Noted Carnatic vocalist TV Sankaranarayanan

Noted Carnatic (South Indian Classical Music) vocalist TV Sankaranarayanan passed away couple of days ago. Wanted to share my own TV Sankaranarayanan (TVS) personal experience. Dates back to early 1980s. Classical music used to be played regularly at home, on radio and cassette player, as both mom and dad are classical music lovers. In addition a local music association in my Mumbai suburb, Mulund Fine Arts, used to arrange concerts by professional musicians one weekend in a month. At that time I was more into old Hindi movie songs, not that I did not like classical music. Movie songs offered instant satisfaction similar to fast food whereas classical music required some patience and more discerning taste to enjoy fully, similar to a multi-course meal. One weekend dad was either out of town or had some other prior commitment and he couldn’t attend that weekend’s concert. The performer scheduled to perform was TVS. Typically concerts started at 6pm and ended by 9pm. So, mom went by herself and asked me to reach the concert venue before 9pm for the walk back home after the concert. I went there before 9pm and waited outside. By then the singer had sung the more elaborate songs and was moving into short pieces (tukkadas) which, like desserts, are very tasty and crowd pleasers as those pieces can be appreciated even without technical knowledge. TVS was singing a familiar song (Srinivasa Thiruvenkata) starting with a prayer called viruttam. In the context of a meal viruttams are like free bread or chips and salsa offered to set the stage for the piΓ¨ce de rΓ©sistance, the main course, to follow. I like viruttams quite a bit (just as I like the bread/olive oil, chips/salsa and wouldn’t mind eating them as entire meal πŸ˜ƒ). I digress. As TVS sang a familiar viruttam (before the main song Srinivasa Thiruvenkata, , I stood transfixed. As the singer moved to the main song I found myself drawn into the performing hall to hear even closer. That song was followed by another favorite of mine song “Eppa Varuvaro” ( ) and followed by the popular English note (starts at 2:16:35 of this video clip: ) . I realized then even a classical song can be enjoyed without much technical knowledge if the lyrics are divine and the singer is inspired. At the end of the concert as we were walking back home I was speaking with an elderly gentleman from my neighborhood who had more knowledge and finer taste than me. I mentioned to him I really enjoyed the concert and he said it was inded a fantastic concert. Sometime later I remember reading it was one of the best concerts organized by the organization, Mulund Fine Arts. The concert venue was an open hall in a pre-school (called Shishu Kunj). Not exactly a location that was acoustically designed! TVS probably has sung better and in better venues but his singing that night was special for me. In the intervening period of 35+ years some things have changed (music is now available on demand anytime, anywhere πŸ‘), some things haven’t changed (my knowledge is still the same as is my love for fast food πŸ˜‚) but some memories are indelible πŸ‘Œ. Thanks for creating that moment for me, TV Sankaranarayanan. Rest in peace πŸ™

Journey through time

It was a cold winter morning. As is the norm at the start of the year around these parts temps were below freezing. I set out for weekend grocery shopping in masked glory. Shopping list wasn’t too long. Even with my tendency to check out for interesting stuff, not necessarily required, wrapped up shopping quickly by my standards. Stepping out of the shop I was greeted by cold blast of wind. After dropping shopping bags in the trunk turned on the ignition of the car. It was quite cold inside the car. While waiting for the engine to warm up turned on the heater too. Longing for warmer weather my thoughts traveled and I drifted back in time to my early teens back in India.

