Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Date With The Hermitage

Being an incorrigible geek and a History freak (say... that rhymed!!), nothing can please me more when the city I currently reside in also houses one of the largest museums in the world, namely the Hermitage. Founded in 1764, by Catherine the Great, it also encompasses the residence of the former Tsars of Russia called the 'Winter Palace'.
Today like any other day we had a boring(not to mention stinky) autopsy class, after which my friends suddenly decided to visit the Hermitage. Initially hesitant, I finally agreed. For what can I say? The weather was perfect, and its not like I was going to indulge myself in academic pursuits at home anyway. A sunny 16 degrees, and an almost cloudless sky beckoned us to tour the great halls of the famed museum.
All the photos have been clicked by yours truly with my W760i walkman man phone!

We breakfasted on some cheesecake in a local cafe and made our way to my favourite site of pilgrimage (have priorly visited the museum countless times).
The thing about the Hermitage is that its not your everyday kind of boring museum. Technically you do not need to be a geek to appreciate the splendid architecture both inside and outside. Not to mention the fabulous collections of works of art right from ancient Greece to medieval China. For me its akin to heaven since I have been wallowing in ancient history since I was a kid. To be actually be face to face with the Sarcophagus of Egyptian kings of old or the marble busts of Jupiter (the Roman King of the Gods), makes ancient History come back alive.
I know a great deal of people find history boring. And feel like there is nothing in common with the lives men lead then to the lives which we lead now.
But I disagree.
I doubt that there is an iota of change between the lives of people now and then.
What has changed?
Both ancient Rome and the current world had democracies. If the modern world had Hitler, the ancient world had its Nero. If the ancient world had a proud and dominating Rome which the other nations submitted meekly to, the current world has the United States.
Just like the modern world nations have scientists developing new and unheard of technology in the field of warfare, so did the ancient world have Archimedes who is known to have who set fire to an entire Roman fleet by focussing the sun's rays into a powerful heat ray, using giant parabolic mirrors.
Corrupt leaders like the Roman Emperor Caligula who built self glorified statues of themselves existed then, much akin to certain self glorified leaders who exist today in a certain south Asian country which we are all familiar with.
Nothing changes with time. Human nature can never be subject to change. What changes is the way of life, the technology, that's it.
The same avarice, the same greed, insecurity, corruption and the polarization between the rich and the poor, persist through centuries, irrespective of how "civilized" we claim ourselves to be. There is no such thing as civilization. There is only the perpetual want to constantly satisfy ones desires. And the perpetual want to survive at all costs.
The ancient races were no different from the current age of man we see today.
Hence I believe that history indeed repeats itself. In more ways than one.

The idea behind history, is to make sure one doesn't repeat the same mistakes over and over. But I suppose no one really paid attention during their history lessons. Including our so called leaders. Rather than moving forward, we seem to be stuck in an eternal circle doing the same things our ancestors did centuries ago over and over again.
Museums preserve not mere material relics, but also the souls of the Kings of old, who look down upon the visitors and try in vain to get them to avoid making the same mistake time and again.

A museum is the reflection of man's former self, through the deeds he left behind.
And though we might assume the reflection in the mirror to have changed over the years. It ironically remains the same.
Its up to humanity to break the perpetual circle through the lessons it has learned from the ages of old.
So that future generations can look up to us as those who didn't just mutely observe the proceedings around us, but actually sought to change the course history for good.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The After School Special

As a child, I never did like school. To me it always resembled some sort of juvenile prison, where we as unhappy inmates were hoarded around like cattle. We would be stuffed together in a classroom where a visibly bored "teacher", who was probably a dissatisfied house wife would ask us to recite the alphabet.
It does not take a person with a degree in psychology to tell that the so called teacher is bored out of her wits and visibly resents your very presence. Its something a small child can figure out all by itself. High school wasn't all that bad, I did meet some wonderfully genuine teachers who helped me develop my talents. But for the majority of the time it was the same convoy of disgruntled educators.
Education makes a big difference in ones life. The ability to grasp certain things in the key moments of your life make a huge difference in the sort of person you become tomorrow. Failing to do so causes numerous hurdles in the life ahead.
I do not believe in the fact that someone is just born stupid. Unless you have some sort of congenital problem like dyslexia or autism. Even then, dyslexic and autistic children aren't exactly stupid, given the opportunity, they can outshine even the well to do kids.
But that's how most children are labelled in some schools on account of under performance. Stupid, cannot learn, dull, etcetera.
Any person worth his salt ought to realise that the fault lies with the teacher and not the student. Its the teachers failure for being unable to get the student interested in the subject.
Then again teachers are not the only culprit. Parents aren't far behind as far as ruining the child's interest in education is concerned. Of late, they have begun to opt for the easiest option for correcting the child's bad performance in class. What's better than class? More class. Namely tuitions.
Of late, you have children studying in classes as low as the second grade, huffing and puffing carrying bulk loads of books on their bicycle going for remedial lessons after school. So much for the joy of childhood.
Its not a prejudiced or pessimistic outlook that I wish to portray, but on the contrary, something quite real and something experienced by a great deal of children.
Teaching and learning can be a wonderful experience if you ask me. There's nothing more wonderful in life than to learn and understand new concepts and material.

