Wednesday, September 23, 2009


This is a service I learnt about from one of David Pogue's columns in the New York Times. You can go read it but here is a description in brief:

If you have a question to ask, the usual step is to throw it at Google or to one of the 'answers' sites like 'Ask Jeeves' or, and hope you get something back. In other words they are not targetted at any particular specialist group (except that you might occasionally send it to only a specialised site). As a result the answers one gets are frequently not quite what you want.

Aardvark works differently. (the site is and you need to register to use it). It works through Google chat or MSN or some other similar chat program. Once it gets a question (which you can ask through the chat window itself to aardvark) it sends it around instantly to all its registered relevant users who are online at that time. When a person registers with aardvark it asks for your expertise and that is how it makes sure that the 'right' users get the question. As a result, answers come very fast and usually from, if not exactly experts, at least those who know something about the subject. Aardvark claims that on an average it takes less than 5 minutes to get an answer from another on-line user. If you find the answer useful, you can even establish a direct communication with the 'expert' through aardvark for follow up questions.

In my experience, a lot depends on the questions and also the geographical location. Questions pertaining to say, something in the US are answered very fast since there are presumably large numbers of US users logged in at any given time, some of whom are well-informed. More esoteric questions (or exotic questions) take more time or are not answered at all. (At the time I tried it, I asked something about Durrell and Corfu since I was visiting Corfu (see my previous posts!) and never got a reply. However, aardvark did recognise that Corfu was in Greece and tried to send it to 'Greece' experts - presumably there weren't any!)

Similarly, if you stay logged into say gmail as I do, you will occasionally get questions based on your stated expertise through your chat window. You can choose to answer or 'pass'. If you think aardvark is asking you too many questions, you can set the frequency of that to something lower. I once got a question from a guy who asked how to cook a steak without a grill, since he didn't have one, but had an oven. I gave some instructions and later he thanked me (through aardvark) for helping him with his dinner! It's kind of spooky to be thanked by someone anonymous for helping with his dinner, halfway around the world :) But you can ask more serious questions. And hope to get some useful answer...and eventually provide a few too.

The only problem seems to be that aardvark does not keep the questions pending if they have not been answered, to be sent around at a later date or time. They are never sent around again. Their site has a list of unanswered questions but it's just too long to scroll through.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tweets and Taunts

The twittering facebook generation has come down like a ton of bricks on our poor humourless politicians for picking on Shashi Tharoor and his innocent 'cattle class' tweet. Given that most Indians lack the ability to laugh at themselves, why pick on the politicians who are just a mirror of our own selves? Despite that, I am afraid, knowing Tharoor as I do, I find it very difficult to sympathise with him.

Tharoor was a year senior to me in college. He would wander around with a band of hangers-on who, one day in my early days in college, kidnapped me and took me to the presence of the master. After some desultory 'tough' questioning to pretend that he was ragging me, Tharoor turned on the charm and his winning smile, introduced himself and asked me to vote for him in the coming college elections. As a trembling nervous fresher, terrified at the thought of what might befall me if I refused, I hurriedly agreed and was let off with some gracious patronising words. I didn't vote for him (I no longer remember why -- there wasn't much to choose between the various candidates) but he swept the elections with his ever ready wit and perfect turn of phrase for every occasion. In fact Stephen's then (and presumably now) was full of people who could discourse at length but without content, on any topic in the famous Mukherjee memorial debates and elsewhere in debating competitions in the country, where they usually swept the awards precisely for this ability -- form without content. Another 'great' debater was Ramu Damodaran who went on to become P. V. Narasimha Rao's Private Secretary when Rao was the PM. (While on this business of name-dropping, Amitav Ghosh was in my batch, Ram Guha a year later and Upamanyu Chatterji I think was the same batch -- not that I knew any of them personally being a lowly 'science-type'; and now it's too late to pretend to be on first name terms with them!)