It was a warm summer day late in the morning in the Mumbai / Bombay suburb Mulund. Summer holidays time. After my lunch I was itching for some activity. My brother was quite engrossed in reading a mystery novel. Other friends in the neighborhood were either preoccupied with whatever they were doing or out of town for the holidays. I decided to go out for a walk. Stepping out of our apartment I headed right. There were some late morning devotees entering and exiting the nearby Ashram Temple (A). I soon discovered my sandals needed some work. Luckily there was a cobbler right near the temple. Waiting as he set about repairing my sandals I could hear devotees ringing the temple bells. Could also hear the sound of flour mill (C) nearby grinding flour for customers who liked their dough fresh for their breads/naans/rotis/chapathis. Repair work done I turned right at the crossroad. Walking at a leisurely pace I was just soaking in the surroundings. To my right were trio of shops: Coal shop, Milk shop and ration shop (D). Coal guy was loading bags for delivery in his cart, Milk shop was serving a customer hot milk in Patiala mug sized containers, there was a line of customers at the ration shop waiting to buy fuel (kerosene), rice and other essentials at Government subsidized rates. Business as usual. I kept walking ahead. Just ahead of the next crossroad were couple of interesting shops: Ice factory (E) with huge blocks of ice covered by sawdust to slow down melting and also serving cold drinks and a used book store (F) which always used to be chock-a-block with all kinds of books, in shelves from floor to ceiling. Those were the days much before advent of personal computing. Always wondered how the book shop guy managed to remember what books were where. While all I could normally see was madness the guy must have had a method to it as he had been in business for years πŸ˜€ I decided to turn right instead of going straight as the Sun was, at the top of the game around noon time, beating down mercilessly. I resisted the temptation of buying crushed ice from the streetside vendor (G) who was selling crushed ice of all kinds of colors and flavors. At the next crossroad I again turned right. Just ahead of me to the right was Balaji / Raghavendra temple (H). Always had a bit of complicated relationship with God, sometimes transactional (especially around the times school exam results were due 🀣), sometimes pally when prayers were answered πŸ˜‰ and sometimes angry when it seemed bad appear to be triumphing over good 😑. I did a mental bow and proceed ahead. πŸ™ By the time I near the next crossroad my throat was parched and needed liquid replenishment. Fortunately there was a sugarcane juice shop (I) right there and I thought nothing better than a freshly crushed sugarcane with a hint of ginger for quenching thirst. πŸ‘Œ I ordered a glass of the summertime favorite and closed my eyes. Suddenly I heard the loud ringing of telephone. Wondering where the sound came from I opened my eyes. πŸ€” Imagine my surprise when I found myself inside my car and it was wife calling me on cellphone to ask me what was taking me so long πŸ˜….

Broken out of my reverie and transported to the present I mumbled that I ran into an old friend at the grocery store πŸ˜‰ and would be back home shortly. By then the inside of the car was hot as I must have been lost in my thoughts for a good 15 minutes. I opened the windows to let some outside air in. Nothing like a cold blast of air to jolt one back to reality. πŸ₯ΆπŸ˜† Driving back home I was amused by the thought how my wife would react if she unmasked the “old friend” and learned I was referring to was myself, albeit younger. 😁 Was also hoping my marriage had a “can get lost in thought every now and then” clause for me to cover for reaching any place later than planned πŸ™

TV Series# 1: Columbo – Oh, just one more thing…

With so much going on all over the world and people experiencing physical, mental, emotional, psychological and financial stress/pain thought it might be a good time to write about something light. As part of that starting a series on TV series. Based on how much interest it garners will write about other TV series I have watched that have lingered in memory. The first in this series is Columbo!

