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.#