But the way they are introduced is of paramount importance.
For instance, in my own experience, we had this professor who taught us infectious diseases back in the fifth year. His method of teaching involved mutual interaction by treating us as equals. He gave us insightful details, and added relevant trivia to the subject in discussion so that we may never forget the topic. We liked studying for him, and even sought to impress him by trying to answer his questions. There was never any force, insults, boredom or aggression in his demeanour whatsoever. And as a consequence I loved the subject primarily on account of the professor.

On the other hand we have also encountered certain professors who can utterly ruin the subject, leaving you abhorring it for good.
Of course fortunately I am old enough to study on my own. So the after effects of being bombarded by mindless drivel are of little consequence.

But children on the other hand are not.
They have little choices to make when a particular teacher can make learning a literal hell for them. Besides they are too immature and scared to think otherwise. And as a consequence most of them end up suffering purely on account of the teacher's indifference and the parent's negligence.
What angers me more is when parents do not stand up to defend their children when they are subject to obvious harassment. My parents raked up all hell at a teacher back in junior school when they learned that she had been threatening us kids with chilly powder in the eyes as punishment for not doing the homework. The teacher was suspended and the principal offered a formal apology.
But not all kids end up that fortunate.
I was aghast when I read the news about a child in high school, who slipped into a coma after being hit on her head for not doing the homework. Obviously as gracious our judicial system is, all the teacher got was a suspension and nothing more.
In spite of all the "accidents" that have either maimed or severely affected children for the past many years, no one has taken the step to ban corporal punishment in Indian schools.
If this is the sort of trend that is going to continue, you might as well have your child home schooled rather than ruin his/her childhood by a sadistic teacher with the I.Q of a Neanderthal.
Even parents ought to realise and pay attention to their child when they begin to hate school. They ought to realise that obviously something somewhere is wrong. If one cannot stand up and defend one's child from the oddballs that hurt him/her, then one might as well not be a parent.
If parents cannot understand their children when they were young, they can forget about their children trying to understand them when they are old!
It really bothers me to see the sort of nonsense kids have to put up with in the name of education. Not all schools and teachers are bad. But there are certain institutions and teachers out there who can wreck the very basis of a decent education.
The purpose of education is to enlighten and empower a child.
Not to enslave and frighten it to submission under unnecessary parental and academic pressure.
For its the younger generation that will in later years shape the future.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Flight of the Valkyrie

In ancient Scandinavian mythology, Valkyries were warrior maidens who would transport the souls of those who fell in battle to Valhalla (the hall of warriors in heaven).
Now as they swept across the night sky, one could see the trail of glowing light across the horizon. The phenomenon in scientific literature is called 'Aurora Borealis' or the northern lights.
Its one of the most amazing spectacles that one could see in the star lit northern hemisphere.
The thing that once made the spectacle more magical was the fact that people would watch in earnest hoping to catch a glimpse of the Valkyries as they swept across the skies.

But in due course of time, as a consequence of scientific awareness it was alleged that the northern lights are caused by the bombardment of electrons and protons on the earth's atmosphere which gives rise to the nightly glow. Rubbishing the fact that that on no account is there such a thing like heavenly maidens leaving behind a magical afterglow.
That's one way of taking away magic from our lives.
And from that moment on, the Valkyries were lost from human memory. Never to ride amongst our dreams and our thoughts.
While there is nothing wrong in knowing the truth behind phenomena in nature, it isn't a crime if one ascribes it a bit of a more magical background.