People of a certain vintage may have seen episodes of the series when they originally aired. It had a fairly long and successful run, starting in the 1970s with final season in early 2000s. For those who haven’t watched or heard about the TV series Columbo, the main character is a homicide detective/investigator who works for the LAPD and Columbo is his name. Like all famous people he goes by a single name πŸ™‚ Unlike many other murder mysteries which tend to be whodunits, with the act being shown and the perpetrator’s face hidden/masked, in this series the viewer is witness to the act being committed by the murderer with the face clearly visible, typically at the start of the episode. The rest of the episode revolves around Columbo investigating and pinning down the killer and proving the case. In that sense it’s a “howdunit” type of murder mystery. The perpetrators generally are people who are accomplished in some field who plan their murders. On the other hand Columbo comes across as a detective who lacks a physically imposing presence and generally appears lost, absentmindedly asking questions, and always fidgeting for piece of paper or pen/pencil or some sundry objects in the numerous pockets in his coat. That coat is a piece of work: always rumpled that needed to be replaced long ago. His car is also a thing of beauty: an old car of French make with the look of something that’s been driven straight out of a junkyard πŸ˜ƒ All to show he is a lowly paid cop working for LAPD. Make no mistake though. What our man lacks in terms of intimidation he more than makes up with his persistence, logic, smarts and ability to lull suspects into thinking they are dealing with a dimwit who doesn’t have a clue what he is doing. Hubris leads them to let their guard down with a few overconfident types dropping breadcrumbs along the way to “assist” the clueless cop. Columbo is a man of razor sharp intellect and dogged in his pursuit of justice even if he is unfailingly polite all the time. One common tactic used by Columbo when he leaves the murderer after interview is suddenly turning around near the door and uttering the words “Oh, just one more thing…” in an absentminded way before asking a very pertinent question that shakes up the unsuspecting suspect. As the murderers sense the noose tightening around their neck with Columbo piecing together evidence and confronting them with contradictions in their recollection many do what is their wont: complain to Columbo’s superior/s to pull him off the case. In the end let’s just say Columbo doesn’t let their machinations succeed and brings them to justice. Woo hoo!
Some of the murderers even grudgingly admit when they are arrested they underestimated his brilliance and acknowledge he is very good at his job. It’s fun to watch a seemingly innocuous little guy kick much bigger ass in the end. Feels like watching an underdog triumph against all odds. I try to catch reruns of the series when I can. Watching the little guy bring justice is like seeing good triumph over evil. Seeing the familiar face is like having comfort food leaving one with the feeling all will be good at the end. Interestingly Columbo mentions his wife a lot in almost all episodes but his wife is never actually shown. Among the things I heard about and learned watching the series couple that come to mind are “dissolving sutures” – used by surgeons for stitching up after surgery, “subliminal cuts” – technique employed by makers of commercials by splicing a film in between a continuous film to subliminally influence people do what they want them to do. Could be a film showing fries or soda fleetingly which the eyes can barely see but the mind registers making a person feel like eating fries, drink soda etc. The series grows on you. My wife initially couldn’t stand the sight of a shabby looking detective who appeared lost. Over time she has gotten to like the series very much and on Sunday evenings when the rerun is on one of the TV channels she might even remind me and we watch the episode doing other work. Unlike me she even remembers memorable dialogues in most episodes and will say it correctly when the episode starts. In the rare instance she doesn’t remember the episode I pull her leg saying she is slipping and becoming like me πŸ˜ƒ The methods used and evidence produced by Columbo most likely will not work in the real world but who cares? For the 2 hours the viewer can watch with the confidence justice will finally be served by the little guy who will go wherever the quest for the truth leads him. In the final analysis that’s all that matters πŸ™‚

Kite flying

Today’s piece is about kite flying. Growing up in Mumbai seeing kites flying was a common sight certain times of the year. Since kites were made of paper and water was a dampener for threads used to fly the kites wet weather months were ruled out. A bit of breeze help keep kite flying. Gujarat State in India has a tradition of flying kites to celebrate start of warmer weather after winter. Known as Uttarayan there and celebrated as harvest festival Makar Sankaranti in other parts of the country. Let’s dive into or rather soar into kite flying experience!

What is needed to fly kites? Apart from the kite a spool to wind and unwind the thread. Open space for the kite to take off. Blessings from weather and wind Gods also help the venture flying high πŸ™‚

What are the keys to keep a kite flying high and straight? One key is the Y-shaped string knot from the kite to the spool. It has to be made in a way that ensures almost even weight distribution and prevent sway in any direction. Care also has to be taken to make sure that the holes in the kite are just small enough for the strings to pass around and not result in a slight tear that wind could enlarge and render the kite unflyable. Tying those knots used to be an art in itself back in the days. Once the string attached to the kite is tied to the spool string we are ready to fly when air traffic controllers of nature give the go ahead πŸ˜€

