Friday, August 31, 2007

Religion and culture. Do they go hand in hand?

I would say yes and no.

I walked into the St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh last Sunday and to my surprise, in addition to the usual paraphernalia that you would see in a medieval church there was also an exhibition. It was not an exhibition on religion or anything spiritual. It was a display of photographs and snippets about human trafficking. Real life stories of human suffering. There were stories of exploitation that had happened in UK and the hapless victims were brought in from all over the world.

I was intrigued by the exhibition and decided to attend the service. After the usual choir music, hymn sing-a-long and prayers, a lady pastor came on to the dais to administer the sermon. I’ve never attended a sermon before and The Simpsons was the only reference I had to what really happens during a service. I was expecting a boring lecture by the pastor which would put everyone inside the church to sleep. I was ready to rest my legs and well, if possible, my eyes as well.

The pastor started her sermon with a summary about the stories and the photographs that were on display inside the church. It went on for a good half an hour about what we, common people, can do to protest and prevent human trafficking and slavery. It was clear that she had done extensive research on this topic and she clearly meant what she was preaching.

After half an hour, the sermon was over and when I looked around, it had indeed put some of the people including my husband to sleep; Some were busy giggling, but clearly, there were some who were moved by this talk. I was glad I attended the service that day. And I was happy to note that religion did not end at prayers and wish lists over here. It started with prayers and went on to try to make the society a better place.

How many religions really strive to build a better human being out of us and a better society? How many take time to remind their followers that God resides inside every one of us and that we have a moral obligation to the world that we live in?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Edinburgh, Scotland at festival time!

If you have not visited Edinburgh while the festival is on, you are missing something. The usual sleepy medieval city comes alive with natives, street hawkers, tourists, live play previews on the streets, stand-up comedians… get the idea! For the Indians who complain that they don’t get to see too many people in the UK, this will make them shut up.

Festival crowd at Royal Mile
Royal Mile, the street around which life revolved around in old Edinburgh, comes alive and happily takes you in. And trust me, it gets busier than Linking Road Mumbai at evenings. Put together the people, the medieval castles and streets and houses, parks and palaces, couple of dormant volcanoes, theatres and the festival mood – you can’t have too much of it!

Some of the places in and around Royal Mile that we got to visit were

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh castle and the soldier guarding the castle have to put up with the street lights and the double decker buses that have invaded their city.
The castle sits on top of a dormant volcano. You will be poorer by £14 per person if you visit the castle and rent an audio tour. If you’ve been to some of the mighty old forts back in India, there are chances that you might be terribly disappointed. But you do get a great view of the city from the castle which throws in some good photography opportunities. The Prisoners of War exhibition is also not to be missed if you have not seen one before. Another attraction down there is the One O’Clock gun.

The Scotch Whisky experience
When you walk down from the castle and into the Royal Mile, this building is hard to miss. If you are a Scotch Whisky enthusiast, maybe you should drop in here first before you explore the castle (£5.50 per person); it might lighten things up in the castle! For the others, you can visit this place to pick up some gifts that will be appreciated by your near and dear Scotch lovers.

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
If you have kids or if the kid inside you is still alive and kicking, this is not to be missed. It will set you back by £9 per person, but the pleasant surprises that are in store for you inside will more than compensate for this. The highlight being the Camera Obscura that is set up in the hexagonal tower, which lets you spy on all parts of the city sitting in the safe confines of the small room. If you loved science in school, you will love this. And the witty person demonstrating the camera only adds to the experience.

High Kirk of St Giles or St. Giles Cathedral
St. Giles Cathedral
The glass paintings in this church make the visit worthwhile. If you are lucky enough to be there during their service, do attend it. It drives some people to a place where they feel totally at peace with themselves and the world and it drives some other people, like my husband, into a state of deep slumber.

Mary King’s close
Mary King's Close is the best known close on the Royal Mile thanks to its 300 year old legends and ghost stories. If you are ready to shell out £9.50 per person, you will get to see how people lived in there underground alleyways from 16th up to the 19th century and how some of them succumbed to the plague during the 17th century. If you are from India or from any other developing country for that matter and have seen how people live in the slums sharing a one room tin house with 10 others, you won’t be impressed with Mary King’s close.
I’d suggest that you give this a miss and visit the Edinburgh Dungeon or one of the Edinburgh ghost tours.

Some other places you might want to drop in near Royal Mile are The Scottish Parliament Building - for those with an interest in architecture, Arthur’s seat – which is a reasonably good trek (822ft) up a dormant volcano which will reward you with a spectacular view of the city and even the beautiful meadows beyond, The Palace Of Holyrood House and Holyrood Abbey, The People's Story – an interesting museum which describes the life and work of the ordinary people of Edinburgh and, Museum of Childhood – which has a vast collection of toys, games and books most of which are extinct or are antiques now.