Humans for centuries have dwelt in the land of make believe. Right from carving out giant Sphinxes in Egypt to the Dragon adoring masses in China.
While at the same time, the scientific community has always thought such practices as childish and ridiculous.
But I know, for a fact that deep within almost every human is a yearning for being amongst something magical and something out of the ordinary.

The thing about fantasizing, is that it takes you away from the sort of mundane world you dwell in, into a land of unlimited possibilities, a land of hope and a land of dreams.
Life as a crude realist on the other hand demarcates everything in and around into facts and formulations, which have a very limited scope.
If one remembers old Hindi movies, a common scene would involve the hero beating up nearly a dozen thugs twice his size. The audience would cheer in all earnest for the hero without doubting for a moment whether such a thing in real life is possible.
Today on the other hand, if we were to see something similar in cinema, the first thing we would do is remark, "what rubbish, there's no way he can do that".
Frankly, down the line, we have of late grown less tolerant to things out of the ordinary and look forward more to things with realistic proportions.
The thing about being a realist is that you end up planning and creating firm borders so as to what you can and cannot do.
And when realism grows out of hand, it can end up curtailing your dreams as well.
You lose the will to think beyond boundaries and restrict yourself in a cell of limited possibilities.

Fantasies do not exist to make a human ignorant or create false allusions.
Fantasies and dreams exist to egg on the human race to look forward to better things in life.
They are not meant to dissuade you from your goals in life, but in turn exist to give you hope, that nothing out there is impossible. The idea is to stick to your real world while at the same time having a small corner of your mind dedicated to your fantasies and your dreams.
And frankly, "real" life is nothing short of a fantasy. You have paupers who turned into millionaires and the physically challenged who scaled great heights in spite of their shortcomings. Something a realist would have deemed impossible.

People were taught to behave well, because the big guy upstairs would reward them if they did so.
Soldiers were encouraged to fight hard so that their souls would find rest in the hall of warriors.
Its all about looking forward to incentives.
If one told a soldier that when he falls in battle, all he would do is rot in the ground for good (a realist's perspective), its easy to imagine the sort of morale he would have then.

If everyone had a realist's point of view, then there is precious little to look forward to. There's no heaven, no hell, no rewards for good conduct and no punishments for bad conduct either. Just a bleak realistic landscape, where you are nothing but an intelligent carbon copy who merely exists to survive and procreate till the end of your time.
And frankly I do not see the point of living that way.
I do not wish to abhor realism as a whole, for I know that we cannot spend all our lives amidst pixies and elves in the woods.
But at the same time I do not wish to sweep away the small iota of magic which exists in my life.
Just like the Valkyries of the northern sky.
For they exist somewhere in a remote corner of our minds.
Irrespective of what the realists say, there is no harm in looking forward to their flight in the northern sky.
Its all about the wee bit of magic in our lives.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Yes Man

Sometimes in life, it gets quite difficult to draw the line between being selfish, and trying to look out for yourself. And sometimes for a great number of us, it gets really difficult to say no to some people. Its frankly something that irks me the most. I sometimes envy people who have a "don't care a damn" attitude in life. People who do not care two pence so as to what the person opposite him/her thinks of them.
In short I find them to be more mentally independent and in tune to their own needs.
I, on the other hand am the absolute contrary. It matters a great deal to me so as to what other people think of me. And in the process always end up saying yes to even the unnecessary people. There's something within me, that cannot stand the thought of someone being disappointed with me or someone hating me. I know that its not humanely possible to please everybody. But what can I say? The human mind is like a horse. It can run away with you if not tamed properly.

I find myself agreeing to almost every ridiculous proposition dealt out by all and sundry.
Of course over the years I have learnt (although the hard way) to say no.
I didn't find it easy, but realised soon after, that if do not do so, sooner or later I'll be run over by the very mob that sought my affirmation to all their requests.
I realised that there is just no humane way that one can please everybody and still retain his/her sanity and independence.
I guess try as you might, over the years, you will have people who despise you, irrespective of how saintly you have been with them.
Besides saying yes countless times can soon deplete you of your individuality, and soon enough you feel that instead of living your life, you seem to be living someone else's.
Nevertheless there are those to whom you are obligated and cannot help but to say yes, like your parents, your spouse, your children or your best friend. But I suppose that as long as things do not go out of hand there's no harm in doing so.
As much as I believe in admonishing saying yes to all and sundry, I believe that by saying yes to those you love, gives rise to a nice warm feeling from within, and in turn just makes you want to do more for them.

