon at the age of 17, consider him the favourite this year. Federer's tennis is so graceful, none of that double-handed backhand, that it is the proverbial poetry in motion.

The women’s championship at Wimbledon this year is up for grabs since Serena Williams has taken time off to have a baby. The ladies play beautifully of course, but the grunts quite a few emit at each stroke, pioneered some years ago by Monica Seles, often creates a cacophony that takes away from the game. Now the men have started grunting too though not as shrilly.  Angelique Kerber, seeded #1, has advanced to the second round. Simona Halep is seeded second, Karolina Pliskova third and Elina Svitolina fourth. Except for Kerber, who is German, the Eastern European ladies seem to have the ‘eye of the tiger’ more than others. After Wimbledon, the last of the annual Grand Slams with the largest prize purse, the US Open in Flushing Meadows takes place in September. I once lived in that area within earshot of the cheering but always watched the tournament on TV. Live watching does not have replays!

The FIFA Confederations Cup, a warm-up for next year’s World Cup football in Russia, concluded recently with a young German team beating Chile in the finals. Portugal, with Christiano Ronaldo who with the exception of Argentine Leo Messi is the finest footballer around, was third and Mexico fourth. Though Germany, the defending World Cup holders, won, Chile, the South American champion, performed admirably and conceded a lone goal to lose off a horrendous mistake by one of their defenders. The Russians appear well prepared to host the World Cup looking at the way they hosted the Confederations Cup. Difficult to say the same for Qatar which is supposed to host the WC in 2022.

Prior to the above football bonanza, the ICC Champions Trophy cricket in England and Wales was a thriller. Especially when India and Pakistan, arch-rivals, ended up in the finals and the former was upset by the latter. The venue of the tournament could perhaps have been chosen better. Many matches were affected by rain and the Duckworth-Lewis system applied to shortened matches is not always fair. India had beaten Pakistan in the round-robin stage, but Pakistan then upset South Africa, Sri Lanka, England and finally India to win the trophy well-deservedly.

The annual Indian Professional League cricket tournament was played in April-May. Eight teams representing cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Pune vie for the IPL trophy. Top players from Australia, Sri Lanka, England, West Indies, Bangladesh and Afghanistan play in the IPL along with the Indian cricketers. Played in the T20, 20 overs per team, format, the matches last about three hours rather than the One Day Internationals which last six hours and the Test Matches which can last up to five days! Though cricket purists consider the Tests only as real cricket, T20’s action is what the fans want. No other cricket tournament offers as much money as the IPL. Since the IPL’s inception nine years ago, I have rooted staunchly for the Mumbai Indians. Initially, my fascination with them was Sachin Tendulkar, one of the cricketing greats, and the Sri Lankan Lasith Malinga, whose bowling was nonpareil in its speed and accuracy. Tendulkar retired a few years ago. Malinga, due to injuries and age, is not what he was. But I do still support Mumbai. It was a joy to see Mumbai win the IPL this year, for the third time.

So these are the sports that provide exciting yet relaxing entertainment for me, and the occasional Track and Field meets including the Olympics of course. That Nepal has yet to win an Olympic medal is a downer but time will tell. The sports fare on television here include American basketball (NBA), American baseball, golf, badminton, ping pong and professional wrestling, which I think is basically action acting. Golf is less interesting without Tiger Woods; and the basketball and baseball are televised in the early morning, not the ideal time for TV viewing.

As an epilogue, the cable system here is such that heavy rain causes the TV to freeze, for up to 20 minutes sometimes. This is not ideal while watching any show, especially sports. So we have to put up with a lot of this during the current monsoon rains.#

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Banished for Bleeding

This post is inspired by a BBC video, with the same title, posted on FaceBook by a former colleague and friend. The writer is blogging after an absence of a year and the last two posts were on cricket. So this is also an effort to deal with a socially relevant issue.

In India, it is estimated that school girls lose two months of the school annually due to their monthly menses. In parts of Nepal, where this custom has been illegalized since 2005, girls and women are still banished to a cattle shed during menses. Even in the educated urban environment women are shunned for five days during menses as untouchable. They are also excluded from all religious activities and visit to temples. Tied to the ideas of a woman's 'virtue' and 'purity', some religious cultures consider menstruation (a reproductive health element) religiously impure and ceremonially unclean.