Anything to note about the spool and string? Spools for flying kites come with handles on either side for a person to hold it and wind/unwind fast without touching the string. That is very critical during aerial kite combat which I will come to later πŸ˜€ One person for flying and another person for handling the spool works better. As they say “Many hands make light work” πŸ™‚ Strings can either be thin or a thicker twine. Thin strings make it easier to keep the kite flying while thicker twines need stronger wind to avoid gravitational pull down. Both have their own uses in combat missions πŸ˜‰

Without a personal experience no story is complete. So, here we go! I tried kite flying at ground level in the open space of the building where we lived. Most times poor kite used to bang hard on the ground despite my best efforts to fly. In short it was more like someone attaching wings to their arms and hoping to fly by flapping their arms with prayer on their lips. Gravity is not a good ally for such endeavors unfortunately 😦 My admiration for the street cred of guys flying kites on the street went up several notches after my own experience. They would just get a person to hold the kite from a distance and after the holder let go of kite on gentle tug of string the street pros would get the kite flying with a few pulls seemingly effortlessly. All the while dodging overhead electrical cables, trees, buildings and other objects blocking the flight. My neighbor was an avid kite flyer and pretty good at it. So, I switched to caddying for him which meant I was the master spool handler while he could focus on flying and keeping air combatants at bay or defeat them in aerial battles. I guess he couldn’t have been Batman without me playing the role of Robin πŸ˜‰ We graduated to take our kite flying adventures to building terrace. Height with wind blowing and no obstacles in the way helped the kites soar.

Aerial combat: What is life without a few battles, right? So it was during our kite flying adventures. We had to be on the lookout for those itching for a battle in the air. Sometimes it was mere flexing of muscles to mark their space. Other times the battles were for real, the entanglements thrilling and test of skill, nerve and power. Power as in heft of kite, supply of string, rapid reflexes to pull string rapidly or let go while the strings of each kite battled out for supremacy. At times more kite flyers would join in the battle either trying to assert their power or help out an ally kite flyer πŸ™‚ The string type would determine the strategy used in battle situations. Kite flying strings usually had a coat of finely powdered glass. In thinner strings the density of glass was higher. This lent a thin, sharp blade-like effect if properly used. While battles involving thicker twines were more of battles of attrition with each side trying to wear out the other (usually battle ended when a weak point of string was reached OR a combatant ran out of string OR a string reached a point where it was knotted to another string to make it longer making the task of enemy easier to cut a stuck string rather than a freely moving string) if you had the thinner, sharper string wisdom lay in making a quick surgical strike rather than indulging in long drawn out battle. Reason being thinner strings could cut thicker twines like a hot knife running through butter (ok, that was an exaggeration but you got what I was trying to say πŸ˜€ ). If someone with fast reflexes could pull the thin string very rapidly it would have the effect of cutting the same portion of the opponent string very fast. You see, physics come in here (Pressure = Force / Area) and it’s the same effect as pin pricking a balloon while a heavier flat object not breaking the balloon. The Robin guy has to be prepared to wind and unwind rapidly as needed for Batman to win πŸ™‚

Sidelights: It was quite a sight to see free flight of cut kites as the wind carried them before gravity had the final say and brought them down. The finder usually was the new owner. Nothing like a freebie as reward, right? πŸ™‚ Many were my futile attempts to run after a cut kite and get it while or after it landed. Usually these battles were won by those who were faster, bigger and stronger like most other things in life 😦 But the reward was in trying. If a cut kite landed on a tree or on overhead cable that presented it owns challenges. Typically one would tie a small stone/pebble at the end of a string long enough to reach around the loose string of the cut kite and hope with weight of stone gravity would take care of bringing the kite down gentle enough for a soft landing, not to smash it on the way down. This task also required the precision of a surgeon πŸ˜€ Stone/pebble with enough weight to reach the required height and at the same ensuring stone did not directly hit and tear the kite!

Kite flying has been featured in some Bollywood movies too like the one here:

Summary: Kite flying is a pastime, it also holds a few life lessons
1) While many a effort starts with high hopes it takes sustained effort to keep the flag flying high
2) Life is about seeking a high in one form or another. Some seek it by flying kites, some by flying airplanes, some through music, some making money and so forth. I get mine by writing. What is thine way for a high?