You can also spend some time walking around in the Princess street and keep an eye on the castle all the time, enjoy your takeaway lunch at Princess street gardens, watch a show by the street comedians, admire the Scott monument or just drop in at one of plays/films being screened at the festival. You will also get to see a lot of men in skirts……kilts; you can get one for yourself if you fancy those. But mind you, skirts sans stockings are not a great idea for the weather in Scotland.

Some dos and don’ts

  • Don’t drive down into Edinburgh city center at festival time. You might not be able to find a place to park your car or you might have to shell out exorbitant parking fees. You can buy unlimited travel in the local buses for £2.5 a day which is the best way of getting around in the city.
  • Book yourself early into a B&B or a hostel if you want to visit Edinburgh during the festival. Latecomers might have to pay double the usual rates or tent it out in one of the gardens!
  • Vegetarians beware. The city is not very kind to vegetarians. Your options are limited to Jacket potatoes or Subway sandwiches or a Veggie pizza or just desserts. Alternatively, if you search, you might be able to find an Indian restaurant offering to wipe your purse out for a dinner.
  • Visit the Information center at Princes Street for good deals on theater/film tickets.
  • Beware of ghosts or paranormal activity in the underground closes. I am not sure, but just be on the lookout!

More photos here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Happy? Independence Day

Of all the Independence days I have celebrated, this one has to be the most thought provoking of them all. Not to mention depressing.

Usually Independence day celebrations always involved most importantly a holiday from work or studies, a flag hoisting get together and the goose-bump evoking rendition of our National Anthem. But today, I am sitting at work and a million thoughts cross my mind. And it doesn’t help that I have been spending a lot of time reading The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor.

Don’t get me wrong - it’s a great book. I usually don’t enjoy reading historic novels. But this book has managed to capture my attention so far. Here is an excerpt from what I read today on my way to work. (Read Gandhiji when you see Gangaji and everything else will explain itself.)

When Gangaji arrived in Budge Budge he found a situation verging on the desperate. The locked-out workers were, of course, being paid nothing at all. Their families were starving. I need not describe to you, Ganapathi, child of an Indian city as you undoubtedly are, the sights which met Ganga’s eyes: the foetid slums; the dirt and the disrepair; the children playing in rancid drains; the little hovels without electricity or water in which human beings lived several to a square yard.

This is now the classic picture of India, is it not, and French cinematographers take time off from filming the unclad forms of their women in order to focus with loving pity on the unclad forms of our children. They could have done this earlier too, they and their pen-wielding equivalents of an earlier day, but somehow all the foreign observers then could only bring themselves to write about the glories of the British Empire. Not of the India weavers whose thumbs the British had cut off in order to protect the machines of Lancashire; not of the Indian peasants whose lands had been signed over to zamindars who would guarantee the colonists the social peace they needed to run the country and not of the destitution and hunger to which these policies reduced Indians. Indulge an old man’s rage Ganapathi, and write this down: the British killed the Indian artisan, they created the Indian ‘landless labourer’, they exported our full employment and they invented our poverty.

……and now we are slowly but surely importing the employment back to our country. It’s a longer battle to export back the poverty though.

It is difficult for you, living now with the evidence of that poverty around you, taking it for granted as a fact of life, to conceive of an India that was not poor, not unjust, not wretched. But that was not how India was before the British came, or why would they have come? Do you think the merchants and the adventurers and the traders of the East India Company would have come to an India that was a land of poverty and misery? No Ganapathi, they came to an India that was fabulously rich and prosperous, they came in search of wealth and profit, and they took what they could take, leaving Indians to wallow in their leavings.

...…proof of which (their plundering) can be found proudly displayed in the British Museum in London.

Reading the passage from the book while riding a London underground tube evoked mixed emotions in me. And so did all the BBC channels here broadcasting their special programmes on the 60th anniversary of the independence of India and the bloody Pakistan partition.

I am not happy this Independence day mainly because I don’t feel like celebrating it in Brit-land. It also brings back the realization that - millions of our children today have to live hand to mouth and another million people succumb to diseases which can be cured easily for the cost of what a Brit-person spends everyday on his/her beer – and all of this could have been different if we were left on our own in the first place!

A related article here makes for a very good read. It brings a strong ray of hope, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A kiddie bank

A bank where the Manager, the Board, the Loan committee and the Assistant managers are all children. A true bank by the children for the children!
Not sure how that would work? Read about it here.

Makes you feel guilty that you are sitting in a cosy room and sipping hot chocolate while you read about it doesn’t it?

It’s deplorable that we need such a bank in the first place and that there are enough children living out of our streets who needs banks like this! That gives us a very easy definition for Developed and Developing economies.

Developed Economy: One that can provide for its homeless and unemployed and take care of their basic needs and make sure that they even have enough money for a beer when they feel like it.