The medical definition of menses is the flow of blood that comes from a woman's body each month. Menstruation is caused when the ovaries start to produce female hormones in girls around puberty which cause changes in the lining of the uterus. Every month, during the Period, the lining of the womb is shed, together with some blood. The time between the start of one period and the start of the next is known as the menstrual cycle. The bleeding May last from 2 to 7.days. Menopause, when the menstrual cycle ends, occurs usually between the ages of 45 and 55. So this is all a natural biological function within the female body.

For those who adhere to "natural methods of birth control", the menstrual cycle can be used to achieve pregnancy during periods identified as fertile or to avoid pregnancy during fertile days. Of course, this natural method of birth control which employs unprotected sex, is not as reliable as more modern methods such as IUD, pill or condom.

The point being made here is that it is high time that we, men and women, discard the stigma of menses and consider it as natural a phenomenon as child-birth. The term menses was first used in 1597; let us step out of the 16th century! In fact, in ancient England, the start of a girl's menstruation was called rather glowingly "flowering" and a flowered girl was ready for marriage. Of course we don't want to go that far and condone child marriage.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Howzat!

The IPL regular season ended yesterday. The 4 teams who made it to the playoffs start their matches tomorrow, with the finals on the 29th: Gujarat, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkota. Mumbai, 'my team' and the defending champion, ended their season 5th.

Below are the verses I have been writing for the past 6 weeks (the two 3-line verses are attempts at Japanese haiku):

Howzat!

The floodlights shine bright
Players huddle and take the field
The opening batsmen saunter to the wickets
Game time in Hyderabad!

Sharma, Buttler, Guptill, McClenaghan
Pollard and Rayudu
Ready with their willow woods
Squint at the bowlers

Experienced Nehra, young Rahman and Kumar
Flaunt their wiles with the cork
It was to be Hyderabad’s day
As Warner demolished the MI bowlers

Cool Wednesday morning two days later
MI to take on RCB
The vaunted scoring of Kohli
The sporadic brilliance of Gayle

MI batsmen have to step up today
Not rely on Bhajji to top-score!
The record of 1-3 needs a’ changin’
Or else ‘Tis going to be a mighty bore

MI beat RCB last night
T'was bliss to see Kohli and de Villiers
Out in the same over
Watch out Delhi, it will be Sad Saturday

Lions felt Sun's heat
Devils will dare nought tomorrow
Pune vs RCB, who cares... (Today) 

No cricket today
Family celebration dinner
Awaiting tomorrow's match
MI, MI, MI...
Must try and stay awake
To savour the victory

Seems RCB won last night
Planned to skip parties for MI 
Relieved match is at Four

Despite Captain Rohit’s heroics
Delhi won by 10 runs
Now eight more matches
For MI to come out with blazing guns

Slept through MI's win last night
Old age creeping up perchance
It was not much of a fight
Thursday, KKR will feel MI's lance

Watching Thu match with friends
And libations of course
Glad not to be alone or too sleepy
To savour MI's winning bourse

    Will be watching Thu match alone after all
    Being the sole cricfan in these woods
    Ah well, so be it
    Just so long as MI brings home the goods

     MI did win and jump to 3rd place
     Alas, Delhi and Hyderabad won yesterday too
     So it's Gujarat, DD, KKR 'n Hyderabad in top four
     MI will need to claw its way up tonight

    Cool Cap Dhoni's Pune team
    Will be taken by MI
    Must keep alive the dream
    Will be watching with a cousin/friend tonight

      Pune was taken and MI vaulted to #2
      Then Kolkota won last night and MI now #3
       It's a roulette between these two, Gujarat and Delhi 
       Latter two play tonight and Gujarat must win
       Or else beloved MI will be #4! 

IPL saga unfolds yet
#1 Gujarat slaughtered by Delhi last night
Now MI is #4
Their next match on Sunday shall be a fight. 