Childhood Heroes

Everyone needs a hero figure, someone to look up to. The heroes are supposed to inspire and trigger aspirations of those who read about them. Growing up in India my heroes were in the pages of Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama. Both these publications were meant for the young readers, rich in pictures and high on tales of valor, wit and wisdom depending on who the historical protagonist happened to be in a particular story.

The pictures in Amar Chitra Katha were colorful and the accompanying words always seemed to add value and substance. The pictures were like music painting a colorful mosaic providing the context for the text which were like vocals describing the story and fully resonating with the readers keeping them engaged till the last page. The images in those books left a lasting impression. Seared into my memory are illustrations of how the rishis (the wise sages) looked. All the rishis sported luxuriant growth of mustache and free flowing beard with thick black hair tied into a bun at the top of the head. On one hand they would carry rosaries and on the other a kamandalu (oblong water container with a nice handle at the top for carrying it with ease). You better be quite hirsute to convince me you are a sage πŸ˜€ Creating those pictures by hand must have been a painstaking effort and I was always amazed at the consistent look achieved in those books.

Chandamama had less pictures compared to Amar Chitra Katha books, it had its own charm. Less pictures meant more reading material which is what one wants when younger, right? πŸ™‚ The images that were there painted a picture of an idyllic India with abundance of greenery where learning was more one on one with the guru (teacher) and in communion with nature. The 2 regular features in Chandamama I remember are “Legends and parables of India” which featured allegorical tales and the other feature was “Tales of Vikramaditya”. Vikramditya was a wise king cursed with living in the forest for 6 months for every 6 months spent in his kingdom. The tales always had a picture of Vikramaditya carrying a ghost on his back who would ask the king very difficult questions. If the wise king answered correctly the ghost would be off his back, if answered wrong his head would explode into a zillion pieces and he would experience a very painful death.
Needless to say the wise king would always answer the questions correctly with wit, wisdom and a very thoughtful explanation leaving readers awaiting for the next edition for more of the good stuff. I need to read again the tales to see if the ghost is actually a metaphor for bad karma which carries over.

The creators of those stories and TV series like “Dora the Explorer”, “Spongebob Squarepants” etc deserve kudos for their ability to understand the needs of their audience and producing a very satisfying experience!
Teachers in elementary school deserve special praise too for understanding the needs of kids and moulding their learning experience.

These days my heroes often tend to be regular folks who perform heroic deeds in their own way!

I want to eat a good peda!

Another trip down memory lane πŸ™‚ Grew up in a home that was located centrally in the suburb we lived in and easily accessible by public transport or within walking distance for many people. We had many visitors drop by just to say hello or for other specific reasons. Living in a big, crowded city that meant steady stream of visitors on a regular basis. Dad worked as an officer for Indian Government and he was also active as a committee member of local school trying to do his bit of volunteering to give back to society in his own small way. Got to meet an interesting and eclectic group of people, some of them strangers too, as they visited our home. Some folks used to come for a chat about their personal situation and probably just wanted someone to hear them out. If you are patient listener there is always a sob story waiting to be heard πŸ™‚

One group of people were retired Government servants. They would come seeking assistance if their file got stuck in some Government office and needed help in getting the files moving. Dad would speak to the relevant department employee/s to help the folks get the pension due to them. Others looked for help in understanding arcane rules or changes that would affect their pension. They were grateful for whatever help or guidance they got.

Another group of people were those seeking admission to school. Some of them needed admission for their kids because they got transferred in their jobs in the middle of the school year and a word or recommendation could speed up things and/or make the transition smoother. Then there were others who would seek admission after trying in other schools first. It was interesting to hear them say this was their dream school and spin other tales to make their case πŸ˜€

The third group of people are the ones I remember the most. Dad was a gazetted officer (similar to a notary in the US) and this position allowed him to certify some documents and photocopies of marksheets. I think this was one level of security to prevent forgery by having an authorized person check the original and certify that the information was correct. I was dad’s trusted lieutenant always enthusiastically whipping out the official stamp and ink pad ready for dad to do the needful. There were some interesting experiences. Dad being interested in education would show me marksheet (result card) of students that had done extremely well and it was very inspiring to see the outstanding results in those pristine marksheets. I recollect one instance when dad refused to certify something that a person wanted. I was kind of surprised and thought why is dad playing so hard and refusing to do his duty of certifying. To my simple mind if anyone came seeking help they had to be helped. After that person had gone I asked my dad the reason. He explained to me that the person wanted certification of low income for some scholarship and it would be wrong to do that without any supporting evidence. Ah, for a moment I forgot that I inherited the desire to help from the way my parents had raised me.