Developing Economy: One that has no time or resources to lavish on the homeless and unemployed and lets NGOs and generous citizens take up this role. And it doesn't care much.

All that matters is what part of the world you were born!

Friday, August 10, 2007

For all Monopoly fans

Glad to meet you. I am big fan myself.

I am greatly thankful to my NRI uncle for buying me the big London version of Monopoly when I was around 10 years old. Since then, I’ve always been fascinated with this game. Partly because, I’ve never managed to stay afloat in the game for long – I always end up losing all my money and crying! And partly because, the game was designed to educate children about the value of money and of real estate and how the two things work together in our economy. I won’t say that the game achieves its goal, but hey, it’s fun playing Monopoly!

Now that I am in London, passing the tube stations at Bond Street, Regent’s street, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square etc makes me feel as if I am moving through the Monopoly Board. I silently grin while passing through these places with the contented thought that I own a few houses and hotels in these areas! If only that was true!

To relive our childhood memories, my husband and I bought this travel monopoly pack and have been trying to ‘Monopolise’ real estate in London in the last two weekends! Lady luck, as usual, tends to stick to the other player and I always end up bankrupt even before I could build a home! I am waiting for that dawn, when I’ll make my husband and even the bank bankrupt :)

Latest news: The new Monopoly boards have a Stock-Exchange add-on, plastic money instead of paper money (I don’t mean the money is printed on plastic, but the player gets a debit card that he/she can swipe. Powered by VISA!) and Playmaster (something that keeps track of all player movement and real estate deals. Also manages auctions and mortgages!).

Some crazy stuff about Monopoly

-Escape maps, compasses and files were inserted into the Monopoly game boards smuggled into POW camps inside Germany during World War II. Real money for escapees was slipped into the packs of Monopoly money.

-Parker Brothers once sent an armoured car with one million dollars of the Monopoly game money to a marathon game in Pittsburgh that had run out of funds.

-In 1972, the Atlantic City Commissioner of Public Works threatened to change the names of the real Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues, but public outcry vetoed the bill.

-In Cuba, the game had a strong following until Fidel Castro took power and ordered all known sets destroyed.

-Over here you can play Monopoly in real London with 18 real cabs fitted with GPS systems as your movers.

Some tips and tricks for Monopoly lovers

1. According to the laws of probability, seven is the most probable roll of two dice, occurring 6 out of 36 times whereas 2 and 12 are the least probable rolls, each occurring once every 36 rolls. For this reason, Park Lane is one of the least landed-on squares as the square seven places behind it is "Go to Jail". So you won’t gain much if you build a house/hotel here. Not many are going to pay you a visit!

2. Since players are frequently directed to "Go To Jail," they will move through the purple, orange and red property groups immediately after leaving Jail. Based on the dice rolling probabilities, Bow Street and Marlborough Street will be the next stop of a jailbird. So save your money to build some house/hotel traps in here!

3. One square — Go To Jail — plus a number of Chance and Community Chest cards will cause the player to advance a distance around the board. Thus, the squares immediately following Go To Jail and the take-a-card squares have a reduced probability of being landed upon. The least-landed upon property in this situation is the cheaper dark blue property (Park Place or Park Lane) because it sets in the lee of both Go to Jail and Community Chest (the Chance directly before it would not affect its odds because it is impossible to roll a one). So don’t waste your good money on these two places!

4. Several properties are blessed with Chance cards which draw players to them. Pall Mall, Trafalgar Square, Mayfair, all of the railroads except Liverpool Street Station, and both of the utilities benefit from this feature. King's Cross Station has the fortune of having both a "go to" dedicated card plus the card advancing to the nearest railroad. So if you have one or more these, you will see regular income flow.

5. A player may be directed to the Go square by a Chance or a Community Chest card, thus lowering the probability of being landed-upon of every square in-between. The properties most affected by this are the yellow, green, and dark blue sets. It also marginally raises the probability for each square in the wake of Go, including the purple and orange sets which will be reached two or three rolls after being on Go.

6. Sometimes a Chance card will ask you to Go Back Three Spaces. A quick look at the board shows that there are three Chance squares and hence three other squares which are 3 spaces behind (one being a Community Chest space, another being Income Tax, and the third being the leading orange property). The leading orange property (Vine Street) gains the most benefit from this card since the Chance square nestled amongst the red properties is itself the most landed-upon Chance square.

So to cut it short, during game play, Trafalgar Square, Vine Street, Fenchurch Street Station, and King's Cross Station (of Harry Potter fame) are the most frequently landed-upon properties. Old Kent Road and Whitechapel are the least-landed-upon properties.

Now remember these and pray when you roll your dice that you either land or do not land on these spaces! Good luck!

Some Monopoly resources

History and strategies from Wikipedia

Learn about the game, the strategies and print your own money here!

A detailed study of probability and Monopoly

Monopoly Pub crawl in London! All you need is an Oyster card for the tube or bus!