Kolkota beat Punjab last night 
And tops Standings now
Followed by Gujarat and Delhi
While to #4 MI takes a bow

DD plays Pune tonight
Negative rooting again
For Pune to win the fight. (.... Sorry, Deepak) 
Maybe #3 spot will then be MI's to gain

Mi resting till Sunday 
When Hyderabad will prove litmus test 
Meanwhile hoping other 3 teams in top four
Keep losing, encouraging MI to perform best.

Dozed off of course
But woke up to see the end
When Pune beat Delhi 
Driving some folks around the bend! 

Four crucial games remain
Mumbai 5th with Delhi just ahead
Revived Bangalore/Virat catching up
We must gather to watch more games!

For MI's sake, got to keep DD at bay
May de Kock be blinded by the Rising Sun
Let Warner do his batting voodoo 
And let Zaheer's Devils fall under the gun. 

‘Twas a dismal night
MI bundled out for 124 runs
Watch out Daredevils and Lions
As MI performs its usual last-stand heroics

It was a Sad Sunday
As Kolkota and Bangalore
Secured their playoff births
The four qualifiers now decided
With MI only fifth

Shall await the next season
To see MI victorious again! 
_________________________________________________________

Monday, May 9, 2016

Cricket Fever

IPL, Indian Premier League, is a bit of a misnomer. The eight teams in the league have top players from all over the world battling side by side with the Indian players - they come from Australia, Bangladesh, England, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies to play in the most lucrative cricket league in the world. The format is the shortest form of the game, T20 i.e. 20 overs or 120 balls per side. These 240 balls still take 3+ hours to be bowled; but this certainly is shorter than the One Day Internationals (ODIs) and Test Matches, which last six hours and up to five days respectively.

Most folks, especially those in countries where the game is not popular, think of cricket as 22 men in white trousers, shirts and even half-sleeved sweaters, playing leisurely, even breaking for tea. A "gentleman's sport" is its traditional label. These are Test Matches. I have never watched a full one and do not intend to, so I shall not elaborate more on these here. Some hard-core cricket pundits consider these as 'real cricket' and shrug off the shorter forms of the game as aberrations. I don't even watch the ODIs unless it is the World Cup. The T20s fit my persona best.

If you expect to see men in sedate white knocking around the ball gently, T20 cricket can shock you. The team uniforms are in bright colours, each team has cheerleaders prancing away, and the runs come fast and furious. Some teams sometimes score 200+ runs off the allocated 120 balls; some, on a bad day, don't even cross 100 runs. IPL crowds, in cricket-crazed India, are loud, so loud that the umpires often have to make extra effort to be heard. I have seen bare-chested spectators, male, with their team's colours painted garishly on their bodies. Further, each team is owned privately, mostly by film stars and business tycoons. Watching colorful owners like dimpled Priety Zinta of Kings XI Punjab, Bollywood icon Sharukh Khan of Kolkota Knight Riders, or Mrs. Nita Ambani (Reliance Industries, owned by her husband Mukesh Ambani, the richest industrialist in India) of the Mumbai Indians are almost as much fun as watching the goings-on on the cricket pitch.

Game time, in Nepal, is 8.15 pm daily, except for the weekend double-headers when there is a first match at 4.15 pm. Glued to the television with all required paraphernalia lined-up along side the easy chair, one tries to make a real enjoyable evening out of cricket heroics. Often the games end around mid-night so staying awake, especially while watching the match alone, can prove difficult. But there are times when friends drop by. The enjoyment is greater with the ambiance and libations, even though few of them know the intricacies of cricket.

Nepal, never colonized by Britain or anyone else, is a latecomer to cricket. Even at school, football, basketball, volleyball, field hockey, and even softball, took precedence over the occasional cricket outing. But in recent times, cricket in Nepal has advanced to such an extent that the national team brings home more laurels than the national football team. Still our generation is not very familiar with the game, which has a language of its own. I had the fortune to be based in India and Pakistan for eight years during my UN days. In the 1990s, before the advent of cable, there wasn't much else to watch sports-wise on  TV than cricket. While in India, I watched Pakistan win the World Cup; the team was captained by Imran Khan, now a prominent politician. Four years later, while in Pakistan, I watched Sri Lanka lift the World Cup. It felt good to be a South Asian.