People would show their appreciation for the help received. Once we got a box of milk chocolates from a person who was grateful for a truckload of documents he got certified. I made quick work of those chocolates πŸ˜€ My most abiding memory though is of people distributing pedas ( to celebrate their kid’s graduation. While some of them were of high quality there were quite a few that were sugary concoctions that were bad imitations of the good stuff. Just as a high quality ice cream has more cream and less ice a good quality peda should have more khoa (dried whole milk or milk thickened by heating) and less sugar. For a while wiping off memories of those bad pedas became a bit of life mission for me πŸ˜€ After I started working I used to buy high quality pedas every now and then till those bad memories were consigned to the dustbin of history πŸ˜‰

Moral of the story: Did you say I like good pedas? True and close πŸ˜€ but that’s not the response I was looking for. Being in a position to help is a blessing and helping others in need without expecting anything in return is the best thing anyone can do! Thanks dad (and mom) for teaching the virtues of helping. It’s the greatest gift anyone can get!

Rimjhim gire saawan – Story of a wedding song!

This is the story of how ‘Rimjhim gire saawan’ happened to be my song of choice on wedding day. After a stressful morning of going through the marriage day rituals and before a stressful evening that requires wearing plastic smile during reception it was time for afternoon fun. It was lucky wife’s turn first and she just chorused her way to “Kuch kuch hotha hai’ glory. My turn next. Not the sort to shy away from subjecting others to my bad vocals I gamely accepted the challenge. That was the easy decision. Song choice on the fly was a different matter altogether. First song that came to mind “Koi lautade mere beethay hue din”. Not a good option, FIL would happily send me to Kashi if I sang that song. Next song “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye tho kya hai”. With that song I would be dispatched out of this world. Each song coming to my mind was either sad or not fitting for the occasion. The clock was ticking and I was getting despondent. Then “Rimjhim gire saawan” flashed across my mind. Just to be sure I mentally recollected the lyrics to confirm there was nothing sad or any complaining tone about it. Hooray, it was a lighthearted and romantic song. First battle won! I belted it out with gusto. Wife absolutely loved it! Reason: She had not heard that song before πŸ˜€ Few months later I played original KK version and mentioned to her this is the song I sang on wedding day. Her reaction: Priceless! “Oh, really ? This sounds so different”

Phone aaya, phone aaya! – Part 4: App-solutely yours! (2005-now)