Tharoor's felicity with the English language (and fluency in French) stood him in perfect stead in his years in the UN, where you are supposed to look good, speak well and interminably, be diplomatic and never upset the apple cart. I do not recall any particularly distinguished service record in any of the hotspots of the world in all his years as UN High Commissioner of Refugees. It allowed him to write a few books, fiction and non-fiction, which saw a modicum of success. Consequently, he was more visible in various literary festivals and authors' workshops than in any UN relief operations anywhere. However, what might pass muster in the halls and corridors of St. Stephen's College and literary gatherings, and even produce accolades, are not necessarily appropriate emanating from a Minister in the Government of India. Wisecracks are fine in their place and indeed 'cattle class' is more pejorative about the airlines which treat their passengers like cattle than about the class themselves, but it is surely obvious that what is fine for an ordinary member of the public self-consciously proud of his ready wit, is not necessarily fine as a Minister's public pronouncement, (albeit only on Twitter), more so in a overly sensitive self-important country like ours. If Shashi Tharoor still hasn't figured this one out, what's he doing in that position?

Update: Soutik Biswas on BBC refers to Tharoor's tweets as "harmless, constipated takes on cricket, traffic jams in Delhi, Patrick Swayze, Roger Federer...unexceptional, unexciting and largely irrelevant". Exactly.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jinnah, Jawaharlal, Patel and others

Revisionist history is now a flourishing industry and any book or article that attempts either to re-interpret past events (usually in the light of 'fresh evidence') or knock down idols from the past is bound to see a print run of tens of thousands if not more. In this category falls Jaswant Singh's recent book on Partition and Jinnah, Nehru and Patel's respective roles in that traumatic event. He may have lost his BJP membership but he is sure to turn a neat profit, if not from India, at least from Pakistan.

One of the issues that Jaswant Singh implicitly refers to but doesn't quite address is whether Jinnah really wanted partition or would have been happy with 'parity'. In a stroke of genius and repeating the allegation of Seervai before him, Jaswant Singh, while not revealing his position on the 'parity' viewpoint, has managed to antagonise both the Congress and the BJP by trying to knock down both Nehru and Patel from their pedestals without really addressing the above issue! For those of us quite confounded by the issue, I would recommend a meticulous and detailed analysis by Anil Nauriya, (a Supreme Court lawyer who has written earlier on this issue) in The Statesman.

And while we are on the subject of Jinnah, it might be interesting to see his views on the Khilafat cause, an issue where Gandhiji came under attack for taking a position on what was considered completely irrelevant to the Indian independence struggle. These accusations have most recently come from the RSS and in a classic case of the Devil quoting the scriptures (or perhaps here the other way around!) they quote Jinnah to prove the irrelevance of the Khilafat cause. These accusations are addressed in an article by Anil Nauriya in The Tribune.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Athens is not the oldest continuously populated city in the world. That distinction belongs to Damascus, Varanasi, Cholula or any other depending on who or what you consult. However the thing about Athens is that driving or walking around, you find stones, ruins, building, baths, temples strewn all around. You can't throw a stone without it hitting another from the 4th or 5th century B.C.E. Athens is chock-a-block with ruins (the other thing it is chock-a-block with is traffic).

The Temple of Zeus which started off as a Doric structure in the 5th century B.C. finally turned Corinthian with its fluted columns 700 years later. One wonders if local constructions companies in India took some tips on how to delay projects from the ancient Greeks.

There is little to be said of the Acropolis that hasn't already been said. Representing the pinnacle both literally and metaphorically of the ancient Western world it is a structure that diminishes everything else around.

There are beautiful views of the city of Athens from the top.

Just before reaching the top where stands the Parthenon, you pass the Theatre of Dionysus, the womb from which all theatre in the ancient Western world is believed to have originated. Plays by Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes were performed here and it is still used for plays and concerts by famous artists.

What is more fascinating, though in a contemporary setting is the New Acropolis museum. Housing all the major finds -- statues, figurines, amphoras, clay tablets with paintings, coins found in excavations in and around Athens, everything that was not taken away by the British to their museums, the whole edifice is built over the in situ ruins of a Greek city dating variously from the 5th century B.C.E. to the 4th century C.E. The floor at ground level is made of glass allowing visitors a peek into this city, complete with the ruins of houses, walls, baths, temples and so on. It's a surreal and ultimately overwhelming feeling to be walking just above the ruins of a once flourishing culture.