To my American friends, cricket is somewhat like your baseball. A home run is when the batter hits the ball outside the field boundary, getting 6 runs. The ball reaching the field boundary gets 4 runs. Crisis-crossing each other, since there are two batters at opposite ends of the bowling pitch, after hitting a stroke garners runs totaling the number of crisis-cross. Actually you have to watch a game to figure out what I'm talking about! My friend from New York was here for a couple of weeks; we watched cricket and now he's an expert on the game. I kind of repaid him for all the Mets baseball games he took me to while I was based in NYC.

So anyway, before this post becomes an epic, let me simply share my joy on these IPL evenings and on cheering for my favourite team, Mumbai Indians. No, I'm not receiving a commission from the Ambanis for supporting or writing about their team. I started supporting MI since the IPL began seven years ago. There were two players who inspired me: Sachin Tendulkar, one of the opening batsmen, and Lasith Malinga, a speed bowler. Sachin has since retired. Malinga is out this season with an injury. But I remain a MI fan, through thick and thin. It is the defending IPL champion, but is languishing in 5th place currently. Still four games remain, and it just has to be among the top 4 teams to enter the play-offs. Keeping my fingers crossed.

(To keep abreast of the current IPL season, please visit ESPNCricinfo.com)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

About Non-Resident Nepalis (NRNs)

[This piece is based on a recent interview of Dr. Sesh Ghale, President, Non-Resident Nepalis Association (NRNA) on Sagarmatha Television by prominent telejournalist, Mr. Jibram Bhandari.]

It was inspiring to listen to Dr. Ghale's quiet succinct answers to the probing questions posed by Jibramji. Dr. Ghale, one of the ten richest men in Australia, a Russia-trained engineer who started his working life in the Nepali government's Road Department, is in the process of building a 5-star hotel in Kathmandu. He stated frankly that most investors would have cut their losses and left after last year's earthquake, the Madhesi/India blockade and the general lack of investment incentives from the government. But he wants to give back something to his motherland, so he continued.

Excluding those in India, there are more than 4 million Nepalis working abroad, in Malaysia and the Middle East (Qatar, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, etc.). NRNA's membership is only 50,000 and efforts are being made to increase this. It was apparent that there are NRN associations in various countries who shy away from placing themselves under the NRNA umbrella. The remittance sent home by the workers in Malaysia and the Middle East account for 50% of Nepal's GDP. The government has yet to take the lead in assisting these workers, mostly menial labourers and security guards, with issues such as insurance and training. Dr. Ghale emphasized that this is the government's responsibility, not NRNA's. Far too many instances exist where there is a confrontational relationship between workers and the Nepali Embassies in their country of work.

To the question regarding what is the main bottle-neck to foreign/NRN investment, Dr. Ghale categorically said that a major disincentive is the bureaucracy. To another question asking his opinion on a common view that NRNs spend their productive years abroad and come home "to die" so why should they get any benefits, the answer was interesting. The vast majority of NRNs who retire here are quite well off and do not seek any local benefits. On the contrary, they can contribute expertise and even finances towards development. So any hostility towards them is quite misplaced.

Another issue covered was the young retirement age of civil/government servants in Nepal. In
Australia, it seems they work even up to 70 years of age as long as they are able and can contribute.

As regards post-earthquake rebuilding efforts, NRNA has allocated Rupees 4,20,00000/- (USD approx. 400,000) towards the construction of 1,000 houses in Laprak, near the epicenter of the quake, to make it a model village.

The issue of dual citizenship for NRNs was only briefly touched upon. If I heard correctly, NRNA is not pushing for this at this time. Nepal does not yet allow dual citizenship. A child usually takes on the citizenship of the father, whether Nepali or expatriate. This has forced many single women, whose foreign husband/partner have left them, to raise children without citizenship. On the other hand, I understand dual citizenship would create a flood of new citizens along the southern border with Nepali/Indian nationalities - a political quagmire. I wish the dual citizenship issue was dealt with more thoroughly in the interview.

On the whole I laud both interviewee and interviewer for an informative as well as inspirational, given Dr. Ghale's life story, interview.