For a brief period of time Motorola Razr V3 took the mobile handset market by storm. A flip top phone with a thin profile it had striking looks, was a success and seemed destined to sell well for a long time. And then the iPhone happened and Apple took the mobile phone market by storm with its smartphone. A beauty with brains it combined great looks with smarts. It whet the appetite of legion of Apple fans by letting 3rd party developers develop Apps for various uses. Along with the catchy line “There is an App for that!”. With Google releasing the Android OS not long after that the mobile handset landscape changed forever. In the meanwhile IP telephony transformed the landline business as the technology improved enough for businesses to adapt it.
Personally The Raj had graduated to a Blackberry as other users graduated out of it and were on to the iPhone/Android devices πŸ˜€ The move to a Blackberry was necessitated by a need to use texting for personal and business use increasingly. And Blackberry with its full keyboard seemed to be an obvious answer. Later on moved on to iPhone as Blackberry RIMmed out of the smartphone market unable to adapt fast enough to catch with up with developments in iPhone/Android space. What The Raj had not reckoned with the smartphones was the autocorrect feature. Boy oh boy, was that a pesky feature? You betcha πŸ˜€ No sentence could be completed without the smart device suggesting some change. I dare not doth complain loudly about this “feature” lest my wife remind me gently “Now you know how I feel when you keep correcting me all the time” πŸ™‚ If there is critical mass of people needing a support group from “autocorrect abuses” I intend to start one quietly. Just let me know πŸ˜€ Being old school I used to, till not too long ago, print directions in mapquest/google maps when we were driving long distance prompting my son to laugh and say “Dad, no one prints driving directions now. Use the GPS instead”. One of the funnier moments in life is hearing one’s progeny wondering about the old-fashioned way of doing things by parents and people of earlier generation πŸ˜€ Smart devices led to smart virtual assistants. If one was wary earlier of Big Brother watching all the time, now one had to contend with lil Sis’ Siri, Alexa or Cortana giving “thoughtful” suggestions πŸ™‚ Anyways heeding advice of my son and wife I started using GPS for driving directions. The GPS lady was kind and offered useful tips about road accidents and cop cars scanning for speeding drivers along the way. But The Raj could use with some love from the GPS lady. She has a temper and is always shouting at me for missing exits. When that happens I go “Calm down lady, I understand your concern for my safety and reaching on time. You can do it, just take a deep breath. Given this old man’s tendency to get lost in thought and stray off occasionally cut me some slack!”. Of course son and wife laugh a lot when I have such one-on-ones with the GPS lady πŸ˜‰ Anyways over a period of time I have built up my “smartness” quotient enough to use some of the smartphone features. Alliz well!

Phone aaya, phone aaya! – Part 3: I am mobile and I am here to stay! (mid-1990s – mid 2000s)

It’s said necessity is the mother of invention. Mobile phone technology took off early in Finland and part of it was due to necessity and rest of it due to spirit of invention and enterprise. The terrain in that country made it difficult and more expensive to lay cable/lines under the ground. The solution: Cellphones with the cell towers above ground! Gave rise to innovative handset makers like Nokia in Finland, Ericsson in Sweden and other companies specializing in mobile switching center technologies. The mobile wave made its way to India in the mid-1990s. Circa 1995 when I was supporting databases I was assigned to a project with one of the earliest service providers of mobile telephone services in a major metropolis in India. At this time the Government was handing over licenses to at least 2 service providers in every market to ensure competition and prevent monopoly. The project I was working on was interesting. Involved one Baby Bell, one Europe based company doing mobile switching center work, one British company responsible for billing software. The back end of the billing software used the DB my company was supporting at that time and I did a bit of development work and provided DB support for the billing system. That was my exposure to mobile telephony and standards like GSM. I used to pull leg of one of the English consultants who was on site by saying “When you stop inventing products, you start inventing standards” or trash talking English cricket. Nothing more fun than needling those stiff upper lip Brits, right? πŸ˜€ It was all in good humor, nothing more to it πŸ™‚ What struck me most was how expensive it was to use a mobile phone at that time. Apart from cost of the handset which in itself was quite expensive the calling rates were ridiculously high. It was equivalent of 35 cents/minute during peak hours (8am-6pm on weekdays), 18 cents/minute during off-peak hours (6pm-8am on weekdays) and ~ 9 cents/minutes during weekends. India and the USA were probably the only countries that were charging customers for incoming calls too 😦 The coverage was spotty too as the infrastructure was being built and not quite ready yet for prime time yet. I used to wonder how it would ever take off in India. What I had not thought about were 2 things: #1 – The strength in numbers which resulted in fast adoption rate and the calling rate/minute going down as well with companies eager to gain new customers and #2 – The fact that countries that had not buried (literally πŸ™‚ ) lot of money in landlines could leapfrog other advanced countries that were a lot more invested and trying to recover that money. Sometimes it is easier to leap straight when the technology and industry is more mature obviating the need to go through multiple iterations. Initially it was a bit of status symbol to carry a mobile handset, it was just a matter of few months before it was a common sight. As the calendar turned from 1996 and 1997 and The Raj traveled to the Golden City of the Golden State in the US for work it wasn’t unusual to see folks in India calling friends and family from just outside their building to avoid climbing couple flight of stairs πŸ˜€
Meanwhile, in the USA, the Baby Bells and other upstarts were duking it out for customer $ in the landline business even as mobile service providers were angling for a bigger piece of the pie. Calling card companies were probably leasing/renting some excess capacity from established operators to offer calling services at competitive rates. What about the voice quality of mobile phones and calling cards? Initially not very good and it was like robbing Peter (landline service providers) to pay Paul (remember “Can you hear me now?”. Imagine a caller asking that to the person being called πŸ˜€ ) as the technology was still developing and mobile service providers were expanding their network to improve coverage. I also remember carrying pager for on-call support at times. I have almost forgotten how those things worked. It was like a love-hate relationship with those pesky little things. You always want to be alerted when something breaks and needs immediate attention (those batch jobs running at night always find a way to break, don’t they? πŸ™‚ ) but also pray that thingy never rings. The pagers were like nagging spouse who expects to do all the talking and expects one to hear silently πŸ˜‰ For a short while Palm Pilots were the in thing and many sales guys liked to show off their electronic rolodex by flashing out those devices and using the stylus to record or retrieve contact information. That gave way to Blackberry as accessing corporate Email securely by phone was getting necessary and convenient and texting with a full keyboard was increasing in popularity. By the mid-2000s mobile telephony reached everywhere and we were just getting started for the next wave: the advent of the iPhone!