Greece is a pleasant mix of the East and the West. It has the infrastructure of the Western world (well, almost) and yet, the people are warmer, friendlier, and just that little bit more chaotic than their Western and Northern European more individualistic cousins. I found them uniformly friendly and helpful, at least in my almost two-week long stay, though like many of our countries, taxi drivers try to fleece you as much as they can get away with. However, with Greece's headlong rush into the European community, I foresee that much that is intrinsic will change, and that will include substantially higher prices for tourists. This happened dramatically when they moved from the drachma to the euro and the trend will continue.

Update: All the Greece pictures are now here

Friday, September 11, 2009

Kanoni and Corfu Town

Kanoni, where we stayed is at the southern end of the town of Corfu. It has a beautiful view of the sea, the mountains and the Albanian coast can be glimpsed in the distance. It also has a view of the Monastery of Vlacherna and Mouse Island, a scene that in all travel brochures seem to symbolise Corfu.

Durrell enthusiasts (yes, this will be a recurring theme) will recall how Theodore Stephanides was fascinated by the seaplanes landing on water, every Thursday evening when he came for tea at the Durrells'. The seaplanes are long gone, but there is still the thrill of watching planes take off and land (many times in the day now) on the narrow strip of runway of Corfu airport that runs parallel along and at the edge of the coast that is clearly visible from Kanoni. The enormous jet liners of today sweep down, barely missing the water and touch down at the edge of the tarmac. Even today it's a fascinating sight.

Corfu Town is a mixture of many different styles, representing the different powers that occupied it over the centuries -- the Venetians, the French, the English -- and evolved around the Old Fortress around the 14th century, though the beginnings date from the fortified Byzantine site of Corfu around the 6th century. In order to protect the town and its harbour from the Ottoman Turks, a New Fortress was built in the 16th century by the Venetians. The area between these two fortresses comprises the old town of Corfu and is a beautiful place to walk, to wander and to sit in a cafe next to the water.

Like many Indian cities, Corfu Town has its own Esplanade or Spianada. shown above, built in the Italian Renaissance style.

Between the Esplanade and the Old Fortress, is a garden, a recreational place for Corfiots to walk and relax. This is called the 'Bosketto' and running alongside it, true to Corfu's British heritage, is a cricket ground. The Bosketto was renamed Bosketto Durrell in 2006 commemorating the brothers Gerald and Lawrence Durrell. There is a plaque on the gate with the inscription "Lawrence Durrell and Gerald Durrell writers and Philhellenes lived in Corfu 1935-1939", and inside are two bronze bas-relief busts of the two writers.

There is also a Durrell School of Corfu which according to its web page "seeks to provide a learning experience steeped in the culture and history of the Mediterranean, and drawing on the issues important to the Durrells". I wrote to them and received a polite reply from their administrative head, inviting me to visit them in town and meet their Director. Unfortunately, by the time I got the mail, I had already left Corfu.

We sat for a time in a cafe near the waterfront, facing the old fortress jutting out into the sea. As the sun went down behind the mountains the moon rose over the water, and the fortress turned to gold. Despite being so close to the bustling town nearby, for a moment it was possible to imagine the idyllic world of Gerry's childhood that, though long gone, is immortalised for his readers.

Tailpiece: For those who would like to read a short and somewhat more contemporary account of Durrell's life see here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Corfu Island, unfortunately is best covered by car. The bus services either don't cover all the tiny little villages with secluded coves and beaches (immortalised by the Durrells) and ancient churches or are very infrequent. Thus my hopes of going in search of the Strawberry-Pink Villa, The Daffodil-Yellow villa or the Snow White villa were dashed.