I doubt that I have ever hesitated in saying yes to those I hold dear to me. Because when you exist as a human being, one of the purposes of your existence is to help and support those who are near and dear to you. Otherwise you might as well be a vegetable.
I doubt that there is such a thing as absolute individuality. By the end of the day you always end up living a part of someone else's dream. Possibly your loved one's.
There is nothing wrong in individual thought or independent living. But one should know where to draw the line there too. In the process of living and thinking for yourself, you might end up distancing yourself from those close to you, through your ego or your arrogance. And as a consequence you might not have anyone around to celebrate your success or support you in the time of your failures.
Irrespective of how individualistic you may want to be, there will always be a part of you that belongs to someone else. Someone close to you perhaps.
There's no harm in saying yes to such people.
But at the same time, being aware of those who just want your 'yes' for their own greedy goals.
Life is all about compromise.
Its always about knowing to please the right people in life.
And not letting individuality to turn into arrogance.

Such is Life!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Viva La RevoluciĆ³n

Throughout the course of history, the world of man has been familiar with rebels and revolutions. Revolutions are those events which change the course of history towards a new and a possibly better direction.
I have always been fascinated by the numerous people who have in past been responsible for reshaping world history.
A rebel does not necessarily mean a person with a political orientation. For true rebellion may occur in any field, be it mathematics, art, sport or the system of government.
Many men(and women) in the past have been credited with genius.
Like Einstein who took the world of physics by storm with the theory of relativity, Mozart with his musical masterpieces, Van Gough with his impressionist art and Alexander, a military genius who thought of uniting the world under one common banner.
Frankly, the key element in common with Einstein, Van Gough or Alexander was not necessarily genius.
But the key element and reason for their triumph, was that they were rebels.
Rebels with unique ideas, rebels with an unconventional outlook towards life, rebels who weren't afraid of experimentation and challenging age old beliefs and dictums.

Society is something that is always prone to remain stagnant. It will constantly dwell within mediocrity and make sure its inhabitants remain subdued and dormant.
Its not that difficult to imagine, how the world would have looked had not a single human being had a rebellious thought. We would then have been akin to beasts roaming in the jungles.
Have you ever noticed cattle? They move when they are told to move and they stay when commanded to stay. They neither question nor hesitate in doing so.
Ironically being large beasts of burden they can easily pummel the puny human who is bossing them around. But they shan't. They never will. Because none of them has the ability to think in a rebellious manner.
In the same manner, does an unjust and stagnant society brainwash humans into cattle.
Human cattle are everywhere. On the streets, in schools and in the workplace. Any question out of place is immediately snubbed, ridiculed or ignored. Thereby cutting away at the roots of rebellion.
There is a difference between education and brainwashing.
Brainwashing involves making a person to compulsorily submit to rigid rules and ideas without question.
Whereas education ideally, is when a student is introduced a subject , asked to understand it and be allowed to form his/her opinion regarding it.
Brainwashing leads to ignorance. And it is ignorance which currently plagues human society today.
Society has never been kind to rebels. For since ages it has ridiculed and branded them as outcasts.
The leaders of such societies are the most insecure of the lot. Insecure about bringing the slightest disharmony to their mundane and mediocre realm. And furthermore, they fear the question Why?
Why must we do this?
Why must we follow your rules?
Why must we believe in something that we don't want to?
They know, that the question 'Why' can disrupt the mundane atmosphere which has been established for so long.
Nevertheless if only such leaders had read their history books they would have realised that rebels have always triumphed more often than once.
Perhaps the only reason that rebels were never subdued is because, deep within, their conscience wouldn't allow them. Perhaps living amongst dull monotony suffocated them, and their spirit yearned to be free.
The spirit has always been born free. It is the world of man that shackles it, thereby enslaving it forever.
But in case of rebels, they struggled long and hard till their voice was heard loud enough by the masses and in consequence, they were given their due credit.
It is rather criminal to be turned into human cattle when one is endowed with enough abilities to live a free and independent existence.
Nothing forced upon someone can lead to a positive result.
Always question, when you invariably feel that something isn't right. And never believe someone when they say that you're no good. For you know yourself better than the others. Be well aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Learn to recognise the rebel within you.
Thus in conclusion I would like to quote a line which I quite like by the famed author Khalil Gibran:
" Life without Rebellion is like seasons without Spring.
And Rebellion without Right is like Spring in an arid desert
Life, Rebellion and Right are three- in- one who cannot be changed or separated."