Part 4: App-solutely yours!…To be continued

Phone aaya, phone aaya! – Part 2: Winds of change (mid-1980s – mid 1990s)

Winds of change started blowing in the mid-80s with the first PM of India who grew up post-independence. The erstwhile PMs, having grown up before India gained independence from the British, were wary of forging close business relationship with companies based out of India. Understandable as the English gained entry into India as the innocuous East India Company only to stay entrenched and colonize the country 😦 The scars were deep and fresh for those who witnessed or took part in the struggle to gain freedom. What that resulted in was building a manufacturing base within and creating educational institutions (to supply engineers and workers) for reducing outside dependence. That provided a measure of self-reliance. Challenge was in taking it to the next level. The new PM, unencumbered by such burden of history and being exposed to technology advances when studying abroad, realized the need to open up for modernization of communication systems. The Government of the day decided it was not their business to decide who should own what and began by deregulating a bit. Return of tech-savvy folks who had worked and made a name for themselves abroad aided this quest to improve. With focused effort the wait for a residential telephone reduced drastically to single digit years! If you paid a higher deposit money the wait could be shaved off by couple of years too. With more pay phones targeted for installation mom and pop stores could also make some money on the side by managing pay phones installed outside their shops.
With the introduction of H1 visa by the USA, to attract more tech trained folks, the # of Indians traveling to the land of opportunity increased significantly. In the USA – Ma Bell, which had been ruling the roost for the better part of 20th century, attracted the attention of the regulators. A private monopoly, which is not good either, they were stymieing competition and were free to charge as they pleased as long as there was no viable competition. I clearly remember how steep the calling rates were for international calls especially as I was personal witness to that. My brother was in the USA for higher studies and a good chunk of the stipend he got for his TA was spent in calls to family back in India. While we had applied for a telephone it was still a few years away from being delivered. Every weekend he would make a call to a neighbor and by the time we reached their place few minutes later for speaking to him AT&T folks were already laughing all their way to the bank to the tune of ~ $2.50/minute 😦
We got our own phone connection in due course of time and along with new handset that my brother had sent with touch buttons, message and other nice features. It was an occasion to celebrate! Those were the days caller ID, call waiting etc were not widely available. The obligatory calls to friends, relatives and co-workers followed along with request to them to make a note of our telephone#. Calls from work or other places outside to home just to keep the phone running like a well oiled machine πŸ˜€ It was fun to call those initial days just because we could πŸ™‚ Of course new developments in voice technology were about to make their presence felt and they were just around the corner: The cellular technology and the mobile phone!

Part 3: I am mobile and I am here to stay!…To be continued