We made a trip to Achilleio, a palace about 9 km from Corfu town, built at the end of the 19th century by the queen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Elisabeth, known also as Sissy, after whom the Sisi Palace is named. It's a typical palace of a minor royalty of Europe, with beautiful gardens, grand staircases and exquisitely painted ceilings, filled with kitsch inside and a profusion of statues outside. The most notable of these is a wonderfully realistic one of a mortally wounded Achilles trying to wrench the arrow out of his heel.

There is an interesting postscript to this history of the statue. When the German ruler William II, the second owner of the Achilleio took over, he was displeased at this effete image of a dying member of a true Aryan race. He ordered the statue to be removed to a less prominent location, and in its place erected an enormous bronze statue of a 'Triumphant Achilles' in full Teutonic glory, one that he felt was more appropriate as an image of the powerful German race. An inscription celebrating this sentiment was removed by the French during Word War I but the statue remains in its place.

The natural beauty of the island is everywhere, and even though I couldn't visit the places I really wanted to see, this place has a charm all its own.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Notes on Greece - first impressions

At the age of 13, I began reading Gerald Durrell. Since then, one of my abiding dreams has been to visit Corfu, memoralised in that minor classic "My Family and other animals". And so it came to pass that some three decades later, I finally did. The first thing that strikes you on reaching Athens's Eleftherios Venizelos airport (what a dramatic name - though it just the name of a local politician) is seeing the Greek alphabet not in an equation but in actual writing. It also means you can read what is written though you may not understand what it says (unless it's a known thing - like, say, McDonalds...). Corfu airport (which only has signs that say Kerkyra leading me to suspect for a moment that I had taken the wrong flight! ) divvies up the luggage of people coming from EU and non EU countries. Thus, even though I came through Athens, my luggage (which was checked in direct from Chennai) landed up on the international carousel. Since I couldn't find this place, I asked a worker in the airport who shook his head, said 'no English' and then said haltingly "Urdu, 'indi? ". It turned out he was an Afghan working in the airport who had picked up these two languages by watching Hindi movies. He was so pleased to make my acquaintance that he helped me find my luggage, insisted on taking it to the Taxi Stand and got into a fight with a taxi driver for serving some people further down the line, before me. I almost thought I had my Spiro....

The Corfu Holiday Palace is a resort hotel with a dream like location, overlooking the Southern coast of Corfu in an area called Kanoni, home of Theodore Stephanides. My room opened into a balcony that led to a garden which fell steeply down to the sea. (Being the 21st century, the hotel had installed a sloping elevator track to lift people directly up from the beach below to the hotel swimming pool! )

Corfu clearly has changed much since Durrell's days and one doesn't need to belong to Mensa to figure that one out. It's become a highly developed tourist destination, and I mean that in its purely pejorative sense. It's also been a traditionally popular destination for the British, and so most locals speak English. Whether this popularity is derived from Durrell's books or whether from the fact that Corfu was a British colony in the early years of the 20th century I am not certain -- perhaps the latter. The over-developed tourism was epitomised this morning by one of those hideous sights of toy trains that run along the roads in many cities in Europe, giving tourists (mostly American, Europeans prefer to walk) a 'walking tour' of the streets, without needing to use their legs. To make matters worse, this one in particular had a large red banner emblazoned with the words 'McDonalds'. I can't help thinking Gerry would have thought of his unspoilt paradise.

Corfu town is a bustling market town, with cars, public buses and those monstrous tourist buses (from which tourists in air conditioned comfort peer out to look at the local fauna), all jostling for space on narrow streets. To make matter worse, people parallel park on both sides of the roads, reducing the width of the streets even further.

This being Greece, one can't walk anywhere without stumbling across the ruins of a Temple of Artemis or say, a Temple of Hera from around the 4th century B.C.E. In fact, both of these can be seen along the route from the hotel to the conference centre at Mon Repos, a distance of little more than a kilometer. In addition there are numerous other ruins strewn around various places which are not even 'labelled'.

I will eventually put in some photos. Unfortunately I find that I have left the cable that connects my camera to the laptop (no, it's not standard mini-USB) at home. So enthusiastic visitors to this blog - sorry, but you will have to wait till I get back in a few days.