Friday, April 3, 2009

Foreign Influence

Six years is a significantly long period for someone to be away from ones home. And as more time passes, the more distant you seem to grow. You seldom are the same person who left a good deal of time ago. And by the time you return those near and dear around you certainly can feel the difference.
I left India as a naive 18 year old, who frankly had little or no comprehension of what he was going to see and experience in a distant foreign land.
I'm 23 now, and after six years in St.Petersburg, the experience has been more than rewarding.
I came here to study medicine, but in turn learned a lot more. Theoretical education is something that one can gain frankly anywhere, but the key lessons in life arise out of personal experience, especially in a solitary atmosphere.
I have a lot of gratitude towards Russia. Through more ways than one it has brought out the very best within me. It has taught me to be independent, strong, and frankly taught me to think for myself.
The thing is, if you constantly live under the shadow of your parents or guardians, irrespective of the fact that they mean well, you will seldom ever be able to harvest your own personal thought.
And hence the very ability to think for yourself, thus disappears.
Its almost time for me to return to India bidding this country farewell for good.
But the mood within me is neither ecstatic nor even the least bit joyous.
My country unfortunately does not exactly paint a pretty picture.
Yes we are on top of the world, we have a booming economy and have a hyperactive middle class. But as a people, I believe we are far from perfect.

When I arrived in St.Petersburg six years ago, we were ragged mercilessly by my fellow Indian "brethren".
There were no hellos or helping us around in a foreign country. For them, the main priority was to rag us to shreds in the first few days we came here.
People talk of being racially abused by foreigners when you are in their country, but what would you say if you were abused by you own countrymen in a foreign country?
On the contrary, since I live in a foreigners hostel most of my closest friends have been either Sri Lankans, Mauritians and Africans. They have been quite helpful to me. And contrary to the stuck up communist picture the Americans have painted about the Russians, they are actually quite a warm, friendly people, who are ever curious about our so called Indian "culture".

I read this news article where a boy in a medical collage was killed in a ragging incident in India. I frankly have since been thanking my stars that I did not get admission in an Indian medical collage.
There are Arabs, Chinese, Africans, Sri Lankans and Russians living in my hostel, and not one of them has ever ragged their fellow country men when they first came here.

On another note, the Russian medical graduates in India are considered incompetent and unfit to practice medicine.
The general feeling is, that a medical graduate from an unheard of hamlet in India can be a splendid doctor, while someone who studied at one of the best schools of medicine in Russia is nothing short of a quack.
Why is Russia bad? Because any university that accepts students irrespective of their caste and doesn't demands hideous sums of money in the name of "donations" is bound to be bad.
When back in India I told a doctor that I am studying medicine in Russia, he made a face as though I just barfed in front of him.
Such is the grand welcome I am going to receive when I return.

Indians must be the only race which can make their own countrymen feel bad.
Besides, their total lack of self respect can be seen in the world of cinema itself.
Only an Indian will act in a film which showcases Indians as a barbaric monkey brain eating race (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), and frankly Slumdog didn't exactly improve our reputation as a civilized race either. Agreed we have problems(which country doesn't?), but that doesn't give the right to an outsider (read Danny Boyle) to showcase it to the world. Who cares if the world now thinks that India is an exotic land of snake charming, minority persecuting natives who are poor to boot? At least we won two Oscars.
Suppose Danny Boyle went to China to make a film about the oppression of the Tibetans by the Chinese government, you can very well assume the sort of welcome he would get.

With the way things are going, I can guarantee India is going to lose a bulk of its educated youth to foreign countries just on account of the fact that it does precious little to make them feel welcome at home.
Its ironic that we spend crores on the Incredible India campaigns to woo foreigners, but do nothing of the sort to keep the educated strata of society from leaving the country in search for greener pastures.
If this goes on what will remain behind will be the uneducated remainder of the populace basking under the glory of a corrupt government.
Its no small wonder that most NRIs seldom return home.
I for one certainly have begun having second thoughts about returning home. But then again, as ironic as life can be, I choose to return. Mainly for my family, which is ever anxious to see me back. Not for any patriotic reasons.

The only good thing right now is that the majority of the youth are beginning to realise the problems faced within the moral strata of our country and are willing to come forward and speak out against oppression(read Pink Chaddi campaign).
And hopefully as the awareness grows, the better it is for the country to awaken to a brighter future.